Triumphant anniversary concert for Dame Malvina Major Foundation

The Dame Malvina Major Foundation 21st Anniversary Celebration Concert

Excerpts from operas by Mozart, Donizetti, Verdi, Gounod, Humperdinck and Johann Strauss; items by Vaughan Williams, Richard Strauss, Sibelius and Saint-Saëns

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Wyn Davies, with Teddy Tahu Rhodes (bass-baritone), Ben Morrison (violin), Phillip Rhodes, Kieran Rayner (baritones), Aivale Cole, Carleen Ebbs (sopranos), Kristin Darragh, Bianca Andrew (mezzo-sopranos), Andrew Grenon, Darren Pene Pati (tenors)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday, 30 June 2012, 7.30pm

A wonderful concert of superb singing and playing celebrated the milestone in the life of Dame Malvina’s Foundation, which has assisted literally hundreds of young performers, and distributed tens of thousands of dollars.  Much training in the operatic arts has been provided in co-operation with New Zealand Opera, and mentoring given to young aspirants by Dame Malvina herself, and others.

An ample printed programme of biographies and notes was supplemented by an introductory speech and interspersed programme information from Dame Malvina.  The well-planned programme gave plenty of variety, and introduced numerous ensembles, which gave opportunity for a modicum of acting, and afforded the audience the pleasure of hearing numbers of these excellent voices together.  These were interspersed with solos.  All the items were of a high standard.

First up was Vaughan Williams’s beautiful Serenade to Music, written for the 50th anniversary of Sir Henry Wood’s conducting career, and so appropriate for this anniversary, and for the fact that it uses so many voices.  Written for 16 voices (and last heard live by me in 2002 at the 50th anniversary concert of The Orpheus Choir, with 16 voices), it was sung here by eight voices.

Throughout the evening, the performers stood forward of the conductor and orchestra; it was impressive how their ensemble and intonation were always immaculate despite this apparent disadvantage.  Aivale Cole was a little flat on a couple of notes early in her first solo passage, but soon got into her stride.

The work is a setting of the words from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice:
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank! 
Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.

What an amazing marriage of words and music this piece is!  The ethereal nature of much of the music and the delicious harmonies provided a very sweet start to the evening.  All the singers apart from Kieran Rayner and Dame Malvina herself took part in this opening item, as did Ben Morrison, playing the solo violin passages in captivating style, and also a fine duet with lead viola, Julia Joyce.  His tone in solo and ensembles was delicious.  The harp is most important in this work, adding to its serenade quality.

The first solos were from Teddy Tahu Rhodes: ‘Fin ch’han dal vino’ from Don Giovanni and ‘Non più andrai’ from Le Nozze di Figaro.  The first was taken quite fast; Rhodes’s fluency and rich timbre coped with this splendidly.  His gestures provided an additional element to the story-telling.  The second aria, being a little slower, conveyed the words better, and we got more of his rolling bass sound and the thrilling sustained notes.  The orchestra’s brass and woodwind created the mock military march superbly.  It was great to hear this internationally successful singer.

He has great stage presence, yet seemed very relaxed on stage.

Although the printed programme said that Darren Peni Pati would sing the Donizetti aria from Don Pasquale, it was actually Andrew Grenon who sang ‘Tornami a dir che m’ami’, with Carleen Ebbs.  The latter’s voice has developed remarkably since I last heard her, prior to her travelling to Cardiff to study.  The two voices matched very well, Ebbs producing a rich, contralto sound in the lower register, of which there was plenty in her Don Carlos solo that followed in Scene from Act IV of that opera.  She was marvellously robust and characterful.

Aivale Cole’s warm and lovely voice did not fail to excite in her part of that scene.  Her top was secure and dramatic, her low notes thrilling.  Teddy Tahu Rhodes’s contribution was deep and rich, while Phillip Rhodes was strong and noble.  Acting in  this scene saw Teddy Tahu Rhodes holding a jewel casket and showing the portrait of  his son therein to Aivale Cole, who faints, and Eboli, the jealous princess (Kristin Darragh) conveying emotion well through gesture and facial expression; Phillip Rhodes a little more wooden as he sympathises with Elisabeth (Aivale Cole).  Despite no set or costumes (though Cole’s outfit fitted the bill very well), the drama and emotion were portrayed sufficiently through voices, actions and faces.  Ensemble and balance were first-class.

Cole’s treatment of the words in Richard Strauss’s Zueignung (Dedication) was exemplary, while her tone was creamy and gorgeous.  This song always turns my ‘innards’ into jelly; Aivale did not disappoint, nor did the NZSO.  The Sibelius song Illale (To Evening) was new to me.  Cole sang it with plenty of power, horns and trumpets in the orchestration notwithstanding.

Two quintets from Act I of Così fan tutte gave more opportunity for acting, this time with Carleen Ebbs, Bianca Andres, Phillip Rhodes, Andrew Grenon and Kieran Rayner.  Again, the ensemble singing was near perfect.  All projected well, the orchestra was fabulous, and the whole was made into a very believable story with the use of gesture and movement.  Bianca Andrew’s voice does not have the richness of Darragh’s, but it is very clear and pleasing, and her performance was thoroughly confident and committed.

Darren Pene Pati sang from Gounod’s Faust ‘Salut, demeure chaste et pure’.   His voice has a beautiful operatic timbre.  His French language, phrasing and emphasis were ideal, and his voice production seemed easy and relaxed, not tight or forced in any way.  His top C was not only achieved, it had beautiful tone and a superbly controlled diminuendo – more than can be said for some famous singers who have recorded this aria.

It was pleasant to return to the violin for a break from the passions of opera.  Ben Morrison played the well-known Havanaise by Saint-Saëns with warm tone, precision, the technical skill needed for this show-piece, but very much in the spirit of the habanera.

Kristin Darragh had an advantage in the ensemble from Rigoletto, since she sung her role of Maddalena in the recent New Zealand Opera production.  Nevertheless, the entire quartet were all impressive in ‘Bella figlia dell’amore’: Cole, Pati and Phillip Rhodes were just as good.  Timing was spot on.  This quartet would grace any operatic stage, both individually and as an ensemble.

Again, the passion was cooled, this time by the beautiful ‘Children’s Prayer’ from Hänsel und Gretel by Humperdinck.  It was sung charmingly by Carleen Ebbs and Bianca Andrew.

We then heard from Dame Malvina herself, singing ‘Mercè, dilette amiche’ from Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani.  While not having the volume it once would have, her voice is in fine shape.  She sang with flair and demonstrated more than most of the younger singers the use of the resonators in the face, and extraordinary breath control.  Trills, and all her singing, were abundantly accurate.  Although her voice has inevitably changed with time, she certainly has not lost her power to communicate with an audience or to put over an affecting performance of beauty and character.

The final item was an ensemble from Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus: an excerpt from Act II that included the famous ‘Champagne Chorus.  Seven singers (that is, all except Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Kieran Rayner) were sang in this.  Phillip Rhodes stood out for me as having a splendid voice and singing excellent German.  Bianca Andrew showed great stage presence, and entered into the spirit of the piece.  But so did all the others.

There were no ‘duds’ in this concert; every singer was very fine, and every item thoroughly prepared.  The singers were assured and confident, and vindicated the work of the Dame Malvina Major Foundation as funder and mentor.  It was gratifying to think that all these performers had been assisted by the Foundation.

The orchestra was in its usual splendid form.  Sponsorship seems, however, to have been taken beyond its usual limits, with the concertmaster’s name appearing at the head of the orchestra page (though not in the listings below) as ‘Visa-Matti Leppänen’!  At times, a full-sized symphony orchestra on the same level as the singers proved to be too much, but these fairly brief occasions were relatively infrequent.  An advantage of this arrangement was that one could hear (and see) orchestral solos, and the various parts of the orchestra very well, in a way that is almost impossible in an opera house.

The Michael Fowler Centre was not full; there were many empty seats at the back and sides downstairs, and scattered throughout the gallery.  I can’t help wondering if the ticket prices were too high, and that a lower price-tag would have actually produced greater returns.

But the entire concert sparkled with élan, and provided the audience with an evening of great singing and playing, the singers proving the value of The Dame Malvina Major Foundation on this, its 21st birthday.  It was indeed a happy birthday.



Mulled Wine accompanies Aroha String Quartet concert at Paekakariki

Haydn: String Quartet in B flat, Op 76 No 4 (Sunrise); The White-haired Girt by the Lu Shun Collective; Debussy: Quartet in G minor

Aroha String Quartet (Hai-hong Liu and Blythe Press – violins, Zhongxian Jin – viola, Robert Ibell – cello)

Memorial Hall, Paekakariki

Sunday 24 June, 2.30pm

I heard the Aroha Quartet’s first concert in 2004 and was pretty impressed and have followed them with great interest ever since. The original quartet comprised four Chinese players, three playing in the NZSO and one, the viola Zhongxian Jin, teaching at Victoria University and free lancing. Hai-hong Liu remains leader; the other two were second violinist Beiyi Xue and cellist Jiaxin Cheng.

Jiaxin Cheng reportedly married Julian Lloyd Webber and was replaced by Robert Ibell in 2009. Anne Loeser replaced second violin Beiyi Xue for a while; young Kapiti violinist Blythe Press has now taken the position.

I wondered whether the earlier homogeneity might have been a bit compromised by the change, since Blythe Press is clearly the least experienced member of the quartet. And those suspicions were aroused in the performance of the Haydn quartet where each instrument sounded quite distinct and I found myself listening to it as a piece for four soloists rather than for a single entity that happens to consist of four players on four instruments.

In some ways the quartet gave what might be felt undue emphasis to certain notes and chords in the first movement, creating greater dynamic contrasts than was perhaps ideal. There was an occasional stray note in the early stages but generally the ensemble was very fine. The point is that the hall is highly responsive and you hear every line of music distinctly which makes the task very challenging: the least smudge can be spotted and seamless ensemble is so much more difficult to achieve.

The quiet of the second movement, Adagio, offered the charming accompaniment of the muffled sound of a high sea breaking on the rocks on Paekakariki’s beach; it’s one of the special charms of the hall, along with the westerly view from the windows, across the sea towards Kapiti. Unfortunately, the bright sun made it necessary to draw the curtains during the performances.

It’s a short movement but time enough to hear the four players in a more subdued and refined mood.

There is marked contrast between the Minuet and its Trio middle section and I enjoyed the vigorous, peasantish character they created. Throughout, the music is about contrast, between emphatic chords and intervening calm phrases, dynamics, styles, and of course, the individual sounds of each instrument, and here the contribution of Blythe Press’s violin seemed to have found the measure of the music and of his companions.

The second item was a curiosity – a piece derived from a 1945 Chinese opera which, following the Communist victory in 1948, was adapted to conform with the ideology.

The White Haired Girl, set in the northern border region, Shanxi, tells the story of a peasant girl who is kidnapped by a landlord because the girl’s father owes him rent; and she is held as a slave and concubine, maltreated; but manages to escape and lives for years in caves until she finds her way home. But her privations have made her hair turn white.

The story commended itself, with modifications, to the Communist authorities and because of its attractive melodic character, it became highly popular during the Mao years.

It was indeed an attractive piece, built on motifs that represented elements of the story: the north wind, the red ribbon, day turning to night, joining the Eighth Route Army (against the Japanese invaders) and so on. It lay very happily for the quartet, with long-bowed chords and lyrical passages, tremolo effects, all of which could be related easily to a story.

It was later arranged as a ballet and for a film. The arranger for string quartet was clearly very conversant with western music and, specifically, with string writing. One could hear hints of 19th century western music; so there was no problem in attuning the ears to alien sounds and the non-Chinese members of the quartet sounded as at home in it as the two original members.

If I had wondered about the quartet’s homogeneity in the Haydn, Debussy’s quartet laid it all to rest. Though it’s an early work (1893, before L’après-midi d’un faune), Debussy succeeded better than many composers of string quartets in making the four instruments sound as one (not that all composers sought to do so), and this was a performance of the utmost refinement and sensitivity in which each player suppressed his own individuality to find a common voice.

Yet the individual voices were often there, as at the beginning of the second movement where the motif is passed from viola to second violin to cello, and where there was marked dynamic contrast between the theme and its accompaniment. Of the beautiful third movement – ‘doucement expressif’ – they made a most entrancing Cézanne-like canvas, a work of intense unity of expression.

They played another Chinese piece as an encore: Saliha, arranged by Ji-cheng Zhang. This was even more reminiscent of 19th century eastern European music, deriving as it did from Xinjiang Uygur, the far-western, Turkic region of China.

Thankfully, the hall was well filled for this splendid concert which is a credit to the promoter of the Mulled Wine Concerts, Mary Gow, and her team of supporters. This series is complementary to the chamber music concerts at the other end of the Kapiti district, run by the Waikanae Music Society, reinforcing evidence of the musical riches of the region.

Engaging “Klezmorim” at Ilott Theatre

Wellington Chamber Music


with Philip Green (clarinet)

Kugeltov Klezmer: Rebecca Struthers (violin) / Ross Harris (accordion) / Tui Clark (clarinet) / Malcolm Struthers (double bass)

Ilott Theatre, Wellington

Sunday 24th June, 2012

I felt in a bit of a quandary regarding this concert, torn as I was between feelings of unease through wanting someone else to do this review, and curiosity at experiencing some of this “klezmer” music for myself. I did do a little bit of exploratory research – not too much – so that I’d have a notion, however vague, of what I was about to hear. So, I found out that Klezmer music grew from the desire of Jewish communities to provide music at celebratory events, particularly at weddings (I read one droll remark from a commentator that there wasn’t much difference between a Jewish wedding and a burial except that the former had musicians (klezmorim) in attendance!). This music drew from a wide variety of sources, and (as time went on) assimilated elements from different cultures and diverse musical styles.

Interestingly, these “klezmorim”, itinerant Jewish troubadours, were at first regarded as little more than vagrants on the social ladder – in fact, the term “klezmer” was used for a long time as an insult, one akin to being called a criminal – though their usefulness on occasions that seemed to call for music became more and more valued. If one was a klezmer, one was an untrained musician, unable to read music but able to play by ear. As with jazz musicians in the West, the status of the klezmorim has considerably advanced to the extent of their being regarded as true artists, especially with a recent revival worldwide of the genre.

A glance through the programme notes for each of the items gave one a sense of the ease and fluidity with which the music has taken on aspects of different influences from various places, both East and West. Implied as well is the improvisatory element in performance, one which I imagine would enable performers of klezmer music to give personalized expression to their views of and concerns with things in their world.

Here, I didn’t pick up on any such threads of focus in the concert, other than the desire by the performers to present a number of attractive and enjoyable examples of the world of this music. What did come across throughout the afternoon were evocations of ritual, of gatherings of people, and of symbolic gestures. At the concert’s beginning Rebecca Struthers entered strumming the strings of her violin, followed by clarinettists Tui Clark and Phil Green, simulating a kind of processional whose mode was suggested repeatedly by various pieces in the concert. The program notes spoke of wedding ritual, which a number of pieces evoked , three of which were similarly entitled Kale Bazetsn (Seating the Bride), as did Firn di mekhutonim aheym (no translation, but the title suggesting the entry of the bridal couple’s parents).

In a number of instances the emotion of the music was palpable, such as Rebecca Struthers’ violinistic depiction of a near-hysterical bride in the first Kale Bazetsn, with Tui Clark’s clarinet chiming in for good measure, the grotesquerie of it all underlined by Ross Harris’s somewhat manic piece Narish (translated as “Silly”) being played as a kind of add-on (virtuoso playing from all concerned). Rather more dignified, though just as deeply-felt, was the sequence beginning with Vuhin gaitzu? (“Where are you going?) the flattened fifth at the piece’s beginning commented on by Ross Harris as being particularly mournful in effect, and compounded by the unison of violin and clarinet, whose timbres then by turns gave the upper reaches of the melody almost unbearable anguish, the rhythm weighted and infinitely patient in effect.

In the second “Seating of the Bride” item, Bazetsn di Kale, consisting of two transcriptions of traditional tunes by Jale Strom, the music was again a vehicle for displays of bridal weeping, the first, on Rebecca Struthers’ violin sweet and comely, the second on two clarinets raw and raucous – a more animated section toward the end featured skillful work by both clarinetists.

As with “normal” chamber music, as well as jazz, the sense of the musicians enjoying their collaboration was nicely unequivocal – in Sun, a piece adapted by a Polish Klezmer group and borrowed for this occasion, the asymmetrical 7/4 rhythm produced an interaction which had the feel of a “jam session”, the spontaneity of it all underlined by a sudden counting-call of “one-two-three-four!”, at which the piece jumped forwards excitedly, keeping the rhythmic angularity but at a faster pace. Phil Green used, I think, an alto saxophone in this piece, the timbre and colour contributing to the music’s distinctiveness.

At halftime I found myself musing on what I’d heard thus far, amongst other things in regard to the playing of Phil Green and Rebecca and Malcolm Struthers (the latter playing a double-bass), each sounding right into the idiom of this music. It struck me that these musicians were displaying executant skills they would rarely, if ever, be called upon to employ in their “other” musical lives involving membership of the NZSO (and, of course, Tui Clark, the other clarinetist, was no stranger to orchestral work as well). I couldn’t help reflecting how ironic it was that these musicians’ energies and impulses of vital and colorful music-making seemed so overlaid in a normal orchestral setting. It didn’t seem altogether right that these elements should be allowed to sink more-or-less below the closely-monitored oceanic surface of corporate music-making.

But these somewhat contentious thoughts were short-lived, as they were peripheral to the real business in hand – and the concert’s second half gave as much delight as did the first – beginning with the ‘serious fun” of Ross Harris’s own Vaygeshray, an adaptation of a movement from his Four Laments for Solo Clarinet, which I had heard premiered in 2010, and was here played in a two-clarinet version by Phil Green and Tui Clark. This was music coursing through veins as life-blood, and meeting all kinds of stimuli, bringing about both adulteration and purification – focused, and concentrated, and to the point.

It was an interesting foil for the dance that followed – Makonovetski’s Zhok, a traditional Roumanian dance (a “zhok” is a 3/4 dance, similar, we were told, to the Yiddish hora). Compared with the quiet circumspection of Ross Harris’s piece, this throbbed with a kind of dignified emotion, the dance coloured by a kind of “weeping” sound, with a cadenza-like episode for the first clarinet and some recitative-like interaction between the second clarinet and solo violin, before the return of the processional – again, a sense of ritual was predominant.

To mention all the pieces would be to write tiresomely for pages and pages, though there were things that couldn’t be passed over completely – the almost schizophrenic contrast between the madap Voglenish (Wandering) and the following Melancolia, for example. Both were written by Ross Harris, the first delightfully Keystone-Cops-like, with lovely “bending” and “curdling” of tones from both clarinet and violin, and finishing unexpectedly with a witty snipped-off ascending phrase from the violin; and the second a kind of “sad clown” portrait, the music and playing filled with bemusement and pathetic gesturing.

The final bracket of pieces featured some virtuso playing from all concerned, the rapid-fire Breaza ca pe Arges (the names of two towns in Roumania) demanding energy and agility from both clarinets, a short, sharp and exciting Hora-Staccato-like Rukhelleh, and a full-on, closely-meshed piece Loz’n Gang (translated as “To set off”) requiring great precision and poise, and finishing with a quiet disappearing phrase. The audience was, however, merciless in its appreciation, and demanded an encore, which was forthcoming. Its title I didn’t get, but it certainly turned out to be a whirling dervish of a dance, driven by modulatory swerves from the accordion in places, and winding up with a satisfyingly concerted flourish.










Wellington Orchestra’s musical haggis

VENI, VENI EMMANUEL – Vector Wellington Orchestra

DEBUSSY – Marche écossaise sur un thème populaire

MacMILLAN – Veni, veni, Emmanuel

MENDELSSOHN – Symphony No.3 “Scottish”

City of Wellington Pipe Band

Wellington East Girls’ Cantala Treble Choir (director – Brent Stewart)

Claire Edwardes (percussion)

Vector Wellington Orchestra

Marc Taddei (conductor)

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday 23rd June 2012

There’s no doubt about the ability of a set of bagpipes – or, more profoundly, a Highland pipe band – to make an impression on people – I was going to say “set the blood racing”, but I know some people for whom the sound of bagpipes has the opposite effect as regards the movement of blood! I love the sound in reasonably digestible doses and I’m sure most people in the Town Hall on Saturday night got a real thrill at the beginning of the Wellington Orchestra’s concert when the pipes began. Those of us sitting downstairs couldn’t see whether it was one, two or a hundred pipers – but of course, we could certainly hear the skirl of those plangent strains! It was as if the music presented at the concert was the haggis that was being piped in for all of us to enjoy.

It was a characteristic gesture on the part of the organizers of the concert and I thought it worked beautifully. Of course it was designated a “Scottish” programme, with repertoire combining the familiar (Mendelssohn) with the not-so-familiar (Debussy) and the excitingly contemporary (MacMillan). I thought this was fair enough, by dint of the last-named composer’s nationality, even if the work had almost nothing whatever to do with Scotland, being a meditation for percussion and orchestra upon the coming of Christ to the world. So, it was a concert planned and brought off with a lot of flair.

There remained the curious affair of Debussy writing a specifically Scottish work, a circumstance I’m certain I knew about but had tucked away in the recesses of my store of encyclopedic knowledge, never expecting to have to take it out and dust it off and actually look at it. The printed programme notes, which I thought were very good in the case of each of the works, told the popularly accepted story pretty comprehensively – that Debussy wrote the work in response to a commission from a certain Scottish military officer, General Meredith Reid. The latter wanted the composer to arrange and orchestrate a march using popular Scottish tunes generally associated with the General’s ancestors, the ancient Earls of Ross, who were also known as  “The Lords of the Isles”.

According to certain accounts, the General called unannounced upon the composer, at his humble lodgings, and handed him his visiting-card. Apparently, as neither could speak the other’s language, composer and general decided, via expression and gesture, to seek help in a local tavern, where an interpreter was found, and the General’s purpose made clear. Debussy set to work on the march, arranging it initially for piano for four hands – the original title of the piece was Marche des anciens Comtes de Ross  or “March of the ancient Counts of Ross”.

Perhaps it needs to be pointed out that Debussy, though still a young composer, and grateful for any commissions that came his way, wasn’t exactly a raw beginner by the time the incident took place, in 1891. The year before, he had written his most popular single piece of music – “Clair de lune” from the Suite Bergamasque for solo piano – and had completed various other works, including songs, other solo piano pieces, a Petite Suite for piano, four hands, and a Fantasie for piano and orchestra. Some accounts have “romanced” the General as well – he was, in fact John Meredith Read, an American diplomat and lawyer of Scottish descent, who had been the United States Consul-General for France for several years during the 1870s. Perhaps his French was a little rusty by the time he called on Debussy, but he surely would have been able to converse with the composer – and the story’s “translator”, the writer Alphonse Allais, would probably have been present in the tavern merely as a drinking companion.

Anyway, once Debussy had completed the four-hand keyboard version of the March, he took his time to orchestrate the piece, and didn’t finish the job until 1908. The result, if not the greatest of his works, is charming, and has more than a whiff of Scotland about it. Here, at the concert, it made a splendid overture for what was to follow; and the orchestra played the music with plenty of sensitivity and panache in the appropriate places.

Next on the programme was the work by James McMillan, the percussion concerto Veni, Veni Emmanuel. The Debussy piece had put all of us in an excellent humour, ready to be entertained by the spectacle of seeing an energetic percussionist dashing madly around and about the concert platform, going from instrument group to instrument group, and creating some wondrously ear-catching sounds in the process – this is what I remembered of seeing and hearing Scottish percussionist Colin Currie performing this work in Wellington almost two years ago.  But there was a surprise in store for us –  the soloist Claire Edwardes had come onto the stage and received her introductory applause, and gone over to her first “station”, when two groups of young women suddenly stood up in lines on either side of the upstairs auditorium. They began singing a plainchant version of the Hymn Veni, Veni Emmanuel, from which composer James MacMillan had received his initial inspiration for his work. The surround-effect was lovely to begin with, but then entered magical realms in verse three, where the two groups sang in close-knit canon, the result sounding like the “opening up” of some kind of enormous reverberation and enlargement of the space in which we were listening. So evocative – and so enchanting – again, indicative of flair and imagination in presenting a concert.

The choir was mentioned in the printed programme, but only if one read the acknowledgements page at the back did one pick this up – there was no indication of any such group present on the “programme list” page, the intention (so the group’s conductor, Brent Stewart, told me, afterwards) being to give the audience a surprise. It turned out that the two groups were members of the Wellington East Girls Cantala Treble Choir.  When they had finished singing, I thought the orchestra might have most dramatically begun straight away with the opening of the concerto – but instead, conductor Marc Taddei led the applause for the choir and conductor, which, of course we heartily joined in with.

Reflecting on the differences between Claire Edwardes’ performance of Veni, Veni Emmanuel and that by Colin Currie, as I remembered it, they weren’t so much in what the soloists did, but in the spaces and contexts of each occasion. Most people would, I think, agree with me that, if the same work is performed first in the Michael Fowler Centre and then in the Town Hall, it’s an utterly different experience being in the audience. Colin Currie’s performance in the Michael Fowler Centre seemed more like a ritual, more contained and prescribed, more elevated and removed from his audience. Everything seemed (was) further away, so that it was all more dreamlike, less immediate – and so was the sound, or sounds, because of a very different acoustic. Thus I was far more easily able to relate the different musical episodes to what the composer was trying to express during the earlier performance, because the distancing of everything abstracted the performing experience. I still remember, at the time, feeling that the constant movement of the soloist between stations of percussion drew the observer’s attention perhaps distractingly to what the player was doing and how he or she was doing it, rather than focusing on the sound that was being made and its expressive or symbolic effect in the overall scheme. However, at the time, there was this sense of the player’s progressing between percussion stations, suggesting some kind of journey towards a goal – so there was this ritualistic aspect, culminating in the sense of fulfillment with the tubular bells played high up at the back of the orchestra.

There was no doubting Claire Edwardes’ incredible virtuosity – an astonishing tour de force of percussion playing, no doubt about it. But in the Town Hall, in that confined space and very immediate acoustic, the soloist and what she was doing was all much more physically palpable – and her sounds very “present” – so that the element of display came across, I thought, far more strongly than any sense of larger ritual, of following some kind of poetic or spiritual ideal. Claire Edwardes had, like Evelyn Glennie (whom I saw a few years ago playing a John Psathas Percussion Concerto), a very engaging physical presence which drew our attention to everything that she was doing. For me, at any rate, the music’s programmatic significance was swamped in a series of waves of there-and-then enjoyment – a bit like the news presented as entertainment on television – somehow the actual information gets a bit lost in the razz-matazz.

The part of the work which did allow me to refocus on the composer’s spiritual expression of an idea came with the coda of the work, entitled Easter, where the heartbeats representing Christ in the human soul are pounded out between the soloist and the orchestral timpanist (the sight-lines weren’t the best and so Edwardes and timpanist Larry Reese had trouble keeping their whacks absolutely together, but the effect remained strong and telling) following which came Edwardes’ symbolic ascent to the tubular bells, which rang out hymn-like amid a scintillating sea of tintinnabulation.  Every string player softly activated a triangle suspended from his or her music-stand, while the bells rang and sank back into silence.

For performances to successfully achieve a realization of the composer’s program or scheme for an audience seems to me problematical, considering the distraction of the display element – the soloist’s movement between stations and often frenetic activity in creating the sounds was akin to what I would imagine that of a honey bee in a beehive. In both performances (more so with this latter one) I tended to get taken up with that process, fascinated by the array of skills on display and enjoying the different sounds. But I would also imagine that, as one grows more familiar with the work, its message would gradually begin to coalesce – there were certainly moments amid the beaverings and squirrelings that suggested something beyond what was going on in front of one’s eyes.

Interestingly, I had the opportunity to listen to some of the concerto’s performance via a recording, which I was able to use during an RNZ Concert review – away from the visual aspect, the sounds immediately took on a more abstracted and transcendent purpose, so that I found myself as a listener thinking of the piece’s meaning, as the composer surely had intended. Food for thought, I would think (so to speak)…..

And so to the Mendelssohn “Scottish” Symphony, which took up the second half of the program, an absolutely gorgeous piece of music – as Marc Taddei said, one of the first examples of great nineteenth century romanticism in music. I thought the first three movements of the work came across splendidly, with many fine things. The very opening of the work was beautifully played, first of all by the winds, with the oboe very prominent – for me, perhaps because of the “bagpipes” association, there’s something about the timbre of an oboe that suggests a similar ambience – and then the strings, whose tonal sheen was, I thought, utterly beguiling, and whose line was so eloquent – what beautiful playing Marc Taddei got from his orchestra! I thought the playing captured the atmosphere that Mendelssohn himself talked about when he said he found the beginnings of his “Scottish Symphony” in the ambiences of the rooms at Holyrood Palace where the lover of Mary Queen of Scots, the courtier David Rizzio was murdered by Mary’s enemies, and the chapel where Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. This romantic, historical aspect which inspired the composer was brought out beautifully in the first part of this performance.

Only the finale I found somewhat problematical – and I admired what Marc Taddei and the orchestra were trying to do with it, but I don’t think it quite came off. There’s a slightly pompous and bombastic element in the work which comes to the fore in this movement with the work’s coda – a kind of grand processional, in which a version of the main theme of the opening movement is brought back, but this time in a major key. Conductor and orchestra were, I think, trying to remove its pomposity, and make it more integrated with the rest of the finale, which is an energetic Scottish dance. What happened, though, was that the finale was started at such a terrific lick that the performance almost had nowhere to go by the end, and things were steaming along to the point of everything being a bit of a gabble. I think the tempi were just too quick all through for the players to properly articulate the music – the strings had trouble pointing the “Scottish snap” at the very beginning at Marc Taddei’s tempo, and there was certainly no grandeur at all in the coda – and I think there should be some kind of sense of summing up, true, without pomposity, but with a sense of arrival. For me, here, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater – but I must say in fairness to all concerned I spoke with a friend afterwards who thought it was all tremendously exciting!

So each of us listens to these things with wonderfully subjective ears! What was also interesting was a slight hiatus at the beginning of the clarinet solo almost at the end of the work, where it seemed as though either the clarinettist Moira Hurst started her solo too early or else Marc Taddei brought her in too early – just the matter of a bar or so – she stopped, and quickly started playing again, and no harm was done. But it was significant that, whatever the case, the conductor singled her out for some extra plaudits at the conclusion of the performance – and, quite apart from the slight “blip” of the uncertain moment, the focus on the player was richly deserved.

I shouldn’t nominate favorites, as a critic – but I couldn’t help capitulating completely to the second movement, the scherzo, as played here – and with good reason. One perhaps can never play a Mendelssohn scherzo too fast, to get that fairy-like aspect, and this performance cracked along with some marvellous playing from all concerned – some wonderfully soft, bustling elfin-like delicacy in places, and then some rumbustious, give-it-all-you’ve-got hell-for-leather exuberance from the players by way of contrast, leading up to the climax. That movement alone gave me enormous pleasure.












Sergey Malov and Michael Houstoun – capturing the ebb and flow

Chamber Music Hutt Valley presents:

SERGEY MALOV (violin/viola) and MICHAEL HOUSTOUN (piano)

SCHUBERT – Sonata in A Minor “Arpeggione” D.821 / JS BACH – Violincello Suite No.3 in C Major

SCHUMANN – Violon Sonata No.1 in A MInor Op.105 / PAGANINI – “La Campanella” (finale of Violin Concerto No.2)

Little Theatre, Lower Hutt

Friday 22nd June 2012

Rarely does a concert begin more poetically than when Schubert’s music is involved – or so it always seems at the time. The opening exchanges between piano and, in this case, viola, of the intriguingly-named “Arpeggione” Sonata brought their own resonance and warmth to the somewhat ungrateful acoustic of the Lower Hutt Little Theatre, thanks to both pianist Michael Houstoun’s and violist Sergey Malov’s lyrical, deeply-felt playing.

Schubert’s “Arpeggione” Sonata was so-called because of the music’s original commission for the so-named six-stringed instrument, one rather like a viola da gamba but fretted like a guitar. Its repertoire is today nearly always played on either a viola or ‘cello, though I have heard of moves afoot to reintroduce the beast for our interest and, hopefully, pleasure.

In particular, Malov’s viola sound had that quality shared by the playing of all great instrumentalists, at once a rich, mellow quality, but one that would sharpen its focus at moments along the musical line, indicating the strength of the thought behind the music-making. And no better a chamber-music partner here, than Michael Houstoun, whose sensitive, yet equally-focused playing seemed a perfect mirror for Malov’s intensities.

What struck me in particular was the intimacy of the musical discourse in places, the readiness of both players to draw their listeners in – but never self-consciously. One always felt the sensation of a composer’s thoughts and dreams flooding the places we were taken, a full gamut of expression, with nothing denied the chance to have its say. My notes are filled with comments such as “so spontaneous-sounding” and “wondrous flexibility of phrasing”, folllowed by “dreaming and introspective” and “communicating sheer enjoyment” – all impressions that defy analysis, but were foremost for me in the concert’s experience.

Following the Schubert, the Bartok Solo Violin Sonata was scheduled, but to our surprise Sergey Malov re-entered still carrying his viola. He asked the audience’s pardon, but said that he thought, after consultation with Michael Houstoun, that the hall’s sound with such a near-capacity audience would not serve the Bartok well, and so he proposed to play for us instead one of JS Bach’s solo ‘Cello Suites on his viola. Having enjoyed the Schubert, I was glad to have more of the viola’s attractively mellow voice, and agreeably pleased to hear how eloquently the instrument in Malov’s hands traversed the figurations of one of these works – in fact the Third Suite in C Major.

This was music-making which underlined the idea that, in Baroque music, the instrumental timbres and colours for different works seemed to matter far less than the player’s basic musicianship in bringing these things to life. At no point did I find myself thinking, “Oh, that comes off better on the ‘cello”, due to such care regarding note-values and overall phrasing being taken throughout by the player. Not that the approach was a literal “cross every “t” and dot every “i”, as Malov’s playing had a strongly-projected sense of freedom and spontaneity with whatever he did. Predominantly rhythmic movements were deliciously and pliably pointed (I enjoyed the occasional ambiguity of the music’s propulsion in the third movement), and Malov relished the near-strident “pulling the cat’s tail” couple of notes which Bach uses to induce tension during the last of the movements.

For the second half we moved slightly upwards in our listening, to the violin – Malov gave us Schumann’s First Sonata in A minor, a lovely performance from both violinist and pianist, rich, dark, agitated and unquiet throughout the ever-striving opening. Schumann writes such passionate melodies that often remain open-ended, heightening the longing for fulfillment, a super-sensitivity, but expressed in an entirely human way. Again I was taken with Michael Houstoun’s sensitive playing, ever alive to what his partner was doing and acting and reacting accordingly.

Though there’s lyrical warmth aplenty throughout certain moments, other episodes In Schumann’s chamber music can sound somewhat dour, with near-obessive repetition risking monotony. Such wasn’t the case here, as violinist and pianist brought so much light and shade to their voicing and interactive phrasings. And they brought out all the Allegretto second movement’s whimsical qualities, taking time to allow the brief German forest-echo sequence some resonance, before the opening’s reprise. The finale, though serious and purposeful, was kept nimble and buoyant, the dialogues between violin and piano beautiful synchronized, with the players bringing out singing lines in the midst of great energies.

The programme’s final listed item was Paganini’s “La Campanella”, taken from the finale of the composer’s Second Violin Concerto. This was a kind of extra-musical treat, with the composer most obviously out to entertain, delight, astonish, stupefy and generally gobsmack his audiences by requiring all kinds of instrumental pyrotechnics from his soloist. Occasionally there was some music, the famous theme, no less! – but it tended to be forgotten amid the breathholding double-stopped harmonics, the left-handed pizzicati, and the double-stopped legato phrasings ascending and descending. Michael Houstoun orchestrated his part wonderfully in places, but generally provided a solid foundation for Malov’s (and Paganini’s) violinistic flights of fancy.

After these heady entertainments, Sergey Malov seemed to rethink in part his decision to not attempt the Bartok Sonata, because as an encore he played part of the work, which, after the technical coruscations of the Paganini, actually fell more gratefully that one might have expected on our ears. I think this was perhaps because he had by this time “played in” both himself and his audience, to the point where he felt he could give us anything – our listening had been ‘fine-tuned” most satisfactorily, or so it seemed.

The exerpt from the sonata had a furtive, “pursued” aspect at the start, with the violinist having to jump back and forth between registers in places. When muted, the strings took on an even more shadowy, haunted character, a compelling world of sound thrown into relief by the soulful, pleading mute-removed lines which vie with the scampering music at the end. By the time he had finished we all wished he had in fact played the whole Bartok work after all – in retrospect, at the end of the concert would have been an ideal place because of that “playing-in” phenomenon which would have worked similar wonders with any demanding piece of modern or near-contemporary music.

So – a wonderful concert, one I will enjoy for ages to come, long after those actual sounds have died away. How marvellous to have heard a string player of such calibre, and with a pianist who brought his customary focus and beautifully appointed technical finish to a partnership of equals.

Interesting and admirable piano trios from NZSO players at St Mark’s Lower Hutt

Schubert: Piano Trio in B flat, Op.99, D.898, first movement, (allegro moderato)
Shostakovich: Piano Trio no.2 in E minor, 3rd and 4th movements (largo-allegretto)

Anne Loeser, violin, Sally Pollard, cello, Rachel Thomson, piano

St. Mark’s Church, Lower Hutt

Wednesday, 20 June, 12.15pm

A superb concert by professional musicians, with an interesting programme greeted the large number of people in St. Mark’s Church.  This was the group’s first performance together; let’s hope that there will be many more.  The string players both perform with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, while Rachel Thomson plays chamber music with other ensembles, accompanies singers, and provides orchestral piano when required by the NZSO.

One of the features was the perfect balance between the instruments; the church’s excellent acoustics enhanced the sound from the instruments, which all produced beautiful timbre.

The attractive Schubert movement was given a dynamic performance, with lovely singing tone on piano as well as on the other instruments, and exquisite shading.  The alternating benign and stormy moods in the development section of the movement were nuanced superbly.

There was fine contrast between the legato passages and those of separated notes.  There were occasional slight intonation lapses, but that is all they were.  This was Schubert at his most serene – but that serenity was frequently interrupted by other moods.

After the warm applause, Rachel Thomson spoke some words describing this movement, and also the two Shostakovich movements that followed.

Although the composer wrote 15 string quartets, he wrote only two piano trios; this one dates from 1944.  The largo is in the form of a passacaglia, and is the centre-piece of the entire work.  In places it is like an impassioned lament (written as it was after, and possibly also during the siege of Leningrad, where the composer lived and worked, although he was evacuated out of the city some time after the siege by Nazi forces began).

The third movement begins with slow, deep chords on the piano, then the violin joins in with a solemn, not to say sad, rejoinder.  The dark quality is even more enhanced when the cello enters. There is almost unbearable sadness at times, and sometimes an eerie quality.

The work goes straight into the last movement’s intriguing pizzicato dances, with a repetitive theme that I’ll try to render: daaah-de-dah-dah-dah-dah, first stated on the piano, in unison octaves.  The whole movement is strongly emotional, yet brittle and anxious, full of frenetic energy and agitation, above incessant beats on the piano, like a drum.  Melodies are sometimes the same between the players; sometimes the instruments seem to go their separate ways for a time.

There is ponticello on the strings, before they break into a strong reiteration of the theme, and of the secondary melody, incorporating harmonics on the strings.  The close brings back the solemn piano chords from the third movement, with harmonics again on the strings, as well as strumming.  Then the work simply ends, almost in mid-air.

These were fine, skilled musicians who made the most of the music and brought out the heart of the composers’ intentions.  Their performances were much appreciated by the audience.


Viola students of New Zealand School of Music on show at St Andrew’s

New Zealand School of Music: viola students  – Alexa Thompson, Vincent Hardaker, Alice McIvor and John Roxburgh

Music by Carl Stamitz, Glinka, Hindemith, Walton

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 20 June, 12.15pm

This lunchtime recital was a showcase of four viola students, taught variously by Donald Maurice, Claudine Bigelow and Gillian Ansell.

Three of the four pieces were of parts of the whole. The first and second movements only of Carl Stamitz’s Concerto in D were enough, which was enough to exhibit the strength’s of Alexa Thompson, large tone, confident, relishing the big sound from her C string; inevitably there were minor intonation blemishes.

The younger Stamitz was a few years older than Mozart and echoes of his genius-contemporary, or rather, just the idiom of the period, were to be heard though, with piano accompaniments from Douglas Mews, the orchestral character was hard to gauge; the viola cadenzas however might have been envied by Mozart.  It’s melodious music but the memorableness of the latter’s melodies was hardly there.

Carl Stamitz’s music seems not to have been subject to modern cataloguing, judging by what I can find on the Internet; one site lists a viola concerto in D as his Opus 1 – this may be it.

Vincent Hardaker played just the third movement of a viola sonata by Glinka, said in the notes to sound thoroughly Russian. What impressed me however was the almost complete absence of Russian sound, either in melody or rhythm, and there was little to suggest that the composer was other than a talented student of Mozart and his lesser successors like Spohr, Ries or Hummel, for Glinka was a comfortably-off, cosmopolitan composer who was a popular figure in west European musical circles, though when he returned to Russia in the mid-1830s he was inspired to write his two great Russian operas. But his other music remained largely west European in character (pace Vladimir Putin).

Vincent was another confident, fluent player who treated the piece as a serious composition, from a composer quite at home in the classical/romantic style.

The third piece was by the most famous violist/composer of the 20th century – Hindemith. Trauermusik, which the programme note explained as the piece the composer wrote hurriedly for a London concert just after George V’s death in 1936. In four short sections, it starts with the orchestra (piano), and to begin with, sounds as if Hindemith was rather hoping that a main idea would come to him as he went along. Alice McIvor, a second year student like the two earlier players, found the right tone and her playing led to music that conveyed something of a spirit of real mourning emerge. More characteristic Hindemith sounds appear in the second movement in a  faster 3/8 tempo. She played carefully, warmly, overcoming the lack of orchestral support which was a more serious lack here than in the Stamitz. Nevertheless, Douglas Mews’s accompaniment was as well coloured and expressive here as it had been in the pieces from earlier eras.

The last piece was the Viola Concerto by Hindemith’s near-contemporary William Walton, written at Thomas Beecham’s suggestion for Lionel Tertis, the father of modern viola playing (at least in the English-speaking world). Surprisingly, Tertis totally failed to perceive its greatness and beauty and ‘rejected it by return of post’.

It’s one of Walton’s major works, his first to mark out his stature as a really important composer; and one of the relatively few really successful large-scale symphonic works, written largely in the ‘great tradition’ (to borrow literary critic F R Leavis’s term), to have come from the middle years of the 20th century. It was played by the NZSO with Nigel Kennedy in 1987 and with Tabea Zimmermann in 1995.

Two players shared the job; masters student John Roxburgh took the first two movements and Alice McIvor returned to play the last. Merely to contemplate a great work of this kind, in which the orchestral element is so important, shows considerable courage, even temerity, and I could not pretend to have had the sort of experience that I’d have had with a full-scale performance. But as far as was possible, the two violists gave it a brave and understanding exposure; and of course it was good to hear it live (for me live performance, unless grossly incompetent, is generally more satisfying than a recording), if from only two instead of 80-odd instruments; it’s 17 years since an orchestral performance here. (And so, it led to the plucking from my shelves of the splendid Kennedy/Previn/RPO recording which did sound a bit different).

It might not have been kind to have the two violists sharing the undertaking for I thought McIvor had the slight edge when it came to confidence and grasping the emotional essence of the music, but that might have been rather on account of the intrinsic character of the slow movement. But it was good to end this short concert with such a substantial piece, which did demonstrate the ambitious standards and the quality of both teachers and students at the New Zealand School of Music.



Fine exploratory recital of Shakespeare songs from Corby and Beardsworth

A feast of Shakespeare with Megan Corby (soprano) and Craig Beardsworth (baritone), who trade as ‘Voxbox’, with Catherine Norton (piano)

Old Saint Paul’s

Tuesday 19 June, 12.15pm

Here was a splendid recital by two polished and practised singers, grasping a theme that lends itself to a varied programme. Well, varied if I ignore the fact that the only non-English settings were by Strauss.

The songs were shared, roughly, alternately between the two, starting with Megan singing two early settings (except that the first, said to be anonymous 16th century, overlooked the fact that Othello, from which the Willow Song came, wasn’t written till about 1604).

However, Megan began as she would continue, singing without the score in front of her, in a bright, attractive voice, well articulated, with clear diction.

Two settings of several songs were offered. Craig’s first was ‘Orpheus with his Lute’ from Henry VIII (one of the last plays believed to be a collaboration with John Fletcher), set by Arthur Sullivan. His high opening note emerged in a remarkable falsetto, beautifully controlled, that increased in volume, and continued in phrases that demonstrated impressive discipline over tone colours and dynamics.

The same words reappeared later from Megan in a setting by American composer William Schuman, neither especially memorable nor unmelodious, but given a thoughtful performance.

‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind’ from As you like it also appeared in two settings: Thomas Arne’s of 1740 from Megan and Roger Quilter’s of around 1922 from Craig, an open-voice alternating with more conversational tones, ending with striking dramatic notes.

From the same composer came the setting of ‘Take, o take those lily lips’ from Measure for Measure (perhaps more famous among music-lovers as the play Wagner’s early Das Liebesverbot was based on); and again Craig’s velvety voice found a fruitful role in it.

Megan sang the deeply moving dirge, ‘Fear no more the heat of the sun’ from Cymbeline, composed by Ian Higginson (to me unknown, though the Internet tells me he was born in Merseyside and works around the Midlands) , in tones that reflected the emotion, though the quite elegant setting didn’t, for me, match the power of the words (the greatest, best-known poetry is the hardest to set to music, for nothing can improve on the way the poet himself has used the rhythms and sounds of words to convey the intellectual and emotional force of beautiful poetry, which is why, many believe, Schubert set so many poems by poets of the second rank).

However, Gerald Finzi’s setting of that poem does approach it more nearly, and it appeared in the group of Finzi songs that Craig sang later. That group was a highlight of the recital, and that, probably the most striking performance, with the slow rise and fall of dynamics, and the piano’s contribution that somehow evoked the presence of death. And it must be recorded that Catherine Norton’s playing was far more than simply appropriate, sensitive and supportive.

Twelfth Night also yields some of the most poignant lyrics such as the concluding ‘When that I was a little, tiny boy’, ‘O Mistress mine’ and ‘Come away death’. The latter two, as well as ‘Who is Sylvia’ from Two gentlemen of Verona and ‘It was a lover and his lass’ from As you like it, were also in the beautiful Finzi group.

The latter song, from Megan, also appeared in a setting by Frederic Austin, a singer/organist/composer of the early 20th century.

It leaves the penultimate group, sung by Megan: Strauss’s Three songs of Ophelia (from Op 67) from Act IV, scene 5 of Hamlet, in which he conveys the girl’s growing madness, in tones that found acute expression of the unhinged mind.

She sang them most persuasively, from memory, in excellent German: ‘How should I your true love know’, ‘Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day’, and ‘They bore him barefaced on the bier’.

[And as I load this about 1.45pm, I listen to RNZ Concert broadcasting Patricia Wright, accompanied by Rosemary Barnes, singing these very songs, beautifully, though perhaps with not quite the degree of mental disorder that Corby brought to them].

The concert ended with the duet, ‘Sigh no more, ladies’ from Much ado about nothing (this one the basis of Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict) by one Sally Albrecht (born in Ohio in 1954), in jolly, galloping 3/8 rhythm, befitting the servant Balthazar’s ditty that Benedict at once ridicules. The pair, inauthentically perhaps, but most agreeably, brought things to an end with a droll note of cheerful cynicism.

It was interesting to observe that hardly any of the plays that opera composers have drawn on were among these, mainly the comedies, that song composers are attracted to. So we got no Bellini, Thomas, Gounod, Verdi, Britten…


Work of young composers and young choreographers performed by top professionals

Leaps and Sounds: music by composers from the NZSO’s Young Originals Todd Corporation Young Composers Award recordings, and dances by young choreographers

Musicboxgirls: music, Matthew Childs; choreography, Paul Mathews
Evocation: Max Wilkinson, Adriana Harper
No Limits: Christina Reid, Qi Huan
4 + 1: Corwin Newall, Dimitri Kleioris
Between Us: Tabea Squire, Loughlan Prior
Dreams of Power: Umar Zakaria, Sam Shapiro
Feral: Robbie Ellis, Jaered Glavin
[Inner]: Alex Taylor, Brendan Bradshaw
wind from Us: Umar Zakaria, Kohei Iwamoto

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich; dancers from the Royal New Zealand Ballet

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday, 16 June 2012, 4.30pm

A free concert always packs ‘em in, and it was gratifying to see large numbers of children (particularly little girls) who had come along to this performance.

For sundry reasons, my notes about this concert are far from complete, therefore I am extremely grateful to Peter Coates for much of what follows.  His words are in quotation marks below.

What particularly struck me was how competently and fully all the composers used the symphony orchestra.  All nine pieces exhibited integrity, skill, and musical imagination.  There was much brilliant use of percussion instruments, and some unusual brass sounds.  The build-up to loud passages was always achieved with sensitivity and diversity.

The large orchestra was seated below the stage, several rows of seating having been removed.  The conductor therefore had an excellent view of both stage and orchestra.  Every piece was superbly played, the orchestra negotiating the variety of styles and instrumental demands with its accustomed professional ease.

We began with a very competent piece, ‘Musicboxgirls’ in quite a conventional, tonal musical style, which was an excellent vehicle for beautiful dancing from an all-female sextet, with a doll-like stiffness of movement to portray the theme of the title.

Other pieces  were more adventurous harmonically and stylistically. ‘Evocation’ lent itself to a classical style of dance, and put the lie, with its two men and one woman, to the still-prevalent idea that ‘real men don’t dance’ – as did other items on the programme.

“I must admit to being one of those people who likes to see a more theatrical approach to orchestral concerts, although it has to be done well to prevent the orchestra being submerged by the visual element.  I enjoyed the experiment very much, as obviously did the large family audience.  Since the dances were quite short, the programme would have been good material for young people experiencing the orchestra for the first time.

“Some of the orchestral backings were very sophisticated for such young composers.  I particularly like ‘No Limits’, which had a strong rhythmic background that the dancers obviously enjoyed.  It was danced to the ‘Tales of Greece Suite III Mighty Odysseus’ composed by Christina Reid and choreographed by Qi Huan; it certainly had my feet tapping.”  It was fast and rhythmic, with a dreamy middle section.

“Another highlight was the last work, ‘wind from Us’, a lively, comic work centred around four young men who enjoyed a very masculine dance, meeting up with a young classical dancer, Yang Liu, who eventually joined in with the male dancers’ boisterous efforts.  This young dancer had a delightful comic touch that really made the simple story very effective.

“In this case the colourful costuming complemented the story, though this was not  always the case with the other dances.  Comedy of this kind is very enjoyable to see, and its choreographer Kohei Iwamoto is to be congratulated for his efforts.  I also enjoyed the swinging coloured wigs in the dance ‘Feral’, a set of primitive movements that thoroughly complemented the story.

“All in all an excellent night’s entertainment thoroughly enjoyed by the large audience.  The young composers and choreographers are to be congratulated for their efforts.  Congratulations to the NZSO for giving them the opportunity to put on such a professional show.”

Such a varied and interesting marriage of sound and movement should have won many converts for ballet, but especially for contemporary orchestral music.  The composers, choreographers, dancers and orchestra received the applause they all richly deserved.



Michael Hill competition winner Malov, plus Houstoun and Brown form superb team

Sergey Malov (violin), Ashley Brown (cello), Michael Houstoun (piano)
(Michael Hill Violin Competition and Chamber Music New Zealand)

John Psathas: Gyftiko
Beethoven: Piano Trio no.5 in D Op.70 no.1 ‘Ghost’
Ysaÿe: Sonata no.4 for solo violin
Franck: Violin Sonata in A

Wellington Town Hall

Wednesday, 13 June 2012, 7.30pm

The 17-centre tour, of which this concert was a part, was included in the awards Malov received as winner of the Michael Hill Violin Competition last year.  It provides a welcome opportunity for the rest of New Zealand to hear his talents in person; only those in Queenstown and Auckland heard them in 2011.

Prior to the concert, Ashley Brown interviewed Malov in the Town Hall’s Green Room, during which he paid tribute to the organisation and arrangements for the competition, which he enjoyed, not least the experience of staying with host families in both centres. He admitted that he was just inside the age limit for the competition, so had more experience than other competitors, and had already won other competitions.

He paid tribute, too, to Michael Houstoun, whom he described as a national treasure, and as a person so experienced in chamber music that he could be very flexible, and as well as offering suggestions, could adopt ‘my sometimes crazy ideas’.

He spoke of his other instruments, the viola and the violoncello da spalla.  Malov also explained the Psathas work (for solo violin), which he said he enjoyed playing.  The title meant ‘gypsy’, and the work was improvisatory and non-classical, written especially for the violin competition.  He described it as wild, without clichés.  In a radio interview, he said that it was not appropriate to play it with a beautiful sound all the time.

It began with left-hand pizzicato interspersing the bowed lines.  The technical demands and violin techniques included the use of harmonics, double-stopping and very fast passages.  The gypsy fiddler was never far away.  Malov was very much on top of the work, and gave a riveting performance.

Beethoven’s ‘Ghost’ Trio received its nickname from a member of the public at the first performance, in reference to passages in the second movement.  Malov described it as joyous and wild, and shocking in its key changes, so not all is calm and beautiful. It is one of Beethoven’s most compelling and involving works of chamber music.  A composer-contemporary of Beethoven’s called it ‘… of great power and originality”.

The opening unison passage revealed the beautiful tone from both stringed instruments.  Then, typical of Beethoven, we were straight into the soul of the work.  There were impressive dynamic contrasts, portraying changes of mood.  The development of the first movement (allegro vivace con brio) and its themes was full of subtlety, but also drive.  Each iteration of the noble theme was exquisitely played. Phrasing was completely in accord between the performers.

The largo assai et expressivo second movement features the slow, spooky build-up that is the origin of the trio’s nickname.  Low grumblings on the piano and slow, quiet notes on the strings seem to hint that drama is to come.  There is a gradual increase in tempo and volume.  However, though the intensity increases, there is still no release from the slowly building tension.  It is almost anguish that is expressed before slow chords bring the end of the movement.

The finale is not explosive, but a good-humoured lively presto.  It is like a jolly conversation between three equals.  The music becomes very busy, but remains lyrical.  There are many fast passages for piano, brought off with immaculate accuracy, sensitivity and imperturbability by Houstoun.  The numerous climaxes are always followed by gentle episodes before the end is reached – was Beethoven teasing us with false endings?

Ysaÿe was the most noted  violinist of his time (1858-1931).  He had superlative skill, and a vast reputation.  He took up conducting in later life, and composition; he was known as the pioneer of twentieth century violin playing, and composed in a number of genres, but principally for the violin.

His solo sonata no.4 was inspired by Bach solo sonatas, and this is very apparent in every movement: Allemanda, Sarabande and Finale.  While the opening was not particularly Bach-like, the movement soon proceeded into a style echoing the great baroque composer, with chords and simple progressions.  This apparent simplicity was deceptive; looking at all the hand positions needed by the violinist to play the music (which he did without a score), one appreciated the technical difficulties.  The movement  ended in unison.

The second movement opened with pizzicato, then a lengthy passage of double-stopping unfolded as two melodies played against each other.  Ethereal harmonics and pizzicato towards the end gave the dance-like movement a delicate quality.

The final movement was fast and virtuosic, and again very reminiscent of J.S. Bach.  It was almost a perpetuum mobile for much of its length.  A couple (but only a couple) of notes were not quite on the spot, in this demanding work.  Despite the tempo, Malov had great variety of timbre and dynamics through a great range of pitch (greater than Bach would have employed).

Franck dedicated his sonata, written late in his life, to Ysaÿe.  Both were Belgian-born.  The opening movement (allegretto) featured very lyrical playing, with nuance and a great range of tonal colours.

The allegro second movement begins with the deeper, more sonorous notes of the violin, sometimes sounding like a viola.  There is much prestidigitation for the pianist.

This work is not a favourite of mine; I have heard it too often, so that it no longer speaks to me, nor sounds inspired.  But Malov and Houstoun invested it with a degree of charm and depth.  Gentle passages were very light, yet well controlled.

The recitative of the third movement opened in questioning mode, and gradually worked towards a reply in the fantasia part of that movement, with its slow start then strong theme.

Finally came the allegretto poco mosso, with its return to the theme of the first movement, varied and elaborated in canon between the instruments.  There’s no doubt that Malov and Houstoun played the sonata superbly well.

For an encore, Malov came back with his viola, which he played in a solo Capriccio by Vieuxtemps, another Belgian, who was responsible for getting Ysaÿe started on his career.  It was pleasing to hear the different instrument, which sounded sombre after the sweetness of Malov’s violin.  The piece featured chords and double-stopping.

To say that Malov is a sensitive, imaginative and immensely accomplished violinist is perhaps not the most remarkable thing.  What is remarkable is the way in which he, Michael Houstoun and Ashley Brown formed a superb team.  Three programmes are being performed on this tour, which is unusual for a visiting artist; in three centres the Beethoven trio is scheduled.

Malov’s playing was marked by purity and sweetness of tone, in addition to his complete command of the instrument, and apparent enthusiasm for his art.  He should have an eminent career.  There was unanimity among the people I spoke to after the concert as to the enjoyable programme and the high standard of playing we had been treated to by Sergey Malov and Michael Houstoun.