Two former schools chamber music contest winners return in international roles

Chamber Music New Zealand

Alwyn Westbrooke: “?”, or: Why Gryphons Shouldn’t Dance
Ravel: Trio in A minor
Schubert: Piano Trio no.2 in E flat, Op.100, D929

Saguaro Trio (John Chen, piano, Luanne Homzy, violin, Peter Myers, cello)

Wellington Town Hall

Wednesday, 3 August 2011, 7.30pm

It cannot be too often that two young people who both played in the Schools Chamber Music Contest in the same year appear on the same top-flight CMNZ tour merely ten years later, one as pianist and the other as composer.

Yet that was the case in this CMNZ programme in Wellington, part of a tour of ten centres in New Zealand, to be followed by a five-city tour in Australia. In the local tour, the Saguaro Trio will perform in both the Taranaki and the Christchurch Music Festivals (good on Christchurch for going ahead with their Festival!)

The Trio has had great success since it formed in 2007, the very next year winning competitions in Japan, and in the USA, where all three were then based, and an important competition in Hamburg, where all three now live, in 2009. (The photograph in the CMNZ subscription brochure for this year shows a different cellist.)

In the Hamburg contest, eight different trios were required to be played – a very demanding programme. On this tour, six different works are being performed.

The work by Alwyn Westbrooke, who was a student at Burnside High School in Christchurch when he had success as both composer and performer in the Contest, and uniquely won both the performance first prize (as a violinist with his quartet) and the composition prize, was a commission by CMNZ. Its composer heard it for the first time at the beginning of this tour, in Invercargill.

His work opened the programme. It came over as an experiment in sounds, but with coherence. The word ‘beauty’ does not come to mind, however. Various unusual techniques were applied to the string instruments. I thought ‘There must be some plucking of the piano strings soon’, and sure enough! It seems to be obligatory these days. There was extraordinary playing from all three performers, but especially from John Chen. However, I did not find the work engaging.

The Ravel trio has a very gentle, vague opening, evoking thoughts of ‘Where are we? What key are we in?’ It received strong yet subtle playing. The delicious reverie, particularly in the piano part, summons idyllic thoughts and images. This movement calls on Basque folk dance, and evokes a mysterious atmosphere. As the programme note put it “…a wistful movement… dominated by rhythmic fluctuations and hypnotically shifting harmonies.”

The second movement was quite lively and exotic, yet enchanting. Then came the more contemplative Passacaille third. It was played with fluidity, fluency and finesse. It even became solemn, with use of the lower register of the piano. The final movement gradually livened up – but this is predominantly a mellow, graceful work.

These performers demonstrated first-class balance and blend. Their ensemble was near-perfect in timing, intonation, dynamics, expression and interpretation. Only a couple of times towards the end of the final work did I hear a couple of rum notes.

In the Ravel work the strings tend to work as a pair. The Canadian violinist was a semi-finalist in the Michael Hill Violin Competition in New Zealand last year; both she and the American cellist had thorough techniques and grasp of the music, but both were undemonstrative performers. The deft, accomplished playing of the whole trio made it clear why they had won in Hamburg – and why there was no second place-getter to rival their achievement.

However, the pianist has probably the greater say in the Ravel trio, and John Chen’s playing had assurance yet sensitivity.

Like all of Schubert’s major works the Trio in E flat is quite long – and quite delightful. It is full of fertile melodies and lovely harmonies. Its mood is happy, sombre and exultant by turns.

Listening to the Saguaro Trio, one would think that they had been playing this music together for years, and it reminded me of hearing the great Beaux Arts Trio play it in Wellington years ago; it left a permanent impression. (Menahem Pressler, the pianist in that group, was chair of the judging panel at the Hamburg competition that the Saguaro Trio won.)

A fiery, passionate, yet at times romantic allegro opens the work. ‘…Schubert managed to achieve balance between the instruments, never allowing the piano part to dominate’ as the writer of the programme note said; the performers achieved this equality.

The andante second movement opens with a sombre cello them which is then taken up by the piano; here and elsewhere in the movement the pianissimos were gorgeous. The vigorous scherzo is partnered by a chorale-like trio, of much heavier mood and expression, then the cheerful, extravert finale arrives, thoughtful as well as animated. It returns to the melody of the second movement, played lyrically with rich, sonorous tone by Peter Myers.

The Saguaro Trio is a consummate ensemble; a combination of superb musicians in complete accord. I will be most surprised if they don’t hit the ‘big time’ quite soon.

There was a reasonably good house, but I thought there would be more people come to hear well-known New Zealander John Chen play, and to experience the interesting programme. It was pleasing to see a considerable proportion of young people attending; appropriate, since the players themselves are all young.

A night to savour – Britten’s “Dream” enchants at NZSM

BRITTEN – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (opera in 3 acts)

The New Zealand School of Music, Wellington

Director: Sara Brodie

Cast:  The Fairies – Joe Baxter (Puck) / Bianca Andrew (Oberon) / Bridget Costello (Tytania) / Angelique MacDonald (Cobweb) / Amelia Ryman (Peaseblossom) / Daniela Young (Mustardseed) / (Christina Orgias (Moth)  Mitchell Chin (Indian Boy)

The Lovers – Imogen Thirwall (Hermia) / Thomas Atkins (Lysander) / Bryony Williams (Helena) / Kieran Rayner (Demetrius)

The Mechanicals – Simon Harnden (Peter Quince) / Thomas O’Brien (Flute) / Christian Thurston (Snug) / Fredi Jones (Starveling) / William McElwee (Snout) / Thomas Barker (Bottom)

The Royals – Robert Gray (Theseus) / Emily Simcox (Hippolyta)

Chorus: Awhina Waimotu / Rebekah Giesbers / Esther Leefe / Isabella Moore / Tess Robinson

New Zealand School Of Music Opera Orchestra (Leader: Arna Shaw)

Conductor: Michael Vinten

Memorial Theatre,Victoria University of Wellington

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

Performances to come: Saturday 6th (sold out) / Tuesday 9th August

Enchanting! – put simply, a “must-see!” production – so all-pervading was the atmosphere emanating from the stage of the Memorial Theatre I found myself enjoying a child’s delight at the magical evocations of sight and sound, the production taking me to what felt like the beating heart of a creative fusion of words, movement and music. I did have wits about me enough to scribble a few things in the dark along the way, mostly hardly intelligible afterwards – but I had little need of these skeletal hieroglyphics, as only part of me was awakened at the end, leaving other parts even now still dreaming the wood outside Athens and the shadowy epilogues of the “most lamentable comedy” performed by the Mechanicals in the house of Duke Theseus.

Bearing in mind what I’d heard concerning the almost perversion-ridden and voyeuristic slants taken by some recent overseas productions of this opera, I read beforehand with some relief in director Sara Brodie’s notes her avowed desire to “celebrate and balance the scales in favour of revealing the lighter side of Britten’s genius”, thus holding at arm’s length the current, somewhat pathological urge on the part of opera directors to imbue established works with spurious, and often, at the most, peripheral up-datings and psycho-analytical re-workings. Brodie’s significant comment regarding directorial alternatives for this production – “such journeying…I suspect, would have led to darkness” is evidently well borne out elsewhere in the operatic world, and, one would think in some cases, to everybody’s cost in the long run. The power of mere suggestion was, by contrast, here amply brought into play by the Mozartean ambivalence (hang on, but who came first, da Ponte or Shakespeare?) of the lovers towards one another at the conclusion (well, maybe) of their confused and dream-like re-partnerings (echoes of another opera, Cosi fan tutte, indeed…perhaps I meant Britten – or Mozart!).

Britten’s genius was, I think, expressed in completely entering the Shakespearean world of “reality versus dream” that runs almost seamlessly through the latter’s works, with merely Lysander’s line “compelling thee to marry with Demetrius” being the sole, explanatory non-Shakespeare original utterance in the opera. Writing as someone who’s acted in the original play, I’m at every hearing struck freshly dumb at Britten’s imaginative response to words and dramatic situations I imagined I already knew, but realize how much more there is still to know. Far more than merely re-activating that process for me, this production stimulated wonder that Britten hadn’t subsequently turned to that most operatic of Shakespearean plays, “The Tempest”, one which might have, I suspect, as strongly fired his creative sensibilities (alas, my wish the stuff of different kinds of dreams, I fear.)

That chink of curtained magic and mystery which parted to the touch of the sweetly-pyjama-ed “Indian Boy” at the beginning drew us inexorably into the world of Faery, the orchestral playing darkly- and diaphonously-woven under conductor Michael Vinten’s direction (the orchestra on the stage), and the fairies of marvellously unearthly substance, singing with haunting tones, and galvanized by Puck’s equally fantastical but more visceral and volatile appearance, brilliantly realized throughout by Joe Baxter. Our audience-space was magically enveloped by the warring monarchs of Fairyland, Oberon and Tytania, hurling their opening disputations across the auditorium’s vistas, drawing us into the conflict over the “Indian Boy”. As Oberon, Bianca Andrew’s richly-wrought tones brilliantly and easefully negotiated music the composer originally conceived for a counter-tenor (the renowned Alfred Deller was the role’s creator), and her haughty deportment and piercingly-focused gaze powerfully informed her scenes with the equally implacable Tytania of Bridget Costello (who made a drop-dead stunning appearance upon the auditorium’s stairs). Though the latter’s singing wanted a shade more vocal allure in places (during her love-potion-induced reaction to the bemused ass-headed Bottom, for instance) she looked wonderful, and made something lasting of “Oh, how I love thee – how I dote on thee!”

Both fairy monarchs are slightly undone, Oberon by Puck’s injurious approximations with the flower’s love-juices, and Tytania by being, of course, temporarily “enamor’d of an ass”. Oberon’s thwarted desires brought out nicely-accented tantalizing touches of androgynously-coloured eroticism in his dealings with the hapless Puck, though I felt Tytania’s parallel journeyings through her dream-experience didn’t seem greatly to infuse her subsequent character (she’s somewhat inert and “unconnecting” with Oberon in the dance sequence when he sings “Now thou and I are new in amity”, thus failing to suggest that the experience of her “sleep” has actually touched her in any way). This certainly wasn’t the case with the lovers, whose experiences in the Athens wood (so rich a symbol of what outwardly conceals the inner fecundity and revelatory power of the mind’s explorations) were depicted as having changed them forever, in terms of both the world and their inner selves – their subconsciously-driven partner-exchange dance after their final awakening an insightful representation, I thought, of the deeply equivocal nature of things, akin to an “elective affinities” scenario, with which the story leaves us.

As much as the excellence of most of the singing I was struck by the security and confidence of the acting of the couples – they LOOKED so right, for one, and throughout their marriage of movement and gesture to their vocal declamations had a rightness that I felt faltered only during parts of the confrontation scene between Hermia and Helena, when for me the musical and dramatic focus was blurred with too much stage movement – we lost some of the poignancy of Helena’s grief at Hermia’s apparent rending of “our ancient love asunder”, much of which was sacrificed to excessive hurly-burly. This impression apart, I found so much to admire in each performance, securely sung and characterfully acted. I liked the differentiation between them – Thomas Atkins’ Lysander very boyish, overcoming some initial inertia and producing some beautiful singing of some of his later phrases, and Kieran Rayner’s more worldly Demetrius, the voice ever-sonorous and expressive as to word-values. The women were similarly contrasted, Imogen Thirwell’s demure aspect and beautifully modulated utterances as Hermia a perfect foil for Bryony Williams’ wonderfully uninhibited Helena, vocally and dramatically risking composure in search of the appropriate expression, and engaging our sympathy throughout.

Against these “real” people, the cardboard cut-out figures of Duke Theseus and his Queen Hippolyta were always going to struggle; and Robert Gray and Emily Simcox did their best with ungrateful parts, singing their phrases clearly and directly (dressed thus, I feel sure I also would have had trouble with Theseus’s words “Hippolyta, I woo’d thee with my sword and won thy love, doing thee injuries”….perhaps a notch or two more dramatic stylization of their characters might have helped overlay the occasional chinks of discomfort evinced by people with, in reality, very little to do – the “idle rich” personified, no doubt). However, there was definitely not a shred of doubt regarding the status of the renowned “Mechanicals”, the group of common workmen desirous of performing a play for the nuptial celebrations of their Master, the Duke. Their representation on stage was, here, simply a delight from beginning to end. The plum of the parts is, of course, Bottom, played and sung here with terrific energy and enviable dramatic skill by Thomas Barker – one imagines his skills would be as successfully applied to spoken theatre as to opera, though the latter would be the poorer if such a circumstance were to take him in the other direction. His command of the stage in places was unequivocal, though such was the strength of the production’s dramatic instincts for balance, his rustic collaborators were by no means overshadowed.

While Bottom more-or-less superimposes his own personality upon his part of the hero, Pyramus, in the play, the others, apart from the group’s nominal leader, Peter Quince, have “double-personae” with whom to engage. Firstly, William McElwee’s Snout diverted us greatly with his Wall and chink, while, together with Bottom as Pyramus, Thomas O’Brien’s Flute won our hearts against all good judgement with his tremulous portrayal of Thisbe, Pyramus’s would-be sweetheart. Christian Thurston’s Snug the joiner awakened our sympathies for the underdog before assuming the Lion in the play to wrathful effect; while Fredi Jones’s Starveling marvellously delineated his own discomfiture on stage as Moonshine, and his annoyance at being constantly interrupted! And finally, in the first utterances of the group’s nominal leader, Peter Quince, we enjoyed the sonorous tones of Simon Harnden, whose rich bass-baritone I would anticipate hearing more of, in years to come.

This was a stunningly-dressed production – there simply wasn’t a costume that I thought didn’t do its job nicely, a tribute to the expertise of designer Diane Brodie. The colours and configurations of these shone truly and satisfyingly throughout, apart from one or two upstage moments (generally avoided by the director, and with good reason) where people emerged from relative gloom into the full atmospheric splendor of Tony Rabbit’s fluidly-applied lighting scheme. Incidentally, the proscenium arch also seemed to my ears a barrier to vocal quality and volume, though again, Sara Brodie cannily kept things well to the fore as often as she could.

No praise can be too high for conductor Michael Vinten, and for his committed, hard-working musicians, whose realization of Britten’s score had, at their best by turns moments of such evocative mystery, gossamer loveliness, and bright, unequivocal gaiety as to take one’s breath away in many places. True, there were a couple of moments, especially towards the end, where the string tone faltered and some orchestral poise had to be regained. But my over-riding impression was one of kaleidoscopic beauty and infectious energy, with many and varied contributions (special mention must be made of trumpeter Raynor Martin, dragged around and about the stage on a leash by the mischievous Puck during one of the former’s fiendish first-act trumpet solos, yet managing to accurately hit nearly all of his notes in a spirited fashion!) Added to this was singing from the chorus that also made many moments unforgettable, none more so than the lump-in-the-throat conclusion to Act Two, when the assembled fairy group sings the unearthly “On the ground, sleep sound” to the exhausted and totally confused lovers. It was a moment that for me seemed to sum up the achievement of director Sara Brodie and all others concerned with this beautiful production – a New Zealand premiere of the work, incidentally; and one of which the same people (and opera-lovers in general in this country) can be justly proud.