Wanganui Spring Music Festival September 2008

Wanganui Spring Music Festival
Five concerts by Jenny Wollerman (soprano) Murray Khouri (clarinet) Simone Roggen (violin) Edith Salzmann (cello) Petya Mihlova and Phillip Shovk (piano)
Royal Wanganui Opera House, Wanganui
12th-14th September 2008

This review may be belated but because a rather important initiative was largely ignored by the main media – my own paper, for instance, declined to print this review – here are my impressions of the inaugural Wanganui Spring Music Festival in September. It took place in one of New Zealand’s most charming old opera houses, a wooden building dating from 1899. Though its interior has been somewhat modified in an art deco style, the exterior and the lobbies are original; a recent refurbishment has reduced the seating capacity from around 1000 to some 850, an ideal size for opera as well as for more intimate music. Music festivals are a growth industry in the northern hemisphere where musicians of all kinds have found a fruitful way of occupying the summer months (and sometimes other times of the year) and tens of thousands head to picturesque towns that have found a pretext for a festival in order to overcome the lack of good live music during the dry season.

Festivals have started to flourish in Australia, but New Zealanders have been slow to catch on. Nelson, with its wonderful Adam Chamber Music Festival, has been New Zealand’ top classical music festival town since 1992. Next to Nelson as a festival candidate is Wanganui, with its history; its river, a good museum, and one of the country’ best art galleries: it was spared the worst impacts of 1980s growth with many century-old buildings remaining (though too many are still being lost); and of course there’s the 1899 opera theatre.

Wellington clarinetist Murray Khouri has been running a small, successful chamber music festival in Bowra, a small town south west of Sydney, with a population of alternative life-stylers, artists and affluent refugees from the big city. A year or so ago Murray decided to try a similar festival in a comparable New Zealand town. Wanganui seemed to have the necessary attributes, not too close to or too far from a couple of major cities. It’s the sort of town that, in the northern hemisphere at least, appeals to festival crowds. Though this first one failed to attract the crowds it deserved, particularly from the city itself, perseverance should pay off.

The festival ended with a famous piece of 20th century chamber music that exploited both the music’s character and its performance setting: Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time was a coup-de-theatre. A quartet for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, it has eight unique movements; at the end of the second, the lights went out and a half minute later a single spot fell on clarinettist Murray Khouri (doubling as festival artistic director), as he played the bird-song-inspired contemplation of sorrow and light. The performance was enhanced by other lighting and scenic elements. It brought the curtain down on the festival . There were five concerts over the weekend, the first of which was entitled Music in Miniature, offering an introduction to all the players through a series of small, attractive, sometime unfamiliar pieces such as Milhaud’s Jeux and Pierné’s Canzonetta. The players were three New Zealanders, an Australian, a Bulgarian and a German resident in New Zealand; Every concert held something special. There was a lot of Mozart, including two piano trios (K 502 and K 548); also Brahms’ second piano trio, with violinist Simone Roggen and cellist Edith Salzmann.

Two concerts were devoted to solo performers. Wellington soprano Jenny Wollerman is too little heard in her home town – many of the songs that she sang, by Mozart and Schubert, were familiar but the experience of hearing them sung with such intelligence and charm, and so delicately accompanied by young Bulgarian Petya Mihneva was like hearing them for the first time. As well as sharing the playing of several of the chamber pieces with rare subtlety, Australian pianist Phillip Shovk gave an entrancing recital: of what is probably Mozart’ best-loved sonata – in A, K 331 and the four Impromptus, Op 90, by Schubert, all overflowing with melody and spiritual profundity. If that were not enough, ten of Rachmaninov’ preludes from both Opp. 23 and 32 filled the second half. Though this first festival could have been better supported, it will surprise me if Wanganui’s attractions and the chance to hear top rate musicians in great and beautiful music does not bring much bigger audiences in future. Make a diary note for next year’ festival! (LT)

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