30 September 2013

Guest Review: Karlheinz Company

The University of Auckland Music Theatre

Karlheinz Company: Spring Forward

Music by John Cage, Peter Scholes, John Elmsly and Jonathan Mandeno

Performers: Jennifer Maybee, soprano; Kenny Keppel, clarinet; Uwe Grodd, flute; Abigail Sperling, flute; Alex Taylor, violin; Angela Kong, violin; Rachel Grimwood, viola; Robert Drage, cello; Madeleine Lie, double bass; Laurence McFarlane, percussion; John Elmsly, conductor

Guest review: Callum Blackmore


The Karlheinz Company’s second annual offering, a daring and enriching programme aptly entitled “Spring Forward”, certainly had no lack of ‘spring’. Curated by music director John Elmsly, the buzzing Sunday afternoon audience were presented with a brilliant programme of old “new” music and new “new” music from both New Zealand and international composers, showcasing some of Auckland’s most outstanding performers.

John Cage’s 1958 “Aria” showcases the human voice at its most colourful. Notated in coloured wavy lines and black rectangles, containing texts from five different languages, this is a staple of 20th Century vocal repertoire. Veteran performer, soprano Jennifer Maybee, led the audience on a gripping exploration of the voice’s outer limits, not shying away from the most extreme forms of vocal production, from meandering pianissimo coloratura to barking fishwife. A mesmerising performer, Maybee kept us on the edge of our seats from start to finish, seamlessly transitioning between ten different vocal timbres, creating an endlessly evolving and seemingly continuous spectrum of colours. Moments of drama came in the form of the various “noisy events”, which punctuated the vocal line with various percussive interludes, including, among others, the maddened squeaking of a rubber toy, retrieved from inside the nearby piano. With her vocal versatility and striking dramatic intensity, Jennifer Maybee presented Cage’s masterpiece as an unforgettable concert experience.

Peter Scholes, in his “Wireless”, does for clarinet what John Cage does for the voice in “Aria”, exploring the very extremes of instrumental colour. Inspired by the development of radio transmission, Scholes creates a dazzling collage of vivid sonic gestures that range from squealing high register sirens and incessantly forceful multiphonics, to barely audible electric whispers which evolve into vibrant sonic swirls. Clarinettist Kenny Keppel chartered this virtuosic marathon with panache and musical flair, in an outstanding feat of performance that lasted just a little over thirteen minutes. Keppel demonstrated an incredible command of sound itself, shaping every gesture with remarkable sensitivity. His truly whole-hearted commitment to every sonic event resulted in a rare kind of raw energy that quickened the pulse and livened the soul.

The second John Cage offering provided the lowlight of the evening. Compared with the endless colour and energy of the first two items, “Three pieces for flute duet” seemed to fall flat. This is early Cage, and it seems to lack a certain dimensionality, with all three pieces presenting a sort of brazen contrapuntal monochrome. In these duets, harmonies occur almost by accident, resulting from the chance encounters of two independent contrapuntal voices and while this produced some distinctly vibrant intervallic combinations, the lack of timbral variety and musical dynamism and evolution certainly made this piece one of the less engaging items of the programme. It was not until the more cohesive third movement, where Cage distorts harmonic space through contrasting wide and small intervals, that flautists Uwe Grodd and Abigail Sperling truly began to inhabit the piece, more a criticism of the piece itself than of its musically meticulous and sonically expressive performers.

John Elmsly’s “Soft Drop II” for two flutes provided a stunning opening to the second half of the concert. This piece proved a much more effective showcase for the two talented flautists of the evening than the earlier Cage work, allowing a unique kind of chemistry and communication between the two that the Cage seemed to deny (in spite of the fact that Elmsly positions his performers antiphonally, at complete opposite poles of the space). A reworking of a piece written as a response to the death of John Cage, Elmsly demonstrates how simple musical formulae can be effectively woven into a delicious musical offering. Pitch material derived from the acronym C A G E ' S D E A D and rhythmic material derived from 1 9 9 2 (the year of Cage’s death), was systematically transformed, musically and spectrally, between the two flutes in a manner that hinted towards Stockhausen. The backdrop to this musical transformation is provided by the audience themselves, who were asked at the start of the piece to hum the notes C A G E continuously for the duration of the piece, creating an endlessly moving, yet eerily still, musical aura that enveloped the spatial to and fro of the two flautists (reminiscent perhaps of the “Unsichtbare Chöre” of Stockhausen’s “Donnerstag aus Licht”). As an audience member this was at first quite distracting, the focus being on the humming, and rather than on the delicate gestures of the performers. However as the voice became used to the mechanical production of these four notes and the ear became accustomed to the sonic balance of the piece, what resulted was a highly effective, deeply meditative and endlessly moving piece in which the souls of performers and audience members are collectively at one with the music. Particularly effective were the moments where the flutes took up the same melodic material as the audience, creating a magical sonic blend of vocal and woodwind timbres. My only criticism is that the audience instructions would have been more effective if they had been written verbatim in the programme to allow for more effective communication of the unorthodox audience role.

Jonathan Mandeno’s “Le Tribolazioni de Pulcinella”, the most recent work in the programme, provided an enchanting finale to the concert. Described as a “musical enactment of Italian Commedia Dell’Arte”, each instrument in the seven-strong ensemble takes on the persona of one of the stock characters of Commedia theatre, interacting with one another both musically and physically in a manner again akin to Stockhausen’s “Licht” (and more aptly, his hallmark clarinet work “Harlekin”, although the composer assures me that neither piece was a conscious influence). A lively and action-packed plot ensues, packed full of flamboyant pantomime and slapstick violence. This adventurous dramatic context was a courageous framework for the piece, and one that could have easily fallen into imagination-limiting programmaticism, or, worse, overblown pastiche. However Mandeno approaches this framework with the perfect balance of subtlety and boldness, creating work that is humorous and entertaining, yet mature and intellectually engaging. Pastiche, when used, is nuanced and sensitive and there is enough abstraction in the work to allow the intellect and the imagination to find engagement. The music itself is bristling with raw, uncontained energy, matching perfectly the primal instincts of the theatrical archetypes portrayed. Complex, intricate, dramatically shifting textures and always busy textures gave this piece a sizzling sonic pulse that was both fresh and rousing. Mandeno demonstrates a great dramatic impulse, with each gesture carefully sculpted to the theatrical flow of the piece.

This piece was another tour de force for the outstanding Kenny Keppel, who portrayed the delightfully vulgar protagonist of the title with charm and flair. Mandeno’s clarinet writing is very accomplished and Keppel takes the entire work in his stride. Keppel won the audience over right from the outset, from his flagrantly mischievous entrance to the taunting backstage echoes of his final strains. Keppel demonstrates the same commitment to sound and character that made his performance of the Scholes so endearing. His every movement totally embodied his dramatic persona, somehow managing to be simultaneously mischievous, malicious, adorable, crude, seductive, brutish and lively with a physicality that matched both his own sound and also Mandeno’s varied musical colours. Particularly effective was a sexy shimmy that accompanied a particularly gaudy passage in scene 5.

Under the animated baton of John Elmsly there was a strong cohesion in the ensemble. The interactions between the clarinet and the various stringed instruments were handled particularly well both by composer and performers (including the spicy interchange with Alex Taylor’s Columbina and the heated tussle with Madeleine Lie’s Il Dottore) with Laurence McFarlane skilfully providing a sharp percussive backing track that flitted between slapstick sound effect and emotional narrative. Delicious cameos from Anglea Kong, Rachel Grimwood and Robbie Drage proved that this was an ensemble of first-rate musicians. Mandeno has a knack for bringing out an eclectic array of colours from his ensemble. In select moments, he allows the string section to shine past the charismatic woodwind writing in intricately complex, spine-tinglingly vibrant and occasionally pointillistic counterpoint. I personally found the piece lost its spark a little in the third and fourth movements, which seemed to resolve a little into placidity; however this had the upside of providing relief from the intense sonic explosions of the outer movements. Overall this was a powerful, colourful, invigorating and fresh piece, which worked equally effectively as both theatre and abstract concert music, securing Jonathan Mandeno’s place as one of New Zealand’s most exciting musical voices.

In a recent article in this same publication Alex Taylor and Celeste Oram advocated for adventurous programming that presented “the boldest work of the highest available quality” and also presented the very best international works “to build a frame and a platform from which our music takes off”, advocating for risk and flair over familiarity and conservatism. This concert did just that, presenting the fresh, the bold, the exciting and the daring, for the intrepid audience to sink their teeth into.

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