Tudor Consort successfully aligns Easter concert with ending of World War I

The Tudor Consort, conducted by Michael Stewart, with Milla Dickens, soprano, and Richard Apperley, organ (As the leaves fall)
‘Music for Holy Week: Eternal Sacrifice’

Purcell: Hear my Prayer, O Lord
Parry: Songs of Farewell (Six Songs. or Motets, interspersed throughout)
Byrd: Miserere mei, Deus
Harold Darke: As the leaves fall
Gibbons: Drop, drop, slow tears
Weelkes: When David heard
Poems by Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Saturday, 30 March 2018, 7:30 pm

As Michael Stewart explained in his pre-concert talk, in considering music for the yearly Good Friday concert, he had the idea of aligning music for Holy Week with music marking the end of World War I. Therefore he chose appropriate music written during that war, and interspersed it with music of earlier times written by English composers, and with poems written by two poets of the Great War. All this made for a very interesting programme.

Hubert Parry has perhaps tended to be regarded as a minor figure: very much of his  age – late Victorian and Edwardian, and the composer of the famous Jerusalem (‘And did those feet in ancient time…’), the lovely hymn tune Repton (‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind…’), the anthem I was glad, composed for King Edward VII’s coronation, and other choral pieces well-known in Anglican choirs. Tonight was quite a revelation – of the range, skill, and modernity of his choral writing.

Parry became director of the Royal College of Music in London, and professor of music at Oxford University. Stewart (and Grove’s Dictionary) stated that Parry had revitalised music in the United Kingdom, which had reached a low ebb. He was involved in teaching, among others, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst, both of whom made a huge contribution to British music. Another claim to fame was his  assistance to George Grove in 1877, in the compilation of the latter’s massive Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

Given a small choir performing, able to use the resonance of the cathedral to its advantage, there was not the problem with clarity of words that there can be with a larger body of singers.

As one who had studied in Germany, to Parry, war between Britain and Germany was unthinkable. When it occurred, with its tremendous loss of life, including among music students of his, he was deeply shocked and horrified. This is reflected in the Songs of Farewell, written between 1916 and 1918, the year of his death, not least in the poetry he chose to set..

As usual, printed programmes were on A4 paper, with print large enough for the words to be read during the concert, thanks to sufficient lighting. Dates for all the composers and poets were given, and the words of the songs were printed. (Other choirs please copy these exemplary practices).

​The opening Purcell Psalm verse was grave and quiet, with exemplary tone; dynamics were beautifully managed. The poem Anthem for doomed youth by Wilfred (not Wilfrid) Owen was read immediately after, giving point through the well-known opening words: ‘What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?’ And the last line: ‘And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds’.

The first two Parry songs followed, the first a setting of the wonderful poem by Henry  Vaughan, one of the 17th century, metaphysical poets: ‘My soul, there is a country Far beyond the  stars’, which I memorised when a student. Its emphasis on peace was very telling in  this context. While the words have their own beauty, the unaccompanied setting did  not take from this euphony. Especially at the beginning, the piece was rather typical  English part-song – but no worse for that – the setting of words was very fine.

The next song, I know my soul hath power to know all things was attractive and  expressive, in a homophonic setting, in contrast to the greater intricacies of the first  song. It was followed by Byrd’s Miserere. (The more famous Allegri setting had  been on the radio that afternoon, as had Tudor Consort’s Good Friday concert from  2017). The superb polyphony was brought out by the singing, nevertheless all the  voices were skilfully blended.

Another Owen poem followed: ‘Greater love’, then the next Parry song Never weather-beaten sail, with words by Shakespearean-era poet Thomas Campion. The  setting was appropriate for these words and their period. It differed in mood from the earlier songs, and featured lovely harmony. The second verse’s words about ‘high Paradise’ were set to soaring phrases; a glorious song.

The last work before the interval was the only one featuring extended vocal solo from Milla Dickens, and also organ, by Richard Apperley. Harold Darke, who died in 1976 after a long life, was a well-known British organist and composer. He is widely known mainly for his setting of the carol In the bleak midwinter. The poem As the leaves fall was written in 1916 by Lieutenant Joseph Courtney, as a very young man. Heart-wrenching it is, particularly in the words addressed to mothers and maidens, for the loss of the male youth. The song began with a long organ introduction. Throughout, the organ part was interesting and varied.

Choir and solo soprano alternated, and sometimes sang together, reaching a climax in the final section, triumphantly proclaiming confidently ‘There is no death…’. This was quite an unusual, lengthy work that had considerable impact.

After the interval, Gibbons’s simple but sublime Song 46: Drop. Drop slow tears was simply gorgeous. (There is also a beautiful anthem on these words by New Zealander Richard Madden.) It was followed by a tragic wartime poem by Siegfried Sassoon: ‘Suicide in the Trenches’. Back to Parry, and There is an old belief. This received a very imaginative setting, and gave the impression of being difficult to sing. While expressing hope in heaven, the nineteenth-century poet John Gibson Lockhart seemed unsure about the hope, ending his poem ‘Eternal be the sleep If not to waken so’ (i.e. waken in the creed of life ‘Beyond the sphere of Time’).

Hearty lunchtime fare at St.Andrew’s with Beethoven and Gershwin

St.Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series presents:
BEETHOVEN – Kreutzer Sonata (Violin Sonata No.9 in A Major Op.47)
GERSHWIN (arr. Heifetz) Summertime / It Ain’t Necessarily So (from “Porgy and Bess”)

Carolyn van Leuven (violin)
Catherine Norton (piano)

St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace

Wednesday 28th March, 2018

Guest reviewer – Christina Wells

Wednesday’s lunchtime saw a good crowd at St. Andrew’s Church, all looking forward to hearing a performance of the superlative “Kreutzer” Sonata by Beethoven, for violin and piano. We were warned at the outset by violinist Caroline van Leuven that it was “vigorous stuff” and that we were to “hold onto” our hats!

The sonata was delivered with plenty of fire from the violinist and matched in spunk and spirit by pianist Catherine Norton. From the opening strings’ double-stopping, answered by the piano, the expectancy was created, and then the tentativeness shaken off – and so we were away!

In places it was a bit of a rough-round-the-edges ride, with the violin’s intonation not always completely secure, especially in the instrument’s upper reaches – nevertheless this was more than made up for in intensity and physicality of expression. We heard various instances of rapt stillness in places in the first movement, the ghostly withdrawn passages coming off with a particular depth of feeling – and at the other end of the spectrum, we enjoyed the stylish elan of the pizzicato playing to match the showy piano displays. Overall the violin part was resplendently delivered and caught the spirit of the piece, while Catherine Norton’s playing was strong and sensitive by turns throughout, delivering cascades of sound and colour.

The piano-only introduction to the second movement was notable for the care with which every note was sculptured and “placed” by Norton, the phrasing strongly-focused and sensitively shaped. This introduction formed the basis for a set of variations to follow. The first was playful, while the second featured a quirky jog-trot rhythm, each rendition, while not entirely tidily delivered, giving pleasure in its characterisation. Then came a lovely variation in a minor key with beautifully weighted question-and- answer exchanges. Both pianist and violinist exhibited a winsome feeling for the thoughtful mood of the sequence, giving us in places some singing tones and beautifully-sustained sounds.

The violinist was occasionally challenged by the difficulty of the rapid figurations in other places, but sustained the grander moments with conviction, aided by the steadfastness of her partner. Beethoven’s volatile invention took us from jollity to playfulness through wonderment and deep sonority. With such roistering physicality created by the players’ exchanges, this became a true partnership sonata.

The third and last movement carried this style forward, with scampering violin passage work matched by demanding, deftly-played piano figurations. Phrase was answered by phrase, with a whole world of expression created by the composer, here sensitive and suggestive, and in other places bold and boisterous. We marvelled at the energy and drive of it all, the thrills and spills of the execution matched by the obvious impression that the performers “knew how the music should go”. It felt like a true achievement, and the audience responded with enthusiasm and approval when all was done.

The Gershwin was a change of pace entirely, the first piece “Summertime” delivered with a suggestive and ladened style of a blues violinist. The playing was sultry, languid and expansive, and took the instrumentalists’ sounds into entirely new regions. Catherine Norton’s accompaniment was suitably slow-breathed and patiently controlled, in tandem with her partner.

“It Ain’t Necessarily So” was also delivered with plenty of awareness of the original’s atmosphere and context. Sleazy and insinuating at first, the music caught us up in the rapid-fire middle section. here delivered with plenty of volatility. Both musicians seemed to occasionally have to jump through hoops in their pursuit of the transcriptions’ Janus-faced depictions of both messenger and message, but each carried it off right to the end.

Brilliance and feeling from the Mazzoli Trio at Lower Hutt

Chamber Music Hutt Valley presents:


Julie Park (viola), Sally Kim (‘cello), Shauno Isomura (violin)

SCHUBERT –  Trio in B-flat Major D.471
A. RITCHIE – Spring String Trio (2013)
FRANCAIX – String Trio (1933)
MISSY MAZZOLI – Lies You Can Believe In (2006)
HAYDN – Trio in G Major Op.53/1
DOHNANYI – Serenade Op.10

Lower Hutt Little Theatre,

Monday, 26th March 2018

Formed in 2015 by students from the University of Auckland and the Pettman National Junior Academy of Music, the Mazzoli Trio, so the story goes, took its name from that of a composer of a piece of music which was one of the first the trio of musicians had prepared. They had fallen in love with the piece, one called “Lies You Can Believe In”, written by up-and-coming New York composer Missy Mazzoli, and thereupon contacted her to ask if she would allow the Trio to use her name, as well as perform her music. And so a new and vital ensemble was born, with its first major assignment in public an invitation to perform at a concert at the 2nd International Pacific Alliance of Music Schools’ Summit in Beijing, China, an occasion which brought them much acclaim regarding both their playing and the repertoire chosen.

Monday evening’s concert at the Lower Hutt Little Theatre was one of a number of appearances by the Trio throughout the North Island organised by Chamber Music New Zealand. The programme seemed a judiciously chosen selection of works both familiar and intriguing, with the Trio’s “signature work”, by Missy Mazzoli, promising to be one of the evening’s particular fascinations. Interestingly, both halves of the concert had their order as per programme changed, which left me to wonder whether there had been a simple misunderstanding between the musicians and the printers, or, alternatively represented a significant rethink by the musicians of a previously existing order. Whatever the case, it made not the slightest difference to our anticipated enjoyment and receptivity of the concert.

So, instead of beginning the evening’s music with Anthony Ritchie’s “Spring String Trio”, we heard instead Schubert’s B-flat Major Trio D.471, a work in a single movement, which was played with such freshness and simplicity of wide-eyed wonderment that our hearts were instantly captured. What struck me instantly about the playing was that, despite the Trio’s obvious youth the music-making was imbued with such character. Part of this came from the players’ awareness of the interactiveness of the different instruments, each ready to assert and then give way, beautifully dovetailing the various musical arguments, and delighting the ear in doing so. We enjoyed the “shape” of the piece, its vivid contourings through the opening’s lyricism and contrasting dynamism, and the music’s intensification throughout the development, before the eventual “unravelling” of these tensions, instigated by the opening’s reprise via its warmth and familiarity. I thought the playing most importantly caught that unique Schubertian mix of charm, sunniness and tension which characterises his music.

I must admit to being intrigued at Anthony Ritchie’s work having been, according to the programme, the result of a commission concerning none other than (Sir) Robert Jones, somebody about whom I have very few positive feelings – however, I suppose composers have to earn a living! Banishing all thoughts of the association from my mind I settled down to enjoy the music, and was straightaway drawn into a dark-browed world of almost Shostakovich-like angst, a kind of “charged calmness”, out of which grew structured, contrapuntal exchanges almost baroque-like in their ordering, with everything creating a real sense of expectation, both in a formal and emotional sense.

This feeling bore fruit with the players’ energetic launching of vigorous, almost hoe-down-like passages, which in places either “took to the road” or drew from the irresistible momentum of a steam train (the music’s motoric quality not surprising in a composer with avowed admiration for Shostakovich’s music), a sequence which, after taking us places most exhilaratingly suddenly ceased its physicalities and became thoughtful and even melancholic. By this time, I was completely at the mercy of the music-making, drawn in by these musicians’ concentration and focus, the instrumental tones here given increasing weight and strength as to achieve a splendid kind of apotheosis, with the composer seemingly bringing the work’s essential elements triumphantly together at the conclusion, before cheekily throwing the last bars to the four winds! – great stuff!

Even cheekier entertainment was provided by French composer Jean Francaix (1912-1997), whose music was described most aptly in the programme as having “wit, lightness and a conversational interplay”. Writing his first pieces at the age of six, he once remarked that he was “constantly composing” and over the course of his long life wrote over two hundred pieces in a variety of styles and genres. His String Trio of 1933 began with hide-and-seek scamperings expressed in largely will-o’the-wisp tones, the instruments occasionally showing their faces and striking attitudes in mock-seriousness, before grinning impudently and skipping out of reach once more, the movement finishing on a po-faced pizzicato note.

The Scherzo presented itself as a wild, lurching waltz, replete with impish mischief and surprising orchestral-like effects, such as sharp-edged pizzicati that made one jump! The musicians entered into the music’s spirit with great relish, bringing out both the contrasting episodes of melancholy hand-in-glove with their humorous undersides – at one stage the sounds resembled instruments duelling with pizzicato notes – “Take that! – and that! – and THAT!”. The Andante which followed made a wistful, melancholic impression, with the violinist’s instrument singing disconsolately, while being rocked and comforted by the viola and ‘cello.  The melody was taken over by the cello and counterpointed by the viola, giving rise to sounds and feelings of a great loveliness – for whatever reason I was put in mind of Vaughan Williams’ music, by way of imagining the music written with the viola as the leading voice.

The Rondo finale, marked “Vivo”, wasted no time in making its presence felt, with great dynamics at the outset, and the composer’s singular invention regarding the accompanying rhythms leaving us wondering what to expect and where to be taken next! A bout of upper-register exploration left the music momentarily frightened by its own angsts, before emerging, albeit a little cautiously, from its own melt-down, the viola taking the initiative and restoring control and morale, leading the music into and through a mock-march of triumph, with (one senses) no prisoners being taken!

After the interval, we were told of another “running order” change to the programme, the last being made first this time round, with the piece written by the Trio’s namesake, Missy Mazzoli, divertingly called “Lies You Can Believe In”, beginning the concert’s second half. Called by its composer “An improvisatory tale”, the music draws from what the composer calls “the violence, energy and rare calm one finds in a city”. Written in 2006 for a Milwaukee-based ensemble, Present Music, the piece seems to throw everything within reach at the listener by way of introduction, the rhythms fierce, driving and syncopated, the lines both focusing and blurring the laser-like unisons, which disconcert by unexpectedly melting into warm and fruity expressions of melancholy. The Trio’s total involvement with this material swept our sensibilities up into its maelstrom of variety, with all the aforementioned characteristics the composer required of the piece’s presentation.

In tandem with the driving rhythms and spiky accents come lyrical instrumental solos – one for the ‘cello at first and then another for the viola – contributing to the music’s volatility and echoing the ambiguities of the piece’s title. There’s even a “twilight-zone” sequence of eerie, other-worldly harmonics, as the instruments move the music through a kind of wasteland, one which suddenly explodes into life with “Grosse Fugue-like” driving syncopations, the cello playing a sinuously exotic, decadently sliding theme as its companions push the repeated notes along. In characteristic fashion it all comes to an end as the rhythms become disjointed and break up, taking their leave of us with a rhythmically curt unison gesture. Whether we’d made sense of what we’d been through suddenly seemed less to matter than the experience itself, as Alan Jay Lerner put it in “My Fair Lady”, a heady sample of “humanity’s mad, inhuman noise”.

Perhaps some eighteenth-century sensibilities thought much the same of some of Josef Haydn’s more original manifestations of creativity, such as with his String Trio Op.53 No.1 (actually a transcription of the Piano Sonata Hob.XV1:40/1). At the outset the music breathes out-of-doors country pleasures, the aristocracy amusing themselves at play, though the music’s minor-key change midway the first movement readily suggests “trouble at mill”, with its range of outward emotion, the players here making the most of the contrast between whole-hearted expressiveness and near-furtive withdrawal of tones. When the graceful dance returned I thought the cellist so very expressive in her music-making gestures, bringing it all so vividly to life, as did her companions during the music’s precipitious return to the previous agitations, and the gentle gathering-up of fraught sensibilities – wonderfully soft playing from all concerned!

The second movement’s scampering presto immediately reminded me of the finale of the composer’s C-Major ‘Cello Concerto, the musicians’ soft, rapid playing a tantalising joy! Of course these would have been brilliantly effective on the keyboard as well, but the extra colour and textural contrasts afforded by the trio brought special delight, with the rhythmic syncopations deliciously underlined. In this way, the work was brought to a rousing conclusion which we in the audience thoroughly relished.

There remained of this well-stocked programme a work by Ernst von Dohnanyi, best-known to an earlier generation by his work for piano and orchestra “Variations on a Nursery Theme”, but more recently for his chamber music. Feted as a virtuoso pianist in his youth, Dohnanyi soon took up composition, influenced mostly by the work of Brahms and the German romantics, though he was to promote the music and activities of his fellow Hungarian composers, Bartok and Kodaly while teaching at the Budapest Academy. Differences with both pre- and post-War regimes in Hungary forced him into exile, firstly in Argentina, and then in the United States, where he took out citizenship and remained for the rest of his life.

His five-movement Serenade for String Trio, dating from 1902/3, was one of the first works in which Dohnanyi felt his own voice had properly sounded, rather less in thrall to late-Romantic models, and with touches of the “real” Hungarian folk-music influence that Bartok and Kodaly would soon begin to explore in earnest. Right at the beginning of the opening March, the music sounded like a Hungarian Brahms, with rather more of the former than the latter, flavoursome folk-fiddle treatment of the material from violin and ‘cello, and a drone-accompaniment from the viola. A soft pizzicato dance accompanied a beautifully folkish, Kodaly-like melody from the viola, the instrument then accompanying its companions’ heartfelt dialogues with evocative arpeggio-like figurations  resembling those of the solo viola in Berlioz’s “Harold in Italy”.

Mischievous fugal-like scurryings of different lines from all three instruments began the scherzo, which occasionally brought the voices together in fierce unisons. The trio section’s graceful, song-like measures, reminiscent of Schubert’s music for “Rosamunde” in places featured some affectionately-sounded dovetailings, reflecting the music-making’s warmly co-operative aspect.

In the slow movement’s Theme and Variations, the opening was presented to us as “a special moment gone somehow wrong”, the melody attempting to keep its poise and grace, but darkening in mood at its end. The variations exhibited plenty of character and differently-focused purpose, seemingly running the emotional gamut from agitation and fright to tremulous melancholy. After these angsts we needed the jollity of the finale’s opening to return us to our lives – and here the playing brought out both the girth and the grace of the dancers, as well as excitingly varying the pulse and pace of the music. Eventually the sounds cycled all the way back to the work’s richly Magyar opening, thus binding the work and its singular ambiences of unique expression together. What playing from these people! – so very youthful and energetic, while commanding responses to the music of such warmth and understanding and character.


New Zealand String Quartet at Waikanae deliver major works with assurance, passion, delicacy

New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl, Monique Lapins, violins; Gillian Ansell, viola; Rolf Gjelsten, cello)
(Waikanae Music Society)

Schubert: String Quartet in C minor, “Quartettsatz”
Debussy: String Quartet in G minor, Op.10
Beethoven: String Quartet in E flat, Op.127

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 25 March 2018, 2.30pm

How fortunate we are to have such a fine quartet performing to us frequently!  They are national treasures – worth their weight in gold.  And that is how they appeared at this concert: in new, gold encrusted outfits.  In Rolf Gjelsten’s case it was restricted to his tie, but the women’s tops were much more flashy – but not so much as to be a distraction from the wonderful music performed.

The order of the works was changed from that printed in the programme, and began, rather than with the Beethoven, with the shortest item: Schubert’s lovely single movement quartet.  As always with Schubert, this was a highly melodic work.  The extent of his invention leaves one astonished.  The players also astonished, with the delicacy but clarity of their pianissimo playing.  Every delicious detail was brought out by these highly accomplished musicians.  The lyrical music was mainly in a joyous mood, but tinged with melancholy.  The short, lovely quartet is a great introduction for people not familiar with chamber music.

The Debussy quartet was in quite a different language.  Use of modes and of gamelan influences are among his innovations.  The latter (gamelan) music he would have heard at the great Paris Exhibition of 1889, four years before the quartet’s composition.  This was quite a distance from the German music which had dominated European music for most of the century.

This year is the centenary of the composer’s death, so a lot of his music is being programmed and broadcast.  The first movement of his only quartet, marked animé et très décidé, is based on a single melody; indeed, it is used throughout the work.  After an emphatic, concerted opening, many refined elements appeared on individual instruments, varying from delicacy to firm and strong, to excited.

The second movement, assez vif et bien rythmé, begins strikingly with a repetitive melody on the viola and a pizzicato accompaniment from the other instruments.  The first violin then took over the melody, followed by the cello.  A mysterious quality came over the music, which had been quite emphatic, sliding chromatically.  Bold statements intersected a shimmering accompaniment, then the pizzicato returned for all players.  The movement was enchanting in its effect.

The slow movement is marked andantino, doucement expressif.  A slow, thoughtful movement, it featured the use of mutes early on, and again towards the end.  There were frequent viola solos based on the quartet’s main theme.  Use of the deepest cello notes was significant.

The finale is marked très modéré.  It illustrated again how different are the musical colours, rhythms and textures in this work from those in the compositions of Schubert and Beethoven.  The movement had a level of gaiety not apparent in the earlier movements; in fact, it became frenetic at times, despite the tempo marking.

These musicians all play with assurance and deep familiarity with the music.  The playing is in no way pedestrian; all is pointed, intense and significant.  The lovely final chords completed this stunning performance.

Beethoven’s late quartets are pinnacles in music history; their profundity, moods, melodies and unflinching confrontation of despair and infirmity are without precedent – or successors.  This, the first of these late quartets, like its fellows, larger in scale than previous compositions in this form.

As with the other works, the brief spoken introduction by a member of the quartet (this time, Rolf Gjelsten) was informative and illuminating, without being too long.

As a portent of its scale and solemnity, the first movement is marked maestoso – allegro.  The majesty of the opening soon gives way to an allegro of interweaving parts; the opening passages return several times.  This was playing on a grand scale, with splendid tone.  It had great impetus, constantly driving forward, yet with subtle variation of dynamics and tone.

The slow movement, adagio, ma non troppo e molto cantabile, is a set of variations, but not in an obvious way – these were subtle and indirect in their manner; shifting harmonies accompanied beautiful, contemplative melodies.  While mainly restrained and elegant, the music was passionate at times, including a contrasting short, jolly, highly rhythmic dance-like middle section..

This was a long movement, with its variations on the main themes.  The return to the sombre mood came with the melody initially on the first violin and staccato accompaniment.  Then the viola takes it up, followed by a return to the violin.  It is intense yet eager music, full of twists and turns.

At last the scherzando vivace third movement arrives, to relieve our dark mood.  Its playful dance is quick; its rhythm creates a liveliness that makes the music less profound than that in the other movements.  It is still complex in places, however.

The finale is fast, with a positive and emphatic mood.  It makes its way through different keys and tempi, and grand statements, to proclamations of great confidence, a virtuoso ending and jubilant final chords.


Camerata’s “Haydn in the Church” series throws open the leadlights

Camerata presents:

HAYDN – Symphony No.7 in C Major Hob:1/7 “Le Midi” (Noon)
DVORAK – Serenade in E Major for String Orchestra Op.22

(Leader, Anne Loeser)

St Mary of the Angels Church, Wellington

Friday 23rd March 2018

Venues for concerts are obviously part-and-parcel of the experience of listening to and enjoying live music. They can be relatively unobtrusive, allowing the audience’s attention to focus primarily on the musicians and their playing of the music; or they can provide “added value” to the experience, either visually or acoustically – in the happiest of cases both the concert’s sight and sound are positively enhanced by the surroundings.

These musings were inspired by my attending the latest concert presented by Camerata, which took place in the recently refurbished church of St.Mary of the Angels in Wellington. Since its formation in 2015, Camerata has mostly alternated performances between different churches, as befitted its “Haydn in the Church” Series featuring the rarely-performed early Haydn Symphonies. I’ve previously attended the ensemble’s St.Peters-on-Willis concert in 2016, at which the delicious Symphony No.3 in G Hob:1/3 was given, in what sounded to my ears like an ideal performing environment for this music. I was disappointed not to be assigned by “Middle C” the task of reviewing the group’s next concert, in the same venue the following year, as much for the repertoire (including Haydn’s Symphony No.4 in D Major Hob:1/4) as for its performance and its
attendant ambiences.

Still, I did get to hear Camerata’s “take” on Symphony No. 6 in D Major Hob:1/6 “Le Matin” (Morning), later in 2017 – I assumed that the concert didn’t have a “Haydn in the Church” subtitle this time round  because of the venue chosen (the Adam Concert Room at Victoria University’s NZ School of Music), due to the programming of a Mozart piano concerto, which required an instrument not readily available in most churches. However, the series had its subtitle restored for the ensemble’s most recent concert, featuring Haydn’s Symphony No.7 in C Major Hob:1/7, whose nickname “Le Midi” (Midday) carries the “day” theme forward from the previous work’s  “Le Matin” (Morning). And the venue was the aforementioned St.Mary of the Angels church in Boulcott St.

I’d heard, pre-concert, that the group was looking forward to the occasion because of what was called the “stunning” acoustics of the venue evident at rehearsal – certainly the opening chords of the Haydn Symphony which began the concert had a warmth and bloom which arrested the ear, and these same things were carried over to most of what followed. I will, however, risk sacrilege (appropriately) by saying that I thought the St. Mary’s acoustic a shade TOO ample for some of the quicker music’s clarity to come through, and that I did prefer, by a whisker, the sound that I heard at the St.Peter’s-on-Willis venue, with its greater immediacy (players and audience much closer together there, as well).

Having gotten that nit-picking and admittedly subjective remark off my chest, I can proceed with a clear conscience, reporting that the instruments throughout the work’s introduction sounded fabulous, horns rich and rounded, winds very open-air, and strings warm and resonant. The ensuing quicker music did bring out the spaces’ reverberation, but not excessively so – the playing’s dynamics still came across as varied and impactful, with the sound in tutti having splendid girth.

For the slow movement, Recitativo/Adagio, the horns were supplanted (if that’s the right word!) by flutes, whose colourings took on a kind of celestial resonance in places, the acoustic’s generosity here working to the music’s advantage. Leader Anne Loeser’s solo violin was kept busy throughout with expressive oboe-supported recitatives, alternating at one point with uncannily Vivaldi-like passages from the strings, and then taking up some heartfelt duetting with the solo cello (lovely work from both Loeser and Ken Ichinose) – the music alternating moments of enchantment with more vigorous and determined purpose, as if telling a kind of story with descriptive asides.

As befitted the vigorous, out-of-doors aspect of the music, the horns returned for the Minuet, the opening having a splendid muscular “strut” befitting a dance, while the horns’ “echo” phrases, together with the oboes, gave the vistas plenty of spacious ambience. The Trio of the work gave particular pleasure due to the magnificent playing of the double bass soloist, Matthew Cave, who, accompanied discreetly by strings and oboes, and later, the horns, exhibited both technical dexterity and a singular feel for the shape and flow of his sometimes angular figurations.

The finale was launched most spiritedly by a pair of violins, exchanging phrases with the whole ensemble, and then handing over to the flutist, who had rejoined the band, and who, hardly able to believe her luck, executed several most exuberant-sounding runs before being “caught up” by the ensemble. The music was filled with wit and fun, amid several dynamic and textural surprises, horns and oboes having turns to shine with their pairings in thirds, and the flute (Karen Batten in sparkling form) in places quite irrepressible! After the repeats had given us great delight all over again, the strings finally took control, amid whooping horns and piping winds whirling the music to its conclusion!

From Haydn to Dvorak there’s a hundred-plus years of profound political, social and artistic change, which one might think would engender a chalk-and-cheese kind of difference in their music. But both composers could summons up a bracing, out-of-doors kind of expressive mode alongside their more formal structural inclinations, which gave some commonality of spirit to both the symphony we’d just heard, and Dvorak’s lovely, and in places wonderfully air-borne Serenade for Strings.

Dvorak wrote the work during a particularly happy period of his life, and the music displays this contentment in no uncertain terms – at the very beginning of the work the players ”enabled” rather than began the work, it seemed, with the acoustic both helping to fill out the more full-throated phrases and imparting a mystical halo of sound to the softer sequences. The gently-dancing second subject had grace and poise, varying the trajectories sufficiently for the return of the opening to be a most winning moment.  By contrast with all of this, the second movement was a Waltz, one whose first section was quizzically constructed of five-bar phrases, though containing nothing that any dancers would trip or stumble over – the playing readily evoked the exhilarating swirl of bodies in partnership, with the high string notes always sweet, never strident. A more conventionally-paced Trio section inspired some tenderly-phrased and nicely gradated playing, the sequences beautifully “nudged” in places for a more impulsive effect.

The ‘cellos excitingly hit the ground running with their opening notes of the Scherzo, whose “terraced” scoring created different spaces and vistas between the music’s lines, while the playing’s more circumspect treatment of the second subject imparted a lovely lilt to the music along with a tinge of regret. In the Trio, with its broader phrases, I would have liked more elbow-room allowed those downward intervals at the phrase-ends, instead of the “snap” treatment they were given – to my ears the effect was rather severe, instead of the feeling of poignant regret a gentler descent each time would have imparted. I did, however, note that the composer’s instructions were for the trio’s music to be played without any lessening of tempo…… (“Bah! – composers! – what do they know?” I sometimes find myself thinking at moments like these!).

I thought the slow movement’s opening lines very Tchaikovsky-like, so very beautiful – and especially so here, with the music’s heartfelt reaching towards the tops of the phrases, followed by their dying fall. The cellos take up the melody’s reprise so very eloquently, after which the violins “prepare” for their final ascent with focused, and finely-gradated purpose, before singing the great arched-over contourings for all they’re worth! – a wonderful moment! After this the gentle final undulations concluded the movement with a simple gravitas all of their own.

The “snap” of the opening kicked in the finale’s music excitingly, despite the instruments being not quite together, to my ears, the first time round (amends were naturally made a second time!) Anne Loeser had told us in her introductory remarks that the composer was fond of trains for practically all of his life – and perhaps in this movement it’s possible to imagine that the sequences of repeated rhythmic figures which build excitingly over a repeated droning note towards a rip-snorting climax might be mimicking the sounds of an approaching steam engine. Whatever the case, the ensemble bent their backs towards giving both this passage and the syncopated rhythms of the second subject group plenty of “grunt” –  the glow imparted by the excitement gave the reprise of the work’s very opening a melting homecoming quality, at once drenched with sentiment and perfectly poised. It enabling the coda proper to burst in and carry away our sensibilities in a flurry of energetic excitement and exhilaration – “an expression of happiness so intense it sometimes brings tears”, as a commentator whose words I once read long ago said of one of Dvorak’s pieces. It was that kind of intensity that helped to make Camerata’s playing throughout this concert such a memorable experience.

Intriguing improvisatory performances by Robbie Duncan and Bernard Wells at St Andrew’s

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts
Sonic explorations – original music for guitar and piano

Robbie Duncan (guitar, effects) and Bernard Wells (piano, keyboard)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 21 March 12:15 pm

This is a belated, ‘sort-of’ review of the St Andrew’s concert on Wednesday 21 March. So I have filed it out of date order for a few days so that it will be noticed.

I didn’t arrive at the concert till after 12.30; the first few minutes were spent tuning my head to the sounds and to the character of the playing, and trying to sense the players’ personalities and that of the music, so I lost further time before my receptors were working properly. Nevertheless, from the start, I felt in the presence of genuine, serious and imaginative music making. For one who has neither been gifted with nor been able to cultivate improvisatory musical abilites, these gifts in others have always seemed to be a kind of magic making.

Improvisatory talent is not especially rare, but as with every kind of art, the degree of talent varies hugely.

Being rather unfamiliar with the language of jazz commentary, I had initially decided that I couldn’t offer any kind of sensible review. But I gathered that guitarist Robbie Duncan had spoken interestingly and perceptively at the start of the concert; and because I had found the performances more than commonly interesting, I decided to ask whether Robbie could send me an outline of what he (they?) had said. The indirect email messages between us took some time to get through however, and so this is two weeks late.

Robbie began by remarking on the sound qualities of the church, noting that for many years he had used digital emulations of a natural reverberation in recording music. “Now at St Andrews we get to play with the real thing – a beautiful natural reverb, and a real Steinway piano.” Now they could play into and work with the natural reverberation, “allowing silence and space be part of the music”.

Then he touched on the nature of extemporisation as it is more commonly called in classical music. “Not all music has to be written down”, he said. “Jamming is what some musicians do purely for fun – it can be a social activity that those with the language and the interpersonal skills can do simply for fun. Listening is as important as speaking.”

“The scary thing is taking it into the public domain”, he said, likening the process to quantum physics where the observer (the audience) changes the outcome.

“I was initially introduced to improvisation in the 70’s by a Wellington band named Highway, and was then was inspired by Keith Jarrett’s solo piano playing where he would just make it up –  the music has a flow and a trajectory of its own.”

Then he turned to the music that they had played in the concert. “The first piece we played was to settle us down and to tune us into the sound, the acoustic space and to each other. The piece East Cape originated from a back injury I had sustained.” He found that through being in constant pain his guitar playing would speed up, and East Cape was composed with the intention of slowing himself down, with pauses, “where I could remember my breathing and reset myself tempo-wise”.

“The second and third pieces were totally improvised; we knew the start point – that is, the guitar tuning – but from there the music has a life of its own.

Improvising is all about the present moment, he said: relying on both the conscious and the subconscious mind. But more, he suggested, by the unconscious, “for by the time you have analyzed what the other musician is playing the moment has gone – for me, I just have to trust my fingers will know what to do”.

“For me this is extreme sport for musicians – there is no pre-planned structure, It’s like surfing  – you catch the wave and flow with it – sometimes you fall off but that creates the space for the next wave and the next wave.”

Another analogy would be like a dance, Robbie remarked; “sometimes one leads and sometimes one follows”.

Then he touched on his role as master of ‘effects’. “I used the ‘Empress’ echo system for the guitar effects – I believe our brains subliminally like the subtle tensions which can be created both rhythmically and harmonically.”

And unorthodox tunings also featured. He is exploring alternative tunings.
“Creating a new tuning means you can’t play your usual chords or scales,” meaning the fingers don’t instinctively go to the right places on the finger board. “It forces me as a guitar player to develop a new vocabulary, and each new tuning creates a constraint within which to work.”

Bernard responded a bit later to my approach, offering comments on the art of improvisation, and specifically on their own approach to it. He stressed that they practise together to make ‘composition in the moment’ a conscious process, “a dialogue that can continue in conversation long after we have stopped playing! There is however, always an unconscious or intuitive element entering when we play”.

All sorts of different music can be their point of departure, and he mentions everything from Gregorian Chant, through Renaissance and Baroque music to dance traditions, popular songs, jazz….

The process of improvisation “can begin with a meditative, spiritual aspect, a sense of listening to something outside ourselves (the music of the spheres or sensing a ‘potential for music’) that is always there, waiting to manifest through musicians in the physical world”.

The spiritual element begins, he says, “with musicians and the audience in silence and involves trust that we will somehow begin and honour this creative process through to its completion”.

Bernard then described the different or additional challenges with collective improvisation: “We adapt our individual styles to the fact that we are often improvising together and we thus play perhaps fewer notes, e.g. single finger piano lines to make space for the other. This approach leaves us open to invite others to participate in an expanded lineup and yet preserve our transparent musical texture where every voice is heard. We play together with an awareness for transparent quality in the combined musical line and dynamics and pitch register allowing the different qualities of the piano and guitar to be heard (timbre, attack, dynamic, sustain etc.).”

Bernard referred to listening and intuition in exploring “the unspoken communication between musicians improvising as we listen, react and respond to one another in the moment”, which involved practice and the development of intuition, “to sense who is leading at a particular moment and where the music is going (taking us)”.

So although I had missed the first 20 minutes or so of their performance, I found these perceptions by the two musicians retrospectively illuminating, and they resonated with my impressions of the ways in which the two reacted and interacted in the process of spontaneous creativity. Though one has heard improvisation of all kinds over the years, I had the feeling that these two were, more that is often the case, allowing themselves to be genuinely inspired by what had been played by each other, and by what felt like some kind of inevitable elaboration of what had just fallen from their fingers.

There was no question of trying to identify consciously just what was happening in the shape of shifting tonalities, of contrapuntal moments, elaboration of melodic fragments and all the other musical processes that musicians have devised and practised over the centuries. The resultant music had simply left the impression of something that was aesthetically attractive and emotionally rewarding.

I’d certainly like a chance to hear Wells and Duncan again in this environment.

Switzerland – Circa Theatre’s absorbing “life and art” thriller

Circa Theatre presents:

SWITZERLAND by Joanna Murray-Smith

Catherine Downes  –  Patricia Highsmith
Simon Leary            –   Edward Ridgeway

Susan Wilson – director
Tony De Goldi – set designer
Marcus McShane – lighting
Sheila Horton – costumes
Gareth Farr – music

Circa Two,
Circa Theatre, Taranaki St, Wellington

Tuesday, 20th March, 2018

Playwright Joanna Murray-Smith remembers her mother reading American author Patricia Highsmith’s novels “voraciously”, and with an intensity of concentration that left a deep impression upon her. She was to find herself in turn similarly “drawn in” by Highsmith’s writing, in particular by what she termed her “utterly fearless curiosity about the darkness of the human psyche”. Subsequently, in her play “Switzerland”, where Murray-Smith depicts the author, in self-imposed exile, seemingly on the verge of creating a new novel featuring her most successful fictional character, Tom Ripley, there’s a remarkable sense of a subconscious rebirth of Highsmith’s legendary gamut of irreconcilable antagonisms in the writing, which the present production relishes in a no-holds-barred fashion.

Though amply recognised in Europe as a writer, and enjoying fame with Alfred Hitchcock’s screen adaptation of her first major novel, “Strangers on a Train”, Highsmith considered she had been shunned by the “dead, white American male” literary elite  – we hear some of the novelist’s candid opinions of the worth of some of these well-known figures expressed in no uncertain terms during the play – and her withdrawal to Switzerland represented both defiance and disillusionment as regards her homeland (she was born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1921). Besides the Hitchcock film, she became well-known for her “Ripley” novels, creating one of literature’s most fascinating characters, the “charming psychopath” Tom Ripley.

Highsmith’s downright Swiftian attitudes towards humanity received plenty of colourful fleshing-out in Murray-Smith’s work – actor Catherine Downes’ feisty, acid-humoured portrayal flung her character’s manifold prejudices and bigotries in all directions most convincingly, amid lashings of vitriolic splendour, one-liners which blazed like short-lived fireworks across our vistas – “Happiness? Happy people simply don’t ask enough questions!” We were treated to a piecemeal, but essentially confessional resume of Highsmith’s traumatic childhood – “Childhood! – one big repository of terror!”- as well as being acquainted in no uncertain terms with various updated preoccupations, her fondness for guns and knives, her penchant for “show tunes” and her New Year resolutions, such as “Drink more!”

What’s most tellingly and even creepily revealed, however, is the novelist’s inward, but gradually-burgeoning fascination and empathy with one of her own characters, that of Tom Ripley. Murray-Smith brings this idea into bold physical relief by introducing the fictional figure of Edward Ridgeway at the play’s outset, a young man sent by Highsmith’s New York publishers to help persuade the writer to produce another “Tom Ripley” novel, something that would, as the young man tremulously puts it to her, bring back into focus her greatest achievement, the revitalisation of her most memorable character. Despite her initial refusal and caustic and demeaning manner towards the messenger, he persists, in the process gradually shedding his awkwardness; and so it is that he brings into play a two-handed game of “cat and mouse” between them, one whose outcome we might guess at but about which we can never be absolutely sure.

Simon Leary’s finely-gradated portrayal of the mysterious stranger from the publishing firm is the perfect foil at the outset for Downes’ free-wheeling, determinedly disagreeable Highsmith. His persistence, at first seemingly naïve, and insufficiently robust, doesn’t take long to develop a kind of “edge” of its own, so that we become less and less certain of where his character is actually coming from or, in fact, going towards. As he breaks down her resistance to the idea of a new “Ripley” he gathers surety and displays occasional bravado – while Highsmith see-saws the process at her end, promising to sign a new contract if he will come up with a scenario for her concerning the fate of a rich old lady in the new story.

Each of the play’s three run-together scenes bolsters the young man’s strength and confidence, and in parallel appears to weaken or dissipate the writer’s defences – the pair’s interaction takes on a Pinter-esque quality as she talks about a childhood memory of a man she once saw and has been “chasing” ever since, and he subsequently answers her telephone in her temporary absence, to (shockingly) “Mr Edward Ridgeway of New York”. By this time we’re uncertain of just which character’s dream we’ve been taken into – it’s almost as though Murray-Smith might be thinking of the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”, here, with Highsmith similarly transported at the thought of a mystical Isolde-like union with her dream-lover, the “man she has been chasing”. Anyway, to go further than this would spoil the story’s ending and the frisson of the unexpected that Murray-Smith so tantalisingly creates.

Susan Wilson’s direction of this at once larger-than-life and intensely “interior”psychological tale beautifully oversees the playwright’s colourful ebb-and-flow of the characters’ intentions and interactions, orchestrating the acerbity of Highsmith into a creative symphonic flow of interaction with her increasingly provocative and catalytic antagonist. Her actors are terrific, both Downes and Leary seemingly attuned to that same idea of alternating give-and-take with random spikings, and playing into one another’s hands accordingly.

Tony De Goldi’s set initially puts us disconcertingly at ease, apart from the wall display of weaponry, which Marcus McShane’s lighting brings in and out of prominence as required. And Sheila Horton’s dressing of the young man over three scenes deftly underpins his growing assertiveness and dominance within the relationship, while firmly anchoring Highsmith’s general appearance in the garb of a long-time solitary and cranky bohemian, outwardly expressing a contempt for convention.

Adding a distinctive flavour to the theatrical ambience of the sort that I always thought Jack Body’s music used to do for the local tv series “Close to Home” was Gareth Farr’s beautiful and evocative music – the opening 5/4 marimba pulsings were nicely equivocal, as a contrast to  the creepily menacing bass tread underpinning eerily modulating chords accompanying the first scene transition, And equally disquieting was the deep throbbing of percussion and piano accompanying the lead-up sequence to Highsmith signing the contract, the 5/4 marimba music returning to temporarily pour water on troubled oils! The final scene I thought had some exquisitely beautiful scoring, Farr’s music perfectly complementing the scene’s visionary-like ambiences, and by contrast making the reappearance at the very end of the strains of “Happy Talk” from “South Pacific” at once valedictory and joyous, almost Mahlerian in its bathos.

This production is the New Zealand premiere of the work, one that runs until the 14th of April. It seems to me a must-see for so many reasons – as well as being suspenseful entertainment, it’s a mover and shaker of a piece, and a purposeful boundaries-pusher, one that poses questions about both art and fantasy and their interaction with and relevance to everyday life.

Circa Two until April 14th 2018



Anderson and Roe Piano Duo – a compelling and invigorating mix of gravitas and glitter!

Anderson and Roe Piano Duo

Arrangements for two pianos/four hands of music by Leonard Bernstein, John Adams, Leonard Cohen, Paul McCartney, Christoph Willibald Gluck and Georges Bizet

Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe (pianos)

Presented by Chamber Music New Zealand

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 17th March, 2018

Duo pianists Anderson and Roe are very much the products of the millennial age, two accomplished graduates from the Juilliard School of Music who make music together out of a shared vision of wanting “to strengthen and make more relevant the place of classical music in the new millennium”. They’ve been playing as a duo for fourteen years, now, and intend to continue to do so, along with keeping their own solo careers ticking over. Despite some of their extremely physical duo-pianistic interactions on stage, they’re not real-life partners (Greg Anderson is married, but to someone else, while Elizabeth Joy Roe is unmarried).  However, they both enjoy the physical choreography and intimacy of four-hands at one piano as much as their two-piano work, and don’t ever stint on the intensity and overt emotionalism and sensuality of the music they play together. In Roe’s own words,“This whole partnership arose out of a pure desire to have a joyful time together, to try new things and just to keep exploring what’s possible with presentation and execution.”

I must confess to some initial hesitation regarding reviewing the concert, prior to finding out anything about the pair’s performance and musical philosophies, and reading only the usual “hype springs eternal” publicity blurb. I thought that the experience might involve spending an evening enduring a relentless onslaught of  empty and facile double-pianistic note-spinning arrangements – something to which I have a definite aversion, particularly those “display” concerti that proliferated during the nineteenth century, which enabled performers to “show off” their virtuosic skills over endless sequences of brilliant-sounding nothings! Happily Anderson and Roe’s playing bore out the many positive reports I was able to read from different sources, indicating that their partnership was something definitely out of the ordinary.

These feelings were certainly reinforced by my finding out details of the actual repertoire they were going to perform for us, a programme which appeared to alternate the virtuosic element with the profound and poetic. Thus we in the audience were able to gauge their abilities over a wider spectrum than was perhaps expected. True, there were no “big” duo-pianist works such as any by Schubert or Rachmaninov in the concert, which I counted as an opportunity missed. However there was sufficient gravitas and depth in what they played acting as a counterweight to the equally enjoyable arrangements of “popular” music which emphasised humour and brilliance.

They had what I think is an overall philosophy of performing, which they were able to apply to everything they did – this was to throw themselves entirely into each of the item’s particular world of expression,  and adopt ways of bringing out the essentials of whatever piece. However, in doing this they became chameleon-like in their different kinds of treatment of each of the works, so that we in the audience felt transported to each “space” inhabited by the composer of the original music. I got the feeling that they wanted to pay homage to each of these creative acts by bringing out the individual “character” of the pieces – in the event, most successfully.

Throughout the concert both musicians attached particular importance to talking with us, taking it in turn to introduce the pieces, bring out salient points and underline any significant and illuminating association the pair might have previously had with any parts of the programme.

Of course, the visual aspect of a piano duo or duet  (the pair played two pianos simultaneously, and occasionally a four-handed duo on a single piano, changing instruments and seating positions for each of the items) wasn’t neglected, and there were plenty of virtuoso thrills and the occasional amusing antic involving intertwining arms and bodies to reach the keys – but these were entertainment incidentals rather than essences, which didn’t divert them from the more serious purpose of doing the music justice. In short, I felt they made sure the concert was primarily about the music, rather than about them, and I loved their playing all the more for that.

Obviously the pair’s virtuosity was a key component in the presentation of the more serious music as well, and came to the fore in the nonchalance with which they threw off some of the difficulties of things like the opening Prelude, Fugue and Riffs by Leonard Bernstein, as well as the ease with which they set in motion the ebb and flow of the different sequences from the same composer’s “West Side Story” at the second half’s beginning (they even got us joining in with the shouts of “Mambo” during the first section of that work – our first unison attempt was a bit ragged, but with Roe’s expert semaphoring as a guide, the second shout of “Mambo!” we delivered was one to die for!).

That “character” which the pair imbued in every piece they played came to the fore in heartfelt fashion during the first half’s sequence of arrangements using material with a kind of Gospel-song ethos, from John Adams’ “Halleluiah Junction”, through the treatment accorded Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluiah”, and finishing with a redemptive-like take on Paul McCartney’s inspirational “Let it be”. Regarding the last of those items, Roe had set the tone for our listening by inviting us to join in with her singing of McCartney’s opening melody and words (her voice extremely lovely in its own right), before the two pianists opened up the vistas (the accompanying note used the phrase “duelling Gospel pianists”!), powerfully suggesting a revivalist kind of fervour to illuminate the music’s message.

Another highlight for me was the deeply-felt and serenely spell-binding performance of Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from the composer’s opera “Orphee et Euridice”, which, significantly, the pair chose to resent as a four-hands duet at one keyboard rather than use the bigger two-piano sonorities. That kind of wide-screen sound was restored for the concert’s final scheduled item, the pair’s own exploration of themes and sequences from Bizet’s opera “Carmen”, here given with all the sensuous atmosphere, colour and rhythmic swagger and excitement that we all associate with Bizet’s score. There were several encores afterwards, but Bizet’s music made an appropriately brilliant climax to the programme, which had the audience clapping and bravo-ing for more, the pair generous in response, and leaving us replete with a sense of occasion.






Orpheus – a Dance Drama – beautiful, complex and thought-provoking work from Michael Parmenter

New Zealand Festival 2018 presents:
Conceptualised and choreographed by Michael Parmenter
New Zealand Dance Company
Co-produced by the Auckland Arts Festival, the New Zealand Festival
and the New Zealand Dance Company
The Opera House, Wellington

Friday, 16th March, 2018

The “Orpheus legend” is obviously one of the seminal “stories” which has contributed towards western civilisation’s view of itself and its place in the world down the ages. Orpheus himself is a multi-faceted figure whose qualities and exploits have been variously treated and interpreted at different stages, a process that continues to this day, as witness choreopher Michael Parmenter’s ambitious and wide-ranging “take” on the character’s far-reaching exploits.

Most people who know of the name of Orpheus straightaway associate it with that of his lover Euridice.  Their tragic story has been represented variously in practically all of Western art’s different disciplines, notably that of opera – in fact it figured prominently throughout opera’s very beginnings, with Jacopo Peri’s “Euridice” appearing as early as 1600, and Claudio Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo” in 1607.  Virgil and Ovid are the two writers from antiquity most readily associated with the early forms of this story, though there are various other Orphic strands which Parmenter’s work alludes to, such as the hero’s exceptional musical skills, his association with the Voyage of the Argonauts,  his rejection of the love of women after the death of Euridice, and his own death at the hands of the Maenads.

Considering this plethora of material it was no wonder Parmenter was drawn to the story and its variants, the scenarios seeming to offer ample scope for elaboration and reinterpretation in the light of more contemporaneous human experience, as with all mythological archetypes. Using a core group of dancers supported by a larger “chorus” whose movement consistently created a kind of cosmic rhythm involving both naturalistic and metaphorical ebb and flow, the production consistently and constantly suggested order coming from and returning towards an unfathomable chaos which frames the human condition as we know it, a beautiful and magical synthesis of both natural patternings and human  ritual.

Lighting, costuming and staging throughout the opening sequences wrought a kind of “dreaming or being dreamt” wonderment, as a bare, workmanlike stage was unobtrusively but inexorably clothed, peopled and activated in masterly fashion. As if summonsed and borne by divination, a platform on which were seated a group of musicians playing the most enchanting music imaginable, literally drifted to and fro, as if in a kind of fixed and preordained fluidity, in accordance with the magical tones produced by these same musicians and their instruments. Not unlike the dancers, the singers grouped and regrouped with the action’s “flow”, effectively choreographing  sounds in accordance with the whole. The music was largely from the baroque era, from the world of Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Jean de Saint-Colombe, Antoine Boesset, Michel Lambert, Etienne Moulinie and Jean-Philippe Rameau, hauntingly sung and played by singers and musicians from both sides of the Tasman. Their efforts were interspersed with the sonicscapes of composer David Downes, whose elemental interpolations at key dramatic points underpinned the powerful fusion of immediacy and other-worldliness of the baroque sounds with something inexplicably primordial in effect, a sense of interplay between order and chaos far beyond human control.

During the work’s course I was stunned by the range and scope of expression wrought by the dancers, their bodies both individually and collectively driven, it seemed, by a compelling energy and physicality whose expression spoke volumes – I felt hampered by not being able to get a reviewer’s programme, for some inexplicable reason (there were still some on sale when I asked but I had insufficient money to actually purchase one), and thus found myself “in the dark” in situ regarding some of the specific intents of the stage action, particularly in the work’s second part – borrowing a copy from a friend afterwards helped to clear up some of the moments where I felt myself not quite in synch with the stage action at the time.

In the light of the comments made by Parmenter and his team in the booklet I would wish, if I could, to go back and explore more deeply the layers of action, thought and suggestion which the show embedded beneath the basic stories. Some people I spoke to afterwards shared my feeling that the production’s content seemed TOO overlaid, and that less would have meant more – I remain equivocal in my reaction to the effect of things such as the “storming of the ramparts” representation, to give but one example, even after considering Parmenter’s idea of a “knocking down” of a bastion of male ego by the female agents of being, in the story.

Still, what endures for me is the memory of the dancers and their skills – approaching transcendence in their fluency and articulation, as well as conveying incredibly layered and interactive meanings both in individual and concerted movement and gesture. Assisted by the flowing effect of Tracy Grant-Lord’s costumes, the characters’ bodies enacted eloquent and atmospheric chiaroscuro play between clarity and concealment, whose visual tensions everywhere enhanced the power of the story-telling. While readily feeling the power of presence of the two principal name-character dancers, Carl Tolentino as Orpheus and Chrissy Kokiri as Euridice, I was equally taken with the individual characterisations of their colleagues (see below), even if, towards the end I thought the distinctiveness of their movements lost a little of their cutting edge through repetition (perhaps I was the one who was tired by this time, trying to make better sense of the cornucopia of stage incident!).

Full credit, then to this company of dancers who supported the efforts of the two leads already mentioned – Katie Rudd, Sean McDonald, Lucy Marinkovich, Eddie Elliott, Bree Timms, Toa Paranihi and Oliver Carruthers – as well as to the dedicated work of the local “movement chorus” (all of whom were volunteers). Enabling Tracy-Lord-Grant’s costumes and John Verryt’s inventive settings to display their full effect was the atmospheric lighting of Nik Janiurek, whose stated purpose was keeping “the flow of light across the stage” in accord with Orpheus’music. Michael Parmenter’s engaging choreography did the rest in tandem with his dancers’ and musicians’ focused efforts.

No one work of art will reveal all of its secrets in one encounter or during one performance – and the subjective nature of any one critical response is a moveable feast when put against others’ reactions. Michael Parmenter’s creation, I freely admit, took me by surprise in its range and scope of expression, by turns striking things truly home and taking me into places where I felt some confusion – all of which leads me towards expressing the hope that it might be re-staged at some time in the near future, and that certain aspects of the presentation might come to seem clearer in their overall purpose. Parmenter himself admitted that not every theatrical image in the work was “a complete success” in response to a more-than-usually dismissive reaction from another review quarter – but so much of “Orpheus” was, I thought, powerful, innovative and challenging theatre, deserving to be thought and rethought about. It’s certainly a theatrical experience to which I doubt whether anybody could remain indifferent.

Artistic Director and Choreographer – Michael Parmenter (and the Company)
Dancers – Carl Tolentino, Chrissy Kokiri, Katie Rudd, Sean McDonald, Lucy Marinkovich, Eddie Elliott,
Bree Timms, Oliver Carruthers, Toa Paranihi
Singers – Aaron Sheehan, Nicholas Tolputt, William King, Jayne Tankersley
Musicians –  Donald Nicolson, Julia Fredersdorff, Laura Vaughan (Latitude 37)
Polly Sussex, Sally Tibbles, Miranda Hutton, Jonathan Le Cocq, David Downes
Sound Score – David Downes
Producer – Behnaz Farzami
Set Designer – John Verryt
Costumes – Tracy Grant Lord
Lighting – Nik Janiurek
Rehearsal Director – Claire O’Neil
Chorus Director – Lyne Pringle




Great singer, and audience, sold short at hybrid festival concert

New Zealand Festival 2018

Anne Sophie von Otter (mezzo-soprano) with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Benjamin Northey

Schubert: Overture to Rosamunde
Lieder: Der Vollmond strahlt (one of the songs from the incidental music for the play Rosamunde)
Die Forelle (orch. Britten)
Gretchen am Spinnrade (orch. Reger)
Im Abendrot (orch. Reger)
An Sylvia (orch. Anon.)
Erlkönig (orch. Reger)
and her encore: Nacht und Träume

Zemlinksy: Die Seejungfrau – orchestral fantasy

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday 15 March 2018, 7:30 pm

I’ll see if I can find space later on to mention the few good things about this concert, apart from the fact that the great Anne Sophie von Otter actually came here and sang for a while.

The Programme
First, let’s see what we could have expected. The first statement in the notice of her recital in the festival season brochure wrote: “Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sophie von Otter is one of the titans of grand opera and French chanson”. And the very abbreviated profile mentioned singing at two famous opera houses, sharing the stage “with the world’s greats”. And the Wellington programme was to “include personal favourites from Schubert lieder and more” (my underlining).

But behold! No opera or French chanson; and certainly, not “more”!

Anyone familiar with the international opera scene and classical music in general knows Von Otter’s wide range in classical vocal music as well as various kinds of folk and tastefully chosen popular music. Since she was the only artist mentioned in the advertising, apart from the orchestra and conductor, it was reasonable to assume that she would dominate the programme with several brackets of opera arias and art songs and perhaps a few European popular songs.

Characteristically, such a programme is fleshed out with three or four orchestral pieces, perhaps an opera overture, an intermezzo, a shortish symphonic poem. But the second half was filled by an unfamiliar symphonic work by Zemlinsky, which turned out to be well worth hearing but seemed an odd accompaniment for a solo vocal recital.

A few days before, Von Otter had sung an excellent programme at the Adelaide Festival, which has, from the very beginning, been a key associate of our festival, in its use of major international artists. There, she had sung, with piano accompaniment, just the sort of programme I might have was expected: innovative, stimulating, appropriate festival fare, doing full justice to both herself and a reasonably knowledgeable audience.

Lieder with orchestra?
Then there’s the question of singing Schubert with an orchestra. Yes, she had done that before, winning a Grammy Award in 1997 for her recording of Schubert Lieder with Orchestra with Abbado and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. The impact of performances with orchestra on record is very different from those in a big concert hall, where the problems of balance and atmosphere are difficult. Many such arrangements exist and were popular especially in earlier times: seen as a way of breaking down barriers for people who might be afraid of a concert entirely from a singer and piano accompanist. That was the reason offered here, in the belief that there was no audience for solo vocal recitals, a fiction broadcast by some music promoters here too; which I have always refused to believe.

If she had come here with Bengt Forsberg, her long-standing accompanist, they would have made a tremendous impact. Erlkönig would have set the audience by the ears with its miraculously dramatic piano accompaniment; it and scores of other wonderful Lieder and French mélodies would immediately have created a huge audience for classical song.

Earlier festivals had some wonderful solo voice concerts, one of the most memorable for me being from tenor Peter Schreier in 1990 or 92 in a packed Town Hall.

The concert opened with the overture to the unsuccessful play, Rosamunde, for which Schubert wrote a variety of incidental music; it was a nice idea, and conductor Benjamin Northey led the orchestra through it carefully – a very slow opening – with clarity and energy supporting its sparkling Rossini character.

And the first song was from the Rosamunde music: a simple, unaffected melody to typically sentimental words: Der Vollmond strahl, naturally orchestrated as part of the orchestral incidental music. (Rather like Bizet’s incidental music for Daudet’s play L’Arlésienne, the music was immediately popular as the play bombed.) The audience had clapped unrestrainedly after the Rosamunde song, persisting even in the absence of any acknowledgement by singer and conductor; and the audience failed to read their clear messages after each subsequent song. Even if unfamiliar with the etiquette, one might have thought they’d have read the musicians’ expressionless wait between the songs. The determination to clap persisted later between movements of the Zemlinsky piece.

Then came five genuine Lieder. Die Forelle written aged about 19, was sung first; it was orchestrated imaginatively by Britten, more interestingly than the three by Reger; I was not altogether captivated by its singular pathos and wit of words and music. Gretchen am spinnrade followed, Schubert’s second published, in 1813 when he was 16, after Erlkonig; both are considered miracles in their musical invention and extraordinarily acute emotion expression. The genius of Gretchen was not much obscured by the orchestration and the singing of the first two songs offered the singer wonderful opportunity to let her undimmed vocal gifts be heard, finding the unsettled innocence of Goethe’s heroine, though one has heard more passionate outbursts, of phrases like ‘…und ach! Sein Kuss!’

Im Abendrot is a slightly less familiar song, and since its piano accompaniment is a little less embedded in the mind, Reger’s orchestration was tolerable, and the performance evoked its oddly religious character well.  An Sylvia is a very old favourite. It was among my parents’ collection of 10” 78s; not much played by them, but it became part of my aural furniture as a child. Even though the orchestra, in the anonymous arrangement, was pared down, the chomping cellos and basses did sound odd.

And finally Erlkönig; Here was a disappointment, not only the absence of the irreplaceable piano part, but also, I fear, not a male voice that for me at least has become such an essential character in the story, perhaps inadmissibly these days. The awakening of the father’s terror with ‘Der Vater grauset’s, er reitet geschwind…’ (the translations of these marvellous words were pathetic) just passed by…

The best song of all was the encore: Nacht und Träume, a late-ish song from around 1825, where I actually enjoyed the horn’s opening phrases followed by other orchestral felicities that, because it’s a song whose piano part has not taken root in my head so much; though I love it. It was beautiful.

Die Seejungfrau
Introducing Zemlinsky’s Die Seejungfrau, in the second half the conductor congratulated those in the hall for staying (many had left in the interval, compensated by a great increase in orchestral forces with quadruple, and more, winds!). And he talked about the link between this and the NZSO’s earlier festival venture into Star Wars, the music by John Williams, and his film music predecessors Bernard Herrmann and Korngold, to Zemlinsky who taught Korngold in Vienna. And he filled in possible gaps in musical knowledge noting the loss of his first wife, Alma Schindler to Gustav Mahler, who in turn lost her to Walter Gropius. Northey noted another detail that might well have been mentioned in the programme note, the orchestra’s recording of the work, under James Judd, for Naxos.

Much as I was uncertain about how the Zemlinsky, which I had failed to familiarise myself with, would sit in this context (on the face of it, strangely ill-assorted), I was quickly won over by its Strauss-era character (its opening might have suggested the beginnings of Tod und Verklärung or Also sprach Zarathustra) as well as its own character that in fact is some distance from Strauss. The performance had a vivid quality that was immediately charming, colourful, warmly lyrical. The work felt coherently structured in spite of the composer refraining from calling it a symphony or even a symphonic poem. The second movement (unnamed) was more light-hearted and mercurial. I didn’t attempt to create from the music images of mermaids and the ocean or other details of Hans Andersen’s tale. And the third movement became more reflective and elegiac, allowing anyone so-disposed to conjure the mermaid’s sad fate.

It was a most accomplished performance, Northey showing himself as fully capable of extracting the emotional qualities, the rich orchestral fabric, the dynamic and rhythmic pulses that brought it convincingly to life. At the end, the enthusiastic applause here was indeed in the right place.

As I load this on Monday morning, I see an excellent, pertinent letter on the programme from Deryn and David Groves in The Dominion Post.