25 February 2013

Review: After Lilburn - the music of New Zealand's gay composers.

Auckland University Music Theatre, Auckland

Performers: Mark Menzies, violin/viola; Claire Scholes, voice; Luca Manghi, flutes; Flavio Villani, piano; Justine Cormack, violin; Ashley Brown, cello; Sarah Watkins, piano; Finn Schofield, clarinet; Alex Taylor, spoken voice.

Carolyn Drake

It is good to hear a non-choral piece of David Hamilton's. After years of putting the composer in a box, one can finally take him out. Yet is it such fresh air? Slides 3 (1982) and 8 (1987) for solo flute, were the eldest pieces of the evening. The music presented two pronounced ideas: a spectral 'jet whistle' against ornamental melodic phrases, never to become homogenous although seemingly moving in that direction. The second of the two 'slides' had interesting but vague analogous relationships to the previous, yet it was a strange partner, the piece attempting to summarise a host of six other pieces we hadn't heard. Flutist Luca Manghi made an admirable performance of the pieces, and succeeded in focussing the ears of the audience, a necessary manoeuvre at the outset of any concert.

Claire Cowan's piano trio: wood : strings : hammers : flesh (2008) presented much entertainment for the evening. Aesthetically consistent and resourceful, Cowan's writing was fascinating, however compromised between stylistic regions (as alluded to in the programme notes). Pianist Sarah Watkins danced around her piano, slapping the various faces of the instrument and plucking its inner guts whilst the two string players pulsed in pizzicato beats of five. However engaging at the surface, I felt the piece floated above a less satisfying underlying structure and so failed to take me in any further.

constellations (2012), a composition for solo piano by young composer Alex Taylor contained a rather wonderful sound world of pitch geometry. Flavio Villani's fingers remained for the most part in the clear register of the piano, before finally summoning a spread of beating harmonics derived from the low keys. The result was a slow, directional piece, with complex patterns but towards the middle became stagnant, and ended far too late.

Then came the central piece of the programme. Jack Body's Meditations on Michelangelo (2008/9) was by far the most pronounced in 'gay sensibility'. Each meditation, in the form of monologues, was introduced with fragments of poetry by Michelangelo di Lodovico, then meditated by a solo piece for 'shaded' violin, shaded and coloured by the piano. The first movements were slow and dark modal monophonic lines, ornamented in various fashions of Body's Asian interests. On the fourth meditation, with the words of Michelangelo's verse to his lord: 'and he who loves you faithfully rises to God above and holds death sweet', the music became a compelling sequence of chromatic rises in major tonality. The piece continued, though for far too long, perhaps in the way that such music is easy to generate - to excess. I feel that the last movement proved, to the words 'Sleep is sweet, but better to be made of stone', the lack of subtlety in both players, and thus rather tested the patience (or fed the boredom) of audience members.

After a second entrance of applause for violinst Menzies and pianist Watkins, concert curator Samuel Holloway took the stage to announce an eight minute interval, presumably due to the concert starting at least two minutes late. And, to the disappointment of many, that there would be no wine.

Annea Lockwood's I give you back (1993), a thrilling solo piece for soprano Claire Scholes bewildered the audience in the beginning moments of the second half. At times unbearable and horrible, the poetry and the singing were constrained to a select few pitches and to repetitive phrases: 'I release you'. At a couple of points Scholes shook the rafters with extraordinary strength in her high register shrieks, as the poetry and music attempted to intimate the weird sensation of fear becoming freedom. The last word formant 'ng' of 'dying' was particularly exquisite, slowly imploding into the soprano as the sound moved to the back of her throat, and below.

Waipoua (1994), a duo for clarinet and piano by Gareth Farr, was a lower-light in the programme. Farr's pleasant use of suspended triads lent its allegiance to Pop music, but as a short piece with no direction contained nothing more than its premise - 'an exploration of the lyrical and emotional capabilities of my favorite instrument, the clarinet' - without being at all an exploration of any kind. Finn Schofield played with remarkable sensitivity, yet a few unpolished moments prevailed where the young clarinetist struggled to control the overtones over the soft ending tones.

Ben Hoadley's excessively light Winter I was (2009), a duet for flute and recited poetry, had a similar appeal to the previous piece. Short, modal/tonal, repeating, and light, there was nothing taxing about it. The musical material seemed oddly paired with poetry taken from Gregory O'Brien's Winter I Was (1992), itself a remembrance of (the gay) Cage and (the not gay) Feldman. And yet the piece, written seventeen years afterwards, with no other reason than to accompany a piece not already heard in this concert, was at the least a peculiar choice.

After these two 'interludes' was Samuel Holloway's Stapes. The title correlating to a bone of the inner ear, impressions of various sound transformations, spectra alterations, amplifications and so on, occur within the simplicity of the acoustic piano trio. The piece is evocative of a magnified and contorted tour of the inner ear. Cellist Ashley Brown and violinist Justine Cormack retained utter command in the fast passages of natural harmonics; Brown's ending solo was controlled with sensitivity, and slanted with all the implications a fade out has. One thing that strikes me about this piece is that it is often programmed without its counterparts (two other trios, both named for other parts of the inner ear), and thus floats above its context (a recurring theme this evening…).

The final piece of the evening, John Elmsly's Four Echoes for viola, contained the last articulate ties to the premise of the concert. Holloway's commentary at the top of the programme notes, suggesting that 'gay sensibilities' might be discovered in this bundle of works, specifically mentioned the relationship between composer Jack Body and Douglas Lilburn. Now in this final piece we encountered a second reference to Lilburn, a remembrance of him written in this soliloquy of four movements. Elmsly wrote for the programme 'musical shadows appeared in the work, particularly in the Lament, which is specifically in his memory'. Shadows certainly did appear: Prelude, silhouettes of Grisey's Prologue for solo viola, and throughout the work various melodic fragments much like that from Ligeti's Musica Ricercata. Not clearly Lilburn though, but the lyrical writing may have been enough of a salute to his spirit.

With many moments of great and varied music this evening one feels amazed with the sheer contribution of the queer community to New Zealand music. On reflection, I feel some voices of this community were in fact left out (apart from the titular, Lilburn himself wasn't included, along with many other strong composers such as Chris Gendall). The concert, having been advertised to both the gay community and also more generally to the public, seemed to attract a mixed audience to the university theatre; a concert of gay composers, but an experience for anyone interested in music.