Full house Mulled Wine concert at Paekakariki with NZSM violin and piano stars

Mulled Wine Concerts
Jian Liu (piano) and Martin Riseley (violin)

Bach: Solo Sonata for Violin, BWV 1001
Lilburn: Sea Changes and Violin Sonata
Brahms: Intermezzo in B minor, Op 119 No 1
Grieg: Sonata for Violin and Piano No 3, Op 45

Paekakariki Memorial Hall

Sunday 27 May, 2:30 pm

We’ve sadly missed a couple of earlier Mulled Wine concerts from Paekakariki: the Rodger Fox Jazz Ensemble in January and Toru (the Wellington trio of flute, viola and harp) in March, though we caught up with them at Lower Hutt recently.

This concert was perhaps more than merely a compensation, from two of the distinguished classical performance lecturers at the school of music of Victoria University.

There were three solo pieces: Bach’s solo violin sonata in G minor, BWV 1001, Lilburn’s Three Sea Changes and one of Brahms’s last compositions, an Intermezzo, the first of the four pieces from Op 119.

Bach: Solo violin
The Bach piece famously taxes a violinist, both on account of its technical challenges and its musical substance. Riseley’s playing was not of the sort that makes it look easy, nor was its intellectual character diminished through smoothing out its angularities which are rather audible in the longest movement, the Fuga.

The opening Adagio invites the most profoundly passionate interpretation, making its evolution a uniform process but Riseley almost seemed to allow the creative process behind every phrase to be heard distinctly, as each phrase seemed to be exposed to our examination. The Fuga (‘Fugue’) movement moves more quickly and its pulse carried the performance along in a more flowing and deceptively easy manner. The Siciliana is caste in a complex triple time with a slower pulse, and the violinist here found the opportunity to demonstrate a more lyrical and easy-flowing quality, sometimes almost too disarmingly.

A return to the ‘exercise’ character of the first movement comes with the last movement, simply marked Presto. Incessant semi-quaver triplets offer no relaxation and though obvious hard work lay behind the performance, its relentless pulse demonstrated Riseley’s talent and musical insight clearly.

Lilburn for piano and violin
Jian Liu followed with the first of Lilburn’s Three Sea Changes. One is used to Margaret Nielsen’s playing of these and it was a small revelation to hear something different, invested with the sensibility of pianist of a different ethnic and musical background. It was both polished and invested with a musical spirit that was European – perhaps of a Debussy-derived character. I must get to hear his playing of all three, and I hope Jian Liu is encouraged to lay down his own performances of Lilburn’s large piano oeuvre.

Liu’s other solo piece was the first Intermezzo of Brahms’s set of four piano pieces, Op 119 (there are around 20 intermezzi, most of them written in his last years, after overturning his earlier decision to retire completely). Affection for them, as with most of Brahms, simply increases with age (so there’s no need to worry!). The programme note took the trouble to reproduce Brahms’s sweet remarks to Clara Schumann about this particular one. It went so: “The little piece is exceptionally melancholic and ‘to be played very slowly’ is not an understatement. Every bar and every note must sound like a ritard[ando], as if one wanted to suck melancholy out of each and every one, lustily and with pleasure out of these very dissonances!”  It didn’t strike me like that, apart from the tendency to ritardando, and this beautiful performance certainly didn’t induce dangerous melancholy.

Martin Riseley returned to play Lilburn’s 1950 Violin Sonata (and what a pity Lilburn wasn’t surrounded by audiences calling for more chamber music; instead he was encouraged to pursue musique concrète).

I might remark here on the violin that he used. It was a 19th century German instrument on loan from Kapiti resident Bill McKeich (He was the leader of the orchestra at Wellington College in which I played the cello; we were in the same form in the upper 6th). It produced a comforting, warm sound, and here it created music that seemed more quintessentially Lilburn than one sometimes hears.  The notion had not occurred to me before that there was a Schumannesque character in this music, or at least in this performance; once such an idea arises, it’s easy to hear it confirmed as the music goes on. So, as a particularly irrational Schumann lover, I found more delight in Riseley’s playing in this piece than I have before.

Grieg’s third violin sonata
Finally, the major work in the concert, Grieg’s third violin sonata, an old favourite. I recall first hearing it at a chamber music concert in Taumarunui in …(long ago), where I was posted ‘on section’ while at Auckland Teachers’ College. (Taumarunui High School was a sought-after school because of the Whakapapa ski field; as a self-indulgent aside, poking about the music department I came across 78 rpm recordings of Roy Harris’s famous Third Symphony which struck me as remarkable in a secondary school; I suspect scarcely anyone has even heard of it today).

Anyway, the best known of Grieg’s sonatas is not much heard these days, even in towns 50 times the size of Taumarunui. So to hear it with the sound of the sea close by was a delight, not to mention the excellence of the performance, which was quite passionate, interspersed with gentle and sometimes quite prolonged lyrical passages. The partnership itself was a thing to delight in as one’s attention shifted from one to the other, the music seeming to breathe in response to its own pulse and mood from bar to bar.

Jian Liu’s playing was both elegant and deeply attuned to the spirit and poetic quality of the music, while Martin Riseley’s playing often felt as if he was observing the music from the outside yet was able to capture the whole-heartedness and complex lyricism of Grieg’s composition. The slow movement speaks so clearly in Grieg’s language, that blend of sentiment and a northern reserve; so that the music has a changeable atmosphere, alternating between E major and minor, refusing to commit to either.  And the duo captured the qualities of the last movement, Allegro animato, mixing freshness and thoughtfulness that always demanded admiration, for both the complementary elements of their styles and the fluency of their playing.

And after rather protracted applause, the duo returned and uncovered another score on their music stands; it was Tchaikovsky’s Serenade Melancholique, Op 26, demonstrating their ability to give genuinely pathetic utterance to the sort of sadness that Tchaikovsky created so movingly.

There was a predictably full house in the hall by the sea. The inducement consists in more than just the free mulled wine in the interval; it’s definitely worth more than merely a detour.


Liturgical music, dramatic and meditative in splendid Orpheus Choir concert

Orpheus Choir and the Orchestra of the New Zealand School of Music, conducted by Brent Stewart and Kenneth Young
Jenny Wollerman (soprano) and James Clayton (baritone)

Giovanni Gabrieli: Canzon Duo Decimi a 10 (#3)
Duruflé: Requiem
Leonie Holmes: Frond
Dvořák: Te Deum

Wellington Cathedral of Saint Paul

Saturday 26 May, 7:30 pm

The Orpheus Choir made a striking decision to perform two great choral works that are not often heard – one that is well-enough known but not so often heard (the Duruflé) and Dvořák’s Te Deum which I had not heard before. It’s one of those pieces that you are sure you’ve heard at some time, but turns out to be quite unfamiliar.

Gabrieli and Dvořák
However, the concert began with something else that was not revealed in the programme booklet: it was a surprise, simply to see the dozen brass virtuosi from the NZSM orchestra file on. We were in for something special: Giovanni Gabrieli’s Canzon Duo Decimi a 10 (#3) from the book of Symphoniae Sacrae of 1597. They set the aural scene brilliantly.

Two conductors were involved. Kenneth Young conducted the Gabrieli, the piece by Leonie Holmes and the Duruflé, while the choir’s conductor, Brent Stewart conducted the Dvořák.

The choral part began with the Dvořák. It struck me at once as a pretty unconventional liturgical work, far more histrionic and secular in feel than most music of the genre. Things like the last movement of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony, or perhaps the operatic character of Verdi’s Requiem offer some idea of its nature. The timpani opening was stunning, might I even say spectacular and it was obvious that accompaniment by a full orchestra was indispensable; I listened to the university orchestra with real admiration from the very start.

Jenny Wollerman’s voice was an obvious choice among Wellington sopranos: large, clear and attractive, able to cut through orchestral sounds, though it was interesting that the orchestral writing was generally considerate of the soprano’s performance. Was it an alto flute that emerged in the middle of the first part? The flamboyant character of the music came to a great climax at the end of the first chorus and the baritone part takes over without a pause, with fresh brass fanfares.

James Clayton’s voice and presentation was every bit as vivid and appropriate as Wollerman’s had been and he managed to maintain the operatic-cum-oratorio character of the music. I kept reflecting that it was remarkable that Dvořák, in spite of the confusion about the text he was to set for the Columbus 400th anniversary immediately on his arrival in New York, had judged the sort of music that would be fit for the occasion, as he wrote it while still at home in Bohemia.

Some writings about the Te Deum seem to suggest that it was tossed off as an obligation, a last minute substitution for a text that didn’t arrive in time.  It was melodically and rhythmically strong, with plenty of excitement, for though an American school of composition hadn’t emerged (and that was part of the reason for Dvořák‘s invitation), there was plenty of evidence of a taste for the big-boned, noisy, extravert music on a huge scale (read about the reception of Johann Strauss II in Boston in 1872).

A fresh surprise strikes at the start of the third movement which is entirely sung by the chorus, and another flamboyant triple time rhythm takes over, though it soon quietens with the more prayerful words, ‘Et laudamus nomen tuum in saeculum, et in saeculum saeculi’.

If one sometimes wonders how much close attention the composer pays to the meaning of the hymn, one example struck me, the words sung by the choir: ‘Miserere nostri, Domine, miserere nostri’ in the fourth part, as the soprano continues to be closely and impressively integrated in the increasingly frantic, exciting music that Dvořák delivers repeating ‘Alleluia’ numerous times. The work proves to be a singular combination of the expostulatory and triumphant punctuated here and there by some affecting contemplative passages.

Leonie Holmes
The first half ended with a piece written in 2004 by Leonie Holmes: Frond (which turned out to be, not a depiction of the mid-17th century uprising against Louis XIV, in France – La Fronde – but a portrayal of fern fronds). It failed to evoke any forest or botanical imagery for me, but I still found it an attractive piece which helped restore my belief in the value of contemporary music, after exposure the previous evening to some of the Stroma/Bianca Andrew/Alex Ross concert, some about a century old – long enough to have taken root in the affections of a tolerant listener had they been inspired by real ‘musical’ impulses. Holmes’s composition was evocative and her imaginative use of the orchestra and the musical motifs she employed made it a cleansing and spiritually restorative piece.

The continuation of that musical spirit came with the lovely Requiem of Duruflé. In my own record of Duruflé performances I had to go back to 2014 to find the last hearing in Wellington: from Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir under Karen Grylls, when it was coupled, as it so often is, with the Fauré.

If the Fauré and Duruflé requiems are congenial companions, the Dvořák had offered no clue as to its companion’s character, and it created a vividly different musical experience. The pace of its opening phase was of peace and consolation, though not conspicuously religiose (Go on! Look it up!).

It’s a work that is often accompanied by organ, and while that is a legitimate version, and though I enjoy organ music I am almost always more delighted with orchestral colour and variety where that’s what the composer wanted. In the opening phase cellos and basses and soon the uneasy brass and heavy timpani made me grateful that the choir had managed a deal with the NZSM Orchestra. And it made me wonder whether ways could be found to engage the orchestra for other major choral performances that find the cost of professional players out of reach but which would benefit hugely from the lively, excellent playing we heard from the university orchestra.

The striking feature of the singing was its subtlety and its subdued vitality, in something of a contrast to the Dvořák. The opening Introit set the tone and was in complete contrast: calm, tranquil, reverent, but the Kyrie involved a more clamorous plea for mercy in a short central section. Soloists do not get exposure here and we waited through several minutes of the Domine Jesu Christe, through a quiet organ passage and a plangeant soprano part that builds to a tutti outburst before baritone James Clayton enters with ‘Hostias et preces’, amid tremolo strings and a much more disturbing atmosphere. It doesn’t last long and the soprano-led plea for God’s restoration settles the atmosphere.

A comparable atmosphere of exultation builds slowly in the Sanctus, opening with rippling accompaniment on (I think) organ flute stops. The words ‘Hosanna in excelsis’ start quietly but are repeated, crescendo till they climax with massive timpani, and fades into near silence.

Soprano Jenny Wollerman emerged for her first and only solo passage in the Pie Jesu, again with open, confident, adagio lines, gradually rising and falling dynamically. Women’s voices led the way in the following Agnus dei, appropriately slow-paced and pleading, the words uttered with extraordinary slowness. Bassoons have some rewarding passages, e.g almost surrounding the voices in the Lux eternum as they dwell long on the same note.

Trumpets open In Libera me, and Clayton filled the air with foreboding at ‘Tremens factus sum ego…’ with only passing reference to the day of wrath, ‘Dies illa, dies irae’, a fine chance to hear the baritone’s rich and powerful expression. Duruflé picks up Fauré’s precedent with his final In paradisum; based on Gregorian chant, it might not have the popular appeal of the latter, but it captures a sustained kind of rapture, and invests the work with an innocent, guileless conclusion that passes over any expectation of doctrinaire belief.

It was a most interesting and satisfying concert of two very beautiful but different works that those who think they are allergic to choral music should be exposed to. Happily, the cathedral was very nearly full, and applause was prolonged.

Talents and skills of university woodwind students in St Andrew’s lunchtime recital

NZSM Wind Students

Music by Fauré, Francisco Mignone, Lowell Liebermann, Gareth Farr. Krysztof Penderecki and Debussy

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 23 May 2018, 12.15 pm

It is interesting to hear music students at different levels of their courses, and of ability and achievement.  All these students, though, performed well and provided engaging music.  In most cases they were accompanied on the piano, although two students played unaccompanied pieces.  It was pleasing to see a number of school students in the audience; perhaps they are studying wind instruments. Simon Brew, acting head of winds at the New Zealand School of Music, briefly introduced the programme.  Nearly all the students introduced themselves and their music more than adequately, using the microphone.

Fauré was represented by Fantasie for Flute, Op.79, played as the opening piece by Samantha McSweeny, accompanied by Kirsten Robertson.  French composers wrote prolifically for the flute, and this was a lovely example of their work, which for me carried over nicely from the Fauré songs I heard in Waikanae on Sunday.  The piece was inventive and graceful, with a languid opening section.  It changed to sprightly and playful passages.  It was written for a Paris Conservatoire competition, so it aimed to have the students demonstrate a range of techniques, tempi and dynamics.  As well as our player doing this more than adequately, the accompaniment was full of character.

I had never heard of the Brazilian composer Francisco Mignone.  His dates were 1897 to 1986.  (It would have been useful to have the composers’ dates printed in the programme.)   Improvised Waltz no.7  was the title of the piece for solo bassoon, played by Breanna Abbott.    It was quite a jaunty piece to start with, but the deep-toned instrument made it harder to get over a light-hearted mood.  It was short, and very competently played.

Lowell Liebermann is a contemporary American composer (born in 1961) who is a prolific composer as well as a performer.  His Movement 1 from Sonata for Flute and Piano, Op.23 was played by Isabella Gregory, accompanied by Kirsten Robertson.  A leisurely opening was followed by an allegro that brought a rush of notes before falling back to gentle utterances.  In places the piano doubled the part of the flute.  A new section was slow, but both flute and piano jumped around the staves, especially the latter.  Both played angular phrases, the flute employing particularly the lower register of the instrument.  A return to slower, gentler phrases brought the piece to a smooth, mellifluous end.

The only New Zealand composer represented was Gareth Farr; Peter Liley, alto saxophone, accompanied by Catherine Norton on the piano, played Farr’s Meditation very confidently, following an excellent spoken introduction.  The piece opened with notes on the piano, followed by chords, then a slow, pensive melody.  This gradually developed and built to a high climax – most effective.  More climbing motifs – then an abrupt end.

Solo clarinet was played by Harim Hey Oh, performing Penderecki’s Prelude for solo clarinet.  Slow, quiet single notes opened the short piece.  Then the music became quite gymnastic, with quick notes darting here and there, including very high notes and very loud ones (hard on the ears!).  Then it was back to slow, quiet notes, widely spaced – and it was all over.

The other great French composer represented was Debussy, by his Première Rhapsodie for clarinet, played by Frank Talbot with Catherine Norton accompanying.  The piece was written for graduate students at the Paris Conservatoire, so was constructed to test them.  Later, the composer orchestrated it.  This was a highly competent performance, employing a lot of different techniques and idioms. The full range of the instrument’s notes and dynamics were used.  It was most enjoyable music, not only for the clarinet’s role; the piano had a very varied part also.

This was a very satisfactory demonstration of the skills of wind students at the New Zealand School of Music at Victoria University of Wellington.





Unusual but timely concert by Supertonic, dynamic mixture of the musical, the political, the sexual

Supertonic conducted by Isaac Stone

‘Shakespeare’s Sister: celebrating the music of women who created art in the shadows of men’
Music by Hildegard, Clara Schumann, Alma Mahler, Fanny Mendelssohn, Amy Beach, Francesca Caccini and Lili Boulanger, and two New Zealanders: Dorothy Buchanan and Rosa Elliott (who, at age 20, was the ‘featured composer’)

Pipitea Marae, Thorndon Quay

Sunday 20 May 6:30 pm

Middle C has reviewed two previous concerts by Supertonic (both by Rosemary Collier), in 2015, and she was impressed (where have we been in the meantime?). They were in different venues, the Sacred Heart Cathedral and the New Zealand Portrait Gallery. This time they gave me my first experience in the Pipitea Marae, which I’m ashamed to confess I’d never been in; a building of normal construction, with impressive Maori mural and ceiling decoration.

The concert was very well organised, with enough people at the door to take tickets and give seat numbers and generally manage. The seating on either side of a centre aisle was turned to face inwards by about 15 degrees. A congenial feeling.

One of the first impressions as the music began, was the splendid acoustics of the large whare, allowing distinct parts of the choir on the one hand and the choir singing homogeneously on the other to be heard as a finely balanced ensemble. Enhanced I imagine by the high vaulted ceiling and walls which were probably plastered and so a bit more absorbent than concrete, stone or timber.

The singers were ranged in four rows at increasing heights; the piano to the left and to the rear left, the ‘Concert host’, Clarissa Dunn, and a microphone. After the choir had entered, a chant arose at the back and the nine women’s voices came slowly to the front singing Hildegard von Bingen’s ‘Quem ergo femina’. The fine ensemble augured well.

This is the moment to remark admiringly on the paper-work. A nicely printed programme on glossy paper, with a woman in profile who has just released a bird – a swallow, a symbol? Inside, notes on the choir, on host Clarissa Dunn and the ‘featured artist’, the 20-year-old Canterbury University student composer, Rosa Elliott. All the composers’ names and the titles of the pieces were listed and on a separate page, original words and translations of all the songs in foreign languages.

There was a distinct air of professionalism about the entire presentation, not least the evidence of excellent, thorough rehearsal by Isaac Stone, a gifted young conductor who has a very impressive and interesting record both as musician and leader in musical and social areas, especially in the Maori sphere.

One thing we could probably not reasonably expect was to encounter music that we knew – though I speak only for myself.

Clarissa Dunn’s introduction
An unexpected element, but one that was illuminating was Clarissa’s quoting an essay by Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, on the importance of a space for creative work; it related to Dorothy Buchanan’s cycle. The essay presents an “argument for both a literal and figurative space for women writers within a literary tradition dominated by men” in the words of Wikipedia.

One hears often about the importance of having a private place in which to compose. Some such composing sanctuaries are famous, like Mahler’s two lake-side hideaways, at Steinberg-am-Attersee and Maianigg on the Wörthersee in Carinthia, or Ravel’s house in the country, Le Belvédère, at Montfort-l’Amaury. The same applies to women but it is harder for them to find such space.

Clara Schumann’s composing was not forbidden but after Robert died she composed no more and devoted herself to performance and the promotion of Robert’s music. The choir sang Drei gemischte Chöre (3 mixed choruses). They were sung with flawless ensemble, purity of tone and clarity of diction.

American composer Amy Beach’s music is heard more these days than a few years ago. She was, like Clara Schumann, both composer and pianist and her husband wanted her to concentrate on composing rather than performance. Again, the a cappella Three Choral Responses were accomplished works if not particularly original, showing little sign of absorbing composition trends of around the turn of the century.

Alma, Lili and Francesca
Then three singers from the choir sang songs by Alma Mahler, Lilli Boulanger and Francesca Caccini. Samantha Kelley sang the first, Die stille Stadt, with a very agreeable voice, and pianist Matthew Oliver, who was occasionally hesitant.

Lili Boulanger was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome at the Paris Conservatoire and though no barriers were put across her musical career, she died aged 24, 100 years ago. (She is one of this year’s important anniversaries; the others: Debussy’s death 100 years ago, Bernstein’s birth 100 years ago, Gounod’s birth 200 years ago, Rossini’s death 150 years ago*). Reflets, set to a poem of Maurice Maeterlinck, sounded an altogether more inspired composition, with an interesting, even adventurous piano accompaniment; Natalie Williams’s voice was well attuned to the music if occasionally insecure.

A duet from three centuries earlier, Aure Volanti by Francesca Caccini was sung by sopranos Natalie Moreno and Sophie Youngs; there were clear marks here of a fine composer, whose father was also a leading composer who composed one of the first operas in 1602. Women composers were not all that rare at the time; slightly later, Barbara Strozzi was famous and she has re-emerged. This performance handled the weaving voices and Isaac Stone’s piano accompaniment in a charming, authentic manner.

Fanny, Felix’s sister
Felix Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny (Hensel her married name) was also a gifted pianist and composer, whose musical inclinations and gifts were rather discouraged by Felix. Her settings of three of Eichendorff’s poems, Gartenlieder, appealed to me as much as anything in the concert; the writing was fluent and there was plenty of melodic charm and character, far from clichéd. I enjoyed the varied expressive qualities that were well conveyed in the choral performance.

The next group of pieces by Dorothy Buchanan was a curious composition: for flute (Liz Langam) and wordless women’s voices, a small cycle called Five Vignettes of Women. They were marked, Virginia (Woolf), Olivia (Spencer-Bower), Robin (Hyde), Fanny Buss and Katherine (Mansfield). The Virginia Woolf song was the link with the introductory reference to Woolf’s essay, A Room of One’s Own. The set was interestingly varied in style and mood and the different instruments produced some novel impressions. The whole struck me as very engaging work, admittedly with a not very important vocal element, but enough to justify its inclusion here.

Rosa Elliott’s Songs for Sisters
Featured artist was 20-year-old composer Rosa Elliott who set three of great 19th century novelist George Eliot’s (real name Mary Ann Evans) poems: Songs for Sisters.

Conductor Isaac Stone is quoted in a SOUNZ website saying that he fastened on her to compose for the choir because of her “incredible way with haunting melodies, matched perfectly with choral colours”. They involved violinist Vivian Stephens, pianist Matthew Oliver and Samantha Kelley using castanets. The first song, O Bird, coloured with hushed breathing, employed an undefined bird-call that later imitated a vocal motif from the choir. I lost track of the breaks between the three songs; however, the unusual combination of vocal effects, occasional distinct words, the melodic attractiveness, Stephens’ excellent violin contribution offered lively variety. The castanets marked the Spanish character of the third song, Ojala, in which the choir could be detected chanting the name. By the end I was won over by the unusual character of this trio of songs, their confident, surprisingly grounded feeling. I think they have a life.

The concert ended with a, for me, puzzling, enigmatic song: Quiet by (I suppose) a young woman called Milck. I confess to looking it up on Google. It’s a song protesting sexual violence in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandals, frankly bluesy in style, but more importantly, arresting in both its music and its message. She writes that it is part of “a massive movement of women and survivors speaking out against sexual assault, I find myself in awe and moved to my core”.  I caught words of intimate advice to vulnerable girls; it was, I guess, a timely insertion for the choir whose purpose here was to dramatise efforts to empower women and demand changed behaviour on the part of men, and sexual exploitation is as evil as depriving women of the wherewithall to create music.

An interesting and poignant way to end the concert which had virtues and strengths at many levels, social and musical.

*Composer Anniversaries
This sort of thing interests me. I was half aware of several other composers who were born or died in these or similar years. There’s Arrigo Boito (Verdi’s librettist for Otello and Falstaff and also the composer of Mephistophele), and Hubert Parry both of whom died in 1918. Then I came upon a contribution to the topic from a kindred spirit who writes a column in the French Opéra Magazine, Renaud Machart. He wrote about Lili Boulanger, naturally, and he also noted the successor and in some ways Offenbach’s rival in the post Franco-Prussian war period (1870 – 1880): Charles Lecocq (1832-1918). His best known pieces were La fille de Madame Angot and Le petit Duc. And very tongue-in-cheek, Machart  also pointed to one Procida Bucalossi (1832-1918), a British/Italian composer of light music; with that background, he naturally wrote a successful operetta for London in neither language, entitled Les Manteaux Noirs (The Black Cloaks).

Looking back to 1868, as well as Rossini’s death, Swedish composer Berwald died. And François Couperin was born in 1768, 250 years ago.

Admirable, stimulating programme of piano trios from Te Koki Trio

Te Koki Trio: Martin Riseley (violin), Inbal Megiddo (cello), Jian Liu (piano) – senior lecturers in Victoria University School of Music
(Wellington Chamber Music)

Brahms: Piano Trio in C minor Op. 101
Avner Dorman: Piano Trio No. 2
Shostakovich: Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67

St. Andrews on The Terrace

Sunday 20 May 3 pm

Gale-force winds outside might have been an appropriate accompaniment to Shostakovich’s frightful war-time masterpiece. But it was not necessarily a fitting way to characterise Brahms’s third piano trio. In spite of the remarks in the programme notes (in general, illuminating), and even though it’s in a minor key, I have never found the opening pages devoid of melody, or revealing an ‘unsettled nature’; though later movements might be so characterised.

However, Jian Liu’s reading of the opening chords might for a moment have supported the sense of the programme note. His first chords were so heavy that they dominated the violin and cello and I rather wished the lid had been down, as well perhaps as having the piano on a carpet. But the music soon shifts to the much more sustained, warm and heart-felt second subject that in fact seemed to characterise most of the movement, in spite of momentary returns of the more emphatic first theme. The imbalance between piano and strings didn’t recur.

The notes might have somewhat exaggerated the restless and haunted nature of the second movement which is considered the Scherzo, though not marked so. The minor key colours the entire work and even this ‘scherzo’ movement hardly produces a feeling of ecstasy or contentment. Much of it is staccato in character, permitting neither buoyancy nor delight. The singular feature of the work as a whole is the shortness of each movement – the second movement lasts only about four minutes. And the first was only about twice as long.

The Brahms we’ve waited for arrives in the third movement, and here Martin Riseley’s violin and Inbal Megiddo’s cello play alone for half a minute and they do so again after the piano had a brief contribution. The movement seemed all too short, as I couldn’t help feeling that the players longed for its prolonging and I even wondered whether there was actually a repeat that they were ignoring. There is not of course. Here was the quintessential Brahms writing the most expressive and alluring music, and the programme note’s ‘unsettled material’ and ‘irregular phrases’ were not very audible to me.

Even though the last movement remains in the minor key and there’s a seriousness of mind which the players showed their full awareness of, there’s no lack of melody, even if the tunes are sometimes stretched over a wide range, and the occasional staccato irruptions hardly encouraged the listener to drift into a feeling of contentment. The gentle rising and falling theme which becomes the heart of the movement was all too short.

Avner Dorman
The novelty of the concert was a 2002 trio by Jewish-American composer Avner Dorman. When I looked at YouTube, I was surprised to find scores of performances of a great variety of music by Dorman, though none of this piano trio. He has clearly attracted a large following for music that is distinctive and genuinely imaginative. His music seems often to begin in a comfortable, familiar manner, sometimes, like the present trio, with the utmost simplicity. It began with a simple four-note chorale-like motif, repeated in subtly changing ways, creating at least the impression of each instrument playing distinct phrases in different keys, while one became aware of the original motif continuing repetitiously below the evolving sounds above.

Dissonances slowly became more and more arresting and complex, curiously, not in a way that aroused frustration or irritation. Perhaps no dissonance can today really sound barbarous or outrageous because profligate use of it has diminished its impact, its capacity to offend. Just as swearing in public, on television and film no longer has the power to shock though I suppose there are still some who find it offensive just as some still find gross dissonance offensive. To me these passages were simply counterpoints or foils to the more conventional. The players gave every sign of commitment, persuaded that here was music that had something to say, music that was not imitative but which did not seek to be ‘original’ just to win academic brownie-points.

These situations are always interesting as some in the audience reacted with at least a little reserve, even disapproval. The second movement was faster, no less free with unorthodox harmony and darting, reckless rhythms. Sudden passages of meditative music, violin and cello bowing their way in adagio sequences; then rushing torrents, from high to low registers. One always searches for influences and these were hard to perceive; perhaps certain hints of Vasks or Pelecis came to mind, absurdly perhaps.

Shostakovich’s Piano Trio Op 67
Few pieces of chamber music in the 20th century pack the punch that Shostakovich’s 1944 piano trio does (unless it’s his Eighth String Quartet). I first came to know it through performances by the Turnovsky Trio (Sam Konise, Christopher Kane and Eugene Albulescu) in the 90s. The famous opening, starting with uncanny, false (or artificial) harmonics by using (with the cello) the thumb to shorten the length of sounding string, presaged an extraordinarily sensitive and expressive performance. One could dwell on the range of ‘effects’ employed by the piece, but it is better to consider the plain emotional impact of the music – a matter that should always come before academic consideration of the means by which it’s achieved.

Traditional descriptive musical language, Allegro con brio, hardly captures the real nature of the music, any more than the neutral moderato and poco piu mosso does of the first movement. Its brio isn’t altogether a mistake, but there’s a manic quality here, and with all the bite and energy these players adopt makes you sit bolt upright. It’s the third movement in which Shostakovich expresses the grief that war has plunged his country into, a sustained threnody which fades with dying piano notes to the piano’s grief-stricken staccato start of the last movement.

Though written presumably after the Siege of Leningrad had been lifted (January 1944; the composer had been evacuated from the city in October 1941) this movement remains one of the most graphic, emotional descriptions of war imaginable. And the playing varied from despairing to terrifying, to repetitive, violent passages interspersed with sudden pauses to reflect and regain one’s balance and equilibrium.

I found the whole programme, the choice of works and their committed and accomplished performance by these three senior lecturers in the School of Music totally engrossing. As I seem to say often, it deserved a far bigger audience; a few short years ago these concerts in the Ilott Theatre in the “How long must we wait?’ Town Hall used to attract a couple of hundred people, even in blizzard conditions.


Diverting Debussy-inspired trio charm a responsive audience at Lower Hutt

Toru Trio: Karen Batten (flute), Sophia Acheson (viola), Ingrid Bauer (harp)
(Chamber Music Hutt Valley)

Debussy: Sonate pour flûte, alto et harpe (1915)
Bax: Fantasy Sonata (viola and harp, 1927)
Tabea Squire: Impressions (2018)
Wendelin Bitzan: Zoologischer Garten for flute and viola (2011)
William Mathias: Zodiac Trio (1976)

Lower Hut Little Theatre

Wednesday 16 May, 7:30 pm

Te reo Maori for the numeral 3 is toru; thus ‘Toru Trio’ is a redundancy. This instrumental trio comprises harp, viola and flute, modelled on Debussy’s war-time piece; all are players in Orchestra Wellington. All the pieces were composed in the last 100 years (though the Debussy himself was a couple of years outside that frame).

Their arrival on stage made a striking impression: Karen Batten in a dramatic gold dress, Ingrid Bauer a dress of more coppery gold, and Sophia Acheson wore a near luminous, black dress. And while the Little Theatre is an intimate space with a dry acoustic that leaves performances quite exposed, a distinct compensation is the players closeness. That means the audience could be diverted by three attractive, personable and versatile musicians who use their instruments to produce often unfamiliar sounds and visual experiences; in particular, the harpist’s manipulations of hands and feet on her formidable instrument were always intriguing.

Three of the five pieces engaged all three players while the Bax and Bitzen were scored for only two of them. The way the cards fell resulted in the omnipresence of Sophia Acheson’s viola in all five works.

The concert presented several unusual aspects: the uncommon instrumental combination, that only one piece was by a composer whose name would have been familiar to all the audience, that the trio had invited a young New Zealand composer to compose a piece for them, and that they were in the middle of a Chamber Music New Zealand tour to eight smaller towns and cities from Warkworth via Gisborne, Motueka, etc to Gore in the south.

Debussy creates a new musical form
Debussy started it all. At the beginning of the First World War, Debussy decided to write six sonatas, for different combinations of instruments referencing eighteenth century French musical traditions. Just as Ravel had done with his Tombeau de Couperin, Debussy wanted to make a patriotic French gesture in support of French soldiers facing the horrors of the war. He wrote only three of the six – for cello and piano, this one, and one for violin and piano: he died too soon. The other three were planned: Debussy had written in the manuscript of his violin sonata that the fourth sonata should be written for oboe, horn and harpsichord, the fifth for trumpet, clarinet, bassoon and piano, and the sixth for all the preceding instrument plus others.

For the sixth and final sonata, Debussy envisaged: “a concerto where the sonorites of the ‘various instruments’ combine, with the gracious assistance of the double bass”, making the instrumentation: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, harp, piano, harpsichord, violin, viola, cello, double bass; it would have been a masterpiece. Debussy’s three non-existent works would, like this trio, have inspired scores of works for those new combinations.

In some ways it’s a risky business to combine three such disparate instruments, and to play in such an exposed acoustic as the Lower Hutt Little Theatre, poses an even greater challenge; it’s one thing to be able to hear with such clarity the distinct sounds of each instrument, but it’s something else to deal with the challenge of achieving real blending; and that might be a minor criticism of their playing. Debussy makes a feature of their utterly different sounds by asking each player to introduce her part in its characteristic way, exploiting quite interestingly the differences in compass and tone.

It creates striking effects, viola and flute pursuing very different ranges; early on the harp plays very high while the viola plays repeatedly a very low note. The sonorities are most curious at times; we are not very used, for example, to the viola playing alone over such long passages. The programme note usefully described each theme and their instrumental treatment, and drew attention to their repetition in a different order.

The minuet second movement, primarily in triple, minuet time imperceptibly changes to common time, at times misleading the listener, while the Finale returns to 4/4, and employ the harp at the start in a low register, rather murmuring. For the most part the playing was so sensitive and each player clearly paid such attention to what others were doing that the music began to sound inevitable. While I am familiar enough with it, I remember many years ago finding it elusive and tonally rather disparate. It’s one of those pieces – many of Debussy’s are – that slowly, deeply takes root, more in the instinctive mind than the intellect.

A Bax Fantasy
The Bax piece, for viola and harp, called a Fantasy Sonata, which had become a fashion after English musicologist and a notable compiler of a great encyclopaedia of chamber music, W W Cobbett (it’s near my desk), established a competition that seeking to revive the 16th century English musical form. Numbers of works were produced (Armstrong Gibbs, Bridge, Howells, Ireland, Britten).

Bax’s was perhaps more straight-forward melodically than Debussy’s trio; I didn’t know it, but it’s an attractive piece, and presenting less of an instrumental challenge. And again the players revealed a happy rapport handling dynamics sympathetically, idiomatically.

Tabea Squire is a young Wellington composer whose composing gifts have led to several commissions. This piece, for all three instruments, was not on a large scale and the task was to simulate sounds in nature: the contrasting colours of the kowhai, the image of children dancing in the rain, and a fantail fluttering among trees in the sunlight. While this kind of inspiration for music generally usually doesn’t seem very fruitful (to me); in fact I think it’s more likely to succeed as music without visual or literary or some intellectual construct. Its variety and the handling of parts for each instrument, individually or in ensemble, and the evidence of plain musical invention are enough.

Flute and viola then played a piece by a young (at my age, ‘young’ seems to refer more and more to anyone under 40) German composer, Wendelin Bitzan. This time, zoo animals in curious situations, but stimulating the composer to devise often amusing sonic imagery. Occasionally, the sounds were evocative enough, not to create pictures of the creatures named, but to be engaging nevertheless; moments that were amusing, even bizarre, both in concept and actualisation.

Astrology in music
Then a third piece that had an extra-musical origin: William Mathias’s Zodiac Trio which again presented a scenario that seemed to demand a lot from the imagination, if one sought useful characterisations from Mathias’s impressions of that nature of Pisces, Aries and Taurus. One of the players (I think, violist Sophia Acheson) claimed a Zodiac association with one of the three signs employed by Mathias; I can claim none, so I was able to listen without prejudice to the musical interpretations of these forces.

These three pieces might have been obscure astrologically, but as I wrote above, that was irrelevant; they were attractive musical creations, sometimes beguiling, occasionally droll and often musically inventive. Taurus did indeed suggest the force, energy and danger of a loose bull, as there were moments where these very disparate instruments truly came together in an integrated way.

Debussy’s trio has given rise to an impressive body of musical descendants and to as many threesomes devoted to their performance (look in Wikipedia). There is a rich and every-so-often very rewarding field for Toru to cultivate.

Given that this Hutt Valley concert was Toru’s only appearance in the Wellington region in the course of an eight-concert tour, its excellence deserved a bigger audience.

Wellington Youth Orchestra goes for broke with Beethoven

Wellington Youth Orchestra presents:

MOZART – Overture “The Magic Flute” K.620
ELGAR – Serenade for Strings in E Minor Op.20
BEETHOVEN – Symphony No.5 in C Minor Op. 67

Wellington Youth Orchestra
Andrew Joyce (conductor)

Sacred Heart Cathedral,
Hill St., Wellington

Monday 14th May, 2018

This was, I thought, a well-nigh-perfect concert in terms of length and proportion – as well, it nicely varied the “standard” overture/concerto/symphonic work formula for classical orchestral concerts, one which doesn’t really cater for a particular kind of repertoire, which, as a result, is often overlooked. Elgar’s adorable String Serenade Op. 20 is a prime example of a piece of music that doesn’t easily fit in unless those in charge “dare to be different” in their programming. The result  here was enchanting – and how many other serenades, incidental music suites, symphonic poems and sinfoniettas would similarly enliven concert programmes, one would think, if given the chance!

One couldn’t really cavil at the opting for an overture to begin the proceedings – and though I seem to recall having heard Mozart’s Overture to “The Magic Flute” played in concert a number of times  over the past couple of seasons, I fortunately never actually tire of the music, even though there must be goodness knows how many other pieces which could theoretically kick-start an evening’s music-making just as excitingly and perhaps more enterprisingly. That said, the opening sounds were splendidly-wrought, with those three ceremonial chords at the beginning having a particularly rich and sonorous quality, their upward progression suggesting palpable “lift-off” thanks to the playing’s thrust and full-throated tones. Andrew Joyce’s direction kept the players focused surely on the music’s on-going “shaping up” to a point of release, which came with the allegro – here, the tempo was firm rather than frenetic, with the players given room to enunciate and phrase each entry, so that the notes generated strength and plenty of cumulative excitement. The winds added piquancy and poise, leading up to the return of the brass chords, dignified and somehow more ritualistic than at the opening.

The strings stole in again immediately afterwards, their intent more serious-sounding, and their purpose tested by brass-and -timpani irruptions, with the winds seeking to counter the troubles with rounded, liquid phrases. I thought the give-and-take between the orchestra’s different sections beautifully contoured, keeping the symbiosis of parts and the sense of growing excitement in check up to the point where a crescendo allowed the brass and timpani to raise their voices and  expend their energies in exhilarating fashion. I thought the conductor could have allowed his trombones to roar a little more exuberantly at the end, but the playing still managed to capture a wild fairy-tale-like climax of scene-setting excitement and rumbustion.

So deliciously removed from such festive splendour were the first few phrases of Elgar’s E Minor Serenade, one of the composer’s most beautiful and heartfelt creations. This performance didn’t at first wear its heart on its sleeve, but suggested forward-thinking purpose right from the beginning, instead – here was the confident stride of the countryman, setting the music on its inexorable course, though not without the occasional gathering-in of momentum and allowing of the music to “float” so very effectively and lyrically over a series of exchanges of dynamics in the ensemble. Those  between solo violin and the rest of the strings were particularly affecting, as if in contemplation of either the beauties of a local landform or natural phenomenon, or some other tender thought, before the instruments returned to the music’s original purpose. Joyce shaped these contrasts of expression with the players most sensitively, bringing out a surge of untrammelled feeling via a final flourish, before contemplation again took hold of the music at the movement’s end.

How beautifully the players caressed the slow movement’s repeated upward-reaching opening phrase – not with absolute unanimity, but still with sufficient beauty of tone to capture the composer’s impulsive flight of feeling.  And how tremulously the ensemble then breathed the first phrases of a melody whose repeated sequencing borrowed from this same upward-reaching opening idea – a masterstroke of organic creation! The third and final ascent of the tune’s hushed contourings produced a real frisson of breath-catching beauty, one which gave added poignancy to the minor-key recitatives that followed, and to the more full-blooded return of the same sequenced ascents, the full-bodied tones of the playing imparting a great warmth of spirit to the composer’s outpourings.

The finale’s warm, resonant open-string gestures at its beginning suggested something free and wind-borne, encouraging playing whose repeated upward thrusts had an infectious exuberance – the lower strings dug particularly trenchantly into their notes, creating resonances all round, and a rich sense of well-being. Something of the striding manner of the first movement then returned, heralded by the opening figure. Joyce and his players caught both its stoic, valedictory aspect and a barely-disguised regretful feeling of having to let go of a treasured moment of happiness – I thought it all a lovely, sensitive performance.

After the interval came Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, a mountain-like work that every orchestra occasionally climbs as a matter of course, a kind of self-defining act – but a work which also happens to convey like no other piece of music the indomitable human spirit, a creative act of affirmation and defiance at one and the same time. Though modern professional orchestras can now probably play the music accurately almost in their sleep, the music’s greatness easily exposes any such lack of real commitment to its message – Beethoven’s own maxim, ‘“The idea counts more than its execution”, unequivocally tells all interpreters of this work what their priorities in performance ought to be!

Andrew Joyce and his players stayed not upon the order of their going, but tore into the music, giving us directly urgent opening declamations free from any rhetoric, and purposeful trajectories, the repeat of the opening dealing with “first-time round” thrills and spills to even more thrilling, more sharply-focused effect. Beethoven’s string writing here, and throughout the first part of the development here simply leapt off the page at all times, inspiring the winds to exchange phrases in kind, and goading the horns into urgency when announcing the oncoming recapitulation. Not every note was cleanly reached, but in the urgency of the music’s cut and thrust no one cared, everybody, audience included, taken up with what was about to happen next! The oboist enjoyed his sonorous lyrical moment, but the respite was short-lived, as the conductor drove his bright-eyed and determinedly resolute players onwards to the  driving, stamping measures of the last few pages, the lower strings a tower of strength as the dance seemed to turn into a kind of demonstration, winds, strings and timpani punching home their phrases with gusto.

The slow movement’s opening phrases almost danced their way into the argument, the tempi sprightly and the interchange between strings and winds a joy, before an orchestral irruption burst out and awakened the brass, who brought forth stentorian utterances of splendour. The many exchanges throughout the movement continued even-handedly, sections “holding their own” right up to the movement’s coda, here jaunty and detailed, the conductor keeping things moving until the strings and winds brought a kind of Apollonian glow to the music, though the brass kept us in touch with sterner realities with their brief first-movement “reminder” at the end.

Drama and portent dominated the scherzo movement’s ominous-sounding opening, the horns here bursting out impulsively with the rhythmic “motto”, and the strings matching them in intent – and then, what tremendous playing there was by the lower strings in particular, in the fugue-like trio! – muscularity and precision! The famous “Great Goblin” (E.M.Forster) sequence then walked “quietly over the universe from end to end” – and suddenly we were held in the throes of the throbbing transition to the work’s finale, tapping drumbeats and sotto voce strings seemingly caught in the throes of making a decision to act, which the whole orchestra did with a vengeance, preparing the way for the finale’s first grand statement.

As with the first movement of the work Joyce encouraged the players to bring out the music’s urgency and dynamic force, which they did, assuming a “take no prisoners” attitude, which whirled us through the different sequences, again making light of the “thrills and spills” aspect while drawing the strands of the whole together in an exhilarating, “driven” way. Ultimately the performance’s fervour carried the day, and brought the work to a suitably festive conclusion. What a privilege, I confess to feeling, to have made that journey under the auspices of so many talented young musicians! All credit to Andrew Joyce, whose performance stewardship of the orchestra over these vast spans of music never flagged and resulted in a memorable and colourful concert.









Impressive and stylish performance of Bach’s great Mass in B minor celebrates choir’s 50 years

Celebrating 50 years: The Bach Choir of Wellington, conducted by Peter Walls

Bach: Mass in B minor

With Nicola Holt (soprano), Maaike Christie-Beekman (alto), Lachlan Craig (tenor), Simon Christie (bass), Douglas Mews (organ) and the Chiesa Ensemble

Sacred Heart Cathedral

Sunday, 13 May 2018, 3.00pm

A handsome A4-size printed programme with a good size of typeface greeted the almost capacity audience at the concert.  Inside was a potted history of the choir, and good programme notes, credited to the internet source, plus entire libretto of the Mass, with English translations.

This work, one of the pinnacles of the choral repertoire, is Bach’s only Mass, though made up partly of a number of earlier pieces, written independently.  It is fraught with difficulties for all participants.  Scholarship has waxed and waned somewhat over the 50 years of the Bach Choir’s life, as to the ‘correct’ techniques for singing and playing this baroque repertoire.  However, with baroque expert Peter Walls at the helm, the style was consistent and the performance was vigorous and stylish.

A large part of the success of the performance was due to the Chiesa Ensemble.  This orchestral ensemble was made up of professional players from the NZSO and Orchestra Wellington, 21 in number.  Their playing was always good, and often brilliant.  The team of soloists was also very fine, and thoroughly in tune with the demanding requirements of their roles.

The 50-strong choir acquitted itself well, for the most part.  It began in fine form with the Kyrie clearly enunciated – ‘k’ is a difficult consonant to get over when singing, but there was no doubt about it here.  It only took a moment for me to think ‘Now we’re in for a good time’.  Excellent bassoon playing soon made itself felt (Robert Weeks, David Angus), conversely, as so often with amateur choirs, the tenors were somewhat weak at this stage.

However, above all, the sheer majesty and complexity of Bach’s contrapuntal writing is mind-blowing.  Confidence and accuracy built up after a bit, and soon the singing became as resplendent in its grandeur as was the score.  Christe eleison is a duet for soprano and alto.  The voices of the two women matched amazingly well, while the accompanying string-playing was notably fine.  Here and elsewhere during solos the choir got to sit down – the men at the rear of the sanctuary, the women on seats along the sides of the church.  They moved quickly and unobtrusively in and out of position each time, as the soloists in turn moved in and out of their respective positions.

The repeat of the Kyrie began with basses, making a solid sound, though they were not as flexible as the women’s voices.  This section was more harmonically interesting than the first iteration.

The Gloria featured a wonderful brass opening section; the trumpets of Mark Carter, Barrett Hocking and Toby Pringle sounded splendid in this responsive acoustic.  The movement was taken quite fast.  Lilting passages helped to convey the meaning of the words, such as ‘…on earth peace to men of goodwill’.  Continuously florid passages were handled superbly well by the choir.  The trumpets celebrated with great élan.

Next came the beautiful solo aria: Laudamus te.  It was sung at a faster pace than I have heard it before, but all the florid twists were beautifully negotiated.  Accompaniment from strings and organ was splendid.  Though not playing baroque era instruments or modern copies, the strings played in baroque style.  The chorus’s Gratias agimus tibi was magnificently sung, with trumpets and timpani (Laurence Reese) again to the fore.

Then soprano and tenor soloists sang the lovely duet Domine Deus, with a gorgeous flute obbligato (Kirstin Eade, Nancy Luther).   Lachlan Craig proved to have a very pleasant voice, while the flute playing was wonderful; the whole effect was most uplifting.  The choir returned for Qui tollis, which appropriately employed a lower pitch, and subdued and even anguished tones.  The musical lines conveyed this, while contemplatinh Christ’s redemption of man’s sin.  Significantly, the final chord resolved back into a major key.

There followed a solo for alto, Qui sedes ad dextram.  Maaike Christie-Beekman’s words were very clear.  Every run and turn was beautifully executed.  Bass Simon Christie followed with Quonism tu solus sanctus.  He sang this difficult aria most competently, with conviction.  The choir returned to sing the final chorus in this movement, and in this half of the performance: Cum Sancto Spiritu, in very lively and joyful fashion, with a brisk pace.  It was rhythmically strong, and tenors acquitted themselves well here, however the sopranos were not fully in agreement on the top note.  The final ‘Amen’ was sung with an emphatic flourish.

After the interval came the Credo.  It had a calm opening.  The choir’s intonation was a little rusty after their break, in Credo in unum deum.  It took a little time to get back into full fettle.  The two women soloists excelled in Et in unum Dominum.  They had a delightful orchestral accompaniment, featuring particularly the sumptuous oboes of Stacey Dixon and Louise Cox.  This was one of the finest moments of the afternoon.

The chorus Et incarnatus est began with smooth, reassuring music, but soon changed at the Crucifixus.  The intervals and chords employed expressed suffering and anguish, only to be abruptly overtaken by Et resurrexit’s joy and jubilation.  There were so many strands in the chorus’s line Cujus regni non erit finis – perhaps depicting the many souls in heaven.  The chorus contribution was very grand.

Simon Christie sang the splendid bass aria Et in Spiritum Sanctum, with lovely back-up from oboes and bassoons.  Perhaps a bigger voice would have made more impact, but Christie sang with great clarity and accuracy, and pleasing timbre.  Confiteor unum baptisma had a flowing style, but the choir sounded a little uncertain in places, and also in Et expecto resurrectionem.

Bach gave the Sanctus a rousing and imposing character, unlike the text’s treatment in numerous other masses.  At the beginning it was treated harmonically rather than contrapuntally; it had the weight of majesty about it.  As it proceeded, the music became more florid; Pleni sunt coeli haa a fugal setting, very fast.   An exultant Osanna ended the movement.

Benedictus was sung by the solo tenor accompanied by a gorgeous flute and continuo.  It was very gracefully sung.  The choir did not start together in the repeat Osanna, and the singers were almost overwhelmed by the brilliant trumpets and organ (mainly, Douglas Mews played a quiet nd tasteful continuo).

The Agnus Dei  was an aria for alto, and was sung exquisitely by Maaike Christie-Beekman with marvellous strings accompanying.  The final chorus Dona nobis pacem had grandeur about it; the jubilant Amen ended the concert with the choir still singing very well.  It takes stamina to last the distance; all performers and especially Peter Walls, had it in spades.  The audience applauded with great enthusiasm.  Well done, all, but especially J.S. Bach.



Vivaldi triumphs in the NZSO’s Italian celebration

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
VIVALDI – The Four Seasons Op.8 Nos 1-4 *
BERLIOZ – Roman Carnival Overture Op. 9
RESPIGHI – Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome) 1924 **

Angelo Xiang Yu (violin) *
Brett Mitchell (conductor)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Members of the Wellington Brass Band**

MIchael Fowler Centre,

Saturday, 12th May 2018

What a boringly predictable world it would be if everything in it turned out as one anticipated! I sat pondering this earth-shattering truism during the interval of Saturday evening’s NZSO concert in the wake of the most inspiring and life-enhancing performance of Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” I’ve heard since first encountering New Zealand violinist Alan Loveday’s now-legendary recording of the work with Neville Marriner’s Academy of St.Martin-in-the-Fields, from the 1970s. Just as that performance blew away the cobwebs and reinvented the work for its time, so did Angelo Xiang Yu’s absolutely riveting playing of the solo violin part and the NZSO players’ galvanic response do much the same for me on this occasion, in the concert hall.

In fact I was expecting very little to come from this, my latest encounter with the work, for the simple reason that I’d heard it played on record so many times and, of course, misappropriated over the years in a thousand different ways – could I face the prospect of those Bremworth Carpet TV ads of the 1960s coming back to haunt me yet again? I felt somewhat “jaded” at the thought of it all, and had difficulty imagining what yet another performance would bring to the music that could be of any new and compelling interest.

My focus in the concert itself on this occasion was firmly centred on what I expected would be the evening’s highlight, Respighi’s Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome), a work I’ve remained violently in love with ever since being “blown away” by my first hearing of the work in concert, some time during the 1970s. And Berlioz’s music, too, had become something of a passion for me, ever since my somewhat bemused initial encounter with an LP containing a number of “Overtures” all of which seemed distinctly odd-ball, the music volatile and angular, though strangely compelling – I persisted, and grew to love their idiosyncrasies, attracted by the composer’s uninhibited use of dynamic and spontaneous contrasts between sheer brilliance and ravishing beauty.

“Lord, what fools we mortals be…” wrote some obscure playwright or other; and my expectations of what I would cherish from the experience of hearing this particular concert were completely confounded, almost right from the first note of the Vivaldi work. I listened to the thistledown-like opening, and straightaway pricked up my ears at its wind-blown, spontaneous-sounding quality, replete with inflections of phrasing and dynamics that suggested the musicians seemed to really “care” about the music.

Both Angelo Xiang Wu and conductor Brett Mitchell readily encouraged the playing’s “pictorial” effects suggested by the music’s different episodes, which followed the descriptions written in a set of poems, presumably also by the composer, which were intended to give listeners precise detailings of what the music is actually “about” – unfortunately these weren’t reproduced in the written programme. I thought I’d go a little way towards making good the omission, by including the English version of the verses that accompanied the opening Concerto, “Spring”.

Springtime is upon us.
The birds celebrate her return with festive song,
and murmuring streams are softly caressed by the breezes.
Thunderstorms, those heralds of Spring, roar, casting their dark mantle over heaven,
Then they die away to silence, and the birds take up their charming songs once more.
On the flower-strewn meadow, with leafy branches rustling overhead, the goat-herd sleeps, his faithful dog beside him.
Led by the festive sound of rustic bagpipes, nymphs and shepherds lightly dance beneath the brilliant canopy of spring.

Thus we heard the brilliant birdsong, shared and echoed between the soloist and the leaders of each of the two violin sections  – enchanting! The “thunderstorms” were allowed their full dynamic effect, with the playing almost “romantic” in its flexibility of phrasing and pulse, very free and spontaneous-sounding. In the slow movement, the exquisitely-moulded ensemble textures beautifully “caught” the rustic beauty of the “leafy branches” over the “flower-strewn meadow”, with a doleful, repeated viola note depicting a dog’s disconsolate barking besides its sleeping master. Angelo Xiang Yu’s delicious and freely “pointed” solo playing then beautifully complemented the “festive sound of rustic bagpipes”, the playing by turns jaunty and gently yielding in its “end-of-day” ambience.

From this the playing and its “engagement factor” simply went from strength to strength throughout each of the remaining concerti. The opening of “Summer” brought forth sounds whose charged, anxious quality was almost portentous in its impact, which the furious beginning of the allegro vividly supported. Together with Andrew Joyce’s solo ‘cello-playing, Xiang Yu’s violin vividly conveyed the restless quality engendered by the heat, and the growing fearfulness caused by the oncoming storm, the players relishing the adagio/presto alternations of the middle movement, depicting flies, gnats and the oncoming tempests. And the concluding presto was quite simply a tour de force of sound and fury, the notes flailing and stinging in a tremendous display of both virtuosity and focused interpretative intent.

“Autumn” afforded us considerable relief on this occasion, the opening jolly and bucolic, the interactions between solo violin and the ‘cello again delightful with  Xiang Yu’s playing exhibiting such characterful humour in places (in fact I couldn’t help chortling out loud at his impish hesitations at one point, which, I’m sorry to say, startled my concert neighbour!). And while, throughout the slow movement, we got nothing like violinist Nigel Kennedy’s infamous “nuclear winter” realisation in his 1989 recording (he’s recorded a more recent version, incidentally, called “Vivaldi – the New Four Seasons” one even more “interventionist”, for those who crave adventure!), the “sleep without a care” sentiments of Vivaldi’s poetry was certainly given instrumental voice from all concerned. Afterwards, as befitted the refreshment sleep gave, the music awoke to plenty of bounce and energy – fortunately, the musical depictions of the hunters harrying their unfortunate prey weren’t as graphic and piteous as the poem’s words suggested.

Came Winter, with its bleak, spectral timbres suggesting snow and ice – I loved the palpable “shudder” with which Xiang Yu concluded each of his opening “shivering” solo flourishes, and enjoyed the dramatic crescendi generated by both the violinist and the ensemble as the movement ran its course. The Largo gently scintillated via delicate pizzicato strings and Douglas Mews’ crisp harpsichord continuo playing, as the violin sang of the joys of contented rest by the fire, though the final movement returned us to the elemental fray, via the “icy path” and the “chill north winds”,  if not without some brief reflection on winter’s “own delights”. However, those same chill winds had the last word, the soloist conjuring up a mini-tempest which the ensemble catches onto, driving the music to a brilliant, no-nonsense conclusion!

I never expected to write so much about this performance, but I simply had to try and convey something of the thrill of engagement with the music-making that I felt, all the more telling for me through its unexpectedness, of course! After deservedly tumultuous applause, Xiang Yu came back and played us, unaccompanied, some Gluck, the Melodie from Orfeo et Euridice, the playing evoking its own unique world of stillness and resignation.

Undoubtedly the stunning impact of this first half went on to play some part in my reaction to what followed – and I did think that, for all its merits, the performance of Berlioz’s most well-known Overture , Roman Carnival (Le Carnaval Romain) never quite attained that level of focused intensity which made the Vivaldi such a gripping experience. For me the most memorable moments were the lyrical sequences which dominated the overture’s first half, including a lovely cor anglais solo, played here by Stacey Dixon – whose name wasn’t listed among the NZSO players in the programme. The more energetic episodes in the piece’s second half were delivered with skill and polish, but I felt that the music’s dangerous “glint” and sense of “edge” hadn’t entirely escaped the comfort zone, so that we weren’t lifted out of our seats and carried along amid waves of wild exuberance – the efforts of the percussion, for instance, I thought wanted more ring and bite (though partly a fault of the MFC’s acoustic difficulty in  effectively “throwing” the sounds from the rear of the orchestral platform up and into the audience’s spaces).

Having said all of this, the spectacular opening of Respighi’s Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome), had plenty of impact, conductor Brett Mitchell keeping the music’s pulses steady, thus allowing the players space in which to generate plenty of weight of tone, and flood the ambiences with that barely-contained sense of excitement suggested by the opening Pines of the Villa Borghese. As the tempi quickened, everything came together in a great torrent of sound, as overwhelming in its insistence as tantalising in its sudden disappearance, leaving a vast, resonating space of darkness and mystery.

Conductor and players here enabled those spaces to be filled with properly subterranean sounds of breath-taking quality, as if the earth itself was softly resonating with its own music – strings, muted horns and deep percussion allowed winds to intone chant-like lines as if we could hear the voices of dead souls who were continuing to plead for salvation, music of Pines near a Catacomb. An off-stage trumpeter (Michael Kirgan) delivered a faultlessly beautiful recitative from the distance, just before the chant-like music seemed to us to swell up from underground and raise a mighty edifice of sound, capping it with a terrific climax!

From the fathomless gloom of the aftermath came pinpricks of light in the magical form of piano figurations, awakening the chaste limpidity of a clarinet solo, floated with fairytale enchantment by Patrick Barry and carried on by the oboe and solo ‘cello amid great washes of impressionistic hues and colours – Holst, Debussy. Ravel and Richard Strauss were all there, amongst the Pines of the Janiculum! – the reappearance of the clarinet brought forth the nightingale’s song to charm and enthrall us just before the onset of distant warlike sounds, a steady, remorseless tramping of marching feet whose purposeful trajectories announced the coming of the Emperor’s legions, passing the Pines of the Appian Way en route to the Capitoline Hill.

For this performance the NZSO enjoyed the sterling services of a number of players from the Wellington Brass Band, whose body of tone with that of the full orchestra’s at the piece’s climax had an almost apocalyptic (I almost wrote “apoplectic”!) effect! A pity, though, I thought, that those first distant trumpet calls couldn’t have been that much more more spatially placed, perhaps made from offstage, to give an even greater sense of distance and expectation and impending glory at the climax. As he’d done throughout, Brett Mitchell controlled both momentums and dynamics with great tactical and musical skill, holding the legions in check until they actually swung into view in the mind’s eye, and came among us, amid scenes of incredible splendour and awe. Respighi actually wanted the ground beneath his army’s feet to tremble with the excitement of it all, and conductor and players triumphantly achieved that impression over the piece’s last few tumultuous bars! Bravo!


Spectacular centenary concert for Leonard Bernstein from the NZSO

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Brett Mitchell with Morgan James – vocalist
Bernstein at 100

Three Dance Episodes from On the Town and two songs
Peter Pan
: ‘Dream with me’,
On the Waterfront
: symphonic suite
Overture and ‘It must be so’, and ‘Glitter and be gay’
West Side Story
: The Balcony Scene (‘Tonight’) and Symphonic Dances

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 11 May 2018, 6:30 pm

Faced with an auditorium less than half full for a concert to celebrate a hundred years of one of the most famous (I carefully refrain from using ‘greatest’) composers and conductors of the 20th century, raised interesting thoughts. One was that I had expected about this sized audience; that, before I’d seen the NZSO offer of big ticket discounts.

I’ve no doubt that everyone interested in classical music and broadly defined popular music recognises the name Bernstein, and would agree that he was a famous and important figure. Name his best known music! Well, of course West Side Story, and, mmm… and some might add Candide, the two Broadway musicals and the ballet Fancy Free, and a few would have heard Chichester Psalms (Orpheus Choir about a year ago), or Mass, and there are three symphonies, aren’t there??? Who’s heard them? And the attentive might recall Orchestra Wellington playing a couple of pieces in 2013 (the Serenade after Plato’s Symposium and Fancy Free), and a brave concert performance in 2012 of Candide from Orchestra Wellington and the Orpheus Choir.

But he doesn’t conform easily to the usual characterisation of a classical composer. Where are the piano sonatas, the other operas, the chamber or choral music? And for that matter, why aren’t his Broadway musicals or his orchestral music, other than what was on this evening’s programme, familiar?

The Symphonic Dances from West Side Story hasn’t been absent from the Wellington concert halls. The NZSO under Miguel Harth-Bedoya played them in October 2012.

On the Town
The pieces from the Broadway musical On the Town of 1944 (a search in the Middle C archive shows the dance episodes were performed by the then ‘Vector Wellington Orchestra’ in July 2009) comprised the three dance episodes and two songs. They opened the concert and brought soprano Morgan James to the stage to sing ‘I can cook too’ and ‘Some other Time’. American conductor Brett Mitchell who I’d heard in a lively, Broadway-style interview on Upbeat at midday, entered and immediately launched into a startling performance of Dance of the Great Lover, the first of the three dances from On the Town which rather astonished me for the super-raunchy, trumpet-attacks from nowhere, then throaty trombones, cutting clarinets (two guest clarinets, David McGregor and John Robinson, in the lead positions I noticed). There was nothing symphonically genteel about it and Mitchell exclaimed at its end, “the NZSO can swing!” I have sometimes dismissed remarks from conductors tackling this genre of American music, that the orchestra has a great feeling for its brazen energy, the rhythms and attack, as if the entire band had served its musical apprenticeship on Broadway. Here such praise seemed totally justified.

Then Morgan James arrived, in the first of four different costumes, each capturing the spirit of the songs she sang. She sang two from On the Town: ‘I can cook too’ and ’Some Other Time’. Of course, she was amplified (I doubt that the 1944 performances were? – miked voices on Broadway only became common in the 1950s. She is a Juilliard graduate and had of course learned how to enrich and project her voice properly. Though she has clearly learned how to use the microphone to advantage, why not let us hear the excellent, unmanipulated voice? Why all the pains to reproduce what Bernstein actually wrote in his score for the orchestra but falsify the voice?).

James’s vocal colours and command of dynamic variety were indeed spectacular and the combination of authentic orchestral sound and a voice that has roots deep in the worlds of Broadway, jazz, most areas of popular music, as well as the traditions and techniques of classical music, was both arresting and flashy. The contrast between her two songs was vivid: the self-confident attack of the Broadway ‘belting’ style of her first song, and her ‘Some Other Time’ that expressed a casual acceptance of the impermanence of a fleeting, shallow romance. And her tour de force, ‘Glitter and be gay’ from Candide, was her parting number; though it was touchingly followed by her encore: ‘There’s a place for us’ from West Side Story.

Likewise, the orchestra created entirely different moods with the other two dances from On the Town: muted trumpets, more prominent oboes and cor anglais, alto saxophone and a great variety of highly polished percussion.

On the Waterfront
The much-played symphonic suite from On the Waterfront employed most of the same characteristics as On the Town with occasional striking solos – from principal horn, from timpani, from tom toms, vibraphone and xylophone, and frequent opulent chorale-like passages from trombones and tuba. Again, there were all the hallmarks of a fine classical composer, a brilliant orchestrator, and above all an orchestra and conductor with all the swing and swagger of popular Broadway.

The overture to Candide has become one of Bernstein’s best known pieces, a compounding of Offenbach and the Chabrier of L’étoile, not to mention Broadway itself. And rather unlike the low-powered performance of Berlioz’s Carnaval romain overture the next evening, the utterly quintessential comedy overture.

Between ‘It must be so’ from Candide and ‘Tonight’ from West Side Story Morgan James spoke interestingly about her musical values, and ended with an almost disembodied top last note.

West Side Story
The Symphonic Dances from West Side Story is a more standard concert work that captures the vitality, violence, anger and occasional calm lyricism (‘Somewhere’ and the Finale) of the score and the orchestra’s playing exhibited all those characteristics with tremendous energy and unflagging precision. Finger-clicking, a shrill whistle… Nowhere more vividly than in the riotous ‘Mambo’ where the only missing element was the dancers.  And then the calm after the long, grieving flute solo brought the suite to a lovely conclusion.

The clamorous applause belied the impression of a small audience.