Ecstatic applause for Freddy Kempf’s first three Beethoven concertos with the NZSO

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra with Freddy Kempf, Piano/Conductor

Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op.15
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op.19
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op.37

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 28 February, 7:30 pm

The NZSO undertook this programme with significantly pruned string resources, making a nod towards  the size  of orchestra Beethoven would have performed these works with himself. The balance and sympathy between the sections was, as always, exemplary and the concert was marked throughout by superb solo playing from wind and brass principals alike, and the impeccable string work that audiences never fail to hear from the NZSO.

Born in London in 1977,  Freddy Kempf made his first solo appearance with the RPO at the age of eight. In the intervening thirty years he has forged a reputation as an outstanding musician who performs to a punishing schedule all over the world.  His formidable dexterity at the keyboard encompassed the composer’s demands with complete aplomb and accomplishment, yet it was Beethoven’s  contemplative writing where, for me, Kempf’s talents most sang. He shaped the opening bars of the first concerto with great delicacy, which made the following tutti outburst a contrasting tour de force that was quite riveting. Likewise the Largo second movement opened with great tenderness that blossomed into a conversation of complete understanding with the orchestra. The Rondo finale was taken at breakneck speed, but both piano and orchestra imbued it with playful lightness, delicacy and clarity.

The pinnacle of the second concerto was again the beautiful central Adagio movement, whose melodic nuances were expressed with exquisite artistry in both phrasing and dynamic. The Rondo finale burst into life with its puckish syncopated rhythms almost gleeful in their exuberance. Despite the breakneck
tempo there was not the slightest loss of clarity or precision from either keyboard or orchestra.

The third concerto was likewise highlighted by the beautifully crafted melodies of the central Largo,
imbued with a clear sympathy of vision between solo and orchestra. The Rondo finale took off at an attractive bouncing tempo that concluded by catapulting headlong into a bold and hectic coda.

Despite the quality of the music, however, and moments of sublime stillness in Kempf’s slow movements, the performance was marred overall for me by the constant intrusiveness of Kempf’s conducting. In theory he was “conducting from the keyboard” as Beethoven was in the habit of doing. But in practice he was constantly leaping up and down between seated and upright, and sometimes
playing high speed runs with one hand while waving the other about in the air.

Nevertheless, the climax of the Final of No 3 brought ecstatic applause from the large audience, many of whom got to their feet. Kempf rightly acknowledged the various section leaders  and instrumental groups, all of whom had contributed so outstandingly to the music making.


Opera Boutique with a boisterous Pergolesi double bill

Pergolesi: Livietta e Tracollo and La Serva Padrona

Boutique Opera, Directed by Alison Hodge, with Musical Director, piano accordion and keyboard, Jonathan Berkahn.  Performers: Barbara Graham, Roger Wilson, Charles Wilson, Stacey O’Brien, Alix Schultze and Salina Fisher (violins)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Saturday 28 February 2015, 7.30pm

Boutique Opera has not performed for a number of years; it was pleasing to see them back, with light-hearted material as last time – though Edward German’s Tom Jones was very different from the current offering.

Giovanni Pergolesi had a short life: 1710-36.  He wrote a number of operas, some more successful than others.  Both the works performed in this programme were written as Intermezzi, the light-hearted works performed as interludes in more serious operas by the same composer. Obviously the opera-goers in Italy at this period had the appetite for quite a long evening out, since each of the Intermezzi was approximately three-quarters of an hour long.

The first of the two has an alternative title, La contadina astuta, and was an intermezzo for Pergolesi’s opera Adriano in Siria.  The piece was new to me, whereas I have heard the second offering before, and it is relatively well known.

Jonathan Berkahn played the piano accordion for the overture and throughout Livietta e Tracollo as the ‘orchestra’.  It seemed an odd choice of instrument, and it is not one of which I am a fan, but one had to admire his multiple skills.

The operas were sung in English.  Barbara Graham (soprano) took the female lead roles in both, and she was in fine voice.  Her foil in the first was Charles Wilson, who began as Tracollo in disguise as a woman.  His father, Roger Wilson, and Stacey O’Brien both had non-singing roles – but they contributed substantially to the drama, especially the latter, as Fulvia, a friend of Livietta.  Roger Wilson was designated as a servant to Tracollo, but his old crone did not appear capable of much activity!

I found that I had written about Charles Wilson in Tom Jones (2011), the following, which with adaptation of the character’s name, fitted exactly this time around too: ‘Charles Wilson made the most of his role as Tracollo, his acting exactly fitting for a farce, and raising many a smile.  Vocally, too, he was more than adequate, characterising his voice appropriately.’  However, he did have difficulty in that numbers of notes were set too low for his voice.  But his presentation of his role in the drama was realised with great feeling, appropriately overplaying the melodrama of the story of Livietta’s and Tracollo’s tortured relationship.  All ends well, however.

The disguise of Livietta as a French boy was very apt for Barbara Graham, who has won awards for French song; she got an opportunity to exercise that language.  Just as Charles is the son of a very experienced singer and singing teacher, so Barbara is the daughter of Lesley Graham, similarly qualified.  She sang and acted with great assurance; her voice was a delight to hear.

It was a pleasure to hear the two violins and pseudo-harpsichord accompanying the second opera, which was a much livelier work than the previous one – though that, too, had its moments.  Nevertheless, it must be said that Jonathan Berkahn performed wonders of tone and dynamics in the first opera.

A remarkable feature was the clarity of Roger Wilson’s words in La Serva Padrona, which had not always been the case with the characters in the previous piece.  His singing was strong and the voice was produced with full tone and great expressiveness; his acting, too, was convincing and full of amusing detail.

Director Alison Hodge can be pleased with her efforts in both works. There was plenty of amusing stage business in both operas. Costumes for Livietta e Tracollo would pass as eighteenth century, whereas those for La Serva Padrona were 1930s-1940s.

Simple props were adequate and appropriate.

Barbara Graham made a luscious maid on the make.  Hers was quite a demanding role. Her acting was lively and funny, while her singing in the many florid passages was lovely.  Her demeanour was perfect for the part of the devious servant.

Pergolesi’s music was full of energy and wit, and provided a fine vehicle for Graham’s talents as an actor as well as a singer. Instrumental parts underlined the solos deliciously, especially in Roger Wilson’s (Umberto’s) soliloquy in which he contemplates whether or not to marry his maid Serpina (her aim all along).  His low notes were meaty and meaningful.  The mock serious music was fully realised by the soloists, and Pergolesi must have had fun writing the charming final scene between master and maid.

The bright and humorous music and story, and the quality of the singing and acting created a most entertaining evening for the rather small audience – no doubt the entertainment coinciding with the NZSO and Freddy Kempf at the Michael Fowler Centre deprived Boutique Opera of potential audience members.

The season continues on Sunday 1 March at St. Andrew’s on The Terrace at 2pm, on Sunday 8 March at Expressions in Upper Hutt at 2pm, and on Sunday, 22 March at 2pm at Te Manawa Gallery Palmerston North.