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Asia Pacific Festival Review: Pacific Dreaming

Asia Pacific Festival Review: Pacific Dreaming

Review by Dominic Groom

Pacific Dreaming
Michael Fowler Centre
Tuesday 13th February, 6.30pm

NZSO, Kenneth Young, Choristers of Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, Arnold Marinissen (darabuka), Genevieve Lang (harp)


Let’s face it: contemporary classical music is far from being everyone’s cup of tea. Regular concert goers roll their eyes and joke about squeaks and grunts and scraping, while programmers and some performers tend to treat it as the greens we must finish before we get dessert. Cynicism aside, there can be a lot that is interesting, surprising and genuinely exciting in contemporary music-making.

Promotional material for this concert posed two searching questions: “What do Aussies and Kiwis have in common? How are we different?” Given the pot-pourri of influences, styles and aspirations of contemporary composers I doubted that any profound answers would be forthcoming. A most pressing question remained, one that may have been top of mind for many audience members: Am I going to enjoy an entire concert of new music for orchestra?

The programme included a number of works promising a variety of responses to Australasia: landscape and environment, a wider sense of place in the Asia Pacific and personal assertions of identity. Could this antipodean obsession with landscape and identity be my first clue as to the unifying elements I might find? In a nod to familiarity, the late and revered Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu was also featured, paired with a tribute by Australian Barry Conyngham.

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The concert opened in a bright and fun vein. “New Year Fanfare” by Helen Bowater set the regional scene by mimicking the sounds of Javanese festivities against a backdrop of hypnotic strings. Next was Leonie Holmes’ “Frond”. A pretty and enjoyable piece it relied somewhat too heavily on contrasts between rich pedal tones and intricate sparkles from the harp, celesta and piano to create its childhood fantasy world.

The unusually named “Promiscuous” by Mark Zadro sought to blur the boundaries between music and noise and was instantly arresting. Well orchestrated, it mixed comedic and dramatic moments to great effect, and was the stand-out work in the first half. “Fault” by Sam Holloway harked back to the sound world of early electronic music. The material was used in a very concentrated fashion, most compellingly in the spare and eerie music that framed the work. The Takemitsu tribute, “Passing”, was sincere and had moments of affecting simplicity. It was, however, episodic, and several of the episodes failed to hold my attention.

The second half began pleasantly enough with Gerald Brophy’s “Republic of Dreams” showing a distinctly mid-eastern sensibility, and featuring a fine contribution by Arnold Marinissen on the goblet-shaped darabuka drum. “Future of Water” by Julian Yu rather literally depicted droplets of water making their journey to the ocean whereupon they were rapturously greeted by a children’s choir. If all this sounds rather naïve, it was. A colourful and appealing take on the Antarctic environment, “Icescape” by Chris Cree-Brown, was entirely more successful.

Takemitsu, the music and the man, can be characterized as elegant, and “How Slow the Wind” was certainly no exception. Inspired by a short, haiku-like verse by Emily Dickinson, it was a delicately melodic meditation reminiscent of Debussy. It was by far the most effective atmospheric evocation in the programme. Chris Gendall’s “So It Goes” made a vibrant finale. A vigorous concert piece that builds rhythmic and textural momentum, it rushed headlong to an exciting conclusion.

This concert amply demonstrated again what a friend contemporary music has in Ken Young. His direction of the NZSO was accurate and no-nonsense and led to well paced and shaped performances. In turn, the orchestra responded with steady and consistent playing. There were a number of polished solo turns; Donald Armstrong’s violin was outstanding and the percussion section took advantage of many opportunities to shine.

As the applause died away I looked back to those questions. Did “Pacific Dreaming” reveal any unifying thread in Australasian contemporary music? Nothing was obvious, except for the direct influences of traditional music and instruments of Asia and the Pacific, but I had a growing sense that there was distinct aesthetic underlying these diverse works. It remained impossible to pinpoint – perhaps this is a measure of the increasing maturing of our region’s music-making.

More importantly, was the concert a success? Absolutely. It was a bit uneven but I never groaned and rolled my eyes. My mind seldom wandered and I had a number of moments of genuine enjoyment – just as I would expect at any other concert. The class of Takemitsu shone through, but by no means were our Australasians shown up. It was a well devised and delivered programme, the all-contemporary format enhancing, rather than diminishing, the music’s effect. The major disappointment was the small attendance. I hope that among the contemporary music ‘scene’, friends, family and invited dignitaries , there were some regular, or irregular, concert-goers that took a chance on “Pacific Dreaming” and found out that they need not be afraid of new music.

*******

Asia Pacific Festival Website
Asia Pacific Festival - Pacific Dreaming
Scoop Full Coverage - Fringe 07

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