Anna van jer Leij works with “the fantastic folks at Chamber Music New Zealand”, and they’re touring The New Yorker music critic and author Alex Ross with New Zealand mezzo soprano Bianca Andrew and STROMA – an ensemble made up of a selection of NZSO players and pianist Emma Sayers. They mostly perform modern chamber music, which is what the up-coming concert is all about. Designed as a musical accompaniment to Alex Ross’s best selling book The Rest is Noise, the concert will take the audience on a voyage through some of the 20th century’s most beautiful and intriguing chamber music. In order to get into the mood of it all, she’s been listening to some of the music we’ll be hearing in the concert, or music closely related to it.
1 – Maurice Ravel, Ma Mere L’Oye, Le Tombeau de Couperin Sheherazade: The hugely-talented Wellington mezzo soprano Bianca Andrew is performing Ravel at the Alex Ross concert, and as a pianist I’m particularly partial to Ravel. Ravel is often likened to a watchmaker, his music is so intricate and beautiful. This new orchestral recording with Les Siècles and François-Xavier Roth is music written with children in mind: The Mother Goose Suite. It’s a lot of fun of course, but the final movement (The Fairy Garden) always gets me. Le Tombeau de Couperin equally mixes the playful with the deeply melancholic. Ravel wrote this set of music after the french composer Couperin in the style of a baroque suite, with each movement of the suite dedicated to his friends who died in World War I.
2 – Gloria Cheng, The Edge of Light: Messiaen and Sarriaho: I was waiting tables in Edinburgh when I was 20, while when Messiaen was 20 he was writing piano preludes (amongst other things), and this recording is a beautiful interpretation of them. Messiaen was an extraordinary person, a real prodigy. He spent time in a German prisoner of war camp and had a very tragic personal life, but his music is of brightness and joy, influenced from Japanese music to birdsong. The preludes are lovely on these crisp sunny autumn days we’ve had lately. Hinting at Debussy and Satie, with jazzy harmonies but also very introspective. I came across this recording when I was looking into Messiaen’s works while I was a Producer and Music Programmer for ABC Classic FM in Australia, and if you find his compositions leave you little cold (you sometimes have to work to like this stuff), Gloria Cheng’s sensual phrasing makes these piano works irresistible.
Kaija Saariaho’s music was completely new to me – but the more I read about her and her composition, the more fascinating she became. She now lives in Paris, but is from Finland, where she helped form the progressive Ears Open group. Her music is extremely atmospheric and experimental. She has composed music using algorithms to come up with new “sound spectrums”, which despite sounding like it would result in music which could be a bit mathematical and abstract, is surprisingly human. NZ ensemble STROMA will be performing Saariaho’s Oi Kuu (To the Moon) in the Alex Ross Concert.
3 – Vikingur Olaffsson, Glass: Piano works: Sometimes less is more. Another piano album, this new release of works by the minimalist composer performed by Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson is quite special. Ólafsson’s playing is so controlled and measured it’s extraordinary. I love Openings – the first track, and have never really heard it played the way Ólafsson plays it. The album has reworkings of Glass’s works by Christian Badzura into string quartet. Sometimes reworkings like this don’t work, they often don’t have anything new to say, are just trying too hard and are pale imitations of the original. But Badzura creates something quite original and very beautiful here. Alex Ross finds echoes and traces of minimalism in pop music of the late twentieth century in The Velvet Undergound’s Heroin, David Bowie’s Heroes, Public Enemy’s Welcome to the Terrordome, and Missy Elliott’s Wake Up.
4 – Radiohead, OK Computer: When not getting all-consumed by Bach, this was the album of my teen angst. I admit to having a bit of crush on Jonny Greenwood when I was 14, but it was fascinating later in my life to read about Alex Ross’ take on Radiohead’s music in his second book Listen to This. I loved the way Alex Ross’s book ties seemingly disparate musical threads together, treating Radiohead, Talking Heads, The Velvet Underground, Björk and Sonic Youth (all music I love) the same way as Schubert, Verdi or Brahms. Whether Mozart or Bob Dylan, Alex Ross shows how music expresses the full complexity of the human condition. Listening to Paranoid Android for the first time did similarly nice things to my teenage brain that Bach did.
5 – Phantasm, Tye: Complete Consort Music: Anyone who knows me will know that it is “early music” which moves me the most (“early music,” I suppose, is the general term for music written in the mediaeval, renaissance and baroque periods). It’s the music I have the deepest relationship with, and I think is some of the beautiful music ever written. Though I’m quite happy being born in the age of modern medicine and David Attenborough documentaries, I would have been very happy musically in renaissance Europe. I’ve been a bit spoiled recently because Chamber Music New Zealand recently toured UK viol ensemble, Phantasm, who perform music from this time – and are probably the best in the world at what they do! I’m currently listening to Phantasm’s latest release on Linn, the exquisite music of Christopher Tye.