Kringelborn and Segerstam with NZSO

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leif Segerstam with Solveig Kringelborn (soprano).

Karelia Suite (Sibelius); Symphony No 191 (Segerstam); Prelude to Die Meistersinger (Wagner); Four Last Songs (Strauss) 

Michael Fowler Centre, Saturday 31 October 2009

It’s 20 years since I heard Leif Segerstam conducting the NZSO, and the memory is of a highly gifted musician blessed with an eccentric’s sense of humour, enlivened with an intelligence and vivacity that sets him apart in his profession. His notes to his 191st symphony also reveal a fascination with numerology which he applies playfully to several strands of his life. Not that a whimsical delight in numbers is altogether foreign to musicians: Bach was similarly absorbed, at least according a lot of his commentators, and so was Schoenberg.

Segerstam’s own notes about the symphony and certain other matters connected with family dates and word meanings, are both pertinent and impertinent, amusing to the like-minded, possibly irritating to more serious, literal souls. 

What to make of a composer who has already written 230 symphonies buy the age of 65? Why not? It’s only about four a year through his adult life.

His notes are probably intended to be more mocking of ordinary musical analysis than valuable in ‘understanding’ the piece. We must start with an understanding the Rosenkrantz form, recognising the ‘free-pulsative’ style with roots in ‘Wiener Schule [presumably he means the Second Viennese School] seasoned with Nordic nature visions’. He refers to his creation as ‘a gigantic chambermusical happening for large orchestra performing without a conductor’.

After the orchestra had rearranged after the Karelia Suite, percussion-dominated sounds suddenly arose though there was indeed no one on the podium. It took a little while to spot Segerstam at the piano, obscured for me under the balcony, stage left.

As for the music, there was plenty of noise, rhythm, jolly juxtapositions of percussion and strings or woodwinds, or the tuba; monotony was out of the question as was any real attempt to pursue lines of argument or the recognition of motifs, rhythms, colourings.

Musically it suggested Messiaen in the spirit of Satie.

You could tell when a section had ended as a group of players stood to cue the start of the next section: flute and piccolo, or the brass, or the Concertmaster alone; thereafter it was rather chacun à son goût, though the notes assured us that improvising was forbidden except when ‘playing in symbiosis with all others’.  

The common reaction at the interval was of amused bemusement. The word ‘boring’ was not in use though neither was the word ‘masterpiece’.

The concert had begun with a sonorous and slow performance of the Intermezzo from the Karelia Suite. The programme note had drawn attention to the original incidental music for a set of tableaux depicting aspects of Karelian life from which an overture (later to become Op 10) and the three movements of the familiar suite, Op 11, were later compiled. Strange that an era of frantic musical research into the origins of things hasn’t led an Osmo Vänskä or someone to unearth the original music for performance. There were some loving performances: the opening horns, open or muted, suggesting a cold dawn, Robert Orr’s oboe and later, Michael Austin’s cor anglais.

Segerstam is a large Brahms-like figure on the podium whose size seems to be totally absorbed into the music, its soulfulness or its grandeur. The Karelia Suite might have been rather a small ration of his great compatriot for some (me for example), but its quarter hour was worth three-quarters of many another piece of music.

The second half opened with the Prelude to Die Meistersinger, again filled, not with Beckmesserish self-importance but with Sachsish humanity, spaciousness of utterance, nobility. As befitted the conductor’ character, it was both loose-limbed, seeming unconcerned by attention to tight ensemble, but achieving something much more profoundly dramatic through that very unconcern. Segerstam’s success lay in the way he unobtrusively inspired the players (possibly without their even being aware) to discover their individual, and collective, feelings for the music’s great generosity of spirit. The thrilling peroration before curtain-rise created a great longing for just that; which is what our biennial Festival will of course give us once more.

The Four Last Songs may well have been the main attraction for many of the audience, and perhaps also, for those whose idea of a symphony concert rests on a starry pianist or violinist, a reason for all those empty seats. The orchestral element had all the nostalgia, languorousness, sense of the past, of the loss that Strauss felt at the destruction of his beloved Germany. But I was not convinced that Kringelborn was the born interpreter, in spite of the prominence of these songs in her performance record. Her lower register was certainly well based and attractive, but there was a slightly troublesome beat around the top of the stave and in pianissimo her top notes had an edginess rather than an ethereal quality. Nor did she produce an interesting, expressive variety of tone such as these beautiful songs lie open to and I found myself unmoved at the end.

However, her diction was clear, particularly in the third song, ‘Beim Schlafengehen’; clarity of diction is not a strength for many sopranos. But my misgivings about this performance holds no implications for other Strauss works; I suspect she would be a fine Marschallin, an Ariadne, a Dyer’s Wife. It was perhaps as well that the cycle ends with an extended postlude that allowed the orchestra to bring it to a close with a glorious, deeply felt, emotional litany.

In all, this concert’s slightly unorthodox programme, and a soloist not much known outside the opera house probably explained the rather thin audience. In spite of that, there was no missing the sustained, rapturous and emotional depth that Segerstam drew from the orchestra in all four works.


Silent Love – chronicles of love and loss (Caprice Arts)

Peter Barber (viola)

Mary Barber (piano)

Annabel Cheetham (mezzo-soprano)

Music by Schumann, Bridge and Franck

Cambridge Terrace Congregational Church WELLINGTON

30th October 2009

This splendid concert took its name from the title of a song by Robert Schumann, “Stille Liebe”, one of the twelve “Kerner-Lieder” written during the composer’s “year of song” (1839-40). Tonight’s performance of the whole set of these songs by mezzo-soprano Annabel Cheetham and pianist Mary Barber was merely one of the pleasures to be had from a most enjoyable evening’s music-making. More Schumann came from the brother-and-sister duo of Mary Barber and violist Peter Barber, a transcription for viola and piano of Three Fantasiestücke Op.73. The second half of the concert featured firstly a full trio of musicians performing Frank Bridge’s Three songs for mezzo, viola and piano, then concluded with another transcription for viola and piano, that of Cesar Franck’s A Major Violin Sonata. I was familiar with Franck’s own version for ‘cello of this work, but the viola transcription was one that I’d not heard before.

This was one of an enterprising set of concerts organised by the Caprice Arts Trust, a series that deserves the widest possible support for the innovative programming and the calibre of the artists involved. In some ways it was extremely pleasant to experience music-making of such immediacy and vitality in an intimate venue attended by a smallish number of people; but on the other hand it was a pity that more people hadn’t got to hear about the concert, so that something more of an audience “buzz”could have been generated (though we did our best to show our appreciation at the appropriate moments!).

Schumann’s Three Fantasiestücke Op.73 began the concert in fine style – is there another composer whose music so identifies its creator within a bar or two, regardless of the work? It’s such a distinctive sound-world, at one and the same time so focused yet equivocally suggestive, the sounds infused with imaginative possibilities.  This was a lovely performance, the viola bringing a richly varied array of nuance to the discourse, the partnership with the piano opening up the composer’s beloved “other realms”, some sombre and deep, some infused with glowing light. The musicians achieved what gave the impression of a seamless flow of sound while realising all of the music’s subtle detailings. Particularly remarkable was the soft playing from both instruments, the phrases able to “speak” with particular eloquence, employing a marvellous variety of gently-expressed tones. Although not note-perfect, the music-making unerringly captured the composer’s uniquely poetic vision of an inner world.

More Schumann came from mezzo-soprano Annabel Cheetham, with Mary Barber again at the piano. The twelve “Kerner-Lieder” owe their name to the poet, Justinus Kerner, whose verses with their strong leanings towards the individual’s oneness with nature brought a ready response from the composer – the opening “Lust der Sturmnacht” (Pleasures of a stormy night) immediately plunged us all into the “sturm und drang” of romantic sensibility, bringing forth exciting and committed singing and playing. I found Annabel Cheetham’s tones a shade raw in such places throughout the cycle, probably exacerbated by the liveliness of the acoustic in a smallish listening-space. But there was so much to enjoy, especially when the music required poetry and graceful utterance, the singer’s committed response able to make the words “sound” so meaningfully, and impart a real sense of story – the sequence from No.4 “Erstes Grun” (First Green) to No.6 “Auf das Trinkglas eines verstorbenen Freundes” (To the drinking glass of a departed friend) in particular featured delightful interplay between singer and pianist, the last-named song a highlight of the cycle, with its ready evocation of true friendship and rueful philosophy, and with the piano most excellently “mirroring” the singer’s heartfelt utterances.

After the interval the trio of musicians gave us Frank Bridge’s Three Songs for mezzo, viola and piano (the composer played the viola in the English String Quartet for a number of years), a performance which again worked better in the quieter moments, the singer able to demonstrate a beautifully focused quality in places such as the second song’s setting of Matthew Arnold’s words “Fold closely, o nature, thine arms round thy child”, and the more ruminative utterances of the final Heine setting “Where is it that our soul doth go?”, all deeply-felt and extremely touching, with viola and piano weaving plenty of magic around the voice to telling effect.

Peter Barber described the final item on the programme, the Cesar Franck Sonata, as “jacket-removing music” – he then proceeded to delight the audience, who had been admiring his colourful bow tie during the evening, by revealing identically-hued trouser braces, a nice touch of flamboyance in keeping with the overt romanticism of the music to follow.  As with the ‘cello version of the sonata, compared with the violin’s silvery voice, the deeper-toned viola brought out many differing perspectives to the music, the most obvious being a smokier, more sombre voice resembling that of a maturer, more worldly-wise lover, whose terms of endearment used rather less outward emotional “juice” but expressed more shades of layered meaning and equivocation. Peter Barber negotiated the instrument’s occasional switching between violin-voiced mode and the deeper hues of the larger instrument with great skill, while pianist Mary Barber let the piano-writing unfold so beautifully throughout the whole of the movement, her rich, arpeggiated chording seeming to transcend the instrument’s mere “upright” status.

The second-movement brought forth a big-boned imposing manner, relying more on depth of tone than surface brilliance to generate momentum, an approach that held back from the usual virtuoso pianistic roar, and created a far more detailed soundscape, enabling more give-and-take of musical substance than is sometimes evident between the players. I thought the recitative-like exchanges in the middle section had a very “charged”, almost theatrical quality in this performance, which contrasted beautifully with subsequent outbursts from both instruments, together and separately. The coda was beautifully prepared for, here, less of an impulsively orgasmic virtuoso cataclysm, and more of a roughly-wrought struggle against great odds from which the players triumphantly emerged at the end. Something of that “charged” quality informed the slow movement’s performance as well, some beautiful high work on the viola matched with eloquent lyricism on the piano, even if in places a touch of stridency in the playing indicated the extremes suggested by the music’s expression. Finally, the last movement underlined the “hand-in-glove” nature of the musical partnership throughout, with strong, forthright statements of the canonic theme from both players adroitly giving way to “running” sotto voce passages, beautifully realised. A brief rhythmic mishap at one stage was of no matter, as the final statement of the theme magically stole in and grew like a magnificent double archway, through which the last excited measures scampered, the players at full stretch and the notes a bit splashy, but the ending leaving us exhilarated and extremely satisfied. Great stuff!

Honours woodwind students from NZSM at St Andrew’s

Bassoon Concerto in F (Weber), Clarinet Sonata, Op 120 No 2 – first movement (Brahms), Sonata in A for flute and piano (Gaubert)

Alex Chan (bassoon), Andrzej Nowicki (clarinet), Hannah Darroch (flute) with pianists Douglas Mews and Emma Sayers

St Andrew’s on The Terrace; Wednesday 21 October  

The series of recitals by senior students at the New Zealand School of Music continued at the lunchtime concerts at St Andrew’s with three musicians playing bassoon, clarinet and flute.

Young bassoon player Alex Chan won a scholarship to study as an orchestral bassoon player at the Kennedy Centre in Washington D.C. where she was co-winner of the SMI Concerto Competition. She has played with the Wellington Orchestra, the Southern Sinfonia, and the National Youth Orchestra.

Her first sounds, the sprightly dotted rhythms of Weber’s Bassoon Concerto marked her as an already polished professional; with pianist Douglas Mews standing in for an orchestra, she explored with a palpable delight all the nuances of its melodic character. The second movement, Adagio, was particularly engaging and spirited; she was not at all shy about flaunting the Weber’s drolleries, perhaps inspired by Haydn’s proclivities for sly humour. 

Andrzej Nowicki, the clarinetist who won the music school’s concerto competition a few months ago, has started his studies at Melbourne University; he played the second of the two wonderful clarinet sonatas by Brahms – just the first movement: how I longed to hear the rest from this fine musician.

Emma Sayers accompanied both Nowicki and flutist Hannah Darroch, who played one of those charming pieces that the 19th century Paris Conservatoire drew from many of Paris’s elegant and beguiling composers: this one, Philippe Gaubert. Hannah is a contract player in the Wellington Orchestra and co-prncipal flute in the National Youth Orchestra.

This is the sort of concert that none of the regular providers of chamber music ever risks, because of the perceived (probably correctly) conservatism in the taste of the normal chamber music audience, convinced that little other than the string quartet is worthy of their attention.





Two string quartets: St Lawrence and New Zealand

String Quartet in F, Op 77 No 2 (Haydn); John Adams’s String Quartet; Octet in E flat, Op 20 (Mendelssohn)  

Saint Lawrence String Quartet and the New Zealand String Quartet:

Town Hall, Friday evening 16 October 2009  

This final concert in the 2009 season of Chamber Music New Zealand, was a brilliant ending to the year; and General Manager Euan Murdoch announced the 2010 season, CMNZ’s 60th anniversary year which opens with a concert in the International Festival next March from the great Borodin String Quartet.

The first half belonged to the St Lawrence Quartet, from Canada.

The Quartet in F was the last Haydn completed and though it’s not as familiar as several of those in the immediately preceding sets, it is highly original in character, and in this remarkable performance exhibited qualities that even Haydn might have been surprised by. I suspect that the tonal variety, the pungent expressiveness and the compulsive momentum might have been unusual around 1800. But today, such extremely vivid, and rhythmically and dynamically varied interpretations are almost essential for musicians who want to distinguish themselves from the rank and file.

Certainly, Haydn invites such performance through his pains to avoid the expected, the cliché, the routine, so that the composer’s wit and intelligence found ideal interpreters in these players determined to bring the piece to life in a thoroughly arresting way.

John Adams has gained fame chiefly in the opera house and secondarily the concert hall: he has not written much chamber music. His string quartet, written for the St Lawrence, and first performed in New York in January, shows a gift that will surely inspire other similar commissions. One is impressed by the fecundity of his invention, its profusion and variety and his structural skill in manipulating it; and even more overwhelmed by the exuberance and phenomenal brilliance of the performance that will set a benchmark hard to equal.

Adams’s work was evidence of his genius for creating a substantial and compelling work that maintained its momentum through many moods, marvellously captured by these players.

Adams has moved far beyond ‘minimalist’ style of his early years; he belongs to no particular school and this work was simply evidence of Adams’s individuality and his flair for creating a substantial and compelling work that maintained its momentum through its huge vitality and variety that the quartet .

The New Zealand String Quartet joined the Canadians for a performance of Mendelssohn’s Octet, possibly the most astonishing creation by any composer in his teens. The arrangement of the parts meant that the St Lawrence Quartet, and especially their first violinist, Geoff Nuttall, rather dominated both by the energy and endless tonal variety of his first violin part, and by his total physical involvement; leg-work that even Michael Jackson might have envied.

The other members of the St Lawrence quartet and the New Zealanders displayed comparable mastery if less physically conspicuous.

The fast movements were both spectacular in their ever-changing rhythmic and dynamic expressiveness; it was a revelatory experience, reinforcing the octet’s place as a singular masterpiece. 

(an extended version of the review printed by The Dominion Post on 20 October)




NZSM senior piano students at St Andrew’s

New Zealand School of Music senior piano students: Rafaella Garlick-Grice, Laurel Hungerford, Benjamin Booker, Sam Jury, Ben Farnworth

St Andrew’s on The Terrace. Wednesday 14 October 2009

We have been hearing a series of lunchtime concerts at St Andrew’s by present and former students of the New Zealand School of Music in recent weeks. This one maintained the level of excellence both in the appearance of highly accomplished performers and in interesting music.

Rafaella Garlick-Grice began with a very mature and well-considered performance of the Prelude and Fugue in G from Book II of the Well-tempered Clavier. Varying her posture at the piano from upright to a hunched effort to climb inside the instrument, her playing was virtually flawless, but more importantly, shining with intelligence and engaging with the audience through illuminating every voice in both prelude and fugue, and entertaining dynamic colouring and subtle rhythmic nuances.

Laurel Hungerford’s Haydn Sonata (in C, Hob XVI 35) was just as distinguished, as she demonstrated her mastery and enjoyment of Haydn’s droll devices, the mock flourishes, the irregular phrases and unexpected harmonic and key shifts. You could hear her smiling at the jokes and the teasings; particularly in the somehow featureless Andante which is actually a small tour de force demonstrating how much delight can be created with musical ideas of great simplicity. My pleasure in her playing was hardly affected by her memory lapses in the last movement, though naturally, they somewhat affected her confidence thereafter.

Though he scarcely acknowledged his audience as he took his seat at the piano, Benjamin Booker played Liszt’s beautiful Un Sospiro, one of the Three Concert Studies, with admirable grace, poetic feeling and technical competence.

Liszt’s second Ballade is a different matter; a piece that attracts censure from the more pedantic of his critics. Its structure might not seem very shapely or easy to bring to a performance that convinces the listener of its organic unity, of a credible progression from one phase to the next, but for one easily seduced by Lisztian emotion, it is a masterpiece. Unfortunately, its secrets are discovered only through a rather more experienced pianist, more profoundly immersed in Liszt’s musical world, and the task, bravely tackled by Sam Jury, was a little beyond him. The opening phase with its mystical terrors that arise perhaps from Hades were too earthbound, and the later fearful left-hand octaves failed to do their job; however the sunny passages were beautifully played, and by the end enough of its essence had been re-created to satisfy and to stimulate a search for the several versions in one’s collection of LPs and CDs.

The last pianist was Ben Farnworth who played Ginastera’s Suite of Creole Dances. There are three, utterly different: the first hardly a dance, rather perhaps an invitation to a dance and the last a ferocious, violently syncopated dance. Farnworth did them proud, in turn, with delicacy, romance, bravura, swagger, and extravagant Latin American exhibitionism.

Quite apart from the interest in hearing several talented and very accomplished young piano students, it was a most satisfying programme of the sort we are scarcely ever offered by our normal concert promoters these days.

‘Opera for organ’: Wade Kernot in benefit for St Peter’s, Willis Street

Wade Kernot (bass) with Megan Corby, Andrew Glover and Rosel Labone; Kirsten Simpson (piano): Organ Restoration Fund benefit concert

St Peter’s Church, Willis Street, Monday 12 October 2009

The connection between St Peter’s church in Wellington and bass Wade Kernot from Auckland who was runner-up in this year’s Lexus Song Quest was rather obscure. It transpired that the link was June Read, a member of St Peter’s congregation and Wade’s aunt, with whom Wade had stayed during his time in Wellington and who had provided him with great support.

The empty space on the north side of the church’s sanctuary was the other link: the organ alcove which will soon be occupied again by a restored organ. The 1888 instrument had been subject to an arson attack in 2008, and the proceeds from this concert will help pay for its restoration.

Wade’s even greater triumph was to be the New Zealand nominee to compete in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition. He reached the semi-final stage, meaning he sang in both the opera and the song phases of the contest before impresarios, agents, critics, managers, vocal coaches from everywhere. (See note below)

Wade recruited three of his friends to share the singing, with pianist Kirsten Simpson.  

The other three singers did him honour, for each of them exhibited a polish and artistry that was generally well beyond the student level.

Wade took the majority of the work. He began with ‘Sorge infausta’ from Handel’s Orlando, severe, authoritarian; however, in this Kernot’s voice was not particularly well treated by the acoustic, diffusing its power and focus. All his, and others’ singing seemed not to invoke such disfavour from the Anglican gods. For example Beethoven’s amusing, slightly risqué Der Kuss he captured very successfully. His other two arias in the first half were ‘Se vuol ballare’ (Kernot will sing the title role in New Zealand Opera’s production of The Marriage of Figaro next year) and Macduff’s ‘Come dal ciel precipita’ from Macbeth. He handled those sharply contrasted arias with impressive understanding.

In the second half he gave a fine, robust performance of Vaughan Williams’s The Vagabond; then ‘Hine e hine’, in Carl Doy’s rather insipid arrangement, and ‘Ole Man River’ – a splendid rendition.

Megan Corby’s two contributions were Schumann’s (not Schubert’s, as the programme had it) Widmung, and the aria ‘I want magic’ from Previn’s A Streetcar named Desire, in which her top opened out in authentic Broadway fashion.

Andrew Glover prepared me for his show-stopping appearance the next evening as Monsieur Triquot in Eugene Onegin (incidentally, one of the best performances of it that I’ve heard anywhere). He sang one of Rossini’s ‘Sins of Old Age’, filled with dashing wit and precise ornamentation. And there was vivid character in his voice in his performance of ‘Lonely House’ from one of Kurt Weill’s Broadway musicals, Street Scene.  

Mezzo Rosel Labone, who has been accepted by Melbourne’s new School of Opera, sang one opera aria and one New Zealand song. Instead of the advertised aria from Les Huguenots (I assume, Urbain’s aria ‘Nobles seigneurs’), she sang Cherubino’s first act aria ‘Non so piu’ from The Marriage of Figaro. Her second offering was Anthony Ritchie’s setting of the Baxter poem entitled Song (‘My love came through the city…’).

But the real coup de théâtre was to follow. Wade sang as an encore, one of Inia Te Wiata’s favourites, Rangi Te Hikiroa’s version of the haka, ‘Ka Mate, Ka Mate’ (which you’ll find on the CD Just call me happy – the compilation of Te Wiata’s recorded songs, from Atoll/National Library).  

Then, scarcely waiting for the applause to end, he began ‘Bess, you is my woman now’; and a woman’s voice resounded from the rear, singing Bess’s part. She came forward slowly – Aivale Cole (to whom he was runner-up in the Lexus Song Quest). The two continued the duet with an extraordinary rapport both vocally and in spirit: their voices sounded made for each other.

The delighted audience could hardly stop clapping. 


Wade Kernot and Cardiff Singer of the World

Early this year it was announced that New Zealand had nominated a contestant for the 2009 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition: he was Wade Kernot from Auckland who was runner-up in the Lexus (former Mobil) Song Quest in April. A few years before, Kernot had won the Wellington Regional Aria Competition.

In June he capped his competition achievements by winning a place among the 25 semi-finalists in the Cardiff contest. Over 600 singers entered for the contest this year from 68 countries. It’s probably the most famous singing contest in the world. 

The earlier stages of the competition are conducted by auditions in 44 locations round the world and 25 are then chosen to sing in Cardiff.

Wade’s career has been distinguished, gaining early stage experience with Auckland’s Opera Factory. He sang in the 2003 production of Boris Godunov for New Zealand Opera and in 2004 he became a Dame Malvina Major Foundation Emerging Artist with the company. In 2005 he won a place at the Australian Opera Studio in Perth.

In 2007 he went to Wiesbaden in Germany to sing in Stravinsky’s Pulcinella and returned to Christchurch for Zuniga in Carmen. In 2008 he was again with New Zealand Opera as DMM/PriceWaterhouseCoopers Young Artist.

In Wellington in 2008 he sang in The Seven Deadly Sins and The Lindberg Flight at the 2008 International Arts Festival, Colline in La Bohème; and for Southern Opera in Christchurch, Ferrando in Il Trovatore and the Speaker in The Magic Flute.


Benefit concert for the Sarah Lilli Fund

We missed a rather significant concert at the Ilott Theatre, Wellington Town Hall on Saturday 10 October.

NZSO Assistant Concertmaster Donald Armstrong and colleagues organized a Family Concert the proceeds from which went to the Sarah Lilli Fund which helps children in need to pursue creative, sporting or other interests.

Donald had a personal interest; his son was ‘best friends’ with Sarah Lilli who died aged ten, six years ago. She died suddenly of a rare brain disorder and her family, with Barnardos, set up the fund to help disadvantaged children by giving them the opportunity to pursue an educational, creative, sporting or social opportunity that interests them and is of benefit to their development and well-being. 

The Fund has already provided help to a number of children, in response to applications that are facilitated through Barnardos field workers. This has included tap shoes, football gear and subs, dance workshops, swimming lessons, guitar lessons, a special zoo trip and accommodation for a family holiday.

Those giving their services were: Donald Armstrong – presenter, with a quintet of NZSO musicians; Dancers from Chilton Dance Centre; Gabrielle Armstrong-Scott – violin; Lucy Brewerton – vocal; Aislinn Ryan with Kildunne School of Irish Dancing (Aislinn is one of the top Irish dancers in the world); Barber Shop Quartet: Blue Tones, St Patrick’s College; Choir: Te Kura Kaupapa Maori O Nga Mokopuna.

If you are inspired to help, send an email to for a donation form to make a contribution or to pledge support to Barnardos and the Sarah Lilli Fund.

You can also make an online donation or make an AP donation to Barnardos bank account #06 0501 0509606 02, using the reference ‘Sarah Lilli Fund.’


Eugene Onegin straight from the heart…

TCHAIKOVSKY – Eugene Onegin
an Opera in Three Acts
Libretto by the composer, after Pushkin

NBR New Zealand Opera
The Genesis Energy Season

Cast: Anna Leese (Tatyana) / William Dazeley (Eugene Onegin) / Roman Shulackoff
(Lensky) / Patricia Wright (Madame Larina) / Kirstie Darragh (Olga) / Martin Snell (Prince Gremin) / Wendy Doyle (Filipyevna) / Andrew Glover (Monsieur Triquet) / Roger Wilson  (Zaretsky)

Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus
Vector Wellington Orchestra
Conductor: Alexander Polianichko
Director: Patrick Nolan

St James Theatre, Wellington: 10th Oct 2009 to 17th Oct 2009

One of the loveliest of all operas, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, a setting of Pushkin’s tale of innocent ill-fated love, received a strongly-conceived and finely-executed production from NBR New Zealand Opera on the opening night of its 2009 Wellington season at the St.James Theatre. Its pivotal stage-figure was soprano Anna Leese in the role of Tatyana, the girl who at the story’s outset declares her love for the opera’s eponymous hero, and then, having been wounded by his rejection of her, marries someone else. For this role of Shakespearean range and depth a consummate artist is needed, and as a singer Anna Leese has developed into just that – throughout, her voice for me vividly evoked all of the various moods and developments of the character, every utterance recreating a young girl’s romantic dreaminess and impulsiveness at the story’s beginning, and a deepening of womanly understanding as the story’s tragedy unfolds.

Occasionally I thought her stage movement needed more fluidity, matching what the music was doing (parts of her well-known Letter Scene I thought too static, where she seemed confined by her writing desk, instead of spontaneously expressing with her movements what she was singing) – but her voice alone conveyed so much of what her character needed that such criticism seems quite ungracious. She conveyed to us all of her bitter disappointment and disillusionment at Onegin’s rejection of her, and went on to develop strength and resolve as a worldly-wise woman at the story’s end, as, after admitting to Onegin that she still loved him, she in turn spurns his belated declarations of love to her.

William Dazeley’s baritone provided a near-perfect foil for Leese’s Tatyana, with singing and acting that captured the essentials of Onegin’s character, his aloof charm and supercilious arrogance in the early part of the story, and his growing disillusionment with life and final despair at losing Tatyana forever at the opera’s thrilling denoument. This was great theatre, made possible by the sheer commitment shown by both singers to their roles, and underpinned by full-blooded playing from the Wellington Orchestra under Alexander Polianichko. Earlier in the story, where Dazeley’s Onegin was elegant and contained, Russian tenor Roman Shulackoff’s Lensky was all youthful ardour and boisterous spirits, readily demonstrating an impetuousness of manner that was to bring about his own tragic death at the hands of his friend.

As Olga, Kirstie Darragh sang winningly, though I thought her stage-character needed a bit more flirtatious spunk in order to convincingly drive her lover, Lensky, into the jealous rage that pulsated the story’s heart of darkness. By contrast Patricia Wright was superb in every way as Madame Larina, Tatyana’s mother; and convincing cameo roles were also taken by Wendy Doyle as the nurse, Andrew Glover as Monsieur Triquet, and Roger Wilson as Lensky’s duelling second, Zaretsky. A show-stopping appearance in Act Three was that of bass Martin Snell as Prince Gremin, his aria extolling the virtues of Tatyana, his young wife deeply sonorous and beautifully touching.

Occasionally the chorus was hampered by a stage set that crowded its movements, as in the Act Three Polonaise, where the use of chairs by the company did nothing except make the setting seem even more claustrophobic – though, as with the second-act Waltz, the movement  of the dancers gradually cleared the oppressive spaces and opened up the vistas. The Wellington Orchestra seemed to make heavy weather of parts of this score, and took time to “settle” under conductor Alexander Polianichko, with strings occasionally sounding unhappy in exposed passages and winds sometimes fallible in ensemble work – still, conductor and players got things together sufficiently to deliver the drama’s knockout punch in the final scene with thrilling impact, supporting the singers to the utmost.

The production had the virtue of recreating a scenario approximating to the work’s original conception, one which the audience had not a whit of trouble relating to or getting involved with. I occasionally found the visuals cast unduly on the dark and sombre side – the monolithic columns at times seemed more appropriate to something like “Aida” or Act Two of “Die Zauberflote” than to a Russian country estate – but in general I thought director Patrick Nolan did a wonderful job, working with Bernie Tan’s lighting to make creative use of the space and reflect the emotional complexities of the drama. A case in point was the work’s brief overture, during which Onegin was shown reflecting on his life and its troubles and complexities. For a first-timer’s encounter with the work, NZ Opera’s production must have been a great experience, and if not faultless in every respect, could hardly have been more satisfactorily or enjoyably presented by all concerned.

New Zealand Secondary Students’ Choir astonish

New Zealand Secondary Students’ Choir conducted by Andrew Withington

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. Friday 9 October 2009

Some of the most brilliant music making comes from the young, not necessarily individually, though there are plenty of cases of remarkable prodigy, but from young choirs and orchestras. En masse, individual imperfections are inaudible while the energy and the delight of youthful music-making are what makes the impact.

It’s not uncommon to hear claims that professional orchestras’ performances are little affected by the conductor, that their years of playing together are what makes the difference between the ordinary and the distinguished. It’s not really as simple as that.

But in the case of a youth choir or orchestra, the character of the conductor is probably critical. In the case of orchestras, the world has the example of Gustavo Dudamel and his Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, and we have had plenty of evidence of brilliant performances by the New Zealand Youth Orchestra under gifted (usually overseas) conductors who have worked miracles.

This time the miracle was wrought by a young New Zealand conductor, Andrew Withington, a protégé of former NZSSC conductor Elise Bradley.

The gasp of astonishment was audible as the choir opened the evening with the chorus from Haydn’s Creation ‘Achieved is the glorious work’, such was the overwhelming energy and intensity of the performance. This was certainly full-blooded both as a composition and in its execution.

I seem to find the wholehearted, simple religious belief of a Haydn a lot more acceptable than the sort of self-conscious piety evinced by Mendelssohn’s essays in the genre for example. The Kyrie and Sanctus (‘Heilig’) from the latter’s Die deutschen Liturgie followed, again accompanied excellently by Grant Bartley at the organ. I had to confess to finding both quite admirable, splendidly sung, with vivid sopranos and uncommonly good male voices – both tenors and basses.

A Sanctus by (Christchurch composer) Richard Oswin followed, with portentous piano introduction, echoing Carmina Burana a little, well presented. A setting of the Salve Regina by David Childs, United States-based New Zealand composer, showcased a solo soprano from the choir who projected well; interestingly written, rewarding for the choir I imagine.

The choir exhibited its richness and power in the showy piety of Parry’s ‘I was glad’, with women’s voices in gentle expressiveness.

I was impressed with the delivery, and pronunciation of a group of Swedish songs in which attention to dynamic subtleties was striking.

And the gentle spirit depicted by a Hebrew song, ‘Erev Shel Shoshanim’, offered a beautiful, comforting alternative to one’s current perception of the character the political entity from which it comes.

William Mathias’s setting of ‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind’ was spirited and vivid.

Then came a group of Brahms’s Liebeslieder Waltzes, whose singing was so affecting, authentic, often quite vivid, and plain charming, that I decided that choral performance was the best way of singing them.

The choir reappeared in the second half wearing Maori motifed sashes to open with Kua Rongo from Wehi Whanau, replete with beautifully executed gesture and movement. They created a thoroughly authentic Maori vocal quality in a waiata that sent shivers down the spine: the sort of performance that, heard when one is overseas, quite undoes one.

Three New Zealand folksong arrangements by Richard Oswin offered some evidence of the reality of at least a small body of genuine folksongs; again, their performance was most persuasive, building to an impressive climax.

Repeatedly, the choir exhibited new facets of their skills and versatility: in an affecting song by David Childs, ‘The Moon is Distant from the Sea’, with a flowing piano accompaniment supporting singing that illuminated words and emotions with a splendid flair for varied dynamics and intelligent phrasing. In my notes I had written – ‘one of the most beautiful and expressive songs of the entire evening’. I must have meant it!

From then on popular favourites were the rule: ‘Hine e hine’, ‘Ain’t misbehaving’, ‘I got rhythm’, ‘Nobody knows the trouble…’, all sung with an uncanny idiomatic energy and finally ‘Pokarekare Ana’, from a solo soprano with a pure, youthful voice, uncluttered by ornaments.

This was simply (one of?) the finest choral concerts of the year.

Viola and piano recital by Duo Giocoso

Vieuxtemps: Viola Sonata in B flat, Op 36; Bax: Viola Sonata (1922)

Helen Bevin (viola) and Rafaella Garlick-Grice (piano)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace. Wednesday 7 October 

This recital was by two graduates of the New Zealand School of Music: it was at least illuminating if not exactly revelatory, an opportunity to hear to greatly gifted musicians who have been acknowledged in other countries before they have been listened to and appreciated in their own country – a rather common experience.

The pair began playing together, as Duo Giocoso, in 2008 while they were studying at the New Zealand School of Music, won a scholarship that took them to Britain where they played both at the Edinburgh Fringe and in a lunchtime concert at St Martin in the fields in London. 

Vieuxtemps was the great Belgian violin virtuoso of the generation before Eugène Isaÿe, a contemporary of César Franck, known mainly for his violin concertos. It was interesting to hear a chamber work, carrying the opus number before his last Violin Concerto – No 5, though there was nothing in it that would have surprised listeners of a generation earlier. Nevertheless it’s a very attractive piece, whose romantic quality found a champion in Helen Bevin’s beautiful, rich viola tone; she and Rafaella Garlick-Grice played its generous tunes with phrasing that was delightfully musical, resisting any temptation to conceal its frank sentiment or to belittle its unpretentious, popular character.

The second movement, a Barcarolle, enjoyed a plain melody that might have looked backwards, but the performance conferred on it a certain weight, especially in the last movement where the viola spends much time on the C string.

Bax’s Viola Sonata was the result of his friendship with Lionel Tertis who was largely responsible for turning the viola into an important solo instrument. The first movement has a recognisable English character where the duo created interest with their instinct for the Bax’s musical personality. The second movement was played with energy, abrupt chords from the viola, but never an ugly note.

In the last movement I felt a certain Irish sentiment which was treated rhapsodically, with thick piano chords and a charming pensive melody given to the viola.  

Though such a programme might not have been a particular draw for a paying audience, we must count ourselves lucky to be able to enjoy these free lunchtime concerts of very worthwhile if less known music; however, I gather that the voluntary organizers and their overhead costs seem not always to be appreciated, judging by the amount of koha left by audience members. There’s always scope for greater generosity.