Cello jamboree at the school of music and Nota Bene’s light-hearted 10th anniversary

Cellophonia IV – an ensemble of some 25 cellos, led by Inbal Megiddo, Andrew Joyce and Ashley Brown

Arrangements of music by Vivaldi, Grieg, Beethoven and Bach, and some carols

Adam Concert Room, Victoria University

Sunday 14 December, 4 pm, 2014

And carols of all kinds from Nota Bene at the Prefab, Jessie Street

Thursday 11 December, 7 pm

The fourth annual jamboree for several of the professional and many students and amateur cellists took place this year, not in the Hunter Council Chamber as previously, but in the School of Music’s Adam Concert Room. A smaller audience than I recall at earlier concerts was perhaps the effect of a slightly  less interesting venue.

But the acoustics are very good and the big body of cellos produced a very well-upholstered and satisfying sound. The sheer numbers and the less than exemplary precision of playing from some of the less experienced seemed not to reduce the musical pleasure. As with a choir where, if well led, a sufficient body of singers can produce a thrilling sound.

Vivaldi’s Concerto for four violins, No 10 of Opus 3 was a splendid way to open. The arrangement of one of the set known as L’Estro Armonico, pitting four of the most experienced players – Megiddo, Brown, Joyce and Heleen du Plessis (cello lecturer at Otago University) against the extra large ripieno of amateurs and students, was most convincing. The very opening was compelling, grunty and full of arresting solo episodes. The uninformed might never have guessed that it was not conceived for cellos. The character of each movement was strikingly contrasted, interestingly thoughtful in the Largo and there was some spectacular playing by the four principal players in the final Allegro.

Grieg is a composer who, in my youth, was routinely ranked among the great, but in recent decades seems to have lost some of that renown, slipping somewhat to the fringe with only Peer Gynt, Sigurd Jorsalfar, Symphonic Dances, Holberg Suite, Piano Concerto and Lyric pieces, a number of which are familiar. I suspect it was his very strong melodic gift and lack of music of symphonic structure that caused his demotion, especially as the exclusivity of atonalism and serialism tended to discourage the valuing of melody. But recently, as those academic forces have lost much of their exclusivity, I detect a re-evaluation of Grieg’s earlier recognized music and more interest in and admiration for his other chamber music, songs and orchestral music.

Here we had charming and idiomatic arrangements of a couple of the well-known Lyric Pieces of Op 17 and Åse’s Death from Peer Gynt: after this rich and somber performance, who’d want to hear Åse’s Death played by any other instruments? The Shepherd’s Song responded beautifully with the cellos’ rich handling of Grieg’s harmonic palette. The Peasant Dance was highly diverting – phrases and parts moving from group to group, according to pizzicato or bowed melodic or in the performance of accompanying figures.

The four leaders changed places in the Grieg: Joyce, Du Plessis, Brown and Megiddo.

The first two pieces were arranged by Canadian cellist Claude Kenneson. The second two – Beethoven and Bach – were by English cellist Stephen Watkins.

The first of the latter’s arrangements was the Allegretto movement from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in which the young players handled much of the very manageable exposition, the echoing responses by the professionals. Its fugal section emerged with fine clarity, the cellos demonstrating their wide tonal and pitch range.

As Margaret Guldborg took her place as one of the four principal cellists, the most impressive of these arrangements was presented: the Chaconne from Bach’s second violin partita. Here it was, in a version whose opulence and variety, along with a few fleeting references to the cello suites, rival the great piano version by Busoni. I realised at once that Bach had intended it for a cello ensemble, and that the discovery of his original autograph for such an ensemble is only a matter of time. All the harmonies implicit in Bach’s violin version were here, not in full colour perhaps, but in surprising variety and heart-warming richness.

The last part of the programme  comprised a string of well-known carols played with the help of a few audience members who happened to have their cellos with them (I’d left mine behind). These were fairly straightforward, possibly played somewhat by ear. Without the feeling of obligation to do all the verses (one of the trials with normal hymn and carol singing) each was just enough to enjoy before tedium set in. The length and style of this episode was well judged; the whole was a fine variety of novelty, reward, revived interest and fun.

At the concert’s end the newly appointed director of the school of music (now back under the sole patrimony of Victoria University), Euan Murdoch, spoke, in part to introduce himself returning to the school where he had taught earlier for some years, and as a cellist.

This concert was indeed a vivid example of the kind of activity that Murdoch will surely be encouraging – the engaging with young performers and amateur musicians as well as reaching effectively to the general musical population of Wellington, which I hope will be accomplished if the school can move as suggested into the Civic Centre (WITHOUT, please, touching the Ilott Green! – Wellington is very short of green spaces in the CBD).


Carols from Note Bene

While I’m at it, I must mention a different concert, on Thursday the 11th. In a fairly new café on Jessie Street, the Prefab, the adventurous choir Nota Bene, established ten years ago by Christine Argyle, held an anniversary concert at which a variety of carols familiar and unfamiliar were sung. Food was supplied free by the café management and donations from the crowd were for the Wellington City Mission. It was also announced that Christine, who conducted this concert,  was departing as director of the choir.

The café was furnished with its normal chairs and tables and the bar was open: there was not a seat to be had, as crowds hung over the rail along the mezzanine balcony and up the stairs.

Offerings were delightfully varied, starting with the 15th century carol ‘There is no rose’ and the Caribbean carol ‘The Virgin Mary had a baby boy’. A Latvian carol followed coached by the choir’s Latvian member (Inese Berzina?), John Rutter’s ‘What sweeter music’, Grieg’s ‘Ave Maris Stella’, a Catalonian carol and Bob Chilcott’s ‘Nova, Nova’, as a Latin language tabloid daily in Bethlehem might well have printed the news on what we now call Boxing Day.

And it ended with a few super-well-known carols whose names escape me.

It was all very much as one has come to expect from this very special bunch of singers who seem to present a choral voice and face of unusual, irreverent fun and serious enjoyment.

For sale was their anniversary CD which proved, as soon as I got home, to be one of the most delightful choral recordings I’ve heard for a very long time: it’ll have a permanent place in the car for many months I’d guess.


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