SOUNZtender – NZ Music going for a song…..

SOUNZtender – the Concert

The Music:

John Psathas – Songs for Simon / Gillian Whitehead – Tumanako: Journey through an unknown landscape / Eve de Castro-Robinson – and the garden was full of voices / Ross Harris – Four Laments for solo clarinet  Chris Gendall – Suite for String Quartet

The Winning Bidders:

Jack C. Richards – John Psathas / Helen Kominik – Gillian Whitehead / Barry Margan – Eve de Castro-Robinson / Wellington Chamber Music Society – Ross Harris / Christopher Marshall – Chris Gendall

The Performers:

Donald Nicolson (piano) – Songs for Simon (Psathas) / Diedre Irons (piano) – Tumanako (Whitehead) / Gao Ping (piano) – and the garden was full of voices (de Castro-Robinson) / Phil Green (clarinet) – Four Laments (Harris) / The New Zealand String Quartet – Suite for String Quartet (Gendall)

Ilott Theatre, Wellington Town Hall

Sunday 30th May 2010

New Zealand composers putting their creative talents up for auctioning online? Local music patrons, sponsors and benefactors competing amongst themselves for compositional favours from our top composers? Amid the recent shivers caused by icy blasts directed by politicians and bureaucrats against music practitioners and disseminators such as the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Radio New Zealand Concert, this composer-inspired project from the Centre For New Zealand Music represented a skyful of sunbeams brightening up a naughty world. Five composers, all previous winners of the SOUNZ Contemporary Award, proposed to each write a work for solo instrument (or, as it turned out, small ensemble) for the five top bidders in an online auction. It took little more than a fortnight for the bidding to bring in more than $20,000 to further assist with the work of SOUNZ in promoting and collecting and making more readily available the work of New Zealand composers.

The resulting concert was the culmination of more than a year’s preparation of the project, whose inauguration took place on May 14th 2009, the ensuing bidding taking place throughout the remainder of that month. The five successful commissioners won the right to work with a selected composer in relation to a particular composition. In each case  there was a degree of collaboration between commissioner and composer, details of which were in some instances (though not all) outlined in the concert’s programme notes. I found the details of all of this fascinating, recalling as it did my readings of past composers’ dealings with people who commissioned works from them – thought-provoking tracings of interaction between creativity and expectation, a process with an extremely colourful history.

So, a little more than a year after the inauguration of the scheme, composers and performers were ready with the fruits of their labours – the overall result was a concert featuring three diverse piano pieces, and a work each for solo clarinet and string quartet. No wonder that each of the performances of these new pieces promised a particular intensity, a sharp-edged focus that would require concentrated and committed listening, the process made all the more direct and immediate by the “shared-space” ambiences of the Ilott Theatre. Those who had been charged with the task of delivery were about to prove the worth of their discharge.

The first of the pieces, John Psathas’ “Songs for Simon” I found something of a disarming experience at first, the pianist (Donald Nicolson) launching into a simple, repetitiously patterned sequence in tandem with pre-recorded percussion. It established a kind of passacaglia form throughout which attractive melodic lines appeared, built up a certain textural ambience, and then gradually diminished, leaving the percussion to “round off” the sequence. The second part, entitled “Minos” by the composer, was much freer rhythmically and harmonically; and presented the fascinating spectacle of a “live” performer interacting in unpredictable, non-rhythmic ways with the pre-recorded sounds. Whereas the first part of the piece (interestingly titled “His Second Time”) had seemed a shade “formulaic” in its regularity, this whole second episode I found extremely compelling due to its improvisatory air. Such was the concentration with which Donald Nicolson seemed to be “listening” to his “partner” the latter’s utterances seemed also to take on a live, spontaneously-wrought quality. I liked the assertiveness of the percussion cadenza towards the end, and the piano’s dreamy, equivocal response which concluded the work. It would have been interesting to have had some inkling of the interaction between commissioner and composer regarding the work, its titles and sections, and its musical content.

Gilian Whitehead’s piece which followed relied entirely on “conventional” piano acoustics, the only departure from tradition being two sections in the work where the performer is invited to extend and further elaborate upon what is already written. Such was the extent to which pianist Diedre Irons seemed to have “swallowed” the work’s whole ethos I found it impossible to tell which sections these were in performance. Commissioner Helen Kominik dedicated this work to her great grandchildren, Kate and Tom Fraser, the composer thoughtfully making reference in her written notes to the music’s journeyings reflecting the progress of time and the coming of new generations. This renewal of life is suggested also by the piece’s title, “Tumanako”, which means “hope”, though a subtitle “Journey through an unknown landscape” gives further dimensions to the music. Arising from a recent trip through the Yunnan province of China, the composer’s inspiration was stimulated by the plethora of images and sensations, partly traditional, partly unknown, that were encountered  and experienced in a short time. The music was intended to reflect this profusion of encounters, and their relatively unrelated juxtapositioning, though I thought  detected a certain recurrence of some motifs. In general, the piece seemed to encompass whole worlds, with ideas often running in accord – sometimes as in a sense of great stillness existing at the centre of rhythmic activity, while at other times with contrasting characters kaleidoscopically changing, bell-like descents alternating with delicate birdsong-effects. Diedre Irons seemed to catch all of the piece’s moods, hold them for our pleasure, and just as tellingly let them go, playing throughout with such freedom and understanding – those deep, upwardly-echoing chords and the slivers of birdsong which ended the work made for one of many such breath-catching moments throughout.

On the face of things putting three piano pieces together at the beginning of the programme seemed a more pragmatic than artistic piece of programming designed to avoid constant piano relocation! In fact, such were the contrasts wrought by each composer’s music that the instrument seemed almost to be reinvented with each piece, perhaps most radically with Eve de Castro-Robinson’s work “and the garden was full of voices”. Bearing the description “for vocalising pianist”, the music requires both performer and instrument to go beyond conventional sound-parameters, the player asked to recite, to whistle and to vocalise, as well as play; and the piano “prepared”, as well as having its strings directly manipulated by the player. Commissioner Barry Margan, himself a fine pianist, took an active part in the music’s initial formulation, suggesting titles for two of the work’s three movements, and working with the composer on various sonic, literary and metaphysical inspirations. The outcome was a piece rich in poetic allusion, the associations intensified by the use of Bill Manhire’s poetry in the titles for both the overall work and its second movement, “moon darkened by song”. On this occasion the pianist was fellow-composer Gao Ping, who, closely miked, entered fully into the performance’s more theatrical aspects, whispering the opening words “I stayed a minute” and using both the piano’s conventional tones and the “prepared” registers of the instrument (which the pianist did in full view of the audience before the music started). The first part resounded with tui calls, antiphonally rendered through the different timbres created by the strings’ augmentations, and contrasted with richer ambiences created by cimbalon-like tremolandi – by contrast, the delicacies of the gently-strummed treble strings gave an other-world effect at the movement’s conclusion.

At the beginning of the second movement I began to wonder whether the pianist’s microphone had actually been set at slightly too high a level for the whistlings and vocalisings – although there was plenty of expressive impact the sounds seemed over-wrought, a shade too “enhanced” next to the piano-tones. Even so, the composer’s “ritualistic” description of parts of the music was adroitly brought into play, as the pianist initiated an almost primitive singing-along with the music’s melody line, as well as speaking in low, chant-like tones and clapping slowly with raised hands, as if invoking an elusive spirit of delight. In between, the piano sounds suggested different kinds of ruminations, surface musings rubbing shoulders with deep thoughts and charged silences, the spoken incantation “moon darkened by song” providing an apt description of the mystery. The “ancient chants” of the finale featured a whispered title from the soloist at the outset, and oscillating repetitions from the piano, the right hand occasionally seeking air and light in the treble, then resubmerging, the repetitions resembling a kind of dance-chant, which builds into an impassioned interplay of half-tone patternings, with resounding bass notes suggesting the abyss below our feet that stalks our existence. As it began, the piece ended as might a ritual, with doomsday-like gong-stroke notes that resounded, lingered and faded away.

Though the solo clarinet featured in Ross Harris’s work which followed provided plenty of contrast with piano timbres, there was no let-up in intensity, as suggested by the “Four Laments” title. Described by the composer as consisting of “four short and rather quiet movements” the music reflected upon and interacted with the sound of each of the movement’s titles, the word for “lament” in four different languages. The first, “Klaga”, was Swedish, slow-moving, very out-of-doors music, its wide-ranging notations suggesting the isolation of vast spaces, and associated loneliness, and a sense of a spirit communing with nature. This was followed by the Yiddish “Vaygeshray”, a rhythmically droll and quirky piece, engagingly angular in places, choleric in others, and with lovely sotto-voce stream-of-consciousness episodes that set off the more energetic outbursts. The “Tangi” movement featured long-breathed lines, flecked occasionally by birdsong, and echoed with haunting “harmonics”, two notes sounded simultaneously, along with the player’s audible breath as a third timbral “presence” (superb playing by Phil Green), creating an almost prehistoric ambience. The last movement was the Gaelic “Corranach”, somewhat redolent of a wake, with its lyrical opening giving way to snatches of mercurial, dance-like sequences, with ghostly jigs and reels fleetingly remembered. Phil Green’s playing conveyed a real sense of living the music throughout, with each sequence drawn into a larger, more equivocal and suggestive world of different life-and death enactments, deeply moving.

Although these SOUNZtender works were originally designated as commissions for solo instruments, Christopher Marshall, the winning bidder for composer Chris Gendall, decided to specify a work for a string quartet. Marshall’s idea was to propose four ubiquitous forms of music and commission a response to each, with a different instrumentalist in the quartet taking the lead in each piece. Gendall’s response was to abstract certain stylistic elements of each form, rather than attempt to imitate with a set of pastiche-style pieces. The result was a set of boldly-etched pieces whose characteristics seemed to leave their original inspirations behind, but whose sharp, if oblique focus still compelled attention in each case.

Canto, the first movement, spotlit the solo ‘cello, whose music represented a struggle to coalesce into any kind of song, despite the efforts of the higher instruments to entice their partner into lyrical mode. The swaying, sighing character of the next movement, “Scorrevole”, conveyed its eponymous character with great delicacy and beauty, while the third movement, “Tango”, seemed to be a kind of “noises off” realisation of the dance, the skeletal left-handed pizzicati evoking something gestural more than sounded. Here, the solo viola juicily intoned the beginnings of a melody amidst the “danse macabre” of the other instruments, which then all rounded on a single note, each voice colouring the contributing timbres and “bending” the pitch to somewhat exotic effect. There was plenty of ‘snap” to the playing from all concerned, suggesting a certain volatility, and rich chordings that broke off their sostenuto character to fragment in different and adventuresome directions. The final “Bagatelle” largely inhabited the stratospheres, the first violin’s harmonic-like shimmerings drawing similar sounds from the other instruments, whose subtly-shifting colourings brought different intensities to bear, before clustering around the tightly-focused tones of the leader in a nebula of other-worldliness.

What worlds, what evocations, what alchemic realisations! All composers except for Chris Gendall were present to share audience plaudits, along with the respective performers, a unique distillation of contemporary New Zealand music-making. People I spoke with afterwards admitted to favourites among those heard, though interestingly no one work seemed to resound more frequently than others throughout the discussions. As with all new music, though, premieres are one thing, and further performances are another – so it will be interesting to listen out for these works played in different settings and circumstances (although Ross Harris’s work “Four Laments” has already stolen a march on the others, being repeated by Phil Green at an Amici Ensemble concert in Wellington again, tomorrow). The commissioners proudly received their presentation scores of the works performed at a function in the Town Hall Mayoral Chambers after the concert – and the project was thus completed. Very full credit to the Centre for New Zealand Music, the directors Scilla Askew (recent) and Julie Sperring (current), its Trustees and volunteers and contributing commissioners and composers, for a notably historic and successful undertaking.

Ensembled delights from Amici in Wellington

AMICI ENSEMBLE – Wellington Chamber Music Sunday Concerts 2010

DEBUSSY – Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp / FRANCAIX – Quintette for Clarinet and Srings / ROSS HARRIS – Four Laments for Solo Clarinet / STRAVINSKY – Three Pieces for String Quartet / RAVEL – Introduction and Allegro for Harp, Flute, Clarinet and String Quartet

Amici Ensemble: Donald Armstrong, Cristina Vaszilcin (violins) / Gilian Ansell (viola) / Rowan Prior (‘cello) / Phil Green (clarinet) / Bridget Douglas (flute) / Carolyn Mills (harp)

Ilott Theatre, Town Hall, Wellington

Sunday 30th May, 2010

Whether it was my watching Harpo Marx in that memorable harp-playing scene from the film “A Night in Casablanca” which I remember seeing as a child, or my being smitten as a young man by the beautiful Rebecca Harris, the NZSO’s harpist during the 1970s, I’m not entirely sure; but I’ve always been drawn towards music written either for a solo harp or to music with prominent parts for the instrument. My first, wide-eared and open-mouthed encounter with Ravel’s “Introduction and Allegro” for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet on recordings was thus a formative, “surprised-by-joy” experience, music which, to my ongoing regret, I had never had the chance to hear performed “live” before this concert. So, it was with a cocktail mix of pent-up excitement, anticipation, enjoyment and some foreboding that I prepared myself to sit through this afternoon’s beautifully-presented programme, awaiting those limpid wind chordings that announce the beginning of the Ravel work. Of course, I needn’t have worried that the performance was going to be anything less than wonderful, as I was pretty familiar with the work of all the soloists whose combined talents made up the Amici Ensemble – and, most importantly, I’d heard Carolyn Mills as both a soloist and accompanist already, playing the harp like an angel in one of the most beautiful performances of Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols” that I ever hoped to have heard “live” or otherwise, with the Nota Bene choir in 2008.

It didn’t take me long to become embroiled in each of the items once the music started, firstly the Debussy, a work I didn’t know, a Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, one of six chamber works planned by the composer, who unfortunately lived to complete only three of them. What struck me was the music’s absolute freedom of impulse within an extremely simple overall framework – a pastoral-like first movement, a gently-animated, occasionally excitable second movement with a touch of sobriety at its conclusion, and an energetic, free-spirited last movement, the work as a whole elusive and discursive in direction and intent, but undeniably attractive in places.  The players enabled us to dream the opening, flute and harp preparing and slowly awakening the ambience for the sinuous viola line, the harp quite “antiphonal” when contrasting its upper and lower registers. At times the detail wrought by the trio was almost Oriental in its delicacy and clarity of focus, the teamwork responsive and beautifully co-ordinated. A somewhat more earthy and animated second movement was largely energised by Carolyn Mills’ harp, the music losing some of its buoyancy and clouding over towards the end, allowing a moment of introspection to take charge, if only fleetingly. The harp also set in motion the finale with toccata-like insistence, flute and viola playing “poet and peasant” in places, contrasting both the colour and texture of their utterances throughout the ebb and flow of exchange. Despite the players’ advocacy, it was a work I confess to finding more admirable than lovable – subsequent hearings may well change my attitude.

But I must confess to a weakness for Jean Francaix’s music – its droll humour, ready sentimentality and unrepentant volatility, qualities I think of as being very French. In some quarters Francaix’s music is thought of as shallow and vapid, with too ready a reliance upon surface effect; but I like his juxtapositioning of states of emotion, as if keeping foremost in mind the principle of life being “a tragedy to the heart and a comedy to the intellect”. The composer’s Quintette for Clarinet and Strings demonstrates this lightness of touch and playfulness of wit – a sweetly nostalgic opening, but with strongly-etched violin lines nicely projected here by Donald Armstrong, and with Phil Green’s liquid clarinet tones making the music glowing like a ferris wheel turning in the sunset. Very much the music’s protagonist, the clarinet initiates a new, impish mood, gurgling with anticipatory glee before dancing off with a “come on!” gesture. The ensemble energises the music beautifully throughout, pausing for a few melancholic reflections, before taking up the adventure with renewed vigour, the instruments tumbling down the hill with child-like delight at the end. Such winning, infectious playing in the cake-walk-like scherzo, the players then leaning elegantly into the trio, again beautifully characterised, with sentimental clarinet set against more ascerbic, knowing strings, the music seemingly reluctant to return to its scherzo-ish manner at the end. Gillian Ansell’s viola established a mood of sombre beauty at the slow movement’s beginning, the music constructing great archways of gathering and falling tones, the playing full of tenderness. The insistent, nagging finale again had the clarinet playing clown to the strings’ more dogged purpose. I loved the clarinet’s waltz tune, played by Phil Green with wonderful insouciance atop the strings continued rhythmic insistence, as was the solo instrument’s outlandish cadenza, Francaix stressing his “comedy to the intellect” stance by gathering up the work’s strands for a classic throwaway ending. All very stylishly done.

Some of us had heard Ross Harris’s Four Laments for solo clarinet earlier that day at the SOUNZ Tender concert, and were thrilled to hear a new work being given not one but two chances to impress in public. The performer and venue were the same as before, but, as with the behaviour of colours when juxtaposed differently, the music sounded different in this context, perhaps with clarinettist Phil Green taking the opportunity to characterise more fully his view of the work. Each piece was inspired by the concept of “lament” as expressed in four different languages; the first, “Klaga”, from Sweden, the sounds ghostly and hollow-sounding, with brief impulses of movement overtaken by a prevailing sense of isolation. The Yiddish “Vaygeshray” had extroverted energies, behind which seemed to lurk an undertow of anxiety and unease, while the “Tangi” movement featured full-throated wailing, occasional birdsong, and evocative overtones mingled with gestural breathing, the ‘mauri-ora’ (breath of life). Finally the Gaelic “Corranach” evoked a wild landscape and snatches of a dance-ritual, scraps of jigs and reels, the age-old disintegration of a richly-wrought life. Again, Phil Green’s playing “owned” the music, realising sounds that somehow seemed “unlocked” rather than newly-made.

Donald Armstrong entertained the audience most engagingly by way of introducing the programme’s next item, Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet. These were written in 1914, a year after the first performance of the composer’s epoch-shaking ballet “Le Sacre du Printemps”, and are unconnected character studies. They were originally published without titles, but Stravinsky later orchestrated them and added a fourth, to create his “Four Etudes for Orchestra”, transferring the names to the quartet pieces. Donald Armstrong asked the strings of the quartet to demonstrate aspects of the work beforehand, and talked about things like the nagging “housewife theme” in the first piece, and the famous London circus clown Little Tich, whose “eccentric movements and postures” Stravinsky modelled the second movement upon. The players confidently characterised each of the pieces, the obsessive four-note folkish repetitions of the opening Danse, the “jerky, spastic movements” of the second piece Excentrique, and the almost liturgical homophony of Cantique, the final one of the set.

After these were done, we settled back to enjoy the afternoon’s final work, Ravel’s “Introduction and Allegro” This performance seemed to me to realise everything one could have wished for from the music, apart from a profoundly uncharacteristic wrong note from the clarinet at one point, a slip which seemed to take Phil Green aback as well! But Carolyn Mills’ harp playing was a joy, the strings and wind achieved miracles of delicacy and balance throughout, and the whole ensemble seemed at one in realising the piece’s contours of intensity, colour and emotion. Nothing was shirked, with tones both diaphanous and forthright, as required, from the ensemble, through the “running” momentum instigated by the harp, and the intensification of the argument by the strings, generating waves of joyous energy leading towards the final upward flourish. My reaction to it all was coloured and flavoured by pleasurable expectation, I admit, but it seemed, nevertheless, to me to be a brilliantly successful performance. For this reason I didn’t need “Greensleeves” as an encore afterwards, but it would have pleased the punters no end, and was, I must report, nicely realised.

Poinsett Piano Trio at Waikanae

Waikanae Music Society

The Poinsett Piano Trio: Deirdre Hutton (violin), Christopher Hutton (cello), David Gross (piano)

Beethoven: Piano Trio in E flat major, Op. 1, no. 1

Chopin: Polonaise-Fantasie in A flat major, Op. 61

Halvorsen: Passacaglia after Suite no. 7 in G minor by Handel

Brahms: Piano Trio in C major, Op. 87

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Chamber music is alive and well in Waikanae; the audience here was larger than it usually is at the Sunday afternoon series at the Ilott Theatre in Wellington.

Wellingtonian Christopher Hutton was making a welcome return, with his Trio, as part of a 14-centre tour of New Zealand, of which this was the last concert. The Trio is based at Furman University, Greenville, South Carolina. It is named for Joel Roberts Poinsett, a botanist, statesman and physician from South Carolina, whose name is immortalised through his discovery of the Mexican plant with the large, red flowers, which is named after him.

Christopher Hutton is to be commended on his programme notes, which were excellent.

The opening Beethoven trio was played with a nice delicacy, suitable for the composer’s early work, which was very much a classical composition though (as the programme note said) he did not copy Mozart or Haydn, but had his own voice. Despite this, the piano was still the most important part of this trio.

The slow movement was enchanting and lyrical, while the scherzo was cheerful and straightforward. Precision, but also richness of tone marked the performance.

The solo piano work of Chopin was preceded by the pianist’s comments describing the work. Using the printed score, he gave a sympathetic, commanding and engrossing performance of this varied work.

Halvorsen’s reworking of Handel’s Passacaglia (since rearranged for violin and cello from Halvorsen’s violin and viola setting) proved to be thoroughly charming and attractive. The music was beautifully articulated by both players. They were in absolute accord. The writing became increasingly complex and difficult, but the performers were absolutely on top of it, and brought the piece off delightfully.

The Brahms trio was the major work on the programme, and provided an interesting contrast to the Beethoven work – here there was much work for the strings; the piano never dominated. Yet the ensemble playing was impeccable, with complete rapport between the players.

Brahms’s melodies are often full of pathos; this characteristic was conveyed with feeling and deep sonority.

The scherzo was particularly notable for the effects it featured, and for its lovely trio. The finale was full of contrasts, and was admirably played.

This was Brahms without barriers: there was nothing between the audience and the composer’s intentions.

The Trio played as an encore the scherzo from Shostakovich’s second piano trio. This was brilliant, but very different from the concert’s main fare; the trio was a component of the other programme the Poinsetts played around the country.

This is a very able Trio, and I hope they will tour again before too long.

Wallowing in International Art while staying at home

The Habit of Art, by Alan Bennett

The National Theatre production, directed by Nicholas Hytner

Richard Griffiths (Fitz/W.H.Auden), Adrian Scarborough (Donald/Humphrey Carter), Alex Jennings (Henry/Benjamin Britten)

Film screened at the Penthouse Theatre, Brooklyn

Tuesday 25th May

Musings and a review by Peter Coates.

This week has been a very exciting one for me. Last Sunday I saw a performance of Wushu martial arts by twenty-four Chinese visiting experts. This was spectacular, colourful and beautifully choreographed and performed in front of an appeciative audience at the Wellington Town Hall. Modern dance choreographers in Wellington should have been along to witness it.

This was followed by another Chinese delight on Thursday. In this case it was an illustrated lecture by visiting sculptor Prof. Zhao from Shanghai. Prof. Zhao was visiting Wellington for a week, working with Richard Taylor, of Weta fame, on ideas of mutual interest.In a sensitively interpreted lecture, illustrated by a long parade of excellent visuals, we saw the dynamic sculptures of the professor, huge in size, using a wide variety of sculptural media mainly on what one would describe as ‘politically viable’ subject matter. Despite this he manages to gain strong individual expression in the subjects he chooses, and his technical brilliance is undeniable. His combination of technical skill and perceptive observation won his an award at a Venice Biennale. Prof. Zhao brought with him formulae for a form of clay unused in New Zealand which he demonstrated to Richard and his team, producing four portraits of Weta colleagues at a rate of 25 minutes each. We were lucky to have Richard along to add his experiences in China to Prof. Zhao’s story.

But this was only one aspect of his lecture. It was followed by an amazing collection of slides of the professors own collection of Chinese tradition craft – thousands of shadow puppets, pottery items, household utensils, weaving, printing blocks, painting ,calligraphy and sculpture. All had been assembled since the cultural revolution. Now highly regarded as important cultural heritage, the Chinese government is building a special museum to house this amazing collection. One day I would love to see this collection “in situ”. So much for the Chinese section of my week.

Next, the British section. On Tuesday I visited the Penthouse theatre in Brooklyn to see the British National theatre production of Alan Bennet’s “Habit of Art” . This is an example of the  relatively new technique of recording top performances overseas and playing then a matter of weeks later in  specially selected theatres throughut the world. This was originally recorded on  April 22nd ,and shown here last week. It is a system already used successfully in opera,but which is now moving into theatre. Having both produced and designed work for the stage and television – Stravinsky’s “Soldier’s Tale” in 1982 and recorded an opera “live” from the stage for television – Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” in 1979 – the prospect for me of seeing the effect of such work today outside my DVD library was very appealing.

Alan Bennet had constructed  a play that was particularly appealing to me. It was set as a  rehearsal for a play about the relationship between Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden,who had originally worked together on documentary films for the British Post office –

“This is the night mail crossing the border,

bringing the cheque and the postal order,

letters for the rich, letters for the poor…

For the shop at the corner and the girl next door……” etc. etc….

They must have had impact on my memory because I saw those films sixty years ago ! The other work I remember was Britain’s first opera “Paul Bunyan”- with the libretto by Auden –  which I saw at London’s Sadlers Wells in the 1960’s. I must admit to not remembering much about that opera, which was originally written when Britten was sheltering in the USA during the second World War.

“The Habit of Art” is a play within a play. The actors played themselves playing Auden and Britten, moving in and out of character as the rehearsal concept demanded. Richard Jennings as Auden (Fitz as the actor) was particularly brilliant, his size and facial characteristics being very appropriate, while Alec Jennings as the less charismatic Britten (Henry as the actor) caught the character of Britten brilliantly and played the piano accompaniment needed in scenes with a boy soprano,with great aplomb.

The action of the play was set while Britten was having trouble with the composition of what turned out to be his last opera “Death in Venice”. His apparent fascination with the theme of “lost  innocence”, a theme that permeates most of his operas, was getting his friends down. Even Peter Pears tried to dissuade him from completing the opera.  Britten in this play went to his friend Auden for reassurance. Despite having a similar homosexual background which allowed him some appreciation of Thomas Mann’s original text, on which the opera was based, the friends did not manage to resolve Britten’s concern. The play was full of brilliantly witty dialogue,which we are beginning to expect from Bennett, and it is well worth seeing if you are fortunate enough to go to London.

But not here in this production. The problem is that the Screen actors Guild will only allow three performances of these video productions over a very short period of time, so it is unlikely to be seen here again. What about a local production, Circa or Downstage ?

I personally thoroughly enjoyed the whole production. I could easily believe  that I was in the National Theatre, and joined in the reactions of the recorded audience. I heard every word  and the close-ups gave me a great appreciation of the  important detail of the acting performances of Richard Griffiths and Alex Jennings. As for the future don’t miss Dion Boucicault’s  “London Assurance” a National Theatre production coming  to the Penthouse soon. It is “an absolute corker of a production, one that will be talked about and chuckled over with reminiscent affection for years to come”says London’s Daily Telegraph critic. Later in the year we will be able to see the new NT production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” that is coming in the next season.

Now to the last, but certainly not the least, of my splendid cultural week. This time from the Metropolitan Opera, New York. It was the Sunday 29th May screening of Rossini’s  “Armida” production, starring the great Renee Fleming and five top coloratura tenors!!! I didn’t know the world had so many!

I suppose most of us have got used to the use of microphones on singers to allow most of the modern music theatre classics to be performed. But this is opera, and it is untainted accoustic sound we are dealing with. Singers must be able to project their voices through an eighty piece orchestra, and communicate to several thousand in a large, often accoustically unsympathetic, theatre.

The main problem is balancing the sound, and the placement and use of microphones so that they are not seen, but can balance the sound to fit the perspective of the picture. This an artform for the sound engineer, but I did spot one shotgun microphone in the orchestral pit. When recording the one opera that I recorded “live” from the stage with an audience I was lucky to have John Neill working with me to solve such problems. John is currently “Head of Sound” for Peter Jackson’s Park Road Post.

Although I did detect six “dropouts” during the four hour performance I was not at all put off the performance by these. I have only had the experience of two Rossini operas ‘the Barber of Seville” which I produced for television,and a brilliant “Count Ory”production by Antony Besch which I saw in London in the 1960’s. “Armida” was totally unknown to me, and because it was a first ever production by the Metropolitan Opera, it would be unknown to most opera lovers.

Unknown it might have been, but like all Rossini operas it was full of very tuneful music, the usual wonderfully accelerating finales that are a Rossini trademark, some absolutely wonderful tenor-soprano duets, coloratura tenor arias and duets, a tenor trio worth paying the thirty dollars entrance fee for, alone, and a dramatic coloratura aria of immense difficulty sung by the great Renee Fleming, that ended the opera with amazing elan.

Described by Renee Fleming as “the most difficult soprano aria in opera” this is amazing in its demands – especially with its wide vocal range and the coloratura gymnastics involved.  But this was not a one woman show. I must also commend the work of yet another great lyric tenor on the international scene – Lawrence  Browlee, a young negro singer who has featured in “The Barber of Seville” and “Cinderella” productions at the Met. He had plenty of top “C’s” and at least two top “D’s” to contend with in the opera, which he did comfortably; and his articulation of the coloratura was accurate and neat. Juan Diego Florez – who is my favourite tenor and who will be in next year’s Met Season playing the principal tenor role in “The Count Ory”- beware!

The opera, we are assured, is about love and revenge..but what opera isn’t ? To emphasize this point the producer creates two miming characters who play the roles of these two emotions – characters who press the point throughout the production. I was initially uncofortable with their use, but by the last act ,when they interacted successfully with Renee Fleming in her demanding final aria, I was persuaded. The concept was entirely justified.

Amongst the other gems in this production is a ballet involving female dancers dressed as soldiers, who become ballerinas and devils that become ballerinas and finally go back to being devils. Sounds odd ,but it is very amusing. The costuming throughout the opera is sumptuous and colorful, especially for the demons.The set is simple but accoustically excellent. The production had its weird elements – with huge insects inhabiting the stage during the third act – but most of the time it was highly entertaining.

One of the features that I particularly enjoyed was to hear the singers and producer talk about their roles during the intervals. Very interesting – but how do they do it, when it is obviously recorded during a performance of a a three hour opera that is so physically demanding for them?

Getting back to the theme of my article, isn’t it wonderful how we are no longer as isolated as we have been from the glories of world culture ? How we no longer have to pay vast fortunes to travel to Europe, Britain ,the United States or China to enjoy the cultural heritage of others and the latest plays and operas and the wonderful new stars that are seemingly being discovered all the time. In one week I saw some outstanding entertainment from Britain, the United States and China. It’s a sign of the times.

But this is only the beginning. In November the 2010 Met season will begin with eleven  new productions including both “Rheingold” and “Walkure” with Bryn Terfel, “Don Pasquale“ with Anna Netrebko, “Lucia du Lammermoor with Natalie Dessay, “Boris Godunov”,”Don Carlos”. “Il Trovatore”, and the “Count Ory” with Juan Diego Florez, and ”Capriccio” with Renee Fleming. Further film delights include “The full Monteverdi” in June…which looks and sounds – according to the brilliant trailer – absolutely  scrumptious. It looks like I’m going to be going to the Penthouse a lot over the next year…if my pocket can bear the strain !

Saint-Saëns, Psalms and Spirituals from the Festival Singers

Saint-Saëns – Mass Op.4 / Works by Felix Mendelssohn, John Rutter, René Clausen, Zsolt Gárdonyi, Moses Hogan and William Henry Smith

Clarissa Dunn (soprano), Bianca Andrew (mezzo-soprano),  Chris Anderson (tenor),  Kieran Rayner (baritone)

Jonathan Berkahn (organ, piano), Paul Rosoman (organ)

Festival Singers

Rosemary Russell (director)

Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul

Hill St., Wellington

Saturday 29th May 2010

“Camille Saint-Saëns was wracked with pains,

When people addressed him as “Saint-Saynes”;

He held the human race to blame,

because it could not pronounce his name.”

Readers who remember Ogden Nash’s verses will sympathise further with Camille Saint-Saëns in his predicament at being known as a composer primarily for his zoological fantasy “Carnival of the Animals”, though his “Organ” Symphony and several of his concertos for violin, for ‘cello and for piano, have always figured in concert programmes. All gratitude, therefore, to the Festival Singers here in Wellington, for presenting in concert a relative rarity, the composer’s Mass Op.4, written in 1856 when Saint-Saëns was twenty-one, and working as an organist at the church of St-Merry, in Paris. Originally written with orchestral accompaniment, along with the two organs (grand and petite), the work was performed by the Festival Singers in the composer’s later arrangement made without the orchestra. Always his own man in whatever he did, Saint-Saëns largely ignored the more “operatic” vocal style of the liturgical music of his contemporaries, instead choosing to emulate various “historical” precedents, such as the exchanges between the two organs which open the work, and the alternating of organ and choir immediately following, called “alternatum”. Other influences on the work are those of plainchant, of renaissance-like polyphony, of Bachian counterpoint and the sense of drama expressed in the masses of Haydn and Mozart.

At first, the opening alternating statements by the two organs were puzzling – though nicely antiphonal and varied, there was little sense of forward movement or projected focus, which in itself created a kind of tension. The entry of the voices for the Kyrie then seemed to uncover a hitherto concealed pathway along which the music could then move. Whether the youthful composer had this almost “cut adrift” effect in mind at the outset which could then be energised in a specific direction, I’m not sure; but a sense of expectation-cum-bemusement was engendered by the organ dialogues at the beginning, making the entry of the choir a moment of real frisson, of sudden enlightenment and compelling forward motion.

As with the performance of the Dvorak Mass last year, I thought the Singers revelled in presenting to its audience music that ought to be far better known. The work of both soloists and chorus constantly delighted the ear, the full choir able to set the voluminous spaces of the cathedral resounding, even if some of the singing of the sections, through dint of lack of numbers, couldn’t manage the evenness of tone required by some of the exchanges (the women outnumbering the men, and their lines consequently rather more consistently full-toned and secure). Each of the four soloists, soprano Clarissa Dunn, mezzo Bianca Andrew, tenor Chris Anderson and baritone Kieran Rayner, gave particular pleasure with their work, and blended their voices beautifully throughout. Both Jonathan Berkahn and Paul Rosoman contributed stirring organ solos, the latter setting the spaces thundering and shaking with the larger instrument’s grandeur of utterance in places, and setting off the delicacy and poise of Jonathan Berkahn’s playing of the “petite orgue”, accompanying the choir throughout most of the work. Rosemary Russell’s direction seemed to me to be exactly what the music asked for at all times – one could imagine a more tautly-conceived introduction, perhaps, but such a course may well have gained little for the work and lost that air of expectancy which both the silences and the natural flow of the organ-playing built up.

After the interval came the “Psalms and Spirituals”, a sequence whose success surprised and delighted me, as I thought it worked well. The Psalms were begun with Mendelssohn’s energetic and festive “Jauchzet dem Herrn”, the unccompanied choir confident, secure and accurate, and the solo soprano voices from the body of the choir spectacularly good. Somewhat less compelling as a work and as a performance was John Rutter’s “I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes”, the ethereal tones of the “petite orgue” blending sweetly with the small but properly plaintive tenor voices, the full choral passages confident, if occasionally over-balanced on the women’s side. I thought the fragmented vocal lines towards the end (broken up by frequent organ passages, albeit beautifully played) made it difficult for the choir to maintain its tones securely, though forgiveness was forthcoming at the very end with the delicately-floated “Amens”.

American composer René Clausen’s “All That Hath Life And Breath Praise Ye the Lord” featured lively unaccompanied singing, with a striking “many tongues” effect towards the end of the piece, not completely accurate in pitch, but with a real sense of bubbling excitement in the textures – again some sonorous, well-focused work came from a solo soprano choral voice, while the rest of the sopranos brought off a lovely ostinato-accompanied reprise of the main theme midway through. I liked the second John Rutter Psalm “The Lord Is My Shepherd” better than I did the first one, the singing well-rounded (tenors keeping their line despite a touch of strain) and a delicious organ solo sounding as though poet Christopher Smart’s cat Jeffrey had wandered into the work from one of Benjamin Britten’s pieces. Another Rutter Psalm-setting “O Clap Your hands” evoked a dance-spirit with occasional bell-like descending figures, though I thought either the composer or the performers could have given the work’s last couple of pages a little bit more energy and “ring”.

Saint-Saens’s music made a reappearance with his “Ave Maria” sung as a duet by Clarissa Dunn and Bianca Andrew, a welcome change from the over-performed Gounod setting, and one which again enlarged one’s appreciation of the composer and his work. Accompanied by some sensitive piano-playing from Jonathan Berkhan, the singers captured the joyous radiance of the first part of the prayer, and the clouded-over, minor-key supplication of the second.  Bianca Andrew took a strong and heartfelt canonic lead through the latter episode, before easing gratefully back into major-key mode together with her equally melifluous-voiced soprano partner for a beautifully-floated “Amen”. The composer might or might not have approved of his music being juxtaposed with such a bluesy number as “Somebody’s knockin'”, the first of the Spirituals, and probably the funkiest of the selection, the piano accompaniment being particularly moved by the spirit in Jonathan Berkahn’s capable hands. I liked the variation of atmosphere from piece to piece underlined by the different accompaniments, a capella alternating with piano, and a primitive-sounding African-style beat for “Keep Your Lamps!”, which conductor and percussionist launched successfully after a “ready-steady” first attempt. The groundswell of feeling engendered by the final item “There is a Balm in Gilead” satisfied on all counts, appropriately featuring a sweetly dignified soprano voice from the choir and a gently-rocking piano accompaniment – a warm and engaging way to end an enjoyable concert.

Friday afternoon Brahms from the NZ School of Music

New Zealand School of Music Fridays at 5:

Brahms Masterworks

Violin Sonata no.3 in D minor, Op. 108 / Zwei Gesange, Op 91 / Piano Quartet no. 1 in G minor, Op. 23

Martin Riseley (violin), Diedre Irons (piano), Margaret Medlyn (soprano), Donald Maurice (viola), David Chickering (cello)

Ilott Theatre, Town Hall

Friday, 28 May 2010

It was good to hear these five performers joining forces to perform Brahms. What was surprising was that in a printed programme emanating from an academic institution, no numbers, keys, or opus numbers were recorded (the invaluable Grove assisted me here).

Neither were they mentioned in the brief spoken introductions given by the performers. My notes say that the quartet was described by Martin Riseley as being first performed in 1868; perhaps I misheard – Grove says 1861.

Technicalities aside, these were enjoyable performances. Perhaps it is not surprising that the Ilott Theatre was almost full for this free concert, despite the inclement weather. Certainly we are not accustomed to hearing for no charge performers of this calibre.

The Ilott interior appeared less bland than usual; effective lighting on the black curtains made them appear alternately black, gold and red.

The sonata revealed tonal richness and expressiveness from the violinist, particularly in the last movement, which was very strong. However, this was not a particularly romantic rendition, compared with others I have heard featuring a slower first movement. Not that Riseley did not give it plenty of vibrato; at times I found it excessive. The piano, however, did not seem inclined to dwell on any passages.

The jaunty, folksy second movement spoke to me more.

It was a delight to hear the two songs ‘Gestillte Sehnsucht’ and ‘Geistliches Wiegenlied’ (translations of the words were printed, though the latter title was mis-spelt). Though Margaret Medlyn is a soprano, she has a very rich lower register, that made her performance very reminiscent of the recording I have of Kathleen Ferrier singing these songs.

Medlyn caressed the words and made the songs meaningful and beautiful. Her tone was matched by a wonderful mellow sound from Donald Maurice’s viola though in places he lacked fluency.

Diedre Irons achieved a more romantic tone here than in the violin sonata.

While the performers of the piano quartet are all very experienced, this must be their first outing together, since Martin Riseley’s appointment is very recent, and they did not seem always to hang together as an ensemble. Individually, the players were fine, but tonally they were quite varied, and some early intonation lapses from the viola took the shine off the effect.

The energetic opening nevertheless augured well. The muted slow movement seemed to provide a cameo of Brahms’s writing, and made for delicious listening.

The third movement displayed the range of each instrument; its final section was gorgeous.

The Hungarian dance rhythm of the last movement was lively, even agitated. It featured fast pizzicato and contrasting sections, all full of melodic and rhythmic interest, and virtuosic flourishes. The greatest unanimity of tone was achieved in this movement. Its exciting ending fairly sizzled, especially on the piano.

It was a very worthwhile concert, and one hopes that the quartet will find further opportunities to perform together, enhancing their ensemble playing.

Joy is Come! – Choir of Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul

Choral and organ music for Palm Sunday, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost and Trinity, by Howells, Weelkes, Haydn, Andrew Careter, Simon Lindley, S.S. Wesley, Bairstow, Finzi, Givvons, Tallis, Elgar, Bach and Stainer

Choir of Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, conducted by Dr Richard Marlow and Michael Fulcher, with Richard Apperley, Michael Fulcher and Thomas Gaynor (organ)

Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul

Saturday, 22 May

Fourteen different items made up this programme, which ran rather longer than the hour-and-a-quarter advertised. It showed the skill of the choir in singing works spanning four-and-a-half centuries. Nearly all the choir members stood very still, and did not indulge in distracting movement; thus, the audience can concentrate on the music.

Most of the items were conducted by visiting Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, Dr Richard Marlow, who is retired from the position of Director of Music at that College.

On the whole the balance and blend of the choir was good, though occasionally the sopranos were too prominent. There was variety in the programme, and some variety from the voices also. Soloists in some of the pieces were not named, but were mainly well sung. The problem from time to time of the slow resonance of the building was probably exacerbated by the fact that it was well under half-full.

The first item, a Te Deum of Herbert Howells was perhaps one of the few where the organ, in the loud sections, rather overcame the choir. In the quieter middle section, the balance was better. Otherwise, the playing for the choir by Richard Apperley and Thomas Gaynor was exemplary (the latter, who recently won the inaugural Maxwell Fernie Centenary Award, played for three items only. The piece came to a thrilling climax.

The next piece, ‘Jubilate Deo’ by Thomas Weelkes, seemed a bit mechanical – was it insufficiently rehearsed? It was not possible to pick out more than a few words. This was not a problem through most of the remainder of the performance. The solo parts here were fine. It was sung by a smaller group, the Cathedral Consort. The membership of this group was not fixed; when they sang unaccompanied later in the programme, there was some variation in the personnel.

After an attractive organ introduction, Benedictus by Haydn featured a young soloist who improved as she went along. ‘Joy is come’ by modern composer Andrew Carter was quite lovely.

Another contemporary composer, Simon Lindley, wrote the beautiful ‘Now the green blade riseth’, which featured good phrasing and a very fine accompaniment. The words came over much better than in some of the previous pieces.

Samuel Wesley, born 200 years ago this year, wrote ‘Blessed be the God and Father’; its superb pianissimo opening was most effective, the words were clear, the soloist very fine, and the ending lively.

Michael Fulcher played the relatively well-known Choral Song and Fugue by S.S. Wesley very effectively.

Edward Bairstow and Gerald Finzi were roughly contemporaries in the first half of the twentieth century, and both wrote well for choirs. The former’s ‘Let all mortal flesh’ was quite marvellous, while in the latter’s ‘God is gone up’ Marlow obtained the jubilant sound well. The organ part was interesting, and no mere accompaniment.

Orlando Gibbons’s ‘O clap your hands’ is quite complex, multi-part unaccompanied music, and was sung well by the Consort. At the end the singers did a beautiful decrescendo-crescendo. This was fine music-making indeed.

Thomas Tallis contributed the only Latin text item: ‘Loquebantur variis linguis’. Here again, the unaccompanied Consort gave us a gorgeous weaving of parts. This piece made the best use of the resonance of the cathedral.

I did not feel that Elgar’s ‘The Spirit of the Lord’ was great music, but it did have n exciting organ part.

Bach was represented by his wonderful Fugue in E flat (‘St Anne’) – grand three-part fugue. A little more phrasing would have made for greater clarity; the resonance of the building jumbles the sounds, and the last section particularly was rather fast for this space.

The final work, ‘I saw the Lord’ by John Stainer is a very four-square piece, but had some interesting chromatic harmonies.

The tone of the choir improved as the concert went on; by the end it was burnished, bright and beautiful. Marlow obtained some great sounds from the singers, and the organists were a major part of the success of the concert.

Venetian Carnival with the Wallfisch Band – Wellington

Eizabeth Wallfisch (violin), director / Raquel Massadas (viola) / Jaap ter Linden (‘cello) / Albert-Jan Roelofs (harpsichord)


Miranda Hutton, Kate Goodbehere, Shelley Wilkinson, Lara Hall, James Andrewes (violins) / Fiona Haughton (viola) / Emma Goodbehere (‘cello) / Rchard Hardie (double-bass)

LOCATELLI – Concerto in F Op.4 No.8 (à immatatione de Corni da Caccia) / Concerto in F for 4 violins and strings Op.4 No.12 / Concerto Grosso in E-flat Op.7 No.6 (Il pianto d’Arianna) / Concerto in D for violin and strings Op.3 No.1

VIVALDI – Concerto in D for 2 violins and 2 ‘cellos RV564 / Concerto in A Minor for violin and strings RV356 (L’estro armonico) / Concerto in A for 2 violins and strings RV519

Wellington Town Hall

Thursday 20th May 2010

Elizabeth Wallfisch is one of the great “characters” of early music performance world-wide, as her inspirational skills, enthusiasm, and down-to-earth sense of fun as a performer amply demonstrated in the Wallfisch Band’s recent Wellington Town Hall concert. This was no ordinary event featuring a standard “touring ensemble”, but the most recent in a series of projects by the Band, the idea for which was begun by Wallfisch in 2008. This was to bring together a core group of skilled seasoned performers and a number of promising younger players as a kind of “living masterclass” experience for the young musicians involving a number of concert performances by the ensemble as part of the experience.

The results were astonishing, the young New Zealanders responding to the challenge of matching the technical excellences and musicianship of the experienced players with well-founded poise and confidence, and in places, heart-warming élan. Under these circumstances the playing naturally lacked in places the seamless technical polish of crack professional ensembles; but there was not a jot of routine or an unmotivated gesture in the music-making throughout the evening. And moulding everything together with the strength of her leadership and warmth of her personality was the remarkable Elisabeth Wallfisch, a wonderfully star-spangled presence in tight-fitting trousers whose silvery scintillations probably drew as much audience attention as did her remarkable playing, an effect heightened by the player’s standing throughout and frequently moving across the platform to a microphone to talk to her audience (as a result of these uncharacteristic extra-musical musings, I look forward to the reproving “Letters to the Editor”!).

Speaking about the Band’s “masterclass” arrangement, Wallfisch had nothing but praise for the young players in the ensemble, on the face of things a somewhat predictable tribute, but one which her straight-from-the-shoulder manner, and the subsequent performances richly upheld. She said at one point, “We worked them hard!”, and I’ve no doubt that the musicians in question would have experienced, both individually and corporally, a unique kind of enrichment by association that no amount of conventional teaching could have approached.

To the uninitiated, the concert’s programme might have seemed on the face of it to be made up of pleasant but somewhat unvaried fare – all strings for one, and each work possibly difficult to distinguish from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” concerti. However, Elizabeth Wallfisch set the scene for the distinctive qualities of the concert’s first item, by Pietro Locatelli, describing the opening as depicting “the mist rising over the lagoon”. The group beautifully built up layers of tone and impulses of animation as the music did its work of steeping our sensibilities in the glory that was, and still is, Venice. Further, more vigorous episodes found the players emphasizing an engaging out-of-doors flavour, with slashing szforzandi and vigorous attack suggesting rustic pursuits such as horse-riding and hunting. So, on the face of it, very like the “Four Seasons” concerti, one could say, except that Locatelli’s compositional style seemed more volatile and narrative-based than Vivaldi’s – less “pure” as music, but more anecdotal and unpredictable. As the group alternated Locatelli’s and Vivaldi’s works throughout the concert, one had the opportunity to instantly compare the two varied compositional methods.

Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins and Two ‘Cellos which followed featured plenty of melismatic duo work between the “pairs” of instruments. The violins’ articulation seemed almost a blur at the rapid speed set by the leader, an effect which the composer presumably wanted! The interplay between solo instruments was filled throughout with effects such as echo and canonic imitation, the duo pairings seeming to hunt as such to give each other support. Another concerto featuring four soloists was Locatelli’s for four violins Op.4 No.12, a work described by Elizabeth Wallfisch as “an acrobatic concerto of danger and excitement”, and one which certainly lived up to its description, most notably in the finale, with its rapid phrase-passing from instrument to instrument. Though the articulation was occasionally uneven between the players in the most quick-fire exchanges, the spirit never flagged, and the timbral differences between instruments, laid bare by such an exercise, were fascinating to register.

Such was the overall bonhomie of the occasion, that Elizabeth Wallfisch’s repeated attempts to sound the top note of one of her opening phrases in the Vivaldi A Minor concerto from “L’Estro Armonico” which followed met with great amusement and interest from the audience. I notoiced that Wallfisch’s tone, though largely vibrato-less, remained warm and pliable throughout this work, a sound somewhat removed from the steely, bloodless pin-pointed lines one finds on most recordings of baroque string instruments these days, a playing-style I confess I find it almost impossible to abide, “authentic” or no.

The Locatelli Concerto Op.7 No.6 that immediately followed the interval was a depiction in music of the Greek myth of “Ariadne on Naxos” – Wallfisch told us the music would depict calm seas turning tempestuous, deep lamentations as Ariadne is abandoned, and a tragic ending. Certainly the music’s descriptive and narrative capacities rivalled any such sequence in Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, the playing by the ensemble making the most of the composer’s penchant for richly-wrought narrative textures. As cautioned, we were ready for the work’s conclusion when it came, a heart-rending single, rapt, long-held note gradually merging with a pitiless silence. After that we needed something a bit more ebullient, and Vivaldi came to our rescue with his Op.3 No.5 Concerto for Two Violins, with its brilliant, varied interchange between the soloists, the music’s volatility suggesting that Vivaldi could occasionally sound like Locatelli.. This was so brilliantly brought off that the group chose to encore the finale at the end of the concert.

But it was Locatelli who brought the scheduled music-making to its conclusion with his Op.3 No.2 Violin Concerto, Elizabeth Wallfisch making the point before this work was played that the composer had a reputation for a certain roughness of manner as a player, and that he tended to wear out his bowstrings before anybody else. It may have been due to tiredness that Wallfisch had a couple of intonation lapses in the first movement and seemed actually to lose her poise for a second or two just before the cadenza, though her ensuing filigree “soft as a whisper” playing could hardly be faulted. The slow movement featured some high-wire decorative work by the soloist, along with one or two confidently-played portamenti, a startling effect to these ears!  Still, it was in the finale that the virtuoso element was explored in all its “baroque-like” glory – Locatelli’s high writing required a spooky, almost skeletal effect, a distinctive timbre which the soloist brought off wonderfully, if not without the occasional spill – the cadenza allowed Wallfisch to conspire with the audience via a knowing look and a sudden plunge back into further complex figurations after the orchestra had readied itself for the expected cadential entry – all tremendous fun, and thrown off with great verve. The aforementioned encore rightly refocused our attention upon the collaborative nature of the music-making that had been such a distinctive and memorable feature of the concert.

Bravo, the Wallfisch Band and its associates for a splendid evening!

Mozart, da Ponte and Figaro ride again – NBR New Zealand Opera

MOZART  – Le Nozze di Figaro (Opera in Four Acts)

NBR New Zealand Opera 2010 Wellington (May) and Auckland (June)

Cast: Wade Kermot (Figaro), Emma Pearson (Susanna), Gennandi Dubinsky (Dr. Bartolo), Helen Medlyn (Marcellina), Wendy Dawn Thompson (Cherubino), Riccardo Novaro (Count Almaviva), Nuccia Focile (Countess Almaviva), Richard Greager (Don Basilio), Richard Green (Antonio), Derek Hill (Don Curio), Alexandra Ioan (Barbarina), Helen Lear, Polly Ott (Bridesmaids)

Lionel Friend (conductor)

Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus (Michael Vinten – chorus-master)

Vector Wellington Orchestra

St.James Theatre, Wellington

Saturday 15th May

NBR New Zealand Opera’s most recent production of the perennial favourite, Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” looked and sounded splendid on the opening night in Wellington. Despite one or two modernist quirks of production, this was definitely a “period” setting, with costumes, surroundings and ambiences that mostly sat well with the music and the drama. Onstage, behind an initially overbearing, almost fortress-like latticed wall which opened and closed at will were rooms with largely bare, elevated walls and tall doors, the spaces expanding, contracting or dividing to suit whatever scene. Interestingly, a friend was reminded by the clear lines and cool, austere spaces of Vermeer’s paintings; while another remarked upon the scale of things creating a kind of dolls’ house scenario. Generally designer Robin Rawstorne’s spaces and David Eversfield’s lighting nicely reflected nearly each scene of the drama’s business at hand, though I felt the extreme height of everything took away some of the conspiratorial drawing-room ambience of many of the goings-on, especially in the First Act. And while I appreciated (perhaps slightly voyeuristically) the luxury and spaciousness of the Countess’s bourdoir, I thought the window stylistically out of keeping with the design of everything else, as well as being too high for Susanna to plausibly announce to us that she could view the progress of the errant pageboy Cherubino, once he’d made his escape by jumping out of the same opening.

It would follow from this that I had misgivings regarding the final act’s setting – instead of a “garden”, there were stylised Mediterranean-like marble terracings, sensuously curved and almost aromatically lit, but in my view out of keeping with the more naturalistic environments of the previous three acts of the drama. If the intention was to create a kind of dream-sequence of denoument and resolution, then well and good; but one would have thought Mozart and da Ponte wished the motivations of thought and action as earthy and driven in this scene as in any other. Having made my complaint I feel bound to report that the acting and singing of the characters, as well as the orchestral playing (with especially beautiful winds!), transcended any visual incongruities, and, with the great moment of the Countess’s forgiveness of her errant husband making as tear-inducing and lip-trembling an encounter as ever, the drama’s point of fulfilment was triumphantly reached and borne aloft during the sparkling finale that followed.

The aforementioned medieval fortress-like curtain which greeted us upon our arrival was in direct contrast to the sparkle of the overture and the saucy exchanges between Figaro and Susanna during the first scene (rather TOO cramped a space, even with the high walls, it seemed to me). Wade Kermot’s Figaro was handsomely sung, with the occasional note richly upholstered, giving us ample notice of his voice’s expressive potential. The only thing I felt underdeveloped in his portrayal was true wit, the kind of joviality that would have set him up so well in his previous career as Seville’s most famous factotum, and enabled him to be more than a match this time round for his employer-cum-adversary, the Count. This quality his on-and-off-stage partner Emma Pearson had in abundance as Susanna, in a sense, her “lightness of being” acting as a foil to her lover’s seriousness of purpose, but always suggesting depth of character and whole-heartedness – a lovely performance, deliciously sung.

Their noble counterparts, Riccardo Novaro as Count Alvaviva and Nuccia Focile as his Countess Rosina, each presented a richly-wrought stage character. Riccardo Novaro’s elegantly-sung Count possessed a focused suavity, through which flickered the fires of his restlessness and sexual appetite, a portrayal finely calculated save for what I thought an unfortunately gratuitous kick which he aimed at a servant girl at the beginning of the Third Act. As for his “predatory spider” aspect in the “dream-garden” at the end, it was, by that stage in the proceedings, a case of “desperate people doing desperate things”, and acceptable as such, rather like the hilarious “coitus interruptus” scene involving the noble couple and Susanna earlier, in the Countess’s bourdoir. Nuccia Focile’s gorgeous Countess readily brought to mind the humanity and girlishness of Rosina, the ward of Doctor Bartolo, amid her stylish grace and nobility of bearing. Although less “pure” than I remembered, her voice and delivery possessed the power to move one to tears, as with the hushed reprise of her “Dove sono” in Act Three, and the rapt beauty of her reconciliation with her husband at the end.

One of the comedy’s main catalysts was the testosterone-laden pageboy Cherubino, here played with real comic flair by Wendy Dawn Thompson. She nicely contrasted her two important solos, a breathless, somewhat tremulous “Non so piu”, describing the driven desperation of the boy’s libidinous urgings and besotment with womankind in general, and a rather more considered and ritualistic “Voi che sapete” (variations on a similar theme). In both of these sequences I thought the singer brought less “body” to the voice than I would have expected from such expressions of post-pubescent excess, but her acting fleshed the character out nicely each time. However, I thought the Act One sequences of the page’s concealment and discovery by the Count awkwardly handled, and the somewhat muddled consignment of the hapless youth to the glories of military life didn’t here really take up the cues Mozart’s music was giving to the stage action.

Better done were the scenes involving the plotters and schemers, with Helen Medlyn’s ripely-drawn and cracklingly-well-sung Marcellina leading the charge, richly aided and abetted by a cherubic-faced Gennandi Dubinsky as Doctor Bartolo, occasionally uneven of voice in his “La vendetta’ aria, but investing his character with requisite surges of ill-humour and malicious glee. As good were Richard Greager as an oily, supercilious Basilio, adding his vituperative counterpoints to the ensembles with brightly-lit focus and relish; and Richard Green’s bluff, rugged Antonio, the gardener with a snitch against Figaro for trying to make a fool of him over Cherubino’s escape from the window. Derek Hill’s engaging cameo of the notary Don Curio did without the usual disfiguring stutter, while Alexander Ioan as the gardener’s daughter Barbarina sang her “lost pin” aria most fetchingly, acting “for two” throughout with quick wit and charm, her pregnancy wonderfully pronounced, and brought to bear most embarrassingly for the Count regarding his past interactions with her.

Although the chorus doesn’t have a great deal to sing in this work, the servants and their families are a kind of omnipresence, seen or unseen, embodying the underclass dominated by the likes of the Count and Countess and the system that supports the feudal relationship. Their few appearances were striking, almost Breughel-like in their deployment and their variety of colourings, thanks  in part to Elizabeth Whiting’s adroit juxtapositionings of work and festive costumings. Their singing had plenty of bright tones and engaging rusticity. It was also good to hear the Wellington Orchestra sounding in better all-round shape than when I heard them at the opera last, in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugen Onegin” the previous year. All credit to conductor Lionel Friend for securing such lively and well-upholstered playing, with some deliciously-delivered wind cameos accompanying some of Mozart’s most beautiful operatic arias.

If there was justification for yet another “Figaro” from our opera company, it was here amply-realised by Aidan Lang’s thought-provoking and highly entertaining production.

Viennese Connections – Dame Malvina Major and the NZSO

MOZART – Symphony No.41 “Jupiter” / J.STRAUSS Jnr. – Overture and Czardas from “Die Fledermaus”, “Thunder and Lightning” Polka / LEHAR – “Meine Lippen, sie kussen so heiss” from “Giuditta”, “Liebe, du Himmel auf Erden” from “Paganini”, “Vilja” from “Die Lustige Witwe”, Waltz “Gold and Silver” / SIECYNSKI – “Wien, wien, nur du Allein”

Dame Malvina Major (soprano)

Tecwyn Evans (conductor)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 15th May,2010

(A “guest review” by Peter Coates of this concert appears at the end of this article)

Enthusiasts for fine orchestral playing would have been thoroughly diverted by the chance to compare the NZSO’s playing of the Mozart “Jupiter” Symphony in this concert with that of those recent visitors to this country for the International Arts Festival, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. Unfortunately I didn’t get to the concert at which the latter played this particular work, although I did hear the “Prague”, and thus was able to glean something of the orchestra’s style and their particular sound. What struck me with the NZSO’s performance with Tecwyn Evans was how stylish everything sounded, given that the timbres weren’t quite as “characterful” (an authenticist’s euphemism) as those of the Freiburg Ensemble. The key to everything was in the balance between orchestral sections – here winds, brass and timpani were given every opportunity to “speak”, both with solo lines (the playing of both oboist Robert Orr and timpanist Larry Reese a constant delight) and in ensemble, for once properly counterweighting Mozart’s superb string-writing. It made for an absorbing narrative of interaction, especially during the first and last movements, and enhanced by the decision to play all repeats, the amplifications making the symphony truly “Jupiter-like”.

That word “characterful” kept reappearing in my notes hastily scribbled during the performance, referring to various felicitous detailings – the pair of deliciously-played bassoons in thirds during the first movement development, the extra depth of sound asked for and got by the conductor for the second movement’s minor-key episode (and such tenderness in the phrasing of the strings at the recapitulation!) – and the enlivening of the opening melodic lines of the finale by those urgent, scampering accompaniments, already suggesting the fugal ferment to follow. Again, the repeats enlarged the music’s span, properly suggesting vast, imperious orbits of energy around which conductor and players readily danced that joyous cosmic dance proposed and then led by the composer. Life-enhancing stuff!

After the intoxicating draughts of the symphony, it seemed to me the champagne flowed more fitfully during the second half, though there were good moments, especially with Dame Malvina Major, again, the concert’s true centerpiece. Her voice seemed on fine form once again, though again in certain places I found it difficult to “place” her tones as a soloist to those of the orchestra’s. For that reason I enjoyed her singing more the previous night, because we seemed to actually hear more of her – in places the voice seemed subsumed by orchestral textures as if a wind instrument in an ensemble. Oddly enough I sat a lot closer to her on this occasion, but such are the vagaries of concert-hall acoustics!

Best were the Dame’s Lehar items – from “Giuditta” we got a finely-spun “Meine Lippen, sie kussen so heiss”, the voice sustaining the line of the introduction, and then melting us with the awakening of the main tune, including a lovely hushed ascent at the end of the first verse. Finely-honed, sinuous wind accompaniments supported the singing to near-perfection. Again, in “Liebe, du Himmel auf Erden”, from “Paganini”, the voice had a silvery, wonderfully-focused aspect throughout, enhanced by the hushed orchestral playing – a lovely cushion of sound for a singer.

Inevitably, and rightly, the programme finished with one of Malvina’s calling cards, the “Vilja” from “Die Lustige Witwe”, sung in English, the voice slightly masked by the orchestra throughout the verses, but clear and lovely for the soaring tune and reprise, the singer treating us to a brief, skilfully floated stratospheric ascent the second time round, during which time itself seemed to pause and listen.

Again, the more strenuous items seemed to suit the voice less well – the “Czardas” from “Die Fledermaus” (Johann Strauss Jnr.) ultimately required more power, despite moments of lovely detailing (some skilful high trumpet work in the “friss” section), and the balance again seeming to over-favour the orchestra in Sieczynski’s popular “Wien, Wien nur du Allein”. It will be interesting to read reports of the concerts featuring this same programme from further up the island over the touring week – in different venues, the voice-and-orchestra balance may well shift, hopefully towards the side of the singer.

The programme was “fleshed out” a little with some purely orchestral items – and I wish Tecwyn Evans hadn’t agreed to conduct such a horribly truncated version of one of the greatest of all concert waltzes, Lehar’s “Gold and Silver”! Shorn of all repeats, and with at least one important reprise completely excised, the work became a trite collection of pretty waltz tunes, one meaninglessly following the other. Thank goodness for Strauss’s “Die Fledermaus” Overture – spirited and theatrical – and for the rumbustions “Thunder and Lightning” Polka, though anybody who’s played this music in an amateur orchestra, as I have, might just have found themselves wanting a bit less finesse and a touch more “abandonment” from the NZSO percussion!

A QUESTION OF BALANCE – Malvina’s Second NZSO Concert

Guest review by Peter Coates

It is 12 years since Malvina Major appeared in concert with the NZSO, 25 years since I worked with her on a series of television “specials”. Hearing her sing again with the orchestra is a long awaited pleasure. To hear her creamy soprano once again brings back many fond memories to me, and at least two sad ones. These are the two recordings I made with her with conductor John Matheson and New Zealand casts of Puccini’s “Tosca” and Mozart’s “Il Seraglio” for TVNZ that have never been completed. Malvina is special. She holds a place in our hearts because she primarily stayed in New Zealand during her career to entertain us, raised large sums of money for charity and has over the past twenty years worked hard to train and offer opportunities to New Zealand’s growing number of talented young operatic singers.

A goodly number of “grey haired” supporters – like me – came to see our popular “Lady of Song” at the Michael Fowler Centre double concerts last week. The first,a recital featuring the more dramatic arias in her repertoire I did not see, but I certainly saw and enjoyed her second venture into the Viennese. What never fails to impress me is the ease that she can sung those difficult pianissimo high notes, displaying the flawless technique that always has been a feature of her singing.Sadly there were problems though in the balance with the orchestra during the softer passages of her arias, which made her voice difficult to hear.Having recently spent time with Sir Donald McIntyre during the Simon O’Neill Wagner concert, and Donald Munro during his recent visit to Wellington, I have been reminded constantly about the importance of the words in performance. When you find the accompaniment preventing you from hearing the words clearly it is very frustrating, whether it be German or English. A recent performance of “Miss Saigon’ was spoilt for me for example by the distorted amplification of the singers, so the problem of not being able to hear accompanied vocal performances doesn’t occur just with the NZSO.

This contrasted greatly with the  Mozart 41st Symphony that began the concert, where the smaller orchestra gave the chance for the audience to hear the wonderful Mozart orchestration in all its glory. The beautiful interplayof the woodwind was great to hear so clearly, with Robert Orr starring on the oboe. Sadly Malvina’s softer passages were not given the same courtesy. Part of the problem appars to be the accoustic of the  Michael Fowler Centre .A position beside the conductor does not appear to be as accoustically good as the back of the choir stalls. I remember how clearly one could hear the singing of Martin Snell from that position during the wonderful “Parsifal” production in 2006. Having a reflective surface so close behind you certainly helps. Perhaps a position further in front of the orchestra might help? Links with the conductor these days can be provided by monitor. The audience in the past has been ignored by the use of “space stages”, bad stage position and heavy absorbent costumes that affect the ability of the human voice to project to the back of the hall.

The trouble is that it is the singer who tends to get blamed for lack of projection rather than the other accoustic elements involved. Should one blame the excellent conductor of the concert, New Zealander Tecwyn Evans – “ the first New Zealander to hold a conducting position in a major European Opera House for over 30 years”? Not if his wonderful Mozart 41 is anything to go by. Speaking to Malvina following the concert I got the impression that he tried manfully to get the softer passages sung by Malvina properly exposed.

I congratulate the NZSO for two very good operatic programmes this year, but I would like to see further exploration of the accoustics involved with vocal performance at the Michael Fowler Centre.