Delightful Takiri Vocal Ensemble heralds a new era for the song recital?

Takiri Ensemble
Anna Leese (soprano), Bianca Andrew (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Glover (tenor), Robert Tucker (baritone)
Kirsten Simpson (piano)

Songs and ensembles by Schubert, Schumann, David Hamilton, Ross Harris, Anthony Ritchie, Britten and Vaughan Williams

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 30 August 2:30 pm

The Takiri Ensemble is a novelty for New Zealand: a vocal quartet that aims to be a permanent presence in this country. It challenges the long-held and flimsily sustained belief that there’s no audience for the song recital; another similar, ill-supported notion is that there’s little appetite for piano recitals. Each prejudice has probably been based on cases that have not been representative or well-conceived, flawed through poor programming, or uninteresting-looking performers.

I should, however, note another straw in the wind: an enterprising song recital inspired by pianist Catherine Norton on 10 June (see the review at that date).

This example looks like winning through the presence of at least the two well-known female singers, and a programme that has a decent proportion of genuinely popular, well-known material. Soprano Anna Leese has become one of the best-known young singers to have established an international reputation; Bianca Andrew, now at the Guildhall in London, has attracted a big following in New Zealand through her vivid persona. Andrew Glover has not been so visible in New Zealand since going to study overseas where he has had substantial professional engagements: Opera North, Garsington Opera, Opera Holland Park and English Touring Opera. Robert Tucker studied with Andrew at the Opera Centre in Perth, and has been singing professionally overseas for some years, including Schaunard in La bohème and Guglielmo in Così fan tutte (which he sang recently, alongside Bianca as Dorabella, with Wanderlust Opera in Wellington).

Pianist Kirsten Simpson is an artist-teacher in accompaniment at the school of music, Victoria University. During her extensive time overseas she has accompanied at the Solti Te Kanawa Accademia di Bel Canto in Italy.

The programme began with what I imagine is still the best known of Lieder: Schubert. All very familiar to me from my teens, though how familiar they are to today’s teenagers, I wonder. I was lucky to have had two music-loving German masters at college who used Lieder, mainly Schubert (also my first hearing of Schumann’s ‘Die Grenadiere’), and German folk-songs to embed the language, and at university, the wonderful Oxford Book of German Verse, very much my Bible, was annotated with details of musical settings.

So it will be obvious that the quartet did not confine itself to music composed or arranged for all four singers; in fact, all of the Schubert songs were sung in turn by individual singers. Because these are generally more familiar, I suspect that the ensemble will be wise to include a reasonable number of such well-loved songs as ‘loss-leaders’ for the more meaty or less easily digested music.

The second group of songs was totally unfamiliar to me: Schumann’s late cycle entitled Spanische
(Op 138) might have been composed specifically for this ensemble. The piano alone plays a Prelude at the beginning and an Intermezzo in the middle, signalling the significance of the piano as scene or mood painter; it was always rewarding to listen to Kirsten Simpson’s thoughtful and colourful support for the voices.

Each of the eight songs is set for one or two voices and the last, ‘Dunkler Lichtglanz’, for the quartet, and the performances follow the pattern of voices adopted in the famous Graham Johnson Complete Schumann songs, on Hyperion for the bi-centenary in 2010.

Anna sang the first song, Schubert’s ‘Die Forelle’; it was a wonderful exhibition of her fluidity, her easy command of varied articulations and colours and the fisherman theme reappeared with ‘Fischerwiese’, marked with a joyous quality over sparkling accompaniment.

Robert Tucker used dynamic subtleties, especially a hardly audible pianissimo, in ‘An Sylvia’ which used to be popular as sung to Shakespeare’s original lyric from Two Gentlemen from Verona. Then there was firm metal in the voice, and in his later ‘Schwanengesang’ (not the song cycle), pregnant silences, depicting the approach of death.

Andrew Glover’s first song was the heart-felt ‘An die Musik’, with a caressing tone and an almost religious pianissimo, supported by discreet face and hand gestures. Then in ‘Nacht und Träume’, he held long high head notes, beautiful breath control. But in the Schumann cycle, in ‘O wie lieblich ist das Mädchen’ there was a little tightness in his high register.

Bianca Andrew took over, with the powerfully emotional ‘Die junge Nonne’, which she sang with impressively rich imagination; she knows how to use her head and arms to illuminate the music and dramatise the sense of the words.

Though not all the Schumann songs are equal in melodic charm and emotional integrity, this cycle, Spanische Liebeslieder, deserves outings as a whole. Though the notes naturally drew attention to Spanish character, there was little to my ears; both verses and music sounded thoroughly absorbed into a German sensibility. So they stood in the mainstream of the Lied. The two women sang the duet ‘Bedeckt mich mit Blumen’ with special delight, their voices and intent in harmony.

The men too had their duet, ‘Blaue Augen hat das Mädchen’, and their voices showed a delightful unanimity of style and sense.

After the interval came a few New Zealand songs: David Hamilton’s arrangements for these singers of his choral pieces, Three Anzac Settings.  Utterly unpretentious little works, quite different one from the other, handling sharply contrasting aspects of the war, including one, ‘Before Battle’, which dealt with the experience of conscientious objectors, in an idiom refreshingly free of any striving for ugliness or horror. There was a childlike tone in its rhythms, beautifully caught by singers and pianist, very remote from the sanctimonious character found in much music that deals with the tragedy of war.

The third, ‘In Flanders Fields’, was more subdued, in which men’s voices predominated.

Ross Harris composed three songs for Wellington soprano Lesley Graham in appreciation of her role in Harris’s two operas of the 1980s, Waituhi and Tanz der Schwäne. Bianca sang these charming vignettes set to poems by Bub Bridger; short little stories, gently declamatory; ‘Gossip’ had the air of wistful memories.

Two songs by Anthony Ritchie: the more I hear of his music, the more I feel it reflects clearly the happy return to compositional sanity, honesty and musical communicability after the perversities of the late 20th century. ‘He Moemoea’ is a polished, mature little song; ‘Ataturk Memorial’, to me, was somewhat unconvincing, a little prosaic, yet it seemed to work as a song.

Andrew Glover sang two songs by Britten: ‘Let the Florid Music Praise’ and ‘Oliver Cromwell’, the first with an uncanny hint of his Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, the second a witty little piece, quite
splendidly done.  Anna Leese sang Britten’s ‘O Waly Waly’, with an arresting edginess and clarity.

Three Vaughan Williams songs brought the programme to an end. Anna and Bianca joined in singing ‘It was a Lover and His Lass’, weaving among the notes joyfully; the two men in ‘Fear no more the Heat of the Sun’, produced tones of touching solemnity, calm, elegiac; and the quartet sang ‘Linden Lea’, a cappella, perfectly fitting.

The quartet had sung already in Kaitaia, Wanaka and Motueka; they go on to Whanganui, Rotorua and Whakatane, but sing nowhere else in Wellington – What A Shame!

Do the other concert promoters still fear that singers will keep their audiences at home? This concert, with its audience of over 300, should persuade them otherwise.

My colleague Rosemary Collier, who was also at the concert, has just commented about the excellent diction, which is so important in the singing of Lieder and other ‘art song’ – that they are ‘a marriage of poetry and music’.  (10am, Tuesday 1 September). I totally agree with her.



Aural (and visual) feast from Stroma at the Wellington City Gallery

Stroma, Wellington’s contemporary music ensemble, presents

Music by Alison Isadora, Michael Norris, Jeroen Speak and Jack Body

Hamish McKeich (conductor)

Wellington City Gallery,
Civic Square, Wellington

Sunday 30th August, 2015

Contemporary music ensemble Stroma performed at the Wellington City Gallery, in a space flanked on three sides by images created by photographer Fiona Pardington, whose exhibition “A Beautiful Hesitation”, brought an additional resonant and interactive context to the “sounded out” work of the composers. As the images suspended objects in time for us to register our thoughts and feelings about them, so too did the music seek to impinge its sound-impulses upon our sensibilities and memories – each a process of entrapment, display, re-evaluation and judgement, fascinatingly juxtaposed.

Stroma’s artistic director Michael Norris might well have been making reference to the visual exhibition as much as to his own work in the concert, when he wrote in his programme note regarding music and human memory,  and how it depends on “both the long-and short-term storage and recall of “aural echoes” of past events which might have occurred in the recent ….or distant past….”.  It’s a view of the process that accords with Fiona Pardington’s idea of photography’s power “to suspend time and interrogate our memories”.

On the programme was a world premiere – Jeroen Speak’s Eratosthene’s Sieve, written last year (2014) while the composer was the Creative New Zealand/Jack C.Richards Composer-in-Residence at Te Koko New ZEaland School of Music – and two other relatively recent works, Alison Isadora’s 2014 Point of Departure, and Michael Norris’s 2012 Time Dance. The fourth work was written by Jack Body, his 1987 piece called Interiors, which, as can be seen, gave its name to the concert.

Alison Isadora’s Point of Departure eponymously deserved its poll position in the concert, the music creating an “exotic” feeling of scene-setting for the listener’s delight and pleasure, with a string quartet’s distinctive timbres augmented by gong strokes and muffled drum-beats. The composer included lines from a work “Falling” by a Dutch Poet, Remco Campert, which I found singularly evocative:

In memory’s long fall
I seek the essential moment.
Above becomes beneath
and the earth comes swinging up.

She also pinpointed in her notes the “ferris wheel” idea, which, in the music is expressed as a feeling of ascending and then falling back, with throbbing pulsations underlining the sustained tones. So we got the occasional frisson of impulsive energy amid sostenuto likes, quite Debussy-like in effect, hence the slightly Oriental atmospheres generated, and an accompanying philosophic feeling that things are constantly in a kind of change, but return to their origins and begin, perhaps differently, all over again.

Amid the layerings and the explorations of these worlds in between, Alison Isadora’s disclosure of the circumstance of a colleague’s accidental death and how it coloured the piece’s second half added a whole new strata of response to the sounds for us, and deepening the ritualistic sense of it all – the percussive effects (snare-like drum beats and wood-block sounds were stinging, disruptive phrase-end punctuations which played their part in what the composer called the process of moving from anger to acceptance.

Michael Norris’s Time Dance, which followed evoked a markedly different kind of response from me, intrigued as I was by the prospect of the composer’s “deconstruction” of one of my favorite pieces of Baroque music, JS Bach’s Second Orchestral Suite (the one featuring the solo flute). The transformation was indeed a radical one – we were duly warned in the programme note as to the “subliminal” nature of our experience of the original piece’s essence!

This was a condensed concert version for piano quartet, presumably taken from Norris’s score for a 40-minute film “Time Dance”, a collaboration between the composer, choreographer/filmmaker Daniel Belton, and Good Company Arts. So we had four movements from the Suite, beginning with the Sarabande, followed by the Polonaise, Menuet and finally the Bandinerie. The Sarabande featured delicate piano figurations at the beginning, which strings turned into obstinate, enlivening the textures with pizzicati, the music resembling a mechanical device performing idiosyncratically, in places reverting to a “teashop” manner, with gestures resembling quasi-Viennese swooning.

Sustained arpeggiated notes from the piano began the Polonaise, the strings eagerly overlapping their figurations, the piano beautifully colouring each phrase’s flourish – the music’s phrases looped around, strung along, echoed and drew out, going into the stratospheric regions, giving us a sense of something suspended for all time. A contrasting response to this was provided by the Menuetto, the music busy, burrowing and motoric in the bass beneath sustained upper harmonies, the piano kaleidoscopically changing its chord-colours, and the phrases ending with upward-thrusting exclamations. The ‘cello kept the main rhythm going, but even its strength waned at the end as the music drooped and lay still.

The solo violin roused everybody in time for the Bandinerie with a cadenza-like sequence, everybody else joining in the ambient fun, the piano’s phrases and the strings’ tremolandi passages giving us a “lift” with their emphatic phrase-endings, and leading our sensibilities into and out of the thickets with their wonderfully unpredictable harmonic changes, everybody playing at their instruments’ extremities – as unpredictably, the music broke off into “other realms”, with harmonics and tremolandi from the strings, and curtain-opening-and-closing arpeggios from the piano. Bach may have been there subliminally, but I was too caught up in the here-and-now of it all to notice him!

Jereon Speak’s work Eratosthene’s Sieve was the evening’s world premiere, performed by an assorted ensemble of strings, flute, harp, accordion and percussion. The composer’s starting-point was the Greek philosopher Eratosthene’s “Sieve”, a device by which any prime number could be easily recognized, the music representing an attempt by its composer to similarly “sieve” his musical creations and constructions, and in the process discovering hitherto uncovered presences within this existing material.

Such a splendid array of instruments! – and how tellingly it all began, with breath (no tones) given by the accordion as a “gift of life” to the rest of the ensemble, whose initial pointillistic touches gradually became more animated with each succeeding wave of sound, the marimba, harp and vibraphone resonating magically. The music seemed to me to resemble an organic process at work (and, of course, maths, like music, is digitally, or step-wise organic), the coalescings seeking cues from their shared ambiences, and thus generating a definite sense of mutual expressiveness which informed each gesture.

Some Archimedian excitement then irrupted between ‘cello and percussion, stimulating what seemed like random, isolated responses from other instruments at first, all generating great excitement. The flute seemed to have a role of peacemaker towards the end of this sequence, as the energies dissipated, and a kind of “melting-down” of tones and their timbres, a “draining away” of energies, with the harp’s sustaining notes lengthening the shadows. Only the occasional flute scampering remained towards the end as a final act of impulse, the accordion’s breath evoking a dried leaf blowing across desolate desert sands at the piece’s end.

I was interested in the significance of the title Interiors given by Jack Body to his piece – he made many transcriptions of pieces of music from exotic places such as different regions of China, wanting in particular to capture some of the music from ethnic minority groups. These were undertakings that involved the making of “in situ” field recordings, and devising various instrumental “backdrops” to these recordings, to enhance the listener’s appreciation of the original music’s “interior”.  The work we heard tonight involved three separate recordings of ethnic performances, two instrumental and one vocal. The largest instrumental group of the evening was on hand to contribute various augmentations of these sounds.

First was that of a long-ge, a Sichuan version of a Jew’s harp, the recorded instrument’s easy, loping rhythm reinforced by clarinet and flute and joined by violin and ‘cello, with the piano adding its own excitement to the mix. Then, in contrast with the dance rhythms, the pianist “activated” the piano’s interior, the percussionist “bowed” the vibraphone and various scintillations held time and its passing in abeyance, leaving long exhalations of melody to drift lazily away. A lovely contrast to this was afforded by a recording of three women from Guizhou singing a forthright melody, the instrumentalists supporting and colouring their singing lines with lovely, long-held notes, and continuing to play over the spoken exchanges between the singers recorded on the tape in between verses.

Something of this “anecdotal” re-enactment technique also coloured the final recording, that of an ensemble, no less, of lusheng, the instrument a six-pipe bamboo mouth-organ common in the south of China, and throughout South-East Asian in various forms. A plastic westernized version of one of these was used by one of the ensemble, as the other instrumentalists supplied various counterpoints to the mouth-organ ensemble, and occasional hand-clapping, adding to the festive character of the piece – and we in the audience enjoyed (and joined in with) a delicious and spontaneous-sounding bout of giggling on the tape after the music finished! What a concert!