Saxophones for all seasons from the NZSM

Saxophone Orchestra and Ensembles of the New Zealand School of Music

Music by Hindemith, Berlioz, Dvořák, Lacour, Gumbley and Matitia

David McGregor (E flat clarinet), NZSM Saxophone Orchestra, conducted by Kenneth Young

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The puzzle of this concert was that it was advertised, and titled on the programme cover, as ‘Original and transcribed works from Vivaldi to today’, yet the earliest composer featured was Berlioz!  However, I’m not sure that I would have enjoyed Vivaldi on saxophones, so am not mourning the lack.

The items were introduced by Deborah Rawson, Head of Woodwind at the School, in brief, interesting and lively fashion – a model of how this sort of thing should be done.

Reuben Chin and Sam Jones opened the programme with Konzertstück for two alto saxophones, composed by Hindemith in 1933.  This, we were told, was one of the first pieces of chamber music to be written specifically for saxophone.  There was no doubt about the ability (and agility) of these two players.  The lively opening movement was followed by a slow movement with a beautiful, lilting ending. The final movement was jerky, even jokey.  Great contrasts of dynamics and timbres made for an exciting performance.

The next two items were arrangements of works by great composers; the first, Chant Sacré by Berlioz, was apparently the first orchestral work to include saxophone, and the composer’s own arrangement of it for saxophones has been lost.  This arrangement was by French saxophonist Jean-Marie Londeix.  It struck me as having a rather thick sound.  Although the instruments ranged in pitch from sopranino (played on the clarinet) to bass, there seemed to be little variety of timbre.  Some effects, especially from the bass, sounded quite weird – not that that is a reflection on the player, well-known musician Graham Hanify.

The arrangement (by British composer Claire Tomsett) of Slavonic Dance no.8 by Dvořák worked much better, I thought.  It was faster, with more variety, and more staccato playing, exploring the instruments’ potential and exploiting their flexibility and bright sound.

Méditation by French jazz, pop and classical composer Guy Lacour, who died only two weeks ago, had a grand opening statement.  Winsome passages followed, the whole work being beautifully played and very euphonious.

British jazz musician Chris Gumbley’s E Type Jig for Saxophone Orchestra, composed in 2011, besides being a lovely play on words was bright and breezy, featuring excellent solos in jazz style.  All the varied rhythms were perfectly observed as the solos went round the ensemble, although I noticed nothing particularly automotive about them.

The final work was The Devil’s Rag, by Jean Matitia, a Frenchman originating in Tunisia; the name used here is apparently a pseudonym for Christian Lauba, a composer who writes difficult and esoteric serious music, we were told.  This was a sparkling, fast and furious rag.  All the players were playing virtually constantly.  Not easy to play, it ended an enjoyable concert on a lively, happy note.  All the players exhibited élan and expertise, and the concert was a superb demonstration of the work of the woodwind course at the New Zealand School of Music.



Heavyweight opera composer-contenders put through their paces

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music presents:  WAGNER : VERDI (1813-2013)

Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)

Overture – La forza del destino / Il corsaro – “Non so le tetre immagini” (Daniela-Rosa Cepeda)

Rigoletto – “Questa o quella” (Oliver Sewell) / Don Carlo – “O don fatale” (Elizabeth Harris)

Aida – Triumphal March from Act Two / Un ballo in maschera “Alla vita che t’arride” (Christian Thurston)

Il corsaro – Duet (Gulnara and Seid) from Act Three (Christina Orgias and Freddie Jones)

Il trovatore – “Tacea la notte” (Isabella Moore)

Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)

Overture – Die Meistersinger / 5 Wesendonck-Lieder (Margaret Medlyn)

Das Rheingold – Donner’s Thunderclap / Entry of the Gods into Valhalla

Lohengrin – Prelude to Act Three (encore)

New Zealand School of Music Orchestra

Kenneth Young (conductor)

Town Hall, Wellington

Tuesday 28th May, 2013

I remember recently reading a “rant” (oops! – pardon my alliteration!) from a columnist in some record magazine (which I don’t have enough money to subscribe to and therefore don’t have to hand, having probably borrowed the public library copy). The diatribe was against the “mad-headed observance” of composer anniversaries, of which there are a number falling within this year of grace 2013.

Without wishing to increase the readership of this person’s views by their wholesale repetition here (mercifully, I’ve forgotten some of the convolutions of the argument, in any case), I can nevertheless repeat (predictably) the basic point of the rant: why make a fuss of the birth/death of a composer whose music is already popular and doesn’t need extra exposure? – and why take the trouble of dredging up an anniversary of a lesser composer whose music is lesser-known because it probably deserves to be?

Now I know there’s a vein of human sensibility “out there” whose more extreme adherents blanch at the thought of observance of any kind of anniversary, birthdays, religious feasts, public holidays, the lot! It’s a point of view, and it obviously resonates to a greater or lesser extent within and along the connective tissues of certain people. But as Hamlet told Horatio in so many words, there’s more to anything than what any one person (or by extrapolation, any one group of people) thinks.

As far as composer-anniversaries go, many music-lovers welcome the focus on particular figures, especially if they happen to be favourite ones. As well, pieces of music aren’t supposed to be museum exhibits, static, inert, locked away, relating only to another time. Surely the point of a composer having written a body of music is to have it played and heard by other people! Aren’t anniversaries the perfect excuse for examining these works and the person who wrote them a little more closely and meaningfully?

A recent case in point was Schumann, whose orchestral works aren’t heard as often as I would like to hear them performed “live” (yes, I know the symphonies in particular are jolly difficult to do well, but…..?). So, what did the NZSO do during the recent (well, 2010) Schumann birth bicentenary year? – all of the Schumann symphonies? Wrong! – but for some reason the following year we got all of the Brahms Symphonies and Concertos!  Am I complaining? – No, but I was disappointed that the chance wasn’t taken by the NZSO to present Schumann’s far more innovative (if occasionally problematical) symphonic works to the public as well, the year before.

But wait! – before I begin inflicting pulpit-like polemic protestations of my own concerning this issue on unsuspecting readers, let me assure you that I’m all the time thinking of the Verdi/Wagner concert review I must write and needs must get on with THAT. Still, I don’t want anybody else spoiling my enjoyment of things in which I take great delight – and that includes hearing the music I want to listen to. So, as far as I’m concerned, bring on the anniversaries! – and DO something interesting relating to those composers and their music!


Here beginneth the review:

What excitement at the prospect of hearing the NZSM students tackling the music of two of the nineteenth century’s out-and-out “heavyweight” composers, Verdi and Wagner! “Chalk and cheese” might be the reaction of some people to the arrangement, but the composers were similar in that the work of each mirrored the other’s in terms of influence and impact upon both contemporary and future musical trends.

Of course their respective spheres of activity encompassed two markedly different musical traditions – Verdi’s was that of bel canto, while Wagner’s was largely instrumental – Verdi’s in song and melody, Wagner’s in the interaction between words and music. Wagner set about changing the image of opera as he saw it into his own likeness, a fusion of music, theatre and philosophy; whereas Verdi kept a human naturalness to the forefront in his works, tailoring his emotions and those of his characters to human feelings and their expression to sung melody.

How did the concert presented by the NZSM reflect the differences between the two composers and their music? One instantly apparent contrast was that the voice students sang only Verdi’s music. For youthful voices, Wagner’s vocal music has always been regarded as a danger-zone, with several brilliant but short-lived singing careers rueful testimony to any such reckless and ill-advised junge Sängerin explorations.

So, the evening’s Wagner singing was left to one of the best and most experienced in the business in this part of the world, NZSM’s Head of Classical Voice studies, Margaret Medlyn. I don’t remember when the composer’s Wesendonck-Lieder were last performed in Wellington, but the songs couldn’t have been more powerfully or sensitively presented than as here – though the orchestral playing under Kenneth Young had one or two slightly unsteady patches of ensemble (at the very end of the second song Stehe Still, for instance), its general feeling and spirit were of a piece with what the singer was doing at all times.

Only throughout  the opening measures of Im Treibhaus did I think the orchestral playing too insistent – the words speak of silence, mute-witness and barren emptiness, and the textures, I thought, needed more delicacy for the strange, ghostly world of the hothouse to have its full effect. Then, as the music unfolded and the singer’s voice evoked more of the enclosed ambience, the rapt stillness gradually came, drawing its veil over the playing. As for Margaret Medlyn, her phrasings beautifully pointed sequences such as that leading up to the words “Unsre Heimat ist nicht hier!”. So did her smile in the voice throughout the final “Träume” (Dreams) illuminate a sense of beauty and wonder in the music, supported by some lovely instrumental sounds.

The second half was all Wagner, beginning with the overture to Die Meistersinger, and finishing with the stirring Act Three Prelude to Lohengrin, music which always makes me think of footage of the Battle of Britain, with Spitfires and Hurricanes swooping, rolling and climbing throughout cloudy skies. The Meistersinger Prelude I thought a shade too businesslike and insufficiently “enjoyed” – Young’s very flowing tempo seemed to me to flatten out some of the textures and give the players insufficient space to make their phrases really “speak”, though he allowed the brass a nice rounded “moment” just before the first quiet string interlude, and did give the tuba enough space to relish his post-contrapuntal “trill”.

As well as the Lohengrin Prelude, into which the orchestra launched most excitingly at the concert’s end, there were a couple of exerpts (famously called “bleeding chunks” because they have to be “untimely ripp’d” from Wagner’s characteristic through-composed musical fabric) from the first of the “Ring” operas, Das Rheingold. The sequence began with the “Donner’s Thunderclap” music, here distinguished by what sounded like a real hammer striking a rock, and an overwhelmingly thunderous timpani roll from Larry Reese, who must have thought all his birthdays had come at once, being allowed to let rip like that!

Afterwards, came the resplendent rainbow bridge, before the scalpel predictably cut to the Rhinemaidens’ lament at losing their gold (one so misses the voices! – sorry – that just  slipped out!), and the ensuing grand processional of the Gods into Valhalla. Opportunities for orchestral players to take part in opera-house performances of this music are few – so one indulges the “bleeding chunks” idea for the sake of hearing Wagner’s music performed “live”, and for the pleasure of picking up on the enjoyment of the players.

The concert’s first half was a different world, one of bel canto mixed with volatile theatrical cut-and-thrust, trademarks of Giuseppe Verdi, Wagner’s Italian counterpart. The overture La forza del destino graphically illustrated the salient aspects of the Italian composer’s style – swift, terse dramatic strokes set alongside melodies crafted for human voices to sing in the time-honored manner, the whole integrated, interwoven and interactive. Though the performance could have had more of a “coiled spring” aspect at the start, the playing was alert and accurate throughout – and as the music proceeded everybody warmed to the task, the volcanic energies released and the big tunes given plenty of juice.

Seven of the NZSM’s voice-students presented arias or duets from a range of Verdi’s operas, beginning with an aria “Non so le tetre imagine” from the early work Il corsaro, due to be presented in full later in the year by the NZSM Opera. Here, the aria was sung by Daniela-Rosa Cepeda, with a bright, “feeling” voice, somewhat tremulous at the outset (perhaps partly due to nerves), but settling down and able to decorate the line on its reprise with some spirit. She was nicely supported by Ken Young and the orchestra, with passionate strings at the outset, and a beautifully-floated harp-led waltz-rhythm. Next was Oliver Sewell, with the well-known “Questa o quella” from Rigoletto, a stylish, agile performance, a bit breathless at the phrase-ends, but “knowing” of aspect and totally believable. Elizabeth Harris was next, with Eboli’s aria “O don fatale” from Don Carlo – strong singing, the line clearly focused, if a shade awkward in places. Her high notes were attacked with gusto, and if ungainly in effect, it all demonstrated she obviously had a sense of the whole and what was required.

For variety’s sakes we then heard an orchestral item (a “bleeding chunk”, no less, from a Verdi opera! ) – the Triumphal March from Aida. I am, truly, a great fan of Ken Young’s conducting, even if, occasionally, as here, I do find his direction very linear, almost to a fault at times (as also with the Meistersinger Prelude) – it seemed to me that everything here was subjected to a kind of onward flow, with almost no rhetorical underlinings or accentings of detail. While that approach really works well for some things, it does for me rob some music of a certain character, almost to the point of blandness at times. Thus here, I couldn’t help feeling we were being hustled along, and those brassy shouts and glorious ceremonial crashes went almost for nought amid the flow. I missed a sense of grandeur and spectacle about it all, despite the expert brass playing – the solo trumpets were terrific! – though what a pity that, for the famous “tune” the answering player wasn’t stationed somewhere else in the hall for an antiphonal effect…..just a thought…..

The singing took up again with Christian Thurston’s stylish and engaging performance of “Alla vita che t’arride” from Un ballo in maschera,  followed by a return to Il corsaro, with a duet from Act Three, sung by Christina Orgias and Freddie Jones. It didn’t seem to me very fair upon the soprano, as the duet’s weight seemed mostly shouldered by the baritone, throughout. Freddie Jones made the most of his opportunities with focused elegant tones at the start, though I felt his voice began to fray a little around its edges as time went on. I felt sorry for Christina Orgias as she seemed to have very little to do other than one-liner responses and a moment of briefly-extended expression of feeling towards the finish. Despite all, the singers creditably held the stage to the very end (odd, nevertheless, that this was the single duet in the programme).

Regarding the proceedings, it was a good thing that Isabella Moore’s stylish and confidently-projected “Tacea la notte” was placed last as it concluded the first half’s vocal contributions in grand style, the singer giving us sustained, emotion-filled soaring lines at the beginning, and then plenty of infectious energy and agility in the following cabaletta – a grand performance that fully deserved its accolades.

The concert represented, I thought, an impressive achievement from all concerned, but especially on the part of the student musicians – there were enough full-blooded, “heavyweight” challenges to test anybody’s mettle, and the musicians’ youthful energies and well-honed skills came splendidly to the fore,  for our considerable enjoyment.






















Twin Peaks – a concert of Verdi and Wagner

Te Kōki New Zealand School of Music

Bicentenary of the births of Verdi and Wagner

Verdi: Overture to La forza del destino / ‘Non so le tetre immagini’ from Il corsaro

‘Questa o quelle’ from Rigoletto / ‘O don fatale’ from Don Carlo

Triumphal March from Aida

‘Alla vita che t’arride’ from Un ballo in maschera / Gulnara and Seid duet from Act 3, Il corsaro

‘Tacea la notte’ from Il trovatore

Wagner: Overture (Prelude) to Die Meistersinger / Wesendonck lieder

Entry of the gods into Valhalla from Das Rheingold  / encore: Prelude to Act 3, Lohengrin

Margaret Medlyn (soprano), Daniela-Rosa Cepeda (soprano), Oliver Sewell (tenor), Elisabeth Harris (soprano), Christian Thurston (baritone), Christina Orgias (soprano, Fredi Jones (baritone), Isabella Moore (soprano), NZSM Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Young

Wellington Town Hall

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The NZSM Orchestra keeps up a pretty hot pace, with relatively frequent concerts.  This was ‘the big one’; the annual Town Hall concert, and probably the last for some time, due to the earthquake strengthening to take place at that venue.

However, the coldest day of the year so far would, without doubt, have been the main reason for relatively low audience numbers.  This was a shame, because the orchestra was in top form, and coupled with some outstanding singers, they made the tribute to two of the greatest opera composers, into a marvellous concert.  The downstairs seating was less than half-full, while there were about four rows full in the main part of the circle upstairs.

The large orchestra (including quite a number of guest players) gave a very fine performance of the overture to La forza del destino, with close attention to rhythm and dynamics to create the appropriate spooky feeling.

Daniela-Rosa Cepeda (formerly Young, and the winner of the Dame Malvina Major Foundation Aria prize and Rosina Buckman Memorial Cup at the 2011 Hutt Valley Performing Arts Competitions in 2011) was the first singer we heard.  Her extract from Il corsaro, and the duet by Christina Orgias and Fredi Jones later in the programme, were tasters for the opera the School of Music is to present in July.  This testing first aria began accompanied by harp only, followed by pizzicato strings – very effective.  The singer’s voice proved to be very well suited to this music.

Oliver Sewell’s famous aria from Rigoletto showed that he was equal to the acoustics of the large hall.  Elisabeth Harris’s voice was rich and powerful too, in the difficult, dramatic aria from Don Carlo.  While improved from previous times I have heard her, she still sang under the note at times, particularly at the beginning of phrases.

What a magnificent, grand march is that from Aida!  It must be one of the most popular orchestral excerpts from all opera.  The NZSM Orchestra gave it a fine performance, notable for the splendid trumpets.

Christian Thurston proved to have an excellent voice for Verdi, in his excerpt from Un ballo in maschera, but in the Il corsaro duet, the singers were not well balanced.  Fredi Jones was good at conveying his character, while Christina Orgias communicated her words, and the mood, very well, but could not match Jones’s volume.  The orchestra played superbly and sensitively.

Isabella Moore proved once again what a promising singer she is – a natural, with confidence, and a lovely voice intelligently used.  Her voice production seems effortless, and she rose above the orchestral sound, producing wonderful notes throughout.  Her vocal quality is mellow, yet exciting when it needs to be.

After the interval, another grand march, the overture to Die Meistersinger, was taken at a brisk pace, but still allowing the subtleties to emerge.  The brass were first class, speaking as with one voice.  It was powerful playing; Wagner would surely have approved.  Balance was excellent.

Next was a real treat: the Wesendonck lieder, Wagner’s setting of poems by Mathilde Wesendonck.  I don’t know that I have ever heard the whole five live before – perhaps once, a long time ago, in London.  Margaret Medlyn was just the person to perform them, with her successful experience as a singer of main roles in Wagner music dramas.  The first two songs (‘Der Engel’ and Stehe Still’) were sung sublimely, and just right.    The radiance of the singer’s voice was never swallowed up by the huge orchestra.

The third song, ‘Im Treibhaus’ (In the hothouse) featured muted strings.  The words (in translation in the printed programme) described a state of depression; the tonal changes, dynamics and expression employed by Margaret Medlyn were beautifully judged to convey this state; it was an exquisite performance.

The meaning of ‘Schmerzen’ (Sorrows) was drawn out by Wagner’s fabulous word-painting.  As in the first half of the concert, the orchestral accompaniment was notable for delicious harp-playing.  Throughout the songs, one could recognise many passages that the composer used later in his music-dramas.  The ending of the last song, ‘Träume’ (Dreams) was quite beautiful, and the orchestra did its part supremely well.  Margaret Medlyn proved herself again to be a great Wagnerian singer.

The last work listed in the printed programme, from Das Rheingold, had Wagner at his most lyrical.  Oboes were important, and their playing was very fine.  Although the prelude to Lohengrin was not printed in the programme, Middle-C was aware that it was to be played.  It made a familiar finish to the concert, completing a quartet of grand marches and overtures.

Orchestra, conductor and singers should all feel very proud of their achievements in presenting a concert of a very high standard.  Although we understand that it was a hard night’s work, one would wish that the orchestra members might convey at least a modicum of pleasure or enjoyment in their faces when they take their final bow.

Orchestra of Swing, courtesy of “The Duke”

Orchestra Wellington presents:


GERSHWIN – An American in Paris

BERNSTEIN – Three Meditations from “Mass”

MARGETIC – Music for Wind, Brass and Percussion

ELLINGTON – Night Creature

Andrew Joyce (‘cello)

Mark Donlon (piano) / John Rae (drumset) / Miguel Arnedo-Gomez (bongos) / Patrick Bleakley (bass)

Marc Taddei (conductor)

Orchestra Wellington

Town Hall, Wellington

Sunday, 26th May 2013

The only clue I had to what we might be in for, during the course of the oncoming Orchestra Wellington’s concert with the overall name “Night Creature”, was George Gershwin’s An American in Paris, which I knew reasonably well.

I had not heard any of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” – though I remember reading a review of the composer’s own recording many years ago, one whose description of the work’s full-on theatrical, somewhat confrontational style put me off ever wanting to get to know it.  Such an attitude on my part was bound to catch up with me, sooner or later…..

Duke Ellington’s was a name I knew far better than his music – my Take the “A” train days of listening almost exclusively to swing I still recall with great pleasure, but of course Ellington’s was a creative spirit which explored realms far removed from swing. His three-movement suite Night Creature resulted from a 1955 commission by conductor Don Gillis and the Symphony of the Air (the old NBC Symphony), and used a quartet of saxophones and a jazz combo, emulating a kind of baroque concerto grosso arrangement – intriguing, to say the very least.

As for New Zealand-based composer Karlo Margetic, and the Bartok-like title of his new piece Music for wind, brass and percussion, I had heard some of his music before and remembered enjoying the experience, most recently a work for Piano Trio called Lightbox, premiered in 2012 by the NZ Trio.

So, the evening’s music promised a tantalizing assemblage, one whose parts I was determined I would give every chance to make a positive impression – even the Bernstein! In the event (thanks partly to the stellar playing of ‘cellist Andrew Joyce) Bernstein’s Three Meditations from “Mass” provided some of the most beautiful and heartfelt-sounding moments of the concert.

Having thought such dismissive thoughts about the piece I was pleased to find myself enjoying the music thoroughly. It all began with xylophone-like chimes, and an anguished, questioning ‘cello solo, the themes and ideas of the opening between the soloist, orchestra and organ. I was particularly taken with Andrew Joyce’s handling of the ‘cello’s beautifully rapt final utterances, even if the effect was all but spoilt by a persistent audience cougher.

The next piece’s opening was a slow and portentous pizzicato march, into which the orchestra joined, building the tensions with plenty of volatile excitement, aided and abetted by the organ at one scalp-pricking point! Through it all, the solo ‘cello kept an “eye of the hurricane” aspect, alongside menacing side-drum rolls and a final orchestral crash.

Straightaway, the drumbeat led into the final Presto, the soloist responding first with a disjointed cadenza-like recitative, and then taking up the drum’s dance-rhythm. I loved the cheery, angular folksiness of the dance, whose energies eventually gave way to the ‘cello’s taking up of a passionately romantic theme , supported beautifully by the orchestral strings. The “working-out” of these things reminded me in places of the composer’s “West Side Story” in its bitter-sweet, volatile mood. To finish, the ‘cellist played cadenza-like fragments imitating birdsong, as the percussion persisted with its “motto” rhythm in the background. Irrespective of the music’s wider context, I thought the work engaging and thought-provoking.

The concert had begun with music of quite a different mood, Gershwin’s An American in Paris, here thrillingly given what I can only describe as the “full” treatment by Marc Taddei and his players. From the start, the energies of the piece came at us in great and colourful waves, with brash auto-horns and whipped-up tempi at the climaxes. Played with such sharply-focused detailing the quieter interludes, when they came, made an enormous impact of withdrawal, the traveller’s sudden bouts of homesickness made all too heart-rending by the beautiful string- and wind-playing (Matthew Ross’s violin solo a bitter-sweet joy).

At first I thought the energetic bits needed a bit more “swagger” and point, and to rely less upon sheer speed of execution in places – but the trumpet-solo episode (superb!), counterpointed by the saxophone choirs, had such rhythmic “schwung”, such a delicious and infectious immediacy, that I capitulated, head-over heels, to it all from that moment onward! The orchestra strings played with plenty of stylish heart-on-sleeve emotion, matched by energetic wind and brass detailings which surged and flowed through the precincts of the Town Hall in grand fashion. It might have been a little too “over-the-top” for some people, but I loved it.

Again the trumpet-playing captured all the swagger of the rollicking theme which struck up in response to the solo violin’s chromatic angstings, inspiring the orchestral strings to respond in kind. At the end, the great restatement of the earlier trumpet theme by the full orchestra had more of a jazzy, spiky aspect than a “symphonic orchestral” one, a detail not lost upon the droll-voiced tuba with his brief concluding solo. In all, a terrific achievement!

Karlo Margetic, Orchestra Wellington’s Emerging Composer-in-Residence wanted to write a piece that contributed to the repertoire for wind and percussion ensemble, or as he put it in a pre-concert interview, “orchestra without strings”. As a clarinettist in various ensembles, Margetic would often enjoy first-hand the writing for winds within the framework of full orchestral pieces, and wonder why there wasn’t more stand-alone repertoire for the combination – “…such an amazing sonority!” he would think to himself – so he decided he would do something about it in the most practical possible way.

His work, Music for wind, brass and percussion, did surely and exactly what the title suggested it would do. Here were the unique sound-characteristics of the ensemble through its constituent parts and its combination of those parts, presumably as its composer imagined would happen. And it was surely no accident that the piece began with the sounds of clarinets weaving their lines throughout the textures, as the other instruments awaited their turn to try a folkish falling theme, despite the snarling aspect of the trombones, warning their fellows not to get too cocky with their new plaything too soon.

But to no avail – the theme became thoroughly energized through all this attention, and began arcing shreds of melody through the air like shooting stars,underpinned by crashes, explosions, and rolling timpani. Margetic certainly didn’t neglect his percussion, enabling it to glint and sparkle in places, roar and rattle in others, as this theme rolled around the stratospheric regions belonging to each instrument group. The panoply of sounds thus created made for a wonderful effect, both lyrical and dramatic, its melodic contouring not unlike the well-known thirteenth-century chant “Dies Irae”.

As the melody developed, the tensions around and about it receded, provoking a final ensemble-roar in passing, and leaving a muted voice whose tones had perhaps underlined the whole of the interaction – having done, it melted away along with the other resonances. On this showing, I thought the work a great success – coherent throughout, beautifully shaped and contoured, interestingly coloured (those “amazing sonorities”, no doubt!) and always suggesting spontaneity, however much was pre-ordained.

Conductor Marc Taddei belatedly talked to his audience before the orchestra began the final item of the concert, Duke Ellington’s Night Creature. Taddei wanted to draw people’s attention to the idea that classical music didn’t exist entirely of itself, but drew inspiration from popular music, and cited “The Duke” as an example of a musician who “thought across” categories as both a performer and composer. Apparently, Night Creature was written because its composer wanted to get a symphony orchestra to “swing”.

“Swing” it all most certainly did, the work launched by the jazz combo (piano, double-bass, drum-set, bongos) playing part of another Ellington-inspired work, music which “set the scene” for what followed, without a break. The first part of Night Creature was just as evocatively titled Blind Bug, the “nocturnal dance” scenario somewhat nightmarish, the textures dominated by the brasses and saxophones, with the strings providing a kind of atmospheric backdrop.

The following Stalking Monster had well-defined rhythmic trajectories set by low piano notes, winds and strings, the music droll, rolling-out and evocative. At the other end of the sound-spectrum were powerful toccata-like exchanges between brass and timpani, though these also joined in with the rhythmic drolleries, the muted brasses extremely characterful. Solos from both saxophone and trombone were an exciting feature, and even the strings got to do a bit of “funky” towards the movement’s end.

Finally Dazzling Creature stirred some glamour and sex into the mix, a depiction of the “Queen” of all the night creatures – a muted trumpet announced the erotic “charge” of her presence, strings delineated her seductive movements and the winds underlined her exoticism. Having established this “Mistress of a Modern-day Venusberg” and her thralldom over all, the music swung with the saxophones, and hit its straps with the brass choir. And, how the composer did enjoin us in his programme note on the music to relish his depiction of “the most overindulged form of up-and-outness”! I’m certain that “The Duke” would have been pleased had he been there – for all of us, players and listeners, it was “swing” with a vengeance.























Wellington Youth Choir – stories for the telling

Wellington Youth Choir presents:

Choral Music from The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, The Prince of Egypt, and by Samuel Barber, Trad. (arr. Philip Wilby and Gustav Holst), Schumann, John Bratton and Jimmy Kennedy (arr. Andrew Carter), Eric Whitacre, Saint-Saëns (solo), David Williams, Anthony Hedges and the Lighthouse Family (arr. Isaac Stone)

Wellington Youth Choir, conducted by Isaac Stone

St. John’s in the City Church

Friday 24 May 2013

A varied concert of items telling stories was given by the Wellington Youth Choir, under its Acting Musical Director.  It began in great style, with ‘The Circle of Life’, from the movie The Lion King; the music by Elton John and Lebo M, with lyrics by Time Rice.  Drums and other percussion instruments plus whistling opened the piece, along with a very good male solo.  The choir had impressive control of dynamics.

Unfortunately a few singers had the heads so deeply in their music scores that perhaps the conductor could never catch their eyes.  However, I detected very few false entries; the choir was always disciplined and together.  An excellent soprano solo followed, and then Isaac Stone played the African drums in front of him – altogether, an exciting performance, with the choir providing a strong, confident and pleasing sound.

The special lighting was rather strange, plunging the back row of the choir into too much shadow.  Isaac Stone soon acknowledged that they couldn’t see the music, and so more lighting was provided, which had the added bonus that the audience could read their programmes.

Another piece from the movies, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ from the film of the same name, had Juliette Irwin as soprano soloist; the performance featured a lovely unified sound from the women, whereas the men had less of that quality, and sounded uncommitted.  However, rhythm and timing were spot on.  The men’s singing improved in the louder passages.  The quality of the harmony singing was usually fine, and in tune.

Barber arranged his Adagio for Strings for voices, as Agnus Dei, more than thirty years later; they are both extremely well-known.  This performance was rather faster than others I have heard, but proved to be a very effective and sensitive one.

The first of two arrangements of traditional songs, ‘Marianne’ and ‘I love my love’, was in six parts, but maintained good balance, attention to dynamics, and matching vowels.  Tuning and ensemble were again very fine.  Another feature of the choir was that for the most part, the singers stood very still, so there was no distraction from their concentration on getting across the mood of the songs superbly well.  The latter song was somewhat slower than I’ve heard it before, but this enabled the choir to bring out the delightful clashes of the interval of a second, and their beautiful resolution.  Difficult harmony set low in the voices appeared to present no problems.

‘The Recruit’ by Robert Schumann was new to me.  The performance was notable for outstanding attack and the absolutely unanimous movement of the words in this lively song.

Homemade refreshments in the interval were welcome, since the church was unheated – hard to take on an evening of 10deg. outside temperature.  Nevertheless, there was sizeable audience in attendance, but largely composed of family and friends, I suspect.  The only publicity I saw was on the website of the New Zealand Choral Federation.

The excerpt ‘Deliver Us’ from Stephen Schwarz’s The Prince of Egypt featured a violin solo, played with strong, euphonious tone by Vivian Stephens, accompanied by Isaac Stone on the piano.  That meant there w s no-one standing in front of the choir to bring the singers in – yet the men came in on the dot.  The women’s part was very low in the voice at the start; perhaps rather too low for young voices.  It brightened up later.

Isaac Stone said in his spoken introduction to ‘The Teddy Bears’ Picnic’ by Bratton and Kennedy, that it was a favourite of the choir – and it was soon easy to see why.  The excellent harmony arrangement by Andrew Carter was great fun, and gave plenty of scope for the singers to show their skills.

Eric Whitacre’s ‘Leonardo dreams of his flying machine’ was an extended piece, in more ways than merely length – its contemporary angular style and variety of writing would have challenged the choir.  There were awkward intervals and chords, and many difficult effects, symbolising the sounds of the dreamt-of flying machine.  It was hard to pick up most of the words, but the choir sustained the piece well.

Having a solo item gave the rest of the choir a break, but I found ‘Amour! Viens aider ma faiblesse!’ from Samson et Dalila somewhat out of place in this concert.  Natalie Williams sang, accompanied on the piano by Isaac Stone.  This was a big voice, and rich, suited to the mezzo-soprano role of Delilah.  The was sung in good French, but the movement from note to note was not always secure.  Mostly the tone was mellow and exemplary, but top notes were rather strained

Young composer David Williams, a former student of Isaac Stone’s (presumably at Tawa College, where the latter teaches) was present to hear his piece ‘As I fall’, a setting of a poem by Margery Snyder, a young American poet.  The idea of falling was realistically conveyed, and the piece was sung well, growing more and more in complexity and volume as it proceeded.  It was a skilled piece of writing.

‘Epitaph’ by Anthony Hedges was a humorous item, the words including “Where I’m going there is no eating so no washing up dishes”.  A close harmony item, it gave scope for some expressive singing from the choir.

Finally ‘High’ by the Lighthouse Family and arranged by Isaac Stone was a short item in which both men and women hummed for some passages.  It was sung with vigour, using the words well, and with great attention to rhythm

Nearly all the items were sung unaccompanied with no apparent difficulty.  This is an excellent choir.  The concert comes soon after a splendid one by the Wellington Youth Orchestra.  We have great young musicians, who deserve every encouragement.


The Goldbergs with strings attached…

Hutt Valley Chamber Music presents:


J.S.BACH (arr. W.Cowdery) – Goldberg Variations BWV 988

New Zealand String Quartet

Helene Pohl, Douglas Beilmann (violins) / Gillian Ansell (viola) / Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

St.Mark’s Church, Woburn Road, Lower Hutt

Wednesday 22nd May, 2013

I wouldn’t dream of going so far as to say that I NEVER, EVER want to hear the Goldberg Variations played on a keyboard instrument again – but all the while the New Zealand String Quartet was performing this work in an arrangement made by Bach scholar (and harpsichordist!) William Cowdery, I was transported, wafted into a world of enchantment from which all keys, jacks, hammers and pedals – anything remotely percussive – had been removed.

Or so it seemed, at the time, to me. The next day, I played my Glenn Gould recording of the work, performed, of course, on a piano, and was, to some extent, reconverted. But it’s a measure of the durability and flexibility of Bach’s music that, when presented on instruments of completely different sound-character, it seems to envelop timbre, texture and tone, and make the instrument (or instruments) seem utterly and indisputably appropriate to the occasion.

I had heard the NZSQ play this work before, in Upper Hutt, and remembered at that time being both intrigued and impressed – though on that occasion the impact of it all was, I think, diluted by having another work on the program, Elgar’s Piano Quintet. Here, in the softer, more homely and intimate setting of St.Mark’s Church, Woburn, the “String-Goldbergs” filled both time and space with sounds which, even more than the last time round, seemed to fuse both craft and content into a symbiosis of beauty and feeling.

What the string quartet version seemed to me to allow was a contrapuntal partnership of equals which the solo keyboard versions I’ve heard don’t emulate in the same way – having both the strength and individuality of a single player to a voice makes for a more dynamic kind of interaction of parts than a single player at a keyboard can provide. With two, sometimes three, and occasionally all four players committed wholly to the notes, to matters of technique, timbre, intellectual overview and emotional expression, the music’s amplitude is enriched to what I felt was a compelling degree.

As expected, the players of the New Zealand String Quartet were wholly taken up with and set aglow by the bringing together of these different elements, and reinterpreting the music’s world. Even an injured Helene Pohl was able to contribute a characteristically heartfelt first-violin line as required, astonishingly redistributing the fingerings of her parts to avoid using a recently-damaged little finger. The process made not one whit of difference to her usual vibrancy and focus – a mere handful of notes not quite in tune still resonated with that intensely musical quality particularly her own.

Here are a few thoughts regarding some of the individual variations and their place in the whole – from the outset, the group adopted a “whiter”, more austere tone than I’ve previously heard from them, effective as an opening statement of intent, a “surface” that suggested both order and contained expressive potential. From the dignity of this opening Sarabande, we were energized by the polonaise rhythm of the first variation, its running lines reminiscent of the Third Brandenburg Concerto’s finale – the repeat featured some delicious variations of tone, the lines having an engaging “stand-alone” quality, more so than with the keyboard version, though still as integrated.

As mentioned above, not all the variations used all four players, a textural device which, as happens with both piano and harpsichord, gives the music contrasting densities – so the Canon of the third variation, with its two-violin interaction and ‘cello bass line created spaces which, in the succeeding Passepied, the extra player joyously filled, excitingly amplifying the sound-picture.

Sometimes an individual player stole the show, as did Doug Beilmann with the “schwung” of his figuration’s rhythms in the Gigue of No.7 – at other times it was the interaction between the musicians which gave real pleasure, as when Gillian Ansell’s viola cheekily finished off Rolf Gjesten’s ‘cello phrases at the line-ends of the following Variation (No.9). Then, in the following Canon everybody had a part to play in the music’s strolling grandeur, the players (I fancied) smiling with the pleasure of it all.

The trio of variations that concluded the work’s first part were worlds in themselves, the playing bringing out by turns the music’s propensities towards delight and sorrow. No.13’s Sarabande had a kind of “heavenly length” quality, combining serenity with a mellifluous character, the occasional  “catch” in the instruments’ throats on certain strings adding to the intensities. The Toccata was a clever-witted philosopher between two poets, his élan further honing the melancholy of No.15’s Canon, its wistful, questioning phrases played with wonderful poise by the ensemble, in readiness for what was still to come.

I so relished the players’ presentation of the “Grand Overture” which began the second part of the work – all very celebratory, and “orchestral” in style, though never generalized as such, but always with “point” and plenty of variation. (Incidentally, from this point on my notes began to voluminously grow!). Again there was conveyed throughout the work’s second part a kind of “joy of interaction” among the players, the two-part  No.17 Toccata (arranged among three instruments, here) brimful of lines eagerly looking to interact with their counterparts. The following Canon represented a kind of fruition of this with Rolf Gjelsten’s ‘cello dancing in counterpoint with two singing violins – and if the succeeding No.19 charmed us with pizzicato-voiced dance-impulses, the following Toccata stimulated our impulsive leanings with the players’ exciting alternations of pizzicato and whirling bowed triplets!

So much more to describe! – but one must resist most of the remaining blandishments and concentrate instead on the great Adagio of the 25th Variation – the violin’s anguished leading line like a bird hovering above the ocean of the lower instruments’ sombre counterpoints. Here, the violin’s bird brought to us something of the feeling of the “immensity of human sorrow” while holding fast to the skein stretched across vast distances to the lower instruments’ quiet, oceanic certainty – a kind of depiction, I thought, of both the solitariness and surety of spiritual faith, on the composer’s part.

Several other rich and vibrant variations later came the celebrated Quodlibet (a Latin term for “whatever” or “what pleases”), the last . This featured Bach’s droll synthesis of two German folk-songs (how wonderful to contemplate those woods “Cabbages and turnips have driven me away” in this context!), the players enjoying the music’s mix of friendly rivalry and adroit partnership. And, quite suddenly, it seemed, at the end, there it was – with the return of the opening Aria, it felt to us as though the music was coming home once again, having undergone its own solar orbit and experienced many world-turnings, both interactive and solitary. Now, the players’ tones seemed more in accord than counterpointed, more fulfilled than striving, more fused than disparate. Here, we in the audience were being given the well-wrought strains of sounds approximating to a divine order, a ray of serenity from chaos. We held onto those strains as best we could, but in the end we had to let them go.

Much acclaim and very great honour to the New Zealand String Quartet players! – through their sensibilities and skills we were able to coexist, for a short time, with a kind of transcendental awareness of things, by way of music whose being somehow seemed to accord with our own existence.

Delights and disappointments from the Poinsett Trio

Wellington Chamber Music Trust

Mozart: Trio in C, K.548 (allegro; andante cantabile; allegro)

Brahms: Trio in C minor, Op.101 (allegro energico; presto non assai; andante grazioso; allegro)

Fauré: Piano Trio in D minor, Op.120 (allegro ma non troppo; andantino; finale: allegro vivo)

Paul Schoenfield: Café Music (allegro; andante moderato; presto)

Poinsett Trio (David Cross, piano; Deirdre Hutton, violin; Christopher Hutton, cello)

Ilott Theatre

Sunday, 19 May 2013

(Reviewer’s note: It is now known that Deirdre Hutton’s violin had, before the concert on Sunday 19 May at the Ilott Theatre, developed quite a long seam opening.  This led to major problems with sound production.  The matter could not be fixed prior to the concert.

Apparently they tried to get hold of an Auckland violin maker prior to the concert, who was visiting Wellington, but didn’t succeed, as she had already left.  She’s now repaired the instrument. – R.C.  25th May)

It is always good to welcome back Wellington musicians studying or working overseas.  This is the case with cellist Christopher Hutton.

However, overall I found this concert disappointing, given the very high standard always demonstrated in the Wellington Chamber Music Trust series.  At the beginning of the Mozart sonata the violin was a little off pitch; this recurred at various times throughout the concert.  The beautiful piano part was for the most part beautifully played with commendable delicacy of touch, but it rather over-awed the strings.  Yes, the piano had the principal part in Mozart’s early chamber works, but this was not an early work.  Maybe it was the dry acoustic, but I found the violin tone harsh; the cello I could not hear much from through most of the work.  I liked the instrument’s sound when I could hear it.

In the Brahms trio, the balance was more equitable between the piano and the strings.  It opened with a typical Brahms melody, after a lively introduction.  Better tone and intonation emerged from the violin.

The second movement was unusual for the use of mutes throughout by the strings – even when pizzicato was being played.  The movement was fast, soft, and had a gentle, rollicking character, due to the rhythm, and the muted pizzicato.

The lovely opening string duet of the slow third movement was echoed in the piano solo that followed; this was the pattern throughout the movement. This back and forth character gave interest and clarity to the writing and the performance.  Again, there was some harshness of tone from the violin.  The most extended of the piano solos had rather the features of a salon piece for piano.

The finale was agitated, bur mellifluous melodies were passed from the strings to the piano and back again.  However, there were too many flaws in this performance to allow the music to carry me away, although the ensemble was more cohesive in this work.

The Fauré trio was heard in last year’s Sunday afternoon series, just over one year ago, with a trio of young New Zealanders studying overseas.  Its character demands subtlety, and the Poinsetts demonstrated it, and some élan showed through, despite occasional waywardness of the violin’s intonation.

The charming song-like opening melody of the andantino was most pleasing.  However, the pianist did not vary his dynamics as much as did the string players.  An impassioned duet for cello and violin was very pleasing.  Ensemble and tone were improved.

The fast finale found once again that tuning was not always on the spot.  The movement featured a lively and ingratiating piano part.  As the programme note said, ‘the music is restrained, finely crafted, and entirely charming.’

Paul Schoenfield’s Café Music was exactly that, and didn’t ‘grab’ me as a component of a chamber music concert, being full of jazz rhythmic clichés, though written as recently as 1986; for example, the second movement’s off-beat ‘swing’ (in the traditional slow middle movement of chamber trios, despite the programme notes saying ‘traditional slow-fast-slow’).  The final presto was a dizzy, discordant dance taken at a cracking pace, and was a bit more adventurous.  It was rhythmically lively, but that rhythm did not contain much variety.

The violinist played the jazz style very well, as did the pianist.  All in all, this was a skilled performance – even if somewhat lightweight, nevertheless skill was required in its playing.

As an encore, the trio played the first movement of Dvořák’s ‘Dumky’ Trio, which was a component of the other programme they were presenting in their 13 concerts around New Zealand.  The delightful work was given a crisp introduction and a good rendering of the jolly, fast main theme that alternates with elements from the introduction.  There was plenty of emphasis on important notes, and a build up to each entry of the theme, making it a truly dance-like performance to end the concert.


Larks and serious business, with Yevgeny Sudbin and the NZSO

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending

Beethoven: Piano Concerto no.2 in B flat Op.19 (allegro con brio; adagio; rondo: allegro)

Elgar: Symphony no.1 in A flat Op.55 (andante nobilmente e semplice – allegro; allegro molto; adagio; lento – allegro)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mark Wigglesworth, with Vesa-Matti Leppänen (violin) and Yevgeny Sudbin (piano)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday, 17 May 2013, 6.30pm

It was gratifying to see the Michael Fowler Centre virtually full, no doubt due at least in part to the presence on the programme, The Lark Ascending, the work that tops the Radio New Zealand Concert ‘Settling the Score’ popularity programme almost every year.  Works by English composers book-ended the concert, and an Englishman was the conductor, who obviously knew the music very well, especially the Elgar.

While the concert-master played the delicious solo part in the Vaughan Williams, his colleague Yury Genzentsvey led the orchestra in both this work and in the Beethoven concerto.  A slightly smaller orchestra, particularly in the wind departments, played these two works; the full team assembled for the Elgar symphony after the interval.

Excellent, informative and quite lengthy programme notes were not credited to anyone.  The only other negative thing to say about this concert was that there was an unfortunate amount of unsuppressed coughing, especially during the Lark, that quietest of quiet orchestral pieces.  It was absent during Bryn Terfel’s recent concert – what has happened?

Leppänen bestowed a wonderful variety of tonal colours on the piece, including warm and rich, sprightly, and, well, bird-like.  The slower section was considerably drawn out compared with other performances I have heard – but none the worse for that.  All of the many solo passages were superbly executed, and at the end, his colleagues applauded as warmly as did the audience, but they themselves gave a fine account of Vaughan Williams’s music.  Notable was some gorgeous woodwind playing; for example, flute and clarinet together.

Written before the concerto known as no.1, this Beethoven concerto is very much in the Classical tradition of Haydn and Mozart, particularly in the first movement.  The violins did not sound at their best always in the opening passages.  However, the tall, handsome young pianist made an immediate impression in his lilting initial foray, varying his dynamics subtly.  Phrasing was lovingly done.  Sudbin showed great delicacy in pianissimos, and every note was in place.  Compared with most other pianists, he sat very close to the keyboard, and played from almost directly above it.

One was seldom aware of the sustaining pedal, and his sound was full, while never being ‘louder than lovely’.  There was nothing mechanical about this playing; it was always nuanced and apt, such as through the various changes of key, and the athletic runs, for example in the magical cadenza – which ended with surprising little chords.

The slow movement began with an inspiring orchestral flow into which the piano breaks, but without disturbing the tenor of it lofty expression.  There were delightful piano syncopations before a more sombre mood emerged.  The return of the main theme was decorated most deliciously by the piano.  The facility of this young pianist is remarkable.  Yet he makes every note count.  However, I was surprised to hear trills on the piano pedalled; this gave out an odd metallic shimmering sound from the instrument.  The orchestral playing in this movement was sublime.

The finale breaks in as a lively, passionate contrast.  The pianist’s dexterity continued to be varied, and carried expression with it.  The ending of the movement was enchanting; delicate yet strong.

The audience’s enthusiastic response to the pianist was rewarded with not one, but two unannounced encores.  The beauty of the first was somewhat marred by a cellphone’s intervention.  It was a delight not to have a showy piece played, but rather a poised, gently glowing piece.  However, the next one demonstrated technique to burn, including superb articulation, the pianist playing even more over the keyboard than in the concerto.  This was a much faster, noisier piece, with a bit too much pedal for my taste.  Although they were not familiar to me, I concluded that both pieces were by Scarlatti, and some learned friends I spoke with in the interval had the same thought.

The Elgar symphony came as quite an aural shock after the relatively restrained first half, with the much larger orchestra, especially in the brass and woodwind departments.  The opening march-like theme would declare the music to be by Elgar even if one didn’t know.  There were lots of typical surging crescendos; how different from Vaughan Williams’s gentle piece!  Of course the latter was also a considerable symphonist.

Excitement builds in the first movement, tuba and all.  Is it all bluster?  The first significant symphony by an Englishman was not, however, all ebullience. The opening theme returns in quieter mode, before it is shouted from the rooftops again.   It featured gorgeous string writing – and playing.

The second movement has another rather imperialistic theme for full orchestra, with much percussion and a contrabassoon lurking underneath.  Glissandi from the two harps glowed, and then it was back to the march of soldiers in combat, trumpets giving the battle calls.  The music became more than a little pompous, saved by some delicate woodwind and string passages, sometimes in unison.  I detected fine bass clarinet playing.

The adagio was a quiet, elegiac patriotic song for fallen heroes.  The cor anglais intoned mournfully before a resolution of grief arrived.  There were little solos for the string principals.  Passionate, even pleading cries led to a quiet, contented resolution, and peace.

Then straight on to the final movement, unusually set as a lento leading to allegro (not lento-adagio as printed at the head of the notes).  A quiet allusion to the main theme of the first movement, noble string playing, followed by shimmering unisons and chunky alternating staccato passages.  As the whole orchestra asserted itself in bombastic variations on the first movement theme, the music became more than a little Brahmsian Finally, it became frenzied and boisterous.

Perhaps we hear that theme a little too often.  It seems as though it was designed to rouse the masses to heights of either ecstasy or fury.  Anyway, it drew an enthusiastic response from the audience.  The pressure to write symphonies was obviously great; to me, the essence of Elgar is in his Sea Pictures, Enigma Variations, and his many attractive choral pieces.






Fair, fresh winds from home

NZ Music for Woodwind

Music by Edwin Carr, Dylan Lardelli, Alex Taylor, Gareth Farr, Ken Wilson, Anthony Young.

Ben Hoadley (bassoon), Madeline Sakofsky (oboe and cor anglais), Emma Sayers (piano), Duo Solaris: Debbie Rawson and Donald Nicholls (clarinets)
New Zealand Clarinet Quartet: David McGregor (E flat clarinet), Hayden Sinclair (B flat clarinet), Nick Walshe (A clarinet), Debbie Rawson (bass clarinet)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

A concert featuring two world premières is not a common event in New Zealand.  However, this was the case on Wednesday.

The concert began, though, with a work from 1977, of Edwin Carr.  It was titled Two Mansfield Poems, and the two beautiful poems by Katherine Mansfield were included with the printed programme: ‘Sanary’ (1916) and ‘Sleeping Together’ (1908).  The first piece echoed the sunny day of the first poem.  The latter was a recollection of children sleeping in the same bed, whispering to each other.

Carr’s settings for cor anglais and piano were quite lovely.  How seldom one hears the cor anglais apart from in an orchestra! The cor anglais proved to be an apt instrument to reflect the sultry sun described in the second poem; the music was wonderfully pensive, while the playing had a gorgeous timbre.  Some of the music was dance-like, and the whole represented a great gift of delightful writing for cor anglais players.

A world première of One Body, a shortish piece by Dylan Lardelli failed to move me.  It was written for clarinet quartet.  It seemed to me suitable for accompanying a video or film about music of the spheres, or something spooky on the galaxies; or for a modern dance performance, my companion suggested.  It was all sound effects, including puffing notelessly through the instruments.  I could not find any music in it.  Given the title, I wondered if it was meant to portray the workings of the human body.

The second world premiere was of loose knots for bassoon, by Alex Taylor, a young Auckland composer.  It was certainly extending for Ben Hoadley; it was good to hear this instrument, too, in a solo capacity.  Some lovely tones emerged in a piece that incorporated microtones, and flutter tongue technique.  The piece was in three movements, and was rhythmically lively.  Hoadley commissioned it (with funding from Creative New Zealand, who also funded the  Lardelli and the Farr works) to play at a world double-reed convention he is to attend in California next month.

Gareth Farr’s Five Little Monologues was written in 2006 for the players we heard here.  The first opened with quiet ripples that moved from fast to very shrill.  Number two was an angular piece with shrieking all over the place, mainly staccato.  It was an effective little piece, and incorporated fleet-footed melodies, and became jokey at the end.

The third piece was legato with trills, while the fourth featured staccato playing again, like little sprites running all over the place, with another humorous ending.  The final piece had the instruments running quickly everywhere, high-pitched phrases alternating with low ones.  This was very accomplished writing with plenty of interest.  The work employed very musical language and phrasing.  Another quirky ending completed the set.

Ken Wilson’s Duo for two clarinets from 2002 was jolly and laughing.  The playing was preceded by some words from Debbie Rawson about Ken and his music, in which she said he was known as ‘Fingers’ Wilson.  Certainly this piece required dexterity.  It was vigorous, sprightly and jaunty; thoroughly enjoyable.  I hope Debbie Rawson will fulfil her promise to play more of Ken Wilson’s music.

Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano of Anthony Young, was written in 2011, and like the Ken Wilson piece, was a Wellington première.  The piece was inspired by baroque sonata form – four movements: slow, fast, slow, fast.  After a pensive opening, the intertwining of the parts was grateful on the ear.  The second movement had lots going on for all three instruments, Emma Sayers at times conducting with her head for entries.

The third movement featured ponderous piano and bassoon, the oboe’s melody thoughtful, even questing, with the bassoon following in like vein.  The final movement began fast, especially for the piano.  There were contemplative moments for all instruments; in fact the work explored the instruments’ capabilities, and provided plenty of variety.  A hearty ending section with a sudden full-stop completed this well-crafted work.

The whole concert was notable for extremely fine playing throughout; although the concert was overly long for a lunchtime one, it was very rewarding to hear such a range of accomplished wind music from our own country’s composers.

Worlds of difference from the NZ Trio

Chamber Music New Zealand presents:

NZ TRIO – Old World : New World

ERICH KORNGOLD – Piano Trio Op.1 /  CLAIRE COWAN – Subtle Dances

BRIGHT SHENG – 4 Movements for Piano Trio

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH – PIano Trio No.2 in E Minor Op.67

NZ Trio – Justine Cormack (violin) / Ashley Brown (‘cello) / Sarah Watkins (piano)

Town Hall, Wellington

Wednesday 15th May, 2013

It took me a while to “settle in” to the Town Hall’s more-than-ample sound-spaces for this concert – the NZ Trio had daringly opted to begin with Korngold’s Op.1 Piano Trio, music that called for plenty of rich, vibrant and well-uphostered sounds from the ensemble. Despite the vigour with which the players began the piece, I thought that the amplitude of the acoustic seemed at first to dwarf the players’ tones. As well, certain musical detailings sounded as though closer proximities were needed in order to make their effect (Justine Cormack’s thrummings just before the opening’s repeat here became little more than a physical gesture), so that I felt something of the music’s flavour and variety wasn’t getting through. In fact, the dialogues involving violin and ‘cello at first resembled the exchanges between a couple of faded beauties reminiscing about old times – a feeling which I thought simply wouldn’t have been in accord with a youthful composer’s freshly-wrought impulses.

However, once my ears had become used to this particular sound-world (“gotten on the wavelength”, would have been my generation’s chic expression for the phenomenon) I was better able to appreciate what the NZ Trio was doing, and enjoy the explorations of contrasts which throughout the first movement swing wholeheartedly between impassioned exchange and wistful stillness. By the end, I thought the players had caught the essence of things, summed up by what came to us as almost an ecstasy of sustained arco and pizzicato sounds over the final measures .

A lively, mischievous and angular Scherzo with its sultry Trio followed, compounding my amazement at its thirteen year-old composer’s prodigious creativities. It made me think of conductor Water Damrosch’s celebrated response regarding a youthful work of Aaron Copland’s, a remark (made straight after a performance of the work to its audience) that stated its composer would eventually be “capable of committing murder”. Naturally, Copland didn’t follow up the suggestion, and (as far as I’m aware) neither did Korngold undertake any such venture.

The slow movement’s opening ‘cello solo, lovingly played by Ashley Brown, brought out the music’s reiterating “dying fall”, with exciting, surging “road-music” contrasts in places. The same idea was present in the finale as well, ballade-like in its opening presentation, though under siege from certain angularities. The Trio’s big-boned forward drive swept the music’s changes along, the players alive to all of the music’s possibilities, engaging our sensibilities and giving us no doubt as to why its composer would have been regarded as such a “wunderkind” at the time.

In the light of Korngold’s youthful efforts, it was interesting to read New Zealand composer Claire Cowan’s thoughts regarding the composition of her work for Piano Trio, Subtle Dances. I liked her connection between her “intuitive” approach to composition and the relationship between composer, performers and audiences, and their respective places in the music’s “space”. I wondered, after reading these words, to what extent the work of a gifted thirteen year-old Viennese composer might have, however subconsciously, been similarly guided by intuition.

Claire Cowan characterized the first part of her work as “a rhythmical and passionate interlocking of playful lines”, but included a warning of the danger or risk element in such undertakings as well. The music awakened like a simple organism’s first, exploratory pulsings, with firstly the ‘cello and then violin exchanging pizzicato notes, and the piano adding a voice. The string-players tapped their soundboxes, gradually evolving an off-beat rhythm, decorated by piano figurations. When the violin joined the piano one got a sense of the composer’s “passionate interlocking” – as angst-filled as something bluesy, without being the blues…something ethnic, with a pronounced and engaging rhythmic trajectory.

It all stopped abruptly and gave way to the second movement’s be slow and lie low. A deep and wide world of inner feeling gradually settled on everything as the slow-motion dance spread its soft, shimmering silences around and about, the stillness tingling with magical harmonies. The change to the following movement was as marked as the previous transition, Sarah Watkins’ piano resounding splendidly like gamelan, and her companions supporting the piano with richly-wrought string lines, tremolandi and ostinati creating both vast open spaces and insistently claustrophobic textures at one and the same time, fitting Claire Cowan’s title for the movement, nerve lines. What a gift for sonorities this composer has!

Wisely, the Trio gave us some breathing-space in the form of an interval before serving us up with some more strongly-flavoured though differently-inspired evocations – these were the four movements of Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Piano Trio. The composer wanted to re-explore a work for piano solo that he wrote in 1988, called My Song, reworking the musical material, and developing further his idea of bringing aspects of eastern and western art-music together. The first movement gave us birdsong, the strings’ notes gliding across spacious, airy textures. The instruments played “concurrently” rather than together, with winsome glissandi, capturing an early-morning ambience – a truly other-worldly effect, supported by the pianist reaching into the piano and softly plucking strings.

Then came a vigorous dance-like song, Sarah Watkins’ piano excitably fetching up tones from out of the instruments’ depths, and the strings with glissandi and portamenti again having an airborne quality, over surges of rhythmic energy. A beautiful shimmer of resonance sounded like an echo at the piece’s end. In contrast, the biting, driving rhythms of the “savage dance” dug into the earth, recalling similar tones of Bartok’s from his strings, percussion and celesta music. The final Nostalgia created sounds which unlocked memories of things long ago or far away, and encouraged a longing for those things to come again. The piano and strings played delicately-counterpointed lines whose resonances were allowed to drift evocatively into the imagination’s distances – beautiful!

And finally, to Shostakovich, and to a work written by the composer in memory of a close friend, who had died during 1944. Shostakovich’s particular creative intensities seemed to find the fullest expression in chamber music, and this Trio was no exception. It seemed to me that, in the first movement, there was a kind of bringing-together, the ‘cello representing something exotic, more other-worldly, and violin and piano bringing aspects of a contrapuntal framework to the exercise. Ashley Brown’s ‘cello-playing again demonstrated remarkable sensitivity, with stratospheric figurations involving haunting harmonics – it seemed as though the sounds were being “offered up” by the composer, as some kind of pre-arranged sacrificial ritual, enacted through that most severe of all forms, a fugue.

The Scherzo was a characteristically vigorous piece, both exuberant and frenzied, with rushing, upwardly-rollling figures and heavy-footed, angular stampings, the whole suggesting that there’s sometimes a fine line between enjoyment and obsessiveness. Justine Cormack’s violin lead the way with gutsy, unflinching gestures that kept energies and intensities on the boil. Afterwards, the largo’s monumental opening piano chords took us to the composer’s wellside of grief, the strings at one in their concerted lament – the dance-like opening of the finale, and its progression into and through harrowing realms merely underlined the desperation of things for Shostakovich, and the extent of his own grim resignation in the face of it all. The NZ Trio gave its all, or so it seemed – after such ordeals, the final quiet string and piano arpeggios and chords in an exhausted E major came less as relief and more as affirmation of something indestructible to be grasped against all odds.