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Rita Angus “An Artist’s Life” reveals a New Zealand Modernist

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Rita Angus, An Artist’s Life

By Jill Trevelyan

Te Papa Press

RRP  $59.99

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

This  year the Royal Academy in London was due to have an exhibition of works by  Rita Angus but was cancelled due to the covid 19 pandemic. The Royal Academy was heavily promoting the exhibition which was titled “Rita Angus: New Zealand Modernist”. She was described as an icon “inspiring generations of artists and admirers alike, her paintings broke away from the traditional art of the time, which was based on the European tradition and dominated by a nostalgic view of Britain. Instead, Angus developed a new visual style – with strong outlines and flat, unmodulated colour – that has come to symbolise the natural beauty and independent spirit of New Zealand.”

“Through over 70 vivid portraits, landscapes and still lifes, this long-overdue survey charts the remarkable career of a fiercely independent woman, who like many of her contemporaries across the world – Frida Kahlo, Alice Neel and Emily Carr among others – changed the artistic landscape of her country forever.”

The exhibition which may still go to London  will open at Te Papa in December is being co-curated by Jill Trevelyan and Te Papa’s Curator of Modern NZ Art Lizzie Bisley.

Trevelyan who is leading authority on the artist has  just published a revised edition of her book “Rita Angus, An Artist’s Life” which was originally published in 2008.

Rita Angus was part of the Modernist cultural wave which developed in New Zealand in the 1940’s and 50’s. It was out of this period that some of the formative and seminal works of modern New Zealand art emerged in Christchurch. As well as Angus there was Leo Bensemann, Colin McCahon, Allen Curnow, Denis Glover, Ngaio Marsh and Douglas Lilburn

These young artists assimilated the developments in style and technique that were occurring in Europe and America combining them with a local flavour, giving the country a new sense of nationalism.

“Rita Angus, An Artist’s Life” helps in providing an understanding of those times as well as how Angus herself developed as a freethinking individual, pacifist, feminist  and artist. The book explores her unique approach to art and the various threads of that work from the landscapes to the portraits.

Rita Angus, Cass

Many of her works have become icons of New Zealand art – “Cass”, “Portrait of Betty Curnow” and” Fog Hawkes Bay”. Then there is  her group of extraordinary portraits where she presents herself in various roles as goddess in works such as “Rutu”.

Making use of a cache of 400 letters written by the artists and composer Douglas Lilburn as well as the many published writings, books films and personal accounts  Trevelyan has made the artist accessible with insights into her professional and personal life  which gives us an appreciation of how and why she produced her art.

There is also a lot of detail around her career, so we learn that “Cass” which she painted in 1936 was not purchased by the Robert McDougall Art Gallery until 1955. Also, as happens with many artists it was her friends and family who purchased a substantial number of her works throughout her career.

Rits Angus, Rutu

Angus always knew she was an artist and had a mission to portray the world about her , expressing the magic and the mystery of the landscape, the people and events she encountered, imbuing these images with a spiritual essence.

Note: The Royal Academy show was being co-curated by Jill Trevelyan and the R.A.’s Senior Curator Dr Adrian Locke who had been involved with the “Oceania” exhibition.

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Martin Ball reveals the Pink and White Terraces

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Martin Ball, Pink Terraces: After Valentine

Echo: A Brush with History

Martin Ball

Orexart

Until May 1

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Martin Ball’s latest exhibition “Echo” is based on the photographic records that George Valentine made of  the now destroyed Pink and White Terraces which erupted one hundred and thirty-five years ago on 10 June 1886.

Valentine, George Dobson, 1852-1890. Pink Terraces on Lake Rotomahana – Photograph taken by George Dobson Valentine. Kirk, Thomas William, 1856-1936: Photograph album. Ref: PA1-q-138-011. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22708755

It was reported at the time  that on 1 June 1886, a party of tourists claimed to have seen a Māori war canoe appear out of the mists on Lake Tarawera. It was being paddled by Māori in traditional dress and disappeared when the tourist boat got close to it.

A tohunga, Te Wairoa claimed that it was a waka wairua, or spirit canoe, and that it was an omen of a great calamity which would strike the land.

Much of what happened on the fateful day is shrouded in the mists of time and that is one of the  aspects of Ball’s depictions. Along with photographer George Valentine several others photographed the area prior to the eruption including the  Burton Brothers and a  number of artists including Charles Blomfield and J C Hoyte. A year after the eruption Martin Ball’s great-grandfather Thomas Ball also painted the terraces based on the photographs of George Valentine.

Ball, Thomas, 1833-1906. Ball, Thomas, 1833-1906 :White Terraces. 1887 [After a photograph by George Dobson Valentine taken before 1886]. Ref: G-455. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22811950

In his exhibition Martin Ball has repeated his grandfather use of  the Valentine images to recreate the sense of grandeur and mystery of the terraces.

Rather than use the painted versions available Ball has chosen to use the black and white photographs which gives his paintings a slightly surreal quality which is enhanced by the intensity of the white paint which predominates.

The original photographs and painting of the terraces were intended as depictions of the natural wonder but Martin Ball has produced a set of works which are more about the aura and atmospheres of the place. They range from the dark, moody “White Terrace: Coffee Cup” ($17,500) to the ethereal “White Light II” ($22,000).

Ball has always been interested in the role of photography in the art making process and many of his paintings and drawing are hyper realist and  he plays with the images and the nature of photography. His work also reveals an interest in light. It is light which is often the subject of his works and it is what gives his work drama and luminescence.

Often in his work Ball’s use of the photograph is not so much as a visual aid to his painting but rather the subject of the paintings. In many of his previous works he reproduces the blemishes and quirks of the photograph itself.

The views Ball has produced relate to the nineteenth century photographs but not copied, rather remembered through a haze of history, trying to capture uncertain images.

In these  paintings he seems to have captured the photographic images as if they are still in the developing tray, a few second before the image becomes fixed.

In the large “Pink Terrace- After Valentine” ($32,000) the artist has softened the black enclosing  bush and makes the white terraces less crystalline making them more like drapery

With “White Terrace: Coffee Cups”  there is an  emphasis on the structural nature of the terraces while with “Echo” ($22,000) it is the ethereal quality  which dominates.

With some such as  “Fountain of the Clouded Sky” ($8500) the underlying pink seems to be leaching into the picture as if to recover the vibrancy of the original terraces.

The exhibition has echoes of the of the images he references  as well as echoing the event itself and the notion of the omen  or the presence of a taniwha inhabiting the vapours.

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Faith Healer: Three actors in search of the truth

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Faith Health by Brian Friel

Plumb Productions

Pitt St Theatre, 78 Pitt St Newton

Until April 24

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Brian Friel’s Faith Healer is a seemingly simple play in which three characters speak four monologues, each recalling the same events from their differing perspectives.  Each of the characters presents their lives and their perceptions of the other two with a mix of pop psychology, personal angst and wit.

It tells the story of the life of the faith healer Frank Hardy and his journey through the rural halls and kirks of Scotland and Wales along with his wife Grace and manager Teddy. In each of the little towns Frank puts on his “performance” in which he offers to cure people of their ailments. Despite this being a con there is an occasional triumphal miracle and on one occasion a hall of ten people were all healed.

Behind this seemingly simple façade however there is a complex labyrinth of  shifting memory, flawed understanding and cynicism where reality and illusion clash.

There are a couple of incidents which loom large in in their stories and each of their accounts vary in detail and truth showing that at least two of them are lying. It is left to the audience to decide.

Following his “vocation without a ministry” Joseph Rye captures Frank’s charisma, his belief in himself and his power. His rambling merge  fact and fiction with all  the skills of the preacher and salesman. Frank talks about his performances before the blind, lame and disfigured saying they don’t come to be cured they come to have their condition acknowledged, like the  theatre where the audience sees themselves reflected on stage

Rye creates images of people,  places events with verbal dexterity a face alive with nuance along with some subtle gestures.

David Aston’s Teddy comes close to being a stand-up comedian for much of his monologue. He is  a quick-witted spiv with a heart of tarnished gold who is captivated by Frank. He senses that Frank is a charlatan, but a couple of miracles and he is obsessed. His monologue combines memories of his previous successes – a whippet which could play the bagpipes along with  with the fraught history of his life with Frank and Grace. He also makes some astute remarks about creatives – they need to have ambition, talent and be brainless.

On opening night Aston had to call on the prompt a few times. Not only did he handle the situations professionally, but it felt as these added to the whole notion of playwright/directorial intervention, breaking through the convention of the actor being fully immersed in a part.

Grace, Frank’s disparaged and tragic wife delvers her monologue with an emotional intensity but she doesn’t convince of her hard life of cigarettes smoking and drinking  and a life crippled by Frank and possibly Teddy.

The play it something of an extended metaphor about art and the tension between reality and illusion. With each of the monologues we are led into thoughts and experiences of an individual, presented with many truths and lies and we as audience members must assemble the truth as we see it. The play also makes us aware of the magic which comes with the actors ability to create illusions of truth.

Paul Gittens direction and simple stage design along with Friel combination of lyric and tense dialogue make the play riveting and though-provoking.

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“Amui ‘I Mu‘a – Ancient Futures” linking traditional and contemporary Tongan art

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Amui ‘I Mu‘a – Ancient Futures

Dagmar Vaikalafi Dyck and Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi

Wallace Arts Centre, Pah Homestead,

12 March – 2 May 2021

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

As part of the  ‘Amui ‘I Mu‘a – Ancient Futures exhibition at the Wallace arts Centre there is a video of the  funeral of  King Taufa’ahan Tupou IV in 2006 which encapsulates much of contradictions, connections and complexities of Tongan society. European ideas, Christianity and traditional island practices, ceremonies and symbols merge creating rich cultural forms. The exhibition features these same connections between  tradition and contemporary. There are some large traditional tapa works as well as other Tongan artefacts from various  museums including works from Auckland War Memorial Museum and Canterbury Museum.


Ngatu Tāhina: Figures and tree
Tonga
barkcloth and natural inks
Reverend MA Rugby-Pratt Collection Canterbury Museum. E156.241

These feature the growing assimilation of idea as can be seen in one of the early twentieth century tapa works such as Ngatu Tāhina: Figures and Trees  and “Ngatu Tapa’ingatu: Gramophones and clocks “  showing images of gramophones and clocks.

These earlier works are displayed  along with the  contemporary responses in the form of paintings, digital prints, and sculptural works by Dagmar Vaikalafi Dyck, Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi  who have worked in collaboration with  with art historian and anthropologist Billie Lythberg, historian anthropologist Phyllis Herda and linguist Melenaite Taumoefolau from the University of Auckland as well as art historian Hilary L. Scothorn and other international colleagues.

Dyck is a Tongan-German multimedia artist. Born and raised in Auckland, where she practices and teaches art maintaining strong connection with Tonga. Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi was born in Ngele‘ia on Tongatapu, Tonga and emigrated to Aotearoa New Zealand in 1978.

Both artists have long drawn on aspects of  Tongan tradition such as lalava lashing patterns, kali headrests, ngatu barkcloth motifs and kiekie waist adornments.

Tohi has had a life long interest in lalava patterns as well as the finely incised carving of late-18th-century Tongan clubs to uncover what he refers to as a ‘fibre system’ of knowledge, with rules, orders and schema.

The lalava  patterns can be seen in some of the museum exhibits such as the woven  basket on display as well Tohi’s “Haukulasi”, his contemporary version of the designs. 

He has also turned the lalava designs into three dimensional  versions where the sculptural form could be seen as being an ancient  example of carving or a contemporary experimental design.  

The designs  of paddle clubs are evident in his abstract work “Pulefefine” with its dramatic colours owing as much to the European and American  geometric art.

Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi, Pulefefine

He has also analysed 18th-century kali, the headrest for sleeping and resting. He has created his own versions of the object with one in particular elegant one is inlaid with small bone symbols of the heavens.

Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi , Kali

This interest in the heavens and navigation which is often found in Pacific art is also reflected in his  set of photographic images of the moon where the celestial body becomes the guiding body for all mariners.

Known for her dynamic prints and paintings that often draw from the kupesi designs on ngatu (mulberry) fabric. Dyck has drawn new and significant inspiration from the garments worn by her ancestors. She has continued her exploration of ngatu motifs and closely woven kato alu and kato mosikaka baskets, as well as elaborately feathered sisi fale waist garments and kiekie, fala mats, and helu combs.

Her works use these images in paintings and prints combining images of domestic  objects, along with traditional patterns  and geometric designs, intricately layering historical and contemporary references.  In the case of the large painting “Markers of Community” where one painting is overlaid with another the drama of contemporary patterns interwoven with those of the traditional.

Dagmar Dyck, Markers of Community

Several of her large tapestries made of paper which is  handwoven and sewn  (assisted by Alexis Neal and Nilesh Salwaswala) refer to traditional decoration and  acknowledge the communal making of many Tongan women’s arts,

Dagmar Dyck, Alexis Neal and Nilesh Salwaswala

She has led the creation of a multimedia installation with her sister, Luana Dyck, and photo-filmic artists and sisters Emily and Vea Mafile‘o. These contemporary works, made for the gallery, are complemented by and exhibited in conversation with a selection of historical Tongan artefacts from public collections.

Public programme

Thursday 8 April at 7pm, ‘10 x ten – Celebrating Tongan Artists’ brings together Tongan artists with ten x 10-minute informative discussions.

Participating artists include Dyck, Tohi, TK Hards, Kalisolaite ‘Uhila, and Tui Gillies.

1pm, Saturday 10 April, 1pm

Catalogue Launch. This event includes talks by Dyck and Tohi.

Saturday 24 April – 10am to 3pm.

Community Day at the Wallace Arts Centre. An interactive event, offering children and adults hands-on creative experiences and featuring activities with a Tongan flavour, including a chance to learn some lashing techniques with Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi.

Wednesday 28 April 7pm

A Modern Tongan  Dinner

A celebration of modern Tongan cuisine with a three-course seated dinner at the drawing room of the Pah Homestead where the exhibition is shown. This will be a unique experience where Tongan art and culture collides with culinary originality by chef Beau Louis Takapu. $150 per couple or $80 single.

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“The Haka Party Incident” is a powerful and emotional work

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Photo Andi Crown

The Haka Party Incident by Katie Wolfe

Auckland Theatre Company

ASB Waterfront theatre

Until  April 10.

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

The much-awaited new play “The Haka Party Incident” by Katie Wolfe finally opened this week.

Some came to witness a great piece of theatre.

Some came to see a recreation of a piece of history.

A few came to see themselves depicted on stage revisiting a time of personal trauma and triumph.

“The Haka Party Incident” is a brilliantly told tale focussing on a few dramatic minutes in 1979 where some young Maori confronted some Auckland University  Engineering students preparing for their annual haka party, adorned with “tattoo”, and wearing grass skirts. We are shown the actions leading up to the incident, the planning of the intervention and the direct repercussions, through to the  trial of the Maori activists.

The play is more than just a record of what happened. It stands as a symbol for the underling personal, social, and institutional racism which has pervaded the country’s history.

Writer Katie Wolfe has intervied dozens of the people involved in the incident and she has used their verbatim accounts as the text for the work. The interviews have then been  articulated by the actors with all the hesitations, errors and  mispronunciations that come with recall. The seven actors provide a vivid retelling of what happened on that day with all the nuances of vaguely remembered event as well as the moments of recalled, precise detail. 

The participants explore much about the dynamics of the event but also reveal the underlying conservatism which inhabited much of new Zealand society as well as showing the anger and disillusionment of many Maori over racism and exclusion from aspects of society as well as the ongoing need to create a bi-cultural society,

The work is close to being a documentary but is also  part theatre, part history lesson, part musical and  part kapa haka performance. At times it has elements of Greek tragedy at others the interchanges are like retold tales and there are also passionately delivered polemics.

This was an incredibly powerful and emotional work, the minor event taking on a huge symbolic significance.

The audience responded to the strength of the work throughout with murmurs of accord, some quiet weeping and the occasional surge of applause.

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New book reveals the secret lives of paintings

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

The Back of the Painting

By Linda Waters, Sarah Hillary and Jenny Sherman

Te Papa Press

RRP $45.00

Publication date April

“The Back of the Painting”

Research Library Display Case

Mezzanine Level of Auckland Art Gallery

30 April – 26 August.

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

In the late 1980’s the artist Julian Dashper suggested to the Auckland Art Gallery a show in which all the works would have their backs exposed to the viewer. This would have provided viewers with an insight into the secret lives of paintings. The exhibition never took place but a new book “The Back of the Painting” has taken up the challenge. Three of the country’s leading conservators Linda Waters (Te Papa), Sarah Hillary (Auckland Art Gallery) and Jenny Sherman (Dunedin Public Art Gallery) have assembled 33 art works where the emphasis is on what is on the rear of the works.

Often the rear of a painting may bear the artists signature, title of the work and date as well as sometimes adding additional material. Also adding information to the rear will be the dealer affixing a note about the sale of the work  (including the price), auction houses will also add a note about their involvement with the works sale. The owners of art works will sometimes add notes about the inclusion of the work in their collection and art institutions will document the work as well, often with a note of authenticity.

Each of the conservators has chosen a dozen varied works from their collections. Jenny Sherman’s selection is mainly European 14th to 18th century, while the two other concentrate mainly on twentieth century New Zealand art.

Each of the essays gives some background to the work itself and to the documentation on the rear  of the work. There are also several photographs which show the  state of the canvas or boards which often reveal the processes of the artists.

One work which has the most dramatic “back story” is the one which  has some of the most interesting images. The James Tissot “Still on Top” which was stolen from the Auckland Art Gallery in a brazen armed heist in 1998 and found quickly was badly damaged. Sarah Hillary explains  how the repairs took two years and there are images of the torn canvas as well as images of the laborious restoration and repainting.

The oldest work in the collection is Antonio Veneziano’s ”Head and Shoulders of a Bearded Saint” of around 1390. Th back this work reveals that not only has it originally been part of a larger artwork but the actual painting at some point has been removed from its wooden surface and then adhered to new timber. Additionally, the work has a note about the purchase in Luca in 1893 referring to it as a “Fragment of a Tuscan Picture”. Another note from the British Museum concerns the verification of its being a Veneziano work. It also seems to indicate the work was acquired at Sotheby in 1950.

Oher works have interesting connections as with the Lucien Pissarro “Landscape through trees, Tilty Woods”. Lucien the son of the more famous Camille moved from France to England in 1890 and the work bears a note from the artists widow requesting that in accordance with her husband’s wishes no varnish be applied to the work.

Ray Thorburn did not provide direct instructions about his  “Modular 13, Series 2” but the four panels of the works are held together with clamps indicating that the four abstract panels can be arranged in various ways.

The McCahon work “Will He Save Him” of 1959 as in the case of many artists works has an unfinished work on the rear along with the title “Will He Save Him”. Where the painting itself, one of McCahon’s major works of the period is executed in dark colours apart from a gleaming patch of yellow, the work on the rear has a much more luminous appearance with a “waterfall’ of blues. The change in colours possibly indicates the artist wantyinmg the colouring to be more desolate than the salvation suggested by the lighter blues.

It is an intriguing and illuminating book which helps expand ones appreciation of artworks and helps remove some of the mystique around artists and their work. Few of the essays provide earth shattering revelations about the artist or the work but they help provide an understanding of how individual artworks have their own physical history and come into being.

The choice of works for the book also reveals that the country’s art galleries have works by significant artists even if they are not major works. Dunedin has a Claude Lorrain a Monet and the Pissarro.

There will be an exhibition called ‘The Back of the Painting’ in the Research Library Display Case on the Mezzanine Level of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki from 30 April – 26 August.

It will include three paintings, two which are included in the book (the Portrait of Mrs George Vaile c1853 by an unknown artist, and Julian Dashper’s Untitled 2005-06), plus a painting by Tony Fomison, Jack in the Box 1978, from the Auckland Art Gallery collection.

The gallery will initially show the backs of the works with images of the front adjacent with auxiliary material to provide context.  The works will remain like that for most of the three months but will be turned to show the front for the last week, so people can come back and see the correct orientation before the exhibition is over.

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NZSO opens its Stravinsky ballet music season with a lively Petrushka.

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Stephen de Pledge

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Carnival

Auckland Town Hall

March 27

Hamish McKeich Conductor
Stephen De Pledge Piano

Ravel La Valse
Ravel Piano Concerto in G Major 
Anna Clyne Masquerade
Stravinsky Petrushka (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.

Future Stravinsky concerts

Firebird

Wellington April 8

Tauranga April 10

Napier  April 17

Rite of Spring

Auckland   July 3

Wellington   July 10

Auckland   April 24

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Michael Houstoun conquers the Everest of piano concertos.

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Auckland Philharmonia

Auckland Town Hall

Houstoun Plays Rachmaninov

March 23

Conductor Vincent Hardaker
Piano Michael Houstoun

Maria Grenfell Stealing 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.

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Strasbourg 1518 an impressive dance work

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Lucy Marinkovich (The Maiden) and Death (Michael Parmenter)

Auckland Arts Festival

Strasbourg 1518

ASB Waterfront Theatre

March 19

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

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.

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Reviews, News and Commentary

Voices at the End: Mesmeric Minamilism

Reviwed by John Daly-Peoples

Auckland Arts Festival

Voices at the End

John Psathas and  Steve Reich

Auckland Town hall

March 18

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

“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