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.