“Nature, Life and Love” for our time, from the NZTrio

City Gallery Wellington presents:
NZTrio Art3

Justine Cormack (violin)
Ashley Brown (‘cello)
Sarah Watkins (piano)

Salvatore Sciarrino – Piano Trio No.2
John Zorn – Amour Fou
Leonie Holmes – ….when expectation ends (premiere)
Arnold Schoenberg (arr. Steuermann) – Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night)

City Gallery, Wellington

29th October 2014

I did like the NZTrio’s characterizing of its most recent Wellington concert at the City Gallery as “an edgy international exploration” – though further linking the concert to the Gallery’s October exhibition of the work of William Kentridge, a multi-media presentation called “The Refusal of Time” was frustrating, as I hadn’t had the chance to see the latter – apparently a truly “immersive” amalgam of cinematic methodology – animation, live action and pixelated motion. After listening to the NZTrio’s playing in the concert I wished even more that I’d seen the exhibition as well!

With music from the USA, Europe and New Zealand packed into an eventful eighty minutes, the Trio certainly gave value for money. The musicians have played in this venue before, though against the wall behind this audience, last time round that I remember. On that occasion I remembered being partly enchanted, partly distracted by the floor-to-ceiling artwork on the said wall behind the Trio – but this time the art gave out a rather more circumspect aspect, both in itself and its presentation!

But what musicians these people are! Chamber groups vary enormously in terms of what and how they “give out” to their audiences – an obvious example to hand would be a comparison between the present group and the Borodin Quartet, who visited Wellington earlier in the month. While the latter group remained physically undemonstrative while transfixing us with its sounds, the players’ aspect and posture as a group magnificently “contained” as they regaled us with the most superbly-focused tones, the NZTrio musicians compelled as much as by their body language as their sound. There’s something to be said for marrying musical efforts to appropriately organic gestures – within reason, a kind of performance choreography – and the NZTrio thus engaged our attentions on a visceral as well as musical level.

For this reason I never tire of watching the group perform, in particular pianist Sarah Watkins, who throws herself into whatever she’s doing, metaphorical boots and all! A far more connective comparison than with the Borodins, in terms of performance style, would be with the Austrian ensemble, the Eggner Trio, a group that’s frequently visited New Zealand, and which has a similarly engaging concert platform manner.

So, onto the “edgy international exploration”! First up we encountered Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino’s Piano Trio No.2, music by a composer who’s known for his music’s evocations of silence and transparency of texture, with occasional irruptions of loud sounds – contrasts which demonstrate that a state or condition can be defined as much by its antithesis as by itself.

The hushed, almost ghostly whoops and descents of the communing strings at the outset contained to my ears a number of impressions, amongst them acts of impulse defying darkness, in space, or in the near-impenetrable gloom of great forests or vast oceans – at one point I imagined nascent reminiscences of the Latin plainchant “Dies Irae”; while the violin’s ascents towards stratospheric harmonics again evoked a similar kind of scalic chanting (what else had I been listening to of late?)…..Every now and then the ghostly voices’ mix was “stirred and shaken” by piano interpolations, which led to galvanic descents from the strings, “silvering” the ambience, into which the piano again intruded, with ever-increasing dynamism and coruscation. But the strings kept their energies in check, conversing in glissando-like mode, rather like spent meteorites falling from the sky – it was afterwards that I read the programme annotations which mentioned “ancient whale song and crystal meteors” wondering whether or not the words were the composer’s own……

Whatever suggestions of “bumt-out energy” might have been gleaned from these ambiences were belied by the piano’s “this is it!” reaction to the Dali-like suspensions of energy in time – great shooting-star glissandi and scintillations poured our of the instrument, with the sustaining pedal throwing open the cosmos, rather like a Black Hole operating in reverse! As for the strings, each instrument was transported by frenzied ecstacies/agonies, the work’s concluding exchanges hearkening back to those opening silences by default, the sounds appearing to “blister” from within the very beings of those far-away beginnings, a realization the listener is usually able to savour rather more tellingly via the silence at the end of a recording, than in a concert, with its intrusive(!) applause – now there’s a performance conundrum! – but it’s one that frequently comes to mind, as, of course, we all have our lists of pieces of music which we think really shouldn’t be applauded when they finish……..

Interestingly, both Ashley Brown and Sarah Watkins provided us with some “byplay” at the end of the Sciarrino piece, Ashley Brown explaining that he had to make some “unbeautiful” sounds, i.e., activate his bow to remove excess resin accumulated during the Sciarrino, in order to be able to then make further beautiful sounds. But because I was sitting in a “last-minute-arrival” seat I wasn’t ideally placed to ascertain whether Sarah Watkins was putting on or removing from over her hands protective glove-like covers, “to stop blood from going all over the piano keys” as she put it – certainly the intensity with which she addressed Sciarrino’s keyboard writing towards the end of the Trio suggested that something might well have suffered some attrition as a result!

The Trio reversed the printed program order of the next two pieces, putting John Zorn’s Amour Fou ahead of, rather than following, Leonie Holmes’ …when expectation ends. In retrospect I felt it was to spare our sensibilities rather than the composers’ – instead of having two shortish pieces together, followed by two relatively lengthy ones, the dimensions were alternated. Stylistically, too, Zorn’s discursive explorations of the abysses between impulsive attraction and reflective confusion in love was more appropriate as a counterweight to the abstract brilliances of Sciarrino, than as an equally weighty cheek-by-jowl partner to Schoenberg’s “dark night of two souls”.

Away from the piece’s name and the programme’s suggestion of a universal discourse on love’s nature, I would have given Zorn’s music a dream-like title upon first hearing and characterized the sounds accordingly – it seemed to me that the sounds were presenting realities formulated in spontaneously-occurring ways, viewed in many instances through different lenses of perception or chartered on grids which showed different interpretations, like maps of the same area in an atlas showing different characteristics. But of course the title pushed my receptive sensibilities in a certain direction, and, as the composer probably intended, allowed me some traction in “interpreting” the sounds.

What a beautifully poised, expressionist opening! – plaintive piano chords sounded beneath a shimmering dream-like violin line, whose figures were then acted upon in surreal ways, accelerating, caught in ostinati, haunted by eerie tremolandi – everything seemed dream-like, not of this world. The piano for a while seemed to maintain the line, as the string-characters came and went, piquantly, quixotically, mysteriously, like the sultans in Omar Khayyam’s “batter’d-caravansarai”. The music frequently used repeated notes, chords and figurations  in a hypnotic way, simultaneously creating moving and frozen imagery, indicative of the overall ambivalence of perception/reality. And there were startling contrasts, both of dynamics and of movement – like a world of first impressions and immediate, rather than considered responses, as if consciousness was utterly at the mercy of involuntary impulse. If, as the title suggested, the piece was about love, then the sounds were clearly giving tongue to philosopher and cynic H.L.Mencken’s maxim that it was all “a triumph of imagination over intelligence”.

As the music  continued its fascinating peregrinations the piece seemed to me to increasingly cohere – it felt as though the figurations were extending their impulses and trying to form partnerships, reach out tendrils and forge bonds between groups of material, however disparate. I thought it an endlessly fascinating web of sounds, in places clearly demarcated, while in others characterized by fierce, intense interactions, even if the repetitive nature of a lot of the material still suggested that impulse and spontaneity rather than sense and intellect were driving the responses. And, interestingly, almost right up to the end there was that ambivalence of those disparate forces, presenting alternative states of reality – the cross-rhythms between piano and cello pizzicati hardly displayed a sense of hearts beating together. And was the violin’s final flourish some kind of “cri de coeur”? – John Zorn wasn’t telling!

Earlier this year I had greatly enjoyed reviewing an Atoll CD of Leonie Holmes’ orchestral music for radio, and as a result was looking forward to her new work (a world premiere performance, in fact), called “…when expectation ends”. As with her orchestral writing, Leonie Holmes here demonstrated a feeling for the instruments’ characteristic ambient voices – firstly, a plaintive violin solo, which was answered by widely-spaced piano figurations followed by ‘ethereal ‘cello harmonics – some lovely “cluster-chords” for piano further enabled a “floating” kind of atmosphere – one could imagine the sequence as a state wrought by the mind, which then began to unravel in the face of sterner realities – the instrumental lines started to pursue their own individual ends, occasionally clashing and creating discordant combinations. With the piano as peacemaker, order was momentarily restored, and a second lovely episode sounded out for our pleasure – even if the music’s inherent impulsiveness couldn’t be subdued for long. A string unison led to vigorous and even volatile points of instrumental contact, swirling colourings and textures, in fact excitingly orchestral in effect – marvellous, stirring stuff!

Finally, a sober, dark-browed ‘cello solo was duly comforted by violin and piano, the strings singing of times past, and the piano allowing the stillness to “surge softly backwards” at the end – these were gentle but hard-won tranquilities, stripped of illusion and enjoyed for what they were. Something of the same process in a deeper, darker, rather more fraught form was found in Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), which concluded the program. Written by the composer originally as a string sextet, the work has been more often performed by a string orchestra (the composer’s own arrangement), but there exists also a transcription for Piano Trio (which I had never heard) by the composer/pianist Eduard Steuermann, a pupil, and later a colleague of Schoenberg. Most enterprisingly, it was programmed by the NZTrio for this concert.

Two things above all others surprised and delight me regarding the transcription and its performance here – firstly, the effectiveness of the piano as a protagonist in the work, not only rendering the music of the four displaced strings with absolute surety, but using its own special resonance to bring additional interest to the scenarios. The instrument’s voice created a distinctive ambience in which the two main protagonists, the man and the woman of the original poem by Richard Dehmel, could clearly and unequivocally interact as ‘cello and violin respectively, their thoughts, feelings, words and actions given a unique focus instead of having to compete with additional string textures.

Secondly, though Brahms and Wagner have always been cited as Schoenberg’s major influences in the writing of this work, the transcription’s keyboard writing interestingly brought out the influence of Liszt on the work. Quite apart from Schoenberg’s tendency to put melodic phrases in repeated pairs and near-pairs (as Liszt does throughout most of his orchestral symphonic poems), the figurations assigned the piano bore the stamp of Liszt in a number of sequences. I thought I also detected some of Franck’s influence in Schoenberg’s chromatic leanings when delineating the woman’s confessing to begetting a child with a stranger (and never before have I heard the “theme of reconciliation” sounding so much like that beatific second theme in the opening movement of  Franck’s Symphony!). As well, there are reminiscences of Chopin and his B Minor Piano Sonata’s slow movement, shortly afterwards, during the quietly ecstatic exchanges of accord between the couple.

For these reasons alone I simply loved this version of Verklärte Nacht that we were given – all of it presented with such an amalgam of varied feeling and intensity by the Trio. The work’s final paragraph, depicting the man and woman walking together through the transfigured dawning of their new life together, brought us textures suffused with love, joy and hope, those heartfelt strings floating upon ecstatic piano figurations, before all became as windblown wisps of sound at the end. We were left replete, aglow with warmth but also breath-bated at the fragility of the remaining silences…..



Glittering prizes from a talented duo at St.Andrew’s

St. Andrews on the Terrace: Lunchtime Concert Series

Lili Boulanger (1893-1918): Nocturne for Violin and Piano
Haydn: Sonata No.47 in B minor for piano (Hob.XVI No.32)
Brahms: Sonata No.1 in G Opus 78 for Violin and Piano

Simeon Broom (violin) and Rachel Church (piano)

29th October 2014

This concert was a joy, definitely in the very top bracket of 2014 lunchtime offerings at St. Andrews on the Terrace. The committed musicianship and professionalism of the two artists was apparent from the first note, when one understood immediately that this was all about the music, not the players.

Lili Boulanger’s Nocturne is a gem. In this duo’s hands it opened as a gentle meditation, languid with the warm sultry air of Mediterranean nights, that blossomed into a passionate central section before fading beautifully into the closing pianissimo of eyelids too heavy for anything but sleep. Superb artistry from first to last.

Rachel Church’s Piano Sonata No.47 by Haydn was marked by that indefinable, unassuming confidence of a musician who is completely at one with a work – its stylistic, rhythmic, historical idioms all embodied in a reading that seems entirely appropriate and convincing.

The polished opening Allegro led into the Minuet whose Trio in the lower registers was rich with almost romantic warmth. The closing Presto was taken at a very lively clip that teetered on losing some clarity of line during fast runs, but just snuck through thanks to Rachel’s technical facility. It rounded off a most satisfying experience of this colourful and dramatic sonata.

Brahms’ first violin sonata opens with a familiar and much loved theme that was expressed in Simeon Broom’s silken tone with exquisite tenderness. It was the start of a wonderful journey through this work that explores such a huge range of emotions, from the most forceful passions to the most moving pathos.

The constantly shifting tonalities were subtely revealed as they appeared; and Brahms’ thematic complexites, which can become quite bewildering in less skillful and sympathetic hands, were fashioned into an ever evolving, but comprehensible stream of musical consciousness. There was total understanding between the players of their common vision and interpretation, which were allowed to take centre stage due to the total physical economy of their performance styles.

These two artists have toured in 2012 for Chamber Music NZ as part of the Akoka Quartet, but they undoubtedly merit a tour of their own in this duo format. They offer music making of the highest order that chamber music lovers throughout the country deserve to hear, so I very much hope to see them in future CMNZ programmes.

Two Harps create magic at Futuna Chapel

Colours of Futuna Concert Series presents: Two Harps

Music by Debussy, Britten, Young, Fauré, Scarlatti, Becker, Scott and Guard

Jennifer Newth and Michelle Velvin, harps

Futuna Chapel, Karori

Sunday, 26 October 2014

The Futuna chapel proved to be an ideal venue for harp music, being small and intimate,  and very resonant, with its timber and concrete surfaces.  There was no difficulty in hearing the quietest sounds, and the resonance of notes after they had ceased to be plucked, was sustained and beautiful.  The occasional raw tone, upon a string being plucked again while still sounding, also stood out, but this happened rarely.

Unfortunately I missed the first item, Debussy’s Pour Invoquer Pan, transcribed for two harps.  A pity, as I am sure in would have been magical.

Jennifer Newth played ‘Hymn’ from Suite for Harp, Op. 83 by Benjamin Britten.  It was a wonderful piece of intricate music, beautifully played, featuring variations on the hymn tune ‘St. Denio’, most frequently sung to the words ‘Immortal invisible, God only wise’.

This was followed by Kenneth Young’s Autumn Arabesque, which revealed a great variety of dynamics.  This was a brilliant performance, full of subtlety.  Lovely timing and shimmering, ecstatic sounds were notable in this delightful work, demonstrating the skill of the composer as well as that of the performer.  The programme note quoted Young as saying that the piece ‘has a bitter sweet nostalgic quality which I often associate with Autumn’.  We were experiencing a chilly spring day, but the tones and gestures of the music were telling.  The resonance of the final note was sustained for an amazing length of time in this acoustic, thanks to the stillness of the audience.

Fauré’s Impromptu had a much more rambunctious opening than did the previous pieces.  This extended work demonstrated the skill of the composer in writing music absolutely apt for the instrument.  Jennifer Newth played it without the score.  The lush tones and varied dynamics meant the playing was always interesting and the sonorities were enchanting

Following Fauré, Michelle Velvin played her bracket, that began with Sonata in A minor, Kirkpatrick 148 of Domenico Scarlatti, which the performer had transcribed herself.  It sounded so straight-forward after the delicacy of much of the Fauré!  It was very apparent how much more light and shade the harp was able to express compared with the harpsichord.  As with the piano or the harpsichord, notes once struck on the harp cannot be sustained except by resonance, unlike the case with the organ or wind instruments, on which sounds can be held by the fingers.  Thus the magic of playing in a small, resonant venue gave a whole new life to this music on the harp.

However, this very feature meant that it was particularly unwelcome in the quiet music to hear the accompaniment of cellophane wrappers on cough sweets being undone.  I have no shares in the manufacturing company, but I always use and advocate for “Fisherman’s Friend”, a cough lozenge that brings no additional auditory effects to a concert.

The next work was by Wellington singer and composer Pepe Becker: Capricorn 1: Pluto in Terra.  I heard this work just over a year ago, played by Helen Webby.  Its astrological significance was not detailed in the programme note this time, but rather the aspects of the Christchurch earthquakes that the composer was evoking.  In her words that were quoted (though not here in quotation marks!) ‘… evoke both gravelly and murky qualities of slowly-shifting earth’.  I enjoyed it even more on a second hearing.  The use of a piece of paper between the strings early in the work, changing the tone; knocking on the soundboard and passages of low humming from the player all added to the other-worldly effects of the music.  Intriguing off-beat rhythms were a feature.  It was indeed evocative, and very effective.

I was struck by the fact that a harpist is so graceful to watch – the movement is like an elegant dance.  Michelle’s playing was a little less incisive than Jennifer’s; it was interesting to be aware of some difference in tonal quality, but the playing of both was skilled and enjoyable.

Crossing Waves by contemporary British composer Andy Scott was a stunningly beautiful piece and very descriptive of its subject matter.  Amazing glissandi from forte to pianissimo were among its delights, depicting the ocean and its moods.  These were followed by a serene section.  The programme note described the work as reflecting ‘the many moods of such a journey [as that taken by solo rower across the Atlantic Ocean, Roz Savage]: apprehension and excitement at the start, isolation and beauty in the mid-ocean, and energy and optimism as the journey is almost over.’

Finally, for something completely different; three short pieces from the Isle of Man, arranged for two harps by Charles Guard, one of the top Celtic harpists – but played here on the orchestral harp, as was the entire programme.  They were titled “Manannan Mac y Lir”, “Slumber Song” and “Flitter Dance”.  The players demonstrated a variety of technical skills, exploiting the versatility of their instrument in these colourful pieces.

We are fortunate to have such skilled harpists in Wellington, thanks to the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s harpist, Carolyn Mills – obviously an outstanding teacher.  And of course to the dedication and hard work of the soloists, whose musical accomplishment it was a pleasure to hear.

Inspiring lunchtime performances from NZSM string players

St Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace Lunchtime Concert Series

Undergraduate Strings of the NZSM

Caitlin Morris (cello), Laura Barton and Julian Baker (violins), accompanied by Rafaella Garlick-Grice (piano)


St Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

It was nothing short of astonishing to hear the level of musicianship and accomplishment on their instruments that these students demonstrated. As an undergraduate concert it was quite staggering.

The concert opened with the cello of Caitlin Morris, playing a section from Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No.1, Op.33. Hers was dynamic and exciting playing. The tempo was quite fast, despite the ‘non troppo’marking of the opening. It was a little too fast, in my view, to bring to life some of the quick passages and figures in both the cello and the orchestral parts (the latter on piano, of course). Nevertheless, melodies were brought out well, and Caitlin’s playing produced excellent tone and subtlety of phrasing and shading of dynamics.

The double-stopping was executed seamlessly, while the accompaniment was at all times clear but never overwhelmed the soloist. The lyrical passages were very fine on both instruments, and Rafaella rendered the orchestra superbly – perhaps even Saint-Saëns would not have missed the full band if he had heard this excellent performance. The players were rewarded with warm applause from the audience.

Laura Barton played next – three items, all from memory. Bach’s unaccompanied Preludio in E from Partita no.3 BWV 1006 was first. This popular solo piece has its difficulties; there were some intonation inaccuracies, particularly at the beginning. Things improved as the piece proceeded. There was great clarity in Laura’s playing (and in her speaking voice introducing her programme, too); this was a very competent performance.

Saint-Saëns returned, in completely different mood, in the form of the well-known Havanaise, Op.83. It was played with panache and expressiveness. Technically demanding, it produced a few slight fluffs in pitch, but it was played with flair and musicality. Again, the sensitive accompaniment provided all the notes and moods that the orchestral score would have. As well as songs and dances, the music seems to have an element of bravado about it.

The third movement of Mendelssohn’s well-known Violin Concerto in E minor Op.64 followed. It was played with skill and flourish. While the Latin word ‘dexter’ means the right hand, Laura’s left hand was in no way sinister, and in fact was extremely dextrous. I would have liked a little more articulation and phrasing from both instruments at times. However, Laura’s tone was for the most part warm and radiant.

After this considerable contribution, came Julian Baker. He played from Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto no.1, Op.99, the third and fourth movements: Passacaglia: andante, and Burlesque: allegro con brio. The complex and demanding music was played from memory. This violinist makes a lovely sound. The contemplative, sombre mood at the commencement of the Passacaglia was a great contrast to the Mendelssohn we had just heard.The playing was strong and incisive when required; light and shade and a variety of tonal colours contributed to the satisfying interpretation.

Julian was secure technically, including in the extended sequences of double-stopping. The cadenza at the end of the Passacaglia and the solo first two-thirds of the Burlesque were played with consummate skill. Amazing glissando flourishes and the speed that became not merely allegro con brio but furioso seemed to hold no fears for the violinist.

This was an absolute tour de force, and the audience showed their appreciation by demanding that Julian Baker come on for a second bow.

High Mountain Flowing Water – theatre, poetry and music

Dong Fei - dancer | Gao Ping - piano | Wu Na - Qin | Evan Li - photographer

The Confucius Institute, Victoria University, Wellington, presents:
High Mountain Flowing Water (Gao Shan Liu Shui)

An ancient Chinese tale with guqin, piano and Kunqu opera
Music-drama settings of poetry ancient and modern

Gao Ping – piano
Dong Fei – actor/singer/dancer
Wu Na – guqin (qin)

Director: Sara Brodie
Visual design: Jon He
Text arrangement: Luo Hui
Production curated by Jack Body

Massey Concert Hall, Wellington

Wednesday, 22nd October, 2014

Encounters with exotic art-forms and performance-styles which are unfamiliar can have profound consequences – one thinks, for instance of the effect upon the composer Claude Debussy of the Paris International Exhibition of 1889 with its displays of art and music from places like Java, in particular the sounds made by the gamelan orchestra. Earlier the prints of Japanese artists such as Hokusai had reached Europe and inspired a whole generation of French and English painters to emulate the characteristics of Japanese art, an influence that extended to the art-nouveau movement of the early twentieth century. It was the sheer novelty and force of an encounter with a new tradition which both delighted creative people and caused simultaneous havoc with Euro-centrist sensibilities – and the process dealt a long-overdue body-blow to the hegemony of those over-familiar western traditions, a revitalization whose effects are still felt in artists’ work everywhere today.

Of course, even in the here-and-now one doesn’t have to be a creative artist to be shaken up by encounters with other cultures and their art-forms. In fact, such occasions can return the humblest of beholders to the tremulous realms of formative experience, no matter how seasoned or experienced a “normal” event-goer she or he might be. So it was with me at the Massey University Concert Hall on this particular evening, sitting amid the steeply-raked rows in darkness as if suspended mid-air, watching and listening to the work of the three on-stage performers, presenting an ancient Chinese tale “High Mountain Flowing Water”. The chiaroscuro of darkness and light powerfully focused my attentions upon the performers, and transformed my sensibilities at certain moments into those of a child’s, enabling the full force of delight and wonderment to flood through my opened doors and windows and set me awash with that precious excitement of reimagined reality, cut adrift from all expectation save for the unexpected.

For this was something quite out of the ordinary – a retelling of an ancient legend concerning a musician and a woodcutter, and what passes between them via the musician’s playing of the guqin (or, simply “qin”), an ancient Chinese 7-string zither-like instrument. It’s really an exploration of transference of understanding and empathy, using acts of music-making and -listening as metaphors for the process. Taking part in this theatrical retelling of a musical friendship, which the accompanying program note called “the shared spirit of understanding” was pianist Gao Ping, whose music is well-known to New Zealand audiences, having for a while been resident in this country, alongside Wu Na, an acknowledged “young master” of the qin, on which she was performing for the first time in New Zealand with this production.

With these two musicians was an actor/dancer/singer Dong Fei, an exponent of Chinese Kunqu opera, and who specializes in the traditional “Nan Dan” kind of operatic roles – those in which a male actor performs female characters. A sometimes collaborator with Wu Na in productions in China, he too was making his New Zealand debut with this presentation. His fully theatrical and exquisitely-appointed role, that of characterizing through speech, song and movement the full force of rapport between the cultured musician and the simple, intuitive woodcutter, made a profound impact of contrast with the austere, relatively neutral figures of both musicians, who spoke almost entirely through the sounds of their instruments.

The production was directed by Sara Brodie, whose stage-work I had encountered a matter of days previously in an entirely different theatrical context, that of “Don Giovanni” at Wellington’s St.James Theatre. “High Mountain Flowing Water” was certainly a different world, more in scale with works I had seen her direct in similarly confined places (Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Victoria University Memorial Theatre, and “Kreutzer Sonata” at Bats’ Theatre, for example), but still removed in a sense of style, gesture, language, music and overall ambience. Of course, the very human emotions displayed by the characters in the Chinese story had something of that universality with which one could readily connect, even if certain of the nuances remained, to an extent, behind a mask. As with learning a new language, literal meaning goes only so far – deeper currents of expression take longer to explore and even longer to understand.

What mattered most was that I was, along with others I spoke to afterwards, entranced by what I saw and heard. I’ve already mentioned the hypnotic effect of the lighting, which used simplicity and suggestiveness to direct our attention towards the significant places at which the drama unfolded, note by note, gesture by gesture, movement by movement, and silence by silence. From the very beginning a sense of ritual was all-pervading – a performer (Gao Ping) entering and making the motions of washing hands, after which came the sounding of a soft bell as a kind of summons or invocation, as much a sense of an unseen presence as anything else. Gao Ping the sat at the piano and played Ravel-like figurations which led beautifully into the first section of the work, Landscape, featuring three poems whose words described the scene and introduced its main players.

The English words of the poems were projected onto a screen as Gao Ping played – delicate and evocative at first, the music occasionally stepped outside its ritualistic mode, plunging for a short time into agitation and anxiety before recovering its poise and introducing a costumed figure turning around in the darkness as if free-falling in space, then transfixing us with his “Xiao Dan” (young female) falsetto voice, singing the poem’s words, which firstly describe the ambient world of the music-making and -listening rituals performed by the two friends – “Beyond the bamboo, the plane trees are dry….” the vocalizing haunting, with sharp timbres and a wide vibrato. This was Dong Fei, whose appearance was the stuff of dreams, a kind of exotic angel come down to earth, his arms fluttering like wings with the movements augmented by wondrously long sleeves, to almost hallucinatory effect.

Dong Fei spoke in his normal voice the words of the second poem (I confess, for me not as interestingly as with his “Xiao Dan” tones!), which characterized the stillness of the outside world and the tremulousness of the rapport between the seven strings of the gaqin, and the readiness of the ears and the heart of the player to explore the timeless quality of music-making – “The heart quiets the sound – in it, no difference between now and then….”. With the entry of the qin-player Wu Na, the dramatis personae lineup was completed – the words of the poem filled out the symbolism – “The qin player sits, resembling the qin: the listener the strings….” We sensed a moment of readiness, and it came with the first notes of the qin, making us even more aware of the concentrated focus of the player and the stillness of both singer/dancer and pianist/listener, as the instrument played its spacious, meditative music.

And so the stage was set for the extraordinary unfolding, via music from both qin and piano, and music with poetry from the singer/dancer, conveying the story – firstly the communion of playing and listening – “Not until today do I hear music….”, followed by the realization of the musician that his quintessential artistic partner has died – “My heart gone, without a trace / Tears pour down like rain….”, and most affectingly, the wordless (but still graphic) breaking of the qin and its strings, a gesture of existentialist despair, which an epilogue attempts to interpret in a more cosmic context of continuation.

My notes, scribbled in the dark, the phrases criss-crossed and overscored, tell me only of fragments of impressions along the way of this journey, frustrating to now try and decipher. What I remember are things like the gentle dance-like music from the qin in the “Not until today do I hear music” sequence, an ancient melody Liu Shui (Flowing Water) supposedly composed by the actual musician of the legend, Bo Ya himself. As a counterpoint to this the singer either turned dancer or vice versa, alternating the haunting “Xiao Dan” singing tones with sinuous movements sillhouetted against a screen. Gao Ping at the piano then joined with Wu Na’s conjuring of exquisite delicacies from her instrument, the intermingling sounds expressing that “famous first encounter” between musician and woodcutter.

I remember, too, the pianist doing different kinds of timbal adjustment to his instrument’s sounds, such as “dampening” his bass notes in conjunction with those of the qin, the tones resonating as much as initially sounding at first, but then changing character, as each instrument’s player allowed excitability to creep into the dialogue, exuberance growing from the communication in the most organic way. A more consciously symbolic act was that of dancer Dong Fei slowly, almost ceremonially “unwrapping” his body from a kind of winding sheet, beginning his circling peregrinations on one side of the stage and crossing to the other side, leaving behind a tremulously-quivering vertical wall of unwound fabric, a poised, beautifully-controlled sequence!

The instrumental combination really showed its range and mettle over the sequence “The One Who Knows My Name”, which described and delineated the growing joy and exuberance of both player and listener at their musical communion. With Dong Fei using his haunting “Xiao Dan” voice to recite the “Nothing, not this body, nor even the clouds” verses, the instrumentalists embarked on an extraordinarily varied exchange, beginning with soft, sitar-like slides from the qin and answering resonances from the piano, playing a measure behind (like a living echo – very effective!), then developing from these sounds a “walking” motif, underscored by more “doctored” bass notes from the piano. Slowly, the rhythms grew in strength and confidence, Wu Na’s playing becoming fiercely exultant, and Giao Ping’s response mirroring the fierce joy of the mood.

How dramatic and impulse-arresting a moment it was when everything stopped! – the piano sounded a few resonant notes, and the qin spoke in a disembodied kind of voice, with the use of a metallic stick applied to the strings, itself a kind of symbolic act of severing the human touch from the music-making. Dong Fei’s ordinary voice actually needed a bit more projection, here, more “quiet” emphasis, perhaps more gestural support for the hushed tones – but the projected on-screen words helped tell the story and convey the tragedy of the musician’s shock and despair – “My heart gone, without a trace – Tears pour down like rain…” – as did the desperate, grating sounds made by the metal on the strings of the instrument.

Portentous and agitated piano sounds summoned the dancer, moving like a disembodied spirit through the air, feet seemingly transformed into wings! The movements suggested to me a kind of injured bird coming to earth, accompanied by disoriented, aimless musical sounds, moving those long sleeves firstly as great feathered extensions, then as quivering, protective shields, displaying pitiful tremolandi of grief, all of which was caught and bound up in a frenzied whirling, as the music shouted and screamed aggressively, the instruments struck and beaten rather than played. This was the breaking of the qin, the silencing of the voice, the end of the perfect union, leaving only darkness.

Had we in the audience been left with nothing more at that point, our spirits would have taken some time to recover – however, from out of the gloom came the qin’s soft notes, echoing fragments of memory, reviving the fallen dancer/singer, who listened to the gently resounding qin notes and then, in a kind of Sprechgesang consisting almost entirely of glissandi, uttered the words of the final poem: – “Dressed in green silk, plucking in vain, I let my sorrow flow….” – the qin player continued to quietly “sound” the instrument strings as the singer’s “Xiao Dan” voice continued to the end – “….Never think that, after High Mountain Flowing Water, all bosom friends must part…” The darkness slowly enfolded the qin player, and, eventually, the music – here was closure, enough to cover and soothe the rawness of the life-wounds, both real and imagined.

It seemed to me that the spaces, the lighting, the screening of text translations, the placement of figures and of instruments, and the various movements were all used to work to the presentation’s best advantage. The overall pacing and ambience of the story drew us unerringly into a world wrought of both delicate sensibility and powerful emotion. I for one felt “captured” by what I saw and heard, right through to the story’s concluding silences.

I hope these poor, uninformed words can convey something to the reader of the unique character of my experience of “High Mountain Flowing Water”, as well as express my appreciation of the efforts of director Sara Brodie and the incredible “trio” of performers, Wu Na, Gao Ping and Dong Fei, who worked with her to produce something so distinctive and special.


Wellington Youth Orchestra’s final, tumultuous concert for 2014

Wellington Youth Orchestra presents:

BEETHOVEN – Symphony No.7
WAGNER – Overture “Die Meistersinger”
J.STRAUSS Jnr. – On the Beautiful Blue Danube

Wellington Youth Orchestra

Hamish McKeich (conductor)

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

Tuesday 21st October 2014

Richard Wagner described Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony as “the Apotheosis of the Dance”, referring to the dominance of rhythm over melody throughout much of the symphony’s duration. Yes, the tunes are there, but, apart from some lyrical sequences in the work’s introduction, and throughout the trio of the third-movement Scherzo, the melodies are constantly dancing, stamping or galloping about!

If ever a work by Beethoven demonstrated the composer’s own euphoric description of his art – “I am the Bacchus who presses out this wine which makes men spiritually drunk!” – it’s this uninhibited riot of a Symphony – though not as epic as the Third or Ninth Symphonies, nor as heaven-storming as the Fifth, the Seventh Symphony gives an elemental display of god-like exuberance that leaves its listeners exhilarated and its performers spent through giving their all.

It had an enthusiastic contemporary reception, even though most of the acclaim that followed the very first concert in 1813 went to the composer’s gimmicky “Wellington’s Victory”, with which it shared the program. But once the novelty of the “battle piece” had worn off, the symphony began to assert its well-nigh irresistible appeal, with the second, Allegretto movement in particular capturing its listeners’ imaginations – this movement was in fact played alone for a time more often than was the complete work.

Beethoven’s efforts did not, however, find favour with some commentators, whose sensibilities were obviously affronted by such unseemly demonstrations of raw energy! Friedrich Wieck, father of Clara (Schumann), was present at some of the rehearsals and observed that the composer of such music must have been in a “drunken state” when writing the work. And Beethoven’s great contemporary, Carl Maria von Weber, thought that parts of the first movement alone qualified the composer as “fit for the madhouse”. Even a decade later, a London critic wrote of the work, “Often as we have heard it performed, we cannot yet discover any design in it, neither can we trace any connection in its parts.”

Posterity has reversed these opinions, though a dissident echo was provided by the legendary conductor of more recent times, Sir Thomas Beecham (no great lover of Beethoven’s music, even though he recorded several of the symphonies) – after giving a typically riotous performance of the Seventh, Beecham drolly commented, “Well, what can you do with it? – it’s like a lot of yaks jumping about!”

Such criticisms and comments missed the point of the “excessive” nature of the work’s rhythmic character, one which Beethoven had touched on more generally with his “I am the Bacchus” comment, and which the work brought to a kind of apogée in terms of constant energy and momentum. And these qualities were at the heart of what Hamish McKeich and the Wellington Youth Orchestra players were able to achieve in their recent performance.

The players clearly felt the import of the symphony’s “introduction” here – no mere symphonic throat-clearing, or “getting the pitch of the hall”, but a statement of intent containing the seeds of what was to follow – thus the tensions were built up via the strings’ dovetailing of the scales, the lower echelons “digging in” with point and focus on each occasion, the winds and brass intensifying the harmonic ambiences, then nicely terracing the tensions, keeping us in a suspended state for what was to break forth. Something much more than Viennese “gemütlich” was obviously on the agenda.

The allegro was taken at an urgent clip – the flute led the way magnificently, well-supported by the strings, while the first big tutti was a riot of energy and colour, the brass a bit approximate in their note-pitching, but the impulses were right where they ought to have been. Early on, a feature of the playing (as it needed to be in this symphony) was the work of the orchestra’s timpanist, whose command of both propulsion and dynamics right throughout was, I thought, exemplary. But everybody hove to – the winds were sonorous, the brass exciting, even when fallible, and the strings kept the rhythms a-tingling.

The beginning of the development brought some anxious ensemble moments with those treacherous dotted rhythms, the winds further unnerving things by being temporarily awry with an entry. But they made amends by steadying the rhythm leading up to that wonderful, exhilarating reprise, together with the brass getting those shouted dotted interjections bang-on! By this time the interactive support between the sections was kicking in nicely, so much so that there was a wonderfully delighted squawk from a young child in the audience during one of the pauses before the coda!

What followed was like an encounter with the elements – the lower strings caught the “vortex” aspect of those incredible “churnings”, from which the rest of the orchestra, by a sheer act of will gradually pulled us upwards from and into the light – though the horns struggled a bit with their triumphant “whoopings” the rhythms had oceans of momentum, and caught the exhilaration at the movement’s end.

I thought the second movement arresting at the outset, the lower strings purposeful, the violins sharing theme and counter-theme, stoically supported by the winds, brass and timpani. The trio, too, was nicely focused, the theme by turns tender and expressive, with lovely clarinet work. A somewhat weedy start to the pp string fugato broke the spell momentarily – the strings seemed happier when playing with fuller tones. But apart from the surprise of the clarinets seeming not to enter with one of their phrases right at the end, the movement’s gravitas was strongly maintained.

Which was the last thing that sprang to mind with the explosive beginning of the scherzo! – instead, boisterous fun was the order of going, the music’s triplet rhythms a whirl, and the winds and strings managing their “giggles” at the end of each of the sections. By contrast the trio’s solemn lay rang out lyrically (winds) and then majestically (strings and brass), with the timpani again a tower of strength in conjunction with the latter.

I confess that I momentarily gaped at the hectic pace the conductor adopted following the finale’s two opening flourishes – this was a REAL allegro con brio and the young players certainly bent their backs to the task, whether exuberantly stamping the rhythms out or whirling through the figurations. Conductor and players kept the momentum going splendidly through the lighter passages, and made a great fist of things like the leaping string unison exchanges and the whooping brass calls – hair-raisingly exciting in places, as were the timpani’s splendidly focused and detailed energies.

And so it continued, through the powerful thrustings of the last big orchestral build-up before the coda, and into the furious vortex of scarily shifting, droning harmonies from winds and lower strings, leading up to what Sir Donald Tovey called the “Bacchic fury” of the work’s coda. Perhaps the winds might have lost their footing momentarily with their tricky angular entries and syncopated harmonic shifts amidst the maelstrom of sound and fury that the composer was building up, here – but somehow, it added to the effect of this elemental, inchoate material being imbued with energy and propulsion as to burst out with unparalleled power and splendour, everybody pulling together to bring off those final, whiplash chords in properly thrilling and conclusive fashion.

We needed an interval after that! – so, having enjoyed a breather, everybody was back for the second half’s intriguing mix of Wagner and Johann Strauss. FIrst up was Wagner’s Overture “Die Meistersinger”, an item I was looking forward to immensely, because I had played the cymbals in a performance during another life, many years ago!  Here, the brass rang out the first four notes gloriously, setting the scene for a carnival atmosphere of polyphonic largesse, the same players getting slightly ahead of the rest of the orchestra in one place in their eagerness to impress. Hamish McKeich favoured fairly brisk tempi, even through the transitions containing fragments of the opera’s more lyrical moments, which made for a breathless effect, as we were quickly plunged into the “entry-music” for the Mastersingers from Act Three, which, incidentally, went with proper pomp and ceremony.

I thought McKeich could have relaxed a little with the central section’s lyrical sequences – the playing wasn’t allowed to expand vocally, in the way that the tunes do in the opera itself, though perhaps the conductor wanted to keep the ensemble “tight”! However, the winds trotted in merrily during the “apprentices” section, managing a cheeky trill at the end of their sequence, as did the strings in places, the odd precarious-ensemble-moment smartly manoeuvered back into place within a few measures!

As for the famous “trio of themes” at the end – well it was a joy! The tuba sounded terrific, especially his concluding trill, while the brass gave warning of their “en masse” arrival in sonorous fashion, helped by the timpani the second time around. It all came across as properly festive, even if I felt the cymbal player was a little overawed by the occasion and didn’t “sound” his instruments as resplendently as they could have been.

After such rumbustiousness, the Johann Strauss piece was lovely! – it was really the waltz “On the Beautiful Blue Danube”, but played in a way as to imitate a loosely-strung set of waltzes – I suspected it was also to enable the players to turn their pages comfortably!  A gorgeously-played horn at the beginning presided over magical ambiences, passed adroitly by some moments of hesitant ensemble, and, gathering in a solo ‘cello, led us into the dance. To my delight the players made a great fist of the Viennese “lilt”, obviously well-schooled by their conductor, the ensemble sounding in places for all the world like a well-drilled Viennese dance-band! Another surprise for me was the repeat of the opening “waltz-sequence”, which I’d never heard done before. Right up to the nostalgic coda, with its trumpet solo and trilling flute, the players caught the idiom of the piece with great style, readily communicating to us their pleasure of performance.

But there was more! – in fact the final item set the seal on the afternoon’s music-making brilliantly, via a tremendously exciting performance of the “Waltz King’s” well-known “Thunder and Lightning Polka”. It was put across with such panache, such energy and exuberance, with the percussion having the proverbial field day! At one point in the work’s middle section I wanted (once again!) the cymbal player to bash his instruments more vigorously, but it must be said the player made up for his reticence in the closing measures of the work. I would have loved to have taken part in such a performance myself – what a blast it seemed to be for all concerned!

Very great credit to the inspirational Hamish McKeich, and to his hard-working, talented instrumentalists. To my mind conductor and players can look back on some singular achievements this year, their successes auguring well for seasons yet to come. On their showings throughout 2014 it’s my opinion that they’re becoming an orchestral force to be reckoned with, a stimulating and valuable contributor to the capital’s enviable array of orchestral concerts.



Yvette Audain and friends “in the groove” – a new CD


Featuring Yvette Audain (saxophone)
With: Hong Yul Yang (piano)
Katherine Hebley (‘cello)
Damon Key (soprano sax)
Donald Nicholls (tenor sax)
Nicola Haddock (baritone sax)
Zyia-Li Teh (tenor sax)
Andrew Uren (baritone sax)
Anthony Young (conductor, “bulletproof petals”)

Tracks: Grooves Unspoken / Hazine (Treasure) / Meditations upon Nasreddin Hoca
Hold Fast / An Irksome Vengeance / bulletproof petals / A Charleston Kick With Steel Caps

The CD launch at “Meow”, Edward St., Wellington

Featuring Yvette Audain (soprano sax, clarinet, recorder, Irish whistle)
with Jonathan Berkahn (piano and accordion)

Sunday, October 19th, 2014

Yvette Audain modestly commented beforehand that what would make her night would be at least TWO people in the audience for the launch of her CD “Grooves Unspoken”. Well, she got her wish and more, besides – not a great deal more, but those of us who were there were caught up in the creative and recreative web and waft of the music and its performance. And with the surroundings and amenities available at “Meow” in Edward Street in Wellington, we wanted for nothing as we listened to and grooved along with both Yvette and her fellow-performer Jonathan Berkahn – the latter had told me before the performance that he was still getting to grips with some of the material, but to my ears this wasn’t evident in his playing, versatile musician that he is!

The two musicians pretty well replicated the first four tracks on Audain’s CD, Jonathan Berkahn “filling in” more than adequately for the pianist featured on the CD, Hong Yul Yang in the title piece “Grooves Unspoken” and also the lovely “Meditations Upon Nasreddin Hoca”. The other two tracks featured the composer herself, demonstrating her versatility in playing both saxophone and clarinet. The former instrument evoked plenty of exotic ambience and colour in a piece called “Hazine” (Treasure), while the latter’s tones paid homage to Audain’s own part-Scottish ancestry in “Hold Fast” (the McLeod family’s motto!), mixing plenty of melodic fluidity with equal amounts of rhythmic vitality.

Hearing these four tracks “live” gave oceans of extra atmosphere to my later listening to the CD – the choreography of interaction, the physical gesturing and the direct contact with the tones and timbres of the instruments in question came back readily to my subsequent listening sessions. The CD had been planned beautifully as regards order, the sounds  of each track seeming to effortlessly give way to each instance of organic flow or marked contrast as it happened. Most appropriately the album (as did the evening) began with a piece of unashamed homage to a past giant, whose music Audain acknowledged as a formative experience – this was Dave Brubeck, whose signature album “Time Out” had obviously made a telling impression, judging by the “echoes” present in Audain’s beautifully-constructed piece, very appropriately named “Grooves Unspoken”.

From this we were taken elsewhere, to places replete with Middle-Eastern flavours and gypsy-like impulses. This was the aforementioned “Hazine”, a patient, measured and evocative creation whose character gradually shed its rhythmic carriage in favour of freer, more ambient sequences of figuration – spaces opened up via long-breathed notes and occasional pitch-bending, all of which conjured up a real sense of time passing, almost Omar Khayyam-like, into oblivion.

Not quite as overtly exotic, but as suggestive regarding different moods and realms was “Meditations Upon Nasreddin Hoca”. The work was made up of a number of ritualistic exchanges between piano and saxophone (again, Hong Yui Yang was the CD’s excellent pianist) – voices striving to unite but separated by distance or circumstance. A wide-eyed opening evoked a soul contemplating “the inverted bowl we call the sky”, one that was partly delighting in, partly despairing at the star-clusters and their loneliness. Whatever answer it was that came from the lonely spaces took the form of an invitation to dance and exult, which piano and sax did, revelling in the interchanges, before again seeming to part company. I loved the smoky lower register of Audain’s instrument, even if she very briefly seemed to lose her line to breathiness on a single high note, but recovering almost immediately and taking up with the piano once again. Throughout the two instruments would contrive to separate, join and separate again, bringing something new to each exchange after tasting their individually-wrought moments of disjointedness. The final exchange, an Eastern-flavoured dance, by turns sinuous and angular, re-established the “together but different” character of the interactions throughout, concluding with an exciting and confident flourish.

“Hold Fast” took its name from the motto of the Scottish McLeod clan, to which the composer’s grandmother belonged. The opening sounded a kind of clarion call, perhaps a summoning of the said clan, replete with Scottish snap and pipe-skirl, the declamations occasionally giving way to startling moments of rhythmic impulse, complete with occasional foot-stampings. One of Audain’s earliest compositions, the piece aptly honoured a tradition of both song and dance.

I loved the title “An Irksome Vengeance” and thought the combination of clarinet and ‘cello most splendidly explored the ensuing timbral concoctions, as well as staying true to the composer’s aim of keeping a basic pulse to the fore. I can’t really speak for musical currencies such as “post-grunge” and “progressive rock”, but thought that the music’s dynamism and knees-and-elbows angularities were, to say the least, arresting. And I thought the liveliness of the exchanges didn’t let up, even through the more lyrical sequences. Fantastic playing by both Audain and the ‘cellist Katherine Hebley – the ending itself was a treat, a masterpiece of po-faced comedy. One assumed the “vengeance” in question had by that time been wrought, or, alternatively, tossed aside as too “irksome” for any further consideration!

All three of the final trio of pieces on the CD seemed to me to particularly command the attention – the second piece, “bulletproof petals”, scored for a quartet of saxophones, sounded an outlandish note at the beginning, before taking a five-note figure and “deconstructing” it with no little glee. A wistful phrase was solemnly passed around the group, though like children told to be serious, splutters and giggles ensued. The wistful phrase returned, this time more formally and contrapuntally, and just as it seemed something imposing and grand was welling up out of the growing confidence, the splutters and giggles returned – one was left with unanswered questions, such as, “Was the “thick skin” of the composer’s explanation of the piece too easily penetrated?” and “Did the creative resolve buckle under the weight of derision too soon?”

But my favorite piece on the album had to be the final one, “A Charleston Kick with Steel Caps”, a piece that never let up in its “swing”, through different tempi and rhythmic trajectories – in fact, so involved was the CD’s “live” audience with the performance that they were ready to applaud at the first hint, midway through, of a final cadence, all too ready to deprive themselves of a wonderfully raucous buildup to a characteristically upbeat throwaway ending. I thought the music had the spirit of the times – a trifle Kurt Weill-ish in places, even, as well as its composer’s fingerprints on things like the derivation of the accompanying rhythms of the final section of the dance from earlier in the work – organic thinking which involved all of the instruments in melodic, or motivic as well as harmonic contributions to the whole.

Briefly, I thought the disc’s contents a happy amalgam of “entertainment” and “provocative” pieces – in this respect I thought particularly well of the last three works on the CD, culminating in, for me, a piece that seemed to sum up Yvette Audain’s achievement in making her playing such a gift to all kinds of sensibility. This is not to under-appreciate the other, earlier pieces, just as bagatelles, divertimenti and serenades are the sunnier sides of deeper purposes. “Grooves Unspoken” is a delight, an uninhibited and unashamed self-portrait of creative impulse that Audain can be justly proud of.

(Visit Yvette Audain’s website at www.yvetteaudain.com for further information)

Music in evocative spaces – Diedre Irons at Wellington Cathedral

Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul presents:
EVOCATIONS – Piano Recital Series at the Cathedral

Diedre Irons (piano)

BEETHOVEN – Piano Sonata No.23 in F Minor Op.57 “Appassionata”
SCHUBERT – Moments Musicaux 1-6 D.780
CHOPIN – Ballade No.1 in G Minor, Op.23

Wellington Cathedral, Molesworth St., Wgtn

Friday 17th October, 2014

“Piano music in a vast space” read the heading on the programme sheet which we were given at the concert – and it certainly was that! In fact, I had wondered beforehand regarding the efficacy of performing a piano recital at all in such an environment, and certainly in respect of some of the repertoire – the “Appassionata?…..how on earth?….all those notes!……

As well, I remembered reading about some wag coming up to a young composer whose new work was being performed in some cavernous place like London’s Royal Albert Hall, clapping him on the back and saying, “Well done! – most new works these days are heard only once – but at least getting your work played in here means…..” To be honest, it was a bit like that in Wellington Cathedral for Diedre Irons’ masterly performance of one of Beethoven’s most titanic works – we were able to hear – and hear – and hear……

To a newcomer to Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata, the experience of the recital in the Cathedral would have, in places, been enchanting, an awakening of hitherto unsuspected ghost-voices, perhaps those of the work’s interpreters down the years, come to the concert to add their particular tones to those of the “live” pianist’s activations. The work’s very opening had that same haunted acoustic quality, as did much of the slow movement’s theme and variations. In fact, by a process of gradation our ears attuned themselves to the gradually agglomerating sounds, coping with this state of things better than with the sudden and precipitate dynamic contrasts whose inherent violence was made thunderous in those reverberant spaces.

Quicker passages soon became jumbled on a superficial level, though even there, Beethoven’s direct harmonic style of writing meant that there was often a kind of cumulative harmonic effect set up, making for resplendent cadences! Nowhere was this more so than in the final pages of the work’s coda, where the F Minor harmonies cascaded towards us with the force of a dam breaking apart and flooding us with sound.

As for the performance, I was freshly riveted by Diedre Irons’ dark, brooding and big-boned approach to the music throughout the first movement. From the start she set out to use what seemed to be in theory an intractable acoustic to its best advantage – creating a halo of resonance around the misterioso-like opening, then evoking the thunder-gods from the cavernous spaces with black, implacable piano tones. One still noticed a wealth of detail from the gentler sequences, like patches of mountain flower between the imposing crags – details were not so much obscured by the reverberation as elongated and amplified, the result being a plethora of revisited tones and figurations, all contributing to what seemed like an ever-burgeoning effect.

It was a performance constantly awash with harmonies, oceanic rather than granite-like – in a sense it was a kind of reversal in effect of Liszt’s renowned piano transcriptions of the composer’s symphonies for solo piano, an amplification rather than a reduction. The pianist made the most of the richness of sound in the gentler major-key sequences, with gorgeously orchestral left-handed murmurings beneath the arpeggio-like melody. The lovely right-hand trills here sounded like rippling cascades, the playing unhesitatingly picturesque and pastoral-like, creating whole worlds in between the outbursts of fierce energy and dark purpose.

Just before the first movement’s coda, the pianist took her time with the emphatic, tumbling figurations, allowing the reference to the contemporaneous Fifth Symphony to clearly make its effect, before the concluding section exploded urgently and excitingly, but quickly running its course and returning to a kind of brooding, unsatisfied state of things. No time was wasted before the second movement began, the theme rich and alive, the tones not sculpted, but beautifully sung, the melody given all kinds of dynamic shadings and emphases. The “alternating chords” variation was nicely shaped, while the sweetness of the figurations of the following section became something so gratefully, almost sacramentally grasped at the end – heart-warming playing!

Only the final variation seemed to suffer from the reverberations, the playfulness apparent but the detail often lost in the swirl of tones – one had to listen first-time to the notes and not reflect on them, because the acoustic often got in first again with the echo-effect! At the climax everything properly “peaked”, and then was so easefully “knitted back” to the opening theme, the playing very Schubertian, I thought, in the way that the pianist made the bass theme “talk” with the treble – such a sense of inter-connectedness! After this, the finale was a molten whirl, though Diedre Irons’ incisive touch allowed plenty of thematic detail to get through, even if the middle voices tended to be swamped by the sound-torrents.

I liked the pianist’s reliance on strength and momentum rather than speed, the phrasings spaced out within the music’s pulsing, giving the notes plenty of space and emphasis, but keeping the focus taut, making for an incredible cumulative effect – understandably in the present context, the final repeat was not taken, the pianist instead resolutely driving the music towards the presto coda. Here it seemed the very elements were at work, the swirling figurations of the treble furiously sweeping up and down over the sonorous, clanging bell-like grandeur of the lower tones, strong and implacable. And what a release those final arpeggiated figures achieved here, the stuff of molten power and implacable presence.

Great programming, here, with the next piece! – I often think of Schubert as being a kind of foil to Beethoven, the former’s music seeming to say to the latter’s, “Yes, but you might also look at things this way…..”. Completely different to the “Appassionata” in scope and mood, Schubert’s work “Six Moment Musicaux” amply demonstrates an alternative way of treating and and presenting thematic material. Those bold, angular yodelling figures at the very beginning of the opening C Major piece are handled by their composer with a droll, occasionally quirky touch that largely maintains the music’s individual character – as opposed to Beethoven’s assiduous hammering-out and moulding of his themes. As for the performance, there could have been an entirely different pianist at work, here, in the Schubert – much of the opening was played by Diedre Irons in a spontaneous-sounding recitative-like manner, everything coloured and shaped by her playfulness and lightness of touch.

The piece’s “trio” section saw ease and grace kept to the fore, the “echoing” calls floated with utter nonchalance across what I’ve always previously thought of as crepuscular landscapes – here the playing seemed to suggest morning hues and gentle country sports, the various fanfare-like figurations far less laden and more contented in character. The Andantino worked beautifully, here, the ambience both supporting the pianist’s legato phrasing and enhancing her subtle weightings and colorings. And the Hungarian-like third-movement’s limpid, dance-like motions were enchanting, particularly the smile on the music’s face at the change to the major just before the end.

I did think the acoustic all but defeated the busy detailings in the Moderato which followed, though the piece’s middle section established its Janus-faced character strongly, particularly the furrowed-brow minor-key sequence. As for the stormy Allegro Vivace, Irons “went for it”, filling the Cathedral’s spaces with sound and fury with broad brush-strokes of agitated tones. Compensating for these tempestuous outbursts was the final Allegretto, a proper envoy-like piece, rather like “The Poet Speaks” in Schumann’s “Kinderscenen”, here most eloquently phrased and sounded, but also in places drawing parallels of figuration with Schubert’s great B-flat Sonata’s first movement.

This hour-long recital (all too brief a time!) was concluded with some Chopin, his Ballade No.1 in G Minor – fascinating to be able to experience the work almost cheek-by-jowl with the “Appassionata”, albeit wryly and fancifully separated by the Schubert. As big-boned and demonstrative in places as was the Beethoven sonata, Chopin’s piece seemed here to revel in its romantic associations with literature and history, the music bringing out Diedre Irons’ natural story-telling instincts as surely as the Beethoven had demonstrated the expressive power of her organic thinking. Her performance recalled for me her stunning playing of Liszt’s first Mephisto Waltz in the Ilott Theatre in 2004, shortly after she first came to Wellington to live.

Right from the declamatory opening one was drawn into the composer’s world of drama and spectacle – the opening melody so beautifully buoyed along by the left hand’s colourings and dynamic impulses, occasionally illuminated by flourishings that still managed to glint amid the laden acoustic – somehow, the pianist contrived to “float” details rather than allow them to submerge, an example being the repeated-octave note towards the melody’s end – enchanting! Though the more vigorous passages often got caught up in their own reverberations, the drive and focus of the initial phrases carried our receptivities through – again Irons used the weight of sound to hers and the music’s best advantage in places, opening up the throttle in places where the music’s harmonies had follow-through, and creating powerful results.

At the end I found myself thinking that it had all worked better than I thought it would, though I couldn’t help making a kind of “list” of pieces whose qualities would, I thought be beautifully enhanced by the cathedral’s ambience – parts of Messiaen’s “Vingt Regards sure l’enfant Jésus” for instance, or the B Minor Prelude and Fugue from Book One of “The Well-Tempered Clavier” – thanks, however, to Diedre Irons’ marvellous playing, we got what we were given, literally with bells on! – a truly memorable experience.

PS. – Jian Liu is giving the next piano recital at the Cathedral on Friday 14th November

Borodin Quartet in Wellington – Old-World elegance, universal beauty

Chamber Music New Zealand presents:

MYASKOVSKY – String Quartet No.13 Op.86
SHOSTAKOVICH – String Quartet No.11 in F Minor Op.122
BEETHOVEN – String Quartet in B-flat Op.130

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday 16th October, 2014

Mention the name “Borodin Quartet” and the average classical music-lover’s eyes will either take on a dreamy, far-away look as if contemplating whole histories of music-making in every prestigious place imaginable, or else flash with sudden excitement at the prospect of encountering this world-renowned group’s playing. Last week in Wellington, chamber-music enthusiasts had the chance to indulge in either or both reactions, as the Borodins (their 2014 lineup of players, of course) gave a concert in the city as part of a Chamber Music New Zealand tour.

The group was formed in 1945, though with a different name, the Moscow Conservatoire Quartet (all of its members then and since, have been graduates of the Moscow Conservatory) – interestingly, the first ‘cellist of the group was none other than Mstislav Rostropovich, though he left shortly afterwards to concentrate on his solo career, his place being taken by Valentin Berlinsky, the group’s ‘cellist for the next sixty-two years!.

In 1955 the group adopted its present name, in homage to the composer Alexander Borodin. Since then the quartet’s personnel has changed entirely and repeatedly, with violinist Ruben Agharonian (the present leader) and violist Igor Naidin joining in 1996, ‘cellist Vladimir Baishin in 2007 and violinist Sergey Lomovsky the most recently recruited member, in 2011. This was the quartet’s sixth visit to New Zealand, the first (with four different players) being in 1965, and the most recent prior to this present one being in 2010.

The ensemble first encountered its great compatriot Dmitri Shostakovich in 1946 – though Shostakovich’s favourite quartet remained the Beethoven Quartet (who premiered all but two of his fifteen quartets) the Borodins also worked with the composer on each of the individual works, giving their interpretations a unique flavour and insight. The Quartet actually recorded two complete cycles, the first at the time when only thirteen quartets had been written by the composer, and the second following the latter’s death in 1975.

On tour this time round the group brought the Eleventh String Quartet, written just after the composer’s Thirteenth Symphony had been lambasted and banned by the Soviet authorities, on account of its controversial subject-matter, the setting of texts by poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The Eleventh Quartet is, by comparison an essentially “private” work, made up of seven shortish, continuously-played movements. Though not as powerfully-projected a work as some of its fellows, the music throughout cast its own darkly-fscinating spell in the Borodins’ hands.

Beginning with a melancholic, somewhat elegiac opening, the music quickly and sure-footedly moved through its various sequences. There were ironic exchanges between an obsessively repeated figure and upwardly-mocking glissandi, which were abruptly interrupted by explosive, and energetic outbursts producing the most amazingly resonant chord-dissonances. Everything was suddenly whirled away by molto-perpetuo violin figures which did their best to ignore shouts of disquiet from the other strings – the composer ironically gave this section the tiltle “Humoreske”!

Perhaps the “dark heart” of the work came with the “Elegy” section, where Shostakovich quoted the Funeral March from the “Eroica”, a section of the work written to commemorate the death a year before of the Beethoven Quartet’s ‘cellist, Vassily Shirinsky. After this, an epilogue quoted from material heard right at the opening of the quartet, by now, seeming a world away. As performed this evening by the Borodins, the work was, in places very much a memorable “Fled is that music? – do I wake or sleep?” kind of listening experience.

The Shostakovich quartet had been preceded on the program by a work from Nikolay Myaskovsky, born in Poland to Russian parents in 1881. I’d not heard a lot of his music, with the exception of his Symphony No.21, dedicated to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and recorded with the orchestra by Morton Gould.  Myaskovsky’s String Quartet No.13 Op.86 was his very last work to be published, and was in fact dedicated to the same Beethoven Quartet that had championed Shostakovich’s music.

The music actually won the composer a posthumous Stalin Prize, in marked contrast to the reception a few years earlier accorded his 26th Symphony, denounced by the infamous “Zhdanov decree” in 1948 (along with fellow-composers Shostakovich and Prokofiev), for “formalist tendencies” – i.e. music “inaccessible to the people”.  But I thought it was interesting that a friend I talked with during the concert’s interval found the Myaskovsky work “bland and ordinary”. I must record that, after some discussion, we begged to differ on that point!

Certainly in comparison with the Shostakovich work, Myaskovsky’s music wasn’t difficult or challenging – instead, it was evocative, colourful, energetic, and quixotic, in places even volatile in its unexpected changes of metre and contrasts of mood. The quartet’s opening made me think of Pasternak and his “Doctor Zhivago”, a vein of melancholy informing the music that the Borodins kept taut and sharply-focused, never allowing over-indulgence of tone or phrasing. The “presto fantastic” of the second movement was very much that – urgent and unsettled, interchanging dotted rhythms with whirling triplets, before precipitously plunging into a dark, slow waltz, like a kind of lament – we were kept on the edges of our “listening-seats” throughout by the composer’s quixotic sensibilities and the deftness of the Borodins’ playing.

The richly-melodic Andante which began the slow movement brought an unashamedly nostalgic ambience to the fore, the music’s development reiterating the same themes but with different voices and different kinds of emphasis – very lovely. The finale’s emphatic opening “bounce” introduced the first of many sequences, all too rapidly “crowding-in” to do full justice to in print, but tossed off with great élan by the musicians, complete with a wonderful “surprise” ending.

So, with two very different “Russian” evocations behind us, each fascinating in its own individual way, we squared up after the interval to the Borodins’ playing of one of the “great” Beethoven quartets. This was Op.130 in B-flat, which the New Zealand String Quartet had “spoiled” us with in concert a couple of years ago by playing the composer’s original ending to the work, the astounding “Grosse Fugue”. We had to content ourselves here with Beethoven’s revised ending, a substitute finale whose cheerful and disconcerting garrulity the Borodins were able to temporarily reconcile me to.

And the Quartet’s performance of the remainder of the work brought handsome rewards.  Throughout the concert one noticed how the players had the knack of creating tension and focus without apparent external effort – it all seemed to be coming from the instruments rather than from the players’ use of them, to a disconcerting degree, in places, though the sounds certainly conveyed all that the music carried. If less involving on a visceral level than, say, the playing of the NZSQ, the Borodins made up for this with their surety of application of musical values.

So, the first movement of Op.130 was poised, balanced and aristocratic, making the following Presto movement more spectral and agitated than usual, the triplet section dispatched with astonishing virtuosity, and the reprise of the opening like a devil pursuing and snapping at a pair of heels! The Andante con moto had an incredible lightness of utterance, seeming to rise above its usual bucolic ambience, instead enjoying the lightest and most sensitive of touches.

The Quartet played the German Dance (Alla danza tedesca) with the same swiftness of movement and lightness of touch, the violin’s central running figurations briefly evoking the fairground before returning to the lyrical atmosphere of the first part – everything easeful and without a trace of heaviness. As for the exquisite Cavatina, its “hymn to life” aspect in the composer’s gallery of human impulse touched our hearts, the syncopated melody appearing to float freely during the piece’s almost hallucinatory middle section, before returning to earth and anchoring our spirits safely once more.

As for the finale, the problem with the music  is obviously mine, as the group lavished as much care on its droll jog-trot rhythms as anywhere else in the whole work. In all, it was “old school” music-making of the highest order – and the players rewarded our extended appreciation of their efforts with a short transcription of a Tchaikovsky song, performed obviously to the manner born, for our delight.


Alexa Thomson – possibility and accomplishment on the viola

St. Andrews-on-the-Terrace Lunchtime Concert Series:

Alexa Thomson, Viola
Rafaella Garlick-Grice, Piano

Brahms – Sonata for Viola and Piano in F minor, Op.120
Bartok – Moderato, from Viola Concerto, Sz.120, BB 128
Paganini (arr.Primrose) – La Campanella

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

Wednesday 15th October 2014

 This concert was an Honours music degree recital for Alexa Thomson, and St.Andrew’s church was a most suitable venue for this scale of performance. The Brahms Sonata is, of course, one of the lynchpins of the violist’s repertoire, and it was a good vehicle for Alexa’s artistic phrasing and warmth of tone which was entirely free of the edgy, nasal quality that can often detract from the upper register of a viola. The balance of piano and viola was excellent, obviously benefitting from Rafaella’s wide experience in such collaborative roles, and together the players very effectively captured the many contrasting moods of the opening Allegro appassionato.

They did likewise in a beautifully wistful reading of the following Andante and a very gracious Allegretto. The demanding Vivace finale was very polished and technically competent, and rounded off a thoughtful and musical performance of this iconic work. For my part, I would have preferred a reading with less gentility, more overt passion and Romanticism, and a wider exploration of the dynamic range that Brahms’ rich idioms can offer so many opportunities for; but a more subdued approach obviously sat  very comfortably with the players.

Next was the opening Moderato movement from Bartok’s concerto, a work that, for me, offers some pretty challenging listening, given its unforgiving dissonance and aggressive, angular writing in places. But the duo attacked it with impressive technical skill, and highlighted well its widely contrasting moods, be they angry or lyrical. This was a more passionate reading than the Brahms, and the movement definitely benefitted from that.

La Campanella is an unashamedly show-off piece in Paganini’s very recognisable style, and like its many stablemates it is very demanding technically. Both players had all the fireworks thoroughly sorted out, with Alexa pulling off the brutal double stopping with considerable flair. There was good contrast between the widely varying moods of the piece, with the musical phrasing of the more lyrical sections punctuating the frenetic interludes very effectively. The work closed with a great flourish that had the audience expressing their appreciation most enthusiastically.

The programme notes stated that “Alexa really aspires to have a solo career” but she came across to me, and others I spoke to, as a gentle soul, with a refinement more suited to chamber or orchestral roles. For a solo career, I think she needs to find that element of the bruiser that is, I feel, essential to tackle this intractable instrument. It was never designed to go under the human chin, and in a solo situation calls more for a cellist mentality than that of an “alto violinist”. Nevertheless, this very demanding programme was most professionally pulled off, and Gillian Ansell must be a very proud teacher.