5 February 2013

Review: Mark Menzies with 175 East

Musgrove Theatre, Auckland
Performers: Mark Menzies, violin; Samuel Holloway, electronics and percussion; Katherine Hebley, cello; Andrew Uren, clarinets; Luca Manghi, flutes; Glenda Keam and James Gardner, percussion

Carolyn Drake

“Thank you for coming out.” Samuel Holloway’s opening greeting provided an interesting angle from which to hear the evening's offerings: with James Gardner's Queer Studies on the programme along with a number of other suggestively-titled works, one might infer an agenda of openness, of coming to grips with difficult material, and perhaps even of the sensuality of music. Whether the phrasing was intentional is moot but even so, from the outset this was a concert of bristling ideas and sensations.

The enigmatic hyperkinesis of Holloway's Management Decision-Making in Chinese Enterprises set the tone for what was a bewildering and sometimes quite strange concert event. Flicking between crisply shaped, angular episodes and highly exaggerated, almost syrupy expressiveness, Mark Menzies' violin paired with Holloway's performance – consisting of both physical gestures such as jumping, and live electronics – to present a thoroughly indecipherable language. The sensation was of watching and listening to the fascinating trajectories and inflections of a mathematically apportioned language that was nevertheless completely foreign. Menzies seemed to be having fun here: perhaps almost to the point of danger, in that the indulgent expressiveness of the improvised material often threatened to overwhelm the structure containing it.

No less enigmatic, but certainly more subtly expressed, were Holloway's aphoristic pair of Dualities. The first of the pair was a particularly concise, delicately constructed musical object; the stippled undulating of the upper and lower voices of Menzies's solo violin was skillfully woven in and out of audibility, joining together in a final elusive wispy sigh. The second piece combined rhythmically independent left and right hands to produce a taut, jittery effect. In both pieces it was not a simplistic dualism but a thoroughly dynamic interplay between elements that created tension and movement.

Between Decision-Making and Dualities, Rachael Morgan's attractively crafted Whisperings felt almost catatonically calm, with its limited harmonic and dynamic palette focusing the ear on the fine timbral gradations of flute and cello. Sadly balance was an issue here, with the dominance of the flute preventing a really satisfying blended texture.

Completing the first half was Laurence Crane's Estonia, warmly meditative and transparent, though marred by some uneven intonation in such unforgivably simple material. It was surprising that these musicians – technically excellent in many ways – at times struggled to play in tune with each other. Perhaps most contemporary aesthetic approaches provide avenues for hiding issues of intonation, but this was not such an aesthetic.

After the interval, Bryn Harrison's Five miniatures in three parts was sandwiched between two much larger, much more materially diverse works. Harrison's focus on intricate heterophonic textures through counterpoint rather than timbre provided an interesting counterbalance to the colourific world of Morgan's Whisperings in the first half. His technique of zooming in on very limited material – with each movement slower than the preceding one – revealed a fascinating jungle of seesawing lines and gradients.

Although Mark Menzies's technique and charisma as a violinist was clear throughout the evening, his compositional contribution was less successful. Ending the concert was Menzies’ like Georgie (auckland's) gardens: / uncaged music / with piwakawaka / and swongering butterfly, a protracted work that at times felt like a catalogue of violin maneuvers. The violin performance was indeed impressive, but most of the work seemed purely an exercise in virtuosity, with seven performers on stage and all but one of them woefully under-utilised.

For me the undoubted highlight of this unique, frustrating event was James Gardner's Queer Studies. These pieces swooped and hovered, sang and cackled, and generally reveled in an accomplished sense of drama and narrative. A fine attention to embellishment and the striking use of hard accents complimented the compelling structure and drew the ear to multiple layers of discourse. This was a feathery, ephemeral, sensual masterpiece, showcasing Menzies at his sensitive and satanic best.