NZSO Soloists in interesting but problematic programme

Sibelius: Impromptu
Ibert: Pièce
Arthur Foote: A Night Piece
Grieg: Two Norwegian Airs
Aulis Sallinen: Aspects of Peltoniemi Hintrik’s Funeral March
Telemann: Don Quixote Overture no.10 in G major (Burlesque de Don Quixote)
Mendelssohn: Symphony for Strings no.10 in B minor

NZSO String section, Bridget Douglas (flute), Vesa-Matti Leppänen (director)

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday 30 September, 7.30pm

It is an interesting innovation to have sections of the NZSO featured in their own concerts; this year, the string players (or 18 of them) and next year it will be the turns of the woodwind players and the brass players. Vessa-Matti Leppänen has chosen the music for all these concerts.

Since the sad demise of the NZSO Chamber Orchestra (co-founded, and directed, by Donald Armstrong), we have not heard regular string orchestra playing, apart from baroque groups.  I would say that with this group there is not yet the warm timbre of a string orchestra that has played together for years, but nevertheless the players made a fine sound, and played almost impeccably.

There were 18 players, and they stood to play (which they will not be used to), except, of course, the three cellists.  There were as well ten violinists, three viola players and two double bassists.  The personnel of the group provided additional interest, since it was the first concert for the new principal cellist, Andrew Joyce.  Not only was the new cellist having his first outing, but trialling the position of principal viola was his wife Julia, who is none other than Julia McCarthy who only a few years ago, was a talented violin student at Victoria University’s School of Music, and member of the National Youth Orchestra.  Studying overseas has seen her switch to viola as her chief instrument, and also acquire a musician husband.

Vessa-Matti told us that this concert should be relaxing, but not send us to sleep.  I  began to have my doubts, despite the excellence of the playing.  Certainly there was much music of a muted, even dreamy quality.  While it was very good to hear unfamiliar music for strings, I found rather an over-emphasis on dark Scandinavian music, which some described as gloomy, and others as lugubrious.

The poor attendance at the concert probably showed that a lot of people enjoy the big sound and the variety of a symphony orchestra, and a much smaller string group like this doesn’t ‘do it’ for them.

The opening work was described by the director as ‘happy Sibelius’, but despite the still, calm opening, bouncy use of spiccato, and a lively waltz in the middle section, it was mainly melancholy, as the programme note described the final section.  Originally written for piano, early in his career, the work was soon arranged for string orchestra by the composer.  The instruments played with mutes, giving a lovely sustained, mellow tone. 

After this came a surprise item: a short work of Ibert’s from 1936, named simply Pièce.  This was introduced and played by principal flutist Bridget Douglas, who wore a beautiful silver dress, matching her instrument well.  As she said, this work was reminiscent of Debussy’s well-know Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune.   A slow and meditative opening was followed by a livelier section, reminiscent of birds, and then it was back to a slower, more contemplative mood.

Arthur Foote, who died in 1937, wrote A Night Piece in 1918.  It was written of it that it ‘has no concern to shake the world…’ but that the composer had ‘a sensitive response to beauty which has enabled him to capture a distillation of sheer sensuous delight.’  Here again, the word ‘melancholic’ is used in the programme note, along with ‘a fresh and exotic elegance’.  It was not in any sense avant-garde music, but a charming, subtle, beautifully played piece for flute and string orchestra.

Both the Ibert work and this one were played by the soloist without score, and with quite ravishing tone and technique.  True to title, the piece was certainly nocturnal in mode and character, being dreamy and lyrical.

Continuing in Scandinavian vein we had Grieg’s Two Norwegian Airs; firstly, ‘In Folk Style’ and next ‘Cow Call and Peasant Dance’.  Following the opening there was a long viola and cello section, the two instruments conversing with each other in a mellow way.  Then the violins joined in, initially on the lower strings.  Parts of this piece were quite dreamy and melancholy; this meant that all the three pieces so far heard (apart from the Ibert solo) were rather similar in mood.

The second of the two Airs featured very musical cow calls (without any lowing response from the animals) followed by a lively dance.

Aulis Sallinen, composer and conductor visited New Zealand a number of years ago, on a conducting exchange with Sir William Southgate, who conducted in Finland.  As a result, Sallinen (as reported by Leppänen in a radio interview a couple of days before the concert) has written a New Zealand Symphony.

His piece was based on a traditional folk funeral melody, which had been voted in Finland as the most depressing and dark tune ever!  Whether Peltoniemi Hintrik was a real person, I have been unable to discover.  Perhaps he was a figure of folk tradition, like Peer Gynt in Norway.

The first statement of this theme was extremely bare, played by solo violin and solo cello, in octaves.  This gave a steely cold sound.  Then one viola and viola and one second violin joined in, playing pizzicato, before the other players entered, at which point all appeared to be at cross-purposes.  The techniques included strumming, and pizzicato deliberately played with the finger-nails, to produce a hard sound.

Later, in a more dynamic mood, sections of the music involved discords resolving, interspersed with unison playing, i.e. discord then concord.  The ending of the work was quite folksy.  Despite the ‘funeral’ title, there was humour in the music.

Now for something completely different.  The Telemann work was fun, and quite dissonant in places.  This performance included harpsichordist Donald Nicolson; there were three fewer violinists.

Its seven movements were thoroughly descriptive of their titles, based on the famous knight’s adventures.  It was good to hear the NZSO players, despite their use of modern instruments, performing this music so well in baroque style, with little vibrato but strong accents, especially on the first beat of every bar.

The ‘Overture’ (yes, the Overture had an overture) was peaceful and happy, then very fast.  The ‘Awakening of Don Quixote’ had a quiet a sleepy mood, followed by ‘His Attack on the Windmills’ which indeed was quite a battle, vigorous and fast.  The ‘Sighs of Love for Princess Dulcinae’ were just that.  ‘Sancho Panza Swindled’ was a very jolly movement, but simple (perhaps to show the squire as simple?), and featured upwards-swooping phrases, presumably depicting the swindling.

The movement of minuet-trio-minuet describing ‘Rosinante Galloping’ and ‘The Gallop of Sancho Panza’s Mule’ had appropriate rhythm (though the galloping seemed a bit slow to me – perhaps in Spain in the Don’s day horses galloped at a more leisurely pace than now?).   The mule was quieter and slower, the trio being set for a quartet of the four section leaders, before the return to the minuet.

‘Don Quixote at Rest’ seemed to belie its title; more straight-forward music, but at a fast pace becoming ever faster.  This was a humorous finale, with spiccato from violas, cellos and basses.

The final work on the programme was Mendelssohn’s tenth String Symphony, written when he was only 14 years old.  It is a delightful, relatively uncomplicated piece, well crafted and well played here.  It is not brilliant, but astonishing for someone of the composer’s age at the time. 

There was a good weighty sound despite the relatively small group of players.  It was not as delicate as the Scandinavian music, but nonetheless, there were some lovely pianissimos, and some fine themes.  Brian Shillito’s solo viola passage was beautifully played.

There was an enthusiastic response from the audience.  Leppänen had done a good job of preparation of the musicians; I am not so sure about his programme choices.  It is good to have a varied and different programme, and this was an interesting exercise, but not one I would want to take in too often.

Michael Fulcher demonstrates virtues of Congregational Church organ

National Organ Month: Michael Fulcher

Music by Samuel Sebastian Wesley, Thomas Dunhill, Mendelssohn, Stanford and Elgar

Congregational Church, Cambridge Terrace

Thursday 30 September 12.45pm

The pages of Middle C have been unusually filled by reviews of organ recitals over the past month on account of National Organ Month, which is one of the more useful special celebrations in the musical calendar.

Interest in the organ lies rather outside the field of vision for many music lovers and, I suppose, particularly as a result of religious belief and church-going seeming to be in permantent decline.

Though I was perhaps disadvantaged by being brought up in an agnostic family, I was lucky through my secondary school years to have a best friend whose family were musicians, and in particular, church musicians. After they moved to Christchurch, and he became, aged 16 or so, organist at St Paul’s church, Papanui, I could experiment on its two manual pipe organ: Finlandia, I remember, sounded especially wonderful. .  Agnosticism has never got in the way of loving the music that religion has given the world; so I have never been able to walk past a church where an organ was being played.

Michael Fulcher brought Organ Month to a close in Wellington, on the organ that he’d confessed the week before, was one of his favourites in the city.

I was a couple of minutes late and he was already charging through the Fugal section of a Choral Song and Fugue by Samuel Sebastian Wesley (born 200 years ago, along with Schumann and Chopin and Nicolai and Lumbye…).

Fulcher had chosen stops that fitted the space on the church admirably so that the effect was grand, vivid and exciting, with a clarity that allowed each register to be heard; the accumulations in the climactic fugue, complementing the Song very sympathetically, depended rather on exploiting more of the organ’s full resources.

Rather less grand, the Air and Gavotte from the same composer’s Twelve Short Pieces, demonstrated the more refined aspects of the organ’s character, each phrase played on different flute or reed stops; the staccato rhythms of the Gavotte were accompanied by adroit manipulation of the stops.

Dunhill’s name is more familiar to young piano students, though hardly to the average listener. His Cantilena Romantica is a charming, far from merely sentimental, piece that offered another opportunity to hear the range of the organ’s colours, in a performance that gave life to a piece that might not sound so interesting on a recording.

The centre piece of the concert was Mendelssohn’s Sonata No 6 in D minor. Though it’s not very orthodox in the pattern of its movements, it is a more interesting piece than might have been expected from a request from an English publisher.

Fulcher’s registrations were at once, in the opening Chorale and variations, in striking contrast with the preceding English pieces: sombre, in a serious Bach vein (the tune is from Bach’s choraleVater unser im Himmelreich’, BWV 416). Even though its rhythm was more lively, the following Allegro molto maintained the diapason character of the Chorale movement. The third movement, Fugue, proved the most spectacular display of the concert, highly decorated passages with rushing scales and the use of the heaviest stops. It was a movement, among others, that one can hardly imagine coming off in either the Town Hall or the Anglican Cathedral because of the avalanche of notes. Apparently these sonatas were not much played in England for many years; in fact, the character of the Fugal movement struck me as presaging the French toccata style that emerged a half century later. The last movement is a deceptive Andante, meditative, not the least flamboyant; and Fulcher’s performance gave it the best possible recommendation.

The rest of the programme was much less significant, though both pieces were well chosen for their particular qualities. Stanford’s Voluntary No 1, modest in substance and in performance, evolved very engagingly; and Elgar’s Imperial March (Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee) was another opportunity for virtuoso display, not merely by the player but of this little-appreciated organ’s singular strengths and brilliant colours.





NZSM voice students on show at Lower Hutt

Selections from Mozart operas, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, and Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers; and songs by Bernstein, Brahms, Vaughan Williams, Wolf, Warlock, Keel, Franchi, Schumann and Mussorgsky

New Zealand School of Music Voice Students: Isaac Stone, Laura Dawson, Fredi Jones, Daniela Young, Simon Harnden, Awhina Waimotu, Christina Orgias; accompanied by Claire Harris, Douglas Mews, Emma Sayers

St. Mark’s Church, Lower Hutt

Wednesday, 29 September, 12.15pm

A wide-ranging programme gave opportunity for NZSM students of Richard Greager, Margaret Medlyn, Flora Edwards and Jenny Wollerman to demonstrate their skills. The printed programme did not state, but I suspect some of these students are at an early stage of their study. However, all acquitted themselves well in front of an audience, and did not exhibit obvious signs of nervousness.

All sang in at least two languages, and some in three, the languages being Italian, German and English.

Unfortunately I missed the first item, and a large part of the second. The first singer, Isaac Stone, sang two further items. The second, Laura Dawson, sang three songs from I Hate Music, a cycle of ‘Five Kid Songs for soprano by Leonard Bernstein (both text and music), which is purportedly sung by a ten-year-old girl. What little I heard sounded very competently sung, if rather too powerfully for a ten-year-old.

Fredi Jones then sang the first of his three items: ‘Deh! Vieni alla finestra’ from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Jones has a fine voice, at times making a beautiful sound, but he was not enough the seducing Don. He and others of the less experienced singers may well develop characterisation with time. Later in the programme, he sang ‘Widmung’ from the song cycle Myrthen by Schumann. This suited him better than the Don’s aria, and he used his voice to good advantage, although his tone was weaker in the quiet singing. Nevertheless, it was a good performance. His last item was ‘Take a pair of sparkling eyes’ from The Gondoliers. This was pleasantly performed, but again there was not enough character in voice or language for what is a comic opera aria. The singer needed to pretend that none of us knew it, and that what he was so clearly enunciating was new to us.

After Jones’s Mozart aria we had another from the same opera: ‘Batti, batti, o bel Masetto’, sung by Daniela Young. She presented this very skilfully; her clear lovely voice contained plenty of expression. Later, she gave us Vergebliches Ständchen by Brahms, with energy, and impeccable German. Perhaps she needed a little more contrast vocally between the imploring man wishing the young woman to open the door, and the young woman’s replies that she will not let him in.

The next singer was Simon Harnden. He sang first Sapphische Ode by Brahms, and then ‘The Vagabond’ from Songs of Travel by Vaughan Williams, the latter to Robert Louis Stevenson’s text. These songs are both quite lovely, and favourites of mine. Harnden has a good baritone, but his intonation was insecure at times. In the former he did not develop the long notes, and his German was indistinct. The latter featured clearer words, though I was not so keen on ‘Oi’ for ‘I’ or ‘loif’ for ‘life’. Again, he had difficulty in sustaining correct pitch.

However, he came into his own in the last item: Mussorgsky’s Song of the Flea. The tessitura of this song, employing his lower register, seemed to suit him much better. It made his singing more effective, his intonation was better, and he put more character into the performance. He did not do all the difficult runs fully, but made this a most enjoyable final item.

The next singer, following Harnden’s second song, was Awhina Waimotu. She sang first one of Wolf’s Mörike lieder, Verbogenheit. There is a very pleasant, full quality to her voice, but intonation was not always secure. She conveyed the character of the song well, and her high notes were beautifully pure. Her second performance was of ‘Amore è un ladroncello’ from Così fan tutte by Mozart. Tone was very good, and this is a voice that would carry well in an opera house. The sense of the aria was conveyed well, but it is a difficult aria, and it did not quite come off. Again, there were intonation problems.

Isaac Stone then sang Peter Warlock’s Lullaby. His voice is pleasant but not large. This suited a lullaby, but despite it being in English, I did not gain much of a feel for the meaning of this song. He followed this with Frederick Keel’s Trade Winds. This was a more enjoyable performance, of a song I remember singing at primary school. Keel’s evocative music for Masefield’s words communicate the meaning splendidly.

Christina Orgias began with a Wolf song that was left out of the printed programme: Anakerons Grab. This was a lyrical and expressive performance – yet this setting of Goethe perhaps needs a little more maturity to render the poem completely. It ws gratifying to see the second song, Treefall by New Zealand composer Dorothea Franchi, with text by Jean Hill, included. Franchi’s writing is delightful and renders the account of a special tree that had been felled in touching manner. Christina Orgias put the story over well, and showed excellent breath control.

Naturally, there was variation between the singers, but the audience was privileged to hear some fine singers and a number of very promising performances. There is no doubt that the university singers get more opportunities for public performance than they did a number of years ago, thanks to the number of lunchtime concerts occurring weekly in the capital and Lower Hutt, and the performances that the School of Music itself is mounting.

William Green (piano) on The Enchanted Island

New Zealand and other solo piano music

(A Caprice Arts Trust Concert)

William Green (piano)

St. Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Friday, 24th September 2010

This was a recital that had more than a whiff of magic, mystery and atmosphere about it, thanks in part to a tempestuous Wellington spring wind that roared around and about St. Andrew’s Church throughout the evening, activating creaks, groans and occasional muffled bumpings and rumblings. It was as if an army of musical ghosts had congregated amid the rafters of the church and were making their presence felt none too silently (shades of the composers, perhaps, come to hear their music given an all too seldom public airing in many instances).

Other things contributed to the magic of the occasion, not the least of which was William Green’s playing. An Auckland-based musician who gives frequent recitals exploring the surprisingly rich legacy of New Zealand piano music, Green was here making his Wellington debut as a solo recitalist. He brought with him a programme whose substance and presentation deserved far greater support than the paltry numbers who did attend the concert were able to generate, appreciative though the audience was of the pianist’s efforts. Whether the sparse attendance (no more than thirty people) could be attributed to lack of advertising, the pianist’s and the repertoire’s largely “unfamiliar” status, the recital’s injudicious timing or the less-than-salubrious weather, the response remained disappointing and reflected less than positively on the capital’s reputation as a centre for arts and culture.

But what magic there was in the music as well! – in the Caprice Arts Trust’s advertising preamble, William Green referred to the programme as focused “on the small and the lyrical – often clothed in the unusual!”. Most of the works were written by New Zealand composers, many of which pieces were new to me; and the pianist’s own work, a set of three Rags Without Riches was given its world premiere performance (he also played an exerpt from another of his compositions, No.5 from Five Miniatures). The idea of including in the recital works by JS Bach, Samuel Barber, George Gershwin (three song arrangements, fascinatingly different treatments) and Richard Wagner (Liszt’s famed transcription of the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde) certainly “placed” the home-grown pieces in wider contexts of both time and space, and not at all to their detriment.

Not inappropriately, the recital’s “anchor-stone” whose opening tones readily suggested a sense of “something rich and strange” was a Busoni transcription of JS Bach’s Nun Komm der Heiland, the music’s deep-throated, solemn stride evoking at once the mystery of unfathomable being and the beauty of ritual, a recipe for gentle bewitchment if ever there was one. The piece which gave the recital its name followed, Frank Hutchens’ The Enchanted Isle, atmospheric, impressionistic music, figurations beneath which sang a sonorous melody, and awakenings of echoes and distant voicings, the pianist’s ultra-sensitivity presiding over a beguiling harmonic kaleidoscope of colour-change. Wilder and more energetic was the same composer’s Sea Music, a kind of pianistic “jeux de vagues”, rippling figurations concerned with playful, impulsive dialogue between melody and counter-melody, nothing too adventurous harmonically, but with the occasional guileful twist. And Ernest Jenner’s Foxglove Bells, though hinting at touches of the exotic with some of the opening harmonies, was a gentle, pictorial English pastorale, the bells at the mercy of the breezes across the meadow, their tones rising at the piece’s lovely, questioning ending.

Terser, more enigmatic fare was Douglas Lilburn’s Piece ’81, a piece whose soulful, upward-arching impulses gave themselves and their resonances plenty of air and light, contrast and distance generated by almost sepulchral bass notes that opened up the textures, the pianist allowing the music plenty of room for thought, then gently nudging a couple more upward impulses into the silences. A contemporary of Lilburn’s was Robert Burch, respected as a fine horn-player as well as a composer – William Green played the third of Burch’s set of Four Bagatelles, a piece redolent of tolling bells, with an inquiring, angular figure that walked backwards and forwards across the soundscape, leaving the bells to carry on with an ever-diminishing dialogue, the pianist beautifully controlling the resonantly receding ending. Rather more salon-like was Alfred Hill’s Come Again, Summer, a welcome song in the manner of Cecile Chaminade, though with some telling harmonic shifts in places, especially towards the end.

Green next figured as a transcriber of a bracket of Samuel Barber’s songs, including an aria from the composer’s opera Vanessa. A powerfully bleak, almost Messiaen-like The Crucifixion, complete with birdsong, was succeeded by the well-known, warmly resonant Sure on that Shining Night , rolling and romantic in style; and the group was concluded with the tightly-focused, theatrically interactive To Leave, to Break, the interchanges between bass and treble voices suggesting the piece’s stage origins. Another set of transcriptions, later in the programme, were of George Gershwin’s songs, this time by three different transcribers, each of which had something distinctive to offer, the first, Love walked In, featuring for instance Percy Grainger’s “woggle” (the composer’s irreverent name for a tremolando).

To conclude the recital’s first half, Green played us his new work, Rags Without Riches, three cleverly-written, almost pastiche-like dances paying homage to different New Zealand locations, the first, Starvation Bluff, beginning with what seemed like a pianistic cry of pain, the dying fall as pathetic in effect as the tortured opening. The music evoked hard times and bitter disillusionment, occasional bright-eyed utterances exposing their shadow side, the ghostly ascents taking us into tonal realms where warmth was stripped to the bone and feeling bleached to the point of numbness. Then came Poverty Bay Shuffle, music beginning with droll rumblings and upward rollings, the rhythmic energies projecting a laconic, weathered sensibility, again without warmth or illusion, a structure liable to disintegrate without warning, occasioning desperate gestures such as Grainger-like hand-clustered chords, hollowed-out exchanges of melodic fragments and a final, cursory downward slide. The final Poor Knight’s Rag took on a manic aspect, cluttered, insistent and claustrophobic, a “Singing Detective-like” musical hallucination which recklessly ran itself headlong into the waiting clutches of oblivion. And then it was, as Tom Lehrer would have remarked, more than forty years ago, time for a cancer!

Apart from the Gershwin transcriptions, and Liszt’s well-known keyboard traversal of Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan, the rest was New Zealand music – William Green gave us two beautiful Tone Clock Pieces by Jenny McLeod, the first (No.2) tolling its notes and enjoying its own ambiences, then exploring antiphonal voices and various resonating reflections, ending with deep, rich soundings; while the second (No.4) rolled, spun and orbited its arpeggiated figures, registering fragments of echoings and chordal replies, rather like a meeting of two disparate elements. Jack Body’s classic Five Melodies was represented by the fifth piece of the set, the oscillation of the notes very beautiful and haunting, the figurations “travelling”, as does sunlight upon water-surfaces, spontaneously recreating the scenario’s basic patternings. Another “Piece No.5” was William’ Green’s own composition, from 5 Miniatures, a lovely, open-textured piece whose explorations of space and becalmed ambiences had to compete with a considerable amount of wind-noise from various parts of the building – the performance nevertheless beautifully sustained by the composer-pianist. By contrast, Helen Bowater’s rapid-fire, high-energy tribute to an Asian housemate’s attempts at communicable language No Problem From Little Bit bubbled with excitability and joy at the prospect of being understood. The pendulum swung back to circumspection for Michael Norris’s Amato, a Caprice Arts Trust commission, here receiving only its second public performance – music whose stillness suggested worlds of frozen time, repeated right-hand water-droplet notes a constant while the left hand tentatively explored middle and bass registers. Clustered etchings of sound began to fill up the piece’s spaces, the pauses defining the dimensions tellingly before being made to resonate with rich tones – some marvellous sounds from the pianist and his instrument! To finish, quiet,firm-voiced declamations, and gentle scintillations of light, everything judiciously controlled and beautifully-breathed.

The Wagner transcription became a “back to the world” undertaking, a piece whose quiet but rapidly burgeoning insistence can produce an overwhelming effect, even in keyboard guise, thanks to the genius of Liszt. William Green’s playing unlocked most of its its magic here, even if I wanted somewhat longer-breathed phrasings at the beginning and a touch more rhetoric at “the” climax, rabid sensationalist that I am! Our over-saturated sensibilities at the conclusion were then refurbished by a “cleansing” encore from the pianist, another of Frank Hutchens’ pieces, called “Two Little Birds”, one whose sounds and realisation expressed exactly what the title said the piece would do – in terms of the recital’s avowed pursuit of “the small and lyrical”, a perfect way to end. And hats off to William Green and Caprice Arts for their splendid enterprise!

Rigg and Olivier delight with Debussy and Prokofiev at Lower Hutt

Valerie Rigg (violin) and Tessa Olivier (piano): Berceuse, Op 16 (Fauré), Violin Sonata in G minor (Debussy), Violin Sonata in D, Op 94 bis (Prokofiev)


St Mark’s Church, Lower Hutt


Wednesday 22 September, 12.15pm


There are days when Wellington is one of the best places in the world. When the sun’s shining after a southerly and you can see the trees on the Orongorongos and a midday concert at Lower Hutt calls for a drive (though better, a train ride) along the Wellington fault line. You see across the brilliant harbour to the snow-brushed Orongorongos and the Tararuas further north more thickly covered.


St Mark’s church on Woburn Road near the east end of the Ewen Bridge is easy to reach (the train from Wellington and the bus from Petone which stops nearby). Volunteers offer coffee for the audience before the concert; the front rows have padded seats and the church has a remarkably high vault which creates a generous acoustic.


Last year I heard Valerie Rigg, a former principal violinist with the NZSO, with pianist Tessa Olivier, playing Vitali’s (or who-ever’s) Chaconne and Prokofiev’s second violin sonata (I had not remembered that it was there that I had heard her play it). She was playing the same Prokofiev again, so I looked at what I’d written last year, and was delighted to find that I’d responded so well to it.


In this concert, a day after Olya Cutis and David Vine played it at Old Saint Paul’s, the Prokofiev was coupled with Debussy’s Violin Sonata; as a prelude, they played the charming Berceuse by Fauré. The latter was the perfect introduction, for the duo played it with great warmth and an obviously sympathetic musical rapport. I enjoyed its easy swaying rhythm.


Debussy’s sonata is as hard to play as it sounds, so that a performance that sounded as if the two musicians had lived with it for hundreds of hours was a real delight. Though I should have been prepared, from last year, to be totally beguiled by their playing, one does not always expect a player who’s spent most of her life in the ranks of an orchestra, to emerge as a comfortable and polished solo performer. Her intonation was as good as it gets, her command of Debussy’s quick-moving, glancing ideas was captivating.


Debussy’s piano demands more attention than the piano sometimes gets in a duo. Tessa Olivier was a most congenial companion, often catching the attention, but never obscuring the violin’s more outgoing lyrical contribution.


The church’s recently refurbished Bösendorfer is a lovely, and appropriate instrument for a recital like this: a mellow and somehow ready-made fit with the violin. It either refutes the common view (did it originate with Brahms?) that it is extremely difficult to achieve a blend of the two, or is a credit to both players and the way they use their instruments.


One of the most touching phases was in the last movement where fluttering trills and uncommon plunges to the open G string lead toward the beautifully crafted conclusion.


Prokofiev was the unusual hybrid who passed through his bad-boy phase, where it was more important to ‘épater le bourgeois’ than to make beautiful sounds; eventually, of course, like any really gifted composer, he found his way back to melody after his return to the Soviet Union in 1933 where, give or take the odd Stalinesque purge, there was an environment where his belief in the fundamental importance of melody was not a matter of scorn. There’s character, lyricism, attractive discord, rhythmic teasings, and tunes; yet this sonata, originally for flute, could have been written no earlier than about the 1930s (actually in the 1940s). Every movement has its individuality which the two players fully realized, relishing the gruff bowings in the middle of the Moderato first movement, the sort-of moto perpetuo that drives the Scherzo, with a slightly too hasty up-and-down motif.


What a sweet languid movement they made of the Andante! as the piano planted its even crotchets below the violin’s twisting and weaving. Only in the Finale, were there moments where the spirited, perhaps too confident violin might have been at the expense of perfect intonation and clean articulation. But always the combination of an agile left hand and a bowing arm that created both beautiful legato and the most full-blooded attack was exactly the recipe for this music.


The two awoke in me the odd sense that the music was not so much being performed, as simply being allowed, through the medium of the two musicians, to fill the space and follow an inevitable path into our souls.


Sadly, Tessa Olivier is about to return to her homeland, South Africa. May I suggest that wherever and whenever Valerie Rigg next appears, with whoever follows Ms Olivier, you make sure you’re there. 



Violin and piano duo in interesting 20th century recital at Old Saint Paul’s

Vaughan Williams: Pastorale in E minor; Janáček: Violin Sonata in A flat minor; Prokofiev: Violin Sonata in D, Op 94 bis   


Olya Curtis (violin) and David Vine (piano)


Old Saint Paul’s


Tuesday 21 September 12.15pm


Last year I heard these two musicians play the Elgar and Franck sonatas in this place. This year they stepped firmly into the 20th century, even though, ironically, Janáček was born before Elgar.


The Vaughan Williams Pastorale was not the typical English pastoral music that came to be rather scorned a generation or so ago; perhaps it was the fact that the violinist was Russian and it was warm and gentle, somewhat modal in its flavour. But just as much, the tone was set by pianist David Vine who, though English-born, plays idiomatically in whatever style is in front of him. 


The Janáček sonata was written during the First World War years and premiered in 1922. Though it’s ostensibly Slavic music, and Janáček was rather passionately pro-Russian, he found such a unique manner that a musician’s nationality can have no bearing. In any case, Curtis seemed less at home with the irregular tempi and diverse character of its first movement than did Vine; it went fairly slowly, not as Con moto as I expected from that marking. The players produced a more lyrical second movement, marked Ballada, with long melodies, though elsewhere the characteristic isolated and sharply contrasted motifs did not integrate so persuasively. They brought off the Allegretto well, with energy and conviction and, in spite of minor intonation flaws, captured a real Janáček feeling in the Finale, a sound that is unique in all music.


(Janáček is reported saying that the tremolo piano chords in the finale represented the Russian army entering Moravia, liberating it from Austria-Hungary. The Russian army may have penetrated as far as Moravia in the early stage of World War I, but was quickly driven back by the German army. It was the Treaty of Versailles that later gave the Czech and Slovak lands independence from Austria-Hungary.)


Prokofiev’s second sonata was in fact completed before his first (Op 80), which was not completed till 1946. David Oistrakh to whom Prokofiev had promised it before the war, had become impatient as the composer was heavily committed to other things such as the ballet Cinderella, and so he made a careful transcription of his flute sonata of 1942 which Oistrakh premiered in 1944.


The easy lyricism of the first movement of this sonata seemed to suit Olya Curtis rather more than the Janáček, and even in the scampering passages of the second movement, in spite of a few smudges, both players caught its spirit well. But she might have taken better advantage of opportunities to dig into its emphatic notes more strongly. In Prokofiev’s Andante, I could hear most clearly the ghost of the flute, in its most warm and open mood, as she moved her bow as far as possible from the bridge. Finally, in the Allegro con brio, there were a few rough edges and I was haunted by the sounds of certain great violinists whose miraculous renderings somewhat intruded. Nevertheless, the duo succeeded in bringing one of the liveliest and most approachable violin sonatas of the mid-century vividly to life.



Flute and string quartet wide-ranging end to Wellington’s Sunday afternoon series

Boccherini: Quintet in C for flute and strings; Max Reger: Serenade for flute, violin and viola in G, Op.141a; Turina: The Bullfighter’s Prayer; Mozart: Quartet for flute and strings in D, K 285; Copland: Two Threnodies; Ginastera: Impressiones de la Puna for flute and string quartet


The Elios Ensemble: Martin Jaenecke and Konstanze Artmann (violins), Victoria Jaenecke (viola), Paul Mitchell (cello), Karen Batten (flute)


Ilott Theatre, Town Hall


Sunday 19 September, 3pm  


The last in the Sunday 3pm concert series from Wellington Chamber Music was a relatively new ensemble of musicians of varying backgrounds, who presumably do not play together as often as does a professional ensemble. Yet they sounded in command of the music, totally familiar with each other, and comfortable with the disparate programme they had so imaginatively put together.


The addition of Karen Batten’s flute both added to the variety of the concert, and brought about a certain lightening of the tone; even though fundamentally the ensemble is a string quartet, the inclusion of a flute limits the range of music available. On the other hand, the most striking thing about the programme was the seriousness of more than one of the pieces.


The first movement of Boccherini’s flute quintet in C (two in that key are listed in the Gérard catalogue, G 420 and 427) had an unusual robustness, heavily built that seemed out of character with the usual tone of the flute. Its first theme, pithy and abrupt, which was dominated by the flute, could hardly less have reflected the soubriquet ‘Haydn’s Wife’ that was attached to Boccherini in the 19th century on account of the perceived feminine character of his music. The second movement, Minuet, in a slow ländler-like rhythm, allowed first violin more attention, while the Finale offered the first hints of the Boccherini that is familiar through the recent exploration of his hundreds of string quartets and quintets.


One of the characteristics that marked the piece was the more interesting cello part played by Paul Mitchell – the composer was one of the most famous cellists of his day. But in spite of the ingratiating flute part, and the attractive writing for the ensemble, the quintet hardly recommended itself as a singular musical discovery.


Max Reger’s Serenade for flute, violin and viola had qualities that were diverting, but in spite of a liveliness and lightness of spirit in the outer movements and a certain pensiveness in the Larghetto, it failed to make a great impression. This, in spite of a performance that made the most of its colour and the sprightliness of the flute playing, and which proved sympathetic with the idiom that Reger had developed: something between Bach, Schumann, Brahms, and perhaps less kindly, composers like Max Bruch or Carl Reinecke. Sadly, its undistinguished melodic quality left it without much reason to look for another hearing.


Turina’s La oración del Torero, for string quartet, lifted the first half with its unpretentiousness, and its feeling of genuine musical impulse. It is a modest piece which paints a feeling, emotional picture, using melodies that may not be striking but have a certain distinction, and a quiet drama that hardly suggests the bravado of the bull-ring, but rather the quasi-religious emotion that devotees of the art of the torero lay claim to.


Undoubtedly the best and most attractive piece in the concert was Mozart’s Flute Quartet in D – one of the two he wrote. Nothing in it suggests Mozart’s alleged indifference to the flute, and the performance captured all the charm of its three lively, imaginative movements. The second, Adagio, is largely a solo for flute with pizzicato strings, and was a delightful vehicle for Karen Batten’s melifluous playing.


Copland’s two late Threnodies, the first, highly compressed, for the death of Stravinsky and the second, rather more discursive and expressive, for that of arts patroness Beatrice Cunningham, launched the second half in a somber vein, Though these pieces would hardly seem natural territory for the flute, Batten turned her talents persuasively towards their elegiac mood and their interpretation; if the Copland of Appalachian Spring and El Salón Mexico was remote, a serious spirit was not unwelcome here,.


The choice of music suited to unusual instrumental combinations has become much easier with the facilities of the Internet, and an interesting programme such as this is more easily achieved, given the taste and idiomatic sensibility that this ensemble exhibits.


The final piece marked a different direction again, and though superficially in a vein culturally related to the Turina, much had happened in the 35 years between the two composers. Impressions of the Andean Uplands, rather than being visually inspired, reflected the flutes, songs and dances of the peoples in its three parts, though it seemed to me that human beings were not Ginastera’s main concern. The first part, Quena (a type of Andean flute), suggested a somewhat bleak landscape, its flutes bereft of those who might be playing them. The second, in triple rhythm, and third parts, were more lively, with writing that taxed the players and entertained the audience.


Wellington is fortunate to have yet another quartet and a solo flutist of this quality, drawn mainly from professional orchestral players of individual talent who have been together long enough to develop an impressive ensemble feeling in a very wide variety of musical styles.



Wellington Community Choir’s 5th Birthday Gala Concert

Wellington Community Choir and Nota Bene Choir, Julian Raphael (director),  also featuring:
Carole Shortis (composer/conductor), John Rae (composer/drummer), Club Ukulele / Marimba Mojo / Djansa Djembe Drummers

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday 18th September, 2010

The printed programme accompanying this rousing and heart-warming event contained a number of enthusiastic testimonials from members of the Wellington Community Choir regarding the group and their activities, one of which I thought beautifully summed up the reason people get involved with music, be they music-makers or listeners:

“…The choir is a place where I found my inner voice. Not only my singing voice, but my real inner voice. When I sing, I feel I can sing my being – I can BE….”

I quote without permission; but though it expresses a kind of metaphysical idea, the sentiment readily puts into simple words the power of music to act upon people, be they performers or listeners – to connect with the spirit and move the deepest emotions, as well as warm towards and bond with others. All of these impulses were triumphantly on display in and throughout the Wellington Town Hall on Saturday night, through the auspices of the Wellington Community Choir and Nota Bene Choir, under the directorship of music educator and inspired conductor Julian Raphael. The Hall was as full as I think I’ve ever seen it, and at times the place simply shimmered with sounds and rocked with rhythms which seemed to engage one and all, musicians and audience.

Along with Julian Raphael and the two choirs, a number of various groups and individuals specifically contributed to the evening’s kaleidoscope of colourful music-making – composers Carole Shortis (Wellington) and John Rae (Scotland) both contributed pieces to the concert, and each took part in the performances, the first as conductor, and the second as the drummer. Instrumental groups such as Club Ukulele (players from within the Community Choir), Marimba Mojo (from Lower Hutt), and the Newtown-based percussion group Djnsa Djembie Drummers added their distinctive and ear-catching timbres to particular pieces, their participation underlining a community spirit pervading the whole, while maintaining a high level of performance expertise which marked the presentation throughout.

Having attended many “classical” concerts of all kinds in the Town Hall I couldn’t help but draw comparisons with some of these past experiences and the present concert, being as I was mightily impressed at the Community Choir’s level of support and the degree of involvement with and enjoyment of the performances by this near-capacity audience. Given that classical music organisations everywhere are concerned with trying to make ends meet, faced with the problems of aging audiences and decreasing numbers of attendees at concerts, I wondered whether there were things to be learned from the success of this present undertaking.

Of course, the “families and friends” factor would have provided a good deal of fuel for the occasion’s popularity, something that professional performing groups don’t generally rely upon to generate good houses. But quite apart from the numbers attending, I thought that what any classical concert organiser would envy here was the out-and-out identification and involvement of those present with what the performers were putting across – in short, those almost palpable lines of connectiveness between performers and listeners.

To be fair, I have to say that I’ve experienced several classical concerts this year which have demonstrated a similar frisson of inter-communication, in one or two cases at events which weren’t particularly well-attended. Sometimes it’s the music itself which generates the initial excitement, as with the recent presentations of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 at St.Mary of the Angels Church in Wellington. Sometimes particular musicians can themselves create in advance powerful and compelling expectations of involvement with what they present, as invariably happens whenever the charismatic New Zealand String Quartet performs (the group’s Schumann-and-Shostakovich concerts, for example). Also, anybody who’s experienced a song recital presented by soprano Margaret Medlyn would readily testify to her all-embracing identification with what she performs and her ability to get it out there in no uncertain terms (in a particular recent case before a resoundingly enthusiastic Hunter Council Chamber audience).

Finally, the Vector Wellington Orchestra regularly presents its concerts with wholehearted enthusiasm from conductor Marc Taddei and with total commitment from its players. In each of these instances, the experience for me was of something out of the ordinary – not a whiff of routine, of stuffiness, of blandness or tired convention. And so it was with this present concert – still, would that such mutual engagement could happen more regularly in the classical music world!

The items chosen by the Community Choir for the concert covered an enormous range of human emotion and activity – spiritual, political, cultural and environmental. They were grouped partly for variety’s sake, and partly to allow different performers opportunities to give of their best. The first bracket of songs featured the Choir itself, the singing testifying to both the arranging and conducting skills of the director, Julian Raphael, who unerringly guided his wholly-amateur voices through pieces featuring rich-toned unisons and complex contrapuntal lines alike. His arrangement, for example, of the Shaker melody “Simple Gifts” featured the unadorned tune as a prelude to increasingly complex and interesting variations; while the traditional (though not the commonly heard version of the song) “Amazing Grace” was launched by men’s voices in parts, and joined by women’s voices, the arrangement featuring haunting fourths and lovely, tightly-wrought harmonies.

I also liked the choir’s singing of the “traditional Sotho songs of struggle”, registering the voices’ change of timbre to a striking “ethnic” quality, as well as the muscularity and confidence of their rhythmic syncopations. The final song in the bracket was “Come by Here” from Liberia, performed in this case in memory of the well-known and much-respected Wellington ethnomusicologist Allan Thomas, who had died during the week.

A brief but entertaining trio of items featuring the instrumentalists of “Club Ukulele” featured two Lennon-McCartney songs, one of which prompted some startlingly-focused deliveries from the women’s voices of the phrase “I Wanna Hold Your Hand!”, the climactic interval as resonant as any period ensemble’s singing of a fourteenth-century motet! The Nota Bene Choir were then introduced; and the group rang the changes with a bracket of songs, including an arrangement of “Waltzing Matilda” (by Ruth McCall) that seemed to fuse traditional Aboriginal chant-ambiences with fragments of the well-known tune, concluding with echo effects and “overtone” resonances, the whole creating a properly haunting impression at the end.

I liked also Carol Shortis’s arrangement of “Khutso”, which was described as “a song for Soweto”, one which combined a native African dialect with the Latin words “Agnus Dei”, setting the rhythmic native chant against the more flowing Latin phrase, then alternating fragments of both at the end – extremely haunting and effective. Carol Shortis was both composer and conductor for “People Come and Sing”, written especially for the choir, with this evening’s performance of course a world premiere! A resonant opening, with overlapping lines of declamation led to a unison imperative to “Come and Sing”, the rhythm developing a swinging trajectory whose fervour evoked Gospel-like singing in places, the voices of the choir responding with proper “ownership” to the music.

After the interval the Djansa Djembe Drummers got things away to a stirring restart with rhythms and resonances that reminded me of the last Phoenix football game I attended at the Westpac Stadium (it might well have been the same group performing on that occasion!). Changes of stage lighting added plenty of atmosphere and colour, ambiences that continued throughout the bracket of African songs, with their rhythmic pulsings, in places having a pronounced “protest movement” feel, especially Julian Raphael’s arrangement of “Woyaya”, a song from Ghana.

As colourful and ear-catching was the work of the group Marimba Mojo, whose instruments, besides looking fantastic, produced a great sound, the players performing dance music from Zimbabwe, and inviting audience participation in the dance (a number obliged,and were then invited onto the stage!). Of course the nature of marimba performance itself suggests a specific gestural choreography, with which the group delighted us throughout its bracket of items.

The other major commission for the concert, beside that of Carol Shortis’, came from Scottish composer and jazz drummer John Rae, in this country of late as composer-in-residence at the New Zealand School of Music. His work Ricky, a setting of words by a choir member, Sarah Hughes, was a tribute to his father-in-law, and featured a lovely, leaping choral melody line, the tune’s trajectories mingling a second time round with instrumental colourings creating folkish ambiences, strings, guitar and marimbas contributing to the resonant glowing of the whole, the chorale punctuated with drumming rhythms, and coloured by what sounded like Gaelic chanting. I loved the rhythmic ambiguities of the voices’ interactions with the instruments, creating a “Music from the Spheres” kind of effect, an endless paean of life’s celebration.

To conclude, Nota Bene’s voices took the stage again for an entertaining “dialogue” song from Mexico (arranged by Mike Brewer), the choir establishing the music’s infectious rhythmic carriage, and with soloists from the choir interlacing their conversational/confrontational singing lines with wonderful elan. Some heartfelt tributes paid by choir members to Julian Raphael, and a couple of audience-participation songs later, the Choir’s Fifth Birthday Gala Concert was over – on the face of things quite a haul, but with energies from performers and enthusiasm from the audience seemingly undimmed to the end, a tribute to all concerned!

Donald Nicolson at the Maxwell Fernie organ

Winter Recital Series on the Maxwell Fernie Organ


Recital on a Plainsong Theme: ‘Ave Maris Stella’ (i.e. works based on this plainsong)


Marchand: Grand Dialogue

Anon: Ave Maris Stella – Plainchant on haute contre; Recit. de Nazard ou de Pierce; Tierce en Taille; Fugues sur Ave Maris Stella

Frescobaldi: Mass for Organ from Fiori Musicali – Toccata; Kyrie La missa della Madonna (‘Cum Jubilo’); Canzon doppo L’Epsitola; Recercar dopo Il Credo; Toccata Avanti Il Ricercar; Recercar

Anon: Ave Maris StellaPlein Jeu; Petite Fugue sur la Cromorne; Trio

Dandrieu: Offertoire pour le Jour de Pâques

(Spelling inconsistencies are on the original Frescobaldi manuscript, a photocopy of which Nicolson was using.)


Donald Nicolson


St Mary of the Angels


Saturday 18 September


A small audience heard a fine recital on this splendid pipe organ.  Unfortunately the printed programme, which did not bear the date, had some of the items in the wrong order, and movements did not all appear printed.   The corrected version appears above.


In the past week alone, Donald Nicolson has appeared in concerts playing the piano, the harpsichord and now the organ.  His versatility and musicality are, sadly, to be lost to New Zealand as he travels to greater opportunities in Australia.  He has been playing the organ at St Mary of the Angels since the beginning of 2008 and has, I am sure, been a great asset here, as he has elsewhere in Wellington’s lively musical scene.


His group ‘Latitude 37’, in which the other two instrumentalists are Australian, played for the Wellington Chamber Music Society’s Sunday afternoon series in May last year.


The first work in this recital was grand in several senses: in design, in registration and in execution, although I thought the pedal rather too loud for the manuals in the opening passages.  The work revealed some out-of-tune reeds on the organ, which recurred in later parts of the programme – probably due to the amount of wet weather recently.  It’s amazing how this slight tuning aberration can make a fine organ like this one sound like a fair organ!


Members of the choir of St Mary of the Angels sang the Ave Maris Stella plainsong on which the movements were based, in the two anonymous works: before the several movements and at the end, and also between the sections of the Kyrie in the Frescobaldi work.  This was, in the main, very effective, though the male voices were not so pleasing as were the females’.   Each organ movement then began with the plainchant.


The first anonymous Ave Maris Stella featured a quite lovely third movement: Tierce en Taille, and a bold set of fugues to finish.


The Frescobaldi certainly demonstrated the versatility of Maxwell Fernie’s organ, but was much weightier, louder and more varied in registration than the composer himself would have had at his disposal.


After the opening Toccata and Kyrie came a Canzon with beautiful registrations.  The variations in this movement were very appealing.  


The second Ave Maris Stella setting was characterised by a delightful interplay of parts in the Fugue, utilising gedackts; the Trio used contrasting registration.


Dandrieu’s attractive Offertoire was for the greater part jolly in mood, appropriately for Easter.  It was preceded by a plainchant from the choir on the word ‘Alleluia’.  A charming work, it was made up of interesting variations.  They alternated in the main between loud and soft registrations.  I counted 26 renditions of the plainsong in its various guises, with registrations of reeds, full organ, flutes, diapasons, gedackt, a low reed, chimney flute, high flutes.  There were numerous uses of full organ, or near-full organ to make the louder contrast between softer sections.


This work made an enjoyable ending to a satisfying recital.   Nicolson’s playing could hardly be faulted; just an occasional rushing of the short notes was all that caught my ear in a first-class technique.


Further recitals in the series are by Michael Stewart on 3 October, and Thomas Gaynor on 7 November, both at 2.30pm.  The plainsong theme for the former is Veni Creator Spiritus.


From darkness to light – soundscapes of the mind from the NZSO

BRITTEN – Four Sea Interludes from “Peter Grimes”

MacMILLAN – Veni, Veni, Emmanuel

RAVEL – Pavane for a Dead Princess

R.STRAUSS – Death and Transfiguration

Colin Currie (percussion)

Alexander Shelley (conductor)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 18th September

I liked this programme because it broke the mould – it didn’t follow the concert format which the NZSO seems to visit more often than not, to the detriment of pieces such as Ravel’s enchanting Pavane pour une Infanta défunte (or, Pavane for a Dead Princess). The common concert layout (overture, concerto, interval,  symphonic-type work) is obviously favoured by orchestral managements because it provides variety over the course of an evening, and enables the appearance of a prominent soloist in the concerto, who will hopefully bring in the crowds. But to repeat this formula almost ad nauseam is counter-productive, as it negates in the longer term the variety that a single concert seeks to provide, as well as reducing the opportunity for concertgoers to hear “live” many delectable orchestral pieces of only moderate length. The present concert, perhaps due to its matinee status certainly had its “star soloist” in the first half, but then featured two shorter works after the interval, the aforementioned Ravel and a tone-poem by Richard Strauss, Tod und Verklarung (Death and Transfiguration).  Ravel and Strauss certainly provided a contrast, though I wonder how many people would agree with me that some music “feels” better if heard in the evening, as opposed to the morning or afternoon? – somehow, Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration seemed diminished by the daytime ambience, whereas the Ravel was perfect – perhaps more of the same composer’s music would have been preferable, the gorgeous ballet Ma Mere L’Oye (Mother Goose) immediately coming to mind as a different kind of darkness-to-light experience.

I was interested to hear Alexander Shelley conduct, being the son of one of my favourite pianists, Howard Shelley (such connections, made helpfully or otherwise, always add interest to a performer’s aura and music-making abilities). An extremely elegant-looking young man, he brought a brisk, certain focus to his music-making throughout, beginning with the first of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, a Dawn whose streaks of light across the sky and answering shimmers of reflection from the water were clearly and bracingly articulated in this performance, precise rather than long-breathed and atmospheric. Surprisingly, I fancied the strings’ off-beat syncopations weren’t as clear as I thought they might be at the outset of Sunday Morning, the rhythms taking a while to “settle”; but amends were made with the next piece Moonlight, the playing catching the piece’s deep-toned “hymn to the night” aspect splendidly and sonorously. The concluding Storm’s fury burst upon us vehemently, with properly baleful brass and wonderful tuba notes, though I felt the side-drum a bit glib-sounding (not enough “flail” to really sting); and though the “running frightened” scherzandi passages towards the end had plenty of energy, I wanted more tension in the build-up towards the apocalyptic downward cascade that concludes the piece. So, a good performance, but I thought a trifle wanting more of the knife-edge in places (perhaps more difficult to achieve during the afternoon!).

James MacMillan’s Veni, Veni, Emmanuel is, in effect, a percussion concerto, able to stand as an abstract piece of music in its own right, but illuminated from within by the composer’s intention for the work to represent “the human presence of Christ” and the accompanying liberation of humankind “from fear, anguish and oppression”. Its title forms a direct link with the 15th Century French plainchant of the same name, regularly sung by choirs during the Christian season of Advent. In fact, the composer apparently began working on the piece on the first Sunday of Advent, and completed it on Easter Sunday of the following year, dedicating the work to his parents.

This concert featured percussionist Colin Currie, like his fellow-Scot Evelyn Glennie (who premiered this work) one of the world’s foremost instrumentalists, who’s helped to develop amongst both audiences and composers a new appreciation of percussion and its expressive potential. Very much on show throughout this piece, Currie revelled in the diversity of sounds which colour the opening sequences of exchange – amid orchestral fanfares all the percussion families were introduced, the soloist underlining the variety of texture, colour and spatial depth of sound by physical movement whose fluidity and energy defined the spaces between the instruments and suggested a journey paralleling the course of the music. Then there’s a “heartbeat” section, where pulses of varying metricality play, propelling and colouring the music, the soloist’s patternings punctuated with sharp, coruscating comments from the orchestra. After building towards frenetic rhythmic passages which suggested we’d reached the “Dance” section of the work, Colin Currie was able to show us a more deeply-felt, poetic aspect to his musicianship with the central “Gaude” section (the title taken from the refrain of the plainsong) – marimba figurations gently danced over prayer-like murmurings from the orchestra, as if revealing for listeners the spiritual calm at the centre of a believer’s universe.

There was more dancing, brilliantly characterised by a virtuoso stint from the soloist on the vibraphone, great chorale-like fanfares from the brass, and antiphonal percussion effects, with the timpanist matching the soloist and the orchestral musicians producing triangles, spreading the scintillations throughout the soundscape (a pity about the noisy children in the gallery!). And what wonderful resonances Currie achieved with the tubular bells at the end, the resonances seeming to last for an eternity (I didn’t think the sounds of burbling children at that point entirely inappropriate – wasn’t it Christ who said “Suffer the little children to come unto me, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven”, or words to that effect? – but some people who spoke to me during the interval were very angry about the disturbance!).

Fortunately, not one extraneous post-interval warble from the auditorium spoiled the limpid beauty of Ravel’s homage to the painter Velázquez, Pavane pour une Infante Défunte (in the printed programme both attempts at reproducing the French title came unstuck). The composer’s point about the music being an evocation of a dance rather than a funeral lament was nicely realised by conductor and players. Before the Strauss work, Death and Transfiguration, Alexander Shelley spoke to the audience concerning the programme of the music, explaining the composer’s intentions and tracing the music’s course throughout – so we were fully prepared for the fray, as it were, though some of the audience would have been at last year’s performance of the same work by the Wellington Orchestra, so it wouldn’t exactly have been an unknown quantity. On that occasion I thought the Wellington Orchestra surpassed themselves, with committed, full-toned and fiery playing under Marc Taddei’s direction; so I was interested to hear what the NZSO would make of it, albeit in a different venue and with another conductor.

Only with the first arrival of the “Transfigured” theme did I markedly prefer the earlier performance – somehow (and probably aided by a more ample and resonant acoustic in the Town Hall) Taddei and his orchestra managed to “fashion” the theme from those preparatory gesturings more convincingly and organically, as if it was all the time growing into the shape and form of its first appearance; whereas with Shelley and the NZSO the warmth and radiance of it all seemed like a new idea, fetched up from somewhere else. Perhaps it was that Taddei’s reading seemed longer-breathed than Shelley’s, just that bit more boldly and deeply conceived; though in other respects, the NZSO’s playing for Shelly sounded truly resplendent in all departments, the winds in particular covering themselves with glory. The performance certainly had a sheen and burnished splendour of its own, the NZSO’s greater weight and refinement of tone imparting, if not the whole truth, a Brucknerian radiance at the very end that was well worth the waiting for.