Concours de la Chanson: second year of splendid initiative

French singing competition

Songs by Angelillo et Hamel, Satie, Brel, Berlioz, Duparc, Debussy, Poulenc, Fauré, Delibes

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 3 July 2011, 8pm

The commitment of the Alliance Française Wellington to providing a competition for singers continues; the first competition last year gave a platform for some splendid singing of French chanson and mélodie, and Sunday night’s final continued that.

There were fewer finalists in the Chanson Moderne section this year than last year, and of the four, two chose to sings songs by Jacques Brel.

First, we heard Estere Dalton sing Je veux te dire une chanson, by Angelillo et Hamel. Dalton is a confident singer who used a microphone, and was accompanied by Andrew Bruce on the piano. She sang with an Edith Piaf-type voice and delivery. The song included unusual tonalities, nevertheless I thought her intonation suspect at times. My searches on the internet have failed to uncover whether this is one composer or two, however I did discover that the first name is spelt as above, and not as on the printed programme.

Erik Satie’s cabaret song La diva de l’Empire was sung by Angelique McDonald, accompanied by Jonathan Berkahn on piano, but without microphone. This was an attractive voice, but projection was uneven between lower and upper registers. Some gesture was used, but as with the previous singer, it did not appear to have much point.

Daniela-Rosa Young (who, for the second year running, suffered incorrect printing of her name in the first half of the programme), sang Jacques Brel’s Ne me quitte pas most effectively. Her close use of the microphone was just right for this music. She had the style for this song, and created the atmosphere of French nostalgia and regret (despite the title of Edith Piaf’s famous song) right from the beginning. Her words were very good, and she used them, her breath and her face as part of the expression of the music. Sometimes she was sotto voce, at others full voice. A good voice it was, and she was given a very sympathetic accompaniment by Julie Coulson.

The last singer in this section was Kieran Rayner, now quite an experienced singer in a variety of styles. Jacques Brel was his composer of choice also, with the song Amsterdam. He was accompanied on the piano accordion by Jonathan Berkahn, to give that authentic Paris sound. However, either Berkahn was too quiet, or Rayner (with microphone) was too loud; certainly the balance was not right. Some gesture, stamping in time and a beautiful unaccompanied introductory passage all helped to give atmosphere, as did the singer’s spoken introduction to the piece, which was a confident communication compared with those of some of the other singers. I found it a little tiring to be harangued at the volume Rayner chose, but there was no doubt about his commitment to the song.

After a short interval, we heard the classical items. These were French mélodie written in the nineteenth century or since. All were attractive songs, some familiar and some not, but all worth hearing.

The only singer in the finals of both sections was Daniela-Rosa Young, who sang Berlioz’s L’Île Inconnue. While her announcement was a little too quiet, her fine voice was well-produced, and her French enunciation and pronunciation were good. Gestures were rather meaningless, but she did put the meaning into the music and the words to an extent. Julie Coulson was her excellent accompanist, and to all the other singers except one.

Isabella Moore sang the gorgeous L’invitation au voyage by Henri Duparc. It was pleasing to hear her include in her introduction the name of the poet: Baudelaire, and an explanation of the meaning of the poem. Her voice is smooth and she gave good delivery of the words, but there was not enough variation in dynamics in her performance. Although she explained that the word ‘luxury’ featured in the poem, her voice did not convey that feeling when it came.

Bianca Andrew, who was the winner of the chanson section last year, performed De Soir, the fourth song in Debussy’s Proses Lyrique; the composer wrote the poem. Andrew gave a confident, fluent, indeed enthusiastic introduction which sounded spontaneous. She used both words and music well to characterise the meaning of the song. Some meaningful head movements conveyed more than vague hand gestures would have. There was good variety of tone; this was an excellent performance, including Julie Coulson’s playing of a very busy accompaniment.

Mon cadavre est doux comme un gant (My cadaver is as soft as a glove) sounds a pretty macabre title – but then, Poulenc was given to irony and wit. Imogen Thirlwall’s rich, mature voice, after a good spoken introduction, led us into the song, which she invested with meaning. This was a consummate performance.

Next was Bridget Costello with C, a 1943 song setting a poem by Aragon. After a rather formal introduction. which was nevertheless done well, Costello revealed a strong voice with quite a lot of natural vibrato. This was not a particularly demanding song, but it was well sung.

Thomas Atkins followed, with Adieu by Fauré. After a good introduction, Atkins sang most appealingly. He has a lovely voice, and varied it more than did some of the other contestants, doing something with every note and syllable. His French was admirable, but the song was rather a short one.

A song by Delibes followed: Les filles de Cadix, sung by Rose Blake. This was a saucy song. Rose Blake put over both her humorous introduction and the song in a confident, self-possessed manner accompanied by Claire ? Her lively rendition incorporated quite a lot of gesture (meaningful this time). Blake had a pleasing tone; her voice was strong and well produced. The whole was performed with considerable aplomb.

The last performer was Fredi Jones, who sang Fauré’s charming Aprés un Rêve. Following a very good introduction, his singing demonstrated a very effective use of the language, and a light voice, reminiscent of the late great Gérard Souzay. Although he started very well, I felt that further on he could have varied the voice a little more, and lingered more over the ornaments in the melody; they seemed rushed.

There was a good selection of songs from a cross-section of composers. All the songs presented some difficulties. All the contestants had a good command of French pronunciation, and put the words over well.

The prizes offered were the same for each category, i.e. a first, a second and a third prize in each. The first prizes were $2000, plus a master-class at the Conservatoire Musique de Nouvelle Calédonie; second, $500 and one term of free French lessons at the Alliance Française; third, $250 and one term of free lessons at the Alliance. There were a number of sponsors for the Concours, including the French Embassy; the Ambassador spoke briefly at the prize-giving part of the evening.

Judges were experienced New Zealand singer Catherine Pierard, and M. Bruno Zanchetta, Deputy Director of the Conservatoire de Musique de Nouvelle-Calédonie, whose first words were to praise the excellence of Julie Coulson as accompanist.

The placings were: Chanson: 1st Kieran Rayner, 2nd Daniela-Rosa Young, 3rd Estere Dalton; Mélodie: 1st Bianca Andrew, 2nd Rose Blake, 3rd Fredi Jones.

First of a fine series of French symphonic organ works, from Douglas Mews

L’Orgue symphonique: French organ music in the symphonic tradition

César Franck: Pièce symphonique, Lento and Sortie from ‘L’organiste’; Chorale No 2 in B minor; Pastorale from ‘Six pièces’; Cantabile and Pièce héroique from ‘Trois pièces’

Douglas Mews at the organ of the
Church of Saint Mary of the Angels

Sunday 3 July, 2.30pm

In a celebration of the legacy of the church’s great organist Maxwell Fernie, Saint Mary’s is presenting three recitals by three organists of French symphonic organ music. This was the first, devoted to the founder of a tradition that set a new path for organ music which continues to
the present day.

It arose through the arrival of a composer whose instincts led him away from the emphasis on opera in the France of the early 19th century, to the rediscovery of the choral music of the Renaissance and Bach and of the German symphonic tradition.

The other contributor to the blossoming of organ music and its performance from around 1850 was the advent of the great organ builder Cavaillé-Coll: Franck was appointed principal organist at the Marais church of Saint-Jean-Saint-François in 1853 where Cavaillé-Coll’s new organ astonished and delighted him. That church is now the Cathédrale-Sainte-Croix-des-Armeniens, and its website records that it houses two organs by Cavaillé-Coll, one of them built in 1844 – certainly the one that Franck played. I have heard chamber music and vocal concerts there but have not heard the organ. 

The programme notes say that he earlier encountered a Cavaillé-Coll organ in the church of Notre Dame de Lorette; that was certainly his first organist post, but it is not clear that the church had a Cavaillé-Coll organ; that church’s website makes no mention of one. In 1858 he became principal organist at the new church of Sainte-Clotilde with its magnificent Cavaillé-Coll instrument and remained there the rest of his life. 

The recital began with three early pieces from a large collection, L’organiste. Pièce symphonique, was an extrovert piece in very four-square military tempo in its outer parts  in which Mews used
suitably brash stops, contrasted with a gentle middle section. The Lento movement and the Sortie were offered no more than hints of the great organ works that were to follow, though Mews’s imaginative registrations made the most of them.

The second of the three Chorales written in his last year was the most important work of the recital. The chorales do not enjoy the strong melodic character of some of his music, and their success depends greatly on the colours that the organist can create from the combinations of stops that he can contrive; Mews familiarity with Maxwell Fernie’s in-some-ways idiosyncratic masterpiece allowed him to move from one phase to the next, from the boisterous to the pastoral to the heroic, with dynamics and colourings that were always immaculate.

The Pastorale of almost 30 years earlier is one of the most familiar of his works – I think my LP including a performance by Jeanne Demessieux was one of the first organ discs I bought aged about 20: I am chastened by Mews’s reference to its being in an ‘easy-listening’ style. Nevertheless, it wears well, especially in such an affectionate, subtle performance.

The ‘Three Pieces’ were written for the inauguration in 1878 of the Cavaillé-Coll organ at the Trocadero (across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, built ten years later). The Cantabile enjoys a vivid melody on loud reed stops that, like most of Franck’s tunes, ranges over a quite narrow compass. The last item was the Pièce héroique, played with splendid vitality and timbale colour, the raucous pedal stops perhaps a little indiscreet but perhaps intended mocking and undoubtedly arresting. 

As a totally inappropriate aside, it stuck me as odd that in Mews’s well-recorded, 2010  CD in Priory Record’s Great Australasian Organs series, he included no French music in a programme that in itself I find less than interesting, and which to me hardly displays the Wellington Town Hall Organ in the sort of important repertoire that does either player or organ proper justice.

Wellington Chamber Orchestra with Emma Sayers in Mozart

Debussy: Petite Suite (‘En bateau’, ‘Cortège’, ‘Minuet’, and ‘Ballet’)
Mozart: Piano concerto no.25 in C, K.503 (allegro maestoso; andante; allegretto)

Brahms: Symphony no.2, Op.73 (allegro non troppo; adagio non troppo; allegretto grazioso
(quasi andantino); allegro con spirito) 

Wellington Chamber Orchestra, Emma Sayers (piano), conducted by Kenneth Young

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 3 July 2011,2.30pm

Another ambitious programme from Wellington’s major amateur orchestra was this time conducted by a leading and very experienced musician. His encouraging attitude was very apparent, and the orchestra responded well. Although this orchestra is named a chamber orchestra, it more often these days plays works for symphony orchestra, as in this programme.

Debussy’s Petite Suite, originally written for piano in the late 1880s, was arranged for full orchestra by Henri Busser (1872-1973). This delightful work is in four movements, each with music clearly illustrative of its title, the rocking of the boat in the first movement being the most obvious. The marching band in the second reminds the audience that it is a procession (only in English is the word cortège used solely for a funeral procession), while after the lovely minuet, the ballet is of an extremely energetic kind.

The first movement featured interesting and enchanting interplay between harp and flutes, in which a young harpist revealed a high level of competence. Throughout, the music was tuneful, joyous, varied, and unveiled the splendid orchestration. The brass finally got to contribute in the bouncy final movement. The playing was not faultless, but the band gave a good account of this attractive work.

The Mozart piano concerto called for a smaller orchestra, there being no harp, no clarinets, only one flute and fewer strings.

Emma Sayers played strongly, but with plenty of subtlety and light and shade, and a fine, light touch, appropriate for Mozart. At all times she played with clarity, as befits this composer.
The cadenza for the first movement was written by conductor and composer Kenneth Young. He made very appealing use of Mozart’s themes. This cadenza was not showy for the sake of it, but did incorporate some un-Mozartean harmonies to betray its recent origin.
After it, Young gave Sayers an appreciative smile.

In the andante there was much exposed playing for winds. The horns did not always come out of this successfully – a difficult instrument indeed (and presumably even more difficult if the musicians had been playing the valve-less horns of Mozart’s time). The sound was often rather heavy for the rest of the orchestra to compete with. The flute played frequently in concert with the oboes, making a most attractive sound.

While it is good to see children in the audience at an orchestral concert (no doubt they were family members of the players), it is a pity their carers think it necessary to give them sweets with noisy wrappers to rustle when the orchestra is playing something as delicate as the andante in Mozart’s concerto, thus interfering with audience members’ enjoyment.

The winds were able to let fly in the last movement, and they acquitted themselves well.

The final work in this appealing programme was a massive one. Perhaps this great symphony was a little too difficult for the orchestra. Intonation problems struck at the beginning: unfortunately the opening was not the horns’ best moment; later they had some better ones. There were four horns,
three trombones, and tuba. In the louder part of the second movement, and elsewhere, this brass choir was rather too noisy for the rest of the orchestra. The solo oboe theme in the third movement was beautifully played, as was the whole of that movement.

Trombones also had moments of difficulty, but they and the tuba came into their own in the last section of the last movement; they had plenty of power in the fortissimo passages. However, this venue is not really large enough to take the sound of a symphony orchestra playing at that level with modern brass instruments.

All of that said, the work developed well, and the extra strings contributed to a mainly admirable sonority in that department. Details and themes came through well, and syncopation at the end of the first movement and in the second movement was crisp and clear.

It was good to see and hear an amateur orchestra alive and well, and playing fine music. Obviously this was not a performance at professional level, but it was creditable nonetheless. Aberrations of intonation were the main problem; dynamics, themes, rhythm were all well observed, and the concert represented a considerable achievement.