Duo mosaica – violin and guitar – in first-class recital to end St Mark’s series

Francis-Paul Demillac: Petite Suite Medievale
Piazzolla: Café 30, from Histoire du Tango
Ravel: Pièce en forme de habanera
Monti: Csárdás
Cheryl Grice: Mi Alma
Martin Jaenecke: Shade and Light; The Many Shades of Me

Duo Mosaica: Cheryl Grice, guitar, Martin Jaenecke, violin and saxophone

St. Mark’s Church, Lower Hutt

Wednesday, 31 October 2012, 12.15pm

This was the last for this year of the Hutt City lunchtime concert series.  Since early June, numerous worthwhile concerts have taken place, and the organisers are to be commended for their efforts in putting the series together.

Both the performers in the duo migrated to New Zealand – one from England; one from Germany – to teach in Nelson.  They now contribute to the musical life of Wellington, with frequent returns to Nelson for Jaenecke, who has also toured for Chamber Music New Zealand.

The varied programme was introduced by the performers – using a microphone, I’m glad to say.  The fashion for spoken introductions is fine with me as long as what is said is cogent, well-thought-out, brief and audible – as today.  Too often it is none, or only some of these things, in which case it is a waste of time, and annoying to the audience.  The dynamics and tempo of speech needs to be increased (in the first feature) and decreased (in the second) depending on the size and acoustics of the venue.  It is amazing the number of people who do not realise that in an auditorium they need to speak more slowly and loudly than in a mere room; instead, they speak as if to a small group of friends in their living room.

Speaking of dynamics; the red and black combo of the performers’ outfits added to the brightness of the event.

The duo began with an absolutely gorgeous work by Francis-Paul Demillac, a composer I had not heard of before.  The acoustic seemed to allow both instruments to speak clearly – coupled, of course, with the musicians’ impeccable techniques.

The suite opened with a calm and peaceful ‘Sicilienne’, followed by a short, lively and bouncy ‘Sonnerie’.  Next was ‘Après une page de Ronsard’ (A une jeune morte), which was much more contemplative, as suited the subject.  The final movement was entitled ‘Ronde’; a sprightly dance, with the guitar using a variety of techniques.

Piazzolla is famous for his tangoes; this one was most appealing music, more thoughtful than I imagined it would be, but full of diversity too.  These two performers are so accustomed to playing together (Martin said it was ten years) that what they produce is a unified whole, with great tone from both of them.

Ravel’s ‘Habanera’ is well-known.  Originally it was written for voice and guitar, as a vocalise – a wordless melody with accompaniment.  The players performed a transcription from Ravel’s own version for cello and piano.  The piece seemed to have less flair than usual – perhaps it was a little slow.

Cheryl Grice had to retune her guitar several times to ccommodate the requirements of the composers; I noticed that she had a cunning device (presumably electronic) attached to the top of her guitar’s fingerboard, above the tuning pegs, that she consults.  I imagine it tells her when she has precisely tuned to the required pitch.

Vittorio Monti’s famous piece has been played by all manner of instruments, but was originally written for violin.  This item was played with plenty of life – and it was obvious from the facial expressions of both performers that Martin varied things a little as the mood took him, to liven the piece up.

Then we came to the duo’s own compositions.  Cheryl said that hers was the first she had ever written, and she wrote it in 5 days.  ‘Mi Alma’ means ‘My Soul’ (why do pieces by English speakers so often get titled in another language?), and used harmonics extensively.  A gentle opening was wistful, even regretful at times, but led to more forceful passages.  It was played superbly, and ended with gentle harmonics again.

Martin’s two pieces were for guitar and saxophone; he played the soprano saxophone with aplomb.  As he said, this was a demanding combination in terms of dynamics.   After an introduction on guitar, there was a haunting, rising melody for the saxophone; after discords, the music was brought to a beautiful resolution, before darting off onto sunny slopes for the ‘Light’ part of the piece.  Altogether very attractive music.

The second piece portrayed shades of the composer’s character – introverted, extraverted, angry etc.  Parts were improvised, as he humorously explained in his introduction.  Both instruments had solo passages, the saxophone revealing its variety of tones and ability to be brazen but also subtle, though not quite as subtle as the guitar.  The piece became exciting and vigorous, then sank into a reverie, with a delicious ending.

These are two first-class musicians who play so well in combination.


Clarinet trio repeats its Lower Hutt programme at St Andrew’s

Bruch: Two movements from Eight Pieces, Op 83; Mozart: Trio for clarinet, viola and piano, K 498; Schumann: Märchenerzählungen, Op 132

Tim Workman – clarinet, Victoria Jaenecke – viola, David Vine – piano

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 31 October, 12.15pm

A review, by Rosemary Collier, of this ensemble with this programme, at St Mark’s Church, Lower Hutt, on 3 October, has just been belatedly posted on the website, the result of an oversight. It will be found at that date.

I did not hear the Lower Hutt concert, but greatly enjoyed this repeat concert, now in a different acoustic and using a different piano.  None of the shortcomings mentioned in the earlier review seemed evident here at St Andrew’s.

NZ Trio at Wellington City Gallery – beautiful assemblages

NZ Trio presents ART3

JOAQUIN TURINA – Piano Trio No.2 in B Minor Op.76

ALEX TAYLOR – burlesques méchaniques (2012) KARLO MARGETIC – Lightbox (2012)

ANTONIN DVORAK – Piano Trio No.4 in A Minor “Dumky”

NZ Trio

(Justine Cormack – violin / Ashley Brown – ‘cello

Sarah Watkins – piano)

City Gallery, Wellington

Civic Square

Wednesday 31st October 2012

An inspired choice of venue! – Wellington’s City Gallery is a place that has flexible space enough to play host to chamber music and instrumental performances whose ambiences then take on added dimensions due to their surroundings.

In this case, the performers were Justine Cormack, Sarah Watkins and Ashley Brown of the NZ Trio. On the program were works by Turina and Dvorak, but, significantly with two new compositions by New Zealand composers Alex Taylor and Karlo Margetic. These were not world, but Wellington premieres – Alex Taylor’s burlesque mécaniques was given its first public performance in Akaroa earlier in the month by the NZ Trio, and Karlo Margetic’s Lightbox in July in Auckland, by the same musicians.

Each of the new works seemed like “hot property” especially in the hands of the original performers, and in such close proximity to their world premieres. A different, but no less telling kind of proximity, gave the music’s edge and point greater and bolder relief – on the wall immediately behind the performance platform was artist John Reynolds’ painting Numbering Waves, part of the “Kermadec” exhibition currently on show at the Gallery.

This particular work (commented on as “inspirational” by Justine Cormack during her spoken introduction to the concert) made considerable play with our senses as we listened, a kind of creative enhancement of our experience of four very different pieces of music. And, of course it seemed to evolve as a world for us with each succeeding item, as well as with the changing light over time.

Beginning the concert was a piece I thought of as “high class teashop music” with an Iberian flavour, a Piano Trio by Joaquin Turina. A flowing sigh began the piece, something from the exotic distance but nevertheless engaging, followed by a flowing, Schumannesque melody, the playing taking us from light to light, shade to shade along the way. The second subject made me think of childhood holidays, nostalgic memories of innocent excitement conjured up by the sounds made by these splendid musicians. I was wanting more when the movement seemed to end somewhat abruptly!

Ghostly scampering began the second movement, here put across with plenty of élan, strings and piano nicely cross-rhythmed, then joining momentarily for a biting unison climax – again the salon-like feeling informed a languid interlude and a beautifully-flowing aftermath – gorgeous playing. The third movement’s opening found ‘cellist Ashley Brown steady on the high-wire, in a very violin-sounding register, the opening lento giving way to a variety of episodes throughout, characterful and quixotic, the musicians unlocking and opening every mood for our delight.

Alex Taylor’s piece, burlesques mécaniques was described by the composer as “a rather extroverted collection of grotesque miniatures, whose characters are not people or animals but dances”. Rather like a updated and extremely kinetic “Pictures at an Exhibition” in effect, the piece’s ten sections explored a kind of rhythmic dysfunctionality, whose expression, as the composer suggested, tended to confound rather than conform to the dance element. So the rhythms were often in conflict, and the piano played almost a devil’s advocate, often disruptive role in the proceedings.

The Prologue, which opened the piece, began as the whole intended to go on, the piano abrupt and volatile, the violin spectral, and the ‘cello relievedly holding onto a single note – interestingly, this state of things was reiterated in amplified form in the tenth and final section, which features a violent, confrontational opening, out of which the ‘cello emerged again holding an ambient note, while violin and piano fought a do-or-die battle for supremacy. No wonder that, at the end, pianist Sarah Watkins told us that the work was “wonderfully invigorating to play!”

As well as rhythmic desynchronization, the piece also explored a vast range of instrumental timbres – my notes were filled with descriptive exclamations regarding ear-catching timbres, “strangulated ‘cello tones”, “disjointed, pointillistic violin jabbings”, “piano a flash of colour across a page”, “melting, Dali-esque notes from strings”, and “growling cello voice”. The figurations, too, contributed to the pieces’ different characters, the violin’s and ‘cello’s cross-purposed rhythms in the fourth piece “A Spanner” (guess what rhythms!), and a “toccata trapped in a tunnel” aspect of the following “tumbledry” both extremely well-etched for effect.

And the last movement but one “Chain” even briefly took on humanoid characteristics, with the piano arpeggiating exploratory figures and the strings holding their notes, the effect like breathing or perhaps a heartbeat, certainly a pulse of some kind – for the composer an “alternative, interior world”, and for the uninitiated listener, a case perhaps of “where there’s life, there’s hope”?

So, here was engaging, and in places challenging music – I found it good that all of those individual ear-tickling moments were incorporated within clearly-defined sections giving the first-time listener both sequence and shape for the work as a whole, in fact making a virtue of the stop-go aspect of the piece. With Karlo Margetic’s work Lightbox, the challenges for the listener were different, as the music seemed longer-breathed and more deeply-layered, despite the irruptions and volatilities having a similar kind of timbral and colouristic flair to those of the previous piece.

Perhaps a clue to the music’s individual character was the composer’s statement in the program comparing a piano trio to a “transparent interplay of lines”, suggesting creative impulses and imaginings wrought in longish spans, and having outcomes that reflect these long-term evolutions. Lightbox had a number of these kinds of sequences, such as the gently rocking rhythms at the piece’s very beginning, with figurations turning in on themselves as if reconstituting on the spot, or so it seemed. Another was the piano’s ambient interlude-like sequence, perhaps two-thirds way-through, the sounds gently kaleidoscoping in a slow dance, an mood replicated later by the strings in Aeolian-harp-like mode, an almost ritualistic interaction of the three lines, the composer’s “strangely beautiful assemblage”.

But embedded in these beauties were tensions, the strings near the start finding ever-increasing “edge” in opposing counterpointed figures, before buzzing like angry bees when dive-bombing the piano’s slow, ceremonial dance. Warmth turned to spectral chill as the players resorted to col legno-like gestures, gradually tightening their figurations to breaking-point and dissolution in a sea of piano ambience. Someone made a remark at one point that a youthful audience member at the Auckland performance of this work had exclaimed that the music reminded him of transformers (toys which can change their appearance and character by swiveling and inverting different constituent parts) – and this “out of the mouths of babes” aspect of the remark certainly hit the spot in that particular aspect.

In both works the players of the NZ Trio made the notes sound like “their” music, with committed playing by turns trenchant and lyrical, sharply-focused and delicate. What a joy it must be for composers whose works enjoy such advocacy!

After the interval came Dvorak’s “Dumky” Trio, a work whose wonderfully layered intensities seemed perfectly in accord with what had gone before it in the concert, music with both vigour and lyricism, heartfelt utterance and gaiety, practically a whole world’s contrasting emotions knitted together in a whole. ‘Cellist Ashley Brown introduced the piece, his playing underlining as eloquently as his words the music’s near-tragic yearning at the opening, ‘cello and piano direct and full-throated in their outpourings, the former then singing as one with the violin before veering sharply into a complete contrast of character with a vigorous dance-rhythm, a precursor of the frequent mood-swings that permeate this attractive work.

I came away from this concert with renewed appreciation of the Trio’s compelling and wholehearted response to everything the group performs, and of the skills, energies and sensitivities the three players readily convey to their audiences – a wonderful occasion.









Varied programme to mark Taliban murder of a Jewish/American journalist

A programme of works for cello and double bass, by Jewish and Israeli composers, plus Bach, Rossini and the Klezmer Trio for cello, viola and bass by Ross Harris; in memory of Daniel Pearl, American Jewish journalist murdered by the Taliban

Inbal Megiddo (cello), Paul Altomari (double bass), Donald Maurice (viola)

Myers Hall, Wellington Jewish Community Centre, Webb St.

Sunday, 28 October, 3pm

The Internet gives the following explanation of the occasion for this concert.  “Daniel Pearl World Music Days was created in response to the 2002 kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl at the hands of extremists in Karachi, Pakistan. Danny’s family and friends came together to work towards a more humane world, forming the Daniel Pearl Foundation. The mission of the Foundation is to promote cross-cultural understanding through journalism, music, and innovative communications.

“Danny was a talented musician who joined musical groups in every community in which he lived, leaving behind a long trail of musician-friends spanning the entire world. Commemorating Danny’s October 10th birthday, World Music Days uses the universal language of music to encourage fellowship across cultures and build a platform for “Harmony for Humanity.”

First on this intriguing programme, after a brief speech introducing World Music Days,  was Kaddish (prayer of mourning) by Joachim Stutschewsky, a twentieth-century Israeli composer.  Naturally, it was a rather sad piece (for solo cello) – intense, strong, and even abrasive at times.  A repeated motif in a minor key was somewhat modal in character; it subsided into a regretful mood.

Next was a piece based on a song for peace, also for unaccompanied cello.  Unfortunately, Inbal Meggido’s spoken introductions were too quiet and too fast to be readily heard and understood.  Lament by Hannah Levy was written for Meggido by the contemporary Israeli composer.  Its very strong opening was like cries of pain, and was very eloquently played.  The music utilised a very wide span of the cello’s enormous range, from deep bass to high treble.  A wide compass of techniques was employed too, from biting the bow stridently into the strings to lightly skipping over them.  The work described deep sorrow rather than ‘mere’ melancholy.  At times it expressed wailing, but came to a brief calm towards the end.

We now moved to something familiar: Bach’s Suite no.1 in G major for solo cello.  The suites are the cellist’s Bible – or should we say Old Testament in this case?  The Prelude made a promising beginning, although I found the slurring between bass notes to the higher notes in the chords are little too much.  The tempos may have had something to do with it; the movement was taken somewhat faster than one often hears it.

A very lithe and supple Allemande followed, exhibiting lovely tone.  Some notes were touched very lightly; the effect was most pleasing.  The Courante was brisk and lively, but every note was present.  The slow dance that originated in Spanish America, the Sarabande, was thoughtful, rich and deep, demonstrating the cello’s sonorous capabilities to the full, while the following Minuets were animated,                                             yet played with plenty of feeling and beautiful phrasing.

The Gigue that ended the Suite included considerable contrasts in the fast dance.  These dancers were energetic and got around all over the place.

After the interval, Donald Maurice joined his viola to the cello in Beethoven’s curiously named ‘Eyeglass’ duo.  It was thus named, Maurice told us in an excellent introduction, for the bespectacled musician friends of Beethoven to whom the piece was dedicated.  In imitation, both players donned ‘eyeglasses’.

The duo consisted of an allegro followed by minuet and trio.  The work featured delightful interweavings, evocative of a conversation between the two dedicatees.  There was body in the playing and variety of tone.  Beethoven introduced some fun into his writing – pizzicato passages followed by glissandi.  The allegro was a difficult movement, resulting in some slight inaccuracies of intonation.

The minuet had echoes of the theme of the allegro, but then modulated in novel ways.  The conversations became more serious and complex, and were completed with an unexpected ending.

Yet another unfamiliar work: Rossini’s Duo for cello and double bass (titled simply ‘Duetto’ in Grove), in which Meggido was joined by her husband Paul Altomari, principal double bass player in the Vector Wellington Orchestra, who gave a good introduction to the work, which remained published until 1968.  One so seldom hears a double bass as soloist or duoist, that it was interesting to hear that the sound was not only deeper but also less direct than that of the cello.

The work featured some operatic-style themes, but overall it was not great music, though quite a work-out for the performers, especially for the bass player.  In the second movement, the bass played pizzicato while the cello had a strong melody; the third movement, loud at first, appeared to be a set of extraverted variations upon a dance-like theme.  A bright presto ended this jolly item.

Continuing the operatic theme, the players next gave us Georg Goltermann’s Souvenirs de Bellini.  Goltermann lived from 1824 to 1898.  The double bass played a rather dull accompaniment while the cello delivered operatic melodies – Meggido had a lot of playing to do before the double bass reversed things, playing its own melody, with the cello playing the accompanying passages.  Then the roles were reversed again: the cello played virtuosic passages, seemingly several parts at once.

The final piece was Klezmer Trio for viola, cello and double bass, by Wellington composer Ross Harris, who was present at the concert.  Wikipedia has this to say about Klezmer: “The genre has its origins in Eastern Europe. In the United States the genre morphed considerably as Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, who arrived between 1880 and 1924… met and assimilated American jazz.”

The instrumentation we heard is not listed in the Wikipedia article – but like all folk-based music, klezmer can evolve, especially when in the hands of composers who take it up and write around its melodies, styles and traditions.

The work opened with pizzicato from the two lower instruments and a melody on viola.  There was much off-beat rhythm; at one stage Altomari alternately hit the strings and played pizzicato on them.  A winsome melody from the cello intervened, then it was back to the viola, with the rhythm sustained by the double bass.  A change of key ensued; the interaction between cello and viola had a very Middle Eastern sound to me.

Some of the melodies were quite rhapsodic, their portamento technique assisting in the resulting sound being quite different from those of Western classical music.  The music returned to a very rhythmic, dancing sequence, then all the instruments knitted together for an exciting syncopated ending.

This was indeed an interesting and varied programme, mainly of unexplored music.


American string quartet plus German pianist deliver eclectic programme of great accomplishment

ENSO String Quartet (Maureen Nelson and John Marcos – violins, Stephanie Fang – viola, Richard Belcher – cello) with Michael Endres (piano)

Boccherini: String quartet in G minor, Op 32 No 5; Ginastera: Quartet No 1, Op 20; Gillian Whitehead: No stars, not even clouds; Dvořák: Piano Quintet in A, Op 81

Wellington Town Hall

Thursday 25 October, 7.30pm

Though there was no written mention of it in the programme, the photo on the cover and that inside revealed a change of violist. On the cover the figure was, one assumed, of Melissa Reardon, named in the season brochure, while inside it was one who had to be identified as Stephanie Fong, named in the programme. A change had clearly happened between the time of the initial contract and the quartet’s arrival in New Zealand. While the cellist comes from Christchurch and may be assumed to be one of the reasons for their coming to New Zealand, the rest of the quartet are Americans whom the season brochure called an ‘exciting young ensemble’.

One doesn’t hear a lot of Boccherini’s music; is it because there’s still a tendency to think that audiences will not tolerate anything but the Quintet, often played in the arrangement for guitar, which features the Ritirata di Madrid, or the E major quartet with the famous Minuet? Yet musicologists assure us that the other hundreds of quartets, quintets and sonatas as well as scores of concertos and symphonies, are being unfairly concealed from us.

At last the famine was broken here with a very attractive string quartet, leaving only around a hundred others to be discovered. A quartet in G minor from Opus 32, written around 1780, it proved very much worth the journey, opening with a gentle insouciance, seeming to promise twenty minutes of charm and musical inventiveness.

As was normal with quartets of the period, the first violin boldly took the top line of the tunes, though it was not hard to hear rather interesting things happening in the other parts. In particular, the cello part was given attention (Boccherini was a distinguished cellist), and both second violin and viola took the melody or echoes of it from time to time.

If one expected to hear a replica of the famous, enchanting minuet, not this one; it was marked ‘con moto’ and it was that. Dotted rhythms, vigour: hardly the music that would have engendered the sneering soubriquet ‘Haydn’s Wife’, which was coined to describe the character of Boccherini’s music. The Trio section, in contrast, enjoyed a swaying, melodiousness, not the least sentimental; each instrument could be heard making quite striking contributions. The viola’s role (how quickly she has acquired the spirit of the ensemble!) particularly caught my ear in the Finale, though it was the first violin that relished the sparkling cadenza, perhaps not a usual feature in chamber music, but where are the rules defining what you can put in your own composition?

The quartet asserted its identity which might be elusive if you were presented with the task of identifying it blindfold, but it was clearly distinct from the recognisable finger-prints of Haydn or Mozart, and in which the players demonstrated total assurance.

Big contrast with the following piece: Ginastera, none of whose quartets I’d heard. My first problem in the first movement was defining the rhythm. One of the exercises one engages in with recent (any?) music that is cast in complicated rhythms is to identify patterns, but here I repeatedly lost count; a look at the score might help…. Ginastera might have made use of the folk music of his country but he has subjected it to heavy disguise and, like Bartók, has tended to strip it of anything that might be heard as sentimental or heart-warming; it was no less absorbing however.

The second movement, though fast, was quite subdued, embellished with a lot of edgy techniques, pizzicato and spiccato; the third movement opened with drone-like sounds from viola and cello followed by the first violin playing high, widely-spaced notes somewhat ghostly in character. It ended with an uneasy pianissimo passage from all four players. The last movement suggested the Balkans as much as the Pampas, lively peasant dances in hard-to-define rhythm, pizzicato that might have mimicked the guitar, all demanding playing of considerable virtuosity, which the players met with room to spare.

The players had agreed to tackle a newly commissioned New Zealand piece written for them by Gillian Whitehead. The composer’s note describes its elegiac origin, its name coming from a short story by Juanita Katchel who died during its composition. It opened in a spirit of self-confidence, the first violin singing over a murmuring accompaniment by the others; a series of new ideas flowed till the viola took charge in a quietly assertive manner, laying down a beautiful landscape (or mind-scape), that became agitated, almost frenzied before a sudden change of mood. I had the feeling that roles were attached to the various instruments and that the programme note might have been made more specific; but such specifics might have been a loss for the listener who was otherwise free to speculate, to dream.

However, the players seemed to have penetrated its spirit very successfully, finding a vein of music throughout its course that created a satisfying musical structure.

Michael Endres joined the quartet for the Dvořák piano quintet, a masterpiece and one of the all-time favourites of the chamber music repertory.

I was moved by the rapport that seemed to exist between pianist and quartet, at this, their first public performance together. The piano and then the cello opened in the most gorgeous pianissimo introduction creating a warm romantic spirit; and as the Allegro itself took off the viola played the big main theme and the movement continued, revealing translucent strings that matched the delicacy of the piano.  The Dumka, second movement, filled me, as usual, with delight at Dvořák’s melodic fecundity, elegiac in tone, which was illuminated by the ease and fluency of the playing; it also caught the surprising energy of the middle section.

Throughout, the performance was fast and accurate, limpid and varied in colour and rhythm, the sudden changes of tempo and mood handled as if the players were improvising them as they went along.

When faced with beautiful music being played with a certain conviction, with great spirit, I tend to be oblivious to minor flaws. I do not mean to suggest that there were things here that I failed to hear but which deserved to be reprimanded; only to record that both the music and the playing were so heartfelt and of one mind, that I was simply in no mood to look out for shortcomings.

That applied to the entire concert in which these players succeeded altogether in penetrating to the heart of all four works in the programme.

Schubert’s B flat trio given beautiful performance at St Andrew’s at lunchtime

Koru Trio (Anne Loesser – violin, Sally Pollard – cello, Rachel Thomson – piano)

Schubert: Piano Trio in B flat, D 898

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 24 October, 12.15pm

This lunchtime concert had been advertised as consisting of movements from both Schubert’s B flat Trio and Shostakovich’s second piano trio, Op 67. In the event, the players decided to do a proper job with the Schubert and leave the Shostakovich till another time (well, I hope so). The playing of individual movements might be OK if the audience is of young people or others who have not heard a work before, to offer a taster; but one is left in an empty space when the sounds one expects to hear in a following movement just don’t come.

All are players in the NZSO, forming another group that illustrates one of the sometimes overlooked benefits to Wellington of the orchestra’s domicile in the city.

Just by the way, there were two other contributions to the city’s rich music scene this week: bolstering orchestral groups that have certain weaknesses, usually in the brass or woodwind departments. One was the weekend concert by the Wellington Youth Orchestra, playing Brahms’s Fourth Symphony and Berlioz’s Nuits d’été (quite splendid performances they were!); and on Tuesday this week, to help the orchestra of the Lawyers in their ‘Counsel in Concert’.

Schubert’s two piano trios are, for most people, the loveliest and greatest of pieces in that repertoire, perhaps equalled by Beethoven’s Archduke Trio, and any performance is approached with a certain awe and excitement. The three players’ credentials were encouraging, and their performances proved their command of not just the notes but of Schubert’s overflowing imagination that these two trios give such vivid evidence of.

What made their performance so satisfying was their sensitivity to the varying dynamics and rhythms that sustain the repetitions of the themes with interest; we never heard a plain repetition but fresh light on the idea each time it reappeared.  It was not simply a matter of playing loud or soft, but of finding a darker or lighter emotion, at places where we are persuaded that Schubert had wanted the music to reflect pain or joy. Schubert’s music is almost the antithesis of the virtuoso showpiece, yet the cello solo near the end of the first movement, though not the least self-serving, was quite beautifully played.

The contrasts of light and shade were again the secret to the moving performance of the Andante. It was the Trio, middle section, of the Scherzo that I found most striking in that movement, where the players found a remarkable stillness through the repeated pairs of quavers.

The Finale was revelatory, as if it was being played for the first time, with some kind of hesitancy towards the end of the exposition, engendering surprise at the direction of modulations which turned them into little mysteries, the violin’s extended handing of a tune, suspended in time, and in the Coda, the spirit of a moto perpetuo.

What a delight it is for the tens of thousands of Wellingtonians (particularly the legions of cultivated public servants nearby who can seek to recover their spirits and sanity during their lunchtimes) who have the opportunity to hear such marvellous music as this, week after week, for nothing more than a small donation; and taken advantage of so worshipfully by such a happy few.



Choral and orchestral extension of case law advocated by Wellington lawyers and jurists

Counsel in Concert: At the Movies

Music, mainly classical, from the films

Choir and orchestra of lawyers (with some NZSO and Vector Wellington Orchestra players in the orchestra), Deborah Wai Kapohe (soprano), Amanda Barclay, Jared Holt (baritone), John Beaglehole (tenor), Douglas Mews (keyboards), Kenneth Young (conductor)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Tuesday, 23 October 2012, 12.15pm & 5.30pm

These lawyers worked to a brief of abbreviated (or should that be a-breve-iated?) musical works.  Some were very short excerpts, for example, the opening bars only of Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, which opened the 45-minutes-long concert and gave Douglas Mews a little burst on the organ in the gallery, and the final item ‘Ode to Joy’ from Beethoven’s 9th symphony, of which we heard only the final part of the chorus.  Most people will be familiar with these two movies (2001: A Space Odyssey, and A Clockwork Orange).  Despite its brevity, the Strauss was much more exciting in its impact, being live, than the recording of the full work heard on radio that very morning.

In between, there were several speeches, notably by concert organiser Merran Cooke, who besides being a lawyer is an oboist in the Vector Wellington Orchestra.  Other items from the choir were part of the ‘Dies Irae’ from Verdi’s Requiem, Nella Fantasia by Ennio Morricone (arr. Snyder), from the film The Mission, with Deborah Wai Kapohe (choir and harp very attractive here), Conquest of Paradise by Vangelis (of Chariots of Fire fame), and, most notably, a work especially written for this occasion by orchestra member Aaron Lloydd: Fundamental Obligations of Lawyers.  This set words from section 4 of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006; an unusual text, indeed.  The choir made a good, strong sound in all its items, but sometimes was swamped by the brass in the resonant acoustic of the church.  The choral writing was somewhat plain, but effective – more like a chant – it was probably a necessary characteristic if the words were to be heard, which they were.  The orchestral writing was more interesting, with some lovely percussion effects – befitting for bandsman Lloydd.  There were, too, some delicious woodwind effects, with sounds which were evocative – but not of the law!

Then there was a fanfare – that used by 20th Century Fox for the introductory screen to its movies – this case was very quickly resolved, with plenty of clamour.  Its composer was Newman (Randy, I assume).  The theme from Mission: Impossible was another brief display.  This music was by Schifrin, arranged Custer.  One trusts that this and the Morricone arrangement were done  with due regard to copyright law.

The items for the soloists received less condensed renditions.  Deborah Wai Kapohe’s ‘O mio babbino caro’ from Gianni Schicchi, by Puccini to which the singer gave an excellent introduction, was utterly ravishing.  Orchestra and singer were both in fine form.

Jared Holt followed with ‘Largo al factotum’, the famous aria by Rossini, from The Barber of Seville.  Like Wai Kapohe, Holt has returned to a legal career in New Zealand after some years singing in opera overseas.  His Figaro was full of character and wit;

The third solo was ‘La Donna e Mobile’ from Rigoletto by Verdi, the third in a trio of very popular operatic arias.  John Beaglehole’s singing was very fine, if his voice was a little light for Verdi.  The orchestra played with spirit and accuracy.  His introduction and singing had the necessary sarcastic humour.

‘Pie Jesu’ from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Requiem was sung most affectingly by Amanda Barclay and Deborah Wai Kapohe, though the style was somewhat too operatic for this simple piece.  Douglas Mews accompanied sympathetically on the baroque organ.  For the next item, the Vangelis, he played the piano.

Kenneth Young directed his counsel very well, particularly in view of the fact (of which we were informed) that he had taken on the case fairly recently, due to the previous conductor, Owen Clarke, moving to Auckland.

The concert was quite informal in the way the choir wandered on, chattering, and in its late start – perhaps a contrast with the court scene many of the participants are more accustomed to?

Tumultuous applause greeted every item, and the large audiences responded to a very good effort all round from the performers.  An irritant was the clicking of a camera upstairs during a number of the items, a phenomenon increasingly apparent in a variety of concerts recently.

Far from sticking to the letter of the law, the whole enterprise, and the performances, showed flair and originality.  Should we look for the chiropractors’ chorale, or the diplomatic dancers?


Interesting if somewhat problematic concert at Futuna Chapel

Colours of Futuna: Looking Upwards

Music by Pergolesi, Handel and Rossini

Janey MacKenzie (soprano), Jody Orgias (mezzo), Douglas Mews (keyboard)

Futuna Chapel, Karori

Sunday, 21 October, 2pm

Part of a 14-week Sunday afternoon series of short concerts held in, and celebrating, John Scott’s beautiful chapel, this concert featured mainly sacred vocal music.

The series of concerts is an excellent way of both celebrating the architectural gem from the 1960s, that at one stage was threatened with demolition after the Society of Mary retreat centre on the site closed and the land was sold and developed, and of raising money for its maintenance.  It is a pity that the flyer giving information about the concerts gives an incorrect number in Friend Street.  There is excellent information on the Futuna Chapel website.  The chapel, opened in 1961, was obviously named after the Pacific island of Futuna, where the Marists had missionary work.

The venue is small and intimate, ideal for chamber music concerts of all types, and very resonant, with all its timber and hard surfaces.  This means that there is no difficulty in hearing instruments or singing; on this occasion the volume was at times almost overpowering.  There was a need for the singers to adjust their dynamics to the size and clear, intimate acoustics of the venue.  It is quite hard on the voices, since everything shows.

The singers gave excellent spoken introductions to their music, the first item of which was Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater of 1736, or rather, four movements from it.  Douglas Mews performed the accompaniment on a digital piano – a bit of a come-down perhaps for Pergolesi (and for Douglas Mews too), but probably the only option.

The first excerpt was a duet, ‘Sancta Mater, istud agas’, the next a soprano solo, ‘Cuius animam gementem’, the third a mezzo solo, ‘Eia Mater, fons amoris’, and the last also a duet, ‘Quando corpus moretur’.  The lachrymose mood of the Stabat Mater, and indeed of all the vocal items in the concert, I found rather depressing on a sunny Sunday afternoon.  Nevertheless, the singing was mostly fine, apart from the excessive volume at times, and an unattractive edge to Jody Orgias’s voice in the higher register.  At the lower part of her range, her voice is rich and powerful – although at times a bit too powerful for her partner’s tone to come through.

We then moved to Handel, and his operas Orlando and Giulio Cesare.  The opening duet was from Orlando, while the solo ‘Piangero’ (yet more weeping and mourning), was from Giulio Cesare, as were the following two items.  These found Janey MacKenzie in good voice; Jody Orgias showed her flexibility and mastery of the music – and how deep she could sing – in ‘Va tacito’.  The duet ‘Son nata a lagrimar (there it is again!) was very effective, affecting and dramatically sung.

In between, Douglas Mews played the well-known Harmonious Blacksmith variations, which were well-suited to the instrument, and gave a pleasingly familiar and cheerful interlude.  I haven’t heard them played for years, though they used to be one of my ‘party pieces’.  Unfortunately, the piece demonstrated that the instrument was not evenly voiced, the notes in the middle register being stronger and more insistent.  This characteristic became rather tiresome.  Nevertheless, the playing was very expressive.

Now for something completely different – or was it?  We moved forward 100 years to Rossini, and his bouncy, operatic style of music.  It was still the woes of the sinners, and Mary’s pain, but in a much changed mode of expression  The Pergolesi and the Handel tolerated the keyboard accompaniment, the harpsichord that they would have used (along with other instruments) not being so very resonant.  However, the Rossini certainly missed the orchestra, or at least a grand piano, since the digital keyboard lacked the resonance necessary to reproduce the orchestral music of Rossini’s operatic style adequately.

The ‘Quis es homo’ from Rossini’s Stabat Mater and ‘Qui Tollis’ from his Petite Messe Solennelle, a late work, were operatic in character, and the duets were sung well, with complete cohesion, apart from some volume imbalance between the parts in ‘Qui Tollis’.

The two movements were separated (or joined?) by the Offertory, played by Douglas Mews.  Rossini’s first version calls for a harmonium, while in the second it is set for full orchestra.  Thus, a tall order either way, but it was appealingly played

The concert, therefore, had an ecclesiastical environment and content; the other ecclesiastical feature was the curate’s egg.


Music-making with virtuosity, beauty and energy at Wellington Youth Orchestra’s last 2012 outing

Wellington Youth Orchestra – Final 2012 Concert

Music by Thomas Goss, Hector Berlioz, Johannes Brahms

Louis van der Mespel (double-bass)

Bianca Andrew (mezzo-soprano)

Hamish McKeich (conductor)

Wellington Youth Orchestra

Town Hall, Wellington

Sunday 21st October 2012

My second encounter of the year with a Wellington Youth Orchestra concert was in its way as pleasurable and invigorating as the first one  – and in fact I thought the orchestra played more confidently and assuredly this time round throughout the entire programme, in repertoire that posed a number of interesting and diverse challenges.

Hamish McKeich was again the conductor, and as was the case during the previous concert, demonstrated a feeling for a range of repertoire I’d not before associated him with. It seemed, on the face of things, a far cry from the fare I’d usually heard him direct, mostly with the contemporary music ensemble Stroma, to the worlds of both Rachmaninov and Berlioz (to name but two of the composers whose music the orchestra played), but he seemed just as at home with each of these respective worlds of sound and feeling as with any “modern” composer’s music.

Of course, present-day composition assumes an enormous stylistic and aesthetic range of expression, as the evening’s first concert item illustrated. This was Thomas Goss’s delightful Double Bass Concerto, written in 2004 and premiered the following year in Santa Rosa, California. It was played here brilliantly by Louis van der Mespel, his performance marking the young soloist’s success in winning the WYO Concerto competition earlier this year.

This work was intended by the composer as a kind of showpiece for the instrument, making use of its “natural” characteristics such as warmth, depth, resonance and available range of pitch and dynamics. In his program note Goss talks about the instrument’s “alternate view of virtuoso string playing” – and van der Mespel’s performance realized these unique characteristics with considerable aplomb.

I found the music had a kind of “English pastoral” feeling, predominantly lyrical and rhapsodic, a style assumed by the double-bass as well, with a few startling extensions to what one would expect from something like a viola or ‘cello! Particularly striking was the instrument’s high register under this young soloist’s fingers – his playing may have had the odd patch of edgy intonation, but such were few and far between.

Goss’s writing for the orchestra was lovely in places where one felt a kind of “outdoors” ambience, the wind-blown string phrases readily evoking open spaces, though ready when required to explore emotional responses to the same, whether reflective or passionate. Among other ingratiating moments were were sequences of dialogue between the soloist and, by turns, the respective leaders of the violin seconds and firsts.

The soloist was given a cadenza-like recitative towards the work’s end, splendidly expressive and wide-ranging, and especially notable for some beautifully-managed harmonics, contrasted with great growlings on the lower strings! A reflective mood dominated the work’s last pages, leaving a poetic, almost elegiac impression at the end. Splendid work from all concerned, and especially from the young soloist!

From double-bass to mezzo-soprano seemed a truly radical tonal focus-shift, but the rich and radiant beauty of singer Bianca Andrew’s opening phrases took us more-or-less immediately into Hector Berlioz’s world of turbo-charged sensibility, though hardly that, it must be said, inhabited by the same composer’s wonderfully hallucinatory “Symphonie Fantastique”.

Instead, with these songs Berlioz found a rather more finely-honed expression perfectly suited to the poetry of Theophile Gautier, the result being a sequence of settings at once sensuous, poetic and elegiac. We were fortunate to hear singing that was more than ready to respond to every inflection of the line and every colour suggested by the text, catching and holding the flavour of each setting so beautifully.

It seemed, too, the instrumentalists were inspired by Bianca Andrew’s radiance and focus throughout – though often not particularly glamorous in effect, the strings kept their intonations nicely in accord with their soloist, and the winds made some lovely accompanying melismas in places. Le spectre de la Rose was distinguished by a range of expression from the singer which conveyed all the bitter-sweet sense of fulfillment in death, raptly accompanied by conductor and players; and the contrasting dark passions of Absence here washed over us with telling force, the repeated cries of “Oh!” like searing sword-strokes to the heart, making the desolation at the end all the more hurtful to experience.

Though the text of the following Sur les lagunes spoke also of loss and desertion, the mood was somehow more radiant, more elevated, with eyes seemingly turned heavenward rather than downcast (“Above me the immensity of night spreads like a shroud”), the music’s grief almost transcendent in its upwardly-reaching outbursts, the highest notes countering the bitterness of those which transfixed the previous setting, Absence. Surely Bianca Andrew was born to sing this music, conveying such a heart-warming sense of release in the cycle’s final song L’Ile Inconnue (Berlioz’s fifth setting, Au Cimetière, was omitted) using her face as well as her tones to delightful effect, and conveying such a generosity of spirit with these heartfelt outpourings. Orchestra and conductor, too, seemed hardly able to contain their pleasure in realizing such beauties, earning the audience’s gratitude and appreciation at the end.

And then, after the interval, there was Brahms! – the Fourth Symphony, no less, a strong, dark, and in places melancholy work, relieved by a giant’s playground of a scherzo (in this and in other instances the most Brucknerian-sounding of all of Brahms’ music) and then capped off by a passacaglia whose heights and valleys, grandeurs and storms resemble those of a mountain range. Youthful energy and confidence kicked in beautifully at the start of the symphony, the occasional phrase snatched a little uneasily, but with most things nobly unfolding, as my notes attest – “conductor gets his strings to “ghost” their figurations nicely” – “big irruptions have plenty of energy, raw in places but spirited” – and “passionate strings – the strain on some of the high notes a sign of their sheer commitment”.

Despite some slightly awry ensemble as strings vied with winds to bring the movement’s coda together, the excitement was palpable, Hamish McKeich spurring his players on and concertmaster Arna Morton leading by vividly-projected example from the front of the strings as was her usual wont. Though the words ‘better to travel than to arrive” had some point in this context, there were apparent feelings of great satisfaction among the players in achieving their opening destination.

Though relatively dry-eyed and light-footed at the outset, the slow movement’s tender beauty was well-chartered, clarinets especially lovely – and I liked the work of the lower strings, violas and cellos who had the theme against the wind counterpoints later in the movement. Though not as “Brucknerian” as I’ve heard, the strings still put everything into their big chorale-like tune, a favorite sequence of mine within the movement, when it returns after a previous outing on the winds. What was Brahms thinking of when he wrote this music? – such regret, and (at the end) almost utter desolation, with only the final wind chord for solace.

The orchestra did its best to cheer the composer and us up afterwards with a rollicking performance of the scherzo, Hamish McKeich encouraging plenty of bucolic girth of texture from the strings and brass, and lovely swirlings from the winds – the music’s “schwung” came across in great waves of energy, contrasting beautifully with the trio’s noble horn tones and lovely string detailing.

As for the finale, with its monumental structures and huge vistas of contrast, the players faced the opening head-on, with full brass tones and sterling timpani work. Though the strings occasionally lacked pin-point attack through their syncopated figurations, they dug in splendidly elsewhere, unfailingly supported by conductor McKeich. The flute solo was gorgeous, and the dovetailing between winds and lower strings went particularly well. When the great mid-movement outburst came, the strings excelled themselves with steady ensemble and full, committed tones – the softer passages a bit further on posed more of an ensemble challenge, but the more stentorian bits were driven home with terrific conviction, the brasses punching out the cadences and the rest of the players making their instruments sing right to the very end. Through thrills and spills alike, it proved a very exciting and satisfying performance from orchestra and conductor.

Michael Houstoun at 60 – divining the depths of the Diabellis

Chamber Music New Zealand presents:

Michael Houstoun – 60th Birthday Recital

BEETHOVEN – 33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli Op.120

Michael Houstoun (piano)

Ilott Theatre, Wellington Town Hall

Saturday 20th October 2012

It was probably pianist Artur Schnabel’s droll wit (documented elsewhere) which gave rise to the remark he made in a letter to his wife regarding the audience at a performance he gave in Spain of Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations – “I am the only person here who is enjoying this, and I get the money – they pay, and have to suffer!”

A once-fashionable thought was, of course, that suffering was good for the soul; however, in Beethoven’s music, and especially in these variations, the moods are so varied and wide-ranging that any discomfort would surely be just a small part of a myriad of emotions, each with its own particular kind of nourishment for the spirit.

At Michael Houstoun’s Ilott Theatre birthday recital of these variations on what the composer called a “cobbler’s patch” of a tune, it seemed that things such as enjoyment, excitement, bliss, profundity and humour were paramount, rather than any hint of suffering. From those very first utterances, Diabelli’s garrulous little waltz seemed at once deftly placed and somehow ennobled – under Houstoun’s fingers the repetitive banalities grew a sequence of arches, through which the first of Beethoven’s variations then proudly and imposingly made its way.

Throughout this parade of wonderfully quirky characterizations Houstoun’s playing kept certain unities alive and flowing –  as per usual with him, nothing was fudged or ill-defined, the focus always sharp and bright, no matter how varied the touch or wide-ranging the dynamics. And at once his clarity of expression kept the structure taut and seemed to enlarge the music’s parameters of utterance.

That for me was Houstoun’s great achievement in this performance, making something distinctive and memorable of each of the individual variations, but keeping each within a greater, underlying flow of overall purpose. I would be prepared to stick my neck out a bit, here, and suggest that a younger Michael Houstoun would have unequivocally made his listeners aware of the music’s eventual destination, but allowed each of the variations less individual character, lest any of them stepped out of line or broke ranks. Here, the pianist’s maturity and understanding allowed us to experience the best of both worlds.

As commentator William Kindermann points out, these variations harbour great tensions of complexity which arise between Diabelli’s commonplace theme and the unlimited possibilities unleashed by Beethoven – and performances which attempt to “smooth out” or “call to order” the extremes of firstly banality and primitive impulse, and then profundity and intellectual severity don’t seem to me to completely “chart the course” of Beethoven’s achievement.

My notes on Houstoun’s performance suggest anything but a smooth ride or a regimented display – I’ve already described that feeling of some kind of opening grand processional by the composer into the world of the “cobbler’s-patch” waltz, which the pianist’s playing suggested; and other impressions were quick to follow – for example, Variation Four (Un poco piu vivace) was here beautifully sculptured movement, somehow finely-chiselled strength and liquid flow at the same time, while Variation Six (Allegro vivace) hurled out the trills both in treble and bass, the instrument in places roaring excitingly! By contrast Variation Fourteen (Grave e maestoso) brought before us a rich cortege with beautifully augmented resonances and nicely-terraced dynamics.

As to the underlying flow, Houstoun took us from this quasi-orchestral realization through the following five variations to the nineteenth’s Presto with nicely theatrical timing that made the most of both continuities and contrasts. The grave e maestoso was energized with the military strut of the following presto scherzando, which stimulated ensuing high-spirited scamperings, hard on its heels, of both of the succeeding Allegros, and then fell into a kind of “Well, thank goodness THEY’VE gone!” poco moderato interlude that resulted in a “That’s what YOU think!” rejoiner with Variation Nineteen’s aforementioned Presto.

Notes scribbled during a performance can take up an awful lot of space, as here – in the pages of his Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik journal, Robert Schumann could as a critic indulge his fancy freely in describing fleeting, spontaneous impressions suggested by both his own and other people’s music – those of us less endowed with insight have to be rather more circumspect! But reading these in situ thoughts of mine brought back the concentration and purpose that Houstoun brought to his traversal of the music, truly making it his own.

Our feelings concerning the pianist’s identification with Beethoven’s world were nicely activated by a short film before the recital, in which Houstoun talked about his lifelong relationship with the music, beginning with an account of a very specific “moment” for him involving a recording of the great “Appassionata” Sonata (educationalists will recognize a well-documented learning phenomenon, the “readiness” principle, here). The film valuably caught something directly and very naturally expressed, the beginnings of a musician’s journey whose progress up to and including the performance which followed had obviously reached a stellar plateau of achievement.

Rounding off the event was a presentation to Michael Houstoun at the performance’s conclusion by June Clifford, former Chairperson of the Chamber Music New Zealand Trust Board, marking both the pianist’s birthday and the extent of his artistic achievements in tandem with Chamber Music New Zealand over the years. There was no doubt in anybody’s mind regarding the appropriateness and significance of such an award – we in the audience felt both thrilled and honoured to be present at both music and history being made so very resplendently.