Mulled Wine at Paekakariki: singing with cello and piano

Handel arias: ‘Cara speme’ (Giulio Cesare), ‘Credete al mio dolore’ (Alcina); Schubert: ‘Du bist die Ruh’, Suleika and Suleika’s 2nd Song;

Dorothy Buchanan: The Man who sold goldfinches (to words by Jeremy Commons);

Fauré: ‘Après un rêve’ for cello and piano, songs ‘Clair de lune, Nell’, ‘C’est l’extase’. ‘Notre amour’; Duparc: ‘Chanson triste’, ‘Extase’, L’invitation au voyage; Poulenc: ‘C’, ‘Fêtes galantes’.

Rhona Fraser (soprano), Richard Mapp (piano), Paul Mitchell (cello)

Paekakariki Memorial Hall; Sunday 29 March 2009

Once a railway township and down-market beach settlement, Paekakariki has become an artists’ haven in recent decades, with good reason, for it has most of the virtues sought by those for whom material goodies are not a priority. The sea, wide coastal open spaces, mountains to the east, the home of a railway preservation society and a nearby tramway museum, both with functioning trains and trams together with a bravely preserved and restored railway station, perhaps the last survivor of the grand refreshment stations from the tragically devastated passenger network that we now need more than ever; and of course, the presence in the village of others of like minds and values.

Let’s focus on the music.

At the concert’s heart was a newly written collaboration between opera historian and occasional impresario and librettist Jeremy Commons and composer Dorothy Buchanan. They have worked together before, notably in another Mansfield opera, an opera trilogy based on three of her stories. This time Commons combed the Wellington stories for words, impressions, events and the very words of the stories and on which she may have reflected in her last days in the institute run by the probable charlatan (though her biographer Anthony Alpers thought not) Gurdjieff, near Fontainebleau.

The result was a sort of prose poem, The Man who Sold Goldfinches, that Buchanan set to music that I felt rather failed to ignite, to achieve memorableness: perhaps the emphasis on the obvious phrase about the goldfinches rather revealed a struggle to find musical inspiration.

Yet the setting had its integrity, accompanied sensitively, appropriately, by Paul Mitchell’s cello (Katherine herself played the cello), and it was that, as much as the perceptive singing of Rhona Fraser that sustained interest through the performance.

The rest of the concert was a happy opportunity to hear an under-exposed singer whose career has included singing with English National Opera and elsewhere in Europe. Since returning to New Zealand I’ve heard her, notably, as Galatea in New Zealand Opera’s production of Handel’s masque Acis and Galatea a few years ago. 

It indeed included a couple of dramatically sung Handel arias: ‘Cara speme’ from Giulio Cesare and ‘Credete al mio dolore’ from Alcina, drawing some too strident high notes not well treated in the hard acoustic of the hall. The other songs – Schubert, Fauré, Duparc, Poulenc – were beautifully sung, with considerable dynamic variety and tonal colour, none more brilliant than Poulenc’s Fêtes galantes. Her encore, the lovely ‘O mio babbino caro’ from Gianni Schicchi, simply posed the question why she is not in high demand by our opera companies.




Saint John Passion from the Orpheus Choir


J. S. Bach – Saint John Passion

The Orpheus Choir, the Choir of the Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul, Vector Wellington Orchestra, Douglas Mews (organ), Michael Fulcher (conductor)

Nicola Edgecombe (soprano), Ellen Barrett (alto), Gregory Massingham (tenor) – Evangelist, Hadleigh Adams (bass) – Pilate, Daniel O’Connor (baritone) – Jesus

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Sunday 29th March

The Wellington Cathedral of St Paul is, by capital city standards, an imposing structure from the outside and an awe-inspiring space from within. Often its voluminous spaces are used for music performances, of which I’ve seen and heard a number in recent times, nearly all splendidly uplifting affairs. My listening experiences in the building tended to confirm what one would think of the cathedral’s acoustic by viewing these vast spaces – it’s an area which adds considerable bloom and resonance to whatever sounds singers or players make, which means that for some music it enhances the listening experience immeasurably.

For a lot of music composed for performance in ecclesiastical spaces that agglomerated tonal effect is built into the writing, so that any resonance or even echo gives added value to what the performers are producing. A crucial factor for the listener at a concert in such a space is his or her proximity to the performers, which has a marked effect on what that listener hears – if reasonably close to the performer or performers the listener is able to hear a good deal of sound directly from its source, however much the acoustic might then add to the sound in the way of resonance and colour

When preparing to go with a friend to hear the Orpheus Choir’s performance of Bach’s St.John Passion with the Vector Wellington Orchestra, late on the afternoon of March 29th of this year, I failed to take into account the choir’s following among concertgoers and the interest generated in Bach’s great choral masterpieces by a number of splendid performances of them over recent years here in Wellington. Consequently, when we arrived at the Cathedral we were greeted by vast queues of people on the steps in front of the church; and when we were able to get into the building there were a few seats left in the very back row, which we were grateful to get. The Orpheus Choir organisers must have been gratified by such a splendid turnout, because every available seat seemed to be filled, and the church was bristling with the most pleasant sort of expectation (fuelled by the delay in starting while seats were found for everybody).

People reading this review might well be asking themselves what all of this has got to do with a performance of the St John Passion, one of three Passions written by Bach, and of the three the most dramatic, theatrical and involving in an overtly emotional way. That, too, has a bearing on the review below, the reason being that, from where I was sitting I found different parts of the work affected in different ways by the acoustic of the building and the vast distance between myself and the singers and instrumentalists.

The dramatic nature of the work meant that some of the music was quick-moving in rhythm and theatrical in expression, and it was in those parts of the score that I found the most difficulty in closely following what was going on. The more reflective episodes, such as the choruses and chorales and some of the recitatives I could follow. But when things got “lively” the acoustic joined in and made it all twice as lively. There were no seats to be had closer to the front, so I had no choice but to stay where I was and make sense of what I could from my own perspective.

From what I could make out, the choirs (the Cathedral Choir and the Orpheus Choir) along with the Wellington Orchestra seemed to be revelling in Michael Fulcher’s forthright direction. At the very opening the wind lines sang upwards and outwards, while the strings, with tones far less penetrating, took on a kind of feathery ambience up high and a throbbing engine-room-like insistence down below. The choral entries were stunning on single notes, the cries of “Herr!” in that opening chorus resounding through the building, though the succeeding vocal polyphony then proceeded to envelop itself in a cornucopia of tones, from which a line would occasionally extrude before being overtaken by its own resonance and brought back into the latticework again. It was obviously going to be a performance that would give us ‘back-seat’ listeners plenty of atmosphere, sweep and colour, rather than a lot of fine detail.

The two choirs divided the work, the Cathedral choristers sometimes taking the chorales alone and sharing others, while the Orpheus Choir took the choruses and the crowd participations in the story. In the slower chorales the effect of the Cathedral’s spaces on the beautiful singing was near-celestial, the Chorale immediately beginning the Second Part Christus, der uns selig macht (Christ who brings us joy) being particularly lovely. And, despite the acoustic, the bite of the dramatic exchanges between the crowd and Pilate still came across – the Orpheus’s attack with Wir haben keine König denn den Kaiser (We have no King but Caesar) was scalp-prickling, following on from the contrast of the Chorale Durch deine Gefängnis, Gottes Sohn(Your imprisonment, Son of God) with the savagery of Lässest du diesen los (If you let this man go). No wonder Bach was criticised by some of his contemporaries for presenting “opera in church”!

Among the soloists, soprano Nicola Edgecombe made a consistently attractive and positive impression, bringing to her first aria Ich folge dir (I follow you) a bright, eager, winning quality, and a nice sense of working with the wind accompaniments, surviving Bach’s brutal chromatic ascents with sufficient poise to emerge with credit. Her aria in Part Two Zerfliesse, mein Herze (Dissolve, my heart) with a moving Dein Jesus ist tot! (Your Jesus is dead) complete with trill, similarly impressed with lovely sustained notes and elegantly negotiated turns throughout. Alto Ellen Barrett exhibited an attractive tone quality and flowing aspect to her passagework, in her opening Von den Stricken meiner Sünden (From the bonds of my sin) though her note-pitching faltered in a couple of places. And although she didn’t have quite the vocal heft to make Der Held aus Juda (The Hero from Judah) truly triumphant in her second aria, the first part Es est vollbrach! (It is accomplished!) caught the lament-aspect nicely with focused, heartfelt tones.

Both Daniel O’Connor as Jesus and Hadleigh Adams as Pilate delivered their recitatives with sonorous voices and dramatic power, their confrontation during Part Two generating plenty of tension and interest, as did their interaction with the chorus/crowd baying for Jesus’ blood. Hadleigh Adams created a touching tenderness in each of his arias, the first following Jesus’ flogging Betrachte, meine Seel (Think, my soul) and the second Mein teurer Heiland (My dearest Saviour) immediately after his death, intertwining his vocal lines with those of the choir singing the chorale Jesu, der warest tot (Jesus, you were dead) and, despite some occasional strain on his high notes, producing an effect indescribably moving.

Evangelist Gregory Massingham showed his obvious experience in singing the role, creating a great sense of story, and keeping the dramatic momentum moving at all times, though he displayed moments of somewhat distressing vocal fallibility in places, his tone and sense of pitch often faltering when the lines took his voice anywhere above the stave. As if singing the part of the Evangelist wasn’t taxing enough he unwisely took on the tenor arias as well, which were simply too much for his vocal resources on the day. Had somebody else been engaged to do these, he might have coped better with the Evangelist’s music at stressful points, though his delineation of both Peter’s crying bitterly and Jesus’ flogging were both distressingly approximate realisations. A great pity, because much of his Evangelist’s work was more than perfectly decent – and to his credit he kept on, even when things seemed about to fall apart in the tenor arias, which were the performance’s least comfortable moments.

Whatever conductor Michael Fulcher might have felt about his tenor soloist’s vocal troubles he kept both orchestra and choruses focused on the task throughout, getting singing and playing from his massed forces that carried the day, the final choruses appropriately having the last say, with a beautifully rapt Ruht wohl (Rest well) and a majestic, sonorous and valedictory Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein (Oh Lord, send me your angels), sending us away from that massive church with the sounds of eternity ringing in our ears.

The Festival Singers in Bach and Rossini

J S Bach: Cantata No 174 and excerpts from the Saint John Passion; Rossini: Stabat Mater

Soloists: Frances Moore, Rosel Labone, Edmund Hintz and Orene Tiai; orchestra conducted by Michael Vinten

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Hill Street

Saturday, 28 March 2009

The Festival Singers are a choir with a policy of ‘seeking work alongside the Christian church’, to quote their own words. Not all their programmes comprise religious or liturgical music, but this one did and it was a nice balance between the Catholic and the Protestant.

It was a major concert, employing a large pick-up orchestra (26 were listed), a good many players from the Wellington Chamber Orchestra, all under the capable direction of Michael Vinten.

The concert opened with Cantata No 174, ‘Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte’, written in 1726 for the second day of Whitsun, the 6th of June; its Sinfonia is an expansion of the first movement of the Brandenburg Concert No 3, which is scored for three each of violins, violas an cellos (the programme note, translated from the German, comments on the string scoring for the cantata, as if not aware that it is the same as for the concerto); here woodwinds and brass were added and they produced a grand sound with lively tempi, except for a good many signs of under-rehearsal.

The first aria is for alto in which Rosel Labone did not quite match in volume the orchestra and the nice pair of oboes. After a short recitative for tenor, Edmund Hintz, bass Orene Tiai, his voice attractive and gaining polish, sang ‘Greifet zu’, a more elaborate aria, that he managed very well. But here, the chorus sounded rather top-heavy, lacking weight in the men’s voices.

Frances Moore followed with the aria ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls…’ from Part I of the St John Passion, her voice characterful and projecting well. The aria, ‘Ach, mein Sinn’ was sung by Hintz, whose somewhat neutral-sounding tenor voice was probably better adapted to this than to the Vixen in which he sang on the previous night. Finally, the last, great chorus, ‘Ruht wohl, ihr heiliger Gebeine’, offered a moving finish to the Bach section.

As the choir set out in the Stabat Mater with fine confidence, it struck me that they were much more at home with the Catholic liturgy, particularly as presented by the epicurean Rossini, than with the Lutheran Bach. Here, the orchestra sounded well rehearsed and disciplined: the choir well balanced, the ensemble deliberately paced, portentous, with strong timpani, and there was a fine operatic quality, emphatically so with the famous tenor aria from Hintz, ‘Cuius animam’, where the orchestra actually sounded splendid.

The soprano/alto duet that followed vindicated Rosel Labone’s vocal talent, as did her later Cavatina, ‘Fac ut portem Christi mortem’. When it came to the bass part, Tiai’s lowest notes lost quality in his aria and again in the following recitative and chorus.

The quartet, ‘Sancta mater’ proved a startling virtuoso piece, agile rhythms, almost a Rossini patter ensemble in which the words struggled to match the pace of the music.

The final chorus, featuring a very decent fugue and fine bassoon obbligato, maintained the level of energy, ensemble and balanced choral sound that had driven it throughout.

NIMBY Opera triumph in Janáček opera

The Cunning Little Vixen by Janáček: NIMBY Opera

Musical Director :Justus Rozemond; Director : Jacqueline Coats;  Kate Lineham, Matthew Landreth, Edmund Hintz, Daniel O’Connor, Barbara Paterson, Stuart Coats,
Chorus/Dancers: Barbara Graham, Felicity Smity, Megan Corby, Frances Moore, Rachel Day, Natalie Hona. Instrumentalists: Claire McFarlane, Margaret Guldborg, Tui Clark, Dillon Mayhew, Catherine Norton

Salvation Army Citadel, Vivian St., Wellington

Friday 27 March  2009

This was my first experience of NIMBY Opera, so I didn’t really know what to expect regarding the company’s capabilities. I’d read about their previous productions – Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, and Lyell Cresswell’s Good Angel, Bad Angel, both of which had garnered some excellent reviews. Nevertheless, considering the size of the venue for Vixen it seemed as though a compromised operatic experience would be the order of the day, however skillfully presented and performed – no full orchestra, for one, no operatic stage, curtain or proscenium arch, in fact almost none of the things that one associates with ‘opera performance’ atmosphere, or at least with things on the normal scale of opera performance.

In the event, nearly all of these potential shortcomings were transformed into virtues, with their own valid operatic/theatrical qualities. It’s true that a stage, a curtain, and a dividing orchestra pit can help create a magical, far-away-land ‘happening-in-a-dream’ ambience if the performances are sufficiently involving – but one can also feel ‘distanced’ by those physical spaces, far removed from the characters and their world, the audience on the outside looking in, as it were. Here, there was no need to look in, because it was happening all around and close at hand. The dimensions of the Salvation Army Citadel auditorium gave the production an intimacy that couldn’t have been easily reproduced in a normal opera house. And of course the opera eminently suited this close-at-hand, intimate setting, with the use of English words enhancing our enjoyment (most of the time!).

In short, here was an operatic experience that I, for one, enjoyed to the full away from many of the normal operatic structures and conventions. I think it was partly this sense of performers ‘stepping out’ from conventional presentation scenarios which helped give the production some of its power and engagement.

I thought I would lament the substitution of a full band with a small ensemble, because Janáček writes so vividly and pungently for orchestra, vesting each scene with very specific ambiences and textures with the help of his orchestration. It’s a tribute to the skill of the music director, Justus Rozemond, that, once the first pricklings of getting used to a smaller scale of sound were over, I hardly missed the full orchestra – obviously something to do with the sounds matching the intimacy of the theatrical situation, but also suggesting that the arrangement managed to convey Janáček’s thematic and rhythmic essences, and sufficient colour to suggest the worlds of imagination the composer wanted us to enter. Again, there was a sense of something happening so closely at hand that one felt physically caught up with it – not exactly Wagner’s concept of the ‘womb of Gaia’, but something quite different, elemental in a completely different way.

The story of the opera is on an intimate rather than a grand scale – a mischievous young fox is kidnapped from her forest home as a cub and taken to the world of the humans. Vixen Sharp-ears, however, is not a fox to be trifled with – she escapes, and proceeds to turn both the local Forester’s life, and the rest of the woods upside-down. It’s a story with a lot of humour, a lot of action, and with some twists, some of which Janáček himself incorporated into the original source-story. This was from a novel by Rudolf Těsnohlídek that was serialized in a Brno daily newspaper, and was brought to Janáček’s attention, as legend would have it, by his housekeeper, whom he caught reading the paper and laughing to herself at the vixen’s adventures.

Janáček made several changes, the most radical of which was introducing into the story the death of the vixen, shot by a poacher. He justified the story-change by saying he wanted to emphasise the cyclical nature of things – ‘death follows life – life follows death’, a premise which of course changes the whole opera from a light-hearted children’s tale into a serious matter involving death. The production emphasizes the cyclical nature of things by depicting the original Vixen, played by Kate Lineham, entering at the end as one of her own cubs – so life is renewed in a heart-warming way.

One of the traditional truisms regarding opera is that performers are there to sing, not to act. There have been numerous instances in the past of famous operatic performers with stunning voices behaving like lumps of lead on stage – I’m sure that was largely because in earlier times the conductor ruled the roost in the opera houses, and the stage directors largely did what they were told and tried not to get in the way, so that everything became subservient to the music. We’ve seen the balance of power shift quite dramatically in those terms – some would say far too much, considering the wackiness and inappropriateness of some opera directors’ conceptions.

But one of the good things resulting from this emphasis on stage production is that singers are now expected to be able to act – and this was one of the great strengths of the present production. Everybody looked, moved and sang completely and utterly in character – a tribute to Jacqueline Coats, the director, Sacha Copland the choreographer, costume designer Rachel More, and of course to the performers themselves. And we were so close that if there had been any weaknesses or discrepancies they would have been uncomfortably obvious.

As the Vixen, Kate Lineham gave what I thought was an extraordinary performance, quite all-encompassing, with acting and movement that fully matched the quality of her vocal performance. She was a Vixen who, despite her sharpish temperament and occasionally deadly intent, warmed our hearts at other times with her sense of fun and her vulnerability. Her interaction with Fox Goldenstripe, portrayed with a fine show of gallantry by Barbara Paterson, was a highlight of the production, both singers playing into each others hands, or should one say, paws! The ‘teenage love’ antics of their first meeting delighted the audience, and was marred only by some over-loud instrumental playing, which circumstance I’ll return to later.

Matthew Landreth as the Forrester gave a strong and well-focused, entirely believable ‘character’ performance, bringing out both the robustness as well as the philosophical side of the character. It was a pity he wasn’t placed further forward for his final aria, so we could have ‘connected’ with his love of the natural world more readily at that point. On the other side of the same fence was the Poacher, played by Stuart Coats (he also took the smaller part of the Innkeeper), whose voice made, for me, the strongest impression of the evening amongst the men – in many ways the ‘alter ego’ of the Forrester, with both a rugged and a sentimental side to his character, singing his folksong-like serenades to his absent sweetheart. Another versatile performer was tenor Edmund Hintz, who bounced between the gravitas of the schoolteacher and the cartoonish machoism of the rooster with relish, his farmyard antics vividly choreographed, and complete with evocative animal noises.

The chorus were required to play a number of roles, from feathered cockerel-cohorts and their offspring, to their enemies, the foxes and their cubs, as well as a host of other animals and human beings. Thanks to on-the-spot choreography, vivid costuming and great singing and acting, they achieved wonders of characterisation with each scene, bringing out the earthiness and comedy of it all, especially during the Vixen’s wedding when there were cries of “Halleluiah!” from all parts of the auditorium.

As I’ve said, I thought the arrangement of the original score for five players by musical director Justus Rozemond was an outstanding piece of work, skillfully and sensitively done. Obviously it needed to be played well to work as it did, and by-and-large the work of the musicians was first-class, with only a tendency to play too loudly detracting from the effect of Janáček’s subtle colourings, and obscuring some of the vocal lines from the singers. The light and shade of the original score was missed at such times, as was the amplitude asked for by the composer at the beginning of Act Three, where the original’s harshness and power just doesn’t come across with a small ensemble.

Small caveats, these, set against one’s warm-hearted enjoyment of the whole. NIMBY Opera can be justly proud of what the Vixen was able to achieve, a welcome alternative view to set against one’s usual preconceptions concerning opera and its production.

The Eroica Trio’s seductive Town Hall concert


Music by Lalo, Villa-Lobos, Schoenfield and Mendelssohn

Erika Nikrenz (piano) / Suzie Park (violin) / Sara Sant’Ambrogio (‘cello)

Wellington Town Hall,

Tuesday 24th March

Described in a preview to the group’s recent Wellington concert as “three Sassy women who put the sex back into symphony”, the Eroica Trio, here in New Zealand on its second tour, charmed a Town Hall audience with its familiar combination of visual glamour and a winning stage presence, playing a sprightly, easy-on-the-ear programme of music by Lalo, Villa-Lobos, Paul Schoenfield and Mendelssohn. I thought the three musicians had to work quite hard to sufficiently project this largely affable, and for the listener, relatively undemanding programme of music throughout the venue’s voluminous spaces, a feat that to their credit they managed to achieve by beautifully-tailored teamwork and impressively sustained concentration upon the task. In none of these works were those grand, impassioned gestures that one finds in the trios of Beethoven, Schubert, Dvorak or Shostakovich, statements whose melodies, accents and rhythms leap from the instruments and pin back audiences’ ears, making for unforgettable listening experiences – even the D minor storms and stresses of the finale of Mendelssohn’s work didn’t explore much outside the realm of a drawing-room sensibility.

The concert began with Edouard Lalo’s C minor Trio, an early work (1850), and one of three written for this instrumental combination by the composer. This was a work that, perhaps unfairly, considering its place in the composer’s output, reinforced my opinion of Lalo’s music in general – pleasant, well-crafted stuff, designed to charm and entertain an audience without ruffling anybody’s sense of well-being or delving into recesses suggesting disturbances below the surface. When one turns to the music of Lalo’s almost exact contemporary, Cesar Franck, one is in a diametrically different sound-world of expressive depth of feeling, joyful, passionate and mystical. However, to be fair one would need to hear more of Lalo’s work in this genre, such as the Third, and much later (1880) Piano Trio, before indulging in such grandiloquent comparative judgements! The Eroica brought out the music’s charm and craftsmanship with some beautifully dove-tailed teamwork set against many a beguiling solo, with the ‘cello invariably given the thematic ‘lead-in’ to each movement by the composer.

The Villa-Lobos work is probably better-known as a piece for eight ‘cellos and soprano voice, though it’s been arranged for many an instrumental combination over the years. The composer adored the music of Bach, and paid homage to that great genius by writing nine pieces entitled Bachianas Brasilieras, of which the work played this evening was the fifth. I thought the arrangement (by Brazilian composer Raimundo Penaforte) worked better and better as the piece progressed, particularly the ‘cello’s contributions, and with beautifully expressive work from the strings at the piece’s end.

Café Music was described somewhat disarmingly by its composer, American-born Paul Schoenfield, as “high-class dinner music…which might also (just barely) find its way into a concert hall”. This performance began with a roar and continued with a swing, with plenty of leaning-into and -away-from beats, slurring of notes for expressive effect and high-kicking, hip-swinging momentum – music marked by energetic drive throughout, though one could imagine that more variation in tempo would characterise different episodes of the music more tellingly, such as with the characterful and languid violin solo just before the end of the movement.

A ‘bluesy’ piano solo at the next movement’s beginning invited a similarly sultry response from the strings, which didn’t quite happen – I could imagine the response being several shades ‘dirtier’ than the sweet, relative innocence of Suzie Park’s violin playing, though her duetting with ‘cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio at the reprise of the movement’s ‘big tune’ was lovely, heartfelt stuff. The finale was little short of a full-frontal assault, with the instruments scrubbed, yanked, stretched and twisted, made to sound at their extremes, and the piano scampering along keystone-cops style, occasionally calling the strings to attention before dashing headlong into another orgy of wild exhilaration, everybody hugely enjoying themselves, listeners included!

Mendelssohn’s D Minor Piano Trio promised much, with markings such as the first movement’s Molto allegro ed agitato and the finale’s allegro assai appassionato suggesting something of the dynamism and sharply-etched focus of parts of the composer’s symphonies. Apart from a somewhat rigidly-phrased first rhetorical climax which needed a touch more amplitude to properly tell, the players realised the movement’s ebb and flow skilfully, rescuing the second subject’s initial melodic sentimentality with a finely-judged surge of burgeoning activity. Some of Mendelssohn’s themes, perhaps due to the composer’s amazing technical facility, seem too easily wrought, this aforementioned second subject being a particularly smug example until the dramatic coda, where the theme is spiked with a minor strain, changing its character to one of great agitation.

A sensitive treatment of the ‘song without words’ ambience of the slow movement was followed by a scherzo in the composer’s distinctive tradition, elfin scamperings and insistent patternings keeping the players instruments whispering, bubbling, chattering and occasionally trumpeting (to spontaneous applause from the audience at the end). The finale brought some Sturm und Drang to bear on the proceedings, even if the demons weren’t quite of the disturbing order of, for example, Schumann’s. The music’s drive through various agitations towards the work’s G Major resolution brought out the evening’s best playing from the Trio, committed and thrustful on all fronts. And if I would have rather they’d left the evening’s music-making at that, instead of giving us a somewhat syrupy trio arrangement of Saint-Saëns’ ubiquitous Le Cygne as an encore, it was a view that wasn’t shared by the audience. Anyway, by now the unfortunate bird ought to be well used to such treatment – what price fame!

NZSO with Inkinen and Cho-Liang Lin – Barber’s concerto and Tristan for orchestra

Melodies for orchestra (Body), Violin Concerto (Barber), Tristan and Isolde, a symphonic compilation after Wagner, arranged by Henk de Vlieger

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Pietari Inkinen with Cho-Liang Lin (violin).

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 20th March

Though reviewing concerts that are being normally covered by the press was not part of the ‘mission’ of Middle-C, and I did not decide to attend the first of the NZSO’s subscription concerts in Wellington till that afternoon, the temptation to hear Barber’s Violin Concerto, live for the first time (I think), and what Henk de Vlieger had done with Tristan und Isolde, without voices, and in just over one hour, proved too strong.

And I enjoyed the concert so much that a review, perhaps even a panegyric, imposed itself upon me.

Jack Body’s Melodies from the early 1980s opened the programme. Little of his music has been written for orchestra and I relished the chance to hear how he extended his palette to opulent symphonic musical forces.

Body writes that his intention was to ‘create coherence and continuity’ in the orchestral fabric, simply conveying something of the joy and excitement he experienced when he heard the pieces. All the outward marks of excitement – speed, rhythmic energy, and orchestration that is spare but striking, with his idiosyncratic use of percussion – were there, but in spite of a brilliant performance I found little emotional warmth or some kind of spiritual feeling which I’m sure infused the originals, even in the quieter piece from West Sumatra.

Though it was hard to perceive musical relationships, or meaningful contrasts between the three works in the evening’s programme, the two major pieces made the concert.

For most of the 70 years since its composition, the Barber concerto has been regarded in academic musical circles as rather an anachronism if not an irrelevancy. Happily, the disinterment of much of the tonal and attractive music written during the bleak years has restored Barber’s music to the permanent repertoire.

The tunefulness of the first movement is as surprising and beguiling as the lyrical, elegiac second movement. Though the last seems to take off in a direction that has not been prepared for, the whole is a vindication of the continuing relevance of a traditional form.

American violinist Cho-Liang Lin emerged as a balanced and mature musician, an ideal performer of the work through his committed and deeply sympathetic reading that brought it immediately to life. The orchestra played with a conviction and intensity that is being noticed in international reviews of its recent recordings under conductor Pietari Inkinen. Where I was, centre stalls, balance was admirable and the orchestra rarely lay too weightily on the violinist.

The second half comprised an hour-long performance of a ‘Symphonic compilation’ by Dutch musician Henk de Vlieger of music from Tristan und Isolde. Enjoyment of it depended not at all on recognition of where the various leitmotive came from or what they represented in the opera, but it did depend both on freedom from Wagner antipathy and any doctrinaire aversion to such transformations or arrangements. At the end, I was simply surprised that the hour had passed and that I  felt a great, all-consuming satisfaction.

In character, it was like one of Strauss’s longer tone poems – Don Quixote, or Death and Transfiguration perhaps, and the strength of Wagner’s musical inspiration, especially in the consummating Liebestod, compensated for what might be felt as shortcomings in the evolution of this orchestral survey.

A piece of this kind will inevitably press an automatic disapproval button in some listeners who are programmed to fault any kind of tampering with the original character of a great work. I wondered whether I might find that the treatment cheapened or corrupted the essence of the original music, but all I noticed was condensings and bridge passages – where one episode was grafted on to another. De Vlieger succeeded in avoiding anything tasteless or clumsy.

Seven episodes called up various scenes, none as dramatic as the second act love scene in the forest, interrupted by the arrival of King Marke. The music was as self-sustaining as in the opera itself, one of whose most remarkable features is the absence of harmonic resolution at any point till the very end. De Vlieger followed the same path and there were no breaks between sections and the transitions were rather well crafted.

I only had a slightly unfulfilled longing for more passionate, aching expression, perhaps a slower and more undulating pulse, in the love music.

I had wondered whether I would long for singers to emerge after the Prelude, but perhaps my first experience of the work came to my rescue: broadcasts of the orchestral version of the Prelude and Liebestod in Early Evening Concert on 2YC in the early 1950s when I was discovering music as a teenager. As a result, I even remember being disconcerted when I first heard the scene complete with singers. This purely orchestral treatment, so well conceived and played, brought me full circle.

Finally, I was glad I happened to hear about 40 minutes of the later broadcast of the concert on Radio NZ Concert (Monday 6 April). My impressions were confirmed, not only of the success of the musical compilation, but also at the opulence of the NZSO’s performance: its careful dynamic gradations, the swelling of tone in string phrases in the second act love music, the splendour of the brass and the richness of the strings.

Gianni Schicchi in Christchurch, starring Martin Snell and Anna Argyle

Gianni Schicchi by Puccini. Southern Opera, conducted by Peter Walls, diected by Mark Hadlow with Martin Snell, Virgilio Marino, Grant Dickson, Anna Argyle; players from the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra.

James Hay Theatre, Christchurch Town Hall; Saturday 12 March

Gianni Schicchi is the third part of a trilogy (Il Trittico – Triptych) that Puccini wrote in 1918 and was first performed at the Met in New York in January 1919. It’s the one comedy in the group and the only real comedy that he wrote (La Rondine is an ‘operetta’ rather than a comic opera).

I was surprised to find the auditorium on the Saturday, the second performance, only about half full, perhaps 500. I gathered that the first night has been fairly full, presumably by sponsors and their guests and other free-riders. The audience was somewhat larger on the Sunday when I saw it again. That may have been because the Saturday performance was competing with the Final of the National Concerto Competition with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra next door in the Town Hall. But that might not be the main reason, and I return to the question of the choice of this opera below.

The opera itself, an hour long, occupied the second half of the evening. The first half comprised a recital of opera arias and ensembles: six vocal extracts from various operas. There was no real pretence that this was the company’s first choice, for clearly another short opera, such as most companies would present, would have been normal and might have pulled bigger crowds.

Because the opening performances fell during the Ellerslie Flower Show, the first half was called Blooming Opera, and most excerpts had a floral connection, if sometimes pretty tenuous.

The programme had listed Puccini’s lovely quartet movement Chrysanthemum as the evening’s prelude – certainly highly appropriate, but it was not played.

Grant Dickson sang a sonorous ‘Ombra mai fu’ (a lime tree rather than flowers, but you got the idea), and Virgilio Marino, the Rinuccio in the opera, did the Flower Song from Carmen, a little stiffly. Rachel Doig and Maree Hawtin-Morrow shared the Flower Duet from Lakmé, a pretty blending of voices, and Stu Miles aand Stephen Chambers shared the predictable ‘Flowers that bloom in the Spring’ from Mikado,

More tenuous in the floral context were Anna Argyle’s Maiden and the Nightingale from Goyescas by Granados and Martin Snell’s Catalogue aria from Don Giovanni, a demonstration of polished wit, gesture and timing. All joined in the final ensemble from Figaro.

The director of the production, Mark Hadlow, introduced each item with a few comments about the aria and its opera and about the singer(s). His style seemed vaudevillian rather than in a neutral style that an opera audience might have expected; and the impression was slightly patronising, lending an unneeded amateur tone to the evening.

Unorthodox perhaps, but amusing and engaging. given an audience not much exposed to polished, live opera productions; evidence: breaking into applause a couple of times in the middle of quite well-known arias or duets.

The opera itself was a very considerable success. It was well cast, with strong singers in the main roles, and more than adequate singers – almost all from Christchurch – in the secondary roles. All were well suited to their roles and with musical guidance of conductor Peter Walls, met the demands both of their own roles and the opera as a whole.

The star of the evening, without a doubt, was bass Martin Snell in the title role, a former Mobil Song Quest winner and one of the half-dozen most successful New Zealand singers in the international opera arena today: he is based in Switzerland and has sung in major productions in most of the important houses, including the Wagner festival at Bayreuth. The polish, seriousness, subtlety and clarity of his performance was the critical element in the cumulative comic finale.

The credit for the entire dramatic impact however must go to Mark Hadlow; if he showed uncertainty in presenting the first half, his sure hand as a theatre director shone through in the opera itself. The handling of the aspiring beneficiaries was fluid, natural, sometimes formal in a satirical way, well distributed and balanced around the flexible stage area. He knows that the essential stuff of the comedy is in the words and the music, not in superficial gesture or farce; and the social satire at its heart was all the more sharp and funny because of it.

Southern Opera employed an all-New Zealand cast, apart from the tenor role of Rinuccio, Australian Virgilio Marino, who sang it convincingly.

It struck me that the young tenor, Stephen Chambers, who sang Marco, might have proved a very adequate Rinuccio.

It is an ensemble opera, depending not on strong individual roles apart from Schicchi himself, but on the effectiveness of the groupings of the venal family members, their interaction and their chorus-like dismay at the unfolding reality of the old man’s will. Certain members stood out somewhat: Maree Hawtin-Morrow and New Zealand’s most distinguished living bass, Grant Dickson, as Buoso’s cousins Zita and Simone. Rachel Doig as Nella and Stephen Chambers also caught the ear. Non-family members included the Lauretta of Anna Argyle whose part is small other than the hit tune, ‘O mio babbino caro’. The distinctive Valery Maksymov was Betto of Signa, and both the Doctor and the Notary were strikingly performed by Stu Myles and Sam Abbott.

The orchestra, strangely, was the only weak point, occasionally too loud, covering voices, and sometimes revealing weaknesses in articulation and ensemble. The score had been reduced by Michael Vinten for performance by about 20 players which certainly left players exposed at times, even wind players for whom such exposure is normal.

This may have been the result of the need to share orchestra members with the Concerto Competition.

Both stage and costume designs, by Mark McEntyre and Alistair McDougall, fitted the chosen period – the late 19th century – perfectly, and that shift of 600 years seemed unexceptional, no doubt just as rich in family hypocrisy and greed as any other period. The set, in particular, was ingenious and entertaining, with a revolving bed that was used with studied wit.

Both stage and musical directors were experienced New Zealanders, not a common practice of Christchurch’s predecessor company.

The next step, of course should be the regular engagement of a young assistant stage director to build experience in that area.




A triple-strung harp recital from Robin Ward

St Christopher’s church, Tawa

Thursday 5th March 2009

Robin Ward is carving something of a reputation internationally as an exponent of a rare kind of harp: the triple-strung harp; triple means there are three courses of strings, the two outer ones tuned identically, diatonically, while the middle row supplies the ‘black notes’. It evolved in the 14th century and was supplanted by the development of the pedal or orchestral harp in the 18th century. Robin took a B Mus at Victoria University on the pedal harp under NZSO harpist Carolyn Mills and moved to the baroque harp for a Master’s degree under Euan Murdoch and Douglas Mews. In the course of his studies he became interested in the triple harp which he had to design and build himself by means of research in books, pictures and articles. Because of the lack of triple harp teachers in England he has also had to teach himself the playing technique.

He is now resident in England and was back for a short time in March when he gave this recital in the suburb where he was brought up, and one other in Wellington.

The instrument is much lighter and delicate-toned than its orchestral cousin; clearly, it would have difficulty in an orchestral environment though its voice is quite penetrating and filled the moderate size of the church very well, particularly its middle and upper register; like other harps, the bass strings produce a weaker though warm sound.

My first impression of Ward’s playing was of a musician of wonderful fluency and refined musicality. His playing of renaissance, baroque, folk, 19th century music alike were invested by a keen stylistic sensitivity, attracting particular attention, for example in Bach’s Suite BWV 996 with its tastefully ornamented phrases, .

His programme moved chronologically from three 16th century Spanish pieces and then two arrangements of Dowland part songs.

Apart from the Bach suite, one of those he composed for the theorbo, there were other baroque/classical suites from Robert de Visée and Johann Krumpholtz. Such obscure works only demonstrate how much we owe to the endless explorations of the by-ways of music, either the forgotten contemporaries of the greats, or the exhumation of repertoire of forgotten or superseded instruments, as in this case. It reveals music of very great charm and accomplishment that must stand repeated hearings.

The balance of the programme was of graceful and attractive Irish and Welsh pieces, acknowledging the importance of early harps in the music of the Celtic peoples; and three 19th century pieces: an arrangement of a piano piece by Grandjany, a guitar piece, Capricio Arabe, by Tarrega, and a genuine Air and Variations and Nocturne by Glinka, actually written for harp.

I had not known what to expect from this concert; what I heard quite captivated me both by the variety and charm of the music itself and by the great accomplishment of the executant.