Strings and winds – New Zealand School of Music Lunchtime Concerts

New Zealand School of Music Lunchtime Concerts

NZSM String Ensemble (Martin Riseley, conductor)

MENDELSSOHN – String Symphony in C Minor

DVORAK – Serenade for Strings in E Major

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday 18th July 2012

NZSM Woodwind Soloists  (Emma Sayers, piano)

Music by Vivaldi, Arnold, Creston, Sancan, Milhaud, Cockcroft

Old St.Paul’s Church

Tuesday 31st July 2012

It’s always a pleasure to attend and write about concerts of music featuring student performers. Somehow, there’s a unique dimension of expression involved, a kind of tremulousness which at different ends of the performance spectrum can either set things a-tingle with wholehearted enthusiasm or else undermine efforts with nervousness.

There are, of course, plenty of nooks and crannies in-between these extremes, into which inexperienced performers can slot themselves – it’s always a fascinating process to observe and experience, but essentially a heart-warming one, listening to youngsters pouring their feelings into sound-vistas suggested by great music and opened up by the performers’ own skills.

I’ve been to two July concerts recently at which students from the NZ School of Music were performing – one on Wednesday 18th, at St.Andrew’s Church, involving a string ensemble playing music by Mendelssohn and Dvorak, and the other on Tuesday 31st, at Old St.Paul’s Church, which featured individual wind instrumentalists making plenty of variety of sounds in music from different composers.

At St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Martin Riseley, violinist extraordinaire, and a tutor at the School of Music, directed the string ensemble. He got a terrific response from the young players right throughout the Mendelssohn work, the String Symphony in C Minor – at the outset the players’ precise attack and focused tones gave us a foretaste of the whole performance’s strength and clarity. Throughout the whole ensemble there seemed a similar full-blooded commitment to giving the music resplendent tones and clear articulation – the lower strings sang their lines and figurations with as much eloquence and finesse as their lighter-toned cousins opposite.

The lunchtime concert time-schedules wouldn’t permit the whole of the work which followed, Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings, so that we had to do without the gorgeous slow movement. For the Dvorak the violin sections “swopped around”, bringing some different faces to the fore for the concert’s second part. Though a lovely work, the Serenade contains many pitfalls of articulation and rhythm, to the despair of amateur orchestras I’ve heard attempt it; and so I was interested as to how these young players would fare.

It began well, the serene opening nicely floated and counterpointed between upper and lower strings, the lines relaxed in flight and with plenty of elbow-room. The second subject I found a bit beefily-played, wanting, I thought, a lighter, more quixotic touch, so as to make a telling contrast with the crescendo, and render that top note in each phrase a bit more wide-eyed with wonderment. But the divisi ‘cellos were lovely, the players able to fill out their tones and fine them down in places most sensitively, as with the movement’s end. The following Waltz-movement was beautifully done, with violas making their presence felt in those all-important middle textures – and the music’s trio-section brought out the dynamic contests with plenty of heartfelt expression.

Dvorak’s wonderfully out-of-doors manner throughout the third movement was nicely captured, the excitement built up in the opening measures as the melody spread throughout the orchestra, and the melting romance of the music’s descending theme expressed beautifully, especially by the ‘cellos. However, I wanted a bit more emphasis given to those wonderful downwardly leaping intervals at the phrase-ends during the middle section (I think they’re fifths and sevenths) – here they were all “snapped shut” too readily for me, without being properly savoured! But then there was nice work from the violins leading back to the opening “running” section, a real sense of the music riding the crest of a wave in places, even if the string-tone was a bit dogged and scrappy here and there.

Maybe the ensemble ought to have finished with the slow movement instead of the finale, the latter being such a tricky beast to bring off. The rhythms really have to be “felt” rather than “counted” (as Ken Young would have said!) – and the lines are so cruelly exposed. There’s also a lot of near “sotto voce” work which I thought the players found it hard to make into part of a coherent line – I felt we got “going through the motions” playing rather than something with sweep, drive and purpose. Better, surely for these young musicians to have been encouraged to throw themselves into things like the ferment of that famous crescendo, and make something rough but exciting and abandoned of it, rather than produce the somewhat dogged get-the-notes-right impression that we got in places here.

However, we did get a lovely transition back into the return of the work’s very opening (a heart-warming touch from the composer!), and the energetic plunge back into the allegro vivace rounded it all off with honour satisfied. Still, it was the group’s playing of the Mendelssohn which I enjoyed, nay, really took to heart on this occasion – so very engaging and exciting to experience.


My second NZSM reviewing assignment was just under a fortnight later at Old St.Paul’s, where a number of wind students presented their “pieces”, the exercise being part of their course requirements, to, I might say, the audience’s pleasure and delight. This concert also brought added value with the wonderful accompaniments (some of them more out-and-out partnerships than accompaniments!) by the School of Music’s Emma Sayers, whose playing invariably adds a new dimension to whatever music she takes part in presenting.

Beginning the program (with a Vivaldi concerto, rather than the Handel the program was suggesting) was Oscar Laven, playing the bassoon. Here was the instrument relishing the role of singer and romancer as well as being a “character”. Oscar Laven’s phrasing of the lyrical episodes was of bel canto quality, to which was added a strong but flexible rhythmic sense, and plenty of virtuoso verve, as withness the rapid runs towards the end of the work. This was followed by Jeewon Um’s performance of Malcolm Arnold’s Fantasy for Solo Flute, the lyrical opening enchanting and the dance-like episodes spectacularly virtuosic.

Saxophonist Sam Jones very “correctly” introduced the Paul Creston Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano, wanting to emphasize for the audience the difficulty of the Sonata’s piano part, and properly acknowledge Emma Sayers’ contribution to the performance. He played brilliantly, with a stunning command of colour and technical agility, crucial in music with as much rhythmic energy as this! As absorbing to listen to was the piano part, the two musicians triumphantly realizing the piece’s tonal variety and underlying dynamism – a great listen!

An almost complete contrast was afforded by flutist Monique Vossen’s choice of Pierre Sancan’s Sonatine, the composer’s best-known work – the opening sequences impressionistic-sounding, rather in the style of Ravel, and with corresponding fairy-tale ambiences and textures. I thought the tuning between instruments wasn’t right in places, here (no tuning of the flute  was done beforehand that we could see), but though it didn’t mask the player’s artistry the pitch discrepancy was occasionally a distraction. In other respects rapport between flute and piano was exemplary, each taking rhythmic and melodic cues from one another, everything done with an enviably light touch and expressive purpose.

Another saxophonist, Reuben Chin, played an exerpt from Milhaud’s Scaramouche, a work whose popularity had resulted in all kinds of arrangements being made of the original piano duo for various instruments, not all of them by the composer. Here, the player exhibited a lovely singing tone as the music moved from dreamscape to graceful dance, the musicians relishing the expressive possibilities of lyrical saxophone and gently rhythmic piano accompaniment. Nothing could have been further from the style of Patrick Hayes’ performance for solo clarinet of Barry Cockcroft’s “Blue Tongue” (the composer simply HAD to be an Australian to write a piece with such a title!). More decomposition than anything else, the piece involved the player gradually dismantling the instrument, while trying to keep the piece going, and unifying the music with an reiterated rhythmic note. In putting it all across, Patrick Hayes demonstrated an entertainer’s gift as well as a musician’s skills in keeping the proceedings alive and buoyant throughout.

Yet another saxophonist, Katherine Macieszac, finished the concert in fine style with the third movement of the same work that Sam Jones had earlier played part of, Paul Creston’s Sonata for Alto Sax and Piano. Bustling 5/4 beginnings and an engaging garrulity swept the opening argument along between the musicians – first we heard the sax singing songs over the piano’s toccata-like drive, then listened to the instruments swap places, the saxophone rolling the rapid-fire notes into a blur agains the piano’s melodic progressions. For respite there were a few lyrical sequences before the 5/4 rhythm reawakened, and the piece drove to its energetic, breathless conclusion.

Fine, virtuosic playing from all concerned throughout the concert, communicating in almost all the items we heard, a real sense of enjoyment in the music-making.



Jian Liu – pianist in full flight at the Ilott

Wellington Chamber Music presents

Jian Liu –  a “Fantasia” recital

CPE BACH – Fantasia in C Major W 59/6  / BEETHOVEN – Fantasia in G Minor Op.77

LISZT – Apres une lecture de Dante; fantasia quasi sonata  / MOZART – Fantasia in D Minor K.397

SCHUBERT – Fantasie in C Major “Wanderer” D.760

Jian Liu (piano)

Ilott Theatre, Wellington Town Hall

Sunday 29th July 2012

At the interval, after pianist Jian Liu’s blistering traversal of the Liszt Dante Sonata, I was approached by a piano-fancier friend, whose aspect was one of great excitement and agitation: transfixing me with an intense, fire-flashing gaze, he exclaimed, “I hope you’re going to write up this recital as the greatest Wellington has heard for years!”. Being in a somewhat euphoric state myself, after the Liszt, I nevertheless managed to remember the farmer in one of Carl Sandburg’s dialogue poems, who, in response to the question, “Lived here all your life?” replied with a laconic “Not yit!”. But I still added my two cents’ worth regarding what I’d heard so far to the paeans of praise from others who joined us, to my friend’s momentary, if not complete, satisfaction.

Certainly, Jian Liu’s performance of Liszt’s visionary exploration of the spirit of Dante’s Divine Comedy seemed like an all-encompassing display of both technical brilliance and poetic identification with the music. I had heard Liu relatively recently in recital, playing the same composer’s B Minor Sonata, and thought at the time that his Lisztian credentials were pretty impressive (the review of that concert is also on Middle C). However, in terms of overall effect, Liu’s playing here for me surpassed that earlier performance in almost every aspect. And while my allegiance to Diedre Irons’ Liszt-playing remains unshaken in terms of her incomparable variety of touch and poetry of phrasing, Liu’s more austere way with the pianistic textures was allied to a tremendous intellectual grip of the music’s overall shape and form which at the time swept all before it. It was no wonder my friend was thus transported by it all.

The overall idea of the recital – that of exploring difference composers’ treatment of the idea of “fantasia” – brought forth fascinating results, especially in the first half. In a sense, what threw the Liszt work into bold relief was the relative emptiness of the piece that preceded it, a work by Beethoven, no less, though not one of the master’s greatest compositional efforts. In fact, this Fantasia in G Minor has never seemed to me to bear out the contention that Beethoven was one of the greatest improvisers of his age, one capable of putting every other virtuoso of the time to flight in those “contests” that pianists of the early Romantic era  (and before, remembering Mozart and Clementi) seemed to occasionally take part in. It’s pretty thin stuff, really, with occasional flashes of the “Ludwig Van” of the great sonatas, placed cheek-by-jowl with handfuls of somewhat tiresome show-off stock pianistic figurations.

My feeling is that the “real” Beethoven would have improvised with much greater freedom and contrast than this piece exhibits – perhaps the “writing down” of what was meant, after all, to be a spontaneous recreation of musical thought has spoiled it. One thinks of Lady Bracknell’s description of natural ignorance in “The Importance of Being Earnest” – “Ignorance is like a delicate, exotic fruit. Touch it, and the bloom is gone.” I thought also that the contrast with Mozart’s famous D MInor Fantasia K.397, which Liu played to open the recital’s second half was instructive regarding the compositional methods of each of the composers – Mozart, we are told, tended to “compose in his head” and then write down what he’d worked out, whereas Beethoven’s processes were far more visible in the form of scraps of motifs, figurations and sequences which filled his sketch-books, like a sculptor hewing at an ever-present shape or form, and bringing it into being. In this respect, Mozart’s work seemed finished, whereas Beethoven’s had the feel of a work very much in progress.

The recital opened with a Fantasia by another stormy petrel, CPE Bach, whose music I particularly love for its volatility and its juxtaposition of beauty with angularity. Jian Liu brough out this Fantasia’s capricious spirit with a will – here was a sense of fun at work expressed in delightfully unpredictable ways, even if the composer somewhat over-milked the repeated two-note figure which served as an omni-present watcher on all the other goings-on. Liu showed excellent “evocation” instincts in his playing of this piece, characterizing the different moods strongly and bringing to bear an enviable command of dynamic and keyboard colours. What CPE’s father, the great Johann Sebastien, would have thought of it all, I couldn’t begin to think, though, of course one remembers he was no mean fantasia-writer himself.

So, after these two somewhat frivolous explorations of keyboard capriciousness, the Liszt work hit us like a thunderbolt, and especially in Jian Liu’s hands. While I couldn’t, in the wake of hearing those two Russian women pianists, Sofia Gulyak and Halida Dinova, earlier in the year, award the palm for “the greatest recital in years” to Jian, his playing of the Liszt placed his pianism fully on their level, if from a vastly different tradition. It would be outside the scope of this review to analyze just why Liu’s playing made the impression on me that it did. But in one important respect it had what I felt was slightly lacking in the same pianist’s  earlier recital also featuring Liszt’s music – an all-pervading resonance, a sustenance of tone which here opened up whole vistas of expression, ranging from the blackest oblivion to the most shimmering and scintillating light. In terms of energy and impulse it was playing I’ve rarely heard surpassed by anybody in recital, in places. It was art which largely concealed art, to Jian Liu’s credit – throughout, one felt the presence of both Liszt and of Dante, ahead of that of a pianist making these evocations possible.

Having gotten our sensibilities properly calmed down during the interval, we felt able to return to our seats for some more music – first up was the delicious D Minor Fantasia by Mozart. I was interested in what Jian Liu would do with this work, as Mozart never finished it, and posthumous editions have “rounded off” the allegro section with a concluding flourish and cadence which I’m afraid sounds worthy but somewhat glib. A recording of this work by the Japanese pianist Mitsuko Uchida adopted what to my ears seemed like a wonderful solution – i.e. to return to the opening arpeggios of the work, modulate in the same way, and then conclude with a final major-key archway which ends quietly in the bass. However, Jian Liu preferred to follow the Breitkopf Gesamtausgabe’s aforementioned “completion” – and his dignified, sensitive playing made the conclusion sound of a piece with the rest. But what a charming and beautiful work it is, the ideas given plenty of “air” by Liu, preserving something of the piece’s spontaneity despite its finished aspect.

The afternoon’s concluding “fantasia” was the renowned “Wanderer Fantasy” by Schubert. Pianists themselves seem divided regarding the legendary technical difficulties accompanying this work – Schubert himself was reputed to have said, upon leaping from the piano after an abortive attempt to play the work in public, “The devil may play it, for I cannot!”. As regards Schubert’s oeuvre for solo piano, it is clearly the most technically demanding, though whether it challenges the executant difficulties of some of the other virtuoso pieces of the Romantic repertoire seems to be a matter of opinion. Called the “Wanderer” Fantasy because of the work’s direct quotation from the theme of Schubert’s own Lied “Der Wanderer” of 1816, the piece has four distinct sections, though is played without a break. It was a favorite of Liszt’s who made a transcription of the piece for piano and orchestra, and who was also inspired by Schubert’s technique of “thematic transformation” to produce works like his own B Minor Sonata.

Straightaway, Jian Liu engaged us physically with the music, making wonderful use of dynamic terracings to give the sounds  plenty of organically-conceived variation – thanks to Liu’s unfailing sense of the music’s direction, the argument always seems to be going somewhere, and never put in a rhythmic or colouristic straitjacket. Though the physical effort of engaging with those notes was made apparent, and one or two of the arpeggiated figurations sounded a bit blurred around the edges, the playing’s essential energy and liveliness carried us joyfully along, eventually bringing us to the edges of a deep, richly-layered region of dark stillness and mystery. Here, the music became all of a sudden hymn-like and entranced, almost religious in feeling (no wonder Liszt couldn’t keep his hands off it!), the initial simplicity of the lied-melody then fragmenting into a hundred eager voices, creating a ferment of activity growing from the textures of the music. Here Liu’s ear for detail meant that the dappled strands of sound impulse were kept flowing and undulating – marvellous playing.

The presto episode again had that sense of boundless energy, some elemental life-force expressing a kind of cosmic joy and high spirits, one whose voltage increased and crackled as the concluding fugue hove into view. So, the pianist might have dropped a few notes here and there! – what was far more important was that the music’s momentum was gloriously maintained, everybody, pianist and listeners caught up in a kind of trajectoried trance whose culminating wave of energy occasioned great scenes of appreciation from an excited audience. Wisely, Jian Liu brought us all back from fever pitch with a transcription of a Richard Strauss song, very Schubert-like, rapt and beautiful, a fitting conclusion to a memorable afternoon of music.




Bach Choir recovers its earlier renown with fine concert of Mendelssohn and Brahms

The Bach Choir of Wellington conducted by Stephen Rowley, accompanied by pianists Douglas Mews and Diedre Irons

Mendelssohn: Six songs to sing in the open air (Sechs Lieder im Freien zu singer), Op 41 and Six duets for voice and piano, Op 63 (with Rebekah Giesbers – mezzo soprano and Ailsa Lipscombe – soprano)
Brahms: Die Mainacht, No 2 from Op 43; Feldeinsamkeit, No 2 from Op 86; Botschaft, No 1 from Op 47 (with Rory Sweeney – baritone)
Hungarian Dances Nos 1, 3, 6
Liebeslieder Walzer, Op 52

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Saturday 28 July, 5pm

This concert had been originally scheduled for the evening, but was moved to 5pm when it was realised that it clashed with the Orpheus Choir’s major performance of Bernstein’s Candide in the Town Hall.

The clash would probably have been more damaging to the Bach Choir than to its big cousin. As a result (I suppose), quite a large audience came to this concert. A good programme was available giving words in both German and English with informative notes about the composers and the works.

The choir was on very good form. The balance and ensemble were admirable and the choir held audience attention through their sensitive variations in dynamics and articulation. Though probably with too few tenors, and perhaps as a whole, not presenting quite the level of vocal polish of the women, the men’s contribution was more than adequate.

Mendelssohn composed the set of open air songs to be sung on a summer evening in a forest near Frankfurt and a letter to his mother described their delightful effect in words that could, with a few modifications, describe this performance. They were, naturally, set for unaccompanied singing, and the choir generally avoided the problem of slipping intonation.  The texts included three poems by Heine, together entitled Tragödie, first published in 1837 in a collection called ‘Salon’, and later collected in Neue Gedichte of 1844. They tell a typical tale of ill-fated love, but in the last poem the lovers’ common grave is the tryst of blissful lovers of a later time,  oblivious of the earlier event. The musical settings did not perhaps capture the tone of fatalism though it was hinted through understated musical figures and moods. The sixth poem, Auf dem See by Goethe, expresses in words and music an optimism in the superiority of present life and love over the longings of a dream world, and the choir captured it in fast, joyous triple time.

Mendelssohn’s six open air songs are hardly masterpieces; the settings follow a conventional strophic pattern, in which the last two lines of the text are usually repeated; melodies are pleasant if not especially memorable.

The other Mendelssohn songs were four of his Six Duets, Op 63, and they were scattered through the rest of the programme. They were sung, with Douglas Mews at the piano, by Rebekah Giesbers, mezzo soprano and Ailsa Lipscombe, soprano; the two voices blended very agreeably and the guileless spirit of words and music emerged happily from them. Again, however, the somewhat formulaic pattern of the settings and their avoidance of anything in the nature of tragedy or fatefulness lent them an air of blandness.

So it was a good idea to intersperse them with the three somewhat more profound and complex Brahms songs, taken from different collections, between the late 1860s and 1877, all sung by baritone Rory Sweeney.  The first, Die Mainacht by Hölty, was a bit of a warm-up for the singer, but he dealt very capably with the second and third songs, Feldeinsamkeit and Botschaft, minor poems but both intrinsically more interesting songs than Mendelssohn’s, capturing a more enigmatic mood and Brahms’s gift for illuminating the words. He managed to highlight the quoted words of the message (Botschaft), creating an effective little dramatic scene.

Diedre Irons joined Mews to play three of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances, in the original piano duet form. With the piano lid off, the sound, at least at the start, was rather coarse, and while Nos 3 and 6 were more refined there was an air of spontaneity about the performances.

Finally, the original version of Brahms’s Liebeslieder waltzes, Op 52, with both pianists, and the chorus (the original was envisaged for vocal quartet). Initially it sounded slightly loose in ensemble and articulation but by the third song things were going very well and the whole half-hour sequence was carried off with a panache and delight, an ever-changing spirit as Brahms was inspired by the light-hearted folk-based words with their little dramas and tableaux, that was hardly to have been expected.

With this concert of not altogether great and profound music, as well as other recent outings, the Bach Choir has recovered its position as one of Wellington’s important choirs, which causes one to look forward to their November concert of Handel’s Dixit Dominus and Vivaldi’s Beatus Vir.





Leonard Bernstein’s CANDIDE – the best of all possible whirls?

Leonard Bernstein – CANDIDE

Cast: Cameron Barclay (Candide) / Barbara Graham (Cunegonde) / Bianca Andrew (Paquette) / Kieran Rayner (Maximilian / Nick Dunbar (Pangloss/Martin) / Helen Medlyn (Old Lady) / Richard Greager (Grand Inquisitor et al.) / Thomas Atkins (Archbishop et al.)

Narrator: Ray Henwood

The Orpheus Choir of Wellington

The Vector Wellington Orchestra

Conducted by Mark W.Dorrell

Directed by Sara Brodie

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday, 28th July 2012

Pity the poor music-theatre historian charged with the task of drawing together the different strands of creative impulse that have, at various times, produced successive versions of Leonard Bernstein’s amazingly durable stage-work Candide. To read of the different productions and seemingly endless revisions, complete revampings included, is to be made to feel as though one’s head has been spun in a kind of Voltairesque whirl. Forget the fraught operatic gestations and accompanying thrills and spills of works such as Bizet’s Carmen, Verdi’s Don Carlos or Britten’s Gloriana – Lenny’s Candide beats them all!

Basically, the work began its public life in 1956 with Lilian Hellman’s adaptation of Voltaire’s classic novella/satire, and with additional lyrics by luminaries such as Dorothy Parker, all set to music by Bernstein. When the show didn’t last past seventy-odd performances, Hellman’s book bore most of the blame – too serious and weighty, said the critics. It wasn’t until 1973 that another attempt was made with Hal Prince’s idea of a stripped-down, racier version, with an entirely new book written by Hugh Wheeler. A lot of the original music was cut and the orchestration drastically reduced. Though clocking up over seven hundred performances, it just wasn’t the Candide that its composer had originally envisaged, and really wanted to see.

Rehabilitation of the original’s style and spirit came with conductor John Mauceri’s reconstruction (with the composer’s imprimatur) for a 1988 staging in Glasgow, and also with Bernstein’s own 1989 recording, largely of what Mauceri and writer John Wells (of “Yes Minister” fame) had achieved (incidentally, this evening’s conductor Mark Dorrell remembers being involved as repetiteur of the 1988 production at Scottish Opera to which Bernstein came and actually conducted a rehearsal – a treasurable experience!).

So, what we got on Saturday evening was largely this latter version that Bernstein himself recorded, but with further reworkings based on an even later London production, as “authorized” an edition as could be gleaned from the work’s history of comings and goings – the best of all possible solutions, of course! And what a riot, what a firecracker, what a sizzler of a performance we got from conductor, choir and orchestra, and with Ray Henwood’s wonderfully mordant delivery as narrator illuminating every twist and turn of the fantastical array of improbable events.

I thought the Orpheus Choir astonishing wonderful – its members were the out-and-out heroes of the evening, with Mark Dorrell as their inspirational general. Sara Brodie’s direction all but completely transcended any sense of “chorus convention” by treating the choir as a “character” in its own right, one all too willing to express its views of the proceedings by whatever means at its disposal – gesture and movement as well as voices (including a “Mexican wave” at one point, and some wonderfully nonchalant bottom-swaying accompanying the insouciant “What’s the Use” Waltz in Act Two!). It all worked brilliantly, inestimably aided by the choir’s superb diction, delivering the words with focus and energy throughout.

The orchestra was almost as good, strings, winds and percussion particularly nimble-fingered, and with only an occasional sluggishness from the brass in places during Act One to pick up their cues (a bit more spunk needed from them in the overture for example) detracting from an otherwise brilliant evening’s playing. Conductor and players “caught” so well the atmosphere and rhythmic character of episodes like the “Paris Waltz” and the “I Am Easily Assimilated” Tango, even if during the latter Helen Medlyn, like the other soloists most of the time, sounded inexplicably underpowered, leaving the chorus to supply the necessary vocal fabric of the sinuous melody.

Enjoying as we did these instrumental and vocal splendors from orchestra and chorus, it was disappointing to find that almost all the solo singers were hard to hear at various times, rendering the all-important words mostly inaudible – or at least from where I was sitting in the hall. I wasn’t the only “hard-of-hearing” audience member, as a number of people I spoke with both at the interval and subsequent to the show confirmed my impression. What seemed to be needed was either subtitles, or (wash my mouth out with soap and water!) discreet microphonic assistance, perhaps? Considering that the voice of the narrator, Ray Henwood, was resplendently and sonorously miked, it may well have been appropriate for other solo voices to have been thus augmented.

Of the soloists, Richard Greager (as The Grand Inquisitor and a number of other cameo roles) consistently gave much pleasure, putting his words across with the expected verve and focus, something I was also anticipating from Helen Medlyn (whose work I’ve always greatly admired), only to find myself straining to catch what she was singing a lot of the time. Before people start to accuse me of making a meal out of this, I ought to point out that, if ever music-theatre words ought to be heard and savored, those of “Candide” ought to be – and the loss is considerable if they’re not coming across. I should also add that I thought the acting of every one of the singers characterful and engaging, thanks to both their individual talents and director Sara Brodie’s skills at using the semi-staged environment to its best advantage.

As Candide, Cameron Barclay caught the essential sweetness and naivety of the character, his voice clearer in the more lyrical numbers such as “It Must Be So”, beautiful and touching in the “It must be Me” reprise, introduced by the full orchestra. His partnership with the appealing Cunegonde of Barbara Graham brought similar lovely moments, culminating in the almost Mahlerian “Make Our Garden Grow” at the very end of the work. Projecting similar innocence, with touches of characterful pizzazz, Barbara Graham’s much-violated but remarkably enduring heroine displayed plenty of beauty and spunk throughout, her words perhaps not consistently projected with the required focus, but her voice making the most of those displays of coloratura in “Glitter and Be Gay”.

A great moment for both Cunegonde and The Old Lady was their Act Two duet “We Are Women”, Graham and Medlyn both relishing their words, “We’ve necks like swans, and, oh, such sexily legs / We’re so light-footed we could dance on eggs”, and putting across all the sex appeal one could want in the process. Plenty of libidinous impulse was generated also by Bianca Andrew’s sultry servant-girl Paquette, who didn’t have a great deal to sing solo, but whose voice and provocative deportment added inestimably to sequences such as Act One’s “The Best of All Possible Worlds”, and the glorious “What’s the Use?” in Act Two’s casino scene. As with Bianca Andrew, Thomas Atkins, singing the Archbishop and other cameo characters, also had enough vocal heft to make his few solo lines properly tell.

Both Kieran Raynor’s Maximilian (the King’s son) and Nick Dunbar’s Dr.Pangloss were characterizations fleshed-out with confident, physically well-projected stage-presence. Kieran Rayner’s words I could hear most of the time (a pity that his “Life Is Happiness Indeed” verse was pushed along a notch or so too speedily for the words to really make their point), but I had the utmost difficulty with Nick Dunbar’s ennunciations – most of his utterances as the Royal Tutor in “The Best of All Possible Worlds” seemed as if too low for him, so that the voice lacked sufficient girth to properly project the words. Again (I hate myself for suggesting this!), in the interests of getting across the message, perhaps microphones (discreetly employed) would have helped?

So, that caveat registered, the rest I thought a marvellous achievement from all concerned – I loved watching Mark Dorrell sitting down at the end on the conductor’s podium, obviously exhausted, having given his all! Above all, very great credit to the Orpheus Choir, its energy and commitment to the presentation surpassing all expectations and producing a truly memorable result.





A fine piano trio at St Mark’s, Lower Hutt, for lunch

Anna van der Zee (violin), Paul Mitchell (cello) and Richard Mapp (piano)

Kodály: Duo for violin and cello, Op 7 – first movement; Dvořák: Piano Trio No 4 in E minor, Op 90 (‘Dumky’ )

St Mark’s Uniting Church, Lower Hutt

Wednesday 25 July, 12.15pm

A common perception of a free lunchtime concert might be of amateurs of moderate skills and talents playing in a cold church.

None of the aforesaid is remotely true, and in the present case, such a perception borders on the ridiculous, if not libellous. The church was reasonably warm and enjoys a congenial acoustic that is kind to musicians both amateur and professional. Its only flaw is in the church’s design: the entrance, at the east end, alongside of the sanctuary means that the audience is very aware of people entering late or leaving early.

Kodály wrote a solo cello sonata and this duo, at the beginning of World War I.  Neither is  particularly easy to penetrate on first hearing (I have been rather slow to begin hearing its beauties, after a number of exposures), as the composer drew his inspiration from the genuine, somewhat savage folk music of the Hungarian people, rather than the gypsy music that was more easily assimilated and had been taken to the hearts of music lovers of the 19th century.  As with Bartók, Kodály had priorities other than writing beguiling tunes in the West European mould.

Nor did the players here make any attempt to sugar the pill. The cellist in particular dug into his strings with a bite and determination that rather dominated the Duo, though the violin, more lyrical, lacked nothing in comparable intensity. One has however heard performances on record that are more persuasive in terms of warmth and emotional appeal.  They played only the first movement (Allegro serioso, non troppo), which was presumably seen by Van der Zee and Mitchell as an interesting filler, which indeed it was, to provide a sharp contrast with the gorgeous trio that followed.

It was no doubt the second work that had attracted this much larger than usual audience on this wet, cold day. Dvořák’s Trio Op 90, is called the Dumky (plural of ‘dumka’), meaning meditation or lament, though it is punctuated by brighter, quite rapturous episodes; the word is related to the Russian word, Duma – thought, council – which is the name of the Russian parliament.

Dvořák used the Dumka in several other works such as the second Slavonic Dance and the Piano Quintet, Op 81.

The difference in nature from the Kodály was most conspicuous in the sound of the cello, now warm and lyrical. In fact, the writing for both violin and cello is among the most rewarding in all the composer’s chamber music. And as the earlier piece had been without the piano, its sparkling presence here contributed greatly in civilising the music. The second movement, Poco adagio, expressed the essential ‘Dumka’ spirit, achingly elegiac, beautifully sustained by all three instruments, the muted violin contributing importantly to its emotional character.

The third section, Andante, begins with slow, airy piano chords which were quickly taken up by the violin; Richard Mapp’s playing was not only in full command of the many swift extrovert passages, but such moments as his picking out, in the Andante, a spare, single line theme was quite moving.

The fifth movement, Allegro, opens with a big rhetorical theme from the cello, and it moves towards a spirited end. In the final Lento maestoso last movement the trio moved carefully from the dark opening to its exciting climax.

Here was a performance of great accomplishment by three professional musicians that one would rather have expected at a professional concert in a conventional chamber music venue. It seems sad that so relatively few of Lower Hutt’s 100,000 humans are sufficiently interested in or aware of the excellence of these lunchtime concerts; a line from Gray’s great poem: ‘Full many a flower is born to blush unseen/And waste its sweetness on the desert air’.



School of Music string ensemble brings lovely music to Upper Hutt

Mendelssohn: Symphony in C minor (two movements)
Dvořák: Serenade for Strings Op.22 (four movements)

New Zealand School of Music String Ensemble, conducted by Martin Riseley

Expressions, Upper Hutt

Tuesday, 24 July 2012, 1pm

This was a good-looking ensemble, all players were smartly dressed in black, hair just so, and all standing to play (except for the cellos), and an attractive programme had been chosen.  The ensemble comprised four first violins, four second violins, three violas, three cellos and one double bass; 12 women and three men.  Some of the audience seats were close to the players; people sensibly steered clear of the danger of sitting in those seats that might have resulted in their becoming bow-legged (aren’t cellists anyway?) from having a cello bow thrust into their legs.

The Mendelssohn work was written for strings alone, when the composer was only 12 years old, one of a number of works written in his childhood to which he never gave opus numbers.  Two movements were played: the short slow movement marked grave, and the allegro finale.

The players were all highly competent, and played well together.  There was a strong sound from them in this happy piece; an astonishing composition for a 12-year-old.

The violinists rearranged themselves for the second work.   The first movement, moderato, I thought was a little pedantic, and could have done with more phrasing – not to say that there was none.  However, things improved as the movement went along.  Like so much of  Dvořák’s output, this work is wonderfully cheerful and tuneful.  A serenade was originally a work played out-of-doors; one could imagine having this played while strolling in a garden, or while eating a meal outdoors on a warm evening.

The wooden floor and mainly wooden walls and ceiling in the large foyer space at Expressions made for a good sound on the whole, but sometimes it was somewhat harsh or shrill.  This effect may have depended on where one was sitting.

In the second and third movements, tempo di valse and scherzo, the slower passages were played with a rich timbre; the faster ones suffered from rather too frequent intonation discrepancies.  The lively, dry acoustic may have shown these up more than would be the case in some venues.  Nevertheless, I was surprised at their number.

However, there are some very fine players here, notably the leaders of each of the four main sections of the ensemble.

The final movement played (the fifth, allegro vivace) featured delightful cello and double bass pizzicato, which I’m not sure I had been sufficiently aware of before.  Sitting close to the cellos revealed how enchanting this part of the music was.

The last quiet section began rather out of kilter – no-one appeared to be watching the conductor.  The return of the robust main theme terminated the work happily.

The concert was well-attended; over 100 people came to hear the young musicians.




Duo Tapas appetizing at Old St.Paul’s

Old St.Paul’s Lunchtime Concert Series

Duo Tapas

Rupa Maitra (violin) / Owen Moriarty (guitar)


Old St.Paul’s Church, Thorndon

Tuesday July 24th 2012

Every now and then one hear something played at a concert which startles the sensibilities into momentary confusion. As when one turns on the radio and encounters something familiar mid-stream, the thought starts to drum away with the music: – “Now, just what is this?”

The Paganini work, Centone di Sonata No.1 which opened this duo recital sounded at first like a transcription of the beginning of the Mahler Fifth Symphony, played on a solo violin – a one-note “call to arms” dominating the opening. The attractive allegro maestoso which followed featured some fine flourishes and an exciting dynamic range -a more lyrical central section brought some major-key sunshine to the A-minor opening of the work.

Interestingly,  Paganini knew a lot about the guitar, partly perhaps because of having earned to play the mandolin before the violin. He once declared that “The violin is my mistress, but the guitar is my master”, and wrote a lot for the guitar in a chamber-music context, not just accompaniments, but with a virtuosity in places which was admired by his fellow-musicians at the time.

One wonders whether the composer’s interest in the guitar was due to its association with romance – Paganini did have a liaison with a “mystery woman” who played the guitar herself, one who possibly was the composer’s “muse” for a time, considering the number of works he wrote involving the instrument.

This work , and the Vivaldi D Minor Sonata from 1709 that followed, brought out lovely tones from the violinist, Rupa Maitra, and sensitive, perfectly-judged partnering lines from guitarist Owen Moriarty. The violinist’s very focused sound served Vivaldi particularly well, bright, Italianate tones lightening the textures and the wood-grainy, muted surrounding of the church’s interior. The character of both the slow, grave Minuet and the more vigorous finale with its different bowing and dynamic contrasts was nicely presented.

Giovanni Seneca (mis-spelled as”Senenca” in the programme) a Neapolitean guitarist and composer, born in 1967, contributed two works to the recital, Balkan Fantasy and Mazel Tov. I liked the second piece better – the first I thought somewhat filmic, a bit all-purpose, like something one might hear in a bar or restaurant – though some of the double-stopping seemed quite demanding, in places, parts of which sounded a bit strained. More interesting, I thought, was Mazel Tov, a work beginning as a slow dance, the notes “bent” for expressive purposes, with very soft playing at first from both musicians, but fuelling up as the music’s catchiness and energy increasingly took hold, the players bringing off a triumphant finish.

Some indigenous Spanish music followed, by Sarasate and Granados. I enjoyed reading George Bernard Shaw’s comment regarding Sarasate, to the effect that though there were many composers  of music for the violin, there were few of “violin music”, and that Sarasate’s playing (he was a virtuoso violinist as well as a composer) for Shaw “left criticism gasping miles behind him”. His Spanish Dances are popular encore pieces for virtuosi, intended to show off what the performer could do. Rupa Maitra captured the sinuous, haunting quality of “Playera”, the first of the composer’s set of Op.23 Dances. Though intonation wasn’t flawless what mattered as much was the atmosphere and the tonal flavourings of the piece, brought out here strongly.

I thought the famous Dance No.5 from Sarasate’s countryman Granados’s own set of Danzas Españolas which followed took a while to find its “point” here, in the wake of the Sarasate. It seemed to me that the playing could have done with a bit less legato throughout the opening (my ears perhaps too attuned to hearing the piece as a work for solo guitar) and the intonation was again a bit edgy on one or two violin notes – but when it came to the middle section, there was suddenly more distinction, like a lover’s musing upon a memory, the violinist making nice distinctions between registers. And where the guitar takes over the theme and the violin decorates was quite enchanting – lovely, soft arpeggiations. I thought Owen Moriarty mis-hit a chord during the reprise, but the playing recovered its poise to deliver a beautiful concluding note to the piece, a “was it all a dream?” kind of impulse…..

The concert finished with Jovano, Jovanke, a work by Bosnian guitarist and composer Almer Imamovic, an arrangement of an old Macedonian song about two young lovers in a “Romeo and Juliet” scenario. The music reflects the emotional turmoil of the two young people in their situation, soulful at the beginning, angular and rhythmically syncopated , with very Middle-Eastern kind of melodic contourings and flavorings, the music building up to great excitement by the end. Bravo!





Views of the NZSO’s epic “Valkyrie”

WAGNER – Die Walküre

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Pietari Inkinen (conductor)

Cast:  Simon O’Neill (Siegmund) / Edith Haller (Sieglinde) / Jonathan Lemalu (Hunding)

Christine Goerke (Brünnhilde) / John Wegner (Wotan) /  Margaret Medlyn (Fricka)

The Valkyries : Morag Atchison, Amanda Atlas, Sarah Castle, Kristin Darragh,

Wendy Doyle, Lisa Harper-Brown, Anna Pierard, Kate Spence

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Sunday 22nd July, 2012

Antony Brewer – guest reviewer

Wagner wrote works of enormous complexity. They make extraordinary demands on conductor, singers and players especially the music-dramas of Der Ring des Nibelungen. So performing Die Walküre in New Zealand is ambitious to say the least. We certainly have the orchestra and, somewhat to my surprise, the conductor Pietari Inkinen. We also have our own Simon O’Neill, a leading artist at Bayreuth, Covent Garden, La Scala and the New York MET. We have a riveting Fricka in Margaret Medlyn, we have the Walküren (a fabulous team!) and a Hunding of ideal voice in Jonathan Lemalu. Australia provided the (unfortunately indisposed) Wotan, John Wegner, whose efforts to stay the course were  extraordinary considering the demands of the role. The Sieglinde and Brünnhilde were non-antipodeans and also magnificent.

I do not share the belief, expressed in another review, that we should put up a totally Kiwi cast for such an event. If we have the singers, as we did for the Parsifal, we can do so with pride. Already for our size we have had and have New Zealand Wagnerians who can shake the stages of the world. Pushing the wrong voices at the wrong time into Wagner is both unnecessary and damaging.

And what voices we had! Simon O’Neill’s Siegmund rang out with intensity and a touch of real metal in the voice. As do most Siegmunds, he made a bit of a meal of “Wälse, Wälse” but that was easily forgiven when his “Winterstürme” was phrased with such rare beauty. His Sieglinde, Edith Haller , was that operatic rarity, a singer whose singing and acting were outstanding while she also looked the part. It was a wonderful experience to feel convinced at the visual level as well as the aural. Her instrument is not unlike that of classic Sieglinde Leonie Rysanek, a full and beautiful mid-voice with a clarion top register: “O Herstes Wunder” rang out with full and intense tone, supported magnificently by Inkinen and the orchestra.

John Wegner’s indisposition has already been noted. Yet he held the stage as a Wotan should, despite a disappearing voice. He has that special ability to be still without seeming immobile and because of the stillness, movement and expression gain in power when they occur.

Fricka can be a bore if she be more sanctimonious than angry. The great Frickas ( e.g. Elisabeth Höngen, Rita Gorr, Christa Ludwig) always have a more or less imperious outrage barely concealing the painful indignation of a woman scorned by her partner. I admit to being a huge fan of Margaret Medlyn. She was in fine voice and she was Fricka. What an artist she is.

Jonathan Lemalu was HUGE as Hunding. The voice and expression worked superbly, especially his ability to darken the voice and inject it with so much menace.

I’ve left Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde to the end because of the singers she was, for me, the great discovery of the evening. Her stage presence, her facial expressions and her acting in general were quite magnetic: she has that rare ability to draw attention to herself without compromising the other artists, in fact enhancing what they are doing by association. I felt myself involved with Brünnhilde’s dilemma in a way that only the great Brünnhildes manage to convey. Obviously her interpretation will mature; in many ways it is fine and wonderful already.

As to the voice, WOW. Used as I am to the dearth of true hochdramatisch voices available to sing these roles since Nilsson retired, it is amazing to hear not a spinto voice pushed out of it’s natural fach but a richly coloured and powerful dramatic soprano with the top gleaming, the middle darkly tinged and lower register (so crucial, say, in  “War es so schmälich” ) full-toned without that “chesty” quality.

My sense of Pietari Inkinen’s conducting in the past has been of refinement and structural cohesion rather than emotional intensity. Even in the music of Sibelius which he conducts so well, I have experienced a feeling of emotional restraint and even compression of climaxes. He has certainly refused to flirt with brass in full cry and timpani, for example, at levels of ear-thwacking intensity.

Die Walküre is clearly different emotional territory for him. His direction of this performance had all the qualities of his best work and a new frisson of freedom and excitement. The orchestra provided some of the finest climaxes I’ve ever heard in Wagner, along with some exquisite playing in soft passages: the shaping and sifting of the orchestral tracery in the introduction to Siegmund’s “Winterstürme” was simply magical, just as it should be. I’ve seldom heard this wonderful orchestra of ours play with such unanimity and beauty of tone. The strings in their many hushed passages played as if their tone were suspended in mid-air, tangible but of the finest grain.

Inkinen’s decision to seat the orchestra with violas to the right front and cellos behind was inspired. Wagner’s orchestration is masterly and his writing for violas crucial to the “mix”. We heard every detail, while the cellos and basses (who were missing a player I heard later) had plenty of power to be heard perfectly.

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Die Walküre – another review of the Wellington performance, by Peter Mechen

Mention Wagner to the average person in the street, and if you get a response it’s more than likely to be along the lines of something to do with the “Ride of the Valkyries”, one of those pieces of music that have become icons in their own right and perfectly capable of standing alone and being appreciated in splendid isolation. I myself still remember as a musically inexperienced twenty year-old hearing a recording of Die Walküre for the very first time, and being electrified by the beginning of the opera’s third act, which of course opens with those well-known irruptions of orchestral energy that herald the Valkyries’ wild ride.

But as for the other four hours’ worth of music, I was equally captivated, drawn into a fantastic world by the range and scope of Wagner’s creative imagination. I recall on this first occasion late at night playing the opening of the first LP side of the impressively packaged set (the famous Decca recording with Solti conducting) which I’d borrowed from the Palmerston North Public Library, intending to “sample” a few minutes of the music and play the rest in the morning if I liked what I heard. I think it was at about 4:30am or thereabouts that I finally came out of my trance, having ignored sleep and simply kept going to the very end of the opera, all ten LP sides of it – I was unstoppable, and so, it seemed, was Wagner.

On Sunday afternoon at the Michael Fowler Centre just as captivating (and unstoppable) were Pietari Inkinen and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, plunging whole-heartedly into the Prelude from Act One of Die Walküre (which the publicity called “The Valkyrie”) and never relinquishing their grip upon the music throughout, right to the last few strains of the glorious “Magic Fire Music” which concludes the work. What followed was, in my experience, unprecedented, a standing ovation from the MFC audience for all of those performers concerned, a tribute whose enthusiasm truly reflected the efforts of singers and players and conductor to present to us something very special indeed.

This Walküre, though worth the wait, was a long time in coming to Wellington, fifteen years after the groundbreaking concert performances of Das Rheingold which the orchestra had given, also in semi-staged form in the Michael Fowler Centre, under the leadership of its conductor-in-chief at the time, Dr. Franz-Paul Decker. My belief at the time was that the NZSO and Decker were planning to work their way, at various intervals, through the remaining “Ring” operas, making the venture a “first” for this country. Alas, due to sponsorship difficulties, the plan was scuppered, or at least put on indefinite long-term hold.  I greatly admired Decker as a conductor of the Austro-German repertoire, and loved his Rheingold, as I had equally enjoyed his concert-hall performances of Mahler and Richard Strauss. It was a numbing disappointment that we weren’t able to experience any further Wagnerian efforts on this kind of scale from him and the orchestra.

So, it was in this context that I awaited the present Walküre, my excitement at the prospect coloured, I admit, by my previous encounters with the conducting of Pietari Inkinen. I’ve had occasion to admire him greatly in the past as a musician – his technical aplomb, his intellectual grasp of scores and works, and his ability to extract beautiful and accurate playing from the orchestra. But up to now, I had always thought his music-making somewhat inhibited emotionally – to my ears he seemed reluctant to bring out from his players any kind of no-holds-barred realization of what was in the music. It seemed enough that he was getting the orchestra to play beautifully, and at times brilliantly, and thereby avoiding those moments when the music’s expression demanded a darker, deeper, more desperate and urgent approach – when, in fact, beauty and brilliance were simply NOT enough to realize the music’s fuller expression.

Perhaps it took me the whole of the first Act of Walküre to be completely and utterly won over by Inkinen’s conducting – but there were plenty of excitements and intensities along the way. The tempestuously-driven Prelude was a great start to the performance, the string-players bending their backs to the task, and the winds and brass sounding the growing warnings of the storm’s thunderous arrival (the timpani absolutely shattering at the climax). By contrast, the tenderness of the string-playing throughout the first exchanges, sung and unsung, between the fugitive Siegmund (Simon O’Neill) and his long-lost sister, Sieglinde (Edith Haller), was heart-melting, with Andrew Joyce’s ‘cello solo one to literally die for.

I did think the playing of the motif associated with Hunding (Jonathan Lemalu), Sieglinde’s husband, needed more brassy girth, a blacker-toned brutality (Hunding is a particularly nasty customer, after all!). But the bite and impact of the orchestral accompaniment to Siegmund’s account of his earlier encounters with Hunding’s own murderous kinsmen was thrilling projected, as was the trenchant support for Siegmund’s scalp-prickling cries of “Wälse”, desperate invocations of his father’s guiding spirit, underpinned by fierce string tremolandi, and radiant contributions from trumpet and winds pinpointing the presence of the sword in the tree. And there was more orchestral radiance framing Siegmund’s poetic “Winterstürme”, the excitement building within the orchestra surrounding the singers’ exchanges as they ascertain their true brother/sister identities as well as acknowledging their love for one another. The Act’s last couple of pages were a ferment of newly-awakened passion between the lovers and great orchestral excitement, by which time I was convinced this was a different Pietari Inkinen at the orchestral helm to that which I’d encountered before.

If Act One had built gradually to that point of intensity, Act Two was on fire orchestrally right from the beginning – and so it went on with scarcely a falter, right through to the end, Inkinen seeming to revel in the intensities and unleash his players’ capabilities to realize those same impulses. My notes are filled with comments such as “wonderful atmosphere – orchestra terrific!” during the exchange between Wotan (John Wegner) and Fricka (Margaret Medlyn), and “the music’s darkness strongly brought out by Inkinen” when Wotan voices his fear of the Nibelungen, and “terrific vehemence in the orchestra” during Wotan’s grief at “Das Ende”. Tremendous stuff from conductor and players, here, as well as throughout Act Three.

All of which would have gone for very little without the singers, who with one disappointing exception made the most of the wonderfully-wrought orchestral support. To get it out of the way, the disappointment came with German-born Australian John Wegner’s Wotan, the singer developing problems with his throat during the course of Act Two, and having to seriously conserve his voice right throughout the following final Act. As the latter contains some of the character’s most significant and memorable moments of the entire cycle Wegner’s ailment was a blow not only for him but for his Brünnhilde and for the audience – instead of the glorious and heartfelt resolution of father-daughter conflict which makes the third Act so very memorable, we had the admittedly absorbing spectacle of an experienced singer intelligently using what vocal resources he still had to get through an extremely demanding series of episodes. He succeeded creditably, but I thought that there ought to have been some kind of announcement made beforehand concerning his ailment, as is done in opera houses, to put the audience in the picture, as it were.

By way of compensation (one of many), we were able to enjoy American soprano Christine Goerke’s debut as Brünnhilde, an assumption that I found gave so much pleasure for a number of reasons – for a start I loved the SOUND of her voice, rich, warm and flexible, drawing me further into the character she was creating with her whole demeanour. Everything her face and body did seemed to flow from the text and its meaning, giving a natural, organic quality to her impulses towards interaction with the others (generally, the three leading women seemed more at ease than did the men in their use of the narrow stage and their interplay with other characters). But Goerke and John Wegner, despite the latter’s vocal ailments, managed to convey plenty of musical and dramatic ebb and flow between them, especially in their Act Two confrontation over the fate of Siegmund. And Goerke brought the same heartfelt qualities to her interactions with each of the Volsung twins, a gravely beautiful Todesverkündigung (announcement of death) with Siegmund, and great and vigorous compassion for the bereft and defenceless Sieglinde.

As Siegmund Simon O’Neill was truly resplendent of voice, if not quite as easeful and fluent in his gestures and movements as his Act One on-stage partner Edith Haller, who took the role of Sieglinde. The “edge” to O’Neill’s bright, heroic tones I always find takes a bit of getting used to at first – but there’s straightaway also that wonderful freshness of aspect and manner, which gives me the impresion that he’s singing all of his music for the first time and is enchanted by its discovery. By the time O’Neill had reached the point of recounting his adventures to the vengeful Hunding, the voice had relinquished its “bleat” and acquired proper warmth and girth, exemplified by those thrilling cries of “Wälse!” already referred to. His delivery of “Winterstürme” was sheer poetry in its effect, and his wholehearted give-and-take with Sieglinde in their increasingly passionate exchanges towards the end of the Act had just the right amount of animal energy and excitement, singers and orchestra catching fire and conveying the sheer exhilaration of it all to us in no uncertain terms.

As his partner and lover-to-be Sieglinde, Edith Haller looked and sang like an angel. She brought to the performance recent experiences in the role at both Bayreuth and the Vienna State Opera, and thus seemed readily able to turn her uncompromising “acting-space” into a vibrant and believable world of repressed emotion, which was then unleashed by Siegmund’s arrival. Equally telling was her desperation in flight from Hunding with Siegmund, and her fierce joy at the thought of carrying her brother/lover’s child, though she suffered, along with everybody else on the platform, through a lack of strong dramatic direction and vision regarding the actual staging of Siegmund’s death. But her Sieglinde was a joy, an unalloyed delight to encounter.

Besides Simon O’Neill, two more New Zealanders took important roles, Jonathan Lemalu as Hunding, the brutal husband of Sieglinde, and Margaret Medlyn as Fricka, Wotan’s long-suffering wife, and guardian-goddess of marriage. Jonathan Lemalu’s darkly-resonant tones made Hunding sound a truly menacing figure, his singing compensating for a rather too-static stage presence – I couldn’t understand why he and Edith Haller didn’t seem to take any notice of Wagner’s quite explicit music-cues during the sequence when Hunding orders Sieglinde to bed, for example. By contrast Margaret Medlyn as Fricka was able to demonstrate her wonderful stage-instinct throughout her scene with Wotan, conveying both the umbrage of a dishonoured goddess and the frustration of a long-suffering wife. I thought her voice seemed more effortly-produced, and not as resplendent as with her Kundry of a few years ago on the same stage – but she successfully brought the character and her underlying motivations to pulsating life.

There would be no show without the Valkyries, “those noisy girls” as comedienne Anna Russell called them during her famous tongue-in-cheek analysis of the Ring Cycle. Here they were gloriously noisy, mainly due, I think, to their forward placement on the platform, in a “stand-and-deliver” line singing directly at the audience (again, a stage director would have almost certainly effected a more interesting configuration), as opposed to their usual deployment in places around the stage. It was all extremely visceral and thrilling!

Again, the “evening dress” made initially for an incongruous effect (what today’s young Valkyrie is wearing when she rides into battle…), which was soon forgotten in the cut-and-thrust of the singers’ exchanges with one another and with the orchestra. I liked the differentiations between the individual voices, some stronger than others, some differently focused – just like any average group of people – but no-one should be singled out, because each voice played its part in giving the scene its astonishing impact.

I’ve already mentioned the “semi-staged” aspect of the performance – the singers were able to use a narrow space in front of the orchestra and conductor, with entrances and exits on each side. There were no costumes as such, and no props at all, so what was mentioned in the libretto – a sword, a spear, a drink – had to be mimed (Wotan’s plastic drink-bottle which he discreetly brought on during Act Three hardly counted – and it was certainly no drinking-horn!). It all worked sufficiently well to further the drama, even if some of the movements, particularly from both Siegmund and his enemy Hunding seemed too stilted and contrived.

The women, I thought, were at an advantage over the men in the matter of “concert attire”, because they were at least able to dress colourfully and suggest different personalities, while the men were confined to their very formalised tuxedos. This seemed to work against whatever theatricality the singers were trying to generate – Siegmund at the very start looked as if he had just come home from an all-night party somewhat the worse for wear, for example. However, as the work progressed we were able to shift our focus away from what people were wearing, and instead concentrate on what they were doing with their faces, bodies, and, of course, voices.

The other thing I thought could have been given more thought, to the work’s overall advantage as a piece of music-drama, was the lighting. Nothing needed to be distractingly over-the-top – just subtle touches letting the music give the cues, would have, I think, enhanced the feeling of a story being enacted. Who would possibly want to insist that a “concert version” of an opera has nothing that suggests the theatre? I thought the red glow which grew out of the opening strains of the Magic Fire music at the opera’s end was entirely apposite, and thought that there were other places throughout the work where changes of ambient light would have added to the sense of dramatic action initiated by the music.

These criticisms are like thistledown planted on the wind, as Denis Glover’s Harry might say, blown away by the staggering achievement of singers, players and conductor with this presentation of one of the world’s mightiest music-dramas. It joins a small, but significant and ever-promising group of Wagner productions in this country, each of which represented for its time hitherto undreamed-of heights of local performance achievement, and has since become legendary. The NZSO and Pietari Inkinen can be justly proud of what they have done to add to that list of legends.

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Harp students of Caroline Mills in recital

Carolyn Mills – Harp Students

The music and the players:
Germaine Tailleferre: Sonata for harp, movements 2 and 1 (Michelle Velvin)
Vincent Persichetti: Serenade no.10 for flute and harp, movements 2, 4, 6, 7 and 8 (Michelle Velvin and Monique Vossen, flute)
Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in C major K.159, and Carlos Salzedo: Bolero and Rumba (Madeleine Griffiths, harp)
Maurice Ravel: Five Greek Folksongs and Habanera (Anita Huang and Je-won, harp and flute)
Jongen: Danse Lente and Gareth Farr: Taheke, movement 3 (Jennifer Newth and Andreea Junc, harp and flute)

Old St. Paul’s

Tuesday, 17 July 2012, 12.15 pm

An attractive concert was detracted from by the lack of a printed programme; the introduction by Carolyn Mills was eminently audible; not all her university student pupils emulated her in this respect, despite the use of a microphone.

The opening work was quiet and impressionistic, consisting of melody and accompaniment.  There were some brilliant effects in these two movements, and a range of dynamics; it was skilfully played.

The Serenade, by an American composer I had not heard of, encompassed a variety of moods and techniques.  The slow second movement played (4th movement)  was particularly attractive, the instruments blending beautifully, yet maintaining their distinctive timbres.  Perhaps because the French have written for the harp more than have composers of other nationalities, the work seemed to me to have a French quality about it.

The third movement played (6th movement) featured complicated cross-rhythms between the two instruments, and harmonic clashes, while the fourth (7th movement) had figures like birds in conversation, reminding me of Messiaen, with whom Persichetti was contemporary.

The final movement was of quite a different character; slashing glissandi on the harp against melodies on the flute made it often seem that the players were quite at variance with each other.  The players were, however, totally in command of their performances, which were of a very high standard.

Madeleine Griffiths played her pieces from memory – a considerable accomplishment on the harp.  The Scarlatti sonata is well-known in its original keyboard form, and I did not find it as effective on the harp, but it was very competently played, and there were more contrasts in dynamics than would be popssible on a harpsichord.  Here, it had a delicious sound.

The Bolero’s lovely lilting quality conjured up charming evocations of Spain.  Its confident, assured player then had us immediately into a fast, energetic dance, in the Rumba.  A variety of techniques were employed.

The next harp and flute duo gave us the fourth and fifth of Ravel’s Five Greek Folksongs, then our second Cuban dance, the Habanera.  The first song was very slow and plaintive, but beautifully played, especially the flute part.  The second song had a brighter mood, yet a piquant quality, and there was more here for the harp to do.  Grove tells me that the title of this song was ‘Tout gai’, and so it was.  (Apparently some of this set of songs have been lost; including one appropriately titled ‘Mon mouchoir, hélas, est perdu’.)

The Habanera is well-known.  These instruments seemed to me a little too refined for this relatively boisterous dance.  Nevertheless, it was very competently played and the players produced pleasing tone; the flutist (or flautist if you prefer) had rather noisy breathing, but great control of dynamics and technique.

Jennifer Newth is, I think, a little older and more experienced than the other harpists.  It was most enjoyable to watch her flowing and graceful technique.  Her playing and that of her flute partner featured exquisite soft sounds; these were very musicianly performances.

The Farr work was lively and quirky, but very idiomatic for these instruments.  It included some unusual writing for the harp solo passage.  Some of it made me think of the American folk-song where each verse ends ‘The cat said fiddle-i-fee’.  The piece was a fun way to end an interesting and enjoyable concert.  I found, thanks to Google, that this last part refers to the Whangarei Falls (Taheke is Maori for waterfall), while the first describes Huka Falls, and the middle section a waterfall on the Farr family land in the Marlborough Sounds.

It was a pleasure to hear such wonderful playing and superb sounds from such young performers.



The Full Monte – music of love’s distraction, from Baroque Voices


Claudio Monteverdi – Madrigals : Books 3 (complete) and 7 (excerpts)

Baroque Voices, directed by Pepe Becker

Pepe Becker, Jayne Tankersley (sopranos) / Andrea Cochrane (alto)

Oliver Sewell, Geoffrey Chang (tenors) / David Morriss (bass)

Continuo: Robert Oliver (bass viol) / Stephen Pickett (theorbo and chitarrino)

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Wellington

Monday, 16th July, 2012

The third instalment of Wellington vocal group Baroque Voices’ stupendous traversal of “The Full Monte”, or the complete Madrigals of Claudio Monteverdi, drew forth a vein of riches and delights similar in broad-brush stroke terms to the first two concerts. Artistic director Pepe Becker’s idea of combining books of madrigals from different ends of the spectrum of the composer’s output has made for startling contrasts in performance style and emphasis within single concerts.

One would have thought that, as the gap between the two divergent creative periods lessened, there would be more commonality in evidence – but to my ears, the gulf between the composer’s “Prima Practica” (traditional practice) and “Seconda Practica” (innovative practice) seemed throughout this concert as marked as throughout the first two concerts of the series. Of course, the instrumental accompaniments used by the later books (beginning with the Fifth Book of 1605) markedly change the entire sound-picture of the works, but the vocal writing is different as well – more spontaneous, dramatic and volatile than with many of the earlier works.

I confess to not knowing the music of Monteverdi’s contemporaries sufficiently well to comment on the individuality of his earlier works – still, these concerts do allow the unschooled listener to register differences between music written by the same composer at different stages of his life. And one can glean by association how the music of Monteverdi’s more conservative fellow-composers might have sounded.

I must say that, had Baroque Voices decided to proceed through the madrigals chronologically, I would have been just as enchanted, if less informed, by what I encountered. In context, even in the earlier Monteverdi pieces the music has what seems to my ears an enormous variety of expression. The present concert began with two madrigals from Book Three, works whose sounds represented for me a wonderful marriage of energy and delicacy, the contrasts of pure light and oscillating energies in the writing producing a totally enchanting effect throughout.

The second madrigal, “O come è gran martire” had its stratospheric opening marred by a banging door, but the singers continued undeterred, the music expanding like the light of dawn as the men’s voices joined the women’s at “O soave mio adore”. Pepe Becker’s and Jayne Tankersley’s soprano voices were able to spin their lines in thirds over vistas of great enchantment, to breathtaking effect.

True, the instrumental opening of the first of the Book Seven madrigals which followed immediately threw a startlingly-focused interval of a second at us, its instantaneous resolution heightening the passionate marriage of beauty with tension in a way that the earlier madrigals don’t often explore. This madrigal Romanesca for two soprano voices allowed us to savor the differences between two exceptional singers – Pepe Becker’s voice here sounding to my ears richer and mellower, and Jayne Tankersley’s sharper, more pungent and flavoursome.

Together the voices set one another off beautifully – both singers used the music’s figurations compellingly, their bodies expressing by movement and expression the agitations/excitements/ecstasies suggested by the heartfelt (anonymous) text. I especially liked the way the singers would push their voices past the “beautiful singing” threshold and into a world of expression that occasionally touched raw nerves but in doing so reached those intensities required by both poet and composer in each madrigal.

Monteverdi’s theatrical sense was never far away from these settings, the singers here relishing such interactions, as in Book 7’s Al lume dell stelle (mistakenly listed as from Book 3 in the program), where the men (tenor and bass) begin their invocation to the stars, the lines resembling tendrils of light floating upwards and falling back in a kind of spent ecstasy. Tenor Oliver Sewell and bass David Morriss together brought a fine, surging passion to “O celesti facelle…”, while in reply the two sopranos made something equally tremulous out of “Luci care e serene…” And there were stunning harmonic juxtapositionings with seconds grinding and being resolved to thirds, squeezing every drop of angst and sweet release from the situation.

In the beautiful Se per estremo, the alto voice of Andrea Cochrane led off, firm, sonorous and lovely – with the two tenors the middle voices were able to conjure up wondrous harmonic colorations throughout, the tenors, Oliver Sewell and Jeffrey Chang, essaying some finely-nuanced work in thirds, and judiciously pouring their tones into those ambient harmonies to beguiling effect. What a contrast with the vigorous and impassioned utterances of the following Tornate, the two tenors accompanied by Robert Oliver’s ever-reliable bass viol and Stephen Pickett’s perky chitarrino (renaissance guitar), and with the long-breathed sighings of “Voi de quel dolce” interrupted by hot-blooded exhortations – marvellous!

The evening was further enhanced by the spoken contribution of David Groves, responsible for the English translations of these madrigals, who made an appearance in each half of the concert. He explained briefly the context of the poetry (by Tasso) concerning the enchantress Armida, and her would-be-lover Rinaldo, who has abandoned her. One didn’t really have to understand Italian to catch the reader’s impassioned range of expression, and glean the depth and breadth of emotion in the poetry. So, each of a group of three madrigals had their texts read, and then sung by the Voices. The results were astonishing, especially in the first two of the three pieces. The singers vividly evoked the enchantress’s fury and despair at her abandonment – some of the lines stung and burnt with astonishing candor – and the dying fall of the music at “Hor qui manco lo spirto a la dolente” was almost Wagnerian in its impact.

In the third of these, Poi ch’ella (When she came to herself), both soprano voices sounded, I thought, a bit strained (not surprisingly, considering what and how they had sung throughout the first half of the concert) – this was music of resignation, though again impassioned at the end as Armida bemoans her abandonment. The alto and tenors kept the middle lines alive, and the sopranos overcame their vocal discomfiture to manage the final cadence convincingly.

As with the other concerts in the series there were in the programme so many delights to be had that it would take as long as the concert took to both mention and read about all of them! My notes contain exclamations written at the time such as “excellent teamwork between the two sopranos….making something amazingly expressive out of the final line” for the Book 7 O come sei gentile (How gracious you are), and in the following Book 3 Chi’o non t’ami (That I might not love you), “Hymn-like, beautifully modulated…..alto and tenor 2 beautifully amalgamate their tones at “Come poss’io lasciarti e non morire”…..”.

David Groves returned to read us the poems (again by Tasso) describing the anguish of Tancredi, who has killed his disguised lover, Clorinda, in armed combat, and looks for her body in the darkness. (Monteverdi also set an account of the battle between the two, in the “Combattimento” , found in Book 8 of the madrigals.) My overriding on-the-spot comment regarding the performance of the trio of settings was that “the intensity simply keeps coming in waves from all of the singers”. Despite Pepe Becker obviously having some kind of cough, she was still able to deliver those astonishing stratospheric notes needed for “Ma dove o lasso?”, a sombre processional of growing grief, culminating in the cries of “Ahi, sfortunato!…” Certainly no-one would have felt emotionally short-changed in any way in the face of such knife-edged feeling throughout these performances.

One of my favorites from the many splendid things we heard throughout the concert’s second half was the Book 7 Ecco vicine, sung by the soprano 2, Jayne Tankersley and alto Andrea Cochrane. The playing of the continuo, especially Robert Oliver’s bass viol, beautifully underpinned this Book 7 madrigal’s somewhat hyper-expressive outpourings. The words, so important for the composer throughout his entire oeuvre, exotically describe the “beloved” as a “fair Tigress”, and entertain the conceit that wherever the beloved goes, through all kinds of different geographies and under foreign skies, the lover will follow her, with a “lover’s heart”.

Monteverdi boldly renders these words and ideas in his music, great urgency at “Fuggimi pur con sempiterno orrore”, and lovely, spare, al fresco writing about the valleys, rocks, and mountains where the beloved’s footprints are found – lots of air and space in the textures.Then comes music of great and certain devotion: “Ch’andrei la dove spire e dove passi…..bacciando l’aria e adorando i passi……” Wonderful performances by all of such characterful music!

Very great credit to Baroque Voices and their intrepid instrumentalists! We were an extremely appreciative audience on this occasion, but not a large one – whatever it takes to get more people interested in the splendors of this music and its performance here in Wellington, needs to be done before the next of these concerts (the date for “The Full Monte 4” is yet to be finalized). The music is searingly beautiful, the accompanying emotions and responses are eminently accessible, and the performances are often spellbinding. What more could one ask for?