Nota Bene splendidly celebrates its 10th Anniversary

Nota Bene – 10th Anniversary Concert

Choral music by numerous composers (including a new commission from David Hamilton)

Nota Bene, directed by Christine Argyle
Items conducted by Peter de Blois and Julian Raphael
Emma Sayers (piano), Penny Miles (bassoon)
Geoff Robinson, compere

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 14 September 2014, 4.30pm

I was sorry that Nota Bene chamber choir chose to sing on a Sunday – Chamber Music New Zealand had that day also joined the Sunday afternoon gang (in the latter’s case, 5pm), so I could not attend both concerts.  Next Sunday (21 September) there are no fewer than five classical music concerts in and around Wellington; Middle C cannot review them all, and to the extent that the audiences will inevitably overlap to some extent, the individual audiences will be smaller than they might otherwise have been.

However, all praise to Nota Bene and Christine Argyle for a wonderfully diverse concert, made somewhat sad by the fact that the latter is giving up her music directorship.  How she has managed to undertake all the activities she enumerated in an interview with Eva Radich on Wednesday, on Upbeat! (RNZ Concert), I do not know.  She is obviously good at both preparation and organisation.

The concert was made up of items from various concerts performed by the choir over the period of its existence.  Some original members are still with the choir, and some of the songs were performed at the first concert.  Some singing in this concert were former members invited to return for the occasion.  After the performance the choir launched its first CD, made up of items from the concerts of the past that had been broadcast by Radio New Zealand Concert, some of the  items being those that were performed on Sunday.

It all amply demonstrated the eclecticism of the choir, its variety of skills and its ability to be flexible and responsive to very different periods, styles and genres.  An innovation was a screen showing colour photos of the choir at the time of each concert from which an excerpt was performed.  Compère Geoff Robinson (former presenter on Radio New Zealand National) told us some of the choir’s history, and related information regarding the works and their performances, along with a few anecdotes, prior to each couple of items.  A tendency to drop his voice at the ends of phrases meant that I did not hear everything he said.  There was a good attendance, the body of the church being nearly full, with a handful of people sitting in the gallery.

Christine Argyle, using a tuning fork, gave the notes for each part prior to each item (most were unaccompanied); a striking feature was that the choir began, and continued, bang in tune every time.

Many of the items were in English, nevertheless all words were printed in the programme, in English, regardless of original language.  The huge diversity of songs ranged from the straight-forward to complex, multi-part items.  Some, like the opening two Flower Songs by Benjamin Britten sounded simple, but as I know from experience, are not so.  Although the choir’s diction was very good, in multi-part items it is inevitable that not all the words will be heard.  Britten chose fine poetry to set, as did others of the composers, so it was good to be able to read it, as an enhancement to understand the musical settings.

Throughout, the choir had a lovely smooth, blended tone.  The acoustics of St. Andrew’s enhanced the sound more than is the case with some venues in which I have heard Nota Bene.

After a change of mood for Purcell’s complex setting of  ‘Hear my Prayer, O Lord’ sung with almost perfect expression and phrasing and Holst’s ‘Ave Maria’ (in Latin, gorgeously rendered), we returned to English poetry for John Rutter’s setting of Shakespeare’s well known ‘It was  lover and his lass’from As You Like It.  Like most of Rutter’s music, it was a joyful piece, this time in a popular swing style, and given a very fine performance.

A couple of traditional songs followed, one French (Provençal) and one in English.  Geoff Richards’s arrangement of ‘Le Baylère’ (alias ‘Bailèro’) incorporated sumptuous harmony and suspensions.  Whether it was sung in French (as implied by the title) or Provençal I could not tell, but it received a wonderful performance.  ‘Brigg Fair’ arranged by Percy Grainger is well-known.  It featured young tenor soloist Griffin Madill Nichol, a member of the choir.  His voice was right for a folk song, and he did his part well, backed by the humming choir.  Crescendi and decrescendi were beautifully managed.

Now to a less well-known piece: ‘Les Sirènes’ by the talented but all too short-lived French composer Lili Boulanger (1893–1918).  The choral piece was sung by the women (in French) in two physically separate choirs, and contained a solo for splendid mezzo Natalie Williams; it was accompanied by pianist Emma Sayers.  The piano part conveyed the movement of water, with shimmering arpeggios and broken chords.

Ben Oakland’s ‘Java Jive’ brought a complete change of mood, and was sung from memory by a small group, with solos (and repeated at the end of the concert as an encore by the entire choir); it was brilliantly done, its clashes of harmony confidently and resolutely prominent.

Last before the interval was a traditional South African piece, led by Julian Raphael, that buoyant choral supremo, who played a maraca while the choir, singing from memory, incorporated movement in its loud and energetic performance.  The singers managed to sound really like Africans.

After the break, another guest conductor who has directed the choir’s concerts in the past, Peter de Blois, conducted the Kyrie from New Zealander Sam Piper’s Requiem and ‘Song for Athene’ by John Tavener.  The former was a lively piece with good melody lines from the altos in the Kyrie section; focus of the melody changed for the Christe section.  Tavener’s work introduced very fine pianissimo singing – long-breathed lines with a hummed background.  It was a very accomplished performance.  The words were elevated indeed – but not all were printed.

In calm and meditative mood was the ‘Ave Maris Stella’ of Edvard Grieg (sung in Latin).  Only here was I aware of a mid-verse entry where the voices were not together – most unusual. This, and the remaining items, were conducted by Christine Argyle.

Ivan Hrušovský (1927–2001) was a Slovak composer. His ‘Rytmus’, a Latin piece, was very fast, the choir having to spit out the words, but in accordance with the title, there were many emphases and accents.

Now came two New Zealand works: firstly, ‘Ursula at Parakakariki’ (which is on Banks Peninsula) by Carol Shortis.  It began with sea sounds on a special kind of percussion shaker played by one of the choir, and was accompanied by Emma Sayers, interspersed with passages for bassoon.  Both the music and the Fiona Farrell poem were quite delightful, yet complex, with seemingly independent choral lines parting and converging.  Although it was announced along with the next item, spontaneous applause burst out.  The composer was present, and acknowledged the applause.

Present, too, was David Hamilton, to hear the performance of the piece commissioned by the choir for this occasion: ‘Canción de Invierno’ (Songs of Winter), his setting of a text by Juan Ramón Jiménez, was about birds singing from somewhere, despite leafless trees.  It began with syllables only being sounded, then Natalie Williams sang a solo while the choir continued the syllables.  All joined in later to sing about singing.  Superb dynamics built up to an astonishing double forte.  In the final section there were solo voices above a general hubbub.  This was a thrilling performance of an exciting work, despite a little lack of unanimity in the final section for solos.  Someone remarked to me after the concert that other choirs will want to get their hands on this music.

Something completely different was Mendelssohn’s enchanting chorus from Elijah: ‘He, watching over Israel’.  Its wondrous harmonies, modulations and unexpected melodic twists were beautifully realised; in fact, with the wonderful dynamics and expression, I would call this a moving and almost perfect performance.

Finally, two contemporary composers’ works: ‘Lux Aurumque’ by American Eric Whitacre, and ‘The Shepherd’s Carol’ by Briton Bob Chilcott.  The former was a very imaginative piece of choral writing, but quite tricky, with close intervals, while the latter was very melodic, but again with challenging harmony.

This has been a great ten years!  Congratulations to the amateur choir that has it all. It is hard to pick up highlights from such a varied concert with a choir that is a triumph of skill and excellent singing.  May Nota Bene go from strength to strength under a new music director, and full praise to Christine Argyle who has led it, even choosing the programmes when she was not conducting, with flair, imagination and skill.

Eggner Trio and Amihai Grosz win all hearts

Chamber Music New Zealand presents:

Mozart Piano Quartet No 2 in E flat K493
Schumann Piano Trio No 3 in G minor Opus 110
Anthony Ritchie Oppositions
Dvořák Piano Quartet No 2 in E flat Opus 87

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Sunday 14 September 2014

The Eggner sibling trio of Georg (violin), Florian (cello) and Christoph (piano) presented this programme with viola player, Amihai Grosz, Principal Viola of the Berlin Philharmonic and a founding member of the Jerusalem String Quartet.

I had not heard the Eggner group before, but from the very opening lines of the Mozart it was obvious why they are firmly established in the forefront of chamber ensembles today. Viola associate Amihai Grosz melded seamlessly into the mix, and shared obviously in the pleasure they clearly enjoy in making music together.

The phrasing, tone and sensitivity of the melodic conversation that unfolds in the opening Allegro of the Mozart revealed a profound musicianship and impeccable polish that continued to mark the whole work, and indeed the entire programme.  The three movements of the Mozart score give wide scope to display the artistry of the tenderest melody making, for bold tempestuous interplay between competing instruments, for whimsical or thoughtful moods by turn, and the players made the most of every opportunity that this masterpiece offers.

Schumann’s Piano Trio no.3 is a rather turbulent work, where melodic motifs are often brief and frequently interrupted as they are exchanged or developed. The first movement is indeed marked “bewegt” (turbulent) and all three instruments are given the opportunity to participate fully in the dramatic, restless writing. The  tranquil second movement was a wonderful contrast that showcased some glorious melodic playing, before the vigour and strength of the two final movements, where the players explored every turn of the rich colour and variation. One could not fail to sense a level of mutual understanding that has had the chance to blossom in this trio group over many years of family music making.

Anthony Ritchie’s Oppositions was composed in 2005 for the NZ Piano Quartet. The composer’s programme notes explain that “It is in one movement, and is based around the idea of opposing forces, whether they be literal or imaginative. In musical terms, the piano is frequently pitted against the strings………..”. There is a lot of violent, strident, percussive writing, contrasted sometimes with more lyrical episodes, but the work is marked throughout by restless, abrasive tonalities that further heighten the tension and conflict between the various instrumental idioms. There is an outpouring of anger and violence that is clearly intended, and the players threw themselves into it with total commitment.

One felt both mentally and musically assaulted by the clash of the “Oppositions”, but for me the vivid descriptive qualities of the “music” became, frankly, overwhelming. While it was a very effective foil between two highly romantic items, I was relieved when the work ended, ungrateful as that may be of Richie’s acknowledged skills as a composer.

The Dvorak Piano Quartet no.2 is a heroic work in this genre, which the programme notes aptly described: “The work displays a melodic invention, rhythmic vitality and instrumental colour typical of the nationalist Dvorak at his peak……….”  The quartet threw themselves into the music with tremendous vigour and polish, displaying a huge dynamic range across the widely contrasting episodes which stretch from the most wistful delicacy to the almost symphonic proportions of the finale.

It was a riveting delivery that brought huge accolades from the audience, who were treated to an encore of the slow movement from Brahms’ E Minor Piano 4tet. The long opening cello melody was quite breathtaking, and made me wish for an opportunity to hear Florian Eggner in a sonata recital setting, where every note of his masterful playing would be heard. There had been times during the concert when, from our seats, it had been difficult to discern the cellist clearly, even though he had clearly been playing his heart out. It will be good when the Town Hall is again available for chamber music concerts, as such situations might well be taken care of there.


Douglas Mews at the organ – St.John’s, Willis St

St.John’s, Willis St. Organ Concerts presents:
Organ recital by Douglas Mews

Handel: Concerto in G minor Op.4 no.3 (arranged for organ solo)
Vierne: Arabesque; Cathédrales
Bach:   Sonata C minor, BWV 526 / Chorale Prelude: O Mensch bewein’ dein sunde gross, BWV 402
Prelude and Fugue in E flat, BWV 552

Douglas Mews (organ)
St John’s, Willis Street

Sunday, 14 September 2014, 2.30pm

St. John’s Church is hosting three organ recitals this month, on Sunday afternoons, of which this was the first.  They celebrate National Organ Month, and also are a vehicle for raising money for the upkeep of the fine Lewis organ at St. John’s.

Unfortunately, on this Sunday and the next, there are numerous competing concerts.  Thus, a rather small audience was little reward for the work that had gone into preparing the recital.

The programme opened with a Handel organ concerto, arranged to be played on organ only.  While I found the first movement (adagio) a little bland, and there were a few fluffed notes in the allegro second, throughout the work Douglas Mews made lovely use of solo stops.  I would have liked a little more detachment of repeated notes.  The third movement was a fine adagio, and the jaunty finale was a happy eompletion of the work.

In his remarks to the audience, Douglas pointed up the fact that an early organist at St. John’s was Maughan Barnett, who was involved in many musical activities in Wellington before he moved to Auckland.  He was the first Wellington City Organist; Douglas himself was the last.  The position is currently in abeyance; the Town Hall organ is in storage while the hall is closed pending earthquake strengthening.  (As one who was emerging from that building at the time of Wellington’s worst earthquake in recent years, I am all for it being strengthened!)

Two short pieces by Louis Vierne proved to be most effective.  The first featured a most attractive contrasting solo stop for the melody line.  The second was perhaps inspired by Notre Dame in Paris, where Vierne was organist for 37 years.  The piece was a complete contrast to the light delicacy and high pitch of Arabesque.  Here, there was grandeur, following an opening on reeds.  I could imagine the tolling of cathedral bells in some sections of the piece.  It contrasted mellow tones with almost harsh, loud chords.  Later, there were gentle, dulcet tones and rather more conventional harmony.

Apparently Barnett played all of the Bach organ music that was available; this was unusual at the time: 1895-1913 being the years he was in Wellington.  This information acted as a link to the playing of Trio Sonata in C minor, BWV 526.  These sonatas are thought to have been written for Bach’s son Wilhelm Friedmann to use for practising keyboard technique. But they are in no way tedious exercises, being full of delights; the clarity of the three parts, their thematic development, and their artistic unity are among them.

The vivace first movement introduced charming flute sounds, but the pedal part sounded woofy compared with the upper parts, in fact this was a characteristic elsewhere in the recital also.  In the largo second movement I felt rather more phrasing was required.  The allegro finale had the three parts all very clear and the contrasting registrations between the two upper parts were very fine.

Bach’s sublime Passiontide chorale prelude (for which the chorale words were printed in the programme, in Catherine Winkworth’s translation – coincidentally, in Radio NZ’s ‘Hymns on Sunday Morning’ that morning, she and other translators of hymns from other languages were featured.  I did not particularly like the rather buzzy reed stop used for the melody line, and I would have preferred more even quavers, and more lift between repeated notes.  Yet the expressiveness of the piece could not fail to impress.

The last item was a considerable tour de force.  The opening Prelude and the closing Fugue of Bach’s Clavierübung are often coupled together, and in English tend to be called the “St. Anne” Prelude and Fugue, because of the likeness of the fugue’s melody to the tune of that name, set to the well-known hymn ‘O God, our help in ages past’.

The fast opening of the prelude has a strong dotted rhythm, well emphasised by Mews.  The fugue melody needed more phrasing, to my mind – as though it were being sung.  Nevertheless, Douglas Mews brought off this demanding fugue, with its three separate sections (thought, with other features of the work, to represent the Trinity).

The demanding programme brought to the fore many features of the St. John’s organ, and demonstrated a range of great music for the instrument, ably performed.

The organ recital next Sunday at the same time will be by Kevin Duggan, visiting from Denmark, and the following week Dianne Halliday, organist and director of music at St. Peter’s Anglican Church, also in Willis Street, will perform, along with Chelsea Whitfield.