Crude narcissism smothers TV doco on NZSO tour

The NZSO on tour – documentary on Prime television

Sunday evening, 31 July

I found the TV film on the NZSO’s 2010 Europe tour a total embarrassment.

Some may think that the only way to make a watchable documentary is to lace it with
sex and crudeness. I differ.

Today’s permissive climate, when it isn’t cool to harbour behaviour standards known in
former times as decent, cultivated or civilized, makes it hard for anyone to say something is offensive, tasteless and inappropriate; but here goes.

As producer and front man, Jeremy Wells (I reveal my avoidance of television: I’d never heard of him) exhibited the worst kind of ‘Kiwi’ arrogance-cum-inferiority complex, all made the more offensive by his narcissism, his inability to keep his own discreet distance from his subjects, keeping the focus on them in a courteous way.

Instead, he insisted on being centre stage.

The whole project struck me as misguided. An attempt to engage the ‘masses’ through dumbing down, not just by avoiding too much talk about the music or avoiding letting musicians (other than a nice chat with Hilary Hahn) speak with any substance about their trade, but by stooping to the grubby depths of incessant sexual references and questions.

I do not believe that such behaviour wins friends from any quarter: it repels the ordinary music lover and probably somewhat surprises and leaves bemused those who don’t know or care anyway.

Wells’s attempt to talk to Dame Kiri epitomized his egotism, his self-centred unsuitability, even incompetence in the role of interviewer. After managing to offend her by his rudely casual, impertinent, ill-prepared questions, he displayed his over-weening ego by leaving in the edited film the clear signs of her astonishment at being addressed in such an inappropriate manner by a young, inexperienced, ill-informed, smart-alec adolescent who was more intent on keeping himself in the frame (aurally speaking) than asking her thoughtful questions that might elicit interesting replies.

She had no choice other than to bat questions away on things she could not comment on. She attempted to open a subject on which she might talk: classical music’s and the NZSO’s invisibility on New Zealand television as one of the reasons for declining knowledge of and interest in classical music, but the interview was rudely broken off – by him or by her was not clear. His self-absorption then allowed him to tell us that she had it wrong and that it was the result of the recession.

I have never seen such an inappropriate, rude interview of a person who is one of the most famous New Zealanders internationally. Was Kiri’s clear discomfort any surprise, given Wells’s appalling behaviour? The scope to elicit interesting comment was huge; just one: the importance of a tour like this for the orchestra’s standing back home, and asking her to recall her singing with the orchestra at the Seville EXPO in 1992.

The man exhibited an adolescent obsession with sex and scatological matters that were mesmerizing in their offensiveness and clumsiness. And he seemed oblivious to the clear discomfort, of his subject’s sense of the irrelevance and stupidity of his approach.

He asked harpist Carolyn Mills whether she’d thought about staging a naked harpist routine; he discomfitted trombonist David Bremner by linking the practising of music at speed with performing sexual activites fast or slow. He was childishly curious about the musicians’ bladder and bowel behaviour during performances, his camera hovering in the precincts of the toilets as players came in and out.

He astonished the in-house doctor at one of the concert halls by asking how she would handle an accident that involved a violinist severing his testicle.

He asked the orchestra’s physiotherapist whether she got propositions from players to
engage in sexual style massage.

He asked about injunctions from management about sexual activities before concerts, as rumour suggests applies to sports-people.

It all seemed directed at an audience of smutty-minded defectives, poos-and-wees infants, the ignorant and stupid.

In line with his obsession with keeping attention on himself, he staged a stupid episode on the lake front at Lucerne, starting a comment about the city’s history which was repeatedly interrupted by traffic and street noise: not three times, not four times, but more like six or eight times. But he offered almost no commentary otherwise on places visited.

The Shanghai episode, however, showing Chinese camera-culture and the unusual behaviour of the concert audience was telling and amusing.

He failed to engage any of the players in normal, friendly discussion that might have given any viewers without great interest in classical music, a sympathetic insight into their training, their work, and in the way they felt about music.

In Vienna’s Musikverein he spoke cursorily to one of the few players from Germany itself, Norbert Heuser, without any attempt to elicit comment about the German musical scene; for example, about the huge numbers of orchestras and opera companies, all heavily supported by central, provincial or local government.

His entire performance was summed up as he took upon himself the role of the conductor, leaving his dressing room, preening himself before all the many mirrors that lined the walls through passageways to the stage. It seemed to be far more an enactment of his own narcissistic nature than that of the quietly unassuming Pietari Inkinen.

Though Wells managed to pronounce foreign words and names well enough and didn’t show undue ignorance of music, his whole demeanour seemed to speak of insecurity, of an attempt to impose his own big personality over those of the players, to belittle them: people whose lives revolve round ‘classical music for god’s sake’; and to invite his TV audience to share in his own slightly scornful manner in dealing with people whose skills and knowledge in a major artistic sphere far exceeded his own.

Yes, there were interesting shots of concert halls, inside and out but there was little attempt to flesh out the experience with background on the cities and their history in a few lines, other than the ridiculous stunt at Lucerne: he’d have done better to mention the famous Cultural Centre at Lucerne designed by Jean Nouvel, where the concert was held.  Though he did allow the backgound of Geneva’s Victoria Hall (because of the British connection I suppose).

Generally, the camera work seemed listless and unimaginative, lacking much zest
or curiosity.

Assuming that the orchestra management had little indication before the tour began of the way producer Jeremy Wells planned to operate, I find it extraordinary that once the man had started, and engaged in these scabrous, prurient, unworthy interviews with orchestra members, a decision wasn’t taken to send him home.

New Zealand Trio in beautiful Upper Hutt recital

Brahms: Piano Trio No 2 in C, Op 87; Chris Adams: Jekyl Rat; Kenji Bunch: Swing
; Schubert: Piano Trio No 1 in B flat, D 898

New Zealand Trio (Justine Cormack – violin, Ashley Brown – cello, Sarah Watkins –

Expressions Arts Centre, Upper Hutt

Thursday 28 July, 8pm

I have been sorry to miss the first two concerts in this year’s Classical Expressions series at Upper Hutt’s so agreeable arts centre.

Unfortunately, neither of my colleagues had been able to get to them either.

For the record the earlier concerts were by the Amici Ensemble, which comprises leading players from the NZSO, who played, inter alia, clarinet quintets by Brahms and Anthony Ritchie; and the violin and piano of Martin Riseley and Diedre Irons, whose recital included Schubert’s Fantasie in C (D 934 presumably) and Strauss’s Violin Sonata.

It was a calm and cool (not cold) evening and I’d have expected a big turn-out on account of the trio’s programming of two of the most glorious piano trios, by Brahms and Schubert. But the auditorium was little more than half filled; though one has to recognize that these concerts are a little more expensive than comparable concerts elsewhere.

That didn’t lead to performances of any less warmth and richness however. Helped very significantly by the luxurious tone of the piano, this was music, from the very opening unison chords, in the high Romantic tradition, revealing all the emotion and profundity of spirit that Brahms had at his command: the players sounded fully in sympathy and  captured all its opulence and grandeur.

What intrigues me about the slow movement is Brahms’s rhythmic ambiguity which, if not handled with an unerring instinct, can sound uncertain and irregular, but the trio unraveled it all while not losing sight of Brahms’s pleasure in posing little enigmas throughout the course of the several variations which comprise the Andante. Ambiguity is one of the essentials of a work of art.

I was often struck by the happy blending of tone and spirit by violin and cello, and Sarah Watkins’s piano playing was the very essence of the chamber music style, both supportive and illuminating.

Naturally, there is some falling-off of profundity in a scherzo movement, and though the players threw themselves vigorously into it, the music becomes a bit routine (but in a sense that is strictly relative only to Schubert’s finest compositions); the more soulful trio section of the Scherzo, between outer tremolando passages, was played with particular relish. A deep contemplative spirit is replaced in the Finale by something Brahms does well –a certain daemonic flippancy, alternating light and shade, the full-bodied and the ghostly.

Schubert’s B flat trio ended the concert. In this, more than in the Brahms, I felt, the players, while never faltering in their ensemble, found ways to differentiate their parts that made you pay particular attention to them as individual players. Though it is a remarkably balanced group in terms of musical skill and interpretive faculty, I found my attention drawn very often to Ashley Brown’s cello (perhaps through being a cellist of the 5th class myself); for example in the slow, emotionally strong crescendo bowings in the Allegro.

Schubert’s slow movements are usually at the heart of his music, and the impression is easy to conjure up in the late works, in this case, suffering advancing illness, just a year before his death. it seemed to dramatise the lyrical, the emphatic, the meditative, the
despairing even, with special force.

Again in the Scherzo I sense a certain striving for jollity that, on an uncharitable day, might seem a bit false, and I felt the players did hint at a little of that in the playing. The middle Trio section was allowed to be more soulful.

Music as politics
In between these two masterpieces were two contemporary pieces that reflected places and people in a very particular way, a way which might have raised eyebrows in earlier periods when music was expected to be mainly abstract, translating stories or characters through means that were formally and primarily musical. There seems to be no widespread disapproval of ‘programme’ music these days, and a great deal of music is conspicuously inspired by and intended to evoke extra-musical ideas, images, narratives.

Chris Adams’s Jekyll Rat, in spite of Ashley Brown’s elaborate avoidance of naming the MP hidden in the score, was pretty transparent, especially in the second section, Sycophant’s Dance, a sort of Tango in which one could easily conjure the deputé in a TV show dropping his partner on the floor.

It’s curious that so few composers of the past have felt inspired to represent political issues in music; some opera composers did, certainly – Beethoven, Verdi and Wagner in particular – but how many chamber music composers did?. One gets no impression of the political views of Bach, Haydn, Mozart or Schumann…

Having remarked on the ‘programmatic’ nature of the piece, one must observe the clear
marks of a careful and imaginative musical structure, with rather recognizable musical signposts. It was in three parts: ‘Me ne frego’ – ‘I don’t give a damn’; ‘Sycophant’s Dance’; and ‘Insanity represented by Mustard Yellow’ (a remarkably clear clue). The wit lay in the musical invention, as much as in the non-musical aspect: in the scoring for the three instruments, during which I was often conscious of a smile on my face. It led the listener along unexpected paths, to surprising conjunctions of ideas, and it concluded in a diminuendo, disappearing in a puff of smoke or, if you like, up the subject’s hidden orifice.

For all its splendidly overt political message, I felt it also stood on its own feet as a quite extensive piece of music.

Night Flight in New York
The other contemporary piece was by Kenji Bunch, an Oregon-born composer, said in the notes to have emerged as one of America’s most prominent composers of his generation (he’s in his late 30s), but this puzzled me as I could find no website devoted to him and only very odd references to his music: none at all to Swing Shift, which turns out to be the name of a 1984 film, an American big band, an album by an Australian pop group, and so on. No mention of Bunch.

However, the players have supplied interesting background. Sarah sent me Bunch’s website (don’t be led to think Google or Wikipedia are exhaustive reference sources). He’s written a symphony, a great variety of music for large and small forces, been commissioned, inter alia, by the English Chamber Orchestra, St Luke’s Chamber Ensemble, the Naumburg Foundation, and has been broadcast on the BBC and NHK, Japan.

The trio played one movement, Night Flight, the second of the six-movement suite, Swing Shift, comprising three lively and three calmer movements, by Kenji Bunch. Last year they played the sixth movement, Grooveboxes, at Paekakariki. This year the trio are playing movements from Swing Shift at their Auckland Museum concerts this year and Justine says they might play the entire suite some time. Both the movements played so far have been feisty, jazzy and strongly rhythmic. Night Flight is written in a reasonably conventional idiom, strong four-in-a-bar rhythms, with stretches of piano arpeggios and ostinato-like motifs.

The piece was personable, lively and colourful and suggests that the opinions recorded about Bunch are just.

I can imagine a performance of the whole work in a venue like a museum. It’s a pity that none of Wellington’s museums appear to be aware of the common world-wide practice of presenting good music. Sure there is music, but very little evidence of its selection by people with cultivated musical taste or knowledge of the all-important classical repertoire.

A chamber ensemble’s environment
The NZ Trio is among the most accomplished full-time professional chamber groups in New Zealand. While there is a large repertoire for piano trio, much of the 18th century is domestic or salon music, even that of Haydn and Mozart; almost all the relatively few great works are of the 19th century. Thus a piano trio is right to devote a lot of effort to exploring contemporary repertoire, and particularly to commission New Zealand music.

All these things the NZ Trio does splendidly, and it’s to be hoped that the unhappy political and economic environment will not affect the survival of the group. The fresh decision by Radio New Zealand Concert to cease paying fees (forced by frozen funding from New Zealand on Air) to concert promoters for broadcasting rights will have a serious impact on most chamber music groups. However, in the meantime, it will not stop the recording and broadcasting of concerts, though reductions in their numbers might be imposed in due course, as political ill-will towards state-funding of the arts is like a cancer.

NZSO Soloists – becoming as sounding brass

BRASS SPLENDOUR from the NZSO Soloists

ELGAR (arr. Wick) – Severn Suite Op.87 / GRIEG (arr. Emerson) – Funeral March in memory of Rikard Nordraak

HANDEL (arr.Maunder) – Music for the Royal Fireworks / GABRIELI – Sacrae Symphoniae: Canzon 10

BRUCKNER (arr.Rose) – 2 Motets / R.STRAUSS (arr. Maunder)- Festmusik der Stadt Wien

NZSO players:

Michael Kirgan, Cheryl Hollinger, Mark Carter, Thomas Moyer (trumpets)

Peter Sharman, David Moonan (horns)  / David Bremner, Peter Maunder (trombones)

Andrew Jarvis (tuba) / Bruce McKinnon, Leonard Sakofsky, Thomas Guldborg (percussion) / Laurence Reese (timpani)

Guest players:

Andrew Bain (horn, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra) / Elizabeth Simpson (horn, Ottawa National Arts Centre Orchestra)

Tom Coyle (trombone, Queensland Symphony Orchestra) / Scott Kinmont (trombone, Sydney Symphony Orchestra)

Town Hall, Wellington

Thursday 28th July, 2011

The irony of former Principal Horn Ed Allen’s retirement from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra virtually on the eve of the Orchestral Brass Soloists’ Tour wasn’t lost on the writer of a section of the concert program, the part entitled “Musical Chairs”. Replacing Ed Allen for the four-concert tour was Andrew Bain, (sporting the title “Guest Principal Horn”), in fact Principal Horn of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. But there’s more – compounding the musical “exchange rate” were three other “guest musicians” featured on the “Brass Splendour” tour – the Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s Tom Doyle sat in for NZSO Principal Bass Trombone Graeme Browne (on leave), while Canadian Elizabeth Simpson (from the National Arts Centre Orchestra of Ottawa) swapped places with NZSO Sub-Principal Horn Heather Thompson, who’s enjoying a Canadian summer playing Fourth Horn with the Ottawa NACO. As well, Sydney Symphony Orchestra Associate Principal Trombone Scott Kinmont was invited to join the tour. I’m put in mind of what comedian and raconteur Michael Flanders once said, introducing a performance of his and Donald Swann’s show “At The Drop of A Hat” – “Right! – double bookings sorted out, are they?” However, despite these changes having been rung, the ensemble looked and sounded confident and stylish as its members filed onto the Wellington Town Hall stage and began the concert.

Elgar’s Severn Suite was first up, an arrangement for brass ensemble by Dennis Wick. The original brass band version, sketched out by Elgar and orchestrated by one Henry Geehl (over which result there was trouble between arranger and composer) was dedicated to George Bernard Shaw, who declared that the music “would ensure my immortality when all my plays are dead and damned and forgotten”. Amusingly, Shaw suggested to Elgar that he ought to use bandsmen’s language in the score instead of the usual Italian: – “For instance, remember that a Minuet is a dance and not a bloody hymn; or, steady up for artillery attack; or now – like Hell!” Shaw claimed his suggestions would help some of the modest beginner players.

Perhaps this ensemble’s members had read Shaw’s advice to Elgar as well – because they tore into the opening “Worcester Castle” almost unceremoniously, leaving behind any notions of Elgarian “nobilmente” in favor of urgency and energy – too much so, for me, though plenty of others would have found it exciting. I thought the lack of pomp and grandeur at the beginning made an insufficient tempo contrast with the following “Tournament” which was where the true excitement needed to happen. As it was, the drum-taps beginning the “Tournament” episode didn’t have the sense of pent-up expectation they ought to have generated, largely because a lot of rhythmic impetus had already been spent by the playing throughout the opening. I wondered whether this was a factor in the noticeable proportion of mis-hit notes we heard early on, the players certainly taking some time to “warm up”. As well, I wondered whether for this particular work the ensemble actually needed the guiding hand of a conductor, someone who could have helped bring out the “swagger” of the off-beat rhythms, so difficult for an undirected group to bring off. In fact, at one point during the “Minuet”, I did notice trombonist David Bremner (I think it was) making conducting gestures, lending the group a pre-arranged hand, no doubt. By the time the opening music had returned (still a shade too fast for me – Elgar’s music has to have, I think, a certain “stride” in which both energy and solid girth have a part to play, with every footfall cogently advancing the argument in its own way) the playing had settled and the attack and intonation were more secure.

Things came together wonderfully for the players’ heartfelt rendition of a Grieg rarity, Funeral March in Memory of Rikard Nordraak. (Nordraak and Grieg were fellow-composers, the former inspiring the latter to make as his life’s work the cause of Norwegian music). Giving the music time for the tones to amply fill both physical and temporal spaces, the ensemble literally rose to the occasion in delivering a full-blooded,percussion-supported climax to a sequence that began with such wonderfully hushed, expectant melancholy at the outset. The players brought out the different instruments’ timbres, in particular making much of the contrasts in softer passages between trumpets and horns, and enjoyed the major key change in the “Trio” section of the music, Grieg interrupting the more cheerful, if piquant mood with a great horn outburst at the music’s heart, extremely forthright, but both brazen and noble by turns. This being a new work for me, I was impressed at the range, depth and darkness of emotion wrought by the composer, and thrilled and moved by the performance.

Trombonist Peter Maunder certainly had been busy for this concert, rearranging a lot of music for this particular ensemble, including Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks (the programme’s playing order said Richard Strauss’s Festmusik der Stadt Wien would follow the Grieg, but the Strauss and Handel items were swapped around). So it was Handel in Peter Maunder’s skilful realization, the playing here seeming to me influenced in style and sharp focus by the “authentic” school of Baroque performance – admirable in terms of clean, lean lines and sharply-defined rhythms, but somehow lacking a real sense of “occasion”. It’ll be considered heresy of me to say so, but I’ve always loved Hamilton Harty’s full-orchestra arrangements of this music, simply because they always sound so grand and ceremonial. On the other hand, I’ve also dearly loved for years my old Pye recording of Charles Mackerras’ “ultra-authentic” recreation of one of those first London performances of this music, with every available wind player in London at the time seemingly brought into the fray. Neither of these examples have much to do on paper with what we heard in concert, except that, expert though the playing was, I simply wanted, I think, more out-and-out performance flair and panache (again, a conductor might have helped) – more grandeur in places, and energy in others, more abandonment on the part of the percussion, more space in and around the music (almost anything goes with Baroque realizations, judging by how readily the composers borrowed their own and each others’ music for whatever purpose which suited).

As if putting my thoughts and feelings into “demonstration mode” the first item after the interval provided all the “frisson” of spectacle one associates with ceremonial brass, one of Giovanni Garbrieli’s joyous Sacrae Symphoniae, the Canzon 10. With the players exploiting the antiphonal potentialities of the playing-space by standing in two rows at the top of each half of the “organ gallery”, the Hall was, literally, saturated with resplendently produced sounds, readily evoking old-world ritual and sensibility – we in the audience loved it (because of my relative unfamiliarity with much of Gabrieli’s music I felt at one with those caught up by Sir Thomas Beecham’s well-known remark pertaining to English audiences, who “don’t know much about music, but like the noise it makes”). More unfamiliar music of a beguiling aspect was to follow, unscheduled as per program, but readily welcomed by an intrigued audience – two of Anton Bruckner’s Motets, played by four trombones – in a way, the antithesis of the Gabrieli we had just heard, but at the same time the beautiful solemnity of the sounds (gorgeous playing) presenting the perfect foil for the Italian’s fulsome brilliance.

Exuberance and excitability marked the opening of Richard Strauss’s Festmusik der Stadt Wien (another splendid arrangement for the ensemble by Peter Maunder), the music then characteristically going on to a more nostalgic vein, with evocative modulations (nice trumpet work in thirds and sixths – definitely the former, the latter being a keen listener’s guess!) the sound of an “Imperial Vienna” provenance. With the players really hitting their straps by this stage of the evening, there was page after page of “on-to-it” music-making, the whole casting a refulgent glow, leading up to a grand Straussian build-up and a vigorous coda, filled with virtuoso writing for the instrumental combinations, before the music touched our hearts with parting-shot nostalgic promptings of imaginings of a world forever disappeared. What we expected to have been a rousing finish to an evening was then delightfully augmented by “something completely different” – firstly, the spectacle of Lenny Sakofsky being pushed to centre-stage, sitting amidst a drum-kit configuration of “splendiferous magnitude” (in fact it seemed as though he might at any moment have kick-started the monster with a roar and a cloud of blue smoke and disappeared up the aisle and out the Town Hall doors!), and then the mellifluous strains of Duke Ellington’s Do nothing’ till you hear from me, the players “swinging” with what seemed to me like total identification with the idiom.

Delightful lunchtime recital from violin and guitar

Unfamiliar music for violin and guitar works charms

Music by Almer Imamovic, Anthony Ritchie, Ciprian Porumbescu, and Ian Krouse

Duo Tapas (Rupa Maitra – violin; Owen Moriarty – guitar)

Old Saint Paul’s, Mulgrave Street

Tuesday 26 July, 12.15pm

A concert like this usually offers a variety of surprises: there’s the unexpected delight from particularly charming pieces of music, and there were several such instances; the experience of an unusual instrumental combination and the way music originally for others has adapted so well; and the realization that the world has never been so overflowing with beautiful, rewarding music – most of it, naturally, to be broadly labeled as ‘classical’.

The uncovering of hundreds of gifted composers of earlier times, who have come to be overshadowed by a handful of geniuses with names like Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, has given classical music a very different look over the past half century, with the realization that many of them sometimes produced better music than the ‘great’ ones did, on their off-days.

And in our age, there are so many talented composers in every country that no one could even claim familiarity with the names of many of the best of them.

Almer Imamovic is a good example: a guitarist and composer from Bosnia whom Owen Moriarty came to know when both were studying in Wales.

The pieces by Imamovic were originally written for flute and guitar, but the violin seemed the perfectly natural voice for the melodic lines. The Song for Marcus opened in up-beat style, bearing more sign of Turkish origin than of the Balkans, though of course most of the region was part of the Ottoman Empire for many centuries and there is a sizable Muslim minority in Bosnia. Based on two related tunes in the energetic opening section, then passing to a calmer middle section, the two instruments were in perfect balance and made one oblivious to the quite other character of the timbered gothic church where we sat.

Their final offerings were Theme for Caroline and Tapkalica, clearly from a similar source, the first a charming, simple melody which evolved very interestingly to subtly syncopated rhythms. In the second, the guitar began alone, with rhapsodic cadenzas which came to be a fine show-piece for the lovely musicality of violinist and the fleet-fingered guitarist.

The only piece from a dead composer, who came from the same part of the world, was that of Cyprian Porumbescu (from Romania: 1853-83). His Balada was filled with a Balkan nostalgia, exquisitely soulful but in music that found an equally captivating way to express quiet passion.

Ian Krouse is a Californian composer for guitar and other instruments (Wikipedia reveals an opera on Garcia Lorca); evidently eclectic, as his Air had an Irish tang in the lie of its melody; this too had its origin for flute and guitar and was more than comfortable in this perfectly idiomatic and charming account for violin and guitar.

Pieces by Anthony Ritchie occupied the rest of the programme. There are five parts to his Pas de deux, Op 51a, originally scored for two guitars; they chose Au revoir, evidently inspired by the end of a relationship which it described in lamenting but not lugubrious terms, using quite simple means to create an elegiac spirit; again, like the Balada, with a degree of suppressed passion.

It was not always easy to hear the remarks by the performers and I’m not sure whether it was pointed out that the Three Songs were a transcription of Ritchie’s Op 118 (Three pieces for viola and guitar). The title as given in the programme does not appear in his list of works.

Never mind.

Ritchie is one of those happy composers with sufficient self-confidence to allow tunes to appear in their music on a regular basis, and Au revoir and the Three Songs for Violin and Guitar (‘Song – Stone woman: a sculpture in Ilam Road, Christchurch’; ‘Tomahawk Sonnet’ and ‘Lovesong’) were so blessed. I had awaited a touch of Maori ferocity in the Tomahawk piece, but was later told it was the name of Ocean Grove, a suburb of Dunedin on the south coast of the Peninsula. It suggested a peaceful day. And the same went for Lovesong in which Ritchie seemed to be showing evidence of a heart repaired from the grief of Au revoir.

I’d heard none of this music before and the whole recital proved a delight, thanks to composers who knew their business and players who absolutely knew theirs.

An Angel Released – music by Eve de Castro-Robinson

Eve de Castro-Robinson – RELEASING THE ANGEL

with: David Chickering (‘cello) / Tzenka Dianova (piano)

Vesa-Matti Leppānen (violin)

Lyrica Choir of Kelburn Normal School, Wellington (director: Nicola Edgecumbe)

Blade / Trilogy (kinetic sculptures by Len Lye)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra / Conductor: Kenneth Young

Atoll ACD 141

(recorded in the Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington)

Listening to the very opening of Releasing the Angel, the first music track on composer Eve de Castro-Robinson’s new, eponymously-titled CD from Atoll Records, leaves me “on-the-spot smitten” by the music’s attractive tactile quality. How readily those shimmering orchestral sounds fly towards and wrap themselves around and about my ears! – and how, just as tantalizingly, they fall away, leaving the voice of a solo ‘cello floating in those same spaces. This is, of course, the voice of the “Angel”, a personification inspired by a quote from the great Michelangelo, whose words “First it was stone, and then I released an angel” could be regarded as a metaphor for any kind of creative artistic activity.

In the case of the present recording, the ‘cello is that of the work’s dedicatee, David Chickering, associate principal ‘cellist of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. These artists premiered the piece in 2005, at a concert which I attended, being at the time similarly enthralled by the inspirations of both the work and its performance. Interestingly, I thought the orchestral resonances surrounding the ‘cello just as “charged”, the fashioning of the angel happily breathing life into its context. These “enfolding” ambiences give tongue according to their own lights, at first rhapsodizing, and then becoming more dynamic and rhythmic in their gradually-energised spaces, developing a kind of ritualistic processional,with exotic-sounding themes and instrumentation. After some excited tremolandi the ‘cello indicates it wishes to perform the act of final release, with the help of a few orchestral ecstasies, and a repeatedly whistled motif from the soloist. Suddenly, but timelessly, there’s peace with the then and now, and for the ages. As what happens when one reads Huckleberry Finn, one leaves the spell of this music  with similar regret.

A significant aspect of this new release of Eve de Castro-Robinson’s work is the compositional ground it covers for the composer, the oldest work dating from 1987 – Peregrinations, for piano and orchestra, actually written as part of the composer’s doctorate, though revised by De Castro-Robinson in 1990. Despite it being what she calls “an old work” she values its representation of “signature sounds and compositional predilections”. I was fortunate enough to hear this work, played by Dan Poynton with the NZSO in 2006 – but for now, the pianist on the new recording is the superb Bulgarian-born Tzenka Dianova, whose energy and focus gives the writing that wonderful sense of spontaneous re-creation which accords brilliantly with the work’s overall raison d’être.

The work’s got a Ravelian beginning, growing out of what seems primordial material, impulses striving upwards towards the light, then stimulating an incredibly toccata-like frenzy in the orchestra which spawns all kinds of energies – there’s a kind of spontaneous impishness at work, here, in line with what the composer calls her “musical journey….a setting out on an expedition whose destination may not be clearly defined.” So, alongside the pre-planned musical landmarks, there’s an omnipresent sense of things wanting to go in unexpected directions. Out of a becalmed episode comes a violin solo (Vesa-Matti Leppānen), which in turn inspires a flowing cantilena from the strings, opening up the vistas of the orchestra and allowing space for an imposing tremolando to spread across the orchestral landscape. What’s remarkable about de Castro-Robinson’s writing is its transitional skill, an almost osmotic ability to move organically to and from extremes of colour, texture and rhythm. The result is a journey through the landscapes of the mind that sets a momentous feeling in places, against a quixotic and volatile spirit. Right to the end of the piece the “expect the unexpected” principle both keeps our interest and leaves us wanting more from each episode, thanks in part to the total identification with the work demonstrated by pianist, conductor and orchestra.

De Castro-Robinson’s music takes on a polemical edge with Other echoes, the one work on this CD previously recorded commercially, in this case by the Auckland Philharmonia and Nicholas Braithwaite, as part of the orchestra’s “Fanfares for the New Millennium” project of 1999. The music, featuring the imagined calls of the extinct huia as well as the threatened kokako, highlights the dangers for wildlife species posed by human activity; and continues to exert its power to disturb and awaken feelings regarding the issue. Its counterweight on this CD is the heartwarming These arms to hold you, written in 2007 for the Royal New Zealand Plunket Society on the occasion of its 100th birthday, and featuring a collaboration between the composer and poet Bill Manhire. De Castro-Robinson felt a special affinity with Plunket because of her involvement with the organization at the time of the birth of her son, Cyprian, to whom the work is dedicated. It was the first collaboration of hers with the poet, and the first music she’d written for a children’s choir, here, the Lyrica Choir of Kelburn Normal School in Wellington, directed by Nicola Edgecumbe. I’m quoting (without permission) from the composer’s own words, here, from a message she very kindly sent to me regarding the making of this CD………

“A lot of emails to’d and fro’d between Bill and me, and I grew to love his economical approach to the texts which included phrases drawn from a selection of his friends’ Plunket books: fit and well, bonny babe, two teeth, four teeth, crawling now, motions normal, on the move, etc which was delightful to set for the kids in a chantlike style.  Bill’s Lullaby, “Here is the world in which you sing, here is your sleepy cry, here is your sleepy mother, here the sleepy sky…Here is the wind in branches, here is the magpie’s cry…here are these arms to hold you, for a while” was particularly inspirational. Every time I hear my setting of the phrase ‘here are these arms to hold you’, I get a great lump in my throat. That’s what originally told me to use that phrase as the work’s title, and Bill agreed…it was the emotional heart of the text.”

Whosever idea it was to bring in the children’s choir from the distance, as it were,the voices running, laughing, chattering and bubbling with joy at being children, as it were, deserves a special mention in despatches. It makes for the most heartwarming introduction to the music, which is already infused with the magic of a child’s first sensations, and carries readily over into the motoric chanting of “It’s a boy – it’s a girl”, complete with hand-clapping, the music then gravitating, with de Castro-Robinson’s accustomed skill to a lullaby mode, the tones open and spacious, not unlike Elgar’s in parts of his “Sea Pictures”. There are instrumental quotes from nursery-rhyme tunes, and more chantings, this time from comments out of those Plunket Books, phrases that would have resounded in the memories of parents who had such records kept of their babies’ progress throughout those early years.

Concluding the disc with what, in fact, sounds practically like a hiss and a roar, is Eve de Castro-Robinson’s orchestral tribute to Len Lye, the New Zealand-born kinetic artist, sculptor and film-maker. The composer aptly describes the work Len Dances as “quite a romp, lots of dance tunes and so on…” Written in 2002, parts of this work will reappear in de Castro-Robinson’s opera LEN LYE, which will premiere in September next year at the Maidment Theatre. A feature of the work I really like is the use of the sound of some of Lye’s actual kinetic sculptures – Blade, the great twanging blade and cork ball most people associate with him, and Trilogy.

The opening of the work is all motoric and metallic impulse, awakening something that resembles a human pulse – gradually rhythms coalesce and settle into popular dance-forms – the Charleston leads the way, followed by something from Latin America – wonderfully sleazy work from solo clarinet and lower brass, and a gloriously vulgar trumpet. But the clarinet isn’t finished, and sparks off further energies, the percussion taking over and providing a rhythmic framework for the glorious sounds made by some of Lye’s sculptures, in particular, Blade and Trilogy, whose reverberations and resonances have the last word.

I’m certain that the enormous amounts of energy, spirit and technical skill emanating from this production come from the scenario generated by what de Castro-Robinson describes as “three days of intensive, dedicated recording by the magnificent sound-machine that is the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra – a composer’s dream!”. Obviously everything came together, musicians and technicians producing a notable sound-document of which everybody involved with can be justly proud. My only complaint – a small but reasonably significant one – is the lack of documentation in the production regarding recording dates and venue (uncharacteristic for Atoll). In every other respect (including the wonderful frontispiece illustration taken from a painting, Birds, by Peter Madden) this is a disc that proclaims a standard for contemporary music’s presentation. Everybody should hear it, and especially those who think they don’t much care for contemporary New Zealand music – there’s an angel waiting to be released in each one of them as well!

Michael Endres – pianist, plays Schubert’s D 959, Farr, Carnaval and Godowski

Schubert: Piano sonata in A, D 959; Gareth Farr: Sepuluh Jari; Schumann: Carnaval, Op 9; Godowski: Concert Paraphrase on Strauss’s ‘Wine, women and song’

Ilott Theatre, Wellington Town Hall

Sunday 24 July 2011, 3pm

The middle of the second movement of Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata should not really come as a surprise if you have listened openly to the very opening of the first movement.  Not perhaps from just any pianist, but certainly from Michael Endres whose view is clear at once through the heavy, threatening, plain loud chords of the opening phase.  Alternating shafts of sun with heavy threatening storm clouds: fortissimo and pianissimo; Schubert has absorbed all Beethoven’s awakening to the potential of the iron framed piano, and he quickly understood its ability to express visceral excitement and fear as well as man’s compulsion to seek peace and happiness. Endres imbued the sonata with drama and menace. His fleet and light descending arpeggios are not the airy flights that I’ve heard from some players, but warn us of what lies ahead.

I have to admit to finding some of Schubert’s major works overlong, burdened by too many repeats of themes, too little modified, and repeats of entire sections which have fulfilled their purpose through a single playing, but such was the impact of Endres’s dramatic gift that there seemed not a moment too long in the quarter-hour first movement.

So we have been warned of the likely character of the next movement even though the first ends in a singular air of content. From its very opening, Endres somehow invests the Andantino which he played a little quicker that some pianists do, with a feeling of unease. Nevertheless, the rhapsodic middle part though it begins pianissimo soon became more violent and tempestuous, more like an improvisation inspired by terror, more unrestrained than I can remember hearing it before. The opening mood returns but calm has not come, rather it’s despair, not just for the composer’s own plight but perhaps for the world.

It made the Scherzo so much harder to accommodate though, for it is hard to hear this a anything more than a typically dance-inspired interlude. How have we deserved this after the terrors of the Andantino?

Something of the answer lies in the Rondo which begins as rondo finales do, but in the middle again there’s a stormy passage that recalls the terrors of the second movement. But both the third and fourth movements are filled with such glorious melody and inspired by such intense vitality and courage that we can be persuaded that life is good and that Schubert will live into old age.

Endres has been professor of piano at Canterbury University for over a year and has taken an interest in New Zealand music.

Gareth Farr’s 1996 piano piece has established itself in the repertoire, and with justification. The roots of the opening phase, in the 19th century, are a comforting element, for one soon loses the way with music that strives for ‘originality’ at all costs. There’s a Brahmsian density, there are Russian emotional depths, and there’s also, as it goes along, Farr’s own voice, a voice that has somehow made the gamelan his own, and has found an authentic way to recreate it at the piano.

Most importantly, there’s more than a trace of melody or motif which is the vital recognition element that attracts further listenings.

Endres tackled it (this one with the score before him) with a gusto and bravura that perhaps turned it into a Lisztian travelogue. His playing persuaded me of its legitimacy.

Carnaval might well be Schumann’s most popular piece. It’s certainly one that I discovered early and whose technical impossibilities I have struggled with over the years. Was the opening of the Préambule too loud? Not to me; double forte means pretty loud, and the whole of this section is marked ff with nothing but crescendo marks until the third page when p and pp are to be found. The contrasts as Endres forged them were very rewarding and they sounded right to me. The emphatic forte chords in Pierrot were robustly planted into its otherwise calm promenade.

Carnaval is simply a brilliant sequence of infectious tunes in highly contrasted sketches and portraits of the unique creations that Schumann evoked from many aspects of his life and imaginings: in part from Italian commedia dell’arte, in part from creatures of German Romanticism, in part Schumann’s friends, loves and objects of admiration (Estrella, Chiarina, Chopin, Paganini), and his own inventions like Eusebius and Florestan, and the Davidsbund. And Papillons are recalled from his own similar suite of pieces, Op 2.  As with much music that has some kind of programme or reference, the riddle is interesting but the solution is unimportant.

They all came off the page in vivid colours, filled with wit and boisterousness, with moments – some quite prolonged – of sentimentality-with-a-backbone (Eusebius), or mock grandeur. Rhythms were totally infectious and I felt that here was a German who felt a real affinity with Schumann (though Endres comes from southern Bavaria while Schumann was a Saxon).

The last item was one of those exercises in flamboyance and OTT virtuosity that actually surpasses the expectations even of the severest pedants. Most of the wonderful dances by Johann Strauss and many of those by his father and brothers are such that life might seem incomprehensible if they didn’t exist, like all great masterpieces. Wein,Weib und Gesang is one of the best Strauss waltzes; there are about eight great melodies which Godowski had great delight with, embellishing them impetuously, extravagantly, combining them into canons or counterpoints. Wonder if Godowski himself had anything of a melodic gift. If one doesn’t, what he did is the next best thing, and it would surprise me if Johann, in his Viennese grave, would have been anything but hugely delighted at the outrageous liberties taken, and he’d have loved Endres’s performance.

As if that wasn’t enough, we got an encore of more of the world’s irrepressible tunes from Gershwin’s Songbook.

In all it was a splendid recital that would have offered something to most classical music tastes.

Felix the Quartet’s inspiring concert at Waikanae

‘Beethoven Inspirations’:
Beethoven: String Quartet in C minor, Op.18 no.4
John Psathas: A Cool Wind
Beethoven: String Quartet in F, Op.59 no.1

Waikanae Music Society: Felix the Quartet: Vesa-Matti Leppänen (violin), Rebecca Struthers (violin), Andrew Thomson (viola), Rowan Prior (cello)

Waikanae Memorial Hall

24 July 2011, 2.30pm

The usual substantial audience defied the weather, and came to hear Felix the Quartet, made up of prominent members of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. There was a change to the programme: the music for the work by Esa-Pekka Salonen is somehow lost in transit, Leppänen explained, and so John Psathas’s piece was substituted. It and the Beethoven Op 59 no.1 Quartet were played recently by the Felix players in Wellington Chamber Music’s Sunday afternoon series; I refer you to Lindis Taylor’s review of that concert of 26 June, on this website.

Right from the dark opening of the Op.18 quartet, it was striking how beautifully balanced the Felix players were. No one instrument dominated; all were in perfect ensemble. However, it was interesting to note the difference in tone between the first and second violins. Every nicety of dynamics and ornamentation was observed, but this was lively playing that was constantly forward-moving.

The purposeful and optimistic first movement was followed by a scherzo which consisted of plenty of conversation between the instruments, as did the next movement. Though using a classical form, Beethoven’s minuet and trio are unlike anything Haydn or Mozart would have written; besides the chromaticism (which Mozart might well have employed) there is frequent use of syncopation.

‘A Cool Wind’ was inspired, the composer says, by the Armenian instrument: the duduk. Described as nasal (among other features), it appealed to Psathas as a voice-like instrument. This quality was present, although there was not a particularly nasal sound in the quartet. There was, however, much close harmony – and disharmony. Considerable use is made of modal tonalities. The piece included effective solos for all the instruments, the others providing a drone, or to harmonise – often with piquant effect.

The piece has an elegiac sound, but is not deeply mournful. It maintains tension, due to the harmonies and intervals used. The piece ends on a sad little melody on the second violin.

There is no doubt that the pièce de resistance in the concert was the Beethoven Op. 59 no.1 quartet – and I heard numbers of people around me expressing the same opinion. It seems streets ahead of the Op. 18 quartets in its themes, depth of feeling, musical language, and variety of expression.

Its opening with a lovely cello solo is innovative, to be followed by the first violin’s repetition of the theme. The contemplative mood is sustained through much of the spacious grandeur of the movement. As it develops, melodies are woven and twisted, exchanged and multiplied.

The scherzo second movement, unlike any preceding scherzo, involves much conversation between the instruments. It is tuneful, enormously varied, stimulating, exciting and innovative.

The third movement opens with a great chorale, played with sweetness, subtlety and perfect ensemble. This adagio movement has considerable intensity, contrast, and emotional impact.

The lively and varied finale on a Russian theme, carries on from the previous movement without a break, and ends with a very extended coda; typically, Beethoven seems to be about to bring things to a conclusion when another idea occurs, and off we go again.

The playing of this magnificent work was wonderfully vibrant, yet mellow. Perhaps it was sometimes a little restrained, not plumbing the emotional heights or depths, but this may have been due, at least in part, to the acoustics of the hall.

This was an inspiring and satisfying concert, appreciated by an enthusiastic audience.

Keyboard magic from Jun Bouterey-Ishido

Jun Bouterey-Ishido (piano)

Chamber Music Hutt Valley

JS BACH – English Suite No.1 in A BWV 806 / RAVEL – Le Tombeau de Couperin

BARTOK – Out Of Doors Suite (1926) / BRAHMS – Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel Op.24

St.Mark’s Church, Woburn, Lower Hutt

Sunday 24th July 2011

If you haven’t already done so, find a space on which to write down the name Jun Bouterey-Ishido, a space you’ll remember and can refer back to when the rest of the world catches up with this young pianist’s remarkable talent. Evidence was amply provided by this recital, filled with good things, and even more praiseworthy in that the pianist was able to make a fairly inertly-voiced instrument “sound” with plenty of the different music’s varied characters.

Jun Bouterey-Ishido sprang to pianistic prominence in 2008 when he won the Kerikeri National Piano Competition, impressing the judge, Australian virtuoso pianist and composer Ian Munro, with artistic maturity and potential far beyond his years. Born in Christchurch, Jun had studied previously with Diedre Irons, and then Peter Nagy, Gao Ping and Judith Clark, before being admitted to the Masters Programme at the Liszt Academy in Budapest, where he’s presently continuing his studies with Peter Nagy.

I was fortunate enough to have heard him play in the final round at Kerikeri, remembering in particular an exciting rendition of Ravel’s Alborado del Gracioso, and a powerfully taut reading of Schubert’s A minor Sonata D.784. Experiencing his playing again almost three years later, what freshly struck me was his engaging physical fluidity at the keyboard – if anything, even freer than before, the gestural choreography more expressive, but still in a way that focused entirely on what the music was doing. And although his aspect and mien remained remarkably boyish (most evident when acknowledging applause, his slight diffidence with that process at odds with his ease and command at the keyboard), there was a deeper, more profound effect about his playing that immediately linked his listeners’ sensibilities with the world of the music, transcending time and place, youth and experience.

It was this immediate connection which I found particularly memorable, especially throughout the recital’s first half – the pianist had evidently been thinking over his program, because he announced a change of order before he began, reversing the positions of Bartok’s Suite Out of Doors, and Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, more a case of relating these works to their other companions, I think, than to each other, and with better results. So, after a richly-hued Bach English Suite we were able to enjoy a twentieth-century refraction of further classical elegance in the form of Ravel’s parallel tributes to friends killed in the Great War, as well as to his illustrious countryman, Couperin. I couldn’t imagine a more winning amalgam of freedom and elegance, clarity and colour as we got from Bouterey-Ishido in the  Bach work. Right from the beginning the playing had that timeless quality of sculptured marble, but with the life within awakened and activated. Perhaps for some tastes his playing might have been thought too plastic, too freely-conceived (but I would urge the doubters to consider the word “Baroque” with all of its connotations!) – for me he had the gift of being able to express the “inner life” of his phrasing with, in places, the liquidity of something by Debussy, yet convert the whole into a solid, enduring structure.

Playing like Bouterey-Ishido’s I find hard to “explain”, except to use generic phrases like “infectious” and “spontaneous” – his command of rhythmic gait seemed to have an entirely natural kind of impulsive motivation, a symbiotic process of music and performer creatively interacting. In fact this Bach-playing  gave me so much pleasure, i now find it hard to tear myself away from thinking and writing about it. Fortunately, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin inhabits a world of similar poise and elegance, partly through its ostensible connections with earlier times, and partly due to the fastidiousness of the work’s creator. Here I noticed from the outset how, more than with his Bach-playing, the pianist’s decorative impulses were somehow tighter, their “filigree whiplashings” reminding me of the playing of Rachmaninov’s in his recordings – the notes are all there, but they’re delivered with the swiftest and deftest of touches! Bouterey-Ishido has the technique to generate larger-scaled vortices of impulse, whirlpools of sound that can clear like torrents of water cascading over rocks and turning to spray, an exhilarating effect at the conclusion of the Prelude to the Suite. A beautifully-modulated Fugue was followed by the perennially bitter-sweet Forlane, the rhythms kept beautifully steady, allowing the sounds to “flesh out” the available spaces and suggest plenty of orchestral colour in places.  And the Rigadoun was, here, a joyous irruption of energies set against moments of introspection, different states of being rubbing shoulders with one another.

But the emotional heart of this suite is the Menuet, delicately begun by Bouterey-Ishido with finely-poised tones, inexorably moved along in processional mode and expanded into a grand archway of feeling – from these big, rolling sounds the emotion was nicely gathered in, the mask of feeling re-adjusted and the delicacy of the opening re-established, concluding with a wistful, almost other-worldly tremolando figure. By contrast the brilliant Toccata carried both rhythmic drive and rhapsodic asymmetry along its exuberant course, well captured by the pianist, revelling in the opportunities for orchestral weight and brilliance.

After this, the “earthiness” of Bartok’s Out of Doors Suite came as a bit of an aural shock, albeit an exhilarating one. No aural quarter was given by Bouterey-Ishido throughout the opening “With Drums and Pipes”, the succeeding “Barcarolla” seeming almost to creep out from behind the shelters after the opening onslaught, establishing uneasy undulations and dark-browed, short-breathed melodies. The pianist resolutely took to the insistent patterning of the “Musettes” – a strangely claustrophobic evocation for an out-of-doors piece. By contrast the dark of night’s spaces was all-enveloping in Bouterey-Ishido’s hands throughout “Musiques nocturnes”, the loneliness exacerbated by snatches of folk-melody wandering throughout the dark. All the stops were pulled out for the concluding “Chase”, the pianist’s reserves of strength and energy put to overwhelming, almost cataclysmic use.

The interval gave us all a chance to properly digest the already meaty substance of the first half’s fare, before tackling what had seemed on paper like the recital’s main course, Brahms’ magnificent Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. If not the Everest of the romantic piano literature, the work belongs among the highest of the pianistic Alps; and it requires a robust amalgam of virtuoso bravura, visionary zeal and poetic sensibility to bring off. One of the work’s difficulties for the performer is judging the extent to which each variation ought to be characterized according to its own intrinsic nature while making certain of the overall continuity, the inexorable progress towards the imposing fugue that snow-caps the structure’s magnificence. How much virtuoso bravura, classical clarity, or poetic feeling is needed at any given point, and with watt effect upon the overall structure? Happily for the performer, the “greater than ever can be played” rule applies to this work with a vengeance – its possibilities and potentialities for different expression are immense.

Had I been blindfolded and taken to this recital I might not have guessed the pianist’s age throughout the first half of the concert; but throughout the Brahms piece I found myself thinking, “A young man’s performance….” Everything was very direct, presented surely and unequivocally, an approach which brought out a certain purposeful unity to the variations, even if it sacrificed some of the subtleties and depth of expression of some of the pieces. The very opening, played with bright, forthright insouciance, had an extrovert quality that reflects a youthful view of the world, and the variations were entered upon with that same spirit of joie de vivre, knitting the theme and variation together, and completely eschewing the “motorcycle kick-start” launching of that first variation (a flash of virtuoso delight in rhetorical gesture which bubbles to the surface now and then in some performances). Bouterey-Ishido commanded the big guns necessary to deal commandingly with the octaves of Variation 4, though I thought he rushed No.7, smudging and losing a bit of detail. Here, and in the delicious Variation 10 a touch of impatience indicated that perhaps not every note of this work has quite gotten under his “skin”. The second of two deep bell-tolling variations was splendid, however, with the pianist again “snapping” his decorative figurations excitedly and urgently.

Against the occasional moments where I felt the music propelled a shade over-impetuously (the “hunting horn” Variation (No.14) had an almost manic, rather than an heroic, aspect) were the episodes, such as the Sicilienne-like No.18, Mediterranean in impulse, but with a lovely warm Germanic feeling brought to the playing; and the beautifully elusive, rather Schumannesque No.21, whose performances inhabited the music’s spaces with the conviction of complete ownership. Bouterey-Ishido fearlessly plunged into the waters of the final three variations, taking them in a single breath, perhaps sacrificing some of the music’s cumulative power to momentary excitement, but certainly with exhilarating results, the occasional splashiness part of the process. And his playing of the fugue was splendid, nicely arched towards the moment when the cascading bells break forth and flood the sound-vistas with a wonderful sense of arrival and fulfillment.

There’ll come a time when Jun Bouterey-Ishido’s playing of this work will fuse even more deeply with the music – but equally to be cherished is the here-and-now of his youthful whole-heartedness and remarkable physical and technical ease at the keyboard – I know of no other pianist who looks more “at home” with himself and his world when playing. The recital was rounded, in Shakespeare-like fashion, by “a little sleep” – a short but beautiful and dreamy piece by Kodaly whose title I missed hearing, thanks to rain which had begun to fall heavily onto the church’s roof.

The 16th century fashion for the 40-part motet: Tudor Consort sing Striggio and Tallis


The 40-part motets of Striggio and Tallis and other liturgical music by Tallis

The Tudor Consort conducted by Michael Stewart, with Peter Maunder (sackbut) and Douglas Mews (chamber organ)

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Hill Street

Saturday 23 July, 7.30pm

Tallis imitates Striggio
On Saturday’s Classical Chart, broadcast on Radio New Zealand Concert, presenter David Morriss took special pains to introduce the CD sitting at No 1; it was a 16th century motet by Italian composer Alessandro Striggio. The piece, sung on the top-ranked CD by I Fagiolini, was written to be sung by 40 distinct voices, each with his and her own part: ‘Ecce beatam lucem’.Striggio was court composer to the Medicis in Florence and the motet was written for the wedding of a Medici to the daughter of an Austrian noble family, so the music was appropriately composed by an Italian to words by a Viennese court poet (in Latin, naturally).

Morriss departed from custom by telling us that he was a member of The Tudor Consort which was to sing the piece in Wellington’s Catholic Cathedral that very evening, and suggesting that this live performance would be even better than that of I Fagiolini. Enough Wellingtonians (and perhaps others) heard the message to pour into the city on a cold, wet evening, making parking difficult in all the Thorndon streets in the neighbourhood of the Cathedral.

The basilica was packed and the unusual step was taken of opening the organ gallery for the overflowing crowd.

The Consort’s history with the Tallis motet
Now this was a special occasion for The Tudor Consort: 2011 is the choir’s 25th anniversary; at their 20th anniversary, for which founding director Simon Ravens had came out from Britain to conduct one of the concerts that celebrated the occasion. It was the one that included the 40-part motet, ‘Spem in alium’, by one Thomas Tallis; it was in St Mary of the Angel’s church (the first and rather spectacular concert of the mini-festival had been in The Great Hall of the former National Museum
now the school of arts of Massey University).

The Tallis motet had been among the works sung by the choir in its early years – it was conducted during a return visit by Simon Ravens in the International Festival of the Arts in March 1992 – when their concerts routinely filled whatever space they inhabited. I was at that performance, the first ever in Wellington and perhaps in New Zealand. Even more astonishing was the encore – a repetition of the whole motet.

Even without Ravens’ electrifying pre-concert talks, which were similarly packed out, the Tudor Consort’s renown was making a widespread impact.

A peak in Wellington’s musical life
It was just one of several things, however, that generated a high level of activity and excitement that pervaded Wellington’s musical scene at that time, which was bringing large numbers into choral and other concerts.

There were several contributing developments in the mid-1980s: the inauguration of the marvellous (at least in its first decade) international arts festival; the emergence of a vigorous Wellington opera company; the proliferation of chamber music; the increasing contribution to the city’s music by the two separate tertiary music schools through concerts and an annual opera production by each school; the determined growth and energizing of the Wellington orchestra; and the blossoming of new and the reinvigoration of many existing choirs, stimulated in part by Simon Ravens’s brilliant success with The Tudor Consort.

I might also add that the fact that The Evening Post allowed me, from 1987 to the end, and several assistant reviewers, to cover a great deal of the music, is likely to have been of real importance. Typically we contributed around a dozen music reviews each month.

The 40-part motets
Recent research has shown that it was probably the visit of Striggio to London in 1566/67 to sparked Tallis’s interest in writing something comparable.

At this concert the two motets were sung: the Striggio at the beginning and the Tallis at the end.The Striggio was accompanied by sackbut (Peter Maunder on the trombone) and organ (Douglas Mews); it began interestingly, with certain men’s voices penetrating over others, and it was this character that made the experience rather unique in choral performance. I suspect that conductor Michael Stewart’s concerns were with individual detail and not with a conductor’s normal concern: the blending of voices, and it was the very variety of timbres and voice qualities that were audible throughout both the 40-part motets. So the varying size and grain of voices were free from the usual discipline of uniformity. It added enormously to the delight of the whole performances.

During the Striggio all forty singers were arrayed across the front of the sanctuary, but for the Tallis, only 10 were in the front and the rest were spread along the side aisles so that the conductor spent his time turning from front to rear, from side to side, signaling the bewildering entries accurately.

Stewart in the front of his choir presents a lively image. Not given to overly fussy gestures, it is the raised arms that seem to be carry the music to the place where the composers may have imagined their music was directed. His demeanour reminded me of cartoons of Berlioz on the podium, clearly drawn by an artist filled with admiration for the music he was inspiring. Stewart’s gestures seemed to have a similar inspiring effect on his singers.

The Striggio motet was quite short, perhaps six or seven minutes (I didn’t time it) and, compared with the Tallis, with fewer extended passages in which one could sense the full complexity of all those individual voices. The earlier piece seemed to allow more concessions to the style of the usual polyphonic choral setting with far fewer parts apparent.

While the longer more confident lines of interweaving counterpoint of Tallis create an air of greater permanence and moment because there is a denser feeling in his writing.

The other Tallis pieces
Only about half of the 40-strong choir remained to perform the shorter ecclesiastical pieces by Tallis that occupied the rest of the concert.

One could have thought the various short liturgical pieces were merely fillers between the two motets that had surely attracted the crowd. But all those who came because they genuinely loved Renaissance polyphonic choral music would have enjoyed the variety of music that this one composer could bend his talent to: the more complex music for the Catholic ritual compared with the more straight-forward, vertical harmonies, of the pieces for the Anglican rite. The English words of the ‘Magnificat’ and ‘Nunc dimittis’, are set to music that is conscious of the congregation’s comprehension of the words. The organ accompaniment was significant, even in tempo, though not constant as with a traditional hymn; the ‘Nunc dimittis’ ended with a curiously unusual final cadence.

Being conscious of the difference between the Anglican and Catholic (and both Tallis and Byrd had to tread carefully through the switch-back, lethal, religious ferocity that punctuated their lives) threw a new light on the Latin settings of responsories and antiphons where the spiritual impact was sought more through purely musical characteristics – sonority, flowing contrapuntal lines, the pitting of high voices against a bed of men’s more earthbound voices. The two settings of ‘Salvator mundi’, offered an interesting contrast within the traditions of the Catholic liturgy, the second appearing more sonorous and enjoying the warmth of its polyphony, with perhaps a little more attention to the blending of voices – just to show they could do it.

The ‘Loquebantur variis linguis’ caught the attention through its carefully discordant setting of those words, suggesting the polyglot talents of the apostles. ‘Candidi facti sunt’ seemed to play with the listener by starting successively in three different manners, eventually giving space for the tenors’ central plainchant performance.

‘O sacrum convivium’ used the current styles of polyphony in more orthodox manner, and it allowed the audience to enjoy, if it had escaped them before, the chance to hear harmonies involving more sustained contrapuntal passages.

The last motet, ‘Te lucis ante terminum’, more like a hymn in three distinct stanzas, was set as plainsong in the outer two stanzas and polyphony in the second. These examples of Tallis’s music demonstrated further, both the composer’s versatility as he navigated the reefs in religious storms, and the continued, constantly renewal of the choir’s talented singers and their series of imaginative and enterprising directors.

We await a performance of Striggio’s ‘Ecco si beato giorno’, reported to be the mass for 40 to 60 voices from which motet was evidently drawn.

Wellington Orchestra’s unfinished business

UNFINISHED SYMPHONIES – Schubert, Mozart, Berio

SCHUBERT – Symphony No.8 in B Minor D.759 “Unfinished”

MOZART – Piano Concerto No.24 in C Minor K.491

MOZART – Concert Aria “Ch’io mi scordi di te….Non temer, amato bene” K.505

BERIO – Rendering (1989)

Vector Wellington Orchestra / Marc Taddei (conductor)

with: Diedre Irons (piano) and Margaret Medlyn (soprano)

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday 23rd July 2011

This concert both played the game and bended the rules in the most interesting possible way – we had what’s become a common orchestral concert format of introductory work, concerto and symphony, but most interestingly constituted and creatively “placed”, so that the feeling of “the same old formula” was nicely avoided.

Basically, it was a Schubert/Mozart evening, but with a major contribution from a more-or-less contemporary voice. This was the Italian composer Luciano Berio, who in 1989 produced an orchestral work, Rendering, one which took the fragments of Schubert’s uncompleted work on a Tenth Symphony as the basis for a three-movement work. “Not a completion or a reconstruction” of the Symphony, declared Berio, but a “restoration” – and the work gave an uncanny feeling of two intensely creative impulses separated by two hundred years coming together for a kind of reawakening.

Instead of an overture beginning the concert we had an intensely dramatic performance of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, which, together with Mozart’s C Minor Piano Concerto K.491, suggested a preponderance of seriousness throughout the concert’s first half, a state of things which didn’t eventuate to the expected degree, I thought, more of which anon. The second half was similarly innovative, beginning with Mozart’s best-known Concert Aria for soprano, Ch’io mi scordi di te…Non temer, amato bene K.505, and concluding with Berio’s Rendering.

So, our expectations were nicely-tempered by these prospects; and the concert got off to the best possible beginning with a performance of the eponymous “Unfinished” Symphony which seemed akin to giving an old masterpiece a restoration job of its own – Marc Taddei encouraged his orchestra to play out in all departments, less of a rounded “Germanic” sound and more a thrustful, characterfully Viennese texture, lean and detailed, the brass occasionally risking obtrusiveness but generally making their presence refreshingly felt. With several on-the-spot contributions from timpanist Stephen Bremner, and wonderfully soulful playing from the winds (magnificent individually and as a group throughout the concert), the work here “spoke” with a directness and candour which too many routine performances over the years in concert and on record have sadly blunted. I ought to mention the strings, too, characteristically playing well above their weight (those “slashing” off-beat chords just before the second subject had such ear-catching focus and determination), pulsating the first movement with energy and life throughout. And I’ve never experienced a sense of the abyss opening up so ominously at the beginning of the development section as in this performance – those lower strings evoked such darkly disturbing realms as to bring home in no uncertain terms the tragic subtext beneath the music’s surface energies.

Those energies enabled the musicians to make more of the contrasts between the movements, with the opening of the Andante measured, mellow and easeful. Apart from a slight hiccup with the final note of her “big tune”, Moira Hurst’s clarinet playing sounded as beautifully heartfelt as we’d come to expect, the phrases echoed as memorably by the other winds, before being savagely pirated by baleful brass,whose forceful chordings over the string figurations were a striking feature of this performance. Near the end of the movement Taddei conjured from his players some gorgeously-coloured modulations (what Schumann called “other realms”) before the music resignedly returned to its destiny. If a couple of pairs of applauding hands in the auditorium broke the spell at the work’s end somewhat abruptly, the impulses were sound and their intrusion forgivable – I thought this was, through-and-through, a magnificent performance.

Mozart’s C Minor Concerto K.491 promised more storms and stresses, though it was largely the orchestra that agitated the musical argument, Diedre Irons’ piano playing taking a more stoic, in places relatively circumspect manner and aspect. Though the tensions weren’t repeatedly screwed to their utmost by such an approach, there were compensations in Irons’ detailed and rhapsodic exposition of the music, alive to every nuance of sensitive expression, apart from a measure or two towards the end of the movement where a brief moment of piano-and-orchestra hesitancy seemed to slightly blur the lines of the argument for a couple of seconds. In certain places, Irons, Taddei and the players superbly realized the music’s power, those dark coruscations of interchange at the heart of the development dug into with a will, while elsewhere, such as in the orchestral lead-up to the first movement cadenza, there was drama and thrust aplenty, soloist and orchestra each taking it in turns to galvanize the other.

Pianist and conductor played each of the concerto’s movements more-or-less attacca, which worked well, and emphasized the symphonic character of the work’s overall mood. The slow movement stole upon us almost out of nowhere, Irons’s playing allowing the melody to speak directly and simply to the heart, adding the occasional decoration to phrase-ends when the melody is repeated. The orchestral winds really showed their mettle in this movement, Taddei encouraging plenty of urgency and dynamic variation from the players to contrast with the piano’s simplicity, making for some glorious, chamber-music-like moments of lyrical interaction. After this, the “coiled spring” opening of the finale was like an awakening from a dream, the urgencies taking different shapes and forms, until the winds adroitly turned the argument towards open spaces and festive activity for a few measures, valiantly but vainly attempting to elude the demons that continued to stalk the music right to the end, through the piano’s chromatic scamperings and the orchestra’s desperate concluding flourish. I could have imagined sterner, bigger-boned piano playing in this work, but Irons’ approach brought a degree of vulnerability to the musical discourse, one that could be readily applied to human experience.

After the interval more Mozart, but with a difference – the adorable Concert Aria written for one of the composer’s favorite singers, Nancy Storace (there’s conjecture as to whether she and Mozart were lovers for a brief period, though the supposition is based on conjecture rather than proof – Mozart wrote in his dedication of the work, “…for Mme Storace and me…”). The Aria, Ch’io mi scordi di te…Non temer, amato bene K.505 is notable not only for its intense operatic expression, but for its beautiful piano obbligato, which, in a real sense, is a “second voice”. Margaret Medlyn told us in a program note of her early involvement with the work, an experience which she says has never left her. There was no doubt as to her intense involvement with the emotional range and depth of the aria – Medlyn is always extremely satisfying as a performer on that score – and if the tessitura at the very end sounded a bit of an ungainly stretch (rather like an ocean liner trying to negotiate a treacherous piece of water) the visceral effect of the singer’s total involvement was thrilling. Diedre Irons, Marc Taddei and the players gave Medlyn all the support she needed, making for an uncommonly involving vignette of intense listening and feeling.

And so to Luciano Berio’s Rendering, which would, I think, have been an intriguing prospect for most listeners, myself included. I liked the concept (explained by Marc Taddei before the work began, using the analogy of paint that had fallen off an original work) of a “restoration” of Schubert’s original sketches for an unfinished – yes, ANOTHER one! – symphony (there are also piano sonatas…..but we won’t go into that). Berio himself explained that his work was like modern restorations of medieval paintings, such as frescoes, which aim at reviving the old colours within, but without trying to disguise the wear-and-tear of time – meaning that gaps would inevitably be left in the original (as with the famous Giotto frescoes in Assisi). Berio, however, interpolated other material into these gaps (bits of “other” Schubert and bits of Berio himself), colouring the sounds with that of a celeste (of the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” fame), the delicate, rather disembodied effect imparting a somewhat “other-worldly” ambience to these passages, as if the composer’s shade was sifting through the assembled material, muttering his thoughts to himself.

The original material is very recognizably Schubert – the composer left a considerable amount of material (which was, for whatever reason, made public as recently as 1978 in Vienna, the date being the 150th anniversary of Schubert’s death). I scribbled down many impressions of the music, noting the reminiscences of works I knew – after the fanfare-like opening, near the beginning, there’s a lovely clarinet solo, reminiscent of the Third Symphony, for example – a bit later, the ‘cellos have a melody like that in the “other” Unfinished, to quote another example. But interspersed with these things, and the ghostly, celeste-led interludes, the music was quite forthright, even swashbuckling in places, and hardly, one would think, the utterances of somebody preparing for an early death.

The second movement, Andante, made a more sober impression, the oboe and bassoon playing adding plangent tones to the argument, the mood ennobled by a theme on the full orchestra, then suddenly taken to that “other world”, in this movement the sequences seeming to me in places to combine Schubert’s actual melodies with a counterpoint of Berio’s “renderings”, more so than in other parts of the work. A pizzicato chord sparking off furious activity suggested the finale’s beginning, featuring a tune with what sounded like a Scottish snap, and orchestral energies building up to the kind of joyous rhythmic repetition found in the finale of the Ninth Symphony. The “ghost music” and the composer’s more forthright original material vie for attention throughout, before the work ends with a big, muscular forte orchestral statement – emotional health in the midst of worldly privation!

What can one say to all of this, except Bravo! to Marc Taddei and the Vector Wellington Orchestra!