Concert review: Gubaidulina Festival, University Music Theatre

By William Dart

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The University School of Music's 80th birthday tribute to Sofia Gubaidulina looked promising on paper; in reality, it was a mixed bag.

If the shoddy programme leaflets, with an online biography that ignored the composer's last 11 busy years, were any indication, communication with an audience was not a high priority.

Much was presented with no or minimal explanation. Gubaidulina's Zwei Lieder, confidently delivered by Pepe Becker and ensemble, must have mystified many, with neither titles translated nor lyrics provided.

Saturday's concert ended with Shostakovich's Cello Sonata, which did not even have its four movements identified in the scanty programme note. Thanks to Martin Rummel's committed performance, paired by Kent Isomura, impressively fluent on a sub-par piano, it proved the highlight of the evening.

On Friday, two items were faculty-only fare _ a circle of cello students working competently through Gubaidulina's Ten Preludes and three young pianists giving us her 14 Musical Toys, each waiting to the side of the stage, as if outside a headmaster's office. In the second concert, four brave young singers had the task of weaving the "secret melodies'' discovered by German academic Helga Thoene around Elizabeth Holowell's scrappy account of the Bach D minor Chaconne.

This curiosity may have wowed the crossover brigade a few years back, but it came with the sonic lubrication of an ECM recording.

James Tibbles drew appropriately bright and dark colourations from St David's rather limited organ for Hell und Dunkel, despite a beating effect that sounded as if a Vox Humana stop was intent on having its say.

Playing with an inspired Rummel in Gubaidulina's mighty In Croce, made one realise how much more gripping this is when the cello is partnered by a bayan or accordion. In fact, when one of Gubaidulina's trademarks is her use of unusual instruments, from accordion and koto to saxophone and exotic percussion, why were they not called on for this celebration?

Two items from Friday linger in the memory. One had Darija Andjelic-Andzakovic and Dean Sky-Lucas shaping the early Pantomime into a slice of theatre, the double-bass working its way from wistful whisper to boogie-woogie banter.

Gubaidulina's 1984 Quasi Hoquetus had a dream team in violist Susan Bierre, bassoonist Ben Hoadley and pianist Sarah Watkins, who caught the composer's full expressive and emotional range. It was quirky, moving and cerebral, from Watkins' cascades of splatter chords to her colleague's ethereal chord play.

What: Gubaidulina Festival.
Where: University Music Theatre, St David's Presbyterian Church.
When: Friday, Saturday.

- NZ Herald

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