Messiaen: La Nativité du Seigneur from Thomas Gaynor at St Paul’s

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Friday 16 December 2011, 12.45pm

While writing this review I was listening to the radio: choirs and audience were singing the New Zealand Anthem in the Wellington Town Hall, at the conclusion of this year’s ‘Big Sing’ Secondary Schools Choral Festival.  Accompanying the singing was – Thomas Gaynor, on the organ of the Town Hall.

It is great to see a young man of such talent take up the organ, and win numbers of scholarships, as Thomas Gaynor has.  Approximately 40 people were there to hear his playing, in this last of the year’s “Great Music” series a the Cathedral.

Olivier Messiaen’s work (The Nativity of Our Lord, in English) is quite enchanting, and full of huge contrasts.  It was pleasant to have a whole recital devoted to one composer, and one work, instead of the usual dodging from one style and musical language to another.

In addition to a descriptive phrase in the printed programme after the titles of each of the nine parts of the work, often quoted from the Bible, there was a lengthy quotation from the composer’s own writing about his composition.

The work could be described as an ecstatic utterance, but at the same time, controlled.  Much of the music is very quiet in this 1935 composition.  The composer says “Emotion and sincerity above all else”.  The note goes on to explain that there are three viewpoints: theology, instrumentation and music, and then describes which movements cover the several theological ideas.

This is followed by a description of the instrumentation, i.e. use of registrations of the ranks of pipes, after the statement “…each piece is laid out in large panels.  An economical use of timbre in tuttis of varying colours and densities…”.  Finally, he describes his means of expression, such as “the chord on the dominant”.

The first section is titled “The Virgin and the Child.   It is quietly contemplative, yet with rich harmonies, and some of Messiaen’s beloved bird-song.  Towards the end there is a wonderful ppp sequence.

“The Shepherds” come next.  The music appears simpler, with short, detached treble chords against continuous harmony in the left hand. The effect of hearing the shepherds from a distance, followed by a more vibrant passage which seems closer echoes the words: “…the shepherds returning home, glorifying and praising God.”

The third movement is entitled “Eternal Purposes”, which is appropriately slow and grand, with great clarity.  There was considerable use of the bass, with light treble accompaniment.

“The Word” featured more clustered chords, with strong pedal below, and lots of discords.

“The Children of God” was a very thoughtful section, like a continuous song in the treble, with sparse accompaniment of slow, modulating chords, including use of the pedals, which had mostly not been obvious in the previous movements.

The music became much more extraverted for “The Angels”, with thick chords perhaps conveying the celestial army.  After a brief time of flamboyance, the music died down and became angular, with sharp treble passages floating very fast into the high stratosphere of pipes, shimmering like heavenly beings.

“Jesus Accepts Suffering” featured rough, low chords, and a pedal solo interspersed between chords, leading to a loud ending.

Movement VII, “The Magi” used the pedals as the soprano solo line in a chorale-like melody with a very light treble accompaniment.  Towards the end, the treble line changed to flutes for a most attractive conclusion.

The final movement “God among us” begins with a stark, loud opening, followed by loud notes on the pedals. There is much contrast in registration and rhythms.  The texture thickens towards the end, before a magnificent, double forte concluding passage.

It goes without saying that Messiaen’s music is utterly individual, and his knowledge of and use of the organ is superbly idiosyncratic, hugely varied, and masterly.

It was a tour-de-force and a triumph for a young organist to play this hour-long work. with such sensitivity and accomplishment.  There was always lots going on for both hands and feet, never mind the changes of registration.

Messiaen, I’m sure, would have been pleased, and proud of this performance.


Peter Walls’s years as NZSO’s chief ends with excellent didactic performance

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in Close Encounters:of the symphonic kind

Conductor and commentator: Peter Walls

Schubert: first movement of the Unfinished Symphony; Wagner: Siegfried Idyll; Mendelssohn: Hebrides Overture

 Wellington Town Hall

Thursday 15 December, 6.30pm

The NZSO brought its year to an end (apart from a family-oriented appearance at Te Papa on Saturday) with two ‘outreach’ concerts which gave retiring chief executive Peter Walls the chance to demonstrate both his conducting prowess and his distinctive gifts as a musical communicator, with words.

The hall was almost full, with many family groups, and lots of faces unfamiliar at regular orchestral concerts. This second concert, running little over an hour, dwelt on the emergence of Romanticism in music, where Walls drew frequent contrasts with the music of the classical period which he had discussed on the previous evening. His starting point was the famous 1808 concert that Beethoven mounted of his own works including both his 5th and 6th symphonies.

His introductory scene-setting: ‘On a cold, windy and wet evening in December’ – and he paused before saying – ‘1808’, prompted the audience, laughing, to recall the conditions outside (That amazing, four-hour concert also included the 4th Piano Concerto, parts of the Mass in C major and the Choral Fantasy, Op 80!) .

Schubert’s luck was far worse than Beethoven’s of course. He abandoned his Symphony in B Minor and never heard the two completed movements at all. Walls’s lively characterisation of the changes that the Romantic movement made to composers’ aims and expectations in music would have alerted the audience, particularly those who’d been at the earlier concert, to the greater attention to the expression of feelings as formal classical shapes, still very important, were no longer music’s main preoccupation. And though the orchestra did not play anything of Schubert’s very Mozartian 5th Symphony, Walls pointed to the big step towards Romanticism that Schubert had taken in the very few years between it and the ‘Unfinished’.

Walls used the occasion to point interestingly to other shifts that were taking place during the Romantic era: one was the elevation of the composer to a position approaching stardom, no longer merely a servant of a court or cathedral, but an admired artist who could, by the 19th century, support himself, independent of patrons (Handel and others, especially in the field of opera, had done so at least a century earlier). The atmosphere of sanctity, silence during the performance, dimmed lighting, the slow move against clapping between and during movements: all these were signs of the changes in the view of ‘serious’ music, and of composer as ‘genius’ during the 19th century.

Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll took matters a great deal further – fifty years further in fact, far more than the distance between Beethoven’s and Schubert’s symphonies. Though he talked about the derivation of the Idyll from the music Wagner was writing for the Ring cycle at the time, he was also at pains to draw attention to the four parts of the work and to illustrate the ways in which the ideas evolved. It also served to remind the audience about the orchestra’s scheduled performances next year of Die Walküre, the biggest such undertaking since Parsifal in 2006.

The last piece in the concert moved back 40 years from Wagner’s piece. Even though Mendelssohn and Wagner hardly saw eye to eye on musical aesthetics, the Hebrides Overture also served to show how classical forms could be turned to the service of musical scene-painting or narrative. The orchestra was reduced in size for these concerts (strings numbering 12, 10, 8, 6, 4 and merely double winds); not even the Wagner piece was written for a full symphony orchestra – as a charming birthday present for his wife, Cosima, it was originally scored for 13 players. Yet in the Town Hall the sound was big and rich, and while skeptics might suggest that with an orchestra of such quality these pieces played themselves, there was no doubt that under Peter Walls, the players were investing the music with full commitment and a warm Romantic spirit.

The orchestral climate
Peter Walls’s nine years as CEO have seen the orchestra’s standing domestically and internationally greatly enhanced; but there is no room for complacency. Though it was the Vector Wellington Orchestra that was the focus of the most immediate concern over likely funding threats by Creative New Zealand, more serious collateral damage to the NZSO has to be considered in the longer term. The findings of a study by an overseas orchestral consultant of New Zealand’s professional orchestral sector is awaited with some trepidation. One of the orchestra’s difficulties, a result of its extensive touring demands, is that it actually presents fewer separate programmes as distinct from concerts, than for example does the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.

Parochial pressures from two other major cities that have often argued for the dismemberment of the NZSO and distribution of the NZSO’s round $13 million of State funding to them may be quiescent at present but remain serious. The ambitions of misguided rivals ignore the fact that an orchestra with a 65-year history that is widely considered the best in the Southern Hemisphere, makes a vital contribution to New Zealand’s reputation as a civilized state that can demonstrate excellence in more spheres than (sporadically) in sport.


Adventurous and educational leaving-taking by NZSO’s conductor-chief executive

Close Encounters of the Symphonic Kind 1: “Classical Drive:

Mozart: Symphony no.31 K.297 “Paris”; first movement
Beethoven: Symphony no.1 Op.21; first movement
Beethoven: Symphony no.7 Op.92; second movement
Mozart: Overture to The Magic Flute K.620

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Peter Walls (conductor and speaker)

Wellington Town Hall

Wednesday, 14 December 2011 at 6.30pm

The hour-long concert was devised, and proved to be, a good introduction to classical music for those who wanted a taste to see if they would like to plunge in.  The concert was free, and the hall almost full.

Surely not many CEOs of orchestras are also conductors; it is probably rare for a symphony orchestra Chief Executive officer to conduct the orchestra as a swan-song to his job.  Of course, Peter Walls is an experienced conductor, but mainly of smaller ensembles.

The orchestra, a smaller one than the full band, was led for these concerts by Lyndon Johnston Taylor, Assistant Concertmaster, soon to return to the United States.

The tasters to several major works by Mozart and Beethoven were introduced by Walls in amusing and informative fashion.  He avoided the use of technical terms, and held the attention of the appreciative audience, telling us the reasons for the works’ composition, as well as something of their content.

The playing of the Mozart symphony was vigorous, with plenty of contrast in the gentler sections.  Conductor and orchestra certainly brought out the detail, and the playing had rhythmic vitality.  I enjoyed the energy of the performance.

Peter Walls demonstrated how we instinctively know harmonic sequences – but in the stress of the moment he messed up his example, ‘Away in a manger’.  Nevertheless, the characters of tonic and dominant were explained well, with the image of taking off and landing a plane, cruising at altitude, encountering turbulence etc., a worthy vehicle for illustrating sonata form.  (In turn, I have used sonata form to describe to people knowing music, how to write an essay.)

Beethoven’s first symphony is obviously his nearest to the period of Mozart, and its first movement had a theatrical feel about it in this performance.  It was a lively performance that periodically swept me away, even though the work was very familiar.  As Beethoven’s contemporary critic said, it had ‘a wealth of ideas’.

At the end, the trumpet made a great sound, adding guts to the already thoroughly committed performance.

More Beethoven came next, in the form of the second movement of the seventh symphony, first performed 13 years after the first symphony.

This movement must have appeared novel at the first hearing, opening with no violins – cellos and basses alone giving a spooky sound which was very effective.  The violas enter with a theme counterpointed to that of the lower strings, then the second violins enter in like fashion, and finally the first violins do the same.  After this, the sumptuous clarinet comes in with a significant melody.

Both the programme note and Peter Walls mentioned the use of this movement as theme music for the film The King’s Speech, and the ‘fusion of poignancy and determination’ which attracted the film-makers.  It made me think of the vulnerability of both men, due to their handicaps: Beethoven’s deafness, and King George VI’s stammering.

Hearing just one movement of each symphony, preceded by Peter Walls’s introductions (along with short examples of motifs etc. from the orchestra) sharpened perception of Beethoven’s skill and invention more than sometimes happens when listening to a whole symphony.

The overture to The Magic Flute was a great choice for a concert such as this.  As Peter Walls explained very well in his introduction, it contains humorous characters, and themes to match, and also a more serious side, including Masonic symbolism; Mozart was a member of a lodge.

This serious side, Walls spelt out, was illustrated by the unusual use of trombones in the music; they were normally employed at this period only in religious music.  Here, they underlined the quasi-religious and serious aspect of Masonic tenets.

In this glorious music, the woodwind were especially notable.

The concert ended on a high note, and thanks were expressed to the Wellington Community Trust for their sponsorship of the series of two concerts (the next evening’s was to feature Schubert, Wagner and Mendelssohn in Close Encounter 2: “Romantic Longing”.

For those with a printed programme there was added value: a Glossary at the back of common Italian “Speed Words” (allegro etc.) and “Dynamics” (piano, fortissimo etc.), and a short essay “The Language of classical Music in 500 words”, by Milan Kundera.



A variety of carols in a variety of guises at St Andrew’s

Joy to the world: a selection of Christmas music

Robyn Jaquiery (piano), Clarissa Dunn (soprano), Ryan Smith (accordion?), Paul Rosoman (organ), Andrew Weir (trumpet), Ariana Odermatt (piano), Karyn Andreassend (soprano), Tre-Belle (Karyn Andreassend, Jennifer Little, soprano, Jess Segal, mezzo soprano)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 14 December 2011, 12.15pm

Unfortunately, I missed the first item on the programme, hence the question mark above, which is based on the biographical information in the concert programme.  That item was a traditional French song, Le Sommeil de l’enfant Jesus.

Rhapsodie sur des Noëls, an organ piece by Eugene Gigout (1844-1925) was played by Paul Rosoman on the main organ, in the gallery.  The piece featured variations on the Christmas carol we know as O Come all ye Faithful (Adeste Fidelis); it was very effective.

The next item was given in the programme as Gloria in excelsis deo (the Latin words of the refrain) by Handel, but known to us as the traditional French carol; in English, ‘Angels from the realms of glory’.  It was performed in the gallery by Paul Rosoman and Andrew Weir.  I did not find the arrangement appealing; the complicated variations on trumpet and organ with percussion made me wish for the sung version.

Clarissa Dunn announced the items (many of which involved colleagues of hers at Radio New Zealand), but they needed to be made more loudly and slowly in a large and resonant building like this.  So often we have young musicians performing well in this splendid venue, but they have not taken the care to think how their speaking must be projected for everyone to hear.  It does not require shouting, but maintaining the voice at an appropriate level, and slowing down, rather than speaking to the front few rows only.  The printed programme thanked Clarissa for programme notes, and they may have been better in that form, rather than spoken.

Her singing of ‘He shall feed his flock’ from Handel’s Messiah was lovely; the piano accompaniment was not.  Ariana Odermatt is a harpsichord specialist, and I assume was intending to play in a style that would be appropriate for that instrument, without sustaining pedal.  But the accompaniment was written for small orchestra, not harpsichord alone.  Playing on the baroque chamber organ in the church might have been more appropriate.  The piano is not authentic for this music anyway, so why play it as if it is?  The result was ugly.

The same applied to the next item, also from Messiah: ‘Rejoice greatly’, sung with great clarity by Karyn Adnreassend.  It was a fine performance from the singer, with clarity, clear words, and florid passages executed admirably, though there were a few occasions of dubious intonation.

The piano accompaniment was better.  However, I consider that if one is playing the piano, surely it should be played in a way that is idiomatic for that instrument, not in a way that is idiomatic for another instrument.  Yes, use authentic style but not to the point where ugliness distracts from the music.

I was interested to note at the next evening’s Opera Society concert, that Amber Rainey accompanied Handel and Mozart using the pedal judiciously; the result was tasteful, musical, and appropriate to the grand piano.

Clarissa Dunn followed with a beautifully sung Maria Wiegenlied (lullaby) by Max Reger, accompanied on the piano by Paul Rosoman.  Here, the accompaniment was written for the piano; it matched the voice well.

Rosoman played the symphony from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, employing the gorgeous flute stops on the small organ.  It, too, was written for orchestra, but the versatility of the organ substituted well.  It was well played, and most enjoyable – what a delicious piece of music!  However, something needs to be done about the creaking organ stool!  Maybe it needs to be screwed up more tightly, or perhaps it requires oiling.  Certainly, it needs some attention.

This was followed by a traditional Catalan carol ‘El cant dels ocells (song of the birds; no note as to who arranged it), performed by Odermatt and Dunn.  Here the piano was played using the pedal.  It was an attractive song, sung with flair and expression.

Brahms’s organ music has never appealed to me particularly – perhaps the piano is more his forte.  Yet Rosoman made a good job of his chorale prelude ‘Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen’, on the main organ.  The piece was short and sweet.

Next came that saccharine number O Holy Night by Adolphe Adam, (1803-1856, famous also for the score of the ballet Giselle).  This was performed by the vocal trio Tre-Belle, with Ariana Odermatt on the piano.  The trio sang without scores, and their voices matched well.  However, one singer consistently turned her back on part of the audience, to face her colleagues.  Those people would not have heard her. The piano sounded wooden, with not enough change of emphasis or phrasing.  It might have sounded better, in accompanying three voices rather than just one, with the lid open.

The concert, which was rather long, ended in jolly fashion with the carol Joy to the World. The music is allegedly by Handel, but in this case it was sung (with audience joining in), in an arrangement by John Rutter, with Andrew Weir on trumpet in two of the three verses, and Paul Rosoman playing the main organ.

A Britten Christmas from Nota Bene

A Britten Christmas: Alla Marcia; A Hymn to the Virgin; Simple Symphony; Rosa Mystica; Sweet was the Song; The Sycamore Tree; Saint Nicolas cantata.

Nota Bene Chamber Choir, conducted by Michael Vinten, with soloists, and orchestra, Amber Rainey and Ken Ryan (piano) and Douglas Mews (organ) in Saint Nicolas.

Sacred Heart Mary Cathedral, Hill Street

Sunday, 11 December, 2.30pm

Hearing two programmes of Britten’s choral music in two days (less than 24 hours) may be some kind of record, apart from at Aldeburgh perhaps.   Saturday evening’s concert by the Tudor Consort in the same venue featured two major choral works; Sunday’s a third: Saint Nicolas, Op. 42.  Not as many people attended this concert as were at the previous evening’s, but for a sunny Sunday approaching Christmas it was a good-sized audience.

Sunday’s concert interspersed choral items with movements from the composer’s Simple Symphony in the first half, while the second half consisted of the cantata Saint Nicolas, written in 1948, to marvellously beautiful, musical and evocative words by Eric Crozier, who also wrote opera libretti for Britten.  It was written for the centennial celebrations of Lancing College in Sussex.   The saint is co-patron saint of the College, and of children, sailors and scholars.  He flourished in the fourth century, in what is now Turkey, being Bishop of Myra.

As I said in a review in April, Nota Bene’s performances are marked by accuracy, finesse and elegance.  One could add commitment, and dramatic qualities where required.

The programme commenced with the rather inconsequential Alla Marcia, an early work of Britten’s.  I found it rather dull, and poorly played by the scratch orchestra.  However, there were hints in Britten’s writing of greater felicities to come.

The choir, with semi-chorus behind the audience, under the gallery, performed A Hymn to the Virgin.  Especially for those of sitting towards the back of the church, this was very resonant.  The choir generally produced lovely tone; Sacred Heart is particularly good acoustically for voices, but perhaps not so fine for stringed instruments.  It is astonishing that Britten wrote this quite complex work, based on a medieval poem, when he was only 17 years of age.   The antiphonal words in Latin (the remainder being in English) were extremely effective.

The Simple Symphony Op. 4 is a joyous work, each movement having its own delightful character: Bourée; Pizzicato; Sarabande; Finale.  The movements were played separately between the short choral items.  The idea was, presumably, to divide up the latter from each other, thus giving both the singers and the audience breaks.  However, the performance lost both the continuity and the contrast of the symphony.  The start was ragged, but the playing improved as time wore on.

Rosa Mystica, written in 1939, was new to me.  To quote one of the choristers to whom I spoke later, “It’s like dabbing paint onto a canvas – a layered piece of different colours”.  The poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins is full of imagery – another illustration of Britten’s feeling for fine words.  Much of the work was quite monotone, yet with the parts in layers.  It was beautifully sung, but not as appealing to me as most of his other writing for choirs.

The pizzicato second movement of the symphony was played very well on the whole, and conveyed its charm, the emphases in the phrasing given due weight.

Following that, the choir sang Sweet was the song; short, and sweet indeed.  The evocative, floating music for choir over a fine, dramatic solo from choir alto Stephanie Gartrell offered an attractive contrast in timbres.  Much of the solo was quite low in the voice, but the soloist’s rich voice came through well.

The slow third movement of the symphony provided the best playing so far; the cello solo was very fine.

As with the previous choral item, The Sycamore Tree was an early piece of the composer’s choral writing from the 1930s that was revised for publication in the 1960s.  The words are better known (and set to music by other composers) as I saw three ships.  It is a very lively piece, with plenty of variety.  A wide range of dynamics gave energy to the wonderful writing for voices.

The Finale from the symphony ended the first half.  The contrasting moods were communicated well, but intonation was often suspect.  Nevertheless, the orchestra made a good showing overall, particularly later, in Saint Nicolas.

Having sung Saint Nicolas several times with the Orpheus Choir in the 1980s, I have a particular affection for the work.  By its nature it is a dramatic piece, so it was good to see Nota Bene branching out, with the help of one of its members, experienced opera producer Jacqueline Coats, into enacting scenes, moving around the auditorium, and singing parts of the cantata from memory.

While the orchestra played the short orchestral introduction, the choir came on in mufti, representing peasant people, singing.  Then St. Nicolas (Benjamin Makisi) appeared through the door from the foyer (i.e. amongst the audience) and sang with boldness, vigour and drama in his tenor voice.  His solo is filled with sensitive, imaginative settings of Crozier’s wonderful words.  The choir responds with a graceful yet forceful utterance, “Help us Lord! To find the hidden road…”

The second section is titled “The Birth of Nicolas”.  The women narrate details of the birth (which they sang from memory while performing movements that acted out the words), while young Nicolas (Mark Wigglesworth) sang, or perhaps intoned, on one note, the words “God be Glorified” after each little episode.  His voice was even, clear, and true.  The bouncy, even jolly nature of the writing for the women showed Nicolas to be a robust character, and contrasted with the plainsong-like nature of the boy’s part.

Section III, “Nicolas Devotes Himself to God” describes Nicolas’s life in more of Crozier’s elegant words (“The foolish toy of time, the darling of decay…”) until the fourth part: “He Journeys to Palestine”, in which a storm while Nicolas is on board ship is illustrated most graphically in the music, both for the men of the choir (who sang from memory) and for orchestra.  This was very well done for the most part, but one section was rather messy – I suspect the pitch there was too low for most of the men.  A women’s semi-chorus in the gallery added its onomatopoeic contributions most effectively, although the orchestra was a little too loud for the semi-chorus to be fully heard.

Makisi sang “O God!  We are weak, sinful, foolish men…” with feeling, while the following solo “The winds and waves lay down to rest…” echoes in the music the change of mood with the change of weather.

Part V, “Nicolas Comes to Myra and is Chosen Bishop” features the choir singing in harmony (as against much counterpoint and layered writing) with organ, in perhaps my favourite bit of the work: “Come, stranger sent from God!”  It did not disappoint – strong, warm singing and blazing organ tones. This section ends in complete contrast, with intricate counterpoint, including the exhilarating “Amen!  Serve the Faith and spurn His enemies!”

After the choir and congregation sang “All people that on earth do dwell”, came the sixth section: “Nicolas from prison”.  In places Ben Makisi seemed unrehearsed; incorrect words (there were a lot to sing) and poor diction marred his performance, also a lack of commitment to the character.  For example, he sings “Yet Christ is yours – yours!”  This brought forth no mood-change, no irradiation of the texture, no great evocation of heavenly love.  The following words concerning God’s mercy were reflected in a change of music to placid cadences, though that was less represented in Makisi’s singing.

“Nicolas and the Pickled Boys”, section VII, features brilliant writing for choir and orchestra.  The character of winter cold and famine is wonderfully evoked, as is the triumph of the boys springing back to life.  Mark Wigglesworth was joined by Roman Dunford and Marcus Millad to walk through the church hand-in-hand to sing their Alleluias.  This section was quite moving, the more so for being acted, and sung from memory.

The penultimate section is titled “His Piety and Marvellous Works”.  This is sung entirely by the choir (using scores), its broad sweep of sound encompassing the many years of Nicolas’s being Bishop of Myra and the events that marked them.  The benign tone from the choir was echoed in the orchestra.  The choir disposed itself on all four sides of the church, giving added emphasis to the breadth of Nicolas’s ministry, and the different manifestations of his influence and miracles.  The final phrases “Let the legends that we tell” were a marvel of both counterpoint and harmony.

Finally, we reached “The Death of Nicolas”.  This section was characterised by noble settings of Nicolas’s words in committing his life to God, while the choir sings the canticle “Nunc Dimittis”.  The choir and congregation sang “God moves in a mysterious way” to end a marvellous, thrilling performance.

Britten’s imaginative writing was always faithfully rendered by the choir – can one ask for more?  The contribution of the orchestra was very significant, and especial mention must be made of the organist (Douglas Mews), the pianists (Amber Rainey and Ken Ryan) and the percussion section (Grant Myhill and Ben Hunt) for their major parts in the cantata.  Britten’s writing for the piano is individual, and always crucial to the mood and importance of the overall sound and texture.

Throughout the concert Michael Vinten directed his diverse forces admirably.  They included the audience (“congregation” in the printed programme), who joined in the two hymns prescribed by Britten.

Jacqueline Coats justifiably took her bow with Michael Vinten and Ben Makisi; her efforts resulted in a more meaningful experience, and was in the tradition of Britten’s Noye’s Fludde – I’m sure he would have approved.


Wolcum Yole! from the Tudor Consort

BRITTEN – A Ceremony of Carols / A Boy Was Born

The Tudor Consort

Carolyn Mills (harp)

Choristers of St.Mark’s Church School

Michael Stewart, director

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Wellington

Saturday, 10th December 2011

This was the first of two concerts given by separate choirs in the capital on different days of the same weekend and in the same venue, both featuring the music of Benjamin Britten. If, after reading this, you’re confused, I confess that I myself had to re-type the sentence a number of times to “fine-tune” and get it right. Fortunately, I was scheduled to attend both events, thus avoiding the likelihood of my turning up at the “wrong one”. Advent is a season which constantly balances delight and confusion, during which anything like that can happen to anybody.

Though Britten’s works are well-known and highly regarded, for some concertgoers he’s still a bit of a tough nut to crack, very much a “twentieth-century” composer, whose music has that edge and astringency which takes listeners out of their comfort-zone. Yet once these characteristics are accepted, rather as one might get used to (and begin to make sense of) a regional accent or an idiosyncratic speech pattern, one begins then to listen past these things to the content of what’s being expressed. Even in the works he wrote for amateur performance he kept a contemporary edge to melodies, harmonies and textures, enough to challenge performers without making too difficult what they were attempting to realize.

Interestingly, though an English composer, much of Britten’s music sounds more “international” than that by nearly all of his contemporaries, the exception being the work of William Walton.  That’s not to say that his music doesn’t connect with his cultural roots – as well as being a devotee of the compositions of his great countryman, Henry Purcell,  Britten made many voice-settings of medieval and Renaissance English carols and folksongs (as with the two works in this concert), as well as of the verses of a wide range of English poets. But his compositional voice is very much his own, his origins and influences well integrated in an intensely “human” way of expressing emotion in sound.

This “human” attitude towards his art is summed up in his own words: “It is cruel, you know, that music should be so beautiful. It has the beauty of loneliness and of pain; of strength and freedom – the beauty of disappointment and never-satisfied love. The cruel beauty of nature and everlasting beauty of monotony”. That Britten as a composer “grew” these thoughts from seeds within his very being is borne out by the quality of some of the music he wrote when very young. The Tudor Consort’s recent Britten concert gave listeners the chance to hear a live performance of the most significant work from the composer’s teenaged years – this was a set of choral variations with the title, A Boy was Born.

The work shared the Tudor Consort’s program with the more popular, often-performed A Ceremony of Carols. Written for boys’ treble voices, the work can be successfully (if not quite so characterfully) performed, as here, by a women’s choir – in fact Britten at an early stage of writing the work was seriously considering using women’s voices, and even, at a later stage, a mixed choir. This was a wartime work, much of which was composed during a crossing of the North Atlantic by the composer and his partner Peter Pears, the pair on their way back to a war-torn Europe in 1942 – a salutary demonstration of the “inner life” of art and its creation, though there are parts of the work which do express tensions and struggle between the forces of good and evil, paralleled at that time by the military forces of the free world striving in accord against the perceived Fascist threat.

I had previously heard the “Carols” performed in the same venue by the women’s voices of the Nota Bene Choir – and, as here, with Carolyn Mills as a peerless harpist, once again providing an accompaniment and solo interlude whose character and beauty one could easily die for. Reading between the lines of a review of that concert I wrote in December 2008, I would hazard a guess that there were critical swings and roundabouts regarding the singing in both older and newer performances – Nota Bene’s voices might have sounded a shade less refined in places than did the Tudor Consort’s, but the former may well have brought a bit more vocal “schwung” to appropriate places here and there (an instance being the last “Wolcum!” of the “Wolcum Yole!” opening carol, the earlier performance just that bit more lusty an exclamation of joy).

In places, especially when singing softly, the purity and refinement of the Tudor Consort did have a treble-like quality, which was most appealing. Michael Stewart’s direction brought out a wealth of detail, very “terraced” dynamics in “There is no Rose”, a lovely passage in octaves, and most characterful playing from Carolyn Mills. The solo singing, too, was wrought of magic in places, alto Andrea Cochrane’s beautiful, rock-steady purity  for “That Yongë Child” counterweighted by Anna Sedcole’s silvery soprano line in the following “Balulalow”. Britten’s biographer Humphrey Carter once described “This Little Babe” as having all the exuberance and muscularity of a good pillow-fight, an image I confess I couldn’t quite equate with the group’s poised dignity, even when their vocal energies joined in the fray with pin-pricking accuracy against Satan’s fold on the side of Christ and the Angels.

One of the most difficult of the carols to bring off, in a sense, is “In freezing Winter Night”, the piteous words a corrective to the homely kitsch of many of our popular examples of the genre. The music brings to mind T.S.Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” – “…the ways deep and the weather sharp, the very dead of winter….” but such is the anguish of the music’s stark, uncompromising lines, one imagines Britten might also have in part been paying a tribute to the poet, Robert Southwell, a Jesuit priest brutally martyred in England during the reign of Elizabeth I.  This “dark centre” of the cycle properly chilled our sensibilities in this performance, soprano Anna Edgington surviving a moment of slight unsteadiness early on to deliver a beautifully soaring strand of tone, seconded by Megan Hurnard’s truly-placed alto. The latter also partnered soprano Erin King in a gracefully-wrought “Spring Carol” which followed, voices and harp providing a sunlit, heartwarming counterweight to the previous carol’s austerities.

The performers then took to the concluding “Deo Gracias” carol joyously and energetically, Michael Stewart encouraging both voices and harp to hurl their sounds up into and throughout the cathedral ambiences with infectious gusto. Had the choir, at this point, then done what Nota Bene did a few years ago, which was to gradually exit the nave completely, while singing the Recessional hymn “Hodie Christis natus est”, my delight would have resounded in the memory, like the voices’ departing echoes, to this moment. Alas, as with the opening “Processional” the Consort chose not to employ the extra distancing the church’s foyer would have given, and so we were, I felt, deprived in both instances of that true frisson of arrival and departure from and to “other realms”. My rapture was thus modified at the time, but fortunately the beauty and presence of the group’s singing made a more lasting impression.

Happily, no such qualification hindered in any way my delight at the Consort’s performance of the evening’s second work – A Boy was Born, first performed in 1934, and the nineteen year-old Britten’s most accomplished composition up to that time. Though, like the “Carols”, the work contains a number of settings of medieval poems and carols, alongside verses by two later poets, the writing here is far more virtuosic and demanding for singers. Britten in fact added an optional organ part a number of years afterwards, undoubtedly prompted by the difficulties groups had experienced in performance up to that time. Still, right from the beginning, and throughout the opening, Michael Stewart got from his voices such exquisite liquidity of tone and subtle gradations of colour, all seemed well for what was to follow.

Joining the Consort were a number of boy choristers from St.Mark’s Church School, whose ethereal voices set  one’s scalp a-tingling with their contributions to episodes such as “Lullay, Jesu”, “In the Bleak Midwinter” and the “Noel! Wassail!” finale. And the solo treble part in the serenely meditative “Jesu, as Thou art our Saviour” was beautifully sung by Shashwath Joji, except that the final, scarily stratospheric ascent was entrusted, most convincingly, to soprano Anna Sedcole. Throughout the final “Noel! Wassail!” section, the boys’ voices were also given extra, albeit unobtrusive, support by Melanie Newfield’s pure soprano, with pleasing, clearly-defined results.

In its command of detail coupled with a consistently-applied strength of purpose, the Consort’s performance was, I thought, a pretty stunning achievement.  Michael Stewart again and again drew from the group expressive moments, episodes and whole worlds which transcended time and place, from the hypnotic murmurings of “snow on snow on snow” in the setting of Christina Rosetti’s famous poem, to the energetic background roisterings of sixteenth-century poet Thomas Tusser’s “Get ivy and Hull, woman, deck up thine house” amid accompanying detailing suggesting joyous seasonal outpourings. It would, in fact, take a response beyond the scope of this review to do full justice to everything the Consort achieved with this music.

So, in conclusion a mere couple of impressions of things from A Boy was Born that have continued to play in my head since the concert – one of them being the group’s breathtaking terracings of trajectory and tone in “The Three Kings”. I loved those ethereal voices of wonderment floating over the lustier-voiced hill-and-dale travellers, relishing their coming-together in great washes of sound at “Gold, Incense and Myrrah-a”, before the sounds departed with the Kings, just as magically and mysteriously. Then, following on, came the contrasted austerities of “In the Bleak Mid-Winter”, with those boys and soprano voices singing their lament of loss against the patient murmurings of the falling snow, an exquisitely-etched moment. Finally there was  the volatile excitement of the Consort’s concluding “Noel! Wassail!”, which left we listeners at once both breathless and energized. And I was pleased the voices proceeded to make nonsense of my earlier assertions regarding a so-called lack of exuberance in the singing – here, the near-orgiastic abandonment of the “Welcome Yule” left our ears appropriately resounding with musical goodwill, which, at the end we took back to our lives to share with others, enriched by both music and its performance beyond measure.
















Fine violin and piano recital, of variable music, as final 2011 offering from School of Music

Beethoven: Violin Sonata in G, Op 30 No 3; Martin Bresnick: Bird as Prophet for violin and piano; Messiaen: Theme and Variations for violin and piano; Schumann: Violin Sonata No 2 in D minor, Op 121

Sarita Kwok (violin) and Jian Liu (piano)

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University

Friday 9 December, 7.30pm

This was the last concert presented by the New Zealand School of Music in 2011. Stephen Gibbs, who has taken over as ‘marketing and events coordinator’, and done it with spectacular success, told us that it was the 281st (or near enough to it) event open to the public this year. That includes formal concerts,  as well as master classes, student recitals, composer workshops and so on, at venues both in the two universities that jointly created the school, and in the city and the wider metropolitan area. Even though the school seems not to be performing as it might in certain areas, the arrival of distinguished new faculty members this year, together with Gibbs, augurs well, and the singular visibility that has been achieved this year in concerts and recitals, many free or at modest prices, greatly enriches our musical life.

Sarita Kwok has been a guest artist in the school in the last term; she is from Australia but did post-graduate work at Yale University where she now teaches. Her performance career has taken her round the world as concerto soloist and chamber musician. Clearly she was here through a connection with the Head of Piano Studies, Jian Liu, who also worked  at Yale.

The collaboration between the two was evidence of their having played together a good deal as well as having acquired approaches to music that were complementary. That is, in the pains taken with detail, a delicacy in handling dynamics as well as a robust, extrovert manner in the Beethoven sonata. That was evident in the emphatic, tumbling motif dominated by the piano at the start of the first movement. But there was no question of one instrument in charge; both played equally important roles as Beethoven wanted, neither merely accompanying. I felt that the dynamic variety and suppleness was never merely to offer entertaining variety, but was driven by the inner emotion of the music.

They revealed in the second movement the impression of very long and careful study, creating from a mere dance-inspired piece, a movement of great interest; the pianist, in particular invested his part with turns of phrase that added real illumination.

The rippling piano part of the final Allegro vivace seemed written for Jian Liu, so fluently did he handle it; and the violin matched him in the fast, flighty melody that leads the way. They grabbed attention by slightly prolonging the pause before the surprising modulation that precedes the coda, which brought it quickly to its end.

Martin Bresnick is professor of composition at Yale, and thus a colleague of the two musicians. Bird as Prophet is the last of twelve pieces entitled Opere della Musica Povera (‘Works of a Poor Music’). The title refers to Schumann’s well-known piano piece from the Waldszenen. Though there was some use of microtones in the early stages, otherwise there was little departure from a broadly tonal palette; it suggests the bird by means of abstract musical patterns, in rhythms that were hard to keep track of but which made sense (there is also some reference to jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, who was known as Bird, and referred to by, among others, clarinetist Tony Scott as his prophet).

I felt that some of the significance of the piece eluded me, as its non-musical landscape tended to interfere with my hearing it simply as a musical creation; nevertheless, its inventiveness held my attention and its performance did it justice,

Though I did not know the piece by Messiaen, it had at least the advantage of a familiar name; it was a wedding present for his first wife. The opening melody was unmistakably Messiaen, with his characteristic harmonies, and though I could understand why it had not attained the fame of some of the composer’s other music, its framework, in variation form, lent it a shape and a variety of moods and tempi that maintained interest. The third (I think) variation, with staccato piano under a lyrical violin part, seemed to be the emotional centre, though the next variation, with strong hints of the last movement of The Quartet for the End of Time (‘Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus’) was a comforting association; the variations subside in a peaceful resolution. The rendering of this too was a gift from these two gifted, subtle and extrovert players.

Finally, Schumann’s Second Violin Sonata. He wrote three of them after 1851, five years before his death, when his musical gifts had generally declined. I know the first sonata quite well but not this or the third, and have to confess to finding this, in spite of its admirably committed performance, a thing of striving after inspiration that almost constantly eludes the composer. Schumann wrote about this work: “I did not like the first Sonata for Violin and Piano; so I wrote a second one, which I hope has turned out better”. I’m not too sure….

It can be admired from a formal point of view – its calm but arresting introduction moving to a lively Allegro (Schumann uses German tempo markings – Lebhaft) is promising enough but one waits in vain for a memorable tune to sustain the movement. All there is is rhetoric and ritual passage-work. A tune worthy of the name (of slightly Scottish flavour) finally arrives with the third, slow movement (Leise, einfach, or I suppose, ‘tranquillo, semplice’), and Kwok and Liu played it with fine elegiac warmth. The finale seems to search for a memorable theme, or two; but all Schumann finds are somewhat arid motifs; consequently it outlasts its material, and the end, in spite of the most warm-hearted efforts by the players, seems a very long time coming. And I am a true member of Schumann’s  Davidsbündler.

However, it is perhaps not fair to compare every composition that just misses an ‘excellent’ grade, to the few real masterpieces. Who actually wrote a better one through the four decades of the mid 19th century? Beethoven’s last was in 1809; Mendelssohn also missed the mark with his violin sonatas; Spohr, a violin virtuoso, left none; there’s one listed, of 1845, by Vieuxtemps, that I don’t know; Carl Rheincke wrote one about 1848; Brahms’s first was not till 1879; but Grieg’s attractive ones were written in the 1860s; Fauré’s, 1875; Saint-Saëns, 1885 and Franck’s not till 1886. In that context, Schumann’s sonatas don’t look so bad.

Considering the stature of these two musicians, and the insights they offered in all four works played, the audience at this free concert was disappointingly small.


Classical guitar lecturer gives fine, varied recital at St Andrew’s

Music by Barrios, Vivaldi, Ian Krouse and Walton

Jane Curry – classical guitar

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 7 December, 12.15pm

Jane Curry joined the faculty of the New Zealand School of Music at the beginning of 2011; although she’s given public recitals before this was my introduction to her playing.

I was a minute late and she was part-way through Caazapa by famous Paraguayan composer/guitarist Augustine Barrios; the sounds she was producing were limpid, relaxed , with an air of improvisation that spoke of her confidence and thorough command of the music. Her second piece was called Maxixe, faster, fluent, again with a relaxed manner that produced the most natural dynamic and rhythmic subtleties.

Jane’s biographical note in the programme didn’t tell me of her New Zealand background, but the school’s website did. She’s been very peripatetic: a B.A. from Waikato University, a B.Mus. from Massey followed by an honours degree at Auckland University. Then, following work at both the Royal College of Music in London and the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, she went to study with Scott Tennant at the University of Southern California. She then took a master’s degree and a doctorate from the University of Arizona. (What an amazing contrast with the normal qualifications of university teachers in my day when a master’s with first class honours, and an occasional doctorate, from rarely more than two different universities, usually afforded plentiful depth as well as breadth of learning and skills, in the days when the emphasis was teaching rather than today’s obsession with ‘research’).

Her CV also mentions theatre studies and an interest in ‘collaborative and cross-disciplinary work in musicology and ethnomusicology’, with focus on the music of the Balkans. It will be interesting to watch her impact in those areas, already well developed, at the New Zealand School of Music.

Jane Curry’s second piece was an arrangement by David Russell of Vivaldi’s 6th cello sonata, in B flat (RV 46). (I think she remarked that it was transposed). Russell, with whom she worked in Arizona, has published a CD of his recordings of his arrangements for guitar of a number of keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, ones by Handel and Loeillet, plus this one.  The opening Largo was gracious and unhurried, as she relished the pensive, cantabile melody that transferred very comfortably to the guitar. If the technical challenges were not overwhelming in that, they emerged more dramatically in the Allegro, showing that the writing lies no more easily with the guitar than it would with the cello, especially as the arrangement involved carrying the essentials of the continuo part, often played by a second cello, by means of a left hand whose agile fingering involved the most astonishing contortions. Here Curry demonstrated a range of nuances that were no less beguiling than a cello would have done. The third movement was another Largo in which the rhythm suggested careful picking one’s way across stepping stones in a stream; what variety of harmony and dynamics are available to a skilled guitarist!

Curry expressed her admiration for composer Ian Krouse with whom she worked in Los Angeles. His interest in Balkan music yielded his Variations on a Moldavian Hora (a word cognate with the Greek ‘Choros’ from which ‘choreography’ is derived). The piece involved, to start, sounds emanating from the extremes of the guitar’s range, sometimes provocative, sometimes seeming to resolve. But the technical difficulties soon faded from view – for the listener at least – as Curry’s handling of the dancing theme emerged so musically. I’m sure it was one of those pieces in which the overcoming of difficulties was continuously accompanied by real musical rewards.

Finally Curry played four of Walton’s five Bagatelles. The first is a hypnotic riot of virtuosity which seems to demand the most awkward-looking, fast and tortuous fingering, which produced racing and irregular phrases. The second piece, Lento, limited in its expressive range and musical material, seemed to convey a suppressed unease, or at least an absence of overt emotion.

Alla Cubana is perhaps the most lyrical of the Bagatelles; it begins and remains for the most part on the lower strings, soon developing a Caribbean character, with only a rare leap up the E string. The last, Con Slancio, expresses a nervous, distinctly Latin flavoured quality, short-winded and quite pithy, but she infused it with spirit and energy that brought the recital to a close in a confident temper.

The School of Music is fortunate to have secured such an accomplished performer and so versatile a musician to teach guitar after the departure of Matthew Marshall.


Accomplished playing from Wellington Chamber Orchestra

Lilburn: Drysdale Overture; Mozart: Violin Concerto No 5 in A, K 219; Warlock: Capriol Suite; Gounod: Petite symphonie for winds; Bizet: Carmen Suite No 1

Wellington Chamber Orchestra conducted by Michael Joel with Anna van der Zee (violin); leader Paula Carryer

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 4 December, 2.30pm

Michael Joel is a major conductor in the New Zealand orchestral, choral and opera scene, particularly in Christchurch which is where I guess I first encountered him, conducting for Canterbury Opera’s Lakmé, La Traviata and Rossini’s Le comte Ory. He has conducted the Wellington Chamber Orchestra at least once before.

Though I should be reluctant to ascribe all the credit for the impressive performances in this concert to him – for the orchestra is a very different body today from what it was a decade ago – his painstaking work was surely very important in the striking results achieved this afternoon.

Oddly enough, it was the first piece on the programme, Lilburn’s Drysdale Overture, in which the sound needed more control; it’s scored for large symphony orchestra and some of the difficulty lay in achieving balance between brass and the other sections. It was more a problem inherent in the acoustics of the church which always present problems for large instrumental ensembles and specifically for timpani and brass.

The opening chord of the overture was intentionally arresting, but it was also unduly shrill and uncomfortable. Dynamic levels continued to be a bit high, until the calmer middle section which came as a relief, with strings and woodwinds playing sensitively. I always imagine the piece as depicting a pastoral landscape, but I found myself wondering whether Joel sought to offer a tough and somewhat more brutal view of hill-country farming than is usual. Lilburn was a gifted orchestrater but perhaps in this youthful work his facility carried him away.

The Mozart concerto is music better adapted to the size of the church, and orchestrally there was much to admire. After the orchestral introduction which signalled a keen feeling for the moderate scale of the music and the way it can be accommodated in the space, soloist, Anna van der Zee, who plays with the NZSO, opened quietly, allowing the character of her instrument to express itself warmly. Her playing might have benefited from a more relaxed approach to the pace which didn’t always allow it to breathe a little more freely between phrases.  A fairly slow pace in the Adagio seemed to expose the orchestra uncomfortably, but the Finale produced a warm and relaxed quality; the Turkish aspects suggested a somewhat sinister character. The care taken with the structure of the concerto  was well exemplified through the undulations in dynamics and the telling pause before the recapitulation toward the end.

Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite seems to be the quintessentially amateur piece; yet it’s by no means easily realized by other than reasonably polished and careful performers. Ensemble was markedly good in the Pavane and I admired the pizzicato in the third movement. What it did, more than in the Mozart, was to demonstrate how much more the acoustic suits a purely string ensemble.

I had to revise that thought however with the charming performance of Gounod’s wind nonette, which he called a petite symphonie, modeled, not on Spohr’s famous nonette which is for a combination of strings and winds, but rather on the wind ensembles for seven or eight instruments by Mozart, Beethoven or Krommer. The first movement reminded me of the delightful Provençal-influenced music Gounod had written for Mireille, and the next movement’s aria-like tune reinforced the spirit of Gounod the opera composer; flute and oboe played beautifully. The excellent ensemble did justice to the lovely harmonies of the Finale.

The suite from Carmen had me further revising my thoughts about the impact of brass and of the generally boisterous playing of this music in the church. Scored for a full orchestra, there were very few moments when the volume was excessive, though the timpani was emphatic enough in the Prelude. There were numerous displays of fine playing by individual woodwind instruments; dynamic undulations and generally careful balance and ensemble kept this popular suite from sounding hackneyed, as the rather splendid brass contributions brought it to an end with the  toreador’s song.