The classical blokes saluting unsung women composers

by The Listener / 21 September, 2018
Ashley Brown.

Ashley Brown.

RelatedArticlesModule - NZTrio composer women

The suffrage celebrations get a soundtrack from all-male ensemble NZTrio.

NZTrio is celebrating the 125th suffrage anniversary with a series of concerts in which the currently all-male ensemble play the works of female composers.

Founding member and cellist Ashley Brown is joined by violinist Benjamin Baker and pianist Stephen De Pledge for Braid, a performance of five classical and contemporary works – including one, Sono, by Victoria Kelly, the Auckland composer-arranger best known for her soundtracks and her work with Neil Finn, and who is married to Brown.

There are family connections, too, in the oldest pieces on the programme which include Allegretto from Piano Trio in G minor by Clara Schumann (wife of Robert) and Allegro molto vivace from Piano Trio in D minor by Fanny Mendelssohn (sister of Felix).

Here’s Brown on the thinking behind the concerts.

How did the idea for a suffrage anniversary-commemorating show come about? 

Being the first self-governing country in the world to have given all women the right to vote is something totally worth celebrating –- every New Zealander can be proud of leading the charge in this realm. One way for NZTrio to mark this anniversary is to share a whole concert of music by female composers. It’s a great way to shine a light on the subject because, while there’s a huge number of amazing works by female composers from the last few decades to choose from, if you look back in history it’s a very different story: supremely talented women told to leave the composing to their brothers or husbands, or forced to publish under male pseudonyms.

Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann are two examples of prodigious talent, overwhelmed in history by the more famous (but not necessarily more talented) men in their lives: Fanny’s brother Felix Mendelssohn and Clara’s husband Robert Schumann, not to mention her close friend Johannes Brahms. These women both managed to leave a few works in their own names and among them are two piano trios which form the crux of this concert called Braid. Paired with them are some outstanding, more modern works, by Kiwis Rachel Clement and Victoria Kelly and Aussie Elena Kats-Chernin.

Victoria Kelly.

Clement’s Sabbia opens the concert with a sound-illustration of glass-making, all delicacy, fragility, light and colour. It’s part of a larger work called Shifting States that was one of NZTrio’s first ever commission back in 2005. Featuring glass at the top of the programme is a wee nod of recognition to the “glass ceiling”.

Kelly’s Sono was the first commission I was ever involved with, way back in 2000 when I was in the Turnovsky Trio, and when Victoria was a mere friend and colleague. (Years later we fell in love, got married, had three kids…) The work is a sincere and intimate expression of tension and release, of restful breath and restless dreaming.

How did the all-male line-up of the current trio influence that idea?

Our founding violinist [Sarah Watkins] left over a year ago. A patient recruitment process ensued. Just as we were about to appoint, our founding pianist [Justine Cormack] announced her departure. She left in June. Since then we’ve had a steady stream of incredible musicians coming in as guests.

The fact that three males are performing this suffrage celebration was not manufactured at all. But I think it’s great – the empowerment of women is something men should celebrate too. It’s all great music!

What’s the significance of the title, Braid?

I wanted NZTrio's 2018 series to be all about pulling strands together and forming a cohesive single entity – it points, for instance, to the Kiwi musicians coming together from around the globe to make a single tight musical unit, and to the eclectic repertoire coming together into a cohesive concert, a singular journey. So the three concerts are called Weave, Braid and Twine. As cliche as it might be, it made sense for Braid to be on the suffrage celebration, especially with the image being such a visceral grungy signifier of womanhood. It sends the imagination off on a tangent evoking pioneering farming women..

Why not a totally NZ programme?

We always programme NZ music in all of our concerts. We’re enormously proud of all our composing compatriots. Having other works from other lands and other times forms a fascinating juxtaposition, putting all the works into context, sometimes in intense, vivid relief beside each other, sometimes highlighting the differences as well as the similarities.

Braid is at Q Theatre, Auckland, Sept 23 (5pm) and Sept 25 (7pm); City Gallery Wellington, Sept 26 (7pm); St Paul's Cathedral, Dunedin Arts Festival, Sept 28 (1pm).  

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