'The piano is the ocean and we are the surfers," says Helene Pohl. "And it's a great ride!"
Pohl is first violinist with the New Zealand String Quartet and co-artistic director of the Adam Chamber Music Festival that has just ended in Nelson. She was talking about playing a Schubert Piano Trio with cellist Rolf Gjelsten and visiting Hungarian pianist Peter Nagy in one of many performances that had big audiences on their feet applauding. Her metaphor could be modified to describe the whole event, perhaps the most successful Adam Festival yet.
Begun in 1992, the biennial summer festival has developed into New Zealand's major chamber music event, this year including 23 concerts, three master classes and a lively programme of talks and workshops. Chamber music lovers come from Wellington and overseas, including a good-sized group this year from Australia.
What distinguishes this festival are the collaborations between top New Zealand musicians and their international colleagues in repertoire seldom heard here. International guests included British cellist Colin Carr, pianist Nagy, the Penderecki String Quartet from Poland/Canada and Australian horn player Darryl Poulsen.
The NZ String Quartet took a central role as usual, with violist Gillian Ansell joining Pohl as co-artistic director, and they were joined by pianist Diedre Irons, flautist Bridget Douglas and six other principals from the NZSO, soprano Jenny Wollerman, harpsichordist Erin Helyard, the NZ Trio and many others.
Top of my list of "unmissable" concerts was the complete Bach Cello Suites, played by Carr, one of the foremost exponents of this music. A big audience filled Christ Church Cathedral and more than three hours flew by as he played sublime music with effortless flexibility, colour and variety.
Other highlights followed, often introducing unusual works. One was a perfect festival programme that took its name from the unashamedly romantic Requiem by Popper for three cellos and piano. Carr joined the cellists from the New Zealand and Penderecki quartets and the gorgeous richness of the string sound was underlined by Emma Sayers delightful piano playing.
Nagy and Ansell then presented Shostakovich's last work, his Viola Sonata, a moving performance of a dark work, with the final Adagio heartbreaking.
The Adam Festival has always included New Zealand composers and Waitangi Day provided a focus for this, first by celebrating three generations in a lunchtime programme. John Ritchie, 91, introduced his melodious autobiographical String Quartet, played with care and respect by the Penderecki Quartet.
The NZ String Quartet then premiered the 5th String Quartet, by Ross Harris, Ritchie's student in the 1960s. Songs from Childhood is brilliantly composed; an elusive, fragmentary piece, and the musicians overcame technical and rhythmic challenges to capture its subtle, dreamlike language.
The NZ Trio completed the programme with a foot-stomping account of the powerful Greek folk-tune-inspired Helix, by Wellington's John Psathas, himself a former student of Harris.
Later, Jenny McLeod's stunning new song cycle, He Whakaahua a Maru (A portrait of Maru), for soprano, flute and piano, was premiered by Wollerman, flautist Karen Batten and Sayers. Based on poetry in Maori by McLeod and Mike Nicolaidi, it included rhythms of haka and poi, exquisite writing for piano and flute and a highly dramatic role for the soprano.
A better performance than Nagy's of Mendelssohn's Songs without Words that preceded the new McLeod is hard to imagine. Shapely melodic lines sang from the piano and accompaniments flowed like water over stones.
The evening ended with the Schubert Trio mentioned by Pohl earlier, a work running the emotional gamut, performed with exquisite rapport.
Not all programming worked perfectly for chamber music connoisseurs. An enjoyable day trip to the tiny modern chapel at St Arnaud on Lake Rotoiti included an intimate concert by the fine Penderecki Quartet, but the audience would have preferred complete string quartets to the movements offered, particularly after hearing part of an arresting Quartet by Czech composer Ewvin Schulhoff.
However, the initiative of "music in beautiful settings out of town" was highly successfulin future.
Other delights included the popular Bach by Candlelight concert, with a faint chorus of cicadas and fading light outside the cathedral, a fascinating Ligeti Horn Trio, a bold performance of Dvorak's Piano Quintet in A, and the evening concert Rhapsody, where the audience in a sold-out auditorium was thrilled by Carr with Irons in Rachmaninoff's ecstatic Cello Sonata in G minor and with the NZ String Quartet in Schubert's Quintet in C.
The New Zealand and Penderecki Quartets ended the festival triumphantly on Saturday with Mendelssohn's Octet.
There was, throughout, a true festival buzz in the air as audiences spilled out into balmy Nelson evenings, and I'll certainly be there in 2015 for another exhilarating ride on the chamber music waves.
The 2013 Adam Chamber Music Festival ran from February 1-9.
- The Dominion Post
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