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May 19, 2008 | by  | in Music |
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Classical Music

NZSM Graduates Shine
NZSO-SOUNZ Readings, Town Hall, May 5, 6
NZSM Orchestra, Old St Pauls, May 7
Made in New Zealand, NZSO, Town Hall, May 9

Kenneth Young has had a busy week. The NZ School of Music lecturer and composer (he has new compositions being premiered by the NZSO in July and the Amici Ensemble in September) has been preoccupied with conducting. In the Tuesday NZSO-SOUNZ readings, two established composers received performances under his baton. In the reflective In Saecula Saeculorum, Waikato’s Michael Williams sonically traced the surges of grief in a tonal, tightly-organised score, while Sydney-based jazz maestro Mike Nock gave bassoonist Colin Hemmingsen scope for some mellow late-night lugubriousness in his somewhat episodic concerto, Sketches.

For me, the highlights came on the Monday, with works by four recent graduates of the New Zealand School of Music (some of whom – to be fair – had also studied at Auckland and Otago). Simon Eastwood’s first essay for orchestra, Aurum, was a timbre-texture piece, with one of its wellplaced climaxes dangerously near the end. Ryan Youens’ Rakaia, by contrast, was a more conventional tonepoem following commission guidelines, evocatively tracing the course of a river from mountain snows through rapids to… more rapids. Different again, Hermione Johnson in her uncompromisingly modernist Parallax leavened her characteristically infra-bass registers with a surprising number of high rarefied sounds, creating an intriguing dialogue between the two. It ended all too soon.

Robin Toan has displayed many changes of style during her young life. In her impressive Witch Scarers, prompted by architect Gaudi’s Casa Mila, she seemed to be consolidating her musical language, bringing some of the mercurial fluidity of her 2003 expressionist haiku cycle Le Marteau du Destin into the expansive solidity of her previous Gaudi-inspired composition, La Sagrada Familia.

Victoria University NZSM graduates stood out too in the NZSO/Te Tira Puoro o Aotearoa’s annual Made in New Zealand concert. Like Toan, Chris Watson in his exuberant, virtuosically scored Pivotal Orbits appeared to be combining elements of his earlier styles: the intense, pointillistic idiom of, say, vers libre on the one hand, and the more Romantic feel of Aufsatz on the other. Helen Bowater’s succinct Urwachst likewise mixed distinct textures – coruscating cascades of woodwinds and strings, set off against solemn brass chords.

The 1997 Scherzo by late VUW professor David Farquhar had – for a scherzo – quite a serious aspect. However the Piano Concerto by Chinese-born composer and pianist (and composition lecturer at Canterbury University) Gao Ping proved flamboyant and ebullient. The chirpy bird-like phrases reminded me of Messiaen; other informed listeners heard suggestions of Bartok and Prokofiev. The predominantly high registers reflected the influence of traditional Chinese music, while Gao – the soloist in this world premiere – brought in the acrobatics of Chinese opera with synchronised piano-slapping and hand-claps, niftily echoed by the orchestral whip. I was not entirely convinced by the work as a whole, but was certainly captivated by its glittering surface.

One historical curiosity was a 1942 score by perhaps NZ’s most experienced, if self-taught, composer at the time, German Jewish refugee Richard Fuchs. The Symphonic Movement (another world premiere) could almost have been part of a Twelfth Symphony by Bruckner, though occasionally more unwieldly.

The diverse offerings of Made in New Zealand ended with jazz standards sung in Te Reo and English by Whirimako Black, in arrangements made for Te Tira Puoro o Aotearoa (the NZSO’s newly-launched alternative name) by Russ Garcia, and conducted by Kenneth Young. Black’s voice was heard to best advantage in her two Maori songs.

Young of course had earlier been tasked with conducting the NZSM Orchestra, with National Concerto prize-winning soloist Yoshiko Tsuruta providing an elegant rendering of Ney Rosauro’s Marimba Concerto, and the Orchestra giving a very creditable account of Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony.

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