11 August 2015

Review: NZTrio at Q Loft

NZTrio: fragment
Justine Cormack, violin; Ashley Brown, cello; Sarah Watkins, piano

Q Theatre Loft, Sunday 9 August

Ernest Chausson, Piano Trio in G Minor, op. 3
Chris Cree Brown, Gallipoli Fragments for Piano Trio, Fixed Media and Images
Sergei Rachmaninov, Trio Elegiaque No. 1 in G Minor

Review by Alex Taylor

NZTrio are surely one of New Zealand’s busiest and most innovative chamber ensembles. Tackling a wide range of repertoire and building collaborations across genre and culture, they are a key part of our musical ecosystem, and help to keep the live chamber music experience relevant to all kinds of listeners. Perhaps most important though is their staunch, even evangelical advocacy for New Zealand composers, at home and abroad. They devoted their latest CD Lightbox exclusively to kiwi composers, and continue to commission and programme New Zealand repertoire in all of their concerts.

On Sunday the trio launched their annual season at Q Theatre Loft. Three concerts – “fragment”, “surge” and “blast” – are themed around French composers, paired with new commissions from Chris Cree Brown, David Hamilton and Kenneth Young. Although these three New Zealand composers were all born within two years of one another, their musical aesthetics are diverse, from the visceral sonic art of Cree Brown, to Hamilton’s minimalist-inflected pep and Young’s colourful lyricism, which seems particularly suited to the French pairing. The titles of the concerts also aptly reflect the dynamism of the NZTrio themselves – charismatic performers never yet short of energy in their fourteen-year history.

Opening with Chausson, the trio navigated the sometimes relentlessly dark, even turgid, harmonic waves of the first movement with tastefulness and clarity. But it was in the inner movements that the players’ abilities shone brightest. The second movement looks forward to Ravel and Prokofiev in playfully percussive piano writing and crystalline string hues: a vehicle well-suited to the trio’s colouristic talents. Sporting a Morrissey-esque sculptural hairstyle and battling a nasty flu, Ashley Brown still drew out the richest of tenors from his instrument. In the lyrical third movement, Justine Cormack showed nuanced phrasing, and Sarah Watkins produced an almost celesta-like tone at the impressionistic tail. After these wonderfully aerated interludes, the finale was something of a let-down; despite the best efforts of the trio, the language was constrained by a return to earnestness, forced intensity, fragmentation without lightness.

The Rachmaninov trio that closed the concert did suffer a little in the shadow of Chris Cree Brown’s boldness, the teenage Romanticism at times cloying. I was all G-minored out after the Chausson and frankly to follow a Gallipoli piece it’s quite possible that any sort of music would feel trivial or contrived.  Nevertheless there were some moments to enjoy here: Watkins found the full weight of the piano with which to saturate the texture; Rachmaninov reminded us of his skill as a tunesmith, many of the lines leaving us teasingly hanging. Apart from a couple of rare intonational blemishes in muted octaves, Brown and Cormack were again in fine lyrical form.

Chris Cree Brown doesn’t mince words: his work often has a clear political dimension with a message that’s difficult to ignore. His 1987 Black and White, a piece for orchestra and tape, written in response to the 1981 Springbok Tour, was punctuated by live shouts of “Fuck Off Boks” and striking documentary recordings of the tour protests. Not dissimilarly, Gallipoli Fragments blends historical war photographs and posters of British propaganda with recorded and synthesised sounds and live instrumental music. Through a contemporary lens the propaganda posters took on an acerbic wit: “This space is reserved for a fit man. Will you fill it?” Visceral metallic clangs and buzzing flies illustrated sonically the banal, dire and pointlessly pathetic Gallipoli campaign. Against this was the suggestion of universal camaraderie, symbolised by Attaturk’s words to the fallen ANZACs, “You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country.”

In the quest for audience appeal, more and more arts organisations are turning to collaboration and cross-over. For me a key problem of Sunday’s concert experience was the literalism of that cross-over. From the chef’s-special-esque programme notes that promised “hillsides of sunflowers, a heady mix of coffee, cigarettes and perfume” in Chausson’s piano trio, to the bubbling water and gunshot battle sounds of Cree Brown’s Gallipoli Fragments, we were spoonfed the connections between sound and image, told what to think and feel before we thought or felt it. Cree Brown’s work was described as “powerful, nostalgic, tragic, open-hearted, raw” before we’d heard the first sound of the piece. The attempt to “cross-over” the microtonally inflected Turkish melodies to the fixed pitch of the piano trio was only partially successful, and the re-enacted last words of a soldier felt oddly impersonal.  

For all the literalism though, there was a transcendental moment half-way through: Cree Brown’s characteristic Aeolian harp sonorities faded seamlessly into a piano rendition of the Christian hymn Abide With Me, over which was layered the Islamic Call to Prayer, and later the strings entered with the Russian National Anthem of the time inflecting the underlying harmony of the piano hymn. Continuing as the hymn and anthem ended together, the Call to Prayer blended back into the initial Aeolian Harp sonority. The delicate superposition of these three emotionally charged layers was executed masterfully; what could easily have become cacophonous at one extreme or saccharine at the other instead sat yearning and twisting on the heart-strings. This is the sort of moment one goes to concerts to experience – a fleeting but indelible point of transcendental beauty and clarity – and everything immediately before and after in a sense pales into insignificance.