Worlds brought more closely together – the Miyata-Yoshimura-Suzuki Trio

Chamber Music NZ and the New Zealand Festival present:
Music from Japan and New Zealand

Mayumi Miyata (shō)
Nanae Yoshimura (koto)
Tosiya Suzuki (recorder)

OSAMU KAWAKAMI – Phoenix Chicken
TOSHIO HOSOKAWA – Bird Fragments 111b

TRADITIONAL – Banshiki no Choshi (for shō)
Tsuru no Sugomori (Nesting of Cranes – solo recorder)
Chidori no Kyoku (for koto and voice)

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

Sunday 28th February, 2016

For a time it seemed as though the world had realigned its meridian intersects and taken St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace and its occupants north of the equator to somewhere in Japan. Woven into this enchanted web of things were a trio of musicians, a clutch of composers and a spell-bound audience, united for a brief time to wondrous and magical effect by means of exotic strains and realizations, wrought by the performers. The latter were inspired by both traditional work and present-day creativity, performing a programme of music with age-old folk-music presented side-by-side with new compositions from both Japanese and New Zealand composers.

Not for these musicians a performing world of merely antiquities, featuring only museum pieces or cultural artifacts from bygone ages – the trio has encouraged living composers to write for their instrumental combinations as well as for the solo instruments – a glance at a list of composers who have worked with these musicians indicates their involvement in music-making as a living and creative tradition, besides paying homage to the great works of the past.

All of this would be of specialist interest only, were not the actual sounds created by the instruments in this ensemble of such beauty, poignancy and atmosphere. Whether playing together or individually, the sounds and timbres brought with them such strongly-flavoured and sharply-focused evocations as to hold our attentions in thrall for timeless durations. The concert’s opening took us straight to such a sound-world, by way of Mayumai Miyata’s playing of the shō, a traditional Japanese mouth-organ, the musician giving us a traditional work, Banshiki no Chosi.

I found the listening experience arresting, if at first a little disconcerting through not being able to clearly see the player’s face (I can’t think of another instrument that’s similarly designed – the mouthpiece is at the bottom, so that the instrument’s “body”, when held up to play, almost completely obscures the player’s facial expression and any movement associated with the physical act of breathing. Still the strains made by the instrument are so ethereal and unworldly, that this “disembodied” effect given by the player isn’t inappropriate. The timbres were not unlike the highest notes of an organ played softly and sustained for great, long-breathed periods of utter calm and serenity.

Chris Gendall’s piece Choruses, which followed, was anything but serene, resembling choruses of  wild things uttering long-drawn cries, punctuated by excitable flurries of energy. The shō player.Mayumai Miyata had exchanged her instrument for a lighter, wood-grained affair, though I couldn’t discern a difference in sound-quality to that of the previous item – the instrument exhibited the same kinds of ethereal ambiences, with many variations of intensity.  I had difficulty observing the recorder-player, Tosiya Suzuki, as the composer, (Chris Gendall, who was conducting) kept getting in the way, though the sounds made by the player via his instrument certainly had a mournful and volatile impact upon the whole.

No such impediment obscured my view of the koto player, Nanae Yoshimura, who coaxed from her instrument a range and depth of expression which I found remarkable, not only in the music’s more forceful sequences, but in the sustaining resonance of the lower timbres. The music seemed to me to set different time-frames together, as if they were warring relativities – as with peace and war, calm and tumult, chaos and clarity, we experienced through the music a series of “altered states” which left its impression upon us long after the sounds had ceased. Each of the instruments contributed to the contrasting effect of these opposing realities, a point from a different view, or state of mind, one that left this listener more-than-usually sensitized to disruptive potentialities!

The trio again took the stage to perform Osamu Kawakami’s somewhat disconcertingly titled work Phoenix Chicken – the only clue to this mystery was the equally enigmatic comment in the composer’s printed biographical note: – “Kawakami is deeply interested in living creatures, and many of his works (including Phoenix Chicken) have been titled after them”. Tosiya Suzuki had exchanged his flute-like recorder for one of the largest I had ever encountered – whether a great bass, or sub-great-bass, contra bass, or sub-contra bass I didn’t know, but it impressed with its looks alone, and it made a splendid noise!

How helpful the Phoenix Chicken title was for the listener I wouldn’t have liked to have guessed at in general – perhaps some contextual reference of which I remained blissfully aware! To me the piece seemed to deal with different kinds of rhythmic complexities and tensions, building them up through interaction and then dissipating them, the recorder augmenting the textures with various kinds of bird calls, gurgling  and chuckling, as if pursuing a kind of separate internal rhythmic pulse. The koto mused over melodic figures in a cimbalon-like way, varying the figurations beautifully with strummed chords augmented by interjections from the shō, a texture through which the recorder lurched and strutted like some kind of living creature, the music’s last few measures resembling some kind of poultrified climax!

Birds of a different kind of feather then glided gently into our ambient sensibilities with the magically-distanced beginning of the folk-inspired Tsuru no Sugomori (“Nesting of Cranes”), Tosiya Suzuki here exchanging his hookah-like contraption for a recorder about the size of a clarinet. He used this new instrument to convey at once a sense of the spaces into which the birds flew to build their nests, via graceful phrasings and resonant tonguings. The music introduced new calls throughout, including one sounding uncannily to my ears like a quote from Sibelius’s “The Swan of Tuonela”, amid the diametrically different surroundings of the Japanese piece.

A similar kind of spatial experience using a very different harmonic language was provided by Samuel Holloway’s Mono, the music beginning with what seemed like a tentative exploration of a scale and octave, the instruments making their unisons and individual notes like depth-soundings in reverse, pushing gently upwards and outwards as if creating spaces in a void, energizing the inert spaces where there was nothing except the will to receive and to be impregnated with impulses. After establishing some kind of acoustic domain, and pausing to consider how best to proceed, the music then tried some semitone ascents, involving slow repetition of single notes before moving upwards, a fascinating/frustrating/despairing process of laying bare that which silence had hitherto concealed – almost like Michelangelo’s famous slaves slowly emerging from the raw marble, frozen with tremulous wonderment at having been given their freedom in any degree or part.

Toshio Hosokawa used just two instruments to express his work Bird Fragments IIIb, the shō paired with the recorder, enough to evocatively set ground-fowls against a high-fliers! The ethereal tones of the shō at the outset conjured up images of elegance and graceful beauty, until the entry of the recorder’s timbres brought an angular, at times raucous presence to the sound-picture. This intensified with the introduction of a smaller recorder, capable of the most ear-splitting squeals, until the tones of the shō finally prevailed and order of sorts was restored.

With a third traditional piece, Chidori no Kyoku, Nanae Yoshimura demonstrated to us the expressive qualities of the solo koto, a kind of Oriental dulcimer, capable of conveying a vast array of tones, timbres and colours. I was pleasantly surprised to find the piece was actually a song, which Nanae Yoshimura delivered with pleasantly plangent tones, at first activating her instrument with a brief introduction containing a flourish and a short but dignified processional sequence before beginning to sing. The music gave an impression of great depth of melancholy, the player varying the vocal line with the occasional tremolando effect, before breaking into a quicker dance tempo – one might have interpreted the sliding figure at the end as a dry death-rattle or else a strengthening of resolve to dispense with the song and go on throughout life, taking it as it comes.

It was left to Dylan Lardelli and his beautiful work, Retracing, for the ensemble plus a guitar (played by the composer) to conclude the evening’s music. At the beginning the recorder (here, played as if it were a transverse flute) and then the shō breathed on the wind to one another, the guitar adding its voice with a few low notes as the “dialogue of winds”  grew in intensity, before being joined by the softly-strumming koto. Occasionally the recorder and shō made attention-grabbing sounds, goading the guitar and koto into a response, and animating the discourse, a dynamic which all too soon reverted to those half-lit ambiences of the opening. Particularly beautiful were the guitar’s pin-pricks of light gently punctuating the firmament of sound, everything generating a sense of emotion recollected in tranquility.

Was it a kind of re-exploration of youthful impulses? – the gently pulsating sounds seemed to re-evoke memories, but at the same time surrender them to the inexorable tread of time – it was all, at once, beautiful and desolate. Still, one wouldn’t have wanted the afternoon’s music-making to end otherwise, as the musical worlds we were taken into were, for the most part, of such a delicate and fragile nature. In fact they demonstrated something we need to be reminded of occasionally, in this frantic, insistent world we’ve created for ourselves, that simplicity and understatement have a power and resonance all of their own to refresh and renew our human spirits.

Monteverdi gets keen, sharp-edged and exciting treatment

Claudio MONTEVERDI – Vespers of the Blessed Virgin of 1610
New Zealand Festival 2016

Concerto Italiano
Rinaldo Alessandrini (director)

Michael Fowler Centre,

Saturday, 27th February 2016

There was certainly a festive spirit around and about the Michael Fowler Centre leading up to the performance on Saturday evening of Claudio Monteverdi’s resplendent Vespers of 1610, to be given by the highly-acclaimed visiting baroque ensemble Concerto Italiano with their director Rinaldo Alessandrini.

The performance fulfilled all expectations, managing even to transcend the venue’s drab, determinedly secular vistas and ambiences. My last encounter with this music “live” having been in the atmospheric precincts of St.Mary of the Angels Church here in Wellington, it took a while for me to supersede my resonant expectations and recontextualise the sounds made by Concerto Italiano – here, a far tighter, more focused sound-picture, emphasizing clarity and transparency ahead of any layered ecclesiastical context of listening.

Of course the focus and brilliance of the singing and playing drew me into the group’s very different sound-world before too long – and even though I would still have preferred a church setting in which to experience this work, I was ultimately carried away by the beauty, wonderment, excitement and depth of feeling of it all – things which go to make up the full force of the festival experience!

Having said all of this, it’s ironic that this work by Monteverdi, regarded as one of the cornerstones of the baroque vocal-and-instrumental repertoire, and on a par with similar iconic masterpieces such as Bach’s B Minor Mass and Handel’s Messiah, was written by its composer more as a kind of showcase of his composing talents than a public expression of personal faith. In fact, it appears to have been performed only once in the composer’s lifetime, and then, not for over three hundred years afterwards.

At the age of forty-three, Monteverdi wanted a change from being in the service of the Duke of Mantua, and so arranged for the publication of his Vespers in 1610 to advertise his wares as a composer. It didn’t land him the job he REALLY wanted (Master of Music at the Papal Chapel in Rome), but it helped get him something nearly as good – Master of Music at the prestigious St. Mark’s Church in Venice. The rest, as they say in the classics, is history.

So the 1610 Vespers represent Monteverdi as a composer of a number of different styles of sacred music which he had produced during his time in Mantua, and here put in the form of a single liturgical service. The scholarly arguments over what ought to go into the Vespers from Monteverdi’s publication for whatever  structural or liturgical reasons have raged about this music for years, ever since the work was taken up once again in the 1930s.  The upshot of all this is that there seems to be no one “correct” version of the work, and that every performance is therefore, as expressed by the writer of an article in the festival program about the music’s history, “a unique experience”.

Though comparisons with the previous performance I had heard in Wellington six years ago (referred to above) are largely academic for all of the above reasons, each one on its own terms proclaimed the music a masterpiece with stunning and often breath-taking conviction. From the earlier performance I continue to cherish things such as the performances of the two soprano soloists, who remain hors concurs in my experience – good though the female singers of Concerto Italiano were, neither put across the music’s beauty, colour, sensuality and even erotic impulse, to the same extent as did Pepe Becker and Jayne Tankersley in St.Mary of the Angels, especially in the vocal concerto Pulchra es, as well as in the Psalmus 147 Lauda Jerusalem, with interactions and dovetailing highlighting what the remainder of the singers were doing most delightfully.

My other enduring memory of the earlier performance relates to its physical setting, allowing a wonderful and engaging immediacy in overall effect for we in the audience/congregation – for me, greater than was to be had in the MFC – and a more atmospheric sound-picture in St.Mary’s giving both vocal and instrumental tones splendid resonance, as well as allowing for especially stunning antiphonal effects (though Concerto Italiano’s off-stage efforts were exquisite and magical in their own way).

So now, having satisfied my urge to relive some of the more memorable aspects of the work’s previous Wellington performance, I can now at last turn to the real point of this review and consider Concerto Italiano’s stimulating and satisfying rendition of the music. As I’ve said, it took me some time to get on the performance’s wavelength, but as each section took its turn to unfold, I found myself more and more drawn into the music’s world and that of the group’s strongly-focused realizations. Throughout the particularly arresting section featuring the motet Nigra sum, words taken from the biblical Song of Solomon and pertaining to the Virgin Mary, I was spellbound – here sung by a tenor and accompanied by a pair of theorbos (instruments similar to lutes but with lengthy fretboards and strings), the music achieved an intimate, heartfelt quality, ranging from passionate declamation to raptly-voiced wonderment on the part of the singer.

Though not quite matching the élan and physicality of the earlier performance I’d heard of Pulchra es, the singers gave their exuberant flourishes sufficient energy to make a stirring impression, before throwing themselves into the complexities of the coloratura of Psalm 121, Laetatus sum, the music’s rollicking pyrotechnics concluding with a Gloria. The men’s voices then purposefully tackled another motet, Duo Seraphim, the singers relishing the piece’s fantastically rapid note-repetition, before combining with the rest of the ensemble to deliver the Psalm 126 with grandeur at first, and then energy, as the music switched engagingly to three-four time – a great first-half closer!

We enjoyed the onstage/offstage echoes of the tenors’ exchanges during the motet Audi coelum, the music having a luscious, exotic “feel” about it, a mood which the entry of additional voices and a quicker tempo set upon its head in the tumult which followed, the harmonies of the music taking on a lovely ongoing, “rolling” quality. And I so enjoyed the deftness of the music’s interweaving during the following Lauda, Jerusalem, Dominum, the syncopated figurations generating tremendous “schwung” – well, its Venetian equivalent, anyhow – finishing with a hymn-like grandeur of utterance, again, with a rolling, surging “Amen” that was a thrill to experience.

What gorgeously rich harmonies were floated, hymn-like, for our pleasure at the beginning of Ave maris stella! And how tenderly both strings and brass by turns contributed gently-voiced, dance-like reprises to the verses! This was, however, but a prelude to the splendors of the Magnificat which concluded the work, beginning with grand declamations and passages of florid vocal decoration intensifying the radiance of the opening words, and concluding with a Gloria which built upwards from an amazing “statement-and echo” sequence between two tenors into a mighty peroration from both singers and instrumentalists, effectively giving the lie to my opening impression of a certain smallness of scale from the brass. The trombones, especially, contributed a truly awe-inspiring sonority to the panoply of sounds ringing through the auditorium.

At the work’s end Alessandrini and his singers and players were treated to a standing ovation, as well they might have been – a truly festive occasion!

Waikanae’s chamber music year starts brilliantly with Amici Ensemble

Amici Ensemble
(Waikanae Music Society)

Violins: Donald Armstrong and Malavika Gopal; violas: Julia Joyce and Andrew Thomson; cellos: Andrew Joyce and Ken Ichinose

Strauss: Prelude (Sextet) to Capriccio
Anthony Ritchie: Ants: Sextet for Strings, Op 185
Boccherini: Quintet in D, G 270 – Grave and Tempo di fandango
Brahms: Sextet No 2 in G, Op 36

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 21 February, 2:30 pm

It is the season for beginnings of the year for series of concerts from a variety of musical organisations. After St Andrew’s on The Terrace comes the first of Wellington’s four main chamber music bodies, the Waikanae Music Society, which presents the most concerts: nine this year.

The Amici Ensemble, comprising leading NZSO players, has been a regular and prominent contributor at Waikanae. Its composition changes according to the demands of the music; for this concert, it’s a string sextet, and all but one of the works was for those six instruments.

Capriccio was Strauss’s last opera, written early in World War II, and premiered in Munich in October 1942. The Sextet which serves as its prelude is actually the beginning of the action: the Countess Madeleine (the main figure in the opera) and her brother are listening to a sextet written in honour of her approaching birthday. The opera is greatly loved by Strauss aficionados (including the writer), a ‘conversation piece’ that debates the relative merits of words and music in opera, drawing on an 18th century play, Prima la musica, poi le parole which Salieri composed as an opera. The Countess’s two suitors are a composer and a poet, and the question remains at the end unresolved but, for the audience, it’s rather unfairly stacked in favour of the music, given the Countess’s long and rapturous soliloquy that brings the piece to an ostensibly inconclusive end. The role of Countess became one of Kiri’s greatest, and Renée Fleming has been its supreme interpreter for many years.

The sextet is simply beautiful, and these players left us in no doubt that they think so too. It was warm and generous in spirit, giving little hint of what later in the opera becomes a somewhat intense debate; its easy invention and exquisite scoring hardly suggest a composer approaching his 80th birthday. From where I was sitting the sound was opulent and beautifully projected.

With a commission from Christchurch music patron Christopher Marshall, the Amici offered here the first performance of Anthony Ritchie’s Ants, inspired by the request for a sextet (the ant is a six-legged insect, if it had escaped your notice). Its five sections considered aspects of ants’ lives and characteristics, and fate. Obviously, not a heavy-weight composition seeking to plumb emotional or intellectual complexities, nor to tax the listener with avant-garde structures and idioms, yet it did not belittle the audience’s cultivated taste. The use of varied instrumental techniques and rhythmic patterns applied to agreeable tunes conjured up impressions that reflected the titles of each section, such as ‘Anteater’ and ‘Self-impaling’, created a sense, perhaps, of danger or ingenuity. The performance fully explored all its individuality and badinage.

The Fandango from Boccherini’s String Quintet in D, commonly played in the composer’s arrangement for guitar and string quartet, has rather replaced in popularity the formerly ubiquitous ‘Boccherini Minuet’ from the Quintet in E, G 275. It’s the last movement of the string quintet in D, G 270. The quintet (momentarily retiring the ensemble’s second viola) captured most convincingly, with spiccato bowing and other Guitar effects, the character of the Andalusian dance. The performance was lively, even spectacular, particularly the virtuosic part for the first cello, flawlessly rendered by Andrew Joyce. A splendid end for the first half of the concert.

Brahms second string sextet occupied the second half. Its first movement is one of Brahms most rapturous creations, the second theme of which employs the letters of the name of the young woman, Agathe, he had spurned a few years before and which later caused him pain; it got a performance that would perhaps only have increased Agathe’s sadness over her failure to overcome Brahms complex relationship with women, that led to his never marrying. For me, it ranks alongside the gorgeous second movement of the Op 18 sextet. The rest of the Op 36 does not quite equal that first movement, with a second movement, Scherzo, in common time, that doesn’t take off till the triple time Trio section. The players found a suggestion of uncertainty in the third movement, Poco Adagio; again one wondered whether that too reflected Brahms’s regrets. The last movement somewhat recaptures the spirit of the first, as the players tossed themes from one to another in the concluding Coda.

A great start to what looks like a splendid concert series.




Inbal Megiddo and friends stage fifth Cellophonia at School of Music

New Zealand School of Music Te Koki
Cellophonia Concert

David Popper: Requiem
Handel, arr. Claude Kenneson: Adagio and Allegro from Organ Concerto in G minor, Op.4 no 3
Elgar: Salut d’amour, Op.12, arr. Kenneson
Kreisler: Liebesleid, arr. Kenneson
Piazzola: Libertango, arr. Alvin Ware

Adam Concert Room, Victoria University of Wellington

Saturday, 20 February 2016, 6.30pm

Cellophonia consists of a day of rehearsals for cellists, followed by a concert. This was the fifth such event. While organised by the New Zealand School of Music at Victoria University of Wellington, it includes mature cellists from amateur orchestras as well as students of various ages. Tutors were Inbal Megiddo (cello soloist and NZSM Senior Lecturer) and Andrew Joyce (Principal Cellist of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra). There was no printed programme; I am grateful to Brigid O’Meeghan for supplying the details.

There were other highly experienced, indeed expert, cellists participating. I saw Rolf Gjelsten, Brigid O’Meeghan and Lucy Gijsbers; there may have been other top-line cellists also.

A good-sized audience heard the short programme (approx. 40 minutes) from the 23 cellists, of whom between one-half and two-thirds were female.

Before the concert commenced, Inbal Megiddo paid tribute to the late Wellington cellist and luthier, Ian Lyons, who died suddenly, recently. The first item, written for multiple cellos and piano (Jian Liu), appropriately, was dedicated to his memory. The work was suitably sombre. There was strong tone from Megiddo and Joyce against a background of the other cellos. Soon the piano joined in. The music was solemn, even portentous; the players created a big sound, playing without a conductor, but carefully following the two tutors’ head, bow and eye signals. However, I sometimes found the volume too much in this rather small auditorium.

The piano made a considerable contrast, with its higher pitch and different timbre. This was an effective work, and being written for this instrumentation, made a greater musical impression than did the arrangements that followed.

Some rearrangement of the players took place for the Handel piece. Two groupings of two cellists each provided the concerto effect: Megiddo and Joyce; Gijsbers and another young woman whom I have seen and heard before. They played more-or-less alternate concerto sections of the score.

Not every other player was in tune all the time, but all made a solid contribution. The allegro in particular sounded odd after the familiarity of the organ original. The playing was a little too insistent, with the harmonic variation being rather swamped. However, there were lovely solo, duet and quartet passages from the four leaders.

The Elgar piece was not sufficiently ingratiating, with all that low grumbling below the solo part, played by Megiddo and Joyce. Others got a chance to carry parts of the melody, but the playing of the remainder of the band was insufficiently delicate. The polished wooden floor is responsible for a lot of this sound; the cello, unlike nearly all other instruments, has direct contact with the floor.

The two cello tutors swapped places for the Fritz Kreisler piece. Joyce’s playing of the melody was mellow and gorgeous, and the accompaniment was nicely varied with not so much deep grumbling here. Some harmonies were pitched above the melody, which made for variety.

Astor Piazzolla’s brief tango “Libertango’ was played by some of the group with great aplomb; by others more cautiously. It ended with a great flourish.

I am sure that those of the players who are not under regular tuition at NZSM would have got a lot out of their day’s workshop; the final concert was by no means a compromise of quality, with its variety of pieces.


Accomplished duo play Brahms at St Andrew’s lunchtime concert

Catherine Norton (piano) and Carolyn van Leuven (violin)

Brahms: Violin Sonata No 1 in G minor, Op 78
Scherzo from the F.A.E. Sonata (1853)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 17 February, 12:15 pm

The lunchtime concerts at St Andrew’s started last Wednesday; Middle C neglected it.

But I was delighted to be at this one, starting the year so splendidly with Brahms. Catherine Norton’s name is reasonably familiar in Wellington, and I realized that Carolyn van Leuven’s ought to have been, too, as her short biography revealed, though her origins are in Canterbury, with studies and work in Europe and America, that she has played with the NZSO. She is now working in Wellington.

It was clear from the start that this was a seriously rehearsed performance, with care over balance, each taking pains to offer space and attention to the other; the piano, even with the lid on the long stick, remained a perfect partner. Brahms offers plenty of warmth and lyricism in his violin sonatas: the warmth of the violin and discretion of the piano part. They handle bits of melodies from two of his songs, ‘Regenlied’ and ‘Nachklang’, which offer a sort of emotional basis to the music. Though it is hardly fair to expect listeners today to pick up themes from a quotation from a song in another language, the symbolism of rain and then of sun shine, the alternating feeling of sadness and peace were there; in the second poem rain mingles with tears and they are audible in the semi-quavers in the last movement.

But Brahms is always careful to avoid emotional references that are too bold and precise or too obvious. The rather secretive opening of the Adagio led perhaps to a slightly too emphatic piano passage: perhaps understanding the poetic reference would have helped the listener, but that is inadmissible. The finale, Allegro, however was both calmly paced and even, though quite assertive, clearly followed the detailed dynamic markings, bringing to an end what was a singularly polished and satisfying performance.

To play the Sonata before Brahms’s Scherzo contribution to the ‘FAE’ collaboration with Schumann and his pupil Dietrich – a gift to their violinist friend Joseph Joachim – tends to draw attention to the Scherzo’s surprising maturity, written 25 years earlier, when Brahms was 20. The confidence of the brisk opening phase with its clean staccato piano chords, followed by a broad, meditative section were splendidly captured by the players, as if Brahms was referring to the character of the other movements of the sonata for which he was not responsible. Yet the feeling almost of grandeur towards the end could have been felt as the conclusion of the work rather than just the third movement (Schumann was assigned to both the second and last movements). It’s strange that the entire sonata is not played much.

This was a recital that dramatically illustrated the value of, the gratitude we should feel for, the year-long series of Wednesday lunchtime concerts at St Andrew’s on The Terrace. For me at least, if I may for a moment reflect on my own relationship with them. In the mid 80s, I went regularly to the St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts, and pinned on various departmental notice boards details of forthcoming concerts, encouraging awareness of all the delights to be found there. They were probably a catalyst that led to my taking early retirement from the Public Service and devoting myself to both nature conservation and the preservation of historic buildings in Wellington, as well as to writing about music.

St Andrew’s, led by its minister, John Murray, was also important in dramatizing various civic issues such as the preservation of Wellington’s historic buildings. This was the time of building frenzy when council and developers were allies in the widespread destruction of scores of buildings that should simply have been valued and restored. The building boom culminated in the collapse of 1988; the bitter irony followed with many of them, many head offices, being vacated soon after by the companies that had built them, abandoning Wellington for Auckland and elsewhere.

One minor but precious one was 22 The Terrace, a very early building and near neighbour of the church, which survives thanks to the efforts of John Murray and others including the feisty ‘Save our City’ campaign.

The mid 80s (1986) also marked the first New Zealand International Festival of the Arts, with its important three-week-long series of lunchtime concerts at St Andrew’s. Those concerts drew together a great many leading New Zealand musicians, as well as a few from abroad, who were not the main focus of the big festival events. The lunchtime concerts, and for a couple of festivals, daily early evening concerts as well, continued to enrich the festival till, in the post-Chris Doig era, through the later 90s, its artistic standards declined, turning away from a focus on acknowledged classics in the performing arts.

With the devoted enterprise of Marjan van Waardenberg and the generous support of the church itself, St Andrew’s helps preserve much of Wellington’s important musical character.

Handel’s early Agrippina in brilliant Days Bay production

Agrippina by Handel
Opera in a Days Bay Garden

Producer: Rhona Fraser Musical director: Howard Moody; stage director: Sara Brodie
Joel Amosa, Rhona Fraser, Rowena Simpson, Stephen Diaz, Rebecca Ryan, Daniel O’Connor, Julian Chote, Dan Sun, Barbara Patterson

Sixteen-piece orchestra led by Howard Moody

Canna House, Days Bay

Sunday 14 February, 6pm

Wellington’s boutique opera company that presents most of its productions in the beech forest-surrounded garden of the company’s producer, Rhona Fraser, staged its ninth opera at the height of an unusually warm summer. We regretted not making time before the performance to join the thousands on the beach, for a swim, with the temperature hovering around 27 degrees.

This was the company’s second Handel opera, after Alcina in 2012. Other unfamiliar pieces have been Mozart’s L’Oca del Cairo, Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims and La Calisto by Cavalli.

(For the record, the company’s other productions have been of The Marriage of Figaro, Maria Stuarda, Così fan tutte and Der Rosenkavalier).

It’s one of Handel’s early works, written in Italy while he was absorbing the traditions of Italian opera, dominated by Alessandro Scarlatti, and Cesti and Stradella and others. Agrippina was written for Venice when he was 24. Nevertheless, it is regarded as one of his most successful pieces both on account of the vitality of the music and an unusually well-contrived libretto. So it’s not one of those operas where by the middle of the second act, you get impatient that no one asks the obvious question that would put an end to the troubles and truncate the opera.

The performance, the second, on 14 February, on the terrace before the house succeeded well with no sets and few props. Instead, the cast is expected to perform athletically, extravagantly, with the focus on themselves, their voices and acting. The performance was in front of the orchestra which was in the recessed entrance way on the right for the first act, but from Act II moved to the left side, straddling the wide sliding doorway of the large living room, half in, half out. The orchestra was the usual ensemble, 16-strong, drawn mainly from splendid NZSO players, with outstanding oboists, and led from harpsichord by Howard Moody.

At the start, facing west and singing into the blazing sun, with nowhere to hide, nerves and intonation weaknesses showed. But in all cases, each quickly came to life, gaining confidence and relishing the risqué nonsense.

Rhona Fraser herself sang Agrippina (Emperor Claudius’s wife), sometimes struggling to portray her duplicitous character, but singing and acting with conviction, with very overt asides in the form of smiles and grimaces and other signs of cynical self-interest. Next to her role as the Marschallin in the Strauss opera, this might well be her biggest role in her Days Bay enterprise.

The opera opens with the news that Emperor Claudius has died at sea leading his wife Agrippina to launch her campaign to persuade the Senate to accept her son Nero as successor. However, Claudius’s general, Ottone, appears with the news that he rescued Claudius and the rest of the opera is essentially a complex series of plots (and their frustration) aimed at achieving Agrippina’s ruthless ambitions.

In spite of his first appearance as Emperor in most un-imperial costume, Joel Amosa, soon took command of his role as Claudius in more appropriate purple toga, displaying not only grandeur and authority but an intelligent sense of humour. Though Ottone, counter tenor Stephen Diaz, who has performed in previous productions at Days Bay, first also appears in singularly unmilitary dress, he emerges as a general of unusual charisma, with commanding presence and voice.

Claudius resumes his flagrant pursuit of Poppea under the nose of his wife who continues to attempt to get rid of both Claudius and Ottone.

Accomplished Handelian Rebecca Ryan, overcame her unflattering costume, to portray Poppea boldly and vocally buoyant if not quite managing the flagrant, seductive bit.

As in Monteverdi’s masterpiece, La coronazione di Poppea, Nerone is a trouser role and Rowena Simpson, in tight-fitting black costume, creates a lively, youthful character, not the legendary monster who later succeeded Claudius and might have murdered his mother Agrippina (some accounts have her murdering Claudius, so Nero’s effort might not seem so bad). And you’ll recall that in the Monteverdi opera, Poppea sets her sights on Emperor Nero who banishes his wife Ottavia so that he can ‘marry’ Poppea.

The two brilliant counter tenors Stephen Diaz and Julian Chote, in their respective roles as Ottone and Narciso, were both accomplished and larger-than-life. Narciso and Pallante (Daniel O’Connor), are defined as ‘freedmen’ (libertus) – that is, former slaves who have been freed and accorded full citizenship, here probably on account of their talents and education. Peripheral figures perhaps, they gained attention through their entertaining flamboyance and impressive singing. They become useful in the last act as Agrippina’s tools in her persistent scheming to get Nero confirmed as Claudius’s successor, in the event of Claudius meeting with an accident.

There are other minor characters: Lesbo, the Emperor’s servant, was sung vividly by Dun Sun and at the end the goddess Juno appears to bless the eventual happy ending that statesmanlike intercession by Claudius had brought about. Barbara Patterson acts and sings the goddess with glittering splendor.

The success of the staging was again the work of Sara Brodie, master of imaginative histrionics, explicit dissembling, clever exploitation of the physical shape of the terrace and house. Much credit goes to the witty and at times very colloquial translation by Amanda Holden, which was first used by director David McVicar for the English National Opera production that was seen in Brussels and Frankfurt before reaching London in 2007. Most of the singers succeeded well in projecting the words with clarity.

Sure, it’s a complicated story, not easily grasped merely by reading a synopsis. Rather, it made sense through the vivid performance itself, especially in a production that illuminated character and motivation as well as this entertaining hill-side staging did.

Modern revivals of Agrippina began in the middle of World War II, at Halle, Handel’s birthplace; reportedly a travesty, from today’s point of view. Next came a live radio broadcast by Italian Radio in 1953. There were several more stagings in Germany before the first in England, at Abingdon in 1963. There was a concert performance in Philadelphia in 1972 and the first staged production in Fort Worth in 1985. It returned to Venice in 1983. All of these apparently neglected a concern for historical practice, and the first to seek historical performance accuracy were at Schwetzingen in 1981 and Göttingen in 1991.

In the 21st century, productions have become fairly common, as interest in early opera, especially Handel, has become very widespread.

The Tudor Consort 30th anniversary with founder Simon Ravens

Thirtieth Anniversary concert
The Tudor Consort directed by Simon Ravens; Douglas Mews (organ)

John Taverner: Missa Gloria tibi trinitas
John Sheppard: Adesto Sancta I and II and Libera Nos I and II
Robert Johnson: In Nomine (organ)
Simon Ravens: Outwitted I and II

Cathedral of Saint Paul, Wellington

Saturday 13 February, 7:30pm

Simon Ravens was an English choral musician who, while an undergraduate, had become the conductor of an early music choir at the University of Wales; he came to Wellington in 1985 where he sang with the choir of Saint Paul’s Cathedral. He was soon taken with the idea of forming his own choir that would specialise in Renaissance music. It was named The Tudor Consort, modelled to some extent on famous ensembles such as The Tallis Scholars, and almost immediately, through Ravens’ knowledge and enthusiasm, won itself a rather special place in the New Zealand choral scene. In fact, it probably played a rather important role in the remarkable flourishing of choral music, and particularly Medieval and Renaissance music, that occurred in Wellington in the following 20 years or so.

Concerts by The Tudor Consort commonly filled the Anglican Cathedral, and other spaces, coming to specialize in performances that attempted a liturgical reconstruction of sacred music, to recreate the atmosphere and character of the music’s original context. They included memorable performances in the beautiful Erskine chapel in Island Bay, and an enactment of the French medieval Play of Daniel.

After Ravens returned to England in 1990, the choir determined to continue and with a succession of local choral specialists has managed to do just that over the following 25 years. In 2006, the choir staged a three concert festival to celebrate its 25th birthday in St Mary of the Angels and in the great hall of the former National Museum, one of them conducted again by Simon Ravens.

Ravens returns to celebrate 30 years’ survival, in fact triumph, if we are to accept Ravens’ flattering comment in his pre-concert talk, that the choir is even better than he left it 25 years before. This time, no liturgical reconstruction, no particular attention to atmospheric lighting (though it was convenient to be able to read the texts in the programme, even though the Latin was pretty-much muddied in the acoustic).

The concert was underpinned by Taverner’s masterpiece, Missa Gloria tibi trinitas. Taverner is perhaps the earliest of the Tudor composers whose names are reasonably familiar. Born about 1490, his adult life fell within the reign of Henry VIII. The mass has four parts – Gloria, Credo, Sanctus (and Benedictus) and Agnus Dei – there is no Kyrie, as it was not regarded as part of the ordinary of the Mass before the Reformation. The performance was punctuated with the original plainsong Gloria tibi Trinitas, and two settings of the motet Adesto Sancta Trinitas by John Sheppard who was some 20 years Taverner’s junior, as well as Sheppard’s Libera nos; and very interestingly, Ravens’s own settings of an epigram by American poet Edwin Markham, Outwitted.

The other interesting contribution was the organ interludes – two settings of In Nomine – played by Douglas Mews.

At this point I might comment that while the programme gave texts in both Latin and English, it offered little background about the pieces apart from the oblique remarks in Ravens’ overview of the music which dwelt mainly on the problem of performing and hearing music written in a very different era from our own. So there is much to be gained from pulling out reference books and exploring websites to gain better appreciation of what one had heard.

Outwitted opened the concert. It embodied a pithy, humane lesson: “He drew a circle that shut me out / Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. / But love and I had the wit to win / We drew a circle and took him in.” Advice perhaps for dealing with forms of fanaticism and cruelty today… Though its message is probably clear and pungent enough, the quasi-polyphonic setting, with voices used in striking combinations, demonstrated the rich possibilities of a centuries-old form to enhance a message for today.

The plainchant antiphon followed, nicely preparing us for the far more complex sounds of the Taverner mass. It is interesting that this wonderful mass by Taverner, so complex and musically elaborate, was written before the great works of Tallis and Byrd and all the better known English composers of the Elizabethan and Jacobean period. Written for six voices – treble, alto (called ‘mean’ in the literature), two countertenors, tenor and bass – it is a work that offers challenges of all kinds to a conductor and singers; the mastery of balances between the parts and the sheer virtuosity demanded. Though the six voices (the choir consisted of 20 singers) weaved around the chant with wonderful skill, creating transcendent harmonies, each remained splendidly distinct.

One of the recurring delights, if not sources of wonderment, was the sustained high register demanded from the counter-tenors, with two voices in particular emerging as striking soloists – Richard Taylor and Phillip Collins – as well as from the trebles who are also required to maintain long, brilliant and very high passages. Soloists from the trebles and altos were also vividly conspicuous, though never detracting from a seemly liturgical spirit – Jane McKinlay, Anna Sedcole and Andrea Cochrane. There seemed to be something very modern in Taverner’s ability to create music that was not just technically impressive but also generated through long spans of polyphonic inspiration, an emotionally exciting response in the audience (if I may suggest that others responded as I did).

After the Gloria, Mews played Taverner’s In nomine and in the second half, after the Sanctus of the Mass, a second In Nomine by Robert Johnson. Though arguably not an instrument well adapted to music conceived for a Renaissance organ, he chose stops that were clear and sharply varied, and avoided generating anything resembling the tumult of a great Romantic organ.

The In nomine is curious. I read in Peter Phillips’s notes accompanying the Tallis Scholars’ recording of Taverner’s music, the following: “Originally in a spirit of wanting to flatter Taverner by copying him, composers of every generation up to that of Purcell, and including Purcell himself, tested their contrapuntal techniques by basing music on the ‘In nomine’ section of the Benedictus of Taverner’s Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas (‘Benedictus qui venit IN NOMINE Domini’).

John Sheppard’s two settings of Adesto Sancta were sung between parts of the Mass, comprising verses alternately in plain chant by men’s voices and polyphony: not as elaborate as Taverner though the polyphonic verses were delivered with great brilliance. His two settings for six voices of the Libera Nos, in which Ravens’ beat marked the slow minims of the music reflecting the plaintive nature of the words, concluded each half of the concert.

Though the Tudor Consort has enlightened and entertained Wellington audiences with revelations of early music (as well as music of other periods) for thirty years, for this special anniversary concert Simon Ravens chose works, most notably the great Taverner mass, which are important and mark a return to the heartland of the choir’s origins: perfectly appropriate for such an occasion. These memorable and moving performances fulfilled the hopes and intentions of the choir and its inspiring founding director and will undoubtedly rate as one of 2016’s musical highlights.