Astonishing ensemble sound, virtuosic skill aplenty

The modern multi-arts venue that is Q Theatre in Auckland City was a vibrant setting for NZTrio’s concert last night. The Loft space has a clear acoustic and a black box stage which gave the eclectic programme a touch of theatre without losing intimacy. Twine was a rich entwining indeed… mingling contemporary and romantic, NZTrio’s trademark talent to combine contrasting genres or threads in one performance.
The Trio is presently in transition with two guest artists Amalia Hall and Somi Kim joining Trio cellist Ashley Brown for this series of concerts. The measure of quality of each of these outstanding musicians was the astonishing ensemble sound, as if the three players had been performing for many seasons together… And this programme gave opportunity for both ensemble playing and virtuosic skill aplenty.
I was excited to hear the first offering of the evening, Mishima the last movement from Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 3, and closing music from the film Four Chapters of Mishima based on the life and work of the Japanese novelist and nationalist Yukio Mishima who brought his life to a violent end with a ritual suicide. It was slightly odd to open a performance with a closing movement and so short, more more I say! But still a fantastic introduction to the evening, an amuse bouche indeed as Brown said.
Performing Glass takes musicians of great technical skill with the repeated rhythms and arpeggios that morph underneath tonal melodies, one step wrong and it becomes nonsense. Kim led the brilliant assault from the piano with strings dashing closely behind. It’s one thing to hear Glass in recordings but seeing it in a live performance makes you appreciate just how brilliant these players have to be.
The next thread after the modern start was the Schumann Piano Trio No.2 in F major played with ebullience and great liveliness, again wonderful voice leading from Kim on piano. Brown’s cello resonated beautifully with great depth of experience and articulation encouraging honeyed phrases from both the strings.
In the third movement of this Trio we were treated to the dulcet soft timbres from Hall on violin marred only by the opening of lozenges in the audience… ah the perils of live performance! Despite that, Schumann’s joy and ardour was articulated with great warmth right to the final bars of the trio.
I’ve decided that the next work, Matthew Hindson’s Rush (1999) acts as a Tardis in this series, for audiences perhaps more used to classical or romantic repertoire. A contemporary Australian composer, Hindson’s works are said to be influenced by modern techno beats and contemporary pop sounds. But in this particular work, he opens a doorway for modern audiences to travel from the romantic era right slap bang into modern day. This work is very much shaped by Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings (1825), Rush is a brilliant modern ‘cover’ of the final movement of the 19th century Romantic octet. NZTrio introduced this piece as their favourite to play and you could see why… there is repetition just as in the Glass piece but with the manic fun of everyone trying to get their hand in the lolly jar first. It’s an exhilarating nine minute ride with amazing virtuosic opportunities taken with flamboyant zeal by all three players, and here we see the Trio really buzzing with life. It completed the first half with a super dose of fun!
In each programme that NZTrio performs, they include at least one New Zealand composition. Last night was extra special with the premier performance of a new work by young US/NZ composer, Celeste Oram. This performance was one of four new works Oram was having premiered this year and it’s a credit to NZTrio for picking up such a genre-busting composer.
Oram investigates new media and strategies for musical notation using props and audience prompts in this case. The scene for this work titled the naming of waters was a reading in which there is a burial at sea, a ’trio of hired musicians on deck’ and ‘indelicate seagulls’. The players improvised descending scales interspersed with string glissandi like the call of gulls. It brought to my mind the tragic orchestra that reportedly played on as the Titanic went down. There was pouring of sand into a box and the scattering of white flowers into the audience like solemn offerings to the sea.
The audience was asked to write on slips of paper ‘that which they hope will never change’ and these were extolled by the musicians. Quite poetic, until the last random selected slip of paper from the audience was read out – “pineapple lumps” which raised a laugh, a nice bit of Kiwiana! The whole effect was whimsical with moments of melancholic as the audience tuned in to the seriousness of those precious things being lost.
Then once more, NZTrio invited our ears to engage with 19th Century repertoire, this time with the Brahms Piano Trio No.1 in B Major. This work is solid Brahms. Although composed relatively young in the composer’s life in 1854, it was revised a whopping 35 years later. This is great Romantic writing right to the core. The Trio players spread so comfortably into this work… In the hands of a Master of Romantic music, they delivered beautiful stately and passionate phrases. Exquisite unison string sounds in movement one and dazzling catapults down the keyboard in movement two were high points for me. And then a hushed awe spread in the audience as NZTrio unfolded the majestic Adagio of the third movement, full of gravitas and beautiful long phrases. Here was amazingly commanding playing from all three in the Trio, finishing with fabulous drama and a final flourish to warm applause.

Clare Martin, Radio 13

A stunning performance played with expert technique and deep feeling


NZTrio gave a stunning performance of “TwinePieces”, their new programme of five works, last night in the Len Lye Gallery at the Govett Brewster Art Gallery.

Founder member and cellist Ashley Brown was joined by new members Amalia Hall (violin) and Somi Kim (piano), replacing retired former members, Justine Cormack and Sarah Watkins. It might have been a new line-up, but these musicians (each a multiple award-winner with outstanding lists of achievements) played as if they had been working together for years. Everything was beautifully matched: the bowing techniques, the dynamics, the tones, the passing of melodies from one instrument to another. Their communication with one another seemed instinctive, and the instruments blended seamlessly into an organic whole.
The emotional link between the performers was matched by the intimacy with the audience. We seemed close enough to touch them (indeed, I was closer to the strings than I am when I play in an orchestra), yet the generous acoustics of the gallery blended the sound and delivered it just perfectly. Ashley demonstrated how resonant the room was with many echoes from a single clap, and in some circumstances that would be difficult to work with, but for the trio it was ideal.
[As a footnote, some of us wondered why the staff didn’t turn off the audio exhibits in the neighbouring galleries, which were slightly distracting, with ghostly sounds or burst of conversation at inopportune moments. The answer was, they did their very best, but apparently it takes a cherry-picker to get to the roof cavity to do so! In the end, you just accepted it as part of the ambience and the experience.] The trio have embraced new technology, in the form of tablets and foot pedals in the place of shuffled pages of music and hurried page turns. You can see its appeal, and it is likely to be the way of the future.
The programme was a well-chosen mix of the new and the familiar. The opening work “Mishima” by Philip Glass was much less challenging for the audience than one might anticipate. The trio made the “repetitive structures” always interesting, with variations of tone and dynamics, and the shifts to melodic interludes always came just in time, giving a really appealing and moving short piece.
Then we had the first movement of Robert Schumann’s Piano Trio in F major. It is marked “very lively” and it certainly was. There were gorgeous, romantic melodies shared between the instruments, moments of great passion and intricate textures. The ensemble was immaculate, and we admired in turn the glorious depth of tone in the cello, the warm, rich singing of the violin and the virtuosity brought to the piano part.
Next was “Rush” a piece by Australian composer Matthew Hindson. Apparently it was inspired by both the spirit of Mendelssohn’s string writing and techno music. Certainly the latter was discernible. I confess I am not as familiar as I should be with Mendelssohn’s later string works, and lack a degree in music, so the reference rather passed me by. It seemed to me to be closer to bluegrass and country. At some points Ashley Brown looked to be channelling the 2 Cellos’ version of heavy metal pieces (with a lot more finesse and a lot less damage to his bow). It was a demanding piece for audience and players, fast and furious, with dramatic climaxes, made exciting by the superb execution by the trio, and it garnered great acclaim from the audience.
A new commission by young New Zealand composer, Celeste Oram, was a blend of music and performance art, involving the audience providing written phrases which were randomly chosen and read out by the players, as well as the players drinking a toast and distributing flowers, linking to the theme of a burial at sea. Rice (?) was poured into a container on the piano keyboard, giving the sound effect of the sea as well as the visual effect of the scattering of ashes. The strings provided the sound of seagulls with descending scales and glissandi. There were poignant moments, and overall the piece was successful (probably more so if you are not the sort of person, like me, that gets distracted worrying what damage stray grains of rice might do to the piano keyboard).
The final work, the Brahms Piano Trio in B major, was everything you would want it to be. The composer was in his early twenties when he wrote it, but he revised it decades later. We could relax into the comforting familiarity of Brahms’ distinctive style, the glorious melodies played with expert technique and deep feeling by these consummate musicians. There were emotional outbursts contrasting with tenderness and peace, lively dances and lyrical passages. The tumultuous final movement still had moments of blissful calm. It was the perfect end to an outstanding concert.
Anne Bovett, New Plymouth
Taranaki Music Reviews

Persuasively delivered by an impressive line-up

Braid, the third of NZTrio’s popular Loft concerts for the year, focused on women composers, well timed for Suffrage 125 celebrations.

Five works, spanning a century-and-a-half, were persuasively delivered by an impressive line-up, with founding cellist Ashley Brown joined by violinist Benjamin Baker and pianist Stephen De Pledge.

Two older Kiwi commissions were revisited, reminding us of NZTrio’s untiring support and nurture of the local. Rachel Clement’s sabbia was a short, tangy prelude to the evening, energised by deft teamwork. Victoria Kelly’s more substantial Sono effectively pitted strings against piano, contrasting consonance and dissonance, foreground and background.
A trans-Tasman import, Spirit and the Maiden by Elena Kats-Chernin, was a decided let-down. The gusto of its performance did not, alas, disguise the triteness of the material, burdened by too many tired, banal sequences and too much treading of water in minimalist ponds.

Composers Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn introduced gender politics, with two full-scale piano trios raising the issue of why these women have been overshadowed by the men in their lives — a husband in Schumann’s case, a brother in Mendelssohn’s.

The programme notes hailed Schumann’s trio as a masterpiece. It is not, although the exquisite braid of its outer movements, beautifully delineated in this performance, revealed a rare sensitivity and craft, only wanting that final dash of fire.

Closing the concert, De Pledge introduced Mendelssohn with such passion that we were well prepared for the demonic rush of its opening Allegro molto. This is a score that jolts and unsettles, unlike the sometimes over-homogenised music of her brother, Felix.

The three men had immense and obvious fun with it, enjoying the flowering textures of its Andante and transforming the finale with almost Hungarian zest.

What: NZTrio, Braid
Where: Loft at Q Theatre
Reviewed by: William Dart, NZ Herald

The trio's sound was outstanding

Rachel Clement (NZ): Shifting States: Sabbia (Sand) (2005)
Clara Schumann (Ger): Piano Trio in G minor, opus 17 (1846)
Elena Kats-Chernin (Aus): Spirit and the Maiden (2004)
Victoria Kelly (NZ): Sono (2000)
Fanny Mendelssohn (Ger): Piano Trio in D minor (1847)
Benjamin Baker: violin
Ashley Brown: cello
Stephen De Pledge: piano

In honour of the 125th anniversary of the Whakatū Wāhine New Zealand Suffrage movement, the (BRAID) programme consisted of works from female composers. The gender of composers is not an issue for us these days – certainly not from me – but in Europe, in the 1800’s, misogyny was rife. As the programme notes noted, Abraham Mendelssohn said to her daughter: “Music will perhaps be Felix’s profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament.”

The trio’s sound was outstanding. Stephen De Pledge piano playing was immensely sensitive – subtle or forceful, delicate or powerful, as the music demanded. He clearly enjoyed the programme – as evidenced by his frequent surreptitious smile. Benjamin Baker’s violin was sweetly incisive, but robust when he needed to project. And Ashley Brown’s cello was rich, warm, and potent particularly in his full-toned, almost booming pizzicato.

Eloquently, and with humour, each of the trio took turns informing, amplifying or suggesting theories before each piece. The programme shifted between two 19th century works and three early 21st century pieces.

The Clara Schumann piece was finely formed in the early Romantic style: a gutsy first sonata movement; a bouncy and entertaining second movement Scherzo and Trio; a gorgeous, melodic Andante third movement [with an oh-so-delicate final phrase]; and jaunty, passionate, furious final movement. There were some subtle and surprising touches – rhythmic changes in the recapitulation of the first movement; violin and cello often in octaves; the string’s pizzicato off-beat accompaniment in the third movement; a moment of respite in the penultimate phrase in the last movement before rushing and racing to the dramatic final cadence.

The Fanny Mendelssohn trio was passionate, ardent, quirky, humorous, melodious, effervescent and boisterous. The compositional form was odd, given the example of the contemporaneous Schumann. The first movement was ‘proper’ or ‘serious’ but the rest were almost haphazard, brief or truncated. In the Andante, each of the instruments expressed the exquisite melody in offhand – but charming – variations. The third movement was over in a flash. The fourth movement was like Hungarian gypsy dance – the piano played a flashy introduction and the violin and cello joined randomly in, as if they were interrupted by the piano when they were having a beer. They took turns of aggrandised the melody with increasing vigour and excitement. A dramatic chordal cadential phrase – and then it was all over!
Maybe Fanny took her father’s opinion to heart, and maybe she didn’t know if anyone would play this piece again. But it was the quintessence of real chamber music: performers gathering in a room and enjoying making music together for their own enjoyment.

Both were immensely enjoyable, entertaining, passionate, tender master-works and, as Stephen De Pledge mentioned, “criminally underplayed”.

Spirit and the Maiden by Elena Kats-Chernin was a strong, impressionistic, programmatic music in three movements. The piece began with an aural attack – the piano had massive, pesante, crashing chords and the strings were also ‘full on’ with fortissimo tremolo, trills and glissandi. The second movement was filled by repetitive jazzy riffs and rhythmic syncopations and the third movement was quite melancholic and poignant. It used an iterative transposed melodic motif.  The piece built to a furioso section but died away to a tragic end. I got the impression that the piece was missing an illustrative aspect – I was listening to a film or ballet score without the visual element.

The concert began with Sabbia (Sand), the first section of Rachel Clement‘s five movement Shifting States. Again, the beginning was strong. The piece was evocative and pithy with brittle shards of staccato sound from the piano and long chords from the strings. It moved from atonal to tonal dissonances and consonances. It was a brilliant piece but intensely concentrated – only two and half minutes long. You have to make sure that you didn’t aurally ‘blink’ !

After the interval, the trio performed Victoria Kelly‘s Sono. Again, the piece began strongly with direct, dissonant chord that decayed like a slow sigh. The strings, sul ponticelli, alternately played tremolo notes, pianissimo, with the point of the bow. Again the chords and the slow decay. And again. Interrupted sleep [I have to confess, I read the notes!] The piano had an extended passage with a wandering, searching, amorphous melody. A repeated note was played. It anchored the tonality down like an aural landmark in a misty, diaphanous soundscape. The strings joined with a rising phrase – melodically and dynamically. The repeated note form the piano disappeared – but in my mind’s ear, it still was ‘sounding’. An ardent, impassioned passage from the ensemble – tremendous chords form the piano and furious tremolo from the strings – led to another optimistic  searching section [and another a repeated note] but the dream evaporated – al niente, dying away …. Magical!

The ensemble decided to place the Fanny Mendelssohn composition last in the programme. Its positive and uplifting energy was a fitting end for the concert and ensured that the audience would be ‘buzzing’ from the exciting finish. But, for myself, I think the Kelly’s Sono would be my pick as the final piece. It was more thoughtful and layered in meaning – and beautifully played. Certainly, Sono stayed in mind much longer than the other pieces.

Stephen Gibbs – DMSReviewblog