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May 5, 2008 | by  | in Music |
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Classical Music

Ice, Fire and Water
Exploring Antarctica, NZSO, Town Hall, April 18
Fire and Water, NZTrio, Ilott Concert Chamber, April 20

Wellingtonian Gareth Farr has made composing classical music cool. Very cool. Sub-zero in fact. His recent premiere with the NZSO, Terra Incognita, inspired by his visit to Antarctica, began with delicate chinking (as of ice), and climaxed in a thrilling cluster-cloud storm from the voices of the Orpheus Choir (Farr exercised admirable restraint here, in using this compelling effect only once).

Significantly, perhaps, this declamatory movement (No. 6, Eternal Silence) was the one place where the words (from Captain Scott) were clearly audible. Despite Farr’s paring back the score during rehearsals, Paul Whelan’s splendid bassbaritone was all too often obscured by the orchestra. This might not have been a problem, had the house lights been turned up (after the initial misterioso chorus) so that we could have followed the texts printed in the programme (any dimming of the projected visuals would scarcely have mattered: they did not distract or detract from the music, but they didn’t add much either). Farr’s characteristic rhythmic drive – evident mainly in the second movement – was kept largely in check, while the Javanese gamelan influence wove its way (via the orchestra’s metal percussion) through Movement 3. Similarly flowing melodic lines in the final section (“Goodbye Larsen B”) hinted at Vaughan Williams.

Aucklander Eve de Castro-Robinson is pretty cool too. Her NZTrio commission, At Water’s Birth, flowed from a limpid spring of high rarefied notes, through clefts of iterated granitic piano chords, to rapids of prickly prepared piano figurations (and vocalisations from the performers). A work of austere integrity with well-crafted crests and troughs of tension, it ran a course of just the right length.

Gareth Farr’s Ahi (Fire) exhibited a deft handling of textural variety, encompassing dreamy Stephen Foster reminiscences at the opening and closing, a cadenza from violinist Justine Cormack, and busy gamelan ostinati (Balinese this time) from pianist Sarah Watkins (Ahi has been recorded on the NZTrio’s Trust CD, Spark).

Of the non-NZ pieces, I enjoyed the Brazillian-American Raimundo Penaforte’s Eroica Trio, especially the ingratiating middle movement introduced by cellist Ashley Brown’s resonant thumb-pizzicati. American Jennifer Higdon’s Piano Trio appealed in a post-romantic, neo-classical way. By contrast, the Japanese Hiroyuki Yamamoto’s Ultro Citroque set experimental string techniques against the more lyrical piano.

Meanwhile, back at Antarctica, the NZSO gave us Vaughan Williams – not the familiar Sinfonia Antartica, but instead an arrangement (by conductor Paul MacAlindin) of the Scott of the Antarctic film music, together with Peter Maxwell Davies’ Antarctic Symphony. This last really only spoke to me in its rare quieter moments.

Up and Coming Classical Music

The NZSO’s annual Made in New Zealand concert takes place on Friday May 9 (Town Hall, 6.30pm, preconcert forum 5.15: student and community services card concessions available on the day). Hoping no doubt to repeat the success of last year’s concert, which featured well-known saxophonist Nathan Haines, the 2008 event includes Whirimako Black singing jazz standards in Te Reo. Also Chinese-born New Zealander Gao Ping playing his own piano concerto, and Kenneth Young conducting scores by prospective Lilburn House resident Helen Bowater, political refugee Richard Fuchs, late Vic professor David Farquhar, and NZSM graduate Chris Watson.

There is an opportunity to hear our top orchestra (FREE!) on Monday May 5 and Tuesday May 6. The NZSO will be rehearsing new works by New Zealand composers in the Town Hall, starting at 9.30am, with a final playthrough of that day’s pieces beginning at 2.45pm. On Monday, the four composers represented are all recent graduates of the NZ School of Music: Ryan Youens, Simon Eastwood, Hermione Johnson and Robin Toan (turn off the cellphones and – in view of Toan’s intriguingly titled Witch Scarers – hide the broomsticks). On Tuesday there is a composition for bassoon, orchestra and jazz trio by Mike Nock, and In Saecula Saeculorum by Hamilton-based Michael Williams.

On Wednesday May 7 there is a chance to hear the NZSM’s own orchestra, featuring our National Concerto Prize-winning marimba soloist (Old St Pauls, 7.30pm).

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