Concert Preview: NZ String Quartet with Jenny Wollerman

Soprano Jenny Wollerman is passionate about the pieces she will perform with the New Zealand String Quartet. Photo / Debbie Rawson
Soprano Jenny Wollerman is passionate about the pieces she will perform with the New Zealand String Quartet. Photo / Debbie Rawson

Next week's visit by the New Zealand String Quartet comes with the added bonus of Wellington soprano Jenny Wollerman.

In Hamilton on Friday, Beethoven and Smetana quartets will be separated by Schoenberg's 1908 Second Quartet, with Wollerman singing the work's two Stefan George settings. The following evening, in Auckland, Ross Harris' song-cycle The Abiding Tides sits between Mozart and Dvorak.

The soprano premiered the Harris work last year in Wellington to considerable acclaim - and not only from critics.

"It gets this immediate response from the audience," she says. "And people said they didn't have to look at the programme for the words, they could actually hear them."

Last Thursday, an informal preview of the piece for a small Wellington audience even had some youngsters "sitting rapt".

"At the end one boy was asking his parents about the poetry," Wollerman says. "They completely got it."

Poet Vincent O'Sullivan has constructed a tender, beautifully observed elegy around our testy relationship with the sea that surrounds us and upon which we occasionally trespass.

Wollerman found herself completely drawn into its narrative - "a complex one that combines the stories of the Titanic and the boat people in Southeast Asia".

"It's not necessarily clear who he is talking about as you move from one song to the next, but it becomes more so as we work through it. You start with expectation and excitement, the tragedy happens and then there's the aftermath. This progression is what brings the whole cycle together for me as a performer."

Yet there is a wider message behind the storytelling, Wollerman feels. "This piece recognises that we have to live positively and optimistically," she says. "We can't afford to dwell on the negative and ignore life's possibilities. And now it seems so horribly relevant with what's happened in Christchurch, which is where we are ending our tour."

Last year, Wollerman gave a delicious account of Harris' other O'Sullivan song-cycle, The Floating Bride, The Crimson Village in Wellington with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. For this singer, Harris has a special gift as a writer of songs.

"One of the many nice things in Ross' approach is the way he sets important words in that lower part of the range so it's not incredibly difficult to get them across. But when he does want to take off and send the voice somewhere high, there's no problem with that either."

Aucklanders are once again heartily recommended to venture south on Friday to catch Wollerman and the NZSQ's Schoenberg. This historic work should positively glow in the intimacy of Waikato University's Academy of Performing Arts.

With Schoenberg, the soprano worries about "the prejudice of many who know this composer just for his 12-tone music, but this quartet is more like Wagner or Puccini.

"It does have dissonance, but it's beautifully used and always so expressive."

Scholars inevitably see the Stefan George text for the final movement, opening with the words, "I feel wind from other planets", as a premonition of more radical musical styles.

But Wollerman says there is also a more literal interpretation.

"This other planet thing really resonates for me, growing up in the space age and watching Saturn V take off and people landing on the moon.

"In the George poem you end up floating above the earth alongside the mountain crags and seeing the expanse of the sun-filled sky.

"Eventually you take off into the ether and disappear as just a soul."


What: New Zealand String Quartet, with Jenny Wollerman

Where and when: Waikato University Academy of Performing Arts, Hamilton, Friday, May 6 at 8pm; Auckland Town Hall, Saturday, May 7 at 8pm

- NZ Herald

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