Alex Ross, author and music critic for the New Yorker, is touring New Zealand with the group Stroma and singer Bianca Andrew for Chamber Music New Zealand.
This concert was part of the Auckland Writers Festival where Alex Ross also spoke at other events about his latest book on Wagner and his justly famous history of 20th century music The Rest is Noise.
The performances with Stroma and Andrew are lecture recitals during which Ross gives us what he described as ‘a history of 20th century music styles’ and the musicians perform music that illustrates his comments.
This is all chamber music but goes way beyond the normal quartet or trio formations the phrase might suggest.
Under Hamish McKeich’s direction the six musicians gave us a wide range of instrumental sounds with constantly varying combinations of piano, woodwind, strings and voice.
The music is more of a potpourri of pieces rather than a systematic survey although it is arranged chronologically and takes in the major figures of the previous century with New Zealanders Gillian Whitehead and Jenny McLeod featuring along with the likes of Ravel, Bartok, Schoenberg and Stravinsky.
The format worked well although at times Ross seemed to be almost apologising for some of the music.
He took some pains to emphasise the emotional and romantic elements of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire but most of his often wry and always perceptive comments illuminated the music and gave wide ranging cultural, political, and social contexts to this soundtrack of a particularly tumultuous era.
The concert began with the first part of Pierrot Lunaire and finished with its conclusion which made an effective bookend to a wide variety of styles. There was atonality, serialism, minimalism, folk song, Spectralism, and every other style of the last hundred years.
All this was performed with felling and energy by Stroma and Bianca Andrew. Andrew’s singing was always effective and rose to the varied and strenuous demands of the music from the syllables and phoneme sounds into words structure of Berio’s O King to the languid and sensual feel of Ravels’ ‘Il est doux de se coucher’.
Stroma’s players rose admirably to the exacting demands of the music with its complexities and extended techniques.
They caught the sense of birds swooping and fluttering in Whitehead’s Manutaki.
Charisma by Xenakais had Patrick Barry on clarinet and Ken Ichinose on cello sounding more like and industrial noise band than a chamber group.
The violin duet of Ligeti’s Ballad and Dance was a playful and singing reminder of the folk sounds that underpinned the music of the century of mass movements.
The ‘Dance of Fury’ from Messiaen’s could have perhaps used a little more of the apocalyptic energy it invokes.
Whitehead’s 'Birds on the cliffs of Whatipu' were perhaps another nod to Messiaen as a representative of the 20th century mavericks like Ives, Cardew, Radigue, and Nancarrow who couldn’t be fitted in to what was already bulging program.
This concert was a powerful combination of words and music.
While some of Ross’s comments may have seemed a little bland and safe the music spoke strongly through the sterling performances of Stroma and Bianca Andrew.
As the final song, ‘O alter Duft’, died away it felt as if we had heard the voices of those artists who had dared to ‘dream beyond the far horizon’ the song mentions, through music that still challenges and provokes.