Pianist set for conversation with Kiwi string quartet

By William Dart

How a performance will eventuate is down to stagecraft, Uri Caine tells William Dart.
Uri Caine.
Uri Caine.

Uri Caine, jazz pianist and composer extraordinaire, is in Hungary.

While I ponder lunch in Mt Eden, he's at Budapest's Ferenc Liszt International Airport. It's 4am and he's waiting for the first of two flights to take him and trumpeter Dave Douglas to Bari, Italy for their next gig.

Caine first visited New Zealand 14 years ago, playing with Douglas at the Wellington Jazz Festival; next week, Chamber Music New Zealand presents 10 concerts - from Auckland to Invercargill - featuring the American both solo and alongside the New Zealand String Quartet.

This man, who once underlaid the first movement of Mahler's Fifth Symphony with DJ turntables, likes to check out the classics to surprise and sometimes provoke. It had a lot to do with his experiences growing up, he says.

"When I was young I took classical-type lessons but my teacher, who was a jazz fan, made me realise that the classics would be useful for technique and harmony later on."

Next Friday, Bach's Goldberg Variations will be included in Caine's Town Hall concert chamber programme, but it won't be the two-and-a-quarter hours of his brilliant 2000 reconfiguration of the work, which enlisted everything from viols and accordion to DJs and tuba.

"I tried to mirror Bach's approach," he tells me, turning the original 18th century dances into mambos, tangos or drum 'n' bass. For a Bach drinking song, Caine's choir sang as if inebriated, with the occasional clink of bottles spiking the atmosphere. Not having yet met his NZSQ colleagues, Caine can't commit to what we might expect but I suspect there won't be Tui stubbies on the Steinway.

Two Caine originals being aired were originally written for the American Sirius Quartet and the Canadian Afiara Quartet. A short YouTube documentary has Caine and the Sirius players presenting his String Theories, and Auckland gets just two of its five movements.

The pianist is more specific about the selections from Jagged Edges, his Afiara collaboration.

"One, called Prayer, is very slow and completely tonal," he says. "The other, Scherzo, is faster and more contemporary."

Currently working with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger on re-jigging Bach's Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, Caine admits to a soft spot for string quartets.

He describes Twelve Caprices, his 2010 CD with the Arditti Quartet as "another experience altogether."

This exhilarating, freewheeling music, described by one critic as "an exercise in gratuitous string-flowing, accompanied by dappled piano colourations," is guaranteed to gobsmack.

Caine stresses that even if it sounds like a cliche, music is always a conversation and, next week, he is going to get up close and personal with the NZSQ on the final movement of Beethoven's Harp Quartet.

"They chose it," he tells me. "And I was asked to write four or five further variations for Beethoven's Allegretto."

He can't guarantee just what might eventuate in six days; he's happy to let them make decisions and fit in.

"I may not be sure now of what is going to eventuate, but I know it's going to come off," he adds. "It's a matter of stagecraft."

While Auckland has only this concert, smaller centres, from Napier and New Plymouth to Queenstown and Invercargill, host the American's solo recital. This promises improvisations that bring fresh perspectives on works by composers as diverse as Mozart, Mahler and Gesualdo, plus jazz standards and Caine's own compositions.

"I've no problems at all, doing such a range of music," he laughs. "I'm just so happy to be travelling around New Zealand for two weeks, with my wife this time, and hanging out."

Performance

What: Uri Caine and the New Zealand String Quartet, Auckland Arts Festival
Where and when: Town Hall Concert Chamber, Friday, 6.30pm.

What: Uri Caine solo recital
Where and when: Napier, MTG Century Theatre, March 19 at 8pm; New Plymouth, TSB Showplace, March 31 at 7.30pm.

- Weekend magazine

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