NZ Arts Festival 2008, Town Hall
March 5 | Reviewed by Peter Bisley

THE CHAMBER musicians Absolute Ensemble and their conductor Kristjan Järvi had an impressive reputation before them as they came to perform in the 2008 New Zealand International Arts Festival. “Järvi has been hailed by The New York Times as ‘a kinetic force on the podium, like Leonard Bernstein reborn,’” the program gushes. The concert began with an arrangement of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, and while tolerable for its nominal proficiency, the performance lacked flair and there was little to compensate for the loss of the full orchestral sound to an ensemble one tenth the intended size. Happy to accept this as a prelude to the reforged drama of Mahler’s fourth symphony for small ensemble, I was inexplicably confronted with the aural offence of the worst type of synth-pad keyboard solo: this, apparently, was a recording of a live solo by the late great jazz fusion pianist Joe Zawinul. Indeed, the man is undoubtedly a legend of jazz fusion, but his Ballad for 2 was so far out of context in a chamber music concert, and so isolated from the man’s presence. When the ensemble came in they had no groove, nor was there any of the intimate “interplay between the man who was and the music that lives on,” as the program notes predicted there might be. Rather, there was technically proficient but lifeless score reading of notated faux-impromptu jazzy lines. There was little sense of ensemble except for that gained through the individual musicians occasionally glancing up at Järvi, a graceful conductor who was often let down as the hub of a mangled wheel aimlessly spins without its spokes.

After the conclusion of this displaced and unmemorable piece, the audience rushed out for the half time glass of wine and ice cream having only had a thin 26 minutes of music. After the first half’s meagre fruits, the rearranging of an orchestration perfectionist who continually revised his work in quest of the perfect tonal palette does not immediately suggest itself as ideal chamber repertoire, but I was still holding out hope for Mahler’s fourth, a vast, powerful work; here featuring Australian soprano Sara Macliver in the final movement. Perhaps the austerity of the 12 piece ensemble, though unorthodox and an entirely contrary tonal landscape to Mahler’s intended 130 strong orchestral grandeur, would have its own refreshing clarity through the intimacy of ensemble that marks a good chamber music performance: an ensemble that gets ‘inside’ the music, an emotional response which they share and magnify through the group. Absolute Ensemble failed to deliver the drama of expressive economy. Instead the players, with all their technical prowess, mechanically read through the music and delivered an unexceptional performance of an emaciated symphony. Certainly, there were moments of beauty; Mahler’s melancholic motifs in the woodwind, and soaring melody lines passionately delivered by the strings. Macliver’s voice added a new energy to the recapitulation of the symphony’s themes in the last movement, but the performance lacked either truth to the composer or to the potential of Stein’s arrangement.