Sweeney Todd – powerful and disturbing theatre at St.James’, Wellington

New Zealand Opera (in association with Victorian Opera) presents:
SWEENEY TODD – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Music and Lyrics by STEPHEN SONDHEIM
Book by HUGH WHEELER (from a play by Christopher Bond)

Cast: Sweeney Todd – Teddy Tahu Rhodes
Mrs Lovett – Antoinette Halloran
Anthony Hope – James Benjamin Rodgers
Johanna – Amelia Berry
Tobias Ragg – Joel Granger
Judge Turpin – Phillip Rhodes
Beadle Bamford – Andrew Glover
Beggar Woman – Helen Medlyn
Adolfo Pirelli – Robert Tucker
Jonas Fogg – James Ioelu

Ensemble: Cameron Barclay, Stuart Coats, Declan Cudd
Barbara Graham, Elisabeth Harris, David Holmes
Morag McDowell, Chris McRae, Catherine Reaburn
Emma Sloman, Imogen Thirlwall

Conductor: Benjamin Northey
Director: Stuart Maunder
Designer: Roger Kirk
Lighting: Philip Lethlean
Audio: Jim Aitkins
Wardrobe: Elizabeth Whiting

Orchestra Wellington

St.James Theatre, Wellington

Friday 30th September, 2016

Stuart Maunder, New Zealand Opera’s chief, and the director of the company’s current production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd”, showing at Wellington’s St.James Theatre, called the show in a welcome message written in the programme “a meaty night out at the opera”. I admit I took fright for an instant, irrespective of my largely carnivorous food preferences history. It was just that I didn’t really fancy watching a series of lurid, blood-letting encounters served up for the edification of a respectable opera-going audience who might, without warning, transmogrify into a baleful mob calling for the entrails of the next unfortunate Christian thrown into the middle of the Circus Maximus.

However, reason prevailed – and suspecting that my reaction was probably due to a somewhat over-developed imagination, I resolved to bravely gird my loins, and “tough” my way through the predicted carnage!  While I’m not exactly a veteran of many cutting-edge, “anything goes” theatrical productions in the flesh (so to speak) I had seen sufficient examples on film of no-holds-barred ventures into some pretty visceral stuff to know that some present-day forays into the theatre could be pretty harrowing for audiences – so I resigned myself to be ready for anything!

As it turned out, my protective shields soon began to fall away, as, during the course of the drama, I became increasingly involved and/or empathetic with the intricacies, impulses and foibles of the story’s various characters. It was obvious that this production, with its ready and compelling amalgam of colourful Victorian atmosphere and accompanying operatic volatility and tragic darkness at its heart would bring out so much more than merely the notorious examples of violent blood-letting that the subject of “the Demon Barber of Fleet Street” has become renowned for above all other considerations.

I couldn’t help feeling the parallels between Sweeney Todd, the “demon barber”, and one of the most famous of all grand operatic characters, the misshapen jester Rigoletto. Each story has at its heart the darkness of wrong being done and having to be paid for in blood by the main character – Sweeney, the innocent victim of the rapacious desires of a judge who through deportation deprived him of his wife (whom he described as “virtuous”) and daughter; and Rigoletto, the unfortunate victim of his own physical deformity and the unfortunate loss of his wife, (whom he described as “an angel”), and, eventually, his daughter. (There’s actually a posting on the web which takes up this theme and develops it – it can be found on the following link http://dropera.blogspot.co.nz/2014/09/rigoletto-todd-demon-jester-of-mantua.html)

I won’t reiterate the points made by the linked article – but the upshot of Sondheim’s music and librettist Hugh Wheeler’s book is that the original “penny-dreadful” character-creation, Sweeney Todd, is fleshed-out, becoming a man with a “past” who is done a great wrong by society, and is determined to wreak revenge upon those responsible (Sondheim was inspired by Christopher Bond’s eponymous 1970s play, which set the character of Sweeney on the road to a kind of almost heroic status, transcending his former grisly serial-killer populist origins).

Quite frankly I couldn’t imagine the work more effectively realized in broad brush-stroke terms than in the performance we witnessed on opening night here in Wellington – one could perhaps cavil at this and that detail, most of which would anyway be matters of individual taste rather than theatrical and operatic absolutes. I haven’t seen another “Sweeney” live, but looked at several complete performance on you-tube, finding nothing that essentially superseded my memory and appreciation of what I witnessed “live” in the St.James last Friday evening. To me the overall atmosphere, the general plan and specific detailings of the set, the powerfully-focused lighting, the costumes that looked as though they had “grown” on the characters, and the sheer, no-holds-barred identification of each cast member with his or her role made for an overwhelming theatrical experience.

What a gift for a vibrant, energetic chorus this work is! – no mere indiscriminate body of variously-garbed onlookers upon whatever, these people lived their different roles as though their lives depended upon the outcome – often they were the story’s trajectory-makers, recounting and commenting on scenarios and events, almost always with clearly-ennunciated diction, even if some of Sondheim’s contrapuntal efforts resulted in general effect rather than specific detailing. Musical and dramatic force occasionally fused to telling effect, an example being the occasional appearance of the well-known “Dies irae” theme, beloved of Requiem settings by various composers throughout the ages, delivered with chilling, almost apocalyptic focus apposite to the stage action.

I thought one of the chorus’s greatest, and most breathtaking moments came mid-way through the Second Act, when vocalized storytelling power was suddenly and dramatically made flesh as the various members broke ranks and assumed the guises of an asylum’s inmates. The ensemble relished the depictions of chaos before regrouping at the scene’s end to drive the music’s fate-saturated course to the point of combustion with their repeated phrase “city on fire!”, echoing and abetting the various characters’ agitations – all very organically and compellingly advanced, the final reiterations of the “Dies ire” theme in the final chorus suitably cathartic, considering the Shakespearian body-count at the work’s conclusion.

The story-line takes in both dark, life-embittered business and youthful, idealized romance, but, there again, so does Beethoven’s Fidelio – rather than regard the scenes between Sweeney’s daughter, Johanna, and her young lover, Anthony, as lacking in edge, one must welcome their presence as stars determinedly negating the all-enveloping gloom of a night sky. I thought both Amelia Berry and James Benjamin Rodgers a whole-hearted, life-enhancing duo, making the most of their admittedly under-developed opportunities (though both the first appearance and the reprise of their duet “Kiss me!” was a delight, regarding both its singing and the pair’s accompanying interactions!). Each continued that quality of identification displayed in roles I’d previously seen them take, Berry as an attractive and spirited Zerlina in Don Giovanni and Rodgers as a beautifully characterized Goro in Madama Butterfly.

Antitheses of characterization were provided by a different partnership, that of Robert Tucker’s strong and vibrant-cum-sleazy Adfolfo Pirelli, the showman who attempted to blackmail Sweeney with the latter’s secret past, and his young assistant Tobias Ragg, played by Joel Granger, who conveyed with heartfelt ease his character’s almost naive wholeheartedness and loyalty towards his “protector”, the redoubtable Mrs Lovett, Sweeney’s partner in crime. But an extra dimension of character antithesis rolled into one was conveyed most masterfully by Helen Medlyn, whose portrayal as a mysterious, sometimes deranged, occasionally grisette-like, but at moments almost visionary beggar-woman was a kind of tour-de-force of characterization, transcending the almost “Game-of-Thrones” brutality with which she was despatched by the by-then-maniacal Sweeney (which action proved to be his ultimate undoing).

Villainy of interestingly-coloured threads was variously displayed by both Phillip Rhodes’ Judge Turpin, and Andrew Glover’s Beadle Bamford. The judge’s self-flagellation scene (partly confessional, partly self-indulgent airings of his lustful thoughts regarding Johanna, whom he had adopted as his ward after deporting her father to Australia!) I thought an interesting “take” on proverbial Victorian hypocrisy – through no fault of Phillip Rhodes’ I didn’t think it wasn’t entirely convincing, (and those actual whips seemed very “stylized”, almost to a fault!) – though compared with some rather naff fully-clothed equivalent self-flagellations I watched on You Tube which seemed particularly hypocritical, at least this Judge Turpin appeared to be actually punishing his bare flesh – which, I suppose, might have done it for some members of the audience. More importantly, Rhodes’ singing was a joy – characteristically deep, dark and satisfyingly sinister-sounding, and able to adopt more honeyed tones when appropriate.

And I did relish Andrew Glover’s portrayal of the free-wheeling Beadle Bamford, particularly enjoying the contrast between his swaggering First-Act manner and those almost genteel flecks of self-satisfaction he emitted when playing Mrs Lovett’s harmonium and singing a duet with her. Throughout, his calculated interactions with other characters (such as his suggestions to the Judge regarding ways of making the latter appear more attractive to women – “Ladies in their Sensitivities”) most effectively contributed to something of a study of controlled menace, all the more potent in its implications for whatever outcomes might result.

It could be said that one couldn’t have a “Sweeney Todd” without a performer to do the title role justice – but a great Sweeney would be almost nothing without an equally charismatic partner. This was, of course, the pie-shop lady, Mrs Lovett, who knew Sweeney in his previous life, and who told him upon his return from exile her version of what happened to his wife and his daughter. Here, it was the superb Antoinette Halloran, who brought energy, vibrancy, a great singing voice and well-honed acting skills to the role, bringing out all of the character’s charm and humour as well as a toughness and pragmatism necessary for survival in what were, obviously, tough times in a tough environment.

Though different as chalk from cheese to her Sweeney on this occasion, it was, in a sense, a match made in a theatrical heaven, as each character’s particular largesse complemented the other’s, presenting a kind of united front to the world, even if the fatal flaws in their interaction led to their eventual undoing. As Sweeney, Teddy Tahu Rhodes’ imposing figure certainly commanded the stage, his presence as enigmatic as Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, and as deep-browed as Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard. In contrast to Halloran’s flexible instrument, Rhodes’ tones had a rock-steadiness that allowed for little more than a basic variation of emotion, but which was expressive enough to convey grief at the memory of his long-lost wife and child, tender and flexible enough to salute his long-forgotten barber’s tools (“My Friends”) restored to him by the resourceful Mrs Lovett, and characterful enough to be her foil and allow occasional sparks to fly from their intermingling – their quick-fire-rhyming duet, “A Little Priest”, for instance, demonstrating adroit musical reflexes and teamwork, and producing an exhilarating and enjoyable result.

Yes, bucketfuls of blood were indeed spilt, but in almost every case the killings were practically ritualised, indeed, choreographed, sometimes with the music, so as to add a kind of execution-like air to the vengeful Sweeney’s murderous activities. Come-uppances were also the order of the day for most of the major players in the drama, with only the young lovers and the somewhat (by the end) deranged Tobias remaining more-or-less intact regarding life and limb! So the final sequence featured a ghostly parade of victims and perpetrators of violence alike, as the opening music returned and the chorus delivered the “Dies irae” motif amongst the pulsating textures and tones for the last time, with, fittingly, Sweeney and Mrs Lovett giving the audience the show’s final ironic salute just before the superbly-timed blackout.

So, great theatre, supported by brilliant direction from conductor Benjamin Northey, and on-the-spot playing from Orchestra Wellington. Altogether, it made for an  experience which I thought would have given the average opera-goer food for thought regarding the divisions often drawn between musical theatre and opera, ones which the musical genius of Stephen Sondheim seemed often in this work to call to question/

(A reminder: final two performances in Wellington at the St.James Theatre tonight (Tuesday) 4th Oct. at 6pm and Wednesday 5th Oct. at 7:30pm)

Mature performances by undergraduate NZSM guitar students at St Andrew’s

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts

Classical guitar students of the New Zealand School of Music
Dylan Solomon, Olivia Fetherston, Joel Baldwin, Rameka Tamaki, Amber Madriaga

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 28 September, 12:15 pm

This student recital was a showcase for an honours student (Solomon) set beside four first and second year students. The test for the audience might have been to have asked them to identify the levels of accomplishment of each, without knowing their place in the academic hierarchy. Without denigrating the splendid playing of Solomon, I was often surprised at both the skill and the interpretive insights displayed by the undergraduate students.

Because soprano saxophonist Kim Hunter had a conflicting engagement, Solomon substituted for the planned piece for saxophone and guitar by Giulianni, a solo guitar piece by James Mountain, Four Fountains, and the Gigue from Bach’s Lute Suite in C minor (BWV 997).

James Mountain is an Australian composer/guitarist, and this piece was inspired by Len Lye’s Four Fountains, a central installation at the Len Lye Centre in the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth.

He began with such unobtrusive hand movements at the top of the strings, that I thought he was perhaps tuning in an unusual way. But it soon became clear that we were in flight and the ethereal sounds seemed to confirm the sense of a Len Lye creation. I have not yet got to see the new Len Lye gallery so I’ll satisfy myself with an extract from the gallery’s website:

“The new Len Lye Centre opened in July 2015 with an audience favourite: the gentle swaying Fountain, a bundle of rotating stainless-steel rods that twist, flex and shimmer. Among the earliest of Lye’s ‘tangible motion sculptures’, Fountain became a work he returned to throughout the 1960s and 1970s with numerous variations in collections around the world.

“Performing alongside three earlier versions of Fountain, a new member of this family of works arrived in 2015 with the 8-metre tall version – Fountain IV – engineered by the Len Lye Foundation based on Lye’s detailed design drawings and notes.”

Having made this connection, I would rather like to hear the piece again. There were two parts: the first an ethereal, spectral melody in a gently swaying motion; the second, more corporeal, with faster, rolling chords, yet still enigmatic and hypnotic with an endlessly repeated note in the centre of the surrounding sounds.

Solomon’s second piece was the Gigue from Bach’s Lute Suite in C minor. The authenticity of the lute suites and other pieces for the lute is a subject that the layman might well avoid. At one end of the controversy is the lack of evidence that Bach wrote any suites specifically for the lute, and that the so-called lute suites (BWV 995 – 1000), are arrangements of music written for other instruments. The water is muddied by transcriptions of, for example, Bach’s solo violin sonatas and partitas being entitled (by Hopkinson Smith for example) as ‘lute sonatas and partitas’.

It was a rather moderato version of a gigue which is often presented as a quicker dance, but then all the dances that came to be employed by composers over the centuries were treated in individual ways, without the focus primarily on dancing. The way this went was very attractive.

A couple of weeks earlier I’d attended the concert in the Adam Concert Room at Victoria University where Marek Pasieczny himself played; here, first-year student Olivia Fetherston played his Little Sonata of 2011; she reported that it was based to some extent on pieces by Hindemith and Schubert, though I didn’t recognise anything very reminiscent of the styles of either composer. It’s a carefully written work which does not, as the name suggests, outlive the interest of its material; it called for the player to give much attention to dynamics, vibrato, subtle tempo changes, interesting sequences of chords that are always an engaging aspect of the instrument’s resources, and flashes of flamenco-like strumming in the last movement. All played with impressive accuracy and sensitivity.

Joel Baldwin played three of Lilburn’s Canzonas. Though I’ve heard them played on guitar before, I had not heard the one presented as No 1 which is based on Sings Harry; perhaps it’s a changed sequence adopted for the guitar arrangements. The usual No 1 is that composed as incidental music, as were two of the others, for Ngaio Marsh’s famous Shakespeare productions for the Canterbury University College Drama Society: this one for Hamlet, and Joel played that second. I didn’t catch the origin of the third one – either for Marsh’s Othello, or for Maria Dronke’s reading of Rilke’s famous The Lay of Love and Death of Cornet Rilke. They lie very well for the guitar, but are deceptively hard to capture, given Lilburnian elusiveness and reticence; and it’s no disgrace not to have mastered every subtlety. He followed with the Fugue from Bach’s solo violin sonata in G minor, BWV 1001, one of those transcribed via a lute arrangement. His playing was fluent and managed to find the outlines of the fugal workings clearly.

Rameka Tamaki played two contemporary pieces, the first by Cuban composer Leo Brouwer and the second by eminent French composer Roland Dyens. With Brouwer’s Danza del Altiplano Tamaki showed a surprisingly comfortable familiarity, as if he’d lived on the Altiplano (the high plateau straddling Bolivia, Peru and Chile) rather than Cuba. There was an instinctive feel for the rhythm and his fingering was agile; he seemed to rejoice in the nasal sound created by strumming close to the bridge.

Dyens’s famous Tango en Skaï, has cropped up in school of music recitals a few times over the years. For a young first year student, Rameka Tamaki exhibited an air of confidence and considerable virtuosity in the varied demands on each hand. Perhaps it’s a kind of send-up of the Argentinian tango and the playing commanded the complex rhythms and flourishes with seeming ease.

Finally Amber Madriaga. First she played the pair of minuets from Bach’s solo violin partita in E minor, BWV 1006, the first of which is a gentle piece, very exposed for a violinist though not that hard simply to play the notes and the same goes for the guitarist. The second minuet, a little more subdued in spirit, is usually played at the same tempo, but she emphasised its meditative character by slowing further; a satisfying performance.

I recalled Madriaga’s name from her participation in the university’s Young Musicians Programme in 2012 where she played the Tango en Skaï. Here she played, instead, Dyens’s Fuoco (from his Libra sonatina), a furiously virtuosic piece that was, perhaps, not technically perfect, but nevertheless exemplifying the admirable level of accomplishment that the school of music is achieving, specifically in guitar.




High drama, pastoral beauty and symphonic grandeur from the WCO with Michael Vinten

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:

MOZART – Overture “Don Giovanni” K.527
MAHLER – Seven Early Songs / Symphonic Movement “Blumine”
BEETHOVEN – Symphony No.3 “Eroica” Op.55

Maaike Christie-Beekman (soprano)
Wellington Chamber Orchestra
Michael Vinten (conductor)

St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace Church, Wellington

Sunday, 25th September, 2016

It’s always fascinating to encounter the efforts of musicians who aren’t full-time professional players literally throwing themselves wholeheartedly at music that’s challenging and difficult, however well-known it might seem. I can claim to having had some limited but nevertheless exhilarating experience as such a player in an amateur orchestra, in another life! – what a pleasure it was, that of being able to listen “from the inside” to various pieces which I thought I knew well until the chance of actually taking part in performances of them came my way. As far as my own appreciation of music and music-listening went, these opportunities were revelatory, and at times challenging – I found myself more and more concerned with looking for answers to the question a friend once posed to me in regard to the quality of a music performance I’d attended: – “What do you mean, “It was good”?”

The above paragraph seemed to type itself, to my surprise, as soon as I began thinking about the recent WCO concert I’d gone to, drawn by the prospect of hearing a “live Eroica”! Wondering whether there would be anybody the least bit interested in my somewhat “small dreams of a scorpion” orchestral-playing experiences, I was sorely tempted at first to draw a veil over my musings and begin again. However, as I’d recently struggled with a couple of my reviewing assignations regarding how to even begin various articles, I thought I wouldn’t on this occasion spurn a spontaneous outpouring – something obviously deep and even perhaps Freudian or Jungian may well have been behind it all, which may well further reveal itself as the review continues…….so, be warned, Middle C reader!

The Mahler Songs offered on the programme had different attractions, not the least of which was the pleasure of listening to Maaike Christie-Beekman’s singing, which I’ve very much enjoyed in the past. Another significant aspect was that the accompaniments for all seven songs were orchestrations by the concert’s conductor, Michael Vinten –  I would imagine that they had been performed previously, else we would have been told that these were “world premiere performances”. While not having a comprehensive knowledge of the composer’s vocal output I recall being delighted by encountering at some stage a recording of a Mahler recital by Janet Baker (with piano accompaniment), and was hoping that some of the songs I enjoyed on that occasion might be served up once again in their newly-minted orchestral guise. What a remarkable phenomenon the late twentieth-century rise of the music of Mahler has been! – and in the process, the once-frequently-cited and off-putting “heaviness” of the composer’s musical language, in terms of both texture and duration, has gradually become less and less of a difficulty for concert-goers as his work becomes more frequently performed.

Apropos to these versions of the songs was the presence on the podium of the man responsible for the orchestrations, Michael Vinten.  I’ve greatly admired his conducting at various times, as I have  his work over the years as Wellingon Chorus Master for the New Zealand Opera. He’s taken a number of productions for the company on national tours, and I remember with particular pleasure his direction of a “Cosi fan tutti” in the Wellington Opera House a number of years ago, a  work I was delighted to hear him conduct again in 2013 for Days Bay Opera in Wellington. Purely by chance I happened to be speaking to a WCO orchestra player a couple of days before this present concert,  whose response to my enquiry as to how things were going was that “we were being really pushed hard by the conductor!” So with this in mind, I rolled up to St.Andrew’s church on Wellington’s The Terrace, expecting plenty of fireworks of the “thrills -and-spills” variety, but hoping that the “pushed hard” result wouldn’t crowd out the musicality this ensemble had often shown they were capable of.

The concert began with Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” Overture – right from the beginning Michael Vinten directed the players how he meant to go on, insisting on sharply-accentuated, abrupt chordings, swift, impulsive accompaniments and swirling, agitated lines which, ensemble-wise, spun in and out of control. The musicians bent their backs to the task of getting their fingers around the notes, while the strings tried valiantly to listen to one another to integrate their ensemble and establish the “gait” of the music, with the winds occasionally shining through like beacons throwing out guiding light in the midst of a storm. At the reprise of the opening allegro, things had settled in together more consistently, though the agitated sequences, with their tricky syncopations, meant that the players couldn’t relax for a moment. The unfamiliar “concert ending” involved a return to these energetic gestures, which, given the music’s subject matter, gave rise to the thought that there simply seemed no rest here for the wicked and virtuous alike!

But there was relief at hand, in the shape and form of a number of songs of great and distinctive beauty. The young Mahler wrote several of them as a planned cycle as early as 1880, while in thrall to the charms of a local girl, but as the romance waned so did the composer’s inspiration, so that the cycle was never finished. Others were written for a performance of Tirso de Molina’s play “Don Juan” and another, “Hans und Grete”, found its way into the Ländler movement of the composer’s First Symphony. Eventually five of them became Book One of his collection “Lieder und Gesang”, published in 1892, the remaining two being recycled by the composer in his cantata “Das Klagende Lied” – in fact, throughout much of Mahler’s output there exist these kinds of thematic connections between his songs and larger works which greatly enriched his creativity.

Soprano Maaike Christie-Beekman, who I’d heard, incidentally, in that aforemetioned Days Bay performance of “Cosi” conducted by Vinten, brought a rich and variegated tonal palette and a gift for characterisation to these songs which vividly brought out their qualities in every instance. As for the orchestrations, I thought they were miraculously-wrought, readily persuading us that it was the composer’s own voice we were hearing. Mahler’s ready identification with the theme of despair over lost love redolently coloured both “Im Lenz” (In Spring) and “Winterlied” (Winter Song), each of which contained beautiful and atmospheric evocations of nature; while in contrast “Hans und Grete” captured a very Germanic fairy-tale feeling, with some energetic and abandoned whoops of joy fron the singer at each verse’s end. The players did ample justice throughout to their conductor’s orchestral re-imaginings and to his direction of them – the final song, “Frühlingsmorgen” (Spring Morning) featured a rolling, lyrical carpet of orchestral sound on which the voice was able to sail, supported by atmospheric wind interjections, enjoining the sleeper to “….get up!  The sun has risen!”, and giving tongue to naturalistic ambiences such as birdsong at the end. It was, I thought, all a great success, and received by the audience with all due appreciation.

As a kind of adjunct to the songs, we heard the orchestral movement “Blumine”, a piece Mahler composed originally for his First Symphony, before deciding to take it out (it’s every so often re-instated in performances of the Symphony as a kind of “completist” exercise by orchestras and conductors, even though it’s generally agreed that Mahler’s decision to dispense with it was the appropriate one). Here it was given a securely-voiced, beautifully-focused and nicely-played performance, featuring several exposed orchestral solos, not the least of them being the trumpet solo (accurately and atmospherically played by Donald Holborow), with the oboe occasionally prominent as well, to haunting effect.

After the interval came the “Eroica” – and we were instantly galvanised by Michael Vinten’s opening relentlessly driving beat, which immediately brought to my mind that famous quote often attributed to conductor Arturo Toscanini, who, when asked whether he thought of Napoleon Bonaparte when conducting the symphony’s opening movement, retorted impatiently, “Is not-a Napoleon! Is not-a Eroica! Is allegro con brio!”. Here, it sounded to me more like “allegro con furioso!”, an effect which was admittedly exacerbated by the strings’ difficulties in keeping their ensemble sufficiently together whenever the music splintered into separate running figurations. It struck me that Vinten had possibly made things more difficult for his players by dividing his first and second violins to left and right of the orchestra, in aid of their lines’ antiphonal effect. The sections themselves held together, but at that speed and across those vistas, things often came unstuck between them, ensemble-wise.

No such difficulties were experienced by the winds who often steadied the ensemble, as it were, after certain sequences, especially those calling for syncopated dovetailings among the string bodies. While admiring Vinten’s attitude that Beethoven’s published metronome markings were “more-or-less viable”, I felt that he was trying to impose a performance ethic onto an ensemble which simply couldn’t deal with his demands, and therefore required some compromise so as to produce a more musical result. I’d felt something of the same about aspects of Vince Hardaker’s conducting of the WCO in the ensemble’s performance, earlier in the year, of Schubert’s “Great” C Major Symphony.

I realise there’s been something of a fresh, authentic-spirited breeze blowing through all aspects of traditional performance practices in classical music over the last forty years or so. It’s revamped and rehabilitated what we’ve come to call “period performance” styles, and has often involved some none-too-gentle “cleansing” of what are considered by the purists to be inauthentic traditions tacked on by succeeding generations. But it’s sometimes seemed to me that some of the more extreme attempts to “recreate the original” and cast aside all spurious accumulations have resulted in something that’s simply too literal-sounding to be real and properly “alive”, to the point where the actual baby seems to have been thrown out with the bath water.

This review isn’t really an appropriate forum to further expound my own feelings on the topic (the above paragraph just “slipped out” – sorry!), as I merely wanted to pose the question regarding what conductor and orchestra did in order to try and realise in concert both the Mozart and Beethoven items on the programme – how musical was the result? Regarding the first movement of the “Eroica” I thought the conductor put the ensemble (especially the strings) under too much pressure, however laudable in principle were his ideas. Certain passages in the music rang out splendidly, and the instrumental detailing in places was most effective,  the appearance of the “theme from nowhere” on strings and wind straight after those big, tromping chords mid-movement, the famous “false horn” solo (“Damn that horn! – he’s come in too early!” a listener at the first performance supposedly exclaimed!), and the trumpet-led climax (which, very properly, was broken off halfway through, as Beethoven intended – a number of my “older” recordings of the symphony have the trumpet continuing right through!). But the music’s grandeur, for me, was in places compromised by the players’ struggles to keep the ensemble together at the conductor’s extreme, Toscanini-like “allegro con brio”!

The famous “Funeral March” movement fared better, the oboe solo near the beginning striking a proper lament-like quality, supported later by the chorus of winds and strings with more breathing-space in which to phrase the music – though the fugal section gave the strings more ensemble problems (again, I think they found it difficult to actually hear one another when trying to keep together). However, the winds sounded resplendent in places, with the clarinet really singing out! And the concluding, halting and grief-stricken sequences towards the movement’s end were realised with great feeling. Likewise, the Scherzo conveyed, in places, plenty of energetic character, the oboe solo alert, and the “tutti” sequences working well, as did the quick-fire strings-and-winds exchanges, even if the quieter, strings-only passages again had some precarious moments. However, if anything about the performance was truly “heroic” it was the playing of the three horns in the trio – the somewhat crude expression “they nailed it!” was nevertheless truly apposite on this occasion!

Beethoven gives his musicians mountain after mountain to climb in this work, the finale being no exception. There’s an arresting initial flourish, a teasing bass-figure, and a triplet variation (again, I thought Vinten’s tempi just that bit too urgent for his strings to be able to keep it together) leading to that heart-warming “Prometheus” theme on the oboe, taken at a fair old lick, but effectively keeping up the music’s momentum. The minor-key, Hungarian-like dance variation had colour and bite, and the ensemble pulled the strands of the fugue together at the end with gusto, allowing the oboe-led winds to lead the way into the great poco andante section, giving the horns another chance to shine with their judiciously-placed detailing.

Most interestingly, Michael Vinten took the movement’s  coda, marked presto, at a pace that allowed the players to get around their phrasings and fill out their tones – he had outlined in a programme note his investigations of the tempo markings, and considered that the music was well-nigh unplayable if the score’s metronome indications were followed. Believing that a misprint had occurred, he took the passage at a speed which sounded to me eminently musical, not the helter-skelter that we sometimes get from performances which sound as though the players are trying to make sure they catch the last bus home.

Such exacting beasts, these symphonies! But wonderful to hear them played, and experience both thrills and spills in their realisation. I can’t recall who it was who said Beethoven’s music always seemed greater than it could be played (for me that idea could apply to all great music), but hearing it “live” is always, as was the case here, an occasion for plenty of excitement and enjoyment!

Annual Wellington Aria Contest final showcases some fine talent

Wellington Regional Vocal Competitions: Final
(Hutt Valley Performing Arts Competition Society)

Adjudicator: Martin Snell
Finalists: Laura Loach, Elyse Hemara, Emily Mwila, Sophie Sparrow, Frederick Jones, Pasquale Orchard, Olivia Sheat, Joe Haddow
Accompanists: Catherine Norton and Mark Dorrell
Commentator: Georgia Jamieson Emms

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 18 September, 7:30 pm

This year eighteen singers entered for the annual aria contest (it used to be the Hutt Valley Aria, when there was also a Wellington-based contest, run by the Wellington Competitions Society which died in the 1970s).

Some names were more familiar to me than others. I had only recalled Laura Loach in a smaller role in last year’s Gondoliers from Wellington G&S Light Opera, but couldn’t recall her voice. Her first aria was ‘Vissi d’arte’ from Tosca in which her large voice emerged both accurately but perhaps with rather more ferocity than pathos. Her second piece was Agathe’s beautiful ‘Leise, leise fromme Weise’ from Der Freischütz; it calls for quite marked contrasts, as it moves from the recitative-like ‘Wie nahte mir der Schlummer’, to the aria proper. Her voice was under nice control, even and subdued, then preparing a good contrast as the intensity builds to the big tune from the overture: ‘All meine Pulse schlagen, Und das Herz wallt ungestüm…’ which I thought was really fine.

Elyse Hemara’s first aria was one of Massenet’s loveliest from his little known Hérodiade, ‘Il est doux, il est bon’, that one only hears in anthologies by the likes of Kiri and Angela Gheorghiu. Intonation was a bit shaky to begin, but as she gained confidence there was sensitivity, and a sense that she meant what she was saying. Here she was in a quite different sort of role, having heard her as Lady Billows in the excerpt from Albert Herring a couple of weeks ago; but just as comvincing.

Like Massenet’s Hérodiade, I Vespri siciliani is not one of Verdi’s best known operas, but Elena’s fifth act aria, ‘Mercé, dilette amiche’, known as the ‘Bolero’, stands out in a somewhat laborious, if essentially Verdian score. Elyse, now in a rich deep purple dress, hinting at Roman aristocracy, shone in this bravura aria (no matter the missing top note), supported by Mark Dorrell’s scintillating piano.

I’d been impressed by Emily Mwila who sang Zerlina in both casts of Eternity Opera’s Don Giovanni: made for her. I was impressed that she’d tackle the only pre-Mozart aria in the Finals and she succeeded in expressing dignified grief in Handel’s Giulio Cesare (‘Piangero’); slightly desperate in the faster middle section, with accurate bravura flourishes.

For her second item, Emily also departed from the Italian repertory to which almost all the other finalists confined themselves: ‘Je veux vivre’, or the Waltz Song as it used to be called, from Roméo et Juliette. I admired Emily’s taste in dress, a subdued brocaded yellow. With teen-aged delirium she almost danced through her excitement at attending the ball where she’ll meet Romeo for the first time. Fully in command of her technique, it confirmed her radiant soubrette flair.

For the last year or so Georgia Jamieson Emms has introduced each item with amusing and pertinent remarks and sometimes a flippant precis of an opera plot which have added richly to the audience’s enjoyment. Her remarks about obscure works were particularly engaging.

I hadn’t come across the fourth finalist, Sophie Sparrow, before. Accompanied with colour and subtlety by Catherine Norton, she unearthed an aria from Mozart’s youthful La finta giardiniera, which I seem to recall, inconsequentially, as an opera in which Malvina Major had a principal role in the late 1980s. It was at La Monnaie, the national opera in Brussels, when her career was seriously taking off. ‘Gema la tortorella’ is sung by one Sandrina, the name assumed by the ‘fake gardener’. In truth, as Georgina hinted, it’s one of the more absurd opera plots, but contains lovely music; I wondered whether Miss Sparrow had picked an aria about a bird (a dove) deliberately (better known of course is Antonia’s aria in The Tales of Hoffmann ‘Elle a fui, la tourterelle’, and perhaps Stephano’s ‘Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle?’ from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette). A fine bird simulation, with high staccato notes.

Her second choice was from an American opera that has become reasonably well known in the United States: Douglas Moore’s 1956 work, Baby Doe (not a nice story). It revealed a voice under very good control, again much of it lying high yet comfortably within her range, without becoming attenuated.

Sophie Sparrow was placed as runner-up by adjudicator Martin Snell.

Frederick Jones has a tenor voice of considerable purity and emotional range. I’ve come across him at the Opera School in Whanganui and in a couple of productions (Il Corsaro from the NZSM in 2013 and Der Rosenkavalier from Opera at Days Bay). He stuck to arias that exploited both his command of major tenor roles as well as strongly contrasted emotions : great happiness in the case of Alfredo in La traviata, and despair at becoming victim of a stupid masculine honour code in the case of Lensky in Eugene Onegin.

That he wore a dinner suit for both, in contrast to all the other singers who sought to match dress with the roles, clearly did him no harm. His voice was refined and polished and created, with limited hand or facial gestures, the emotion of each aria. Even so, it seemed to me that Alfredo’s words ‘bollenti spiriti’ lacked much real ecstasy. Lensky’s aria however, was full of helpless grief.

Jones was awarded the main prize, the $4000 Dame Malvina Major Foundation Wellington Aria Prize.

Pasquale Orchard has sung in at least a couple of G&S Light Opera’s productions; and she also reached for Der Freischütz, this time the aria from Agathe’s cousin Ännchen, ‘Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen’, her effort to relieve Agathe’s anxiety about Max’s chances in the shooting contest. She was in cheerful peasant gear, a green top and pink apron and she sang with even tone, investing it with a similar spirit.

Pasquale also sang Norina’s spunky aria from Don Pasquale (no pun intended). ‘Quel guardo il cavalieri’. Though she sang excellently, her voice showed more brilliance and accuracy than beauty in her high register.

Pasquale Orchard won the Rokfire prize for the most outstanding singer overall (strangely, a prize that seemed not to be mentioned in the programme).

She and the next singer, Olivia Sheat, had sung together as Frasquita and Mercedes in the Card Scene from Carmen at the NZSM opera excerpts concert 10 days ago.

Olivia Sheat’s first item was from Peter Grimes: the Embroidery Aria where Ellen sees the jersey that she had embroidered for Grimes’s apprentice who is presumed drowned. With every sign of natural dramatic talent, she captured the vein of confusion and enigmatic concern that invest not just this episode but the whole opera; her choice was no doubt a mark of her training at the New Zealand School of Music.

For her second aria Olivia also drew on Faust, with Marguérite’s Jewel Song, in which, with slightly excessive gestures, she displayed a well-supported voice in growing wonderment and susceptibility to the combined forces of avarice and passion.

Finally, Joseph Haddow, who was winner of the Robin Dumbell Memorial Cup for the young aria entrant with most potential, sang first ‘Ah, per sempre io ti perdei’ from I Puritani, and then the Catalogue aria from Don Giovanni.

I’d heard him a couple of weeks before singing Mozart’s Figaro in the School of Music’s concert of opera scenes. His is a well-founded baritone, a warm voice with a resonant quality, that handled the bravura aspect of the Bellini’s belcanto role well.

And the final offering of the evening, Leporello’s list of the Count’s conquests, is one of the most quintessential and well known arias. Though he didn’t hold the famous ‘catalogue’ in his hands, the hands and facial gestures, with even a touch of cynical sleeziness at the end were the marks of an instinctive singer.

So, as with every occasion when gifted young singers (and classical musicians in general) perform, one feels deep uneasiness at the ever-increasing numbers of fine young artists facing a steadily declining market, in a society that is led by a purportedly educated class that is largely unlettered and uncultivated in fields that separate the civilised from the barbarians.

In addition to the occasional reference in the above notes, I have to remark on the very supportive and artistically appropriate accompaniments from both Catherine Norton and Mark Dorrell.

It may be unorthodox to mention singers that I felt were a bit unlucky not to be named, either those among the Finalists or other entrants whom I’ve heard singing recently. Jamie Henare, heard as Leporello in Don Giovanni last month; Emily Mwila (Zerlina in the same production of Don Giovanni, as well as in the school of music’s recent ‘Scenes from opera’).

Moments in Time – Diedre Irons’ tribute to Judith Clark

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music
Institute of Registered Music Teachers in New Zealand (IRMT)

Judith Clark Memorial Piano Series
Second Recital – Diedre Irons

HAYDN – Sonata Hob.XVI:52 in E-flat Major
DEBUSSY – Suite Bergamasque
LISZT – Sonata in B Minor S.178

Adam Concert Room, NZSM Campus, Victoria University

Sunday, 18th September, 2016

It’s sometimes difficult to imagine Diedre Irons as ever having had another “life” as a person and performing musician, so very much has she become part and parcel of this country’s musical fabric, especially of late in the Wellington region. Now in retirement from her position as Head of Piano Studies at Studies at Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music, a position she held from 2003 to 2012, she regularly appears in concert, mostly as a chamber musician, but occasionally as a soloist with orchestra, and on the recital platform.

Her career as a performing musician and as a teacher extends from her upbringing in Winnipeg, Canada, through her piano performance studies with Rudolf Serkin and Mieczyslaw Horszowski at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, her subsequent invitation by Serkin to join the Curtis faculty at the conclusion of her studies, and her concertising throughout Canada and the United States as a chamber musician and soloist. She came to New Zealand in 1977, working firstly at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch until 2003, and then in Wellington at the NZSM.

Irons has always sought to put the music before the performer (for this reason she avoided the “piano competition circuit” as a young pianist), though she would, I think, consider the honours that have come her way as much a validation of music as a profession as of her own achievements. She was awarded an MBE for services to music in 1989, and in 2007 she was awarded the degree of Doctor of Music (honoris causa) from Brandon University in Manitoba, Canada ‘in recognition of outstanding contributions in the world of music through superlative achievement as a talented, dedicated and passionate pianist.”

Having been a successor to Judith Clark in the position of Head of Piano Studies at the NZSM, Irons seemed an appropriate choice by dint of that circumstance alone for inclusion as a performer in this series dedicated to the former’s memory, quite apart from her eminence as an executant and interpreter. While on this subject I have to say that I was both thrilled at the choice of artists for the recital “lineup” and somewhat disappointed that an additional place in this stellar gallery of pianists wasn’t found for one of Clark’s most brilliant pupils, Emma Sayers, whose recent return to the recital platform after a long absence was noted and welcomed by Middle C (search “Emma Sayers”)

Such additional conjectures aside, here, then, was Diedre Irons standing before us in the Adam Concert Room, about to present what seemed, on paper, something of a dream recital, consisting of three of the most delectable works in the piano repertoire – Haydn’s final Piano Sonata, Debussy’s beloved “Suite Bergamasque”, and Liszt’s era-defining masterpiece, the B-Minor Piano Sonata. Though presented here most satisfyingly in that order I couldn’t help thinking that each of the three works also represented a different life-stage – Debussy’s youthful, delectable Suite (whose on-going popularity he came to resent in later years), Liszt’s towering, fully-fledged testament to Romanticism in art, conceived in his virtuoso prime, and Haydn’s last and arguably greatest keyboard work, perhaps not dating from his final years but representing a kind of testament of creative endeavour in a particular genre.

“Ages of man” idea or not, Irons simply plunged into the world of each work on its own terms, her music-making as is always the case bristling with characterful connection to the sounds wrought from diverse worlds .  Straightaway, the excitement came with the way she played the first chord of the Haydn Sonata – we were instantly saturated in the warm glow of what seemed at the time like the mother of all E-flat chords, one which instantly anticipated all of those Beethovenian resonances (the “Eroica” Symphony and Variations, the “Emperor” Concerto, and the Fourth Piano Sonata among others), but then, without further ado, took our sensibilities on a truly unique Haydnesque journey – the strength of the pianist’s of flourishes contrasted so tellingly with those playful/wistful sequences that left one open-mouthed at the composer’s seemingly boundless invention, even when following conventions such as the “music-box” mode of the movement’s second theme.

Always a particular delight of Irons’ playing for me has been her all-pervading spontaneity, fuelling an approach which seems to imbue the themes, textures and rhythms of whatever she plays with the feeling of “on-the-spot” creation on the part of both composer and performer – and when that composer, as here, is Haydn, then the “making it up as one goes along” sense of discourse is more than usually heightened. Of course, there are powerful overall creative forces at work behind the scenes, both compositionally and interpretatively, but these were here given such immediacy and theatricality, that we were caught up with the feeling of being present at some kind of fresh exposé, and able to renew our own responses to the music in the process.

I don’t wish to try the reader’s patience by giving a blow-by-blow account of my impressions of Irons’ playing of every phrase (though if I were a piano student I would ponder her sounding of practically every single note, not to produce an imitative effect, but to reflect on her making each phrase, each impulse, each episode “live” in relation to the character of the moment and the effect of the same on the whole….). For my own part I relished her own enjoyment of sequences such as Haydn’s outlandish modulations throughout the movement’s second half – both the reintroduction, in a remote key, of the “music box” sequence, and the harmonic wanderings which led to a disconcerting “luftpause” just before the payoff – what a guy!

In the slow movement, Irons’ filling out of a markedly vocal line seemed to me beautifully shaped and moulded, the “strummed” chords giving the music a minstrel-like, almost bardic character – like a good storyteller would with words, she made us hang upon every one of the composer’s notes. I’d never before noticed quite so strongly how the music seemed to anticipate (again!) Beethoven, in particular his “Tempest” Sonata, with firstly stentorian bass sounds and then distant, echoing resonances at the end.

Irons was certainly one for the teasing repeated-note opening of the finale, and the answering scamperings and somersaultings – she timed the music’s pauses to perfection, setting circumspection against an engaging headstrong energy, keeping us on the edges of our seats with the precarious dancings and unpredictable volatilities of the music, and then transfixing us with the eloquence of the mid-movement declamations, before returning us to the indefatigable energies that whirled the music to its joyous conclusion.

After this, the opening of Debussy’s “Suite Bergamasque” seemed even more rich and expansive than was usual, partly due to Irons’ bringing out the music’s amplitude, giving our imaginations so much space in which to range around and about. The succeeding episode made a wistful contrast with the strength and purpose of the opening, while newly-sounded distant echoes fetched up by Irons like new impulses from an old remembrance led to a resplendent return of the opening, each upward surge of tone presenting us with something rich and memorable.

The following Menuet questioned rather than danced its way forwards, its whimsical enquiries gentle rather than insistent, the music’s ambience seemingly intent on gathering up every fragment of tone as it proceeded, the playing emphasising the resonances as strongly as the music’s stately pulsings – what a rich and redolent world of dream-like impressions! Irons alternated rich chordings with glittering flourishes, before gathering up the threads and returning to the music’s processional aspect, gradually allowing the tones and textures to grow in girth and expectation – and then, with an adroitly-placed cadence dissolved the music in wraith-like fashion.

As I’m presently ham-fistedly learning to play “Clair de lune” myself I’m not able to give a dispassionate opinion of Irons’ interpretation, except to say that her playing of the opening’s return after all the central swirling agitations had a lovely “spent” quality which I found very moving, as I did the half-completed reminiscences of the swirling music at the end – too precious to be revisited, but merely acknowledged and then let go. I thought the whole movement jewel-like in its beauty, here, but also “owned”, as one might recall a memory of a lost love or youthful impulse.

Very rarely do I find myself at odds with anything Irons does at the keyboard – so it was a surprise that, in places during the concluding “Passepied”, I found myself wanting more sense of forward momentum, in places, however delicious and insouciant she sometimes made the dance rhythms sound. In line with her playing of the rest of the suite she seemed to me to realise the music more as a memory than a here-and-now experience, and I wondered if her view of the music was, in fact a little too valedictory in certain places, missing a certain impish delight in momentum for its own sake. I was, come to think of it, reminded by her playing here of the conducting style of Sir John Barbirolli (one of my musical heroes), who realised all the music he directed with great warmth and love and care for detail, to the point where, at certain times for the listener, the trees might seem to obscure the sense of a greater forest……..of course, all of this is subjective and valid unto oneself alone (a friend sitting alongside me, for example, was entranced by it all without reservation). At the end we were grateful to Irons for taking us so very unequivocally and magically into her own realm of enchantment.

Having said all of this, what does one then write about the performance of the Liszt Sonata which followed? Afraid of generalising my impressions of it all I scribbled a number of things down as the music’s journey unfolded, which, when reading back, brought forcibly forward the sense of something realised in direct, unreserved, and wholehearted terms – though anybody familiar with Irons’ playing over the years could have written the above, possibly without even attending the concert! But again, from the outset, we felt ourselves thrust into the music’s seething, pulsating body, those portentous bass notes and the alternating descending figures serving notice of the composer’s  intention to explore even the darkest and most forbidding places on this musical journey.

As is well known, Liszt’s scheme with this music was to announce his basic material in no uncertain terms at the work’s beginning before spreading before us an incredible panoply of characterised sequences all of which were derived from these opening motifs. Irons played these basic motifs with richly-focused eloquence, giving them enough room to expand and resonate without compromising their dramatic or theatrical qualities. Then as the motifs were reiterated in their transformed state, each one extending the composer’s range and scope of vision over the widest possible span, she took to these far-flung variants and fleshed them out with the kind of committed advocacy that made Liszt’s grand design come alive, relating and contrasting the disparate thematic elements within a convincing and satisfying whole.

Whatever the prevailing character of the sequence Irons was playing, she was its committed advocate – how beautifully, for instance, she realised the alchemic transformation of the ominous repeated note theme of the opening into what was perhaps the work’s loveliest lyrical melody, complete with what seemed like a nightingale’s song rounding off each declamation. Against this, the volatility of her plunge into the agitations which followed was breathtaking, edge-of-the-seat stuff, designed to give the precarious, hair-raising effect of living dangerously and courting imminent ruin, a process arrested only by the onset of those massive, orchestrally-conceived chords to which she brought all of her strength and amplitude, to monumental effect.

For those who like to think of the work as a manifestation of the Faust legend, the sequence which immediately followed the above could be construed as the scene in the garden between Faust and Gretchen (or Marguerite, if one is thinking of Gounod, of course!).  Irons relished the beautiful lyricism of the recitatives between the lovers, set against the underlying sardonic comments from the watching Mephistopheles, the whole sequence so operatic and theatrical, and yet drawn with such on-going inevitability and over-riding sense of Fate as to heighten one’s sense of tragedy, however much one relishes this brief respite! So when Irons returned to the great chordal theme which seemed to span the work’s structure at that point like a vast, dominating crossbeam, we were alerted as to the transitory nature of youth and beauty and their associated delights, and reminded of the omnipresence of a greater, more resounding and inevitable state of things.

What a task for the pianist, controlling and regulating the ebb and flow of such a resounding and far-reaching musical structure! For here was a reprise of the opening suddenly stealing in and activating a fugue, one which in Iron’s hands gathered momentum and tightened its grip on the music almost to the point of frenzy – a couple of dropped notes and a slight hiatus at one point in the discourse after the fugal lines revert to chordal figurations in the discourse mattered not a whit amid the excitement and tumult generated by her playing! Those transformed motifs having then reappeared and spent their energies, the music’s course was all but run, Irons conveying its exhaustion, desperation, tremulousness, and resignation, as all of the music’s human endeavour seemed to be mocked by Fate (in the person of the Prince of Darkness?) with the return of the work’s sombre opening. But then, those beautiful, chordal pin-pricks of light at the end were played by Irons with such tremulous hope and longing, that one felt salvation of sorts might be possible after all!

Forgive all of these words! – far more important was that sense of something rich and wonderful having been given to us by Diedre Irons’ radiant and heartfelt playing!


Three wonderful concerts on the day for Mozart and Brahms string quintets

New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl and Monique Lapins violins; Gillian Ansell, viola; Rolf Gjelsten, cello) and James Dunham (viola)
(Chamber Music New Zealand)

Quintessence Mini Festival – 17 September
Concert 2:
Mozart: String Quintet No 5 in D, K 593
Brahms: String Quintet No 1 in F, Op 88

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 17 September, 3 pm 

A series of concerts, like this on Saturday, probably hasn’t been heard in Wellington since 1988 when the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts (as it was originally called) presented members of the Australia Ensemble (six of them), playing all six (not just the four we hear this weekend) of Mozart’s string quintets, plus Brahms’s two string sextets and his string quintet Op 111. It was sponsored by the Turnovsky Endowment Trust, at three concerts on separate evenings in the (then) State Opera House.

That marvellous occasion, in the second of the “REAL” international festivals that began in Wellington in 1986, remains vividly in memory. Just to refresh any skeptics: that was the year Nureyev featured at the Gala opening, when Rostropovich played with the NZSO, at one of three concerts conducted by both Rostropovich and Maxim Shostakovich; with concerts by Franz Bruggen’s Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century; Boulez and the Ensemble InterContemporain; the young Kronos Quartet. And there were daily concerts both at lunchtime and in the early evening by the best New Zealand musicians.

That festival, and the two, even better, run by Chris Doig in 1990 and 1992, which included Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Salome, and plenty of other great classical music, established a brilliant standard that matched the best overseas festivals. That high standard was maintained till about the end of the 1990s; since then the so-called festivals have been dominated by eviscerated, ephemeral spectacle and bizarre, popular-but-forgettable performances.

I was able to get to only the 3pm concert, the second one, with the penultimate Mozart quintet, in D, K 593, plus Brahms’s Op 88. (Missing from this series were Nos 1 and 2, K 174 of 1773 and K 405 of 1787).

It was perhaps too much to expect a very big audience, but the numbers were no disgrace.

Mozart’s D major quintet
Writers about the piece, including Frances Moore in the programme, fasten on the idea of a conversation between the cello and other instruments, a good way to describe much of what goes on in concerted music, and especially reflects the character of the Mozart in D major.

The opening Larghetto, led by Rolf Gjelsten’s cello, did lend a calmly meditative spirit that became rather more sprightly, even witty, later in the first movement, and while its mood is less weighty than the last quintet, K 614, it becomes musically complex and absorbing. The prevailing spirit of this quintet is gentle and beguiling and though the cello does indeed announce a philosophical, profoundly contemplative tone that might be expected to be maintained, it pursues a different path; its contrapuntal character is so subtle that it can virtually escape notice. The first movement is interesting in the way the Larghetto returns at the end.

In a quintet there is an inevitable tendency to listen for ways in which the extra viola (in some cases a cello) enriches the texture. One seeks for hints of favouritism for the first viola, here played by guest violist, James Dunham, but I wondered whether other ears might claim to, or really did, discern any superiority by one over the other, but although the two often had quite different melodic or harmonic roles, they were just as often affording each other support and comfort; their contributions were complementary even though Gillian Ansell’s instrument often seemed to be the dominant party.

The feeling of intimacy was most evident in the Adagio which, through its sheer beauty, came close to reflecting on life’s pains and disappointments. The players seemed sometimes to prolong the ‘rests’ between phrases reminding us that we cannot escape from the nature of humanity.

I often find myself reflecting on what was happening in the world as music was being written. Here, we could contemplate Mozart having learned of the French Revolution a few months before and the death in February 1790 of Emperor Joseph II who had been supportive of the arts: things that were bringing about profound economic and social changes, not just in France, but also in Austria and throughout Europe; as well as to Mozart’s well-being.

The Menuetto, with its joyous spirit, banishes any temptation to contemplate the wider world; the Trio offers each instrument opportunities for solos, typically, repeated, rising arpeggios. The same almost carefree spirit reigns in early pages of the Finale with the descending, chromatic flavoured scales that are like a mirror image of the rising arpeggios in the Minuet. But its real interest lies in the sophisticated counterpoint that arises after a couple of minutes, in what might be called the development part of the movement leading to a fugal passage where the chromatic scales rise and fall for a while, creating a delightful, relatively complex succession of references to earlier material.

The quintet created a wonderful sense of delight throughout, and the concluding phase continued to be elusive as fresh witty interventions by each of the instruments, individually and leap-frogging each other.

It seemed as if Mozart, and the five players understood it utterly, had held back proof of his genius till the very last page of this deceptively cheerful and straightforward quintet.

Brahms’s string quintet in F major
Brahms’s string quintets follow the same model as Mozart’s – doubling the viola rather than the cello as did Boccherini’s and Schubert’s only one (scholars note that Brahms didn’t come to the string quintet till some years after successful string quartets and sextets).

Op 88 was written at Brahms’s beloved summer retreat at Bad Ischl (near Salzburg) in 1882, almost a century after Mozart’s last year. Rolf Gjelsten spoke before the performance, mainly about the unusual second movement which combines the character of a slow movement and a scherzo, but he also managed to make amusing (I think, as I couldn’t hear it all) remarks about erotic qualities to be found in the sarabande which he’d written nearly 30 years earlier – Brahms’s enigmatic private life stimulates a lot of such speculation and anecdote.

The two violists changed places here, with Gillian Ansell at the right end of the group and James Dunham behind her, to the left.

The first viola really emerges only in the swaying, second theme almost waltz-like – perhaps ‘ländler’ would be more accurate, and I soon realise that Brahms is not intending listeners to be striving to pick up individual players and to spot possible details of iffy balance or soloistic flights, generally the obsession of people in the trade I pursue, a tendency that I usually try to avoid. The ensemble achieved admirable clarity and a lively feeling for rhythms and dynamic undulations.

The interesting second movement did repay attention through its several phases, with violins and occasionally the cello becoming more prominent, as the sarabande gives way to a gavotte rhythm and then reverts after a distinct pause. The two violas are supplied with phrases where they play in sort of duet, but these are unimportant details in music where Brahms had other ambitions and expectations from his listeners. Experts note the way the music moves from the starting key of C sharp minor to close in A major. It does create a meandering shape which doesn’t make it easy to follow, apart from simply allowing it to penetrate subliminally. More clarity arrives with the third movement which proceeds in a normal fashion and brings the quintet to a conventional close.

Brahms esteemed this quintet very highly, perhaps on account of the unusual structure of the second movement, but just as likely on account of the relationships between the parts of the first movement and the interplay of the instruments, that hardly follows conventional patterns in any of the three movements.

I regretted being unable to get to either of the other concerts to hear the other two Mozart quintets and the second Brahms quintet.

Perhaps we must await the arrival of a knowledgeable festival director with mature artistic tastes to revive Wellington’s wonderful festivals of the Chris Doig years to include music like this again.

Quintessence on show via youth and experience at Michael Fowler Centre

Chamber Music New Zealand presents

String Quintets by Mozart and Brahms
(with Salina Fisher (b.1993) – Tōrino: echoes on pūtōrino improvisations by Rob Thorne)

The Pettman Players
The New Zealand String Quartet
James Dunham (viola)

Concert One: MOZART – String Quintets: No.3 in C Major K.515 / No.6 in E-flat Major K.614
The Pettman Players:
Shauno Isomura, Benedict Lim (violins), Julie Park, Caroline Norman (violas), Martin Roberts (‘cello)

Concert Two:
MOZART – String Quintet No 5 in D Major K.593 / BRAHMS – String Quintet No.1 in F Major Op.88 (“Spring”)

Concert Three:
MOZART – String Quintet No.4 in G Minor K.516 / SALINA FISHER – String Quartet Tōrino: echoes on pūtōrino improvisations by Rob Thorne / BRAHMS – String Quintet No.2 in G Major Op.111

The New Zealand String Quartet:
Helene Pohl, Monique Lapins (violins), Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)
with James Dunham (viola)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 17th September, 2016
(Concerts 1 and 3 reviewed below)

What a lovely idea,  arranging a day of performances of quintets for strings, and then giving the arrangement the name “quintessence” – and I must confess to not previously knowing the origin of the term in classical and medieval philosophy, of the “fifth” element or essence, a substance said to comprise the makeup of the celestial bodies, no less! In relation to Chamber Music New Zealand’s event, Quintessence was having both the New Zealand String Quartet join forces with the eminent American violist, James Dunham in concert, as well as a talented youth ensemble, The Pettman Players, whose members were associated either currently or formerly with the Pettman National Junior Academy of Music, an organisation based both in Auckland and in Christchurch.

Over the course of  a single day, Wellington concertgoers were able to hear in the morning the Pettmans in two of Mozart’s String Quintets (No.3 in C Major K.515, and No.6 in E-flat Major K.614), and then luxuriate in both an afternoon and an evening concert given by the New Zealand String Quartet with guest violist James Dunham. Each of these latter concerts featured a Mozart Quintet (No.5 in D Major K.593 in the afternoon, and No.4 in G Minor K.516 in the evening) along with a String Quintet by Brahms (No.1 in F Major Op.88 “Spring” in the afternoon, and No.2 in G Major Op.111, in the evening). As well, the evening concert contained a Chamber Music New Zealand commissioned work by local composer Salina Fisher, Tōrino: echoes on pūtōrino improvisations by Rob Thorne.

I wasn’t able to attend all three concerts, but I managed to get to the first and third of them, relishing the opportunity to enjoy (and nonchalantly compare) the playing of two different ensembles.  I was, naturally enough, prepared to make allowances for the youthful aspect of the Players, as my understanding was that the musicians would all currently be students at the Pettman Academy, either in Christchurch or in Auckland. While the programme notes tell us that the ensemble consisted of both present and past members of the academy, we weren’t told who was specifically who in that respect. No matter, as the playing of the group members was of such a uniformly high standard it wasn’t really relevant as to who was up to which stage in his or her studies – this was music-making of a remarkably accomplished level as regards both individual and ensemble skills, these players able to realise the beauties and intricacies of the music with great aplomb and sensitivity.

The group opened their concert with the C Major Quintet K.515, one of the grandest of Mozart’s chamber works, and beginning with an extended dialogue between violin and ‘cello, the exchanges fluent and focused. Both players had finely-spun tonal qualities, the first violin, Shauno Isamura, able to beautifully “inflect” his line even at speed, the figurations handled with a deftness whose detailing seemed rich and full. As for the cellist, Martin Roberts, his responses to his leader were at once whole-hearted and finely graded to match the volinist’s declamations. Throughout, the teamwork of the ensemble was exemplary, the violas’ passages in thirds having a rich, velvety sound, the players (Julie Park and Caroline Norman) taking great care with one another’s sound-worlds so as to make their dovetailings coherent.

Though a long work, the C Major Quintet’s sequences seemed to fly by under these players’ fingers – I thought their corporate command of nuance and phrasing, especially so in the transition passages which so often depend on split-second timing, was astonishingly good. The Minuet engaged us from the start with its characterful sequences, a rising figure dominating the opening measures, while a Trio diverted our sensibilities with a leap of a seventh and a chromatic swerve – the players gave the chromatic figure plenty of “misterioso” by way of contrast with the physicality elsewhere. A hymn-like Andante featured heartfelt exchanges between the first violin and the first viola, everything distinctively and strongly focused, every note and associated phrase given its due. Then, the finale’s high spirits rounded the work off in a suitably celebratory fashion, the players relishing the occasional accents and beautifully colouring the moments of modulatory exploration before bringing it all to a joyous conclusion.

I knew the E-flat Major Quintet well, as it was a work featured on my very first recording of these pieces. To my intense pleasure these players took a no-holds-barred approach to the music, the two violas bringing out the hunting-horn character of the opening with terrific elan, then richly and excitingly interacting with the ‘cello through both energetic and more subtly-nuanced passages. The playing certainly brought out the music’s orchestral quality, no more so than at the movement’s end where the violins add their fanfares to the galloping rhythms of the lower strings – most exhilarating!

The Andante featured some lovely work by the pair of violins in tandem, a rare and brief moment of not-quite-matching intonation at the beginning of one of the melody’s variants apart – it detracted not a whit from the sense of easeful communion between the players, and the beauties of their shared phrasings. Again in the Minuet there were lovely cascading thirds from the “violin duo” (second violinist Benedict Lim matching his leader all the way in refinement and in energy) for us to relish, and a sense of the players’ delight in sweeping the dance steps along during the Trio. The finale’s Haydn-ish bustle carried everything before it in these players’ hands, Mozart’s fugal writing engendering a real sense of fun and freedom, the lines brilliantly nuanced by the players and brought together at the end with tremendous verve. What a tribute to Edith Salzmann, the artistic Director of the Pettman Academy, to have fostered and encouraged such talent as we witnessed here with these young players!

Back again to the MFC in the evening, this time for a more varied programme of Mozart and Brahms with the New Zealand String Quartet and violist James Dunham, and a newly-commissioned work for string quartet from New Zealand composer Selina Fisher. A measure of the quality of the Pettman Academy Group’s playing earlier in the day was that we weren’t made to feeli n the evening that “here, at last, was the real thing” with these adult performers – it was, instead, a different kind of musical experience, the players of the NZSQ reflecting their own by now familiar performing ethos of one of the country’s finest music ensembles.

Beginning with Mozart’s G Minor Quintet K.516, the music immediately took on a dark, theatrical “Don Giovanni-like” aspect, heightened by the “layered” sonorities of firstly three instruments, then including two more, making for a dramatic “burgeoning” of the tones and textures. I thought violist James Dunham’s playing most interesting, his tones more assertive than what I’ve been accustomed to with Gillian Ansell’s playing, his playing “tighter” and for me far less easeful. The music here certainly lent itself to dark, terse statements of intent throughout, concluding with some heartfelt downward sighs colouring the mood of the coda.

Again, with the Menuetto,  the mood remained terse and sombre, wonderfully downwardly spiralling runs meeting great sforzandi – dramatic stuff! The players relaxed into the trio, the two violas enjoying a moment of concerted lyricism, the surrounding ambiences easeful and grateful for some respite! Mozart anticipates Beethoven in the Adagio’s opening, music of such a rarefied state, almost above human emotion – the players made just as much of the movement’s contrasting sequences, a running accompaniment ushering in a descending major-key figure. And then there was the finale’s beginning, a heavy-footed trudge through stricken cadences, the two violins bearing the expressive burden , and keeping us guessing as to outcomes, before dancing into the sunniness of G major. We delighted in the players’ teamwork throughout the contrasting episodes, the hints of gypsy-like music adding touches of temperament to the Elysian happiness of it all.

Salina Fisher’s newly-commissioned work for Chamber Music New Zealand was then given by the NZSQ – this was an exploration by the composer of the similarities between the traditional Maori instrument the pūtōrino (similar to a trumpet or a flute in its function) and string instruments, particularly in its ability to equate with the human voice in terms of pitch, vocal timbres and different registers.  The instrument itself can produce deep mournful voices , male in character, and the more female, lighter, more erie and agile voice – as well, a more breathy sound can be produced by blowing across the instrument’s opening. Salina Fisher’s work was an exploration of these effects, inspired by the work of the pūtōrino’s foremost present exponent, Rob Thorne, who’s taken up the mantle of guardian of this taonga from legendary figures of the past such as Hirini Melbourne and Richard Nunns.

Quintessence ended with a work by Brahms, a revelation to me! – my experiences of these works by Brahms haven’t been altogether positive in the past, to the effect that I was disappointed that this series of Quintets didn’t include all six works by Mozart and have done with it! Well, I must have either been listening to the wrong recordings, or been in a peculiar frame of mind when encountering these works in the past, and specifically this G Major Quintet. The NZSQ with their visiting colleague James Dunham made the work such a life-enhancing experience for me, I listened open-mouthed right through the work and forgot to take any notes on the performance!

Thinking about how I had regarded this music on previous (and long-distant) hearings, I fished up from my memory unflattering terms like “opaque”, “weighty”, “academic”, and “self-consciously contrapuntal”. As I listened to the playing, those epithets dropped away, one by one, like scales falling from my eyes so that for the first time I could clearly see.  Right from the joyous opening, in which I could hear bells pealing and activating the surrounding ambiences (not unlike the beginning of Schumann’s great “Rhenish” Symphony) I was transfixed on several counts, by the beauty of the opening ‘cello solo and the duetting violas making their response, by the rapt sequences in the music’s development, and the reawakening of energies ,and the light and shade of the different levels of intensity right up to the music’s coda (so reminiscent of the Second Piano Concerto). The Adagio began with deep, melancholic footsteps, but varied its gait throughout between introspection and full-blooded feeling, while the mischievous Scherzo, marked Un poco Allegretto, gave one the impression of the composer chuckling to himself over the music’s enigmatic textures.

The finale certainly gave the impression of “going somewhere”, at times sounding a bit like a mystery adventure (again I thought there were parallels with the Second Piano Concerto),  with quasi-Hungarian impulses in its gait and Viennese café gestures in its mood! Hugo Wolf once wrote that “Brahms can’t exult!”, but he too may have heard performances which didn’t do the music sufficient justice as to its character and general attitude – I thought the players built up throughout the movement a terrific sense of energy, dashing and vibrant in its abandonment! It was music-making which carried all before it and throughout the final bars most appropriately brought out the joyousness of the work  – a case, as far as I was concerned, of a composer certainly having the last laugh, one which I couldn’t begrudge him in the face of such resplendent writing!

NZ Trio with Xia Jing – violin, ‘cello, piano and guzheng

NZ Trio with Xia Jing – Fa (“Open up”)

ZHOU LONG (China/USA) – Spirit of Chimes
XIA JING (China) – composition for Guzheng
JEROEN SPEAK (NZ) – Serendipity Fields (World premiere)
DYLAN LARDELLI (NZ) – Shells (World premiere)
DOROTHY KER (NZ) – String Taxonomy (World Premiere)
GAO PING (China) – Feng Zheng (World premiere – commissioned by the NZ Trio and dedicated to Jack Body)

NZ Trio
Justine Cormack (violin) / Ashley Brown (‘cello) / Sarah Watkins (piano)
Xia Jing (solo guzheng)

Adam Concert Room
Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music,
Victoria University of Wellington

Friday 16th September, 2016

This concert was part of Victoria University Confucious Institute’s China/New Zealand Musical Exchange programme, and sponsored jointly by the Confucious Institute and the China Cultural Centre in New Zealand, with support from both the Asia New Zealand Foundation and Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music.

A special feature of the concert was the presence of Xia Jing, one of the foremost exponents of the guzheng – a kind of Chinese zither or dulcimer, whose documented use dates back over two thousand years. The instrument is growing in popularity in modern times, and is frequently used in popular and modern classical music, as either a solo or chamber music instrument. As one of the concert’s items Xia Jing played one of her own compositions for solo instrument, one which enabled us to experience at first hand the guzheng’s unique tonal and timbral characteristics.

Also on the programme was a work for piano trio, and four other pieces for the ensemble with guzheng, which were world premiere performances. The work for Piano Trio was written by Chinese/American composer Zhou Long and was called Spirit of Chimes, while Chinese composer Gao Ping contributed a piece commissioned by the NZ Trio and dedicated to the memory of New Zealand composer Jack Body, which was called Feng Zheng. And no fewer than three New Zealand composers  wrote works for the Trio to be performed at this concert – so the event represented a kind of feast of creativity come to the table to be savoured and enjoyed.

Zhou Long’s Spirit of Chimes opened the programme, the composer telling us in a written note that his inspiration came from “the sounds of chime-stones, bone-whistle and chime bells from ancient China”, though he additionally confided in us that, because of the disappearance of early pre-Tang Dynastic Chinese music, he had to imagine in his head the “real sound” of such ancient instruments when composing for the piano trio.

Beginning with soft, mournful sliding notes on the ‘cello, echoed by the piano and joined by the violin with its delicate sliding figurations, the music before too long took on a kind of processional aspect, as if bringing to us from the past the different sound-characters that could unlock our appreciation of these ancient gestures and tones. The strings interacted warmly and readily, firstly in full-blooded vocal terms, and then in a more folksy, homely, throw-away manner – the piano joined them, partly to support the interaction and partly to push things on, to plant and then to till elsewhere.  This seemed to provoke division in the ranks as the cello broke away from the discourse of three and disrupted the dovetailed interactions –  suddenly the musical exchanges were volatile and angular, with the different lines and timbres of the instruments colliding and opposing one another as much as they were colluding and intertwining. Though a measure of calm was restored  we got the feeling that those same disruptive elements were waiting for their chance to strike again, something that an enormous tam-tam stroke more-or-less- confirmed.

I enjoyed the “danse macabre” sequences which followed, the piano instigating the dry-bones manner and enjoining the strings to take part, which they did, adding weight and extending the motif to a six-note tattoo, which got all kinds of treatment. As if in payment for pleasure, the music irrupted again, almost vengefully, as if a veritable battery of physical assault, characterised by savage trills and tremolandi………did we want to be there? But what amazing sonorities!

Strings mused on the quiet that followed, the cello occasionally bursting out, more in sorrow than in anger, the other instruments following suit, and, it seemed to me,  transforming by osmosis the mood to one of great longing, almost to the point of weeping! The piano’s ambient colourings were left, pushing out the spaces and leaving us drifting, contemplating a certain “tragedy to the heart and a comedy to the intellect” ambivalence……whatever my stance I was left contemplating the startling presence with which the players enabled the voices of those “ancient chimes” to speak to me, whether real or imagined……

‘Cellist Ashley Brown then introduced the guzheng player, Xia Jing, who demonstrated to us by way of some kind of improvised solo, what her instrument could do. Sitting flat at the instrument like one might at a Western dulcimer or Japanese koto,  Xia Jing plucked the strings with her right hand and pressed the strings down with her left hand at certain points to produce pitch variations and different kinds of vibrato. Her hands seemed to alternate between melody and accompaniment, producing timbres not dissimilar to a balanaika or a cimbalon. I was astonished at the degree of energy she seemed to be able to produce, in terms of both strength and excitement.  She brought the music’s energy down to a more ritualistic level,  finishing her piece with a beautiful kind of postscript or epilogue.

Justine Cormack, the Trio’s violinist,  told us briefly about the four pieces especially composed for the trio in collaboration with the guzheng, inviting us to enjoy the pieces on their own terms as well as relishing the differences between them.  For me to try and repeat the kind of “gesture-by-gesture” commentary I noted down throughout the course of the first piece, would, I think, run the risk of depleting both my vocabulary and the number of people prepared to stay the course in any case!  The first three pieces of this group seemed to me to reflect certain philosophical attitudes towards “sound content”, though Jeroen Speak’s work Serendipity fields I thought more inclined towards out-front expression than was the case with the relative reticence of the other works, each displaying a reluctance to “resound”. Both Dylan Lardelli’s Shells and Dorothy Ker’s String Taxonomy seemed in fact more like physical choreography than sound generation, each composer stressing the importance for their piece of “semblance” (Lardelli) and “shared gestures” (Ker), ahead of creating tones from notation, a more oblique, almost “underbellied” manifestation of things.

Serendipity fields made each instrument say its name at the music’s beginning with terse but characterful impulses, which I liked, the guzheng dalicate and lyrical, the piano percussive and the strings angular and sinewy – then tossed these characteristics about, resulting in the music veering from vehement, through whimsical to wraith-like……Speak’s music had an extremely volatile inclination allied to an interior quality whose character seemed furtive and inward, setting up situations where the sounds seemed to “goad” one another, and build up sequences whose textures and ambiences produce what sounded like some kind of “chaos of delight”. Any semblance of permanence was short-lived, as the instruments swooped, burgeoned and withdrew their tones as required and then as quickly disapeared, with a final, characteristically short-breathed pair of impulses. What teamwork there was between the players in the realisation of these scenarios!

Compared with Jereon Speak’s engaging ‘serendipities”, the impression left by Dylan Lardelli’s Shells was dry and taciturn, which underlined the appositeness of the piece’s title. Whatever “substance” gave rise to these gestures, whatever fleshed-out intentions that once perhaps spoke their names, had long since disappeared, leaving only encasements and frameworks, like a luggage-room filled with empty suitcases and leaving behind little more than spaces for conjecture.  Pianist Sarah Watkins used her hands to resonate the piano’s “box” rather than any actual tones, apart from occasional single, transfixing notes, while the string-players pursued a kind of “silent music” course – for someone as sleep-deprived as I was just at that time, the effect was hallucinatory, filling my half-lit consciousness with surreal light and dumb-show gesturings, a narrative at which I felt I was little more than a mute spectator.  Dorothy Ker’s String Taxonomy seemed to me less of an “inward” experience, the movements of the players more out-going and exploratory than in Lardelli’s mutescape, vis-à-vis the use of knitting needles by both the ‘cellist and violinist, making for a dry, metallic effect involving little or no flesh-and-blood. The pianist activated the strings inside the box, the three string-players joining in with the effect through brushing or scraping, creating what the composer styled as “a sonic alchemy”, an interaction of which worked on my sensibilities to produce a kind of looking-glass-land effect – a language of meaning through gesture rather than its conventional result, counter-intuitive when it came to making sense of it all.

Again, one had to marvel at the sounds that were conceived by such original means, right from the outset, with its “knitting pattern” exchanges and determinedly non-pitched language – furious irruptions of energy biting and snapping and resonating from the stringed instruments were followed by their antitheses – coded whisperings took the place of shouted or semaphored riddles. Together these sequences gave the impression of some kind of dynamic coagulation which could surely have blossomed forth in a kind of “transfigured night” synthesis of gesture and melismatic fruition – but apart from a startlingly brilliant metallic scintillation, the work’s conclusion was as enigmatic in its effect as was the whole.

To Gao Ping’s work Feng Zheng we then came, to conclude the concert, the piece’s title transliterating into English as “Wind Kite”, as fitting an image as any for a work dedicated to the recently-departed Jack Body, a friend of Gao Ping as well as a fellow-composer. A Chinese tradition was to fly kites during the time of Qingming, when the living pay respect to their deceased ancestors by way of the kites bearing their thoughts and feelings to the realms of the departed.  Here, the music was divided into four sections: – (1) Still Clouds, (2) The Breeze, (3) Breaking the Air, (4) Broken Line. Gao Ping underlined the connection of the music with his late friend by devising a motif from his name (jACk BoDy) used at the beginning and end of the piece.

The opening “Still Clouds” captured the ‘calm magnificence” of the sky, and the wonderment of those still earthbound beneath its splendour – the music’s resonant, drifting textures suggested a peace and order away from earthly conflict – string pizzicati spiked these ambiences, attempting to disrupt the undulating tones of the guzheng and piano, violin and ‘cello irruptions tumbling over themselves before being borne away on the piano’s “wind-borne drift” of tones to which the strings contributed tremolandi and the guzheng mesmeric repeated notes.  The instruments seemed to rise from out of the music’s layered textures and then submerge again, the argument growing more and more involved – a kind of “communion of impulse”, one which brought forth some heartfelt responses from the players, such as Sarah Watkins’ exciting, toccata-like irruptions from the piano. The music developed real “schwung” with what I presumed was its “Breaking the Air” sequences, everything propulsive and exhilarating, with emphasis on the ensemble rather than individual strands, reaching a kind of crisis-point of function with trenchant tremolandi from the strings, the  weight of sound becoming more and more stratospheric, abetted by echo-chamber effects from the guzheng, almost like voices humming off-stage! It seemed very much a valedictory point, one which the composer, by some alchemic means, was able to suggest to me a “here-and-now” feeling not unlike that which infuses the final song “I Remember” in Lilburn’s settings of Denis Glover’s “Sings Harry” verses – something that could have taken place nowhere else but here – something one knew, by dint of awareness and experience. The musicians played out this mood with a deep sense of having travelled and of, at the end of it, returning home.

The Chinese title “Fa” and its associated character for this concert suggested the English words “open up” – which, it seemed to me, the NZ Trio, Xia Jing, and the composers and their music encouraged our imaginations to do here most rewardingly.

Intriguing and largely successful Villani Piano Quartet recital at Lower Hutt

Villani Piano Quartet: Flavio Villani (piano), Marko Pop Ristov (violin), Helen Bevin (viola), Sarah Spence (cello)
(Chamber Music Hutt Valley)

Mahler: Piano quartet in A minor
Schnittke: Piano Quartet, after Mahler
Brahms: Piano Quartet in G minor, Op 25

Little Theatre, Lower Hutt

Monday 12 September, 7:30 pm

Last Saturday’s subscription concert by Orchestra Wellington explored connections between Mahler, his wife, Alma, the unfinished tenth symphony, Alma’s lover of the time, the famous architect Walter Gropius, their daughter, Manon, born after Mahler’s death, and Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto written in memory of her death aged 18 (a bit sad that Berg’s compulsion to memorialise Manon’s death probably stopped him from completing Lulu). A further connection was that between Wilma Smith, Saturday’s violin soloist, and one of her teachers at the New England Conservatory in Boston, Louis Krasner, who gave the premiere of the Violin Concerto in 1935. Not many concerts can boast that range of spectacular associations.

Mahler in chamber music
This chamber music concert dwelt on more purely musical connections between Mahler and a later composer, without, to my knowledge, any especially erotic elements to the story. The later composer was Schnittke who was born 23 years after Mahler died, and who died in 1998. (Though he did overlap Alma Mahler’s life; she died in 1964).

As a student Mahler had begun to write a piano quartet of which only the first movement was found in 1960 in a box (I’m not sure whether there is any suggestion that he had actually completed it); however, a short sketch of a Scherzo was found in the same box.

Schnittke was attracted to it and rather than dealing with it as various musicologists had with the sketches of Mahler’s tenth symphony, he used it as an inspiration, or perhaps basis, for a piece that had far more similarities to his own music than to Mahler’s own.

Mahler’s first movement was very much the child of its time – the last quarter of the 19th century. After a somewhat tentative sounding opening, a distinctive, descending and somewhat chromatic melody arrives and lends the music a memorable character. The violin part is prominent, though all four instruments have interesting and engaging contributions. Balance was occasionally questionable, with the piano prominent in the somewhat excitable, climactic central part of the movement. The three stringed instruments enjoyed a sort of cadenza towards the end.

To Schnittke
Schnittke has become a name to conjure with in the post-Soviet era, alleged to be a sort of successor to Shostakovich though that must be meant merely as an artist whose musical impulses did not endear him to the Soviet authorities, and in fact put him at risk. With increasing ill-health, he left the USSR in 1990 to live in Hamburg, dying there in 1998. I think almost all the music that I’ve heard of Schnittke has been chamber music which I have not warmed to. However, I have also explored some of his large output of symphonic and other music and have been surprised to have been engrossed by it in a way that the chamber music has not. I wonder why our orchestras have not explored the symphonies, concerto grossos, concertos, choral works and music else. While he briefly experimented with serialism and was unfortunate to have the label ‘polystylism’ applied to his music generally, most of what I’ve heard in live performance has been remote from and much less interesting than the recorded music I’ve heard. That certainly applied to this piece, which struck me as an eccentric and unfortunate example of Schnittke the real composer.

The cello has something resembling Mahler’s melody with the other instruments circling round it, with the piano soon seeming to assert its right to be heard. The players attempted to elucidate the music before playing, choosing to excite interest by having pianist Villani show us what ‘clusters’ were like. I couldn’t decide whether Schnittke was being flippant and mocking Mahler, demonstrating his own gift for unravelling the mystery of an unfinished work through a series of unfulfilled references to scraps of the Mahler, handled by means of quasi-psychological processes and strict, sophisticated musical devices. For what it was worth, the players delivered a serious and competent performance of a piece that lies only on the fringe of the composer’s real musical achievements. I would urge those who have not explored Schnittke, to listen to the ever-expanding resources on You Tube on the Internet to be moved and enraptured by the real Schnittke.

Brahms Opus 25
The music I was really there to hear was Brahms’ Op 25 piano quartet. I confess to being a fully paid-up Brahms lover, and can’t even admit to understanding Schoenberg’s decision to orchestrate it because, he said, its density led to poor performances. Nevertheless, the Schoenberg version is an interesting achievement if a bit of a curiosity (though I seriously miss the piano part it in it), essentially about as satisfying as his arrangements in the other direction, of Strauss waltzes for chamber ensemble.

The opening phase is certainly an emphatic episode where the violin tune was here accompanied by a somewhat heavy piano, but which is soon followed by the lovely, full-blooded, undulating melody which really remains the heart of the movement. The second movement, labelled Intermezzo, is a sort of Scherzo and Trio, the first section in triple time, though without a pronounced danceable rhythm; the chief impulse in the early pages is its quaver triplets, while the Trio is quicker, in a triple time that often seems ambiguous. The performers are well on the way to gaining full confidence in Brahms’s devious turn of mind, as displayed in this movement.

The beautifully lyrical slow movement went well and the players created a small thrill with the arrival of the alla marcia rhythm borrowed from the second movement. The following subsidence to the calm opening part of the movement, is prolonged and there was some loss of intensity which I suspect is hard to avoid.

The finale, a Rondo in gypsy style, embeds the popularity of this quartet, and the combination of gypsy schmaltz and vigorous thrusting dance rhythms was effectively achieved. But chamber music is a genre that calls for prolonged years of playing together, to gain mastery of the qualities that allow an ensemble to recreate the greatest masterpieces in the classical repertoire; so it is always rewarding to hear a group that has achieved a high degree of skill and insight, though not yet at the level of the best international ensembles.

Though I had misgivings about the Schnittke, both the Mahler and the Brahms were works that deserved and got splendid, energetic and satisfying performances.

I should record that, on 28 August, the Villani Quartet gave a recital at St Andrew’s on The Terrace in Wellington, which was to have been reviewed here (not by me). It was a particularly interesting programme:
Frank Bridge: Phantasy Piano Quartet
Peteris Vasks: Piano Quartet
Schumann: Piano Quartet in E flat, Op 47
Alfred Hill: “The Sacred Mountain” (1932)
(the last two were changes from the originally advertised programme)

Admirably staged and sung opera and music theatre excerpts from the school of music

“Collision”: Opera Scenes 2016
New Zealand School of Music, Victoria University

Musical director: Mark Dorrell; Director: Jon Hunter
Performance tutor: Maaike Christie-Beekman

Memorial Theatre, Victoria University

Sunday 11 September, 2:30 pm (earlier performances on 9 and 10 September)

The school of music’s once annual opera productions have in recent years fallen back to biennial events. In the between years, students create a series of scenes from opera, against a background of elementary sets and a few props that can, with a bit of imagination, be used in various settings.

This production employed around sixteen singers, though the photo gallery in the printed programme contained 23 faces which included first-year students and two guest singers who were not individually listed, but contributed to the chorus; many took part in two or three scenes.

The scenes from eleven works were divided between opera proper and various sub-categories that go by a variety of definitions like operetta, comic opera, musicals, musical theatre. The excerpts from heartland opera came first while the various kinds of musical theatre were in the second half.

As a generalized comment, the quality of singing, acting, energy level, and spirit of enthusiasm and enjoyment were very high, and at moments where musical or story quality limped, the dynamism that invested the whole show carried it.

The marvellous discovery scene from Act 3 of The Marriage of Figaro made a hilarious and fast-paced beginning: Marcellina and Bartolo are revealed as Figaro’s real parents, and their portrayals were vocally strong (Katrina Brougham and William King), as was the devil-may-care Figaro of Joseph Haddow.,with Alexandra Gandionco as Susanna.

Donizetti’s Tudor opera Anna Bolena handles the revelation to Henry VIII’s Queen, Anne Boleyn, of her unwilling rival, Jane Seymour. It exposed Shayna Tweed’s (the Queen’s) voice at the start, but it gained strength and individuality alongside Olivia Sheat’s vivid depiction of Seymour, as the latter’s uncomfortable role is exposed.

Britten’s comedy Albert Herring which may not have had a professional production in New Zealand since the 1960s, is not easy to bring comfortably to life; its humour can seem naïve. Before the opening scene, four singers set the spirit of the piece with a ball game, from later in the first act. A village meeting in the first scene decides to replace the annual Queen of the May contest (no girl is seen as virtuous enough) by a King of the May – and the chosen boy is the simple, but virtuous Albert Herring. Several earlier singers consolidated their talents here, plus the Lady Billows of Elyse Hemara, who assumed the role of patroness and village matriarch, in a spirited scene.

The card scene from Carmen and the mutual disclosure of Falstaff’s identical letters to Alice and Meg were further opera excerpts between operetta and musical in the second half. In the card scene, Frasquita and Mercedes (Olivia Sheat and Pasquale Orchard) study their fates in the cards before the light-hearted tone suddenly vanishes with Carmen’s arrival. There was a somewhat nervous vibrato in Sally Haywood’s voice which may coincidentally have matched the revelation of her fate.

Both Sheat and Haywood reappeared in the famous scene from Falstaff in which the two ladies discover Falstaff’s foolish ploy and decide to play along. Elizabeth Harré, who had sung the spoiler’s role of Florence in Albert Herring, took another strong character role as Mistress Quickly. (How I’d have loved it if the Nannetta, Alexandra Gandionco, had sung that magical ‘Sul fil d’un soffio etesio’ in the last scene – Angela Gheorghiu totally undid me with her recording).

The Broadway musicals included the 1975 satire on police corruption, Chicago, with the highlight scene, ‘Cell Block Tango’, for six prison inmates who celebrate their achievements in punishing errant husbands: a hilarious, if alarming scene that was splendidly carried off.  All have been mentioned elsewhere, except for Nicole Davey: and all that needs be said is that there was no weakness among the six.

Then Sondheim’s Into the Woods, one of his most successful near-musicals, in which Garth Norman and William King vividly illuminated the two fairy-tale princes to Cinderella and to the Grimm tale, Rapunzel, in the scene, ‘Agony’.

Fiddler on the Roof originated as a Yiddish story from Russia, and its most famous number, ‘Matchmaker, Matchmaker’, again characterized in genuine Broadway style, though only subtly satirizing the practice of arranged marriages; the three daughters: Eleanor McGechie, Emma Cronshaw-Hunt and Karishma Thanawala.

Les Misérables was the only one of the musicals that did not originate in New York (Paris, though its real success came after its English adaptation for the Royal Shakespeare Company in London). It offered yet another kind of love dilemma, ‘In my life’ and ‘A heart full of love’, with Karishma Thanawala (after her Chava in ‘Matchmaker’), here sang Eponine, grief-stricken at giving up Marius (Julian Chu-Tan) to Pasquale Orchard’s Cosette.

Three scenes from The Pirates of Penzance brought the show to a close. They began with ‘When a felon’s not engaged in his employment’, which is near the end, led by the Sergeant (Haddow), and inserted ‘Dry the glistening tear’, from Mabel (Sheat) and the female chorus, which actually opens Act II.

I could understand the reason for departing from the order of the three numbers, to put the most rambunctious at the end: ‘When the foeman bares his steel’. (Though I have to confess my greater love of Offenbach, and in this context the Gendarmes Duet, or ‘Couplets des deux hommes d’armes’ from Geneviève de Brabant). The slightly problematic ‘baring of steel’ march number held no fears for the final ensemble of Mabel, Edith (Elyse Hemara), Sergeant, and choruses of policemen and daughters).

Throughout one admired the often virtuosic performance at the piano by Mark Dorrell, especially in the well-rehearsed table lamp episode, always carefully secondary to the singers, but the more admirable for that. And the production team, the movement tutor (is that short for ‘choreographer’?) Lyne Pringle; and most importantly vocal tutors Margaret Medlyn, Richard Greager, James Clayton, Jenny Wollerman and Lisa Harper-Brown.

One looks forward to a main-stage, full opera production in 2017.