‘Does a cappella singing get better than this?’ – Wellington members of the New Zealand Youth Choir

Choral songs and anthems by Handl, Bruckner, Pearsall, Bàrdos, Richard Madden, Stephen Lange, Anthony Ritchie, Andrew Baldwin, Helen Caskie, George Shearing, with arrangements by Douglas Mews, Christopher Marshall, Stephen Chatman

Wellington Members of the New Zealand Youth Choir, conducted by David Squire

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace church

Wednesday 29 February 2012, 12.15pm

It was gratifying to see the church nearly full for the thirteen members of the choir who sang an interesting and varied programme.

Immediately they began, the choir had a wonderful, confident sound.  The opening item, ‘Resonet in laudibus’ was by Jacob Handl, a sixteenth century Slovenian composer also known as Gallus.  The pure sounds in this sympathetic acoustic made it hard to believe that there were so few performers.  Balance between the parts was excellent throughout the concert.

A long-term favourite of the Choir followed: Bruckner’s beautiful ‘Locus Iste’.  The singers’ start was not quite together, but that could hardly spoil such a supreme pearl of choral writing.

Another chestnut for this choir was sung: Pearsall’s madrigal ‘Who shall win my lady fair?’, a nineteenth century composition.  Its performance demonstrated how well the choir sings out to the audience, but also, as elsewhere in the programme,  how the singers vary tone, expression and word style as appropriate for each item.  To me, this is the mark of a really good, flexible choir.  It is not just a matter of dynamics.  The expression in this song exhibited both charm and subtlety.  Stresses on important words were carefully observed.

The Hungarian composer Lajos Bàrdos’s ‘Libera me’ was next.  The men opened a shade sharp in pitch, but overwhelmingly, the a capella singing was impressively secure, even, as in this piece, when singing intervals of a second.  The piece traverses various pitches, moods and dynamics.  It is in several sections: first declamatory, then low-voiced and sombre, then gentle and melismatic.

We now turned to New Zealand compositions.  Richard Madden’s ‘I sing of a maiden’ has been around for a while now, and has lost none of its exquisite beauty and delicious clashes that resolve so mellifluously.  The piece featured soprano and tenor soloists.  The breath control was remarkable.  If the singers are as good as this under-rehearsed (as David Squire described it), they must certainly be New Zealand’s top choir when fully prepared.  It must not be forgotten that the New Zealand Youth Choir of 1999 won ‘Choir of the World’ in Cardiff.

Stephen Lange’s ‘The cloths of heaven’, composed to words of John Keats, was a difficult piece, with many enchanting discords.

Another NZYC favourite: Douglas Mews’s ‘Sea songs’, an arrangement of early New Zealand folk songs about whaling.  This was rollicking and characterful music on a subject distasteful to us today, but an important industry in the early days of colonisation, and before.

Christopher Marshall’s arrangement of the traditional Samoan ‘Minoi, minoi’ is one of the most delightfully rhythmic songs one will ever hear.  It reminds us how music and dance are all one in many parts of the world.  It was sung more lightly than I have sometimes heard it, which is appropriate to the words of the love-song.

Jeffrey Chang, tenor, sang two solos, giving the choir a rest, with Michael Stewart (former choir member) accompanying on the piano.  Chang announced the songs in a clear voice, loud enough to be easily heard (take note, New Zealand School of Music lecturers and students!).  David Squire’s announcements of the other items were made using a microphone.

The first solo was ‘Song’ by Anthony Ritchie, with wonderful words by James K. Baxter, speaking of Jesus as a human, and his characteristic of mercy.  It was beautifully sung: expressive, effective, with very clear words.  Both songs were sung from memory.

The second was an arrangement by former choir member Andrew Baldwin, of the spiritual ‘Deep River’.  This did not come off quite so well.  The performance did not sufficiently express the emotions of a slave in southern USA – it was too matter-of-fact in places, although there were some lovely moments.  The register was a little too low for this singer.

The choir returned with a traditional Newfoundland folk song, ‘She’s like the swallow’, arranged by Stephen Chatman.  It began with women’s voices only, then the men joined in.  Once again, the clarity of the words was notable.

New Zealand composer Helen Caskie has written a three-movement work ‘Ten Cent Mixture’, to amusing poems by Fiona Farrell.  The first tells the story of a sun-burnt kiwifruit.  Here I heard the first harsh tone in the concert; perhaps this was the result of introducing humour into the voices.  Next was a song about leaving your dreams behind when you go to school (oh dear!), and the third was about going to see Mr Prasad at the dairy to buy lollies.

These were lively and ingratiating settings, sung with animation.  The last song particularly was very funny, and sung in appropriate humorous style.

The concert wound up with an arrangement by Andrew Carter of George Shearing’s ‘Lullaby of Birdland’.  Just as the Caskie songs were sung in a suitably childish style, so this swing number was rendered in the proper style, American accent and all.

Most of this repertoire is to be presented in Hawke’s Bay in April, with all 48 members of the full choir; the audiences there are in for a treat.  Does a cappella singing get better than this?  I ask this as someone who has just heard the King’s Singers live, in the splendid acoustic of Hamilton’s Performing Arts Centre at the University of Waikato.



I Musici: highly accomplished performances of mainly light-weight music

New Zealand International Arts Festival and Chamber Music New Zealand

Serenata Italiana

Rossini: Sonata a quattro no.1 in G  and Une Larme
Donizetti: Allegro in C
Paganini: Il Carnevale di Venezia
Marco Enrico Bossi: Tre Intermezzi Goldoniani Op.127
Respighi: Aria per strumenti ad arco
Luis Bacalov: Concerto Grosso for I Musici’s 60th anniversary
Nino Rota: Concerto per archi

I Musici di Roma (Antonio Anselmi, violin; Ettore Pellegrino, violin; Pasquale Pellegrino, violin; Claudio Buccarella, violin; Gianluca Apostoli, violin; Antonio de Secondi, violin; Massimo Paris, viola; Silvio Di Rocco, viola; Vito Paternoster, cello; Pietro Bosna, cello; Roberto Bambioli, bass; Francesco Buccarella, keyboard)

Michael Fowler Centre

Tuesday 28 February 2012, 7.30pm

I Musici is famed for its recordings, particularly a recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons made early in the group’s career, which helped to create the great popularity of these concertos.

The musicians are aided by the fine instruments they play.  There was one Amati violin, two Guaneri, and a Storioni cello.  Most of the violins and the two violas were made in the seventeenth century; both cellos were from the 18th century.

For a group such as this to be celebrating its 60th year is a considerable achievement.  Of course, none of the original members are still part of I Musici, but it has maintained its place in the musical pantheon throughout all these years.  This is the group’s first visit to New Zealand.  A nice touch of welcome was the generous flower arrangement in the colours of the Italian flag.

The concert might have been better to have been held in the Town Hall, but apparently there was another Festival event going on there.  Patrons were seated only in the downstairs of the Michael Fowler Centre, apart from a few rows in the centre block upstairs seating dignitaries, such as the Ambassador for Italy.  Even then, there were empty seats downstairs.   Some confusion was caused to patrons near me because numbers have disappeared from the seats.

The programme commenced with a familiar Sonata, in three movements.  Apparently written when Rossini was only 12 years old, this work was played by a slightly smaller group than the full ensemble.  The opening sound from I Musici was a little too brittle at times for romantic music, but it soon settled down into an open, bright sound (as the leader, Antonio Anselmi described it in a radio interview).  The group’s magnificent cohesion, despite no conductor at the front, is remarkable, as is the players’ precision, noteworthy in their pizzicato as much as in their bowing.

The three-part moderato first movement, with the same theme for first and third, was a pleasant introduction to the concert.  The slow movement had, despite its tempo designation of andantino, much sprightly music.  A few times only, there was not total uniformity of intonation.  The final movement, allegro, fairly skipped along.

Another short Rossini work followed: Une Larme [The Tear]: theme and variations for cello and strings.  The soloist, Pietro Bosna, has a superb command of his instrument.  The harpsichord was used in this item, plus the additional violin and viola joined the band.  The harpsichord sound did not come through well, from its placement at the back of the right-hand side of the stage, behind the cellos and bass.  The lower tones especially could not be heard – and I was sitting only about a dozen rows back from the stage, in the centre block.

A slow, solemn introduction from the cello, with a few chords on the keyboard began the work.  An eloquent, rich cello solo followed, but the accompaniment from the other players was not particularly distinguished.  The music then developed into a fast-paced virtuoso piece, splendidly played with wonderful tone and technique from the soloist; the piece ended in gaiety.

Donizetti’s Allegro in C, like the first Rossini work, dates from his extreme youth.  It evinced a very operatic opening, as though it were the introduction to an aria or an  operatic story.  The theme was quite lovely, followed by decorations to its melody.  The tone of the orchestra had largely settled down by now.  This work, though brief, had more substance to it than had the preceding pieces.

Paganini followed; the piece is a theme and variations for violin and strings, with Antonion Anselmi playing the virtuosic solo part.  There was more than a passing physical resemblance between Anselmi and Paganini as depicted in the photograph (of a painting) on the page of the programme.

The theme is perhaps rather a trite one; in English, the jolly tune ‘My hat, it has three corners’, but apparently in Italy it is a Neapolitan song ‘O mamma, mamma cara’.   As the programme note said, Paganini ‘varies it using pretty much every technique known to a violinist.’

One would expect such a work to be flamboyant, utilising a range of astonishing effects, and indeed it was.  There was little for the other players to do while Anselmi went through the variations that employed a huge amount of double-stopping, glissandi, left and right hand pizzicato in the same phrases, octaves, and so on.  Certainly the playing had flair and confidence, but also humour, and bird-like sounds – all demonstrating astonishing technique.  It was a performance, indeed.

After the interval, the strings (without harpsichord) played Bossi’s Tre Intermezzi Goldoniani, written between 1901 and 1905..  Each of the three movements was quite short, and incorporated more light and shade than most of the previous pieces in the programme.  The opening ‘Gagliarda’ was lively and tuneful, while the ‘Serenatina’ featured much pizzicato, then a violin duo followed by a violin solo with a wistful theme, over more pizzicato.  Finally there was ‘Burlesca’.  It began with more of a dance feel to it than had the other two movements.

More well-known is Ottorino Respighi.  The Aria per strumenti ad arco was written at the end of his student days, presumably before 1905.  Its nostalgic opening theme had rich harmony; the players produced a lush sound.  The music ebbed and flowed, and became very romantic.  It was more sombre and not as frothy as some of the music earlier in the concert, and therefore was more satisfying.

We then came to the meat of the programme: Luis Bacalov’s work written especially for this anniversary year of I Musici.  The harpsichord was used in this three-movement work.   The leader introduced the music, and then there were sturdy, gutsy chords in a firm, march-like sequence.  Anselmi played flights of fancy above, while strong rhythms continued in the accompaniment.  Some of these airborne fancies were worthy of Paganini.  The cellos got their own little cadenza at the end of the movement.

The andante had a medieval-sounding solemn opening, then the solo violin turned it into a romantic passage.  Steady pizzicato from the bass underpinned all.  There were echoes of baroque music in the steady beat, the cadences, and the use of the harpsichord.  Albinoni was in there somewhere, and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

It was certainly an appropriate work for this group’s anniversary.  There were lovely and elegant touches for the soloist, and for viola, the later having some fine solo passages, but basically the music was fairly straightforward, with touches of a film score about it.

The allegro finale had a brilliant yet folksy opening from Anselmi, a splendid cadenza, then another echo of Albinoni in a similar march tempo to that used in the opening of the work.  Some harmonic innovation arrived, but there was much repetition.  However, it was not minimalism, because there was constant variation too, but in a narrow span, like some of the Paganini music we heard in the first half.

The item on the programme that provided the most satisfaction was the Concerto per archi by Nino Rota, written for I Musici in 1964-65.  The opening of the Preludio first movement featured multiple layers of music, not mere accompaniment to solos, creating a most pleasing effect.  The movement developed in a turbulent mood.

The scherzo second movement had a quicker pace and a lighter mood.  All was most beautifully played, with astonishing precision.  A solo from the leader in the middle of the movement was one of many interesting features of the work.  The music modulated between keys, yet it was a cohesive whole.  This was great idiomatic writing for strings.  It was undoubtedly twentieth century music, but was neither harsh nor repetitive.  It reminded me at times of Benjamin Britten’s music.

The lilting opening of the third movement ‘Aria’ seemed uncertain as to its home key; the music had a questioning feel about it.  Another solo passage was replied to by the cello, but the uncertainty remained.  Things became more passionate, but the range remained fairly narrow.  Then more urgency led to the quiet, gradual arrival of assurance in the solo lines, though the music remained sombre until the end.  This movement also had shades of Britten about it.

By contrast, the Finale had a lively start, with strong rhythms and repetitive phrases, which reached fever pitch.  This was truly the most interesting work of the evening.

Applause was rewarded by a movement from the ‘Winter’ concerto of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, played at a crisp, energetic pace, to the delight of the audience.

Overall, the programme seemed excessively light and frothy for a Festival presentation.  I was tempted to think that the programme was somewhat patronising: pops for the culture-starved Antipodeans?  Rota redeemed it from such considerations.   However, it must also be said that most of the music on the programme was unfamiliar, and interesting as unknown compositions of known composers.

There is no doubt about the accomplishments of I Musici.  The question is rather about the programme: was it appropriate for an International Festival of the Arts?  Or for Chamber Music New Zealand for that matter  although it was certainly suitable for an Italian ensemble of this size and composition.  The programme will be repeated at nine other centres around the country.



New Zealand String Quartet revelatory with second group of Beethoven’s Opus 18

New Zealand International Arts Festival

Beethoven: String Quartets, Op 18 Nos 4, 5 and 6

New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl, Douglas Beilman, Gillian Ansell, Rolf Gjelsten)

Church of St Mary of the Angels

Sunday 26 February, 7.30pm

In her brief introductory comments at the first of these two concerts Gillian Ansell had observed how interesting it was to play the quartets in chronological order rather than to mix works from different periods: it highlighted the essential features of these works of the 30-year-old Beethoven, their originality, their imaginativeness, the clear mood contrasts between each.

And so it was.

Many listeners will have heard these quartets in sequence as a result of the availability of several complete recorded sets, but such remarkable live performance in such a beautiful setting is something else.

The New Zealand String Quartet is one of the musical groups that know the importance of lighting and of ambience generally that is necessary to create the best emotional environment for listening to music (which varies of course with different kinds of music). Here the church was dimly lit with evocative under-lighting in the sanctuary that made the most of the deep blue of the back wall.

The programme contained useful and illuminating notes from Nancy November as well as from two of the players – Douglas Beilman and Helene Pohl.

I always enjoy reading the perceptions of others about the spiritual character of music and Helene’s pithy snapshots drew particular attention to certain movements and to the general character of each quartet as a whole.

The fourth quartet, Helene suggests, is ‘dramatic, passionate, with overall orchestral textures’. It’s the only one of the set in a minor key. But that by no means implies any lack of energy, and so its first movement seemed to be leaning into a brisk wind, moving forward energetically, going just a little faster than one’s breath could accommodate. It was a wonderful way to launch the evening! The dynamics undulated like a ship moving on a gentle swell. The players knew precisely how much weight to allow individuals at every stage – sometimes the first violin, sometimes the cello – to give proper voice to the melody.

The second movement – unusually, a scherzo – light, dancing in triple time, in a spirit that seems unBeethovenish, quite singular in its flavour, perhaps offers homage to Haydn. The slow movement comes third; it was played darkly and urgently, in marked contrast to the Scherzo, and in its turn it is in sharp contrast to the finale, where the four players seemed intent on obliterating individual voices in the tangle of almost frenzied activity.

I don’t know whether the fifth quartet is the most played – I seem to have heard it more often – but it is perhaps the most lovable. Helene remarks, ‘“Hommage à Mozart”, buoyant, though not without an edge’; and the programme note suggests ‘a sardonic skit on genteel elegance’. I don’t know about the sardonicity, but it was played in high spirits, the quavers in triple time generating a real delight.

Again, Beethoven breaks with tradition to place his dance-like movement (reverting to a minuet from his more normal scherzo) second, gorgeously lyrical with a Trio sounding like a peasant Ländler, that the players invested with even more gentle though artful simplicity.

One of the most beautiful movements in all six quartets follows with the Andante Cantabile. While Beethoven was, in certain of his other compositions, a man aware of the politics and troubles of his times, I reflected here, as the enchanting and endlessly inventive variations unfolded, on the presence of Napoleon’s armies criss-crossing Europe during 1797–1800, capturing Austrian territory in north Italy, causing social and economic distress for France and other countries. Yet, for Beethoven it was never a reason to compose music that was ugly or violent.

On the contrary, it may be that his sympathy with Napoleon’s overthrow of the oppressive and corrupt absolute monarchies that still ruled much of Europe, obscured the destructive consequences of the wars, and that it was his optimism about political and social advancement that Napoleon sought that allowed him to compose much spiritually joyful and positive music.

And so the performance of this Andante, an elaborate and beautiful set of variations suggesting Beethoven’s contentment with this best of all possible worlds, formed the concert’s centrepiece, giving generous and carefully exploited space to each individual instrument in turn.  All that could follow was the brilliant, contrapuntally complex last movement.

The last of the six quartets was revealed as yet another original and different masterpiece. The famous and percipient writer on the quartets Joseph De Marliave suggested that ‘the ease and breadth of the finale of the preceding quartet flows on to the first movement of this’; support or otherwise for such remarks is one of insights possible through their playing all together, in the order in which they were written.

Writing on the same quartet, De Marliave, also commented on the repetitions of the first theme, and I had found the same: a little surprising in works that otherwise exhibit such profound sensitivity to form and motivic development. Nevertheless, the players responded wonderfully to the energy of this Allegro con brio first movement, finding entertainment in the step-wise motifs and the unusual excursions, for example the grumbling gambits by the cello.

Even in the superficially most uncomplicated movements, Beethoven provides surprise and amusement. The decorative Adagio second movement mocks the cello in a short sequence of false starts, and later there is an unexpected, somewhat mysterious deviation into a minor key.

The contrast between the Adagio and the following Scherzo and Trio was drawn for all it was worth, with syncopated rhythms and an ebullience spirit.

The last movement opens with a slow introduction labelled Malinconia: another singular contrast of mood. A lot of attention has been accorded to it; that its plan pre-figures the last quartets, its remarkable modulations, whether the eventual arrival of the Allegretto really succeeds in creating a satisfactory finale… They played that Adagio as if weighed down by the sorrows of the world, and perhaps by the composer’s own awareness of his solitary life and the first signs of deafness. The requisite Allegro that follows seemed rather a matter of formal necessity yet it was played as if its level of inspiration was just as high as all that had gone before.

It brought to an end what many might come to feel as the most rewarding concerts of the festival, a testament to the maturity and the peak of artistic accomplishment that has been reached by the New Zealand String Quartet.

These two concerts are the first of three series in which the entire oeu vre will be played: the second, mid-year, under Chamber Music New Zealand and the last under the quartet’s own management.


Exhilarating first of two concerts of Beethoven’s Quartets Op 18

New Zealand International Arts Festival

Beethoven: String quartets Op.18, nos. 3, 2, 1

New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl and Douglas Beilman, violins; Gillian Ansell, viola; Rolf Gjelsten, cello)

St. Mary of the Angels church

Saturday, 25 February 2012, 6pm

The New Zealand String Quartet will play all Beethoven’s string quartets this year, in chronological order – a major undertaking in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the founding of the quartet.  As Helene Pohl observes in one of several excellent programme notes, hearing them this way ‘we discover how full of personality these “early” quartets are!’

The Quartet’s fondness for St. Mary of the Angels as a venue was understandable straight away: the first notes demonstrated the warm sound.  However, the lively acoustic does allow every sound to be heard clearly, including a little too much metallic tone from the first violin, at times.

The first quartet played was the third in the set.  Beethoven’s harmonic invention was there in abundance.  In the first movement, allegro, the first violin has most of the interesting work.  The second demonstrated lovely rhythmic variety; the smooth  legato second theme was played superbly, with the sonority of Gjelsten’s cello particularly marvellous.  A few slightly misplaced notes did not detract from a sensitive and fine performance.  The movement came gently to a beautiful conclusion.

The third movement was energy alternating with calmness, followed by increasing complexity, while the fourth, marked presto, was certainly fast.  It was a joyful movement with unanticipated touches of reflection; little turns cause the music to pause in its rush towards the end, which is unexpectedly quiet, almost humorous.

The attentive audience in a full church demonstrated how much people enjoy hearing Beethoven played well.  Where are these people (assuming most of them were Wellingtonians) when the Wellington Chamber Music Society’s winter Sunday afternoon series is on?

The second quartet is quite different.  Its opening allegro features plangent crescendos.  The next movement, adagio cantabile, has a rich-toned opening.  A ‘false scherzo’ intervenes – fast, yet light and frothy.  The slow tempo returns, and sounded all the more sombre by contrast.  The movement ends with delicate figures in the minor key.

The real scherzo that was the third movement, described in the programme note as ‘brilliantly unpredictable’ reminded me of a dragonfly’s dance (having seen a large native one in my garden just recently).  It was too fast and frisky for human feet.  A solemn little set with the dancers bowing to each other was followed by variations, with copious interplay of the instruments.

The final movement was a delightful piece of counterpoint.   Here, the players were equal partners in a jaunty and good-humoured mood, in a movement more democratic  than the others (to use the language of programme note writer Dr Robert Simpson). A strong and vibrant passage is followed by a quiet section, then bang!  Suddenly the music is loud again; a typical gesture of Beethoven’s.

Now to the beginning of Beethoven’s quartet-writing career: Op.18 no.1.  This quartet was the most familiar of the three, to me.  Its lyrical opening was in a cheerful, mellifluous mood.  It presented a great range of dynamics – as indeed did the other two quartets.  It sounded to be a more mature work than the others, and this would be due to the fact that the composer comprehensively revised it two years after its first composition.  This allegro con brio opening movement was very satisfying.

The adagio affettuoso ed appassionato second movement began in sombre fashion, reminding me of Mozart’s Requiem.  Later, the music became passionate.  Its constantly altering moods make for an intensely interesting listening experience.  Slight rubatos added to the effect.  It was magnificently played.

The playful scherzo that followed required plenty of fast finger-work.  The finale was a surprise.  “Where is this going?” was my thought.  This was another democratic movement; all the players were engaged in the many twists and turns, and changes of key.  The constantly altering faces and qualities of the music sustained the attention.  Some of the strongest and most emphatic playing of the evening was in this movement.  It was fast, with an energetic ending.

The New Zealand String Quartet provided an appreciative audience with a thoroughly satisfying, even exhilarating concert.



Stravinsky at the Festival: Distinguished performances of powerful works heard by too few

New Zealand International Arts Festival

Stravinsky:   Symphony of Psalms and Oedipus Rex

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus (Michael Vinten, chorus master), Joana Carneiro (conductor), Stuart Skelton (Oedipus, tenor), Margaret Medlyn (Jocasta, mezzo-soprano), Daniel Sumegi (Creon; Messenger, bass-baritone), Martin Snell (Tiresias, bass), Virgilio Marino (shepherd, tenor), Rawiri Paratene (narrator, speaker)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday, 24 February 2012, 8pm

As a Festival opener, this programme obviously did not have the appeal of the Mahler Symphony no.8 performed at the last Festival, when the hall was packed, and there were people sitting out in Civic Square watching the performance on a huge screen and hearing it relayed on loudspeakers.  Another draw-card on that occasion was the presence of the famous Vladimir Ashkenazy as conductor.

This time, by no means all the seats in the hall were filled, which was a pity, because these were fine and powerful performances.

My first reaction was pleasure at the appearance of the programmes.  The printed programmes in 2010 had a ghostly pallor, and the letters so skinny you could have driven a bus between them.  This time, the font was Times New Roman or similar, there was plenty of ink, no back-grounding of text, and they could be read even during the performance – most important when full libretti and translations into English were generously provided.

The other feature of the programmes were the copious and detailed notes provided.  There was far too much to read before or during the concert, but they make very interesting reading afterwards.  The New Zealand Opera Company has in the past sent programmes ahead of the season to those who book in advance; this practice could have been adopted here, with benefit to the audience’s understanding and appreciation.

The Chapman Tripp opera chorus was obviously augmented; some familiar faces that one doesn’t usually see in the chorus, graced it on this occasion.  My first impression at the opening of the Symphony of Psalms was that the choir was too far distant from the orchestra and the audience, making the sound likewise distant, and therefore the words did not have the clarity they should have.  We got volume at times, but seldom clarity.  This was the fault of the hall and the placement of the choir, not directly of inadequacy on the choir’s part.  If the performance had been in the Town Hall, the problem would not have existed; there would have been more impact.   The problem did not exist with the Mahler two years ago, because the choir was very much bigger, though so too was the orchestra.

Stravinsky’s unusual orchestration for this work provides plenty of wind players, and cellos and basses plus harp, two pianos, and percussion, but no violins or violas.  Therefore there was lots of rich, resonant low bass sound, while the incisiveness and wonderful colours of the winds were more apparent than usual, especially in the delicious melodies with cross-rhythms, played between Psalm 38 and Psalm 39.

Psalm 38 opened with spiky rhythms but they didn’t continue.  Instead, the effect was of long melismatic lines, like old Russian chants, though the work was sung in Latin.

The verses from Psalm 39 were given gentler treatment than the incisive previous psalm.  Sonorities built up; there were dense harmonies and clashes providing a rich sound – although some of the sopranos were a little too strident.  The final verse, ‘He put a new song in my mouth…’ was thunderous in its praise to God.

An Alleluia preceded Psalm 150.  These passages were quiet; the distance between choir and orchestra didn’t matter so much here, and there was some lovely singing. However, the choir, while good, and obviously very well rehearsed, sounded rather pedestrian in the psalm itself.   It again emphasised that a bigger choir would have coped better.

The psalm speaks of trumpets and other instruments; the NZSO instrumentalists fulfilled their parts radiantly, especially the ‘loud clashing cymbals’.  Despite their presence, this was a very lyrical verse, with the last section, ‘Let everything that breathes praise the Lord’ having an ethereal quality.

The pianists, Donald Nicolson and Rachel Thomson, had a very busy part in this last psalm. It ended with another Alleluia – quiet and exultant in tone. The growing woodwind tone against the choir’s soft intoning, along with piano and strings, was magical.  Stravinsky’s constantly shifting chords and soundscapes provided an experience unlike that to be had from any other composer; the result, satisfyingly unique.

Joana Carneiro is petite and very youthful in appearance, yet she conducts with energy and commitment.  In a radio interview prior to the performance, she remarked how good it was to have the narration in Oedipus Rex, since the music was so intense, complicated, yet direct, that time to breathe was needed.  She stressed that the music was not indulgent of the tragedies in the story; rather it was ‘about’ the story and characters.

One suspects that Festival Director Lissa Twomey (an Australian) programmed Oedipus Rex based on the success of this work at the Sydney Festival a couple of years ago, with the same conductor.  But with a much smaller population to draw on, and no full-time opera company here, its drawing power could not be relied on to be the same as in the much bigger city.  Maybe a semi-stage performance would have been more appealing – and it certainly would have conveyed the story in a more meaningful way.

Carneiro also said, and we experienced, that the choir was well-prepared.  The music of Oedipus Rex, she felt, was a pre-cursor of minimalism through its economy of means, but also employed leitmotif.  The latter helped to tie the story together musically, and gave something of a guide to the hearers.

Oedipus Rex, an opera-oratorio, was something completely different from the Symphony of Psalms, composed three years later.  Its similarity to the latter was probably confined to its reference back to polyphony, in the form of breaking up of the words, and the long lines.

Outstanding here, aside from the astonishing music, was the singing of tenor Stuart Skelton, as Oedipus.  This Australian singer has had great international success, and we were fortunate to hear him at the height of his powers.  His voice is  quite brilliant, and he has a wide range.  It cut through the textures without difficulty – strong, with great carrying quality, but never harsh or strident.  When he sang the words translated as ‘Your silence accuses you: you are the murderer! (to Tiresias), there was drama in every syllable.  His further accusation of Tiresias ‘Envy hates good fortune…’ featured high notes that were quite lovely, poignant and eloquent.

The other soloists could not measure up to Skelton, which is not to deny that they were good.  Their roles were all much smaller than that of Skelton.  Daniel Sumegi had the two roles of Creon and the Messenger, and his robust bass-baritone was effective and expressive, with wonderful low notes.  He had a very powerful passage in Act Two, singing ‘Jocasta the Queen is dead!’

Margaret Medlyn sang the mezzo role of the queen with perhaps less force at times than the part required, but nevertheless with appropriate levels of dramatic intensity.  Sometimes her music had echoes of the cabarets of Berlin.  The small part of the Shepherd was well sung by tenor Virgilio Marino.  (Was it really necessary to bring someone from Australia for a role with so little singing?).  He was particularly noteworthy for the duet with the Messenger, where they explain in Act Two that as a baby, Oedipus was found in the mountains.

Martin Snell’s smallish role as Tiresias was confidently and expressively sung, with lustrous resonance and deep, rich tones, but he did not always cut through the orchestra sufficiently.  However, his words were excellent.

An important role was that of the narrator, taken by well-known actor Rawiri Paratene.  He fulfilled it extremely well.  As Rachel Hyde said in her radio review, he was controlled and dignified.  His amplified words were very clear, his tone rich, and neither pompous nor intimate.  He struck the right note in giving the background commentary.

The male chorus sang for all they were worth in their demanding music, but occasionally were out of synch with the orchestra; more often the problem was that the words could not be sufficiently conveyed because the volume of the orchestra overwhelmed them.  At the distance the singers were, it was surprising that they kept together with the orchestra as much as they did; a tribute to their thorough preparation which meant they could keep eyes on the conductor much of the time.  Perhaps the conductor should have done more to tone down the dynamism of the orchestra.  However, it is really more a matter of the size and placement of the choir.  As Rachel Hyde said, the music in this work is really driven by the chorus, which has a large part, but too much in the background in this performance.

The orchestra was returned to its full glory with violins and violas, for this work.  The opening sound from choir and orchestra was tremendous.  Everywhere, we heard Stravinsky’s intriguing and innovative orchestrations brought out relentlessly; his invention knew no bounds.  The orchestra has a major role in Oedipus Rex, compared with its role in most operas or oratorios.

The chorus had its very effective moments, too: when they cry to Oedipus to solve the riddle of who murdered the king, Laius, their intoning of ‘Solve! Solve, Oedipus, solve!’ was startling.  It was strong again in the appeal to the goddesses that followed soon after; here, there was little accompaniment, allowing them to shine.  Soon incessant drumming was heard, adding to the doom-laden atmosphere, as they spoke of the many dead in Thebes, from the plague.

Again with incessant drumming, and with cymbal crashes, the chorus ‘Glory! Glory! Glory!’ sung in praise of the queen Jocasta (Margaret Medlyn) at the end of Act I was very fine, with tremendous unity in declamation.

In the second Act Margaret Medlyn had a long aria with piano – a most difficult part sung in very queenly fashion, and ending with swoops of agitation from the clarinet.  The chorus followed with a beautifully quiet entry, the singing continuing very smoothly over wonderful strumming on the strings.

One of Oedipus’s many notable moments came when he finally confessed to his crimes.  A fanfare followed this despairing utterance.  Skelton was a tremendous and very worthy Oedipus.

More good moments for the chorus: a very incisive short burst stating ‘The shepherd who knows all is here’, and strong, accurate and rhythmic singing of ‘He was not the true father of Oedipus’ (referring to Polybus).  Later, the difficult music for ‘The woman in the chamber…’ was rendered heartily and with precision.  The final chorus ‘Behold!  Oedipus the King!’ spilt out into immense noise from orchestra and chorus, but when full orchestra was employed, the chorus was overwhelmed.

Despite all, the chorus covered itself with glory, especially as amateurs amongst a stage full of professionals.

The performance of Oedipus Rex gave us a tremendous work, brought off with distinction.  It was powerful, shocking and complex, and a triumph (despite its flaws) for the performers and their unassuming young conductor, who held everything in suspense for an appreciable time at the end, so that the impact was not immediately lost in applause.



Encore visit to counter-tenor Xiao Ma, with Stephen Diaz and Gao Ping (piano), at Te Papa

Songs, arias by Handel, Chausson, Britten, Mahler, Ravel, Dvořák, Chopin, Rossini, Mozart, Maori songs sung as duets, the music arranged by Ashley Heenan

Xiao Ma and Stephen Diaz (counter-tenors), Gao Ping (piano)

Soundings Theatre, Te Papa

Saturday 18 February, 4pm

I attended this one-hour recital with a friend, with whom I had just had afternoon tea in the 4th floor café at Te Papa.  She insisted that we should queue for Xiao Ma at 3.30pm; in fact, we went earlier, and soon a huge queue built up.  The doors weren’t opened until nearly 4pm, and people poured in till the theatre was absolutely full.

Mere Boynton welcomed the audience and introduced the performers, including a good plug for the opera Hōhepa, to be premiered in the Arts Festival, in which Stephen Diaz will appear, following his just-completed stunning turn of acting and singing in Handel’s Alcina, at Opera in a Days Bay Garden.

He opened the programme with an aria he sang, as Ruggiero, in that opera: ‘Verdi Prati’.  He looked rather nervous, but soon warmed up.  He has a way to go, to being a fully-fledged singer, still being young, but has some of the vital attributes, such as his exquisite control in the quiet passages.

What struck me straight away, and right through the recital, was the astonishing pianism of Gao Ping.  Here is a pianist who caresses the keys rather than hitting them.  It was pleasing to watch him, too.

Next came Xiao Ma, to sing two Handel arias that he sang in his concert on Wednesday night at St. Mary of the Angels: ‘Ombra mai fu’ from Serse, and ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from Rinaldo.  There is a drier sound in this theatre; St. Mary of the Angels church suited him better.  Here, I could hear his breathing quite frequently, which I could not the other night.  This is not to denigrate his superb breath control, especially notable in the second aria.  Both singer and accompanist incorporated decorations in the da capo repeat.

Chausson’s Le colibri (The humming-bird) has always been a favourite of mine, from a splendid rendition by Gérard Souzay on a recording I was given many years ago.  The song (and his subsequent items) was given a spoken introduction by Stephen Diaz.  It was beautifully and sensitively sung.

His next song was ‘I know a bank’ from Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  This aria is perhaps a little too austere to be sung as a solo divorced from the opera context and setting, despite the rather over-done gestures from the singer.  However, it was competently sung, and the accompaniment was a model of supportive expression.

Xiao Ma returned to sing ‘Oft denk ich’ from Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder.   I don’t think he had quite the sense of foreboding required for these songs, and to my taste it was sung a little too fast.

A song I did not know was ‘Le réveil de la mariée’ from Five Greek songs by Ravel; it proved to be a lively song, rather like a Greek dance.

After that came the sublime Dvořák song known in English as ‘Songs my mother taught me’, from Gypsy Melodies.  Xiao Ma sang it in Czech, just one of the seven languages he sang in.  This was an exquisitely sung piece, fulfilling the expectations of all of us who love this song; the accompaniment, my notes say, was ‘out of this world’.  The totality was an ecstatic experience, to which the audience responded very enthusiastically.

Another item unfamiliar to me was ‘The wish’ from Poland Melodies by Chopin.  Sung in Polish it was very bright and lively, with lovely flourishes.

Stephen Diaz returned to sing an aria from Rossini’s Semiramide: ‘In si Barbara’.  Here, the tone was a trifle inconsistent.  This was typical Rossini stuff, with a repetitive accompaniment.  It was florid and powerful, high in the soloist’s voice – it really got the audience going in response.

Xiao Ma followed with the well-known ‘Voi, che sapete’ from Le Nozze di Figaro by Mozart.  The singer showed great breath control in this item, and gave a very accomplished performance.

His final aria was another famous one: ‘Una voce poco fa’ from Il barbiere di Siviglia by Rossini.  Xiao Ma extracted maximum humour from the aria, to the audience’s delight, with facial expression and vocal colouring.  It was a characterful performance with plenty of variety of dynamics and vocal agility.  The trills employed were quite brilliant, sending the audience into ecstasies.

There followed three Maori songs, sung as a duet by the two singers.  The arrangements were by Ashley Heenan, and were very lovely; they derive from April 1966, when Heenan arranged five songs especially for a New Zealand youth music concert with orchestra, choir and soloists put on by the government for the Queen Mother, on her visit.  Two sopranos sang the songs then, some of them with choir; one of the duet was Donna Awatere, later famous in spheres other than music.

The richness of Stephen Diaz’s voice came through in these songs.  Both singers use their resonators superbly, being heard even in very quiet passages, without having to open their mouths wide.  Although Xiao Ma took the higher part, Diaz had to sing quite high also.

The first song was the well-known Hine e Hine.  In the second song, about the sound of the locust, Poi kihikihi, both singers used their tenor voices, to great effect.  In the third, Tahi nei taru kino, the singers varied their voices a great deal.  A unison section hardly sounded that, due to the very different timbres of the voices.

As encore, Mozart’s ‘Soave sia il vento’ from Cosi fan Tutte was sung; while beautifully rendered, the lack of a bass to sing the third part of the trio detracted from the performance somewhat.  The harmony was very fine.

A second encore was an attractive Chinese song.  For this, Gao Ping did not need a score.

A thoroughly enjoyable concert was greeted warmly by the audience, with a partial standing ovation.  We do not hear singers in live concerts enough, compared with some years ago; this concert (admittedly, free) showed there is an enthusiasm for such performances.  Soundings Theatre holds approximately 300 people; hopefully this success will encourage Te Papa and other promoters to put on more such recitals.


Splendid concert from the summer sessions of the National Youth Orchestra

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra National Youth Orchestra

Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, Op.61
Shostakovich: Cello Concerto no.1 in E flat, Op.107 (allegretto, moderato, cadenza, allegro con moto)
Gluck: Iphigénie en Aulide Overture
Stravinsky: Suite from Pulcinella

NZSO National Youth Orchestra (concertmaster, Hilary Hayes), conducted by Tecwyn Evans, with Santiago Cañón Valencia (cello)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday, 17 February 2012, 6.30pm

Friday night’s splendid concert began with a work by a suitably youthful composer; Mendelssohn was 17 years old when he wrote the well-known music for Shakespeare’s play (well beloved of Radio New Zealand Concert).   It was good, too, to have youthful New Zealand-born conductor at the helm – even if sartorially, he did not match the orchestra members.

This was a new venture, to bring together the Youth Orchestra in the summer, in addition to their usual early spring session.   However, it was not the full orchestra, but consisted of 52 players.  The small orchestra, as a friend pointed out, doesn’t give the same breadth and depth of sound as we are used to from the National Youth Orchestra.  That said, it was appropriate to have a smaller orchestra for the Stravinsky and Shostakovich works.

Mendelssohn’s music is wonderfully ethereal.  In 2002 I attended a ballet in Budapest that was a dance version of the Shakespeare play; the music was Mendelssohn’s, including his Italian symphony, which is very much in a similar mood to the Midsummer Night’s Dream music.  The dance really gave the work life – since we never hear it performed with the play.

The woodwind sections came through well in this performance, while the brass were excellent.  There was good variation of dynamics, but not quite that smooth, satin sound one hopes for from the strings; they played well, nevertheless.  In the passages that seem to evoke the fairies, the playing was appropriately unearthly in effect.  Those for violins alone were well unified, while the timpani provided strong support.

This was a generally fine performance.

Shostakovich’s music dwells in a completely different sound world, and inhabits a much darker, more sombre  milieu.  It was quite amazing to find a 16-year-old playing such music, without the score, and with complete accuracy and complete confidence.  It was scored for chamber orchestra, as was the later Stravinsky work; there would not be too many other 20th century works so scored.

Young Colombian cellist Santiago Cañón Valencia is studying at the University of Waikato, because his mother learned cello from James Tennant who now teaches there.

Shostakovich opens with the cello alone intoning a theme the composer uses elsewhere in his œvre: the notes B-A-C-H (in German notation; in ours, B flat, A, C, B), doubtless proclaiming his admiration for that composer.  I find the repetition of this motif too incessant for my taste.  The cello is soon joined by the winds; especially prominent are bassoons and oboes, all playing impeccably.

To regain the upper hand, the solo part soon goes to the upper register,  way down on the finger-board.  The sole horn enters with the Bach theme; later, he has important interplay with the cellist, which young player Sung Soo Hong managed pretty well, despite one or two fluffs. The cello soloist has little respite from constant playing in this spiky first movement, referred to in the programme notes as ‘especially sardonic’.

A great contrast comes with the smooth opening of the slow movement.  The horn got briefly getting out of kilter, but his very exposed part was played splendidly on the whole, and he showed great control of dynamics.

The soloist introduced a beautiful, rather sad theme with minimum accompaniment – violas, and pizzicato on cellos and basses.  A marvellous clarinet solo entered, counterpointing the cello part.  Muted strings arrived, giving the soloist a rest as they played a sombre variation on his theme.

Then the solo cello entered again with a high, mellifluous melody, which Valencia played quite beautifully.  Another solo was accompanied by clarinet and bassoons.  At all times Valencia appeared the consummate artist – accuracy, dynamics, expression were all of a high order, belying his youth.

Here was fine horn playing, and delicate phrases on the celeste advancing the sudden ethereal quality of the soloist playing harmonics, while the violins wander quietly in Never-Never Land, until the movement tailed off to nothing.

Almost without a break, a protracted grave melody from the soloist introduced the third movement ‘Cadenza’, which was entirely cello solo.  Valencia employed left-hand pizzicato and simultaneous two-strings pizzicato.  Bravura playing emerged: up and down the finger-board, before the orchestra came in with some trenchant chords then the woodwinds had their moments of acrobatic glory, all heralding the allegro final movement.  The soloist gave us a sort of perpetuum mobile while the other sounds cascaded around him.

The playing was electric, but always with gorgeous tone.  Back to Bach, with the familiar motif, played on winds as well as on the cello, with the accompaniment as at the opening of the work.

This was a splendid performance, and after enthusiastic recognition by the audience, Valencia played as an encore a slow movement from Bach’s sixth cello suite, very skilfully and soulfully.

Following the interval, we went back in time to an operatic overture by Gluck (with an ending arranged by Wagner).  The slow opening befitted the serious, classical subject.  Throughout the work there are lovely contrasts between the concerted passages and the delicate filigree on the strings.

There was a clear, fine sound from the strings; they were absolutely together and accurate.   The overture  was very attractively played.  I couldn’t pick the Wagner ending particularly, although the sound was certainly bigger at the end than it had been at the beginning.

Stravinsky’s attractive and highly entertaining Pulcinella suite was the last item on the programme.  Delightful, charming and colourful are all appropriate descriptions of this suite of eight pieces from the ballet music the composer wrote for Diaghilev, based on music of the early eighteenth-century composer, Pergolesi.  The orchestra was slightly reduced for this work.

The opening Sinfonia set the mood of the neo-classical style, with some wonderfully grunty sounds from the violins and winds, and solo work for the concertmaster, extremely well executed.  The Serenata that followed featured excellent oboe playing with splendid tone, from Hazel Nissen.  After the third movement (Scherzino – Allegro – Andantino) came the rapid, animated Tarantella, which featured more solo playing from the concertmaster, Hilary Hayes, with bassoon accompaniment.

‘Toccata’ gave opportunity for the brass and woodwind sections to show their skills, the piccolo being a particular feature, while the Gavotta that followed used all the orchestral colours, the second variation being for woodwind entirely.  The Vivo movement was fun to hear – and probably also to play, requiring lots of energy.  It was a good movement for the double basses to demonstrate their skills.

The Minuetto – Finale began languidly, then the string quartet of the section leaders with winds played elegantly with winds.  A great trombone solo followed, the finale bringing the work to an exciting conclusion.

The performance was greeted with enthusiastic applause from the audience, and the conductor ensured that every section had its turn in the limelight of applause, but there was special attention for the leaders of sections, and especially the superb trombonist, Joseph Thomas.

It is marvellous to witness the highly skilled, confident playing of the young people; it augurs well for the future of orchestral music in this country, as well developing audiences.  Not only were the ‘regulars’ at symphony concerts there (on a free ticket if they were NZSO subscribers), but also the families and friends of the performers, who may not be regulars.

Tecwyn Evans appeared to guide everything carefully, ensuring entries were signalled, but in an undemonstrative style.  He can feel as pleased as the audience was with the outcome of his efforts.

I feel compelled to say something about the printed programme.  Surely print designers must say to themselves “Who is going to read this, and in what circumstances?”  Given that the majority of the audience would have been over the age of 55, this was not a user-friendly piece of printing, with design appearing to take precedence over practicality.

Why did some composers’ photos need to have half their faces rendered green?   Why was the typeface of some pages (not all) so peculiar – a font I have never seen before, that appeared unevenly inked.   The notes for the Stravinsky work (or Stravinky, as it appeared in one paragraph) seemed less well proof-read than the others and were very difficult to read, even in broad daylight the next day, let alone in the dim light of the concert hall.  The inking of the minims (upright strokes) was less than for the round letters, giving a most peculiar appearance. The lower case ‘g’ seemed to stand out everywhere on the pages with this font, as though it were more inked than other letters – which it was, being composed of two circles.  In the semi-dark of the concert hall, these pages looked as though they were printed in Hebrew!  Punctuation marks were practically invisible.

Other pages were printed in a slightly more readable sans-serif font.  Tests have shown that such fonts are not as readable as fonts with serifs, since the latter help to carry the eye forward.  In the United Kingdom, the Arts Council has for years required promoters of concerts receiving funding from it, to provide large-type programmes for sight-impaired people.  I am not sight-impaired, but would be relieved to have programmes that can be more easily read.  In addition, there were places where white print was over a light background, or a photograph, where it became virtually unreadable.  My colleague says he wishes ‘they would stop overlaying letterpress on pictures and design features. The two elements should be kept apart.  It’s a tiresome fashion that a respectable organisation should be able to resist’.



Exceptional recital from Chinese counter-tenor, Xiao Ma

Music at St. Mary of the Angels

Xiao Ma (counter tenor)

Baroque instrumental ensemble (Gregory Squire, violin, Anne Loeser, viola, Robert Oliver, viola da gamba, Erin Helyard, harpsichord)

Vivaldi:  ‘Nisi Dominus’ (verses 1 & 9);  Trio Sonata in G minor, Op.1 no.1; ‘Sposa son disprezza’ (from Bajazet); Trio Sonata in D minor Op.1 no.12 (‘La Follia’); ‘Gloria Patri’ (from the psalm Domine ad adiuvandum me festina RV 593); ‘Agitata da due venti’ (from Griselda)
Handel:     Trio Sonata in D major Op.5 no.2
Riccardo Broschi (c1698-1756)     ‘Son qual nave ch’agitata’ (from Ataserse)
Handel:   ‘Ombra mai fu’ (from Serse);  Trio Sonata in G major Op.5 no.4;  ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ (from Rinaldo); ‘Vivi, Tiranno’ (from Rodelinda)

St. Mary of the Angels church

Wednesday, 15 February 2012, 7.30 pm

Counter-tenors have come a long way since Alfred Deller revived the voice in the 1940s – not to demean that gentleman’s superb singing.  Xiao Ma’s voice is probably the most beautiful counter-tenor I have heard live – and I have heard some very good ones.  This voice has a bright, sweet tone, and is never strained.  It is well rounded, with huge variety.  There was a tendency at times, particularly in the first item, for the singer to lower his head, which sometimes covered the tone.  Raising the shoulders, as he also did from time to time, can affect the tone also.

Xiao Ma’s is a very flexible voice, and his execution of runs and other ornamentation was quite amazing; he was very skilled in the florid music of the Nisi Dominus.  He and the instrumentalists conveyed Vivaldi’s magnificent music in all its glory.  The short but effective ‘Amen’ verse 9 was repeated at the end of the concert, as an encore.

The first trio sonata of five movements was notable particularly for the lambent tone of the viola.  The expertise of these players is such that one could easily imagine oneself in an eighteenth century ducal court.  Vivaldi’s striking contrasts between the movements, as in the more famous Four Seasons concertos, were given full play.

The aria ‘Sposa son disprezza’ is from an opera entitled Bajazet, whose music was compiled rather than composed by Vivaldi.  Perhaps by this time Xiao Ma felt more comfortable with the venue and the audience; certainly his singing was even better in this item.  The representation of a scorned wife was given strongly, yet expressively.

The phrasing was done with subtlety and complete smoothness, which is not always the case with counter-tenors.  The instrumental accompaniment was utterly sympathetic.

The second Vivaldi trio sonata was based on the well-known ‘La Follia’ melody.  This version began rather more austerely than Corelli’s famous Concerto Grosso, though the variations lacked nothing in rapidity.  A variation with solo first violin accompanied by pizzicato on the other strings was charming, while a very quiet one that gradually sped up and got louder was dramatic.  A graceful siciliana movement restored calm after its stormy predecessor.

These players are in total accord.

The aria ‘Agitata da due venti’ employed extremely florid writing for voice and instruments, but all was accomplished without a hitch.  Vivaldi’s very descriptive music of a ship tossed by the winds as the billows roared made for vocal gymnastics from the singer and appropriate writing for the instruments.  A couple of times the singer had to drop to his low register, but this was negotiated apparently effortlessly, which is not always the case with counter-tenors; no graunchy gear-change here!

After the interval, the concert changed to (mainly) Handel, and his Italian operas.  First, though, was a Handel trio sonata.  In seven movements, this delightful work incorporated movements (e.g. Musette) unknown in the Vivaldi works we heard.

The first musette movement featured an intriguing intoning of low notes by the viola da gamba.  The other strings followed in the allegro with an unaccompanied duet, which gave a refreshing change of timbre.  The march was typical of Handel’s writing in this form (Royal Fireworks music, etc.)  It wasn’t hard to visualise a stately dance with ladies curtseying in long dresses and fascinating headgear.

More storm and stress came in the aria by Broschi.  Another ship on stormy seas reminded one of the very real dangers of being at sea before accurate charts, radar and radio were available (nevertheless, we still have ships hitting ‘reefs hidden beneath the waves’).  This aria demonstrated the singer’s huge range, and how accurately he can negotiate the vocal gymnastics asked of him by Broschi.

Now to something very familiar: Handel’s recitative and the lovely aria from Serse: ‘Ombra mai fu’.  The accompaniment was superb, as was the purity of the opening notes of the sublime aria.  The music floated, yet was purposeful.

The trio sonata that followed comprised five movements, on of which one, Passacaille, was quite long, with a great deal of development.  Ending on a minuet marked allegro moderato, the work seemed to finish rather lamely after the riches that preceded its final movement.

The well-known ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from Rinaldo was introduced on harpsichord only, very effectively.  This gorgeous aria was sung simply and ravishingly.  The singer varied the repeat sections, in authentic baroque style.  The performance was quite lovely, and was repeated at the end, as an encore, with more trills. As the evening wore on, Xiao Ma increasingly used gesture while singing – but it was not excessive.

The concert ended in more lively style, however, with ‘Vivi, tiranno’ from Rodelinda, with more florid phrases, enabling Xiao Ma to demonstrate his consummate skill.

The singer’s breathing was imperceptible; he had excellent control, and performed many long runs in one breath.  The top of his voice has a glorious sound.

This was a well thought-out programme; not only did it intersperse appropriate instrumental music with the vocal, but contrasting sonatas of Handel with those of Vivaldi introduced us to delightful but little-known music.  The instruments were by turns mellow and incisive, but always musical.  All played with skill, sensitivity and attention to baroque style and detail.  There were just a few moments when intonation briefly went awry.

St. Mary of the Angels was a very suitable venue in which to perform baroque music; it being the nearest thing we have in Wellington to a baroque church.

While it was good to have a printed programme giving the words of the arias etc. in both the original languages (Latin and Italian) and English, notes about the works from which they were taken would have been useful.

A good-sized audience heard this remarkable recital.   A distraction for those of us on the right-hand side of the church was the constant clicking of cameras while Ma was singing.  No doubt the photos were official, but this is not a usual feature (in fact, normally a prohibited one) of classical concerts.

This was an exceptional concert; I think Handel would have been delighted, and probably Vivaldi too.  Xiao Ma sings again on Friday in Masterton, having already performed in Akaroa, Auckland and Christchurch, and performs this Saturday at 4pm, at Soundings Theatre, Te Papa.  On Sunday he sings twice in the Hamilton Gardens Arts Festival.


Paul Rosoman at two organs in St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Jesu meine Freude (Krebs); Passacaglia (Kerll); Voluntary IX from Op 7 (John Stanley); Improvisation in A minor, Op 150 No 7 (Saint-Saens); Dir, dir, Jehova, will ich singen (Karg-Elert); Elegy for 7th April 1913 (Parry); Postlude in D, Op 105 No 6 (Stanford)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 15 February, 12.15pm

Paul Rosoman began his recital, the first for 2012, using the chamber organ located on the right of the sanctuary, an instrument which gives the church something of the character of European churches and cathedrals in which a smaller organ existed to accompany the choir. Few in the audience would have recognised any of the music and many would not have heard of half of the composers; that would have been no bad thing except that few of the pieces would fall into the class of neglected masterpieces.

The opening piece was by a pupil of J S Bach, Johann Ludwig Krebs who was contemporary with Bach’s oldest sons. Based on the chorale ‘Jesu meine Freude’, on which Bach himself based his great motet, it could hardly have suggested a less likely kinship. It followed a routine pattern which performance on the chamber organ did little to enhance, seeming to draw attention to its slender character.

The Passacaglia by Kerll, of a century earlier, offered evidence of considerable musical imagination, employing a chromatic, downward motif that retained interest through the variety of its contours and ornamentation. Its performance on the baroque organ proved a more satisfactory than had the piece by Krebs.

John Stanley was a contemporary of Krebs; this Voluntary opened on piccolo stops that seemed to need more support, but the following fugal section became more interesting, employing the organ’s resources more fully.

Rosoman now moved upstairs to the main organ for the rest of the programme, of 19th and early 20th century music. Much of Saint-Saëns’s music is chameleon-like as the composer hardly developed a recognisable style, melodically, harmonically, or in instrumental colouring; so he’s often difficult to identify and this was the case with this Improvisation, one of seven written in 1916/17. In this, Rosoman seemed determined to dramatise the contrast with the lightly voiced chamber organ, using registrations that for me were too heavy, too brazen.

Sigfrid Karg-Elert, as the programme notes pointed out, was more popular in his life-time than after his death in 1933, though I have to claim that I encountered him in my teens through the adventurous musical interests of a school friend. In one of his Choral Improvisations (Op 65) Rosoman succeeded with a thoroughly convincing performance that displayed both the composer’s imaginative invention and the organist’s command of the organ’s resources; its character seemed to owe more to the composer’s French contemporaries like Vierne and Tournemire than to Rheinberger or Reger, or the English organists of the time.

Pieces by the two major English composers followed. A calm, unassertive Elegy by Hubert Parry was written for the funeral of a brother-in-law. It used a melody with widely spaced intervals, alternating between open and closed ranks, avoiding any false piety or sentimentality.

The last piece was by Parry’s contemporary (and rival) Charles Villiers Stanford (Parry wound up as professor at Oxford, Stanford at Cambridge). An appropriate Postlude, to conclude the recital: a bold rhythmic piece in stately triple time, sombre and emphatic, that could not possibly dispel Stanford’s reputation as apostle of Victorian grandeur and self-confidence. It was a good choice to conclude, strong structure, interestingly evolving ideas even if unadventurous harmonically. Like so many neglected and denigrated composers, both these Englishmen are seeing their reputations dusted off and found far more worthy of attention than was the opinion 50 years ago.

Though there was nothing familiar in the programme, Rosoman had given us food for thought, and for the musically curious, places to begin fruitful explorations.


Michael Houstoun’s musical journeyings at Waikanae

Waikanae Music Society Inc.

MICHAEL HOUSTOUN plays music by Jenny McLeod and JS Bach

McLEOD – Six Tone Clock Pieces Nos.19-24 (world premiere)

JS BACH – Goldberg Variations

Memorial Hall, Waikanae

Sunday 12th February 2012

In her notes for the program composer Jenny McLeod pays a heartfelt tribute to the occasion and to those taking part, reserving special thanks for Michael Houstoun. Her words “a musician of such immense gifts, high reputation and tireless dedication” would have surely been echoed by those present at the recital, as we were able to sense in Houstoun’s playing something of McLeod’s “pleasure and privilege” in writing music for him to perform.

This music was “Six Tone Clock Pieces”, and was the culmination for the composer of over twenty years of work, this set completing a larger collection of twenty-four pieces. McLeod tells us that “Tone Clock” refers to a chromatic harmonic theory pioneered by Dutch composer Peter Schat, one which she adapted for her own purposes.

Having explained in her notes that composers such as Bach, Chopin and Debussy also wrote pieces in groups or multiples of 12, based on the subdivision of the keyboard into twelve semitones, McLeod dismissed further theoretical explanation of the music’s organization as “essentially of interest only to composers”, adding that she believed “structural coherence can be sensed intuitively by the listener”. Well stated.

The individual movements are evocatively titled, though McLeod admitted that these “names for things” arrived sometimes months after the music had been completed. She talked about precedents for such descriptions set by people like Debussy and Messiaen, and obviously regards her own music as similarly able to stand and be appreciated on its own unadorned merits. I did, I confess, find each of the titles a helpful starting-point for my listening fancies.

The first piece, Moon, Night Birds, Dark Pools, mixed evocation and delineation with great skill (Houstoun an ideal interpreter for such a blend of opposing sound-impulses), our sensibilities taken to the edges of a world of chromatic nocturnal fancies but keeping our status intact as spectators rather than participants in the scenario. Set against these stillnesses was the bustling energy-in-miniature of Te Kapowai (Dragonfly), which then gave way to deeper-voiced portents of oncoming day (Early Dawn to Sunrise-Earthfall), a primeval chorus of impulses gradually awakening the earth’s light, the piano tones suffusing the listener with richly golden energies, Messiaen-like in their insistence.

Haka opened darkly, the music thrustful and threatening at first, before the jazzy off-beat rhythms began rubbing shoulders with more playful figurations. Houstoun skillfully controlled the vacillating light-and-dark moods of the music, then allowed the silences of the disturbed land to creep slowly backwards. The next piece, Pyramids, Symmetries, Crevices of Sleep reminded me on paper of Debussy’s Canope, a composer’s parallel meditation upon an object honouring the dead. Of the pieces, I found this the most abstracted and self-contained, appropriately enigmatic, even more so than the final Dream Waves, with its “surfing the planet” subtitle, whose angularities and contrasts were more readily engaging on a visceral level for this listener.

At a first hearing I was fascinated by the variety of the piano-writing, the titles of the individual pieces giving me some intriguing contexts in which to place the sounds. I thought the music in general terms intensified in abstraction as piece followed piece, the last two of the set very determinedly stating their independence of any kind of glib representation whatever. Incidentally, the first eleven from the complete set of Tone Clock Pieces can be heard on a Waiteata Music Press disc (WTA 005)  available from either The Centre For New Zealand Music (SOUNZ) or the New Zealand School of Music. I haven’t yet gone back to these earlier pieces to listen, but it will be fascinating to compare them with these latest sounds of the composer’s.

Michael Houstoun gave us rather more familiar fare after the interval, a work that’s recognized as one of the cornerstones of Western keyboard literature, JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  This was a performance which I thought was taken in a single great breath, one whose flow of substance never let up, right to the point where Houstoun allowed the final restatement of the simple “Goldberg” theme to steal in even before the jollity of the concluding Quodlibet had finished resounding in our ears – a magical moment.

Of course, this s a work that demands a considerable amount of ebb and flow of mood and motion from the player; and Houstoun’s achievement was to encompass the enormity of variety between these moods, while keeping the audience’s interest riveted (on the face of things, an ironic circumstance with a work whose original purpose was popularly supposed to be that of putting a nobleman to sleep!). The evidence actually suggests that the Count Von Keyserlingk wanted not “a sleeping draught” as is popularly supposed, but music “soothing and cheerful in character” for his young chamber harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, to play. This would account for the good-humored, even robust nature of the final Quodlibet, with its menage of well-known, characterful melodies, more suitable for a kind of cheerful sing-a-long than a cure for insomnia.

Throughout I thought Houstoun’s different emphases of rhythm, touch and tone-colour illuminated each of the variations. One would hardly expect a note-perfect performance of such a colossal undertaking, but the very few inaccuracies and the one-or-two rhythmic uncertainties that sounded had that “spots on the sun” quality with which commentators used to characterized wrong notes played by Alfred Cortot. Basically, Houstoun made every note sound as though it mattered – there was nothing of the mechanus about his playing, but always a strong undertow of something organic – a varied terrain, but one with a living spinal chord.

To mention highlights of the playing might seem to be placing trees in the way of the forest – nevertheless, I found the buoyancy of Houstoun’s delivery in the energetic variations created a real sense of “schwung” – the very first variation had strut and poise, No.15 had marvellously energetic orchestral dialogues and rapid-fire triplets, terrific scampering momentum was generated in No.18, and the whirl of further triplets made No.27 an exhilarating and vertiginous experience. As for some of the slower, grander, or more meditative pieces, these were delivered with a focus and concentration which played their part in ennobling the whole work. Longest and slowest of these was No.25, in which the music takes performer and listener to depths of feeling and self-awareness that give the “return to higher ground” an unforgettable, life-changing poignancy. The aria itself was strong and confident at the outset, then other-worldly and meditative at the very end, as if spent from having finished recounting a lifetime’s experience.

Michael Houstoun is repeating this program at Upper Hutt’s Expressions Theatre on Monday 16th April. For those who couldn’t get to this Waikanae concert, I would say that going to Upper Hutt to hear two very different, but equally thought-provoking works marvellously played would be, on many different levels, a very worthwhile journey.