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Penny Axtens (1974-)
From the Sixth Hour (2002)

Performers: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, David Atherton (conductor)
Recorded by Radio New Zealand in the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
11 October 2002

Introduced by Kenneth Young

Penelope Axtens completed an Honours degree in Composition at the University of Auckland, and a Masters degree at Victoria University of Wellington in 1999. She won the inaugural Music 2000 Prize run by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Radio New Zealand and was also awarded the orchestra prize. Her winning work Part the Second was given performances and broadcast throughout New Zealand. Part of her prize was a commission from the NZSO for a substantial concert work.

I was still a member of the NZSO in 2000 and I can remember that we were all taken and impressed by Part the Second - it certainly came from the pen of a composer to watch out for. How right we were when her commission came to be performed two years later. It was called From the Sixth Hour.

Before she left New Zealand to live in London, Penelope Axtens had had works performed by 175 East and other contemporary ensembles in Auckland and Wellington, but nothing had quite prepared any of us for the impression this new work made. Here was a fertile imagination at work, aligned with a very real instinctive knowledge of how to realise what she heard in her head.

Penny admitted to some biblical inspiration for the work from the book of Luke. "At the sixth hour a darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour he cried out."

The work begins with the trombones breathing atmospherically through their instruments before contributing to a sombre opening stanza with 6 part viola glissandi which grows in intensity as the 1st and 2nd violins enter, each in 5-part divisi.

Harp, bells, glockenspiel and vibraphone lend their unique colours before an impassioned outburst in octaves from the strings. Herein lies the framework for this marvellous piece. We have aleatoric strings against multi-layered rhythmic clusters in the wind and brass, followed by blanket statements from the entire orchestra in parallel harmonies.

Subterranean murmurings wind their way to string glissandi and trumpets using half stem harmon mutes. The sudden contrasting textural and dynamic changes are often overwhelming in their intensity. Percussion fight with the rest of the orchestra to take control; they lose. A brass chorale attempts to take hold over the chaos surrounding it climaxing in a grand A major chord, which peters away to four string players pathetically dragging and scratching their bows across the strings - similar in its effect to fingernails down a blackboard.

This is followed by piano strings played with grooved rubber mallets, along with random woodwind key clicks and harp glissandi near its soundboard, while the strings lament.

There is certainly much to admire in this work: The many textural  contrasts I’ve already spoken of; the way Axtens inventively uses tempi gradations for enhanced rhythmic effect; that she's not afraid to move from the obscure and eerie to the grand; and how she juxtaposes the aleatoric with measured rhythmic passages. However, it's how she writes for each instrument in the most effective tessitura which I find most striking. There are passages which are overwhelming in their general welter of sound, however everything works; none of it is out of place. She knows which register of which instrument is going to give her what she seeks. This is the craft of orchestration, and this piece is very effective and affecting.

Nowhere is this more evident than when the horns, trombones and tuba, doubled by bassoons and lower strings, intone consonant harmonies while all around them there are manic meanderings from the uppers strings and wildly twittering birds in the woodwind; all climaxing in a massive B-flat.

Penny Axtens has rather eluded us since her move overseas in the mid 2000s. I for one would love to hear more of her work. I sense a universal depth to her vision and because of this, I feel she has much to offer in the future.

More about From the Sixth Hour on the SOUNZ website