30 Mar 2017

An American Introduction

From Upbeat, 1:40 pm on 30 March 2017

Last night Canterbury University's new Head of Performance, Mark Menzies, with two American musical colleagues; cellist Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick and bassoonist Julie Feves, performed a programme of unfamiliar American music by Nina C Young, Elliot Carter and Alex Wilder alongside Mark's own Sermon for viola, cello and bassoon. Tony Ryan reviews the performance at The Piano.

The Piano

The Piano Photo: Supplied

REVIEW: Tony Ryan

Christopher’s Classics Series XXII – 2017; at The Piano, Christchurch

7.30pm, Wed 29 March 2017

Mark Menzies (violin, piano, viola, composer), Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick (cello) and Julie Feves (bassoon)

J S BachSonata for Violin, Cello and Bassoon in G Major

Saint-SaensBassoon Sonata

Nina C YoungMeditation for Violin and Cello

Elliott CarterCello Sonata (1948)

Alec Wilder2nd Bassoon Sonata

Mark MenziesScherzo ‘sermon’ for viola, cello and bassoon

This was the second of seven chamber music concerts in the Christopher’s Classics Series for 2017. Amazingly, Christopher’s Classics is now in its 22nd year, so I think Christopher Marshall deserves praise and congratulations for his remarkable entrepreneurship. In Christchurch, we often feel that we miss out on programmes that are toured to North Island centres, but which don’t make it here. So, I’m specially looking forward to some of the, later offerings in this year’s series. 

The series is currently presented in Christchurch’s new concert venue, The Piano. Having been out of the country for several years, this was just the second time that I’ve attended a performance in this hall, and acoustically it seemed ideal for this particular programme. Visually, I find some aspects of the concert hall a bit unattractive, especially the bare and blemished concrete wall behind the stage. But the design, with its audience capacity of over 320, otherwise seems ideal for concerts of the type we saw last night.

This concert was a relentlessly challenging programme in the context of chamber music concerts, or any sort of mainstream classical concert series. Although the six works on the programme featured names like Bach and Saint-Saëns, even these proved a challenge in some ways.

The Bach piece opened the concert and set the tone for an entire evening of the new and unfamiliar. Firstly, it was listed in the programme as Sonata for Cello, Bassoon and Piano in G Major. I was intrigued to find out what this could be. Well it turned out to be played by cello, bassoon and violin (rather than piano), but even Mark Menzies’ spoken introduction didn’t clarify its provenance. He seemed to be saying that the sonata existed in three different versions by Bach himself, but then went on to talk about Bach’s trio sonatas for organ and how their three distinct and independent musical strands could be played by any three suitable instruments. Well, there was no BWV number to help with its identification, but what we heard was played with discipline and stunning vitality by the three musicians. However, it somehow lacked the emotional clout that Bach’s Trio Sonatas can also deliver. The performance was also dominated by the two string instruments with the bassoon providing a sort of accompanying continuo, rather than being an equal partner in the contrapuntal texture. But it was an enjoyable performance and enabled us to get to know the superb quality of the three players. And Bach’s music can so often sound modern when his seemingly free-ranging contrapuntal parts meet in surprising harmonic shifts. This is the third time I’ve encountered Mark Menzies in concert in the last few weeks, so he’s certainly gaining some profile since his return to Christchurch from the USA. The other musicians are both Americans who have worked with Mark Menzies in the past and who both have busy careers both in the US and abroad, especially in the field of New Music.

A Bassoon Sonata by Saint-Saëns was next on the programme (it dates from 1921, just a few months before the composer’s death, but it’s very much in Saint-Saëns’ familiar Romantic style). So, although it’s hardly new, it was new to me and, I imagine, almost everyone else in last night’s audience. Saint-Saëns wrote a lot of first-rate music, but probably less than a quarter of his works could be described as masterpieces. And I’d have to say that this Bassoon Sonata, for all its appeal, is not one of them. I took the trouble to make myself familiar with both score and recordings of this sonata in the days before the concert, and while familiarity often reveals hidden qualities in unfamiliar music, this was not the case here. The performance was full of vitality and variety from Julie Feves, although she tends to be a rather “intimate” player, without the same degree of stage personality that the other two players demonstrated. It was interesting that Mark Menzies was now the pianist in this work and, although a glance at Saint-Saëns’ score makes it clear that this is a Bassoon Sonata with piano accompaniment, Menzies played as if he was an equal partner in a duo, not at all like the performances I listened to before the concert. I say “equal partner”, but at times his personality and projection almost dominated in places. Even so, it was an engaging performance and it’s refreshing to encounter music that we’re unlikely to have many opportunities to hear live in concert very often.

After that everything on the programme was very new and challenging indeed. The final piece in the first part of the programme was by a young, emerging American composer, Nina C Young. This was her Meditation for Violin and Cello, written as recently as 2013. I took the trouble to listen to this work on the composer’s website in the days before the concert, and I can’t say I was gripped. Six minutes of unrelenting, nerve-grating angst did not seem like something I wanted to hear too often. However, seeing it made all the difference. It’s variety of effects and instrumental techniques became more evident, and it seemed almost like a commentary on the nature of string instrument performance. In fact, if I was forced to choose one work as the highlight of the concert, this would probably be it.

The second half of the concert began with Elliott Carter’s Cello Sonata. It dates from 1948, so, at nearly seventy years since it was written, I don’t really think we can call it new anymore. When I first got to know Tchaikovsky’s last two symphonies they were less than seventy years old, but they’d already gone from bold new works, through accepted masterpieces, and then to unfashionably populist pieces. They’re now firmly back in the great masterpiece category, but Elliott Carter’s Cello Sonata still remains in the bold and new group. Not only that, but it’s still a huge challenge for audiences. It’s been recorded several times and last night’s performance from Erika Duke-Patrick and Mark Menzies was full of commitment and a clear belief in the music, and that certainly helps audience engagement. Once again, I’d worked on becoming more familiar with this piece before the concert and I also own recordings of several other Elliot Carter compositions, but its challenges don’t diminish with familiarity. The Cello Sonata is generally considered to be the beginning of Elliott Carter’s mature period (which actually lasted right up to his death in 2012. In fact he completed his last work just three months before his death which was just a few weeks short of his 104th birthday). And like much of Elliott Carter’s music, this work is full of hints of very appealing ideas that disappear before they are allowed to develop into anything extended. There were so many times during this very accomplished performance of the Cello Sonata that I longed for an idea to grow into something more satisfying. And this sonata, unlike the Saint-Saëns really is a duo for two equal partners. In the first movement, it’s almost as if the piano and cello are two different personalities who never see eye-to-eye, with the piano playing strict four-square ideas against the cello’s free-ranging and passionate expression. The other movements contained more integrated dialogue, but there was still that element of each instrument having its own character. Both players demonstrated complete empathy with the work and with the composer’s distinctive style, but I still find Elliott Carter’s style unsatisfying and, at the same time, tantalising.

The players then tried to lighten the mood with a work by Alec Wilder, who wrote popular songs as well as serious “classical” works. He arranged several well-known songs for Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, among others. Sinatra also recorded a couple of Wilder’s original songs. But a singer is a much more expressive soloist than a bassoon, and while the 3rd and 4th movements of the sonata could well have been great cabaret songs, they needed a singer and a text to really bring them to life.  Once again, Julie Feves played with style and expressive commitment, but her almost subdued stage manner wasn’t what we’d get from Sinatra or Judy Garland.

And, finally, Mark Menzies took up the viola for a performance of one of his own compositions specially written for himself and the other two musicians. This was one of his New Zealand bird pieces (we’d recently heard him play another one as a guest performer at the National Concerto Competition). His spoken introduction prepared our listening focus for the descriptive and aural effects that he used to depict the bird, in this case the kereru or wood pigeon. The piece showed that while string instruments are infinitely capable of all sorts of extra-musical effects and sounds, the bassoon is completely limited to playing notes. The string effects were certainly entertaining and the piece had a humorous aspect, but on a first hearing, the minimal material that formed the basis of the piece was repeated just a little too often, so I’m not sure that I’d look forward to a performance of all 22 or 23 of his bird compositions.

So, a concert of all very unfamiliar music, which is not something we’re very used to in the twenty-first century. Perhaps the problem is that the twentieth century coincided with the development of recordings and radio broadcasts, so that repeated listening to works from the past became our habit, much against the intention or expectation of the composers, and so new music has become less easy to assimilate. I could certainly name a few pieces from recent decades that I would consider masterpieces, but they are certainly less prolific since the deaths, in the 1970s, of such towering artists as Shostakovich, Britten and Stravinsky. Even so, the discovery of the new is certainly rewarding and it would seem that the presence of Mark Menzies in Christchurch will increase our diet of such music considerably. Another interesting observation is the way that a review of such a concert as this focuses as much on the success of the music as it does on the performance. With the standard classics, we tend to take the quality of the composition itself for granted, although I was interested to hear Peter Hoar, in his review of the NZSO on Monday, saying that he couldn’t identify with the big overblown orchestral works of Richard Strauss. I liked that; we shouldn’t take anything for granted.