27 May 2014

Review: Jade Quartet at the Pah

Jade String Quartet
Miranda Adams, violin; William Hanfling, violin; Robert Ashworth, viola; David Garner, cello

Haydn: String Quartet in D Major, op. 33, no. 6
Watson: String Quartet no. 3
Beethoven: String Quartet no. 12 in E-flat major, op. 127

25 May 2014, Pah Homestead
Review by Alex Taylor

I arrived at the Pah to a stunning exhibition of double portraits by New Zealand artists. Mary McIntyre’s unnervingly direct After the Op; Tony Fomison’s haunting tribute to Philip Clairmont; Shirley Grace’s extraordinary photograph of Tony Fomison as artist, model, perhaps prophet too. This was an exhibition of penetrating psychology and resonant personalities of both artists and subjects. I imagined myself in a Roman villa, surrounded by statues of the household gods, the Lares, or a European concert hall, busts of the great composers staring out from the walls. But this was a New Zealand villa, its Lares our own pioneering visual artists, temporarily sharing their turf with a quartet and its audience. The gallery-as-concert-space is something that really appeals to me – the visual art adds another layer to our experience of the event, and in this case the cross-references between art and music were particularly striking.

Beginning with the ancestral father of the string quartet – Franz Joseph Haydn – the Jade Quartet were in their element. The group brought stylistic sensitivity and a full range of expression to this rather light and whimsical work; laboured Viennese upbeats, clipped phrase endings, a wonderful humour. The aliveness of this music played off the large-scale paintings in the ballroom, life-size bodies jarring out of scratched steel and painted canvas, and live musicians on their feet, full of movement and vigour. First violin Miranda Adams in particular showed off an impressive breadth of colour, from silkiest pianissimo to full-bodied lyricism. Haydn’s ingenious extensions and developments were handled with control and care, although I felt occasionally the quartet’s tone teetered on the brink of cloying sweetness. David Garner’s cello seemed to have some of its brilliance dulled by the room, though the upper strings cut through nicely in the intimate concert venue. The “whiff of syncopation” described in the programme notes brought the finale to a close with a great sense of play and balance.

The clarity and vision of the Jade String Quartet’s 2014 programming is to be commended – four concerts, each featuring a substantial New Zealand work alongside a significant Haydn quartet and another classic from the repertoire.  Here they took on Anthony Watson’s challenging Third Quartet. The double portrait exhibition seemed particularly apt – Watson might be described as a musical equivalent to Philip Clairmont’s vivid expressionism – and the spirits of Watson and Clairmont mingled here. The third quartet is an exhilarating work that demands intense focus, precision, and above all an awareness of the overall structure, how it spikes and curves and breathes. Unfortunately the Jade Quartet came across as rather rushed and unfocused. We were asked to adjust our ears to the beauty of Watson’s tonal language, but when the emotional heart of the work is passed over at more than double tempo and whole sections are bristling with ensemble mistakes, the beauty remains hidden in the score.  There’s tenderness hidden here, brilliance too – but this was a stilted, uncertain performance. The core repertoire throughout the concert was assured and tastefully done, but the unfamiliar often requires its own approach, to be understood, performed, communicated on its own terms – and for my money the Jade have yet to fully integrate Watson’s terms, his language, his emotional landscape.  

The second half of the concert opened with a muscular Maestoso, William Hanfling taking over the first violin duties for Beethoven’s String Quartet no. 12. This was a work rich with theatre and gesture, full of unexpected twists. The quartet managed these twists adroitly; though the musical demands occasionally told, particularly with some strained intonation in the stratosphere, the drama was always palpable. There were nods to Haydn in the suspended upbeats and shaping of phrases, however I felt there were some missed opportunities to build longer structures, to really get at the cumulative power, the obsessive insistence of Beethoven. Nevertheless this was an assured performance, and it was a pleasure to watch such an egalitarian, dynamic quartet, all four members engaged and responsive, taking turns to lead and respond.

No matter the unevenness in performance between the Watson and the two Germanic works, it is clear to me that the Jade Quartet are doing something vital. One only needs to overhear another concertgoer, in a derogatory tone, “that piece was just like those abstract paintings.” As if to say, QED, why bother. Most of the audience would not have heard of Watson, let alone have heard his music, and yet he is to music what Clairmont or Fomison is to painting, a cultural marker that deserves to become familiar and iconic. Despite the discomfort, even the hostility, of an audience, we must continue to preserve and enliven our own Lares, the icons of our own cultural traditions.

The Jade Quartet’s next concert is August 24 at the Pah, featuring a new commission by Auckland composer John Elmsly.

13 May 2014

Review: NZSO presents "Hear and Far"

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
James MacMillan, conductor

10 May 2014, Auckland Town Hall
Review by Alex Taylor

As a lover and advocate of contemporary music, I have found the NZSO’s last two ventures – ostensibly efforts to integrate the twentieth and twenty-first centuries into their programming – a hard slog. Last week’s We Remember was a dreary attempt to correlate pretty, slow music with profundity and remembrance. This Week’s Hear & Far (sic.) was even more deluded in forcing the “Scottish connection” between Lyell Cresswell and James MacMillan. There were no musical reasons for this pairing – contrasting works can be highly effective, but the grandeur of MacMillan’s language brooks no opposition. Despite – perhaps because of – the exquisite economy of the Cresswell, the concert came across as a lopsided offering to the gods of Wagnerian excess and self-indulgence.

What these programmes have done, nevertheless, is show the quality of the New Zealand works and the composers who wrote them. Last week Jack Body’s Little Elegies was fiercely confronting while maintaining a deft lightness of touch. And Lyell Cresswell continues to show he is one of our most original composers – his other orchestral works deserve a wider hearing in New Zealand. But the inane programming and non-sequitur marketing (jewelled hairless cats, anyone?) have only succeeded in putting off potential audience members, and confounding those who do turn up.


Lyell Cresswell makes no concessions to his audience. The Clock Stops stripped back the orchestral canvas to its doom-laden skeleton: the kakapo booms of the bass clarinet, a juddering mass of hammer-on pizzicati, the unnervingly high-tensile combination of high timpani and harp. The listener gets none of the immediate lushness that might be expected, but instead has to draw his or her own connections between finely etched gestures and sharp transformations of colour and texture. Cresswell’s high-wire orchestration act was all the more spectacular for its sensitivity to the vocal line. Despite baritone Jonathan Lemalu’s limited dynamic range due to a viral infection, the orchestra rarely smothered the singer. However his smoothness of tone and propensity for swallowing consonants meant that even in the sparsest passages the words were not always clear.  While Lemalu is one of our very finest singers, I felt that Cresswell’s vocal writing, often concise to the point of terseness, required a different approach.

The work teemed with powerful moments: the energetic swoop of strings to answer “a woman waking”; the penetrating beam of unison trumpets and horns; the usually-comic vibraslap shading monolithic tutti chords with a startling death rattle. The NZSO displayed a characteristically fine attention to detail and the brass in particular were impressively synchronous. Lemalu’s wordless lament near the end of the work was intimate and understated, drawing us down to the bottom of the singer’s range, echoing the starkness of the opening bass clarinet solo.  

But too often Fiona Farrell’s text with its tangential wordplay jarred against the velvety seriousness of Lemalu’s baritone. The moments of comedic lightness felt cringingly “hip”, with descriptions of young skaters “riding the rubble” and a city that “rocked [and] rolled”. These were literary excursions to more concrete poetic genres that undercut the narrative and translated poorly to the operatic voice. Nevertheless Farrell accumulated a wealth of historical and contemporary references, from Jericho to Christchurch, giving the work a strong sense of context and dynamism.


Where Cresswell focused his attention inwards to orchestral minutiae, James MacMillan’s music was directed firmly outwards, a grand public façade replete with all the clichés of the genre, from Berlioz to John Williams via Stravinsky and Holst. Trombones for every occasion. MacMillan’s first offering, “Woman of the Apocalypse” seemed dedicated to excess, although in between Wagnerian tidbits there was a lot of meandering, filling time before the next bout of chest-beating. Despite the massive orchestration, the music seemed constrained, continually forced in unnatural harmonic directions. Personally I felt like I was being shouted at every so often – this is music that leaves nothing to the imagination: a polemic, a diatribe of Romantic proportions. Where Cresswell opened up formal and registral space, MacMillan herded us and the orchestra into an elevator and locked the doors.

While there were superficial similarities between this work and “The Confession of Isobel Gowdie”, my experience of the latter piece was very different. Where the first piece felt like a patchwork of musical stunts, the second had an inexorable arch that was altogether more compelling. I was swept up in its gradual saturation of texture, in its inevitable structure, from the sinuous modal opening to the singular crescendo that ends the work. While some gestures seemed careless in comparison to Cresswell’s finely etched score, the longer form was brilliantly executed – the music was allowed to follow its own trajectory. The desperate plaintiveness of the violas perhaps best summed up the spirit of the work, a lyricism that when pushed too far becomes cloying and aggressive. Here that lyricism was judged sensitively, but earlier I would have quite liked four and a half minutes of the Auckland Town Hall’s noisy air conditioning to stand in for the woman of the apocalypse.

4 May 2014

Review: Blackbird Ensemble presents THE NIGHT SKY

Claire Cowan: director, keys, vox
Alex Taylor: lead vocal, tenor sax, percussion;
Jessie Cassin: lead vocal;
Samantha Dench: flute, piccolo; Ina Patisolo: oboe, cor anglais, percussion; Kenny Keppel: clarinet, bass clarinet; Callum Passels: alto sax; Liz Stokes: trumpet, flugelhorn; Henry Swanson: horn; Kevin Keys: trombone, rap; Francesca McGeorge: trombone, percussion; Samuel Taylor: electric guitar; Sam Rich: percussion; Andrew Rooney: drums; Charmian Keay, Jenny Chen, Siobhan Thompson: violin 1, Leith McFarlane, Kim Choe: violin 2; Alex MacDonald: viola; Callum Hall: cello; Eric Scholes: bass, Mark Michel: electronics.

Galatos, Galatos street

Review by Catherine Hamilton

Ever wonder what a gig on Mars would look and sound like? I do – frequently. And after experiencing The Blackbird Ensemble’s final performance of their Night Sky Show at Galatos in Auckland, I feel like I’m several light years closer to finding out. This is the sixth outing for The Blackbird Ensemble and, with at least twenty performers and a creative team of fifteen, it’s possibly the most epic transmission from Ground Control so far.

While semi-gracefully slouched in one of the many beanbags on offer up the front, I was able to take in my surroundings: a billowing canopy above complete fairy lights twinkling within, a tiered stage draped in shadows and healthily cloaked with intrigue, and music stands equipped with pairs of little reading lights that actually looked more like tiny antenna (probably for beaming up sonar signals to a far-distant home planet.)

The half-light finally dipped into darkness and the buzz of excitement electrified as the players took their places, all garbed up in outrageous fancy dress. Instruments that are usually more at home under a symphony hall spotlight or echoing through an old church were readied like weapons of choice by a troupe of musicians dressed for the biggest intergalactic showdown in history.

Every aspect of the show was seamlessly Space themed - from the speeding starscape projections above and beyond, to the zany Aladdin Sane fuelled hair and makeup, the lyrics of the songs, or the inspiration behind the instrumental pieces, to the fluro ultra-violet glad rags: all of it was totally spaced out, dude. I found the whole concept to be, on the most part, refreshing. It did leave me wishing that such events weren’t such novelties and more commonplace in the gigasphere.

With a meticulously curated selection of space music, Claire Cowan did a stellar job of leading Blackbird up, up, up and away and out of this world. Even though Blackbird has been described as a “glowing electric orchestra”, the evening was not simply about taking classical music and breathing ‘new life’ in to it; no genre was safe. To be specific, the Blackbird buffet boasted the likes of Portishead, The National, Beastie Boys, David Bowie, John Williams, Bat For Lashes, Gustav Holst, Bjork, Nick Drake, R.E.M., Sufjan Stevens, The xx and CocoRosie for good measure. What a feast!

Dazzling vocalist, Jessie Cassin, doubled as a kind of Master of Ceremonies for the evening, floating on and off the stage in what appeared to be a homemade Bjork outfit. Joining her for several songs was Alex Taylor, whose voice simply left me winded. In a good way! Both Cassin and Taylor showcased their impressively versatile voices, capable of flitting between boisterous sing-along anthems and achingly intimate subtlety. These two created many moments of pure electricity for me, both as soloists and as a team.

The only fault I can find with this show was the way you never quite knew if you were at a gig or not. I wanted to dance and sing and cry – all at once – many times… but never felt like I could, despite the fact that the musicians were all grooving away on stage (something I’d like to see more of!). Although the bean bags were a nice idea, I feel they encourage a very different kind of audience experience – one where you are invited to recline, relax and contemplate the solar system around you instead of getting all up in that Blackbird plasma-power. Just as any performance has rocketing highs that ebb into heart-thumping hush, I feel the audience would have been more than capable of navigating their way around the set-list’s mood swings while standing, rather than confined to a neat seating plan or slouching in bean bags.

I wait with keen anticipation to see what wonders Blackbird will conjure up next, and if The Night Sky is any kind of gauge, it promises to be truly magical.