Up with Bacchus!

THE TUDOR CONSORT – Repast

Khandallah Town Hall
Saturday 15 June, 4 pm

If you’ve ever wanted to know what the Tudor Consort sounds like when it’s off the leash, this concert provided the answer. Repast comprised drinks and nibbles for the audience, and bite-sized chunks of mostly early music, some full-throated singing, and plenty of fun. I loved it.

Some of the best moments came from the most obscure composers. In ‘Nous sommes de
l’ordre de St Babouyn’, by Loyset Compère (1445-1518, a contemporary of Josquin), four monks sit around boozily explaining the rules of the Order of St Baboon, which involve eating and drinking well, with a comely wench after midnight.. Music Director Michael Stewart revealed his beautiful alto and comic acting, while his colleagues showed off their fine voices (bass Joshua Jamieson sounded especially splendid).

Humorous music can often be hard to pull off. My heart was in my mouth during the hardest
of the three Drinking Catches by Purcell, ‘Down with Bacchus!’, largely because of all the words. A catch is a kind of round, for three or more voices, and stopping tidily can be tricky. But the speed was maintained, and no one fell over at the close.

There were some delightful surprises. A madrigal by Thomas Weelkes, ‘Sing we at pleasure’,
is only to be expected of the Tudor Consort, and tidily done, but the two Georgian ‘table songs’, ‘New Year’s Wishes’ and ‘Praise to the Barbecue’, brought a very refreshing tonality. Georgian polyphony, we were told, is always in three parts, and the harmony is based on seconds, fourths, and ninths. The basses were the stars of the first song of the pair. Michael Stewart conducted unobtrusively from the far end of the male section.

But moving swiftly on, it was time for a drinking song by Poulenc, whom Stewart described
as ‘part monk and part thug’. This piece was written by the young thug in 1923 for the Harvard University Glee Club, and was the first piece of choral music Poulenc ever wrote. As you might expect, it was difficult: very fast, with tempo changes, and close 4-part harmony writing. The Harvard Glee Club was a large and clearly ambitious male choir, but the men of the Consort rose to the occasion

The Poulenc was followed by a song of praise to a fat goose by Orlando di Lasso, for ATTB,
which sounded glorious. After the sublime Lasso, John Ritchie’s ‘Make Room for the Bouncing Belly’ (a setting for women’s voices of a comic Ben Johnson poem) was showing its age.

The last two works were, in my view, the most satisfying. In ‘Vidi Alios Intrantes’, the
sopranos, altos, and basses sang solemnly on the floor of the hall in Latin about the grubby scene outside a bar while the tenors sang in German from the balcony above about drinking all night. The effect, if you are paying any attention at all to the text, is very amusing. To everyone’s great credit, there was no hamming. The composer, Caspar Othmayr (1515-1553), would have been delighted.

And at last, home ground: a motet for two choirs by the sublime Orlando di Lasso. Michael
Stewart sang as an alto in the second choir to balance the numbers, and also conducted for the first time in the concert. Although the title sounds religious, ‘Iam lucis orto sidere’, here the arrival of the sun’s early rays signals the time to start drinking – ‘in sempiterna saecula’ (for all the ages). The choir sang gloriously (and completely straight), and the concert was over all too soon.

For me, the delight of this concert was the constant changing of sound, as the singers
grouped and regrouped, allowing the beauty of individual voices to shine out. The Tudor Consort choral sound is mellifluous and uniform, groomed to bloodless perfection. But in this lovely concert we had a sense of the choir as individual singers, engaging with each other in their trios and quartets, and with us, the audience. A thoroughly satisfying musical result. More, please!

A Rossini Opera for Down Under – from NZ Opera

Gioachino ROSSINI – Le Comte Ory
Original libretto by Eugenè Scribe and Charles-Gaspard Delestre-Poirson, freely adapted for NZ Opera by Simon Phillips
NZ Opera June 2024, St.James Theatre, Wellington

Act One:  Wade Kernot (Coach), Manase Latu (Count Ory), Moses MacKay (Raimbaud), NZ Opera Chorus – photo credit: Lewis Ferris

Cast: Manase Latu (Count Ory), Emma Pearson (Countess Adele), Hanna Hipp (Isolier), Moses Mackay (Raimbaud), Wade Kernot (Tutor/Coach), Andrea Creighton (Ragonde), Tayla Alexander (Alice)

New Zealand Opera Chorus Wellington /Te Whanganui-a-Tara
Orchestra Wellington (Concertmaster: Amalia Hall)
Brad Cohen (conductor)

Simon Phillips (director)
Tracy Grant Lord (set and costume designer)
Matthew Marshall (lighting designer)
Luka Venter (assistant conductor)
Matthew Kereama (assistant director)

St. James’ Theatre, Wellington
Thursday 13th June, 2024

New Zealand Opera continues its progressive “new look” agenda for 2024 under its new General Director Brad Cohen with a rarity for local audiences, Gioachino Rossini’s penultimate opera, Le Comte Ory. Regarded by many as the composer’s comic masterpiece, the opera has a story whose exploration of sexual deception, disguise and manipulation not only adroitly ticks all the boxes of its own time and place, but responds remarkably well to a near-complete reworking in its relocation to Aotearoa New Zealand, with all of the associated updates necessary for the change of scenario amusingly (and in places disconcertingly) kicking in with a vengeance!

It took a while to win me over to director Simon Phillips’ in places radical reworking of the libretto’s English translation (a French speaker would have been totally nonplussed attempting to marry a good deal of the words enunciated by the singers with the surtitle texts!), but I eventually “gave in” to the idea – I think the moment of my actual capitulation was when the story’s young and inveterately libidinous “Count Ory”, posing as a spiritual guru at a wellness retreat for women, was spectacularly unmasked as his true lecherous self at the end of Act One by the appearance of his own rugby coach, plus team-mates, hot on his AWOL trail and intent upon returning him to “the fold”. This near-apocalyptic moment all but transfixed our sensibilities when the singers’ exclamation “Ciel!” (Heavens!) appeared on the surtitle screen as “What the f….?” All reservations from that point onwards were made null and void by the sheer crypto-current impact of the subsequent revampings! My misgivings, despite themselves,  knew no more that evening!

I’m still tickled by the thought of the transcription of the words “du sang du Sarracin” (the blood of the Saracens)  as “Springboks’ blood” in the husbands’ homeward message of triumph on the contemporary field of battle to their wives! In Act Two the updated amendments came thick and fast, most of them funky and to the point, even though some didn’t seem worth the effort (one of them to do with “an over-forward forward” and another making reference to a “coccyx”) – and Ory’s slip of the tongue when first calling his sisterhood “the squad” didn’t work as well as the original’s faux pas “ce sont eux…..er, ce sont ells!”. A by-product of the surtitle rewritings was that I felt they became a kind of “reality TV” in themselves in places, frequently taking our attention away from what the singers were actually doing with the words on the stage. Most of what Phillips came up with I enjoyed, but, as I’ve said, it was for me laid on a tad too thickly at times.

The rest of the updated on-stage detailings hardly missed a trick, with many a delightful and amusing touch – the birdsong right at the start, the “Hi-de-hi!” welcoming entourage at the station, complete with a truly wonderful steam-train entrance, and the preponderance of cell-phones among the “guests” invited to the “Chateau Whareora”. Word has spread regarding the presence of the “guru” thanks to the efforts of his right-hand man, Raimbaud, who prepares for Ory’s entrance with a red carpet and coloured flags, and various “gifts” donated by people who have heard of the hermit’s “healing powers” and helpful advice. We meet Ragonde who’s the PA for the Countess, and worried about both her mistress’s melancholic state and her own husband’s continued absence, then afterwards Isolier, young, feminine and sporty, who’s Ory’s personal physio, but in love with the Countess, and Tutor, the rugby team coach who’s looking for Ory, having heard about the “guru” and having his suspicions as to where “Horny McOry” is.  Another red carpet entry, complete with photo-popping paparazzi, brings us the extremely chic Chateau-owner, Countess Adele, to the joy of the love-sick Isolier – but just as the goatish guru-in-residence thinks he has Adele at his fingertips and outmanoeuvred his rival, the Coach suddenly reappears and denounces Ory by revealing his true identity (see above!)….

Le Comte Ory – Act Two  (beginning) – NZ Opera Chorus, with Emma Pearson (Countess Adele),  Tayla Alexander (Alice) and Andrea Creighton (Ragonde)

The Second Act features Ory’s follow-up plan to gain access to the Countess, disguising himself and his teammates as women members of a local religious sect being pursued by the same Ory and his men. The so-called pilgrims are let into the lodge when a fierce storm breaks – wonderful sound and lighting effects – and the women/men are given shelter by the Countess and her women. Left to themselves the imposters show their true colours with a round of drinking songs (did Berlioz take a leaf out of Rossini’s book here for his roistering  Auerbach’s Cellar Scene in “La Damnation de Faust”?) as all make merry while anticipating further sport afterwards (“There’s nosh as well as potential nookie”) but they retire at last. When Isolier arrives with news of the womens’ husbands’ unexpectedly early return, she warns the Countess that in fact the pilgrims they are housing are Ory and his men in disguise! This is resolved by a delicious trio where the principal randy intruder is tricked into bed with the two women and then tied up, having to admit defeat and leave, taking his “entourage” with him as (thanks to adroit changes behind the scenes) none other than the All Blacks (in traditional uniform to boot!) arrive home to their wives, as champions – and all is well.

Whatever one’s opinion of the antipodean reworkings of the original scenario of the opera, one couldn’t help but admire the zest, energy, enthusiasm and the palpable enjoyment that emanated from the St James’ stage this evening – everybody I spoke with afterwards had that sense of experiencing something of what Simon Phillips called the vibrancy and amusement of human behaviour’s foibles in what they’d seen and heard in this modern realisation of the opera. And as Phillips also put it, even if such treatment was not to some people’s taste they would still have revelled in what he called the “sheer virtuosity of this dazzlingly talented cast” in bringing the performance to life.

One couldn’t help but reflect on how the transformation of the original opera’s time-and-place scenario resonated in the present, however unexpectedly and incidentally – simply the Countess Adele’s idea at the beginning of the Act Two to provide shelter for whom she considered at first to be homeless people, and then more seriously refugees fleeing from oppression straightaway reflected contemporary situations of which we’ve been all too regularly made aware. And the libretto’s crudely reworked translations brought into focus a long-held feminist viewpoint that opera seems to regularly institutionalise the undoing of women as victims of male brutality; and that the “calling out” of certain attitudes and behaviours as exhibited by Count Ory for what they represent in a larger picture is in fact long overdue. The recent “me too” movement has also reflected a change in the balance of power regarding interaction between the sexes that these  candid commentaries from both sides resoundingly echo.

In whatever sense, each cast member brought a distinctive quality of whole-heartedness to his or her role – as Count Ory, Manase Latu seemed to fill out every cubic measure of his character with roguish intention of a concupiscently self-serving kind, almost Falstaffian in his buffoonish scheming and ultimate humiliation – his voice impressively negotiated the numerous stratospheric notes in a way that readily conveyed his character’s overweening confidence. Equally compelling was Emma Pearson’s enticing portrayal of the Countess Adele, by turns confidently imperious and vulnerably girlish, and with a vocal armoury that seemed in charge of every emotion – an enthralling performance.

Ory’s partner-in-crime, Raimbaud, was sung by the mellifluous-voiced Moses Mackay, the first solo voice we heard in the opera, summoning the people who had gathered to attend to his master, his tones ringing and clear, his presence persuasive and credible. And in Act Two his retelling to the disguised “pilgrims” of his liquor-collecting adventure became a tour de force when echoed by the chorus’s enthusiastic interjections. Another voice we heard early on was that of Andrea Creighton’s with her steady, whole-hearted and ever-solicitous assumption of Ragonde, the Countess’s PR agent and confidante, one whose husband was among those absent on the “field of battle”, and, along with the other women, intrigued by the presence of the “holy man”.

I enjoyed Hanna Hipp’s whole-hearted Isolier, completely at ease with her character’s delightfully equivocal function in the story’s re-working of the “trouser-role” practice common in opera, here as a same-sex would-be lover of the Countess. As in last year’s “Cosi fan tutte” I found her singing and absorption of her character totally compelling, with her devotion to the Countess touching and resonant throughout. She also effectively established her connection as team masseur with Wade Kernot’s authoritative Coach, with whom she arrived at the resort, in search of the missing Ory, Wade Kernot then riveting us with his imposingly-voiced “tale of travail” regarding his troublesome protégé!

Rossini always writes engagingly and excitingly for his choruses in opera and “Le Comte Ory is no exception – particularly in the Second Act there’s fun and games aplenty, which  the “Wellington Chapter” of the New Zealand Opera Chorus took to like the proverbial ducks to water. In terms both of singing and stage deportment, the singers achieved marvels of evocation, delighting us with their antics in all manifestations.  Of course it was Michael Vinten in Wellington doing the honours as Chorus Director in his accustomedly splendid manner.

All of this, of course, was conceived, planned and executed with aplomb by director Simon Phillips, set and costume designer Tracy Grant Lord and lighting designer Matthew Marshall, whose efforts couldn’t have helped but been admired in regard to their (at times) breathtaking daring but still ultimately well-grounded sense of what was possible to make work on a stage in Aotearoa New Zealand. As Oscar Wilde once put it, the important thing is “being talked about” – and this is what’s been here achieved.

As befits somebody who’s actually made a recording as a conductor of this very work (Naxos 8.660207-08 – https://www.naxos.com/CatalogueDetail/?id=8.660207-08), conductor Brad Cohen (who also happens to be the current General Director of NZ Opera) seemed to bring to the performance all the musical and theatrical qualities needed to put across the zany escapades of the work with burning conviction. Perhaps the charm of a previous generation of Rossini conductors I’ve encountered on recordings (Vittorio Gui, Tulio Serafin, Carlo Maria Giulini) has been of late overshadowed by a more up-to-date snappiness of manner and generally higher-octane virtuosity among today’s maestri and their musicians. That old-world charm is something I occasionally find myself again yearning for – but there was no doubting the brilliance of both individual and corporate skills from Cohen and Orchestra Wellington in the pit of the St.James Theatre on this particular night, garnering a well-earned tumult of applause and appreciative shouts at the work’s conclusion from an obviously well-satisfied audience.

Andrew Joyce and Jian Liu – a masterclass in ‘Cello and Piano

Wellington Chamber Music presents:
Andrew Joyce (‘cello) and Jian Liu (piano).

J.S. Bach – Sonata in G Minor for Cello and Piano (BWV1029)
Ralph Vaughan Williams – Six Studies in English Folk Song
Dorothy Buchannan – Soliloquy for Two
Fang Dongqing – Lin Chong
Paul Hindemith – Phantasiestuck in B Major, Op. 8 No. 2
Johannes Brahms – Sonata No. 2 in F Major
Sergei Rachmaninoff. Sonata for Cello and Piano in G Minor. Op 19. III. Andante

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington
Sunday, 9th June, 2024

There’s something reassuring about watching professionals at work. I’m not sure if “reassurance” is the right word, exactly, but I certainly felt some sense of content awe on Sunday, knowing that I was listening to an excellent performance of beautiful music. I adore watching performers of all levels, but there is something special about sitting back and letting the consummate professionals take care of everything.

It was a typical windy Wellington day, so I was very appreciative of the heating in St Andrews. Unfortunately, I sat behind a rather tall audience member, so my view of the cellist, Andrew Joyce, was a tad obscured. Andrew gave a comprehensive introduction to the programme, explaining the poetic background to Buchannan’s piece, the angular sounds of Hindemith and the Romantic ending with Brahms.

From the moment Jian and Andrew begin playing, you know you’re in for a treat of musical excellence. Starting off with Bach’s Sonata in G Minor, the Vivace was energetic and vibrant. It was nice to see the difference in how the two musicians actually moved. Andrew moved his head rhythmically, with a typical cellist intensity, while Jian sort of bobbed along to the piano. I don’t know what it is about a musician’s movement that fascinates me, but I can’t help but notice it. It’s genuinely enjoyable for me when performers actually move with the music. The adagio was rich and moving, with lovely use of vibrato, and gorgeous, even playing on piano. The trills brought a particular tension to the piece which I really enjoyed. The allegro was light and playful, with a great dialogue of call and response. The building of parts and dynamics was rich, and there was never a moment of stillness. The final note of the piece was accompanied by murmurs of awe from the audience.

The Six Studies in English Folk Song followed Bach. I didn’t realise that these studies would be so short, although I probably should’ve inferred that from the title. The adagio, ‘Lovely on the Water’, was very different from the Bach, but absolutely lovely, with a gorgeous, whole sound from the cello. The andante sostenuto, ‘Spurn Point’, felt very romantic: not the movement, but the lovey-dovey feeling, with really nice higher notes. The larghetto, ‘Van Diemen’s Land’, had a deep, almost mournful quality. It felt like the homeward journey of knights after a battle. The lento, ‘She Borrowed Some of her Mother’s Gold’, was lovely, a sort of deep honey. The andante tranquillo, ‘The Lady and the Dragon’, was elegant, gentle and genteel. There was a great moment where the cello faded and the piano took over. I wrote down “a lovely brocade” in my notes. I’m not entirely sure what I meant by that, but it sounds nice. The allegro vivace, ‘As I walked over London Bridge’, was playful and intense, with great ending dynamics.

As a slight devotee to literature, I was very intrigued by Buchannan’s Soliloquy for Two, as it’s based on Robert Frost’s poem, ‘The Road not Taken’. The melody felt philosophical, with a sort of pondering quality to it, while the piano walked along the road, steady but light. There was a lovely clarity of sound in this piece, with both parts balanced evenly in the church’s acoustics.

At the start of the concert, Andrew said some parts of Dongqing’s piece were almost “unplayable.” I was unsure what he meant at first, as it started smooth and lyrical, with some surprising moments of intensity from the piano. However, then there were suddenly lower strings and harmonics, along with pizzicatos, and I understood his starting comments. The speed of the runs were amazing, with intense double stops and pizzicatos. There was really great duo work from Jian as he looked over at Andrew for the right timing of angry chords, adding a real dynamism to the performance. It was not at all where I expected the piece to go. After this intensity, the piece went back to a lovely, quieter melody, and then finished with an attack. It was the piece I wrote down the most for because of how much was happening. It was incredible, I could barely keep up in my notebook.

After the interval, there was Hindemith’s Phantasiestuck. It was beautifully Romantic, a tad unexpectedly so from Hindemith. As mentioned at the start, there were moments with some “angular” sounds, particularly with the unexpected intervals next to an otherwise soaring melody.

The Brahms Sonata was a superb. The allegro vivace had beautiful swells of dynamics. So much was going in this movement, with intense double stopping, then feather-light bowing, then a deep and full melody. The adagio affettuoso had a lovely start with the pizzicato and piano. There was a real sense of movement from Jian on the piano, along with the lovely vibrato from Andrew at the end. The “schero-like” (as noted by the programme) intensity and vibrance of the allegro passionata was brilliant. The allegro molto had a quiet and joyful intensity that built as it continued. The technical skill of these musicians was just amazing. To be honest, I was too swept up by Brahms to write more.

After a rapturous applause, we got treated with the third movement from Rachmaninoff’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in G Minor, as a little excerpt from their other programme. It’s a classic piano and cello piece, and was lovely to hear live and done so superbly, especially after being on my playlist of favourite Cello pieces for a few years.

I really cannot stress enough how brilliant this concert was. Every note was perfect, the energy was palpable, and the audience was swept away. If you ever get the chance to see Andrew Joyce and Jian Liu perform, I strongly urge you to take full advantage of it.

“The Choicest Songs” – an Anniversary concert from Baroque Voices at Futuna Chapel, Karori

Baroque Voices at Futuna Chapel,  Karori,  Wellington,
June 2024
David Morriss (bass), Pepe Becker (director, soprano), Douglas Mews (keyboards), Robert Oliver (bass viol)

                                  Futuna Chapel, Karori

Baroque Voices presents “The Choicest Songs”
A presentation celebrating the 30th anniversary of Baroque Voices
and commemorating various other anniversaries pertaining to Futuna Chapel and its creation

Music by John Dowland and his contemporaries
also Henry Purcell, Monica Verburg and Pepe Becker

Baroque Voices – Pepe Becker (soprano), David Morriss (bass)
Douglas Mews (virginals and recorder), Robert Oliver (bass viol)

Futuna Chapel, Friend St., Karori, Wellington

A review by Peter Mechen (Middle C)

On a still and sunny day, Futuna Chapel (built in 1961) in Karori exudes a unique interior atmosphere wrought by the play of light through angularly-placed stained-glass windows  contrasting  with rather more secluded interior vistas. It’s a singular version of a kind of eternity, one vaster than the actual limited spaces might give one to suggest, but compensating with the mystery wrought by the contrasts. It’s no longer a consecrated chapel, as was the case when I first arrived there as a wide-eyed student from a Palmerston North Catholic school in the 1960s, making one of two separate live-in spiritual retreats here, and relishing  on each occasion what used to be (alas, no longer) a surrounding hinterland of native bush through which one could walk and contemplate what seemed like a natural extension of the intangible mysteries I and my classmates were steeped in at that age.  (I freely admit it wasn’t entirely a haven of concentrated spiritual refurbishment, as we fifteen year-old boys seemed to all too readily find clandestine ways to entertain ourselves in more worldly pastimes thru  games of cards and dice in more secluded parts of that magnificent stand of bush!).

Today, however, was dull and overcast in Karori, as it was elsewhere in Wellington, with the chapel interior having all the more austere and gloomy an atmosphere for our promised concert, organised by the indefatigable Pepe Becker, the “guiding Light” behind the Wellington group “Baroque Voices”, whose 3O-year performing anniversary fell this month. Fortunately the bustle and atmosphere created by an enthusiastic (and practically full-house) audience created an ambience of its own which even the “ticky-tacky suburbia” that has ravaged the once-verdant surroundings couldn’t entirely spoil once we were inside and registering the chapel interior’s still-stunning evocations of its own kind of spirituality.

Pepe Becker’s programme notes reminded us that today’s concert was an occasion of anniversaries, being the 100th birthday of Futuna Chapel’s architect John Scott, who died in 1992 at the age of 68. And, coincidentally, it was the first anniversary of another important creative artist, Jim Allen, four of whose sculptures are embedded in the chapel’s architectural fabric. These anniversaries prompted the Futuna Chapel Trust to commission from Pepe Becker a new work commemorating both architect and artist, one called “concrete, wood and light” and  to be performed at today’s concert.

But there were premieres aplenty today, with two others featuring songs Pepe had written dedicated to two of her performing colleagues, bass David Morriss and the viol player Robert Oliver. First, we heard a song called “Fog”, with words written by the poet Carl Sandburg, and secondly an “Ave Maria” setting , one with an extra dedication to Pepe’s former mother-in-law, Mary Becker, who died in 2022. These songs all included the overall title “Capricorn”, alluding to the star-sign all of the people involved (including the poet!).  Adding further distinction to the concert were two more premieres by a different composer, a pair of songs called “Reflections”, with both words and music written by a flute-player friend of Pepe’s, Monica Verburg, interested in the combination of voice and recorder. Pepe remarked upon the pleasure of performing so many of these songs in close association with the people they were dedicated to.

Besides all of this there were works whose sounds, sentiments and spirit expressed a defining aspect of Baroque Voices’ raison d’etre, songs variously by John Dowland and Henry Purcell rubbing shoulders with a couple of instrumental performances featuring music by lesser-known contemporaries, Tobias Hume (1579-1645) and a name I didn’t know, William Inglot (1553-1621). Though one often encounters the quote “Semper Dowland, semper dolens” from the composer’s own title for one of his consort pieces, not all of his music is steeped in melancholy, as the concert’s opening number demonstrated – Up merry mates, from Dowland’s last book of songs the 1612 A Pilgrimes Solace, was presented here as a lively dialogue song between a ship’s master (Pepe) and his crew (David) on the occasion of rough weather, one which contains a philosophical response to the whims of nature (and some extremely low notes which David Morriss did well to negotiate!). The following heartfelt Toss not my soul was, by comparison, more characteristically sombre, beautifully voiced by the singers and sensitively accompanied.

We then got two delightfully contrasting instrumental solos from Robert Oliver featuring the relatively unknown Tobia Hume’s music – firstly Adieu Sweet Love from the composer’s 1605 book The First Part of Ayres, and then the livelier The spirit of Gambo; then it was back to Dowland again, for an attractive, open-hearted Sleep, wayward thoughts, again expressing a mood somewhat removed from the melancholic character usually accorded his work. I do recall my mother, who was a music teacher, being extremely fond of some of the composer’s Lute Dances which had been transcribed for piano, a number of which were anything but melancholic (the cheerful My Lady Hunsdon’s Puffe being one that particularly sticks in the memory).\

Next were three Purcell songs, each demonstrating the composer’s gift for expressing the actual “energy” of words, the first song Come, let us leave the town from “The Faerie Queen” replete with lively, oft-repeated canonic “comes” and other persuasively impressive urgencies from the two singers, all in stark contrast to the following Lost is my Quiet, a soulful lament for what each singer describes as “life’s happiest part”, though we were given a semblance of contentment by the rather more lively While bolts and bars my days control,  a song describing the mind as unfettered and “freeborn” though the body be held in captivity.

Came the first of the “Capricorn” premieres, with Pepe Becker’s “Fog” leading the way, Sandburg’s text brief and unprepossessing, characterising the fog as a cat-like in its movements and aspect, David Morriss’s voice suitably dark and restrained, and Robert Oliver’s viol-playing spare and stark as befitted the scenario. This was followed by Monica Verburg’s “Two Reflections” for soprano and recorder, written earlier this year, the first “Turn your eyes” imploring the listener with stepwise figurations to “follow a path that’s good and true”, and with the final words “see the beauty all around” reminding one of Mahler’s use of Chinese poetry in part of his “Das Lied Von der Erde”.

The second song “Ocean breeze” had a more meandering kind of opening, one whose phrasings took up a gentle kind of siciliana rhythm, Pepe’s voice and Douglas Mews’ recorder-playing beautifully delineating their own courseways through scenarios lit up by the setting sun and framed by oceanic surgings. I remember at one point the text “ocean breezes come by with the promise of a new day” coincided with a gust of wind outside the chapel which we all heard make its presence felt!

The last of the three Capricorn settings was an “Ave Maria” written by Pepe last year (2023) but only now receiving its premiere performance – set for soprano, bass and bass viol, and dedicated to both David and Robert, the work was written also for Pepe’s “lovely former mother-in-law”, Mary Becker, and was performed today in her memory. The opening of the work had a kind of prayerful, reverential beginning, with a second part that became more interactive between the voices and more imploring via some beautiful ascending phrases, before concluding with repeated “Amens”.

More songs, firstly from Purcell and finally, Dowland – the two Purcell songs brought out some truly satisfying singing from both voices, firstly, we enjoyed Leave these useless arts in loving, the nimbleness of both voices a real delight, and then the absolutely delicious Come let us agree, from the composer’s “Timon of Athens”, the words containing sentiments than no-one present would have dreamed of disputing! – and especially in the wake of this performance!

The return of Dowland for the last three items in the “song” bracket brought a beautiful solemnity to the first of these, Flow my tears, a song that contained the words “Where night’s blackbird her sad infamy sings”, and featured a virginals-only accompaniment (I read somewhere that this became Dowland’s single most famous song, a kind of “signature-tune” – certainly, on the strength of this stirring performance one could understand why!).

At this point we were treated to the second of our instrument-only interludes, this one courtesy of Douglas Mews at the virginals, and featuring a work by another lesser-known composer, one William Inglott (c.1553-1621). Although obscure today, Inglott carved out a sufficient reputation for himself in his lifetime to have a plaque at Norwich Cathedral erected at his death (and after being restored in the 18th Century, one which survives to this present day). Douglas Mews read a poem on which Inglott’s composition, The Leaves Bee Greene, was based – one which I haven’t been able to locate for this review, unfortunately, but was still eminently worth hearing.

Of the two remaining Dowland songs, the first, the renowned Fine knacks for Ladies again most delightfully gave the lie to the idea of the composer being “semper dolens”, the words tripping over the tongues and from the mouths of both singers, and mellifluously accompanied not only by the bass viol, but additionally by Douglas Mews’ recorder in the second and third verses.  After this the last of the songs was always going to sound relatively subdued, but perhaps not inappropriately – words and music of Now, O now I needs must part took on a strong hymn-like character as the singers and instrumentalists (from Verse Three onwards Robert Oliver’s bass viol was joined by Douglas Mews’ recorder once again) gave the sentiments all due sonorous and characterful strength up to the end – very beautiful and heart-warming!

So to the concert’s final item, another premiere, this time a joint commemorative tribute from composer Pepe Becker and poet/writer Gregory O’Brien (whose words had already been written for an earlier publication, and were now set to Pepe’s music for this occasion) to the work of architect John Scott and sculptor Jim Allen. This work, called “Concrete, Wood and Light” was crafted for what the composer called  “an aptly unconventional” Quartet of soprano, recorder, bass and bass viol, with additional wood, stone and body-percussion added to the mix – what Pepe called a “sonic homage” to the building’s many colours and textures.

Begun by vocal humming and various kinds of other vocalisings, singers and instrumentalists began intoning the text, along with ambient irruptions of various percussion sounds, and the recorder joining in with the voices. The work reached a focal point at the words “You are a shelter or clearing in which we find our voices”, continuing towards the text’s final reference  to “the L-shaped silence of your body”. The rest was resonance and presence and awareness, and with a great oneness at the end – all that seemed to matter was the space itself and the renewed and reaffirmed life into which the  artists, performers and audience had poured themselves today.

 

 

 

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The NZSQ and Quintessence – a day in the life of a string quartet

Quintessence: an NZSQ Celebration                                                                           Monique  Lapins                                                                                                                                                      

                                                                             Peter  Clark

Concert introduced by Jeremy Johnson, Chairman of the New Zealand String Quartet Trust

BRAHMS – String Quartet No 3 in B-flat Major Op.67
Helene Pohl (leader), Monique Lapins (violin), Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

Farewell speech made by Monique Lapins, Second Violin of the New Zealand String Quartet

MOZART – String Quintet No.1 in B-flat major K.174
Helene Pohl (leader), Peter Clark (violin), Gillian Ansell (viola), Monique Lapins (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University of Wellington
Kelburn Parade, Wellington

Friday 7th June, 2024

It had to come – this was Monique Lapins’ final concert with the New Zealand String Quartet, marking her decision to move on after eight years spent as the group’s second violinist. With characteristic aplomb and due ceremony and not a little emotion, the process of change was here accorded appropriately bitter-sweet valedictory form by all of us who had gathered in the Hunter Council Chamber that evening. We were welcomed by Jeremy Johnson, Chairman of the New Zealand String Quartet Trust, who then paid the warmest of tributes to Monique regarding the significance and success of her tenure with the quartet before wishing her well, to which expression we all gave heartfelt accord.

Monique’s choice of repertoire as her “swan song” with the group was Brahms’s Third String Quartet, a kind of acme of expression for the ensemble, here given extra memorability by the circumstances.
Quartet leader Helene Pohl introduced the work for us, making due reference to the composer’s awareness of Beethoven and his legacy, and its “intimidating” factor for him. As Monique was to specifically mention the Beethoven cycle she had taken part in over the last eight years as a “career highlight” one understood the choice of Brahms as a kind of act of shared homage uniting composer and performer!

It did seem from the outset a kind of “master-class” of quartet-writing, with the composer obviously delighting in the contrasts between the opening “galloping” motiv sounded first in pairs, and then by the whole ensemble, the trajectories then being wreathed with almost insinuating diaphanous textures, and suggesting a Brahms with rather more impressionistic inclination than on previous occasions, as if stepping boldly into unknown territories. I loved the players’ voicings here, with Helene Pohl’s remarkable, almost “ghostly” tones darting around the others’ sombre impulses leading up to the almost artless dance-tune over which the cross-rhythms firstly send the players scurrying back to the beginning, and then dare those brave and bold enough to “sound out” the unknown territories before calling their bluff with some trenchant figurations. Masterly!

The second movement had Brahms in an almost “Salut d’amour” mood at its beginning, with ravishing playing of the opening theme from Helene Pohl, before a minor key-change heralded rather more forceful outbursts, tempered by thoughtful contributions from viola and ‘cello. Again, the quartet’s different voicings beautifully opened up for us these moments of impulse encircled by wonderment, and towards a disarming “Amen” at the movement’s close.

Surely the dark-toned Scherzo is one of the composer’s most compelling! – the players here drew us into its almost phantasmagorical world, right from Gillian Ansell’s hypnotic playing of the strangely lurching, almost anguished opening waltz-theme, embellished by the first violin, the music’s poise restored momentarily by a smilingly vigorous dance like major-key figure, and some hauntingly-played modulations into more wistful realms – enchanting, but precarious, with the viola all too ready to take up the agitato opening once again! We waited for the outcome of the exchanges between Gillian’s viola and Helene’s violin, with the viola prevailing and summonsing us onwards to the Trio. As well it might have, because in the beautifully circumspect Trio the viola at first “called the tune”,  even if the violins did between them manage to grab some limelight – but what splendid focus the music gave to the instrument throughout this characterful movement right up to the end!

No better homage to Beethoven could have been devised here by Brahms than through the finale’s theme-and variations, a simple theme’s triplet rhythms cantering in and setting off a variety of characterful responses. How wonderful, though, after we’d welcomed these newcomers, was the sudden reappearance of the work’s opening, and for us to be able to warm to this “old friend” in the music, duly introduced to other characters from different parts of the work! After “who was who” had been sorted out, a brief coda proclaimed honour satisfied, and ended the work with a no-nonsense Brahmsian flourish!

After we’d expressed our heartfelt appreciation regarding the performance, it was, sadly, Monique Lapins’ turn to speak to us all regarding her “having come to the end” of her time with the New Zealand String Quartet, an experience which over the past eight years, she said, had been “the greatest honour” to share the performing stage with such wonderful colleagues, speaking of their “boundless energy, enthusiasm, rich musicality and unwavering commitment to music”. She also paid a warm tribute to the Quartet’s management team (regrettably Quartet Manager Aislinn Ryan couldn’t attend the concert because she had COVID) as well as to all the people who had made up the group’s “wonderful network of supporters” all of whom had helped make the experience for her such a rewarding one. She expressed a warm welcome to her successor, Peter Clark, wishing him well in his new adventure with the group of “making music together”. And with that, she invited the quartet members back onto the performing platform with their new second violinist, so that they could together perform one of Mozart’s most adorable works – the first of the composer’s String Quintets, K.174 in B-flat Major….

We’d previously heard a single movement of this work from the same group at the Quartet’s St Mary of the Angels concert last month (see review at https://middle-c.org/2024/05/18231/), but this time we were treated to the whole of the Quintet. It’s always been a favourite of mine, partly through an ongoing exchange of reactions with an old friend over the work’s opening, vis-à-vis the debatable issue of rhythm predominating over melodic line, or vice-versa (I’ve always plumped for the physical excitement of that driving rhythm, whereas he would “bliss out” over the violin’s soaring melody!). Here, I thought the two were well-nigh equally weighted, as the ensemble chose not to unduly “dig into” the initial notes as did the players on the recording I learned the work from (the Amadeus Quartet with Cecil Aronowitz, whose sound I continue to “hear” in my head as a kind of “template” whenever listening to anybody else play!).

Gorgeous “touches” abounded in this work, such as the introspective moments where individual lines muse and “call out” responses from other instruments, here sounding particularly thoughtful and wistful in places, the lovely duetting between two violas which added a unique colour to the sound, and the sections where the composer’s modulations have that naturally improvisatory flow that his contemporaries envied. The players further enchanted our sensibilities with the slow movement’s beautiful unison opening and the following “Serenata Notturna”-like exchanges, as they also did with the evocative “fairground” aspect of the Menuetto’s carnival-like opening, and the Trio’s beguiling echo effects.

But it was the finale that truly delighted us, especially with the scampering passagework, both canonic and in “unison thirds” from all the players, with some sequences resembling high-speed criss-crossings of trains on rail networks with nary a mishap! We particularly enjoyed the almost naughty incursion of triplets at one point, Mozart simply demonstrating that it could be done and without a misstep! Throughout, the players demonstrated in spadefuls that characteristic aspect of the ensemble, an all-encompassing enjoyment of the act of music-making together, one which Monique Lapins had emphasised in her tribute to her colleagues as perhaps the defining quality that had made her time with the quartet such a positive and memorable experience.

Having at the end of a previous review bade my farewells and good wishes already to Monique, I hesitate to awkwardly repeat myself – except to say that in regard to the evening, I thought her playing, her spoken tributes and her gracious relinquishing of her second violin role to her successor in concert all played a part in contributing to a response from all of us intended to express our warmest appreciation, heartfelt thanks and very best wishes towards her for her journey to come.

 

 

 

 

 

Breathtaking NZSM wind and brass at St.Andrew’s

St. Andrews Lunchtime Concert Series
NZSM Wind and Brass Solo Recital

Flute: Keeson Perkins Treacher
Oboe: Amy Clough
Piano: Ziqian Xu
Tuba: Sam Zhu

Eugene Bozza – Image
Jacques Ibert – Deux Interludes I. Andante Espressivo, II. Allegro Vivo
W.A. Mozart – Oboe Concerto in C Major (K. 314) II. Adagio ma non troppo
Madeline Dring – Trio for Flute, Oboe, and Piano. I. Allegro con brio, II. Andante Semplice, III. Allegro Giocoso
Roland Szentpali – Variations on a Children’s Hungarian Song

St Andrew’s on the Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday, 29th May, 2024

It’s not often I get to share my lunchtime concert routine with others, but this week I was joined by my friend (and flatmate). Thankfully, she’s a flutist, and was very generous in helping me with my terminology. As someone with a background in strings, it was very useful to have her point out parts that I may have missed otherwise.

Prior to the concert, I was already impressed by every wind or brass player simply because of their breathing skills. I think I was short changed at some point with my lungs, because I could never achieve their level of breath technique .

The beginning of the concert had a last-minute change from Gabriel Faure’s ‘Fantasie for Flute and Piano’ to Eugene Bozza’s ‘Image.’ Last-minute implies rush, perhaps some panic, but there was none of that in St Andrew’s. Keeson Perkins-Treacher’s performance was a wonderful start to the concert, with lovely phrasing and incredibly smooth trills. My friend made sure that I noticed that the runs were especially smooth.

‘Image’ was followed by Jacques Ibert’s ‘Deux Interludes,’ for the flute, oboe, and piano. The first movement was gorgeous, with a mournful, beautiful melody. It had a great sense of movement. The second movement was fun, but still melancholic, so there was a wonderful tension and energy to it. To be honest, I enjoyed this piece so much that I forgot to take notes.

Amy Clough then took over, with the second movement from Mozart’s Oboe Concerto in C Major (K. 314). From the jump, Amy was brilliant. She has such a smooth, even tone, and a real poise. It all just flowed seamlessly, she essentially sings with the oboe. I could listen to her for hours. Sadly, the concert was only an hour.

Continuing with another piece for a trio, this time by Madeline Dring. The first movement started in full unison, which can be tricky to get right, but they did it perfectly. It’s a fun movement that surprises you, but still feels seamless, with some really nice call and response. The second movement started with Ziqian Xu on the piano, which was just gorgeous. Then the flute came in, and then the oboe. The layering of these parts was so beautiful, and showed great ensemble skills, even in a solo recital. The third movement had slight dissonance, which made the piece all the more exciting. Again, lovely call and response throughout, plus a really great moment where just the flute and oboe played, and then merged into the piano. A great job from all three musicians.

We then switched over to the tuba, which was very exciting. I feel like you rarely get tuba solos, so I was eager to see what it would be like. My first impressions of the tuba was the stereotypical “womp womp” of marching band tubas, but Sam Zhu proved this impression very wrong. He had such smooth and fast runs, which was very impressive. At one point, he sang while playing, which I didn’t even know you could do. I think my jaw may have dropped slightly when my friend explained what he was doing. Everyone in St Andrews were incredibly impressed with his performance, and rightly so.

I left St Andrews in total admiration. The immense skill of these musicians is just breathtaking. Pardon the slight pun, but I genuinely can’t find a better word, or at least, one that I haven’t already used throughout my review.

JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations for String Trio – a benefit concert for ‘cellist Jack Moyer

JS BACH – Goldberg Variations BWV 988  (arranged for String Trio by Dmitri Sitkovetsky)

Monique Lapins (violin)
Alex McFarlane (viola)
Jack Moyer (‘cello)

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday, 26th May, 2024

Firstly, a bit of history – in 1741 Bach had published a keyboard work with the painstaking title , Aria, with diverse variations for a harpsichord with two manuals. It was the concluding work in the composer’s Clavier-Ubung (Keyboard Practice), a publication Bach intended would show a complete range of possibilities for keyboard players, technical, virtuosic, and interpretative.

The work’s opening Aria came from a copy written out by the composer’s second wife, Anna Magdalena of music Bach had made before, one from which he then devised 30 new variations. The legend largely accompanying these pieces grew up out of an 1802 biography of Bach by one Johann Nikolaus Forkel, that the music was written for use by a Count Kaiserling to counter bouts of insomnia, played by the count’s personal harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a pupil of Bach’s son Wilhelm Friedmann. Scholars reckon the story to relate more to the history of the work rather than its origins, as the young Goldberg also took lessons with JS Bach and may have encountered the work as a student.

Estimates regarding the music’s circulation at the time reckon something like 100 printed copies (several of which survive today), but no documented performances were recorded apart from the occasional mention in late nineteenth century recital programmes for the piano. The first name associated with public performance of the work is of the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, who began her own “Bach revival” in 1903, eventually recording the work on the harpsichord firstly in 1933 and again in 1946, albeit on her inauthentic custom-built instruments.

Though pianist Claudio Arrau had performed the complete keyboard works of Bach in 1935, and made a recording of the Goldbergs in 1942, the latter recording wasn’t released until the 1980s – by then the work had already “come of age” in gramophone terms thanks to the phenomenon that was the young Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, whose renowned 1955 LP recording traversed the globe, bringing the Variations into the mainstream of classical music listening.

Today there are all manner of performances and arrangements of the work, bringing the echt-baroque practice of transcription into our technological age, and taking the work through instruments such as the piano, harp and string ensembles to the world of accordions and marimbas, not to mention saxophone and guitar ensembles and various other jazz trios. One presumes the composer, whose music seemed consigned almost to oblivion for most of the century following his death, would have been gratified at his creation’s remarkable resurgence.

Violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s 1985 transcription of the Variations for string trio in 1985 was the one which today’s ensemble of Monique Lapins (violin), Alex McFarlane (viola) and Jack Moyer (‘cello) brought resplendently to life at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace in Wellington. The occasion was a “benefit concert” for the young ‘cellist in the group, Jack Moyer, due to take up a four-year Honours Bachelor of Music programme at London’s prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the near-full attendance happily rewarding both the organisers’ and performers’ efforts on behalf of the project.

I had retained a vivid memory of a previous occasion when the New Zealand String Quartet (then with Douglas Bielman as the second violinist, and amazingly, as far back as 2013) performed a quartet arrangement of the work, made by William Cowdery – one of several performances by the quartet at around that time. This later concert was, of course, a different kind of experience in almost every way, apart from my shared feeling here at the work’s end, as in 2013, that “we were able to coexist, for a short time, with a kind of transcendental awareness of things, by way of music whose being somehow seemed to accord with our own existence” – for interest’s sakes, a link to the original review is here provided – https://middle-c.org/2013/05/the-goldbergs-with-strings-attached/

Right from violinist Monique Lapins’ beautifully-nuanced delivery of the theme, with its spacious vistas inviting the most delicate of embellishments when repeated, we were drawn into the Bachian world of infinite possibility! All was stimulated further by the entirely characteristic change of mood with the instantly-engaging dance rhythm of the first variation, both Alex McFarlane’s viola and Jack Moyer’s ‘cello establishing at various times, whether leading or accompanying, a presence of character in their exuberantly-wrought figurations.

Whatever the nature of each variation as regards tone colour or trajectory, the players took to it instantly, giving as much pleasure in the transition from one mood to another as to their sustaining a piece’s character – so the sequence beginning with the chunkily-voiced, down-to-earth Variation 5, followed by the deftly elfin peregrinations of Variation 6, and the diverting contrasts between song-like melody and dance-like rhythm in Variation 7 made for a delightful string of progressions in itself, capped off by the elegant humour of the composer’s more-than-usually graceful “Gigue” in Variation 8, with every move and gesture, nuance and  decisive movement “sounded” here with conviction.

To neglect or pass lightly over any section of the Goldbergs would seem reprehensible, though I’m not able to resist recounting certain moments in the performance which drew me an indefinably extra “way” into the music. I loved, for instance, the “strut” of the players’ rhythms in the Fuguetta of Variation 10, begun irresistibly by Jack Moyer’s ‘cello, and reinforced in every sense of an occasion by each of the others. How appropriate, then that the following Variation, with its cascading ritual-like descending figures would put one in mind of the ringing of bells! And I warmed, in a different way, to the group’s playing of the beautiful Variation 13, with the viola’s and ‘cello’s tenderly-voiced melodic lines freeing the violin’s descant-like decorations with a bird-like overview. No wonder, then, that what Glenn Gould called the “neo-Scarlatti” energies of the following Variation 14 made such an invigorating contrast – and what virtuoso playing there was from all concerned!

I’m obviously not going to be able to “get to” all the performance highlights whose details I scribbled down in my notebook as quickly as I could, trying to keep up with so many rapid-fire fiddlings! I did, I admit, think the St.Andrews’ acoustic at times bright to a fault, in running the tones of the lighter instruments in particular together more than I would have wished for, so that one or two of the more busily-scored sequences in the concert seemed almost as confused-sounding as conversational to my ears – I rather preferred the string-sound we had enjoyed from the NZSQ in the acoustic of St. Mary of the Angels Church, a little more than a week ago! Fortunately most of the players’ efforts here “worked with” the venue’s sound, enabling them to make a grand and satisfying thing of the work’s halfway point Variation 16’s “French Overture”, phrasing the notes generously rather than over-emphatically as seems to be the “period practice” wont these days. And special mention must be made of the playing here of the famous “Black Pearl” Variation No. 25 (described as such by harpsichordist Wanda Landowska) – incredible music, with the kind of sombre beauty that induces awe, especially those sounds which suggest, as here, that one is in unchartered waters, confronted by the unknowable (simply writing about these moments we heard here still gives me goosebumps!)

As for the “Holy Trinity” of the last three Variations, I (a) loved the players’ almost surreal switching between full-throated and filigree sounds in Variation 27, including some heartfelt chromatic “sighs” in places; (b) was slightly disconcerted by the heavy-handedness of Variation 28, thinking that we might have enjoyed a lighter, more circumspect or humourful touch; and (c) thoroughly enjoyed the earthy “bonhomie” of the renowned Quodlibet Variation – after all of which the return of the Aria was like a benediction in itself – as if the composer was setting the words “And we shall be changed” in a deeply human kind of context, but with every note, bowed or plucked, resonating with us and conveying more than words could ever say……

What an occasion for Jack Moyer! – playing his part superbly alongside two extraordinarily talented fellow musicians at this stage of a musical career will surely rank as an unforgettable experience,  Whatever he goes on to achieve, the uniqueness of this day’s occasion will remain – good luck to him for it all!

Mostly youthful music presented with aplomb by the NZ Trio

Triptych 1: Unquiet Dream

Benjamin Britten: Introduction and allegro for piano trio
Chris Cree-Brown: The Second Triumvirate
Lera Auerbach: Trio No 2 Triptych – this mirror has three faces
Felix Mendelssohn: Trio in D min, Op. 49

 NZ Trio (with guest Sarah Watkins)

Public Trust Hall, Wellington

Wednesday 23 May 2024

 This was a distinctly youthful concert. Not because it was packed with music students (although there were a few there amongst the grey heads, chins thoughtfully propped on knees, listening intently), but because most of the music was written by the young. Britten’s work was composed when he was 18, in his second year at the Royal College of Music, being taught composition by Frank Bridge, who had taken the boy under his wing. The piece was premiered at a party at the Bridge house and then lost. Eventually, a decade after Britten’s death, it was found again and received its public premiere at the Wigmore Hall in 1986.

Lera Auerbach’s piece, the intellectual heart of the concert, was written when she was 38. Auerbach was only 17 and on a concert tour of the US when she defected from the Soviet Union. She is a remarkable talent: a poet, pianist, conductor, and sculptor as well as a composer. She was at the Juilliard with Sarah Watkins, Amalia Hall told us when introducing the work.

Mendelssohn’s D Minor Trio was written, like his best works, when young. He was only 20, and when it was premiered in September 1839, Schumann described it as ‘the master trio of the age’.

So Chris Cree Brown (b. 1953) was the senior composer represented, although his work, a commission by the Trio, is bang up to date, receiving its premiere on this tour.

First to the Britten. It is a terrific work, and I can only imagine Frank Bridge’s excitement when he first saw it. It opens with a beautiful cello solo, but immediately the tonality is unsettled. There is beautiful piano writing, very reminiscent of Ravel, with rippling liquid passages. But the string writing sounds like no one else: questing, unsettled, exploratory – not like the mature Britten, except in flashes. Ashley Brown described it to us as ‘quirky’ and said, ‘It took a while to grow on us.’  It finishes with the strings playing long, very high, pianissimo chords, with the piano continuing to ask questions underneath. I would have very much liked to hear it again.

The Chris Cree Brown followed. It is a follow-up to the first ‘Triumvirate’, written for the Trio in the early 2000s, and conceived as an imagining of the different voices of a trio at work (discussing, disputing, agreeing). But the second Triumvirate posed some difficulties. According to Ashley Brown, the trio found it helpful to discuss it with the composer while they worked on it. His comments were ‘eye-opening’ and ‘transformed the piece’. Being told that the programme of the work is three personalities in discourse, sometimes breaking into argument was certainly helpful to the audience. The rhythms are complex, imitating speech rhythms, and the work might have been impenetrable without that information.

Next to the Lera Auerbach. Immediately I felt as though we were in the hands of a very interesting musical personality. Like the Cree Brown work, this one also evokes three individuals in harmony and conflict. It is a work in five shortish movements. The middle movement is a kind of Schostakovian waltz, very slow and sardonic. Around it the outer movements explore ‘individuality and ensemble, harmony and conflict’. The first movement began with long, sustained, melancholy phrases; the second featured a passionate, romantic rush of sound from the strings, with amazing piano writing that took Sarah Watkins up and down the length of the keyboard. At the end of the third movement, the sardonic waltz returned. It sounded as though a beautiful doll puppet was being forced to dance to an unpleasant commentary. The fourth movement was very fast, a crazy pursuit at breakneck speed.

The last movement had moments of pure nostalgia (the marking is ‘Adagio nostalgico’), beginning with slow beautiful fragments of melody from the strings while the piano marches towards something.  At one point, the tremulous violin sounded like a sad bird; later, after some general agitation, the violin sang over the cello accompaniment like a bird in a ruin. Finally, the violin sang like a theremin.

We can always rely on the NZ Trio to present interesting music with aplomb, but the Auerbach was a triumph.  More, please!

And after the interval, the Mendelssohn Trio. What can I say? Schumann was right. It’s a lovely work, full of the best Mendelssohnian melodies, beautifully played by the NZ Trio. My notes say ‘a perfect example of chamber writing’, with ’lovely clarity and balance between the strings and piano’.

A note on personnel: founding member Sarah Watkins returned to the Trio because Somi Kim is off on maternity leave. It was as though Sarah had never been away.

On the Cello, and its Reliable Beauty – NZSM Cello Ensemble at St. Andrew’s

NZSM Cello Ensemble – a concert review by Maya Field

St Andrew’s on the Terrace
Wednesday 22nd May
Director: Inbal Megiddo

Performers: Portia Bell , Tomos Christie,  Qian Feng ,  Sebastian Green , Esther Lee , Gemma Maurice , Nathan Parker , Emma Ravens,  Olly Wilkinson

Programme:

W.A. Mozart. Symphony 40 in G minor, K. 550, Molto Allegro (arranged by S. Watkins)
Albeniz. Tango in D, Op. 165, No. 2  (arranged by D. Johnstone)
G. Gimenez. La Boda de Luis Alonso (arranged by B. Dejardin)
J.S. Bach. Sarabande from Suite 6 in D major (arranged by C. Hampton)
Charlie Chaplin. Smile (arranged by S. Walnier)

It’s a universal fact that the cello is a beautiful instrument. It has a deep, round sound with the ability to go into lower and higher pitches without losing its quality. There’s almost an inherent energy to the cello. Is it the nature of the cello, or the skill of the cellists, that brings such energy and liveliness to a performance? I like to think it’s a combination of both, as I’m yet to see a performance where the cellos disappoint. The skilled cellist brings out the beauty of the cello, and the beautiful cello brings out the skill of the cellist.

Apologies for the slightly flowery start, but I think I’m slightly justified in my enthusiasm after the brilliant performance on Wednesday. The NZSM Cello Ensemble hooked me into the music, and reminded me of why I adore the cello.

They opened with the Molto Allegro from Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, which is a great piece to open with. At midday on Wednesday, it’s always a good idea to start the programme with something to wake up your audience. The ensemble had beautiful phrasing, and had a great balance of all parts. From the jump, they had superb unison: even their breathing was together.

Onto Albeniz, with a Tango in D from the Espana suite. The director, Inbal, explained that this piece was originally written for the piano, so I was interested to see how it was arranged for a cello ensemble. After listening to a recording of the piano version, I can confirm it was a successful arrangement, with each part nicely balanced.

The Gimenez was lively and fun. As a wedding piece dedicated to the Spanish dancer Luis Alonso, there was a real sense of movement and dance, as well as general celebration. Again, they had fantastic unison and timing. There were moments where it felt like the pizzicato and melody were being passed from section to section, which had both a playful and lyrical nature to it.

After the Allegro and two intense dances, the change to the Sarabande from Bach was really lovely. This piece really drove home how well this ensemble does phrasing. Their handle on legato being elegant, but not blurred, was excellent, and everything just had the deep quality you expect from Bach.

The last piece of the programme was a slight break from tradition, but a welcome one. The ensemble performed ‘Smile,’ composed by Charlie Chaplin, the comic, filmmaker, actor, composer, and cellist. ‘Smile’ was composed for Chaplin’s film, ‘Modern Times,’ which was paid tribute to as clips from the film played on screens while the ensemble performed. I suppose the irony is expected from Chaplin, but the piece starts off quite somber, although beautifully somber. My one piece of criticism is that I wish the clips weren’t out of order, and instead were just in the order of the film. I suppose that would raise copyright issues, but I’m nitpicking. It was a great way to finish.

The ensemble did an amazing job, and made a wonderful break from assignments. I say this in every lunchtime review, but I truly mean it: I’m always happy to spend an hour at St Andrews, watching a performance of some great music. I get to take a break from my work, sit in the back of an old (earthquake-proofed) church, usually with a coffee from La Cloche next door, and listen to live music. I struggle to think of a better way to spend my midday on a Wednesday.

Conductor Han-Na-Chang’s NZSO debut in music by Leonie Holmes, Richard Strauss and Pyotr Tchaikovsky

Conductor Han-Na Chang scores with her NZSO debut in music by Leonie Holmes, Richard Strauss and Pyotr Tchaikovsky

LEONIE HOLMES – I watched a shadow*
RICHARD STRAUSS – Don Quixote
(with Andrew Joyce, ‘cello, and Julia Joyce, viola)
PYOTR TCHAIKOVSKY – Symphony No. 5 in E Minor Op.64

Han-Na Chang (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
(Vesa-Matti Leppanen, concertmaster)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 18th May, 2024

I’m probably risking accusations of inverted sexism in drawing special attention in this review to the gender of the conductor on the occasion of this concert! – I solemnly do promise never to underline any such point again, but, after living through the tail-end of the age which regarded the role of orchestra conductor as a male bastion, and not ever having actually used the words “end of an era” to underline what has obviously been a change of things, I feel like “coming out” and hailing as such the appearance of South Korean Han-Na Chang on the NZSO’s podium as a guest conductor as signifying, in a local context, a real milestone.

I say these things having watched a number of women over the years mount the podium to direct the orchestra – conductors from overseas such as Dalia Atlas, Jane Glover, Odaline de la Martinez, Simone Young and Suzanna Malkki, and more recently, homegrown talents such as Holly Mathieson, Tianyi Lu and Gemma New, the latter having been appointed the orchestra’s Principal Conductor in 2022.  So, if women are of late no strangers to the conductor’s role here in New Zealand with the country’s leading orchestra, what was it about Han-Na Chang’s appearance that constituted something special?

The difference for me was that, unlike with the names mentioned above, Han-Na Chang’s was one completely unknown to me, as have been the names of many of the NZSO’s guest conductors of recent times. She is a fully-qualitied representative of a wider world of music-making which we in this country can only guess at regarding its range and scope , but can experience through the tried-and-true “guest conductor” system, one in which gender seems no longer an issue!

As with any unknown podium guest, the question “What will she be like?” was on the lips of anybody “not in the know”, as the diminutive Han-Na Chang made her entry and mounted the podium. First up in the programme was a local work by the highly-respected Auckland composer Leonie Holmes, one which had received its world premiere the night before in Auckland and was now making its Wellington debut. For a guest conductor to make her NZSO debut with a premiere of a work by a local composer seemed like a boldly positive and forthright gesture, and certainly one which gave Leonie Holmes’s composition I watched a shadow plenty of added interest.

The programme note for this new work contained the words of the poem by Wellingtonian Anne Powell which inspired Holmes’s music, a meditation on the world of nature’s ebb and flow encapsulated in a single crepuscular-like event, a hill embraced by its own shadow. The sounds took the form of an orchestral rhapsody, beginning with a percussive splash and slowly building an austere soundscape, grounded in string-texturings but with waves of contrastingly-flavoured disturbances, like a kind of gradual oceanic movement enlivened by wind-and-brass irruptions.

The work’s central part animated the discourse with pizzicato strings, wind roulades and atmospheric brass touches, expressing something of the variety of nature-impulse described by the poet’s words as “the hum of the universe”, but with bell-sounds, “knell-like” warnings growing a heavy, ominous tread. Though this trenchant mood was relieved, the sounds reformed with fresh impulse, building excitingly towards a great climax with surges of percussion, leaving us wondering at the ambivalence of what we’d heard. Rather like some of Sibelius’s music, Holmes’ work here seemed relatively unpeopled, our own existence’s fate of little account to these dispassionate comings-and-goings. Whatever the case, all was rendered here as committedly by conductor and players as one might imagine posssible.

From natural attrition we proceeded to a world of fantasy, foolishness and nobility, in the form of Richard Strauss’s tone-poem Don Quixote, a musical realisation of aspects of Miguel de Cervantes’ classic 17th-century novel. Strauss cast his deluded picaresque hero, the Don, as a solo ‘cello, and his down-to-earth squire, Sancho Panza by a solo viola, the ensuing dialogues and soliloquies an absolute delight for the listener, as were the colourful orchestral depictions of some of the Don’s adventures. Strauss here flew in the critical face of those conservative commentators of the time who derided what they called “programme music” by elevating the genre at its best to heights of expression and technique surpassed by no-one before or since, with Don Quixote having long been considered the greatest of his works of this kind.

As the two main protagonists, the husband-and-wife team of cellist Andrew Joyce and violist Julia Joyce gave what I thought were vivid portrayals of their respective characters, the former capturing all the would-be knight’s delusional expressions of chivalrous glory as well as his touching final realisations of mortality, and the latter steadfastedly affirming the squire’s support for his master with wryly matter-of-fact observances. Conductor Han-Na Chung’s control of the orchestra throughout the work was masterly, the detailing richly-informed and the overall sweep of certain moments no less than breathtaking! I shall particularly cherish the image of the wind-machine player “giving his all” at the rear of the orchestra during the work’s notorious “flying horse” sequence!

And so to what seemed like the concert’s readily-publicised “raison d’etre”, the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony, a work not lacking in performance history in this part of the world, but despite such popularity, one with the kind of resilience that instantly responds to a “fresh-as-paint” approach from its interpreters. Which is just what Han-Na-Chang conveyed, right from the opening Andante’s portentous clarinet phrases and ever-resonating string accompaniments (I couldn’t see the player from where I was sitting but I presumed the clarinettist was the ever-reliable Patrick Barry!)

What I particularly enjoyed was Chang’s direct and unsentimental approach throughout the work, never pulling about or unduly elongating lines or phrase-ends in search of “expression” when the composer had already ensured sufficient feeling would be generated by playing what was marked – so there was no “swooning” in the strings when the second subject of the opening movement’s allegro arrived, and no accelerando extremities needed to get back up to speed for the movement’s basic tempo, Chang keeping the music’s blood-pulses from ever becalming and losing their trajectories.

The slow movement, one of Tchaikovsky’s greatest symphonic achievements, here also benefited from Chang’s steadiness, particularly with the pizzicato notes that followed the appearance of the motto theme mid-movement – the octave-pizzicato was “in tempo” from its first entrance, rather than being vulgarly “sped up’ and then awkwardly slowed once more, evidence of our conductor’s “tidy mind” and care for musical structure. Oh, and Sam Jacobs’ magical horn solo in this movement deservedly earned him an ovation of his own at the symphony’s end.

The ever-enchanting Waltz with its gorgeous balletic scherzando character throughout the middle section led straight into the Finale, a fulsome major-key motto-theme at the start, and properly “warning” tones from the brasses, just before the great timpani roll that ignited the strings’ allegro vivace entry. I wondered whether there was a brief rhythmic hiccup between strings , brass and timpani during the maelstrom-like passage that preceded the entry of the winds with their long-held-note melody, but perhaps I was mistaken amidst the super-saturations of sound at that point  – and in the comparable passage later in the movement, I heard no hint of misalignment! What was thrilling was the almost visceral stamping rhythm of the strings throughout these “Russian dance” episodes and the rapidity of the brasses’ stuttering notes pushing the music’s trajectories along so (literally!) breathlessly, in places! The swaggering motto-march-theme at the end seemed to gather up all that had gone before and fill the hall’s overhead spaces with exuberances, capped only by the frenetic energies of the coda, and its march-like codicil at the very end!

Very great credit to all concerned, and especially to conductor Han-Na Chang for an auspicious debut, one which was instsntly and generously acknowledged at the concert’s end by a delighted, near-capacity Michael Fowler Centre audience.