24 June 2014

Review: Stroma in Auckland - The Mirror of Time 3

Stroma presents: The Mirror of Time 3

Wednesday 18 June, 8pm at St Matthews-in-the-City

Vesa-Matti Leppänen, Rebecca Struthers (violins); Andrew Thomson (viola); Rowan Prior (cello); Rowena Simpson (soprano); Kamala Bain (recorders)
Hamish McKeich (repetiteur/conductor)
Michael Norris (artistic direction, visuals, programme)

Review by Alex Taylor

It’s not often that Auckland audiences get a visit from outstanding Wellington contemporary music ensemble Stroma, and so it seemed rather a shame that more people didn’t venture out on a Wednesday night. Stroma’s adventurous programming and excellent personnel, mostly drawn from the ranks of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, warrant a better following.

The impressively stark architecture of St Matthew’s Church on Hobson Street provided the backdrop for The Mirror of Time 3, a programme ostensibly exploring the relationship between new and old musics. Minutely complex, wild and obscure early music was interspersed with selections of contemporary New Zealand and Asian music.

Up close the acoustic showed off the talents of the musicians, particularly recorder player Kamala Bain and soprano Rowena Simpson, both of whose subtle inflections and lively phrasing gave shape to some of the more austere numbers.

There’s a self-consciousness that comes with small audiences in large venues. This was exacerbated by the fact that audience members were uncertain whether to clap between numbers. The performers didn’t acknowledge the smattering of applause between some pieces, which suggests the concert was meant to be experienced in one stretch. I found this rather offputting, a hallowed sort of etiquette, as if we the audience were looking through a one-way mirror at a live museum exhibit. This was a rarefied chamber music, and while the quality of playing was very high, I felt the highly theatrical programming demanded a more performative engagement from the players.

From Michael Norris’s ethereal recomposition of a Hurrian hymn to catchy ditties by Biber and the anonymous Tempus Transit Gelidum, Stroma covered a diverse range of early music, while managing to draw a thread through the concert with various treatments of the canon. Norris’s arrangements and recompositions were subtle and colouristic, exploiting the versatility of the string quartet with timbral shading and nuance. These snippets of early music could almost be experienced as a single entity, variations on a theme. Exposure to these gems of experimental music is something unique and valuable, and local early music ensembles could learn a lot from Stroma’s programming.

From the contemporary vein, Simon Eastwood’s The Spindle of Necessity  gave us entrance to an intriguing sound world of gradual morphology and residual stasis, but like a number of works on the programme, felt like a sample of something more developed. Where many of the early pieces were self-contained and perfectly, if minutely, proportioned, Eastwood’s work suggested possibilities beyond itself.

Rachael Morgan’s attractive Interiors II also felt somewhat curtailed, although the musical scope was much narrower, essentially a timbral fantasia on the note D. Just as the ornamental inflections were beginning to create interesting disturbances, the piece flicked back to stasis, as if the risk was too great. Mary Binney’s Enfance had a hypnotic quality in the recurrent chant-like vocal line, which showed off Rowena Simpson’s versatile soprano.

Of the New Zealand works, Chris Watson’s sundry good was the standout: unflinchingly dramatic and fluid where everything else on the programme tended towards stasis. Watson’s musical materials seemed to consist of scraps, decorations, residues, but they were knitted together to create striking trajectories and interactions between the independent voices of the quartet. Vesa-Matti Leppänen was a spritely protagonist here, triggering cascades of activity through the ensemble. The players seemed to thrive on these gestural exchanges: where most of the other works felt safely contained, sundry good threatened to burst at any moment, filling a void of dramatic tension.

There were other tensional high points in the programme: Bain’s double recorder solo Black Intention disturbed the rarefied air with difference tones before an abrupt vocal outburst; Jack Body’s Bai drew tight, scratchy sonorities from the strings. But Watson’s musical treatise on the ornament was altogether more propulsive and convincing. The quartet too was uniformly excellent, the final gravelly swirls of Rowan Prior’s cello being particularly memorable.

For me the tightly compressed nature of the programme was both thrilling and frustrating. I wanted a longer work, to settle and focus my concentration. But I also couldn’t help but be momentarily gripped by the peculiar kind of alchemy occurring in front of me.