Vivante Ensemble’s Vaughan Williams and Mendelssohn set St.Andrew’s buzzing

St.Andrews Lunchtime Concert Series presents:


Violins: Yuka Eguchi, Malavika Gopal, Martin Jaenecke, Anna van der Zee
Violas: Victoria Jaenecke, Christiaan van der Zee
‘Cellos: Robert Ibell, Ken Ichinose

RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS – Phantasy Quintet (1912)


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

Wednesday, 29th November 2017

The St Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace Lunchtime Concert Series here in Wellington has over the years produced some memorable musical experiences, but surely none more exhilarating that what we heard given by the talented Vivante Ensemble on this occasion. To be variously entranced, mesmerized, captivated, energized and thoroughly intoxicated as a listener at a concert performance is to experience a “spirit of delight” which, as the poet laments, “rarely comest” to the extent that we in the audience were here able to enjoy at first hand.

What came across to us so directly was the players’ own enjoyment of the music-making, a quality which reached almost orgiastic levels of delight as the concert neared its conclusion with the finale of Felix Mendelssohn’s remarkable Octet for Strings. Earlier the players had explored and brought to fruition a different kind of rapture with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Phantasy Quintet, a work epitomizing the fruits of the English musical renaissance of the early twentieth century. In all it was a splendidly “charged” affair, with two pieces of music literally set alight in their different ways by the musicians’ whole-hearted and transported playing.

In a sense the programme encapsulated in reverse order a process by which English music “came of age” over a period of imitation of Germanic models and influences to that point where composers such as Holst and Vaughan Williams seemed to find what they were looking for in the heritage of English folksong. Though Mendelssohn never actually lived in England his influence was enormous among members of the British “establishment”, akin to that of Handel’s a century earlier, and certainly inspiring a home-grown compositional school searching for something uniquely “British”.

With works like the “Octet”, the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” music, the symphonies and the momentous oratorio “Elijah”, Mendelssohn surely set his contemporaries and subsequent imitators in England a near-impossible task, one which only Edward Elgar’s genius was able to counter on a European playing-field. But it was the rediscovery of British folk-song by Holst, Vaughan Williams and the researcher Cecil Sharp which gave other native composers a new, home-grown direction; here, it was richly manifest in the Vaughan Williams’ Phantasy Quintet, opening Vivante Ensemble’s concert.

Right from the opening viola phrases, what playing we heard! – full, rich tones, evoking a magnificent melancholy, which other instruments gorgeously enhanced, the effect like a group of folksingers with stringed instruments for voices. A vigorous 7/4 dance on the ‘cello opened the second movement, the additional voices adding stringent harmonies to the rumbustious energies, the instruments again singing out, the players’ focused sonorities creating almost visceral emotional intensities, involving and satisfying for the listener.

Surprisingly Vaughan Williams kept the ‘cello silent throughout the brief third movement, the music’s opening having a sweetness, almost North American in feeling, with hymn-like touches – the ‘cello returned for the finale with a lovely, angular striding theme, one augmented by the other instruments, before adroitly turning its rhythm into firstly a jot-trot, and then a gallop, the players keeping their energies precariously and palpably on the leash. Unpredictably, the movement intensifies, becalms, gallops again, and then concludes in wistful, melancholic fashion.

I’m aware of some commentators penchant for describing music such as this as belonging to the “English Cowpat School” – but I love it! – and, especially when, as here, it’s given with such full-blooded gusto, a kind of earthiness that “feels” authentic, stressing the kinship to Bartok’s identification with Hungarian and Roumanian folk melodies and their influence on his art-music. And, of course VW’s love for those Thomas Tallis-like modes and harmonies adds to the Englishness of it all so resonantly.

So to the Mendelssohn, for which three additional players (two violinists and a cellist) appeared, including a new leader, violinist Yuka Eguchi, the NZSO’s assistant concertmaster – another NZSO violinist, Anna van der Zee had led the quintet of players in the Vaughan Williams work. Straight away there seemed more of a bustling spirit to the venture, with the camaraderie of setting-up extra chairs and music-stands and the deployment of the additional players, even before a note of the music had sounded!

The beginning stole in beguilingly, despite the music’s urgency – the repeated notes of the accompaniment, light and gossamer-like, supported a melody which arched upwards and then subsided just as winsomely. The “thrill” of feeling the additional weight of the extra instruments in this work immediately marked it out from what we’d heard before, with a sense of additional power held in check, but ready for whatever no-holds-barred gestures were required.

Throughout the first movement the playing’s expressive range gave the music’s dynamic qualities full voice, by turns full-blooded and delicately featherweight in places, at times excitingly, almost alarmingly orchestral. The players deftly etched in the occasional touches of tragedy in the minor-key treatments of the material, while the return to the opening was beautifully poised, the group “growing” the running figurations from out of the music’s entanglements and into the full sunlight once again.

The second movement’s opening beautifully caught the vein of the music’s melancholy – the players gave the incessant throbbing triplet rhythm great power, making the contrasting lyrical sections all the more effective in their “balm for the senses” aspect. As for the famous scherzo, our pleasure at the ensemble’s knife-edged precision was breath-taking stuff, the music weaving its gossamer magic at speed, and the leader during the “trio” section performing remarkable fleet-fingered violinistic feats.

But the climax of the performance came with the finale, beginning “attacca”, the ‘cellists literally charging at the music’s opening passages and the lighter-voiced instruments following suit in a kind of fugato ferment, the lines clicking over the points with great elan. The players plunged into attenuated crescendi leading to tremendously-voiced statements of concerted intent, their enjoyment and exhilaration overwhelmingly communicated to their listeners, so that we were all swept away in the torrent of it all.

A woman whom I’d been sitting next to in the church was, like me, stunned by the brilliance and overwhelming physicality of the performances, to the extent that she said she just wanted to sit for a while afterwards and let it all wash over her. And a friend I saw on the way out had tears in her eyes at the joyous energy and commitment of the playing, and the expressive power and beauty of the music which was thus generated. I can find no previous review of the ensemble’s work on Middle C, so this is a debut of sorts for us and for these musicians – it’s a precursor, I sincerely hope, of many more splendidly committed and inspirational concerts from Vivante.


A polished and scrupulously studied recital by male vocal quartet, Aurora IV

Aurora IV: singing Renaissance to 20th century music
Toby Gee (alto counter-tenor), Richard Taylor (tenor), Julian Chu-Tan (tenor, Simon Christie (bass)

Music by Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson, Byrd, Jean Mouton, Richard Lloyd, Lasso, Ludovico da Viadano, Poulenc, Tallis, Andrew Smith

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 22 November 2017, 12:15 pm

I’m fairly sure that this was my first hearing of Aurora IV, a male vocal quartet whose repertoire stretches from the 16th to the 21st century, though I have long been familiar with Simon Christie’s voice and recall hearing Richard Taylor in other groups, particularly The Tudor Consort.

One of the characteristics of the recital was the choice of words and music from widely separate eras. Thus the opening piece was a two-year-old setting of a hymn by 13th century Icelandic poet Kolbeinn Tumason. The programme took the trouble of spelling the Icelandic names using authentic letters, using the voiced ‘þ’ and unvoiced ‘ð’ which in English, of course, are left undistinguished by ‘th’.*

The modern setting of Kolbeinn Tumason’s Heyr himna smiður by Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson made strong references to early Renaissance music, which these musically literate singers captured very convincingly; it provided, for me, a chance to be highly impressed by the effective blending and dynamic uniformity of their voices, without in the least avoiding illuminating particular voices where called for.

The first, ‘Kyrie eleison’, of three parts of Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices followed. Here bass Simon Christie as well as male alto Toby Gee, emerged prominently, though the two tenors were obviously important in filling the rich polyphony. Neither ‘Gloria’ nor ‘Credo’ were performed here, and the ‘Sanctus’ and ‘Benedictus’ followed later: the former an interesting contrapuntal piece in which, again, the quality of each voice was conspicuous.

Tenor Richard Taylor seemed to take the lead at the start of the calmer, devotional ‘Benedictus’. The recital ended with the quartet singing the ‘Agnus Dei’, full of pain; till then I had not been particularly aware of second tenor, Julian Chu-Tan, as I was on the right while he faced left. But here I became more aware of him, slightly less robust that Taylor, but perhaps even more finely attuned to the character of the quartet as a whole which presented such a finely nuanced and spiritually persuasive presentation that it’s quite unreasonable to attempt to characterise individual voices.

To resume the order of the programme: Jean Mouton, one of the leading French composers of the 15th-16th centuries, his ‘Quis dabit oculis nostris’; in spite of my hesitation above, here were prominent and moving offerings by Taylor and Gee, in this beautiful lament on the death of his patron Anna of Brittany in 1514. It captured a uniquely idiomatic French style with integrity.

Then a modern English setting of a lyric by 13th century theologian Thomas Aquinas, ‘Adoro te devote’. The composer is Richard Lloyd, composed, as with the Icelandic piece, in 2013, and similarly embracing an authentic Renaissance sound, though with a melodic and harmonic character that rather gives away it more recent origin.

The variety of spellings of Lassus’s name (Orlande de Lassus, Roland de Lassus, Orlando di Lasso, Orlandus Lassus and many others) arises partly from his peripatetic earlier life, born in the Netherlands – in Hainaut, now in Belgium – travelled and worked in France and Italy, but eventually settled in Munich; contemporary of Palestina, Tallis, Byrd….

His ‘Matona, mia caro’ lends itself to a variety of approaches, sometimes by women, sometimes by mixed voices, and by large choirs; these singers adopted a lively, crisp rendition that stressed its exuberance and light-heartedness, even music to dance to. I’ve heard it sung in very differently ways, sometimes like a religious motet; Aurora IV carried the folk, onomatopoeic character ‘don don don…’ excellently.

Ludovico da Viadano who composed ‘Exultate iusti in Domino’, the words from Psalm 33, might be a relatively obscure composer, but his motet seems to be widely popular judging by the number of performances to be found on YouTube. It’s spirited, almost dancing in its energy, starting and ending in triple time, while the main central part is in solid common time. Here was another delightful late Renaissance song that should be popular with young choirs.

Poulenc seemed an abnormal phenomenon in the midst of Renaissance or pseudo-Renaissance song. Two of his ‘Four Prayers’ (Quatre petites prières de Saint François d’Assise) served to sharpen musical receptivity, though presenting a spirit that seemed ambivalent, outside the mainstream. Toby Gee introduced them. They were composed at Poulenc’s Loire Valley refuge, Noizay, in 1948. ‘Tout puisant’ (‘All Powerful’), the second of them, in somewhat ardent, laudatory spirit, was in a distinctively 20th century idiom, faintly coloured by an earlier style, vaguely Renaissance     not easily definable     . The third Prayer is Seigneur, je vous en prie (‘Lord, I implore you’); it presented itself with more sobriety, in a minor key, with a striking passage from Richard Taylor towards the end.

One had been waiting for Tallis in this company. ‘If ye love me, keep my commandments’ fulfilled the Tallis need, with its restraint, its sombre, exquisite tone, seeming to suggest that Tallis had found a balance between the religious conflicts of the age (it was published in 1560, just after Elizabeth had come to the throne, meaning an abrupt shift from the ruthless Catholicism of Mary).  A beautiful performance of a beautiful motet.

Another recent Biblical setting by Norwegian composer Andrew Smith (born in Liverpool, moved to Norway in his teens) picked up on a pattern common in the recital. I didn’t record remarks about the version sung here, which was based on an anonymous 13th century English motet, of words from Isaiah. Presumably, the striking, spare harmonies, infusing the recent arrangement, reflected the original setting (or was it wholly recomposed, in a sympathetic style?).

And it ended with the Byrd’s Agnus Dei which I touched on above, concluding an intelligent, seriously well-studied and polished recital of four-part polyphony.


* I was familiar with these Icelandic letters since they were used for the same sounds in Anglo-Saxon, which was a compulsory element in university English language and literature studies in my day. A paper in Icelandic, including readings in the sagas, some originating in the 9th century, but recorded from the 13th century, was an optional paper at master’s level. Further trivia: the Sagas, e.g the Saga of the Volsungs, and the Poetic Edda, were important sources for Wagner in the Ring cycle.

Peter Pan – stardust forever at Circa Theatre

Circa Theatre presents:
PETER PAN – the pantomime

Adapted from J.M.Barrie’s play “Peter Pan” (1904)
and novel “Peter and Wendy” (1911)
by Pinky Agnew and Lorae Parry

Cast: Gavin Rutherford (Katie Pie) / Cary Stackhouse (Peter Pan) / Camilla Besley (Wendy)
Simon Leary (Mr. Darling, Captain Hook)
Bronwyn Turei (Mrs.Darling, Xena Lily, Tinker Bell, Areffa Plankton)
Jeff Kingsford-Brown (Winston, Smee) / Ben Emerson (Dunnie)
Manuel Solomon (Nana, Hone)

Production: Director – Susan Wilson
Musical Director/Arranger – Michael Nicholas Williams
Set Designer – John Hodgkins
Lighting – Jennifer Lal
Costumes: Sheila Hoton
Musical staging- Leigh Evans

Circa Theatre (Circa One), Wellington
Saturday, 18th November, 2017

(until 23rd December, 2017)

Now here was fun heaped up in spadefuls onto classic, tried-and-true fantasy with a splendid pantomimic treatment of J.M.Barrie’s play “Peter Pan: the boy who wouldn’t grow up”, beloved of generations over a century of years. Writers Pinky Agnew and Lorae Parry, in their first-ever pantomime, managed to give us all the trappings of the art-form – music, slapstick comedy and topical jokes – while maintaining enough of those iconic links with the original story to cast a distinctive aura over the high-speed happenings of the fantastical plot.

Barrie’s 1904 play itself had high-pantomimic aspects involving audience participation, principally to do with the fairy character Tinker Bell, who, at one stage of the story drinks poison intended for Peter, and whose survival is “thrown over” to the audience’s children, when they are told that if they believe in fairies, Tinker Bell’s life will be saved. Here, the children were invited to the stage to add physical presence to their voices in their bid to “save Tinker Bell”, with heart-warming results, doubtless generating many a precious lasting memory within those ultra-receptive minds.

Being the “state of the nation” animals that they are, writers Agnew and Parry adroitly spiced the tale’s context with a handful of social and political observations, mostly delivered by the superb Gavin Rutherford as “Katie Pie”, the pantomime Dame with a distinctly Aro Valley Girl flavour, acquainting us with her hand-to-mouth existence in struggling to cope with her landlord’s putting up the rent, but crossing the haves/have-nots divide with aplomb as a harbour-ferry-travelling nanny to the children of a Days Bay household, the Darling family, on this particular evening Mr and Mrs being dinner guests of self-proclaimed right-wing radio and TV presenter Mike Hoskings.

Intriguing separate realities kicked in with the disclosure of the identity of Katie Pie’s landlord, none other than the rapacious, wheedling Captain Hook himself, his character at one point reinforced by way of some slightly miscalculated by-play involving an eponymous right-handed appendage – “Have we “hooked” up somewhere before?” – getting caught in Katie Pie’s dress in what I thought was a somewhat gratuitously-emphasised manoeuvre ….or was the snag accidental, and the near contortionist byplay a resourceful rescue operation? – we’ll never know!

Simon Leary bestrode the thinly-veiled “divide” between quasi-respectable, portfolio-clad predatory landlord, and out-and-out pirate, his Captain Hook extravagant of manner and resplendent of garb, displaying a veneer of heroic stylishness barely concealing impulses of cruelty criss-crossed with slash-strokes of memories of ticking clocks and crocodile’s jaws!

Another byplay was Jeff Kingsford-Brown’s “Winston Tweeters” cameo, the ferryman who here silenced the imagined vocal efforts of any number of Venetian gondoliers, with his spirited ditty “Hop in the waka / and give ’em a shocker”. From such appearances, Kingsford-Brown’s morphing into the piratical Smee, Hook’s right-hand (!) man, was an utter delight, particularly his brigandish rendition of Herman’s Hermits’ ‘”I’m into something good” as the chemistry between him and Katie Pie lit up in spectacular waves of bi-partisan emotion.

Perhaps the evening’s most varied high-octane output of on-stage energies came from the multi-talented Bronwyn Turei,  introduced firstly as Katie Pie’s daughter, the warrior princess Xena Lily, but reconstituting herself as Mrs Darling, the socialite mother of Wendy and baby Michael, before slaying youthful hearts in the aisles as the jealous and possessive, but fiercely loyal and courageous Tinker Bell , in deadly danger after swallowing poison to save Peter, her only true love. It remained for her to summons a kind of mermaid chorus line as backing for “Areefa Plankton” in yet a further oceanic surge of irrepressible song-and-dance energy.

Both Cary Stackhouse’s Peter Pan and Camilla Besley’s Wendy exuded youthful wholeheartedness, Stackhouse’s wide-eyed, open-faced “child of nature” aspect made a perfect foil for Camilla Besley’s equally fresh though more feet-on-the-ground Wendy, as determined in her own way as her more artless, unfettered companion. Each required a bit more vocal heft in places, but made up in physical directness what their work was wanting in sheer volume of voice – as both were newly graduated students each could reasonably expect further developments as their respective voices matured.

Completing the cast were the two Lost Boys, played by Ben Emerson and Manuel Solomon, the latter also contributing some energetic routines doggy-style as the Darling’s pet dog Nana. These were thinly-disguised representations of recently-ousted “lost” parliamentarians, here named “Dunnie” and “Hone” respectively, their singing and dancing bursting at the seams with stylish gusto – I can’t resist enjoying once again their “moment” of confession at bringing Wendy to earth with their arrows on her arrival in Neverland, with the plaintively-sung words,”Twang! Twang! – we shot her down!”

I must confess that, for me, part of the fun of shows like these is the clever reworking of new lyrics into familiar classic “hit” tunes – somehow it contributes to the “outrageous” aspect of the show, the above instance a rib-tickling example for me. Michael Nicholas Williams’ arrangements and on-stage realizations held us in thrall throughout, however popular or otherwise the material – in one instance near the beginning we were dizzyingly tangoed, murder-mysteried and balladed through the magic portals of Xanadu in what seemed like a series of rapidly-drawn breaths, along an exhilarating musical ride.

Everything made eye-catching use of colour (Hook’s costume in particular a visual treat) mobility (the stage readily doubled as either oceanic or harbour waters on which boats could pursue their course, and crocodiles could swiftly stalk their prey) and spectacle (a wonderful cosmic realization as Peter and Wendy fly through the starry divide and into Neverland – all credit to Sheila Horton’s costumes, Jennifer Lal’s lighting and John Hodgkins’ evocative and flexible sets. With Leigh Evans’ rapid-fire deployment of the actors’ choreographic energies, and Susan Wilson’s judicious hand on the show’s pacing and dynamic variations, we in the audience were literally kept on the boil throughout.

Cast and production team deserve every success with this show – no better gauge of entertainment effectiveness was provided by my next-seat fellow audience member (a prominent Wellington composer), whose laughter rang out more-or-less continually at the moments-per-minute parade of risible enjoyment to be had from this delightful “Peter Pan”.

See also reviews at Theatreview –

NZSO players in special concert under Aisslinn Nosky with Baroque masters

Aisslinn Nosky (director and violin soloist)

NZSO players:
Violins: Ursula Evans, Vesa-Matti Leppänen, Haihong Liu, Anne Loeser, Simon Miller, Megan Molina, Gregory Squire, Rebecca Struthers, Anna van der Zee, Beiyi Xue
Viola: Michael Cuncannon, Victoria Jaenecke, Lyndsay Mountford, Belinda Veitch
Cello: Eleanor Carter, Robert Ibell, Ken Ichinose
Bass: Malcolm Struthers
Harpsichord: Douglas Mews

Vivaldi: Violin Concerto in A minor, Op 3/6, RV 356
Handel: Concerto Grosso in G minor, Op 6/6, HWV 324
Vivaldi: Concerto for two violins in D minor, RV 565
Telemann: Burlesque de Quixotte, TWV 55:G10
Geminiani: Concerto Grosso in D minor, Op 5/12, ‘La Follia’ H.143

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Friday 17 November, 6 pm

It’s been a fine Baroque week in Wellington, at St Andrew’s, with an attractive lunch-time concert on Wednesday, with four strings from Wellington’s two professional orchestras and an NZSM harpsichordist; and this evening a special ensemble, of 18 players from the NZSO, plus harpsichordist Douglas Mews.

The story behind this evening’s concert was elaborate. NZSO violinist Anne Loeser travelled to Toronto in the Summer of 2014 for an intensive Baroque course where she met the hugely inspiring Aisslinn Nosky. Anne saw an opportunity to share her experience in Toronto with her NZSO colleagues, with the help of the June Commons Trust, a fund established by violinist Commons to foster study opportunities; and Anne’s colleagues responded enthusiastically to the opportunity. Aisslinn Nosky came to Wellington and has spent a week in lessons, workshops and rehearsals, in preparation for this concert, a mix of German and Italian Baroque music.

I arrived a few minutes late and missed hearing the first Vivaldi concerto, which an acquaintance told me had presented a hugely exiting first movement.

Handel Concerto Grosso
The chance to hear an appropriate ensemble play one of Handel’s Op 6 concerti grossi – No 6 – was a singular, rare pleasure; it employed a concertino group of two violins (Aisslinn Nosky and Rebecca Struthers) and a cello (Eleanor Carter) against the ‘ripieno’ – the rest of the orchestra. I wasn’t even sure that I’d heard it before, and was deeply impressed by the calm pathos of the first movement Largo affettuoso, and a comparably beautiful Musette, the third movement. I can’t help a reminiscence: I recall the music master at Wellington College introducing us – in the merely once-a-week ‘core’ music period – to at least one of Handel’s Op 6 set, an experience that has left me puzzled over the many subsequent decades, that such music, that I assumed was important (in other classes we heard the Hebrides Overture and the Academic Festival Overture) and which had appealed to me, seemed never to be performed. The fourth and fifth movement, both Allegros – the first in common time, the second a minuet-like dance in brisk triple time. A quite splendid concerto running to around 15 minutes.

Vivaldi Concerto Grosso
A second Vivaldi concerto followed, again from the Op 3 set, No 11 in D minor. As was intended in planning alternate German and Italian pieces, the contrast between the meaty, substantial yet delightful Handel, and lighter textured Vivaldi was interesting, though the character of this Vivaldi concerto was significantly more Germanic to my ears than the typical Vivaldi work. Though merely labelled a ‘concerto, it was in fact a ‘concerto grosso’, the concertino parts played here by Aisslinn Nosky, Anne Loeser and Ken Ichinose.

The first two movements, Allegro and Adagio, were very short and I confess to thinking they were merely parts of the first movement. Though the central Allegro was vigorous and substantial, played with painstaking rhythmic emphasis, taking care to exploit as much instrumental variety as possible: the three concertino instruments were singularly striking, making me frequently aware of the energy being injected by Nosky’s leadership, from the violin. As she played her bowing and her body movement guided her players vividly, often merely by turning her head and glancing encouragingly at players.

And the final Allegro illustrated in its gusto and opulence, the splendid balance and rapport between the soloists and the ripieno. The Largo, between the middle and final Allegros, expressing a pathos that offered evidence of the importance of Vivaldi, reinforced an astonishment that the Vivaldi revival has taken so long – like some 250 years – to take root and for him to become an accepted master in, not just Baroque music, but universally, placing him very close, it not equal, to Bach and Handel.

Telemann’s Burlesque de Quixotte was written in his last year, 1767 – in fact this is the 250th anniversary of his death, as you’ll have noticed by the huge amount of attention being paid by the popular press and commercial radio and television (though I’m not sure I’ve heard it referred to by RNZ Concert either). The suite consists of eight movements. It begins with a substantial French overture and continues with some quite brief pieces that depict some of Quixote’s adventures, that lend themselves to musical wit and drollerie. There are amusing, successful portrayals of people and events, such as the windmills, Quixote’s galloping horse, Rosinante, and Sancho Panza’s ass, which induced smiles with its bizarre, irregular dissonances.

The fact that Strauss wrote a symphonic poem on Don Quixote prompted me to wonder whether one might hear in Telemann hints of the kind of descriptive music that developed in the Romantic era. Hardly; but notable ‘programme’ music had been composed, even in the 17th century – Biber’s Battalia for example; some Renaissance English keyboard music; Couperin’s keyboard music is full of descriptive elements, for which his detailed ornamentation was an important element; there’s Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, obviously; and other pieces by Telemann himself, such as the suite Hamburger Ebb’ und Flut.

The performance was revelatory; Nosky inspired energetic playing, full of dynamic rhythm and opulent orchestral ensemble, taking every opportunity to find and exploit the colour and narrative quirks and their exaggerated orchestral depictions, with which Telemann fills his score. Nor did it mean a movement such as the Don’s amorous sighs for Dulcinea was anything but warm, supple and full of chivalric love.

Corelli’s La Follia from Geminiani
On Wednesday we heard Corelli’s variations on La Follia, played as a set of variations for violin and continuo (cello and harpsichord). It was the last of Corelli’s twelve sonatas for violin and continuo, Op 5, published in 1700, and they were arranged by Geminiani 26 years later as concerti grossi (also Geminiani’s Op 5). Friday’s NZSO baroque orchestra played No 12 of the set, entitled La Follia; one could be forgiven for hardly recognising their origin in Corelli, so much more opulent and varied was Geminiani’s version.

Nosky, as well as being a specialist in baroque performance practice, doesn’t for a moment allow scholarly scruples to inhibit her gusto and concern to give her performances all the colour and vitality she can draw from her players. Happily, one had to conclude that the players who emerged from the NZSO for this concert were all of a mind to respond with enthusiasm to her spirit; fast was as fast as possible; ornaments included vibrato, with discretion; she took every opportunity to exploit expressive gestures, with arresting emphases and rhythmic adventures. And one was always thoroughly aware of the tempo fluctuations and changes of tempo, both through hearing and through watching Nosky’s direction from the violin, which never failed to give vivid interpretive guidance.

Envoi: A Baroque orchestra
This concert by an ensemble drawn from the NZSO, reminded me that it’s rather a long time since the excellent NZSO Chamber Orchestra, led by Donald Armstrong, was disbanded, and there’s been no revival of such a group. The packed church on Friday showed the high level of interest in this kind of music, and I wish the orchestra would revive a chamber orchestra such as this that, on a permanent basis, could give professional performances of baroque and other early music that is otherwise seriously neglected. Though I suspect that dynamic chefs d’orchestre such as Aisslinn Nosky are not thick on the ground, visiting conductors as well as some local conductors with a love of Baroque music would be delighted to have the chance to play this music alongside their regular programmes with the NZSO.


Stroma’s “Spectral Electric” concert at City Art Gallery


Jonny Marks (throatsinger), Ed Allen (horn), Bridget Douglas (flutes), Patrick Barry (clarinet), Shannon Pittaway (bass trombone), Leonard Sakofsky and Thomas Guldborg (percussion), Michelle Velvin (harp), Catherine Norton (piano), Anna van der See and Alan Molina (violin), Andrew Thomson (viola), Ken Ichinose and Robert Ibell (cello), Matthew Cave (contrabass): conductor Mark Carter

Luigi Ceccarelli: Respiri (1999)
Kaija Saariaho: Ciel Etiole (1999)
Salvatore Sciarrino: Fauno che fischia a un Merlo (1980)
Kaija Saariaho: Cendres (1998)
Annea Lockwood: Immersion (2001)
Michael Norris: Sygyt (2017)

City Art Gallery, Wellington, 16 November 2017

Large and flexible contemporary music ensemble Stroma subdivided into smaller units for most of their “Spectral Electric” concert. Founder member Ed Allen, using a mechanically and electrically modified horn, got to demonstrate aspects of virtuosity not typically heard in his work with the NZSO and Orchestra Wellington. In Luigi Ceccarelli’s Respiri, there were raindrop staccatos, deep pedal notes and plaintive keening. Horn calls were echoed and blended, acoustic sounds extended and processed in a manner similar to “granular synthesis”. Moment to moment the performance was very well paced, but in the end I did not feel that the moments – intriguing as they were – coalesced to form a coherent piece.

No such problem with fellow Italian Salvatore Sciarrino’s Fauno che fischia a un Merlo. Bridget Douglas’ flute and Michelle Velvin’s harp created a consistent sound world of high register trills and tremolos, like a dialogue between two birds, punctuated by occasional glissandos and palm-slaps on the harp.

New Zealand born, U. S. resident composer Annea Lockwood is known for her installations featuring recordings of natural sounds (as in Sound Map of the Hudson River), and for activities involving the burning, burying or drowning of pianos. A title like Immersion, then, had to be a bit of a worry. As it turned out, duo percussionists Leonard Sakofsky and Thomas Guldborg showed it to be a well made, almost conventionally structured piece, exploiting two different kinds of sustain: bowed or rubbed metal (bowl, cymbals and tam-tam), and rapid marimba tremolandos. It built up to a powerful climax on mysterious deep marimba and roaring tam-tam, before returning to its rarefied beginning.

Finland’s Kaija Saariaho also utilised the delicate effects of bowed metal (cymbals, crotales). In her Ciel Etoile (“Starry Sky”), percussionists Sakofsky and Guldborg were joined by contrabassist Matthew Cave, who provided dark low notes and high harmonics. Pizzicatos marked a more rhythmic section, before the piece evaporated into the stillness with which it began.

Saariaho’s Cendres was more varied and driven. Subtle effects, such as Catherine Norton’s inside-piano, the fusing a piano tremolo with Ken Ichinose’s cello harmonics and with Bridget Douglas’ flute, were contrasted with more conventional instrumental flourishes. These made beautiful intrusions, but also diluted the work’ stylistic integrity a little.

Saariaho was somewhat on the edge of the Spectralist movement, which began in 1970s France. Ironically then, the most spectral work in the concert was composed in 2017 Wellington. The full Stroma ensemble under conductor Mark Carter joined the remarkable throatsinger Jonny Marks for Sygyt by Michael Norris. Wellingtonian Marks studied in China/Mongolia, and performs with the All Seeing Hand, and at the Pyramid Club.

As a score with wordless voice, Sygyt joins a select list of vocalises that includes concertos by Gliere, New Zealand’s Lyell Cresswell, and English quarter-tone pioneer John Foulds (Lyra Celtica), and the small-group Preludio a Colon by Mexican microtonalist Julian Carrillo. These all used the female voice. Sygyt requires Marks to traverse his commanding range, from the gravelly, visceral, sub-bass kargyraa style, to the exquisitely ethereal harmonics (all the way up to the fourteenth) of the eponymous sygyt. Norris (and Marks) seamlessly integrated these ethnically Mongolian and Tuvan ways of singing into the language of Western music – or perhaps what Western music might have been like if it had followed the trajectory implied by Renaissance just intonation and meantone, instead of reverting to the modified form of mediaeval Pythagorean tuning that is Equal Temperament. Rich, resonant chords are built from the harmonic series (a preoccupation of the Spectralists), and the series itself is employed as a melody on instruments and on the voice. In the last section melodic lines are created from selected disjunct notes of the series.

Marks used a microphone to achieve balance with the ensemble. But he didn’t need it to produce the sounds, as he demonstrated dramatically at the end, leaving the room to sing in the echoing, reverberant spaces of the City Gallery.

Stroma will be performing in the New Zealand Festival (Mechanical Ballet, 16 and 17 March 2018), and taking part in the 2018 Chamber Music New Zealand series with The Rest Is Noise author Alex Ross (Wellington, 26 May).

NZSO and Orchestra Wellington string players in Baroque chamber music at St Andrew’s lunchtime

Relishing the Baroque
Hye-Won Kim, violin; Sophia Acheson, violin/viola (2,3 and 4); Ken Ichinose, cello; Joan Perarnau Garriga, double bass (2,4); Kristina Zuelicke, harpsichord  (1,2 and 4)

Corelli: La Folia; Variations on a theme, in D minor Op.5, no.12
Handel: Trio Sonata no.6 in G minor, Op.2, HWV 391
Rossini: Sonata no.1 in G
J.S. Bach: ‘St. Anne’ Prelude and Fugue in E flat, BWV 552, arr. R. Bartoli

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 15 November 2017, 12:15 pm

As with last week’s lunchtime concert from St Andrew’s, Lindis Taylor and I found ourselves in different parts of the church and both had scribbled notes. He graciously proposed that I cover the ground generally while he would merely add a few pedantic details. Again, no attributions.

The theme of La Folia has been ascribed to Corelli, but it is much older. Research suggests that it emerged in the 15th century, and that ‘the origin of the folia framework lies in the application of a specific compositional and improvisational method to simple melodies in minor mode’, and not a particular melody.  But Corelli’s melody has been used by numerous composers as the basis for variations, and it is hard to beat the Italian composer’s delightfully clear and lively set of variations that change speed, rhythms from triple to four-in-a-bar time.  The piece received a superb performance from these players (Hye-Won Kim, Ken Ichinose, Kristina Zelicke), playing with baroque-adapted violin and cello and lovely two-keyboard harpsichord, in baroque style – incisive but not harsh, with scarcely perceptible vibrato, jolly and full of life.

How fortunate was the large audience to hear professional players from both Orchestra Wellington and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (and NZSM’s Kristina Zuelicke) who are willing to play unpaid, for the love of music, at a free lunchtime concert!

One of Handel’s Trio Sonatas was next. A second violin (Sophia Acheson) was added; the harpsichord provided the continuo to the three strings.  Initially, this music did not have the sparkle of the Corelli, but its attractive counterpoint was notable, especially in the second movement, allegro, which followed the opening andante.  The following movement, arioso, was led by the first violin in a lovely melody, interchanging with the other instruments (though if one’s idea of an arioso was founded in Bach’s famous example, this lacked a certain poignancy and beauty).  A joyous allegro, in the style of a gigue, interwove all the instruments’ parts in motifs that ascended and descended charmingly.

Leaving the baroque era for a moment, we heard Rossini’s sonata, one of the six he wrote when he was only 12 years old. Its sound was mellow, markedly different in style from the baroque music (the composer played the second violin part); and its defining character is the double bass part which became an irresistibly comic part at times.  A cello solo in the first movement (moderato) was followed by one from the first violin.  The andantino second movement was peaceful, and notable for the pizzicato from the two bass instruments, which seemed to enjoy barely suppressed buffoonery.  The allegro Finale was a sprightly dance, led principally by the first violin, then the double bass and cello got short, cheerful, occasionally lumpish, solo passages.

J.S. Bach’s masterful ‘St. Anne’ Prelude and Fugue in E flat ended the concert.  As an organist, I was bound to say that I prefer the original, written for organ.  The strings cannot bring out the grandeur and variety of tonal colours that can be employed on the pipe organ.  In particular, the double bass cannot emulate the strong, clear sounds of the pedals.  The fugue was played just last Sunday, as the final organ voluntary at the memorial service at Wellington cathedral for Professor Peter Godfrey, who died in late September.

Some of the ornaments present in the organ score were missed out in this arrangement, thus missing a little of its baroque character.  Although the work was played on five different instruments, I did not think the individual lines stood out as well as they do on the organ, with judicious registration.  They simply do not have the incisive, characterful impact.

The fugue began on the viola, then cello joined in, and then violin and finally the pedal part on the double bass.  While the playing was fine, it seemed to me a disappointing arrangement – though I would not deny that much baroque music can be played on a variety of instruments and combinations.  Bach’s trio sonatas, usually played on organ have been played recently on RNZ Concert by strings.  Their more delicate and spare constitution transferred well – but not this majestic Prelude and Fugue, in my view.


Edo de Waart and NZSO in deeply assimilated music of Brahms, Wagner and Sibelius (with Janine Jansen)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Edo de Waart with Janine Jansen – violin

Brahms: Symphony No 3 in F, Op 90
Wagner: Siegfried Idyll
Sibelius: Violin concerto in D minor, Op 47

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 10 November, 6:30 pm

The programme might have looked fairly conventional, except that the symphony, usually the sole occupant of the second half of the traditional concert, was played first. That may have been because the Sibelius concerto enjoys one of the most exciting endings while Brahms’s Third Symphony is a favourite as a result of its steering a path between peacefulness and joy and quiet drama, ending with one of most reflective, serene finales.

Brahms No 3
Generally, De Waart and the orchestra demonstrated a profound sympathy with the symphony: an awareness of its sanguinity as well as its suppressed passion, in a performance that struck one as authentic and deeply assimilated, from a descendant of performances by De Waart’s compatriots, Mengelberg, Van Beinum, Haitink (though not all are unreservedly admired in this symphony…).  So it’s perhaps a little strange that I noted in the first movement, early on, a certain instability in handling the elusive rhythms, and perhaps in ensemble, particularly among the winds.

The symphony’s laid-back nature doesn’t mean any departure from Brahms’s structural complexity that, on the one hand, can be overlooked in a conscious sense without loss of enjoyment, and on the other can engross the serious listener with score and analytical notes at hand.

There were many felicities in the course of the performance, momentary unstable passages that were elucidated by giving prominence to a few notes or by the emergence of flutes or violas from the orchestral aggregate; a fragile rhythm, nicely managed without simplifying it.

The third movement, Poco allegretto, where a scherzo would normally be, was yet another departure from the orthodox, in C minor, 3/8 time (though they’re very slow quavers), De Waart was unhurried, almost somnolent, passing the lovely main theme repeatedly through strings and winds – exquisitely with horns; it might be tedious in less inspired hands: not here.

The sense of a driving impulse was a major feature of De Waart’s performance, through the numerous tempo and rhythmic changes, that hold one’s attention, absorption in the music. But the result of such impulse is sometimes to overlook the epic grandeur of the work which exists in certain deeply admired recordings (Haitink, Sanderling, Giulini for example), that run to around 50 minutes. This was not a performance of that kind, but one for immediate consumption bearing in mind an audience that might not be ready to give itself to playing devoted to architectural magnificence on the scale of a mighty Gothic cathedral.

Siegfried Idyll 
The Siegfried Idyll followed after the interval, excellent tonic for those who have succumbed to anti-Wagner xenophobia. It needs to be stressed, as I sometimes do to non-believers, that it’s just a small part of the 16-hours of the marvellous Ring cycle where hours of comparable beauties are to be found.

The orchestra was stripped back to ten first violins, descending to four basses and single winds apart from pairs of horns and clarinets. That was Wagner’s published expansion from the small group of 13 that had gathered at dawn on the stairs near Cosima’s bedroom to mark her birthday/Christmas morning in 1870 in their house at Triebschen on Lake Lucerne (yes, I’ve been there on a lovely summer’s day). It was beautifully paced, a sort of aubade, with the scent of a calm night, with elegant, perfectly integrated strings; and an arresting moment from Michael Kirgan’s trumpet.

Sibelius Violin Concerto
Janine Jansen is a Dutch violinist, born in 1978 (the ritualised patterns of artist CVs ignore basic information that is likely to be interesting and pertinent to most concert-goers). She is clearly among the most distinguished of the increasingly large body of brilliant soloists in the classical music world.

Her Sibelius concerto was part of a uniquely refined, perceptive, passionate, imaginative and simply enchanting performance which had the characteristically restrained Wellington audience jumping to its feet, accompanied by prolonged shouts and clapping.

The concerto opened with fairy-like, whispering sounds over pianissimo murmuring strings, that were quickly echoed by Patrick Barry’s comparably fastidious clarinet. The prevailing character of her playing was soon clear: an almost obsessional care with every phrase and a delight in highlighting contrasts that are often handled in a more uniform manner. An early fiery passage that ends suddenly with rising, meandering, pianisssimi theme, that seemed to be delivered with more dramatic contrast than is common. At the heart of the first movement, rather than towards the end, the violin’s cadenza becomes a more central feature than usual, described as assuming the role of the development section rather than merely a spectacular forerunner to the climactic conclusion.

Though Sibelius never allows you to become comfortable with a particular emotion, tempo, style, world-view or belief system, and in every movement the listener runs the gauntlet, it’s the slow movement, Adagio di molto, that approaches a miracle of calm, transcendent beauty. It seems to seek the elusive idea of the sublime, but coloured by unease, evoking the still, Arctic air; and there’s a yearning quality, a sense of loss in through the singular emotional force with which the violin speaks. Jansen dealt enchantingly with the passages where she was virtually alone as sections of the orchestra murmured discreetly, merely embellishing the silence.

Though one knows the concerto very well, I have never been held so transfixed, so alert, so awakened to sounds that I seemed never to have heard properly before. The last movement can suggest a fairly conventional affair, boisterous and exciting, but Jansen’s playing was variously mercurial and endlessly lyrical; it was energised in throbbing exchanges with the orchestra, which was probably inspired by the soloist to sonorities and detail that were comparably dynamic, emerging with unusually clarity. That is a feat that’s perhaps not so hard to achieve given Sibelius’s uncluttered scoring, and a general avoidance of dense, Brahms-like expression.

On every level, this was a remarkable and memorable performance.

A somewhat impromptu lunchtime recital proves a delight at St Andrew’s

Fleur Jackson (violin), Olivia Wilding (cello), Lucy Liu (viola), Ingrid Schoenfeld and Catherine Norton (piano)

Beethoven: Piano sonata in C minor, Op 30/2, movements I and 3
Schumann: Cello Concerto in A minor, Op 129 – arranged for cello and piano, movements 2 and 3
Bloch: Suite (1919) for viola and piano, movements 2, 3, 4

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 9 November, 12:15 pm

Having left the reviewing duty unplanned, both Lindis Taylor and I found ourselves at this recital, mutually unaware of each other at the time; we decided to combine our impressions. Prizes (a free annual pass for the St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts in 2018) for successful identification of the origin of the various remarks.

This programme was arranged at short notice after the originally scheduled players withdrew. Three separate duos, it proved very engaging, even though each pair played only some of the three or more movements. In principle, one should regret that such truncations are made, as they distort in some way the composer’s original intention. In the circumstances however, and given how well each piece was played, it was an interesting and musically satisfying recital.

The first performers began Beethoven’s none-too-easy Allegro con brio first movement with excellent attack, beautifully integrated. The lively staccato character of the music seemed to belie its minor key; Ingrid Schoenfeld’s lively, ear-catching piano and the bright, buoyant sound of Fleur Jackson’s violin, spiced with well-placed emphases not only characterised the first movement, but continued without the calming Adagio cantabile of the second, to the third movement, Scherzo, which persisted in the spirit of the first, in a dancing spirit, full of optimism.

Schumann’s Cello Concerto doesn’t quite rank alongside those of Dvořák, or Elgar, even of Saint-Saëns or Haydn; but it’s a charming work. Being less familiar, there was not the same feeling of something major left out, in spite of the fact that there is no break between the three movements and in the way they simply merge, one into the next, lends the whole work a particular integrity. To start with the Langsam, second movement, worked very well, and the elimination of the orchestra didn’t seem at all barbaric.

Olivia Wilding and Catherine Norton were finely paired in the expressive opening; the cello has much double stopping while Norton’s piano was a model of subtlety and sensitivity; resulting in a very convincing feeling that Schumann might actually have written it as a sort of cello sonata. One can miss the scale and colour of an orchestra in such a reduction, but the music spoke for itself, uninhibitedly.

The success of the seamless transition from the second to the last movement might profitably have been a model for later concertos, except that it removes some of the crowd-pleasing drama from the conventional concerto structure. The challenges of the Sehr lebhaft finale did not daunt Olivia Wilding, brilliantly executing the lightning shifts from deep bass to high notes. It was a scintillating performance.

Ernest Bloch can often seem a very serious composer, but in the three movements of his Suite (in four movements) for viola and piano, he imagined the islands of Indonesia, which he never visited. They were full of interest, of light and shade. Lucy Liu and Catherine Norton began with the second movement, Allegro ironico, subtitled ‘Grotesques’. The enchanting opening phrases from both viola and piano might have been animals padding through the jungle.

The Lento third movement (‘Nocturne’), a pensive piece, revealed gorgeously rich tone from the muted viola, while it was rewarding to pay attention to the piano part that Norton handled with great sensitivity. The last movement, Molto vivo (‘Land of the Sun’), included some sequences influenced by Chinese music. Strong, confident playing left a Debussyesque feeling and the sense that the suite probably deserved a more prominent place in the viola repertoire. Both players were absolutely on top of the music, technically and interpretively.

It might have been a somewhat impromptu concert but between them the five players delivered an interesting, thoroughly enjoyable concert of works that one might dare call great.

Excellent concert, with the old and the new, from NZTrio in a different City Gallery space

‘Soar’: NZ Trio (Manu Berkeljon, violin; Ashley Brown, cello; Sarah Watkins, piano)

John Ireland: Phantasie Trio in A minor
Anthony Ritchie: Childhood
Dorothy Ker: Onaia
Schubert: Piano Trio no.2 in E flat major

City Gallery, Wellington (upstairs gallery)

Thursday, 9 November 2017, 7pm

It was encouraging to see a largely young audience, including a number of professional musicians, at NZ Trio’s concert.  However, there were a lot of empty seats.

The Ireland work began with a surging start, and immediately it was apparent what a good venue this was for chamber music (I had never been to a concert in this gallery before)..  The gallery was resonant, but there was no echo.  Despite the plastic chairs, it was comfortable because there was plenty of leg room.

The programme consisted of the unfamiliar, followed by the new, followed by a classic great.  It was an excellent formula, and the Ireland work was an imaginative and attractive work with which to start.  The piece contained mellifluous melodies in all parts.  Delicacy followed vehemence, spirited motifs followed restraint.  Leading to the end, there were great flourishes.  As the programme note stated, the trio was ‘deeply passionate and impressionistic…’.

Each player gave a verbal introduction to a part of the programme.  It was astonishing, in light of the highly accomplished and confident playing, to learn that Berkeljon had been rehearsing with the other players for only a week.

Ritchie’s short work was commissioned by NZ Trio last year.  It featured a delightful opening, in which one could imagine children playing.  It was performed with flair and anache (as indeed was the Ireland work).  The music became excited, interspersed with naive melodies.  The piano part especially appeared difficult to play.  The use of muted strings towards the end was most effective, as was the use of harmonics.

Dorothy Ker’s new work, Onaia, was based on the name of a stream near Rotorua/Te Puke, and according to the programme note, the piece does not so much depict the place as set out to be ‘a translation of its energies’.

The music stand was removed from the piano so that its strings could be plucked; Sarah Watkins’s iPad (that she used throughout the concert; the others used paper scores) sat in the piano.  Sound effects of many kinds were created on the piano, some using small tools, others simply the hand.  As well as creating a variety of sounds on the stringed instruments, their players used the handles of bows to scrape on a block of wood.

This all created an intriguing and evocative sound-scape.  To me, it was not music in the usual sense, but much of it was beautiful and even awe-inspiring.  It would make great background for a documentary film set in deep bush.  Although the printed description did not mention birds, many sounds spoke to me of birds – and the Onaia ecological reserve is a place where kokako may be seen and heard Wikipedia informs me.  Among these bird-like sounds was spiccato on the stringed instruments.  This was a very skilled performance, particularly from Sarah Watkins, who had so many different tasks to perform, as well as keeping her iPad up with changing pages but I found it rather long for my attention span for this type of composition.  Towards the end it became very convoluted.

After the interval, we had one of Schubert’s supreme chamber works.  Sitting near the piano, I found it rather loud on the hard floor, but on the other hand, there was great clarity in the playing – indeed, from all the instruments.  Prestidigitation was the order of the day for all the players in the opening allegro, which was full of life, with gorgeous string melodies and rippling piano accompaniment.  The movement passes from emotionally  charged melody to imposing grandeur.

The second movement, marked andante con moto, is quite singular, being made up of seemingly simple components.  It later becomes impassioned, then reverts to the first subject.  A stormy passage intervenes.  Alternation between these two opposing moods continues; there is wonderful use of pizzicato.

The third movement, scherzando; allegro moderato, is joyous and witty.  The trio section is solid and firm, with lighter interpolations.  The return of the scherzo included even lighter and more playful elements than before.

The final allegro moderato movement began in similar mood to the scherzo, but soon became more brilliant, sometimes majestic, each instrument having ample opportunity for exceptionally dramatic music.  These players lived up to expectations and went beyond them.  One of the supreme works of the chamber music repertoire, this trio had much to give, and these performers did the composer proud, and delivered this climax to an evening’s music with talent, style and finesse in abundance.  The audience reaction was rapturous.  Bravissimo!


Wellington’s professional chamber choir ends successful second year

Inspirare – a professional choral ensemble directed by Mark Stamper, with Tawa College’s chamber choir, Blue Notes, conducted by Isaac Stone

The Cycle of Life: Music by Kerry Marsh, David Childs, Gwyneth Walker, Daniel Elder, Rautavaara, Ben Parry, Morten Lauridsen, Matthew Harris, Stenhammar, William Finn, Jeffrey Derus, Sandra Milliken, Zachary Moore and Copland

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 5 November, 3 pm

Middle C attended and reviewed the inaugural concert by this professional chamber choir on 4 September 2016, and we reviewed their previous concert on 13 August this year.

Each of those concerts had a theme, and so did this one: The Cycle of Life using two of the immediate seasons: Winter and Spring – symbolising death and life, characterising the nature of those seasons from a North American perspective – probably the north-east where the seasons are very distinct.

Mark Stamper introduced the concert, and at once encountered an unfortunate difficulty: an unresponsive microphone; although he spoke more loudly, I wasn’t able to understand much of what he said, perhaps impaired as I was sitting in the gallery. That mattered as one relies on a certain amount of oral commentary because song lyrics were not provided in the printed programme which, in the circumstances, would have been useful. Otherwise, the stylish programme was evidence of the polished, professional character of the concert.

The concert followed the pattern established earlier, of involving a young choir to sing either on their own or as part of a larger ensemble. This time the associated choir was Tawa College’s Blue Notes, under Isaac Stone (who’s also a member of Inspirare).

The choir set itself a hurdle from the start by choosing the theme of Winter, symbolising Death, which prescribed music likely to be cold, elegiac, melancholy, though it was by no means always despairing in spirit. The second half restored the balance with Spring with its celebration of renewed life.

Blue Notes took its place at the beginning; they opened with an evocative piece, Justin Vernon’s Woods (arranged by Kerry Marsh, who seems to dominate the credits for the performing version). It’s based on a single motif, and starts with one, then two voices before additional vocal lines build to a dense ensemble engaging in the entire choir. A nice piece for a versatile college choir that could tap their likely predisposition for popular, genuine, thoughtfully sentimental music. It was a splendid demonstration of the choir’s talents, their dynamic control and engaging tonal synthesis.

Next was Peace, my Heart, by New Zealand composer, David Childs, now a prominent figure in the United States choral music scene. Blue Notes won a Silver Award at the 2017 Big Sing choral festival with Peace, my Heart. Calm, meditative, consoling, it called for a cello obbligato which, hinting momentarily at the Bach cello suites, was sympathetically played by choir member and all-round musician Benny Sneyd-Utting.

The college choir then retreated and the women of the adult choir took over (I failed to notice whether the girls from Blue Notes had remained to support the choral element, but on reflection, realised they must have), beginning with Gwyneth Walker’s In Autumn (a departure from the general theme of the concert). Though the poem was read by the conductor, it was not really a substitute for being able to read the words: songs are only partly the music, and it deprives the listener of an appreciation of the way the music reflects the sense of the poem. However, this first offering by Inspirare itself spoke emphatically of a choir comprising fine voices that had been scrupulously rehearsed. It opened with two soloists from the choir, soprano Inese Berzina and mezzo Linden Loader, from which the course of the song gradually intensified. Fiona McCabe’s rippling piano accompaniment lent it an unusual quality, supporting high lines created by the women.

The toughest work in the programme followed: Finnish composer Rautavaara’s Suite de Lorca, settings of four poems from various parts of Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca’s oeuvre. Mostly stark, bleak pieces that seem to presage the poet’s grisly death at the hands of Franco’s fascists. Capturing their character convincingly, in Spanish, (and it was particularly good to have the translated words on an insert) they began with the galloping ‘Canción del jinete’, addressing Cordoba, the destination that he will not reach (Lorca was actually killed near Granada). ‘El grito’ (the scream) perhaps a gloss on Munch’s famous painting, its fearfulness was followed, strangely, in the same key, by ‘La luna asoma’ (The Moon Rises), at once bright and chilling, punctuated by Pasquale Orchard’s mezzo voice rising high over it. There was no hint in the uneasy ‘Malagueña’, of a more familiar evocation of the Malaga to be found in Albeniz or Granados. (‘Death comes and goes from the tavern’). The choir’s fine command of the emotionally powerful poems and their unflinching settings was outstanding.

Ben Parry’s The Ground lies hard again reflected a bleak though changeable picture of a winter landscape. And Winter was finally summed up in a set of unforgivingly gritty Mid-winter Songs by Morton Lauridsen. Here, in particular, I felt the need of the words to make better sense of the music, for my earlier experience of Lauridsens’s compositions hardly prepared me for these five sharply contrasted, harmonically tortured songs. The skilful handling of their evidently challenging lines spoke again of an impressive level of vocal talent as well as polished ensemble and blending of voices.

The scene brightened with Spring, as Blue Notes opened the second half with Matthew Harris’s setting of It was a Lover and his Lass; clear and bright, breaking its uniformity with a startling modulation in the middle. Another Scandinavian gesture came with Stenhammar’s September, evidently sung in Swedish, here was a song that reminded one of its descent from the more familiar path of classical song from Schubert through Grieg and Wolf…

Benny Sneyd-Utting took to the piano to accompany I Feel so much Spring from a music theatre piece, A New Brain by William Finn. Though in a distinctly Broadway idiom, it was comprehensible in emotional terms, both verbally and musically, and was presented in a comfortable, idiomatic manner. This was the last song in which Blue Notes sang by themselves.

There were two songs by Jeffrey Derus. Afternoon on a Hill was listed as a premiere, but I came across it in a YouTube clip – to a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay whose name was familiar from my student years. A harmonically dense, complex song, it nevertheless communicated a joy in open spaces, offering a fine demonstration of the choir’s versatility, tonal and dynamic flexibility.

The concert was dedicated to the memory of Evelyn Tuuta. She was one of the first people Stamper met in Wellington, and she gave him the words and tune, ‘Hutia te rito’. It was to become the basis for Stamper’s desire to bring the music of America and the Maori people together, with a special commission, a project that he discussed with American composer Zachary Moore.

Inspirare’s website records Stamper’s account of the piece’s origin:
For our Inaugural concert, we wanted to bring together the previous world of the conductor (America) with his new world in New Zealand. What better way to do that, than to have an American composer arrange a Maori tune and text for Inspirare. Zachary J, Moore was commissioned to use this tune, with the permission of Evelyn Tuuta’s iwi and the blessing of the Maori Language Commission of New Zealand. He utilised this tune, wrote a new one as well and then juxtaposed them into a wonderful setting for SATB, piano and percussion. The piece features several soloists, along with the rich harmonies of the ensemble. Hutia te rito has been published and is available for sale.

The welding together of the Maori element and these words helped shape Inspirare’s first concert, in 2016.

The title refers to the growing stem of harakeke (New Zealand flax), and a website gives the translation:

“Pull out the shoot,
Pull out the shoot of the flax bush
Where will the bellbird sing?
Say to me
What is the greatest thing?
What is the greatest thing in this world?
I will say
The people! The people! The people!”

As well as the choir, two solo voices contributed: Megan Corby and Isaac Stone; and Jacob Randall, James Fuller and Nathan Carter performed on drum, maracas and cymbal.

The result, the combination of music that was characteristic of both the Maori and American spirit lent the piece a particularly strong individuality: not setting out to demonstrate compositional sophistication or to formulate a complex philosophical statement, but to express a fundamental human truism, from which an elementary emotional quality emerged.

Derus’s other song, If I could give, was another commission by Inspirare whose website records remarks by the composer:
‘If I Could Give’ offers a simple message: “To live life to fullest, conquer yours dreams, and hold each treasured moment close”. Collaborating with my dear friend and poet, Courtney Prather, we created a work that is infused with adventure and the exploration of dreams. Mark Stamper, artistic director of Inspirare, and I chose to incorporate piano and cello with the remarkable sound of Inspirare to develop a piece that will end the concert. My musical concept was inspired by the idea of taking snapshots of a persons life by giving a distinctive motive for each stanza of text. I am honoured to collaborate with Mark and Courtney on “If I Could Give” and eagerly await its world premiere in November 2017.

The cellist was again Benny Sneyd-Utting, with Fiona McCabe’s piano accompaniment. A reflective tone, unpretentious and involving, gave the song an immediacy, in which a depth of emotion was an artless product of all the varied vocal colours and dynamics that the choir commands.

But it wasn’t the final piece. That was ‘The Promise of Living’ which ends Act I of Copland’s opera The Tender Land.  Though it was slow to make much of an impression after its 1950s premiere, its modest musical strengths have steadily taken root, particularly around the time of the Copland centenary in 2000.

The accompaniment was from the piano duet of Fiona McCabe and Rachel Thomson; Blue Notes choir returned and took their places intermingling with their older colleagues. Male voices here were particularly impressive and the duets, the larger ensembles and even individual voices translated very successfully for a relatively small choir though naturally, it hardly rendered the interaction between individuals who sing in the original score. The traditional end-of-act-one finale built steadily to, perhaps not a Rossini climax but a very satisfying end that is likely to have encouraged audience members to explore the opera.

Apart from the emergence of an enterprising professional choir in the city, Mark Stamper’s efforts also bring to our attention several unfamiliar (to me at least) United States composers, and the existence of a strong choral tradition that is producing a great deal of surprisingly challenging, but also approachable, attractive music in his country.