Thirteenth Nelson chamber music festival better than ever: the first three days

Adam Chamber Music Festival, Nelson 2015
29 January to 7 February 

Part One

The Nelson Cathedral and Old St John’s church

Friday 30 January to Sunday 1 February


Coverage of this year’s Adam Chamber Music Festival (the 13th) will be divided into three parts. This first part covers the concerts, ignoring the Gala Dinner on Thursday the 29th at which an ad hoc variety of music was played, from Friday 30 January to Sunday 1 February. Parts 2 and 3 will follow.

Readers who have been drawn to the website of Chamber Music New Zealand will recognize among the following reviews of this year’s festival, texts that appeared under a pseudonym in the former source. Readers will notice that the style for the CMNZ website was rather more casual that has become the pattern in Middle C, and perhaps it is a style that we should adopt.

The aim of CMNZ was to create a lively impression of the whole environment of the festival – the geographical and cultural setting, and the weather, for those who don’t know Nelson; after all, it is by far the largest and most varied chamber music presentation in New Zealand. The atmosphere created by the artistic leadership and management which was so inclusive and welcoming, peripheral activities that audience members might have enjoyed.

The key players of the festival were: Colleen Marshall, the longstanding chair of the Nelson Music Festival Trust; Bob Bickerton, the ubiquitous manager, multi-instrumentalist, trouble-shooter, master 0f ceremonies and introducer of many of the concerts; the artistic directors, Helene Pohl and Gillian Ansell, who double as the first violinist and violist of the New Zealand String Quartet.

The New Zealand String Quartet has been the musical anchor of the festival from the beginning in 1992, and they gave many performances on their own and shared the stage, individually and as a whole, with many of the other performers including, most importantly, the Ying Quartet.

From Wellington to Nelson
We took the long road to Nelson as we’ve often done before: across the Strait in magnificent weather from that foreign country, the North Island, leaving the stark, dry, Brent Wong hills of Cape Terawhiti, to reach the dramatic, green and delightful Marlborough Sounds. Coffee at Blenheim’s well-preserved railway station, overnight at Kaikoura with the looming, jagged Seaward Kaikouras to westward, then inland by the Leaders Road to Waiau and Hanmer Springs, which becomes more Swiss alpine with every passing year.

I never tire of the Lewis Pass, first cycled in my teens over unsealed roads, memories still clear, of heat, very rare traffic, dips in the rivers, and the arrival of sandflies with the beech forests around the pass.

It’s a long, still largely uninhabited drive, through 33 degree Murchison, to Nelson, spotting traces of the sadly aborted Railway, victim of faint hearts, north from Gowan Bridge.

Our favourite back-packer’s awaited us in Nelson – we’ve stayed there for more than ten years; mainly young, foreign visitors, German, French, Dutch, occasional Swedish, Japanese, Italian and Spanish, generally much younger than us: intelligent, well-read, liberal – even radical, with refreshing, unclouded views about New Zealand. After coming back late evening from a concert, there’s still time to fix the world.

Ah, yes – the concerts.

Changes in 2015
There are still opinions about the benefits of having compressed the former 17-day festival into 10 days, which was a change at the 2013 festival. It somewhat reduces flexibility for excursions like to Golden Bay, but you can get more music in a shorter time.

The big change at the 2015 festival is the sad closure for strengthening of the Nelson School of Music (whose example of the European pattern of music conservatories in every town failed to take root here) and its replacement by St John’s church on Hardy Street. At least, the church was designed by the same architect as the School of Music, and the sound is lovely.

We were assured by Bob Bickerton that the strengthening and improvements to the school of music would be complete for the next festival in 2017: improvements will include air conditioning and better facilities for the audience and performers.

Friday 30 January  

The Grand Opening Concert, however, was as usual in the Cathedral. They wheel in some of the festival’s main performers: the New Zealand String Quartet of course, whose initiative the festival was back in 1992, the New York-based Ying Quartet, clarinettist David Griffiths and harpist Helen Webby. Greater variety of music and means would be hard to devise, no doubt opening ears for many in the
audience. As ethnically mixed as our hostel: French, Russian-Jewish-Argentinian, Hungarian, German and New Zealand. The only ‘main-stream’ piece was one of Schumann’s rather neglected, but highly rewarding, Quartets (in F).

For most, there was no familiar piece, yet the audience seemed delighted: at the beguiling opening section of the violin and harp Fantaisie by Saint-Säens (played by Ying Quartet first violinist Ayano Ninomiya and harpist Helen Webby); then a sonic adventure in Florence by Hamilton composer, Martin Lodge, played by the cellists from the two string quartets, one the observer, the other the manifold sounds of the city and its people.

The New Zealand String Quartet and David Griffiths played a three movement piece by Osvaldo Golijov whose opera, Ainadamar, on Garcia Lorca astonished last year’s New Zealand Festival in Wellington. Based on writing by an early Jewish rabbi, The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind mixed hypnotic Klezmer rhythms with the outlandish sounds that came from Griffiths’ five clarinets (hardly knew there were so many models), and he followed with a brief solo clarinet piece by Béla Kovács.

The main course in the second half was the little-known Schumann quartet, in F major, Op 41 No 2, played by the Ying Quartet. A highly persuasive performance, revealing a beautiful slow movement and highly inventive Scherzo.

I bought the Ying’s CD of the three Schumann quartets.  What greater endorsement could there be? 

Saturday 31 January 

It rained lightly overnight and was a bit cooler. A late start? But the temptation of hearing Gillian Ansell talking with Kathryn Stott at 10 am abbreviated breakfast rituals. It was in St John’s church.

Kathryn Stott
She proved a thoroughly unpretentious virtuoso star, born in a town called Nelson in Lancashire of working class parents with musical interests if not great accomplishment; but enough to detect and encourage piano learning aged five which led at eight to her applying for and being accepted in the Menuhin school. Though her first years were productive and contented, by her teens she had fallen into the hands of an unsympathetic teacher, chronically embittered in Kathryn’s opinion, and she left to enter the Royal College of Music. Things went well there, encountering both Nadia Boulanger and Vlado Perlumuter who gave her deep sensibility into French music. She did not disgrace herself when, perhaps prematurely, she entered the Leeds Piano Competition; it led to an agent and sudden demands for a much bigger repertoire than she commanded. Her career seemed to be spinning out of control and before long she withdrew entirely.

But after picking herself up, she had an unusual and fruitful encounter with Yo Yo Ma and success came quickly; finally, at the peak of her career, she finds herself in a Nelson on the other side of the world.  A real insight into her talent and naturalness, and determination to hear everything she will play here.

Lines from the Nile
After lunch, a small musico-dramatic show took place in the church hall. A piece called Lines from the Nile, recreating a musical soiree in colonial Nelson, in a hall such as we inhabited. Soprano Rowena Simpson graduated from Victoria University before heading for the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague to study early music practice. That was more than 15 years ago.

Back in Wellington she puts her training to excellent use; this time, in a satirical piece that purported to celebrate Queen Victoria’s wedding with Prince Albert: soprano Mrs Garratt with her compliant accompanist, Mr Hammersmith (Douglas Mews). A text by Jacqueline Coats, who also directed, it uses music by Haydn, who had been appropriated by the English – the couple performed, with hilarious histrionic flair, jingoistic piety, several pieces with an English connection, glorying in British naval supremacy, expurgated references to Nelson and Lady Hamilton, his naval victories at the Nile and Trafalgar, and the glories of Empire.

Quintessence = quintets
The daily swim at Tahunanui was fitted in before the evening concert, again in the Cathedral, entitled Quintessence, a careful distortion to mean music for five. The quintets were delightful rarities: the first, Beethoven’s own arrangement of his Piano Trio, Op 1 No 3, which utterly removed any sense of its origin through the use of a second violin and two violas. Joining NZ String Quartet players were the Ying’s leader, Ayano Ninomiya and violist, Phillip Ying. Emphatically, it deserves to be ranked equal with the original.

The second was Bruckner’s little known quintet, again employing two violas (this time, Ying players Janet Ying – violin and again Phillip). Bruckner is a bit of an acquired taste: I have acquired it chronically and incurably, though it’s a long time since I aired my recordings of this quintet. The Scherzo is entertaining and the Adagio rather beguiling, though undoubtedly needing two or three hearings for it to take root.

Along with those two biggies, Helen Webby returned with her harp (and charming comments about its origin) to play a piece written for her by Pepe Becker, better known as a fine early music soprano, and then a gorgeous performance with Helene Pohl of the famous Meditation from Thaïs.

Sunday 1 February

It had rained overnight and there was still rain in the air on Sunday morning. I woke at 9am but before I could have breakfast I went to the ‘Conversation’ this time between Helene Pohl and members of the Ying Quartet.

Helene Pohl talks with the Ying Quartet
Helene got them talking about their family and how each became musicians. They were a Chicago family, father a doctor, I inferred, clearly well off, who might have wished them to have pursued a more serious profession, but was supportive of their choices. At first there were four Yings in the quartet but the first violin left about five years ago, and they described the difficult process of finding a substitute; Ayano Ninomiya was the result, with whom the Yings are clearly very happy.

The two men, Phillip and David Ying, tended to talk most and were very articulate, told amusing anecdotes, particularly about their time under a National Endowment for the Arts scheme (the United States equivalent of an arts council) in a very small town in Iowa. It lasted for two years after which the NEA decided to divert the funding to an entirely different purpose. There was clear implied criticism of the ridiculously small federal budget for the arts.

It was an illuminating view into the richness of the US musical world, but also of its relative financial poverty in relation to the size of the country and its enormous wealth and ability to spend hugely on the military and related activities.

Kathryn Stott solo piano and in piano quartet
The 1pm concert at St John’s began with two New Zealand piano pieces played by Kathryn Stott: Waiting for the Aeroplane and Dance Fury by Gao Ping. It was good to hear the early Psathas played by such a gifted pianist who could plumb the emotional qualities that the music touches. Dance Fury was an extraordinary piece of ferocious virtuosity, which she played with tremendous energy and apparent enthusiasm.

The main item was Dvorak’s Piano Quartet in E flat. I had misgivings about it, as it was generally stronger in intensity, dynamic extremes, percussiveness than in delicacy and emotional sensitivity. I’m sure it would have benefitted from longer and less pressured rehearsal. However, this extrovert and flamboyant performance brought a standing ovation.

Conspicuous in the line-up which included Stott with violist Gillian Ansell and cellist David Ying was the second violinist from the New Zealand String Quartet: not Douglas Beilman, but Donald Armstrong who took his place following an injury to Beilman’s arm. Donald Armstrong is associate concertmaster of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; he was also on hand in the Shostakovich piano quintet in the
evening concert, mentioned below.

Kathryn Stott and Brahms, Beethoven and Shostakovich
At 7.30pm, also at St John’s, Kathryn Stott was again in the limelight. With Gillian Ansell, she accompanied mezzo Hannah Fraser in two Brahms songs, from Op 91: Gestille Sehnsucht and Geistliches Wiegenlied.  They were absolutely beautiful, revealing a voice (she is one of The Song Company) that sounded a perfect fit with Brahms in a characteristic deeply emotional mood. It was mellow and gentle but of wonderful richness and probably one of the finest mezzos in Australasia.

There followed Beethoven’s Piano Trio in C minor, Op 1 No 3 which we heard in its quintet version the day before. It was not just that the string version sounded so perfectly adapted to that medium, as if conceived primarily for it, but for all Stott’s skill and temperament and interpretative powers, there was a sense of not being entirely at ease with each other. I sensed a feeling, mainly on the part of the violin and cello (Helene Pohl and David Ying), that they needed to match each other as well as to balance the vigour of the pianist. But then again, it was a fairly radical piece in its day – the one that Haydn was a bit cool towards.

The first half ended with Three Rags by John Novacek, played by the Ying Quartet. They took the Scott Joplin style of rag to extremes, and especially with the first, The Atlantic Side-step, that the plain sound of the string quartet was so foreign to the style that it really didn’t work. In the slow second piece, The Drifter, the strings did not seem such a bad fit, though the effect for me was still unconvincing. The last piece, Intoxication, was an exercise in pure frenzy and rhythmic and tonal excess, probably capturing a particularly agile and energetic drunk, but far too extreme to call for a second hearing.

In the second half Lilburn’s Inscapes II of 1972 was played over the sound system, confirming even more positively the strange obsession that Lilburn was prey to after about 1960, trying to turn himself into an avant-garde composer with equipment that has become so dated and so lifeless so quickly, though it’s true that musique concrete continues to attract some young composers – and to be employed by a very few more mature ones content to occupy a tiny niche position in music. For me these pieces are simply failed, if worthy, experiments which are dusted off occasionally in obeisance to the near-god-like stature that Lilburn has in New Zealand.

Then, without pause, Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet began: Stott and the New Zealand String Quartet with Donald Armstrong in Doug Beilman’s place. There was no hint in the ensemble that Armstrong had not been a long-standing member of the quartet.

It’s a long time since I heard this played and though I had clear recollections of only the Scherzo and parts of the Fugue and the Finale, its impact was powerful, and its depth of feeling undeniable, ploughing ground similar to that of the Piano Trio and the Eighth Quartet, and this was a performance that understood what Shostakovich faced in 1940 after the worst of the Terror had passed, but as Stalin bought time (to put the best gloss on it) with a strategic alliance with Nazi Germany, aware that war was inevitable.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *