After years of being a cultural institution in Q Theatre’s Loft, NZTrio has moved to Auckland Art Gallery.
The light-filled North atrium is a haven for experiencing afternoon drifting into evening with Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan’s suspended ceiling sculptures of cardboard cities tumbling from upturned dinghies perfectly echoing the torrents of musical notes below.
However, the venue has disadvantages. With the audience wrapped around the musicians, sight lines and acoustics suffer on the peripheries. I missed the lively interaction between violinist Amalia Hall and cellist Ashley Brown, while the back of Somi Kim’s magnificently sequined gown was no compensation for seeing this remarkable pianist in full action.
This second instalment of NZTrio’s Tectonic series, Impact, opened with Brown talking of “slightly fraught relationships between countries”, placing will-o’-the-wisp Frank Bridge miniatures against two local commissions.
Martin Lodge’s new, short Nga Whetu Hou was a beautifully crafted response to the sonorities of taonga puoro and left me wanting more. It was quite a toccata, with its dizzying rush of muted strings against delicious piano chords that I yearned to savour up close; and that opportunity eventuated in an evocative interlude.
The delicate patchworking of Ross Harris’s 2006 Senryu suffered, alas, from my vantage point.
The first major offering was Rebecca Clarke’s 1921 trio, a score of remarkable passion, well caught, but prone to blandness when the mood turned pastoral.
After interval, Brown talked of the Russia-versus-America cold war.
Here, Russia won, with Alfred Schnittke’s Piano Trio. The composer’s repeated “Happy Birthday” phrases, presented in 50 shades of sweet and sour, nominally celebrated the centenary of composer Alban Berg, but also caught life on the edge in pre-Glasnost USSR.
After Schnittke’s harrowing, almost cinematic Adagio, a trio by Daniel Schnyder was thin stuff, its lengthy first movement determined to make three classical musicians sound like a seasoned jazz trio. And they did, but never have I heard so many notes say so little.
Commemorating the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s arrival in New Zealand and our own biculturality, this programme was about looking back as well as forward with a rejuvenated NZTrio that promises so much from this impressive start. They play as if they’ve been together for years and their communication was impeccable, especially in some of those tricky rhythmic passages that required adroit counting and keen anticipation.
The inclusion of two of Frank Bridge’s 3 Miniatures served as palette cleansers to contrast with the meatier works by Gillian Karawe Whitehead, Michael Norris and James MacMillan. These latter three were challenging and I applaud the commitment in each performance, but quite possibly the stylistic and formal similitude of the Norris and MacMillan would have benefited from a judicious prune. Whitehead’s Te waka o te rangi is a real gem that melds natural, organic sounds within subtly shifting textures that are all about celebrating our cultural heritage. The Trio achieved some exquisite sounds here.
MacMillan’s Piano Trio no.2 included multiple styles, references and pastiche and the Trio’s delivery was intense and exciting. Tremendously strong and uncompromising playing from pianist Somi Kim was a highlight here. The evenness of the insistent repeated notes and rippling figures were done to perfection, as were the big strident chords in the jazzy sections. I loved that Kim was unafraid to deliver on those low notes with real weight.
In Norris’ dirty pixels the Trio treated us to rhythmic bite contrasted with reflective sections, rather like in the MacMillan. I must admit my interest wandered a bit in the central slow section but I liked the way the players brought the ostinato back. The insistent dissonance and the play between muscular gestures and extreme finesse were standouts in how the Trio approached this work.
For those wanting a slightly more traditional approach to the piano trio, the second half was where it was at, matching an attractive American work against a Russian classic. Jennifer Higdon’s Pale Yellow and Fiery Red saw a lovely dialogue evolve between Brown and Hall, dissolving into a shimmering backdrop to allow Kim her turn. I liked the tenderness the Trio achieved as well as some genuinely ecstatic moments, while the fire was certainly there in Fiery Red.
Arensky’s Trio no.1 in D minor is a stalwart of the repertoire and I take my hat off to the Trio for managing to sustain the intensity not only through this substantial work but also throughout a programme of very demanding music. Here in the Arensky the melodies luxuriated and the players really delivered on the passion, drawing out every nuance and drop of feeling. The Trio captured the jauntiness of the Scherzo and the pathos of the Elegia: Adagio, rounding the whole thing off with bravura in the finale.
This was an excellent concert and one that augurs well for the new Trio.
NZTrio’s first Auckland concert of the year named Tectonic Shift at Q Theatre’s Loft last night was a rich collision of old and new, and a juxtaposition of cultures. This was the first official concert with the new player line-up of violinist Amalia Hall, pianist Somi Kim with founding member Ashley Brown, a line-up trialled last year in their 2018 programme, Twine. It is an exciting new era for the Trio as the worlds of Hall and Kim add to the group’s already formidable heritage of Brown’s deep musicianship.
The programming was introduced as a contrast of old and new, the Cold War clash of the US with the USSR. It was certainly interesting to open by sandwiching a brand spanking new Aotearoa commission amidst two “Miniatures” composed in 1908 by British Frank Bridge (a composer that gets almost a star turn in the Trio’s programming in 2019). Bridge’s Allegretto from Three Miniatures for Piano Trio, Set 1 was a dainty beginning to the evening and his Gavotte a delicious morsel.
I can’t help feeling the Trio missed an opportunity tonight to fully honour Matariki and give more time to the commission Te waka o te rangi by Dame Gillian Karawe Whitehead. This was a beautiful clearing in the forest – a recording of the kōauau ponga iho (gourd nose flute) leading us into the call and response between the players. It’s soft sonorities and plaintive lines placed into the heavens the fifty-one souls from Christchurch’s massacre. Despite feeling a little too short, the audience received its loveliness with great warmth and Dame Whitehead herself was there to share in the premier.
Exciting to bear witness to a reprising of the first ever NZTrio commission from 2003 – Michael Norris’ dirty pixels. An immensely enjoyable piece with the rhythmic energy of Bartok punctuated with dramatic dissonant chords. But the main chunk of this first half was given to the contemporary British composer James McMillan. This was a great choice in a programme seeking juxtaposition with references to both traditional Scottish bagpipes as well as contemporary drama. Kim on piano was utterly mesmerising with liquid piano dashes of sheer jazz brilliance and deep implosions into the keys. Wonderful extremes of classical lyricism with raw power proved once again that NZTrio truly delivers contemporary artistic virtuosity.
It was very welcome to hear a work by the prolific American composer Jennifer Higdon with Pale Yellow and Fiery Red. Delivering exactly what it said on the tin, it was a warm and attractive work, as the composer confesses “unabashedly accessible”. It gave a chance to hear beautiful sweet tones from Hall’s violin although at times the bowing seemed even too light. Again some brilliant dazzles from piano and a wonderfully stroppy and indeed fiery second movement.
The secret weapon of the evening, however, was Anton Arensky’s classic and sweeping Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor opus 32. Here NZTrio seemed to finally stretch out into their full expressive power. The piece was written in memory of Russia’s ‘Tsar of cellists’ and Trio cellist Brown led the way with gorgeous lush tone. This unleashed a richer sound from Hall than had been heard this evening, and exquisite phrases from strings and Brahms-like breadth on piano that seemed to come from eternal heartbreak. The Russians know the wrench between power and loss, old and new, joy and pain. This masterly ending to the programme brought the audience to a powerful and brilliant finale.
After last year’s fluctuating line-ups, NZTrio now reveals its permanent ensemble with violinist Amalia Hall and pianist Somi Kim alongside founding cellist Ashley Brown.
The Tectonic Shift programme showcased a range of consummate music making; cute prettified miniatures by Frank Bridge and the full-on romantic surge of Anton Arensky framed the expected, healthy serving of contemporary, including a new Gillian Whitehead commission.
Te waka o te rangi might fit within the Cook Bicentenary template, but Whitehead has steered it more into the realm of Matariki mysticism, responding also to the tragedy of Christchurch’s mosque murders.
Brown’s cello took an expressive lead from the recorded lament of Horomona Horo’s koauau ponga iho. What followed was a rapt contemplation around the taonga puoro song, dealing out serenity in wafting piano chords and fluttering string tremolo, through to its final, fragile, and perhaps questioning, chord.
Michael Norris’ dirty pixels brought its own historical perspective, being the group’s first local commission in 2003. The bop has not been blunted in this hypnotic score. Rhythmic complexities were delivered with jiving spontaneity, gentler moments were punctuated with sonic eruptions of knife-edge precision.
Beside this, James MacMillan’s Piano Trio No 2 was thin stuff. The Scottish composer’s virtuoso challenge was fearlessly taken up but his bewildering style-mash was lethally disorientating, reached a low point in a lumbering boogie-woogie from hell.
Ashley Brown, in his amiable introduction to the evening, had likened the final two pieces to cold war superpowers battling it out. In fact, reasonably happy co-existence was managed between Jennifer Higdon’s 2003 Pale Yellow and Fiery Red and Arensky’s lush 1894 trio. The three players persuasively cushioned the manicured harmonic flow of the American’s Pale Yellow, and took to the Russian trio with almost frightening physicality. In just 32 minutes, my faith in an old warhorse was restored, with the seemingly supersonic gleam of Kim’s scales lingering long after the concert.
We’ve made our selection for 15 finalists in this year’s Composing Competition (Impetus). Congratulations to all students for your submissions, we look forward to the work-shopping stage starting later this month. The list of chosen works, and more information about the process can be found here.