Memorable, varied programme from singers and instrumentaists of Note Bene

Bold as Brass: works for choir and brass

Dufay, Croce, Gabrieli, Bruckner, Brahms, David Hamilton

Nota Bene, conducted by Peter Walls, with Ingrid Bauer (harp), Matthew Allison, David Bremner and Tim Sutton (trombones), Carsten Williams and Heather Thompson (horns), Douglas Mews (organ and piano)

Sacred Heart Cathedral

Saturday, 29 March 2014, 7.30pm

Nota Bene chamber choir appeared to be a little larger than it has sometimes been, but not all singers sang in all items.  Once again it grabbed the attention and held it, with a varied programme incorporating diverse instruments as well as the voices, sometimes women’s only.

Again, Peter Walls was guest conductor, and his vigorous yet sensitive conducting bore out a comment in his biography in the printed programme, from Classics Today: “Peter Walls understands the overall period style and he obviously cares a lot about ensemble balance and uniformity of tone and colour.”  He spoke before each sung bracket, giving a little information about the composers and pieces.

Despite beginning with the fifteenth century and ending with the twentieth, the choir was always in good voice, and adapted tonal production and word emphases to the items appropriately.  No English language appeared this time; the David Hamilton piece titled ‘The Moon is Silently Singing’ is a setting of a Spanish poem, despite the English title.

The opening ‘Gloria ad modum tubae’ by Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474) began with a cantor, and the choir women arranged round the perimeter of the church. They then processed very slowly forward, while the trombones lived up to the title, intoning single fifths on their instruments.  The intertwining voices were most effective, sounding across the building’s fine acoustic.  When the singers came together at the front, the blend was magical.

Giovanni Croce was a contemporary of Gabrieli, and like him was a composer at St. Mark’s in Venice in the latter half of the sixteenth century and into the seventeenth.  The former’s setting of Psalm 81 was a complex piece of polyphony, sung joyfully, with tone and words well projected.  Gabrieli is well-known for his wonderful settings for choir (and brass) placed in different parts of the vast Venice church.  Here, we had the trombones in the left ambulatory of the church, and also soloist Peter de Blois
(tenor), in ‘O magnum mysterium’.  The performance was very fine, with all the contrapuntal lines beautifully drawn.  However, I felt that the sound from the soloist would have been better if he had been standing further forward into the church, away from the brass, and not in the ambulatory.

A drastic change followed, to the nineteenth century; the women sang Brahms’s Four Songs Op.17.  With themes of lost love and the (male) lover’s death, they were sure ground for romantic settings.  What was unusual was their accompaniment by horn and harp.  The first song’s words invoked the harp; the effect of the two instruments, superbly played, plus the voices, was gorgeous.  The second song was a German translation of Shakespeare’s well-known ‘Come away, come away death’ (more familiar in settings by Gerald Finzi, Roger Quilter and others). There was great attention to dynamics, and wondrously unanimous phrasing and pronunciation.  The last song, ‘Gesang aus Fingal’ displayed vitality and uniformity of tone.  Its folksy rhythm was well maintained.

‘Christus Factus Est’ is a Biblical setting by Bruckner.
Splendid tone and beautifully managed chromatic passages featured, although there was a little harshness from the tenors on some high notes.  A secular song by the same composer, more familiar in Schumann’s setting, ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’ was, like the previous one, unaccompanied.

‘Ecce Sacerdos’ was a complete contrast, employing organ and brass in its grand statements.  It was sung with contrasting subtlety and the grandeur of great fortissimo sounds – and a few flaws in phrasing, that hardly detracted from the splendour.

We were in for a surprise after the interval.
Following unaccompanied settings by Bruckner: ‘Afferentur regi’ and ‘Os justi’ (Psalm 37), the latter a most exciting and exultant composition full of imaginative writing and treated with loving care by the choir, the familiar ‘Locus iste’ was not sung, but played by the trombones and one horn!  At first I wanted the choir, and thought it sounded a little grotesque, but by the end I was converted. The trombones followed with the same composer’s Aequalis I & II, striking and effective pieces.

We returned to Brahms for Four Quartets Op.92, sung with piano.  The first, ‘O schöne Nacht’ was very romantic, even sentimental. The words translated as ‘the moon gleams magically’ evoked gorgeous setting by the composer – and linked with the Hamilton work at the end of the programme.

More complex part-writing featured in ‘Spätherbst’; Brahms’s chromatic writing in ‘Abendlied’ didn’t make it easy for the singers – the pitch wandered a little at the opening.  This song was very affecting in its understated romantic fervour.  After ‘Warum’ we came to David Hamilton’s ‘The Moon is Silently Singing’.  The two horns – one in the gallery and one in front of the choir gave ethereal echo effects, and were superbly played.  The double choir’s performance incorporated whispering as well as singing – this is a complex and difficult work. It would have been interesting to have had the poet (Miguel de Unamuno, 18864-1936) acknowledged.

By way of critical remarks, I could point out that it is not difficult to find out the dates of composers’ births and deaths; printing them after their names helps the audience to orient themselves to the music.  Another matter was proof-reading; while most of the printed programme, consisting mainly of translations, was beyond complaint, the translation of the Dufay ‘Gloria’ appeared to have been typed by someone who did not know the archaic words ‘thee’ and ‘thy’; certainly they did not appear correctly, nor did some other words here and elsewhere.
It was a pity that brackets and a footnote for the first line of Shakespeare’s ‘Come away…’ were reproduced from the internet entry.

This was a memorable evening’s music-making.  There was variety, heart-stopping drama and emotion, and commitment and excellence from the performers.


NZSO with Farr’s first piano concerto plus Respighi celebrating Rome


New Zealand Symphony Orchestra:  Pietari Inkinen (conductor) with Tony Lee (piano)

Feste Romane (Roman Festivals)
Fontane di Roma (Fountains of Rome)
Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome)
Farr:  Concerto for Piano and Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 28 March, 6:30 pm

The huge Respighi tone poems in this concert were works that exhibited the fullest orchestral resources of the NZSO, expanding it beyond 100 with guest players, not to mention the further addition of the Wellington Brass Band for the finale of the Pines of Rome.  The opening Roman Festivals suite immediately opened the doors to Respighi’s wonderfully inventive orchestration, which here covers the whole gamut of colourful and dynamic possibilities. In the four movements of Circus Games, The Jubilee, October Festival and The Epiphany, Inkinen directed the orchestra with a sure hand and clear sense of control that explored the full range of the most sensitive muted strings and hushed soulful wind solos, the exhausted ecstasy of pilgrims as they finally sighted the Holy City, the wild rage of beasts in the arena punctuated by the haunting hymn of the condemned martyrs, through to the wonderful contrasting dance styles in The Epiphany. There were numerous special moments of superb playing, particularly from wind soloists, but the fading echoes of the hunting horn hovering evocatively in the night air of the October Festival particularly highlighted the most extraordinary control and musicianship of horn principal David Evans.

Gareth Farr’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra  used much more modest orchestral resources, and was a new commission for which he provided some enlightening programme notes. “I’ve wanted to write a Piano Concerto since I was 17 – so it’s been gestating in my head for nearly 30 years……Piano Concertos have long been stereotyped as romantic, sweeping and epic. I’ve taken a hint of that on board, but for the most part I’ve focused on darker symphonic explorations. There is an ominous urgency to much of the first and third movements, while the second has an almost machine like atmosphere…..” Yet there were also many poetic moments throughout the work, starting with the shimmering pianissimo strings of the opening, and continuing through delicately shaped single lines of piano melody in the first movement, as Inkinen superbly controlled the build-up of rhythmic
complexity and orchestral texture to culminate in the “wild and diabolically virtuosic ride in 5/4”.

The second movement opened playfully with “an interlocking duet between the highest note of the piano and the highest note of the xylophone…..I certainly had a smile on my face when I wrote it” (Farr). As the repeated-note motifs passed from instrument to instrument, they were punctuated with more soulful episodes from the piano. The finale was a moto perpetuo, even more technically demanding than the first movement, with the piano part leaping all over the keyboard, and soloist and orchestra tussling in a maelstrom of highly complex syncopated and irregular rhythms. There was only a brief interlude of calm before the “long gradual build to a victorious ending”.

Throughout the work, the tonalities were approachable and seemed to grow naturally from the idioms of the writing. Percussive elements played a huge part in the creative whole, yet they were largely confined to the percussion section itself and did not threaten to dominate the effective interplay between piano and orchestral forces. This was never a solo-plus-accompaniment approach, but rather a tightly constructed dialogue between two equal voices, pianist and orchestra. The technical demands of the writing and its rhythmic complexities were nothing short of phenomenal for all players, yet there was never an instant where one felt the slightest weakening of resolution and control. The technical prowess of young Australian pianist Tony Lee, only recently graduated B.Mus. from Sydney Conservatorium, were frankly mind blowing. Gareth Farr obviously had complete confidence that every note of his vision would be impeccably realised by both soloist and NZSO, and his trust was richly rewarded. The excitement of the performance was infectious, and Farr looked overjoyed as he took stage accolades at the end and accepted bouquets from both audience and orchestra.

The second half of the concert comprised Fountains of Rome  and Pines of Rome. Again I was struck by the clarity and control of Inkinen’s direction, and the way the NZSO responded to the musical and technical demands of Respighi’s wonderfully creative and colourful orchestration. It was a thrilling moment in the finale when the lights came up on Wellington Brass in the choir stalls, and the huge resources of orchestra and band combined as “the army of the Consul bursts forth in the grandeur of the newly risen sun toward the Sacred Way, mounting in triumph the Capitoline Hill” (Respighi).

Wellington is extraordinarily privileged to be able to enjoy performances of such outstanding quality from its resident orchestra and the exceptionally skilled individuals who make their careers in it. This programme was a huge night’s play, yet their vitality and commitment was unflinching right through to the final downbeat.



Aspects of conflict in Brio’s “Peace and War” at St.Andrew’s

St.Andrew’s on the Terrace Lunchtime Concert Series

– Brio vocal ensemble

DOUGLAS MEWS – Ghosts, Fire, Water / A Sound Came from Heav’n
MAHLER – Der Tamboursg’sell (from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”)
FINZI – Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun / BOGOSLAVSKY – Dark is the Night
LAMBERT – She is Far from the Land / IRELAND – The Vagabond
PARKER – We’ll Meet Again / KENT – The White Cliffs of Dover
TRAD. – The Minstrel Boy / Danny Boy

BRIO – Janey MacKenzie, Alison Hodge, Jody Orgias, Katherine Hodge, Nick McDougall, Jamie Young, Justin Pearce, Roger Wilson (singers)

with Bruce Greenfield (piano)

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday, 26th March 2014

“Something for everybody who remembers the war” might have been a way of describing much of this presentation, with items ranging in emotion from the downright sentimentality of popular song to the unspeakable horrors of nuclear conflagration. As well, there were pieces with less specific associations, ranging from folk-ballads to finely-wrought meditations on life and death. Rather like everyday life, a bit of a hotch-potch – though in the course of it all we were presented with some startling and memorable moments.

These special moments came for me with the two pieces written by Douglas Mews Snr. (1918-93), his Ghosts, Fire and Water and A Sound Came from Heav’n, both written for unaccompanied vocal ensemble. It was ironic that accompanist Bruce Greenfield, whose playing in support of his individual singers gave such delight throughout the rest of the concert, had no part to play in either of the Mews items.

Roger Wilson led off the first solo bracket with a stirring rendition of one of Mahler’s “death-march” pieces, Der Tamboursg’sell (“The Drummer-Boy”), one of the last of the composer’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn settings. Though the vocal line took the singer to what sounded like the limit of his comfort-zone in places, the intensities thus generated were wholly appropriate to music and text.

One feels certain that Mahler himself would have appreciated the juxtapositioning of this bleak farewell to life with the saccharine sentiments of Ross Parker’s “We’ll meet again” which immediately followed. Though she didn’t manage to out-Vera the legendary “forces’ sweetheart” Vera Lynn, Alison Hodge gave the vocal line enough juice to help bedew the cheeks of the sympathetic listener.

Neither Jodi Orgias nor Justin Pearce had sufficient vocal girth to do full justice to either Gerald Finzi’s Shakespeare setting or Nikita Bogoslavsky’s Dark is the Night, though each singer shaped the phrases and moulded the overall line of their respective songs with feeling and intelligence – one could hear what each was trying to do even if it wasn’t always forthcoming. Janey MacKenzie fearlessly attacked the opening of Frank Lambert’s She is Far from the Land and caught the “soaring” quality of the lines, if in places with more effort than sweet ease – a nicely-floated reprise of the melody after the song’s central climax fell more gratefully on the ear to finish.

As for the second solo grouping of songs, Justin Pearce sounded more at home with John Ireland’s The Vagabond, the higher vocal line enabling some sturdy declamation and fine ringing tones in places from the singer.  Then it was Vera Lynn’s – sorry, Alison Hodge’s turn again, with Walter Kent’s The White Cliffs of Dover – a creditable performance with some heart-warming surges of impulse tugging once again at the heartstrings.

In the same key followed Thomas Moore’s setting of the traditional Irish air “The Minstrel Boy”, here given as much concentration and attention to words by Janey McKenzie as she would any song by Schubert or Duparc, and with Bruce Greenfield adding plenty of “minstrelsy” in the piano part. Another Irish ballad brought to the platform a singer I’d last heard as Frederic, in Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, tenor Jamie Young, who made a great fist of Danny Boy, complete with a hint of a sob to his high-whatever-note-it-was, just before the song’s conclusion.

All of these, however, were merely diversions compared with the two Douglas Mews items presented by the ensemble. Written in 1972, Ghosts, Fire, Water  was inspired by the poetry of British author James Kirkup who had viewed an exhibition in Britain in 1955 entitled “The Hiroshima Panels” by artists Ira Maruki and Toshiko Akamatsu, and whose subsequent verses expressed all the shock, horror and outrage at the effects of that first-ever atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city in 1945.

It was here that the ensemble really, I thought, came into its own – after Roger Wilson had recited the poem by way of introducing the work, Ghosts, Fire and Water gripped us in thrall from beginning to end. Beginning with urgent, troubled repetitions by the group of solo-voiced lines, the music’s agitations and intensities grew into stark, canonic utterances of an almost medieval nature. Bleak unisons strove antiphonally with biting irruptions of energy, the music here like splinters of rain, there like searing shafts of fire, the whole resounding in places with an Edgar Allan Poe-like clangour of angry bells.

As moving were the more elegiac passages later in the work, voices intoning beneath a solo soprano line the words “This is what you have done to us”, and other voices taking up a Latin chant as the words “Love one another” were repeated by different group members speaking in different languages. Certainly not a comfortable listening experience, then, but instead a profound and intensely disturbing one, here most convincingly realized.

In its own, very different way, Douglas Mews’ marvellously antiphonal A Sound Came from Heav’n convinced as equally and strongly. The lines were beautifully-shaped and drawn convincingly into the cadences, while the widely-spaced terraced effect of pedal points beneath the serenely floating women’s voices gave a properly celestial ambience to the Holy Spirit’s invocation. As heartfelt in its way as its companion work, it provided a necessary and more restorative foil to the somewhat harrowing listening experience provided by the latter.

All credit to Brio, whose well-schooled teamwork gave what I thought was the concert’s most important and significant music its due in fine style.

Junghwa Lee – pianistic brilliance and recreative ferment at the NZSM

Te Kōkī – New Zealand School of Music presents:
Junghwa Lee (piano)
French and contemporary American piano music recital

Emmanuel CHABRIER – Improvisation / Menuet pompeux (from Pièces pittoresques)
César FRANCK – Prélude, Choral et Fugue
Camille SAINT-SAËNS – Allegro Appassionato Op.70
Frank STEMPER – Piano Sonata No.2 (2013) – (world premiere)

Adam Concert Room, NZSM Kelburn Campus
Victoria University of Wellington

Wednesday 26th March

This was one of those concerts whose first item (quite apart from other, later revelations) I didn’t really see coming – true, I was intrigued at the thought of hearing how the composer of orchestral classics such as Espana and Marche Joyeuse would acquit himself in the realm of keyboard music, though I wasn’t expecting much beyond what the title suggested – “picturesque pieces” was my schoolboy French translation, which didn’t seem to suggest much more than salon music.

Thanks to an obviously alchemic combination of music and interpreter I was immediately entranced by the first of these Pièces pittoresques, appropriately titled Improvisation, by Emmanuel Chabrier. The pianist was Korean Junghwa Lee, who currently lives and works in the United States at Southern Illinois University, where she is Associate Professor of Piano, though she’s also developing a profile as an international performer.

The “Improvisation” title of the first piece sounded exactly like that in Junghwa Lee’s hands –  in fact I found it difficult to tell whether the pianist was playing the music or vice versa, so integrated was sound with gesture, rapt concentration with liquid flow. Throughout, her performance caught the piece’s play of light and colour in and around spontaneous irruptions of energy and beautifully floated stillnesses.

I thought her pianistic control superbly judged in its complete lack of self-consciousness, with everything instead put at the service of the music in a continuous flow of “interest”, the sounds quite beautifully liberated. By contrast, the other piece from the same set, the Menuet pompeux, bristled with volatile energies, whimsy set against willfulness, except for a trio section which, just as unexpectedly, sought to soothe and charm. A work to investigate further!

For much of Cesar Franck’s meditative Prelude, Chorale and Fugue I felt the same “connection” with Junghwa Lee’s playing as I did with the Chabrier items – the pianist quickly caught the opening Prelude’s distinctive flavour, its barely-contained passion alternated with tender circuspection, the whole suffused with those characteristic chromatically flavoured harmonies which can sound vaguely “spiritual”, and for some people have a kind of “sanctimonious” feeling which they then attribute to the composer! (These same people can’t have ever heard Franck’s Piano Quintet!)

The Choral which followed was underpinned by a lovely, deeply-wrought bass, the theme deftly and lightly arpeggiated, its figurations ear-catchingly varied in places, thanks to Junghwa Lee’s  ever-varied voicing of the lines and beautiful control of the music’s harmonic colourings. A questioning, then more vigorous passage ushered in the fugue, in a manner not unlike, if less angular in expression than Beethoven in his “Hammerklavier” Sonata’s finale.

Splendid though much of the playing was at this point, I did think the music needed a more “larger-than-life” aspect than the pianist was prepared to give it – towards the end I wanted an even fuller-blooded sense of eventual triumph over darkness, a more unashamedly rhetorical enjoyment of things like the return of the Choral theme as a joyous pealing of bells. But then I’m an unashamed sensationalist in these matters, and undoubtedly lack Junghwa Lee’s innate sensitivity!

Franck and Saint-Saëns were chalk-and-cheese composers and personalities, and the latter’s Allegro Appassionato Op.70 (not to be confused with the same composer’s Op.43 work for ‘cello and orchestra) has none of Franck’s other-worldliness, or sense of personal suffering – the “appassionato” of Saint-Saëns’s title is expressed simply and directly in the music, with occasional respites from the agitations having the aspect of interludes more than a different side of the same coin. As a consequence, the music in quieter places reminded me of Ravel, like Saint-Saens, renowned for his outward detachment and his concealment of deeper feelings.

Junghwa Lee brought all of her quicksilver elegance to this music’s gossamer opening, following the somewhat portentous three-note beginning. She allowed the more lyrical passages plenty of space and considerable fluidity, so that the sequences shared with the more agitated moments a certain spontaneous flow – and I liked the almost Lisztian pensiveness which settled over the music just before the allegro jumped out at us once again and whirled the piece to its brilliant conclusion.

After a short interval came my second surprise of the evening – a piano sonata (the composer’s second, in fact) written specifically for the pianist by American Frank Stemper, a colleague of Junghwa Lee at Southern Illinois University, where he is currently Composer in Residence, and a Professor of Music.

The programme notes concerning the sonata were written, not altogether surprisingly, by the composer – as befitted the occasion of this performance being the actual world premiere of the work. So, we did feel somewhat privileged at having such an event presented to us here in a part of the world somewhat removed, it seemed, from the piece’s geographical origins, even given that the dedicatee was tonight’s pianist!

I didn’t really know what to expect regarding the work. Having said this I confess that my first reading of the composer’s notes, explaining the music’s links with the concept of death, gave rise to the reaction, “Hmm, well, very American!” But when I thought about this a bit more, I thought this was a little unfair of me, because many composers throughout the ages have composed unequivocal “death-pieces” – and in some instances similarly expounded their ideas about either the music in question or the associated state of being – or non-being!

So, in a somewhat ambivalent state of part-delicious, part-anxious expectation I awaited the return of the pianist buoyed by the composer’s assertion in his notes that “Ms. Lee would go to any lengths to absorb and understand the music and then clearly interpret its web of sonic activity” – so,, you see, this was, in other words, a kind of recreative imprimatur, a word about to be made flesh……perhaps I should now begin talking about the music and its performance…….

The first of four movements was called Sonata Allegro, and sub-titled L’inizio della fine (The beginning of the end) – describing the opening as depicting the moment of death, that process of life winding down and concluding, the composer crafted suitably dark, meditative bell-tolling textures, the deepest notes building towards a brief moment of agitation in the treble, before exploring some Messiaen-like ambient spaces, the music (like Elgar’s in the second part of “Gerontius” freed from “the busy beat of time”) revelling in its liberation from pulse and rhythm.The second movement’s musica da ballo (dance music) had a mischievous, almost diabolical air, an insinuating melody singing over driving, angular figures suggesting Musorgsky-like characters whose faces kept changing. It’s the sort of music Liszt might have written had he been a twentieth-century composer.

Throughout, but especially in the latter stages, the composer kept his promise to use the entire range of the keyboard – throughout what I imagined might be the Andante e improvisatione third movement the pianist’s hands created some remarkably spaced-out sonorities between treble and bass, with repeated right hand chords set against vigorous left-handed leaps, the effect positively orchestral in places, and growing in frenetic energy and incisiveness, encouraging the right hand’s repeated notes to grow in power and insistence, resulting in some exciting toccata-like sequences.

What was remarkable about the playing at certain points was the contrast between Junghwa Lee’s sheer keyboard physicality and, within moments, her ability to hold silences unflinchingly and resonantly. It was as if her whole body continued to emanate the ambiences of the previous tumult, creating, as it were, from these tonal echoes the murmurings of voices being wrought anew – one had a sense of the music setting its own house in order before what one presumed might be something of an onslaught. And so it proved, the Sonata Rondo being the drama’s final act – the onset of alarm, which, in the words of the composer “signals the end”.

If Junghwa Lee’s playing had impressed up to this point, her full-blooded engagement with the music’s demands at this point astonished us further still – again that “playing or being played” sense of oneness with it all was overwhelming, with energies literally flying in all directions! Then, at the tumult’s height the music suddenly returned to the world of the work’s opening pages – a most eerie and engaging effect, even if, possibly, a little too much of a good thing. A final irruption from the depths – a kind of “triumph of death” – and the piece came to its end. A remarkable journey, to say the least…….

Had the pianist brought something of that concluding physicality and abandonment in the Stemper Sonata to the last couple of pages of the Cesar Franck work, I would have been at a loss for words regarding the achievement of the whole recital! As it was, I thought Junghwa Lee had treated us to performances not merely of brilliance, but of great distinctiveness and individuality, utterly compelling in their realization.

Of late we’ve been able to enjoy some pretty stunning performances of all kinds from both visiting and resident artists through the NZSM’s auspices, a happy situation that deserves the heartfelt thanks of we music-lovers to the Music School. It’s one that I sincerely hope will continue.

Rich opportunities for NZSM Orchestra’s youthful freshness, commitment, poetry and dynamism

Dreams and Meditations: NZSM Orchestra, conductor Kenneth Young
Jane Curry, guitar; Martin Riseley, violin; David Groves, speaker

Mendelssohn: Incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Rodrigo: Fantasia para un Gentilhombre
Jack Body: Meditations on Michelangelo
Schubert: Symphony No 8, ‘Unfinished’

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Wellington

Tuesday 25 March, 7:30 pm

This interesting and varied programme opened with Mendelssohn’s incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Kenneth Young set a whacking pace for the Overture but the players rose confidently to the challenge with exemplary clarity in the demanding high speed pianissimo passagework, excellent intonation, and effective balance within the orchestral forces. The phrasing and dynamics of the more poetic sections were thoughtful and musical throughout, as were those of the Nocturne, which was especially enhanced by the beautiful horn solos of guest player David Moonan. Kenneth Young had the familiar closing Wedding March blast forth in an unrelieved band-style fortissimo, relying entirely on the quieter central section for dynamic relief, which was surprising given his musical approach to shaping the dynamics of the previous movements.

Rodrigo’s Fantasia para un Gentilhombre was written for the virtuoso Spanish guitarist Andres Segovia in 1954, and is based on material by the C17th Spanish composer Gaspar Sanz. It was an ideal choice for this programme as it offered a major solo role to Jane Curry, who heads the classical guitar programme at NZSM, and a work whose wonderful orchestration particularly highlights the skills of most wind and brass players.

The Villano opened with a thoughtfulness and musicianship that remained constant as Kenneth Young guided the group through the entire work. The interweaving fugal lines of the following Ricercar were beautifully enunciated by the soloist and developed in clear and balanced interplay with the orchestra.
The low pitched theme of the Espanoleta was also well projected and poetically shaped by Jane Curry, as were its variations by both guitar and wind soloists. The following Fanfare has delicious writing for winds and trumpet in particular, who all performed with exemplary clarity, intonation and phrasing. The Danza was fresh, vigorous and spirited, and led into the Canario finale, taken at a rather sedate pace given that it has been characterized as “a fiery wooing dance” with “rapid heel-and-toe stamps”.

I was impressed throughout this work by the orchestra’s clear bright passagework and solo lines, spot-on intonation and musicianship. But I was baffled by Jane Curry’s recurring lapses and mistakes, given her exemplary proficiency on every other occasion I have heard her play. This was particularly sad for the brilliant cadenza of the finale. I could only conclude that she was either very nervous, which seemed unlikely in view of her wide performing experience, or unwell. Nevertheless I was most grateful to hear this work live, as it tends to take a back seat to Rodrigo’s better known Concierto de Aranjuez.

Jack Body’s Meditations are a setting of seven extraordinary sonnets by Michelangelo which honour male beauty and love. In these deeply moving lines the great artist pours out the anguish of his struggle between the utter conviction of his experience and the damning dictats of church dogma. Before each movement the Italian verses were read out by David Groves with a wonderful clarity and passion that poised the listener for each of Body’s Meditations.

The string ensemble writing was often spare and dissonant, by turns agitated, anguished, haunting, or contemplative, according to the mood of the text. Yet there was never a rank aftertaste, rather only the expression of grief, despair, and a longing for resolution. The solo violin part, beautifully expressed by Martin Riseley, took a pivotal role in encapsulating these moods in a single voice, as it soared above the ensemble like a condemned Lark Ascending. The setting of the sixth sonnet, which “laments the ravages of age” (Body), was particularly intense, with powerful tutti unison lines fading into spare solo string melodies which set the scene for the final stanza. This pleads for blindness, numbness, and the gift of undisturbed sleep, and the power of David Groves’ closing words “parla basso” laid a deep hush over the space. Body’s work and its musical realization that evening would have left very few unmoved.

The choice of the Unfinished Symphony to close the programme turned thoughts again to the other end of the life span. Written by the youthful Schubert and presented here by the flower of New Zealand’s aspiring young musicians, it was a fresh and enjoyable reading, displaying a good range of dynamics and tone, plenty of passion and commitment in the big tuttis, and delicate playing in the gentler parts. The contrasts were effectively expressed by consistently good wind solo work and beautifully shaped melodies from the strings.

Kenneth Young seemed to bring out the best in this orchestra, and the choice of works for this programme gave every opportunity to highlight their skills and musicianship. I look forward to hearing more from them as the year unfolds.


One-man Slovak cello ensemble featuring voice and rhythm at NZSM

New Zealand School of Music: Jozef Lupták – improvisatory cellist

Bach: excerpts from Cello Suites nos 1 and 3
Improvisatory performances on Ernest Bloch’s Jewish Prayer, Threnos by John Tavener and O crux, meditation for solo cello by Vladimir Godár

Adam Concert Room, New Zealand School of Music, Kelburn campus

Friday 21 March, 7 pm

Cellist Jozef Lupták came to New Zealand primarily, I suppose, to play Dvořák’s Cello Concerto with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra; I see he also gave concerts at Rangiora, Dunedin, Rotorua. He was also enticed to visit the New Zealand School of Music to give a masterclass on Thursday and a short recital on Friday 21 March.

His recital started and ended with excerpts from Bach’s cello suites: first, no 3 in C and last, no 1 in G. He played with eyes shut, seeming to be transported as he launched into the Prelude, the cross-string passages driven with a hypnotic energy, with a sort of intensity in which he seemed to seek distinctness in every passage, sometimes at some cost to unity of feeling. Then he jumped to the Sarabande (not the Courante, as the programme had it. Luptak did speak before playing, but I did not hear or missed hearing what he might have said about the movements), dealing with it in an almost painful, exploratory way that meant the stretching and compressing of phrases, quite losing any hint of the movement’s dance origin. But  that was replaced by a transcendental spirit that would have been complete if the light in the Adam Concert Room had been more dim (and there was no reason for it to be so well lit as the player had very little recourse to his score or the audience to the programme notes).

The third movement, consequently, was the pair of Bourrées, which are found only in suites 3 and 4. Here was the return to the real world, though Luptak’s playing introduced a kind of waywardness, again giving individuality to every phrase, which somehow dramatized the shift to the minor key in Bourrrée II. Finally, the Gigue: heavy, emphatic double stopping really caught the spirit of the peasant dance in its earthiness.

Then came his three improvisations. They consisted of the subject piece either at the start or embedded some way in, which was then subjected to the kind of variation treatment that neither Bach, Brahms or Rachmaninov might have recognized. Their only similarity to their predecessors, whether fantasies,  ariations, cadenzas or occasionally improvisations, came through spectacular bravura and showy ornamentation.

Being unfamiliar with any of the three pieces, I felt a bit ill-equipped to follow their treatment in these highly individual improvisatory explorations, as the tunes had not been sufficiently embedded in my head to allow much grasp of the way they were being transformed.

But that reference was to some extent supplied but the voicings with which Luptak accompanied his playing, consisting of a sort of humming of the tunes in question, with the mouth slightly open; simultaneously, the player added a vocal rhythmic accompaniment of clicks and sibilant sounds.

All three pieces had clear and intense religious relevance. Though I found closest kinship, musically, to the pieces by Bloch (a characteristic Jewish Prayer) and Tavener (the moving Threnos, deriving from the composer’s long obsession with the Greek Orthodox liturgy); the third piece was by a fellow Slovak musician, Vladimir Godár, O, crux (‘O Cross …’), obviously inspired by the Catholic Latin liturgy.  All evolved as pregnant, deeply felt inspirations.

The music was diatonic enough, but exhibited, at first, through a series of heavy bow strokes, a violence and anguish that was powerful; later that was set aside by a lighter passage in a dotted, dancing rhythm; the improvisation led off with his rhythmic bouncing the wood of his bow on the strings, that suddenly became more frenetic.

And Lupták allowed his last tongue clickings, in the Godar piece, to lead into the Prelude of Bach’s Suite No 1. Its playing seemed to have been deeply infected by the anguish of what had gone before; and there was little change of tone in the following Sarabande in which all its latent variety and expressiveness was exploited; but the final Gigue, with its gaiety, brought a feeling of peace and satisfaction.

Lupták played two encores: a short improvisation called Six Months and then the brief opening passage of the Bourrée which presumably was from Suite No 4 (not, as he announced, from Suite No 6 which as a pair of Gavottes in that position).

(I have not been able to check what I thought were changes in the Bach movements that I’ve noted above; if any audience member cares to comment, I’d be grateful).

This was an unorthodox recital, only and hour and ten minutes long, but put together with a single-minded ingenuity and imagination and played with high energy and intensity of feeling.


Jonathan Berkahn and friends celebrate St Patrick’s Day + 2 with charm and wit

St Andrew’s: Lunchtime in Ireland

Jonathan Berkahn and friends (Bernard Wells – recorder, Janet Broome-Nicholson – percussion, Carol Shortis – piano, Ingrid Schoenfeld – piano, Michelle Velvin – harp)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 19 March, 12:15 pm

It was only a month earlier that Jonathan Berkahn was at St Andrew’s playing both the church’s organs, and one is used to his appearing more discreetly, accompanying choirs and small ensembles.

Here, Jonathan was more centre stage, wielding his piano accordion, though he was also at the piano keyboard sometimes, stage left, and handling a recorder. As well as playing, he demonstrated a talent as compere and musicologist as he spoke interestingly, in a witty manner about the music and its composers.

We were expecting Irish stuff; if not of the River Dance variety, then at least sentimental popular songs and reels. That hope was fulfilled right towards the end, especially as he was joined in a groups of jigs and reels by Bernard Wells on the flute and Janet Broome-Nicholson on a slim drum, perhaps a kind of frame drum. Berkahn broke ranks there with a recorder to his lips and then moved to the piano to pick up an accompaniment, tentatively at first, in a lively reel.

But it began, perhaps noting Radio NZ Concert’s ‘Composers of the Week’ by Cynthia Morahan featuring Irish composers, particularly William Vincent Wallace (Maritana) and Charles Villiers Stanford, with one who is a well-known Irish composer.

John Field was a genuine Irish composer who was apprenticed to and soon exploited by Clementi in London and then taken to Russia where he spent the best part of his increasingly extravagant and feckless life. With Ingrid Schoenfeld, Berkahn played one of Liszt’s arrangements (four hands) of Field’s many Nocturnes (a form which he invented, and was made famous of course by Chopin).

I can’t resist reproducing a comment (found in Wikipedia) by Liszt about Field’s Nocturnes:
“None have quite attained to these vague eolian harmonies, these half-formed sighs floating through the air, softly lamenting and dissolved in delicious melancholy. Nobody has even attempted this peculiar style, and especially none of those who heard Field play himself, or rather who heard him dream his music in moments when he entirely abandoned himself to his inspiration.”

Was a bit like that.

Then came a surprise: Geminiani. He became an important figure as violinist in London musical circles, but also spent two periods in Dublin.
The real surprise was Berkahn’s appearing with his accordion to play Geminiani’s first Violin Sonata (Op 1, No 1), which Geminiani had arranged for the harpsichord. That move often seems to give licence to later musicians to play fast and loose with such a piece, arranging it for any old instrument. It sounded as if Geminiani really had the accordion in mind all along; yet was hard to conceal its Corelli-Handel influence.

A rarity for one not steeped in Irish music was a set of short pieces by Turlough O’Carolan, an early 18th century musician who became blind, but composed lots of melodies that survived through the ages. They were ineffably, charmingly Irish in flavour especially as played on Michelle Velvin’s Irish harp with Berkahn at the piano.

Composer/arranger/pianist Carol Shortis then contributed a couple of traditional Irish songs: she sang them with an unaffected, easy voice, that did nostalgia in the most charming manner, accompanying herself at the piano. They were sweet, intrinsically sentimental, without a scrap of maudlin.

There was an above-average sized audience which gave off an air of real enjoyment at the music and its artless performers.


Concert of rare 17th century instruments at New Zealand School of Music

New Zealand School of Music Te Koki

Sympathetic Strings

Music by Tobias Hume, Simon Ives, Geroge Loosemore, John Jenkins, Charles Colman, Thomas Ford, Christopher Simpson

Sarah Mead (lyra viols), Robert Oliver (bass viol), Kamala Bain (recorder), Erin Helyard (chamber organ and harpsichord)

Adam Concert Room

Wednesday, 18 March 2014, 8.15pm

Consisting entirely of English music from the seventeenth century, the concert brought unfamiliar sounds and compositions to light.  Sarah Mead is a visiting professor from Brandeis University in Massachusetts, while the other performers are well-known in Wellington for their advocacy and performance of early music.

Despite a programme note about the lyra viol and a brief explanation from Sarah Mead, I was left confused about this instrument, in view of the descriptions in the printed programme of which instruments were playing which pieces.

Perhaps it was assumed that the audience was made up of the cognoscenti, but I observed that this was not entirely the case.  The printed programme, both in the programme note and in the title of the concert, gave the impression that much of the music to be played would be on instruments with sympathetic strings; that was not the case.  There was no specific note about the lyra viol without these additional seven strings.

A brief conversation with Robert Oliver after the performance helped to clear some of the confusion: the lyra viol is not solely an instrument having sympathetic strings.  However, I observed Robert Oliver playing the same instrument in every piece, despite the designations “2 lyra viols”, “lyra viol, bass viol” after various pieces.

At home I resorted to Grove, where I learned that the lyra viol ‘differed little from the standard bass viol’. Elsewhere, ‘…nothing more than a bass viol of small dimensions with some quite minor peculiarities of adjustment.’  The lyra with sympathetic strings is dismissed: ‘There were some attempts to use sympathetic strings but with no lasting influence.’

A major difference from the music for most other instruments is that traditionally, tablature was used to indicate where the fingers should be placed to obtain the notes in a piece of music written for lyra viol, rather than conventional music notation being used. With movable gut frets, a great variety of tunings can be achieved – by this means as well as by use of the tuning pegs; thus tablature was found to be a means of coping not only with the number of strings (6), but also with variant tunings.  Several different tunings were utilised in the concert.

The instruments could be both bowed and plucked, including plucking with the left hand.  The bow hold was with the palm upwards, rather than the hand bearing down on the strings as is the case with the violin family (although some double bass players use the older method).  I noticed that Sarah Mead held the bow nearer to the frog (or nut) than did Robert Oliver.

The programme commenced with four pieces by Tobias Hume (c.1569-1645).  I found the sound of the instrument played by Sarah Mead rather grunty; she was playing the lower part.  The last of the short pieces was a song; Robert Oliver sang as well as playing.  This piece had a modest continuo part from the chamber organ.

Simon Ives (1600-1662) was the next composer; we heard his Almaine for solo lyra viol, and this time we had the lyra viol with sympathetic strings, and its interesting-looking scroll.
It featured plucking with the left hand as well as bowing; it was fascinating to watch Sarah Mead’s playing.  This instrument emitted more tone than the previous instrument, despite this one having a smaller body.

George Loosemore (?-1682) was represented by two dances: Pavan and Country Dance. The tenor recorder made a quite lovely sound in these, while the subdued harpsichord continuo nevertheless contributed splendidly.

John Jenkins (1592-1678) contributed an Ayre for solo lyra viol, followed by a Pavan Coranto for recorder and viols.  There was plenty of character in these dances, especially from the recorder;  Kamala Bain’s playing was beautifully phrased.

Another short solo for the lyra viol was a Coranto by Charles Colman (1605-1664).  In these solos we heard the higher pitched sounds of the instruments, and were able to observe more of the playing techniques in use.

Between several of the brackets, Erin Helyard played delightful little interludes on the harpsichord, improvised upon the music about to be played.  The ‘Sette’ for the music of Thomas Ford (d. 1648) was described as ‘Bandora Sette’, but this was not explained.
Once again, Grove came to my rescue later, concerning this instrument (also known as pandora).  ‘The Bagpipes’ was quite an intricate piece, but the next two pieces were troubled by some wonky intonation.  I found Ford’s writing lacking in inspiration; what was my surprise on consulting Grove to find the author of the article agreeing with me that some of his works were rather dull!

Christopher Simpson (c.1605-1669) was represented by three dances: Pavan, Allemande and Saraband, played by all four instruments.  The last was lively, featuring admirable phrasing.

John Jenkins returned with firstly, a solo Almain, ‘The Wagge’.  This was pretty demanding to play, and came off very well, as did the last piece, ‘Ecco Coranto’, for all the instruments.  It was bright and animated, with pleasing contrasts.  Again, the recorder playing was brilliant, whereas I often found the lyra viol tone harsh.

Altogether, however, this was an interesting and varied introduction to unfamiliar stringed instruments.

As a footnote: I enjoyed on the radio earlier the same day a concert from NZSM recorded in May 2012, featuring Erin Helyard (in one piece), but particularly Dutch visitor Bart van Oort, on fortepiano.  His playing was quite wonderful, with graded dynamics, beautiful phrasing and use of rubato another example of the commitment of NZSM to early music.




Triumphant finish to the NZSO’s ‘Five by Five’ lunchtime venture

New Zealand Festival: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich

Shostakovich: Symphony No 5 in D minor, Op 47

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday 13 March 12:30 pm

To programme some of the weightiest pieces of orchestral music at lunchtime might have seemed strange behaviour. Were the festival’s and the orchestra’s managements not alert to the usual view that noon-time music should be light and easy?

This last of the Five by Five symphonies played at lunchtime concerts by the NZSO attracted a smaller audience than the other two I heard; I think that might be because Shostakovich seems not yet to be, in New Zealand, a major figure in the classical music pantheon.

Yet the three concerts I attended and reports of the other two prove the great success of the venture.

There is still a tendency to hear this fifth symphony of Shostakovich as the work of a reformed Communist disciple, who really meant what he wrote to appease the authorities in his note accompanying the score, and to treat the evidence of his horror of the regime, revealed by Solomon Volkov and many others, as a bit dubious.

The music I heard, under the impassioned direction of Hamish McKeich, spoke, in the first three movements, of an unease, of watchfulness, of fear of the 4am knock on the door; those bassoons early in the first movement uttered an ominous, flat-footed, unadorned chill. The sound was brown as in fascist shirts. There was minimal vibrato, and that tight little three-note motif: what other than disquiet, the fear of political criticism, could that portend? Sure, there are moments of sunshine and peacefulness, with the piano episode, the horns and the trumpets, but then terror returns with the side drum and xylophone with their triplet quavers.

With the thudding of basses and cellos there is no change in the political mood in the Allegretto. And though outward gaiety might be suggested at moments, the livelier tempo still sounds to me, in the dark and powerful interpretation we heard under McKeich, as if even signs of happiness and lighthearted behaviour are under surveillance.

In the great, suspenseful, Largo third movement the air of watchfulness remains with the tremolo violins and the dramatic impact of the tight, shrill oboe; and later, screaming strings, and the slow, ringing single notes of the harp, so beautifully articulated yet so full of unease. Nevertheless, the final major chord seems to be the composer’s determination to find humanity in all this.

I was gripped by this great performance which allowed, I thought, no mistaking of Shostakovich’s situation in the midst of the purges that had begun by 1937; while struggling to express a forced gaiety that would deceive the musical commissars, the last movement was still a matter of peering into a bleak future.

Often, attempts to infuse music, or the arts generally, with an extraneous context fails to create a coherent work of art, as non-musical emotions take charge, overwhelming the aesthetic character and its ability to move the listener. Yet there are plenty of successful examples, from the very earliest times: religious music can be considered a major case in point. Religion presents few conflicts of course as the emotions engaged by religion and by the arts have some common ground. But battle scenes and deaths and all kinds of tragic human experiences have commonly been used as sources of musical inspiration; unless handled with genius, they can be a burden that wrecks the musical element.

This symphony is a case of a genius at work, as the emotions have been transmuted so successfully into a musical fabric, and the performance itself was driven with full awareness of and attention to the symphony’s powerful musical character.

Once again, this was a heroic and committed performance that demonstrated the strength and responsiveness of the orchestra to such dynamic and clear-sighted leadership.

Finally it needs to be noted that the five symphonies were conducted by former members, wind instrument players, of the NZSO who have achieved international reputations, and whose magnificent showings here prove their credentials in the mainstream repertoire.


Distinguish Strike and Psathas from the hoi poloi of noise makers of the gig world

New Zealand Festival

Between Zero and One: Ensemble: Strike Percussion

Composer: John Psathas ; Visual effects: Tim Gruchy

St. James Theatre

Monday 10 March, 7:30 pm

Strike is regarded as the country’s premier percussion ensemble and the performance was promoted in the Festival programme as “Inspired by ancient and modern rhythms – from tribal beats to dubstep – Between Zero and One was written for Strike by internationally renowned New Zealand composer John Psathas…….. Intimate moments will draw you in – the epic finale will blow your mind.” The programme comprised a series of items for varied instrumental combinations, with all six players involved in each.

The opening number was an unbridled display of highly complex drumming rhythms, with each player using a different kit in individual locations on a vertical scaffold. It was a highly impressive start that showcased the extraordinary skills of the group, but after a while the repetitious bass drum beat and excessive volume became a relentless assault.

It was a relief to move to a piece built round the gentle tones of gamelan-like gongs and marimbas, but again the writing was highly repetitive to the point of becoming hypnotic, almost soporific. However this trend was dramatically reversed by an exciting and very clever number where the audience was deliberately drawn in to provide percussive rhythms and sound effects with clapping, stamping, shuffling, hissing and explosive voice interjections. It was very successful both as a highly creative composition, and in the way it bound the ensemble to the listeners.

In succeeding numbers the players moved to a wider range of instruments, such as African drums, and even expanded the group to nine or ten performers by using interactive projections of guest musicians from around the world, who played simultaneously with the stage group. Tim Gruchy’s colourful visual projections, both as backdrops and translucent front screen “curtains”, were featured throughout the concert to enhance the compositions.

It was an ambitious project that propelled the Strike group fairly and squarely into the gig world, which can only benefit from its extraordinary technical mastery and grounding in the classical percussion tradition. But on this occasion, Strike did itself a real disservice by adopting the excessive volumes of pop, and its reliance on thumping heavy bass lines. Despite using earplugs, I could not subject my ears to “the epic finale” which was reportedly incredibly loud.

Finesse and musicianship is what will distinguish this ensemble from the hoi polloi of noise makers out there in the gig world, and they should never lose sight of that.