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Concert Reviews

Strings Amore, 3rd September, 2022

Reviewed by Rosemary Adler.

To see and hear five of New Zealand’s top string players in performance was a great treat for a full and appreciative audience at Whittakers Musical Museum on Sept 3rd. The concert was one of the museum’s collaborative series with Chamber Music New Zealand.

Strings Amore, based in Wellington, comprises Donald Maurice – viola and viola d’amore, Martin Riseley – violin,  Rupa Maitra…replaced at short notice due to illness by Liu-Yi Retallick – violin, Sophia Acheson – viola,  and Margaret Guldborg – cello.

All with prestigious professional experience in the academic and performing world, their programme in this concert centered around four Baroque composers living across the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, who wrote for the now unusual instrument, the viola d’amore –  Vivaldi, Telemann, Graupner and JS Bach.
Around the same pitch range as a viola, the viola d’amore has a slightly more ornate shape, seven strings over the bridge with another seven through it. These are not played directly, but vibrate in sympathy with the bowed ones, giving its characteristic sonorous sound, thought to have been influenced through the trade routes between India and England.
Those who remember The Beatles’ trip to India will have seen them take up the sitar which also uses sympathetic strings.

Strings Amore swapped round positions on the stage for each piece according to who were the soloists or duettists with the main ensemble, with Donald giving us some fascinating and amusing insights about the viola d’amore, the composers and their music.
The enjoyment of playing together was evident and obvious. All except the cellist stood up to play, moving as the music took them, with its many subtle emotional shifts. Great to see their smiles and catching each others’ eyes in agreement, encouragement or fun.

As soon as the first notes were struck, or rather, bowed, I was taken with an ease and confidence that we were going to have a technically mastered, lovingly created programme of Baroque music with its characteristic cantering rhythms (my friend brought in the horse analogy –  dressage and show jumping, and I kept imagining children skipping along), dynamic gathering of momentum followed by a delicious tumbling down,  calm passages with long graceful singing lines, and playful exchanges of phrases amongst the performers including such a jokey effect of ending a whole movement with one plucked note from the cello.

My own favourites of the concert were Bach’s violin concerto in E Major BWV 1042, Graupner’s Concerto for viola  d’amore and viola GWV 339, and Telemann’s Concert for viola in G Major TWV 51;G9.

For the Bach, soloist Matin Riseley gave life again to one of the great composers’  precious legacies. Such a simple opening tune is like a familiar friend starting its journey, wending its way forward, building up, exploring, embellishing, taking different turns,  Martin’s nuanced crafting made the familiar still have room for fresh individual interpretation….making slight reflective pauses or adding a new rush of excitement.
The cello melody in the Adagio movement, under Margaret Guldborg’s fingers, and with her expansive deep and  warm tone, was also brought to life lovingly, as if seriously meditating on how real and important beauty is to us, often tinged with sadness and the many other heart and mind states, fleeting or seemingly in a timeless stillness.
The third movement with its renewed zeal, allowed the players to relish  whipping the music up into a passionate fury.

Graupner, only recently discovered, as his music was kept in hidden vaults  for over three hundred years because of some dispute over ownership, is having a renaissance with more of his works now able to be published. His Concerto for viola d’amore and viola is yet another individual window into the Baroque world. Donald and Sophia, as duettists, intertwined skillfully in the pulsating first movement. Some of their audience were also jigging along in their ways! Like speech, the music had its variety of patterns and sound bites, the kind that humans know about, integrating into the whole.
There was such an amusing moment in the Allegro when the music slows right down, then all of a sudden, launches into its energetic gallop again.

Sophie Acheson took up a solo position again for Telemann’s Concerto for Viola in G. Her rich tone filling the whole venue seemed to be expounding on how lovely it was  just to be able to utter such sound, trilling  and lingering and, in the Andante, the rolling around in the unfolding stream of your favourite kinds toffee flavours. And though she had such an expansive sound, she was not afraid to also reach into the quietest most intimate realms, as if inviting us into a shared secret.
Sophie has played at the Museum before and is always impressive in the range of expression and ebullience she can coax the music along with.

The Museum continues to give us top notch musical nourishment on our island home with the wonderful people involved in running it. It is developing so well the legacy of Lloyd and Joan Whittaker.

There are still more concerts scheduled for the rest of the year. Head to www.musicalmuseum.org to check out what treasure is on offer, and to book tickets.
Rosemary Adler

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