English anthems straddling 1600 offer rich and satisfying concert from voices and viols

‘This is the Record of John’
English Verse Anthems for voices and viols
Music by William Byrd, Peter Philips, Thomas Campion, Thomas Tomkins, John Amner, Orlando Gibbons, John Ward

Baroque Voices (leader: Pepe Becker; and Anna Sedcole, Katherine Hodge, Jeffrey Chang, Phillip Collins, David Houston)
Palliser Viols (leader: Robert Oliver; and Lisa Beech, Sophia Acheson, Jane Brown, Sue Alexander, Kevin Wilkinson)
Douglas Mews (harpsichord)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 29 May, 7:30 pm

Verse anthems are the English equivalents of the Latin or French motet or Lutheran cantata.

They were not just an early music genre, but continued to be composed till modern times. The Bach Choir recently sang an English verse anthem, in Parry’s Hear my Words, Ye People. In Tudor times they were particularly prolific. All of the anthems and harpsichord pieces in this concert came from the Elizabethan and Stuart periods, though Tomkins survived into the time of Cromwell’s Protestant Commonwealth.

The concert began with compositions of a couple of less familiar composers whose music has barely escaped disappearance: John Ward and John Amner. Each opened with the gorgeous sound of the viol ensemble of two trebles, three tenors and Robert Oliver himself on the bass viol, followed by the entry of voices, their numbers varying between five and six. Both pieces could have been written by the same composer; perhaps designed for singing by amateurs, to create a cheerful, harmonious atmosphere in a salon where cultivated people could enjoy themselves. Some of the pieces could have been as part of the church liturgy.

One can imagine different settings for the various pieces presented, according to the subject, whether distinctly religious or not. If not for liturgical purpose, did listeners have to be silent during the performance? Did they clap after each piece ended?

Ward’s piece was slow and meditative and apparently not drawn from a Biblical source while Amner used words from a Psalm, I am for peace. Robert Oliver’s programme note provided interesting background to the likely settings and purposes of anthems over the years.

The concert was punctuated by three non-vocal pieces. The first of them, Passamezzo Pavan à 6, was by Peter Philips, for viols; it was more spirited than the preceding vocal pieces. Another anthem, probably by Ward, followed: Mount up my Soul, where the tenor had a prominent part. A further piece by Ward came after the interval: How long wilt thou forgive me, set at a steady tempo to charmingly fluent music, for the usual two sopranos and one each of the other three voices.

There was a set of three pieces by Thomas Campion, songs to his own words (he was an admired poet as well as composer), rather than anthems, though the first two had religious subjects, of a kind: Never the weather-beaten sail and Author of Light. One had to admit that the words were strikingly more poetic, imaginative and picturesque than one finds in 99% of routine Protestant hymns. The third song, Jack and Joan, was clearly for two single voices, Pepe Becker and Philip Collins (I assume), and displaying much more of a popular, folk song spirit.

The first of two anthems by Orlando Gibbons supplied the title given to the concert: ‘This is the record of John’. The notes did not reveal the source of the words; they presumably refer to John the Baptist. Though I am no Biblical scholar, the reference to the voice crying in the wilderness is from either Isaiah or John’s gospel; in the latter: “John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet: ‘I am a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.'”. Thus it was probably intended for church use. Here, I had thought more could have been made of its narrative character, enlivening the direct speech quotations by a pause and change of tone between question and answer.

Gibbons’s second item was See, See the World Incarnate. Its musical character indeed supported Oliver’s rating it as a masterpiece; the alto’s voice was very distinct and the several vocal lines interwove engagingly. Although the musical invention continually held my attention, I was struck by what I felt was an odd, even inappropriate, relationship sometimes between the words and the music to which they were set, as if Gibbons was pursuing a musical idea regardless of the words’ meaning.

Thomas Tomkins was a near contemporary of Campion. His verse anthem, ‘Above the stars my savior dwells’, is a charmingly simple text, though richly set with soprano and tenor prominent through most of it, and employing a second tenor voice in the last couplet.

It was preceded by a Pavan and galliard à 6 by Tomkins, which, I might note here included all six viols plus the harpsichord of Douglas Mews, whose unobtrusive, carefully idiomatic playing was probably more important than that of any one of the viols. The pavan is a stately dance, the galliard somewhat quicker, and here was an opportunity to hear the generally impressive skills of each player.

The third instrumental piece was an organ Fantasy by Byrd which Mews played on the chamber organ. Though it began with only a pure flute stop, it became more complex in terms of registrations, harmony and canonical devices, ornaments and flamboyant scalic flourishes through its considerable length.

Finally, voices and viols joined for Byrd’s Christ is rising again – Christ is risen. But unfortunately, I had great difficulty in facing the need to leave before it, to catch a train, or have an hour’s wait for the next. It was especially painful in the light of the notes’ description of it as a “magnificent pair of verse anthems …a superb example of Byrd’s transcendent and unexcelled art”.

This was a most satisfying concert, confined, to be sure, to just one genre and one national school during hardly more than a half century, but bearing such evidence of the richness of English music, not to be seen again (apart from the momentary brilliance of Purcell) till the 20th century.


Youth Choir farewell concert before tour to Europe and a competition in Czech Republic

Farewell Concert
New Zealand Youth Choir, conducted by David Squire

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill Street

Sunday, 29 May 2016, 3pm

The choir is shortly to depart on an overseas tour, mainly in Europe and the United Kingdom, and including a choral competition in the Czech Republic. This was one of two farewell concerts; the other is to be in Auckland on 26 June.

There were plenty of people to wish the choir well on its travels – virtually a capacity audience. The concert began with the choir slowly processing into the cathedral singing plainchant that was a combination of Latin and Maori: ‘Te lucis ante terminum’ plus a karanga. It was very unusual but effective. The voices were resonant and the choir’s enunciation was superb, though it was difficult to hear words because of the mixture of languages.

The choir continued in Maori with the action song ‘Te iwi e’ by the Wehi whanau. It was exciting, words and actions utterly precise, most enthusiastically performed and received. The programme items were introduced by Morag Atchison, vocal consultant to the choir which sang the entire repertoire without music scores.

We then reverted to the Latin, in a 1613 antiphon by Peter Phillips (or Philips) ‘Ecce vicit leo’. Part of the choir sang from the gallery, the remainder from the front of the church. Despite this physical distance, the choir’s timing was perfect, and the effect splendid. Felix Mendelssohn wrote much music with Christian texts; here we had ‘Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe’, a Youth Choir favourite. It made a rich sound, and there was great attention to correct pronunciation of the German language, which could be heard to good effect in this building (compared with some others). However, I did not find the soloists (from the choir) pleasing in tone or voice production; it seemed that they were forcing their voices at times.

New Zealand’s premier choral composer, David Hamilton (a former choir member) was represented by his recent composition ‘Angele Dei’. The choir was distributed on three sides of the cathedral. The musical setting was gorgeous. The basses were near my seat, and sang vibrant low pianissimo notes – spine-tingling. Although the blend of the choir was impressive, this is not a white sound; the voices have tone, movement and variety of quality. Attacks and cut-offs were immaculate throughout the concert, as was intonation; all items except one were unaccompanied. All the features of a fine choir were here, yet these singers rehearse together for only a few weeks each year.

Of the 49 singers, many are still students, while others work in a variety of occupations. The traditional regional roll-call found that the largest number from a single location were Wellingtonians (either residents or at university here).

We moved back in time again, to Peter Cornelius’s ‘Chorgesänge’. The nineteenth-century composer’s piece featured solo tenor Manase Latu. What a fine voice he has! The choir, for its part, was in utter unanimity in its dynamic variations and all produced a good forward tone. A feature of their singing in a number of items was the singing of resonant, sustained letters n, m, and l at the ends of words.

A work by Tuirina Wehi, arranged by Robert Wiremu followed. This was a major composition, commemorating the battle in what was known as Te Kooti’s war: ‘Waerenga-a-Hika’ It was sung in English and Maori, representing opposing forces of the 1865 battle. Natasha Wilson was soloist; she has a strong but musical voice, and can produce all the subtleties of Maori vocal style. It was not possible to pick up all the English words because they were overlaid with Maori ones, but the effect was dramatic. The textures became very thick, in a satisfying way. It was an amazing performance; all the more so because the choir was at the front of the church, while conductor David Squire stood towards the back.

After the interval, Vaughan Williams: ‘Full fathom five’, ‘The cloud-capp’d towers’, and ‘Over hill, over dale’, which the choir sang previously in Wellington during the 2014 New Zealand Festival, were performed. Vaughan Williams’s mellifluous writing was enhanced by the subtlety of the choir’s performance and the ‘ding dong’ bells in the first song were very resonant. The second song is one I simply love – the pianissimo harmonies are so luscious; it was sung to excellent effect. Contrasting with that, ‘Over hill, over dale’ sparkled.

Something I noticed about this concert compared with orchestral concerts – and it may be partly because there are words to listen to – was that the audience was more attentive. Coughing was very rare. Another important factor in this concert was the pleasant, involved facial expressions of the choir members– not overdone, but unlike those of some choirs I have heard, whose members look absent, as if they would rather be somewhere else.

Matthew Harris is a contemporary American composer. His setting of ‘O mistress mine’ was charming, while Canadian R. Murray Schafer’s ‘Epitaph for Moonlight’, with words by a group of 12-year-olds, had a number of aural effects of various kinds. The choir was spread around the church again, this time on all four sides. The opening humming by the women was in descending tones and semi-tones. The sustaining of quiet tones was remarkable. Some of the louder singing became rather shrill, if they were right behind one!

New Zealand composer Sarah McCallum (a former member of the choir) was the composer of the next song, ‘The moon’s glow once lit”. It began with women humming, then moving to words in harmony. The men join in, this time unusually on the right with the women on the left. It is a thoughtful song, with interesting harmonies and piquant, affecting melodies. It portrayed well an atmosphere of night-time under the moon’s glow.

Eric Whitacre is a prolific and successful American choral composer. His ‘Little man in a hurry’ was an amusing perpetuum mobile choral song with an equally busy and lively piano accompaniment, played by Dean Sky-Lucas.

The final item was a traditional spiritual ‘This little light of mine’, arranged by Moses Hogan, and sung with good Afro-American style and pronunciation. Soprano Natasha Wilson was again the soloist, strong, but beautiful. The arrangement was quite fantastical, and made a rousing end to the concert. An enthusiastic standing ovation from the audience led inevitably to an encore: a bluesy American song, ‘The nearness of you’, beginning ‘It’s not the pale moon that excites me’, by Norah Jones.

Good programming of great music, superb control, discipline and skill of conductor and choir added up to a memorable night’s experience. Go well in Europe, New Zealand Youth Choir!


The Magic Flute in brilliant production, with mainly New Zealand cast of polish and energy

The Magic Flute (Mozart)
New Zealand Opera

Conductor: Wyn Davies
Director: Sara Brodie; Assistant director: Jacqueline Coats
Set and props designer: John Verryt; costume designer: Elizabeth Whiting; Lighting designer: Paul Lim; Sound designer: Jason Smith

Cast: Tamino: Randall Bills; Pamina: Emma Fraser; Papageno: Samuel Dundas;
Queen of the Night: Ruth Jenkins-Robertson; The Speaker/Armed Man/Priest: James Clayton;
Three Ladies: Amelia Berry, Catrin Johnsson, Kristin Darragh
Monostatos: Bonaventure Allan-Moetaua; Papagena: Madison Nonoa; Priest/Armed Man: Derek Hill; Three Boys (Genii): Barbara Graham, Katherine McIndoe, Kayla Collingwood

St James Theatre

Saturday 28 May, 7:30 pm

This production that has engaged a number of young and highly promising New Zealand singers (only three from overseas), was probably among the most spectacular (and expensive I imagine) ever seen in New Zealand. Happily, it also succeeded in capturing the essential qualities of this hybrid work. It combines singspiel, comic opera, mime, vaudeville, employing a text that mixes Masonic ritual and ancient Egyptian religion, a touch of Christianity with the Enlightenment in an intellectual atmosphere bred of French revolutionary politics.

There was a pretty full house and the audience was highly responsive to the entire performance.

After conductor Wyn Davies conducted Orchestra Wellington through a spacious, strong and careful overture the curtain, which has slowly turned from a deep star-spangled blue to speckled gold, rises to reveal a bed on which the shape of a body appears, and from under it a large serpent emerges. We guess it’s Prince Tamino, and he half-wakes to find the serpent and cries for help.

Three women (‘Damen’ or Ladies) in the most brilliant, sparkling costumes, slits to the hip, arrive in the nick of time, kill the serpent with their javelins and then begin to perform ‘sexually offensive’ acts on the apparently still-sleeping Tamino. He fails to notice.

The Three Ladies were sung by three New Zealand singers, soprano Amelia Berry from Wellington, now in New York; mezzo Katrin Johnsson, born Sweden, now in Auckland; and mezzo Kristin Darragh, Aucklander, resident in Germany; they had powerful presence, their voices were well contrasted, vocally strong and well projected; their costumes were sparkling, nocturnal, and I haven’t seen three more impressive or alluring Ladies in the many productions I’ve seen. (Their name has been victim of PC-ness: ‘Lady’ is now verboten. In a review for The Evening Post, probably of the 1999 production, a subeditor changed my words to ‘The Three Women’).

Anyway, it was a highly amusing start.

Australian Samuel Dundas’s arrival brought another vivid character in the shape of Papageno; he’s a singer absolutely born for the role, making good use of genuine Ozzie swagger in demeanour, rough wit and vocal expression, both in his dialogue and his commanding self-introduction, ‘Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja’. His role is by nature the most colourful of the opera; all eyes were drawn to him. (It’s not surprising that he’s sung Dr Malatesta in Don Pasquale and Belcore in L’elisir d’amore, no doubt highly praised).

And then the exchange with Tamino, American tenor, Randall Bills, about the dead serpent which Papageno claims to have killed with bare hands, and is punished by the Ladies who padlock his mouth, for lying. It’s a very animated scene in which the staging calls attention to itself, with two big, leafless trees on either side, their branches interwoven to form a bridge across the stage, useful in several later scenes, for example, for the Three Boys to ensure human decency and to act as saviours.

Here, after the Ladies have shown him an image (four huge You-Tube style photos) of the Princess Pamina, Tamino sings his ‘Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernt schön’. Though in English, which I thought a pity, as almost all the memorable arias and ensembles are thoroughly familiar in German and sounded odd in English, and we still needed the useful surtitles at least for some of the singers. Though I must say that the words were much more understandable than usually in opera, perhaps in part helped by the hard surfaces of the sets. Furthermore, the translation, no matter how apt, often fitted ill with the rhythms and shapes of the music.

But though a lovely aria, sensitively performed, ‘Dies Bildnis…’ was not quite strong enough to draw attention away from Papageno or the Three Ladies. (Bills has sung at Leipzig Opera, with New York City Opera, the Rossini Festival at Pesaro and several other smaller German houses).

The Queen v. Sarastro
British coloratura from the North of England, Ruth Jenkins-Robertsson then arrives, as The Queen of the Night, glitteringly garbed, and recognizes in Tamino a candidate for a rescue operation to recover her daughter Pamina from the clutches of her arch-enemy Sarastro.

Her first aria ‘O zittre nicht’ is one of the most famous of the coloratura genre, second only to her Act II ‘Der Hölle Rache’. Though her top F disintegrated and I felt that last degree of ruthless vengeance was not very marked, her voice had all the agility demanded and her whole presentation was splendid.

Emma Fraser, originally from Dunedin, was perfectly cast as Pamina; Pamina is not a particularly strong character, but with Fraser’s beautiful voice it spoke of innocence and kindness; compared to most of the other leading characters, she is, like Tamino, dressed virginally, demurely and she acts accordingly.

The Three Boys, or Genii, arrive, though not ‘in person’. They are cast in various ways; sometimes boys with suitably trained voices are available, but in a country where there’s almost no tradition of children’s, more especially boys’, choirs, they are probably hard to find. Here three sopranos manage cute puppets who do the job, often on the bridge between the trees, fitting their role as ‘heavenly creatures’. At first, apparently as servants of the Queen to guide Tamino and Papageno in their mission to ‘rescue’ Pamina; but later they are clearly not in the Queen’s camp, but rather that of the enlightened Sarastro, capable of humane intervention, to perform as a saviour later, as ‘heavenly creatures’.

Several of Sarastro’s disciples/vassals are conflated into just two. The Speaker appears first, taken with authority and clarity by James Clayton, convincingly defending his chief, Sarastro, to Tamino against the Queen’s vilification; but the roles of the others, two ‘Armed Men’, and two or three Priests, and are compressed or deleted and taken by the fine young baritone, Derek Hill, listed as ‘Priest/Armed Man’. No real harm was done, though he adopted a crabbed accent and I wondered at the meaning of his being a cripple, just as I’d been curious about the reason the Queen was hobbling about on sticks – I’d never detected anything in her character to suggest physical disability, but I bow to the superior intuitions of the director.

Sarastro himself was sung by Wade Kernot, who has indeed an elegant, resonant voice, but apart from its thinning rather sadly at the bottom early in his first aria (it recovered somewhat later), he lacks just a little of the gravitas (sorry about that overused word) essential to the role.

Then there’s the predatory Moor, Monostatos, whose role has always rather mystified me; some of his part is cut, especially his cavorting with his three slaves, and that was not missed. Regardless of the meaning of his part in the story, he was splendidly portrayed by Bonaventure Allan-Moetaua.

Sarastro’s counter-offensive allied with the lovers
Act II begins with a suspiciously Christian scene of women of Sarastro’s court washing Pamina’s feet (forget that his court is monastic – men only, and not specifically Christian). In this production the chorus is enlarged to include women, no doubt to comply with pressure from the Human Rights Commission on sexual equality. That brings the situation into conflict with the several verbal slights against women (chuckles from the audience), their moral and intellectual strength, but it undermines the authenticity of Mozart and Schikaneder’s drama which should always remain true to its fundamental conception. We just have to acknowledge that attitudes towards women in the 18th century were different. If this directorial decision was misguided, at least the language was left unmutilated.

The chorus is nevertheless one of the chief glories of the production, as was the orchestra’s performance. Again, the clarity and liveliness of music director Wyn Davies’s handling of all his musical forces was admirable. I have earlier touched on aspects of the look of the stage and the singers and their positioning and movement on stage, invariably handled with unerring sense of what worked for the audience and, I guess, an awareness of the opera’s literary and philosophical background which is much more interesting than might first appear.

The last character to appear is Papagena, whose role with her male namesake is always a delight, and this was no exception. Madison Nonoa was garbed in keeping, amusingly and her singing, just right, fitting deliciously with Papageno’s.

All costumes were appropriate and often startlingly lavish, generally in keeping with one’s own imaginings, based on many past productions. In particular, there was much attention to lighting and sound effects, other than what came from the pit. The lighting was particularly effective: surprising, sharply illuminating in both literal and symbolic senses. And there were other props such as a huge hairy spider that contributed to the entertainment though not especially enhancing the operatic experience. The hollow tree trunks served for magical appearances and disappearances and allowed for Papageno’s tree-climbing prowess; and the trap-door in the floor provided for surprising entrances and exits, even for the conductor to emerge to receive the huge, final applause.

In all, this was a simply splendid production, one of the best the company has ever done, and even among the best anywhere in New Zealand. Undoubtedly hugely to the credit of director Sara Brodie and assistant Jacqueline Coats, it is a must-see, and a vindication of the genius of Mozart as well as of his literary collaborator, Schikaneder. For it was a work that certainly changed the nature of German theatre in its own language, and to which many attribute the eventual revolutionary achievements of Wagner.


Postscript: the Flute’s history in New Zealand
I was prompted to look back at the record of earlier productions in New Zealand.

The Magic Flute was a late-comer to the New Zealand stage. While there was a rich procession of almost all the standard opera repertoire, even some Wagner, through New Zealand from touring companies from the 1860s and till the mid 20th century – Adrienne Simpson’s exhaustive history lists about 130 different operas and operettas brought to New Zealand till 1950, Mozart was rather neglected. Only The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni were seen before the birth of the New Zealand Opera Company in 1954, which, after the establishment of the then National Orchestra in 1947, came at the real beginning of our own, indigenous performing arts history, along with the creation of the New Zealand Players and the New Zealand Ballet about the same time.

It was that great and adventurous company which gave the New Zealand premiere of The Magic Flute in April 1963 in the same theatre that opens this new production in Wellington. That was toured, with more or less orchestral accompaniment, to fifteen towns through New Zealand.

After the Wellington-based New Zealand Company was disgracefully wound up in 1971, smaller companies arose throughout the country in what looked by the 1980s like a permanent awakening of opera as a popular musical genre, not nationally based, but with strong roots in local communities.

Canterbury Opera was the first among the rising regional companies to stage The Flute, in 1986 and they staged another production in 1996.

In March of the Mozart bicentennial year of 1991 (of both the opera and of Mozart’s death), Wellington City Opera followed with a controversial production designed by the gifted Kristian Fredrickson.

Auckland Opera staged it in 1993 and Wellington did it again in 1999, its last year before the company’s merger with Auckland to create New Zealand Opera. Curiously, by then Auckland had renamed its company ‘New Zealand Opera’ and Wellington retaliated by changing its name to the ‘National Opera of Wellington’.

From then The Flute had productions in other parts of the country: Opera Waikato produced it in 1999 and Hawke’s Bay Opera in Hastings in 2003.

Among the many city companies, only Dunedin’s company, which was founded in the mid 1950s and is the only survivor among the original companies, seems never to have produced The Flute.

There have been university productions such as Otago’s in 1991 and Victoria’s in 1996; and the lively and prolific Opera Factory in Auckland produced it in 2001, performed largely by young singers.

Ten years ago, in 2006, New Zealand Opera produced The Magic Flute for both Wellington and Auckland.

Diverting harp duo recital affected by too much musical competition

NZ Harp Duo
Michelle Velvin and Jennifer Newth, harps

John Thomas: Serch Hudol (Love’s Fascination)
Carlos Salzedo: Chanson dans la nuit and Pentacle
Granados: Spanish Dance no.5 in E minor Andaluza Op.37
Bernard Andrès: Parvis – Cortège et Danse
Debussy: La cathédrale engloutie
Caroline Lizotte: Raga for two harps, Op.41

St. Peter’s Church

Saturday, 28 May 2016, 7pm

This harp duo was enjoyed by all those present, but the atrocious weather and the number of other music events on in the city may have contributed to the rather small audience – approx. 40 people.

The Thomas piece made a good opening work for the concert with its robust tones, demonstrating that harps are not just other-worldly instruments. The beginning could have been a hymn tune, with cheerful chords. It was followed by variations in which the two harps worked beautifully together, and in contrast with each other.

After the bold came more subdued passages, and we moved from hymn tune to folksong. As the programme note said “Thomas drew on his Welsh heritage and folk-music background, to create fantasies on traditional melodies.” The fact that Thomas was a harpist himself (1826-1913) showed in his well-crafted music. It was a thoroughly delightful piece.

Jennifer Newth spoke to the audience about their duo and their forthcoming composition competition to encourage New Zealand composers to write for the harp. She spoke about the next piece to be played, written by Carlos Salzedo, an American harpist and composer (1885-1961), who was born and studied in France. Antiphonal playing between the two instruments was most effective, as was the variety of techniques employed. Plucking low on the strings made a very metallic and loud sound, in contrast with the more usual playing in the centre of the strings. Glissandi were not only of the kind we are accustomed to, but also sometimes using the backs of the hands, so that the fingernails produced a more brittle, less sustained tone. Knocking with the hand on the soundboard was another acoustic feature used here and in other works we heard.

The second Salzedo work was quite a long suite, Pentacle. It consisted of five movements. Jennifer Newth introduced some of the ideas behind the names of the movements. ‘Steel’ proved to create sounds of the industrial age, as she said. There were both loud and soft and repetitive phrases, and a variety of non-traditional harp techniques.

‘Serenade’ she described as having harsh nocturnal sounds, but I did not find it unpleasant. It was followed by ‘Félines’, which was fun, with lots of rapid high notes as of cats scampering lightly around. ‘Catacombs’ was spooky and dark in tone, with many different acoustic effects. I could see the multiple pedal changes Michelle had to make. Among the amazing effects the players achieved was one produced when one hand moved up and down a string while the other plucked, or sometimes stroked the strings in glissandi.

Hitting strings with rods; plucking a string and allowing a relatively long period of resonance were two techniques. In contrast to the latter, was playing in a high register with short, repetitive strokes, then fading to nothing. An ethereal sound was obtained by wiping down the strings with a cloth.

The final movement, ‘Pantomime’, was much jollier and livelier. A great variety of dynamics was obtained by plucking the strings more gently or more sharply. This piece involved quite a lot of playing around with intonation, by techniques involving the head of the strings where they went round the tuning pins. Many of these extended techniques I had never seen before.

After the length and intensity of the suite, it was quite a relief to hear something familiar: Granados’s piece for piano (which I played years ago) transcribed by Salvedo. It worked well on two harps, and the use of different tones made it interesting.

The Andrès work had one harpist tapping on strings with a short stick and then tapping the soundboard while the other plucked her strings as the music moved unrelentingly from solemn procession to dance.

Debussy’s well-known piano piece followed. It was good programming to play a couple of familiar works in a programme such as this. There was a lovely build-up throughout; the music depicts very well the story of the sunken cathedral that rises out of the water at sunrise. The transcription was by our two harpists.

The final work was a challenging one, by contemporary Canadian harpist and composer, Caroline Lizotte. Jennifer mentioned that, along with the obvious Indian characteristics, there was an element of imitated whale song in the work. The piece started with a rod being slid down a string while others were being plucked; a spooky effect. On the other harp there were gentle sounds. The pace and musical variation gradually picked up, switching between major and minor modes.

Suddenly there was a clash on a small Indian cymbal suspended from Michelle’s music stand, and a jingle of little Indian bells which I learned that she had round her ankle. Another element was twisting the strings to give a slow vibrato effect, such as Indian musicians obtain with the strings moved on the frets of their sitars. Along with this we had on the other harp knocking on the soundboard and using a drummer’s mallet on it. Jennifer struck a full-sized cymbal on a stand from time to time. There was yet another drumming sound that I couldn’t track down, though it seemed to come from Michelle’s side. Typically of ragas, the piece built in pace and intensity.

These young women are amazing in their skills, and a credit to their teacher, Carolyn Mills. Their playing seemed impeccable, and the range of techniques astonishing. St. Peter’s proved to be an excellent venue for such a concert, the bright acoustic enhanced by all the wood panelling and seating. There was much brilliance here from two highly skilled and talented performers, but despite this, there was a sameness of sound that palled somewhat by the end of the programme.

An encore was a slightly gentler, quite folksy piece with much variety. It was ‘Flitter Song’ by Charles Guard, a Manx harpist and composer.

Viola central to an interesting programme of student performances from three centuries

Viola Students of NZSM
Gyahida Ahmad, viola, Ashley Mah, piano; Elyse Dalabakis, viola, Laura Brown, clarinet and Hana Kim, piano; Laura Barton, violin; Grant Baker, viola, Catherine Norton, piano

Schubert: ‘Arpeggione’ Sonata, second movement
Max Bruch: Pieces for clarinet, viola and piano, Op.83
Bach: Partita no.2 in D minor for solo violin, BWV 1004 (four movements)
George Enescu: Concertstück

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 25 May 2016, 12.15pm

My apologies if I have not got the first performers’ names correctly; they were not in the printed programme, but were announced at the beginning of the concert. However, a person behind me was talking on a cellphone at the time, and I could not hear them properly. I made enquiries at the end of the concert, but this has meant my interpreting another person’s handwriting – possibly not correctly.

The item these two students played was not in the printed programme. Their playing of the slow movement from Schubert’s sonata (originally written for a rather short-lived instrument, the Arpeggione, a bowed guitar) was lacking in confidence at the beginning, and the viola intonation was ‘off’ in several places. Perhaps their inclusion in the concert was somewhat premature for their stage of musical study.

The Bruch pieces were a different story. Four of the composer’s eight pieces were performed. No obvious disadvantage in that, but it made for a rather slow and sombre sequence, since two were marked andante, one allegro con moto, and the last (no. 6) andante con moto. Parts of the movements were Brahmsian in character. Of the movements left out, numbers 4 and 7 would be considerably faster, judging from their tempo markings.

All three players are fine musicians, confident and very competent. The viola tone was lovely and mellow, the clarinet was played with panache and sensitivity, and the pianist judged her part just right as to volume and intensity, so that she neither drowned out the other players, nor was too submissive in rendering her part. It was a fine performance for a well-judged combination, and they played an attractive set of pieces that showed off the instruments.

Bach’s solo violin music is a sort of bible for violinists, but maintaining momentum, accuracy, tempo and so on is not easy. Laura Barton made a beautiful job of the first four movements of the chosen Partita. She is a highly skilled player, negotiating all the turns and twists in the music with ease, it seemed, and at least in the early stages, hardly looking at the score. She is secure technically, and after commendable Allemanda and Corrente, her Sarabanda, double-stopping and chords involving several strings, was handled adroitly. In the flowing, dancing Giga her tone was bright, with every note in place, and the character of the piece was portrayed very well, in lively fashion. One could imaging people in the 18th century dancing to the music. Inevitably perhaps, though she used a baroque bow, the modern strings made inappropriate sounds at times.

Last up was Grant Baker, accompanied by the immaculate Catherine Norton, playing a work for viola by George Enescu (1881-1955), teacher of the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin, whose 100th anniversary was marked on radio the other day. The Concertstück required a number of demanding techniques, but Grant Baker took these in his stride and did not draw attention to them, playing throughout in a musical and expressive way. His instrument and his playing gave out a warm tone, but lighter than the dark, mellow tone of Elyse Dalabakis’s in the Bruch work. Baker’s viola pitch was a little wayward in places, but both musicians brought off a difficult work in fine style.


Alexander Gavrylyuk – great pianism at Waikanae

Waikanae Music Society presents:

SCHUBERT – Piano Sonata in A D.664
CHOPIN – Fantasy in F Minor Op.49
Nocturne Op.27 No.2
Polonaise in A-flat Major Op.53
PROKOFIEV – Piano Sonata No.3 in A Minor Op.28
RACHMANINOV – Etude-Tableaux Op.39  Nos 1, 2, 5, 7, 9
BALAKIREV – Islamey: Oriental Fantasy

Memorial Hall, Waikanae

Sunday 22nd May 2016

From the moment Alexander Gavrylyuk played the very first note of Schubert’s adorable A Major Sonata D.664 on the Waikanae Music Society’s wonderful Fazioli piano, I felt we were in for a performance which seemed more than ready to explore and convey from the outset something of this music’s whole-hearted intensity and volatility, from the lyricism of the beginning which contrasted tellingly with the “sturm-und-drang” episodes of the development, through the poetry of the slow movement, and then to the humour and energy of the finale.

It’s somewhat ironic that “modern” Russian pianists (Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, Vladimir Ashkenazy, and more recently Arcadi Volodos and Grigory Sokolov) seem to have taken Schubert’s music very much to heart, developing, in fact, a particularly distinctive style of interpretative response to this repertoire, when for an earlier generation of Russian pianists (Rachmaninov, for example) the Schubert sonatas were hardly, if at all, known. In fact the nineteenth century generally set great store by the composer’s lieder and certain pieces of his chamber music, while the piano sonatas were all but conveniently forgotten, and dismissed by those who knew of their existence as vastly inferior to those of Beethoven’s.

Here, in Alexander Gavrylyuk’s capable and masterful hands, was that more recent Russian Schubert tradition reaffirmed, along with the composer’s true greatness as a writer of long-breathed, beautifully proportioned sonata-form structures, as differently wrought to Beethoven’s as could be imagined, but as profound and as visionary in their own unique way. The opening C-sharp of the sonata was here sounded by Gavrylyuk with the greatest of significance, as if a world of its own, one which briefly resonated and “coloured” our sensibilities before activating a gentle updraught on which the phrase took wing, and flowed with that same sense of wonderment into the music’s opening paragraph. And the repeat occasioned an expression on the pianist’s face of such joy in anticipation, we listeners couldn’t help but be infused with something of the same feeling.

Every episode of the sonata was delivered with a similar awareness of the music’s power to enchant, to move and to disturb, as with the shock of the development’s darker-browed statements, like storm clouds bringing conflict and strife to the peace of a hitherto settled day! Gavrylyuk’s lead-back from this to the reprise of the opening was like a gentle reassurance, with the opening theme now less yielding, made more assertive by its dealings with darker impulses and threatening gestures – with all of this in mind imagine our surprise and delight at the pianist’s decision to repeat the development section, rather like a “here we go again” feeling as the dark forces gathered and plunged into our midst once more! Again there was that reassurance when all was done, with beautiful voicings and fine gradations of tone leading us to those final statements of the opening theme, where the music seemed to take comfort in the darkness as a resting-place.

The slow movement’s heart-rending chordal opening spread its wings and soared aloft, elaborating its theme with angular rhythms mid-movement, which in Gavrylyuk’s hands seemed to reach out for something unattainable before resignedly returning to the comfort of the opening. All of that done, the finale then charmed us with its artless opening, a seemingly innocuous waltz which then grew into something forthright and determined. The pianist brought out the music’s different attitudes as much with his expressions and his body language as with his fingers, such as the “strut” with which he launched into the second subject, squaring his shoulders and pursing his lips like a child on a hobby-horse – almost as if he was on a “boys’ own holiday adventure”.

The music’s development had a kind of garrulous anxiety, freely modulating but running away from new territories as quickly as finding them, and at the end charmingly and insouciantly putting it all aside. In fact the overall journey here I thought resembled something of an early attempt at a “rite of passage”, one from which the composer could break off if things got out of hand. That Schubert stayed the course and finished the work was to our inestimable benefit, especially so with somebody like Gavrylyuk on hand to enable a glorious “no holds barred” kind of performance.

Three Chopin pieces followed, the first the wondrous F Minor Fantasy Op.49, that richly-conceived improvisatory-like journey which took us through various pianistic and compositional modes in aid of unfolding an expansive musical tale of one’s own particular fancy. Each section of the piece was strongly characterized, the opening a mysterious march, a ghostly processional plumbing the depths, and taking itself away with each downbeat, into the distance and darkness. Gavrylyuk then came into his own with passionately-wound swirlings of energy, heroically-delivered melodic lines and tremendous attack upon the chords, the ferment of interaction defused by the piano’s marching away from it all, and working towards a central melody delivered like a prayer – even a reprise of the swirlings of energy and “ferment of interaction” didn’t lessen the sense of a narrative whose music gripped our sensibilities.Next was a Nocturne, the well-known Op.27 No.2, played by Gavrylyuk with complete ease and grace at the beginning, working up into agitations with the stormy central moments and dropping back from it all into a most beautiful ppp, his delicate fingerwork creating sounds resembling strings of pearls. A different kettle of fish was, of course, the Op.53 A-flat Polonaise, probably the most well-known of these particular pieces, not the least for a notorious central section of the music whose left hand octaves were said to have evoked for at least one famous pianist of former times “the horses’ hooves of the Polish Cavalry”.

Taking an heroic and volatile, rather than a brutal and weighty approach, the pianist kept the music light on its feet for the most part, allowing the music an engaging, even charming strut in places, while giving the great crescendi their due. As for the “Polish Cavalry” section, Gavrylyuk generated a great head of steam and verve without ever losing a sense of the music’s purpose, finding real tenderness in the quieter moments before the dance’s reprise at the end.

Something of a concert of two halves, the world of difference in the music was emphasized by Gavrylyuk’s full-frontal engagement with Prokofiev’s Third Piano Sonata Op.28, the opening of the work rather like the effect of somebody starting up a large motor-bike and roaring off in a cloud of blue smoke! Again, Gavrylyuk took pains to bring out not just the physical energy of the piece but its mordant wit and sarcasm as well. In the work’s central section the pianist conveyed the music’s dark, somewhat eerie character, a world where things seemed to repeatedly turn upon themselves, by the end wistfully searching for a way back to the light.

A brief irruption of energies, alternating two- and three-patterned rhythms led to a grand melodic statement on repeated chords and bell-like left hand underlinings – just as deftly, Gavrylyuk then reactivated those galloping horse impulses, driving the music towards its brilliant, near-manic climax, with a virtuoso flourish at the end.

We then got a treasurable opportunity to compare at first hand the compositional styles of Prokofiev with his older compatriot, Rachmaninov. They were creative spirits documented as being more in conflict with one another rather than accord, though according to pianist Sviatoslav Richter (who knew Prokofiev), very much “yoked together”, more than one might initially suppose – Richter was referring specifically to Rachmaninov’s Op.39 Etude-tableaux as representing a kind of “epiphany” for the younger Prokofiev, though one that was never acknowledged, except in the latter’s music.

In these works more than in any of his other music Rachmaninov certainly seems to anticipate his younger contemporary’s sound-world. Gavrylyuk launched the first of his selection, No.1, with tremendous verve and agitation, here and there bringing out the music’s unmistakable shafts of imperialistic Russian light, but subjecting them to a new, harsher reality, one seemingly pursued by demons. No.2 took us to a different, though equally obsessive world, one of watery resonances dominated by the composer’s life-long fascination with the traditional “Dies Irae” chant, Gavrylyuk building up great reservoirs of swirling sound haunted by the four-note motif, before allowing the ambiences to drift into enigmatic silence.

More in the virtuoso “grand manner” was No.5, reiterating a sombre theme against a constantly modulating background, the whole replete with swirling chromaticisms, Gavrylyuk maintaining the oppressive mood of the piece with single-minded focus, allowing us little respite, even with the alternations between minor and major at the piece’s end. Blacker still (somewhat in the manner of Liszt’s late piano works) was No.7 with its bleak chordal progressions and harsh bird-cries, music of comfortless solitude and relentless trajectories – the bell-like build-up of sonority towards the piece’s end in Gavrylyuk’s hands created for us a profoundly grim “is this salvation or oblivion?” scenario – what an incredible piece of music!

After this, the unashamedly Tsarist splendour and barbarity of No.9’s resplendent energies was some relief, those Musorgsky-like church bells ringing out defiantly, and awakening the old imperialist glories, the shades and wraiths of the past hastening to join in with the processional for a short-lived moment of affirmation.

The composer, while admitting to extra-musical associations in these works never revealed any individual programs, stating unequivocally when pressed to do so – “…let them (listeners) paint for themselves what the music most suggests”.

Concluding the recital as per programme was Balakirev’s colourful Caucasian-inspired piece Islamey, whose subtitle, “Oriental Fantasy” says all that really needs to be said about the piece. I’d thought Kazan pianist Halida Dinova’s Lower Hutt performance of the piece a couple of years ago pretty wonderful, and Alexander Gavrylyuk was certainly of her company, plunging into the music’s high-voltage rhythmic trajectories with perhaps even more free-wheeling excitement in places!

Of course there’s more to the music than speed, power and glitter – and Gavrylyuk savoured the piece’s “old song” most beguilingly, infusing the melody with all the nostalgia and sinuous charm one would have thought possible to bring out.

As for the “bucking bronco” aspect of the piece’s final section, Gavrylyuk’s playing was simply jaw-dropping, fabulous runs, flailing notes and amazing climaxes and all, complete with a touch of showmanship at the piece’s end, a wonderful “that’s all, folks!” gesture seeming to toss all pianistic difficulties to one side with terrific élan.

After this, the pianist charmingly acceded to our request for an encore (hadn’t we had our just desserts by then, though, really?) with the opening of Schumann’s Kinderscenen, (“Of Foreign Lands and Peoples”) a well-nigh perfect gesture of homecoming at the conclusion of a fabulous musical journey.

Enso String Quartet highly impressive in all eras particularly 20th century France

Enso String Quartet: Maureen Nelson and Ken Hamao (violins), Melissa Reardon (viola), Richard Belcher (cello)

Beethoven: Quartet in E flat, Op 74 ‘Harp’
Dutilleux: Ainsi la nuit
Alex Taylor: a coincidence of surfaces (CMNZ Commission)
Ravel: String Quartet in F

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 20 May, 7:30 pm

One of the first things that many people would have asked about this concert, was ‘what’s the name mean or is an acronym for?’ Nowhere in the programme could I find the answer.

However, their website does ‘sort-of’ explain:

“The ensemble’s name is derived from the Japanese Zen painting of the circle, which represents many things: perfection and imperfection, the moment of chaos that is creation, the emptiness of the void, the endless circle of life, and the fullness of the spirit.”

But it doesn’t explain why it has the name; a four letter word ‘s connection to a Japanese painting of the circle doesn’t really help, except in a misty impressionist way.
Perhaps they meant to add, “Enso is Japanese for a circle, or ‘a painting of a circle’”.
The second violinist, Ken Hamao is of Japanese descent; is that a connection?
One of the leader’s, Maureen Nelson, teachers was Yumi Ninomiya Scott: another connection?

But the concert.

Familiar classics opened and closed the concert; first, one of Beethoven’s ‘middle period’ quartets called the ‘Harp’ on account of a lot of pizzicato particularly in the first movement.

It began secretively, as if to allay any discomfort about what probably sounded rather radical, though hardly alienating, to audiences of the first decade of the 19th century. I was immediately won over by the scrupulous attention to every marking and, one felt, dynamic and bowing refinements that Beethoven might have hardly conceived. There were moments of frenzy, with general pizzicato and touches, like the surprise-like fortissimo single chords, that awoke an awareness of the Beethoven-to-come more emphatically a decade later – the ‘Late’ period.

Perhaps, I wondered after a while, there are a few listeners of acute, self-acknowledged sensibility who feel there was just too much particularity, too much fussiness in articulation and subtle rubato and dynamic delicacy; not I.

The second movement’s unobtrusive opening melody points more towards the future, as if careful to avoid a full-blooded tune, but then it arrived – the really gorgeous melody, emerging perhaps from the earlier hesitant theme, and its treatment was almost too voluptuous as the second violin took charge of it while the first played a rocking accompaniment.

The quartet tackled the scherzo movement, Presto, with all the ferocity needed. To make an impact, what might be called the Trio is a forthright section that departs from the triple time of the main part, to common, 4/4 time; though it’s in quaver triplets which turns ghostly again to simply peter out, leaving just a moment before the Finale begins. The Finale, a theme and variations, was again treated in a spirit that exploited its surprises. It too contains moments of pianissimo that become startling and the players handled it all with wonderful variety, a seeming utter inevitability.

Dutilleux’s only string quartet is not entirely untypical of his other, rather small quantity of music, considering he almost reached 100. The two symphonies, the cello concerto (Tout un monde lointain), and the piano sonata are reasonably approachable, warmer, more comfortable.

In 2012 the Amici Ensemble played the quartet at a Wellington Chamber Music concert; I did not hear it. (See Middle C’s review of 12 August 2012).

The demands of a string quartet prompted Dutilleux to refine his voice and devote himself to cultivating all the subtleties of colour, to chisel the most detailed contrapuntal contours, seeking a composing equilibrium through an act of dizzying balancing. The structure of the music, designed uniquely by the composer, as is not uncommon in this age, does at the start present an intellectual hurdle, if the listener is of a mind to follow the music’s argument as the composer has presumably intended.

There are two alternatives:
i) either you give over, without paying much attention to the composer’s notes, to whatever impressions the music makes, hoping it will prove rewarding;
ii) or you study the notes beforehand, preferably listening to a recording (I would even add, ‘and reading the score’, if that was not likely to be quite useless in a work of such phantasmagorical capriciousness), and attempt to relate the descriptions to what you hear. For a great many quite serious listeners this course would probably create a pre-ordained sense of defeat. I chose the former course this evening, though I had listened to a recording a couple of times, the explanatory notes to hand.

The first five of the seven movements are linked by what Dutilleux calls ‘Parentheses’, recognition of which in the withering density of the music is hard if not impossible at first hearing. In a French commentary: “the parentheses – often quite short – which link the parts one to another are important for the organic role which devolves on them. The allusions to what is to follow – or what has preceded it – take their place like points of reference.”

It’s the sort of work, by a highly regarded composer, that many would not want to be judged for confessing to mystification; showing they lack sensibility or taste or discernment or insight into contemporary music. There are almost constant tremolos, pizzicato, muted passages, false harmonics, spiccato; one hears fragmentary themes emerging, and returning later, and much atmospheric evocation, occasional calm passages in which the four players have a chance to communicate more calmly with one another

In other words, many would have found it hard to ‘follow’, though to gain a sense of its generally brittle emotional character is not so hard, and a performance such as we heard, from a highly talented, youngish ensemble for whom Dutilleux’s language is probably as familiar as Haydn, could not help being highly persuasive.

The CMNZ commission from young Auckland composer Alex Taylor presented a soundscape that was not all that remote from Dutilleux. A short piece of about six minutes, it had time to make an impression from the hands of these musicians who were apparently in sympathy with the music’s character and inventiveness, and towards the end seemed to drift into a narrative that sustained its last page. Though the first few minutes offered little opportunity to gain a familiarity with its musical ideas so that one could follow its structure (a feat that some claim to achieve at once though others tell the truth). One of the advantages of a short piece is the opportunity for it to be played again.

And so it was, but even better. At the end of the concert the audience was invited to remain while the Aroha came to the stage to join Enso in a performance of the octet version.

The Aroha Quartet had been involved in Elizabeth Kerr’s pre-concert talk (which I didn’t hear) where they played another version of Taylor’s piece, rather slower, more lyrical, less hectic. The two versions had been written so they could be played together. Each quartet sat in a separate semi-circle. The two accounts could thus be quite easily distinguished and for me, perhaps with the benefit of hearing the music, in a rather different guise, a second time, it became distinctly more coherent and, well, musical.

Ravel’s String Quartet ended the programme. Seventy-four years older than the Dutilleux, 113 years older than Taylor’s.

Enso launched into it with energy and affection, finding all its expressiveness and subtlety. Ravel’s failure to win the Prix de Rome, with this work on the desks of the adjudicators, is one of the great mysteries of musical history, since it’s so rich in vitality, not to mention melody. One can perhaps understand Dubois’s failure to get it, but hardly Fauré’s, even acknowledging that the Assez vif second movement is a bit spiky, and studiedly un-romantic; Enso handled it commandingly. The strange, ghostly episodes in the third movement were among the most arresting points, returning slowly to the real world at the end, as a lovely viola passage caught my ear, in a breathless, exquisite spirit.

The finale, Vif et agité, was just that, bringing a memorable performance to an end; and I wondered whether, in another thirty years or so, the Dutilleux will sound as scintillating and varied and memorable as the Ravel does now.



Unusual trios for contrasted groups, influenced disparately by viola d’amore and the Holocaust

Music of Sorrow and Love
Archi d’amore Zelanda and the Terezin Trio

Archi d’amore Zelanda (Donald Maurice – viola d’amore, Jane Curry – guitar, Emma Goodbehere – cello)
Michael Williams: Suite per antichi archi
Boris Pigovat: Strings of Love (2016)

Terezin Trio (Katherine McIndoe – soprano, Reuben Chin – alto saxophone, Heather Easting – piano)
Ellwood Derr: I never saw another butterfly

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 18 May, 12:15 pm

This lunchtime concert combined two young chamber groups in music that touched on tragic themes and conditions of the heart, physical and emotional. Perhaps they were to be seen as metaphysically linked.

We have heard several performances by Donald Maurice’s Archi d’amore Zelanda; the last let us hear both the viola d’amore and the modern viola; in fact the last outing was just a fortnight ago, as part of an octet playing Vivaldi.

Today, they played two pieces commissioned by them and which will have their ‘world premieres’ in a forthcoming trip to Poland where they will play at the Europejskiego Centrum Muzyki Krzysztofa Pendereckiego w Lusławicach (or European Center for Music, Krzysztof Pendercki, Lusławice), a small town east of Krakow. Check it out on the Internet.

It is an important cultural centre with origins as an intellectual and artistic centre in the 17th century. It is not far from Penderecki’s birthplace, and the composer bought the old manor in 1976 and restored it to create a music centre, with a beautiful contemporary building opened in 2013.

The Trio will also give concerts in Krakow and Warsaw.

Michael Williams
Suite per antichi archi
was commissioned from Hamilton composer Michael Williams.

His piece touched on the heart, and its first movement was named for the heart condition, ‘Arrhythmia’, an obtuse reference to music with varying rhythms. For the first few minutes all three instruments were plucked, rhythmically though in varying bar-lengths; then viola d’amore and cello returned to bowing. The music might not have been too complex or academic, but it was attractive, untroubled. The second movement, Cavatina, was slower and elegiac, with much attention to the lower strings of all three instruments; there was a hint of Spanish music guitar of the 17th or 18th centuries (Hopkinson Smith’s concerts at the 2014 Festival stimulated my interest in and enjoyment of it). The third movement was a fugue, with the bowed instruments used mainly in that way, gaining speed subtly as the mood lightened and became dance-like, though remaining in an antique mode.

Boris Pigovat
Boris Pigovat and Donald Maurice have formed a partnership/friendship since the composer wrote a Holocaust Requiem in 1995, with an obbligato viola for Maurice, to mark the 70th anniversary of the Nazis’ atrocity, Kristallnacht. Atoll Records recorded it by the Wellington Orchestra under Taddei with Maurice as violist.

The latest fruit of that association is Pigovat’s Strings of Love.

Because I hadn’t heard very much of what the musicians said about the music, I asked Donald Maurice for some help and he gave me the following about this piece.

“Much of [Pigovat’s] music since [the Requiem] is reminiscent of those ideas [in the Requiem], in particular in his viola sonata, and in this new piece, Strings of Love, there are similar ideas to the ‘Lux Aeterna’ from the Requiem. It also includes a clear quotation of the nursery lullaby ‘Rock-a-Bye Baby, on the Tree Top’. This poem was believed to have been written by a pilgrim who travelled on the Mayflower and it was a comment on the way the American Indians rocked their babies to sleep by hanging their bassinets off tree branches. This observation about the significance of the theme in the trio is my own, not from Boris!”

So there was dreamy quality in the viola and cello in the opening part, then a kind of a popular tune, with perhaps the influence of a guitar, though the viola dominated the melody. The mood lightens and the tempo increases towards the end. Both the music’s intention and its performance were of attractive clarity and should help create a nice repertoire for the innovative combination of viola d’amore, cello and guitar which, judging by the sort of music they inspire, evokes feeling that relate Renaissance or Baroque sensibility to contemporary musical values and social issues.

Ellwood Derr
I never saw another butterfly was written in 1966 around poems written by children in the terrible concentration camp at Terezin in Czechoslovakia. So it has an affinity with the much later written Third Symphony of Gorecki.

It’s composed for a trio, appropriately entitled Terezin: soprano, alto saxophone and piano. Soprano Katherine McIndoe has, in only a couple of years, established an attractive record in competitions and small opera performances, such as with Days Bay Opera. It’s a strong voice with a keen-edged vibrato that might need watching in years to come, but which showed admirable accuracy in the early quasi-atonal music and an air of electrified fear in the section so marked. Her spoken words came almost as a shock.

Reuben Chin’s contribution on the alto saxophone too, was most accomplished: twittering and bird-like (rather than simulating a butterfly) in the Prologue; while the calm, Debussyish, accepting spirit of ‘The Garden’ hardly disguised the underlying hopeless grief that is embedded in the music. Throughout, Heather Easting’s piano lent expressive and sympathetic backing, often rather dominating the scene as near the end of the fourth section, marked ‘Fear’.

I had hesitated about coming to this concert, thinking one of my colleagues was to review it, but was engrossed by both these unfamiliar trio ensembles right from the start.


Bach Choir offers rewarding looks into Purcell, Mozart and later English music

The Bach Choir of Wellington conducted by Peter de Blois, with Douglas Mews – organ

Soloists: Sharon Yearsley, Maaike Christie-Beekman, James Young (replaced by the conductor), Simon Christie and Chris Buckland – soprano saxophone

Purcell: Te Deum Laudamus and Jubilate Deo, Mozart: Vesperae solennes de confessore, K 339; James Whitbourn: Son of God Mass; Parry: Hear my words, ye people

Church of St Peter, Willis Street

Sunday 15 May, 3 pm

This concert had been scheduled for Saturday 16 April but, as explained by conductor Peter de Blois, there was an organ problem which required an organ transplant (probably a hoary one for organists).

De Blois also announced another change; the tenor was indisposed and so his place was taken by the conductor who happened, fortuitously, to be vocally equipped in a suitable way.

Purcell’s Te Deum Laudamus and Jubilate Deo
The earlier music came in the first half: two of Purcell’s last church compositions, written a year before his death in 1795, at the ripe Mozart and Bizet age of 35 or 36 (depending on what dates you observe for Purcell). The Te Deum Laudate and Jubilate Deo are often linked: Handel’s Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate follow the same model.

The Te Deum was composed with orchestral accompaniment and, though I didn’t know that at the concert, I made unappreciative comments about the organ registrations in my notes; though I conceded that the contrast with the choral singing was ‘interesting’. Oh for accompaniment by brilliant trumpets and strings, something that one yearned for in the Mozart too!

Bass Simon Christie opened the singing strongly and confidently and mezzo (listed as ‘alto’) Maaike Christie-Beekman followed with rather impressive handling of the highly decorated melismatas from the verse ‘ The glorious company…’. Though the choir’s singing was generally well integrated and accurate, the entry of three soloists at ‘To thee all angels cry aloud’ introduced a rather more polished element; particular musical were the soprano-alto duet episodes, and the solo contributions from soprano Sharon Yearsley, and when De Blois’s tenor parts arrived they were perfectly comfortable.

One of the most affecting episodes was Christie-Beekman’s ‘Vouchsafe O Lord…’.

The Jubilate Deo is set to more lively music, with well-balanced choral singing; Douglas Mews’s organ playing was sympathetic. Again, Maaike Christie-Beekman’s voice proved splendidly appropriate to the music, tripping through the quick dotted rhythms, and again there was charming soprano-alto duetting. Another interesting duet was between the alto and bass where the bass had the melody much of the time, though pitched lower.

Vesperae solennes de confessore, K 339
Mozart’s Solemn Vespers fulfilled my linguistic preference for Latin (Purcell’s setting was in English). It’s some time since I heard the entire work, his last for Salzburg Cathedral; though the ‘Laudate Dominum’ has the familiarity of a popular opera aria. The soloists are not such a constant presence as in the Purcell, so one paid greater attention to the chorus. After a moment of uncertainty early in the ‘Dixit Dominus’, the choir performed well, with plenty of energy with the momentum of the triple rhythm. It quickly served to remind me of the greatness of this music that seems somehow to be ranked below the Mass in C Minor or the Coronation Mass or of course the Requiem; with little justification.

The ‘Confitebor’ offered fine opportunities for the soloists, with short episodes for the two men which sounded very well. The four soloists in the ‘Beatus Vir’ enjoyed a striking moment, from ‘Gloria et divitiae..’ and again at ‘Jucundus homo’, singing through the verse one by one, sort of in canon. And the soprano here sounded especially practised and polished.

They did well in the fugal ‘Laudate Pueri’, with inflections that seemed to show meaning of the words. And the drop in dynamics as they entered the final verses, ‘Gloria patri et filio..’ found dramatic qualities in the language of the Psalm (113), which always raises Mozart’s liturgical music above the merely religious. The ‘Laudate Dominum’, of course, offered Yearsley an arresting solo opportunity; and it’s not without lovely choral episodes. Heard in the context of the six parts of the Vespers service, the ‘Laudate Dominum’ does not really stand out in isolation from the marvellous music in all parts of the work.

The last section, the ‘Magnificat’, ranks with other great settings of that text and the choir did it energetic justice, with a final gathering of splendid solo forces; and bold choral singing, though once again, high trumpets and pulsing strings were missed, in spite of Douglas Mews’s very creditable efforts on the organ.

James Whitbourn: Son of God Mass
It was a good idea to separate Parry from Mozart with a piece written in the 21st century. Whitbourn’s Son of God Mass, written in 2001 for a BBC documentary, employed an obbligato soprano saxophone, in the hands of Chris Buckland, and it’s actually scored for organ accompaniment. So the organ part, presumably with detailed registrations, was interesting in the fabric of the singing. Much of the organ part was comfortably low pitched, better integrated with the voices. As a quote from the review of a recording remarks, comparisons with Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble are inevitable, though not invidious. Not all the Mass is used.

It’s melodic in an unapologetic way, the music is varied in articulation and dynamics, speed and rhythms, and the saxophone does unusual, somewhat spiritual things. It uttered a loud cry at ‘Domine fili unigenite’ and remained at hand through the start of the ‘Credo’, where the words were pronounced slowly and deliberately.

The choral parts are not too challenging, yet there were plenty of opportunities for dramatic outbursts: the ‘Hosanna in excelsis’ provided an obvious occasion for a bit of ecstasy. The final Amen ended with voices and saxophone way up high. An attractive and successful piece.

Parry’s Verse Anthem
Returning to Parry, Hear my words, ye people was written in 1894 for a diocesan choral festival at Salisbury Cathedral, to be sung by combined parish church choirs, so it’s not too hard. But the parts for soprano bass, and the organ are more taxing. It might be for that reason that I had the feeling that the organ was not always on the same page (excuse the popular cliché) as the choir.

I also felt that this music, conceived for the huge space of an English cathedral, called for a generous acoustic that would wind the sounds around the side aisles and up into the vaulted ceiling before returning to human ears in the nave in careful confusion. Minor choral weaknesses could be disguised and the impact enhanced, to suggest more of a colourful and grand religious, even spiritual, ritual. All four soloists had happy moments in the limelight; the bass enjoyed quite a dramatic experience, though it went a bit low for his comfort at one point.

The main weakness for me was the descent in the last phase, to a very ordinary hymn, O praise ye the Lord, that sounds just like the thousand other hymns sung in Anglican and other protestant churches around the world.

Yet in many ways, this work represents much that was excellent in English 19th century music, and from the 21st century perspective, it can be judged more generously than ‘Parry and Stanford’ were by many critics and audiences of the mid 20th century. We are probably seeing a timely revision of these attitudes.

Marvellous programme of string sextets from Amici Ensemble and Wellington Chamber Music

Amici Ensemble
(Wellington Chamber Music Trust)Anthony Ritchie: Ants: Sextet for Strings, Op.185
Tchaikovsky: Souvenir de Florence, Op.70
Brahms: Sextet in G, Op.36

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 15 May 2016, 3.00pm

It is heartening and impressive to see that a New Zealand composer has written 185 opus numbers and indeed, as I write, Anthony Ritchie’s flute concerto is being broadcast on Radio New Zealand Concert. His Sextet was commissioned this year by Christopher Marshall for the Amici Ensemble. This work is apparently a follow-on from his octet, appropriately named ‘Octopus’. Taking the first syllable of the new work’s grouping might have been dangerous, so instead we have the first syllable of the composer’s name.

The movements are titled ‘Hatchling’ (or as in the heading to the programme note, ‘Hatching’), ‘Working’, ‘Anteater’, ‘Self-impaling’ and ‘Survival’. These occasioned a certain amount of joking between my neighbour at the concert and me; especially the second to last movement title; at my home the ants self-impale in the electric socket over the bench. My neighbour (and reviewing colleague) thought that this was obviously working as a means of pest control. However, the music proved that even ants can be inspiring.

All the players are members of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra: Donald Armstrong and Malavika Gopal (violins), Julia Joyce and Andrew Thomson (violas) and Andrew Joyce and Ken Ichinose (cellos).

The five movements of the sextet were played without a break, and it was not always easy to tell where they changed. The pentatonic opening created a delightful mood, contrasting busyness with a spacious feeling from the first violin especially, displaying the very skilled string writing that characterised the whole work. There was much rhythmic drive and energy; pizzicato and sul ponticello (playing close to the bridge) techniques were utilised. In both first and last movements there were sections of a moto perpetuo character. Other motifs and diversity of rhythms revealed a variety of qualities. The whole was accomplished, enjoyable, expressive, and fun.

At the conclusion of the Tchaikovsky work, my neighbour remarked that it seemed almost orchestral in nature; my reply was that the recording I have is indeed played by a string orchestra (22 players). Nevertheless, it was rewarding to hear Souvenir de Florence played in its original form, though the quality, animation and volume of sound achieved by these players, in the fine acoustics of St. Andrew’s, made it hard to realise at times that we were hearing a sextet and not a string orchestra. It was wonderfully rich and sonorous playing.

The allegro con spirito first movement lived up to its designation, right from its passionate opening. It was both dynamic and exciting, alternating with lush moments played with complete unanimity. There were insistent motifs and rhythms. The slow second movement was, as Donald Armstrong told the audience in his introductory remarks, more Italian in character than were the other movements. Some of the music was enchanting, with gorgeous melodies, and a long, bewitching passage of luscious, grandiose, incisive chords, as in a choral composition; they sent shivers down my spine. The superb cello playing of Andrew Joyce in a solo melody exemplified again what many of us heard on a bigger stage on Friday evening when he played the beautiful cello solo in Brahms’s second piano concerto – and again in a solo passage in Shostakovich’s first symphony.

The third movement is shorter and lighter in tone, but not without energy and vivacity, especially in passages of folk-inspired tunes, and echoes of the previous movement. It ends quietly. The allegro finale should have had us dancing in the aisles, such was the animation and rhythmic vitality of the music. The fullness of tone was always impressive. As the excellent programme note by Julie Coulson ended “The movement concludes in a frenetic, headlong rush that leaves no doubt of Tchaikovsky’s sense of triumph.” In which he was quite justified.

I have hunted in vain for the programme of an early evening concert from those distant, halcyon days when there were many classical concerts in the International Festival of the Arts. The Sextets of Brahms, which were new to me, were played by an ensemble led by Carl Pini, at that time based in Christchurch. What I did discover, though, was that in the 1992 Festival there were, in addition to the New Zealand String Quartet, three string quartets visiting from overseas for the Festival! What a plethora of fine music we had in those Festivals! Concerts were well attended, I recall.

As the programme note stated, the first movement wavers between two tonalities, a feature typical of Brahms – it occurred in the 2nd piano concerto played on Friday, and in a number of his motets and other choral pieces. Soon there is a bold melody from the cello, soon repeated, that reminded me of some of his lovely lieder. This was followed by a violin melody, and wistful interchanges between the instruments. More fine melodies later made the whole a very satisfying movement.

The scherzo second movement produced long, winding passages that had a mysterious quality, apart from the jocular presto trio section, which was more like a gipsy dance, with much pizzicato backing it. The slow movement again did not quickly reveal its tonal home. Again, pizzicato ornamented the melodies, lessening the solemnity somewhat. The tempo and spirit livened up for a time, before lapsing back into pensive mood, with its undulating phrases and rhythms.

The finale restored life, colour and sparkle. Once more, there were dynamic solo passages for the cello. Comparisons are unfair, but… compared with Tchaikovsky, Brahms shows plenty of inventiveness, in a less exuberant style; the exciting ending perhaps gave the lie to that remark.

It was marvellous to hear these works from outside the standard chamber music repertoire. The three substantial works brought out uniformly excellent playing from the ensemble. The concert was being recorded by Radio New Zealand Concert, so we may look forward to hearing it again, via radio.