A fine recital of Fauré mélodies at St Andrew’s

Songs by Fauré sung by The VoxBox:  Megan Corby (soprano) and Craig Beardsworth (baritone)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 29 August, 12.15pm

I last heard these two accomplished singers at a lunchtime concert at St Mark’s church, Lower Hutt, a few months ago, when  they sang an amusing variety of American songs. For Wellington City they chose a slightly more rigorous programme, though only in the sense that all the songs were by one composer, and a classical composer whom many would not rank among the top ten.

But this little recital went some way to establish Fauré as a composer who can easily sustain interest in a programme dedicated solely to him.

The two took turns. Megan Corby sang the first two songs: Au bord de l’eau, a charming barcarolle, which served to get piano and voice in balance with each other; dynamics were a little uneven, but her French was carefully delivered; then Ici bas, in which her attractive voice found a comfortable level; it’s a lament on the shortcomings of life on earth compared with another life elsewhere. Both were songs to poems by Sully-Prudhomme. (He was associated with the group known as Parnassiens, who advanced the notion of l’art pour l’art – ‘art for art’s sake’).

Craig Beardsworth sang a third song to a Sully-Prudhomme poem, Les berceaux. It was good to hear his voice in such good shape, in a song that called for subtlety where his velvety baritone seemed sleepily suited; the idea is unusual, with a rocking motion that relates both to a cradle, and to a boat whose shape also suggests a cradle: the words reflect on the roles of men and women,

Megan returned for Aurore by an obscure poet, Armand Silvestre, and her voice flowed comfortably over its long lines. (Silvestre, incidentally, was more noted as a playwright; he wrote the play HenryVIII that Saint-Saëns set as an opera). She followed with the languorous Les roses d’Ispahan by Leconte de Lisle, the leader of the Parnassiens, capturing a fitting sensuous quality.

Craig offered a few comments before some of his songs. He explained the origin of Nell (also Leconte de Lisle), as derived from a poem by Burns and his singing was enriched by its varied timbres. Craig’s remarks before several of the songs were apt and well-informed: I am not one who has an objection to performers speaking.

Megan next sang one of Fauré’s best-known songs, Après un rêve. Her delivery was a little more declamatory than its lines seemed to suggest to me: rather whispered.

Craig, without the score in front of him, sang a trilogy of songs, Poème du jour (by another obscure poet, Charles Grandmougin). Though minor poems, Fauré has created a set of expressive songs telling a predictable little love story, in which Craig’s voice rose comfortably, occasionally, into the tenor register.

Megan’s final songs were Chanson d’amour, Clair de lune and Mandoline – the last two to poems by Verlaine. Chanson d’amour was slight enough, repeating unvaried the words ‘Je t’aime’ at the start of each stanza, but she created an air of superficial contentment. Both Clair de lune and Mandoline are settings of good poems in some of Fauré’s loveliest music, and Megan explored their individual character most affectingly, leaving a convincing impression of a singer with the secrets of the French mélodie in her soul.

Craig’s last songs were Le secret (about which he told an anecdote: Fauré who was never a confident composer, had played it to Duparc who exclaimed: ‘Bête sauvage’ which reassured Fauré that he’d been successful); and En sourdine, also by Verlaine. Over an accompaniment of broken arpeggios, it refers to a muted stringed instrument, though it’s a song of wide-ranging character that would hardly call for a mute if played on a violin, and was a fine way to confirm Beardsworth’s accomplishments as a sensitive singer of French mélodies.

The whole programme was very well conceived and, given the outdoor attractions of nice weather, well received by a quite large audience.



Brahms the Second? – perhaps Herzogenberg the First?

St Mark’s Lower Hutt Concert Series


Jane Young (‘cello) / Hugh McMillan (piano)

BEETHOVEN- ‘Cello Sonata No.4 in C Op.102 No.1

HERZOGENBERG – ‘Cello Sonata No.3 in E-flat Op.94

St.Mark’s Church, Woburn, Lower Hutt

Wednesday, 29th August 20

What a lovely concert! – a wonderful idea by Jane Young and Hugh McMillan to present something of a “standard classic” in tandem with something else rather less known, to the advantage of both!

In a sense, each of the pieces represented an adventure, albeit of a different kind. Beethoven’s Op.102 ‘Cello Sonatas completed the process already begun by the composer with his Op.69 Sonata, of inventing something new – an “equal partnership” between ‘cello and piano for such an instrumental combination.

By comparison, Herzonberg’s work seemed to bravely and steadfastly explore paths already trodden by giants such as Brahms, managing, in places, to convey his own late-Romantic slant to the familiar terrain, with attractive and absorbing results.

The Beethoven Sonata opened beautifully and tremulously, as if the composer was depicting the unfurling of a flower in the sunlight – the phrasing between both players properly resonated, their full accord expressed through a sense of hand-in-glove phrasing and beautifully-modulated tones. Beethoven seemed here to be anticipating Schumann’s poetical musings, his themes at once spontaneously expressive and contained, hinting at darker feelings.

The Allegro vivace alternated freely between playfulness and purpose, only the ‘cello’s highest notes giving any suggestion of strain for the player. It all made a telling contrast with the Adagio’s relative darkness and gradual lightening of mood.

Both players timed their respective “not ready yet” figurations at the finale’s beginning to perfection, the ‘cello’s wonderful drone-notes creating whole worlds of mystery, which the piano then gently mocked with “Well,are you coming along?” phrases.

I thought Jane Young’s and Hugh McMillan’s playing gave the episode a wonderful “boys’ and girls’ own” freshness of utterance and movement. But their playing of the whole sonata was as good, at practically every point presenting their listeners with opportunities in the music for engagement and participation. I felt the musicians made practically every note of the work eloquent and distinctive.

Hugh McMillan talked briefly about our “mystery” composer, Heinrich von Herzogenberg, one whose name I knew in connection with Brahms, via correspondence between the latter and Elisabet von Herzogenberg. Brahms was on good terms with both husband and wife, though he may have harboured a secret passion for Elisabet, whom he wrote to frequently. Towards the end of his life he paid a kind of belated homage to Herzogenberg’s music, acknowledging its quality.

Herzogenberg’s ‘Cello Sonata No.3 does show the influence of his great contemporary in places, especially in the piano writing throughout the opening movement, while in other places I detected vestiges of the Mendelssohn of the Octet. The last few pages of the movement achieved a swing and flow amid a grandeur of utterance that seemed the composer’s own, as did much of the slow movement, though again the piano writing had a big-boned Brahmsian feel to it. The players readily enjoyed the contrast between the lyrical opening and the running middle section of the music, with gaily tripping piano and cello pizzicati.

The work has a kind of ‘grand finale’, a theme and variations movement which, in some circumstances might be thought a trifle long, though Jane Young and Hugh McMillan kept our interest simmering with both their interchanges and occasional “solo” sequences. An occasional moment of strain regarding the cello’s intonation mattered far less than the player’s feeling for phrases and their integration into the flow of things, which satisfied greatly. My feeling at the work’s conclusion was less of a “Brahms the Second” response to the music , and more along the lines of “Herzogenberg the First” – thanks in part to these two musicians’ whole-hearted advocacy.

Young Leonari Trio produces elegiac joie de vivre at Lower hutt

The Leonari Trio (Hilary Hayes – violin, Edward King – cello, Maria Mo – piano)

Beethoven: Piano Trio in D, Op 70 no 1 (‘Ghost’); Rachmaninov: Trio élégiaque No 1 in G minor; Arensky: Piano Trio No 1  in D minor, Op 32

Lower Hutt Little Theatre

Tuesday 28 August, 7.30pm

This young trio which came together at the University of Waikato in 2009 has had a charmed life, after winning the Pettman Royal Overseas League scholarship and touring Britain with singular success, visiting some fairly notable concert venues. Individually, they have gained some prestigious awards: both string players were in the NZSO National Youth Orchestra while pianist Maria Mo has played concertos with the Opus Chamber Orchestra and the Waikato Symphony Orchestra.

This concert fell in the middle of a nationwide tour for Chamber Music New Zealand; a second, very attractive programme called Viennese Tales, has been played in other centres, sadly not in the Greater Wellington region (you could catch it in Cromwell on 2 September).

Though it was unfortunate that I arrived a little late, the boisterous sounds of their playing met me as I opened the outside doors of the theatre and I could well have stayed there with no loss of clarity or excitement from their playing.

I could at once understand how their gusto and an almost reckless abandon that exposed an occasional fluff, would have won audiences over in their UK tour, and since.  Perfect accuracy becomes irrelevant when music is attacked with such open enthusiasm and delight in a rapport that was so attractive and immediately obvious.

Fortunately my colleague Rosemary Collier was there too and she left me with a few remarks about the first two movements of the Beethoven, generally admiring their individual accomplishment, that combined so strikingly in ensemble. Their slow movement was most expressive, and technically interesting, another friend remarked about the impression that certain of Hilary Hayes’ violin sounds had, resonating with those in the piano, evidencing excellent intonation.

The choice of pieces brought to mind the music that was played by the wonderful Turnovsky Trio more than a decade ago. Both Rachmaninov’s first Trio élégiaque and the Arensky Trio were in their repertoire, as I recall.  It’s worth noting the fact that Rachmaninov also wrote a second Trio élégiaque, this one in D minor, and given Opus No 9: a full-scale, three movement work modelled on Tchaikovsky’s and written in his memory; he had died shortly before, in 1893.

These players tackled the music with an approach that was similar in spirit, virtuosity and youthful joie de vivre to the Turnovsky Trio.  The Leonari Trio began the Rachmaninov with a hushed, magical, cross-string motif that becomes the accompaniment to the piano’s first romantic theme; the playing was full of drama and refinement, even though it rose to quite an extrovert and energetic character before long.

The provenance of the violin and cello which I heard about at the interval, helped explain the special beauty of tone they produced, with timbres that were so closely related that they almost sounded as if emanating from one instrument. The violin was formerly that of the late NZSO violinist Stephen Managh, and the cello was a loan from Allan Chisholm who is retiring as assistant principal cello of the NZSO later this year.

Never needing to play loudly to compete with the piano, their sound projected vividly in the theatre, which is often claimed to present a dry, difficult acoustic. Perhaps, but it just demands players capable of listening to the effect they are having, and adapting to the situation. Cellist Edward King created warm and opulent passages in its later phases.

For its part, the piano, also criticised by some (and now sought to be replaced by a shiny new Steinway), usually surprises me by its range of colour and sonority. Maria Mo seemed to have its measure, as well as the measure of the theatre, also found difficult by some. Though her playing was full-blooded, she had the lid on the short stick and her sound was vigorously lyrical rather than simply loud.

Certainly, together they made a good deal of noise but it was musical noise, and it didn’t prevent their playing of the subsiding, élégique coda with a serene peacefulness.

The Arensky trio also found the players in full sympathy with the music, starting in a lovely lyrical mood, phrased beautifully, assertive in later staccato piano episodes over tremolo violin, though becoming a little blurred in fast piano passages. They particularly relished the blousy piano tune in the Scherzo, and the piano produced delightful bell-like treble notes at the top of little flourishes in the Trio.

Flawless tone in the slow Elegia movement, all three players in remarkable accord, which was still more striking in the finale, particularly in the soft passages nearing the end.

Audiences, including several young people, have been looking better this year than in the past few years, and their warm applause won them an encore, of the third of John Psathas’s Three Island Songs, also played brilliantly.


Enterprising flute repertoire – Ingrid Culliford, with Kris Zuelicke

Old St.Paul’s Lunchtime Concert Series

Ingrid Culliford (flute) / Kris Zuelicke (piano)

J.S.BACH – Sonata for Flute and Keyboard BWV 1020

MIRIAM HYDE – 3 Solos for Flute and Piano

ERNST BLOCH – Suite Modale

ROBERT MUCZYNSKI – Sonata for Flute and Piano Op.14

Old St.Paul’s Church, Thorndon

Tuesday August 28th, 2012

It was a pleasure to encounter Ingrid Culliford’s flute-playing in repertoire different to that which I’ve heard her perform in the past, nearly always with the Auckland contemporary music ensemble 175 East. And double the pleasure was had from hearing the instrument played with such a variety of tones and timbres, the four very different pieces on the program requiring and getting properly individualized responses from both musicians.

Old Johann Sebastian’s lovely G Minor Flute Sonata (licence-plate number BWV 1020), has apparently been appropriated by certain scholars on behalf of the great man’s son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel, appearing in its Doppelgänger guise as H.542.5 – does the decimal point indicate a somewhat equivocal scholarly stance? Whoever was responsible, the work itself was a delight as presented here, the performers giving us a winning mixture of momentum and suspended beauty. This was characterized in part by the instrumental combination – the piano tripping gaily along, and the flute a more liberated spirit, choosing occasionally to mirror the piano’s busy figurations, but in other places soar untrammelled above them.

Throughout the sonata, I couldn’t help admiring Ingrid Culliford’s refusal to be victimized by the composer’s almost total disregard for his soloist’s lungs. This wasn’t such an issue in the slow movement, both players having sufficient “lebensraum” to negotiate both long-breathed lyrical lines and other-worldly, ambient accompanying modulations. There was also a hint here and there of the “echo” element between the instruments, most beautifully realized. Perhaps the finale, more than the other movements, leaned towards the rather more volatile spirit of the son as opposed to the father – occasional spurts of energy either (depending upon one’s point of view) invigorated or destabilized the music’s flow, with the performance certainly bringing out the essential character of those impulses.

Next was a work by Australian composer Miriam Hyde (1913-2005), someone whose work sounds as if it’s worth getting to know more of – Hyde was primarily a pianist, and one who had something of a performing career upon that instrument, both in Australia and overseas. She composed in all genres, except for opera, her style finding certain affinities with that of English composers of the time, subject to the same kinds of influences and inclinations. She had little in common with avant-garde trends, writing about her music at one point, “I feel my music can be a refuge for what beauty and peace can still be omnipresent…the triumph of good over evil. I make no apologies for writing from the heart”.

We heard three pieces from her work 5 Solos for Flute and Piano, a collection which the composer put together from pieces composed over a number of years, from 1949 to 1968. The earliest, Marsh Birds, was included here, as were The Little Juggler (1956) and Wedding Morn (1957). First was Wedding Morn, the opening piano chords beautifully played by Kris Zuelicke, the stuff of dreams, the flute introducing a rather more earthy aspect, as if rousing the spirit from the dreams and insisting upon some engagement. The piano evoked church bells, their figurations becoming somewhat Lisztian in places, to which the flute responded with lyrical wonderment.

Playful and gigue-like, The Little Juggler readily evoked the mesmeric nature of the activity, as well as plenty of tumbling warmth and an abrupt (perhaps unscheduled!) ending. Finally, the warmly-nostalgic Marsh Birds seemed to take one’s sensibilities back to simpler times at the outset, the middle section suggesting the extent of distances travelled in both time and space, and the birds’ dialogues striking a piquant, “song for the ages” note, the music ending wistfully. Enchanting.

To different worlds, next, with Ernest Bloch’s Suite Modale – with this, as with the Miriam Hyde work, Ingrid Culliford told us a little about the composer and the music’s circumstances. If one was expecting intensities of the order of the same composer’s Schelomo for ‘Cello and Orchestra, one would perhaps be disappointed; but what one got instead was an attractively ritualistic set of meditations, the composer refracting a lifetime’s experiences (Bloch wrote this in 1956, three years before his death) in this gently-conceived journey filled with bygone impressions. Bloch touchingly dedicated this work to the flautist Elaine Schaffer, whose playing he knew and admired from recordings, though he never actually met her.

Each of the four movements reflect a specific mood, which I thought the performers drew we listeners into. First, there was a kind of meditation expressed in polyphonic terms between flute and piano, rhapsodic in feeling, but elegant in style. Then, the players dug into the second movement, bringing out contrapuntal textures, and heightening a sense of ritual and order. The Allegro giocoso evoked youthful energies, both immediate and more nostalgically-conceived, while the finale contrasted a melancholic opening sequence with an exhilarating contrapuntal whirl of activity, one which wound down through attractively melodic piano-and-flute interactions to a strongly-poised, inwardly peaceful ending.

There remained the Flute Sonata of a composer unknown to me, Robert Muczynski, born in Chicago in 1929, who trained as a pianist, and whose works mostly involve chamber ensembles and piano. This four-movement Sonata, neoclassical in spirit, had bags of personality, which the performers obviously relished throughout – a lively, even volatile opening movement with plenty of rhythmic syncopation and dynamic contrast, followed by a Scherzo whose L’Apprenti Sorcier-like galumphings alternated with gentler, more pastoral gaieties. The musicians then gave us, by way of contrast, some rapt, almost mesmeric textures of enchantment at the Andante’s beginning, which the piano then darkened with suggestions of the abyss beneath, indicating that not all is sweetness and light in this world of ours. These were sobering thoughts which the gaiety of the finale’s Allegro con moto thankfully put aside. True, some of the music’s edges were angular and elbow-sharp, but the ride was nevertheless an exhilarating one. Both musicians brought to these things loads of spirit and sensibility, expressed by turns with unerring judgement and fine feeling. A lovely concert.






NZSM Orchestra cover themsleves with glory in Debussy and Mahler

Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune;  Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra (andante-allegro; lento e molto  espressivo; allegro molto)
Mahler:   Symphony no. 1 in D major (Introduction and allegro comodo; scherzo; à la pompes funèbres; molto appassionato)

New Zealand School of Music Orchestra, Kenneth Young (conductor); Jian Liu  (piano)

Wellington Town Hall

Wednesday, 22 August 2012 at 7.30pm,

It was a pity that a larger audience was not present to hear this brilliant and satisfying concert.  Aside from quite a number of guest players, especially for the Mahler symphony, the orchestra was made up of students (plus a few staff) of the New Zealand School of Music.  The use of the Town Hall was sponsored by the Wellington City Council, i.e. it was free – a splendid gesture, to encourage music-making by young people.

The first impression was of the beautifully designed flier and programme, reproducing art from the Viennese Secession, notably Gustav Klimt (though not acknowledged); art from the time and place of Mahler.  However, I’m not so keen on the fashion for printing white on black – it’s harder to read, especially in the subdued lighting of a concert hall.  Programme notes by Kenneth Young were excellent, describing music in a way that gives the audience a little background, and then points to listen for, rather than exhibiting erudition.

It being Debussy’s 150th birthday, the choice of the first two works was apt – and they were broadcast on Radio New Zealand Concert (though for some reason not the equally apt Mahler) for its special day for Debussy, the theme of which was ‘La Belle Epoch’.  They must have been exciting times, the late 19th century and early 20th century – the art, literature and music were all forging new pathways.

The evocative opening of the first work by a single flute was magical.  The NZSM orchestra is well supplied with players of this instrument and also of the next to enter – the harps.  How many orchestras can boast four harpists?  Horns were next to introduce this delectable work, which I have not heard live for a very long time.  The wonderful, dreamy textures were played with great attention to dynamics.  The whole three works would have been challenging and worthwhile for students to play, since there are so many solo passages.  The pizzicato ending finished off a wonderful performance.  The first flute, Andreea Junc, received a special acknowledgement.

The second Debussy work was not a familiar one, but replete with the distinctive sounds of the composer’s unique writing.  Liquid sounds emanated from the piano; rich ones from the orchestra.  Here, there was full brass, whereas Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune used only horns.  Despite the strength of this section, balance was good throughout the work; the brass came into its own with vigour at the end of the first movement, especially the trumpets.

The calm and dreamy second movement owed some of its character to the use of mutes on the strings.  Tutti passages were quite romantic, and a prominent oboe part gave piquancy.  Jian Liu’s style on the piano was exactly right.  The allegro third movement introduced rumbustiousness in places., though in the main the music was lilting and dance-like,  Contrasts were ethereal, even ecstatic.  The piano for most of  the time was part of the texture of the music, not having concerto-style solo passages or distinctive themes.  But it was always played with beautiful tone – never louder than lovely.  The work ended with a rousing flourish.

A big orchestra assembled for the Mahler, and the leadership changed from Kate Oswin to Arna Morton. Mahler rarely uses the whole orchestra in tutti, but varies the textures superbly.  The symphony’s spine-tingling opening dawn with its sustained eight-octave note from all the instruments, followed by the birds awakening and the sun rising through the light mist, against off-stage trumpet calls was very effective.  The main melody that emerges from the Introduction is a typical Mahler melody, from his Songs of a Wayfarer cycle, blissful in mood.  This jubilant theme involves the entire orchestra.  All the delightful little solo interjections were in place; the lower strings were nuanced beautifully in their miniature phrases, below the sustained notes from a few second violins.  Bird calls abounded, and then horn-calls seemed to announce a hunt, while the cellos played another folksong; with a crash, we’re into the lively ending section of the movement, with its frenetic jollity.

The Scherzo appears to be a high spirited dance, but perhaps it has a macabre sub-text, despite some beautiful melodies in its middle section, which featured fine playing, especially from the woodwind section, notably cor anglais.   There was excellent playing from percussion, too – and tuba.

The funeral march based on a slow and minor key setting of the well-known French song ‘Frère Jacques’ begins as a double bass solo (for which the section leader, Louis van der Mespel received his own acknowledgement at the end), bizarre and gloomy, unlike anything else in ‘serious’ music.  On my record cover (yes, LP) David Hall says “the juxtaposition (as in the early T.S. Eliot poems) of the magically ideal with the crassly vulgar”.

After the double bass, the bassoon joins in, then the cellos, then tuba, creating a spooky gradual build-up, with gong and timpani (two sets) under-girding the whole  most effectively.   Oboes play their other-worldly theme against pizzicato strings; a gorgeous tapestry is created, accompanied by muted first violins, assisted by flutes.

The grotesque march dies away gently, which makes the noisy opening of the last movement all the more shocking.  Two sets of trumpets can make a lot of noise.  Outsize bangers for the bass drum and considerable use of the  gong all add to the shattering effect.  But there is wonderful melody, too, that flows out from the first violins against repeated pizzicato on cellos; trombones provided brilliant back-up. The moving effect is of reconciliation, exaltation, redemption.  There are hints of ‘Frère Jacques’ in the cello part, before a big climax from the brass.

Themes from the first movement return.  Lovely phrasing of a superbly played yearning, romantic melody featured dynamics to match.  There was real bite in the violas interruption of this soporific melody.  The exciting outburst at the end, in which the seven horns stood to play, was magnificent.  This orchestra and its conductor covered themselves with glory, and did Mahler’s great first symphony proud. Colour, rhythm, irony, beauty – they were all there, enhanced by Mahler’s singular orchestration. The use of the Town Hall added immeasurably to the quality of the performance.


Enchanting double bass recital with a little cello too, at Lower Hutt

J S Bach’s Sonata for Viola da gamba No 2 in D, BWV 1028;
Cello Concerto No 4, third movement (Goltermann);
Fauré: Elegie;
Bottesini: Fantasia on themes from La sonnambula

Alexander Gunchenko (double bass) and Kirsten Simpson (piano), and Daniel Gunchenko (cello)

St Mark’s Church, Lower Hutt

Wednesday 22 August, 12.15pm

The double bass is among the orchestral instruments that has struggled to find a respected place in the solo sphere; a bit like the bassoon, its role is sometimes regarded as that of musical comedian.

Yet it’s had at least one famous practitioner, both a virtuoso and a composer (also a conductor who premiered Verdi’s Aida in Cairo), Giovanni Bottesini.

Alexander Gunchenko is one of the contingent of musicians from Ukraine and Russia who were recruited by the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra in the 1990s, and helped raise its standard so dramatically.

Gunchenko, who had only recently left the Tchaikovsky Conservatorium (presumably the one in Kiev) and had a short spell with the Ukraine National Chamber Orchestra, came to New Zealand in 1999. There he continued his studies at Canterbury University; and in 2007 joined the NZSO.

I gather he has been appearing for the Hutt Valley lunchtime concerts annually over the last few years, but this was my first hearing.

Music for the cello and its earlier predecessors can readily be transcribed for the double bass, and the recital began with a sonata for viola da gamba by J S Bach (No 2 in D, BWV1028). Though the bass (which is in fact a descendant of the viola da gamba family, and not a member of the violin family) is not as strongly projecting as the cello which replaced the viola da gamba during the late 17th and early 18th century, it had its own quieter and more mellow sound which has come to be appreciated again in recent times.

That made playing by the bass particularly attractive, for its quietness, once the ears were accustomed to it, gave the music a beauty and refinement that is actually Bach would have had in mind in writing these sonatas. (Accompaniment by a harpsichord would of course have been more appropriate, though Kirsten Simpson’s partnership was always sensitive to the bass’s sound).

The opening Adagio movement was a lovely, if momentarily nervous in intonation, way to engage the mind and accustom the ear. True, the piano did tend to weigh a bit heavily on the bass in the second, Allegro, movement, but the playing was so fluent and genial, enveloping us in its long, nicely expressed phrases, that any dynamic imbalance didn’t matter.

And the next slow movement, now in a slow triple time, was a further demonstration of the bass’s lyrical character, no matter that it was mostly in the low baritone range. Where the notes do go higher, however, it was even more beautifully mellow than a cello could ever be (and I learned and love the cello).

The next item was something a bit special: The young Gunchenko, the 11-year-old Daniel, a cellist who has just completed Grade 5 with, I imagine, rather high marks; his appearance was unadvertised, but a very engaging idea. I too encountered Georg Goltermann’s fourth cello concerto (his dates 1824 – 1898, almost exact contemporary with Bruckner) when I was a student but, somewhat older, I certainly wasn’t getting around the music as fluently as young Daniel did. There are probably good reasons why the name isn’t on everyone’s lips, but this taste of one of his concertos would have made the audience wonder about that. The third movement – the last I imagine – was a tarantella, fast and very rhythmic; the two musicians maintained its pace and togetherness admirably.

Alexander returned to play another cello classic, Fauré’s Élégie. Here, one could easily have been seduced into never wanting to hear it on the cello again, so discreet and, well, elegiac was this performance. The oneness of the two was clearly evident when the piano took over the melody and the bass simply kept it company in warm,  supportive accompanying figures.

The party piece was Bottesini’s Fantasia on themes from La sonnambula, a typical 19th century show-piece that gave audiences the comfort of well-known tunes clothed in unbelievably virtuosic playing. If it looks hard for a violinist to race about the fingerboard in such music, the same behaviour on a much longer fingerboard, with greater difficulty in hitting the exact note, including a lot of high harmonics, was a somewhat breathtaking exhibition.



Douglas Mews and Broadwood give Haydn his dues

Haydn: Sonata in C, Hob.XVI:50 (allegro, adagio, allegro molto)

Andante with variations, in F minor, Hob.XVII:6

Sonata in E flat, Hob.XVI:52 (allegro, adagio, presto)

Douglas Mews, 1843 square Broadwood piano

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 22 August 2012, 12.15pm

It was intriguing to hear such a different piano; this instrument sounded like a cross between a harpsichord and a modern piano.  The three works performed were composed during the early 1790s, when Haydn made two lengthy visits to London.  The programme note described the pianos Haydn would have encountered in London as ‘fundamentally different [in] character to the Viennese pianos he was familiar with.’  It has a rather uneven timbre from bass to the top of its shorter keyboard, but this may be, at least in part, due to its age.  It has quite a range of dynamics compared with that of the harpsichord, but it is not comparable with the range available on the grand piano or upright piano (which had not been developed at the time this piano was made).

Douglas Mews’s programme note states that ‘The English sound was typified by a romantic ‘haze’, which undoubtedly had an effect on Haydn’s writing style’.

The sonata in C was a charming work; the variety of the variations and the modulations in the final movement made it an interesting one as well.  The second work encompassed a great range of dynamics, from delicacy through to the coda’s stormy mood.

In the second sonata, in E flat, I heard the resonance of the instrument more, and also the ‘hazy’ sound of the English piano referred to.  The sonata, to my ears, had more ‘body’ than did the previous one played.  It featured an emphatic first subject in the first movement, and winsome melody in the slow movement, with lilting variations upon it.  The finale was light and very capricious.  The prestidigitation required from Douglas Mews was formidable.

This was something different in the way of a piano recital: skilled playing of delightful music on a different instrument from the species usually encountered.


Strumming and fretting en masse at Old St.Paul’s – the N.Z.Guitar Quartet

Old St.Paul’s Church -Lunchtime Concerts

New Zealand Guitar Quartet

(Owen Moriarty, Tim Wanatabe, Jane Curry and Chris Hill)

Old St.Paul’s Church, Thorndon

Tuesday 21st August 2012

Perhaps it would have all been double the pleasure at Old St. Paul’s for Frederic Chopin, who was reputed to have said “Nothing is more beautiful than a guitar – save, perhaps two!” – no less than the New Zealand Guitar Quartet was here to put the aphorism to the test. A quartet’s worth of guitar players certainly makes a lovely, rich sound, with plenty of opportunities for all of those individual voices, both leading and in the middle, to interact with one another and create such richly-woven tapestries, in fact, small orchestras of sound.

The concert’s venue – Old St.Paul’s – exerted its customary spell over the proceedings, the beauty of the surroundings making up for the lack of adequate sight-lines for any audience member sitting more than a dozen pews back. Some elevation for the performers (as was constructed not so long ago in St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace Church) would certainly help more people to SEE the musicians, and perhaps enhance the sound-projection (the latter, however, seems perfectly adequate for all but the most distant spectators). A few of the softer passages for solo guitar seemed very quiet, but the sound in tutti made, as I’ve already said, a pretty solid, if finely constituted, instrumental ensemble sound.

Attendance at these Old St.Paul’s lunchtime concerts of late (at least the ones I’ve been to) have been surprisingly good, considering (perhaps, because of! ) the inclement weather – and today’s concert was no exception (the attendance AND the weather!). There’s obviously a loyal following for the venture, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned, and in this case the music and the music-making would have contributed greatly to the delight of it all.

The ensemble describes itself in a program note bio as “exciting, dynamic and engaging” – and I’m happy to say that the concert certainly reflected these things. I’ve heard the group play before, and this time around found myself entirely caught up in what was going on, as if everybody’s focus was freshly sharpened and their energies centered right at the music’s heart. Take the opening item, for example, Luigi Boccherini’s Introduction et Fandango, a pleasant though fairly conventional evocation of Spain – or at least one might have previously thought so, until hearing the Quartet’s  full-blooded rendition of the Fandango, digging into the rhythms and accentuating the music’s light-and-dark contrasts. Boccherini? – really?

Jane Curry introduced the next item,a transcription by Owen Moriarty of Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto, drawing listeners’ attention to one of the players’ use of a 7-string guitar, the instrument making for a greater range and sonority. Whatever the difference, the reworking of the music (in true Baroque style) was a great success, the music’s bubbling energy carrying all before it in both the first and third movements (a pity the opportunity wasn’t taken in between these episodes for a bit of extempore “sounding” of things suggested both by what had just happened and what was to come, as sometimes happens in this music’s performance). But particularly in the last movement, the counterpoints joyously tumbled over one another in away that would probably have had old Sebastian Bach tapping his feet in approval.

New Zealand composer Craig Utting drew some of his inspiration from the Baroque world for part of a composition called Onslow Suite, using a kind of passacaglia-form underlining a kind of lyrical exchange. The music provides the contrast of a middle section that spontaneously modulates asymmetrically and somewhat remotely, before returning to the passagcaglia figurations with increased rapture, finishing with a final chord of benediction – a lovely work, originally written for two pianos, but here most satisfyingly reworked for guitars.

The group then turned its attention to a work by Andrew York, former player-member of the American Guitar Quartet, the group for whom the music was written. This was called Quiccan, a closely-knit etude for four guitars, allowing each player to explore melody, harmony, and accompaniment. The piece started jazzily, resembling the sounds of a distant festival, one redolent with Latin American rhythms and textures. A slower section allowed the players some breathing-space and a contrasted vantage-point, towards which the ensemble redirected its energies, with the help of some “percussive” effects -all very engaging and attractive. A sudden “break-off” point resulted in a chord whose single chime froze the gestural actions of the musicians and allowed the sounds to resonate briefly and depart – a kind of musical metaphor for human existence.

More familiar territories were the items by Manuel de Falla, to finish the program – two exerpts, arranged by Owen Moriarty, from Falla’s El amor brujo ballet, firstly, the Danza del Terror, plenty of repeated notes, driving rhythms and strutting flourishes, followed by the even better-known Danza ritual del fuego, a performance which brought out something of the music’s dark, primitive side at the beginning, and gave plenty of point to the cross-rhythmed accents in the piece’s middle section. Only at the end did I feel the need for a bit more abandonment on the part of the players, something slightly more animal and physical. I wonder, too, whether the emphasis on tuning the instruments is entirely appropriate during the course of these two pieces – to my way of thinking, far better to keep the impetus and atmosphere on-going between the two dances and let whatever pitch vagaries occur be part of the sweep and drive, of this primitive, elemental aspect of the music.

But, nevertheless, a great concert, nicely presented and vividly projected.












Wellington’s Aria Contest remains an important event in vocal students’ calendar

Wellington Regional Vocal Competitions Aria Final

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 19 August 2012, 7.30pm

Eight singers selected from earlier rounds sang an aria in each of the two halves of the  concert, and were judged by Roger Wilson, to decide the winner of the Dame Malvina Major Foundation Prize of $4,000, the runner-up, and other awards.

Accompanist was Mark Dorrell – and what a splendid job he did!  Sixteen arias to be accompanied on a piano and in an acoustic that does not lend itself easily to sensitive accompaniment, but this was impeccable playing.  It seems that never did he need to ask Gerald Moore’s question ‘Am I too loud?’  He received well-deserved applause from the audience at the end of the evening.

The audience was somewhat sparse – about 50 people, excluding the performers.  More advertising would probably pay for itself; indeed, some advertising, such as on Radio New Zealand Concert’s ‘Live Diary’ is free.

The arias chosen were more varied than is sometimes the case; only one was repeated.  Italian arias dominated, naturally, but there were four in the French language, two in English, and one each in Russian and German.  Rossini was the most popular composers, but otherwise, the spread was quite wide.

Richard Greager was compère for the evening, and provided knowledgeable introductory comments on each of the operas represented, and the situation in the plot in which the aria to be sung occurred.

The first of the singers was Angélique MacDonald, singing ‘Regnava nel silenzio’ from Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti.  This difficult aria and Lucia’s dramatic role were well characterised, but I found the voice rather metallic at times, and pitch a little suspect here and there.  St. Andrew’s Church has a lively acoustic and is relatively small as a venue, so these things are more obvious.  Her coloratura runs were executed well, and her presentation was in appropriate style.

Next up was Isabella Moore.  She is possessed of a full, rich voice, and apparently easy production.  Her notes are true, and they develop plenty of volume when required, but as well as being dramatic, she sang expressively, in very good French, ‘Il est doux, il est bon’ from a Massenet opera that is not well-known: Herodiade.  My reaction was ‘Wow!’

Now to the first of the male singers: baritone Julien Van Mallaerts.  His ‘Onegin’s Aria’ from Tchaikowsky’s Eugene Onegin was sung most beautifully, in Russian.  He conveyed the character of Onegin superbly well, with good phrasing and most expressive characterisation.

Christie Cook followed, with ‘Printemps qui commence’ from Samson et Dalila by Saint-Saëns.  The top notes of this soprano’s singing were quite lovely; initially, the low notes were not so good, but this changed.  She used her resonators well, particularly here, in the more nasal language that is French, a language that she had mastered effectively.  Her rich voice and excellent shaping of the aria made for a clear and telling performance.

Now to a tenor: Thomas Atkins, who sang a lesser-known aria by Cilea: ‘E la solita storia’, from L’Arlesiana.  Atkins’s voice has developed a more Italianate quality since I last heard him sing (not long ago).  His Federico produced superb tone and phrasing, with quiet and thoughtful sections well expressed.  Excellent control and use of his resonators were features.

One of the interesting features of the final contest is the variety of voices to be heard.  Amelia Ryman is a lyric soprano with a very true voice which she uses expressively.  Her high notes were magical, in ‘Willow Song’ from The Ballad of Baby Doe by Douglas Moore.  I knew nothing about composer or opera, but my Dictionary of Opera and Operetta (by James Anderson) tells me that the composer lived from 1893 to 1969, and composed a number of operas, of  which The Ballad of Baby Doe “was one of the most successful of all American operas”; it was first performed in 1956, only a few years before the first performance of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the other English language opera from which we heard an excerpt.  These were much the most modern of the arias performed, this one a folk ballad rather than an aria in the usual sense.  Amelia put it over with confidence and freshness.

I wondered if Cameron Barclay’s voice became a little tired towards the end of his aria ‘Il mio tesoro’ from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, after all the earlier rounds and classes in the Hutt Valley Competitions, climaxing in this aria contest.  Otherwise, he sang superbly.   The tenor aria of Don Ottavio suited him well, his pleasing voice sounding particularly good on high notes.  He demonstrated admirable variation of dynamics, and excellent runs.

Last in this half was Bianca Andrew, mezzo-soprano.  She chose ‘I know a bank’ from the Britten opera mentioned.  This was a contrast in styles from much else that was offered.  The character Bianca portrayed was Puck.  The introductory music on the piano was utterly appropriate to the character.  Her words were very clear, but this was a slow aria compared with most we heard – a contrast to her second choice, later.  She made an impressive job of this piece, and her facial expressions and gestures carried the character with them, while her singing was strong and full-bodied,  but with variety as well.

Angélique MacDonald’s aria that opened the second half of the concert, ‘Una voce poco fa’ from The Barber of Seville by Rossini, was another number with coloratura acrobatics, similarly to her aria in the first half.  Perhaps a contrast of style, such as other singers chose to present, would have been advantageous.  Slight flatness of some notes occurred again, but her coloratura passages were good.  I thought her facial expressions a little overdone, and the rendition somewhat too confident and cheeky in presentation.

Isabella Moore’s ‘Tacea la notte placida’ from Il Trovatore by Verdi was a difficult aria which the singer managed well, with a wealth of expression.  Her vibrant tones were just right for the dramatic heroine of this opera.

Rossini and his Barber returned, with Julien Van Mellaerts singing the aria that is probably the most well-known in all opera: ‘Largo al factotum’.  The baritone sang this with great style – and very fast!  His linguistic and vocal facility were remarkable, and his characterisation and acting of the role were excellent after his off-stage beginning, and entrance singing.

In ‘Cruda sorte’ from Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, Christie Cook made a strong  impression.  Her beginning was very powerful; at first her intonation was a little off-centre, but improved.  She had a vocal quality befitting the character of  Isabella, and her top notes were excellent .

Thomas Atkins presented ‘Pourquoi me reveiller?’ from Werther by Massenet, in a very appropriate style for French opera..  His tender notes were wonderful.  My note says “Move over, Pavarotti”!

Amelia Ryman’s clear, agile voice again delivered the words very clearly, in ‘Ach, ich liebte’ from Die Entfürung aus dem Serail by Mozart.  The characterisation was very touching.

Cameron Barclay gave us ‘Je crois entendre encore’ from The Pearl Fishers by Bizet.  The high tessitura in this aria seemed to hold no fears; the tenor’s singing was very fine, and his breath control was splendid.

The only repeat of the evening was Bianca Andrew singing ‘Una voce poco fa’ from The Barber of Seville by Rossini, but at a lower pitch than that adopted by Angélique MacDonald (Rossini cast the role of Rosina for a mezzo).  She introduced it herself, speaking through the extended orchestral introduction (in this case, piano), to give the background to her character’s position.  The aria received a naturalistic presentation, with a certain amount of movement and posing, her voice being a thoroughly integrated part of the performance – and it was in fine form.  She was telling us the story, not showing us how beautifully she could sing.

At the end of proceedings, Angela Gorton spoke on behalf of the Dame Malvina Major Foundation, and adjudicator Roger Wilson spoke of the high level of performance we heard, and the interesting range of music.

Then there was the important business of awards: Julien Van Mallaerts won the Jenny Wollerman Award for the best rendition of a song or aria sung in French; the Robin Dumbell Memorial Cup for the young entrant with the most potential was won by Thomas Atkins; the Rokfire Cup for the most outstanding competitor (i.e. through all the vocal classes that qualified) was Bianca Andrew; the runner-up to the Dame Malvina Major Foundation Aria was Christie Cook, who also took the New Zealand Opera Society prize.  The winner of the Dame Malvina Major Foundation Aria and of the Rosina Buckman Memorial Cup was Isabella Moore.

The audience had a most entertaining evening, hearing singing of a very high standard.  Some singers have greater natural gifts than others – and then it is what the singers do with those gifts that is important.  All showed signs of having received excellent teaching in languages as well as voice, and should feel well pleased with their efforts.



Remarkable Big Sing National Finale a brilliant success at every level

The Big Sing – National Finale 2012
Organised by the New Zealand Choral Federation

Eighteen competing and four guest choirs, evening compered by Christine Argyle

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday 18 August, 6.30pm

Twenty-two choirs, including four ‘guest choirs’ which are not eligible for an award, from 16 schools came to Wellington for the annual singing jamboree known as The Big Sing, managed by the New Zealand Choral Federation.  The festival began in 1988 when it was separated from the then Westpac Schools Music Contest which included chamber music groups as well as singers.

The latest figures showed that 148 schools, 235 choirs, and 8,440 singers registered to take part this year  nationwide.

The Wellington regional festival had been held on 6 and 7 June in which 33 choirs sang (compared with 36 each from Christchurch and Auckland). Of those 33, five were selected for the Finale: Chilton Saint James School – Seraphim Choir, Tawa College – Twilight Tones, Wellington College – Wellington College Chorale, Wellington East Girls’ College – Cantala, Wellington Girls’ College – Teal Voices.

Wellington choirs won no Golds; three of them won Silver awards, two, Bronze

The choirs to attend the Finale were chosen through an arcane process at the end of the regional festivals that had taken place in June.  They sang to each other and to their friends a families for three days till the three adjudicators had decided which of their pieces should be heard at the Final concert, when august people such as music critics might safely attend.

It’s a mighty production, actually starting around midday Saturday, when the ‘Massed Flash Choir’ sang and made a lot of noise in Civic Square. And the New Zealand Secondary Students Choir was on hand to astonish the drifters-by. Their programme included: Toia Mai (Paraire Tomoana)
Rytmus (Ivan Hrušovský)
Geistliches Lied (Johannes Brahms)
‘Mitten wir im Leben sind’ (Felix Mendelssohn)
Nemesi (John Psathas, commissioned for the 2011-12 NZSSC)
Hamba Lulu (traditional Zulu wedding song arranged by Mike Brewer)
‘Tofa Mai Feleni’ (Trad. Samoan, arr. Steven Rapana)

As the audience entered, most of the choirs were already there or coming in, and they performed in a variety of apparently spontaneous ways. The compere was Christine Argyle, announcer (presenter) on Radio New Zealand Concert. She described what the procedures were and how the organisers had reached this point. Her delivery and comments were useful, interesting and clear yet matched the gaiety of the evening excellently.

I could make certain general remarks about the music and its performance.

The thing feeds on itself. Year by year, the choirs observe the presentation ideas and stunts that proved successful and learn from them, so that few choirs confine themselves merely to singing the piece of music. There is a great variety in costumes, in members’ dispositions on the stage, their actions, hand and facial gestures, in extraneous and intraneous noises and sound effects.

Sometimes one can tell, after a while, how the organisers have been guided in deciding on the order of items: the strongest first or in the middle? grouped together so that contrasts are not too stark? a stunner at the end of the first half to encourage reckless drinks-buying at the Interval?

Those chosen for the Finale was dominated as much as ever by the schools that have become famous for their music, and a couple of them gained places for two choirs: Burnside High in Christchurch, Wellington East Girls’, Tawa, Marlborough Girls’ and Rangitoto colleges, and the two Westlake High schools on the North Shore; and among the private schools, St Cuthbert’s, Chilton St James, King’s College.

The choir that eventually won Platinum sang first: Bel Canto from Burnside High School, with the Gloria from a Mass by Hungarian composer György Orbán. A moderately big choir of tall girls, they are conducted by Sue Densem and also rehearse with a student conductor; they sang a conspicuously bright, non-pious movement with a brisk enthusiasm, sparkling with staccato and easy syncopation, at once setting the tone and a very high standard for the rest of the concert.

Nga Manu tioriori O Kapiti, a girls’ choir (a Reserve Guest choir) from Kapiti College sang ‘I am not yours’ by prominent New Zealand choral composer David Childs. (I heard a Kapiti College Choir sing it in 2009). The chair of the judges panel James Tibbles, in his witty overview at the end, remarked how David Hamilton seemed to have been supplanted as leading New Zealand choral composer by David Childs. Bridget O’Shanassy conducted. However, I thought it a somewhat limp, clichéd piece (ghosts of A Lloyd Webber?) which hardly encouraged the choir to demonstrate their real abilities.

All the King’s Men from the obvious college, is a new choir formed this year; they are conducted by King’s organist and choirmaster Nicholas Forbes. The choir won a Silver award with David Griffiths (only Davids need apply as New Zealand composers) setting of Curnow’s Wild Iron, a poem of short, staccato phrases that did not lend itself to easy delivery, but was handled with skill and intelligence.

From that unique musical by John Kander, Cabaret (Christopher Isherwood, stories, via John van Druten, play), Kristin School’s girls’ choir Euphony sang, with great resourcefulness and wit, ‘Don’t tell Mama’. They sat on low benches and took up changing dispositions, with splendid little vignettes, to create a brilliantly funny rendering, which won them laughter, on top of the shouts and screams (which are almost unvaryingly de rigueur). Cheryl Clarke’s jazz accompaniment was a vital ingredient; with at least some credit to conductor David Squire, it got them a Gold.

Macleans College Choir, Howick sang a Mendelssohn song, In Grünen. It could not have been a greater contrast; though a perfectly unobtrusive song, the experienced hands of their conductor Terence Maskill showed in the way they coped with its demands: in tonally variety, subtlety, in exploring its simple, Romantic era sentiment with integrity and vivacity, all of which they carried off with plain honesty. The judges agreed with my assessment of Gold.

Marist Stella, a guest girls’ choir from Marist College in Auckland, conducted by Rostislava Pankova-Karadjov, tackled Louis Armstrong’s last charts success, in 1968, ‘What a Wonderful World’, with open and unaffected sentimentality. Not the way Armstrong would have played it but, with their undulating tempi, care and feeling, he’d have loved them for it.

Mandate, another pun-title choir from Otago Boys’ High School, sang another comic scena ‘Kiss the Girl’ which I’ve heard sung at an earlier Big Sing. They have made the Finale several times since 1996 and have been conducted by Karen Knudson since 1998. It’s a barbershop number, tackled with manly confidence by this 35-or-so choir, with odd accompanying sound effects and discreet witty gestures. The crowd loved it and the judges too: Silver.

Christine calmed audience alarm by disclosing that SOS means ‘Sisters of Soul’. The auditioned girls’ choir of 38 members from Rangitoto College was founded in 1992 by Jillian Rowe, and they have reached the Finale most years since then. Under Karen Roberts they sang Beau Soir, an arrangement of a Debussy song that one might have had difficulty attributing. This short, not very remarkable song, in very fair French, had attributes similar to Macleans College Choir’s Mendelssohn; the virtue of unpretentiousness and plain, attractive musicality. It too won them a Silver.

Another Rangitoto College choir, The Fundamentals (how pervasive is the widespread fashion among pop bands for taking abstract nouns as their names), also sang Mendelssohn, in German: three poems by Heine together entitled Tragödie. Curiously enough, I heard them sung recently at a Bach Choir concert: this performance captured them with a little more youthful enthusiasm. The choice of these songs involved more than fundamentals, and their polish, dynamic variety and tonal precision, singing unaccompanied, were well handled by conductor, Jonathan Palmer. They demonstrated elegant expressive gestures which I thought might have gained them better than Bronze.

Bella Voce, from Marlborough Girls’ College, directed by Robin Randall, has done well over the years. They sang, with gestures that were not really integrated in the performance, the spiritual ‘Aint no grave can hold my body down’. It’s a well-schooled choir but they gained only Bronze. Here too it was useful to bear in mind that the judges’ decisions are based, not on the evening’s performances, but on their singing in the previous two days.

Burnside’s auditioned mixed choir, Senior Chorale, also under Sue Densem, sang the gently sentimental, a cappella, Earth Song. It might not be an especially arresting song but it made an impact through their slow, quiet, restrained approach, with exquisite dynamic and tone control. But there was real integrity here and they made quite an impression. I was not surprised at their Gold award.

The first half ended with The Seraphim Choir, the premier auditioned choir from Lower Hutt’s Chilton St James School, singing another disguised Debussy song, Nuits d’étoiles. Again in quite good French, conducted by Ella Buchanan Hanify and accompanied by Hugh McMillan, the song is hardly a masterpiece, but it is a good choice to offer judges of taste and refinement, who properly awarded Silver.

Wellington Girls’ College opened the second half; their Teal Voices (teal, the school colour) sang ‘Like a Rainbow’ which involved many repetitions of those words. Though he’s a prolific American choral composer of some renown, Bob Chilcott’s song seemed to do the choir few favours, though the performance, guided by Nicola Sutherland and Michael Fletcher employing small groups or individual voices attractively, was imaginative enough. A Bronze.

Viva Camerata from Wairarapa’s Rathkeale and St Matthew’s Collegiate, a guest choir, sang another comedy number, The Driving Lesson. The choir, conducted by Kiewiet van Deventer and accompanied by Adam Gordon, enacted the little skit effectively if without great flair, but its slender, somewhat obvious wit needed more adult skills than a teenage group is likely to command.

Saint Cuthbert’s in Auckland also entertained the crowd with ‘Johnny said No’; their auditioned choir. Saints Alive, under the direction of Megan Flint, with light and deft singing and discreet, comic gestures, carried it off in a certain droll style, which gained them a Silver award.

A mixed choir, Twilight Tones, an auditioned choir within Tawa College’s main choir, the Dawn Chorus, sang ‘Give me Jesus’. Alongside so many choirs exhibiting flair in both singing, histrionics and comic talents, something special is needed in presenting a traditional religious song. The singing, under Isaac Stone, was technically fine, under good, unostentatious control, but something was needed to lift it from the merely very good.

Saint Kentigern College from Auckland sent a large guest choir, Menasing (get it?). It’s unauditioned, in its first year. Their party piece was a highly effective performance, guided by Lachlan Craig and involving bass and drums, plus piano, as well as comic sound effects, of ‘I’ll fly away’. It elicited stentorian teenage shrieks as bassist took his instrument under his arm, like a guitar.

Con Brio is no stranger to the Big Sing. From Villa Maria College in Christchurch, they included a double-ended drum to accompany, otherwise a cappella, the Xhosa song, Dubula. Their party piece was to launch by throwing off their jerseys. But they also captured the African sound brilliantly. The fact that their conductor, Rosemary Turnbull, stood aside to some effect, might have prompted the remark by Tibbles about the conductor as sometimes surplus to requirements.

Wellington College Chorale, an auditioned choir, sang Toki Toki, a Malaysian song arranged by their conductor Katie Macfarlane. Bearing ethnic relationships in mind, it revealed a quality that could have been Polynesian, and it gave the performance an air of idiomatic ease. They judged their movements carefully and achieved a performance that was vocally skilled and visually effective, gaining a Silver award.

Cantala, from up the hill at Wellington East Girls’ College which had been in the news with its triumphant recent international tour also won (only) a Silver. Dressed in one of the prettiest of all the costumes, their droll song, Bitte Betti, was enacted with refinement and restraint but through that achieved a performance that both revealed some fine individual voices and excellent ensemble singing, not to mention the skilful direction of Brent Stewart.

David Squire conducts Westlake Boys’ High School choir, Voicemale, of round 50 boys. They sang ‘Embraceable You’ from Gershwin’s Girl Crazy, a fairly short song, but more than enough to prove splendid balance of the parts and ensemble, all in a perfectly gauged style, gaining them a Silver award.

Placed at the end of the concert was another choir with a punning conflation of a name, Choralation, from a conflation of Westlake Boys’ and Girls’ High Schools. In the previous three years they gained the Platinum Awards and this year had to settle for Gold. They did that under Rowan Johnston with the Gloria from Bob Chilcott’s Little Jazz Mass, which called for guitar, bass and drums as well as sparkling supported in by their pianist.

The Big Sing does not end there, but continued with snippets of a video of the lunchtime spectacles and speeches; the most insightful came from the chairman of the adjudicators’ panel, James Tibbles, hinting at the need to explore a greater variety of New Zealand composers, and of getting more representation of Maori music and singing which are distinctly absent, though glancing at the choirs appearing at the regional sessions, it looks as if choirs with a larger Maori element simply don’t quite achieve the level demanded. (I wonder whether, as in so many aspects of the way in which Maori prefer to follow paths in education and the arts that tends to view their own culture on terms equal to the rest of the world, their music achievements are disadvantaged by disregarding the importance of the universal world of classical music).

Thus the award for the performance of a song with Maori text went to Saints Alive from St Cuthbert’s, from a not very large field.

The Minister for Culture and Heritage Chris Finlayson spoke and handed out the awards, which have been mentioned in the remarks about each choir. His admiration for the entire fabric of the festival reflected what is certainly felt by all involved, that it is probably remarkable at an international level for qualities like collegiality and generosity, for the huge variety of musical styles and cultures that flourish, and that the size of the country makes possible the staging of an event of this kind that reaches such a wide and disparate range of communities.

It’s also necessary to recognise the extraordinary feat of organization by teachers and choral federation workers throughout the country in regional and national phases of the Big Sing festival.

It ended with all 750 or so, shoulder-to-shoulder on the choir stalls in massed singing of two South African songs, just rehearsed, conducted by Andrew Withington, conductor of the NZSSC. And organist Thomas Gaynor, a couple of days before leaving to take up a scholarship at the Eastman School of Music in New York State, accompanied the massed singing, by choirs and audience, of the National Anthem.