Jenny Wollerman at Wanganui Spring Festival

The vocal parts of The Wanganui Spring Music Festival (intended for publishing n New Zealand Opera News)

Five concerts by Jenny Wollerman (soprano), Murray Khouri (clarinet), Simone Roggen (violin), Edith Salzmann (cello), Petya Mihlova and Phillip Shovk (piano)

Royal Wanganui Opera House

Saturday 12 to Monday 14 September 2009

This review may be very belated; and it was not an opera festival, but because it was a rather important initiative which could in future encompass opera (perhaps in association with the regular January New Zealand Opera School), it report is justified.

At this first festival the vocal aspect was represented by operatic soprano Jenny Wollerman.

It happened in one of New Zealand’s most charming old opera houses, a wooden building dating from 1899, familiar to many opera-lovers who attend the concerts of the Opera School.

Nelson has been New Zealand’s top classical music festival town since 1992; next to Nelson as a festival candidate is Wanganui: its history; its river, a good museum, one of the country’s best art galleries, it was spared the worst impacts of 1980s growth with many century-old buildings (though too many are still being lost), and of course there’s the 1899 opera theatre.

Wellington clarinetist Murray Khouri has been running a small, successful chamber music festival in Bowra, a small town south west of Sydney.

A year or so ago Murray decided to try a similar festival in a comparable New Zealand town. Wanganui seemed to have the necessary attributes. The sort of town that, in the northern hemisphere at least, appeals to festival crowds.

Though this first one failed to attract the crowds it deserved, particularly from the city itself, perseverance will pay off.

Naturally, the festival was dominated by chamber music, splendidly played by the top-line artists assembled, including Khouri himself, particularly striking in Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.

There were five concerts over the weekend, The players were three New Zealanders, an Australian, a Bulgarian and a German resident in New Zealand; Every concert held something special.

Wellington soprano Jenny Wollerman is too little heard in her home town; many of the songs that she sang in her recital, by Mozart and Schubert, were familiar but the experience of hearing them sung with such intelligence and charm, and so delicately accompanied by young Bulgarian Petya Mihneva was like hearing them for the first time.

The Mozart programme was a striking demonstration of the composer’s role in the creation of the German Lied tradition, to show that Schubert did not emerge from nowhere, but that the ‘through-composed’ song that Schubert mastered, existed in a song like Das Veilchen. If Abendempfindung was one of her most beautiful performances, the most striking was the passionate ‘Als Luise’ (K520).

But her programme also showed Mozart as predecessor of the French mélodie, with ‘Oiseaux, si tous les ans’ and ‘Dans un bois solitaire’ (which I heard later, in the Adam Festival in Nelson, from Swedish mezzo Catrin Johnsson). French song was slower to develop because there was no Schubert in France at the time; but a decade or so later Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été was the catalyst (pity he didn’t write as many as Schubert).

Jenny’s evident aim was to show Mozart’s polyglot character, and her recital concluded with a couple of Italian songs: ‘Ridente la calma’ and ‘Un moto di gioia’, which at once seemed to adopt the colour of the contemporary Italian opera.

The Schubert half of the programme likewise showed Wollerman’s characteristic intellectual curiosity. After that most gorgeous of all songs, An die Musik, which she lit with seductive, complementary body-movement, there was delight, pensiveness (with ‘Du bist die Ruh’), passion, engaging narrative (Die Einsame) and simple pleasure in the familiar Die Forelle and Gretchen am Spinnrade.

Though this first festival could have been better supported, it will surprise me if Wanganui’s attractions and the chance to hear top-rate musicians in great and beautiful music does not bring much bigger audiences in future. Make a diary note for next year’s festival!.


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