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.



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