Audience rapture with splendid performance from Tudor Consort

The Tudor Consort conducted by Michael Stewart

Tomás Luis de Victoria: Officium Defunctorum
Alonso Lobo: Motet: Versa est in luctum

Sacred Heart Cathedral

Saturday, 31 October 2015, 7.30pm

The Tudor Consort is noted not only for wonderful singing; it is also noteworthy for its innovative programming.

This time, an almost full Sacred Heart Cathedral heard music of Victoria. It is not infrequently that we hear short choral works by this composer, but a Requiem Mass extended by liturgical items such as the Collect, the Epistle, the Gospel and others, was new. These liturgical movements were either plainsong settings (Gregorian chant), or were chanted on one, or a series of notes. The programme was utterly appropriate for Hallowe’en, i.e. the day before All Saints’ Day, and two days before All Souls’ Day.

The choir of 17 members sang first from the crossing, i.e. the aisle across the church directly in from the door, between the front two-thirds and the rear third of the church. The choir was arranged as two choirs, facing each other. This arrangement made it easy for those in the rear part of the church to hear clearly.

In a radio interview during the week, Michael Stewart had told Eva Radich that the music was easy to sing, but the hard part was demonstrating the drama and intensity where required. The entire concert was sung in Latin, unaccompanied, and texts and translations were provided in the printed programme. Although advertised as a candlelight performance, there was sufficient other light to enable the programme notes and translations to be read easily.

The choir was immediately impressive, with great attack, pungent voices, words clear, and each part having equal weight, in this version of words from the Biblical book of Job. For the second movement, the hymn ‘Placare Christus servulis’, the voices formed as one choir; the attack was not quite so secure here, as the singers processed forward, the males intoning the hymn in unison.

Now at the sanctuary steps, the treble voices began the ‘Requiem aeternam’ Introit in unison, followed by all the voices in rich and diverse harmony. There was some fine tenor sound, but the blend was excellent. The music was ethereal at times, with very high writing for the sopranos, yet substantial too. I found the concert full of such dualities.

The Kyrie followed, featuring wonderfully sustained long-drawn-out syllables. The unanimity of tone and dynamics was remarkable. Then the chanted Collect, where the solo voice was not totally secure, but the voice chanting the Epistle was better.

After this came the Gradual, with the opening words of the Requiem. This musical setting had quite a different character from the earlier sung movements. The women’s chanted parts were very clear. The Tract which followed had the men chanting in perfectly timed unison, the extraordinary melisma (decoration of the syllables) being an absolute delight.

The Sequence consisted of the long thirteenth-century hymn ‘Dies Irae’, by Thomas of Celano (c.1200–c.1265), who was an Italian friar of the Franciscan Order, a poet, and the author of three hagiographies about Saint Francis of Assisi. It began with robust chanting from the men, then the trebles joined in, still in unison. Maintaining such extended unison is not easy, but these singers make it seem so. There was plenty of expression, releasing the drama inherent in the words of the poem.

After the interval, the Gospel was chanted, then in the Offertory, the women intoned before all joined, all six parts singing in rich polyphony. There were splendid contrasts from fortissimo to pianissimo, and careful and uniform articulation of syllables. Beautiful chords brought the movement to a conclusion.

After the chanted Preface, the Sanctus revealed gorgeous harmonies. The singing here was in blocks of sound rather than polyphony. The Antiphon was chanted, to be followed by a multi-part Benedictus. This was again very different from earlier music, and most impressive. The precentor for the Pater Noster used many different tones in the chant, rather than chanting on one note, or just a few.

Agnus Dei utilised simple intervals to start with, then became increasingly complex. The Communion that followed was notable for magical interweaving of parts. It was solemn yet joyful. The purity of the treble voices was amazing.

The Post-Communion had a more plaintive tone, but assured also. The music was resonant, but in this building does not become too resonant. For the Absolution, the choir moved to stand behind the altar, in the sanctuary. It was followed by ‘Libera Me’ characterised by rich textures, sonorous cadences and complex polyphonic lines. The second and third verses employed fewer voices. Then in the fourth, the spread of voices from top to bottom of the stave was remarkable. The first verse was repeated, with its broad, grand setting. The Kyrie at the end was beautiful, with delicious chords from all the moving parts together.

The final ‘In Paradisum’ chant was simple and effective, and it was followed by Lobo’s polyphonic Motet. It was contemplative, with fully sustained tone that was pure, yet had character and warmth, the singing reverential yet rich and robust. There were wonderful suspensions and cadences.

In all, this was a splendid performance, and apart from very occasional stridency in the tenors, most accomplished. The music was uplifting and inspiring; the audience was rapt (here, this word is not hyperbole) and showed enthusiastic appreciation.


An experience to be savoured – Kari Kriikku with the NZSO

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

– with Kari Kriikku (clarinet)
and Miguel Harth-Bedoya (conductor)

JIMMY LOPEZ – Peru Negro
KIMMO HAKOLA – Clarinet Concerto
WITOLD LUTOSLAWSKI – Concerto for Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington,

Friday, 30th October, 2015

The concert certainly lived up to its title – this was no genteel, well-manicured, orderly assemblage of dulcet, well-rounded tones, but a feisty, attention-grabbing trio of pieces which, thanks to on-the-spot advocacy from concerto soloist, conductor and players, certainly made a lasting impact.

Because of the sheer physicality of each of the works, as well as the presence of a soloist in the second piece who wasn’t backward in coming forward in every sense, the concert couldn’t help but take on something of a music-theatre feel. It usually happens that, whenever an orchestra’s percussion section has a lot to do, a strong element of visceral excitement comes cross to the audience because of the to-ing and fro-ing and the palpable gesturings of the players with, in almost every instance, immediate and spectacular results!

However, it wasn’t only the percussion who were working hard – under Miguel Harth-Bedoya’s energetic and flamboyant direction, every section of the orchestra pulled its weight and more, the players seeming to engage with the business of making the sounds come alive and interact with one another, often to exhilarating effect. The concert’s first piece, Jimmy Lopez’s Perú Negro, was written as a kind of evocation of what’s known as Afro-Peruvian music (a genre developed in the composer’s native Peru in the days when Spanish landowners brought African slaves to South America, thus mingling the cultures and producing various unique creative results, particularly in music).

Peruvian Jimmy Lopez (born in 1978) is a long-time friend of Miguel Harth-Bedoya, and in fact  the work is not only dedicated to the conductor, but has specific motivic figures based upon Harth-Bedoya’s initials. Certainly, the music’s vitality and volatility reflects the latter’s own interpretative style – the dancing rhythms, the brilliant orchestrations and the range of contrasts of mood and colour were all brought out here by the conductor and players to stunning effect.

I thought the piece’s only drawback was that it seemed to drive through an exciting and all-embracing crescendo towards a thrilling climax which recapped the spirit of the opening fanfares, but then attempted to try and revisit those same energies which had been so splendidly expended,  losing some of its shape in the attenuated process. Others will have undoubtedly felt differently and responded more wholeheartedly to the excitement’s continuation – despite the musicians’ commitment and the playing’s brilliance I felt the music outstayed its welcome, indulging in some needless repetition towards the end.

Still, the piece certainly sharpened our excitement’s edges in anticipation of the arrival of Finnish clarinettist Kari Kriikku, scheduled to play a concerto by his countryman Kimmo Hakola. I had seen and heard Kriikku in concert before, as long ago as 2009, but vividly recollecting his skill as a player, as well as the showmanship that seemed to be part-and-parcel of his character as a performer in appropriate contexts. Reading the opening paragraph of the description of Hakola’s work as per the programme, I sensed that the music would be pretty-well tailor-made for Kriikku’s skills as a performer and for the theatrical character he seemed to invariably bring to his interpretations.

In fact, the piece was commissioned by Kriikku, and first performed by him in 2001, so it’s obviously a work he’s lived with for some time, reflected by the immense skill with which he negotiated his solo part with all its complexities. But not only did the music ask questions of the soloist, it also taxed the skills of both conductor and players to the utmost, requiring some incredibly “dovetailed” interactions between orchestra and soloist and within the sections of the ensemble itself. I couldn’t fault the orchestral playing at any point throughout the panoply of sounds conjured up for us by the composer, for our delight and (in places) stupefaction!

After the first movement’s “game of chase” between the protagonists, a series of interactions that left notes scattered in their wake across whole vistas of exploration, the slow movement’s ‘Hidden Songs” brought out cool, limpid textures providing some relief from the corruscations that had gone before. In the soloist’s wistful four-note theme and the orchestra’s ostinato accompaniment I sensed something of Stravinsky’s claustrophobic enervations from ‘Le Sacre du Printemps”, a mood broken into by rhapsodic interpolations from the orchestra. These eventually gave way to tocsin-soundings from the orchestral bells, the music’s movement ritualized, as both clarinet and different orchestral sections sang the last of their songs.

I enjoyed the Shostakovich-like aspect of the third movement’s grotesqueries, especially the tuba’s contributions to the fun in places, the soloist at another point “jamming it” with bongo drum and trombones – wonderful stuff! We were disconcerted when the soloist peremptorily walked off the performing platform, though the music kept going, the orchestra continuing to build the structure to the point where the players suddenly broke off and began animatedly talking with one another – obviously conveying  conjecture as to where their clarinetist had disappeared to!

After the timpanist had called his colleagues to order, the brass announced the soloist’s reappearance with stentorian voices. The last movement’s Wedding Dance” aspect expressed itself with contrasting moods, wild rhythmic excitement followed by louring trombones leading a mournful melody. As the soloist bent his line every which way, the orchestra whispered amongst itself, ruminating upon likely outcomes. A brief irruption of the running dance-music introduced the soloist’s cadenza, music filled with the most enchanting and angular birdsong, and choreographed by Kriikku most entertainingly – a gentleman sitting behind me nearly had apoplexy at one point, so delighted was he with the soloist’s antics! There came a brief dance-passage, the clarinetist treading a measure before preparing to deliver his final flourish – and the music was over!

Grimmer purposes hammered their messages out at the beginning of the concert’s second half, with the opening of Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra – I seriously parted company with the conductor at the beginning of the work, finding the opening far too timpani-dominated, and completely drowning out the lower strings’ announcement of the opening motif – force and emphasis was all very well, but this was, for me, too blatant – I heard the work “live” for the first time in the 1970s conducted by Vaclek Smetacek, who allowed the pounding rhythms sufficient force while bringing out the defiant syncopated angularities of the string utterances right from the beginning.

That grumble out of the way, I thought the rest of the work an absolutely thrilling experience as presented here – Harth-Bedoya encouraged his musicians to “play out” at almost all times, while preserving the clarity of the textures, as with the celeste’s unearthly echoing of the work’s opening pulsatings right at the movement’s end. Then, during the second movement, such magic was woven by the scampering strings and the spooky winds, whose beautifully-wrought exchanges were an absolute delight to the ear. The cunningly-wrought orchestral dovetailing reminded me throughout this movement of Holst’s “Mercury the Winged Messenger” from “The Planets” in a way that no other performance I’d heard seemed to have previously done.

With great portent and dark purpose the finale was launched, amid growlings from the piano and an almost primordial wail from the cor anglais, with other winds joining in. Strings built the sound-progressions and brass added their weight to the textures unerringly, as the passacaglia’s fifteen variations strode across the soundstage, each “fretting and strutting….before being heard no more”. The powerful outbursts from brass and percussion properly galvanized these scenarios, with various solos from the winds keeping the textural colours varied and volatile, and sometimes at exciting odds with one another! And the “exuberant twist” at the very end (nicely described as such in the programme notes) brought the work to an exciting and rousing conclusion.

Very great credit to the orchestra throughout all of these three works, most excitingly directed by Miguel Harth-Bedoya, and in colourful collaboration with the characterful Kari Kriikku and his clarinet. Nobody should let the unfamiliarity of the composers’ names put them off going to this concert – from beginning to end, it’s a thrilling, no-holds-barred journey, well worth the experience!

Sistema Hutt Valley’s Arohanui Strings and related ensembles offer wonderful example

Arohanui Strings – Sistema Hutt Valley

Music by Michael McLean, Mozart, Bartók, Joplin, Warlock, Moe Ruka, Beethoven and trad.

St. Mark’s Church, Lower Hutt

Wednesday, 28 October 2015, 12.15pm

To demonstrate the ethos and value of this programme for primary school children from Taita and Pomare, I quote in full the note on the printed programme from the concert:

“[This] is part of a visionary global movement transforming the lives of children through music.

“Right here in the Hutt Valley, we are building a youth orchestra in a neighborhood where children normally do not have access to private music lessons. Our goal is to help these children become engaged students and citizens, by being part of a music immersion experience (4-5 hours a week) where they learn discipline, leading and following, and peer teaching, in order to create something beautiful. It is our belief that music is a human right, and should be available for all who wish to learn.

“We are able to reach over a hundred children a week thanks to donations… and support from the Hutt City Council, Creative NZ, Infinity Foundation, and Orchestra Wellington…”

The concert began with a quartet of the teachers playing. Although eight names were listed, those in the quartet were not individually identified. Their leader, Alison Eldredge, played violin, and the others from the quartet conducted items later in the concert. A Tango by Michael McLean, an American composer whom Eldredge had met, was lively, with plenty of verve and passion.

The wooden ceiling, high but not too high, in St. Mark’s makes this a good place to hear string music.
Next came Mozart’s well-known ‘Ave Verum’. The introductory remarks did not mention that this was written for voices. Although the players made a beautiful sound, I found it a little too fast for a piece having words in the original. Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances are heard quite often on the radio, but it is years since I heard them performed live. Three were played by the quartet, and delightful they were. The first (‘Jocul cu bâtă’, i.e. ‘Stick Dance’) had Eldredge employing left-hand pizzicato, presumbly depicting the knocking of the sticks. After ‘Brâul’ (Sash Dance) came ‘Buciumeana’ (Dance from Bucsum); its wistful strains made for an enchanting listening experience.
The quartet finished their part of the programme with New Rag by Scott Joplin, a jolly piece by the black American composer, who died in 1917.

Then it was the turn of the Korimako Orchestra, comprising Arohanui’s more experienced players. It was interesting to see the ethnic mix, with Maori and Pacifica children dominating, but also the presence of several pakeha children, amongst others.

The orchestra performed an arrangement of Peter Warlock’s ‘Pavane’ from Capriol Suite. At times they were playing in a bunch of keys, but nevertheless it was a creditable performance from such a band, some of whose members looked to be about 7 years old. This was followed by Canon in D by Telemann – a good performance.

Before the Tui Orchestra, comprising younger, less experienced players joined the Korimakos, Christiaan van der Zee, one of the teachers, encouraged both children and audience to sing ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor’, before the instruments played it. Other items followed, and then ‘Ode to Joy’ from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Wouldn’t Beethoven have been surprised! The instruments played the theme in unison, followed by a repetition in parts. This came over very well.

The work being done by teachers and volunteers for Arohanui Strings, supported by financial grants, is wonderful, and with the example of Gustavo Dudamel before them, we can be sure that musicians will emerge from this group – not only musicians, but human beings with enriched lives and greater skills in all phases of their existence.



NZSM piano students give impressively mature performances at St Andrew’s

Piano students of the New Zealand School of Music

Rebecca Warnes (Haydn’s Sonata in F, Hob. 23 –first movement), Louis Lucas Perry (Liszt’s Ballade No 2), Nicole Ting (Mozart’s Sonata in D, K 576 – second and third movements), Choong Park (Brahms: Op 116 – Intermezzo and Capriccio, Andrew Atkins (Haydn’s Sonata in C, Hob. 48)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 28 October, 12:15 pm

The end-of-year exposure of five of the most talented piano students at the New Zealand School of Music was, I suppose, a follow-on from the four-day series of student recitals between 5 and 8 October which had featured cellos, violas, voices and guitars.

The five pianists were placed according to their academic level, but I could not have distinguished them merely on the basis of the standard of their performances. I can only say that I was very surprised to learn later that Rebecca Warnes was a first year student, for she played the first movement from a, to me, unfamiliar Haydn sonata (Hob, 23) which was a delight both as sparkling and imaginative Haydn, and in its playing with such awareness of its characteristic wit and surprises. Her assured rhythms reflected the melodic character and tone of the music so perfectly.

Louis Lucas-Perry took on Liszt’s second Ballade, in B minor, which is not often played now, though I came to know it in my teens through its frequent appearance in those days (Louis Kentner perhaps?) in the Concert Programme (2YC as it then was). It’s been a bit denigrated in the past, but I’ve never taken that as other than the still common view of Liszt as merely a flashy show-off. The vivid dramatic narrative, its melodic strength and its striking contrasts, are emotionally involving. The pianist captured much of the overt charm of the sunny theme that keeps returning in changing guises as well as the contrasting, quasi-military episodes. Whatever its shortcomings (he’s a second year student) I enjoyed it immensely.

Third-year student Nicole Ting played the second and third movements of Mozart’s last piano sonata, in D, K 576. It’s not for beginners, and to play the slow movement with such lightness of touch and subtlety, and the finale with its bravura and gusto, announced a young musician who negotiated her way most thoughtfully through its considerable challenges.

Choong Park, also a third year student, played two of the seven pieces from Brahms Op 116. They are all entitled either Intermezzo or Capriccio, though the programme did not identify them. They were Nos 3 and 4, the Intermezzo in E and the Capriccio in G minor. The Intermezzo is not among the most familiar of Brahms’s late piano works; the notes might not be hard to find but the feeling and musicality, without the benefit of warm melody, is less easy to engage an audience with. Perhaps he allowed himself a bit much romantic heaven-gazing, but there was no doubt about his understanding of the Brahms, the gentle, contemplative figure. The Capriccio was a fine contrast, opening with fuoco rather than capriciousness perhaps, and I felt initially that the fortissimo passages verged on the tempestuous, but those moments were soon swept aside by the general conviction of his playing.

Andrew Atkins is an honours student; he played both movements of one of Haydn’s later sonatas, Hob. 48 in C major. This second opportunity to hear a Haydn sonata was a delight; it bears witness to the renaissance of his piano (and much other) music in my lifetime: the sonatas used to be considered little more than student pieces. Hob. 48 is very interesting. Just two movements, first slow, then fast. The first, about eight minutes of Andante, exploring basically a single musical idea slowly, thoughtfully and entertainingly. There are delightful flashes of light, subtle articulations, lightly etched rallentandos and ornaments beautifully positioned. There followed a (I’m guessing) Vivace or Presto finale that was assured, economical in its structure, saying what he wanted to say and ending without fuss.

I imagine few, other than the pianist himself and his tutors, would have perceived anything to fault in this delightful performance. (I understand that the tutors concerned with all five pianists were, variously, Jian Liu and Richard Mapp).

This was a thoroughly satisfying concert from both the point of view of the pieces chosen – all unhackneyed and most rewarding– and the pianists’ impressive level of accomplishment. These opportunities to hear performances by university school of music students are a wonderful enterprise, a credit to cooperation between St Andrew’s (especially Marjan van Waardenberg) and the university.


Aroha Quartet , with SOUNZ and RNZ Concert, does local composers proud

SOUNZ, Radio New Zealand Concert, and the Aroha Quartet present:

New Zealand Works for String Quartet:
ROSS CAREY – Toccatina (Elegy)
HELEN BOWATER – This Desperate Edge of Now

The Aroha String Quartet:
Haihong Liu, Anne Loeser (violins)
Zhongxian Jin (viola), Robert Ibell (‘cello)

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

Sunday 26th October 2015

This concert was the initial fruitful outcome of a new collaborative project between SOUNZ (Centre for New Zealand Music), Radio New Zealand Concert, and the Aroha Quartet. It was undertaken in association with CANZ (Composers’ Association of New Zealand) and Chamber Music New Zealand.

The Aroha String Quartet rehearsed and workshopped seven pieces for string quartet prior to recording sessions (held over the weekend of October 24th/25th) during which the performances of these works were recorded (RNZ Concert) and filmed (SOUNZ). From these activities came today’s public performance at St. Andrew’s.

Introducing the concert and the Quartet on Sunday afternoon at St.Andrew’s was Diana Marsh, the executive director of SOUNZ, who expressed her delight with both the processes and the projected outcomes of the project. Obviously the focus was on string quartet works this time round, but in future years there would hopefully be opportunities for other ensemble configurations.

Two of the works I had heard previously – Helen Bowater’s This desperate edge of now and Jeroen Speak’s Auxetos. The other five were new to me, though all, I think, had been recently played variously elsewhere, with Kirsten Strom’s Purity and Blas Gonzalez’s piece SPASMS being the most recently-written. Together, the works made a most absorbing programme, demonstrating the versatility of the string quartet genre and, of course, of the Aroha Quartet players.

Anthony Ritchie’s Whakatipua began the concert, a ten-minute distillation of the composer’s feeling for a typical South Island mountain landscape, specifically that found around Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu – the work, in fact was commissioned as a birthday present for someone who lives in that same district. The work is written with a real “feel” for the expressive qualities of string instruments, both in tandem and as individual voices. Instrumental lines dovetailed their utterances with a focus that served the piece’s larger lyricism, while providing plenty of energy and contrast with motor and syncopated rhythms. The opening’s “sighing” featured a number of mellifluous “exchanges” of  lyrical nature, for instance, while there were plenty of energies generated by both motoric and syncopated rhythms during the piece’s central section. One day I should like to hear, as well, the composer’s arrangement of the piece for string orchestra.

From sounds relating to a specific place we were taken by the next piece, Jereon Speak’s Auxetos, to music being plucked out of the air all around, it seemed – some sounds were born soft, some achieved ambient glow and some had agitation thrust upon ’em, to coin a phrase! The composer’s title “Auxetos” means “that which may be stretched”, the idea having its genesis in a South American folk-song recording made by the composer in which a common melody line was shared by the musicians but not synchronized. It meant that the various voices all contributed to the piece while pursuing different individual courses, held together by what the composer called an “inextricable bond of likeness”.

Over a sustained and ambient line, the music’s differently “voiced” episodes seemed by osmosis to extend the range, scope and frequency of their utterances and interactions, in places generating considerable aural excitement by various means – enormous irruptions of energy and just-as-sudden reversions to sotto voce expression, an impassioned solo ‘cello line at one point, an agitated response from the violins in reply – the sostenuto lines of the opening replaced by a ferment of agitation – a single stratospheric sustained violin note then refocused the music, the tones “wrapping around” what sounds like a reaffirmed purpose, the viola holding its long-breathed ground while the remaining instruments each pay some kind of homage to that which has endured, then fade their particular tones away to nothing. Most satisfying!

Ross Carey’s work Toccatina (Elegy) was next to be played, a piece dedicated to the memory of Australian Aboriginal singer/songwriter Ruby Hunter who died in 2010. Hunter and her partner Archie Roach were both members of the “stolen” generation of Aboriginal children, placed in homes with white foster families at an early age – her music and performances brought out these circumstances and addressed the issues that arose from them. Ross Carey’s work doesn’t actually use or quote Ruby Hunter’s music, but conveys an emotional response to her life’s work and her passing.

The music opened with a driving rhythmic pattern rather like train wheels, over which sounded melodic lines whose character changed from dogged insistence to a gentler, more soaring manner, and back again, then moving into a delicately-nuanced Martinu-like central sequence whose momentum was more circumspect of manner and intent – more relaxed and dreamy, with the melody’s shifting harmonies adding to the dream-like ambience. Inevitablty, the “train wheels” took up from where they left off, though the accompanying melodies were more assertive this time round and wasted no time building to a more impassioned climax. That done, the music gently took a bow and faded as enigmatically as it had begun.

Next came Alex Taylor’s refrain, the composer’s own program note amusingly reproducing three dictionary definitions of the word “refrain”, each of which could be cited as an “influence” upon what was to follow. Written during what Alex Taylor himself describes as a “social paralysis” time, the music explores ideas of action and inaction in the manner of an on-the-spot “gestation” – at once wry, circumspect and very involving! The music’s bruising, aggressive opening caused the lower strings to “take cover”, while reflecting a “hanging back”, an inertia, an unwillingness to engage. The process of confrontation and withdrawal was repeated by the instrumentalists, before the “broad chorales’ referred to by the composer began to work their magical spell – enchanting, and in places, halo-like ambiences which gave the moments of agitation a contrasting force and vehemence.

At one point the drifting material was spectacularly “sliced up” by slashing chords, though despite such irruptions order and reason seemed to hold sway. We heard such things as a beautiful cello solo growing from the concourse of sounds, followed by a canonic sequence from the violins, indicating some willingness to interact – and though this business became volatile and over-wrought, the music again found resolution, this time in gentle pizzicati, feet firmly touching the ground. By way of conclusion came a lament-like line, whose course seemed to turn back on itself, leaving us with equivocal feelings as to what it was that had been resolved.

Argentinian-born Auckland composer Blas Gonzalez contributed a most intriguing programme note regarding his piece SPASMS – he alluded to two sections of the work, the first “Mensurabilia” based on chromatic sequences polyphonically arranged, and the second (somewhat alarmingly) called “Olivier’s Dreadlocks”, referring to a fusion of Messiaen-like rhythmic impulses and what he described as “pseudo-reggae”. The work’s first part, Mensurabilia, put me in mind of a slowly revolving ball with patterns that repeated but which also interacted, so that one was immediately fascinated by the osmotic nature of it all – intensities built almost before one realized they had begun (rather like Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings – everything was recognizable but somehow different, as the music made its unhurried way along our listening-spectrum. Much briefer and rather more “visceral” was Olivier’s Dreadlocks, a cool, pirouetted dance-like assemblage of lovely detailings between instruments, with second violin and ‘cello having a particularly engaging interaction!

We turned then to Helen Bowater’s work This desperate edge of now, inspired by the words of a poem from Mervyn Peake . Having read the latter’s gruesomely fascinating “Gormenghast” novels some years back, I wasn’t surprised to find the poem was somewhat dark and pessimistic. The words seemed to describe either an exterior or interior neo-apocalyptic scenario, a worst-case evocation guaranteed to resign one afresh to one’s invariably commonplace but relatively untroubled lot in life, even if one reflects that the events of the last few days in Paris have unexpectedly blown apart handfuls of lives in a way that does give Peake’s concluding words “Only this sliding second we share: this desperate edge of now” a kind of context that produces shivers of unease, and throws up shadows of disquiet.

Evidently the composer responded along not-too-dissimilar lines, the work’s opening resembling a cry of pain, with subsequent dark moments bringing forth nothing but angular impulses railing against one another angrily and despairingly at the prospect of human loss and the impotence of feeling. There’s no solace, here, as, in between the big, dark-browed gestures of anguish, there’s an ongoing sense of disquiet among the inner voices. It’s a skilfully-wrought study of turmoil between without and within, a bleak soundscape which the ‘cello addresses, and to which the viola responds – the ambience has an eerie quality, as if creation is giving some room to the participants in the drama (“I and they”), to nullify the fear, shock and desperation, to counter-charge the destruction and hold onto some kind of supporting through-line.

The ‘cello, then viola, and finally the other strings with their resounding pizzicati and haunting octaves, did their best to remold nearer to the heart’s desire – but the energetic charge of the “fierce instant”  that galvanized the music and its players drove things towards the inevitable. The “sliding second” (like a kind of ecstasy of awareness) fused the moment and tossed the remaining words and music in to a kind of oblivion. The viola’s abrupt concluding gesture, disquietingly, spoke volumes!

Asking us to return to our lives after experiencing such traumatic evocations of the tenuous hold we have on the same was obviously a bit much! – so, it was a relief when Kirsten Strom and her work Purity ( as per programme, originally scheduled as the third item) came to our rescue! The quartet took the opportunity to retune before playing this work (the violinist said to us “We like to make sure – especially with this piece!”). I could see what she meant when the work started – a single note was played by all instruments (in a note the composer had written “Beauty can be found in simplicity: a single note contains more than enough.”). Well,here it was, and the result was enchanting, with instruments sliding to different notes in an almost ritualistic kind of way, as if music itself was being worshipped.

The ‘cello enjoyed a broad theme, as the upper strings gave out an undulating figure, with the viola following the ‘cello. The music began to dance, the exoticism of it all maintaining a ritualistic feel, and giving rise to the listeners’ predispositions, either meditative or rather more active flights of fancy, the result  engaging and mesmeric. And all from a single note (which the quartet players made sure was “in tune” for our very great pleasure!). I liked very much the work’s patient, steadfast focus and, yes, purity! And, in conclusion, one must say that no words can express too strongly the extent of the Aroha Quartet’s commitment to the task throughout the whole of the afternoon, which, in their capable hands became a time and an occasion for celebration and delight.

Monumental complete organ works of Bach continue from organists of St Paul’s Cathedral

The Bach Project: Michael Stewart and Richard Apperley play the complete organ works of J.S. Bach throughout 2015

Michael Stewart, organ

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Friday, 23 October 2015, 12.45pm

Another varied programme in the Bach Project – this was concert no 25! – greeted a fairly sparse audience. Several of the items, identified by the German word ‘deest’, are not to be found in the Bach catalogue (BWV), and a number of others are catalogued in the appendices (Anh.). So these are probably heard much less frequently than those with BWV numbers.

In speaking to the audience before playing, Michael Stewart noted that 31 October would be Reformation Day, commemorating the day on which Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints’ Church, (the Schlosskirche) in Wittenberg, in 1517. Bach’s chorale preludes were based on Lutheran chorales, or hymn tunes, with which his Lutheran congregations in Leipzig would have been very familiar.

The opening Prelude in E minor, BWV 533, contained plenty of Bach complexity and variety, and its plangent tones opened the pipes, and the ears, in a satisfying manner.

‘Befiehl du deine Wege’ was the first of the chorale preludes, in two settings (Anh.II 79 and deest). The first gave a clear statement of the chorale melody, which is the same as the well-known ‘Passion Chorale” (‘O Haupt so voll Blut und Wunden’ in St. Matthew Passion, or ‘Herzlich thut mich verlangen’). The second one was played louder, and was probably more ornate. At various points the melody was played on the pedals. There were wonderfully inventive decorations of that melody, especially in this second work, which became very intricate.

The familiar Lutheran hymn ‘Ein’ feste Burg is unser Gott’ also came in two settings. Again, one was from the appendices. In that one, the melody seemed to give rise to other melodic fragments that had their own character, and were interwoven with the main theme. The second (BWV 720) is better known, and quite different. Reed pipes were brought into play, some of them slightly out of tune, probably due to the damp weather. There was plenty of contrast between manuals and pedals, when the latter were finally brought into the discussion.

The Fugue in C minor (on a theme of Legrenzi, BWV 574) interposed before the next set of chorale preludes. Giovanni Legrenzi was an Italian composer (1626 – 1690). This was a double fugue, i.e. it had two themes. Judicious registration meant it never sounded muddied or too complex. In the second, more florid part of the piece more stops were added, including a two-foot, giving a louder, brighter and more brilliant sound.

‘Es ist das Heil uns kommen her’, again in two versions, one being uncatalogued, followed. The BWV 638 version is short, robust and joyful, with the choral melody clearly ringing out in the top line. Variation on the melody is straightforward. The second version did not seem so distinguished.

Two preludes on ‘Valet will ich dir geben’ (BWV 735 and 736) were next. The second brought in a heavier texture than the first, with low pedal notes, the whole being set in a lower key. The chorale melody is known to English speakers as the tune for ‘All glory, laud and honour’. Again, a number of pipes were slightly out of tune. Stewart’s playing was not too fast, and so clarity was maintained in these quite complex pieces.

The Fugue in C (Anh.II 90) is quite short, and featured delightful, high-pitched arpeggios at the start. The light registration gave an effect of the sound coming from a great distance away.

The first of two chorale preludes (BWV 1110 and 757) on ‘O Herre Gott, dein göttlichs Wort’ was played lightly, the chorale melody being very clear, while the second had the melody commencing in the left hand, followed by the pedals. The opening phrases were reminiscent of ‘The Old Hundredth’ (‘All people that on earth do dwell’).

The last chorale prelude was ‘Jesus, meine Zuversicht’ (BWV 728), a short, slow and charming piece with delightful ornaments.

To end the recital, Michael Stewart played the ‘Little’ Fugue in G minor (BWV 578) While the separation of notes in the theme was fine, I would have liked a little more phrasing of the passages of the fugue theme. The piece made a triumphant end to a splendid recital.

By sitting well forward in the church, and due to the skill of the organist, I did not find Bach’s works muddied by the acoustics, as I sometimes have in the past. The works, besides being supremely competently played by Michael Stewart, showed off the organ well.



Enchanting, polished recital by Rebecca Steel, flute and Ingrid Bauer, harp

Rebecca Steel (flute) and Ingrid Bauer (harp)

Music by Debussy (En bateau and La plus que lente), Persichetti (Serenade No 10 for flute and harp), Bach (Flute sonata in G minor, BWV 1020), Piazzolla (Bordello and Café from Histoire du tango)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 21 October, 12:15 pm

I last heard Rebecca Steel in a recital with Simon Brew and Jane Curry, as the Amistad Trio, in May, when I commented that it was the third concert involving the flute in a month. I wasn’t complaining.

Here she was, a confident, conspicuous figure, contrasting with the commonly perceived view of the flute as an instrument of ethereal delicacy. With Ingrid Bauer’s harp, it proved a combination made in heaven even though there was little in their playing that could be dismissed as delicate or transcendental.

They opened with a transcription of Debussy’s En bateau. It is the first part of the Petite Suite which the Amistad Trio played in May.

I think this version worked better. Here, the thought of a marriage of true minds came to me, as the transcription of the original for piano, four hands, called up a spirit that seemed to capture even more than Debussy’s own version did what the composer might really have been seeking; and it’s well known that he tended to avoid orchestrating his music, often leaving it to others. (Yes, I know there are many wonderful exceptions to that observation).

To begin, I thought the flute had a little too much presence, and could imagine a more subtle, languid sound, but the two players soon bewitched me; I’d prefer it to the orchestration by Henri Büsser.

And it so happened that as I was finishing this review I heard Elric Hooper in one of his classic discussions with Des Wilson on Concert FM; talking about his own life, after years of their delightful, insightful discussions on a wide variety of musical, dance, theatrical and generally artistic subjects. Elric’s last words, about music that touched him deeply, that calmed his soul; he said: “En bateau; it always fills me with joy”. Yes, I think so.

At its end Rebecca made a remark about Mallarmé: a poem? Or what? I think En bateau was based on a poem of Verlaine; there’s also Rimbaud’s Bateau Ivre which might also have had a connection.

La plus que lente (‘the more than slow [waltz]’) is in rather a similar vein, written for solo piano; the performance was based on an arrangement for violin and piano. Though it doesn’t purport to suggest water or clouds or anything insubstantial, an expectation of dreaminess and other-worldliness might well be met by these instruments, and they approached that spirit. In fact, as has been observed by others, it can be compared, in its ironic, satirical intention, to Ravel’s in La Valse, reflecting the immense social significance of the waltz in 19th century Europe.

The useful website AllMusic, records: “It represented Debussy’s laconic reaction to the pervasive influence of the slow waltz in France’s coffee-houses, dance-halls, and salons. But, writes Frank Howes, ‘La plus que lente is, in Debussy’s wryly humorous way, the valse lente to outdo all others.’ Apparently Debussy handed the manuscript of this piece to the gypsy fiddler Leoni, whose Romany band played to great popular acclaim in the ballroom of the New Carlton Hotel in Paris. It was almost certainly here that Debussy got the idea for the work in the first place.”

It was a delightful partner to En bateau.

I’ve heard Persichetti’s Serenade No 10 before, most recently in a 2012 performance, by Michelle Velvin, harp, and Monique Vossen, flute; it was reviewed in Middle C. In 2009, I heard, and reviewed, a performance by flutist Lucy Anderson and Ingrid Bauer, as members of the then National Youth Orchestra.

Persichetti is a strangely under-exposed composer, ignored probably for not writing in idioms that impress the academic music industry. Indeed, its eight short movements don’t allow much chance for the material to evolve in clever, complex ways. But Ingrid Bauer had briefly demonstrated a few of the harp techniques that Persichetti used to create an unpretentious work that would not tax too greatly, yet entertain an audience with visual surprises, with its tonal variety and colour as well as finding melodic ideas that were piquant, never hackneyed or sentimental. The movements ranged from triple time, dance rhythms, through many moods and soundscapes: meditative, joyous, dreamy, boisterous, always diverting. It was a performance of elegance, wit and skill.

The Bach flute sonata in G minor is one that invites a certain amount of scholarly scrutiny; it’s the seventh of his flute sonatas – the other six are authentic J S Bach – but this might be by C P E Bach, as Rebecca Steel told us, and I was easy to persuade to hear a ‘galant’ flavour in it rather than heartland J S Bach. It lies beautifully for the harp which plays alone for the entire opening ritornello, but when the flute arrived its lines were so charming that it was hard to sense its minor key modality. One had to search for that flattened ‘mi’. The two players together made wonderfully congenial sounds, especially in the middle Adagio movement, which indeed sounded too Romantic for Bach père. At times I was reminded of the melodic flavour of Telemann.

The first two movements of Piazzolla’s Histoire du Tango ended the recital; Bordello and Café. It’s fair to recall that Rebecca, with her Trio Amistad, had played it in a Wellington Chamber Music concert back in May. There was nothing raunchy or unseemly about the music Piazzolla imagined for his Buenos Aires brothel (bordello is a friendlier word?) It is an engaging exploration of the latent musical potential of the tango, the variety of subtle rhythms and melodic shapes that can evolve under fertile conditions. And it was played with such verve and delight.

The Café scene was very different; I’d heard it played a few days before by Donald Maurice on his viola d’amore and guitarist Jane Curry; while that was very attractive, this offered another, perfectly tasteful approach, the harp acting like the guitar to paint a decorous scene. Without a strong rhythm, dreamily, it soon becomes more lively but after a while tricks the listener to feeling that the subsiding energy is rambling to the end. After a pause it resumes with renewed firmness and a more definite melody which is elaborated and brightens.

It was one of the most charming recitals I’ve heard this year from the very strong competition at the St Andrew’s lunchtime series.

Nikau Ensemble at St Mark’s Lower Hutt with Mozart and Dohnányi

Nikau Chamber Ensemble (Konstanze Artmann, violin; Karen Batten, flute; Christiaan van der Zee, viola; Margaret Guldborg, cello)

Mozart: Quartet in C, KA [i.e. Appendix to Koechel’s catalogue] 171
Dohnányi: Serenade in C, Op.10 (Marcia, Romanza, Scherzo, Tema con variazoni, Rondo) for string trio

St. Mark’s Church, Lower Hutt

Wednesday, 21 October 2015, 12.15pm

I had gone to St. Mark’s expecting to hear Arohanui Strings, young string players of primary school age who have free tuition in a Sistema-style programme in the Hutt Valley. Instead, as I entered the church, I heard a flute being warmed up in the vestry.

On came the Nikau Ensemble, minus their oboist Madeline Sakofsky, who was indisposed. They were scheduled to appear next week. Not that the ensemble disappointed, but it was not until an announcement at the end of the concert that I learned the two had swapped places, and the Arohanui Strings will perform next week.   Maybe the regular members of St. Mark’s audience were aware earlier of this change, but the occasional attender did not know of it.

The Mozart work immediately made me sit up – the flute quartet made such a lovely sound. The excellent articulation of the notes in all parts was a delight. I recently read a book that consisted of interviews with leading sopranos and mezzos of the 1950s – 1990s (including Dame Kiri te Kanawa), and most of them said that Mozart was one of the hardest composers to sing – everything had to be clean and clear, and there was nowhere to hide: the line was very exposed. It is the same with the chamber music. These players were clear and accurate, yet expressive.

The variations consisted of some in major mode and others in minor, which added to their interest. The last one featured pizzicato in the lower parts, with the melody above. This gave a cheerful effect, to end a gracious work.

The Serenade of Hungarian composer Dohnányi was for string trio. Mozart’s work was written when he was 21, Dohnányi’s when he was 26. It began with a March which was jolly rather than pompous or solemn. The players produced great warmth of tone, and it was noticeable that for this music of 1904 they ‘dug deeper’ into the strings than with the Classical-era Mozart piece. The Romance began with a long-breathed melody on viola, over pizzicato on the other strings. Then the two upper strings continued the melodic line over cello pizzicato, the latter often on two strings at the same time.

The third movement was an excited yet genial Scherzo. The instruments entered one at a time, from the highest to the lowest.   Their sonority was very fine. Then theme and variations again, Dohnányi’s version beginning with a chorale-like theme. The tonality moved into minor harmonies, becoming more sombre and wistful; the movement ended on that note.

The Rondo that ended the work was brisk and cheerful. It was a busy movement for all the players. Towards the end, long chords depicted a folk-like melody, or perhaps a dance. A quiet ending received the full-stop of a loud final chord. The musicians showed real rapport in their playing together, and the audience of 40+ gave the ensemble appreciative applause.


New trio by Ken Young, an under-rated Saint-Saëns trio and Beethoven, not as you know him

NZTrio (Sarah Watkin – piano, Justine Cormack – violin, Ashley Brown – cello)

Beethoven: Symphony No 2 in D (arranged for piano trio)
Kenneth Young: Piano Trio (a new commission)
Saint-Saëns: Piano Trio No 2 in E minor, Op. 92

Expressions: Arts and Entertainment Centre, Upper Hutt

Monday 19 October, 7:30 pm

The programmes put together by NZTrio are always unpredictable or eccentric or from left field; there’s always something that attracts strongly, something that rings a bell and induces you to give it a go, and something quite unknown – usually a new work and often by a New Zealand composer. The latter was the case here – a commission by the trio itself from New Zealand composer Kenneth Young.

The piece that was unknown but rang a bell was Beethoven’s arrangement of his second symphony. As the programme note recorded, Beethoven (and most composers in the days before orchestral music was available on record, over the radio or even in frequent live performance) made arrangements of orchestral works for piano or small ensemble. (When I was young I acquired piano transcriptions of several Beethoven symphonies, and duet versions of Weber’s overtures).

I have to admit that it was hard to get rid of the orchestral sound and I felt for some time, through the adagio introduction, that too much was missing. By force of will I succeeded (after a while, more or less) in hearing the music on its own terms, and then it often sounded like a reduction of either a piano or a violin concerto, depending on which instrument was taking the main melodic line. What seemed most difficult to adjust to was when the piano took on the fast accompanying figures played by the orchestral strings or by woodwinds. The situation wasn’t helped by the imbalance between piano and violin on the one hand, and the cello on the other: the latter often obscured by the former. This might have reflected genuine difficulty in achieving balance between passages that were conceived for groups of instruments that found their balance more naturally.

The above relates more to the first movement than to the second or the fourth where the distribution of parts seemed to adapt more readily to the smaller ensemble. The arrangement was fairly comfortable in the Larghetto, and in the last movement, the fugal character of the writing certainly leant itself to the trio well, though I sensed that the speed and the handling of the fast ostinato accompanying figures didn’t come easy. Things only got more hair-raising in the Coda.

Though readers will sense that I have misgivings about the need to exhume a score like this, the music was still Beethoven, and the musicians still highly skilled and sensitive to the essence of his composition and its structure, and I’m sure audience curiosity would have been stimulated.

The new piece was a total success. I should, perhaps, confess to being a long-time admirer of Ken Young’s music which finds a place between rigorous modernity, as in serialism and its lesser, but still alienating incarnations, and soft-centred, traditional, tonal music. Here, in the piano trio commissioned by NZTrio, there are tunes; they evolve and weave coherently with disparate material; there are alternating episodes of calm, where the music drifts into near silence.

I did not read the programme note beforehand; but I had scribbled notes about the music seeming to be inspired (is that the right word?) by feelings of alarm or anger at political events around the world and/or in New Zealand. When I read the programme at the interval I was surprised to find that the notes recorded that Young said that he had been affected by “a couple of things that were going on – political and societal issues here in New Zealand. My ire was raised and … I always find it a good time to pick up a pen and take it out on a piece of manuscript paper.”

And the notes reflected my own impressions of the significance of the moods portrayed: the anger and frustration with which the piece begins leading to calmer and more accepting phase, concluding that one should put external troubles aside and cultivate one’s garden.

In plain musical terms, the first few pages with its hints of Messiaen or Shostakovich, the clarity of the writing for the three instruments, there was a compelling appeal where agitation subsides towards resolution, such as in the long solo cello followed by the piano drifting into silence; and then the muted violin and cello uttering ghostly, subliminal murmurings. I was moved too by the elegiac duetting by piano and violin. Life and optimism return at the end.

It got a thoroughly persuasive performance and I’m sure there will be a life for this piece long after the attention given to its initial exposure fades.

Finally, the second piano trio by Saint-Saëns: twice in the past six months I’ve heard student trios play the first movement and that had surprised me.

Let me record what I wrote at the second hearing of the trio’s first movement which I had first heard in June:

“I was even more impressed hearing it again, and wondered why I hadn’t been … acquainted with this accomplished, compelling work before, a work that deserves to be in the standard piano trio repertoire (perhaps it is in other countries). I’d have thought that it would, from its publication in 1892, have been confirmed as a major chamber music work of the late 19th century, certainly of the French school. The trouble would have been the long-lasting disparagement of Saint-Saëns as a great composer…”

I could well tidy up some of the syntax, but having now heard the whole work, I would not disagree with my opinion, especially given the well-studied performance that NZTrio lavished on it. The subdued urgency of the opening movement demands attention from the first and though it becomes calmer, it never loses its compelling momentum. I would only say that the three middle movement (there are five) are less impressive, lighter in spirit with attractive melodies that take on changing moods which is no less agreeable. The last movement has a buoyancy and impulsiveness that approaches the first movement’s drive. It is achieved through fast fugal passages, laced with Gallic wit and an energy that befits a last movement but doesn’t in the end quite match the first in weight and substance.

Nevertheless this was a most rewarding concert, very characteristic of the adventurousness and musical conviction of these splendid players. They play again in the Wellington City Gallery on Tuesday 10 November, the Saint-Saëns replaced with Fauré’s Piano Trio.

Hamish McKeich’s final WYO concert a knockout

Wellington Youth Orchestra presents:


Patrick Hayes (clarinet)
Hamish McKeich (conductor)
Wellington Youth Orchestra

BERNSTEIN – Overture “Candide”
ELGAR – “Nimrod” (Variation IX) from the Enigma Variations
HOLST – “Mars and “Jupiter” from The Planets
LILBURN – Overture “Aotearoa”
SHOSTAKOVICH – Festive Overture
SPOHR – Clarinet Concerto No.4 in E Minor

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Hill St., Wellington

Monday 19th October 2015

This was a thoroughly enjoyable and enlivening programme, and as it turned out a  most appropriate way for the Wellington Youth Orchestra to (a) conclude a successful playing-year, and (b) farewell conductor Hamish McKeich, who’s been the orchestra’s inspirational music director for the past four years. Having heard nothing about Hamish’s departure beforehand, I was surprised when the concert’s master of ceremonies, Peter Dykes made the announcement at the evening’s beginning – and the news was confirmed by orchestra manager Tom Gott at the concert’s end, in a speech thanking Hamish for the sterling work he’d put into the orchestra over the time he’s worked with the players.

Nothing lasts forever, of course, even though with McKeich at the helm I’d gotten accustomed to looking forward greatly to each concert given by the orchestra of late. However, what he’s achieved with these musicians will undoubtedly linger and be shared with other, newer players, and add to a kind of on-going “tradition” of quality, such as that represented by this concert – a kind of showcase of the work done over the duration, and one that didn’t disappoint. With the help of a handful of NZSO players among the orchestral ranks, the playing had plenty of brilliance, enthusiasm, and sensitivity and depth of feeling as required, and put across a sense of knowing how to best present each piece instead of relying merely on a “one size fits all” approach.

The programme’s title “Commemorative and Wartime Classics” applied to some but not directly all of the items that were performed – though there’s a fair degree of warfare and carnage in Volatire’s story “Candide”, set to music by Leonard Bernstein, it’s a deeply satirical work whose purpose is to ridicule rather than commemorate. And Louis Spohr’s mellifluous Fourth Clarinet Concerto, though written for  a prominent virtuoso of the instrument, Johann Hermstedt, to play at an 1829 Music Festival, could neither be said to be either commemorative or associated with great conflict of any kind.

Described as “the perfect concert-opener”, Bernstein’s bright, racy Overture certainly filled the bill, both as a spectacular curtain-raiser on what was to come, and a real test for the youthful orchestra’s collective mettle. What was wanted was no-holds-barred playing, and the musicians engagingly tumbled over themselves in their eagerness to get the sounds up, running and together – while keeping the rhythms snappy, the conductor gave his players enough time to get their fingers around the notes and make the figurations coherent, relying on rhythmic point more than sheer speed to invigorate the music.

Being a “virtuoso” piece designed to put professional groups through their paces, the music here inevitably had moments where there were roughnesses in performance. It was more a problem with rhythms not quite dovetailing between sections than with notes being missed, as with the first appearance of the “Oh Happy We” tune, which went at several speeds on different instruments before the players got things together. Still, the music’s essential ingredients (a bubbly, raunchy, almost burlesque kind of feeling) were strongly in evidence, and McKeich and his players brought off both the excitement of the coda’s accelerando and the whiplash ending with great panache.

Next up was the concerto, one of no less than four written for the instrument by Louis Spohr, for his friend the virtuoso Johann Simon Hermstedt. The work’s dark, mysterious expression points directly towards the Romantic Movement that was to take hold of, and sweep through the nineteenth century. Though born fourteen years after Beethoven, Spohr wrote music which occupied a similarly pivotal position between classicism and romanticism, and his music was, for a time, just as highly regarded as Beethoven’s (like a number of his contemporaries, Spohr didn’t understand Beethoven’s late works, regarding them as “esthetic aberrations” and blaming the older composer’s deafness for their “faults”!).

Clarinettist Patrick Hayes, the winner of the Wellington Youth Orchestra Concerto Competition, showed us almost straightaway the skill of his playing and the extent of his musicianship, with beautifully withdrawn tones and lovely velvety runs throughout his opening utterances. As well, he dovetailed his lines beautifully with those of the orchestra’s at appropriate moments,  while making his instrument “speak out” when called upon to do so. He seemed more inclined to bring out the music’s mystery and depth of feeling rather than its brilliance and “show” – though not everything was note-perfect, he conveyed sufficient aplomb with the display aspect so as to make the more withdrawn moments “tell” at the appropriate times.

The slow movement of the work, a Larghetto, resembled a kind of poised, long-breathed dance with sinuous lines woven by the soloist over gently-pulsating accompaniments, a lovely contrast to the livelier Spanish rhythms of the finale, both soloist and orchestra relishing the rhythmic swirl of the triplet passages, and the sultry Preciosa-like jog-trot figurations accompanying the second theme. There was, too, ample display opportunities for the soloist, spectacular, firecracker-like ascents both with and without trills, and rapid, roller-coaster-ride figurations written for the player to proclaim his or her instrumental flair and command. In short, throughout the work we were treated to a real musician’s playing.

MC Peter Dykes raised a laugh when he described the Shostakovich Festival Overture which followed as, from an orchestral player’s point of view “a piece that teaches one the art of bluff”. I was reminded of a story I once heard about a wind player who was asked how he managed the more difficult parts of Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloe” ballet music, to which he replied, “You just waggle your fingers and hope for the best!”. To be honest, there didn’t seem very much “bluffing” on the part of these players when Shostakovich’s work started, so full-on was the orchestral sound in all departments! – having been suitably galvanized with the opening fanfares, we were plunged into a regular conflagration of instrumental excitement, with swirling winds and stuttering brass leading up to overwhelming percussive climaxes.

As well there was splendid solo work in places from the winds, the clarinet especially heroic, along with some lovely lyrical exchanges between lower and upper strings, singing out atop the driving rhythms! But conductor and players didn’t let up for the return of the opening fanfares and throughout the excitement of the coda that followed – a rip-roaring conclusion that left us all limp with excitement!

Douglas Lilburn’s 100th birth-anniversary year was acknowledged here with a bright and breezy performance of the “Aotearoa” Overture, from the outset lovely open-air playing which captured the spacious ambiences of the music, and the epic nature of the landscapes therein. I particularly enjoyed the string-playing in this performance – every chance these players got to sing full-throatedly they took, with rich and resonant results, leaving the winds to describe the movements of air and water and the brass and percussion to fashion the mountainscapes. Though the rather cramped acoustic of the Cathedral didn’t really allow the music to expand as it should at the end, the resonances still told splendidly, and brought the composer’s vision excitingly to life for our pleasure.

No greater contrast could have been wrought than was made next with Elgar’s famously elegiac “Nimrod” from the “Engima” Variations. Inspired by a mutual love of Beethoven’s slow movements on the part of the composer and his publisher and friend, August Jaeger, Elgar’s music raptly and intensely builds from near silence at its beginning to a magnificent outpouring of nobility. Difficult for any orchestra to sustain over long periods, this feeling was given to us in spadefuls by these young players, Hamish McKeich beautifully “terracing” the music’s course, and the players holding their lines tenaciously and full-throatedly, building towards the climax, then rapidly withdrawing and returning the sounds to whisperings – a terrific performance!

Finally came two movements from a work frequently associated, by dint of both subject-matter and time of composition, with war, Holst’s Symphonic Suite, “The Planets”. Most appropriately, we heard “Mars, the Bringer of War”, and its diametrically opposed “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity”, the latter making a suitably riotous and good-humoured conclusion to the concert. What an impression the opening of “Mars” made on us all, with those dry, skeletal sounds of the players bouncing the wood of their bows on the instruments’ strings, an eerie, death-rattling kind of utterance accompanying the sense of rising panic, terror and alarm throughout the rest of the orchestra. At the other end of the sound-spectrum, the hammer-blows at the piece’s end were brutal and final in their impact – an extraordinary effect.

Thank goodness for Jupiter and the “laughter holding both its sides” aspect, which took us from tragedy to comedy, Holst’s extraordinary orchestral writing readily evoking a life-enhancing sense of well-being and elation, rebuilding confidences that that been shaken to their core by the onslaught of Mars at the opening. And what an extraordinary outpouring of pride and nobility of the spirit with the central trio’s “big tune”, here perhaps just a shade glutinous at its beginning, but gathering momentum and strength with every stride towards the powerfully-stated climax.

But just as impressive were the transitions from jollity to nobility and back again, in each case the winds playing a major part with tricky, syncopated figurations, firstly “shushing” the merriment, and then re-igniting the exuberance with a will, the brass and percussion in the latter case fetching up all the tethered energies and unleashing them once more. The loping stride of the laughing tune got a bit out of sync the second time round, due to the vagaries of the accelerando, but conductor McKeich quickly called the different voices to heel and steadied the course to the end – and what a wondrously vertiginous “swirling” aspect the players got before those last crashing hammer-blow chords put an end to the music! – as I said at this review’s beginning, thoroughly enjoyable!

So, salutations to Hamish McKeich and to his band of stalwart musicicans! – next year things will undoubtedly be different, but one feels certain that what has been achieved by conductor and players over the last few years won’t be easily forgotten.