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.

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