17 April 2014

Review: Karlheinz Company "Composing Now" - Alex Taylor

University of Auckland Music Theatre, Auckland, 8pm 12 April 2014

featuring works by Chris Cree Brown, Helen Bowater, Samuel Holloway, Chris Watson, Jason Post, Celeste Oram and Louise Webster
performed by Jennifer Maybee (soprano), Luca Manghi (flute), Melody Lin (flute/piccolo), Alison Dunlop (oboe), Andrew Uren (clarinets), William Hanfling (violin), Charmian Keay (violin), Alex MacDonald (viola), Paul Mitchell (cello), 
Gemma Lee (piano), Dean Sky-Lucas (piano), Eddie Giffney (piano), Kento Isomura (piano/synthesizer), Jonathan Cruz (electronics), Samuel Girling (percussion)

conducted by John Elmsly
artistic direction by John Elmsly assisted by Samuel Holloway
review by Alex Taylor

Having entertained, challenged and bewildered an Auckland public for almost four decades, the Karlheinz Company is an important institution in the new music scene. It has nurtured generations of talented composers, and it is heartening that it continues to do so after all this time. Saturday night’s concert was curated by John Elmsly and Samuel Holloway as part of the CANZ Composers Conference, Composing Now. What could have easily turned into a representative roll-call of known names was instead a refreshingly youthful lineup, punctuated by contributions from older mavericks. The sensitive curation allowed common threads to emerge, and perhaps nudged at a reassessment of the New Zealand canon, such as it is.

Opening the concert, Chris Cree Brown’s electroacoustic work No Ordinary Sun was as tactile as it was apocalyptic, immersing its audience in massive creaking torrents. These huge outbursts were set into relief by hyper-crystalline birdsong; everything about this work felt more brilliant, more acute than reality. But Hone Tuwhare’s voice was the hero of the piece, poignant in laborious, breathy baritone, giving the tree’s last rites: “O tree / in the shadowless mountains / the white plains and / the drab sea floor / your end at last is written.” As powerful as the poem is as text, it was the sound of Tuwhare’s recitation as it was captured here, intimate and ominous, that lifted us into the transcendental.

After the terrifying surround sound of No Ordinary Sun, Rangitoto, a solo piano work by Helen Bowater, felt relatively conventional in its forces. But the piano was put through a rigorous workout by virtuoso Gemma Lee, who navigated the work’s jagged ascents with precision and vigour. At times the relentless, Sisyphean motion was exhausting on the ear, but the residues of that physical toil provided space and allowed the harmonic saturation to dissipate periodically.

Samuel Holloway’s Hard Science was not what I expected. Having heard many different accounts of a recent performance of Things by 175 East, I was quite ready to feel uncomfortable, to have my attention stretched, to be confronted with my own tastes. Instead of the flat, neutral, singular objects that were described to me as being component parts of Things, Hard Science was bright, clean, colourful. The timbral combinations were too interesting, the formal skeleton too beautifully adorned, rippling with low piccolo and synthesizer, the voice leading too distinctive. This sensuality was surprising, and a very long way from the ruthless abstraction of Things.

Brought to life with an impressive lightness of touch by flutist Luca Manghi and pianist Dean Sky-Lucas, Orbicularis by Chris Watson explored the explosion of a single melodic line. Occupying a chiefly treble register, the work bent and flurried, both instruments dovetailing and punctuating each other’s material with witty interjections and non sequiturs. The title of the work comes from a facial muscle used in playing woodwind instruments, orbicularis oris. Watson has written another woodwind work, Mandible, which shares an interest in facial musculature. I couldn’t help but ponder that the incredible complexity of those muscles and the myriad expressions they produce seems in a sense analogous to Chris Watson’s music: intimidatingly intricate, but also emotionally rich.

After interval Jason Post’s Cataphora hinted at a much longer form: the almost hypnotically repetitive piano chords were gone all too quickly, and the piece ended just as it had begun to demand something of its listener. Although the performance felt rather rushed, there were tantalising glimpses of something more fragmentary and challenging.

As with Hard Science, I had expectations of Mirror & Echo by Celeste Oram: something theatrical, something readjusting our perspective of music performance. Oram has been building a substantial catalogue of music-as-performance-art; her Eye Music featured in a concert the night before, a whimsical setting of a sign-language poem. Mirror & Echo was both more conceptually ambitious and less sonically diverse; two temporarily deafened string players copying each other by sight, with a temporarily blinded percussionist reacting spontaneously to the sounds they produced. I felt that while the conceit was initially very striking, it produced a somewhat predictably periodic musical result. Nevertheless the frame of ostensibly free improvisation provided space for exploration and error from the hearing percussionist: it was Samuel Girling’s earnest, haphazard but highly virtuosic attempts at feeling his way round his instruments that gave the work life. While the visual tunnel left violinist Charmian Keay and violist Alex MacDonald somewhat ritualistically hamstrung, the aural tunnel allowed Girling to shine, shadowing and disrupting the foregrounded visual argument with brave sensitivity.   

Unlike the other large ensemble works on the programme (Holloway’s and Post’s), Louise Webster’s Grief of a Girl’s Heart was a platform for expressive virtuosity. All five performers, conducted by Karlheinz director John Elmsly, fed into an ornately crafted world tinged with nostalgic modal harmonies. Alison Dunlop’s lilting oboe was particularly charismatic. The narrative was driven with a dark swagger, cutting right to the heart of the promise and desolation of love. But it was soprano Jennifer Maybee who most compellingly projected the crushing weight of grief, and an underlying pathos that made Webster’s composition gleam so brightly in a stellar line-up of New Zealand works.  

With so many performers lending their talents here, it is impossible to adequately discuss their offerings, but they all deserve credit for focused and precise realisations of some very difficult works. In some ways it was a shame to have fifteen performers in a concert whose largest works were sextets; the use of performers was uneconomical, even profligate. It is a personal preference, but to me chamber music is at its most intimate and cohesive when it recognises the diversity and synthesis of a small group.

I also felt there was a certain obliqueness to the works in the middle of the programme – Samuel Holloway, Chris Watson, Jason Post, Celeste Oram – that needed its own space. Bookended by works that were more transparent, and more emotionally directive, these harder-edged compositions sat most comfortably in one another’s company. Nevertheless, there was something cleansing about Holloway’s Hard Science after so much urgent struggle in Rangitoto, and perhaps the former work even cast the latter in a slightly impressionistic light. Conversely, the gestural terseness of Oram’s Mirror & Echo was followed up by emotional saturation in Grief of a Girl’s Heart – for me at least, this withholding and fulfilling of emotional expectation was adroitly judged in the programme as a whole. The Karlheinz Company can be justifiably proud of their seminal contribution to New Zealand’s musical life. 

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