UNIQUELY combining string-quartet culture with the ancient sounds of Māori instruments, the NZ String Quartet with guest soloist Horomona Horo presented a fascinating and diverse concert showcasing the music and sounds of their country through millennia.

Described as the “master of his generation” by NZ’s “Mana” cultural magazine, Horomona Horo is a practitioner of Taonga Pūoro, the collective term for the traditional musical instruments of the Māori people.

Celebrating its 35th season, the NZ String Quartet regularly tours internationally and the ensemble’s extensive discography on the Naxos label includes the complete quartets of Mendelssohn, Bartok, Berg, Brahms, Janacek and Lilburn.

Horomona Horo with the NZ String Quartet, which is celebrating its 35th season. Photo by Peter Hislop.

It opened its Canberra International Music Festival concert with “Manaaki” (2022) by Phil Brownlee and Ariana Tikao, the piece reflects a key concept for Māori people: support, taking care of, giving hospitality to, protection, and showing respect and generosity for others.

It began slowly and evocatively, with Horo establishing a mystical scene with his whirling pūrerehua (bullroarer), not unlike the wind swirling through rustling leaves. A lush wash of string sounds followed, taken over by mournful solos from Gillian Ansell on viola and Rolf Gjelsten on cello.

Salina Fisher’s “Torino – Echoes on Pūtōrino Improvisations by Rob Thorne” (2016) invites the audience into a 200-metre-long tunnel landscape, the haunting music revealing incredible imagery and sound effects from the quartet, later developing into furious and fluttering interplay between Helene Pohl on first violin and Monique Lapins on second violin.

“Te Koanga” (2017) by Gareth Farr, also scored for string quartet, imitates birds and welcomes the audience into the NZ bush. Brilliant in construction, the piece opened with call and response interplay between violin and cello contrasted with vibrant playing from the entire ensemble in unison, alternating with a rich harmonic structure.

After the interval, Horo returned to the stage for a solo tapestry of pieces showcasing the myriad of instruments that make up his collection of Taonga Pūoro. 

Opening with a traditional lament he masterfully filled the venue with haunting flute sounds, transcending into familiar and joyful melodies from the east coast before a final improvisation, which also served to reintroduce the NZ String Quartet – one by one – as they slowly travelled down the long corridor of Fitters’ Workshop, joining in the improvisation as they went, finally assembling on stage. It was a fascinating display of Koro’s many talents.

To close the program, “Hine-pū-te-hue” (2001) by Gillian Whitehead revealed a huge dynamic range from the players and was complex in construction. 

Featuring extended solos from all the strings, Lapins on second violin amazingly created sounds from her instrument resembling a small pipe organ. Koro pulled out all the stops and selected his treble flutes, an alto flute, gourds and climaxing with a long wooden trumpet which filled the auditorium with a massive sound. 

Throughout the concert, the NZ String Quartet played with animated conviction and style, demonstrating it is indeed one of the world’s finest quartets. Horomona Horo complemented them superbly, showcasing his incredible skills on his collection of Taonga Pūoro instruments, sweeping the audience into the ancient and sometimes mysterious world of traditional NZ.

This article was written by Tony Magee from Canberra City News.

Featured Image: Horomona Horo… superbly showcasing his incredible skills on his collection of Taonga Pūoro instruments. Photo: Peter Hislop.