Orchestral rarities in impressive performances from Wellington Chamber Orchestra

Wellington Chamber Orchestra conducted by Donald Maurice with Inbal Megiddo (cello)

Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man; Barber: Cello Concerto; Ives: Symphony No 2

Church of St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 16 September, 2.30pm

What an ambitious programme for an essentially amateur orchestra! Thinking back a decade or so, it would seem that the orchestra has gained greatly in the average level of skill. This was an astonishing concert.

The polish and confidence were evident at once in the performance of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. It’s nothing that a practised group of bandsmen couldn’t do very well, but the augmented brass section of the WCO did rather more than just play the notes. There was a real feel of muscular workers’ unity in the sonorous brilliance of the playing and strains of the ‘Internationale’ were not far away.

But it was both the other major works that stamped the concert with a mark of bravery and self-confidence.  I’ve never heard the Barber cello concerto live before and as it unfolded I really doubted that I’d heard it at all.

The cello concerto is a world away from the lyrical violin concerto, though not so far as to meet with the commendation of the school of Boulez, Maderna and Stockhausen.

It is a neglected work and I imagine the reason is partly its great difficulty, and partly its somewhat remoteness of tone, and its scarcity of much immediate melodic charm. Yet it was apparently considered by Barber to be one of his most successful scores.

I came across a review of the 1951 performance conducted by Barber with cellist Zara Nelsova which declared:  “Given suitable advocacy it could be a highly popular work and deserves to have a much stronger foothold on the repertoire than it at present enjoys. The work possesses an astonishing freshness, lyricism and a natural charm which grows stronger over the years. There are few modern concertos that have such a marvellous main tune as does the opening of this Concerto, and Barber’s scoring is beautifully transparent and full of colour.”

However, in the following 60 years it has not had many performances.

I must first, however, say how impressed I was to read the programme notes, unusually fluent, literate, well-informed, wide-ranging over much more than merely the mechanics and background to the music. They were by Ben Booker.

If Haydn and Mozart and just about every composer till the 20th century, could write as if the terrible and endless wars that surrounded them did not exist, it became impossible for any art form to ignore war after World War II which may explain the angularity and ‘nightmarish’ (Booker’s word) quality of the opening.

I’ve heard Inbal Megiddo play in several, varied situations, but this was the first time in a concerto; and in a very tough concerto. The writing for the cello might be challenging, but it struck me as lying well, if not very comfortably, for the instrument, much in the middle of the cello’s range, though much quite high too.

The opening reminded me a little of the start of Shostakovich’s first cello concerto, which could only have been coincidental for Barber’s was written earlier. But perhaps it points to a similar view of what constitutes music in the late 20th century. Both eschewed the avant-garde, and the sound that Barber sought seemed to be the essential cello sound.

Most eyes and ears are on the soloist in a concerto, and Megiddo’s playing, powerful and brilliant, kept attention focused where it had to be. Her end-of-first-movement cadenza was a truly professional, virtuosic affair.

A prominent and nicely played oboe signalled the meditative, yet lyrical second movement, which made more conspicuous use of trumpets, horns and trombone – the brass played very well.

The third movement followed the normal course, though any joyousness is very tempered by a certain brutal brilliance as the cello persists with highly detailed decorative passages, all lending an air of frenzy and disturbance rather than an optimistic conclusion.

Though no one could claim the orchestra played immaculately, rehearsals under Donald Maurice had clearly been thorough enough to ensure that there were few conspicuous stumbles and for the orchestra to deliver plenty of rhythmic energy, and generally very good ensemble.

The Ives symphony was also a rarity – all his four symphonies are rarities in live performance, and I don’t recall any by the NZSO. I didn’t know this one. Its opening could have been an immature and eccentric work by Schumann or Bruckner; but such seekings for comparisons are futile. The mind has to be empty of expectations for this music.

It is in five movements. There is no mistaking the Ives trademark quotations from both classics and American folk and gospel music which, to me, still sounds eccentric: I ask myself, Why does Ives feel that this technique makes good music?

Of course there is no compulsion for a turn-of-the-century composer to write in a manner that establishes his place in the chronological sequence, in the middle of the careers of Mahler or Elgar, Debussy or Janacek, Schoenberg or Rachmaninov, Puccini or Strauss, Falla or Ravel, and so on, but in doing that he has risked being considered a permanent iconoclast and loaner, which has been Ives’s fate – but is it a fate?

There were times when the music sounded simply naïve, and not able to be set alongside the composers I’ve mentioned above. But one smiles at the composer’s studied wit nevertheless. Given all that, the performance, handling quite deftly the myriad facets of his music – sentimental, quixotic, droll, long-breathed, bombastic, satiric, imitative of so many kinds of music – was remarkably competent and satisfying,



Enter Spring – wishful encouragement from Nota Bene

Spring Songs: English songs by Moeran, Finzi, Michael Head, Parry, Holst and Rutter, arrangements by John Walker and Philip Walsh

New Zealand songs by Janet Jennings, and American songs by  Ken Neufeld, Scott Wilkinson, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Loesser and Charles Collins

Sharon Talbot (soprano), Stephanie Gartrell (mezzo), Juliet Kennedy (soprano)

Nota bene conducted by Peter de Blois, with Rosemary Russell and Peter de Blois (piano)

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill St., Wellington

Sunday, 16 September 2012

It is rather unusual to hear a programme of songs entirely in the English language – there is a certain refreshing nature to such a concert.  Most of the songs were by English composers, but there were a number of American compositions, a couple of New Zealand ones, and a couple of arrangements (where, strangely, the original composers were not properly credited).   Not only were they all in English, they all evoked the season of spring in some way – some very directly, others by inference.

A very full printed programme gave the words to all the songs, which was most useful.  While in many cases the words of the songs were projected clearly by the singers, in those songs with more complex settings it was difficult to pick up all the words.  The entirely Internet-derived programme notes gave concert-goers plenty of information.

The programme opened with seven songs by Ernest Moeran (1894-1950), (not Edward Moeran as in the programme – he’s a later musical character) whose Songs of Springtime were settings of words by Shakespeare, John Fletcher, Thomas Nashe, Samuel Daniel, William Brown, and Robert Herrick, all of them poets flourishing in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the earliest birth date being 1562 and the latest date of death, 1674.

There are those who will say that a well-written poem is music in itself, and it does not need to be given melody and harmony in the musical sense.  Nevertheless, composers are attracted to fine poetry, and if the settings are inspired, they can enhance the words and the meaning.

Most of Moeran’s a cappella settings filled this definition.  ‘Under the greenwood tree’ was full of joy, and had interesting modulations.  There was some harsh tone from the choir in this item.  The second song, ‘River-god’s song’ was of a different mood, and featured lovely suspensions, great variation in dynamics and clear enunciation.

‘Spring, sweet spring’ was a gentle evocation of birds and their songs, and spring was gently introduced.  ‘Love is a sickness’ was notable for gorgeous harmonies.  During ‘Sigh no more, ladies’ the tone of the men was very good – often it is the case in choirs that the male voices do not match the female ones in this respect.

‘Good wine’ was a tricky piece, but the choir brought it off.  The church’s good acoustics assisted the very pleasing timbre and resonance of the voices.  The final song of Moeran, ‘To Daffodils’ projected a smooth and pleasing quality from the voices.

The men of the choir took a break, while the women sang two songs by New Zealander Janet Jennings: ‘To Spring’ and ‘How sweet I roamed’, the words of both by William Blake.  What wonderful words they were!  Rosemary Russell accompanied on the piano.  These were most appealing songs.  Nota Bene has sung Janet Jenniings’s music before; it deserves wider performance and notice.  These were very accomplished songs.

Gerald Finzi was a composer with a great gift for setting poems.  His unaccompanied Seven Partsongs (five of which were sung) are settings of poems by Robert Bridges (1844-1930).  The poems are quite wordy compared with those set by Moeran and the other composers we had heard already.  Yet Finzi’s love of poetry and his skill combined to write the music sensitively, showing ‘…an unfailing response to and unity with each poet’s words…’ as the programme note had it.

It was a pity that the choir was not together for the start of the first song; elsewhere in the programme initial attacks were faultless.  Two songs about flowers, and the mournful thoughts they can evoke, were followed by a more well-known song (a favourite of Professor Peter Godfrey’s) changed the mood: ‘My spirit sang all day’.  The rising cadences of this song indeed raise the spirit; it is a wonderfully jubilant and affirmative song invoking joy.

The poem set for the next song, about a stream, struck me as rather too complex to communicate well through music, and the final one also.  That is not to say that the settings were not beautiful, the music of the first being clear and gentle, despite some strain and inaccuracy from the choir; the tenors’ tone particularly was sometimes abrasive.  Nevertheless, excellent blend is a lovely feature of this choir, and the performances were very musical.  The final song, ‘Wherefore tonight’ was about the soul and its experiences, and was scattered with wonderful discords and their resolution.  It was a grand conclusion to the cycle.

Now for something completely different – two solos: Michael Head’s A blackbird singing, and Parry’s My heart is like a singing bird, sung by Sharon Talbot, accompanied by Rosemary Russell on the piano.  These were not entirely successful.  The words did not project, for the most part, and the lower notes disappeared. The piano was a little too loud at times to allow the singer to be heard well in such an acoustically alive building.  I was amused to read that Michael Head ‘gave his first public recital as a self-accompanied singer’; not so many years ago, Simon O’Neill was disqualified from a class of a prestigious Sydney voice competition because he accompanied himself, his designated accompanist having not been able to be present at the last minute.

The choir returned to perform I love my love by Gustav Holst; it was given a spirited performance when required, but also thoughtful.  The words were depicted well in this beautifully varied song.

American composer Neufeld was represented by ‘To Daffodils’, Moeran’s setting of which we had already heard.  It was very apparent that we were hearing a more modern setting than Moeran’s; the jazz elements, and different use of the voices were distinctive, particularly the great low bass notes.  It was a charming setting.  Another American followed: Scott Wilkinson, whose setting of words from the Biblical Song of Solomon was complex, however the words were beautifully treated.  In this song the tenor tone was variable.

Several solos followed, from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s State Fair, ‘That lovely weekend’, a Vera Lynn song, with music and words by Moira and Ted Heath (although the printed programme implied they had written the words only).  It was arranged by John Walker, who has arranged for The King’s Singers; and Frank Loesser’s ‘Spring will be a little late this year’ from the movie Christmas Holiday.  The first and third songs were sung in good style by mezzo Stephanie Gartrell, accompanied by Peter de Blois on the piano, at an appropriate level for the soloist.

Gartrell possesses a very resonant voice, and moved around in a natural manner while singing.  However, these pieces seemed incongruous from a singer (and a choir) dressed totally in black, in the atmosphere of a church, and while not at all against the inclusion of such items in a choral concert, I felt that they fell flat in this environment.

The Heath song was sung by Peter de Blois, while the choir ooh-ed in harmony.  De Blois’s fine tenor voice sang very expressively with absolutely clear words, while the choir ooh-ed with smooth tone and appropriate style.

The next item again acknowledged the arranger in the programme (former busy musician in Wellington Philip Walsh), but not the composer, Manning Sherwin.  It was the wartime favourite ‘A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square’.  The statement ‘…was written for the choir of Queen’s College, Cambridge’ presumably applied to the arrangement.  A soprano soloist, Juliet Kennedy, sang the do-dos and ah-ahs as well as text, but without the smooth insouciance of a Vera Lynn.

Charles A. Collins was the composer of an amusing song, ‘Mary had a little blues’, with de Blois accompanying on the piano.  It was sung by the women; the sole male vocal participation was an ‘Oh yeah’ at the end.  A lively rendition from memory,  the performance proved how much more communication there is with the audience when music is memorised.

The final item was by that British master of choral music, John Rutter.  His setting of Shakespeare’s ‘It was a lover and his lass’, another unaccompanied piece which the conductor joined in singing after getting the choir started.  The song had a jazzy style and rhythm, and was a cheery ending to the concert.

Peter de Blois’s conducting style is fluent, and the choir responded well in all the items. The rather small audience gave the choir enthusiastic applause.  It struck me that the English songs could be compiled into an very acceptable and attractive CD.