The year’s centenary profoundly marked with a Requiem for the Fallen: O’Sullivan and Harris

(New Zealand Festival)

Purcell: ‘Hear my Prayer’
Messiaen: ‘O sacrum convivium’
Beethoven: Molto adagio from String Quartet in A minor, Op 132
Schnittke: Three spiritual songs
Ross Harris with words by Vincent O’Sullivan: Requiem for the Fallen

Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir, the New Zealand String Quartet, taonga puoro played by Horomona Horo, Richard Greager (tenor)
Conductor: Karen Grylls

Cathedral of St Paul, Wellington

Friday 28 February, 8 pm

One of the major events in any genre in this year’s festival, this concert, involving choir, string quartet and other soloists, deserved the full house that it attracted, as well as the immediate, standing ovation at the end.

The key element of course was the cantata (shall we call it, instead of a liturgical work?) that occupied the last part of the concert. The work of Vincent O’Sullivan and Ross Harris, it was written with this year’s momentous centenary very much in mind: the outbreak of the First World War in August of 1914. There is little new in the view that that war – all war – is evil and futile; made even more tragic by subsequent revelations that the Great War, in particular, happened through inexcusable
confusion, vacuous notions of ‘honour’, imperial ambition, and a failure of nerve and rejection of common sense. I have just read the latest of the hundreds of books on the origins of World War I, The Sleepwalkers, by Christopher Clark. No shred of statesmanship is evident in any quarter.

Poet and composer shared the same view, and there was nothing of conventional jingoism or patriotism in the words or the music. Naturally that eliminated the possibility of ‘pomp and circumstance’ music expressing glory, hope, righteousness or victoriousness. Into parts of the Requiem Mass, in Latin, O’Sullivan has interwoven comment, personal narrative and observations that leave little room for the usual religious blandishments.  He captured the essence of one of the most profound experiences in the history of this country.

Inevitably some of the language is familiar from the multitude of poems and stories that flowed from the 1914-18 war and from all wars every since.

In the Libera nos, the meaning shifts to pleading for freedom from ‘the hate we return for hate’, and to save us to return ‘from the hurl of grenades and impending wrath’.
The central and most arresting and horrific section is the Dies Irae in which the words of the mass lend themselves to describing the terrible wars of men and not merely the punishments of the Day of Judgement. Here, quite terrifying drums and trumpets as well as contributions from taonga puoro delivered a fearful message.
There are some strikingly vivid words: ‘Ah, the silence / lies gorged on fear’, ‘hear the random sweep of fire, / hear the leaden gasps choked choir’.

Later, in Memento mori, tenor Richard Greager represented the ordinary soldier, back home, years later, haunted for ever by memories of the horrors he experienced: ‘And I met a cobber on the road / Coming down the remembered way, / Only I was here, as large as life, / and he was in Suvla Bay.’

It was a semi-staged performance, facilitated by placing the performance platform in the centre of the nave, so the audience was divided on either side, thus allowing twice as many to be close to the performance; a great advantage in a very resonant acoustic. It also meant good sight-lines. Steps on all four sides allowed the choir to come and go, to divide into varying groups, as well as for Richard Greager and Horomona Horo with koauau and putorino which, played with the quartet and singers, surprised me by being pitched in tune with western instruments. The string quartet occupied the middle of the platform.

Jonathan Alver (former general director of NBR New Zealand Opera), guided the dramatic elements, the movements, sensitively and coherently, and the lighting, under Paul O’Brien, was both useful and atmospheric.

The words, as well as being in the programme book, were projected, along with graphic photos of the scenes of troops and trenches on to screens on either side of the platform.

The total impact was moving and unsentimental, and the music illuminated the words without artificiality or technical display, employing the unusual vocal and instrumental
resources with imagination and resourcefulness.

There had been no interval between the first half hour of the programme and the Requiem. The first half had included a surprisingly varied range of elegiac music, similarly free of affectation; Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir under Karen Grylls sang Purcell’s ‘Hear my prayer’, Messiaen’s ‘O sacrum convivium’ and Schnittke’s Three Spiritual Songs.  It was remarkable to find such common spiritual ground between the widely different environments of Purcell and Messiaen, and again in the charming simplicity of the Schnittke songs, sung in Russian; ensemble singing was exquisite, and while individual voices were certainly distinguishable, the choir’s involvement was absolute, creating an arresting impression through scrupulous attention to phrasing, note values, attack, dynamics.

In between, perhaps the most famous movement from Beethoven’s late quartets – the Molto adagio from the Op 132 – was played with a keen sense of its poised, profound emotion, though varying between deep seriousness and joy, casting a spell over the audience.

I dare say that this concert will stand as one of the most memorable highlights of this festival.


Festival presents Shakespeare songs from two choirs in admirable literary and musical contexts

New Zealand Festival.  Sounds and Sweet Airs : Songs of Shakespeare

New Zealand Youth Choir and Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir, conducted by David Squire and Karen Grylls

Wesley Church, Taranaki Street

Tuesday, 25 February 2014, 6:30 pm

An attractive programme and renowned performers had Wesley Church pretty full, including many people sitting in the gallery; this, despite the hefty prices for a concert lasting one hour and ten minutes ($58, $38 child, $53 Friend of the Festival).

The Youth Choir comprised 50 voices, and Voices New Zealand 16, with the result that at full stretch the combined choirs were very resonant in the wooden church.  A delightful feature was that members of the choirs read the Shakespeare texts prior to each group of songs.  This helped the audience to follow the songs (although the sung words were always projected with great clarity), and to grasp the meanings and nuances before listening to the musical settings; they were read with care and expression.   It was gratifying to have the lights on in the church, so that the audience could read the excellent programme notes that gave the titles of the plays from which the songs came, and a few lines about the context of each song.

After the first reading, we heard Caliban’s Song from The Tempest, set by prolific New Zealand choral composer David Hamilton, who was present.  This was sung by both choirs, with David Squire conducting.  It began with half the choir intoning, while the other half spoke the words in loud whispers.  When all sang, a magnificent sound emerged, with skilled, confident production and lovely variation of tone.  It was a very evocative setting.  Blend, balance and intonation were virtually impeccable.

Following this, the Youth Choir sang three songs set by Vaughan Williams: ‘Full fathom five’, ‘The cloud-capp’d towers’ and ‘Over hill, over dale’. I am very familiar with these supremely beautiful settings, having a recording (yes, an LP) of Swingle II singing them.  The accuracy, shaded dynamics and sensitivity to the words was almost as good from the Youth Choir – quite an achievement, given the group’s much larger size. All three songs demonstrated Vaughan Williams’s capture of the music of the words. He did not endeavour to surpass Shakespeare’s wonderful words, but rather to illustrate them.

The same composer’s ‘Willow Song’ from Othello featured fine, controlled legato singing.  The simple setting was appropriately sad in tone.  The second setting of the same words, by David Hamilton, saw the choir reorganised into  two choirs.  This more ornate setting was in a minor tonality, and full of feeling.

Jakko Mäntyjärvi (b.1963) (Wikipedia says ‘Jaakko’) is a Finnish composer, choral singer and conductor.  His Shakespeare songs are some of the most evocative in the repertoire: ‘Come away Death’ (Twelfth Night), ‘Lullaby’ (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), ‘Double, double, toil and trouble’ (Macbeth; described in the programme note as ‘The three witches’ Mediaeval cookery programme’) and ‘Full Fathom Five’ (The Tempest).  These were sung by Voices New Zealand, under Karen Grylls.

The  first was a very interesting and descriptive piece.  Fastidiously observed crescendos and decrescendos were a feature. ‘Lullaby’ (the one beginning ‘You spotted snakes with double tongues’, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream) was more innovative, but like Vaughan Williams, Mäntyjärvi always put the music at the service of the words, not the other way round.  In ‘Double, double, toil and trouble’ some of the words were recited in witch-like voices.  ‘Full fathom five’ sounded to be difficult, but it was a beautiful, effective setting, with gorgeous bass notes, like bells sounding deep in the sea.

The same words were set by Richard Rodney Bennett; this gave the most contemporary sound in the programme so far, and was preceded by a single note on a bell.  The bell was echoed in the voices by resonant ‘dongs’, of superb timbre.

A second English composer who died recently was John Tavener.  His ‘Fear no more’ from Cymbeline was aptly described in the programme notes as ‘searing and ecstatic with… dissonant harmonies and longheld chords’.  Magnificent forte and piano contrasts illuminated the marvellous text.  Gerald Finzi’s wonderful setting is familiar, but here and elsewhere the inexhaustible impact of Shakespeare’s words has inspired another worthy setting.

The Youth Choir rejoined Voices on the platform for five songs by Matthew Harris (b.1956), a highly productive American choral composer.  The first, ‘Tell me where is fancy bred’ (Merchant of Venice) was given a very straightforward setting; it demonstrated the excellent balance and dynamics of the singers.  ‘I shall no more to sea’ (The Tempest) and ‘When that I was and a little tiny boy’ (Twelfth Night) revealed the attractiveness of the settings, and also the skill of the choir with all members not only pronouncing vowels in the same way, but consonants also.  The latter song became quite complex and thick in texture.

The fourth song, ‘It was a lover and his lass’ (As You Like It) sounded rather conventional until a key change lifted the action, later reverting to the original key.  The final song, ‘When daffodils begin to peer’ (A Winter’s Tale) was written in quite a folksy style – there was even a Kiwi accent on the word ‘to’!

It was interesting to hear a programme of entirely English songs; the performances illustrated Dame Janet Baker’s assertion that English is not a difficult language in which to sing well – at least for English speakers who have been well trained.

The concert ended with two settings of ‘O mistress mine’ (Twelfth Night).  Andrew Carter’s was notable for beautiful word-painting and rich, multi-part harmony. Finally, a setting by doyen of British choral conductors, Sir David Willcocks, also rich in word-painting, the placement of the words being even clearer.  Interesting modulations ornamented the text.

The entire performance was characterised by captivating finesse, and did honour to Shakespeare.  Bravo!

Baroque guitarist Hopkinson Smith reveals a little known era of Spanish music in exquisite recital

Hopkinson Smith playing a five-course baroque Spanish guitar

Music by Gaspar Sanz, Francisco Guerau, Antonio de Santa Cruz

Wesley Church, Taranaki Street, Wellington

Monday 24 February, 6:30 pm

This was Hopkinson Smith’s second performance in Wellington; the previous day he had played at Pataka, the museum and cultural centre in Porirua. I gather there was a full house, and a highly appreciative one.

His rather memorable name has been around for many decades: I confess to thinking he was English (he was born in New York, was educated at Harvard, and long resident in Switzerland) and so there were several surprises and even more delights to be found at this recital by a refined, quietly witty, unpretentious American who seems to command every kind of plucked string instrument (apart from the harp): his extraordinary discography on the Internet is worth a look.

Though he opened the recital without making any comments  about the music or the instrument he was playing,  he did speak at the end of the first bracket of three pieces by Gaspar Sanz  (1640-1710, from Aragon), thus a contemporary of such composers as Lully, Buxtehude, Stradella, Charpentier and Biber.  In terms of Spanish history, the 17th century had seen the decline of its military and political greatness, having squandered the superficial wealth that gold from the Americas had brought them.  But great empires in decline often continue to produce art of lasting quality.

These ‘Three Spanish themes’ which came from a collection published in Zaragossa in 1674, Instrucción de música sobre la guitarra española, suggested a refinement of taste, somehow in contradiction to the grandeur and pomposity still exhibited by the Spanish court and the nobility. There was little chordal writing or employment of rich harmonies; rather, a hesitant quality in the Pavanas with variations, colouring by lots of runs, subtle decoration and rhythm changes. Folias displayed a sort of flamenco character, with strumming across the finger-board.

Before playing the next group, entitled ‘Europe in Miniature’, Smith spoke about his guitar, a replica of a 17th century Spanish guitar with five courses (that is, pairs of strings tuned to the same pitch or at the octave); he noted that his instrument was tuned according to Sanz’s directions, with the two lowest courses tuned an octave higher so that no bass notes could be produced. The result is ethereal, transparent and, in the artist’s own words, the instrument was ‘liberated from the bass, thus the tonality has a unique poetic aura which in its best moments creates a magic of its own’.

It is perhaps more attuned to a venue rather smaller than the church; the space somewhat reduced the feeling of the refined character of this small instrument as well as making Smith’s words hard to hear. But a smaller venue would have meant turning many away.  While the guitar might have been minimally amplified, his voice was not.

There were six pieces in the bracket ‘Europe in miniature’. The first impression was of a certain lack of variety, particularly of key, though they may have been closely related keys; until the final piece, Tarantela which shifted dramatically with much more vigorous strumming, occasional hitting the body of the guitar, creating a very lively musical fabric. The earlier pieces were drawn from various parts of Spain and Europe in general, though always infused with a character that seemed essentially Spanish; varied in rhythm, duple to triple back and forth, lively dotted rhythms that were sometimes difficult to distinguish from quaver triplets. The delicacy and refined taste of the music steadily made itself familiar to me as the concert proceeded.

The two pieces by Francisco Guerau (1649 – 1717/1722, from Majorca) came from a famous publication of 20 years later (Poema harmonico, 1694). The Passacalles del primer tono, one of some 30 passacalles in the volume, proved a longish work, perhaps the most substantial and characteristic in the programme . There was a subtlety of invention and expression, a variety of rhythms and tempi, of unobtrusive counterpoint where, in its central part, its melodic evolution became increasingly intriguing and difficult to follow and appreciate. Towards the end, a meandering, fluid character emerged, in a more marked triple time, that was neither a minuet, a sarabande nor any kind of German Ländler.  Smith’s own notes described Guerau’s music as ‘some of the most sophisticated  writing for the guitar from the entire baroque era’.  Further exploration will be rewarding.

His Canarios (from the Canary Islands), less elaborate but more sparkling and delightful, involved a lot of strumming  that suggested the flamenco style of Andalusia.
The first half ended with a Jácaras, a lively dance by Antonio de Santa Cruz who seems to be a more obscure figure, comparable with Guerau in style, and dated around 1700.

The second half was devoted to five pieces by Sanz: a flowing Preludio based around scales and arpeggios. Then a Marizápalos which emerged as the source of the slow movement from Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, a lovely set of variations.  A jig followed, and then another Passacalles, this time ‘del segundo tono’: bold strumming  and more dense clusters of chords, creating a more ‘modern’ impression than many of the other pieces.

Finally Sanz’s Canarios which proved to be the source of the last movement of Rodrigo’s Fantasia para un gentilhombre; as expected, it was delightfully lively and attractive.

The entire recital, exquisitely and brilliantly executed by Hopkinson Smith,  opened a window for me to a period of music that I was fairly unfamilar with. From a period that is contemporary with the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution in England, of Purcell and Blow, Jeremiah Clarke and Eccles; or Louis XIV’s France of Lully, Charpentier, Campra and Couperin, it evokes a society of perhaps greater refinement and sophistication, though it is pertinent to recall that this was also the era in Spain of the emergence of the baroque Zarzuela, the early form of comic opera that re-emerged strongly in the 19th century.


Beethoven blazes to the front of the NZSO’s ‘Five by Five’ symphony series

New Zealand International Festival

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich

Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture and Symphony No 5 in C minor, Op 67

Michael Fowler Centre

Monday 24 February, 12:30 pm

Day One of the five concerts devoted to the great fifth symphonies by five great composers opened with a performance that promised a splendidly successful enterprise across the span of the Festival.

It was hard to guess the kind of audience that might buy tickets for a concert at a different time and in a different format from usual. However, the auditorium was reasonably well filled with an audience that seemed younger and more varied than those at the normal subscription concerts.

I had rather expected, at a concert that no doubt anticipated a lot of listeners who were giving classical music a try, some introductory comments from conductor Hamish McKeich. It was probably good simply to let this mighty music speak for itself: even though there was no printed programme or even a list of songs, they launched straight into Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture. The overture was for a play written by a young contemporary of Goethe and Schiller: Heinrich Joseph von Collin. The subject is the same as Shakespeare’s – about a misguided, 5th century BCE Roman general ‘who lets pride and a perverted sense of honour destroy him’ (Folger Library Shakespeare series). Collin is unlikely to have known the Shakespeare play (which has never been particularly popular on the English language stage) for very few of the famous Shakespeare translations by A W Schlegel had appeared by 1804 when Collin’s play was written. I can find no evidence that Schlegel or his successors translated Coriolanus.

The opening chords are dark and compelling, suggesting Coriolanus’s power and blind determination, followed by a gentler lyrical phase that is thought to reflect his mother’s attempt to calm his bellicosity. The impact by the orchestra was of stunning force, all sections magnificently integrated in the expression of purpose, in the resonant and lively acoustic (depending where you sit – I was centre stalls about row S, this place is no less responsive than the Town Hall).

The symphony was no less majestic and powerful; right from that famous call to attention, so much detail and refinement of expression entered into the biting pulses of the first movement as well as a relentless pursuit of a challenging journey the goal of which was always clearly in view. There was space, scrupulous care with note values, suspenseful dynamics and subtle tempo changes that expressed the blazing determination that propels the music.

The orchestra handled the beautiful second movement with a sort of restrained force and no less passion, again making the perfectly familiar music sound freshly enchanting and surprising. Here it was possible to relish individual playing, always by the cellos, and strings as a whole, several times from the bassoon, while meltingly beautiful colours were spread by the horns.

The magical, secretive transition to the Scherzo always takes me by surprise and this time, as in the thrilling tempo changes through the Finale, the hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck experience was real.

We are so flooded by music of all kinds today that it is forgivable to wonder whether another hearing of a great but well-known work will yet again have the same impact as it did, first heard many decades ago.  In this case, from the first moment, under the spell of conductor McKeich, I felt that I was present at a very great performance indeed; I have rarely felt such a sense of euphoria throughout the performance and emphatically, when the last insistent chords died away. Far more than ritual applause broke out at the end.


Lively opera debut from an ambitious new Hawke’s Bay company

The Marriage of Figaro (Le nozze di Figaro) by Mozart, sung in Italian with English surtitles
Presented by Festival Opera

Creative Director: Anna Pierard
Conductor and stage director: Jose Aparicio; production designer: Richard Wood; set designer: John Briggs; lighting: Dan Browne; costume designer: William Waitoa
Cast: Count: Changhan Lim, Countess: Jennifer Davison; Figaro: Garry Griffiths, Susanna: Carleen Ebbs; Cherubino: Sabine Garrone; Caroline Hickman, Joel Amosa, Thomas Barker, Laura Jeffares, Howard McGuire

Napier Municipal Theatre

Tuesday 18 February, 7pm (and 20 and 22 February)

Through the 1990s I went to most of the operas staged by Hawkes Bay Opera in the Hastings (later renamed Hawkes Bay) Opera House. The company rather declined from the early 2000s, but there has been some recovery since the return to Napier of Anna Pierard and her husband Jose Aparicio, who have been involved, Jose as artistic director and both Anna and Madeleine as principals with recent productions presented by the company.

But this is a new and distinct enterprise, employing four principals from overseas, the rest New Zealanders, most from Hawkes Bay. Unusually, Aparicio took on the responsibilities of both musical director and stage director. And there I may as well begin, saying that in both spheres he imposed a professionalism, energy and polish that is unusual in a new company that is perhaps, not 100 percent professional in its employment of singers and instrumentalists. He refrained from doing the sort of violence to the staging that is common in Europe and also makes its appearance in this country. His production, along with the occasionally mishap-plagued surtitles, managed to present the story with clarity and wit.

Because the production was designed to adorn musically Napier’s Art Deco festival, the era was changed from the 18th century to the 1920s. Sets (designer Richard Wood) and costumes (William Waitoa) were carefully designed and achieved that, without excess, without drawing attention to any kind of pretentious symbolism, simply rather beautifully. The era translation was highly successful.

The brilliant little overture was accompanied by a projected mimed sketch of the essentials of the opera’s predecessor, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville – the first of Beaumarchais’s great comic trilogy that satirized class structure in pre-French Revolutionary Europe. ‘Meaningful’ but irritating activities often accompany the overture in opera these days, but this was appropriate and funny.

And the orchestra, which impressed with its speed and precision in the overture, repeatedly caught the ear through the performance, for its finesse and an accuracy that was well beyond what might be expected from an essentially amateur ensemble, that receives no help from Creative New Zealand.

So the first act opens in the room the Count has offered to Figaro and Susanna for their planned wedding; there’s a central stair that divides right and left and provides a useful device for various later activities such as the encounter between Susanna and Marcellina, which both Carleen Ebbs and Caroline Hickman carried off in convincingly catty fashion.

The stair is swiftly replaced in Act II by a wall in the Countess’s chamber, with the windows through which Cherubino escapes;  later the windows are replaced in the Count’s reception hall by a huge full-length portrait of himself in splendid toreador’s garb, which he sits in front of to adjudicate the promise of marriage suite between Figaro and Marcellina. Every design touch seems right, effective and comic.

The comic highlights were quite wonderfully performed, the dance of the chairs between Cherubino, the Count, Susanna, Basilio and finally Figaro; the growing confusion in the face of the Count’s attempts to flush out whoever it is in the Countess’s wardrobe; and the scene’s end with Cherubino’s jump from window, gardener Antonio’s entrance, the Count’s bafflement, the final thwarting of the Count’s attempts to stymie Figaro’s wedding as Figaro is discovered as the illegitimate child of Marcellina and Bartolo. Each scene is splendidly paced and the confusions made as clear as I’ve ever seen them for the audience, even in the extraordinary Act IV.

Chief honours went to Carleen Ebbs’s Susanna, with a voice and histrionic talent that seemed designed for the role, though by the fourth act tiredness taxed her vocal agility. Hers was the kind of performance that automatically brought a smile to the face.

About equal was the portrayal of the quietly polished, cynical but finally outwitted Count from Korean baritone Changhan Lim; he refrained from undue arrogance: the words and the music do that well enough. In his scene in Act III, his ‘Hai gia vinta la causa’, was a splendid, display of anger and frustration.

The role of Cherubino tends to be rather central, as one of the most famous comic cross-dressing tours-de-force; Sabine Garrone didn’t seem a natural in the role, apart from convincing female to male walk and gesture and her generally youthful appearance. Her voice suffered intonation lapses as well as not being quite the right fit for the role; I wondered whether there should have been an announcement about a vocal ailment.

The Countess has two famous arias that are considered of central importance. In her first appearance in Act II, United States soprano Jennifer Davis sang ‘Porgi amor’ beautifully, if with such retiring quietude that the audience was not driven to applaud. Her characterization however had a dignity and restraint that may not have been diva-driven, but was simply very true to the nature of the role.

Gary Griffiths is a big man, perhaps not a classic Figaro in appearance, with the hard-to-achieve mix of obsequiousness and cleverness; nevertheless, with a fine baritone voice he was as good a bumbling object of Susanna’s irritation in the first scene as later, the sharp-witted schemer devising ways to thwart the Count.

The role of Marcellina is usually portrayed as large and matronly and of a certain age. Caroline Hickman was none of the above (she is eventually revealed at Figaro’s mother and thus has to be round 50) and her part did seem miscast, but only for a moment, since, slight, young and pretty, with a bright voice, she carried it off with such conviction that I had to conclude that Mozart and Da Ponte must have made a mistake.

Though Joel Amoso had a lapse in Act I, he proved well cast as Bartolo, his demeanour and voice fitting the role very well.  Tenor Thomas Barker as the slippery music teacher Basilio enjoyed his comic opportunities, relishing the chance to create embarrassment and confusion, and he carried them off well. The young Barbarina, a classic soubrette role, is a small part which often in the hands of a singer well down the list misses some of its comic potential. Laura Jeffares looked the part and sang brightly, no slow-witted servant-class, but well equipped to participate in the dissembling and role playing in the last, hilarious act. Antonio, the tipsy gardener, was a well-cast Howard McGuire, futilely throwing spanners in the works.

This is a most promising venture and it has made a startlingly fine start, with a brilliant production of one of the greatest operas in the repertoire. The company’s intention is to seek opportunities to mount opera in festivals around New Zealand. There are increasing numbers of festivals and most of them would benefit hugely from the injection of wonderful music.

I might as well conclude by remarking that twenty years ago, when I was reviewing for The Evening Post, I was able to review performances such as this in the paper. This was certainly a musical event that deserved attention from both The Dominion Post (if it was remotely interested in acting as the Capital’s only newspaper) and The New Zealand Herald.


Fabulous and compelling evocation of times past

“Lines from the Nile”

A Meeting of the “Port Nicholson Music Appreciation Society”

– held at 1 Essex Street, Aro Valley, Wellington

Mrs Garrett – Rowena Simpson (soprano)

Mr Hammersmith – Douglas Mews (Broadwood square pianoforte 1843)

Written and directed by Jacqueline Coats.

Venue: 1 Essex St., Aro Valley, Welllington

Saturday, 15th February, 2013

This show – an hour’s worth of stunningly-wrought, cheek-by-jowl evocation by just two performers, of an episode in Wellington’s musical, colonial and imperial history – is a “must see”.  Writer and director Jacqueline Coats has recreated a significant colonial musical event, one presented by the “Port Nicholson Music Appreciation Society” to mark the occasion in 1840 of Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

As befitted the relatively new and far-flung colony’s ties with the Mother Country, and its desire to celebrate the young Queen’s marriage, the Society’s presentation here positively reeked of jingoistic splendor.  Special emphasis was accorded the dominance of the high seas by the British Navy, with the exploits of luminaries such as Adam Viscount Duncan and Horatio Lord Nelson celebrated in both music and dramatic declamation.

The audience had a real part to play in the proceedings, issued as its members were with Union Jacks and invitations to wave the same at every appropriate opportunity, as well as joining in with the singing of various lusty choruses and well-known anthems such as “God Save the Queen” and “Rule Britannia”.

Giving the show its name was a song “Lines from the Battle of the Nile” written by Josef Haydn in 1800, dedicated to Lady Hamilton in honour of Lord Nelson, here a tour de force of playing, recitation and singing from fortepianist Douglas Mews alias “Mr. Hammersmith”, and soprano Rowena Simpson alias “Mrs.Garrett” (could these names have been for real in the capital’s colonial past?). The work took its audience through a gamut of colourful evocation, part fantasia, part melodrama, part battle-hymn and victory paean – splendid stuff, and, as I’ve indicated, performed with tremendous élan and unswerving dedication by both pianist and singer.

From her first entry at the show’s beginning, soprano Rowena Simpson as the formidable “Mrs Garrett” by turns charmed, galvanized, electrified and captivated her audience, imbuing us all with the feeling by the end that if we weren’t well-born, true-blue and British to the core, then we jolly well ought to be! Douglas Mews’ portrayal of the less demonstrative and somewhat  phlegmatic “Mr Hammersmith” was the perfect foil for his Britannia-like partner, though he was energised in turn by the music he played throughout, never more so than during the various episodes of both the “Nile” and the “Allegorical Overture” melodrama-like presentations.

One recalls stories of audience members in Haydn’s day swooning during certain tempestuous parts of the composer’s “Military” Symphony – and Douglas Mews’ playing of the sturdily characterful 1843 Broadwood square piano had a similar tactile quality in the battle scenes throughout. I was particularly interested in Daniel Steibelt’s Allegorical Overture “Britannia” – the first music I’d ever encountered by a composer whose chief claim to fame in musical history is a musical drubbing he apparently received at the hands of Beethoven whom he had unwisely challenged in an improvisary piano-playing contest at a private soiree in Vienna in 1800.

I certainly thought on first hearing the work worthy to stand as a keyboard equivalent to the orchestral “Wellington’s Victory” by Steibelt’s more illustrious rival. In fact I thought some passages strangely reminiscent of Beethoven’s work, except that Steibelt got there first by a matter of sixteen years! Still, perhaps considering Beethoven’s low opinion of his own piece, any kind of comparison isn’t therefore much of a compliment to Steibelt – except that on this occasion, Messrs Hammersmith and Garrett made it work resoundingly! – it certainly made a fitting and festive conclusion to the concert.

Along the evening’s way, other pieces gave the presentation plenty of variety – a lovely “Haste to the Wedding” keyboard solo based on a traditional Irish tune in an anonymous arrangement made a nicely pastoral-like beginning to the proceedings, followed by two songs by Haydn, “With Verdure Clad” from “The Creation”, and a “Sailor’s Song”, both sung in English by Rowena Simpson, in glorious voice, by turns rapt and lyrical, and then pictorial and energetic. By way of assisting our recovery from the travails of conflict in “Lines from the Battle of the Nile” which followed, we were charmed by Douglas Mews’ characterful playing of perhaps the best-known of Haydn’s keyboard Sonatas, Hob.XVI:50 in C major, with its delicious dead-end harmonic venturings in the finale.

Later we heard another Haydn song, this one an arrangement of a Scottish traditional air, “Mary’s Dream, here delivered with such heartfelt splendor and depth of feeling as to transcend the words’ somewhat Victorian sentiments and present a powerful utterance. These sentiments managed to survive even a spoken interlude from the singer, equating the song’s story of love and loss with her own bereavement – “the unfortunate Mr Garrett”, whom we were solemnly and artlessly informed “was now at peace”……somewhat ungallantly, I confess to feeling exceedingly glad for him.

All in all, venue, presentation and theatrical and musical standards came together most beguilingly, to create something special and memorable. My advice? –  get to it if you can – it plays at 1 Essex St this week from Thursday 20th to Sunday 23rd February.

The two organs on display: St Andrew’s on The Terrace first off in Wellington’s concert series

Jonathan Berkahn – the chamber organ and the main organ

Music by Byrd, Samuel Wesley, Mendelssohn, Edward d’Evry and William Wolstenholme

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 12 February, 12:15 pm

The long-standing (since the 1970s) Wednesday lunchtime concert series from St Andrew’s on The Terrace is back in town: this was the first for 2014. And the rest of the year’s series is mapped out, though not in detail.

Jonathan Berkahn has become a well-known keyboard player in Wellington since studying at Victoria University; following in the footsteps of his teacher Douglas Mews, he plays the organ as well as harpsichord and fortepiano, and he has recently become a choral conductor (The Festival Singers). Here, he gave the church’s two organs an all-too-rare work-out. (I wish these concerts employed the organs more regularly; it seems an awful shame that concerts in churches so rarely put on public display the instrument that has been specifically built for and installed in them).

The programme was a bit unusual, almost wholly devoted to English organ music: the one departure, Mendelssohn, whose organ sonatas were, in any case, written for England.

Berkahn played the first two pieces on the chamber organ, on the right of the sanctuary: a Fantasy by William Byrd, from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, and from the late 18th century composer Samuel Wesley, a Voluntary in C (Op 6 no 2).

The Fantasia emerged as a set of variations that begin in plain, open registers, unadorned, and through four or five successive stages grow in complexity, rhythmic variety, syncopation, brightness, using increasingly rich stops with more reed characteristics; they also accelerated subtly till at the end we got a 1600 equivalent of the Rossini crescendo of round 1820. An enjoyable, thoroughly persuasive performance.

Berkahn’s university thesis was devoted to the music of Samuel Wesley. To clarify: born in 1766 (four years Beethoven’s senior), he was the son of the hymn writer Charles Wesley who was the brother of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism in the early 18th century. Samuel’s son, Samuel Sebastian Wesley (born in 1810, same year as Schumann and Chopin), was also a musician, a noted organist and composer.

Jonathan entertained the audience with a quote from his thesis in which he vividly described Wesley’s eccentric, irresponsible, even criminal nature, and his rejection of Protestantism for Roman Catholicism, to family dismay, as well as his great musical gift.

This Voluntary, in four parts, displayed a post-Handelian quality, but could also have been influenced by Arne and Boyce, as well as by his contribution to the revival of J S Bach. The limited range of the small chamber organ sounded exactly in keeping with the style and Berkahn played with authority, using the organ most skilfully to achieve both clarity and due weight.

The exploration of a composer like Wesley is just another element in discrediting the tedious assertion that Britain produced no major composer between Purcell and Britten (perhaps Elgar).

After speaking briefly about the Mendelssohn sonata, remarking that his organ sonatas were written in response to the suggestion that he write some voluntaries (Berkahn said that he wrote sonatas instead because he didn’t know what a Voluntary was), he walked upstairs to the main organ in the gallery over the west door.

There had been commentaries on earlier pieces from without by pneumatic drills which contributed sporadically to the sounds within, but at the moment when Berkahn raised his hands to the keyboard, the noise stopped. The sonata began with a few loud chords but immediately subsided in the minor key to the hushed introduction to the first movement. The commanding contrast to the modesty of the chamber organ was impressive, and I found myself, a not unwavering advocate of Mendelssohn, becoming quite engrossed in the sophisticated procedures that he pursued, and at Berkahn’s command of the very attractive instrument. It’s not a long piece and that worked in its favour, allowing just enough time to absorb the ideas in the course of their fairly economical development.

Next was a Nocturnette (a new form to me) by one Edward d’Evry (also a new one to me – 1869-1931). Moonlight was the suggested characteristic and though it was hardly a match for Beethoven or Debussy for evocativeness, its brevity was a compensation for its inconsequentiality. But very charmingly played.

Finally, another name that rang only faint bells: William Wolstenholme (1865-1931). There is an imposing list of gifted, blind organists, and he makes probably only a modest contribution to their number. His Finale in B flat was chosen as an arresting close to the recital, but it was more bombast than rapture and I could not escape the feeling that his heart was not in it and that he wished he’d been asked to write an adagio elegiaco or a lacrimosa instead. A French contribution here (say Lefébure-Wély) might have sent us out of church with spirits higher uplifted.

However, in total, this was an admirable recital, a welcome reminder of the riches of the organ repertoire and the many underused instruments (apart from church services) in the city; the high points had really been the Byrd and Wesley on the chamber organ.



Scintillating Te Papa concert by National Youth Orchestra

The NZSO National Youth Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Northey

Lilburn: Aotearoa Overture; Matthew Hindson: Homage to Metallica; Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, Op 35 (with Vesa-Matti Leppänen – violin)

Te Papa, second level concourse

Thursday 6 February, 11am

Ben Northey’s name should have been familiar to me as his website ( refers to up-coming concerts that include the NZSO in November: entitled In the Hall of the Mountain King, where he will conduct Mozart’s Paris Symphony; the Variations on a Rococo Theme by Tchaikovsky (with cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan) and two works by Grieg.

He has just conducted the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra and the next six months see him conducting the Melbourne, West Australian and Tasmanian symphony orchestras, both Opera Australia and Victorian Opera and the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra.

His presence in front of the National Youth Orchestra at this Waitangi Day concert, and the manner of his introductory remarks revealed a gift for communication; but his musical talents appeared at once, perhaps most tellingly with the first piece, Lilburn’s Aotearoa Overture, which offered persuasive evidence of a talent for scrupulous dynamic shading and a clear grasp of overall shape.

There was a fine hush over the opening bars played by elegantly rich strings and a delicacy and clarity in the following dance-like theme, lit by fine wind playing. Though by the end, I missed a feeling of Lilburn’s understated climax which exists in the score.

The next piece was something of a celebration of a fellow Australian musician, Matthew Hindson, as well as a calculated effort to get on side with young players who might not entirely have outgrown a passion for rock music. His Homage to Metallica (‘homage’ is an English word, pronounced with first syllable stressed, not ‘hommage’, the French, where syllables are pretty evenly stressed and the ‘h’ not sounded at all) does not refer directly to the old rock group or to its music, but its aim seems to be to take their sounds and shapes further, along lines that might be more familiar to classical music audiences; or not.

A glance at Hindson’s website reveals a radical turn of mind, and though he presents an amiable demeanour and speaks of the need for new music that will keep audiences engaged, his musical ideas seem framed by essentially non-traditional objects and notions, with eccentric titles (e.g. Rave-Elation, Boom Box, Headbanger, A Symphony of Modern Objects) that seem to speak of the iconoclast and rebel.
I was amused to contemplate the performance’s juxtaposition with the large sign marking the ‘Awesome Forces’ display of powerful and dramatic geological phenomena alongside us, from which the chattering sounds of highly engaged children (often recently with my own grand-children) were in constant accompaniment. Hindson would have smiled.

This piece is 20 years old and I am in no position to comment on its likely appeal to today’s rockers (if that’s still a current word). It demanded a large orchestra, with triple winds and a pretty fancy range of percussion including anvil, tam-tam, roto-toms, wood blocks as well as all the more common items, apart from the tuned instruments. It moved through several sections, some of it very loud and abrasive, employing sophisticated resources such as the rare Locrian mode and the juxtaposition of semitones and the once forbidden ‘tritone’ interval (in fact, an augmented fourth).

It opened with long-drawn-out percussion dominated call to arms but that was quickly replaced by a rather unexpected melodic passage on beautifully played solo viola. A gentle later phase gave voice to piccolos, snare drum and wood block. At two stages a distinct sound was introduced with NZSO concert master Vesa-Matti Lappänen playing an amplified eighth-size violin, surprisingly tiny. Much of its contribution was in heavily bowed ‘thrash’ style double-stopping that produced the sort of ugliness that was the product of the formerly popular distorted guitar articulation.

Though I doubt that a heavy metaller would have found the rhythms congenial or particularly danceable, a rhythmic presence was always there, felt more through the impact of rhythmic instruments than through rhythms themselves. A final phase brought the tiny violin back with spectacular virtuosity, Vesa-Matti’s fingers seeming sorely cramped to obtain semi-tone intervals on the minuscule finger-board.

While there were many young people in the audience, there were more of an older generation and the applause was generous but not ecstatic – it was largely, I felt, for the skills and energy of conductor and players.

Finally, the major work was Rimsky-Korsakov’s dazzling orchestral extravaganza, Scheherazade. Nothing could have been more appropriate for a young orchestra, offering scope for fine solo displays by almost every section, including an important harp part. The prominent, sinuous violin part depicting Scheherazade was played by Annabel Drummond, who carried the torch with considerable seductive flair.

The whole performance was a testament to the unfailing ability of highly talented young musicians, led by a vivid and lively conductor, to achieve standards of individual brilliance and the most disciplined, cohesive ensemble that surpass their dreams.

The National Youth Orchestra has in the past introduced New Zealand to some very interesting conductors with proven gifts in inspiring young musicians, some established, Benjamin Zander and Paul Daniel for example, some fast-rising like Yannick Nézet-Séguin. From this concert, it would seem very clear that in Benjamin Northey the orchestra has found a worthy successor to the best of them.