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Arts Festival Review: The Poet

Arts Festival Review: The Poet

Review by Robbie Ellis

The Poet
Sunday 24 February 2008
New Zealand String Quartet/TOWER Voices New Zealand cond. Dr Karen Grylls
Wellington Town Hall
http://www.nzfestival.nzpost.co.nz/music/the-poet


This was an exciting double bill to look forward to – New Zealand's premier choir and premier string quartet together for what I believe to be the first time. While the centrepiece of the concert was Jenny McLeod’s setting of some of Janet Frame’s poetry, the lead-up to that was the individual ensembles performing some of their own repertoire.

Voices New Zealand was first – a solid set of a capella works, though not without issues around tightness and articulation. Highlights for me included the delightfully playful solo flutters from soprano soloist Pepe Becker in Jan Sandström’s Gloria; and the oddly fitting transition from an original anthem by Purcell (17th century) to Bob Chilcott’s adaptation of the same piece (21st century) – these two seemed like two movements of the same work, developmentally speaking.

The understated yet supremely powerful ending of Giovanni Bonato’s Audi Filia was magnificent: a dark bass bedrock made way for the ghostly sound of a wine glass. While the lighting changes during that piece were distracting (the choir was spread out across the stage in sections and lit accordingly), the near-blackout with a single spot on conductor Karen Grylls at the end of the work was marvellous in combination with the low voices. Another marvellous ending was just before the ‘Hallelujah’ in Sven David Sandström’s Lobet den Herrn: his arrangement of the voices at that point – with the whole choir low to the ground bar one pinprick of a soprano’s high G – was positively ethereal.

The New Zealand String Quartet then took the stage along with baritone soloist Robert Wiremu for a short Schubert Lied, Der Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden). Robert Wiremu is an assured interpreter of Schubert and is obviously experienced at characterising the different vocal qualities and emotions that these texts require. His sly and seductive Death was a treat to watch.

This short Lied, however, was merely the precursor to Schubert’s much longer string quartet of the same name in D minor, and this is really where the concert took off. A group that sways together plays together – and from the first preparatory upbeat these four fine musicians were spectacular physical communicators both with each other and with the audience, and delivered amazing technique to boot. This formidable work by Schubert – four turbulent movements of hope and despair – was delivered with brilliant passion: the quartet filled and controlled the Town Hall (a larger than optimal space for a group of their size) and their presence and sound radiated from the stage. At the end to this thrilling work, audience members rose to their feet and the NZSQ deserved their bows.

Finally it came time for the centrepiece of the concert: all forces on stage for Jenny McLeod’s The Poet: A Song Cycle for choir and string quartet, a setting of poems by Janet Frame. The works of these women are some of New Zealand’s cultural treasures and both describe our environment with great finesse – not in terms of grand and sweeping landscapes, but in our immediate experiences of what is close and tactile, the rooms in our houses and the people in our towns.

McLeod didn’t allow herself to wallow in the repetition of one word or phrase as the preceding choral repertoire did. There was a lot of text to cover (11 poems in total), and the words went by in a measured fashion, at roughly the same speed as a poet would read them. While I said that McLeod never wallowed in words, she certainly took the opportunity to luxuriate in them when appropriate: we heard a haunting glassy sound from the upper strings to describe “stars that sing”; we felt the flat white powder surface at the beginning of ‘Snow’ with choir and strings non vibrato; and on “growth of moss, the green ember”, I certainly felt something gloriously gungey and salaciously slimy to the touch.

I could go on with impeccably evocative examples of word setting: aside from these highly nuanced textures, the composer was perfectly adept at making some lines “beautifully puffed” with their own self-importance; writing rabble-rousing anthem choruses; and treating a cherry tree with beautiful sentimentality, all while avoiding the worst excesses of these forms. The work ended with a great opposition of text and texture: the low pitched darkness on the word “light” is an appropriate one when, at the end of an old poet’s life, there is no longer any.

The choir had wonderful performance energy on this piece: to me, it seemed that conductor Karen Grylls had – among the choir – struck the right balance of rehearsed preparedness and nervous performance adrenaline. Despite articulation issues earlier in the concert, the finale was immaculately delivered with great word clarity: essential when most of the words went by only once. (That said, the complete libretto of Janet Frame’s poems was printed in the programme.) The singers’ harmony and intonation were superb throughout, and the New Zealand String Quartet had a wide and detailed palette of sounds to draw on as partners to the choir. All in all a triumph: Jenny McLeod, Karen Grylls, TOWER Voices New Zealand and the New Zealand String Quartet presented a great event in Wellington – and I hope the The Poet plays in other centres soon.

*******

The Poet: A Song Cycle is a piece to look out for on the schedule at Radio New Zealand Concert (the concert was recorded for future broadcast), and don't be surprised if you find this piece ending up on a CD release in the future. I would also like to mention SOUNZ, the Centre for New Zealand Music – they were selling the score to the work in the Town Hall foyer, along with other CDs and scores of New Zealand music.

The Poet on the Arts Festival Website

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