Inspiring concert by young students of Donald Armstrong

Lunchtime concert at Old Saint Paul’s

Andrew Kelly – Brahms: Violin Sonata No 3 – First movement
Claudia Tarrant-Matthews – Elgar: Violin Sonata, Op 82 – First movement
Melanie Pinkney – Bruch: Violin Concerto No 1 – First movement.  François Schubert: The Bee
The Elegiac Trio (Andrew Kelly, Josiah Pinkney – cello, Claudia Tarrant-Matthews – piano) – Rachmaninov: Trio élégiaque No 1, in G minor
Catherine McKay was the accompanying pianist for the three violinists.

Old Saint Paul’s church

Tuesday 29 July, 12:15 pm

This concert, in the regular Tuesday lunchtime series in the former Pro-cathedral, was the last appearance of The Elegiac Trio before they took part in the final stage of the Schools Chamber Music Contest, held this year in Christchurch on the coming Saturday. It proved a remarkable exhibition of young talent by the three members of the Trio as well as the 12-year-old violinist Melanie Pinkney. All three violinists are tutored by NZSO associate concert-master Donald Armstrong.

Andrew Kelly established at once what could easily be felt as the prevailing quality in the violin playing: a warm and even tone that provided the foundation for playing that was rich in dynamic subtleties; in which the central section of the Brahms sonata was so magically hushed, demonstrating the composer’s essentially romantic and emotional character, though cast within broadly classical shapes. It prepared the audience thoroughly for his role in Rachmaninov’s elegiac trio at the end of the concert.

Claudia Matthews, 16, is a little younger than Andrew, but showed greater confidence, though their playing was invested with very similar degree of painstaking care and finesse in handling the bow. Elgar’s sonata is not nearly as familiar to most people as Brahms’s three sonatas: perhaps it does not have the same immediate melodic charm and memorable character; it’s one of those works whose beauties are slower to become embedded in the mind. Claudia’s confidence, firmness and accuracy matched her ease in navigating Elgar’s particular way with the notes, bending them secretly, creating an air of remoteness and gentle drifting, speaking of a maturity that seemed well beyond her years.

Melanie Pinkney is only 12, and I imagine I was not alone in feeling that her musical gift was in the class of the musical prodigy. The Bruch concerto in G minor is a truly grown-up masterpiece; it opens with Catherine McKay’s piano, capturing the orchestra’s character hypnotically, drawing the audience mysteriously towards the memorable first theme by the violin.

Melanie planted her notes with mature assurance, giving no suggestion that it presented any difficulties, since it all lay so comfortably under her fingers. She dealt with every musical colouring and decoration as if she was improvising, yet also with beguiling musical feeling that held you spellbound.

The fine Bruch structure was followed by a little Schubert piece that I haven’t heard for many years. Yes, it IS by Franz Schubert, but he goes under the French version, François – and that’s because it’s a fellow born in 1808 in Dresden, not Vienna, and died in 1878 and though he lived more than twice as long as the eponymous Viennese musician, he didn’t gain immortality. Though The Bee, from his Bagatelles, Op 13 (No 9), named in French, L’Abeille, published in the 1850s, survives.

In any case, it offered another display of a wonderfully fluid bowing arm that produced perfect tone.

After all this precocious virtuosity, one might be surprised at nothing, and that was the case with Rachmaninov’ first piano trio – he wrote two, both called Trio Élégiaque. This first is in G minor while the second in D minor, which is much longer, was inspired by the death of Tchaikovsky.

The tremolo opening of the piece seemed to emerge mysteriously from the dim timber recesses of the church, as the arrival of each instrument each seemed in turn to pick up the same emotion and tonal character of the previous one. They seemed to have paid scrupulous attention to each other’s sound; as the violin took up the theme from the cello it seemed simply to be an extension upward of the latter’s sound, not a different instrument.

Admittedly, this is a gorgeous acoustic for chamber music, but the raw material needs to be there for it to flourish. These musicians seemed not only to have worked together to integrate their sound but also to have judged successfully how their playing needed to be adapted to the space.

Much credit is due to the teacher of the violinists, Donald Armstrong, who oversaw the concert as a whole, but also to Andrew Joyce who coaches cellist Josiah Pinkney and Claudia Tarrant-Matthews’s piano teachers.


A challenging conspectus of unfamiliar Nordic song, from Kapiti Chamber Choir

Nordic Music and Myths: Songs from Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Norway by Alfvén, Sibelius,
Nørgård, Grieg, Sandstrøm, Sallinen, Langgaard, Rautavaara, Nielsen, Gade, Nordraak
Elgar: Scenes from the Saga of King Olaf

Kapiti Chamber Choir conducted by Eric Sidoti, with Jennifer Scarlet (piano), Sunny Amey (narrator), Pepe Becker (soprano), John Beaglehole (tenor) and Roger Wilson (baritone), Irene Lau (piano)

St. Paul’s Church, Paraparaumu

Sunday, 27 July 2014, 2.30pm

The fashion for themed concerts seems now firmly entrenched; whether it produces the best results is another matter.  This concert’s intention of covering a broad theme was perhaps its undoing.  I have attended numerous concerts by the Kapiti Chamber Choir over the years, but this one did not reach the standard of its predecessors.  Instead of trying to cover all the Nordic lands (except Iceland) and languages, it might have been better to concentrate on fewer composers, and perform more of their work, e.g. do a greater number of songs by Sibelius and perhaps of one or two of the others represented.  This would have been more cohesive, instead of the huge range we heard, some very briefly.

The only familiar item (to me) from the choir was Sibelius’s ‘Finlandia’, though sung with words (English) I had not heard before. Mellifluous tone and clear words made this a fine performance.  The other well-known piece was not sung, but played as a piano duet: Sinding’s old pot-boiler ‘Rustle of Spring’.  I don’t think this added any value in a choral concert.  A solo from Roger Wilson, Grieg’s sad song ‘A Swan’ effectively employed the baritone’s lower register.

None of the choral items in the first half was an easy sing, and most  were unaccompanied.  Good observation of dynamics was a significant feature, and the songs in English demonstrated the delightful
word-setting by the composers, particularly those by Finn Aulis Sallinen (1935-  ).

The songs in Finnish and other languages seemed to have more tuning problems, and variety of pronunciation made for a muddy sound at times. A couple of songs were sung with repetitive accompanying syllables from the lower voices, with varying success. The national anthem of Norway, by Rikard Nordraak (1842-1866) featured excellent tone and harmony – a fine performance.

Elgar’s King Olaf is little performed these days; perhaps there is a good reason for that.  It lacks the inspiration, melodic inventiveness and attractiveness of Dream of Gerontius or even The Music Makers.  Grove (Dictionary of Music and Musicians) says that it, along with other of Elgar’s choral works, ‘…suffer from poor librettos’ and ‘…here he chose texts which are sometimes muddled dramatically and often commonplace, or worse, in style.’ While Longfellow is much revered in the United States, and was in an earlier time in Britain, some of the verse Sunny Amey was required to declaim, and the soloists and choir to sing, was not far removed from doggerel, with ludicrous rhymes and conventional imagery.

The writer of the Grove article calls the first five movements memorable, but implies that the later ones are not of the same quality.  I would agree; they became tedious, until suddenly I was lit up when, almost at the end, we had the lovely song, often sung on its own, ‘As torrents in summer’.  I would call this the most inspired section, and the most beautifully sung, of the whole work.

The work comprised the second half of the over-long concert.  Spoken interventions by conductors have become a custom.  These were quite unnecessary, since much information was given in the excellent printed programme, and only served to take up time.

A difficulty for choirs is being able to provide an orchestra for works requiring one.  In this case, the piano was used instead.  However, a small upright piano in a fully carpeted church is but a poor substitute, despite the magnificent efforts of Jennifer Scarlet on this occasion.  Not only does it not give the variety of sound colours required, it does not support the choir sufficiently.
Whether frequent lapses of intonation, especially from the sopranos, can be blamed on this, I am not sure.  Much of the time the choir seemed under-rehearsed.  ‘S’ word-endings were not together, and individual voices were too prominent at times; at others, the tone sounded forced.  I think that Elgar would have written for a larger choir than this one consisting of 35 singers.

Of the soloists, John Beaglehole was the most distinguished.  His lively tenor gave some drama to his solos – he sang as if he meant what he was saying.  Pepe Becker is a wonderful singer of baroque and early music; I felt she was miscast in this late-Victorian cantata, in which Elgar adopted some of the
compositional style of Wagner.  These remarks applied also to the solos from these performers in the first half of the concert.  The style involved much use of chromatic writing – a trap for choirs, and one the choir frequently fell into, in terms of tuning.

Of course, not all was poor.  There were moments when the choir expressed the drama of the piece well, even though some of it was couched in musical and linguistic clichés.  There was some very attractive singing, especially in quiet passages.  In contrast, the loud passages sounded harsh, the voices not well supported.

It was remarkable how some of the men, particularly, managed to sing the whole work with but few glances at the conductor.

Maybe the music would serve well as background to an action film on the life and adventures of King Olaf.

I admire the conductor’s energy and innovation in producing this programme; he is musical director of the larger Kapiti Chorale, St. John’s in the City choir and the Hutt Valley Gang Show in addition to Kapiti Chamber Choir, but I have to say that this concert was a disappointment.


Cathedral’s festival celebrated by satanism and the supernatural in film and music

The Phantom of the Opera – silent film accompanied by organ
A Cathedral Jubilee Festival Event
Barry Brinson – organ, Hannah Catrin Jones – soprano

Cathedral of Saint Paul

Saturday 26 July, 7:30 pm

How satisfying is the experience of a silent film?

As part of the Cathedral’s 50th anniversary, a famous silent film made in 1925 was screened, with a dedicated sound-track comprising a live organ performance. The inspiration for an organ accompaniment came from the theme of the film itself set in the Paris Opéra where performances of Gounod’s Faust were taking place. The film tells the tale of an organ-playing ‘Phantom’ which has taken up residence in the dungeons beneath the theatre and is doomed to remain there with his deformed face until a woman loves him.

The woman targeted is an opera singer, Christine, who is understudy to the role of Marguérite in a production of Faust. The Phantom makes it known that the prima donna, Carlotta, must stand aside so that Christine can sing the role.

Our first encounter with the opera is the ballet scene (well, two of the seven numbers in the ballet) which Gounod wrote when Faust was produced by the Paris Opéra in 1869 (it had premiered at the Théâtre Lyrique in 1859, with spoken dialogue and various other differences from the version usually performed today). The ballet was an addition to the orgiastic witches’ scene on the Brocken in the Harz mountains in central Germany, known as the Walpurgisnacht: another appropriate link with the Gothic (last year your reviewer went by steam train up to the Brocken searching for evidence of earlier heathen depravity, but was disappointed).

After the threat has been fulfilled and Carlotta is ‘sick’, we hear Christine singing Marguérite’s affecting last act aria, ‘Anges purs, anges radieux’, sung beautifully by Hannah Catrin Jones. But the next night in spite of the Phantom’s threat, Carlotta again attempts the role, and Hannah sings the Jewel Song (it would have been nice to have had surtitles for the words of these), but amid flickering lights, the mighty chandelier in the auditorium crashes on to the audience. The Phantom seizes Christine and holds her in the dungeon below the theatre.

In the second half Hannah sang ‘Il était un roi de Thule’ and the Phantom at his organ went through the motions of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C sharp minor: M. Brinson did it much better, as he did with Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. After the final chase leading to the disposal of the Phantom in the Seine, Brinson played one of those splendid Lefébure-Wély-type pieces with which Parisians make their exits from church.

There is no need to narrate the complex and rather contrived story after that, and its departures from the original novel as well as the changes made in the course of the film’s production; the ad hoc modifications that had to happen in the course of recovering and restoring the film, the original 35 mm version of which had been lost, are to be found on the Internet.

So: how satisfying as a theatrical and music experience was this silent movie?

The film cannot really rank as a classic of the silent film era, as there is far too much incoherent, clichéd, ‘horror’ effects, suspense, pointless chase scenes, dwelling on the Phantom’s hideous face and the satanic elements, not to mention a story that echoes, in a confused way, aspects of the ancient Wandering Jew or Flying Dutchman legends, hinting at the idea of redemption through a woman’s sacrifice, as well as echoes of the Faust story itself.

Many would have been there for the music though. While Barry Brinson accompanied with imagination and frequent pointed effects, any attempts to echo the supernatural and the intended terrifying phases of the story did not quite measure up to the kinds of music such things might inspire from an imaginative composer of today, so that the dated visual devices were hardly rescued from their weaknesses by the injection of dramatic and chilling music.

Nevertheless, the presence of an organist who knew his way around this versatile instrument and managed generally to find music, some from related material such as the Andrew Lloyd Webber version of the story, with a lot of tremolo rather than much real musical evocation of scenes of ‘horror’ and suspense. Yet we heard a musician of impressive improvisatory, and well as memory skills who actually produced the kind of musical accompaniment that might have been heard in the 1920s in a movie theatre.

The novel and the film of The Phantom of the Opera fall into the broad class of Gothic fiction that arouse in the late 18th century.

The Gothic pattern involved calling up a variety of effects and situations: mysterious, supernatural, terrifying or horror-filled. There are visions, omens, shadows on walls, ghosts, ancient castles, or, in this case, a rather wondrous neo-gothic – architecturally neo-almost-everything – opera house; they often involved a woman threatened by violence from a fiendish character, accompanied by staring eyes, fainting, screaming.  The story makes great use of suspense, supernatural events, inanimate things coming to life, appearances and disappearances, a woman in danger, tyranised by a crazed or evil man.

The French origin of the film was a novel of the same name that appeared in serialised form in 1909-10. It was emphatically in the tradition of the Gothic fiction that touched poetry, drama and the novel, as well as opera and ballet and the visual arts throughout the 19th century. It was a very important sub-genre of the Romantic movement.

The movement had started with Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto in 1764 and novels of Ann Radcliffe such as The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian, The Monk by Matthew Lewis (who became known as ‘Monk Lewis’), aspects of Walter Scott’s novels, the stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, elements of Dickens, like Little Dorrit and Great Expectations. Later examples were Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White.

The genre flourished in the German Romantic movement from the time of Schiller’s Die Räuber in 1782 (which became Verdi’s I masnadieri), Kleist, Tieck and most importantly ETA Hoffmann. Jean Paul’s novels were steeped in the genre (his Titan reverberated through the 19th century, even, misleadingly, to Mahler’s First Symphony). In opera there was Weber’s Der Freischütz, with Samiel, the Satanic ‘Black Hunter’ and the magic bullets, Marschner’s Der Vampyr drawn from a story by John William Polidori, the creator of ‘Vampire literature’ – a sub-genre; and de la Motte Fouqué’s Undine (a water sprite) which inspired much later writing and music, such as operas by Hoffmann himself, Lortzing and Dvorák’s Rusalka.

In Russia, Gothic elements exist in Pushkin’s Queen of Spades and Lermontov’s Demon (both of which inspired operas by, respectively, Tchaikovsky and Anton Rubinstein).

Later in the 19th century the style revived with R L Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, Henry James The Turn of the Screw. And of course it could be no surprise that the cinema soon realised how brilliantly the whole assemblage of hysterical and supernatural nonsense could be exploited on the screen.


Echt-quartet experiences from the Doric String Quartet

Chamber Music New Zealand presents:
The Doric String Quartet

HAYDN – String Quartet Op.76 No.6 in E-flat
BRETT DEAN – Eclipse
SCHUBERT – String Quartet No.15 in G D.887

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 25th July, 2014

I didn’t get to see and hear the Doric String Quartet on their first New Zealand visit in 2010, but on the strength of what I heard at their recent Wellington concert I’ll be keeping an eye on their schedules and things from now on. Whatever coincidences of conditions were brought to play, they were of an order which left me in a kind of trance for days after the Quartet’s concert, with scraps of the music they presented continually sounding in my head and refusing to leave me alone.

What these players seemed to me to be able to do was generate a kind of “the ordinary and the fabulous” music-making world, to which we in the audience were all invited. From the first few phrases of the Haydn (in that gorgeous E-flat Major key) our sensibilities were taken “somewhere else” by a combination of the warmth and piquancy of the writing and what I can describe only as a kind of focused sensitivity on the part of the Quartet’s players.

It was a feeling quite at odds with the cavernous spaces of the Michael Fowler Centre, a venue which was never designed for chamber music, but which nevertheless yielded on this occasion to the blandishments of the sounds brought into being by the musicians. But in a strange and alchemic way, those vistas had a part to play in the process of creating the fabulous – the quartet’s penchant for hushed tones throughout seemed to throw down a kind of gauntlet to our listening environment, as if to say “Can these spaces unlock our secrets? – or will our tones be scattered as wildflower petals in the wilderness, lost just as if we never in the first place made these sounds?”

Well, the musicians needn’t have worried – thanks to that aforementioned “focused sensitivity” everything the players did with the music registered, from the softest whisperings to the fullest, richest declamations. But I think the combination of larger-than-usual listening-distances and the quartet’s fondness for finely-wrought, inward-sounding tones resulted in a kind of focused, concentrated interplay between music, musicians and listeners that worked a potent spell throughout the concert.

Haydn’s theme-and-variations opening movement of his Op.76 No.6 quartet beguiled us right from its opening, every phrase and contrasting impulse carrying with it both spontaneity and logic. The second, hymn-like movement seemed almost like a 3/4 version of the famous Emperor Quartet’s slow movement. I liked the “breathless with wonderment” aspect of the playing, with not a note or phrase sounding mechanical or contrived – a momentary shift into minor mode at one point called forth pauses charged with expectation, before a communion-like resolution provided the only possible response.

Deftly-wrought syncopations throughout the minuet’s opening gave way to the trio’s pealing bell-like scales, sounded by the players with great delight among the combinations, by turns droll and festive in character. Then, the finale’s almost ritualistic minuet-like aspect at the beginning occasionally released an energized, scampering figure which enlivened the textures and gave a wider context to the movement’s apparent severity – the quartet dug into some wonderful modulations and danced its way through some tricky canonic interchanges, the sequences communicating to us a great deal of creative satisfaction – as the poet Hopkins wrote about his early-morning sighting of a falcon’s flight – “the achieve of: the mastery of the thing!”

Brett Dean’s work Eclipse took us to realms as far-removed from Haydn’s finely-abstracted creations as could be imagined. This work for string quartet, in a single movement but with three distinct sections, was written by the Australian composer in response to the 2001 Tampa crisis, the name referring to a Norwegian vessel whose captain’s actions saved the lives of hundreds of Indonesian refugees on board a boat which got into difficulties while heading for Australia. Though Dean in a programme note describes the work as “first and foremost a piece of chamber music”, his initial impetus to create the work would for most listeners surely seem an inextricable part of the process of listening to and understanding the end result.  I think it was Sibelius who once said “music reflects life” – and as a political statement Dean’s work is no less musically impactful – in a completely different way – than was Finlandia.

The composer described his work as “brooding, troubled and at times aggressive”, his music describing a situation in which people found themselves “riding the cusp between life and death….and entering the realm of sheer existence”. It’s certainly a tour de force of virtuosic quartet-playing, employing techniques and effects which were exploratory to an extreme degree and positively orchestral in their impact. The work’s three sections, played without a break, described in turn the sounds and ambient contexts one might have associated with a ship drifting out at sea, the naked power and terrifying effects of an oceanic storm, and finally the ensuing calm associated with feelings of both relief and uncertainty on the part of the ship’s passengers regarding their fate.

Each section made a different kind of impact, one which tended to go beyond the composer’s actual programme and draw on deeper, more archetypal feelings concerning aspects of the “human condition”.  Thus the quartet’s opening evocations seemed to me to suggest the reality of vast spaces through which we humans carry out our small business – at the outset things were only a notch or two up from inaudibility, though things gradually built up by a kind of “growing from seed” process. It became a slow coalescence of dry, spectral impulses with variegated timbral and gestural features, such as tremolandi, and afterwards pizzicati, the spontaneous, even chaotic assemblage subsiding into order as the music proceeded.

The “storm” sequence was nightmarish to say the least – extremities of textures and dynamics, between which were “roller-coaster rides” of the utmost physicality, the players extracting from their instruments sounds that readily conveyed terror, helplessness and despair by dint of their menace and vehemence. At its climax brutal punctuations vied with awful silences which were then whipped into a frenzy by vicious tremolandi passages, whose intensities gradually dissipated, leading the way to an ambience of shattered fragments, of exhausted spirits, tremulous voices, and glimmerings of hope, a solo cello’s wraith-like traceries attempting to imbue the besieged human spirit with the will to recover and continue.

In some respects Dean’s work resembled that which concluded the concert, Schubert’s equally searing G Major Quartet D.887. Both pieces inhabited realms of physical and psychological duress, presented in each case with unequivocal visceral impact, though Schubert’s work had no programme as such, rather, abstracting its dramatic qualities via sonata form. But what power there was in those abstractions – what candour! – what tragedy!

The Doric’s way with this music was to bring out a kind of rapt inwardness to the quieter, more lyrical sections, playing with the utmost concentration and refinement of tone. This approach had the effect of making us listen all the more intently to the music-making in that vast space – having captured our sensibilities thus, the music’s more vigorous moments came across with all the more impact and character. Though not as “gutsy” as the trenchant attack adopted by some groups I’d heard in the music’s more harrowing sections, the Doric’s keen focus and intensity put across the music just as strongly and tellingly, made all the more journey-like by the observance of the first movement repeat.

Equally as memorable was the stark beauty of the ‘cello-led lament which began the second movement, the players paring all warmth from their tones so as to sharpen the intensities of contrast with the trenchant second subject – here, at once tightly-focused and vastly-flung, the ambience a-tingle with anguish and grey-hued with sorrow. But then the quartet made certain we felt the touches of warmth on our faces which came with the major-key statements of the opening towards the movement’s end, Schubert characteristically putting on a brave face through the music’s tears.

The spookily elfin scherzo kept its sotto voce mode for as long as it could, the playing hinting at something diabolical darting between the shadows, with occasional szforzandi causing a scalp-prickling effect. Set against these urgencies, the long-breathed waltz-likeTrio seemed like a kind of distant dream of dancing phantoms, the shades, perhaps, of happier memories. But even more startling was the finale’s frenetic pace, its flight more psychological than physical, the notes falling over themselves in places trying to “escape” the claustrophobic crowding of those syncopations, and the brutality of the occasional szforzandi. I’ve never heard this music take on such a sinister “ride to the abyss” aspect, its energies transformed into compulsive shudderings, everything haunted with a ghostly pallor, like a rider set on galloping towards a grim and unremitting destiny.

One could conclude from the above, quite rightly, that the concert was for me a throughly engaging and richly-wrought experience – sterling testimony to the skill and musicality of an exceptional quartet of players.












Engaging lunchtime concert by woodwind students

Woodwind students of the New Zealand School of Music

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 23 July, 12:15 pm

Five students under head of winds Deborah Rawson at the school of music gave a delightful recital on a cold day which saw a slightly smaller audience than usual at St Andrew’s.

As usual the standard of the performances was remarkable, resulting in several revelations of unfamiliar music. The first was a movement from Saint-Saëns’s clarinet sonata, one of his last pieces, written in the year of his death. Hannah Sellars played its second movement, Allegro animato, not without slight blemishes but with interesting variety of tone and an easy fluency in the runs and other decorative elements.

A second clarinettist was Patrick Richardson, rather more confident both in his presentation and his execution; he played two pieces, the first a successful arrangement of Debussy’s La fille aux cheveux de lin, and then the Allegro from Stamitz’s 2nd clarinet concerto (while the programme had J (for Johann) Stamitz as composer, Richardson said correctly that it was by Carl, Johann’s son; Johann wrote only one clarinet concerto). The Debussy was limpid and fluid, every note entranced by the girl’s beguiling hair, the piano part only slightly diminished in its importance; the concerto movement by the son of the genius of the Mannheim school which so influenced Mozart, was a happy experience, chosen no doubt to exemplify the stylistic contrast between the classical clarinet and the late romantic. The clarity of tone, the player’s firm confidence carried him through the decorative phrases and cadenzas, with striking support by pianist Rafaela Garlick-Grice.

Harim Oh was a third clarinettist; he chose a piece that represented a very different challenge: the first movement, Lento, poco rubato, from the solo clarinet sonata by avant-garde Soviet composer Edison Denisov, born in 1929 and died in 1996. Littered with tricky pitches, micro-tones, note bending and smudged trills, this was a fine performance of a famously seminal piece, defying Soviet orthodoxy.

Two other instruments featured: Annabel Lovatt’s oboe and Peter Lamb’s bassoon. Annabel’s presentation was slightly hindered by nervousness compounded by a non-functioning microphone; however I did hear her say that the CPE Bach piece for solo oboe was originally for flute – no doubt for his patron the flute-playing Prussian king Frederick. One of the really significant revelations of recent decades has been the discovery of Bach’s oldest son’s genius, replacing the earlier view of him as a merely talented odd-ball. This piece made its way through an Adagio with an intriguing, twisting melody, short varied pauses and odd tempo changes; then the Allegro, a show-piece that was just as inventive and entertaining, punctuated by unexpected pauses, which Annabel played with considerable accomplishment. It may well have been more difficult on the oboe than on the flute.

Peter Lamb played a short suite for bassoon and piano by Alexander Tansman, who came alive for me when I visited the city museum in Lodz some years ago to find it largely dominated by Arthur Rubinstein and Tansman, both born there – Tansman 1897–1986. Since then, Tansman’s music seems to have emerged interestingly. This suite explored the instrument’s great and highly contrasted range in sunny melodies that engaged the piano (always played so splendidly by Garlick-Grice) in a real partnership. There seemed to be four movements, varied in a neo-classical manner. Not only does his music avoid modernist tendencies (in Paris in the 1920s, he declined an invitation to associate with Les Six) and certainly the serialists, but there is little to suggest any kinship with his compatriot Szymanowski, 15 years his senior. So this was an engaging, and interesting work that the two played with affection and commitment. It’s time for more serious exploration (by RNZ Concert?) of Tansman’s impressive oeuvre.

Comments later confirmed my impression of a particularly engaging concert.

Jian Liu at the piano – visionary programming, extraordinary playing

Classical Expressions 2014 presents
Jian Liu (piano)

WILLIAM BYRD – Hugh Ashton’s Grownde (from “My Ladye Nevells Book”)
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN – 6 Variations in F Major on an Original Theme
JOHANNES BRAHMS – Variations on a theme of Paganini

Classical Expressions, Upper Hutt
The Gillies Group Theatre

Monday 21st July 2014

I missed whatever printed or spoken announcement had alerted others to the re-arrangement of the programme order – so that when Jian Liu began his Classical Expressions recital with William Byrd instead of Sofia Gubaidulina, I experienced a kind of reverse apoplexy! I had girded my loins in preparation for a Slavic onslaught of sorts, and was thus completely and disconcertingly rendered helpless by the gentle Tudor-English melancholy of Byrd’s treatment of a fellow-composer’s “ground” (a bass pattern to which melodic and harmonic variations are added).

It may have been a mere echo of my expectation of hearing Sofia Gubaidulina’s work – but in the opening theme of Byrd’s music I thought I caught more than a hint of plainchant mode, a phrase or two whose trajectory resonated like a sung phrase from an Orthodox service. Of course, as well it might have been Byrd’s own background as an English Catholic bringing out a Latin plainchant phrase or manner, however secular in intent the actual work was.

The music in this case came from a collection called My Lady Nevelles Booke, one which Byrd himself had compiled as a gift to the “lady” in question (one of his pupils). In doing so Byrd immortalized both her and (with this particular piece) his slightly older contemporary Hugh Ashton, devising wonderfully exploratory figurations and strongly-wrought harmonies and counterpoint figures to go with the older composer’s ground bass.

Jian Liu gave a predictably lucid, beautifully-voiced set of responses to the music’s different variations, though early on there were places where I thought he kept the trill-laden figurations on too tight a rein. I wanted more sense of the fantastical, more spontaneous unfolding of those trills and their laughter and sense of wonderment. Here it seemed as though the figurations were a shade too stiff in effect, and their roundings-off at times too abrupt.

It could have been that Liu was deliberately contriving this effect, feeling that the music had sufficient wonderment in itself, and needed clarity and shape, without allowing too much indulgence. As the music grew in animation and vigour, Liu’s playing seemed to relax and knit more readily with the fantastical textures, his control giving the composer’s arguments and counter-arguments great eloquence, especially in the Ninth Variation, and making the most of the welter of notes over the following two variations, and the harmonic richness of the tune’s final statement.

Sofia Gubaidulina’s Chaconne gave us the greatest possible contrast with the Byrd in terms of its dynamic angularity and overall physical impact. Liu gave the opening playing of astonishing power and girth, building granite-like structures, around which circled angular counterpoints and leap-frogging figurations. Mad boogie-woogie sequences crashed to earth, the remnants picking themselves up and dashing madly hither and thither in desperately fugal pursuits. One marvelled at the composer’s seemingly endless keyboard inventions, time and again setting immovable objects against irresistible forces, as with rampant left-hand octaves terrorizing right-handed chords into cowering submission (shades of Shostakovich, here, probably cavorting in glee!).

All of these irruptions and coruscations were delivered by Liu with strength, brilliance and fearless resolve, going to the heart of each of the variations with unerring instinct. From a sequence in which the music was becalmed grew bell-sounding impulses, both tinitinabulations and “strong gongs groaning”, the bright-voiced bells building the excitement, supported by wondrously deep-throated clamoring from the turrets and towers of cathedrals.  Then, majestically, the work’s opening returned, as jagged and angular as before, but with extra, insistent octave support from the left hand, Liu beautifully controlling the textures, and allowing the silences to drift softly backwards as the voices took their leave of us.

That miracle of adaptation, Busoni’s “realization” of JS Bach’s mighty Chaconne from the Violin Partita No.2 BWV 1004, was merely one aspect of the pianist’s veneration for the older composer and his works – he also produced his own editions of The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Partitas, and the English and French Suites. With the Chaconne, Busoni thought it possible to recreate the work from a more theatrical and Romantic perspective, thereby adding to his age’s understanding of the music. I’ve not been able to find any additional evidence for the story (which I read somewhere) of Busoni touring with the violinist Ysaye, frequently hearing him play the Chaconne as part of the Partita, and eventually producing his transcription of the work, and playing it to the stupefied violinist, after cautioning him to refrain from making any comments until he, Busoni, had finished the performance!

Busoni wrote his transcription in 1892, dedicating the work to the celebrated pianist Eugene d’Albert, who apparently was not pleased – in fact d’Albert reproached Busoni for what he called “tampering” with the original, but the latter was famously unrepentant. In fact Busoni’s reply to d’Albert deserves to be quoted – “I start from the impression that Bach’s conception of the work goes far beyond the limits and means of the violin, so that the instrument he specifies for performance is not adequate.” As was his wont, Bach had left no performance instructions – dynamic or tempo markings – on his manuscript, aside from the notes themselves. The work and its possibilities remained alive in Busoni’s thoughts for many years afterwards as he revised his transcription at least three times.

Jian Liu’s playing certainly entered into the spirit of Busoni’s “theatrical and Romantic perspective” – here, expressed through his hands, was grandeur set alongside rapt intimacy, variegated pianistic colour next to simple transparency, harmonic augmentation and single voicing. Throughout, both player and instrument sounded Bach’s music-framework in full conjunction with Busoni’s creative responses to the same. At times the virtuoso charge of it all was edge-of-the-seat stuff, as with the left hand octaves thrillingly driving the tight-handed figurations with Lisztian brilliance, or both hands harmonizing cascades of pealing bells while some of the gentler musings had whole sea-changes of mood, such as the contrast of “withdrawal” from major to minor mode three-quarters of the way through the piece.

Both the interval and the Beethoven work which followed provided relief of sorts from the overwhelming weight of concentration from both music and performance, and from the orchestral weight of sound made to emanate from the piano. “Beethoven’s “Enigma” Variations” quipped a friend, upon seeing the “On an Original Theme” subtitle to the work – though not quite as far-reaching or as enigmatic as Elgar’s, Beethoven’s variations are unusual in that each piece is in a different key. This work, from 1802, marked an intensification of creativity for the young composer, what he called a “new road”, and along which he was shortly to squarely face his life’s first major crisis, the onset of his deafness. This work, however, gives little sign of impending tragedy, the theme a brief but lovely cantabile melody, the variations discursive and imaginative.

Jian Liu brought out the character of each variation with great relish, the bagatelle-like D-major, the rumbustious B-flat-major with its contrasting high and low registering, the graceful, drawing-room-like E-flat-major, the purposeful march-like C Minor, with its Schumannesque pre-echoes, and the final adroit merging into C major and then F Major, the Mozartean flow punctuated by Beethovenian muscle at cardinal points! Liu played the flowing, rippling passagework which decorated the final Adagio beautifully, the cascadings giving way to a simple, unadorned fragment of the original theme at the end.

Rounding off this evening’s presentation of virtuosic chaconne-like works came one of the most fearsome – the Variations on a Theme of Paganini, by Brahms. This work is one of the “big three” adaptations (the other two are by Rachmaninov and Lutoslawski) of violinist and composer Niccolò Paganini’s 24th and last Caprice from his set of Caprices for solo violin. And, for the adventurous, there seem to be plenty more explorations of the same work by composers employing a bewildering range of instruments, from traditional to techno-based.

At first the combination of Brahms and Paganini would seem incongruous – here, after all, was the champion of the conservatives exploring and extending the music of one of the great romantic virtuosi. Parts of the work sound also as though they could have been written by Liszt, whose music Brahms had little time for. But the common ground here was the young pianistic wizard Carl Tausig, Liszt’s favourite pupil (“When the little one goes on the road I shall shut up shop!” Liszt was reported to have said of Tausig). Refusing to align himself exclusively with either conservative or radical elements of the age, Tausig also befriended Brahms, who wrote the Paganini Variations for him, calling them “Studies for Pianoforte”. One critic described the requirements for any interpreter of these pieces as “fingers of steel, a heart of burning lava and the courage of a lion”.

Jian Liu certainly had those prerequisites, engaging the work’s difficulties, both technical and interpretative, with strength, flair and purpose. Never over-flamboyant at the keyboard, his seemingly tireless fingers, wrists and arms channelled a bewildering amalgam of complex responses and emotions into the music’s heart, realizing its brilliance, power, charm, exhilaration and tragedy. To choose individual variations for comment would seem almost churlish, as it was Liu’s overall sweep which impressed most, in retrospect, his integration of the disparate elements, making the work seem like a true reconciliation between form, technique and emotional content. One came away from this performance with a deeper appreciation of the composer, of his music, and of the times that produced such an outpouring of creative imagination.


















NZSO National Youth Orchestra 2014 tackles showpieces with a will

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

Conductor: Alexander Shelley
Assistant Conductor: Gemma New
NYO Composer-In-Residence 2014: Sarah Ballard

SARAH BALLARD – Synergos (World Premiere)
RICHARD STRAUSS – Also Sprach Zarathustra Op.30

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, Friday 18th July

ASB Theatre, Auckland, Saturday 19th July

This year the NZSO National Youth Orchestra is fifty-five years young – it’s a Gilbertian kind of paradox that the orchestra seems, with each passing season, just as youthful, energetic, enthusiastic and capable as ever!  Here on Friday evening last week were some of New Zealand’s finest young musicians brought together in the time-honoured manner for a short rehearsal period, before shaping up for their first concert in Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre. With two famously brilliant late-romantic orchestral showpieces on the programme plus a newly-conmmissioned work by the orchestra’s composer-in-residence Sarah Ballard, the concert was set to be something of a blockbuster.

Things couldn’t have gotten away to a more thrilling beginning with the opening of Richard Strauss’s symphonic poem Don Juan, the first of the two pieces commemorating the composer’s two-hundredth birthday this year. British conductor Alexander Shelley didn’t “spare the horses”, getting from the young players oceans of vigour, colour and red-blooded commitment in realising the music’s infectious excitement and sheer bravado – impressive stuff from a twenty-four year-old composer! Romantic feeling there was a-plenty as well, with several superb solos delivered from within the opulent orchestra textures, solo violin and winds covering themselves with glory.

I wasn’t altogether surprised by the playing’s brilliant and whole-hearted qualities, having attended a number of concerts from recent years given by the orchestra, and invariably being knocked sideways on these occasions by the sheer impact of the music-making’s elan and range of expression. The 2009 performance of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, for example, remains for me an unforgettable occasion, the performance as thrilling as I’d ever previously encountered of that work, either “live” or on disc, one most fittingly marking the orchestra’s fiftieth birthday.

But this concert seemed to me to present just as challenging a prospect in a different way – from a listener’s point of view these two Strauss works appear to demand just as much brilliance and energy as does any Mahler Symphony, or orchestral work by Bartok or Debussy, but along with an additional degree of tonal weight and depth that “goes with the territory”. More so than with the other composers mentioned, Strauss’s works are, perhaps along with Scriabin’s, the most sumptuously-orchestrated of his era, requiring players to generously pour forth their tonal resources, and frequently occasioning the command “all you have!” from conductors.

I wasn’t worried by a couple of momentary ensemble spills that accompanied the thrills throughout the concert – but I was concerned that these youthful players would be able to summon up enough breadth and depth of sound to put across the sheer physical impact of this music. It wasn’t so crucial during Don Juan, whose music has for much of the time a volatile, quicksilver urgency that relies on brilliance as much as, if not more than, weight. As I’ve said, these players, guided by Alexander Shelley, threw themselves into the fray and realized all the music’s glittering energy with great elan.

Among those who acquitted themselves splendidly were clarinettist David McGregor and oboist Thomas Hutchinson – the latter in particular made a beautiful thing of his famous solo in Don Juan depicting ‘the red-headed woman, Donna Elvira”, an embodiment of the “Ideal Feminine”, making the Don’s frenetic drive towards a kind of fulfillment seem even more precipitous and his decline and death more shocking – here properly and chillingly realized!

A different kettle of fish was Also Sprach Zarathustra (“Thus spake Zarathustra”), Strauss’s response in orchestral terms to the thoughts and philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche. A more epic, and longer-breathed work, its textures every now and then pointed to the orchestra’s relative lack of both size and tonal resource. Perhaps the long string-melody soon after the very beginning of the work most obviously illustrated this shortcoming – the first few measures were beautifully negotiated by the solo strings, but the relative smallness of the sound of the full section thereafter stressed a need for more tonal weight and vibrancy.

Happily, these few moments were outweighed by the impact of the playing of the more vigorous passages in the score. The famous opening came off splendidly – despite there being no pipe organ at hand  in the MFC (whomever it may concern, please note the “veiled” reference here to the need for restoring the Wellington Town Hall to circulation as quickly as possible!) Conductor Alexander Shelley kept things moving, allowing timpanist Sam Rich his wonderful moment of glory, while not pressing too hard on trumpeter Matthew Stein and the other brass players, who helped bring off a magnificent musical sunrise. Another heartening and joyous sequence was that of the Dance Song, solo violinist Jonathan Tanner leading the dance with easeful charm (some particularly lovely individual notes from his instrument!) and infectious gaiety.

So, the Strauss works can be said to justly represent another musical landmark in the orchestra’s distinguished history. But what of the concert’s new work, the “world premiere” of Synergos, written by the orchestra’s 2014 composer-in-residence, Sarah Ballard? The short response is that I and my various cohorts at the concert thought the work a brilliant display of descriptive orchestral writing, employing instrumental timbres and colourings to stunning effect. One friend (an experienced concert-goer) went so far as to admit to me that he was prepared to patiently “sit through” the work as a way of getting back to the “real” music afterwards – but to his surprise he enjoyed Sarah Ballard’s finely-crafted collection of orchestral “noises” much more than he thought he would.

This twelve-minute work achieved a great deal in a short time, being a kind of three-part exploration of instrumental timbres and tonal hues associated with each of two colours, red and gold, and of their eventual “synergos” or coming together. I thought the opening of the work extremely kinetic, and very “edgy” as regards the instrumental extremes of timbre and tone being employed. The opening sequences were arresting – scintillations of percussion, strings playing right at the “edge” of their tone, heavy brass growling, winds in a ferment, cackling like witches – a bedlam-like orchestral canvas! Being not particularly colour-oriented in my own thinking, I found myself inclined to characterize what I heard so far as being of a vibrant, active quality – by instinct seeking and forming a “behavioural” more than an “appearance” description.

By contrast I thought the second part of the work had a more open, broader-browed manner, the string-tones seeming to resonate or widen to reveal spacious aspects, the wind notes burning like stars in the ambient firmament, the harp-notes sprinkling showers of gently-scintillated warmth. The figurations sounded at ease with themselves, ready to cohere with whatever timbres or colours might be thus activated – the effect wasn’t unlike the ambience surrounding one of those huge, slowly-revolving reflector-spheres which collect and configure as much as reflect and scintillate.

So the opening scenario drew from the composer’s set of responses to red, or, as she called it “Alizarin”, while this latter sequence explored the contrasting effects of considering gold, or “Aurum”. My younger companion at the concert was delighted at being able to recognize the contrasting features of the two “colours” (she afterwards admitted to being attuned to colour in music, and was thus receptive to what Sarah Ballard’s work was exploring). What I found fascinating was what then followed – the amalgamation of the two parts, the synergos of the piece’s title.

Individual lines, figurations, punctuations and impulses began to push their way through, up and out of the textures, the breathy, toneless brasses awakening the winds, and finding their own voices, the two different ”waves” of occupancy eyeing, shouldering and pushing one another around a bit at first, displaying the prerequisite “attitude” as part of the synergistic process, before finding their places in the new order of things. I was left with a feeling of awe at the work’s conclusion, as if I’d been of some kind of journey which defined the nature of my own temporality in the face of the timelessness evoked by the tinkling glockenspiel at the piece’s end.

Very great credit to composer and conductor and musicians for a remarkable quarter-hour’s music, one which added to the overall enjoyment and fascination of 2014’s distinctive NZSO NYO occasion.












Dalecarlia Quintet in a third and different programme in Greater Wellington

Wellington Chamber Music Trust
Dalecarlia Clarinet Quintet (Anna McGregor, clarinet; Sofie Sunnerstam, violin; Manu Berkeljon, violin; Anders Norén, viola; Tomas Blanch, cello)

Anthony Ritchie:  Purakaunui at Dawn (2014)
Ross Harris: Fjärran (2012)
Brahms: Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op.115

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 13 July 2014, 3.00pm

Two New Zealanders resident in Sweden and three Swedes made up the unusual complement of this quintet, come together pretty recently to replace the programmed Antithesis Quintet.

Before we could assess whether this had any effect on the quality of performance, we were treated to a prologue from the Glazunov Quartet, made up of four young people from Hutt Valley schools, who were runners-up in the Wellington Regional final for the New Zealand Community Trust Schools Chamber Music Contest.  These fine young performers (two girls and two boys) played two of the eponymous composer’s ‘Five Novelettes’.

The first was slow and meditative, while the mood of the second was fast and spirited, very rhythmic, featuring pizzicato, but then reverting to the modal tonality and themes of the first piece.  The playing was cohesive, warm, and yet sad.  The players exhibited good tone and balance. There were a few aberrations of intonation and attack, but nevertheless, the performance was very fine.  I was particularly struck by the splendid viola player.  Variations of dynamics were executed confidently and well.  These young people have a bright future ahead of them if they choose to continue with music, and chamber music’s future is in good hands.

Anthony Ritchie’s work was commissioned for this tour.  It describes dawn at Purakaunui, a seaside village near Dunedin and was most effective, especially for the clarinet; the strings were sotto voce much of the time.  It was an evocative and pleasing short work, the clarinet in splendid form playing the part of a bellbird.

Ross Harris’s work, whose title means ‘something far away, elusive, to be understood only in fragments’ was a little more problematic.  The very fact that the musical fragments were not connected made the work so elusive and apparently without shape or structure that it made me think of Yeats’s words “…the centre cannot hold…”.  The composer explained before
the players began that the work used the opening bar from the Brahms quintet.  This link seemed to survive only briefly.

The opening featured lots of disconnected melodic fragments, and plenty of prominence was given to the clarinet, which was beautifully played by Anna McGregor.  The work was much more sombre than Ritchie’s, and more angular, but exploited the agility of the clarinet.  As with much music (not only contemporary), one would need to hear it more than once to fully appreciate it.  It was played with commitment, and absolute rapport between the players.  The tempo was slow in the main, but there were a few quick sections.

There were many interesting phrases and passages, but it was hard to get an idea of structure, or where the music was going.
I felt that the piece was rather too long; the lack of tonal security and structural shape palled for me.  A loud section preceded the pianissimo ending.

What immediately struck me at the opening of Brahms’s wonderful quintet was that this was a performance in which each part could be clearly heard.  The smaller venue than that to which we have been accustomed made this truly chamber music. The delicious harmonic twists had full impact in St. Andrew’s.

Although this is a familiar work, the performance was never predictable; nuances passed between the players, and the gorgeous tone of the clarinet was produced with much subtlety – indeed, this factor was true of the other instruments too.

The opening allegro was robust and spirited, and, in the words of the programme note, was ‘notable for its blending of the instrumental sounds’.  The adagio was rendered in a somewhat more solemn manner than I have sometimes heard it; i.e. slower, and with much delicacy.

The andantino was joyful and sparkling, while in the finale, drama interspersed the beautifully modulated quieter variations
Piquancy gave way to the final variation’s haunting nature, the mood built up by subtly varying dynamics.

Considering that the group have only been together as a chamber music ensemble for  a short time, the blend and unanimity were most commendable.  The audience showed high appreciation at the end of the concert.



NZ Opera’s LA TRAVIATA charms in Wellington

NZ Opera presents:
Giuseppe Verdi’s LA TRAVIATA

Cast: Lorina Gore (Violetta) / Samuel Sakker (Alfredo Germont)
David Stephenson (Giorgio Germont) / Rachelle Pike (Flora)
Jarred Holt (Baron Douphol) / Andrew Grenon (Gastone)
Kieran Rayner (Marchese) / Wendy Doyle (Annina)

Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus (director – Michael Vinten)
Orchestra Wellington
Conductor: Emmanuel Joel-Hornak

Director: Kate Cherry
Assistant Director: Jacqueline Coats
Designer: Christine Smith
Lighting: Matt Scott
Choreography: Jesse Wikiriwhi

St.James’ Theatre, Wellington

Friday 11th July 2014

(subsequent performances 13th, 15th, 17th, 19th July)

Call it what you will – an operatic masterpiece, a tried-and-trusted favorite, or a sure-fire tear-jerker – La Traviata again exerted its considerable emotional and theatrical “pull”, this time on the hearts and minds of an appreciative audience at the St James’ Theatre on Friday evening.

This was opening night of the production’s Wellington season, the Opera Company having first taken the show to Auckland a few weeks’ previously, to a good deal of acclaim. From the moment the curtain rose during Orchestra Wellington’s playing of the properly frail and tremulously-sounded Prelude, one’s attentions were properly caught and held fast. And this was due to a production whose direct and coherent accord between sounds and imagery was brilliantly established at the outset and never seriously faltered throughout the evening.

One didn’t realize until the final act the full significance of the brief opening vignette and its setting, played out during the Prelude. Violetta, the opera’s heroine, clothed in ghostly sick-bed-like garments, rose from either sleep or death and confronted the image of herself, resplendent in gorgeous red, dressed for a party and waiting for her guests – the figures were separated by the parameters of a giant glass cube, one which served throughout both to give a theatrical kind of “shape” to the action, and to represent the boundaries confining the characters in the drama.

Here the wraith-like Violetta, next to a fallen chandelier lying at an awkward angle on the floor, was outside the cube watching herself through the glass as the beautiful courtesan she once was, the “fallen chandelier”, one supposes, representing her spent radiance, a kind of glory come to grief, and a contrast with the cube’s suggestion of a beauty in a gilded cage.

The Prelude having sounded its last few soft notes, the ghostly Violetta departed, the chandelier was slowly lifted, and the cube revolved around to its open side – the party could now begin! Throughout the evening the production demonstrated a similar sharply-etched focus on the story’s essentials which allowed the music and the text to suggest to the observer whatever elements of time and place seemed most appropriate.

For instance, I thought the cube a brilliantly-employed structure in this respect, facilitating the different “character” of each of the acts, while binding the overall story together with certain themes suggested by its physical appearance. Thanks to expertly-modulated lighting, the structure’s sparkling glitter, both in a reflective and transparent sense, at once glamourized and laid bare the shallowness of the social interactions of the First and Second Acts which defined Violetta’s world as a courtesan, while those same transparencies underlined the vulnerability of her and her lover Alfredo’s situation, their desire to start a life anew together thwarted by pressures exerted by their all-too-publicly-proclaimed union.

So, while Act One and the second scene of Act Two were all glitter and sparkle, their counterparts expressed vastly different scenarios – the opening scene of Act Two evoked a house in the country, the cube beautifully allowing a suffusion of light throughout Violetta’s and Alfredo’s living-space, via glowing backdrops of panels featuring flower patterns saturated with bright, warm orange hues. As the scene proceeded, and Violetta’s happiness was gradually turned to despair and grief the backdrop colours changed, orange fading and giving way to blue – so simple and yet so affecting!

As for Act Three, we were suddenly presented with that opening, Prelude-accompanied vignette once again, with Violetta (the real Violetta, this time, ill, and close to death) in her ghostly, sick-bed garments lying next to the fallen chandelier, this time one of several of varying sizes, the surrounding hues having no warmth, no comfort. The cube, of course conveyed the privacy of a bedroom, but also the sense of something skeletal, stripped of flesh, bare and unremitting. What radiance occasionally flickered did so coldly and mercilessly – the sense conveyed by the scene was of a place of departure (“Alone, from this world…..”).

All of this wonderful work by the “creative team” (sorry – an awful phrase) deserved to be matched by stellar musical and theatrical performances from the performers both on stage and in the orchestra pit – and by and large the singers and musicians delivered the goods. In fact, musically, I thought this Traviata very satisfyingly of a piece, with the cast, conductor and orchestra players exhibiting a kind of rapport that never lost its “charge”, and in places positively radiated across the footlights and into the auditorium. One constantly sensed a kind of fusion among singers and instrumentalists tingling along the whole spectrum of musical impulse.

This was no better exemplified than by episodes like the frisson of heartless gaiety generated by the chorus of party-goers’ farewell to Violetta in the First Act, by the superbly-realised clarinet solo accompanying Violetta’s letter-writing in Act Two, and then by Violetta’s affecting declaration to Alfredo of her love for him – soprano and orchestra at full stretch, here – at the end of that scene. Then in the following scene came Alfredo’s and Violetta’s very different but equally gut-wrenching condemnations and protestations, strongly supported by supporting voices and orchestra, and in the final scene, the chilling depth of the death-tolling basses and baleful brass when Violetta gives Alfredo her portrait as a gesture of farewell at the work’s end.

So – what about those singers, then? Again, I thought they were musically very satisfying – Lorina Gore as Violetta I fell for in almost every way, singing and acting, as she seemed to do, with every fibre of her being charged with impulsiveness and commitment. Hers were high notes which poured out emotion – not just beautiful noise – and together with her Alfredo, tenor Samuel Sakker, she brought out the music’s great tenderness as well as its raw feeling. That was what I enjoyed most about hers and Sakker’s interaction – a sensitivity when duetting, almost an innocence of interaction (more of which, shortly).

I must mention Gore’s exciting high E-flat at the end of “Semper libre”, one not sanctioned by the composer, but not inappropriate, given Violetta’s euphoria in response to Alfredo’s attentions. It’s a note that singers tend not to try, mostly wisely (in my favourite non-Callas recording of the work, conducted by Carlos Kleiber, the gorgeous Roumanian soprano Ileana Cortrubas makes a brave if squally attempt at the ascent in an otherwise beautiful performance; though I must point out that Callas herself made several all-out, heart-in-mouth launches into the vocal stratosphere at this point in her various recordings, always effective, if not note-perfect!)….in Gore’s case I thought it again not the loveliest sound but an intensely musical, intense and dramatic one, a risk well taken!

I enjoyed Samuel Sakker’s Alfredo increasingly as the evening went on – I thought his singing accurate and musical to begin with, but not especially lovely – however, he either grew on my sensibilities or his tone warmed and sweetened as the story and character developed. He certainly had sufficient vocal heft for the role, but I was especially charmed by the tenderness of much of his duetting with his Violetta – especially touching were some of those First-Act exchanges, the sweetness and slight awkwardness of the boy-meets-girl scenario nicely-caught.

Unfortunately, that was where it all seemed to stay all through the evening as regards any hint of sexual chemistry between Violetta and Alfredo – their “clinches” in the succeeding acts were, to put it mildly, too chaste by a country mile, their body language conveying to each other (and to me) little of their singing’s animal passion or any hint of mingled physical intensity. Perhaps such reserve ran in the family in Alfredo’s case, as his father, Giorgio Germont, played by David Stephenson, came across as an intense and strongly focused, upright character, but ultimately something of a dry old stick – his physical response to Gore’s heartfelt “Embrace me as if I was your daughter” was out of its time, regulation PC to a fault. To be entirely fair, the gesture was of a piece with the character’s manner, business-like and unsentimental, even if Verdi’s music for Germont père suggests layers of warm feeling left physically undisturbed by Stephenson’s accurately-sung, but dry-voiced and rather detached stage portrayal.

Without wishing productions to indulge in what seems a current penchant for excessive bodice-ripping evidenced in some recent opera DVDs I’ve seen, I do feel that Traviata is a work in which one can’t underplay a certain level of romantic passion on the stage – in this case, as the saying goes, it surely comes with the territory. Lest I be accused of making too much of this, I quote a contemporary critic of the work who wrote, “The love depicted by Verdi is voluptuous and sensual, totally lacking in that angelic purity found in Bellini’s music….” I would think that says it all, really…..a certain abandonment in the lovers’ passion, a degree of rawness in their mutual desperation as the tragedy takes hold – neither state was, for me, given sufficient expression by the characters.

However, such was the musical strength of this production, the physical coyness of certain of these stage interactions didn’t fatally spoil our delight – the chorus work, by comparison, had terrific gusto in almost everything they did, apart from one or two “wandering strays” at a couple of points – especially praiseworthy were, I thought the sequences during the second party scene where firstly the women (as gypsies) and then the men (as matadors) of the chorus had different character dances to perform while singing, both of which came off splendidly, with touches of real panache! But the more conventional opening party scene also had plenty of musical bite and energy, the groups swirling around and about most satisfyingly while singing of their life of pleasure, and making their vapid progress from party to party.

Underpinning all of the musical trajectories from the pit was Orchestra Wellington, responding to conductor Emmanuel Joel-Hornak with, by turns, sensitivity, whole-heartedness and vigour. I’ve mentioned some of the most telling instrumental touches, but must pay tribute to maestro Joel-Hornak’s pacing of the work and to his flexible and sensitive direction of his singers during the music’s many tenderly heartfelt moments – his was the kind of direction that always seemed to give the music the time it needed and the musicians sufficient space to realize the same.

A friend who’s a bit of a “Traviata-buff” came with me to the performance – “A marvellous card-game scene! – I haven’t seen or heard better!” he exclaimed, afterwards. “But those two (Violetta and Alfredo) didn’t seem to know one another terribly well!” We hadn’t actually conferred, being too busy with ice-creams and friends at half-time – but he obviously felt the same way as I did. It would be interesting to learn what other people felt – like beauty, it’s all in the eye of the beholder. But I’m sure the strength and conviction of the music-making would have, for most people by far, enabled this production to carry the day, with great credit to all concerned.


















Gunter Herbig at Old St.Paul’s – the next best thing to a siesta……

Gunter Herbig (guitar)

Music for guitar from South America
Works by Reis, Piazzolla, Fleury, Barrios and Pernambuco

Old St.Paul’s Church, Thorndon,

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

Gunter Herbig strode into the performing-space of Old St.Paul’s radiating waves of energy and purpose, as if he was about to perform some kind of feat considerably more spectacularly death-defying than give a guitar recital of music from South America. He thanked us all for “braving the elements” in coming to the church to see and hear him play, and hoped that we would, by the end of the concert have thought it all worthwhile.

Herbig is a native of Brazil, born of German parents, who spent much of his childhood in Portugal and Germany. Having such a cosmopolitan cultural background, has, he reckoned, given his music-making an interesting and personalized mixture of influences which he treasures. He certainly gave every indication throughout  the concert of “owning” the music he played, communicating to us his regard for the sounds as having a living value.

By way of telling us both about the music on the programme and the circumstances of his getting to know it, Herbig made the works come alive both as sounds and as evocations of places and moods and ideas. His anecdotes, filled with information and spiced with droll humor, gave each work a richer context  that enhanced our understanding of the pieces. And his playing had all the character and virtuoso skill that the music required to “speak” to us.

Herbig began with two works by Dilermando Reis, perhaps the most well-known Brazilian guitarist of modern times, one who performed the compositions of JS Bach, Barrios and Tárrega, as well as his own and other works by Brazilian composers. Reis recorded many of his own works, among them the second of the pair of waltzes that Gunter Herbig played today, Se Ela Perguntar. 

First up, however, was Ternura, a lovely, quixotic work, filled with insinuation and sensuous figuration, having a kind of spontaneous, almost unpredictable course. The second work I thought rather Chopinesque, or perhaps a Latin American version of the same, alternating between physical and emotional, purpose and reflection. Both were winningly-voiced, the player always responsive to the variety between ebb and flow, movement and stasis.

Astor Piazzolla’s music, little-known outside the South American continent until the last decade of the twentieth century, has become synonymous with the distinctive voice and infinite variety of the once-infamous dance, the tango – Piazzolla’s nuevo tango was scorned at first by traditionalists, who objected to his fusion of the dance with both classical and jazz elements, but his radical style eventually won acceptance. Gunter Herbig briefly entertained us with a story of how he encountered Piazzolla’s music for the first time, before demonstrating via his playing of two of the composer’s tangos the extent to which he had been “grabbed” by this music.

First came Adios Noniño (translated, “Farewell, Father”), written in 1959 shortly after the death of the composer’s father. Percussive and timbre-driven at the work’s beginning, free and flexible in rhythm and harmony, the piece seemed to present a sensibility filled with changing emotions, a kind of continuum of instability, but one on an inevitable course towards some kind of awareness as a result of experience. The visceral aspect of the music I found compelling and in places exciting, even unsettling, though I wasn’t sure why on this first hearing, not knowing the work’s circumstances. As a piece of “pure” music it certainly made an effect in Herbig’s hands.

I thought the second tango, Verano Porteño,  a more “road music” kind of work, less inward and circumspect, more “out there” with a stronger rhythmic trajectory that seemed to cover plenty of physical ground. Again the music had a percussive element, the player required, as before, to strike the instrument in different ways, by way of underlining the pulse of things, the music’s heartbeat. Not all of the music was thus enslaved – recitative-like passages and incidental glissandi and other kinds of timbral slides punctuated the flow, the guitar used like a kind of all-purpose folk-orchestra, especially towards the piece’s end, with all kinds of deft percussive touches.

By way of contrast, Gunter Herbig played three more “conventional” tangoes, two by the eminent and much-travelled Argentinian guitar virtuoso Abel Fleury, and one by Paraguyan-born Agustin Barrios. Fleury’s two pieces sounded so “clean” and straight after Piazzolla’s far more discursive worlds of experience, a contrast perhaps akin to hearing music by almost any of Beethoven’s contemporaries next to the former;s late quartets!  However, Barrios’s work Don Perez Freire had a more personalized aspect, the listener imagining some kind of portrait of a kind of Latin American “Beckus the Dandiprat”, somebody worldly-wise and energetic, and perhaps a little garrulous but with real charm to boot – a man, one suspects, well acquainted with the pleasures of dance and movement.

A second piece by Barrios, Julia Florida (Julia Blossoming), a work dedicated to one of his students, Julia Martinez de Rodriguez, was a different kind of portrait, by turns graceful and impulsive, quickilvery and lyrical. Subtitled “Barcarola” it had moments reminiscent of the music of Faure, with a wistfully beautiful melodic line. The program was , in a sense, rounded off by the final programmed piece, written by Joao Pernambuco, a founder of the Brazilian choro style. Pernambuco’s output was virtually salvaged  by people like fellow composers Heitor Villa-Lobos, who transcribed many of the pieces, and later Dilermando Reis, who performed many and recorded several of Pernambuco’s works. We heard the latter’s Sons de carrilhoes (Song of the Bells), an attractively lyrical toe-tapper of a piece, a happy and joyous conclusion to the recital.

However, Gunter Herbig then played for us an encore, by way of sympathizing with the realities of many of us having to return to work from the concert, rather than, as he put it, “taking a siesta”! Of course, our sensibilities had been having a great time cavorting around and about imagined realms where such practices as siesta were part of the daily routine. So we were given Leo Brouwer’s Berceuse (Cradle Song) as an extra moment of magic, a gentle kind of farewelling to this gorgeous array of music.