Aroha Plus gives wonderful programmme of string sextets

Dvořák: String Sextet in A, Op.48
Erwin Schulhoff: String Sextet
Brahms: String Sextet no.2 in G, Op.36 (Agathe)

Aroha String Quartet: Haihong Liu (violin), Beiyi Xue (violin), Zhongxian Jin (viola), Robert Ibell (cello), with Lyndon Johnston Taylor (viola) and Rowan Prior (cello)

Ilott Theatre

Sunday 28 August 2011, 3pm

It was wonderful to have a programme of string sextets, something I haven’t heard for years. To have six superb string players to perform them was a delight, and the good-sized audience was proof others thought so too.

However, at the beginning of the Dvořák sextet I thought the violin tone rather harsh and shrill. It soon settled down, and the genial quality of Dvořák’s music shone through. Dvořák’s combination of good humour and nostalgia is a joy to hear. His interweaving of the instrumental parts is sublime.

Rhythmic emphases in the Dumka second movement, coupled with the contrast in moods that it contained made it interesting, as it was too, to have a movement with so much bass in it. The third movement, Furiant also had alternating moods and tempi, but there was rough tone at times, and some vagaries of intonation in various places.

The finale featured a lovely warm sound and expressive playing from Zhongxian Jin in the viola theme that opens the movement, with the lower instruments accompanying. Later, there was a fine cello variation from Robert Ibell, with quiet chords as accompaniment. This was followed by repeated notes from the other cellist, with a shroud of long threads produced by the other instruments. Then there were dream-like sustained lines on the upper instruments and one cello while the others played pizzicato. A fast, lively ending completed a satisfying performance.

Erwin (Ervin, in Grove) Schulhoff (1894-1942) died prematurely of tuberculosis, in a Nazi concentration camp. The sextet was written while he was in his twenties. The programme note said that this work was in contrast to his earlier music, “…reflecting his experiences of fighting in the Great War.”

The apt description of his music in the note: “…the music is muscular and resolute but never predictable” was certainly borne out. The opening allegro is angular and harsh, followed by an interlude of tremolo against pizzicato and slow chords. Sul ponticello (on the bridge) playing featured here and elsewhere in the work, giving its other-worldly effect. For this item, the two cellists, and two violists, swapped places from the positions they had sat in for the Dvořák.

The Tranquillo second movement was indeed that – dream-like, with ethereal notes played on the upper strings against repeated notes from the lower instruments. Featured were tremolo notes on two instruments. As the programme note said, “…the ghostly episodes with chilling tremolo accompaniment towards the conclusion are also memorable.”

The short third movement Burlesca was a complete contrast: a very active and exciting movement which had one thinking “What is coming next?” It had Rowan Prior hitting the strings with her bow – much more severely than in mere spiccato playing.

The molto adagio Finale returned to the discordant mode of the opening movement, with a gloomy then muted opening section. An appealing but tense violin solo was followed by a passage of playing without vibrato, and then another section which today would be called minimalist. The music faded away in a mournful ending. The variety of techniques employed in this work made me wonder if it was perhaps more interesting to play than to listen to. That is not to say that it wasn’t well worth being given an airing.

For the final item, the Brahms Sextet, the players resumed their configuration used for the Dvořák work. The gorgeous opening on violin set the tone for the work, followed by another beautiful passage, this time on the cello, and then on the other instruments, but minor intonation lapses near the beginning spoilt the smooth flow. All the thematic material was developed thoroughly in typical Brahmsian style. The movement built up to a very thick texture, before a lilting ending.

The Scherzo started in a jolly frame of mind, with the lower instruments playing pizzicato. Then it conveyed what the programme note called “…a wistful, slightly mysterious character”, following which was a bouncy, jolly section and a sprightly ending.

The third movement, poco adagio, starts with a trio of two violins and viola, then another viola is added, and later the cellos. This lighter texture gave a pleasing contrast to other parts of the work, as did the extensive use of pizzicato. Despite the adagio marking, there was plenty of liveliness throughout the movement, before its gentle close.

The opening of the finale was reminiscent of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream overture. (Why don’t we hear more Mendelssohn from the NZSO and other performers? The New Zealand String Quartet have shown us what wonderful music there is by this composer.) This was followed by passages of deep, dark tones. The players brought these contrasts out well, especially in the fugal passages. The “…hearty, exuberant coda” as Berys Cuncannon’s excellent programme note described it, brought the concert to an upbeat conclusion.

A small point that detracted a little from my enjoyment of this concert was the fact that the violinists wore sparkly items of clothing. I found this off-putting, since the sparkles constantly flash with the players’ movements.

Nevertheless, it was a treat to hear delightful, and thought-provoking, music for string sextet.

PAG edges out CAV in double-headed NBR NZ Opera thriller

NBR New Zealand Opera – CAV and PAG

MASCAGNI – Cavalleria Rusticana


Casts: (Cavalleria Rusticana) – Anna Shafajinskaya (Santuzza), Peter Auty (Turiddu), Marcin Bronikowski (Alfio), Anna Pierard (Lola), Wendy Doyle (Mamma Lucia)

(Pagliacci) – Rafael Rojas (Canio), Elizabeth Futral (Nedda), Warwick Fyfe (Tonio), Marcin Bronikowski (Silvio), Andrew Glover (Beppe)

The Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus (Michael Vinten, chorusmaster)

Vector Wellington Orchestra

Oliver von Dohnanyi (conductor)

Directed by Mike Ashman

St. James Theatre, Wellington

Saturday 27th August, 2011

It was a points decision, and a close call, but most who attended the opening night of NBR New Zealand Opera’s double-header of CAV and PAG would, I think, have agreed that the latter (Pagliacci), boxing far above its weight on the night, landed too many telling counter-punches for the big guns of its glamorous rival (Cavalleria) – Intermezzo or no Intermezzo! Both operas gave their supporters plenty of thrilling moments, but PAG performed just a tad more consistently, with energetic and sustained focus throughout, both musically and dramatically.

To be fair, one perhaps ought to regard this particular presentation as a kind of fusion of the two operas by way of some well-placed connective tissue (I won’t spoil the surprise by undue description), though one does wonder how the tiny Sicilian community portrayed would in reality have coped with three violent murders in the course of a single day. The unities of time and place I thought suited Pagliacci better than it did Cavalleria, given that some compromises would have been made establishing commonalities between the stories. And I suspect Leoncavallo’s work responds more readily to updating than does Mascagni’s, with the latter’s depictions of old-fashioned religious observances strongly flavouring the story – though recent overseas productions of CAV seem to have hacked away at the Gordion Knot of the liturgical year by determinedly secularizing the settings. Director Mike Ashman didn’t go that far, but his Sicilian villagers seemed as well-versed in the use of cellphone technology as in the medieval pageantry of their Easter processionals.

In short the not-particularly-radical updatings therefore largely allowed both works to roar forth virtually unimpeded, which they did, thanks to singing and orchestral playing which gloriously filled the vistas of Wellington’s St James Theatre. Under the expert direction of conductor Oliver von Dohnanyi, the Vector Wellington Orchestra took to the music of both works with precision, energy and burning commitment, releasing all the overt passion in the instrumental writing, and occasionally and very properly overwhelming us with sounds. Mishaps and mis-hits amid the excitement were there few, the most noticeable being recalcitrant bells at one point! – but far more were there beautifully-turned solos and detailed and colourful episodes of ensemble work which did their bit in enhancing whatever aspects of the dramas they accompanied.

Sometimes in CAV the playing waxed eloquently to little theatrical avail – an expressively-turned passage for lower strings just before the “wronged” village girl Santuzza’s first entrance, so much deeper and darker than what had immediately gone before, seemed to fall on deaf ears stage-wise, when one would have thought it denoted some kind of dramatic action or response. Conversely, the famous mid-action orchestra-only Intermezzo was unnecessarily “choreographed” by Santuzza emoting hopes and dreams, in counterpoint to some equally gratuitous posing from a young man at the raised entrance to the church – both figures had, for me, a contrived presence, as the orchestral playing of the interlude perfectly expresses the moment’s peaceful “eye of the hurricane” without any additional illustration .

On-stage I thought the CAV chorus took a while to bring some purpose to what was happening – movements seemed tentative and lacking in motivation as if people were drifting in and waiting for the “real business” to begin. Gradually, things coalesced and began to liven up – the on-the-spot women’s choir rehearsal was a nice touch, and the business of getting dressed for the Easter Pageant afforded plenty of interesting detail (including, during the subsequent processional, a couple of self-flagellators whipping things along, though it has to be said, somewhat less than convincingly). But what helped redeem the chorus’s overall purpose was the ready-toned, superbly-disciplined singing, which I thought utterly committed throughout both operas, the result obviously a credit to the training of chorusmaster Michael Vinten.

Another feature which for me tipped an equable balance into distraction, specifically during CAV, was the revolving stage, employed brilliantly at one or two places – a veritable M.C.Escher effect at one point, with the villagers walking in one direction while being simultaneously taken the opposite way, during the Easter Hymn – but at other times moved, one felt, merely for the sake of movement, as if untrusting of the audience to make any kind of quantum adjustment of physical place on its own. PAG was better in this respect – every rotation had a clearly-focused motivation, the stage revolving as inevitably as a planet’s course around the sun.

Of course, opinion is a subjective beast; and my feelings may well run counter to what many people felt about the two operas’ respective merits – there was certainly much to enjoy, on both sides of the “divide”. Ultimately, though, these are singers’ pieces; and though a number of people I spoke to after CAV at the interval optioned that it seemed to their ears like “can belto” with a vengeance, I confess I didn’t feel quite so set upon because the singing was, for me, so committed, so heartfelt and involving. It wasn’t note-perfect, but despite emotion running freely and dangerously, the principals’ singing lines stayed remarkably intact throughout – Peter Auty, the British tenor, sang the role of Turiddu in CAV to great acclaim in Britain in 2008; and his ringing tones and wholehearted stage presence brought the free-wheeling, irresponsible and tragically fated village-boy-character to life with a vengeance. His pregnant and subsequently rejected ex-partner Santuzza was Ukranian-born Canadian-based soprano Anna Shafajinskaya, a singer diminutive in physical stature but not in stage presence. Her performance was one that lived every impulse of the part in both word and deed, her intensity occasionally risking her line in the name of heightened expression, but extracting a ready and immediate audience response to her predicament as the rejected “fallen woman”.

New Zealanders Anna Pierard (as a spunkily alluring Lola, Turiddu’s other” woman, the wife of Alfio) and Wendy Doyle (a severe but sympathetic Mamma Lucia, Tuiddu’s mother) turned in beautifully-focused singing and acting performances, though I thought Turiddu’s and Lola’s brief beginning-of-the-story tryst could have been lit and placed more suggestively, underlining both the clandestine and erotic in the encounter. Polish baritone Marcin Bronikowski’s initial engaging affability turned powerfully to vengeful rage upon discovering his wife’s infidelity – and though his acting didn’t entirely avoid the “stand-and-deliver” method, he still came across dramatically as a force to be reckoned with. However, his ear-biting encounter with Turiddu, I thought, generated far more deathly menace than the actual killing of the latter (done onstage, contrary to the composer’s directive, but par for the course in the anything-goes world of contemporary opera production). Presented this way the killing seemed a “pasted-on” act of over-the-top violence – but in an updated sense brutally true to the term “verismo”.

Warwick Fyfe’s ghoulish appearance as the unfortunate clown Tonio, announcing the players and their play, made a sensational effect at the second half’s beginning, bringing PAG to the same setting as CAV in what seemed like a macabre twist to the aftermath of Turiddu’s murder. It was as if a hole in the world’s fabric had suddenly been torn and a spectral being from “the other side” had climbed through. Fyfe’s singing and acting during the famous Prologue, apart from the slightest of strain on his highest notes, was stunning – though such was the “ensemble” quality of both productions, that it seemed as organically flowing in the scheme of things as any of the singers’ performances during the evening. Dohnanyi and the orchestra as well took to the brighter, more energetic atmosphere of the opening of PAG with plenty of engaging élan and muscle – an ever-so-slight horn blip mattering not a whit during the ensemble’s wonderfully sonorous precursor of the well-known “Vesti la giubba”.

As for the ill-fated couple, Canio and his wife Nedda, these were also memorable assumptions – Mexican tenor Rafael Rojas gave to his role of Canio a vocally heroic, though dramatically unattractive macho-plus flavour, one which underlined his dysfunctional relationship with Nedda, his wife (Elizabeth Futral). In fact, I felt his brutality deflected our sympathies away from the whole character of his gut-wrenching “Vesti la giubba”, his heartbreak at the discover of Nedda’s betrayal ringing hollow in the light of his previous behaviour towards her (despite this, his wonderful performance of the famous aria brought parts of the house to its feet). Futral’s portrayal of Nedda, beautifully voiced and nicely choreographed, was the very stuff of gone-to-seed male fantasy, using her physical allure with nicely insoucient but still visceral effect, while showing an underbelly of cruelty towards her besotted acting colleague Tonio. Its mirror-image was, of course, her love for Silvio, with whom she planned to escape that very evening. The duetting between Futral and Marcin Bronikowski (returning to the stage as Sylvio) transported us to realms of passionately lyrical pleasure, the more so against the aftermath of Canio’s rage against his wife for her refusal to tell him her lover’s name.

Act Two, featuring the players’ Commedia dell’arte-type presentation enabled us to enjoy the considerable theatrical skills of Andrew Glover, a reliable Beppe during the first act, but now a vibrant, attention-catching, guitar-playing punk-rocker Harlequin, the clandestine stage-lover of Columbina (Nedda), acting and moving with the greatest of confidence and surety. I did think the group’s performing stage rather too high, too removed from the on-stage spectators for meaningful interaction (more to the point towards the end, when it was next-to-impossible for Silvio to get to Nedda to try and save her). However the light-framing lines brought down from above were certainly effective, helping both to define the stage area and add to the occasion’s tinsel and glitter. From Canio’s entrance as Pagliaccio, the action rapidly became fraught, perhaps too quickly too soon, but certainly with dramatic impact, the curdling of the comedy’s fun-and-games burning and searing as Canio’s rage drove the action towards his brutal murder of Nedda, and throat-cutting of her hapless, ineffective would-be rescuer Silvio. Thus it was that PAG traversed a full, murderous circle in this production, the psychotic brutalities pretty much of a piece with the performance’s raw overall impact.

All-in-all, this is, to use the current jargon, a “must-see”! There are two Wellington performances left at this review’s time of writing, before the company moves on to Auckland, later in September (all details below). Though it’s strong and shocking stuff, it’s also great theatre, with some marvellous singing performances and high general production values. We’re privileged to have the opportunity of experiencing its resounding impact.

Wellington performances: St.James Theatre – 7:30pm Thursday 1st September; 7:30pm Saturday 3rd September

Auckland performances: Aotea Centre, THE EDGE – 7:30pm 15th, 17th, 21st, 23rd September – Matinee: 25th September 2:30pm

Spain and Aranjuez celebrated by the NZSO and guitar

Rimksy-Korsakov: Capriccio Espagnol, Op 34; Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez; Debussy: Ibéria; De Falla: Three dances from The Three-Cornered Hat

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Christoph König with Xuefei Yang (guitar)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 26 August, 6.30pm

Though the programme booklet doesn’t enlighten us, I am not aware that König has conducted in New Zealand before. He is typical of the young conductors of today in having amassed a CV of breathtaking scope and variety – geographically and artistically. Born and educated in Germany, his permanent posts have been in the Ruhr, in Malmö (Sweden), Oporto (Portugal), Gran Canaria and Luxembourg; and he has made numerous distinguished guest appearances throughout Europe and the United States. He generated a high level of energy and finesse in this concert, well equipped through his work in both Spain and Portugal.

Concerts of national music often include music by foreign composers and it’s hard to avoid the colourful works that Spain has inspired from non-Spanish composers.

This one brought out pieces that most people may not have heard live for many years, if ever. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol used to be pretty familiar, and it would have been to the first generation of NZSO audiences for it was in their earliest programmes. For me it’s still represented by a pair of 78s, bought aged 16 – Liverpool Philharmonic: Malcolm Sargent.  It should be part of the repertoire that is presented to audiences that are new to or remain shy of classical music.

Though it’s a splendidly written, highly-coloured rhapsodic composition, it’s also very much a show-piece for concertmaster Donald Armstrong’s violin solos as well as for various solo wind instruments including brilliant flute cadenza by Kirstin Eade (this is a correction: my original review had assumed the player to be Birgit Schwab from Hanover, who was said in the programme to have ‘switched seats’ with principal flute Bridget Douglas). Conductor König made sure all were vividly exposed; and he created exciting climaxes as well as sustaining stretches that were delicate and transparent.

Rodrigo wrote the Concierto de Aranjuez as the catastrophic Spanish civil war was ending and one might look there for the origin of its elegiac mood, but there is no mention of that or evidence in the music.  As is normal for the guitar in a big space, it was amplified, but very carefully; and the orchestral strings were reduced; I couldn’t see the back of the violins, but I’d guess 10, 8, 6, 4, 3. It’s beautifully scored so that the guitar is never covered by the orchestra and there are charming, delicate gestures by solo cello and woodwinds, pizzicato strings, and in the Adagio, the famous cor anglais melody, beautifully played by Michael Austin. Nevertheless, from where I was, well back, left of the gallery, the guitar in the first movement sometimes seemed indistinct in relation to the orchestral sound.

Xuefei Yang’s artistry and virtuosity emerged in the slow movement, in her dynamic and rhythmic flexibility, in overall tempi that were leisurely and expressed an air of mystery that was evoked by discreet means. Individually, the guitar and sections of the orchestra explored the lovely folk melody most imaginatively. It might not be the most profound music, but its reputation, and the affection in which it is held, are well based. It must be the envy of every composer who aspires to provide music for the guitar.

I was delighted to hear her playing of Tarrega’s enchanting, evergreen Recollections of the Alhambra as an encore.

The orchestra was at full strength again for the second part of Debussy’s Images for Orchestra – Ibéria. (All three of Debussy’s big orchestral works, Nocturnes, Images and La mer, are in three sections and one of the three in Images, Ibéria, is itself in three parts). It’s one of the most multifaceted pieces of music that pushes existing forms to the limits; it uses the late romantic symphony orchestra, at times with fiery energy, at times with extreme restraint and delicacy. It’s a fabric of individual instrumental colours, excellent percussion playing, at other times producing great orchestral climaxes. What this performance was not – quite, was to be driven, in the first section, ‘Par les rues et par les chemins’, by a rhythmic energy of really high tension: the wonderfully disparate parts did not completely coalesce. The second part, ‘Les parfums de la nuit’ captured more mystery, and it was the place to hear a beguiling oboe, remote tubular bells as morning breaks and trumpet sounds of a military band announce the approach of the fair day. König held the orchestra back slightly to experience the slowly gathering energy of the festival, building to brass-led climax, in full sun and human exuberance.

Touching on Debussy’s tenuous experience with Spain, the otherwise admirable programme notes made the curious remark that he had been no further in Spain than the ‘village of San Sebastian, a few hours from the French border’. The village has a population today of around 200,000, perhaps 40,000 when Ibéria was written, and you’d get there, even in Debussy’s day, on the main Paris to Madrid railway in half an hour, about 40 km  from the frontier.

Finally, De Falla’s three dances from his ballet The Three-cornered Hat (El sombrero de tres picos) of 1919 (did you know that Wolf’s only opera, Der Corregidor, is based on the same Spanish play of 1874?). Sometimes the Dance of the Miller’s Wife begins a selection from the ballet, but here we had only the Neighbours’, the Miller’s and the Final dances. They were splendid, lively performances, rightly delivering rather more gusto and unrestrained energy that had Ibéria. It was not only boisterous, it was played with great delicacy too, properly letting the audience hear what a great composer and orchestrator De Falla was. There were forays of distinction by flute, horns, bassoon, cor anglais, The Miller’s Dance began deliberately holding back to create an air of suspense rather effectively towards the heavy-footed climax. The orchestra played the Final Dance with great theatricality, emphatic bass instruments lending a peasant quality to the denouement that thoroughly humiliates the Corregidor – the lascivious magistrate.

The sort of thing that would have brought an old-fashioned promenade concert, such as seduced the young to the love of classical music in Town Halls around the country in the 1950s (speaking personally again), to a thrilling conclusion, and it did just that for those at the Michael Fowler Centre.

A very Big Sing, very entertaining

Gala Concert: The Big Sing, New Zealand Choral Federation Secondary Schools’ Choir Festivals National Finale

Wellington Town Hall

Wednesday, 24 August 2011, 6.30pm

To hear 700 secondary school students from all around New Zealand singing together is thrilling indeed, as they did at the conclusion of this three-hour concert. The Wellington Town Hall has hosted much music through its life, but hearing this amount of excellent singing in such a good acoustic is ‘something else’, as is seeing and hearing three boys’ school choirs turning on impromptu haka at the end, and the screaming, enthusiastic response!

Twenty-two school choirs were finalists from the regional choral festivals (Wellington’s was held in June) came together for several days of singing, culminating in this Gala Concert, in which each school sang one of the pieces they had performed earlier in the week. The selection was made by the judges and not, as formerly, by the choirs themselves. This was probably the reason for a better balanced concert than is sometimes the case.

The Big Sing National Finale was to have been held in Christchurch this year; sadly, because of February’s earthquake this has not been possible. This meant a late start for the Wellington Committee to organise things, but nonetheless, all was done very competently.

With a knowledgeable and clear compère in Christine Argyle of Radio New Zealand Concert, herself a choir director, and super-efficient stage crew, it was hard to imagine things being run any better. An innovation this year was the showing on two big screens of videos taken around Wellington during the days of the festival. School choirs, when not required to be at the Town Hall, made up ‘flash mobs’ at various venues such as the Railway Station and the Majestic tower, where bemused locals perforce looked on, as items were performed by the impeccably uniformed students, who then disappeared. A surprise appearance on screen was “the stage crew choir”, who sang very competently from their work-place, viz. the stage of the Town Hall.

The screens showed images from in-house cameras throughout the evening, meaning all sections of the audience could easily see the compère, the choirs, soloists and sections and individuals in the choirs. Shown also on screen were the names of the choirs, the schools’ names, and the names of their conductors. It all worked very smoothly.

Some interesting statistics: 8,500 secondary school students took part in the regional festivals; 700 students were at the Finale here in Wellington; 14 choirs were from North Island schools and 9 from the South Island (on a population basis that means that, proportionately, more South Island schools were successful in choral music; only one Wellington choir was in the final this year: Teal Voices, from Wellington Girls’ College. Another, the Queen Margaret Chorale, sang the winning composition, written by a Queen Margaret College student.

Of course, not every school chooses to enter every year; there is much work involved in preparation (every piece is sung from memory), and expense, particularly in getting choirs to the National Finale venues.

All the choirs had been trained well in how to stand, walk on and off stage, and to arrange themselves in particular formations, with great decorum. Even though there were applause, cheering, and standing ovations frequently throughout the concert, quiet and attention reigned while choirs were performing. Coming on and off stage was done quickly and neatly by all the choirs, which, along with the rapid work from the stage crew, kept the long programme moving.

First up was the Craighead Chorale, from Craighead Diocesan Girls’ School in Timaru, under Vicki McLeod. They were accompanied by piano and violin (not student performers) in the Irish folksong “The Stuttering Lovers”. The choir employed appropriate movement in their performance, which added to the humour. The choir sang with attractive tone, and gradation of dynamics. The 17 singers sustained their tone well to the very end of the piece.

Next up was Southern Hesperides from Otago Girls’ High School, singing Mendelssohn’s “Lift thine Eyes” from the oratorio Elijah. This beautiful three-part choral piece from the big choir, featured lovely tone and superb use of the language. The singers maintained a truly legato line by not overemphasising the consonants. What was remarkable was that they sang without conductor; Karen Knudson simply gave them the notes on the piano, then conducted the first few beats, and sat down while they sang unaccompanied.

Some of the girls remained on stage, because the next choir was Barock, a combined ensemble including Otago Boys’ High School students as well. Again, Karen Knudson did not conduct. The notes were given, a boy in the front of the widely spaced students gave the first few beats (facing the audience) and off they went, in “All my Trials”, arranged by Norman Luboff. Such precision, especially in such a slow piece, and with rallentando at the end, was astonishing with no conductor in front. As with the girls choir, all vowels were made exactly the same way by each choir member, giving great clarity to the singing. I found listening to the singing of this piece a moving experience. The only thing that detracted from this choir’s (and the next’s) performance was that the boys looked untidy compare with all the other choirs. They would have improved their appearance if the blazers had been buttoned.

Most of the boys remained, since the next choir was their school’s. They sang with piano, again without conductor, “The Masochism Tango” by Tom Lehrer, arranged by Karen Knudson. As well as singing, there was choreography involving changed configurations, the choir now facing one way in their wedge-shaped formation, now the other. Acting came into it too, and dancing of the tango. Use of the falsetto voice to represent women and other details made the presentation very funny – but the singing was good, too. However, it may have been a target of Paul Holley’s comment in his concluding remarks that the choirs needed to ensure that the movement does not detract from the music being sung.

For the first time, a combined choir from Nelson College and Nelson College for Girls, Stella Collegians, performed in the Big Sing – as a guest choir (i.e. not a finalist). Five boys and nine girls sang Caccini’s “Ave Maria” under their conductor Kathryn Hutt, with flute and piano accompaniment. The Latin pronunciation left something to be desired, but the harmony was fine, and the flute lovely. However, tone and dynamics became boring because they were unvaried.

A traditional Yiddish song was performed by Euphony, the mixed choir of Kristen School in Auckland. They had good tone and volume, and words were enunciated well (as far as I could tell, not being a speaker of Yiddish). The parts were well executed, despite being quite complex in places. Under their conductor Nick Richardson, the tempo was well controlled, and co-ordinated movement was part of the performance.

Bulgarian composer Peter Lyondev’s name was not familiar to me. Rangi Ruru’s Resolutions choir sang “Kafal Sviri” by him. Their conductor Helen Charlton had the choir singing with quite a different technique from that normally associated with Western music. They sang with a rather nasal head-voice, which presumably was appropriate for this music. This was rather daring in a competition where other choirs would be aiming for a sound produced so differently.

Aorere College is renowned at every Big Sing for the robust, well-produced tone of its singers, and the subtleties of dynamics they bring to their task. The Sweet Sixteen from that school (actually numbering about 28 singers) sang “Te Atua” by Awhina Waimotu. This piece was last year’s composition competition winner. It featured beautiful, gentle singing from this mixed choir under its conductor, Douglas Nyce. The tone was exemplary, and the voices blended well.

The school male choir was up next: Front Row. In their football jerseys, with numbers on the backs, they made a great sight. And a great sound, too. Directed by Pene and William Pati, they performed “Purea Nei”, a traditional Maori song arranged by William Pati, accompanied by guitar. This was a big sound, and movement was incorporated in their performance, which ended with a haka – conductor and all. The choir received a standing ovation from all the other teenagers in the hall, as the haka continued while they walked off.

Another guest choir was Bella, from Freyberg High School in Palmerston North, conducted by Kristen Clark. They sang “Atapo” by Josie Burdon. This choir comprised all girls, who sang unaccompanied. They made a pleasing sound, and maintained good control of dynamics. They began with a very well performed solo karanga, which continued while the choir sang in harmony – most effective.

King’s College, Auckland, was represented by a new choir, “King’s Voices”, who sang Fats Waller’s well-known “Ain’t Misbehavin’”. Nicholas Forbes conducted the mixed choir in a very classy performance. No movement was involved; the choir got its message over with appropriate language and pronunciation. The blend of voices was excellent.

They were followed by Petra Voce, another guest choir, this time from St. Peter’s School in Cambridge. It was their first time at the Big Sing – a contrast with some of the choirs heard at the beginning of the evening, who had been attending since 1995 or 1996. Their conductor Julia McIntyre led them in a close harmony item, “Cornerstone” by Kirckner, with piano accompaniment. The choir consisted of both boys and girls – and a boy soloist contributed his falsetto; there was a girl soloist also. The choir sang very effectively, making a great sound.

Last on in the first half of the concert was Bellissimo from a relatively new school, which was new to the contest: Whangaparaoa College. They chose the ever-popular American folksong “Shenandoah” in a telling arrangement by James Erb. Philippa Jones, their director, obtained a very accomplished performance. The choir (which seemed to specialise in tall males and short females) looked smart with their green sashes and ties. Excellent vocal production and tone were features in this unaccompanied piece, which made a fine effect.

Following interval, SOS from Rangitoto College, a girls’ choir conducted by David Squire, sang another popular number, “All the things you are” by Jerome Kern. For some of us this song always evokes Peter Sellers’ deliberately pathetic version! For a large choir, SOS did not have a big sound. Nevertheless, they sang this close harmony arrangement very competently.

Middleton Grange School’s combined girls and boys choir Crescendos was a guest choir. Under their conductor Phillipa Chirnside, they sang “Africa”, with the accompaniment of drums and piano, and actions. In what should be a very rousing song, their tone was often weak, or poorly supported.

Marlborough Girls’ College was represented by a large choir, Bella Voce – veterans of many Big Sings. They sang a Venezuelan song, “Mata Del Anima Sola” by Antonio Estevez. This was a thoroughly involving performance under conductor Robin Randall, and a very accomplished solo singer, soprano Olivia Sheat, contributed largely, along with the lovely tone from the choir.

Saint Cecilia Singers from Auckland Diocesan School for Girls has been a frequent participant, too. Their conductor David Gordon’s “There is no rose of such virtue” was a fine choice. The choir continued singing as the members walked off stage, and then stopped to complete the item, with just one singer still on stage – an effective ploy.

Macleans College Choir under the renowned choral director Terence Maskell sang Schumann’s “Es ist verraten”, accompanied on the piano. While the German sounded good to start with, a German speaker sitting near me said that after a while she could no longer understand the words; however, English language songs can suffer the same fate. This was a big mixed choir, and the clarity of the lovely Schumann music was certainly there, plus good rhythm and dynamics.

Burnside High School is noted for its music courses and high calibre of performance. The choir Bel Canto continued this tradition, with a mature sound from this girls-only group, singing New Zealander Tecwyn Evans’s “The Lamb”. Director Sue Densem sang the opening notes, and then the singing was unaccompanied. There were difficult harmonies in this piece, but a superb performance resulted. I particularly liked the great use of the words in phrasing the music.

Teal Voices, an 18-voice choir from Wellington Girls’ College, sang Debussy’s “Noel des enfants qui n’ont plus de maisons” with Michael Fletcher conducting. The French language pronunciation sounded competent; the singing featured a great dynamic range, including beautifully controlled soft singing.

Westlake Girls’ and Boys’ High Schools combined choir Choralation exhibited their expertise by singing an Arvo Pärt piece, “Bogoroditse Dyevo”. This was quite a short piece, sung with clarity in Russian – a very fine performance under conductor Rowan Johnston.

Finally, in complete contrast to the static previous item, Westlake Boys’ Voicemale, conducted by David Squire, incorporated much action and even props into their singing of “Toyota”, an item from David Hamilton’s musical Crumpy. The boys simulated a vehicle, crouching or kneeling, with one boy holding a steering wheel, and others at appropriate positions whirling umbrellas to simulate wheels. It was all very funny, but there was good singing, too.

Queen Margaret Chorale conducted by Louise Logan, sang “Freedom”, whose composer, Simone Chivers, received the SOUNZ Composition Award. This was a large choir, and they sang well, but this was a slow, dull piece, without the appealing qualities of last year’s winner that was sung by The Sweet Sixteen in this concert. More care was needed in the word-setting; the emphasis of the word ‘freedom’ should not come on ‘-dom’, as it repeatedly did in this piece.

I haven’t mentioned accompanists, all of whom played competently and sympathetically.

After a short speech by Grant Hutchinson, the Chief Executive of the New Zealand Choral Federation, and remarks from one of the judges, the awards were presented.

The judges, Dr Karen Grylls (New Zealand Voices and New Zealand Youth Choir music director), Andrew Withington (New Zealand Secondary Students’ Choir director) and Australian choir director Paul Holley, judged on all the performances they heard from the choirs during the several days, not on those heard on Wednesday night.

Did Southern Hesperides and their joint choir with Otago Boys’ High School Choir overstep the time limit? That some choirs had done so was mentioned by Paul Holley in his judges’ (yes, plural) remarks. Otherwise I cannot account for neither Southern Hesperides nor Barock achieving gold, or at least silver awards. Others I spoke to after the concert were similarly surprised. Teal Voices I also thought worthy of a higher award. Paul Holley, from Brisbane, said he admired the quality and variety of what he heard. He urged choirs to ensure that movement does not detract from the music being sung. He described Knockout (KO): know and own what you are singing. He congratulated all the soloists, the choral conductors, and the choirs.

Here are the results:

Bronze awards: The Sweet Sixteen, Aorere Collete

Southern Hesperides, Otago Girls’ High School

Saint Cecilia Singers, Auckland Diocesan School for Girls

Otago Boys’ High School Choir

Front Row, Aorere College

Silver awards: Bella Voce, Marlborough Girls’ College

Belissimo, Whangaparaoa College

Euphony, Kristen School

King’s Voices, King’s College

Maclean’s College Choir

Resolutions, Rangi Ruru Girls’ School

SOS, Rangitoto College

Teal Voices, Wellington Girls’ College

Voicemale, Westlake Boys’ High School

Gold awards: Craighead Dicocesan Girls’ School

Choralation, Westlake Girls’ and Boys’ High Schools

Bel Canto, Burnside High School

Platinum award: Choralation, Westlake Girls’ and Boys’ High Schools

SOUNZ composition award: Simone Chivers

Auahi Kore performance award for the choir giving best total performance of a work using Maori text: The Sweet Sixteen, Aorere College

Hutt City trophy: Best performance of a New Zealand composition: Bel Canto, Burnside Hugh School

Youth Ambassadors’ award (“outstanding engagement with all elements of the Finale”): Belissimo, Whangaparaoa College

Wellington Aria Contest final: singers in good form

The Dame Malvina Major Foundation Aria Contest

Finals of Wellington Regional Aria Contest of Hutt Valley Performing Arts Competitions Society
Adjudicator: Glenese Blake

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 21 August 2011, 7.30pm

The contest that was The Evening Post aria contest for many years continues in good heart. This year, the contestants were all past or present students of the New Zealand School of Music, and almost all had been recently through a period of very hard work, as cast members of the brilliant, highly entertaining and successful production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

It is therefore doubly gratifying to note that all were in good form, and the performances were of a very high standard, as judge Glenese Blake noted in her concluding remarks.

Compère Richard Greager, one of the voice tutors at NZSM, was an excellent MC, and gave succinct, sometimes humorous, introductions to the operas from which the arias had been selected by the singers

There were two rounds, with the singers performing in the same order each time. Hugh McMillan accompanied all except one of the singers (the other being accompanied by Jonathan Berkahn), and did so with an economy of gesture and a sympathetic rapport with each singer. The piano was never too loud, but gave sufficient support and attention to dynamics in each aria.

First up each time was Imogen Thirlwell. Her enthusiastic and committed performances were backed by strong singing, with appropriate facial expression in, firstly, Mozart’s “Padre, germani, addio” from Idomeneo. Sometimes those expressions were overdone for the relative intimacy of the church, compared with a staged performance in a theatre. An almost constant mezzo-forte palled after a while. Nevertheless, the performance deserved a ‘Well done!’

Bridget Costello was next, who sang so well as Tytania in the Britten opera. She chose “Song to the Moon” from Dvořák’s Rusalka. It was beautifully sung, in Czech, with every note in place, and the mood conveyed well. However, there was too much distracting gesture. Such a lovely aria doesn’t need this. It is a contemplation of, and a conversation with the moon, not an action song or a Tai Chi exercise.

Amelia Ryman chose an aria from Manon by Massenet: “Adieu, notre petite table”. Wearing a beautiful classical gown, Ryman sang this in very dramatic fashion, with a good variation of dynamics and tone. It was a very fine performance.

Rose Blake’s plain red dress matched the hangings and carpet in St. Andrew’s. Her “Je dis que rien m’épouvante” (Micaela’s aria) from Carmen by Bizet was sung well, and her voice had developed more power than I had previously heard it display. There were some quite lovely sounds, but I did not feel involved in Micaëla’s plight. There was little engagement or communication with the audience.

Daniela-Rosa Young’s beautiful dress, and the dark red rose she held, matched the décor also. This singer communicated well with the audience, through eye-contact. She had wonderful control, beautiful pianissimos, especially on high notes, and after she had finished singing “Ah, non credea” from Bellini’s La Sonnambula, was quite relaxed, unlike some of the other performers, despite the difficulty of this piece. Hugh McMillan’s delicate pianism in the recitative was enchanting. After Daniela had sung, I wrote “1” in the margin of my paper.

Thomas Atkins is an assured tenor, singing his aria “De miei bollenti” from La Traviata by Verdi with great ease. His Italian was good (the judge had comments about some of the Italian she heard). The top of his voice is exciting, and Italianate, but he had a hint of roughness at the endings of some high notes. Nevertheless, his singing was very accomplished.

Last year’s second place-getter, Kieran Rayner, sang an aria in Russian: Yeletsy’s aria from The Queen of Spades by Tchaikovsky. His is a very secure baritone, and his stance was relaxed. The modulations Tchaikovsky has written make this quite a difficult aria, not to mention the language. Rayner did not seem totally at ease or in command, although his high notes were very fine. Perhaps a little more variety was needed in both dynamics and emotional passion.

A third male singer followed (apparently the order was arrived at by drawing lots, so this was complete chance): Thomas Barker. He was accompanied by Jonathan Berkahn, who began somewhat louder than Hugh McMillan had played, though he soon adjusted, but over-pedalled. This aria, “Within this frail crucible” from Benjamin Britten’s Lucretia was perhaps a little too low in the voice for Barker, but his high notes were gorgeous. His intonation suffered a couple of times, but the mood and character were communicated well.

Isabella Moore made a great job of Mimì’s famous aria from La Bohème by Puccini: “Si mi chiamino Mimì”. Her voice has a luscious quality over a wide range. She has an easy manner on stage, and communicates well with the audience. Her voice production appears effortless – a bonus for her hearers, who do not want to worry about how the singer is achieving her sounds. Her language was good; altogether an excellent performance.

After a short interval, the second round began, with quite a long aria from Imogen Thirlwell: Monica’s waltz from The Medium by Menotti. Thirwell told the story of Monica and Toby (in English) very effectively throughout quite a long aria. Her words were enunciated supremely well, which made me wonder if there should be an award for the best rendition of a song or aria sung in English, to match Jenny Wollerman’s award for the equivalent in French.

As Norina in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, Bridget Costello was well cast. However, again there was far too much gesture. It should be primarily about singing and putting over a story, unless the performers are in a fully staged production. The aria was very skilfully sung – and accompanied. Characterisation and communication were very good; the voice is bright and flexible, and this was a difficult aria well executed.

Amelia Ryan sang the only item to have been repeated in the programme – Mimì’s aria that had already been sung by Isabella Moore. Amelia Ryan sang it very well, but like an opera singer, compared with the simpler style of Moore. However, her rendition contained a lot of subtleties, and she used the language well. Communication with the audience was exceptionally good.

Another aria in English was sung, by Rose Blake: the Embroidery aria from Peter Grimes, by Benjamin Britten. Her voice is pleasing, and her high notes were first-class. But her unsmiling arrival before the audience and deadpan presentation for most of the aria, until passion entered, plus her lack of stage presence or feeling of singing to an audience told against her. Yet I remember her excellent performance in Handel’s Semele a couple of years ago – so perhaps she needs an actual dramatic presentation to be able to communicate.

Daniela-Rosa Young gave us many beautiful notes in “Je marche” from Massenet’s Manon. There was subtlety and variety in this aria, which travels through a number of moods, all of which she realised well. One or two notes were little under pitch, but other technical demands were met extremely well, including trills.

Mozart did not seem to suit Thomas Atkins as well as the Italian aria had. His voice cracked a couple of times in “Un’ aura amorosa” from that composer’s Così fan Tutte. In my opinion, a smoother tone was needed.

Kieran Rayner provoked greater applause, vocal as well as manual, with his performance of Figaro’s well-known aria “Largo al factotum” from The Barber of Seville by Rossini. He entered, singing, from the back of the church, and acted out the part, even with a prop, while Hugh McMillan had, for the only time, to resort to a page-turner, such was the pace of this aria. It suited him much better than the Russian one in the first half. His fluency, diction and characterisation were superb, and his voice vibrant, compelling and euphonious. The great pace of the aria seemingly was not a problem for him. This performance was indeed hard to beat.

“O! vin, dissipe la tristesse” from Hamlet by Thomas, was Thomas Barker’s offering. He produced very fine singing with great resonance. His facial expressions were part of his good communication with the audience.

Finally, Isabella Moore sang again – “Come scoglio” from Così fan Tutte. Her full voice made the most of this superb aria, with its extensive range. Her singing was expressive, and very true; the words were splendid and although her breathing was sometimes a little noisy, this was a marvellous performance.

Now for the awards:

The judge agreed with me, and awarded the Dame Malvina Major Foundation Aria prize and Rosina Buckman Memorial Cup to Daniela Rosa-Young, who also won the Jenny Wollerman Award for a French aria. Runner-up to the main award was Kieran Rayner. Winner of the Robin Dumbell Memorial Cup ‘for the young entrant with the most potential’ went to Amelia Ryman, while the Rokfire Cup (spelt thus, not “Rockfire” as in the programme) for the most outstanding competitor (in all the senior vocal classes in the Hutt Valley Competitions, not only the aria contest) was won by Imogen Thirlwell. Congratulations to all; each competitor in the final received $100.

Here was another concert which suffered from insufficient audience, caused in part at least from a lack of advertising. I’m told that in Rotorua, the aria contest commands a full house. I’m sure the quality of the contestants’ performances was just as high in Wellington, and efforts should be made to reach the widest possible public. There was no advertising for this event in ‘Live Diary’ on Radio New Zealand Concert that day, for example.

This was an evening of superb singing. Yet barely 40 people came to hear it. A large proportion of them were fellow-students with the contestants; many others, their family members. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the quality on show here deserved many more hearers.

Mêler Ensemble: programme changes but all is forgiven

Sunday Concerts (Wellington Chamber Music)

Halvorsen: Passacaglia in G minor for violin and viola after Handel; Janáček: Pohádka (Fairy Tale); Piazzolla: The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires; Brahms Piano quartet in G minor, Op 25

Mêler Enesmble (Josef Špaček – violin, Amanda Verner – viola, Aleisha Verner – cello, Andrew Tyson – piano)

Ilott Theatre, Wellington Town Hall

Sunday 21 August 3pm

‘Mêler? Bien sûr; les instruments se mêlent parfaitement, avec bonheur’.

As there was with the Mêler Ensemble’s concert at Lower Hutt, there was some disappointment that the programme had been changed, caused ostensibly by the late replacement of the original pianist (Tanya Gabrielian). Waikanae too had their promised Schumann replaced by Dvořák’s Piano Quartet in E flat. At Wellington the music of the first half was changed, from Schubert and Brahms to pieces by Handel/Halvorsen, Janáček and Piazzolla. The reasons for these late changes can actually have had nothing to do with the change of pianist, as he was named along with the advertised programmes.

Comments I heard at the end of the first half, however, suggested that all had been forgiven, so unexpectedly delightful most had found the unheralded and largely unknown music.

At this year’s Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson I had heard the variations by Norwegian violinist and composer Johan Halvorsen, drawn from the last movement of Handel’s Harpsichord Suite in G minor. Then it was played in the version for violin and cello by two members of the Hermitage Trio, one of the overseas guest ensembles that adorned the festival throughout. It was the only piece that was common to the programme played at Lower Hutt on 11 August.

This afternoon it was played by violinist Špaček and violist Amanda Verner – Halvorsen’s original version. Such a hybrid piece calls for a compromise between the performance style of the high baroque and that of the late romantic period and I can imagine performances that lean too far in one or other direction. Here, using ordinary modern instruments, and acknowledging the musical conventions of the turn of the century, long before any serious thought was given to period authenticity in performance, it would probably have been deadly to adopt an 18th century style.

Handel’s splendid theme was only enhanced by the arrangement and especially by this performance which was filled with all the richness, power and tonal variety available to players on modern instruments. Both players also happen to be superb musicians who created gorgeous ensemble, brilliant virtuosity, as well as occasional surprise with earthy and passionate passages. In true Romantic fashion, the piece built up to an exciting climax at the end that was brilliantly executed.

Janáček’s Fairy Tale (strictly, just ‘Tale’) might be a story told in music, but even paying no attention to the story, the music, as idiosyncratic as the composer normally is, stands on its own feet. It’s in three movements. Here the two instruments, cello and piano, play almost entirely different roles, the roles of the lovers in the story whose fate rests in the balance for most of its duration; and in this lies a good deal of the interest of the music. In the opening movement the cello play pizzicato for a long time alongside the piano that ripples with a sort of hesitating impulsiveness.

Anyone familiar with Janáček’s piano music such as In the Mists or On an Overgrown Path would have no trouble identifying this, with its mood of uneasy ardour, even in the happier last movement where a happy resolution can be foreseen.

Even though the second section is lighter, sunnier in tone, each instrument retains its separateness; the dialogue is conducted by players of very striking technical panache and the ability to invest music with drama and personality.

The third, and another very different, piece was Astor Piazzolla’s impressions of the four seasons in Buenos Aires. None of the pieces in the first half called for all four instruments; the Piazzolla came close, in an arrangement by one José Bragato for violin, cello and piano. Though it would be interesting to hear it first in the clothes Piazzolla gave it – the bandoneon quartet – this more European model, if not much suggesting the inimitable sound of the bandoneon, carried the essentials in terms of rhythms and melodic accents, the little rolling, chromatic left-hand motifs at the piano for example. Thus I might have been misled in sensing the flavour of a perhaps French chamber piece, such as Milhaud. At many points I felt I could hear the influence of his Paris teacher Nadia Boulanger, though she was famous for leading her students to discover, to cultivate whatever was their own essential voice as composer. The arrangement offered moments for occasional bravura display, for example in a small-scale, brilliant cadenza for Špaček in the first movement.

Even in the slightly surprising, Schubertian melody in the third, Spring, movement, where Europe seemed close at hand, the tango was always there, and the players, each exhibiting both individuality and a fine spirit of ensemble, let us hear their own delight in it.

The one piece remaining from the original programme was Brahms’s first Piano Quartet. It’s one of the best loved of his works, containing the sort of melodies that are found in the first Piano Trio or the Op 18 Sextet.

Great delicacy distinguished the opening of the quartet, with teasing hints of the sort of tunes that follow and which soon emerged with full-blown magnificence.

The beauty of this work rests for the most part on the ensemble writing where individual instruments, or rather their players, rarely draw attention to themselves. That’s not to say that Brahms doesn’t employ them to offer contrasting feelings, as happens in the Intermezzo, where slightly disturbed strings underlie a sunnier, more spirited mood in the piano. The gypsy-style last movement drew attention to the close accord between the sisters on viola and cello, very naturally pitted at times against the piano or violin.

It was wise not to have changed this item in the programme as it was undoubtedly the most looked forward to and the performance fulfilled every hope for this concert, ending with a marvelous joyfulness.

There was long applause at the end and it was rewarded by part of the last movement from Dvořák’s Piano Quartet in E flat.

A composer’s credentials – a clarification

Re Grayson Gilmour:
Refer to the review of the New Zealand School of Music orchestra concert on Friday 12 August.

My review expressed a note of puzzlement that the one piece in the programme by a New Zealand composer seemed to be by a composer, Grayson Gilmour, with no connection with the school and, indeed, nothing indicated any connection with tertiary music education at all.

I have been enlightened.
Grayson Gilmour is a current student of the NZSM. He is enrolled in a Bachelor of  Music with Honours, studying with John Psathas and Dugal McKinnon. His work, Existence – Aether, was commissioned by the NZSM as a recipient of the Jenny McLeod prize (an annual commission for orchestra awarded by the school). Grayson completed his undergraduate degree at the NZSM, majoring in composition, about 3 years ago, before returning for postgraduate study.

Cantoris and Rachel Hyde take flight with Pärt


Bogoroditze Djev  (O Mother of God) / The Woman With the Alabaster Box

Kanon Pokojanen (Odes 1, 7 & 9) / Nunc Dimittis

Cantoris, directed by Rachel Hyde

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington – Lunchtime Concert Series

Wednesday, 17th August 2011

(review adapted from transcript notes of a review on RNZ Concert’s “Upbeat”,with Clarissa Dunn, 19.08.11)

Tell us about listening to Arvo Pärt in the middle of a wintry Wellington day!

Arvo Pärt’s music was, I think a wonderful choice of repertoire with which to finish one’s work with a choir. Pärt is a composer who’s contributed of late to a quiet revolution that’s taken place within the confines of contemporary classical music, turning his back on much of the avant-garde modes of expression in favor of something whose simplicity and beauty of utterance has won a huge following, including  many listeners who would have regarded most contemporary music as too elitist, difficult, austere, esoteric and frankly unattractive.

Was Cantoris’ programme a good representative selection of Pärt’s choral music?

Yes,I think it was – the choices were both vibrant and contemplative, outwardly expressive and inwardly mystical, simply beautiful and quietly austere – people who didn’t know the composer’s music would, I think, get a good idea of its salient qualities from attending this concert.

He’s a composer who’s undergone something of a journey to reach his present status.

Well, certainly a multi-faceted journey – inwardly and outwardly, as they say in analytical circles. In his youth Pärt was remarked of as a composer who “only had to shake his sleeves and notes fell out of them”. His early compositions followed the austere lines of Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Bartok, and then to the serialism of Schoenberg – this quickly got him into trouble with the Soviet Authorities (Estonia had been taken over by the Soviet Union) and performances of his works were actually banned. His response was to withdraw and study early music from Medieval and Renaissance times, the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church plainchant making its mark as well. He emerged from this silence with an entirely new compositional philosophy.

How would you describe this change?

Pärt has famously described his later music as “tintinnabuli” – like the ringing of bells, music characterized by simple harmonies, using single unadorned notes or triads, deriving from the music of medieval and renaissance times studied so intently by the composer. The interesting thing is that this music, like a lot of the early music that was Pärt’s inspiration, has such a powerful simplicity – using little rhythmic complexity, unselfconscious harmonic display using pure intervals and almost no dissonance, and a clarity of texture at all times. What comes from this is music that touches many listeners deeply and profoundly. Pärt’s own words sum up this new way of making music: I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements – with one voice, two voices. I build with primitive materials – with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells and that is why I call it tintinnabulation”.

Tell us about Rachel Hyde, who’s stepping down an musical director of “Cantoris” after this series of concerts.

Rachel is going to concentrate on finishing a law degree – in her own words “it’s now or never”! She felt that with all the things she wanted to do, her work with the choir was suffering, so it was better to relinquish that and let somebody else carry on with the good work. She’s going to continue working with her children’s orchestra, the Schola Sinfonica, and also, hopefully, will do the occasional public concert with groups like Bow, the String Ensemble she helped to found, and the Wellington Chamber Orchestra.

This series of concerts – where are they taking place?

The choir is giving two more concerts in this series – free of charge to the public, incidentally – the first tonight at Wellington’s City Gallery at 6pm and then on Sunday in Porirua, at the Pataka Arts Centre at 2pm.

I understand the weather has caused some performing groups some difficulties this week – what about Cantoris?

Rachel told me that the rehearsals hadn’t been without difficulties due to the weather – at least one rehearsal was called off entirely, and one of the choir’s strongest-voiced male singers has been left with next to no voice due to a cold – the entrails weren’t exactly propitious, one would have thought, and it’s a tribute to both Rachel and her choir that the music was delivered with such expertise and energy and beauty, despite all tribulations.

So, let’s look at the programme, six shorter pieces for choir – in general, how well did you feel the voices put across this music?

I’m pretty much a beginner listener, when it comes to Arvo Pärt’s music, and going to this concert and listening to the recordings we’re going to play has been a revelation for me, as I’m sure it will to others who go to any of the concerts. Compared with the singing on the recordings, Cantoris’s approach was gentler, less assertive than the singing of choirs such as the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, a group who would have been pretty well steeped in the composer’s music. In view of the difficulties experienced by the group in preparing for this concert, their achievement in making the music live and breathe the way it sounded to me is, I think all the more commendable.

The first piece, very short, was Bogoroditse Djevo (translated, it means “O Mother of God”) – here, a lovely, well-focused performance, not trumpet-toned in the big moments (as I’m sure the trebles of the Kings College Cambridge Choir were able to do when it was first performed by them in 1992 – Pärt wrote the piece for the Choir to perform at their Christmas Concert that year) but gentler-grained, like the pipings of woodwinds.

The Woman With the Alabaster Box (1997) came next – an interesting work, a setting of Matthew’s Gospel (from Chapter 26 Verse 7 onwards). Again, the piece was very nicely and ambiently sung, and somewhat more demanding to bring off compared with some of Pärt’s output, duet to the composer’s extending his harmonies to include some expressive dissonances. Interestingly, this was a setting of the words in English, the story of the woman who empties a box of expensive oil over Christ’s head, to the consternation of the disciples, who complain that the oil would have been better sold so that money could be given to the poor. In places the setting seemed almost deliberately unidiomatic, as if to avoid English speech stresses and render the words as pure sound – a kind of marmoreal effect, which I found was a bit alienating. I admired this work but didn’t fall in love with it!  Actually, I thought Cantoris’s performance was warmer than the one I heard on the commercial recording – here, we heard some lovely work in thirds from the men, well sustained, and carrying them through some uncertain moments later on. Throughout the concert, there was this imbalance between the men’s and women’s voices, the tenors and basses obviously missing strength of tone due to the effects from colds.

The next three items I did fall in love with! These were exerpts from the composer’s Kanon Pokajanen, written in 1995, an extended eighty-minute work in total, and dedicated by the composer to commemorate the 750th anniversary of Cologne Cathedral. This is a stunning work, and it features Pärt’s slow-moving triadic harmonies, intensifying in places into bell-like tones – a real embodiment of the composer’s idea of “tintinabuli”. The music has a strongly-flavoured Slavic tone, to my ears – I think you can hear that Russian Orthodox Chant tradition which the composer explored, very reminiscent, naturally of Rachmaninov’s writing for choirs in his Vespers – the same kind of sound, not like any other music I know. It places great demands on the singers, and Cantoris, again struggling in places with a slight imbalance between women’s and men’s voices managed to convey plenty of atmosphere and feeling. The women’s voices were particularly steady – very mesmeric and evocative. The occasional rawness of tone gave the performance an attractive “here-and-now” quality, rather than something that sounded as though it was being performed celestially or somewhere comparable on the other side of the Great Divide. While looking up information on the internet about recorded performances of this music, I read a heartfelt review of the work from a teenaged boy who described how he lay on his bed and sobbed at the music’s sheer beauty and expressive power – a life-changing experience, one would suspect. The work’s been famously recorded by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir on the ECM label – over eighty minutes of pure, simple other-worldly sound.

The concert finished with Pärt’s “Nunc Dimittis”, the well-known prayer for a soul’s departure*. Though not without some momentary unsteadiness in the voices at the initial cry, this was quickly corrected, and gave us that sense of humanity searching for the light – some lovely solo work from one of the sopranos, very secure in her pitching, creating a real feeling of frisson in places, and leading with surety towards the great moment of salutation of the light by the massed voices at the word “lumen”. Later there came more of Pärt’s tintinnabuli, bell-like oscillations from all parts of the choir, the men’s deep voices almost being felt rather than heard, and the women’s secure tones nicely pitched – the music seems not to resolve at the end, but simply stops, as if, in one’s mind the sounds repeat down the ages, representing humanity’s everlasting supplication towards light and goodness.

(*not “Out of the Depths” as I blurted out on air unthinkingly, which was, of course “De Profundis”)

The Plight of the Dischords, aka, New Zealand Clarinet Quartet

Music by Natalie Hunt, Iain Matheson, Evan Ware, Philip Brownlee, Jenö von Takács

The New Zealand Clarinet Quartet (or The Plight of the Dischords) (Debbie Rawson, Tui Clark, Hayden Sinclair, Nick Walshe)
(New Zealand School of Music)

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University of Wellington

Thursday 18 August, 7.30pm,

For the approximately 30 souls who braved yet another night of freezing temperatures, strong winds and driving rain, this was a rewarding occasion. The acoustics of the relatively intimate Council Chamber seemed just right for this combination of clarinets, played by such proficient performers. Despite the group’s subtitle, this was a demonstration of the euphonious and very flexible instruments that are clarinets.

Being a concert of contemporary music, with the oldest piece having been composed in 1975, a number of techniques were employed that were different from those one usually hears. The performances of works by New Zealand composers were premieres.

Interspersed through the programme in three groups were Natalie Hunt’s ten pieces named for birds – mainly New Zealand native birds. The composer, who was present, is herself a clarinettist, as well as an honours graduate in composition. The first, ‘Kawau’ [shag] was titled ‘Of a shyness that is criminally vulgar’. The printed programme did not divulge whether these phrases in quotation marks were written by Natalie Hunt, or by some other person.

This first piece began with breathing – the four players breathing through their instruments in contrasting rhythms. This was followed by a bird sound made through a clarinet mouthpiece only, and then all the players joined in. ‘Raven’ featured harmony; four clarinets in harmony, one being a bass clarinet, made a gorgeous sound.

The ‘Kaka’ began with a passage that interspersed vocal sound, breathing, and instrumental sounds. This time, the soprano clarinet was one of the instruments, and some delightfully unusual tones were emitted.

Iain Matheson is a Scotsman who studied with New Zealander Lyell Cresswell, in Edinburgh. His piece ‘And Another Thing’ was quirky, with bird-like sounds. There was great use of the various timbres the clarinet is capable of, but to my mind a little too much repetition.

We returned to Hunt’s ‘real’ birds, firstly ‘Flamingo’. This employed four ‘normal’ clarinets, one player making unusual sounds through his instrument rather than playing it in the usual fashion. These sounds were mysterious, rather like a marimba being played in the distance. ‘Toroa’ [albatross] featured breathing through the instruments once again, this time while two of the instruments, including the bass clarinet, playing conventionally, before all joined in. There were similarities with the ‘Raven’ piece heard earlier. The last in this group was ‘Piwkawaka’ [fantail]. The piece was appropriately flitty, with a jazzy rhythm.

The final piece in the first half was ‘Returnings’ by Evan Ware, an American composer influenced by John Adams, we were told. Apparently this composition was first created for Facebook – the medium becomes the message. It was certainly a minimalist work, but the sounds produced were enjoyable, including oscillations and high-pitched notes. The bass clarinettist conducted at several points – presumably when it was time to move on to the next section of music after reiterations of phrases.

After the interval, the first piece was ‘The stars like years’ by Wellington composer Philip Brownlee, who was present. The programme mentioned ‘an elongated sense of time and space’; certainly much of the music was reminiscent of the music used in space movies. The oscillations reminded me of ‘the music of the spheres’ which has inspired numbers of composers, based on the theories of the Greek philosophers up to and including Plato. Once or twice the instruments appeared not to be quite in tune with each other on unison notes – or was this deliberate? Certainly there were some very astringent discords. It is quite amazing what you can get out of a clarinet – not all of it easy on the ear. There was plenty of minimalist fabric in the piece, some of which was improvised ‘using sets of notated gestural materials’.

The programme returned to the last four of Natalie Hunt’s birds. ‘Swallow’ began with a solo that was evocative and attractive. The bass clarinet also had interesting and pleasing passages. The next bird was mythical: ‘Phoenix’. The phrase read ‘The rain washed you clean’ – was this from the ashes out of which the bird arose? This featured a solo also, and more oscillations (of which I was tiring by this time). Here, the bass clarinettist played an even smaller clarinet than Tui Clark’s soprano: sopranino?

The ‘Kahu’ (hawk) spoke in close harmony – and disharmony, while the last bird, ‘Kereru’ (pigeon) had a very active piece, with an authentic bird call, and fluffing sounds like the bird’s wings. This was a charming composition.

An Pan (To Pan) by Takács was in two movements: Pastorale and Bagpipes (Dudelsack). In this piece the four regular clarinets were used. Again there was oscillation, but also pastoral melodies, and shrieking discord on intervals of a second. The second movement carried the traits of the instrument described, being loud, even raucous.

It was an innovative concert, with a variety of new or nearly-new music performed with great skill and élan. The pieces by Natalie Hunt were particularly skilled, varied, descriptive, and thoroughly musical.

Overwhelmed by the splendour of it all – Latitude 37 in Wellington

STILE MODERNO – the genesis of the Baroque

Latitude 37

Julia Fredersdorff (baroque violin)

Laura Vaughan (viola da gamba/lirone)

Donald Nicolson (harpsichord)

Chamber Music New Zealand 2011

Ilott Theatre, Wellington

Monday 15th August 2011

Perhaps it was the fault of the snow that had been falling in Wellington for the first time in years – part of the extreme weather which had been causing all kinds of disruptions to musicians and their activities, with rehearsals having to be being cancelled and transport arrangements rethought. Even as Chamber Music CEO Euan Murdoch was introducing the concert (which was being broadcast nationally) the lights in the Ilott Theatre were flickering disconcertingly – of course the sounds of audience laughter had to be then explained to radio listeners, some of whom might have well been experiencing power surges and even failures of their own.

What about the snow, then, you may by now be thinking? Well, it must have transported a goodly proportion of my listening sensibilities to the state of “dreaming of a White Christmas”, because I simply couldn’t keep pace with the rapidity of change during the first half of Latitude 37’s richly-conceived and beautifully-played programme. I was following what I imagined was the order of listed items, and keeping up with things most satisfyingly (or so I thought) – when to my horror, after the three musicians had bowed and walked off the stage, up came the lights for the interval, leaving my expectations of more first-half music stranded somewhat at the Violin Sonata Seconda of Dario Castello, little more than halfway through the promised order!

When I looked around, nobody else in the audience seemed to be distressed or disconcerted or bewildered – everybody, it seemed, except for yours truly, was up with the play. Or were they? – I espied somebody I knew sitting a couple of rows away, somebody to whom I didn’t mind confessing a degree of appreciative ineptitude (I was hoping she wouldn’t spontaneously ejaculate the words, “Good heavens! – call yourself a critic?” or something similarly embarrassing). After furtively whispering my predicament to her, she reassured me by confessing that she, too, had gotten a bit lost with the order. I could have hugged her, but then that would have had to have been explained as well! – so I contented myself with a murmured “Well, thank goodness I’m not the only one….”

What the players had, in fact, done, was to run the endings and beginnings of different works so closely together as to make it difficult for the uninitiated ear to distinguish them from one another. As practically none of the music was familiar to me (though I thought I “knew” the baroque style sufficiently to be able to make distinctions between movements and, indeed, different works) I had gotten myself horribly lost, left behind in an ensnarement of lavishly-decorated and stunningly realized cornucopia of baroque splendor. I had taken notes on what I thought were individual works along the way, but upon reading them, realized that I had myself “run the movements together” and ascribed different strains of the music to the wrong works – and so on.

Why am I confessing up to this? Why would I want my incompetence as a listener, moreover, a self-appointed ANALYTICAL listener revealed to the world? Do I have some “hidden agenda” in mind, such as a kind of “did he fall or was he pushed” early retirement from “Middle C”? I must confess , it was, in retrospect, a delight of a concert from beginning to end, my confusion as to its exact provenance at any given time mattering not a whit to the spontaneous and incidental pleasure the musicians were generating around and about my receptive, if undiscriminating ears. Did I HAVE to know exactly where we were at any given point in order to appreciate the music’s and the performances’ qualities?

Sir Thomas Beecham was quoted once as saying that “The English may not like music, but they simply LOVE the noise it makes”.  After the experience of “losing my way” in both halves of this splendid-sounding concert of Baroque music, I’ve come to the conclusion that mine could well be a very Beechamesque appreciation of the same. Still, I figured that the experience of being “humbled” in a music appreciation sense, and confessing to it all in public is ultimately a valuable one for a critic. Apart from the “keeping me in my proper place”  process, it’s demonstrated at first hand to me what many people possibly feel when confronted with unfamiliar music at concerts in general. However much some concertgoers may “love” the sounds, they may simply not have the time for anything more than a cursory listen to music outside the live concert experience, so that the sounds do seem to run together for them, in a pleasing, but relatively undifferentiated way.

Enough of this self-flagellation – (my continuing in this vein might persuade some readers that I’m actually ENJOYING the experience!). So, what can I impart, in a critical sense, of what I heard in the Ilott Theatre that evening? This was one of two programs being toured by Latitude 37, as far as I was concerned, for me the more obscure of the two, as I knew not a single note of any of the composers’ music. The “other” concert featured music by Buxtehyde, Biber, JS Bach – to mention only one letter of the alphabet – and Pachelbel (yes, the Canon, but accompanied by its Gigue!), so Wellington was favored with the more esoteric-sounding program. Still, as I’d heard the group previously in concert, and knew just how inspiring and involving their music-making could be, I expected that, well-known or otherwise, the works featured would exert their own unique magic – and thus it proved.

On paper, what would one make of Canzon a due by somebody called Bartolome de Selma y Salverde, whose music began the concert? Apparently the composer’s only work ever published, it possessed an attractive initial melancholy before quickening in pulse, demonstrating plenty of flexibility and impulsive volatility (well, with a name like his, the composer was obviously a Spaniard). The players talked about the music – Laura Vaughan, who alternated between her viola da gamba and a smaller, more exotic-looking multi-stringed instrument called a sirone, talked about composers “freeing music from Renaissance polyphony, and expressing more individual emotion” as well as emphasizing the aspect of performer improvisation. This was a theme further developed by harpsichordist Donald Nicolson, who spoke about the phenomenon of much of the music we were to hear not actually having been written down – his own playing had a number of instances of seemingly-spontaneous impulses of melismatic energy, which invariably set the textures of the music fizzing and crackling. Violinist Julia Fredersdorff talked about the interchangeability of much Baroque music, citing Dario Castello’s Quarta Sonata a Due, Soprano e Trombon over Violetta as a work that was here transcribed for violin and bass viol, the different instruments bringing their own qualities to bear on the written (and improvised) notes.

Throughout the concert I was much taken by the music’s extraordinary freedom of expression within the prescribed boundaries of performance. The players were able to explore what seemed like vast potentialities of elaboration, but as individuals in dialogue with one another, not merely reproducing aimless, elaboration-for-its-own-sake activity. I could occasionally feel points of saturation being explored, which led me to imagine how such a style of playing and composing, if carried to extremes, could actually collapse under its own weight of elaboration – which, of course, was what happened to the Baroque style, eventually pushing succeeding composers in new, rather less over-laden directions.

I was perhaps more successful in “keeping up” with the item changes in this half of the concert, though finding that, towards the end, I couldn’t vouch for surety as to which item we’d reached (completing my humiliation). I like to think it was my survival instinct rather than a prurient streak in my makeup which, towards the end of the concert, quickened my interest in the music of one Tarquinio Merula, whose brief program bio-sketch had him “dismissed for indecency” from a position he held in Bergamo. His Ciaccona sounded anything but indecent, instead graceful and dance-like, featuring viola and violin playing in the same register to an interesting coloristic effect, the manoeuvres demonstrating great teamwork and beautifully-shared inflections of the music’s lines (mind you, I could have been describing either Claudio Merulo’s Toccata Terza or Maurizio Cazzati’s Balletto Quarto – but I hoped not).

Far more importantly than any self-consciously scholarly summation of the concert’s fine detail I might have pursued, I felt by the concert’s end as if I had been completely immersed in a whole era’s bevy of musical sounds and achieved a greater understanding of and love for the generous-cum-self-indulgent excesses of the baroque composer. No better advocates of a highly distinctive and inescapably grand period of music-making would I have wished for than Latitude 37, that evening.