Bryant-Greene and Atkins give enjoyable recital of New Zealand piano music

Anthony Ritchie: Olveston Suite
Jenny McLeod: Tone Clock Pieces XIX. Moon, Night Birds, Dark Pools
Douglas Lilburn: Sonatina no.1
John Ritchie: Three Caricatures

Buz Bryant-Greene (piano) and Andrew Atkins (piano)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

28 November 2012, 12.15pm

It was refreshing to have a programme entirely of New Zealand compositions.  It made for a most enjoyable concert, in fact more so than numbers of piano recitals I have attended.

One infrequently hears music by father and son of the same family (perhaps occasionally the Mozarts, Leopold and Wolfgang), so it was a distinct pleasure to hear music by both John and Anthony Ritchie.  The geniality of the writing of both points to a happy family life.

The son’s suite was charming, and evocative for anyone who has visited the beautifully preserved Theomin home in Dunedin.  I have – and even played the piano there, choosing Sibelius, as a contemporary of the Theomins.
I had never heard this music before, and was thoroughly enchanted.

The first movement ‘Great Hall’, appropriately began with grand chords and lofty notes.  It was followed by ‘Kitchen and Scullery’.  Here, the music was suitably busy, but cheerful, not stressed – this was a large room, so people would not be falling over each other.  In ‘Dining Room’, it was easy to hear the happy, conversational sequences, with some voices declamatory (male?) and some higher and softer (female?).   ‘Writing Room, Edwardian Room’ contained more contemplative, thoughtful tones, befitting for family members sitting down to write letters.

The final movement, ‘Billiard Room, Persian Room’ (which room I recall distinctly) featured music that was lively, with uneven rhythms (perhaps revealing unequal skill or luck), with running – rolling? – passages.  Did the player pot the ball at the end?

‘Great Hall’ was then played again by Buz Bryant-Greene, revealing some insecurities – not of the pianist, but perhaps of the guests, entering the hall.  It was a very satisfying performance, the skill of the player allowing the audience to concentrate on the music and what it was depicting, rather than the playing.

Following this, the pianist spoke to the audience about the programme.

Jenny McLeod has now written many Tone Clock Pieces, the first appearing in 1988.  These are based on the harmonic theory originated by Dutch composer Peter Schat (b. 1935).  The darkly mysterious piece was played with sympathy, subtlety and finesse.  The atmosphere of night was gentle, but full of surprises.

Douglas Lilburn’s Sonatina (of similar length to many sonatas) was introduced and played by Andrew Atkins, whose speaking had much greater clarity than was shown by his colleague, despite his use of the microphone.  He used the score, as was the case with all these pieces – but the programme had been a late substitution for what had been originally planned.

The Sonatina was written in 1946, and received an excellent reading at the hands of Atkins, who proved to have a lovely touch in the soft passages.  The vivace first movement began pianissimo, with Lilburn’s typical dotted rhythm on repeated notes in evidence.  The second movement was marked poco adagio, espressivo, but much of the movement was robust and strong, with great dynamic variety; the espressivo instruction was followed to the full.  The allegro was a difficult final movement, but was played with assurance and skill.  Altogether, it was a fine performance.

Buz Bryant-Greene returned to play John Ritchie’s humorous music.  The opening Toccatina was fun; much of it sounded like the birds and the bees, but it was quite demanding.  The Sarabande was a thoughtful slow dance that contained lovely piano writing, and some fast passages.  The Jig finale featured a no-nonsense opening, then bouncy elves rolled out (this being “Hobbit Day”) to jig around our ears (pointedly?).  It all made up to another fine performance.



Bach Choir brings its 2012 to a splendid conclusion with Vivaldi, Handel and a trumpet

The Bach Choir conducted by Stephen Rowley with soloists Rebekah Giesbere, Ruth Armishaw, Hannah Catrin Jones, John Beaglehole and Rory Sweeney
Janet Gibbs – organ

Beatus Vir, RV 597 (Vivaldi)
Trumpet Concerto in E flat (Neruda) with Mark Carter – trumpet
Dixit Dominus (Handel)

St Peter’s Church, Willis Street

Sunday 25 November, 4pm

The Bach Choir is one of Wellington’s more distinguished choirs, founded in 1968 by the late Anthony Jennings, a notable harpsichordist and one of New Zealand’s leaders  in the revival of interest in the authentic performance of baroque and early music.

Though the choir’s fortunes have fluctuated over the years, it has experienced a steady improvement in performance standards and confidence under Stephen Rowley.

Vivaldi’s transition from a minor, one-piece composer (The Four Seasons) who was generally absent from the ranks of significant composers (look at any book of music history from before the second world war, even 1950), to a major eminence alongside Bach and Handel has been interesting. His surviving operas have been the most recent discoveries. It was probably Vivaldi’s melodic fecundity and resultant absence of the need to elaborate endlessly one or two hard-won tunes, that caused earlier generations to deprecate and dismiss him.

I had not heard this Beatus Vir before; the earlier of his two surviving settings.  A famous Beatus Vir was one of the first pieces of early Baroque music I ever heard, in my teens – the setting by Monteverdi. And I seemed to hear echoes of it in Vivaldi’s version of a century later.  Vivaldi sets the text (Psalm 111) taking care to reflect meanings, almost of every word, and the use of individual singers, soprano and alto (Rebekah Giesbers and Hannah Catrin Jones) at first and then tenor John Beaglehole, lent the rather severe imprecation of the Psalm brightness and delight.

One of the departures from the strict liturgical character is the repetition of the opening line, imposing a musical rather than an ecclesiastical character on the work, The polish of the orchestral accompaniment from the Chiesa Ensemble comprising NZSO players, lend the whole enterprise a professionalism which the choir readily took upon itself; oboes contributed elegantly in accompanying women’s solos and duets; and Janet Gibbs, largely unobtrusive, emerged occasionally as the principal accompaniment.

But the most striking feature of the performance was that sheer melodic ease that both choir and orchestra handled with such endless accomplishment.

A trumpet concerto completed the first half of the concert: a rarity by a Czech composer, Johann Baptist Neruda, born a generation after Vivaldi, Bach and Handel, proved rather more than a routine baroque concerto. The soloist, Mark Carter, made no concessions to baroque practice, playing a modern, valved instrument; though, probably in accord with the practice of the time, he also directed the orchestra, waving his trumpet about gracefully.  Trumpet and orchestra bloomed in the fine acoustic of the church, allowing the easy legato of the Largo movement to expand, and taking the last movement, marked Vivace, at a pace that was rather slower than that. Though the first movement offered bravura opportunities, it was in the cadenza towards the end that Carter’s fluency finally showed itself. The endless emerging of music by forgotten composers and of lost works by better-known ones, serves to blur age-old judgements about the received masterpieces of the handful of ‘famous’ composers who have dominated music history for several centuries.

Confirmation that such things as masterpieces can still be acknowledged came with Handel’s Dixit Dominus, which occupied the second half. This remains undisputedly a prodigious creation by the 22-year-old composer from his Italian years. Written in Rome while the famous Papal ban on opera was in effect, all of Handel’s dramatic gifts are heard in the Dixit Dominus (Psalm 109); it is marked by one of the most dramatic openings, at least of the baroque period.
It was an arresting start signalling the great opera composer who was to emerge as soon as he reached a more congenial climate – Florence.

The three soloists who had shared the Vivaldi were now joined by soprano Ruth Armishaw  and baritone Rory Sweeney, for a  variety of episodes; alto Rebekah Giesbers enjoyed a striking episode with cello obbligato in the ‘Virgam virtutis’; the fast chorus ‘Tu es sacerdos’ went very well, though sopranos sounded a bit stretched as they negotiated the high passages; when all soloists sang together with chorus, as in (vi), ‘Dominus a dextris tuis’, the similarity of timbre between tenor and nominal bass, Rory Sweeney, somewhat reduced the variety that is a significant aspect of Handel’s composition; but this taxing episode for all soloists against throbbing bass strings they carried off splendidly.

‘Judicabit in nationibus’, in which Handel displays his fugal skills, was probably more tricky that it appeared; it’s little wonder, listening to this, particularly the exciting, staccato passage from ‘Conquassabit…’, that he had so quickly made a big impression in the Roman musical world. The two sopranos promptly changed the tone in ‘De torrente’ capturing beautifully the lamenting character of the verse. The soloists’ diction was generally excellent, while that of the choir was uniformly clear, even though they were probably tiring in the pulsating, motoric rhythm of the Gloria that becomes an extended fugue as it moves to its exultant conclusion.

Though both the works of the first half of the concert are very fine, and so well performed as to display their best qualities, this early Handel masterpiece was a splendid way to end the Bach Choir’s year.


Kapiti Chamber Choir offers antidote to Christmas commercialisation

Joyous Christmas Music
Christmas Oratorio by J S Bach

The Kapiti Chamber Choir with Orchestra directed by Stuart Douglas

Soloists: Imogen Thirlwall – soprano, Emily Simcox – contralto, James Adams – tenor, Kieran Rayner – bass
With a 20 piece Orchestra led by Jay Hancox.

St Paul’s Church, Kapiti Road, Paraparaumu

Sunday 25 November, 2.30pm

Praise be to Stuart Douglas and the Kapiti Chamber Choir for giving Kapiti residents the opportunity to hear arguably the best Christmas music ever written, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Accompanied by an excellent orchestral ensemble they gave an enormously joyful performance from the first thrilling trumpet notes of Andrew Weir’s piccolo trumpet to the full bodied final chorale. They were obviously in the hands of a conductor with a great sense of musicality and style.This performance was not just a series of arias and chorales but a thoroughly integrated dramatic event.

The Orchestra, led by Jay Hancox, was a mixture of capable amateur and professional players, many of whom are Kapiti residents. Their playing was vibrant and exciting though just occasionally a little too heavy for the bass and contralto soloists in their lower registers. The instrumental obbligatos, virtually duets with the solo singers, were sensitively performed by Andrew Weir on trumpet, Peter Dykes on oboe and Malu Jonas on flute, all of whom gave thoroughly professional performances.

Douglas’s choice of the four young soloists was excellent. They all sang beautifully and were able to convey the full drama of the Nativity story. Soprano Imogen Thirlwall has performed several times in Kapiti and her rich and powerful soprano soared easily above everything the Orchestra threw at her. Emily Simcox, contralto, who has previously performed with the Kapiti Chorale, has a voice  of great warmth and tenderness which she combines with a riveting presence.

As the Evangelist tenor James Adams proved himself a true story-teller, singing with drama and communicating well with the audience. Bass Kieran Rayner has been singing in Kapiti since he was very young and showed the increasing maturity and depth of his voice. His well-known acting skills were well to the fore in his exciting presentation.

The choir performed Bach’s very demanding score with vigour and precision, providing a big sound when necessary but also great delicacy in the unaccompanied chorale Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier. The usual lack of strength in the tenor section, due to lack of tenors, did not seriously detract from this uplifting performance. The soprano section was notably excellent.

With judicious cutting of the original score by Douglas we were given a full two hours of glorious music – a wonderful antidote to the crass commercialisation of the season. As I was leaving an audience member said to me “I feel so much better for that”.


Rain, wind and moonlight – Stroma’s “Pierrot Lunaire” and more……


Madeleine Pierard (soprano)

Hamish McKeich (conductor)

Kirstin Eade (flute/piccolo) / Phil Green (clarinet/bass clarinet)

Blas Gonzalez (piano) / Megan Molina (violin)

Andrew Thomson (violin/viola) / Robert Ibell (‘cello)

HANNS EISLER – 14 Arten den Regen zu beschreiben (Fourteen Ways of depicting Rain)

AMNTON WEBERN – String Trio Op.20


Ilott Theatre, Wellington

Sunday, 25th November, 2012

Stroma brought up the 100th anniversary of Arnold Schoenberg’s landmark creation Pierrot Lunaire in unique style at Wellington’s Ilott Theatre, as part of a program featuring the music of both pupils and contemporaries of the composer.

Naturally, the concert’s focus centered firmly on Pierrot Lunaire, with the advance publicity’s imagery suggesting a theatrical presentation, one featuring the extremely gifted singer Madeleine Pierard. This performance took up the second half of the program, with Hanns Eisler’s Vierzehn Arten den Regen zu beschreiben (Fourteen Ways of depicting Rain) sharing the first half with Anton Webern’s String Trio.

The Hanns Eisler work was played here in accordance with the composer’s original intention, in tandem with a film. Dedicated to Schoenberg on the occasion of his 70th birthday and scored for the same instrumentation as the master’s Pierrot Lunaire, the music was a manifestation of Eisler’s fascination with and study of music’s relationship to the medium of film. The composer “set to music” an existing silent film, Regen (Rain) made in 1929 in Amsterdam by filmmaker Joris Ivens.  Its montage-like construction featured scenes whose placement suggested a kind of understated interplay between natural elements, mostly rain, and people going about their business in a city.

Completing the first half was Anton Webern’s String Trio Op.20, to the uninitiated, a work presenting the wonder of new sensations, especially the lyrical explorations and variants of the same throughout the first movement, then with the second movement introducing what felt like a more “physical” kind of engagement, stimulated by greater contrasts of timbre and rhythm. Interesting that the performance was “conducted” by Hamish McKeich, something that, for me, added a kind of dimension to the sounds, almost like a life-pulse beneath the contrasting plethora of surface incident.

As for “Pierrot”, it has always been regarded as “new”, even a hundred years after its creation. After the premiere in Berlin in October 1912, with the composer conducting and Albertine Zehme as the vocalist, the musicians took the work around Germany and Austria. A critic after a performance in Augsburg the following month suggested that, in order for people to “understand, enjoy, or at least feel” the work, they would need to grow “ears of the future” – a statement with particular relevance for concert-hall audiences.

It’s a truism that in almost any creative sphere things which seemed like daring, almost anarchic cutting-edge first-up presentations can in many cases become absorbed by the main-stream of forward movement, and their edges rounded-off for more general consumption. Where “shock value” was and is an integral part of a work’s message, this can place extra stress on contemporary performers to try and replicate that essential sense of outrage and anarchy, public or private.

Of course, in a world all-too-accustomed to daily presentations of atrocity and carnage as television news entertainment and much worse (so I’m told) awaiting mere mouse-click activation via the Internet, it’s perhaps the performance-context that then becomes all-important for art-music.

I believe that’s why the “refined order” of the concert-hall and its age-old associations continues to allow music of all eras their specific kinds of impact and impressions. And, with reference to this present concert, even though our ears may have gotten “used” to the relative astringencies of the sounds produced by members of the “Second Viennese School” (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, et al…), in performance situations certain impulses activated by intensities unique to that performance will always have an impact.

Also, one doesn’t underestimate the increased familiarity and better-developed understanding of any work that comes with repeated exposure, a kind of “roundabout” that makes up for the loss of the shock value’s “swing”. This concert afforded us plenty of food for reflection along these lines, the items able to engage us in all kinds of ways and at different levels of receptivity, from surfaces to inner recesses.

Regarding the opening work by Hanns Eisler, I loved the combination of film and music on this occasion (being normally a last-ditch opponent of add-on visual accoutrement to music presentation). Of course, this was different to that, the film being the composer’s original inspiration for his music. On the face of it, fourteen musical vignettes stitched together would, one might think, produce a disjointed hotchpotch of impressions in sound, with no guarantee that the whole would be greater, etc….. But for a variety of reasons we as listeners seemed to be taken out of ourselves and ‘put in touch” with a kind of synthesis of sounds and images throughout, in places cleverly dovetailed, and in others interestingly contrasted in terms of feelings produced.

I could detect no strain, no discomfort or lack of co-ordination regarding the musicians’ performance (expertly duetted, cross-media-style, with the on-screen happenings through Hamish McKeich’s direction). It all seemed as one, the music-making reaching back from its immediate “face” to make the connections, as any piece of music might similarly fuse with aspects of a listener’s previous experience.

In the wake of Eisler’s work Webern’s Op.20 String Trio promised a potentially less immediate and engaging experience for the listener, an expectation that for me was confounded by the austere beauty of the sounds made by the trio of violinist Megan Molina, violist Andrew Thomson and ‘cellist Robert Ibell. Originally intended by the composer as a three-movement work, the surviving two movements seemed complementary, a kind of “air and dance” pairing. A commentator whose analysis I read called the work “jagged and severe”, qualifying the judgement with “yet strangely beautiful and lyrical”. The latter statement came out more readily with these musicians’ playing.

Here were finely-wrought exhalations of breath at the beginning, a gentle flow of movement, angular in places, and flecked with little irruptions and pizzicati impulses. Its companion movement seemed more impulsive, volatile in line and figuration as well as in dynamics, each player in this performance seeming both singer (in places more like “sprechgesang”) and listener, such was the playing’s interactive spirit throughout.

The interval done, Madeleine Pierard took the platform, dressed and made-up as Pierrot and accompanied by Hamish McKeich and the ensemble. She was stationed to one side, well-lit, while the musicians and conductor were in the centre. Immediately behind the group was a backdrop of a screen on which titles, translations and images were played, giving the audience plenty of help regarding the texts of the poems. First impressions were of an immediacy and clarity of utterance from both singer (beautiful diction) and players (beautifully-focused, transparent lines and atmospheric tones). The voice encompassed a frequently startling dynamic range, wonderfully mirrored by similarly explosive accents and contrasts from the players.

I confess I was transfixed by the clarity and focus of it all throughout the first couple of numbers. It actually took me until midway through Part One’s grouping of seven songs to regain my critical senses sufficiently to realize just why it was that Madeleine Pierard’s performance sounded so much more lyrical, wistful and engagingly human than any other singer I’d heard on record (I had never heard the work in concert before). She was actually SINGING a great deal of the text and sustaining many of the pitches of her notes to a greater extent that any other exponents of the role I’d encountered. There was, of course, variation in what I’d previously experienced, to the extent that, without a score it was impossible to plot precisely where Schoenberg had intended his “singer” to sing and where to break into speech, or at least “bend” the note pitches. But this performance was, to my ears, “sung” like no other I’d heard.

The effect was to “humanize” many of the poems’ utterances, and play down the more grotesque, often deranged-sounding modes adopted by the singer. Whether this was how Madeleine Pierard “saw” the work, along with her conductor, Hamish McKeich, or whether it was due partly or wholly to a lack of experience in performing it, resulting in more conventionally accepted modes of utterance being used, I’m not sure. Schoenberg himself was undoubtedly influenced when writing the work by the vocal capabilities of the first person to “create” the role of Pierrot, the actress Albertine Zehme (who, incidentally, chose the poems for the work). I came across a fragment of the correspondence between composer and singer-actress which was revealing:

The singing voice, that supernatural, chastely-controlled instrument, ideally beautiful precisely in its ascetic lack of freedom, is not suited to strong eruptions of feeling…..Life cannot be exhausted by the beautiful sound alone. The deepest final happiness, the deepest final sorrow dies away unheard, as a silent scream within our breast, which threatens to fly apart, or to erupt like a stream of lava from our lips…..We need both the tones of song as well as those of speech. My unceasing striving in search of the ultimate expressive capabilities for the “artistic experience in tone” has taught me this fact.

There was no doubting Madeleine Pierard’s considerable skills in bring this work to life, and her ability to make the words of the poetry pulsate – only in one or two instances did I feel that she hadn’t freed the music completely from the page, partly due to her playing-down the grotesque, spectral element which the sprechgesang mode would have helped emphasise – in Der kranke Mond which concludes the first part, she didn’t quite match the ambience of her flutist Kirsty Eade’s wonderful solo, her voice a shade earthbound, without the suspended gleam of the moonlight’s focus. But what a contrast, then, with her almost primordial, pitch-dark rendering of the following Nacht! – her deep-throated tones redolent of the abyss, as it were. She also captured the out-and-out horror of the Rote Messe, with its “gruesome Eucharist”, though I thought the sound of the words of Die Kreuze, the final song of Part Two, needed more of a certain spectral, “blood-bled” quality, something that more focused sprechgesang would have possibly given. But certainly there was vocal energy and finesse from this artist to burn.

The singer’s costuming and make-up was first-class, as was the organization of the backdrop screen and the timing of the text translations. I did wonder whether her lighting-pool was too unrelieved – some shadow on the face at certain angles would have given some contrast and allowed her a bit of freedom – as it was, every glance and every flicker of expression was laid bare, throughout. Make-up and costume suggested a theatrical statement was being made, and I felt it could have been followed through more strongly and consistently. Again,I don’t know whether Madeleine Pierard’s presentation was “directed” as such by anybody, but she could have been encouraged to incorporate what glances she did give her conductor (understandable in a score such as this!) into a kind of pattern of derangement or moonstruckness – something theatrical, or at least cabaret-like. And I would have liked her lighting to have had SOME shadow, a dark line allowing some facial contouring which she could have used for some respite along with more covert purposes.

Enough! Hang these comments, which matter far less than the fact that Pierrot was here a “tour de force”, a work whose stature was overwhelmingly conveyed by singer, conductor and players. Each of the instrumentalists did splendid things, conductor Hamish McKeich was the music’s flexible but unbreakable anchor-chain, and Madeleine Pierard’s voice gave us its beating heart. Performers and everybody associated with the Stroma team deserve our gratitude for giving us the chance to share so graphically and tellingly in a great work’s hundredth anniversary.


The Tudor Consort in taxing but excellent concert from the Renaissance and Messiaen

The Tudor Consort conducted by Michael Stewart

Renaissance Influences V – Springtime

Music by Claude Le Jeune, Claudin Sermisy and Olivier Messiaen

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Saturday 24 November, 7.30pm

The last of the series of concerts from The Tudor Consort that sought connections between music of the Renaissance and the present gave rise to the most recondite relationship with links that drew together the medieval story of Tristram and Iseult (as it is in Matthew Arnold’s narrative poem), and a little known work of Messiaen, Cinq rechants (‘five refrains’) for 12 unaccompanied singers.

The Cinq rechants form the third part of a strange trilogy that Messiaen composed after world war 2. The first is an hour-and-a-half-long set of poems called Harawi for soprano and piano; the second part is the Turangalîla Symphony, and Cinq rechants is the third. They are all inspired by/derived from the Tristan and Isolde story.

Its most authentic early form of the Tristan story is found in the German poem by Gottfried von Strassburg of around 1200. It was included by Malory in his Le Morte d’Arthur (though it is not, of course, strictly part of the Arthurian legends) in the 15th century and hence is found in Tennyson’s version of Malory’s poem, in his Idylls of the King.

It would be hard to identify any musical connection between the legend and Messiaen’s composition, though there are verbal references to Brangaine and Yseult in the first of the five poems which Messiaen wrote, partly in a made-up language devised for onomatopoeic reasons.

What then is the connection with the 16th century French Calvinist composer, Claude Le Jeune? The Tristan story and Le Jeune’s Spring theme were linked through Messiaen.   Le Jeune wrote 33 ‘airs’ and six more extended chansons, with the title Le Printemps. We heard five of the latter: ‘Revecy venir du Printems [Printans]’, ‘Voicy du gay Printems’, ‘Chant de l’Allouette’, ‘O Rose reyne des fleurs’, ‘Le Chant du Rossignol’.

Messiaen knew them and was influenced by Le Jeune’s technique of somewhat rigidly echoing stressed syllables in the text with long notes in the music. While this offers sensitive treatment of the meaning of the Old French (of benefit to very few of the audience I imagine), it made rhythms irregular; combined with a melodic penchant that paid more attention to meaning than to lyrical beauty, the results were interesting rather than beguiling.

Thus their performance was not an easy task and the choir displayed singular accomplishment in making them so musical, especially those singers who occasionally took passages by themselves.

The choir also sang a chanson, ‘Au joli bois’ by Claudin Sermisy, who was thirty years Le Jeune’s senior. It was in a much more familiar polyphonic style, Italianate perhaps; the wood might have been beautiful but the singer was grief-striken, not that the spirit of the music or the singing gave that away.

Then, before the interval came the five Messiaen songs. The first began in deceptive calm from women’s voices while the men disturb it, singing pseudo-Hindi words. They continue making use of linguistic, poetic devices that have, for Messiaen, musical equivalences that vary in their effects as the listener grasps or fails to grasp what he is seeking. There is nothing simple in the music; one was often overwhelmed by the virtuosity exhibited by the choir, and wondered that so few hints of imperfection appeared.

For all the difficulties presented for the singers and the listeners, earlier and later hearings, even if only of bits of the cycle such as are found on You-Tube, begin to cohere musically, and encourage one to explore more of the less-known works of this extraordinary composer.

The Tudor Consort continues to offer Wellington wonderful opportunities to enlarge and deepen (if such a flawed metaphor is allowed) our musical horizons.



Superb English Trio performs in context of Pettman/ROSL Arts

The Leonore Piano Trio (Benjamin Nabarro – violin, Gemma Rosefield – cello, Tim Horton – piano)
Piano trios: Haydn’s in C, Hob XV:27; Ravel’s in A minor; Dvořák’s in F minor, Op 65
(Royal Over-Seas League, in support of Sistema Aotearoa)

Legislative Council Chamber, Parliament

Friday 23 November, 7pm

The members of this fine English trio were here as part of the panel judging entires for the Pettman/Royal Over-seas League scholarship.

They have made time to perform in several centres around New Zealand and this was the first of three concerts in the Wellington Region – the others are at Waikanae and Greytown. Several of them have been devoted to musical charities. This one at Parliament, hosted by the Minister for the Arts, Christopher Finlayson, was dedicated to Sistema Aotearoa, the Venezuela-originated scheme that gets children from disadvantaged areas into performing classical orchestral music. It has made a remarkable beginning in South Auckland and is being taken up elsewhere.

The trio gave a full and substantial programme, in performances that set them at once among the finest chamber music ensembles to have visited New Zealand for some time. The Haydn trio in C, Hob. XV:27, is among his last chamber pieces, written in 1797. It is a very fine work and these players treated it as, and made us believe that it was, a masterpiece. Its opening chords were electrifying, and it continued in a way that could well have suggested that its composer was Beethoven, such was its emotional range and intellectual stature. Perhaps there were some present who felt the playing was out of character with Haydn’s real creative nature, though I heard no such remarks; it did indeed invest the music with qualities that are to be found more in the music of decades later.

The impact of the playing was enhanced by the brilliant yet warm acoustic of the Legislative Council Chamber. It was the second concert there in the space of a week: on the previous Friday, the National Youth Choir had sung in the chamber (sadly, nowhere else in the region) to widespread admiration.

Ravel’s piano trio followed. In the Haydn, it was the piano and violin that made the greatest impact; my position probably diminished the sound of the cello. But here, after all instruments had become equal during the Romantic period, the cello was prominent for the beginning. But the cello’s individuality was only one of many characteristics that made the performance remarkable, Though the players never took inauthentic liberties, there was an engaging hint of hesitancy as they began, soon overtaken, dramatically, by a total assurance, vivid in the delineation of the quick changing moods: one moment intense, the next rhapsodic.

Ravel calls for sounds that are unfamiliar in music before his time; the scherzo-like second movement, inspired by the Pantoum poetic form of the Malay people (which we’d heard a day or so before in Debussy’s Five Baudelaire song settings) was both exotic and complementary to the character of the first movement, and those qualities were produced vividly by the players.

In the third movement, with its ancient title Passacaille (Passacaglia), the players took us far away in time, but strangely near in classical sobriety to the previous movement. To have heard this great work, so powerfully and masterly performed, by a trio of such distinction was revelatory.

The violinist of the trio remarked that Dvořák’s Trio, Op 65 was perhaps his best (though acknowledging the the Dumky was probably the favourite). But it just misses greatness, in the Brahmsian sense. Given that it comes close to Brahms in character, the fact that one of the most gifted melodists of all time failed to clothe it in music like his own piano quintet or the last three string quartets (Opp. 96, 105 and 106), points to the error of trying to win approval through turning aside from his own genius. Technically, formally, it complies with all the criteria that Brahms would have endorsed.

Nevertheless, it was played magnificently, even making me review the above feeling that I’ve always had about the trio.

So it was a superb concert in a superb environment, given in support of an admirable cause, which I am heartened to learn is being supported by the Minister and his Ministry. But I still await a major turn-around by the Ministry of Education to reinstate arts, including the teaching of classical music as compulsory subjects through to at least Year 11 in schools.


Lisa Harper-Brown frames fine Opera Society recital

Lisa Harper-Brown (soprano) in Concert with Christie Cook – mezzo soprano, Stephen Diaz – counter-tenor, Cameron Barclay – tenor, Kieran Rayner – baritone
Bruce Greenfield – piano

Songs by Debussy and Rachmaninov, Montsalvatge, Brahms and Elgar; arias and ensembles by Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Bizet, Rossini, Saint-Saëns, Handel, Monteverdi, Bach, Bellini and Bernstein
(Vocal recital by New Zealand Opera Society, Wellington Branch)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Tuesday 20 November, 7.30pm

Once upon a time the Opera Society used to present regular recitals, every month or so. Then, as opportunities multiplied for singers to appear in professional and amateur productions and in recitals at the university schools of music, the screening of opera films slowly became more common and the society’s recital programme diminished. Instead, there are monthly screenings of operas on DVD.

British-born, Lisa Harper-Brown has worked in Australia for some years and has recently been appointed to a position in the vocal department of the New Zealand School of Music. She provided the professional element in the recital, singing no opera but instead, brackets of songs by Debussy and Rachmaninov.

Judging that most of the audience was probably unfamiliar with Debussy’s five 1889 settings of Baudelaire poems (called ‘Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire), Lisa spoke about them, singing them in pairs. Her remarks were scholarly and perceptive, touching on Debussy’s affinity with Baudelaire, with symbolist poetry, the impact of Wagner and philosophical thought of the time.  Though the songs come early in Debussy’s career, before any of the best known piano and orchestral music, it is good to be reminded that before this set, in his first decade of work – the 1880s – he wrote around 60 songs.

Her opening of the first song, Le balcon, burst on the audience like a thunder clap; it demanded attention but also suggested that she did not at first have the measure of the acoustic, and almost at once modified her delivery. As the song continued (it is very long) it also became clear that Lisa had a complete grasp of the young composer’s aesthetic and his command of wide dynamics and huge pitch range. The singer encompassed it, if not with ease, then at least with astonishing virtuosic skill, none of which obscured the essential voluptuous, and sometime decadent, quality of Debussy’s creations.

The songs tax not only the singer; they also make huge demands of the pianist whose task is to simulate an orchestra, for in them the recent impact of Debussy’s visit to Bayreuth as well as the influence of eastern music can be heard, in both voice and piano. Bruce Greenfield’s contribution was highly impressive, exhibiting subtlety and luminous Impressionist colourings.

Christie Cook graduated on music from Otago University and is now studying with Flora Edwards, planning to do further study overseas. She sang three widely varied songs: one of Montsalvatge’s Five Negro Songs (Cuba dendro de un piano) capturing well enough its singular quality; then Brahms’s Die Mainacht, which seemed to have been perfumed oddly by the previous song, giving it an unbrahmsian voluptuousness; and then one of Elgar’s Sea Pictures (Sea slumber song) which seemed to me free of a routine English contraltoesque quality; instead she invested it with her experience of singing in foreign languages.

Later in the concert Christie returned to sing Isabella’s fear-filled aria, ‘Cruda sorte’, from The Italian Girl in Algiers. Her excellent lower register and the sheer weight of her voice were more evident here, and I was reminded of a comparable voice such as Marilyn Horne’s, as she handled this taxing aria. The second-most-familiar aria from Samson and Delilah, ‘Printemps qui commence’, followed; her duplicitous role was quite persuasively portrayed, in an excellent performance. A stylish, risqué  number (The Physician) from Cole Porter’s Nymph Errant ended her bracket, the musical line well done though clarity of diction might have been better.

Cameron Barclay is an Auckland graduate but has been heard this year in striking performances of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis and the concert performance of Candide in Wellington. He sang ‘Il mio tesoro’ from Don Giovanni, in well-judged character, and a pathos-tinged Eugene Onegin aria: Lensky’s ‘Kuda, kuda’, contemplating his likely fate in the duel.

Kieran Rayner joined Barclay next to sing the duet from The Pearl Fishers. It came off splendidly, the two voices blending beautifully even though (perhaps because) the two have timbral similarities.

Rayner’s other offerings came in the second part of the concert. His sturdy baritone was a fit instrument for Bach’s ‘Grosser Herr, o starker König’ from the Christmas Oratorio. If this displayed his capacity in a joyous religious context, his bel canto offering from Bellini’s I puritani (‘Ah, per sempre io ti perdei’) offered profane matter into which he injected a degree of passion.

The runner-up in this year’s Lexus Song Quest, Stephen Diaz, entered to sing two arias: ‘In se Barbara’, a trouser role for contralto, sung by Arsace in Rossini’s Semiramide; and ‘Verdi prati’ from the castrato role of Ruggiero in Handel’s Alcina which he sang in the wonderful production by Opera in a Days Bay Garden earlier this year. Both arias were among the best things of the evening and brought expected vociferous audience response.

Christie Cook returned to sing with Diaz the duet ‘Pur ti miro’ from The Coronation of Poppea.  I can’t help hoping that modern scholarship is mistaken in the belief that it’s not by Monteverdi – it’s one of the loveliest pieces in the opera! The pair sang it with a rapturous beauty that totally disguised the couple’s villainous behaviour that got rewarded with happiness (brief in the event), and earned another outburst of enthusiasm.

Lisa Harper-Brown returned to conclude the concert with three Rachmaninov songs (Lilacs, Op 21:5; In the silence of the night, Op 4:3; Spring Waters, Op 14:11) which she sang in Russian, without a score in front of her. Both her impressive diction and her well-conceived musical interpretations suggested suppressed passion as well as classical elegance. The last song, Spring Waters, with its keenly evocative piano accompaniment (in case we needed reminding of the near uniform excellence of Greenfield’s playing), was a powerful testament to the genius of Rachmaninov as a song writer, making me wonder why his name is not included routinely when people speak of the world’s great lyrical composers.

The ensemble piece (Cook, Diaz, Barclay, Rayner in ‘Some other time’) from Bernstein’s On the town was a sort of anti-climax after the beauties of Rachmaninov and a great many of the earlier pieces. Recalling those affirmed this as an exceeding happy experience.


Wellington Orchestra with its end-of-year winnings musically and in survival

The Vector Wellington Orchestra conducted by Marc Taddei with Michael Houstoun (piano)

Symphony No 44 in E minor ,‘Trauer’ (Haydn); Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor, Op 18 (Rachmaninov); Symphony No 4 in C (Schmidt)

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday 17 November, 7.30pm

The last concert of the 2012 series by the Wellington Orchestra attracted a very big house. If the major attraction was Houstoun and the Rachmaninov, there would have been a lot of empty seats after the interval, which is sometimes the case when a little known piece is to fill the second half. From the almost unchanged audience after the interval, I have to assume that a lot of people were curious to discover what Franz Schmidt sounded like (presumably knowing only the enchanting Intermezzo from his opera Notre Dame).

The first half was in minor keys: Haydn’s pithy, sombre Trauer symphony, in minor, the one before the ‘Farewell’, opened the concert; and it was followed by Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto in C minor. Characteristically in the 18th century works in minor keys were outnumbered about five to one by the major key. The Haydn began with strong chords that announced serious matters, but almost at once took up a spirited, crisp tune, driven along with confident rhythms. The orchestra was pared down to roughly the size that Haydn would have used at the Esterhazy Court, and Taddei demonstrated a commitment to and a flair with Haydn that produced a gripping performance. The Menuetto, as second movement, was surprisingly lively in pace, yet thoughtful, drawing attention here to the singular perfection in the balance between strings and winds and timpani. The third movement, Adagio, exposed a composer who might have been nearing 40 but whose genius still had more than three decades in which to develop, with the London symphonies and the great masses of the turn of the 18th century. Haydn’s spirit of endless melody here was played with both clarity and as much emotional exposure as a composer of the period could have legitimately produced.

There was a strange spirit in the atmosphere as Michael Houstoun entered to play what is perhaps the most popular of all piano concertos. There was nothing too seductive or haunted with the opening chords, not too slow or portentous; both piano and orchestra were in accord in handling the emotions implicit in both the first and the slow movements with a rationality that emphasised form and the intellectual qualities of the music. The approach allowed for the big climax towards the end of the movement to emerge in strong contrast to what had gone before, all the more impressive in its balance, with all departments sounding clear but none obtrusive.

The slow movement brought several sections and individuals into prominence, Moira Hurst’s clarinet in particular, in the meandering patterns she wove with the piano. While there were moments when the word listless rather than simply Adagio sostenuto came into my head, but I soon realised such moments were cleverly calculated to maintain tension. And its beauty was enhanced through its emotional restraint.

The time to loosen the reins came with the Allegro scherzando, with a cadenza that was a sure-footed as it was exciting, as conductor and pianist allowed the emotionally shifting episodes steadily to rise in temperature. There may heave been moments when orchestra and pianist became slightly separated but it was a small price to pay for a performance in which the orchestra framed the efforts of the pianist so as to gain the maximum excitement from a peroration in which Houstoun hurled caution to the winds and made inevitable the shouting and standing ovation that erupted even before the orchestra’s last notes had died away.

Franz Schmidt bursts on the New Zealand concert scene
In the Anglo-Saxon (as well as the Latin and Slavonic) worlds, Franz Schmidt’s music has remained unknown, yet it has hardly ever been absent from the programmes of Austrian orchestras.

I was impressed that, in spite of some evidence that Taddei had long cherished the hope of conducting Schmidt’s 4th Symphony, he refrained from speaking to us about it. He simply took up his baton and signalled to trumpeter Barrett Hocking to begin. The music stand and score were absent, and Taddei conducted the entire 50 minutes of the performance from memory, flawlessly, exhibiting every sign of a deep faith in this, one of the very last of the late Romantic symphonies.

Writings about Schmidt and this symphony in particular usually mention alleged influences from composers like Mahler, Bruckner, Strauss, perhaps Schumann or Reger. It doesn’t help much. I suspect it is only in the past century that such absurd emphasis has been placed on ‘originality’, taken to imply criticism of music that shows signs of its inevitable forebears. That has had the disastrous effect of persuading composers to engage in experiments rather than musically-based composing; experiments with technique, style and form that became requirements for a serious composing career; and the recipe for alienating audiences.

Schmidt obviously belongs in the tradition represented by the above names, but his voice is his own. But he did not stand altogether aloof from the experiments of his contemporaries and friends such as Schoenberg, and devices such as polyrhythms, complex chromaticism, atonality. Nor can he be consigned to either of the competing camps that divided late 19th century Austria – Brahms v. Wagner – for he is clearly an inheritor from both and of them and their disciples. He does not indulge in programme music, or overt self-analysis or employ music as a neurosis therapy.

One anonymous website reviewer has written perceptively:
“So, think about a grand Bruckner symphony but with Viennese Romantic charm instead of the mysticism, less brass, more strings and woodwinds, lush Straussian (or Korngoldian, if you prefer) orchestration , a good amount of severe Regerian counterpoint, and you’ll get a rough idea of a Schmidt symphony. This may sound like a mixed bag or like dry, academic stuff, but instead Schmidt’s works are entirely personal and well-integrated: they are full of personal ideas and wonderful (may I dare to say catchy?) melodies, and his skills in the use of a big orchestra are splendid throughout.”

It begins and ends with the same trumpet theme, and is much given to cyclical shapes; which must make the task of memorising extremely difficult. Although referred to as melodic, melodies are not, at least on 3rd or 4th hearing, becoming etched in the mind; though the wonderful cello solo in the Adagio (superbly played by Jane Young) may well become a force that compels repeat hearings. There’s also a rapturous violin solo from Matthew Ross later in the slow movement.  And yet, the absence of strong melodies generally may well be one of the elements that compels attention and maintains the listener’s emotional commitment; modulation is constant and destabilising, and thus arousing a need for resolution and the return to a home key.

After the quarter-hour-long Adagio, the short Scherzo is an acerbic cleanser; there was no sign of fatigue after the mesmerising slow movement; in fact, the orchestra’s energy and complete command, as if it was as familiar to them as Beethoven’s Fifth, filled me with awe.  It was pretty much the end of jocularity, for the last movement had only a short brisk passage in the middle; it was mainly peaceful or elegiac, building, not to a Tchaikovsky climax, but slowly subsiding in resignation bathed by beautiful orchestral sonorities.

Free programmes
Programmes were given free by the ushers: a most admirable procedure which I have urged over the years, usually to no effect.  Small-scale concerts such as chamber music usually provide plain programmes, free, whose emphasis is readable information. For a short time New Zealand Opera provided free programmes too. The underlying hope must be that audiences will become better informed about musical history and the nature of large-scale musical structures. Now that the education system has virtually abandoned giving students at secondary level any serious musical exposure as a core subject, what is written in programmes might be the only opportunity many people have to enlarge their understanding and appreciation of music.

NZSO and opera programmes are very expensive; given the cost of writing and producing programmes it is sad that so few benefit from them. This is a short-sighted policy.

So this last concert for 2012 was something of a triumph, ending a year that has been very worrying for Wellington’s orchestra, threatened by an ill-conceived funding restructuring by the Arts Council which seems to have been quietly set aside. Partly driven by the poorly-understood pattern of orchestral operations and responsibilities that has evolved over many years, it has been a case where balance-sheet driven logic and tidiness might have proved disastrous to the country’s musical well-being, and have saved no money in the long run.

The great audience at this concert was a heart-warming endorsement from the people of Wellington.



Wellington Youth Sinfonietta paves the way to orchestral careers

Wellington Youth Sinfonietta conducted by Michael Vinten

Excerpts from Swan Lake (Tchaikovsky) – conducted by Vincent Hardaker; Cirrus (Natalie Hunt); Violin Concerto in D (Beethoven)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 11 November, 3.30pm

With this concert the Wellington Youth Sinfonietta marked 20 years years of age (or should it be next year? – it was founded in 1993. There is a tendency to follow the Roman numbering system which was to count the year of a birth or a beginning as year one, so that the completion of that first year is named as year two. The same counting oddity was widely remarked on at the Millennium).

Naturally, gaps in the wind sections have to be filled by guests; flutes and oboes were the only sections entirely taken by young players and they handled three of the four trumpets: the contrasts were by no means as marked as one might have expected.

The excerpts of Swan Lake ballet were conducted by assistant conductor Vincent Hardaker; the orchestra did very well, oboes and later, the flutes gaining confidence as the music went along. One of the phenomena was a tendency of the professionals to dominate proceedings, particular members of the percussion section, whose sounds are endemically prone to overstatement in this church, so that the careful if tentative playing by young students was a bit lost during passages where percussion and brass were involved.

The orchestra had commissioned a piece from Natalie Hunt, a graduate in arts of Victoria University and in music of the New Zealand School of Music; she was Composer-in-Residence for the NZSO National Youth Orchestra in 2009. Cirrus opened with flutes followed by other woodwinds in feathery, transparent suggestions of high cloud, later darkened oddly by dulling pizzicato on double basses; the atmospheric quality recovered with marimba and triangle. The main part of the piece soon became more compact and I could admire the distinction the composer brought to her writing for the full orchestra, the underpinning by bass instruments and the unadorned line spelt out by the brass, all of which displayed her sensitivity to the limitations of young players.. The earlier hint of darkness reappeared with the arrival of insistent drums that threatened a stormy cumulo-nimbus sky.

After the interval Blythe Press entered as soloist in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, conducted, as was Cirrus, by Michael Vinten. The orchestra opened diffidently enough but their gathering confidence soon established a good foundation for the arrival of the soloist. A frequent problem was the players’ inclination to let rip wherever the marking fff appeared, to the detriment of the quieter passages. Though it was of course important to have professional support in the sections with only one or two young players, I was impressed by their often near indistinguishable contributions alongside the guest players of clarinet, bassoon, horns and trombones. Needless to say, Blythe Press’s performance was highly distinguished, always sensitive to tempos which tended to the slow side, but remained perfectly convincing. His presence clearly inspired the orchestra to playing that might have exceeded their own expectations.

This junior version of the Wellington Youth Orchestra provides an important stage for aspiring orchestral musicians, and their performances, heard in the right spirit, were here admirable.


Ludwig Treviranus returns to Upper Hutt for highly coloured recital of Beethoven and Mussorgsky

Ludwig Treviranus (piano)

Beethoven: Piano Sonata in C, Op 2 No 3; Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

Genesis Energy Theatre, Expressions Arts Centre, Upper Hutt

Saturday 10 November, 8pm

The name Ludwig Treviranus came to my notice when he played in his last high school years in the Hutt Valley, before moving to study music under Rae de Lisle at Auckland University. At that stage there was already a certain flair, a feeling for the dramatic in music, and they were the characteristics most clearly evident in the two pieces he played on this short return visit from Sydney where he is teaching this year. Last year he completed a doctorate at the State University of Florida in Tallahassee, guided by New Zealand pianist Read Gainsford.

The C major sonata of Beethoven’s first published set of piano sonatas has more pointers to the future, his own future, than to the past of Haydn and Mozart’s keyboard works; and it was the vivid contrasts in tempo and dynamics, between the crisp staccato phrases and sudden shifts to lyrical passages, even within a few bars, that marked his playing most strongly.

The second theme of the first movement was enlivened in these ways, particularly with its rippling, ornamented arpeggios; his approach made coherent the somewhat surprising cadenza that Beethoven gave himself near the end.

The brevity of the third movement is always a surprise, and Treviranus succeeded in delivering that surprise, at the same time convincing us of its rightness. The whole was not without minor trip-ups and rushes of notes that were a bit blurred; nothing detracted however from the fleetness, strength and insight of his performance.

It was a somewhat short recital: all over, including his pithy, fluent introductions, in an hour and a half. Nevertheless, there was time for him to make a lively impression on the large audience through his demeanour, his air of friendliness and of course his easy comments on the music and its context.

The second part was given to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which he told us he had learned in his final year at Florida. To bring the music more vividly to life he had arranged for images of the five extant paintings by Hartmann, which were the inspiration of the music, to be projected on a screen behind the piano; the other five pieces were illustrated by appropriate paintings by others, including Van Gogh’s study of straining oxen, for Bydlo.  If you search the Internet you will find a lot of partly speculative information about other possible sources among the very large retrospective Hartmann exhibition in Saint Petersburg in 1874, as well as rather more insightful writing about the composer and the painter and the aesthetic climate of Russia in the 1870s.

One measure of a performance of this work is the conviction brought to the varying accounts of the Promenade that appear between our viewing of the works on the gallery walls.  Generally, the viewer was led on a thoughtful walk around the exhibition, without haste; his emotions in the music reflecting what he sees there: the slightly sinister Gnomes (or Gnomus) and a colourful, animated scene at the Tuileries. Then came the primitiveness of the lumbering oxen of Bydlo (a Polish cart drawn by a cow writes one commentator, a symbol depicting the oppressed Polish people whose country lay divided under the domination of Russia and Prussia throughout the 19th century) with its heavy emphasis on the alternating chords, unchanging in pace as they fade away into the distance.

Treviranus commands a huge dynamic range, which was called for to depict the two Jews, Goldenberg and Schmuyle; and in the sudden plunge into the Catacombs, here with the pictorial background of three blurred figures against a half-lit wall; it was one of the most evocative episodes.

And he captured the grandeur and the occasional fall into triviality in the last two pieces, Baba Yaga and The Great Gate of Kiev: that image of Hartmann’s architectural conception, never built, shows graphically how far traditional Russian visual arts were from the classically derived styles that had ruled in western Europe, and Mussorgsky’s music too takes its inspiration from that of the Russian peasant, finally merging in spirit with the Promenade. In all, Treviranus‘s studied avoidance of any too elegant or polished performance could be heard to conform successfully with what we could see projected on the screen.

The pianist plans to return to Wellington next year; though he is very interested in teaching, I hope he can make time to enlarge and polish his repertoire, especially the fields he demonstrated so promisingly this evening.