The Kugels

30 September 2017, Spiegeltent, Havelock North
Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival

During the interval, I heard at least two people cheerfully humming or whistling what sounded like Peter’s theme from Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf – you know the one (even if you think you don’t, you do). This concert was filled with the catchy, infectious tunes and bustling rhythms of East European folk music, and about half of the music was adapted from traditional Jewish klezmer wedding dances that the players, Ross Harris (accordion), Jacqueline Norden (double bass), Robin Perkins (violin) and Debbie Rawson (clarinet, soprano sax and xaphoon), whirled through, unfussy and spirited with all the glorious rough edges un-knocked off. They may have played like larrikins, a respite from the rigors of their work with the NZSO, but of course they are extremely accomplished, and you have to be to play these picaresque eccentric pieces, as likely to break without warning into a reckless sprint as they are to swerve suddenly into a mournful aside.

Interspersing these traditional tunes were original compositions by composer Ross Harris, and these were just amazing. These pieces were usually quite brief, and incredibly visual, like short stories or miniatures teeming with life and detail. A world of creaking doors and mocking laughter (hilariously voiced by Debbie Rawson’s clarinet), farmyard commotion and drunken syncopation, always over-running its own rhythms and phrasing the way Stevie Smith’s poems do. Nothing unfolds quite as you expect, just like life. Like other modernist composers who were enthusiasts of folk music, particularly Bartok and Janacek, his music has a loose, freewheeling relationship with tonal conventions, and its eccentric and lopsided structures are often breathtakingly daring with effortless comic timing.

There’s something just so compelling about small chamber groups, especially quartets. It’s easy, I guess, for a relative classical music neophyte like myself to get lost in the layers and interplay of the instruments, and it feels close to a rock or pop band. If pop is the folk music of now, then where oh where is the boy/girl group that’s making music as inventive, funny and human as this?


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