20 May 2016

Review: Karlheinz Company

Review: Karlheinz Company

University of Auckland School of Music, Sunday 15 May 2016

Eve de Castro-Robinson, Director

Callum Blackmore, voice
Stephen de Pledge, piano
Alex Taylor, conductor, voice
Jonathan Dunlop, harpsichord
Rachel Song, piano
Amy Hsu, organ
Cynthia Hsu, harp
John Coulter, Irazema Vera, Clovis McEvoy, John Kim, microphones
Matt Ball, tenor saxophone
Clare Hood, Amy Jansen, Stephanie Dow, Nathan Hauraki, Ben Kubiak, voices
Elizabeth Holowell, Stella Kim, violins; Julie Park, viola; Martin Roberts, cello

Gyorgy Ligeti: Continuum
Jack Body: Turtle Time
Pierre Boulez: Notations (selections)
Alex Taylor: vis-a-vis
Anthony Young: Leave Your Light On
Steve Reich: Pendulum Music
John Grant: Queen of Denmark
Clovis McEvoy: Change Blindness
Eve de Castro-Robinson: Cries of Auckland

Review by Jay Greenberg

If there was an overarching theme to the Karlheinz Company’s annual concert, Turtle Time, on Sunday, it was nostalgia.  In her spoken introduction, Eve de Castro-Robinson, the Company’s artistic director, made reference to the 1960s, describing it as an anarchic and experimental decade when “anything was possible”, whereas the present day had lost that spirit. The programme included three works from 1968, a pivotal year in both music and history, along with a series of tributes to two of 2016’s musical casualties—Pierre Boulez and David Bowie—and also featuring thematically unrelated but emotionally appropriate interpretations of USA songwriter John Grant by Alex Taylor and a recent de Castro-Robinson work by a gaggle of School of Music students and staff.

György Ligeti’s Continuum for double-manual harpsichord, the first of the three 1968 works presented, was characteristically described in the programme notes as bristling and somewhat abrasive. That description certainly applies to many of the surviving contemporary accounts, such as Elisabeth Chojnacka’s first recording for Philips in the 1970s. It was a surprise therefore to hear such a lyrical and fluid performance, whether due to harpsichordist Jonathan Dunlop or the instrument itself. Ligeti’s three-and-a-half minute piece, in perpetual motion, moves from stasis on a rapid, overlapping G-Bb tremolo to encompass a wider range of notes, gradually climbing into the high register to end once more in stasis on a high Fb. In Dunlop’s hands it sounded less mechanistic and more expressive, bringing out the sense of an unbroken “continuum” of sound quite strongly but without some of the clarity necessary to bring out the work’s duality of tiny, detached individual sounds vs. the effect of a seamless whole.

Jack Body’s Turtle Time, which lent its title to the concert, was the “main event” not only for its duration but also because it had apparently gone unperformed in Auckland since its premiere, according to de Castro-Robinson’s opening remarks.  It was also in its way a commemoration, Body having passed away on the same day as last year’s Karlheinz Company concert. In both scoring and material Body’s work could be described as proto-Boulezian—the ensemble of piano, harpsichord, harp and Hammond organ recalling works such as Répons and Sur Incises, except that they would not appear until 1980 and 1998 respectively. The material, moving between free, isolated gestures and more continuous ensemble passages, is practically a distillation of the Darmstadtian trends of its era, recalling Boulez mostly in its sonic vividness and sensuality. At the same time, to this ensemble (conducted energetically and effectively by Alex Taylor), Body added a recitation of a poem by New Zealand poet Russell Haley—prerecorded in his original conception, but here delivered somewhat bombastically by Callum Blackmore. This recalls the role of the speaker in Luciano Berio’s Laborintus II (1965) and Sinfonia (1968), among the first of Berio’s works to incorporate collage-like techniques and therefore part of the great aesthetic diversification of the European avant-garde following the breakup of the Boulez-Nono-Stockhausen trinity.

In uniting these two musical “directions” of the 1960s Body’s work practically stood in for Darmstadt itself, as Ligeti represented the Central European avant-garde and Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music would later represent the New York School. Whilst it was among the most effective works on the programme—and the use of an important New Zealand poem poached a number of literary figures from the Writer’s Festival events of the same day—there is a sense in which Body’s work felt like a survey of musical techniques that took his fancy rather than a genuinely personal work. Indeed, it was only shortly thereafter that his encounter with Indonesian classical music paved the way for his departure towards a new, totally idiosyncratic style. It must be added that both the Boulezian icy, glittering, almost “neo-Debussy” style of the instrumental music and the use of recitation are devices that have become somewhat dated in the intervening forty-eight years. The five Boulez Notations that followed, played with panache and a full range of piano colour by Stephen de Pledge—the oldest works on the programme, written in the 1940s, though among the most appealing—were in turn followed by an additional “Notation” in the form of Alex Taylor’s vis-à-vis, a tribute to Boulez, which brought the widened range of expression and greater concentration on isolated gestures of Boulez’s mature music. Nonetheless there was not a sense that one had travelled very far from 1945 in musical terms; nor is there such a sense in Boulez’s own work of the 1990s and 2000s.

The first half then concluded with de Pledge’s performance of another tribute, Anthony Young’s Leave Your Light On, commemorating David Bowie. Though beginning in the kind of stasis that had dominated the programme so far, the piece built up its tiny, simplistic ostinato ideas to a climax that gradually faded into piano resonance. It was also the first piece of the evening to introduce diatonic, tonal harmonies, and to make explicit the sense of retrospection. One thing that certainly was not evoked during the concert was that anarchic and experimental spirit of the 1960s; perhaps the performances allowed listeners to recollect and reflect upon the era, like a memory of a vanished childhood, but in and of themselves they had little of the visionary and immediate, or for that matter the experimental and fun. For example Reich’s Pendulum Music, which followed interval and required the complex assembly and disassembly of four speakers and four hanging microphones, was conceived as both “kind of funny” (in the composer’s words) and as homage to John Cage. Sonically the most arresting of the items presented, based entirely on the feedback caused by the microphones approaching the speakers as they swing across the stage like pendulums, it dates to Reich’s most experimental period and before he turned to writing for conventional instruments. The fun, however, was transmuted into gentle irony by the presentation, the four performers picking up and releasing their microphones with infinite care before seating themselves gravely on the fringes of the stage; a performance more ritual than “happening”.

Once the stage had been cleared Alex Taylor returned to perform John Grant’s Queen of Denmark as singer and pianist. As another lyrically driven work it served as parallel to Turtle Time in the first half, though in this case without much musical content to enhance or detract from the text. Taylor’s singing voice, warm and grainy with tinges of hoarseness and vocal fry, superbly suited the song in both style and substance.  A second tribute to David Bowie, Clovis McEvoy’s Change Blindness for solo saxophone, gradually moved from key clicks and fully voiced sounds with special attention paid to the liminal states in between the two, all within a one-minute fragment of great kinetic energy—resembling the bass line of, say, a rock song. The work, which calls for a degree of improvisation, was tossed off with great dash and bravura by Matt Ball. Unlike Young’s Bowie tribute, which was based on a specific song, McEvoy did not make clear if any of the rock musician’s compositions were meant as inspiration. The exuberance of the performance also marked the only real break in the predominantly nostalgic tone of the concert.

The closing item, de Castro-Robinson’s Cries of Auckland for vocal sextet and string quartet, looked back explicitly to political protests of the 1980s onwards: the bulk of its texts recall the anti-apartheid unrest against the 1981 South African national rugby union tour, gradually morphing into 21st century protests against global capitalism. Through presenting this work at the culmination of the programme de Castro-Robinson presumably intended to draw a link between her experiences as a politically engaged New Zealander and the political upheavals and revolutions that swept the rest of the world in the 1960s. The text and music were better integrated than in the other two textual works presented, with the protest slogans used almost more as sonic objects than semantic ones. Imitative writing between voices and strings set up a fairly dense climax, incorporating traditional tonality as a “found object” and finally bringing in a bass drum and megaphone to signify a breakdown of musical order. In the performance, all six vocalists left the stage at this moment. Despite its promise of noise and political defiance, this proved to be a basically retrospective and nostalgic piece as well; the defiance more remembered than actual, the noise more comfortable than disturbing. To some extent the performance styles chosen by the vocalists played into this as well; beginning and end contrasted Nathan Hauraki’s belted, half-spoken tenor with Clare Hood’s quasi-lieder recital soprano, and the use of more “classical”-style singing throughout the piece clarified the relationship of voices to strings but in some respect did disservice to what had been, essentially, shouts of hundreds of people in unison. The music’s final dissolution gave an impression of looking back from a great distance.

A successful concert with a highly positive audience response, filling the University of Auckland’s Music Theatre close to capacity, Turtle Time was certainly enjoyable from a musical point of view, and gave Aucklanders the chance to hear music rarely if ever performed in this country and a taste of contemporary NZ composition. At the same time, as homage to the 60s it was problematic. One wonders if that “anarchic, experimental” spirit might not be better served by presenting works that are truly cutting-edge and boundary-pushing, that retain the old view that “anything is possible”—as have occasionally featured in past Karlheinz Company concerts—rather than an evening of memories, retrospectives and tributes.