Reviews

Mulled wine with warm winter music


Helen Webby and Davy Stuart Concert, July 2013

By Gilbert Haisman

When bad weather makes people want to go to a show, you know the organisers have earned the complete trust of a loyal audience. So it was for the full house that turned up the 29th show presented by the Mulled Wine Concerts series in Paekakariki’s Memorial Hall, featuring harpist Helen Webby and guitarist and bouzouki player Davy Stuart.

Our trust was well-placed. In we trouped from the freezing weather to find ourselves greeted by mulled wine, the buzzing atmosphere that comes when audiences include large groups of friends, and a concert of traditional Celtic music of rare quality.

It takes artistry of a special kind to present vernacular music —some of it the Saturday night music of village cultures of yesteryear —in a concert setting, and Webby and Stuart have that artistry in spades. The duo’s presence was perky, they coaxed subtle nuances out of a succession of attractive folk tunes, and they surprised us with the range of feelings that came from a crisp acoustic guitar and little Irish harp, feelings that included passion with surprising oomph. Every time I wondered if the parade of traditional airs and dance tunes was about to become a tad too repetitive, as instrumental folk music can be, something fresh would arrive.

A major highlight was a musical portrait of Antarctica composed for the duo by Gareth Farr. The work, which has three movements and many moods, was utterly free of the film music clichés that the name ‘Antarctica’ brings to mind. Instead, the portrayal had an urgency that made us fear for the unknown future that awaits this landscape, as it does all others. The rhythmic ingenuity was breathtaking: we heard folksy motifs chasing their contrapuntal tails as they dodged stop-time guitar ambushes over which Helen Webby’s harp sang so naturally that the piece felt easy to play. In fact, parts of it were so tricky that, despite the beautiful logic of the wild interplay, musicians with less rapport might not have reached the end at same time. A second work of comparable stature, added to the programme, would have had me in heaven.

I felt a little sad, in retrospect, that Davy Stuart sang only one song. There are many fine old Celtic songs whose lyrics work in almost any setting, and there was nothing wrong with his voice that a bigger swig of water before singing would not have fixed. Still, we had an echo of that wellspring of traditional lyric poetry in the final number, Field of Gold by Sting. Time will tell whether Sting’s song is as durable as the traditions on which it draws, but the sparse instrumental interpretation allowed the fields of barley and other images in the lyric to appear in our mind’s eye and ear in a gentle and satisfying way.

How lucky we are that Mary Gow and the Mulled Wine Concerts are helping to keep this and other vernacular musical traditions alive and kicking, alongside a succession of New Zealand’s finest classical performers. Do book ahead for August 11 when The Homeward Trio, drawn from the NZSO, plays Haydn, Villa Lobos, Martinu and more.


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