NZ Opera’s Mikado contentious but “not to be missed”

The Mikado
Libretto by W.S. Gilbert
Music by Sir Arthur Sullivan
(New orchestrations by Eric Wetherell)

Director: Stuart Maunder
Conductor: Isaac Hayward
Production Designer: Simone Romaniuk

Cast: The Mikado (James Clayton)
Nanki-Poo (Kanen Breen)
Ko-Ko (Byron Coll)
Pish-Tush (Robert Tucker)
Pooh-Bah (Andrew Collis)
Yum-Yum (Amelia Berry)
Pitti-Sing (Anna Dowsley)
Peep-Bo (Barbara Graham)
Katisha (Helen Medlyn)

Freemasons NZ Opera Ensemble Chorus
Orchestra Wellington

Wellington Opera House

Saturday, 25th February (evening)

When W.S.Gilbert’s ornamental Japanese sword fell off the wall of his study while he was turning over in his mind ideas for his latest operatic collaboration with Sir Arthur Sullivan, The Mikado was born – or so all the G&S history books tell us. In fact, there happened to be a vogue for japonaiserie in England at the time Mikado first hit the stage, instigated some years before by artists like Whistler and Rosetti with oriental prints on ricepaper, and images of beautiful Japanese women, a fascination that reached its height in the 1880s. In fact, London’s Daily Telegraph proclaimed at the time that “We are all being more or less Japanned,” and commented on the phenomenon of “the quaint art of a strange people who are getting rid of their national characteristics as fast as they can……..receiving from us that form of homage which the proverb describes as “the sincerest form of flattery””.

It can be seen from this that whatever “cultural appropriation” of oriental styles, fashions and objects d’art by the West was taking place, the process was being reproduced in reverse, with a rapid and efficient “Westernisation” of Japan in particular. But it’s a process that, if anything has burgeoned in recent times, with the all-pervading influences of globalisation in practically every country in the world to a greater or lesser extent. It’s difficult to ascribe any kind of judgement of “cultural exploitation” to situations whose characteristic mode seems like some kind of “boots-and-all” exchange, which makes the recent comments in the press and on radio regarding NZ Opera’s allegedly “racist” current production of “The Mikado” seem to me more like instances of PC imploding in certain people’s sensibilities rather than reportage of shock, horror and outrage on a widespread scale.

Of course, individuals are entitled to their own opinions – and questions of cultural piracy and associated exploitations have a fascinating fluidity of application when it comes to the question of boundaries deemed generally desirable by society at large. But what a recent article in the Washington Post called “the new war on appropriation” highlights the problem for people from one culture who would like to “experience” or even participate in aspects of another, and risk criticism in doing so from what are called “the new culture cops”……see:
(alternatively, read the same article reproduced at the foot of this review)……

Mikado has, at certain earlier times, been a bit of a hot potato, actually – as long ago as 1907 the show was temporarily banned in Britain by the Lord Chamberlain, for fear of offending the newly-assertive Japanese government, whose military forces had freshly and successfully fought a war with Russia, and whose representative, one Prince Fushimi, was visiting Britain at the time. The then-touring D’Oyly Carte Company decided to defy the ban and perform the opera in Sheffield, an event to which the newspaper “The Daily Mail” with a canny eye on the interest of prospective readers, invited one Mr. K.Sugimura, the visiting special correspondent of a Tokyo newspaper, Asahi, who was reporting on the Prince’s tour, to attend the performance, and criticise the show “as frankly as possible”. Below is part of the correspondent’s report:

“I am deeply and pleasingly disappointed. I came to Sheffield expecting to discover real insults to my countrymen. I find bright music and much fun, but I could not find the insults. I laughed and laughed very heartily.I enjoyed the music: I envy the nation possessing such music. The only part of the play to which objection might be taken by some is the presentation of the Mikado on the stage as a comic character. This would be impossible in Japan, where my countrymen regard the person of the Emperor as too high for such treatment. Yet, even with us, one of our most famous novelists, Saikaku, of the Genroku period, did treat the figure of the Emperor humorously, describing one of his characters as the Emperor Doll. That novel is still circulated in Japan. It has not been prohibited there…….
Of course the play shows quite an imaginary world, not in the least bit like Japan. I had a pleasant evening, and I consider that the English people, in withdrawing this play lest Japan should be offended, are crediting my country with needless readiness to take offence…….”

In recent years there have been charges levelled against both various productions and the show itself of “catering to fetish impulses which reduce the Japanese culture to an object of curiosity”, of “dehumanizing an entire race of people through yellowface stage and screen portrayals”, and of “laughing downwards at a voiceless minority ‘other’, using the Japanese setting as an excuse for cheap gags.” My feeling about the current NZ Opera production in relation to these charges was that, in the first instance it used the staging’s quasi-Japanese culture settings to create colour, atmosphere and a sense of unreality in a way that perfectly served the original dramatist’s intentions, that of attractively and exotically underlining the powerful satirical element of the show’s message.

As for the much-maligned “yellowface” aspect of oriental depiction, there was more “whiteface” than anything in the very overtly Japanese portrayal of Helen Medlyn’s Katisha, the Mikado’s “daughter-in-law elect”. However, for me the stylised makeup reflected the age-old technique of a “mask”, temporarily concealing a character’s more covert characteristics and attitudes, attributes which were demonstrated all too humanly and powerfully in this present portrayal. Finally, the charge of ridiculing a “voiceless minority” seemed to me blunted by the production’s clear delineation of various empowering and insightful chorus lines such as “If you think we are worked by strings…..You don’t understand these things…….” in the opening scene, and the schoolgirls’ whimsical wonderment at the mysteries of the world in their opening chorus “We wonder, how we wonder, what on earth the world can be….”,, and, finally, the choruses’ knowing and whimsical responses to the three commentators describing the execution of the hapless “criminal” to the Mikado – no mere parroting of the refrains, here, but knowing and gently mocking ironies: e.g – “This haughty youth, he speaks the truth, whenever he finds it pays….”

Away with all of this polemic, and its all-too-subjective arguments! – time now for some all-too-subjective analysis and appreciation of the performance!

Straightaway the opening sounds engaged our sensibilities, with conductor Isaac Hayward plunging us straight into the opera, and doing away with the Overture (not by Sullivan in any case, but merely a “stitching together” of the work’s favourite tunes by his assistant, Hamilton Clarke). As well, there were various orchestral retouchings throughout, the work of ex-BBC conductor Eric Wetherell, designed to scale down the orchestral ambiences and make it easier for the singers to be heard. As befits the standards of orchestral execution we’ve come to expect from Orchestra Wellington, the playing, both in general terms and in the matter of individual detailing, was an absolute delight throughout!

For the rest, the work was presented pretty well complete, EXCEPT that the production seemed to regard a couple of Act Two vocal ensemble numbers as “fair game”, to my intense disappointment, cutting the second verse of “Brightly dawns our Wedding Day”, and, what was worse, completely excising the equally wonderful “See How the Fates”, with its wonderfully contradictory lines “Happy, undeserving A!” and “Wretched, meritorious B!” – oh well, as Gilbert himself wrote for Nanki-Poo in the first Act – “Modified rapture!”……..

I thought the chorus work just superb – from the resplendently-garbed men (old-fashioned waistcoats with Japanese-styled hakama (pants) we got everything the words had to offer us from the opening “If you want to know who we are”, matching their word-pointing with both movements ands attitudes in a wholly delightful way. More controversially, the women were garbed in what seemed like the Harajuku, “Hello Kitty” style currently in vogue in Japan (representations far more deserving of feminist-influenced eyebrow-raising, I would have thought, than of heavy-handed, “holier-than-thou” cultural appropriation responses), but their response to the text certainly made the most of its formative, rite-of-passage word-images – “Each a little bit afraid is, wondering what the world can be…”, and later, relishing the prospect of one of them, Yum-Yum, taking those first steps into womanhood, in this case via the age-old ceremony of marriage – “Art and Nature thus allied, go to make a pretty bride…” – beautifully and richly voiced.

As for the cast, we were galvanised at the start by director Stuart Maunder’s announcement that, due to New Zealand tenor Jonathan Abernathy’s sudden indisposition, his place in the role of Nanki-Poo, the Mikado’s disguised son, was to be taken at extremely short notice by an Australian singer, Konen Breen. As it turned out, this “Lord High Substitute” performed the role (after ONE rehearsal, so we were told) with tremendous aplomb, as if he had been doing a run of fifty-plus performances! – I thought his somewhat gauche, nerd-turned-superhero portrayal thoroughly engaging, even if there still seemed some vestiges in his tones of the character we were told he’d recently been playing, which was Mime in Wagner’s “Ring” – his voice had more of an “edge” to it that I would have liked in the role’s more lyrical places. But what a trouper! – hats off and full marks!

It’s a classic “ensemble opera” though, and no one character is allowed to dominate to an extent that they’re a “diminutioner”, though pride of place at the curtain-call was rightly given the Ko-Ko of Byron Coll, known for his various character roles both on stage and screen. He made the most of his comic opportunities in portraying a classic “Chauncey Gardiner-like” figure making good through corrupt practices of local government. His British regional accent added a different kind of exoticism to the production’s ambience ( certainly an amusing foil for Andrew Collis’s hilariously toffee-nosed Pooh-Bah!), and his delivery of the lines had for me an attractive whimsicality which highlighted the droll humour, though on one or two occasions his words were too rushed to capture the essence of the jokes! His interaction with Helen Medlyn’s Katisha throughout the “Tit Willow” sequences was sheer delight.
Andrew Collis’s aforementioned Pooh-Bah brought just the right mix of gravitas and pomposity to a role whose lines are among the best written by Gilbert – “I can trace my ancestry back to a protoplasmic primordial atomic globule” – and which lay bare the covert, world-wide processes of bureaucratic and political corruption – “I also retail State Secrets at a very low figure”…..Collis’s sonorous baritone brought to life vignettes such as his description of the behaviour of a criminal’s severed head post-execution – “It clearly knew the deference due to a man of pedigree….”

I also enjoyed the bustling, vigorous and full-voiced pragmatism of Robert Tucker’s Pish-Tush, both in his articulate explanation to Nanki-Poo of the rise to prominence of “Ko-Ko, a cheap tailor”, in “Our Great Mikado, virtuous man”, and for his part in the wonderful trio “I am so proud”, in which the agitated Ko-Ko contemplates the alarming prospect of having to cut HIS OWN head off to appease the wishes of the Mikado! This trio, incidentally, was one of several places where I thought the production needed to bring the singers right up to the footlights so we in the audience could have gotten more of the individual flavours of the number’s separate but wholly intertwined thought processes – unfortunately it all happened, for me, too far back!

Completely commanding the stage in his scenes was James Clayton’s Mikado – one of the best I’ve encountered. Seemingly echt-Japanese in his regalia, he looked and sounded the part with utter conviction, speaking and singing every word of his role with razor-sharp clarity, and transfixing the ensemble with his gittering eye (the exception, of course, being the fearsome Katisha, his “daughter-in-law elect”!). But what a pity we weren’t able to also enjoy his contribution to “See how the fates”, as much for his stellar voice-quality as for a corrective of the omission’s further reducing his already sparse singing-role!

Though in accordance with their “college-girl” status at the story’s beginning I thought the somewhat gauche, “jolly-hockey-sticks” manner and deportment of all “Three Little Maids from School” dramatically at odds with certain of their later interactions, such as Anna Dowsley’s determined and forthright portrayal of Pitti-Sing bravely confronting the vengeful Katisha in search of Nanki-Poo, her betrothed. And as Yum-Yum, Amelia Berry’s singing of “The sun whose rays” was so outstanding in its outpouring of beauty and sensitivity it all seemed a world away from the sensibility of the giggly schoolgirl whom we first encountered, even if she quickly “grew up” in her “Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted” scene with Nanki-Poo. Of the Three Little Maids, the dipsiest was, I thought, Barbara Graham’s gloriously vacuous Peep-Bo, who made the most of her relatively few chances to shine with a deliciously artless reference to her sister’s wedding-day being “happiness in all but perfection”, followed by a reference to it all being “cut short” (alluding to the bridegroom’s eventual fate at the hands of the Public Executioner!)

Finally, there was Helen Medlyn’s assumption of the role of Katisha, the elderly would-be bride of Nanki-Poo, bent upon vengeance for her loss of happiness, but finally settling for the life-sparing blandishments of the (by then!) desperate Ko-Ko. Not quite as voluminous of tone as I might have expected from previous encounters with her singing, Medlyn was nonetheless able to still command the stage on each of her entrances by dint of her sheer presence, be it as a kind of fearsome oriental harpie, or as a momentarily crushed and defeated woman – for all Gilbert’s reputed cruelty regarding his theatrical depictions of older women, his portrayal of Katisha evinces real sympathy in places and accords her with no little dignity in the throes of her “defeat” at the hands of “pink cheek, bright eye, rose lip, smooth tongue…..”

I felt there were sequences in which she (and in a particular instance, Ko-Ko) were placed too far back on the stage for the voices to really “tell”, a case in point being throughout the marvellous “There is beauty in the bellow of the blast” – the words are again so delicious, both from Katisha – “There is eloquence appalling when the lioness is roaring, or the tiger is a-lashing of his tail” – and from Ko-Ko – “There’s a fascination frantic in a ruin that’s romantic – do you think you are sufficiently decayed?” Still, Medlyn’s greatest moment, for me, was her truly affecting “The hour of gladness”, sung in response to the news that her would-be lover Nanki-Poo, was going to marry Yum-Yum. Medlyn’s singing, along with the sensitive instrumental accompaniments and the rapt attention she garnered from the entire onstage company, made for a beautiful and treasurable charge of emotion which brought a lump to this listener’s throat, even after so many hearings of this much-loved piece over the years.

So! – rather than be regarded as a dismissal of the objections raised to this and to other productions of Mikado, particularly those of recent times, I would prefer this review to be a constructive addition to a reasoned dialogue concening the issues. A number of the articles by the “dissenters” to their credit contain assertions that what is needed in this situation is awareness, understanding and sensitivity by way of discussion and expression of thoughtful opinion, whatever the individual “stance”. I hope my thoughts on the issues, be they ever so opinionated, fulfil those criteria.

Meanwhile, to all of those awaiting my final verdict concerning the show – it’s this – get to the Mikado if you can, because (as Ko-Ko might say) it’s too good to be missed!

(Wellington: Wednesday 28th February (6:30pm), Ist March (7:30pm), 2nd March (7:30pm)
Christchurch, Isaac Theatre Royal: from Tuesday 7th March (7:30pm) to Saturday 11th March)

* * * * * * * * * * * *
The Washington Post
Democracy Dies in Darkness
To the new culture cops, everything is appropriation
Their protests ignore history, chill artistic expression and hurt diversity
By Cathy Young August 21, 2015

“A few months ago, I read “The Orphan’s Tales” by Catherynne Valente. The fantasy novel draws on myths and folklore from many cultures, including, to my delight, fairy tales from my Russian childhood. Curious about the author, I looked her up online and was startled to find several social-media discussions bashing her for “cultural appropriation.”

There was a post sneering at “how she totally gets a pass to write about Slavic cultures because her husband is Russian,” with a response noting that her spouse isn’t even a proper Russian, because he has lived in the United States since age 10. In another thread, Valente was denounced for her Japanese-style LiveJournal username, yuki-onna, adopted while she lived in Japan as a military wife. In response to such criticism, a browbeaten Valente eventually dropped the “problematic” moniker.

Welcome to the new war on cultural appropriation. At one time, such critiques were leveled against truly offensive art — work that trafficked in demeaning caricatures, such as blackface, 19th-century minstrel shows or ethnological expositions, which literally put indigenous people on display, often in cages. But these accusations have become a common attack against any artist or artwork that incorporates ideas from another culture, no matter how thoughtfully or positively. A work can reinvent the material or even serve as a tribute, but no matter. If artists dabble outside their own cultural experiences, they’ve committed a creative sin.

To take just a few recent examples: After the 2013 American Music Awards, Katy Perry was criticized for dressing like a geisha while performing her hit single “Unconditionally.” Last year, Arab-American writer Randa Jarrar accused Caucasian women who practice belly dancing of “white appropriation of Eastern dance.” Daily Beast entertainment writer Amy Zimmerman wrote that pop star Iggy Azalea perpetrated “cultural crimes” by imitating African American rap styles.

And this summer, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has been dogged by charges of cultural insensitivity and racism for its “Kimono Wednesdays.” At the event, visitors were invited to try on a replica of the kimono worn by Claude Monet’s wife, Camille, in the painting “La Japonaise.” The historically accurate kimonos were made in Japan for this very purpose. Still, Asian American activists and their supporters besieged the exhibit with signs like “Try on the kimono: Learn what it’s like to be a racist imperialist today!” Others railed against “Yellow-Face @ the MFA” on Facebook. The museum eventually apologized and changed the program so that the kimonos were available for viewing only. Still, activists complained that the display invited a “creepy Orientalist gaze.”

These protests have an obvious potential to chill creativity and artistic expression. But they are equally bad for diversity, raising the troubling specter of cultural cleansing. When we attack people for stepping outside their own cultural experiences, we hinder our ability to develop empathy and cross-cultural understanding.

The concept of cultural appropriation emerged in academia in the late 1970s and 1980s as part of the scholarly critique of colonialism. By the mid-1990s, it had gained a solid place in academic discourse, particularly in the field of sociology.

Some of this critique was rightly directed at literal cultural theft — the pilfering of art and artifacts by colonial powers — or glaring injustices, such as white entertainers in the pre-civil rights years profiting off black musical styles while black performers’ careers were hobbled by racism. Critics such as Edward Said offered valuable insight into Orientalism, the West’s tendency to fetishize Asians as exotic stereotypes.

But the hunt for wrongdoing has gone run amok. The recent anti-appropriation rhetoric has targeted creative products from art to literature to clothing. Nothing is too petty for the new culture cops: I have seen them rebuke a Filipina woman who purchased a bracelet with a yin-yang symbol at a fair and earnestly discuss whether it’s appropriation to eat Japanese, Indian or Thai food. Even Selena Gomez, a Latina artist, was assailed a couple of years ago for sporting a Hindu forehead dot, or bindi, in a Bollywood-style performance.

In some social-justice quarters, the demonization of “appropriative” interests converges with ultra-reactionary ideas about racial and cultural purity. I once read an anguished blog post by a well-meaning young woman racked with doubt about her plans to pursue a graduate degree in Chinese studies; after attending a talk on cultural appropriation, she was unsure that it was morally permissible for a white person to study the field.

This is a skewed and blinkered view. Yes, most cross-fertilization has taken place in a context of unequal power. Historically, interactions between cultures often took the form of wars, colonization, forced or calamity-driven migration and subordination or even enslavement of minority groups. But it is absurd to single out the West as the only culprit. Indeed, there is a paradoxical and perverse Western-centrism in ignoring the history of Middle Eastern and Asian empires or the modern economic and cultural clout of non-Western nations — for instance, the fact that one of the top three entertainment companies in the U.S. market is Japanese-owned Sony.

It is also far from clear that the appropriation police speak for the people and communities whose cultural honor they claim to defend. The kimono protest, for instance, found little support from Japanese Americans living in the Boston area; indeed, many actively backed the museum’s exhibit, as did the Japanese consulate.

Most critics of appropriation, including some anti-kimono protesters, say they don’t oppose engagement with other cultures if it’s done in a “culturally affirming” way. A Daily Dot article admonishes that “an authentic cultural exchange should feel free and affirming, rather than plagiarizing or thieving.” A recent post on the Tumblr “This Is Not China” declares that “cultural appropriation is not merely the act of wearing or partaking in cultural symbols & practices that do not belong to you, it’s a system of exploitation & capitalisation on cultural symbols & practices that do not a) originate from b) benefit c) circle back to the culture in question.”

It makes sense to permit behaviors that encourage empathy and genuine interest while discouraging those that caricature or mock a sampled-from culture. But such litmus tests leave ample room for hair-splitting and arbitrary judgments. One blogger’s partial defense of “Kimono Wednesdays” suggests that while it was fine to let visitors try on the kimonos, allowing them to be photographed while wearing them was a step too far. This fine parsing of what crosses the line from appreciation into appropriation suggests a religion with elaborate purity tests.

What will be declared “problematic” next? Picasso’s and Matisse’s works inspired by African art? Puccini’s “Orientalist” operas, “Madama Butterfly” and “Turandot”? Should we rid our homes of Japanese prints? Should I take offense at other people’s Russian nesting dolls?

And while we’re at it, why shouldn’t a wide range of cultural minorities within Western society demand control over access to their heritage, too? Can Catholics claim appropriation when religious paintings of Jesus or the Virgin Mary are exhibited in a secular context, or when movies from “The Sound of Music” to “Sister Act” use nuns for entertainment?

Appropriation is not a crime. It’s a way to breathe new life into culture. Peoples have borrowed, adopted, taken, infiltrated and reinvented from time immemorial. The medieval Japanese absorbed major elements of Chinese and Korean civilizations, while the cultural practices of modern-day Japan include such Western borrowings as a secularized and reinvented Christmas. Russian culture with its Slavic roots is also the product of Greek, Nordic, Tatar and Mongol influences — and the rapid Westernization of the elites in the 18th century. America is the ultimate blended culture.

So don’t let anyone tell you that there is art, literature or clothing that does not belong to you because of your racial, ethnic or religious identity. In other words: Appropriate away.”

Cathy Young is the author of two books, and a frequent contributor to Reason, Newsday, and

Hungarian pianist Dénes Varjon at Waikanae with enterprising programme, rich in Bartók

Waikanae Music Society

Dénes Varjon – piano

Beethoven: Sonata in E minor, Op 90
Schumann: Fantasiestücke, Op 12
Liszt: Schlaflos! Frage und Antwort; Valse oubliée No 1; Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este
Bartók: Eight Improvisations on Hungarian Folk Songs, Sz 20; Three Hungarian Folk Songs from Csik, Sz 35a; Sonatina, Sz 55 1; Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs, Sz 71

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 19 February, 2:30 pm

The first concert in the nine-concert Waikanae chamber music series neatly filled a hole in my piano recital experiences that the same programme would have provided in Nelson if I’d been there the previous Sunday. Varjon was one of this year’s stars at the biennial Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson (see my review date-lined 11 February).

He was hot news there and even though I heard him in various accompanying and ensemble roles such as in Brahms’s Piano Trio in B and his wonderful Piano Quintet, I was very glad to be able to hear him today. The Waikanae programme was the same. It opened with one of Beethoven’s piano sonatas that seems to be seriously out of its chronological order (1815). Op 90 is short, just two movements, and uses material that could almost be mistaken for Schubert on a sunny day (it was sunny!).

The programme note quoted Viennese reviews of its 1815 premiere, using words like ‘melodious’, ‘expressive’, ‘intelligible’. It proceeds quietly for a while, just occasionally punctuated by brief emphatic chords and a descending scale that marked it as Beethoven, sure enough. Varjon made imaginative and engaging use of varied rhythms and colourful dynamics, lending them discreet emphasis, and he charged it with subtle drama and a certain secretiveness.

Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op 12 (I’d rather wished he had played more Schumann at Nelson – the only piece I heard was the not very remarkable, late Märchenbilder for viola and piano, though he’d played Schumann’s Drei Fantasiestücke for clarinet and piano, Op 73, before I got there). The collection consists of eight highly varied pieces, though their sharply contrasted character and tonality, and Varjon’s endlessly resourceful vision created a compulsively interesting sequence. The third piece Warum?, for example, ends unresolved while he teased us with a slightly prolonged wait for the following Grillen, which sort-of answered the question.  Aufschwung is quintessential Schumann and Varjon created an entertaining, rumbustious experience. And he made the seventh piece, Traumes Wirren into a truly fantastic high-wire experience. While the long – never too long – Ende vom Lied took the form of a minor ballade: stately, perhaps a bit weighty occasionally (and I had jotted a note wondering about the condition of the piano). But for me that splendid peroration is one of Schumann’s most poetic expressions – rather a conflation of the Eusebius and Florestan characters that Schumann created to characterise his moods.

The second half of the programme was devoted to Varjon’s homeland: Liszt and Bartók. He played three of Liszt’s late works, regarded by musicologists as precursors of the 20th century’s experiments with tonality and form. While the Valse oubliée and the Villa d’Éste fountains are familiar enough, and Varjon delivered performances that were poetic and restrained, the less known Sleepless! Question and answer (S 203), was a revelation of less familiar . The strange, agitated beginning expanded into a complex metaphysical question; while the answer was a plain, unaccompanied line in the right hand, soon modestly harmonised before returning to the plain enigmatic melody that ended on the dominant. It was music to still the persisting negative opinions of Liszt sceptics.

The four Bartók works too were a mixture of the known and the little known. Beginning with Eight Improvisations on Hungarian Folk Songs, which might have been unfamiliar to me, at once they banished the notion, obviously ameliorated over the years, that Bartok mostly enshrines a somewhat unforgiving style of barbaric folk music. These tunes were intrinsically engaging and sensitively turned into pieces for the recital hall.

The Three Hungarian Folk Songs from Csik, were distinctly lyrical, rhythmic, and I jotted down, ‘very singable by anyone who’d heard Varjon playing them’. Each very short, perfectly, pithily arranged. The Sonatina too is an attractive piece in three movements: Dudások (bagpipes), Medvetanc (Bear Dance) and Finale, while the recital ended with seven of the Fifteen Hungarian Peasant Songs (alternative title: ‘Old Hungarian Dance Tunes’). Bartok does not necessarily consign these tunes to civilising treatment by the piano, and as I listened, the sounds of peasant instruments like the cimbalom came into my head.

Varjon’s programme had proved, for me at least, quite a revelation, putting a fairly wide, representative collection of Bartók’s Hungarian folk-derived music into our ears; they truly benefitted through being played in a chronological sequence (assuming the András Szőllősy – Sz – catalogue follows a chronological order).

There was a bigger than normal crowd in the hall, between 400 and 500 I’d guess; far more than the chamber music societies in Wellington or the Hutt Valley attract. Ticket price obviously has something to do with it, influenced by the cheaper Waikanae venue, though one might have thought Wellington, now using the cheaper St Andrew’s on The Terrace in the absence of the Ilott Theatre, would have been able to reduce their prices.


Days Bay Opera’s twelfth production handles Eugene Onegin with youthful energy and perceptivity

Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky

Conducted by Howard Moody; produced and directed by Rhona Fraser
Principal singers: Katherine McIndoe, Daniel O’Connor, Filipe Manu, Elisabeth Harris, Christie Cook, Annabelle Cheetham, Tavis Gravatt
In English translation by David Lloyd-Jones
Twelve-piece orchestra

Opera in a Days Bay Garden

Canna House, Days Bay, Wellington

Wednesday 15 February 7: 15 pm

Days Bay Opera continues its eclectic repertory policies, that have ranged from the mid 16th century to the 20th. For this, it was back to the garden, after the indoors performance of Theodora, on a fine but somewhat cool evening.

What may well have been a worry was a summer that is hardly worthy of the name, and further performances of both pieces on the following days may not have been so fortunate.

This was the first time this precious Wellington opera enterprise has packaged two productions at the same time. A big challenge, but one that seemed not to have caused any loss of energy or diminished musical standard. It permitted the use of several voices in both productions which may have been an economy in some respects. Both productions forwent the engagement of a professional director, but if that simply meant there was no impulse to impose a ‘reading’ or ‘concept’ on either work, for me, there’s no real loss. Fraser handled movement and attention to meaningful interaction between characters with all the experience that a seasoned performer gains instinctively.

These were the eleventh and twelfth productions by Days Bay Opera.

While the acoustic of the hill-side amphitheatre is very good, most of the voices emerged with excellently clear diction so that the English translation was very comprehensible. It was sung in the very attractive translation by David Lloyd Jones, to be found in the English National Opera/Royal Opera Opera Guide 38.

First voices heard are from Madam Larina and the family nurse, Filippyevna, both clear and understandable, exchanging nostalgic childhood memories, almost as if social equals. Elisabeth Harris as Madame Larina might have looked no older than her daughters, but that was an inconsequential detail alongside the unusual liveliness of her total performance. Annabelle Cheetham acted splendidly as Filippyevna, the arthritic, old family retainer, full of peasant simplicity and common sense and in a voice of mature warmth and naturalness.

Both the men were convincing: Filipe Manu was a serious-demeanoured Lensky whose fine voice enabled him to express the sincerity of his feelings for the flighty, self-obsessed Olga, whose role was sung with real conviction and psychological accuracy by mezzo Christie Cook.

Lensky’s impassioned ‘Ya lyublyu vas’ (I love you’) is the first notable aria and it distinguished Manu at once. It stood in contrast to Olga’s perfunctory remark as his aria finishes that their parents watched them grow up and knew they would marry. It was just one of the many perceptive, poetic touches in this exceptionally fine libretto.

Manu skilfully captured Lensky’s increasing dismay and eventual uncontrollable anger during the Larin party after Onegin deliberately provokes him by flirting with Olga – and ignoring Tatyana; and his voice and acting made a deep impression. Nothing in the opera, however, is as moving as the opportunities for self- examination offered as the two men prepare for the duel, where Lensky delivers his great lament for his past happiness, in ‘Kuda, kuda…’ (literally ‘Where, where?’).

Daniel O’Connor presented an Onegin who was not only unusually young-looking – most I’ve seen live or on video have looked rather older than the character whom Pushkin imagines aged around 25 in Act I – but who also succeeded in displaying a reasonable degree of sensitivity alongside a superciliousness (which is more credible in a 25-year-old than at 40), and even in his response to Tatyana’s naïve, impassioned letter, his performance was fundamentally gentle, not overdoing the condescension. His was a fine performance. And though his behaviour at the Larin party can still seem to be at odds with his real nature, he acted like a man suddenly possessed by an irrational seizure.

The opera perhaps doesn’t explain satisfactorily why Onegin is bored and irritated by the name-day party. Pushkin had Lensky inviting him ‘mischievously’, not explaining that it would be a boisterous peasant affair, far removed from the gentilities of a St Petersburg social event, and therefore likely to bore him.

Later, preparing for the duel, O’Connor displayed an affecting self-perception as he prepares himself for the duel. As they ready to fire, both men sing the same helpless words, and the audience is allowed a moment of hope that the action will abandon the libretto and score and call the whole thing off.

So one even felt a degree of compassion for him at the end when it is Tatyana who – heart-breakingly – rejects his pathetic imploring that she abandon her marriage to elope with him.

Katherine McIndoe’s Tatyana’s was similarly a thoughtful, complex performance with vocal and acting characteristics that illustrated her inexperience, influenced by romantic novels (like Emma Bovary?). The crushing of her romantic dreams when Onegin responds to her had considerable impact on the audience; she is shy, with more quiet, cultivated interests than her sister; integral in her characterisation was her evident embarrassment at being the focus of attention at her name-day party as Monsieur Triquet (a perfectly French-accented Luka Venter) sings couplets that he has composed in her honour.

In Act III there is the important role of Prince Gremin, the host of the high society St Petersburg ball, and now Tatyana’s husband. Tavis Gravatt’s bass baritone voice was splendidly fitted to the task, and though not so physically imposing, presented himself and his voice with great aplomb in one of the great bass arias in the opera repertory: ‘Lyubvi vse vosrasty pokornu’ (The gift of love is rightly treasured).

There was a well-schooled chorus, some of whose members doubled as minor characters like Monsieur Triquet (Luka Venter) and an army captain in crimson uniform (William McElwee) – both of whom had been heard in Theodora a few days before.

They too were sensibly disposed, showing the sensitivity of the direction – this time by Rhona Fraser herself (as with Theodora).  I was intrigued to read in the programme that costumes were from a Moscow supplier, for they had the simplicity of a modestly affluent Russian country estate in Acts I and II and something more elaborate, but credibly Tsarist-era, in the third act.

Then the orchestra, twelve-piece, comprising five strings, five winds, harp and timpani, from the NZSO and other orchestras. One of the first things to notice, at least from where I was sitting on the left of the lawn in front of the house, was an occasionally unbalanced sound, even to the point of hearing some kind of phantom ensemble-disjunction. But this was probably an acoustic eccentricity resulting from the placement of the orchestra inside the house and the varying sound reflections resulting from the position and character of various instruments, and my particular seat.

The obvious shortcomings of the ‘stage’ – spread across almost the width of the house so that audience at the sides lost a bit of the sound at times – were a small price to pay for the simple delight of the forested-hillside setting, the audience close to such accomplished singers.

Tchaikovsky’s rich orchestral sound was never an expectation and there were, naturally, moments when one rather hoped for more, but most of the time the accompaniment was very adequate; for example, the waltz in Act II was surprisingly effective, perhaps in keeping with the players at a country dance (no, better than that of course).

English conductor Howard Moody, who has conducted several of Days Bays’ recent productions, was again in charge and the results were always lively and in a comfortable relationship with the singers. Moody’s CV ( reveals an extraordinary range of activities world-wide, (all over Britain and many parts of Europe – including Romania, Netherlands, Poland, Norway, Iceland, Bangladesh… and New Zealand), including reference to a composition entitled And my heart goes swimming, for Days Bay Opera, no less.

So I was delighted to have another live experience of this, one of my half dozen best loved operas, in a youthful and memorable production.


For the record, my archive of opera productions in New Zealand shows three earlier performances of Eugene Onegin;

Wellington City Opera           1997

Canterbury Opera                   1998

New Zealand Opera               2009

It was not in the repertoire of any of the scores of touring companies that circulated through New Zealand from the 1860s till 1949.


Days Bay Opera does it again with Handel’s “Theodora”

HANDEL – Theodora (Oratorio in Three Acts, 1749)
(libretto by Thomas Morell)

Daysbaygarden Opera Company
Director: Rhona Fraser
Conductor: Howard Moody

Cast: William King (Valens, Roman Governor of Antioch
Maaike Christie-Beekman (Didymus, a Roman officer)
Filipe Manu (Septimus, a Roman, friend of Didymus)
Madison Nonoa (Theodora, a Christian noblewoman)
Rhona Fraser (Irene, a Christian)
John Beaglehole (a messenger)

Chorus: (Heathens/Christians) Emily Mwila, Emma Cronshaw Hunt, Sally Haywood,
Alexandra Woodhouse-Appleby, Lily Shaw, Luca Venter, Isaac Stone,
Hector McLachlan, William McElwee

Orchestra: Anne Loeser (Violin, leader), Rebecca Struthers (violin),
Victoria Jaenecke (viola), Eleanor Carter (‘cello), Richard Hardie (d-bass),
Merran Cooke, Louise Cox (oboes), David Angus (bassoon),
Mark Carter (trumpet), Howard Moody (organ)

Canna House, Day’s Bay, Wellington,
Saturday, February 11th, 2017

(Next and final performance: Thursday 16th February, at 7:30pm)

One of the pleasures of reviewing for me is fronting up to performances of music which I simply don’t know, and subsequently asking myself (sometimes in tones of amazement and disbelief) why it is I’ve never encountered this or that work before, finding it so beautiful / profound / thrilling /whatever! Thus it was with this often compelling production of Handel’s oratorio Theodora, a work the composer wrote towards the end of his creative life, and regarded it as one of the best things he’d ever done!

It didn’t get off to a very good start in 1750, the year of its first performance – the consensus of opinion is that Londoners found less favour with the idea of the martyrdom of a Christian saint than with the Old Testament stories which Handel’s previous oratorios had presented. Whatever the case it was played only three times that season, and just once during 1755 before being dropped from the repertoire for well-nigh two hundred years.

According to the work’s librettist, Thomas Morell, the composer himself declared parts of Theodora superior to anything to be found in Messiah, particularly the final chorus of Act Two “He Saw the Lovely Youth”. Naturally Handel was disappointed in the work’s poor reception, though he himself had remarked (again, according to Morell) that his rich Jewish patrons ,who had flocked to hear Judas Maccabeus a few years previously, would probably not be interested in a presentation with such “Christian” themes and characters.

Amazingly, it wasn’t until the famously provocative Peter Sellars’ revival of the work at Glyndebourne in the UK in 1998 that Theodora made a proper “comeback” to the repertoire. It ought to be remembered that this was, of course, an oratorio rather than an original stage work which was inspiring such acclaim/alarm amongst enthusiasts for both genres. Sellars’ production simply put new wine into old bottles, relating the work’s themes of religious intolerance and persecution to contemporary tyrannical practices enforced by certain modern states and rulers.

Perhaps Rhona Fraser’s Days Bay Opera production didn’t generate quite the intoxicating charge of that Glyndebourne affair, but in places it may have effectively “trumped” it! The production’s reduced scale meant the adroit use of a multi-identity chorus whose members at appropriate times merely changed their garb, which here, I thought, worked really well. The staging proclaimed its intentions during the Overture, with chorus members echoing the recent political upheavals in Europe by carrying Brexit-like “Resist” placards, before being moved on by the commando-like armed guards.

The Overture’s grand-gestured opening turned into a nicely-sprung allegro, the players delivering plenty of energy and focus which easily filled-out the performing spaces (unlike with previous Days Bay productions, we were actually inside the house this time). The first solo voice we heard was that Valens, the Roman Governor of Antioch, whose entrance was rapturously augmented by his black-leather-clad brigade, some supporters carrying signs containing the unequivocal message “Make Rome great again”, as well as the more sinister legend “Torture really works”.

William King as Valens delivered a sonorous, strongly-characterised decree, commanding that all citizens commemorate the Emperor’s natal day by taking part in Jovian rites of worship, before similarly dismissing the plea of one of his soldiers, Didymus, for tolerance towards those people who professed a different faith. King brought the same strength and sonorous tones to his threatening “Racks, gibbets, sword and fire”, underlying the contrast of intent with that of Maaike Christie-Beekman’s Didymus, whose dissenting voice expressed all the warmth and pliability of tolerance and concern for those who might fall foul of the Governor in her aria ”The raptured soul defies the sword” – Christie-Beekman threw herself with abandonment into the incredible vocal melismas of the music, despite a couple of occupational spills along the way, emerging with great credit.

I thought the contrast well-drawn between the deeply-felt conviction of Christie-Beekman’s portrayal and the divided emotions of Septimus, a fellow-soldier, sympathetic to dissent, but loyal to his duty as a soldier. Filipe Manu’s assumption of the latter most effectively expressed the character’s inner conflict, his voice securely filling out the phrases of his aria “Descend, kind Pity”, with only a pinched phrase or two drying out the voice in places, not inappropriate to the character’s feelings of stress and conflict.

Theodora’s first entrance, featuring the bright, sweet voice of Madison Nonoa, was accompanied by markedly exposed string lines, suggesting the character’s purity and even isolation in the strength of her belief. Her aria “O flatt’ring world, adieu” carried this idea into even more beautiful and rarefied realms, the singer’s tones full and fresh, voiced accurately and sensitively. Supporting her was Rhona Fraser’s Irene, and the chorus in its Christian garb (having changed sides!), with a serene and radiant “Come, Mighty Father” accompanying the ritualisting lighting of candles.

Not even the entrance of a messenger (John Beaglehole) with his warning of impending arrest of any dissenters from the governor’s edict shook the resolve of the group, with Rhona Fraser investing Irene’s “As with rosy steps the dawn” with plenty of strength and security, emboldening the chorus to give of their best in the canonic “All Pow’r in Heav’n above”, which built to radiant climaxes. The group’s defiant mood disconcerted and frustrated the arriving Septimus, whose recitative “Mistaken wretches” and subsequent aria “Dread the fruits of Christian folly” were given plenty of energy and momentum, Filipe Manu managing the difficult runs with plenty of aplomb and appropriate bluster.

In the exchanges between Theodora and Septimus which followed, each singer “caught” their character’s crisis of moment, Theodora, the captive devastated by her enslavement into prostitution at “Venus’ Temple” as a punishment for her defiance of the Governor’s edict, and Septimus, her captor, torn between sympathy and a soldier’s duty. Madison Nonoa’s reply was to pour all of her artistry and beauty of voice into her character for one of the composer’s most beautiful arias “Angels ever bright and fair”, aided by sensitive and radiant instrumental support from conductor and players – a treasurable and memorable scene.

Didymus’s shock at being told of Theodora’s fate culminated in his resolve to rescue her, in a brilliant show of recitative “Kind Heav’n, if virtue be thy care” combined with aria “With courage fire me”, Christie-Beekman’s more vigorous sequences excitingly counterpointed a florid violin obbligato solo, generating tremendous excitement. It remained for the chorus to invest Didymus with the Almighty’s blessings (a wonderful “Go generous, pious youth”, as he changed his garb for that of a Christian, before setting off to rescue Theodora.

So ended Act One – to go through and “fine-tooth-comb” the rest of the performance would bog the reader of this review down in largely repetitive detail. Each singer by this time had amply demonstrated what they could do and how well they could”flesh out” each character, and no-one disappointed in those terms. While the production was in many ways “abstracted” by dint of its intimacy and confined spaces, Rhona Fraser’s direction firmly held to the essentials of dramatic interaction, allowing the singers sufficient theatricality to flesh out their characters in a totally convincing way. I did feel the chorus members seemed rather more “at home” with the pagan revels than with the Christian rituals, though that seemed a Miltonian problem as much as anything else, a matter for human nature to answer to!

Enough to say that the playing out of the drama was convincingly achieved, with a fine show of orgiastic revelry from Valens’ leather-clad entourage at the beginning of Act Two, the excesses of which were finely counter-balanced by the same singers’ in their opposing roles as the Christians at the “changeover”of Acts Two and Three (the composer described the lamenting chorus “He saw a lovely youth” as belonging to Act Two, though here the sequence in what the group imagines at first to be the death of Didymus was placed at Act Three’s beginning – but no wonder the composer himself had a high opinion of the piece!

I was puzzled by a curiously inert chorus response to the appearance of Theodora, disguised in Didymus’s uniform, in which she had escaped – however, the ensemble roused itself sufficiently to convey most effectively both the Heathens’ wonder at the dignity of the lovers’ response to their own deaths (“How strange their ends, and yet how glorious”), and the final Christian affirmation of the work – “O Love divine, thou source of fame”. here a properly and appropriately moving conclusion.

Each character brought a comparable intensity to his or her role in this playing-out of the story – William King’s Valens, drunk with power during the revels of Act Two, remained an imperious and implaccable presence in the face of pleas from various quarters to spare the lovers’ lives. The agony of Didymus’s soldier friend Septimus became more and more apparent as the denoument approached, from expressing his support for Theodora and Didymus in Act Two, to pleading to Valens for their lives in the final scene. Filipe Manu here brought a full and heartfelt outpouring of tones in “From virtue springs each generous deed”, ennobling his character further in doing so. And the Irene of Rhona Fraser, though following a less tortured moral trajectory, rewarded her part with steady, well-rounded vocalising, readily conveying her real human sympathy and conviction of faith in “Defend her, Heav’n”, sung over Theodora as a prisoner in Act Two, and her freshly-wrought and unquenchable hope in her release in “New Seeds of joy come crowding on” in the final Act, just before the final tragedy’s enactment.

Ultimately it was left to the two main protagonists to properly “carry” the essence of the story’s dramatic and emotional weight, with the help of all those mentioned, along with the instrumentalists and conductor. Maaike Christie-Beekman’s Didymus’s journeyings through what seemed like an entire gamut of emotion to a fulfilment of love reunited in death was classic operatic stuff, comparable in impact to other, later versions of the same, such as that of another soldier, Radames, in Verdi’s Aida, or the love-death of the knight in Wagner’s Tristan, each of these characters confident of progressing towards a loving reunion in another life.

Madison Nonoa’s Theodora was the object of Didymus’s desire, though less passive than that description suggests, her character embracing the idea of salvation in tandem with her once-heathen lover, for whom she was ready to sacrifice her life alone. Handel responded to these characters and their situations with some of his greatest music (he himself thought so too!), nowhere more exquisite than throughout Act Two where the lovers are reunited after Theodora’s arrest when Didymus with his friend Septimus’s help finds her in prison. Didymus sings his enamoured “Sweet Rose and Lily”, then tells Theodora he has come to help her escape though Theodora would rather Didymus kill her and release her unto “gentle death”. Didymus rejects her plea – “Shall I destroy the life I came to save?” and urges her to trade places with him and take his clothes and escape – but Theodora laments “Ah, what is liberty or life to me that Didymus must purchase with his own?” – such heartfelt stuff, and here, by turns, so gutsily and sensitively articulated, voiced and, above all, sung!

The pair’s subsequent duet in which their absolute trust in one another and in the mercy of a Higher Power, enabling them to meet “again on earth” or “in heaven” brought forth an exquisite intertwining of impulse, here full-blooded and forceful, and then rapt and breath-catching, an interaction that came full circle in the final scene of Act Three with their farewell duet “Thither let our hears aspire”. It was singing, and playing, which truly for we in the audience “woke the song and tuned the lyre”, and left us marvelling at the seeming endless invention of its composer. It just went to show that, for our delight, the joys of such music and, as here, its sensitive and whole-hearted presentation, are endless. In the midst of that realisation I felt truly grateful to be there, to Howard Moody, the conductor, to Rhona Fraser the producer, and to all who made the presentation of this glorious music such a profound and for me unforgettable experience.

Nelson Chamber Music festival again New Zealand’s biennial musical highlight

The Adam International Chamber Music Festival (Thursday 2 to Saturday 11 February 2017)

Theatre Royal, Nelson and Nelson Cathedral

These reviews cover concerts from Tuesday 7 to Friday 10 February 2017

My visit this year to the Nelson Chamber Music Festival was shorter than in previous years, arriving late afternoon on the Tuesday and departing midday Saturday.

The highlights from abroad were the presence of Hungarian pianist Dénes Varjon, the Australian tenor, Andrew Goodwin (singing Schumann’s Dichterliebe), the Goldner Quartet and cellist Matthew Barley.

The essence of the festival rests with the New Zealand String Quartet, which founded and sustained the festival from its beginning in 1992: for many years, artistic directors Helene Pohl and Gillian Ansell. The quartet whose membership remained fixed for over 20 years, saw the retirement last year of second violinist, Doug Beilman and his replacement by Australian violinist Monique Lapins, who at this festival enjoyed solo exposure, notably in Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor.

Frequent visitors over the years have been the New Zealand Piano Trio (NZTrio) which played as a group and also played individually with a variety of other players. And the Goldner Quartet from Australia which has visited a couple of times in the past.

An old friend, clarinettist James Campbell, returned, to join in music by Brahms, Gao Ping, Schumann, Jean Françaix…    as well as several New Zealand and other contemporary pieces. Plus marimba player Ian Rosenbaum.

A central element of this festival was ‘The Cello’, involving the performance of all five of Beethoven’s cello sonatas, from five different cellists, who were joined by eight others for the cello jamboree in two concerts on Friday the 10th.

Waitangi Day has always fallen within the festival and has offered an opportunity to feature New Zealand works. This time Gillian Whitehead was present for the New Zealand premiere of her new one-voice opera Iris Dreaming.

Naturally, I was there for only some of these, from the Tuesday evening.

My first concert on Tuesday 7 February, 7:30 pm, was entitled ‘Cadenzas’. It began with the third Beethoven cello sonata (Op 69), this one from Matthew Barley accompanied by Dénes Varjon. (the Op 5 sonatas had already been played). I have never felt that the cello sonatas were among Beethoven’s real masterpieces, but Barley gave this one a sort of raw individuality that, while not speaking in unmistakably Beethovenish tones, was a study in vivid contrasts between movements and within movements, lyrical or tough-minded, rhapsodic or strictly formulated.

Pre-eminent Canadian clarinettist James Campbell has been at Nelson, perhaps twice before, and is clearly a good friend to both the New Zealand String Quartet and the festival itself. While I truly lamented missing his playing in the Brahms clarinet quintet in the final Gala performance, it was a pleasure to hear him with marimba player Ian Rosenbaum in Canadian composer Alexina Louie’s Cadenza II.

Louie is of mixed Chinese-Canadian descent and this improvisatory piece drew on those contrasting influences. Rosenbaum’s virtuosity may visually have somewhat outshone the less flamboyant character of a clarinet player, and the mingling of sounds did not especially persuade me of their natural affinity, but the vitality and exotic character of the music provided an excellent punctuation mark between two pillars at either end of the 19th century.

Brahms first piano trio, essentially a youthful piece (aged 20), is a favourite of most chamber music fans, such as me. And its performance by Varjon with New Zealand String Quartet’s Helene Pohl and Rolf Gjelsten was a huge success, rich and romantic, refined and compelling.

Wednesday the 8th began with a meet-the-artists with the Goldner Quartet in the morning – most entertaining and interesting according to those who attended.

The 2pm, hour-long Theatre Royal concert, entitled Fire in the Belly, focused on the last piece, of that name by Jack Body commissioned by the New Zealand Trio in 2008 and played by the trio here. It might be something of departure from much of Body’s music that shows the influence of the indigenous music from many parts of the world. It was perhaps a reassurance for those who might wonder whether he also succeeded in writing music in a fairly traditional form, for traditional western instruments, in an idiom that was original yet accessible; it held my attention firmly, and is worthy of its place in the piano trio literature.

The concert began however with the fourth of Beethoven’s cello sonatas (Op 102 No 1) which Rolf Gjelsten played beautifully; though in his introduction he spoke, uncharacteristically, a bit too long. His pianist was Dénes Varjon who’d accompanied the Op 69 sonata on Tuesday and the accord was again heart-warming.

It was followed by Kakakurenai, by Japanese composer Andy Akiho, for marimba, vibraphone and glockenspiel, originally for ‘prepared steel pan’, having an effect rather like Caribbean steel drums; that quality could be heard through the two keyed percussion instruments. It started interestingly but became repetitive in its rhythmic and melodic ideas, though it came comfortably to an end at the right time.

Then a piece for viola and piano, Märchenbilder (Fairytale pictures), Op 113, by Schumann; one of his last works. Though played by affectionately and persuasively by Gillian Ansell and Dénes Varjon, it rather lacked much energy and its melodic interest was routine in comparison with the enchanting inspirations of his earlier piano music and Lieder.

On Wednesday evening at 7.30pm came one of the festival’s centre-pieces – ‘Bach by Candlelight’, inevitably, in the Cathedral, with the evening sun setting through the western stained glass. The pattern has been established over the years: a mixture of arias from cantatas and some instrumental works. As usual it involved most of the string players at the festival, from the NZTrio, the New Zealand String Quartet, the Goldner Quartet and the young Nelson ‘Troubadours’, as well as Matthew Barley, NZSO bassist Joan Perarnau Garriga, Ian Rosenbaum, Douglas Mews – harpsichord and organ, and Australian tenor Andrew Goodwin.

The two orchestral works this time were the lovely violin concerto in A minor, solo by the New Zealand String Quartet’s second violinist, Monique Lapins. At the end, Brandenburg Concerto No 6 which is unusual as it uses no violins: just violas and a cello and a bass, producing a gorgeous warm sound that I really love. So that was a delight.

The four arias were sung by Australian tenor Andrew Goodwin, a smooth, beautifully nuanced voice, strong and full of character. In some previous years I have found some cantata excerpts s a bit tedious, but these four, as sung by him, were just wonderful, simply creating music that may have been religious in intent but were typically rich in musical substance, easily sustaining the rapt attention of the capacity audience in the cathedral.

The one oddball element in the concert was Bach’s fifth cello suite, C minor, arranged for marimba. Ian Rosenbaum performed it from memory, with astonishing energy and musicality, but the sound, for me, was simply not right. It performance on a stringed instrument is so embedded in my head that playing the notes on a percussion instrument, even one capable, as is the marimba, of very subtle dynamic variety, was too hard to accommodate. Furthermore, the ability to strike four keys at once created more harmonic opportunities and that too altered its character, to the point where I would have wondered, hearing it for the first time, who the composer might have been.

In the 2pm Thursday concert in the Cathedral Matthew Barley began with Bach’s first cello suite. His playing revealed a rhythmic freedom, with the tempo in the Prelude far from the strict, steady rhythms that are sometimes imposed on Bach’s music. The Allemande was painted with a soft brush while in the Courante the bow skipped lightly, never biting into the strings. But it was the Sarabande where the greatest rhythmic freedom appeared, with a surprising silence before the final note. The whole performance was infused with an appealing, organic sense that prepared the ground for the following very recent compositions.

Tavener’s Threnos for solo cello is somehow a seminal late 20th century work that uses the simplest material with utter sincerity. There are three phases that move from the deepest spiritual level through lighter realms in higher registers before returning to the first phase; beautifully played as it was, I wondered whether Barley had quite discovered its essential profundity.

Appalachia Waltz by Mark O’Connor explored another spiritual region; its waltz character is unimportant but its roots half way between the classical and folk music realms as well as its beautiful unpretentiousness have made it famous. Barley’s lovely playing of its strange, haunting quality stilled the audience.

Italian cellist and composer Giovanni Sollima’s name might not be familiar to classical audiences (though one is shamed to see the long list of compositions in his Wikipedia listing). He too spans the fields of popular and classical music and his Lamentatio is easily associated with the two earlier pieces on this programme. The ‘lamentation’ was given extra impact through the cellist’s vocalisations at certain points, and while it began in the spirit that its title suggested, it soon became a frenetic double-stopping farrago, eventually ending with racing, descending staccato arpeggios, spiced by hard spiccato bowing below the bridge.

Improvisation was a major element in Barley’s performance of the last three works. However, there were no formal markers indicating where the composed music ended and improvisation began, and it was rather a matter of guesswork for me, since I had not heard either the O’Connor or the Sollima before. Sometimes I felt a change of tone and direction; sometimes the improvisatory music seemed completely fused with what the composer had written.

The concert was both an illuminating demonstration of the art of improvisation, and a fascinating awakening to some music that proved very much worth knowing and which I have enjoyed hearing again on YouTube clips since getting home.

(As a quite irrelevant aside, after looking on the Internet after getting home, I found one of Sollima’s performance colleagues has been poet and musician Petti Smith; both have been associated with Yo-Yo-Ma’s Silk Road Project – and both O’Connor and Sollima have been associated with it. At Nelson’s interesting new boutique bookshop Volume (on Church Street) I picked up Smith’s recent autobiographical M Train).

The concert on Thursday evening, 9 February, in the Theatre Royal was one of the true high points for me: both Schumann’s Dichterliebe and Brahms’s Piano quintet, Op 34 are right at the top of my musical loves.

But the concert, entitled ‘Love Triangle’, naturally included Clara Schumann: Helene Pohl and Dénes Farjon played her Three Romance for violin and piano, Op 22. Dedicated to violinist Joseph Joachim, it consisted of three contrasted pieces that showed real compositional talent, if not truly memorable music such as her husband or Brahms created. The first, Andante molto, was a dreamy, meandering melody, and a more vigorous middle section formed by wide-spaced intervals.  that was carefully constructed and agreeable; followed by an Allegretto built around a pensive melody, with a more lively middle section. I wrote during the performance: ‘Charming little morceaux’, or I might have said ‘Bagatelles’.

I can’t resist quoting a comment in a Wikipedia reference: “Joachim continued to play the pieces on his own tours. He reported, in a letter to Clara, from the court in Hanover that the king was in ‘ecstasy’ over the Romances and could ‘hardly wait’ to enjoy such ‘marvellous, heavenly pleasure again.’ They are lovely, private pieces, conceived in one of music history’s richest households.” (Tim Summers, violinist).

Dichterliebe is a song cycle that is commonly rated alongside Schubert’s two great cycles. We’d heard Australian tenor Andrew Goodwin in the four arias from Bach cantatas on Wednesday evening and while not detracting from the rare enjoyment of those, his singing of Schumann might have been a more significant endorsement of his musical scholarship and vocal sensibility. Apart from the singing, the piano parts are even more intrinsic to Schumann’s songs than to Schubert’s. And the spirit of many of them is foreshadowed in a longish piano introduction and in a postlude that sometimes offers a commentary that elaborates or lays to rest troubled emotions in the words.

Pianist Isabella Simon, Dénes Varjon’s wife, with whom she often plays duets, has accompanied many singers in Lieder and other art song; she was here for Schumann. Her introduction to the very first song, ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai’, her personal, idiomatic approach was evident; there was often a studied waywardness, evident from the start, and which matched Goodwin’s discreet and careful handling of Heine’s words (all the poems were drawn from his highly successful collection, Buch der Lieder of 1827). Even for those not understanding the German, there was a distinction between the purely lyrical and the more narrative songs, such as ‘Aus meinen Tränen…’, or ‘Ein Jungling liebt ein Mädchen’. There were often quite long pauses to allow the impact of an emotion to be ingested by the listener, and the vivid expressive qualities of Schumann’s settings would have told almost as much as fully understanding the words about the poems’ meaning.

One of the great strengths of the cycle is the pithiness of the poems, no word wasted, no emotion tediously prolonged. Schumann plunges straight into some, like ‘Wenn ich in deine Augen’ while in others there’s a long preamble or a long postlude, such as that following ‘Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome’ or ‘Ein Jungling’, or the extraordinary piano mediation in ‘Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen’. Yet there are songs where the voice starts alone, like ‘Ich hab’ ein Traum geweinet’, with breathless angst, and its ending too, a pained dialogue between voice and piano, with frozen, wide-spaced piano chords, was magically paced. In all these, voice and piano found instinctive rapport.

And the stark contrasts between ‘Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube’ – passionate, impulsive – and sombre songs like ‘Im Rhein’ (above), created a singular dramatic antithesis.

Naturally one waited in high anticipation for ‘Ich grolle nicht’, but the start shocked me – it was so calm, so restrained, compared with the typical performance where a proud disdain for self-pity is often cried out, declaimed fortissimo; Goodwin maintained a calm tension right up to the last lines when he let go, with full voice with a far greater impact.

It was the one of Schumann’s songs that first impacted me through a music-loving German master at secondary school; that class room, east wing, lower floor, in the morning sun, remains vivid in my memory.

The rare experience of hearing the full cycle from these two fine artists was one of the true highlights of the festival.

Brahms Piano Quintet
As if that wasn’t treasure enough, in the second part of the recital, Dénes Varjon and the New Zealand String Quartet played Brahms’s wonderful piano quintet, Op 34. The magic impacts at once with that strange, exploratory opening which quickly becomes such a gorgeous whole-hearted, melodious movement, though an underlying sobriety is never far below the surface. Again, Varjon showed his gift for embracing at once the musical personalities of his fellow players, as indeed the quartet reciprocated, and there was simply no moment where one could sense disparate musical tastes or sensibilities.

It’s a long work and I have to confess that I’ve sometimes felt that the first movement seems paralysed in its aversion to quitting that stage, but whether that feeling arises is totally dependent on the performance. Here the thought never entered my mind; in fact I dreaded its ending, even after its full quarter hour. All other movements had the same effect, and it had me composing a petition to the NZSQ to make a habit of offering at least one concert a year with Varjon or another comparably collegial pianist to fully explore the piano quintet repertoire (the known masterpieces few, but there’s really a lot worth exploring).

Friday the 10th of February brought my stay to an end. The day of the cello.
The 2pm concert in the Cathedral was ‘Cellissimo’
: a dozen cellists, probably the cream of resident New Zealand cellists, from the three ensembles present, from orchestras and university music schools around the country, along with three of the visitors.
Bach’s Air (‘on the G string’, if you like) from the third orchestral suite, BWV 1068, opened to such opulent beauty that I wondered whether one could any longer justify its performance on the (violin) G string. Would it be hard for any of those present to tolerate any other version? Four cellists played: Megiddo, Barley, Joyce and Edith Salzmann. Presumably it was an arrangement of the ‘arrangement’ (which was transposed from Bach’s D to C major) and not derived directly from the original air.

A different group played a Bach Toccata (Gjelsten, Eliah Sakakushev von Bismarck, Ken Ichinose and Ashley Brown); not the famous Toccata from the organ toccata and fugue in D minor, but one from an unidentified source by Alan Shulman.

And a different mix of players performed an arrangement of Bach’s Viola da gamba sonata No 1, BWV 1027. This had a particularly authentic feel, as the viola da gamba is a close relation of the modern cello.

Five cellists then played an attractive piece by Dvořák, Silent Woods, originally No 5 of a set of pieces for piano-four-hands (Op 68), which Dvořák arranged for cello and piano. Its singling out, here for five cellos, could be explained by its warm, opulent melody, which offered Eliah Sakakushev and then Julian Smiles (of the Goldner Quartet) the limelight.

Bartók’s Romanian Dances (six of them) also began life as piano pieces and were arranged for orchestra by the composer. Rolf Gjelsten duetted with Inbal Megiddo, alternating lyrical affection, with rhythmic energy, building to barbaric excitement in the last.

And the concert ended with five players. including Matthew Barley, in yet another arrangement of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise.

The Friday evening concert, entitled ‘Cellos by Candlelight’, again in the Cathedral, included varied cellists, ending with all present – I counted thirteen for the last two pieces by Piazzolla and Julius Klengel.

It consisted of mainly short  well-known pieces, but the whole was presented by ever-changing groups of players. Starting with the quintessentially enrapturing Canon by Pachelbel, and then the opening of the William Tell Overture, which I supposes everyone expected to continue for its full 12 minutes or so, but when the opening cello melody ended, that was it.

We heard two of Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasilleiras: No 1, actually written for an orchestra of cellos, it engaged eight players (if I’m not mistaken: Eliah Sakakushev, Megiddo, Tennant, Du Plessis, Brown, Salzmann, Ichinose, and the cellist from the young Troubadours quartet, Anna-Marie Alloway).

Later Jenny Wollerman sang the beautiful soprano part in Bachianas Brasileiras No 5 with a different cello assemblage, with a singular ethereal quality, the sort-of-wordless vocal line seeming to emerge from far up in the cathedral vault.

There were also two pieces by Pablo Casals, the Song of the Birds and Sardana, which the composer famously conducted with 100 cellists in New York in 1970. These provided a few minutes of variety, music that was probably as unfamiliar to most of the audience as it was to me.

Continuing to honour Casals perhaps, other cellist combinations played more Latin music: the six pieces that comprise Manuel de Falla’s Suite populaire espagnole, which had been arranged from the composer’s original Siete canciones populares españolas (Seven Spanish Popular Songs). Variously, they provided solo opportunities for lovely playing by several of the cellists. The surprising thing about these pieces, and indeed the whole cello-dominated concert, was the remarkable variety of tone and dramatic character to be found in this most human of the string instrument family.

And the concert, and for me, the festival itself, ended, with Piazzolla’s seductive Oblivion and Tango, and another rather obscure piece that proved emotionally attractive, a Hymnus for 12 cellos (Op 57) by Julius Klengel, a German cellist and prolific composer, mainly for the cello, whose life spread across the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Friday was very much a celebration of the cello, of massed cellos, which only becomes a possibility in a festival setting; it is one of the most important features of a festival, the opportunity to create musical ensembles that can make music that is rarely possible in the ordinary course of concert-giving.

Let’s list those involved in the Klengel piece, just for fun, as it was the total of the cello phalange at the festival: Anna-Marie Alloway, Matthew Barley, Ashley Brown, Rolf Gjelsten, Ken Ichinose, Andrew Joyce, Inbal Megiddo, Brigid O’Meeghan, Heleen du Plessis, Eliah Sakakushev von Bismark, Edith Salzmann, Julian Smiles, James Tennant.

Stage management was a most particular undertaking which had been noticed at earlier concerts but which reached a climax of complexity and precision at the Friday concerts, since they involved so many cellists. Each clearly had his or her own seating preference and as the players changed places for each piece, manoeuvres with chairs, as well as with music stands equipped for sheet music or tablets, took place with military precision and efficacy. Detailed maps had obviously been drawn up and memorised so that the stage managers could prepare fresh seat dispositions for each piece. In charge was stage manager Brendyn Montgomery and his assistant, Janje Heatherfield.

One must also acknowledge other management of the festival, a body of musical passionnées whose devotion to the cause goes way beyond whatever they are paid.

There’s the festival trust, chaired by Colleen Marshall who introduced many of the concerts and artists; Bob Bickerton, manager, and droll anecdoteur as he shared the introductor-assignment, in addition to being the multi-instrumentalist and entertainer of children.
The fundamental task of artistic planning and management remained the role of two members of the New Zealand String quartet: Helene Pohl and Gillian Ansell. Success of the festival rests essentially on them, for the music chosen and the musicians who play it.

To end, I should add that one of the little curiosities of this festival was a series of little addenda at the end of each set of programme notes, entitled ‘Conversation Piece’.
An example from this last concert read:
“How can one work of art or music exist successfully in many contexts? Does the emotional affect of a work change depending on its context, or do these works succeed because of the strength of the original content?”
(and note the carefully distinguished use of the word ‘affect’, commonly confused with ‘effect’).


Unfamiliar but rewarding music to mark Conference on 17th and 18th century English music

‘My Sweetest Choice’

A Recital of English Music from the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Rowena Simpson (soprano), Kamala Bain (recorders), Douglas Mews (harpsichord)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Thursday, 9 February 2017, 5pm

When on Wednesday after the lunchtime concert someone drew my attention to a poster in St Andrew’s Church foyer, advertising a concert the following early evening, I was unaware of its provenance.  It transpired that it was in association with the 11th Biennial Conference of the Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies.  Therefore the substantial audience was largely made up of delegates to this conference.  It proved to be an intriguing sampler of unfamiliar music, beautifully performed, thanks in part to subtle rubati and tempi that were not too strict.  For nearly an hour we were treated to delights not usually heard.

Each musician gave clear but brief introductions to the music they were about to perform, and the nicely produced printed programme included words of the songs and biographies of the performers.  It was a pity that such a small typeface was used, but fitting everything into the space available, including a few artistic illustrations, was probably quite a feat.

Most of the pieces were quite short, giving the audience plenty of variety in a relatively short time.  First was one for unaccompanied descant recorder by Jacob van Eyck (1590-1657) on the tune of The English Nightingale.  There were certainly plenty of bird sounds in it.  It made a great introit to the concert.  Next was ‘The Primerose’ and ‘The Fall of the Leafe’ by Martin Peerson (c. 1571-1651), pieces for harpsichord, decorated by the recorder, in the second piece that was the tenor recorder.  The contrast in timbres was most pleasing.

Moving forward in time, we encountered Henry Purcell (1659-95).  Here were two ‘Grounds’, based on music and poems by others.  The first, for harpsichord only, was delicate and charming, while the second, on ‘O Solitude’, the translation of the French words being by Katherine Philips (1632-1664).  Rowena Simpson’s fine singing was enhanced by the splendid  acoustic of St, Andrew’s Church, which was in part responsible for the clarity of the words and for this being the best I have heard her sing, in numbers of times and venues.

Some sprightly pieces followed, all accompanied by harpsichord, the first by John Adson with descant recorder, one by William Brade using the tenor instrument, then voice and tenor recorder in ‘I prithee send me back my heart’ by Henry Lawes, and finally an anonymous ‘Second Witches Dance’, a jolly quick and even quirky dance employing the descant recorder.

Godfrey Finger (1660-1730) I had never heard of, but his ‘Ground’ was well traversed by the quick fingers of Kamala Bain on the treble recorder.  A familiar melody followed, in ‘Divisions on The Drunken Sailor’, an anonymous composition.  Douglas Mews informed us that it predated publication of the well-known song., so perhaps the music was written before the words were.  Its jollity lived up to the title.

Handel was the most celebrated composer represented in the concert and justly contributed the most music to the programme.  Settings of extracts from Milton’s L’Allegro and Il Penseroso were sung.  All were performed with great finesse, but also style and panache.  The music never sounded ‘precious’.  ‘Far from all resort of mirth’ was more intricate than the earlier songs by other composers.  The treble recorder and the voice both had opportunity for melisma. The composer’s Suite in D minor (HWV 428) was played by Douglas Mews.  He explained that its Prelude had an improvisatory style, while the Allegro was a lovely fugue in French style and the Air and Variations was a fast piece in this form.  Mews’s articulation at the keyboard gave the Prelude life, lightness and vigour, while the Allegro was indeed lovely, and the final movement was fast and exciting.

Two more Milton poetry settings ended the concert in fine style. Simpson’s voice was throughout clear and absolutely accurate.  ‘May at last my weary age’ was for voice and harpsichord only, and covered a wide range, but all was well managed. The last ‘Or let the merry bells ring round’, where the sopranino recorder joined in, was a suitably bell-like and happy conclusion to the concert.


St Andrew’s opens 2017 lunchtime concerts with enjoyable baroque concert

Graupner & Vivaldi: concerti for viola d’amore, guitar and viola

Donald Maurice (viola d’amore), Jane Curry (guitar), Sophia Acheson (viola) and string ensemble of five players

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 8 February 2017, 12.15 pm

The concert was in part the Wellington launch of a new CD of the music of these two composers performed by Maurice, Curry, and Polish and Hungarian musicians.  An opening speech was delivered by the Polish Ambassador to New Zealand, H.E. Zbigniew Gniatkowski.  After the concert enjoyable refreshments were available.  The concert, the first in the 2017 St. Andrew’s series, was very well attended.

The programme began with Christoph Graupner’s concerto in D for viola d’amore and viola.  The printed programme supplied no notes on this composer, but Wikipedia informs me that he was German, and lived from 1683 to 1760, thus spanning the life of J.S. Bach.  Grove remarks that he represents the Vivaldian rather than the Corellian tradition in his 44 concertos.  Of these, the two played today are the only two noted by Grove as being for viola and viola d’amore.

The ensemble, who stood to play (except the cello, of course) were under the direction of Donald Maurice, but gestures were only required at the beginning of each work; the ensemble’s rapport and experience, plus their frequent eye contact, kept everything together splendidly.

Immediately the viola d’amore enters, one is struck by its mellow tone – as I was when reviewing a concert by much the same ensemble at St. Andrew’s last May.  On that occasion, three Vivaldi concertos were played, including the guitar one in D that we heard today.

The Graupner had a grave e marcato first movement – and exceedingly grave it was, followed by vivace, then grave again, but this time not as solemn as the first one; in fact it was enchanting.  The final movement was marked allegro; the rich, dark tones of the viola d’amore were so resonant compared with the other instruments.

The Vivaldi guitar concerto is a well-known one, in three movements. Its largo middle movement is languid and winsome.  The piece was played with subtlety and plenty of variation of tone and dynamics.

Another concerto for violas d’amore and viola by Graupner ended the programme, this one in A. Like the earlier one, it was graceful and attractive, if not as characterful as the Vivaldi.  The opening andante was suave and gentle, while the allegro fourth movement was interestingly intricate.

All made up to a very enjoyable concert.

Next week’s scheduled euphonium concert has had to be cancelled.  Note; NO St. Andrew’s lunchtime concert on Wednesday 15 February.