NZTrio hit right notes with final concert of the year
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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.
InterFusions was music-making of the highest calibre, long to be remembered
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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
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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
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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.
One of the worlds outstanding musical groups
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NZTrio’s recent concert, Origins, was one of the first live concerts post Coronavirus in Auckland and showed that they are one of the worlds outstanding musical groups, effortlessly spanning the classical and contemporary repertoire.
The five works in the concert spanned 200 years from Beethoven’s Piano Trio through to a recent commission by the New Zealand composer Sarah Ballard along with works by Mark-Anthony Turnage, Isang Yun and Alexander Zemlinsky. The five works were intended to show the range of influences on the various composers as well as the backgrounds and choices made by members of the trio.
The Beethoven work which gained its title for the ghostlike second movement relies on the talents of the three players and the NZTrio showed that they are threesome with a real sense of purpose. Individually they are exceptional musicians but when playing together they are electrifying.
Ashley Brown provided the bedrock of the piece, his cello moved from whispering to howling and rumbling, capturing an underling sense of tension. Amalia Hall gave a sensitive and energetic performance while Somi Kim at the piano never dominated the two string players integrating her beautifully expressed playing with verve.
Throughout the piece the three players seemed to communicate not only through the music but also with an empathy and awareness of each other. They brought a depth of understanding to the piece as through revisiting the composers own personal sense of nostalgia and the mysterious.
Mark-Anthony Turnage’s “A Fast Stomp” was radical mixture of classical music infused with punk, jazz and film music. The work encapsulates the evolution of music from the classical through to modernism with a number of experimental sequences.
Sarah Ballard’s commissioned work “Prema Lahari” was inspired by Indian music and Sanskrit poetry and made use of a drone as well as prayer bells. The Western instruments replicated the sounds of Indian instruments such as the sitar with the trio played in a relaxed, almost yoga-like contemplative style.
Isang Yun’s “Piano Trio” was an acknowledgement of pianist Somi Kim’s Korean heritage. Yun’s music is an amalgamation of Asian musical styles and Western avant-garde. The work composed in the 1970’s pushes the boundaries of music with techniques and sounds the violin and cello being played in unconventional way – using the wood of the bow to lay the strings and extended glissandos, sliding up and down the strings. the strings brushed and lucked in the violin and cello ss well as the piano with Kim leaning into the piano to create eerie sounds.
The music provided watery sounds; rain falling, lakes shimmering and water dripping. These sounds provided a sense of nature but also the ventured into the realm of electronic music.
The final work on the programme was Zemlinsky’s Piano Trio” written in the 1890’s when he impressed Brahms with his originality. This work was a far cry from his more modernist works such as his opera “The Dead City”, although it prefigures his more experimental music. The first movement was late Romanticism on a grand scale worthy of Brahms while the middle section had theatricality to it with the finale displaying a passionate emotionalism. This was all delivered with flawless technique capturing the late flowering of Romanticism and hinting at an emerging modernism.
John Daly-Peoples, NZ Arts Review
We felt the players bouncing energy off one another, having a real musical conversation
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Breaking the silence imposed by the COVID-19 restrictions, NZTrio returned to the stage last night in the Concert Chamber of Auckland’s Town Hall. Their programme titled Origins touched on the performers’ own ancestral backgrounds as well as paying homage to Beethoven’s 250th anniversary.
Alas, we were not in the cosiness of Q Theatre’s Loft, and it is a puzzle that the theatre has not opened its doors when artists such as NZTrio are battering it down with a programme at the ready. However, the Concert Chamber offered a bigger acoustic and maybe a richer experience. And not to be sniffed at after such a lean year, more actual seats to generate ticket income. And how appropriate for NZTrio to have the bigger venue as a fanfare for their first performance of the year.
To come out of COVID silence then and open with Beethoven’s Piano Trio No. 5 in D Major, the “Ghost” had a whiff of audacity. It opens with such adrenaline that players must need to be already pumped to bring it off with full aplomb. Not to mention it is outrageously well-known that one nervous stroke could be noticed. And perhaps the slightly tricky octave string tuning of the second movement betrayed a little of the awe of the situation. However, the professionalism of NZTrio kept things beautifully moving and it was a real pleasure to hear this live.
Backlit by pink, NZTrio eased into the rich acoustic of the Concert Chamber by the third movement. The drive of this last movement caught vigour and excitement. Here we felt the players bouncing energy off one another and having a real musical conversation. The Town Hall Steinway piano was given full glorious voice under the flying fingers of Somi Kim.
Having paid due homage to the master, the British lineage of cellist Ashley Brown was next. Contemporary composer Mark-Anthony Turnage’s A Fast Stomp was a complete change of soundscape. Brown described that Turnage would really like this work talked of in punk terms, or perhaps ska or grunge. But, as my companion observed, this could have been Shostakovich’s lost trio, it had the revolutionary sounds of the 1930s. With it’s driving voltage and rhythmic syncopation the Turnage was a hugely energising piece. Kim gave great depth to the piano stomping. The strings of Amalia Hall and Brown had brilliant Bartok-like pizzazz. It had the kind of raw acidity that was a good foil to the rich Germanic temperament.
New Zealand composer Sarah Ballard’s Prema Lahari was a new commission and offered up a sanctuary next. Opening like liquid sun it poured peace upon the audience. The title is a Sanskrit term meaning ‘waves on the ocean of pure love’ and arose from Ballard’s own meditative practice. A recording of the Indian tampura created a meditative cycle against the strings, albeit a bit too loud against the acoustic Trio at the start. It was appropriate that Amalia Hall with her one-eighth Indian ancestry took up the first ‘voice’ of the piece. Richly developed through cello with sitar-like ripples on the piano, this was a beautiful piece that I would love to hear lengthened a little. Ballard’s own chanting infused the finish with beauty and the handbells created a spine-tingling ending.
After an interval in the classy foyer of the Town Hall, it was on with the concert and a visit to Somi Kim’s Korean ancestry. Not a sound world I am familiar with, it was with truly fresh ears that I heard Korean composer Isang Yun’s Piano Trio. Written between 1972 and 1975 immediately we were somewhere new. It was a more spacious soundscape with quiet intensity punctuated by bursts of tone clusters, a more challenging piece for the audience and I imagine for performers too. Kim reached into the body of the piano and plucked strings. A soft rainstorm, the groan of ancient trees and the waking of insects could almost be heard. A very refreshing soundscape and maybe a first for New Zealand?
Finishing this Origins programme we were swept into 1890s Vienna with Alexander Zemlinsky’s Piano Trio in D minor. It was Romantic pinot noir to the Korean ginseng tea. Here the Trio seemed to stretch out, Kim on piano luxuriated in the runs from top to bottom of the keys. Here was Hall’s honeyed tone that has wooed us in previous concerts. And Brown’s consummate beauty of tone and pliable give-and-take created a rich string interplay. It is a perfect choice to bookend with “The Ghost”, and such a peach of a piece which allowed all players to shine.
Last night was a night of firsts – the official launch of the new permanent line-up of performers for the NZTrio, their first concert of the year and (surprisingly) the first show in the Auckland Town Hall since lockdown. The Trio took themselves and their audience to full stretch in terms of both diversity, sound and technical challenge. And they delivered an ambitious and triumphant night in full celebration of being 100 percent back in business.
Radio 13 – Clare Martin
From storming tsunami to murmuring breezes on the turn of a phrase
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The evening set off with the familiar — Beethoven’s Ghost Trio.
The central Largo, which gives the piece its nickname, was atmospherically laid out around the remarkable piano of Somi Kim. However, I suspect it was the exciting outer movements that caused the adrenalin to rush, with the musicians veering from storming tsunami to murmuring breezes on the turn of a phrase.
Closing the evening, a lush 1896 trio by Alexander Zemlinsky was given a virtuoso workout. This, too, engaged the audience, even if Amalia Hall’s elegant violin couldn’t quite catch the sweet-and-sour klezmer of the composer’s original clarinet.
On the contemporary side, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s A Fast Stomp took us from Bartok to boogie-woogie in a jittery, runaway scherzo.
Isang Yun’s 1976 Piano Trio proved a revelation and was, for me, the highlight of the evening. This Korean composer wrote demanding music; indeed, he seems staunchly modernist in times when composers are not afraid to woo ears. Yet, live, how could one not be spellbound by the delicacy of Hall and Ashley Brown’s feathery exchanges, or Kim, in an elegant lame jumpsuit, leaning over her piano and unlocking a new world of sonic magic?
NZTrio has always stood up for our local composers. Tonight, Sarah Ballard’s Prema Lahari subtly explored the spiritual world of Indian culture. The players were accompanied by the meditative drone of taped tanpura, and the work ended with a recorded Sanskrit chant, sung against the chimes of the players’ temple bells.
It was a beautiful miniature with much to savour, from the yearning of the strings’ raga-like melodies to Kim’s pearly keyboard runs evoking the cascading notes of the Indian sitar.
NZ Herald article here
William Dart, NZ Herald
Left me wanting more
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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.
Exquisite sounds in Christchurch
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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.
Wonderful extremes, raw power
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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.
Tectonic Shift: a range of consummate music making
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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.
Astonishing ensemble sound, virtuosic skill aplenty
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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.
A stunning performance played with expert technique and deep feeling
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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
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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
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WEDNESDAY 26 SEPTEMBER 2018, CITY GALLERY WELLINGTON
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
NZTrio an ensemble of world-class excellence
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NZTrio – Weave
The Piano, Christchurch, 21 June 2018
Reviewed by Tony Ryan
NZTrio, in a period of transition with two guest players joining its founding cellist, Ashley Brown, sounded for all the world as if they’d been playing together for years, so totally in tune with one another’s interpretive approach and style were they. While each demonstrated considerable character and individuality, their interplay and musical conversation was simply thrilling in its unity, commitment and vitality.
In the first part of the programme, the hypnotic rhythms of Philip Glass’s Head On and Australian, Stuart Greenbaum’s stylistically eclectic and ultimately less convincing The Year Without a Summer, framed Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1. And from the outset of this major work, NZTrio’s exceptional quality shone. Ashley Brown’s opening statement of the first movement’s main theme was so full of personality and subtle beauty that, as soon as I got home, wondering why this passage had never struck me before, I rushed to my CD recording featuring cellist Daniel Müller-Schott, to find that even he couldn’t match the expressive impact of Brown’s playing.
As the movement progressed it was evident that the other members of the trio were almost equally expressive and convincingly characterful. Here indeed is an ensemble that truly has something of its own to bring to an oft-played classical masterpiece. What a pity more of Christchurch’s music devotees weren’t there to experience this performance. The opening of the second movement brought a magical introductory solo from pianist Somi Kim in the style of the composer’s Songs Without Words, followed by a lovingly-phrased restatement from violinist Natalie Lin in harmony with Brown’s enduringly opulent cello line, all played with an overwhelming rapture such as we rarely encounter.
Dorothy Buchanan’s 1980 Trio Sound, which opened the second part of the programme, is the other work that lingers in the memory. Buchanan is a master of motif development and, if her structure maintained an even keel rather than having an overarching sense of direction leading to any real climax or denouement, her sound world is consistently captivating, with engaging sonorities throughout the work and some gorgeous harmonies, especially near the end.
Finally, Schumann’s Piano Trio No. 1 was played with all the love and attention to detail that was evident throughout the programme, and confirmed NZTrio’s position as an ensemble of world-class excellence.
Tony Ryan – CHCH Press, June 2018
NZTrio continues exploring classical curiosities
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NZTrio has always enjoyed rescuing lesser-known scores from the nooks and crannies of musical history.
Its latest concert opened with one of its best finds yet, a charming Phantasie by John Ireland. Written in 1909, this short work seemed more a blend of late romantic and modal styles than impressionistic, as cellist Ashley Brown suggested in his genial introduction.
It certainly gave guest violinist Manu Berkeljon and Brown many opportunities for sweet harmonising, while Sarah Watkins’ piano boldly navigated her colleagues through lush climaxes.
The contrast between the two New Zealand commissions could not have been more marked. Anthony Ritchie’s Childhood set off placidly on white keys, its artless reel darkening as the piece progressed, most effectively when fiercer dissonance combined with dramatic rhythmic changes.
Dorothy Ker’s Onaia was an attempt to capture the energies of the Bay of Plenty stream. Resourceful sound effects, catching eyes as well as ears, made for spasmodic and fragmented textures, the most cohesive moments coming with denser musical foliage.
After interval, there was a sense of celebration in Schubert’s E flat major Trio, right from its resolute opening unison, and the musicians sustained its sometimes rambling architecture very convincingly.
Emotions were effectively underplayed in the Andante con moto and, after some playful musical tag in the scherzo, the finale was an enchanted melodic wonderland.
NZTrio deliver sublime performance
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What a godsend The Piano is!
This NZTrio programme (Soar) was the latest in a long line-up of very special concerts that this wonderful new venue has hosted during 2017.
When I look at a concert listing before booking tickets, sometimes the announcement of a featured work makes my heart skip a beat and wild horses would not keep me away. And so it was with Schubert’s sublime Piano Trio in Eb. The NZ Trio did not disappoint. Every strand of this extraordinary work compelled our engagement, with heart-stopping and songful melodies alternating with dramatic outbursts that suggested the composer crying out against the inevitability of his impending death.
In the final movement, guest violinist, Manu Berkeljon, would sometimes lead with a simple lyrical statement which was then repeated with a passionate new perspective by cellist, Ashley Brown, in a dialogue of heart-rending intensity, while pianist, Sarah Watkins, heightened the sentiments with playing of exceptional range and colour.
But if the Schubert was the major drawcard, it was the first-half that brought the discoveries and surprises. John Ireland’s 1908 Phantasie Trio in A Minor was a real find and, although I’ve heard it before, Wednesday night’s performance showed it to be a very fine and unjustly neglected work, with all three players clearly believing in its value; I cannot imagine it being better done.
Two new New Zealand works proved equally effective. Anthony Ritchie and Dorothy Ker are of the same generation, but their composition worlds could hardly be further apart. Ritchie’s Childhood was full of playful vitality and textural variety in a contemporary tonal style, while Ker’s Onaia looked back to the experimental search for atonal “newness” of the 1960s. Both works captured the audience and, in particular, the Ker piece fascinated us with its unusual demands on the players, creating a sort of otherworldly atmosphere, although I often found myself distracted from the work’s aural expression by the mechanics of how its sound-world was created.
Ritchie’s work also featured variety of articulation and effects, but all in the aid of the diverse colours and expression of an appealing and easily approachable piece.
How lucky these composers are to have such fine musicians to bring their works to life. What a godsend NZTrio is.
Tony Ryan, CHCH Press (Stuff) Nov 2017
Thrilling finale puts piano trio to the fore
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NZTrio set off in the glow of a fading Celtic twilight, working valiantly to inject some semblance of stylistic unity into a 1946 piano trio by Arnold Bax.
Bax’s Adagio did showcase Ashley Brown’s uber-lyrical cello, but just how could critic Scott Goddard, 70 years ago, hail this trio as a “great little masterpiece?” Two Seascapes, arranged by Jenny McLeod from her Tone Clock Pieces, came far closer to deserving that accolade. The musicians responded imaginatively to their ingenious recasting, with veiled string sonorities in the first and frolicking dialogues in the second.
Samuel Holloway’s new Corpse and Mirror continues his teasing exploration of boredom and anxiety in the concert hall. However, 18 minutes of seemingly unrelated chords, carefully toned and modulated, replaced ennui with an irresistible urge to immerse oneself in this deceptively intricate and off-beat soundworld.
After interval, Brown introduced Beethoven’s E flat trio from Opus 70 as new to the group, warning us not to heed seeming uncertainties in its opening pages. This received the most forceful playing of the evening, with thrilling moments of tenacious thematic pursuit. Sarah Watkins’ piano was the glittering core of Beethoven’s rushing finale and, apart from some exposed solo work in that movement, Natalie Lin, the first of three violinists deputising this year for the sorely missed Justine Cormack, was at her most convincing.
William Dart – NZ Herald, August 2017
Violinist takes final bow
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It was a charged atmosphere as violinist Justine Cormack signed off after 15 years at NZTrio’s Swoop concert.
Frank Bridge’s Phantasie in c minor is an elegiac rhapsody from that musical no man’s land between the 19th and 20th centuries. Its many moods were perfectly captured, with Bridge’s penultimate Andante a vision of Rachmaninov in an English country garden.
Two recent offerings reminded us of the NZTrio’s lively commissioning policy. Chris Gendall’s Ducet Tones created pinprick colours with a plethora of string techniques and keyboard flourishes, making it seem like an exotic private ritual, a soundworld complementing Shen Nalin’s Meng Yuan that followed.
This transcription of an earlier piece for guzheng and trio called for much zithering on piano strings. On the whole, however, it was more effective in ominous drone and reverb mode than in its banal climax catching, in Ashley Browns’ words, “a whole room full of percussion instruments really going for it”.
After interval, Schubert’s B flat major Piano Trio provided a surfeit of sweet melodies tinted with melancholy.
William Dart, NZ Herald
Vicissitudes CD review
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Vicissitudes is the new set of pieces by composer/performer Mike Nock. It is the recording of a work commissioned and then premiered at 2013’s Christchurch Arts Festival. That title is clever, its two meanings both valid here – first off the aim of the piece as a whole was to provide something of solace to Christchurch residents following the earthquakes. So that accounts for the first definition (“a change of circumstances or fortune, typically one that is unwelcome or unpleasant”). Nock has said that he had that in mind. But the second definition speaks to the “alternation between opposite or contrasting things” – and the setting for these pieces is the contrast in styles between Nock and his regular trio (Brett Hirst on bass, James Waples on drums, Nock on piano) and NZTrio (Justine Cormack on violin, Sarah Watkins on piano, Ashley Brown on cello).
That simple idea – create a piece of music and have both trios, one from the jazz world, one from the classical have at the same tunes – sustains the album.
It sets up the, pardon the near-pun, nocturnal world of tinkering Mike Nock works in (Information Horizon), he’s adept as composer for both jazz and classical and in his now fairly frequent collaborations with Michael Houstoun he’s been best able to explore that.
The playing of NZTrio is light and lovely across Free Radicals – joining the set-up from Nock’s trio as the strings merely provide waft, floating over the bass and drums, while Nock and Watkins hammer down at the keys. Elsewhere, we have the classical trio answering the call of the jazz. Nock and crew set up Musica Solar and the response comes from NZTrio via Catalytic Converter.
These first four pieces are short and playful and showcase what the two trios can offer – very simply juxtaposing the jazz and classical; it’s Nock’s great composing skill alongside the talent of all players involved that makes it so seamless.
Then we are plunged into the six-part title piece. A short drift of piano prologue sets up the conversation between the violin/cello dance on one side and the bass/drums shuffle and swing the other. Both teams guided by their captain at the piano if you like.
There are some stunning moments where NZTrio is essentially playing jazz (Vicissitudes Pt. II) – the melodies of Ellington recalled, the shapes and tones of Quincy Jones, the arrangements of Mel Lewis and Max Roach. And then, on the same piece, the stately way that Nock’s trio enters the fray has as much to do with classical and chamber music’s rules as to jazz’s freedom.
This contrasting dance constantly made to seem so effortless.
Nock has so brilliantly straddled the worlds of jazz and classical as composer and here as both composer and performer he’s at the helm but the work of all six musicians is frequently stunning, so joyous, so bold. This is a masterwork from one of our greatest composers, a man who works in musical colours and shapes and sounds rather than worrying about the rigidity of a genre and rules as such. It’s a constant marvel listening as Vicissitudes unfolds, then curls back in on itself only to unfurl once again.
Simon Sweetman, Off the Tracks, online review – 22 November 2016
Flare: Simon O'Neill (tenor) with NZTrio
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Canterbury born, internationally renowned tenor Simon O’Neill combined with NZTrio to terrific effect in Christchurch on Thursday night.
Who would think of combining a piano trio with a solo voice?
Certainly, virtually no composer has done it, thus producing a kind of chicken-and-egg situation with regard to repertoire. Taking Robert Kahn’s Lieder Op.46 as their base, Simon O’Neill and NZTrio developed a great concert idea into something that resulted in the commissioning of a new work from Juliet Palmer and two very fine arrangements by Ken Young and Alex Taylor of evergreens by Mahler and Strauss.
My favourites on the night were Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Strauss’ Four Lieder, not only because they are such tremendous pieces and their realisations in piano trio format were done so skilfully and musically, but because O’Neill was quite simply in his element, doing what he does best. That isn’t to say that the Bach Ich habe genug bracket in the first half was anything other than supremely beautiful, but O’Neill’s speciality is the late romantic era.
The Mahler had it all – deep longing, short-lived joy, drama and a rather unsettling calm to finish. O’Neill’s immaculate singing told the story perfectly, interpreting every nuance and emotion, while the trio brought a whole new flavour to the piece, helped by Young’s intelligent arrangement.
Strauss’ Four Lieder was a brave undertaking indeed, producing a hybrid of the master orchestrator’s full score and piano originals. It worked in a way that I honestly thought was improbable. O’Neill still soared and the backing remained rich and full. I also loved some of the tiny details in Taylor’s inventive scoring, an example being the string pizzicato/harmonics combination in Rest, My Soul.
The commission that this combination inspired resulted in Juliet Palmer’s Vermillion Songs. Utilising six texts by Emily Dickinson, the piece also drew upon research around ultrasounds of the human body. My lasting impression was that the backstory and concept outweighed the impact of the actual music. While it was very interesting and I appreciated it on an intellectual level, it didn’t connect with me musically. However, the composer must surely have been delighted with the commitment the performers gave her work.
Rachmaninov’s Vocalise was an unexpected treat, its inclusion designed to give O’Neill a breather, but I reserve my final thoughts for Kahn’s Lieder. A Jewish émigré from Nazi Germany, Kahn is one of the few composers to write for this combination. His music was charming and direct and I look forward to hearing more of his oeuvre as it becomes more widely known.
Patrick Shepherd, The Press – 18 November 2016
NZTrio delivers classy performance
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Reviewing NZTrio’s Flare concert, it’s difficult to resist an easy pun, as this pairing of top-class ensemble with celebrated Kiwi heldentenor showed commendable flair. Simon O’Neill certainly earned his helden credentials, with almost two heroic hours of singing, encompassing a Bach cantata, songs by Mahler and Strauss, along with a new Juliet Palmer commission.
First up were three 1906 lieder by Robert Kahn, originally scored for voice and trio, delivered with the affection that elegant but lightweight music demands.
Turning to transcriptions, Bach’s Ich habe Genug had problems. One missed the vibrancy of the original oboe solo and textural variety was somewhat dampened. O’Neill seemed more jubilantly in home territory with four of Mahler’s Wayfarer songs, sympathetically arranged by Kenneth Young. Alex Taylor took more risks rescoring Richard Strauss, underlining unease in one song with eerie string effects while providing an appropriately lush background for O’Neill’s powerful attestations of love in the final number.
Juliet Palmer’s Vermillion Songs was a fascinating response to Emily Dickinson’s elliptical lyrics. A little like a musical dissection – appropriately with her instrumental writing inspired by sound-worlds inside the human body – Palmer focused on intricate detail, occasionally taking time to highlight a single word with a flurry of virtuosity. Mid-cycle, the relaxed melodic cohesion of the third song allowed O’Neill to dispense persuasive lyricism.
William Dart, New Zealand Herald – 15 November 2016
NZTrio Glow in meld of East and West
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NZTrio’s Sunday concert achieved a meld of East and West that fully justified its title, Glow.
Ear-teasing delicacies in Zhou Long’s Spirit of Chimes included the allure of string writing, in which pitches swayed like reeds in the breeze. Yet did Zhou’s more adventurous outbursts really coalesce with conservatively treated folk material?
Gareth Farr’s Forbidden Colours revealed Asian allegiances in the gamelan gleam of Sarah Watkins’ piano, tempered by the spirit of Prokofiev marching in its middle section. Farr is a master of bedazzlement, and does it well here, for ten hypnotic minutes.
Gao Ping’s newly commissioned Feng Zheng, an evocation of a kite’s trajectory, was, perhaps inevitably, the high point of the evening.
NZTrio was joined by the marvellous Xia Jing, whose zither-like guzheng made its voice felt in the composer’s intricate dialogues, all delivered with the fascinating detail and determination of a sonic embroidery circle.
After interval, Rachmaninov’s Second Élégiac Trio took us firmly back to the West.
Compositionally, it may be somewhat loosely strung together, but the sheer passion of the musicians, up close and personal in the Q Loft, was thrilling. The anger in the massive walls of sound in its first movement well caught the composer’s grief at the death of Tchaikovsky.
This wonderful concert is repeated tonight at 6.30. Not to be missed.
William Dart, New Zealand Herald – 27 Sept 2016
Brilliant performance brings evening of joy
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Fluttering birds [represent] our longing for light, stars, rainbows and joyous song.The evening almost stole upon us. First up, clarinettist Julian Bliss gave us Debussy with pianist Sarah Watkins and, with shivery brilliance, achieved the ultimate challenge of tone both sweet and penetrating.
Violinist Justine Cormack joined them for a life-affirming Suite by Milhaud; infectiously happy music, with an ebullient samba that could have done service in the Olympic stadium a few days ago.
The full ensemble then offered Ross Harris’ There May Be Light, a dramatic departure from his recent music.
A tighter palette and smaller ensemble made for fascinating sonic investigation. Ethereal, stilled textures, fuelled by harmonics, microtones and clarinet multiphonics, and Ashley Brown’s plucked insistence on D minor for some pages, suggested that time could pause in this search for light.
Was Harris posing questions that, after interval, might be answered by Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time?
Here, in a finely honed performance, Messiaen’s light was that of visionary affirmation.
Listening, one contemplated the temporal, both symbolic and literal, as when Bliss’ three colleagues simply waited for him to deliver a superb eight-minute Abyss solo. This is the Abyss of Time, Messiaen tells us, with fluttering birds representing our longing for light, stars, rainbows and joyous song. We had them all tonight.
William Dart, New Zealand Herald – 9 Aug 2016
Clarinettist Julian Bliss thrills in Invercargill
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As a clarinet enthusiast back in my younger days, and a general music lover, I was excited to have the opportunity to see clarinettist Julian Bliss and NZTrio live. I was not left disappointed.
The concert opened with Brahms’ Trio for clarinet, cello and piano in A minor Op.114, with Bliss on the clarinet, Ashley Brown on the cello and Sarah Watkins on the piano. In short, it was a delight for the ears. The trio was seamless, the waltz in the third movement dreamy, and the final movement powerful. All three instruments, although very different, worked together in perfect harmony.
Next up was a piece by Ross Harris, titled There May be Light, which was commissioned by Chamber Music New Zealand especially for Bliss and the NZTrio. Bliss, Brown and Watkins were joined by Justine Cormack on the violin.
It’s mentioned by Harris the piece raises questions which may or may not have answers. Musically complex with unusual instrumentation and the use of multiphonics, Bliss, Brown and Watkins well and truly did it justice. This was an intriguing piece, and a very interesting change in tone. Where Brahms was warm and inviting, this was eerie, haunting and gave me chills – it left me wanting more.
The final piece for the evening was Quartet for the End of Time by Olivier Messaien. They could not have finished the concert with anything better. This was wonderful – a very powerful display of musicianship which left the audience enthralled. Each musician was both individually and collectively amazing.
Bliss in the third movement, Abyss of the Birds, showed incredible technique and was mesmerising to listen to, as was Brown during his cello solo in the fifth movement.
The biggest highlight for me however was the final movement In Praise of the Immortality of Jesus in which Cormack shone. It moved the audience so much so that at the conclusion of the piece, there was such a silence you could have heard a pin drop.
All in all, a fabulous concert showcasing some exceptional talent.
Sarah Van Voornveld, Southland Times – 4 August 2016
Music as salvation and sustained beauty
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It is 75 years ago that French composer Olivier Messiaen wrote his Quartet for the End of Time. The circumstances of its composition were extraordinary. It was written and performed in a German concentration camp in the depths of winter, 1941.
Messiaen wrote it to bring “eternal light and unalterable peace” to all people. Seventy-five years later, a 27-year-old British clarinettist and the NZTrio are fulfilling Messiaen’s promise, on the other side of the world, with 10 consecutive performances, from Auckland to Invercargill, of this quartet. Bliss believes it is “the greatest piece of chamber music ever written”.
The music depicts angels, jubilant bird song, rainbows, furious apocalyptic trumpets, tenderness and ecstasy. I loved the infinitely slow cello solo, in praise of the eternity of Jesus, and the clarinet solo, the abyss of the birds, full of sustained beauty.
The audience were overwhelmed, as I was, right to the last expansive violin melody floating upward to heaven.
No less ethereal was Ross Harris’s commissioned piece, “There May Be Light”. He wrote this as a companion piece to the Messiaen. But his music was in soft, hushed gestures, exploring and balancing micro-tones, deliberately discordant, as if unable to stay ‘in tune”, capturing the subdued, speechless silence of captivity and uncertainty in a prisoner-of-war camp. A challenging and engrossing composition, meditating on the fragility of life.
The first two items were contrasting twentieth-century French pieces. Debussy’s Premiere Rhapsodie, written in 1909 for solo clarinet, was performed with unfaltering musicality by Julian Bliss. He has unbelievable dynamic range and soulful tone.
Darius Milhaud’s Suite, written in 1936 as incidental music for Jean Anouilh’s play about an amnesiac war veteran, was jaunty and playful, influenced by Latin folk music and jazz. It was light-hearted, but further illustrated the theme of human adaptability and the loss of sanity in the face of war.
This was a superb concert, unforgettable for the commitment and energy of the musicians and their technical perfection.
Margot Hannigan, Nelson Mail – 2 August 2016
Evening of perfect musical bliss.
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It was an evening of perfect musical bliss.
Naturally, I expected nothing less when British clarinet virtuoso, Julian Bliss, teamed up with the NZTrio – Justine Cormack (violin), Ashley Brown (cello) and Sarah Watkins, (piano) – for a programme of 20th and 21st century chamber music.
Bliss and Watkins opened proceedings in style with Claude Debussy’s Premiere Rhapsodie. Bliss drew out every subtle nuance of this sunny piece, tackling Debussy’s rapidly shifting tempos and lush musical textures with a panache which made the performance so enjoyable.
Having whetted the audience’s appetite, he was joined by Cormack for more Gallic charm in the form of Darius Milhaud’s Suite for Violin, Clarinet and Piano. This was a highly-polished interpretation of a work which is quintessentially French. But dismiss it as a trifling piece of musical fluff at your peril. Milhaud deserves respect – and he received it with a focused, cohesive and satisfying interpretation from three musicians who obviously enjoyed playing it together.
Then a shift of mood and pace, with New Zealand composer Ross Harris’s There May Be Light. Commissioned by Chamber Music New Zealand for Julian Bliss and the NZTrio, it presents an enigmatic musical world where delicate skeins of sound seamlessly float, connect and disconnect. Together, the four players confronted the work’s complexities and demanding techniques with total respect and sensitivity, deftly exploring Harris’s elusive musical moods in a way which highlighted the work’s elusive nature.
The final piece was perhaps the most challenging for the musicians and the audience. In the 76 years since it was first performed in a bleak German prisoner-of-war camp, Olivier Messiaen’s 1940 Quartet For the End of Time has an undeserved reputation as an unapproachable musical monolith. Bliss and NZTrio together dispelled this myth with highly charged playing, which reflected the music’s ecstatic spirituality and profound beauty. It was an extraordinary performance, especially Ashley Brown’s extended cello solo in the fifth movement. I’ve rarely sensed an audience become so deeply absorbed. – and moved – by music. But it would be wrong to single out one player in a performance which on all levels – musically, artistically and emotionally – achieved such excellence.
Christopher Moore, The Christchurch Press – 31st July 2016
NZTrio and Julian Bliss
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At the outset, I must say, this was a superb concert – cleverly constructed, beautifully balanced and wonderfully well played.
We all know just what a fine piano trio NZTrio has become over the years, but I have never heard them play better than here, and their partnership with brilliant young British clarinettist Julian Bliss gave us a concert worth travelling for. Fortunately a good sized audience was on hand to enjoy the music making, and what music making it was!
The concert opened with the Brahms Clarinet trio, one of the magical late works Brahms wrote for the clarinet and immediately we heard the quality of Julian Bliss. Matched by his NZTrio partners, he caught the rich, autumnal quality of the piece to perfection. Ross Harris’ There may be light was commissioned for this tour; a beautifully understated piece whose spare, almost Webernesque textures and subtle colours somehow managed to link with main work on the programme – Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.
The Messiaen work was composed in a prisoner-of-war camp and first performed to 400 prisoners and guards in 1941. Performed on decrepit instruments outdoors in the rain, Messiaen said, “I was never listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension”. And, even under these seemingly impossible conditions, Messiaen managed not only to communicate the same mystically religious message we find in all his works, but compose one of the great works of the 20th Century as well.
This was a performance that did full justice to Messiaen. All eight movements were miraculously recreated, but all in the audience would have been caught by the staggering clarinet playing in the solo Abyss for the birds, the rapt cello playing with equally rapt support from the piano in In praise of the eternity of Jesus and the soaring violin in the final In praise of the immortality of Jesus.
These moments transcended mere music making.
John Button, Dominion Post – 29 July 2016
Inspiring performance shows commitment to the craft
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In these unsettled times it somehow seems appropriate that Chamber Music New Zealand would plan to bring together one of the world’s outstanding clarinettists and NZTrio, thus facilitating the opportunity for performances of one of the seminal chamber works of the twentieth century – Quartet for the End of Time.
Composed by Olivier Messiaen while interred in a prisoner of war camp and premiered there in 1941 the unusual scoring of the work reflects the instruments available at the time.
The work itself makes enormous demands on both players and audiences.
For the players the technical and emotional demands of the work demand performers of the calibre appearing in this performance while, with the inward and reflective elements of the work always to the fore, it demands that an audience take time to reflect upon the power of performance and our human condition throughout its majestic length.
Tuesday night’s performance bowed to all of these demands amply as each of the performers, together and individually, were obviously inspired to deeply memorable and enormously enriching commitment to their music.
A work of this stature obviously dominates any chamber music performance but one cannot neglect the magic provided during the first half of the evening, where Bliss provided a stunning performance of Debussy’s Premiere rhapsodie, this followed by a lively performance of Milhaud’s Suite for Violin, Clarinet and Piano.
There May Be Light, especially commissioned for this tour and composed by Ross Harris, completed the programme.
While commanding interest itself with its innovatory approach to technique the work also provided a marvellous foretaste of the riches to come later in the evening.
Inspirational programming and performance indeed!
Stephen Fisher, Manawatu Standard – 28th July 2016
Chamber Music concert in New Plymouth was one to savour
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A number of regular Chamber Music NZ patrons missed Monday evening’s concert. A great pity as both the playing and the programme were superb.
Written near the end of Brahms’s life the Trio for clarinet, cello and piano contains many appealing melodic lines. British clarinettist Julian Bliss, along with cellist Ashley Brown and pianist Sarah Watkins from NZTrio shared their enjoyment with their listeners throughout.
The adagio was a beautifully sustained duet between clarinet and cello, the waltz-style third movement joyously rolled along and the finale finished with flourishing elan.
New Zealand composer Ross Harris’s short piece There may be light, a commission for this tour, was a real adventure in sound for the players using unusual techniques, and for the listeners having to let go of the usual connections based on rhythm, melody and harmony. I adopted a star-gazing approach and basked in the wonder of it all.
The raison d’etre for this tour is the iconic Quartet for the End of Time, written by Olivier Messiaen after being captured and interned by the Germans early in WWII. The eight spell-binding movements provide an escape to “eternal peace”.
I simply don’t have words, or space, to convey the delights of this performance – a few highlights will have to suffice: the beautiful melody in octaves in Vocalise for the Angel; Bliss’s masterly solo Abyss of the Birds (I have never (on any instrument) heard sounds started so imperceptibly); the glorious cello solo In Praise of the Eternity with just the right weight of piano chords; absolutely perfect unison throughout Furious Dance for Seven Trumpets; and the exquisite timelessness and peace of the final In Praise of the Immortality of Jesus.
This concert was one to savour forever.
Allan Purdy, Taranaki Daily News – 26 July 2016
Messiaen works a privilege to hear
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Major interest in this concert was the performance of Quartet For The End of Time by Messiaen – composed and first performed with Messiaen as the pianist while a prisoner of war ” vastly different for this performance in elegant surroundings played on superb quality instruments.
Messiaen was deeply religious and mystical in character, aspects that are reflected in the eight extraordinary movements which make up this unique composition.
Nature, and particularly birdsong, feature strongly in Messiaen’s compositions. The clarinet and violin in the opening movement, Liturgy of crystal, evoked the sound of blackbirds and nightingales, while in the third movement, Abyss of the birds, the clarinet playing transfixed the audience with the incredible stillness created and the sound rising from silence.
The combination of all four instruments in the Furious dance for the seven trumpets , with its fierce rhythmic motifs and vast range of dynamics, was a powerful statement.
A sense of ecstasy was never far away, clearly expressed in the playing of the cello and piano in praise of the eternity of Jesus and the piano and violin, with the expansive soaring phrases of the final movement, In praise of the immortality of Jesus.
This was a vivid, committed performance from four highly skilled musicians that went right to the heart of the music, which will surely live long in the memory of those privileged to be present.
The newly commissioned work by New Zealand composer Ross Harris, There may be light, was the perfect prelude to the Messiaen work.
Here the composer created a unique, fragile sound world – ever questioning in character, somewhat uncertain, always restrained – drawn together in a performance that had a real sense of understanding and purpose.
Julian Bliss’ explanation of the sound of “multi phonics”, the production of more than one note from a solo instrument, enhanced the performance.
The Brahm’s Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano in A Minor Op 114 made a fine opening to the concert.
Throughout, the performance was permeated with the special warmth of tone that is often associated with the composer’s music, with always a finely graded range of dynamic colour. There were beautifully played solo passages from each of the players within all four movements, with some particularly virtuosic passages in the final movement.
Peter Williams, Hawkes Bay Today – 25th July 2016
Fast-paced programme a crowd hit
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Zoom, the first of NZTrio’s 2016 Loft concerts did just that for a taut 70 minutes of music, with matching Zoom cocktails available at the downstairs bar for thirsty patrons. An enthusiastic audience enjoyed stylish playing as well as succinct and friendly spoken introductions to unfamiliar repertoire. Later, they could take part in some hip, up-to-the-second audience research, recording spontaneous responses to the evening on an array of VOXBOXes.
A Trio by American John Musto was a smooth aperitif, built around a virtuoso piano part that kept the able Sarah Watkins extremely busy. It was guilelessly eclectic, with a final, crowd-pleasing blend of boogie, tango and Gershwinesque peroration.
Wellington composer Chris Watson contributed a short piece with a long title — Schemata, Three Views of an Imaginary Object. These sonic snapshots instigated spirited, and occasionally feisty, musical discussion amongst the ensemble.
The inclusion of Epigrams, the final composition of 103-year-old Elliott Carter, was a typical NZTrio coup. Imagine a modernist, miniature and abstract Pictures at an Exhibition, each of its dozen character pieces expertly and exquisitely rendered. Highlights included the lurching physicality of the second piece and the wispy harmonic trail of the tenth; lyrical strings in the fourth and eighth revealed, in Watkins’ well-chosen words, major harmonies appearing like a halo out of nowhere.
After interval, an 1896 Trio by Schoenberg’s teacher Alexander Zemlinsky, revealed the highly-charged Late Romantic style that ultimately brought about twentieth-century modernism. Brahms admired the work, and it’s not hard to see why, especially when delivered with the passion accorded it tonight. However, one did miss the clarinet of the composer’s original scoring, its liquid, translucent tone the perfect foil for the fin-de-siecle richness around it.
William Dart, New Zealand Herald – 18 June 2016
800 Million Heartbeats. Music by Stuart Greenbaum
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For an Australian with a number of New Zealander relatives, this Trans-Tasman musical connection was of particular interest. The CD presents music that is partly the result of a collaboration between the Australian Music Centre, its New Zealand equivalent SOUNZ, and the residency they arranged for Australian composer Stuart Greenbaum with the Auckland-based NZTrio.
NZTrio personnel – Justine Cormack (violin), Ashley Brown (cello) and Sarah Watkins (piano) – are all fine soloists, as demonstrated here by the varied repertoire: three trios, one piano solo, suite for violin and piano, two works for cello and piano and a cello solo. All pieces were composed between 1999 and 2011; The Year without a Summer is the outcome of the composer’s New Zealand residency in 2009.
800 Million Heartbeats opens the program. We are informed that the lifespan of most living creatures lasts for around 800 million heartbeats, thus the title is a metaphor for the journey of a life. Greenbaum deftly manages to express this concept in a gentle, expressive work of around eight minutes. Whilst it could not be described as a perpetuum mobile, constant motion is the main impression of this intriguing trio.
Falling by Degrees for violin and piano is the longest work on the CD. Its seven movements describe things that fall. First is “Meteor” which features descending filigree piano figures and glittering violin melody, then a more dramatic section before the meteor crash lands. “Snow” fall is depicted by an ethereal, eight-note theme for violin, echoed in a rocking piano motif. It has the effect of a lullaby, whilst still interspersed with downward moving phrases. “Parachute” is more chordal, still with that descending motion before a soft landing. “Apple” is rather jaunty, sounding briefly like nursery song before moving on, while “Anchor” is slower and lower in sonority, quite sombre in mood. The final two falling things represent a more metaphorical – or perhaps humorous – frame of mind: “Stockmarket” stops and starts, alternating soft and loud repeated notes before a quiet ending, followed by an even quieter and very brief “Night” fall. This beguiling music is unified throughout by downward motion. Gravity is not far from our consciousness. In total control of technical challenges, it is performed superbly by Justine Cormack and Sarah Watkins.
Equator Loops is a subtle work, inspired by the music of Arvo Pärt. Its static, meditative harmonies recall Pärt’s emotional impact whilst not being in any way an imitation. It is a totally individualistic expression from Greenbaum. Based on a tonal centre, the piano makes an alluring series of ornamented forays away and back. In this gem, which must be a delight for any pianist, Sarah Watkins gives a sensitive, committed interpretation.
Living temporarily on the “shaky isles” during his residency possibly meant that Greenbaum was more alert to earthquakes than usual. In fact, two major earthquakes occurred in Christchurch not long after.The Year without a Summer was inspired by a massive eruption in Indonesia, bigger even than Krakatoa which destroyed a whole island. The work is divided into two sections, “1815 – And then the Sky was filled with Ash” where the composer evokes the disturbing events, once again with downward figures reminiscent of “Meteor”. “1816 – The Year without a Summer” describes a time when the ash from the previous year blotted out the sun, cooled the earth, ruined crops and turned peoples’ lives upside down. The music is mostly contemplative in mood, sometimes desolate, yet with a quality of nobility. This is a moving work, splendidly played, and an excellent addition to the body of music for piano trio.
The Lake and the Hinterland is a duo for cello and piano which features a singable melody – not surprising, as it was inspired by a poem, Late Autumn Lullaby by Ross Baglin, particularly the lines:
Stay close now as winter’s
White fuse burns across
The lake and the hinterland
Lunar Orbit was written for and dedicated to Ashley Brown. Pianissimo, pizzicato and glissandi create an eerie picture, almost like a cry for help as the astronauts are isolated from their fellow man in the lunar environment. The composer is not afraid to use silence. In this atmospheric work we are transported via a beautiful performance by the solo cello.
Scarborough Variations are based on an English folk-tune we know well, probably due to Simon & Garfunkel. We get snatches of the tune in what Percy Grainger might have called a ‘ramble’, and an absorbing ramble it is, in the company of cello and piano. Only towards the end is the whole tune revealed.
The final work on the CD was originally composed as a sextet for the Sydney-based Sonic Arts Ensemble, formerly the Seymour Group. It was to be the final commission before the ensemble disbanded, hence the name Book of Departures. It was arranged for piano trio a year later. Conceived as three ‘chapters’, the piece is composed in one movement. It features a delicate interplay between the three instruments, the music travelling between different moods – happy, triumphant, nostalgic – to finish on one of optimism.
A website tells us that Stuart Greenbaum has been influenced by minimalism, pop and jazz; if so, traces of those styles in his composition are well integrated. It is difficult to apply any sort of label to his music other than to describe it as subtle, profound, always approachable, with strong emotional impact and very enjoyable.
The recording was made at the Melbourne Recital Centre in 2011 by Haig Burnell and the ABC team, with their customary expertise. Notes written by the composer illuminate the content. The cover artwork is inventive because it could, with some imagination, illustrate track 1 (journey), track 11 (ash), a snow-covered hinterland (track 12), a lunar surface (track 13) or even a departure (track 15).
Gwen Bennett – The Music Trust (online) – 1 December 2015
A Superb Concert
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This was a superb concert. Not just for the quality of the playing – which was predictably wonderfully focused – but rather for a beautifully balanced programme, which encompassed some important corners of Western music, plus a new work of some substance.
Any new work from Kenneth Young needs to be heard and his new Piano Trio is no exception. Somehow, Young’s music manages to avoid any of the new music trends of the 20th century while, at the same time, never sounding in any way dated. He is his own man. The work is an unbroken sequence of three distinct sections. The first is a vigorous dialogue between the three players, the second has solo ruminations from both the piano and the cello and a gentle conversation between violin and piano, and the third is a brief, sometimes eruptive, argument. A fine piece that needs to be heard again. Incidentally, Young’s new CD with the NZSO, entitled Shadows and Light, is just out.
The concert opened with the very late Piano Trio by the extraordinary Frenchman Gabriel Faure; a work that shimmers within his distinctive harmonic palette yet, like his final work, The String Quartet, hints at new directions had he lived longer.
Finally, we heard Beethoven’s Second Symphony in his arrangement for piano trio, and so utterly surefooted is it that it would fit comfortably within Beethoven’s dedicated piano trios. And, along the way, it adds a dimension or two to our understanding of Beethoven’s most optimistic and sunny symphony. As with the other two works, the playing was marvellously assured.
John Button – Dominion Post, 11 November 2015
A Salutary Experience
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For those who have experienced NZTrio only on CD, and only in new music, this concert was a salutary experience, as it displayed their talents in music from the musical mainstream. The Chopin Piano Trio dates from 1829 so it is a very early work, and it displays little of the characteristic Chopin of his later years in Paris. The first movement is very reminiscent of Hummel, the slow movement threatens to give us some typical Chopinesque poetry without quite managing, and the finale has some small reminders of the E minor Piano Concerto. Still, when played as well as it was here it was highly enjoyable. Even more enjoyable was Saint-Saens’ Piano Trio No 2.A much more accomplished work with a finer mix of all three instruments, this demanded real virtuosity with the piano given a real workout. It was huge fun – Saint-Saens seemed incapable of composing a dull note – and it received a stunning performance.
But, for me, the premiere performance of David Hamilton’s The Faraday Cage was the concert highlight. The writing for all three instruments was both accomplished and highly imaginative, without recourse to gimmickry, yet the flicker of electricity (the Faraday Cage was designed in the 19th century to block electrostatic electricity) was beautifully suggested in all three movements. There is flickering tremolos, pizzicatos, and a little playing with the piano’s internal strings – but it was all to a purpose, and quite beautifully played. Those who know Hamilton only from his large number of choral works would be surprised by the sheer assurance of this work – it deserves a wider audience and I can imaging piano trios everywhere showing an interest in the work.
John Button – Dominion Post, 17 Sept 2015
Take a bow
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On their third album for Rattle, NZTrio are again in their performance element tilling the fertile soil of some of New Zealand brightest emerging composers. The title track is a multi-layered and hued piece by Karlo Margetic, where a simple piano melody sets an almost searching tone, taken up by spiraling violin and cello and repeated in ever more probing variations. It’s the most intense and gripping of the seven compositions, which also feature Samuel Holloway’s tautly-strung and wrung Stapes and Gao Ping’s Su Xie Si Tu (Four Sketches), which he says was inspired by seeing a funeral procession in rural China. Take a bow Justine Cormack, Ashley Brown and Sarah Watkins.
Mike Alexander – Sunday Star Times, 31 May 2015
Top local ensemble stunningly updates the Kiwi piano trio
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There’s a delicious convergence of the arts on NZTrio’s new Lightbox CD, tantalisingly wrapped in the scuffed fluoro hues of Jim Speers’ English Electric.
Speers’ prize-winning sculpture is a lightbox, and such is the presence of this Rattle recording that, thanks to producer Wayne Laird and engineer Steve Garden, with a little bit of whimsy, you might well imagine your speakers as sources of sonic illumination.
This stunning follow-up to NZTrio’s first album of New Zealand music, 2005’s Spark, brings us up to date with seven works from the past decade.
Karlo Margetic’s title piece, which won the 2013 Sounz Contemporary Award, is a whirlwind of exhilaration. Moments of calm allow us to eavesdrop on fluctuating relationships between the players.
Drawing inspiration from the processes of glassmaking, Rachel Clement’s Shifting States is ingeniously tinted and textured, especially when the blurred opening of Millefiori breaks free into exultant, high-flying counterpoint.
You don’t need to see NZTrio perform Alex Taylor’s Burlesques Mécaniques to be drawn into these edgy dances. With the shortest being just a few seconds, every sound counts; Taylor has the ear and terrier-like tenacity to make the most of every note.
Although Gao Ping is now settled in Beijing, his Su Xie Si Ti was commissioned by NZTrio in 2009. Exoticism rules, especially when the musicians immerse themselves in the languorous orientalisms of Dui Wei.
Stapes takes us to the intense world of Samuel Holloway. This is restless, moody music, tethered and tended on the borderline; we hear thematic whispers, sounds that melt and deteriorate before our ears, chords vanishing into the distance.
Chris Gendall’s Intaglio does for printmaking what Clement did for glass. Three short pieces inspired by the connection between ink, plate and paper, are etched with the composer’s customary precision, sense of line and balance of sound and silence.
Claire Cowan’s Subtle Dances is the perfect closer. The ghosts of Piazzolla and Ravel hover over dancehall and ballroom, in an elegant nostalgia that suggests it might be possible to move forward into the past.
William Dart – New Zealand Herald, 23 May 2015
'Beautifully crafted' evening of chamber music
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Chamber Music New Zealand has indeed come up with some imaginative programming for their celebratory year, no concert being more imaginative than last night’s concert, which featured works by three New Zealand composers, Alex Taylor, Claire Cowan and Karlo Margetic.
These composers curated a programme of solos, duets and trios that they felt gave the audience greater insight into their own works, all in the capable hands of the NZTrio.
While it may sound problematical, in its realisation this was a beautifully crafted evening, performed by an ensemble of virtuosos already well known for their imaginative and innovative approach to performance.
While the players all had a chance to shine individually, the programme highlighted their undoubted sense of ensemble, their discipline and this awareness of each other, allowing each individual work to stand on its own.
Taylor’s ‘burlesques mécaniques’ presented a dazzling array of colours leading to the beautiful sounds of ‘chain’, while Cowan’s ethereal work ‘ultra violet’ proved to be a glorious exploration of colour; Margetic’s Lightbox provided an arresting conclusion to the evening.
A stunning range of, mainly, contemporary works from the international stage accompanied these pieces by composers such as Nancarrow, Ravel Webern and Ligeti, an outstanding variety of short musical vignettes exploring a huge variety of timbres and techniques that continually presented much of interest for the audience to admire.
Stephen Fisher – Manawatu Standard, 8 May 2015
Fast, furious and exhilarating
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To celebrate NZ Music Month, we were offered a very different concert – a collaboration between NZTrio and three young contemporary New Zealand composers.
I have never been to a more stimulating concert. It demanded all my concentration. Yet there was satisfaction in exploring new sounds from traditional instruments and listening to the amazing technique of NZTrio. How could they read the musical score, let alone play it with such intensity and speed?
As composer Alex Taylor said, his artistic endeavour is to create discordant and disturbing music, to jolt the audience out of their complacency, to make them “lean forward and draw their own conclusions”.
Each composer chose pieces from past composers who have been a strong influence on their development. Alex Taylor chose a fast and furious piano solo by American composer Nancarrow, then a sensuous duo, Habanera, by Ravel for cello and piano, and Four Pieces for violin by Anton Webern, which explored atmospheric, barely audible harmonics, fast pizzicato, and sounds made with the wooden stick of the violin bow.
Then came his composition Burlesques Mecaniques – a complex suite of ten miniature dances exploring extraordinary mechanical rhythms on a crazy provocative piano, while violin and cello played long lines and discordant harmonies above. Themes were ‘a spanner’, ‘tumbledry’, ‘sisyphus’,’anglegrinder’, leading to a climax of ‘chains’ from which one felt the need to escape, and the final fall of the ‘scaffold’. This was greatly demanding music.
The second composer was Claire Cowan. Composition, she said, was her craft, her survival and her therapy. She chose Hungarian Ligeti and Ravel as her greatest influences. The solo Cello Sonata by Ligeti, performed by Ashley Brown was full of the beauty, always reminiscent of J.S. Bach’s cello suites. Her choice of Ravel was a very rhythmic duet for violin and cello, a duelling contest of triplet rhythms.
Then came her composition for the Trio entitled Ultra Violet. This was an intense and satisfying journey of extraordinary fast flowing rhythm on piano, building to a climax of intensity with muted melody from the strings It was greatly appreciated by the audience.
The last New Zealand composer was Karlo Margetic from Wellington. He too chose a piano solo by Ligeti and Three Little Pieces for Cello and Piano by Webern as his major influences. But his third choice of living Sicilian composer Salvatore Sciarrino’s Capriccio No 2 for solo violin was evocative of lonely landscape and pleasureable bird-like trills, exploring the range and delicacy of sounds made almost inaudibly near the bridge on the violin.
Margetic’s composition “Lightbox” was full of illusions and improbabilities, paradoxically unrelenting, yet at the same time transparent. The piano held the rhythm, while cello and violin skated all over the universe, then faded before descending into a raging torment that was disturbing and destructive of bow hair.
What an achievement by NZTrio! The audience departed excited and elated.
Margot Hannigan – Nelson Mail, 6 May 2015
Vicissitudes in the Festival of Colour
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Classics and jazz combined last night in a happy fusion of styles and personalities as two top trios met for a master class in musicianship.
Pianist Mike Nock, a Festival of Colour regular, set the tone with a short set of confident jazz, cutting loose with some striking solos from bassist Brett Hirst and drummer James Waples, and picking up on the escalating energy of the appreciative audience.
There was no loss of traction when Nock handed over to the classical NZTrio for the second set, as they launched strongly into Kenji Bunch’s exciting and intense Groove Boxes, more beat box than Beethoven but just as thrilling. They followed with Claire Cowan’s captivating Subtle Dances, which included a beautifully rendered cool blues piece.
The two trios melded for the last set, playing Nock’s recent Vicissitudes, mixing styles and making magic. It was a match made in musical heaven, gradually building an engulfing wave of sound culminating in a sonic tsunami.
Nigel Zega – Otago Daily Times, 23 April 2015
NZTrio's compromise-free programme offers drama and beauty
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NZTrio play their final concert for the year at Q Theatre in Auckland on Sunday, and the opportunity of a Wellington preview proved irresistible.
It was a compromise-free programme, setting off with the wild sonic scramble of Sciarrino’s Second Piano Trio that thrilled Aucklanders in September. On Wednesday, the City Gallery acoustics spiked up Sarah Watkins’ flamboyant assaults on her piano, hands in protective bandaging, while new eerie birdsong seemed to emerge from the string clusterings of Justine Cormack and Ashley Brown.
New York composer John Zorn is a self-described radical often bent on deconstruction. His 2001 Amour Fouseemed long at 20 minutes but the musicians caught its obsessional power with its violent eruptions and those abrupt disorientating shifts that are part of the composer’s armament.
Leonie Holmes’ …when expectation ends is a serious and engaging eight minutes, exploring the ironies of finding an inner peace in the midst of turmoil. It was an exquisitely mapped journey, signposted by a harmonically modulated tension that sustained expectancy. Holmes’ restraint with touches of ricochet bowing or a flurry of changing time signatures was admirable; there was passionate lyricism and, at one point, the dramatic chime of E major among harmonies that sometimes evoked the hear-through beauties of gamelan.
The theme of expectation carried through to Eduard Steuermann’s 1932 arrangement of Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht (Transfigured Night). Written in the very end of the 19th century, this late romantic bloom compresses a Wagnerian epic into 30 minutes; love is threatened and regained under the light of the same moon that would inspire Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire decades later. In the composer’s original string scorings, Verklarte Nacht can wring the emotions almost unbearably, as the various themes wend their way from despair to elation. And so it did, with Watkins working overtime to evoke surging strings with just two hands while Cormack and Brown, representing the two protagonists of the drama, created a poignant blend of strength and vulnerability.
Good news: Aucklanders can enjoy this fine concert on Sunday, with the added bonus of a Beethoven Trio replacing the already heard Sciarrino.
William Dart – NZ Herald, 29 Oct 2014
Trio's high energy Loft performance worthy of its growing audience
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NZTrio’s Loft concerts have become something of a signature for the group; Aucklanders now know this is where you can experience chamber music up close and personal, with vigorous and invigorating programming. It was cheering on Sunday to see extra chairs being brought in to accommodate swelling numbers.
Justine Cormack, Ashley Brown and Sarah Watkins have a special rapport with their loyal audiences and there was the intimacy and goodwill of a friendly house concert. Informal spoken introductions were in relaxed conversation mode and high-energy music-making sometimes inspired the lusty cheering one associates with victories on the sports field.
The highlight also happened to be the most challenging work, a 1987 Second Piano Trio by the Italian Salvatore Sciarrino. While one could be seduced by the airy weave of the strings’ harmonics, Watkins’ increasingly manic piano interruptions created an unstoppable fury of Futurist proportions.
John Elmsly’s new Ritual Triptych was launched with a generous dialogue of poetic contrasts. At the start, slashes of sonic entanglement melted into poised chords and gestures; at the end, glowing string harmonies stood unperturbed against stalking piano octaves. The central movement, described as “explosive”, could have been more consistently so; too often there was a sense of pulling back when things needed to surge on and take us to the edge.
The evening had set off with Beethoven, and the second of his Opus 1 Trios is very much the work of a young composer. In the occasionally awkward textures of its first movement, the players seemed to be mapping out territory; a more rounded Largo con espressione suffered from the material being somewhat less than emotionally engaging.
Closing the concert, Watkins praised Mendelssohn’s C minor Piano Trio as the greatest work in the genre. NZTrio’s performance treated it as such, from the gleam of its Allegro energico e con fuoco to the fastidious restraint of its slow movement. Best of all was the Scherzo, in which the players seemed to move beyond visions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and fairy folk, to places altogether more dark and sinister.
William Dart – New Zealand Herald, 16 Sept 2014
New Australian music championed by a dynamic young NZTrio
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Melbourne composer Stuart Greenbaum’s chamber works, like all the best art, is in the world but not of the world – qualities which are sympathetically brought out in these performances by one of New Zealand’s leading chamber ensembles, NZTrio.
Head of Composition at the Melbourne Conservatorium, Greenbaum has written opera, choral, orchestral, chamber and solo instrumental music. This new recording features eight works exploring the latter two genres from between 1999 and 2011. The title work, 800 Million Heartbeats, takes the nominal number of heartbeats in a human life as a metaphor for life’s journey. Falling by Degrees explores gravity and falling in seven miniatures. Equator Loops and Lunar Orbit are for solo piano and cello respectively, while The Lake and the Hinterland and Scarborough Variations combine both instruments. The Year Without A Summer takes the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora as its subject.
Greenbaum says his music “aims to evoke an atmosphere apart from the routine of modern life”. But by drawing on familiar styles such as blues, pop and jazz, his music celebrates modern life in all its forms. It simply jettisons the routine. Thus 800 Million Heartbeats tells the story of our lives through soaring string melodies singing over the steady pulse of piano figurations. In Falling by Degrees, ghostly harmonics, agitated pizzicatos and deliberately naïve descending scales through up images as diverse as snow, parachutes, anchors and the Stock Market through expressive abstraction.
NZTrio’s passionate interest in contemporary and world music makes them the ideal interpreters for Greenbaum’s eclectic music. They don’t disappoint in a series of works which deftly juggle particulars and universals.
Will Yeoman – Limelight Magazine, 7 November 2013
Fascinating, creative and accessible
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The latest release by acclaimed Australian composer Stuart Greenbaum is fascinating, creative and accessible. The first and titular track refers to the curious fact that the lifespan of many living creatures lasts for about 800 million heartbeats. The second, Falling by Degrees is about gravity and how it affects various objects from meteors to apples as well as more figurative senses of falling such as nightfall and falling stock markets. This CD reveals Greenbaum’s extraordinary talent as a composer who synthesizes a fountain of innovative ideas that intrigue and captivate the listener. He creates a truly Australian sound using an eclectic fusion of influences from jazz and pop to baroque.
Greenbaum, the head of composition at the University of Melbourne, collaborates with NZTrio whose interpretation of these modern Australian pieces is faultless and effective. The dynamic group of young performers is vital and pioneering, combining old and new music and working with local and international artists across diverse genres. 800 Million Heartbeats is an important addition to Australian music and a fresh and essential album for lovers of fine music. The final track is fittingly titled Book of Departures and Greenbaum notes that “Departure’ is an interesting word. It can denote sadness and nostalgia – but it can equally refer to the outset of exciting new journeys, and in my mind this piece attempts to address both meanings.
Claire Hu – Fine Music Magazine (Sydney), November 2013
These mystical heartbeats are mesmerising
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Science and geography form a compatible union in this music by Australian composer Stuart Greenbaum performed by New Zealand musicians Justine Cormack (violin), Ashley Brown (cello) and Sarah Watkins (piano). The title track sets the scene as NZTrio make a gentle passage through rhythmical patterns representing various life pulses, including the estimated 800,000 heartbeats in the lifespan of a hummingbird. Humans need many more for a long life, Greenbaum notes. This is an ingenious exercise linking musical form with cosmic realities. Greenbaum’s PhD thesis exploring Arvo Part’s Te Deum says it all about the minimalist compositional techniques he incorporates to give new dimensions to natural phenomena represented in pieces such as Equator Loops, A Year Without a Summer (inspired by an 1815 Indonesian volcanic eruption), Lunar Orbit, gravity-inspired movements of Falling by Degrees and Stockmarket, portrayed in 74 seconds. These mystical heartbeats are mesmerising.
Patricia Kelly – Queensland Courier Mail, 7 September 2013
NZTrio masters of the musical mix
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Musicians’ Chinese collaboration explores versatility of strings.
NZTrio wrapped up their latest Lardelli commission, Between Strings, within two fragrant specimens of romantic chamber music.
Beyond the windows of Q Theatre’s Loft, the city was obligingly quiescent on this Sunday evening, the flickering blue and red light of a police car just a momentary distraction during the second concert in NZTrio’s Loft series.
Once again these musicians affirmed their status as masters of the musical mix, wrapping their latest commission, Dylan Lardelli’s Between Strings, within two fragrant specimens of romantic chamber music.
Amy Beach’s 1938 Piano Trio would have been old-fashioned in its time. However, its meld of misty impressionism, lushly woven textures and Gaelic hoe-down, all gathered together from older material, is the American composer at her best. It was given a lovely rendering. In the first movement, Sarah Watkins provided the sheen, while Justine Cormack and Ashley Brown engaged in delicately poised dialogue, heightened by the occasional flirtatious portamento.
The new Lardelli work was a collaborative venture, enlisting Xiyao Chen on the guzheng, or Chinese zither. Yao introduced himself by enchanting us with two solos on a traditionally tuned instrument. One was an ethereal folksong, with a soupcon of Oriental blues in its wispy bent notes; the other was the spirited Celebrating the Lantern Festival, by Yao’s grandfather Cao Dongfu, letting loose with some bold dramatic gestures. Moving to a second, specially tuned guzheng, Yao joined NZTrio in Lardelli’s exhaustive and fascinating exploration of the sonic possibilities of four string instruments.
A complex score (with three pages of instructions) made for a beguiling soundscape. Much was whispered, often ingeniously in harmonics, with perhaps some secrets left undivulged. Yet, in scale and sonorities, this was an exquisitely crafted rapprochement of East and West.
These musicians included Arensky’s First Piano Trio in a concert nine years ago, marking the group’s residency with Auckland University’s School of Music. NZTrio has been an independent entity for some years now, and on the night the confidence and sheer thrust in tackling this Russian score compelled, even if a slight edge occasionally crept into the string tone.
William Dart – New Zealand Herald, 3 Sept 2013
NZTrio at the City Art Gallery with the typically multifaceted programme
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Against the background of Shane Cotton’s huge canvases depicting Maori heads and related images, the NZ Trio projected a distinctly more civilized impression. The lighting was vivid white, like the walls, and the air-conditioning, offering a hush that not inappropriately suggested a calm sea voyage, here, in one of the world’s most climatically dramatic capitals.
But the opening piece, by 47-year-old Australian Stuart Greenbaum, spoke nothing of the elements, nothing of the fractionated style of the new avant-garde (which was more emphatically represented by Samuel Holloway’s piece that followed). The title is taken from the notion that life can be measured by heartbeats; a normal life would be accompanied by far more than 800 million heartbeats, perhaps four times as many, but the composer remarks than the ‘actual figure is only nominal’; perhaps ‘artbitrary’ would be a better word.
It opened with quiet, rolling arpeggios on the piano, becoming a steady, quiet ostinato, varied as pianist Sarah Watkins, occasionally leaning into the piano, passed her fingers softly across the piano strings. Violin and cello added faster figurations but did not disturb the basic tempo. The music is unassertive, and gently romantic in character. Listening to music that is new to me, influences usually suggest themselves. The first to occur to me was fellow Australian Ross Edwards, whose humanly lyrical music is attractive and embracing; then there’s American George Rochberg who exiled himself from the then orthodoxy with his rejection of the avant-garde; and various minimalist composers such as the Latvian Georgs Pelecis whose Nevertheless is no doubt somewhat scorned by those of a more rigorous turn of mind.
There was a slow increase of intensity but not of tempo, assisted by canonic treatment, as a modest climax emerged. The trio has just laid down a recording of several of Greenbaum’s pieces, including this one.
Rather more challenging for players and audience was Samuel Holloway’s Stapes. Again, the programme note elucidates: ‘The Stapes (stirrup) in the smallest in the chain of three bones that transmit vibrations from the eardrum to the internal ear’. And it goes on to explain that ‘the players work both together and against each other, in individual and collective struggles for articulacy’.
Thus the sounds are inchoate pizzicati, rumbling tremolo in the piano, whispy harmonics and slithering glissandi that deal in microtones. There’s a ferocious, out-of-control triple forte that sounds like bees swarming; instruments get in each-other’s way, some kind of simulation of what might happen in the ear as chaotic sound get sense imposed on its journey through the ear’s machinery.
But take away the programme, I wondered, and how does the music rate? A great deal of today’s music seeks out esoteric concepts, images: non-musical things that might have sounds grafted on to them, but do they please, delight, satisfy through sounds that human beings of today, even with the varied backgrounds that inform musical experiences of an era when more music of all sorts can be heard every hour of every day that before in history.
While admiring its imaginative sounds and the structures, often with some difficulty, I risk writing what I deplore in others – that further hearings might bring rewards, as I implied in my review of Holloway’s quartet played in Chamber Music New Zealand’s Einstein’s Universe concert in July.
The source of Psathas’s year-old Corybas lies closer to the sort of story or image that the average, reasonably experienced and broadminded musical listener can grasp. The fact that the rhythm was eleven beats to the bar was really of esoteric interest, as fitful attempts to count tended, at least for me, to hear a series of shorter, either three or four beats each. The more interesting and expressive aspect was the varied rhythms, hinting incongruously at tango (it’s based on Greek myth).
Psathas is fortunate in being able to draw on a mythology that was fairly familiar to the moderately well-educated till around the 1960s when the exposure of children to the classical languages, to English and other literatures, began to be banished from school curricula. So that references such as Psathas makes to Jason (Ioson) and Cybele demand recourse to Wikipedia just as most other historical references now do.
However, the music stands on its own feet without any background. It’s arresting and infectious, there are melodies that invite themselves into the musical compendium of the mind. The way the three instruments share the ideas is interesting and allow of being followed, and in often novel ways, a degree of excitement builds up: strings take a turn at handing a syncopated melody while the piano persists with repeated chords that don’t change or accelerate but rise to a pitch and then drops satisfyingly to end with a scrap of an earlier phrase.
Arensky’s well-known Piano Trio was one of the popular pieces played by the short-lived but gifted Turnovsky Trio in the 1990s. It remains one of the few substantial works by Arensky that is much played. It was popular with the Turnovsky Trio for the same reason, I guess, that the NZ Trio likes to programme it. Melodic, well-made, it finds a way to communicate emotion, here in the form of an elegy in memory of a cellist friend, Karl Davidov (whom Tchaikovsky called the ‘tsar of cellists’. His Stradivarius cello was later owned by Jacqueline du Pré and now by Yo Yo Ma).
The trio played it with unusual power, the cello vibrant with feeling, the violin driving hard, and the piano sustaining a legato and coherent foundation as well as making pungent exclamations. Though this is an example of the arch-romantic in music, an abstract intellectualism was never far away; and this was the sort of performance that lifts a work not of the masterpiece class to a level that demands attention as a serious postulant at the highest of Dante’s circles.
Lindis Taylor – Middle C, 27 Aug 2013
This music spoke more than ever from the heart
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NZTrio appears to have claimed the welcoming space of Q Theatre’s Loft as its Auckland home, enabling Justine Cormack, Ashley Brown and Sarah Watkins to play to a capacity audience while retaining the friendliness of a house concert.
On Sunday, the first of its Loft series set off with a rarity – a 1921 Trio by English composer Rebecca Clarke. If not a New Zealand premiere, then certainly this was probably a first hearing for most in the room. Although Clarke was settled in the United States at the time, there is something ineffably English in this score’s carefully manicured lines, admitting a dash of Celtic lyricism and the occasional Debussian wash. Only in the final movement does one sense strain as Clarke ventures into tougher territory with what comes across as a rumbustious reel. It could not have had a more sympathetic performance than the one we experienced. There was much enjoyment from watching Watkins luxuriating in rhapsodical piano writing and listening in to the many conversational exchanges between the strings, at their most tender in the idyllic second movement.
Psathas’ Corybas is as far from an idyll as one could imagine, inspired by the Greek mythological figure associated with a particular brand of Aegean wildness – an image that might seem ready made for this composer’s house style. Brown warned us of “quite complicated rhythms” – an understatement for the expertly manoeuvred twists and turns in the middle section. If Watkins’ piano groove tended to dominate, there were subtler rewards in the string relationships around it, although the work does not equal the stature of Psathas’ earlier Helix, which the musicians premiered six years ago.
NZTrio has lived with Shostakovich’s E minor Trio for some years now, a relationship accentuated in the intimacy of this setting. From Cormack and Brown’s hushed opening lines to those implacable piano chords that fuel its heartrending Largo, this music spoke more than ever from the heart.
This concert was quite a journey at well over an hour – 75 minutes allowing for a slightly late start. Even a 10-minute break before the Shostakovich would have been welcome.
William Dart – New Zealand Herald, 16 July 2013
Magnificent music making
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NZTrio performed an excellent concert, with repertoire that traversed the divide between the old world and the new world; between Western classical music and Oriental classical and folk music.
Korngold’s late romantic work, the Piano Trio Op 1 was well-balanced with the multi-faceted textures successfully portrayed where Justine Cormack exploited the light and shade with lovely string hues with Sarah Watkins’ sympathetic piano colours. The scherzo was humorous; the larghetto was soulful and tender and the finale, allegro molto e energico was expansive and vital.
Claire Cowan’s Subtle Dances was imaginative and deeply rewarding with a witty and very rhythmic tango and the third movement used minimalist techniques to great effect.
Bright Sheng’s Four Movements for Piano Trio was a breath of fresh air with the oriental tonal tradition coming to the fore. Based on traditional Chinese folk songs, this provided a different harmonic palette with a liberating effect, being more spacious. The third movement was fast and frantic while the final short nostalgia floated with ethereal simplicity; beautiful.
In Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No 2 in E minor Op 67 the opening andante, an incredibly difficult passage on the cello; all harmonics was where Ashley Brown set the scene for the performance; icily breathtaking. The dance allegro con brio was frenzied and full of vitality. In the largo, Watkins’s chord playing on the piano was expressively weighted and soulful. The dark, slow, and sombre melodic lines for violin and cello were poetic. The final allegretto – adagio or ‘Dance of Death’ movement, which introduced a Jewish melody, was powerful with the final major chord being both torturous and almost inaudibly full of hope. Magnificent music making!
Andrew Buchanan-Smart – Waikato Times, 16 May 2013
Energy and vitality elevate old and new
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NZTrio (Justine Cormack – violin, Ashley Brown – cello and Sarah Watkins – piano) have made a name for themselves exploring a wide variety of contemporary works, often commissioned for them, alongside established works on the recital platform. So it was with yesterday’s concert, where we were treated to new works by Bright Sheng (China), Ellen Zwilich (USA) and Claire Cowan (NZ), with a rarely heard piano trio by Tchaikovsky completing the programme.
The first half made for fascinating listening. Sheng’s Four Movements for Piano Trio were short but reflected their Chinese origins, Cowan’s Subtle Dances showed some clever rhythmic work mixed with a purple bit of cool blues, while Zwilich’s Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello, the most substantial work in the programme so far was dramatic, intense and definitely one to be experienced live. NZTrio performed the works with great panache and style, acute ensemble awareness and a great empathy with their music, in a performance characterised by sheer energy and vitality.
Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor is a monumental work, filled with despair at the death of his friend Arthur Rubenstein. It is gloriously lush, building to a bravura finale. It was another excellent performance from the trio, providing a deeply satisfying concert.
Stephen Fisher – Manawatu Standard, 13 May 2013
NZTrio's Old World: New World
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The modern came first in NZTrio’s Old World: New World concert. The Auckland Town Hall seemed stadium-like for those of us accustomed to this group in more intimate surroundings; sometimes one craned forward to catch the hushed sonorities of Bright Sheng’s Four Movements for Piano Trio. The three players responded sensitively to Sheng’s exotic world, especially in the third movement, when Ashley Brown’s cello, perfectly replicating a Chinese flute, was subsumed in a toccata of unabated fury.
Claire Cowan’s new commission, Subtle Dances, is a work of admirable lightness and humour, well caught in performance. After some witty “false starts”, the first movement set up a Latin groove, cleverly caught on strings and providing a rustling backdrop for Sarah Watkins’ piquant piano lines. The jazz-tinged slow movement needed a smaller hall, but was a stepping-stone to another toccata.
I have yet to be convinced by the eclectic voice of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, and NZTrio’s engaged and purposeful account of the American composer’s Piano Trio did not convert me. But the musicians were as persuasive as one could wish in a sinewy score, too ostentatious in its motivic play and revealing a heart only in the dark tones of its slow movement.
After interval, Watkins introduced Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio as one of the ultimate challenges in their repertoire. This score is dominated by the piano, and it was even more so in this setting. Not enough string detail came through against Watkins’ magnificent chords. The highlight came in the variations of the second movement, based on a theme that has always reminded me of the Maori lullaby Hine e Hine. Tchaikovsky’s most imaginative and vivid writing received its full dues, twisting the tune from pizzicato scherzo, fugue and mazurka to a waltz that could have floated into Swan Lake.
William Dart – New Zealand Herald, 10 May 2013
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The newly refurbished Glenroy Auditorium provided the perfect backdrop for the brilliance of touring piano trio NZTrio last Friday night.
Touring with Chamber Music New Zealand, NZTrio presented an “Old World: New World” programme, contrasting the brightness and eclectic feel of a series of modern works with the rich, emotional melodies of Tchaikovsky’s Trio in A Minor. The relaxed style and virtuosity of NZTrio’s players, Justine Cormack (violin), Sarah Watkins (piano), and Ashley Brown (cello), kept the audience spellbound.
Launching the modern, first half of the programme was Bright Sheng’s evocative Four Movements for Piano Trio, which transported the audience to the East. Melding the concepts of Oriental classical and folk music with Western classical music, the work was joyful, energetic and captivating in NZTrio’s expert hands.
Playful experimentation was to the fore in the delightful Subtle Dances by young New Zealand composer Claire Cowan. Coaxing extraordinary sounds from their instruments, NZTrio swung easily into the piece’s complex, jazzy rhythm, to the audience’s delight.
The final modern work, by American composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello, explored the contrast between the piano and the violin and cello, creating a kind of dialogue.
By contrast, the concert’s second half featured the lush, epic Trio in A Minor by Tchaikovsky – a complex work requiring virtuosic performances. Not only was NZTrio’s performance technically brilliant, it also gave the work the impassioned, emotional interpretation it deserved.
Brenda Harwood – The Star (Dunedin), 9 May 2013
NZTrio's 'voyage' delights
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This was simply an outstanding evening of music. We were taken on a rich cultural musical tour from composers as far ranging as Russia in 1881 to New Zealand in 2013. In between were China and America in the 1980.
The young and lively members of NZTrio imbued this diverse repertoire with their energy and enthusiasm while never losing sight of the power of working as a single unit to produce brilliant sounds. Justine Cormack on violin, Ashley Brown on cello and Sarah Watkins on piano presented this eclectic and magnetic music to a very responsive audience.
The performance began with Four Movements for Piano Trio by Chinese composer Bright Sheng, often referred to as the “Chinese Bartok”. Based on musical material from both Oriental classical and folk music and Western classical music, it was clear from the opening bars this would evoke images of ancient China. The players appeared to hover over their instruments to produce light and fragile sounds. There were beautifully sustained cello notes and soft rippling piano chords.
Subtle Dances was commissioned this year by NZTrio from young New Zealand composer Claire Cowan. It was surprisingly easy to listen to; this music had a jazz-like quality, the sort you would hear in smoky nightclubs, sultry tangos, groovy slow dances and rhythmic playful lines.
The first half finished with Trio for Piano Violin and Cello by Ellen Zwilich, a popular contemporary American composer and the playing just got better. This was a sparkling, effervescent performance where each instrument had a solo turn but where ultimately it was a partnership.
This partnership was no more obvious than in the second half which was the full 40 minutes of the great Tchaikovsky Piano Trio opus 50. NZTrio asked the audience to sit back and luxuriate and we did. A fiendishly difficult piano part did not appear to daunt Sarah Watkins. Her small frame belied her strength and power. Her playing was rich and romantic and full of passion. Her partners equally demonstrated their depth of understanding of this music. This was fine, accomplished playing from all three performers.
Ruth Allison – Nelson Mail, 5 May 2013
Rapturous applause for brilliant programme
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A brilliant programme was vigorously applauded by a capacity audience at the newly refurbished Glenroy Auditorium yesterday.
True to their reputation, the NZTrio represented works from the 20th and 21st centuries balanced as it were by one work from the late 19th century. While this might suggest that the second half smoothed the rough edges of the first, this was far from true or necessary.
Tchaikovsky’s long Piano Trio, composed in 1882, is wrung from simple melodies used initially as question and answer and finally after a series of variations to create a grand unison. Given a strong, dazzling, fiery and light interpretation, particularly from the pianist Sarah Watkins, it left the audience overawed at the closing reference to the Chopin Funeral March. Bravo.
The first half of the evening was equally enrapturing. Bright Sheng’s Four Movements for Piano Trio relays his native Chinese musical tongue via this Western media with amazing verity. Notes slide, melodies ring out from single tones, harmonics create a sense of distance, while the infectiously rhythmic percussive use the bodies of the instruments provided a fourth dimension. Wonderful.
Aucklander Claire Cowan’s Subtle Dances took the audience through a delightfully eclectic musical world tour with snatches of Piazzolla, the gravity of Shostakovich melded with earthy blues and Reich’s hypnotic rhythmic shifts. It is a measure of her talent that she achieves these allusions while creating a voice of her own.
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, a pupil of Roger Sessions and Elliott Carter, allows her Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello to talk to the audience while retaining her obvious allegiance to the European avant-garde. There is also perhaps a nod in Shostakovich’s direction. NZTrio gave the Zwilich work its New Zealand premiere calling attention to its chilling discords and highlighting its emotional swirling from the furious to the sweet. All four works, interpreted with compelling strength, connected well with an audience grateful to hear a programme nearly replete with contemporary works.
Marion Poole – Otago Daily Times, 4 May 2013
Convergence by NZTrio
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NZTrio could easily, un-facetiously be dubbed the rockstars of the New Zealand classical music scene. It’s not just that Justine Cormack (violin), Ashley Brown (cello) and Sarah Watkins (piano) are eminently marketable bright young things dressed by World that earns them this plaudit: they are one of New Zealand’s top chamber groups that offers audiences some of this country’s most adventurous programming, as well as being fierce exponents of new and New Zealand music.
This programme, entitled ‘Convergence’, comprised works by both contemporary Chinese and New Zealand composers, featuring taonga puoro (traditional Maori instruments) in addition to the regular piano trio lineup. In their post-concert talk, the trio described the programme as a way for letting two different cultures take a few steps towards each other. Such a statement begs the question of whether those steps can be trodden without using compromise as a stepping-stone – and whether such compromise should be regarded as an abandonment and ‘selling out’ of cultural authenticity, or whether it can spawn new and intriguing musical possibilities.
Any work which seeks to blend Western instruments with taonga puoro immediately runs up against the challenge of the massively different sound-worlds they inhabit. Many taonga puoro can be quite soft, and their beauty stems from subtle shifting of sonic nuances; it’s the kind of music that makes you focus an aural microscope on very delicately spun sound. By contrast, Western instruments have been carefully engineered over centuries to make a lot of sustained noise. So the fight is somewhat fixed, and it takes a great deal of sensitivity on the part of performer and composer to successfully blend the two.
The first piece on the programme was by New Zealand composer Gareth Farr: a busy and well-known composer thanks to his ‘Drum Drag’ alter-ego Lilith Lacroix, and his popular orchestral works such as From The Depths Sound the Great Sea Gongs. Farr’s piece in this programme, Nga Kete e Toru, featured performances from legendary authority on taonga puoro Dr. Richard Nunns, as well as internationally acclaimed taonga puoro player Horomona Horo.
I was not convinced that Farr’s marriage of Maori and Western instruments was an entirely happy one in this work. The piece took its structure and content from the eponymous myth of Tane’s quest for the three baskets of knowledge; but it felt like the piano trio told the story by chugging along through somewhat generic, quasi-cinematic musical language, while the taonga puoro were episodically showcased as if on display in glass vitrines. The stubbornly rooted Western musical language did not seem to go out of its way to side-step towards its Maori counterpart.
At the heart of the concert were two works by Chinese-born composers: firstly, Su Xie Si Ti (Four Sketches) by Gao Ping, now based in New Zealand as a lecturer in composition at Canterbury University. Of these vivid, concise sketches, the most memorable was the third, ‘Counterpoint’, which Gao based on a memory of a village funeral procession in rural China. A plaintive cello played a keening lament alongside the heavy-footed procession of sonorous piano chords, while offstage the violin played an incongruously chirpy tune, making the onstage drama seem even more pitiable.
Chen Yi is a significant living composer, as one of the best-known Chinese composers in the West (now based in the States). In her piece Tibetan Tunes, the trio did a fine job of evoking the silvery timbre of the erhu, the Chinese fiddle. The violin and cello spun a nimbly ornamented melody reminiscent of Tibetan folk music, while the piano’s spacious, rugged arpeggios seemed to evoke something of Tibet’s vast lunar landscape in contrast to the domestic intimacy of the folk instruments.
New Zealand composer Victoria Kelly’s offering to the programme, Toi Huawera/Suspended Way was a more thoughtful approach to the blending of Western and Maori instruments, as evidenced by the comprehensive programme note and short film which elucidated her working process: a close collaboration with both the trio and with Horomona Horo.
Within a generally sparse and delicate texture, we were at liberty to enjoy the richly colourful sounds of both the taonga puoro and the unusual noises of the piano trio which beautifully complemented the array of Maori instruments. Sometimes the trio writing imitated the sounds of the taonga puoro, although the relationship between the two moved beyond mere mimicry and developed sounds and textures that were greater than the sum of their parts.
With a varied programme whose works exhibited numerous aesthetic approaches to the notion of cultural ‘Convergence’, this concert had the potential to be a provocative exploration of the complex contradictions that arise from this ultimately unanswerable question of how two cultures can ‘take a few steps towards each other’. Yet neither the programme notes nor the post-concert talk explicitly addressed this, and potential controversy was swept under the carpet rather than grappled with. Although it was disappointing to not hear more from the artists’ perspectives on these issues, the vibrant and outstanding musical performances of the NZTrio, Richard Nunns and Horomona Horo showcased the works on the programme in their best possible light, leaving the audience to linger alone over the many unanswered questions which the concert raised.
Celeste Oram – Craccum Magazine: The University of Auckland Student Magazine, 15 April 2013
Memorial to Pol Pot victims – Ian Dando, The Listener
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Of these four memorials to those two million tortured and killed in Pol Pot’s horrendous Khmer Rouge genocide, Jack Body’s eight-movement suite of transcriptions, O Cambodia, is the most uncompromising. It delves the deepest into Cambodian folk music, meaning many may flinch at the unfamiliarity of the sounds. Folklore is the deepest musical core of a country’s spirituality and Body’s piece is a linchpin.
In memoriam, by Cambodian Chinary Ung (now a US citizen), has a deep motive development of a bass line peppered with vocalisations in chant, whistling and speaking. As form and materials are one, the result is deep tragedy encased in clear and cogent structural unity. It doesn’t surprise me the prestigious international Grawemeyer Award – the composers’ Nobel equivalent – sits among Ung’s numerous prizes.
In The First Strike, Him Sophy’s confrontation with cruelty is even more direct. It is inspired by his experience at 13 of sowing in the rice field when a Khmer Rouge security guard savagely beat a man with a heavy stick.
Gillian Whitehead’s conciliatory the river flows on traces the life of Sokha Mey, from her Khmer Rouge days to her current settlement in Wellington. Whitehead avoids hyped happiness and depicts Sokha’s inner peace and retention of Cambodian identity in a touching final flute solo with simple and direct truth.
Great work, NZTrio. Wayne Laird of the Atoll label? You’ve got guts, man.
Ian Dando – The Listener, 15 April 2013
Highlight of the festival
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I’m a completely biased fan of these three musicians. Biased because I’ve had the pleasure of working with them before, and have spent the last month writing a new work for them. But nonetheless, I’m going to spend the next few paragraphs singing their praises for their last concert – Convergence, featuring two NZ works for trio and Taonga Puoro (Maori instruments), and two other works by contemporary composers with distinctly cultural/folk inspired sounds.
The show was performed at the Town Hall Concert Chamber on the last night of the festival, which was theatrically lit with a wash of vibrant color on the back wall. The performers were in semi-darkness and had music stand lamps. I appreciate the effort they made to address visual aspect of their performance, too often overlooked by classical performers. It helped add to the mood and magic of the sounds they created.
As the performers entered the stage, pianist Sarah Watkins helped a frail Richard Nunns (grandaddy and master of Taonga Puoro) onto the stage to loud applause. The program began with Gareth Farr’s re-worked Nga Kete e Toru, featuring an extra Taonga puoro player, Horomona Horo. Spellbinding from start to finish, the mix of western instruments with Maori was beautifully crafted – from delicate overtones and whistled notes from Richard’s flutes, to subtle pitch bending and gentle harmonics to compliment the unearthly tones of bone flutes, contrasted by rhythmical outbursts from the trio in typical Farr manner.
The next two works on the program from Gao Ping Four sketches and Chen Yi Tibetan tunes. Both of Chinese descent, evoked vivid and lush soundscapes of their native China. Instantly we were transported to the composer’s homeland, where we heard evocations of Chinese folk instruments, busy market places, and ethereal cloudscapes (in a beautiful movement of Gao’s using only harmonics.) I marvel at the subtle changes to technique each player makes to make their western instruments sound more Asian folk than European classical. It is through their skillful use of articulation, vibrato and bowing that changes the tone completely.
The last work on the program, the world premiere of commissioned Victoria Kelly’s Toi Huawera (Suspended Way) was preceded by an insightful video documentary of the trio rehearsing and collaborating with the composer. We gained an insight into her compositional process and the themes and concept behind the finished work. Based on a myth invented by the composer, the structure of the piece was decided by story rather than any sort of imposed musical structure. The piece began with a sort of Maori jaws harp – the player tapping on a stick half held in the mouth and using the mouth as a resonator to change the pitch. The trio joined in with woody sounds, col legno (using the wood of the bow rather than the hair.)
Horomona Horo was fascinating to watch and a skillful musician and performer who seemed very comfortable on stage. The trio imitated and blended in with the Maori instruments, whooping cello pizzicato like a bull-roarer, then husky and low like a blown gourd. As Victoria explained in the video documentary, every sound created on every instrument has a meaning associated with a character from the myth she created. And at the core of the myth is a love story, and an appreciation for our Whakapapa which she thinks of as ‘pathways that lead everyone and everything back to the place where we all began.” The title is elaborated on with this description “A way to reach the highest level of heaven – sometimes described as a web that hangs down from the heavens..sometimes described as a whirlwind path.”
Applied musically, this is a rather beautiful metaphor. As the weaver of the web, Victoria created a rich and delicately complicated tapestry of sound. The ethereal piece had a deeply spiritual and profound appreciation for this concept at the heart of traditional Maori belief system – a system which Kelly notes, is found in western culture, but “articulated differently.” Her fascination with this mystery of life and death and ”Te Arai” (the veil that separates us from our ancestors) is an inspiring place for her to source her sound world. The Taonga Puoro themselves each uniquely possess a spiritual guardian and association with various Atua (Gods) of the materials from which they’re made. Being a non-Maori composer, Kelly sought advice and guidance from collaborator and Maori consultant Tim Worrall. It was refreshing to see such a strong, inspiring, and mutually respectful collaboration between all the artists of differing musical and cultural backgrounds. Sonically, it paid off.
The audience would have been spellbound throughout the 20 minute long work, had they not been sitting for an hour by this time, and were starting to get a bit restless. It would have been nice to experience this piece with the fresh ears it deserved. Nonetheless by the end of the show there was no doubt we had witnessed some of NZ’s greatest composers and performers at the top of their game. The integrity and skill of both composers and performers was highly admirable, the music fresh and original, and for me, the show was the highlight of the festival.
Claire Cowan – The Big Idea, 27 March 2013
Collaboration produces exquisite results
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Narrative works combining Maori and Western instruments bookend lively Asian offerings.
There was more than one tale to be told in NZTrio’s Convergence concert on Sunday, particularly by the featured New Zealand composers. A new version of Gareth Farr’s 2009 Nga Kete e Toru enlisted Horomona Horo to add a second strand of taonga puoro alongside Richard Nunns.
The task of tracking the ascent of Tane to the 12th heaven lent Farr’s score a generous span. An effective tryst of glassy string harmonics with quavering pumotomoto tawhirirangi, woven around Sarah Watkins’ chiming piano, was the first of many keenly etched sonorities. An eerie dialogue between Nunns’ flute and Justine Cormack’s ghostly violin scales was one; another had pumotomoto toroa bravely adding its song to the dashing romantic melody of the title movement. Only occasionally, as when conch calls floated through one of Farr’s surging toccatas, did the coming together lack conviction.
At the other end of the evening, Victoria Kelly’s new Toi Huarewa/Suspended Way also pursued a mythic narrative. The piece’s collaborative origins were stressed – both Horo and adviser Tim Worrall being given their dues in a short documentary screened before the performance. There was certainly a creative communion here, although at times the restricted voices of the Maori instruments struggled to compete with the timbral richness and language of their Western counterparts. Both, alas, had to deal with the irritation of creaking chairs and the occasional clatter of plastic cups. Watkins delivered the cool, shapely harmonies that Kelly knows so well. And one of the work’s many imaginative touches had Cormack and Ashley Brown’s string lines being bent as if they were sonic elastic.
In between Farr and Kelly, NZTrio played two shorter works by Chinese composers Gao Ping and Chen Yi. Gao’s Four Sketches, commissioned by NZTrio four years ago, teemed with character and incident. The players took to the opening movement with almost terrifying gusto and, tuning into the cultural counterpoint of the third, Brown’s venturesome cello left the constraints of Western tonality far behind.
Chen’s Tibetan Tunes also showed folkish high spirits, although the high point was its more fragile, reflective voice, exquisitely rendered.
William Dart – New Zealand Herald, 26 March 2013
NZTrio perform with passion – and fun
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Thoroughly enjoyed by a good-size audience, light and lovely music was served up at lunchtime this sunny festival day.
It was to be a fun concert, the dress of the NZ Trio, Watkins wearing her trademark boots and a shirt featuring a huge pair of lips, Cormack a tshirt emblazoned with an enormous eye and Brown in casual black, made that very clear.
Having been together for well over a decade, the understanding between them is clear and they play as one. Their carefully chosen programme took us from the late 19th century to the end of the 20th, starting with the Piano Trio in G major from a teenaged Debussy, on to Gareth Farr’s 1998 piece Ahi, and finally to Paul Schoenfield’s Cafe Music written in 1986.
It was intriguing to hear this very early piece from Debussy, sort of from his chrysalis stage before he became a beautiful butterfly. It is very pretty music with lovely melodies, the first movement, Andantino con moto allegro, introduced by the violin, taken up by the cello then together ornamenting the motif while the piano took over the melody. Again, in the 3rd movement, Andante espressivo, there is a luscious melody and the Finale-Appassionato ends with a flourish.
Gareth Farr’s Ahi (Fire) is written in four movements. Starting with a solo on piano, the strings echoing the melody, the first movement Semplice ma espressivo is instantly appealing; enter the fire in Scherzo with loud and intense plucking of the violin and cello, syncopation from the piano – and an abrupt, somewhat startling end. A tender and beautiful slow movement aptly called Interlude follows then an amazing tangle of sound and the intro theme reappears, strengthened and powerful.
Throughout the trio played with suitable passion, the audience really appreciating the opportunity to listen to such an approachable work from a contemporary New Zealand composer.
It was, however, Cafe Music, that gave this concert its whoopee-wow factor. From the fast, slow, fast light hearted and joyful ragtime start of the Allegro, with a wonderful sense of humour in the music, we were in awe at the adaptability of these classical musicians.
They really put the swing into swing!
An absolute switch of mood came with the Rubato, a paraphrased Jewish folk song, when the violin then the cello, then the two stringed instruments together, backed by the piano, eloquently played this poignant melody. It was heartrending and beautiful.
The final movement, Presto, again featured fast syncopation, humour and fun. It would have been a challenge to play, especially for Watkins, who bounced through triumphantly. This was a fabulous afternoon.
Gail Tresidder – Nelson Mail, 8 Feb 2013
What NZTrio audience members said in 2011
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The full list of comments:
What a superb concert!!! The rich, full sound, the immaculate ensemble playing, the variety in the programme and the zest of the players were an absolute joy.
Wonderful varied programme, superb musicians. Thanks!
Stunning – Loved the way you engaged equally with all composers…from delicacy to power.
Very vibrant, enthusiastic and musically alive. Great range of pieces with huge projection.
Programme exceptional and great to see musicians so enjoying themselves.
Wonderful music making, performed beautifully. A stimulating afternoon’s music. Thank you.
Great fun!! So good to hear new compositions by young composers. Well done. PS. Come to London 🙂
Lively, Enjoyable. Skilled. Thank you.
Out of this world.
AMAZING!! Thank you so much x
Totally outstanding! Loved every second.
Fantastic as always!
Magnificent. Great interaction!
Fantastic. It is a privilege to be at this concert. Many thanks!
Great variety of modern and traditional classical music. Appealed to young and old.
NZTrio audience – via 2011 concert feedback forms