11 May 2015

Review: Karlheinz Company, from Dylan to Xenakis

Music Director: Eve de Castro-Robinson

Performers: Michael Murray, vocals; Edith Salzmann, cello; Kent Isomura, piano; Stella Kim, April Ju, violins; Caroline Norman, viola; Jennifer Maybee, soprano; John Coulter, manuka branch and live electronics; Liam Wooding, toy piano; Sam Rich, percussion; Callum Blackmore, voice

Chief technician: Irazema H Vera

Bob Dylan: Masters of War
Iannis Xenakis: Paille in the wind
David Grahame Taylor: Obłoki nad Ferrarą
John Coulter: Green
John Cage: Suite for Toy Piano
Eve de Castro-Robinson: ConunDRUMS
Lyell Cresswell: Das Lied von dem Fisch
Cathy Berberian: Stripsody

Auckland University Music Theatre, Sunday 10 May 2015

Review by Nelson Lam


With the departure of John Elmsly from Auckland University in 2014, Karlheinz Company director Eve de Castro-Robinson had the formidable task of carrying Elmsly’s three-decade legacy and success with the Company forward today. Aligning well to de Castro-Robinson’s character, the new directorship brought along a refreshing burst of energy, evident long before the concert day with her tantalising and hilariously internet-meme-appropriate Facebook marketing – an investment well rewarded with one of the biggest turnouts I have seen for a Karlheinz concert.

Before the first note was sounded, it was evident that de Castro-Robinson’s curatorship extended well beyond the programme itself – a homely rug, warm hues from the effusive lava lamp and pot plants imbued an unpretentious and intimate atmosphere, certainly inviting us concertgoers into what almost felt like an informal jam session. This was certainly the case with Michael Murray’s poignant cover of Bob Dylan’s Masters of War; a wrenching opener well matched by his throaty attack, made more bittersweet by a carefully controlled and sensitive vibrato as his voice trailed off.

Iannis Xenakis’ Paille in the wind felt like a non sequitur to Bob Dylan, but this hostile soundscape was cushioned in part by the informal atmosphere so well established. Edith Salzmann masterfully negotiated the deceptively simple cello line with impeccable precision, without sacrificing its yearning lyricism. Salzmann was an effective foil to pianist Kent Isomura, whose controlled navigation through Xenakis’ crystalline and ultra-condensed clusters gave each chord enough space to let its unique sonorities ring.

While the Karlheinz Company has always been at the forefront of championing works by modern (local and international) masters, it was heartening to see fledgling talented New Zealand composers have their works given their time in the spotlight. Perhaps the emotional highlight of the concert, David Grahame Taylor’s Obłoki nad Ferrarą from Podróż was a sensitive treatment of Zbigniew Herbert’s wistful text, autumnal in temperament with beautifully shaped lines floating over deft strings. The instrumentation was well-balanced – Jennifer Maybee’s engaging lyricism was able to co-exist with the delicate string textures, without overwhelming them. The quartet’s cohesive performance added sheen to Taylor’s immaculately voiced chords; it was just a shame that such a suspended mood was dropped with some hesitancy from the quartet towards the end.

John Coulter’s Green was an arresting work that beguiled from the first breath from silence, right up until the final decay. Coulter himself performed solo on a giant fallen manuka branch through a series of mouthpieces, forging a haunting soundscape devoid of familiar instrumental timbres. The electronic modulations (dictated in real time by wind pressure and direction) were subtle, symbiotic and extremely clever. It disseminated what was previously heard into its spectral constituents, recombined and refocused. Visually striking, aurally organic, the work succeeded to be bold in intent and evocative in effect.

Conversely, John Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano was whimsical in character and ridiculous in effect – Liam Wooding’s larger than life silhouette, against a comically small piano, with music that was almost an order larger than the piano itself was frivolous to look at. It was a piece of contradictions, with figures haphazardly introduced, dismissed and reintroduced. Such an innocent sounding instrument was amusing at first, but the novelty did wear off and the incessant, one-dimensional tinkle of the piano became testing. That being said, I never really understood Cage’s compositions; as a figurehead of the 20th century, I’ve always felt that I ought to pay respect to him, but often the sheer stochasticity in his compositions made it difficult for me to truly appreciate his works.

Eve de Castro-Robinson’s ConunDRUMS was a sonic and visual tour de force, made all the more poignant by the dedication of the performance to the memory of iconic New Zealand composer Jack Body. In this primal piece bold in gesture, Sam Rich’s poised playing flew brazenly through the virtuosic percussion score, not to mention the impassioned brush strokes Rich painted on the blank canvas behind him. As the work unfolded, it became an intriguing three-part counterpoint between the timbrally kaleidoscopic sonic world, the drama of Rich’s kinetic gestures, and the bold visual paint strokes left behind. In particular, the sonic emergence and submergence of various rhythmic patterns and timbres echoed a similar sort of visual emergence and disappearance of suggestive shapes and figures on the canvas, all of which was brought to life by Rich’s playing, filled with austere intent.

A wryly humourous Das Lied von dem Fisch followed – Lyell Cresswell’s economical writing was reflective of his similarly stark orchestral work ‘The Clock Stops’. The work consisted of seven pithy miniatures on a rightly bizarre and ridiculous subject of a (constipated) goldfish. Perhaps the piece itself nods to Mahler’s gargantuan ‘Das Lied von der Erde’, but its laconic setting could not be further away from the overly romantic soundscape a Mahlerian piece might imply – even though there were some direct and intended quotations from Mahler himself. In a few of the movements, the inherent sternness of the German text against the absurdity of the subject matter was all that was required to create the humour. Here Jennifer Maybee demonstrated her dramatic prowess, conjuring a cheeky, clown-like demeanor that was worlds away from her nostalgic character in Taylor’s Podróż. This was equally matched by Kent Isomura’s pointed playing, to succinctly capture a piece I felt was better at being whimsical and ridiculous than Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano.

Cathy Berberian’s Stripsody closed the concert. Indeed the piece itself was a microcosm of the smorgasbord of sonic delights we heard throughout the evening with its drama, comedy and intriguing combination of onomatopoeic sounds. This was impeccably performed – Callum Blackmore’s stunning drag outfit, his larger-than-life embodiment of each ‘character’, a facile vocal prowess and simply a natural flair for drama turned this into a performance that would have rivaled Berberian herself. With a work that could easily sound random and fragmented, Blackmore crispy demarcated each vignette visually to subtly enforce structural clarity without impeding the overall flow. Even with sections of seemingly nonsensical sounds, Blackmore’s fluid interpretation of the visual score wove a compelling narrative that was exceedingly natural and effortlessly hilarious.

Musically, from the programming to the performance, the concert itself was masterfully executed. But the real icing on the cake was de Castro-Robinson’s astute eye for detail in setting up the concert space. The simple inclusion of a rug, a coffee table, a lava lamp and a few pot plants transformed what might otherwise be just another concert, to now an intimate, almost a convivial living room dialogue for modern music. It effectively shattered the formality so often seen in concert halls with a space that was down-to-earth and inviting, without at all detracting from the performances.

Outside of the concert setting, it is not often that we see composers or directors of these events to be so active in engaging with their audiences – the beauty of social media is that they can do just that. Forging a more immediate connection with the event not only allows sustained audience engagement, but also injects life and hype in a way print media could never do. Our hyper-connectivity in the digital age makes this strategy extremely effective – one that de Castro-Robinson has harnessed so well.

If Sunday’s concert is anything to go by, Eve de Castro-Robinson’s directorship of the Karlheinz Company will redefine how we approach concerts, all while continuing to deliver the refreshing sonic experiences the Company is already well known for.


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