Bach Choir hits the Christmas Spot

The Bach Choir of Wellington presents:

Traditional Carols
and Christmas music by VICTORIA, DOUGLAS K.MEWS, MESSIAEN,

The Bach Choir of Wellington
Peter de Blois (conductor)
Douglas Mews (organ)

St.Peter’s-on-Willis, Wellington,

Saturday 28th November, 2015

Into the beautifully-appointed spaces of St.Peter-on-Willis’s Church came the Bach Choir, with conductor Peter de Blois and organist Douglas Mews, to perform an inventive and intriguing selection of Christmas music.

Audience participation was definitely on the agenda – at the top of the list of items, and styled as an “audience carol” no less, was “O come, all ye faithful” – which contributed greatly to the concert’s overall ambience, a kind of “all-in this together” feeling, central to the festive season, of course.

Conductor Peter de Blois made an excellent job of facilitating this “coming together” of performers and audience, with an easeful, undemonstrative manner which encouraged rather than bullied people into giving the singing their best shot.

The whole concert was, in fact, rather like a kind of family gathering, most evident during the interval and at the conclusion, with plenty of “mingling” of audience and choir members, as, indeed was the case with the music throughout the afternoon!

Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) left his native Spain at the age of seventeen to study with Palestrina in Italy, remaining there for twenty years while he honed his compositional craft. When only twenty-four he published his first musical anthology, including the motet O Magnum Mysterium, a work which has come to be a favorite of choirs since the revival of interest in Victoria’s music in the twentieth century. Though originally composed for the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ its text unashamedly refers to Christmas, and accordingly suits the last part of the year.

This was a lovely performance, sensitive and ethereal-sounding throughout the opening, the singers judiciously varying the tones and dynamics, delivering a sensitive, contrastingly withdrawn “Beatus Virgo” and thrilling surges of energy for the Alleluias at the work’s end, allowing the music a fantasia-like effect to finish.

A group of Four European carols followed, arranged by Douglas Mews père et fils, lovely realizations of two Italian, one French and one German carol, each of the first three having catchy rhythms somewhat removed from the more “stolid” and four-square aspect of carols I had been brought up with. Having said that, I must admit that the “audience carol” which followed this set was “Angels from the Realms of Glory’ which had us all roller-coastering the “Gloria in excelsis Deo” refrains at the end with great exuberance.

Douglas Mews fils then played Olivier Messiaen’s La Vierge et l’Enfant (The Virgin and Child) from the composer’s La Nativité du Seigneur (The Nativity of the Lord) group of organ pieces, an evocative meditation which I found extraordinary in its mystery and wonderment, the composer exploring a plethora of emotions and reactions to the Christ Child’s birth, including the deepest of meditative explorations as well as hope and joy at the “glad tidings” – Douglas Mews’ playing seemed all-enveloping in its trance-like suggestiveness, making me want to listen to the whole set of nine pieces.

Another setting of O Magnum Mysterium came from Francis Poulenc, one of a group of settings, Quatre motets pour le temps le Noël. In this work, we heard beautifully hushed tones at the outset from which came beams of light radiating from the sopranos – the singers did well to “pitch” these exposed entries, which, though repeated later in the piece had more support from the rest of the choir, everything sensitively done.

Our sense of “the ordinary and the fabulous” was nicely blurred by the juxtapositioning of audience carols with the rest of the programme, our rendition of “Away in a Manger” followed as it was by five lovely settings by Richard Rodney Bennett of Christmas texts from earlier times. Interesting to compare two of these (There is no rose, and That Younge Child) with the settings by Britten in his “A Ceremony of Carols” – both of Bennett’s were, I thought more severe and austere in effect than the older composer’s treatment of the texts. The others were slightly more “user-friendly”, especially the lively Susanni, which concluded the set, alternating single-voice and harmonized lines most adroitly and enjoyably. Earlier, the gently canonic Sweet was the song charmed us in a different way, with its lovely “lulla lulla lullaby “adjuncts to each verse.

After we in the audience were again let off the leash via a full-throated “Ding Dong Merrily on High” we were then treated to a short Christmas Cantata by Douglas Mews père, three very different texts most imaginatively treated and, here, securely performed – from the the first, “After the Annuniciation” by Elizabeth Jennings, exploring aspects of the God/Man relationship embodied in the VIrgin Mary’s begetting of Jesus, through a “dance-carol” treatment of an early Spanish text “St Joseph and God’s Mother” (winningly sung and played, here), and finishing on a more serious note with “A Babe is Born”, beginning with what seems like a conventional setting of a 15th Century text, but then interpolating Latin chants and the occasional spoken phrases from individual voices in the choir.

The concert’s second half was take up with a curious work, one by British composer James Whitbourn, a setting of a Latin mass employing carol melodies from various parts of Europe. I must confess to enjoying parts of it more than I did others, finding it hard to rid myself in places of the Christmas associations of the melodies, as if my sensibilities were saying, for whatever reason, that the amalgamation of the Mass text with carol melodies seemed almost improper. (I’m sure I would have been in a minority in this, but there you go!)

There were, by way of confounding my instincts, some gorgeous sequences – the piping organ at the beginning was engagingly folkish, very “out-of-doors”, as was the processional, “Guilô, pran ton tambourin!”, spacious and atmospheric, using the tune “For to us a Child is Born” as a kind of plainchant, the treatment varying choir with a solo voice (very difficult), capped off at the end by the organ, which introduced the “Kyrie”. After this the “Gloria” featured the melody “God rest you, Merry Gentlemen” with a bit of Elgarian swagger, but becoming dance-like at the Gloria’s conclusion, the part-singing at this point very assured and enjoyable to listen to.

We registered and enjoyed “In Dulci Jubilo” at the beginning of the Sanctus, in tandem with great ceremonial swirls of tone from the organ. Atfer this, the “Benedictus” struck a sombre, more reverential note, leading to an organ solo by Louis-Claude Daquin, a piping little tune “Bon Joseph, écoutez-moi” given firstly a dancing variation, then a thunderously resplendent one. The “Agnus Dei” tested the voices, both a solo voice from the choir and the sopranos, with especially cruel high entries towards the piece’s end, though the solo voice was steadfast and pleasing, and was supported most satisfyingly at the piece’s conclusion by a hummed note from the supporting voices.

To sum up, the performances from all concerned resonated most pleasingly with the beauties of the venue and its overall atmosphere – most enjoyable!

Rites of Spring – from the sublime to “cor blimey” in all respects

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Rite of Spring

Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending
Walton: Cello Concerto
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jaime Martín, with Vesa-Matti Leppänen (violin) and Jakob Koranyi (cello)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday, 20 November 2015, 6.30pm


Spring was celebrated before a nearly full Michael Fowler Centre on Friday.  Though the very popular Vaughan Williams work and the famous Stravinsky ballet score were composed within a short space of time of each other, their musical languages were vastly different, yet they both in their own ways celebrated spring, one in the English countryside, the other in a primitive Russian past.  Thus the programme was rather a case of the sublime to the cor-blimey – not that I am complaining.


It was good to have the orchestra’s concertmaster as soloist.  Many of us recall his predecessor in that position, Wilma Smith, playing the Vaughan Williams work.  Naturally, this performance differed from hers.  Leppänen began very softly, with the medium-sized string orchestra plus a few woodwind instruments and two horns making up the accompanying ensemble.


Apparently it is not only in New Zealand that this work is an immense favourite with audiences.  Here, it nearly always rates at or near the top of the annual end-of-year ‘Settling the score’ programme on Radio New Zealand Concert, in which listeners’ selections are ranked in order of  popularity.


This was very fine violin playing, if not having quite the warmth of tone that I anticipated, though it did warm up over time.  The orchestra’s contribution was always in keeping with the mood; the horns’ subtle interjections were splendid, as were the flourishes for triangle near the end.  The violin’s solo finishing section was gloriously delicate in its lilting tunefulness, and was greeted with tumultuous applause.


Walton’s cello concerto was not a work that I knew.  It was appropriate to have another English work after something so English as the Vaughan Williams.  It required a normal full orchestra – though it still appeared comparatively small, set among all the places required for the Stravinsky.


A gorgeous quiet opening from the cello immediately concentrated attention on the soloist (dressed quite informally compared with the orchestra members in their tails and white bow ties, who again were contrasted with the conductor in a business suit and tie).  The first movement, unusually, was the slowest (moderato), and conveyed a dreamy and meditative mood; the mute was employed for much of the movement, giving the music a restrained character.


The second movement, allegro appassionata, was faster and more dynamic.  Quite a lot of athleticism was required of the soloist, expressing the tempo marking.  Brass, timpani and percussion contributed largely to the driving mood.  There was pizzicato from the cellist, then a very animated bowed passage.  Koranyi (from Sweden) expressed the varying moods elegantly and with panache, though he did not have the big sound to be heard from some cellists.  However, he met Walton’s considerable demands with style and skill.  According to the programme note, ample as were those for the other works, this movement demonstrated Walton’s enjoyment of shifting accents and changing his metres ‘giving the movement an engaging vivacity and unpredictability’.


The third movement (tema ed improvvisazioni) opened soulfully, the soloist accompanied by pizzicato cellos only.  Many of the solo passages were in the high register.  Ravishing woodwind came on the scene; the following solo section had the cellist drawing on a variety of technical skills in short order.  After this sections contemplative close, we were woken by drum rolls and loud brass flourishes.  Another extended solo section called for more double-stopping and great dynamic variation; all this was accompanied by multiple-toned coughs from the audience!  Deep notes from the soloist, along with chanting flutes, were quite thrilling.  Cellos and basses joined in with their own low notes, while the harp contributed delicious timbres, along with those of the xylophone, to end.


A very full orchestra, of over 90 players, was required for Stravinsky’s tremendous work.  The brass section included 9 horns (two of the players sometimes playing Wagner tubas) and two full-sized tubas, the woodwind four flutes plus piccolo (sometimes 3+2), four oboes plus four bassoons and contra-bassoon; four clarinets and a bass-clarinet.


A century after its composition, the opening of this music (and indeed much else in it) is still startling, and must have been extraordinary at its first performance – and indeed (to impresario Diaghilev’s delight) there was famously a riot.  This music was something the like of which the audience would never have heard before.  I admire the French for their boldness and expressive trait in showing their displeasure, and on the other side, their admiration for the work.  How often today do we get any demonstration of dislike of music?  We’re far too self-conscious and timid!    Not only the dancers must have been very fit for such energetic rhythms, the string players especially needed to be fit to play their fast figures leaping from string to string.


This was the most dynamic, exciting performance of the work that I have heard, and the players were absolutely on top of their game.  This is a work that you experience rather than simply enjoy.  It has probably not been surpassed in the annals of Western music for energy, dynamism and sheer exuberance.  No wonder so many sound shields were in use behind members of the brass and woodwind sections of the orchestra!   There was so much remarkable playing from them, and the thrust and vigour are unlike anything else in music.  The score is crammed full of contrasts.   A section of off-stage brass was very effective in the second part of the work.   Insistent rhythms are a major feature of the work, and come up in various of its 15 sections.


Compared with other of Stravinsky’s works for ballet, there is little melody in Rite of Spring.  The interest lies elsewhere.  Despite the huge demands, and the large number of players, the orchestra played as one.  The performance received a rapturous reception, not least from conductor Martín, who selected individual players for a handshake before standing sections of the orchestra one by one.  Of the strings, he singled out the violas.  But there was no mistaking that the principal bassoon, who introduces the whole work with plangent notes in a high register, won his especial favour.



War’s impact on the women: Nota Bene sings, Gaylene Preston reads memories

Mothers, Daughters, Wives

Nota Bene, chamber choir, conducted by Peter Walls Readings by Gaylene Preston
Bruce Cash – organ and piano; Oscar Bullock – violin

Hall of Memories, National War Memorial (The Carillon)

Saturday 14 November 7:30 pm

I’m wondering if others have noticed that quite a lot of musical and other attention is being paid to a war that took place a hundred years ago on the other side of the world; perhaps not: I’m just unusually perceptive.

It was a sad mess, an indictment on all the states that became involved, because based on nationalist bigotry, pride and bluster, and in our own case on empty jingoism. But our own losses, large per capita, were confined to military personnel and small in comparison with horrendous killings of both soldiers and civilians, particularly in central and east Europe.

In the words of the Bach chorale: ‘Ich habe genug’.

This event inspired by Nota Bene looked a bit different though. To begin, the choice of music, mainly liturgical, dealing with the most anguished aspects of Christian belief and myth, complemented the suffering of the women who were bereft by the deaths and terrible impairment, mental and physical, of sons, husbands and brothers.

The concert took place in the Hall of Memories at the foot of the Carillon, also known as the National War Memorial which I didn’t even know existed till about thirty years ago, even though born and bred in Wellington. This surprising, exquisite space is used mainly for religious services associated with war commemoration, but it’s also been used occasionally for other events. The Tudor Consort gave concerts here in earlier years.

Gaylene Preston read a number of extracts from written reminiscences of women, starting with poems Armistice Day and Ellen’s Vigil by Canterbury poet Lorna Staveley Anker. Preston’s delivery was perfectly judged, with simplicity and integrity in a soft, educated, New Zealand accent; long-gone are the affected, elocuted and dehumanized offerings that were once standard.

The following memories avoided histrionics, yet the expression of grief and hopelessness was the more real. A common theme as soldiers were farewelled on troop ships, was the belief that all would be well.

Pamela Quill followed her husband to England when he joined the air force; she described receipt of the telegram which simply reported ‘missing’. Joy’s memories included the plague of nightmares that afflicted her after the telegram about her brother.

Our approaching maturity was perhaps best revealed by Rita’s description of her husband’s imprisonment as a conscientious objector in the second world war; his work colleagues at the Auckland Savings Bank took up a collection which helped sustain Rita through the years of the war (I suspect there would have been a less sympathetic response in WW1).

A particularly poignant experience was told through the eyes of Tui’s child, born after the father’s departure, who had problems at his return, as indeed did Tui herself; by then she hardly knew him.

In the last piece, the writer reflected at the VJ Day celebration in 1945 overshadowed for Ali by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – ‘a world changed forever’.

In many ways the readings packed the greatest punch, though the religious motets and the songs that emerged during the wars were beautifully sung. They began with the Gregorian chant, Dies Irae, with the men walking slowly up the left aisle and the women up the right; then came Peter Philips’s Mulieres sedentes, composed during James I’s reign, harmonically sophisticated (you’ll find it on the highly praised 2001 Naxos CD that Peter Walls recorded with the Tudor Consort).

Bruckner’s Ave Maria was subject to an ecstatic performance, women’s voices perhaps a bit overwhelming. Those expecting Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater night have been disappointed to get Palestrina’s, but here of course the double choir is unaccompanied and the part singing was very fine.

In the second half, as well as an organ solo by Thomas Tomkins played by Bruce Cash, the choir sang more recent liturgical pieces: an elaborate, little Crucifixus by baroque composer Antonio Lotti; the a cappella version of Barber’s Adagio, to the Agnus Dei, with soprano soloist Inese Berzina very prominent; young New Zealand composer Sam Piper’s impressive Kyrie; Grieg’s Ave maris stella; Tavener’s Song for Athene and the In paradisum from Fauré’s Requiem. All admirably and beautifully sung.

The non-classical songs were more of a mixed bag, one or two with slight blemishes, but they served to illustrate the strong optimism and sympathy that pervaded the general population throughout the years of war. An intelligence and awareness of legitimate political issues sometimes surfaced in the songs too, as in Freedom Come-All-Ye, touching the question of the Scots (and by inference, other peoples of the ‘British Empire’) fighting ‘foreign’ wars.

Thus the evening offered intellectual and social interest, and healthy provocation as well as more simple musical pleasure.

Trombone meets harp – the intractable made enjoyable!

Peter Maunder (tenor / alto trombone)
Ingrid Bauer (harp / narrator)

Basta  (1982)              Folke Rabe (1935-)
La Source Op.44                Alphonse Hasselmans (1845-1912)
Ngarotopounamu (2009)           Peter Maunder (1960-)
Ancient Walls (1990)            Sergiu Natra (1924-)
Three Songs                  Cole Porter (1891-1964)
So in love,
In the Still of the Night,
Begin the Beguine
Henry Humbleton’s holiday        Guy Woolfenden (1937-)
Tarantula (Fourth Mvt. from “The Spiders’ Suite”)     Paul Patterson (1947-)
Intermezzo Op.118 No.2         Johannes Brahms (1823-1897)
Take Five              Paul Desmond (1924-1977)
At Last               Mack Gordon (1904-1959
                            &Harry Warren (1893-1981)

(all arrangements by Peter Maunder)

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

Saturday, 14th November, 2015

I suppose there must be even more outlandish combinations of pairs of musical instruments than trombone and harp playing somewhere else in the world at this very moment, though none would, I think, bring together and reconcile such profound differences more successfully than did Peter Maunder and Ingrid Bauer with their respective instruments.

Each player performed a “solo” at the programme’s beginning, seeming to tease us further with the unlikelihood of the “Opposites Attract” title by emphasizing the specific character of each instrument – the trombone predominantly abrasive, forthright and assertive, and the harp liquid-sounding, limpid-textured and enchantingly atmospheric. How were these two very different personalities ever going to “get on”?

Peter Maunder began with Basta, a piece written in 1982 by Swedish composer Folke Rabe, himself a trombonist as well as a composer, one who writes a good deal for brass instruments. Rabe wrote this piece (the title “basta” means, of couse “Enough!” in Italian) to convey the idea of a messenger arriving to deliver a piece of news and then wanting to hurry away again, the person’s manner conveying a degree of stress and haste and volatility. But, not only did the player seem to want to convey a sense of urgency and impatience – one sensed there was a burning desire to tell listeners about things that gave rise to frustration and woe – so in contrast to the bluster and agitation, there were passages of remarkable introspectiveness,  sustained, chord-like notes producing harmonied effects most remarkably, having a “baring of the soul” effect upon the hearer in places.

No greater contrast with these candidly-expressed volatilities could have been presented than with Alphonse Hasselmans’ La Source, Ingrid Bauer making the most of the characteristics that we all associate with the harp – magic, wonderment, romance and liquid flow – by playing a piece that exploited these qualities in an almost definitive way, the work”s melody supported throughout by a rich tapestry of arpeggiated beauties.

Having thereby demonstrated to us these potential intractabilities, the musicians proceeded to make delightful nonsense of them with a series of musical partnerships that surprised and delighted the ear. For reasons outlined by Peter Maunder, in his excellent and entertaining spoken introductions to the pieces, most of the items in the concert were arrangements, made by Maunder himself. In nearly all instances I thought them highly effective as presentations, and of course their delivery, in the hands of these skilled players, was well-nigh everything one could wish for.

As one might have expected, Maunder cited the chief difficulty encountered by a trombone-and-harp partnership as lack of repertoire.. Included in the programme were at least two original works for trombone and harp, one written by Maunder himself – I did a quick internet search which turned up only one further work, though, interestingly enough, I found several other examples of, on the face of things, unlikely partnerships with a trombone, one of them involving a marimba..

So, the first two pieces played by the duo in the concert were written specifically for trombone and harp – Maunder’s own piece was Ngarotopounamu, whose English translation locates the name as belonging to the Emerald Lakes which intrepid trampers encounter when making the famous Tongariro Crossing among the Central North Island volcanoes. Such an evocation called for both epic grandeur and shimmering beauty – and in general the trombone evoked the vastness of the terrain and the outlines of the contours, while the harp filled these spaces with ambiences which suggested both beauty and loneliness in tandem.

The second original trombone-and-harp piece was by the Roumanian-born Jewish composer Sergiu Natra, whose early life was spent in Europe before emigrating with his family to Israel in 1961. His work Ancient Walls was written in 1990, a work reflecting the composer’s great fondness for the harp, and manifesting itself in a number of other compositions for the instrument. A prominent Jewish harpist, Adina Hraoz, wrote of her involvement with Natra’s music, comparing the experience with “watching a wonderful plastic arts creation”. In this particular work, the trombone seemed to me like a voice of antiquity, perhaps even Jahweh-like in places (shades of Walton’s “Belshazzar’s Feast”, perhaps?), interacting with the harp’s figurations in, by turns, volatile and concordant ways, and achieving a kind of synthesis of feeling at the piece’s end.

Worlds apart were three transcriptions of songs by Cole Porter, lovely things which indicated Maunder’s fondness for American popular songs of the 1930s and 40s. In general the melody line was carried by the trombone through these arrangements, with the harp preluding and post-scripting as well as occasionally punctuating the episodes with counter-melody or cadential decoration. After the opening “So in love”, Maunder’s use of a mute with his instrument for the second song “In the Still of the Night” took us to just such a scenario, the harp giving us Ravel-like delicacies creating both time and place in which the trombone could lazily and smokily etch out the contours of the melody amid the fume-filled gloom.

FInally, “Begin the Beguine” featured a change of mute (something Maunder called a “harmon mute”), which produced a “wah-wah” sound, and worked deliciously well with the song’s Latin-American rhythm – I particularly liked the harp’s “taking over” of the melody line in places, here, and wondered if that could have been exploited a bit more by the arrangements in places – the varying of textures created added interest to the melody line, the harp here playing the song’s “high” reprise, with enchanting results.

After this we were further entertained by a bit of music-theatre, a work by British composer Guy Woolfenden, entitled Henry Humbleton’s Holiday, a presentation which the performers here had (I presume) cleverly adapted to suit a New Zealand scenario. So, Ingrid Bauer left her harp to become the narrator, and  Maunder and his trombone were the “dramatis personae” of the story, a charming tale of a bank clerk who, after sleeping late, succumbed to the temptation afforded by a beautiful Monday, to naughtily “escape” from his work to the beach, accompanied by his faithful trombone!  By way of enhancing the theatrical atmosphere of it all, we as the audience even got a turn to join in the fun at a couple of points, all of which was very jolly and invigorating.

After all that trombonic self-indulgence on Henry Humbleton’s part, it was appropriate that Ingrid Bauer gave her harp a turn, which she did performing the fourth and final movement of a suite Spiders, a work for solo harp by British composer Paul Patterson called “Tarantula”. Naturally enough, the piece has a fantastically obsessive rhythmic quality, denoting the tarantella dance made by the victim of a bite from this particular creature – for the player it’s obviously a real tour de force technically, and it was despatched here with great brilliance.

At this point in the program Maunder switched trombones, from tenor to alto, to perform what I thought was perhaps the most ambitious of his arrangements, a well-known Intermezzo (the second piece) from the Op.118 set  of Brahms’ Piano Pieces. Maunder set himself a couple of challenges, here, not the least of which was the extremely difficult high entry on the first note of the melody’s inversion, when everything “turns” for home most affectingly – he actually managed it, a bit shakily the first time but nicely the second time! I liked the harp’s “interlude” in the piece’s central section, and thought the piece might be even more effective with more frequent exchanges between the instruments – for example on that exposed note, trombone and harp could have alternated, or even played it together (Brahms harmonizes the melody, so the notes are actually there to use). But I really didn’t like the piece’s final note transposed up an octave – the melody didn’t, for me, find its true, easeful destination at the end. It was the one thing which for me didn’t quite altogether work as an arrangement as it stood, lovely though some moments were.

But Take 5 was a delight from beginning to end, with plenty of interchange between the instruments and some lovely improvisatory “explorations”. After this the Gordon/Warren number At Last  (which kept on reminding me of the Marcus/Seller/Wood number “Till then”) was beautifully done, introduced by a great harp solo, then generating a deliciously indolent gait, though building up to an impressive level of intensity at the melody’s reprise, with a properly declamatory and valedictory pay-off at the end.

Peter Maunder and Ingrid Bauer are to be congratulated upon an inventive and absorbing evocation of worlds within worlds, keeping their audience entertained, intrigued, satisfied and re-educated! They’re repeating the concert in the Wairarapa this weekend, in Greytown on Saturday afternoon. For anybody in the vicinity, it’s well worth giving the enterprising pair – yes, these opposites DO attract, the trombone and harp! – a try!

Wonderful NZSO programme of masterpieces from the heartland of classical music

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jaime Martín with Garrick Ohlsson – piano

Beethoven: Leonore Overture No 3, Op 72b
Mozart: Symphony No 35 in D, K 385 (Haffner)
Brahms: Piano Concerto No 1 in D minor, Op 15

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 13 November 6:30 pm

I had the feeling that both conductor and pianist had, contrary to the indications in the programme, been to New Zealand before. It looks as if I was wrong about Jaime Martín (I wonder if I’m confused by J Laredo of the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio), but I can clearly recall Ohlsson’s visit though I haven’t found evidence in my large file of programmes.

This however, was a monumental concert, given totally to three unassailable masterpieces; it’s the sort of programme that one imagines all music lovers wish was much more common than it is.

The third Leonore Overture was a splendid choice with which to open. It’s the most dramatic of the four that Beethoven wrote for Fidelio over the space of a decade, though Leonore No 2 is the same length and uses most of the same material and deserves to be aired, along with the No 1 and the last one, actually called Fidelio, that Beethoven wrote for the final, successful version of his opera in 1814. It opened with a fine emphatic chord subsiding to beautiful flute- and oboe-led phrases from Bridget Douglas and Robert Orr that use the melody of Florestan’s first aria.

One’s attention was quickly drawn to Martín’s rearrangement of the orchestra, basses on the left and given licence for supercharged command, the distinctive classical timpani, at the level of the strings, demanding attention; second violins front right with violas behind them. Donald Armstrong was in the Concertmaster’s seat

The overture’s depiction of elements of the opera was more than usually vivid, with the string body at its most opulent, horns and trumpets, the only brass in the score, supplying more than enough martial character. The two forays from the off-stage trumpet seemed to come from slightly different quarters, a nice theatrical touch, if my ears were telling me the truth. And the triumphant Coda was more exciting than I felt it reasonable to expect.

It’s a long time since I heard the Haffner live, a favourite from the days when as a student I used to pay nine pence for an hour to explore music in the old Central Library’s record room at the east end of the main upstairs reference room.

Though string numbers were reduced – 12 first violins and normal decreases from that – there were no real concessions to ‘authenticity’ and I enjoyed the greater opulence of the orchestra, which echoed the sort of full-blooded performance we’d heard in the Beethoven. Even so, the idyllically charming Andante was played with singular delicacy, the long piano passages by violins laid out with particular beauty. The whole movement seems to embody the quintessential Mozart: civilized, melodically rapturous, offering room for subtle and delicate gestures at many places.

Such unobtrusive gestures added interest in the Menuetto too, again a movement (anthologized in piano albums) that seems to speak in unmistakably graceful, Mozartian accents, particularly in the Trio. In the last movement, the smaller classical timpani that the orchestra obtained some years ago were delightfully conspicuous, trumpets high and bright, with a feeling that both horns and trumpets were travelling a little to the side of the rest of the orchestra – meaning to suggest that they lent an extra note of enchantment.

Hearing this again confirmed my particular affection for this symphony and made me wish our orchestras programmed the dozen or so best Mozart symphonies routinely.

Brahms’s first piano concerto occupied the entire second half. Modern timpani replaced the classical ones now; as you might infer from references to their contributions in the earlier works, Larry Reese took his role seriously; here in the Brahms, though they are clearly scored to be heard prominently, too seriously? It suited my personal taste, but I’m conscious of harbouring an excessive pleasure in loud low sounds not perhaps shared by everyone.

After the mighty orchestral opening, the piano enters with singular modesty, and Ohlssen did it right, somewhat matter-of-factly, nothing flashy. Soon Brahms was supplying Ohlsson with material for more weighty pianism which he dealt with in a characteristically muscular manner, soon in the company of thrilling, throaty horns. The piano was always admirably in balance with the orchestra and it was reassuring to sense a fine meeting of minds over tempi, expressive gestures, dynamics, the orchestra seeming to rejoice in whatever spectacle or meditative moments the pianist took slight liberties with.

The Adagio is a gorgeous movement, offering the rhapsodic Brahms rich opportunities which Ohlsson handled with gentleness and restraint; again horns often provided important counterweight to the piano and other winds. Pairs of clarinets or oboes accompany and precede some of the most rapturous piano passages that lead to the broad fortissimo in the latter part of the movement. The last couple of minutes of ecstatically prolonged meditation were spell-binding.

The boisterous Finale is then emotionally welcome; though it’s about 12 minutes long, it’s one of those episodes that one longs to go on forever, and the performance by orchestra and pianist never had me in doubt that I was lucky to have been born in a time a place where it could be so splendidly played: in a city with a great symphony orchestra, and in a post-Brahms era, and before the end of civilization as we know it.

Applause was long and impassioned and Ohlsson chose to play an encore that could not have been in greater contrast: Chopin’s Waltz in C sharp minor: restrained, poetic, perfect.


NZTrio at the City Gallery with a programme slightly changed from Upper Hutt three weeks before

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)
Fauré: Piano Trio in D Minor, Op 120

City Gallery Wellington

Tuesday 10 November, 7 pm

I had reviewed the pieces by Beethoven and Kenneth Young at the Trio’s concert at the Arts and Entertainment Centre in Upper Hutt on 19 October. Here at the City Gallery, the Saint-Saëns was replaced by Fauré’s Piano Trio.

I was pleased at the chance to hear both the Beethoven and Young again. It confirmed my enjoyment of Ken Young’s commission by the Trio, his facility with the instrumental characteristics of the trio, both in ensemble and more particularly in his attractive and arresting writing for the individual instruments, alone or in duet.

I had written somewhat half-heartedly about Beethoven’s arrangement of his second symphony for piano trio. This second hearing changed my opinion quite significantly. Whether on account of the more immediate acoustic of the hard surfaces of the gallery (surrounded by the enhanced photography of Fiona Pardington) or of being closer to the players, or even the result of studied or incidental changes in the balance between the instruments, I can’t say.

Now I felt that the way Beethoven had distributed the orchestral parts among the trio members sounded much more idiomatic and natural than they had before. So I found myself rather more in sympathy with the comments by Ashley Brown, admiring of the success of Beethoven’s commercially-driven adaptation of his symphony.

The new item in the programme was Fauré’s Piano Trio. It is better known than the Saint-Saëns in the other programme, but not as popular as, say, the first piano quartet; it deserves to be. The historical context of music is generally relevant, at least for music of the 20th century and later. It occurred to me that here was Fauré, like Saint-Saëns, writing music that was apparently deaf to the effects of the First World War that ended four years before, to the activities of young French composers such as Les Six, to Ravel, Stravinsky, or the Second Viennese School. Yet it is a sophisticated work that reflects the genius of the period in which the composer flourished.

The opening, by piano and cello, is warm and lyrical, and I recalled his birthplace, Pamiers, south of Toulouse, towards the sunny foothills of the Pyrenées; and I didn’t really expect the build-up of energy, even passion later in the first movement. The players’ feeling for balance was specially marked in the second movement, an Andantino, which didn’t stop a particularly assertive statement from the violin towards its end, enough to make me pleased I was a few rows back from the action.

The last movement was the only place where I felt the possible impact of more contemporary musical influence, perhaps of Ravel, and through rhythms that hinted at Latin America I wondered whether Fauré had heard Milhaud’s Brazil-influenced music or even Villa-Lobos himself. The Trio captured the work’s spirit with impressive energy and a determination to prove that even at 77, Fauré still retained his creative vigour and a lively musical imagination, far from settling for an old age without originality or challenge.



Providence delivers the goods, courtesy of Houstoun, fireworks and Orchestra Wellington

Orchestra Wellington presents:
PROVIDENCE – Balakirev, Khachaturian,Tchaikovsky
(and, introducing the concert, the Arohanui Strings)

INTRODUCTION – The Arohanui Strings (Alison Eldridge, director)
(arrangements of Dvorak, Grieg and Beethoven)
BALAKIREV – Overture on Three Russian Themes
KHACHATURIAN – PIano Concerto (1936)
TCHAIKOVSKY – Symphony No.5 in E Minor Op.64

Michael Houstoun (piano)
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Orchestra Wellington

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, November 7th, 2015

What with the Arohanui Strings delighting us at the concert’s beginning, and the city’s annual Guy Fawkes’ firework display illuminating the interval in a most spectacular way, this was an event which had plenty of what economists like to call “added value” – but it’s all part of what we’ve come to expect from an Orchestra Wellington occasion! In other words there’s nothing routine about what happens, even when there are no such extras or “frills”, but always a real and vibrant sense of a concert’s uniqueness and its attendant music-making joys.

Yes, there are people (and I’m usually one of them) for whom the idea of having a “presenter” who will introduce the concert and interview the conductor is something that potentially intrudes and trivializes the music-listening experience (“You can read a lot of that stuff in the programme” grumbled a friend to me at the interval) – though, despite myself, I found myself actually warming to the “host” Nigel Collins and his charming, somewhat wry and humourful delivery, squirm-making though I often find processes such as interviews and “potted musical histories” in these situations. A light touch seems to me to work best – and while I think a concert ought to be about music and music alone, I can enjoy something of a spoken nature that’s brief, witty and “of a piece” with what the evening is about.

But a truly heart-warming aspect of the evening was conveyed by the activities of the Sistema-inspired trainee group run by Orchestra Wellington violist Allison Eldredge, whose senior members sat with the orchestra to play their introductory programme items – arrangements of parts of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, and Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, enthusiastically delivered! Then it was the turn of the group’s younger members to join in (for a while, cuteness reigned!), playing an arrangement of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” , also with great gusto and commitment. Marc Taddei rightly made a point of singling out Allison Eldredge to receive special audience acclaim for her work before she left the platform with her young charges.

So, the hall had been duly “warmed”, and our ears musically sensitized, by this time, and we were then able to plunge fully into Mily Balakirev’s absorbing take on three prominent Russian melodies, two of which I was able to recognize instantly, via Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. After a throat-clearing introduction, using a fragment of the second theme “The Silver Birch” (used by Tchaikovsky in the finale of his Fourth Symphony), the first, broadly lyrical theme was played on the winds, over an ambient string sostenuto, reminding me of the beginning of Borodin’s orchestral piece “In the Steppes of Central Asia”, the sounds romantic and truly gorgeous, especially with the horn and then the strings joining in with the melody.

The “Silver Birch” theme suddenly jumped into the picture, its snappy, three-beat rendition different to that of Tchaikovsky’s somewhat more conventional treatment, and its orchestrations enchanting in this performance. Balakirev then cleverly counterpointed the birch tree with his third theme, familiar from the Fourth Tableau of Stravinsky’s ballet “Petroushka”, a folk-song called “There was at the feast”. The two themes played with one another most inventively, the playing by turns affectionate and brilliant, until we were suddenly returned to the first theme’s long-breathed spaces, the sounds dying away into ambient distances.

The piano needed to be moved into place for the concerto, so while that was happening we got the interview, which both host and conductor did their best with – but it was then time for Michael Houstoun to make his appearance, presenting the last of the five Russian works he’d prepared for this series. This was the 1936 Khatchaturian Concerto, a work which (I was to discover) was definitely not everybody’s “glass of tea”. One reviewer of a recent London performance referred to the work as representing the composer at his “turgid worst”, as well as to the slow movement’s “boggy meanders” – which just  goes to show that it takes all sorts to make a world. At the interval my expressions of enthusiasm for the work and its performance were received with mixed reactions, including stony stares from a couple of people who obviously considered I had “lost it” as a music listener, let alone a music critic!

The early Soviet critics thought the work wonderful – “the epitome of modern lyricism…..inner harmony, vitality and folk character”….praising in particular “….the sweep and surge of the themes, and their thematic unity within the structure”. For a while (thanks also to those early recordings by Moura Lympany, who’d introduced the work to Britain in 1940 and William Kapell, who’d followed suit three years later in the United States) the work even began to rival THE Tchaikovsky concerto in popularity.

I had enjoyed what I’d heard of it on recordings, and was especially anxious to hear in concert the “flexatone”, an instrument often used by the film industry to create “spooky” ambiences and accompany supernatural happenings – Khachaturian scored it to “double” the strings in the slow movement of the concerto most affectingly, though at least one famous recording of the work (William Kapell’s) doesn’t use it. To my delight, there it was, or, to be more precise, there two of them were! – each was picked up and played in turn by one of the percussionists for the slow movement’s “big tune”, the change from one instrument to the other suggesting that one instrument was capable of higher (or lower) pitches than the other. Other people may have been slightly repelled by the eeriness of the timbre or its insistent throbbing quality, but I just loved it – and whoever the player was did a wonderful job.

First up, however, was the concerto’s opening movement, with an attention-grabbing orchestral opening seeming to prepare the way for the soloist! – Michael Houstoun managed, for me, to sufficiently command the opening without battering the recurring theme to death, bringing out its echt-Khachaturian quality (we could have equally been listening to tortured sequences of a similar ilk from “Spartacus”), music of a somewhat barbaric character, fiercely folkish, relying on ostinati for a kind of expressive and cumulative effect. The more rhapsodic passages, introduced by an oboe and carried on by a solo cello, gave the music more breathing-space, which the piano appropriately enjoyed in a rhapsodic, improvisatory way. We then enjoyed the cavortings of all kinds by both soloist and orchestra which followed, through wild, manic gallopings and an imposing return to the assertive opening theme.

But there was more – cascading tones and timbres gently tumbled us down with Ravel-like delicacy, Houstoun and Taddei taking as much care with these ambient balances as with the intersecting of the earlier, more feisty lines, until the bass clarinet nudged the piano towards centre-stage for its cadenza, a solo outpouring of comprehensive range and variety culminating in an exciting scampering passage and an upward flourish bridging in the whole orchestra for the movement’s grand summation. In complete contrast was the slow movement’s opening, strings and bass clarinet beginning a kind of slow waltz, which the piano turned to soulful purpose with its melancholy, folkish theme, one which both the strings and the eerie-sounding flexitone then took up and wrung what seemed like every possible drop of emotion from its stepwise progressions.

Khachaturian does perhaps gild the lily in places later in this movement, piling Pelion upon Ossa with a full-orchestra version of this theme, one introduced by an amazing descending chromatic passage from the pianist! The ensuing full-blooded treatment accorded the music either suggested heartfelt emotion or borderline vulgarity, depending upon the listener’s sympathies and/or antipathies. Whatever the case, it certainly wasn’t dull in this performnce, and left us wanting some resolution after having the emotions spread along a line like a number of exposed shooting-targets. And, right throughout, I found myself lost in admiration at both Michael Houstoun’s impressive command of the material throughout these “fraught’ passages, and the sustained intensity of the orchestral response under Marc Taddei.

The same went for the finale, the musicians throwing themselves at the pounding rhythms of the opening with great élan, Houstoun giving the Shostakovich-like writing of the solo part plenty of energy – here were “the athletic rhythms and luxurious orchestral textures” of the old Record Guide’s notorious 1951 put-down, which went on to sum up the composer’s overall achievement as having a “brash appeal” – rather, I liked a later critic’s description of the concerto as “a rhapsodic glitter of song and dance in kaleidoscopic confrontation”. William Kapell’s and Serge Koussevitsky’s historic 1951 recording (which I hadn’t heard) has long been considered the performance exemplar regarding this work, but on this occasion Houstoun’s and Taddei’s performance carried me along most satisfyingly throughout, right up to the conclusion’s grand apotheosis – I thought it a marvellous and resplendent way to conclude this Russian concerto series!

Then, of course, after the interval (and the fireworks!) we were plunged into the throes of a different, pre-Soviet Russian world with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Marc Taddei had promised us a “fresh listen” to this work, and certainly the first movement’s urgent, sprightly, forward-straining progress allowed no traces of the lugubrious quality that sometimes hangs about this music – I marvelled at the dexterity of the wind players whose accompanying scale passages in places had to be played as if sounding like rushing water, at this tempo! – but it was all very exciting! I did find the contrasting string melody a bit charmless, the line hustled along with unseemly haste – but it was certainly all of a piece, and there were no cobwebs left hanging about as the music’s coda strode proudly and haughtily away from us at the end.

I was enchanted with the playing of the slow movement, here, right from the beautifully-wrought depths of feeling at the opening, through to the final heart-stopping clarinet phrase at the end – and I’m willing to bet that Ed Allen’s horn solo was absolutely perfect at rehearsal, treacherous beast that the instrument can be in concert (it was just one note away from perfection, here!). The detailing was, in fact, superb from all instruments, as was the “singing” quality of the strings in places – and (small point) I was so pleased to hear the pizzicato sequence after the movement’s big central climax played “straight” instead of being pulled about unmercifully, as happens in so many performances!

More delight was to be had from the Waltz which followed, in which instruments like the bassoon took their opportunities most beguilingly as did the pair of clarinets sharing a “moment” at one point and a chuckle afterwards.  Of course, it was Tchaikovsky in a most balletic mood – and the scampering strings and winds caught the ambiences perfectly, with the brass magically chiming in at one or two points. Marc Taddei kept things simmering with an attacca into the final movement, the strings lean and focused, the brass noble and respondent, with trumpets gleaming. I was surprised, however, in the light of the first movement’s urgent treatment, to find the finale’s allegro section taken at a relatively relaxed tempo, though I noticed there were moments along the way when the music impulsively thrust forward, and kept its momentum.

The great climax of the allegro with resounding brass fanfares and roaring timpani set the scene for the music’s grand processional, the “fate” theme that had dogged the three previous movements singing gloriously out in a major key, the march swaggering and confident. And the coda here raced the music excitingly to its final, triumphal chords, delivered with all the panache and confidence that the sometimes vacillating and diffident composer would certainly have wanted, and, as we all did at the music’s conclusion, fully appreciated.

Czech Philharmonic Children’s Choir gives enchanting concert at St Andrew’s

The Czech Philharmonic Children’s Choir conducted by Petr Louženský, piano accompaniment by Jan Kalfus

Music by Novák, Dvořák, Martinů, Mysliveček, Lukáš, and a sung dance piece, Slavnosti jara, by Otmar Mácha

St Andrew’s on The Terrace, Wellington

Monday 2 November, 12:15 pm

We have visits from overseas choirs from time to time, but I don’t think I’ve encountered one like this before. Words like enchanting, artless, exquisite, tender, crystalline, joyful, guileless, come to mind, and it refers to both the singing, and the dancing.

The choir was established in 1932 to meet the needs of Czech Radio; it survived World War II and the years under Communism and became associated with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in 1952, a relationship that lasted 40 years. The choir is now independent and exists with help from the Czech Government, the City of Prague, the National Theatre, the Prague Philharmonic Choir and a number of other cultural, media and commercial organisations. They have the world record of three wins at the famous choral competition at Tolosa in Spain (in which the Voices New Zealand won gold and silver awards in 1998) and an astonishing range of other international awards.

If I’d had the impression from the word ‘children’ that these were predominantly primary-school-age children, it was clear at once that while some were probably under 13, the great majority were teenagers and so it is to be considered a ‘youth choir’. There were about 40 performers in all, all but five, girls. Two mature, taller boys contributed fine lower voices.

Otherwise, it does have the character of a children’s choir, on account of the freshness, clarity and innocence of the soprano voices. Though only 40 travelled, some 800 are currently participating in the wide range of singing, dancing and musical activities in Prague.

The most striking visual features were the costumes, beautifully harmonised, peasant-derived skirts, bodices, ribbons in the hair, floral and foliage head decorations, and the impression of pastoral innocence expressed by calm yet animated faces, bare feet, modest deportment.

The concert was in two parts. The first half was devoted to religious and secular pieces by familiar Czech, Moravian and Slovak classical composers: Dvořák, Martinů, Novák, and Mysliveček, and a couple of names unfamiliar to me: Zdeněk Lukáš and Otmar Mácha.

There was a quality in their singing that marked them as different from comparable New Zealand voices: an unaffected simplicity and delight in their performances conveyed as much through facial expressions and gestures as their voices. While their dress was harmonious in the use of pastel shades, style and dress length, there was considerable variety in colour and detail within the peasant style.

There was delightful variety in the five straight vocal items that filled the first 20 minutes or so: a spirited though soulful Gloria by Novák; a bright, staccato, dance-like song, ‘Sentencing Death’, by Martinů, with its brief interruption by a triple-time phase in the middle. A song entitled ‘Wreath’ by Lukáš followed, with alto voices more pronounced; there was a fast staccato section followed by several tempo changes all handled with accuracy, fluid dynamics, with the voices indeed wreathing the most charming patterns.

The second part of the concert came with ‘Spring Celebration’ (Slavnosti jara) by Mácha, in effect an extended folk ballet, with choreography by Živana Vajsarová. What turned out to be the ‘singing’ part of the ensemble (some 20) gathered round the piano on the left of the platform in front of the sanctuary, while the rest retreated. And they returned through the doors at the rear of the sanctuary in small groups, running, dancing, in different, more colourful, costumes, to dance, as well as to sing. Among the non-dancing singers there emerged a player of cow or sheep bells and a recorder player, who lent the bucolic tone to the ritual. A rite of spring, no doubt, but not of the violent kind Stravinsky has accustomed us to.

They bore garlands of fir and pine, a May-pole is brought on and the attached ribbons were woven by eight dancers, now in fresh costumes, circling it in complex patterns. The piano led the dancers through slower and faster steps: the footwork might not have been balletic in the classical sense but it was perfect, and utterly diverting, clearly a considerable feat of memory.

Then a flaxen-haired puppet on a long pole appeared – the symbol of Winter; it is subject to increasingly hostile gestures of rejection and finally thrown into the wings. A solo voice emerged at this stage, firm and clear, a symbol of Spring no doubt, and she was encircled by others as the new season finally triumphs.

Throughout, Otmar Mácha’s music was either authentic Czech and Slovak peasant songs and dances, or convincing imitations that were typical of the rich fund of folk music that is familiar to us in the music of Dvořák and Smetana. It became increasingly joyful and exciting, the dancing reflecting the effervescent spirit of the music wonderfully as it accelerated towards a heart-raising conclusion.

Even after the formal ending of the performance, more was at hand, with folk or operetta tunes that were familiar, but names eluded me apart from one that resembled ‘Roll out the barrel’.

Yet that did not satisfy the enraptured audience, and Dvořák’s ‘Songs my mother taught me’ rather changed the atmosphere and allowed them all to retire quietly.

As background, here are some words from the choir’s website (

“Over the course of its existence it has given thousands of talented children a love of music and art. Its most talented children have grown into distinguished musicians – conductors, directors, composers, singers and instrumentalists. Its tradition and the breadth of its artistic scope makes it a unique artistic institution, not only in the Czech Republic but throughout Europe…. During its existence, the choir has recorded over 50 CDs of both Czech and international music.”

But finally, what a pity word had not been more widely spread about this wonderful ensemble. St Andrew’s had prepared and distributed a small flyer and it was included in Radio NZ Concert’s Live Diary, but I didn’t read about it in print media. As a result, the church was far from full, as it truly deserved to be.