Gorgeous, satisfying a cappella singing from The Tudor Consort

Renaissance Influences VI: Modern Madrigals

Music by Morley, Gibbons, Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, Monteverdi, Stanford, Lennon/McCartney, le Jeune, Josquin, Weelkes, Lassus, Gesualdo, Ravel, Pearsall

The Tudor Consort, directed by Michael Stewart, with choir soloists

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Saturday, 31 August 2013, 7.30pm

A thoroughly enjoyable evening’s music was had by all who filled the downstairs of the church.  As usual, the beautiful blended sound and the accuracy of performance were captivating. All translations were printed in the programme, and for the most part, English words were readily communicated.

Four voices to each SATB part were further divided for some items.  Most members of the choir looked completely involved in their task.  The choir was placed well forward on the platform; the sound in the church was a delight.

The programme consisted of secular songs, all unaccompanied, dating from before, and including, the flourishing of the English madrigal in the late 16th century, through to an older and a modern song about smoking!   Although love as a theme seemed to produce melancholy, most of the songs performed were joyful.

The concert opened with a well-known Morley madrigal ‘Sing we and chant it’, sung with lovely full tone that varied in accordance with the words being sung.

Another well-known piece followed: Gibbons’s ‘The Silver Swan’.  This was sung by quintet of voices from the choir; as Michael Stewart said in one of his apt, and brief, spoken introductions, these madrigals would have been sung by groups of varying size in the periods in which they were written.  The soprano was a little flat on the top notes several times, but otherwise this much-loved song received a beautiful rendition.

It was followed by an intriguing version of the same madrigal by contemporary Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi.  His silver swan did not glide as happily as did its early seventeenth century counterpart, due to more use of minor keys and minor modulations than in the original, making for a more morose result, but it was pleasingly performed.

Two songs about smoking and tobacco were a surprise; first, ‘Come Sirrah Jack’ by Thomas Weelkes, written in the early  years after the weed’s introduction to Britain by Sir Walter Raleigh.  A trio of Michael Stewart (counter-tenor), Brian Hesketh (baritone) and Richard Walley (bass) extolled its virtues and joys with appropriate glee (and a pipe as prop!) in this complex madrigal, sung from memory.  What followed was a setting by Mäntyjärvi of government health warnings about smoking (in English, as was his ‘Silver Swan’).  There was amusing word-painting, in the best madrigalian style, for example ‘…a.. s l o w…. and painful death’.

A change of mood came with Morley’s ‘April is in my mistress’ face’, a happy and familiar madrigal.  Jumping forward over three hundred years, we then heard ‘La blanche neige’ by Poulenc. Its piquant harmonies and clear French language made for an enjoyable performance.

Back to the past, with Monteverdi’s ‘Quel augellin che canta’, about a bird burning with love, sung by a quintet from the choir in fine style.  These were admirable voices: Pepe Becker, Anna Sedcole, Richard Taylor, Jeffrey Chang and Brian Hesketh.  I found Jeffrey Chang particularly resonant as compared with many tenors.  The timing and rhythm were perfect, without benefit of conductor.

The quite exquisite ‘The Blue Bird’ by Stanford followed – a particular favourite of mine. It was sung very quietly, but with the appropriate crescendos and decrescendos.  The staccato notes were well observed as were awkward consonants such as ‘k’, and the vowels (as elsewhere in the concert) were absolutely uniform, making for smooth, even and balanced tone, unanimity, blend, and a thoroughly lovely sound.

The bird theme continued with ‘Blackbird’ by Lennon and McCartney, arranged by Daryl Runswick, the latter (like Bob Chilcott who featured later on) a ‘graduate’ of The King’s Singers.  The song featured whistling, and was an utter contrast to Stanford.  The song by Claude le Jeune (1528-1600) was ‘Le chant d’alouette’, about larks getting rid of a wicked cuckoo.  The song required plenty of verbal facility, and felicity, both of which these singers have in abundance.

One of the most well-known names from the early Renaissance is that of  Josquin des Prez (1450-1521); we heard his ‘El Grillo’, a delightful song about a cricket.  Wikipedia tells me that this type of song, the “frottola (plural frottole) was the predominant type of Italian popular, secular song of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century. It was the most important and widespread predecessor to the madrigal.”  The singing featured splendid double fortes, and wonderful verbal fluency from the many sounds and syllables to be negotiated in imitating the cricket.

An item missed from the printed programme was Thule, by Weelkes, in two parts: ‘Period of Cosmography’ and ‘Andalusian Merchant’.  The grand title of the first part was explained to us as ‘the limits of map-making’, i.e. a region where one might
meet dragons, or fall off the world.  Volcanoes were a favourite theme in both parts, and the last two lines, about fear and love being more wondrous than exotic places and things, were common to both.

Love having been mentioned, we moved to a selection of  madrigals, ancient and modern, on the eternal theme.  Orlando di Lasso, or Orlande de Lassus, depending on whether you prefer the language of Italy, where he spent much of his life, or that of his Franco-Flemish birth, was represented by ‘Mon Coeur se recommende à vous’.

Gesualdo (described by Stewart as ‘centuries ahead of his time in his harmony’) gave us ‘Moro lasso’, then Josquin again: ‘Mille regretz’.  Then we went centuries ahead to Lennon/McCartney again , with Bob Chilcott’s version of ‘Yesterday’, with Richard Taylor as tenor soloist.  This was a very fine arrangement, and the solo part was touchingly conveyed, while the ‘doo-doos’ and ‘mm-mms’ of the choir were very effective.  The bracket ended with ‘Nicolette’ by Ravel.  Her toying with love was brief; she gave her heart to money.  There was more patter in this song, calling on the choristers skills at fast multi-syllabic utterance.

The concert ended with two songs by Robert Pearsall (1895-1856): ‘Who shall win my lady fair’ and ‘Lay a garland’.  The former was sung with a light touch, while the latter was simply gorgeous, completing a satisfying evening of quality a capella singing.


Admirable performances from Kapiti orchestra under Ken Young and hornist Ed Allen

Kapiti Concert Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Young with Edward Allen (horn)

Beethoven: Egmont Overture, Op 84
Fauré: Masques et bergamasques
Mozart: Horn Concerto in E flat, K 447
Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin – Waltz and Polonaise
Saint-Saëns: Romance for horn and orchestra, Op 36
Brahms: Hungarian Dances Nos 1, 5, 6

Church of St Paul, Kapiti Road, Paraparaumu

Saturday 30 August, 3 pm

I don’t think I’ve heard the Kapiti Concert Orchestra play before, which does seem an extraordinary state of affairs. In fact, Middle C seems to have noticed the orchestra’s performance only once: my colleague Rosemary Collier reviewed their concert for Christchurch in March 2011.

This concert under conductor Ken Young revealed an ensemble that must be one of the most accomplished to arise in a community of only about 40,000, though it’s fair to observe that several players come from other parts of the Wellington metropolitan area.

The programme was a model of what is appropriate for an amateur orchestra. It began with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, which does not present any insuperable problems for such players. I can say that for it was one of the pieces that the orchestra, the predecessor of the Wellington Youth Orchestra, in which I played, tackled satisfactorily in the 1950s.

This dramatic overture began with a massively arresting sound, with basses delivering truly stentorian chords. The following steady tempo that pictures the hope of the Low Countries for relief from brutal Spanish rule under the leadership of Count Egmont. The playing was clean and purposeful; the tension that precedes the transformation that follows Egmont’s sacrificial execution was powerfully created and the coda, in spite of the odd flaw, quite inspiring.

Faure’s Masques et bergamasques was, as the programme note explained, a suite of eight pieces drawn mainly from earlier pieces, some of which had never been published. Given the charming character of most of the suite, it serves to remind us of how much music gets sidelined and goes unheard, for obscure reasons. The orchestral suite includes only four of the eight pieces: the Ouverture, a Menuet and Gavotte (all from an abandoned 1869 symphony) and Pastorale (the only new movement).

The unused pieces, Wikipedia notes, were Madrigal (Op. 35, 1884; for chorus and orchestra), Le plus doux chemin (Op. 87 No. 1, 1904; for tenor and orchestra), Clair de lune (Op. 46 No. 2, 1887; for tenor and orchestra), and a Pavane (Op. 50, 1887).

It’s interesting that in 1869, when this symphony was drafted, Fauré had no significant French symphony of conventional form as a model (Gounod perhaps, but Bizet’s was unknown, and Berlioz’s works hardly supplied a model for a composer of a more orthodox turn of mind). So we can think of Masques et bergamasques as containing at least something of his first attempt at a symphony; there’s also a later unpublished Symphony in D minor (1886). So it’s not typical, especially of his mature period.

The playing was perhaps rather more forthright than one is used to in Fauré, but if the notes are there, then who am I to comment on the way the conductor wants to hear them? In any case there was quite admirable playing from various quarters – violins, oboes and clarinets. But I felt the Minuet wasn’t much of a dance: rather plodding, and the Gavotte emphasized the peasant origins of that dance. With its confident touch of the romantic, the Pastorale felt French and reflecting more of the composer’s ethereal, disembodied personality.

The main course in the first half, in the whole concert in fact, was a good performance of Mozart’s third horn concerto (they’re all in E flat except the first which is in D).  Not only did we get a warm and immaculate performance from former NZSO principal horn Ed Allen, but the orchestra was clearly energized, even inspired, by the task they had taken on, under the conspicuous leadership of Ken Young. The string playing in the slow movement was particularly accomplished.

After the interval – it was a bit long considering there’s no café or much to do other than watch traffic on Kapiti Road – the orchestra played the two dances from Eugene Onegin; the waltz and the polonaise. Instead of a ballabile, flowing quality, the waltz took on a too staccato character, and here I felt the wind players showed excessive energy; timpani too, perhaps as a result of its placing towards the corner, produced a troublesome booming at times.  Something of the same fore-square quality also bothered me in the polonaise, though the marching character of this very formal dance may justify such an approach.

Ed Allen stayed for a second horn piece: one of Saint-Saëns’s pieces for instruments whose solo potential was overlooked. This was a Romance, in slow triple time with a contrasting middle section. Though not one of the composer’s more memorable inspirations, it offered another chance to
hear Allen’s superb playing.

The concert ended with three of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances.  I think these, originally for piano, are pretty hard for an amateur orchestra to bring off for they need an instinctive feeling for flexible, varied rhythms and nicely judged dynamic nuances. While the notes may not be too hard to get, they are the sort of music, like Strauss waltzes, and ballet music, that we’ve heard played in relaxed style, effortlessly, idiomatically, flawlessly, by the very greatest orchestras.  It’s music that needs playing with utter simplicity, limpidity and perfection: our taste has been spoiled.

However, everyone came away marvelling at the excellence of the concert, and the fact that an orchestra of such comparative accomplishment has taken root in the Kapiti area. Only in the presence of such generally excellent playing would I have felt able to make the few critical remarks that have fallen inadvertently onto the keyboard.


2013 National Youth Orchestra shines and glows

NZSO National Youth Orchestra 2013

SAM LOGAN – Zhu Rong Fury!
BEETHOVEN – Piano Concerto No.3 in C Minor Op.37
TCHAIKOVSKY – Symphony No.5 in E Minor Op.64

Richard Gill Conductor
Lara Melda Piano

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 30th August, 2013

This event was one of those marvellous musical experiences that proves to be as much a celebration as a concert. It was an evening that showcased some 75 young kiwi musicians brimming with talent, passion and stunning professionalism. They were led by Australian conductor Richard Gill, an outstanding educator and musician who has encouraged thousands of youngsters in their journey to musical maturity, and the rapport between conductor and players was palpable from the initial downbeat.

The programme opened with Zhu Rong Fury! a short work commissioned for this concert from Sam Logan, the young NYO Composer-in-Residence. It was a programmatic work depicting the furious struggles between the Bronze-Age  Chinese deity Zhu Rong and his son Gong-Gong who played out a creation myth not unlike that of Rangi and Papa in Maori legend. The score was highly inventive in its colourful orchestration, and exceptionally demanding technically, particularly for the percussion whose role was to express all the fury and violence of the divine confrontation. It was an explosive start to the evening and the NYO pulled it off with great panache.

The following Beethoven Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37 called for a complete quantum shift in the players’ mindset, but they did not falter. It was clear that this performance had been crafted by conductor, soloist and orchestra with great care and devotion: each was attuned to the other in a mutual understanding of the profound depths of this music. Yet that understanding was tempered with a lightness that wonderfully expressed the youthful joy they found in the rich delicacy of melodic writing, offset against the powerful dramatic contrasts that typify the work.

The 20-year-old British soloist Lara Melda was born in London to Turkish parents, and currently studies at the Royal College of Music. She is rapidly making her mark in the world of recitals and international competitions, and is also an accomplished viola player who enjoys chamber music on both instruments. This broader background was obvious in the conversations she created with the orchestra, and particularly with the woodwind principals as together they wove melodic fabric of exquisite complexity and sensitivity. Her dynamic range displayed an astonishing mastery of the keyboard, and a technical command that enabled a reading of this concerto that left a sense of  real musical completeness. It brought the house down, and she returned with an encore of Chopin’s Butterfly Etude – sixty seconds of magic executed with breathless lightness and delicacy.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64 comprised the second half of the concert. This huge work is a real endurance test for any orchestra, but the NYO and Richard Gill threw themselves into it, and clearly revelled in the opportunity. The brooding theme of the opening Andante was beautifully stated by clarinets and bassoons, and followed by a rich warmth from the massed strings that immediately set the scene for the breadth of  this score. They moved effortlessly into the drive and energy of the following Allegro con anima and gave great colour and contrast to its sudden shifts in temperament.

The Andante Cantabile opens with one of the most famous and evocative horn melodies in the entire orchestral repertoire. It fell to principal William McNeill who, unlike many professional orchestral principals, was not supported by a fifth horn to take over some of the slog of extended tutti passages. Undeterred, he played it with great sensitivity that truly captured the heartbreaking beauty of this melody. And this yearning passion marked out the entire movement as the whole orchestra reached far into the depths of its richly expressive writing.

The Valse that followed was played with a lilting grace that endowed this classic courtship ritual with a delightfully youthful, slightly breathless aura.

The huge Finale movement was tackled with no hint of the exhausting demands of this huge work. Players and conductor alike launched themselves at its furious, larger-than-life orchestration with no holds barred. Following the somber majesty of the introduction, they gave full force and brilliance to the power of its relentless drive, right through to the final dramatic chords. It was a fitting end to an outstanding performance of this work that would do credit to any professional orchestra.

I had only one issue with this concert. It was a remarkable display of youthful kiwi talent, yet the management chose to bypass that same talent in their selection of the solo performer. New Zealand has so many outstanding young musicians who would do more than justice to this role, be it on piano or some other instrument, yet that call was not made. If it was good enough to showcase a kiwi for the Queen Mother’s special youth orchestra concert in 1966 (with violinist Michael McLellan), why not now and in future years?


Elizabeth Hudson steps down as director of the NZSM

The following is a press release from the New Zealand School of Music, dated 21 August, that has only just crossed our path. Professor Hudson has, reportedly, declined an offer to renew her contract as director of the school, but will return after a sabbatical, next July, as Professor of Musicology.

Thursday 29 August 2013 

Professor Elizabeth Hudson has stepped down from her role as the inaugural Director of Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music.

The School was launched in 2006 as a joint venture between Massey University and Victoria University of Wellington, and has become a leader in tertiary music study. On behalf of the NZSM Board of Directors, the Hon Steve Maharey, Vice-Chancellor of Massey University, and Victoria Vice-Chancellor Professor Pat Walsh thanked Professor Hudson for her leadership, dedication, energy and commitment to achieving the goals and vision for the NZSM.

“Over the past seven years she has overseen a number of successful initiatives and significant advances to the school‘s academic programmes and its reputation. During that time, she led the School in an intensive development of its curriculum and an ambitious programme of public events, and greatly raised the profile of its staff and students, clearly establishing the NZSM as the pre-eminent provider of music education in New Zealand.”

Professor Hudson will continue to provide leadership at the school in her permanent role as a Professor of Musicology from July 2014, following a period of research and study leave. She is looking forward to further research as a Verdi scholar over the next few months and plans for a new book are on the horizon. “I have thoroughly enjoyed leading NZSM through its first seven years. I am very proud of all the School has  achieved across that time, and want to acknowledge the tremendous level of expertise, talent and integrity that the staff and students represent. I am especially pleased at the extent to which the School is on its way to achieve its potential as a world-leader in musical research, teaching and performance.”

Associate Professor Greer Garden-Harlick is Acting Director, New Zealand School of Music while the Board of Directors continue to work on longer term transition arrangements for the NZSM. She comments: “Professor Hudson has given the School the best possible platform for further development and we look forward to her return as a teaching colleague next year. She leaves the School in good heart and we are confident that we will go on from strength to strength.”

NZ Trio at the City Art Gallery with the typically multifaceted programme

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

Stuart Greenbaum: 800 Million Heartbeats
Samuel Holloway: Stapes (2005)
John Psathas: Corybas (2012)
Anton Arensky: Piano Trio in D minor, Op 32

City Gallery Wellington

Tuesday 27 August, 7pm

Against the background of Shane Cotton’s huge canvases depicting Maori heads and related images, the NZ Trio projected a distinctly more civilized impression. The lighting was vivid white, like the walls, and the air-conditioning, offering a hush that not inappropriately suggested a calm sea voyage, here, in one of the world’s most climatically dramatic capitals.

But the opening piece, by 47-year-old Australian Stuart Greenbaum, spoke nothing of the elements, nothing of the fractionated style of the new avant-garde (which was more emphatically represented by Samuel Holloway’s piece that followed). The title is taken from the notion that life can be measured by heartbeats; a normal life would be accompanied by far more than 800 million heartbeats, perhaps four times as many, but the composer remarks than the ‘actual figure is only nominal’; perhaps ‘artbitrary’ would be a better word.

It opened with quiet, rolling arpeggios on the piano, becoming a steady, quiet ostinato, varied as pianist Sarah Watkins, occasionally leaning into the piano, passed her fingers softly across the piano strings. Violin and cello added faster figurations but did not disturb the basic tempo. The music is unassertive, and gently romantic in character. Listening to music that is new to me, influences usually suggest themselves. The first to occur to me was fellow Australian Ross Edwards, whose humanly lyrical music is attractive and embracing; then there’s American George Rochberg who exiled himself from the then orthodoxy with his rejection of the avant-garde; and various minimalist composers such as the Latvian Georgs Pelecis whose Nevertheless is no doubt somewhat scorned by those of a more rigorous turn of mind.

There was a slow increase of intensity but not of tempo, assisted by canonic treatment, as a modest climax emerged. The trio has just laid down a recording of several of Greenbaum’s pieces, including this one.

Rather more challenging for players and audience was Samuel Holloway’s Stapes. Again, the programme note elucidates: ‘The Stapes (stirrup) is the smallest in the chain of three bones that transmit vibrations from the eardrum to the internal ear’. And it goes on to explain that ‘the players work both together and against each other, in individual and collective struggles for articulacy’.

Thus the sounds are inchoate pizzicati, rumbling tremolo in the piano, whispy harmonics and slithering glissandi that deal in microtones. There’s a ferocious, out-of-control triple forte that sounds like bees swarming; instruments get in each-other’s way, some kind of simulation of what might happen in the ear as chaotic sound gets sense imposed on its journey through the ear’s machinery.

But take away the programme, I wondered, and how does the music rate?  A great deal of today’s music seeks out esoteric concepts, images: non-musical things that might have sounds grafted on to them, but do they please, delight, satisfy through sounds that human beings of today? Even with the varied backgrounds that inform musical experiences of an era when more music of all sorts can be heard every hour of every day that before in history.

While admiring its imaginative sounds and the structures, often with some difficulty, I risk writing what I deplore in others – that further hearings might bring rewards, as I implied in my review of Holloway’s quartet played in Chamber Music New Zealand’s Einstein’s Universe concert in July.

The source of Psathas’s year-old Corybas lies closer to the sort of story or image that the average, reasonably experienced and broadminded musical listener can grasp. The fact that the rhythm was eleven beats to the bar was really of esoteric interest, as fitful attempts to count tended, at least for me, to hear a series of shorter, either three or four beats each. The more interesting and expressive aspect was the varied rhythms, hinting incongruously at tango (it’s based on Greek myth).

Psathas is fortunate in being able to draw on a mythology that was fairly familiar to the moderately well-educated till around the 1960s when the exposure of children to the classical languages, to English and other literatures, began to be banished from school curricula. So that references such as Psathas makes to Jason (Ioson) and Cybele demand recourse to Wikipedia just as most other historical references now do.

However, the music stands on its own feet without any background. It’s arresting and infectious, there are melodies that invite themselves into the musical compendium of the mind. The way the three instruments share the ideas is interesting and allow of being followed, and in often novel ways, a degree of excitement builds up: strings take a turn at handing a syncopated melody while the piano persists with repeated chords that don’t change or accelerate but rise to a pitch and then drops satisfyingly to end with a scrap of an earlier phrase.

Arensky’s well-known Piano Trio was one of the popular pieces played by the short-lived but gifted Turnovsky Trio in the 1990s.  It remains one of the few substantial works by Arensky that is much played. It was popular with the Turnovsky Trio for the same reason, I guess, that the NZ Trio likes to programme it. Melodic, well-made, it finds a way to communicate emotion, here in the form of an elegy in memory of a cellist friend, Karl Davidov (whom Tchaikovsky called the ‘tsar of cellists’. His Stradivarius cello was later owned by Jacqueline du Pré and now by Yo Yo Ma).

The trio played it with unusual power, the cello vibrant with feeling, the violin driving hard, and the piano sustaining a legato and coherent foundation as well as making pungent exclamations. Though this is an example of the arch-romantic in music, an abstract intellectualism was never far away; and this was the sort of performance that lifts a work not of the masterpiece class to a level that demands attention as a serious postulant at the highest of Dante’s circles.


NZSM tutors as composers and performers


Works written for New Zealand School of Music Staff

Stephan Prock: Stradivariazioni
Ross Harris: Sunt lacrimae rerum
Martin Riseley: Intermezzo for Lenny
Ross Harris: Three Sandcastle Songs / Shtiklekh

Adam Concert Room, NZSM

Friday, 23 August 2013

The New Zealand School of Music’s last lunchtime concert before the mid-semester break was a recital by NZSM staff members of works especially written for them by current and previous VUW and NZSM staff members.

Stephan Prock teaches composition at the School. His Stradivariazioni was commissioned by Martin Riseley and Diedre Irons for a 2011 Chamber Music New Zealand tour. In effect a suite of six movements, the initial themes (based on musical ciphers) were subjected to five variations, each bearing the name of a Stradivari violin. Le Rossignol (“The Nightingale”) was a contemplative nocturne, with bird-like turns and trills. Firebird was appropriately Stravinskyan. Le Messie (“The Messiah”), named after an instrument that was kept hidden and never seen (and now in a museum, still unplayed), began with a slow introduction, rich in open-pedal resonance, on Irons’s piano. Riseley took up his violin as if to play, then put it down again, and again, and again, tantalising us -will he play? Won’t he? (Did he? I’m not telling!)

Unlike the previous variations, the last two, Red Diamond and Alard, were run together without a break, which was somewhat disconcerting. This finale segment was attacked with great gusto, Riseley straining to get the most from his instrument.

Prock’s genial style here could easily have been that of the nineteenth century. Martin Riseley’s, in his Intermezzo for Lenny (from a violin sonata), was that of the twentieth, with hints of jazz in its witty phrases (a tribute to Leonard Bernstein). It was characterised by lean counterpoint between Riseley’s violin and Jian Liu’s piano, and built up to a strong, late climax.

Ross Harris’s musical language, though of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, seemed timeless in the 2013 Sunt lacrimae rerum. As with many of Harris’s other compositions, it was inspired by tragedy (the Virgil quote, “There are tears in things”, was found in a book on the Holocaust). Inbal Megiddo captured the sense of lament in the falling phrases of the long cello introduction, before Jian Liu added a spare counterpoint on piano. It built, hesitantly, towards a sub-climax before subsiding with a sigh to a bare piano line, the cello silent. This would have made a poignant ending, if it were the end of a shorter piece. This, however, was to prove something more substantial, leading on the a scherzo section with a fortissimo climax before returning, with assured pacing, to cello cantillation and an exquisite high harmonic on which to end.

Like Sunt…, Harris’s Shtiklekh gave the impression of several movements compressed into one, this time celebratory rather than sombre, as rollicking foot-stomping sections were interspersed with more pensive passages. Performed with great aplomb by the trio Galvanised, it was informed by Harris’s experience playing in a Klezmer band. Debbie Rawson’s earthy, pitch-bending soprano sax deputised for the Klezmer clarinet, amplifying Rebecca Steele’s introductory flute line, while Diedre Irons on piano had an almost Satiesque ‘Gymnopedie” moment.

The Three Sandcastle Songs set poems by the Nelson-based Panni Palasti, whose memories of wartime Budapest provided the texts that formed the heart of Harris’s Fifth Symphony (premiered in Auckland in August, and broadcast by Radio New Zealand Concert). These poems spoke of calmer times, of living in Kororareka (Russell) after she had emigrated to New Zealand. The songs were fresh, and sung by a seasoned and sensitive interpreter of Harris’s vocal music (notably The Floating Bride…), Jenny Wollerman.

The first song, Invitation (“Come with me/to the edge of the sea”) flowed and tripped along until it slowed to its elegiac conclusion (“the dead may know what we can’t guess”). The second, Manifesto, featured arpeggios and some discreet word-illustration (“the mad swirl/of deranged particles”) on Jian Liu’s piano. The third, Kororareka Ruins , was more declamatory, and I wondered why it was not placed between the two more melodious songs for the sake of balance and contrast. In Palasti’s book Taxi! Taxi! (Maitai River Press, 2008), the poems appear in the order in which they were performed, but that would not seem to be a compelling reason to keep them that way. Perhaps Harris (who has written some very dark compositions, such as Contra Music and As if there were no God) wanted to leave us with the image of “a cobweb/so ancient/it won’t catch a thing again”, rather than Manifesto’s “surge towards infinity” and the hint of transcendence that ends the Fifth Symphony.



Pianist Sonja Radojkovic at Lower Hutt – tempestuous, erratic, inspirational

Chamber Music Hutt Valley presents:

BEETHOVEN – Piano Sonata in C Major Op.53 “Waldstein”
BRAHMS – Variations on a Theme of Paganini Op.35 (Book Two)
SCHUMANN – Etudes Symphoniques Op.13
DEBUSSY – Excerpts from “Children’s Corner” Suite

Little Theatre, Lower Hutt

Tuesday, 22nd August, 2013

I’ve deliberately let more than a few days pass before attempting to set down my thoughts regarding what I heard at Serbian pianist Sonja Radojkovic’s recent Lower Hutt piano recital. Even now I’m not sure of being able to do the event full justice, but the Law of Diminished Returns will undoubtedly kick in and play havoc with memory if I wait too much longer.

The pianist was supposed to play in Lower Hutt earlier this year, but ill health intervened, causing her to cancel her scheduled visit.  Radojkovic had visited New Zealand before in 2003, and caused something of a minor sensation, judging by the reviews she received from various quarters – hence the initial disappointment at her cancellation this time round. She was obviously determined to come and make good her original intentions, however, so that, some months later, here she was, as promised.

Given the somewhat impromptu circumstances it wasn’t surprising that the Little Theatre at Lower Hutt was only half-full – but it was a good enough assemblage to raise a suitable response to an artist who’d obviously taken time and trouble to get here to play. I’d heard her interviewed on the radio beforehand, though perhaps because of her Serbian origins the exchanges seemed to be mostly about the political situation in Central Europe rather than exploring in depth any musical or pianistic philosophies.

I did get some idea from the interview of her avowed devotion to the music of Chopin – even though the promised program contained none of his music. As it turned out, her identification with that composer’s works made a significant, even vital contribution to the evening’s music-making, more of which in due course. At the outset we were anticipating the very different worlds of Beethoven and Brahms, with an interestingly-contrasted Schumann-and-Debussy bracket after the interval.

From the beginning Radojkovic’s imposing physical presence seemed to dominate the piano and the stage – just a few notes into the Waldstein Sonata’s opening and we found ourselves plunged into a world of “Sturm und Drang”, playing which had an urgency and a drive, even if the figurations were occasionally uneven, with notes scattered, Schnabel-like, across the spectrum in places (pianist Artur Schnabel (1882-1951) was an inspirational interpreter of Beethoven who frequently pushed the music to realms beyond his technical capabilities, to thrilling, if occasionally chaotic effect!).

Frequently Radojkovic’s left hand simply drowned out the right in a torrent of sound, though perhaps the piano’s definite lack of “ring” here could have been partly to blame for the inbalance. It also seemed part and parcel of her interpretation – very misty and romantic, exciting but unpredictable, with accents unexpectedly “barbed”, and snapping at you without warning.

Obviously something of the thunder and wildness of the old piano gods still lurked in this woman’s being – elegant it was not, but instead proclaimed itself as unashamedly fiery and romantic. Interestingly the slow movement in Radojkovic’s hands was brooding and restless, the theme never becoming song, but remaining charged and declamatory, pushed along to the point of what felt for this listener like impatience in places, though others might have relished the on-going tensions.

It was in the finale that I simply had to part company with her – again, her left hand frequently near-submerged the right, which often exhibited a tendency to snatch at the phrasings and move them along faster than her technique would stand – the big exchanges between hands in triplets against the octave theme went almost completely off the rails, and there was no mood-change when the grand, should-have-been-majestic A-flat statement of the finale’s theme came – here it was unceremoniously moved through as part of the same all-purpose whirlwind, to hectoring and ill-tempered effect. And the recapitulation of the opening was the same – Beethoven’s music, I thought, was here given an overdose of haste, incessant drive and marked impatience.

With the aforementioned Schnabel’s occasionally erratic playing, there was nevertheless, at all times, a feeling of shape and form and differentiation, even amidst the most hair-raising episodes of technical carnage. Here in the Waldstein’s finale I felt Radojkovic simply rode roughshod over much of the music – in fact to the point where she sounded, purely and simply, insufficiently prepared.

How on earth, I thought, was she going to cope with the far more out-and-out virtuosic keyboard writing in Brahms’s Paganini Variations? Well, the quicker variations were all stormily and splashily played, while the more poetic and introspective ones were extremely characterful, winsome, flowing and lovely. Occasionally she used too much pedal to generate great washes of sound, reminding me in places of the kind of effect got by the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, heard ”live” when having one of his less technically secure days.

Conversely, I loved her lilting way with the fourth, major-key variation, and also with the delicately-etched-in No.8. She kept her best playing, I thought, for these more lyrical, poetic episodes, the twelfth variation being another example of her ability to rhapsodize in a completely natural and flowing way. But much of the rest was an amalgam of grandeur, excitement, agitation, and just plain noise, with an alarming number of mis-hits – surely too many for a player working at this performance level?

I had been looking forward to the prospect of hearing one of my favourite sets of romantic piano variations, Schumann’s Op.13 Etudes Symphoniques, before the concert – but was now not so sure! Radojkovic did begin promisingly, playing the theme at the beginning with great freedom, the chord progressions elastic and spontaneously-sounded, with the bass sonorities again emphasised.

However, once the variations began, the same disfiguing elements which had bedevilled her playing up to that point in the recital were unfortunately revisited. In the case of each variation she played no repeats, which for me reduced the work’s stature and grandeur – moreover, she tended to “clip” phrase-notes, and hurry through figurations in places where I was expecting her to expand, which further compressed the work’s scale. And that tyrannical left hand began to cause me to wince every time it threatened to obliterate the right hand’s thematic lines.

It was only the slower, second-to-last variation that gave me any pleasure throughout the rest of the work – my notes instead contain remarks such as “an unholy scramble!”, or “All bluster and thunder”, and “Bashes through and approximates wildly!” I couldn’t believe the extent to which I was writing these things about a professional musician. One expects a smattering of wrong notes from a performer in any public piano recital, but Radojkovic’s “hit-and-miss” ratio felt simply too high for comfort.

Parts of Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite responded to Radojkovic’s freely impressionistic way with the music, though the very opening theme of “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum” had no sense of shape – its dreamy middle section was, however, beautifully realised, even if the concluding accelerando became something of a scramble, with pile-driven final chords.

More successful were “Jumbo’s Lullaby” and “Serenade for the Doll”, each in its own way delicately played and nicely contrasted. “The Snow is Dancing” also had its moments, though surely its repeated-note sequence was far too vehemently presented. And “The Little Shepherd”, despite some lovely touches, sounded, to my ears too fast, too volatile, in places – why would one want to play such music so impatiently?

As for the subject of the famous “Golliwog’s Cakewalk”, I thought, here, a more unpleasant ruffian never trod the boards – sharp-toned and aggressive-sounding, the music made a thoroughly bad-tempered and out-of-sorts impression.

And that was that – or rather, it would have been had not Radojkovic announced that she would like to play some Chopin for us as an encore, telling us in heavily-accented English that he was her favourite composer. We had barely settled back down in our seats before the opening notes of the well-known Op.66 Fantasie-Impromptu rang out from the keyboard – and suddenly, the music-making was transformed.

Here was much of the same impulsiveness and volatility that we’d heard throughout the evening, but with the melodic lines and counterpoints having a shape and coherence hitherto obscured – now, the music seemed properly lived-with, and completely under the pianist’s fingers. The sounds readily conveyed a real sense of excitement contrasted with repose, and effectively characterising by turns the music’s portrayals of both adventurer and dreamer.

This was playing which brought to my mind the grand manner of some of those famous old pianists of the 78rpm recording era, giving us something unique and treasurable, and making complete sense of whatever. I confess to being startled by the transformation – with Chopin’s music acting as a kind of catalyst, Radojkovic had suddenly created order from the previous chaos before us.It was like the turning over of a new leaf, something almost alchemic in effect, and perhaps beyond understanding (I’m trying, here, to work my way towards at least a modicum of the same!)…

After gob-smacking us with her playing of the Fantasie-Impromptu, Radojkovic then delighted us with the Waltz in C-sharp Minor (Op.64 No.2), again giving us a strongly-characterised reading, the music’s melancholic and quixotic elements rendered with tingling immediacy and near-perfect detailing. We even forgave her a touch of showmanship at the final reprise of the “running down the stairs” sequences, here tossed off  at speed with the nonchalance of any old-time pianistic “great” one might care to name.

So, honour was at least in part restored at the recital’s end by this remarkable pianist – whether her playing throughout much of the evening was the result of being less-than-properly prepared, or plagued by non-musical pressures such as jet-lag, I found it difficult to decide.

What’s certain is that, on the strength of that Chopin-playing, I would like very much to hear Radojkovic again, either in an all-Chopin recital, or in music that draws from her the same intensities of ownership and identification and attention to detail – here, for just a few minutes, those kinds of intensities took us with her into realms inhabited by beauties and profundities associated with things treasurable and unforgettable.









Cellos galore at St. Andrew’s

St. Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series:
Cellos of the NZ School of Music

St. Andrew’s on the Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday, 21st August 2013.


This was the debut performance of the NZSM Cello Ensemble, a group of eight women students directed by Inbal Megiddo, cello lecturer at the school. It offered a new sound to Wellington concert goers, and the opportunity to hear both familiar and new works arranged for this interesting combination.

The opening item was the Prelude from Bach’s solo cello Suite no.5, played by Lucy Gijsbers, principal of the Ensemble. The thoughtful and lyrical opening section led into the lively and demanding fugue where her technical mastery of the instrument was immediately apparent. Unfortunately, however, the brio of the delivery was such that the shape of the phrasing and the intricate fugal patterns tended to get obscured in the rush of hectic passagework. Lucy has no need to prove her obvious technical competence; however, that competence must always be the servant of the music, particularly a masterpiece of such stature as this. The musicianship displayed in the opening simply needed to be extended right through to the powerful ending of the Prelude.

Next was Corelli’s well known Christmas Concerto Op.6, no.8 in a surprisingly successful realization for cello ensemble by Claude Kenneson. It largely overcame the limitations of  an unrelieved cello palette – the stylistic contrasts between the alternating slow and fast movements were well highlighted, with warmth and sensitivity marking the wonderful melodies, suspensions and rhythmic syncopation that distinguish the lyrical sections. Inner voices spoke well through the rich texture and highlighted the players’ clear emotional engagement with the work.

The spirited delivery of the contrasting fast movements was invigorating in all but the last Allegro –  it was in fact played at an exaggerated vivace that muddied the exciting passagework whose clarity is quintessential to these early concerti. However this, and the occasional patch of rocky intonation, were really the only drawbacks in this felicitous reading.

For the Requiem Op.66 by David Popper, the cello ensemble was joined by Jian Liu, piano lecturer at NZ School of Music. Popper was a Bohemian virtuoso cellist and prolific composer for his instrument, and this 1891 work was originally scored for three cellos and orchestra.

However, it came across very successfully in this piano-plus-cello-octet version, which gave ample opportunity for the players to relish its luscious romantic lyricism and brooding reflections.

The tonal contrast and clarity of Liu’s contribution from the piano was exquisitely sensitive to the mood of the ensemble and the nuances of the writing. He facilitated a wonderful conversation where all the players clearly revelled in the aching suspensions and dynamic shifts that particularly marked the central section. The audience was rapt from first note to last.

The final work was Bach’s Air on a G String, in an arrangement for cello ensemble by Aldo Parisot. The famous lyrical melody that is the lynchpin of this piece was beautifully expressed by the upper voices, but the supporting lines from the bass voices were sadly, barely audible. Even the middle parts were underpowered, leaving a serious imbalance in the acoustic. This was most apparent in the timid pizzicato of the lowest cello lines which cried out for the rich resonance of  the contrabass that normally plays this part. The sensitive dynamic contrasts offered by the upper voices were so emasculated by the absence of bass support, that the beauty of Bach’s writing was badly let down. If this arrangement is to work at all, it needs a lot more thought given to the balance of the ensemble.

It was a pity to end the recital with this sense of incompleteness, because the concert offered Wellington listeners an enriching experience in the chamber music medium that they have not enjoyed before. Inbal Megiddo is to be congratulated on establishing and nurturing the group, and I very much hope we will hear more of it in the future.

























Electric music and music-theatre – Nicholas Isherwood


Nicholas Isherwood (voice), Michael Norris (sound diffusion)

Isaac Schankler: Mouthfeel / Lissa Meridan: shafts of shadow
Jean-Claude Risset: Otro / Michael Norris: Deep Field
Karlheinz Stockhausen: Capricorn

Adam Concert Room

Thursday, 21 August 2013, 7.30 pm

The Adam Concert Room darkens. Electronic sound wells up like a rushing wind. After several minutes, a tall, gaunt figure mounts a platform at the back. The lights fade up to reveal the futuristically silver-clad spaceman from the Dog Star.

So began Stockhausen’s Capricorn, an adapted segment of his longer work SIRIUS. Low electronic sounds underlying Nicholas Isherwood’s voice gradually rose in pitch over the half-hour (or so) of the piece, with a few exceptions, such as when the bass frequencies returned, heavily amplified (perhaps over amplified) to eclipse the voice at the point of climax. Near the end, a hauntingly naïve tune emerged out of the abstract texture, and Isherwood produced ethereal vocal harmonics (especially written for him by Stockhausen).

In 2009, Isherwood had performed Havona, part of Stockhausen’s last composition, in the same venue. Again, incongruously, I was reminded of Harry Partch. In Havona, it was chintzy synth-sounds that suggested the Partch chromelodion. In the mid-period Capricorn, it was the stylised poses (futuristic here, rather than antique) assumed by the actor-singer.

Isherwood has worked with Stockhausen, and with an impressive list of other 20th and 21st century composers, including Iannis Xenakis, whose La Deesse Athena (“The Goddess Athena”) and Kassandra, he will be performing with Stroma in their “Goddess and Storyteller” concert on Sunday (1 September 2013, VUW Hunter Council Chamber, at 4 pm). Isherwood is also the author of the forthcoming The Techniques of Singing, chapters of which will cover (among other things) extended vocal techniques, and the twelve-odd gradations between the whisper and the scream (yes, he can do them all!).

The first half of the concert consisted of world premieres of four of the six pieces for voice and electronics, that will make up The Electric Voice (the remaining two, I understand, have not yet been completed). As programmes had run out when I arrived (more had been printed by half time), I listened to the first half “blind”, knowing only that there were two New Zealand works (by Michael Norris and Lissa Meridan), and two by unfamiliar international composers (and I had no idea of the order).

The first piece was a tour de force of Isherwood’s extended techniques, such as mouth-sounds, isolated abstract phonemes, deconstructed words (“prrrrroduct”), along with the occasional vocalise. I thought: Swedish sound-text poets, Bob Cobbing, Ernst Jandl, and other sound poets, and Berio’s treatment of e. e. cummings’ poems in Circles. I thought it was not New Zealand, and I was right. Mouthfeel, by US composer Isaac Schankler, was a sort of anti-advertisement for a brand of taco.

The second composition also had something of sound poetry about it, but here there was more vowel content, and some beautiful falsetto singing that was chorused through the electronics. I thought that this, too, was not New Zealand, but I was wrong. It was Lissa Meridan’s shafts of shadow, in which the singer listened to a track through headphones and translated what he heard, vocally.

The third piece made extensive (and effective) use of panning the sound around the loudspeaker array. I thought this might have been Meridan: the bell-like chimes near the beginning reminded me of the gamelan, which Meridan would have heard when she was director of the NZSM Electronic Music Studio, and the French words could have resulted from her now living in France. But no, it was Otre by international composer Jean-Claude Risset (the only piece in this Electric Voice group not a full premiere, apparently being a version of a previous composition).

The fourth work impressed me immediately, even without my knowing that it was by Michael Norris. Deep Field I sets ancient and historical astronomy texts, with Isherwood’s voice weaving freely over sustained, elongated syllables in the live electronic part. The effect is reminiscent of the twelfth century free organum of Leonin, that moment in history when western music stood poised to develop as a single melodic line of rhythmic suppleness and intonational subtlety, over slowly changing drone notes (akin to, although still different from, middle-eastern and Indian classical music). Then Leonin’s successor Perotin added the third voice, setting western music on its path to the forty-part motet and the Symphony of a Thousand.


Splendid operatic farewell to the Kapiti Chorale’s conductor Marie Brown

‘Hit and Myth’; choruses and arias from opera

The Kapiti Chorale, Marie Brown (conductor), Elisabeth Harris (mezzo), Christian Thurston (baritone), Salina Fisher (violin), Peter Averi (organ), Rafaella Garlick-Grice and Ellen Barrett (pianos)

St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Paraparaumu

Sunday, 18 August 2013, 2.30pm

Despite the rather corny title of the concert, the church was well-filled to hear the last concert to be conducted by Marie Brown, who is moving to Auckland, following eight years as Music Director  of the choir; she will be greatly missed.

A delightful mixture of arias and choruses from opera made up the fare: some items were well known, or ‘hits’, others less-known, while some were based on myths. While most of the choruses were sung in English, a number were not.

We began with ‘The Villagers’ Chorus’ from Guillaume Tell, by Rossini.  The first three items were all accompanied by Rafaelle Garlick-Grice in accomplished style, having always the right balance with the choir and soloists.  She is an accompanist at the New Zealand School of Music. The women’s sound was good; the men’s rather weak, but there was always an excellent range of dynamics.  Following this, conductor Marie Brown gave the first of a number of apt introductions to the items, not without humour, and playing on the terms ‘hit’ and ‘myth’ where possible.

‘Dido’s Lament’ from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was the next item.  It lacked more than a little in sound quality and atmosphere by being played on the piano, but Elisabeth Harris sang with feeling, and a richer sound than I have previously heard from her, plus greater (though not total) accuracy of intonation.  Her voice was well suited to the church’s acoustic, but I was puzzled by the pronunciation of ‘trouble’ as ‘rubble’, and ‘remember me’ as ‘ruhmumber me’. The choir did not start completely together, but words were clear and expressive, and they produced a fine sound; again the gradation of dynamics was good.  The choir’s upper notes were weak at times.

Gounod’s operas, other than Faust, are not much performed now, but ‘O ma lyre immortelle’ from his Sapho proved a good vehicle for Harris.  Her rich lower tones were very fine.

Mascagnis’ ‘Intermezzo’ from his opera Cavalleria rusticana is one of those very famous pieces of music that everyone knows, though perhaps not all can place its source and composer.  It received highly proficient and loving playing from Salina Fisher, a violin student and prize-winner at NZSM, with Peter Averi on the organ.  Unfortunately, a digital organ is not an adequate substitute for the sounds of an orchestra, despite the excellence of the playing.

Back to the choir and Elisabeth Harris, for the Easter Hymn from the same opera, with both piano and organ.  It was a good, dramatic performance from both soloist and choir, but the latter’s vowels were somewhat too diverse for purity of tone.

Turning to French grand opera, better described in these programme notes than I have ever seen it, Christian Thurston, another NZSM student, who recently did well in the School’s opera Il Corsaro by Verdi, sang ‘Ô vin, dissipe la tristesse’ from Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas.  His voice is rich-toned, strong and hearty; accompanied by Rafaella Garlick-Grice, his rendition in excellent French was elegant .

A more familiar opera is Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.  With two pianos this time, the second played by the choir’s regular accompanist Ellen Barrett, the women of the choir sang (in English) the ‘Chorus of Peasant Girls’.  The tone was pleasant, and the singers gave a suitably playful rendition, while the wonderfully illustrative accompaniment was splendidly played by the unflagging Rafaella Garlick-Grice, beautifully co-ordinated with Ellen Barrett.

From the same opera was the famous waltz scene, again with two pianos.  Thurston sang Onegin, with the full choir.  The English words were clear, and the timing was excellent.  It is not easy to sing as an opera chorus, because phrases for the chorus come up here and there, so it is more difficult to get entries correct as compared with continuous singing in straight choral works.

Perhaps the best-known items from Bizet’s Carmen are the ‘Habanera’, and the ‘March of the Toreadors’.  The first of these was sung in French, with Rafaella Garlick-Grice accompanying and Elisabeth Harris taking the solo part. With French expert Marie Brown to teach them, the choir’s pronunciation was excellent, and the singers were ‘on the ball’, to make this an excellent item.  The soloist, now in a red dress, moving forward from the back of the church, singing from memory, made the most of the seductive, Spanish-style music, with movement and facial expression.

Two pianos accompanied the March, sung in English. The choir’s rhythm was first-class, if the pitch was occasionally suspect.  There was some strain in the tenor voices, but the piece was generally secure and accurate, with plenty of volume when required.

Christian Thurston returned to sing a less-well-known number, ‘Questo amor, vergogna mia’ from Puccini’s Edgar.  He made a fine and beautiful operatic sound.

Elisabeth Harris then gave us ‘Nobles Seigneurs, salut’ from Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots.  This was a very accomplished performance of a difficult aria, not known to me.  The ornamentation was handled with assurance and accuracy, and her French language was excellent.

Something else French: the beautiful ‘Méditation’ from Thaïs, by Massenet played on the violin by Salina Fisher, accompanied by Rafaella Garlick-Grice.  It was superbly played, with sensitivity.  Sadly, the upright piano was somewhat limited in tonal variety in its ‘orchestral’ supporting role.

Now to Verdi: ‘O don fatale’ from Don Carlos, sung by Harris, in Italian, with feeling, and impressive expression and dramatic verve.  Top notes were absolutely in place.  The audience responded with particular enthusiasm to this very passionate aria.

The final three items were more familiar; firstly, the ‘Voyagers’ Chorus’ from Idomeneo by Mozart, for choir and mezzo, sung in Italian, in which I thought the singers seemed to be tiring a little.  This was
followed by the famous Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor by Borodin, where we again had two pianos and an English text.  Top notes from the sopranos were weak, as were some alto notes.  However, the forte section was very accurate and lively, though most words were unclear.  The co-ordination of the pianists was remarkable.

That much loved chorus from Verdi’s Nabucco, ‘Va pensiero’, rounded off the programme, sung in Italian with both accompanists, and a brief appearance from Christian Thurston.  The chorus’s smooth
lines made a rousing end to ‘Hit and Myth’.

Peter Averi then made a short speech, thanking Marie Brown for her work and her huge inspiration to the choir and those associated with it.

The concert of excerpts from opera reached a commendable level of performance, and was much appreciated by the audience.  This was a demanding programme, but all the singers were very involved in what they were singing, and they involved their audience also.