175 East (November 18, 2011)

ARTS, Music

Contemporary music ensembles are few and far between in New Zealand, so we are lucky to have the expertise and impeccable musicianship of 175 East. The group have been satiating Auckland ears with the diverse delights of new music for fifteen years now with their slightly unusual core line-up of flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, bass trombone, and cello.

For his second concert (Kenneth Myers Centre, Auckland; November 18) as artistic director, Samuel Holloway (disclosure: also a regular contributor to The Lumière Reader) put together a programme with a strong local focus, continuing the group’s unfaltering support of New Zealand composers. The selected works, many incorporating electronics, highlighted the strength of the ensemble to skilfully undertake the many varied challenges contemporary music presents.

Under the accomplished guidance of conductor Hamish McKeich, the performers navigated with precision the complex writhing lines of Chris Watson’s Recrudesce, reconstructed from a previous work. In Holloway’s Incus, microtonal and rhythmic intricacies spun nimbly under the fingers. This is the third and final trio of the composer’s interesting Middle Ear series, and I am eagerly awaiting a performance of the complete set.

Drawing on composition techniques from the Middle Ages, Dylan Lardelli’s bas takes its title from the early classification of instruments with a subdued nature. Fittingly, the performers exhibited great control of tone colour, with a notably raw cello opening from Katherine Hebley.

Michael Williams provided live electronics for his piece, May My Shadow Never Depart. Light touches of delay and loops followed the weaving clarinet lines, augmenting without overpowering the space and pure simplicity inherent in the music. Written for 175 East clarinettists Gretchen La Roche and Andrew Uren, the work remains true to its central Buddhist idea, “joy follows a pure thought like a shadow that never leaves.”

The two solo works of the night featured electronics in a more equal role. In Ross Harris’s Fluchtig, flautist Ingrid Culliford deftly entwined fleeting multiphonics with a metallic and chime-like tape part. Chris Cree Brown’s Inner Bellow required La Roche to partially dismantle her clarinet, creating new microtonal scales and timbres.

Irish composer Jennifer Walshe’s he was she was provided a light-hearted break midway through the evening. Reading her programme note, I had anticipated a cacophony of “sounds not usually considered ‘beautiful’.” The piece was the opposite, blending a subtle tape part with snapping twigs, rustling paper and the striking of matches, held together with gently sustained instrumental parts. Never afraid to step outside the box, the performers diligently took on these extra tasks. A large component of the work also required the instrumentalists to speak. I find this is often dangerous territory and was perhaps taken a little too seriously here. A more indifferent approach may have better suited the understated humour of the text.

The evening concluded with the world premiere of Eve de Castro-Robinson’s Hale, an intimate reflection on life and death in response to her mother’s passing. De Castro-Robinson fused eclectic recordings including breathing, church bells, birdsong, and readings of her mother’s poetry, with delicate and uncluttered instrumental parts. Whisperings of “Dum spiro spero” (While I breathe I hope), and the musicians’ own breathing enriched the texture, while trombonist Tim Sutton introduced a brief and poignant melody unassumingly into the foreground. I would have liked more time to immerse myself in this striking sonic meditation.

Next year, 175 East are promising to feature some gems from the international repertoire and are hoping to also take the concerts outside of Auckland.