27 February 2016

Review: Miyata-Yoshimura-Suzuki Trio

Review: Miyata-Yoshimura-Suzuki Trio

Hopetoun Alpha, Auckland, 25 February 2016

Tosiya Suzuki, recorders
Nanae Yoshimura, koto
Mayumi Miyata, shō
Dylan Lardelli, guitar
Chris Gendall, conductor

Chris Gendall: Choruses (for shō, recorder and koto, 2015)
Toshio Hosokawa: Bird Fragments IIIb (for shō and recorder, 1990/97)
Samuel Holloway: Mono (for shō, recorder and koto, 2015)
Dylan Lardelli: Selected Verses and Compendiums (for recorders, 2014)
Samuel Holloway: Austerity Measures (for shō, recorder, koto and guitar, 2012, revised 2016)
Trad.: Banshiki no Chōshi (for shō)
Osamu Kawakami: Phoenix Chicken (for shō, recorder and koto, 2013)
Dylan Lardelli: Retracing (for shō, recorder, koto and guitar, 2015)

Review by Alex Taylor

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Tosiya Suzuki, Nanae Yoshimura and Mayumi Miyata are the world’s foremost practitioners of their respective instruments. So it was with great anticipation that I made my way through the stifling Auckland evening to join a substantial audience at Hopetoun Alpha, that grand curiosity tucked in behind Karangahape Road.

This current concert tour represents an ongoing musical collaboration: both Suzuki (recorder) and Yoshimura (koto) visited New Zealand in 2012 with a stimulating programme combining contemporary New Zealand works with traditional and new Japanese compositions. Samuel Holloway and Dylan Lardelli had written works specifically for these musicians: Austerity Measures and Hiki-Iro respectively, and Chris Gendall’s Three Details was performed by Suzuki and members of Stroma in the Wellington concert.

In many ways this current tour is a development, an advancement: the addition to the ensemble of Mayumi Miyata on shō; all three composers writing new works specifically for this combination; and the juxtaposition of these commissions with older works by Holloway and Lardelli.

My impression from the earlier tour was that the recorder-koto combination seemed perfectly balanced: attack and sustain, impulse and breath, texture and line. So it was a great pleasure to me that the addition of the shō, far from disrupting this balance, provided a third quite distinct kind of energy to the ensemble: a metallic, unwavering sustain quite unlike the recorder’s sustained breath, and the ability to create close, almost cloying textures unlike the more momentary koto; Miyata’s shō brought a fixed quality where Suzuki’s recorder seemed cardinal, generative, and Yoshimura’s koto mutable, flexible. All three in their precision and refinement belied a potential for huge energy and violence.  

With his new work Choruses, Chris Gendall put these particular characteristics to use in service of a meta-instrumental texture, a carefully crafted architecture driven by the mercurial inflection of Suzuki’s recorder, and based on transcriptions of Tui calls. As the work unfolded it pulled at the edges of the synergistic construction, becoming more tangled near its temporal midpoint. There was an exciting tension and contrast between the intricate, sometimes violent gestures, and the periods of relative stasis between them. However, there was a textural sameness to the work, relieved most effectively in the moments when Suzuki switched between Tenor and Sopranino recorders. This left a sort of aural gap or erasure, as if the scaffolding of the work was briefly allowed to hold its own shape, to exist without its protagonist. Each time he returned, Suzuki – with his particular vivacious style of performance movement – seemed especially suited to this music of nuance and moment.

Against this, Samuel Holloway’s new work Mono seemed like a protest, if not a snub, against those very qualities of nuance, gesture and drama. Virtually monophonic, with the occasional heterophonic smudge, Mono employed an unwavering uniformity of dynamic and articulation, and a bald pitch language such that any slight harmonic shift was drastically amplified. While the constrained musical resources to me would have suited a much longer form and a slower tempo to allow the embedded silences to speak more forcefully, this was nevertheless a committed, controlled display of bathos.

When Yoshimura and Suzuki last visited in late 2012, I attended the Auckland version of “Jo-ha-kyu: Refinement and Abandon”, and took some notes (an extract of which below).

a slight disjunction between the cool refinement of the two New Zealand works and the more extroverted Japanese pieces, but this disjunction also provided clarity: the language of the Holloway and of Dylan Lardelli's Hiki-Iro felt almost uncannily similar when surrounded by more traditional narrative forms and pulse-driven forward momentum. Both Holloway and Lardelli made use of descending microtonal materials and subtle rhythmic unfoldings. However, where Lardelli allowed the koto to periodically burst into violence, Austerity Measures was threatening in its suspended miserliness. This work continued Holloway's exploration of subtly evolving rhythmic structures, and also featured his quite disconcerting technique of dropping into the texture fully formed musical objects as if from nowhere: here several ascending passages occasionally pierced through the mostly descending material, and most noticeably a stubbornly static A440 metronome pitch twice virtually drowned out proceedings for considerable lengths of time. Holloway's deliberate and unrelenting investigation of highly reduced materials provided the most challenging aural experience of the evening.”

Since that performance, Holloway has rescored the work to include shō and to my ears adjusted the balance of the A440 pitch – a still alien, but not quite so obtrusive presence. It struck me on second hearing that the musical unfolding, a series of descending scales trapped within an octave A to A, was not a bad analogy for trickle-down economics. Only the koto ever ventured beyond the glass floor by a single semitone, and briefly offered a fragment of ascent from below, but it was quickly abandoned. At the end of the work the guitarist alone stroked his strings up and down repeatedly, producing a plasticky white noise, a satisfying aural palette cleanser after the chromatic saturation of the rest of the piece, but also a gesture of deletion, a nullifying of the strings’ natural resonance.

Dylan Lardelli also had two works performed, the first of which was the arcanely titled Selected Verses and Compendiums. Here Suzuki was at his most virtuosic, curving and splitting between registers, the writing at times flamboyant to the point of self-indulgence. Where Holloway practically denied all virtuosity, Lardelli embraced it, pushing extremes of register, dynamism and agility. However, despite the beautifully measured coda, for me the abiding memory of the work was its screaming difference tones, shuddering and unpredictable, a challenge I suspect for even the most resolute of listeners in this liveliest of spaces.

Interleaved with the five New Zealand compositions were Japanese works, old and new. Hosokawa’s Bird Fragments IIIb seemed almost operatic in conception, playing dramatically on the fundamental difference in character between shō and recorder. This was highlighted by the striking staging of the work: Miyata set on stage, stoic in white, against the flitting, angular presence of Suzuki below, dressed in black. I felt this work might have benefited from a different place in the programme; as it was, following Gendall’s Choruses, the high contrast and tense energy within both works became taxing after a while. Osamu Kawakami’s Phoenix Chicken was taxing for different reasons, utilising a squared-up, almost cartoonish language. It produced a work that struggled to breathe or flow, a garish “kawaii” aesthetic, a suffocating cuteness. The most successful of the Japanese works was the meditative traditional Gagaku prelude Banshiki no Chōshi for solo shō. The bright tuning of the instrument created a heightened harmonic energy that sustained long spans of virtually static musical time. Miyata demonstrated a masterful control of phrasing, stretching the listener’s breath with her own.

Closing the concert was Lardelli’s Retracing for shō, recorder, koto and guitar (played by the composer). Where the component parts of Gendall’s meta-instrument were tightly interlocked, Lardelli’s was looser, more stratified, each instrument inhabiting a different rather embryonic gestural shape. Halfway through, a huge koto glissando provoked the guitar into linear action, later outlining fully-fledged intervallic constellations, before the ensemble curled back on itself, receding into the fluid, sliding recorder trills of the opening. I thought this work particularly effective in capturing the difficulty of memory: the sudden flash of inspiration (sometimes hollow), the embellishment and artifice, the long meandering trains of thought.

Samuel Holloway, Chris Gendall and Dylan Lardelli represent the vanguard of New Zealand composition. While each composer is strikingly individual, they all approach their work with flair, rigour and integrity. But it’s rare to hear their works performed live, let alone attend a concert that includes five. The quality of the music is clear, the live audience’s reaction warm; why are these composers’ works not more widely performed and broadcast in New Zealand? It’s a complex question, but it strikes me that increasingly the New Zealand music establishment is shirking its responsibility to adventurous new music. The large institutions pass over serious artistry for flashy crossover or crowd favourites. Certain types of music are well served – music that does well in Radio New Zealand’s focus groups, music tagged as “accessible” – but the most adventurous, challenging music is left as someone else’s responsibility, relying on new music champions like NZTrio and Stroma, with far fewer resources, to pick up the slack.

2016 promises well-funded productions of large-scale works by Ross Harris (Symphonies no. 2 and 6, Brass Poppies), John Psathas (No Man’s Land) and Christopher Blake (Symphony: Voices). We should applaud these endeavours. But when will we hear a Samuel Holloway opera, or a forty-minute orchestral work of Chris Gendall? One can only hope that events like this, organised under the composers’ own steam, help to alert festivals, orchestras and other institutions of the possibilities these composers offer.


NB: This concert will be repeated in Wellington tomorrow Sunday 28 February 3pm at St Andrew's on the Terrace Wellington, and again Monday 29 February 7.30pm at St Mark's Church Lower Hutt.

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