Cook Strait Trio in full sail

Chamber Music Hutt Valley

The Cook Strait Trio (Blythe Press – violin, Paul van Houtte – cello, Amber Rainey – piano)

Turina: Piano Trio No 2 in B minor, Op76, Psathas: Island Songs, Dvořák: Piano Trio in F minor, Op 65

Lower Hutt Little Theatre, Thursday 30 July 2009

The Cook Strait Trio is just the kind of chamber music group that one hopes and expects Chamber Music New Zealand will promote in its Associated Societies series. That is, the mainly New Zealand groups that it takes under its wing to tour to the score of smaller chamber music societies that flourish – or least survive – in the towns that do not sustain concerts in the so-called Celebrity Series.

Just to remind you of the societies drawing on at least some of the groups in CMNZ’s stable that exist in Greater Wellington – the Waikanae Music Society, Chamber Music Hutt Valley and the Wellington Chamber Music Society (which, for promotional purposes, now drops the word ‘society’). This group had performed this programme at Waikanae on Sunday 26 July.

The three are Wellington-born and/or educated, though it would probably be risky to claim they will long remain working here. Only Amber Rainey has yet to undertake overseas training.

One longs to discover neglected works that prove substantial and beautiful and it was so with the Turina. He is the fourth of the notable Spanish composers born in the 30 years after 1860 and the least known and perhaps least important. Once upon a time his Canto a Sevilla was popular on account of Victoria de los Angeles’ performance.

Though it was most sympathetically played, this trio did not prove more than an agreeable salon piece of a superior kind. That generalization derives from the tone of the music rather than its formal structure which is sophisticated enough, as pointed out in the programme notes. The Spanish character of the music is not of the usual, strongly rhythmic kind, but derived from the more subtle kind of folk music that does fling itself at you. Its besetting sin perhaps is Turina’s excessive use of diminished harmonies that tend to impose a tonal anonymity on the music. The last movement revealed a stronger character, mainly through its piano part, spendidly played by Amber Rainey.

John Psathas’s Island Songs, now 14 years old, has by now attained the rank of a New Zealand classic. The islands are of Greece – not of New Zealand. However, the music, while carrying occasional suggestions of Greek land and seascapes, and sound such as bells chiming in the piano, does not evoke a conventional sound impression of Greece.

In the first movement, the piano underpinned the strings with ostinati reminiscent of Psathas’s early Waiting for the Aeroplane and he surprises those whose knowledge of Greek music is confined to Theodorakis’s music for Zorba and the bouzouki, with the sparest writing to depict the Zeibekiko in the second movement. In the third movement the piano, again moving through a narrow range of pitches, was a little out of step with its colleagues. 

Dvořák’s Piano Trio Op 65 has received some high praise. Some consider it his finest chamber work, but the competition from the Piano Quintet, and the Dumky Trio, the Quintet Op 97, and the American Quartet would seem to be quite strong.

To start with, it is as markedly Czech as one feels the Turina not to be so Spanish. That feeling might stem from its serious, minor key character in the first movement which is announced by the opening unison passage from violin and cello. However, there is a graciousness in the music which Blythe Press’s violin, in particular, caught beautifully, as he did again in the charming slow movement. The strong instruments here were the piano and violin which often tended to cast a shadow over the cello though it enjoyed some lovely solos early in the first movement, leaving no doubt about Paul van Houtte’s musicality.  

There was a certain loss of momentum in the middle section of the second movement: it felt rather more than the Meno mosso marking called for. Perhaps the trio offered the best of themselves through the fusing of their sounds in the Poco adagio, achieving a beautiful stillness at the movement’s end. In the last movement, they handled the many changes of rhythm with great naturalness engaging overdrive excitingly for the final peroration.


John Chen at Upper Hutt’s Expressions

JOHN CHEN – PIano Recital



Genesis Energy Theatre, Upper Hutt,  Monday 27th July 2009

Malaysian-born naturalised New Zealander John Chen, now just twenty-three years old, first achieved international prominence by winning the Sydney International Piano Competition in 2004 at the age of eighteen, the youngest-ever winner of this competition. Since then his career has taken him to appearances with all the major Australasian orchestras, and to numerous chamber music and solo recital engagements, all to critical acclaim. He has recorded discs of French music for Naxos, in particular the complete solo piano works of Henri Dutilleux, and is an advocate of contemporary New Zealand music, with premieres of music by Jenny McLeod, Ross Harris, Claire Cowan and Tony Lin to his credit. This year in New Zealand he’s been on tour with the NZSO National Youth Orchestra, and is about to embark on a series of concerts with the T’ang Quartet of Singapore featuring a work by Gao Ping. At present he’s coming to the end of a 10-centre tour of the country with two solo recital programmes, each of which contains a new work by Christchurch-based composer Tony Lin. On Monday evening at the Expressions Genesis Energy Theatre in Upper Hutt he gave one of these programmes, a first half consisting of French music, and after the interval works by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky to go with Tony Lin’s new piece.


John Chen began the recital with a piece by Francis Poulenc entitled Melancolie, concerning which the composer was overheard remarking that the French “realise that sombreness and good humour are not mutually exclusive”. It was apparent from the outset that the young pianist felt completely at home in this repertoire, his playing at once elegant, liquid, rich and warm, with the deftest of detailing enabling the ebb and flow of the music to cast an effusive glow all around the auditorium. The sounds evoked an aura and personality of a composer whose charm and wry manner must have endeared him to the friends and colleagues in whose honour he wrote a good deal of his piano music.


From Poulenc we moved on to Debussy, and the latter’s Second Book of Images, composed in 1907. Chen’s ability to colour sounds and create liquid flow was given full scope in these sensitive realisations, the first (“Bells Through the Leaves”) suggesting an interplay between substance and dissolution, the notes delivered with the utmost delicacy, conjuring up worlds where familiar sounds are enveloped in mystery. Debussy wrote the music on three staves, implying a certain “terracing” of sounds, which Chen evoked superbly throughout, drawing from a gorgeous but evanescent sound-palatte. The second piece, “And the Moon Descends on the Temple that Was” emerged in Chen’s hands as an evocation of columns of sound shrouded in deep mists, rich, resonant chording set against finely-etched detailings, as if a visitor to an old house had stumbled upon a forgotten room filled with ancient clocks, the chimings and tickings imagined rather than real, and the memory of the experience seeming like one recalled in old age. The third piece “Goldfish” brought a more mercurial quality to the sounds, with runs of pure gossamer over the keys set against other scintillations of movement whose ripples sparkled and splashed. John Chen’s differentiations of these specific impulses were quite miraculously evoked, set in contrasting motion to the episodes of more forthright gesture, moments of rhetoric that passed quickly, returning the sounds to the world of suggestiveness and fleeting impressions.


More sharply-etched and crystalline, though equally as suggestive, Ravel’s vivid evocation of Ondine, the water-sprite and temptress of man, forms the first part of the composer’s musical triptych “Gaspard de la Nuit”. Again, Chen’s ultra-sensitivity and beautifully-honed delicacy brought out all of the music’s liquid tintinnabulations, the textures at once cleanly-drawn and ambiently glowing. And the pianist’s fingerwork performed miracles of articulation as the river waters rose in response to the nymph’s gesturings, suffusing everything with watery hues – but just as scintillating was the piece’s final flourish, the poem’s words – “…abashed and vexed she dissolved into tears and laughter; vanished in a scatter of rain….” vividly conveyed by Chen’s brilliant pianistic flurries and the charged silences that followed. Of a different order of expression was the middle piece, “Le Gibet”, a somewhat grisly depiction of a hanged man left on the gallows in the sunset, the music tolling a ghostly bell-sound throughout, around which eerie crepuscular ambiences gradually close in, mourning fragmented chorales and skeletal descending cluster-harmonies representing the pity, horror and nonchalance of the scene. John Chen controlled it all beautifully, though I have heard those ghoulish descending chords played with more “point” as to make one’s flesh creep – here they were deftly brushed in, but a tad anonymous-sounding.


As for the final “Scarbo”, Chen’s dwarf emerged from the shadows as a brilliantly mischievous imp, rather than as an out-and-out malevolent creature of the night – which is to say that the characterisations were touched in more lightly and suggestively than is usually the case, the necessary “glint” in the playing having an elfin incandescence rather than a diabolical “bite”. Again, Chen’s control of detail was astonishing, bringing out a Puckishness in the characterisation, more so than the spectral quality favoured by some interpreters, and actually more, I think, in line with the descriptions in the verses by Aloysius Bertrand. As with all of John Chen’s work, it’s about the music rather than the interpreter, which I greatly appreciated.


Beginning the second half was a composition by one of Chen’s pianistic contemporaries, Tony Lin, whom I’d seen and heard play last year in Kerikeri, when he came within a whisker of winning the final of the International Piano Competition, but was edged into second place by young Jun Bouterey-Ishido. On that occasion Lin played one of his own compositions, a work called “Impression”, to great effect. For his present tour John Chen commissioned a new work by Tony Lin, called “In veils concealed….”, the music, like the earlier piece, making a distinct and deeply-considered impact. Lin’s idea was to characterise fragments of thought or memory as being concealed in bright veils but partly revealed by the play of light, suggesting their nature or origin. The work began with a Ravelian delicacy, exploring treble-keyboard sonorities, and using a repeated ascending figure, now insistent, now distant, augmenting these gestures with birdsong-like figurations. John Chen brought out the music’s wondrously layered effect, skilfully terracing his dynamics and voicing the fragments in sequences that seemed to cohere and advance the argument. As the piece progressed the details seemed to become more elongated, increasingly sinuous and extended, all the while punctuated by exquisite harmonic clusters at the top end of the keyboard. Chen occasionally used the pedal to wondrously enrich the textures and extend the piece’s layered character further, before reducing the dynamics to a whisper and allowing the figures and motifs to become remembrances and echoes. A deeper note, the piece’s only excursion into territories below Middle C, then brought a lovely work to a thoughtful conclusion.


Beethoven’s contemporaries probably had similar reactions to the above when encountering some of the composer’s late, more transcendentally-conceived works, one such being the A Major Piano Sonata Op.101. The very opening of the work sets lyricism against forward movement in an enticingly equivocal manner, with Chen catching that delicate balance to perfection, bringing to mind thoughts such as “letting things unfold” and “moving and being moved” with his playing. The succeeding march brought a touch of steel to the tone, with the rhythm perhaps calling for a bit more “spike” and rather less speed – but this, of course was an energetic young man’s performance. I thought the trio section also needed to take a little more with it, moving forward, but carrying just a bit more circumspection, so as to not hurry, but letting the distant music of the march gradually re-materialise. And I’m sure it was heat-of-the-moment exuberance that caused Chen to nearly overplay the last triumphant chords, a forgiveable piece of impulsiveness!


The slow movement unfolded quite gorgeously, Chen nicely capturing the wonderment of where the music was taking him, creating a strong sense of expectation which the reprise of the work’s opening nicely teases, before those sudden “call-to-attention” chords release the pent-up energies of the finale, the pianist spinning the jog-trot rhythms engagingly, and launching the fugue with mordant wit and beautifully-weighted voicings – the whole a truly living organism, here, underpinned by the pianist’s finely-tuned awareness of the creative play of different elements within the music’s structure.


To finish the programme we were given Tchaikovsky’s infrequently-performed Theme and Variations in F, a work that made me wonder why we don’t hear more of the composer’s solo piano music – despite its occasional unevennesses, the collection of twelve pieces known as “The Months” for one would surely make an attractive and unusual recital item. So it proved with this work, Tchaikovsky’s individual approach to theme-and-variation form creating a number of distinctive and worthwhile pieces. Highlights were the Schumannesque No.4, whose song-like character brought out a melancholy characteristic of the composer, the waltz-like No.8, alternatively piquant and demonstrative, and the innovative No.11, whose rhythm derived from the previous dance-like piece, but with an altered time-signature and a completely new and different-natured melody – very clever composing! John Chen made the most of these pieces, bringing the work to a brilliant and satisfying conclusion with the scamperingly virtuosic final variation. As if to return our emotional states to normal, John Chen played the first of Brahms’ Op.119 Piano Pieces as an encore, bringing out the music’s Janus-faced combination of world-weary experience and fresh wonderment. Naturally, we were a most appreciative audience, and lost no time in enthusiastically demonstrating our approval.

Christopher Herrick and Leipzig singers at Lutheran Church

Lutheran Church of St Paul, King Street, Newtown 

1 Christopher Herrick (organ) in music by Buxtehude, Bach, Iain Farrington, Boccherini, Flor Peeters and Samuel Sebastian Wesley.

Friday 24 July 2009

2 Ensemble Nobiles six singers from the Tomaskirche Boys’ Choir in Leipzig. German liturgical and secular music 

Sunday 26 July 2009

Christopher Herrick is one of the world’s most distinguished organists. I spotted his name in an organ journal, listing his concerts on a New Zealand tour. There was one in Wellington and it was at the Lutheran Church of St Paul in Newtown. Where? I didn’t know it and I wondered what could induce a world-class organist to play at what I imagined to be a small suburban church.

However, knowing that an organist is much more interested in the character of an organ than in the popular perception of a venue, it seemed possible that here was an interesting organ which Herrick had discovered. 

Then I started hearing other things about the church. It has a fine piano which is being used for piano recital performances by Wellington piano teachers, and accordingly the church had come up as a possible venue for a piano recital series that’s being discussed.

Music has a strong place in the tradition of the Lutheran church: Luther himself, and then others such as the Bach dynasty; the present Pastor, Mark Whitfield, doubles as organist. The church previously had a small pipe organ, in an alcove above the sanctuary, but it was inadequate. Even as the church had almost signed a contract for a new instrument with an American builder, an interesting one came up for sale in a Dutch hospital. It was built in 1962 as a one manual organ with a permanently coupled pedal range and enlarged with a second manual a year later. When the sale was discussed the addition of an independent pedal department was proposed and a 16 foot pedal stop was installed.

Its opening recital took place in March 2008.

The recital began with five pieces by Buxtehude, arranged to form a sort of suite or at least a coherent sequence, alternating between two praeludiums and two chorale-based pieces around a central toccata. The first Praeludium in A minor (Bux153) offered both a splendid exhibition of the organ’s qualities and of the variety of compositional resources Buxtehude commanded and his ability to make singular shifts in tone and rhythm without losing a feeling of unity.

The organ with its two manuals and limited number of registrations created an ideal clarity and tonal distinction for the two chorale pieces, ‘Komm, heiliger Geist’ and ‘Nun lob mein Seel’ (Bux 199 and 213). The Toccata in D minor (Bux155) may well flourish in a performance on a larger, more powerful organ, but here its striking contrasts, now conspicuously involving virtuosic pedal intervention with a flamboyant flourish at the end.

The rest of the concert offered delightful variety: untroubled by authenticity strictures, Boccherini’s Minuet was beguiling, perhaps a little droll. The fact that a quirky set of pieces like Animal Parade by young English organist/composer Iain Farrington has been composed in recent years attests to the vigour of organ music and a world-wide following. Herrick played three of the twelve highly diverting pieces, including Barrel Organ Monkey that relished both the bravura of a Lefébure-Wély and the nostalgia of the street barrel organ.

Bach arrived at the beginning of the second half in the Trio Sonata No 4 in E minor; pedals busier than ever; with its origin in chamber music with the individual voices so sharply delineated, it was the perfect fit for the organ.

King Jesus has a Garden comprises five variations, from a set of Ten Chorale Preludes by Belgian composer Flor Peeters. Its style varied between serious virtuosity and light-hearted multi-key treatment of the theme, hands tumbling confusedly over each other in the third variation, and finally another pedal display.

The choice of Choral Song and Fugue by Samuel Sebastian Wesley seemed a less than dramatic way of ending the recital; it had some character but mainly of the inoffensive kind. His encore however, Festmusikk by Norwegian Mons Leidvin Takle made a suitably exciting finale.


2 On the following Sunday the church hosted a six-voice ensemble from the choir of St Thomas’s church in Leipzig – Bach’s church. The six young man, aged 18 – 19, have completed their last year as boarders at the famous school attached to the Tomaskirche and have all been singing in the choir for nine years. They formed their ensemble, Ensemble Nobiles, three years ago As well as gaining an enviable musical education have also acquired an education of the kind that has long disappeared from New Zealand schools, including the first foreign language from Year 5 and at least one other foreign language a couple of years later.

Their concert took the form of a mass with each section interspersed with a variety of other music – part songs, Renaissance polyphony, little motets and cantata movements, old and new, one by a composer/conductor they have worked with, Manfred Schlenker.

The mass was Schubert’s charmingly naïve Deutsche Messe. I’ve never heard it apart from a performance on CD with full male choir plus organ. This was a totally different experience, one voice to a part, more or less, and a cappella. The Zum Eigang, which opened the concert, was a hair-raising experience, so miraculously balanced, with voices sounding as one, the result of the nine years of listening to each other; and each successive section (eight in all) grounded the entire concert in the style that seemed absolutely native to them. They ranged from Palestrina, Schütz and Byrd through Bach to several little known composers of later periods. A Cantate Domino by one Berthold Hummel (a 20th century one) and three by Hugo Distler, also 20th century, offered variety, displayed textures that were unusual, or dwelt in the lower reaches of all the voices. One of the singers introduced the music, fluently, wittily (not easy to be genuinely funny in a foreign language) and appreciative of the church, the congregation and Pastor Mark Whitfield, who punctuated the concert by playing part of Jean Langlais’s Hommage à Frescobaldi and then Bach’s Fugue in D major.  

I, at least, will be watching musical activities at the church from now on.

Wellington Orchestra On The Town

BERNSTEIN – On The Town: Three Dance Episodes

BEETHOVEN – Piano Concerto No.3 in C Minor

(with Michael Houstoun – piano)

BRITTEN – Les Illuminations

(with Benjamin Fifita Makisi – tenor)

BRAHMS – Variations on a Theme of Haydn

Vector Wellington Orchestra

Marc Taddei (conductor)

Wellington Town Hall,  Saturday 25th July 2009

You could tell that it was going to be a night for the orchestra, whatever else happened, from the moment Marc Taddei gave the signal to begin Leonard Bernstein’s “On The Town” with the opening of the first of the work’s Three Dance Episodes, an Allegro pesante whose crackling pace set the pulses racing. The Wellington Orchestra players revelled in the music’s boisterous spirits, managing to inflect the dynamics and point the syncopations at a rate of knots that would have, one suspects, kept even the New York Philharmonic on its toes. A  bluesy muted trumpet solo introduced the second Episode, a kind of “Lass that Loved a Sailor” sequence whose music blossomed into being from melancholy beginnings, strings singing their hearts out at the climax and winds spicing the romantic outpourings with piquant harmonies, the cor anglais at the movement’s end nicely picking up the remnants of feeling from the opening after the more heart-on-sleeve emotions had run their course. The final “Times Square 1944” movement took us into the feisty world of big bands, snappy, raunchy brass, underscored by a jazzy piano obbligato, and with sudden, pulse-quickening lurches into new sleaze-mode scenarios, Debbie Rawson’s eloquent saxophone work characterising the terrific support the winds in general gave to the brass throughout. It all sounded like the work of an orchestra on top of its game, my only quibble being the somewhat bizarre placement of the Beethoven C Minor Piano Concerto immediately afterwards, a chalk-and-cheese alignment whose incongruity was admittedly played down by Marc Taddei’s customary welcome to the audience being given after the Bernstein and as the piano was being rolled into place.

So, there was a sufficient “let’s start again” ambience by the time Michael Houstoun took the stage for the Beethoven concerto, a work that of course marks a threshold in the series of piano-and-orchestra works by the composer – a world of deep and thoughtful expression taking the classical style into more romantic and subjective realms. The orchestra’s urgent, tightly-woven exposition set the scene for Houstoun’s commanding entry, the pianist’s finely-judged masculine-and-feminine exchanges at the outset drawing the parameters of the musical argument to follow, and which the subtle interplay between soloist and orchestra proceeded to explore. I particularly liked Houstoun’s way with the second subject, lyrical and flexible, but also tensile enough to be readily drawn back into the purposeful, even confrontational C Minor world of serious life-questioning business that the music addresses. Neither pianist nor orchestra packed their punches in both assertive and reflective episodes, a tremendous tutti leading to the hushed, almost ghostly development, one with a very “Fifth Symphony Scherzo” feel to it, Houstoun’s withdrawn, almost disembodied tones sounding in awe of the stalking timpani notes and the muttering string figures. The cadenza boldly addressed the issues, Houstoun laying down the music’s law with real commitment, evincing an almost transcendent orchestral response, hard-headed timpani sticks giving the sounds an almost spectral feeling, one which the piano’s downward arabesques matched perfectly, leading to a no-nonsense, hard-hitting statement of mutual assertion and strength of feeling at the end.

Houstoun’s concentration was almost palpable in the stillness and strength of the slow movement’s opening notes, while the orchestra’s ready response was warm and conciliatory but extremely focused, carrying no excess. Throughout the interaction between piano and other instruments was ear-catching, bassoon and flute eloquently dialoguing with the soloist, and the strings perfectly complementing the piano at the opening’s reprise, augmenting with such surety what the solo instrument does. Again, the strings had such a lovely “veiled” tone after the short cadenza’s rapt conclusion, a mood that the ever-so-slight “fluff” on the horn didn’t manage to disturb – such poise and quiet rapture from everybody. After this, I thought the finale found Houston and Taddei in wonderful accord, the pianist dancing along the tightrope with fleet fingerwork and nicely-weighted sonority. At first I thought the winds a bit reticent, but a nicely-breathed, quite “reedy” clarinet solo from Janina Paolo re-established that essential  feeling of dialogue on equal terms, giving the string fugato a proper foil, and sparking off a commanding response from Houstoun, and an equally strong set of sequences leading to the joyous coda, whose rumbustious energy set the seal on what I thought was a great performance of the work.

A work that in its own way matched the visionary aspects of the concerto followed after the break, Benjamin Britten’s “Les Illuminations”, a song-cycle featuring settings of poems by Arthur Rimbaud, extravagant, almost surreal visions of wonderment and excitement. Britten was drawn to French poetry and language, and the evocations of these verses found a ready response from the young composer, with extraordinarily sensitive and imaginative results. Most people would associate this music with a voice of the likes of Peter Pears or Robert Tear; but the work was actually written for a soprano, Sophie Wyss, who gave the first performance in London in 1940. Tenor Benjamin Fifita Makisi threw himself unflinchingly into the work from the outset, responding excitingly to the fierce fanfare-like antiphonal figures played by violas and violins. Makisi had sufficient vocal heft to declaim Rimbaud’s fulsome descriptions of cosmopolitean splendour in the following “Villes”, bringing off the chromatic downward slides in the vocal line with some relish, though he found it difficult to “float” his voice with enough rapturous wonderment in “Phrase”, describing the ropes stretching from steeple to steeple. In general Makisi was happiest with the strongly-focused moments, the marvellous “schwung” of the waltz-like “Antique” with its lump-in-the-throat melodic progressions, and the exuberant declamations of “Marine” with its skyrocketing whoops of pleasure.

At times I thought his voice needed to “free up” somewhat, being unable to escape a kind of “earthbound” quality which prevented episodes like the “Interlude” from truly taking wing. Fortunately the orchestral strings played like angels throughout, focused and incisive in the ringingly declamatory moments, muscular and energetic in rumbustious episodes such as those from “Villes”, and full-throated, warm and rich in the many “singing” passages, like the one already referred to from “Antique”, and responsive to the kaleidoscopic shifts of colour, timbre and intensity continually demanded by the music. The final “Depart” was beautifully done by singer, conductor and players, capturing a valedictory sense of “Enough seen” and an enduring enrichment of experience.

After this the Brahms “St Anthony” Variations for me didn’t really clinch the evening, partly because anything would have been a hard act to follow after the Britten, and partly because Marc Taddei’s treatment of the work was simply too stop-start for the sections to knit together satisfactorily. Taddei did get wonderful orchestral playing, the “village-band” effect at the start with perky, rustic winds and abrupt phrase-endings bringing out the dance-like aspects, with some lovely work from the horns, the “skipping” variation with its attractive syncopations and the following “hunting-horn” episode bringing out excellent work from all sections of the orchestra. But the pauses between the variations seemed to get longer as the work progressed, and the finale, marked “Andante” was moved along so quickly we seemed to be in the midst of the final resounding statement of the main theme before we knew where we were, with the result that it all seemed to pass by too hurriedly – more a vigorous lunch-hour round-the-bays constitutional than a celebratory processional, sadly lacking warmth and heart. Not perhaps the most satisfying finale to the concert that one hoped for, but fortunately there were other moments aplenty which would serve as highlights one could play and enjoy in one’s head, all over again.

Handel’s Semele from NZ School of Music

New Zealand School of Music: Handel’s Semele, conducted by Michael Vinten, directed by Sara Brodie

Adam Concert Room, Victoria University, Kelburn Campus. Thursday 23 July 2009

Back in 2001 the Victoria University School of Music staged Semele. It was not this opera however, now produced by the New Zealand School of Music, but the version by John Eccles, the composer for whom Congreve actually wrote the libretto. As the programme notes record, Eccles’s setting was never performed and was not heard till April 1972, at St John’s Smith Square in London; oddly, the notes failed to mention the 2001 Victoria University production, also in the Adam Concert Room.

A few years before, I heard a lecture by the late Professor Don McKenzie, a Victoria graduate of and later lecturer in the Department of English, who became Professor of bibliography and textual criticism at Oxford, and a specialist in 17th and 18th century English literature. He tutored a paper in literary criticism In my MA year; he was about the most engaging and brilliant lecturer I ever had, and I credit the best mark in my honours degree to his inspiration.

McKenzie was also a knowledgeable music lover and the subject of his lecture was English opera, a consideration of the reasons that opera in English did not take root around the beginning of the 18th century, as it had in France with Lully in the late 17th century. His lecture dealt with the case of Eccles’s Semele and its failure to be staged, because Congreve’s libretto was too late for the opening of the new Queen’s Theatre in 1702 and when it was finished and set by Eccles by 1707, a planned production at the Drury Lane Theatre fell through due to certain duplicitous activities by the impresario who opened his theatre with an Italian pasticcio. That was the beginning of the fashion of the nobility and upper middle class for opera in Italian.

McKenzie played recorded versions of both the Eccles and Handel versions, arguing that Eccles had found an idiomatic musical style much more idiomatically adapted to the English language than was Handel’s (it was his only opera in English); he even believed that Eccles version (recorded in 1989) was the more beautiful and successful rendering of Congreve’s text. New Grove Opera declares that the Eccles opera was the finest opera presented in London between the death of Purcell and Handel’s Rinaldo in 1711. If it had been performed in 1707 and a theatre had been ready to encourage English opera as a result, he argued there was a good chance that an indigenous opera in English might have taken root. For example, Handel would probably have written his works in English and his imitators would have ensured that an English tradition continued to flourish.

Handel’s Semele was a good choice in the 250th anniversary of his death; it is presumably considered a good piece for students because of the large number of roles; clearly not on account of ease of performance and interpretation. There are ten main roles and choruses of wedding guests and of Heavenly Deities, many of which are duplicated or even triplicated. There are 19 names in the cast list.

The Adam Concert Room is not an ideal place for staged productions, but it is at least flexible. This time the orchestra was placed in front of the organ, an attractive position (since it focused attention of the charming case and pipe-work of the instrument), while the audience was seated on the other three sides. It meant that those on the sides had an impeded view at times.

The stage was furnished very simply, with a large round bed in the centre, a door between the audience seated on the right and those facing the orchestra, and a stair on the right of the orchestra leading to the gallery (not used by audiences) which encircles the auditorium – it represented the home of the gods. The main prop was a huge white sheet used variously to cover some of the sexual activity that is often suggested and sometimes to suggest a distinction between earth and the realm of the gods.

The wedding guests’ costumes are modern; while deities both great and small were in a variety of seductive gear, hot pants were favoured by several of the female deities.

The orchestra of 24 players, in front of the organ, played with a certain vivacity though there was some rhythmic monotony and I did not find the kind of accuracy that I’m sure I’m right in recalling at many of the productions and concert performances by the school of music of a decade and more ago.

Principals were good, particularly conspicuous the two cellos which had much solo, quasi-continuo work to do. The harpsichord continuo was deftly contributed by Julie Coulson.

The chorus was rarely disposed as a group, a phalanx, as is the default position among less imaginative directors, but were often in an outward facing circle that allowed the audience to hear the three or four voices in front of them much more loudly than the rest. It was just one of the marks that distinguished the direction by the gifted Sara Brodie. The result was an assembly of solo voices rather than a normal chorus; the aural effect was interesting and far from objectionable. They behaved generally as individuals and throughout created visual diversion.

Most of the principals were a good deal less secure at the beginning than later, after the impact of the full house had given them confidence and dissolved some of the nerves.

The leading roles were more than adequately filled, mainly by advanced or graduate students. Michael Gray, as befitted an already fairly experienced performer, was well-cast as a lustful and arrogant Jupiter, though not without a little concern for the welfare of the girl he has identified as a likely target – and vice versa.

His somewhat cynical urge, ‘I must with speed amuse her’, as he realizes how desperate she is, not just for his sexual attentions, but also to be elevated to the ranks of the immortals, with some particularly turbulent orchestral playing, was tempered by a lovely ‘Where’er you walk’ which at least sounded genuine. Juno, like Fricka in The Ring, has the jealous spoiler’s role; that didn’t deny Rachel Day (Laura Dawson sang Juno at other performances) some good moments such as her urgent ‘Hence Iris, hence away!’. Ultimately, manipulated by Juno disguised as Ino, Jupiter accedes to Semele’s insistence; Jupiter has by then sworn to comply with Semele’s demands and is appalled when she asks for him to appear in his true, incendiary form: ‘Ah! take heed what you press’ he pleads uselessly; and she is incinerated.

Amelia Berry as Semele (Rose Blake, her alternate) had a big role, credibly oversexed, and she sang attractively too. Though her report from on high, ‘Endless pleasure, endless love’ was sung instead by Iris, Semele’s ‘Sleep, why dost thou leave me?’ and ‘Myself I shall adore’, exhibiting very different emotions, were heart-felt, and she delivered some rather thrilling, if abandoned, top notes in her aria ‘No, no, I’ll take no less’.

Eventually her insatiable appetite and her Olympian ambition are her undoing.

Her more sedate sister, Ino (Bryony Williams – at other sessions, Bianca Andrew), who was also in love with Athamus, rejoices to be awarded as a second prize to the dead Semele’s bride-groom, and turns out to have an aptitude for sex as eager as her sister’s. Keiran Rayner sang Athamus with some feeling, exhibiting impatience with Semele’s procrastination with his ‘Hymen, haste’; but he’s little more than a plaything of the gods.

Omnipresent was Olga Gryniewicz as Iris, which she sang and acted most vividly, a lively presence throughout the opera. She was given Semele’s aria, ‘Endless pleasure, endless love’ (Congreve had given it to Iris in his libretto but Handel changed it to Semele; this production goes back o the original) which she sang from on high with a gusto as if it was she herself was in the midst of it all. A medium-sized role was that of Somnus, the god of sleep, invoked for somewhat nefarious purposes, sung by Joshua Kidd; he sang his famous aria, ‘Leave me loathsome light’ admirably, with a voice ranging from the hushed to ardent pleading.

As I remarked above, the orchestra sounded a little under-rehearsed though there was much excellent individual playing; the staging was imaginative; the cast was excellently disposed and they moved meaningfully. And the singing, both by the many principals and the choruses, was the thing, a good demonstration of the school’s strength.

On the opening night there was a deserved full house; as the only Handel opera Wellington seems likely to see in his anniversary year, and for quite a while, I hope the rest of the season was well supported.

Contemporary Rites – Xenia Pestova and Pascal Meyer

Xenia Pestova, piano; Pascal Meyer, piano
STRAVINSKY: “The Rite of Spring”;
DUGAL MCKINNON: “Diktat, Ditty Half-Life”;
CHRIS WATSON: “Coffee Table Book”.


NZ School of Music Adam Concert Room, 17 July 2009

**VUW Hunter Council Chamber, 19 July 2009

Is ballet music programme music when performed without the ballet? If it is, then is it “about” the dance action onstage, or is it, instead, more “about” the story and images that inspired the ballet’s  scenario in the first place? If so, then Stravinsky (famous for the dictum that music expresses only itself) may, paradoxically, have written one of the greatest tone poems of the twentieth century.

These were some of the thoughts going through my mind as I listened to duo pianists Xenia Pestova and Pascal Meyer playing “The Rite of Spring”. Their two-piano version provided more resonance and weight than the composer’s own arrangement for one-piano-four-hands, edging just a little closer to the power of the orchestra. At times Pestova and Meyer evoked familiar instrumental timbres (the opening bassoon, the dialogues of muted trumpets): at others they created something fresh and new – from washes of piano arpeggios, to sinister stalking rhythms.

Unexpectedly, rhythm also emerged as a crucial element in Stockhausen’s “Mantra”. Perhaps I should not have been so surprised: after all, “Piano Piece IX” began with a premonitory dose of pre-minimalist minimalism. However, in the 1956/61 piece, the regularly repeated chords were readily deconstructed into irregular flourishes at the extremes of the keyboard. In the 1969/70 “Mantra”, by contrast, a measured pulse recurred many times during the work – at one point with acerbic wit, as when Pestova’s peremptorily iterated high pitch “corrected” a “wrong” note written for Meyer’s part.

Pestova and Meyer’s intimate engagement with the piece enabled them to highlight episodes of lush romanticism and snatches of melody. Despite these, and the extended periods of metre, the 70-minute “Mantra” proved an epic marathon demanding concentration, commitment and stamina – and that was just for the listeners. The duo pianists themselves needed all these, plus exquisite coordination – especially in such instances as when Pestova’s microsecond woodblock had to coincide with Meyer’s attack. For the performers not only had the pianos, but also an array of small percussion instruments (woodblocks, tuned crotales), as well as dials to initiate ring-modulation (an electronic effect equivalent to Cage’s prepared piano, bringing the tone colour closer to that of the crotales).

Expertly controlled by sound projectionist Philip Brownlee, the ring modulation also offered an escape from the prison of twelve-equal temperament, notably in the form of arresting (all the more so for being sparingly deployed) sliding portamenti on piano sustains. With “Mantra”, Stockhausen had returned to more rigorously formulated composition after a period of experimentation with improvisation and chance: had he followed the precedent set by Markevitch, Ives and Wyschnegradsky and tuned one of the pianos a quarter-tone apart, he would have had even more scope for his procedure of expanding and contracting his intervallic material (a process pioneered in the 1920s by Mexican microtonalist Julian Carrillo).

After having been percussionists and vocalizing actors, Pestova and Meyer further heightened the excitement towards the end with a tour-de-force of rushing fugato passages.

Echoes of Stockhausen’s uncompromising modernism were present in Chris Watson’s “Coffee Table Book” in the earlier recital. Intended as the musical analogue of a pictorial volume (as opposed to the structured narrative of literary fiction), the piece was duly episodic, but retained Watson’s characteristic control of the flow of tension.

Xenia Pestova, a graduate of the Victoria University School of Music and pupil of Judith Clark, has always shown a commitment to contemporary (and New Zealand) music. With Luxembourg pianist Pascal Meyer, this seems set to continue with compositions for two pianos. Dugal McKinnon’s “Diktat, Ditty Half-Life”, with its neatly encapsulating concluding gesture, was the first of a series of miniatures for the duo. I look forward to hearing more.

Sing-along Requiem

Requiem by Verdi

The Orpheus Choir, enlarged with a massed chorus, conducted by Michael Fulcher

John Wells (organ) and Fiona McCabe (piano).

Soloists: Janey Mackenzie, Annabelle Cheetham, Richard Greager and Justin Pearce

Wellington Town Hall, Saturday 18 July

The Orpheus Choir has been staging a Singalong or Come’n’sing performance of a major choral masterpiece for as long as I’ve been writing reviews – over two decades. It’s always been popular, a wonderful way of meeting unfulfilled singing ambitions.

If the audience was not as big as you’d expect for Verdi’s Requiem (its first performance in Wellington for eight years) , which fills theatres anywhere in the world, it was because so many of the potential audience were on stage singing. The choir totaled nearly 300.

One might have expected a few weaknesses, but the result of solid rehearsal under Michael Fulcher, Friday evening and all day Saturday achieved a performance of energy, clean attack and ensemble and confidence: its very opening pages were highly impressive.

Signs of the times lay, rather, in the fact that an organ (Auckland City organist John Wells) rather than an orchestra accompanied, with sections for solo voices accompanied by Fiona McCabe at the piano. An orchestra would have been better, but it would have added unaffordable cost. (Help came from a subsidized Town Hall rental and from the city’s Creative Communities fund). Both organ and piano were more than adequate and there were many times (the piano with the four soloists in the Offertorio) when their contributions were most satisfying.

The soloists might not have been New Zealand’s top opera voices, but their performances varied from pretty good to surprisingly excellent. Justin Pearce was clearly nervous at this big assignment, but by the Confutatis Maledictis his voice had settled, admirably fitting the sense of that movement.

Professionally experienced mezzo Annabelle Cheetham and tenor Richard Greager (who stood in for John Beaglehole at short notice) were the most polished. Cheetham shone in the Recordare and Lux aeterna. The tenor’s main outing is the aria common in opera aria collections, the Ingemisco; better suited to his timbre were his parts in the Rex Tremendae, the Offertorio.

Janey Mackenzie sang her soprano role very engagingly: she had a successful duet with Cheetham in the Agnus Dei, and then astonished me with her penetrating, high-lying solo, floating above the choir in the latter stages of the Libera Me: there was nothing better than the conclusion with that varied, magnificent, beautifully controlled movement.

NZSO: Melnikov with Brahms, Wigglesworth with Britten

Sinfonia da Requiem (Britten), Symphony No 90 in C (Haydn), Piano Concerto No 1 in D minor, Op 15 (Brahms)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mark Wigglesworth with Alexander Melnikov (piano)

Michael Fowler Centre, Friday 17 July 2009

Mark Wigglesworth’s is a name that has been conspicuous on the European scene for a couple of decades: a visit to New Zealand has been long awaited. Alexander Melnikov is younger (though he played with the NZSO in 2001) but his live performances and recordings have already gained him a prominent place among the pianists of our time.

Brahms’s First Piano Concerto has the scale and substance of a symphony which is why it took the place usually accorded to ‘the big symphony’ in the second half; written before he was 25, it has imposing structural strength and speaks with a weight that seems mature far beyond his years; it seems an even more profound work than his second concerto written 20 years later.

Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem opened the concert, and the reaction of several friends after the performance was: ‘How come I’ve taken so long to discover this major symphonic work’. Why indeed, when there are really so few generally accepted great symphonies written in the last 70 years, isn’t it in the regular repertoire? It doesn’t have all the formal trappings of a symphony in the 19th century sense, but it is an extended work though not long in clock time, with three movements of varying mood and shape; interesting things happen, singular sounds arise at every turn, developments that stack up with the most cultivated processes in the symphonic tradition.

A commission from the Japanese Government on the eve of the Second World War when Britten was in America, the symphony was, in any terms, a strange and naïve response on his part.  Who could have thought a Christian Requiem suitable for celebrating the 2600th anniversary of the imperial Japanese dynasty? Was it some kind of adolescent try-on? One wonders whether, if he had written this music, inspired by the same ideas, but had simply called it an Imperial Symphony, or something, with no religious reference, it would have been happily accepted.

Incidentally, it was commissioned and written in 1940, but rejected as an insult to the Emperor, a year before Pearl Harbour. The programme note’s statement is misleading, referring to its performance – implying the first – at Boston in 1942 (after Pearl Harbour); it was first performed in New York on 30 May 1941 (before Pearl Harbour).

On this occasion at least, its overt character – in memory of his recently deceased parents – was an appropriate reason for the performance to be dedicated to the memory of Seddon Bennington who had died in the Tararuas a few days before. For that, the start of the first movement – Lacrymosa – with terrifying timpani hammerings was powerfully expressive, with alternating cries from bass instruments, then a passage of lamenting underpinned by a funereal tread. First I have to remark how different, and more histrionic, was this performance than those of Britten himself conducting in either of my two LPs: first, the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra (1953) and, much more vividly, the New Philharmonia (1964).

And speaking of recordings, it’s a pity the orchestra hadn’t waited for Wigglesworth before committing a performance to a rather ordinary recording for Naxos a few years ago.

Who knows whether Britten would have approved some aspects of the highly coloured, muscular performance by the NZSO? For Wigglesworth the music was driven by intense emotion that created an overwhelming impact.  The large and virtuoso forces were well used: six horns, two harps, an E flat saxophone, an important piano part. It was in fact the first time, after Our Hunting Fathers of 1936 for voice and quite large orchestra, that Britten had employed the full resources of a big symphony orchestra, and his command is remarkable. I recall Christopher Palmer commenting that virtuoso orchestral writing of this kind – he referred to both Our Hunting Fathers and the Sinfonia – was unknown in England at this time. Whatever else he may have felt about the Japanese, Britten must have assumed that a first rate orchestra was available.

The second movement, Dies Irae, starts echoing the galloping ride to Hell at the end of La damnation de Faust – perhaps he was aware of the omnipresence of the Dies Irae plainchant in Berlioz’s work: it was all highly energised. And at the other extreme; there’s a sleazy saxophone passage, and increasing chaos, hinting at the finale of Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony with its hard hitting xylophone rifle-fire. But Stravinsky is also there.

The last movement, Requiem Aeternam, is dominated by a calm lamenting that suggests a sea-scape such as Britten later created in Peter Grimes, a long, quite exquisitely played passage with harp, flute, bassoon and other solo instruments creating a magical atmosphere that was slowly dispersed as the conductor crept towards a restrained crescendo of calm grandeur.

I hope it left the audience, as it did me, with the conviction that here is a 20th century masterpiece whose beauty and power needs no apology whatsoever.

The programming of a little-known Haydn symphony – No 90 – was an odd move and the 200th anniversary of his death was not really sufficient justification for a work that hardly persuaded us of its unjust neglect, in spite of a scintillating performance. Peter Walls’s interesting programme note made as good a case for it as possible, but even with my strong predisposition in favour of Haydn, I did not find its interest level very great, in terms of melody or of melodic development, falling short in a feeling of musical substance, and of old-fashioned emotional response. The string playing was always piquant and the theme and variations in the slow movement offered attractive opportunities for wind players, though there was the odd fluff in the brass.

But more than anything, it seems to depend on Haydn’s penchant for throwing down false trails. That was its character well before the practical jokes in the last movement where twice a closing cadence fooled the audience into premature clapping. The shapes of phrases in the first movement were teasingly off-centre, and the Minuetto had ended in typical mid-sentence. So we should have been prepared for another, different, game in the last movement, but most of us were not.

When there is so little Haydn being played in his anniversary year (what a contrast with the Mozart over-kill in 1991!), something more indisputably great or really worth discovering was called for; perhaps one of the best London symphonies or a genuinely interesting one from his Sturm und Drang period would have better fitted the bill.

The Brahms concerto was a thoroughly authentic, grandly dramatic reading, not just on the part of the piano but also from the orchestra, which the conductor electrified right from the overpowering first attack from timpani and bass instruments, and through the long introduction that asserted the orchestra’s place as the more than equal partner of the piano.

When Melnikov made his discreet, self-effacing entry after three and a half minutes, it was almost with trepidation, doing nothing to deflect attention from the orchestra’s command of the music’s grandeur. But he was soon contributing his own stentorian double octave scales to the fabric that the orchestra had already described.

That was not to say that the orchestra dominated the scene, for the conductor’s obvious solicitude for the pianist’s careful rubatos and tempo changes allowed Melnikov a full share in the symphonic drama that this mighty canvas pungently unfolds across its fifty minute span. In the several quasi cadenzas Melnikov took his time, particularly in the spacious and lovely Adagio. There, often with beautiful partnering from oboe or horns; his right hand created delicate, luminous traceries, against murmuring strings.

One remembered that this movement was really a romantic message to pianist Clara Schumann, who, after Robert’s death in 1856, presumably invited a willing Brahms to continue to be a close friend, helping to look after domestic affairs and the children.

The last movement offered more conventional scope to pianist as virtuoso, running into big romantic cadenzas, adorning pretty wind passages with delicate piano figures, articulated with great clarity; and then relishing the decorative, keyboard-long runs. The orchestra (nearly) always kept in step with the deceptively tricky rhythms, though there were a couple of points when, in the midst of a fortissimo climax involving virtually everything on the stage, I wondered whether pianist and conductor were flying blind, in an aural sense. .

Aivale meets Leontyne ‘n Ella

Leontyne ‘n’ Ella: two legends, one voice 

Aivale Cole (soprano) and David Wickens (piano) 

Town Hall, Thursday 16 July 2009 

Winning the Lexus Song Quest propelled Aivale Cole towards a career in England, and the money will help. But it takes a lot more and so this concert was a ‘benefit concert’ in all but name (see 

Eight big opera arias in the first half (Leontyne Price), and ten (including an encore) jazz and Broadway items in the second (Ella Fitzgerald). 

Aivale made her dramatic entrance with the two arias that clinched the Song Quest: Rintorna vincitor from Aida with every ounce of anguish at the hideous dilemma she is presented with at the opera’s start, and Es gibt ein Reich from Ariadne auf Naxos, where Ariadne not just pines for but demands death, her voice leaping huge, spine-tingling intervals with pin-point accuracy, commanding the entire hall with her ferocious emotion. 

So it continued, with a self-pitying Vissi d’arte (Tosca), a violence, suppressed with white-knuckled rage in Elvira’s Mi Tradi from Don Giovanni, and the fierce loyalty that Fiordiligi swears in Come scoglio (Cosi fan tutte) like I’ve never heard before. And the opera section ended, not with the usual pretty Summertime from Porgy and Bass, but the despairing My man’s gone now.  

The second half began as she walked up an aisle, for a triumphant performance of what is little more than a ditty: A Trisket a tasket (though an Ella one, to be sure). It became a hilarious party piece, with the help of pianist Wickham.  She threw herself into Cole Porter’s Too Darn Hot, rauchiness nothing daunted; I loved her voluptuous low notes in the Arlen/Mercer Come rain or come shine; the comic flair, brilliantly understated, in To keep my love alive and her relishing the verbal wit of It’s delovely – another Porter classic.  

Her pianist David Wickham accompanied with a rare sympathy, his notes planted exquisitely, a fraction before or after Aivale’s. But it was surprising to realize that the odd resonance in the piano was the result of the quite unnecessary amplification. 

It was more acceptable in the second half which was the province of Ella Fitzgerald’s repertoire, where Aivale too used a microphone, though it actually constricted and nasalized her vocal quality. The unthinking use of amplification for popular music of all kinds always seems to me a sad succumbing to the uncultivated tastes of the young and the unlettered: Aivale put it aside for I had myself a true love, her last song, and it was fine. 

A great audience – the hall three-quarters full – celebrated her rise and vociferously wished her success.

(this review was printed, little changed, in The Dominion Post)

New Zealand Youth Choir: 30th anniversary concert

New Zealand Youth Choir, conducted by Karen Grylls, Guy Jansen and Peter Godfrey

Wellington Town Hall, Sunday afternoon, 12 July 2009

Only a few weeks after the 50th anniversary of the National Youth Orchestra comes the 30th anniversary of the New Zealand Youth Choir. It involved a large number of the choir’s alumni as well as the choirs two previous conductors, Guy Jansen and Peter Godfrey.

The Sunday afternoon concert was the culmination of a weekend of celebrations. Entry was free as a result of practical recognition by both the Wellington Convention Centre and City Council of the choir’s remarkable international stature and the kudos it attracts for New Zealand; for example, almost always winning big prizes on their three-yearly world tours; in 1999 at Llangollen they were ‘Choir of the World’.

I am assured that the New Zealand choir was a first youth choir to be formed in the world. It was inspired in 1978 by the then national officer for music education in the Department of Education, Guy Jansen, (is there such a post today?). He invoked the support of Peter Godfrey, then Professor of Music at Auckland University; Godfrey was enthusiastic and the choir gave its first concert in 1979. Jansen conducted it initially and Godfrey took over for the next six years in 1982.

The story goes that British conductor Sir David Wilcox was so impressed when he guest conducted the choir in 1980 that he founded a youth choir in Britain, and the rest of the world has followed.

This concert was in two parts: the first involving the present choir of 50 voices conducted by the present conductor of 20 years standing, Karen Grylls, and the second half, with the choir boosted to over 150 by alumni, the conducting was shared between Jansen and Godfrey as well as Grylls. The present choir began the concert with the ritual Whanau Te Iwi E, at once calling attention both to the Maori and Polynesian choir members and to the whole choir’s deep instinct for the character of present-day Polynesian music. Ferocity combined with the finest care with harmony and ensemble.

Later the full choir sang Hine e Hine, with a lucid solo contribution from soprano alumna Kate Lineham, and the Ka Waiata, and Christopher Marshall’s arrangement of the Samoan Minoi Minoi: they were among the most moving performances.

But there was much else. A chorus by Ugolini (Quae ista est) followed – nothing could have been more different and I must say the contrast left the latter, the choir divided into three parts, sounding somewhat limp. Mendelssohn’s Ehre sei Gott made a better impact, displaying the choir’s discipline and attention to detail. In the second half Professor Godfrey chose two other movements from Mendelssohn’s 1846 German Liturgy which, with the entire choir past and present, were more satisfying than the earlier piece.

Then followed several contemporary pieces: Jack Body’s familiar Carol St Stephen with men and women divided right and left, Schnittke’s Lord’s Prayer, which did not reveal its character fully.

Most striking of the present choir’s performances under Karen Grylls were the Credo from Frank Martin’s Mass for double choir and Norwegian composer Grete Pedersen’s Jesus gjor meg stille (‘Jesus bring me peace’) creating an extraordinary spiritual atmosphere, with the choir spaced out widely across the entire choir gallery. A sole tenor rising from an underlay of softly murmuring women’s voices, and the Norwegian language, provided one of the evening’s memorable moments.

After that Rautavara’s songs were rather bleak, but the first half came to a lovely ending with the Welsh song Suo gan.

Naturally, the whole choir, alumni and all, that filled the stage and choir stalls after the interval created a richer and more opulent volume of sound, the balance and blending of voices wonderfully managed by all three conductors. Dr Jansen conducted his own beautiful arrangement of the New Zealand Anthem; Lotti’s Crucifixus; again took full advantage of the power and depth of the bigger choir, as did the deeply felt spiritual Lord What a Morning.

After the two Mendelssohn pieces mentioned above, Peter Godfrey conducted Lux Aeterna by prominent composer and alumnus David Hamilton, present in the choir’s ranks and Godfrey called on him to take applause. Its ethereal, long sustained lines showed some of the most refined aspects of the choir’s training.

Karen Grylls conducted the two other Maori waiata, bracketing three of Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songs. It seemed a little odd to have chosen as the penultimate items in such a celebratory concert these modest, undemonstrative songs in which the choir, though singing with considerable finesse, really took the back seat behind with James Harrison who sang the substantial solo parts and perhaps behind the colourful and interesting organ accompaniment from James Tibbles.

However, the Ka Waiata did the job of ending in a robust and ethnically apt spirit.

(An expansion of the review printed in the Dominion Post)