Five Lines: Transfigured Night - from saucy games to passionate desire (Wellington)

This article was originally published by Five Lines on 17 March 2021. Click here to view the original article.


Elizabeth Kerr, Five Lines | 17 March 2021


The stage in Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre is set with music stands and a large white sail-like backdrop painted in multi-coloured geometric shapes. A single barefoot ballet dancer steals in silently from the wings and gazes in wonder at the musical scores on the stands. The audience is hushed, not sure what to expect. This is clearly not going to be your average chamber music concert.


A viola player enters playing a simple folk-like tune and she and the dancer meet with happy surprise. Next a violinist arrives and the music becomes a Celtic-flavoured duet. Soon another violinist moves from the stalls to the stage playing a third musical line; quickly a cellist and two more dancers join in and string quartet and dancers begin to move together with a sense of discovery. All are dressed in white with roughly painted splashes of colour.

The audience is entranced. The pace picks up, music and dance becoming spikier as musicians and dancers turn around each other in joyous sure-footed counterpoint. The work alternates slower, thoughtful sections and energetic, witty dances before moving to its delicate ending.

Composer Tabea Squire I Danced, Unseen - charmingly light

Composer Tabea Squire’s delightful I Danced, Unseen is currently on its premiere tour of New Zealand as the opening work in Chamber Music New Zealand’s programme Transfigured Night. Squire developed her piece in collaboration with choreographer Loughlan Prior and together they have crafted a charmingly light, cheeky and amusing work, performed by the New Zealand String Quartet and three dancers from BalletCollective Aotearoa.

Getting into the mood, the audience relaxes while the performers remain on stage in costume and character. The musicians play tuning games and everyone moves the stage furniture around before the choreographed arrival of another violist and cellist. The six musicians launch into Dvořák’s String Sextet in A major, the ensemble producing a rich and glowing sound and the dancers becoming an adoring audience for Dvořák’s spontaneous and tuneful music. There’s no sense that the musicians are accompanying the dancers – the sextet is artistically centre stage, with the lovely duet between 1st violinist and cellist a highlight of the first movement. And it’s not long before the dancers can’t resist joining in and responding to the music.

Prior is a choreographer marvellously attuned to the score and responsive to its mood and characters. This was evident in his collaborative work with composer Claire Cowan in the highly successful ballet Hansel and Gretel in 2019. Some of the same saucy humour is evident here, the three dancers playing games with the music in the Slavic dumka of Dvořák’s second movement and the rapid Bohemian furiant of the third. The sextet and dancers both perform with marvellous character and a sense of irreverent fun, the fine musicians, game for anything, almost dancing themselves.

The demeanour of the audience, a mix of erudite chamber music lovers and younger dance enthusiasts, is far from that of the earnest connoisseurs sometimes found at chamber music concerts. After Dvořák’s Finale, a theme and variations full of clever, inventive jokes and rhythmic exchanges between dancers and musicians, the applause is mixed with laughter and whoops of delight.

After the interval, the mood of the evening changes dramatically, childish games left behind. Schoenberg’s single movement tone poem Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) is an early work, composed in 1899 when the composer was 25 and based on a poem by German Romantic poet Richard Dehmel. This is not yet the composer who challenged audiences with his “emancipation of the dissonance” although a conservative musical society in Vienna apparently refused to have the tone poem performed because it contained an unclassified dissonant chord.

Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night - simmering passion and anguish. Photo credit: Jack Hobbs

Dehmel’s poem describes a shadowy moonlit forest scene and a couple walking together, the woman confessing a dark secret and her new lover responding with kindness and acceptance, transforming the setting to one of radiant joy. It’s an expressionist work of simmering passion and anguish, and Prior captures this in his choreography, skilfully using his three dancers to create a fevered dream of love, jealousy and desire.

Black costumes for string sextet and dancers provide some performance formality to the musicians and an exquisite contrast between the dancers and the huge swathes of crimson and white silk that become part of the emotional tugs of war between the three. Tenderness between the female dancers, the primary couple in the drama, is offset by the angst of unresolved tensions within the threesome. This is very like the Tristan-inspired unresolved dissonances of Schoenberg’s music that holds us on the edges of our seats.

The performance by the six string players is outstanding, capturing the romanticism of the music with rich and beautiful playing, a deep understanding of the contrapuntal textures and the flexibility and unanimity of ensemble to carry the music and dance through to its passionate conclusion.

Congratulations to CMNZ for stepping outside the chamber music box to bring us this remarkable collaborative evening. The tour continues until March 23 with performances in New Plymouth (tonight), Nelson, Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill still ahead.

Transfigured Night Chamber Music New Zealand, Music by Tabea Squire, Dvořák and Schoenberg, Loughlan Prior (artistic director and choreographer), William Fitzgerald (design).

Performers: New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl, Monique Lapins, Gillian Ansell and Rolf Gjelsten) with Serenity Thurlow (viola) and Ken Ichinose (cello) and BalletCollective Aotearoa (Laura Saxon Jones, William Fitzgerald and Tabitha Dombroski).


This article was originally published by Five Lines on 17 March 2021. Click here to view the original article.