St. Andrews Shines and Celebrates

St. Andrews Shines and Celebrates….
Piano and Strings Benefit Concert for the Saving St.Andrews Restoration Project
Michael Houstoun and Diedre Irons (piano, four hands)
MENDELSSOHN – Andante and Variations Op.83a
RAVEL – Rapsodie Espagnole
Amazon Trio (Peter Barber, viola, Robert Ibell, ‘cello, Victoria Jones, double-bass)
MICHAEL HAYDN – Divertimento in E-flat
ROSS HARRIS – Klezmer Trio
St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace, Wellington, Friday 14th November 2008

The church of St Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace is a significant focal point for music performance in Wellington, hosting regular lunchtime concerts since the 1980s and providing an attractive and sonorous venue for many afternoon and evening concerts presented by recitalists and ensembles of all kinds. Major refurbishment has been recently completed involving the church’s interior and exterior, improving both heating and seating arrangements, restoring both interior and exterior plasterwork, as well as roof replacement and earthquake strengthening. This concert celebrated the completion of Stage One of the entire restoration project, which will now move towards refurbishing the church’s adjoining facilities, such as the hall, Green Room, meeting rooms and offices, allowing the church to function fully as a viable community centre for arts performance and expression of spirituality.

For the evening’s concert, the musicians involved generously donated their services, in recognition of the contribution that St Andrews has made over the years to music in the capital. To have two of the country’s leading pianists performing under those circumstances, along with an ensemble featuring three star string players from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra was “luxury casting” indeed, and reflected something of the esteem in which Wellington’s musicians hold the church as a performing arts venue. Michael Houstoun and Diedre Irons have a long- standing musical partnership in the four-hands and two-piano-repertoire; and their playing of both the Mendelssohn and Ravel works reflected that sense of a “layered rapport” which enable things to happen between performers on all kinds of levels. Both works were strongly structured and carefully shaped, with a wealth of meticulous detail beautifully dovetailed together, a particularly noticeable feature of the Ravel work, with its myriad flecks of light and colour delighting the listener’s sense of atmosphere. But treasurable were those moments when one sensed the music taking over the performers and infusing the playing with the glow of spontaneous interactive chemistry. The Mendelssohn work seemed especially volatile in this respect, the contrasting characters of the variations requiring both control and energy, Irons and Houstoun responding to the work’s challenges with plenty of both careful structuring and recreative interplay that ignited the music’s parameters in a wholly satisfying way.

If the Amazon Trio’s second-half programme didn’t quite produce the same combustible results, it was partly because of the repertoire – the opening work, a Divertimento by Michael Haydn, may have been fun for the musicians to play, but the result was too consistently sombre, even a bit dreary, with three lower string instruments engaged in rather too much “underground mining” for the spirits to be sufficiently lifted. One longed for a lighter voice in the textures such as that of a violin’s, even if Peter Barber’s viola did occasionally flash upwards from the gloom. Things lightened as the work progressed towards the finale’s lively romp, via the “dancing elephants” mode of the minuet, but the overall impression remained of something earthbound and intractable.

Matters improved remarkably with Ross Harris’s “Klezmer” Trio, a work in which these darker-voiced instruments seemed more at one with the sinuous rhythms and bitter-sweet melodies one associates with this kind of music. The players encompassed with ease and fluidity the music’s variety of styles and techniques – by turns the instruments spoke with concert, church, ethnic and cultural accents and resonances, enabling the different episodes to distinctively make their point. The work’s last few pages clinched one’s enjoyment of the whole, as the trio excitingly drew these disparate elements together in a kind of stretto, whose throwaway ending stimulated an enthusiastic audience response. The group’s selection of “Short Pieces by J.S.Bach and Tchaikovsky” included an arrangement of the B Minor Prelude from “The Well-Tempered Clavier” which sounded thoroughly idiomatic, the players catching the music’s mesmeric rise and fall with telling effect. A “Song Without Words” by Tchaikovsky” allowed Peter Barber’s solo viola playing to shine once again; while an arrangement of Verdi’s music for the overture “La Forza del Destino” ended the concert on a sweet-toned, lyrical note. Overall, a heartfelt and sonorous tribute from all concerned to one of the capital’s major music venues. Long may it continue as such to give joy and delight. (PM)

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