Light and Dark: The Aroha String Quartet

14 August, Havelock North Function Centre
By Louis Pierard

What is one to make of the fact that a well-publicised chamber music event, that promised – and proved to deliver – so much, should draw such a tiny audience?

The Aroha Quartet, all members of the visiting NZSO, was founded in 2004 and comprises Haihong Liu and Ursula Evans, violins, Zhongxian Jin, viola and Robert Ibell, cello. It has, as part of its mandate, the desire to spread the joys of chamber music far and wide. During the day of the concert they had been working with children at Ebbet Park Primary; a mission that, but for the teachers’ strike, was to have continued at another Hastings school the following day.

The concert in Havelock North on Tuesday was the quartet’s first in Hawke’s Bay. Eight people turned up to hear a programme that could hardly have been more accessible . . .  or affordable. Described as an “emotional journey exploring a wide range of moods and soundscapes” the evening comprised Haydn’s “Emperor” C major Op 76 (his best-known quartet, thanks  to the second movement theme that became the battle hymn of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), Wellingtonian Ross Carey’s affecting Elegy (Toccatina), with Shostakovich’s bleak Quartet No 11 in F minor, Op 22. That was  followed by a remedial bouquet of Bohemian rambunctiousness in Dvorak’s lovely “American” Quartet No. 12 in F, Op 96.

The rewards were many for so few. It must be at the very least disconcerting to play for just a handful of people  . . . that’s six fewer than the world record crammed into a phone booth, but from a cold start the Aroha Quartet demonstrated a high level of musicianship and dedication that deserves a growing following.  Serendipitously, the concert had the rare, friendly intimacy of a house concert, and special mention must be made of Liu’s gloriously evocative playing, especially in the often grim Shostakovich, which was punctuated by moments of rare beauty, and of Ibell’s expansive, energetic playing that underpinned the immensely pleasurable Dvorak performance.

There are any number of reasons that the hall was bare, despite the 7pm start.  Doubtless, publicity of any touring concert arranged outside the ambit of Chamber Music NZ’s subscription series lacks penetration in the public consciousness. Also, it has been a busy week for music in the Bay (though there’s no reason that should make any difference — it’s not as if musical performance should be rationed). Plus it’s wintry and wet.

But rather than labouring the point about flowers blushing unseen, the neglect of the Aroha Quartet speaks to a need –  as the print media continues its death spiral and essential messages are becoming increasingly diffuse – for a central, “go to” place for regional cultural events.

And that is the purpose of The Hook which, we hope, will ultimately provide the much-needed solution.

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