Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Canberra International Music Festival, Concert 7: "Kia Ora Kiwi"

New Zealand String Quartet

Guest soloist: Horomona Horo - Taonga Pūoro

At Fitters’ Workshop, May 1, 2022

Reviewed by Tony Magee

UNIQUELY combining string quartet culture with the ancient sounds of Māori instruments, the New Zealand String Quartet with guest soloist Horomona Horo presented a fascinating and diverse concert as part of the Canberra International Music Festival, showcasing the music and sounds of their country through millennia.

Described as the “master of his generation” by New Zealand’s “Mana” cultural magazine, Horomona Horo is a practitioner of Taonga Pūoro, the collective term for the traditional musical instruments of the Māori people.

Horomona Horo… superbly showcasing his incredible skills on his collection of Taonga Pūoro instruments.
Photo: Peter Hislop.

Celebrating their 35th season, the New Zealand String Quartet regularly tours internationally and the ensemble’s extensive discography on the Naxos label includes the complete quartets of Mendelssohn, Bartok, Berg, Brahms, Janacek and Lilburn.

Opening with “Manaaki” (2022) by Phil Brownlee and Ariana Tikao, the piece reflects a key concept for Māori people: support, taking care of, giving hospitality to, protection, and showing respect and generosity for others.

It began slowly and evocatively, with Horo establishing a mystical scene with his whirling pūrerehua (bull roarer), not unlike the wind swirling through rustling leaves. A lush wash of string sounds followed, taken over by mournful solos from Gillian Ansell on viola and Rolf Gjelsten on cello.

Salina Fisher’s “Torino - Echoes on Pūtōrino Improvisations by Rob Thorne” (2016) invites the audience into a 200 metre long tunnel landscape, the haunting music revealing incredible imagery and sound effects from the string quartet, later developing into furious and fluttering interplay between Helene Pohl on first violin and Monique Lapins on second violin.

“Te Koanga” (2017) by Gareth Farr, also scored for string quartet, imitates birds and welcomes the audience into the New Zealand bush. Brilliant in construction, the piece opened with call and response interplay between violin and cello contrasted with vibrant playing from the entire ensemble in unison, alternating with a rich harmonic structure.

Horomona Horo with the NZ String Quartet, which is celebrating its 35th season. Photo: Peter Hislop.

After interval, Horo returned to the stage for a solo tapestry of pieces showcasing the myriad of instruments that make up his collection of Taonga Pūoro. 

Opening with a traditional lament he masterfully filled the venue with haunting flute sounds, transcending into familiar and joyful melodies from the east coast before a final improvisation, which also served to reintroduce the New Zealand String Quartet - one by one - as they slowly traveled down the long corridor of Fitters’ Workshop, joining in the improvisation as they went, finally assembling on stage. It was a fascinating display of Horo’s many talents.

To close the program, “Hine-pū-te-hue” (2001) by Gillian Whitehead revealed a huge dynamic range from the players and was complex in construction. Featuring extended solos from all the strings, Lapins on second violin amazingly created sounds from her instrument resembling a small pipe organ. Horo pulled out all the stops and selected his treble flutes, an alto flute, gourds and climaxing with a long wooden trumpet which filled the auditorium with a massive sound. 

Throughout the concert, the New Zealand String Quartet played with animated conviction and style, demonstrating they are indeed one of the world’s finest quartets. Horomona Horo complimented them superbly, showcasing his incredible skills on his collection of Taonga Pūoro instruments, sweeping the audience into the ancient and sometimes mysterious world of traditional New Zealand.

First published in Canberra City News on-line edition, May 2, 2022