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.






















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