REVIEW: Waitangi Wonders, Adam Festival, Nelson School of Music, Wednesday February 6.
A rare gift was bestowed on patrons gathered to savour this New Zealand-composed performance when festival director Colleen Marshall revealed pre-eminent composer John Ritchie was one of two featured composers present, along with Ross Harris, a student of Ritchie’s at the University of Canterbury 50 years ago.
Now in his early nineties, Ritchie was helped on stage by his composer son, Anthony, to introduce his String Quartet and relate its background. Describing himself as “a specimen” from Christchurch (he’s “out of his house while EQC try to fix it up”) Ritchie was “absolutely thrilled” his quartet was being performed “by such eminent musicians”, the Penderecki String Quartet.
The work, he said, is a story of his life in four movements: the first “tells you the sort of kid I was”; the second of falling in love with his future wife; the third of his often “frenetic” work life at the university, while the slow finale of the fourth movement, ’Reminiscence’, written more than 40 years later, followed the death of the composer’s wife in 2001.
The piece’s main motif comes from the folk song I Know Where I’m Going, a favourite of Ritchie’s late wife.
The Canadian quartet brought the piece vividly to life, conveying to perfection a sense of a typical Kiwi childhood experience, in turn joyful, winsome, chirpy and questioning. First violinist Jeremy Bell leapt from his chair expressing that childlike exuberance.
The second movement began slow and romantic. Katie Schlaikjer’s cello exposed the underlying pool of emotion, while the violins took the depth of passion to heights of breath-catching beauty and poignancy. The third movement then leapt into a frantic pace, slowing briefly to allow the melody to breathe before hurrying on again.
In contrast, the final movement had an elegiac quality, the cello pizzicato and sombre, before the other instruments joined in, each registering slightly behind the other. The volume then slowly built before softening, quieting, full of such sensitivity that by the gentle, haunting end I was moved to tears.
Harris’ String Quartet No 5 (Songs from Childhood), the composer said, was more about “not knowing where he was going”. This was a more challenging piece peppered with rhythmic shifts and tonal changes and tempo that the New Zealand String Quartet took in their exceptional stride. Cellist Rolf Gjelsten, in silver satin shirt, was in his element leading the heartfelt way through a wonderful range of complex, sometimes jarring, emotions.
The NZ Trio completed a very satisfying programme with Helix by Wellington-based John Psathas, a high-energy piece in three movements reflecting the rhythms and melodies of the composer’s Greek heritage.
While violinist Justine Cormack and cellist Ashley Brown took their turns leading with the insistent theme, especially in the pensive and passionate sections of the second movement, the piece belonged to pianist Sarah Watkins. Her control and dexterity dazzled, especially in the third, driving ‘Tarantissimo’ movement. By the fiery crescendo, Watkins hands flashed too fast to follow. A stunning, infectious performance.
Exhausting as it was to experience, when the music stopped a strong desire to dance could be detected throughout the auditorium.