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











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