Cervantes’ quadricentenary through diverting music of the 17th to 20th centuries

A Tribute to Cervantes

Spanish music from the 17th to the 20th century
Gaspar Sanz, Boccherini, Enrique Granados, and songs by Federico García Lorca (presuably words and music) and by Manuel de Falla, Antonio Alvarez Alonzo, Manuel Lopez Quiroga, Santiago Lopez Gozalo, Pascual Marquina

Manuel Breiga – violin and Adrian Fernandez – guitar

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 27 March, 6 pm

This year is the 400th anniversary not just of the death of Shakespeare, as the whole world knows, but also of Miguel Cervantes. Not only the same year, but also the same month – April – and even more surprising just one day apart! S. on 23 and C. on 22 April.

Cervantes was longer-lived, having been born in 1547. In an introduction it was pointed out that the two players were, serendipitously, from La Mancha which was the home of Cervantes’ hero.

The concert was supported by the Spanish Embassy in Wellington and the Spanish and Latinamerican Club,

Violinist Manuel Breiga introduced each bracket (in Spanish, and his words were translated). Evidently he gave no information about the composers or their music, other than the titles, which were, in any case, in the printed programme. Perhaps, given that it was a free concert and much of the audience was there for Spanish rather than musical reasons, this was acceptable.

The celebration of Cervantes was marked with the use of music written around 70 years after his own time. Don Quixote was written between 1600 and 1613 while Gaspar Sanz was born 24 years after Cervantes died (Sanz’s dates: 1640 to 1710) and most of his music was written between 1670 and 1700.

It was interesting to hear the six pieces by Sanz, since I had been awakened to his significance by the concerts given at the 2014 festival by the American lutenist Hopkinson Smith who played a number of Sanz’s pieces, some of which were used by Joachim Rodrigo in his charming Fantasia para un gentilhombre. At least three of the pieces Rodrigo chose were also played at this concert.

Tunes from the first dance, Españoletas, the fourth, Fanfarria de la caballeria de Nápoles and the sixth, Canarios, were all used in the Rodrigo Fantasia. They were divertingly varied in style, rhythm, mood, from the forthright Españoletas, to the more lively Gallarda y Villano and Rujero y paradetas, the latter enlivened with a shift to a skipping, triple time, in a middle section.  Though the violin led the way most of the time, the guitar had a long solo passage in a dance in six/eight, dotted rhythm.  The big confident sound produced by the amplified instruments gave a very different impression of music from an age of discreet taste, though not one that would have seemed inappropriate to most listeners; and it’s not merely a question of using early music in a modern way on modern instruments; Rodrigo did that very successfully.

The passacaglia movement from the famous Boccherini quintet, Op 30 No 6 (Música nocturna en las calles de Madrid, to give its title in Spanish) lay well for these two instruments – it survives all sorts of arrangements.

Only a fortnight ago the violin/guitar duo, Duo Tapas played at St Andrew’s, and they played one of the Granados dances that these Spaniards chose: the Oriental from his Twelve Spanish Dances. This evening we also heard No 5 of that set, Andaluza, the most popular of them. Even though they were written for the piano, the latter dance has become so familiar on the violin that Breiga’s performance sounded perfectly idiomatic; the Breiga-Fernandez duo played both Granados pieces splendidly.

Then they played a group of Spanish folk songs by Federico García Lorca. They were all from the Trece canciones espanolas antiguas – ‘13 old Spanish songs’. Breiga referred to Lorca as both poet and composer which came as a surprise to me. My impression from glancing at Internet references, was that the music was either traditional or by others; after all Lorca called them ‘old’. However, the website IMSLP states categorically that the composer is Federico García Lorca. The pieces were characteristic, genuine, perfumed in various ways, though they did rather cry out for a voice; they are all sung beautifully on YouTube by Teresa Berganza, and a few are also sung by Victoria de los Angeles. While the violin and guitar did them reasonable justice, their García Lorca inspiration was diminished without the words.

The final group of five songs and dances, were varied, though all speaking of aspects of Spain and its rich popular culture. They began with the Miller’s Dance from The Three-cornered Hat by De Falla, which was carried off with gusto; then Suspiros de España, ‘Sighs of (for?) Spain’, by the short-lived Antonio Alvarez Alonzo, plaintive with its falling phrases.

Maria de la O by Manuel López-Quiroga had a deeply traditional air, though it looks as if its origin was in a 1958 film. Again, sung versions had a passion that the more subdued violin and guitar performance could not really generate.

However, the taste of these recent Spanish songs and access to impassioned and persuasive sung versions has provided me with an hour or so of unexpected pleasure as I write this. A traditional, trumpet-led tune called Gallito by Santiago Lopez Gozalo, and España Cañi by Pascual Marquina ended the concert, apart from an encore of the tenor favourite, Granada.

The sound this very accomplished duo produced was not what we are used to hearing today in music of this kind. While it is normal to amplify a guitar except in a domestic situation, it is unusual to amplify the violin. Here both instruments were amplified to an unnecessary degree, which rather changed the character of the music and imposed a sometimes deadening uniformity of tone where the variety available in a natural acoustic would have been more interesting.

The duo’s style clearly suited music of the 19th and 20th centuries better than that of earlier periods: amplification there seemed more acceptable. So I found the second half of the recital more enjoyable than the first, which I had not really expected.

But it would have been interesting to have developed the Cervantes theme rather more, through music more closely associated with the Spain of the 16th century.  I wonder about the early 17th century, baroque flourishing of the Zarzuela and its association with the great dramatist Calderón, whose career lay between Cervantes and Sanz.


A richly-informed austerity – music by Heinrich Schütz, from the Tudor Consort

Heinrich Schütz: Musikalische Exequien (Funeral Music), SWV 279-281
Matthäus-Passion (St. Matthew Passion), SWV 479

The Tudor Consort, conducted by Peter Walls
Soloists: John Beaglehole (tenor), Simon Christie (bass-baritone), with Corinna Connor (cello), Jonathan Berkahn (harpsichord), Michael Stewart (organ)

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Saturday, 25 March 2016, 7.30pm

Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) is perhaps largely known as a precursor of J.S. Bach, in the development of baroque music. Peter Walls, in his pre-concert talk, referred quite extensively to Johann Sebastian. Thus it came as quite a shock to discover how different Schütz’s music was from that of Bach. Schütz was born a hundred years before the great master, and like him, was involved in music for the Lutheran Church, despite his training with Giovanni Gabrieli in Venice, and later with Monteverdi. He spent much of his life employed as a musician at the court in Dresden, and it was for a nobleman at that court that he wrote the Musikalishce Exequien – commissioned during that person’s lifetime and completed with his approval of the settings.

The work is in three parts. The first, a concerto in the form of a German burial Mass consisted of Kyrie and Gloria in paraphrases in the German language, but with other texts incorporated in the Kyrie. The Gloria used chorales in addition to the Biblical texts. The second part was a Motet, ‘Lord, if I have but thee’, and the third, the Song of Simeon: Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’, both sung in German.

The choir sang on this occasion from a position directly in front of the altar. This made it impossible for those of the audience seated in the nave to see them. No-one had told me, as some of those in the audience that I spoke to had been told, that the extra seating in the choir stalls section of the church was not only for the talk, but also for the performance. It would have been a much more involving experience to have been sitting nearer the choir. Since the church was very well filled, this would have affected others more than it did me.

The English translations of the words of the works performed were shown on a screen placed in the choir stalls. I could read the words (just) but those on the right side of the church, or further back than perhaps the eight or ninth rows would not have been able to (I sat in the fourth row). One problem was that the screen needed to be hoisted a good deal higher for those in the nave to be able to read the lower lines, though admittedly that would have been somewhat neck-craning for those closer.

The Funeral Music was accompanied by cello, harpsichord and organ (Peter Walls said that Schütz would have had a larger orchestra). I could usually hear the cello, seldom the harpsichord but usually the organ. This was a ‘house’ organ, borrowed from Mark Whitfield, Bishop of the Lutheran Church of New Zealand. It had an attractive sound, but in the main, that sound was rather muffled, probably due to the number of bodies between it and the nave.

A solo voice sang the introit, then all joined in, but that voice continued to be rather prominent for a time. When the women’s voices joined in the sound became much more resonant. The position chosen meant the acoustics of the cathedral were not delivered to their full effect. The result was greater clarity; both choir and solo voices were very fine, with splendid tone. There were a few notes off the mark soon after the beginning, but these were few indeed amongst such a plethora of near-virtuoso singing; I heard no more intonation wobbles.

The louder passages from the choir, and indeed from the soloists, were very striking. The motet was more of a solid choral piece, with echo passages and plenty of counterpoint (though less chromatic than Bach’s motets). The third part involved three soloists in addition to the choir; they sang from the Cathedral’s organ loft, under Schütz’s instruction that they should be elsewhere than near the choir. (How did they read their scores in the darkened church, away from the lighting?)

After the interval came the Passion. This was sung in German, unaccompanied, and only the opening and closing choruses, short compared with Bach’s in his Passions, deviated from the Biblical text. Apart from those two choruses, the work consisted of tenor recitatives expounding the texts, solos from Jesus (Simon Christie), and solo voices from the choir interjecting with the words of Peter, Pilate, Caiaphas, Judas, false witnesses, scribes elders, and the servants of the Chief Priest, plus the choir singing as the mob. These added vocal variety; no chorales or arias were included.

Having the English words on the screen assisted greatly in following the story. Some of the recitative sections were quite lengthy, for example the section covering the Last Supper and the arrest of Jesus, plus his interrogation before the Chief Priest. Since the singers could not be seen, this was at times an endurance test, given the hard seats.

However, all the soloists and the choir introduced variety and drama. Schütz hasn’t the drama of Bach, which is not to say that his St. Matthew Passion is devoid of drama, but Bach’s word-setting is without peer in this genre. Bach Collegium of Japan’s St. John Passion from the 2014 New Zealand Festival was on the radio earlier in the day, making it difficult to switch to the more restrained, plain style adopted by Schütz in his later years (as Wikipedia says, his style became simple and almost austere, but against this, he had sensitivity to the accents and meaning of the text). In particular I enjoyed (as did another listener, who asked for a repeat of this chorus) Bach’s setting of the words describing the Roman soldiers betting for Jesus’s garment; the cross-rhythms surely reflecting gambling’s unpredictable uncertainty.

Schütz’s work had more drama than the music heard in the first half, but on the other hand this was less underlined, being unaccompanied. This was a Passion in the original sense of the word, but not passionate in the modern sense. Schütz used word-painting, emotion and drama also, but of a more subtle and restrained kind, on the whole. The opening chorus featured lovely suspensions, between sumptuous chords.

The choir was effective and disciplined, their passages beautifully phrased. John Beaglehole (his performance a tour de force) and Simon Christie were characterful and accomplished; their voices, also those of the choir, carried well. Both intensity and grief were there in Christie’s tone in uttering the words from the cross. The words ‘Truly this was the Son of God’ were set with beauty and subtlety (as in Bach’s Passion). The final chorus was plaintively anguished, before a long drawn-out cry; the work ended with the Latin Kyrie, sung in an unaffected manner. It had an interesting and unexpected harmonic twist in the final chords.

It was distracting to see a young man in front of me making a video recording of much of the performance in video form, on his cellphone.

Website problems: acknowledgement of Turnovsky Endowment Trust grant

Because we have been unable to carry out certain functions on this website, our mast-head still bears our acknowledgement of sponsorship by the Adam Foundation which gave us greatly appreciated support in the early years. Late last year we were given a generous grant by the Turnovsky Endowment Trust, and that should have been published at once on the home page.

We are very embarrassed about this. The problem arises because we have lost contact with the person who set up our website using WordPress and our failure to find anyone who can manage it technically.

This handicap has also affected other functions.

Readers will no doubt have observed that our ‘Coming Events’ section has been neglected so far this year, as we simply cannot load anything new in that space. Nor is the facility for ‘comments’ operational. None of our efforts so far to manage these difficulties have been successful.

We would welcome offers of assistance from anyone with technical familiarity with WordPress.


Popular trios from NZSO players at St Andrew’s at lunchtime

Haydn: Piano Trio in G, Hob.XV:25 “Gypsy”

Mendelssohn: Piano Trio in D minor, Op.49

Koru Trio: Anne Loeser (violin), Sally Isaac (cello), Rachel Thomson (piano)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 23 March 2016, 12:15pm

Here was a dream team – two string players from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and a pianist who has frequently played with the orchestra when a piano is required as part of the band.

The lively, tuneful Haydn trio, one of his best-known, is a delight to hear. However, a few glitches in intonation early on in the first movement (adagio), and the violin tone being rather too prominent in that movement detracted a little from its glorious melodies.

The sublime poco adagio slow movement revealed a lovely blend of the instruments, and beautifully varied dynamics. The rondo all’Ongarese finale featured, as indicated by the name, Hungarian folk music. These gypsies were very speedy and vigorous, and left a happy impression of their dancing.

Mendelssohn’s trio is much longer, and begins much more sombre in tone than that of the Haydn work. There is much for the piano to do in the first movement – and indeed, elsewhere. The cello was most distinguished here, with its gorgeous flowing theme, after the initial agitato, which returns. Later, all play the theme, with astonishing rippling passages from the piano. This molto allegro agitato movement is quite long, and very dramatic.

The second movement, andante con moto tranquillo, opens with piano only, playing a song-like theme, reminiscent, not least through its pensive quality, of the composer’s Songs without Words for piano solo. Variations upon the theme followed. In the scherzo: leggiero e vivace third movement there were indeed lightness and liveliness. The sprightly character put me in mind of some of the composer’s Midsummer Night’s Dream music. The music became more vociferous as it darted here and there, like so many little sprites.

The Finale: allegro assai appassionata was indeed passionate compare with the previous movement. Broad expanses of music, and greater use of the forte dynamic were features. What a plethora of themes and modulations Mendelssohn worked into this movement! The exciting finishing passages demanded considerable virtuosity from the players.

Prolonged applause greeted the end of the trio’s performance. This was a concert of fine music, from fine musicians


Enterprising concert of New Zealand music at St Andrew’s lunchtime

Gareth Farr’s Relict Furies – resonant and moving at Wellington Cathedral

The New Zealand Festival 2016 presents:
Music by Gareth Farr
Libretto by Paul Horan

Strings of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Margaret Medlyn (mezzo-soprano)

ELGAR – Introduction and Allegro for Strings Op.47
SCULTHORPE – Sonata for Strings No.3 (from String Quartet No.11 “Jabiru Dreaming”) – 1. Deciso  2.Liberamente – Estatico
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS – Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul,

Tuesday 15th March, 2016

This concert at the Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul all but replicated the programme of an Edinburgh Festival Concert last year, performed on the 26th August at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, and featuring the premiere of Gareth Farr’s work Relict Furies. On that occasion the Scottish Ensemble was joined by well-known mezzo soprano Sarah Connolly in the performance of Farr’s piece, to great critical acclaim: – “a heart-stabbing evocation of the First World War” proclaimed one notice, while another read “fantastic music….permeated with breathtaking orchestration….” Farr’s work was a joint commission by the Edinburgh and New Zealand International Arts Festivals.

Last night Wellington heard the New Zealand premiere of Farr’s Relict Furies, in a programme which featured the strings of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra  playing (as was done in Edinburgh) music by Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Sculthorpe (the Scots, one noted, had cannily treated themselves to a truly resplendent bonus, that of Michael Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra.). These works, it might be guessed by now, all feature string orchestras divided in some way, which certainly made for fascinating and ear-catching results throughout.

The programme’s centre-piece was, of course, Gareth Farr’s work – its title Relict Furies, came from the librettist Paul Horan, who attributed the reference to his mother’s influence. He remembered how she hated the use of the word “relict”, which meant “widow” – so that it seemed the word was employed here as a kind of “confrontation” of response ranged against situation, especially in the context of women’s writings of the period, and about the effects of the war.

The poetry by Paul Horan I found very moving, but no more than I did Gareth Farr’s incredibly receptive and sensitive identification with the words throughout. Right from the opening I was caught up in feelings engendered by those deep tones, still, rich and lovely. The first song “Onward” spoke of the conflict between public duty and private feelings, how the door dividing the two represented a welcome barrier between the cheering crowd and the privacy of life and love, and how that barrier was opened to allow the two worlds to fatally mingle.

Here were deep string tones redolent of the love between husband and wife, and the jarring counter-harmonies of the upper strings representing the strident tones of the cheering crowd – an impasse that was boldly negated in a spirit of adventure, but was, of course, to go horribly wrong, with jabbing accents attaching the music’s flowing lines as the beginning of the second song taking us right into the marrow of things.  Those eerie string harmonies hovering about the singer’s words “Tomorrow I wear my wedding shoes to your funeral….I’ll be on display on the lip of your grave…” contained echoes of the Last Post, magical and ghostly at one and the same time, as if the tragedy of death had a kind of inevitability.

Farr’s beautiful handling of the work’s contrasts confronted us with impassioned outbursts such as – “I’ll be on my own on the lip of your grave…” leading to the bleak ostinato-led transition into the third song “Remains”, a sequence which burgeoned in feeling towards the outburst at “White, dark terror”, and then exhaustedly subsiding into a wasteland of on-going resonance of loss. I particularly loved the string-writing at the work’s very end – the woman sung about “an unpitied life, picking up where we never started”, as the two orchestral halves magically evoked both the living and the dead, and kind of wreathed them all around with contrasting tones and timbres – as if the real and “ghost” worlds were linked for a while by memory and evocation…..

In general I was enraptured by the score – I thought the writing for the two sections of the strings was outstanding – the opening division of “low” and high tomes between the two groups added to the sense of dislocation and menace and impending doom. The balance between the two was never excessive or lop-sided, so that the “layered” aspect of the experience of loss, bereavement and widowhood was characterized as profound and affecting without being over-wrought and destructive.

Margaret Medlyn, called in to sing at short notice, due to another performer’s indisposition, gave a splendidly committed and impassioned performance, movingly tempered in places by a rapt sensitivity. The ample acoustic of the cathedral made it difficult for us to follow her exact words at moments of great agitation, but the sense of anguish was palpably conveyed.

As for the other pieces, I though both the Sculthorpe and the Vaughan Williams came off most successfully. The Sculthorpe Sonata was a string orchestra version of a string quartet, made in 1994, one called “Jabiru Dreaming”, in two movements, whose titles are Deciso and Estatico. This work is an entrancing depiction of the Australian outback, and uses different string-playing techniques to recreate indigenous sounds – col legno effects that bring to mind tribalistic rituals involving stick games and ceremonial dancing, and rapid repeated glissandi in the violins to bring to mind birdsong – the string-writing had a wonderfully outdoor atmosphere that put me in mind of Sibelius’s “saga” music in places, and later on, Copland’s “new land” evocations.

The Vaughan Williams work was superbly played, especially the haunted dialogues between the two string orchestras. This was a work where the ample acoustic of the cathedral worked almost totally in the music’s favour. The lines had a glow, a halo of intensity around them and a resonance that unholstered the on-going atmospheres of the work in a timeless kind of way, so that we were able to forget ourselves and luxuriate in these sounds. Throughout this and in Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for strings, the solo playing was superb, the give-and-take between the principals of the orchestra a delight.

I thought the work that came off least well was the Elgar, mainly because of the acoustic of the cathedral. Parts of the work again glowed with a refulgent beauty – the sequences which have come to be known as the “Welsh Tune” were all simply ravishingly done – but unfortunately the quicker parts of the work turned to confusion all too readily, especially the central fugue of the work. It might have been better in this context had more deliberate, more rhythmically-pointed tempo been chosen in places (I have heard such performances, and if directed with enough focus and intensity they can work brilliantly). Which leads me to state that this was the work, I think, which most missed the absence of a conductor, the guiding hand and ear which would have enabled more clarity to the textures and a bit more shape to the overall design of the performance – in places I wanted keener attention to phrasing, and less reliance on speed (inappropriate in the cathedral’s potentially treacherous acoustic)…….

But it’s for the Farr work that this concert will be most readily remembered – one that I’m sure we won’t have heard the last of. I for one would welcome the chance to hear it again and enjoy those moments of wide-ranging intensity in the context of a beautifully-constructed whole.

Innovative and fitting celebration of Kiri Te Kanawa with New Zealand Festival: a full MFC

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Voices New Zealand, Terence Dennis (pianist) and conductor Karen Grylls

A New Day – a choral improvisation (Voices New Zealand)
David Hamilton: Un noche de Verano (Voices)
Jake Heggie: Newer Every Day – Emily Dickinson poems (Kiri)
Fauré: Cantique de Jean Racine (Voices)
Mozart: Laudate Domium from Solemn Vespers, K 339 (Kiri and Voices)
Heggie: Monologue from Masterclass (Kiri)
Brahms: Four Quartets, Op 92 (Voices)
Schubert: Ständchen, D 920 (Kiri and Voices)
Johann Strauss II – Benatzky: Nuns’ Chorus from Casanova (Kiri and Voices)
Te Rangi Pai: Hine e hine (Kiri)

Michael Fowler Centre

Sunday 13 March, 6 pm

The Michael Fowler Centre was full for the Sunday early evening concert. A song recital with a few contributions from a local choir would not ordinarily have filled St Andrew’s on The Terrace; the name Kiri Te Kanawa changed everything.

Very few singers are still in business over 70 years of age (Joan Sutherland stopped in 1990, aged 64, and I suspect that even if age was starting to tell in the voice or the appearance (which really it is not) this remarkable singer would still pull them in. It’s a combination of a singularly beautiful voice, a charming and outwardly modest personality and an instinct for presenting a programme with conviction, even though on paper it looked interesting rather than compelling.

For indeed, the programme was hardly orthodox. If you expected, from one of the world’s great opera singers a handful of popular arias plus a couple of unfamiliar though worthwhile items, some well-loved choruses and ensembles from opera or oratorio, making use of the choir; then a couple of groups of German lieder and French songs by famous composers, you’d be disappointed.

But the applause, even between the short songs in a cycle, and the standing ovation at the end, probably showed that most of the audience was there for the name rather than their musical knowledge; it would have been the same whatever she sang.

On the other hand, the programme showed much thought and considerable pains had been taken with the stage presentation, especially the opening where the auditorium was plunged into darkness as choir members murmuring very quietly, crept down the aisles; secretively, they began to sing ‘a choral improvisation’ devised by conductor Grylls and the choir’s vocal coach Robert Wiremu, quoting phrases from ‘All through the Night’ and ‘Early one Morning just as the Sun was Rising’ and others. As lights rose the choir’s singing turned into David Hamilton’s a cappella setting of ‘Una noche de verano’ by Spanish poet Antonio Machado. Its haunting quality was enhanced by the sounding of a singing bowl, akin to such instruments as the glass harmonica.

The more conventional part of the concert began with a cycle of songs commissioned from composer Jake Heggie: set to poems of Kiri’s choice; she chose Emily Dickinson, and she spoke naturally about her affection for Dickinson’s poetry. (Heggie’s operas include Dead Man Walking, The End of the Affair and Moby Dick). The settings were engaging, sometimes droll, witty, touching, and Kiri’s performances with Terence Dennis’s exact reflections at the piano, caught their intimacy and disarming character, accompanied with appropriate, natural gestures. The last song, ‘Goodnight’, sort of mocking the convention of the endless reiteration in many an opera aria, very keen-eyed.

The choir sang Fauré’s much-loved Cantique de Jean Racine, in gentle, slightly uninteresting tones. Here, the absence of an orchestra mattered somewhat, even though Dennis’s accompaniment was as sensitive as possible.

The first half ended with the ‘Laudate Dominum’ from Mozart’s Solemn Vespers, for choir and soprano, a favourite that age (of neither the music nor the singer) does not dim. If the absence of opera arias (apart from the encore) was conspicuous, this wonderful sacred solo offered evidence of the still beautiful voice, smaller and less voluptuous perhaps, but still capable of touching the emotions. Her dress too gave little hint of passing years: white blouse with summery, striped skirt, perfectly suiting a singer who, from mid stalls at least, might have been approaching her fifties: she was animated, looking almost youthful.

Another of Heggie’s notable compositions began the second half: the Monologue from Terence McNally’s play, Masterclass, inspired by Maria Callas’s famous 1972 masterclasses in New York. It’s a moving little masterpiece, richly reflecting the lessons of age that might perhaps apply as well to Dame Kiri as they had to Callas. Expressed and dramatized by this evening’s diva with quiet humour and belief; one line stuck in my mind: ‘The older I get the less I know’. Like much else in the concert, a great deal resonated with the experience of aging which would have touched a lot of the audience, including your reviewer. She spoke too about the work of her foundation, which provides valued guidance and tutoring to many young New Zealand singers.

Then the choir returned to sing Four Quartets for four voices, Op 92 to Brahms. It was an opus of songs written at different times, to poems by different poets, which Brahms collected and published in 1884. The first is by Georg Friedrich Daumer, the poet of the Liebeslieder waltzes; and the others by Hermann Allmers, Hebbel and Goethe. All use imagery of the night to conjure feelings of fragility and the passing of time. The acoustic of the auditorium, perhaps dampened by the curtain behind, tended to reduce the impact of the occasional rises in the emotion expressed by the choir, which were singing with great sensibility and insight, and there was the subtle, illuminating piano accompaniment.

Schubert wrote several Ständchen (serenades). This was not the most famous one, much arranged for all manner of voices and instruments. Opus D 920, set to a poem by Grillparzer, as beautiful, if not of similar, anthologising quality, was written originally for baritone and men’s chorus; but Schubert also scored it for soprano and women’s chorus, which is how it was sung. I was a little surprised that Kiri sang this reasonably familiar piece using the score. And again, my attention was particularly caught by Terence Dennis’s sparkling and thoughtful playing the of colourful piano part.

Kiri has made something of a signature piece of the Nuns’ Chorus (‘Nun’s’ in the programme! I noticed more than one nun singing in the chorus), almost from the beginning of her career. The melody by Johann Strauss II was not from a waltz or an operetta, but written some 20 years before his venture into the theatre in 1871. It was spotted about 80 years later by Ralph Benatzky (most famous for his Im weissen Rössl – At the Whitehorse Inn) and included, along with other music by Strauss, in the pasticcio operetta, Casanova, which went down well in the Berlin of the Weimar Republic. It was given imaginative theatrical treatment, though it didn’t quite conjure the atmosphere of Viennese (or here, Berlin) operetta.

The concert ended with the predicable Hine e hine; repeated as a second encore after the first encore, the only operatic offering of the evening: ‘O mio babbino caro’ from Gianni Schicchi. And there was long applause, with most of the audience eventually standing.

I should have commented earlier on the excellence of the programme book, which sets a good example with intelligent biographies of Te Kanawa, Dennis, Grylls, as well as interesting musicological and other details about the pieces. The nature and origin of the Fauré chorus and the ‘Laudate Dominum’ were simply described; Jake Heggie’s two pieces were placed in context; the pithy note on Schubert’s Ständchen might have commented on his settings of the other songs with that name; the provenance of the Nuns’ Chorus was clearly attributed; and dates were employed usefully throughout: not a strong point among many annotators.

But you have to go elsewhere (Wikipedia the most accessible) to refresh your memory about Dame Kiri’s origin. Typically, the biography is coy about her birth: born in Gisborne, Claire Mary Teresa Rawstron, on 6 March 1944. (after all, the note on Newer every day disclosed that it had been commissioned for her 70th birthday in 2014). Why doesn’t the feminist movement insist that birth dates of female personalities are routinely published in the same way as men’s are?

In all a splendid recognition of one of New Zealand’s true international celebrities.


Exploratory and interesting offerings from the engaging Duo Tapas

Duo Tapas: Rupa Maitra – violin and Owen Moriarty – guitar

Pachelbel: Chaconne in D minor (arr. Anton Hoger)
Telemann: Sonata in A minor TWV 41 (arr. Edward Grigassy)
Granados: Spanish Dances, Op 37, Nos 2 and 11 (arr. Vesa Kuokannen)
Alan Thomas: From The Balkan Songbook: Haj Mene Majka, The Shepherd’s Dream, Sivi Grivi

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 9 March, 12:15 pm

Duo Tapas have been long-standing ornaments at St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts and are enterprising in the range of music they find to perform. That of course is due mainly to the lack of music written specifically for the two instruments, although the pair lend themselves readily to music for violin and piano and for the guitar, accompanying many other instruments.

Unusually, they began with a piece by Pachelbel for organ which might have seemed a stretch. The result was far from it as so much baroque music does not seem to be designed with particular instrumental sounds in mind. (which, dare I say, often makes our generation’s obsession with authentic performance, using instruments that get as close as possible to those of the period, seem a bit precious). To start with, the melodic characteristics of this chaconne reminded one of his famous Canon; but it went much further, to elaborate the themes more fancifully than happens in the Canon, so demonstrating that Pachelbel was not only more than a one-hit wonder, but a worthy contemporary of Bach’s predecessors such as Buxtehude (he was Buxtehude’s contemporary, of the generation of Corelli, Purcell, Alessandro Scarlatti, Biber, Charpentier, Marin Marais…).

The music breathed, and seemed to relish the experience of instruments that so clarified and illuminated the sounds as the violin and guitar did.  Sure, it wasn’t Bach, but an awareness of the mind and the sounds of Bach did not work to its detriment.

Telemann was born 30 years after Pachelbel, and lived most of his life in the northern parts of Germany – Saxony, Thuringia, Hamburg – and he was immensely prolific. The sonata, TWV 41 was originally for oboe and continuo and again sounded charming as arranged, though I suspect that the slow, lyrical Siciliana first movement might have been more beguiling with an oboe. This, and indeed all the movements were short, without much embellishment or repetition of the tunes.

The second movement was entitled simply Spirituoso , more lively with the two players exploiting the light and shade with fluency and warmth even though the guitar had little more than a routine accompaniment to handle. The Andante did rather create the feeling of a stroll through shady woods, the recipe for relief from the busy life as musical director of Hamburg’s five main churches (the breathtaking baroque interior of St Michaelis adorns the desktop of my computer; I ticked off all five churches in a visit a few years ago).  Though the Vivace movement was lively enough, it was also vapid and forgettable; the performance however drew even more from the music than was really there.

Two of Granados’s Spanish Dances were much more enjoyable. No 2, Orientale and No 11, Zambra were both familiar; these were the high point of the recital. In the enchanting Orientale the violin generates a particularly warm, liquid atmosphere with its beguiling melodies while the guitar unobtrusively supported her in elegant arpeggios. In the Zambra, Maitra’s dark, sensuous violin maintained a sombre quality through music that was superficially more spirited, and while Moriarty’s guitar was confined in the main to arpeggios, but he took advantage of a lively repeat of the main tune in the middle section. Granados’s music is rather neglected these days: as well as the popular No 5, Andaluza, most of this set of twelve dances deserve to be more played. And I am reminded of the fine 1998 Meridian recording by Richard Mapp of a good selection of the piano music.

The web-site of American guitarist/composer Alan Thomas shows that his ‘work-in-progress’ The Balkan Songbook has eleven pieces in it so far. The Duo played three of them. Haj Mene Majka (which Google Translate shows as Croatian, meaning ‘Hi my mother’) certainly has the character of peasant Croatian music with its fast South Slavic decorations, and the apostrophe to the composer’s mother is arresting rather than affectionate.

The Shepherd’s Dream starts with the violin alone and slowly swells beyond the dream state; this too is described in the notes as Croatian, though introduced with a few words of W B Yeats, ‘And I dreamed my lost love came stealthily out of the wood’. (It’s from ‘He tells of a valley full of lovers’ from the collection The Wind among the Reeds. I was impressed that the composer was so familiar with the huge body of Yeats’s poetry that he could light upon this).  And indeed, the words seem to align with the music which slowly diminishes and ceases.

Sivi Grivi was said to be based on a Bulgarian dance, but the ever-reliable Google Translate identified the words as Slovenian, meaning ‘Gray mane’. The guitar begins with a hesitant meandering; the violin soon joins to create a dance rhythm of increasing energy to an exciting finish.

As always, I found this musical duo interesting, musical and exploratory, with a nice mixture of the known and the unknown; just the thing for midday, leaving the rest of the day to reflect and explore further.


Brass Poppies – ordinary people at war

The New Zealand Festival 2016 presents:
BRASS POPPIES (Ross Harris – music / Vincent O’Sullivan – libretto)

James Egglestone (William Malone)
Sarah Court (Mrs Malone)
Robert Tucker ( Tommo)
Anna Leese (Mary / Luck)
Jonathan Eyers (Billy)
Madison Nonoa (Joyce)
Wade Kernot (Fred)
Mary Newman-Pound (Lucy)
Andrew Glover (Turk/Patriot)
Benjamin Mitchell, Taniora Rangi Motutere (dancers)

Jonathan Alver (director)
Maaka Pepene (choreographer)
Jon Baxter (AV design)
Jason Morphett (lighting)
Elizabeth Whiting (costuming)

Hamish McKeich (conductor)
Stroma New Music Ensemble

Shed 6, Wellington

Thursday 3rd March 2016

Poet Vincent O’Sullivan and composer Ross Harris have collaborated on no less than eleven words-and-music works since 2002, the most recent being the chamber opera “Brass Poppies”. The work received its premiere at Shed 6 in Wellington last week, and after finishing a four-night season has gone on to Auckland’s Mercury Theatre where it will play for two more nights later this week.

Though the opera was actually completed by O’Sullivan and Harris before their previous Festival presentation Requiem for the Fallen, was given in 2014, it effectively complements the latter. Brass Poppies treats the subject of war and its effect upon people in a remarkably intimate and personalized way. While the Requiem was notable for its diversity of means (string quartet, brass and percussion, various taonga puoro, chamber choir and tenor solo), the opera, though no less telling in its impact on the listener, is more “conventionally” written for voices and chamber ensemble.

Harris commented in an interview beforehand that he thought the work had more in common with Stephen Sondheim and Kurt Weill, rather than with “conventional” opera. It seemed to me that there were a few such influences, consciously or otherwise applied – for example the meeting of the young soldier, Billy and the young girl Joyce at the dance I thought reminiscent of the meeting of the young lovers in “West Side Story” – and the all-pervading dance-rhythms which drove the opening scenes so surely and buoyantly seemed also to me to draw from the composer’s involvement with things like Klezmer music. Particularly affecting was Tatiana Lanchtchikova’s accordion-playing, rhythmic pulsings and harmonic flavorings which conjured up a bitter-sweet ambience that flavoured the whole ensemble’s music-making throughout.

O’Sullivan’s libretto, though an anti-war statement, never thumps a tub, or loads the scenario with suffering or horror of a cathartic kind – his words have the lightest of touches, with everything insinuated or suggested at the start, and stated simply and poetically at the end. And Harris’s music does the same, the lyrical lines and dance rhythms keeping the narrative flow on the move, and maintaining forward movement even when, in places, suggesting the gentlest of  pulsatings amid the silences. And so the sense of tragedy is heightened for us, because the lives and circumstances of the four soldiers are so very like ours, easily identifiable with – and yet somehow the monstrousness of what they and their families are drawn into is conveyed, the “snuffing out” of lives on a hitherto unprecedented scale is numbingly registered.

It’s the kind of thing that Wilfred Owen wrote about in his poem “Anthem for Doomed Youth” with the words –

“The pallor of girls, brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.”

Together at the opera’s beginning, the soldiers and their families (represented by the women) are taken away from the ordinariness of their lives and gradually drawn into different worlds, each replete with remembrances of and longings for what was and might be again – at the beginning we heard rhetorical-sounding statements, deeply-felt but already with a hollow ring, such as  “This is what we’re fighting for”, and similarly-felt exchanges between the couples “What we told each other we remember”. When parted, the dialogues (via letters) took on the poignancy of  separation and the mutually-shared hope that “luck” would keep the men company and keep them safe, a spirit characterized by one of the women as a “presence” circulating among the men at Gallipoli.

Such sentiments were, of course, lump-in-the-throat in effect, as were the longings expressed for a “return to what was”‘ on both sides. One husband-and-wife exchange was shared by both singers, one taking over the words of the letter from the other; while another soldier’s letter recalled memories of walking with his girl in orchards filled with apples – he then made reference to walking under a different kind of orchard, those of the stars overhead at Gallpoli. It was all very heartfelt on a deeply personal and individual scale, with hopes, fears, sorrows and resignation gently brought together in a wholly natural way.

A jingoistic note was expressed by a British Empire figure repeating vainglorious cliches of valour and sacrifice, set against verses whose words underlined the cynicism of the “victory” rhetoric, as did the ditty about the Kings “in their counting houses, counting out their money”, making something fairytale-like from out of the turmoil and tragedy. All of this struck such hollow resonances as the soldiers, all having been killed by this time, countered these sentiments by announcing  the grim finality of their position with the words “we’re not likely to change our minds as the grass keeps growing” – and later, commenting on “the deep snows of forgetting”. Emotions ran in parallel, the women in mourning and the shades of the soldiers (sightless to their bereaved partners) in lament for what has been lost, with the women singing of the subsequent evenings as “silent as a shattered gun”. The quiet interlocking of thought and emotion, and the avoidance of overt, visceral grief gives oceans of realm for  individual feeling to well up and flood the spaces, so that we in the audience were overcome with the cruel emptiness of it all, on both sides.

Describing his words for the libretto as “only the scaffolding for something bigger” O’Sullivan paid tribute to his collaborator’s music, though to this listener’s ears what came across was a tapestried amalgam of words and music, wrought  out of similar impulses. The music, as strongly as did the words, told us who these people were – ordinary people being asked to go and perform in extraordinary situations. So Harris’s music was catchy and recognizable and readily identifiable – period pieces, such as waltzes, marches and other different dance-forms, the music of the people, so to speak. The rhythmic verve of the dance was physical in its impact, and its sudden changes of metre both ironic and volatile in its effect. I thought I heard those Klezmer touches on various occasions, the genre’s intrinsic bitter-sweet ambiences here very much to the point.

Director Jonathan Alver’s staging of the work made creative theatrical use of the ostensibly unpromising Shed 6 venue. I hadn’t heard any live music there previously, so my first reaction to encountering what seemed to be such “barn-of-a-place” surroundings was of dismay – fortunately, these concerns weren’t realized in performance. The clarity of both vocal and instrumental lines was, I thought,  exemplary, though the surtitles played their part in clarifying lines throughout the more concerted singing passages. Balance between singers and instrumentalists seemed well-nigh perfect, with conductor and players being visible “on stage” throughout, over to one side rather than down in a pit of any kind – part of the work’s choreography of movement.

The production wasn’t “in the round” as the Requiem of two years ago had been in Wellington Cathedral – this was more conventionally staged, with singers and dancers appearing on a stage via entrances diagonally placed between column-like walls on which were projected various scenes and scenarios. In this way the singers and dancers seemed to come in from the midst of whatever scheme was projected onto the surfaces of the columns, and in places return to them via their exits, which I thought worked beautifully as an idea – no more poignantly than when the soldiers took their leave of their women through exits framed by contemporary photographs of freshly-enlisted men in uniform marching down Lambton Quay in Wellington. Besides the four couples and the Turkish figure / British patriot character, there were also two sprite-like dancers whose movements expressed both gentleness and strength, delicacy and vigour, the latter sometimes combatative and warlike. Costumes were simple – khaki uniforms for the men, period dresses for the women, as expected. After the soldiers were each killed they remained as “presences” on stage, haunting their women, though not being able to communicate – very simple and powerful.

This was very much an ensemble opera, though with a number of stand-out vocal moments for individual voices. The conversations among the characters were as significant as were the individual soliloquies, each acting as a foil for the other, though the solo sequences tended to “carry” the more profound utterances. The couples interacted with admirable ease and fluency, each with a particular character, from the tremulousness of the two youngsters, Joyce (Madison Nonoa) and Billy (Jonathan Eyres), to the no-nonsense working-class codes and understandings used by Fred (Wade Kernot) and Lucy (Mary Newman-Pound). Australian tenor James Egglestone as Captain William Malone relished his occasional stentorian moments, though most memorable was his tender interaction with his wife (Sara Court), particularly during the reading of a letter home, the husband taking over from the wife halfway through with the reading  – it was all a perfectly-tailored piece of give-and-take.

Robert Tucker (as Tommo) beautifully put across his letter/song which recalled memories of the apple orchard where he courted Mary (Anna Leese), and making the most of his declaration of surprise and resignation at looking upwards at a different kind of orchard at Anzac Cove – the night sky. As for Anna Leese, her strong-willed Mary, vigorous and feisty, “morphed” this character at one point in the story with Lady Luck, a female personification of good fortune, taking it upon herself to circulate among the Allied soldiers, singing about the “mantel of luck”, in between wordless chantings, everything beautifully and lyrically sounded. Again, one got the sense of the impact made on individuals, with Mary’s description of an excursion up to Brooklyn an almost Janus-faced aspect of her “Luck” persona by association – things that ordinary men and women would think of and hold onto in extraordinary situations, and expressed in a naturalistic context. FInally, Andrew Glover made the most of his cameo-like opportunities as the ghost-like Turkish soldier and the British patriot, enigmatic figures at opposite spectrum-ends.

Every instrumental sound was vividly realized by the Stroma Ensemble under Hamish McKeich’s direction – the musical realizations played their part in enhancing the production’s consistently underplayed yet powerful inner resonances. It’s one whose message will continue to resound, and repay revisiting.

Enchantments of baroque instrumental combinations: Archi d’amore trio

Archi d’amore Zelanda (Donald Maurice – viola d’amore, Jane Curry – guitar, Emma Goodbehere – cello)

Vivaldi: Largo from Concerto for viola d’amore and guitar, RV540
Piazzolla: Café 1930
Michael Willliams: Fugue
François de Fossa: Sonata No 1 in A (from Op 18)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 2 March, 12:15 pm

I last heard this trio in October last year in the Adam Concert Room at Victoria University where I was taken with the unexpectedly charming effects of the combination of three instruments, none of which demand attention to itself at the expense of the music or of each other.

The Ryom catalogue of Vivaldi’s works lists eight concertos including the viola d’amore, and this is the only one that is scored for the lute as well as the viola d’amore. Many of the pieces played by a group of this kind necessarily involve arrangements, but here we could enjoy the most minimal of translations from lute to guitar. The performance of R540 captured the singularly opulent tone of the viola d’amore, the effect of the large number of strings – 14 – half of which are passive resonating strings, threaded through the lower part of the bridge and not played. Its play of sounds with the guitar was enchanting.

Though it is still fashionable to deprecate – ever so slightly – Vivaldi’s music on account of its Telemann-like profusion and its to-be-expected stylistic similarities, one listens to it, always, with pleasure and admiration, and in my case, more than Telemann.

Then came Piazzolla’s four-movement Histoire du Tango: the second part, Café 1930. It begins with the guitar alone, wistfully; and the viola d’amore’s entry, so lyrical and idiomatic, removed it from the Buenos Aires café to a French café with the sensual tango tamed to a more sedate character. It’s music for the heart rather than the feet, Donald Maurice remarked, for by 1930 the tango had become a more sophisticated that the bordello music of the turn of the century, music to listen to, interesting and involving.

They had a new piece to play, Fugue, composed for them by Hamilton composer Michael Williams; they’d premiered it the week before in Bangkok. It opened sounding like a very traditional fugue with a useful diatonic tune, shifting in the middle to a lively phase, never striving for anything resembling an avant-garde or strenuously ‘original’ character. It formed a nice link between Piazzolla’s Latin idiom and their next step back to the early 19th century.

François de Fossa’s name cropped up earlier last year in a St Andrew’s concert by a trio of Jane Curry, with saxophonist Simon Brew and flutist Rebecca Steel. There they played a trio in A minor.

This time the piece was listed as a sonata, No 1 in A, and though I could not recall the music played last year, I suspect it was the same ‘Trio in A, Op 18’ played then: the four movements shown in today’s programme were the same as those shown in the Wikipedia partial list of his works, for Op 18 No 1.

In any case, after recording my impressions of this performance, I found they were very similar to what I wrote ten months ago, though I’m sure that the present combination sounded more authentic and convincing than the adaptation for saxophone which, while interesting, did not altogether persuade me. Here, I was quite won over both by the warmth and femininity of the viola d’amore combining with guitar and cello, especially in the Largo where the three ebbed and flowed so charmingly from one to another. Though the cello’s role was essentially a ‘continuo’ one, there were surprising little flourishes occasionally.