By WILLIAM DART
It has been years since Chamber Music New Zealand has ventured forth so bravely, persuading audiences to relinquish Haydn and Beethoven for a more contemporary palette, courtesy of Wellington's stroma ensemble.
Well, it depends on how you define contemporary. A new commission from Wellington composer Ross Harris was, in fact, the only work that fitted the description strictly.
Harris' At the Edge of Silence was a fragile utterance which, in the words of its composer, hovered on the edge of audibility, around the nether regions of double pianissimo. Its prismatic scoring and spry lines nod to Webern, its textural clarity and gestural precision are pure Harris.
Written for these virtuoso musicians and dispensed with affection and verve, and conducted by Hamish McKeich, Edge left few colours unexplored, down to flautist Bridget Douglas' singing into her instrument, a nice bluesy touch.
This work, built around a poignant reminiscence from Schumann's Piano Quartet, was the centrepiece of an evening that opened with George Crumb's 1965 Eleven Echoes of Autumn.
Crumb must be experienced live. Lighting, including a flood of red at one point, seemed to focus the sound and the act of making it.
Pianist Emma Sayers leaned into her instrument as if weaving on a sonic loom, creating colours that were inevitably caught up and echoed by her colleagues. One of the most telling was violinist Vesa-Matti Leppanen's eerie combination of whistling and double-stopping.
After interval, it was Leppanen who provided a rapturous close for Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, with his final hymn to the immortal Christ.
Spirituality in music does not penetrate more deeply than this score, born out of the hardships of war yet asserting the existence of greater, eternal truths. The four musicians brought life and light to Messiaen's images of joy, fury and reflection, clustered around clarinettist Patrick Barry's thoughtful Abime des oiseaux.
Although some unisons had an edge, Intermede, from Leppanen, Barry and cellist Robert Ibell, was all insouciant grace. The two string players were moving in lyrical song, Sayers exemplary throughout the range of Messiaen's many demands.
stroma have taken this programme to nine centres around the country. If audiences have shown even a fraction of Auckland's enthusiasm, then a follow-up project is a priority.