Keith Lewis in Festival song recital with Michael Houstoun

Songs by Purcell, Jenny McLeod, Britten and Barber

(New Zealand International Arts Festival)

Wellington Town Hall

Sunday 7 March 2010, 7.30pm  

This weekend two New Zealand tenors were the stars, at least in the singing department. Yet there could hardly be two tenors inhabiting more different terrain. Simon O’Neill has staked out Wagner as his territory and has already made an international impact there.

Keith Lewis would seem as foreign to Wagner as O’Neill would (at this stage at least) to Dowland, Purcell or Handel. He has certainly sung opera, though it has not included many of the top twenty. He has built a considerable reputation in Mozart which he has sung in many opera houses, including Berlin, Paris, Chicago, Rome, Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, San Francisco, Zurich, Madrid, Hamburg, Monte Carlo, La Fenice in Venice… and other 17th and 18th century opera: The Coronation of Poppea, Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride and Armide, Handel’s Semele, one or two bel canto pieces like The Barber of Seville, Maria Stuarda and I Capuleti e i Montecchi. More modern operas include Salome, The Makropulos Case, Die tote Stadt and Lulu, The range of his repertoire also includes Berlioz’s Requiem, his Te Deum, La damnation de Faust, and Lélio (the sequel to the Symphonie Fantastique), and a variety of choral works.

Sorry about the quasi CV….

But his other strength is in the song repertoire and this festival concert offered impressive evidence of his accomplishment in a challenging and artistically interesting range. Conspicuously absent were any German lieder, operatic arias, French mélodies (apart from his encore), or the enormous range of Italian classical songs, folk songs, Grieg, Tchaikovsky or Granados, the English Renaissance era, and so on.

So this recital began with a fascinating group of Purcell songs, three of them with piano realisations by Britten. The piano parts were indeed striking, though they had the effect of altering the flavour of Purcell quite markedly. The famous Frost scene (‘What power art thou’) from the semi-opera, King Arthur, was not one of those, though obviously arranged for keyboard from the original score.

They were arresting, a revelation in the sense of making them something else; in Britten’s not-so-subtle colourings, they suggested a variety of other composers. The latter-day harmonies surrounding the steady tread of ‘So when the glittering Queen of Night’ hinted at Brahms or Reger, never mind the unlikely falsetto singing that Lewis slipped in and out of. But then the descending three-note motif made clear the affinity with Marais’s Sonnerie de SainteGeneviève du MontdeParis (presumably borrowed by Marais whose piece was written in the 1720s, but perhaps that idea was simply in the air at that time). The magnificent music of ‘Not all my torments’, also from the collection Orpheus Brittanicus, tested Lewis’s command of baroque ornamentation, for the decorative effects were endless and difficult and I found some of his sounds less than ideal.

The Frost scene from King Arthur is a remarkable, original episode (the work was memorably done by Victoria University about a decade ago), and Houstoun ‘s striking piano part, tip-toeing through the accompaniment to Lewis’s impressive rendering of this vivid operatic landscape. The last Purcell song, ‘Evening Hymn’, which came from the other Purcell collection, Harmonia Sacra, created another very different atmosphere: calm, melodic, with a few discreet ornaments, ending with a livelier Alleluia.

The centre piece of the recital was Keith Lewis’s commission of a song cycle from Jenny McLeod of Janet Frame poems. (Upbeat on Radio NZ Concert last week did interviews with both composer and singer). Most were selected by McLeod herself; they were not easy, either to sing or to hear, but it took little to recognize real music which I thought might start to take root in the mind with further hearings. There’s always a question, in making such a comment, whether it suggests failure as second performances are scarcer than first ones.

Though he must have approved of the settings, there were signs of difficulty and strain in some of them: the piano part too was highly demanding, not any easier as a result of the considerable independence of voice from accompaniment. I derived great enjoyment however, from concentrating from time to time on the piano part.

The most curious, and moving perhaps was Lament for the Lakes, the verse in the tradition of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, nonsense words set among real words that lent a particular transcendental power to the fiercely felt grief at environmental desecration – not of course confined to the battle over Lake Manapouri, with New Zealand ever more destructively in futile pursuit of Australia? Lewis was not flawless towards the end of this song.

McLeod draws special attention to Song No 4, ‘Promise’, dealing with ‘the most heinous aspects of United States foreign policy in the 50 years prior to the Obama administration’. The text, and its setting, again derive their force from the suggestiveness and ambiguities that this kind of poetry and this music, succeeds in expressing. It is a stirring example of the ability of poetry, music and the arts generally to engage with the great political issues of the day which has always been an important role for the arts.

The poems tilled all manner of soils however, some witty in either a Brittenish or Waltonesque manner, some suggesting serial methods. The vocal parts might have taxed Lewis in the learning; the piano parts too were highly individual, mostly fast, complex, but ear-catching in the sense of enticing further exploration; some I spoke to felt they were too remote from the words, but I felt that, while calling for far more notes than the voice part, the accompaniments, so wonderfully played, adorned and supported the songs.

There followed groups of songs by Britten and Barber. The Britten songs, to Auden poems, are classic examples of the oneness of poet and composer, and while difficult enough, are very much at the heart of Lewis’s art and sit well with his voice.

The first, ‘Let the florid music praise’ has kinship with the Nocturne from Britten’s Serenade, and each of them expresses such individual emotion though it is hard to define.

Barber’s songs are simply beautiful though I felt that in the first one, W H Davies Love’s Caution, the music attempted to follow individual words and phrases too closely, not a problem later when for example in Joyce’s ‘Of that so sweet imprisonment’ captured the overall spirit most sensitively. Yeats’ The Secrets of the old again seemed, with its animated, conversational tone, to be a real song. The last song, The Praises of God, derived from an 11th century poem, was lit equally by voice and piano, the latter bright, lightly athletic in its support.

As an encore Lewis departed from the English language for the first time (unless you regard the Janet Frame’s Lament for the Lakes as a foreign language). Reynaldo Hahn’s À Chloris, his most famous song which sounds as if it’s straight out of a Lully opera. I think there may have been many in the audience who’d have liked a little more of such music, for it was most seductive.

Why does the Festival use such lightly-inked type in their programmes? In the desirable and attractive dim lighting of the hall, the notes were impossible to read (though the words of the songs, on separate Xeroxed pages, were fine), even after I reached for a stronger pair of glasses.

New Zealand String Quartet count TEN

Schubert: Quartet no. 1 in G minor/B flat major, D.18; Berg: String Quartet Op.3; Ross Harris: The Abiding Tides; Beethoven: String Quartet no.,11 in F minor, Op.95 ‘Serioso’

(New Zealand International Arts Festival)

Wellington Town Hall

Sunday 7 March 2010, 4pm 

The concert was part of a splendid weekend of music.  It was a pity that the riches of a couple of days and an evening were not also to be found throughout the Festival.  I was shocked to discover that the Michael Fowler Centre was only in use four times.  Past Festivals have shown that this large venue can be filled for opera on numerous nights, for several symphonic concerts and for other shows as well.

The New Zealand String Quartet is known for innovative programming; Sunday’s concert was another example of this.  It was true Festival fare, with both old and new works.

The programme opened with an early Schubert quartet, which was new to me.  The programme notes say that it was probably composed when young Franz was 13.  It was given an affectionate performance which fully exposed its beauties, particularly in the two dance movements –  menuetto and andante.  Though a relatively uncomplicated work, it had complexities too.  The composer had plenty to say, in the competent hands of the New Zealand String Quartet.

Its sombre opening had a profound effect, followed by an animated yet warm presto vivace.

The lyrical minuet was Schubert at his most charming, while the courtly andante dance which followed must have been appreciated in the early nineteenth century Schubert drawing room in which it was first played.

Alban Berg’s was also an early quartet, written 100 years after Schubert’s (the significance of the title of the concert was that the works were written in 1810, 1910, 2010 and 1810).

The work featured 12-tone technique, with resulting clashes.  It used a variety of bowing techniques, especially in the first of the two movements.  Contrasted with these, there were delicacy, declamation, and moments of great beauty, particularly in the much busier second movement.  Other techniques that characterised this movement were the use of harmonics, pizzicato, and mutes.

The NZSQ played this often difficult music with great command and assurance.  After 100 years, the work still impresses as adventurous and avant-garde.  The total effect is somewhat bleak and hard.  At times it is plaintive; at others, calm.  What it has to say, it says with asperity.

The commissioned composition by Ross Harris to poems especially written by Vincent O’Sullivan proved to be a passionate piece of work, with a brilliant ending.

Copies of the words of the poems were distributed; the fact that they are in English does not guarantee that the audience can hear all of them.  The copies were eminently readable, unlike the palely inked typeface of the programme.

However, from where I sat, almost all of Jenny Wollerman’s words came over clearly and beautifully.  The imaginative, lyrical poems and musical settings were quite delightful.  This work certainly deserves more hearings.  It was very effective if a rather depressing series of visions of the sea.  It was versatile in both poetic and musical languages.

Variously describing the journey and sinking of the Titanic, the doomed voyages of ‘Boat People’ and the coming of a tsunami, the poems and music were constantly interesting.  The word-setting was first-rate, as was the writing for string quartet.

The fourth song, ‘Remember’, had an enchanting accompaniment which featured pizzicato, and delicious solo violin.  In the short seventh poem, ‘Light’, the music seeped out slowly, to the words ‘Light seeps its grey/Composure on the mild day’.

Jenny Wollerman’s singing was perfect for this work.  The clarity of her notes and words served poet and composer extremely well, as did the quartet’s performance of the apt writing for the strings.

Beethoven’s ‘Serioso’ quartet looks towards the profundity of the late quartets, yet has brief moments reminiscent of some of his quartets in lighter mood.  However, solemnity quickly returns, only to be overcome briefly at the end by a major key affirmation that seems to say ‘and yet there is hope’.

It was played with vigour and commitment by the New Zealand String Quartet.  Not a nuance passed unnoticed; indeed there were colours aplenty to enhance this magnificent music, the most familiar of the works in this superb programme.

Organics for free at the International Arts Festival in Wellington

John Wells – Organ Recital at the Wellington Town Hall

JS Bach – Toccata and Fugue in D Minor BWV 565 / Frank Bridge – Adagio in E Major

Alfred Hollins – Concerto Overture No.2 / Cesar Franck – Piece Heroique

Josef Rheinberger – Sonata No.3 “The Pastoral” Op.88 / Alfred Louis James Lefebure-Wely – Sortie in B-flat

Saturday 6th March

Douglas Mews – Organ Recital at the Wellington Town Hall

Edwin Lemare – Marche Moderne / Erima Maewa Kaihau –  A koako o te Rangi (Whisper of Heaven)

JS Bach – Prelude and Fugue in A Minor BWV 543 / Brahms – 2 Chorale Preludes Op.122

Tchaikovsky (arr. Lemare) – Fantasy Overture “Romeo and Juliet”

Sunday 7th March

Each one of these recitals was given for free at the Wellington Town Hall, both showing off the resplendent grandeur and variety of tones of the Town Hall’s recently refurbished organ. Of the two recitals I enjoyed John Wells’ as a whole better, largely because of the programming, though both his and Douglas Mews’s recitals had some very fine and interesting things in them. Each featured  some resplendent Bach, Wells treating us to the old warhorse the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (which showed off the organ excellently) and Douglas Mews the A Minor Prelude and Fugue BWV 543, a tighter, rather less theatrical and Gothic work, though one with some light and shade during the fugue, via an episode of contrasting registration, before the final payoff returned us to imposing magnificence. But John Wells’s programme showed us more of the instrument’s byways via works by Frank Bridge, Alfred Hollins and Josef Rheinberger, then concluding with some absolutely delightful music by Alfred Louis James Lefebure-Wely, a lovely Andante from a larger work “Meditaciones Religiosas” and a “Sortie in E flat” of a kind that would be played as a postlude to a Mass at a Parisian Church such as Saint Suplice.

What came off best for me in Douglas Mews’ recital, besides the Bach Prelude and Fugue, was a charming work by Erima Maewa Kaihau, one called “A koako o te Rangi” (Whisper of Heaven), music which readily evoked a strong, rich period charm. I was moved to try and find out something about Erima Maewa Kaihau, a name I didn’t know (as it turned out, to my shame!) – born in 1879 at Whangaroa, she was given the name Louisa Flavell by her European father, whose background was suffused with romantic conjecture. He was supposedly descended from a member of the French aristocracy who escaped the bloodshed of the Revolution, and also from a musician connected with the court of the Austrian Emperor. On her mother’s side her whakapapa could boast the Nga Puhi chief Hone Hika of Ngati Rahiri. Maewa married Henare Kaihau, by whom she had six daughters and two sons – Kaihau was the MP for Western Maori until about 1920. Maewa’s musical talents expressed themselves readily in song-writing, most famously with the song  “Haere ra”, known in English as “Now is the Hour”, and also “A koako o te Rangi” (“Whisper of Heaven”). The latter was recorded by the famous singer Ana Hato, but I don’t as yet know who made the transcription for organ solo. Erima Maewa Kaihau died in 1941.

I thought it was unfortunate that Douglas Mews chose to conclude his recital with a transcription of Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” Overture. In theory the idea had some interest, but in practice it wasn’t a success – the transcription, though it suited some aspects of the work (the slow wind chording at the beginning, for example) failed to deliver the goods in other places. What disappointed me most seriously was the conflict music between the Montagues and the Capulets, which sounded both underpowered and rhythmically out-of-sorts. I could imagine that transcriptions of this sort would have had their place in the days when symphony concerts were less common and accessible to people than they are now, and this was the means by which a lot of music got a hearing at all. As such, the exercise had, I suppose, a kind of historical-kitsch value. But really, Tchaikovsky’s music wasn’t done any favours; and I couldn’t help thinking that, if organists really wanted to play symphonic music they ought to investigate (or make) transcriptions of things like the Bruckner symphonies, whose harmonies, textures, and rhythmic trajectories would seem far more suited to the instrument. I could even, I think, really enjoy a work like the Cesar Franck Symphony in an inspired transcription – there would be some point to hearing in transcription such works which probably owe some of their gestation to the activities of their composers in the organ-loft. However, I fear that, on the evidence of what we heard, some music might well be left well alone!

DIRTY BEASTS and other stories

Oliver Hancock – Three Tolkien Miniatures / Paul Patterson – Rebecca / Little Red Riding Hood

Martin Butler – Dirty Beasts

Nigel Collins (narrator), Diedre Irons (piano)

ZEPHYR – Bridget Douglas (flute), Robert Orr (oboe), Robert Weeks (bassoon), Phil Green (clarinet)

with: Vessa-Matti Leppanen (violin), Rowan Prior (‘cello), Patrick Barry (clarinet), Mark Carter (trumpet),

David Bremner (trombone), Leonard Sakofsky (percussion), Emma Sayers (piano)

New Zealand International Festival of the Arts

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday, 7th March 2010, 2pm

Music, theatre and story together provided diverting entertainment for an enthusiastic audience of children of all ages at the Town Hall, with something for everybody, young and old and somewhere in between. These settings of different generations of cautionary tales for children by contemporary composers were brought to life by narrator Nigel Collins, with vivid and colourful support from some of Wellington’s finest musicians, some of whom were, at times, tantalisingly difficult to recognise in their various costumes.

A pity the staging of this presentation wasn’t ideal, with the Town Hall platform built out as a smallish square onto which the performers crowded, the musicians in a rather tight and inwardly-looking semi-circle that didn’t help generate enough performer-and-audience contact – we weren’t sufficiently encouraged by the arrangement to project ourselves into the music-making spaces. What it meant was that Nigel Collins and his cohorts had to work all the harder to draw their audience in and enable that fusion with fancy and imagination which makes for memorable theatrical (and musical) experiences. And, if the stage was too small, the venue itself was too big, the empty spaces not allowing that sense of intimacy and involvement between and with all those present, performers and audience members.

This said, the energies and skills of the performers kept up the flow between platform and auditorium – of course, the “nature of the beast” meant that there would possibly be a few surprises in store, everything seeming to be somewhat outside the parameters of a “normal” concert-going experience, which was itself an enticing prospect. The performers certainly entered into the spirit of the entertainment, and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves – as did the audience, a few “drop-offs” apart (which is par for the ‘children-entertainment’ course, I would expect).

Nigel Collins’ appearance as The White Rabbit was the occasion for great mirth, though I thought the section describing the predatory habits of wolves, vividly illustrated by the musicians though it was, elongated the somewhat arch Roald Dahl story of Little Red Riding Hood overmuch in Paul Patterson’s setting. Even the narrator’s gorgeously dipsomaniac Grandma didn’t rescue the retelling from its longueurs (partly the author’s fault), though the denoument, with a very modern Miss Riding Hood conquering all, finally got things moving (and I loved the epilogue’s Facade-like strains accompanying Miss Hood’s parading of her wolf-skin coat). Oliver Hancock’s Three Tolkien Miniatures was next, the wind players, helped by some magical piano-string activations, marvellously evoking the dark expanses of the Forest, with its gradually-burgeoning alarms and horrors recalled by the Tolkien poems, focusing upon both Middle-Earth and pre-Hobbit characters.

Paul Patterson’s Rebecca (who slammed doors for fun and perished miserably) brought to mind for those with long enough memories a different, somewhat more punitive era of child-rearing. Projected with a deliciously awful French accent by Nigel Collins, the “contes de fée noir” came to life with the help of the deliciously disguised Emma Sayers on piano and Lenny Sakofsky contriving percussive noises, the latter making excruciating sounds with a number of balloons after releasing a brace of helium-filled ones (an opportunity for child-involvement missed, there, I thought). Nigel Collins mixed up a couple of words in the excitement surrounding the unfortunate eponymous heroine’s demise, but it all added suitably to the furore, which became nicely funereal towards the end (apart from a rogue balloon leaving its mark on the proceedings, doing what balloons do best).

Last was Martin Butler’s “Dirty Beasts”, settings of Roald Dahl’s somewhat nauseously crude poems depicting various interactions between animals and humans. Of the three sections I enjoyed the music for the first most of all, the spiky, chattering writing for winds readily evoking the pig’s rising panic concerning his fate and his vengeful plan of grisly retribution. Somehow the other two realisations didn’t have sufficient visceral impact to be truly memorable, the “Tummy Beast” in particular disappointing us with its refusal to explore any truly gastro-endocrinal depths in the writing – perhaps a contra-bassoon was what was lacking! Nevertheless, appetites were more-or-less satisfied, and a sense of good having more-or-less prevailed sent everybody home contented.