Celebrating the 200th anniversary: Haydn and the New Zealand String Quartet

Haydn String Quartets: Op 64 No 5 (The Lark), Op 74 No 3 (The Rider), Op 20 No 5, Op 77 No 1 (Compliments)

New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl and Douglas Beilman – violins, Gillian Ansell – viola, Rolf Gjelsten – cello)

St Mary of the Angels, Saturday 29 August 2009

Peter Mechen has written a review of the first of the two concerts by the New Zealand String Quartet on Tuesday 25 August, commemorating the 200th anniversary of the death of Haydn. That concert contained, not only 21 excerpts from the quartets, from Op 1 to Op 103, but also recitations by the four quartet members from letters and memoirs recorded by a number of biographers and commentators. (Admirably, the programme listed the references so that the audience could seek out some of the books the next morning at library or on internet).

That tour de force of musical adventure and theatrical entertainment was not repeated in the second concert which I heard on Saturday (it had been played first on Thursday 27 August in the Hunter Council Chamber).

This repeat of the second programme was held at 6pm, in part, presumably, to enjoy the evanescent light of day as it dimmed through the stained glass, allowing the church soon to be lit only by prolific candelabra (in the singular it’s ‘candelabrum’, by the way).

For this they chose four of their favourite quartets, and played them with profound affection, brilliance and insight.

Many of the popular quartets have acquired nick-names; three of the four were The Lark, The Rider and Compliments. The earliest was from Op 20, published in 1772, a group that was nick-named The Sun, presumably on account of the publisher’s engraving on the cover. Just as the earlier concert had been a revelation in terms of the growing maturity and the increasing complexity and sophistication of Haydn’s writing, so the comparison between the two quartets in the second half, Op 20 No 5 and the Op 77 No 1, 30 years apart was very striking.

The former is a serious work, in F minor, and the themes of the first movement lend themselves to imaginative development that evidences the compositional learning Haydn already commanded. Though it was the Op 33 set, ten years later, that inspired Mozart’s set that he dedicated to Haydn, it is easy to understand how the style, shape and melodic evolution of this earlier quartet would have impressed the younger composer.

The first movement impresses with a convoluting, ever-expanding theme, and the quartet managed to portray its unusual character without excessive minor-key sombreness; on the other hand the thoughtful, quite elaborate Minuet does not present the normal unbuttoned peasant dance; and the unusual Adagio, a Siciliano in triple time ends with typically Haydnesque flippancy. All of these unconventionalities the players handled with calm understatement. And then there’s the fugal, though quite short, last movement; just to show that he wasn’t simply a tunesmith.

The rapport and compatibility of the string quartet members and their marvellous command of the notes justified the performance of this relatively early quartet.

Op 77 No 1 (Compliments) has a far more varied and confident character, each instrument offered a great deal more individuality, all manner of original, vacillating rhythmic and melodic touches in the first movement ending with enchanting scales from Rolf Gjelsten’s cello. It was written, indeed, after the publication of Beethoven’s Op 18 set and in many ways it demonstrates an intellectual and artistic breadth that Ludwig would have embraced. I have rarely heard the quartet playing with greater accomplishment and in an accord so completely engaged.

The first half contained the more diverting works – familiar, brilliant, melodic: The Lark, clearly justifying its name, with Helene Pohl’s violin soaring beautifully in the first, too short, movement; with one of the loveliest of Haydn’s slow movements in a ravishing performance; and a vivace finale which they turned into a scintillating prestissimo.

The Rider was one of the quartet’s earliest Haydn quartets and for me, their handling remains unexcelled. They tackled the opening Allegro with such a carefree, open air spirit, in spite of its minor key (the common classification of major and minor modes as happy and sad really is nonsense). The slow movement, somewhat reminiscent of the great slow movement of the Emperor quartet, highly ornamented, so different in tone from the adjacent movements, was laid out exquisitely. The infectious galloping rhythms in both first and last movements faltered at none of the hurdles and the lower strings supported the sure-footed gallop: so fast, so ‘con brio’ in the final Allegro, that its excited breathlessness hinted at the mood of which Mozart was master in The Marriage of Figaro.

‘Hideous Love’ offered by Brio, opera ensemble

Excerpts from Handel’s Acis and Galatea, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, and Verdi: Un ballo in maschera, Il Trovatore, Rigoletto

Brio: Janey MacKenzie, Jody Orgias, John Beaglehole, Roger Wilson; piano: Robyn Jaquiery

St Andrew’s on The Terrace. Wednesday 26 August 2009

The success of the somewhat heterogeneous range of voices comprising the vocal ensemble Brio lies in their energy and histrionic flair and the plain delight they four take in what they undertake. On this occasion Roger Wilson replaced the ensemble’s usual baritone Justin Pearce.

Acis and Galatea was given a semi-staged performance by New Zealand Opera a few years ago in the Opera House. It is a hybrid work, classed as a masque, a hybrid dramatic form that possibly has more in common with the French opéra-ballet, practised by Lully and Campra. First performed in 1718, it was Handel’s first dramatic venture in English; his only other dramatic piece in English, a true opera, not counting oratorios, was Semele.

Roger Wilson began with Polyphemus’s aria, ‘O ruddier than the cherry’ – one of those arias that one wishes was in Czech or something we didn’t understand. The odd case of a love song that seems more designed to dismay than to seduce. I was as struck by John Beaglehole’s tenor aria – as Acis – ‘Love sounds the alarm’, a vivid, penetrating performance.

Towards the end of the aria Janey MacKenzie, as Galatea, and Wilson joined in with a display of theatrical ferocity that truly shook the altar.

If the final quartet, now including Jody Orgias, didn’t offer the most beautiful blend, it was dramatic, diction was clear and it did what is most valuable – encouraged us all to rush to the library to borrow score or recordings.

The Italian version of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (why the reference to Berlioz’s 19th century version?) might not have exemplified hideous love, but Jody Orgias, as Orpheus, evoked a bereft figure and her unusual timbre did grief very well. The following duet, ‘Vieni, appaga il tuo consorte’ between Orgias and MacKenzie was the more credible, given the marked contrast in their voices. Beaglehole took over the role of Orfeus to sing ‘Che farò senza Euridice’ with feeling and minor intonation flaws.

The rest of the concert was Verdi’s. First, the night scene in Un ballo in maschera where Amelia consults Ulrica with Riccardo observing. Jody’s singing captured Ulrica splendidly, filled with foreboding, while Janey captured the timorous Amelia’s anxiety very well.

The next case of unlikely, if not hideous, love was that between the Conte di Luna and Leonora in Il Trovatore. Roger Wilson as the unhinged count, expecting to get Leonora on condition of freeing Manrico, again summoned fearful Verdian rage, while MacKenzie’s part gave her an opportunity for some impressive bravura singing.

The last excerpt was the great quartet from the last act of Rigoletto, where each character reveals starkly different emotions, and here they were delineated with remarkable vividness.

The group’s regular pianist, Robyn Jaquiery supported all the singing colourfully: the piano was raised to the middle level of the steps that rise to the sanctuary: an excellent improvement both in visibility and sound.

NZSO/Todd Corporation: promoting our young composers


ALEX TAYLOR: “fray”;
PIETA HEXTALL: “Portrait”;
TABEA SQUIRE: “Vee Dub and the Little Tiger go Wandering”;
CORWIN NEWALL: “Significant Figures”;
HANNAH GILMOUR: “Though It Lingers”;
LIZZIE DOBSON: “A Study in Scarlet”;
ARNA SHAW: “Timatanga”;
MINTO FUNG: “The Chase”;
AJITA GOH: “Freedom is Not Free”;
MATTHEW CHILDS: “Alone In The Night”.

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Hamish McKeich

Michael Fowler Centre, Monday 24 – Tuesday 25 August 2009

The Todd Corporation’s – and New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s – support for the Young Composer Awards makes it one of the most important arts sponsorships in the country. Their promotion of the growing point – the apical meristem – of creative artistic development promises to deliver a much greater return in cultural benefits than the (more typical) funding that goes into many, more prominent, areas. As conductor and co-adjudicator Hamish McKeich put it, where else in the world would young people write such imaginative, fresh and varied pieces?

On occasions like this it seems almost de rigueur to say (as indeed McKeich did say), that the standard this time was higher than ever. I cannot entirely agree: in my view, I feel we have reached something of a plateau (albeit a gratifyingly high one). Certainly this year I found nothing as striking as the 2008 winning score, Alexandra Hay’s compellingly adventurous “Nocturnis Bellum”, which I covered in my review for “Salient” – (Google: alan wells september music month, or go to http://www.salient.org.nz/arts/music/classical-music-september-music-month)

However to be fair to McKeich and his fellow assessor Ross Harris (who mentored the young composers), while the best of 2009 might not have equalled that of 2008, the least satisfactory piece this year was arguably better than the comparable composition last year.

Aucklander Alex Taylor came closest to matching Hay’s achievement. His “fray” belonged to the same world as the very accomplished wind/string quintet “Four Abstracts” which Taylor presented at this year’s Nelson Composers’ Workshop and, like the quintet, was based on a single chord. The orchestral “fray” was an atmospheric study in the exploitation of clusters, sometimes sustained and static (occasionally with an “electronic” ambience), and sometimes moving in a closely woven microtexture. Taylor demonstrated an assured control of tension and release, and changes – even when abrupt – were always adroitly managed. During one magical moment, a high piccolo note was deftly thrown into violin harmonics.

Taylor, a first-time participant in the NZSO/Todd Awards, would have been my choice to win. Nevertheless it was another first-timer, Natalie Hunt, who did win. A graduate of Wellington’s New Zealand School of Music, and the 2009 National Youth Orchestra Composer-in-Residence, Hunt is an experienced young composer (though her evocative tone poem “Only to the Highest Mountain” for the NYO is the only other orchestral score of hers I had heard). Her NZSO/Todd submission “Rain II” opened with jaunty, jazzy pizzicato on contrabass (perhaps closest in spirit to her work for the Saxcess saxophone quartet): this was contrasted with a mournful, molto vibrato melody on the solo cello. A marimba ostinato began to add momentum, then suddenly a high, expectant sustained note made an inconclusive end – the pulse quickened just as the piece was about to die. It felt much more like the introduction to a longer work, than a complete composition in its own right. It was this unfinished quality that made the judges’ decision a surprising one for me.

Hunt admitted to being under a time constraint – the rush to meet the submission deadline. Fellow NZSM graduate Pieta Hextall, too, faced an issue of time: in her case, the stipulated limit on overall length. Hextall’s “Portrait” had as its core a central, ostinato-driven rhythm piece (reminiscent of “Impetus” in the 2008 Awards, and even more of her “Second Etude for Bassoon and Piano” – the sort of music Philip Glass might have written if he’d had any imagination). Framing this was a texture piece: rarefied, spare, carefully paced (similar to her “Third Etude” – the sort of music La Monte Young might have written if he’d had any imagination…). As with Hunt’s “Rain II”, I felt that “Portrait” could have gone on to develop further – there was so much more potential there.

This was Hextall’s third appearance at the Awards. So too for another NZSM student, Tabea Squire (NYO Composer-in-Residence in 2008). Her whimsically titled “Vee Dub and the Little Tiger go Wandering” hinted at Bruckner in its wide string tremolandi and grand chorale-like gestures, and Glass in its repeated ostinati, but was ultimately unlike either (someone suggested the pastoral Vaughan Williams as well, prompted perhaps by the “VW” of the title). Squire made sensitive use of soloistic timbres in addition to solid orchestral chords, and created a convincing flow of tension without the need for any single definitive climax.

Both Hextall and Squire have undertaken extensive university study. Corwin Newall, likewise making a third appearance at the Awards, is still at school (Dunedin’s Kaikorai Valley High). His cheerful, resolutely tonal “Significant Figures” showed an increasing competence in writing colourfully for orchestra, while retaining a youthful exuberance and abundance of musical ideas.

Waikato University is notable for encouraging its students to write for orchestra. The four represented last year employed fairly conservative tonal idioms, but with great facility in some very attractive compositions. Two of these young composers returned in 2009. Hannah Gilmour (who won a special commendation in 2008 for “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”) brought “Though It Lingers”, which packed in (perhaps a little too tightly within the restricted length) poised, suspended moments, urgent climaxes, and an expressive violin solo. Her compatriot Lizzie Dobson offered “A Study in Scarlet”, a genial score with some sombre undertones, less bright than its title might suggest (and a stark contrast to Dobson’s frenetically driven toccata for orchestra “Ricercare per Vita” of 2008).

Arna Shaw (then living in Christchurch) received a special mention in 2007 for best first entry. This proved a prescient judgement. Now studying at Wellington’s NZSM, Shaw displayed significant progress in her well-constructed “Timatanga”, balancing koauau glides on the flute, and solemn string laments, with driven rhythms and forceful climaxes. A further NZSM student, Minto Fung, provided an very short but engagingly witty tone poem “The Chase”.

Music with a narrative or pictorial element was indeed strongly in evidence. “Feral” by Robbie Ellis bore a programme note describing a secretive, sinister creature. Ellis’s composition was characteristically energetic: dark and restless with exciting climaxes and only rare moments of respite. With his feeling for theatre and an ear for unusual orchestral effects, the Auckland University graduate (now resident in Wellington) utilised “jet-whistles” on the flute, rapid parallel chords on the trumpets, a “blood-curdling scream”, and instructions for lighting manoeuvres. The Orchestra entered enthusiastically into the over-the-top spirit, vocalisations and all. They voted it their favourite piece.

Aucklander Ajita Goh’s “Freedom is Not Free” was inspired by the inscription on a Washington DC Korean War memorial. The string ostinati and stately brass chorales reminded me (again) a little of Bruckner, while the splashes of unexpected colour from harp and vibraphone recalled Goh’s own, more lyrical “Reflection” from last year.

Also suggestive of Bruckner was Matthew Childs’ orchestration in “Alone In The Night”, in that there were hardly any solos, and extensive use of instrumental groupings – rather in the manner of organ registration. Rhythmically tricky, this score employed many changes of time signature.

I have, regrettably, no information on Childs. In contrast to last year – which was organised by the excellent Roger Smith – no scores were made available to reviewers (my phone message of enquiry was not returned), and some of those that I did see (courtesy of the composers) contained no biographical notes. This event is worth constructive, critical evaluation – witness the number of young composers who have appeared in previous Awards (such as Claire Cowan, Ryan Youens, Robin Toan, and Karlo Margetic) who have been taken up by the NZSO-Sounz Readings.

Recordings made over the two days, together with interviews by Jeremy Brick, will be broadcast later in the year by RNZ Concert, in programmes in their 8 pm Sunday evening “Young New Zealand” series.

Haydn with Strings attached

An overview of Josef Haydn’s String Quartets

New Zealand String Quartet

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University of Wellington

Tuesday 25th August, 2009

“Music begins where words leave off” as the old saying goes, suggesting that the two media are sometimes best left to their own devices, and that their combination needs to be handled with surety and skill. However, by using both spoken words and music (more easefully as the evening progressed) the New Zealand String Quartet managed in their presentation “Josef Haydn and the String Quartet” to bring the composer to life as the author of one of the most life-enhancing creative endeavours to grace the civilised world. Had there been any complete CD sets of the quartets for sale at the door afterwards, I would have compulsively bartered what resources I could have mustered, in order to leave with one, as a result of the NZSQ’s advocacy.

Haydn began composing String Quartets with his Op.1 set in the late 1750s, and for the best part of the next fifty years continued to produce an unsurpassed body of work in the genre. His efforts concluded with his final, unfinished quartet in 1803, intended to be the third of a set of six, but whose completion at that stage of his life was beyond his powers. The quartet members patiently and skilfully delineated this progression by the composer through various stages of his career with precise biographical information, anecdotes and quotes in tandem with quartet movements used as musical “signposts”. The players’ spoken delivery soon lost a certain “stiffness” at the outset, as they warmed to the ambience of both the auditorium and the audience, their story-telling and detailing in words and music exerting an ever-increasing fascination throughout the evening.

There was so much to take in thoughout – from the incidental anecdotes relating to specific movements (the “fleeing from a whipping” aspect of the Presto of Op.1 No.3, and the interaction with fellow-composer and performer Dittersdorf at a beer-hall where a scherzo of Haydn’s is being played – Op.33 No.5 – to the latter’s mock-dismay), the composer’s sense of humour (righteous indignation from historian Charles Burney at Haydn’s flouting the rules of composition in works like the finale of “The Joke” Quartet Op.33 No.2, and Haydn’s own attitude to these rules, writing “con licenza” over the Allegro of Op.55 No.2, with its catchy dotted rhythm and closely-worked contrapuntal development set against unexpected rhythmic irregularities), as well as general observations such as regarding the composer’s religious beliefs (the beautiful hymn-like Affetuoso of Op.20 No.1).

All of these musical realisations the NZSQ took in its stride; and while not all detailing was perfect, the playing was consistently characterful and engaging. We were able to feel the composer’s discomfiture in his unhappy marriage by dint of the almost Straussian solo violin part in the Adagio of  Op.54 No.2, which combines recitative and lyricism in a startlingly candid way; and at the other end of the human interaction scale we felt the warmth of the regard between Haydn and Mozart, characterised by the Presto finale of  Op.55 No.3. There was, too, the liberation of the composer from Esterházy, and an encounter in London with Sir William Herschel, the astronomer, and Haydn’s scientific initiation into the vastness of the cosmos, and the resulting awe of creation, expressed in the adagio of Op.71 No.2. Towards the end we heard the Andante grazioso from the composer’s final unfinished quartet, and then the bizarre post-mortem odyssey of Haydn’s head, a black-humoured tale suitably capped with the high-jinks of another marvellous movement from the composer’s oeuvre, the Presto from Op.76 No.5.

This was great work from the New Zealand String Quartet – a well-rounded and affectionate salute to a composer whose work, despite its popularity, seems inexhaustible in what it brings to us for our continued pleasure.

Wellington Regional Aria Contest: Dame Malvina Major Prize


Wellington Regional Aria Contest Final: Hutt Valley Performing Arts Competitions Society; Adjudicator: Angela Gorton. Finalists: Rose Blake, Kieran Rayner, Amelia Berry, Elitsa Kappatos, Olga Gryniewicz. Pianists: Catherine McKay and Emily Mair

St Andrew’s on The Terrace. Sunday 23 August 2009

In recent years what used to be the Aria Contest of the Hutt Valley Performing Arts Competitions Society has struggled to survive. For many years it was The Evening Post Aria, but after The Dominion and The Evening Post merged in 2002, the paper dispensed with that responsibility. It has now been taken under the wing of the Dame Malvina Major Foundation and the first prize is now a generous $4000.

That being so, it was surprising that there were only five entrants to the aria competition, compared with more than 20 in some earlier years. There was a clash with the aria contest in Dunedin and there were other apparently competing events that prevented many singers from other parts of the country from taking part this year.

The adjudicator was Angela Gorton. The accompanist Catherine Norton who gave the most sensitive support to all but one of the singers; Emily Mair accompanied Kieran Rayner.

All singers were between 20 and 22 years of age, and all but one of them had appeared in the New Zealand School of Music’s production of Semele.

The first contestant was Rose Blake who was the alternate Semele. She chose Marzelline’s aria from Fidelio, ‘O wär ich schon mit dir vereint’. It is usually hard to take the first position in such a contest and nervousness and probably inadequate warming up affected her voice which, though proving quite strong, was tight and her phrasing uneven. It was no surprise that her second aria, ‘I’ll take no less’, from Semele, found her in much better shape, more practised and confident in her gestures as a result of the stage experience.

Kieran Rayner, who had sung the role of Athamus in Semele, made a singular impression at once, singing the aria ‘Mein Sehnen, mein Wähne’ from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt, letting the audience realize that there’s more to it that the familiar Marietta’s Lied. He showed a naturally attractive voice, with comfortable delivery, never under pressure. His second aria showed similar accomplishment, from a contrasting opera style, Ambroise Thomas ‘other’ opera, Hamlet: ‘O vin, dissipe la tristesse’ (not something that you’ll find in the Shakespeare version). He sang with flair, in good French, his rhythm, phrasing and dynamics all under fine discipline. I had no doubt that he would be hard to beat in this small field.

Amelia Berry was the Semele that I saw on the opening night but she refrained from making use of that experience. She sang the charming, lyrical aria ‘Ruhe sanft’ from Mozart’s unfinished opera Zaïde and later, ‘Una voce poco fa’ from The Barber of Seville. She failed to articulate the top notes in the Mozart; perhaps her choice had taken her out of her natural register, or perhaps it was simply nerves. So I was not surprised with a more comfortable performance of her Rossini, lying a little lower though with more bravura, which she carried off with agility and accuracy. In this it was easier to gauge the quality of her voice, and I thought she might win one of the prizes.

Elitsa Kappatos did not have a role in Semele. Though she chose pieces that are very familiar, pieces that make considerable demands, her performances were creditable. ‘O mio babbino caro’ was a little shrill, but her intonation was accurate and she made a nice personal impression. She gave herself every advantage in the Habanera from Carmen, with an appropriate costume, she refrained from excessive gestures, yet carried off the confident, strong-willed, mezzo role with a certain flair.

Olga Gryniewicz had made a vivid impression in Semele, as Iris, and she chose one of her main arias in the contest: ‘Endless pleasure’. It was a shade less striking here, removed from the theatrical setting, the line a little too staccato, and her voice monochrome. But she did well to tackle Norina’s fine, coloratura aria from Don Pasquale, ‘Quel guardo il cavaliere’. Her voice coped with its high, airy, innocent character, her Italian was good, and rhythmic sense – rubato – well cultivated. She draws attention as a spunky, characterful singer; but an underlying strain is audible, reflecting a voice production difficulty.

Nevertheless, I had thought she would get a mention among the prize winners.

Angela Gorton awarded the Dame Malvina Major Foundation prize and the prize for the singer displaying the most consistent standard, as well as the Jenny Wollerman award for the best song or aria in French to Amelia Berry. Kieran Rayner was given the Rokfire Cup for the most outstanding singer in the senior vocal class and the Robin Dumbell Cup for the singer with the most potential. In effect he was runner-up.

Finally, I must draw attention to the longstanding devotion to the aria contest’s survival by its almost single-handed manager, Betty Bennett, for the Hutt Valley Competitions Society. It is high time that others concerned with singing in Wellington took a share of the responsibility for the contest. Contests may not be favoured in certain quarters but they still represent, in a career that is based in public performance, an important way to gain attention in a frighteningly competitive scene.

Let us remember that Wellington’s own competitions society collapsed in the 1970s; since then the society in the Hutt Valley has filled the gap. It must not be allowed to stumble.

Bach organ recital from Mews at St Mary of the Angels

Lobet den Herrn:  Winter organ series at St Mary of the Angels: Douglas Mews

Bach: Partita on ‘Sei gegrüsset, Jesu gütig’, BWV 768; Sonata No 2 in C minor, BWV
526; Prelude and Fugue in E flat (St Anne) BWV 552

Church of St Mary of the Angels, Sunday 23 August 2009

This was the second in the series of three recitals on the Maxwell Fernie organ at St Mary of the Angels. The first was by the, shall we say, organiste titulaire of St Mary’s, Donald Nicolson. This one was by the City organist and keyboard specialist at the New Zealand School of Music, Douglas Mews. After the concert he talked in the organ loft to those interested, about the music and the organ. It was interesting to hear his comments, shorn of the usual breathless veneration of Fernie’s handiwork (to which I have subscribed), noting some of the quirks and difficulties to be encountered with the instrument’s registrations.

However, here was a fine concert of some of Bach’s great organ works, culminating in the
bold and sanguine St Anne Prelude and Fugue (though, as he noted, the tune was merely a bit like the hymn known to Anglicans as St Anne’s or ‘O God our help in ages past’; Bach would not have known it). It is thought that the two parts were probably not composed to be linked in the way they eventually came to be published.

The rest of the programme was not of particularly familiar music.

The Partita BWV 768 is a set of eleven variations on the chorale, ‘Sei gegrüsset, Jesu gütig’, of delightful variety, starting with its exposition that involved sprightly duets between pedals and manuals. Each variation led to quicker, grander or more elaborate treatment and Mews exploited some of the more entertaining stops discreetly on the way, including nasal reed stops in the third variation. It ended with a commanding summation of the piece’s essential spirit.

The set of six organ sonatas, BWV 825 – 830 are less familiar than the sets of sonatas, suites and partitas for cello, violin and other keyboards. They were probably written in Bach’s first years at Leipzig – the mid 1720s and to some extent made use of recycled music; they may have been written as studies for his oldest son, Wilhelm Friedmann. They are not easy, a compilation of the technical problems that a gifted student would want to master. However, their tone is generally genial, tuneful and not burdened with heavy textures, and the Fernie organ proved an admirable instrument in the hands of Mews.

The St Anne Prelude and Fugue was the most imposing of the three pieces: the prelude enjoyed certain droll figures, such as the planting of single heavy treads on the pedals, dotted rhythms. The fugue may not be a heavyweight but it is rich in imaginative devices and developments that Mews made even more interesting with his spirited, rhythmic playing and the expert, sometimes droll choice of stops.

Last Night of the Proms with Wellington Orchestra

Vector Wellington Orchestra and the Orpheus Choir conducted by Marc Taddei with Helen Medlyn (mezzo soprano) and Donald Nicolson (organ)

Wellington Town Hall, Saturday 22 August 2009

Wellington’s experience suggests that there’s no such thing as the Last Night of the Proms. The big audiences – this one was sold out – justifies the Wellington Orchestra’s decision to stick with a good thing, or at least a rewarding thing, so the adjective ‘last’ has to be understood as a relative term. One wonders how Wellington would turn out if another of the scores of nights at the Proms were presented; they have long been the way to get an assured audience to listen to unfamiliar or new music, which would be otherwise difficult to sell to the British public.

The fact is of course that, although presented in a music venue, by a symphony orchestra and other musicians, the event is not really about music. It’s about a ritual: coloured balloons, silly hats, waving Union Jacks (albeit with little gusto), standing up and making a noise some of which doubles as singing.

Marc Taddei is the ideal front-man, just a little larger than life, unabashed by the need to act the fool with unembarrassed conviction.

Though the pattern and perhaps the secret of its longevity is sameness and familiarity, there is usually at least one gesture towards something different, like a New Zealand piece. This time they got it out of the way quickly: David Hamilton’s Zarya (Russian – Dawn), which had marked an event in space exploration; it was a stagy fanfare with dominant brass and organ that sounded pseudo-festive, as if the composer was striving to create something brilliant, momentous but not quite feeling it in his bones.

That out of the way, the normal fare follows. Handel’s Zadok the Priest, had a strangely unimpressive performance. The long introduction by strings that should move with increasing excitement through the splendid sequence of harmonies over a steady rhythm, was seriously underpowered, mainly by the small string numbers, and matters only somewhat recovered with the choir’s more convincing though hardly overwhelming arrival.

Is there any connection between these signs of orchestral weakness and the unexplained resignation of the highly successful General Manager Christine Pearce?

Helen Medlyn threw herself into the spirit of the show from the beginning, even though the two Handel arias were hardly festive; as she herself remarked, they were both sad (and neither of them was in English). The first, the famous ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from Rinaldo, the second, the very unfamiliar ‘Furibondo spira il vento’ from Partenope which no one would have heard of a few years ago; it’s one of the most recently unearthed of his operas. Helen gave them her best, florid passages and all, but the orchestra hardly lent her lustrous or energized support.

I was glad that she demonstrated to an audience, many of whom were probably unfamiliar with a singer without a microphone, that a real voice can fill the hall perfectly well. When it came to the Noel Coward songs in the second half however, she succumbed, though Coward would probably have been horrified. Microphones did not come into use for musical comedy and light opera till the 50s, and of course it’s been downhill since then.

But at least she demonstrated how the device could be used with subtlety and to expressive effect.

Her utterly over-the-top performance of the A Bar on the Piccolo Marina was one of the best things in the evening (a memorable demonstration of ‘slipping into something loose’; see the lyrics – http://lyricsplayground.com/alpha/songs/a/abaronthepiccolamarina.shtml).

The Polovstian Dances from Prince Igor followed, with the welcome presence of the choir (I remember hearing them played by orchestra only on radio many times in my youth without realising that they were ‘choral’ dances). Again, it was the choir that gave them the colour and energy they need so much.

When the strings again sounded uninvolved at the start of Walton’s Crown Imperial March I wondered whether it was the position of my seat that was affecting my experience; I don’t think so.

The second half is the time for flags and noise, and music inherited from an age of jingoism and xenophobia. First was Eric Coates’s Dambuster’s March, celebrating one of the much vaunted but more useless exploits of the Second World War, which succeeded in drowning hundreds of civilians but made no dent in Germany’s arms production capacity; then Elgar’s first Pomp and Circumstance March with its cringe-making words, and Rule Britannia, ironical in an age when the country has difficulty even ruling itself.

However, the audience made Marc Taddei’s job easy by responding spiritedly, singing along, regardless. And Donald Nicolson’s brilliant organ flourishes contributed greatly.

As for Henry Wood’s classic, Fantasia on British Sea Songs, as usual, it was much abbreviated, ending with the hornpipe, Jack’s the Lad (fifth of the nine parts): it accelerated too early, a phenomenon known in other contexts as ‘premature ….’, and so its excitement was compromised. There were good moments: Brenton Veitch’s cello solo offered a lovely calming phase; and a happy clarinet solo by Moira Hurst stood out. Last year the London Proms dropped the Sea Songs: what of the future?

The concert came to and end with the audience on its feet for the most part, in Rule Britannia, ‘No place like home’, ‘Hine e hine’ and ‘Auld lang syne’.

Even though this formula remains popular, and it does expose people to a real orchestral experience, I do wish we got some different music, such as is heard at Vienna’s New Year Concert or Berlin’s Waldbühnen concerts.

Extreme Lands

Frances Moore (voice), Anna McGregor (clarinet), Ben Hoadley (bassoon), Pia Palme (contrabass recorder), Dylan Lardelli (guitar), Nell Thomas (accordion), Takumi Motokawa (percussion), Charlotte Fetherston (viola), King Pan Ng (erhu).
CAROL MICALLEF: “Cigarettes for Ping Pong”;
HERMIONE JOHNSON: “The Deep Blue Sky”;
KING PAN NG: “ExtremeLand”.

Massey University Theatrette, 21-22 August 2009

“Extreme Lands” was an event incorporating sound (live and recorded), words, and images, imaginatively curated by Wellington composer Alexandra Hay.

There were four items on the programme, beginning with “Cigarettes for Ping Pong” by experimental singer-songwriter Carol Micallef, which she sang in her attractive voice, accompanying herself on a tiny retro synth, with the aid of erstwhile guitarist Dylan Lardelli on viola.

Alexandra Hay’s own work, “Moon Song”, utilized a text by Branwen Millar, ingeniously presented as an interplay between words projected onto a screen, and words vocalized by Frances Moore. Each section was associated with a different aspect of water, for instance The Harbour, Ice, Tap, and Open Bodies. Hay’s use of electroacoustic sound files, such as the warm enveloping introduction, and the undulating filtered white noise underlying the voice in “The Harbour”, were reminiscent of the use of electronics in her atmospheric “White Rain” for amplified flute (which won the Victoria University composition competition in 2006). On the other hand, the exploitation of extended techniques on the live instruments (down to transferring the conventional western violin tremolando onto Ng’s traditional Chinese erhu), reminded me of her daring demands on the NZSO in the quietly powerful “Bellum Nocturnis” (winner of the 2008 NZSO/Todd Corporation Award).

Hay’s fellow graduate from the Victoria University NZ School of Music, Hermione Johnson, has been interested in very low sounds, and very high sounds. In “The Deep Blue Sky”, she joined Hay in exploring very soft sounds, and non-standard ways of playing instruments. Intense concentration on the barely audible world of the bellows-breath of Nell Thomas’s accordion, the bowed bridge of Dylan Lardelli’s guitar, and the key clicks of Ben Hoadley’s bassoon, drew the listener in, until the first tentative notes of definite pitch began to emerge towards the end of the piece.

King Pan Ng’s “ExtremeLand” relied mainly on projected images and recorded sound files to carry its message (encompassing the ends of a geographic spectrum, from Burmese refugees to icy landscapes). The performers seemed to have little to play: for them, it might have been “avant karaoke”. The images, however, stayed on in the mind, particularly those of the victims of the Myanmar junta.

Alastair Carey with the Clerkes of Christ Church, Oxford

English anthems and motets, including Byrd’s Mass for Three Voices and Purcell’s ‘Rejoice in the Lord alway’

Hugo Janáček, Alastair Carey, Gregory Skidmore (the Clerkes); Pepe Becker (sopano), Robert Oliver (viol), Douglas Mews chamber organ)

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Wednesday 19 August 2009

The former tenor and director of The Tudor Consort, Alastair Carey, who left Wellington to pursue a career in England found his way into the choir of Christ Church (it does not employ the word ‘college’, though it is one), Oxford. The choir is one of the several distinguished university choirs which include, variously, professional singers – ‘lay clerks’, boy choristers and undergraduates; it is the choir of the college after which Christchurch was named because John Robert Godley, one of the city’s founders, had studied there.

Carey teamed up with two of his colleagues, all of whom have also performed with other notable choirs in several countries, to take advantage of this connection; and the three singers had sung in Christchurch before arriving in Wellington.

As the backbone of the first half of the concert, they used Byrd’s Mass for Three Voices, punctuating it with anthems and motets by other Tudor and Restoration composers.

The impact of the three voices in their first piece, Sheppard’s ‘In manus tuas’, was revelatory, producing a sound of superb blend and stylish elegance, of a polish and finesse that is not common. The baritone, Gregory Skidmore, had a voice of particular beauty, and in the Gloria of Byrd’s Mass, it emerged, additionally, with robust energy.

Most of the intermediate pieces were by Dowland: songs of loss and distress, which provided an unleavened sequence of suffering and lament. Purcell’s two anthems, ‘Lord, what is man, lost man?’ and ‘What hope remains now he is gone?’ did little to lift the air of self-pity and tragedy, beautiful though they were. However, variety was present as most of the songs – as distinct from the a cappella mass – were accompanied by Robert Oliver on the bass viol with Douglas Mews on the chamber organ.

Carey himself took a solo role in Purcell’s ‘Flow my tears’, with organ accompaniment, producing attractive, sustained lines in a tone of subdued lamenting.

The second half moved forward a century, apart from the rather charming lullaby, ‘Quid petis, O fili’ by the shadowy Richard Pygott, to consist mainly of Purcell. In the Purcell songs, the three men were joined by soprano Pepe Becker whose voice was sometimes obscured by other more prominent parts, but often her striking timbre made an impact, for example in Purcell’s ‘Hear me, O Lord’ when voices and the instruments sounded in turn, creating an interesting narrative and texture. While in the next song, ‘Thy word is a lantern’, counter-tenor Hugo Janáček and Becker created diverting rhythms and varied timbres. The music was now distinctly more modern, the composer paying attention to vocal and instrumental timbres for their own sake.

A hymn, ‘O Lord my God’, by Purcell’s predecessor, Pelham Humphrey, who had an even shorter life than Purcell (he died at 26), drew attention to a great talent. New Grove remarks that Pelham’s personality ‘embodied much of the spirit of the Restoration court … a minimal respect for institutionalized morality…’. The hymn provided a long and impressive duet between tenor and baritone in quite adventurous style.

The familiar ‘Rejoice in the Lord alway’, introduced by a striking organ prelude, brought the bracket of Purcell to an end. The concert itself then moved into the 18th century to end with Boyce’s ‘The heavens declare the glory of God’, signs of gallant style, the singers proving equally comfortable in this very different music, with a bold passage from the baritone and Pepe Becker’s soprano rising clearly above the male voice textures.

Soprano Nicola Holt and pianist Nicole Chao at St Andrew’s

Nicola Holt (soprano) and Nicole Chao (piano) Songs by Thomas Arne, Schumann (Frauenliebe und –leben, Op 42) and Schubert; Ballade No 4 in F minor (Chopin)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace. Midday, Wednesday 19 August 2009

I missed the first two songs in this lunchtime concert, but was told that the two songs by Thomas Arne, from Shakespeare (‘Where the bee sucks’ from The Tempest, and ‘When daisies pied’ from Love’s Labours Lost) were most delightfully sung.
But I was very happy to arrive just after the Schumann song cycle had started. Nicola Holt’s very musical and beautifully articulated singing created a wonderfully satisfying performance of the charming and varied Schumann cycle. Her voice has a purity and unaffected quality that captures the sadness as well as the ecstatic qualities of the songs. There was hope and a sunny anticipation in ‘Helft mir, ihr Schwestern’ that shifted movingly to anxiety in ‘Süsser Freund, du blickest’, deeply felt.
The piano kept drawing attention to its major role in the songs, reflecting with rare sensitivity their subtle mood changes.
So it was fitting that the recital gave solo space to the piano, with Nicole Chao’s playing Chopin’s fourth Ballade. There was a carefully hesitant start, as much as to say, ‘dare I tell you this tale where distress and ecstasy alternate?’ Her left hand explored the story’s many facets with confident rubato, sometimes of considerable boldness. Chao’s sense of high romanticism was rewarding, producing impassioned playing towards the climax, with an extended, dramatic pause before the coda, which did become slightly muddied.
Nicola Holt then returned to sing three favourite Schubert songs: Auf dem Wasser zu singen, ‘Du bist die Ruh’ and Seligkeit.
Beautifully as these were sung, they never recaptured the exquisite refinement and emotional adventure that she expressed in the Schumann song cycle.
It was a delight that a singer, occasionally, dares to include well-known songs in a recital of this kind. Programming concerts seems to have become too much a matter of proving one’s ability to tackle the unusual, to expand the audience’s musical experience for their own good.
This tendency could lead to those songs that the older generation has grown up with, when there was nothing shameful about performing well-known songs, becoming the unknown songs before long.
It’s good to reflect that music familiar to us is new to the younger members of the audience, and so a part of every concert should be devoted to such music.

NICOLA HOLT – Song Recital

(with Nicole Chao – piano)

An alternative review by Peter Mechen

Nicola Holt (nee Edgecombe) thoroughly delighted her St.Andrew’s lunchtime audience, delivering a most attractive programme with a singing voice as bright, open and engaging as her platform manner. I had most recently encountered her as the soprano soloist in the Orpheus Choir’s St John Passion performance, in which she sang with a similar openness and clarity, and was pleased to be given the chance to hear her perform in a more intimate and unencumbered acoustic. With pianist Nicole Chao proving a sensitive, responsive partner from the outset, the singer opened her programme with two songs by the English composer Thomas Arne, each a setting from Shakespeare, and capturing in each case the winsome out-of-doors effect that the words suggest. The second song, “Where Daisies pied” from the play “Love’s Labour’s Lost” was notable for some lovely bird-call sequences, whose effect was almost antiphonal in terms of differing colour and dynamics.

Schumann’s song-cycle “Frauenliebe und Leben” (A Woman’s Love and Life) is well-known for several reasons, among them the currently unfashionable sentiments of the poetry concerning women’s dependence on men in stereotyped relationships. Fortunately these politically correct strictures haven’t prevented performances of the work, whose heartfelt fusion in words and music of both ecstasy and tragedy within a human relationship for most people transcend any such societal polemic. This was a lovely performance – Nicola Holt’s voice nicely encompassed the soaring quality of the first song’s lyrical outpourings (Seit ich ihn gesehen), and emphasised the upward-thrusting strength of the following Er, der Herrlichste von allen, though she chose not to attempt the ornamentation at the concluding line of each of the principal theme’s verses, robbing the music of some of its wild ecstasy but compensating with her steadiness. Her word-painting in Ich kann nicht fussen gave an urgent, elfin and volatile flavour to the quickness of the girl’s feelings, the perfect counterweight to her reverential Du Ring an meinem Finger. Nicole Chao’s playing gave sensitively alert support in all but one or two of the more extrovert passages – for example, I thought the piano too reticent in places along with the singer’s ritualistic splendours and joyful energies in Helft mir, ihr Schwestern, though the song’s brief concluding processional postlude was nicely done. The beautiful Süsser Freund moved easefully from its tenderly floated opening line through the central section’s animations and back to its beginning with even more breath-catching rapture; and the contrasting exuberant, almost desperate happiness of An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust made the shock of the final Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan all the more telling. Holt’s singing was here stoic and composed, internalising the tragedy of the beloved’s death, keeping emotion away from the visceral realms, and letting the piano round off the story with its recapitulation of the themes from the work’s opening song. I thought this an extremely fine performance from both artists.

Nicole Chao played Chopin’s Fourth Ballade as a kind of instrumental interlude, though in terms of musical substance and interpretation, the performance kept the musical juices well and truly flowing throughout. Her playing sensitively caught the “song on the water” aspect of the opening pages, though she exhibited surprising volatility (hardly in evidence during the Schumann song-cycle) in the development section, with perhaps too much pedal used at the climaxes on this occasion, the half-empty church acoustic muddying the music’s textures. From the main theme’s canonic treatment onwards, which was nicely shaped, Chao reined in the music more, with clearer control of the swirling figurations; and waited until the stormy coda before once again pulling our her biggest guns, the ending slightly splashy, but very exciting.

Nicola Holt returned for three Schubert lieder, a beautifully differentiated Auf dem Wasser zu singen with subtle intensifications and variations of mood throughout, a heartfelt, slightly effortful, but properly ardent Du Bist die Ruh, (so sublime but so fiendishly difficult!), and to finish, an engagingly joyous Seligkeit, capturing the music’s “schwung” with keen, brightly-focused high notes, and wonderful gaiety throughout.

All in all, a most rewarding , heartfelt and entertaining lunchtime offering from two very fine artists.