Nelson’s biennial international chamber music festival has become by far the largest classical music festival in the country, increasing the trend well established in Europe and North America to build music festivals into summer holiday plans.
Although the festival’s duration has been reduced from the previous 17 days to 10, with three or four concerts on some days (which has suited some, but not others), in all other respects it is bigger.
It has been enlarged in terms of the number of concerts (about 22 standard ones) and probably the total number of pieces of music played (about 70). Ticket sales have increased 40% thanks to the flair and enterprise of festival manager Bob Bickerton and the sane, charming touch of chair Colleen Marshall and artistic directors Helene Pohl and Gillian Ansell of the New Zealand String Quartet, whose members inspired the festival in 1992 and have been pivotal ever since. With many concerts sold out or close to full, provisional attendance figures approach 6000, 70% of whom came from outside Nelson. Such is the impact on Nelson’s economy that the city council this year substantially raised its support for the event.
The highlight? For many, it would have been the return visit (after 2003) of British cellist Colin Carr, who, to widespread incredulity, played all six of Bach’s solo cello suites one afternoon in three hours in the cathedral. Carr’s playing leans to the romantic rather than to vibratoless, even-paced interpretation. His ease and fluency, agility and graceful decoration seduced the audience. The sixth suite is written for a five-string instrument demanding a lot of tortured playing high on the A string. The audience rose in a wild standing ovation at the end.
Carr also gave a tour-de-force performance of Rachmaninov’s sonata, with Diedre Irons, which again brought the audience to its feet.
Pianist Péter Nagy, who had taught at the University of Canterbury, was back to make some beautiful and striking contributions: Chopin’s Preludes interspersed intriguingly with Scriabin’s in the same keys. And he gave imaginative life to many other works, such as Shostakovich’s poignant Viola Sonata with Gillian Ansell, as well as in larger chamber works.
String groups also included the Canadian Penderecki String Quartet, the Minguet Quartet (a vibrant young German group) and the young local Troubadour Quartet.
The Penderecki String Quartet played Mozart’s Dissonance Quartet and the occasionally ferocious quartet by Christos Hatzis on the last night; on an excursion to St
Arnaud, quartets by Beethoven and Schulhoff; and works by Rachmaninov, Wolf and Bartók. On Waitangi Day, they played John Ritchie’s quartet, and their members participated widely with others throughout the festival.
As usual, the New Zealand String Quartet’s input was everywhere, in whole or in part: in Ross Harris’s Fifth Quartet – something of a return to experimental techniques and sonorities; and Dvorák’s Piano Quintet, Schubert’s monumental String Quintet, his Piano Trio in E flat (with Nagy) and Mozart’s Horn Quintet (employing Australian horn player Darryl Poulsen).
The NZTrio arrived to play John Psathas’s Helix, which the group commissioned in 2006 and is now established as one of his best-known works – dynamically restrained, melodically vigorous. In a later concert, they played Gareth Farr’s Ahi, alternately peacefully beautiful and energetic, as well as Debussy’s very early Trio and Paul Schoenfield’s attractive Café Music.
Waitangi Day was busy. It featured impressive sessions with Richard Nunns and his remarkable collection of taonga puoro and singer Whirimako Black. Together, Nunns and Black created a dimmed, spiritual atmosphere in the beautifully restored Theatre Royal, performing Moteatea (songs) from Black’s Tuhoe heritage.
A 6.30pm concert presented, between Mendelssohn and Schubert, one of the true highlights of the festival: Jenny McLeod’s setting of a collection of some original, but mostly her own, Maori poems based on ideas from Mike Nicolaidi’s book A Greekish Trinity, entitled He Whakaahua o Maru. Jenny Wollerman sang them with powerful
conviction in Maori, accompanied by Emma Sayers (piano) and Karen Batten (flute) – a singular statement about the universality of art, as opposed to race-based
ownership claims. If this music takes root in the memory, it could prove a masterpiece.
A Bach concert has been a common element at the festivals: this year, the New Zealand String Quartet, Penderecki String Quartet, harpsichordist Erin Helyard, flutist
Bridget Douglas and bassist Hiroshi Ikematsu played Two Part Inventions, the Violin Sonata, BWV1016, arias sung by Jenny Wollerman and the Second Orchestral Suite.
Poulsen returned with Ligeti’s Horn Trio and participated in the intriguing reduction of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, along with several New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
players, conducted by Michael Joel.
Among events reaching into the community were a kids’ concert, masterclasses, trombone quartet BonaNZa providing comedy, Martin and Victoria Jaenecke (soprano saxophone and viola) and the New Zealand Guitar Quartet, who proved entitlement to classical standing.
This festival, in a city of physical, climatic and artistic assets, can justly be compared with all but a few of the most famous European music festivals, and looks sure to remain an increasingly brilliant adornment to New Zealand’s international cultural image.
ADAM CHAMBER MUSIC FESTIVAL, Nelson, February 1-9.