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March 24, 2008 | by  | in Music |
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Classical Music – The Poet, Landscapes, Resonances

-The Poet, Tower Voices and NZ String Quartet, Town Hall, February 24
-Landscapes, Stephen De Pledge, Ilott Theatre, February 27
-Resonances, NZSO, Michael Fowler Centre, March 1

While the International Arts Festival may have been rather light in its representation of “classical” music (in a programme top heavy with dance and physical theatre), it compensated by featuring events of exceptional interest, particularly with regard to premieres of New Zealand works.

The Poet by veteran NZ composer (and one-time Professor of Music at VUW) Jenny McLeod, came at the end of a very long concert. Tower Voices New Zealand, under the consummate direction of Karen Grylls, began with a selection of a cappella items, contrasting, for example, the joyous polyphony of Bach’s ‘Lobet den Herrn’ with the Swede Sven David Sandstrom’s syncopated hocketing in his twentieth-century interpretation of the same text. In what should have been a second half, Robert Wiremu’s sensitive rendering of Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ was followed by the New Zealand String Quartet playing the entire ‘Death and the Maiden’ Quartet, when the second movement alone (the variations on the song) would have sufficed.

But Jenny McLeod’s cycle of eleven settings of Janet Frame’s quirky, sometimes profound, poems (“In a Garnet World”,”Cherry Tree”, the final “Poets”), was worth the wait. During her career McLeod has ventured several changes of style (more than Stravinsky, probably), and that of The Poet lay somewhere between the engaging simplicity of Earth and Sky and the hard-edged serialist rigour of For Seven. The intensely wrought treatment of the words and the restrained yet colourful harmonies from the NZSQ evoked for me the dawn of modernist expressionism in the early years of the last century.

McLeod was one of twelve New Zealanders commissioned by pianist Stephen De Pledge to contribute to a collection of preludes based loosely on the idea of ‘landscape.’ Other wellestablished contributors included the New Zealand School of Music’s Jack Body, who supplied an auxiliary recorded monologue (reminiscent of Harry Partch in Bitter Music, and the piano polemics of Frederick Rzewski), and Wellingtonian Gareth Farr, whose expertly crafted ebb and flood of tension in “The Horizon from Owhiro Bay” eloquently spoke for itself.

Among the emerging composers, Aucklander Samuel Holloway was a particularly astute choice. His restless “Terrain Vague” seemed like a quarter-tone composition struggling to escape from the restrictions of the keyboard. Mid-career Michael Norris (like Psathas and, formerly, Harris, a lecturer at VUW NZSM), in “Machine Noises”, exploited the extremes of the instrument, like Stockhausen with a motor – or perhaps a heartbeat.

I felt that Victoria Kelly’s closing ‘Goodnight Kiwi’, though charming, would have been better placed elsewhere – maybe after John Psathas’ gently lyrical “Sleeper” – so that a reconfiguration of the Landscape Preludes could have ended with a more characterful piece: Ross Harris’ exquisitely poised “A landscape with too few lovers”, possibly, or Eve de Castro- Robinson’s evocatively spare “this liquid drift of light”.

The third major premiere was of course the enterprising opera project The Trial of the Cannibal Dog. The extensive influence of minimalism in Matthew Suttor’s score mirrored another theme of this Festival, taken up in the NZSO’s Resonances concert. Second-generation minimalist John Adams harked back to a pioneering technique of this style in his Shaker Loops, impeccably played by the strings of the NZSO under the energetic Jonathan Stockhammer. However, what would have been idiomatic for Steve Reich’s gradually phasing tape loops appeared rather artificial in Adams’ instrumental realisation. A reordering of the programme, caused by the illness of virtuoso violinist Chloe Hanslip, also saw an unfortunate juxtaposition of Adams’ ‘Doctor Atomic Symphony’ with Australian Brett Dean’s ‘Ceremonial.’ Employing similar percussive forces, Dean stole the thunder (if not the thundersheet) of Doctor Atomic, by a more ingenious and subtle use of his resources. To begin with the climax was a commendably courageous move by Adams, though, and his symphony subsequently offered some soulful solos on tuba, horn and trumpet.

Archetypal minimalist Philip Glass was last here for a Festival in the year of Halley’s comet. He returned sooner. Utilising his trademark rolling arpeggios as choruses between the verses of Leonard Cohen’s poems in Book of Longing, he proved he could also write a tune almost as well as Cohen himself. The highlight, ‘A Sip of Wine’, was accompanied by a gorgeous drawing of a nude masturbating. Elements of this melody returned towards the end to make a compelling conclusion.

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