15 April 2014

Review: Intrepid Music Project presents New Blood - Jonathan Mandeno

Kerr Street Artspace, Auckland, 8pm 11 April 2014

featuring works by Glen Downie, Nelson Lam, Celeste Oram, Salina Fisher, Alex Wolken, Callum Blackmore, David Grahame and Reuben Jelleyman
performed by Sam Rich (percussion), Kenny Keppel (clarinets), Alex MacDonald (viola), David Framil Carpeno (accordion), Eric Scholes (bass), Peau Halapua (violin)

conducted by Alex Taylor
artistic direction by Alex Taylor
review by Jonathan Mandeno

The Intrepid Music Project is quickly building a fine track record of vibrant and challenging concerts. This one was no different and surely the most ambitious to date, with no fewer than eight brand new works by talented young New Zealand composers.

Opening the concert on a freewheeling high was Glen Downie’s Jive for Giuffre.  The spirit of the influential jazzman’s freestyle playing waxed strong in the piece’s pulse.  Keppel’s clarinet and Scholes’s walking bass engaged in nimble pointillistic and improvisatory exchanges, navigating their way through and around a thick weave of polyrhythms from Rich’s drum kit.  Every so often the players found themselves on islands of stasis amid the rhythm; brief moments of pensiveness shared before diving back in to the fray.  A short but convivial tribute.

Nelson Lam next provided a moody contrast with two short movements.  A sense of ancientness hung heavily around the opening of spectra, violin winding itself around a dark viola drone in tight intervallic knots.  Here Halapua managed to make her violin appear to sob in harsh lament.  Recoil was thorny and tense, with spikey dissonant passages working themselves up into wailing glissandi.

Much of Celeste Oram’s recent work has shown itself to be heavily conceptual – an interdisciplinary synthesis of sound, movement and visuals.  Eye music audaciously subverted one’s expectation of a concert by (momentarily) doing away with the sound part altogether.  Appropriate when considering that it was a setting of a poem of the same name in American Sign Language by Ella Mae Lentz, who in turn subverted perceptions of music itself by drawing attention to the visual side of performance.  This performance consisted of multiple iterations of the same piece.  Sam Rich began standing to one side of a sizable percussion station, sticks crossed as Mae Lentz recited her poem on a projection behind.  For the next reading he began miming on an invisible setup identical to the one on his left.  The choreography was focussed and meditative, with a visual finesse that created an effective dialogue with the sign language.  For the next two iterations Rich moved to his material station and repeated the routine, this time with sound, and finally sound minus image.  Although the many sonorities were highly imaginative, I found myself feeling strangely let down by sound suddenly being pushed into the alchemy.  Was it an attempt to cover all the bases?  A concession on Oram’s part to give the non-deaf audience some music in the manner to which they are accustomed?  In spite of the undeniable intrepidness of the work, I was left wondering if it had betrayed its own argument that music can exist for the eyes alone.

Salina Fisher’s Komorebi created an effective evocation of ‘sunlight filtered through the leaves of trees’ that the Japanese word refers to.  Rich provided an iridescent vibraphone backdrop, tones piling up to create a dense foliage or sonic richness that the clear, lyrical tones of Fisher’s violin pierced through.  The music could have benefited from some relief of the higher frequencies, and a polite little wrapping up by the vibraphone at the end seemed a tad trite, but overall it was a sensuously beautiful duet.

Like the concert opener, Alex Wolken’s quartet also seemed to evoke a jazz scene, helped by virtue of its instrumentation of bass clarinet, accordion, vibraphone and electric bass.  However that is where similarities to Downie’s work ended.  This was dark and gritty, a smoky jazz club seen through an opium haze.  Each chord was a languorous sigh, the creeping threads slowly sliding tautly around each other.  These were interrupted by rude stabs from the accordion, adding an unsettling jolt to the hallucinatory atmosphere.

Callum Blackmore’s Unsavoury Liaisons was conceived as homage to Stockhausen’s Licht opera cycle.  However it seemed to be as much a playful sendup as it was a veneration, taking the grandiloquent pretensions of the original 29 hour behemoth of angels and demons and applying it to the most mundane of characters and actions in a mere 12 minutes.  With a blast from a tam-tam, the audience was antiphonally surrounded with a frenzied jumble of musical cells, vocalisations and activities.  Electric toothbrushes amplified their drones on tom-tom skins while Keppel laughed manically through both clarinet and vocal chords, while applying body spray liberally.  Newspapers rustled as Rich chopped vegetables, then proceeded to feign choking on an apple.  The straight-faced performance along with the pomposity of proclaiming the arrival of each new movement helped elevate the chaos to a statement of gleefully sublime absurdity.

David Grahame provided a more contemplative observation of reality with still life.  Clarinet and viola moved together through slowly evolving chord progressions, carefully balanced dissonances providing suspensions into nostalgic triadic suggestions.  A tiny flutter of movement in the middle of the piece gave a hint of something alive, trapped inside.  The overall effect was that of a faded photograph of some dusty, long-forgotten idyll.

Rounding off the evening Reuben Jelleyman presented a work in two parts of the “In Nomine” tradition (a 16th century English practice of composers working a plainchant melody by John Taverner into varied instrumental settings).  In Nomine à 5 II, for 6 was Jelleyman’s setting of such a work by Tudor composer Nicholas Strogers.   It was a unique experience to hear antique polyphony emanate from an eclectic modern ensemble, with the added challenge of there being six players but only five parts.  Jelleyman’s response was to allow players the freedom to move between parts in the counterpoint, adding yet more aural variation to the mix. 

In Nomine, Gloria Tibi Spiritus was Jelleyman’s own In Nomine setting of Taverner.  As a depiction of the Holy Spirit, the counterpoint before long began to fragment and disintegrate, coalescing again into abbreviations on a micro-gestural scale to the point of near-imperceptibility.  To me I thought that this fraying occurred too quickly, causing my grasp on the material to slip before I could adjust and fully appreciate the intricacies of the piece’s process. 

Finally, credit must duly go to the wonderful players, who tackled a bewildering variety of pieces and performance styles with equal parts gusto and diligence.  And very special mention must be made of director/conductor Alex Taylor.  Not only did he pull off the gargantuan effort of corralling eight works and six players into an incredibly convincing performance with nary a visible hiccup, but the programming was also some of the most sensitive I’ve ever seen in any concert.  Each piece was placed to be the perfect complement/antidote to the last.  After this concert I am convinced that Intrepid Music is a fundamental “next step” in the landscape of New Zealand music.  It’s a torch that we must keep burning.

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