Rather short and variable concert from university voices and instruments

New Zealand School of Music

Victoria Voices: Songs from South Africa, Broadway and Renaissance Europe, conducted by Robert Legg, Andrew Atkins and Thomas Nikora, with Andrew Atkins and Thomas Nikora (piano)

Psathas: Island Songs; Ragnarök Trio (Claudia Tarrant-Matthews, violin; Caitlin Morris, cello; Sophie Tarrant-Matthews, piano)

Pujol: Grises y Soles; Paulo Beillinati: A Furiosa; Guitar Quartet (Royden Smith, Dylan Solomon, George Wills, Jamie Garrick)

Adam Concert Room

Wednesday 30 September, 7.30pm

A small but enthusiastic audience heard a rather short concert (50 minutes, with several longish breaks for changing the position of the piano and other adjustments), the chamber music sections of which were being assessed towards the players’ end-of-year academic results.

The choir was presenting its second concert for the year, under the direction of Dr Robert Legg. It was a much smaller choir than that which sang in May; doubtless it currently being exam. time was the difference between nearly forty and 22. The choir includes students, staff and others associated with the university.

Three African songs began the programme, the first two sung from the gallery above the first-floor Adam Concert Room in the School of Music. It was slightly disconcerting that 7 faces were hidden from most of the audience by a large rolled up projecting screen. These first songs were sung unaccompanied, from memory, and featured splendid tone and projection, although I found the altos rather weak, apart from a fine alto solo, and a tenor one too, in the second song.

For the third song, ‘Hamba Lulu’, the choir descended to the audience’s level, and sang with piano accompaniment from Andrew Atkins. Overall, there was a pleasing sound. This was not difficult music, and the Adam Concert Room acoustic allowed everything to be heard.

John Psathas’s work was a challenge for young players, but one they fully met. This was a later setting of the work; the original was for clarinet, violin and piano. The cellist and violinist (playing an unusually large violin) knew the work so well that they scarcely looked at their scores. It demanded high energy playing, but in this lively acoustic the fortissimos were a bit hard on my ears. There was some difficult double-stopping for the cellist towards the end of the first movement, and again later – but it was performed in most accomplished fashion.

The second movement featured extensive pizzicato for the cellist. The violinist doubled some of the passages with the bow, but this was difficult to hear. The pianist, whose face we could not see through a wall of hair, was thoroughly competent at her demanding part throughout the work.

Voices returned, to be conducted by Andrew Atkins and accompanied in the second item by Thomas Nikora. First was an anonymous medieval drinking song, ‘Vitrum Nostrum’, sung unaccompanied. A very fine solo tenor introduced the piece, and was followed by the choir making a robust sound, and with excellent rhythm and ensemble. There followed Thomas Morley’s well-known ‘Now is the Month of Maying’, which was given a sprightly accompaniment by Nikora. Atkins did a good job in conducting the choir, though some of his body movement was excessive. Generally well-sung, the item suffered from a rather untidy rallentando at the end.

Next up was a splendid guitar quartet, playing two South American works. The first was by Argentinian Máximo Diego Pujol: ‘Grises y Soles’; the second, ‘A Furiosa’, by Brazilian Paulo Bellinati. Of interest to me was the fact that the players did not use the traditional little one-foot stools to help them support their instruments, but instead had support brackets clamped onto the sides of the instruments. Like the earlier trio, the players knew their music so well that not a lot of use was made of their scores.

Both pieces employed a large variety of guitar tones, techniques and timbres. There was a variety of percussive effects, strumming (very little) as well as plucking with fingernails or with fingertips. These techniques and effects conveyed a huge variety of moods, rhythms and tempi in the pieces. The second piece was rather more melodic than was the Pujol. Both were exciting, and demonstrated the skill, precision and preparatory work of the players.

The choir returned to sing two songs from the shows, conducted from the keyboard by Thomas Nikora: ‘Edelweiss’, from The Sound of Music by Rodgers and Hammerstein, and ‘Sunday’ from Sunday in the Park with George, by Stephen Sondheim. The first was pleasant, but rather passionless (not that it is a highly passionate song!). There was more variety of expression in the heartier second piece.

While the chamber and guitar musicians performed to a very high standard, the choir, and its repertoire, were disappointing, despite a pleasing sound and a good level of accuracy. This concert hardly seemed to be the culmination of four months of consistent choral rehearsal since the last concert, in May. Comparisons may be odious, but… it was a far cry from the university choirs of my time, and the levels they reached performing, for example, as the second choir in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, and the splendid à cappella choir’s Mass for Five Voices by William Byrd.

Youthful, exuberant virtuosity – Jason Bae at St.Andrew’s , Wellington

Wellington Chamber Music presents:
JASON BAE (piano)

CHOPIN – Four Scherzi
No.1 in B Minor Op.20
No.2 in B-flat Minor Op.31
                   No.3 in C-sharp Minor Op.39
                   No.4 in E Major Op.54
BRITTEN/STEVENSON – Fantasy on Peter Grimes (1977)
LISZT – Venezia e Napoli – Gondoliera / Canzone / Tarantella

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

Sunday, 27th September, 2015

I remember hearing for the first time New Zealand pianist Richard Farrell’s recording of Chopin’s First Scherzo, and being bowled over by the playing’s youthful verve and exuberance.  Similar to Farrell’s in brilliance of execution and youthful élan was the performance of this same work by Jason Bae which opened his Wellington Chamber Music Series recital at St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace on Sunday. For me, in fact, the “shock” of the recital’s opening generated by this young pianist had the effect of a sudden electric charge sent tingling through one’s being, which, of course, was exactly what the composer would have intended.

Jason Bae continued on as he had begun throughout this work, his playing capturing the compulsive “churning” aspect of the figurations, and bringing off the transitions between sections with a fine sensitivity – the central lyrical theme remained slightly “charged”, unable, it seemed to me, to completely relax, brought here, as it had been, in a veritable whirlwind, tempestuous and unnerving!  When it came, the pianist’s reiteration of these agitations heard at the opening simply renewed our astonishment at the fieriness of both music and its performance.

Following this, the tense “question-and-answer” opening phrases of the Second Scherzo were beautifully contrasted, the reply to the darkly-covered beginning ringing and resounding in great style. When repeated, this dialogue took on for me an even more spectral aspect, as if death had made a spoken gesture and been recognized, though Jason Bae’s sensitivity and nimble fingers also kept the passage’s melodic quality stoically to the fore. I liked the pianist’s rich, mellow plunge into the middle sequence’s world – and he did so well with that alchemic transition from those reverential tones back to the recapitulation – a wonderful mini-adventure! Then, in his hands the return to those first exchanges brought out a more rueful, even a somewhat “old friend” quality, after which the interplay of growing tensions culminated in a blistering coda, startling in its power and velocity!

The third Scherzo’s opening was less spectral and sharp-edged than grim and unremitting, dark, terse mutterings followed by angry octaves, delivered with incredible panache! Jason Bae caught the nobility of the contrasting episode, with its beautifully-weighted chords, but seemed to me somewhat at a loss to know what to “do” with the descending filigree figurations, treating them, I thought, as if they were purely decorative. Even when those same noble chords re-emerged decked with darker hues, beautifully voiced by the young pianist, the downward cascadings still lacked, to my ears, any kind of discernible character – strange, when his responses to the music’s other episodes were so sharply and/or richly focused.

After all of this grim, tight-lipped stuff, the relative genialities of the Fourth Scherzo were more than welcome, though Bae seemed more concerned with bringing out the elfin brilliance of the piano writing at the outset more than its good humour. There was breathtakingly delicate playing, with amazing right-hand work in places, the figurations at times just “brushed in”, everything clear as crystal, but light as air and swift as thought.  And the lyrical heart of the work was expressed with legato playing of such loveliness, it seemed churlish to wonder what it was that was in the young pianist’s mind other than the desire to make a beautiful sound. A friend I conferred with immediately after the concert felt much the same thing – that the virtuosity of the playing was breathtaking, but the lyrical moments needed more “character”.

Chopin reputedly said, once, that “if you want to play my music, go to hear Pasta or Rubini” – two of the stars of the opera at the time. Chopin loved the female voice as an instrument (though, surprisingly, he wrote fewer songs than did, say, Liszt), attended the opera regularly,  and befriended opera singers such as Pauline Viadot and Jenny Lind. Though his Nocturnes are celebrated as the most markedly lyrical works in his output, singing lines occur almost everywhere in his other compositions, as witness the central sections of these Scherzi. And just as a singer inflects the melodic lines he or she sings, according to the texts of the songs, so do Chopin’s melodies suggest appropriate dynamic and rhythmic nuance and a range of colour, according to the music’s overall character.

Throughout these Scherzi performances I thought Jason Bae readily captured a sense of the music’s excitement and dynamism, giving the works a wonderful volatile aspect, and a real sense of danger, of encountering the unexpected, and of conquering in places incredibly complex strands of creative impulse and making their intertwining cohere. He was able, as well, to display a gift for realizing a beautiful legato, one which was possible in many instances to enjoy as pure sound (as Chopin was reputed to have enjoyed the female voice or the sound of a violin). Still, in places in these performances I felt the need for more than beauty per se, for a stronger identification with the music’s expression that would give those sounds real intent.

The subjective nature of listening to music enables nine people in a room to add each of their very different impressions of a piece of a music to that of the musician playing it! – ten different reactions to the same piece of music! But I feel that what stimulates this process is the initial recreative thrust given by the performer – without that kind of interpretative commitment  on the part of a player, music can sound incredibly bland, for all the accuracy or surface beauty of its performance.  Bae himself demonstrated such a level of interpretative focus and skill in bringing to us, immediately after the interval,  the programme’s next item – this was Ronald Stevenson’s Fantasy on Peter Grimes, Benjamin Britten’s most famous opera.

Ronald Stevenson (whom I think of as Scottish, but who did have an English mother) died earlier this year at the age of 87. Called by commentators one of the great composer-pianists, his output was considerable, including both large-scale works, a huge body of transcriptions, and hundreds of miniatures. Though he’s credited with writing the longest single-movement work in the piano literature (his Passacaglia on DSCH, inspired by Shostakovich), his songs and piano transcriptions are the best-known of his works. Among the transcriptions for solo piano ( the style of Franz Liszt and his operatic transcriptions or “Reminiscences”) is this Fantasy, written in 1977, the year after Britten’s death.

Not dissimilar to Liszt’s Don Juan Fantasy, which recreates for the listener Mozart’s Don Giovanni through elaborating upon a number of scenes from the opera, though not in theatrical order, Stevenson sets about recreating certain subject-themes from “Peter Grimes”, and, unlike Liszt with “the Don” more-or-less following the design of the opera. Crashing chords with plaintive replies immediately evoke angry voices calling the outcast fisherman’s name at the opera’s beginning, followed by agitated, energetic figurations representing rumour and heresay swirling around Grimes’s head, suspected as he is of causing the death of one of his apprentice boys.

We heard the tumult of the storm and in its desolate wake an extended recitative with softly-whispered scintillations of stars in the firmament overhead, piano writing that staggered with its brilliance, sensitivity and sense of evocation. Jason Bae’s performance caught it all, revelling in the tumultuous piano-writing, but then recreating great vistas of silent, pitiless wonderment, as Grimes took the inevitable, tragic steps towards drowning himself at sea. All that was left at the end was the dawn, which the pianist magically brought into being by plucking the piano strings directly, sounding the “Daybreak” theme from the opera in doing so – a few evocatively-sounded Liszt-like chords, and the piece was over – what a work, and what a performance!

To conclude the recital, Jason Bae chose Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli, music composed as a kind of sequel to the composer’s second Années de Pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage) collection, consisting of impressions from his sojourns in Italy. There are three separate pieces in the work, the first two relating to the Venice (Venezia) part of the title, and a final Tarantella associated with Southern Italy (Napoli).

Beginning with a kind of introduction in which we heard the rhythm of the gondolier’s oar and the rippling of the water, the music intoned a popular song “La Biondina in Gondoletta”, Liszt most interestingly casting the opening music in the same key (F-sharp) as Chopin was to use in his Barcarolle for solo piano. Jason Bae gave us some exquisitely-sounded, shimmering textures throughout this section, voicing the gondolier’s song with great sensitivity, and making the accompanying arabesques scintillate all around the melody, perhaps not with gossamer ease in places, but certainly with sheer youthful delight! I loved the reminiscence of Berlioz’s “March of the Pilgrims” from his Symphony Harold en Italie at the end of the gondolier’s song, Liszt’s chiming notes recalling something of the dying echoes in Berlioz’s work.

The agitated Canzone which followed gave us the darker side of this picture, the music actually based on another gondolier’s song, this time by Rossini as used in his opera Otello Bae plunged himself and his instrument into this scenario of darkness and despair, leavening things a little in places with some resigned moments of light in the gloom before rechannelling his energies for another irruption which seemed to come out stamping and snorting! – to then immediately break into a tarantella, the “wildest of dances”, the pianist’s fingers flying over the keys, alternating strength and power with delicacy. Respite of sorts came with the cantabile theme, though as the piece gathered momentum, and the “swirl of the girl gone chancing, glancing, dancing” became wilder, some of the melody’s accompanying trajectories began to sound as hair-raising as the tarantella itself. The ending? – it was pure, unadulterated panache on both composer’s and performer’s part, and earned Jason Bae an enthusiastic and well-deserved reception.

We were returned to normality of a sorts by a couple of encores (yes, really! – and I’m obviously showing my age by remarking “and after all that expenditure of energy!”) – neither of the pieces I knew, though I laid bets with a friend afterwards as to their respective identities – the first, I thought sounded like Liszt, the second Rachmaninov! Thus far, neither of us has collected any winnings from the other, though I’m sure it’s only a matter of time……..

Teacher and Pupil for the ages – with Ludwig Treviranus at the piano

Hutt Valley Chamber Music presents
Ludwig Treviranus (piano)

Teacher and Pupil – Josef Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven

HAYDN – Piano Sonata in C Major Hob.XVI/50
Andante with Variations Hob.XVII/6

BEETHOVEN – Piano Sonata No.3 in C Op.2 No.3
Piano Sonata No.23 in F Minor Op.57 “Appassionata”

Little Theatre, Lower Hutt

Thursday, 24th September, 2015

One of the Wellington classical music scene’s great communicators, Ludwig Treviranus, gave an entertaining and thought- provoking recital, “Teacher and Pupil”, featuring music by both Haydn and Beethoven, as the final concert in Hutt Valley Chamber Music’s 2015 season.

With this recital the young pianist completes his second year of a three-year term as Performer-in-Residence for Hutt Valley Chamber Music – his aim throughout his tenure is to present varied and interesting concert experiences for audiences, and share his own joy in performing music that he loves.

As with his Lower Hutt recital about a year ago, he realized these objectives in great spadefuls, which were heaped up for our delight with characteristic gusto. Not for him the obligatory bow to the audience at the beginning, followed by the plunge into the music without ado – his attitude was that here was a group of like-minded people (including a number of children) to whom he could express his thoughts, ideas and feelings convening the music he was about to play.

Opinions will vary among concertgoers as to the efficacy of Treviranus’s friendly, easeful and communicative manner. I know there are people out there for whom ANY talking at a concert by either the artists themselves or the concert organizers is unacceptable, while others welcome the informality and “humanizing” process such an approach instigates. For myself, I’m of the feeling that a little talking , especially when done well, goes a long way, considering that we listeners are at the concert first and foremost for the music.

Ludwig Treviranus was, however, nothing if not determined. Having confessed that his recital’s overall theme was one that interested him greatly through having himself been both teacher and pupil in his music studies and activites, he talked about one of the most famous of these relationships, that which took place between Haydn and Beethoven. For the benefit of both teachers and pupils in the audience, he wasted no time in drawing parallels with what continues today when youth encounters experience.

Each of the concert’s halves was devoted to a particular aspect of the Haydn/Beethoven relationship, the first illustrating the respect Beethoven would have had at first for his venerable master via one of the pupil’s works. Beethoven’s C Major Op.2 No.3 Sonata was a perfect choice, as Haydnesque touches abound in the music, even if there are passages where the youthful Beethoven is palpably demonstrating that he already knows his own mind.

Before this was a demonstration of Haydn’s composition mastery via his wonderful C Major Piano Sonata Hob XVI/50, completed a year or so before Beethoven’s work. Ludwig Treviranus used the word “dazzling” to describe the work in his programme notes – and one really couldn’t do better than that. His performance brought out all that was in the music – its simple quirkiness, energy, humour, strength, subtlety, colour, and great dynamic range. And throughout the first movement the playing gathered up all of these qualities in beautifully-crafted spans, paragraphs of adventure which carried us along, right up to the final chords.

At the slow movement’s strummed, almost bardic beginning I thought I detected a pre-echo of a similar gesture which occurs in Beethoven’s “Tempest'” Sonata – the pianist brought out the music’s attractive melancholic vein with some deft detailing, bringing out, in the music’s “development”, some beautifully discursive touches. By contrast, the finale’s spiky, staccato manner played up the music’s humour, as did the pianist’s body language and (in one or two instances) facial expressions (a wry “where is this music taking me?” look that I thought was of a piece with the playing and interpretation.

So it was, when we moved to Beethoven’s Op.2 No.3 Piano Sonata, it seemed all very much of the same world at various points of the discourse, the “ready to pounce” aspect of the opening bars, the melancholy vein of the contrasting second subject and the skitterish lead-back to the opening mood. I noted Treviranus’s disinclination to play repeats in his concert a year ago, and it was the same throughout this concert (to my regret, in places).

Nevertheless there were compensations in the pianist’s seizure of the mood in the development section, the sense of striving towards something unattainable, the lovely legato which followed, and the élan in moving between these contrasts. The recapitulation kept us nicely guessing for a while as to what the music was about to do, Beethoven following Haydn’s example in playfulness and dynamic surprise – a wonderful modulation at the top of one of the runs sending us all tumbling down the other side of a hilltop into freshly-hued territories (a most magical use of the sustaining pedal!) which, when we picked ourselves up, seemed to uncannily “morph” back into the place where we were (this was all very impressively realized by the young pianist!)

The remainder of the sonata’s performance was of a piece – rich contrasting of the slow movement’s broken-phrased opening with its richly-hued middle section, the playing catching the stillness of it at magical moments, and then the “rolling-down-the-hill” fun of the scherzo, with the all-too-visceral “bump” at the bottom, followed by the lurching, bristling trio, the pianist’s sense of enjoyment reflected in his occasional “riding” of the piano stool! Somewhat more poised was the opening of the finale, Treviranus relishing its touches of insouciance whilst setting out to charm us with grace and style.  And so he did, encouraging the beautiful hymnal middle section to dance, and setting the song-birds trilling full-throatedly up to the unexpected (and rather Haydn-esque!) modulation into other realms, before the final and emphatic payoff.

So to the concert’s second half, which demonstrated in no uncertain terms the divergence of the two composers’ pathways. Haydn’s work was a finely-tailored Andante with Variations in the anguished key of F minor, a kind of “double variation”, beginning with two themes (one in F Major as well) and with variations on both of them. Though “contained” in a structural sense, the music’s expressive qualities lingered in a melancholy way long after the last notes had been sounded, the parameters of feeling imparting a distinctive character to the work.

However, turning from this to Beethoven’s “Appassionata” F Minor Piano Sonata, Ludwig Treviranus took us into what seemed like a completely new world of expression – though written as early as 1805, and while Haydn was still alive, here at the keyboard was sound and fury of hitherto undreamed power, a creative force which threatened to burst through walls and overflow structural confines in its quest to convey what it wanted to say.

Beethoven himself was immensely proud of this work, describing it as a “brilliantly-executed display of emotion and music”. I can’t think of another piece of music that displays a more single-minded and remorseless feeling of pursuing a definite goal, even throughout the work’s less stormy passages – perhaps this is due to the first movement’s second, more lyrical subject actually deriving from the sonata’s opening, and the second movement’s theme-and variations resembling more the resonances of a coiled spring rather than a lyrical outpouring, one which, at its end suddenly unleashes its pent-up energies.

Passages in Ludwig Treviranus’s performance came off magnificently – the opening, for instance, immediately created a dark, brooding ambience whose cataclysmic outbursts – immediately after the portentous Fifth Symhony reminiscences – made someone sitting just in front of me in the auditorium visibly start from their seat! A pity the pianist then had a momentary lapse of memory, omitting several of the jagged ascents before the appearance of the second subject – he seemed to hesitate for an instant, but recovered splendidly to give us a beautifully-coloured second subject (unlike in usual sonata-form practice up to that time, a simple ascending variant of the work’s opening three notes).

Throughout the rest of the movement he was at one with the music’s dynamism, drama and relentless, obsessive spirit – only in the great mid-movement tumultuous keyboard descent did the repeated figurations seem to me a touch mechanical (in fact, his upward-thrusting approach to this passage I had thought splendidly prepared – I simply felt the need for a bit more interpretative “grunt” as the music cascaded downwards – it was one of those moments that didn’t seem quite in accord with the idea that in this work Beethoven was shaping the music’s form rather than allowing form (or, in this sequence, simply gravity) to shape the music…….

Still, the ending of the movement conveyed the creative spirit’s force with more-than-sufficient abandon, the last few notes of the coda leaving us properly agape with breathless astonishment! Very properly, the pianist then brought out the warmth and depth of the slow movement’s tightly-wrought theme, the variations allowing us to breathe again more easily, and enjoy the decorative versions of the theme, albeit atop its fettered energies. But there was no escaping the inevitable – Treviranus caught the eerie, brooding darkness of the unexpected modulatory chord at the end of the movement, again transfixing us with a lightning-flash, and hurling the same notes at us like a “horror fanfare”, before the music was plunged headlong into the swirling depths – what drama and excitement!

It wasn’t a performance of the finale which maintained a crackling voltage from first note to last (as was Michael Houstoun’s in Wellington during 2014 – the most INVOLVED playing I’ve ever witnessed from the latter) – Treviranus gave us intensities in great surges, rather than depicting the music as a remorseless torrent. Even if I felt his overall focus “came and went” through this approach, he managed to re-imbue the music with its essential momentum, bringing the tensions splendidly to a head with the coda.

Opinion is divided among commentators regarding Beethoven’s inclusion of the repeat of the development and recapitulation in the finale – having been “brought up” with a recording that observed this repeat, I always feel as though an essential part of the music has been torn away (including a few transitional bars one wouldn’t otherwise hear at all) if this sequence is cut. Treviranus didn’t play it – one does sympathize with any performer of this music in a live recital on purely physical grounds! – it’s a decision which I regretfully record here, but philosophically accept as part of the interpretation, in this case (adding, perhaps a little unfairly, that for me it was the INCLUSION of this repeat that helped contribute to the success of Michael Houstoun’s aforemetioned magisterial performance of a year ago).

Not wanting to finish a review lamenting something that the performer DIDN’T do, I need to emphasize that Treviranus’s heroic, devil-take-the-hindmost way with the fast and furious coda made for a stirring show of defiance and all-out resolve at the end. And so that we wouldn’t emerge TOO ashen-faced from the recital hall, the pianist gave us a beautifully-breathed palate-cleansing encore in the form of the opening of Schumann’s Kinderscenen.

Guitarist Jamie Garrick in charming, idiomatic lunchtime recital

Jamie Garrick (guitar)

(Prelude from Lute Suite in C minor by Bach)
Le départ – Le retour
by Napoléon Coste
Études esquises (excerpts) by Gerald Garcia
Julia Florida by Agustin Barrios
Suite del Recuerdo by José Luis Merlin

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 23 September, 12:15 pm

Very unusually for these more punctual days, my train from Wellington’s northern reaches was late and I missed the first piece and some introductory words from the guitarist. I missed the Prelude from one of Bach’s lute suites, in C minor, BWV 997.

Coste’s Le départ – le retour was under way and I found myself in the world of his early 19th century contemporaries, Fernando Sor, Giuliani, or perhaps Berlioz (who also played the guitar and was two years older than Coste), composers with whom I am much more familiar.

Clearly Jamie Garrick is at home with this very singable music, for he can make the guitar sing, weaving through the rhythms, beautifully breathed, like the bel canto opera of the time (Bellini was also a near contemporary). This was an age when the guitar had become very popular, with several composers writing very popular concertos such as Giuliani and Carulli.

The other three pieces were by 20th century composers. The pieces from Gerald Garcia’s 25 Études esquises were quite short. They were divertingly varied in tone and style, from the first fluent piece, the third dominated by repeated notes high on the E string, then a piece with a melody that rose and fell, built on series of discrete and agreeable phrases. Not a monumental, Beethovenish creation but an attractive sampling of only 20 percent of the whole collection.

The recital’s best-known guitar composer followed: the Paraguayan Agustin Barrios. Julia Florida is a barcarolle, written in 1938, late in his life; Garrick played it unaffectedly, capturing the gentle sadness and charm of its melody.

José Luis Merlin, born in 1952, is also a South American, born in Argentina. His Suite del recuerdo, a collection of six short, characteristic pieces of great variety. It opened with an Evocacion , described as sad and nostalgic, which was repeated as the fifth movement, providing a rather gladdening memory (recuerdo) of its earlier exposition, the heart of the suite perhaps, and making the warmest emotional impression. Most of the other pieces were lighter and happier in tone and for the most part the music avoided commonplace guitar devices. Though No 4, Carnavalito, which seemed to depict a fairly sedate carnival, indulged in some characteristic strumming.

Garrick is a talented young player with an unerring instinct for an attractive and imaginative approach to the guitar, and the ability to make music that moves beyond conventional notions of the character of guitar music.


JS BACH since the time of Bach – Michael Houstoun

Chamber Music New Zealand presents:
INSPIRED BY BACH – Michael Houstoun

JS BACH – Partita No.1 in B-flat BWV 825
ROSS HARRIS – Fugue (for piano)
SERGEY RACHMANINOV – Suite from Violin Partita (after JS Bach)
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH – Prelude and Fugue No.24 in D Minor Op.87
FRANZ LISZT – Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor (after JS Bach)

Michael Houstoun (piano)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Wednesday, 23rd September, 2015

Many people regard Johann Sebastian Bach as the greatest composer who ever lived – he’s certainly one of those “elect” few whose creative musical achievements have in their time and/or since drawn forth the highest and most frequent praise from performers, scholars and ordinary music-listeners. But as such judgements involving creativity are prone to subjectivity and influenced by fashion, it’s impossible to verify “greatness” in any pure, abstract or objective way. More to the point, perhaps is to assess Bach’s “greatness” by the range and scope of his music’s influence upon other creative artists.

The old saying “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” comes well-and-truly into its own when considering Bach’s influence upon music in general. Even during the period immediately after his death, when his works fell into obscurity and his fame was temporarily eclipsed by his sons, most notably Carl Philippe Emmanuel, connoisseurs remained aware of “Old Bach’s” music, and kept it alive – people like the Viennese aristocrat Baron Von Swieten, one of Mozart’s patrons, who urged the composer to transcribe some Bach fugues for string ensemble; and Beethoven’s teacher Christian Gottlob Neefe, who put the eleven-year-old Ludwig onto the Well-Tempered Clavier as part of his tuition.

Bach’s skill as a contrapuntist doubtlessly informed Beethoven’s renowned use of fugal passages in his music – Beethoven reputedly remarked that Bach (whose name translates as “brook”) ought to have been called “Meer” (which means “ocean”). In both his and Mozart’s later music the fugal style a la Johann Sebastian B’s example plays a significant role. Though Chopin never composed any fugues he was a devotee of Bach’s keyboard music, as reflected in the  beautiful clarity of his counterpointed passages (the fourth Ballade containing particularly lovely examples). Liszt and Schumann, also both devotees of Bach, did compose fugues, besides writing numerous passages in their works directly linked with a contrapuntal style (parts of Schumann’s Second Symphony present one example, while the fugue in Liszt’s B Minor Piano Sonata provides another).

Michael Houstoun’s “Inspired by Bach” presentation for Chamber Music New Zealand, sent such spheres of Bachian influence spinning into the 21st century, with Ross Harris’s 2015 work Fugue (for piano), premiered on this very recital tour, and presented cheek-by jowl with another Kiwi’s homage to baroque forms, Douglas Lilburn’s Chaconne (written in 1946). Also in the program was the last and greatest of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and fugues for piano, a work directly inspired by Shostakovich’s hearing of his compatriot Tatiana Nikolayeva’s playing of (you’ve guessed it!) the ubiquitous Well-Tempered Clavier. We heard, too, from composer-pianist Sergey Rachmaninov, who, besides writing a set of piano variations on a theme of Corelli, transcribed several of the movements from Bach’s solo violin Partita in E for piano.

Of course, the “prince” of transcribers was Franz Liszt, whose tireless activities produced works for the keyboard drawn from almost every genre of music of his day. Though known for his “fantasias”, freely-wrought representations of themes and sequences from works by other composers, Liszt also devoted enormous energies to faithful transcriptions of works such as the nine Beethoven Symphonies, simply for the purpose of being able to perform the music in places which had no orchestras. A more-than-competent organist himself, Liszt devoted much attention to the work of Bach, writing original works based on Bachian structures (such as Weinen, Klargen, Sorgen, Zargen, for solo piano), but making transcriptions for the instrument of the Six Organ Preludes and Fugues BWV 543-548, and a slightly “freer” transcription of the Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor BWV 542,  the latter work played here.

It can be seen by all of this that the programme as devised was filled with interest and potential excitement – and most fittingly, Michael Houstoun began the evening with the great progenitor’s own Partita No.1 in B-flat  BWV 825. Straightaway we were treated to brightly-focused playing, with trilled ornaments relished to the full, the trajectories steady, but subtly varied, the implied orchestrations apparent but organic – and there was a lovely, romantic-sounding ritardando at the Praeludium’s end. I enjoyed also the chatty, energetic Allemande, with its full-throated voicings, as well as the bumptious and characterful Corrente, the piano’s slightly nasal left-hand register giving this music an attractively varied timbre in places.

Often a form containing great feeling and profundity in Bach’s music, the Sarabande here emanated poise and majesty the first time round, then found a shimmering resonance on its repeat – so very lovely! As for the two Menuets, the first  was given a sturdy, forthright character by Houstoun, who then moved to the second as if in a trance, allowing the music to dream its course, and then returning most tellingly to the opening to complete the ABA structure, thus enabling each dance to highlight the other’s attributes. So to the final Gigue, which has never seemed to me like a Gigue (or “Jig”) at all, lacking that skipping, dotted-rhythm aspect – though in Houstoun’s hands liveliness it certainly had, a kind of molto perpetuo character in fact, breathless and exhilarating!

Ross Harris’s piece Fugue (for piano) seemed to me to “scintillate” fugal form from its insides, the seeds of impulse to my ears growing, sparking and shooting forth notes and their configurations, and creating rich and strange worlds of variegated beauty. It was a soundscape that seemed to constantly reinvent itself, by turns haunting itself with its own ambiences, and providing reassurance through sequences of echo and inversion. The piece spread its amplitude almost by stealth, the figures tightly-woven, but expansively-placed, beautifully resonant bass notes reflecting the light from stars tumbling in the firmament, the irruptions of energy in places almost “Hammerklavier-like” in dynamic effect, and contrasting with the pinpricks of sound softly illuminating moments of stillness. Metrical contrapuntal lines broke free of confines and seemed to cosmically open up the music’s vistas, similar in feeling to those in Beethoven’s Bach-inspired Op.111 Piano Sonata’s finale. Such infinities of space between the sounds! The composer’s “three fugue subjects” certainly brought forth a rich panoply of both connective and otherwise exploratory tissue, the whole given an extraordinary range of strength, transparency and colour by Michael Houstoun’s assured playing.

A chaconne’s musical form is variation over a repeating bass line or harmonic sequence – it was a popular form for Baroque composers, one of the most famous examples being Bach’s  Chaconne from the Partita in D Minor for unaccompanied violin. Douglas Lilburn’s use of the form reflected not only his admiration for Bach’s music but his desire to produce some kind of “testament of faith”, stimulated by a combination of South Island landscape and the composer’s belief in the idea of expressing his feelings in music, putting, as he later described it, “an enormous amount of myself into the notes”.

Originally called “Theme and Variations for Piano”, this work had to wait for its premiere for eight years before ex-patriate New Zealander Peter Cooper took it up and made a broadcast recording of the work from London (he subsequently re-recorded it in the studio for Pye Records during the nineteen-sixties). Since then it’s received several more recordings, including one by Michael Houstoun.

As with the recording, I thought this performance was a tremendous achievement! Houstoun’s playing seemed to me a shade tauter here in concert, compared with the studio reading, more “direct” and outwardly energized, though recognizably the same interpretation, with its bigness of heartbeat and awareness of surroundings set amid the forward momentum. The performance established strongly- focused purpose, but also allowed great wonderment in places, registering the world’s stillness and processes of renewal, so that the strengthening of resolve that welled up out of the visionary moments had plenty of engaging surface excitement plus a treasurable sense of well-being. The playing seemed to me to readily evoke both the observer’s spirit and the essence of what was experienced, however sharply contrasted – now strong and purposeful, now dreamy and ruminatory.

Perhaps the work’s “home stretch” could have done with a touch more rhetoric, a few moments’ added tonal and figurative extension – the ending of the work always seems to me to, in a sense, “ambush” the listener, like a homecoming that’s just around a corner, rather than one glimpsed or sensed from a long way off! – but Houstoun, as he tends to do by sheer dint of focus and concentration in all of his performances, made it work in its present context, leaving us replete at the end with our journeys’ revelations.

Sergey Rachmaninov’s regular complaint was that he had neither time nor inclination to compose, having to live the life of a travelling virtuoso pianist. On the strength of his transcriptions of parts of Bach’s E Major Violin Partita, it’s a pity he wasn’t able to turn his hand to more such transcription work (obviously for his own use as a performer, but for our inestimable benefit as well!). His work demonstrates a composer’s awareness of content as much as a feeling for display, so that in these works the spirit of the original in many places shines triumphantly through the virtuoso brilliance. Each of the three movements were characterfully realized, Houstoun relishing in particular the “Gavotte”, with its mischievous, even suggestive impulses, the music seeming in places to wink knowingly at us before artlessly moving on…….

What a contrast was provided by Dmitri Shostakovich’s monumental conclusion to his Op.87 set of Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues, a set directly inspired by the Well-Tempered Clavier! For many people at the recital whom I spoke with afterwards,  Houstoun’s performance of this D Minor pairing of Prelude and Fugue was was the highlight of the evening’s music-making, so overwhelming it was in its cumulative impact. Particularly impressive, both music- and performance-wise, were the contrasts between and the coming-together of the work’s disparate elements, such as the imperious, organ-like opening of the Prelude, and its tolling-bell conclusion, out of which grew the Fugue’s beginnings, the counterpoints in places so very rapt and ecstatic, like a bird singing at dawn, yet leading to a massive, angst-ridden build-up of interactive splendour. The sounds here at once transcended the solo instrument’s range and scope, yet in context felt as all-encompassing as was obviously intended by its composer – stirring stuff!

In a sense the Liszt transcription of Bach’s G Minor Fantasy and Fugue BWV 542 was the recital’s “return” to the world of the master – though the transcription of this work featured some additional melodic embellishment and harmonic filling-out of the Prelude, the Fugue is more-or-less as Bach wrote it (albeit with Liszt’s dynamic markings). After the Shostakovich had overwhelmed us all, I was wondering how this item would actually stand up, in (to “corrupt” a phrase, somewhat) an “Après le deluge, moi!” sense – but transcriber and performer between them ensured that full justice was done to Bach – an act of “double homage”, really. And when it was all over, Houstoun returned to the platform to assist all of us to “return to our lives” with a serene rendition of the Siciliano movement from Bach’s Flute Sonata BWV 1031, a transcription, incidentally, by another great master, pianist Wilhelm Kempff. I confess I had to afterwards seek assistance regarding the identity of this piece, knowing the melody” but not its actual name!                                                               

New Zealand String Quartet’s extensive tour ends in Wellngton, a triumph

New Zealand String Quartet: Russian Icons

Nikolai Kapustin: ‘Fuga’ from String Quartet no.1
Stravinsky: Three Pieces for String Quartet
Shostakovich: String Quartet no.4 in D (allegretto, andantino, allegretto, attacca – allegretto)
Borodin: String Quartet no.2 in D (allegro moderato, scherzo, nocturne: andante, finale: andante – vivace)

New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl and Douglas Beilman, violins; Gillian Ansell, viola; Rolf Gjelsten, cello)

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University of Wellington

Sunday, 20 September 2015, 3pm

This was the last concert in a tour of 11 towns and cities (there were two concerts in Wellington) in which the quartet performed four separate programmes, incorporating seven different Russian works for string quartet.

The second Wellington concert drew a large audience to the Hunter Council Chamber.  Here was a real chamber – not a church or a concert hall, but a room ideal for chamber music.  Audience members could be close to the players, but the room’s double height meant a favourable acoustic, revealing the full resonance and tone of the instruments and of the music they played.

The short works in the first half were unfamiliar to me, but were interesting. Nikolai Kapustin is a contemporary composer, born in 1937.  His work is heavily influenced by jazz.  The music began with the cello playing a jazzy melody while the other players tapped on their instruments with the wood of their bows.  This was followed by the second violin, then the viola and finally the first violin playing the melody, with the cello now playing pizzicato.

The interweaving melodies became quite romantic, utilising variable rhythms over an underlying pulse.  Driving intensity built up, followed by more jocund phrases.  There were rapid episodes where the sounds made it seem as though each instrument was playing a separate piece of music.  Relatively calmer passages intervened between the frenetic ones.  There was a sudden, amusing ending.

Helene Pohl spoke to the audience about the Kapustin and Stravinsky works before the latter was played.  The composer later arranged the Three Pieces, which were very short, for his Four Studies for Orchestra, where the three were given apt titles ‘Dance’, ‘Eccentric’ and ‘Canticle.  It was explained that the subject of the second was a clown with a limp.

The pieces started with a difficult, hectic, pulsating dance for three instruments, while the viola maintained a steady stream of notes played sul ponticello (almost on the instrument’s bridge).  Then the limping clown showed up, in off-the-beat rhythm.  There was strong pizzicato followed by a charming little violin solo while the others continued the pizzicato.  ‘Canticle’ consisted largely of long, slow, unusual chords with interesting shifts in harmony.  To end there was a short but beautiful section of the instruments employing harmonics (the high notes obtained by touching the strings lightly rather than pressing them down).

Doug Beilman, playing probably his last public concert in Wellington as a member of the quartet (for 26 years), gave a longer introduction to the major work on the programme, the Shostakovich quartet.  He noted that the composer admired Stravinsky, though was forced to have a speech delivered on his behalf in New York that denounced the older composer.  Beilman noted  Shostakovich’s circumstances at the time of writing the quartet, and pointed to the placement of a dance on a Jewish theme as the third movement, at a time when anti-semitism was still rife in official Soviet circles.

The quartet’s opening was quite balmy and cheerful, with full-bodied sound from the instruments, and slow, rich and mellow chords.  The second movement began with a melancholic violin solo, underpinned with dour couplets from second violin and viola.  The cello joined in with deep, sonorous notes, the whole building to a higher pitch of almost excruciating tension.  Closely-spaced intervals spoke of sorrow and distress.  Suddenly the heaviness wore off, as if exhausted, and the three upper instruments seemed to be quietly recovering from the effort.   Rich chords returned briefly, with plaintive plangency.

The third movement opened in bouncy style, with the Jewish folk-influenced melody.  The mood was piquant, not entirely extraverted. Melodies began to soar; added mutes changed the quality and timbre of the sound, yet the music became more frenetic. The folk melody became somewhat insistent before a new melody on viola intervened, with intermittent pizzicato from the other players.  Harsh pizzicato chords took over with the fourth movement, accompanying equally harsh melodies on the violins, then there were very exciting, even disturbing passages.

The instruments were played for all they were worth, demanding much energy from the performers.  Mutes were remounted, and a more peaceful, calming down section ensued.  A considerable emotional journey had been travelled.  This was an outstanding performance.

The work following the interval could not have been more different.  Borodin’s lovely second quartet was introduced by Gillian Ansell.  As she said, it is one of the best-loved string quartets, with famous melodies in the second and third movements.

The composer wrote it for his wife on their 20th wedding anniversary; Gillian informed us that Helene Pohl and Rolf Gjelsten had very recently celebrated the same anniversary (applause).  The sublime, romantic melodies were eminently appropriate for such occasions – and they were composed by someone who was not a full-time composer, but were written when time was available from his scientific job.  The cello part epitomised Borodin, and the first violin, his wife Ekaterina.

The airy, exalted feeling of the first movement certainly elevated my mood.  The interplay between instruments was quite delightful; after the stresses of Shostakovich, this was so relaxing!

The scherzo second movement was sunny and bright, yet whimsical also.  The gorgeous opening melody of the well-known nocturne, was first played on cello, and soon taken up by the first violin, while the others supplied beautiful lower parts.  The romantic nature of the music suggests yearning.  Then the dance-like riposte got into its stride with clarity and cheerfulness.  Phrases from the melody returned at a variety of pitches.  The movement ended with a languorous repeat of the theme.

The finale opens in declamatory style, then there is a high-speed, animated development.  Many enchanting variations on the opening theme follow, with much dynamic variation.

These accomplished players gave us the lot without reserve throughout the concert;  the audience’s enthusiasm was genuine and unanimous.  Four of the most beautiful bouquets could not have been more well-deserved – and another for Helen Philpott, who represented the tour’s sponsors, the Turnovsky Endowment Trust.

This was one of the most satisfying chamber music concerts I have attended in a considerable time.  All the hallmarks of NZSQ – splendid tone, impeccable style, intonation and dynamics and playing with absolute unanimity were there, plus outstanding performance of difficult work.


Admirably adventurous piano programme from Jason Bae at Waikanae

Jason Bae – piano

Liszt: Three concert études, S 144 (Il lamento, La leggierezza, Un sospiro)
Puccini/Mikhashoff: Portrait of Madame Butterfly
Chopin: The four Ballades

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 20 September 2:30 pm

The concert by Jason Bae was one of a nationwide series arranged through Chamber Music New Zealand. He also plays, a different programme (see our Coming Events), on 27 September at St Andrew’s on The Terrace for Wellington Chamber Music.

It is commonly a mark of an intelligent and serious minded musician when he plays entire works and, where it’s feasible, complete sets of pieces. Liszt’s Three Concert Études and the four Chopin Ballades are examples of groups of pieces that benefit from being heard together, and formed the major part of an interesting programme.

Il lamento announces its subject with a series of descending phrases, though with little decorative turns that partly disguise much overt grief. In fact, to my ears, rather than the loss of a loved one, it suggests the sort of emotion one feels at the end of an exciting and happy holiday, when the reality of work and chores looms again; but always tempered by delightful memories, and that was reflected in the somewhat sentimental tune that takes over through most of the study. Bae’s playing was unaffected, free of any rhetorical or theatrical excesses, and he even maintained a fairly limited dynamic range, hardly above a mezzo-forte.

La leggierezza assumes a tone that is, of course, lighter, creating a mood of pleasure, where circumstances have produced an ebullience in the spirit; it was fluent and colourful and though he seemed to hit the notes purposefully, they were never percussive.

And Il sospiro, understandably more popular as a result of its sighing (if I can’t find a better word), mildly reflective tone; again even tone, taking full advantage of the fact that humans have two hands; and loving warmth rather than self-indulgence. The trio of beguiling pieces induced me, at home, to dig out a couple of LPs, one by Katchen, one by Jerome Rose, both in lovely warm analogue sound, in performances that hardly surpassed what I’d heard a few hours before in Waikanae.

One approaches arrangements or transcriptions or paraphrases or reminiscences or pot-pourris of others’ music with caution (I’m still thinking of Liszt of course, though a lot of his are wonderfully heart-warming and exciting). An arrangement, perhaps rather a fantasia, on music from Act II of Madama Butterfly, by an American pianist/composer Yvar Mikhashoff (real name Ronald Mackay), is one of several transcriptions from Puccini operas which have been recorded by Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

It’s a very creditable and attractive piece, with most of the recognisable themes from ‘Un bel di’ and the Flower Duet onward; they captured the spirit of self-delusion and of the character of the opera generally. It seemed to be cast the three parts, like a classical suite, with plenty of scintillating virtuosity that suited Jason splendidly.

Then came the rare chance to hear all four of Chopin’s Ballades played successively. They run almost the full gamut of Chopin’s composing life in Paris from 1831 to 1842, and explore all the moods to be found in his piano music: the delicacy, the achingly melodic, the sentimental, the massive climaxes, the limpid gentleness; from passages that even an ordinary pianist can cope with to the parts where that pianist simply closes the score and gets a recording. I

These were admirable performances, which seemed to be enhanced by close proximity to each other. They are hard work and I sensed that towards the end a little tiredness revealed itself. One sometimes wonders whether it is only musical tradition that permits some disparate groups of movements to be known as sonatas or suites and others, like Schubert’s Impromptus or his Drei Klavierstücke, like Chopin’s Scherzi or Ballades, which are rarely played as a group. But then, the challenge of playing them all in a row might be quite a persuasive reason.

After most of the crowd stood in acclamation, Jason talked his way to playing another tough piece, another opera transcription. Because he judged that not many in the audience might have been familiar with the story of Peter Grimes, he went through it and then played a seven-minute-long Peter Grimes Fantasy by Ronald Stevenson, a pianist and composer who died earlier this year (why is he only a vague name to me?). It’s a fantasy on many of the musical ideas in Britten’s great opera and the sounds he produced created a disturbingly realistic impression of the opera, with recognizable moments like the storm, Ellen’s Embroidery aria, motifs from the last harrowing scene, suggesting the dawn and the sea and the work’s enigmatic conclusion. Towards the end he stood to reach inside the piano to pluck the strings: for once with some musical purpose. Though the place in the opera of the little evanescent motif eluded me, it conjured the uncanny atmosphere that Britten evoked during the depiction of Grimes’s crisis and disappearance.

I found a quote by pianist John Humphreys about Stevenson’s piece: “His seven minute ‘Peter Grimes Fantasy’ encapsulates the essence of the opera in a way that astonished Britten at a private performance in Aldeburgh”.

As an encore it was courageous and in a way, was the most revelatory and memorable piece that we heard in the afternoon. It also revealed something of the breadth, and perhaps the depth, of this young musician’s musical experience and understanding; he is no mere piano virtuoso, but a well-schooled artist with an admirable curiosity, and the entire programme reflected those qualities.



Welllington Chamber Orchestra – significant, important, moving……

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:

LILBURN – A Song of Islands / Symphony No.1 (1949)
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS – Concerto for Tuba in F Minor / Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1

Naomi Christensen (tuba)
Ian Ridgewell (conductor)
Wellington Chamber Orchestra

St Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday, 20th September, 2015

A significant, important and moving concert. Significant? – with two works by Douglas Lilburn included, the orchestra splendidly commemorated the composer’s 100th birthday year. Important? – the concert included in the programme Lilburn’s First Symphony, one that ought to be in our main-centre orchestras’ regular concert repertoire, but is hardly ever played – see “Stop Press” below, however. Moving? – the concert was dedicated by the orchestra to the memory of one of its members who had recently died, the well-known luthier and ‘cellist, Ian Lyons.

Besides the actual concert, two of Ian Lyons’ close friends, Chris and Anna Van Der Zee, together with the NZSO’s Alan Molina and former principal ‘cellist of the same orchestra, David Chickering, played, at the beginning of the second half, the slow movement from Haydn’s String Quartet in D Major Op.20 No.4. – a beautiful and appropriate gesture.

Conducting the orchestra for the concert proper was Ian Ridgewell, English-born with a background in tuba-playing, composition (he studied with with Sir Malcolm Arnold) and conducting, both of brass bands and symphony orchestras, currently living and working in the Wellington region as a teacher of music. And, to add to the concert’s interest, one of the items was none other than a Tuba Concerto by Vaughan Williams, played by Naomi Christensen, who was awarded “Brass Player of the Year” for 2014 at Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music here in Wellington. We were told, in a brief biographical note in the program, that her “journey with the Tuba” began at aged ten, “from atop a pile of ‘phone books (allowing her to reach the mouthpiece)” – presumably not just the telephone’s, judging by the skill and ease with which she handled her instrument.

For the orchestra it seemed no easy task to tackle not merely one, but TWO challenging pieces by Lilburn. Though the Symphony is the later work, it seemed to me that the “Song” was in some ways just as difficult a nut to crack, both technically (it contained some extremely difficult string-writing) and interpretatively (needing a strong and secure “overview”, without which the music would have simply wandered and become shapeless and confused). To both the players’ and the conductor’s credit these things were well-attended to, the playing focused and detailed, the overall view purposeful and clearly laid out as the piece progressed.

The music opened strongly and emphatically, given enough space to allow the rolling phrases plenty of room and the brass plenty of time to expand. I enjoyed the prominence given to the finely-crafted appearances of those warm, golden harmonies which seemed to impart a glow over the vast oceanic spaces and the ruggedness of the terrain. Importantly the conductor maintained tight rhythmic control, designed to keep the music’s underlying pulses alive, while capturing detailings like the oceanic swells and the contours of the freshly-discovered landscapes.

Throughout the strings and winds had a somewhat volatile interaction, each having a turn at being either thematic or rhythmic – in some places the debt by Lilburn to Sibelius was palpably demonstrated,  but invariably with a South Seas accent. These exchanges were punctuated by moments of great splendour on the brasses, sounding the composer’s “song” while the rest of the orchestral textures kaleidoscopically energized and interacted with great volatility. The ecstasy of fulfillment at the end as strings and then brass “humanized” the orchestral textures brought out some great playing from all concerned.

Something completely different was the Vaughan Williams Tuba Concerto, a work which has provoked divided responses among listeners and critics ever since its composition in 1954, but which has steadily increased its following and popularity, having since been recorded over a dozen times. It’s a fine, jovial work, rumbustious in the outer movements and surprisingly expressive in the central Romanza movement. What a performance here from this young musician! With on-the-spot support from conductor and orchestra, Naomi Christensen and her alter ego of an instrument brought out all of the music’s character, to begin with bluff good humour, and then plenty of swagger and wry rhythmic agility both in the second subject section, and throughout the jaw-dropping cadenza.

That legendary tuba-playing raconteur Gerard Hoffnung would have , I’m sure, enjoyed her playing immensely, both here, and in the nostalgia-tinted central movement, where the soloist “partnered” the string melodies at the outset, later adding occasional piquant touches, rather like what an observer would do while walking through the midst of a glorious landscape. As for the last movement, the solo instrument was hardly silent, leading the bucolic romp with great élan, the orchestra allowed only a tiny moment of self-contained glory just before the final cadenza – again, masterly playing from the soloist, wryly-expressed rhetorical gestures with wonderful trills, and a cataclysmic “all fall down” finish. Glorious and memorable!

And what a lovely contrast the same composer’s Norfolk Rhapsody No.1 made in the concerto’s wake – At first the single lines of the opening (oboe and strings) sounded a little raw, but with the clarinet’s entry and the string harmonies warming the textures, the sound sweetened and began to glow – the principal viola, Stephanie van Dyk, deservedly singled out afterwards for a beautiful bit of solo playing, with the clarinet closely in support. I thought the ambient vistas were captured most effectively by the winds, both solos and concerted work with the strings, the oboe especially coming into its own here and delivering some lovely lines. An almost Delian sweep was achieved, the tutti delivering the rhapsodic aspect of the music splendidly and richly.

The maritime-like tunes which launched the allegro section came together after a slightly ragged start, establishing a characteristic gait and building, with brass and percussion, to a stirring climax, before the sounds began taking their leave of us, gradually returning to the solitary ambiences of the opening, winds giving us a valedictory version of the opening melody and the brasses softly chiming in with a slower haunting reminiscence of the central dance. At the end the oboe and strings, now thoroughly acclimatised, gently and sensitively sounded those opening strains as if it had all been a dream.

After the interval it was to the business of the Lilburn Symphony that we all turned. It began most promisingly, a bright, breezy trumpet call activated the echoes and ambiences, allowing a lovely Copland-esque feeling (I had, I confess, the previous evening, heard the NZSO play the Four Rodeo Dance Episodes!), with the dancing rhythms kept steadily on the rails. There’s such great brass writing in this work and the players here did so well, even if the St.Andrew’s ambience made them sound too uncomfortably close in places. The movement abounded in tricky dovetailings which conductor Ian Ridgewell and his players brought off so well, some sticky moments apart. The brass and winds were mostly right “on”, the wind lines in particular very tangy and earthy, while the strings strove mightily, recreating those characteristic tightly-knit tensions that make up the Lilburn sound.

So I was disappointed that, after maintaining such strong and secure trajectories for his players throughout and up to this point, the conductor then, I thought, pushed the slow movement along too quickly – the players seemed unable to settle, to properly hook into that obsessive rhythmic pattern, with the slight lack of synchronization producing a somewhat raucous result in places. Fortunately, once the brass were given their heads the rhythm seemed to steady – the horns were particularly steadfast, here, and things seemed to come together – how bleak at its centre some of this music is! And why don’t our orchestras play it more often?

The finale excitingly and abruptly unfurled, like a vast curtain being thrown suddenly open! – dark, almost Tapiola-like statements from the strings created a brooding, expectant atmosphere, the winds and brass soundinging particular “northern”, with moments of sunlight breaking through the clouds and just as quickly disappearing. When the rhythmic explosion suddenly drove detail into a frenzy, with warning shouts from the wind and brass, I was afraid that, again, the tempi would be too quick for these players – and indeed, some of the articulation was a blur at this speed – but mixed with the scrambling aspect was a certain edge-of-seat excitement, which saw the music through. Everything was excitingly capped by the brass and timpani, even if I felt the strings in particular were put under a lot of pressure in places.

The music’s sudden plunge back into the void of the movement’s opening was splendidly done – strings were angsting and winds were skirling in fine style – and those great building-blocks of sound which grew out of the built-up energies were here most satisfyingly sounded by the brass and timpani, a mighty and well-deserved sense of arrival, one which we in the audience truly relished. So, in all, warmest congratulations to conductor Ian Ridgewelll and his band of sterling musicians!

STOP PRESS: I’ve beaten my breast a couple of times in this review as to the relative neglect of this music over the years, but am equally excited to report that the Te Tōkī NZSM Orchestra’s planned Lilburn concert on Thursday October 1st at the Basilica in Hill Street, ALSO features this same First Symphony (as well, incidentally, as – you’ve guessed it! – Vaughan Williams’ Norfolk Rhapsody No.1!) So, as a change from famine conditions, it’s good to be able to enjoy, in the case of this remarkable symphony, a feast!
















Wellington G&S with another hit in funny, well-sung The Gondoliers

Wellington G & S Light Opera Company

The Gondoliers by Arthur Sullivan and William Gilbert
Musical director: Hugh McMillan; stage director: Wayne Morris; producer: Stuart Gordon

Lead singers: William McElwee, Orene Tiai, Laura Loach, Charlotte Gartrell, John Goddard, Malinda Di Leva, Georgia Jamieson Emms, Mark Bobb, Chris Whelan,

The Opera House

Saturday 19 September, 7:30 pm

G&S goes on and on. Hard to think of another composer whose music in a certain genre has acquired such a single-minded following from so many, and of those, one suspects, some don’t particularly enjoy any other kind of opera or musical theatre, or even any other kind of classical music. Offenbach has no comparable cult status in France; nor Lehár or Kálmán in Austria; nor any one composer of zarzuela in Spain. Though in all cases, the relevant numbers of operettas is considerably larger than the usual
canon of G&S.

The G&S repertoire is rather small after all. Out of the total of fourteen operettas on which the two men collaborated, only about eight can be regarded as being in the standard repertory. Compare with the far greater number from each of the many prominent operetta composers of France, Austria, Germany. The number of extant zarzuelas is reputed to exceed 1000.

The Gondoliers, which was the last successful collaboration between composer and librettist, was well chosen for its contemporary New Zealand relevance. It deals with one unusual issue – the novelty of the introduction of the limited liability law – but also normal social issues of class, the nobility, honours, republicanism, the question of equality – everything but the flag; perhaps the flag controversy can be seen hovering just below the balustrade. As important for the success of the piece, apart from the full ration of splendid tunes, was the conventionally contrived plot involving misalliances, a missing heir to a Ruritanian throne, which is temporarily shared, giving Gilbert’s legal background rein for mockery; by shifting the setting for gentle satire of English royal and parliamentary institutions to Venice and an obscure, mythical central European state, they avoided censorship dangers.

The interpretation, staging and design were presumably the collaborative work of producer Stuart Gordon and stage director Wayne Morris.

After the overture that offered assurance that the players, mostly from Orchestra Wellington, would support the singers pretty professionally, the chorus confirmed a well-coached ensemble. And the chorus remained a delight throughout the evening, even taking account of moments later on when the voices of men and women of the chorus parted company. Under musical director Hugh McMillan, balances between orchestra, chorus and soloists were conspicuously comfortable, and the pace and expressive character remained lively and sensitive.

The stage revealed an expansive grand canal with stylized buildings, hinting rather shyly at Venice, rising from it. Some of the solo singing at the beginning showed a little uneasiness; but William McElwee and Orene Tiai as gondoliers Marco and Giuseppe, grew steadily into their roles… as did the two maidens, Gianetta and Tessa (Laura Loach and Charlotte Gartrell) to whom they would shortly be betrothed. The four sometimes operated better as a quartet than separately, for example in the ‘Then one of us will be a queen’.

The entry of the visiting Spanish Duke and Duchess (John Goddard and Malinda Di Leva) with their lovely daughter Casilda (Georgia Jamieson Emms) soon embedded the story in serious improbability, and this was a strength that enlivened the performance in the true spirit of absurdity; Goddard’s early vocal unevenness settled after a little while.

The farcical element helped obscure weaknesses in the singing by the less experienced singers; on the other hand none of the nonsense obscured the fact that there were excellent performances, by Emms, and by McElwee and Tiai, who found themselves sharing the job of temporary monarch. The important role of the Grand Inquisitor, Don Alhambra, was splendidly carried by Chris Whelan, without excessive overacting, displayed brilliantly in his ‘I stole the prince … no possible doubt whatever’, which reveals the crux of the problem that dominates the drama.

The denouement sees the temporary dual-king(s) deposed, to their great relief, and the heir to the Baratarian throne, is revealed as Luiz, tenor Mark Bobb, a recent arrival in New Zealand. One of the most vivid figures on the stage, he sang excellently with a fast, disciplined vibrato. In the first act he had acted as ducal orchestra, displaying finesse on the side-drum to herald the Duke’s arrival. He and Emms – lovers, unaware of how things will evolve – sang a charming duet, ‘There was a time’.

The stage scene at Act II is the interior of the royal Barataria palace, quite an imposing affair with grand staircase set to a curious perspective. Giuseppe’s amusing solo about the troubles of a king, up-dated, had the edge on Marco’s ‘Take a pair of sparkling eyes’, pretty as that was.

The action proceeds with an energetic Spanish dance and then the Grand Inquisitor’s (Chris Whelan) classic show-stopper, ‘There lived a king’, showing how equality and republicanism are quite absurd. These moments are usually furnished with localised political lyrics, this time by the singer himself, which I have permission to reproduce here. The singing was accompanied by a series of pertinent illustrations of many of the leading comic figures involved in the following narrative.

In southern oceans far away
A strange perversion once took sway
The people wanted greater say
And MMP resulted

It meant that none could rule alone
Without some partners on the throne
And compromise would be the tone
At least that was the theory.

Soon parties formed in every hue
Of red and blue and yellow too
So every wretched fellow knew
Their interests were cared for.

But parties needed ways to share
The power so that all seemed fair
So to the top of every tree
Promoted everybody

Now it is clear and plain to see
That ranking colleagues equally
Will put an end to rivalry,
Promoting everybody.    

Soon ministers were everywhere
With rank and perks in equal share
But trade and finance ranked the same
As arts and social housing

Like Judith Collins some were bad
Or Gerry Brownlee slightly mad
Though voter faith did gently sag
The PM seemed delighted.

The coalition held its course.
Dave Seymore was a trifling force
And Peter Dunne was a resource
Among the minor minions.

So party leaders you might meet
In twos and threes in every street,
Professing with no little heat
Their various opinions.

Now that’s a sight you couldn’t beat
Two party spokesmen in each street,
Professing with no little heat
Their various opinions.

The end can easily be guessed,
When skill no longer is the test
Soon personality was best
For getting voter traction

The voters favoured charm and wit
And ranked good hair above true grit
Soon one emerged that seemed to fit
In Southland and Kaitaia

The voters turned to one who seemed
Averse to baubles though he preened
Through spluttering indignant schemes,
Was Winston made kingmaker.

In short whoever you may be
To this conclusion you’ll agree
When everyone is somebodee,
Soon no one’s anybody.

Now that’s as plain as plain can be,
To this conclusion we agree:
When everyone is somebodee,
Soon no one’s anybody.

And there were various references to current political scandals scattered through the score, for example the ennoblement of The Duke of Plaza-Toro dotcom.

While the build-up to the denouement goes along nicely, as the former nurse is finally persuaded to tell the court that neither of the joint-temporary kings is the heir, no imperishable musical hits are to be found in the last scenes, apart from a reprise of the big dance scene.

The costumes were elaborate, the sets ingenious and appropriate, and the direction generally lively and credible, paying some attention to the traditions of 1880s comic opera, and today’s tendency sometimes to do violence to the original conception and to impose our own interpretation. There was nothing at which one could take offence in this.

It had been see already in Lower Hutt, Kapiti and Whanganui, so that any teething troubles would have been sorted out and word spread of its virtues. Thus there was a good audience at the Opera House.


Popular for the best reason – the NZSO’s Classical Hits Concert

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:


James Judd (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 19th September, 2015

Appropriately enough from my point of view, this concert began with the very same music that enthralled me almost fifty years ago, at the beginning of my very first concert-going experience in Palmerston North’s Opera House. I still recall, at the start of the “William Tell” Overture, the beauty of those two NZBC Symphony Orchestra solo ‘cellos (played by Wilf Simenauer and Farquhar Wilkinson), and the thrill of the orchestra “opening up” for the ensuing storm, before the cor anglais (I can’t remember the player’s name) and Richard Giese’s flute flooded us with sunlight and dried us out in time for the excitement of the concluding march. No better introduction to the capabilities of a symphony orchestra could have been devised by anybody, I thought, and especially when the conducting was to my youthful ears as exciting and volatile as was Piero Gamba’s on that occasion.

So, almost as much fond memory was activated as was “here-and-now” sensation and stimuli when Saturday evening’s “Classical Hits” concert got under way in Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre with that very same overture, conducted on this occasion by James Judd – Andrew Joyce’s opening ‘cello solo and his duetting with section colleague Ken Ichinose did full justice to the example set by those aforementioned illustrious predecessors – and the rest of the overture literally went like a train, taking time out in between excitements for the pastoral pleasures of shepherd’s pipes and birdsong. Michael Austin and Kirstin Eade most beguilingly did the honours as shepherd and songbird respectively, causing me to fall in love with the music all over again. The rest (not forgetting the Lone Ranger!) is, as they say, history!

A pity that the opportunity wasn’t taken to insert a home-grown classical hit in such a programme – any of David Farquhar’s Ring Round the Moon dances surely qualify with flying colours by now – but at least European hegemony was challenged by Aaron Copland’s exuberant, so out-of-doors Rodeo (well, even rugby stadiums are practically indoors, now!), four foot-tapping “dance episodes” whose “Hoedown” concluding number brought forth at one stage a full blooded “YEE-HA!” from an audience member simply doing what his conductor had told him to do! Incidentally, I thought James Judd’s spoken comments welcoming us all to the concert and explaining aspects of each of the pieces throughout were just right – there was nothing patronizing nor over-modulated about what he said, but simply the conveyance of a message inviting us all to have lots of fun, with both listening and in one or two instances getting physically involved with the music-making!

In the light of such invitations from the conductor, I was half-expecting at least one or two adventurous souls to leap to their feet in the aisles during Offenbach’s famous “Can-can” from the Orpheus in the Underworld Overture – but perhaps Judd’s tempi were a shade too quick for comfort – a bit more weight and “point” to the rhythmic trajectories and textures might have otherwise tempted those who could have felt rushed off their feet at the music’s frenetic pace. However,  no-one could complain regarding the delicious rhythmic subtleties wrought by the conductor and players during Johann Strauss Jnr’s Blue Danube Waltz – right from the pianissimo magic of its opening on the strings, over which sounded those so-familiar horn calls, one was simply entranced – and each episode of the dance, here, had its own particular brand of beguilement, the music’s “character” allowed plenty of variety throughout.

Mirroring Copland’s “Rodeo” Dances before the interval, the second half also included a more extended work, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture. Beloved of concert audiences world-wide because of its instant appeal, the piece still doesn’t “play itself” – and James Judd certainly didn’t allow a single moment of anything but committed, characterful and sharply-focused music-making, right from the opening wind chords (so rich, grainy and redolent of “once upon a time in a place called Verona”) to the full-throated passion of the string-saturated utterances at the piece’s climax. Along the way, we heard the most beautifully-shaped phrasings from both strings and winds in the piece’s first section, and plenty of sound and fury from brass and percussion throughout the conflict sequences. And the voicing of the “big tune” by the violas in unison with the cor anglais produced a sound to die for, as did the answering phrases from the other strings, sounded here with such breath-bated tenderness.

I loved the idea of introducing the often-played “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations with the piece that precedes it in the complete work, the lovely “W.N.” (the initials of Winifred Norbury) – Elgar, though happily married, obviously enjoyed the company and friendship of  a number of women, some of whom are “enigmatically” represented in this set of variations. So we got the graceful G Major portrait of Winifred and her sister Florence in their beautiful eighteenth-century house, before the music magically modulated down into a rich and noble E-flat, the key of “Nimrod”, a word-play on the German surname of Elgar’s publisher and friend August Jaeger, and supposedly enshrining discussions between the composer and his friend on the slow movements of Beethoven. As in the complete work, the grace and charm of “W.N.” became the perfect foil for the profundity of the noble “Nimrod”.

After this Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries was a near-perfect choice, even if I always feel somewhat cheated in the concert-hall when the “Hoyotoho! Hoyotoho!” isn’t there, though for people not familiar with the music in an operatic context it obviously doesn’t matter. I did wonder whether there might have been a spontaneous irruption of Valkyrie-like shouts from some off-duty Valkyrie in the audience carried away by the excitement of the moment! Had I been the concert organizer I would have been tempted to try and “plant” a few such people (dramatic sopranos in mufti!) in antiphonal places in the gallery, just for the sheer fun of it! This was a swift and lightish performance throughout, James Judd keeping his forces “airborne” right to the end, unlike some of the weightier realizations of famous Wagnerians like Hans Knappertsbusch, whose concert performances on record of the last few bars of the work have to he heard to be believed!

And so we came to the orchestra’s final programmed offering, a spirited rendition of the younger Johann Strauss’s Polka “Thunder and Lightning”, Judd positively exhorting his audience to “make a noise”, which we did, albeit a little inhibitedly. It did the trick, however, as conductor and players rewarded our efforts with one of the classic encores from the famous Viennese “New Year’s Day” concerts, the elder Johann Strauss’s most famous work, the Radetsky March, during which, to everybody’s delight, the conductor “directed” the audience’s clapping, taking particular care to secure the correct dynamic levels for each sequence! The item brought a most successful concert to a bubbling and exuberant conclusion, an antidote for a blessed couple of hours to the dreadful weather which we encountered when making our way home. One wonders which of the tunes we heard during the evening would have made “top of the pops” amongst the satisfied patrons! Thank you, James Judd and the NZSO!