Polish Pride – an Antipodean tribute from the NZSO

Polish Pride

SZYMANOWSKI – Concert Overture

CHOPIN – Piano Concerto No.2

CHOPIN (arr.Stravinsky) – Nocturne

LUTOSLAWSKI – Symphony No.4

Diedre Irons (piano)

Jacek Kaspszyk (conductor)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday 29th April 2010

Polish hearts beat staunchly both at the beginning of and throughout this special concert in the Michael Fowler Centre, as Beata Stocyńska, the Polish Ambassador to New Zealand, addressed those present in the Michael Fowler Centre at the invitation of Peter Walls the orchestra’s CEO.  Mrs Stocyńska spoke of her countrymen’s and women’s pride in their culture and the achievements of their creative artists, such as Fryderyk Chopin, whose 200th birthday was marked by the proclamation of a “Year of Fryderyck Chopin” by the Polish Government. There was tragedy, too, at the mention by the ambassador of the recent air-crash in Russia that claimed the lives of the Polish President and a number of government officials, an event that gave this concert and its music all the more poignancy for those present. Adding his dignified gravitas to the occasion was the Governor-General of New Zealand, the Honourable Sir Anand Satyanand, speaking on behalf of all of the non-Polish people present, and eloquently but simply conveying a nation’s sympathy for another’s anguish and grief.

The tributes concluded, it was then over to the musicians, who moved the proceedings forward spectacularly with Karol Szymanowski’s Concert Overture. Anybody unfamiliar with Szymanowski’s music would have presumed that the overture was by Richard Strauss, so unerringly does the younger man imitate the latter, at the time the most famous composer in Europe. In fact Szymanowski almost out-Strausses Strauss, if not to the music’s advantage – though exciting and forceful, the work is simply too heavily scored, and risks tiring the listener’s ear before the end. Conductor Jacek Kaspszky controlled the profusion of youthful orchestral exuberance as best he could, although one was still left with a “less-is-more” feeling after the tumultuous waves of instrumental tone had ceased once and for all.

If the excitement and energy was all too palpable during the Szymanowski Overture, similar qualities were in short supply during much of the performance of the Chopin piano concerto which followed, at least in the orchestral playing. Though numbered as the second, the F Minor Concerto was actually composed earlier than the E Minor No.1, and, despite the young composer’s love for Mozart’s music, shows little of the latter’s aptitude for using the orchestra as an effective protagonist, especially in the outer movements. It’s music that doesn’t ”play itself”, requiring instead plenty of positive and energetic advocacy, which conductor and orchestra seemed strangely reluctant to fetch up, with the result that, when pianist Diedre Irons wasn’t playing, the music seemed to amble inconsequentially along. Right at the outset there was genuine poetic feeling from the strings, and some nice work by oboist Robert Orr, but thereafter things were oddly lacklustre – some nicely shaped bassoon-and piano exchanges later in the movement raised hopes, but the duetting if anything seemed to further inhibit rather than stimulate any contrasting vigour and muscle in the tuttis.

It’s interesting, and fortunate, that the slow movement of the concerto is an absolute gem – inspired by the young composer’s passion for a singer, Constantia Gladowska, the music conjures up a kind of breath-stopping enchantment throughout, underpinned by a richly-woven carpet of sensitively-sustained orchestral tones. Diedre Irons wove one magical arabesque after another in this movement with finely-spun feeling and delicacy, nicely supported by the orchestra at every turn. But as for the rest, there was little to enthuse about – no strong impulse or spark that would have energised those admittedly dull orchestral textures and given the interchanges between piano and orchestra some interest. The pianist was doing her utmost (and how good to have her perform with the NZSO once again), but the orchestral response to her elaborate solo paragraphings and spirited lead-ins during the outer movements suggested that hearts and minds were largely elsewhere.

Igor Stravinsky’s piquant orchestration of Chopin’s A-flat Nocturne Op.32 No.2 served to demonstrate the well-known balletic inclinations of one of the twentieth-century’s greatest composers. Written in 1909 for the impresario Diaghilev, to extend an existing ballet using Chopin’s music for the famed Ballets Russes, Stravinsky produced a delightful neo-Tchaikovsky-like realisation which brought out all the sentiment of the original (a lovely “stopped” horn at the cadence-points of the opening section) and gave bright Russian colours to the more vigorous episodes in the middle part of the work. A lovely, diaphanous ambience gave the conclusion a sombre beauty, Kaspszyk and the players nicely realising the setting’s mixture of delicacy and turbulence.

Both delicacy and turbulence were writ large in the evening’s final work from Poland, the Fourth Symphony of Lutoslawski. Overshadowed at first by the incredible popularity of his Third Symphony, with its engaging tunefulness and high drama, Lutoslawski’s Fourth is a much tougher proposition, shorter, more introverted and darker, in places elegiac. The work has a two-movement layout, each part relating to the other in a way that creates a kind of arched structure, the first movement making its listeners, in the composer’s words, “hungry, and finally even impatient” for the fulfilment of the second part. So we heard the clarinet’s gentle, lyrical theme at the start against a murmuring accompaniment, extended later by both flute and clarinet,and interspersed by episodes of faster, more mercurial and less predictable music – these are marked in the score “ad libitum” and the performers asked to improvise, to shape the gestures according to their own impulses.

The players were transformed, engaged, focused and totally committed to making these sounds – my notes refer to things like “impassioned tolling-bell figures – great swinging strides from basses, snappish brass clusters splash colour and tighten tension, strings soar and sear…”  and later “claustrophobic ostinati from strings with brass and percussion bouncing backwards and forwards off walls…” the impression thus given of sometimes elemental, sometimes feverish activity. Against this were the moments of stasis, in line with Lutoslawski’s avowed intention of delaying the listener’s desire for continuity and resolution through unexpected contrast and variety. I noted “pointillistic shimmerings from strings, iridescences from everywhere, like fireflies at dusk” and “great spaces, deep loneliness, railway lights humming along lines in the middle of nowhere – a sense of impulses coursing over vast spaces, subdued but purposeful…”. One’s gradual awareness of the process of resolution of these disparate elements became a profound listening experience – throughout the performance the focus of the playing and conducting was palpable, spell-binding in its intensity and brilliance, and unerring in its control and direction, for which the musicians received their just dues from the audience at the end.

Towards a musical cross-fertilisation at St Andrew’s

Exchange: compositions of Jeremy Hantler for contemporary and indigenous instruments

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 28 April, 12.15pm

An unusual concert took place at St Andrew’s in the usual Wednesday lunchtime slot. What lay behind it was the notion, perhaps inspired by the experiments in European music from the late 19th century, that mixing conventional forms of music and conventional instruments with the music of other, often less sophisticated, cultures could lead to a new and more vital music. Think of the influence of the exhibitions of Asian art and music in Paris on Debussy and others.

The instruments included several drums, violin, guitar, banjo, trombone (Nick van Dijk), saxophone (Blair Clarke), double bass (Scott Maynard), and three players of ‘taongo puoro’ (why don’t musicians give us the names of the individual flutes? It’s a failing of percussionists too: a chance missed to refine audience knowledge).

There was to have been a didgeridoo, but Styefan Sarten didn’t appear. 

I arrived during the performance of a piece entitled Duet, which used a tenor saxophone, a Maori flute, to the accompaniment of what is known as a bull-roarer (Maori name?). It struck me as a work in progress, neither particularly well organised as a composition nor as a performance. Jeremy Hantler, spoke about the music with animation, but without much care for voice projection or clarity of diction so that, sitting towards the back, I caught little.

However, his leadership was clearly sufficient to motivate the other players; and while some phases seemed somewhat tentative, even incoherent, there were also moments when something of genuine musical value happened, with a sequence of harmonies, a tune or the blending of instruments in an unlikely but ear-catching way.

Watchful Eye featured three players of the taongo puoro, that recreated the voices of tui and ruru (morepork) rather effectively, but was otherwise flavoured by jazz sounds from saxophone and trombone, with less conspicuous offerings from violin, but with Hantler very conspicuous on drums. Again, passages sounded less than finished and thoroughly rehearsed, but there was attractive duetting between trombone ansd saxophone.

The piece after which the concert was named, Exchange, was largely driven by side drums and later, Cook Islands log drum played by Andreas Lepper, both skilled and gently exciting. There were striking signs of careful preparation here, with more attention to musical patterns familiar in western music.

The last piece was called Quicksand: resolute drum rhythms and the trombone and saxophone again, though less clear purpose in the playing of violin and guitar. The contribution of the Maori flutes seemed less fully realised, a somewhat arbitrary addition that had not found a comfortable role: the words I jotted down were ‘pasted on’. Yet the chorus that these instruments created towards the end, backed by plucked bass with soft voiced violin and guitar, was one of the most attractive, as they set up a moving lament.

The concert was an interesting and worthwhile experiment, though more attention needs to be paid to conventional modes of presentation, stage management, voice projection, and more thorough documentation of instruments and their characteristics – for the many potential listeners not familiar with nomenclature, but prepared to listen with open minds and ears.

There were acknowledgements in the programme to Richard Nunns, Brian Flintoff, James Webster, Warren Warbrick, Hirini Melbourne and Steph.

Maxwell Fernie – Centenary tribute at St.Mary of the Angels

MAXWELL FERNIE – A Centenary Tribute

Concert at St.Mary of the Angels Church, Wellington

Presenter: James A.Young

Music by Maxwell Fernie, Helen Bowater, J.S.Bach, Rachmaninov, Palestrina, Purcell, Vierne, Widor

Performers: Thomas Gaynor, Donald Nicolson (organ) / Douglas Mews (organ, harpsichord) / Rowena Simpson (soprano)

Gregory O’Brien (speaker) / Yury Gezentsvey (violin), Peter Barber (viola) / Robert Oliver (viola da gamba, conductor)

St.Mary of the Angels Choir

Sunday 25th April 2010

Maxwell Fernie (1910-1999) was a true “Renaissance Man”, one of those multi-talented people whose activities encompassed a vast range of skills, interests and sensibilities. Born in Wellington exactly one hundred years ago this year, the young Max showed sufficient promise as a young musician and teacher to secure the position as organist and choirmaster at St.Joseph’s Catholic Church, next to the Basin Reserve. Immediately following the Second World War, during which he served with the Second NZEF in Egypt and Europe, Fernie became one of a number of talented New Zealand musicians who undertook to complete their musical training in the Northern Hemisphere. For him this meant remaining in London, where he enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music. He was awarded prizes in Organ-playing and Extemporization, General Musicianship and History of Music. Just three years after his return to New Zealand he was back in London in 1953 where he took the post of organist of Westminster Cathedral, a position he held with great distinction for five years. Fortunately for Wellington, and for New Zealand, Fernie decided to return home to take up the directorship of the St Mary of the Angels Choir, a position he was to maintain until his death in 1999. He was also the Wellington City organist for 27 years, the founder and conductor of the Schola Polyphonica Choir, and a teacher of organ at Victoria University of Wellington. He was awarded the OBE in 1974 for services to music.

Something of his lasting influence across the years and among his many associates and talented pupils was strongly and joyfully conveyed by a Maxwell Fernie Centenary Tribute Concert fittingly held in the Church of St Mary of the Angels, an event participated in and attended by both people who knew and worked with him and others, like myself, who never met him but were aware of his prodigious achievements. For people to whom his name might have been familiar, but the extent of his activities as a musician far less so, the concert would have been a revelation, as well as food for reflection. The variety and depth of what music-lovers in Wellington enjoy today was built up over many years by the talents, hard work and inspiration of people like Maxwell Fernie, something that anniversaries such as these should emphasise and celebrate as an on-going and life-enhancing process. Thanks to the heartfelt and committed advocacy of Max’s family, and former friends, associates and pupils, this concert did him and his reputation proud.

The Parish Priest of St.Mary of the Angels, Father Barry Scannell welcomed us all to the church for what he called a “very special occasion”. He was followed by Andrew Fernie, Max’s son, who spoke about the Maxwell Fernie Trust, set up to continue the legacy of the great man by means of an annual scholarship award of $10,000 to young, up-and-coming organists and choral conductors. For the Trust the concert was a red-letter occasion, as it marked the inaugural presentation of the award to a young organist Thomas Gaynor, made later in the programme by the Minister for Arts Culture and Heritage, the Hon. Chris Finlayson. James A.Young, who was Fernie’s assistant organist and choirmaster, and later his successor at St.Mary’s, took over as Master of Ceremonies, and first of all introduced Max to the audience via a recording of an interview, made in 1958, Max obviously in his element talking about the newly-installed pipe organ in the church. We heard him clapping his hands to demonstrate the space’s reverberation, and playing exerpts to illustrate the types of organ pipe being used, their combinations and interplay with the pedal notes. It all made a perfect introduction to the concert’s first musical item, Douglas Mews’ playing of JS Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G, the opening sprightly and characterful, and the fugue steady and cumulative, with clear, focused lines throughout.

Next, Robert Oliver, currently the Director of Music at St.Mary of the Angels conducted the choir, which he sang with as a student under Fernie, who was in fact his first singing teacher. The performers firstly gave us Maxwell Fernie’s own “Ingrediente”, here sung with forthright, beautifully over;lapping tones, the voices true (a touch of wavery tone in places) and properly celebratory in impulse and effect. Rachmaninov’s “Ave Maria” followed, its plainchant opening leading to a harmonised repetition of the “Ave” and some lovely bass notes in “Benedictus tu” beneath the women’s voices with the melody in octaves. Palestrina’s  exquisite “Sicut Cervus” demonstrated the freedom and beauty of the women’s voices, able to float their tones throughout in a way that the men’s voices weren’t quite able to do. As a contrast, soprano Rowena Simpson, with Robert Oliver’s bass viol and Douglas Mews’ harpsichord, gave us Purcell’s “Music for a while” – lovely singing from the soprano (another of Fernie’s former pupils), even if I felt the music’s pulse dragged just a little in places.

The impact of Maxwell Fernie’s tenure as Director of Music at St.Mary’s, reflected in Art Gallery owner Peter McLeavey’s words “He opened worlds to me that I never knew existed”, was obviously a sentiment shared by poet and artist Gregory O’Brien and composer Helen Bowater. Their regard for Fernie’s work came together around a poem written by O’Brien called “The Non-Singing Seats”, celebrating the involvement in music felt by the listener when attending any performance directed by Max in St.Mary’s, a feeling also expressed by O’Brien in two etchings completed at the request of Peter McLeavey to help raise money for the Trust. The same poem was then set to music by Helen Bowater, the work interestingly scored for violin and viola, rather than for organ or any kind of keyboard configuration,as one might have expected, the composer’s choice expressing the ambience of each of the etchings, violin for the lighter,and viola for the darker of the two images. My experience of music mixed with spoken word, as opposed to singing, is that it rarely works well, partly due to the speaking voice’s comparative lack of projection (it’s no accident, I think, that those Second Viennese School works which use speakers call the technique “Sprechgesang”). O’Brien himself read the poem in the performance, the entry-points of the words precisely placed in the score by the composer, but afterwards the poetry allowed to flow at the reader’s own pace. The effect was interesting, but something of a diffuse experience for me, finding as I did the somewhat Ivesian effect of parallel modes of expression distracting, instead of one illuminating the other in performance.

Fortunately, the work was recorded by the same forces, violinist Yury Gezentsvey and violist Peter Barber joining Gregory O’Brien as in the church. Much of the text in the live performance was difficult to hear because of the microphoning and speaker placement not being ideal – the recording preserves much more clarity, being better-balanced. It also gives one the chance to concentrate on single strands and follow those lines for more coherence’s sake – in the concert the words of the poem particularly suffered in this respect, though I wanted to hear more clearly the interplay of the instrumental dialogues and their overall ebb and flow. I was certainly expecting something different from the work, probably a primacy of text-language, to which the musical strands would pay due homage. Instead, it sounded more like an instance of the voice being a third instrument, carrying less specific detailing and more interactive abstraction, the spoken word truly inhabiting a “non-singing seat” as it were, but fully participating in the refulgent glow of the music-making. The two instrumentalists also performed two 2-part Inventions by JS Bach, the second of which caused veritable ripples of appreciation throughout the building at its conclusion.

The moment came for the Hon. Chris Finlayson, the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, to present the inaugural Maxwell Fernie Organ scholarship. The Minister raised a laugh at the outset by talking of Max’s music-making giving him every Sunday a sense of the eternal, as opposed to the more common present-day phenomenon of guitar-playing in church leaving a taste of the infernal! He then presented the scholarship to the winner, eighteen year-old Thomas Gaynor, already a winner of various organ prizes in both New Zealand and Australia, one being the 2009 ORGANZ Organ Performance Award. The Maxwell Fernie Trust Award will help Thomas with funding the overseas experience he requires involving coaching from leading European players and teachers, and encountering some of the great instruments to be found throughout the Continent. We were able to watch some video footage featuring one of Britain’s most well-known organists Nicolas Kynaston, talking about Max, who was his teacher and mentor in London, and then some treasurable sequences featuring Fernie himself teaching, and philosophising about music in general – very inspirational!  After this, James Young recounted his impressions of Max’s exacting and uncompromising specifications for the rebuilding of the St.Mary’s organ (which took place eventually in 2006). There remained the proof of the pudding – and the young inaugural recipient of the Trust’s scholarship, Thomas Gaynor, proceeded to give a brilliant performance of the finale of Vierne’s First Organ Symphony, amply demonstrating both his suitability as the successful scholar, and Maxwell Fernie’s expertise as an organ designer. I loved the almost Mahlerian feel of the work’s final pages, the movement’s principal thematic material returning with wonderful, inevitable power.

Ater this tour de force one could have forgiven Donald Nicolson for steering the same instrument straight into the strains of “Happy Birthday” and away from the evergreen “Toccata” from Widor’s Fifth Symphony, which, following the Vierne, was always going to be a bit anticlimactic. However, he didn’t disappoint the punters and resolutely played the piece, then adroitly wove the time-honoured birthday melody into the coda, inviting the audience to join in with the song.  It was perfect as a tribute from everybody, including the “Non-Singing Seats”, to the man who like no other made the spaces of the same building resound with the most glorious music.

HellHereNow – Anzacs at Gallipoli, Pataka Museum, Porirua

The Gallipoli Diary of Alfred Cameron

Paintings by Bob Kerr

Music by Alfred Hill and Gabriel Faure

Slava Fainitski (violin) / Brenton Veitch (‘cello) / Catherine McKay (piano)

Robin Kerr (speaker)

Pataka Museum, Porirua

Sunday 25th April 2010

At Pataka Museum in Porirua, an exhibition featuring a series of paintings of Gallipoli by Wellington artist Bob Kerr was presented, bearing the title “HellHereNow”.  The ten paintings together made up a sizeable panorama of Anzac Cove in Gallipoli – a place that uncannily resembled Makara, not far from Wellington, one similarly rugged and desolate. Interestingly, the ambience and atmosphere of each panel was reflected by the elements in different ways – the landforms were depicted as more constant and immutable from image to image, whereas the sea and sky expressed movement, change and occasional volatility. The sequence thus engendered at once a sense of permanence and the unceasing movement of time and tide.

At the bottom of each of the panels Bob Kerr wrote an exerpt from a diary written by Alfred Cameron, one of the young New Zealand soldiers who saw action during the First World War at Gallipoli, while along the top of all except the outside pair was written the words of a statement attributed to a Turkish officer, Ismail Hakki, expressing his anger at the senseless of soldiers being made to “kill each other without reason”. The effect of these writings transcribed upon images of a totally unpeopled and forbidding landscape is a somewhat ghostly one – almost as if the land is quietly murmuring the sentiments of the shades of the soldiers who fought there, keeping their stories alive for those coming after who would take the trouble to stop and listen.

Kerr found Alfred Cameron’s diary among a collection of  fifty World War One diaries in the Alexander Turnbull Library, and was struck by the directness, the honesty and the clear-sightedness of the young man’s writing, enough to want to express in visual terms the all-too-enthusiastically expressed spirit of the age, a desire to experience the adventure and excitement of going to war.

Alfred Cameron’s diary captures the wide-eyed idealism of the young men who went off to war, as well as the bitter disillusionment which followed. Over twenty-one days of diary-writing Cameron had gone from reflecting this idealism to expressing the brutal realisation of the situation’s realities in one of the final entries – “It’s hell here, now”. Alfred Cameron was subsequently wounded at Gallipoli, hospitalised, and eventually repatriated. He returned to farming in New Zealand in North Canterbury, married, and raised a family, some of whose descendants now live in Wellington.

The paintings were exhibited at Pataka for over two months, from March 20th until  May 23rd. During this time, appropriately enough on the weekend of Anzac Day, the exhibition featured several performance presentations of the diary writings as a spoken narration to the accompaniment of live music, all set against the backdrop of the series of paintings. With the artist’s son, Robin Kerr as an impassioned and theatrical, though nicely-poised reader,  along with the heartfelt playing of a trio of musicians, violinist Slava Fainitski, ‘cellist Brenton Veitch and pianist Catherine McKay, presenting exerpts of music by Alfred Hill and Gabriel Faure, Alfred Cameron’s diary writings took on even more of the emotive force of a living, cumulative tragedy.

The performers chose Alfred Hill’s music as reflecting the somewhat naive patriotic spirit of the times,  playing a reconstructed work, a piano trio written in 1896, whose piano and violin parts were subsequently lost, but which had also been reworked by the composer as a Violin Sonata. From this work, Australian musicologist and publisher Alan Stiles had been able to put the Trio back together along its original lines, to marvellous effect in the work’s opening movement, much of which was used to reinforce the forthright optimism of the diary’s first few entries, eagerly and youthfully conveyed by narrator Robin Kerr.

The presentation began with Bob Kerr welcoming the audience and speaking about his paintings, after which it was the turn of the musicians and the narrator to take up Alfred Cameron’s story. The first music we heard was the opening of the Trio by Alfred Hill, at the outset arresting, forthright chords and strongly syncopated emphases, with lyrical lines in between the more energetic episodes. A second subject was beautifully prepared by the writing and nicely shaped by the players, the ‘cello having the line and the violin the descant, before the instruments joined, with piano accompaniment.

Whenever the playing broke off to allow the speaker his turn I found myself torn between wanting to hear the music continue, and waiting for the next piece of the narrative. The words of Cameron’s diary brought out the young man’s essential boyishness excitement at the prospect of going to war, and the first exotic ports of call that the young men experienced, in Egypt and at Suez. The music began again at the diary’s description of the young soldiers’ going out to dinner in Cairo, the sounds wistful at first, then gradually returning to the mood of the opening, jagged and athletic, with strength and lyricism well-harnessed together. Throughout I liked the tensile, well-wrought argument between all three instruments, the robust and rugged interworkings and the singing of the lyrical lines contrasting to rich effect.

The diary narrative skilfully dovetailed with the music – the first news of casualties from the “front” was contrasted with descriptions of the beauty of the Mediterranean, and the excitement of the arrival at the Dardanelles, where, upon approaching and landing on the beach the soldiers were suddenly confronted with the realities of war, the company being heavily shelled by the Turkish forces. Before long the situation’s hopeless tragedy became apparent, the diary towards the end describing the desperate conditions, the ill-fated skirmishes, and the loss of life – the description of the soldiers’ graves was placed alongside Gabriel Faure’s  Elegie, beginning with sombre ‘cello and piano, and with violin eventually joining in as the music became more impassioned. The full force of Alfred Cameron’s words seemed to find expression in the instruments’ tones: – “It’s just  hell here, now, no water or tucker, only seven out of thirty-three in number one troop on duty, rest either dead or wounded. Dam the place, no good writing any more.”

At the end, the music took over from the words, the heartfelt playing by the trio of musicians ineffably expressing the mood of the evocation, wrought in tandem with the paintings and the narratives. Altogether, the presentation made a stunning effect, the synthesis of visual art, music and spoken narrative finely and sensitively judged by all concerned, artist, speaker and musicians – an Anzac Weekend event to indeed remember.

New Zealand Trio looks towards Australia

New Zealand Trio (Chamber Music New Zealand)

Sarah Watkins – piano, Justine Cormack – violin, Ashley Brown – cello

Mozart: Piano Trio in B flat, K 502; Judy Bailey: So Many Rivers: Stuart Greenbaum: The Year without a Summer; Pärt: Mozart-Adagio; Schumann: Piano Trio in D minor, Op 63

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday 24 April 7.30pm

The second concert in Chamber Music New Zealand’s 2010 subscription series offered another concert from the New Zealand Trio (their trade name: NZTrio) which was one of the groups that played in the chamber music weekend during the International Festival last month.

Though this evening we were offered complete works, a similar balance between standard repertoire and new music was aimed for. One of the two established pieces was by Schumann, no doubt to mark his 200th birthday this year. It is conventional to give more praise to his chamber music involving piano than his string quartets, not a view I subscribe to; this D minor trio is certainly a fine work. It achieves a balance between piano and strings and the writing for strings sounds idiomatic and comfortable, though I confess I have not consulted string players specifically on the point.

It opened (Mit Energie und Leidenschaft – appassionato) with a relaxed tempo, slow, allowing nicely-judged rubato and sometimes a quixotic variety of mood; there were attractive piano moments, and the cello took the spotlight for a few bars. Through the lively second and the soulful, adagio third movements, the players expressed themselves with a convincing naturalness; it was the last movement’s more striking melody that endeared itself and set it alight. It was the last item in the concert; nevertheless, I had a feeling that it ended with a shade less energy than they had brought to the opening Mozart trio.

Mozart’s K 502 had indeed begun with a tremendous flourish, mainly driven by pianist Sarah Watkins, and the striking first theme tended to dominate. In fact the piano, from where I sat, on the right side of the balcony, close to the players, left the violin and cello somewhat obscured, in terms both of volume and of musical interest (and I’d have liked less choreographed head and shoulders effects from the pianist). Much of the time the cello acted as little more than a basso continuo instrument. In the second movement there was greater equality as both violin and cello were given more interesting material; the violin displaying a wonderful refinement and the cello too emerged clearly and vividly.

The rest of the programme comprised small pieces: two premieres – on this tour, if not on the night – and an odd piece by Arvo Pärt that toyed amusingly with the Adagio of Mozart’s piano sonata, K 280.

Both the pieces by Judy Bailey and Stuart Greenbaum, both resident in Australia, were quasi visual in inspiration, with some kind of ecological/political subtext. Though I am not convinced that music (unless accompanied by words) lends itself to polemical, or even visual or narrative material, it can succeed if your name is Berlioz or Strauss: success depends on the creative strength of the musical impulse and sheer genius.

So Many Rivers made pleasant noises, jazz or blues coloured, but left me with the impression of meandering improvisations rather than of music that emerged from any powerful musical inspiration.

The second piece, The Year without a Summer, by Stuart Greenbaum attempted a portrayal of the huge volcanic eruption in 1815 of Mount Tambora in Indonesia which dimmed the skies in the following year around the world (did it colour the outcome of the Congress of Vienna?). Though it too sounded often like the work of a gifted improviser, its meditative character suggested some musical inspiration.

Without attempting to relate its phases to the event and its effects, the music was better constructed than the Bailey piece, stood on its own feet without the need of its narrative, and revealed a composer of considerable sophistication even if, in the end, it did not seem to be a work of great depth.

On balance, I left with the feeling that there was not quite enough music of real consequence in this programme, though the players are among the most talented in the country and they play to audiences that generally seek weighty classics, as well as being prepared for substantial new music.

Brilliant NZSO in Slav and Finnish country

Smetana: Sarka from Ma Vlast; Sibelius: Violin Concerto; Tchaikosky: Symphony No 6 ‘Pathétique’

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen with Hilary Hahn (violin)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 23 April, 6.30pm

I have the feeling that while the Wellington audience realizes that Hilary Hahn is quite a good violinist, many do not quite know the extent of her international renown. One doesn’t become a Gramophone magazine Artist of the Year on account of being simply competent – and that was 18 months ago. The NZSO programme booklet, at least, marked the orchestra’s awareness of her pre-eminence with an unusual double-spread biographical essay. There was a full house and I understand some were turned away: a contrast with the situation at the fine Bruckner/Strauss concert a fortnight earlier which, of course, had deserved a similar audience.

Hahn’s vehicle was the Sibelius concerto, oddly, only seven months after the orchestra’s performance of it in the Sibelius Festival with its concertmaster as soloist. That was a fine performance, but this one was superb. Not only did Hahn demonstrate every kind of spiritual energy, from dynamic power to breathless, poetic finesse in her role, but her very presence, petite and all as she is, seemed to inspire in the orchestra a boundless intensity in the tutti, and especially in the cellos and basses (both sections seem remarkably inspired by the leadership of bassist Hiroshi Ikematsu), low brass and bassoons, but also their obverse: misty, shimmering pianissimi in the opening pages and the several magical diminishings of sheer physical power, such as in the slow movement.

Even if her scarlet dress didn’t altogether endorse the emotion of the tremulous, sub-audible dawning passage at the opening, it came to represent the character of her ful-blooded playing soon enough, helped by the commanding projection of sound from her fine instrument.

She played an encore, to cleanse he palette, as it were – the Allegro assai (I think) from Bach’s 3rd solo violin sonata.

What most characterizes her playing is not just the flawless intonation, beauty of tone and the detailed nuances that colour and embroider every phrase, but the celebration of the human spirit, generosity and optimism, belief in the importance of human creativity (if such purple extravagances be allowed). Those are the spiritual messages of all great art, regardless of the specific emotions and images with which they engage.

Those thoughts recurred listening to Tchaikovsky’s last symphony, with its assumed text of despair, a reading that is hard to avoid as one leaves with the last movement in the ears. Yet that is hardly the overwhelming message of the earlier movements, though in a performance such as this where I felt both second and third movements to be in the nature of forced rejoicing, unvarying in their tempo and without much dynamic variety.

It struck me that Inkinen’s immediate start of the last movement was as much to deny any temptation to hear the March-like 3rd movement as an affirmation of over-confidence, to reject it at once as empty bombast, as it was to stop the inevitable, unwanted applause that makes such a juxtaposition hard to bring about.

While the middle two movements are interesting, the Pathétique’s heart, unlike with many great symphonies, seems to lie in the first and last movements which seem far more complex, obscure, ambiguous and plain beautiful than the two middle movements. Their orchestration, their ebb and flow of speed and dynamics, exert a much stronger attraction to the emotions and to tantalize the intellect.

Played at the beginning, and completing this programme devoted to the music of the Slav, and near-Slav world, was the long overdue playing of one of Smetana’s symphonic poems: an imaginative stroke. It puzzles me that so many of the pieces of music that feature in writings about music and that furnish the minds of at least older audience members, from their childhood, are ignored by concert arrangers: the more popular of the Ma Vlast cycle for example, Vltava and From Bohemia’s Woods and MeadowsSarka is a particularly dramatic piece, perhaps not entirely successful in its shape, but susceptible, as shown here, to brilliant and arresting performance; the clarinet solos were most eloquent and there were fine passages from other players such as trombones and tuba.

Lovers of the tone poems lament that a composer of such orchestral flair didn’t attempt the symphony, or more large-scale orchestral music.

In all, this was a brilliant concert fully justifying the big audience, and the presence of this remarkable violinist.

New Zealand Youth Choir – the Wellington Connection

Wellington Members of the NZ Youth Choir

Fundraising Concert for Asia/Australia Tour

Music by Tallis, Stanford, Brahms, R.Strauss, Mendelssohn, Shearing, Rachmaninov, Penderecki, Bellini, Tchaikovsky, Britten, Carter, David Farquhar, Wehi Whanau

St.Mary of the Angels Church, Wellington

23rd April 2010

At the end of June the New Zealand Youth Choir heads off to Asia for an international tour that will include concerts in Singapore, South Korea and China, before returning to Australasia via further performance dates in Brisbane, Canberra and Sydney. During April, the Wellington members of the Choir gave a fundraising concert at St.Mary of the Angels’ Church, one which readily demonstrated not only the group’s corporate abilities, but individual choir members’ variety of musical skills. If the other “chapters” of the choir possess comparable abilities, the assembled group will, under their artistic director Karen Grylls, a musical force to be reckoned with.

Throughout the concert one had to “bend one’s ears” to pick up the microphoned voice-announcements in between each item, some of which were almost impossible to decipher in the reverberant acoustic of the venue. Fortunately the musical performances were unaffected, even if the placement of the singers in one or two instances didn’t do the performances complete justice. Generally the church’s ample acoustic served the singers and instrumentalists well, in both solo and ensemble items.

The concert began with a group of two English anthems, the well-known  If Ye Love Me by Thomas Tallis, and the setting by Charles Stanford of Psalm 119 Verse 1 Beati Quorum Via, the choir conducted by Ruth Kirkwood.Immediately one registered the soprano lines in the Tallis work as clear, beautifully-defined strands with a rich, full quality. With the Stanford motet the mens’ voices had more chance to shine, particularly the tenors, whose singing featured long-breathed lines and lovely pianissimi. Throughout the six parts the tuning was good and the tones both delicately and richly-sustained equally by the smaller groups and the full choir.

Following this was the Brahms Quartet Der Gang zum Liebchen (Way to the Beloved) Op.31 No.3. I would have brought the voices further forward for this, as Belinda Maclean’s excellent piano-playing was given too much physical prominence by the placement of the instrument, in places obscuring the close-knit vocal lines. Nevertheless, the group’s lovely singing gave pleasure, with only the softer, more delicately pointed harmonies failing to register as they ought, due to the balance. Strauss’s song Morgen worked better, with its more open textures and soprano Amanda Barclay’s clear, focused tones, sensitively accompanied, again by Belinda Maclean. The performers took us into the song’s heart, capturing all of the setting’s awareness, expectation and rapture – a lovely performance. Belinda Maclean was to demonstrate further talents with two harp solos later in the programme, her playing of what sounded like a “Willow Song” bringing out such beguiling qualities as a pliability of touch and phrasing that made every note a pleasure to listen to.

The choir’s delivery of Mendelssohn’s Drei Volkslieder did the music proud, with the first song’s gentle pastoral lilt set against the slightly sinister tread of the following piece’s minor-key mood, all tensions resolved with the carol-like finale. Imogen Thirwell’s wonderfully capricious performance of David Farquhar’s Princess Alice was another whose effect would have been more telling had the singer been placed further forward – as it was, her bright, eager voice and clear-as-a-bell diction delighted, as did her use of facial gesture to “flesh out” and punctuate the words. More word-pointing, this time from the whole choir, enlivened the George Searing number Lullaby of Birdland, with some lovely harmonisings and echoings of the lines throughout. At the other end of the “entertainment” scale were the performances of both Rachmaninov’s Bogoroditse Devo, the Hymn to the Virgin from the composer’s Vespers (All-Night Vigil”), and the Sanctus from Penderecki’s Requiem, the Rachmaninov bringing out the voices’ deepest and richest tones, casting a dark and ruminative spell, and the Penderecki filled with tensions and strained beauties, the lines constantly fractured or broken for expression’s sake.

More individual performaces included baritone Josh Kidd’s bright, energetic and attractively Italienate singing of Bellini’s Vaga Luna, Isaac Stone’s droll, nicely folkish rendering of Britten’s setting of the English folksong The Foggy Foggy Dew , and Jessica Lightfoot’s rapt, dusky-toned playing of the slow movement Canzonetta from Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, beautifully partnered on the piano by Evie Reiney. When one thinks about it, it stands to reason that a person’s musicality would more than likely manifest itself in a number of ways, though such demonstrations of multi-faceted technical proficiency still seemed remarkable. The focus appropriately returned to the choir for the last bracket of items, including a rhythmically-alert and glorious-toned rendition of the Negro Spiritual I‘m Gonna Sing, and a beautifully-grounded final number, the Wehi Whanau’s  Wairua Tapu, complete with body actions, music that gives one the feeling of belonging to a very specific part of the world, one that the members of this choir will undoubtedly play their part in representing with great honour and distinction.

Musica Lyrica in the 17th and 18th centuries

Musica Lyrica

A concert embracing visiting Auckland cellist/gambist Polly Sussex, of music the 17th and 18th centuries. By Jean-Baptiste Barrière, Johan Jakob Froberger, Joseph-Hector Fiocco, Handel, Buxtehude and Anon. 

Rowena Simpson (soprano), Shelley Wilkinson (baroque violin), Emma Goodbehere (baroque cello), Douglas Mews (harpsichord) and Polly Sussex (cello, piccolo cello and viola da gamba)

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University

Wednesday 21 April 6.30pm

Perhaps this concert was presented by the New Zealand School of Music because Polly Sussex was in town; she had played in the weekend with the baroque/classical ensemble Musica Lyrica at St Paul’s Lutheran church in Mount Cook. Sussex teaches at Auckland University and has an international reputation as a specialist in the early cello and viola da gamba. The ensemble, formed with the support of the church to perform Bach cantatas in their original Lutheran setting, comprises a total of about 15 musicians, varying according to requirements. 

In its advertising the concert was characterized by a Latin proverb Musica laetitiae comes medicina dolorum (music is a companion to joy and a balm of sorrow). No one can quarrel with any attempt to keep a vestige of Latin alive now that it has been almost entirely banished from the New Zealand school system (I heard that only 25 candidates sat Latin for NCEA Level One, alias School Certificate, last year).

The Hunter Council Chamber – the former main library that was socially central to students of my era, laid out with book-lined alcoves and shelves rising to the ceiling on all walls, reached by two levels of narrow iron gangways – may now be visually bereft, but it offers excellent acoustics for small instrumental ensembles though not so good for an orchestra.

The players presented a pretty sight. In addition to the delicately adorned harpsichord, a viola da gamba with a body of contrasting laminations and a cello, lay on the floor. While a piccolo cello and a normal cello were in thee hands of Polly Sussex and Emma Goodbehere, the two string players for the first piece, by Barrière. Barrière lived in Paris in the 18th century in the early years of Louis XV and became a virtuoso cellist.

The two cellos created a sound blend that I had never heard before, flowing harmonies that combined their voices in an utterly enchanting way. I was surprised by the sound of the piccolo cello, distinctly more open and sweet than many violas, and less nasal than the typical cello played high up the finger-board.

The Sonata II a tre, for piccolo cello, cello and harpsichord, comprised four short movements, some treating the two in canon, some as a normal duet. There was nothing complex or musically rich, but much that was technically tricky and quite charming.

Johan Jacob Froberger lived a century earlier, in Germany, Italy and England, and his influence was widespread, through Bach and Handel even perhaps to Mozart and Beethoven. It was a harpsichord Tombeau – a memorial honouring a dead person, in this case one M Blancrocher – that Douglas Mews played next. It offered an admirably warm and clear display of the sonorous possibilities and playing techniques of the harpsichord, in interesting harmonies: very slow and quite elaborate in conception.

Mews also played the famous last movement of Handel’s ‘Harmonious Blacksmith’ keyboard Suite in E.

Jean-Hector Fiocco was Belgian, a contemporary of Barrière. Soprano Rowena Simpson had the company of the two cellists and Mews in his Lamentatio prima which, according to the programme note, is a setting of Chapter 2 of the Book of Jeremiah. Rowena returned three years ago from years of study and singing in Holland and elsewhere in Europe and her voice projected confidently, reflecting that experience not simply in early music but also in dramatic interpretation; sustaining her breath over quite elaborate passages and handling decorations, including a cadenza near the end, with ease.

She also sang the next piece – a German aria of the 1720s by Handel: ‘In den angenehmen Büschen’. It was distinctly more modern sounding, though light in spirit and unlike his typical operatic writing of that time. The accompaniment of baroque violin (Shelley Wilkinson) and harpsichord however connected it clearly enough with an earlier era.

Then came a surprise: an anonymous viola da gamba sonata recently discovered in the Bodleian Library. Polly Sussex explained what was known of its provenance: found in 2006 in a collection, bearing the hallmarks of a French viol piece of the late 17th century, though described on the modern printed score as of Lübeck. It was pretty, exercised the player’s technique and the resources of the instrument, a normal seven-string bass viol of the time.

Finally Rowena Simpson returned, accompanied by Wilkinson, Sussex and Mews to sing Buxtehude’s cantata ‘Singet dem Herrn’, one of the few vocal works of this mainly organ composer. It exercised the musicians while proving most engaging, with undulating dynamics and attractive passages of tremolo or trilling.

It’s encouraging that such small, specialist ensembles keep arising around Wellington, evidencing the abundance of musical talent ready to take initiatives to attract audiences of both aficionados and newcomers to the genre in question. This ensemble has talent to spare.

The April Moon over St Andrew’s

Lune d’avril

Songs by Rossini, Debussy, Chausson and Poulenc

Janey MacKenzie (soprano), Jodi Orgias (mezzo soprano), Robyn Jaquiery (piano)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 21 April 12.15pm

The concert title might have celebrated the season but there was little in the programme, other than the last of Poulenc’s songs, that seemed specific to April either in the northern or southern hemispheres.

However, let us suppose (I don’t know) that the Venetian regatta takes place in April; Rossini’s infectious duet (La regatta veneziana from Les soirées musicales) opened the lunchtime concert to delight a well filled church, with the two rather different voices which, however, blended happily to produce boisterous, rocking rhythms and sparkling tunes; and an accompaniment that relished its showy little rising arpeggios and gondolier-flavoured triple time. They followed with a second duet, La pesca (from the same set), less ebullient but just as charming with its gentle swaying rhythm.

The concert ended with another Rossini duet, from Semiramide – ‘Serbami ognor’. Again in triple time, with nothing radical in terms of harmony, but a brilliant vehicle for the crucial misunderstanding between Queen Semiramide and Arsace (a trouser role for contralto) that the music reflects and the two singers captured excellently.

The pair also sang a couple of duets by Chausson – La nuit (a poem by Théodore de Banville) and Réveil (by Balzac) – in which the two voices seemed a little more exposed. Rossini’s extrovert bravura seemed to bother them less than the finesse demanded for these near-impressionist songs. Here and there were signs of discomfort, lack of perfect focus, but there was far more astute and intelligent interpretation, where, again the two quite distinct voices created a persuasive blend.

Each singer had a solo bracket. Jody Orgias sang four Debussy songs. The first two, ‘C’est l’extase’ and ‘Il pleure dans mon coeur’, by Verlaine, in Debussy’s collection Ariettes oubliées of 1888; the third and fourth, Romance (poem by Paul Bourget), and Dans le jardin (by Paul Gravolet): all relatively early songs. Her dark, throaty voice, that tends nasal in the upper part, may not be conventionally beautiful, but has the advantage, especially in the way she uses it, of investing songs with character, of drawing attention to their meaning and their emotion. The result, in ‘C’est l’extase’ for example, was not an overtly voluptuous sound perhaps, as from in the mouths of some singers, not ideally legato, yet the sensuousness remained, and an immediacy.

Debussy’s setting of ‘Il pleure dans mon coeur’ has never seemed to reflect my own feeling about the poem: not sufficiently melancholy, and this performance was no different. Jody sounded comfortable in the Romance, with pianist conspicuously capturing that always important contribution, but did not entirely convince in Dans le jardin which is conversational in tone, rhythmically ambiguous and not perhaps among Debussy’s masterpieces.

Janey MacKenzie’s offering was the Poulenc cycle, La courte paille (The short straw – isn’t it curious that the rather contemporary metaphor existed in 1960?). In the 40 to 60 years since Debussy’s songs, a major French composer has stripped away the mystery, ambiguity, harmonic and rhythmic obscurity of the Debussy era in favour of cleaner, simpler lines and harmonies. She approached the seven songs confidently, at home in the various styles, rhythms, moods, finding their quirky or absurd wit through both her voice and demeanour.

How lucky we are to have such an institution as the free St Andrew’s concerts and musicians prepared to give their time and efforts freely to make them happen!

Benefit Concert as Paris Calls Barbara Graham

Benefit concert: Barbara Graham and friends including memebrs of Boutique Opera, in opera excerpts and other songs

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 18 April, 2pm

For a young soprano, Barbara Graham already has an impressive list of accomplishments: Bachelor of Music in vocal performance, Bachelor of Science in Marine Biology, PwC Malvina Major Emerging Artist with NBR New Zealand Opera, performances with New Zealand Opera, oratorio soloist, roles in Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen with NIMBY opera, and recently, playing a superb Susanna in the garden performance of The Marriage of Figaro at Days Bay.

In the last-named she exhibited not only assured, beautiful singing, but also characterful acting.  The words of the witty, modern translation could be heard to good effect from her, as from all the singers.

On Sunday, she was surrounded by friends and mentors as fellow performers, in a well-filled church.  The programme began with excerpts from the afore-mentioned opera with her Days Bay Figaro, Daniel O’Connor, but this time they sang in Italian.  Sadly, we heard only three other operatic solos from Barbara – a fine aria from La Fille du Régiment, a pleasing ‘Je suis encor’ from Massenet’s Manon, and ‘Bess, you is my woman now’ from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, again with O’Connor.  This was well sung, but did not convey an image of earthy Bess, who has seen a lot of life. 

You may wish to include West Side Story as opera;‘A Boy like that’ was sung by Barbara with Jess Segal (mezzo-soprano) as Anita, with suitable style.  Appropriate movement and gesture were used, as indeed in many of the items.

The lovely trio ‘Soave sia’il vento’ from Così Fan Tutte was sung by Lesley Graham (Barbara’s mother, and her first singing teacher), Linden Loader (her current teacher) and Roger Wilson.
As always, it is a delight to listen to, though I thought Wilson could have been a little stronger.

Two duets from Barbara and tenor James Adams (who sang with great distinction) from Mozart’s Bastien and Bastienne (performed by Boutique Opera last year) were effective.
Frances Moore (soprano) sang ‘Una voce poco fa’ from The Barber of Seville well, but in places it was a little insecure.

Most of the remainder of the programme was in the light music category.  Notable was the ironic song ‘The Alto’s Lament’ wittily rendered by Wellington entertainer (of American origin) Jane Keller.  As an alto myself, I could empathise with her singing the various alto lines regretting that the sopranos carry the melodies.  Accompanist Julie Coulson entered into the thing, with appropriate gestures and facial expressions.

The singers were fortunate in the accomplished services of not one, not two, but three accompanists.  In addition to Coulson, there were Fiona McCabe (on a brief visit from her present base in Sydney) and Catherine Norton, shortly to take off for study in London.  It was impressive to hear these fine pianists tackling such a variety of music.

The remainder of the programme consisted of music from shows; they were performed with panache by the singers, who included, in addition to those already mentioned, Michael Gray (tenor), and Charles Wilson. Gray is always confident, projects well and delivers the character he is portraying.  Charles Wilson was part of a quartet with Lesley Graham, Linden Loader, and Roger Wilson in ‘Java Jive’.  He proved to have a pleasing baritone voice.

All the singers, plus other members of Boutique Opera, ended the concert with the beautiful chorus ‘Placido e’il mar’ from Mozart’s Idomeneo.  This was sung most attractively, and made a fitting conclusion.

A standing ovation proved that everyone present not only enjoyed the programme, but also wished Barbara Graham all good fortune in her vocal studies in Paris.  I am sure we will hear more of her.  Indeed, she would like to hear more from us: she still needs financial support for her travel and studies.  She can be contacted at 91 Fraser Avenue, Johnsonville, Wellington 6037; email igraham@paradise.net.nz.