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September 22, 2008 | by  | in Music |
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Classical Music: September – Music Month

With the number of events occurring this month, perhaps September (rather than May) should have been designated New Zealand Music Month. Admittedly, not all were in the public spotlight. The SOUNZ Contemporary Award, for example, was an easily overlooked adjunct to the APRA Silver Scrolls. This year the SOUNZ Award was won by Victoria University (now NZ School of Music) composition graduate Chris Gendall, who is currently pursuing advanced studies at Cornell University in the US. In some of his last pieces written in New Zealand, Gendall was interrupting his trademark driving rhythms with more disjunctive passages, or (as in his orchestral ‘So It Goes’, an NZSO/Todd winner from 2005), superimposing a declamatory line above the underlying pulse. Judging by the extensive excerpts broadcast by Radio NZ Concert, his winning mixed-instrument octet ‘Wax Lyrical’ carried this tendency further into an even greater rhythmic freedom.

Octets also featured in the Amici Ensemble’s Sunday concert. Amici’s all-string incarnation made for a sometimes wearying homogeneity, especially in Mendelssohn’s expansive, Schubertian ‘Octet in E flat’. The new work ‘Schism’ by Wellington composer (and NZSM conducting tutor) Kenneth Young, on the other hand, was less an octet that a brace of antiphonal string quartets, initially distinct, but becoming more and more alike as their conflict was resolved into a joyful conclusion. I felt however that the challenge of scripting a dialogue between two identical groups, each of which was itself inherently a medium for dialogue, was not entirely surmounted. Tchaikovsky’s ‘Souvenir de Florence’ (a sextet this time) proved an unexpected highlight, graced by the cantabile violin playing of leader Donald Armstrong.

A larger mass of strings – those of the NZSO/Te Tira Puoro o Aotearoa, plus violin soloist – were required for Jack Body’s ‘Meditations on Michelangelo’. Body, one of NZ’s leading composers and a lecturer at the NZSM, is noted for his transcriptions of other music – everything from Chinese jaws harp folk tunes, to sentimental parlour ballads. He does not spare his own work: ‘Meditations …’, a treatment of his 1982 settings of Michelangelo sonnets for soprano and mezzo, was more opulent than the overly austere original, while still retaining the latter’s feeling of linearity. Some might miss, though, the projected backdrop of the first production, presenting homoerotic closeups of Michael Parmenter’s body.

‘Meditations …’ was one of five works (mostly by established composers) rehearsed and recorded during the NZSO-SOUNZ Readings. Others included a lively rhumba for orchestra, ‘Caveat Emptor’, by David Hamilton; an intriguing texture piece ‘Panah’ by Sydney-based Clare Maclean; and two early orchestral essays, by John Elmsly (the well-paced ‘Metamorphosis’ from 1977), and Martin Lodge (the cheerful ‘Cassation’ from 1990, interesting for its occasional premonitions of the astringent sonorities of his recent ‘Winterlight’).

Four of Lodge’s students from Waikato University were represented at the NZSO/Todd Corporation Young Composer Awards. Lizzie Dobson’s toccata for orchestra Ricercare per Vita was consistently busy and intense. In June Dams’ ‘Homeostasis’, by contrast, the contemplative opening section with its pensive bassoon narrator was overtaken by a disturbed climax before the ‘Endless Sad Dance of Life and Death’ (to quote the composition’s subtitle) was restored to equilibrium (almost: at a semitone higher than at the beginning). Katie Johnson’s ‘Prelude to the Unspoken’ was also a well structured tonal score, with suggestions of Bruckner (incidentally one of Lodge’s favoured composers) and a Beethovenian drive into the climax. Hannah Gilmour’s ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani’ lost some of the timbral effects of the chamber version heard at the Nelson Composers Workshop, but gained an imposing stature from the rendition by full orchestra.

Gilmour was one of three participants selected for special commendation by conductor Hamish McKeich and mentor Ross Harris. The others were Robin Toan (a former student at the NZSM), whose ‘Postcards from Barcelona’ and ‘Aquarium & Puppets’, exhibited some of the energy (if not the ominousness) of her 2005 National Youth Orchestra piece ‘Tu-mata-uenga’; and current NZSM honours student Pieta Hextall, whose ‘Impetus’ displayed expert control of pacing and orchestral colour, while introducing a new element – pulse – into her music.

The incontrovertible winner of the Award was also a VUW (NZSM) graduate. Alexandra Hay’s ‘Bellum Nocturnis’, a magical amalgam of Webern, Penderecki and Carrillo, exploited special effects in a way that was both subtle and quietly expressive. Despite its title (‘War by Night’) the result was almost eerily peaceful, with the use of quarter tones in the orchestral strings being particularly atmospheric.

While ‘Bellum Nocturnis’ had no programme (and did not need one), Hay explained in an interview that her inspiration came partly from imagining how the primitive, emotional and rational parts of the brain might interact with each other during sleep. A very different and explicitly programmatic piece depicting the process of falling asleep – and dreaming – was ‘Somnium’ by a further NZSM graduate, Ryan Youens. A tonal tone poem (similar in style to Youens’ ‘Rakaia’ rehearsed by the NZSO earlier this year), the appealing ‘Somnium’ could well have lingered longer over some of its choicer moments.

SOUNZ Contemporary Award
Amici Ensemble, Wellington Chamber Music, Ilott Theatre, 7 September
NZSO-SOUNZ Readings, Michael Fowler Centre, 3-4 September
NZSO/Todd Corporation Young Composer Awards, MFC, 8-9 September

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