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.