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Gillian Whitehead composer portrait

1 Moon Tides and Shoreline New Zealand String Quartet
2 Fantasia on Three Notes David Guerin (piano)
3 Requiem Scilla Askew (mezzo-soprano) / Douglas Mews (organ)
4 Taurangi Bridget Douglas (flute) / Rachel Thomson (piano)
5 Missa Brevis Sings Harry Vocal Ensemble

Waiteata Collection of NZ Music Vol.III WTA003

Gillian Whitehead (b.1941) 'doyenne of New Zealand opera composers' was drawn to my attention in connection with Independent Opera's centenary revival of Elizabeth Maconchy's operas. We have reviewed her monodrama Hotspur and appraisal of one of her full length chamber operas, The Bride of Fortune, will follow.

Aged seventeen Gillian wrote (uncommonly for a young New Zealand woman then) of her determination to become a composer of music with "something of the structure of Dufay, the orchestration of webern and a kind of Debussyian approach to harmony". This compilation starts chronologically (but placed last on the disc) with the early 1963 Missa Brevis, a beautiful work full of promise. Next comes a 1966 piano piece reflecting her studies in England with Peter Maxwell Davies, from whom she absorbed his "magic squares" technique; it is characteristic of modernism of the period.

More arresting, and well worth consideration by organists who have available as good a mezzo as Scilla Askew, is the substantial Requiem, mainly for organ but with a substantial vocal component. One hears next a decidedly original work for flute and piano, requiring extended techniques on the parts of both players.

Altogether a pleasing sequence showing the development of an individual composing voice. Recording values and presentation are excellent, with good background notes which tell of the importance to Whitehead of her Maori ancestry and later interest in improvisation; nowadays she exercises "a desire to subvert the listener's expectations - constantly re-forming her musical style and technique".

For readers interested to explore further, there is a welcoming Centre for New Zealand Music from where many CDs by NZ composers can be bought.

Peter Grahame Woolf