Entertaining Christmas concert from the Northern Chorale

Northern Chorale: Waits, Wassailers and Star Singers

Rutter: Brother Heinrich’s Christmas

Music by Mendelssohn and arrangements of traditional carols

Conducted by Monika Smith, with Jonathan Berkahn (piano and organ), Elizabeth Warren (oboe) and Penny Miles (bassoon)

St. Barnabas Church, Khandallah

Sunday, 30 November 2014, 2.30pm

It was a new take on Christmas music to present a selection of songs that were traditionally sung by carollers in their neighbourhoods, expecting to be rewarded with food and drink.  Monika Smith’s brief, entertaining introductions to the songs made it clear that it was often the reward that was the focus, rather than the music.

The concert opened with a traditional carol, ‘Resonet in laudibus’ sung as a processional.  This was followed by the well-known ‘Sleepers Wake’, but in Mendelssohn’s version rather than the more familiar Bach setting.  Here I found the piano rather too loud, and thought the organ would have been a more appropriate accompanying instrument, given that the version was from the oratorio St. Paul, in which there would have been orchestra.

The carol ‘Up!  Good Christen folk and listen’ I found too slow compared with other performances I have heard.  It made the carol seem rather dull, and the choir lacking in energy.  However, this aspect improved during the concert, not least in Stainer’s version of ‘God rest you merry, gentlemen’ and ‘Here we come a-wassailing’.  This last featured some solos from choir members – not of an even standard.  After another wait carol, arranged by David Willcocks, we came to some German Sternsingerlied, or Star Singers Songs.

Die Heilige Königen, from Bavaria, is traditionallysung by children carrying a large star on a pole – it was duly held by a choir member.  The singing in these folksy songs was more cohesive.  The next one was quite humorous, with complaints about having an ox in the stable with the baby.  It was sung in a characteristic folksy manner, with especially pleasing singing from the women of the choir.  What followed was a folksong from Silesia, in which the women sing, representing Mary who asks her husband for assistance, as you would if rocking a cradle on a cold, windy mountain-top.  However, his fingers are too frozen to help.  The women began well, but the singing became rather dull, and the attacks at the beginning of phrases were not good.

The lengthy Vaughan Williams arrangement of the Gloucestershire Wassail had unison singing of considerable gusto.  Despite some slight intonation wobbles, the carol was sung well, and the performance was enlivened by large cardboard animals, drawn with great accuracy, parading at the back of the choir at appropriate moments.

John Rutter’s Brother Heinrich’s Christmas is delightful, but does not contain a lot of singing for the choir, though their contribution was good.   The story, capably narrated by several choir members is full of delight, as are Rutter’s piano accompaniment and especially the use of the oboe and the bassoon, the latter representing the donkey Sigismund, also  represented by a large stuffed donkey, who periodically took his place in the  choir.  His part in assisting Heinrich with the writing of ‘In dulci jubilo’ is amusingly rendered.

A couple of audience carols accompanied on organ presaged the last item ‘We wish you a merry Christmas’, which a false entry from the men managed to turn into somewhat of a shambles. But perhaps it was all part of the fun.



Tudor Consort with marvellous music: Motets by Bach and settings of the texts by others

“Singet dem Herrn”: The Tudor Consort, directed by Michael Stewart

Music by J S Bach, Sven-David Sandström, William Byrd, Hugo Distler

Sacred Heart Cathedral

Saturday, 29 November 2014, 7.30pm

The programme revolved around three of Bach’s motets: Singet dem Herrn, Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden, and the incomparable Jesu, meine Freude.  The other works were settings of the same or related texts by other composers, some with a conscious nod to Bach.

One notable characteristic of the superb Tudor Consort is the involvement of the singers in what they are presenting.  This is shown by accuracy, attention to detail, fine vocal production, variation of expression through word stress and dynamics, and clarity of words.  The singers’ faces reflect this involvement; singers in some choirs look as though mentally they are somewhere else.  This must be the only choir with more men than women members (13 to12).

The opening motet by Bach, Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (‘Sing to the Lord a new song’, not ‘Sing to the Lord no new song’, as the German title as printed had it) was lively, the performance emphasising the sprightly rhythm.  The well-balanced choir gave punch to the joyful nature of the words, from Psalm 149.

For the Bach items Michael Stewart played the continuo on a small (or box) positive pipe organ, which many in the audience, including me, could hear but not see.  This in no way dominated, but provided the continuo basis such as the composer would have employed. The intricacy of Bach’s counterpoint was all there, but was never an end in itself.

The choir’s tone was very fine, and enhanced by the venue.  There was interesting dynamic variation, and only one aberration that I heard.  However, it was disappointing to see so many of the choir, especially the men, stuck in their scores.  Even though there may not have been the same need to watch the conductor, since he was limited by his playing in the conducting gestures he could give, looking up enhances a choir’s communication with its audience.

As a contrast to the bright mood of the motet’s opening Psalm, the following Chorale sung by half the choir, ‘Wie sich ein Vater erbarmet’ (As a father is merciful) was beautifully peaceful and smooth.  Choir 2’s aria was a plea to God for his care, interspersed with the Chorale. Finally, all sang words from Psalm 150.

After the motet, Michael Stewart addressed some remarks to the audience concerning the work, and the work to follow, by contemporary Swedish composer Sven-David Sandström.  It was based on words from Psalm 117: Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden (Praise the Lord, all nations).  The brief programme
note informed us that the composer ‘wrote his own set of six motets using the same texts as J S Bach.  Indeed, much of his choral music since the 1990s has been written “in the footsteps of Bach”’.

His unaccompanied work proved to be complex, with many cross-rhythms. However, it was very much choral music, with effective use of the words, and giving plenty of opportunity for the choir to exhibit its splendid tone colours.  As the interlocking interjections sped up, words were no longer distinguishable.  A passage of smooth harmony, followed, a passage of great beauty, its multiple parts shifting the harmony in unexpected ways to wonderful effect.  The concluding ‘Alleluia’ began sounding really angelic, but became quite impassioned.

The Bach version of the same motet saw the choir regroup, and Michael Stewart return to the organ.  Again the complexity of the writing did not obscure the beauty of the music nor of the words, which were delivered in impeccable German.

Praise our Lord all ye Gentiles by William Byrd brought forth a lovely sound from the choir, featuring the altos and the men only.  This 6-part motet was unaccompanied, and notable for much decoration of the words, and long melismatic passages.  The Renaissance idiom and style was a refreshing change from the complexities of the Baroque.

Hugo Distler’s Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (again put in the negative in the heading!) was not written to the same words as the opening Bach work, despite the opening lines; in this case the words are from Psalm 98.   Distler, too, was a follower of Bach and the Baroque style.  Like the Byrd piece, this was sung unaccompanied.

The work opened with a strong sound from the men.  Despite being neo-baroque, there were harmonies that would have astonished Bach – some were stark and angular.  However, the cadences were almost uniformly delicious, and the work was of considerable rhythmic variety.  As with the Sandström work, this was unfamiliar music that was well worth hearing.

To end the programme, the Tudor Consort performed Bach’s lengthy motet Jesu, Meine Freude.  Its eleven movements alternate quotations from Romans, chapter 8, with chorales meditating upon the Biblical words, written by Johann Frank in 1650.  To my mind this is one of the most beautiful and most satisfying choral works.  It is wonderfully varied in its expression of words, and of faith.  It is one of the supreme works of Bach, performed all too seldom – but making such an occasion as this to be all the
more treasured.

The choir, accompanied on the organ, sang the opening chorale with commitment and expressiveness.  The following chorus, the first of the quotations from Romans, was sung with subtlety and great attention to expression and varying the dynamics.  The chorale commenting on the Biblical passage provides a feast of word-painting, with its talk of storms, of Satan, and particularly of thunder and lightning.

The next passage from Romans was sung by trebles only, the writing being utterly delicate.  Despite a few wonky notes, the effect was pleasing indeed.  Its chorale speaks of defiance to death and the strength of God.  Its positive mood was rendered by the harmony, sequences and cadences.

The passage about being of the spirit rather than the flesh began with men only, and was full of complex counterpoint.  The florid passages were certainly not easy to sing, and a few notes came out flat.  After the next chorale, the following chorus’s opening (‘However, if Christ is in you…’) is tranquil and peaceful, but gives way to counterpoint of great complexity for all parts, only for all to come together for a glorious ending.

The chorale ‘Gute Nacht’ is utterly magical, moving from simple soprano and alto parts to contrasting ornate parts for the men.  The treble parts come into their own complexity briefly, before the chorale melody weaves between all parts.  A spirit of contemplation is paramount in this movement.

A jubilant chorus celebrating the resurrection of Christ and of believers leads to the final chorale, which restates the motet’s opening chorale melody and harmony for its contemplation that ends with Jesu, meine Freude (‘Jesus, my joy’).  Strongly sung, this revealed again excellent balance and mellifluous tone.

The audience enthusiasm proved, if proof were necessary, that all had enjoyed an evening of rewarding and uplifting music-making.  I felt honoured to have heard this marvellous music.  It was a musical and spiritual treat.



Large audience hear unfamiliar Christmas music in enthusiastic performance by Festival Singers

Festival Singers. Director: Jonathan Berkhan

Feliz Navidid – A South American Christmas
Music from the 16th to 21st centuries

Accompanist: Thomas Nikora; tenor solo: Joe Fecteau; guitar: Bernard Wells; percussion: Ingrid Schoenfeld, Monika Smith; bass: Samuel Berkahn

Jonathan Berkahn: Gloria
Pedro de Cristo: Es nasçido
Pedro Bermúdez: Christus natus est nobis
Gaspar Fernandes: Xicochi xicochi
Domenico Zipoli: Organ pieces from his Sonate d’intavolatura
José Maurício Nunes Garcia: Two responsories from Matinas do Natal. (no 2: Hodie nobis de coelo pax and No 4: O magnum mysterium
Ariel Ramírez: Misa Criolla (Kyrie, Gloria, Agnus Dei)
Jonathan Berkahn: Gloria

Bravo Ensemble: accordion: Emilio Bertrand; piano: Thomas Nikora; violin: Slava Fainitski; violin: Sarah Martin; viola: David Daniela; cello: Brenton Veitch; contrabass: Louis van der Mespel

Astor Piazzolla: Five Tangos

Island Bay Presbyterian Church

Friday 28 November 2014

This festive concert programme drew a large audience to the Island Bay Presbyterian Church, and it was apparent from the first bar that the choristers hugely enjoyed singing it. The opening Gloria by the choir’s director Jonathan Berkahn immediately set the scene with its vigorous, bouncy rhythms and easy harmonies, cleverly offset by a central section of more stately and peaceful mood. The following three items formed a most interesting bracket of contrasted works from three of many Baroque missionary priest-musicians who moved out from Europe, taking their musical and ecclesiastical traditions with them, and developed these in the fresh environment of the New World.

Es nasçido is a Portuguese nativity hymn of full-bodied harmonies and traditional Baroque chorale tonalities, which was given a warm and enthusiastic delivery. Christus natus est nobis was more subdued, and displayed clear part singing from the various interweaving choral voices. And the third item, the lullaby Xicochi xicochi sung for the baby Jesus in the Aztec language, was a beautifully crafted piece, using solo guitar accompaniment. It opened with women’s voices only, and was marked by gently lilting melodies, later offset by busier syncopated rhythms from the men. It was a remarkably liberal fusion of Old and New World elements resulting in a composition that had moved a very considerable way from contemporary European practice.

We were treated next to two organ pieces from Domenico Zipoli’s Sonate d’intavolatura, very masterfully played by Jonathan Berkahn. The first was a Pastorale, in structure and style very reminiscent of the Pastoral Symphony in Handel’s Messiah. Gentle triplet figures wove attractively over the top of a rich bass pedal note, with a brief and lively episode providing contrast in the centre. The following number was an Offertory, where busy contrapuntal development unfolded once again over a bass pedal, culminating in a closing coda of rich, full throated chords. Jonathan Berkahn had voiced both pieces to show off the very best of the electronic organ, and they provided a very successful contrast to the other works in the programme.

José Garcia apparently wrote a huge amount of both choral and instrumental music, from which Berkahn had selected two responsories from Christmas Matins. Their full, warm harmonies, warmly delivered, closed off most satisfactorily this selection of works that gave the audience a fascinating glimpse into Baroque music making in the New World.

Bravo Ensemble was given a free hand by the director, and they chose five tangos by the well known 20th century composer Astor Piazzolla. Though born in Argentina, he spent most of his life in the USA, and these pieces displayed a very wide range of stylistic influences including the traditional dance tango, jazz, Joplin-esque ragtime, modern music, you name it. All were rooted in the fundamental tango idioms, but the first piece was a wild celebratory dance, while the second oozed slow, sultry rhythms, and lazy melodies full of veiled innuendo, where you could almost smell the smoke rings wafting on the warm night air.

The central number was composed on the day Piazzolla’s father died, and it captured so vividly the violently conflicting emotions of grief and loss. Episodes of deep contemplative sadness, marked by exquisite melodic writing and rich harmonies, were contrasted with others which raged, raged against the dying of the light, recalling Dylan Thomas’ extraordinary poem written as his father too approached death.

The Bravo Ensemble marked every phrase and mood with a passion and dedication that elevated this particular number to an artistic level I had never associated with traditional tango music. But likewise the next piece was a work of art in a very special way – an exquisite accordion melody floated over swaying tango rhythms and rich harmonies from the strings, underpinned by a pizzicato bass line beautifully crafted by Louis van der Mespel, which swelled from the whisper of the opening bars, through the rich sonorities of the central section, and faded finally into a breathless pianissimo close.

The last number was called Ave Maria, a title which had me wondering how this hallowed Catholic prayer might sit with tango. In Piazzolla’s creative hands, however, it proved to be an extraordinary marriage. No arbitrary boundaries here between sacred and profane –  even the term “sacred dance” seemed artificial. The depths of tango sensuality were somehow in complete harmony with the profundities of religious experience. It was a piece that rounded off a truly eye-opening selection of compositions in tango form. I don’t know whether any of them has ever been set to dance, but it would be fascinating to see how creative choreographers/dancers would express the huge range of emotions and idioms they encapsulate. Thank you Jonathan Berkahn for the inspired inclusion of this bracket in the programme.

The choral programme was rounded off by three movements from Ariel Ramírez’ Misa Criolla. The director explained that the decision in 1963 by Vatican II to allow mass in the vernacular had led the creative flood gates to burst wide open in South America. This 1964 work used a tenor soloist, choristers and instrumental accompaniment to achieve a very creative and different setting for the mass. A lyrical tenor solo above muted humming voices marked the Kyrie setting, then a colourful instrumental introduction led into the vigorous jazzy dance rhythms of the Gloria. A calm central episode had the tenor declaiming the text above quiet choral writing before a repeat of the opening section.

The audience loved this enthusiastic movement, which was followed by the calm of the Agnus Dei. Here the tenor voice again floated above the humming choristers, to bring the number to a beautifully serene close. Joe Fecteau handled the solo tenor role very ably with a voice that has some attractive timbres, yet is crying out to be trained. There is real potential there that would merit some skilled teaching and development.

The evening closed very aptly with a repeat performance of Jonathan Berkahn’s vigorous Gloria.

It rounded off a thoroughly enjoyable evening’s music making, where the director had very skilfully put together a programme offering a glimpse into a whole world of South American musical tradition that most of the audience would, I imagine, have been previously quite unaware of. The concert was built around the central theme of Christmas, yet it spanned an astonishing breadth of styles, all of which the musicians took easily in their stride.

The enthusiasm of both singers and players was infectious, and it caught up everyone in an evening that was a refreshing celebration of this great Christian festival. No matter that modern scholarship has revealed more myth making than history in the gospel stories – their musical traditions are clearly still alive and well-loved in a world now full of plastic commercialism.

Feliz Navidad!



Circa Theatre’s “Dead Tragic” a life-enhancing experience

Circa Theatre presents:
by Michael Nicholas Williams

Cast: Emma Kinane / Jon Pheloung
Lyndee-Jane Rutherford / Darren Young
Michael Nicholas Williams

Musical Director: Michael Nicholas Williams
Lighting Designer: Glenn Ashworth
Costume Designer: Maryanne Cathro
Set Design: Barnaby Kinane Williams

Circa Theatre, Wellington

Saturday, 22nd November, 2014

That old wizard of stage and screen, Noel Coward, was right when he famously quipped, “….how extraordinarily POTENT cheap music is……” – that is, if the response of the “half-century-onwards” hearts that were pumping and pulsating throughout Circa Theatre’s startlingly in-your-face “Dead Tragic” collection of truly-and-tragically-dreadful 1970s songs was anything to go by.

In fact that opening sentence gives you an idea of some of the convolutions of the lyrics which my particular generation swallowed, hook, line and sinker with the syrupy tunes, while on its collective knees to the blandishments of the pop industry and to commercial radio – here were some of the most coruscating examples of the genre, come back to haunt us, just when we thought it was safe to let our guards down and peer backwards through the generational mists.

Thankfully, we are compartmentalised beings! – and so while it was, in a sense, out-and-out, long-overdue cultural death by nostalgia for some of our more superannuated neuron-clusters, other, more robust parts of us came through the experience, phoenix-like, cleansed and strengthened, ready to face a brighter and fresher generation of “the same but different” – if my teenaged son’s current “You-tube” manifestations are anything to go by.

But at Circa, after I’d squared up to the actual confrontations with these realities, and subsequently took stock of the outcomes, I found myself echoing the aforementioned, redoubtable Sir Noel in my musings – “What treasures! – what hot-wire experiences! – what visceral juices set a-bubbling! – what delight, and what laughter!” – and, finally and surprisingly – “What days they were!”

As that iconic Kiwi, Fred Dagg, might have expostulated (though not to be confused with home-brew, or some other such thing) – “Talk about potent, Trev!” – some of these songs carried their potency with the pin-pointedness of a truth serum. Despite the inevitable lampooning, some of the original associations evoked were specifically time-and-place, rather like when people are able to remember where they were when hearing the news of The Beatles breakup, or the deaths of Jimmy Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Evis Presley or John Lennon.

So, these thoughts were all leapfrogging in my head as I sat in the midst of an obviously delighted Circa audience, while song followed song and joy and delight followed surprise and excitement! Here were five on-stage performers, four whose business was singing and acting (Emma Kinane, Jon Pheloung, Lyndee-Jane Rutherford and Darren Young) and a musical director (Michael Nicholas Williams), a power at the keyboard, an extra voice when needed, both solo and in the ensemble – here was so much for the entertainment of so many presented by so few!

But what powerhouses they all were! – right from the opening “Delilah” delivered by Jon Pheloung with libido-laden bodily pulsations and vocalizations impressive on both aural and visual counts, backed to the hilt with impressively harmonized chorus reprises from the supporting trio, and flailing figurations in thirds from the “backing group”, we were properly confronted with the world of “truly, madly, deeply” – and ultimately, “tragic and deadly”.

To go through each song would stretch my emotional repercharge to breaking-point and exhaust my poor stock of superlatives in no time at all! – naturally enough, there were places where all of my needles “peaked”, though I can’t remember a single item that didn’t work on its own terms. Part of the fun was  in the performers’ adroit juxtapositioning of the “straight” with the “parody”, the heartfelt with the satirical –  the mix was never predictable in its bias or degree of intensity, making for edge-of-seat expectation both prior to and during some of the numbers.

Some numbers suffered out-and-out lampooning, to everybody’s utter delight – “Seasons in the Sun”, which, admittedly, could have been played “straight” to risible effect, was here subjected to a most deservedly deconstructivist treatment, Darren Young revelling in the comic opportunities for a “deathbed farewell farce” complete with the obligatory sign from heaven in the form of a cross.

Though the songs were all American, with some of the realizations there seemed more than a touch of the home-grown haunting the presentation aspect in places  – both “Nobody’s Child” and “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” featured Lyndee-Jane Rutherford’s engagingly “ordinary Kiwi sheila” in the limelight, accustomed or otherwise, in the former making the most of her five minutes of plaintive fame, cross-eyed with concentrated focus, while in the latter valiantly doing without any fairy godmother in preparation for her desperately-planned bouts of adulterous acquiescence, with some excruciatingly uncomfortable bodily hair removal procedures.

A nice touch at half-time was the pushing-over towards centre-stage of the giant record-player-arm, whose head had doubled as a coffin at some stage or other (and would do so again!), signifying that  “Side One” had been completed! – set designer Barnaby Kinane-Williams deserved a pat on the back for that particular inspiration! Then Emma Kinane and Darren Young got the “flip side” away to a marvellously schmaltzy piece of quasi-ethnicity with “Running Bear” (was I hearing things, or did the audience’s toe-tapping reach hitherto undisturbed levels of intensity during this catchy number?) – whatever the case, it all impressively morphed into Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, our amusement tempered with real appreciation of the group’s part-singing harmonizing, and the imaginative staging, with the ghostly, disembodied faces.

As with all classy entertainments, there were terraced intensities – even more deconstructionist that “Seasons in the Sun” was the ensemble’s response to “Darling Jane”, a song whose scenario and lyrics were surely the stuff of legends, epitomizing as they did the most mindless banalities known to Tin Pan Alley – this was Musical Director Michael Nicholas Williams’s one real chance to shine in a starring vocal role, an opportunity nicely scuppered by the storm-tossed palm fronds manipulated by Emma Kinane and Lyndee-Jane Rutherford, mercilessly flailing the stage’s upper reaches, a space inhabited also by Williams’s head!

Against these objects of “harmless merriment” were the spectrum’s opposite-end songs, ones which, despite their understandable contextual capacity to amuse, couldn’t help but also impinge with a good deal of their original pathos, the most outstanding being “In the Ghetto”, which, for all its well-worn rhetoric remains a powerful and disturbing social statement – perhaps only “The Green Green Grass of Home” matched it for raw emotional power, however well-worn the terrain. This all-encompassing aspect of the show served only to remind us that things are because of their diametric opposites – and the definitions thus provided are of their own inverse value.

So, it was with grateful appreciation for the talents of those onstage performers, in tandem with Glenn Ashworth’s lighting, Maryanne Cathro’s consumes and Barnaby Kinane Williams’ set designs that we put our hands together and our feet repeatedly on the floor at the show’s end, satisfied with our lot, and enjoying the reactivation of all those ghostly resonances of times past, come back to tell us how important they actually are.



A divided NZSO with a breathtaking cellist in a sparkling touring programme for the South Island

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Benjamin Northey; Narek Hakhnazaryan (cello)

“In the Hall of the Mountain King”

Mozart: Symphony No. 31 ‘Paris’
Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme
Grieg: Holberg Suite
Peer Gynt Suite No. 1

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 21 November. 6:30 pm

From the first downbeat of Mozart’s ‘Paris’ Symphony, Australian conductor Ben Northey galvanised the orchestra into a sparkling and vivacious performance, and set the tone for an authoritative, yet electrifying evening’s music making. His engagement with the players was almost tangible, epitomised in the initial Allegro assai where he drew out real magic from the contrabasses, in episodes that can often pass almost unnoticed. In the following Andante he fashioned the delicate melodies with gossamer lightness before bursting into the Allegro finale at breakneck speed. His two silent upbeats established a total control that achieved crystal clarity in high speed runs that never felt hectic or hurried. It was an electric, riveting finale that harnessed the extraordinary talent of the players with complete unity of vision between conductor and orchestra.

Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme  gave New Zealand audiences their first opportunity to appreciate the breathtaking talent and musicianship of Armenian cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan. All of 26 years old, he nevertheless exhibits a total technical mastery that is completely at the command of his extraordinary musical depth and vision. At the pre-concert talk, Northey remarked that no two readings of the Variations were ever the same from Hakhnazaryan, a comment that I recall Barenboim making about the performances of Du Pré. In my mind this newly emerging cellist certainly sits in the same pantheon, and like Du Pré, he held the audience totally spellbound with his interpretation.

You could have heard a pin drop in his magical pianissimo moments, for which Northey fashioned the orchestral support in perfect balance – no small feat for a low register solo in an auditorium seating 2500. The opening theme was offered with loving delicacy in a silken tone that immediately set his playing apart. And likewise the second theme was delivered with deep affection, indeed reverence for every note. Throughout the whole performance he engaged in a mutual conversation with the orchestra that was completely devoid of soloistic bravura; rather they were fellow players making music together with just the lightest touch from Northey at the helm. All shared a common, deeply romantic concept of the work that drew in the audience completely, and led to rapturous applause at the end.

We were treated to two solo encores: first Giovanni Sollima’s Lamentatio that opened with stark, spare harmonies, and dirge-like vocalisations from the cellist. This idiom alternated with episodes of frenzied despair as though the bereaved were tearing his hair out, interrupted by the recurring, and eventually terminal exhaustion of the dirges. It was a deeply moving performance, and left the audience hungering for still more. Hakhnazaryan obliged with a final offering: first he enquired for any fellow Armenians in the audience, of which there were a few (I understand that there are about 50 such living in Wellington). Then he announced that he would play a setting of an Armenian folk song by a “suffering, lonely person far from their homeland”. It was a soulful, almost anguished piece, exquisitely performed, and obviously very personal to him.

It is a rare and very real pleasure to hear the NZSO strings alone, and what better choice of work than Grieg’s much loved Holberg Suite. Ben Northey’s  sure touch again opened the piece with real lightness and grace, but the super fast tempo he chose sometimes put at risk the clarity of that very distinctive rhythmic motif which drives the whole Praeludium. However, his dynamic control was brilliant, as he built the sound from a feathery piano to a rich full throated climax. He made the most of the contrasting three central movements, Sarabande, Gavotte and Air, which were marked by graceful lilting melodies and lovingly wistful phrasing. He skilfully set their moods of pathos against episodes of warmth and fullness where every string player seemed to relish the chance to draw the maximum richness from their instrument.

The final Rigaudon is a hectic celebratory folk dance gallop distinguished by fiery roles for two soloists – violin and viola – here Donald Armstrong and Peter Barber. So often the lower pitch of the viola comes off second best in this movement, but Peter was not having a bar of that. With vigorous competition from Donald, he made brilliant, spirited play for the attention of the prettiest girl in the troupe, and I’d put my money on his winning out. A great romp!

The full NZSO is currently divided for two separate tours, with this programme being played in Wellington and the South Island. The lesser string resources of this particular ensemble proved, however, that they were more than equal to working with the full blown line-up of wind, brass and percussion needed for Grieg’s Peer Gynt. This suite again showcased Ben Northey’s skill in creating huge contrasts in mood and dynamics: there was the wonderful fresh transparency of the opening Morning Mood; the incredible build-up from pianissimo to fortissimo in The Death of Aase; the beautifully fashioned and puckish pizzicato sections of Anitra’s Dance; and the lovely murky bassoons at the opening of the Mountain King finale, that Northey built on inexorably in tempo and dynamics to create a monumental climax.

The audience was hugely appreciative of this evening of sparkling music making, turning out a virtually full house to hear works they knew and loved. The pedants may speak of hackneyed familiarity, but the listeners voted very clearly with their feet when offered the best of classical and romantic works performed by the outstanding talents of the NZSO and Ben Northey. They worked together in such obvious empathy and produced outstanding results. I very much hope we will see more of Northey on the rostrum in future, and more of this sort of programming.

Tingling strings at Futuna – Dean Major and Robert Ibell

Colours of Futuna Concert Series

Music for Violin and ‘Cello


Dean Major – violin

Robert Ibell – ‘cello

Futuna Chapel, Friend St., Karori

Sunday 16th November, 2012

Josef Haydn, whom previous generations knew as “Papa”, was one of music’s great humorists. Of course, everybody knows the slow movement of the “Surprise” Symphony with its sudden fortissimo chord right at the end of a piano phrase – but most of his jokes are far more subtle. They’re more in the realms of the “musically unexpected” than in the “things-that-go-bump-in-the-night” kind of way – Haydn treats his listeners to unexpected pauses, outlandish key modulations, deliberately uncertain rhythmic figurations, and false endings to movements. Often they’re things that straightaway sound quirky or eccentric, but to audiences it’s sometimes not immediately apparent why.

This penchant for humour has probably worked against Haydn in some quarters – it’s said that the Emperor, Joseph II, among others was displeased at some instances of the “holy art” of music being debased by Haydn’s quirkiness, and that this attitude carried over to the composer being thought less highly of than either his friend Mozart or his pupil, Beethoven. Obviously, it’s a case where posterity has deemed cheerful irreverence a “lesser” sign of genius than either premature death or deafness.

I’m not sure how far the composer might have gone in terms of giving similarly quirky instructions to his performers, or whether, in some instances, editors or publishers “interpolated” tempo markings, based on what the music “looked like” on the page. At a recent Futuna Chapel concert given by violinist Dean Major and ‘cellist Robert Ibell, a Haydn Duo began the program – for Violin and ‘Cello in D, Hob.VI – the opening movement bearing the indication Adagio non molto.

The playing was immediate and engaging – not absolutely bang-on in intonation at the outset, but once the players (and our ears) got “the pitch of the hall” the sounds found their centres more readily and mellifluously. I thought the tempi as performed beautifully suited the music and its character, as we heard it. But was this flowing, walking-pace opening really an “adagio” – as Oscar Wilde would have said, of any kind whatever? It certainly was “non molto” – in fact so “non” as to be “not at all”! Was this the mischievous spirit of the composer at work, once again?

Whatever the tempo indications, we found ourselves thoroughly at one with what the players did throughout all three movements of the work – a robust, bucolic Allegro second movement featured many felicitous touches, including writing for the cello that brought out a very viola-ish voice (as happened also in the opening movement, where some of the lines rose above the violin’s). Then, the final movement’s Menuetto was a “theme-and variations”, with a wealth of inventive interplay between the instruments, the players again impressing with plenty of tonal and dynamic variation amid the bravura passages.

The first music I ever heard of Reinhold Glière’s was NOT the much-played “Russian Sailors’ Dance” from the composer’s ballet The Red Poppy,  but (via an elderly DGG mono LP from the Palmerston North Public Library – those were the days!), the epic Third Symphony, entitled “Ilya Muromets”, a symphonic celebration of a legendary Russian warrior, said to have lived around the twelfth century. ‘Cellist Robert Ibell described Glière as a composer who was able to work both in Tsarist and post-revolutionary Russia, writing music almost exclusively concerned with folk-lore at the outset of his career, and subsequently becoming a “People’s Artist”, producing works like the aforementioned “Red Poppy” ballet.

His “Eight Duets for Violin and ‘Cello Op.39” presented the pre-revolutionary composer in a more abstract mode, attractive character pieces bent on conveying a collection of moods and impressions, rather like a Baroque suite. Violinist and ‘cellist played five of the set’s eight pieces, beginning with a deep-throated, somewhat Schumannesque Prelude, in which the ‘cello took the melodic lead. A Haydn-ish Gavotte followed, elegant, but with a pesante-like Trio, the ‘cello’s drone-bass almost Bartokian, and emphasizing the more contrapuntal nature of the opening section when it returned – it received playing by turns cultured and rustic, as required!

A salon-like Cradle Song received a sinuous, beguilingly-played violin line accompanied by gentle ‘cello undulations, while an Intermezzo again showed a Schumannesque inclination, like one of the composer’s “Jean-Paul” characters from a Masked Ball – the players’ characterful and quixotic responses enlivened both the melody and its accompaniment. But the Scherzo which concluded the selection was the highlight – a boisterous Vivace, replete with syncopations, rather like a vigorous waltz, imbued with the élan of both musicians’ playing. The more salon-like Trio further enhanced the scherzo’s brilliant, attention-grabbing effect, leaving we listeners properly exhilarated at the end.

The concert’s “main course” was undoubtedly the final item, Ravel’s 1922 Sonata for Violin and ‘Cello. The musicians demonstrated some of the piece’s aspects to us at the beginning, such as the major/minor motif that recurs throughout the work. Ravel wrote the work as one of a number of similar tributes to Debussy. It was originally a single movement, but the composer took it up again within a year of completion, and expanded the work to four movements.

Ravel himself regarded the work as important, and not just because of its dedication to an illustrious and recently-departed colleague.  The piece, however, gave him a good deal of trouble – he referred to it as “this rascal of a duo” – and at one point he threw out the entire scherzo and replaced it with a freshly written one. When told by the first performers that the work was so difficult that no-one would play it except virtuosos, the composer replied, “Good – I shan’t be assassinated by amateurs!”

Beginning with the alternating major/minor motif on violin, the piece was rhythmically undulated into life, the cello taking over the haunting, urgent oscillations before the violin’s return, the two instruments sometimes weaving their lines in synchronization, and sometimes counterpointing their voices, at one point tightening the tempo excitingly, but then returning to the more circumspect pace of the opening – here, precise, incisive, and at the end, very tender.

The pizzicato second movement also opened with the same major-minor oscillations, the players enjoying the “marching” sequences where each instrument alternated between robust goose-stepping, and a long-breathed, trenchant theme, the latter almost a mocking commentary. The figurations tightened their interaction, and after a brief “wind-blown” sequence, dug into an arco version of the goose-stepping before throwing away a final pizzicato chord – all very vividly projected by these two players!

The third movement, Lento, was begun by a long-breathed ‘cello solo, one which the violin emulated, with its efforts “counterpointed” by the ‘cello – such eloquent playing! Ghostly octaves from the violin and a lament-like melody from the ‘cello were sounded and exchanged – the music pressed forward urgently, until momentum was exhausted, and the lines quietly replenished their breath, the music spare, sombre and inward, and  played with incredible concentration.

Then it was the finale’s turn “Vif avec entrain” (bright with gusto) indeed! The ‘cello began a kind of irregular dance pattern, joined by the violin – the opening dance was repeated, and a “square-dance” variant took its turn, its stamping creating sparks. What games the two played! – it was “anything you can do, I can do, too!” country, each goading the other to the point of checkmate! And we in the audience were pinging and ponging with the excitement of the exchanges between the two players!

It was as if we were being rewarded for surrendering up a golden afternoon, missed through being indoors – we were blessed in our turn with skilled and committed performances of an inspired and absorbing programme.

Orchestra Wellington ends its year in blaze of irreverent glory

Orff: Carmina Burana; Haydn: Symphony No 87 in A.

Arohanui Strings, an El Sistema-inspired programme providing string instruments and tuition to children from deprived areas: at Pomare and Taita Central schools

Orchestra Wellington, the Orpheus Choir and Wellington Young Voices, conducted by Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 15 November, 7:30 pm

This last of Orchestra Wellington’s most successful 2014 subscription series not only delivered the last of the Haydn’s Paris symphonies, but brought together Wellington’s other major, locally-specific musical organization: the Orpheus Choir, to perform what is one of the most popular, large-scale compositions. Also called for in Carmina Burana is a children’s choir and Christine Argyle led Wellington Young Voices to contribute that element.

In the first half, Haydn’s No 87 was given a splendid, full-blooded performance, opening in four-square, positive spirit, staccato and emphatic. Only in the development section of the first movement does Haydn temper the joy, saying, ‘But look here! Life’s no bed of roses’. And Taddei lent emphasis to the caution by his exaggerated pauses between sections.

Several wind players had their place in the sun, particularly the oboe, in the Trio of the Minuet. And while the Finale resumes the optimism of the first movement, Haydn again makes us pause with his not uncommon phantom endings that can lead to untimely applause. Not here though; yet, after what I thought an utterly delightful and characterful performance, the applause petered out rather abruptly.

The concert also offered the opportunity for a high-profile appearance of Arohanui Strings, founded in the Hutt Valley by Orchestra Wellington violinist Alison Eldredge and inspired by the Venezuelan-originated El Sistema; the project involves children from less favoured areas learning instruments and playing in an orchestral setting. The performance began with a simplification of the opening of Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, with many of the more experienced children sitting at the orchestral desks alongside members of the Orchestra: pretty good!

Then another group of younger children carrying violins emerged from both sides and took up their places across the front of the stage, ranged in size from left to a surprisingly small girl on the right (her evident feeling for rhythm, at least, must have drawn the audience’s attention particularly). They followed Alison’s gestures, all lifting their violins in unison, and placing them professionally under the chin. They played Pachelbel’s Canon and then a square dance by Brooker and an approximation of the tune known to Mozart as ‘Ah! Vous dirai-je Maman’, the English version known as Twinkle, twinkle, little star’.

The whole affair had the faces of the audience wreathed in smiles. It was a delightful episode.

But it’s not enough for such an important phenomenon to exist as a result of isolated initiatives in one or two places nationwide. These things should be funded and guided, though better not actually run, by the Ministry of Education.

As if that wasn’t enough of delightful diversion, one of the most astonishing pieces of music of any era filled the second half. Perhaps we should forget that Carmina Burana was written by a German composer, in Germany, just before the Second World War; at the time when the music of most classical composers, especially the Jews, was being classified as degenerate by the Hitler regime, this work was a success and was acclaimed by the cultural gestapo. It’s a wonder that Orff was not, like Wagner, condemned for being approved by a nasty political regime.

Though many of the poems, written in medieval Latin and various vernaculars, were the work of students and clerics, piety is hardly present; it is the secular, popular notion of Fortune that rules, and perhaps it was the rather irreligious, satirical, earthy, not to say occasionally bawdy character of the texts that allowed the Nazis, notably heathen, to feel comfortable with the work.

The Michael Fowler Centre was emphatically the right place for this performance. First, because contrary to much ‘informed opinion’, I like the place as a whole, including the acoustic, which does have varying sound characteristics in different areas of the auditorium; and Saturday’s  full house would have meant hundreds turned away from any other suitable city venue.

Timpani and brass launched the performance with a mighty, stunning attack which established a benchmark for the rest of the evening. There was no lack of fortissimo and sheer energy (a different thing) from the choir and orchestra; the staccato assertions from the men’s chorus, with chilling side drum, of the inevitability of Fate in ‘O Fortuna’, the medieval notion that underpins many of the miscellaneous poems and songs, also set a standard that never slackened. Nevertheless, the many rejoicing episodes were no less convincing as the Springtime songs proved, illustrated with choral and orchestral colours. One of the main delights of the work lies with the varied and pungent use of individual sections of the choir, sometimes small and sweet as in ‘Floret silva…’  which drew attention to the many younger voices in the choir.

The children’s choir becomes an important element in the third part, Cour d’amours, and though I wrote in my scribbled notes ‘not unduly perfect in ensemble’, the sheer innocence of their voices worked its magic.

Three very fine soloists were a major strength. First, Australian baritone James Clayton who entered with ‘Omnia sol temperat’ and grew in histrionic impact with every successive entry. He became a one-man theatrical performance with his combination of vocal and gestural energy.

It’s curious that the biographical note about James Clayton omited his earlier New Zealand connections. Middle C records his performances in Rigoletto (Count Ceprano) in 2012, in the bass part in the Mozart edition of The Messiah from Orchestra Wellington and Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir in June 2013 and this year the totally over-the-top Baron Ochs in Days Bay Opera’s Der Rosenkavalier. We’ve noticed before that the notes about visiting artists often omit mention of earlier New Zealand appearances, as if the person putting the programmes together does no more than copy the agent’s hand-out, which can very well omit appearances, such as those in New Zealand, that are deemed unimportant in building an artist’s profile for international consumption. I suppose it could be a commentary on our own often ill-based inclination to boast that we punch above our weight in many things, such as the arts.

We at Middle C would be happy to be consulted by New Zealand concert and opera promoters to help flesh out inadequate biographies. Or anyone can search our archive without any sort of barrier to check such things – the archive goes back to our beginning in 2008.

Australian tenor Henry Choo emerged from the left of the choir In the Tavern, as it were, in ‘Girat, regirat garcifer’, a clear and penetrating voice that did show a little strain at the top but made a truly musical and dramatic impact. Dunedin-educated Emma Fraser is well-known: here she waits for her first outing till the ‘Amor volat undique’ in the Cour d’amours part, but the wait was fully rewarded, and she handled her last florid, operatic peroration in the ‘Tempus est iocundum’ with a keen feel for the message and musical style. In that part, Clayton and the children’s choir also join, as the minor key reasserts the power of the Wheel of Fortune – of Fate; that all worldly pleasures are passing fancies and futilities.

There was a shouting and standing ovation at the end, that went on and on. It’s hard to imagine a more magnificent climax to what must have been, in every way, one of the orchestra’s most successful years. Marc Taddei has again proved to be a marvellous gift to Wellington’s musical culture.

In speaking to the audience, Taddei spoke about next year’s plans which will follow the pattern in 2014 with a series of six symphonies to be played in six concerts. Tchaikovksy was the obvious candidate and the Russian theme will lead to a lot of other Russian music, mainly 19th century, that will be explored most rewardingly. In addition, Michael Houstoun will be piano soloist throughout, again in a series of mainly Russian piano concertos, including less familiar but splendid examples like Scriabin’s in F sharp minor.

Good to stay alive for another year!


Diverting and wide-ranging concert from the SMP Ensemble

SMP Ensemble: Nachtmusik

Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht for string sextet, and other music by Salzedo, Britten, Biber, Brad Jenkins and Cilla McQueen

Jennifer Newth (harp); Gregory Squire and Tabea Squire (violins); Peter Barber and Megan Ward (violas); Jack Hobbs and Charley Davenport (cellos); Rebecca Steel (flute); Karlo Margetic (clarinet); Nick Walshe (bass clarinet); Chris Gendall (conductor)

St Peter’s church, Willis Street

Friday 14 November, 7:30 pm

The SMP Ensemble’s programmes, often devoted to experimental, New Zealand music, are not always particularly easy for the average classical music lover to enjoy. This one, advertising Schoenberg’s best-loved piece, Verklärte Nacht, guaranteed pleasure. But word of it had obviously not got out as the audience was sadly small.

The first half did include a couple of, shall we say, unusual pieces, but it began and ended with harp player Jennifer Newth performing two established harp compositions that were intrinsically beguiling, but also played with astonishing virtuosity and exquisite delicacy. Carlos Salzedo was born in Paris of Sephardic Spanish parents, and later came to find an affinity with the Basques. He took up the harp as a child and gained a world-wide reputation becoming a famous virtuoso as well as composer for his instrument. Read the interesting entry in Wikipedia which draws attention to his wide-ranging musical activities as composer (for music in many genres), conductor, teacher, and to his international reputation in the general musical world and around the world.

Salzedo’s playing is described in that article as characterized by clarity, facility, articulation, fluidity, and subtle phrasing. They were some of the words that came to mind as I listened to Jennifer Newth’s enchanting and breathtaking performance of Chanson dans la nuit.

Jennifer returned before the interval to play the Nocturne from Britten’s Suite for Harp which he wrote in 1969. I was not familiar with the piece and might have been hard pressed to identify its composer. After the preceding two New Zealand pieces, it emerged as main-stream, genuinely musical, exposing Britten’s idiomatic and imaginative writing for the instrument. Its nocturnal setting did not prevent
its becoming muscular and emphatic as it progressed through this incisive and insightful performance.

Brad Jenkins (notes in the programme leaflet about the composers and the music were rather limited; and, incidentally, the meaning of the acronym SMP seems to be ever concealed: I am told it stands for Summer Music Project) is a young Wellington composer who won the Douglas Lilburn prize at the New Zealand School of Music in 2012 for the piece played here, Nocturne No 1. It belongs to the long tradition of experiments in sound that seem to be an essential part of a student composer’s equipment in the ‘coming-of-age’ process. It involved ‘players’ positioned on all sides of the audience: piccolo/flute Rebecca Steel (her second appearance for me this week), cellist Charley Davenport, dismembered clarinet Karlo Margetic, bass clarinet Nick Walshe, viola Peter Barber, violin Tabea Squire, all conducted by Chris Gendall. Jenkins’s aim was to deconstruct the character of each instrument by removing all its essential tonal sounds so little more than breath or the swoosh of bow cutting through the air was audible. Slowly, hints of pitches emerged and the sounds became more abrasive, scrupulously unmusical ion the normal sense. I wondered as I listened whether this was what the world would be left with after its conquest and domination by ISIS or the Taliban.

Cilla McQueen is known to me, and I suppose most, as a poet; but here was another departure from the orthodox. Her ‘score’ of Rain Score 2 was reproduced on the back page of the programme: a spiral formed by faint, interlacing seaweed or elementary life patterns. The septet stood in a semi-circle in the front: the two violins, the two clarinets, Peter Barber, Charley Davenport and flute. Again, orthodox sounds were few as the players improvised, imitated, in a sort of aleatoric process, though there were sheets of paper on music stands visible to some players that presumably offered a bit of notated guidance. The performance even involved the mysterious effect of bowing the cello below, but not apparently touching, the strings.

The main draw for the concert was the original, string sextet version of Verklärte Nacht. Here, the string players already mentioned were joined by cellist Jack Hobbs.  I was immediately entranced by the performance, in an acoustic that was beautifully adapted to it. There was something in the sound that drew attention, as it hasn’t before for me, to the marvelous variety of the piece’s scoring in which each instrument has the most interesting individual lines, and there were entrancing utterances and delights in many short passages from, for example, Hobbs’s cello and Megan Ward’s viola.

The episodes of the poem’s story, depicted graphically enough in the score, were dramatized with particular clarity and with the emotional generosity that had obviously attracted Dehmel and Schoenberg to explore the lovers’ delicate situation. It’s interesting that Schoenberg later dismissed the poem as repulsive and sought to have the music heard as independent of it. Thus commentaries that relate the sections to episodes in the couple’s nocturnal experience are, like most attention to the ‘programmes’ of music, unhelpful and distracting.

But those thoughts do not detract from the delight one feels at the evolving shapes and emotions, key changes, acidulous harmonies that Schoenberg presented to the Vienna of Johann Strauss and the Secessionist movement. This performance captured the floaty, suggestive transfiguration; and it must have been a delight to be involved in such a beautifully integrated performance.

The concert ended with a couple of German lullabies, in which Tabea joined as gentle, subtle singer. And then Heinrich Biber’s The Nightwatchman had Greg Squire singing the words from the rear, coming forward in woollen jerkin and cloth cap for the second stanza. The light slowly dimmed as players left one by one to diminuendo staccato notes, to end a diverting and highly enjoyable concert. One regretted deeply that so few were there to enjoy it.


Third of the Cathedral’s recitals for the new Steinway, from Jian Liu

Jian Liu (piano)
Concert, to support the purchase of the Steinway piano from the former TVNZ studios at Avalon: ‘Evocations – piano music in a vast space’

Byrd: Hughe Ashtons Grownde
Beethoven: Six Variations on a theme in F major, Op.34
Farquhar: Sonatina
Debussy: Images Book I (Reflections in the Water; Homage to Rameau; Movement)
Bach-Busoni: Chaconne

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Friday, 14 November 2014, 6pm

Compared with the two earlier recitals in this series, this one attracted a small attendance only.  Perhaps it is getting too late in the year (i.e. close to Christmas) for people to come to a Friday early-evening recital.

It was appropriate to hear Byrd played in the Cathedral, although a little strange to hear it on the piano.  From My Ladye Nevells Booke that consisted of 42 pieces for keyboard, the Grownde would most likely have been played on the virginals at the time of its composition.

Liu played with minimum sustaining pedal; despite the resulting clarity, the resonance of the building added its lustre, which was perhaps not inappropriate for this piece.  It was full of charm and subtlety, of melody, harmony, rhythm and dynamics, all conveyed fluently giving a thoroughly delightful effect.  The piece’s passionless nuances meshed well with the calm atmosphere of the Cathedral, away from the noise and bustle of the city.

Beethoven was another matter.  The composer’s dynamics, and greater use of the pedal, could not help bringing into play the reverberation of the building – what one Wellington musician has called its ‘bathroom acoustics’.  Perhaps because of the small numbers of absorbent bodies present, I found the acoustic intruded more than at the previous two recitals in the series.

Jian Liu’s flexible finger-work and totally impeccable technique gave us splendid music, however, and the power and the passion of Beethoven were there, along with his astonishing inventiveness, in the Variations. The interpretation gave Beethoven his due, but the louder passages produced reverberation that perhaps even Beethoven in his deafness might have heard.  The Variations proceeded from the relatively simple to the utterly thrilling, while the gentle ending was soulful indeed.

It was good to hear music from noted New Zealand composer, the late David Farquhar.  However, it would have been useful to have had programme notes, as were provided for the first concert in the series, or at least tempi markings for the movements of the works performed (where relevant) as for the second concert.  The music began with a small cell of  notes close together – a great contrast to the expansiveness of Beethoven.  The music gradually built up, and strove for higher things.  This growth was beautifully handled.

The slow movement juxtaposes excitements for both hands alongside playful figures, becoming rhythmically intense.  The music then moved straight into a lively, even ecstatic ending.  Apart from this and the opening Byrd work, Liu played the programme without music scores.

The dreamy first movement of Debussy’s Images brought the pedal into use a great deal, but with the quieter dynamics of this work there was not undue resonance, and what there was simply added to the ambience of Debussy’s watery atmosphere of the first piece.  This music above all other in the series lived up to the title ‘Evocations – music in a vast space’.

The “Hommage  à Rameau” is a quintessential keyboard piece, reliant on impeccable technique as well as on fine interpretive skills – both of which Liu has in generous measure.  “Mouvement” features bells clanging in the right hand part while the left hand has deep rumblings supporting the growing cascade of notes that sometimes appeared to arrive from afar; at others, they were close and meaningful.

As an organist, I prefer my Bach unadulterated, but I can understand why composers are drawn to compose upon the many wonderful compositions of JSB.  Busoni was one such, and wrote his elaborations on the famous Chaconne from Partita no.2 for violin (BWV 1004). The violin work that was described by Yehudi Menuhin as “the greatest structure for solo violin that exists” can stand the treatment.  The dynamic contrasts certainly gave character, but brought out again the undue resonance in the building.  The variations built up to a level almost of ferocity.  Yet there was much variety of mood in addition to dynamics.  As time went on, I was becoming converted to Busoni’s work, not least because of Liu’s sensitive performance, bringing out as it did much beauty and nuance.

Liu is very much the versatile solo pianist, and he did the Steinway proud – and the composers whose music he played.


Polished and delightful lunchtime with winds at St Andrew’s

Music for winds by Villa-Lobos, Doppler, Briccialdi, Chopin, Schumann, Arnold

Played by Rebecca Steel (flute), David McGregor (clarinet), Calvin Scott (piano and oboe)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 12 November, 12:15 pm

To return from a nearly two-month trip in Europe to a Wellington rich with such plentiful and excellent live music has been a considerable consolation. Not that I ever underestimated the phenomenon of a fairly small city with such a wealth of practising musicians, plus their indispensable facilitating by enterprising impresarios and concert managers such as St Andrew’s enjoys.

In the Paris weeklies Officiel des spectacles or Pariscope, in a city 20 times Wellington’s size, you will find some 20 concerts on an average day, equivalent to Wellington’s one or two, on a good day. (I wasn’t in Paris this time though).

Wednesday was an average day, with the usual lunchtime concert at St Andrew’s.

Still a bit jet-lagged, the promise of some music for three wind instruments was just what I needed. It proved a beautifully measured programme, beautifully played.

And surprisingly, the three musicians had names that rang only vague bells. I recall oboist Calvin Scott as a member of the Aeolian Players in a Lower Hutt lunchtime concert in 2011 and see that Frances Robinson had heard clarinettist David McGregor in an NZSM concert at St Andrew’s last year and Peter Mechen mentioned him playing in a recent National Youth Orchestra concert.

But I can spot Rebecca Scott’s name in no Middle C review. This concert seemed to be led by her; she spoke before most of the pieces, though both other players spoke once. Rebecca is a highly experienced orchestral flautist, in London and Sydney as well as Wellington and Christchurch; and here she proved a versatile and engaging chamber musician, evidently returned permanently to Wellington.

The six pieces were perfect midday fare: a mix of the bright and the pensive, the classical and the modern. Rebecca and David opened playing Villa-Lobos’s Chôros No 2, not one of the more familiar ones (for me), but an engaging exercise in agility and wit in a performance that captured the native idiomatic character of Brazilian street music.

Franz Doppler was a contemporary of, let’s say, Franck, Johann Strauss II, Lalo, Vieuxtemps, Bruckner, Gounod, Offenbach … But he was Polish-Hungarian, born in Lwow, then in Austria-occupied Poland, now Lviv in Ukraine, from which the Polish population was expelled in 1945. He was primarily a flautist, and followed a style that owed much to Paganini and Schubert and melodically to Chopin and early 19th century opera. His Andante and Rondo for two flutes (the second flute part here by clarinet) and piano, Op 25, keeps his name alive, and this virtuoso performance demonstrated why, with its charming, melodies, swaying rhythms, turning to a brisk march later in the Andante section. There was brilliant, delicious twinning of the two parts – enhanced in colour, I thought, through a clarinet replacing the second flute.

Then came a version of Carnival of Venice, a folk song that’s been used by many composers including Paganini (his reused by Liszt) and Bottesini. This one for flute and orchestra by Briccialdi, another contemporary of Doppler, offered spine-tingling passages of brilliant ornamentation, triple-tonguing through the otherwise graceful triple-time tune. Obviously a popular party-piece for the flautist, and here a stimulating lunch spicing that Rebecca Steel tossed off effortlessly.

The favourite Chopin Nocturne, D flat, Op 27 no 2, came in an arrangement in which the right hand part was taken by flute and clarinet. Its character was altogether changed, I wasn’t entirely sure, for the better; though on its own terms it employed flute and clarinet in thoroughly idiomatic ways.

Rebecca retreated so that David McGregor and Calvin Scott might play an arrangement of Schumann’s ‘Stille Träne’, from the Twelve Songs by Justinus Kerner, Op 35. (Kerner was a close contemporary of Byron’s, though he far outlived Byron). This didn’t work so well without the words and their varied timbres and emotions, and the long notes rather cried out for verbal qualities. Yet the clarinet still captured much of the lyrical beauty of the song.

Finally, the most delightful piece of the afternoon: Malcolm Arnold’s Divertimento for flute, oboe and clarinet. Here pianist Scott abandoned the keyboard and took up his oboe which he played with comparable accomplishment. Though the piece is in six movements, Arnold has offered an admirable example of a work that is full of ideas that in other hands might encourage elaborate and extended treatment, but which makes its startling impact with such economy and brilliance.

Here, each movement lasted around two minutes; though it began about 12.55pm, the concert ended pretty much on schedule before five past one. In the space of this time, we had been subjected to a dizzying range of musical moods and rhythms, the three instruments rarely playing in ensemble fashion but contributing disparate elements in wild contrapuntal fashion that fused together in the most delightful way.

The applause seemed hard to stop. A great welcome home to Wellington!