A Festival of Riches to Remember

23 February 2017 / News

NZSQ Chair, Gary Hawke, reflects on the 2017 Adam Chamber Music Festival

The Adam Chamber Music Festival is a highlight of New Zealand musical life and this year’s superb programme and performances only strengthened that claim.

The beginnings were 25 years ago. Five friends, including two of the then members of NZSQ, Gillian Ansell and Doug Beilman, played three concerts in various combinations at the Nelson School of Music. This year, over 10 days there were about 25 concerts, plus piano and cello masterclasses, conversations with artists, and nightly jazz sessions. The NZSQ was deeply involved, and Gillian and Helene were artistic directors, but the impressive list of performers also included the Goldner Quartet from Australia, English cellist Matthew Barley, marimbist Ian Rosenbaum from New York, Canadian clarinettist James Campbell, Hungarian pianists Dénes Várjon and Izabella Simon, NZ Trio and many other leading New Zealand musicians.

Two of the concerts which will be remembered as characterizing the 2017 Adam Festival were Cellissimo and Cellos by Candlelight. One of the original five friends from the very first festival, James Tennant, was one of 13 cellists from the NZSQ, Goldner Quartet, NZSO and Auckland, Waikato, Wellington and Otago universities who played mostly arrangements in various combinations, but including Villa Lobos’s Bachianas Brasillieras No 1 for eight cellos. The range and tone of the cello meant that the arrangements were most effective (needing a supplementary bass only for Rossini’s William Tell Overture). Furthermore, over the course of the festival, five cellists and two pianists played all five of Beethoven’s Cello sonatas.  James Tennant rightly paid tribute to Rolf’s hand in designing the cello programmes in the festival.

Perhaps in response to the abundance of cellos, one of Ian Rosenbaum’s performances was a marimba version of Bach’s Suite No 5 in C minor. Bach’s music is eminently transferable between instruments but this transcription for marimba certainly divided the audience. There could not, however, be any question of Rosenbaum’s ability and he captivated the audience in his performance with the Goldner Quartet of a contemporary American piece, Andy Akiho LIgNEouS Suite as he did in a duet with Naoto Segawa (on glockenspiel and vibraphone) of the same composer’s Kakakurenai.

Akiho provided opportunities for improvisation and that was another feature of the festival. A concert devoted to improvisation was curated by Edward Ware, a New Zealander who has lived in New York and Europe since 1990, and Rosenbaum and NZSQ premiered his very evocative Cavernous Ruins. The case for improvisation was made most persuasively by cellist Matthew Barley who saw music-making as a vehicle for communication, and improvisation as the basis of community music-making. Barley was himself an excellent communicator, both in conversation and in performance, and his recital in a church at St Arnaud with Lake Rotoiti at his back was memorable not just for the setting but for his ability to connect with an audience.

Communication and community participation was also promoted by the Troubadours, a young string quartet on the brink of professional careers, who played out and about during the festival. They also gave curtain raisers to two evening concerts, including an especially memorable rendition of Britten’s String Quartet No 2.

Dénes Várjon (and his wife, Izabella Simon) added to the list of impressive pianists who have contributed to the festival. His recital of Beethoven, Schumann, and his compatriots Liszt and Bartok was spell-binding. It was complemented by a performance of Schumann’s Dichterliebe with Izabella Simon and Australian tenor, Andrew Goodwin. The performances of the Schumann Fairy Tale Pictures with Gillian Ansell, and the Fantasy Pieces with James Campbell created something of a Schumann specialisation, added to by the performance with Helene Pohl of Clara Schumann’s Three Romances.

James Campbell was making his third appearance at the festival and has also toured for Chamber Music New Zealand with the NZSQ. James showed his mastery of the clarinet in Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet, the 1977 Quintet by Jean Francaix (with the Goldner Quartet) and, with Ian Rosenbaum, the work of his school friend, Alexina Louis’s Cadenza II for clarinet and marimba. James’s versatility on the instrument was highlighted at the late night jazz sessions at East Street café, when he joined Noel Clayton (guitar), Paul Dyne (bass) and Ed Ware (drums) in some of the great jazz standards.

New Zealand music was well represented, especially as has become traditional at the festival on Waitangi Day. The NZ Trio played works by Claire Cowan and David Hamilton and were the instrumental ensemble for the New Zealand premiere of Gillian Whitehead’s one-woman opera Iris Dreaming. Based on the life of Robin Hyde, the opera was commissioned by Joanne Roughton-Arnold, a New Zealand soprano (and violinist) resident in England, and is set to a libretto by Fleur Adcock, with stage direction by Sara Brodie. All of the Festival Conversations were informative, but Elizabeth Kerr’s interview with Gillian Whitehead and Joanne Roughton-Arnold contributed especially strongly to understanding the opera. There were also works by Tabea Squire, Gareth Farr, Helen Fisher, Jack Body and Natalie Hunt, all of which occupied a very natural place in the festival.

It was a rich experience throughout the ten days. But from all the riches, my personal highlight was the performance of Monique Lapins as soloist in Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor with an ensemble from the resident string quartets plus Joan Perarnau Garriga, bass, and Douglas Mews, keyboard. Nelson Cathedral is not easily lit by candles, but the atmosphere was electric with baroque music at its best. 

Listen to Elizabeth Kerr review selected concerts from the festival on RNZ Concert Upbeat

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