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!