Claire Cowan & Chris Gendall
Claire Cowan (b.1983)
My Alphabet of Light (2005)
Performers: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Kenneth Young (conductor)
Recorded by Radio New Zealand in the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
12 May 2006
Chris Gendall (b.1980)
Moto Perpetuo (2003)
Performers: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, Marc Taddei (conductor)
Recorded by Radio New Zealand in Philharmonia Hall, Mt Eden, Auckland
1 October 2003
Introductions by Kenneth Young
My Alphabet of Light
Not yet thirty, Claire Cowan has already established herself as one of New Zealand's finer talents. Her works have been performed by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, both Wellington and Auckland Youth Orchestras and the Netherlands Blazers Ensemble on their tour to New Zealand in 2001.
The NZSO National Youth Orchestra performed her minimalist work Trains of Thinking when she was Composer in Residence with the orchestra in 2006. Virtuoso New Zealand pianist John Chen also commissioned Shadow Hands which he's performed throughout Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
Claire Cowan received her Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Auckland in 2005. Her tutors included John Elmsly, Eve de Castro-Robinson, Peter Scholes, and Victoria Kelly. In 2008 Claire completed three concert commissions including Recipe for Disaster for two conductors and split orchestra; Wood:Strings:Hammers:Flesh for the young piano trio Scintillatum on their UK tour; and Legend of the Trojan Bird for the Auckland Youth Orchestra's 60th jubilee USA tour
After returning from a stint living and working in New York, Claire helped establish The Society of Brilliant Ideas, an artists' collective based in Auckland. Alongside this she's compiled an admirable portfolio of music for film, theatre, television documentaries and commercials. In September, millions of worldwide viewers saw her playing percussion in the Rugby World Cup Opening Ceremony, standing just metres away from flame projectors, with her hair gelled to the max and highly flammable.
The work we're going to hear tonight was written in 2005 and displays all three attributes Claire Cowan has said she holds most dear: simplicity emotion and originality.
My Alphabet of Light is a short but thoroughly engaging and colourful work which, while easy on the ear, contains a remarkable amount of detail. For someone in her early twenties to have been so thoroughly at ease with an orchestra is truly gratifying. She has a wonderful sense of how to shade the colours of the orchestra. She grades the dynamics cunningly in order to balance her textures in the most effective manner.
These textures are never cluttered either tonally or rhythmically and her use of bowed and fingered string tremolos, pizzicato, brass mutes and subtle percussion is both deft and telling.
There is a wonderful passage where she gently matches a solo violin with a solo bassoon in a lovely duet in a display of contrary motion counterpoint which would make any academic smile.
Overall, the piece just has a refreshing sense of positivity. I had the good fortune to conduct the performance of the piece you will be listening to. It was simply that; refreshing, to work with a younger composer of such passion and accomplishment. I remember it fondly.
Chris Gendall has just completed a year as the Creative New Zealand-Jack C Richards Composer in Residence at the New Zealand School of Music. A wonderful opportunity to simply write at your leisure in the former Thorndon residence of Douglas Lilburn. He contributed some really interesting lectures at the School and also helped me out with my third- and fourth-year orchestration class, where I can assure you I was only too happy to sit and take in some very useful information.
Chris Gendall was born in Hamilton and studied at Victoria University, where he completed his Masters in 2004. He went to Cornell University in upstate New York for his doctorate and returned to New Zealand last year.
In 2006 he won a Morton Gould Young Composer Award from ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, as well as the inaugural NZSO Todd Young Composer Award in 2005 for his piece So It Goes, which was what introduced me to Chris's work when I conducted it in the 2007 Asia Pacific Festival.
Chris won the SOUNZ Contemporary Award in 2008 for his chamber work Wax Lyrical, and has been nominated twice further, in 2010 and 2011. He’s currently the Vector Wellington Orchestra Composer-in-Residence, and he’s writing a triple concerto for piano trio and orchestra to be performed with NZTrio.
The work of his we’ll hear this evening is Moto Perpetuo, dating from 2003.
This piece was commissioned by the Wellington Youth Sinfonietta for its tenth anniversary. Chris said he was inspired by the prospect of composing a work for a group of enthusiastic performers willing to throw themselves headfirst at a challenge. A challenge indeed as this piece has a certain complexity to it; particularly with regard to rhythm.
In the opening section, the upper strings, high woodwinds and trumpets share stunted melodic motives with a distinctly modal flavour – a kind of faltering continuity, if that makes sense. These are pitched against short, sharp, insistent and irregularly timed shock notes in the lower strings, woodwind, brass and bass drum and timpani. Long swelling chords in the woodwind, brass and occasionally strings provide a sense of line to proceedings. Gendall builds this section to an effective crescendo and consequent climax by increasing the number and intensity of individual instruments' entries. This procedure turns out to be the basis for the entire composition.
He then cleverly uses another device to maintain what he calls an exuberant, relentless energy. The faltering rhythm continues in the timpani, which accompanies a solo violin, and later on a solo flute. The insistent timpani and pizzicato strings gradually build again as further instruments work towards a sustained fortissimo hiatus punctured with tutti shock chords, before the whole orchestra plunges into a wild a fractured ride to a powerful and exhilarating conclusion.
This is a relatively brief work - only six-and-a-half minutes on this recording - nevertheless you come away feeling somewhat exhausted. Gendall uses his orchestra efficiently. It's scored for only double winds, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, just one percussionist and strings. However, the effect is of an orchestra much larger in force.