There are not too many concerts where the “safe” programming choices include Ravel and Schoenberg, however, that was the case on Monday evening when Stroma conducted by Hamish McKeich presented a programme of 20th-century music with acclaimed New Yorker classical music critic Alex Ross. The concert opened with excerpts from Arnold Schoenberg’s monumental and Pierrot Lunaire. The work is a behemoth of 20th-century music, the somewhat unusual instrumentation became a favourite of 20th-century composers and Schoenberg’s unusual treatment of the voice through sprechstimme, an intriguing blend of sung and spoken tone is also a notable departure from the traditional role of the singer. Mezzo-soprano Bianca Andrew, commanded the audience’s attention in this role delivering an exceptional performance.
We were then introduced to Alex Ross, whose incredibly insightful comments preceding pieces provided the audience with a broad overview of the various compositional streams of the 20th century. These spoken episodes were cleverly placed at various intervals in the concert as to provide context to the works without interrupting the flow of the concert. Following Ross’ first interlude Andrew sang Maurice Ravel’s Chansons madécasses displaying a beautiful lyrical tone. This was followed by Sebes from Contrasts by Béla Bartók and the Dance of Fury, for the Seven Trumpets from Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. These two works were the least effective of the programme, with the Messiaen feeling a tad sedate for my liking and both works at times lacking the required clarity and precision required to give truly effective performances.
Following an entertaining, folk inspired violin duo by György Ligeti, Bianca Andrew returned for Igor Stravinsky’s Full Fathom Five an intriguing song from the great composers later period. The final work of the first half was an extract from New Zealand composer Jenny McLeod’s 1966 work For Seven. This work was written for performers in Stockhausen’s ensemble and is a highly refined example of the 1960’s avant garde. Stroma and Hamish McKeich gave an inspired performance bringing out the various timbres and textures of McLeod’s complex and demanding score very effectively.
The second half began with the atmospheric O King, Italian composer Luciano Berio’s emotional tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. The interweaving lines between instruments and voice were extremely well balanced with Andrew only truly emerging towards the end for her complete statement of the civil rights leaders name. This was followed by Pierre Boulez’s 1969 Improvise pour le Dr. Kalmus, Stroma expertly managed Boulez’s demanding score and particular praise must here be reserved for pianist Emma Sayers, who provided the piece with much of it’s drive. Iannis Xenakis’ Charisma written in 1971 then showed us the 1970’s avant garde at its most striking, with the cellist Ken Ichinose and clarinettist Patrick Barry using many jarring unusual techniques in a captivating and engrossing performance.
Manutaki by New Zealand arts icon Gillian Whitehead was an engaging depiction of flocks of birds and as with so many other works on the programme that we only heard extracts of left me desperate to hear the work in its entirety.
One of the leading composers working in the world today, Kaija Saariaho has proved to be willing to explore many of the late 20th centuries compositional trends, from. In Oi Kuu (for the moon) sounds are imperceptibly blended creating a constantly evolving atmosphere truly reminiscent of the moon. For this performance, Bridget Douglas introduced the audience to the bass flute in a truly breathtaking way as she and Ichinose wove in and out of the texture blending the sounds of what one would initially assume are two very different sounding instruments. Following this David Lang’s Short Fall gave us a brief glimpse into the tonal minimalism of the latter 20th century with complex rhythms providing drive over a slowly falling melodic pattern. The concert ended as it began with Bianca Andrew returning to treat the audience to another stunning excerpt from Pierrot Lunaire a fitting way to end a fantastic concert.
Nathaniel Otley is a third year Music Student at the University of Otago studying Performance Violin and Composition with a particular passion for 20th and 21st century “classical” music.