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Of Helicopters and Chamber Music

December 9, 2019 December 2019 No Comments

Odd bedfellows?  Hover in there, all will make sense (or nonsense) soon. In the meantime, it was pleasing for the Martinborough Music Festival team (MMF) to note that an appreciative audience member took the time to write a letter to the STAR (November 2019).  A newcomer to Martinborough, Paula Barnett wrote [I have] ‘had the good fortune to experience beautiful music in many venues around the world and was blown away by being able to get as equal an experience in what is now my home town’. 

Just as heart-warming was to bump into Ted Preston of the Jazz In Martinborough team and have him offer congratulations on the success of the MMF.  It is high praise to have another music event organiser in the same town be so generous with their comments – thank you Ted. The post Festival survey was positive as well; several responses expressed a view on preferred chamber music composers and ensemble groupings.

There are hundreds of thousands of compositions in chamber music archives. Most have been composed for the string quartet (1st and 2nd violins, viola and cello). As the centuries passed, alternative forms were added (trios, quintets, sextets, octets…) and other instruments introduced; piano, clarinet, flute, oboe, horn, voice, saxophone, accordion… Just about any instrument you could name. Perhaps one of the most bizarre added to the repertoire some 25 years ago is helicopter rotor blades. I kid you not.

The Helicopter String Quartet was commissioned for the Salzburg Festival in 1991. Composed by Karlheinz Stockhausen his inspiration was a dream he had in which there were four helicopters, each of which was carrying a member of a string quartet, hovering above an auditorium.  With tremolos played by the quartet, the rhythms of the rotor blades would sound like musical instruments. First played by the Arditti Quartet and Dutch Grasshopper aerobatics team, the performance required sophisticated technical support to feed the sound into the auditorium. It was premiered at the Holland Festival in 1995 instead of Salzburg because the Green Party objected to air pollution from the helicopters.

Stockhausen was not interested in writing just a string quartet. He claimed his composition was important research into new sounds.  Reviews were polarised – ‘grandiose absurdist nonsense’ to ‘a superb work of genius’. Google it and decide for yourself.

Middle C reviewer, Charlotte Wilson wrote of the MMF ‘what a performance, what a programme! New Zealand has a new top notch chamber music festival’ (October, 2019). Artistic directors, Vicki Jones and Wilma Smith, are working on the 2020 MMF programme. While Festival programmes do need to have interest it is a safe bet that the Helicopter Quartet will not feature in the MMF next year or at any time soon for that matter.

Next MMF Dates 27-29 September, 2020. www.martinboroughmusicfestival.co.nz     Winifred Bull        

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