Trans-Atlantic: music theatre piece from Boutique Opera

Trans-Atlantic: music theatre piece from Boutique Opera, devised and directed by Alison Hodge and Michael Vinten
Where: Saint Andrew’s on The Terrace

Saturday 28 February

The tradition of concocting new operas or music theatre from popular bits of existing operas goes back almost to the beginnings of opera 400 years ago: the word is pastiche.

That’s what Boutique Opera, Wellington’s enterprising little company, now seven years old, has done for its 2009 production. There were three performances in Wellington, 27, 28 February and 1 March, and the following Saturday in Otaki.

Michael Vinten and Alison Hodge made a collection of mainly well-loved numbers from shows by Cole Porter, Ivor Novello, George Gershwin, Noel Coward, Richard Rodgers, nostalgic of the feckless 20s and 30s; great numbers like ‘Someone to watch over me’, ‘I can give you the starlight’, ‘It’s de-lovely’, ‘This can’t be love’, ‘Waltz of my heart’…. For me, it was the several Novello songs that struck a real nostalgic note, particularly evoked the era.

Trilbies and wide-brimmed straw hats, white-topped shoes, long white scarves announced the era clearly enough, though the atmosphere would have been helped with some more subtle and pointed lighting: a fully-lit church is hardly a suggestive setting for the era’s easy-virtue.

However, the aisles of the church were well used though the reason for certain violent chases escaped me.

I was half expecting something resembling a story, though without rewriting the words, that would have been very hard. The reality was a series of numbers that lent authenticity to the setting and generally matched the singer. Events were confined largely to hints of love affairs igniting or falling apart, as dictated by the songs.

It was of course set on board a big trans-Atlantic liner, in the days when the aim of a sea voyage was to get somewhere, albeit to have a good time on the way – the sole aim of today’s cruises. A cross-section of passengers typical of the day was on board, not all very well assorted in terms of appearance, but mostly better than adequate as singers; from aristocrats, a love-sick couple and honeymooners to an assortment of singles, including a theatrical Frenchwoman, a novelist and a matinee idol (Greg Rogan and Andrej Morgan: both good) and the Ship’s Purser (well-cast Jason Henderson): 23 in all.

The singers range from the polished to the passable, but all are directed, by Alison Hodge, with such flair that most excel themselves, both individually and in ensembles. Among the most accomplished were the Honeymooners Barbara Graham and Charles Wilson; the Widow, Nikki Hooper – her ‘They’re writing songs of love, but not for me’ was a high point; Fiona McCabe and Stuart Coats; and as a whole, the chorus was splendid.

There was an excellent, small band of Vinten leading from the piano, with striking contributions from trumpets, violin, cello, and particularly, Murray Khouri’s clarinet.

Most of the songs simply reminded me what a very rich era the 20s and 30s had been for the various genres of musical/light opera/operetta, not only with their durable music but libretti that were witty, frankly sentimental, ironic, generally literate, with a gift for sharp if not profound characterisation, qualities that seem scarce today. It was these qualities that made this show a success, making the tenuous, almost non-existent character of the narrative irrelevant.

The Tudor Consort sings songs of the sun and the moon of all ages

The Tudor Consort, directed by Michael Stewart

Adam Concert Room, Victoria University

Friday 20th February, 2009

For years performers of what we regard as “classical” music took an extremely formal and rigid attitude towards live concert presentation. Historical precedents regarding concert-giving, such as the patronage-driven pragmatic baroque example, the chaotic classical performance era and the flamboyance of the romantic age were all brought to heel during the nineteenth century by martinet-like reactionaries such as Hans von Bulow and Clara Schumann, whose loathing of any extra-musical elements in concert-giving spawned an age of ritualistic formality which reached its apogee in the mid-twentieth century.

Concerts stopped beg pragmatic, chaotic or flamboyant affairs, and developed an ethos of elitist worship of “holy art”, for which one dressed and behaved accordingly. Even today, classical musicians still mostly cling to the formal dress and “pure” music-making presentations that were entrenched for much of last century’s concert-going – rather like the old Catholic Latin Mass, one could go to a classical concert anywhere in the world and obey a pre-ordained code of dress and behaviour and feel completely at home with the proceedings.

More recently, musicians and impresarios have begun to venture away from a purist approach to classical music performance, with interesting results – one thinks of things like violinist Nigel Kennedy’s presentation of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” Op.8 concerti and various modern music-theatre treatments accorded works like the Bach Passions.

Bringing more theatrical elements such as lighting and movement into traditionally static musical presentations isn’t as new as one might think – after all, Haydn did it back in the eighteenth century with his “Farewell” Symphony – but such innovations are more associated with “new” or contemporary music performance. So, it was refreshing and stimulating to encounter the Tudor Consort’s creative evocations of sun and moon, day and night, through imaginative lighting and effective movement, for their Songs of the Sun and Moon presentation at the Adam Concert Room at Victoria University.

Another element infrequently associated with concert presentation, though again, by no means unknown, is the spoken word. For this concert, it was an interesting and effective idea to intersperse readings, properly and winningly delivered by various Consort members, of a variety of poems among the musical items similarly celebrating the juxtaposition of sun and moon, and day and night. It seemed to me that the solo speaking voices were successfully able to create alternative kinds of musical inflections which contrasted pleasingly with the sung items.

The concert began dramatically, with the Consort members entering carrying lighted taper-like torches, suggesting a monastic-like atmosphere in which to perform the opening item, an Introit Illuxerunt, which featured deliciously sinuous lines of sound, seemingly floating towards us across the ages in the semi-darkness. Illumination was then forthcoming with Longfellow’s poem Sunrise on the Hills which preceded a beautiful Easter hymn by Orlando de Lassus, The dawn’s light reddens, one whose antiphonal effects played with a kind of “concerto grosso” for voices mode, setting solos, and smaller groups against the full choir. Set guilelessly against such antiphonal skill was Katherine Mansfield’s charmingly direct child’s poem about the sun, accompanied by ambient lighting reflecting the shifts of perspective suggested by words and music.

William Walton’s setting of St. Francis of Assisi’s Cantico del sole began with the utmost tenderness, gradually radiating gentle warmth, before irrupting jazzily, lines thrusting jaggedly upwards, then grasped by the composer into tightly-worked handfuls of harmonies that never lost their grip throughout. The voices attacked the upward thrustings fearlessly, while keeping their timbral poise and harmonic direction admirably.

Walton’s visceral physicality contrasted tellingly with the other-worldliness of fellow-Englishman Thomas Tallis, whose shortish, but evocative O nata lux de lumine almost immediately had its listeners in thrall in this performance, despite a slightly uncomfortably-tuned harmonic moment towards the end.

Further contrast was in store with David Hamilton’s Lux aeterna, music with Ligeti-like lines spaced-out across vistas, tones melting into glissandi, and clustering together for warmth and companionship, creating some exquisite colour-changes. After such kaleidoscopic riches, the Gregorian Chant “Alleluia – Candor est lucis aeternae” was like a plunge into cool water, with the long, sinuous lines like subterranean undercurrents, timelessly undulating, and with a quality that seemed at once both to beseech and command. The Goethe poem which followed returned us to a world of sentiment and bourgeoise romance!

After an “Evening Song” by Rheinberger, richly and sonorously delivered, the choir turned its attention to Holst’s richly-conceived “The Evening Watch”, a work couched in appropriately mystical tones and harmonies, characterizing the poet Henry Vaughan’s dialogue between the body and the soul. Beginning with a tenor solo, the piece explores in places a world so still and transparent of texture that one catches one’s breath in order to listen, before the musical denouement swells like a sunrise towards the end. It was all nicely managed by the Consort, if a little “reined in”, lacking for me that last ounce of fervour and abandonment which would have overtaken our sensibilities as listeners completely. But the delightfully wry Ben Jonson poem that followed made for a more coherent flow as a result of this circumspection, difficult though it was for some of us to get Britten’s famous setting of the verses our of our heads when listening to the speaker.

The two settings which concluded the presentation seemed to draw whole worlds of time and space together, the Tallis Hymn To Thee Before the Close of Day ageless and immediate at one and the same time in its appeal, while the Ligeti setting of verses characterising Night and Morning exploring both the psychological “interior” of night as a human metaphor, and the tumbling externals of daybreak, complete with raucous cock-crowings and awakening bells – a brilliant and radiant way to conclude a concert..

Overall, the presentation was a great success for the Tudor Consort and Michael Stewart, considering the challenges set by the programme, plus the extra distractions afforded by the introduction of diverse elements. If very occasionally a tone sounded a shade raw, or a harmony wasn’t honed to quite the level of the Consort’s usually impeccable standards, it didn’t impair our appreciation of that sense of interaction the musicians sought to convey between natural cycles of things and the music that sprang from their inspiration.

Soprano recital with baroque oboe: Rowena Simpson and Samantha Owens

Works by LEGNANI, D.SCARLATTI, HANDEL (arr. Babell) and KUSSER

Rowena Simpson (soprano), Samantha Owens (baroque oboe), Emma Goodbehere (‘cello), Douglas Mews (Harpsichord)

St. Andrew’s on the Terrace

Wednesday 18th February

A most engaging programme, this, mellifluous and varied, and expertly performed by soprano Rowena Simpson, with her instrumental partner, baroque oboist Samantha Owens, and their sterling continuo duo cohorts, Emma Goodbehere (‘cello) and Douglas Mews (harpsichord). I had not previously heard a note of music written by either Angelo Domenico Legnani (1663-1700), or Johann Sigismund Kusser (1660-1727) – or “Cousser” as he was known in France., so the concert was an education for me as well as a delight. Legnani’s Cantata “Chi sa dove e la speranza” is a setting of a highly over-wrought text concerned with love, despair and grief, which the music and the performance illuminated with spirit and skill.

Rowena Simpson’s light but agile soprano gained in strength and confidence as episode followed episode, with florid runs capped by pinging top notes, and with Samantha Owens’ beguilingly-voiced oboe complementing the singer with both shared and contrapuntal lines. Not every turn of phrase was wholly accurate in pitch but the spirit of the music was wonderfully stirred and shaken throughout., the continuo of Emma Goodbehere’s ‘cello and Douglas Mews’ keyboard providing admirable support.

Douglas Mews then gave us the well-known “Cat’s Fugue” by Domenico Scarlatti, giving us a short illustrated explanation of the title before playing the work proper, which both entertained and enlightened his audience. This was a cat whose keyboard figurations gave a sense of the animal hardly being able to believe its own ears at the sounds, whose stepwise progressions then developed into wonderfully labyrinthine complexities before finding their way through to the end once again – a nice performance.

William Babell’s “arrangements” of opera arias and overtures were represented by a transcription of an aria from Handel’s Rinaldo – uncommonly civilised keyboard sounds, working up a bit of energetic contrast in a middle section, but ultimately confirming Charles Burney’s verdict that Babell’s arrangements “astonished ignorance…at small expense” – still, Douglas Mews enjoyed himself thoroughly and delighted us accordingly.

My education was advanced further by hearing Johann Sisimund Kusser’s music, a selection of arias from an opera Ariadne, dealing with the well-known story of the daughter of King Minos of Crete and her lover Theseus, the Athenian prince who overcame the monstrous Minotaur in the labyrinth. The music’s considerable demands enabled Rowena Simpson to demonstrate her skills as a singer developed during nine years of study and performance based in The Hague Royal Conservatoire, and various engagements throughout Europe.

Kusser’s vocal writing demands considerable flexibility and agility, with frequent treacherous leaps and large reserves of breath, and both singer and oboist were up to negotiating nearly all the music’s requirements without mishap, even if some of the awkward intervals proved difficult to properly “pitch”. Emma Goodbehere played a ‘cello transcription of one of the arias with Samantha Owens, ‘cello and oboe dancing nicely together, fleet-of foot and bright-eyed.

A smallish audience was captivated by the music and its performance, and saluted the performers at the concert’s conclusion with great enthusiasm – a promising beginning to what appears to be a year’s thoroughly worthwhile music-making at St. Andrew’s.

Adam Chamber Music Festival at Nelson

Adam Chamber Music Festival (A selection of events from the Festival)

Nelson, Marborough, Motueka, Golden Bay  

23 January to 7 February 2009

Cynics often remark, a propos of the hoo-hah surrounding ‘world premieres’, that second performances, like second editions of novels, are much rarer than first ones. So the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson has already entered the sphere of the remarkable by reaching its tenth.

It began in 1992, the brainchild of New Zealand String Quartet second violin Doug Beilman and NZSO violinist, the late Stephen Managh, and cellist James Tennant. The ambition then was for annual festivals but after the second festival, in 1993, it has prospered as a biennial event with the continued huge support from the Adam Foundation.

The artistic management has now moved to two of Beilman’s colleagues, Helene Pohl and Gillian Ansell. In the past there have been some famous and exciting ensembles and soloists from around the world: few more so than the Prazak Quartet, one of the world’s greatest string quartets; it also remains an important date in the diaries of many leading New Zealand, Australian, American and other musicians.

The festival’s administration, at first in the hands of Cindy Flook with logistic support from her husband, landscape architect Ron, has been assumed this year by Wellington music administrator Roger Lloyd. It is also necessary to acknowledge the many years of dedicated guidance by chair of the Festival’s Trust, Colleen Marshall.


Mendelssohn and More II

Beethoven and Mendelssohn Quartets: respectively Op 132 and Op 13, in A minor

New Zealand String Quartet, Prazhak Quartet

St John’s Methodist Church, Monday 2 February

The 1pm concert at St John’s on Monday featured both quartets in a special programme offering an example of Mendelssohn’s devotion to his predecessors. Having heard the first quartet, Op 12, on the Sunday, a work in which Beethoven’s influence is clear enough, this concert was specifically devoted to playing Beethoven’s Quartet in A minor, Op 132 on which Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No 2, Op 13 was modelled.

Gillian Ansell spoke about the thematic and spiritual relationship between the two works and the New Zealand String Quartet began with the Mendelssohn. It couldn’t have been written by Beethoven even though only a year or so younger than Beethoven’s, in 1827, the year of Beethoven’s death. But it was by an 18-year-old, a composer 40 years younger, and its spirit was of a later era. In place of the great slow movement in Beethoven’s quartet, Mendelssohn’s Adagio has a somewhat sentimental feel, even though there is weight and it is meditative in a way that few young men of his age would manage. In the NZSQ’s hands it was affecting nevertheless. It’s as if the young composer whose compositional skills were already astonishingly mature, knew what it should be like but lacked the years of disillusion and frustration, and spiritual ecstasy, that fed Beethoven’s late works.

Given all that, this was a very significant performance by the New Zealand String Quartet, the fruit of some years devoted to study of Mendelssohn’s chamber music. It was generous to give the Beethoven to the Prazak Quartet, for it gave the audience the chance to hear them in one of the great masterpieces, in a performance that was a study in Beethoven’s expression of unimaginable emotion: the wit, flippancy, torment, spiritual power equalled by hardly any other composer before or since.

Mendelssohn hardly scratched the surface of all that, and the Prazak Quartet had the key to it. It was yet another Nelson concert that ended with the audience, emerging into the midday sun, bemused and many without words.


There was a concert at Motueka on Monday afternoon, 2 February, by American guitarist, David Tanenbaum. It was the most disappointing concert of my festival and I concluded that he was having a bad day.

I left Nelson on the Tuesday of the second week; the festival continued till Saturday, 7 February, with several great concerts to come: Mendelssohn’s Octet and his Quartet Op 18; another Piers Lane concert, repeating in part his Blenheim one; the Prazak in Blenheim repeating the Dvorak Quintet plus Haydn’s Emperor Quartet; the Prazak Quartet and others in Beethoven’s Archduke Trio, and York Bowen, Schubert, Webern; a New Zealand programme with Farr, Whitehead, Rimmer and Ian Whalley featuring Richard Nunns on taonga puoro; Schubert’s String Quintet in C and a grand finale including Tchaikovsky, Kenneth Young, Haydn and Bartok.

Adam Chamber Music Festival, Nelson

Mendelssohn and More I: Music by Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, and Schumann

Prazhak Quartet, Piers Lane (piano), Rolf Gjelsten (cello), Jenny Wollerman (soprano)

Nelson School of Music, Sunday 1 February

The first phase of the mini-Mendelssohn festival featured the Prazak Quartet, Piers Lane and other musicians. Cellist Rolf Gjelsten was the first of the others, playing Mendelssohn’s Cello Sonata, Op 38, with Piers Lane; it’s a wonderful, ripe, joyous work of fearful difficulty. Mendelssohn is in his characteristic scherzo vein right from start; the score, filled with melody, drives both players through high-speed, finger-breaking gymnastics. The quintessential Romantic, even with its Bachian echoes, appears in the Adagio where the players met the sonata’s demands, not exactly with ease, but leaving both audience and themselves breathless.

Piers then played four Songs Without Words, perhaps to recover his composure, with sparkle and affection. The concert was as much about Mendelssohn’s musical milieu as about him, and we next heard Jenny Wollerman singing three songs each by Felix and his sister Fanny. Her songs were charming enough, as sung with simple clarity by Wollerman, but they lacked the assurance and polished melodic and expressive genius of her brother.

They included Frage, Die Liebende schreibt and ended with the very fine Sukeika, the ecstatic quality of which Wollerman expressed with conviction. The String Quartet, Op 12, was played by the Prazak Quartet. It’s the mark of the most gifted players that they can infuse a work that is not in the ‘great’ class with a depth of feeling and sense of the inevitable that seems to raise it almost to the level of Mozart and Beethoven whose influence in this work is overt. That they did from its very opening phrases: glorious ensemble, each instrument lending its own colour and exact weight to the balance of the whole.

Schumann’s most inspired chamber work, the Piano Quintet, Op 44, had its connection with Mendelssohn through his playing the piano part at its premiere, when Clara, who would have played it, was pregnant. This too was performed by the Prazak Quartet with Piers Lane and, to my prejudiced ears, demonstrated Schumann’s superior creative gifts, through the strength and individuality of melody, driven by a rare musical impulse that was also guided by sure feeling for shape and all the elements that hold an extended structure together.

This performance left me with the confirmation that its finale is simply one of the most thrilling things in the chamber music repertoire.