Melanie Lina – celebrating her “L’isle Joyeuse” at St.Andrews

St Andrews Lunchtime Concert Series presents:

MELANIE LINA – a piano recital


St.Andrews-on-the-Terrace, Wellington

27th February 2013

I didn’t manage to get to hear the very beginning of Melanie Lina’s St.Andrews lunchtime concert recital, crashing in (metaphorically) at what seemed the stormiest point of the Waldstein Sonata’s first movement development section, ostensibly a good place in which to make a late entrance as an audience member!  In truth, I had foreseen that things would keep me from making the starter’s call, so had arranged for my Middle C colleague, Rosemary Collier, to record her impressions of the first movement, to “tide the review over” so to speak! It turned into what I thought was a fascinating comparative exercise – had a well-known Biblical figure been present, he would have washed his hands for a second time, and reiterated his well-known definitive mantra, “What is truth?”.

Rosemary traced the music’s course in Melanie Lina’s hands from “dark opening sonorities” to “more ecstatic sounds”. Commenting on the pianist’s technique, she said that the skills and musicianship on display were of a high order, though she felt some blurring of figuration in the early part of the sonata, due, perhaps to slight over-pedalling.  This was underpinned by the tempo set by Melanie Lina, an “Allegro con brio” with plenty of the latter, and perhaps a faster allegro than is usually the case in performances of this sonata.

Nevertheless, Rosemary found herself admiring “a good variety of tonal colours”, bringing out the music’s drama. Occasionally it was felt that the piano made a clattery sound, specifically the notes in the second octave of the treble – was some restoration of the felts on the hammers needed in that much-used part of the keyboard? She made the point that Melanie Lina’s sound was rather less “clattery” than some she had previously heard. I must confess that, when I arrived my first thought was how INVOLVING the pianist’s sonorities were, the tones bright and focused but commanding a range of emphases which nicely coloured the lines and their range of intensities.

Had I not known the pianist’s identity (rather like tuning into a radio broadcast of a performance mid-movement) I would have forwarded the opinion that she/he was Russian – I could feel a pronounced degree of what commentators have called in the past “imaging”, a quality which characterizes the playing among members of the Russian piano school. This allies the music’s sound with a poetic or narrative idea, however abstracted or disguised, awakening potentialities in listeners for equating the music with their own experiences of similar ideas and/or emotions.

So, mid-development, the music’s drama was palpably and full-bloodedly engaged. Melanie Lina then contrasted this with a “Tempest Sonata-like” sequence of charged expectancy, the left-handed pulsating of the music supporting the right hand’s playfulness, and the crescendo bringing us to a swirling pitch of excitement before setting the reprise upon its wonderfully clear-headed course once more – such characterful, involving playing! The lyricism of contrasting episodes was given its due, but not allowed to languish, impelled forwards by the playing’s drive, and giving the dynamic contrasts all that they were worth – this was Beethoven after all!

Occasional finger-slips merely added to the excitement and sense of risk-taking in this dynamic performance, the “swirling” effect just before the last, breath-catching lyrical statement of the second theme again quite Russian in its utterance (shades of Richter and Gilels), a lovely meditative moment before the concluding pay-off.

My colleague drew attention to the slow movement’s beautiful legato, creating a mood at once delightful and soulful, a judgement I agreed with – here was music which seemed to me both abstractedly poetic and unashamedly operatic, the lines a veritable love-duet, as much demure as ardent, with tones matching the music’s different characters. I particularly loved Melanie Lina’s delineation of those three obelisks of sound at the movement’s beginning, a framework around which the music then wove its poetic interactions. I thought the pianist seemed momentarily to lose a little of her poise when approaching the finale (outside, perhaps some workmen’s occasional and annoying noises off were partly to blame at this point) – the character of the sounds seemed to recede and lose its focused edge and “charged” quality.

Happily, equanimity was restored with the finale’s beautifully ambient trilled tones which opened up the vistas and gave the bell-like melody space to ring resoundingly – a great moment! Lina didn’t need to hurry the reprise of the opening, though, as the slight tempo-nudge at the reprise impaired a sense for me of heavenly bodies going about their cosmic business – there was ample opportunity within a few measures to intensify the trajectories with the recapitulation of the trills and the powerful left hand – but the broken octaves that followed were very excitingly delivered, the composer at once setting a more earthy set of impulses alongside sublime order, a dynamic of contrasts well-realised by the pianist.

“Poetic and dramatic as required….a magnificent rendition” was Rosemary Collier’s overall comment regarding the finale, commenting further that  the pianist’s tempo was a little speedy for an Allegretto, resulting in a lack of weight as a whole. I felt that the pianist successfully realized Beethoven’s characteristic fusion of serenity and volatility, encompassing things like the breathtaking plunge into a new world-view with those massive chords changing the whole colour of the music, then gliding the music along a more winsome, syncopated pathway. The reprise was joyous and celebratory, though the pianist’s tempo did make for a relative “labouring” of the triplet figurations, and a touch of hectoring tone in places, perhaps due to that problematic piano register. There came that prophetic, Schumannesque moment of recall almost at the end (a lovely “reminiscing” effect), and the post-horn-like chords to finish.

In the wake of this performance the other item which really grabbed my attention was Melanie Lina’s astonishing playing of Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse. Here, as with the Beethoven, was, I thought, something of a grand tradition revisited, the pianist’s scintillating tones at the outset instantly at one with both idea and image of something shimmering and impulsive, all contours somehow both delineated and merged into one another, with everything made beautifully liquid. The pianist’s thematic shaping of the work’s “big melodic idea” grew beautifully from out of the textures, and, like Saint Francis de Paule of medieval times, who was said to have walked upon the water, rode the swirls and agitations triumphantly. I thought Lina’s command of detail, rhythm and colour realized the piece brilliantly, with a ringing flourish at the end whose sheer élan took away one’s breath with astonishment.

These items framed the remainder of the recital, works by Chopin and Gershwin. Again, the playing was brilliant, though in places, almost too much so – I felt the effect was sometimes too unyielding, too frenetic. The Chopin Waltz (the Op.42 A-flat Major “Grand Waltz”) needed more elegance and liquid flow for Schumann’s imagined countesses, Lina’s cascades of notes delivering too agitated and insistent an effect (the piano could possibly have been part of the problem). Her playing of the first (in C Minor) of the Op.48 Nocturnes was more successful, bringing out the orchestral contrasts of the opening with the hymn-like central section, though I felt some “straining on the leash” as the pianist moved towards the agitated chordal triplets, building the mood inexorably into something of a storm – it was evidently quite a night! Perhaps for some tastes the turbulence was over-wrought, though one could just as easily regarded the intensities as part of the pianist’s refusal to take a single note for granted.

Still, I thought the Three Preludes of Gershwin’s responded better to the pianist’s unflagging energy and intensity than did the Chopin items (Lina is, after all, American-born and trained, and would have doubtless been steeped in a kind of home-grown context for this music). Her playing of the dreamy middle Prelude was particularly atmospheric and evocative, and provided some relief from her brusque, hard-edged, totally unsentimental rendition of the opening piece (Gershwin himself played his music this way, judging from existing recordings). A busy, athletic evocation of the Third Prelude’s New-World glitter and bustle completed the set on a high note.

A word about the program notes, which contained a brief “recent undertakings” bio of Melanie Lina, and notes on the music, written by the pianist – the latter were a delight, in the form of a letter to us, the recital audience, putting each of her program choices into a context explaining its appearance, and telling us a great deal about her as an interpreter in the process. She told us of her youthful experiences with the “Waldstein” Sonata, and how she recently came back to it as the result of hearing a broadcast (to our great good fortune), delighting in its orchestral range and scope. With Chopin she talked of the quality of “singing with the fingers” when playing his music in general, and of the festive delight of some of his Waltzes, including the A-flat Major one played in the recital. She called the C Minor Nocturne “deeply dramatic”, a description borne out by her own performance.

Most interestingly, in tandem with talking about Gershwin’s music as being from her homeland, Melanie Lina expressed the intention to play more New Zealand music as well (one wonders if things like Douglas Lilburn’s Chaconne, John Psathas’s Waiting for the Aeroplane, and Philip Dadson’s Sisters Dance are already in her sights).

Having an interpreter of her abilities willing to play such repertoire would be cause for great joy – which leads me to the exuberance with which she wrote about the recital’s concluding item, Debussy’s L’isle Joyeuse, telling us about her midwest childhood spent far from any ocean, and her miraculous grown-up relocation to “an island in the Pacific” which she now calls home, indeed, a “joyous isle” that for her invests Debussy’s music with a special significance.

One hopes Wellington has not seen and heard the last of Melanie Lina, after such an exciting and stimulating solo concert.











Delight with a sting in the tail – Cosi fan tutte at Days Bay Opera

Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte at Days Bay Opera, Wellington

(Producer – Rhona Fraser / Director – Sara Brodie)

Cast: Simon Christie (Don Alfonso) / Tom Atkins (Ferrando) / Kieran Rayner (Guglielmo)

Kate Lineham (Fiordiligi) / Maaike Christie/Beekman (Dorabella) / Imogen Thirwall (Despina)

Orchestra and Chorus

Conductor: Michael Vinten

Canna House, Days Bay, Wellington

Thursday 21st February 2013

It’s presently a feast for aficionados of outdoor theatre, in Wellington – firstly, Antony and Cleopatra splendidly strutting their Summer Shakespeare stuff in the Dell at the Botanical Gardens (on until March 2nd, incidentally); and now this latest delight from the Opera in a Days Bay Garden – Mozart’s and librettist da Ponte’s most exquisitely-contrived work for the stage, Cosi fan tutte.

Cosi’s opening night fortunately caught something of the run of beautifully mellow summery days that the capital’s been experiencing of late – alarmingly, the following morning clouded and drizzled, but forecasts were better both for later in the day and the subsequent days. It seems (moustaches crossed) as though the weather gods, having had a bit of capricious fun, might be on Mozart’s and Days Bay’s side, after all.

But what better an experience to enjoy a subtle masterpiece of music-theatre, splendidly directed, sung and played, in a garden setting redolent with fragrant, easeful airs, encompassed by elements seemingly at peace with themselves and their surroundings?

The audience was here seated on the lawn, looking up to the ascending terraces on which the action unfolded, in front of the house, all beautifully framed by trees and the surrounding hills. In a pre-opening night interview producer Rhona Fraser (owner of the house and garden) commented on the advantage of having this “naturalistic” setting, with real doors, gateways and archways as entrance and exit wings, as well as sufficient spaces in which people could safely “jump around” and be “physical”. And the acoustic supported the singers most gratefully, the voices right from the outset projecting their tones readily to our ears.

It did seem to me, at the overture’s beginning, as if the orchestra might this time be too far removed from the centre of things, and their sounds more dissipated than supported by the open-air environment – the configuration was different to last year’s “Alcina”, when the audience inhabited the terraces and the action took place largely on the lawn, with the singers sounding by and large in the same “space” as the orchestra. But as the overture progressed the music drew our ears increasingly closer and focused our sensibilities on the accompanying action – and it wasn’t long before we had gotten used to the perspectives of what became the evening’s perfectly-proportioned sound-picture.

During this process the “scene” was already being set, as Don Alfonso (Simon Christie), the cynical (and here, somewhat out-of-sorts) middle-aged bachelor made his way into a cafe, in which people at other tables (recruited spontaneously from the audience, to everybody’s delight) were being attended by an attractive waitress. The atmosphere definitely had a “modern” feel, though not a contemporary one (those were the days! – not a cell-phone nor text-messenger in sight!) – perhaps late-1950s/early-1960s, underpinned by the “Navy Lark” uniforms of the two young men, Ferrando (Tom Atkins) and Guglielmo (Kieran Rayner) who arrived and greeted Don Alfonso as an old friend.

The Overture completed, the conversation between the three soon turned towards women, Ferrando and Guglielmo avowing the steadfast beauties and fidelities of their beloved ones and Don Alfonso (having already called their lovers’ steadfastness to question) parrying their indignant responses – here was excellent, energetically-delivered recitative between the three (Simon Christie particularly sonorous and characterful), and what I thought just enough umbrage taken (leavened with their brief ogling of the attractive waitress at “ah, women! – oh, women!”) by the two young men at their older companion’s cynicism. (Incidentally, Andrew Porter’s excellent English translation was the text used.)

The scene augured well for the rest – having heard that the opera’s setting would be “updated” here, my fears that director Sara Brodie might have been tempted into some kind of Peter Sellars-like mastication of the scenario (I had just viewed that director’s “take” on the opera on DVD and found the production singularly and searingly insightful, but over-wrought and ultimately repulsive in effect) seemed thankfully unfounded from this point on!  I didn’t necessarily hold with the view that, because Mozart’s was a comedy of eighteenth-century manners, the scenario should, whatever the travails of the workings, return both the characters and we observers at the end to “reason and normality”. Instead I thought that composer and librettist provided plenty of scope for any production to explore uncomfortable ironies and life-changing emotional refurbishments in the denouement – more than the literal message of the text alone perhaps suggests. But read on……

We then met the “Penelopes” as Don Alfonso wittily called them – firstly, Fiordiligi (Kate Lineham) filling her tones with artless, indolent infatuation, not every note precisely placed at this early stage, but capturing most convincingly the romantic idealizations of a young girl. And so did her sister Dorabella (Maaike Christie-Beekman), less ardent and vulnerable-sounding, a touch stronger and more “controlled” in effect – together, a near-perfect combination, as it transpired, their interaction at once a happy blend and characterful difference. At “If ever my heart should change….” I thought Dorabella’s the shade stronger counterpointing in the duet, but, again, it was a case of “vive la difference”!

Don Alfonso’s entrance into this idyll, complete with tragic mien and utterances, put a cat among the ensemble pigeons momentarily, but the feeling of disruption of peace and order was appropriate to the unravelling. In fact, throughout the performance, such was the teamwork among the singers and the obvious rapport between them and conductor and orchestra, that any brief dislodgements of ensemble (very few) had to my ears a kind of “elastic” quality, which seemed to be able to reconnect the counterpoints at a moment’s notice – very easeful, naturalistic musicmaking! This, the first “big” ensemble of the work brought out further delights, both musical and theatrical – the different “pools of emotion” stirred by each character took on a wondrously antiphonal effect, with almost the whole stage-width being employed, Dorabella to the right and Fiordiligi to the left, and their lovers filling in rather less acute symmetries, but with the focus firmly on the whole, and beautifully held together by Michael Vinten’s conducting. An especially lovely moment for the ensemble was at the words “how my heart is torn when I must leave you”, the whole thrown into occasional relief by Simon Christie’s sly but telling asides, his Don Alfonso replete with the character’s ironic satisfaction.

The lovely “Soft breezes….” trio provided a perfect extension to the sorrowful mood of the leave-taking, with the voices again being able to “separate” but remain pliable and secure in their combination, with Don Alfonso adroitly betraying a weakness for either Fiordiligi’s charms or a touch of generalized sexual gratification. Straightaway, the following scene introduced the “last-but-not-least” player in the scenario, the sisters’ maid, Despina (Imogen Thirwall), throughout bubbling with a mix of infectious energy and insouciance which made her a force to be reckoned with beneath the girlishness! Chocolate played its somewhat indelible part as well, firstly leaving tell-tale smears on Despina’s face for the sisters’ entrance, and then undercurrenting Maaike Christie-Beekman’s delightfully undone, Nabokov-like desperation as Dorabella, in thrall to despair and creature comfort (in Act Two, Kate Lineham’s Fiordiligi righted this attention-catching balance with a stunning appearance complete with plastic hair-net and portable hair-drier!).

But the action moved quickly to complete the ensemble possibilities around which the opera wove its subsequent tangles – after Despina’s pooh-poohing of her mistresses’ anguish, and her “conspiratory” scene with Alfonso, came the entrance of the “Albanians”, the supposedly departed lovers lavishly disguised and richly endowed with hair (a great audience moment!), followed by the sisters’ “getting wind” of the visitors’ presence and their subsequent confusion and embarrassment at the fulsome attentions paid them. It was all beautifully staged, with the men countering every move made by the women, like a dynamic game of chess, with Alfonso and Despina registering their “suspicious indignation” regarding the piteous squawks of the cornered women, interspersed with the sweet nothings of the exotic gentlemen callers.

By the First Act’s end all of the characters had stamped their mark on the proceedings, the sisters each performing beautiful instances of teamwork and individual characterization which would engage and fascinate our sympathies to the end. Kate Lineham’s Fiordiligi floated her tones with ever-increasing surety throughout, and made something many-jewelled of her aria “Like Gibraltar”, strong and imperious at the beginning, and with her conductor, judging the strength/energy ratio to perfection as the music reached fulfillment. As well, her softly-voiced moment of eventual capitulation to Ferrando’s attentions in Act Two touched our sensibilities, so completely drawn-in were we by that stage at her plight as a helpless plaything of emotion. Her sister’s portrayal by Maaike Christie Beekman brought out plenty of necessary contrasts of manner and vocal tone, strongly establishing a more confident and adventurous character, more volatile and playful than serious and sensible, thus more suggestible to the suitors’ flirtations. Her full-blooded, forthright singing of “Desires which torture me” in Act One made a marked contrast with her kittenish post-coital-like posturings for the benefit of her new “lover” in the Second Act.

Their lovers, real and disguised, contributed as much to the performance’s success, both together and individually – Tom Atkins as Ferrando used his true-voiced tenor to excellent lyrical effect, contributing to a true, knockabout partnership with his fellow-officer, Guglielmo (Kieran Rayner), as well as making much of moments like his Act One aria “The soft breath enchanting”, his voice having a lovely, “open” sound. His desperate and ultimately successful attempts to seduce Fiordiligi during Act Two were more effortful, in places a little breathless, but his urgency and purpose were strongly conveyed. As vivid and mellifluous-toned a characterization was Kieran Rayner’s Guglielmo, with his ardent Act One declarations of love and gently-mocking anatomical self-descriptions, more confident on the surface than his friend, but beneath more vulnerable and volatile. His encompassing of the character’s range of moods brought us great delight, from the irony of his admonition of women for their deceptions (“Dear Ladies…..”) to his anguish and bitterness at his belated betrayal by Fiordiligi.

These various couplings of friendship, love and betrayal underlined the ensemble nature of the work – and the “unholy alliance” of Don Alfonso and the maid Despina not only added to but twanged the strands deliciously. Both Simon Christie and Imogen Thirwall were compelling to watch and listen to from each of their separate entrances, and through their somewhat barbed interactions, right up to their part in the work’s unexpectedly eruptive conclusion. Christie made every one of Don Alfonso’s utterances “tell”, while conveying glimpses of a somewhat middle-aged-lecher aspect, which held a place but without exaggeration. Despina’s impersonated roles of doctor and notary were similarly treated, more characters than caricatures, and stronger as a result – her use of Dr. Mesmer’s “magnet” had the right mixture of hocus-pocus and suggestiveness, even if the trills, both vocal and orchestral, might have been a touch more outlandish.

I’ve already mentioned instances of the strengths and delicacies of Michael Vinten’s conducting, and the sterling efforts of his players throughout. Musically I took away as much a feeling of partnership and artistic interchange as individual expressions from singers and orchestra players – and I thought that, in this opera especially, it was as it should be. Very great credit, I feel, is due to both producer Rhona Fraser, and especially to director Sara Brodie, whose vision and dramatic instincts here, I think, provided a model for the idea (which I habitually shrink from) that opera production can successfully take in updated elements and “speak” directly and viscerally to different eras, without doing violence to the original. We were taken to a specific time-frame with the help of certain iconic objects and modes, but none that in appearance or use sharply contravened Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s content and style.

As to the true climax of the convolutions, it was definitely “come-uppance” time at the end for at least two of the characters, the action having wonderfully appropriate “shock value” for being so swift and focused, and a lot to take in all at once! Despina dealt to Don Alfonso with the classic “bent over double” result, and Ferrando landed a haymaker on his erstwhile friend Guglielmo’s jaw. What the two sisters did, if anything, I couldn’t say (it happened all too quickly!) – but perhaps, like me, they were too taken aback to do anything except go with the flow! No apocalyptic nihilism – merely just desserts! – and what happened to the couples then became anybody’s guess, speculation of which I’m certain both Mozart and da Ponte would have heartily approved, as they would our appreciative delight of what we had just been so generously given.











Organ Megalomania: Christopher Hainsworth courtesy Maxwell Fernie

Maxwell Fernie Trust

Chris Hainsworth, organ

Alex Lithgow (1870-1907): Invercargill March
The Four Seasons: Grieg: Spring; Cedric Hargraves (1921-2010): Summer Idyll; Joseph Kosma (1905-1969): Autumn Leaves; Antoine Vivaldy [sic]: Winter
Bach: Sinfonia; Chorale Prelude; ‘Jig’ Fugue BWV 577
Handel: ‘Jug’ Concerto in Bfl., Op.4 no.2 (2 movements: Grand Overture & Allegro)
Lefébure-Wély: Spring, Andante
John Wells: Kokako Fanfare and March
[Hainsworth]: Fantasia Super Quindecim
Théodore Salomé: Prélude-Cantilène
Édouard Batiste: Postlude and a bottomless epilogue
Grand Megalomaniacal Improvisation

St. Mary of the Angels Church

Sunday, 17 February 2013, 7.30pm

Chris Hainsworth believes that organ recitals should not be solemn, passive affairs. Wisecracks and commentary from the organ loft (not all of which could be heard toward the front of the church) and jocular groupings of pieces in the printed programme (e.g. The Four Seasons – NOT by Vivaldi; Strictly for the Birds and Grand Megalomaniacal Improvisation) gave the flavour. However, the layout on the printed page was not helpful in some cases in identifying what pieces went with which group titles and which composers.

As a former pupil of Maxwell Fernie (as I am), Hainsworth was, through this recital, supporting the Maxwell Fernie Trust, that assists young organists. A welcome innovation, only previously seen by me in the Wellington Town Hall, was to have a screen at the front of the church showing the image of Hainsworth playing the organ. The side-on view showed both feet and hands well. I’m told the camera operator was Maxwell Fernie’s son.

Hainsworth’s sense of humour was immediately apparent when his ‘pipe-opener’, the well-known brass band piece by Lithgow (internationally well-known, according to Chris Hainsworth), was introduced by the opening of Strauss’s familiar Also Sprach Zarathustra (known to many as the theme music for the film 2001: A Space Odyssey). This rousing start continued straight on to the March; some might say ‘from the sublime to the cor blimey’, but the March is certainly a grand piece of band music.

The Four Seasons was an innovative and rich mixture of pieces, from Grieg’s well-known piano solo, in which the rhythm of the quavers was frequently uneven, to variations on the popular and attractive Autumn Leaves by Joseph Kosma. In between was a contemporary piece by Cedric Hargraves, and the quartet ended with one movement of Vivaldi’s ‘Winter’ concerto.

Composer Nicolas Chédeville (1705–1782) arranged some of Vivaldi’s works and mixed them with pieces of his own; he spelt the Italian’s name in Frenchified fashion, as above. (Wikipedia, compared with Chris Hainsworth, makes his sin not plagiarism but arrangement of the older composer’s music, and ingratiating some of his own work into it.)

Bach’s ‘Jig Fugue’ is a lively and technically demanding piece. It came after a Sinfonia from Cantata no. 29 (arranged for organ by a Frenchman) and a chorale prelude. The Sinfonia was taken at a brisk pace, with even separation of notes; a crisp 2-foot stop added brilliance to the sound. The chorale prelude was ‘Liebster Jesu, wie sind hier’ (BWV 731), a most lovely one, and the first Bach taught to me by Maxwell Fernie – and one I always enjoy playing. Here again, the quavers were not always even when they should have been – not that I’m in favour of strict renditions any more than Maxwell Fernie was. Rubato, yes; slight accelerando, yes; but phrases of quavers should be even in rhythm. However, the splendid organ was shown off well, and changes of registration in the fugue were most effective; the playing was always lively. What a heritage Maxwell Fernie gave us in the interpretation of Bach’s organ music!

The ‘Jig’ of Bach was followed by the ‘Jug’ of Handel. His concerto is apparently nicknamed the ‘Jug’, although I could not find any reference to this on my recording, in Grove or Wikipedia. However, Chris Hainsworth justified this name by telling the audience that the composer relished the good life, and perhaps after a concert enjoyed a drink of Handel’s lager. Hainsworth played the sprightly, tuneful two movements, full of appealing melodies and rhythms, with contrasting registrations and elegant baroque style and flair.

The avians flew in (no pun intended) in both exotic and native dress. The Spring and Andante of Lefébure-Wély featured haunting flute stops (just a few pipes were not speaking properly) and were followed by John Wells’s Kokako Fanfare and March (do kokako march?). I found the registration of the fanfare a little strident for the clear-toned kokako – but perhaps it was honouring the bird rather than imitating it. Plangent flute sounds towards the end of the piece were more kokako-like.

Fantasia Super Quindecim was obviously an ingenious construction of Chris Hainsworth’s own; a ‘hommage’ to New Zealand rugby (the title denoting five Super Rugby teams of fifteen players each – thanks to a friend for pointing that out). We had ‘Highland Cathedral’, ‘March of the Crusaders’, The Birth of the Blues’ ‘Hurricane’ and ‘Mooloo’ movements.

The provincial appellations are eminently obvious, and some of the music was too: the bagpipes of the first movement sounded thoroughly authentic in tone and manner; the imposing, British imperial style of the march was magnificent, sweeping all before it. The Aucklanders – sorry, Blues – had a bassoon sound intoning the tunes (or was it the blues?), followed by much swinging in and out of the swell pedal (very obvious on-screen) to typify the capital. Perhaps I was not listening closely enough to hear any bovine sounds for Hainsworth’s former home territory. There succeeded intimations of Widor, the New Zealand National Anthem, and Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ to bring battle to a conclusion.

Throughout the recital, Chris Hainsworth revealed a splendid technique with plenty of detachment of notes, but always with musical integrity and in keeping with the style of the composers. That the performer is a thoroughly knowledgeable musician was always apparent.

Pieces by two minor French composers came next. That by Salomé was very attractive, featuring delightful registrations, principally reeds and flutes; a mainly quiet, contemplative piece. In contrast, the Batiste was bombastic and rousing, letting the organ have its head. (Richard Strauss would have been amused at the juxtaposition of these two composers’ names!)

As a finale, there was the improvisation. As a piece of theatre, the ploy of Hainsworth fishing up a sealed envelope containing the theme upon which to improvise with a line from the organ loft down to the theme’s deviser, Douglas Mews, was fun. Hainsworth played the theme, then immediately rendered it in modal fashion. That was followed by a birdsong version with chordal accompaniment.

More variations followed, working up to something reminiscent of Widor, and a return to modal tonality. A fanfare sounded an introduction to a section with thundering pedals, fading somewhat into a bouncy rhythm with much harmonic modulation and use of all three manuals for different effects; in fact, playing in a bunch of keys.

A brassy episode appeared, with the theme played on the pedals – this ended with another echo of Widor, and more unexpected modulation. The ending was rather too drawn out for my liking, but the whole was a considerable tour de force, to end a memorable recital.


LDA rides again – a new lease of life for a life in music

LDA – L.D.Austin’s life in music

(edited by Allan Thomas)

Steele Roberts Publishers 2012

Review by William Green

Louis Daly Austin – London-born teacher, composer, New Zealand pianist, columnist and inveterate letter-writer – lived a long and productive life … too long and too productive would be the opinion of his detractors, and it would be fair to say that there were many. Readers of newspapers and of the Listener during the 1950s and 1960s would no doubt remember being subjected to a barrage of sharply-worded letters from Austin (or ‘LDA’) expounding in no uncertains terms his typically reactionary views not only on musical matters but on anything which had provoked his ire. Often others would fire salvos back at him, not always seriously, as the following example illustrates. Austin objected to the carillon in Wellington, recommending that it be dismantled and reassembled on Somes Island, in Wellington harbour. Someone replied that it would surely be cheaper to take L.D. Austin and reassemble him on Somes Island.

But what shaped this trenchant critic into the controversial figure many knew only through his later correspondence? We now have musicologist Allan Thomas to thank for bringing Austin’s hitherto unpublished memoir to light – nearly fifty years after it was written – in a volume published by Steele Roberts. Allan edited the manuscript and provided an introductory paragraph but due to illness he was unable to see it through to publication. We owe a debt of gratitude to his family for bringing the project to completion after his death in 2010.

Far from being solely an excuse for airing a collection of firm opinions, the memoir reveals a colourful and varied life with a generous sprinkling of encounters with the good and the great, and a substantial fund of anecdotes, many of which – detractors take note – are surprisingly humorous. Being born into a wealthy and cultured family in London in 1877 predisposed him to a love of the arts and from an early age he attended a great many concerts, recitals and theatre performances. His depiction of musical life in London during the 1890s and early 1900s is rich in detail – he describes it as “the richest musical period of my whole life” – and one can sense his excitement at hearing such luminaries as Paderewski, Rachmaninov, Casals and Caruso first hand.

In 1908 however, he made a complete break with his past and travelled first to Australia and then on to New Zealand, where he discovered his true calling as a cinema musician. For nearly thirty years he worked as a pianist, orchestra director and arranger for silent film in various parts of New Zealand. This chapter of his life, in turn, ended with the advent of the ‘talkies’ and at nearly 60 years of age he forged a new career as a teacher, radio broadcaster and music columnist, penning his last column the night before his death in 1967 at the age of 90. This later period also saw him flourish as a composer and several of his pianistically written (if conservative) compositions were played by Moura Lympany and Louis Kentner.

His middle period, as it were, gives us an insight into early cinema days in Australia and New Zealand and also provides us with some of the more unusual anecdotes. During a mining strike in Newcastle he and his fellow musicians were pelted with lumps of coal by nearly 1000 drunk miners, and while playing solo on a later occasion – and having unknowingly replaced a band of five musicians who were bent on revenge – he was bombarded by ” a curtainfire of orange-peel, banana-skins, odd pieces of confectionery, empty chocolate boxes, ice-cream cones and other miscellaneous ammunition”. Fire, wind blowing music off music stands and a plague of water rats added to the challenges of the job, as did a bevy of colourful colleagues and employers. On two separate occasions he was swindled by the same violinist and once got into a fist fight with an Italian flautist who, he decided, was deliberately playing in his face. An earlier incident where he tore a cigar out of a manager’s mouth and slapped him hard across the face did him no favours. His ‘Irish blood’ was boiling, he states by way of explanation.

However, if we wish to understand Austin the later reactionary we must turn back again to that golden era of his life, the London of the 1890s and early 1900s. It was a magical time for him, not only of witnessing great musical performances but of meeting Sir Arthur Sullivan, thrilling to the acting talents of his godfather Sir Henry Irving and finding himself at Clara Schumann’s funeral, standing at the graveside next to a blubbering Brahms. And how many others can claim to have been snubbed by Moritz Rosenthal? It was in this cultural melting pot that he felt at home musically, and all subsequent composers’ works were measured against its conservative standards – and often found wanting. “Thus was my musical taste firmly established” he writes of this period. With Brahms firmly ensconced in his mind as “the last of the great composers” it’s little wonder that someone like Aaron Copland was seen as ‘cacophonic’, or that ‘Bartokery’ was something to be railed against at every available opportunity. He regularly lambasted the works of Douglas Lilburn, although the latter is given no mention in the memoir despite most of his instrumental music having been performed by the time of LDA’s death. One can’t help but wonder what kind of apoplectic spasm would have befallen the old man had he heard the composer’s electronic music. Needless to say, popular music doesn’t get off lightly either. Jazz is sheer degeneracy and in 1958, the news that a radio station in America intended to smash every rock and roll record in its collection was greeted with euphoria.

There are several elements in the memoir which aroused my curiosity. One is the use of language, which is distinctly ‘olde worlde’ and which sometimes makes for a quaint and stilted read. For instance, one particular host’s casual clothes were described as “somewhat plebeian habiliments” and the effect on a listener of many hours of non-stop opera is described as being “apt to pall upon a sensitive organisation”. Another curiosity (also noted by Allan Thomas in his introduction) is the complete absence of any mention whatsoever of his wife Hilda and his five children, reminding me of the wife of a certain famous man who, when asked for comment on a draft of her husband’s autobiography, remarked, “marvellous dear, but tell me – did you ever marry?” One would imagine this ommission was deliberate but to me the inclusion of family life would have made for a more 3-dimensionally character, and would have counterbalanced the descriptions of his early upbringing and family (which he does deal with, although not in great detail). Opinions are valued more than wives and children evidently, and LDA has an occasional tendency not to let the facts stand in the way of a cherished belief. As a pianist himself, he is convinced that members of this august profession live long and robust lives and by way of proof, offers us a list of great pianists who, he confidently assures us, “all passed the 80 mark.” His list includes Rachmaninov and Godowsky, who died aged 69 and 68 respectively.

In summary, while the memoir appears to have some gaping holes (in the ommission of his later family life) it is a full and fascinating record not only of musical life in London around the turn of the twentieth century, but also of the developing musical scene in this country. We can see his constant agitation in later life, both in the Listener and in newspaper columns, as being that of an irascible old curmudgeon stuck in a time warp; or of someone “obsessionally retrogressive” as John Mansfield Thomson described him in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography; or even as someone seeking status and attention. It does seem that some of this agitation, for example on behalf of emerging artists, and in support of a national orchestra, did bear some fruit, and one must admire his courage and persistence. The New Zealand musical scene would surely have been less vital without him, and as former Listener editor Monte Holcroft comments in his autobiography ‘Reluctant editor: the ‘Listener’ years, 1949-67′, “he was a character, one of the people who now and then brought colour and presence to the 1950s.” Perhaps we should leave the last word to Allan Thomas, who despite ill health took the trouble to rescue this stimulating and valuable memoir from obscurity. “LDA’s writing provides a window onto a world of music making in New Zealand that continued the romantic tradition.”

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

(Another review, by Peter Mechen)

Louis Daly Austin (1877-1967) was undoubtedly one of the great characters of the musical scene in New Zealand for many years. His own memoir, hitherto unpublished, has now appeared in print, beautifully annotated by the late, lamented ethnomusicologist Allan Thomas, and expertly and attractively presented by Steele Roberts Publishers.

The author, writing in the book’s final chapter, sums it all up in a nutshell:

Anyone who essays the task of reviewing his lifetime experiences, as I have done, must necessarily face the risk of appearing egotistical, and I am no exception.

Austin’s writing is self-revelatory, and in much more than a time, place and events sense – throughout the memoirs we get something of the character of the man as described in editor Allan Thomas’s introductory section, thus:

a controversial figure in New Zealand music for more than four decades……provocative and extreme opinions….extraordinary recall of the detail of his earliest music experiences…tremendous enthusiasm for music….

The book consists of that editorial introduction, followed by LD’s memoir, written up to the age of eighty-seven as a more-or-less continuous span (though there’s far less detail in the narratives dealing with his later years). There’s also a chapter-like section towards the end containing various extracts from Austin’s long-standing  (1929-1967) music column which ran in Dunedin’s “Evening Star” newspaper, thus providing examples from his career as a music journalist.

Had this section been more extensive (perhaps even including selections from his numerous letters to the newspapers), then the reader would have been presented with an even stronger, more pungent idea of Austin’s ascerbic personality and critical style. I did wonder whether editor Allan Thomas, having introduced this element (successfully, in my view) into the book, might have thought at any stage about amplifying this section even further along similar lines?

As demonstrated repeatedly in the course of the memoir Austin had a well-developed sense of his own worth, both as a musician and as a journalist; and of course his reactionary views regarding modern music (which he called “Bartokery”, and which included jazz and “pop” music) became widely known over the years. He revelled in his opinions, and in response to a query regarding his damning criticisms of modern music he said that he could be compared to medical practitioners working to eradicate disease.

But, as previously mentioned, LD’s memoir concentrates mainly and mostly upon the first two periods of his life, before he became a music critic – firstly his early years as a child in London and his student experiences on the Continent; and secondly his emigration to Australasia, and his taking up a career, mostly in New Zealand, of “playing for the pictures” in the heyday of silent film. These are the experiences that Austin brings most vividly and entertainingly to life, whirling us through sequences of evocative description and tales of incident-packed events.

Time and time again, LD’s compelling storytelling style captures the reader’s attention, his skills managing to transcend what comes across in places as an almost compulsively egotistic manner. Perhaps, as with beauty, such is “in the eye of the beholder” – for some people LD’s frequent self-congratulatory paeans will seem like proper self-respect, while to others they will smack of either naïve narcissism or pompous arrogance. It’s a tribute to his genuine talents that such things seem far less important than do the stories of his experiences he recounts so enthusiastically.

And what experiences they were – to add to the more personalized tales of interactions with family members, fellow pupils and teachers and friends, there were accounts of attending concerts by people such as Clara Schumann and Edvard Grieg in London in 1889, and also of hearing Tchaikovsky conducting one of his own concertos. And then, the following year there was pianist Ignaz Paderewski playing in London in his prime, an experience the youthful LD recalled as “imcomparable”. (LD’s later, somewhat disconcerting encounter with a much older Paderewski in New Zealand is also mentioned in the book),

The wonderment of those times wasn’t merely musical – Austin devotes some of his narrative to accounts of his boyhood explorations in “England’s Home of Mystery”, an exhibition near Piccadilly featuring magical entertainments, courtesy of John Nevil Maskelyne (who also invented the pay toilet!), and whose installations featuring life-like mechanical figures were renowned throughout the land.

Just as diverting were LD’s recountings of his experiences while at school in Europe, and his return to London, therein to witness an embarrassment of riches vis-à-vis many renowned musical and theatrical performers – in fact, a veritable roll-call of famous names of the period, too numerous to replicate here. Austin also had an interest in extra-musical activities (he was the godson of the famous actor Sir Henry Irving), and along these lines were experiences such as his attendance at the first performance of Oscar Wilde’s play “The Importance of Being Earnest”, followed, of course, by the shock of hearing of the unfortunate playwright’s subsequent downfall and degradation. By contrast, out-of-doors, there were the notable on-the-field exploits of the most famous cricketer of the day, W.G.Grace, whom Austin witnessed scoring his thousandth run of the 1895 season.

The second “phase” of LD’s career came with his emigration in 1908, firstly to Australia and thence to New Zealand, beginning a whirlwind course of events involving the young man’s involvement as a performing musician with the silent movies. Again the storyteller’s gift is strongly in evidence as Austin recounts an absorbing saga of numerous hirings and firings, boom-times and bust-ups, satisfactions and frustrations, a pattern that seemed to bedevil LD’s efforts in this particular field. But some of the descriptions, especially of venues in Wellington long since obliterated, are fascinating and invaluable. At the end of this career-phase he had played for “the pictures” for no less than 27 years.

Interestingly, the third and last phase of LD’s life is the least well-documented within the author’s own memoir. Allan Thomas also points out a curious anomaly regarding Austin’s life-chronicles:

 – there is nothing written of his marriage, the birth and education of five children, frequent moves….or the difficulty of making a living in the final decades of his life….he separated the family scene from his musical life…..

And yet he was described as “a genial man at home” who played the piano for his and others’ enjoyment. He gave many of his piano lessons at home, and often used the wind-up gramophone owned by the family to help him make his arrangements for the theatre orchestra.

Regarding the lack of detail in the third part of the memoir, it’s probable that Austin “spent himself” in other writing activities, such as his frequent letters, and his writings for both the “Evening Star” and “Music in New Zealand”. So, in a sense the present publication is one “going with” what LD did write, rather than seeking to “beef up” the content – and for what has been made available at last we must be truly grateful! – with the help of Allan Thomas’s family, LD’s daughter-in-law Lola Austin, and Roger Steele, publisher, this book’s happy leap into the light of day has been brought about in great style.

If one’s interest is music, or history or biography or rattlingly good storytelling, then this book will please and delight for many a day. It can be requested readily as an order through Unity Books in Wellington City.







Anna Leese and Terence Dennis in wonderful recital at Waikanae

Waikanae Music Society
Anna Leese (soprano) accompanied by Terence Dennis (piano)

Mozart: Ch’io mi scordi di te… Non temer amato bene (K.505)
Schubert: Fisherweise; An die Muik; Die Forelle
Debussy: Nuit d’étoiles; Beau Soir; C’est l’extase languereuse
Richard Strauss: Das Rosenband; Morgen; Zueignung
Tchaikovsky: Tatyana’s Letter Scene (Eugene Onegin)
Smetana: Our Dream of Love (The Bartered Bride)
Dvořák: Song to the Moon (Rusalka)
Canteloube: Baïlèro (Songs of the Auvergne)
Mascagni: Son pochi fiori (L’amico Fritz)
Puccini: Donde lieta (La Bohème)

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 10 February 2013, 2.30 pm

What an interesting programme this was, with a nice mixture of songs and operatic arias! The known and the less-well-known.

Anna Leese’s voice has developed even more since I last heard her, in the role of Tatyana in Eugene Onegin in Wellington, in 2009.  One of the impressive factors in her singing is her ability to modify style and tone for the character, text and music of each individual song.  Speaking of text; she sang in no fewer than 7 different languages; only one item was in English.  To my ear, her languages were impeccable, and her words clear.  Songs or groups of songs in the first half were introduced with a few words, which were informative but not excessive; similarly, the programme notes were concise and interesting.

From the very first note, Terence Dennis’s accompaniments were exciting to hear.  His outstanding pianism had me in thrall – and not me alone, I discovered in the interval.  He is a national treasure, and to hear (and watch) him play is to rediscover what the piano is all about.  Such is not always the case with pianists.  His pianissimos are to die for.  One factor I noted was that the piano lid was held open on the short stick.  Of course, acoustics vary from hall to hall, but I have often found the other two possible positions unsatisfactory for accompanying singers.

In the lengthy Mozart recitative and aria (a later addition to the opera Idomeneo), Leese made a great contrast between the declamation of the recitative and a smooth rendition of this difficult aria.  Both here and early in the second half of the programme, she had a little difficulty in sustaining the breath, but this problem was brief.  Terence Dennis had to combine orchestra and obbligato piano into one; it was a magnificent outcome.

Schubert’s songs were sung in an appropriately simpler style than was employed for the Mozart.  Here, the partnership between singer and pianist is more equal.  The excellence of Dennis’s playing brought out the many delightful features that Schubert put into the accompaniments and thus their place in the total music more completely than I think I have heard before in live concert.  He put me in mind of Jörg Demus, and even of the great Gerald Moore.  We are very lucky that Dennis chooses to remain in New Zealand.

Debussy’s songs are heard too infrequently (and indeed, how seldom these days, compared with the old days of the NZBC, do we hear professional song recitals).  Those sung by Anna Leese were particularly lyrical and appealing.  Again, the language was beautifully produced, and the accompaniment was never too loud, but gave the music written for the piano its full due.  Debussy’s setting of the words was a joy, and the sensitive performance utterly satisfying.

To many people the two well-known Strauss songs are at the pinnacle of the German song repertoire; “Das Rosenband” was  also a splendid setting.  “Morgen” and “Zueignung” never fail to move.

After interval, we were in the world of opera and therefore piano versions of full orchestral scores (including for the Canteloube, which is not opera).  Tatyana’s Letter Scene must be quite familiar to Anna Leese now, and her Russian language sounded very thoroughly learned and mastered.

Affecting, too, was the lovely ‘Song to the Moon’ from Rusalka, following the very characterful aria from The Bartered Bride, which was sung in English.  Every role was well characterised, making for great variety in the concert.

Terence Dennis was a whole orchestra in one person; dramatic when required to be, and obtaining great contrasts.  This was particularly true in the well-known ‘Baïlèro’.  Here, Anna Leese paid tribute to her accompanist saying that she could only sing a programme like this one because of him.  He certainly had the greater part of the work to do, with lavish orchestral flourishes, while the song’s vocal line was relatively simple.

The aria from Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz was not familiar to me, but nonetheless enjoyable.  The Puccini aria was immaculate, and demonstrated the lovely shine on Anna Leese’s voice.

The audience was privileged to hear such a recital, and was rewarded with an encore – an aria from Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel.

There were over 400 people in the hall and they were very attentive – a factor I’ve noticed frequently at Waikanae.  What an inspiration the concert turned out to be – a marvellous celebration to open the Music Society’s year.


The twelfth Nelson Chamber Music Festival breaks records – again

Nelson 2013 International Chamber Music Festival

Principal participants: New Zealand and Penderecki string quartets, Darryl Poulsen, Peter Nagy, Colin Carr, NZ Trio, Jenny Wollerman, Diedre Irons, Emma Sayers, Richard Nunns, Bridget Douglas, Hiroshi Ikematsu and other NZSO players

Principal venues: Nelson Cathedral and Nelson School of Music

Friday 1 February to Saturday 9 February


The Nelson International Chamber Music Festival has become by far the largest classical music festival in the country, increasing the trend well established in Europe and North America, to build music festivals into summer holiday plans.

While the festival’s duration has been reduced from the previously normal length of some 17 days to ten, with more concerts each day, in all other respects it is bigger.

It was an enlargement in terms of the number of concerts (around 22 standard concerts) and probably the total number of pieces of music played (around 70).  Thanks to the flair and enterprise of festival manager Bob Bickerton, artistic directors Helene Pohl and Gillian Ansell, and the sane, charming hand of chair, Colleen Marshall, the numbers of seats sold exceeded previous records by some 40 percent with many concerts sold out or close to full. Provisional attendance figures approached 6000, 70 percent of whom come from outside Nelson. The impact on Nelson’s economy has reached a level that has led the City Council substantially to raise its support this year.

To compress 22 or so concerts into nine days has meant three or four concerts on some days which has suited some, but not others.

Opening: Friday – both quartets and horn and NZSO players

The Festival opened in the Cathedral with a varied concert that featured both theNew Zealandand the Penderecki string quartets, four players from the NZSO and horn player Darryl Poulsen.  Members of the Penderecki String Quartet, Canada-based, were the principal guests at this festival. It comprises Jeremy Bell and Jerzy Kaplanek (violins), Christine Vlajk (viola) and Katie Schlaikjer (cello).

Poulsen took part in two classic works that called for his instrument, by Mozart and Beethoven. The one piece without the horn was a rarity: Prokofiev’s quintet for winds and strings, Op 39.

Poulsen’s playing in both K 407 and Beethoven’s Septet, Op 20, was admirable: subtle, entertaining, creamy, delighting in the awful dangers that Mozart had jokingly thrown at his friend, horn player Joseph Leutgeb. The horn was hardly less taxed in the Beethoven; merely less in the limelight, as Philip Green’s clarinet and Hiroshi Ikematsu’s bass tended to catch the ear in brilliant passages.

The two quartets shared players; while Helene Pohl led the Mozart and Douglas Beilman the Prokofiev, the other players were drawn democratically from each quartet. Jerzy Kaplanek, the Penderecki’s second violinist, had the front desk in the Beethoven.

Perhaps the most revelatory piece was the Prokofiev fairly unfamiliar quintet which had started as music for a ballet called Trapeze. Revealing influences like Petrushka and Satie through its six movements, it was comic, oafish, flippant, dark, nervous, ghostly: attractive and interesting. It deserves to be better known.

Both the Mozart and the Beethoven, the first from Mozart’s full maturity, the second from Beethoven’s first evidence of conspicuous genius – the time of the Op 18 quartets, the first symphony and the first two piano concertos.  Both are the most genial and delightful pieces, and the players made the most of the bravura and wit as well as the rhythmically engaging and richly melodious character of the entire works.

Saturday: Piano preludes from Nagy

Pianist Peter Nagy made his festival debut at the Saturday afternoon concert in theSchoolofMusic. Nagy had taught atCanterburyUniversitya couple of years ago but left before his gifts were able to be fully appreciated in this country, at least outside ofChristchurch.

He modified his programme to begin with Liszt’s Totentanz, perhaps to reassure us that he knew how to drive the piano at full throttle, which he did, delivering a satanic, dramatically arresting performance. The rest of the hour was devoted to a juxtaposing of twelve each of preludes by Chopin and Scriabin, pairing those in the same keys, a procedure that drew attention of those not gifted with perfect pitch to the way in which keys create distinct moods and colours.  Nagy’s success lay in his capturing the character of each composer with beautiful finesse, rhythmic and dynamic fluency and naturalness. Chopin’s sharper clarity generally won on points; but Nagy’s enlivening of Scriabin’s elusive music gave plenty of encouragement to the further exploration of his huge output of preludes.

For the record, the following was the pattern of Nagy’s juxtaposing of the Chopin and Scriabin Preludes:

Chopin                        Scriabin:

C major                        C major Op.48 No.2
G major                        G major Op. 11 No.3
E major                        E major Op.15 No.3
F major                        F major Op.11 No.23
B minor                        B minor Op.37 No.1
E flat major                   E flat major Op.45 No.3
C sharp minor               C sharp minor Op.15 No.5
A major                        A major Op.11 No.7
B minor                        B minor Op.11 No.6
F sharp minor               F sharp minor Op.15 No.2
B flat major                  B flat major Op.35 No.2
D minor                        D minor Op. 11 No.24f

Mahler’s 4th from 15 musicians, on Saturday evening

The Saturday evening may have looked like the highlight, even the raison d’être, of the festival. But the competition for that position proved very strong. However, the prospect of Mahler’s lyrical Fourth Symphony, in a remarkable reduction, for 14 musicians and soprano Jenny Wollerman, was certainly much more than a mere curiosity. Under the baton of Michael Joel, it was surprisingly well balanced and the playing by NZSO wind players, plus the two quartets (in repertoire probably unfamiliar to them), made it all sound as if this was what Mahler had really conceived. If there were the obvious moments when these small forces (that included striking passages from hornist Poulsen, NZSO percussionists Lenny Sakofsky and Bruce McKinnon, and bass player Hiroshi Ikematsu) missed the magnificent impact of big climaxes, there were some plusses.

Often the small ensemble proved a perfectly splendid vehicle for the music (it’s probably the only Mahler symphony where such treatment would work); sometimes able to increase dramatic force, it hardly affected the breathless beauties of the third movement, Ruhevol, with more than usually luminous solos from cello, oboe, viola, double bass; and in the last movement Wollerman’s beautifully placed voice created an experience that the full orchestra might scarcely have bettered.

Not to forget the first half however, when the Penderecki Quartet played Mozart’s ‘Dissonance’ Quartet (K 465) in which a sense of deep familiarity with the piece enabled them to do things that sounded quite original, perhaps far beyond the expectations of a late 18th century audience; for example, the carefully obscure rhythm at the opening of the slow movement, and surprising pauses.

Composer Ross Harris was at the festival for a few days to hear premieres of two pieces and to talk about a discovery relating to Ligeti’s Horn Trio.  At this concert New Zealand String Quartet violist Gillian Ansell premiered a Chaconne that she had commissioned from him, a piece that seemed aimed at least in part to exploit the player’s skills in extended techniques which may have interfered somewhat with the creation of an easily followed musical process. There were fragmentary lyrical moments but also towards the end, some brief vocalisations which had the effect of humanising the piece.

Villa-Lobos’s Assobio a jato (Jet whistle) for flute and cello seemed to be pursuing a similar path, treading amusingly around the edges of the flute’s normal range. It presented no apparent difficulties to flutist Bridget Douglas and cellist Rolf Gjelsten who knitted together its oddities, wit and scraps of tune, ending with the eponymous screech from Bridget.

Sunday 3 February
Minguet Quartet

The festival’s third day, Sunday, was a major test of commitment and endurance. There were three concerts: in the morning, the Minguet String Quartet, a fairly young group of three Germans and a Romanian violist; in the evening, two pieces featuring Darryl Poulsen’s French horn; and in the afternoon, in the Cathedral, cellist Colin Carr played all six of Bach’s solo cello suites.

Each included something unusual.

The Minguet’s programme began rather unconvincingly with a couple of the Contrapuncti from Bach’s Art of Fugue, and ended with a warm, almost symphonic performance of Brahms’s String Quartet in C minor. Of all the ‘great’ composers, it is Brahms’s quartets that seem to be most neglected. In fact a couple of friends confessed not to know this piece: it would surprise me if this engaging performance did not change that. Their second piece was the 11th string quartet by Wolfgang Rihm. While, like most of the post-war generation (he was born in 1952), he was soon disenchanted with the Stockhausen-Boulez avant-garde, that did not, sadly, mean a turning away from complexity, extreme dissonance, inchoate, dense harmonic clusters; my notes asked: “Why is he so shy of plain, uncluttered harmonies?”. Passages of coarse bowing alternated with calm, pensive passages. And yet, on reflection at the end, I was left with feelings about its musical substance and inspiration that were not negative.

Colin Carr in Bach suites

For many the festivalhigh pointwould have been the return visit (after 2003) of British cellist Colin Carr who, to widespread incredulity, played all six of Bach’s solo cello suites in the afternoon in the Cathedral. They occupied three hours; Carr’s playing placed itself in the class of the romantics rather than of the strict tempo, even-paced, vibratoless interpreters with unvaried sound. The discursive preludes can be heard as touching the essence of each suite’s character, quite remote from any feel of warm-up exercises: a sort of microcosm of the varied movements that followed. Carr’s ease and fluency, agility and graceful decoration commanded awed attention through the entire concert. Without departing from the feeling of naturalness that was the strongest impression throughout, there were little surprises such as at the rhythmic ambiguity in the Prelude to the Third Suite, or the curiously unstable phrases of the Fourth Suite’s Courante.

In Carr’s introductory remarks he noted the way the music just got better and better till the fifth and sixth suites each of which has unusual features. The Fifth Suite calls for dropping the tuning of the A string to G and the Sixth is written for a five-string instrument (the top string being E); on a four-string cello, that calls for a lot of tortured playing high on the A string none of which seemed to tax Carr in the least.

Everything was so invested with colour and a natural fluency, not to mention increasing technical brilliance that reached a peak in the sixth suite that the cathedral-full audience rose in a standing ovation at the end.

Poulsen, Pohl and Nagy

In the evening, in a concert entitled ‘Bold Strokes’, another late 20th century piece offered a greater challenge than the Rihm had in the morning. Rihm is a good generation later than György Ligeti who undoubtedly enjoys greater fame as a leader in late 20th century music. Although it was to Stockhausen that he went after his flight fromHungaryin 1956, he ultimately rejected that brand of avant-gardism, but his own kind can be as forbidding as the most taxing of his contemporaries.

Ligeti’s Horn Trio, played by Peter Nagy, Helene Pohl and horn player Darryl Poulsen, had a particular interest here because of the discovery of sketches of its last movement that came into the hands of Helene Pohl’s father. The findings in the sketches were the subject of a pre-concert talk by Ross Harris which impressed by drawing attention to the tortured compositional process as well as its unusual difficulties both from a performance and a listening point of view. His remarks, and those later by Peter Nagy, revealed Ligeti as a man of surprisingly peevish, self-serving opinions: for example, “I hate neo-expressionism and can’t stand the neo-Mahlerian and neo-Bergian affectations, just as I can’t stand post-modern architecture.” His compositions inspire musicological writers to employ arcane musical vocabulary that is of little help even to those well-disposed to contemporary music, mistaking cleverness and originality for musical attractiveness and, well, beauty.

This work of 1982 has many facets and cannot be characterised in a few words. The first movement comprises sound sequences that are jagged and hard to follow as one tries to discover and retain patterns and their evolution; the second movement is more friendly: lighter in tone with violin pizzicato, piano staccato and hints of diatonic motifs. None was easy for the players, least of all for the horn which seemed not to have managed to ingest the lines and to reach a happy ensemble with violin and piano.

The other two pieces in the programme seemed ill-assorted: Schumann’s odd Andante and Variations, Op 46, for horn, two cellos and two pianos. The pianos (Irons and Nagy) seemed to have the best of it with cellos providing engaging sounds while the horn’s contribution seemed confined to the occasional doubling of notes.

And finally, Dvořák’s Piano Quintet from Nagy and the New Zealand String Quartet. It was a fine performance from players in complete accord with it; yet, following the astringencies of Ligeti, I found it, as attractive and filled with delight as it was, for the first time ever, strangely tepid and unadventurous. Perhaps that betrays the unacknowledged impact that the Ligeti work had actually had on me after all.

Monday: ‘Requiem’ – Shostakovich viola sonata

The early afternoon concert in the Schoolof Musicpresented another remarkable contrast: It began with a piece called Requiem by late 19th century cellist David Popper; a name known to cellists – I recall playing a short characteristic piece by him. It might be one of the few compositions to have been written to honour a composer’s publisher – originally as a concerto for three cellos and orchestra. Here, the orchestral score was reduced for piano (Emma Sayers); the cellists – Carr, Gjelsten and Katie Schlaikyer (of the Penderecki Quartet). There was little elegiac in its tone: rather, it had a meditative, pastoral quality and showed the marks of the composer/performer in its stretching of the players’ skills, though there were no signs that it presented these players with any difficulties.

If that was an essentially forgettable piece, the next was both memorable and deeply felt. The Viola Sonata, Op 147, was Shostakovich’s last composition; Gillian Ansell and Peter Nagy gave it imaginative life in a beautifully poised yet powerful performance, fulfilling Nagy’s self-directed challenge: “If we play it right, it should be a heart-breaking experience”.

Bach on Monday evening

A Bach concert has been a common element at recent festivals: the two main string quartets were engaged, plus harpsichordist Erin Helyard, flutist Bridget Douglas, bassist Ikematsu and soprano Jenny Wollerman.  They played half  dozen Two Part Inventions, the Violin Sonata, BWV1016, three arias sung by Jenny Wollerman and the Second Orchestral Suite.

The Violin Sonata was played by Penderecki Quartet’s Jeremy Bell, and Helyard. It drew attention to Bell’s striking talent for producing a wide range of tone and colour; here in the opening Adagio, he was the quintessence of baroque style, hardly any vibrato, ornaments of beautiful filigree, while in the following Allegro the violin tone seemed to have moved forward to around 1800. The third movement prompted the thought that it was hoping for an inspired melody, which seemed not quite to emerge. Not least of the delights was Helyard’s remarkably colourful harpsichord, in his role that was every bit the equal of the violin.

These concerts always offer an almost complete tasting of Bach. Jenny Wollerman sang three arias from the Cantatas – ‘Höchster, mache deine Güte’ (BWV 51), ‘Meine Seele sei vergnügt’ (BWV 204), ‘Bete aber auch dabei’ (BWV 115). Though none of them is really among the most familiar arias, all came engagingly to life from her voice that strikes me now as free, attractive and comfortable not only in the middle but also in the highest register. They were all accompanied with continuo comprising Rolf Gjelsten and Erin Helyard; the second and third arias added Bridget Douglas’s flute to weave about the voice, which here and there undertook a bit more decoration than I thought necessary.

The third element was a selection of eight Two Part Inventions that had been arranged for violin and viola (Jerzy Kaplanek and Christine Vlaik of the Penderecki Quartet). The separation of the two voices was most successful, with both players successfully turning each little piece into a charming vignette.  And finally, the two quartets, Ikematsu’s bass, Douglas’s flute, and harpsichord continuo, played the second orchestral Suite, BWV 1067); it brought such a warm response that the lively Badinerie was played again.

Tuesday to the Lake:
Penderecki Quartet at St Arnaud

The middle of the festival takes a break from Nelson: many people took the tour to LakeRotoitifor a bush walk and a concert in the little Chapel of Christ on the Lake, at Saint Arnaud. There, the Penderecki Quartet played Beethoven’s Quartet in G, Op 18 No 2, Schulhoff’s Quartet No 1 of 1924, and Canadian composer Marjan Mozatich’s Lament in a Trampled Garden. None were also played back in Nelson and I regretted not being there.

Tuesday evening: Bonanza

I was compensated in the evening by a concert in the Cathedral by the trombone quartet, BonaNZa, which had performed at the last festival. Arrangements of both classical and popular music were woven into a mock opera without voices – at least without singers – that drew on The Magic Flute and Parsifal to retell the adventures of pious medieval knights attempting to recover the magic trombone whose loss had plunged their people into evil times. Act II made clever use of many of the parts of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, ending with a sonorous painting of the Great Gate of Kiev.  In place of operatic arias and recitatives, oboist Peter Dykes declaimed the tale with comic and histrionic gusto.

Waitangi Day

Waitangi Day was busy.
Predictably it was devoted mainly to music by New Zealanders, and prominently to the remarkable, ground-breaking work of Richard Nunns, Brian Flintoff and Hirini Melbourne in recovering and re-creating Maori instruments and the ways in which they were played, from a situation of almost total loss.

Though some moteatea have survived, for example in the famous George Grey collection of 1853, Ko Nga Moteatea, almost all knowledge of the instruments and their playing techniques had been lost; they have been scrupulously researched and recreated by Nunns and his two collaborators through archaeological and ethnological research, from drawings, written and oral accounts and a great deal of inspired, well-founded intuition as to the likely way of playing them.

At the four events there were alsoNew Zealandcompositions, most strikingly Jenny McLeod’s setting of poems in Maori.

It began at 10am in the Theatre of the SuterArtGallery. Nunns picked up and talked about and demonstrated sounds on around 40 of his remarkable collection of a hundred instruments (taonga puoro) that were arrayed on a long table. He described the evolving process of discovery and creation. At the end of the morning session Nunns induced Whirimako Black to join him in performing a waiata – a taste of the evening concert.

So in the evening in Nelson’s beautifully restored Theatre Royal, Whirimako and Richard conducted a dialogue/recital using some of the instruments and performed waiata/moteatea (songs), from Black’s Tuhoe heritage.  Several of her waiata were composed by an ancestor, Mahi Ki-Te Kapua, and associated with the Ringatu Faith. She sang, utterly without histrionics, but commanding rapt attention through her demeanour, in soft, transcendental tones. While Nunns, blowed the long trumpet-like ku in an introductory call, and then the various instruments that are breathed into, end-blown and nose flutes – putorina and koauau, trumpet-like horns such as putatara and pukaia, whirling objects – purerehua, percussion – tumutumu and the musical bow, a very elementary violin.

The audience in the Theatre Royal was entranced by the remarkable performances in a dim, mystical atmosphere that created a quasi religious experience.

Jenny McLeod’s cycle of Moteatea settings

The evening concert began at 6.30pm to allow space for the 9pm session with Nunns and Black. It began with six Mendelssohn Songs without Words and ended with Schubert’s Trio In E flat.

However, the main item in the programme was He Whakaahua a Maru, a 15-song cycle of waiata set by Jenny McLeod, The poems were written in Maori (by the composer) and their musical setting by a composer with a lifetime of immersion in Maori language and culture. Only two were from Grey’s Nga Moteatea, the rest were poems by McLeod herself based on ideas drawn from Mike Nicolaidi’s book A Greekish Trinity.  Soprano Jenny Wollerman, who had earlier sung arias from Bach cantatas, sang them with powerful conviction, accompanied by pianist Emma Sayers and flutist Karen Batten, both of whom occasionally contributed percussive effects with a poi.

Drawing on childhood experiences – intimate, violent and tender, domestic events and emotions – from at least two widely disparate cultures, planted in another soil in another language and taking on the taste and feel of the latter.

I found the first songs uncomfortably violent, but the tenor of the later ones was mainly domestic, more intimate and the sense of an authentic Maori idiom grew stronger as the work unfolded. It seemed as near to the idiom of the waiata we were to hear later from Whirimako Black as any composer of today, of any culture, is likely to create.

Wollerman and her two colleagues displayed, through long affinity with Maori music and its performance, a sympathy and understanding that is probably unsurpassed. Wollerman’s voice is in excellent shape and seems more than ever to be an idiomatic vehicle for the expression of the violent as well as the tender emotions called up in this sequence.

As the sequence drew to a close I began to be aware that here was a very major work that perhaps in spite of, or because of, its mixed cultural origins, might justifiably be considered something of a masterpiece (a word, I notice, that was also used by Ruth Allison in her excellent review in the Nelson Mail).

It is a singular statement, among other things, about the universality of art, as opposed to race-based claims to ownership. If this music takes root in the memory, it could prove a masterpiece.

Plus Mendelssoh and Schubert

Rather overshadowed by the McLeod song cycle, the early evening concert also included six of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words and Schubert’s Trio in E flat. It offered a respite (is that an OK word?) fromNew Zealand music.

The Songs without Words were played exquisitely by Peter Nagy, raising them from their common perception as somewhat slight salon pieces. In the second half Schubert’s Trio, D 929 was played by Nagy, Helene Pohl and Rolf Gjelsten, with affection and marvellous finesse though, as so often in Schubert, the job of keeping fresh what I, heathen-like, sometimes feel as endless repetition of the main tunes somewhat eluded them; as it commonly does.

Ritchie, Harris, Psathas in one concert

There were two other concerts on Waitangi Day.

In the early afternoon the Penderecki Quartet played John Ritchie’s String Quartet, mainly written in the 1960s; but the last movement, after his wife’s death in 2001, lent an elegiac, though not despairing, character to the earlier autobiographical movements; the performance, in the composer’s presence, was sympathetic and expressive, leaving a sense of a life that still looked forward to satisfying activities and rewards.

Ross Harris’s Fifth String Quartet, ‘Songs from Childhood’, and played by the New Zealand String Quartet, proved surprisingly gritty, with little of the expected, beguiling, childhood reflections. Though it was an impressive example of Harris’s imaginative virtuosity in use of instruments, some at the outer fringes of their capacities and range, I found at this first hearing a lack of engagement, on my part, with the music.

Finally, the New Zealand Trio (NZTrio) (Justine Cormack, Ashley Brown, Sarah Watkins) arrived to play John Psathas’s Helix, which the group had commissioned in 2006, now established as one of Psathas’s best known works, dynamically restrained, melodically vigorous. The trio have clearly had plenty of opportunity to find and maximise all the colour, excitement and ethnic character that inspired it. Here, extremes of instrumental register meant enhanced emotional impact and an exhilaration grew over the course of its three movements.  The NZTrio revels in music of this kind, and the audience responded warmly to their enthusiasm.

Thursday: Penderecki Quartet with Rachmaninov and Bartók

Thursday morning offered a few hours of rest till the 2pm concert which brought us back to the European mainstream. The two concerts of the day proved a minor celebration of Rachmaninov and Bartók, two close contemporaries though far apart stylistically and emotionally. The 2pm concert, from the Penderecki Quartet, began with a rarity – a student exercise by Rachmaninov at the Moscow Conservatory: two movements of a string quartet. It opened with muted strings, meditative, bearing hints of Tchaikovsky; the second movement caught a different mood, neither particularly Rachmaninov nor Tchaikovsky, but an elegant though energetic palm court-like Scherzo second movement with a slower waltz time part in the middle.

The quartet next played Wolf’s Italian Serenade, bows sprightly dancing on strings, exuding southern warmth and a feminine lyricism that bears obvious kinship with Wolf’s elusive, short-breathed songs.

Neither the Rachmaninov nor the Wolf provided a connection with or preparation for Bartók’s Fifth Quartet which perhaps comes as a genial surprise after the tougher language of the third and fourth quartets. Even so, there are passages where I found myself asking, ‘why does the composer need to/want to express so much aggression or anger?’, though that quality is not as marked as it is in the sixth. Bartók was acutely alive to political affairs but as far as I know 1934 did not present anything particularly nasty forHungary, under Horthy’s two decades of relatively moderate fascism, apart from the advent of Hitler coming to power the year before, alarming the whole world to varying degrees.

Carr’s second tour de force was a passionate playing of Rachmaninov’s sonata, with Diedre Irons, on Thursday evening, which again brought the audience to its feet. It’s a piece that makes one lament that the composer was not urged to write more chamber music and that other comparably gifted composers did not have the fortitude to withstand the pressure to avoid melody, tonality and emotion. The two musicians seemed to have reached a singular rapport in their approach to the undulating dynamics and rhythms, and the instincts that guided them in building and releasing tension around climaxes. The cello could retreat to offering the most subtle and casual gestures below the piano, suggesting a degree of spontaneity that must have been carefully considered but sounded improvisatory.

The sonata was preceded by Bartók’s first Rhapsody of violin and piano, from Douglas Beilman and Peter Nagy. Nagy amused the audience by describing and playing a recording of the first performance by a Gypsy-inspired violinist, challenging Beilman to emulate it. He did very well, capturing the romantic spirit of the first movement and then the strong rhythms against a somewhat restrained overall performance.

As if the Cello Sonata was not emotional highlight enough, the players – theNew ZealandString Quartet and Colin Carr – then played Schubert’s String Quintet in C, among his last works. This was a performance made in heaven; the outer movements built an edifice based on all the warmth and sonority and here and there, the athleticism of the brave, optimistic tone that masks the tragic resignation that finds such powerful expression in the Andante.

I don’t much like focusing on individual players in chamber music, but Carr’s cello is very much a solo instrument and there were several times when its opulent sound rose a little above the others.

But altogether, this was one of the richest and most satisfying concerts in the festival.

Café music

In an early afternoon concert on Friday, the NZTrio who had arrived for Wednesday’s Waitangi Day concert, played Debussy’s very early Piano Trio, Gareth Farr’s alternately peacefully beautiful and energetic Ahi,; as well as and Paul Schoenfield’s attractive Café Music.  The Debussy was understandably unfamiliar as it might have been written by any gifted Paris Conservatoire student exposed to the influences of Massenet and Saint-Saëns.  It is probably improper to remark that there could even have been a whiff of English palm court music with its pleasant, slightly kitschy melodies and traditional harmonies. ‘

Farr’s Ahi represented a departure from the Asian and Pacific influences of much of his earlier music though gamelan sounds are present in the last movement. Its four movements follow the classical pattern, alternating fast and slow, in tones that are nevertheless original and which have attracted many performances over the fifteen years since the Ogen Trio commissioned it.

Paul Schoenfield’s Café Music, a good example of well conceived music that uses popular idioms and accents, serving to challenge fixed notions of what is popular/ephemeral and what is serious/classical. It explored several genres with wit and skill, and the trio played it all with great flair. The audience responded with delight at the end of the impetuous ragtime-inspired last movement that pianist Sarah Watkins rather dominated with thrilling rhythmic energy.

“Kreutzer” in disguise and a Brahms Sextet

The Friday evening concert, in the Cathedral, was another heterogeneous programme such as the festival seemed to take pleasure in. As well as some pieces for Martin Jaenecke’s soprano saxophone, Beethoven’s Kreutzer Violin Sonata came in an arrangement for string quintet. It was the work of Sikorski in 1832, five years after Beethoven’s death and followed the same instrumentation as the Schubert Quintet, The formation, with two cellos, creates a marvellously rich sound base, giving it a head start over other possible combinations. The players, Beilman, Pohl, Vlijk (of the Penderecki Quartet), Gjelsten and Carr, carried it off with wonderful commitment and an obvious belief in its integrity; though there were passages in which I could not call to mind the equivalent piano part, I’m sure no liberties were taken with the notation.

Such ventures are risky, but this one was so sensitively rescored and so beautifully played that it came off brilliantly, seeming to me worthy of taking its place as a serious alternative version in the regular repertoire.

The concert had opened however with a duet for soprano saxophone and viola by Edward Ware, a graduate of the Wellington Polytechnic Conservatorium of Music, now living inAmerica. It was played by Martin and Victoria Jaenecke, previously Nelson residents; their two instruments (was it composed for them?), and the performance itself, created a most attractive blending, through three contrasting movements. It had the virtue of unpretentiousness, having been written for the enjoyment of music lovers seeking melodic music that can be followed, has an emotional quality, yet sufficiently teases the listener’s sensibilities.

Martin Jaenecke returned later to play a Song without Words by Sofia Gubaidulina, for saxophone and organ (Richard Apperley). The sound and the musical content was curious but enchanting.

It was followed by a rather similar piece – a Meditation – by Jaenecke himself. It was more decorative than the Gubaidulina, making use of the cathedral’s acoustic, as he turned round this way and that so the sound changed its character, intensity, direction; and the organ too selected stops than echoed or complemented the fluctuating tones of the saxophone.  I found both pieces attractive, not least by the organ’s contribution, and they made me wonder whether, with a fine organist like Apperley in town, the festival should be making use of the cathedral’s organ for the odd solo recital: I’m sure I’m not alone as a lover of chamber music who also enjoys the organ.

A second major repertoire piece followed, to end the concert: the first and best loved of Brahms’s two string sextets. This time it was the turn of the Penderecki Quartet, with second viola and cello from the New Zealand Quartet.  Sadly, the larger string groups – sextets, septets and so on – are rarities in the normal concert series and it is one of the delights of a festival such as this to hear them in live performance.

The two works by Brahms have a special beauty as they seem to offer the composer a chance that he can richly endow with opulent harmony: I remember reading somewhere that when Haydn was asked why he stuck to the string quartet (in contrast to Boccherini who wrote hundreds of quintets), he said he could not find a fifth voice: in other words, four fulfilled all his needs.

In any case, Brahms had no difficulty and every movement seems to delight in the opportunity to expand the most gorgeous melodies. And as in earlier pieces for large groups, the mix of players seemed to create an air of delight that scarcely occurred with smaller ensembles. One after another, individual players took solos that gave them brief moments of rapture.

Saturday: New Zealand Guitar Quartet

The 1pm concert was the first visit to the festival by a guitar quartet, the New Zealand Guitar Quartet which consists of leader Owen Moriarty, Jane Currie who teaches at the New Zealand School of Music, Tim Watanabe and Christopher Hill.  The programme was similar to that played last October at Old Saint Paul’s and reviewed by my colleague Peter Mechen.

The first piece, Quiccan; by Andrew York, a leading American guitarist and composer and long-time member of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, revealed the highly sophisticated writing the wide tonal capacities of the group, from muted softness to boisterous energy, reflecting jazz and Latin American music, and the interesting quasi-orchestral effects obtained in ensemble.

They dropped one advertised piece, Sergio Assad’s Uarekena, and replaced it with John Rimmer’s Nelsonian Riffs, his first guitar composition, tonally traditional, and lying nicely for the ensemble. That was followed by Wellington composer Craig Utting’s Onslow Suite, originally for three players at two pianos, began in extrovert fashion hinting at a baroque influence, and became more reticent in its second part.

One of Owen Moriarty’s guitars was a seven-string instrument – the seventh string set below the normal bottom E: I think, B. The use of that string enhanced the sonority of the whole ensemble.

After these pieces, written for these instruments, it was curious to find the arrangement of Bach’s third Brandenburg Concerto somewhat uninteresting, something of the organic fluidity and nuance seemed overcome by playing that was a little mechanical, though lively enough and with excellent ensemble. Here, and elsewhere, it was interesting that applause broke out whenever the music paused between sections or movements: not a serious matter but a commentary on audience attention to the players remarks or the nature and shape of the music.

That said, the players who spoke about the music, introduced a genial and sociable tone to the concert.  But they did not properly gauge the size of the concert room, speak slowly and clearly enough, and project their voices.  They are not alone among musicians in feeling that it is enough to speak in a casual, idiomatic way; that is certainly harder for foreigners, and even New Zealanders, to follow.

Ian Krouse was a colleague of some of the quartet members at the Universityof Southern California. I don’t recall hearing his Antique Suite before, based partially on a composition by Renaissance composer Hans Neusidler, but which Krouse has ‘made his own’ in the words of the programme.  Owen Moriarty described it as lute music on steroids. The suite was in four movements, given titles that I take to be from the original old German. Admirably written for the quartet, a hurdy-gurdy character was introduced by the use of a bow across all the strings of Tim Watanabe’s guitar, and its movements were enlivened with a variety of styles and instrumental effects that took the music far from its Renaissance origins.

The concert ended with two of the dances from Falla’s ballet El amor brujo – ‘Danza del terror’ and ‘Danza ritualdel fuego’. Taken quite out of their original orchestral environment, these performances did them full justice.

Grand Finale

There was a symbolic element in the choice of programme for the final concert: a New Zealandand a Canadian piece (coincidentally or deliberately(?) , both by Greek-born composers), set among two masterpieces of the normal repertoire.

The New Zealandwork was Abisheka by John Psathas (played by the New Zealanders); the Canadian, a String Quartet by Christos Hatzis, born inGreece (played by the Canadians).  Psathas’s piece is well established in the New Zealand canon: it emerges from silence with the solo first violin and gathers itself into a dense bed of inchoate sound, but slowly clarifies to allow individual their place to speak. The players have gained a familiarity  with it by now that gives it the character of a standard classic.

Hatzis’s quartet was a more formal, four movement work, though with a programmatic basis – the bombing ofBelgradeduring the 1990s wars. Balkan characteristics can be heard throughout, but also Latin, Middle Eastern and perhaps Indian elements; violent, disturbing passages are balanced by lighter, more peaceful, optimistic episodes. It was obviously an important work for the Penderecki Quartet and their playing showed the result of careful preparation and a deep understanding of both the musical and the programmatic sources. Most notable perhaps was the ferocious energy that Jeremy Bell, the quartet’s leader, produced throughout the four contrasting movements.

In the first half the New Zealand String Quartet plus Penderecki viola and cello, played the Sextet that forms the prelude to Strauss’s last opera, Capriccio, written during the Second World War. In some way it was an attempt to ignore the pain inflicted by the war and it was a deeply satisfying performance, again made the more intense through the sharing of parts among the two groups.

And finally, the Mendelssohn Octet, which has been played in earlier festivals to celebrate the combined work of two splendid quartets. From the very opening, the marvellous variety of colour and enjoyment of the sheer youthful high spirits that embody the piece could not have been more delightfully captured.


In addition to the formal concerts, there were on most days, masterclasses, workshops, concerts in the city by the local Troubadour Quartet, a Pro-Am concert at which a local quartet, coached by members of the professional ensembles, performed, and the regular Kids’ Concert taken by Bob Bickerton.

It must be emphasised that the festival remains what it is through the commitment of the New Zealand String Quartet and the Adam Foundation and a few other sponsors, plus a number of dedicated people in Nelson. To look at the way summer festivals have become such major elements in Europe is to see the scope for this festival and, one keeps hoping, others dedicated to good music, to flourish inNew Zealand. So far, there has been no emulation of Nelson though the international music competitions such as at Gisborne and Kerikeri look ripe for expansion into more extensive music festivals.

Youthful brilliance from the NZSO National Youth Orchestra

NZSO National Youth Orchestra

Summer Concert 2013

ARNOLD – Brass Quintet No.1 Op.73 / BALLARD – frisson (world premiere)

R.STRAUSS – Wind Serenade Op.7 / GRIEG – Two Norwegian Airs Op.63

BRAHMS – Symphony No.2 in D Major Op.73

NZSO National Youth Orchestra

Conductor (Brahms) :  Kenneth Young

Town Hall, Wellington

Friday 8th February 2013

Called a “Summer Residency Concert”, this NZSO National Youth Orchestra presentation most effectively highlighted the skills of some of the country’s top youthful musicians.

This was done by allocating works featuring the orchestra’s different sections to make up the concert’s first half. Following this, the whole orchestra came together to perform Brahms’ genial and much-loved Second Symphony.

The idea looked good on paper, and worked, I thought, marvellously in practice, thanks in part to the judicious programming.  In each of the pieces, the young musicians tackled the specific challenges fearlessly – in fact, I found the results astonishing as regards the virtuosity and musicality of the orchestral playing.

At this point I ought to apologise for what might seem a lengthy review to follow – but I want to try and do these young players’ efforts suitable justice by discussing just what I thought it was that made this concert such a special event.

First up were the brass players, five of whom presented themselves on the platform to take on Malcolm Arnold’s First Brass Quintet, written in 1973.

Arnold himself was a brass player who, in his youth, desperately wanted to play like jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong.  Perhaps he didn’t quite achieve this aim, but he was certainly a good enough musician to win places in both the London Philharmonic and BBC Symphony Orchestras in the post-WW2 years. Eventually he gave up full-time playing in order to compose.

A complex personality, dogged throughout his life by profound depression,  Arnold wrote a wide range of music, some of which did confront his demons – though much of his output turned its back on his life’s darker aspects, and resulted in a number of exhilarating and accessible works , as is the case with this piece, though the second of the work’s three movements did cast some shadows.

The Quintet, written in 1961 ideally demonstrated the technical virtuosity of these NYO players – two trumpeters, a horn-, trombone- and tuba-player. The “game of chase” opening movement delighted us with absolutely scintillating trumpet work at the outset, galumphing rhythms throughout and swirling fanfares at the end. The middle movement, a Chaconne, brought out a more serious, even occasionally menacing mood, with tragic sequences calling to my mind parts of the finale of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, along with similar echoes of Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary.

But the con brio finale swept the skies clear of these clouds, Arnold bending his opening melody by throwing in occasional characteristic grace-notes, and writing irreverent glissandi for individual instruments wanting to “bale-out” of the toccata-like figurations. Everything went with a swing,  the players maintaining both intonation and ensemble with remarkable poise and touching in moments of real brilliance throughout the work.

Next was a world premiere performance of Sarah Ballard’s frisson, a work written for brass and timpani. Winner of last year’s Todd Corporation Young Composer Award with a work Bitter Hill, inspired by the Pukekawa District alongside the Waikato river, Sarah Ballard’s new piece seemed a rather more abstracted, cerebral affair. Ballard acknowledged the influence of the late Elliot Carter with this work, in particular the spectacular timpani solo that opened the piece in flamboyant style, the player transfixing us with the theatricality of his pop-drummer-like gestures and the boldness of the sounds produced.

The ensemble – trumpet, two trombones and timpani – produced some amazing individual and concerted sonorities, though I felt sorry for the trumpeter not having a “counterpart” to play off against, unlike the other two brass players, who were constantly setting timbre and figuration against one another to brilliant effect. As it was, both timbral and gestural effect stipulated by the composer was astonishing in its range and scope, even if I thought the trumpet line seemed isolated in places, less integrated in the argument compared with what the doppelgänger trombonists were doing! In places the trumpeter coped well with treacherous figurations, while the trombonists seemed able to “wrap” their lines around one another’s before either would detach with a peremptory gesture. So, for me, it was a work of great contrast and some tension in the “working out” – the composer got a good reception afterwards, and the comments I heard were favourable.

Onto the platform then came the wind players, ready to give us Richard Strauss’s youthful Serenade in E-flat, Op.7, a brief though enchanting work, and an assured piece of composition for an eighteen year-old. I enjoyed the performance greatly, partly because the players (unconducted) seemed less concerned with “moulding” the sounds and instrumental blends, and more with bringing out the different timbres and colours of these combinations. Having previously sat through concerts of wind ensembles with well-nigh perfect intonation throughout but singularly bland and unexciting results, I was here constantly stimulated by the ensemble’s actual “sound”. There was charm, gaiety and energy by turns, and one sensed the players’ delight in interaction, occasionally fulsomely-scored moments contrasted cheek-by-jowl with felicitous delicacies. Yes, there was the odd ill-tuned patch (which a friend, sitting near me, commented on afterwards), but I much preferred that to dull perfection, regarding the results overall as varied and characterful – so enjoyable!

It wasn’t until the string ensemble entered and began playing that I remember being struck by the “conductorless” status of the music-making – truth to tell, I had enjoyed the performance of the Strauss Wind Serenade so much I was obviously of a similar mind to the famous wind-player about whom the story is told that he was asked who the conductor was of a performance of “The Magic Flute” he had recently taken part in at Covent Garden –  to which he replied, “Don’t know – I never looked!”

Well, there may have been the odd phrase-beginning where intonation and ensemble might have benefitted from a guiding hand, but nothing which besmirched the delight and pleasure I felt at the group’s performance of almost all parts of the Grieg work chosen , which was itself something of a rarity in concert – Two Norwegian Airs, Op.63, though I knew the second of the “Airs” as “Cowkeeper’s Tune and Country Dance”, rather than the given titles in the programme of “Cow Call and Peasant Dance” (it obviously depended on which agricultural college one attended!).

I thought the ensemble was of a high standard throughout, both in terms of attack and in the flexible handling by the players of the music’s phrasings and pulse.  Grieg’s lines here sang and breathed with an unforced naturalness which I found beguiling.  Nicely-phrased lower strings gave us a beautifully wistful folk-melody, and then, augmented by the violins, playing of great delicacy, allied with command of weight and nuance – a real treat for the listener.  I enjoyed especially the upper strings’ wind-blown variation with its chromatic dying falls – in places uncannily anticipating Sibelius’s Tapiola.

The following “Cowcall” captured the same kind of rustic charm and sensitivity at the start, doing full justice to those very “northern” textures and harmonies characteristic of Grieg , contrasting the wistfulness of the opening with the more “earthy” emphases of the lower strings when they added their weight to the sound-picture. My one caveat was that I thought the following “Peasant Dance” too fast and slick-rhythmed, lacking a true “bucolic” quality – here, the players I thought needed to “dig in” a bit,  and trust more to accenting and “pointing” rather than to speed,  to give themselves space enough to properly bounce the bows on the strings near the bridge, and generally sound more like folk-fiddles.  The music seemed suddenly, throughout this section, to lose some of its character.

Still, in the light of the wonderful playing and conveyance of feeling and colour I’d heard earlier in the work, I felt as though we’d been treated to something special.

Having demonstrated their compartmented skills the players then had the opportunity to put their talents together, via a performance of the Brahms Second Symphony. Kenneth Young took the podium, and Salina Fisher (who had superbly led the strings throughout the Grieg work) swapped the concertmaster’s chair with Arna Morton, whom I’d often seen in the role, leading always with tremendous zest and intensity.

I was looking forward to Ken Young’s interpretation of the Brahms – my favourite of his symphonies –  as I very much enjoyed his work as a conductor. I liked his brisk, no-nonsense way with music, and his ability to draw from players great intensity and plenty of excitement. Very occasionally I’ve felt his work missing that last ounce of breathing-space, applying that no-nonsense quality a touch too rigorously, to the point of being a bit oppressive and lacking in repose – so here was a chance to experience what he would do with music I knew extremely well.

From the beginning the playing had a buoyancy, an “upward-thrust”, with the ends of phrases “speaking” to those that followed, and suggesting the music’s lovely, pastoral character. Though briskly-unfolded, the music wasn’t straitjacketed at the outset – I’ve never forgotten Young’s comment to the players at a rehearsal I once attended – “Don’t count it – FEEL it!”. Having said that I was in subsequent places reminded of Toscanini’s approach to this work, the first big climax passionately, almost fiercely declaimed, with plenty of onward drive, and perhaps with some of the figurations a bit unyielding, if very excitingly played.

The brasses in the development section sounded properly louring and purposeful, similarly activating the rest of the orchestra, and creating crescendi whose climaxes were like waves crashing one after another on a beach. Afterwards was a wonderful horn solo from Alexander Morton, ably supported by the strings, and characterfully riposted by the winds.

Slow movements don’t necessarily mean relaxation, and straightaway Young encouraged his players to really “dig in” and feel the intensity of this movement – very focused, impassioned ‘cellos at the beginning, more strong and vigorous rather than lyrical and warm, though the upper strings suggested some sunlight breaking through the clouds. There was another piece of lovely horn-playing, leading to heartfelt sectional exchanges, the whole having a “real and earnest” character, something of a battle for supremacy between light and dark. Finally the strings, with help from the bassoon counterpointing its way through the battlefield, managed to bring some hope, even though the shadows re-emerged near the end, with thudding timpani suggesting the abyss beneath this world’s feet. A not-quite-in-tune final chord helped suggest a slightly-out-of-sorts concluding mood.

Though it’s marked “allegretto grazioso” Young got his players to “energise” the third movement in places as if it were a true scherzo, the playing often emphasizing the music’s thrust and “spike”. Strings found ensemble with a couple of their entries precarious but they eventually came together, and their deep-throated “burgeoning” of tone in the music’s middle section made a great impression. After a stylish skip-and-jump away with the winds, the strings again touched our inner places with a “beautiful and strange” reprise of the opening theme,  put then to rights by the oboe, the sounds poised and lovely at the end.

A nicely “charged” first chord at the finale’s beginning was succeeded by swirling ambiences of strings and winds, rather like crowds of people gathering for the start of a great event – then, a great shout of exuberance, and the music was off over hill and dale, horses and riders parting company at some of the jumps, but everybody managing to remount and catch up at the singing second subject theme. I was reminded by Young’s headlong tempo of a recording I’d recently heard of the NZSO’s inaugural 1947 concert, with conductor Anderson Tyrer setting what was, for those players, an impossibly breakneck speed – by comparison, these young players could handle the pace, even if I felt a somewhat “hectoring” quality in the music in places.  The contrasting , gently-oscillating sequences just before the reprise of the opening gave us some much-needed respite, before it was “Yoicks! Tally-ho!” once again, and we were off!  It was all undeniably exciting, right to the end, with the look of exhilarated wonderment on one of the front-desk cellist’s faces after the final chord, with its “Wow! Did we do that?!” quality speaking volumes, as did the tremendous ovation for all at the music’s ending.