Dramatic Skies: Stratus

Performed with breathtaking poise then abandon.


– Clare Martin, NZ Musician

NZTrio launched their 2021 series Dramatic Skies at the Concert Chamber of Auckland’s Town Hall on Sunday April 18 with a programme that was bursting with colour. Stratus is the first of three concerts of a cloud theme, but the evening was very far from being overcast or grey.

Two works by New Zealand composers were at the centre of the evening – Claire Cowan’s Ultra Violet and a new commission in Reuben de Lautour’s An Auscultation of Water. As respected ambassadors of contemporary classical music from Aotearoa,  NZTrio has proudly showcased at least one local composition in every concert throughout its 17-year history.

Claire Cowan’s Ultra Violet was originally commissioned by NZTrio and Chamber Music NZ in 2015. It seems we are hearing a lot of Cowan recently – her astonishing score for Royal NZ Ballet’s Hansel and Gretel, her Blackbird Ensemble with its Björk re-inventions, and most recently, NZTrio’s performance of Cowan’s Subtle Dances with Ballet Collective Aotearoa for the Auckland Arts Festival. The latter is a brilliant work full of playfulness and pathos.

Ultra Violet described the colour of the highest frequencies of visible light known to birds and insects and few humans. Written during a journey to nine cities, there is a sense of momentum and anticipation in this piece. Beginning with ravishing ripples from all three instruments, the work opened out warmly through minimalist-type repeated phrases, gliding notes from the strings and melodic pianistic patterns drawing the listener onward. Ultimately I wished there had been more dimensions to this work. It promised many colours but really delivered a very enjoyable single musical idea and I wanted to be drawn in even deeper.

The second NZ work in the evening’s programme was the brand new commission – Reuben de Lautour’s An Auscultation of Water, literally a stethoscope to listen to all aspects of the element. From the microscopic to the macro, the interaction of molecules to the precipitation of moisture into the stratus clouds.

Not a composer with much back catalogue of chamber works, de Lautour’s previous work encompasses many electronic and sound field recordings. But this background can give a unique musical language and here were intriguing and surprising sounds. The opening expressed the turbulence of an iceberg imploding – angular and cascading. Then the poise of droplets burgeoning and scattering in a forest after heavy rain. The piano created dangerous undercurrents, strings adding dark eddies of movement. The work gave an opportunity for NZTrio to go inside these new timbres and it was an adventurous taster.

Bookending the evening were the mighty sounds of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Trio élégaique No.1 in G minor and Ernest Chausson’s Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 3. The Rachmaninoff opened our hearts and our ears with the impassioned warmth of a summer sunset. And at the finish of the evening, the opulence of Frenchman Ernest Chausson’s Piano Trio rounded off the evening in the extraordinary acoustic of Auckland’s best chamber music venue.

It is a tough job for our compositions to stand alongside such masters as Rachmaninoff, Haydn, and Josef Suk. And it was in the final work of the evening, the Chausson that gave NZTrio sufficient depth and complexity to dive with full musicianship and expression. Ashley Brown on cello, pianist Somi Kim and Amalia Hall on violin performed this work with breathtaking poise then abandon.

NZTrio take their audiences on the most quality journeys, presenting everything from Russian elegy to wild French Romanticism. And even if the contemporary Aotearoa works were not built of the same complex European architecture, our own sound comes across as fresh and authentic.

Clare Martin, NZ Musician