Connecting with Sibelius – NZSO on Naxos

Sibelius –  Symphony No.1 in E Minor Op.39 / Symphony No.3 in C Major Op.52

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Pietari Inkinen, conductor

(recorded in the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington,

March 3rd-5th 2009)

Naxos 8.572305

Interesting that Pietari Inkinen and the NZSO chose to record these works before presenting them in concert – I had thought that the orchestra’s “Sibelius Festival” of September 2009 was the occasion for parallel recordings of the same repertoire, but it appears from the dates given on the disc that the First and Third Symphonies at least were set down some time before the concerts, in March of that year. Doubtless, Naxos’s “schedules” would have been the overall consideration in the done order of things, but I would have thought it best to have tried to capture on record some of the energy and impetus generated by the “live” performances. I have to say that the music-making on this new Naxos CD represents a pretty stunning achievement by conductor and players, as were the live concerts, of course. At the time I felt Inkinen’s interpretations and the orchestral playing, though beautifully and expertly realized, hung fire in places, though while listening to both works on CD I did feel that at certain flash-points the concert performances had a sharper focus, as if the music had been lived with for a while and the structural and emotional terrain even more deeply considered.

I do remember the beautifully-presented clarinet solo at the beginning of the First Symphony – in the concert the player was Patrick Barry, and there’s every reason to suppose that it’s the same musician on this recording. It couldn’t have gotten the symphony’s performance off to a more auspicious beginning, the last few whispered notes of the solo startlingly flooded with light and energy by the strings’ entry, the playing fervent and sonorous. Everything’s nicely caught, the mood-changes profound and atmospheric, but judiciously fitted into the music’s long-term contouring. We get a vivid sense of the work’s journeying through varied territories, pizzicati strings, winds and brass building up the excitement and tension with the development’s repeated falling melodic figure, leading to the glorious flowering of the strings’ big tune and the reprise of their opening material, grander and more epic this time round, on full orchestra. Is all perfect? – Here, and again at the movement’s end I find myself wanting a notch or two more bite, more fire in the music’s belly – those stern summoning brass calls near the end for me need to sound as though they REALLY mean business!

Following are rich, dark evocations at the slow movement’s beginning – expressive strings and wind against a sonorous brass sound. As the music moves from pastoral playfulness to epic resolve, Inkinen and the orchestra take on the challenge with ever-increasing intensity. The stormy episode trenchantly rumbles and threatens, only a slight rhythmic hiccup at the top of a string phrase (a rogue edit?) momentarily delaying a sense of those rhythms and impulses spilling over and flooding everything in the way, though the elephantine brass snarls and lower-string energies are wonderfully visceral! A Finlandia-like theme (a variant of the movement’s opening phrase) calms the storm, and takes up the dark tender song of the opening once again, singing the movement to its end – beautifully played.

Good to hear Laurence Reese’s timpani so well caught in places here, but especially in this scherzo, stunningly presented by all concerned – I liked the cheekiness of the canonic episode begun by the winds and bolstered by the strings via deftly-voiced dovetailing. Then, shortly afterwards, there’s that astonishing mood-change beautifully wrought by the horns at the beginning of the trio – so magical, like revealing a secret garden whose veil is, for a few minutes pulled back to breathtaking, alchemic effect, before being peremptorily hidden from view and the opening rhythmic patterning reaffirmed. Right at the end, I thought Inkinen could have encouraged his brasses to spit out the final phrases with a bit more temperament – again, emphasizing a kind of “this is what we’re here for” attitude, which would have had the effect of more tellingly focusing the music. The finale’s opening has tragic, but noble strings, with wind-and-brass exchanges preparing the way for spirited, urgent allegro sequences, the timpani’s crisp rhythmic patterning especially well-caught as the music drives towards crashing chords and tumbledown string figurations. The hymn-like string tune is sweet and warm, keeping emotion in reserve the first time round, then blossoming more readily at its reprise – even so, I feel it’s all a bit cool, beautifully played, but held at arm’s length. “Oh, for a muse of fire!” exclaims a Shakespearean character; and likewise I crave here and there in the playing a touch of proper incandescence.

Symphony Three follows on the disc, a work more overtly classical in structure and organization, but still with Nordic overtones, by turns bracing and melancholic. Inkinen’s very “poised” approach brings out the lines and structures clearly, trusting more at the outset to the steady spin of rhythms and melodic lines than to accenting and phrase-pointing (the strings at the opening seem almost casual, with clipped phrase-ends) – though as the performance takes hold, conductor and players draw the listener into the spell woven by the music’s tensile insistence, the playing finding ever-increasing nuance and colour as one episode leads into another (whole realms of wonderment at 2’46” for example, when a great stillness draws its cloak over the skies for a few precious moments). And by the time the opening motive gathers up its impulses and returns, unequivocally, on the full orchestra, we are here swept along with the music’s tide, the triumphal march making its point and disappearing, almost as quickly as it had come. Only a strangely lukewarm-sounding final “Amen” from brass and timpani momentarily disconcerts – the rest is truly heartwarming.

But it’s the slow movement in this performance that truly enchants – Inkinen and the players manage to at once let the music unfold, as if conjuring it out of the air, while bringing a richly-wrought storyteller’s focus to each and every phrase. Winds and strings take turns to sing the melody, while brasses lay down ineffably distant pedal-points of ambience, the whole interaction of sounds here making for a listener’s  memorable distillation of imaginative possibility. I like the truly forthright wind-playing in the becalmed central section, and a sense of the air being stirred and shaken by quickening impulses from strings and winds, whose brief, impish dance sparkles like a will-o-the-wisp in the gloaming. The sunlight returns at the finale’s opening (such beguiling winds), though remembrances from the slow movement soon begin to cloud the skies and drive the energies and irruptions towards the juggernaut-like martial theme that sweeps the work to its conclusion. Stirring stuff – even if at the very end I could have imagined a grander, more celebratory sense of arrival (the live performance seemed to convey this more tellingly), with brass and timpani allowed rather more “attitude”!  Still, on the strength of all of this, I for one will await the rest of the series with considerable expectation.

Soprano Barbara Graham wins major French vocal prizes

The New Zealand School of Music website reveals that Wellington soprano Barbara Graham has won important French music prizes, not long after her arrival to study and audition in Paris.

Soprano Barbara Graham , an alumnus of NZSM, won both the French Melodie Prize and First Prize in the Festival de Musique et de langue français – des mots et des notes –  a competition for French language and music in Paris. With nine singers in the final, eight of them French, this was quite a coup for the Kiwi girl! Barbara was invited to stay on and sing a concert with a Parisian orchestra and will give two more Paris concerts with the orchestra in January. One of the judges told her that her French was better than the French singers!

Barbara also came second in the big Symphonie d’Automne competition in Macon with judges including Rudolph Piernay and Teresa Berganza. She didn’t realise she had won something until she heard her name, walked out on stage and was handed some wine and an envelope marked ‘Second’. She said she nearly dropped onto the floor with surprise.

As NZSM Classical Voice tutor Richard Greager points out: “With literally thousands of sopranos vying for recognition in Europe, for Barbara to achieve these results is quite simply outstanding.”

The Tudor Consort in a brilliant Christmas Oratorio

Bach: Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248


The Tudor Consort and the Vector Wellington Orchestra conducted by Michael Stewart. Soloists: Anna Leese (soprano), Kate Spence (alto), David Hamilton (tenor), Jared Holt (bass)


Wellington Town Hall


Saturday 18 December 2010, 7.30pm


The Tudor Consort’s courage in hiring the Town Hall for its Christmas Oratorio was rewarded by a good audience and by an absolutely wonderful performance. Anna Leese was no doubt an important draw-card, but in the event the success was achieved through the other three principals, by the choir itself, and very importantly, the superb baroque ensemble drawn from the Vector Wellington Orchestra.


Here was just one occasion when this fine orchestra provided an indispensable contribution to a performance. Bach calls for only about 23 players, but these were players who created an accompaniment of such finesse and sensitivity to the Baroque style that I can hardly imagine better in this country, or any other. As he had shown in his work with the choir, Michael Stewart proved an equally gifted orchestral director, as diverting to watch as to hear.


Most striking perhaps were the three trumpets, led conspicuously by section principal Barrett Hocking who carried most of the high-lying embellishments. No less beautiful were the four oboes two of which dealt with Bach’s writing for two deep-voiced oboe da caccia; or the accompaniment by solo violin and cello (Matthew Ross and Jane Young) of Kate Spence’s aria in Part III, ‘Schliess mein Herz’, and elsewhere.  The only outside players were NZSO timpanist Larry Reese and bass player Alexander Gunchenko whose playing made consummate contributions too.


On its own in the Sinfonia of Part II, all the many strengths of the orchestra, such as beautiful string playing, became most conspicuous.


Soprano Anna Leese had, naturally, attracted most of the pre-concert publicity; unfortunately, Bach had misread his brief and offered her fewer solo opportunities than she merited. Nevertheless, her singing stopped the audience in its tracks, as it were, in her first, short offering in Part II, as the Angel, in duet with David Hamilton’s Evangelist: ‘Und der Engel sprach zu ihnen’; again, in Part III, she sang in duet with Jared Holt, ‘Herr, dein Mitleid, dein Erbarmen’, somewhat oddly, many metres apart, at the front of the stage: her voice penetrating, dramatic, agile, and nicely blending with Holt’s.  


After a most delightful trio between soprano, alto and tenor, Leese got her big solo in Part VI, ‘Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen’, which only convention prevented the audience from shouting to the rafters: such variety of colour and articulation, such insight into the meaning of every word.


(It was interesting to look back at the Mobil Song Quest in 2002: Anna Leese, winner; Kate Spence, second; Ana James, third. The other three finalists were ‘whatever-happened-to’ names: Majka Kaiser, Andrew Conley and the recently returned from Europe and still singing-in-opera, Anna Pierard.)


David Hamilton deserved equal billing for his prolonged work as the Evangelist, rich with highly accomplished ornaments, and interpretation of the words in the most lively and sympathetic way. His voice hardly tired, it remained clear and accurate throughout, still singing like a thirty-year-old!  For example, he made an impressive and arresting job of the melodious aria in Part II, ‘Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach, eilet’, adorned with ornaments and charmingly accompanied by flutes.  


After her runner-up prize in the 2002 Mobil Song Quest and studies in London Kate Spence had only a short professional career in opera; but she often sings on the concert platform. One has to lament that support of opera in New Zealand has been so poor that a singer of such talent has not been able to stay in the profession. Her voice, a lovely mezzo with characteristic warmth at the bottom, is full of character, projects strongly, a voice that bloomed in the Town Hall acoustic. I commented on her above; and she had several other notable recitatives, arias and ensembles, such as the long aria ’Schlafe mein Liebster’ in Part II, this time attractively accompanied by oboes and flutes.  


Jared Holt won the Mobil in 2000 and had a promising career that even reached the stage of Covent Garden; like several other singers, he had equipped himself with the safety-net of a law degree and that is now offering him more security. A strong opera company that can employ a regular ensemble of principals would have kept him away from law. His first substantial aria in Part I, ‘Grosser Herr, o starker König’, was a fine display of his sturdy competence, vigorous and splendidly dramatic: its accompaniment by a brilliant trumpet did his performance no harm at all. And I noted above, his very striking duet with Leese.


The oratorio obviously offers great music for the choir itself, with its wealth of lively, often triple-time numbers, and chorales, many of which have a familiar ring since so much of the music was recycled from earlier pieces. Not unusually, the choir’s energy and confidence built through the performance. Perhaps a shade more ecstasy might have driven the opening chorus, ‘Jauchzet, froh locket’, yet it was still among the most polished and exuberant performances I have heard; the subsequent chorales, calmer, enabled the choir to gather its strength for some powerful singing, till a chorus such as the opening of Part V, ‘Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen’ was a thrilling exhibition of ebullience and vocal athleticism.


Foremost in the thoughts of audience members as they listened to the orchestra’s polished and exuberant playing, must have been the present threat to the orchestra whose existence in at least its existing size and quality is vital to Wellington’s musical life. The behaviour of Creative New Zealand which would deny this orchestra even the modest level of assistance it now receives, seems driven by either vindictiveness, some obscure, adolescent, PC-ridden agenda, or plain ignorance: perhaps all three.


I can only hope that those who make boasts about the cultural capital will be able to bring to their senses those who have such destructive impulses.



Creative New Zealand: proposals for major funding recipients

The following is the press release from Creative New Zealand setting out proposals entitled Arts Leadership Investment (Toi Tōtara Haemata) decisions.

It has serious musical implications.

It will be noted that of the orchestras currrently funded by Creative NZ, only the Auckland Philharmonia is among the chosen 22 while the orchestras in Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin are in the holding pen of 10 further arts bodies.  However, the NZ String Quartet is among the 22.

It will also be noted that eight of the number are in Auckland, plus one – NBR NZ Opera – which is based in Auckland but also performs in Wellington.

The NZ International Arts Festival, Capital-E – National Theatre for Children and BATS Theatre are the only Wellington bodies among the 22. There are a number of ‘national’ arts organisations based in Wellington, which have no particular impact on Wellington.

BATS Theatre is the only Wellington theatre to qualify: neither of the major, long-standing companies are in: Downstage and Circa.  While in Auckland, the Auckland Theatre Company and Massive Company; and the Court Theatre in Christchurch and Centrepoint in Palmerston North are among the select.

And Christchurch’s Southern Opera is among neither the select 22 nor the other 10 in the waiting room.

It might be of interest to see a geographical breakdown of the 22 qualifying arts bodies:


Chamber Music New Zealand
NZ Book Council
NZ String Quartet
Taki Rua


Auckland Festival Trust
Auckland Theatre Co
Black Grace
Massive Company
NBR NZ Opera
Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust
Toi Māori Aotearoa and Touch Compass Dance Trust


Bats Theatre
Capital E


Court Theatre
The Physics Room



Palmerston North

Centrepoint Theatre

The text of the press release is as follows:

The Arts Board and Te Waka Toi (the Māori Arts Board) has confirmed 22 arts organisations into Creative New Zealand’s new Arts Leadership Investment (Toi Tōtara Haemata) programme.

Of the 39 Expressions of Interest in the programme, 22 organisations have been confirmed to deliver one or more of the key roles.  A further 10 organisationshave been asked to provide further information before a decision is made on their ability to fulfil a key role or their fit with the programme.  As the number of organisations in the programme has not yet been finalised, no decisions have been made about the amount of funding to be allocated to any organisation.

“We are pleased to confirm three new organisations are to receive longer term funding for the first time as part of the Arts Leadership Investment (Toi Tōtara Haemata) programme.  They are Massive Company (youth theatre), the Auckland Festival Trust and Touch Compass Dance Trust (which integrates dancers with and without disabilities in professional performances and events),” Creative New Zealand chief executive Stephen Wainwright said.

Seven organisations have been declined but can apply for funding through the complementary Arts Development Investment (Toi Uru Kahikatea) programme.

“The Arts Board and Te Waka Toi have made decisions on which organisations will take a leading and collaborative role in developing New Zealand’s arts infrastructure for the 21st Century,” Mr Wainwright said.

The new investment programmes were announced in July 2010 and will take effect from 2012.  They replace the existing Recurrent Funding Programme, which was closed to new applicants, and the contestable Arts Investment and Sector Investment programmes.

Timetable for next steps
The 22 arts organisations confirmed in the Arts Leadership Investment (Toi Tōtara Haemata) programme have been asked to submit an indicative programme of activity and budget for the period 2012-2014, by May 2011. 

The 10 organisations where further assessment is needed have been also asked to submit programme and budget information as well as additional information to help assess their fit with the programme.

Creative New Zealand will be meeting with the 32 (22 + 10) organisations in February 2011 to provide advice on the information required and to discuss leadership and development of the arts.

The seven organisations not accepted into the Arts Leadership Investment (Toi Tōtara Haemata) programme, but which are intending to apply for the complementary Arts Development Investment (Toi Uru Kahikatea) programme, must submit their applications for that programme by Friday 10 June 2011.

In August 2011 the Arts Board and Te Waka Toi will decide:

  • how much will be invested in the 22 arts organisations which have been confirmed in the Arts Leadership Investment (Toi Tōtara Haemata) programme
  • whether the 10 organisations where further assessment is needed will be confirmed in the Arts Leadership Investment (Toi Tōtara Haemata) programme and, if so, how much will be invested in each.  Organisations that do not receive funding through this programme may receive funding through the Arts Development Investment (Toi Uru Kahikatea) programme, and
  • which organisations will receive funding through the Arts Development Investment (Toi Uru Kahikatea) programme and how much.

Applicants will be advised of the outcome of these decisions in September 2011.

“This is the first of two sets of decisions to be made by the arts boards as we implement the new investment programmes.  We will be working with arts organisations during 2011 to manage the transition to the new programmes and establish certainty of funding for 2012,” Mr Wainwright said.

Description of the new programmes
The Arts Leadership Investment (Toi Tōtara Haemata) programme provides support of between two to five years to well run, financially sound organisations that fulfil a key role or roles in the creation, presentation and distribution of high-quality arts experiences to New Zealanders.

The Arts Development Investment programme (Toi Uru Kahikatea) offers greater flexibility in the range of activity it can support with funding available for periods from six months to two years.

The 22 organisations which have been confirmed in the programme are: Auckland Festival Trust, Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, Auckland Theatre Company, BATS Theatre, Black Grace, Centrepoint Theatre, Chamber Music New Zealand, DANZ – Dance Aotearoa New Zealand, Massive Company, Capital E – National Theatre for Children and Wellington Children’s Festival, New Zealand Book Council, New Zealand International Arts Festival, NBR New Zealand Opera, New Zealand String Quartet, Objectspace, Playmarket, Taki Rua Productions, Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust, The Court Theatre, The Physics Room, Toi Māori Aotearoa and Touch Compass Dance Trust.

The 10 organisations which have been asked to provide further information before a decision is made on whether they will be confirmed in the programme are: Arts Access Aotearoa, Artspace, Choirs Aotearoa New Zealand, Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, Circa Theatre, Downstage Theatre, Footnote Dance, Fortune Theatre, Southern Sinfonia and Vector Wellington Orchestra.

Establishing the Arts Leadership Investment (Toi Tōtara Haemata) and Arts Development Investment (Toi Uru Kahikatea) programmes was a recommendation from Creative New Zealand’s review of its programme for Recurrently Funded Organisations (RFOs).   The RFO review is the last of three funding programme reviews that Creative New Zealand undertook to complete as part of its strategic plan for 2007-2010.

In addition to the new programmes, Creative New Zealand will continue to offer Arts Grants and Quick Response Grants and continue to support the Creative Communities Scheme.

Organist Richard Apperley celebrates Advent and Christmas

Modern organ music for Advent and Christmas, by Andrew Baldwin, Marcel Dupré, Flor Peeters, Charles Ives, David Farquhar, Wilbur Held, Maughan Barnett.

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Friday, 10 December 2010, 12.45pm

A fine organ recital from Richard Apperley consisted of mainly short seasonal pieces. All the composers were either born in the twentieth century, or did most of their composing in that century. Three New Zealand composers featured.

Andrew Baldwin was Composer in Residence at the Cathedral from 2006-2008, and wrote An Advent Prelude for Apperley in 2009; this was its first public performance. Charming chord progressions, alternation between manuals and much use of the swell pedal, allowing for gradual build-up from pianissimo passages were features, as were key changes. Not a profound work, it nevertheless made pleasant listening.

Dupré was one of the great French organist-composers. His ‘Ecce Dominus veniet’ (Behold the Lord cometh) from his Six Antiphons for the Christmas Season was short and sweet: attractive, but not diverse in style or key.

Another organist-composer, this time Belgian, was Flor Peeters. His music for organ is varied and imaginative, as was ‘Hirten, er ist geboren’ (Shepherds, he is born). At the beginning there was delightful use of a 2-foot stop in running passages for the right hand, with the chorale melody below. The music reminded me of flights of birds, or music as droplets of sound.

Charles Ives, the American composer, had studied the organ in his youth. His Prelude ‘Adeste Fidelis’ began with a sustained high note, which changed to dissonant chords, followed by the melody in the lower part, against ever more dissonant chords and pedal before the return of the high note. It was a thoroughly innovative treatment of the well-known tune.

Another well-known Christmas melody was the subject of David Farquhar’s piece: ‘“…From Heaven I come” with Song and Dance and Dance’; variations on ‘Vom Himmel Hoch’. While I found a few parts of this setting a bit dull, at least in the Cathedral’s acoustic, overall it was interesting. The trumpet declaimed the melody, with intermittent chords below it, then flutes varied it discursively. They were followed by variations interspersed between the manuals in a variety of registrations, the pedals not being consistently employed. A declamation on reeds was followed by frisky flute runs. This was quite a demanding piece, that ended in a great roar. We would not think of Farquhar as a composer for organ, but he obviously knew his way around it. The programme note states that Apperley worked with David Farquhar to prepare registrations for a performance of the work on Christmas Day in 2002.

American Wilbur Held (b.1914) was represented by a setting of the Christmas hymn ‘Of the Father’s love begotten’. The high-pitched opening was an unusual and appealing treatment of the theme. The variation introduced chords in a variety of harmonies. A most enchanting setting ended calmly.

Maughan Barnett was English, but moved to New Zealand in 1893, and to the position of organist and choirmaster at Wellington’s St. John’s Presbyterian Church two years later. He became the first city organist in 1908. He wrote music for a variety of important occasions, and was a notable figure in the city’s musical scene until his death in 1938. His ‘Introduction and Variations on the Christmas Hymn ‘Mendelssohn’’ (alias ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’) was quite a lengthy piece. It began loudly and robustly, in good Victorian or Edwardian style (its date of composition is not known).

There was plenty of decoration, full organ contrasting with more straightforward playing of the hymn tune. The first variation featured broken chords on two manuals. I must admit I was reminded of someone slurping porridge, interspersed with doing the same with their cup of tea (i.e. the higher pitched registrations).

The second variation had a background of rapidly running notes, while the melody itself was subject to some variation. The third began with bombastic chords, and put the tune into a minor key, while the fourth had the tune rendered more or less straight, on a reed stop over a quiet accompaniment. The next one had a bland registration of the melody with harmony on the pedals, but above that, lovely runs on a 2-foot registration.

The sixth and final variation began with quiet chords on reeds, the melody having varied harmonisations and decorations, moving into a full harmony treatment on diapasons with some upper variations, and finally a grand ending.

Apperley’s playing was impeccable and tasteful throughout the varied programme of considerable interest.

NZSO – incidentally, on Naxos…..

BEETHOVEN – Incidental Music to “Egmont”

Concert Aria “Ah! perfido!” Op.65 / Marches WoO 18/19

Madeleine Pierard (soprano)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

James Judd (conductor)

NAXOS 8.557264

MENDELSSOHN – Incidental Music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (complete)

Jenny Wollerman / Pepe Becker (sopranos)

Varsity Voices / Nota Bene

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

James Judd (conductor)

NAXOS 8.570794

There’s much to enjoy in both of these NZSO/Naxos recordings, perhaps more consistently so with the Beethoven than with the Mendelssohn, though the latter, for all its idiosyncrasies, still contains many felicities, especially with regard to the orchestral playing. Under the direction of its former chief conductor James Judd, the orchestra delivers highly-polished, fleet-fingered accounts of all of the music on both discs. Some will love the Mendelssohn recording, relishing the fusion of music with spoken text from Shakespeare’s play, while others may well be annoyed by the way that it’s been put together. Less problematical in that respect is the Beethoven disc, especially as the Naxos recording concentrates largely on the music and doesn’t follow the example set by its Decca predecessor from the 1970s. This featured George Szell and the Vienna Philharmonic, with soprano Pilar Lorengar, but also included several of the spoken melodramas adapted by Franz Grillparzer from Goethe’s original drama, including Egmont’s final stirring speech that precludes his execution and the “Victory Symphony”. The Naxos – rather lamely, in my view, though others may disagree – includes from the spoken drama only Egmont’s  account of his vision in a dream of the heroine Clärchen. This means that the “Victory Symphony” bursts in at the end as if out of nowhere – there’s no preamble, and certainly no sense of Egmont’s pending execution and his defiance of the forces of tyranny and repression.

So, of the two productions, it’s the Mendelssohn recording on which efforts are made to integrate the incidental music with the drama. As I’ve said, the playing by the NZSO is terrific throughout both discs, even if James Judd’s somewhat “neutral” conducting personality doesn’t deliver any great insights or searing revelations – although making the famous donkey’s calls in the overture sound more musical than asinine might be counted a good thing by some listeners. Throughout the well-known orchestra-only pieces – Overture, Scherzo, Intermezzo, Nocturne, Wedding March – one registers beautifully supple orchestral strings, both delicate and full-toned, along with nicely-flavoured winds and crisp, focused brass, with deft touches of percussion in appropriate places (though the timpani are too backwardly recorded for my taste). Especially good is the Intermezzo – superb wind-playing at the outset, and a wonderful dovetailing of parts, making for a real sense of swirling magic in the interweaving lines; and then a beguiling change of mood with the entry of the mechanicals to the strains of a march. And the Wedding March seems to gain in depth and amplification as it progresses, working up to something properly celebratory and swaggering by the end.

Voices there are aplenty, both singing and spoken – delightful and engaging are the singing voices, the two soloists both characterful and utterly different (some people are bound to like one or t’other!), and the choir voices beautifully elfin, the sounds they make as light as thistledown. Jenny Wollerman’s bright, infectiously tangy soprano has more of the solo work than Pepe Becker’s pure, relatively chaste tones, though for me it’s a case of “vive la difference!” when they follow one another in “Ye spotted snakes”, each voice creating its own “face” and character in turn. Perhaps the tempo in the latter is a bit fast for a “lullaby”, but the lightness of touch helps create a “faery” atmosphere, even if the effect is a tad breathless here and there – of course, “Through this house, give glimmering light….” conversely needs to urgently scamper, in accordance with the Overture’s bustling activity – as it does here, brilliantly.

Recordings can be curious beasts in the way the parts are put together – and this one verges on the bizarre, with the orchestra-only contributions set down in 2003, the solo and choral numbers taped in New Zealand during 2007, and the actors’ contributions two years later in England! Despite this the orchestral and vocal items have been convincingly married, and sound pretty much of a piece. A pity, therefore, that the spoken texts and melodramas don’t have anything like the same sense of integration with the whole, partly the result of being recorded by voices from the other side of the globe, with little or no thought given to creating a theatrical or dramatic atmosphere in the same acoustical space as the orchestra. Even given these discrepancies the matching of voices with music could have been managed far more sensitively – unfortunately, the actors are all too close to a microphone, and there’s no sense of interplay with the orchestral interjections (which is presumably what the composer wanted).  I quite like the voices themselves as such, though dramatically they’re a variable bunch, both Oberon and Titania getting full marks for impeccable diction and zero for dramatic evocation in their “Ill-met by moonlight, proud Titania” scene. The Puck is better, though he’s also too “present”, the voice again too close, and,like all the others, having little or no sense of being in “a wood, near Athens”.  Unfortunately, the over-riding formulas relating to international marketing of recordings probably would have told against the idea of using New Zealand actors to speak the stage roles – whereas I thought that, in this of all plays, a bit of local rustic spoken colour different to the “BBC Shakespeare” norm might well have added more interest to the idea of this disc and its conception.

Still, fascinating though the dialogues and melodramas are in their theatrical context, the music’s essentially the thing – and Mendelssohn, if not Shakespeare, is well-served by this beautifully-played and musically well-caught recording. Some people won’t, I’m sure, share my objections to those voices, either theatrically or recording-wise, while others won’t think it matters in the context of the whole. When all’s said and done, it’s a disc I’m glad to own. Speaking of context, for people who know Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, but haven’t heard any of the rest of the incidental music inspired by Goethe’s drama, the other Naxos NZSO disc here will be well worth investigating. Again, the production involves the use of spoken word, but, unlike the “completeness” of the Mendelssohn disc, here only one of the spoken melodramas  makes a brief appearance, to accompany the sequence of Egmont’s dream and his vision of Clärchen, his heroine-lover. It’s a shame that we don’t get at least some of Egmont’s final speech leading up to his execution and the final Victory Symphony – compare the Szell Decca recording at this point for a proper scalp-prickling theatrical effect at the end, with the music rounding off the drama as the composer presumably intended.

In remarking that, as with the Mendelssohn recording, there’s little “atmosphere” generated by the placement of the speaker’s voice on the Beethoven Naxos recording (again, simply too microphone-bound, and seeming not to “share the space” with the musicians), I must point out that neither does the older Decca recording capture the spoken voice with any great dramatic verisimilitude – don’t people who make these recordings know anything about theatre? Fortunately, (and again, as on the Mendelssohn disc) the orchestral sound has plenty of impact, focus and colour, and the bright, sonorous tones of Madeleine Pierard’s soprano have been well-caught by the engineers, both in the two “Egmont” arias and in the dramatic stand-alone concert aria “Ah! perfido!”

The “Egmont” Overture has, of course, one of the most arresting opening chords in all music; and James Judd and the NZSO players here achieve a fine beginning – sharp attack, then big-boned orchestral tone, followed by a beautiful woodwind rejoined, and then a renewed orchestral surge, with rich wind chordings. Judd gets a real sense of expectation in the progression via the repeated descending phrase leading to the allegro, where there’s again fiery attack and plenty of tone – though the strings don’t fix their teeth insufficiently upon the speeded-up version of the opening, repeated-note motto,and sound a bit too well-mannered (there’s even a hint of a diminuendo on one of the last notes of the phrase first time round, weakening the effect – those notes surely ought to be hurled at the listener like thunderbolts!). But Judd makes amends with the “Victory Symphony” at the end, encouraging on-the-spot attack from all departments and getting a heady rush of musical adrenalin as a result.

As Clärchen, Madeleine Pierard sings splendidly, never letting us forget that she is not actually a soldier – others such as Birgit Nilsson or Pilar Lorengar (each heard on previous recordings) might, in “Die Trommel geruhret”, depict the cut-and-thrust of battle and the pulsating of blood through the veins more excitingly and viscerally; but with Pierard we hear a young woman’s attractive and eager voice (singing a different note on the first “sondergleichen” to the singers in the other recordings, which could be in the edition she used), more feminine than Valkrie-like, in her evocation of the conflict and dreams of glory.

The following “Entr’acte” vividly delineates interactions between the citizens of Brussels, arguments leading to violence, while the succeeding episode accompanies the appearance of Count Egmont with his soldiers, to restore the peace, the music’s nobility of utterance reminiscent of similar themes in Beethoven’s opera “Fidelio” – both of these exerpts are beautifully realized by Judd and the orchestra. Madeleine Pierard returns for “Freudvoll und leidvoll”, and sings it as well and committedly as I’ve heard anybody, beautifully negotiating the somewhat treacherous vocal descent at the end. Another “Entr’acte” echoes Clärchen’s “Freudvoll und leidvoll”, before the music changes to a stirring march, again reminding us of “Fidelio” and the entrance of the tyrant Pizzaro, the drama concerned with the Dulke of Alva’s plans to arrest Count Egmont. A tragic note is struck at the beginning of the Fourth Entr’acte, where Egmont is arrested, and Clärchen attempts to rouse the citizens to help resist the Duke and her beloved’s arrest. Act V draws from Beethoven music of great melancholy and anxiety as Clärchen awaits word of Egmont’s fate, then takes poison at news of his imminent execution.

And so to the final scene, in Egmont’s prison, where the hero sends a final message to his beloved, before sleeping and dreaming of her (“Süsser Schlaf!”), uttering words of joy at her visitation to his thoughts, before calmly resigning himself to his fate at the executioner’s hands. The ensuing “Victory Symphony” sweeps in (on its own, alas – no stirring words beforehand), and the drama concludes in a blaze of fervent heroic triumph.

As if by compensation, several additional items round out the disc, two marches which the composer called “music for horses”, written for the Archduke Anton, the elder brother of Beethoven’s patron, the Archduke Rudolph; and the famous concert aria “Ah! perfido”, Beethoven’s setting of a passage in Metastasio’s drama “Achille in Sciro”, composed in 1796. Both the marches (great fun!) and the aria considerably add to the recording’s attractions – in “Ah! perfido!” Judd encourages a lean, athletic sound, and Madeleine Pierard tears into the opening declamations with intensity and gusto, carrying these qualities right throughout the first section, depicting the anger and frustration of a jilted lover, including a plea to the gods for vengeance, and then a change of heart, in favor of mercy. Perhaps the central aria-like section “Per pieta, non dirmi addio” lacks a little light and shade on the singer’s part, but when the agitations return, at “Ah, crudel!” Pierard again commands the music, her voice firing and sparking as she rails against the cruelty of fate, the coloratura giving her little signs of trouble. Though stylish-sounding throughout, I felt that orchestra and conductor could have made something more gutsy of the aria’s instrumental conclusion, the effect here being “contained” instead of properly full-blooded, more classical than romantic. Perhaps Judd didn’t want to overload the performance with anything that smacked of anachronistic force of expression, despite the overt emotionalism of the text. Something tells me, however, that the composer would probably not have minded any such “excess of feeling” in the least!

Christmas presents from the NZSO….

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Wellington Christmas Concert 2010

Works by Britten, Mozart, Respighi, Handel, Corelli, Reger, Adam, Nicolai, Rutter

Aivale Cole (soprano)

Choir and Choristers of Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul

Paul Goodwin (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday 9th December, 2010

Musically, this was a heart-warming “something for everybody” concert, presenting tried and true favorites from, for example, Messiah (fascinating to compare performances with what was heard less than a week previously from the Orpheus Choir and the Wellington Orchestra) along with relative concert-hall rarities like Benjamin Britten’s Men of Goodwill and Otto Nicolai’s Christmas Overture. Almost as rare was Respighi’s beautiful L’adorazione dei Magi, the second of the composer’s Three Botticelli Pictures. Another composer whose works rarely make concert-hall appearances in this part of the world is Max Reger, represented here by two Nativity settings for choir and orchestra.

Despite the musical interest of the program, and the excellence of the performances from soloist Aivale Cole, and the choir and orchestra under Paul Goodwin, I thought the event could have been made a bit more festive or Christmassy. True, the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul Choir and Choristers’ Santa-red robes did give a certain ritualistic air to the proceedings, and Aivale Cole’s spectacular dress with its energetic swirls of resplendent colour-energy was certainly eye-catching. But apart from these visual stimulations, there was nothing done or staged to proclaim the event had any more significance than just another concert. I actually felt sorry for the NZSO players, having to “deck the halls” in public not long after returning from an exhausting whirlwind European tour during which they obviously gave their all, wowing the critics and the audiences alike. One would have thought the orchestra had done enough for the year, and could deservedly rest on its laurels for a bit before facing the new challenges of 2011. But, presumably because it’s the “expected” thing to put on a Christmas concert, the musicians, or at least most of them, were there at the party, giving enjoyable and well-played performances of a mixture of interesting and standard repertoire.

What might have made a difference would have been somebody associated with or representing the orchestra actually welcoming the audience to the concert (and I don’t mean via one of those deadeningly impersonal recorded voice-overs which the orchestra uses to announce each event – was it David Pawsey who in the old days used to come out onto the platform at the beginning, and very sweetly ask us to make sure our cell-phones were turned off?). It’s the kind of thing that conductor Mark Taddei for one carries off with great élan when introducing Wellington Orchestra concerts – if somewhat gauche in effect when overdone, it’s nevertheless great to mark a festive occasion with something out of the ordinary like this. Alternatively, being a capital city, Wellington has no shortage of well-known “personalities” whose talents could be thus commandeered  (the city has a new Mayor, of course, who might have been thrilled to be asked to introduce something at the concert). And though it’s a bit of a hoary idea (but no more so than performing the “Halleluiah” Chorus on such an occasion, I might add), the items could have been introduced by one or two or more of these personalities reading something appropriately seasonal either from Scripture, or from literature. These are very basic “impulse” ideas, but doing something along these lines would have helped engender some extra atmosphere befitting the occasion.

Fortunately, the performances carried a certain sound and sense of seasonal celebration to convey an idea of Christmas, beginning with the Benjamin Britten rarity which I disappointingly missed, thanks to an unfortunate car-parking contretemps! Luckily, a reviewer colleague present described it all for me as “engaging and rumbustious, with a jolly fugal finale, played here by the orchestra with plenty of energy and feeling”. I do wish I’d heard it – apparently it was music Britten wrote for a broadcast of a Christmas speech in 1947 made by King George VI, though without the fugue on that occasion, due to time constraints. Britten never had the work published – whether he didn’t think much of it, or was too taken up with other projects, one can’t be sure – but Men of Goodwill had to wait until several years after the composer’s death before the score was made available by Faber Music.

Soprano Aivale Cole looked and sounded magnificent, even though her first offering, Mozart’s Exsultate Jubilate, was truncated – contrary to the programme’s indication, she performed only the work’s opening section (my colleague thought she hadn’t sufficiently “warmed up” for the rest, hence the unscheduled departure from the platform). Next was Respighi’s adorable, orchestra-only L’adorazione dei Magi, an enchanting work, featuring orchestral winds performing miracles of rustic evocation, the strings initially held back, then allowed to interact with the winds to create a sense of wonderment and exultation at the Saviour’s birth. While very much a stylistic jump from this to Handel, Aivale Cole’s re-appearance for “Rejoice Greatly” from Messiah certainly continued the Nativity sequence, even if the singer found some of the downward figurations of the opening a bit breathless and intonation-testing – after the central “He is the Righteous Saviour’,  the reprise of the opening found her voice more settled and confident-sounding. Throughout, Cole’s wonderful diction and “ownership” of the words I found a constant delight, though she changed the unidiomatic “He shall Fe-EED his flock” to “He sha-AALL feed his flock”, about which one couldn’t really complain, especially as we even got some modest decoration of the line at the reprise of “Come unto him”. The Wellington Cathedral Choir and Choristers’ first appearance was at the end of this sequence, with a swift, lithe performance of “His yoke is easy”, the interpretation missing a bit of the ending’s irony with the word “light”, but still all beautifully sensitive and finely-graded.

Corelli’s Christmas Concerto began the second half, the opening terse and snappy, but with a lovely gravity of utterance in the slower section that followed. Donald Armstrong’s and Andrew Thomson’s duo violin work was just one of the outstanding features of a performance whose stylish textures, phrasings and rhythms helped bring the work’s pictorial qualities to life – a gorgeous “Nativity” processional sequence, for example, breathed such sweet and serene air as to make the contrasting allegro section properly “bite” before returning to the opening serenities. In both of Max Reger’s Christmas hymn settings the youthful freshness of the choir’s voices also made an incredibly sweet impression, the second of the two settings in particular allowing both men’s and women’s voices individual sequences, and contrasting the strands excitingly with the vigor of the full choir in the choruses. Otto Nicolai, best known as the composer of the opera The Merry Wives of Windsor, chimed in with a substantial overture-like piece, Christmas Overture, written for what seemed like a very large orchestra, whose size proved the choir’s undoing at the very end. But Paul Goodwin and the players captured the Schumannesque beginning of the work to perfection, with cathedral-like archways of sound, leading to episodes by turns agitated and suffused with the radiance of the chorale “Vom Himmel hoch”, the choir joining the festivities towards the conclusion, but sadly proving too “voice-light” and insufficient in number to make much impression alongside Nicolai’s full orchestral scoring.

Other highlights included Aivale Cole’s expansive and lyrical O Holy Night, whose second verse, sung in Samoan, featured a glorious high note at the end which brought the singer screams of approval at the end – and deservedly so. Again the sweet, youthful choral voices were like balm to the ears in John Rutter’s Shepherd’s Pipe Carol and the same composer’s arrangement of Away in a Manger; while a swift, excitable “Halleluiah” Chorus set one and (almost)all up and on their feet in the traditional manner – a good thing, too, because at the end everybody simply walked off the stage and the applause stopped, and that was it, no recalls, flowers, kisses or anything like that – just as if it was the end of another day in the life of an orchestra…….

Ruth Armishaw sings about songbirds and divas at St Andrew’s final concert

From Sondheim to Swann; songs by Victor Herbert, Sondheim, Jonathan Larsen, A L Webber, Christine McVie, Bock and Harnick, David and Arthurs, Bizet, Puccini, Flanders and Swann 


Ruth Armishaw (soprano) with Jonathan Berkahn (piano)


St Andrew’s on The Terrace


Wednesday 8 December 12.15pm 


For the last concert of the St Andrew’s free lunchtime series, a departure from the strict canon of classical music might be permitted. This time it proved especially permissible because of the polish and style that singer and pianist brought to the job.


Nevertheless, it’s not easy to bring off songs conceived for smoky bars, cabarets or even musical theatre in the severity of a well-lit church on a bright mid-day, with a stone-cold sober audience. Ruth Armishaw did extremely well.


Many critics and music lovers cherish an almost automatic aversion to anything that smells of ‘cross-over’, in both directions, and operating with particular PC force where ethnic music is concerned – in that case, condemnation is one-way, applying solely to the white presuming to sing black or brown music. Ruth Armishaw did not risk that censure.


She began with a song made famous by Kiri – ‘Art is calling for me’ from The Enchantress by Victor Herbert. With its feet firmly in the land of operetta, this splendid song suited her operatic voice perfectly and her self-confidence carried its story effortlessly. Its rhythm and infectious, hyperbolic lyrics were vigorously yet subtly backed by Jonathan Berkahn whose contribution Ruth called attention to, jazz or pop music style, half way through the concert. It’s one of the traditions that the classical world could usefully borrow.


Though I find Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (musical? operetta?) singularly distasteful, ‘Green finch and linnet bird’ lies charmingly without being besmirched by the gruesome story and Armishaw sang it in a way that made clear Sondheim’s affinity with Menotti rather than Andrew Lloyd Webber.


The next three songs came from a range of musical theatre pieces for which she reached for the microphone; her voice, the entire atmosphere, was transformed, not necessarily for the worse, though it’s salutary to recall that till the 1950s Broadway and West End singers sang properly, without amplification. This was crooning.  ‘Come to your senses’ from a show called Tick, Tick, BOOM!, which I’d never heard of, became her rather affectingly; though I could understand few of the words and thus the repetitiveness of the music somewhat outlasted its interest.


Andrew Lloyd Webber does little for me, apart from the two or three favourites and so the song from Sunset Boulevard was an empty exercise in pseudo melody, handling trivial emotions: no reflection on the singer!  


Her voice in ‘Songbird’ from a Fleetwood Mac album suffered through a too obtrusive piano part.


She put aside the microphone for the rest of the programme starting with a song from a 1960s musical called The Apple Tree, unfamiliar to me, but look it up in Wikipedia – sounds attractive. The song was gorgeous, reminding me of my belief that the musical hardly survived beyond the 1960s when rock and the microphone destroyed its charm, musicality, its ability to characterise and tell real stories.


After that came the successor song to the Victor Herbert at the beginning: a lovely waltz song from 1912 called ‘I want to sing in opera’ by David and Arthurs (whom, again, I’d not heard of) in which Armishaw’s real operatic voice came through again, rather impressively.


That reintroduced opera, naturally, and she sang the Habanera from Carmen and ‘Vissi d’arte’ from Tosca. They were well projected, attractively sung with good dramatic character, first sultry, then piously self-pitying (well, isn’t it?).


Finally came a number that surprised me – a Flanders and Swan song I didn’t know! – ‘A word in your ear’. It was another little ironical, singer’s song, this time from one who is aware of her shortcomings, to wit, inability to remember the tune, with carefully faulty pitch to prove it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t catch enough of the words, a pity in the case of a song by that inimitable English pair of the 1950/60s.


’Twas a delightful way to end the St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts for 2010 which have again been particularly enjoyable, varied and simply excellent: Wellington is greatly indebted to the church’s generous cooperation and to the unflagging, entirely voluntary efforts of organiser Marjan van Waardenberg.



Bach Choir returns to homeland in visual and aural feast

Bach: Jesu meine Freude, BWV 227; Orchestral Suite no.3, in D, BWV 1068; Magnificat in D, BWV 243

Bach Choir, Janey MacKenzie, Lisette Wesseling (sopranos), Andrea Cochrane (contralto), John Beaglehole (tenor), David Morriss (bass), Chiesa Ensemble, Douglas Mews (organ, continuo), conducted by Stephen Rowley

Sacred Heart Cathedral

Sunday 5 December 2010, 3pm

A programme made up of three well-loved pieces by J.S. Bach was bound to please any lover of baroque music.

Jesu, meine Freude is unusually long, complex and varied for a motet. It is full of the most delicious settings of words, including extracts from Paul’s epistle to the Romans. The word-painting is just superb.

This performance did its beauties justice. After perusing the beautifully produced printed programme and looking in wonder at Stephen Rowley’s colourful garb (perhaps appropriate for Christmas) against the sombre black of the choir, one was hit with the splendid initial impact of the music.

Full-toned, meaningful singing and a fine accompaniment on chamber organ from Douglas Mews and a mainly trouble-free performance full of sensitivity and dynamic contrasts made for a most enjoyable and satisfying experience. The women particularly were splendid, with the men not far behind, though the intonation and entries were suspect at times. This choir suffers from the usual shortage of tenors; those they have at times, unfortunately, endeavoured to make up the shortfall with stridency of tone. Probably a somewhat smaller choir is better for this music.

Nevertheless it was a commendable performance; some dropping in pitch towards the end may have been due to tiredness, since this music is very demanding, with its varied moods an settings. Overall, it was a vibrant, joyful and inspiring performance of some of Bach’s most exquisite music.

The Suite was directed by Douglas Mews from the harpsichord, and featured an orchestra of approximately 21 players. I say approximately, because there were three trumpeters, but only one was identified in the printed programme. I suspect another was Danny Kirgan; the third may have been Tom Moyer.

The extended opening Ouverture was robust and quick; it was followed by the sublime Air for strings only, commonly known as ‘Air on the G string’. The brass returned for the dance movements. With much difficult music to play they were not always spot on, but in the main excellent.

Woodwind featured with delightfully floating phrases, and helped to make the whole amply rewarding.

This was not an original instrument orchestra, but one drawn mainly from the ranks of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. To be baroque in style required a greater lightness, and notes to be a little more separated, at least in this acoustic. Yet it was a joyful and enjoyable rendering of a work we hear too seldom. It was inspired to give the singers a rest with music such as this.

The Magnificat in D was an appropriate seasonal choice. As the programme note stated, in many ways this work anticipates the choruses of the Mass in B minor. The use of orchestra, organ, five soloists and chorus makes it of a similar large scale in terms of performers, if not of length and scope. There are no recitatives, allowing the Biblical words flow without interruption.

The words of the Magnificat, from St Lukes’ Gospel chapter one, are split into nine movements, alternating arias and choruses. The opening chorus ‘Magnificat anima mea Dominum’ is brilliant, firstly from orchestra and then from chorus. It is a splendid declamation, sung here with a good, strong sound. Lisette Wesserling sang the first aria ‘Et exsultavit’ without much expression, and a rather hard, piercing quality in the acoustics of this building. However, her vibrato-less tone would be regarded as suitable for sacred music of this period.

A second soprano aria immediately follows: ‘Quia respexit’, which was sung in excellent style by Janey MacKenzie, with feeling and expression. A lovely oboe featured in the orchestral accompaniment.

A hearty chorus is the fourth movement, ‘Omnes generationes’. The fast tempo and florid writing were managed very well. The bass aria ‘Quia fecit’ was accompanied by continuo only, giving a most attractive effect. Morriss’s tone rich and mellow, but his intonation a little suspect at the opening. This was the only contribution Bach allowed the bass,, but it was a fine one.

Next, the duet for alto and tenor with muted strings ‘Et misericordia’ is full of meditative phrases for both soloists. In this case, the tenor was a little too loud for the alto. A tenor voice will almost always stand out, so there was a need for John Beaglehole to modify his tone in order to blend and match his companion.

The chorus ‘Fecit potentiam’ is quite demanding with its florid writing contrasted with chordal statements. This performance was glorious.

John Beaglehole gave a very hearty rendition of ‘Deposuit potentes’, suitable to the subject of the putting down of the mighty from their seats, with a magnificent orchestral accompaniment.

The ninth movement was ‘Esurientes implevit’, and aria for alto. Its accompaniment was a magical flute duet; while Andrea Cochrane made a lovely job of this, her tone was a little light for the modern flutes. It would have been perfectly satisfactory with the wooden flutes of Bach’s time.

A beautiful, floating trio followed, for the three female voices: ‘Suscepit Israel’. To my mind this is the most beautiful part of the whole work, and the soloists’ treatment of it left little to be desired.

The final ‘Gloria’ began somewhat too legato, and was not as successful as the other choruses, but the orchestra was splendid, ending off in a triumphant manner a most worthwhile concert.

The Bach Choir’s performance was of much better quality than it was the last time I heard them. The church was nearly full, and the audience gave the choir, orchestra and soloists a very warm reception.

Wellington Chamber Orchestra, with pianist Claire Harris, plays Beethoven and Sibelius

Conductor:  Michael Joel with Claire Harris (piano)

Louise Webster: Learning to Nudge the Wind; Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor; Sibelius: Symphony No 2 in D, Op 43

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 5 December 2.30pm

The last of the Wellington Chamber Orchestra’s 2010 concerts followed the normal pattern: Concerto in the first half, symphony in the second and something smaller, perhaps new or unusual to fill out the first half. Often scorned, it’s a recipe that survives because it works pretty well; after all it does not proscribe playing an obscure concerto and an avant-garde symphonic piece of some substance in the second half.

This concert began with a new piece that conductor Michael Joel had premiered in Auckland a few months ago with the St Matthew’s Chamber Orchestra. It could be described as a symphonic poem but could hardly be heard as a latter-day descriptive piece such as Strauss or Sibelius might have written.

Though her real job is in medicine, Louise Webster’s orchestral writing is by no means amateur. Though Auckland-based, she had childhood experiences in Wellington and had retained memories of the dramatic weather. She created a well-structured piece that was skilful and colourful, made excellent use of wind instruments to depict a violent storm, and strings for calmer interludes. Fading marimba notes suggested lightly falling raindrops. After a short pause a second tumultuous episode followed, creating a shapely structure that was emotionally satisfying; the calm phase at the end left a lingering feeling of unease.

An amateur orchestra can often bring off a work of this kind with reasonable conviction, because the audience has no template in mind and for the most part, its impact can be strong in spite of a less than immaculate performance. That was certainly the case here.

But it’s much more difficult to satisfy listeners in a thoroughly familiar work such as a Beethoven concerto. So the introduction of the concerto was a reminder of the character of the orchestra; the sound rather unvaried and loud, with little elasticity of rhythm. When the soloist entered her playing too seemed to be without much freedom, though she demonstrated her grasp of the music by drawing attention to the inner lines of the piano part. But the prevailing fortissimo in the orchestra may well have driven her to play under greater tension than she would have in a more accommodating environment.

The second movement was a different story; it was taken quite slowly and the piano’s spirit became meditative and thoughtful. Though there were several very good players in the section, the orchestral winds, in particular, seem disinclined to play softly.

One of the features that improved the sound generally was the placing of the orchestra on the floor of the church, in front of the steps leading to the sanctuary, It meant the brass and the timpani were not confined within the smaller space which amplifies their volume. The balance of the timpani, in front of the chamber organ, with other players was natural and very comfortably integrated.

The slow movement leads straight into the finale without pause. Straight away I was struck by the speed that Michael Joel adopted, which seemed at times to be faster than the Claire Harris wanted, for there were several moments when she seemed to be attempting to restrain the headlong pace. The slower sections of the Rondo however were quite admirable, the strings using light bow strokes along with well controlled staccato playing from the wind sections.

The larger orchestra, with triple woodwinds, four horns, three each of trumpets and trombones, plus tuba, was as prescribed for the Sibelius symphony; however, trumpets and trombones were placed at the back of the sanctuary and the usual problem of loudness emerged again (thank goodness the timpani remained on the floor). But the orchestra acquitted itself very well in this work; the impact at full throttle was often rather exciting, while there were some sensitive and attractive passages, particularly in the slow movement. It began with very seductive sounds from timpani, then plucked basses and cellos. If there were brass excesses again later in the slow movement, and in the scherzo and finale, they were outweighed by much fine string playing – I thought the cellos were particularly attractive. And after the entry of the famous ostinato-type tune that dominates the finale, Joel guided the build-up excellently, leaving the impression of a much more professional orchestra that harboured its forces to unleash an emotionally powerful climax at the end. The audience was thrilled and demanded the conductor’s return several times.