Lexus Song Quest 2018: Semi-finalists

The semi-finalists for this year’s Lexus Song Quest have been announced.
They are:

Joel Amosa (bass-baritone) – from Auckland, currently Regional Admin Manager for ASB Central Auckland branches banking, while working on numerous oratorios and operas.

Eliza Boom (soprano) – from Whangarei, currently studying her Masters in Music at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.

Chelsea Dolman (soprano) – from Taupō, currently living in Hamilton and a Freemasons NZ Opera Artist with New Zealand Opera.

Jonathan Eyers (baritone) – Grew up on a Waikato dairy farm and studied Bachelor of Music (Hons) at University of Waikato. Currently living in Berlin, Germany.

Joe Haddow (baritone) – from Porirua, currently studying a double Science Major in E Bio and C Bio at Victoria University, while working on The Elixir of Love with New Zealand Opera.

Manase Latu (tenor) – from Tonga and Auckland, currently a Dame Malvina Major Emerging Artist with New Zealand Opera working on The Elixir of Love.

Filipe Manu (tenor) – from Auckland, currently studying a Masters of Music at the Opera Studies programme at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Emily Mwila (soprano) – from Wellington, currently studying a Master of Music in Voice at Mannes School of Music in New York.

Madison Nonoa (soprano) – from Hamilton and currently in London studying a Masters of Music at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Natasha Wilson (soprano) – from Auckland, about to begin a graduate programme at San Francisco University and currently a Dame Malvina Major Emerging Artist with New Zealand Opera working on The Elixir of Love.

The next stage:
The 10 semi-finalists will meet in Wellington mid-July to work with the Head Judge, esteemed soprano and Australian Opera School founder Lisa Gasteen, for an intensive week of coaching including singing technique, stage craft and study proposals.
Semi-Finalists then perform at two live invitation-only Semi-Final concerts on 21 & 22 July in Wellington, where Ms Gasteen will select the five Finalists who will go on to perform with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra at the
Lexus Song Quest Grand Final Gala, on 28 July at the Auckland Town Hall.
Selected Lexus Song Quest entrants will also have the opportunity to participate in the public Lexus Song Quest Masterclass series presented by the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation and conducted by Head Judge Lisa Gasteen.

These open classes will be held at St Andrew’s on the Terrace in Wellington on 24 July and at New Zealand Opera (The Freemasons Foundation Opera Studio) in Auckland on 29 July.


Demanding song recital reflects more ambition than accomplishment

‘The Story of the Birds in the Trees’
William McElwee (baritone) and Heather Easting (piano)

Fauré: Dans les ruines d’une abbaye, Op.2 no1; Les berceaux, Op.23 no.1; Clair de lune, Op.46,no.2
Howells: King David
Schumann: Dichterliebe Op.48

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 27 June 2018, 12.15pm

It is not often that I attend a lunchtime concert at St. Andrew’s and come away disappointed, but that was the case this time.  I am fond of Fauré’s songs and deeply devoted to Schumann’s Dichterliebe.  But this time I could not say I was enchanted by what I heard.

The first song went well.  The second, like a number later on, was perhaps a little low for William McElwee’s voice, in places; the low notes were not mellifluous.  French language was well- pronounced.  ‘Clair de lune’ is a delightful song.  But the singer’s tone was a little harsh at times, and there was a lack of subtlety.  I was reminded of what I heard an adjudicator of a singing competition say once: ‘Chew the words’.

Heather Easting’s piano accompaniments here, and throughout the recital, were splendid, with good variation of tone and dynamics suited the words.  A good feature of this concert was that applause came only at the end of each bracket.  Maybe there was an instruction to the audience about this before the singing began; I was a little late, and missed any pre-concert announcements.

Another excellent feature was that the translations of the songs were printed in the programme, and the names of the poets set by the composers were printed.  Too often they are not given credit.

It was not always easy to catch the words of the Howells song; being in English they were not printed in the programme.  Sometimes here, and again in some of the Schumann songs, the singer was a little under the note; not badly flat, but not right on pitch.  Tone and timbre needed to be varied more.

Perhaps Schumann’s Dichterliebe was too tough an assignment.  The first song speaks of love, desire and longing, but I did not hear these sentiments in the voice part – no excitement or surprised joy.  The second song is one of tears and sighs, but here it seemed to have the same tone and expression as the first one.

The third song is faster, and here some excitement crept in to express feelings.  There was  subtlety in the fourth, (‘When I look in your eyes…’).  The next song should have conveyed breathless anticipation and joy, but I could not hear those emotions.  The great ‘Ich grolle nicht’ is a powerful, dramatic song, about the lover not bearing a grudge although the object of his love appears to have turned against him.  The low notes were too low for the singer to be able to provide them with any expression.  I could not hear any tension or drama – it was too plain and unvarying, but improved by the end.  Another singers’ aphorism I have heard is ‘Do something with every note’.

Throughout, the German language was pronounced well.  The 11th song (‘A youth loved a maiden..’) was livelier, musically, but the voice lacked animation.  The following song (on a sunny summer morning…) needed a calm tone.  The piano accompaniment was exquisite, not least in the lovely postlude to the song.  The 13th  (‘I wept in my dream…’) revealed the  attractive high notes of the singer – they were pleasant and strong.

The 14th song (‘I see you every night in dreams’) had a beautiful piano accompaniment.  The penultimate song suited McElwee’s voice better and sounded fine.  The final song had more character to it and showed off again the singer’s good high notes.  The extended piano postlude was glorious and gentle.

This song cycle is one of the plums of the vocal repertoire, but the fruit here were unripe.  It is emotional and dramatic, and these characteristics needed to be revealed in the voice.


The Heath Quartet – from church and the chamber to the open air

Chamber Music New Zealand presents:

The Heath Quartet
Oliver Heath, Sara Wolstenholme (violins)
Gary Pomeroy (viola), Christopher Murray (‘cello)

JS BACH – Choral Preludes
GARETH FARR – Te Kōanga (CMNZ commission)
JOSEF HAYDN – String Quartet No.55 in D Major Op.71 No.2 (Hob.III:70)
BENJAMIN BRITTEN – String Quartet No.2 in C Major Op.36

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Wednesday, 27th June, 2018

This was a concert whose music-making I thought extraordinary, and I’m still thinking about why this was so days after the event! It was partly to do with the repertoire, which featured a range of diametrically opposed modes of expression from different composers, and partly the result of the Quartet’s singularly “interior” way of realising these different modes, in search of the music’s different and unique essences. That the players succeeded in inhabiting the contrasting structures and vistas of each of the works seemed to me to be borne out by the remarkable diversity of the different pieces’ sound-world. The character of each one had its feet unequivocally planted in the soil by the players and its raison d’etre proclaimed as eloquently as it seemed possible.

I thought the diversity of repertoire underlined by the effect of the opening of Gareth Farr’s evocative Te Kōanga, with its timeless realisations of “mauriora” – the breath of life – in the wake of life-giving exhalations of a different kind from a world away, which had begun the concert. The first music was that of JS Bach’s, the pieces being arrangements for string quartet of three of his Chorale Preludes, the sounds at once austere and tender, abstracted and warm-blooded, and seemingly coaxed from out of the silences by the players. The programme note indicated that the pieces came from the Orgel-Buchlein, an instruction-book which contained a number of melodies derived from Lutheran Chorales. Bach’s son Carl Philippe Emmanuel edited a collection (published in 1788) of these four-part works from which the selection of three here could well have been made.

Each of the pieces were brief realisations of a particular mood associated with an expression of faith, the first, Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein, (When in the hour of utmost need) BWV 641,. a succinct impulse of unshakeable faith, the sounds at once tender and vibrant. The second,  Das alte Jahr vergangen ist (The old year has passed away) BWV 614, sounded at the outset even more inward, its minor key setting expressing a quiet anxiety through  reiterated melody notes and upward chromatic lines as well as a questioning conclusion. I thought the third piece, O Mensch, bewein’ dein’ Sünde gross, (O Man, bewail your great sin) BWV 622, seemed somewhat at odds with its title, the sounds expressing great solace and quiet well-being. A brief ascending passage introduced a sense of striving, one which soon passed, if briefly echoed once again before the music’s serene conclusion.

Came the Gareth Farr work, commissioned by Chamber Music NZ, in memory of musician and luthier Ian Lyons who died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2015 in Wellington. In a brief printed note, the composer emphasised that the piece “was not a lament for Ian – rather, it is a joyous celebration of the things that were important to him”. Translated, the piece’s title, Te Kōanga, means “Spring” or “Planting Season”, and was intended by the composer to signify regeneration associated with the return of the sun and of the spring, with its attendant manifestations of new life and growth.

The music began with vividly ambient evocations of natural sounds – rustlings, murmurings, and birdsong – from violins and viola, over ostinato-like pulsatings from the ‘cello, which the other instruments were gradually drawn into. Atmosphere then became drama with sudden alternations between chorale-like utterances and pulsations, the rhythmic sections echt-Farr, catchy and funky, with even the birds unable to resist the “tow” of the trajectories. The sounds then drifted as if airborne, the violin intoning an exotic -sounding impulse of fancy, a plaintive, wistful strand which the accompanying instruments harmonised, again alternating full-throated Vaughan-Williams-like chordal progressions with delicate wind-blown wisps of sound, then turning the chords into bouncy Bartokian bowing gestures that drily scraped and rasped on the strings. A glow seemed to come over the soundscapes as the birdsong impulses returned, as full-throated as before, as if nature had put on a show and was now bidding us take our leave – but from out of the sounds began a valediction, sombre chords and a lamenting figure, which drifted upwards, held us for a moment, and disappeared into the silences – I sat stunned by all of this at the piece’s end, enthralled by the playing and indescribably touched by the beauty of it all.

What better music to reacquaint us with our lives that that of Josef Haydn’s – in this case, his String Quartet No.55 as per programme, Op.71 No.2, one of three with this Opus number, but belonging to a group of six (including three more published as Op.74) dedicated to one of the composer’s Viennese aristocrat friends, the Count Apponyi. They are regarded as the first string quartets written for public concert performance, rather than for noble connoisseurs in private houses. This change was brought about by Haydn, after almost 30 years of service to the Esterhazy family having been “pensioned off” by a new Prince, and becoming free to offer his services as a composer elsewhere. Enter the impresario Johann Peter Salomon, who persuaded Haydn to visit London in 1791, a venture which brought the composer great renown, and resulted in a second visit three years later. It was for this visit that the composer wrote these quartets which were grander in scale than any he had previously composed.

Right from the work’s beginning the extra amplitude of the writing was expressed by a slow introduction, a feature that was to become commonplace in Haydn’s late instrumental music. Here this took the form of full-throated chords sounding a rich D Major, before tumbling into an allegro whose energies and excitements seemed to take the listener on an exhilarating roller-coaster ride, with many an exciting thrill of ascent/descent and heart-stopping lurch sideways! Particularly striking were the unexpected exploratory modulations of the recapitulation, forays into territories which must have raised many a contemporary listener’s eyebrows in places.

The slow movement’s opening phrase was beautifully voiced by the first violin and most tenderly supported by the murmuring accompaniments throughout. A ’cello-led phrase swung the music into even more heartfelt realms, the expression generating considerable intensity of a kind one might in places associate with a later, romantic age, the playing then bringing out Haydn’s extraordinary inventive way with his material, involving, by turns, strong accents, delicately-pointed phrasings, and delicious triplet sequences. Delectable, too, was the Menuetto, sprightly and strutting at the outset, and in complete contrast with the sombre, and somewhat ghoulish chromatic aspect of the Trio, like a sudden remembrance of a bad or disturbing dream, before returning with renewed pleasure (and some relief) to the opening dance.

As for the finale, the Allegretto gave a “slow-motion” aspect to the music at the very beginning of the finale, one of a machine not properly wound up, or malfunctioning because of some hidden impediment – however, the initial “containment” of the music served to heighten the sense of release, when, two-thirds of the way through the players increased the tempo, and raced joyously to the piece’s end, despatching the final chords with a flourish.

After the interval we made ready to square up to the Britten, the composer’s Second String Quartet in C Major, a work which was premiered on the 250th anniversary of the death of Henry Purcell, a composer for whom Britten had the highest veneration, in fact using in his work a Baroque dance-form, the Chaconne (Chacony), often employed by Purcell himself. Upon reading beforehand about the Heath Quartet’s choice of this work by Britten I wondered why they chose to open the concert with Bach rather than some Purcell, thereby drawing a more immediate link between the latter’s and Britten’s music. The most obvious choice would have been Britten’s own arrangement of Purcell’s 4-part Chacony in G minor for strings – perhaps the Heath Quartet players thought such a course was TOO obvious…….

Whatever the case we were duly presented with a totally compelling listening-experience in the form of this work, one in which the disparate elements of the concert thus far seemed to be brought together as a kind of living musical entity. Beginning with a warm and rich C Major opening, the players emphasised the music’s recitative-like character, with unison declamations over a cello drone, the lines both angular and eloquent. As the music energised and diversified, the exchanges were further enlivened by forceful accented figures, then becalmed by more lyrical contrasts, as from the violin at one point, and the ‘cello at another. Slashing chords over ostinati stirred the blood momentarily, though the music’s mood was obviously bent on further exploration rather than over-relishing any single moment, as whimsy followed whimsy, such as questioning upward glissandi, and irruptions breaking up impulses of forward movement. Ultimately the music seemed to me to express contrasts, between single and concerted sounds, order and disunity, harmony and chaos – the ending characterised this beautifully, its hard-wrought serenity disturbed by a final jog-trot figure!

The second movement’s exhilarating ride, with pesante-like unison shouts sounding over scampering triplets, took us into almost spectral territories, the energies sharp and incisive, despite their thistledown lightness in places, conveying a sense of anxiety amid the excitement, with the punctuating shouts of the downstrokes reminiscent of Mephistofeles’ shouts of “Hup!hup!” in Berlioz’s “La Damnation de Faust”! It came across as a kind of intermezzo movement, really, partly due to its brevity, and partly in retrospect as the precursor to the work’s imposing finale – a Chacony (sometimes called a passacaglia – a theme-and-variations movement), with 21 variations divided into four groups by solo cadenzas from cello, viola and first violin. Britten’s original programme note from the work’s premiere in 1945 refers to the sections expressing aspects of the theme’s (a) harmony, (b) rhythm,  (c) melody, and (d) formal structure. Good to know?

What seemed more to the point from a concert listener’s perspective was the effect of the overall musical journey, one launched by “the” theme, a strongly-accentuated unison line with a kind of “Scottish snap”, a grand and forthright statement which then seemed to fragment into endlessly inventive realisations. We heard burgeonings of upward-and-outward harmonic probings, the solo violin stratospheric in its trajectories, the ‘cello freely modulating the bass line, and the upper strings pushing their explorations to extremes, the sounds seeming the result less of contrivance than of instinct.

Following the ‘cello’s cadenza, the player began a dotted rhythm which spread across the ensemble and took on Nibelung-anvil-like insistence, the music incorporating a swirling  octave descent, a relentless three-note figure, and an anguished-sounding reiterated cry whose canonic delivery screwed up the tensions to bursting point. The floodgates opened with a baton-change running up-and-down figure, from which the viola launched into his (accompanied) cadenza, the violin maintaining a “held” note throughout, and sweetly taking up a theme, which was then repeated in thirds with the other violin, to heart-warming effect, a further upward modulation intensifying its beauty and poignancy. Mid-movement the hall was hushed by the players’ distillation of these beauties and their surety of placement of the changing moods of the music.

A lyrical moment for the violin was further charged by the ensemble’s amazingly heartfelt burgeoning of the melodic contourings, which led to the same instrument’s cadenza, brief but vigorous, and from which the final group of variations sprang. Intensive tremolandi led to a demonstrative series of mighty, concluding chords, whose repetitions immediately brought to my mind the ending of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, with its similarly spaced-out shouts of triumph over various opposing forces. Their cumulative effect here was overwhelming, the sense of an epic undertaking completed an intoxicating feeling on all sides!

As I write this I’m still imbued with a tingling sense of having experienced something quite out of the ordinary – very grateful thanks to the Heath Quartet members for taking us on such a wondrous journey!



Delectable Dvořák, palatable Puccini and delicious Dohnányi at Waikanae

Waikanae Music Society
Emona Piano Quintet (Michael Houstoun, piano; Wilma Smith, violin; Gillian Ansell, viola; Monique Lapins, violin; Eliah Sakakushev-von Bismarck, cello)

Dvořák: Piano Quintet no.2 in A, Op.81
Puccini: Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums)
Dohnányi: Piano Quintet in C minor, Op.1

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 24 June 2018, 2.30pm

The delectable Dvořák quintet was a joy to hear; the Puccini was highly palatable, and the Dohnányi delicious, from an outstanding group of musicians.  Two are present New Zealand String Quartet members, one a former member, plus two highly regarded players.  A large audience heard them play.  Such is the musical activity in Wellington, there were five classical concerts in the Wellington region listed on Middle-C’s Current Events page for Sunday.

The first movement (allegro ma non tanto) opens on piano, then a beautiful melody on the cello proceeds.  The reverie it creates passes, as the other instruments enter with a lively theme.  A slight lack of cohesion at the beginning soon disappeared.  The developments of the theme were all euphonious.  Playing of verve and sensitivity and the fact that every instrument had important passages of their own held the interest.  This was an extended movement full of variety and energy, ending with a great flourish.

The second movement is a Dumka (andante con moto), a form that Dvořák used elsewhere in his chamber music.  This started gently with a solemn passage, that gave way to dance-rhythms and light-hearted phrases of melody, followed by a melancholy sequence with piano delivering the theme.  The strings followed, in music that seemed to denote an acceptance of life’s sorrows, before breaking into a sprightly dance.  A section of pizzicato on cello was most effective.  The movement came to a gentle conclusion.

The Scherzo (Furiant: molto vivace) third movement lived up to its name, being rapid and lively. The piano had some marvellous themes, and strong cello was heard.

The finale (allegro animato – allegro) was a busy movement.  After a fugue, there is a thoughtful chorale section before a bright and triumphant ending.

Puccini’s short Crisantemi was composed for string quartet, in memory of a friend.  Chrysanthemums are the traditional flowers of mourning in Italy.  Puccini later used both the plaintive melodies in his opera Manon Lescaut.  A brief spoken introduction by the cellist told us that this music is used at funerals in Italy, as Barber’s Adagio for Strings is used in the USA.  The music received a very touching performance, with plenty of light and shade.  The four players were absolutely in accord.

Dohnányi’s quartet was published as his Opus 1, although he had written quite a lot of music prior to it.  Von Bismarck, in his remarks, said some of the music was reminiscent of Richard Strauss.  There was fine playing from all the  members in this well-balanced quintet.

Grand themes featured in the first movement (allegro).  Unusually, there was a passage for strings in unison.  The Scherzo (allegro vivace) second movement had a fidgety opening, followed by calmer, more solemn music.  It had a link to the opening work of today’s concert, in the use of the Bohemian Furiant which was the lively part of the Scherzo.  The players performed it with verve and absolute unanimity.

The third movement (adagio, quasi andante) was in 5/4 rhythm, and began with a wonderful romantic melody on cello.  Viola soon had its turn, and the other instruments joined in.  The romantic mood persisted, and the music became quite excited.  Quiet episodes were interspersed with animated ones.

The Finale (allegro animato – allegro) was a dance.  A fast-flowing fugue developed.  The music worked up to an animated climax and an emotional conclusion.

Altogether, this was a memorable concert from top musicians, and was much appreciated by the audience.


Dvořák with Rolf Gjelsten wins all hearts at Wellington Chamber Orchestra concert

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:
DVOŘÁK – ‘Cello Concerto in B Minor Op. 104
BRAHMS – Symphony No.2 in D Major Op.73

Rolf Gjelsten – solo ‘cello
Rachel Hyde – conductor
Wellington Chamber Orchestra

St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace Church

Sunday 24th June 2018

As part of the “run-up” to this particular Wellington Chamber Orchestra concert, its second of the current year, the Orchestra circulated on-line a truly inspiring issue of its occasional newsletter, Notes, one which I was delighted to get, in view of what was “coming”.  It featured a heartwarming contribution from the concert’s soloist, Rolf Gjelsten, who’s of course the ‘cellist of the much-acclaimed New Zealand String Quartet. His love for and anticipation of playing the Dvořák concerto came across strongly, as did his delight at the prospect of working with the orchestra once again (a previous collaboration involved the Brahms Double Concerto), due to the inspiration he readily derived from working with amateur musicians, who play “for love” (as the word “amateur) suggests.

Regarded generally as the greatest of ‘Cello Concertos, Dvořák’s work dates from his years in the United States, and was written over the period 1894-95. The work was supposed to be given its premiere by its dedicatee, Hanuš Wihan, but several disagreements between composer and dedicatee resulted in an impasse which delayed the work’s public appearance. By the time things were sorted out, Wihan was unavailable, and the concerto was eventually given its first performance by another ‘cellist, Leo Stern, in 1896, in London, with Dvořák conducting.

The work enshrines something of a personal tragedy for the composer as well, in the form of an excerpt from one of his own songs quoted in the work’s slow movement, “Kez duch muj san” (“Leave me alone”), the first of a set composed in 1887-88, and a favourite of Dvořák’s sister-in-law, Josefina Kaunitzová. Dvořák had fallen in love with Josefina some years before, but his affections were not returned, and he eventually married Josefina’s younger sister Anna.

However, his feelings for his sister-in-law remained, as when news came to Dvořák, while still in the United States, of Josefina’s illness, prompting his inclusion of a quote from the song in the work as a tribute to her. Shortly after the composer and his family returned to Bohemia, Josefina died, and the sorrowful Dvořák rewrote the coda of the concerto to briefly include a further reminiscence of the song, in the composer’s own words, “like a sigh”, before the whole concludes “in a stormy mood”!

Great was the sense of expectancy in St.Andrew’s prior to the appearance of soloist and conductor for the concert’s first half, akin to what I had felt in this same venue a couple of months previously at an event featuring the NZ School of Music Orchestra and the musicians of Te Kōkī Trio playing Beethoven’s grand and celebratory Triple Concerto. This time there was a single ‘cellist, albeit a resplendent-looking figure in his purple shirt, the New Zealand String Quartet’s Rolf Gjelsten, acknowledging the enthusiastic applause and settling himself and his instrument ready to play.

Despite a touch of nervousness at the beginning, with the clarinets a tad ahead of the beat, and the winds playing a swift, featureless legato, without really “phrasing” their lines, the music settled down at the first tutti, conductor Rachel Hyde holding her forces together splendidly, and continuing the flow right up to the entry of the horn with the beautiful second subject. Here it was most winningly played and phrased, and answered as warmly by clarinet and oboe, with the strings then chiming in, bringing a great surge of emotion to the proceedings.

From the moment of Rolf Gjelsten’s first entry, “owning” the concerto’s opening theme without resorting to over-emphasis, I was aware of the prominence given the wind instruments here, a balance which, to my great delight, continued throughout the work. In a live performance of this work one realises by comparison the extent to which soloists on recordings are “over-miked”, creating a sound-picture which distorts the reality of scale between solo instrument and orchestra. Here Gjelsten instead seemed as concerned with allowing other players to “speak” as realising his own tones and phrases, often playing as if accompanying and letting through other solo or ensembled lines. It all conjured up a fresh, out-of-doors feeling, the music-making characterised by a delight of different timbres in places and some hushed, very “aware” accompaniments, with nice work in places from solos such as from the flute.

The great moment of the soloist’s spectacular upward glissando and the following, suitably grand welcoming orchestral tutti was brought off with tremendous elan, the transitions from these to more poetic realisations bringing forth miracles of sensitive playing from all concerned before the eventual triumph of the brass. The conclusion was a bit raucous-sounding, but I think it goes with the territory in the venue’s relatively confined spaces (surely making the restoration of the Town Hall a matter for ever-burgeoning urgency).

By this time in the performance we were confidently awaiting (and got!) a lovely rustic wind-blend of sounds at the slow movement’s beginning, the ‘cello joining in as if breaking into spontaneous song! The clarinets sounded especially mellifluous, supported solidly by the lower brass. The soloist played and phrased with compelling candour, as if confiding in us the music’s private thoughts, a heartfelt episode which culminated in a passionate orchestral outburst of great weight, strings unified in emotion and winds subsequently realising all kinds of detailed responses (including the quotation from Josefina’s “song”), with flute and bassoon strong and steady, and the horns so eloquent, almost Wagnerian in places! All credit was due, I thought, to conductor and players for their concentration and involvement throughout this section, which produced a kind of frisson, a glow of music-making at once intimate and far-reaching, the composer’s thoughts of his lost love poignantly evoked amid light and shade. Towards the end a shadow briefly cast its effect on the music before fading away amid dulcet wind tones.

A quick march jolted us out of our reverie at the finale’s appearance, with great urgency and excitement impulsively generated, even the soloist racing momentarily ahead with his double-stopped melody, though he was soon gathered in!  To my ears it all sounded slightly hectoring at this pace, especially so in the wake of the previous movement’s easeful  flow – however, relief was at hand with the lullabic episode that followed, Gjelsten’s eloquent tones matched by the clarinet with other winds and the strings eventually floating in their strands of airborne fancy. What then really uplifted the spirits was the appearance of a new episode involving the soloist’s unashamedly yearning treatment given a new melody, which was then repeated as a duet between the ‘cello and the concertmaster’s solo violin. It wasn’t a quote from “the song” itself, this time, but surely indicative (in fact, candidly so) of a kind of longed-for partnership of hearts and souls. A great moment came when the orchestra triumphantly asserted the tune’s suggestion of a consummation of sorts (Gjelsten’s playing fiery and intense, here!), with the brass suddenly announcing a kind of “Promised Land” to view, everything strangely reminiscent of “Parsifal”, an impression to do with perhaps a similar kind of longing……

What followed was given to us with remarkable power and poignancy from all concerned, a kind of thoughtful summation of the concerto’s emotional territory, the ‘cellist musing, winds characteristic-sounding in thirds, and distant trumpets calling the heart home, with solo violin again joining the cello in a brief moment of rapture, one leading to a stab of pain from the winds and a cry of sorrow from the ‘cello – vast expanses of a life, its joys and vicissitudes, all regarded in mere seconds before the ‘cello acknowledged the inevitable and surrendered to the orchestra for the last word.

It was perhaps unfortunate that anything had to follow such a “complete in itself” experience!  Ironic, too, that it was the music of Brahms, one of Dvořák’s staunchest supporters, with which the orchestra had, on one level sensibly, opted to continue the concert, but which exerted an entirely different set of demands. The performance of this, the composer’s Second Symphony, had many good moments, the conductor and players having plenty of success with the long, sinuous lines of the music, with some of the instrumental solos falling most gratefully on the ear throughout. It seemed the chief difficulty experienced by the players came with the tricky rhythmic dovetailings the composer delighted in, resulting in sections every now and then getting “out of sync” with one another, and sometimes in places that one wouldn’t expect to be problematical.

The first movement was nicely shaped by conductor Rachel Hyde, encouraging those long, lyrical lines and dovetailed exchanges between strings and wind which give the music a certain pastoral quality. I thought a certain “robust” rhythmic quality wasn’t pronounced strongly enough in places, with the players allowing the figurations to “hurry” at moments where they should have remained steady and “pointed” – difficult to achieve in music as deceptively benign as this! The movement’s central section caught the growing excitement of the composer’s writing, with great growls from the brasses at appropriate moments, while the concluding section featured a nicely-detailed horn solo, rich string sounds and perky oboe-playing.

The second movement’s declamatory opening from the strings received steady support from winds and brass, the ‘cellos and violas rich and warm in the big, almost Elgarian second-subject melody before handing over to the violins. Here, again, a stormy middle section cast shadows mid-movement, with timpani and brass underpinning the powerful statements, the conductor securely holding the last and most powerful utterances together, and allowing the winds space to solemnly announce the portentous timpani-reinforced coda.

After this we needed some light and warmth, and the perky and playful oboe, supported by flute and clarinet lines, lifted our spirits, as did the strings also, at first, with their skipping figures, the ensemble coming unstuck only at the sequence’s end, when the winds, with their Mendelssohn-like interjections brought order and security once again. The strings managed the “darkening” of the music beautifully, though the energies of the vivace section meant trouble in the playground for a few moments! The oboe called order for the last time, supported by the winds and strings, including the horn, and quiet and calm was restored.

After the expectant opening chord, lots of bustle and sotto voce business began the finale, the strings slightly “jumping the starter’s gun” but the race then finding its own joyous striding momentum, the clarinets and supporting splendidly giving notice of some oncoming crossroads, characterised by some shapely and sonorous playing from the lower strings with their contrasting melody. Again the winds steadied and focused the ensemble, their teamwork and detailing a delight, enough for the players to rally towards the end and, encouraged by Rachel Hyde, “let it rip” throughout the coda to exciting and satisfying effect.

In retrospect, whatever the orchestra performed throughout the concert’s second half would have, I think, seemed relatively effortful and hard-won, following such an inspired and beautifully-wrought first-half performance. Incidentally Rolf Gjelsten unobtrusively took his place at the back of the ‘cellos throughout the second half, bringing an appropriate kind of “oneness” to the afternoon’s events, an occasion of whose achievement the orchestra itself could be justly proud.



NZSO in splendid form under Harth-Bedoya with Brahms and Tchaikovsky

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya, with Stefan Jackiw (violin)

Brahms & Tchaikovsky
Farr: He iwi tahi tātou
Brahms: Violin Concerto in D, Op.77
Tchaikovsky: Symphony no.4 in F minor, Op.36

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday, 23 June 2018, 7.30pm

It is always a case of pleasant anticipation when a new Gareth Farr work is to be performed, and this was the case again.  Farr’s piece was commissioned by the NZSO to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s first landing in this country, which occurs next year (he departed from Britain in 1768).

The title comes from Governor William Hobson’s greeting to Maori chiefs as they came forward to sign the Treaty of Waitangi.  In English it is ‘We are all one people’.  Farr stated in the programme note for this short work ‘It is about the unique cultural diversity and energy that makes this country what it is’.

The piece began with a bouncy, rhythmic background to a cor anglais melody.  Percussion and pizzicato strings sustained the rhythm, then strings switched to bowing followed by a cello quartet.  More volume was created by the brass joining in, and tubular bells.  Drummers had perhaps the most exciting role, and we had some native bird calls from a flute.

There came sounds of military confrontation, doubtless the New Zealand Wars, with gong, side-drum and tuba.  These sounds gradually faded, and the tubular bells returned.  The music ended with a huge blast of sound, perhaps denoting a positive future.

Through many nuances this music spoke, and was splendidly performed by the orchestra.

The Violin Concerto is one of the tops in the repertoire.  I know it well through recordings and radio, but have not so often heard it performed live.  Here it was played by young American Stefan Jackiw, of Korean and German heritage.  It was quickly apparent that he is a violinist of great skill and talent.  The music was always beautifully rendered, with attention to detail, beauty of sound, and impeccable tuning and rhythm.  He was deft, and thoroughly on top of the music.  Occasionally, early on, he was overpowered by the orchestra.

He captured beautifully the rather plaintive quality of the solo part in the first movement (allegro ma non troppo).  The large body of orchestral strings were solid and unified, delivering an excellent structure above which the soloist performed brilliantly.  His demanding solo part in this movement was executed with skill and musicality.  The cadenza was thoughtful and subtle, even tender, as well as revealing technical wizardry.  Some of Brahms’s most graceful and memorable music is to be found in this concerto.

Prominent for me in this concerto, despite the magnificent orchestra and violin work, is Brahms’s wonderful writing for woodwind.  This was evident right at the beginning of the first movement.  The second movement (adagio) opened with the wonderful oboe solo, accompanied by the deeper woodwinds and horns.  The violinist takes up the theme and varies it, against a background of quiet strings and haunting woodwind interjections.

The movement develops with increasing brilliance, but that beautiful, nostalgic theme on the oboe returns, with its bassoon accompaniment.  Then the violin rose to an emotional climax and subsided to an exquisite ending.

The mood changes completely in the finale (allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace – poco più presto), and we are whirled into a lively Hungarian dance.  The soloist decorates the theme spectacularly.  The dance becomes fast and furious before the end.

Jackiw generously applauded the orchestra, as its members did him, very warmly, while the audience applauded and cheered him heartily.  He played an encore, Largo from a violin sonata by Johann Sebastian Bach.  It was played with beautiful tone and sensitivity; it included some very quiet passages.

The final work was Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, a work full of fire and passion.  The portentous ‘fate’ motif from the brass at the opening – first trombones and then trumpets play andante sostenuto, but the tempos changes to moderato then later andante again, and finally allegro vivo.  It is a long movement.  The juxtaposition of a wind melody against stuttering strings is a striking touch.  The tuba made itself felt; the whole orchestra blazed forth in a grand manner.

Quiet soon came, with lovely woodwind solo passages that seem to be out of another world from what preceded them.  Strings follow in kind, but the woodwinds have the foreground.  Then it was back to bombast and big themes and gestures for the whole orchestra, and a return of the fateful brass theme.  The full-bodied music returned again.  There were more delicious woodwind and horn solos and ensembles.  A rousing windup ended this monumental movement.  Tchaikovsky was certainly a great orchestrator.

The second movement (andantino in modo canzona) begins with an oboe solo against pizzicato strings.  Cellos then take up this very romantic theme.  Changes of key add to its somewhat mysterious quality.  There are many variations, and as the theme is passed around the orchestra, another theme arises, more playful than the first.  With the addition of brass, it too becomes grand.  The clarinet features, followed by bassoon.

The third movement opens with a long section of magical pizzicato from all the strings, which is interrupted by the woodwinds with a jolly theme, and their echoing the strings’ pizzicato theme.  Finally, it’s the brass’s turn, and the strings pluck again.  The whole is imaginative and effective, with much variation of dynamics.

All join in for the rambunctious finale (allegro con fuoco).  There is a quiet section, and a return of the ‘fate’ theme.  Cymbal claps are part of the dramatic effects that follow, with repetitions of earlier music.  This was an aural spectacle!

Features of the orchestra playing under Harth-Bedoya were delightful pianissimo passages, and plenty of bite and alacrity in the strings.  The orchestra was in splendid form. A shame that there were quite a lot of empty seats downstairs for this concert.


NZ Opera’s trans-Tasman “The Elixir of Love ” a corker!

New Zealand Opera presents:
THE ELIXIR OF LOVE  (L’Elisir d’amore)
– an opera by Gaetano Donizetti (Italian libretto by Felice Romani)

Cast: Adina – Amina Edris
Nemorino – Pene Pati
Belcore – Morgan Pearse
Dr. Dulcamara – Conal Coad
Giannetta – Natasha Wilson

Director: Simon Phillips
Restage Director: Matthew Barclay
Assistant Director: Jacqueline Coats
Designer: Michael Scott-Mitchell
Lighting Designer: Nick Schlieper
Costume Designer: Gabriela Tylesova

Freemasons New Zealand Opera Chorus
Chorusmaster – Michael Vinten

Orchestra Wellington
Conductor: Wyn Davies

Opera House, Wellington
Saturday, 23rd June 2018

(until Saturday 30th June)

Y’ know wot I reckon, mate? I reckon yer need ter get yerself inter town bloody pronto, if yer ain’t a city slicker (I know a few o’ those geezers as well and they’re not bad blokes, considering…..) and grab a cuppla seats for yusself an’ yer missus or yer sheila or whomever, so youse won’t miss out on the show at the Opera House (she’s actually a cracker of an old place, really) – I took the missus, and we bloody  ‘ad a whale of a time! – – yeah, mate, opera! – bloke called Donny…..Donny, er….Donny  Zetty, or whatever, wrote it! – what? – boring? – no fear, mate – well,  yeah,  I ‘ad me doubts when me missus said “We’re goin!” – but stone the crows, mate, we went in an’ sat down, and it got all dark, and the curtains opened and the music started – tell yer wot, mate, I wuz knocked sideways! – I wuz ‘ooked! Bee-YOU-derful! An’ cripes,  could they play! –  loud an’ clear as a bunch of tuis!  – Wot’s that? – Sing?  Like birds in the bush, mate! – Rosellas? – nah! – not those geezers! – real songbirds, I reckon! Yeah!…….just beaut!

I thought I’d begin my review of the evening’s entertainment in keeping with some of the more colloquial surtitle renderings in, er, “Antipodean English” of the production’s sung Italian – but having thrown myself holus bolus into the idioms, I feared I might start to enjoy the process, to the detriment of the actual content! So I shall desist from any further self-indulgence by tearing myself away from these unfettered subversions, these totally un-PC modes of expression, all of which hearken back to a still-remembered time when air was clean and sex was dirty! However, the above sentiments serve to express a basic amazement and exhilaration which relate (in cleaned-up contemporaneous terms) to the bubbling enthusiasms I met with afterwards from all and sundry concerning this joyous presentation!

I must admit to regard attempts at “updating” productions of opera with some scepticism – the motivation for these efforts in many cases (all too apparent in the result) seems to come not out of any deep-seated artistic conviction backed by skill and talent, but from strangely wrought and in my view politically suspect reasonings from certain quarters that modern audiences are unwilling or unable to “connect” with any theatrical experience in a setting more than a century old. The fact that both Greek and Elizabethan drama have triumphantly survived centuries of existence on the strength of their originally-conceived guises (give or take a few degrees of occasional discreetly-applied contemporaneous refraction) seems not to have occurred to the pedlars of default-setting “movement with the times” productions. It’s actually an indictment of the post-modern age, a kind of malaise that seems to have gripped certain strands of activity in the performing arts in general of late – one expressed most succinctly by the Australian cartoonist Leunig, in a famous “Love in the Milky Way” essay, calling it the “dumbing down and pumping up process”, where entertainment and titillation rather than provocation and true engagement are the goals.

So, I’m thrilled to report that director Simon Phillips’ resetting of Donizetti’s and Romani’s original in the early part if the twentieth century in the Australian outback works brilliantly, principally because of Phillips’ ability to “think into and through” the original opera’s raison d’etre. How surely he’s able to maintain the original’s theme of a simple fellow’s naivety in believing in a kind of “love potion” pedalled by a con-man revolves around his adroit use of what he terms “ imperialist” forces at work in Australia around the time of the new setting. These are personified by the English army officer marshalling his recruited forces as part of the war effort, and the travelling “Rawleigh’s Man” from the United States, whose activities are here augmented by a kind of piece de resistance – what Phillips calls in his “director’s message” printed in the programme “the ultimate symbol of capitalist colonisation” – enough said at this point, except that it does its work as THE elixir to resounding effect!

Whether in this particular case God or the Devil was in the detail, any number of small but important features played their part in enhancing Phillips’ vision, while keeping alive the essential spirit of the original which the “update” had happily preserved.  The stage settings and atmospheric lighting evoked the vastness of the Outback (“a lyricism of line and colour” as Phillips put it), the rustic surroundings suggested with as much point as the attendant isolation and hint of psychological claustrophobia. Heightening these salient characteristics were the travellers, soldiers and salesmen, whose distant approaches were charmingly and amusingly portrayed in something akin to an early cinematographic technique, again reinforcing time and place so very effectively and disarmingly. The animal effigies, from cattle and sheep (the latter “shorn” to great and amusing effect) and a telegraph line dotted with birds, to the soldiers’ horses and a dog (who featured in a lovely “summonsed” vignette) contributed to the presentation’s general atmosphere and good-humoured theatricality. And, the con-man Dulcamara’s array of goods was winningly displayed, before being trumped (I use the word advisedly) by the subsequent hyped-up presentation of the elixir itself!

Variously pirouetting, stumbling, strutting, and swanking through the situations played out in this scenario were the principal characters in the story – and firstly came the two would-be “lovers”, Adina, played by Amina Edris, and Nemorino, by Pene Pati (the two singers incidentally, wife and husband respectively, in real life!). Both characters were here beautifully contrived and warmly “fleshed out”, with a winning naturalness of manner underpinning their respective assumptions, and avoiding any suggestion of cliché. Each had their own “agent provocateur” in a wider theatrical sense, Adina her “military man” suitor, the dashing Belcore (a “tour de force” realisation by Morgan Pearse) and Nemorino his “saviour” with a magic elixir, Dr. Dulcamara (a similarly “larger then life” characterisation by Conal Coad). Perhaps Morgan Pearse’s patronisingly pompous portrayal (sorry – those three Ps just slipped out!) of a British Army Officer tipped over into occasional caricature, but the silliness of some of his antics didn’t entirely mask the galvanising effect of his intent upon the opera’s real business, which was the eventual unmasking of love’s TRUE elixir.

Amina Edris, as Adina, splendidly conveyed her character’s charm, flirtatiousness and essential goodness with a stage presence that conveyed both allure and a wholesome “girl-next-door” quality, managing to straightaway convey her ambivalence regarding the story she is reading from a book, the legend of Tristan and Isolde – regarding it as a “bizarra l’avventura”, yet allowing herself a degree of wishful thinking regarding the potion’s capabilities. Her easeful and unselfconscious vocal inflections and detailings consistently brought the text to life, enabling her character to vividly come “full circle” from cocquettish tease to committed sweetheart over the course of the opera. I particularly enjoyed her teasing exposé  with Dulcamara of the source of the “true” elixir (at the bogus doctor’s expense, and in the face of which he gallantly admits defeat), though it was all of a piece with her “testing” her lover Nemorino with his army regiment contract in the final scene, flooding her utterances with emotion when he convinces her it is she that he loves.

Though Nemorino is often portrayed on stage as something of a rustic simpleton, Pene Pati instead put his own great-hearted brand of unswerving single-mindedness into the character’s direct and honest makeup. His unrequited intent towards Adina shone through with a disarmingly simple and sometimes even poetic effect, as with his response to her playfully-avowed kinship with the “fickle breeze”, poignantly coming back at her with his idea of a steadfast river seeking its end in the ocean’s embrace. Always vocally elegant, by turns sensitive and forthright in expression, his portrayal also had moments of droll humour, such as his quick-witted consultation of one of Dulcamara’s surtitles, during an exchange when the latter tried to sing with his mouth full! – a moment which further rounded out his character! His big piece, of course, was “Una furtiva lagrima”, a rendition whose spontaneous-sounding utterance and natural shaping was in complete accord with his efforts and eventual success in winning Adina’s heart.

Director Simon Phillips made the point that the opera’s scenario is ultimately about the psychology of want and need, what he terms the “gullibility of humankind and the perverse complexity of emotional manipulation”. Both Belcore, the dashing sergeant in charge of a troop of recruits on their route march, and Dr.Dulcamara, the purveyor of his “elixir of love” are the catalysts for Adina and Nemorino, in their respective processes of  “working-through” these human conditions to discover their real feelings for one another. Each of their “agents” are caricatures of a kind, Belcore, the Sergeant, the embodiment of a military man, dashing and confident, and regarding himself as “God’s gift to women”, waging a “campaign” of sorts to secure Adina’s affections replete with overweening posturing and bravado. Morgan Pearse relished his opportunities, both physical and vocal,  demonstrating considerable physical dexterity in his swashbuckling attempts to render all female hearts a-flutter (with at least one swooning beauty in evidence) – the soldiers’ arrival with Belcore at their head on splendidly-detailed horse effigies was in itself a spectacle!

As for Conal Coad, a familiar figure for all opera-goers in this country, his was a typically sonorous and well-rounded piece of characterisation as Dr. Dulcamara, plying his wares with all the fervour and theatricality of an old-time preacher, dispensing joy and relief to all, and keeping one step ahead of the law in the process – though he obviously relished his updated Antipodean status as having “establishment” connections with big business and its accompanying status! Although he was able to profit, not unkindly, from Nemorino’s desperation, he met his match in Adina, almost running away with his own imagination at one point in describing the power of her elixir-like charms! – “Questa bocca cosi bella e d’amor la spezieria – Si, hai lambicco ed hai fornello….” – (That pretty mouth is love’s apocathery – yes, you have a crucible and a furnace, you little rogue…). Sly, venal and with an instinct for making easy money, Coad’s Dulcamara depicted a loveable rogue, one whose spontaneous “party-piece” with Adina as a rich senator propositioning a boat-girl, translated amusingly as “You are young and I am rich / Wouldn’t you like to get hitched?” – or words to that effect, added fuel to the flames of fun!

As the village girl Giannetta, in the forefront of the chorus, Natasha Wilson sparkled with fun, along with her female cohorts, delightfully flirtatious firstly with Belcore, and later, with Nemorino, upon hearing news of the latter’s inheritance, via a lately-deceased uncle. Under Michael Vinten’s expert guidance, the voices of the Freemasons NZ Opera Chorus delivered poised and sonorous lines of characterful, detailed tones, bringing to life the more communal moments of the story in a seamless dramatic flow. The Picnic at Hanging Rock-like costumes worked a cracker (sorry!), and contributed most effectively to the evocative “look” of the production.

It all sparkled right from the word go, with conductor Wyn Davies drawing from the Orchestra Wellington players bright and vigorous tones which sang out unimpeded throughout the Wellington Opera House’s grateful acoustic. Whether sensitive lyricism, sparkling effervescence or good-natured buffoonery was called for, Davies and the Orchestra were there as the steadfast and often brilliant consignors of the composer’s magically-wrought score, for our on-going pleasure and delight. All-in-all, I thought this “The Elixir of Love” a most entertaining and richly satisfying production – you might say, if you were so inclined, “a corker!”

Immaculate and varied piano recital from gifted young Russian pianist

Nikolai Saratovsky (Russian pianist)

Bach: Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother, BWV 992
Shostakovich: Prelude and Fugue in A, Op 87/7; Preludes Op 34: No 2 in A minor, No 15 in G flat and No 16 in B flat
Schubert: Impromptu in E flat, Op 90 (D 899) No 2
Brahms: Op 118: No 4 – Intermezzo in A and No 5 – Romanze
Rachmaninov: Barcarolle in G minor, Op 10/3; Preludes, Op 32: No 5 in G and No 12 in G sharp minor
Gershwin: Three Preludes

St John’s Church, Corner Willis and Dixon Streets

Friday 22 June, 6:15 pm

Nikolai Saratovsky is a 31-year-old pianist, brought to New Zealand by Mary Gow, impresario (feminine form??), who runs the Mulled Wine concerts at Paekakariki (you can catch him again, at the Paekakariki Memorial Hall, this Sunday at 2:30 pm).  Mary Gow also organised his concert at St Andrew’s on The Terrace on Thursday lunchtime.

One of a seeming endless flood of musicians from Russia and other former-Soviet states.

Bach opened the recital; an unusual piece, though one whose name resonated; in my case, having not heard the music itself.

Its title is rather uncharacteristic of the aesthetic climate of the early 18th century: Capriccio sopra la lontananza del suo fratello dilettissimo (Capriccio on the departure of a beloved brother). Though Bach(?)’s autograph is lost, the work has acquired Italian titles.
1 Arioso: Adagio — ‘Friends Gather & Try to Dissuade Him…’
2 Andante – ‘They Picture the Dangers Which May Befall Him’
3 Adagiosissimo (or Adagissimo) – ‘The Friends’ Lament’
4 Andante con moto – ‘Since He Cannot Be Dissuaded, They Say Farewell’
5 Allegro pocco – ‘Aria of the Postilion’ (Aria di postiglione)
6 ‘Fugue in Imitation of the Postilion’s Horn’ (Fuga all’imitazione della cornetta di postiglione)

Wikipedia reports that “The story that Bach performed it at age nineteen when his brother, Johann Jacob, left to become an oboist in the army of Charles XII in Sweden, is questionable”. Another musicologist has offered a new theory: that Bach wrote his Capriccio at the age of seventeen and dedicated it to his school friend, George Erdmann, who was departing for Danzig and later served at the Russian court. So its date can thus be guessed at around 1703-5.

If I had been asked to name the composer in the course of the first few minutes, I might not have guessed Bach. An impression that accords, as I have later read, with doubts about its authenticity. Partly, it’s the feel of a piece that seems to lie unusually for the harpsichord, but further, that its calm and rhapsodic-like character hardly sounds like Bach, even though its scenario was not inconceivable.

More significantly, I really couldn’t get a clear idea of the pianist’s grasp of the music, and while the second section was a little quicker, it hardly sounded much more Bach-like; more ornaments and changeable in its phrasing that could have suggested possible risks on the journey. The third part, strangely marked Adagissimo, certainly suggests sadness with its repeated, descending motifs; finally, Bach’s candidature seemed stronger. The Postilion’s octave horn cries marked the fifth movement vividly, and by this time I had come to feel both that Bach was a credible composer candidate and that in Saratovsky we were hearing a highly gifted, unobtrusive and self-effacing musician who was not trying to impose a Bach style where it didn’t clearly exist.

Shostakovich’s collections of preludes (1933), and preludes and fugues (1951) are more read about than heard (in my experience). I await a pianist who will present either collection in its entirety in Wellington. This taste of three Preludes and the second Prelude and Fugue was tantalising, capturing so well their quirky or enigmatic character.

The rest of the programme was both varied and demonstrative, ranging from Schubert’s much loved Impromptu in E flat, a couple of less known, late piano pieces from Brahms’s Op 118, both played with taste and discretion, essentially Brahms in flavour, and to Rachmaninov.

A similar absence of ostentation was clear with Rachmininov: first the Barcarolle in G minor from the Morceaux de salon, Op 10, fleet of detail, natural and impeccable; then two of the Preludes from Op 32: No 5, deceptively difficult to articulate with delicacy, and No 12 (the second to last in the set), the right hand rippling (‘coruscating’ is a favourite word) over a beautifully limpid left hand melody.

But here was an utterly different pianist in Gershwin’s three Preludes; absolutely in the American spirit, vividly striking the contrast between the sombre second, Andante con moto, and the heavy, conflicting rhythms in the first and the more swinging, comfortable (even if it’s marked agitato) third one.

The encores had their purpose in the context of the programme: Rachmaninov’s G minor Prelude, the most familiar after the earlier C sharp minor, and then the piece included in other programmes: the familiar, though hard to attribute, Malaguena by the famous Ernesto Lecuona y Casado. Each contributed another facet of the pianist’s impeccably scrupulous, individual approach to the piano repertoire.

Musical anniversaries: composers and music

Composer Anniversaries

Composer-related dates interest me

This bit of pointless research began as an appendix to my review of Supertonic’s concert on Sunday 20 May in the Pipitea Marae. It was prompted in that review by the death in 1918 of Lili Boulanger, one of whose songs was performed there.

In an appendix to that review I mentioned the obvious ones: Debussy’s death 100 years ago, Bernstein’s birth 100 years ago, Gounod’s birth 200 years ago, Rossini’s death 150 years ago.

I was half aware of several other composers who were born or died in these years. There’s Arrigo Boito (Verdi’s librettist for Otello and Falstaff and also the composer of Mephistophele, which was produced in 1868), 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 Charles Lecocq (1832-1918) who was Offenbach’s successor, even his rival towards the end of his career in the post Franco-Prussian war period (1870 – 1880). His best known pieces were La fille de Madame Angot and Le petit Duc.

More and more obscure
And very tongue-in-cheek, Machart also pointed to one Procida Bucalossi (1832-1918), a British/Italian composer of light music; with that background, naturally, he 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. Scottish composer Hamish MacCunn (Overture: Land of the Mountain and the Flood) and English composer Granville Bantock were born. And in 1668 both François Couperin and interesting English composer John Eccles, were born, 250 years ago.

Gottfried von Einem was born the same year as Bernstein. Austrian, his best-known operas were Dantons Tod and Der Besuch der alten Dame, based on a play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, a biting satire dealing with what a lot of money will do to overcome all moral scruples. I stumbled on a performance in Vienna around 1990; not rich in tunes but musically gripping and damn good theatre.

And now I’m prompted to add another curiosity who has made this year propitious.

Two are the result of a picking up a CD in Sydney a year or so ago, from the splendid record shop, Fish, which used to be in the Queen Victoria Building. A release by a rather recondite French recording company, Gaieté Lyrique, which specialised in the recording of opéra-comique and opérette (which experts take pains to distinguish).

Nicolas Isouard
The CD I picked up contained two short pieces, one by Nicolas Isouard, the other by Ferdinand Poise. Isouard, died in 1818 (Poise was born in 1828). Isouard was born, probably in 1775, in Malta of part French descent, studied in Paris till the Revolution when he returned to Malta. Later, he studied in Palermo and Naples, ostensibly to pursue a banking career but he continued piano studies and counterpoint, and opera composition. His first opera, a drama giocoso, was produced in Florence in 1794.

After returning to Malta he composed four more operas, was favoured by Napoléon when the French occupied Malta from 1798 to 1800. But because he had become a conspicuous Francophile, a problematic attitude after Napoléon was ousted, caution suggested he get out of Malta and he went to Paris where he called himself Nicolo de Malte. There he became a successful composer of some 40 operettas and opéras-comiques, achieving such fame as to be celebrated among the busts that grace the façades of both the Opéra Garnier and the Opéra-Comique in Paris.

And now I see in both the UK opera magazines, Opera and Opera Now, that his home town, Valetta in Malta is reviving his fame with a production of his Cendrillon (which Rossini played round with a few years later as La cenerentola; it was Massenet who wrote the next French version of Cendrillon at the end of the century).

Isouard was among the till recently, totally forgotten composers who flourished around the Revolution between the death of Rameau and the arrival of reasonably well known composers Boïeldieu, Auber, Hérold and so on.

French composers of the Revolution
Opera composers earlier in that inter-regnum – 20 years or so on either side of the Revolution – were Philidor, Gossec, Grétry, Dalayrac, Lesueur, Méhul, Kreutzer, all of whom are now being explored and performed in an upsurge of interest by the French in their many neglected composers. The thrust to discover is substantially driven by a highly enterprising French, Venice-domiciled foundation, Palazzetto Bru Zane – centre de musique romantique française. They are funding the production of many neglected operas, both by totally obscure composers but also by famous composers known by only one or two operas, like Gounod, Thomas, Bizet, Massenet, Delibes …

Not composers – their works
Apart from composer anniversaries, 2018 is also the sesquicentenary of the premiere of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, in the Court Theatre, Munich, 1868. Brahms’s German Requiem was performed that year too. There were other significant opera premieres in 1868, perhaps considered by some to inhabit the second rank: Boito’s Mefistofele, Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas, Smetana’s Dalibor, La périchole by Offenbach.

Just 100 years ago, as the First World War was ending, Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle was premiered in Budapest, and Puccini’s Trilogy (Il tabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi) premiered in New York.

The only important composers active around 1818 were Beethoven, Weber and Rossini; and Cherubini, whom Beethoven thought the greatest composer (after himself, implicitly), after Haydn had died and Schubert hadn’t quite achieved fame . It was a very unproductive period for Beethoven, though he was probably at work on the Hammerklavier sonata. And Rossini was specialising that year in operas that would earn the titles ‘obscure’ or ‘neglected’, though all have of course been revived in recent years. Mosè in Egitto, Adina or Il califfo di Bagdad (though not performed till 1826), and Ricciardo e Zoraide.



A revelatory Bach X 2 lunch recital on piano and organ by Jonathan Berkahn

Jonathan Berkahn (piano and organ)

JS Bach: Fantasia in C minor, BWV 906
Lute suite in C minor, BWV 997: Sarabande and Gigue
CPE Bach: Sonata for Organ in D, Wq. 70/5
JS Bach: Toccata and Fugue in F, BWV 540

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 20 June, 12:15 pm

Jonathan Berkahn is a versatile musician, happy to play any keyboard instrument, including the piano accordion. In this recital he played three J S Bach pieces on the Steinway, then moved to the pipe organ in the gallery to play an organ sonata by CPE Bach and a final Toccata and Fugue by Bach père.

The Fantasia in C minor is a splendid piece which sounds as bold and inspiring on the harpsichord as on the piano; Berkahn’s playing had all the fluency and energy one could look for. His playing doesn’t prioritise subtlety or finesse; yet his playing was accurate with no more than insignificant smudges, but more importantly for me, it conveyed a sense that the pianist admired it greatly and was able to give it a performance that communicated that belief to his listeners.

That was followed by two pieces from a lute suite in C minor that seems to be more played these days as a guitar piece than on lute or keyboard. The entire suite comprises Prélude, Fugue, Sarabande, Gigue et Double, and he played just the Sarabande and Gigue (without the ‘Double’). The first had an unpretentious dignity that began with a certain ambiguity, a study in slow-moving semi-quavers that rather evaded a conventional melody. Berkahn took the Gigue only a little faster, hardly allowing it to inspire anything other than fairly sedate dancing. And though I suspect these pieces are not felt to have quite the weight of the suites for keyboard, for solo cello and other solo instruments or ensembles, they can be invested with much more weight and gravitas simply by the way they are played – the persuasivenss of the player. That’s what Berkahn achieves for me.

C P E Bach 
Berkahn explained that Bach’s eldest son didn’t follow in his father’s organ footsteps, and that he left very few organ pieces. At the church’s main organ he used registrations on separate keyboards that struck me as somewhat too distinct, which created the impression that the bolder, diapason sound came from somewhere out in the middle of the nave. His playing was staccato in character, and hinted at playfulness and even if it didn’t convey evidence of a gifted organ composer, once one had retuned one’s hearing to 50 years later, to the ‘galante’ musical environment of the court of his monarch Frederick the Great, Emanuel Bach finds a respectable place. The middle movement, Adagio e mesto, did offer hints as to Emanuel’s musical inheritance; yet Berkahn’s playing, thoughtful and careful as it was, showed well enough how his father’s genius could never be recaptured, in a different environment, just half a century later.

The very different character of the later 18th century – the ‘rococo’ or ‘galante’ style even more marked – was audible in the final Allegro. I felt that the boisterous triplet quavers in 4/4 time seemed to call for rather more flamboyant registrations and brilliant playing than might have been possible on the St Andrew’s organ .

Toccata and Fugue BWV 540 
Berkahn remained at the gallery organ to play J S Bachs Toccata and Fugue in F, which I found I hardly knew. The toccata is a startling piece, a sort of perpetuum mobile with endless semiquavers on the manual over prolonged pedal points, which became a virtuoso semi-quaver exhibition on the pedals. It must have been an impressive exhibition for those who’d responded to Berkahn’s suggestion to go upstairs to watch.

It certainly sounded splendid from the ground, and I found that I’d scribbled remarks like ‘impressive pedal work’ ‘it seems to lose a bit of what one thinks of as Bach the church organist’; ‘the 21st century organist takes charge’.  (They don’t all survive as considered views). What a contrast then, as the slow, meditative Fugue began, using more sober registrations for an ordinary fugal subject as it began; but one nevertheless sensed the potential for a build up to a level of excitement that might match the toccata; and indeed it did. The fugal figures moved between manuals and pedals with increasing complexity, calmly gaining in fugal elaboration but in unvarying tempo.

The piece was a bit of an eye-opener for me, and I rather look forward to hearing it on a really big organ: how about hurrying up the Town Hall rebuild! In the meantime, this was a rather splendid recital that offered some fresh insights, both into C P E and into a J S Bach work whose unfamiliarity (to me) was a matter of considerable surprise. It was a very rewarding lunch break.