It’s Love, Isn’t It?

15 April 2019, MTG Century Theatre, Napier 
Poetry and chamber music with guitar
By Anna Soutar

A key note speaker at the 2019 Symposium Whanaungatanga says that, “We have to use reason, cultural roots, feelings and the precious gifts of life – our creativity, to ensure human rights aren’t undermined by economic growth and politics”. He adds that criticism is a form of love. He is Hôrõur Torfason and although I have only attended the concert connected with the conference, I totally understand his thinking.

Martinburgh poet and publisher, man of letters, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, and his beloved wife Meg were married for fifty years. A marriage of hurdles and romance, in which they poeticised to and about each other prolifically. Composer Philip Norman, at the request of academic and musician Matthew Marshall (the new head of EIT’s IdeaSchool), selected 15 pairs of their collected love poems to wrap around a complementary musical response, his composition acting as counterpoint in this pairing of verse and music: It’s Love, Isn’t It?

The guitar, its spirit and the music of Matthew Marshall, filters through into every part of the programme. It’s there in Koshkin’s Usher Waltz, a galloping riot of sound evoking every mental state, especially the morbid ones, leading to a string-snapping climax. It’s there when he is joined by first, Tessa Petersen (violin), then Heleen du Plessis (cello). They converse, these instruments. Like siblings in dialogue, not always agreeable, their back-forth chatter by turns dramatic, sulky, more strident. We are treated to New Zealander Kenneth Youngs’ Suite, written in 1978.

2017, and the guitar and cello have Autumn Moods by Anthony Ritchie, with long slow strings of sound, the cello with a mind of its own and the guitar acting the peacemaker gently bringing time to a close. Ritchie is a professor of music in Otago – I know, this is supposed to be a review rather than programme notes, but he and I agree “the combination of cello and guitar is delicious!”

It is when all three instruments combine and go back to 1810 for the three movements of Serenata Op 19 that things are less successful. That period was a time of arrival into the orchestra of the guitar – perhaps it was seen as an interloper? Maybe the problem is more local – they seem to be having a little trouble with the humidity and tuning? I keep wanting to move the guitar away from the cello and violin to a less noisy position. All in all, however, the music is rich and satisfying.

In the second half all the medals come out: two knights, a dame, a clutch of professors. Fitting for a conference in homage to the collegial fraternity.  The reciters, Dame Kate Harcourt and Sir Jon Trimmer, have carpet bags of honours between them, and their reading of Alistair and Meg’s verse is a wonderful occasion. They are strong of voice, humble in presentation, intelligent and faultless in delivery.

The moments which stand out include Kate/Meg expressing frustration at an attempt to put into verse some irritation over Alistair: “…and I am left here racking my brains with a bee for company!” Guitar evokes rattled bee. The image of Jon waiting a beat before speaking his line, then glancing up into the flies for what? Theatrical inspiration? Audience control?

Sometime during the evening someone declares, “Love is a very particular puzzle”. It is indeed, and this evening’s expression of love does not settle any puzzle at all but leaves us with a great thoughtful mischief to unravel.  For why then is the entire experience undermined by the lady from the CWI stumbling onto the stage without saying a word to the audience – no general explanation, no verbalising the honour of such a garlanded stage – and instead of great bunches of flowers, the clinking of local plonk in bags like some celebrity wedding? We’re bullied into standing acclamation – in truth, it feels a bit small-town.


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