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Arts Festival Review: Landscapes

Arts Festival Review: Landscapes

Review by Robbie Ellis

Stephen De Pledge (piano)
Wednesday 27 February 2008
Ilott Theatre

Here was another new New Zealand work (let’s say one “work” and twelve “pieces”), and here was an incredibly sensitive pianist to perform it. Stephen De Pledge, a New Zealander now established in the UK, is no showy virtuoso. Rather, he is a very precise communicator in both his playing and his stage presence – and a delight to watch.

Four or five years ago I started to hear of various New Zealand composers hearing from De Pledge in England and being commissioned by him, and heard of the first performances of these works in recital halls overseas. A couple of years ago I found out that he was intending to compile a set of twelve pieces by twelve different New Zealand composers. Last night he played all twelve as a unified set for the first time. It had been a long time coming.

Like The Poet on Sunday, this was a programme that started with established repertoire and led to the première of a major New Zealand work. Just after 7:00pm, De Pledge strode into the auditorium with confidence and grace, sat at the piano, and played us some Mozart. ‘Variations on a Theme of Gluck’ was not a piece I had heard of before: it takes and varies a theme from Christoph Willibald Gluck’s comic opera La rencontre imprévue, specifically an aria ridiculing a simple-minded peasant. De Pledge set us in a positive mood with his fun head-bobbing, in character as a slow-witted fool. While Mozart had written (strictly speaking improvised) the Variations as a showy encore to one of his concerts, De Pledge didn’t gorge himself on showmanship, employing sensitive restraint appropriate to the Viennese classical gentility as printed on the page; and executing every semiquaver run with grace and delicacy.

This was followed by Olivier Messiaen’s last work for solo piano, the 1985 Petites esquisses d’oiseaux (“Small Sketches of Birds”). While the three movements about the robin were in essence cheerful and lively (a lot like the Mozart we’d just heard), they, together with the other three movements, also revealed a whole new range of senses and atmospheres in his playing. The movements on the blackbird, the song thrush and the skylark ran the gamut from ravenous to inquisitive to majestic, and the skylark flew away from the keyboard to finish the work. Stephen De Pledge delivered this whole piece with fantastic attention to detail and precision in timing and dynamics.

In terms of placement in the programme, Esquisses introduced the theme of natural environment, but from a European point of view. New Zealand composers have often taken inspiration from birdsong, but De Pledge’s introduction highlighted the fact that Europeans and New Zealanders have distinctly different ways of interacting with and relating to their home environments – and it was with that thought we went into the Landscape Preludes.

(Note: the preludes as presented in this review are not in their performance order. The performance order was entirely arbitrary, decided by Stephen De Pledge himself.)

Since Douglas Lilburn in the 1930s, New Zealand composers have a long and sometimes cliché history of musical tourism: presenting their homeland to the wider world as a country full of awe-inspiring landscapes. One can understand De Pledge’s decision to present “landscape” as a unifying theme for this book of preludes, especially as he commissioned these pieces as an ambassador for New Zealand. That said, a number of composers wanted to avoid the quintessential New Zealand Lord of the Rings-ism and took a very liberal view of what a landscape is. Samuel Holloway’s Terrain Vague had trucks running and rumbling past marginalised urban space – not the first thought that springs to mind on the landscape theme. Like a lot of Holloway’s pieces, the listener needs more than one hearing of this prelude to unravel the complexities within, but as programmatic music it evokes an environment in flux – and one that is typical in cities in New Zealand and elsewhere. Lyell Cresswell’s Chiaroscuro played with the interplay of light and shadow in painting – I saw this as depicting someone’s first impression of a painting with a striking subject, before this viewer’s attention moves to the finer detail of how the image was built. In Sleeper, John Psathas depicted the life of a traveller with no fixed landscape to speak of, furnishing a short piece that to me bore more than a passing resemblance to another with a travel theme, Waiting for the Aeroplane, written by Psathas twenty years ago.

Many played with the idea of relaying another person’s view of their landscape – creating second-hand sources, as it were. Both Dylan Lardelli and Eve de Castro-Robinson took poetry about landscapes as their inspiration. In Reign, Lardelli worked off Hone Tuwhare’s gift of contrasting great with small to evoke mountains and the raindrops that erode them over time, with a Gareth Farr-like majestic introduction that caused me to think I’d misread the programme order! Eve de Castro-Robinson played with flashes and sparkles on water in this liquid drift of light, incorporating some final repeating chords which Stephen De Pledge played utterly divinely. Ross Harris in A landscape with too few lovers personified a simple green landscape as hesitant and unconfident, unwilling to produce a thing of beauty for feeling a terrible absence within. Michael Norris’s prelude Machine Noises could arguably be a second-hand experience: seeing the world not as a human with experiences and emotional associations, but as a being. De Pledge did an amazing job of maintaining at least four or five different mechanical processes at once, all with their own tempi, dynamics, and stylistic feel.

Some composers stuck closer to the idea of representing a landscape programmatically, and this is where the invisible hand of Debussy became apparent. Stephen De Pledge’s inspiration for the Landscape Preludes is quite clearly Debussy’s two Books of Preludes – both with twelve preludes each. These pieces paint pictures in the listener’s ear, and among the canon of classical music they are one of the definitive examples of programmatic composition (music that describes something else).

I saw Debussy’s use of colours in the first prelude of the set, Arapatiki by Gillian Whitehead. There were some remarkable chords to depict the boggy, gluggy, marshy murgh of Otago sand flats. Gareth Farr put a lot of Debussy’s tonal language into The Horizon from Owhiro Bay: like Gillian Whitehead, he uses the view out to sea from his house as his inspiration. Jenny McLeod in her Landscape Prelude takes us to the stillest and most isolated place of all twelve preludes: the forests of the West Coast. Despite the isolation, a “less than reassuring human element” intervenes, which still leaves the question open: How can one depict a place with nobody in it, if one is not present at that place to experience it? Apparently even Jenny McLeod couldn’t remove the human element entirely.

There were two pieces that will stick in my mind for a while, however. Jack Body took a lighter turn and wrote The Street Where I Live for tape and piano, in which the composer’s voice was heard over the speakers talking about his house in Aro Valley. This was a little unfair on Stephen De Pledge as Jack Body’s voice stole the attention and momentum, very much relegating the pianist to a supporting role in his own solo recital. While Body goes on reminiscing and philosophising as if he were an old man (you’ve got plenty of good years left in you yet, Jack!), the pianist did little more than paint colour around the voice with further humorous gestures, e.g. knocking the wood of the piano and melodically quoting Freddy Eynsford-Hill. Don’t get me wrong – the work was an utterly charming and piquant jaunt of whimsy and provided a delightful short burst of vibrancy among the other composers’ more static works. However, it didn’t exactly gel with the rest of the preludes, and it seemed outside the set of Preludes as a whole, mainly because nothing else resembled it in any way. This can hardly be a criticism of the composer, since it still met the brief of the commission, but De Pledge did well to programme this in the middle of the set.

The last word, however, has to go to Victoria Kelly’s Goodnight Kiwi – a piece with no pretensions whatsoever, simply beautiful chords taking a journey. Programmed as the last piece of the set (though with its title, how could it have gone anywhere else?), Goodnight Kiwi talked in simple terms of that little feathered bird that used to climb into the satellite dish every night, and the place it holds in the imagination of every kid who stayed up late enough to catch it. A beautiful ending to a beautiful cycle of pieces.

Stephen De Pledge did a formidable job – managing twelve commissions from twelve different composers is no mean feat (let alone deciding on an order and shaping the collection into an engaging sequence), and the expressive precision he brought to the piano made this concert a real treat to watch – an experience I can’t fault* in sheer terms of watching a true artist ply his craft. Nine of the twelve composers were at the concert and got their due respect at the end – well deserved! De Pledge came out for an encore, and what else would have worked but one of Claude Debussy’s Préludes? His remarkable La fille aux cheveux de lin, “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair” was exquisite, and after all, what is more appropriate to New Zealand? There’s plenty of flax in here!


Landscapes on the Arts Festival website
Full Scoop Coverage: Festival 2008

This concert was videoed specifically for YouTube – at the time of writing nothing had been uploaded but run a search at a later stage. Radio New Zealand also recorded the concert for future broadcast, and the scores of many of the twelve Preludes are available at SOUNZ, the Centre for New Zealand Music (

* A note for the patron at the back of the room on the left-hand side: the next time you can’t wait until the end of the movement to get a throat lozenge out of its plastic and foil package, please go for one short sharp prod to break the foil and release the lozenge. The protracted rustling you made from pushing against the plastic dome at a glacial speed wasn’t all that much softer than decisive action would have been; it certainly dragged out far longer.

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