NZSM Piano Students show their mettle at St.Andrew’s, Wellington

New Zealand  School of Music, Victoria University presents:
Piano Students 2017

Nick Kovacek (Brahms: Rhapsody in B Minor Op.79 No.1)
Jungyeon Lee (Mozart: Sonata in F Major K.332)
William Swan (Debussy: Preludes Bk II – No.12 Feux d’artifice)
Matthew Oliver (Chopin: Etudes Op.10 – No 9 in F Minor)
Mitchell Henderson (Medtner: Sonata Reminiscenza Op.38 No.1)

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

Wednesday, 31st May 2017


A pity that the printed programme gave no information about any of the piano students, which would have “fleshed out” each of them a bit more, a smidgeon of biographical information and a comment regarding repertoire preferences in each case, for instance – nothing more than a couple of sentences akin to what each might write on his or her CV. While I thought the Acting Director of the School of Music, Dr. Dougal McKinnon’s written summary of the Music School’s activities interesting, if understandably promotional, I would have welcomed some additional focus on these particular students and their presentations, who and which, after all, were who and what we were actually there for.

I’m presuming these people were graduate students, judging from the interpretative depth I felt each brought to his or her performance, allied to the level of technical skill displayed in each case. What truly impressed me was that each of the five pianists brought with them a strongly-defined sense of how they thought and felt their pieces should go, so that there was no vapid note-spinning or empty display for its own sake, but concentrated and involved musical impulses behind each note, phrase or sequence. Even when fingers in a couple of instances ran ahead of the music and momentarily lost their poise and articulatedness, there was evidence of feeling at the mishap’s root and was quickly picked up and the notes propelled forwards once again.

I don’t wish to imply that each performance we heard had a sameness of either interpretative manner or technical finish – the pieces were too broad in their range of requirements for such an assertion to be made, for one. and the musical personalities of each pianist too individual, for another. I’m merely reporting that each player gave pleasure on his or her own terms with how his or her chosen piece was articulated. First to perform was Nick Kovacek, who chose to play the slightly lesser-known of Brahms’ two Op.79 Rhapsodies, No.1 in B Minor. The playing caught the music’s latter-day “sturm und drang” feeling right from the opening, and nicely integrated the mood-change of the subsequent lyrical musings into the overall flow, before plunging back into the fray with great urgency. Occasionally, the four-note “motif” sounded splashy, with the player attempting too much velocity, though the effect still caught the excitement of sparks flying as the hammer hit the rock. The central lyrical section was voiced beautifully and tenderly, and the pianist made a good deal of the upward-rushing flourishes, especially the second of each pair. After a properly frenetic climax, the pianist pulled us by the heartstrings into the grey vortex of the coda with real feeling and a nice sense of atmosphere.

After a (possibly unscheduled) luftpause, the diminutive figure of Jungyeon Lee appeared, ready at last to play, without the music, Mozart’s F Major Sonata K.332. Whatever doubts the reluctance of her appearance might have engendered among us in regard to the music-making proved completely unfounded. From the very first note I was drawn in by her characterisations of each episode of the music, everything lyrically voiced and beautifully weighted, the opening strikingly contrasted with the energy and anxiety of the following sequence in a well-rounded, never over-emphatic manner. I would have liked to have heard the repeat in which to enjoy it all again, especially as Mozart’s development section in this movement is so compact, to the point of terseness. I liked her dynamic control of the contrasts, again making them tell without undue force, and her nicely po-faced lead-back to the opening, with, apart from a little choppiness with the sforzandi chords, her music-making obeying the composer’s dictum that it should all ‘flow like oil”.

In the slow movement she brought out the music’s operatic lines with real character, such as her lovely, yielding treatment of the melody. She will, in time, find even more varied emotion in the descending right-hand thirds which followed, and increasingly let the figurations just before the reprise of the opening relax and “play themselves” – the music has more tenderness than she was wanting to show, in those places – but everything else had a naturalness of expression which I found fresh and engaging.

The finale was begun with a fine opening flourish, exhibiting the pianist’s sensitive dynamic control, with each phrase given something special. Occasionally the rapid figurations got the better of her fingers – I felt this movement hadn’t “settled” in performance to the extent the first two had, but as a “work in progress” the playing showed great promise, with my interest held over every bar. Many young pianists find Mozart a puzzle, and skate over his music’s surfaces with brilliance and very little else, so it was good to encounter one who articulated the music with such feeling.

Though Debussy was reputed to have admired Mozart’s music, it still seemed like some kind of quantum leap for a listener to make the transition from the above to the world of the French composer’s music, particularly that of Feux d’artifice (Fireworks), the last of the second set of Preludes, here played with considerable brilliance and evocation by William Swan. Indebted to Liszt, whose playing (particularly his pedalling) Debussy thought a great deal of, the music’s opening encompassed mystery, and growing anticipation, before looming excitingly into brilliance and dazzling momentum. William Swan seemed to have both technique and sensibility aplenty in bringing out these qualities, his traversal of the piece evoking in places something of the sensation of riding a particularly lively rodeo horse, though the piece’s quieter and deeper resonances were also well-served by the playing. We heard some beguiling sotto-voce harmonies murmuring their mysteries, but then were galvanised by sudden irruptions of energy and bright iridescence, with a dying drift of drollery at the piece’s end, the echo of a melody amid the burnt-out ambiences of past glories. I thought it an assured and masterful performance.

If Chopin’s Etude No.9 in F minor Op.10 made a less overtly spectacular effect, the music’s strong, purposeful flow at the outset soon established a world whose darkness was largely unrelieved by any extraneous effects. Pianist Matthew Oliver generated plenty of focused energy in maintaining something of the piece’s grim, obsessive character, tempering the gloom with piquant calls which he nicely differentiated, as if voices were calling to a passing traveller from various places high and low, near and distant, and in doing so creating a sense of spaciousness and isolation. The player brought out the wistful delicacy of the ending, a brief chorus of distantly tinkling voices left behind in the darkness. I thought the young man did well to establish the piece’s character, considering its brevity and elusiveness.

The concert’s final work was the most substantial length-wise of the students’ offerings, and probably the least generally-known, though I think pianist Mitchell Henderson was surely overemphasising the composer’s relative obscurity in stating that nobody in the audience would have heard of him! Nikolai Medtner, like his friend and slightly older colleague, Sergei Rachmaninov, was something of a throwback as a composer, one who determinedly clung to traditional modes of composing and professed an anathema to “modern schools”, in his writings repudiating the beginnings and early developments of twentieth-century music.

Born in Moscow, Medtner didn’t leave Russia until during the 1920s, eventually moving to Britain in the 1930s. Unlike Rachmaninov, who as a pianist developed a varied recital repertoire, Medtner didn’t help his own career as a performer by refusing to perform the music of other composers – he found support for his music only in England, but was famously supported by the Maharajah of Mysore, who was a music enthusiast and a gifted amateur pianist, and who, fortuitously for the composer, had developed a great liking for his music. Thanks to the Maharajah’s sponsorship, recordings of Medtner’s works were made, with the composer at the keyboard (concertos, chamber music and piano sonatas, as well as a collection of his songs recorded with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf!), which resulted in a grateful composer dedicating his Third Piano Concerto to the Maharajah himself.

The work we heard was the single-movement Sonata Reminiscenza Op.38 No.1, part of a larger “suite” of pieces which made up Op. 38, also including 3 dances, 3 canzonas, and a “coda alla Reminiscenza.” – the latter uses the work’s opening theme, hence the title. The piece was written during the first years after the Russian Revolution of 1917, and published in 1922. It’s “strolling” opening had a kind of wistful, “nostalgic journey” feeling, taking the listener to a more purposeful sequence of thematic exposition and development, perhaps less Russian and more cosmopolitean in flavour than Medtner’s friend Rachmaninov’s music. Mitchell Henderson delivered this opening sequence with an admirable sense of ebb and flow, characterising with focused intent the different moods evoked by the opening theme and its occasional motivic reappearance, in between highly chromatic sections of, by turns, restrained lyricism and agitated feeling. His playing took us right into the heart of the music’s varied textures, stressing the music’s essential independence of spirit in its wonderful “structured discursiveness”, while never shirking even the most dissonant of the composer’s’s harmonies – in all, here was a wonderful and absorbing quarter-hour’s music-making!

Something of a feast of both repertoire and piano-playing, then, from Mozart to Medtner – spadefuls of gratitude, therefore, to the musicians and their teachers and to the NZSM for enabling such a presentation for our pleasure!

Renowned Bach scholar and conductor Suzuki with fine baroque ensemble Juilliard415

Masaaki Suzuki & Juilliard415
(Chamber Music New Zealand)

J.S. Bach: Orchestral Suite no.1 in C
Concerto for 2 violins in D minor
Cantata BWV 82a, Ich habe genug
Orchestral Suite no.3 in D

Michael Fowler Centre

Tuesday, 30 May 2017, 7.30pm

It is wonderful for audiences in New Zealand to welcome back Masaaki Suzuki, this time with an ensemble of students from the famous Juilliard School based at the Lincoln Center in New York.   The 18 instrumentalists came from 8 different countries.

Suzuki, as well as running his own choral and orchestral ensembles and teaching in Tokyo, teaches also at Juilliard.  He is a renowned Bach scholar and conductor, and Wellington audiences delighted in his performing with his musicians two Bach concerts in the 2014 Arts Festival.  His Bach Collegium Japan echoes Bach’s Collegium Musicum in Leipzig, for which some of these works were written.

The ensemble was led by Cynthia Roberts, a noted American baroque violinist.  She bowed, as did some of the other musicians, in baroque style, but I could not tell from where I was sitting if period-style string instruments were in use; the bows did not appear to be, and there was nothing in the extensive printed programme to inform the audience on these points, beyond reference to the historical performance program at Juilliard.

Perhaps this is an academic point; the playing under Suzuki’s hands was crisp, pointed and always strongly rhythmic, and undoubtedly historically informed.

The first orchestral suite was one I was not familiar with.  Its various movements, based on dances, numbered 11 (taking into account that there were two Gavottes, two Menuets, two Bourées and two Passepieds).  Bach added so much to these traditional forms; his musical invention made something new out of something old.  Their traditional metres and structures were preserved, making a work that provided great delight to the audience, and doubtless to the musicians also.

The concerto is a delightful three-movement work that provides plenty of challenges to the soloists, and much pleasure to the listeners.  The features of returning phrases (ritornelli) sections for the soloists and the intricate counterpoint made for a work of constant freshness and colour through the three movements: vivace, largo ma non tanto and allegro.  The conversations between the soloists were always full of interest, but I found their tonal qualities distinct from each other, with that of Karen Dekker, who played second violin, more pleasing than the thinner, at times even metallic, sound from Isabelle Seula Lee.  Nevertheless, their performance, and that of the ensemble, was always vigorous, with plenty of dynamic contrasts

The cantata was for me the highpoint of the concert.  It was first performed in Leipzig in 1727 and was written for a bass singer.  It is this version with which I am familiar, having a fine recording of the lovely aria ‘Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen’ with Rodney Macann singing.  Bach did later versions for soprano and alto and substituted the flute for the original oboe.  The soloist, Rebecca Farley, is a Juilliard graduate, and has a lovely and expressive voice.  I felt that some sections of the music were a little low for her, and there, the notes did not carry well through the auditorium.  There was a short section where the soloist got slightly out of time with the players, and needed Suzuki’s particularly close attention.  By and large however, it was a superb rendition, the words beautifully articulated, and the sentiments of the three arias and two recitatives communicated without seeming effort.  A short vocal encore was a reward for the audience’s enthusiasm for the performance.

It was good to have the lights left on in the Michael Fowler Centre so that the printed words, with translations could be read (it doesn’t always happen!).  Throughout, the ensemble’s playing was sympathetic and supportive, the flute (baroque flute) obbligato in this version for soprano being a characterful contribution, from Jonathan Slade.  The programme note stated that this version ‘…retains the unfathomable yet affirming qualities of the original.’

The last work, consisting of five movements (or 7 counting two Gavottes and two Bourées) was more familiar territory.  After the stately Ouverture, came the well-known Air (often mistakenly called ‘Air on the G String’).  It is deservedly popular, its calmly beautiful procession of notes is supremely serene and exudes quiet confidence.  I did miss the brass in the later movements – our ensemble consisted of strings and woodwind plus harpsichord.

The woodwind players at all times made a huge and delicious contribution to the works in which they played.  All the players made a big contribution to a concert of rich music that entranced the audience, but it is perhaps not unfair to credit particularly the guiding hand and ideas of their distinguished conductor.


Solo cellist Christopher Hutton in Wellington Chamber Music’s second 2017 concert

Christopher Hutton (cello)
(Wellington Chamber Music)

J S Bach: A Suite Sampler
Britten: Suite for solo cello No 1, Op 72
Reger: Suite No 1 in G minor, Op 131c
Bolcom: from Suite No 1 in C minor
Harbison: Suite for solo cello (1993)
Corigliano: Fancy on a Bach Air

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 28 May 2017, 3 pm

Though originally from Wellington, Christopher Hutton had most of his education in the United States, at Boston University, the Eastman School of Music at Rochester, the University of North Carolina and the University of Delaware, before becoming an associate professor at the Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.

He has made previous tours for Chamber Music New Zealand and Wellington Chamber Music, recently as cellist in the Poinsett Piano Trio. This may be his first return visit as solo cellist.

Given the general unfamiliarity with most of the music exists for solo cello (apart from Bach), he put together an interesting, and generally engaging programme.

It began with a not unsuccessful ‘sampler’ of a movement from each of Bach’s six cello suites, arranged in the same pattern as Bach followed, thus: the Prelude from No 1, the Allemande from No 2, the Courante from No 3, and so on. Apart from those with perfect pitch, the mixture of keys (no two are the same – the Bourrées in E flat followed by the Gigue in D) presented no problem. In the cases of very familiar movements, there was merely the matter of hearing, as each ended, the next actual movement in your head.

Before each piece, Hutton spoke interestingly and fluently, and his confident, unhesitating manner carried into his playing, through the varied phases of the first Prelude as well as the Allemande and the brisk Courante. At times it felt a little too restless. The Sarabande (from Suite No 5), however, was given its due as a more meditative piece. And he struck a clear contrast between the two Bourrées from the E flat suite.

Britten’s cello suite, one of three dedicated to Rostropovich, ‘clearly echoes Bach’, as Hutton says, but in such a way as to rather puzzle an innocent listener, who is likely to be less musically gifted and sophisticated than Rostropovich. It’s one of those pieces that is ‘tonal’ but not necessarily enrapturing. But I am not a reliable observer; I’ve long loved the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, the operas Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw and Gloriana, the War Requiem, the folk song arrangements, the piano and violin concertos; but some of the chamber music in particular, which some find ‘interesting’, I might find cold, obtuse, calculated, often cluttered with complexity.

However, Hutton gave it a splendidly idiomatic performance though perhaps it was one emphasising its rigour and intellectualism, driving it so fiercely that whatever lyricism and more simple beauty became a bit hard to discern.

Much more to my liking was Max Reger’s first suite; he, like Britten, wrote three cello suites paying homage to Bach. Forty years older than Britten, he lived just in time to avoid the serialist and other avant-garde pretensions, so his Bach emulations sounded much closer than Britten’s to their source; my notes even went so far as to ask: ‘Bach’s Seventh Suite?’

There were quite extrovert, even exhibitionist, passages but it was essentially musical. The Adagio middle movement was charming, with lengthy passages of double stopping, which made me wonder whether this was a candidate for extracting as solo, Bach-aria-type piece. There was an impressive fugal episode in the last movement which the soloist’s notes likened to Bach’s solo violin sonatas.

Three American composers, all born in 1938, followed. I’m more familiar with William Bolcom’s songs, which are very attractive, than his chamber and other music, but the three movements from his first cello suite had many agreeable features; it was in the Badinerie movement (Bach’s famous example is in the second orchestral suite) that Hutton displayed particular aplomb in handling its bravura character with confident mastery. And he captured the almost flippant spirit of the Alla sarabanda final movement splendidly.

Bolcom was born on the west coast; John Harbison was born in Massachusetts. Hutton’s notes remark that his suite for solo cello resembles Bach’s solo violin sonatas and indeed, here was another approachable American composer who successfully took Bach as a model. Less easy to discern was the influence of Britten’s cello fugues, as suggested by Hutton; the blustery Fuga-Burletta, second movement, rather suggested Bach to me. Again, the genial musicality and the engaging scraps of melody that seemed to evolve one to another; the sober Sarabanda, and the rhythmically riotous Giga avoided anything that might alienate a mainstream listener. The music was imaginative, spontaneous in feeling, elegantly composed; and persuasively played.

The last item was something of a playful offering, from the many-sided John Corigliano (best known I suppose as composer of The Ghosts of Versailles, for the Metropolitan Opera, New York). His piece was called Fancy on a Bach Air; in fact, the Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations It was characterised by long-breathed melodic ideas as well as very large intervals that, strangely, taxed Hutton’s intonation ever-so-slightly. Yet it was splendidly played, a fine way to end this successful, generally not too challenging, though unusual recital.

Further programme material from Christopher Hutton

Christopher Hutton had supplied interesting backgound notes to Wellington Chamber Music for incorporation into their printed programme.  Space constraints prevented most of the text from being used.

They are reproduced below as they deal interestingly with each of the pieces played. I should add that I refrained from reading them till I had written my review in order not to be influenced by words not available to the audience on the day; naturally, there are certain things that do not perhaps line up with my own impressions of the music. So be it.

Lindis Taylor

Today’s program juxtaposes music from J.S. Bach’s much beloved Suites for Unaccompanied Violoncello with music by later composers who were influenced or inspired by Bach’s music.

As hard as it may be to imagine, J.S. Bach was not widely known as a composer when he wrote his cello suites almost 300 years ago, and as famous as he is now, there is plenty we do not know about the genesis of this music. We do know they were written in Cöthen between 1717-1720. It is uncertain who exactly might have first performed them, but they may have been intended to impress his employer Prince Leopold who was an enthusiast of the Viola da Gamba. Bach surely never intended this music to be used for actual dancing but he knew that his contemporaries enjoyed dance music so much that dance styles were commonly integrated into instrumental music written purely for amusement.

This meant that Bach could readily draw upon firmly conventionalized styles with meters and figuration specific to each kind of dance. As such, each suite consists of an introductory prelude followed by a series of five dances, always appearing in the same order: Allemande (moderate-tempo in 4/4 time), Courante (quicker, in 3/4 time), Sarabande (slow and stately in 3/4, often with a particular emphasis on the second beat), and Gigue (fast, with triple rather than duple rhythmic subdivisions). Between the Sarabande and Gigue each suite has a pair of short dances called Galanteries: Minuets in the first and second suites (moderately quick, 3/4); Bourées in the third and fourth suites (quicker, in 3/4), and Gavottes in the fifth and sixth (relatively quick, in 4/4 time). All seven of these dance styles have their roots in courtly dances that had become standardized in France in the late seventeenth century, and although by 1720 the French court had moved on to newer dances, the older styles were still common in other countries.

Because a performance of all six suites lasts well over two hours, today’s program begins with a “Suite Sampler”, presenting one movement from each of Bach’s Suites, each in a different key. By combining movements from multiple suites one can get an impression of the musical affect of each suite and of the variety of different movements contained within, perhaps whetting listeners’ appetites to seek out the set of six suites as a whole. This set begins with the Prelude of the first, G major Suite, which is almost certainly the single most famous movement of solo cello music ever written. It is remarkably simple, a series of arpeggiated chords that modulate through a number of keys before settling on the dominant (fifth scale degree).

Resolution back to tonic is inevitable, but is withheld. The tension inherent in that delayed gratification builds until the chords of the opening measures return in a cathartic moment of rapture. This is followed by the usual series of dances with the contrasts between each style heightened by the different keys and character reflective of each suite: the introspective Allemande in D minor, the fleet-footed Courante from the sunny C-major suite, the melancholy and extraordinarily sparse Sarabande from the C minor suite, the playful Bourées from the otherwise grandiose E-flat Suite, wrapped up with the brilliant and thrilling Gigue of the D major suite.

Though the cello rose to prominence as a solo instrument in the nineteenth century and cellist-composers wrote for unaccompanied cello, this music has generally not become a part of the modern cellist’s canon. The first solo cello works to have attained the status as standard repertoire were three suites composed by Max Reger (1873-1916) almost two-hundred years after Bach’s suites. Though written in 1914, after Schoenberg’s early forays into atonality and Stravinsky’s landmark Rite of Spring, Reger’s suites are deeply rooted in the richly chromatic tonal harmonies of the Romantic era. Each of Reger’s suites is dedicated to a leading cellist of the day: Julius Klengel (1859-1933), Paul Grümmer (1879-1965), and Hugo Becker (1863-1941). These names are likely unfamiliar to general audiences, but are well-known to cellists as composers of etudes and other music, and editors of music including Bach’s suites – versions of which are still in print from each of these cellists!

The G-major Suite, Op. 131c No. 1, opens with a running sixteenth-note (semiquaver) figuration instantly recognizable as relating to Bach’s prelude in the same key. In Reger’s case, however, the range is greatly expanded, and the simplicity of Bach’s model gives way to much more extroverted virtuosity. This opening movement is followed by an Adagio that is not clearly based on any specific movement by Bach, but combines extended passages of double-stops (common to many of Bach’s Sarabande movements) with intricate, quickly-moving scales. Bach only wrote one movement for solo cello that one might call a fugue (in the prelude to the fifth suite), but he wrote movements titled “Fuga” in each of his three sonatas for solo violin. Writing a fugue for a solo instrument is a challenge, but in the finale of his suite Reger (like Bach before him) uses a relatively simple subject that permits the layering of the theme over (or under) other voices. While not the same as one of the four-part masterpieces of the Well-Tempered Clavier or a fugue for organ, the technique is remarkably effective.

Like Reger, Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) wrote three suites for solo cello, though in this case not as a set, but rather among a series of five works written between 1960 and 1974 for and dedicated to the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007). The first suite was written in 1964 and premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1965. Inspired by Rostropovich’s playing of Bach suites rather than Bach’s music itself, it still has movements that clearly echo Bach. Both the Canto which recurs in different guises throughout the Suite (much like the Promenade of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition) and the Lamento relate quite strongly to Bach’s Sarabande in C minor in the way they explore the dissonant interval of a half-step (semitone). The Fuga channels the contrapuntal writing of Bach’s fugues, and here Britten comes up with the ingenious idea of including silences in his theme which allows him more leeway in giving the impression of multiple voices (allowing voices in other registers to fill in the gaps).

Rather than imitate the typical kinds of dance movements found in a Baroque suite, the later movements are distinctly Britten. The serenade is played pizzicato throughout, with strings plucked by both the left and right hands. The sarcastic march (perhaps echoing Shostakovich, another composer who collaborated with Rostropovich) has trumpet and drum effects which gradually draw closer and then further away. The fifth movement, Bordone, alternates between higher, scurrying themes played with the bow contrasted with lower and slower notes plucked by the left hand, all layered with a sustained drone D. Later in the movement the quick motive dissolves into the drone itself which then accompanies a plaintive melody first above and then below. In the finale Moto perpetuo the scurrying theme of the Bordone is further developed, culminating in a return of the Canto refrain. The Canto that has been haunting the suite is finally exorcised and at the end of the movement the last note is a dyad of the dissonant half-step of F# and G which resolves to G alone as the open string rings longer. The piece is a real tour-de-force both of composition and as a showcase for the abundant talent of its dedicatee.

The remaining works on this program were all composed within a span of two years (1994-96), and coincidentally were all written by composers born in the same year (1938).

William Bolcom adapted his Solo Suite No. 1 in C minor from his score for Arthur Miller’s play Broken Glass. Like most of Bolcom’s cello works, it was written for the cellist Norman Fischer who now teaches at Rice University in Houston, Texas. The Prelude is a brusque and angular march with percussive effects. That contrasts greatly with the playful third-movement Badinerie. “Badinerie” is a relatively obscure French term that might best be translated to the more commonly used Italian term “scherzo” (joke), and is a title that Bach used in the finale of his second orchestral suite. The final movement of Bolcom’s suite, titled “Alla sarabanda” is a direct homage to Bach with a recomposed version of Bach’s C minor Sarabande
followed by a series of five increasingly technical variations, and followed by a reprise of the theme.

John Harbison’s Suite for Solo Cello is set in four movements, very much in the form of Bach’s Sonatas for solo violin (written around the same time as the cello suites). It begins with a rhapsodic, improvisatory Preludio followed by a Fuga-Burletta which is – as suggested by its title – a comic fugue. It has similarities to the fugues in first suites of both Britten (with its use of silences in the subject) and Reger (with voices layered into double- and later triple-stopped chords). The brief Sarabanda updates Bach’s Sarabandes with 20th-century harmonies, while the Giga (Gigue) finale is a rip-roaring moto-perpetuo inspired by some of Bach’s cello gigues (notably that of the fourth cello suite) and the fast finales of his violin sonatas and partitas.

John Corigliano’s “Fancy on a Bach Air” is an introspective single-movement piece inspired not by any cello music, but rather the Aria of Bach’s Goldberg Variations for harpsichord. It was written in memory of one Robert Goldberg who had commissioned a number of composers to write a series of variations for the 25th anniversary of his wedding to his wife Judy. The set of pieces was to be performed by Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, but before the commission could be fulfilled Robert died of cancer leaving the variations to stand in memorium rather than their original, celebratory purpose. The long-breathed phrases of Bach’s original air are imitated here in long, legato lines, written without notated rhythms to suggest a sense of freedom. It seems an appropriate way to bring this program to a close.

For more information go to

Interesting organ programme from Tom Chatterton at St James, Lower Hutt

St James Sunday Organ Recital Series 2017
(St. James’s Church and Wellington Organists Association)

Tom Chatterton (organ)

Elgar: Imperial March (arr. G. Martin)
J.S. Bach: Prelude and Fugue in C, BWV 547
Mozart: Adagio from Serenade no.10 in B flat, “Gran Partita” K.361 (arr. Tom Chatterton)
J.S. Bach: ‘Komm Heiliger Geist’, BWV 651
Londonderry Air, arr. J. Stewart Martin
Vierne: Allegro first movement from 2nd Organ Symphony
Purcell: ‘When I am laid in earth’ (arr. Martin Setchell)
Jehan Alain: Litanies

St. James Church, Lower Hutt

Sunday 28 May 2017, 3pm

Tom Chatterton, a fairly recent arrival from Britain (where he attended Uppingham School, where Professor Peter Godfrey taught before coming to New Zealand), was heard by upwards of 40 people, on the impressive three-manual organ.  His mixing of shorter, more lyrical pieces between longer, more serious ones was good programming.  It was a shame that the Bach Prelude and Fugue was a substitute for Toccata in C, BWV 564 (i), a brilliant work I am particularly fond of, and the Vierne for Bach’s Concerto in A minor BWV 593 based on Vivaldi.  The organist explained that lack of sleep occasioned by his young daughter’s teething necessitated the changes.  However, no loss of technical ability was apparent in the works he played.

Chatterton’s introductions to pairs of pieces were informative, genial, and easily heard.  He introduced the Elgar as being bombastic – but the opening wasn’t, and elsewhere I found it lacking in this characteristic also.  I did wonder if moving the console into a central position on the platform (rather than being on the side, where it sits for church services) meant the organist was hearing the pipes more strongly than the audience was.  However, I did not find this effect in any of the later pieces. However,  in this one I did find the arrangement of the orchestral piece rather restrained for an Imperial March, much of the time.

The Bach Prelude and Fugue was very clear; each part could be distinctly heard, the notes being detached, but not too much.

The Mozart arrangement was interesting, calm and peaceful – but I must admit to preferring the original!

The Bach chorale prelude was a very sprightly one, played presto, its unstoppable momentum employing reeds, had pedals intoning the chorale melody underneath throughout.  It was a masterly performance.

The Londonderry Air worked well as ‘something completely different’.  Lovely flutes with plenty of ‘chuff’ were used to open the piece; later, plenty of variety of registration was used to enhance this beautiful air.

The Vierne movement opened spikily, then there followed passages for full diapason organ; loud episodes were followed in turn by episodes that sounded to me as if rather too great a mixture of stops of different tonal qualities were being employed.  It is a very inventive work (written in 1902), using all three manuals and pedals, with much variation of registration.

Purcell’s beautiful aria gave another quiet interlude.  This was an excellent arrangement, and made a very effective contrast to its predecessor.  It is interesting that arrangements of orchestral and vocal pieces seem to have returned recently to the organist’s palette; for a long time they were frowned on as Victorian and Edwardian excesses not needed in these days of orchestral concerts and recordings; organists should stick to what David Briggs described in a broadcast from Auckland played on RNZ the previous day as ‘indigenous’ organ music (he didn’t).

The final work was the only one to have some notes in the printed programme – without mentioning the composer’s famous organist sister, Marie-Claire Alain, who visited New Zealand.  The plain chant-style opening melody returned frequently sustained through many variations, changes of registration and harmonic shifts.  It was always interesting and at times, arresting.

The whole made up to a varied and pleasing concert.


Baroque Voices pay rich homage to NZ “Masters”

Baroque Voices presents:
Alleluia: a newë work! – “Memories of our Masters”

Music inspired by medieval/ancient songs or texts
by Anon, Guillaume de Machaut, Guillaume Dufay –
Music by Jack Body, Ross Harris, and David Farquhar,
and some of their past students – Helen Bowater, Alison Isadora,
John Psathas, Pepe Becker, Mark Smythe, Michael Norris, and Ewan Clark

Baroque Voices: Pepe Becker (director), Jane McKinlay, Anna Sedcole, Katherine Hodge, Phillip Collins, Kenneth Trass, Jeffrey Chang, Timothy Hurd

Adam Concert Room, NZSM, Kelburn

Sunday, 28th May 2017

This concert was the eighth in the “Alleluia: a newë work” series by Baroque Voices, the idea being, in director Pepe Becker’s own words, to “present works from the early music era alongside modern compositions”, an undertaking which the group first instigated as long ago as 1995. Though the presentations have been consistent in their overall approach, the ensemble has managed to maintain an ever-fascinating and invariably rewarding range of repertoire for the delight of audiences over the duration, this latest undertaking being no exception.

In Pepe Becker’s programme note, she gave a brief resume of the group’s characteristic presentation aims and explorations, by way of reminding us of music’s capacities for both connectiveness and renewal in remarking on audience responses to what she calls “ageless connection” of old and new music in Baroque Voices’ past concerts.

Simply looking over the list of instrumental resources used at various times by a vocal group suggested to me the omniverous inclinations of its performing philosophy! The list’s diversity (hurdy-gurdy, didgeridoo, taonga puoro, electric guitar!) reminded me of similarly far-flung impulses expressed recently in her “Lilburn Lecture” by New Zealand composer Jenny McLeod, talking with her audience about what constituted her “creative heritage”. For her, it was practically a case of “anything goes!”, a kind of “all experience is valid” way of working, a statement of unique truth. If not from exactly the same cloth, the work of Baroque Voices demonstrates a similarly exploratory set of inclinations, a “this is who we are” way of performing and communicating.

Here in tonight’s concert were examples of most of the above performance principles – settings by contemporary and slightly older composers inspired by and set alongside “ancient” works, the latter from sources as diverse as Medieval Europe and 8th Century Japan, as well as creative responses to “modern” works (twentieth century poetry). While most of the works were “a capella” , two were piano-accompanied, and one was flavoured by strains from medieval instruments.

Where the concert’s “official record” above requires further elaboration is in the human inter-connectiveness of it all, a quality which Pepe Becker took some pains to set out in her written notes. It suggests a remarkable collegial quality among local (New Zealand) composers, one I’ve heard remarked upon in the past by people visiting this country, a willingness to interact, with all the teaching and learning that the process implies.

Of course there are and have been notable exceptions, here and there – but the rule is reflected in the willingness and readiness of the concert’s younger composers to pay tribute through their music to their teachers and colleagues, who were mentors and friends. One of the “teachers”, Ross Harris, was quoted as saying that “In the 80s with Jack (Body) and David (Farquhar) teaching…….it was a very good time to be a composition student”. Elsewhere, other tributes were paid to “the inimitable Jack”, as well as to Ross Harris himself.

There were too many “moments per minute” throughout the evening’s music-making for a reviewer to try and do them all full justice – enough for my descriptions to try and convey something of the music’s expressive range in tandem with the performers’ manifest skills and focused intensities. The concert’s first half seemed to me to have a slightly “older” feel, due, perhaps to a predominance of works from the “teachers” and “mentors”, as well as music from two of the earliest “named” composers featured on the programme, de Machaut and Dufay. After that, by and large, it was the pupils’ turn to pay their deeply-felt homages to the teachers.What better way to begin the evening than with a spirited and deeply-rooted rendition of the 15th Century carol Alleluia: a newë work! , a performance which combined beauty and earthiness in its purity of sound and heartfelt vocal energies.

Those same qualities informed the infectious Nowell: sing we, also from the 15th Century, with the vocal concertino/ripieno contrasts between smaller and larger groups characterfully differentiated in both dynamic and tonal variation. The group chose to bracket with this Jack Body’s Nowell in the Lithuanian Manner (1995), featuring four singers in pairs placed diagonally across the platform, singing “phrase-and-answer” in intervals of a second, the voices “leapfrogging” one another (to use the composer’s expression) most effectively.

Guillaume de Machaut’s Kyrie from La Messe de Nostre Dame was sung most sonorously and beautifully by the full ensemble, the lines concerning themselves for most of their contourings with the opening syllables of the words KY-rie and CHRI-ste, resolving each word’s remainder only towards the ends of the sequences – an extraordinary “suspended” effect, generating some tension as one waited for each contouring’s resolution, thus heightening the pleadings for “Mercy”.

This was followed by Pepe Becker’s own composition, Mass of the False Relation,  which I’d heard before, though not in such a context – the opening “Kyrie” featured two voices set at an interval of a second , before the textures were opened, to pleading and beseeching effect. The sequence had something of a “lyke-wake dirge” atmosphere, unsettling and unpeaceful, with high soprano lines effectively putting one in mind of a cry for mercy from an abyss! A calmer, more circumspect “Christe” gathered increasing emotional momentum, before reverting to a differently constituted “Kyrie” to finish, the singers clustering their lines together with great aplomb and considerable emotional focus – brief, but effective!

Relief of sorts was afforded by the beautiful hymn Ave Maris Stella, sung in its original unision throughout verses 1 and 3, but adopting Guillaume Dufay’s setting for the second verse in which the women’s voices break into three parts and beautifully and gracefully explore the firmament. Composer Ross Harris’s response to the original chant followed, originally a 2009 commission by Baroque Voices, here making a welcome and sonorous reappearance.

A striking opening featured a tenor solo soaring above a pedal-point, joined by other individual lines awakening their own impulses to soar, float and beautifully elaborate on the original. Thanks to the intensity and focus of the performance’s individual voice-strands, I felt a real sense of those lines filling their own spaces, but also wrapping their resonances around a kind of central impulse of thought and intention as the work unfolded.

The ensemble at Virgo singularis (Virgin all excelling), generated a tremendous upsurging of intensity, to dramatic, scalp-prickling effect, as did the salutations to the Trinity of the last verse, particularly those invocations to Spiritui Sancto (the Holy Spirit), a display of visceral intensity which contrasted tellingly with the hushed resignation and peace of all things at the final reiteration of the words Ave Maris Stella.

Further back in “teacherdom” than either Jack Body or Ross Harris was David Farquhar, whose 1990 setting of a characteristically quirky set of verses no one and anyone by American poet ee cummings was commissioned and first peformed by Jones and Co., the Australian vocal ensemble. Farquhar described cummings punctuation-less (!) poetry as “slow-moving and lyrical” and “ideal for singing”, and his own quirkily responsive set of creative impulses proved a fitting foil for the poet’s idiosyncrasies of expression.

The “once upon a time” introduction floated the words “anyone lived in a pretty how town”, with a dancing wordless rhythm augmenting the poet’s metre at “he sang his didn’t he danced his did”. Then there were gorgeous harmonies at “she laughed his joy she cried his grief”, and lovely differentiations of rhythm with the different groupings of “sequence” words, such as “sleep wake hope and then”, which danced; and “stars rain sun moon” which was spaced-out, the singers creating limpid pools of light floating over deeper-hued pedal points.

The somewhat matter-of-fact “one day anyone died I guess” began as something angular and dry, which slowly amplified into something more heroic and deeply felt, Baroque Voices splendidly resonating the lines “no one and anyone earth by april” with great stepwise progressions of singing. I loved the crepuscular feeling evoked towards the end, with the ensemble gorgeously resonating evening bells at “women and men (both dong and ding)”, etching detail along the lines to beguiling effect – definitely a work I would like to hear performed again, sometime!

Very different to the featherlight play of ee cummings word-music was Pepe Becker’s heartfelt, almost Tristanesque text for her 2010 work Remembering Now – “a reflection upon love and loss – personal and universal”. Two singers performed the work alongside a piano with its sustaining pedal activated, the instrument thus providing a sympathetic resonance activated by the sung tones, especially when the dynamic levels began to rise. The vocal lines of the singers had, to my ears, a pronounced medieval intertwining in places, with elsewhere, some great vocal leaps to characterise the extremes of emotion – “Eternal depth, exquisite pain, secret union, keep me safe”, and some tightly-woven intervals reflecting in certain places the pain of loss and the jarring tensions of uncertainty.

Known more of late as a film composer, Ewan Clark had previously written works in a wide range of genres, among which was this ballad-like setting of James K.Baxter’s poem Never no more, dating from 2007. With voices accompanied by two pianos, the music and words created a flow of detailed and varied remembrance, a plainer-spoken New Zealander’s version of Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill” with its aching lament for lost youth, the music here responsive to incident and ever-ready to wrap its evocations of “golden lads and lasses” in swathes of deep mourning and oblivion. Particularly desolate was the final “never no more never no more”, playing out to something hollow and empty.

Part Two of the concert began with rather more sardonic, grim-humoured tones, an energetic dance of death Ad mortem festinamus, a 14th Century composition linked to the time of the Black Death, and expressing fatalistic sentiments very much in accord with what must have been an everyday experience for many people. The dotted dance-rhythms had a kind of horrid glee, allied to an almost festive quality enhanced by the ambient instrumentations, a dulcian, drum and “shruti box”, the latter a kind of harmonium which supplied a drone, altogether creating a wry ritualistic statement.

Ritual of a different kind coloured the work of Michael Norris, a setting of a poem by one Pierre Reverdy, described by the composer as ‘a lesser-known French proto-surrealist’, whose creative work involved a “sublime simplicity of reality”, and whose words suggest a kind of transcendence of substance towards abstraction – for Norris, a process suggesting “an inevitable movement from presence to absence”, very much an underlying theme of this concert (for which this work was written).

To the names that have left is a line from the poem “The traits of the sky” which Norris used as his piece’s title, a reference to whom the composer described as “some important men in my life who left us in the last few years”. It was obviously a piece which suggested feelings of loss in its juxtapositioning of long-held tones and sudden, sharply-etched irruptions of either violent noise or silence – characterisations of the unexpected, either explosive or insinuating. We heard sliding (glissando) notes, voices overlapping, unison and harmonies, some magnificently rich modulations, then textures cut to pieces by confrontational thrusts. There were yelps, breathings, elongated word pronunciations, almost didgerie-doo-like textures. Eventually the voices seemed to gather girth and vocalise as with long slow breaths, until we became aware of the “dying fall” of the lines, a sense of something “running down” or drifting away. Women’s voices imitated high, sustained bird-calls (farewells?) after which the singers put their hands over their mouths to mute their tones at the end.

An anonymous 15th Century English Carol Lully, lullay: I saw – was next, featuring two groups of two voices placed opposite one another, immediately sounded its time, helped by some lovely singing, mostly interactive of phrasing, greating a gorgeous effect. The same text was then re-enacted in a work by John Psathas, entitled Baw my barne, an old favourite of Baroque Voices, having been commissioned and premiered by the group in its first “a newë work!” concert in November of 1995. Beginning with richly-wrought note-clusters over which the soprano soloist’s voice hovered, the clustered lines were reiterated one-by-one, depicting in sound a kind of burgeoning of motherly bliss with a newborn allied to a sense of “a blissful burd, a blossom bright” as creation wondered at the Saviour’s coming.

Helen Bowater’s setting of a Japanese poem from antiquity (found in an 8th-9th Century AD collection of Japanese poetry “Man’yoshu”) hoshi no hayashi (in the forest of stars) gave us some gorgeous word-painting, with some particularly evocative, almost other-worldly singing from Pepe Becker – as with the poetry, the impression of the music was a kind of “stream of consciousness” which belied the precision of the craftsmanship to remarkable effect. Something of the same spontaneous and on-going outpouring of tones characterised Jack Body’s fifth Lullaby from the set of Five Lullabies, a work which was first performed in full by the Tudor Consort. Having watched the performance by Baroque Voices on You Tube given at Jack Body’s memorial service, I thought this evening’s performance was less contained and reverential, more flowing and intense, with a more clearly-delineated shape of rise and fall – again, very beautiful, with the dreaming especially vivid.

I liked Eve de Castro-Robinson’s comment, quoted, and indeed affirmed, by Alison Isadora, the composer of the programme’s penultimate work Blessing (in memoriam Jack Body), regarding how memorial pieces often write themselves. Isadora described her work on this occasion as “the output of a grieving process”, by way of expressing her tribute to Jack in three languages, plus the translations, Maori, Latin and English. After expressing Maori, Latin and English texts in turn, the piece combined elements of all three blessings, in places bringing out contrasts whose different characters produced extraordinary sounds – insistent lower voices setting the Latin plainsong against the bell-like women’s voices with their Taize chant, and colouring the textures differently as the music moved forwards, the differently-constituted textures surging and breaking like ocean waves, before the sopranos guided the intensities towards gentler cadences and brought the music to a close.

A kind of “return to our lives” was in order at the point of conclusion, here supplied by Mark Smythe’s 2007 Alleluia, one which Pepe Becker described as a “signature tune” for Baroque Voices, while very much a stratospheric soprano display piece, with both singers, Pepe and Jane McKinlay in sure touch, even at the end of a long and demanding concert, resounding their “Alleluias” as steadily and ambiently as ever. Very great credit to the whole ensemble, both for the works which have been encouraged into “being”, and for the group’s inspired performances of them.

Brahms’s Deutsches Requiem given spirited and scrupulous performance by Tudor Consort

The Tudor Consort conducted by Michael Stewart

Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem

Emma Sayers and Richard Mapp (piano)
Katherine McIndoe (soprano) and Simon Christie (baritone)

Wellington Cathedral of Saint Paul

Saturday 27 May, 7:30 pm

Brahms’s Requiem is known well enough by name and reputation to all tolerably interested in Music, but fewer would be familiar with it or have actually heard it live. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it in live performance, and have, somewhat to my embarrassment only become familiar with it on recordings in the last twenty years or so. The Orpheus Choir, naturally, has been its main advocate in Wellington over the years; my colleague Rosemary Collier, a long-time singer in the choir, looked up its history in the choir’s archive. They sang it in October 1968, October 1976, April 1988, September 1996, and November 2008. And it was sung by the New Zealand Choral Federation Choral Workshop a few years ago, too. The only record I can find of the NZSO’s participation was in the 1996 performance; I do not have a programme or any record of my reviewing either the 1988 or 1996 performances, both during my years at The Evening Post.

First, this was an extremely fine performance, spirited, colourful, scrupulously studied and rehearsed; the accompaniment was by duet pianists instead of orchestra, and their performances were pianistically admirable, if obviously not really a match for Brahms’s important and beautiful orchestral score.

Brahms had arranged the alternative accompaniment for piano duet for its first London performance in the home of a prominent surgeon where a small choir (about the size of the Tudor Consort, according to Michael Stewart’s notes) without an orchestra, could perform it. The piano duo of Emma Sayers and Richard Mapp excelled themselves in their formidable task of emulating Brahms’s emotionally charged orchestra.

Interestingly, Brahms incorporated into the piano score the choral and solo parts so that it could be played simply as a piano work. And indeed, whenever I turned my attention to the piano, it certainly seemed to invite admiration as a rather gorgeous piano work in its own right, as some kind of Strauss-length symphonic poem for the piano, or a suite ‘inspired by elegiac Biblical readings’.

The piano introduction was propitious, with most of the weight in the lower register, setting a suitably elegiac tone. At least the first few minutes suggested that the piano would offer a reasonably satisfactory substitute for the richness of an orchestra. And the choir begins in a similar spirit, uttering slow phrases that filled the space, with congenial, uncluttered echoing effects. And there were moments of illumination as the choir sang words like ‘mit Freuden ernten’.

The choir was arrayed in two sections, left and right at the front of the sanctuary: sopranos and tenors on the left, basses and altos on the right. It was aurally interesting to hear the parts distinctly.

The lovely, sombre piano introduction to the second part, ‘Denn alles Fleisch…’, also caught my ear. Though I read German adequately, I don’t know the words well, and had difficulty following the text, partly as Brahms moves the text about, and the cathedral acoustic doesn’t exactly clarify words; it also matters where you sit. I wasn’t in the first ten or so rows. Nevertheless, given that this was a smallish and superbly schooled choir, I’m sure that singers’ diction was pretty good.

The second is the longest section of the work, and though it’s taken from four different Biblical sources, the first (1 Peter) is finding solace in the evolving natural world, and in the second, from James, celebrating the joys to be found. The heart of this movement is with the splendidly triumphant ‘Die Erlöseten des Herrn…’, in which one might have enjoyed a bigger choir. But they captured its spirit admirably, powerful at its climaxes.

The baritone soloist arrives in ‘Herr, lehre mich doch   ’. Simon Christie’s lines somewhat resemble a particularly expressive recitative interspersed by choral passages, and he met the challenge of conveying the declamatory verses from Psalm 39, capturing the sharp contrast in tone with the words ‘Ach, wie gar nichts…’. Its splendid climax, involving a rise from hushed silence to a triumphant affirmation of faith, pretty well overcame the limitations of choral volume and lack of the orchestra.

A consoling change of tone in the gentle fourth movement, ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen’; and on to the soprano’s movement, ‘Ich habe nun Traurigkeit’, with Katherine McIndoe. Her lines were even in tone, legato, well projected; in short capturing the beautiful, flowing and peaceful spirit of the three excerpts that comprise the seven minutes or so of this poignant episode with subtle contributions from the choir.

Simon Christie returns to a vigorous episode where Brahms uses the same verses from Corinthians as in Messiah, ‘Behold, I tell you a mystery’: always a curious experience to hear a different setting of words indelibly fixed in the mind by the likes of Handel. (Why do I remark this, with the hundreds of settings of standard liturgical texts that bother no one?). But Brahms’s view fitted the context, especially the powerful performance by the choir reinforcing the baritone.  The fugal passage and formidable climax towards its end brought the spirit of the work back to its Baroque antecedents.

The last section sets a short verse from Revelation, simply confirming that we are listening to a requiem. Calm and peace are restored; there are no words of a hereafter, merely that the dead may rest from their labours: Brahms a spiritual figure, but not an orthodox believer.

This was a fine performance, a singular credit to conductor Michael Stewart, generally overcoming the obvious shortcomings imposed by the choir’s size, the acoustic and the stringencies of Wellington – New Zealand – cultural circumstances.


Woodwind students present entertaining, varied music at St Andrew’s lunchtime concert

Wind Ensembles of the New Zealand School of Music

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 24 May 2017, 12.15 pm

To hear young performers is always a pleasure; here we had seven young woodwind players, along with three pianists.  The first piece used  a student pianist, and the Bach work was unaccompanied.  Hugh McMillan and Kirsten Robertson were authoritative pianists for the other items.

Bridget Douglas, principal flute with the NZSO is acting Head of Winds, and she introduced the concert.  After that, the players introduced their items, and it was pleasing that all used the microphone, so their words could be heard clearly.

A trio opened the programme: Leah Thomas and Laura Brown (clarinets) and Tasman Richards (piano), playing Mendelssohn’s 2nd Concert Piece.  Grove tells me that this was written in 1833, for basset horn (a close relative of the clarinet) and piano.  The excellent introduction from Leah Thomas explained that the players decided to use two clarinets.  They alternated the music between them, and this worked well.  The presto opening movement was lively and played with flair, with a good variety of dynamics.

The following andante included passages for clarinet alone; these were played with gorgeous subtlety.  The allegro grazioso last movement again had beautiful parts for the clarinets, but the piano was rather ‘rum-te-tum’.   The clarinettists produced wonderful tone, and were accurate and confident.

A Bach Cello Suite on saxophone!!?   Peter Liley explained that the range of pitch of the baritone saxophone he was using was the same as that of the cello.  But I have to say that I found the tone in his ‘Allemande’ from the Suite no.1 a bit weird, so different is the timbre from that of a stringed instrument.  There is not the variety of tone colours as are attainable on a cello.  Nevertheless the higher notes can be very sweet, and the player was well in command of his instrument.

Telemann followed; his Sonata for Oboe and Continuo in A minor  began with a lovely andante from oboist Finn Bodkin-Olen.  Kirsten Robertson’s was a very busy part, played judiciously and producing a fine tone, as indeed did Bodkin-Olen’s oboe.  The vivace second movement was clear and joyful.  This was a splendid performance.

For something completely different, Billie Kiel played on clarinet Malcolm Arnold’s Sonatina for clarinet and piano, Op.29.  This was a challenging selection, with snappy melodies and delightful quirky passages and techniques, all of which Kiel played with the competence of a professional.  The piece’s two movements were both fast.

However, the reliance of the accompanist on reading his music on an iPad or similar had an obvious disadvantage when it seemed that his foot-pedal for the device didn’t work, and he could not continue, making an unwritten break in the piece.  From there he had to rely on a finger to stab the screen in order to turn the pages.

I was not familiar with the name Gaubert (and nor is Grove), but Google is.  Philippe Gaubert lived from 1879 to 1941.  Like many French composers, he was obviously keen on the flute.  His Madrigal for flute and piano was a complete change of mood from the Arnold work, being calm and pastoral.  The flowing accompaniment had its own charm.  It was a thoroughly enchanting performance by Samantha McSweeney and Kirsten Robertson.

The concert ended with the Rondo: allegretto from Weber’s Clarinet Concerto no.1 in F minor, Op.73.   As Frank Talbot, the performer, explained in his introduction, Weber was using the concerto to demonstrate the latest improvements to the clarinet. This third movement was a spirited piece, full of interest and liveliness, and played with assurance and technical mastery.  While the soloist had pauses, Hugh McMillan was kept busy substituting for a symphony orchestra.  It was a good work with which to end the concert.


Wellington Youth Orchestra in winning performances, especially Brahms No 1

Wellington Youth Orchestra conducted by Mark Carter

Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Festival Overture
Carl Stamitz: Viola Concerto in D (soloist Grant Baker)
Brahms: Symphony No 1 in C minor, Op 68

St Andrew’s on the Terrace

Tuesday 23 May. 7:30 pm

Looking back over Middle C’s reviews of the Wellington Youth Orchestra, one sees a couple of repeated themes. One that through them we sometimes hear unfamiliar but great and enjoyable music, and that the citizens of Wellington turn up in such sparse numbers that one wonders what can justify boasts of our being the cultural capital.

This evening’s concert ticked both those notions.

It began with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture: another of those pieces that used to be familiar on the old 2YC programme – their Early Evening Concerts at 5pm and Dinner Music at 6pm which provided an excellent music education system (not the peripheral, miscellaneous, often inauthentic stuff we now get), complementing a then sensible diet of good music in once-a-week music classes at college. But it didn’t become my favourite Rimsky, though I’ve come to enjoy it very much since then; at that stage the rhythms and the heavy brass didn’t appeal. When I was young my favourite Rimsky music would have been the Capriccio espagnol (I’ve still got my two-disc set of 78s).

Incidentally, given as I am to looking at earlier performances, it was last played by the NZSO in 2006, and before that in 1986 and 1958 (Nikolai Malko). Not exactly  a pop number, so it was a brave choice and it offered quite a challenge in the hard (for a full orchestra) acoustic and as the first piece in the programme.

I promised myself not to mention the slightly out-spoken trombones in that space, so I will desist; but the horns, both here and in the Brahms, were admirable – their timbre seemed comfortable in the space and they, at least the two given most exposure, avoided the usual horn pitfalls. Trumpets too contributed comfortably to the sound picture.

It’s not an easy work to re-create, given the highly coloured and quite virtuosic demands from pretty-well all parts of the orchestra, not only the heavy demands of the brass. (Just listen to any top professional performance). Thus this performance, in spite of its shortcomings, was a highly commendable undertaking.

Stamitz viola concerto
Utterly different was the next piece, a viola concerto by Carl Stamitz. He was one of two musician sons of Johann Stamitz who is regarded as the founder of the Mannheim school (for much of the 18th century Mannheim was the seat of the Electoral Palatinate court which supported one of the finest orchestras in Europe). It influenced Mozart during his visit in 1777. One of its major innovations was the introduction of the clarinet as an orchestral instrument, and in this concerto, two clarinets and two horns were the only winds. It’s great to hear examples of composers such as Stamitz family who not long ago, would have been just names in a music history book.

There was a long orchestral introduction before the viola’s entry. Violist Grant Baker, who is a second year student at Victoria University’s School of Music (tutored by Gillian Ansell) both looked and sounded comfortable in the role, laying out the themes coherently and musically and handling passage-work in easy rapport with the orchestral strings, particularly when he was accompanied by a concertino group (of section leaders), as in a concerto grosso. His tone was full and warm, rhythms alive and interesting, and though the cadenzas in the first two movements presented nothing terrifying, they demonstrated how well his playing integrated itself into the flow of the music. I particularly enjoyed the calm and thoughtful playing of the Andante movement. The viola had a conspicuously solo role in the last movement too, often with minimal accompaniment; there were several opportunities in its theme and variations shape, particularly in the fast second (or third?) variation. In all, a fine demonstration of musicianship.

Brahms No 1
Though I awaited the playing of Brahms first symphony with certain misgivings, why should I have done? In the past they’ve played big Tchaikovskys, Rachmaninovs, Beethovens, Respighi’s Pines of Rome, Ravel, as well as Brahms’s fourth – and even that other Rimsky – the Capriccio espagnol.

It’s a tutti opening and as the portentous throb of the timpani took charge of things I reflected that in less astute hands timpani might have been a difficult bed-fellow. Horns were distinct and assured above the dense strings and woodwinds that fell into a state of congenial accord. One felt at once the weight of responsibility that the composer felt in launching his first symphony onto a Viennese audience steeped in the great works of Mozart and Beethoven, Schumann and Mendelssohn.

I soon relaxed as the impact of this imposing introduction took command.

The spirit of the main body – Allegro – of the first movement finally assured me that the orchestra was being guided by someone who orchestral life had been spent, fruitfully, just a little outside the orchestra’s core, in the brass, where a more dispassionate view of performances and perhaps a better understanding of the conductor’s game is possible than from the back of the second violins.

The woodwinds which had an entirely different role in Rimsky-Korsakov, here took their turns briefly and amiably: flute, oboe, bassoon, clarinet alternating with horns. Unlike some listeners (or critics), visual imagery rarely arises as I listen to music, nor do I seek it: Brahms’s music is intensely emotional of course, but not sentimental, maudlin or saccharine. And this orchestra simply grasped its huge integrity, grandeur, and its powerful musical inventiveness.

Each movement had its distinct musical character: the second, with its lovely oboe solos, picked up by the clarinet, and then the dotted crotchets from violas under the poignant melody from first violins, was followed by a beautiful but disturbing clarinet passage. And soon concertmaster Grace Stainthorpe has a short, almost passionate sustained solo turn.

The third movement is no formulaic scherzo, even though it becomes animated at times. At this stage many symphonies lose something of their hold on the emotions as the idea is to lighten the burden on listeners who might tire of music that’s just profoundly beautiful. Not Brahms. There was no doubt about the players’ enjoyment of this delightful movement. They just got it right.

The special energy and delight is reserved for the last movement. But even here Brahms insists that our mood is not trivialised, beginning Adagio and pausing to ensure there’s full attention as the curious tentativeness prepares the way through an Andante section for the real experience, with its gorgeous, horn-led, grand and unforgettable theme. More lovely solos, from flute, trombones, horns, later the solo oboe. And though my ears didn’t especially pick it out, there was a striking example of a contrabassoon (a 1940s, American model I’m told) that towered above Paul Ewbank, looking more like a factory chimney than a musical instrument; it’s certainly in Brahms’s score and would have lent the texture some delicious, extra sonority.

The music slowly builds in excitement, working through several more related themes, lessening intensity several times before the end. Of course it was no flawless performance, but the sense of delight that reached its pinnacle in the last movement, made me very pleased my attention was drawn to the concert just in time to clear my diary of a dozen other important commitments. Mark Carter achieved splendid results through his obviously happy relationship with this young bunch of talented musicians.


Splendid NZSO concert with a greatly gifted cellist and young conductor prodigy

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Darrell Ang with Narek Hakhnazaryan – cello

David Grahame Taylor: Embiosis
Dvořák: Cello Concerto in B minor
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 6 in B minor (‘Pathétique’)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 20 May 7:30 pm

This was the second of three concerts in the NZSO’s main series to feature a solo cello: a fortnight ago, a new work by Gareth Farr, and in a month’s time, Schumann’s cello concerto played by Daniel Müller-Schott. Interesting: that Müller-Schott was here in 2013 playing the Dvořák concerto which was the concerto tonight, played by alarmingly talented Armenian cellist, Narek Hakhnazaryan.

But first, to follow the Gareth Farr premiere last concert, came another New Zealand piece, quite short, by young (27) composer David Grahame Taylor. It opened the concert. Bearing in mind the old-fashioned programme shape of overture, concerto, then symphony in the second half, this was both traditional and gently novel.

Entitled Embiosis, presumably a near relation of ‘symbiosis’, an interaction between two bodies or forces. Taylor’s definition of his coinage is ‘Within a lifeform’. It’s one of those cases where an enigmatic neologism offers more difficulty for the serious listener than the music itself.

For Embiosis, while probably something of a challenge for a musical analyst, was indeed an attractive listen. Whatever the secrets within the music, it kept the listener alert, to its judicious, fastidious scoring, demanding a conventional orchestra, as far as I could observe.

It opened with quiet strings being subjected to very conspicuous vibrato, to the point where it might have warranted being notated. Notes from the tuba, then tubular bells, caught the ear, but a title such as this is a constant worry, as one strives to find ‘programmatic’ significance at every turn.

While its textures could not be described as discordant (a word that has pretty well lost all meaning), the dense palette produced a kind of self-reflecting, introverted impulse. There were little downward, weeping glissandi on strings that led to a crescendo and then a sudden halt. And then it ended, just like that.

It had a unity, leaving the impression of something like a perfect little gem.

I’m sure the composer was pleased with the performance which Singapore conductor Darrell Ang drew from the players with clarity and coherence. Taylor came on stage to thank orchestra and conductor and acknowledge the warm applause.

I don’t think I heard Müller-Schott’s performance of Dvořák’s cello concerto in 2013, so Gautier Capuçon’s 2007 performance might have been my last live hearing. But there were a few years, during the much lamented Adam International Cello Competition in Christchurch, driven by the late Alexander Ivashkin, which I attended regularly, that I heard it often: one year, three of the four finalists chose it as their concerto: three times in one evening taxed even a Dvořák-lover like me.

This one was especially impressive. First it was the chance to confirm my admiration for conductor Ang in mainstream repertoire: not only were his movements vivid, economical and attractively balletic, but they clearly inspired the orchestra to playing of commitment and animation.

I suppose one cannot be altogether uninfluenced by a musician’s record of performances with top orchestras and conductors and the kind of plaudits he has attracted. One tried with Hakhnazaryan, but really failed.

Nevertheless, I could not stop impressions flicking through my head like ‘intensity’, ‘clear, flawless tone’, ‘lovely subdued pianissimi’, ‘every note precise yet creating fluid expressiveness’. The sounds he drew from his Guarnieri cello were always in balance with the orchestra, never covered, and that of course is as much the conductor’s achievement as the soloist’s. His bowing was never less than immaculate whether producing high drama or the gentlest meditative phrases.

Surely I will detect some flaws here and there, I thought: some tiny lapse in technique that interrupts the perfection of a passage; but I failed to detect anything at all that I could find fault with. In a belligerent spirit I started from the other end, contemplating whether there was a price to pay for this perfection: perhaps the loss of a sense of spontaneity, a hint that he was playing it for the first time, producing an improvisatory feeling which can be so delightful. No, nothing of the kind. All was carefully studied and conceived, and technically mastered.

Well, perhaps that was about the only shortcoming.

The last movement offers a relatively unusual opportunity for gentle, meditative playing, quiet and intimate; here, I felt, was the true test where both cello and orchestra were in accord, where he allowed Dvořák the main role, with exquisite playing expressing thoughtfulness and emotional calm. So the cellist’s silence through the last dozen bars was like a dramatic musical contribution to the final orchestral peroration. An ending that was mature, thoroughly mastered and interpreted, a conclusion reflecting the entire performance.

An Armenian folk-song arrangement was his discreet and touching encore.

I think the last performance in Wellington of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony was from Pietari Inkinen in 2010. In my review then I notice an absence of much comment on the performance while it dwelt mainly on the music itself; not sure what that implies. One can certainly meditate about the never-revealed ‘programme’ that Tchaikovsky admitted to. But emphatically, it’s not a suicide note; there’s plenty written about all that.

This work offered a chance to hear a full-scale, orchestra-alone performance from this conductor prodigy. With the orchestra now at full strength, in contrast to slightly smaller string numbers earlier, the work began its big opening viola melody with heart-warming opulence; all the solo voices such as the clarinet, first horn, flute were as immaculate as usual. Ang exploited dramatic moments like the sudden fortissimo in the first movement, as well as clarifying textures and melodic strands that can get blurred in less disciplined performances. Of all the movements, it was the 5/4 time of the Allegro con grazia, working like a scherzo and trio, that for all the very comfortable rhythmic control came to feel in this playing, just a bit mechanical, missing a little in flexible breaths, dynamics and tempi, the stuff of a living, organic piece of music.

I agree with the programme note’s hint that the third movement suggested ‘an unambiguous moment of triumph’, but I share others’ feeling that Tchaikovsky intended its triumph to be superficial; its emptiness is actually demonstrated (and I mean the music itself, not just this performance) both by a mechanical rhythm and the ‘thrilling’ end, belied at once by the last movement’s immediate descent to inevitable despair and death.

As others tend these days to do, Ang swept with scarcely a pause into the Adagio lamentoso, silencing the start of that inevitable clapping. And that Finale dealt with the activities of fate with as much pathos as was necessary, avoiding excessive emotional extravagance.

It was a fine, intelligent end to a splendid concert.

Peter Walls steps in to conduct Bach Choir in Vivaldi and the Bach family

Bach Choir of Wellington, conducted by Peter Walls, with The Chiesa Ensemble, Douglas Mews (organ) and vocal soloists

Vivaldi’s Gloria, RV 589
Johann Christoph Bach: Fürchte dich nicht.
Johann Ludwig Bach: Das ist meine Freude.
J.S. Bach’s Kyrie-Gloria Mass in B minor of 1733

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 13 May 2017, 3.30pm

Great praise is due to Peter Walls for the success of this concert; previous conductor Peter de Blois had departed overseas leaving rather short notice for the preparation of the music.  Without this explanation, the audience would hardly be aware that ample time was not available for rehearsal, such was the high standard of most of the music presented.  One item originally scheduled, by J. Christian Bach, was dropped.  This was no bad thing; the concert was of a more than adequate length with the remaining items.  The church was almost full.

It was good to see (for the first time in New Zealand, in my experience) reproduced in the printed programme, words from the programmes at the Royal Festival Hall in London, regarding the decibels produce by an uncovered cough.  Indeed, I noticed no coughs during this concert.  Notes in the programme were informative, and the words were printed, along with English translations.

First up was Vivaldi’s well-known Gloria, RV 589.  This was taken at a slick pace, but The Chiesa Ensemble, notably the trumpets, were up to it.  The attack from the choir was excellent, as were the gradations of dynamics.  The choir threw themselves into this lively work with vigour, and communication was good, with most singers watching the conductor well.

There were some rough sounds from basses, but generally, balance and blend were admirable.  The quieter second sentence ‘Et in terra pax’ was a beautifully calm contrast to the lively opening ‘Gloria’.  The women soloists (Nicola Holt, soprano, and Megan Hurnard, mezzo-soprano) were animated and well-matched in their ‘Laudamus’ duet.  The soprano solo ‘Domine Deus’ was delightful, not least for the wonderful oboe solo.  The staccato bassoons below the vocal part added clearly articulated character.

The instrumental ensemble, of 22 players, was made up to a large extent of professional musicians from both Wellington-domiciled orchestras, and along with Douglas Mews on the baroque organ, contributed very largely to the success of the performances.  As did the acoustic of St. Andrew’s Church, aiding the choir in achieving a big sound when required.

The bouncy and jubilant ‘Domine Fili’ chorus was for the most part carefully articulated as well as being lively.  The contralto solo (sung here by mezzo-soprano) opened with a  sombre cello solo, accompanied by the organ’s flutes.  Megan Hurnard’s voice was beautifully produced, and her tone appropriate to the sense of ‘Misere nobis’.  The choir’s uniform pronunciation of the words was an exemplary feature of their interjections.

It was strange not to find the soloists’ names listed in the programme, but there were biographies at the back.

The final sections of the piece where sung and played with verve – though a little strain showed in the tenor parts.  Again here, the trumpets excelled.

A complete contrast followed, with an unaccompanied motet by Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703): Fürchte dich nicht.  It began rather hesitantly but warmed up, and ended well; not an easy piece.

Then it was the turn of Johann Ludwig Bach (1677-1731); the motet Das ist meine Freude.  I have heard this fine choral work for double chorus sung by the New Zealand Youth Choir.  It was sung with vigour, but some of the many runs were not executed convincingly.  However, the German words were well enunciated.

Following the interval, we heard J.S. Bach’s Missa from 1733, better known as the ‘Kyrie’ and ‘Gloria’ from his Mass in B minor, where they were reused.  The opening ‘Kyrie’ had the choir faltering a little.  The Chiesa Ensemble again were in superb form, led by Rebecca Struthers.

For the choir’s part, it cannot be said that intonation never wavered, but by and large they did splendidly, and communicated the majesty and drama of this great work.   The duet ‘Christe eleison’ by the two women soloists was sung with absolute unity and concord, strings and organ accompanying.

The second ‘Kyrie’ began, and continued, confidently.  The complex fugal setting of ‘Et in terra pax’ likewise was accurate, the choir displaying pleasing tone and attention to dynamics.  Here, the brass were in their element, well supported by the other players.  The highly decorated ‘Laudamus te’ was handled with aplomb by Megan Hurnard.  ‘Gratias’ from the choir was very fine.  The timpanist was able to let fly.  ‘Domine Deus’ with the tenor soloist, Ken Trass followed.  He was not as strong as the soprano with whom he shared the duet, but nevertheless, his singing was accurate and he made a pleasing sound.  A lovely flute obbligato embellished the singing.

It was good to have no break between the sections; it made sense to carry straight on, and this heightened the contrasts in tempi, orchestration and dynamics.  After singing ‘Qui tollis’ the choir at last got to sit down for the first time since the interval, during the delicious contralto solo ‘Qui sedes’, accompanied by gorgeous oboe, and the following bass aria (David Morriss): ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’, accompanied by a magnificent solo horn.  The bass voice did not come through the orchestral texture as well as the other soloists did, though there were fine notes and passages.  The intricacies of the horn part did not have difficulty in communicating.

The final ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ was magnificent.

It seemed odd to me that the male soloists wore open-necked shirts, when the men of the choir wore bow-ties.  Women soloists take care with their dress, which could not in any way be called informal.  True, the orchestra men had open-necked shirts also, but these being black were not so obvious.  The previous evening I attended Orchestra Wellington’s fine concert.  They dress in much less formal fashion than does the NZSO, but nevertheless, the men all wore ties.  I believe it is a matter of respect to the music as well as to the audience.

Once again, St. Andrew’s proved itself an ideal venue for this type of concert.  And once again Bach proved to be the superbly inventive composer of choral music. No-one in the audience could be anything but satisfied with what they heard.  Much credit must go to Peter Walls for his direction of his forces in this dynamic and musically alive concert, that was nevertheless taxing for the choir.  Bravo, all!