David Hamilton & Ross Harris
David Hamilton (b.1955)
Performers: Concertante Ensemble - Stephen Popperwell & Gudrun Scharnke (oboes), Alan Gold & Walter Hamer (clarinets), David Angus & Liam Gill (bassoons), Edward Allen & Gregory Hill (horns)
Recorded by Radio New Zealand at a Music Federation concert in the Wellington Opera House
30 May 1988
Ross Harris (b.1945)
String Quartet No 3, Blood Red Roses (2004)
Performers: New Zealand String Quartet - Helene Pohl & Douglas Beilman (violins), Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (cello)
Recorded by Radio New Zealand at a New Zealand International Arts Festival concert in St Mary of the Angels Church, Wellington
26 February 2006
Introductions by Kenneth Young
If you were to ask me, or most other people in the local music scene: Who is New Zealand's most accomplished and successful composer of choral music? The immediate response would be David Hamilton. His works lodged with SOUNZ number well over 400, the vast majority of them for choral forces.
His works have been performed, published and recorded in around the world with commissions from choirs in Japan, England, USA, Finland and, of course, New Zealand. There must be barely a school choir in our country that hasn’t performed at least one piece by David Hamilton.
One of my fondest musical memories is of hearing David's Caliban’s Song performed by the exceptional 1988 National Youth Choir in a gloriously appropriate acoustic. My earliest encounter with his music, however, was as a member of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in 1980 when we performed a splendidly vast work with the marvellously outrageous title of The Heat Death of the Universe. Since then I’ve had the opportunity to conduct and record some of David's non-choral output, notably Remembering Parihaka with the exceptional Richard Nunns, and Elysian Fields. I can confirm his instrumental writing is just as developed as his prowess with the human voice.
The music you heard at the beginning of this programme was from Hamilton's wind octet called Kaleidoscope, a work dating from 1987. Now it would be fair to say that minimalism was all the rage when this piece was written and Hamilton was certainly not averse to dabbling in its textural intricacies.
What I enjoy about his approach here is that he doesn't dwell too long on any one gesture, as opposed to many minimalist pieces from the late 60's onwards where many composers kept harmony and texture static for long periods – testing the audience's listening capacity – and wore this almost as a badge of honour. No such concerns here – there's a clear formal structure here, quite minimalist in itself: 3 distinct sections, slow, fast, slow contained in the one movement work.
The work is scored for 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 horns and 2 bassoons, with the 2nd clarinet doubling on soprano saxophone for the chorale-like middle section.
The performers here are wind players from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, calling themselves the Concertante Ensemble. They were recorded at a Music Federation concert in the Wellington Opera House in May 1988.
String Quartet No 3, Blood Red Roses
Since Ross Harris resigned from his teaching position at Victoria University of Wellington in 2004, he's had a phenomenal output of significant works along with a welter of awards and recognition. All of it thoroughly deserved in my opinion.
Mind you, I am biased. Like me, Ross grew up in the brass band movement in Christchurch starting out with the Addington Workshops Band which my father played in. Ross played the tuba – also like me – but subsequently transferred his attention to the French Horn. He went on to be a regular in the ranks of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra horn section and later on dabbled in trumpet and saxophone. He now plays accordion in a klezmer band, and this genre heavily informed his extraordinary Third Symphony which was premiered by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra in 2009.
In the past few years he's been Composer in Residence at both the APO and the New Zealand School of Music, and he’s been a finalist in 8 out of the 13 years the SOUNZ Contemporary Award has been presented, winning on 4 occasions. But perhaps it only takes one sentence more to highlight how Ross is held in such high esteem: reviewing his soprano and string quartet work The Abiding Tides, Rod Biss wrote in The Listener: "It is a work that has instantly enriched our heritage of New Zealand music."
"They ordered drinks to be brought in and tried to forget the eerie world of the bunker, dancing to music provided by the only phonograph record they could find. It was a song that spoke of 'blood-red roses' and future happiness."
That was a quote from Inside Hitler's Bunker, a book by the renowned German historian Joachim Fest. What you’ve just heard is the opening to Ross Harris’s String Quartet No 3, subtitled "Blood Red Roses". In the composer's own words:
"The choice of the simple waltz "Blutrote Rosen" was made for many reasons – most obviously the reference to a horrific context. The banality and crudeness of the tune were also ideal for the deconstruction and fragmentation the music undergoes during the course of the piece. The music starts as simply as possible with the original melody and most of the harmony intact. The various elements of the simple popular tune fall away – harmony, melody, simple metric rhythms, and the fragments twist and reform into a tortured and angular world.
"After a short pause at about the half way point fleeting reminiscences of the tune remerge echoing amidst the demonic dances which build up to the end of the quartet. By the end the tune is transformed into something brutal and grotesque."
I might also add the word shattering. It is an extraordinary example of technique by a composer fully in tune with his craft. The string quartet in my opinion, is still the most demanding genre for a composer, and the skill which Harris exhibits with this work is exemplary. As is the combined skill of all four members of the New Zealand String Quartet for whom the work was written, since the many and varied performance techniques the score demands are daunting for any quartet and the rhythmic complexities present extremely interesting ensemble problems. The NZSQ deals with all of these issues brilliantly in this thoroughly committed performance.
The work was commissioned by the Adam Festival of Chamber Music in Nelson and premiered there in January 2005. We're going to hear a performance from the following year's New Zealand International Arts Festival in Wellington.