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Five Lines: Celebrating chamber music in Nelson

Elizabeth Kerr | 3 March 2021

This article was originally published via Five Lines. For the full original article, visit this link.

Faced with the closure of New Zealand’s borders, the organisers of the bi-annual Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson made the pragmatic decision to stage a shorter event featuring New Zealand-based artists in February 2021. Calling their four-day festival “Adam Summer Celebration” was inspired. New Zealand musicians and audiences have much to celebrate and the party atmosphere at the largely sold-out concerts was joyous. Recent New Zealand lockdowns and cancellations demonstrate how fortunate we were to gather for this feast of chamber music.

Curated by artistic directors Helene Pohl and Gillian Ansell of the New Zealand String Quartet, the rich programme offered fourteen events. Part of the buzz of the Adam Festival comes from collaborations between musicians from different ensembles, expanding the repertoire and creating exciting new relationships on stage. In the ‘Grand Opening’ concert a lush Sextet by Korngold saw the NZTrio’s violinist Amalia Hall and cellist Ashley Brown with the NZSQ for this seldom-heard work. The final work of the ‘Grand Finale’ concert was Schumann’s Quintet in E flat major, pianist Michael Endres joining the NZSQ for a thrilling performance of beloved music.

German-born Endres is a Christchurch-based pianist who should be better-known by New Zealand audiences. His all-Schubert solo recital was predictably a highlight of the programme, although the audience might have needed a short breath between the lightness of the Wiener Damenlieder (Viennese Ladies’ Dances) and his profound performance of Schubert’s monumental Sonata in B flat major.

Endres also proved numerous times that he’s a great chamber music colleague - and the musicians of the NZSQ seem to be his new best friends. With Ansell’s romantic viola in Brahms, Pohl’s melodic character in Dvořák, Monique Lapins’ wonderfully languorous and playful Debussy and Rolf Gjelsten’s dancing cello in a fanciful show-off piece from a teenage Chopin, Endres showed versatility and sheer love of music in multiple styles.

New Zealand compositions have always featured proudly at this Nelson event. Highlights this time included two new string quartets written for the NZSQ. Louise Webster’s thoughtful and complex This Memory of Earth was premiered by livestream under lockdown last year and made its first live outing in a concert of New Zealand music for Waitangi Day. [My profile of Louise and review of the work is here.]

The audience was also entranced by Ross Harris’s String Quartet #9, a short single-movement work requiring the musicians to hum and play simultaneously. “It’s strangely difficult to do,” Ansell told us before the performance. The resulting blurred, magical and reverent “chorales” alternate with fleet, elusive contrapuntal episodes which become increasingly agitated. It’s a compelling piece I’d like to hear again soon.

The Adam Festival has only occasionally featured singers in the past but this time the beautiful effortless voice of soprano Anna Leese and Will King’s rich-toned baritone brought a great deal of pleasure to the audience in several concerts. Well-chosen songs and arias were thoughtfully placed in themed programmes, ranging from the dark baritone beauties of Brahms’ Four Serious Songs to Leese’s engaging performances of music by Anthony Ritchie. And the sensitive musicianship and lovely pianism of accompanist Richard Mapp had me wondering why we don’t hear him performing with singers more often.

Marimba player Naoto Segawa is a joker who brought appealing dry wit to his introductions and interesting contemporary repertoire to the programme. He and NZSQ 2nd violinist Lapins are members of the quintet Ensemble Gô, commissioner of Sur/face by San Francisco-based New Zealand composer David Grahame Taylor. I was fascinated by Segawa’s stylish virtuosity and the radiant colours of this music in a performance with the NZSQ.

The NZTrio in its new line-up with Hall and Somi Kim was a significant presence at the festival, as itself and also collaborating with others. They extended their own great rapport to embrace violist Ansell for a deeply satisfying performance of Brahms’ 2nd Piano Quartet. They also brought two works from their 2020 tour, Beethoven’s Piano Trio Opus 1 No 3 and Ravel’s Piano Trio in A minor, both of which I wrote about here. I was struck again by the gorgeous clarity and style of their Beethoven and enjoyed hearing the ravishing colours of Ravel in the more expansive acoustic of the Auditorium of the Nelson Centre of Musical Arts.

Most concerts were in that fine Auditorium, a great space for chamber music that could be envied by bigger cities, especially Wellington. On the Saturday morning, we moved to the other Festival venue, the much-loved Nelson Cathedral, for NZSQ cellist Gjelsten’s ‘Bach Chat’, part of the free programme of talks, masterclasses and conversations that enhanced the ‘Celebration’.

Billed as a conversation about the famous Cello Suites between Gjelsten and Bach himself, this illustrated talk was perfectly pitched. I’ve heard at least three remarkable live performances in New Zealand of the complete Suites – Anner Bylsma, Colin Carr (in the Cathedral at a former Adam Festival) and Yo-Yo Ma – but found this presentation enormously illuminating and insightful. Gjelsten talked about and played excerpts of the different dance movements while explaining Bach's choice of key and the distinctive flavours of each suite. After his loving and engaging performance of the complete 6th Suite the audience walked out into Nelson’s sunshine full of elation.

At one point in the four-day event someone suggested that the musicians and audience felt like “family”. This is one of the strengths of the Adam Festival, a joyful engagement between musicians and audience, a shared love of the music, a generosity in both performances and audience response. The NZSQ, the event’s core ensemble, contributes much to this atmosphere. The Adam Festival organisation is now making decisions about whether 2022 will have another short “Celebration” or they can take the risk and plan a full-length Festival with international artists. Whatever the outcome, there’s no doubt that eager audiences will be there next year for one of the most fulfilling musical experiences in New Zealand’s concert calendar.

Keep up to date with the Adam Chamber Music Festival here.

This article was originally published via Five Lines. For the full original article, visit this link.


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