The Auckland Chamber Orchestra capped off their 2013 season with a concert entitled “Voice of the Whale”, after the work by George Crumb. All but one of the composers performed here are living, and the whole show was really a testament to the variety of music available in the contemporary classical scene. The concert opened with a virtuosic rendition of Messiaen’s Le merle noir for flute and piano, a short work based entirely, as the name suggests, on the song of the blackbird. Its original status as a test piece for entrance to the Paris Conservatoire belies its quality – it’s a gorgeous piece. The music has a lot of variety; the blackbird beginning lyrically but experiences more agitated moments later on. Polish-born flautist Adrianna Lis was certainly put through her paces by this technically demanding music, but emerged completely triumphant. Additionally, in both this and the Crumb, she retained her round and gleaming tone even in the most dazzling passagework.

George Crumb © Becky Starobin
George Crumb
© Becky Starobin
Lis adjusted immediately between portraying Messiaen’s blackbird and the keening of the humpback whale of George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae. Called upon to simultaneously play and sing into her flute, she combined the two with a discipline and intensity that was mesmerising. The mostly still concentration was interrupted only by a subtle but amusing parody of the opening bars of Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, with the flautist wailing the theme into her instrument. This was followed by the James Tennant’s solo cello playing in high harmonics, his swooping lines again evoking the vocalisation of whales under the sea in the most ravishing way. Later, the same instrument cried like seagulls. Paperclips and a glass rod were used to alter the sounds of the piano; Katherine Austin alternated between conventional playing of the keys with strumming and manipulating the strings inside the piano. At the great climax of the “Cenozoic” variation, the instruments combining with the strident jangling of the prepared piano made for a somewhat painful but intensely involving aural experience.

All three instruments (flute, cello and piano) are subtly amplified, and each player is masked, the masks intended to represent “the powerful impersonal forces of nature”. Nominally a set of variations, various melodic motifs recur throughout. The harmonies tend towards an Asian sound on occasions, with quasi-pentatonic figures abounding. At the conclusion, the music fades away into silence, the last repeated figure mimed by the players as though the sound has dissipated completely. With the stage submerged in deep-blue lighting, experiencing Crumb's work for the first time was a revelatory experience; the sound textures created were eerie and often overwhelmingly beautiful.

Beginning with the percussionist tearing long pieces of gaffer tape from the table upon which they were stuck, Michel van der Aa’s Mask, an extremely individual work. Fragments of the piece were electronically transformed and then piped out into the main sound texture. After a while it became difficult to tell which sounds were being played at that moment and which were being electronically realised, a perfect melding of acoustic and electronic sound worlds. A ticking metronome slowly became more muffled, the music also began to die, the electronic soundtrack overtaking the real instruments before also descending into silence. The mixture of acoustic and electronic sounds, along with that or some unusual instruments made for a sound world unlike anything I’ve ever really experienced.

Expecting to head straight into the John Adams after the interval, we were instead treated to a surprise item, a performance of Raga Machine by New Zealand composer Claire Scholes (wife of ACO musical director Peter Scholes), a relatively melodic work for bass clarinet and cello played here with convincing aplomb.

The Adams piece strikes me as being in his most “populist” vein – quite a distance from the distilled concentration of Crumb and van der Aa. As with much of Adams’ work of this type, Fearful Symmetries runs the risk of superficiality, but was here given such an infectious performance that this ceased to matter – in fact, it was almost a relief after the (admittedly glorious) intellectual rigours of the first half. Scored for a large ensemble, the work is characterised by forceful, insistent rhythms and exciting forward propulsion, giving, as the composer notes, “the impression of continuous movement over a shifting landscape”. Scholes and his orchestra’s strong attention in highlighting the changes in rhythm and timbre effectively disguised the fact that the piece has some difficulty sustaining its own near half-hour length. Particularly notable were the sterling performances of the keyboardists and pianist with their particularly gruelling parts, seeming to chug out their subtly differentiated rhythms endlessly.

With “Voice of the Whale”, the audience was fortunate to be treated to such convincing renditions of four contemporary works by the Auckland Chamber Orchestra. Throughout, the orchestra played with great concentration and intense engagement; in fact, it would hard to fault the performances in any respect. Adrianna Lis’ tour-de-force showings in the Messiaen and Crumb deserve a special mention. While the audience reacted most vociferously to the John Adams, for me it was the George Crumb piece that stood out for its still beauty and ravishing sound world.

*****