Music by Chris Adams
7.00pm Saturday 10 February 2024 at The Piano, Christchurch
Reviewed by Tony Ryan
Tonight’s concert title is a reference to the composer’s wife who inspired much of the music on the programme and participated in the original performances of several of the works. Helen Acheson died last year, and this evening’s choice of music is very much in memory of her as a singer, musician and person.
A total of eight works comprising thirty-two separate movements is an ambitious undertaking for a single concert, especially when all the music is by one composer with nine individual musicians in various combinations and permutations. And I imagine that, for most of the audience, everything on the programme is new – a daunting prospect for performers, composer and audience alike.
However, the Quintet for wind and strings which opened the programme proved instantly engaging and absorbing. Each of the six movements had its own specific character, and demonstrated a wide range of imaginative contrasts, moods and textures. The opening phrase of horn player Alex Morton’s only appearance on tonight’s programme, gave the first movement Proclamation an immediate and communicative impact that set the tone for the whole work. Two of the movements are interludes for solo instruments and I found Jeremy Garside’s playing of the fifth movement Lament for solo cello particularly moving. Brief as it was, it remains my personal highlight of the entire evening.
The one niggle I have with the performance of the Quintet is the placement of the violin in the ensemble’s stage layout. Perhaps being placed opposite the right-seated cello, instead of beside it, would have enabled the violin balance to emerge more equally with the more prominent sound of the other four instruments, especially in its almost inaudible pizzicato passages.
‘Character’ emerged as one of two key attributes of Chris Adams’ music tonight. Clearly identifiable and characterful motifs gave each movement an expressive appeal that kept the good-sized audience engaged throughout the two-hour duration.
The other key feature of Adams’ music tonight is ‘intimacy’, a word which the composer himself used in his short spoken introduction. Although in most of the works that intimacy included elements of vitality, joy and occasional bursts of real exuberance, the Viola Sonata that ended the first part of the programme focused on the more introverted and thoughtful aspects of intimacy. Sophia Acheson and Jeremy Woodside gave us a committed performance of this elegiac piece, but it was the work that I found less effective than the others. But then, I have also often found that it’s the music I have to work hardest to assimilate that returns the greatest rewards over time.
Soprano, Nicola Holt, was the only singer in tonight’s programme. Her light but clearly-focused timbre is ideally matched to the four works to which she contributed. A Song Cycle and Three Songs on Old Texts, both originally written for Helen Acheson, revealed Adams’ ability to respond intuitively to his chosen texts, with elements of humour, sentiment, spontaneity and directness that felt slightly more instinctive than in the more meticulously controlled instrumental-only pieces.
The Dowland Fragments later in the programme allowed Holt’s higher tessitura to shine, almost as if these five very appealing songs were written for a different singer than the two earlier sets. The addition of a violin obligato part in these songs was beautifully and sensitively played by Sarah McCracken; I especially enjoyed her delightfully articulated lute-like accompaniment in the fourth song.
Flautist, Hannah Darroch demonstrated total mastery of her instrument in three Art Miniatures where Adams’ imaginative exploration of the flute’s wide variety of techniques and effects was used for myriad and effective expressive diversity.
A similar array of effects and techniques contributed to the appeal of Maud, a string quartet in which all four musicians highlighted the concert’s overall polish and professionalism, as well as both the consistency and variety of Chris Adams’ imaginative mastery of his craft as a composer.
Two extracts from a chamber opera, River Lavalle, brought most of the musicians back to the stage to end the evening and, if we didn’t go out into the unseasonal rain exactly humming the tunes, there was certainly much to enjoy in this programme, and much that I’d like to hear again.
Tony Ryan has reviewed Christchurch concerts, opera and music theatre productions and many other theatre performances since the mid 1990s.
Tony has presented live and written radio reviews of numerous concerts, opera and other musical events for RNZ Concert for many years. An archive of these reviews can be found at Radio New Zealand - Upbeat
His reviews of opera, music & straight theatre and numerous reviews of buskers and comedy festival performances are available at Theatreview.
An archive of Tony’s chamber music reviews is held at Christopher’s Classics
He has also reviewed for The Press (Christchurch). Links to Tony's Press reviews are listed below:
Songs for Helen – Music by Chris Adams
A Barber and Bernstein Double Bill – Toi Toi Opera
The Strangest of Angels – NZOpera
Will King (Baritone) and David Codd (Piano) – Christopher's Classics
Ars Acustica – Free Theatre
Truly Madly Baroque – Red Priest
The Mousetrap – Lunchbox Theatre
Iconoclasts – cLoud
Last Night of the Proms – CSO
An Evening with Simon O’Neill NZSO
Catch Me If You Can – Blackboard Theatre
Brothers in Arms – CSO
Fear and Courage – CSO
Sin City – CSO
Don Giovanni – Narropera at Lansdowne
Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – Funatorium
Weave – NZTrio
Tosca – NZ Opera
Sister Act – Showbiz
Broadway to West End – Theatre Royal
Chicago – Court Theatre
Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 – CSO
Homage – CSO
Last Night of the Proms – CSO
SOAR – NZTrio
Pianomania – NZSO
Rogers & Hammerstein – Showbiz
Songs for Nobodies – Ali Harper
The Beauty of Baroque – CSO
Travels in Italy – NZSO