Cutting edge music to shock and awe

By William Dart

Jim Gardner. Photo / Greg Bowker
Jim Gardner. Photo / Greg Bowker

We usually associate Mark Menzies with cutting-edge music of the avant-garde, which is on the bill tomorrow when he guests with contemporary ensemble 175 East. Ironically, Menzies' "big coming-out concert", at the 1988 Wellington Festival, featured him in the Bruch Violin Concerto with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under Maxim Shostakovich.

"It was televised live, which was nerve-wracking. I got a rave review but have never been asked back by the orchestra," he says.

Menzies realised early on that he was not destined for "the endless replication of a very limited repertoire, which is what most soloists do".

Years of overseas study led, in 1999, to a teaching post at the prestigious CalArts in Los Angeles, an institution with "all the interactive possibilities and freedoms that a university can give. We shape the curriculum as we want and every year is different," he adds. "This gives the students an advantage in the marketplace because they're far more flexible.

"The standard, expected jobs are a figment of the past. The orchestral scene is wavering in the States. The population hasn't gone away, but priorities are changing. The possibilities are there but our students have to adapt to what's being asked of them."

Last April, with the help of New Zealand composer Glenda Keam, Menzies arranged a showcase for our composers titled New Zealand in LA.

The venue was CalArts' Redcat space in Walt Disney Concert Hall; one concert put psychedelic pop artist Bachelorette alongside Kiwi orchestral music and the other, featuring musicians such as Richard Nunns, Chris Connor and Gretchen La Roche, was a chamber music affair, praised by the LA Times as "an impressive and illuminating programme".

For Menzies it was "an interesting crossover concept that came off", and he was thrilled by the American response. Audiences found a cultural openness and inclusiveness that connected for him with his early years.

Indeed, his first contact with contemporary music, as a teenager at Nelson Composers Workshop, was crucial. He was immediately struck by the great sense of community there.

"They were always wondering what a piece of music might or will be, rather than what it should be. When I hear Brahms with the LA Philharmonic, I'm observing a lot of people in the audience seeking reassurance that the world is an orderly, civilised place."

Not so when the modes change to contemporary. "This music is going to provoke and make listeners think about energy and vitality; perhaps it will even shock. It's about living."

Tomorrow, the music may spark all these reactions. James Gardner's Queer Studies for solo violin is still being written. "They're beautiful. He's pushing the envelope like it's never been pushed for me."

We will be hearing major and minor chords in Laurence Crane's Estonia, with its tribute to Arvo Part. Menzies also helps out with the potential rhythmic tangle of Bryn Harrison's Five Miniatures.

"This music has a wonderful floating quality. When you learn how to throw the rhythm it's almost easier than classical relationships, which can inhibit a certain expressivity."

We also hear Mark Menzies the composer, an activity that lets him "escape from the necessary egotism of being a performer". His piece has a long, unwieldy title - Georgie (Auckland's) gardens: / uncaged music / with piwakawaka / and swongering butterfly.

It is a recasting of three earlier works, with influences ranging from the old 1933 standard, Stormy Weather, through various birdcalls to Stewart Main's short film of the 90s, Twilight of the Gods.

It sounds potentially bewildering but tomorrow will reveal all.

"I know it will take on its own extraordinarily beautiful energy," is Menzies' final reassurance.


Performance

What: Mark Menzies
Where and when: Musgrove Studio, Maidment Theatre, tomorrow at 8pm

- NZ Herald

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