RavelLa Valse Ravel Piano Concerto in G Major Anna ClyneMasquerade StravinskyPetrushka (1947 version)
Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples
In 1961 Igor Stravinsky conducted “The Firebird” to packed town halls in Wellington and Auckland and next month, sixty years later, the work will again be performed in the same venues. Leading up to that performance the NZSO this month has performed his ballet music for “Petrushka” in the two cities.
“Petrushka” was written in 1911, a year after “The Firebird” and two years before his “Rite of Spring” (which the orchestra will perform in July), the three works heralding a new modernist approach to ballet compositions.
The ballet tells of three puppets – a dashing Moor, a petite ballerina, and a straw doll named Petrushka. Both the males are in love with the dancers, they fight over her and Petrushka dies but then comes back as his ghost.
Stravinsky created a number of colourful folk based melodies which are used to depict the three main characters along with the Magician, various dancers and assorted revellers.
The orchestra under Hamish McKeich’s precise direction shifted from theme to theme as Stravinsky piles remarkable tunes on top of each other conveying a rich mixture of movement, event and emotion. The music perfectly conveyed the flamboyance and exoticism of the fairground attractions with colourful percussion especially prominent.
Amongst all this we were treated to several instrumental solos such as the Magician’s flute cadenza played by Bridget Douglas. The Moor’s music was given a tartness by the trumpet and the Ballerina’s elegance conveyed by the bassoon.
McKeich ensured that the chaos of the fair was kept alive with the sweeping strings creating images of dancing and debauched figures as well as a bumbling bear conjured up by the tuba.
The first part of the programme featured two works by Ravel. His delightful La Valse transported the audience to a surreal ballroom in another realm where South American rhythms were interwoven and juxtaposed with Viennese waltzes.
The orchestra managed the quirky transitions between the whimsical, the grotesque, and the extravagant , between the delicate and the cacophonic.
Stephen de Pledge took to the stage to play Ravels Pian Concerto which has a magical combination of the exotic and traditional with the orchestra sometimes sounding like an American big band.
De Pledge was comfortable, playing with lightness of touch notably in the long solo in the adagio. He delighted in the changing dynamic of the various motifs with incisive skill seeming to find subtle detail throughout the work. In the final, more energetic presto he and orchestra were more in tune with the carnival theme of the concert playing with a great enthusiasm with de Pledge becoming part of the percussion section.
Also on the programme was five-minute work by British composer Anna Clyne. Her “Masquerade” slotted well into the programme with a piece which featured waves of energy as the orchestra recreated the spirit of a masquerade, the eighteenth-century British carnival.
The piece made use of the entire orchestra including several new percussion instruments creating a dense tapestry of sound with threads of melody darting through the orchestra.
Maria GrenfellStealing Tutunui Vaughan Williams Symphony No.5 Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.3
Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto is often referred to as the Everest of piano concertos because of its monumentality. The metaphor can be extended to the pianist themselves and their struggle to dominate the work. Just as the climber moves progressively up the mountain, encountering crevasses, snowstorms and avalanches before the final assault, so too does the pianist struggle with the demands of the concerto.
Michael Houstoun’ s appearance with the APO this week was probably one of his last and playing the Rachmaninov would have been a challenge he has been wanting to undertake for some time.
He has written about the work saying “This concerto is famously huge with enormous numbers of notes, requiring not just dexterity but also real strength and stamina. Rachmaninov’s piano writing is so brilliant and sublime though that it does not really seem like work. The beautiful melodies and rich harmonies, the wonderful surging structures – all the elements put together make it one of the very greatest of piano concertos.”
After an unsuccessful performance of the work in Wellington last year due to technical issues Michael Houstoun was like the climber having a second attempt at reaching the summit, probably motivated to make the supreme effort.
The concerto consists of the two, often competing forces of the pianist and orchestra as they explore the works intense Romanticism, its modernist introspection and an ever-present Russian melancholy.
Houstoun’s performance was spectacular. There was no hint that he was daunted by the work, playing with confidence and assurance in front of a packed Auckland Town Hall. This was a cerebral performance with a focus on his technique and his attempts to illuminate Rachmaninov’s multi-layered themes. He ensured that he was in control with a combination of power, poetry and speed, mastering the themes and variations, the big complex chords, thundering octaves and surging phrases. Throughout the concerto’s most difficult and intricate movements he provided an electrifying display of keyboard virtuosity.
At times he became the great showman with his almost frenetic playing which was as dramatic as that of the orchestra. At times his playing seems to glide over the sounds of the orchestra and at others he seemed to be searching for his melody before weaving into the orchestral sounds
The orchestra under conductor Vincent Hardaker played their part in providing the monumental sounds which accompany the soloist through to the furious sounds of the dramatic conclusion.
Where the Rachmaninov was distinctly Russian the other large work on the programme, the Vaughan Williams Fifth Symphony was distinctly English. Written thirty years after the Rachmaninov this work with its pastoral Romanticism was a gentle, melodic and uplifting work .Despite its apparent lightness it was an elaborate and sophisticated piece, elegantly controlled by conductor Hardaker.
The other work on the programme was New Zealander Maria Grenfell’s tone poem “Stealing Tutunui” which she describes as recounting the Māori legend about a chief, his pet whale, and a duplicitous priest.
The various instruments notably the harp woodwinds and brass created what might be a day in the life of a forest with music of birdsong, atmospheric incidents and small dramatic events. From the opening joyous sounds, the music rose to a tumult of sounds of an approaching storm or premonition. Grenfell displays an ability to utilise the orchestras instruments to create sounds which combine the exotic and the natural brilliantly.
Strasbourg 1518 opens sedately enough. A crowd of people I advance hall moving slowly to gentle music through there are hints of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden. This serenity is soon interrupted by a couple – Death (Michael Parmenter) and The Maiden (Lucy Marinkovich) dancing a more elabiorate ballroom dance duo. They whirl about the stage energetically, a mix of Dancing with the Stars and musical, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire meets Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev.
Their display is then interrupted by an officious narrator (Nick Blake) who rails against dancing and its lack of change over the last few hundred years embarking on a treatise about dance and its origins.
This develops into the tale of the 1518 Strasbourg dance mania. It is based on actual events which occurred in the city when a woman began to dance fervently in a street. This was followed by an outbreak of dancing by a group of mostly young women joined in. This dancing mania went on for some time and the Strasbourg magistrate and bishop, and some number of doctors ultimately intervened, putting the afflicted in a hospital and it is believed that some people died of their affliction.
The display of increasingly demented dancing is a compelling illustration of the emotional aspects of dance, particularly contemporary dance where the individuals can appear to be transported either into some inner place or a new exotic location.
What initially starts as a local disturbance become as an uprising and then a revolution. The dancers begin to protest with revolutionary signs and slogans – “The Artists are the Poor” and “We are falling spectacularly Apart”. This mass hysteria combined with the overthrow of religious and political controls and the descent into anarchy mirrors some of the contemporary paintings of Hieronymus Bosch such as “The Triumph of Death”.
Much of the time there appears to be a strong connection with earlier contemporary works such as the “Rite of Spring” and there is an underlying sense of anxiety and unease associated with Covid 19,
The musical score by Lucien Johnson who plays musical instruments on stage as well as controlling the digital tracks is brilliantly integrated into the narrative proving a dramatic soundscape and emotional charge.
Director and Choreographer Lucy Marinkovich has devised an intelligent and expressive work in which the dancing becomes a metaphor for the state of society. We are made very aware of the nature of dance as an art form where individuals engage in intense relationships both physical and emotional. The dancing was immensely varied with ethnic displays, rock, tribal and Pacific slap dancing.
The six main dancers Hannah Tasker-Poland, Sean MacDonald, Kare Rudd, Xin Ji, Eliza Sanders and Emmanuel Reynaud gave stunning performances their ferocious, seemingly random dancing which was by turns confronting, abrupt, sinuous, sensuous and dangerous.
The final tableau in which the dancers disappear to be replaced by Parmenter and Marinkovich, neatly tied the whole work together and we were left with the silhouette of Parmenter not just as Death but as the supreme creator – the choreographer/ dancer.
“Voices at the End” featuring two large piano works was a major feat for the six pianists involved but also a brave move by the festival to put on a programme of minimalist music. But, the packed Auckland Town Hall showed that there is an avid audience for such work. Hopefully future festivals will aim for other innovative work. It was also great that a major American work, Steve Reich’s “Six Pianos” from fifty years ago could be paired with New Zealander John Psathas’s “Voices at the End”.
“Six Pianos” is a minamilist piece for six pianos and Steve Reich’s idea was originally for a piece titled “Piano Store” that could be played on all the pianos in a piano store and was initially played on an ensemble of sixupright pianos so that the close proximity would allow for very precise timing and avoid the the resonances of grand pianos.[
The six pianos played overlapping variations on a simple melodic theme for the piece’s duration. The developments and manipulations which occur are subtle, the shifts barely noticeable, creating a mesmeric minimalism.
There are changes in the simple melodic structures as well in the rhythms and the volume of the different pianos.
Unlike many piano performances the pianists appeared to be less engaged with the music performing almost robotically, all part of a programmed approach to playing.
Overall the work seemed to be like a flowing river or ocean surge with waves and surges endlessly repeating, creating an ever-evolving organic entity with an internal life of its own.
In contrast to the simplicity of the Reich work John Psathas’s “Voices at the End” was more complex, almost operatic in its reach.
Inspired by the film “Planetary” the piece expands on various themes around ecological and organic systems and the need to move from an industrial growth society to a life sustaining society.
The work has five sections which included texts ranging from the Sanskrit “Mahabharata” through to the greeting from the United Nations to others living in Outer Space sent on the NASA Voyager spacecraft in 1977.
In each of the sections there are different moods created from the dreamscape of the opening section building through the tone poems with the music becoming the dramatic background to a Sanskrit tale.
The various sections express concerns about the social and ecological challenges and there is an intense dialogue between the pianos. At one point there was what could be a dirge or love song to Earth with an edgy counterpoint between nature and the man made.
The sounds and music range from the brutish sounds of actual bombs being dropped in war through bird song, passionate dance and jazz rhythms, Eastern music and a beautifully mannered minimalism.
The six pianists in both works were Stephen De Pledge, Arts Foundation Laureate Michael Houstoun, Somi Kim, Jian Liu, Sarah Watkins and Liam Wooding
“The Artist” should come with a warning – make that two warnings. Don’t sit in the front row. You could get to go on stage as The Artist’s sttoge. Also, if you can remember where it is, bring a table tennis paddle.
We are in an artist’s studio where we encounter The Artist (Thom Monckton) who over the course of an hour produces / assembles / finds several artworks which in the end are brought together for an art exhibition. Monckton explores a number of the tropes about art and artists which he plays with or gets lost in.
He must be a French artist because he wears a blue and white striped top but no beret – so he is bit like Picasso, but his activities have him more like, Marcel Marceau the great mime artist. But then again he is also disconcertingly like the very un-French Mr Bean.
Monckton is a conjurer, acrobat, mime and contortionist who creates endless visual jokes, making use of the artists equipment and the everyday items of the studio. His attempts to get hold of a brush have him entangled in a table, a set of shelves and a rogue ladder while his attempts to secure some fabric to a stretcher with a staple gun are complicated, hilarious and dangerous.
There is an elaborate set-up around a still life where the fruit are given a life of their own and the traditional image of a bowl of fruit, bottle of wine and glass gets reworked in a clever visual joke where the artist paints one of the real green apples red so it matches the apples in the painting .
There was a bit of audience involvement. One young woman was cajoled onto the stage to sit for a portrait and then got given the job of painting artist’s portrait. There is also a rapid game of ping pong (remember the paddle) as he fires balls into the audience. The audience provided feedback with waves of laughter, but Monckton was particularly concerned with the chuckles of a young child pointing at his watch, letting the parents know it was past the young ones bedtime.
Monckton displays brilliant timing and pace in a mixture of physical theatre, mime and visual humour which makes this act classy and entertaining.
While he is silent apart from a few guttural phrases the background sound and music are brilliantly integrated into the performance.
This Saturday Mt Eden Village sees the annual Artists in Eden, one of Auckland’s great community arts events which has taken place each year for the past 33 years.
The event in which artists create interpretations or respond to Mt Eden is a unique event and an example of the community arts in action – artists and the community focussed on some common theme and outcome, the artists aware of the audience and purpose, the audience participating in the event as viewers and commentators.
The day provides artist with the opportunity to demystify the production of art, to let people see how artists create their work, how it evolves on the page or canvas.
The public have an opportunity to engage with the artists to discover how and why an artist works in a particular way and what their relationship to Mt Eden is. It was also a way for the artist to move their studio outside and let people see how they work
This year forty artists will be taking part including Dick Frizzell, George Baloghy Russell Jackson and Peata Larkin. There are also several younger emerging artists who have won the Eden Arts Art Schools Awards and the Young Mt Eden Artists Award including Brittany Walker-Smith and Rhea Maheshwari
Over the years there have been over fifteen hundred paintings, drawings photographs and sculptures produced by close to 100 artists and many of the artists have taken innovative approaches. Jeff Thompson brought along his machine for knitting strips of corrugated iron into a sculpture of Mount Eden.
Nigel Brown made a woodblock print producing a two coloured print in an edition of three and in the case of Robert Ellis his participation led to his major series of paintings –“Maungawahua / Mt Eden”.
Among the artist who have taken part in previous years have been Pat Hanly, Don Binney, Peter Siddell, Terry Stringer, Alexis Hunter, Clyde Scott, Geoff Tune, Martin Ball, Peata Larkin, Dick Frizzell and Stanley Palmer
Jeffrey Harris creates dreamscapes where the real and surreal, the spiritual and the earthly the sacred and profane jostle with each other with a rich imagery which grapples with issues of love, sex and death.
In his latest exhibition of new paintings from this year he draws on medieval styles of depiction, artists of the Trecento such as Giotto, Francis Bacon and Colin McCahon. His cartoon-like approach and the Christian imagery creates a unique view of the social. psychological, and spiritual dilemmas of society.
Like many artists over the years, his use of Christian symbolism, has overtones of ancient meaning as well as contemporary psychological interpretations.
Many of the symbols used by Harris are multi layered as with the case of the severed or floating head.
The symbolism of severed head as its roots in early art – David slaying Goliath, St John the Baptist’s head demanded by Salome and Judith slaying Holofernes.
The Symbolists such as Redon saw this floating head as the embodiment of purity and martyrdom as well as the dangerous eroticism of the femme fatale, which leads to the emasculation of the male while Freudians would see it as a symbol of castration.
But there are many other rich symbols – the snake, the two headed snake, the crucifix, the crucified man, the book, the drop of blood, the candle, the single tree.
It means that these works are narratives combining biblical tales, recreated myths, dream sequences and psychological insights.
In using Christian imagery Harris creates ambivalent narratives. While the Bible stories are about God/Christ, Harris uses them as symbols of human suffering, addressing issues of personal spirituality and angst.
These stories range from the simple depictions of Adam and Eve in “Female and Male” where Adam prefigures Christ by piercing his side with a spear. But the two figures hold symbols of violence – the woman a pistol and the man a spear and sword. The violence done to the Male/Christ figure is self-inflicted, the image suggesting that our suffering, violence and antipathy are self-generated.
His “Crucifixion and Figures in Landscape derives from the many religious paintings as well as Colin McCahon’s technique of placing the biblical scenes in local landscapes.
“Family” has a much more ambivalent sexual content with a Christ figure into bondage confronted by a religious dominatrix. There is also an emasculated penis image on the wall.
Finlandia may be a celebration of Finland but it has been used to celebrate many events and landscapes including films such as Die Hard 2 and was briefly the national anthem of Biafra.
It was fitting that it was the opening work for the APO’s Nordic Fire, their first concert of the year. It was the heralding of a new era just as Finlandia heralded the new nation.
It is a rousing monumental work and in the hands of conductor Vincent Hardaker the drama of the music unfolded in a precisely controlled manner without bombast. The spring-like section had an eloquence and tenderness, contrasting with the intensity of much of the music.
The nationalism which inspired Finlandia was also at the core of the major work on the programme, Grieg’s Holberg Suite which celebrated the bicentenary of the late eighteenth-century Norwegian writer Ludwig Holberg. Greig composed the work for string orchestra (originally for keyboard) in the style of Holberg’s musical contemporaries, the Baroque composers Bach and Handel as well as the Norwegian Johan Berlin .
As with many baroque ensembles the players all stood and rather than responding to a conductor the players took their directions from lead violinists, notably Andrew Beer.
The players formed a tight U shape which gave a greater sense of intimacy and the group seemed to be functioning more as an integrated unit.
While the music had its grounding in a classical framework there were traces of folk music which gave the work a special quality. The various movement had changing emotionally, rich sounds from the joyous and elegant to the nostalgic and melancholic. In the final dancelike movement several of the players seemed to be inspired by the local hall dance atmosphere and ready to dance themselves.
Between the two nineteenth century works the orchestra played two contemporary Finnish works. The first by Kalevi Aho was his Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra featuring Stephen Logan the APO’s Principal Timpanist as soloist. Seated at the front of the stage behind his five drums wearing his red velvet jacket he looked like. and was received by the audience as a rock star.
Aho’s work continued the dramatic music of Sibelius with the timpani playing the major role. Initially Logan’s drumming was relatively simple, dancing above the shimmering strings of the orchestra. As the work progressed so did the intensity of the drumming along with changes in the orchestra as various instruments accompanied the soloist, weaving a dense landscape of sound as a background. At times he became a frenetic rock band drummer while at other time he took a more measured approach as though carefully selecting his choice of drum.
It was revealing and instructive to see a timpanist up close and focussed on his instruments. The various sized drums, their tuning, the different drumsticks as well as his use of his hands all contributed to the sonic textures as he explored the full potential of his instruments.
While the work seemed initially to grow out of Finlandia with its changing landscape of sound the work also explored novel sounds including jazz and South American rhythms.
While Logan and the drums were the main focus of the performance, he was occasionally backed up by two other percussionists playing a range of instruments including snare drums, gongs and big bass drum.
The other Finnish piece on the programme was Magnus Lindberg’s Gran Duo for Woodwinds and Brass where the earthy brass instruments and the more dynamic woodwinds produced buffeting waves of sounds which created contrasts as well as well as synergies. The suggestion by Vincent Hardaker that the work might be seen as having the same impact as The Rite of Spring which premiered 100 years ago was possibly overoptimistic and premature.
An additional highlight to the evening was Nicola Baker, The Principal Horn Player performing a Mozart Horn Concerto as her farewell to the audience after many years of playing with the orchestra.
March 8 Shoulder to Shoulder
The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra celebrates International Women’s Day with a selection of women composers in Shoulder to Shoulder. Three New Zealand composers, Ruby Solly, Dorothy Ker and Rachael Morgan will feature alongside several other international composers including Germaine Tailleferre the only female member of Les Six, the early nineteenth century group of avant-garde musicians.
Everyone knows that art can be a good investment. If you have a large Colin McCahon in the family you know that someone made a brilliant decision at some stage.
The returns on art purchases in NZ can be high. The works of Colin McCahon may be out on their own but they do give an indication of the way that prices can go for New Zealand master painters. McCahons which originally sold for $200-$500 are now readily selling for $100,000-$500,000 and there was a recent sale of $1.7 million.
So how do you get to be the brave, fearless, serious art collectors going where only the foolhardy seem to venture. There is no absolute way to do it but there can be a few hints.
Overall, it is a matter of developing an idea for quality, for what is new, brave, exciting and confronting. It is also about understanding the processes of how an artist produces and sell arts work. There is also the need for self education about art and artists.
What follows is a check list. Some of points are more important than others. Some are absolutes. Some are interconnected. Some are difficult to use. Use them carefully and you may be successful.
In all the main centres there is a hierarchy of galleries This is determined by their track record, the perception, prestige and manner of the dealer, and their record of reliability.
The dealers of the major galleries are always on the lookout for new talent and their decisions on who can be poached from other dealers and from other cities. Likewise, there are many artists keen to be taken on by these galleries.
Dealers are normally synonymous with their galleries but some gain an importance regardless of the gallery.
Dealers know a lot, unfortunately a lot of what they know they won’t tell. Generally they are interested in promoting artists in their own stable and so their opinions will be biased towards those artists they represent. Some of them by the nature of their business are not able to get out and look at other dealer galleries so are not aware of the other artists exhibiting.
Cultivate one or two dealers. They are useful people to ask questions about art and artists, they are also useful for a second opinion. It is through their knowledge and perceptions that you can get a better understanding of your own approach to art. They are also the people who can ensure that when you do buy art works they are the best for you. The dealer helps set prices for the art and selects work for the exhibitions. They are the ones who will alert special buyers to individual works which come on the market.
This consists in reading books, magazines and catalogue, following the reviews in the daily newspapers, going to lectures. There are a few books on the history of New Zealand art. Each of them has their weakness so it is best to read them all.
There are a number of catalogues produced by dealer galleries, public galleries and the artists themselves. They are useful for solid information on the background of the artists as well as giving some understanding of their previous work. Sometimes these are a little dense in terms of the writing style but the illustrations are always useful. Catalogues give an indication of the commitment of the dealers, artists and institution to the particular artist.
Writers and Curators
Writers are often good indicators of where things are going and who to watch. They are the people who are following overseas trends, they get to speak to artists and generally have a good overview. Some of the writers are also important curators as well. There are of course the problems of bias both real and perceived. Writers who are close friends of artists, writers who are dealers, writers married to dealers, writers married to artists.
Keep an eye on what the contemporary curators are doing. If anyone is going to be perceptive it’s them even if sometimes they seem to be widely askew in their thinking.
Award and Fellowship Winners
These are useful indicators. The judges are often important writers, curators and collectors. The Walters Prize nominees in 2020 were the collective Mata Aho, Fiona Amundsen, Sonya Lacey andSriwhana Spong..
Winners of the Wallace Awards last year included Russ Flatt, Darryn George, Glen Hayward and Martin Basher,
High Profile Artists
Artists who appear in the paper, make the new on TV and are generally perceived to have a public profile are an indication that they have either made it or are on the way.
Artists such as Michael Parekowhai generated a lot of publicity over his “The Lighthouse” on Queens Wharf in 2017
Yuki Kihara was to have been New Zealand representative at the Venice Biennale and Francis Upritchard was the representative in 2009.
Arts Council Grants
The grants made by the Arts Council are made by peer panels consisting of artists, curators and arts administrators. They allocate funds on the basis of substantial information as well as references from other notable arts people. The grants are published each year in Arts Council publications. There are regularly new artists appearing on the lists.
A number of New Zealand artists are having exhibitions overseas in public galleries and dealer galleries. This will often mean they pick up overseas institutions, corporates and individuals as buyers and their prices can be pushed up.
Buy the occasional overseas art magazine to keep up with what is fashionable and current. Most artists and writers use these magazines for pointers and ideas. Some use them for the main source of ideas.
If an artist has one or two sell-out shows, it should be taken as a sign instant success and/or great talent.
Other artists may not sell all the work through an exhibition, but the work will sell over a six to nine month period after the show. This is where conversations with dealers are useful.
There are some artists though who develop a short-term fashionable period with sell out shows followed by a drop in sales and often in prices. If you are being cautious it is probably best to wait for two or three exhibitions by an artist before making major commitments. This may be a more expensive alternative but there is a greater degree of certainty.
If you find an artist you like but always seems to have sell-out show let the dealer know. Sometimes at a sell-out show the occasional sale does not proceed and the next person on the list may well be able to acquire it.
You can check on prices of artists sales at auction at the web site of the auction houses such as Webb’s, Art + Object and The International Art Centre.
As an artist’s career develops more and more art works go into public galleries, major corporate collections and private collections. When the artist’s works become hard to procure the prices go up. At this point it is possible to buy quite expensive works and sell within the short term. There are probably only around a few hundred McCahon works left which will ever come on to the market. Of these less than one hundred will be significant paintings.
It is always useful to buy artists of your own generation. It is more likely that you will have an empathy with their ideas and concerns and the works will tend to be cheaper. On the other hand it is also useful to buy artists who are much older as the work of senior artists can often grow in value towards the end of their career as they become less productive. The onset of death also adds significantly to the value of the work.
One of the great unrealised investment areas in New Zealand photographers. This applies to our historical photographers as well as the new innovators such as Fiona Pardington and Yvonne Todd. This group of artists offers excellent investment opportunities.