Wellington Youth Orchestra under Hamish McKeich with winning Brahms and Rachmaninov

Wellington Youth Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich

Brahms: Variations on the Theme by Joseph Haydn (St Anthony Variations), Op 56a
Rachmaninov: Symphony No 2 in E minor, Op 27

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart

Friday 29 May, 6:30 pm

One might as well begin by quoting the information about the provenance of the theme of the Brahms variations that is offered in Wikipedia:

“In 1870, Brahms’s friend Carl Ferdinand Pohl, the librarian of the Vienna Philharmonic Society, who was working on a Haydn biography at the time, showed Brahms a transcription he had made of a piece attributed to Haydn titled Divertimento No. 1. The second movement bore the heading “St. Anthony Chorale,” and it is this movement which, in its entirety, forms the theme on which the variations are based. Brahms’s statement of the theme varies in small but significant ways from the original, principally with regard to instrumentation. Some sources state the Divertimento was probably written by Ignaz Pleyel, but this has not been definitely established. A further question is whether the composer of the divertimento actually wrote the “St. Anthony Chorale” or simply quoted an older theme taken from an unknown source. To date, no other mention of a “St. Anthony Chorale” has been found.”

Whatever its origins, Brahms rightly spotted it as a splendid basis for a set of variations, first for two pianos, which he then orchestrated. It was virtually the first full-scale set of orchestral variations, separate from those that often formed the substance of a symphonic movement.

I have often commented on the challenge presented by the Basilica’s acoustic for orchestral performances, at once very clear, likely to expose the slightest blemish, and at the same time liable to amplify bass sounds – timpani and basses in a sometimes uncomfortable way. And while I’m at it, it will not be considered unduly harsh to observe that, naturally, a youth orchestra can never be expected to produce perfection: minor imperfections were a bit conspicuous here and there.

For example there was some imbalance between woodwind instruments which occasionally made middle parts louder than the melody line.

However, the orchestra, under the vivid and energizing direction of Hamish McKeich, captured the spirit and grandeur of the work, in all the colours that Brahms used to create a set variations that maintained steady interest; the studious exposition of the big tune, set the scene splendidly. Strings, even though violas were few in number, provided a good foundation in the first variation; woodwinds were attractive in Variation II, in fact, the piece as a whole provides a great deal of rewarding activity for the winds which met the challenges very well. (It’s fair to note of course, that some of the fine wind playing was due to a bit of support from professional players).

I enjoyed the accurate staccato liveliness of the fifth variation, and then the driving dance rhythms of the sixth. In the lovely Grazioso variation, horns and strings sounded particularly happy.

However, the Rachmaninov symphony was probably the main attraction, and indeed this was a performance that, even though I am used to being surprised at the opulence and energy of performances by young orchestras, thoroughly delighted me. Right from the ominous opening on low strings, thanks to the muscular support by the five double basses, and a pretty fair evocation of the gorgeous wind chords, the music gathered itself up with the sense of ever-expanding momentum, endless variety in the handling of the various themes. Both the build-up to and the descent from the big climax in the middle was an emotional winner. Though about 20 minutes long, the first movement just doesn’t ever need to end, and this was my feeling here.

The Scherzo always seems rather a descent from the endless enchantment of the first movement, but the energy of this dynamic performance rapidly took possession. Sure, there are delicate refinements in the piece that were not perfectly caught, but the spirit was sustained. The third movement lasts about 15 minutes, capturing the audience at once with something more akin to the first movement, the gorgeous string melody followed by long and beautifully played clarinet and bassoon (in a high register) solos – then duet. McKeich again created wonderful ecstatic episodes that seemed to prepare for the close, only to bring the music back for renewed experiences.

The last movement, again, offers yet more variety of emotional explorations, and they were beautifully paced, interspersed with exclamatory passages, strongly and accurately created, finally providing the audience with a succession of phantom perorations, as the Finale weaves its long path to the end.

I assume there was a reasonable amount of publicity for this concert as the cathedral was well filled. I heard about it through an email only a day before: I’m very glad I did.


A new Baroque ensemble on a cold evening at Wesley Church, Taranaki Street, musical strengths, but…

Camerata: Haydn in the Church

Handel: Concerto Grosso, Op.6 no.9
Alessandro Marcello: Oboe concerto in D minor
Haydn:. Symphony no.1

Camerata, led by Anne Loeser, with Peter Dykes (oboe)

Wesley Church, Taranaki Street

Thursday, 28 May 2015, 5.45pm

Camerata is a new, small chamber orchestra.  Anne Loeser is a violinist in the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, where Peter Dykes also plays.  For the first item, the group consisted of four violins, viola, cello and double bass; only the latter two instruments were played by males (not counting Peter Dykes).

Its programme was attractive, but the hour-long concert did not attract any more than a small audience.  Other negatives were the lack of a printed programme, and above all, the fact that the church was not heated.  On a cold winter’s night, that made the experience much less enjoyable than it should have been.  I was tempted to leave between items on this account alone; my feet, neck and hands were very cold, despite a woolly jumper and a thick coat.

The Handel concerto grosso is a most appealing work.  I did not hear all the introductory comments from the lectern, although there seemed to be some connection with the composer’s organ concerto that is usually given the subtitle ‘The Cuckoo and the Nightingale’.  Perhaps it was too cold a night for these birds; I was not aware of them.  Wikipedia says “The second and third movements are reworkings of the first two movements Handel’s organ concerto in F major, HWV 295, often referred to as “The cuckoo and the nightingale”, because of the imitation of birdsong.

The playing was fine, and idiomatically baroque.  The contrasts between the movements was delightful.  The fast final movement was not quite as accurate as the earlier ones.

Next, oboist Peter Dykes entered, to play Marcello’s oboe concerto – the one commandeered by Bach for a harpsichord concerto (no.3).  This was splendid oboe playing, with appropriate ornamentation according to the practice of the Baroque period.  Marcello was roughly contemporaneous with J.S. Bach.  The adagio slow movement is particularly beautiful.

After its solemnity comes the delightful third movement, presto.  Again, lots of flourishes ornamented the movement gloriously.  The piece is not easy; it is pitched high in the oboe register throughout.

Then came the Haydn in the Church: his Symphony no.1.  Now two horn players were added to the chamber orchestra.  I could hazard a guess at their names, but as one was hidden behind the viola player, I couldn’t be sure.

This is a very bright and enchanting work.  The oboe and horns play in the first and third movements but not in the andante second movement.  The whole was played gracefully with a splendid variety of dynamics. In the second movement for strings alone, I couldn’t help remembering the Baroque Players of old, founded and directed by Peter Walls – a former Wellington-based chamber orchestra.

Intonation was not always perfect, particularly in this movement.  I wondered if the players’ fingers were cold.

The presto finale had the winds back in fine fettle. Altogether, this was a series of creditable performances.  More credit would have accrued if the church had been heated.


The strings of the School of Music take turn with wonderful Bach programme for St Andrew’s

New Zealand School of Music Showcase Week at St Andrew’s

The string players in an all-Bach programme

Violin sonata No 1 in G minor, BWV 1001 – Adagio played by Katie-Lee Taylor
           Fugue played by Matt Cook
Cello suite No 2 in D minor, BWV 1008 – Prelude played by Olivia Wilding
Violin Partita No 3 in E, BWV 1006, Loure and Gavotte en rondeau – played by Grace Stainthorpe
Brandenburg Concerto No 3 in G, BWV 1048 played by the above students plus 15 others

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Thursday 28 May, 12:15 pm

This was the last of the four concerts devoted to student players from the university School of Music.  Perhaps in future years we’ll also have concerts from woodwind and brass players, and singers, even organists and harpsichordists and percussionists; but these four have shown that it’s possible to attract good audiences more than just once a week. The limitation is no doubt the level of energy that the unpaid concert manager Marjan van Waardenberg can call up, and the availability of the church. (And it also should be pointed out that all musicians perform unpaid at the lunchtime concerts).

The first half hour of the concert was taken up with individual violinists and a cellist playing movements from Bach’s unaccompanied suites and sonatas.

Violinists Katie-Lee Taylor and Matt Cook began playing, in turn, the first two movements, Adagio
and Fugue, from the first violin sonata, in G minor. It was an admirable performance of the Adagio, with all the signs of careful tutorial guidance and music intuition on Taylor’s part, scrupulous attention to dynamics and the shaping or ornaments. There was interesting variety of tone and an organic feeling of life as if the music was breathing.

While she had played with the score before her, Matt Cook played from memory and paid a small price for that in the middle of what is certainly a difficult and complex fugue; so his courage and demeanour were to be admired in his recovery and persistence, though the experience somewhat affected the freedom and elasticity of his playing for a little while. The audience applauded him warmly.

Another minor key piece was the choice of Olivia Wilding – the Prelude from the second cello suite in D minor. Her handling of the bow created a lovely tone, mellow (at one point I craned my head to see whether she had put a mute on) and varied in dynamics, and she allowed herself attractive freedom in her tempi. She used a score.

Grace Stainthorpe ended the solo section of the concert with the Loure and the most popular movement from the violin sonatas and suites, the Gavotte en rondeau, from the third partita. Bravely, she dispensed with the score, with only a minor glitch during the Gavotte. Her playing was careful, and like the others, showed fastidious attention to its phrasing and rhythms, though I thought she might have exploited her opportunities for emphatic bowing occasionally.

There was a lot of stage rearrangement to accommodate the full ensemble – the five cellos (though six were named in the programme) arrayed at the front while violins flanked the violas in the middle of the back row.

While a couple of programmes in this series taxed their audiences (and themselves) by playing unfamiliar music, the strings made no apologies for playing great music, most of which was pretty well known by the average lunchtime-concert-goer. Few works are more loved than the Brandenburg concertos, and No 3 might well be at the top. The music might have almost played itself, but there was no missing the special affection that the players managed to convey in their buoyant, spirited performance. Professor Donald Maurice conducted and he introduced the concerto briefly to draw attention to the Calvinist environment of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen where Bach composed this and much other instrumental music. There was no choir or organ, but a musical Prince who valued Bach who wrote little other than instrumental music for the court.

Maurice noted that the non-existent middle, slow movement was to be supplied by a cadenza played by the orchestra leader, Laura Barton and it was indeed a chance for another excellent solo presentation, involving a splendid crescendo.  Much of the liveliness and warmth of the performance was inspired by Maurice’s expansive, richly expressive conducting, with plenty of cues; whether it did or not for the players, it contributed a fine visual element that the audience enjoyed, and applauded enthusiastically.


Revival of Victoria Voices for all-comers a welcome return

New Zealand School of Music Te Koki

Music by Mozart, Fauré, Seiber, Hatfield, Krommer, Saint-Saëns

Victoria Voices, conducted by Robert Legg; chamber music ensembles

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University of Wellington

Wednesday, 27 May 2015, 7.30pm

The varied programme was presented to a modest-sized audience.

Victoria Voices  was promoted as a new ensemble, but in a sense it is a revival; the School of Music has had choirs before, but not for a number of years.  Of course, the students in it were probably not in its predecessors. There are approx. 50 singers in this all-comers choir of students and staff from various faculties of the university (previous incarnations were auditioned).

Conductor Robert Legg spoke to the audience, but it was a pity he didn’t tell us a little about the less familiar composer: Stephen Hatfield (19156-). Wikipedia tells me that he is a Canadian choral composer and conductor.  His website contains many plaudits.

Legg was very much in charge of the choir, and drew from its members a very pleasing tone, excellent Latin pronunciation in Mozart’s well-known and well-loved Ave Verum Corpus (K.618), together with a most musical performance.  He needs to be aware that too much physical movement from the conductor is distracting for audiences, particularly bending at the knees frequently.  The piano accompaniment from Chelsea Whitfield could have been a little softer.

Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine (Op.11) was written when the composer was only 19 years old.  It is a very lovely piece, and delightful to sing.  Here, particularly, the dynamics were well managed, with good attention to detail, but there is yet insufficient blend.

Mátyás Seiber’s  Three Hungarian Folk Songs, the first of which is repeated after the second song, were sung in English, which enabled the audience to understand the humorous words.  These songs, plus the following item, were sung unaccompanied.  There was good attack and articulation in the Seiber, in both words and notes.  The choir obviously has learned the music well, and sang in an appropriately spirited manner.  Here again, the tone was engaging, and now the blend was better.

The Hatfield piece, Living in a Holy City, began in unison – this is often dangerous territory, but the choir managed it well.  This quite complex music was written in multiple parts as the piece
moved on.

Although there were breaks in the programme, there was no interval; this was rather too long a concert to leave the audience sitting without an opportunity to stretch the legs!

Promoted as the launch concert of Victoria Voices, it nevertheless seemed to me that the chamber music content was rather larger than the choral.

The first chamber music item was actually two: Oboe Quartets by Franz Krommer (1759-1831).  I did not completely hear the spoken introduction, but heard that there were four movements; it appeared that there were four movements in total, so perhaps not all of each quartet was played.  The first began as quite straightforward music; the oboe playing was very fine and the violin good, but not always on the spot intonation-wise.  The lower parts seemed relatively easy to play. There was an attractive tone from all players.  A movement in a minor key was played very expressively, and playing passages with detached notes was done with considerable delicacy.

The final quick movement was very will articulated.  This was playing of a high standard, of music that was not the most complicated, but there were tricky passages.  Annabel Lovatt (oboe), Grace Stainthorpe (violin), Craig Drummond-Nairn (viola) and Elena Morgan (cello) performed with considerable accomplishment.

France was to the fore in the rest of the programme, firstly with Nicole Ting (piano), Matthew Cook (violin) and Lavinnia Rae (cello) playing two movements of Piano Trio no.2, Op.92 of Saint-Saëns
(Fauré’s teacher).

In the opening section the piano-playing was far too blurred (i.e. too much pedal), and had neither enough clarity nor sufficient volume to match with the other instruments.  The strings were strong and confident, with good dynamic range; the players had the feel of the work.  The piano came into its own in later loud passages, and then the players really became a trio.  Themes were treated in subtle fashion.

The second movement featured a gorgeous opening theme from the violin, followed by the piano.  Later, the cello took it up sonorously.  There was much fast finger-work for the piano, with very quiet pizzicato accompaniment from the strings.  The movement had plenty of variety, rhythmically as well as melodically.

Now to the pupil: Fauré’s Nocturne and En Prière for violin (Laura Barton) and harp (Michelle Velvin).  What could be more French than the harp?   Michelle wore a short dress, and thus the audience could see her feet changing the pedals.  It was a slow piece but both performers played it very well.

The second piece, like the first, required a lot of independence in the parts; both players produced gorgeous tone.

The Saint-Saëns Fantaisie for violin and harp was understated, but full of meditative gestures, and some drama as well. The two young women (in red dresses, as against the dull black of the other instrumentalists) are both fine musicians.  There was lots of double-stopping for the violin and glissandi for the harp.  It was quite a long work, and seemed to me to run out of inspiration.  However, the playing revealed great rapport between the musicians, and they did the piece proud.

Music of all kinds is in good heart at the School of Music, as this week’s numbers of concerts reveals.


Ensembled delights from the NZSM Saxophones at St.Andrew’s

St.Andrews Lunchtime Concert Series 2015
Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music Saxophone Orchestra

The players:
Ryan Hall, Reuben Chin (soprano sax)
Genevieve Davidson, Laura Brown (alto sax)
Giles Reid, Elizabeth Hocking, Nick Walshe (tenor sax)
Graham Hanify, Kim Hunter, Simon Brew (Baritone sax)
Director – Debbie Rawson

The music:

ASTOR PIAZZOLLA – Tango Suite for Saxophone Quartet
ROGER MAY – Sax Circus for Saxophone Orchestra
PHILIP BUTTALL – Eclogue for Saxophone Orchestra
ANTONIN DVORAK (arr. Doug. O’Connor)

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

 Wednesday 27th May 2015

There’s more “classical” music written for the saxophone than you might think exists – after all the instrument has been around since 1846, and as such is more “established ” than its twentieth-century prominence in jazz might suggest. Still, there remains an “exoticism” about the instrurment’s particular sound for classically-attuned ears such as mine(!), and one which I find particularly exciting whenever I hear it, be it solo, in a chamber ensemble or in an orchestral context.

So, I found myself looking forward to the NZ School of Music’s Saxophone Orchestra presentation at St.Andrew’s. I wasn’t REALLY expecting to hear my favourite pieces for the instrument, Eric Coates’s Saxo-Rhapsody, and the opening movement of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, with its haunting middle  section “owned” by the instrument – both, after all, have orchestral accompaniment. But I was hoping for something comparably luscious, albeit on a smaller scale.

The concert began with Astor Piazzolla’s Tango Suite, played by a sax quartet, two movements of Latin “soul”, at the outset with lovely, distinctive timbres, particularly the lower echelons – a gentle melancholy, wistful in character, the music embroiled in what sounded like some private emotion. The players balanced everything beautifully, allowing the middle voices their easeful, engaging trajectories, the phrasings never having to be forced or over-cooked to make the music’s point.

Though hearing Debbie Rawson’s spoken introductions  was a difficulty in the venue with a microphone that was a “sometimes thing”, I did register the programmme rearrangement from what was printed – so that we got Roger May’s madcap Sax Circus next, three additional players appearing like Cheshire Cats for the performance, and immediately making their mark with a kind of jolly circus opening to the music.

Enormous fun was generated on both sides of the performer/listener divide, poking huge holes in the gauze through which the sounds galloped and romped and our appreciation (I’m sure) registered. Our popcorn was forgotten as we were regaled by a baritone sax kick-starting a rumbustious gallop, which divertingly morphed into subsidiary episodes, as far-removed as elephantine ploddings, but returned us to the energies of the opening by the end.

Philip Buttall’s Eclogue restored our sonic equilibriums with the piece’s patiently-unfolding, almost ceremonial tapestries of sound, giving the soprano sax the melody atop beautifully-balanced osmotic harmonies. Then it was the alto saxes’ turn with the tune, as the sopranos counterpointed with high-wire variants – all very beautiful and deeply-felt.

To conclude the programme came an arrangement of the Dvorak Serenade for Winds, the work of somebody called Doug O’Connor – and even more players turned up for this item! So it was a very merry company indeed, which began the work, led by Debbie Rawson, the opening Tempo di Marcia barely able to contain itself in the excitement of the occasion. Amid all the thrusting energies I did feel it all needed a bit more “Moderato”, as something of the music’s bucolic swagger was sacrificed at such an insistent tempo. With the movement’s coda came the breadth that I was hanging out for, a glow settling over the playing, the musicians given the elbow-room to voice their phrases beautifully, right to the end.

The following Minuetto had all the grace and charm necessary for the music to bloom, the ensemble creating some lovely colours, and beautifully droll accompaniments, readily evoking the dance – but wow! – at what a lick the music’s “trio” section was taken! – hats off to the players for managing their notes without falling off the musical tightrope! Exciting, but for me just a bit of a blur, more breathless than truly exhilarating – to my mind relying a little too much on sheer speed rather than rhythmic “pointing” to be truly delicious!

This arrangement having omitted the original work’s Andante con moto movement, the players went straight into the Allegro molto finale – here most thankfully not rushed off its feet, but at a tempo that gave the players time to articulate their phrases with a sense of fun, rather than sheer desperation – the main tune was jolly and rumbustiously delivered, and the “gurgling” accompaniments were a delight! I was reminded of the story I heard of a wind player’s remark about playing Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe, that “you just waggle your fingers and hope for the best!”. But these young players seemed to have no such fears, so exuberant and whole-hearted were their own finger-wagglings!

Dvorak’s marvellous finale has as well, of course, a delicious accelerando passage, a quasi-pompous return to the work’s opening, and an exciting coda, complete with stirring fanfares, all of which were delivered with great élan. So, it was pretty wonderful stuff from the ensemble, the student musicians having obviously, from this showing, been expertly schooled, and thus made ready to take their instruments and make a great and pleasing noise in the world.












NZSM Piano Students impress at St.Andrew’s

St.Andrews Lunchtime Concert Series 2015
Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music Piano Students

Joy Sun – BEETHOVEN : Piano Sonata No.18 in E-flat Op.31 No.3 (Ist Mvt.)

Choong Park – RACHMANINOV – Piano Sonata No.2  (Ist.Mvt.)

Hana Kim – SCHUBERT – Impromptu Op.90 No.2 in E-flat

Nicole Ting – BEETHOVEN – Piano Sonata No.30 in E Op.109 (Mvts. I and II)
CHOPIN – Scherzo No.2 Op.31

Xing Wang – DEBUSSY – Children’s Corner (Suite)

(NZSM Piano tutor: Jian Liu)

St Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Tuesday 26th May 2015

What a pianistic feast this was! – more appropriately so for a lunchtime concert, with nothing given us that was too large-scale or difficult to digest easily. Which is not to suggest that the repertoire chosen by the students was anything less than challenging, both technically and interpretatively.

Each of the performers impressed with their intense involvement in the music-making – I felt they all to a creditable extent made music from “inside” their particular pieces, and conveyed a sense both of enjoyment of detail and awareness of the music’s overall “reach”, allowing each quality to readily speak.In every instance the music’s “character” was to some degree conveyed most readily.

I was unaccountably hampered during the concert by not having a pen that worked, and was thus unable to make notes as “reminders” for later – my apologies if my remarks seem not as detailed as is usually the case. Fortunately each of the students had a distinct “way” with his or her playing, which I found helpful as well as refreshing and exciting.

Joy Sun began the concert with a sympathetic and sensitive reading of the first movement of Beethoven’s Op.18 E-flat Sonata. She shaped the music beautifully, giving the impression of “going with” the work’s explorations as much as driving the music’s course herself – nothing was unduly forced, and her aspect at the keyboard was fluid and organic.

I was similarly impressed with her shaping of Liszt’s equally loved-as-maligned transcription of Schumann’s song “Widmung”, stressing the poetry and lyricism ahead of the music’s more obviously virtuoso aspects, especially in the latter stages. Her building up towards the “grand manner” from the central episode’s gentleness was nicely managed, as was the work’s quietly-ecstatic conclusion.

More poetry, this time of a brooding, Slavic kind came from the expert fingers of Choong Park, playing the opening allegro agitato from Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Sonata. It all came to life in this performance most vividly, from the opening downward plunge, through the gentler D Major episodes, before building up to the tremendous evocations of churchbells that were a trademark of the composer. Choong Park seemed completely at home in the work’s textures, and his patient unfolding of the music suited the piece’s improvisatory aspect, allowing it to unfold as night follows day.

A welcome antidote to such intensities was provided by the sparking, rippling performance by Hana Kim of Schubert’s delectable Impromptu Op.90 No.2 in E-flat. One or two tiny hesitations apart, the pianist kept the “spin” of the piece going most beguilingly throughout. She allowed the more declamatory “trio” section enough heft and space to point the contrasts before gliding, gossamer-like back into the reprise of the diaphanously-woven opening.

As with the recital’s first two items, the contrast with the next pianist and repertoire (Beethoven’s Op.109) was almost palpable. Nicole Ting was a “big” player with grandly-conceived gestures, some of which provided thrills and spills of an almost palpable order, though nothing unremarkable in the context of the pianist requiring the music to achieve its fantastic, virtuoso character. What inaccuracies and breakdowns there were in her playing could have been attributed to nerves as much as a “throwing caution to the winds” aspect (which I really enjoyed), and certainly didn’t conceal the fact that she “knew” how the music ought to go, even if she occasionally snatched at phrases in the Op.109’s second movement. I relished the wholeheartedness of her playing amid all of the thrills and spills.

And the Chopin Scherzo which followed was a tour de force – here was a young player already “tagging” these classic pieces of music as if wanting to create a brave new world of her own. Once more I felt invigorated by her approach, being put in touch by her with the piece’s originality and power and inherent danger. Of course, one can achieve these things with a lower attrition rate than here, and I would hope she would be able to eventually achieve even more “finish” in her presentations – though ideally, not at the expense of those qualities which enable the listener to sit up and take notice of what the music is actually trying to say.

Finally, fluent, and sparking playing of a high order was given us by Xing Wang, with Debussy’s delectable “Children’s Corner” Suite. Apart from a tendency to rush the music in places (she made, for me, a little too much of the “mechanus” aspect of “Dr.Gradus ad Parnassum” and could have entrusted the effect more to the tongue-in-cheek aspect of the music’s natural “spin”, rather than to speed) she evoked these childhood vignettes with real feeling,  dreaming sweet dreams with Jimbo, for example, and also dancing exuberantly with the snowflakes.

Again, I thought Golliwog’s Cakewalk a bit too mechanical – there’s a delicious drollery to be found in these rhythms which she will one day take the risk and put her trust in, and not perhaps feel the need to crank the piece along quite so much, which includes more playfulness in the piece’s ending.

Piano tutor Jian Liu expressed his pleasure to me at the recital’s end in working with these students – he was obviously proud of what they’d achieved, and of what they’d be able to go on and do, just as surely. The students’ enjoyment of and imaginative individual approach to what they played, was, I thought, a great and nicely-realised tribute to his tutorship and own example.





Guitar students deliver impressive performances in spite of relative inexperience in tough field

New Zealand School of Music Showcase Week at St Andrew’s

NZSM Classical Guitar Ensemble (Joel Baldwin, Toby Chadwick, Jake Church, Amber Madriaga, Lucinda Ng, Emma Sandford, Royden Smith, Dylan Solomon, George Wills)
and the NZSM Classical Guitar Quartet (Church, Smith, Solomon, Wills)

Music by Tylman Susato, Andrew York, Piazzolla and Jürg Kindle (the Ensemble); and Bizet and Boccherini (the Quartet)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Monday 25 May, 12:15 pm

The first of the four programmes arranged by the enterprising manager of the St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts, Marjan van Waardenberg, with the New Zealand School of Music in an effort to draw more particular attention to the school’s contribution to Wellington, downtown.

As was to be expected, the audience was somewhat smaller than that for the usual Wednesday concerts, but it was by no means an embarrassment. Guitars, though still not quite classical mainstream, have a strong appeal, especially when they play music that has survived in the repertoire for a century or so, including much music of the Hispanic world that seems to invite transcription ‘back’ for the instrument that probably inspired its creation: Albeniz, Falla, Barrios, Villa-Lobos, Tarrega, Brouwer…

This programme really offered none of that, apart from a transcription of Piazzolla’s Primavera Porteña. It opened with a set of three Renaissance dances by Tylman (Tielman) Susato who lived from around 1515 to 1570. (So this might be around his 500th birthday). He was a calligrapher and printer in Antwerp, the first in the Netherlands to use moveable type for printing music. Antwerp was a leading centre of printing in the first century after its invention by Gutenberg. (Last year I spent a fascinating three or four hours in the Plantin-Moretus Museum of printing in Antwerp).

Susato was also a composer of motets and masses as well as chansons and dances, either arranged or original tunes. Here we had dances: a Pavane, Gaillard and Ronde. Their arrangement left the Pavane in what I felt was a somewhat ponderous state, though dynamics were carefully and enjoyably studied; the triple time Gaillard and the more lively Ronde, felt better adapted for dancing.

Andrew York’s two pieces were quietly interesting, the first, Pop, starting with chords that hinted at Theodorakis’s sirtaki, or hasapiko, from Zorba the Greek, but soon went its own way. Brajamazil had a comparably quiet pulse, that used the eight-part ensemble in two parts, one providing a repeated riff, under a tune that varied somewhat; all played with the same care for ensemble as the set of Susato dances. It may have been the acoustic, but I missed something of a resonant bass that might have underlain the rather uniform quality of the whole ensemble.

Piazzolla’s Primavera Porteña (originally for bandoneon, violin and guitar I suppose) is an attractive and fairly well-known piece, partly in triple time, but often rhythmically obscure (to me), which the ensemble played skilfully. Finally, a couple of pieces by a composer I had not heard of, Jürg Kindle, entitled Funky and Techno, which Jane Curry suggested (if I heard correctly) represented a style of music that had only brief vogue. Funky needed precision, solid rhythm as well as a certain freedom; it was rather a work in progress.

Techno perhaps suffered from the limitations of what it was imitating, but the attempt to invest it with a little sophistication left it somewhat morbid.

The large ensemble was then replaced by a quartet of the four more advanced players. They played arrangements of three of the dances from Carmen, which had the advantage of deriving, at least, from the home of the guitar. Rhythms were reasonably lively though again they suffered through the care and restraint with which they were played. The first, Aragonese, essentially a rather elegant, restrained dance, was the least handicapped by that sobriety; so it expressed that dignity quite well. But the Seguidilla which Carmen dances in high frustration as she faces Jose’s timidity, his overwhelming fear of letting go, his sense of duty to the army, was a tough one. At this stage, these players were not really up to capturing the sexuality that the dance expresses.

They ended with an Introduction and Fandango by Boccherini which lay quite well for the guitars. Though the Introduction passed without much impact, the Fandango came off well since it was drawn from the famous guitar quintet La retirata di Madrid. Throughout, their obvious pains over notation precision and dynamics were always conspicuous, and the performances showed proper attention to the basic challenges that face players of this instrument, in these not always very rewarding pieces, from which there is nowhere to hide.


An evening’s enjoyment of wonderful things in Lower Hutt

Hutt Valley Chamber Music presents:
Vesa-Matti Leppänen (violin)
Julia Joyce (viola)
Andrew Joyce (‘cello)
Diedre Irons (piano)

HAYDN – String Trio in G Major Op.53 No.1
FRANCK – Sonata for Violin and Piano (1886)
BRAHMS – Piano Quartet in C Minor Op.60

Little Theatre, Lower Hutt

Monday 25th May, 2015

The programme devised for this concert certainly made the most of the music and the performers, as well as pleasing the audience no end – having works for variously two, three and four musicians provided plenty of variety, while the performances established and maintained levels of skill, intensity, beauty and enjoyment that would have graced a recital platform anywhere in the world.

On the face of things, hardest-working of the quartet of musicians was violinist Vesa-Matti Leppänen, usually concertmaster of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, but here as fully involved in duo, trio and quartet partnerships, his playing a common and unifying thread throughout the evening’s music.

And what colleagues he had! – two of his orchestral colleagues, both (like Vesa-Matti) leaders of their particular sections in the NZSO, violist Julia Joyce and ‘cellist Andrew Joyce (partners in real life, of course), and the incomparable Diedre Irons at the piano – all, incidentally, local musicians!

The Haydn Trio began with a variation movement, lovely, lilting phrases, the dance firmly, but also winningly characterized – the composer again and again showed his inventiveness in creating delightful discourses from such deceptively simple material, with each instrument getting its chance to cheekily counterpoint the basic, unprepossessing theme. Then in the second and final movement, the pace quickened to a scamper, punctuated by pauses and dynamic contrasts – now tender and touching, now brilliant and decorative, the trio’s teamwork exemplary.

A good thing I’ve never grown tired of hearing Cesar Franck’s deservedly well-loved Violin Sonata – because, despite its technical difficulties and emotional “stretches” it regularly comes up in recital programs. Here, for me, the most fascinating aspect of the performance was the interaction of what might have seemed like two temperamentally different musicians, charged by cosmic circumstance with bringing the work to life.

While admiring the elegance and skill of Vesa-Matti Leppänen’s violin playing on the occasions I’ve heard him demonstrate his art, I’ve always though of him as a cool, somewhat detached and “contained” player – different sorts of qualities one would expect of an ideal interpreter of this work. And now, here he was, about to perform it with a colleague whom I’ve long regarded as one of music’s greatest and warmest communicators, pianist Diedre Irons.

As it turned out, each player was a near-perfect “foil” for the other in this music – and in any case the composer’s history as a “young virtuoso lion” of the keyboard meant that the writing’s focus often swung towards the pianist – no mere “violin with accompaniment” with this work! This fusion of styles I thought enriched the performance, with whole episodes seemingly given over to each player’s strengths and beautifully weighted by both in overall terms.

What did delight me the most, however, was hearing the violinist respond to his partner’s red-blooded manner at appropriate places – so full measure was given to the exhilaration of the second movement’s concluding measures, as well as the “deeply-dug” recitatives and the inwardness of the introspections in the slow movement. And I loved Vesa-Matti’s “full-bow” treatment of the return of that movement’s “big tune” in the finale – which moment, of course, Diedre Irons’ playing magnificently orchestrated, before scampering back down the hills towards the more circumspect undulations of the opening, and the ritual of its final canonic dance.

All hands came upon deck for the evening’s final work, Brahms’ epic C Minor Piano Quartet. Though this was the third such work written by the composer, and with a later opus number than its companions, the three quartets were sketched out at the same time – the C Minor work reflects Brahms’ involvement with the Schumanns, Robert and Clara, from the time that Robert had been committed to the asylum.

Brahms took twenty years to work through his various and contradictory feelings regarding what the music was trying to express. Originally set in C#Minor, the work’s key was changed to C Minor, Brahms developing his feelings from those of a hopeless lover (C#Minor was E.T.A.Hoffman’s famous character Kreisler, one whose influence on Schumann was evident in his piano suite “Kreisleriana”), to heroism amid struggle (exemplified by Beethoven’s frequent use of C Minor). These two feelings make themselves known, cheek-to-jowl, right at the pieces’ beginning, with the piano’s octaves (forceful expression) and the string’s “dying fall” motif perhaps representing characters in the drama to follow.

Drama it certainly was here, in huge shovelfuls, with powerful outbursts of concerted energy having their say, before giving way to a beautifully-extended and lyrical second group, weaving the opening descending figure into the argument in both minor and major modes, as well as contrasting the tragic with the heroic. The players, together and separately, conjured up massive trenchant utterances in contrast to the tenderness they also found in more lyrical moments, a beautiful exchange between viola and violin causing the piano to sing with the utmost pleasure in response.

The piano leapt first into the scherzo’s fray before the others took the plunge – though the music seemed uncertain whether to exult or snarl in places, the group roller-coastered all of us up and over the movement’s formidable hill-crests in exhilarating style. And no sooner had we regained our breath than the loveliest ‘cello-playing one could imagine was upon our ears courtesy of Andrew Joyce, introducing the slow movement with sounds that fell as gratefully as sunbeams on previously storm-tossed flowers of the fields.

Vesa-Matti Leppänen’s violin then added to our pleasure with its own voice  extending the melody in duet with the ‘cello. Not to be left out, the viola deftly and mellifluously duetted with each of its string-partners, Julia Joyce’s tones as transparent as a violin’s in places, and as mellow and mysterious as a cello’s in others. And Diedre Irons surely and sweetly marked the  piano’s place in the movement’s “continuous melody” by a tenderly-phrased reprise of the melody as sensitive and atmospheric as any.

Urgency and anxiety drove the ensemble at the finale’s beginning, the piano’s “perpetuo mobile” breaking off only momentarily for some hymn-like chords from the strings which were picked up and swept away once again in the maelstrom of it all. The players caught the “throes” of the music at its heart, by turns skittish and impulsive, with the sinuous lines frequently losing their momentum and having to regroup their energies – what intensities were carried through by the drive of the piano figurations and the sonorous string utterances!

One felt at the end a kind of “haunted relief” in the music, besides some Brahmsian exultation – ironically, the kind of ambivalence that Schumann would have recognized, as befitted his own struggles with life and art. A great and moving performance, then, of stirring, deeply-etched music, part of a rich and variegated evening’s enjoyment of wonderful things.










Impressive semi-staged Elijah from Orpheus Choir, Orchestra Wellington and superb soloists

The Orpheus Choir of Wellington and Orchestra Wellington
Brent Stewart (conductor); Frances Moore (staging director)

Mendelssohn: Elijah

Martin Snell (Elijah), Lisa-Harper-Brown (widow), Maaike Christie-Beekman (Angel), Jamie Young (Obadiah), Archie Taylor (Boy); voice students of New Zealand School of Music,

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 23 May 2015, 7.30pm

I found this performance of Elijah entertaining, inspiring, and of a very high standard.  So did the large, attentive audience, who responded enthusiastically.  After the performance, I heard many favourable comments.

The first thing that struck one coming into the auditorium was the huge screen behind the choir seats.  However, it was not used for projecting images, but was simply suffused with colour.  The colour chosen varied with the mood or location of the various sections of the oratorio.

Martin Snell came on, in business suit but without a tie, and sang the words of the introductory oration, then while the orchestra played the Overture, the choir wandered in, wearing casual clothes in white or light colours, which I took to denote a Middle Eastern setting – but this made it curious that the soloists were dressed in modern garments.  It was good to see the choir appearing to have personalities, rather than being in their usual dour black, which makes the members fade into the background. Bright lighting enhanced the visual effect.

The orchestra members were placed on low platforms, to be above the action on the front of the stage.

Martin Snell immediately impressed; he was in fine voice.  In a radio interview he had said that he had sung the oratorio numbers of times in its language of writing: German, presumably in Germany and Switzerland, where he is based.  (This rather gives the lie to Roger Wilson’s assertion in his excellent programme note, that it ‘is seldom performed in Germany’.)  Snell therefore found it quite difficult, he said, to fit the English words to the notes.  However, that was not apparent.  Except that he sang entirely from the score.  In their much smaller roles, Harper-Brown used it some of the time, but Maaike Christie-Beekman not at all.

After performances in the 1950s and 1960s, the Orpheus Choir sang the work in 1971, and then not again until 1999, when there was a semi-staged performance, when Rodney Macann, dressed in sackcloth, sang the title role entirely from memory, moving round the stage in dramatic fashion.  However, apart from several other soloists being in costume, that version bore little relation to this semi-staged version.

Some of the choir were initially disposed at the front of the stage as a semi-chorus (where they could not see the conductor), before later taking their places in the main chorus.  The orchestra set the atmosphere well.

Brent Stewart conducted clearly and decisively, although it seemed to me that in the first half he was conducting with his hand, the baton being merely an extension.  However, in the second half he found his baton technique.

Almost throughout the performance, the projection of words by both soloists and choir was good – but I was sitting fairly near the front.  All the soloists sang as the real professionals most of them are; this applied also to a couple of the NZSM students who had minor roles of some significance: Katherine McIndoe and William McElwee.  It was most impressive to observe the resonance Martin Snell obtains by using the resonators of the face to assist in delivering the goods.

The orchestra’s every note, rhythm and dynamic seemed to be in place.  This was true of the choir also; I only observed one false, stumbling entry in the whole work in which, after Elijah, the choir has most to do.

I was tempted to say that this was Martin Snell’s night, such is the size of his role and the quality of his performance.  That would be unfair – it was also the choir’s and the orchestra’s night.  Snell handled the high tessitura of most of his role with aplomb – and got an opportunity to use his low notes in the quartet ‘Cast thy burden upon the Lord’, one of the most beautiful moments, with its solo quartet sections and intervening orchestral passages.

There were a few judicious cuts in the work, to bring the length down, but the only number I really missed was the felicitous ‘He that shall endure to the end’.  It would have been another demonstration of the huge variety of Mendelssohn’s writing; his ability to move from rousing to contemplative, to delicate, from chorale-like harmony to fugue.  In the delicate category was the lovely trio ‘Lift thine eyes’, sung by a women’s semi-chorus – in this case, the NZSM students, as angels, sited in the left gallery.  Here, I felt there was insufficient lightness, blend, or ethereal textures.

Elsewhere, they produced lovely tone, balance and blend, although I found them insufficiently impassioned as the priests of Baal (re-costumed in black) compared with the following chorus from
the full choir.  One feature of the choir’s singing was that fortissimo passages were sung with lively tone that was still pleasant on the ear, for example, in ‘Woe to him!  He shall perish’.  In contrast was the delicious ‘He, watching over Israel’, all calm and dignity.

The full choruses were splendid, as was Lisa Harper-Brown, in her roles as widow and soprano soloist.  Jamie Young, the tenor, was a little uneven.  In his first solo, ‘If with all your hearts’ he was fine, apart from a couple of strained higher notes.

Action there was, but it seldom distracted from the music, and in fact added drama and interest.  The inherent drama in the music and words was demonstrated, in a naturalistic way.

Elijah’s solo ‘It is enough!’ featured a solo cello that both precedes the sung aria and continues through it.  This was exquisitely played by Brenton Veitch.  Another delightful instrumental solo was for oboe, in Elijah’s aria ‘For the mountains shall depart’.

Archie Taylor performed his role as the boy more than satisfactorily.  He had to act as well as sing; his voice was clear and true.

The famous solo ‘O rest in the Lord’ was beautifully sung by Christie-Beekman, without being made too sentimental.  The orchestral accompaniment was a marvel of delicacy and subtlety.  I was horrified to see in the printed programme (but not in Roger Wilson’s note) ‘Oh rest in the Lord’ – using the feeble exclamation instead of the ‘O’ of invocation.

The chorus, appropriately, have the last word, singing ‘And then shall your light break forth’.  Who said Mendelssohn was not a genius?  In my book he was, and this triumph of a performance was another proof; the opera he never wrote.

The production involved movement for the choir as well as for the semi-chorus and soloists; all this was a lot of work for a one-off performance.


School of Music Orchestra wins audience delight with demanding programme

Te Kōki New Zealand School of Music

Smetana: Vltava (‘The Moldau’, from Má Vlast)
Ginastera: Harp Concerto, Op.25
Lilburn: Diversions for String Orchestra
Shostakovich: The Golden Age Suite Op.22 (Introduction, adagio, polka, danse)
NZSM Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Young, with Jennifer Newth (harp)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Tuesday, 19 May 2015, 7.30pm

Once again, the audience was treated to a very demanding programme brought off with skill and panache by the NZSM orchestra, with the help of quite a number of guest players.

It coupled the familiar with the unfamiliar.  The opening piece from Smetana’s Má Vlast was familiar, but seldom programmed recently, within my hearing.  It provided a good work-out for a student orchestra.  There was plenty of scope for the flutes at the opening, and soon for the other woodwinds.
A quieter second section featured strings, flute and harp, with subtle brass support, in a delicious representation of the flows of the great river Vltava.  The grand theme returns in the last section, in more excitable mode, with full brass and percussion.  This was a very creditable performance.

Ginastera’s harp concerto was completely new to me, and it was interesting to read the programme notes describing the history of its first performance.

Amazingly, Jennifer Newth, who has recently graduated with first class honours in music, played the complex solo part without the score.  The harp must surely be the most difficult instrument to be found in a symphony orchestra, yet this accomplished musician played with apparent ease the most demanding passages, using a range of techniques, described in her programme note as ‘pedal slides’  (which I observed – the sound continued to change even though no fingers were on the strings) ‘harmonics, whistling sounds, ‘falling hail’ glissandi and gushing chords.

Along with her virtuoso playing rising to the composer’s demands, there were considerable challenges, for the large percussion section, which were fully met, including plenty for xylophone to do.

In the first movement, a dreamy slow melody was particularly attractive, while in the second movement a modal melody performed on various instruments was notable.

The third movement’s extended harp solo demonstrated the huge range of the harp’s capabilities, and those of the performer, as described above; its final section began with an enormous glissando, something the harp can do so magnificently.  The percussion was in its element with complicated technical work; the xylophone was a good counterpart, with its wooden quality, to the ethereal nature of the harp sound.  There was little brass in this work – just two trumpets in the last movement only, but a celeste, along with frequent suspended cymbal vibrations, contributed to the exotic atmosphere.

This was a bravura performance, and the audience’s response was appropriately prolonged and enthusiastic.

Ginastera was a hard act to follow, but the early Lilburn work proved to be a pleasant interlude between the more intense and exciting works for full orchestra.  The writing for strings was delightful.  After a lively sparky opening, the second movement was contemplative, with nevertheless, as in the first, lots of pizzicato.  The third section was faster, with repeated quavers, while in the fourth some discords that became typical of Lilburn’s writing appeared, but there was little of his later very prevalent dotted
rhythmic figures.

The final movement featured leaping figures at various levels of pitch – then a sudden ending.  The Diversions proved to be a most enjoyable work, and was played with verve and splendidly rich tone.

The Shostakovich work provided both humorous content and sufficient technical requirements to live up to the effect created by the Ginastera work.  The programme note described the scenario of the ballet for which the music was written: a worthy tale of the superiority of the Communist ethos over that of Western nations, as worked out through the visit of a Soviet football team to a Western city.

Shostakovich’s satirical writing could be interpreted as ‘getting at’ the capitalist West – or deriding the very scenario and the ideology behind it.  It gave rise, in these four movements, to some hilarious musical expression.  Not that it was easy; it is hard to imagine a student orchestra even20 years ago tackling such demanding music as this.  It employed full orchestra (but no harp).  I find brass plus piccolo and percussion playing at forte or beyond far too loud in this venue: a very resonant acoustic in a no particularly large church.  Perhaps there is no alternative.  The orchestra has played in Sacred Heart Cathedral, which is only slightly larger and with an equally lively sound.

Please, Wellington City Council, get on with strengthening the Wellington Town Hall, or respond to former Councillor Rex Nicholls, who through his letter in Dominion Post, called for the hall to reopen.

After a rousing introduction, the highlight of the work, viz. the second movement was an extended slow piece that was most affecting, and contained much of interest, not least the appearance of bass clarinet and particularly the solos on soprano saxophone by Genevieve Davidson, and also solo violin from the orchestra’s leader, Laura Barton.  Later, there was gorgeous playing from solo clarinet and solo flute.

The third movement reverted to the jocular mood apparent in the first; the polka was good fun, with a wonderful tune for the xylophone and a sardonic popular song from the trombones.  The Danse finale revealed great precision of rhythm at considerable speed.  But it was so loud that the audience’s applause sounded quiet by contrast.

Nevertheless, all concerned should be thoroughly pleased with their efforts, as the audience was.