A guest blog by freelance writer Harriet Cunningham
Way back in 2014 The Guardian newspaper launched its “Do Something” manifesto. It’s a blog which encourages its readers to expand their horizons, break out of their routine and, above all, do something new. Join a choir, they suggest. Knit. Look at the stars. Listen to music you’ve never heard before.
Ah. New Music. About that…
For concert-goers, new sometimes feels like a dirty word. We love the way great music makes us feel, but we hate the idea of being trapped, listening to weird and not-so-wonderful sounds.
Now meet NZTrio. OK, so the “N” stands for “New” as in “New Zealand”, but it’s more than just a national thing. “New” is part of their musical language. “New” doesn’t just mean unfamiliar, or modern, and it certainly doesn’t mean scary. For NZTrio ‘new’ means listening to the world with fresh ears.
Justine Cormack, violinist with NZTrio. Photo by Kristian Frires
“Contemporary music comes in all shapes and forms,” says Justine Cormack, violinist with NZTrio. We’re chatting by phone, me in Sydney, her in Auckland, where they are in the final stages of preparing for their Australian tour. “We have put this program together so people are able to get into the music very easily,” she says. “It’s the music of today. It’s relevant. It’s thrilling.”
I can hear the excitement in her voice. She really loves this music. But what is the story behind East from Here? And why is it so relevant, so thrilling?
“So much classical music references Europe,” says Justine, “and we certainly don’t ignore Europe: most of our programs are a mix of old and new. But the Asia Pacific is our natural neighbourhood so we also have this program which consciously references the Asia Pacific.”
East from Here takes its audience in a grand imaginative and geographical arc from New Zealand to Australia, to China, Taiwan and Indonesia, then back to New Zealand. It’s a journey which, as Justine explains, the ensemble has developed over time. It’s not just a matter of tracking down suitable repertoire: collaborating with composers is an important part of how they work, and four of the seven works in East from Here were written specifically for NZTrio. So we’re talking more than just performers here. NZTrio are part of the creative process, bringing new to life, live, in real time, now.
That’s the case for relevance. But thrilling? To prove that case, you need to get listening and – thank you google — there is plenty of evidence out there. Here’s my whistle-stop tour of East from Here:
Two New Zealand composers book-end the show: Claire Cowan is an inspiring young film and stage composer, whose Subtle Dances is NZTrio favourite, a funky mix of tango and jazz moods; John Psathas is one of New Zealand’s most famous composers. He often works on a mighty scale – composing music for the 2004 Olympic Games in Greece – but he can do small too.
Then there’s Australia. Stuart Greenbaum likes to describe his music as being on the cusp of pop and classical. Whichever way it falls, it is long on beauty, as you can hear on a CD of his chamber music, recorded by NZTrio and featuring 800 Million Heartbeats as the title track.
Justine says the trio have been looking for the perfect place to present Pullitzer Prize winning composer Zhou Long’s Spirit of Chimes, a work which is unmistakeably Chinese in its tone colours, but with a very modern groove. They’ve put this engaging work alongside the slightly nutty, slightly scary freneticism of Taiwanese composer Yu Hui Chang’s Flicker. Think Queen of the Night after a double espresso.
The NZTrio having fun during a photoshoot. Photo by Kristian Frires
Gao Ping is a pianist and composer, originally from Chengdu, who the trio met during his years at Canterbury University in New Zealand. His music is described as having ‘a heart beating in the East and the West’. The important word, here, is ‘heart’. It’s deeply affecting stuff which reaches out and grabs me, emotionally.
Wayan Yudane is an old new friend. You may recognise the name from his award-winning collaboration with Paul Grabowsky on The Theft of Sita. NZTrio met him on a tour, playing alongside his Gamelan work, and decided to commission a work from him. As Justine says, even though Entering the Stream is written for string trio, you can hear the sounds of the Gamelan creeping in.
A quick rummage around NZTrio’s website only confirms what I’m getting hearing from my google travels – that this is an ensemble who are driven by a sense of adventure, by the spirit of unlimited possibility. They are living the ‘do something new’ manifesto, and they are doing it with flair, commitment and immense skill.
“We really love it,” says Justine. “We are completely convinced by this music ourselves. We can’t wait to get out there and share it with people. They’re in for a treat.”
After listening to the repertoire for East from Here, I have to agree. As Justine says, it’s music of today, it’s relevant and, yes, it’s thrilling.
NZTrio perform East from Here at Riverside Theatres at 3pm on Sunday August 23. One performance only, so book now.
ABOUT HARRIET CUNNINGHAM
Harriet Cunningham is a freelance writer based in Sydney. In print she is best known as one of The Sydney Morning Herald’s classical music critics.
Harriet writes for print and online publications including the Financial Review, Gramophone Online, Limelight Magazine, the Sun Herald, the Sydney Magazine, The Sydney Morning Herald and Qantas Inflight Magazine. She has interviewed personalities ranging from Vladimir Ashkenazy, Nigel Kennedy and Zubin Mehta to Ita Buttrose and Paul Keating. The arts and, particularly, live performance, is her specialist subject.
Find out more about Harriet Cunningham on her website
Follow her on Twitter @harryfiddler