Stroma – Iconic Sonics at the City Gallery, Wellington…..revisiting the new, along with the new

Stroma presents:
ICONIC SONICS – Music by Reuben Jellyman, Iannis Xenakis, Kaija Saariaho,
Witold Lutoslawski and Gyorgy Ligeti

SAARIAHO – New Gates (1996)
LIGETI – Ramifications (1968-9)
JELLEYMAN – Designs (2018 – world premiere)
XENAKIS – Aroura (1971)
LUTOSLAWSKI – Chain 1 (1983)

Stroma, conducted by Hamish McKeich

City Gallery, Civic Square, Wellington

Wednesday 29th August 2018

Eighteen years into the 21st Century a lot of music-lovers are still coming to grips with the innovators and radical figures of twentieth-century music.

It’s a process which was in some ways mirrored a century ago by the fin de siècle attitude of many people to the works of Berlioz, Liszt, Mussorgsky, Bruckner and Mahler, all of whom had to wait for a “later time”, at which stage their creative achievements were able to be given a fairer, more contextual hearing. Each of these composers achieved some degree of early success based on less challenging, more populist aspects of their output at the time, but all as well produced significant music that underwent neglect and/or earned them hostility, some of which “fallout” continues in certain cases to this day.

Each one of the offshore composers represented in this concert emulates those 19th century figures in their music of a century later, wanting to change the existing order of rules and conventions in order to discover hitherto unexplored worlds and renew human creativity. Though there continues to be something of a “divide” between traditionalists and supporters of the new, it’s by no means as pronounced or indeed as “character-assassination-like” in intent as of yore – and in fact there’s plenty more coming-and-going between the two “sides” than there used to be in the good/bad old days!

It’s possible that the music of Gyorgy Ligeti (1923-2006)  is the most widely-disseminated of that of the group, having, of course, been given a “head-start” by Stanley Kubrick in his iconic film 2001 – a Space Odyssey (albeit without the composer’s consent at first).  Ligeti’s music evokes the cosmos like no other, with no sounds conceivably more unearthly or far-flung than his Atmospheres, enthralling a whole generation of film-goers with his micro-polyphonic clusters piled up and intertwined like a great city’s communication-centre’s wires and cables. But he was never content to repeat himself, and though he was continually fascinated by polyphonies he strove to formulate new ways of arranging, or even “de-arranging” (deranging?) them. His Ramifications, for twelve solo strings, which we heard tonight, and which date from the end of the decade of Atmospheres, already show the composer employing “destabilising” techniques – diversifying the polyphonies by having half the ensemble tune higher than the other half, thereby heightening his writing’s tensions with built-in-dissonances.

The piece opened with “nature-sounds”, gently undulating textures pursuing separate patternings, like distant individual conversations, whose resonances seemed to gradually fuse as if organically linked, a kind of naturally-wrought beauty burgeoning towards the stratospheres and growing in intensity. The sounds clustered around and fused with a single note, before others magically “turned on” as if they were glow-worms in a dark cave. Lower instruments began their own patterned journeyings but with more volatile results, irruptions, re-stratifications, everything pursuing its own rhythmic and pitch courses – what frenzy! – what abandonment! – what devastations, as everything played itself out and tumbled down to the depths in a kind of private Gotterdammerung.

But with that, was the work finished? No, Ligeti’s fine wisps of skeletal light then quietly reactivated the “survivors” across a spectrum that reached down to things that went “bump” in the night, all of whom enigmatically withdrew, whispering ethereal blandishments into the composer’s eternities.

At this point I ought to confess that I’ve jumped ahead, as, for housekeeping reasons, the first piece Stroma presented was not Ligeti’s but one written by Kaija Saariaho (b.1952).  This work, titled New Gates was written in 1996, and was derived from a ballet called Maa, from five years earlier. The concert’s excellently-notated printed programme informed us that this ballet is constructed not around a plot as such but built out of “thematic archetypes” representing passing through into something new – gates, doors, journeyings, new worlds. Saariaho’s  sound-world here was accordingly made up of lucid, minimal gestures and figures, allowing we listeners time and space in which to connect with both finely-wrought timbral detail and larger, further-reaching ambiences and movements.

Written for just three instruments, flute, harp and viola, the music sounded a single note out of the silence of its beginning, whose pitch was bent upwards in a way that suggested a striving of impulse towards the heavens.  Throughout the music’s course the flute and violin breathed, bent and stretched their lines as the harp “texturised” the spaces and/or circumlocuted the portals of passage, often “bardic-sounding” as if accompanying a sequence of storytelling, or “fleshing out” an ongoing pulse. Those “fine timbral details” mentioned in the programme note were very much in evidence throughout, the timeless process of progressive change taking on varying forms, the most prevalent being a series of on-going exhalations which for a while gathered up energy and focus and threatened to burgeon without actually doing so, the light and movement of the impulses turning increasingly inward and gradually becoming infinitesimal.

Amid these and other compositional “heavies” stood steadfastedly the music of Reuben Jelleyman, here a world premiere of a work called Designs, written for the Stroma ensemble earlier this year. I thought the programme note, written by the composer, nicely “of a piece” with his music (which, of course, should go without saying, but at times doesn’t always seem to), having a freshness and candour regarding his youthful impressions. The music’s quiet opening belied the soundings of energies that followed from the eight instrumentalists, extremely visceral bendings, burgeonings, swayings, slidings, creakings and slippings, all very kinetic, and uncannily fluid and jagged all at once. The work unhesitatingly reacted with itself along its course, blending repetition with its composer’s reinvention of remembered things, the more extreme sonorities (an agonised screeching whose origin I couldn’t identify through sitting too far back, for example) becoming more integrated dynamically and rhythmically, as if the process of recollection had “shaken them down”. Things reached the point of tonelessness with thrummed strings, and breathed-through winds and brasses resembling ambient sighings as the ghosts drifted back to their places of origin, the harp uncannily playing what sounded like a brief reminiscence of Ravel’s “Introduction and Allegro” from the midst of the sonic debris, the remaining fragments becoming as things forgotten but still forever imprinted. I enjoyed this work due to its accessibility and its thoughtful exploration of the relationship between memory and recreation.

Having always previously trod cautiously around and about the music of Greek composer Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001), I was interested to encounter an autobiography of sorts on an internet post (words which will probably already be familiar to the composer’s fans, of course), in which he talks about the uniqueness of individual human response to music, and specifically to his own creations: – “….Whatever I place there, consciously and probably also unconsciously, is perceived by the listener in a way that is perhaps not completely different, but sufficiently different in any case that you can never immediately draw conclusions about the meaning or value of a piece of music.” Along with Stroma’s programme note for Xenakis’s piece Aroura (1971) which was also written by the composer, the two statements in their different ways emboldened me to throw caution to the winds and “think inside” the sounds that I heard throughout the piece.

Xenakis’s opening observation regarding the title being the Homeric word for “earth” itself spoke volumes, as did the “word-made-flesh” textures of the piece’s sounds, a “virtual recreation” of the earth itself as we perceive it. My notes recorded as many of the multifarious realisations by the instruments as I could (my shortcomings in this exercise obviously akin to one’s limited conscious perceptions of the world – as with life, one does what one can with music!). So this piece marked, for me, an encounter with sounds which I could not only equate at least to some degree with their composer’s avowed intentions, but also allow myself my own impressions of, with hitherto unrealised confidence.

Too many to dwell upon all in detail, here, I’ve retained, firstly, a memory of a particularly haunting sequence of glissandi that opened up most disconcertingly what seemed an ever-widening chasm between lower and upper strings, exposing mysterious and suddenly vulnerable spaces between extremes in which it seemed we lived most of our lives. Then, at the piece’s conclusion, I registered a quiet, sardonic gesture of finality which silenced the “danse macabre” bouncing of bows upon strings (difficult to distinguish between hair and wood from a distance) with a single instrument’s whisperings.

Lastly came the work of Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994) whose music I was introduced to in the 1970s via the composer’s Concerto for Orchestra. This was a work entitled Chain I, written in 1983, and one of a trio of works similarly-titled, though  otherwise unconnected. As with Xenakis’s work, the composer’s comments regarding the music were reproduced in what I thought was a model of its kind for a concert’s printed programme.

Lutoslawski was quoted as saying that he thought the act of composing was a search for listeners who thought and felt the same way he did—he once called it “fishing for souls”.  He wrote his work Chain I in something of that spirit, as a “gift” for the musicians of the London Sinfonietta, whom he had enjoyed working with – he called the work a “souvenir of……common music-making”.

The form of Chains I divided the music into two strands, with sections along the strand overlapped or “staggered” in terms of their beginnings and ends, and forming the greater part of the piece, with things increasing in complexity towards the end and allowing for individual figurations played “ad libitum” forming what Lutoslawski described as a “network of melodies”.

In effect, the sounds were impactful from the word go, with opening bursts of colour and energy reinforced by reverberant brass, then contrasted with cheeky winds flecked by harpsichord and percussion sonorities. The music developed into a dream-like dance, various instruments crossing the spaces as if entranced, the ambiences ghostly or crepuscular, depending on the listener’s predilections. A series of instrumental games featured several solos dovetailed as to produce ever-changing textures containing ravishing moments, whose freely-concerted strands of lyrical expression burgeoned in intensity and energy. Things took on an increasingly martial air until the gong and cymbals sounded us all up with a round turn, the winds flurrying like frightened birds! Having briefly tasted freedom, the ensemble was then reined in, the textures dissolving hue-by-hue and strand-by-strand into the silences.

Mention must be made of the concert’s surroundings, the City Gallery’s walls featuring parts of an exhibition entitled “Iconography of Revolt”, and visually expressing something of the determined individuality and uncompromising impact of new art found in abundance throughout Stroma’s skilled and whole-hearted musical presentations.






Admirable performances in Wellington Regional Aria Contest

Wellington Regional Vocal Competitions
(under auspices of Hutt Valley Performing Arts Competitions Society )

Aria Final
Contestants: Clare Hood, Olivia Sheat, Sophie Sparrow, Alexandra Gandionco, Alicia Cadwgan, Joe Hadlow, Will King, Beth Goulstone
Chief piano accompanist: Catherine Norton
Compère: Georgia Jamieson Emms

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 26 August 2018, 7 pm

Once upon a time, aria contests, as a part of a pattern of performing arts competitions, flourished in every city and many smaller towns throughout New Zealand.  There were aria competitions in both Wellington and the Hutt Valley, part of the pattern of competitions that also included instrumental music as well as dance and drama.

My first ‘professional’ contact with music was in my Upper Sixth year at Wellington College, with a casual back-stage role in the instrumental section of the Wellington Competitions Society which, for a fortnight, occupied both the main auditorium and the concert chamber of the Town Hall. Like anyone involved in the performing arts, it gave me a taste for, perhaps infected me with a love of performance generally. And though I never aspired to push my piano and cello playing to a level that might have had me involved in competitions, I was seduced by the atmosphere.

The Wellington Society fell on hard times and was wound up in the 1970s, and many other societies, including several in major cities have disappeared; but the Hutt Valley Competitions Society struggled on, fairly successfully. There is a parent body called PACANZ (Performing Arts Competitions Association of New Zealand), with about 60 ‘performing arts competitions’ and many other societies devoted to particular performing arts. About 24 of them seemed to include music in their range of activities.

The main prize in the Hutt contest was the Evening Post Aria Prize, funded by paper, and as the Post’s music critic, I performed the dual job of presenting the cheque to the winner in the Lower Hutt Little Theatre and then dashing back to the news room to get my review filed by midnight. But shortly after the merger of the Post with The Dominion, the association was ended.

It was wonderful that the newspaper’s role was soon picked up by the Dame Malvina Major Foundation’s sponsorship with a $4000 first prize, which continues. And it’s also a distinct advantage that it now takes place in Wellington City.

Adjudicator Richard Greager chose eight finalists from the 19 entrants who had been performing over the last three days: six women and two men. All the women were sopranos, the two men baritones. It might have made judging easier; it might not have…. The main accompanist was the splendid Catherine Norton, whose acutely judged, often brilliant accompaniments constantly caught the ear.

Four of the contestants had sung in the recent production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo from Eternity Opera; Joe Haddow sang Charon and Pluto in that opera; and he was a semi-finalist in the recent Lexus Song Quest. Last year he sang The Forrester in The Cunning Little Vixen (New Zealand School of Music). Here, he was awarded the Rokfire Cup for the most outstanding competitor, having sung Leporello’s Catalogue Aria from Don Giovanni with stylish wit, and Philip II’s deeply moving lament, ‘Ella giammai m’amo’ from Verdi’s Don Carlo; one of Verdi’s most profound expressions of self-doubt, in grieving, well modulated tones.

Last year Will King and Alexandra Gandionco also had lead parts in the NZSM’s Cunning Little Vixen and both sang in the recent Orfeo: King in the title role, Gandianco as Euridice. This evening King was named winner of the Dame Malvina Major Aria, which comes with the Rosina Buckman Memorial Cup; from his role in this year’s Orfeo, he chose ‘Possente spirto’ for this evening, with beautiful ornamentation and admirable characterisation. Later he sang ‘Hai già vinta la causa’ expressing the Count’s furious determination to get his dues from Susanna before her marriage. It was simply a most accomplished, spirited performance, and there remained little chance that he was not about to be named the contest winner.

Alexandra Gandionco sang the important (male) role of Gold-Spur, The Fox in The Cunning Little Vixen last year, and here she sang ‘O wär ich schon mit dir vereint’ from Fidelio and ‘Je suis encore tout étourdie’ from Massenet’s Manon. Her voice is an attractive, flexible instrument and her demeanour and gestures very comfortable.

Olivia Sheat had principal roles in Eternity Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro last year, while she sang the prominent role of Proserpine in Orfeo this year. In the evening contest she sang the aria ‘Chi cede al furor’ from Handel’s Serse, and The Song to the Moon from Rusalka (in Czech). She is in good control of phrasing, keenly aware of emotions and sense, and with a lively stage presence.

Alicia Cadwgan had sung Susanna in Wanderlust Opera’s send-up, ‘other’ Marriage of Figaro last year, Her arias this evening were ‘The trees on the mountains’ from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, and the famous aria from Bellini’s Sonnambula – ‘Ah, non credea mirati … ah, non giunge’; warm timbre, a voice comfortable at the top, and an attractive theatrical personality: the Bellini is a taxing aria that demands singular, contrasting emotions and technical talents.

Runner-up in this year’s contest was Sophie Sparrow, and she also won the Patricia Hurley Opera Tours Award. She was another soprano with an attractive voice, a reasonably disciplined top, singing Blonde’s taxing aria, ‘Durch Zärtlichkeit…’ from Die Entführung aus dem Serail and later, the familiar aria from Handel’s Alcina, ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’, emerging as one of the better singers in the coloratura class with her flurries of startling notes.

Soprano Clare Hood, who had the first slot in the evening’s performances, also sang the same Entführing aria, well projected with nice dynamic variety, and then Olympia’s brilliant ‘Doll’s’ aria, from The Tales of Hoffmann. It was a good fit with her voice. And Beth Goulstone chose arias by Mozart and Bizet: ‘Una donna a quindici anni’ from Così fan tutte: Despina’s advice on seduction for the two female victims of the amorous test that is the opera’s concern. And from Les pêcheurs de perles, Leïla’s lovely ‘Comme autrefois’: even voice, expressive tone, good French; it was a very nice aria to end the evening with.

The prize announcements at the end caused me to make a mistake about the winner of the Robin Dumbell Memorial Prize for  ‘the young aria entrant with the most potential’. The name I heard and recorded was Cadwgen. I couldn’t hear very accurately, as I was seated near the back, but had no doubt that it was Alicia Cadwgen (not a common name), as recorded in the programme, and who did indeed sing as I recorded above. I had no reason to doubt that Alicia was among the prize winners. 

I am told however that the winner of that prize was in fact Micaela Cadwgen who was not among the eight finalists who sang on Sunday evening. It’s a pity Micaela’s place in the contest had not been specifically mentioned for the benefit of those who were not personally acquainted with the contestants, and would have concluded, even if they had momentary uncertainty about hearing the first name correctly, that it was indeed the singer who took part on the evening. 

I am embarrassed at having been so misled. 

A feature of the contest in the past couple of years has been the engagement of the talented Georgia Jamieson Emms as compère, giving a pithy, knowledgeable precis of each opera, with her own irreverent translation of the words such as in the Catalogue Aria in Don Giovanni, of Despina’s seduction advice to her two virtuous young friends in Così fan tutte and the Count’s furious determination to get his dues from Susanna before her wedding in The Marriage of Figaro.  The contest can use all such enlivening contributions to increase interest.

There has been an interesting shift in the music chosen by contestants: the name Puccini does not appear, and Verdi, only once. Five contestants chose Mozart and Handel appeared twice; otherwise, composers ranged between Monteverdi and Carlisle Floyd 400 hundred years later.

Since I have been hearing the contests since the late 1980s, I have to say that the standard has risen dramatically: there was really no singer who wasn’t really up to good performance level. In any case, it’s a very worthwhile and enjoyable evening’s music, enlivened particularly by the competitive element.


Musically satisfying concert of three disparate works, from New Zealand String Quartet

New Zealand String Quartet – “Turning Points”
Helene Pohl and Monique Lapins (violins), Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (cello)

Psathas: Abhisheka
Beethoven: String Quartet No 14 in C sharp minor, Op 131
Smetana: String Quartet No 1 in E minor (‘From my life’)

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University (Kelburn campus)

Saturday 25 August, 7:30 pm

The New Zealand String Quartet is in the middle of its big annual tour of the country, taking it from Howick and Waiheke Island to Invercargill (though there are curious omissions, inevitably, with a 12-concert tour – absent are Hamilton, Napier, Christchurch, Dunedin…). However, the two in Wellington evidence the high level of musical discernment found in this city.

The Hunter Council Chamber (the university’s beautiful library in earlier times) is a good venue, just the right size, around 120 seats, for such a recital; it was near full. (But parking is a problem, and there’s a very poor bus service).

John Psathas’s Abhisheka is a formidable piece that employs the string quartet in an unusually imaginative way that yet seems perfectly idiomatic; it emerges from silence, with at first a multi-tone wash of sound, till Helene Pohl’s violin comes into focus. Played by musicians for whom Psathas and contemporary New Zealand music is instinctive, it generates a strongly mystical, spiritual atmosphere, moving minimally around a narrow span of notes, with occasional decorative touches that are really intrinsic rather than ornamental. It slowly grows in animation with accelerating, dynamically expanding, almost excitable passages, then stops. Then it resumes in the original, ethereal spirit, that apart from its purely musical character, seems to evoke a remote region of the cosmos. A fine, sympathetic performance of a piece that is not cast in the typical Psathas style or spirit, but that makes one who does not always seek what Psathas describes a caffeinated spirit, rather wish for more in this spirit.

The spiritual shift from Psathas to one of Beethoven’s late quartets demanded some sort of hearing replacement; both utterly different in style, in handling of the medium, and in the expectations of a generation of listeners almost 200 years later. Cellist Rolf Gjelsten introduced Op 131 by dwelling on the fourth movement, Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile, which is a set of variations like nothing Beethoven’s contemporaries would have heard before.

The first two movements, where the quartet found connection, sympathy between the heavenly spirit of the Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo, and the lively, tripping metre of the Allegro molto vivace that sound like perfectly complementary conceptions.

Then comes the centre-piece, actually two parts. Movement 3, the very brief Allegro moderato that falls away to Andante, an introduction to the centre-piece proper. Movement 4, the Andante ma non troppo, the Variations themselves, begins at a steady walking pace which accelerates, Piu mosso, and continues on through the seven variations that redefine the character of the classical sense of the term. Then the last three movements, fast, slow, fast, roughly speaking, but continuing, no matter how superficially normal or tuneful certain moments were, to create a feeling that still seems radical. And the performance itself reflected a deep seriousness mixed with a delight in life.

Smetana’s first string quartet, inspired by his attempt to create an autobiographical account of his life, was an interesting companion for the Beethoven, and perhaps even the Psathas, each exploring aspects of human difficulty and defeat. Though it opens in a lively manner, full of youthful aspiration, and there are dance motifs in the second movement, and a deeper feeling of optimism flows through the last, the brutal arrival of his deafness motif and its frightening impact on him never fails to shock. The entire piece achieves a feeling of unity, as if each mood or narrative inevitably followed what went before. The foreboding of catastrophe might be restricted to small episodes, but the way the quartet approached it was to sustain the feeling of inevitable tragedy and distress, almost from the very beginning.

Unified by the choice of three superficially disparate works, this was a most thought-provoking and musically satisfying concert.


Rachmaninov and Stravinsky – not such strange bedfellows, courtesy of de Waart and the NZSO

STRAVINSKY – Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920 rev.1947)
Symphony in Three Movements (1945)
RACHMANINOV – Symphony No. 2 in E Minor Op. 27

Edo de Waart (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday, August 24th, 2018

What a pleasure it was to be able to read in the programme NZSO Music Director Edo de Waart’s comments about each of the pieces due to be conducted by him in this evening’s concert with the orchestra. His words resonated on a number of fronts, one of them historical as he touched on the NZSO’s special relationship with Igor Stravinsky, who, in 1961 visited New Zealand at the age of 79 as a renowned “guest conductor” of the orchestra. On that occasion the conducting was shared between the composer and his assistant, Robert Craft, the latter directing the orchestra in one of this evening’s works, the Symphony in Three Movements, and Stravinsky himself taking the baton for Apollon Musagete, followed by the Lullaby and Finale of The Firebird.

Equally fascinating (as well as speaking volumes regarding his versatility as a musician and conductor) was de Waart’s recounting of his own history with some of the music, notably the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, which he had previously performed many times as oboist/director of the Netherlands Wind Ensemble. To then read of his enthusiasm for Rachmaninov’s music via his comments on the Second Symphony (he conducted all the symphonies on record with the Rotterdam Philharmonic) suggests a sensibility on the conductor’s part which inclines towards the inclusive rather than the drawing of demarcation lines between composers based on judgements wrought from fashion or intellectual snobbery.  In their very different ways both Rachmaninov’s and Stravinsky’s works have undergone such travails over the years courtesy of self-styled “high priests” of opinion regarding artistic merit – one turns with some reassurance to Sibelius’s observation on behalf of his vocation in general, that “no-one ever erected a statue to a critic”, even if there exist a handful of exceptions to that dictum.

In fact, Rachmaninov’s and Stravinsky’s differences as creative artists were never the cause for the degree of disjunction between them promoted in certain circles of musical academia, people who regarded their own judgements as something akin to “holy writ”, and dissenters as somewhat lacking in “proper” faculties (Theodor Adorno, for one, regarded Rachmaninov’s music and people’s enjoyment of the same as “regressive” and in one famous instance even “infantile”!). The composers themselves were surprisingly accepting of one another’s music, Rachmaninov speaking of Firebird and Petrushka as “masterpieces”, and regarding even Le Sacre du Printemps as having “solid musical merits in the form of imaginative harmonies and energetic rhythms” (one can, I think, hear Rachmaninov’s debt to Stravinsky in the pounding rhythms of the first of the former’s Symphonic Dances of 1940).

If Stravinsky’s opinion of Rachmaninov’s music was expressed somewhat more equivocally, it was without rancour or condescension – he spoke in later years of the latter’s earlier pieces as “watercolours”, adding that he then “turned to oils and became a very “old” composer”, but qualifying his judgement with the words “….do not expect me to denigrate him for that.” – an attitude in marked contrast to that of many of Stravinsky’s devotees who saw it as their “duty” to summarily disparage Rachmaninov’s music. The two composers famously became neighbours in Beverley Hills towards the end of Rachmaninov’s life, their social interactions apparently marked not by discussions about music but about agents, managers, copyrights and royalties! (For a more detailed account of this interaction between the two composers, click on the link below, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra Public Relations Office, to an article by commentator Michael Steinberg.)

Stravinsky used the title of his work for wind instruments to refer to the original meaning of the word “Symphony”, a “sounding together” – the music derived from a chorale Stravinsky wrote in honour of Debussy, who died in 1918, which gradually developed into what the composer called “a grand chant” using the “objective” tones of wind instruments, as opposed to the “warm, human tone” of strings.  He himself claimed the work lacked any general appeal, containing nothing that resembled his earlier, more popular compositions. Even so, the music at the outset contrasted strident, attention-grabbing wind chords with passages for mellow brass, everything spacious and beautifully al fresco. The mood throughout resembled an enactment of some kind of ritual, not unlike the iconic Le Sacre du Printemps in the intensities generated by the different sections, though with a somewhat loftier, more austere overall effect. At all times, Edo de Waart got playing from his instrumentalists which could only be described as sublime, the ensemble by turns sharply-focused and richly-rounded, the sonorities replete with varied interest and engagement.

The later Symphony in Three Movements seemed to more readily evoke the composer’s past, in the outer sections recalling (once again) the muscularities and acerbities of the aforementioned Le Sacre, as well as using a piano obbligato reminiscent of another of his ballets, Petrushka. The work’s opening sequences resembled in places a circus band that had gone off the rails, with the percussion having great fun! Throughout the movement there seemed an almost “Concerto for Orchestra” aspect, the composer’s writing skilfully interactive while keeping an openness of texture. The piano was given a lot to do, almost like a mediator between sparring elements, each determined to “be themselves”, come what may!  I loved the strings’ articulation of the gentle jog-trot rhythms at the second movement’s beginning, with the harp taking on the obbligato role here, while the winds coloured their sounds for de Waart most exquisitely, relishing their ad lib-like contributions, and creating some magical ambiences together with the strings. The music led the ear innocently enough to the finale’s beginning, at which point what sounded like a jingoistic kind of anarchy unfurled its flag to the strains of pompous fanfares, the composer flying in the face of his own pronouncements regarding music, here (“…music is powerless to express anything except itself…” for example – Igor Stravinsky: An Autobiography 1935) by admitting that he was inspired by World War II newsreels of goose-stepping German soldiers, and that the build-up towards the music’s triumphal ending marked the war’s turning-point in favour of the Allied forces. The debate regarding the composer‘s words in relation to his own music continues, meantime……but for now, I’m happy to report that de Waart and the players gave a performance of the whole that bore out the conductor’s description of the music as a ‘glorious work”.

So we came to the concert’s second half, featuring music by a different composer, one whose attitudes and intentions regarding his work (and music in general) are on record as diametrically removed from any Stravinsky-like ideas of music’s “powerless” objectivity as could be. Edo de Waart unequivocally described Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony as “a haunting and deeply moving work”, thereby cutting the Gordion Knot of binding judgement regarding musical styles by treating all of the concert’s individual works entirely on their own merits. It was ironic, therefore, that, his conducting of the Symphony to my ears didn’t seek to invest the work with any particular nationalistic or geographical character of sound other than a kind of echt-European mellowness of utterance – in other words, his was an objective, well-rounded and beautifully-proportioned reading, one which allowed “the notes”, as written by the composer, to speak for themselves.

Which is another way of my saying that the music here wasn’t made to sound any more “Russian” than what the composer had written into the score. While my preference, when listening to this music, is for rather more “temperament” expressed in occasional volatilities and explorations of near-extremities of tone and timbre, I relished de Waart’s obvious love and respect for the music and its composer, and the orchestra’s sensitive, well-rounded and at times brilliant playing.

We heard a beautifully long-breathed opening pair of exhalations which set the work in motion, before a light, lithe allegro moderato swung into action, its phrases beautifully weighted and nuanced. Throughout each succeeding episode de Waart and his players similarly wove layer upon layer of lyrical utterance, both strings and winds shaping their expression next to great rolling crescendi from the brass, capped by scintillating percussion, until the dancing exuberance of the movement’s coda was done.

More excitement was to be had from the scherzo, incisive strings and ringing horns leading the way, de Waart keeping the exuberance seemly, as well as curbing any overt sentimentality in the phrasing of the second theme, apart from a touch of portamento in one of the upward string figures. The brasses got their galloping syncopations excitingly right, the strings reducing things to a whisper before the whiplash entry of the Trio – here, clear and incisive rather than weighty, though the brass resonances rang deeply and richly soon afterwards. What I always think of as the “Rimsky-Korsakov” sequences – those lovely prancing, wind-decorated martial figures! – had plenty of exotic glitter before things accelerated excitingly towards the reprise of the opening, the movement then racing to its suddenly sombre conclusion, its spectral brasses and ghostly whisperings vanishing into the night.

Again, the famous opening of the slow movement, with its “continuous melody” wrought by strings and clarinet, was simply and directly expressed, with exquisitely-judged playing from clarinettist Patrick Barry, matched later by the NZSO strings, and supported by the other wind-players. Nothing was over-wrought, de Waart keeping the heart-on-sleeve emotion of it all within the realms of natural utterance, while encouraging an interactive sound-picture, the wind counterpoints and brass-and timpani climaxes all part of the greater flow. This served to highlight the finale’s joyous release of energies, even if I thought the horns could have been allowed a more exuberant voice in places – still those echoes of the previous movements made their mark amid the festivities, as did the hushed build-up of the ‘bells” sequence towards a sonorous, scalp-tingling panoply of ringing sounds whose effect was all the greater in the context of the conductor’s restraint elsewhere. And though I occasionally craved more raw excitement in places, I relished de Waart’s insistence on clarity of detail at all times, my ears in a constant state of titillation through registering so much that’s normally masked or underplayed.

A thoroughly-deserved burst of acclamation from an appreciative audience greeted conductor and players as the music’s final hammered-out chords flung their energies out to the four corners of the hall – splendid stuff!







Interesting and rewarding St Andrew’s recital from students of stringed instruments

St Andrew’s Lunchtime concert
String students of the New Zealand School of Music

Music by Beethoven, Shostakovich, Gareth Farr and Wang Xhihao

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 22 August, 12:15 pm

This was one of the usual series of concerts at this time of the year by students of Victoria University’s School of Music (I counted eleven players).

Beethoven came first. Cellist Rebecca Warnes, with the school’s piano tutor Catherine Norton. played the first movement of Beethoven’s third cello sonata, in A major, Op 69. It was a model performance, beginning somewhat quietly, intonation was accurate, with carefully etched tone. It demonstrated Rebecca’s understanding of its emotional character and a style that showed appreciation of the taste of its period.

Violinist Leo Liu, again with Norton at the piano, played Beethoven’s Spring Sonata (Op 24). It’s not an easy piece with which to deal in expressive terms; even though suggestive of Spring (not Beethoven’s name for it) it doesn’t flow easily and Liu’s bowing technique needs perhaps a bit more finesse and emotional colouring, though his intonation was very good.

It’s always interesting to meet players prepared to tackle Shostakovich’s quartets, other than the ubiquitous No 8. The third movement of No 9 in E flat lasts only about four minutes (the first four of the five movements are all of about the same length) but it was enough to hear the way the players (Hayden Nickey, Ellen Murfitt. Zephyr Wills and Emily Paterson) engaged with its enigmatic, somewhat disturbed mood. It gave the composer much trouble: he burned his first attempt and started afresh a couple of years later, in 1964. It was an interesting challenge, intellectually, which the four players met very well.

Then came Gareth Farr’s Te Tai-o-Rehua (The Tasman Sea, a co-commission by Chamber Music New Zealand and the Goldner Quartet), again for string quartet (Claudia Tarrant Matthews, Grace Stainthorpe, Grant Baker and Olivia Wilding). It began low with the violin on the G string, inviting the others to join in turn, very soon becoming markedly compulsive (and, I think, compelling, with its irregular, throbbing note on the viola), dwelling on an insistent Maori-flavoured motif, though that is a risky assertion. It is a demanding work, a task that was undertaken conspicuously by perhaps the most experienced players. It took only a short time for the music to take on a vivid and meaningful character: it certainly had something to say, and the players found ways to express it with considerable confidence. It’s about five years old; Farr’s music just gets ever more interesting and impressive. At about 10 minutes, it was the centre-piece of the concert.

However, it was followed by a ‘Fantasy’ by Wang Xhihao, played by Nick Majic (vioin) and Liam Furey (piano). Though he used the microphone to introduce the piece, Majic’s voice didn’t carry. (I have discovered nothing about Xhihao). The opening did not suggest a particularly radical character, though a genuine musical imagination was evident, with distinct melodic integrity that didn’t strive for any special originality. My scribbled notes suggested a feeling of rather relief that the composer was not subjecting me to the task of unravelling unduly complex and difficult music, such as composition students produced 20 or 30 years ago. A second section was a little brisker, perhaps a bit agitated, but still essentially tonal in character.

So this was an agreeable concert that allowed a number of students to demonstrate talents at various levels of maturity, through music of genuine interest.


A girdle round about the earth – Katherine Mansfield as a “wild colonial girl” at Circa Theatre

A play by Lorae Parry

Directed by Susan Wilson
Music by Michael Nicholas Williams
Set Design by Lisa Maule
Lighting by Marcus McShane
Costumes by Sheila Horton
Audio-visual Design by Haami Hawkins and Lisa Maule
Soundscapes by Oliver Buckley

CAST:  Katherine Mansfield – Isobel MacKinnon
Virginia Woolf – Jessica Robinson
Ida Baker/Leslie Moore aka LM – Jessica Robinson

Circa Theatre, Taranaki St., Wellington

Tuesday 21st August – (until 15th September)

Writer Lorae Parry’s dramatized exploration of Katherine Mansfield’s brief but stellar trajectory throughout different worlds on each side of the globe is a miracle of recreation. It takes a particular kind of genius to flesh out convincingly and organically the bones and sinews of someone else’s work, a process for which Parry obviously has the gift of instinct allied to the electric charge of empathy. Mansfield’s own words are filled with the energy and impulsiveness which characterised her formative years, as the “wild colonial girl” cuts an outwardly gauche but essentially compelling figure in London’s literary circles, by turns attracting, appalling and fascinating some of the leading figures in those circles, most notably a fellow-writer, Virginia Woolf. In a ninety-minute tour de force of theatre, Parry puts a girdle round about the earth along which her subject runs, dances, leaps and spins, the result being a warts-and-all self-portrayal of thoroughly engaging spirit, determination and courage, a real person with something for everybody, if disconcertingly volatile and at times tangental in her actions and responses.

Beginning with voice-quotes which appear in tandem with photographs of people who knew Mansfield and whose sounds both echo and resonate, or sparkle with kaleidoscopic immediacy,  we’re instantly plunged into a sea of different impressions of Mansfield, each adding a kind of onion-layer to the body of the personality, and as consistent or contradictory as each had a right to be. My favourite at the time was Frieda Lawrence’s remark, talking about KM’s  “terrible gift of nearness, she can come so close….”, and adding “If she tells lies, she also knows more about the truth than other people….”. It’s a kind of pre-sequence to Mansfield’s own “Who am I” moment, one which she plays with as thistledown on the wind.

At first it seems as if she is a child composed almost of whimsy – “in my life so much love in imagination- in reality, eighteen barren years” she rhapsodises partly to us, partly in thrall to the thought of Edith Bendall (E.K.B.) a woman with whom she had a passionate relationship when young, describing their intimacy to us in the most heartfelt terms before, with a sudden volte-face,  remarking on their “maudlin affair”….people such as Oscar Wilde and Arnold Trowell (a young New Zealander with whom she was involved) slip into and through her thoughts, along with the memory of a schoolmate, Maata Mahupuku, whom she had been intimate with – “I want her as I have had her” – which excites her passions (“savagely crude and powerfully enamoured”) as much as awakens the present absurdity of it all – “Heigh-ho! – my mind is like a Russian novel”. All of this is superbly crafted, weighted and teased out by Parry as words, and in turn by Isobel MacKinnon as Katherine, her quick-draw reflexes portraying a three-dimensional being in the grip of formative emotions and impulses, open-ended and empathetic, so that we can’t help but love her despite some of her more abrasive volatilities.

Aiding and abetting MacKinnon’s compelling characterisation is an equally virtuosic Jessica Robinson bringing to life diametically opposed forces and foils in Mansfield’s life in the personas of both KM’s long-term London friend Ida Baker (otherwise known as Lesley or LM) and her redoubtable literary contemporary-cum-rival Virginia Woolf. Robinson is both separate and oddly empathetic between her two alter egos, with in places a hint of suggestiveness of a commonality between each woman’s response to her “wild colonial girl” – in Ida she invests the character with both constancy and servility towards Katherine, everything suggesting the vulnerability of someone who’s seeking to live through somebody else, and placing herself entirely at the service of someone she loves as a kind of fulfilment, despite KM’s demonstrative ambivalence towards her.

Her portrayal of Virginia Woolf could almost rate a review in itself, so convincingly does she bring the character to life, aided, of course by Lorae Parry’s judiciously-chosen words throughout. There’s a whole gamut of response packed into relatively brief sequences, conveying something of Blake’s “world in a grain of sand” kind of feeling, Woolf’s initial patronising tones (worn like a mask), comparing KM’s apparent commonness to “a civet cat that has taken to street-walking”, while acknowledging her undoubted intelligence and interest. Robinson gives her a compulsive “moth to the flame” aspect regarding KM, as she relishes both her “unpleasant but forcible and utterly unscrupulous character” and “her love of writing”. Later, amid a farrago of convoluted reaction, comes Woolf’s admission that “there’s no-one else I can talk to about writing”, and after KM’s death, the cri de coeur  – “there was no longer any point in writing, Katherine won’t read it.” – altogether a fascinating and absorbing portrayal of somebody who at one stage compares life to “a little strip of pavement over an abyss”.

Where Parry’s play scores equally brilliantly is in relating Mansfield’s work to her life, something also commented on by Woolf in places, as much in jealousy as in outward disgust regarding the story “Bliss” in particular – “I threw down “Bliss” with the exclamation “She’s done for!”, and later, “….is it absurd to read all this criticism of her into a story?…..” Earlier, KM relates an excerpt from “In a German Pension”, following with the thought, “I’ve acted out my sins, and then excused them with “it doesn’t do to think about these things….it was experience”, and then delineates the influence of her brother Lesley (killed in the war) on her story “Prelude”, with a charmingly macabre sequence involving the idea of standing on one’s head and breaking one’s neck! – throughout these “art is life, etc.” sequences we were captivated, as throughout, but especially so here, by MacKinnon’s lightness and surety of touch, far more than a more self-consciously “felt” approach would have done. In places it was almost a theatrical master-class given by actor, director and playwright in the art of when to hold and when to let go…..

Into the play’s ninety minutes there was poured, set and crafted so much more that can’t be covered here – enough for the moment to say that Susan Wilson’s direction seemed “hand-in-glove” with the writer’s intentions throughout, Sheila Horton’s costumes seemed to have a “rightness” that helped bring to life each different sequence and change or development of character, and Lisa Maule’s set inestimably helped ‘rivet” our sensibilities to particular times and places. The whole was given an ambient glow by Marcus McShane’s sensitive lighting, occasionally galvanised by the vivid presence of the AV images (Maule with Haami Hawkins), to which the oddly nostalgic effect of Michael Nicholas Williams’ slow-motion realisations of Debussy’s music and the atmospheric sound-effects by Oliver Buckley gave an appropriate dream-like quality.

In sum, I thought Parry’s play and its production here easefully and unselfconsciously “placed” Mansfield on a mainstream literary stage, with nothing either overly dismissive or narrowly parochial about her conception – the character comes across as, in her own words, “a conscious, direct human being”, for us to accept as we find her. All up, a pretty stunning achievement.








Two beloved piano quartet masterpieces in glorious performances from NZSO principals plus Diedre Irons

Wellington Chamber Music
Piano Quartet: Vesa-Matti Leppänen (violin), Andrew Thomson (viola), Andrew Joyce (cello)and Diedre Irons (piano)

Dvořák: Piano Quartet No 2 in E flat, Op 87
Brahms: Piano Quartet No 1 in G minor, Op 25

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 19 August, 3 pm

Though Wellington Chamber Music, before it ‘corporatised’ from ‘Society’ to ‘Trust’ and operated in the Ilott Concert Chamber (later, ‘Theatre’), used to come close to filling that 300 seat space, no longer has the pulling power that it once had. However, this recital from three NZSO principals and pianist Diedre Irons drew a somewhat better than average audience, though nowhere near what it deserved.

Perhaps this gives me an excuse to recall my introduction to the society in the 1960s when their concerts were in the admirable Concert Chamber on the first floor of the (pre-earthquake-strengthening, Mark I, in the 1990s) Town Hall. It had some 500-seats and concerts were performed twice, such was their appeal in a city less than half its present size.

Sadly, perhaps, the nature of the venue and the amenities like interval drinks, do contribute to audience appeal, and the Wellington City Council’s dilatoriness in getting the more important cultural facilities like the Town Hall and the St James Theatre in order, fast, is leaving the vaunted ‘Creative Capital’ way behind its bigger rival Auckland; population size need not be the determinant in such things.

These two piano quartets are among the most loved pieces of chamber music: period!

Dvořák Opus 87
Dvořák is a leading composer in the main-stream classical world, yet in much of his music there is a strong folk music element, and from the start the players allowed a peasantish colour to emerge, not to be gentrified by excessive delicacy or finesse. The heart-felt melodies that Dvořák found for the first movement almost play themselves, though a certain seriousness emerges quite soon, a spirit of unease which changes the feeling of unalloyed happiness to something more like the actual human condition.

I felt I was listening to a group of individuals who knew each other extremely well, and indeed they generally sounded as if they had been playing nothing but chamber music together, for years; yet their distinct personalities seemed generally just as important as their aim at perfect ensemble. Diedre Irons’s piano part certainly did not aim at self-effacing restraint, and the music benefitted. One of the nice elements was the way the players allowed phrase ends to fade unobtrusively rather than remaining brightly lit.

The second movement opens with cello and piano, and Andrew Joyce’s cello was almost too beautiful, though Irons’s piano was almost its equal; but then the viola and violin emerged with pretty much the same beauty of tone and deep affection for the music. Again, the music soon took on a slightly more sombre tone, even agitated but just as gorgeous, making me listen to it more attentively than I have before.

The third movement, in gentle triple time, like a Scherzo, was a drowsy comfortable affair that started so unobtrusively but slowly gave way to the boisterous, Dumky-like middle section which made one remember where Dvořák was raised. It was a particularly delightful consortium between all four players.

One could be forgiven for feeling that the last movement, Allegro con moto, began in a slightly more exuberant spirit, a mood that might have delighted me more, 50 years ago, than now. But there remained so much deeply felt music, played with such finesse and splendidly balanced ensemble that to reflect on my teenage tastes is a bit irrelevant. More interesting to note that in my forties I became infatuated with all Dvořák’s chamber music, and I still rejoice in most of it: as well as this quartet, the piano quintet, Op 81, the piano trios and the string quartets Op 96 (of course), 105 and 106….

Brahms Opus 25
It was hard to believe that in the same concert we were then to hear Brahms’s equally wonderful quartet in G minor, Op 25. It started with Diedre Irons piano, almost apologetically: ‘don’t let me interrupt your conversation…’. But once it had our attention (in about 4 seconds) there was a wonderful sense of having persuaded us that the composer knew that he had something important, or at least very beautiful, to say. Leppänen’s violin played its part in a matter-of-fact way, without any fancy finessing of phrases. By the arrival of the arrestingly lovely second theme, with its sort-of rotating quavers, the movement had gripped the attention with its variety of interrelated episodes, one rapturous melody after another and coming peacefully to an end.

In the Intermezzo (or more fully, Intermezzo and Trio) after the tremulous introduction by strings alone, Diedre Irons entered on the piano, giving off a feeling of having waited longingly for her moment to take part in the restrained, exquisite music that Brahms created, thought to reflect his feelings for Clara Schumann.

The contrasting Trio, quicker, less agitated, sounded a shade more optimistic but cautiously so. I’m not sure what its time signature is – it sounds 9/8, triplet quavers within triplet crotchets, and the quartet played with genuine understanding. I loved the way it ended, with its piano-led fluttering into the sky.

Then came the slow movement that grew steadily in growing intensity, again in distinctly varied sections, the second part expressing a sort of march-like, extravert confidence – but never too much, mind! And the Andante con moto too seemed to vaporise into a silence that was intrinsic to the movement’s over-arching character.

Then comes the movement that everyone knows, and that, wrongly, characterises the quartet, Rondo alla zingarese. Like the other movements, it’s divided into very different parts, not all in the carefree Gypsy mood; much as he loved that music, and much as one might think, towards the end, that Brahms was giving into the spirit of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, that will never happen; and the quartet handled the sober or cautious interludes with its unlikely mixture of care as well as a sort of recklessness. Brahms never gives himself over to a simple emotion or an unalloyed cheerfulness; that’s what one expects and wants, and so did these splendid players.

It was a simply wonderful recital. The two performances were the kind that should recall Henry V’s Saint Crispin’s Day speech to his army before Agincourt, and those absent should “think themselves accursed they were not here”.

East and West mingle at Wellington Youth Orchestra Concert

Wellington Youth Orchestra presents:

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN – Leonore Overture No.2 Op.72a / Symphony No. 7 in A Major Op. 92
MICHAEL VINTEN – Six Korean Love Poems (arr. Anne French)

Sarah Court  (mezzo-soprano)
Wellington Youth Orchestra
Michael Vinten (conductor)

St.James’ Church, Woburn Road, Lower Hutt

Sunday, 19th August, 2018

A most striking frontispiece on the programme cover (uncredited) for this enterprising concert seemed to alert us to the presence of something out-of-the-ordinary – an illustration something along the lines of those disconcerting front-and-profile images of one and the same person. It wasn’t exactly that, in this case, but the effect certainly caused a double-take on my part, which I presume was the idea! – here, a youthful portrait of Beethoven was set literally cheek-by jowl with a young woman’s image similarly iconic (if somewhat Westernised) in exotic effect.

All that it was signifying was the programme’s setting of a pair of “classic” orchestral pieces next to an almost brand-new New Zealand work, a premiere of sorts, in fact – more about this circumstance below. The venue wasn’t the orchestra’s usual performing-place, with Wellington’s still-recent spate of earthquake activity continuing to exert its toll by putting pressure on performing groups seeking appropriate spaces in which to do their thing, as various buildings normally used for this purpose get ear-marked for “strengthening”, a process which takes time and considerable expense.

Here, it was St.James’ Church in Woburn which served the purpose, a place in which I’d previously heard vocal ensemble music, but not an orchestra. I thought the sound lively (too much so, it seemed to me, in the case of the timpani), and with an audience present to soak up some of the reverberation, allowing plenty of detail to register. Best of all sound-wise was the set of songs, with the singer’s forward placement enabling her superb diction to give the words that inner life which concert situations so often blur or impede in an unhelpful acoustic. The orchestral detail, too, bloomed in those spaces, the sounds working beautifully with the singer to convey the composer’s desired effect.

First up, though, and very properly, was an overture (I invariably think, at a concert’s beginning, of Michael Flanders, of “At the Drop of a Hat” fame in partnership with Donald Swann, telling his audience that they always considered their opening song important, because, as he remarked, “it helps us to get the pitch of the hall”) – and so it was, here, with the very opening chord of Beethoven’s Leonore No.2 Overture (written for the composer’s one and only opera) generating a sound which, thanks to conductor Michael Vinten’s expert direction and the players’ sharpness of response, nicely “defined” the spaces, and set the ambient tone for what was to follow.

The winds had a lovely colour throughout the work’s opening, with supportive work by the horns creating a sense of expectancy, and leading to some strong and sure chording whose aftermath gave rise to the work’s principal melody, the radiance eventually breaking through the darkness – the strings managed their tricky syncopations throughout, while the winds brought forth a lovely “glow” with Leonore’s lover Florestan’s lyrical theme, the exchanges allowed time and elbow-space to phrase their figurations. The ‘cellos enjoyed their playing of the main allegro theme, counterpointed by the winds and leading up to the stormy sequences which preceded the famous trumpet fanfare – here played with breathtaking skill on both occasions by the orchestra’s principal player Vincent Brzozowski. More expert playing from the winds brought back the music’s lyricism and expectancy of light triumphing over darkness, the strings playing the notes with a kind of breathless caution at first before gaining in confidence and activating themselves and one another to cascade outwards in all directions, excitingly sounding the theme in a kind of gabble, and bringing forth the brasses in glorious C Major with an energised, victorious version of Florestan’s “Leonore” tune. Vinten got his players to work up a “real” presto-like tumult here, skin and hair flying and no prisoners taken, a truly joyous conclusion to a well-fought musical campaign.

I was curious enough originally at Michael Vinten’s choice of Korean texts for his song-cycle “Six Korean Love-Poems”, but things became “curiouser and curiouser” when I discovered that the English words from the poems were in fact “transliterations” by the New Zealand poet Anne French – the programme note elaborates further by saying, re the original texts, “Anne has taken their ideas and images and refashioned them, whilst retaining a flavour of the originals”. Any disquiet I might have had regarding such a practice was effectively quashed when remembering that Gustav Mahler’s purportedly translated Chinese texts in his song-cycle “Das Lied von der Erde” were similarly “adapted” by Hans Bethge from material which itself had been in places “expanded” by earlier European sinologists. In fact Mahler himself in places revised Bethge’s wording to fit his musical lines, further distancing his work from the original “letter”, even if retaining the “spirit”. Well, I reasoned, if it was good enough for Gustav Mahler……….

Vinten set French’s versions of these poems during 2015/16 for voice and piano, and they were premiered in Brisbane in 2016 by today’s singer, Sarah Court, and pianist Therese Milanovic. Today’s performance was thus the world premiere of the songs’ orchestral version, and the first time they had been performed in New Zealand in any form. I’m not sure whether the composer’s original intention was to eventually orchestrate them, or whether it became obvious over time that they cried out for orchestral colour and variation – but whatever the case, and, of course, not having heard the voice-and-piano version of the songs, I thought the realisations remarkably “at one” with the texts.

Anne French used verses by poets writing as early as 1560 (Hwang  Chin-i, a sixteenth-century gisaeng, or courtesan, famous for her beauty and intellect), and more recently, Kim So-wol (1903-1934, considered the “founder” of modern Korean poetry, despite his tragically short life) and Han Yong-Un (1879-1944, a Buddhist monk, reformer and poet). Each of the poems in the collection had a different kind of intensity of shade, texture, or colour of utterance, which I thought Vinten’s writing reflected in each case. Thus, the music of the first poem connected with the words’ evocations of natural phenomena, the leaves falling, the scent of flowers, the babble of a stream, all of which were heard in both figurations and their accompanying stillnesses, the vocal line mirroring the “natural dance” of these things. The second song seemed like a series of sighs, with long singing lines and warm, luscious textures, delineating a period of waiting for the arrival of a lover. By contrast, the third poem was a tightly-woven mind-game interaction, quixotic and angular in effect with exotic tinges coloured by percussion in places, and yielding at the end in accordance with the words “softened just a little by love”.

How different the evocations for the following “The sweet briar rose”, diaphanous textures and repeated patternings creating an ethereal effect over which the vocal line rhapsodised, while a flute solo joined in with an exquisite effect of tremulous wonderment – the voice soared, swayed, teased, enticed and reflected, before resigning to waiting, with a brief orchestral postlude for company. The fifth poem was a soliloquy on deprivation following the loved one’s departure, the opening agitated figures supporting the singer’s description of the “treading red and gold leaves under his feet”, almost like a running commentary, with strings and timpani pushing the music forwards. With a memory of a first meeting the music became rhapsodical, and then as the singer voiced a strategy “let my grief kindle my hope”, the sounds threw open the picture, suggesting distance and emptiness spanned by the vocal line’s confident tones. In stark contrast, the final song generated no such comfort or confidence, the piccolo and other winds evoking loneliness and abandonment, the vocal line angry – “Let that name be broken into pieces”, anguished – “Let that name be scattered on the air”, and despairing – “There is no answer to it yet”. The instrumental writing adroitly suggested full, rich textures yet remained curiously open, almost feeling cut adrift, as the sounds evoked that “great space between earth and sky” and generated brief moments of grandeur before dissolving, leaving behind the desolation of a solo violin and dark percussion sounds underpinned by low piano notes as the singer intoned “I call your name in sadness”. A brief frisson of energy accompanied the words “I shall be calling your name all my life”, before a final plaintive statement from the piccolo signalled the end of the piece.

An interval allowed time and space for what we’d heard to settle and take hold within, though the performance had from the outset already begun to carve a niche of enduring memory, thanks to Sarah Court’s rich and varied mezzo tones and her heartfelt rendering of the texts, augmented by an incredibly inventive panoply of orchestral sounds gotten from the players by the composer himself on the podium. I found myself marvelling at the human empathies of those words, poet Anne French triumphantly forging a link here with expressions of feeling one might consider on the face of things intractably rooted to far-removed worlds, mere curiosities from an alien culture – what came through, of course, was a shared and binding humanity, though I wouldn’t have been surprised had the “thought-police” of cultural appropriation gotten wind of the occasion and chimed in at some stage, PC spurs and medallions jangling!

Refreshed, we settled back to listen to what would be made of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, the work famously styled by Wagner as “the apotheosis of the dance” (in contrast with the view of one of Beethoven’s contemporaries, Carl Maria von Weber, who remarked on hearing the work that its composer was ‘fit for the madhouse!”).  Michael Vinten seemed to take Wagner at his word regarding his approach to Beethoven’s music, which was athletic and sprightly rather than grand and monumental. The opening chord, though slightly fallible, had considerable “punch”, and though the scales were played tentatively at first, the strings got more of a “swing” as the music went along. Both winds and timpani kept the rhythms sprightly, the timpanist (whose work I always admire) playing a shade too emphatically for me occasionally in this context, though always exciting and reliable (a moment of concerted confusion apart, later in the movement). The allegro stumbled a bit at its outset, but was finally launched, Vinten driving the dotted rhythms at a great rate, the effect somewhat raucous, but also very “Beethoven”, vibrant and unbuttoned!

It was this energy of Beethoven’s writing that was consistently conveyed by the performance, and which I relished, despite the occasional hit-and-miss element with the notes. It’s always seemed to me more important for players in youth and amateur ensembles to be encouraged to “get the rhythms right”, and, past a certain point, let the notes take care of themselves – if the rhythms are strong and confident, then the music will sound right despite any mis-hits, but if the rhythms are untidy, then no amount of correctly-sounded notes are going to be of much use! With brisk speeds and strongly-wrought rhythmic direction,  Vinten seemed to me to be achieving plenty of coherent excitement with these players. There was the occasional mixup, most notably near the first movement’s end with the music emerging from the grinding bass vortices, and some voices coming in a measure too early; but in general, the dance and its irrepressible rhythms triumphed!

The symphony’s most renowned for its “slow” movement, and here, the processional-like figures received well-wrought and full-throated treatment from all concerned, the lower strings especially good at the outset, the cellos eloquent and soulful. The contrasting major sequences  sounded properly easeful, with nicely-articulated canonic work between winds and horn, and the great cascading return to the processional rhythm was impressively managed. The strings held their rhythmic patternings beautifully throughout the fugato, and integrated superbly with the rest of the orchestra at the grand, ceremonial refrain of the hymn-tune – a great moment!

What an orchestral difficulty the scherzo must be to launch! Untidy at the very beginning, the ensemble rallied itself, once again finding the rhythm’s “swing” and managing the whiplash szforzandi with great elan! Vinten kept the Trio moving, encouraging the players to plunge into the full tutti, boots and all – very exciting! – and afterwards, perhaps emboldened by what they’d just achieved, the reprise of the scherzo’s opening was much tidier.

Despite my “connecting” with Vinten’s way of keeping the ensemble rhythmically tight, I still wasn’t prepared for the “Vienna Philharmonic” speed with which the finale began, here! – though occasionally starved of tonal weight, the sounds leapt forwards with each accented downstroke, the players keeping things together as if their lives depended on the outcome! I occasionally thought more weight could have been applied to some phrases, such as the lower strings’ reply to the oft-repeated dotted figure hurled at them by the upper strings – but this was a small point compared with the energy generated by the whole. At the end we certainly felt as though we had been immersed in a kind of maelstrom, the conductor and players sharing with us an accompanying sense of satisfaction at re-emerging with exhaustion and invigoration triumphantly hand-in-hand!



NZSO triumphs with brilliant Beethoven and Brahms masterpieces

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edo de Waart, with violinist Augustin Hadelich

Beethoven: Violin concerto in D, Op 61
Brahms: Symphony No 2 in D, Op 73

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 18 August, 7:30 pm

Though this was a very traditional, heart-of-the-classical-world concert which one might have thought would excite neither the aficionados nor the young and innocent in terms of classical music awareness, it was a very near full house – not an every-day experience for the NZSO.

But the fact is that I cannot remember a live performance in Wellington of the Beethoven violin concerto: certainly, a search of Middle C’s archive brings up none. And I had to go back to the NZSO’s Brahms festival in October 2011 to find the last performance of his No 2.

Beethoven Violin Concerto
Though one doesn’t expect a performance of such a familiar concerto to spark excitement, even the orchestral introduction, which was cautious, expectant and dignified, presaged something splendid. It took hold of the audience almost at once, as if the orchestra, as well as audience, knew that they, the orchestra, were harbingers of something special. So the violin’s entry seemed to still the audience immediately, generating the feeling that a definitive, exultant performance was at hand. There is a special kind of silence that takes possession of an audience when faced with something remarkable.

Augustin Hadelich is of German descent, but born in 1984 to a vintner family established in Tuscany. Aged 15, and already a prodigy on both piano and violin, his career was nearly ended in a fire on the family farm. But five years later he had gained entry to the Juilliard School in New York, and won the Indianapolis international Violin Competition.

Hadelich’s playing was marked by calmness, a sense of determination, clear-sightedness. It produced, at the same time, flawless articulation and perfect intonation that almost seemed inconsistent with emotional warmth, and sheer beauty of tone. One expects to enjoy dynamic variety, but what he produced was a sort of flexibility distilled by taste and delicacy, leaving not a hint of indulgence or excess.

One mark of that was in the studied approach with which the cadenza at the end of the first movement began; its emphasis was on the music and its beauties rather than astonishing with tonal brilliance and virtuosity and it cast almost a sense of religious rapture, that was compelling and utterly stilled the audience. Its perfection was almost machine-like if it hadn’t been for the sheer musicality and essential humanity of its expression.

At the movement’s end there was what sounded like some utterly irresistible clapping.

The Larghetto second movement opened in the same spirit of sobriety, stillness that brought the audience once more to a kind of silence that seemed unreal among two thousand people. And the link-passage to the Finale was stripped of the sort of histrionics that its foretelling often brings about in other performances. It was a warning about the astonishing speed and musical force that Hadelich created in this brilliant movement. Its pace scarcely left room to breathe and its remarkable technical demands brought no slackening of pace till the moment when preparation for the Coda arrived, and it led the music through striking modulations, eventually ending, not in any sort of Tchaikovskyan frenzy, but loosening new and sublimely original ideas. And unlike many, he resisted the temptation to bring the spotlight back to himself in the final bars.

It was a performance the like of which I don’t expect to experience, live, ever again.

Paganini’s 24th Caprice was his way of thanking the audience for their immediate, standing ovation (unusual for the reticent Wellington audience), and its incendiary flamboyance and amazing technical embellishments were spell-binding (extraordinarily elaborate left-hand plus right hand pizzicato).

Brahms Second Symphony
Though the first half had created an experience that might have made another major work even after the interval, seem anti-climactic, Brahms second symphony, again in the key of D, survived extremely well. The orchestra expanded from its Beethovenian-numbers to full size, with 16, 14 violins, etc, five horns, but just double woodwinds. If the limelight had not shone much on De Waart in the concerto (and it truly deserved admiration), in the Brahms his unassuming, discreet yet strong and clear presence on the podium inspired the orchestra.

Brahms claimed somewhere that “I have never written anything so sad”; but elsewhere, Brahms is quoted saying it’s “light and carefree, as though written for a young married couple”. Take your pick; I don’t hear anything sad, and suspect that it was Brahmsian irony – opposite to what he felt about it; nor did De Waart seem to feel that way. And one would hardly choose D major to express grief or even melancholy (nor did Beethoven).

Brahms plunges us straight into the music, with no ritual introduction or conspicuous attention to classical forms, though his argument with the Liszts and Wagners was over his belief in the importance of the traditional structures. The performance seemed to draw attention to the endless compounding and modifying of themes, of scraps of themes, with every detail of Brahms’s rich orchestration resulting in a reading that was sympathetic and deeply satisfying.

Though the first movement is Allegro non troppo, there was hardly a strong feeling of speed or liveliness for quite a while. Some of the most beautiful episodes came from horns, sometimes just the principal, Samuel Jacobs; horns in particular seem to define Brahms’s orchestral palette. And there was lovely playing by other winds. The momentum evolved slowly, almost imperceptibly, as the varying facets of its themes and gestures developed organically and a strong feeling of integrity took hold.

The second movement Adagio non troppo (the ‘non troppo’ characterises Brahms’s devotion to the sanguine temperament, the happy medium, rather than emotional extremes) was pensive, expressive, is rarely jocular, and never suggestive of a suppressed Rossini or Offenbach. Yet it became the sort of spirited music that had emerged in the first movement. Both movements seem essential Brahms and one sensed in De Waart a deep sympathy with what Brahms was talking about and feeling.

The movement that might otherwise be the Scherzo, started in a gentle triple time, but very soon a lively 4/8 time, Presto non assai, took over for a short time before a triplet-quaver rhythm brought yet another change of tempo, though not really of mood and musical sense.  The movement’s variety that De Waart handled so deftly was a delight as were interludes by oboes and flutes.

The utter silence before the start of the last movement spoke volumes about the impact this wonderful performance was having on the audience. So as the Allegro con spirito gathered energy, high spirits, and joie de vivre, the full force of the big orchestra seemed to be employed in a spirit of an almost incandescent joy. Beethoven’s Freude in the Ninth Symphony might have found an even truer domicile here at the end of Brahms 2, than in its original incarnation.

This too got an enthusiastic reception from the very large audience.




Katherine McIndoe with brilliant performance of Britten’s Les Illuminations at St Andrew’s

St Andrew’s Lunchtime Concerts
Katherine McIndoe (soprano) with Catherine Norton (piano)

Britten: Les Illuminations (I Fanfare, II Villes, III Antique, IV Royauté, V Marine, VI Interlude, VII Being beauteous, VIII Parade, IX Départ)
Copland: Selections from Old American Songs: Long Time Ago, Simple Gifts, The Little Horses
Britten: Selection from Folk Song Arrangements: Dink’s Song

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 15 August, 12:15 pm

Soprano Katherine McIndoe has been at the Guildhall School in London for the past year, though she was last heard, conspicuously, in both the operas staged in the middle of last year by Rhona Fraser’s Days Bay Opera: Tatyana in Eugene Onegin and Guilietta in I Capuleti e i Montecchi.  In Britain she sang at the Aldeburgh Festival last year as a Britten-Piers Young Artist, and was the Governess in The Turn of the Screw and Marcellina in The Marriage of Figaro, and at the Barbican was Sister Catherine in the UK premiere of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (in which another prominent New Zealander, Teddy Tahu Rhodes, had sung in its inaugural production in San Francisco). Currently she is a finalist Australian Singing Competition.

Pianist Catherine Norton preceded McIndoe at the Guildhall by a few years, then as a Britten-Piers Young Artist, but also at the Franz Schubert-Institute for Lieder and Graham Johnson’s Young Songmakers’ Almanac; and she has appeared at the Barbican, LSO St Luke’s and the Oxford Lieder Festival. And she has performed in France, Germany and Northern Ireland and Malta. She is now tutor in vocal accompaniment at Victoria University School of Music.

So this was a significant recital from a highly promising singer with one of the best accompanists in the country.

By far the most important item in the 45 minute recital was Britten’s setting of nine of Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations. The name needs to be understood in the sense of the practice of decorating manuscripts – throughout the Middle Ages and even into the printing era.

McIndoe sang the cycle, memorised, in very convincing, idiomatic French: accompanied by the piano (instead of the original string orchestra).

Though the nature of the St Andrew’s free lunchtime concerts limits presentation costs, it’s a pity that fuller programmes could not have been offered for a recital like this. They should ideally be printed in both French and English, and several pages would probably be required. There are 42 prose poems in Rimbaud’s collection, written mainly in his youth, during the time of his relationship with Verlaine (ten years older than Rimbaud), which famously involved the latter shooting Rimbaud, though not fatally.

It opens arrestingly and appropriately (or not), with Fanfare which is not one of the poems, but simply the last line from Parade which is the second-to-last song in Britten’s cycle (‘J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage’); and it’s a line that is repeated between Marine and Being Beauteous, as well as in Parade itself. It’s everything a fanfare should be, commanding attention, compelling. Then Villes II, wild and staccato, suggesting modern, urban chaos (even in post 1870 Paris), with satanic moments echoing the Ride to the Abyss from Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust.

Though Britten’s settings are by no means influenced by the more radical styles of early 20th century music, they do create a singular, unpredictable, unique feeling, as distinctive musically as are Rimbaud’s poems which were likewise shockingly radical in form and sense. They range, from both voice and piano, across jumpy staccato intervals, sometimes collaborative, sometimes in a sort of conflict. They sometimes present a polished sheen, then a ferocious outburst expressing terror or danger; then a calm episode, a slow waltz rhythm with an adventurous melody with keyboard-spanning intervals.

In Being Beauteous, words seem to struggle against the music, moving from hushed to contorted utterances; and Parade, frenzied, left an impression of violence hardly expressed before in music. I scribbled ‘a sense that nothing before or since has been created like this’. A momentary feeling, and not altogether inaccurate.

Though I was acquainted with Les Illuminations many years ago, I had not paid them close attention and so I found this performance a revelation. With the poems and the song texts in front of me as I wrote, I realised that Britten cherry-picks words from each poem, and a couple of times borrows a bare sentence from other, unidentified poems: for example, there’s a short sentence before Antique, ‘J’ai tendu des cordes à clocher à clocher”, that comes from some scraps labelled Fragments de feuillet 12.

Like most great songs and song cycles, words and music are of equal importance, and together they conjure very particular impressions and sensibilities; the poems were ground-breaking in the 1880s, and Britten’s settings of about a quarter of them made a remarkable impact on musical England in the 1940s (though probably on very small numbers).

One would expect that audience members, when they got home, would have reached for their anthologies of French verse or detoured by the Public Library to borrow a volume of Rimbaud’s verse.

For your amusement… enlightenment… edification, I found this comment on the YouTube recording by Ian Bostridge: “It’s like a madman shouting in the street. Imagine a stranger coming up to you with an intense expression and emphatically saying to you, “I alone hold the key to this passing parade” referring to life in general. Why do we respect madness, which was once considered repulsive, and conflate it with deep insight? When did our civilization become like this? We must wake up, especially now, or we are doomed.”

After that, Copland’s three Old American Songs seemed slightly irrelevant, though performed with distinction, offering vivid contrasts from one to another. And returning to Britten at the end with Dink’s Song, American originated, it was stunningly accompanied by its startling Brittenesque piano part. While the essence of the performance of Les Iluminations rested heavily on both words and music, both singer and pianist provided an immaculate and highly accomplished vehicle for the entire recital.

This was a lunchtime concert to be remembered.