The NZTrio

ARTS, Music

You have to wonder what the University of Auckland was thinking when it ended its long relationship with the NZTrio last year. As ensemble-in-residence, the group had proved a formidable ambassador, earning critical acclaim with intriguing programming and audience-friendly performances. But despite being cast from the tertiary institution’s bosom, the Trio has survived and been rewarded by Chamber Music New Zealand with a ten centre tour.

The Auckland concert (Auckland Town Hall, April 20) continued the ensemble’s tradition of programming the new alongside the old. One of two pieces in the programme from Australia was ex-pat Judy Bailey’s So Many Rivers, written specifically for this tour. Bailey’s background as a jazz pianist manifests itself in the work through a distinct focus on the piano and through the use of jazz harmony and gestures. The mostly meditative piece was given a thoughtful performance, particularly in its outer sections, in which melody is passed between violin and cello and the piano outlines rather delicious chords.

The concert opened with American Jennifer Higdon’s recent Piano Trio, a work in two movements described as ‘exploring the relationship between colour and music’. The first movement, ‘Pale Yellow’, is as insipid as the title suggests, using uninteresting tonal materials in a mostly predictable fashion. The second movement, ‘Fiery Red’, has more going for it, with a lively tempo and more textural variety. In spite of a slightly shaky opening, the Trio gave a committed performance with assertive sul ponticello figures from the cello standing out. Despite Higdon’s recent Grammy and Pulitzer Prize successes, however, the piece did not warrant programming. New Zealand already has a surfeit of repetitive, predictable piano trios that deserve performance ahead of this one.

The Year Without a Summer, a new commission from Australian Stuart Greenbaum based on an 1816 volcanic eruption and its effects, promised a contrast to the preceding works. The fast, spidery figures of the opening aside, the work wears Greenbaum’s pop influences on its sleeve and is marked by an economy of material. Despite occasional lapses into cliché, there are some decidedly beautiful moments, none more so than the solo that opens the contemplative second movement, ably handled in this performance by cellist Ashley Brown.

Spanish composer Turina’s Piano Trio No 1 (1926) was one of two works in the programme from the traditional repertoire. It is an appealing if insubstantial work showing traces of the composer’s French education in its attractive harmony and instrumental colour. It was played here with subtlety and excellent balance between the strings, particularly in the second movement Theme and Variations. Schumann’s Piano Trio No 2 (1847) closed the concert, providing a strong conclusion to an otherwise light concert. It can be hard work selling Schumann’s instrumental pieces, but the polished, thoughtful playing of the NZTrio made it look remarkably easy. Though a fine performance throughout, the Trio shone especially in the second movement, with confident playing that had the right amount of restraint for a piece marked ‘with intimate expression’.