St Mary’s of the Angels was transformed to a New Zealand bush scene with ferns and trees that screened the European church architecture behind. It set a scene of antipodean ambience that supported the musical programme that we were to hear. It also set a scene of otherworldliness, a paradigm shift, a condition that we were about to hear something other than the urtext of ‘chamber music’.
The improvisatory nature of the music was instigated by the first section: a reading of the poem ‘Te Ao Hau – This New World‘ in English (ecstatically) and Māori (passionately). The text was in the programme, but the speakers were hidden. At the beginning, Rob Thorne played the pūtōrino above in the choir vestry and he slowly proceeded down the main aisle of the church. The quartet strings imitated and echoed the flute sounds from all corners of the cathedral congregating on the stage. The pūtōrino had an amazing tonal quality: the male voice – the bugle – had a earthy, lusty nature, almost raucous. The female voice – the flute – was sweet and lyrical.
The New Zealand String Quartet and Rob Thorne were outstanding – committed, dedicated, sincere, enthusiastic, intense and focused.
The first four pieces of the programme were almost a game of musical tag. The strings were essentially imitated and appropriated the sound of the various taonga pūoro played by Rob Thorne. The most impressive was Tōrino by Salina Fisher. Rather than providing the taonga pūoro sound and then juxtaposing with the string tonal qualities, she used the techniques of string players to imitate the sound directly. Glissando, harmonics, martele, staccato, ricochet bowing, sul tasto, ponticelli, sliding quarter tones, approaching the middle of the notes by degrees … these techniques are well known, but that were revolutionised in this setting. Maybe she could have Māori terms for these techniques!
[By the way, Tōrino won the SOUNZ Contemporary Award – New Zealand’s premier composition prize – the second time that Salina Fisher has won. See more information here.]
The last two pieces, by Gareth Farr and Gillian Whitehead, were more sustained compositions using a mixture of ‘classical’ orchestral and indigenous sensitivities. The previous pieces were rhythmically and tonally amorphous. He Poroporoaki and Puhake ki te Rangi had sections of rhythmically diverse and tonally intense sonorities.
Gareth’s work was for a performance before the 2008 Dawn Service Commemoration at Gallipoli. He Poroporoaki (Saying Goodbye) inserted a deconstructed form of ‘Now in the Hour‘.
Puhake ki te Rangi was the highlight for me. It blended the string and taonga pūoro sound beautifully, given the full range of these impassioned and ardent instruments in a quite profound way. It is a musical masterpiece of New Zealand/Aotearoa cultural ambience.
I applaud the committed and dedicated composers and musicians behind these works – and those before them too, especially Hirini Melbourne and Richard Nunns. The audience rewarded the performance with three curtain calls, including one that acknowledged Gillian Whitehead too as she was in the audience.
Improvisations for Taonga Pūoro – Rob Thorne
Tōrino: Echoes on pūtōrino improvisations by Rob Thorne – Salina Fisher (1993)
Tomokanga – Rob Thorne
Poroporoaki – Gillian Whitehead (1941)
He Poroporoaki – Gareth Farr (1968)
Puhake ki te Rangi – Gillian Whitehead (1941)
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