Programme ‘by popular request’ calls for wide-ranging period and stylistic variety from The Tudor Consort

The Tudor Consort conducted by Michael Stewart

By Popular Request

Frank Martin: Mass for Double Choir – Kyrie
De Lassus: ‘Matona mia cara’
Josquin des Prez: Missa ‘L’homme armée’Gloria
John Dunstaple: ‘Veni sancte spiritus’
Stanford: The Bluebird
Pärt: Summa (Credo)
Allegri: ‘Miserere mei’
Vaughan Williams: Mass in G minor – Sanctus/Osanna I/Benedictus/Osanna II
Byrd: ‘Ave verum corpus’ and Agnus Dei from Mass for Four Voices

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Hill Street

Saturday 30 May 2014

It seemed a good idea: invite their subscribers/audiences to suggest music to be sung at the next concert, which should ensure a good audience, comprising those who’d submitted ideas and lots of others, who would be curious about the result of the game.

But it was a cold night, though fine and clear, and maybe there was something unmissable on television, and since I’d arrived about 7.15pm I waited for the church to fill. It didn’t.

Swiss composer Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir is probably one of his best known works, yet he held it back for forty years, feeling that it was too private a communication with his deity to be exposed to the rude masses (my gloss). The ‘doubleness’ of the music refers to the number of parts, yet it was curious to have it sung by this pretty small choir (16).

The Kyrie opens with what is described as a ‘quasi-plainchant’, spare and ethereal but it soon expands to involve the whole choir, and the two pleas ‘Kyrie eleison’ and ‘Christe eleison’ are in stark contrast between calm beauty and serious agitation. The singers dramatized it with a feeling of driving conviction.

There could hardly have been a greater contrast with the next piece, of 450 years earlier. A delightfully bawdy little ditty, ‘Matona mia cara’, from the 16th century master of religious polyphony, Orlando de Lassus (you can take your choice of variations from Roland de Lassus, Orlande de Lassus, Orlando di Lasso, Orlandus Lassus, or Roland de Lattre). Though he was equally famous for his chansons.

This was a song sung by a German lancer who attempts to woo an Italian girl in very basic Italian muddled with Spanish and German, employing ill-understood, suggestive words that just might have succeeded with a fairly knowing and susceptible lady. Even the onomatopoeia had an erotic ring to it and the choir evidently enjoyed themselves. So did we.

The music moved another century back to a Mass by Josquin des Prez, one of two based on the widely popular L’homme armée, this one on the sixth tone, in other words the Aeolian Mode, equivalent to A minor. They chose the Gloria which is opened by a tenor followed by sopranos and altos, and the tune lent the setting a character that modern ears could more easily absorb than is often the case with Renaissance polyphony; this in spite of the sophistication of the counterpoint. Most striking perhaps was the lengthy Amen in canonic style. Even more striking however was the sheer skill and idiosyncratic familiarity of the choir, including the voices that were given solo episodes here and elsewhere.

Then came a motet by English composer John Dunstaple (most of us are probably more familiar with the spelling Dunstable) who lived half a century before Josquin: Veni sancte spiritus, ‘Come holy spirit’. (You’d expect both the adjective sancte and the noun Spiritus to have the same ending. Sancte is the vocative case, used to address people, Spiritus must also be in that case but with the ending ‘–us’ is presumably a fourth declension word where the vocative takes the same ending, as the nominative case.)

Here was the only intrusion by non-voice in the concert: bass Timothy Hurd (otherwise known as the City Carillonist) produced a tenor dulzian (or dulcian), the predecessor of the bassoon, though I suppose the several smaller members of the dulcian family might be closer to the shawm, the oboe’s ancestor. This lent the music a very distinct quality, in addition to the interest of the structure and rhythm of the short line of the Medieval Latin verses that recall parts of the Carmina Burana.

Then a leap five hundred years toward the present with a short and lovely part-song, The Bluebird, by Stanford, evocative and a little sentimental, where soprano Erin King sang the touching solo part. With Arvo Pärt’s Summa, his setting of the Credo, came the only piece from the late 20th century: faced with the words, I was struck for the first time by the way the music seems to move, or not move, in reflection of the words, denying the singers much opportunity for tonal or dynamic variety. The choir performed immaculately.

By this stage it had struck me that while following suggestions of music for this concert, choir director Stewart had arranged them following the order of the Ordinary of the Mass, interspersed with motets and songs that could be considered as representing the Proper of the Mass.

The second half began with Allegri’s Miserere, with John Beaglehole singing the tenor part from the pulpit while four other soloists from the choir sang from the gallery. But for the first time in the evening the performance revealed characteristics that suggested a lack of confidence, even a lack of rehearsal that appeared in their handling of ornaments and even occasionally with intonation. There was no other item in the programme where I felt the choir had not quite the measure of the style of the early Italian 17th century.

The following movements from Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G minor also called for a group of soloists whose performances were an impressive demonstration of the strength and polish of the choir’s individual voices.  The Vaughan Williams Sanctus and Benedictus were marked by the most scrupulous intonation, articulation of varied tone and tempo changes.

Byrd’s Ave verum corpus for nine voices brought the choir back to its home territory, in a truly beautiful performance and, following the order of the Catholic liturgy, the concert ended with the Agnus Dei from the Mass for Four Voices. It found them in complete sympathy with the idiom, comfortable: the lines flowing and weaving with the ease that comes from familiarity and confidence.

The concert deserved a much larger audience.


Trio launches Hutt Valley’s Chamber Music season with élan

Chamber Music Hutt Valley presents:

BEETHOVEN – Piano Trio in E-flat major Op. 70 No.2
DEBUSSY – Sonata for violin and piano in G minor (1917)
Sonata for ‘cello and piano in D minor (1915)
BRAHMS – Piano Trio in C Major Op.87

Vesa-Matti Leppänen (violin) / Andrew Joyce (‘cello
Diedre Irons (piano)

Lower Hutt Little Theatre

Monday 26th May, 2014

That singular personality, Sir Thomas Beecham, renowned for his witticisms and droll observations, once remarked that music’s greatest gift to the world was “to free the human mind from the tyranny of conscious thought”. I couldn’t help thinking how profoundly this process was demonstrated by the first few bars of Beethoven’s beautiful E-flat Piano Trio, with which Vesa-Matti Leppänen, Andrew Joyce and Diedre Irons began their Lower Hutt concert on Monday evening.

Here were sounds devised and played with a spontaneity and wonderment which seemed to disarm everyday preoccupations and conjure up realms of beauty and fancy, simply for our delight and pleasure. As it began, so the music continued – apart from a brief minor-key episode in the Trio’s slow movement there was almost nothing of the darkness and drama conjured up by this work’s opus-partner, the renowned “Ghost” Trio.

From those opening, air-borne sounds, and the gently-insinuating rhythms propelling the first movement’s allegro, the players were able to explore a good deal of mood-variation, enjoying episodes of poised, classically-wrought beauty well as the more forthright rhythmic exchanges. In the second movement allegretto, the players preserved the charm of the major-key sequences (Diedre Irons’ piano by turns graceful and skitterish as required!) but wonderfully presided over the theme’s minor-key darkenings and sudden enlarging of the music’s expressive force, before delivering the soft/loud, somewhat Janus-faced ending.

After the somewhat Schubert-like, soulfully-played third movement (those major/minor piano-chord sequences surely must have resonated for the younger composer when devising HIS piano trios), the finale’s rushing energies properly re-invigorated things, the pianist having a wonderful time whirling through the figurations, and showing the way for her colleagues with great élan and vigour. I enjoyed the musicians’ vivid characterizations of the music’s different moods, the heroic merging with the poetic, the angular vying with the graceful, and the whole delivered with infectious enjoyment.

What a treat to have both of Debussy’s solo string-instrument sonatas (for violin and for ‘cello) presented within the same programme! These were among the last pieces (the Violin Sonata was actually the very last!) written by the composer, while in the throes of a final illness – they were planned as part of a series of six instrumental works, of which only three were completed (the third was a trio for flute, harp and viola).

In places in both sonatas one could hear the Debussy of old, with deft brush-strokes leaving behind the evocatively-hued harmonies and textures of a music style loosely called “impressionism”.  Right at the beginning of the Violin Sonata the pianist conjured magic from the air as it were with some simple chords to which the violin added an expressive, melancholy line, though later both instruments occasionally took up the dance, with coloristic sounds derived perhaps from gamelan, perhaps from Moorish influences – the vioiin’s exotic “bending” of its line at a couple of points, for example.

In the succeeding movements the hues became more pointillistic, as the violin tossed a couple of acerbic flourishes skyward, before taking up a droll “cakewalk-like” posture, the music’s gait by turns spiky and delicate in between moments of melancholy. Violinist Vesa-Matti Leppänen revelled in the music’s volatility, adroitly throwing off flourishes and as quickly gathering his tones in, nicely maintaining the music’s “light-and-shadow’ character. And Diedre Irons’ piano rippled like air “stirred and shaken”, matching the violinistic scamperings with irruptions and momentums leading to an exuberant close.

More forthright at the outset than its companion, the shorter ‘Cello Sonata mused in almost bardic response to the opening piano chords, with more than a hint of cool jazz coming out in Diedre Irons’ playing, both players firing off one another as the music’s agitations gathered weight and energy. What drolleries then, animated the pizzicato exchanges between the players in the second-movement Serenade! – the lines seemingly on the point of singing, occasionally,  but then breaking into dance-steps instead (a lovely, choreographed vibrato from Andrew Joyce and his instrument  at one point!).

And the spontaneous burst of energy from both players really made those opening dance figures of the finale hop! But what incredible changes of mood these two players were then required to realize, which they did, triumphantly – the Sargasso-Sea-like driftings of the textures, weighty- opaque oscillations somehow shed their bulk and built towards the dance figures once again…and then, fantastically adroit staccato exchanges positively scintillated amid verve-filled, dangerously-timed cadence-points, whose rhythmic precision at the music’s end made for exhilarating results.

How will Brahms sound next to all of this? I wondered, just before the concert’s final item, the C Major Piano Trio Op.87. Well, his music came through, thanks to some mightily “orchestral” playing from the Trio, which, throughout the first movement, helped to “grow” the music towards a wonderfully diversive and complex transformation.

In the second, theme-and-variations movement I was reminded here and there of Dvorak in his “gypsy” mode, a vein of melancholy threading its way through the various textures, the playing in places boldly and dramatically bringing out the feeling, while elsewhere quietly following its contourings.

I liked the scherzo’s deft touch of dark malevolence, the players also relishing the contrasting Trio’s ironic sense of well-being, before plunging back into the reprise of the mischief! Diedre Irons’ playing I thought superb, here, bringing both delicacy and glint to bear within the textures and rhythms, controlling the music’s volatilities with terrific gusto.

And the finale’s Allegro giocoso  marking could have been thought of at first as a Brahmsian joke, here, with spookily “gothic” effects in places (almost Lisztian, I thought – what was this “champion of the conservatives” thinking of?) – all very exciting! The players brilliantly caught the music’s sense of headlong flight, beautifully placing the near-obsessive three-note descending motif sequence and the more reflective nostalgic episode in the scheme of things, then completing the joke by almost brusquely rounding things off with a spectacular flourish. What a work and what a performance!

Orchestra Wellington confirms its stature in large scale late Romantic as well as Haydn, and honours Franz Paul Decker

Marc Taddei dedicates Bruckner’s 7th symphony with Orchestra Wellington to Franz-Paul Decker

Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei with Deborah Humble (mezzo soprano)

Haydn: Symphony No 84 in E flat ‘In nomine Domini’
Wagner: The Wesendonck Lieder
Bruckner: Symphony No 7 in E major

Cathedral of Saint Paul, Wellington

Saturday 24 May, 7 pm

Orchestra Wellington’s concerts in the second half of last year, banished from the Town Hall, took place in the Opera House. I missed both of those. The move to the Anglican cathedral might have been partly in the nature of an experiment, now that Wellington seems to be faced with the depressing news that strengthening of the Town Hall seems to have become more expensive and the city council seems ready to sacrifice yet another feature of Wellington as a sophisticated, culturally rich city, which is about all we have left, apart from Government, after the flight of manufacturing and most corporate head offices.

Gone are both one of the best concert halls in the country, the gem of a recital hall, as well as the fine city organ, and the splendidly spacious west foyers of the previous “strengthening” in the early 1980s. (By the way, who’s to be held responsible for an inadequate job back then?).

Before the start of the concert conductor Marc Taddei spoke about a loss of another kind: the death in Montreal on Monday 21 May of Franz-Paul Decker at the age of 90.

Decker had a 40-year association as Guest Conductor, Principal Conductor and Chief Conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Decker was perhaps the most gifted conductor to have had a long relationship with the orchestra.  He was said to have had a “love affair” with the NZSO since he first conducted it in 1966, when he was “very positively surprised [by its] highly professional musicians”. He said: “It is the longest relationship I have had with any orchestra in the world”.

Perhaps Decker’s last engagement was in Barcelona in November 2010 which concluded with Strauss’s ill-omened tone poem Death and Transfiguration.

Taddei said nothing could have been more appropriate to honour the memory of a conductor so devoted to and penetrating with his Bruckner performances than his seventh symphony.

The Haydn
The Cathedral was full, and the concert opened with one of Haydn’s ‘Paris’ symphonies, Nos 82-87, written through 1785-86 on a commission from a Paris orchestra, the Concert de la (Masonic) loge Olympique.  It was a very large orchestra, of amateurs and professionals.

The seats in the cathedral had been turned around so that the orchestra was at the west end and the audience’s back were to the sanctuary, perhaps in the hope that a less reverberant acoustic would exist. That may have been effective for the two symphonies, but it offered little to the orchestra or the singer in Wagner’s Wesendonck songs.

In fact the opening Largo of the first movement of Number 84 promised both a warm and full-blooded performance and an acoustic that treated the playing kindly enough. Its slow pace left plenty of room for the echo to fade without clutter. And even in the main Allegro part of the movement, a certain amount of overlapping of sounds did not bother me. In any case I am very partial to a large space that slightly rounds the edges of symphonic performance, up to a point.

What was more significant was the sheer size of the orchestra – around 75 – which displayed impressive polish and even opulence to the point of risking the censure of the more pedantic of the ‘historically informed’ performance devotees.

But the Paris commission gave Haydn the chance to compose for a considerably larger orchestra than he had at Esterhazy and it’s clear that he jumped at the chance to use larger forces. The slow movement, in a gentle triple (6/8) rhythm, seemed to be the heart of the music, as it so often is, and I found myself wallowing in the sounds of the fine brass, the lovely legato lines, the beguiling tunes, indeed, the elegance and charm of the orchestration as a whole.

The Minuet may have been typical for its time, but who else could have written with such elan and wit. Unlike many Minuets, the Trio middle section offered only minor change of rhythm and character; might the performance, with advantage, have given it more contrast?  Nor might the Vivace finale be revolutionary, but merely of far greater interest and delight than most of the music of the time, apart from his own and Mozart’s.

A propos, it’s interesting that the young Mozart, on his visit to Paris with his mother eight years earlier, also had success with his fine Paris Symphony; apart from that, his visit was disappointing, and his mother died in Paris.

Deborah Humble with Wagner
Deborah Humble had come from Australia to sing Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder. Here was where the contribution of the cathedral’s acoustic became a matter of some interest.  The very introductory notes seemed to be coming from varying and indistinct places, as if they were disconnected, without a coherent performance plan. No reflection on conductor or players at all, but simply the mischievousness of the space.

But that opening sounded different from my memory of other performances; the programme did not identify the source of the orchestration (Wagner himself only orchestrated the last song, ‘Traüme’), and the usual arrangement is by Wagner’s colleague Felix Mottl. There are also versions by Vieri Tosatti, and Hans Werner Henze. I had discounted the latter because it is described as ‘for chamber orchestra’, though with ‘unusual wind registration’.  I discovered later that what we heard and which may or may not have been helpful in the acoustic, was indeed by Henze: perhaps sparer orchestration seemed more likely to cope better with the space.

(To my chagrin, I found a performance of the Henze version sung by Mariana Lipovšek sitting on my sagging shelves).

The characteristics of the Henze orchestration were summarised for me by the orchestra’s General Manager, Adán Tijerina: ‘for low voice, and the special feature of the particular instrumentation is the use of deep instruments: alto flute, cor anglais, bass clarinet, contrabassoon’.

The voice enters quickly after the rather spare opening hints of mood, and it was obvious at once that Deborah Humble’s Wagner credentials were for real: a fine Wagner voice, large enough to cope with the orchestra surrounding her and that acoustic, though the latter did rather obscure the intelligibility of the words. (As an aside, last year I saw the last three parts of the Hamburg Ring cycle that she had sung in, but after her involvement had finished). Her most important recent engagement was in the Melbourne Ring last November/December, as Erda and Waltraute.

Those with Wagner embedded in their souls and memories were catching quotes from parts of the Ring, and especially Tristan which was emerging during the 1850s when Wagner was in exile in Zurich. Without that connection the songs are of course just as beautiful and fully expressive of the sense and emotion of the words and can even be heard as presaging the approaching expressionism of the end of the century. These were the characteristics of Humble’s performance, beautifully phrased, warm and rounded in the lower register, lustrous and spiritual as her lines went high into the soprano range, investing the songs with a dramatic quality that could be heard as the product of a totally theatrical performer.

Bruckner’s Seventh
I like to think many of us had come particularly for the rare chance to hear a big Bruckner symphony; the seventh is probably the best known and most popular, but its hour and ten minutes length no doubt deters many orchestral managements, though hardly the musicians and conductors (and besotted audience members).

What a thrill it was to be overwhelmed by the glorious opening melody, from an orchestra that might long have languished a bit in the shadow of its big sister in Wellington. Still with somewhat smaller forces than the NZSO might muster, there was simply no area that sounded in the least undernourished. The impact of the opulent strings, the lustrous woodwinds and finally the marvellous, gleaming brass given the final touch of grandeur by the presence of four Wagner tubas (strictly, they should be called ‘Wagner horns’), which Wagner had had made for the Ring cycle, to fill the sonic gap he felt existed between trombones and horns.

In fact, at least from my seat, about six rows from the front, the big space added the important element of a quasi-religious atmosphere that enhanced and enriched the sound, suggesting both a much bigger orchestra, not to mention a performance of huge authority (Taddei conducted without the score before him, always a mark of someone who has become utterly committed to the music).

It’s one of the works, like Wagner’s operas, which one rarely feels is too long; rather, there was a sense of bereavement at its eventual end, so strongly had conductor and orchestra sustained momentum, suspense, an awe that was spell-binding, wanting just another return to this or that episode. The effect was magnified by a unhurried pace of each movement lending the music even greater profundity.

This was a superb, imaginative programme, of music that was not-all-that-familiar but all of which exercises a strong pull for quite large numbers of the more musically knowledgeable and curious; not to mention the one uncontested masterpiece.

Though this orchestra, particularly at the hands of Marc Taddei, has given us a lot of very great performances in recent years, this concert, all of it, sounded to me like the most compelling, ultimate coming-of-age for Orchestra Wellington.


Innovative and balanced programme from Aroha Quartet at Waikanae

Waikanae Music Society

Mozart: String Quartet no.1 in G, K.80
Sam Piper: Dance of the Sidhe
Zhou Long: Eight Chinese Folk Songs
Schubert: String Quartet no.15 in G, D.887

Aroha String Quartet (Haihong Liu and Blythe Press, violins; Zhongxian Jin, viola; Robert Ibell, cello)

Waikanae Memorial Hall

18 May 2014, 2.30 pm

What immediately struck me was not that Mozart should have written such a quartet at the age of 14, remarkable as that is, but rather the beauty of the playing by the Aroha Quartet.  Their tone, subtle gradation of dynamics, their blend and balance were utterly disarming.  Unafraid of playing real pianissimos, these musicians brought much light and shade, and delicacy, to this, the first of Mozart’s string quartets.

The allegro second movement provided a considerable contrast, its fast tempi and lively expression taken together made it utterly unlike the almost dreamy first movement.  Juvenile high spirits were disciplined, however.

A precise minuet was full of graceful poetry, while its trio was a charmer, constrasting with the slightly more robust minuet.  Rondeau was quite a rollicking movement. Naturally, compared with Mozart’s later compositions, there was not the range of musical ideas here. Nevertheless it was well worth hearing, especially at the hands of these accomplished players.

I have heard works by young New Zealand composer Sam Piper before, but I rather think they were all choral.  Dance of the Sidhe (Irish ‘little people’) was made up of three short pieces.  The first, marked ‘furioso’ was sparkling and tuneful, mainly for violin with innovative accompaniment for the other instrumentalists, including clapping, finger-snapping, and tapping the instruments.  The second, “Dance of the Elder: largo con molto rubato’ began with a melody for cello, beautifully played, followed by the same on viola, while the others shimmered on repeated two note motifs.  There were lovely modal harmonies. The third piece, a presto, was more folksy in manner.  A spirited violin melody was accompanied by staccato from the other players.  This was fine playing of entertaining music.

It was very appropriate to have some Chinese music, with two Chinese musicians in the Quartet’s make-up.  The settings of eight folk songs, for which the titles were given in the programme were delightful, and as a description in the programme notes stated the composer’s music was ‘embedding elements of two cultures in a consistent, seamless, and original musical language’.  This was certainly true of the first one – a fine fusion.

The pieces were played without breaks.  The second, ‘Driving the mule team’ was very pictorial, the second violin creating the sound of the animal’s hooves by playing pizzicato on two strings together, while the others played legato melodies.

The third, ‘ The flowing stream’ was very descriptive of flowing water, and wistful longing.  ‘Jasmine flower’ was quite a spiky piece, in which the use of the pentatonic scale was very prominent. ‘A horseherd’s mountain song’ was a very rhythmic work song, in which the workmen uttered vocalisations.  Uncertainty or even querulousness entered into ‘When will the acacia bloom?’ about the young woman embarrassed at being caught waiting for her lover; the musicians treated it with sensitivity.  There were interesting cross-rhythms in the pizzicato parts.

Number 7, ‘A single bamboo can easily bend’ featured very sonorous cello, while the final ‘Leaving home’ was a busy piece that seemed to be more about travelling and work than any sadness at parting. This was a well-constructed sequence of pieces which the audience patently enjoyed.

Schubert’s long quartet is so full of change and variety that sustaining interest was not a problem.  Excellent programme notes aided the listening.

The power of expression that Schubert had, and the poetry of his utterance in chamber music and song is peerless.  In the first movement, the dark opening, full of dram, gives way to a sprightly melody, almost like folksong, on viola.  It is followed in turn by a beautiful first violin and viola duet on a  brief, ethereal theme.  The cello then takes the place of the viola.  The change of key that follows sounds almost brutal.  One marvels at the creativity that brought forth a work of such diversity.

The second movement’s opening melody on cello is full of nuances and warmth.  Schubert’s sudden fortissimos, characteristic not only here but in much of his music other than chamber music, serve to command attention.  Much beauty resided in this movement, and the music was always moving somewhere; the players had a good idea of the shape and structure of the movement.

The third movement scherzo was pleasantly busy, like birds chattering, while the melodious trio featured cello followed by first violin in exposing the tuneful and animated melody.  The finale was described in the programme note as ‘full of sudden dynamic contrasts, and rhythmic complexities.  This harmonic and rhythmic tension carries the movement in an exhilarating ride to the finish’.  I could hardly believe through the lively opening section that the same composer wrote the opening lines of the quartet.  Yet soon, we were plunged into minor harmonies again.  Towards the end, song-like themes emerged once more.

The innovative programming and skilled playing made for a thoroughly enjoyable concert.  Not every note was perfectly in place, but the musicality of the playing, the sense of unified approach and tone, and the delight of the music performed completely overcame any thought of aberrations.  It was a marvelous experience to hear such great music so well played.

A familiar, brief Shostakovich piece, mainly pizzicato, was played as a humorous encore, to send the audience away with smiles on their faces.


Brilliant and vibrant exuberance from John Chen

Wellington Chamber Music presents:
JOHN CHEN (piano)

BARBER – Piano Sonata in E-flat Op 26
BEETHOVEN – Piano Sonata in C Minor Op.111
MENDELSSOHN – 7 Character Pieces Op.7 – Nos 3 and 5
HINDEMITH – Piano Sonata No.3 in B-flat Major (1936)

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

Sunday, 18th May 2014

This was in many respects a masterly recital, a most interesting and, indeed, challenging programme, delivered by John Chen with piano-playing whose seismic performance energies in places would have given the foundations of St Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace a particularly singular workout. It was music that seemed to bristle with challenges for the pianist, though a different kind of challenge for both player and audience was due, I thought to the running order of the music that was chosen. I did know beforehand, for example, that both Beethoven’s Op.111 Sonata and Samuel Barber’s 1949 Piano Sonata were being performed, but not that they would be put right next to one another.

At the point when John Chen finished his blistering traversal of the Barber, which opened the program, I was ready for strong coffee, or something of an even more restorative nature! This was by way of my feeling somewhat drained of listening energy through close proximity to such supercharged music-making. What I really didn’t want to happen at that particular moment in time was to then be confronted with the alarming incongruity of encountering nothing less than Beethoven’s Op.111.

But here was this young pianist, having thrown off one of the great keyboard masterworks of the twentieth century with huge aplomb and complete commitment to the cause, ready to climb a different kind of Everest, with what seemed scarcely a pause for breath. It seemed a fraction – well, excessive……Perhaps if someone had appeared and said something like, “There will be a short break before the programme’s next item….” we would have been able to better realign our sensibilities for what was to follow.

Once Chen began the Beethoven, certain things about his playing of the music compounded the incongruity. With the Barber work he seemed to have both understood and fully entered into the music’s free-wheeling spirit of fearless creative ferment. However, his playing throughout the opening of the Beethoven work seemed somewhat constrained, the rough-hewn, elemental piano-writing I thought a shade too moderated in effect, to convey a sense of the music’s composer hurling his message outwards and upwards towards the heavens.

So much about his reading was to be admired – its pacing, timing, clarity of fingerwork and overall structuring all seemed clearly thought-out, and skilfully brought into play – and perhaps, in a different context it would all have convey more of the music’s intrinsic character. But after that performance of the Barber work it seemed to me as though Chen had with the Beethoven become too intent on conveying the music’s different “style”, instead of trying to directly get to grips with the work’s physical, emotional and spiritual content.

Symptomatic of this approach to the music was Chen’s omission of the first-movement repeat, as if for the pianist some structural logic was best served by its excision. I find its inclusion a significant intensification of the music’s character, a fleshing-out of the composer’s own dictum that “the idea counts more than its execution”. Removing the passage might serve some abstracted formal symmetry, but surely detracts from the range and scope of Beethoven’s emotional and spiritual architecture. It’s not quite a stylistic matter, but again it raises the question of priorities, this time regarding form and content and their relative importance. Of course, as with so many things musical, opinions will vary.

Going back to the issue of which piece should have followed which, my preference would have been for the pianist to have re-aligned the program, beginning with either the Hindemith Sonata or the Mendelssohn Character Pieces instead of the Barber Sonata, and playing the latter as a barnstorming finale  – after which, of course, the coffee would go down REALLY well!  But one day, I hope Chen will choose another alternative solution when programming Op.111, which will be to bring more of his own particular kind of creative abandonment to his playing and interpreting of the work. I don’t mean he should be riding roughshod over the music’s stylistic elements, but nor should they inhibit or be treated as ends in themselves – they’re a starting-point, a springboard from which to express Beethoven’s idea as the player sees fit and feels the music.

The remainder of the program seemed admirably suited to John Chen’s skills and sensibilities. Mendelssohn’s two Character Pieces (Op.7 Nos. 3 and 5) in places literally bubbled with enjoyment in the pianist’s hands. These were both fugal, and were from a set of seven, which the composer called “Character Pieces”, in line with how fugues were regarded by the Romantics, responding to the moods and intensities created by the interplay of different voices. In No.3 I enjoyed both the “ring” of the pianist’s right-hand work and the lovely singing quality he brought out from the lines, while the following, more devotional-sounding opening of No.5 gradually grew in warmth and momentum here, towards a wonderful and celebratory conclusion.

Paul Hindemith’s music is often a puzzlement for listeners mindful of reputation and prevailing attitudes. Contrary to the “dry and academic” labels which my early encounters with descriptions of his music seemed to repeatedly turn up, his music seems to me as deeply-felt as any, and in some instances, great fun to listen to. There is a certain rigour at times – but while I wouldn’t characterize the composer’s Third and last Piano Sonata as a barrel of laughs, it’s as readily approachable as any of the composer’s trio of works in this genre. Central to this accessibility is the first movement which uses a beautiful, slightly folksy melody that for me recalled a tune in Gustav Holst’s Brook Green Suite. Here Chen confidently and whole-heartedly brought out all the composer’s variants and developments of the theme in various “adventures” culminating in a kind of “laying-to-rest” ritual amid chordal progressions whose delicacies of dynamics were unerringly shaped, before the melody’s final winsome statement.

Then came a garrulous scherzo whose bumptious angular manner contrasted beautifully with a skitterish and sometimes gossamer-sounding trio (beautiful pianism, here), followed by a third movement March, grand and stately at the outset, but replete with lovely, mock-serious touches, Chen’s colourful playing by turns excitingly orchestral and atmospherically withdrawn. The fugal finale was a glorious undertaking, strong and assertive in places, more circumspect and playful in others – shades of the composer’s glorious Weber Symphonic Metamorphosis breaking though – Chen’s performance doing rich and whole-hearted justice to Hindemith’s rigorously-organised but fascinatingly-varied world of sound.

At the recital’s end I couldn’t help recalling the words of Sir John Barbirolli in an interview I once heard, during which the conductor talked about ‘cellist Jacqueline de Pre’s wholehearted approach to music and performance, and the reaction from various commentators to her allegedly over-fulsome style – “I love it!” grunted the maestro – “When you’re young you should have an excess of everything – otherwise, what are you going to pare off as you mature and refine your approach?” Which is not to characterize John Chen’s playing as excessive and fulsome – but that “excess of everything” referred to by Barbirolli is, I think, part of the essence of being a young performer, and wanting to encompass the full range of what music has to offer.

John Chen certainly exuded that essential quality in places throughout this recital – and we can count ourselves as fortunate that we’re able to share those moments, those transportings of delight when music combines with performance to produce something unique and memorable.









Passion, poetry and valediction from the NZSO

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

RACHMANINOV – Caprice Bohémien
SCHUMANN – PIano Concerto in A Minor Op.
SHOSTAKOVICH – Symphony No.15 in A

Alexander Melnikov (piano)
Alexander Lazarev (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 17th May 2014

It was one of those concerts in which everything seemed to me to come together and go “whizz-bang!” It provided in spadefuls just what can make classical music events such unique experiences. It’s that totality of concentration upon nothing else but the music and music-making generated by musicians whose skill, focus and energy create a kind of frisson of recreative involvement. And into this ferment listeners are drawn, to make of the experience what they will. Whatever the music, however light-hearted or profound, it’s that realization of its essence, of its character, which transcends all other considerations.

Well-worn thoughts, one might think, hardly worth repeating? But it was good to be forcefully reminded (as, indeed, this same orchestra had done a week previously through its stunning performance of Lyell Cresswell’s work “Hear and Far” with singer Jonathan Lemalu, conducted by James MacMillan) how a group of musicians can by dint of skilled and committed playing, and without any extraneous trappings, so completely and utterly engage its listeners. I couldn’t imagine better advocacy for live music-making and its availability and continuance than was provided by this present concert.

The evening’s presentation was called, somewhat spuriously, “Russian Fire” – a description which had nothing whatever to do with the delectable Schumann A Minor Concerto, here performed by pianist Alexander Melnikov, a work which epitomizes German romanticism at its most poetic and winsome; while the last of Shostakovich’s symphonies, the enigmatic Fifteenth, is a philosophical, part tragic, part ironic work whose manner is somewhat removed from most of its composer’s earlier, conflict-ridden symphonic essays. Only the brilliant and volatile Caprice Bohémien, written by the youthful Sergei Rachmaninov in 1894, fulfilled the expectation created by the concert’s banner publicity headline.

One could argue that the phrase referred to the combination of pianist and conductor – both Russian and both noted for their brilliance and volatility as performers. That was largely true of conductor Alexander Lazarev, whose demonstrative and theatrical podium manner brought a sense of fiery commitment  to almost everything he interpreted. As for the “other” Alexander (a friend also at the concert afterwards put it succinctly when she said “Thumbs up for the two Alexanders!), pianist Alexander Melnikov, whom I’d seen and heard play “live” before, brought by turns strength and restraint, poetry and precision to his playing of the first two movements in particular of the concerto –  any “fire” as such would have scorched and withered the delicate tissues of such finely-wrought music.

In fact those first two movements of the concerto gave me such unalloyed delight, I was left feeling a tad disappointed by the finale, whose music here didn’t for me sufficiently “dance”. Melnikov gave us some lovely moments, but he seemed more taken with the movement’s ebb than with its flow – I felt neither his playing nor Lazarev’s direction generated quite enough overall momentum for the phrase-ends to be set tingling and the blood to be stirred. I thought of Schumann’s remark about the Chopin Waltzes needing to be danced by countesses, and felt something of the same need ought to apply to this work’s finale – as much as I appreciated what both pianist and conductor were doing I thought in overall terms, the movement didn’t quite get off the ground.

But ah! – such was the spell cast by Melnikov’s noble and poetic keyboard utterances throughout the earlier parts of the work I found it easy to forgive him – and along with everybody else in the auditorium I was charmed by his playing of one of Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives as an encore, one with the most deliciously throwaway ending, which was tossed at us most delightfully and nonchalantly.

It rounded off a first half which had begun in the most spectacular and colourful fashion with a stunning performance by Lazarev and the orchestra of Rachmaninov’s rarely-played orchestral work Caprice Bohémien. This was composed just after the fledgling composer had graduated from the Moscow Concervatory, and it exhibits a confidence and surety in handling his material that’s quite remarkable for somebody writing such an early work.

What’s also interesting about this work besides its depth of feeling is the piece’s exoticism – granted that it’s music depicting Gypsy life, but Rachmaninov was to further intensify this exotic, somewhat oriental-sounding vein of expression in his First Symphony, which was first performed in 1897 and famously ravaged by the critic Cesar Cui, himself a composer, one of “The Five”, though perhaps its least distinguished member.

Had the Symphony’s first performance been better-managed and the work’s reception a more favourable one, Rachmaninov’s style as a composer might well have explored these exotic paths more fully. But as is well known, the young composer was sunk into a deep depression as a result of the Symphony’s failure – and his immediately subsequent works, such as the Second Piano Concerto and the Second Symphony were far less harmonically daring and innovative than the music of both the First Symphony and the earlier Caprice Bohémien.

In Alexander Lazarev the Caprice had the ideal interpreter – Lazarev brought to the fore the music’s excitement and volatility, but also brought out the vein of deep melancholic lyricism which marks Rachmaninov’s work – so those pulsating timpani contourings, throbbing lower strings and brooding winds of the opening created for us a wondrous atmosphere brimming with possibility and ready to explode with bite and energy at a moment’s notice – after briefly doing so, the music returned to smolder-mode, out of which grew the most gorgeous ‘cello tune, reflecting this aforementioned penchant for exotically-coloured expression, as did the solo clarinet melody which followed, and the subsequent interchanges with the flute and horn.

After this had all burst forth and subsided, the dancing began, slowly at first, but gathering in tension and excitement,and culminating in a near-frenzy of abandonment at the end, with players and audience members on the edges of their seats both literally and metaphorically. The conductor (as he’d done in concerts on previous visits) made his notorious “rostrum turn-about” to the audience on the final orchestral chord! – pure showmanship, but in a sense it was what this kind of music-making was about, involving the listeners as palpably as it did the musicians. We loved him for it!

An interval was greatly appreciated in view of the imminent Shostakovich Symphony, just as the business of moving the piano onto the platform  for the Schumann concerto gave us time to readjust our sensibilities after the wild and orgiastic Rachmaninov piece. But unexpectedly, there was more, because the concert happened to be the occasion of veteran NZSO violist Peter van Drimmelen’s final appearance as an orchestra player. So, before the second half got under way, deputy Concertmaster Donald Armstrong stepped up to the microphone to pay a well-modulated tribute to van Drimmelen, highlighting his contribution over the years both to the orchestra and to music in Wellington in general as a player, conductor and organizer.

Then it was ostensibly grimmer business at hand, with the re-entry of conductor Lazarev, ready to set in motion Shostakovich’s final and valedictory Fifteenth Symphony. In point of fact, the Symphony sounded anything but grim to begin with – more like a kind of surrealist entertainment, with a couple of quotations from Rossini’s “William Tell” Overture thrown into the first movement’s somewhat quixotic orchestral mix. Unusually for Shostakovich, this symphony contains several “borrowings” from other composers – apart from the Rossini, most obviously in the final movement from Wagner, but as well from Shostakovich’s fellow-countryman Mikhail Glinka.

Shostakovich wouldn’t be “drawn” regarding any possible “programme” suggested by the symphony, apart from commenting that his intention vis-a-vis the first movement was to depict a kind of open-air toyshop viewed through the eyes of a child – a somewhat misleading description of music that in places palpably depicted more like “something nasty in the nursery”. He was as coy when asked to explain the various quotations from other composers’ works, telling a friend, somewhat obliquely, “I don’t myself quite know why the quotations are there, but I could not NOT include them”.

Lazarev and the NZSO players took us into this surreal world in a trice, with snappy, alert playing that nailed the music’s angularities and brought out its piquant melodic lines, the flute and bassoon foremost among the winds at the outset. The “toyshop” aspect was given full rein from all sides at first – a wonderfully antiphonal sound-picture of disparate elements, into which comings and goings jogged, quite unabashed, the “William Tell Overture” quote, rather like a kind of sub-plot or passing theatre of separate activity on one level, yet at the same time “grown” out of the textures in a wholly unselfconscious manner.

The layered, cross-rhythmed string passages, echoed later in manner by the winds, eerily wound up the music’s tensions, and uncovered darker, more anxious purposes which a skittery solo violin and a couple more jaunty appearances of “William Tell” couldn’t entirely keep down – I thought the NZSO’s playing encompassed all the different variants of character in the music with real élan. And live music-making gave the listener visual bonuses as well, such as the use of the whip, held high and played with delicious precision by one of the hard-working percussionists.

The only place in the symphony I had difficulty going entirely with Lazarev’s reading was at the beginning of the second movement, where I thought the dark, sinister brass chorales were given a shade too quickly and smoothly. But what sombre beauties were then conjured up by Andrew Joyce’s wonderful ‘cello solo, the other orchestral strings coming forth in due course with rapt, properly awed responses. Not being Russian players the brasses couldn’t help their chorales sounding more like Bruckner than Shostakovich, so refined were their outpourings. But the winds’ eerie radio-frequency chords were answered by a superbly-done trombone solo with tuba accompaniment which brought our sensibilities into the music’s very heart, prior to a seismic irruption from the whole orchestra that seemed to suddenly open a wound, and lay bare the composer’s inner existential anguish. Afterwards, we found ourselves in the middle of a sound-world bereft of warmth, compassion and any hope for the future – most unsettling was the silence when the music stopped.

As were the ghoulish chords which began the scherzo-movement – grinning gargoyle-like sounds from the winds, suggesting a kind of “danse macabre” – also, wonderful “kitchen” sounds from the percussion, so very readily did they evoke the convolutions of dancing bones! Eerie, too were the flesh-creeping, Psycho-reminiscent responses of the strings to the solo violin, music from a master of the sardonic gesture, surpassing himself in this, his valedictory symphonic statement.

But what to make of the last movement? – along with its direct Wagner quotation (the “Fate” motif, associated with the deaths of both Siegmund and Siegfried, in “The Ring”) there were references to both “Siegfried’s Funeral March” and the “Tristan” Prelude, before disarmingly linking the last with a quote from a Glinka song….. the references to death are inescapable – Shostakovich was a man dying of heart disease when the Symphony was being written – and both the “Tristan” and the Glinka quotes involve aspects of love. Of course “Tristan” epitomizes all-consuming love, whereas the Glinka song is a setting of verses by the poet Baratynsky concerning a renunciation of love, containing the words “To a disillusioned man all seductions are alien…”. So Shostakovich’s choice of other people’s music as quotations was here replete with significance.

My notes say of the performance at this point, “the orchestral detailing is astonishing!” – and it was during this movement that I became aware of the intensity of the audience’s pin-dropping concentration upon the music and the music-making. The playing of the orchestra seemed to realize every ounce of the music’s message at every place along the dynamic spectrum, from the bleak stillnesses to the blackest, most jagged and numbing climaxes. After these, along with the quotations and the eerie “radio-frequency-chord” were done, nothing was left in the music but the bare bones of life tapping out the remaining, failing pulse-beats until only the silences could be heard.

Conductor Lazarev cannily kept his arms upraised and his hands beating time in ever-dimishing movements after the sounds had ceased, holding the audience breath-bated and spell-bound – and when after a minute’s silence had passed he brought his arms down to his sides the applause was thunderous in its response. He then generously (if rather too fulsomely in one particular case) brought every one of the orchestral soloists, as well as whole sections at a time, to their feet to acknowledge the ovation.

With all due respect to Shostakovich, I thought it really was a concert to die for – a most memorable occasion. For which, much thanks to all concerned!












Diverting woodwinds a delight from first to last at St Andrew’s

New Zealand Music for Woodwind

Natalie Hunt (b. 1985)  Winter (Winter is dedicated to Debbie Rawson and the saxophone students of the New Zealand School of Music)
               Reuben Chin (alto saxophone) and Ben Hoadley (piano)
Philip Brownlee (b. 1971)  Stolen Time
Kamala Bain (recorder) and Ben Hoadley (dulcian)
Kenneth Young (b. 1955)  Elegy for Saxophone Quartet
               Saxcess: Debbie Rawson (soprano saxophone), Reuben Chin (alto saxophone), Simon Brew (tenor saxophone), Graham Hanify (baritone saxophone)
Gillian Whitehead (b. 1941)  Venetian Mornings
The Donizetti Trio: Luca Manghi (flute), Ben Hoadley (bassoon), David Kelly (piano)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 14 May 2014, 12:15 pm

This was a concert I headed to with simply no idea of what to expect. It proved to be a delight from first to last. All the works explored the less frequently heard registers and timbres of the various instruments involved, and all evoked moods of reflection and introspection that are not often associated with music for instruments like the saxophone family. It has always baffled me why “classical” composers should have so seldom used the delicious possibilities that these lovely instruments offer, and likewise the matchless grace and individuality of the cor anglais. But that’s another story; there were no cor anglais works here.

Natalie Hunt’s brief Winter piece saw the alto sax floating above the piano with lyrical, almost modal melodic lines that rose and fell in pitch and intensity like the in- and out-breaths of sudden fright followed by relief. Reuben Chin’s playing was beautifully tailored to the moods of the music, and Ben Hoadley’s accompaniment perfectly balanced to the solo line.

Stolen Time was given its first performance at this concert. “Philip Brownlee is a composer and sound artist based in Wellington. His musical interests include forming connections between recorded sound and instrumental performance, and between composed and improvised musics.” (Programme Notes). It was interesting to hear a modern work for two medieval instruments, particularly the lesser known dulcian. This is a Renaissance woodwind instrument with double reed and folded conical bore, more often called ‘curtal’ in English.

The predecessor of the modern bassoon, it flourished between 1550 and 1700, though it was probably invented earlier.  The piece unfolded as a delicate counterpoint between the two solo voices, opening with a spare unison melody that evoked, for me, images of Fiordland bush in the dead of night. There we can indeed steal time from our over-busy urban lives, and listen to the enquiring bird calls that cut into the matchless silence of the rainforest.  The recorder floated on top with light, trilling, fluid lines, over intermittent calls from a Kiwi exploring a few notes outside its normal range, and the occasional honk of a bittern. All closed into the night time silence with another spare, fading unison line…… I was left hoping that we will hear more of Philip Brownlee’s wind writing in future.

Kenneth Young provided some notes for the next work in the programme: “My Elegy for Saxophone Quartet was written especially for my good friends and colleagues of long-standing, Debbie Rawson and Graham Hanify. The melancholy and elegiac nature of saxophones, in general, had always been something I wanted to investigate and base a work on, so when Debbie asked me to pen a work for Saxcess this was very much on my mind as a concept. The real impetus came in 2010 when our family suffered the passing of a much-loved and valued member. It was a truly sad time and that sadness would seem to have found its way into this piece.”

The work opened with a melody from the soprano sax, where Debbie Rawson’s exquisite dulcet tone set the contemplative mood for the whole piece. This developed as a series of conversations between solo melodic lines for the various instruments, and solos accompanied by the rich warmth of the ensemble harmonies. Sadly we heard only a brief snatch from the solo baritone, whose rich warm timbre merits a whole solo work in its own right. The performance was marked by most sensitive playing, beautiful phrasing and the artistry of superb dynamic control. It closed with a final soprano line that faded into breathless silence……..

Venetian Mornings”, writes Gillian Whitehead, “is dedicated to my dear friend Jack Body as a celebration of this 70th birthday. We first met while visiting Venice independently in the 1960’s. One night we went to hear Peter Maxwell Davies’s new work Vesalii Icones performed by Davies’s group the Pierrot Players. It was a very humid evening; we could hear continuous distant rumblings of thunder as we went into the concert hall and eventually a huge storm broke. We went onto emergency lighting during the piece. Jack introduced himself after the piece. When we left the hall, we discovered Venice had been cut off from the world, a tornado had come out of the sea, overturned a ferry and destroyed a camping ground. A number of people were killed – 12, maybe – but if it had been earlier or later, many more would have died. After that concert Jack and I would meet for breakfast each morning, and have been friends ever since.”  (Programme notes).

The work opened with a very beautiful baritone solo which passed to a pianissimo flute line as one imagined the city barely emerging from the morning mists of the lagoon. It became briefly more lively, but again retreated into soporific silence. The second episode was marked by more animated repetitive rhythms and see-sawing harmonies from the Trio, with melodic writing that was full of beautiful exchanges between the instruments. But the mists finally triumphed as the ending retreated into a fading pianissimo. I’m not sure this work would have been particularly meaningful without the programme notes; but with that background provided, the music vividly recalled all those long-forgotten memories of one’s OE in Venice years ago, when it really was mist over the awakening lagoon and not the stench of thick smog.

This event offered a wonderful opportunity to hear some very special Kiwi work, and I can do no better than to quote my colleague Lindis Taylor, who remarked: “I thought it was a lovely, adventurous little concert, particularly the Whitehead.” (though he would like to add that he found each of the pieces thoroughly diverting in totally disparate ways).



The Orpheus Choir – music of here, and now……

Orpheus Choir of Wellington presents
A concert dedicated to the Pike River Miners

Ross HARRIS – If Blood Be the Price
Dave DOBBYN – This Love
James McCARTHY – 17 Days

Dave Dobbyn (vocals and guitar)
Katherine McIndoe (soprano)
Orpheus Choir of Wellington
Wellington Young Voices
Lyrica Choir, Kelburn School
Wellington Brass Band

Christopher Clark (conductor for Harris)
Mark W.Dorrell (conductor for Dobbyn and McCarthy)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 10th May, 2014

I’m normally accustomed to encountering seemly, well-regulated conversational tones and discreet movements of habitually circumspect classical concertgoers at Michael Fowler Centre concerts. However, I was aware straightaway of something different and palpable in the air when entering the doors of the same venue on Saturday evening to attend the Orpheus Choir’s concert “Dreams lie Deeper”.

Here were vibrant swirlings of people thronging the foyer, staircases and mezzanine floor of the erstwhile concert venue, people whose dress and demeanour proclaimed their expectation of being witness to something which suggested promises of glamour and glitter – so, was I in the right place, or had I perhaps gotten my dates or the venue confused?

Amidst a sea of unfamiliar faces I caught sight of somebody I recognized, behind an official-looking table – “Ah, Peter!” he cheerfully hailed – “I was told to expect you…” – this was encouraging! –  “and I have here a ticket for you!” I took it gratefully, not REALLY expecting a kind of instant stylistic makeover, transforming my outer persona, but at least feeling that this talismanic touchstone had transferred a kind of “imprimatur” onto my presence – I was now one of the chosen, as it were……

As if I hadn’t been taken aback sufficiently at this stage, I caught my breath upon entering the auditorium – I haven’t been to a “pop” concert since my teenaged years (a gradually receding memory….) – but I fancied I recollected enough of those ambiences to glean that I was in for a different kind of concert experience to that which I’ve become accustomed. It was then that the thought “Will I be up to this task?” suddenly struck me!

It was all very theatrical – the choir was already seated on-stage, their figures outlined in the half-light and no more – the atmosphere was attenuated by what seemed like a kind of “nightclub haze”, though it obviously wasn’t cigarette smoke! Occasionally a billowing of freshly-conjured mist (probably dry-ice) would well up, thermal wonderland style (though not as aromatic!), catching the play of the spotlights and intensifying the mystery and ritualistic aspect of it all.

In the aisles were technical-looking people with what looked like television cameras and microphones on the ends of long poles. Some filming was going on already – it seemed as though people were being interviewed. A glance at my programme told me what was happening  –  that this concert, or at least part of it, was being filmed for television as well as being recorded by radio.  So it was, in effect, a kind of media event.

I guessed the subject matter of the music we were to hear was  largely what had compelled attention – the two New Zealand works scheduled were each inspired by a specific event involving mining activity. Ross Harris’s work consisted of settings to music of words written by poet Vincent O’Sullivan, dealing with the Waihi Miners’ Strike of 1912, during which a miner, Fred Evans, was clubbed to death by government vigilantes for allegedly shooting at a policeman during a demonstration – New Zealand’s first serious casualty of an industrial dispute.

Following this came Dave Dobbyn’s song “This Love”, written to commemorate the deaths of 29 miners in the 2010 Pike River mining disaster, on the West Coast. The singer wrote both words and music, and a supporting choral part was devised by the choir’s music director, Mark W.Dorrell.

The third item of the evening’s program was the work of an English composer, James McCarthy. Entitled “17 Days”, the work explored the events and associated emotions of people involved surrounding the collapse of a mine in northern Chile, also in 2010. Unlike what happened at Pike River the Chilean miners were rescued, word coming to the surface on the 17th day after the collapse that the men were still alive.

Wellington City Councillor Ray Ahipene-Mercer began proceedings by speaking to the audience, briefly telling us of his Welsh mining ancestry, and of his family’s involvement in mining in this country on the West Coast. The latter part of his karakia was expressed in Maori, both welcoming people from different part of the country to the concert, and farewelling the spirits of the dead, invoking the “mauri-ora” the “breath of life”, to come forth and give life to the gathering and the performances.

Ross Harris’s work came first, consisting of settings of words written by his long-time collaborator Vincent O’Sullivan. In seven separate sections, the work is inscribed “In memoriam: Fred Evans”, though none of the sections actually describes the events of the killing. In one of the songs, a brash, over-bright waltz with the title ‘Here’s a Toast!”, the brutal methods of the gangs formed by the anti-strike forces are compared with the methods of both Tsarist Russia and the British ruling class in dealing with protest or insurrection – so we have “Massey’s Cossacks” (the name of the New Zealand Prime Minister of the day), as well as a reference to the “Tory batons”, weapons associated with the murder of the unfortunate Fred Evans.

It seems to me that Ross Harris has deliberately gone for a more direct and unequivocal approach with this music – the tunes have an immediate and relatively unvarnished impact, matching Vincent O’Sullivan’s words in their relative economy and no-nonsense manner of expression – they could be called Workers’ Songs, in that they forcefully conveyed the Socialist ideologies of the miners and their unions, in sometimes brutal conflict with the established consortium of business interests supported by the Government of the time.

Vincent O’Sullivan used the strike’s best-known slogan in the work’s final setting, called “The Words on the Banner” – I actually remember these words from a photograph of the strikers which was displayed of the front cover of a book “THe Red and the Black” written in 1the 1970s about the strike – on a banner one could clearly read the words: “If blood be the price of your cursed wealth, Good God, we have bought it fair!” The directness of the writing of words and music was brought out with considerable impact by singers and instrumentalists under Christopher Clark’s focused direction.

Though the technical apparatus and technicians were a “presence” of sorts throughout these opening parts of the concert, they didn’t swing fully into action until Dave Dobbyn walked onto the stage to introduce his song “This Love”. There were ambient scintillations of lighting, colonnades of hues and colours bedecking the ceiling and walls of the auditorium, and (most disconcerting of all) a wondrously elongated “dinosaur-head” of a camera which, with neck protruding from its upstairs gallery “lair” swooped backwards and forwards over our heads like a curious brachiosaurus surveying a swampful of delicious succulents. I didn’t actually register any kind of rhythmic pattern to the beast’s – sorry, the CAMERA’S movements, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if there had been.

Technical jiggery-pokery apart, Dave Dobbyn’s song was a direct and heartfelt appeal to the emotions to “honour our 29”. Before the song the singer read out the names of all those who had died in the mine and whose bodies are to this day unrecovered. The subsequent audience response to the singer’s, the choir’s and the accompanying musicians’ efforts was properly and palpably life-affirming.

With the departure of the “technical people” and the migration to another undisclosed swamp of our friendly brachiosaurus (having presumably captured the “frisson” of Dave Dobbyn’s live performance of his song) one could focus more readily on the music scheduled for the concert’s second half. This was James McCarthy’s “17 Days”, commissioned originally by London’s Crouch End Festival Chorus and premiered by them at the Barbican in 2012. Tonight’s was its first-ever performance outside of the UK.

McCarthy’s work used largely traditional, essentially tonal harmonies and melodic structures throughout. It was music that didn’t to my ears make any cathartic demands of an interpretive nature on either performers or listeners – there were no grinding, shattering, shell-shocked moments of terror, panic or bleak despair depicted in the writing for either voices or instruments. The evocations were more reflective than immediate, though some sequences of the music “told” instantly and effectively, such as  the rhythmic chattering of the children’s choir depicting the broken, piecemeal nature of the first news reports concerning the tragedy.

The texts chosen largely reinforced this reflectiveness (one of the poems, “Do Dreams lie Deeper?” by Charlotte Mews gave the work its title), though a different poet’s words later in the work brought forth what I thought the most interesting music from the composer – the poem “We live in mud” by Carol S.Lashof. In this work the all-pervading choking opacity of the mud, dirt and dust endured by the miners was contrasted with their thoughts of the radiance of their feelings for their loved ones above the ground, waiting. I thought this desperate love-song the most touching and telling moment of the piece, though Katherine McIndoe’s lovely solo soprano voice sounding from within the choir gave an added poignancy to parts of Charlotte Mews’ poem “A quoi bon dire”.

There was no doubting the work’s whole-heartedness at any given point – and the response by the forces, singers and instrumentalists, under Mark W. Dorrell’s enthusiastic direction was as radiant and forthright as could be imagined, with the Lyrica children’s voices in particular making finely-focused contributions to the setting of Emily Dickinson’s “Hope” such as with the words “And sweetest in the Gale is heard….” The performance deservedly brought forth at the concert’s conclusion enthusiastic acclaim from all sides.




James MacMillan conducts NZSO in his own and Cresswell’s music of the past twenty years

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by James MacMillan with Jonathan Lemalu (baritone)

Lyell Cresswell: The Clock Stops, settings of eleven poems by Fiona Farrell
James MacMillan: Woman of the Apocalypse
The Confession of Isobel Gowdie

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 9 May, 6:30 pm

The second of the pair of concerts from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra devoted to music of the past thirty years was a musical success, even though, again, it drew a smaller audience than the orchestra normally attracts. However, given the absence of any standard, familiar music in the programme, it was very encouraging, probably more than might be expected in most cities of comparable size in other parts of the world; and it won, particularly the final work, a noisy ovation with many bravos and a number coming to their feet.

Oddly, the programme note about Cresswell’s The Clock Stops didn’t refer directly to the subject of the poems – the physical and human impacts of the Christchurch earthquakes. It was chief executive Chris Blake’s foreword that mentioned Christchurch, though the language of the poems could easily be read as reflecting the disaster. The tone of the poems, each dealing in the most economical way with different aspects, found their ideal interpreter in the voice of Jonathan Lemalu, for it was the poetry that imposed itself on the composer’s imagination.

In fact, the music seemed to be constrained by the words, throughout the cycle. Not constrained perhaps, but giving rise to what sometimes seemed to me almost too detailed musical responses, and those responses were an orchestral canvas that was subtle, infinitely resourceful, surprising, loud, magically still.  Alongside the engrossing orchestral effects, the actual vocal line, often seeming rather in the nature of Sprechgesang, secondary to the less literal nature of non-vocal music which did the real work of expressing the wide-ranging experiences and emotions.  Each poem created its own unique sound world: ‘Fog’, with shimmering strings, under the image of ‘a woman waking’, while woodwinds echoed the words ‘The bird sings’, an image that returned later, as ‘the bird sings on a broken wall’.

In the poem ‘Map’, every word chiming on the short vowel ‘a’, supplied first an aggressive tone, and then the fragile sounds of two solo violins. The orchestra became transparent, movement absent, in ‘Lullabye’ with pizzicato strings and muted trumpet and Lemalu’s voice, in spite of his throat infection, shifted momentarily to a falsetto. In contrast, the image of ‘Downtown’ called Lemalu up staccato brass and then timpani as Lemalu’s voice coarsened in its low register. Two poems recalled the history of ancient cities that met either a violent end (Jericho) or disappeared under millennia of decay and conquest (Çatalhöyük in southern Anatolia).

Each offered substance to the notion of time stopping, bringing the cycle to its strange end. The last words, ‘Tick, tock’, left one with a sense of futility in the face of human and terrestrial catastrophe.

The score called for an orchestra of great refinement and virtuosity, and MacMillan certainly found such an orchestra at hand.

Contrary to the announced programme, the interval was taken at that point and the two MacMillan works were played in the second half. That might have seemed tidy but it did not really serve the composer well. Though written twenty years apart (Gowdie in 1990 and Apocalypse in 2012), the fingerprints were similar. Cresswell’s scrupulous and discreetly used orchestral palette contrasted strikingly with the insistent and sometimes over-blown orchestration in MacMillan’s works.

MacMillan wrote that Woman of the Apocalypse was partly inspired by paintings ranging from Dürer and Rubens to Blake and Gustave Doré, each of whom treated the subject. Its five parts followed each other without break, each offering the reason for tempo and emotional contrast, like symphonic movements. Interest was held, up to a point, through the opportunities these pictorial-based ideas offered: battle, with ferocious timpani and side drums, brass and percussion fanfares, frantic scampering strings to depict the eagle’s wings, and finally her ascension to Paradise that ends with a sweeping Adagio-like passage. Yet the composer’s main concern seemed to be with the exploiting of orchestral colour and power, and while there were distinctive and striking passages and orchestral effects, in the end the work didn’t engage me emotionally, to leave a memorable musical impression.

The earlier work inspired by the torture and murder of Isobel Gowdie as a witch, with hideous barbarity in the 17th century engaged me rather more. It opens with haunting chords from clarinets, bassoons and horns before strings entered, evolving slowly in a way that was more recognizably symphonic. The brutality of her end, of course, provided the stuff of a more complex, agitated and drum-dominated narrative, though my notes remarked that the overwhelming intensity of the percussion, including three sets of drums/timpani at one point, was too much.  However, the intervening passages for violas and cellos, and then for celeste and tubular bells led to a calm, almost lyrical phase during which, rather movingly, the music simply fell away.

So I could understand how this work has gained renown, with many live performances and recordings.

However, at the concert’s end I found myself wondering whether larger numbers might come to a concert of new music if the programme had included one rather more familiar work of the past half century.


Remembering David – a Farquhar tribute from the NZSM

A concert of music by David Farquhar (1928-2007)

Presentation curated by Jack Body
Music performed by staff of
Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music
Jenny Wollerman (soprano) / Martin Riseley (violin)
Jane Curry (guitar) / Jian Liu (piano)

Sonatina for piano (1950) / Three PIeces for Violin and Piano (1967)
Eleven Pieces from Black, White and Coloured for piano (1999-2002)
Swan Songs for voice and guitar (1983)
Six Movements from Ring Round the Moon for violin and piano (1953 arr. 1992)

Adam Concert Room, Victoria University, Kelburn

Thursday 8th May

This extremely timely concert was organized by Jack Body as a tribute to one of his former teaching and composing colleagues, David Farquhar, on the seventh anniversary of the latter’s death.

Born in Cambridge in 1928, David Farquhar was one of a group of fledgling composers which included Larry Pruden, Edwin Carr, Dorothea Franchi and Robert Burch who studied composition with Douglas Lilburn at the renowned Cambridge Summer Music School during the late 1940s. Afterwards, on completing his degree in Wellington at Victoria University, Farquhar then took himself to England, joining Burch, Carr and Pruden for two years of further composition studies at the Guildhall School of Music in London under the tutelage of Benjamin Frankel.

Returning to New Zealand in 1953, Farquhar joined Professor Frederick Page’s Music Department at Victoria University, managing to balance teaching duties with composition, and producing at least one landmark piece of home-grown music along the way – the Dance Suite for small orchestra, “RIng Round the Moon” written to accompany a stage production by the New Zealand Players. Another work which achieved something of a public profile, albeit briefly, was the 1962 opera “A Unicorn For Christmas”, performed for Queen Elizabeth during a 1963 Royal Visit.

Of course, “Ring Round the Moon” in its various guises has captured people’s affections like none other of Farquhar’s works – I think partly because it doesn’t have any of the slight austerity that seems to me, rightly or wrongly, to be hung about the neck of much of the composer’s output. Even so, there’s so much more of Farquhar’s music which ought to be better-known, some of which we were able to hear performed in this concert.

Other pieces – the most shamefully-neglected of which I think is the First Symphony – await their turn in the scheme of things. Farquhar wasn’t a self-promoter of his music, unlike his contemporary, Ted Carr, though the music of both has entered that realm of curious neglect which composers Ross Harris and Jack Body touched upon in a radio interview prior to the Farquhar concert.

There’s grown up a kind of “lost generation” of New Zealand music, being the work of composers who came immediately after Douglas Lilburn, a list including, of course, David Farquhar, and (as Jack Body pointed out) that of HIS teacher, Ronald Tremain.  Yes, one or two works by these people did “cut through” the Sleeping-Beauty-like thicket and get themselves established – besides “Ring Round the Moon” one thinks of Larry Pruden’s “Harbour Nocturne” as a kind of “Kiwi classic”. And one remembers both Farquhar’s Third Symphony and Pruden’s String Trio being performed in Wellington, well, relatively recently.

But apart from these good deeds shining out like candlelight in a naughty world, the gloom that’s here overtaken the compositional output of people such as the aforementioned Ted Carr and Ronald Tremain, as well as that of Robert Burch and Dorothea Franchi, not to mention slightly later figures like John Rimmer and Kit Powell, has been pretty London-foggish. Another figure whom I’d include is Christchurch’s John Ritchie, whose music seems to get little more than parochial attention, when there are pieces by him which should be well established in our regular concert programs.

Perhaps, as Ross Harris seemed to me to suggest, this process of neglect has a kind of inevitability – like T.S. Eliot’s cat, “The Rum Tum Tugger”, who ” will do what he do do, and there’s no doing anything about it!” In which case, the same process obviously creates in time a kind of need to fill the void, which in turn propagates concerts like the present one – thanks, of course, here, to that “nurseryman extraordinaire”, Jack Body.

As well, there’s a current crop of performers who are ready, willing and certainly able to assist with whatever rehabilitation process is mooted, as was demonstrated to us in the Adam Concert Room on this occasion. After Jack Body’s welcoming speech, the concert proper began with a Sonatina for piano, dating from 1950, written by Farquhar after he’d left New Zealand to take up studies in the UK at Cambridge University. A note in the program told us the the work was published only in 2009 by Waiteata Music Press!

In this three-movement work, pianist Jian Liu revelled in the first part’s explorations of keyboard timbres – at first, brief phrases created a somewhat restless feeling, though the colourings held the angularities together. Then the music gravitated towards the lower piano registers, less agitated in effect, but deeper and slower, almost leviathan-like – not menacing, but sombre and sonorous, with upward irruptions of impulse keeping a kind of spatial awareness of things alive. These bright, glint-like sequences led to a quiet, enigmatic coda.

The second movement, marked Andante, I found almost ritual-like in its step-wise aspect, with an accompanying flourish, the latter following the melody as a train follows a bride’s dress – counterpointing voices played hide-and-seek, the pursuers then throwing their victims in the air to sparkle and scintillate before coming to earth and taking up the stepwise gait again, the flourish somehow detaching itself and leaving us with a piquant impression. The finale’s running, angular figurations were brilliantly activated by Liu, whose energies exuberantly realized the toccata-like middle section, and, after a breath-holding pause, signalled the end with a grand flourish.

I scribbled lots of notes during the next item, the 1967 Three Pieces for Violin and Piano – however, the marking for the first movement, “Improvisando”, says it all, really. I was reminded here of my own youthful, awkwardly shy attempts to engage girls I fancied in conversation, by the piano’s fitful, broken fanfare-like figurations, to which the violin responded with edgy, distant held notes, frequently with harmonics and occasionally punctuating its iciness with impatient, dismissive gestures.

I’m not sure whether the second movement’s “Pizzicato” represented a kind of thawing-out of relations, but the pianist’s plucking of the strings in the piano’s body and activating the lowest ones with a timpanist’s stick seemed to accord more readily with the violinist’s pizzicato notes at first, the increased engagement continuing with the violinist’s fly-buzzing sonorities enjoying the pianist’s strumming of the instrument’s strings. The final piece, “Risoluto” had fanfares (violin) and strumming harps (piano) each player demonstrating a kind of determination suggested by the music’s title, the pianist at one point knocking on the instrument’s body with his knuckles, and the violinist amplifying the fanfare figures before skittishly delivering an abrupt payoff.

Then came the first of two exerpted brackets from a piano solo collection called “Black, White and Coloured” – a typical Farquhar-ish exploration of the different characteristics of music written using either white or black piano keys and their treble/bass/inverted combinations. The first “bracket” was dominated by song, realizations of Negro Spirituals and of songs by Gershwin amongst the items. While finding the idea interesting, I thought some of the pieces too skeletal and bloodless compared with the originals, especially the Negro Spirituals – had I not known the pieces’ origins, I wouldn’t have missed those bluesy intensities put across by various great singers I could recall in my memory, and perhaps given the composer more credit for his relative austerities.

Similarly in the second set I thought the idea worked better the more obscure the music – so while I thought the opening “Silver-grey moonlight” too simplistic in its treatment of Clair de lune, the famous folk-melody, some of the others worked well, though there seemed a reluctance on the composer’s part to do very much with the basic thematic material. I thought the most successful realizations in the second set were “Chorale Prelude” and “Clouds”, in particular, the latter, which brought from Farquhar’s sensitivity to detail some timeless, floating ambiences of beauty and nostalgia.

More successful – in fact, spell-binding in effect – was the song-cycle “Swan Songs”, a 1983 work for voice and guitar, performed here by soprano Jenny Wollerman and guitarist Jane Curry. Framing the cycle at its beginning, middle and end were quotations from Orlando Gibbons’ well-known madrigal “The Silver Swan”, hand-in-glove with traditional song, and texts from Carmina Burana as well as by the composer. On the face of things, a kind of hotchpotch, but in performance, a magical evocation of worlds within worlds, bringing together instances of creative impulses leapfrogging over centuries to make heartfelt connections, one I found delightful, piquant and extremely moving.

With sonorous and evocative guitar-playing from Jane Curry setting the scene, Orlando Gibbons’ evocation of beauty brought forth spoken exclamation at first from the singer, and then, briefly, melody. Together with limpid guitar notes  the singer continued through through a section of the traditional “Swan swam”, evoking stillness and grave beauty. The third section, “Anxieties and Hopes” used the composer’s own text, a setting urgent and anxious, with darting impulses and broken figurations, guitar and voice overlapping, breaking off for a sequence of soaring, impassioned beauty before returning to the previous agitated state of things.

Gibbons’ music returned as a kind of “quiet centre” of things, before the work took a somewhat bizarre turn, quoting the “roasted swan” text from Carmina Burana (also famously used by Carl Orff in you-know-which-work!) – a droll lament for the sweetness of times past, affectingly sung and played by Jenny Wollerman and Jane Curry. After a brief reprise of the singer’s call to the swan, over a guitar ostinato, Gibbons’ music made its concluding appearance, the singer arching the voice over a lovely guitar solo with the words “Farewell, joy……” – brief, and ambient, and beautiful.

Before the programme’s final music item, composer Ross Harris contributed a brief but moving reminiscence of David Farquhar, constructing an engaging picture of a colleague with a number of distinctive traits – a concise and ordered thinker and creative spirit, responsive to challenges, (fiercely competitive especially when playing tennis, which was a great love – in fact the end of tennis for Farquhar seemed to symbolize the end of life…..). Ross Harris talked about a composing legacy of finely crafted music, describing its composer as “ultimately modest”.

The evening’s final, appropriately-chosen item (how COULD it have been left out?) was the violin-and-piano transcription of “Ring Round the Moon”, an arrangement made by the composer for the concertmaster of the NZSO, Isador Saslav, in 1992. I remember, a goodly number of  years ago, introducing myself to David Farquhar as an “admirer” of the work, and the composer graciously acknowledging the gesture by way of seizing his then wife Raydia D’Elsa around the waist and dancing a few steps with her in front of me, explaining that they would dance their way through the music he composed at the time to “try it out”. I’m sure the composer would, had he been present, have relished the playing of violinist Martin Riesley and pianist Jian Liu, despite his well-documented frustration at what he considered the piece’s disproportionate popularity.

Somehow, the immediacy of the violin-and-piano textures brought this memory of our meeting back to me more readily than did any of the orchestral versions of the dances – everything came across as more flavoursome than I ever before remembered, the violin’s piquant re-echoings of the linking motif at the conclusions of some of the pieces, the crunchy harmonies of the Galop, the bar-room atmosphere of the Tango, complete with exhausted-on-their-feet couples, the contrariwise harmonies in the Trio of the Polka, and the alterations between instruments in the Two-Step, complete with the link-motif’s lovely “falling-down-the-slope” effect. To finish, the Finale was encored, the music in this performance as angular, chunky, exuberant and wonderful as ever.

For those people who’ve read to this point, my humble apologies for the lengthy review! – but I hope you’ll conclude from all of this that Jack Body’s and the musicians’ efforts on behalf of David Farquhar’s music were eminently worthwhile.