‘Close encounters’: NZSO’s admirable enterprise to get good music on to the street

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Walls

A free lunchtime concert

The Waltz from Farquhar’s Ring Round the Moon; Overture to Il Seraglio (Die Entfürhrung aus dem Serail) by Mozart; ‘Le bal’ from the Symphonie fantastique (Berlioz); Liebestod (orchestra alone) from Tristan und Isolde (Wagner); Enigma Variations (Elgar) – Theme (the  opening Andante), and Variation No XIII (***); Ravel’s Bolero – conclusion.

Michael Fowler Centre

Tuesday 9 October at 12.30pm (repeated at 6.30pm)

The aim of a concert of this sort is not to prove to a highly discriminating audience that it is in the presence of one of the world’s finest orchestras (though, of course it is), but to seduce both that class of listener and any others who have strayed in, because there was nothing better to do this particular Tuesday midday, with some highly entertaining, non-challenging music.

A fine orchestra like this plays itself, but an expressive conductor’s arms and hands and body can vividly illuminate the music for the audience, in the same way that choreography does with ballet music.

It used to be common for critics to remark on the physical style of a conductor, the nature of his gestures, the expressiveness of hands or of the entire body; there’s almost an unwritten convention now about what a critic should comment on and what is hors de combat; most of that is pretentious and silly.  I found Peter Walls’s movements most engaging, suggestive of emotions and the spirit of the music, varied in character, never falling into the sort of repetitive movements that can became tedious, or employing both hands in the same circular manner: he uses each arm to delineate distinct aspects of the music.

The programme at this concert was well-chosen, reflecting much of the music I am personally most deeply attached to – Mozart, Berlioz, Wagner and French music in general.

And it began with one of the few pieces of New Zealand music that has made it into the international repertoire – David Farquhar’s incidental music to Christopher Fry’s play, Ring Round the Moon (adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s L’invitation au château). The lilting strains of the Waltz created the most beguiling atmosphere, and I’d have loved the rest of the suite to have followed.

Peter Walls then spoke, a little about that music, more about Mozart and the opera and his first years in Vienna, and the Turks and Viennese fascination with that cruel, romantic people who had nearly captured Vienna less than a century before… Whether others are as ready as I am to listen to interesting, well-informed people speaking from the stage, I don’t know, but I suspect the sterility of what now passes for education, in history, literature, languages and the arts leaves too many baffled and bored as soon as such things are spoken of.  The performance gave striking prominence to cymbals and drums to support Walls’s remarks.

Then came the second movement from Berlioz’s Fantastic Symphony – The Ball, which Walls noted was linked to the Romeo and Juliet story which the composer had already discovered through the famous visit of an English theatre group, and which he later turned into his sprawling Romeo and Juliet dramatic symphony.  The orchestra played it with perhaps too much ease where greater tension might have etched the phantasm of the Harriet Smithson theme, the Idée fixe, more eerily, but its spectral quality was not lost, beautifully played by clarinettist Patrick Barry.

Walls developed the relationship between Berlioz and Wagner interestingly, with little-known anecdotes, striving in few words to bring to life the Tristan story.

In passing he said that the concert doubled as a taster for the 2013 season which will shortly be announced, and the thought that we could get a concert performance of Tristan made me so excited that I scarcely took in anything else.

But this orchestral version, without the soprano, recalled my first hearing of the Liebestod, as a young teenager who listened avidly to ‘Early Evening Concert’ which opened 2YC’s daily transmission at 5pm every day (in the early 1950s).

The exquisite opening, again on clarinet, was followed by a lovely performance.

Walls then talked interestingly about the New Zealand connection of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. He didn’t say whether he subscribed to Professor Heath Lees’s theory about the underlying theme that the whole work is enigmatically based on (you will find the problem well summarised in Wikipedia); the opening Andante was played and the audience invited to submit ideas about the basic theme (prize: phial of Tristan’s love potion). But he did deal with the arguable matter of the *** at the head of Variation XIII, evoking his early love, Helen Weaver, who broke off the relationship and went to New Zealand for her health. The rattling low C on timpani, played with side drum sticks, perhaps evoke the sound of the engines of a 1900-era steamship crossing the Atlantic.

But this variation has more commonly been connected with a friend of Elgar’s, Lady Mary Lygon, who had just departed with her husband who had been appointed Governor of New South Wales, with a reference to Mendelssohn’s Overture: Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, played on the clarinet. The latter seems to be the more persuasive story, but the New Zealand connection has its appeal.

The last few minutes of Ravel’s Bolero ended the concert, starting from the point where strings pick up the mesmerising, ostinato theme, raising the temperature several degrees. Fittingly for a concert like this, all its colour and underlying rhythms and exoticisms were played for all they were worth.

Admittedly, most of these pieces are to be expected in the programming of any symphony orchestra: it’s the Tristan that has the blood racing. Nevertheless, the concert was an excellent experiment which deserves to be tried in other centres, perhaps with slightly less erudition and more drollerie.

A generation or so ago I suspect a concert like this would have filled the hall. The reason for the empty seats had nothing to do with the reputation of the orchestra, the quality of the music or its performance; but everything to with the decay of education in the arts and the widespread resulting idea that most pop and rock music is as valid and as good as anything in the ‘elitist’ classical repertoire. One can expect that opinion from the youth, but when it is shared by ‘educated’ adults, it’s a worry.


NZSM singers entertain in Upper Hutt arts centre foyer

Arias from opera; songs

New Zealand School of Music: Vocal students of Richard Greager, Jenny Wollerman, Margaret Medlyn and Lisa Harper-Brown, with Mark Dorrell (piano)

Rotary Foyer, Expressions Arts and Entertainment Centre, Upper Hutt

Tuesday 9 October 2012, 1pm

This was the last of a monthly series of free concerts given by performance students from the New Zealand School of Music.  It attracted a full house, there being over 100 people present.  It was the same last year; obviously hearing singers is particularly attractive to the music-lovers of Upper Hutt.  All the singers presented their items with poise and confidence.  There was a mixture of arias from opera, and songs.

The foyer has a fine acoustic, and both pianist and singers did well there.  There is a café sharing the space, and this meant a certain amount of noise.  However, it was seldom very loud, nor was it constant, so it made a pleasant, informal venue .

Baritone Christian Thurston opened the programme with ‘Alla vita che t’arride’ from Un Ballo in Maschera by Verdi.  Just over a week ago, Thurston made a very fine Figaro in a concert of opera excerpts by NZSM students, at the Adam Concert Room.  He has a wonderfully rich voice, very Verdian, well controlled and produced with good support.  After a spoken introduction, he sang confidently and clearly; his runs were particularly good.

Next we heard from soprano Christina Orgias.  Her introductions her three songs were among the best for fluency and meaningful presentation – and these characteristics were true of her singing also.  Her mature voice has a natural resonance, quite a lot of vibrato, and plenty of volume.  ‘Before my window’ by Rachmaninov was gorgeous.

Amelia Ryman (soprano) sang firstly ‘The Trees on the Mountains’, from Carlisle Floyd’s 1955 opera, Susannah (not the Liszt song shown in the programme).  This singer has a powerful voice, but it was beautifully controlled.  She gave a very pleasing performance of the aria, with subtlety, and the appropriate American accent.

Jamie Henare (bass) sang perhaps the saddest song in Schubert’s song cycle Der Winterreise: ‘Der Leiermann’ (The organ-grinder).  His German language was good, but the song was not sufficiently well projected in the quiet passages.  However, his voice has a very pleasing quality.

Excellent German articulation was heard from Christina Orgias in her second song: ‘O wüsst’ ich doch den Weg zurück’ by Brahms.  She conveyed the mood of homesickness, the theme of this song, very well.

Soprano Elita McDonald followed, with a Richard Strauss song, ‘Die Nacht’.  Her voice has a lovely quality, and seemed just right for Strauss, though the lower notes were a bit out of her range; however, her high notes were pure and delightful.  Hers, too, was a very good spoken introduction.

Strauss returned, this time with Christian Thurston singing ‘Zueignung’.  I enjoyed neither his rather unclear introduction nor the song so well.  I would rather hear it sung by a mezzo or a soprano.  A low voice simply cannot demonstrate that marvellous ecstatic lift that the composer has given to this wonderful song.

Jamie Henare’s first aria was from La Bohème: ‘Vecchia zimarra’, in which Colline sings about having to sell his old coat in order to have money to buy medicine for the ailing Mimi.  This suited him better than the Schubert song – and speaking of suits, he had an old coat with him as a prop.

Then came the undoubted star of the show, Isabella Moore.  The three items she sang were certainly longer than those performed by her fellow-students, and done to a greater level of proficiency.  First, also from Puccini’s La Bohème, ‘Si, mi chiamano Mimi’.  This well-loved aria was sang with a naturalness, confidence and assurance presaged by her introduction.  She used gesture well, but it was her voice that drew the attention.  She has a great voice, which she uses with intelligence and subtlety.  With it, she could grace the operatic stage right now.  This was a wonderfully moving performance, with superb tone and excellent projection.

Amelia Ryman followed up with ‘Daphne’, one of William Walton’s setting of Edith Sitwell texts.  This was a bright performance, but the voice was rather shrill at the top.

Elita McDonald returned to sing Vaughan Williams’s very lovely song ‘Silent Noon’.  This was beautifully and expressively sung, but could have done with a little more delicacy in places.

Now for something completely different: Isabella Moore sang Benjamin Britten’s witty cabaret song ‘Johnny’; the words by W.H. Auden.  This is heard not infrequently, but a rendition that was memorable for me, over 20 years ago, was by Sarah Walker, the English mezzo, when she visited New Zealand.  Moore’s performance was well up with this high standard, her facial expressions and use of the words making it fully characterised.

Jamie Henare completed his trilogy with ‘Ho capito, Signor si!’ from Mozart’s Don Giovanni.  This received a better introduction than did his previous two items.  The voice quality was fine, but there was not enough projection of the character.  The Don is being addressed by the hapless country lad Masetto, who is fearful for his girlfriend Zerlina’s virtue, with the Don about to be alone with her.   This all came over as too pat, too glib.  Yes, many of us know the aria, but it must appear to be freshly minted for each performance.

Mozart was the composer of the next aria also: ‘Come scoglio’ from Così fan Tutte, sung by Christina Orgias.  This aria incorporates a lot of florid singing which the singer executed well, with a commendable variety of dynamics.  She varied the words intelligently, and gave a completely characterised Fiordiligi.

Christian Thurston’s last aria was ‘Questo amor, vergogna mia’ from Edgar by Puccini.  He gave a very fine performance.

The recital ended appropriately with Isabella Moore, who sang from Massenet’s Herodiade Salome’s aria ‘Il est doux, il est bon’, about her infatuation with John the Baptist.  Moore’s language was again immaculate.  She gave a very expressive and brilliant performance; in fact, she was the compleat singer.

It was noticeable that this singer was the only one to mention accompanist Mark Dorrell as a fellow performer, and to gesture her thanks to him at the end of each of her items.  The audience rewarded singers and pianist with hearty applause.

Music hath charms…  and the audience was certainly charmed by this recital by promising singing students, accompanied throughout by the incomparable, or should we say unashamed, accompanist.