Happy Christmas concert from Nota Bene at The Prefab in Jessie Street

Nota Bene Chamber Choir, conducted by Mark Dorrell

Prefab Hall, Jessie Street

Thursday, 17 December 2015, 6.30pm

From the moment I arrived in a packed Prefab Hall, standing room only, and found the last seat thanks to a friend signalling to me, I was in an informal atmosphere of enjoyment. Well over 150 people were present, a good 40 or so of whom were standing round the walls.

The seating was arranged on three sides, the choir performing from the other side. This hollow square arrangement made for good sight lines, and a feeling of everyone being involved. Acoustically, the hall was fine, not being low-ceilinged, and having plenty of timber around.

Mark Dorrell gave informal introductions to many items, and for those that were accompanied, he played on a tolerable electronic keyboard.

The choir immediately impressed in the first of several carol arrangements by Sir David Willcocks, with its strong tone and excellent legato singing. This was ‘Birthday Carol’, a bright and jolly opener to the concert.

The beautiful Czech carol ‘Rocking’ made a complete contrast, with its gentle lullaby character. It was followed by what was possibly a New Zealand premiere: ‘If ye would hear the angels sing’ by Peter Tranchell (British composer, 1922-1993). It featured soloist Joe Haddow, in a piece that began gently, then broke into fortissimo, then subsided to piano at the end. A charming carol – but Sir David would not have approved of the emphasised ‘thuuh’ – he believed in throwing away this unimportant word, and pronouncing it as a less prominent ‘thi’.

A modern setting of the well-known ‘Angels from the realms of glory’ was next. The tune was varied and interesting, and very vigorous.

The audience then had its turn, singing with the choir ‘Once in royal David’s city’ and ‘The first Nowell’. All the carols in which the audience participated were sung with energy and panache, and a thoroughly good sound.

Poulenc’s setting of ‘Hodie Christus natus est’ is another joyous song, and the choir sang it unaccompanied. The music is quite tricky, with a good deal of staccato. The tenor tone in this and the following carol was occasionally a little raw. However, words throughout were very clear. The next was also by a French composer: ‘Hymne à la Vièrge’, by Pierre Villette (1926-1998), and also unaccompanied. It was a contrast with the previous carol, having long legato lines, but great dynamic gradations. The French pronunciation was good.

Also a French carol, but in an English translation and arranged by an Englishman (who was an early mentor in Mark Dorrell’s musical life), John C. Phillips, ‘Listen to the sounds in heaven’ featured attractive singing from the women, in what was quite a tongue-twister, and whistling from the men. Mark Dorrell gave it a lively ‘pom-pom’ accompaniment.

The audience had its chance again in ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ and in a loud and hearty ‘Hark! The herald angels sing’, with the Willcocks descant.

A modern carol was ‘Jesus, springing’ by noted British choral composer (and former member of the famed King’s Singers), Bob Chilcott. Like the late Sir David, Chilcott has visited New Zealand. Mainly accompanied, this was an appealing carol, with interesting harmonies. ‘Tomorrow shall be my dancing day’ by John Gardner (1917-2011), another British composer had a very bouncy setting. Here, I missed the resonance of the piano in the partly accompanied piece. Nevertheless, it had considerable appeal.

After the interval, we were into the more light-hearted part of the Christmas repertoire. Leroy Anderson’s ‘Sleigh Ride’ had received a jovial arrangement. This item was accompanied; I noticed that, presumably because Mark Dorrell was accompanying rather than directing many of the items, the choir members tended to be stuck in their copies, not looking up. This limits the communication with the audience.

The world premiere of an amusing parody, entitled ‘Deck the porch’, was next. The words were by John Smythe, who was present, and had won a competition in the New Zealand Listener with his Kiwi take on a traditional Christmas carol. It required clear diction; I got most of the words. The refrain was ‘Come and have a barbecue and bring your togs’.

A change of mood gave us John Rutter’s setting of Shakespeare’s words ‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind’. (A topical parody could be ‘Blow, blow, thou Wellington wind’). It featured, as well as fine singing, a lovely ‘piano’ introduction and accompaniment. There followed a medley of popular Christmas pieces, in which the audience joined, with noticeably good attention to rhythmic details. ‘Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer’ was followed by ‘Have yourself a merry little Christmas’ and ‘Jingle bells’.

The choir gave us Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, in a multi-part arrangement for unaccompanied choir (this had the choristers looking up more) that was most effective, then ‘Be a Santa’ from a show entitled Subways are for Sleeping, by Jule Styne (1905-1994). Four male soloists from the choir helped bring out its verve and fun, as did the several changes of key.

We all know the ‘Twelve days of Christmas’, but ‘Twelve days to Christmas’ from She loves me by Jerry Bock (1928-2010; Fiddler on the Roof) was a hilarious look at the human tendency to leave everything till the last minute, seen from the point of view of workers in a department store.

After the audience had its turn in ‘Silent Night’ and ‘O come all ye faithful’, perhaps the two most popular carols, the choir sang ‘A merry Christmas’ (that’s the one about figgy pudding) to end. But the audience demanded more, so a repeat of ‘Be a Santa’ made a good way to end the concert.

Throughout, much precision in enunciation was required and supplied, so that the audience could enter fully into the entertainment, and everyone went away happy.


Messiah with the NZSO – age cannot wither, nor custom stale….

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
MESSIAH (Handel)

Nicholas McGegan (conductor)
Anna Leese (soprano)
Sally-Anne Russell (mezzo-soprano)
Steve Davislim (tenor)
James Clayton (bass)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
NZSO Messiah Chorale
Mark W.Dorrell (chorusmaster)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 12th December, 2015

NZSO boss Chris Blake understandably waxed lyrical in a welcoming programme note over the orchestra’s espousal of a fourth consecutive year’s presentation of Messiah, this time round in the expert directorial hands of renowned Baroque exponent Nicholas McGegan.

In terms of audience response, the near sold-out house spoke for itself – and while Messiah seems to draw people in like no other, the presence of McGegan, star soprano Anna Leese, and a hand-picked choral group, the NZSO Messiah Chorale no less, would have in this instance fuelled plenty of extra interest.

Of course, the work itself is like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra – “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety”, a state of things partly due to the music’s inherent perennial freshness, and partly to its Baroque origins. In keeping with the times, Handel and his composer contemporaries had an intensely pragmatic attitude towards music and its performance, one which put any ideas of posterity and its judgements far behind more immediate and practical concerns.

In the case of Messiah these concerns brought into being different versions of the work based on early performances in different locations and with different performers, hereby giving the music something approaching a schizoid pedigree. No single “authentic” version of Messiah exists, the composer both instigating and sanctioning many optional settings of the individual numbers, as well as re-ordering or even suppressing certain of these to suit different circumstances.

The Handel scholar Winton Dean underlined this point in no uncertain terms in a 1967 article in London’s  “The Musical TImes” discussing two recently-published editions of the work, stating, somewhat combatatively – “There is still plenty for scholars to fight over, and more than ever for conductors to decide for themselves – indeed, if they are not prepared to grapple with the problems presented by the score they ought not to conduct it.”

For this reason every separate performance of the work is something of a listening adventure (and the same goes for almost every recording). Surprises, delights and disappointments for listeners are thus inevitable components of these experiences, as each person waits for his or her “favourite” numbers. Many of the latter are, of course, guaranteed their place, and rightly so – but there are a goodly number whose presence in any given performance simply can’t be taken for granted – and surprises of this nature do occur.

One such surprise for me happened in this performance – the removal of the central section of the aria He was despised, sung in this case by a mezzo-soprano. I didn’t notice until afterwards that the text in the programme omitted the words from “He gave his back to the smiters” to the end, so that all we got was the deep-felt, meditative opening, one described by historian Charles Burney as having “the highest idea of excellence in pathetic expression or any English song with which I am acquainted”.

Of course, what normally heightens the pathos of this whole opening is the contrast with the central section and its jagged, insistent treatment accorded the words. Not, I fear, on this occasion, the opening being left to speak for itself. Another truncation (though one not quite so injurious) was in Part Three, which brought us a tad hastily to the final “Worthy is the Lamb” and its linked “Amen” chorus – options taken in other years such as the duet “O death, where is thy sting?”, the chorus “But thanks to God” and the aria, “If God be for us”  were not on this occasion used.

Conductor McGegan was certainly no slouch, driving the music along in appropriate places, achieving, for example, with the help of his soprano a wonderful frisson of orchestral excitement in the music leading up to the Heavenly Hosts singing “Glory to God”. For me there were one or two places he could have allowed a bit more rhythmic space for his choir to “point” their words – His yoke is easy, for example, whose quicker sections were, I felt, a bit smoothed out in effect. But, at one hour and fifty minutes’ playing-time, though it was, I think, the shortest Messiah I’ve ever attended, it was nevertheless a tribute to the sheer focus and concentration of the performers that the work retained its sense of grandeur and visionary sweep right through to the end.

Throughout the orchestral playing was terrific, the faster music tingling with tensile excitement at the strength and flexibility of the melodic lines, with the various counterpoints well served by their different voices. And the slower music to my ears floated and blended some lovely hues, for example in the gentle radiance of He shall feed His flock. Individual players distinguished themselves – trumpeter Michael Kirgan’s bright and shining The trumpet shall sound, and timpanist Larry Reese’s alert, detailed, and (in the Amen chorus’s final measures) resplendent contributions, to name but two of the stand-out examples.

The hand-picked NZSO Messiah Chorale (presumably a kind of one-off assemblage of some of the capital’s best voices) made a brilliant impression throughout, obviously reflecting the quality of their preparation with Mark Dorrell, until recently the Orpheus Choir’s Music Director. Though with fewer numbers than groups we sometimes get in the work, this choir put across the text with whatever quality was required for each sequence – energy, brilliance, warmth, reverence, or sheer grandeur – and the voices certainly weren’t spared by their conductor in places, whose tempi would have, in places, challenged their capabilities to the limit.

What struck me was the sheer focus of the sound throughout all sections, a quality which came to the fore most forcefully in places like the opening of Surely He hath borne our griefs, the opening declamations in themselves resembling scourge-blows upon Christ’s body, but registered just as tellingly in quieter moments such as the opening of Since by Man came death. In this way the different “characters” of the music emerged, underlining the work’s aforementioned capacity to continually surprise and delight.

Naturally, the four soloists have an integral part to play in this process – and each afforded pleasures of different kinds with their eager responses to the words and the beauties of their singing. If I say that I thought the voice of mezzo-soprano Sally-Anne Russell seemed in places to struggle to convey enough body of tone to make her words really “live”, it’s no reflection on her actual voice and stage presence, which I enjoyed – I merely think that the low-ish tessitura of those particular numbers needs a “proper” alto voice to put them across with the force and focus the music requires. Interestingly enough, the decision not to perform the central section of He was despised  worked in her favour, as she was able to tackle those affecting opening declamations (some unaccompanied) with great feeling and presence, and not have to then “fight” to be heard over the orchestra in the “He gave his back” sequences.

Tenor Steve Davislim began with a sweetly-projected Comfort Ye, more lyrical than heroic at the outset, though his tones took on the required heft for the “Prepare ye the way of the Lord” sections. But I thought he really shone in places in the work’s Second Part, conveying pity and empathy in places like All they that see Him, and Thy rebuke hath broken His heart in stark contrast to the chorus’s brutal He trusted in God – wonderful, dramatic  stuff!  And I’ve sung bass James Clayton’s praises in this music before (though not in Middle C), and needs must do so again – he gave the impression of “owning” his music completely. I did think the music’s transition from darkness to light in For behold, darkness shall cover the earth was a little rushed under McGegan’s direction, and therefore slightly less of a visceral experience than was Why do the Nations? during which conductor, orchestra and singer nailed all of its energy and excitement, with skin and hair flying all over the place!

Wellington audiences have been fortunate in hearing sopranos of the calibre of Anna Leese and Madeleine Pierard in recent years in this work, doubly so when considering how different the experience of hearing each one is – which, of course, is how it should be! After the Pastoral Symphony, Anna Leese’s vocal purity was put to perfect use when evoking that first Christmas Night, with celestial frissons of radiant light and angelic singing scattered across the firmament. She then scintillated through the coloratura of Rejoice greatly before taking it in turns most effectively with Sally-Anne Russell to deliver the two-tiered He shall feed His flock/Come unto Him, each singer playing her part in the creation of an ambience of hypnotic beauty.

As for that ultimate declaration of faith and confidence I know that my Redeemer liveth, Anna Leese certainly delivered – the tones were ravishing, the words were crystal-clear, and the manner was assured and encouraging. In tandem with the splendidly-realised Halleluiah  the sequence generated a marvellous kind of aura of transcendence, which continued right to those apocalyptic final moments, featuring every voice, instrument and impulse at full stretch. And, of course, who would want it to be otherwise?

To sum up, it was a splendid demonstration of the power of music as a renewable force, one which all over again inspired performers to give of their best and listeners to connect with and appreciate their efforts – what a treasure, and what good fortune for all of us concerned!

Fine a cappella singing from Supertonic Choir and Tawa College Blue Notes

Christmas at the Gallery

Music by Mendelssohn, Whitacre, Pompallier, Stanford, David Hamilton, Rheinberger, Childs, Swider, Britten, Frank Martin, and well-known carols

Supertonic Choir and Tawa College Blue Notes Choir conducted by Isaac Stone

New Zealand Portrait Gallery

Wednesday, 9 December 2015, 7pm

Once again, Supertonic performed to a virtually full venue – this time, at the Portrait Gallery on the waterfront. I concluded that about 140 people were present. As on the previous occasion, in June, the audience comprised people I don’t see at other concerts; I knew no-one in the audience. I hope that their enjoyment of this concert will enthuse them to attend other choral concerts.

I have been to concerts in the Gallery before, but the chairs have always been arranged along one long side of the narrow space, in several long rows, whereas this time they were arranged 12 seats per row, in 12 rows from front to back across the narrow width of the room. This was not as satisfactory for seeing the performers, and, I conjecture, giving a different acoustic effect, as well as probably seating fewer.

The conductor welcomed everyone, but I have to repeat what I said in my review last time: if you speak prepare what you are going to say, then say it fluently and succinctly; it is simply easier on the ear. The entire programme was sung unaccompanied, with Isaac Stone singing the notes after consulting his tuning fork. This is no mean accomplishment for choirs singing a full programme.

The concert opened with Mendelssohn’s Sechs Sprüche. It was a pity that the printed programme did not given the titles of the six individual Christmas songs, since the audience unnecessarily applauded each song, and since only the German title for the set was given, many audience members were unaware of where we were in the programme, not realising that the six made up one item. Nevertheless, the singing immediately demonstrated blend, shape and colour, in the first song (‘Christmas Day’). The songs were sung in German, but I have given English translations of the titles here. The acoustic proved to be lively.

The words were clearly articulated in this and in most of the works in the programme. Others of the songs (‘New Year’s Day’, ‘On Ascension Day’, ‘At Passiontide’, ‘In Advent’ and ‘On Good Friday’) featured gorgeous bass singing and rich harmony. The tenors were not quite as strong. All demonstrated Mendelssohn’s fine word-setting. Beautiful pianissimos were notable. One song included four solo voices at the opening, later joined by the choir. It was short and very effective. In another, the opening was low in the voices, giving a rich, mellow sound.

Eric Whitacre is a popular American choral composer, and his ‘Sleep’, with words by C.A. Silvestri, is a prime example of his writing. The singing was notable for fine unanimity, and appropriate expression of the words.

‘Mo Maria’ was something of a curiosity, written in Maori by Bishop Pompallier, who apparently became fluent in both Maori and English, without abandoning his native French. I find there are numbers of entries for it on Wikipedia, and it was sung at the re-interment of his remains in New Zealand in 2002, 160 years after it was written. It featured rich blocks of harmony, though having a rather conventional hymn-type melody.

Supertonic was then replaced by Blue Notes choir from Tawa College – quite a large choir for a cappella singing, but their ability and hard work proved that size was not a handicap. They began with Stanford’s lovely ‘Beati quorum via’, sung, as were all their items, from memory. The choir’s tone was very good most of the time, despite occasional breathiness. Splendid phrasing and dymanics marked the performance. The basses gave a marvellous sound – all the more commendable in a school choir.

David Hamilton’s ‘Willow Song’ began with altos singing the theme, accompanied by the other parts. The words were very clear, and the hummed passages sonorous. The choir stood in a semi-circle, not a block, so the sound was distributed, not concentrated. The Rheinberger piece, ‘Abendlied’, sung in German, revealed some strain in the tenors, but in the main the tone continued to be excellent. There was a wonderful diminuendo at the end.

Blue Notes’ last selection was ‘Salve Regina’ by New Zealander David Childs. This was the only piece on the programme which had been sung by the choir in the National Finale of The Big Sing, in August, at which they received a bronze award. This ws a most sympathetic and imaginative setting of the words, but not in a particularly contemporary style. As well as an appealing and well-sung soprano solo, the men-only section was quite splendid. The choir showed subtlety and sensitivity to the words, always singing with flawless intonation.

After the interval Supertonic returned to sing ‘Cantus Gloriosus’ by Polish composer Józef Świder (d. 2014). Here, the music was smooth and peacful, but build to a great crescendo. The precision of singing consonants enhanced the effect superbly. ‘Prayer of the children’ by Kurt Bestor, a contemporary American composer (arranged by Andrea S. Klouse) was sung in The Big Sing by Dunedin’s Sings Hilda choir. An unemotive setting, it was full of fortissimos. Yet the voices sang with good tone and no evidence of strain.

Blue Notes joined with Supertonic to sing Britten’s ‘Hymn to the Virgin’. It is in English, with interspersed Latin phrases as a kind of echo, the latter being sung by the students. It was written when the composer was only 17 years old. It begins slowly, then becomes brighter and faster, with the final section going back to slow meditation. Beautiful music, and beautifully performed.

The final item was an ‘Agnus Dei’ from a Mass by Swiss composer Frank Martin. It is a difficult and complex work, for double choir. I noted a little misfire on a top note, but this was a very rare aberration. There were exciting harmonies, and the choirs’ last chords were greeted by a siren in the street – an appropriate mark of the excellent singing we had heard.

That was not all; the audience then joined in the singing of ten popular carols, with the choirs (perhaps the exception to ‘popular’ was the ‘Coventry Carol’). They were mostly taken at a rollicking pace, to end an enjoyable evening’s entertainment.

Palliser Viols and Pepe Becker enjoyed at St Andrew’s lunchtime concert

‘Curious Fancies’; pieces for viols, and viols and voices by Pierre Phalèse, Orlando Gibbons, Alfonso Ferrabosco, Tobias Hume, Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, John Jenkins

Palliser Viols (Lisa Beech, Sophia Acheson, Jane Brown, Andrea Oliver, Robert Oliver), with Pepe Becker (soprano)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 9 December 2015, 12.15pm

I find that I reviewed Palliser Viols at St. Andrew’s as recently as September. However, although some of the composers were the same, the music was not duplicated, and we had this time the addition of a singer, not named in the programme.

This time the programme was not clearly set out, so it was not always easy to tell which piece we were on. The interesting programme notes did not discuss the composers in the order in which we heard them, which was a little confusing. Nevertheless, it was good to have the words of most of the songs printed.

The opening Pavane Lesquercarde and La Roque Gailliard were the only pieces not by English-born or resident composers (Alfonso Ferrabosco coming into the latter category). Phalèse was Flemish, and these dances were from Antwerpener Tanzbuch, published in 1583. They were very pleasing pieces, and although there were one or two flaws in the playing, the ensemble was well-balanced and skilful.

Gibbons’s song The Silver Swan is perhaps his best-known secular song today, and its simple beauty never fails to delight. It followed another of his songs: O that the Learned Poets, whose amusing words included the following, wishing that poets ‘Would not consume good wit in hateful rhyme’.

A Fantasy for four viols by Ferrabosco was followed by further songs by Gibbons, from Hymns and Songs for the Church, published by George Wither in 1623. A straightforward ‘Song III’ had the words ‘Blest be the God of Israel, For he his people bought…’   while the next, ‘Song IIII’ began ‘Now in the Lord my heart doth pleasure take…’ This was very engaging, both melodically and harmonically. As the programme note pointed oiut, the language of these hymns and songs is not highly poetic, but rather ‘deliberately ‘common’ in its expression’.   The third, ‘Song XXXIV’ is titled ‘The Song of Angels. While the words are not used today, the tune is frequently used in churches, with its original number and title, to Charles Wesley’s words ‘Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go’; there are other words set to it, too.

(Pedants like me note that the words said ‘Thus angels sung and thus sing we’, and ‘If angels sung at Jesus’ birth’ whereas we would consider this a misuse, and that the word should be ‘sang’.)

This last song particularly was a demonstration of the skill of Robert Oliver; accompanying these melodies on the bass viol, there is the difficulty of playing the chords on a six-stringed instrument. The instrument came into its own in two pieces by Tobias Hume, from Captain Humes Musicall Humors, of 1605. The first was ‘A Humorous Pavan’. Robert Oliver’s programme note says ‘all puns intended’. The Pavan roamed through different moods, with lots of tricky work for fingers and bow. Specifically, it introduced pizzicato and col legno (hitting the strings with the back of the bow), as instructed by Hume. The four Humors (melancholic, phlegmatic, choleric and sanguine) were traversed, and the piece had humour in the other sense as well.

The other consort members returned for a solemn In Nomine by Thomas Tallis, and a lively Fantasy a 4 by William Byrd.

Two more Gibbons songs followed, the first a setting of a poem by John Donne (though considerable liberties were taken with the text): ‘Ah, dear heart’, which was short and sweet, and ‘What is our Life?’ written by Sir Walter Raleigh as he sat in his condemned cell. The latter was, understandably, mournful. A final song, with mainly bass viol accompaniment was an anonymous ballad to the tune of ‘All in a garden green’, and then Fantasy no.6 by John Jenkins on that tune, employing all the instruments.

The songs all revealed a wonderful marriage of words and music, and the concert was one of delights as well as of Curious Fancies.


A few days in Sydney for opera and symphony

Pinchgut Opera: L’amant jaloux by André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry
Musical director: Erin Helyard; stage director: Chas Rader-Shieber
City Recital Hall, Sydney
Thursday 3 December 2015

Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Edo de Waart  – two concerts
Preludes to acts I and III of Lohengrin; Sinfonia concertante for organ and orchestra by Joseph Jongen; Also sprach Zarathustra (Strauss)

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
Friday 27 November, 8pm

Edwards: The White Ghost; Mozart: Piano Concerto  No 24 in C minor, K 491; Elgar: Symphony No 1 in A flat, Op 55

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House

Friday 4 December, 8pm

Readers with sharp eyes will have noticed my absence from the pages of Middle C over the past month. It is partly to be explained by my little trip to Sydney to fulfil a long-standing ambition to see the work of a small Sydney opera company, Pinchgut Opera, which specializes in early opera, of the 17th and 18th centuries. When I edited New Zealand Opera News (till 2006), I conscientiously announced their forthcoming productions, and hoped to get myself there. But their once-a-year projects were typically in the first week of December and there were still too many musical and other distractions in Wellington.

The company’s name, by the way, derives from an island of that name in Sydney Harbour, which was used as a prison in the early years, and the prodigality of the rations led to the name which has persisted.

The timing of this year’s second production was especially tempting as it coincided with a couple of concerts by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Edo de Waart.

André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry
The opera was L’amant Jaloux by André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry who lived from 1741 to 1813. He was born in Liège and studied in Rome but settled in Paris to become a successful composer of mainly comic opera. He helps to breathe life into seeming opera drought between the death of Rameau till the emergence of the post-Napoleonic composers like Auber, Boieldieu, Hérold, Adam and of course Berlioz (though one should not ignore foreigners like Gluck, Cherubini, Piccinni, Spontini and Rossini).

There is a ballet suite drawn by Thomas Beecham from Grétry’s Richard Coeur-de-Lion that gets an occasional airing on radio. When I was in Liège many years ago to catch a performance of Rossini’s William Tell, I was surprised to find in front of the Opera, a statue, not of César Franck who was also born in Liège, but of Grétry. In fact I could find no memorial, plaque on a birthplace or a street named for Franck!

L’amant Jaloux
L’amant Jaloux, ou les fausses apparences
which premiered in 1778, is based on a very popular 18th century English play, The Wonder: a Woman keeps her Secret by Susannah Centlivre.

An entry on it is to be found in the Penguin Opera Guide, even if not in many other opera dictionaries. The Penguin remarks that “Beaumarchais-Da Ponte-Mozart” borrowed from it (possible as The Marriage of Figaro was composed in 1784).

In an admirable programme essay, musical director Erin Helyard (who till recently was well-known here as lecturer in historical performance practice at the New Zealand School of Music at Victoria University) wrote that “it was Grétry who, more than any other operatic composer, really managed to unite Italianate vocality with French word-smithery”, which was the result of the impact of Pergolesi’s La serva padrona which had finally reached France in the early 1750s, instigating what was called the Querelle des bouffons, the battle between French and Italian operatic styles which soon became politicized in France as between conservatives and liberals.

This piece shows Grétry as having succeeded in merging the French and Italian styles, resulting in sounds that come close to Mozart and the story not too remote from Figaro and Così fan tutte.

The story: Spanish merchant Don Lopez, for financial reasons, needs to stop his widowed daughter Léonore (only 20 years old) from remarrying. The object of her affections is the ridiculously jealous Don Alonze; his first suspect turns out to be his own sister Isabelle, a friend of Léonore, who is protecting her from her guardian who want to marry her by force. There’s a dashing French officer and a clever maid who confuses the names of the two young women which reignites Alonze’s jealousy as he hears the French officer serenading the wrong girl. In the nick of time Alonze comes into a big inheritance thus removing Lopez’s objections to his daughter’s marriage, and the identities of the young ladies are clarified, leaving no impediments to the two couples marrying.

Never mind: it’s fast-moving; the acting was very animated and, as far as possible in a farce, the piece expresses a basic sincerity and humanity that emerged clearly enough through the surface nonsense. The spoken dialogue was in pretty clear English, sung parts in French with witty surtitles;

The staging was droll and clever with simple sets, dominated by a long diagonal wall studded with trapdoors that supply bizarre exits and entrances for those being hidden or making untoward entrances.

The singers
The six principals were splendidly voiced, mostly Australian singers with respectable international careers: David Greco, eight years with important ensembles in Europe, made an immediate impact as the domineering father, Don Lopez, an imposing voice and presence; Jacinte the Maid was sung by Jessica Aszodi, a perfect fit in the soubrette mould, shrewd, quick-witted. The main female role of Léonore was sung by Celeste Lazarenko who’s amassed an impressive range of roles in Britain and France as well as Australia: a vivid presence with a brilliant soprano voice. Ed Lyon (Don Alonze) has sung extensively with William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants as well as interesting roles at Glyndebourne and Covent Garden and with several Continental companies. Alonze’s sister and Léonore’s friend Isabelle was sung by Alexandra Oomens whose career has so far been limited to Australia, though her performance was hardly less striking than her more experienced colleagues: the three women, as a trio, offered some of the most delightful episodes of the evening. Andrew Goodwin was well cast as Florival, who is the imagined rival of Alonze, but eventually gets the right girl (Alonze’s sister); his career has ranged from Madrid to Moscow, including The Rake’s Progress with the Auckland Philharmonia.

Music director Erin Helyard was focus of all eyes (and known to a Wellingtonian as lecturer till recently in historical performance practice at the New Zealand School of Music), a small, vital, energetic man who stood at a harpsichord and hammered away at the ‘continuo’ part supporting the Orchestra of the Antipodes which contributed equally to the production’s success, with beautiful authentic instruments (the programme book drew attention to their using baroque pitch, A=430kh). The orchestra’s sound, at close quarters (in the front row) was splendid and the ensemble of voices wonderfully integrated.

I just loved every minute.

Sydney Symphony Orchestra
While I might be tempted to say this opera production eclipsed the two Sydney Symphony Orchestra concerts I heard, that wouldn’t be true. An opera performance is usually more engrossing than a normal concert by an orchestra or chamber group, if only because it involves more senses, but these two concerts, conducted by Edo de Waart, were splendid; anyway: a different orchestra and different town.

I had missed a solo recital in the Concert Hall by organist Olivier Latry the day before my first symphony concert, but he played the organ part Jongen’s Sinfonia Concertante as well as in Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra. It allowed me to reflect with some bitterness, about the feeble, irresolute behavior of the Wellington City Council which has removed the great organ from the Town Hall and is incapable of resolving to carry out the necessary strengthening of the building so that Wellington is able to hear a concert organ, important in many orchestral and choral works, not to mention concerts in one of the world’s finest traditional concert halls.

One of the curiosities of my trip was to encounter two rather obscure composers both of whom were born in Liège: Grétry, above, and now the composer of the big organ work played by the SSO and organist Olivier Latry, Joseph Jongen.

It’s curious that a piece that is probably not typical of most of Joseph Jongen’s output has probably become his best known work. It was commissioned to inaugurate the restoration of the huge organ in the Wanamaker department store in Philadelphia in 1928. This was a performance that showed vividly how important the existence of a real pipe organ of concert dimensions and capacities is for a city with any pretentions to being of musical consequence. The space afforded the music a fullness, clarity and excitement that cannot be expected in many churches, even one with as fine and versatile an organ as that in the Anglican cathedral in Wellington.

In the second half, Edo de Waart demonstrated his special affinity with the Strauss tone poem, thrillingly expansive in the famous opening, as well as, in turns, warmly human and ethereally mystical elsewhere in the great work.

The concert was curiously designed, starting with the Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin and ending with the Prelude to Act III. Their sharply contrasting characters fitted their roles most effectively; that they hardly raised any expectations of the music drama that follows each prelude was probably just as well; both work perfectly well as stand-alone concert pieces.

Edwards, Elgar and Mozart
The second concert, a week later, was for me rather less rewarding, dominated as it was by Elgar’s First Symphony. Though De Waart achieved a warm and beautiful performance, the cloying, grandiose, imperialist atmosphere that lies behind at least its first and last movements, I find hard to stomach. Happily, the conductor’s Dutch pianist colleague Ronald Brautigam occupied most of the first half with Mozart’s piano concert No 24 in C Minor. Both conductor and pianist approached it in a calm, rapturous spirit which I found deeply satisfying.

The concert had opened with an Australian piece I didn’t know by a composer with whom I was quite familiar – one of the country’s best-known and most popular contemporary composers, Ross Edwards. I came across his violin concerto, entitled Maninya, many years ago. It is actually one of five pieces written in what Edwards calls his ‘maninya’ style: the word means ‘dance’ or ‘chant’, and the work played here was White Ghost Dancing. The aboriginal people described the early European settlers as ‘white ghosts’ and Edwards wrote that “the concept of a white ghost came to symbolize non-indigenous Australia’s innate aboriginality – its capacity to transform and heal itself through spiritual connectedness with the earth”.

His music is immediately engaging, both through its infectious rhythmic character and tunefulness and a certain instrumental colour that recurs from time to time like a friendly gesture.

I was interested to hear Eva Radich’s interview with De Waart after I got home, in which he commented on his programming device of placing any ‘difficult’ work in the first half and the popular symphony or concerto in the second, to prevent those afraid of the unfamiliar from leaving at the interval.

De Waart has been a major presence in the orchestral world for a long time, with a large and impressive discography. I look forward to his tenure with the NZSO.

Final concert in marathon Bach organ project at Cathedral of Saint Paul

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

Michael Stewart, Richard Apperley, organ

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Friday, 4 December 2015, 6pm

Yet another varied programme in the Bach Project, for this final concert in the year-long project. This time, being at a more user-friendly hour than most of the performances have been, there was a good-sized audience. There was an Advent and Christmas theme running through the choice of chorale preludes.

Opening with a chorale prelude that was not familiar to me, though on a very familiar chorale: ‘Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme’ (‘Wake up! A voice is calling us’). This one was catalogued in the appendices (Anh.II 66). The second part of these (i.e. II) refers to works of doubtful authenticity. This work was unusual: it was written for trumpet and organ. Richard Apperley played the trumpet part on the trumpet stop on the organ, standing, while Michael Stewart played the organ part. It all came off very well and was most effective, the trumpet giving the music life.

There followed two settings of ‘Christum wir sollen loben schon’ (‘We should indeed praise Christ’), BWV 696 and 611, the latter from the Orgelbüchlein. The first is a fughetta (little fugue), and is slow and solemn, while the latter is more extensive and florid, while being harmonically interesting.

Two chorale preludes on ‘Wir Christenleut’ (‘We Christians’) next, the first BWV 1090 and the second deest (not to be found in Bach catalogues). The first was played with a lovely variety of registrations, bringing out the counterpoint strongly, while the second featured gorgeous running lines. However, the chorale, played on the pedals, sounded rather dull and unimportant in contrast with the bright upper parts.

‘Vom Himmel kam der Engel Schaar’ (‘From heaven came the angel host’, BWV 607) is an affirmative and joyful piece, not very long, as is typical of Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book) chorale preludes.

Bach set the lovely chorale ‘Vom Himmel hoch, da komm’ ich her’ (‘From heaven above to earth I come’) numbers of times. The first setting played (BWV 701) is a short and delightful one for manuals only, while the second (BWV 769) is a set of canonic variations of varying tempi and amazing complexity. It certainly demonstrated what Bach could do, when he wrote it in order to join the select ‘Society for the Musical Sciences’. The programme note says “One of the very greatest achievements in contrapuntal writing, surpassed only be his own Art of Fugue!” Surely no-one but Bach could compose such a work.

The third variation, a canon at the seventh, is marked andante, is thus slower and less active than its predecessor. It particularly appealed to me. Variation 4 had a somewhat duller sound as against the bright chorale melody. Variation 5 was complex, but jubilant. Much dexterity was demanded of the organist here, to bring all to a triumphant conclusion.

Michael Stewart took a well-earned rest after this, and Richard Apperley took over. He began with the two glorious chorale preludes on ‘In dulci jubilo;: BWVs 729 and 608. The grand 729 has a dramatic effect; the other is lighter and clearer. With quieter registration, it gives more of a feeling of wonder. However, the resonance in the Cathedral played havoc somewhat with the runs in both, and some of the variations are lost. Exciting, both of them, though very different.

Two short and interesting chorale preludes followed: ‘Lobt Gott, ihr Christen, allzugleich’, BWV 732 and ‘Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich’, BWV 719, and then it was Concerto in C, BWV 595. This full-blooded work contained many contrasts. Not being restricted (or inspired) by a set of words, this is much more ‘absolute music’ than the other works. Many enchanting figures and developments flowed, yet without a Biblical or poetic theme, it lacked some of the subtle nuances of the chorale preludes.

It was followed by three of the latter, treating the same words: ‘Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ’ (‘Praise to you, Jesus Christ’, BWVs 722, 697, 604). All are short, and two are set for manuals only – though I have a suspicion that in the edition Richard Apperley was using the pedals were employed in the first one. That one had plenty going on, while the second was so appealing I wanted it to go on for longer, with its bright registration including a two-foot rank. The third was smooth and mellow.

‘Puer natus in Bethlehem’ (BWV 603; ‘A child is born in Bethlehem’) has received many wonderful settings, and this gentle and thoughtful piece is one of the best.

The recital finished with a major work: Fuga a 5 con pedale pro organo pleno BWV 562/2, to give it its full title. This is the fugue that follows the Prelude BWV 552/1, with which the Bach Project opened, many months ago. It is a three-part fugue, each part having a different character and time signature. The opening theme resembles the hymn tune for ‘O God, our help in ages past’, so in English this is often called the St. Anne fugue, that being the name of the hymn tune.

It is a great and complex fugue, with much melodic and harmonic interest. This was the grandest way in which to see off this year-long series of performances of all of Johann Sebastian Bach’s organ music. Its supremely positive ending mood lifts the spirits, as does the thought of the achievement of Michael Stewart and Richard Apperley in undertaking and completing the project.

And there are plans for more ‘Complete works…’ projects next year. Watch this space!

A Child’s Christmas a world and time away at Circa Theatre

Reminiscences of childhood by Dylan Thomas

Narrated and performed by Ray Henwood
Dramaturg: Ross Jolly

Circa Theatre, Wellington

Tuesday 1st December 2015

I thought I knew Dylan Thomas’s enchanting youthful evocation “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” pretty well, in the wake of numerous encounters with the work over the years. As each Christmas approached I would read the work to the class of children that were in my charge as a teacher,  a kind of ritual that extended over more years than I care to remember. And every now and then (invariably when my classes consisted of older children) I would bring out my precious copy of a Caedmon LP containing the voice of the great man himself reading the story (as well as five poems) in that unforgettable, peculiarly ritualistic sing-song voice of the kind attributed to bards of ancient times.

So, as I’d neither read nor listened to the story for some time, I anticipated with the greatest of pleasure the prospect of hearing one of Wellington’s most illustrious theatrical figures, Ray Henwood, present the work at Circa Theatre. While I assumed that it would be a one-man show, I was intrigued as to what Henwood would actually do, as I remembered the reading I did in my classes taking around twenty minutes in all – which seemed short measure for a complete Circa production.

Dylan Thomas’s own recording of this story was made in February 1952 in New York while the poet was on the second of his three “recital tours” of the USA. The LP format could accommodate far more recorded space that “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” could fill up, so Thomas recorded five of his best-known poems to include on the record as well. I wondered whether Ray Henwood was going to do a similar thing, “filling out” the evening by reciting for us some of these iconic verses, such as “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night”, and “Fern Hill”.

In the event what Henwood did was even more wonderful – having been brought up in Wales in the same places as Thomas himself, though a handful of years afterwards, he spent the entire first half of the show “setting the scene” for his audience from the persecutive of his own experiences as a boy in Swansea, bringing the poet’s world vividly to life. His account was a kind of amalgam of personal reminiscence interspersed with fragments of Thomas’s own earlier writings, some of which managed to find their way into the finished story this time round.

Thomas himself regarded Swansea ambivalently, writing to a publisher about his early poems growing out of “the smug darkness of a provincial town”, and describing his cultural environment as “depressing and disheartening” – interestingly his childhood reminiscences, which appeared in various incarnations, are almost entirely free from any such depression, boredom or frustration, filled as they are with wonderment and magical reinterpretation of a child’s world. Completely non-literal, and delightfully, and in places theatrically imbued with a sense of the fabulous amidst the ordinary, the writing envelops the reader with a vivid sense of time and place in the classic storytelling manner – an example in the finished version is the way in which Thomas’s sequence “whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or…..” so delightfully evokes and disarms at one and the same time, leaving the listener/reader subsequently ready for anything.

Previous versions of the poet’s childhood Christmas memories included a 1942 radio talk “Reminiscences of Childhood” which was further developed into another talk “Memories of Christmas” for the BBC’s “Children’s Hour” – legend has it that Thomas came not to be trusted broadcasting “live” by this time, and so his talk on this occasion was pre-recorded. The story then appeared in the photojournal “Picture Post” in 1947, and then in the American “Harper’s Bazaar” in the early 1950s, during one of Thomas’s American tours. During this first-half setting of the scene Ray Henwood quoted freely from these different versions, conveying not only a sense of the poet’s reworkings of his material, but of the kind of ambience that fostered both the style as much as the content of the things we were being presented with.

So we were primed up, good and proper, for the presentation of the finished story after the interval, the stage settings (the parlour at Thomas’s family home in Swansea, on Cwmdonkin Drive) similar to that throughout the first half, helping to give the whole a kind of organic flow-on effect. How beautifully and securely the story’s opening (“One Christmas was so much like another….”) placed the happenings in that country called the past, where “they do things differently”, fancy given licence to enlarge, intensify, heighten, in the pursuit of essential truths. To my fallible ears there seemed numerous additions to the story I remembered, references near the beginning to “tobogganing on the teatray” and to “boys who have three helpings”, each of which added a jewel to the sparkling whole.

Other references which I thought enlarged the range and scope of our pleasure at both detail and overall ambience included a mention of Christmas stockings just before the inventory of Christmas presents began (we enjoyed once again the familiar “mistake that nobody could explain, a little hatchet”, and the delightful reference to “the little crocheted nose-bag from an aunt now, alas, no longer whinnying with us”). Another, more poignant incident recounted that was new to me was the boy’s finding of “a dead bird – a Robin, perhaps – with all but one of its fires out….”

Henwood judiciously varied his delivery throughout, not only as regards pacing or alternating sequences and characterization of different voices, but in presenting the storyteller in different guises, sometimes as a kindly grandfather reading directly from a book’s pages, and sometimes as a character from the story come to life before our eyes, with a tangible presence to boot. Again this was keeping both the homespun and the magical on speaking terms, each to the other’s advantage, as well as to ours as the enthralled audience.

Aiding and abetting the unfoldings was a judicious use of sound effects, on the one hand firemen’s bells and associated noises, and then similarly sensitive lighting variations accompanying the carol-singing episode at the story’s other end – in general these technical things were sparingly used, allowing us to focus unerringly upon Henwood’s richly-wrought voice and the poet’s own word-painting to full effect, which were, after all the two things that mattered most about the venture.

What gave me the biggest surprise, I think was something which changed the whole concluding ambience of the story – the decision to finish the presentation with lines from one of Thomas’s most well-known poems, “Fern Hill”, the verses added without a break in the narrative flow. As concluded by Thomas, the “Child’s Christmas” account has the boy getting into bed, saying “some words to the close and holy darkness”, and then falling asleep, thereby preserving inviolate the memory of the day for all time. With those few lines from “Fern Hill” included, however, a shadow is cast retrospectively over the whole work, the events of the day made open-ended and subject to the ravages of time, the poem being a meditation on the transitory nature of life, and in particular, childhood.

Though time is initially presented by the poem as a benign force it holds sway in an all-pervading way, a feeling the “Child’s Christmas” story on its own manages to avoid by encapsulating time within the framework of a single day. It’s ironic that, on my copy of the aforementioned Caedmon LP containing the story read by the author, there’s space afterwards on the same side for one of the additional poems that were recorded in the same session – no prizes for guessing which poem it was!

So, a solid personal triumph for Ray Henwood and a success in terms of dramatic focus and literary quality for Circa. If you didn’t get the chance to enjoy the show and admire the actor’s skills, the theatre’s 2016 programme has scheduled for May a new production of Shakespeare’s King Lear, with Henwood in the title role – one would imagine that, even if one saw nothing else at the theatre, such an event would come into the category of “unmissable”.