Piano trios in sparkling performances by Waikato-based ensemble

New Zealand Chamber Soloists (Katherine Austin – piano, Amalia Hall – violin, James Tennant – cello)
(Wellington Chamber Music)

Piano Trio in D minor, H 327 (Martinů)
Corybas and Aegean (Psathas)
Piano Trio in F minor, Op 65 (Dvořák) 

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 27 April, 3 pm

I was surprised to discover how long it seems to be since I heard either Katherine Austin or James Tennant in concert. In fact, a search of Middle C back to October 2008 throws up neither name. However, we’ve reviewed three or four recitals involving Amalia Hall.

Most of my experience of Austin and Tennant in earlier years has been in the chamber music series in Wellington or Lower Hutt and at the Chamber Music Festival in Nelson, though I don’t think they have performed there in the last two or three festivals, at least.

So this recital was a pleasure; additionally spiced by Katherine Austin’s ebullient remarks about the music.

I have come to enjoy Martinů’s music over the years and so I found myself feeling much more receptive to this piano trio than I think some of the audience was.

His music is idiosyncratic and I can envisage performances that fail to grasp his spirit. Here however, the trio did not try to make too much of the opening passages: there was a discreet reticence in their approach, though the insistent rhythm, in the shape of motifs of two quavers and a crotchet and the opposite, and the energy that is always present was there, but waiting in the wings, as it were.

Though the melodic ideas are not as strong as in some of Martinů’s music, by the end of the first movement – less than five minutes, it had planted itself very satisfactorily in my head. The second movement starts secretively, on violin and piano though the cello later to enjoy some lovely duetting with the violin. The players didn’t allow the drifting mood of the Adagio to lose its way, though it did seem to take its time to find the exit. The finale found the more characteristic Martinů voice, with its typical ostinato-like motifs and motoric rhythms.

But I await a performance of Martinů’s Nonet from an enterprising ensemble; not to mention one of our orchestras programming one of his six symphonies.

A colleague has observed that the acoustic in St Andrew’s has become a little harder for chamber music since the refurbishment; I’m not sure, as each of the instruments spoke clearly and were always well balanced, even though the piano’s lid was on the long stick and the writing could have tempted the pianist to a more dominant role. (My colleague, Rosemary Collier, told me later that it was probably a rug under the piano that had tempered its sound).

The trio had commissioned Corybas from John Psathas, and he had been inspired to add a short additional piece called Aegean, as an envoi (in the sense of a concluding strophe to, usually, an Elizabethan poem; Psathas called it a postlude).

The pair of pieces had been premiered in Crete in 2011; Corybas had several interlinked references, but was based on a Macedonian dance in complex rhythm; Aegean was in part inspired by the view of the Aegean from his parents’ house high above the sea on the coast of below Mount Olympus.  But Katherine told us that they had decided to play in first, and that seemed very fitting. A complex pattern seemed to lie beneath it but that did not create a barrier for the listener. Its impact was of calm though not, for me, of a seascape. There were long-drawn lines for violin and cello over a busier piano part, and it proved a happy prelude for Corybas.

Strangely, there seemed to be a real affinity between it and the Martinů trio.

The piano opened Corybas with a deliberate exposition of the rhythm, as a serialist might do with a tone-row. But this was no serial or any other kind of avant-garde composition. Though the rhythm was complex, there were quite long passages with a strong and insistent beat; the piece sounded very danceable, at least for someone born in Greece.  I enjoyed the way the energy slowly dissipated as the end approached, though without any loss of spirit. Teasingly, it just got slower and more engaging. The trio has played it a number of times, and their familiarity and affinity added hugely to its acceptance and enjoyment.

Finally, Dvořák’s piano trio: No 3, but the first to make a real mark. Though the programme note linked its character with the recent death of the composer’s mother, there was little, for my ears, that suggested sadness, let alone grief. In a minor key, to be sure, but written with such maturity and confidence (after all he’d written his sixth symphony by this time, 1883; he was 42) that it is the melodic richness, life-affirming vigour and its compositional skill that animates it and gives it stature.

The first movement is the most important, almost a quarter hour and a tour de force given to sudden dynamic changes, a variety of tone and metre and dealing fluently with its fertile thematic material. These players took every chance to exploit all these opportunities, producing a mood of profound contentment. I noted earlier the happy balance maintained between the three instruments; here, perhaps more than before, I was conscious of more than just a feeling of restraint with the cello part, but a view of it as secondary; it may have been where I was sitting, on the left side. Nevertheless, when I turned my attention to the cello, Tennant’s playing was always deeply expressive. And that quality became particularly evident in the slow movement which opens, elegiacally indeed, with a lovely cello melody.

But before that, the scherzo-like second movement, Allegretto grazioso, arrested the ear through the teasing rhythm that seemed to suggest various time signatures, broken by a trio section of quite different and more pensive character.

Both the third and fourth movements, each of round ten minutes, seem to maintain the level of melodic inspiration, as the cello’s melody at the beginning of the Poco adagio is followed by a mirroring melody on the violin that was comparably engaging. And the last movement returned to the serious energy of the first movement where the Katherine Austin’s extrovert piano often led the way in dramatizing the abrupt tempo changes, the accelerandos, the little emphatic outbursts that held the attention even when one, secretly, felt that the composer was prolonging the end somewhat unduly.

So this was a splendid concert, giving a fine exposure to one of Dvořák’s chamber music masterpieces as well as rewarding and successful works of the past half century.


Audience stands to honour fine performance by Secondary Students’ Choir

New Zealand Secondary Students’ Choir in Concert directed by Andrew Withington, accompanied by Brent Stewart

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Saturday, 26 April 2014, 7:30 pm

I reviewed the choir almost exactly two years ago; now they are here for another school holiday course.  My enthusiasm for their performance has not diminished, nor has the choir’s skill and versatility, despite the changes of personnel in the meantime.  There was a good-sized audience, but the back third of the Cathedral should not have been empty; this choir is deserving of a larger number of listeners.  Choristers came from all over New Zealand: Whangarei to Invercargill, with representatives from some small towns: Arrowtown, Shannon, Hawera for example.

Most of the programme was sung without printed scores; it was mainly the newer music for which scores were used.   The choir put on a highly professional concert, which I am sure will impress those who hear the singers later in the year in Singapore and Malaysia.  (Their singing won’t be poor, and I’m sure there will be no malaise – excuse me!)

As at the concert two years ago, the opening was with the church in darkness, the women processing in with candles, singing Jerusalem, an ancient Irish chant arranged by Michael McGlynn.  It featured a solo (rather too quiet) while the other singers backed with ‘oo-oo’, before the piece became multi-part.  This made a remarkable sound in the resonant cathedral, but few words could be perceived.

The full choir followed with the ‘Dies Irae’ from Mozart’s Requiem.  The piano accompaniment sounded strange – this is not a building that is kind to that instrument.

However, there was a strong, well-balanced sound.  The tempo was quite fast compared with what I have usually heard – or sung.

Mendelssohn’s Weihnachten followed.  The German was pronounced well, and uniformly, as it was in the Heinrich Schütz Psalm 115 that came next.  For this item, variety was provided by the appropriately baroque accompaniment on a spinet, and the division of the singers into three separate choirs.  The antiphonal singing and responses were superbly done; here, the scores were used.  There was plenty of depth in the basses. Confident attacks and dynamics were notable.  Most of the members watched their conductor almost  constantly.  Some tenors were a little too prominent in this work.  Part of the work was in a faster tempo, with more quavers and slurs.  This daunted the choir not in the least; it was a most creditable performance.

Throughout the accompanied items Brent Stewart, the choir’s principal accompanist, was lively, sympathetic and a thoroughly accomplished performer; the deficiencies were not to do with his technique or carrying out of his role. Items were introduced in groups by members of the staff of the choir and a few of the singers.  The microphone’s use was for the most part appropriate, and their words were heard clearly.

Ave Maria by Franz Biebl was sung by tenors and basses, including a solo trio and piano accompaniment, most effectively.  I knew nothing of Biebl, but on consulting Google, I found that he was a German who died in 2001.  According to the Wikipedia entry, the commonly-used programme note for the Ave Maria is by Dr. Wilbur Skeels – a former New Zealander, later resident in the US, and interestingly, composer of a setting of ‘Do not stand at my grave and weep’, another setting of which by David Childs (also a US-based New Zealander) was sung later in the concert.  The men made a gorgeous sound, especially in the opening unaccompanied section.

The soloists all had excellent, well-produced voices, especially fine in the piano and mezzo piano passages. The singers were utterly secure in the moving parts, and the Latin words were very clear.  I see how valuable it was when church singing was always in Latin; the clarity is so much greater than in many other languages in large, high venues.  There was a little stridency crept into the choir tenors at the forte ending.

A pleasing factor was the design of the men’s outfits.  Though I see no reason for all to be dressed in black, nevertheless, the men’s loose, collar-less shirts were a handsome choice.

Brahms was up next, the whole choir singing, with scores and piano, ‘Vineta’ from Drei Gesange, in total unanimity.  For something completely different, the men then performed ‘Mouth Music’, with resonant n and ng sounds, and drum accompaniment played by Brent Stewart.  Another light music piece was Scarborough Fair, sung by the women, in an interesting arrangement with a very well-played violin solo part from Theo Moolenaar that failed to sound out well enough in the Cathedral.

A David Childs item not listed in the programme was Remembrance, on the text referred to above.  The slow opening harmonies were very effective, while the contrasting fast section was lively and with beautiful tone – but there was more difficulty in picking up the words.  The slow passages returned, and both the soloist, Kelly Kim, and the high soprano ending were dramatic.

Twa Tanbou (Three Drums), a Haitian song was tricky, with cross-rhythms, but made an energetic impact just prior tot he interval.  Many syllables, in French Creole, were sounded in this fun piece with its dramatic ending.

We were recalled from the interval by a loud karanga, introducing Kua Rongo by the Wehi whanau.  The choir members now wore shoulder sashes over their garments. The women used single pois through part of the item, while the men did actions with notional taiahas. Memorising music and words, plus all the many movements was a considerable feat.  They were accompanied by Andrew Withington on guitar.

Two more pieces by David Childs followed, the first commissioned in memory of Lois Coplon, NZSSC’s Executive Officer from 1996 to 2009.   This was performed with piano, and began with soprano and alto voices only.  I found the choral harmonies interesting, but the melodies rather sentimental.  Despite the title In Requiescat, it was sung in English.

Between the Childs pieces, an unprogrammed piece, Lux Aeterna by Christchurch composer Richard Oswin, revealed again how well the Latin language sounds in this space.  The effective choral writing included unusual harmonies, chords and vocalisations, which were beautifully controlled.  Excellent low bass notes helped to support this unaccompanied item.

Childs’s Sonnet of the Moon was attractive (but who wrote the words?).  However, I found it became a rather soporific ballad, although sung with great beauty.

Two pieces from Suite Nordestina by Ronaldo Miranda, a contemporary Brazilian composer, were next – Portuguese another language to add to the already lengthy list the choir sings in. The cadences in the very rhythmic ‘Bumba Chora’ reminded me of that other Brazilian choral work, Ariel Ramírez’s Misa Criolla. ‘Dende Trapia’ was lively, and featured precise and uniform pronunciation of syllables.

A leading contemporary American choral composer is Eric Whitacre; his Cloudburst was sung in Wellington by the Orpheus Choir a number of years ago.  It used three soloists, piano, drums and win sheet (these in the upstairs side-gallery), hand-bells, and rhythmic clapping and finger-clicking.  It is a complex, multi-part work featuring close intervals. Despite its English title, it is sung in Spanish. The characterization of rain falling, the build-up to storm, and the lighter rain following are most accurately portrayed, though sometimes the voices didn’t penetrate all that rain.  The closing section of humming completed the drama of this quite lengthy, multi-faceted work, which gave plenty of opportunity to demonstrate the versatility of these singers, and how much they are able to achieve in a short course together.

Why does such a concert always have to conclude with lighter items?  These did not reveal the best singing by the choir, and were for the most part not appropriate to the building – I mean acoustically, not theologically.  Most were too fast and too loud to be heard to good effect.  Why ‘America’ from West Side Story needed to be included in a full programme, I do not know.  It was faster than I’d ever heard it; the only word that was distinct was ‘America’.  It is better sung by an ensemble, not by a large choir.

Another lighter item with piano was Celebrate by Keith Hampton (he and a number of the other composers featured also in the 2012 programme).  Again fast, loud and without perceptible words.  There was a soloist, but she was rather lost standing behind a much taller person.  I’m afraid the style sounded almost ugly in this building, as did the next piece, I’ve got the World on a String in which choir members performed the actions of playing wind instruments.

The concert ended with cultural items – the first, Tate le fia Manatua was acted out by two choruses; it was to do with the possible marriage of Samoan and Tongan prince and princess.  Gestures, movement and facial expressions, particularly of the two leaders, made for a very splendid performance.  Again, fortissimo singing lost the subtlety that at times the gestures were conveying.  However, the latter were quite complicated, and graceful.  It all made up to an exciting performance, and again was a great act of memory.

Finally Siyabangena and Ke Nna Yo Morena, two South African traditional pieces, were very rhythmic.  They were conducted (the previous item was not) and involved a lot of clapping.  Then the choir paraded down the side aisles of the Cathedral, and the audience ended the concert standing to honour the skill of the choir and the thorough enjoyment of the performances.


Robbie Ellis – laughter, delight and provocation for lunch…..

St.Andrew’s Lunchtime Concerts presents:
Robbie Ellis (and piano) in
“Robbie’s selection of New Zealand Music”
(more laterally styled “Robbie’s Poor-Timing” Concert)

(also with Jonathan Berkahn – piano)

St Andrew’s (never-to-be-the-same) on-the-Terrace,

Wednesday 23rd April 2014

Well, I simply didn’t know what to expect! I first got wind of the concert via our Middle C “Coming Events” Calendar, and was duly and unanimously voted by our erstwhile critics’ team as “just the man for the job” re a review……preparing myself for literally “anything” (as Harry “Snapper” Organs, the resident detective-sergeant of the Monty Python TV series used to do re his criminal enquiries by reading the colour supplements) I tore myself away from my other unfinished, “bleeding at the edges” projects when the time came, and presented my somewhat dishevelled self at the outwardly respectable venue of St.Andrew’s.

On the performing platform was a piano, with a microphone of some kind set up alongside the keyboard – nothing else! As for Robbie Ellis, when I looked around, there he was, sitting among one of the groups of people making up the audience (gradually and steadily being added to, I must report), as if he was waiting for some kind of “alter ego” or doppelgänger to appear and through various alchemic gestures make the word flesh, as it were. Contrary to my expectations, which feature mental images of performers psyching themselves up to extraordinary heights of mental and spiritual intensity immediately prior to performing, here was Robbie shamelessly dissipating it all in what seemed like cheery conversation!

But the transformation when he stood up and literally launched himself at his particular fach (I’ve wanted to use that word for ages, even though it isn’t QUITE right!) with no thought for his own personal safety, was truly startling. Dispensing with social niceties in a flash he was suddenly at the piano and into a musical introduction to the concert before we all quite knew what was happening – a wonderful kind of “patter-song” in the style of “Gilbert and Sullivan meeting Tom Lehrer”, the lyrics a literal fusillade of sounds as remarkable for their energy as for their coherence –

“Overture, Concerto, Symphony –
That is what a concert ought to be!”

By way of underlining the seriousness of the venture, Robbie crowned this opening gambit with the most wondrous display of Beethovenian cadence-endings ad infinitum, a kind of horror-sequence of inconclusive conclusions, remarkable for their endless potentialities and for the energy generated by the performer. Obviously he was in primordial conflict with the creative impulse, an obstreperous Muse which fiercely fought against the impending truncation of its flow (skin and hair everywhere!), before being finally mastered. We loved him for it.

Well – that was only the beginning! – I found myself in something of a lather trying to keep up with Robbie throughout the rest of the concert – the sheer energy of the man was remarkable! For some reason I found myself thinking of the American conductor Walter Damrosch (the way people do, of course) who after conducting the orchestra in a premiere of a work by the young Aaron Copland had publicly proclaimed that the fledgling composer would, by the time he was thirty, “be capable of committing murder!”. As it was with Copland, I feel that no-one’s actual life is in danger from Robbie Ellis, but his music and no-holds-barred performances of it certainly makes its presence felt.

I won’t attempt to rival something like “War and Peace” with a descriptive saga of all the concert’s items, but will say at this point that we were whirled in the most exhilarating fashion through worlds of sentiment and satire, feeling and fripperie (Google didn’t like that word, but I kinda do), self-promotion and self-deprecation. By way of relieving the intensities of the musical outpourings, Robbie proffered at intervals news of “forthcoming attractions” alerting us to things like “Augmented Fourth” (Robbie’s collaboration with comedian Sam Smith scheduled for the New Zealand International Comedy Festival), and a “numbers-written-while-u-wait” gig called “Song Sale”, after each announcement  proceeding to illustrate the “kind of thing I mean” with the next, engrossing item.

I liked the “How Many Legs?” song, about a dancing centipede (the music suggests the Folies Bergère), its “which leg comes after which?” aspect underlined by its presto/prestissimo ending, a commission for a “Song Sale” by way of demonstration. Born of the same impulse was the hyper-impassioned “Love is a four-letter word” (an Anthony Rirchie request,incidentally), containing many a raunchy suggestive variation upon the old Mitch Miller standard “Sweet Violets”.  And Robbie’s first book-publication venture “The Eketahuna German Literature Society” was celebrated with what seemed like an impromptu performance from him of Schumann’s “Im Wunderschönen Monat Mai” from Dichterliebe, sung with appropriate raw feeling (a truly euphemistic experience!), an English “reading-between-the-lines-rendering” of the original verses which followed revealing Heine’s (and Schumann’s) hitherto unsuspected Antipodean sympathies.

Which brings me to those portals upon which are enshrined the words “Hall of Fame” through which Robbie may yet pass and join the Immortals, on the strength of heart-warming deeply-rooted utterances like “Manners Mall Emo Song” – though not quite murder, nevertheless a song of true and heartfelt geographic displacement by which no Wellingtonian, either indigenous or aspiring, would fail to be rocked, to the very core. “The City Council’s lost their Manners” here outlandishly rides tandem with “They put a bus lane through my heart”, concluding the lament with a Dennis Glover-like utterance, “Now I guess I’ll just have to go home back to Johnsonville” – perhaps not penned with quite the ease of that word-master’s evocation of penguins at Plimmerton, but along the same, heartfelt lines. Our places, our experiences, after all!

There was more – Robbie’s flailing net snagged many a passing fish, including fearsome creatures of antiquity such as the subject of “Racist Grandma Blues”, the song a bigot’s compendium of stereotypical prejudices,  whose evocations involved the performer’s right heel activating the piano keys at one point, risking apoplexy, internal or otherwise, on the part of any (other) pianist present. The unaccompanied “BASS” (actually written by Corwin Newall) enumerated the perils of unalloyed enjoyment of bass frequencies, while another song (composed in the “Disney” style, we were told) dwelt on the fleeting joys and grinding sorrows of wish-fulfilment fantasy, a “Where’s My Hero?” outpouring of tragic tones.

Robbie’s final scene brought pianist Jonathan Berkahn out from the audience to assist with the serving of “Root Vegetable Opera”, a mouth-watering description of the gestation, preparation and presentation of a meal of tubers of diverse kinds, whose peroration was marked by a throwing-open of the piano lid to allow cornucopian excess before the final sotto voce disappointment of “grand schemes unfulfilled” silenced the tumult and ended the concert with a proverbial whimper.

Delight upon all of our faces there was, as well as chuckles among conversations, and the occasional springing in the steps as we departed – so to Robbie Ellis, many more songs and gestures, grandiloquent, heartfelt and intimate – a good deal of the pleasure this time round was certainly ours!

Just for the record, this was the programme (courtesy of the composer) –

– Symphony No 1 in Eb Op π
– Wellington Jaywalkers Song
– How Many Legs (music by Offenbach, lyrics by Robbie E. and Tegan McKegg)
– Love is a Four-Letter Word (NB: commissioned at a Song Sale by Anthony Ritchie)
– Sheepdog Plainchant
– Manners Mall Emo Song
– Im wunderschönen Monat Mai (music by Schumann, lyrics by Heine and Robbie E.)
– Racist Grandma Blues
– Lollipop Socket Wrench
– BASS (by Corwin Newall)
– This Is So Hard (by Sam Smith)
– Root Vegetable Opera











RNZ Ballet’s Coppélia – evening of delight and fantasy

The Royal New Zealand Ballet presents:
Léo Delibes’ COPPÉLIA

Cast:  Lucy Green (Swanhilde) / Kohei Iwamoto (Franz)
Sir Jon Trimmer (Dr. Coppélius) / Katherine Grange (Ima)
Joseph  Skelton (Zoltan) / Jarrah McArthur (Coppélia)
Paul Mathews (Limbless)

Royal New Zealand Ballet
Orchestra Wellington

Choreographer: Martin Vedel
Ballet Mistress: Turid Revfeim
Lighting: Jason Morphett
Conductor: Nigel Gaynor

St.James’ Theatre, Wellington

Thursday 17th April, 2014

Even if one didn’t know anything about the origins of the works involved, it’s a simple matter to figure out links between Delibes’ wonderful ballet Coppélia, and another French work for the stage, Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffman (The Tales of Hoffman) – each work contains references to mechanical dolls made to masquerade as human beings.

In fact both works drew elements of their scenarios from the same source, which was ETA Hoffmann’s sinister story Der Sandmann, written in 1816, which presented a darker side to a well-known benign character called The Sandman, who traditionally throws sand into the eyes of children to help them go to sleep. Hoffmann’s “Sandmann” is Coppélius, who fashions and conducts experiments with automated figures, which are used by the doctor to cause havoc among lovers and undermine various people’s sense of reality and identity.

Coppélia is a much-simplified version of Hoffmann’s convolutions – a village boy, Franz, becomes enamoured of Coppélia, a girl who sits every day at the upstairs window of a house owned by Dr. Coppélius, an eccentric recluse. Franz is actually engaged to Swanhilde, a village girl, but can’t help his fascination with the beautiful Coppélia, who takes no notice of him or of anybody else, whatever.

During an altercation with several of the young men in the town, Dr, Coppélius unwittingly drops his house-key, which Swanhilde then finds and, with several of her friends, sneaks into his house to find out more about the haughty beauty Coppélia. She’s followed, a few moments later, by Franz, who climbs a ladder put up to Coppélia’s window, anxious for a closer look at the girl who has captured his admiration.

The action proceeds from there in somewhat bizarre fashion, involving the doctor’s sudden return, and Swanhilde’s assuming the identity of Coppélia, who is nothing but an automaton created and assembled by Dr.Coppélius. At one point several of the other mechanical dolls created by Coppélius are activated, allowing Swanhilde in the ensuing confusion to rescue Franz, who had been rendered insensible by drinking too freely the “refreshments” offered by one of the automatons.

At the scene’s conclusion Dr, Coppélius, who had thought Swanhilde’s movements while disguised as the beautiful Coppélia were the triumphant result of his efforts to bring his creation truly to life, is left brokenheartedly clutching his lifeless mannequin as the lovers make their escape amid the chaos and mayhem. The remainder of the action is largely devoted to the wedding of Swanhilde and her – somewhat chastened – Franz.

This latest Royal New Zealand Ballet production presented something of a tale of two worlds, the commonplace, everyday village scenario of the first and third acts contrasted with the phantasmagorical world of the second act, inside the house of Dr.Coppélius. Perhaps the intention was to highlight the impact of that latter, nightmarish sequence of happenings by a conventional, almost low-key approach to the outer acts – pitting the Ordinary against the Fabulous, or some similar kind of idea.

Though effective in that respect, it did have the consequence of underplaying the edge of several of the First- and Third-Act movements and sequences, as if anything full-blooded might “upstage” the impact of that Second Act. A pity, because the music gives several wonderful opportunities for dancers to “take us places” even within the confines of ordinary everyday village life, let alone with any exotic arrivals or disruptive elements that add colour and variation.

One noticed this in places during Act One, such as during the Csardas, with the “friss” or fast section for me failing to truly ignite the smoldering embers promisingly piled up by the gypsy dancers in their opening manoeuvres. The Hungarian/gypsy contingent made a wonderful initiaI impact with striking costumes and strong movements during the music’s sultry “lassu” sections – but even so, I was particularly disappointed that little was made of the music’s numerous szforzandi written by Delibes, which surely cried out for some kind of dynamic physical gesture or response from the stage. And while I’m by no means an expert regarding gypsy-dance, I thought some of the jumps in the music’s concluding sequence seemed too buffoon-like, out of keeping with the haughty and imperious manner of the group’s arrival.

But elsewhere, it was the principals, Swanhilda (danced most winningly by Lucy Green) and Franz (ably characterized by Kohei Iwamoto) who made the most of their solo and interactive opportunities. From Swanhilde’s first entrance one noted the “inner life” of her movements, and the naturalness of her acting, with both physical gestures and with the eyes – both her and Kohei Iwamoto seemed to connect with their movements, gesturing and looks, so that their physical contact had a proper “organic” feel to it, an emotional rightness to their partnership.

Their partner-foils, Ima and Zoltan, danced by Katherine Grange and Joseph Skelton respectively, gave us some beautifully-crafted solos and pas de deux during the Slavonic Variations music. Here, the orchestra-playing, so vigorous and sprightly during the opening Mazurka and Waltz, was more variable, with both beautiful violin and wind solos and the occasional patch of scrawny string-phrasing – but the players quickly made amends with the dynamic Csardas, conductor Nigel Gaynor getting a full-blooded and exciting response from the pit.

However, Act Two, within Coppélius’ house, was another world entirely – compelling and hypnotic in its haunted, dream-like ambience and sense of a kind of “separate reality”. In the midst of the stasis was Paul Mathews’ amazingly-realised “Limbless” a writhing, physically osmotic figure whose convolutions at once repelled and compelled our sympathy for the mute, convulsive creature. The other mannequins all exuded a marvellous dual-aspect of lifeless unease, each one with its particular and distinctive potential for as-yet unactivated macabre mischief.

Central to the unreality was the figure of the doll-like Coppélia, and the half-crazed, half-calculating persona of the doctor. As Coppélia, Jarrah McArthur’s precise, automaton-like movements were expertly done, and a marked contrast to those of Sir Jon Trimmer’s Coppélius, all agitation and part-arthritic-part-obsessive impulse, a figure to be pitied as much as censured. No less remarkable was Lucy Green’s impersonation of Coppélia, completing a stunning tableaux of expressionist-like figures.

I thought that Coppélius’s attempts to draw life from the body of Franz – here tricked into a drunken stupor with the help of an amazing “mine host” automaton – and transfer to the figure of Coppélia, were somewhat diffusely rendered by the “dumb-show” transplanting which the Doctor enacted.  I imagined something more “mad-scientist-like” (using something along the lines of, say, Mesmer’s magnet) could have better-conveyed the disturbing nature, even the horror, of the idea. Still, the activation of all the automatons by Swanhilde and the recovered Franz, leaving the distraught Doctor clutching his lifeless doll-figure, produced a real frisson of anarchic activity, with brilliant and incisive orchestral-playing completing the chaotic picture of despair and release at the Act’s conclusion.

After this, Act Three couldn’t help but be somewhat underwhelming, though necessarily functioning as a kind of unravelling of tensions, such as depicting the marriage of Swanhilde and Franz. As a series of divertissements it was, however, entrancing, with exquisite dancing from the principals, and lovely orchestral detail – beautifully rustic oboe-playing at one point, festively resplendent brass at another, and a gorgeous viola solo at La Paix – though the production didn’t underline the music’s depiction of Strife and Discord with any “darker” choreographic elements – an opportunity for some colour and excitement not taken?

Small dreams of what could-have-been, these, compared with the feeling of gratitude and satisfaction at what the RNZ Ballet, together with the Orchestra Wellington, was able to achieve for us. Sterling work from choreographer Martin Vedel, Ballet Mistress Turid Revfeim, lighting designer Jason Morphett and conductor Nigel Gaynor gave us a delightful and wondrous evening’s entertainment.


“Body Beautiful” excites, awe-inspires, and charms as a life’s occupation is celebrated.

Te Koki – New Zealand School of Music presents:
BODY BEAUTIFUL – a tribute to Jack Body in his 70th year

Saetas  (string quartet and accordion)
A House in Bali  (narrator, accordion, string quartet and gamelan gong keybar)
Yunnan Sketches  (string quartet, guitar, tape)
Songs My Grandmother Sang  (voices, piano, string quartet)

New Zealand String Quartet
Ross Harris (accordion) / Richard Greager (baritone) / Margaret Medlyn (soprano)
Christopher Hill (guitar) / Jack Body (narrator)

Adam Concert Room, Victoria University of Wellington

Monday 14th April, 2014

Jack Body celebrates his 70th birthday this year – and he’s determined to make the most of this particular anniversary, helped by warmth, acclaim and gratitude from the many people he’s come into contact with over the years as a teacher, composer, author, publisher and general advocate for the music of this country in both a Pacific and world-wide context.

This particular concert, appropriately titled “Body Beautiful” took place in Victoria University of Wellington’s Adam Concert Room under the auspices of the New Zealand School of Music. The music for three-quarters of the concert presented aspects of the composer’s fruitful relationship with the New Zealand String Quartet, before finishing, just as heartwarmingly, but in a completely different sound-world, with Body’s Songs My Grandmother Sang.

Preferring to talk with his audience rather than supply written program notes for each of the items, Body was in his usual excellent form as a communicator, giving us a real sense of process and context as well as a description of each of the “end product” in relation to the music we heard.

First up in the program was Saetas, which was a NZSQ commission dating from 2002. Body explained that he had at the time been exploring a genre of music associated with religious feasts held during Holy Week in Spain, semi-improvised, highly ornamented songs derived from the flamenco tradition. These songs, sometimes unaccompanied, sometimes using a strong drum-beat as a kind of pulse, were often associated with a quejío, or lament, a kind of cry sung as a phrase during the course of a single breath.

Body accentuated the “lament” aspect of these songs in his transcriptions in different ways. In both the first and last pieces a kind of “quejío” was exclaimed by the musicians at the beginning. But also, in the opening song Body took aspects of pieces by both Tchaikovsky and Hugo Wolf cast in a similar expressive vein and worked certain of these figurations and gestures into the music’s fabric. Fragments of both the “Pathetique” Symphony’s finale and a song from Hugo Wolf’s “Spanish Songbook” gave a strangely familiar, dreamlike flavour to the scope of the sounds, throwing their familiar contexts open to the wider world of human angst and suffering.

To my ears the music in the first piece in general seemed to take on a kind of Russian sound in places, moments featuring sweet, open-air harmonies, a sound I associate particularly with Borodin in some of his chamber music. But this could be mere fancy on my part as could also be a reminiscence I heard earlier in the piece of one of Wagner’s rising phrases associated with the flooding of the Rhine waters from “Gotterdammerung”.

The other three pieces saw ‘cellist Rolf Gjelsten relinquish his normal instrument for the accordion, a change which accentuated the biting rhythmic accents of the next of the Saetas, a piece with string see-sawings and squeeze-box crunchings, the viola playing a Moorish tune in the middle of it all. The following piece had stuttering and stammering strings set against long-breathed cluster chords from the accordion. The viola played a chant suggesting something ancient, the violins echoing the notes and gradually tapering off as the viola continued, the accordion keeping in ambient touch with things.

Again the instrumentalists gave voice to the music’s feelings at the beginning of the final piece, reinforcing the anguish with foot-stampings, though varying the dynamics so as to make things antiphonal-sounding. As the strings clustered their tones around a driving, beating rhythm, the accordion played a kind of melodic counterpoint, adding to the ever-increasing texturings of the sounds – biting accents, fierce glisssandi and running scales all drove the music onwards as the players’ stamping feet beat out the pulsations to incredibly exciting effect!

Next on the program, A House in Bali combined several strands of diverse activity. First there was Jack Body himself reading exerpts from writings by Colin McPhee, the Canadian composer turned ethnomusicologist, based on his experiences in Bali during the 1930s, and describing vignettes of Balinesque village life. Incidentally, the actual house McPhee lived in was subsequently inhabited, for a short time, by the pianist Lili Kraus, before she was incarcerated for a time during the war by the Japanese.

But the piece’s chief musical feature was its “jointly-composed” aspect, Body responsible for writing the quartet and accordion contributions and the Gamelan composer and orchestra leader Wayan Gde Yudane writing the pre-recorded Balinese gamelan orchestra music. Strings and accordion (the latter played here by Body’s fellow-composer, Ross Harris) took their cues from the gamelan sounds, allowing the speaker intervals of sufficient ambient space for his words to be heard by the audience.

Body had said in an earlier interview that the rehearsals of this piece for this performance had been hair-raising, because the gamelan group in Bali seemed to him to have set much faster tempi than when it was played here previously by the New Zealand ensemble. Parts of the opening did sound rather like a kind of Balinese hoe-down, though the music’s breathless pace let up sufficiently for the mood to allow some lovely exchanges between the two quite different worlds of sounds, strings and accordion on one hand and the gamelan group on the other.

I thought the gamelan sounds extraordinary – a magic and resonant world! The scenes described by McPhee’s words were distinctive – firstly a cricket duel, with the creatures suitably prepared for the fray, like a kind of ritual battle with music. Another evocation was Nyepi, the yearly day of silence (I enjoyed the words “demons pass by, thinking the village deserted”), the seeming emptiness underpinned by lonely, isolated strands of “snake-charmer” melody from the instruments. More animated was a vignette described by McPhee of pigeons with bells tied to their legs flying around in tintinabulating flocks – the gradual diminuendo of sounds as the birds disappeared was extremely effective.

China was the focus for the next work on the program, a piece which was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet in 2007, called Yunnan Sketches. The first was Bouyi, a duet setting, using a tape Body had made of two women singing, one which the composer described as “initially discordant” but whose harmonic rigours were softened by the instrumental accompaniments. I found the results hauntingly beautiful. The other two reworkings, “Bai” and “Lahu”, were each very different – the first rhythmic and syncopated, a solo viola mixing pizzicato with arco, creating a sequence that Stravinsky would have appreciated for its angularity. Finally, “Lahu” featured Christopher Hill’s guitar, interestingly, but not altogether successfully, I thought, as the instrument almost completely lacked the plangency one associates normally with oriental stringed instruments – this sounded too much to my ears like a tourist in a foreign land who’d wandered off the beaten track….

As if further evidence of Body’s versatility as a composer was needed, the concert concluded with a sometimes piquant, sometimes droll-humoured item, made up of three of the set of Songs My Grandmother Sang, performed here by Richard Greager, Margaret Medlyn and pianist Jian Liu (with audience participation in the final song “All Through the Night” encouraged by the composer!).

The composer took the songs from an album which he recalled was a favorite songbook of his grandmother’s at the family home in Te Aroha. He spoke briefly about his youthful distaste for sentimentality and his efforts to avoid it at all costs in his own music – though he then admitted, rather like Noel Coward once remarking on “the potency of cheap music”, that he’d since discovered “something about it”. He added, a little ruefully, that, though his father didn’t really care for his arrangements of the songs, he had an uncle who did like them very much.

Tenor Richard Greager led off with “Two Little Girls in Blue”, a song whose words brought forth wry grins at the convolutions of the age-old “eternal triangle” situation – one here with a bit of a difference – “and one little girl in blue, lad / who won your father’s heart / became your mother, I married the other / but now we have drifted apart….”. Rather like Benjamin Britten’s piano accompaniments for his folk-song settings, these began by supporting the tune, but then seemed to do their best to try and destabilize it – at a previous concert at which I heard these songs performed, the pianist on that occasion, Bruce Greenfield, affectionately described the accompaniments as “quite mad”!

Having enjoyed Richard Greager we were now treated to the rich, balladic tones of Margaret Medlyn, singing Body’s setting of “Genevieve” – a wonderful “open” accompaniment took flight along with the singer’s excitingly vertiginous vocal line and the help of the string quartet, which joined in with the music throughout the last verse, the tones at the end oscillating upwards and disappearing.

With the third song came the audience’s chance to make its presence really felt – a grand, chordal accompaniment supported both singers and the quartet players, while, after each introductory couplet massed voices were raised on high with the words “All through the night”. The instrumental building blocks of sound supported the melodic line beautifully, and it was left to pianist Jian Liu to play a brief, rapt chordal postlude, which he did, before reverting to a clipped “that’s it, folks!” manner for the final chord.

Very great acclamation for the composer at the concert’s end, from fellow-performers and audience alike. There’s evidently an Auckland concert coming up (30th April) at the University, featuring different repertoire to what we heard tonight. One can only wish Jack Body all the best for this concert and for further fulfilments of exploration, engagement and completion by the year’s end.  To you, Jack, every possible satisfaction and a richly-wrought sense of fulfillment on the occasion of your 70th birthday and the completion of a remarkable year.



A rare conjuction of string octets, Enescu, Shostakovich, Mendelssohn, from the Amici Ensemble

Waikanae Music Society

Shostakovich: Two pieces for String Octet, Op.11
Enescu: String Octet in C, Op. 7
Mendelssohn: Octet in E flat, Op.20

The Amici Ensemble (Donald Armstrong, Kristina Zelinska, Rebecca Struthers, Malavika Gopal violins; Andrew Thomson, Lyndsay Mountfort violas; Andrew Joyce, Sophie Williams cellos

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 13 April 2014, 2.30pm

An interesting programme performed by fine musicians is always an attraction – even on a gorgeously sunny, warm day in spring.  That’s what I wrote as the introduction to a September 2012 review of this ensemble.  This time, despite 24deg. last Sunday in Waikanae, it was chilly and damp.  On that 2012 occasion, they played Enescu; this time it was a much more extended work by that composer; Donald Armstrong said this was a New Zealand premiere, as far as he had been able to discover.   It is a rare event to hear octets; even a luxury.

Assembling this number of players is quite problematic, and all praise to Donald Armstrong for giving us three such works.  The concert was not only well attended, with probably over 400 patrons, it was also a very attentive audience.

I had just been told before sitting down, about the possibility of a siren going off, summoning the Volunteer Fire Brigade (I had never heard it at the numerous concerts I have been to at the venue).  As Donald Armstrong began to speak into the microphone, that is exactly what happened!   The locals knew, but he didn’t, that a second sounding would follow; his second attempt had to be aborted.
However, if it had to go off, it was perfectly timed, before a note had been played.

Among Armstrong’s prefatory remarks was one about the lightness of texture of these octets, there being no parts for double bass.  The ensemble was seated as two quartets, i.e. violas were seated separately, between cellists and violinists; the violinists changed positions for each item.

The remarkable thing about this concert was that each composition was written before the respective composers had reached their twentieth birthdays; Mendelssohn was only 16 when he wrote his wonderful Octet.  As the heading to the programme notes had it “The works in today’s concert were all written by great composers when they were very young.  They are vibrant, energetic works that demonstrate the emerging genius of their creators.”

The first Shostakovich piece was a Prelude, written in memory of a friend, a young poet. It began crisply, yet the playing was sonorous.  There was a chorale-like opening, but immediately the music became dissonant, (it was written in 1924, before Stalin and his strictures on all forms of artistic endeavour) then sad, even gloomy.  Solo passages for violist Andrew Thomson were followed by a pizzicato dirge, and then by an animated section.  Poignant slow suspensions intensified the mood.

The Scherzo, in contrast, was not only fast, but also furious at the beginning, and then became soulful, especially in a cello melody.  There were spiky, strong rhythms, and the ending was briskly energetic. The work certainly demonstrated the composer’s early talent and skill, and indeed those of the players as well.

George Enescu was a Romanian composer, but lived most of his life in Paris, where he was a virtuoso violinist and teacher (Yehudi Menuhin was a pupil) and composer. His quite lengthy and grand quartet in four movements was taxing for the players.

At the beginning of the first movement, parts were quite often in unison between two or more instruments.  Gorgeous melodies and striking harmonies fell easily on the ear, as did the quiet pizzicato while a viola solo was played. Then came the second movement, with some strident, declamatory passages.   The third movement was played with mutes, giving a sombre, yet smooth and peaceful effect to the chords.  Violin melodies were played over slow, interrupted chords on the lower instruments. Intensity and utter accuracy typified the playing of this movement .  There was much pizzicato, beautifully done, and many unexpected elements.  It was a commanding performance that held the audience’s attention.

The final movement, ‘Mouvement de valse bien rythmée’ ranged over tonalities and octaves.  Though marked ‘waltz’ it would not have been easy to dance to!  A strong cello and viola melody stood out.  Only in this movement did I begin to think that Enescu was somewhat long-winded – and then it ended.

The extraordinary Mendelssohn work was written one hundred years before the  Shostakovich Prelude.  In my book, the former is one of the top ten, if not the top six, works of chamber music. The sublime musical ideas start from the dramatic opening, a rising phrase that builds in dynamics as it rises in pitches.  A mood of youthful exuberance pervades the writing, for the most part pervading the Amici playing too.  Nevertheless, quiet passages were rendered beautifully.  Breadth, elegance and soaring melodies are abundant in this glorious music.

The second movement opens with the violas, then a cello is added, succeeded by an ethereal melody.  The second theme is equally lovely.  Armstrong’s phrasing and timbre were a delight in his extended solo. Rich and ever-changing sonorities characterised the movement.   The Scherzo (allegro leggierissimo) was indeed light and fantastic, presaging the composer’s later ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ music.

This was followed by the dynamism of the fugal final movement. Such complexity from a 16-year-old! The reiteration of Handel’s music to the words ‘And he shall reign for ever and ever’ in the Hallelujah chorus (Messiah) had been pointed out by Donald Armstrong. There it was, passing from instrument to instrument, the theme in the busy finale.

Sustained applause greeted the end of the work.  I felt privileged to have heard such an outstanding performance of Mendelssohn’s Octet, and to have heard for the first time the two preceding works. This was a demanding programme for the players, who deserved every plaudit they received.  If I had one reservation, it was that sometimes the cellos were rather dominating.  But there was little to detract from the marvellous achievement that this concert represented.


Splendour and Strife from the Wellington Chamber Orchestra

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:

BORODIN – Overture “Prince Igor” / BRUCH – Violin Concerto No.1 in G Minor
TCHAIKOVSKY – Symphony No.5 in E MInor Op.64

Simeon Broom (violin)
Rachel Hyde (conductor)

St Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday 13th April

There’s something about Russian music which makes for a kind of instant combustion of attraction for the listener – it’s a combination of energy, colour, feeling and fantasy that intoxicates the senses, so that other, more abstract considerations seem irrelevant in the midst of all the excitement. And yet, when you force yourself to stop thinking “wow!” and concentrate on “how?” you find the music possesses its own logic of design and advances its own priorities with the kind of sure-footed certainty and vision that marks out great and distinctive art.

But there’s the case of this particular Russian composer whom I’m thinking about, where he was too preoccupied with his other interests and activities to actually get whole sections of his works properly completed –  what’s remarkable is that his music, as completed by his colleagues after his death, still possessed these aforementioned qualities in abundance, for goodness’s sakes! You’d be right in thinking that it’s Alexander Borodin (1833-1887) whom I’m referring to, though if you hadn’t glanced at the review’s heading you might have spared a thought for Modeste Musorgsky, another Russian composer for whom life even more seriously got in the way of music, with a number of compositions having to be “edited” after he died, a self-ravaged dipsomaniac.

One could say that the music of Borodin shares a lot of characteristics in common with that of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, fellow-composer-colleague, so that the effect of having the latter work on the former’s music for much of the time resembles the “rescue operation” activities of a kind of posthumous “alter ego”. But because Borodin’s music emerges from these rejuvenations sounding practically as much like Borodin as do the original, completed works, it suggests a uniquely-focused creative spirit was at work, one whose music with its distinctive harmonic and lyrical qualities has the mark of a genius.

So it is with the Overture to Borodin’s unfinished opera “Prince Igor” – both Rimsky-Korsakov and another composer-colleague, Alexander Glazunov completed the composer’s unfinished sketches of parts of the opera, with the latter taking on the job of reconstructing the Overture. Glazunov himself recorded that he composed the music “roughly according to Borodin’s plan”, using themes from other parts of the opera and from associated fragments. He modestly admitted that “a few bars at the very end were composed by me”, though, as with the rest of the reconstructions, the spirit of Borodin seems to shine out of every episode.

You could hear that distinctive voice immediately make its presence felt in the opening bars of the Overture which began the Wellington Chamber Orchestra’s first concert of the 2014 season. Conductor Rachel Hyde asked for and got a dark, rich sound from her players at the outset, the strings digging deep and the winds, though not perfectly in accord with their tuning, still bringing out that curious blend of splendor and plangency so characteristic of Russian music. I noticed that, for this concert, the brass and some of the percussion were brought out of the recessed altar area at the top of the steps, and into the more open performing-space, with a much more integrated, rounded-sound effect, to my untutored ears, than in previous orchestral concerts.

Though both winds and strings stumbled at the beginning of that trickily syncopated second subject melody, the playing brought out plenty of the music’s rhythmic excitement throughout – what a fine time the winds had with their “galloping” rhythms in places!  I liked, also, the antiphonal calls of the brass and the sheer “presence” of the tuba at crisis-points, sensationalist that I am!  As well, the horn solo was beautifully managed and the strings replied in kind with appropriate fervour. Despite the occasional spills one had a sense of conductor and players’ properly engaging with the music’s sheer physicality, a quality that’s needed for Russian music in particular to work its magic and properly stir the blood.

The orchestra has enjoyed collaborations with some pretty amazing concerto soloists over the years, and this concert continued in that tradition, with violinist Simeon Broom giving us the evergreen G Minor Concerto by Max Bruch, something of a “calling card” for virtuoso players. Broom has recently returned to New Zealand after ten years of study and performing in Europe to take up a place in the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. On this showing he can certainly lay claim to considerable accomplishment as a soloist, bringing to the music here a wonderfully burnished tone and plenty of interpretative imagination – a momentary lapse of concentration during one of the double-stopped descents in the first movement a minor blip in the otherwise fluent performance flow.

I thought the orchestral support for Broom wholehearted and finely-wrought, Rachel Hyde getting on-the-spot attack from all sections and some lovely moments of collaboration with the solo violin line. Detailings such as the winds’ series of descending phrases counterpointing the solo line leading up to the “big” tutti gave particular pleasure.

The soloist’s eloquent playing of the cadenza was superbly capped off by the orchestra’s precise attack leading to the music’s gear-change into the slow movement. Broom’s lovely spinning-out of the lyrical lines here, though not absolutely note-perfect, created a lovely frisson of feeling and  and atmosphere, one which built inexorably towards the movement’s great and glorious outpouring of heart-on-sleeve emotion, a process in which conductor and orchestra played their part lyrical and nobly.

The finale was launched strongly and expectantly by the orchestra, a touch of less-than-perfect ensemble mattering not to the argument, and advanced beautifully by the soloist with some stunning upward runs. Rachel Hyde and the players held the big moments firmly and in focus, while at the same time keeping the ebb and flow of exchange with the solo instrument vibrant. The brief and exciting coda was thrown off by all concerned with great aplomb. Altogether this was a performance which gave considerable delight to we listeners.

What seemed like sterner business was afforded by the Tchaikovsky E Minor Symphony after the interval, a work whose considerable technical and interpretative demands were bravely, if not altogether easefully, tackled by the musicians. I thought the two middle movements the most successful, each featuring some skillful solo playing and some nicely dove-tailed ensemble, as well as tremendous surgings of tone and energy when required. The outer movements each had their moments, but each I felt lacked that last ounce of energy and edge in certain other places which would have suitably invigorated the music’s overall impact.

But details such as the slow movement’s tricky horn solo, and the clarinet figurations in support were beautifully done, as was a lovely “afterglow” effect at the movement’s very end, thanks to some hushed string-playing and (again) some lovely clarinet work. And in the third-movement Waltz I loved the horns’ eerie stopped tones and the wonderfully balletic string “scurryings” and other “Nutcracker-like” gestures from the winds, so characterful and colourful.

The Symphony began well, with those dark, suggestive clarinet tones so characteristic of the composer, and some deep and sonorous lower-strings support – however, despite Rachel Hyde’s suitably “energized” tempo for the allegro, the wind players seemed to let their figurations coagulate, slowing the music’s pulse down in places, to the point of dragging. Away from the step-wise rhythm, things were more animated, the strings’ marvellously expressive tune sung fervently and the brass chiming in and tightening things up when they could. But the overall pulse of the movement for me simply lacked enough underlying forward momentum to make the music work – a question not necessarily of tempo, but as much to do with accent and phrasing, and of things being kept alive and purposeful.

The “attacca” into the last movement was, however, just the job! – and, indeed, the whole of the introduction had both girth and momentum, the conductor holding things together splendidly, though the succeeding Allegro energico’s stuttering figurations and syncopated entries led a few players momentarily astray. Brass and timpani made the most of their big “motto theme” statements, pushinging the rest of the orchestra through the vortex-moments of the development section. Matters concerning ensemble did come to a head with the reprise of those stutterings and syncopations (an extended sequence, this time!), where, in the midst of the ensuing dislocations, Rachel Hyde had to very properly stop the players and start again, most resolutely at the flash-point of the troubles! But the players grasped the nettle and made the sequence work the second time through, so honour was restored.

While the symphony didn’t consistently “fire” it had its worthwhile moments – and the playing from all concerned in the other two items did both the music and the musicians proud.



Superb performance of Renaissance Easter music by Tudor Consort

The Tudor Consort, Directed by Michael Stewart

Music for Holy Week

Lamentationes Hieremiae Feria sexta in Parasceve à 5, Orlande de Lassus
Et egressusest, Manuel Cardoso
Da Jesus an den Kreuze stund , Michael Praetorius
Stabat Mater, John Browne
Christus factus est, Felice Anerio
Incipit lamentation Jeremiae prophetae, Thomas Tallis
In monte Oliveti, Sarum chant
De lamentation Jeremiae prophetae, Thomas Tallis
Ne irascaris Domine satis/Civitas sancti tui, William Byrd

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul

Saturday 12 April 2014

This Lenten programme for Holy Week offered some acknowledged treasures of Renaissance a
choral music, with the opening item being the first lesson for Good Friday from the five voice setting of Lassus’ Lamentations. It was a beautifully controlled, contemplative interpretation which established an atmosphere of deep lament, and it was given a breadth of tempo that enabled the cadences to resolve clearly in the echoing acoustic of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Yet there was always momentum to carry the effortless, floating sound through the space in the idioms so indelibly associated with the great European cathedral choirs.

The following Et egressus est by Portuguese composer Manuel Cardoso continued a similar contemplative approach, with the interweaving lines of polyphony beautifully balanced. The prophet’s closing admonition to Jerusalem to “return to the Lord your God” was not a fiery tub-thumping catapult, but a moving plea in keeping with the somber reflection of the earlier verses. The short chorale of Praetorius is set for double choir although they sing simultaneously almost throughout, so their  distinctive parts were not distinguishable from the body of the nave where I was sitting. This did not seem any drawback however, and the work highlighted the warm, rich tones this ensemble produces so well.

The Stabat Mater dolorosa is by composer John Browne, of whom nothing is known other than his ten surviving works in the Eton Choirbook, which is considered a most prized collection of early Tudor music. The programme noted that Browne’s style “typically pits a group of solo singers against lush full choir sections, and employs incredibly florid rhythms”. The spare sound of the solo group sections was, in fact, a very effective mechanism to provide a contrasting relief from the unbroken, full bodied sound of the tutti group which, in a text of this length, can become overwhelming, especially in the swirling reverberation of spaces like the Eton chapel and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Clear diction is not attainable in such places; what is so effectively provided is the colour and mood of worshipful devotion created by the music, where even the humblest medieval peasant, illiterate and ignorant of Latin, might perceive the brush strokes of the Celestial Painter in myriad hues.

After the interval we heard the brief Christus factus est from the pen of Anerio, who followed Palestrina in 1594 as official papal composer, the most prominent position for a composer in Rome. The writing and singing was full of richness, and this work actually provided the clearest diction of the evening.

The lamentations of Jeremia were performed with a brief Sarum chant setting of Jesus’ prayer In Monte Oliveti interposed between verses 1-2 and verses 3-5, and in Tallis’s original scoring for Alto, two Tenors and two Basses. This was a good programming choice, as the lower voice registers provided a contrast with the constant ringing soprano sound, which benefits from intermittent relief in such reverberant spaces when it is not broken up by spoken or intoned liturgy. It also gave the chance to appreciate better the quality of the alto and male voices in the group. Michael Stewart’s direction here again amply demonstrated that he understood how best to complement the acoustics of St. Paul’s, enhancing the music with the pauses and intervals of silence it needs if its artistry is to be fully realised.

The evening closed with Byrd’s wonderful motet Ne irascaris Domine, which the programme described as “one of a number that Byrd wrote to reflect the tribulations of the persecuted Catholic population during the reign of Elizabeth I”. This plaintive text can be read as a cry of despair from ‘papists’ living in Protestant England at the time, lamenting the desolation of their fate and pleading for God’s mercy. It is full of rich, full writing, where the soprano lines do not stray into the upper stratosphere, yet the choir produced a beautifully balanced, floating sound enhanced, as always, by impeccable intonation and wonderfully shaped phrasing and cadences.

I found myself pondering the immense power of words, music, and traditions to shape our views of historical events. Holy Week is a time marked by the church for contemplating the crucifixion and its significance for Christianity. What was surely a hideously sordid crowd puller, and the most painful method of Roman execution, has been transformed by such words, music, and traditions into an occasion of spiritual contemplation clothed in transcendent holiness. The chaste white altar drapery, the simple ‘candle’ lights borne by the choristers, and the paired arches of palm fronds in the nave all helped set a scene that was played out with superb artistry and wonderful musicianship by Michael Stewart and The Tudor Consort. Wellington is very privileged to have opportunities such as this to hear the European choral tradition presented at its very best.


Exhilarating and musicianly recital by senior NZSM students

St. Andrews Lunchtime Concert Series

Duo Cecilia – Lucy Gijsbers (cello), Andrew Atkins (piano)

Camille Saint-Saëns: Sonata for cello and piano in C minor (1st movement)
Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996): Sonata for cello and piano No. 2, Op. 68 (movements 1 and 2)
Claude Debussy:  L’Isle Joyeuse for solo piano
Astor Piazzolla: Le Grand Tango for cello and piano

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 9 April, 12:15 pm

Duo Cecilia plunged into the opening Saint-Saëns sonata of this concert with a riveting fortissimo
that immediately had everyone sitting up in their seats. This impassioned Latin fire blazed through the initial section with unrelenting fervour, then was beautifully contrasted by the following calmer piano episode, where the melodic writing for the lower cello register saw Lucy Gijsbers’ rich, sweet tone sing through with wonderful artistry. The two musicians clearly shared a common vision for
the movmeent and its many moods, and mostly moved as one. But in the most energetic fortissimo sections, even Gijsbers’ impressive power could not speak through the volume that Atkins produced from a concert grand piano open on full stick. This was a balance problem that continued to recur from time to time throughout the programme, particularly in fortissimo passages.

A careful preliminary sound check in the St. Andrew’s space could have taken care of this, and should not have been overlooked. These younger musicians will have to perform in all manner of spaces throughout their careers, and it is an important issue to come to grips with right from the start.

Weinberg was a Soviet composer of Polish-Jewish origin. From 1939 he lived in the Soviet Union and Russia and lost most of his family in the Holocaust.

Andrew Atkins explained that the composer was interned in a concentration camp until he was released after Stalin’s death, and that this was the first New Zealand performance of Sonata no.2. The movements played, while not specifically programmatic, were full of the moods and idioms that one associates with a life of loss, repression and persecution.  The soulful, poetic opening, with its unsettled tonalities, moved into more anguished dissonance as the movement progressed, but eventually resolved into fading resignation ……….

The second movement opened with a beautifully shaped cello melody voicing the pathetic despair of a soul without hope, yet one still able somehow to discern a faint glimmer of light on the horizon. The following repetitive pizzicato phrase sounded like a finger tapping helplessly on the door to freedom, but it was taken up by the more passionate and demanding voice of the dissonant piano that eventually passed it back to resolve in a few final fading pizzicati. The writing was extraordinarily evocative throughout, and was given a highly moving and sensitive interpretation by Duo Cecilia. I hope they will in due course be able to perform the work as a whole, and perhaps also give voice to more of this composer’s work.

Andrew Atkins explained that the next piece came from one of the happiest periods in Debussy’s life, and that L’Isle Joyeuse was written on the honeymoon of his second marriage. It opens with scurrying handfuls of notes that sweep across the keyboard like glittering reflections over rippling waters. There is a lovely melodic line traced through all the shimmering texture, but unfortunately Atkins opted for a tempo that simply swallowed this up, playing at a speed well ahead of the French or French Canadian recordings I’ve heard. But the contrasting gentle interludes fared better and conveyed a deep contentment. The vigorous, animated conclusion rounded out a reading that was, overall, very well executed.

The Piazzolla work, though named Le Grand Tango, has to my ear only a rather cerebral connection with the familiar idioms of the dance floor. The opening bustle of notes from both instruments does lead into a more melodic piano section, and more recognisable tango dance rhythms are discernible through the handfuls of pianist’s notes. But then a gentler more melodic central section captures an almost soulful mood of intimate courtship which was beautifully expressed by the duo. Finally a sudden shift takes us into sharply angular dance rhythms and dissonant tonalities which they attacked with suitable vigour, racing headlong into the frankly noisy closing section where rampant lust is clearly let loose!

It was an exhilarating finish to a most accomplished and musicianly recital from two very competent players. It is a pity it was so poorly attended, though the sudden descent of Wellington’s long Indian Summer into miserable drizzle and low cloud could well have had a lot to do with that.


Jeffrey Grice – “interprète extraordinaire” at the NZSM

Te Kōkī – New Zealand School of Music presents:
Piano recital by Jeffrey Grice

Gounod / Liszt – Hymne à Sainte Cécile
Lucien Johnson – To the sea (Shimmer – Scuttle – Still)
Debussy – Estampes
Jenny McLeod – Tone Clock Piece no 5 (Vive Messiaen)
Lilburn – Sonatina No.2 / Ravel – Sonatine
Chopin – 24 Preludes Op. 28

Jeffrey Grice (piano)

Adam Concert Room, NZ School of Music,

Kelburn, Wellington

 Monday 7th April, 2014

Christchurch-born Jeffrey Grice studied with Janetta McStay and Brian Sayer at Auckland University, before winning a bursary in 1976 to study in France with Yvonne Loriod and Germaine Mounier. Since that time he has mostly lived in or been closely associated with France, though he’s kept his antipodean connections humming with regular advocacy of new works by both Australian and New Zealand composers.

Grice’s recent Adam Concert Room recital demonstrated those sympathies amply, with performances of two works which had in the past been premiered by the pianist – Lucien Johnson’s To the Sea, and Jenny McLeod’s Tone-Clock No.5 (Vive Messiaen) – as well as a more “established” piece by a New Zealand composer, Douglas Lilburn’s Sonatina No.2.

Well might this recital have been called “Living Echoes” with such things in mind – but the remainder of the programme’s items took on much the same qualities of freshness and immediacy throughout what I considered to be an evening’s remarkable music-making. One had an almost palpable sense of the pianist spontaneously reliving each of the composers’ actual creative processes, so that the music leapt, burst, burgeoned, floated, trickled or resounded from the sometimes metaphorical music-pages as if for the first time.

I imagined that what we listeners experienced was akin to the kind of playing that would have proliferated in an earlier age which more readily accepted, and, indeed, expected Beethoven’s famous attributed dictum – “the idea counts more than its execution” – to be observed in performance. Not that Grice’s actual execution of the notes was in any way deficient or insufficient in quality to realize the music – in fact, the reverse was the case, with technical gestures and processes seemingly wrought by the music at every stage, rather than simply “applied” from without. It was playing which repeatedly made one ask “why?” and “why not?”, instead of “how?”

Sensing that words are beginning to fail me, here, I shall move quickly onto the content of the actual program, some of which has already been touched upon. Whether by accident, instinct or design, Grice’s first item brought us face-to-face with a composer whose skill as a performer was regarded by many as that of one of the greatest of recreative artists of all time, Franz Liszt.

Perhaps one’s initial reaction to the latter’s “arrangement” of Charles Gounod’s violin-and-piano piece Hymne à Sainte Cécile might well be along the somewhat reproving lines of “Gounod, hi-jacked by Liszt!” – but as the energies and intensities of Liszt’s elaborations upon Gounod’s music expanded and flourished, a kind of radiance began to cast its glow over the sounds and associated resonances, a veritable beatification of the rather plain original, proclaiming the process to be the work of a genius.

I thought Grice’s playing all-encompassing in its range of expression generated not only on the saint’s, but on the composers’ behalf, from the “charged” softly-brushed fingerwork of the prayerful opening, to the orchestral grandeur of the concluding declamations. Gounod himself may have never heard the work in its Lisztian form, but he would surely have approved of its new-found expansiveness and enlargement of expression.

A marvellous contrast of mood came with New Zealand -born, sometimes French-domiciled jazz composer Lucien Johnson’s three-part work from 2007 To the Sea, with its three subtitled parts Shimmer, Scuttle, Still. The opening brought both distant and more immediate kinds of sonorities between the hands, trills and repeated notes in the treble and shifting shadow-chords in the bass, the whole enlivened occasionally by scintillations of light and energy,

Scuttle was more insistent, its agitations expressed through tremolandi and ostinati-like figurations, the patternings further energizing the harmonies and and textures, with a particularly volatile, free-wheeling right hand bringing plenty of surface excitement to the soundscape. Dramatic then, indeed, was the change to Still, everything at once cut adrift amid cool, spacious chords and occasional widely-spaced leaps, rather like fish suddenly jumping from still waters – the delicious cluster-chords amid the ambient spaces gently coloured the music’s evocations of timelessness.

One could go on enumerating the manifold delights of the recital’s remaining performances and finish up with a lengthy treatise somewhat beyond this review’s scope, one perhaps taking longer to read than the pianist took to play the music! With the exception of Grice’s revelatory presentation of the Chopin Op.28 Preludes, over which I need to hover and ponder and wonder anew at the recreative daring of it all, I can content myself, however regretfully, with snatches of impressions of the Debussy, Jenny McLeod, Lilburn and Ravel items.

Debussy’s Estampes was a miracle of different evocations, the first of the three parts, “Pagodes”, delivered rapidly and mistily, seeming almost overpedalled in effect at first, but making its point all too clearly by comparison with the arresting surge of focused tone from what one imagined to be the largest of the gamelan instruments the piano was imitating. In “La Soirée dans Grenade”, the “Habanera rhythm carried all before it, but with the utmost flexibility of line and while maintaining a sultry, hypnotic atmosphere – Grice managed the mutterings and impetuous scamperings of the ad.lib. guitar passages with perfect ease and fluidity. Finally, with “Jardins sous la Pluie”, the playing resembled an impressionistic blur, the lightest of touches producing an almost alchemic effect, with pianistic detail brushed in amid the fantastic flourishes – exhilarating!

Jenny McLeod’s “Messiaenic” tribute from the fifth piece of her Tone Clock series had an engaging “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” aspect, the piece coming almost straight out of the French composer’s “Catalogue d’ Oiseaux”, and having a wonderful clamour alternating with sequences evoking nicely “charged ” silences. There were connections echoing connections when Grice played a piece by Douglas Lilburn, McLeod’s composition teacher, to follow –  this was Lilburn’s Sonatina No.2, a work whose exquisitely-voiced evocations readily bore out the pianist’s contention that Lilburn subliminally echoed impulses found in Ravel’s Sonatine – Grice played for us a particular figuration which Lilburn seemed to have uncannily “copied” from Ravel, in spirit if not exactly in letter.

In Grice’s characteristically fleet-of-finger performance of the French work, I confess to missing, in the first movement, that vein of melancholy which peers out as do eyes from behind a glittering mask, in much of Ravel’s music. The remaining two movements were, however, beautifully paced, the pianist again favouring a very “ambient” keyboard texture, whose focus cleared for the more forceful animations, with magnificently cascading passages (Grice had a second “go” at the opening of the final headlong plunge, which meant that, in the frisson of this moment we unexpectedly got double the pleasure!)…..

As for the Chopin Preludes, it took only a few seconds of the opening to indicate that the pianist was to give us something special and distinctive, his shaping of the piece’s dynamics alive with possibilities, and the upward-thrusting arpeggiated rhythms so impulsively and freely figured. Both Hans von Bülow and Alfred Cortot somewhat notoriously “named” each of the Preludes, doing literally what interpreters of this music worth their salt would do anyway, however subjectively or otherwise – draw from each piece a poetic, theatrical or dramatic idea which fuses performance and interpreter with these representations of the music’s essence.

It seemed to me that Grice took absolutely nothing for granted, neither notes nor pauses between, as if he was freshly rediscovering the pieces and expressing his delight in the process of engagement with them. Resisting the temptation to revisit my pleasure at every single one of his individual explorations, I’ll regretfully content myself with a handful of instances, remarking firstly, however, on the spontaneously-wrought fusion of many of the pieces, progressions which seemed perfectly organic and natural as they occurred.

To be absolutely truthful, singling out individual Preludes for comment from this performance feels akin to creating a Chopinesque equivalent of Wagner’s “bleeding chunks” from his operas, so organic was Grice’s thinking throughout the work. Still, I can’t abide the thought of not sharing my delight in moments such as the “dying fall” of the repeated chords in the well-known No.7 in A Major – Grice obviously siding with Cortot’s description of the music involving “memories floating like perfumes”, rather than Bülow’s “Polish dancer”. And the drama of contrast created by the following agitato suggests also Cortot’s description of an “internalized” tempest, something quite raw and gut-wrenching.

Grice brought to every piece a similar kind of “edge”, suggesting some kind of lurking fear or disturbed awareness of chaos or oblivion – even the relatively placid Preludes seemed “haunted” by either where the music had been, or what was to follow. By the time we came to the final trio of pieces we were “well-tenderised” by the somewhat fraught nature of the various exchanges, with darkness either predominating or framing the more lucid episodes. So the G Minor No.22’s sombre, agitated angularities seemed “relieved” by the following F Major’s gently-flowing fluidity, the mood reminiscent of parts of Liszt’s “Suisse” book from his “Années de Pèlerinage”.

However, repose was banished by the set’s finale, appropriately marrying the Allegro appassionato marking with the key of D Minor, and with Grice’s total involvement in the “ordered chaos” of it all underlined by the rhythmic counterpointing of his feet on the floor in front of the pedals. A great downward cascade of notes at the piece’s end and a dark, brutal sounding of the note D brought the piece, the set and the recital to a properly sobering finish….after we gobsmacked folk in the audience had taken a few moments to draw breath once again, we were able to justly acclaim the achievement of both performer and composer – truly and deeply memorable!