NZTrio hit right notes with final concert of the year

The trio’s final concert for the year came with the astral title of Constellations, suggesting perhaps that each of its four works contained its own vibrant, glittering array of energies and incidents.

We were not disappointed.

Beethoven’s first piano trio came alive with the confidence and bravado of a young composer’s proud Opus 1 no 1. The suave chromatic shadings of its first pages were beautifully rendered, the final Presto a rollicking, boisterous delight.

If its Adagio cantabile lingers in the shadow of Mozart, then it did so here with appropriate elegance.

Kaija Saariaho is a major force in contemporary music and yet an unfamiliar name on our concert programmes. To experience the Finnish composer’s recent Light and Matter on Friday night was a cause for major rejoicing and congratulations.

Inspired by the changing colours and textures of light playing on trees, it proved to be a deeply immersive 14 minutes.

Pianist Somi Kim, drawing sound from keys and strings, provided support and structure for some virtuosic bedazzlement from Amalia Hall and Ashley Brown.

After the interval, NZTrio revisited a score commissioned in 2012 – Karlo Margetić’s Lightbox, which carried off the SOUNZ Contemporary Award in the following year.

Brown’s genial introduction, giving us a performer’s perspective, was invaluable. However, the intense physicality of its delivery, and Margetić’s shrewd use of an almost obsessive five note melodic anchor made for edge-of-the-seat listening.

Kim whetted aural appetites when she introduced the rarely-heard 1910 Piano Trio by the 12 year old Erich Korngold, alerting us to luscious melodies and fireworks ahead.

It wasn’t difficult to hear hints of Korngold’s later Hollywood film scores in its sumptuous textures, out-Straussing Strauss with its chromatic saturation.

In the wrong hands this might have lumbered, but on Friday night, the musicians effortlessly embraced the Viennese capriciousness that floats over Teutonic complexity. It was not accident that two of its movements drift into waltz time, scrumptiously evoked on this occasion, to the last swooning glissando.


William Dart, NZ Herald

InterFusions was music-making of the highest calibre, long to be remembered

Christopher’s Classics – NZTrio: InterFusions at The Piano, Christchurch – 7 October 2020

Reviewed by Tony Ryan

If more evidence were needed to support NZTrio’s biographical catch-cry of being described as a “National Treasure” in the NZ Herald, this final concert in the 2020 Christopher’s Classics series in Christchurch confirmed that claim beyond question. This was simply one of those concerts where the music-making had an honesty, a charisma and a sense of making every detail count towards the essence of each work’s expressive potential.

It’s a long time since I last listened to Beethoven’s early trios, but with Op. 1, No. 3 in C minor, NZTrio reminded us that there is wonderful music in this composer’s other piano trios besides the perennial Archduke and Ghost examples. The three players seemed to have a totally natural rapport that enabled them to find so much variety of expression in this piece that it emerged as a true masterpiece. Expressive phrasing from all three musicians engaged our attention throughout the performance. If pianist Somi Kim allowed herself just a little too much rubato and a degree of indulgent romanticism in her touch in the first movement, the more robustly classical approach from the two string players brought out the full impact of Beethoven’s innovative style.

All three players found the fullest imaginable range of humour, pathos and power as required in each of the four movements, and Kim’s easy and consummate technique came into its own, especially in the variations of the second movement and the prestissimo Finale.

Cellist Ashley Brown then introduced the second work on the programme after talking about celebrating the Beethoven anniversary in all of NZTrio’s 2020 concerts, and the group’s gratitude for being able to get back in front of live audiences after the months of restrictions. We in the audience couldn’t have agreed more.

The following two shorter works in the first half of the evening, along with the opening piece in the second half, were all new, or new to me and, I dare say, to the majority of the audience.

Greek-Canadian composer Christos Hatzis’s Old Photographs comes from a multi-movement work called Constantinople written for varying musical combinations. This piano trio movement proved a total delight. Ashley Brown’s spoken introduction mentioned the influence of South American, Piazzolla-like tangos, and that was certainly a recognisable connection when it occurred. But, after the four opening chords, right from the start, a certain Argentinian influence was evident. Those four opening chords need some comment because, as soon as Somi Kim played the first two, I knew what the next two would be, and I realised that they are identical, albeit in a different key and with different figuration, to the opening chord sequence (distinctive because of its use of a sharpened chord VII) of César Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue for piano, and I wondered if this was a deliberate reference on Hatzis’s part?

Irrespective of all that, this was hugely appealing music which, like a lot of recent avant-garde-resistant music, almost bordered on a derivative crossover style. However, the writing for the instruments is so inventive and so full of vitality, and when given a performance of such abandoned virtuosity and commitment as we got from NZTrio, it becomes totally convincing, genuinely exciting and absolutely stunning in its effect. Going to YouTube to hear it again the following day, I found that none of the performances quite matched the brilliance, spontaneity and flair of NZTrio. Their sun-drenched languor in the opening section led into a seductive and steamy tango which then morphed into a frenzied, almost delirious wild-dance before exhaustion brought back the indolence of the opening to close this extraordinarily hypnotic piece.

I should also mention that an element of real glamour featured in the clothes worn by the players in this concert. Apart from the welcome move away from the more traditional and usually dreadfully uninspiring concert attire, the more colourful variants that appeared on stage for this concert seemed to genuinely enhance the colour and vitality of the music. Made for the group especially for this tour by New Zealand designer Liz Mitchell, the visual effect was extremely successful. While the two women’s dresses were beautifully effective, it was Ashley Brown’s long striped coat that made the biggest visual splash. For the Beethoven it almost took on a period costume connotation, but for the Hatzis it really came into its own, lending colour and exoticism to those same qualities in the music.

The Hatzis piece was a very hard act to follow for a newly commissioned work by New Zealand composer Salina Fisher. After Old Photographs persuaded us to abandon ourselves to the easy pleasures of music that so readily appeals to our senses, Fisher’s Kintsugi demanded our more determined engagement and intellect. The piece was played with the same commitment and belief in the music as we’d just experienced and, while the sonorities, textures and structural cohesion of the piece were clear and well-crafted, this is music that needs repeated hearings to reveal its full expressive intent. The subtle use of Japanese scalic devices came through in several places and the composer’s ability to balance delicate sonorities against one another from each of the three instruments was impressively evident. I look forward to further opportunities to hear this piece.

After the interval the trio returned to the stage wearing different, but no less effective, examples of Liz Mitchell’s designs and, as expected, began to tune. Seeming to tire of the string players’ fussiness over their tuning, pianist Somi Kim began to riff. Violinist Amalia Hall soon joined in and, eventually, after further tuning over the riff, so did Ashley Brown, and thus Dinuk Wijeratne’s Love Triangle began. Again, I couldn’t resist checking it out on YouTube where I found the Gryphon Trio’s world premiere video of the piece, and I have to say that NZTrio’s way with this unusual opening, as with the whole piece, was notably more effective and convincing. Love Triangle is another work by a Canadian composer; this time Sri Lankan-Canadian. And again, the influence of wider cultural styles plays a significant part. It was another particularly appealing piece, although its longer duration made it less of a sugar-hit than the Hatzis movement. NZTrio made the most of its dynamic and textural variety, and especially its rhythmic elements which they played with a naturalness and ease that belied its complexity.

To end the programme, Ravel’s gorgeous Piano Trio in A minor could not have received a more convincing and idiomatic performance. The work’s exotic and colourful Spanish-Basque-French-Impressionist mix and Ravel’s magician-like mastery of instrumental effects and technical wizardry were all presented to consummate effect by NZTrio. Parts of this work rely on absolute perfection of intonation, ensemble and timbral unity. All of these factors were comprehensively mastered by the players, not to mention their awe-inspiring technical prowess which was always totally at the service of the music.

Although not everything in the 2020 season of Christopher’s Classics went fully to plan in this unusual year, the series still managed six excellent concerts with only one replacement, a couple of reschedules and, of course, two or three with limited numbers and social distancing. Although I missed one of the concerts because of the rescheduling, I have no hesitation in choosing NZTrio’s concert as the year’s highlight of the series. This was music-making of the highest calibre, long to be remembered.

Reviewed by Tony Ryan

InterFusions – a concert of rare accomplishments

This chamber music concert’s billing as ‘Interfusions’ was well chosen, for each of the works in a programme of remarkable richness was made up of mixture of musical styles and sources.

The three players explored the depths of the pieces with commendable skill and cohesion as they wove together their many strands.

The Piano Trio in C minor Op 1, No 3 by the youthful Beethoven pointed towards his later custom of fusing intensity and lyricism, and showed off the qualities of each of the Trio’s members; violinist Amalia Hall for her poised playing with a silvery tone, the mellow notes of cellist Ashley Brown and the clarity and expressiveness of pianist Somi Kim.

‘Old Photographs from Constantinople’ by the Greek-Canadian Christos Hatzis was bewitching as it evoked such remembrances through a multitude of influences.

‘Kintsugi’ is the Japanese art of meticulously repairing broken pottery, and the New Zealand composer Salina Fisher’s composition on that theme using delicate Japanese tones to express the dignity of the restorations was hauntingly beautiful.

‘Love Triangle’ by the Sri Lanka- Canadian Dinuk Wijeratne had an appealing effervescent mood as it vibrantly caught the flavour of the influences of Middle Eastern melodies and Indian rhythms.

The luscious sounds and appealing textures of Ravel’s Piano Trio in A minor brought to an end a concert of rare accomplishments.

Hanno Fairburn, Daily Post Rotorua

Interfusions a cross-genre triumph

It was with a real sense of celebration that NZTrio began their Interfusions concert at the Wallace Arts Trust, Pah Homestead, Auckland on Saturday night. Albeit with social distancing, it was still a joy to be out at this beautiful venue, having emerged from Auckland’s level 2 restrictions.

It was only the second time this year the Trio had performed in their home base of Auckland. For a debut performance of this programme, the Trio seemed super comfortable with the entire repertoire of the evening. From Beethoven through three contemporary works to a finisher of Ravel, all were delivered with ravishing ease.

An ebullient start with Beethoven’s Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor, one of the composer’s early trios which launched his career. Not only have performers been anxiously treading water this year during Covid, but Ludwig must have been getting impatient waiting for his 250th birthday celebrations to really get going.  The first movement was brimful of brio and a fitting tribute to the Master.

A jewel of contemporary composition next, a new composer for me and on the New Zealand concert scene. Written in the year 2000, Greek-Canadian composer Christos Hatzis’s Constantinople: Old Photographs is a work that deserves to be performed in it’s full eight movements at some point. Somi Kim on piano framed the beginning with great tenderness, the strings adding threads of nostalgia. The piece takes you through a picture album, there are witty moments and reminiscences before the piece builds into a frenzy of Piazzolla-like tango rhythms.  The audience audibly loved it and the Trio seemed to be having a great time.

Great programming to place a new commission next from Aotearoa’s Salina Fisher, a work which held spell-binding aural spaces joined with shimmering timbres. Describing Kintsugi, the ancient Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold, the work highlights the cracks instead of lamenting the damage. It is a work of much maturity from a composer only born in 1993, Fisher seems to understand how to draw extraordinarily beautiful sounds from the Trio instruments. It is a work of fragility via wisps of string harmonics and strength in the suspended dissonances.

A robust piece was next with huge rhythmic dynamism in the cross-genre Love Triangle. Composer Dinuk Wijeratne fuses funky beats with Indian tabla-like dance rhythms, all delivered with fiery brilliance by the Trio. The eye-wateringly fast tempi had pianist Kim leaping off her stool. Ashley Brown on cello and Amalia Hall on violin unleashed improvised ‘riffs’ in a jazz version of the Middle Eastern stringed Oud. An absolute showcase in speed and adroit rhythm.

This Pah Homestead concert was a taster for NZTrio’s Interfusions series, and left the audience wanting more. Especially more Ravel, please. His Piano Trio in A minor written in 1914 at the onset of World War II with its aching themes brought a tear to the eye. Played with such tenderness and passion by the Trio, Hall’s voice-leading was if Ravel had penned it with her in mind. Aside from the very interesting contemporary repertoire, the two core repertoire pieces of Beethoven and Ravel are more than worth witnessing. See this full programme at a venue near you, I’ll wager it’s one of the best chamber music concerts you will have the fortune to attend.

Clare Martin, Radio 13

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