27 November 2013

Guest Review: The Committee

MacLaurin Chapel, the University of Auckland

Music by Anthony Young, Ryan Youens, David Hamilton, Helen Bowater and others

Performers: Elizabeth Mandeno, soprano; Claire Scholes, mezzo-soprano; Stephen Rapana, tenor; Te Oti Rakena, baritone; David Kelly, piano

Guest review: Christiaan Swanepoel

The Committee’s Shorts and Suites programme provided an excellent opportunity for composers and performers alike to enjoy the talents of singers Elizabeth Mandeno, Claire Scholes, Steven Rapana and Te Oti Rakena and pianist David Kelly as well as the lush acoustics of the Maclaurin Chapel. The programme presented song cycles by established New Zealand composers interspersed with a variety of new vocal microscores, composed specifically for this concert.

The song cycles displayed a common lack of memorability and defining features. While occasional interesting moments did occur, in general little stood out to define each of the suites. There were certainly exceptions; the third piece from Anthony’s Young ‘Night Swimming’, ‘I miss you like’, provided a tongue-in-cheek relief from the overwhelming sentimentality and jazz-reminiscent songwriting of the other sections. The ‘cute’ text was well served by a characterful performance by baritone Te Oti Rakena: ‘I miss you... like espresso coffee - 10 cups a day with dark chocolate biscuits.’ Ryan Youens’ ‘Papatūānuku’ provided an enjoyable listening experience but suffered from the same lack of purpose and memorability as the others despite being masterfully rendered by soprano Elizabeth Mandeno. Helen Bowater’s ‘A wild sea for the crossing’ provided the most interest and escaped some of the excessive ‘songiness’ of the others through its greater rhythmic focus and tonal interest. This was well matched by a fantastic performance by Claire Scholes.

The brevity and variety of the microscores were in marked contrast with the aforementioned song suites. Humor and parody were prevalent, as was non-traditional vocal technique. Overall, they were entertaining and the short length provided an effective format for compositional communication. I felt that some of the microscores suffered from their overreliance on humour; Robbie Ellis’s ‘Saying Grace’ and ‘Sheepdog Plainchant’ had little musical depth beyond their parodical aspects. The second movement of Blaz González’s ‘Debris’ was marred by the same problem; it was over-reliant on the gimmick of musical ‘gargling’. The other two sections of the work were more effective and demonstrated greater compositional thought through their dystopian sound world. I felt that the only really effective use of humour was in Callum Blackmore’s ‘One Minute Opera #2’, in which deconstruction and compression of operatic cliche received a lively response from the audience. The standout of the ‘serious’ microscores was Celeste Oram’s ‘from the air, the skyscrapers and gravestones look much the same’. Oram’s use of the gentler side of the human voice was a refreshing implementation of extended vocal technique and suited the intimate nature of the venue and ensemble excellently.

Overall, while the quality of composition varied greatly, the performances were generally excellent. The range of styles and techniques used by the composers presented a challenging programme that was mostly well executed by the singers. Claire Scholes and Elizabeth Mandeno particularly distinguished themselves through their technical mastery and their commitment to the ‘characters’ they played. The highly resonant space of the Maclaurin Chapel suited this concert well, with its high ceilings and hard surfaces occasionally amplifying the voices to delightfully powerful levels.

The greater success of the microscores relative to the song cycles has implications for future programming and composition in general. The main issue with the longer works was a general lack of sustained purpose or energy. Conversely, the restricted parameters of the microscores here presented a more fertile ground for composition; it seems that restriction acts as a catalyst for creativity that, in light of this concert, composers need to utilize more often. For longer works, care needs to be taken in crafting the music so that purpose and direction are maintained throughout and the listener remains engaged.