NZ Music week review

...The preliminaries done (striking what I thought was a just balance between evoking a sense of the event’s occasion and allowing the music its place as the evening’s true focus), Stroma and conductor Hamish McKeich took the stage to inaugurate the week’s musical happenings, the players (to my delight) dressed in less formal, more engaging attire than in previous concerts.

They began with Rachel Clement’s knitting dust (2000), a kaleidoscopic composer’s-eye-view of aspects of the creative process. After being raucously-launched by piccolo and clarinet, the argument was as compellingly advanced by (in the composer’s own words) “furious but muted activity form(ing) textures that are busy as well as transparent and fragile”. I was taken as much with the “toneless” tones - the sounds of breath, and finger-thrumming, delineating the performers’ physical interaction with their instruments - as with the actual notes, registering at one point a mournful unison on strings that was paid scant attention by frantically vacuous winds, engaged as they were with “keeping busy”. The feverish bustle of the percussive, motoric “knitting” at the end underlined the music’s essentially evanescent nature.

Lissa Meridan-Skipp’s Devil on a Wire (2000) was next, played by ‘cellist Rowan Prior, with the composer as diffusion artist, the two seated adjoining what looked like a hastily-assembled collection of amplifiers bristling untidily with wires, Meridan-Skipp herself all but obscured by the “power-tower” effect (the composer told me afterwards that the visual cacophony was due in part to the electronic assemblage having been unaccountably disconnected and disturbed before the concert, necessitating some drastic on-the-spot reconstruction). Despite the visuals, the sounds made an enormously atmospheric impression, the visceral physicality of the ‘cello by turns contrasting with and melting into the sonorous stratopherics of Meridan-Skipp’s realisations and responses. A particularly striking effect was created by the ‘cello playing long-held notes whose tones and overtones created a saturated overlapping effect which transcended the limitations of our physical space. And the eventual subjugation of the solo instrument (following the cello’s skitterish explorations of different tone-intervals) by the all-pervading echo-ambience of the electronics made for a satisfying conclusion.

More traditionally cast, Chris Watson’s Piano Quartet (1999) impressed with its expressive range, the piano and its string cohorts exploring all aspects of a relationship which moved freely between contest and collaboration throughout. Sometimes the piano took the role of a Court Jester, a pithy commentator on its companions’ preoccupations, both in dialogue and forthright floor-holding; while at other times it dovetailed into the ensemble, as with a particularly striking episode where a theme was pieced together jigsaw-like, the piano’s seemingly random note-placement atmospherically set against a backdrop of piquantly-flavoured string harmonies. It seemed to me to be music which enjoyed itself and its performance hugely, a feeling abundantly conveyed by the performers, Felix the Quartet and pianist Emma Sayers.

Enjoyment, though of a sharper-edged kind, was also to be had from James Gardner’s Fetish Effigies, a work which I’d seem Stroma play last year, and whose interplay of startlingly differentiated sonorities exerted a similarly ear-prickling fascination on this occasion. Again I enjoyed the piece’s gradual agglomeration of movement, after the opening veils of mystery were rent asunder by piercing shrieks from the winds, the galvanising effect of which led over time to a kind of ritualised dance sequence, whose delight gave way to wry, matter-of-fact dissolution. The epilogue, recalling the opening, was capped by a reprise of the strident wind fanfares, a “demented Petroushka” kind of feeling which hinted at self-parody as well as the fulfilment (or shock) of recognition.

Ross Harris’s Contra-Music was directed by the composer, who styled his piece a “little monster.....full of surprises and strange angles.” For a change, Hamish McKeich took the soloist’s role, playing the contrabassoon. The piece began with dry, toneless noises of tappings and breathings, a kind of “clearing-of-throat” sequence which allowed the first subterranean vibrations to bubble upwards from the nascent depths created by the soloist in tandem with the trombones. A memorable episode featured the solo instrument dreaming sweet contra-bassoon dreams, with accompanying trombones and percussion creating a marvellously atmospheric spatial effect in a sea of low-frequency languor.

The charismatic Bridget Douglas then held the audience spellbound with Philip Brownlee’s Harakeke for solo flute, a piece which made for ten minutes of pure enchantment. The title (meaning “flax”) gave rise to a myriad associations involving texture, movement and environment (wind, birdsong and insect noises) evoked by the astonishing range of sounds produced by the soloist. Alongside these representations the composer also explored the relationship between instrument and player, inviting comparisons between the use of flax as a raw material for woven patterns, and the creative timbral intricacy resulting from the interaction of instrument and human impulse. This “fusion of function” in any performance is what gives live music-making its special character - but here the frisson resulting from the amalgam of ambience and energy made an unforgettable impression.

Last to come was John Rimmer’s The Ripple Effect, a work composed in 1995. As befits a sometimes horn-player, the composer used the instrument’s expressive range to telling effect as the long-breathed, exploratory opening was gradually activated by the horn’s energizing effect upon the ensemble. Rimmer threw occasional ascerbic irruptions into the middle of lyrical musings in a way that reminded me of similar “shouting-down” utterances in the outer movements of Nielsen’s Wind Quintet. The instrumental discourse was enlivened by episodes such as a nicely-crafted dovetailing of melody between instruments, with the piano waiting to act as arbiter, and an oscillating horn interruption underpinned by percussion, representing the all-pervading “ripple” effect, as the music’s “increasingly virtuostic” character gradually took charge of the proceedings.

In all, the evening represented both an auspicious start to the week’s concert series, and another success for Stroma - with consistently interesting programmes, informative and communicative booklet notes (though a notch or two’s increased print size would have helped those of us visually challenged by age!), and platform presentation that’s becoming increasingly relaxed and audience-friendly, the group’s rapidly establishing itself as a vibrant force on the local musical scene. A nice touch was the fact that most of the composers were present, their acknowledgement by the players after each item adding to the festive and participatory atmosphere of the occasion. That quality remarked on by visiting pianist/composer Frederic Rzewski during last year’s “Sonic Broom Festival”, the willingness of our composers to communicate, to share with and engage others, to be in the same space and breathe the same air as people in general (a much-prized quality once possessed by those iconic representatives of our society, our top rugby players, before professionalism drowned it all in a self-aggrandizing mire) seems as evident (perhaps even more so among our younger composers) as it always has been.

— Peter Mechen, online review