Classical music: Baroque to Beyonce

By William Dart

Composer Alex Taylor has a full dance-card until the end of the month, he tells William Dart.
Soprano Amy Jansen sings the role of Dido, Queen of Carthage in Opera Unstuck's Dido and Aeneas:  Recomposed. Photo / Priscilla Northe
Soprano Amy Jansen sings the role of Dido, Queen of Carthage in Opera Unstuck's Dido and Aeneas: Recomposed. Photo / Priscilla Northe

Alex Taylor is one of our busiest composers, as happy and able to write symphonic scores for our country's major orchestras, as well as a host of smaller pieces.

As if that were not enough, he also sings, with an impressive solo album The First, The Fool on bandcamp.com, under the moniker of Bellfrog. Check out, too, his lively website, thelistenerblog.blogspot.co.nz featuring concert reviews alongside his perceptive pre-concert talks for Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.

Tomorrow, Taylor picks up the baton for Karlheinz Company, the music ensemble based at the University of Auckland's School of Music. Years of experience with his own Intrepid Projects concerts have given him the confidence to "know that I can make things happen the way I want".

First up is Jack Body's 1968 Turtle Time that Taylor likens to "a crazy, psychedelic trip".

"The strangeness of a line-up of piano, organ, harpsichord and harp, together with Russell Haley's incredibly vivid and imagistic words, give it a real aura."

Eve de Castro-Robinson's Cries of Auckland, for six singers and string quartet, is built around the protest chants and cries that have echoed through the city's streets during the years.

"This is grittier," Taylor warns. "A big, chunky vocal piece that nails its colours to the mast.

"It's nice when music steps out of its little corner of the world and makes a stand on the stuff that's important to all of us," he muses.

You can also hear Taylor's own short piano tribute to the late Pierre Boulez, hailing the Frenchman as "one of the greatest composers of the 20th century".

"He has a maligned reputation as a polemicist, but his music is very sensual, tactile and brilliant."

Taylor also acknowledges the living, by singing a number by the American John Grant. "This man's got an amazing voice. It's rich but also plain and everyday. Grant takes mundane lyrics and treats them acerbically and ironically," he adds, quoting a line involving sex and athletic wear from Queen of Denmark, which he delivers tomorrow.

On Tuesday, Unstuck Opera launches a return season of Taylor's quirky re-write of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas: Recomposed. It will be the first time the Basement Theatre has staged an opera and director Frances Moore has cooked up a fairly startling theatrical experience, involving the audience moving around the performance space and Taylor, in dominatrix drag, playing and singing the Sorceress.

The story is a classic tragedy. It concerns the love affair of Dido, Queen of Carthage and the Trojan Prince Aeneas, doomed thanks to the malevolent sorcery of some of the most tuneful witches in the operatic repertoire. Dido's eventual suicide is one of the most moving death scenes ever written.

Taylor talks of "postmodernist disruption", collaging Thelonious Monk and Beyonce over the original Baroque score, but says it all sits lightly on the Purcell, adding a touch of chaos to a work that's already pretty chaotic.

For Taylor, Purcell was "kind of a radical. His vocal writing is so juicy. It's clever and manages to be both light and heavy at the same time. This work doesn't need three hours to pack its punch; it's all there, compressed into 50 minutes."

Unstuck Opera's Justin Gregory says it's the perfect playful introduction to opera. "Why do it at the Basement? Why not!"

Less than a fortnight later, chamber music enthusiasts can hear Taylor's a coincidence of surfaces, played by the ENSO String Quartet. He doesn't deny the pleasure of writing for top-notch internationals but says in some ways it's tricky.

"Most of my other pieces have been created for musicians I know," he tells me. "I can take into account their strengths and weaknesses. Being able to write what I want and not worry, I feel slightly removed."

He talks of the "strange" commission (two separate shortish pieces, to be played both separately and as a set) making him try something "even stranger".

In a feat of compositional virtuosity, the two works can be performed simultaneously, which will happen in Wellington, when the Aroha Quartet joins its American colleagues. Assuming it will eventually be broadcast on RNZ Concert, the whole country can take up this young composer's challenge to the listener: "to take hold of a thread, and in pulling, let go the fear that it might split, or tangle".

Performance

What: Karlheinz Company
Where and when: University Music Theatre, 6 Symonds St, tomorrow at 5pm

What: Dido and Aeneas: Recomposed
Where and when: Basement Theatre, Tuesday-Sunday at 8pm

What: ENSO String Quartet
Where and when: Auckland Town Hall, Friday, May 27 at 7.30pm.

- NZ Herald

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