Inaugural Wellington recital by accomplished violin and piano duo

Music for violin and piano
Pärt: Fratres (1977) for violin and piano
Fauré: Andante Op.75
Elgar: Sonata for violin and piano Op.82 (Allegro; Romance; Allegro non troppo)

Simeon Broom (violin) and Rachel Church (piano)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 31 July 2013, 12.15pm

These two young performers were newcomers to the St Andrew’s scene, but they have played together for years, in New Zealand, Germany and the United Kingdom, and have recently returned from overseas.

Their opening item is well-known, but perhaps not in this arrangement.  The piece is technically demanding for the violinist, while the pianist repeats the theme in chords, mainly.  The violinist plays many variations upon it, some of them stratospheric.  The variations are vigorous and interesting if not, to my mind, profound.

Nevertheless, the musicians conjured up many delightful moods and effects, especially when the melody was played on violin harmonics, with the piano pianissimo, at the end.

Fauré’s Andante was not a work I knew, and was in a completely different aesthetic from the 1970s Pärt work.  It has warm-toned, human-related melody – or certainly had the way these two played it. If Pärt’s mood was somewhat depressing, Fauré’s soaring melodies soon overcame that.  It is a tribute to the violinist’s skill that he made this work sound utterly uplifting in character.  At the same time, it demonstrated the composer’s “dislike of all pretension” as the excellent programme notes stated.

Elgar’s Sonata is a substantial work, infrequently heard.  The opening movement featured wonderful changes of expression, the instruments variously extravert, winsome, and brilliant.  The moods veered from cheerful to romantic; wistful to excitable.  All of this was well managed by the performers.

The slow movement was serious, yet included bouncy figures, vaguely reminiscent of parts  of the composer’s well-loved Enigma Variations.  As a violinist himself, Elgar had an inside knowledge of how to write for the instrument.  There were interesting modulations in both parts, and a rather grandiose section before a quiet ending.

The finale conveyed a pastoral scene in its opening, then became energetic and thoughtful by turns.  All was most beautifully executed, with finely controlled dynamics. There were many enchanting melodic figures and passages.

It was pleasing to see a good-sized audience attend the concert, and enjoying such accomplished playing of a programme of comparative rarities.  Simeon Broom has recently joined the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, and so we can perhaps look forward to hearing these two fine musicians some more.

Fine Choral Symphony from Wellington Youth Orchestra, but where’s the audience?

Beethoven: Symphony no. 9 in D minor, Op.125

Wellington Youth Orchestra, Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus, members of the Bach Choir, Madeleine Pierard (soprano), Bianca Andrew (mezzo), Derek Hill (tenor), Robert Tucker (bass), conducted by Hamish McKeich

Wellington Town Hall

Monday 29 July 2013, 7pm

The Wellington Youth Orchestra obviously works very hard, and is made up of extremely competent young musicians.  It is only two-and-a-half months since the last concert, which included a taxing Shostakovich Symphony.  Here they are again, playing Beethoven’s demanding final symphony, with choir and soloists; a considerable undertaking for a youth orchestra.

But where was the audience?  This major work has not been performed very recently in Wellington.  Perhaps people think ‘this is a kids’ orchestra – it won’t be very good’.  That is totally incorrect.  Where, though, was the advertising?  I was unaware of the concert until a few days before it happened.  I didn’t see any flyers handed out at other concerts (perhaps there were).  Here was a major choral concert, but the Wellington Regional Committee of the New Zealand Choral Federation was not notified of it, for their excellent listing emailed to choirs, giving details of forthcoming choral concerts.

Not only was the audience small; the orchestra and choir were both smaller than is usually employed for this work.  This did not matter in a less-than-half-full hall, and both lived up to expectations, on the whole.

Again, the orchestra had ‘friends and guest players’, whose names were not listed, joining to support some sections.  I noticed the NZSO’s principal double bass and others added to that section, the principal flute from the NZSO, plus a horn player, a cellist and a violist  There may have been others.

The concert began 10 minutes late – for a relatively early concert timing, this was an irritant.  However, I was soon disarmed by the playing: crisp rhythms and lively variety of dynamics were immediately apparent.  As I sat back and enjoyed the music, I thought what a great a symphony this would have been even without the choral finale.

These young musicians knew what they were doing, as the majestic first movement grew in stature – everything was given full weight.  This is not easy music, but there was no hesitancy and only a very occasional wrong note from this fine ensemble of 50-plus players.

The second movement was driven along forcefully by Hamish McKeich.  All parts were beautifully articulated in this highly dramatic scherzo.  The tempi of the movements were rather confusingly printed in the programme; suffice to say that they are 1 fast; 2  Scherzo: faster; 3 slow; 4 fast, with numerous slower bits interspersed.

The gorgeous slow introduction to the third movement, with its noble melody is followed by
variations upon it.  The playing was full of wonderful woodwind and horn ensembles.  Occasionally the pizzicato accompaniment on strings was not completely together nor loud enough, but that is a quibble; the playing was generally splendid and built up the tension marvellously well.

Beethoven’s motifs came through more than adequately – for example, the frequent pizzicato
passages for the cellos.

The final movement opened quite fast.  There was a big moment for cellos and double basses, and they performed it very well.  Then they were lucky enough to introduce the grand theme upon which the remainder of the movement is built.  The bassoon variation was played superbly.  When the violins finally got their chance, followed by the full orchestra, the music was declaimed with confidence and strength.

Beethoven’s words to introduce Ode to Joy by Friedrich Schiller were sung by Robert Tucker with plenty of power, and a rich vocal quality, although the lowest note was rather beyond his easy reach.  The other soloists were all exemplary, but their placement behind the orchestra meant a lack of volume and clarity at times.

The chorus of about 35 voices was, on the whole, impressive. However, the orchestra rather overwhelmed it at some climactic moments.  The men were strong in their passages sung without the women.  They are frequently asked to sing in a high tessitura, and those passages are spiked with chances for error, only one of which I was aware of the men falling into: shortening the word ‘muss’, thus making an unpleasant hissing noise where it was not wanted.

Tenor Derek Hill is quite slight of build, but he delivered the goods.  Bianca Andrew’s and Madeleine Pierard’s voices blended well, and were similar in timbre.

While I don’t expect the soloists to have ghastly grins on their faces, I would have thought that Ode to Joy might have evinced some appearance of happiness from the soloists, especially at the end; the women particularly looked very glum.  In some performances of the work, but not in this one, the soloists join with the chorus at the end, which seems a good idea – all the singers combining in the last great shouts of joy.

I haven’t listened to a performance of this masterwork for many years – instead, I’ve sung in it
numerous times.  This performance was uplifting – and I didn’t have to worry about whether I could reach the repeated top notes!


Nikolai Demidenko at Upper Hutt’s Classical Expressions

Classical Expressions, Upper Hutt presents:
Nikolai Demidenko – Carnivals and Sonatas

SCHUMANN – Carnival Jest from Vienna (Faschinsschwank aus Wien) Op.26
Carnaval – Scenes mignonnes sur quatre notes Op.9
SCHUBERT – Sonata in A D.664 / Sonata in A Minor D.748

Nikolai Demidenko (piano)

Classical Expressions Upper Hutt

Monday 29th July 2013

It was an occasion which brought home to me the refreshing reality of live music-making as opposed to the ethos presented by presentations of the artist “on record”. I had not previously heard Nikolai Demidenko in the concert-hall (though he’s been to New Zealand before), encountering him only through recordings.

It wasn’t so much what I’d heard that surprised me, as what I imagined the artist would be like. Photographs of the pianist seemed to suggest some kind of wild, intense, volatile spirit, aloof, uncompromising and ultra-romantic in a kind of “Wuthering Heights” sense. And, of course, the music he seemed to carry a particular torch for – that of Nikolai Medtner’s – itself had a similar aura – enigmatic, exotic and slightly out of the mainstream.

So, I was preparing myself for the entrance of some kind of Dostoyevskian figure, when a dapper, bearded, bespectacled man walked quickly, even a little nervously, onto the platform and bowed courteously to his audience – he had a somewhat ruddy complexion and his hair was reddish-brown, or appeared so in the light. Surely – surely not? – was this my wild, uncompromising, romantic artist from the land of the endless steppes? How could this be? It wasn’t long before Demidenko’s actual playing restored some of my equanimity, conveying to me (in a way that his initial appearance certainly didn’t) plenty of the volatility, energy and grand manner that I was expecting.

He began, at first none too commandingly, with Robert Schumann’s Carnival Jest in Vienna (Faschingsschwank aus Wien), ever-so-slightly smudging the treacherous opening flourishes; but his playing soon settled – his tones deepened and his focus sharpened. In between the fanfare-like reprises of the opening were beautifully-contrasted interludes, one of which was a delicious “strutting” rhythm, which eventually built up to a defiant quote of the opening of La Marseillaise (the song had been banned by the Austrian censor) – Demidenko hurled the tune forth with the greatest of gusto.

The suite of movements has plenty of variety; and Demidenko gave us essences of each one in turn – the fanciful dream-world of the Romanze was followed by the gaily-spirited, repetitive “skip” of the Scherzino, with its alternations of playfulness and pageantry. Then came the darker purpose of the Intermezzo, all swirling agitation at the outset, but with the pianist superbly delineating the individual currents so as to allow the embedded melody to sing forth – great playing!

After this the finale’s opening exploded with energy, causing Demidenko’s fingers to momentarily “jump the rails” (it all added to the excitement!) – it was, like Sviatoslav Richter’s playing on his famous “live” Italian recording of the piece, extremely forceful, “free-wheeling pianism” as one might put it, but exactly what the music itself suggested – Schumann at his most exuberant.

There was more of the same kind of excitement and enthusiasm throughout Demidenko’s playing of Carnaval, that fantastical procession of characters, both make-believe and from among the composer’s own friends and colleagues. Demidenko’s view of this “portrait-gallery” was as absorbing as any I’ve heard, right from the beginning, with his grand and rhetorical Préambule, and – playing for maximum contrast – fascinatingly halting and nervous Pierrot, leading to a teasing, mercurial (if none too accurately-played) Arlequin!

To go through the work and give Demidenko credit for every single moment of illumination of Schumann’s wonderful writing would tax the reader’s patience to excess – nevertheless, one must make mention of the pianist’s ghostly evocation of the rarely-played Sphinxes, a brief kind of “appendix” to the Coquette/Replique sequences, which Schumann didn’t intend to be performed, even if luminaries such as Rachmaninov, Cortot, Horowitz and Gieseking chose to include it in their recordings, for our delight.

Usually it’s the final section of the work, the Davidsbundler putting the Philistines to flight, which guarantees plenty of keyboard thrills – but Demidenko cut loose earlier with Paganini, Schumann’s tribute to the violinist’s overwhelming presence and virtuosity – a veritable onslaught, with cascades of notes, leaving us all open-mouthed with astonishment! The Davidsbundler triumph at the end thus had a slightly less “death-and-glory” and more ritualistic aspect to its energies, as much a summing-up as an actual coup de grace stroke, the piano tones properly rich and satisfying.

In the second half, Schubert’s A Major Sonata D.664 was balm to the senses after Schumann’s invigorations! Here was another side of Demidenko’s pianism, one of lyrical poetry, the player bringing out both the music’s weight and its weightlessness, the contrasts bound together with the same ease of flow. Schubert was able to bear us away upon the wings of whatever mood he chose to explore, sometimes setting tranquility and anxiety cheek-by-jowl, as in the first movement’s sounding of bass figurations beneath the filigree treble ones at the recapitulation, and the second movement’s melancholy darkening after the rich loveliness of the opening.

Demidenko brought out the “bigness” rather than the drawing-room aspect of the finale, contrasting the prettiness of the opening theme with great rolling colonnades of sound serving as flourishes between the lyrical moments – these purposeful energies dominated the central section of the movement, and playfully vied with the melodic impulses right at the end – an approach which arrested and held, rather than stretched out one’s attention, right to the final chords.

In some ways the previous work’s antithesis, the A Minor Sonata D.784 which followed began as it meant to go on, with furrowed brow and grim forward motion, then plunging into agitated figurations involving cascading octaves and heart-stopping sforzandi tremolandos.

Demidenko preferred urgency to portentousness throughout, but wonderfully controlled all of the different dynamic levels of the various statements, so that each had a slightly different “weight” of character. In places I thought he pushed the music too fast, as with the arrival of the resplendent fanfares at the climax of the development, where the effect was a shade brusque rather than truly climactic – but the agitato element was certainly maintained, if at the expense of some of the music’s “haunted” stillness.

The pianist gave us an exquisitely-voiced melodic line at the slow movement’s beginning, before allowing the shadow of the twisted chromatic figure to darken the ambience and hold it in thrall. I liked the heartfelt surge of feeling mid-movement, as well as the lyrical response, the opening theme taking flight as it were, trying to escape those chromatic growlings in the bass – all very exploratory and wonderful!

As for the finale, under Demidenko’s fingers it became a whirling dervish of a movement, weaving together strands of panic, nervousness, determination and wide-eyed exhilaration – the pianist got plenty of glint in some of his flourishes and a real “ring” on the tone of his topmost notes, making up for some occasional fumbling of the syncopation in the midst of the excitement. The music’s second subject was a poor, consoling thing, easily swept away on the recurring tide, its uneasy calm already “spooked” by the music’s sudden irruptions of desperation, which die as quickly as they appear.

After the return of the wretched, consoling theme the music erupted for the last time, with extra weight and emphasis, perhaps the most desultory ending of any of the composer’s sonatas for piano. What strife, what trouble, and what grim resolve! Fortunately Demidenko redeemed our troubled spirits with a couple of encores, firstly a Chopin Nocturne, giving its melody a deliciously wayward trajectory, and then a stirring piece by Medtner – whose music the pianist has magnificently and resolutely championed over the years. The music sounded like it was a first cousin to one of the Rachmaninov Etude-Tableaux – and Demidenko’s playing of it brought the house down.

Contemplations of life and death from disparate times and nations

Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei

Beethoven: Leonore Overture No 2, Op 72
Mussorgsky: Songs and Dances of Death with Jonathan Lemalu – bass-baritone
John Psathas and Warren Maxwell (vocals and guitar): Pounamu, a ‘concerto’ for voice, guitars and orchestra

Wellington Town Hall

Sunday 28 July, 4pm

In 2008 Warren Maxwell, frontman of Little Bushman, collaborated with John Psathas and the Auckland Philharmonia in a concert entitled Little Bushman meet the APO; and in the following year, the NZSO also staged the Little Bushmen collaboration, again with Psathas, and on a film score, The Strength of Water.

Psathas approached Maxwell again suggesting the idea of a collaboration that would become Pounamu. It was performed with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra in May 2011 and later that year the contemporary music ensemble Stroma took it on in a reduction from the original score for full orchestra. The orchestral original has awaited a performance in Wellington and it found a place filling the second half of a concert by Orchestra Wellington.

It was understandable that not all of the orchestra’s usual audience showed up although it was by no means a poor house. Judging by the style of the acclamation from a significant section of the audience a good representation of the followers of Trinity Roots/Little Bushman was on hand.

What Wellington heard was an expansion of the original, heard in Auckland; a sixth part was composed for this revival. Maxwell described the work in his programme notes as well as in an engaging interview with Eva Radich on Radio New Zealand Concert’s Upbeat programme in the preceding week. In six sections, it contemplates shortcomings of our society, neglect of disadvantaged groups such as the homeless and unemployed, the elderly, those with hard-to-manage addictions and so on: those on the outskirts of the community (as he puts it).

In his unmistakable, hushed and breathy voice, often in an alto, falsetto register, accompanying himself on regular or bass guitar, he sang/delivered in sprechgesang, sometimes addressing us, sometimes third parties, sometimes the universe. In ‘Grandma’s Tears’ we heard a recording of thoughts and memories of his grandmother(?) in her 90s.

In light of the normal practice of reproducing the words in full, often in the original and in English of liturgical works and songs, it was a pity not to have printed at least the essentials of what he spoke (which was done with the four Songs and Dances of Death).

It was not entirely clear from either the notes or what he told Eva Radich, how much of the music was conceived by him and how much was originated by Psathas; or was Psathas’s contribution largely orchestration?

It was moving, poignant, capturing the nature of the  words and subject matter; just occasionally, and more, I thought, in the closing phase, it suggested a film score, a shade too elaborate and sophisticated, and expressing less sincerity as it did so. It was long – some 35 minutes – but did not outlast its interest, and the eventual impression was of a partnership between equals even though the idioms themselves – the symphonic and the Maori-tinted rock/popular worlds – might have been very far apart.

The other vocal work on the programme was astutely chosen, for it touched on certain of the same human concerns, four poems by a friend of Mussorgsky’s, one Golenishchev-Kutuzov. Mussorgsky, like Psathas/Maxwell, set them in music that often, at least in the first song, approached Sprechgesang, singing without apparent strict notation, though the voice seems to find telling pitches which I’m sure could be notated if one were disposed to try.

Though my first hearing of these songs was from an LP I bought at a sale in the 1950s, purely on exploratory impulse, sung by Jennie Tourel, with the Bernstein at the piano, which has remained a sort of bench-mark, there is no doubt that a dark bass-baritone delivers them with more immediacy and realism.

There could hardly have been a more powerfully sympathetic singer than Jonathan Lemalu, of these dark though not really despairing songs, for Death is depicted mainly as friend, offering peace in place of suffering. Lemalu’s Russian sounded as if he were singing in his first language and his entire demeanour and vocal quality expressed their sombre but richly musical quality with utter conviction.

And the orchestration by Shostakovich gave them wonderfully appropriate, almost too particular accompaniment, leaving little to the imagination. Under Taddei the orchestra did them vivid and detailed justice.

Finally, the first work on the programme was one of the four overtures that Beethoven wrote for the various incarnations of his troubled opera, Leonore/Fidelio.

Just to refresh memories, No 2 was probably the first written, and was the one played at the opera’s first production in 1805; No 3 was a modified version of it which was played at the revival in 1806; in the latter, the trumpet call was moved from near the end in No 2, to nearer the middle of the piece. No 1 was found among Beethoven’s papers after his death (and carries the posthumous opus number 138), perhaps intended for a performance in Prague that did not eventuate; possibly, judging by the abrupt ending, it was unfinished. The Fidelio Overture was written for the revised version of the opera produced in 1814, less than half the length of either Nos 2 or 3.

This was a spacious, stentorian performance, opening with huge dramatic chords, nothing like the relatively polite chords one can hear on some recordings; and later, Taddei created great, suspenseful pauses between arresting scene changes. The blazing, victorious trumpet leading to the finale made a marvellous impact, played from the back of the gallery by Chris Clark.

Though Taddei held tempi under effective tension throughout, all that changed in the last stretta bars in which the orchestra hurled themselves, chocks away, into the peroration that proclaimed Florestan’s rescue.

The orchestra’s adventurous programme was entirely vindicated.


Robert Costin’s rewarding organ exploration of the Goldberg Variations

TGIF recital at St Paul’s

Robert Costin (organ)

Bach’s Goldberg Variations – a selection

Friday 26 July, 12:45 pm

On one of his frequent return visits to New Zealand (he was assistant organist at St Paul’s in the mid 1990s), Robert Costin made time to play at one of the cathedral’s Friday lunchtime recitals that enjoy the title TGIF (Thank God it’s Friday is the full liturgical title).

He has created an organ adaptation of the Goldberg Variations, which he has recorded on the organ of Pembroke College, Cambridge. That is a small chapel organ of two manuals and pedal board; the 1708 organ has been considerably modified but the most recent work on it has restored it significantly. That recording, which I bought at the Friday recital, offers a much less exciting and colourful account, though admirably clear and no doubt closer to Bach’s aesthetic, than Costin was able to offer on the opulent if seriously hybrid organ in the present cathedral.

The lunchtime concerts are restricted to about 45 minutes; this was of scarcely a half hour’s duration, consisting of the Aria and fourteen of the thirty variations.

The unregenerate, such as this reviewer, finds great pleasure in the Cathedral organ and he thoroughly enjoyed this performance, and would have been happy to have been subjected to the entire work.

The great variety of ways in which Bach’s music can be treated, given some basic constraints, of an educated taste, is always a surprise. I found myself won over as the Aria began, projecting a very open and sophisticated statement. And the first variation followed suit in its sheer joyous optimism. There was something essentially of Bach in the adaptations even though there were obviously sounds that organs of his day could not have produced.

Variation 4 using pedals prominently created an even bolder and more colourful effect than could be obtained on either harpsichord or an organ of Bach’s time.  Certain variations such as No 13, using light stops and charming, delicate embellishments, lost nothing at all of such refinement.  No 16, in French ouverture style, offered a fine extrovert contrast that used power of the bigger stops to rousing effect.

Even though we heard fewer than half of the variations, Costin had chosen a very representative group; only a listener with the entire work in the memory might have regretted missing certain ones.

The charm of this performance lay in the enjoyment of the taste and skill of an organist who was clearly fully familiar with and in such full command of the instrument that he could have transformed music of much less intrinsic beauty and profundity into a totally rewarding experience.

You will find details of the CD on Costin’s website:  or


Il Corsaro a delight and a triumph

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music presents:

Il Corsaro

An opera in three acts by Giuseppe Verdi, based on Lord Byron’s poem, The Corsaire.

Presented by students of the New Zealand School of Music:

Cast: Thomas Atkins (Corrado) / Isabella Moore (Gulnara)
Christian Thurston (Pasha Seid) / Elisabeth Harris (Medora)
James Henare  (Giovanni) / William McElwee (Pirate/Aga Selimo)
Declan Cudd (Pirate/Eunuch) / Jack Blomfield (Lord Byron)
Imogen Thirlwall (Caroline Lamb)
Voice Students of Te Kōkī  NZ School of Music

Conductor: Kenneth Young
Director: Sara Brodie
Assistant Director : Frances Moore
Orchestra of Te Kōkī  New Zealand School of Music

Opera House Wellington,

26th July 2013.

This New Zealand premiere marked the 200th anniversary of Verdi’s birth,  and was the first of four performances to be staged with two sets of vocal principals on alternate dates. This opening night presented Thomas Atkins as the swashbuckling pirate Corrado, Elisabeth Harris as his lady love Medora, Christian Thurston as the ruthless Pasha Seid, and Isabella Moore as the queen of his harem Gulnara.

Il Corsaro was completed in 1848, towards the end of Verdi’s early period of operatic writing, and follows Byron’s plot quite faithfully. This is a somewhat unlikely romantic tale, requiring a suspension of disbelief akin to the plots of Gilbert and Sullivan, and it is peopled by similar colourful larger-than-life characters.

The standout performers this night were undoubtedly Thomas Atkins and Isabella Moore, who portrayed their roles of piratical raider and romantic heroine most convincingly.  Each showed wonderfully assured vocal and dramatic skills, and they could comfortably project their voices out into the auditorium, never being overshadowed by the orchestra.

This was conducted by Kenneth Young, who drew from the instrumentalists an excellent performance of a varied and demanding score, conveyed with technical mastery and musical assurance.

The costumes were designed and executed with similar exuberance, as was the stage set. The male and female choruses did an excellent job, with the male group providing a particularly impressive opening scene to the work.

All these elements enhanced the strong impression that the student participants were enjoying themselves hugely – their enthusiasm carried the audience along in the colourful, dramatic sweep of the action, in a way that is so essential to a successful performance.

All the soloists showed sound vocal skills, but those of Corrado and Gulnara were exceptional and were greatly enhanced by their vocal confidence and acting abilities. There were very few wobbly nerves to be seen amongst the cast, revealed only occasionally by the odd loss of intonation.

This performance was definitely nudging its way confidently into the realms of a professional production. It was a great shame that the auditorium was not particularly full, since it was a most entertaining night out, and a most encouraging display of the youthful skills which the New Zealand School of Music is fostering.


Peter Mechen reviewed the following evening’s performance, featuring an alternative cast of principal singers:

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music presents:

Il Corsaro

An opera in three acts by Giuseppe Verdi, based on Lord Byron’s poem, The Corsaire.

Presented by students of the New Zealand School of Music:

Cast: Oliver Sewell (Corrado) / Christina Orgias(Gulnara)
Frederick Jones (Pasha Seid) /Daniela-Rosa Cepeda(Medora)
James Henare  (Giovanni) / William McElwee (Pirate/Aga Selimo)
Declan Cudd (Pirate/Eunuch) / Jack Blomfield (Lord Byron)
Imogen Thirwell (Caroline Lamb)

Voice Students of Te Kōkī  NZ School of Music

Conductor: Kenneth Young
Director: Sara Brodie
Assistant Director : Frances Moore
Orchestra of Te Kōkī  New Zealand School of Music

Opera House Wellington,
27th July 2013.

Giuseppe Verdi’s operas are reckoned to fall generally into three stages of development – rather like Beethoven’s music, in fact. The opera Il Corsaro, completed in 1848, comes towards the end of the composer’s “early” operatic body of work, but after better-known works such as Nabucco (1842), Ernani (1844) and (most surprisingly) Macbeth (1847). It ‘s such an enterprising choice of repertoire for this, the 200th composer-birth-anniversary – but given its actual lineage, why is Il Corsaro so little-known?

Verdi had read Lord Byron’s poem The Corsaire in 1844, subsequently contracting his librettist, Piave, to adapt Byron’s verses for the stage. The composer then got involved in a kind of squabble with one of his publishers, and the upshot was that he seemed to lose interest in Il Corsaro, despite at an earlier stage calling it “beautiful, passionate and apt for music”. Uncharacteristically, he publicly distanced himself from the opera’s first performances, a circumstance which has contributed to the work’s subsequent neglect. We’ve lost the composer’s on-going thoughts and attitudes towards the work’s early presentation history, as ought to have been expressed in various pieces of correspondence or performance-inspired alterations to the score.

A pity, because the work sits on the border of Verdi’s movement towards a “middle-period” style, with lyrical elements playing an increasing part in his strongly-energised dramatic expression, one that sweeps both along with irresistible force. Despite the story’s obvious gaucheries I soon found myself caught up in it all, thanks as much to the across-the-board commitment of the cast and production team as to the composer’s directly engaging way with character, situation, plot and denouement.

It was an inspired idea of director Sara Brodie’s to give us the poet, Byron, at the very beginning, his creative persona visibly interacting with the music of the prelude (incredibly whiplash playing from the student orchestra under Ken Young’s direction – marvellous!) By the time the Corsaire’s ship entered and the pirates disembarked it was possible to imagine that the poet had dreamed and imagined us as well, a transfixed, captive audience!

From then on, the swashbuckling and rollicking yarn really took hold – the opening chorus sequences, much of them unaccompanied, had both energy and clarity, making up with focused, well-varied emphases, what was slightly lacking in girth and punch. I thought both Tony de Goldi’s powerfully unfussy set designs (I loved the sky-curtain seemingly drawn open by the ship’s prow, at the beginning!), and Hannah Rodgers’ lighting choices beautifully enhanced this and all of the following scenarios. Daphne Eriksen’s costumes further enlivened the colorful action throughout every sequence, and sat nicely upon each character.

Oliver Sewell made a strong impression right from the start as Corrado, Il Corsaro himself, the fine ring to his voice suggesting the ability to lead and command. As Medora, Corrado’s lover, Daniela-Rosa Cepeda conveyed a lovely fragility, both visually and vocally, shaping her  melismatic irruptions nicely and actually making them mean something in emotional and dramatic import. The lovers’ farewell duet was built both tenderly and then excitingly towards the cannon-shot – a great moment, the poignancy of parting all the more dramatic as a result – convincingly done.

However “mad, bad and dangerous to know” Byron’s sometimes mistress Caroline Lamb thought him, her reaction to the poet’s verses was here portrayed as something bordering upon hysterical mirth – her timely removal over the poet’s shoulder allowed the opera to proceed! – however, her giggling was echoed by the women of Pasha Seid’s harem as they congregated, focusing their attentions upon Gulnara, the Pasha’s favorite odalisque.

Christina Orgias as Gulnara began extremely well, making an eloquent lament for her native land, demonstrating vocal command and fearlessly attacking her high note at the end of the aria. Frederick Jones as Pasha Seid produced true and accurate tones, and as the evening progressed, seemed to increasingly warm his voice to the task, relishing both his “hundred virgins” and his “vengeance” arias. I did think there could have been more tension and dynamism in his and Gulnara’s exchanges, when he accused her of wanting to help his enemy, Corrado, whom he had captured earlier, to escape – in these Verdian situations subtleties often need to be cast aside by performers in favour of full-blooded theatrical flow.

All the while, conductor Ken Young ensured the orchestral support for the singers was right up with the play, both in vigorous passages and in places like the lovely “sighing” effect accompanying Corrado’s lament for Medora from his prisoner’s cell. Later in the same scene the orchestra raged splendidly throughout the storm (pre-echoes of Rigoletto) that accompanied Gulnara’s killing of the sleeping Pasha Seid, the lighting kicking in brilliantly at that point for a properly hallucinatory effect.

As for the final scene, I found myself abandoning my notes and surrendering to the tide of spectacle, sound and emotion the performers were able to generate. Neither Byron nor Verdi chose a “boy-gets-girl-at-the end” scenario – Byron has the unfortunate Medora, Corrado’s lover, dead from grief before his return, whereupon he  spurns his liberator, Gulnara, who has travelled with him, and exiles himself from his island home. Verdi’s scenario has Medora die of exhausted grief when Corrado arrives with Gulnara, whereupon the remorse-laden pirate abandons the former odalisque and throws himself into the sea in true, united-in-death verismo style.

It all seemed in such accord with similar operatic irruptions of passion and cut-and-thrust – and from the same composer! So, very great credit to all concerned for a splendid realization of a hugely entertaining and surprisingly well-crafted work.

This was a critical edition of the score prepared by Verdi scholar Professor Elizabeth Hudson, Director of Te Kōkī  New Zealand School of Music, and I imagine she would have been gratified at having her work staged and delivered with such creative flair and unswerving performance commitment.









The Big C from Circa Theatre

Circa Theatre presents:
C – a musical

Lyrics and book by Paul Jenden
Music by Gareth Farr
Director Paul Jenden

Danny Mulheron   Me
Jackie Clarke       The Voice Inside My Head
Jane Waddell       Mum
Louis Solino         Carcinoma
Sue Alexander     Pianist

Performance reviewed  – Wednesday 24th July

 At Circa Theatre to 3rd August 2013

This remarkable production follows Paul Jenden’s own journey from his diagnosis with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia, through the rigours of treatment, and on to an eventual state of remission.

You might well wonder how such a subject could possibly be the stuff of a lively and entertaining stage show – doubts initially shared by Jenden himself, who writes in the programme: “When I was throwing up in a hospital bed I couldn’t have imagined that this group of amazing artists would join together to turn my illness into an inspiring show, let alone that Circa would get behind us and put it on stage. It’s a show for everyone, people with cancer, people who know people with cancer and especially those who just want a good night out.” And the musical was indeed a good night out, and an extraordinary way to explore such a subject, despite its threatening  backdrop from which none can feel immune.

Gareth Farr puts the work into “a nameless genre of ‘play with songs and poems’ ”, and says it has proved to be his favourite stage project to date, with music more akin to what he writes for classical ensembles, and particularly operatic voice and solo piano. The music is in the form of two simultaneous song cycles – the moody and dark journey to an imagined and metaphorical Venice, where he is most experimental with the musical language; and the ‘voice inside my head’ songs – which are a little closer to the fun bouncy music Paul Jenden and he have revelled in in the past.

The tuneful lyrics, so seductively presented by Jackie Clarke, punctuate a distinctly quirky script where Danny Mulheron plays the central anchorman, the cancer patient. This is no journey of  morbid introspection, yet it graphically explores the assault on the mind and self that such a disease hurls at the protagonist – much worse than the disease itself in his view.

The play is roughly chronological, and dramatically charts the surprises that confront the “victim” at every turn. The surprises of his own psychological reactions, self expectations, highs and lows, and those of friends, relatives and sundry bystanders who, of course, know best how he should tackle this monster. It is all filtered masterfully through a script that engages his earlier memories of watching Mum succumb slowly to C, and his astonishment at the courage and optimism he discovers in fellow patients.

Also winding through the music, poems and dialogue is the mute but incredibly expressive figure of Carcinoma aka Cassanova – a macabre Venetian figure who comes and goes in many different Carnival guises, shown in an astonishing array of costumes designed by Jenden himself. Sue Alexander’s masterful skills at the piano were a real asset to the production, but unfortunately the voices were over-amplified to the detriment of some scenes. A small adjustment there would be welcome.

Bouquets to the cast and production team for an excellent show, and particularly to Circa for taking this musical on board. It is a totally unexpected take on a subject that is largely taboo in the stage world, but it succeeds with flying colours. Make sure you see it.










NZSM students get the wind up

St. Andrews on the Terrace Lunchtime Concert:

New Zealand School of Music Wind Students

Wednesday 24th July 2013

This concert featured students from the N.Z. School of Music’s Woodwind Department, which is headed by Deborah Rawson, longtime backbone of so much creative wind and saxophone activity in Wellington. The recital was presented by four highly competent and musical students who amply demonstrated that they are blossoming under Deborah’s oversight.

The programme opened with clarinetist David McGregor and pianist Kirsten Simpson playing two Romances from R. Schumann’s Op.94. The Nicht Schnell item showed sensitive cantabile phrasing, and a good dynamic range, though the forte climaxes were actually too assertive for the romantic mood of this piece. The Einfach innig  was equally competent and musical, but the central section needed cleaner enunciation of the sharply syncopated clarinet rhythms that compete so dramatically with the piano.

David’s Three Pieces for unaccompanied clarinet by Stravinsky captured their varied moods and textures very effectively. The third frenetic, dance-like movement was delivered with exceptional facility and panache, but it would have been even more striking if given some variation in the unrelieved forte dynamic.

Next Ashleigh Mowbray played three contrasting pieces from the Six Metamorphoses after Ovid written for unaccompanied oboe by Benjamin Britten. Her rendition of Pan beautifully captured a reed pipe timbre, but would have been even more haunting with a wider dynamic range. The imagery of Phaeton rushing across the sky in Apollo’s chariot was easy to appreciate from Ashleigh’s ebullient delivery in the second piece, where her technical competence was clearly showcased. The final lamentation of Niobe was particularly sensitive in its phrasing, though again it would have been enhanced even more by a wider dynamic range.

Clarinetist Patrick Hayes and pianist Kirsten Simpson then presented Debussy’s Premier Rhapsody, and the Movement 3 lullaby from Tedesco’s Sonata Op.128. Both items demonstrated a very competent technique, clear rhythms, and sensitive melodic playing. The varied moods were captured with a good dynamic range, though the tone of some lyrical lines did become forced and piercing when delivered forte at the top of the register. It would be great for both clarinetists in today’s recital to track down recordings by the great New Zealand clarinetist Jack McCaw, whose rich warmth of tone was never comprised in even the strongest forte sections. His playing was totally free of any forced, edgy timbre, no matter what the dynamic or register.

The final two works featured Reuben Chin on alto sax with pianist Kirsten Simpson. They opened with the Andantino from Henri Tomasi’s Ballade for Saxophone and Orchestra. The modal tonalities of the outer sections were enhanced by very sensitive dynamics, perfectly tailored to a beautiful conclusion. The final work, Desinvolte from Ida Gotkovsky’s Brilliance, was a complete contrast. The musicians’ wide dynamic range and complete technical mastery captured the wonderfully puckish mood and exuberant rhythms of the piece, and provided an exhilarating finish to an excellent concert. Kirsten Simpson’s musical talents and technical skill were a great asset to this recital – one where the lusty health of the Woodwind Department was amply demonstrated.

It was a concert that deserved a better audience.























Interesting interdisciplinary chamber music exploration led by violinist Jack Liebeck and friends

Einstein’s Universe (Chamber Music New Zealand)

Jack Liebeck (violin) and Stephen De Pledge (piano) with Victoria Sayles (violin), Julia Joyce (viola) and Andrew Joyce (cello)

Beethoven: Violin Sonata in G, Op 30 no 3
Bloch: Three Nocturnes for piano trio (1924)
Brahms: Sonata movement (the FAE sonata) – Scherzo
Samuel Holloway: Matter
Brahms: Piano Quartet in C minor, Op 60

Wellington Town Hall

Tuesday 23 July, 8pm

This unusual conjunction of music and science derives from a meeting and consequent friendship between violinist Jack Liebeck and Professor Brian Foster, a distinguished physicist and fellow of the Royal Society.

Liebeck is interested in science and Foster in music (he is a capable amateur violinist) and their complementary interests led to their meeting in 2003; in 2005, the World Year of Physics, they dreamed up a concert-cum-lecture idea that involved the exploration of Einstein’s love of music and his performance gifts (violin and piano).

It caught on and Liebeck says it keeps being requested. With De Pledge, he did a tour of New Zealand in 2009. Strangely, though de Pledge gave a solo piano recital in the Town Hall, the pair played together only at Lower Hutt and Upper Hutt (I heard them at the Expressions Centre in Upper Hutt). And while Foster was also, apparently, in New Zealand in 2009, I am not aware that an Einstein concert performance was given here. Liebeck has also played with the Auckland Philharmonia.

The publicity surrounding this tour to ten centres, from Auckland to Invercargill, would suggest that Liebeck’s involvement with Einstein and science is a major element in his performing career. But I can see no mention of these in his website apart from his being Artistic Director of the Oxford May Music Festival, a festival of Music, Science and the Arts. On the other hand the website gives an illuminating picture of the range of music and places in which he plays. It suggests that it could be very rewarding to bring him back with one of the chamber ensembles that he works with or has created.

The major Einstein element was an hour-and-a-half illustrated talk before the concert by Professor Foster which, unfortunately, I could not get to. There Liebeck was on hand to play examples of the music that Einstein was thought to have loved and played: most importantly Bach and Mozart. The Einstein connection of the recital itself was rather more tenuous of course. We could be happy to accept Beethoven’s Op 30 No 3 as much loved by the physicist and it was a marvellous opening, displaying a finesse, subtlety in the infinite range of dynamics and articulations that both the players brought to it; an urgency combined with delicacy and restraint in the first movement, with delicious undulatings from the piano whisperings from the violin. The middle movement, the minuet, introduced a sombre tone, a charming waywardness that teased with a sense of being adrift.

The fact that members of the Royal Society of New Zealand had been given tickets meant the presence of many unfamiliar with chamber music – perhaps with classical music and its shape, generally; for applause broke out at the end of each movement. That was OK at the extrovert end of the first, but
the second ended in a spirit of ethereal breathlessness where I hoped for silence; we didn’t get that. Perhaps it’s a small price to pay for the possible awakening of a few unbelievers to The Way and The Truth.

Then came the Scherzo movement that Brahms contributed to a collaborative violin sonata written with Schumann and one of Schumann’s pupils, Albert Dietrich, in 1853. The 20-year-old young genius can clearly be heard. It blossomed at the hands of these two ultra-refined musicians who could bring so
much colour and timbral fascination to it: De Pledge produced sounds from the piano that even hinted at a glockenspiel.

A more direct link between the players and Einstein came with Bloch’s Three Nocturnes; he was President of the Ernest Bloch Society (Professor Foster is vice president of the Bloch Society). These pieces were played by De Pledge with Victoria Sayles on violin and Andrew Joyce on the cello, giving scrupulous attention to the markedly different character of each nocturne; the last was rather more boisterous than one might want when trying to sleep. I had not come across them before and they rather modified my earlier impression of Bloch’s musical character. They are so charming and, I imagine, so delightfully rewarding for the players that they deserve to be born in mind by piano trios looking for different repertoire.

Before the interval came the work commissioned by Chamber Music New Zealand from the current Mozart Fellow at Otago University, Samuel Holloway. It was a piano quartet, with Victoria Sayles taking her husband’s place on the violin, plus Julia and Andrew Joyce. Jack Liebeck acted as conductor through the music whose textures were so insubstantial and the rhythms hard to define.

It picked up the theme of the programme: Matter; taking seriously the task of finding a way of simulating in music the atomic particle structure of matter, through the use of what a decade or more ago would have been referred to rudely as ‘plinck-plonk’ music: such thoughts were dispelled very quickly. It’s largely atonal, widely spaced, staccato note sequences, mainly subdued in dynamics, with not much (any?) melodic invention. Yet the effect was strangely beguiling and even though not much happened in the sense of recognizable development or cyclical evolution, it created suspense that was so emotionally coherent that it was possible to gage intuitively how and when it would end, some time before it did. Though I do not actively pursue music of this character, I found it curiously engaging, partly as a result of the thoroughly studied, sensitive and engrossing performance.

After the interval we returned to standard repertoire. Brahms wrote three piano quartets; this was not the familiar and best-loved of them perhaps (that’s the G minor, Op 25), but written about 20 years later. (The core players returned: Liebeck and De Pledge, Julia and Andrew Joyce). The third quartet, also in a minor key, C minor, is more typically sombre and is not, till the gorgeous Andante third movement, furnished with the immediate melodic delights that the first quartet enjoys.

The Scherzo second movement doesn’t shift from the minor tonality even though its rhythm is energetic. The texture becomes symphonic, some might use the word dense, but the performance was always marked by the clean playing in an ideal acoustic. It’s the third movement that makes an unorthodox tonal shift from C minor to E major (not the relative major which would be E flat), so making the move to a sunnier landscape, with its quite rapturous melody, more dramatic. Brahms knew he had a ‘trouvaille’ and the players knew it too.

The last movement, in which musicologists have spotted borrowings and references of several kinds, returns to a degree of complexity which some might ascribe to a melodically barren moment.  Indeed, it gave Brahms a great deal of trouble, shown in one aspect in his reference to Goethe’s Werther (Die Leiden des jungen Werthers). Because that reference seems to me quite pregnant, let me quote
a few lines from a website:

“A letter from Brahms, sent with the manuscript to Theodor Billroth includes the following enigmatic comment: ‘the quartet has communicated itself to me only in the strangest ways…For instance, the illustration to the last chapter of the man in the blue frock and yellow waistcoat.’ This refers, somewhat obliquely, to Goethe’s Werther, which Brahms admired. Meanwhile, he remained deeply dissatisfied with the work, and wrote to his publisher Fritz Simrock, ‘you may attach a picture on the title page, i.e.
a head with the pistol before it’.” Last month, in Germany, I picked up a copy of Werther which has always been seen as a key literary impulse of the Romantic movement. Inter alia, it has been blamed as the original driver of copy-cat suicides.

So there were several reasons for my listening with great interest to the music and its scrupulous and illuminating performance, and a delight in the entire concert.





Chamber classics from the Te Kōkī Trio

Wellington Chamber Music Trust

Beethoven: Piano Trio in B flat, Op.97 ‘Archduke’ (allegro moderato; scherzo: allegro; andante cantabile ma pero con moto; allegro moderato – presto)

Tchaikovsky: Trio in A minor, Op.50 (pezzo elegiaco; tema con variazione; variazione finale e coda)

Te Kōkī Trio (Martin Riseley, violin; Inbal Meggido, cello; Jian Liu, piano)

Ilott Theatre

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Music hath charms, but this was a bit more powerful than mere charm.  The last Wellington Chamber Music concert to be held in the Ilott Theatre for at least two-and-a-half years while the Wellington Town Hall undergoes earthquake strengthening ended – with an earthquake, just as patrons were leaving the building.  There was a sizeable audience to hear this programme.  I’m sure that they felt a little sad to have to leave this lovely auditorium with its comfortable, raked seating and good acoustics.

It was a strenuous programme.  In my view the Archduke is the most wonderful music in the entire piano trio repertoire.  Beethoven’s endless invention, changes of mood and of key, leave one breathless.  Mozart, with all his genius, could not have dreamt of music like this in his wildest dreams.

I always enjoy hearing Jian Liu play; he is a consummate pianist, and knows the difference between mp, mf, and f – as indeed do his esteemed colleagues; there were great dynamic contrasts.  I loved his phrasing, too, in the solo piano opening.  The nostalgic feelings in the first movement were well conveyed.

The second movement started with a duet between the strings.  It was a very spirited scherzo, and featured gorgeous sonority from the cello.  The strange solo cello notes, followed by those on the violin, that come in several times in the latter part of the movement were not made sufficiently mysterious for me.

Jian Liu’s opening of the slow movement was perfect.  His subtlety in the variation that followed the opening was exquisite.  The next variation, for strings, is more of a light-hearted affair, and does not call for the same degree of emotional delicacy; thus appropriate vigour was the prescription.  However, this led to a soulful variation, beautifully played, with much tenderness of tone from all three instruments.

A melancholy, simple variation had all three instruments in a perfect pianissimo, the cello tone particularly being heart-rendingly direct and gentle.  Just as everything seems to die away, we are into a glorious last variation, then the rambunctious finale with its explosive good humour ends the work in triumph.   A few slips and a little patch where the players were not quite together, could not mar a fine performance.

The Tchaikovsky work had me wondering if chronological order was the best for this concert, and whether it would have been better to end with the stronger work.  However, by the end I was persuaded that Tchaikovsky’s Trio made a worthy finish.

The elegiac first movement of the next work was emotion-laden, as Tchaikovsky mourned the untimely death of his friend and mentor Nikolay Rubinstein.  Following the elegy, the music was full-on.  After the energy calmed down, a slow lyricism and a return to the opening themes had both strings playing very eloquently, with splendid tone.

After this, I noticed that a hum had started up in the theatre, whether from the air-conditioning system, I do not know.  While it was not very loud, it was more than just audible, and thus was annoying.

The piano statement at the beginning of the second movement reminded one of the similar pattern to the slow movement of the Beethoven work.  There was plenty in the variations to delight, for example, a piano solo with pizzicato accompaniment.  This was followed by a fugal section that soon went off the rails – very seductively.  Both Martin Riseley and Inbal Meggido exhibited strong playing.

A charming frisky variation opened by cello and piano was dance-like.  It could be a symphonic movement, or even a movement in a ballet.  The next variation was very emphatic, especially from the piano, before becoming more technically difficult, with fugal passages that this time were more strict, and very vigorous.

The third movement opened quietly, with a contemplative theme.  Each player had interesting individual parts to contribute.  A jolly passage from the piano was again dance-like.  A modicum of rubato from Jian Liu added to the interest and the musicality of the performance; the strings joined in the jollity.

A lovely violin restatement of the theme from the first movement preceded a piano variation that ended the finale proper.  The coda then took off, the theme being familiar to those who listen to St. Paul Sunday on Radio New Zealand Concert.  This extended coda was full of bravura passages for all instruments.

It was a difficult programme, with not much let-up for any of the players, and was greatly appreciated by the audience – there was even a well-deserved bravo or two.