Violin and piano competition winners show robust musical and technical gifts and fine rapport

Waikanae Music Society
Ioana Cristina Goicea (violin) and Andrey Gugnin (piano)

Schubert: Rondo in B minor, D.895, “Rondo Brilliant”
Enescu: Sonata no.3 “In Romanian folk Style”
Brahms: Sonata no.3 in D minor, Op.108
Brahms: Scherzo in C minor, from the F.A.E. Sonata

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 30 September 2018, 2:30 pm

A concert of illustrious music from an illustrious duo.  Ioana Cristina Goicea is the winner of the 2017 Michael Hill a Violin Competition, and Andrey Gugnin the winner of the 2016 Sydney International Piano Competition.  Their tour of New Zealand with Chamber Music New Zealand is in association with the Michael Hill Competition.  A good-sized audience heard this noteworthy recital, the last in the Waikanae Music Society’s 2018 series.

It wasn’t difficult to see why such accomplished musicians won their respective competitions.  Both have won numbers of other international competitions also.

The Schubert Rondo starts dramatically, revealed gorgeous tone from the violin, and demonstrated much subtle shading of dynamics, and lyrical playing.  The piece switched between major an minor tonalities, and employed a persistent dotted rhythm.  This first section was marked andante.  The music became faster and more excited in the second section, allegro; even dance-like.

The piano gets a turn at expounding the theme, after more-or-less continuous violin.

The piece featured sundry false endings.  The last section was fast and brilliant: a showpiece for the violin.  The opening theme and the dotted rhythm return; there is quite a lot of repetition.  It was a spirited performance.

The next piece was in quite another genre, by the pre-eminent composer from the violinist’s homeland: Romania.  Enescu’s sonata was described in the programme notes as “Invigorating and edgy, one feels the pulse the pulse of Eastern European fold dance…”  (There were numerous misrelated dependant clauses like this in the notes; n.b.  NZSO, guilty often of the same grammatical error.)

The work’s chromatic opening was gentle, with Eastern European tonalities.  The notes slithered here and there, like a slow, seductive dance.  Then the music broke into a faster dance.  The tempo marking moderato malinconico means ‘moderately; melancholy’, but I didn’t find this a dominant feature.  Full-toned low notes from the violin were notable.  The music returned to the slower tempo before enlivening again, and closing pianissimo. This was an intrepid movement, full of variety.

The second movement, andante sostenuto e misterioso began similarly softly.  There were many brilliant touches for the violin, particularly in the upper register.  The music then broke into a jolly dance, with birds joyfully accompanying from above.  But the mood soon became ominous, as though a cloudburst had fallen on the dancers.  Exciting descending piano ripples followed, and then the peace was restored in a restrained, muted passage

The third movement, allegro con brio ma non troppo, featured sprightly music, in unison for a time, with decorations, and very rhythmic.  Then we were back to the deep notes from the unison section, the violin part being most effective, including fast pizzicato.  The movement brought to an end a spectacular musical journey.

Throughout, the ensemble between these two superb musicians was perfect.

After the interval, we came to more sombre music, by Brahms.  His third sonata for violin and piano opens melodiously, in D minor.  It was played very thoughtfully; every note beautifully placed; nothing unimaginatively slurred, the many delights in Brahms’s writing appropriately exposed.  The playing from both was robust when required, but always the tone and timbre were splendid.

Brahms always gives the piano plenty of interesting music to play.  A passionate rendering of the main theme brought the first movement (allegro) to an end.

The serious adagio second movement introduced a wonderful broad, calm theme; the movement ended as peacefully as it began.  The third movement, un poco presto e con sentimento features lively rhythm and chirpy sequences for both instruments.

The fourth movement, presto agitato,, has thematic links with what has gone before  There are grand statements with answering phrases, and many mellifluous episodes.  It becomes fast and hectic; cascades on the piano end it.

Last on the programme was a delightful scherzo, from a quartet written as a collaborative project with some of the composer’s close friends.  The letters F, A and E denote not only the musical pitches, but also the personal motto of his friend, violinist Joseph Joachim: ‘frei aber einsam‘ (free but lonely*).

It opened quite ambiguously as to key, like others of Brahms’s compositions.  This is an early work, and is more extravert than the later sonata we had just heard, although it soon became thoughtful, even sublime, before the busy opening sequence returned, interspersed by passages of great delicacy.

As well as showing great musical and technical ability, this duo exhibited a strong rapport; they played as a unity, with each nevertheless revealing their own particular skills.

*Gloss by Lindis Taylor
“I have always felt that this translation of Einsam doesn’t reflect what Brahms might have meant. Certainly, it translates as ‘lonely’, and that is the usual translation, but is also means and here feels better translated, according to my instinct, as ‘solitary’. The latter removes the element of self-pity that colours ‘lonely’, and my feeling about Brahms is that he valued being alone, but didn’t suffer loneliness – apart from the emotions that might have derived from his enigmatic relationship with Clara Schumann.”


Aroha Quartet with animated, robust, delightful evening concert at St Andrew’s

Aroha String Quartet (Haihong Liu and Anne Loeser, violins; Zhongxian Jin, viola; Robert Ibell, cello)
‘Light and Dark’

Haydn: String Quartet in C, Op.76 no. 3 ‘Emperor’
Ross Carey: Elegy (Toccatina)
Shostakovich: String Quartet no.11 in F minor, Op. 122
Dvořák: String Quartet no.12 in F, Op.96 ‘American’

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 26 September 2019, 7:30 pm

It was most unfortunate that this concert had had to be rescheduled; this made it clash with another chamber music concert in the city, which was presumably responsible for the rather small audience.

Anne Loeser substituted for the regular second violinist Ursula Evans, the latter having had an injury.

The two older works on the programme had been played By this group at a St. Andrew’s lunchtime concert less than a year ago (see Lindis Taylor’s review, Middle-C, 6 December 2017.)  The Shostakovich was played at lunchtime two months ago; see Lindis’s review, Middle-C, 26 July 2018.  The Ross Carey, too, had been played before by the Aroha Quartet.  See Peter Mechen’s review of 26 October 2016.

Accuracy you expect from an experienced quartet such as the Aroha, but the animation of their playing is noteworthy, also the subtle shading of dynamics, and the warm, often mellifluous tone, and excellent balance.

The Haydn quartet’s first movement (allegro) was robust and delicate by turns as required, making for both exciting abd pleasurable listening.  The second movement is famous for the theme, which became the Austrian national anthem, and is widely used as a hymn-tune.  The four variations each feature a different soloist from the quartet.  The first variation has the second violin to the fore, its rendition of the melody embroidered by the first violin’s arpeggios and runs.  The other instruments have a rest.

The second variation features the cello, with counterpoint from the violins, and a few comments from the viola.  The playing was rich and sonorous from the cello.  The third variation is for the viola, playing a restrained version of the melody with the violins floating above, finally joined by the cello halfway through.  The first violin takes over for the last variation, with the other instruments playing a harmonic accompaniment.

The minuet and trio third movement is of a much more jolly nature.  A few hairy notes early on did not really detract from a delightful performance.  The trio, initially in a minor key, gave a complete contrast.  The repeat of the minuet brought back the bouncy theme, with its wonderful interplay of parts and instruments.  The finale is fast and dynamically varied, incorporating shades of earlier movements, mainly the first.

The piece by New Zealander Ross Carey was not long, and was written in memory of an Australian Aboriginal singer.  Its lively opening featured a repeated dotted rhythm; a perpetuum mobile with a dark melody on viola.  It moved to the second violin and then the first violin.  The cello introduced a new melody on the upper reaches of the strings.  What a different timbre this produced compared with a violin playing notes at the same pitch!  The first violin then took over this quieter section, which had a Mendelssohnian quality.  The insistent rhythm from the beginning returned, then solemn, slow passages ended this attractive work.

Shostakovich’s 11th quartet is in seven short movements, played without pauses between them.  It was written in memory of his violinist friend, Vasily Shirinsky, in 1966. The first movement is ‘Introduction – Andantino’. It began somewhat portentously; slow, chromatic phrases, glissando flourishes  on violin and cello.

After the ‘Scherzo – Allegretto’, the following ‘Recitative – Adagio’ has a harsh introduction, and features a first violin solo that includes passages of double-stopping. over the top of the other instruments’ accompaniment.  Then comes ‘Etude – Allegro’ with fast runs for first violin and cello.   Later movements introduce more dissonant chords, and restrained melody from the first violin.

Following the ironically named ‘Humoresque – Allegro’, the sixth movement ‘Elegy – Adagio’ is calm and profound, leading to the final movement, which recapitulates earlier themes.  The end comes as quite a shock (Finale – Moderato).

The popular ‘American’ Quartet by Dvořák ended the concert.  The melodic and rhythmic invention of the composer is a constant source of delight.    One of the melodies (third movement) was based on an American bird, a picture of which Robert Ibell showed the audience, and the first violinist played its song for us.

The rich opening viola solo set the tone for a joyful experience, and brought home to me how much better it is to hear a live performance rather than a recording, no matter how good the latter.  This first movement was taken at quite a spanking pace compared with other performances I have heard (allegro ma non troppo).  The melody that follows the opening section was sublime.  Then there is a repeat of the first melody, with pizzicato accompaniment, followed by a return of the second subject, with lovely harmony underpinning it.  The whole is full of delightful and even ingenious touches.

The second movement (lento) introduces a fabulous melody, which is especially so when played by cello – ravishingly beautiful, while the third movement’s molto vivace has a folksy feel to it, like a country dance in the composer’s native Bohemia, with everyone having a good time.  The harmonies were most satisfying, as was the finale: vivace ma non troppo; a very cheerful and melodic movement, even more like a country dance than the previous one.

While it was excellent for the printed programme notes to acknowledge the sources of information, I think it was a mistake to fit it into the same format as that used for the lunchtime concerts: a folded A4 sheet.  With a much longer and more substantial musical offering, the space required forced the splendid notes into a tiny font which I for one could not read in the church.  All things are possible but not all things are expedient.



Springtime winds at St Andrew’s from the NZSM

New Zealand School of Music Woodwind Students

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

This further recital by music students from the New Zealand School of Music at Victoria University of Wellington attracted a rather smaller audience than is usual for these lunchtime concerts. However, everyone was appreciative of the display of talent, skill, and hard work on show.

First on the programme was sonata V in E minor for flute and continuo, BWV 1034 by J.S.Bach. Samantha McSweeney played the first and second movements, accompanied by Kirsten Robertson on the piano. The adagio consisted of lovely music, and was played with a beautiful sound. The only drawback was rather noisy breathing sometimes. The player needs to try to breathe as singers do, inaudibly.

The following allegro was lively, the melodies shooting all over the stave – no doubt demanding to play. It was a gorgeous performance.It was followed by the slow, second movement from Mozart’s bassoon concerto in B flat major, KV 191, played by Breanna Abbott, with piano accompaniment from the incomparable Catherine Norton. This youthful composition was a delight to hear. Its melodious, lyrical and pastoral characteristics were fully demonstrated in this performance.

Next was a flute trio from Bella Anderson, Samantha McSweeney and Ainslee Smithers. They played an allegro first movement by Kaspar Krummer, a nineteenth century German composer and flautist. The players’ ensemble was excellent; their mastery of both instrument and music most accomplished; a delicious work beautifully played.

Now for something completely different. Schulhoff was a Czech composer, whose life came to an untimely end in a Nazi concentration camp in 1942. The alto saxophone piece, of which the third and fourth movements were played by Peter Liley accompanied by Catherine Norton, was entitled Hot sonate [sic] for alto saxophone and piano. Despite this, the programme note described it as ‘cool, raucous and smoky’.

Schulhoff composed in many styles, but was strongly influenced by jazz, which is the predominant element in this work.It opened with whining, siren-like sounds on the saxophone. Discords abounded from the saxophone; the piano part was fairly tame in the third movement. The fourth movement was fast, and ‘classical’ in a Satie-like manner. The music was very well played, and effective, though the repetitious figures in this movement tended to become tedious The movement had an abrupt, unexpected ending.

Darius Milhaud’s quirky, humorous style of composition was somewhat muted in his Pastorale Op.147, which was played by Samantha McSweeney (flute, substituting for the original oboe), Billie Kiel (clarinet) and Breanna Abbott (bassoon). The piece immediately lived up to its title, its smooth quality expertly played, which I found quite soporific.

The final work was by Gareth Farr, played by Isabella Gregory (flute) and Finn Bidkin (marimba). I assume (thanks to Wikipedia) that it was Kembang Suling. Neither the composer’s nor the piece’s names weere printed in the programme; it was easy to pick up the composer’s name spoken, but not that of the work.

The first movement’s opening featured repetitious rhythms for both instruments (obvious gamelan  influence here and elsewhere), that built up from quiet piano to forceful forte. The music became more excited; it was impressive to watch the marimba-player using two mallets in each hand, at
speed. The music then moved between the flute taking the solos spot and the marimba doing so.The second movement was slower, with a slightly eerie quality; the flute melody was very quiet, backed by a ghostly marimba accompaniment. The third movement was a vigorous duet with variety and independence of the two parts, though they were linked thematically and rhythmically. The piece ended with a dynamic unison, and a final flourish.

Too important to let go – Ashley Brown with a “new” NZTrio for Braid, a Suffrage Year concert

The NZTrio presents:
BRAID – Celebrating the Feminine in all of us……Braid

RACHEL CLEMENT – Shifting States
CLARA SCHUMANN – Piano Trio in G Minor Op.17
ELENA KATS-CHERNIN – Spirit and the Maiden
FANNY MENDELSSOHN – Piano Trio in D minor Op.11

NZTrio – Benjamin Baker (violin) / Ashley Brown (‘cello) / Stephen de Pledge (piano)

City Gallery, Civic Square, Wellington

Wednesday, 26th September, 2018

This is the second concert with overt connections to the recent 125th suffrage anniversary that I’ve recently reviewed, very different to the earlier one (Cantoris Choir, Wellington), though packing a similarly powerhouse punch on behalf of women’s musical creativity. It was titled Braid, and is one of three concert series given by the trio this year featuring the work of women composers, the other two being called Weave and Twine. As with Cantoris Choir’s presentation, I very soon forgot the “idea”of these sounds I was hearing having been composed by women, so caught up was I in the process of listening – reacting to creative sensibilities expressing the kind of individuality and focus which put any idea of “gender” in a proper existential context. To use less convoluted language the sounds were soon coming to me as a listener “on their own terms”.

The NZTrio has of late reconstituted in an altogether startling way, losing both its violinist (Justine Cormack) and its pianist (Sarah Watkins) in relatively quick succession, due entirely to attrition. Surviving member, ‘cellist Ashley Brown has joined forces with various other musicians in order to present the group’s 2018 series of concerts, given the titles Weave, Braid and Twine. This was the second in the series, Braid, and brought into the picture the talents of violinist Benjamin Baker and pianist Stephen de Pledge, an all-male lineup which found itself addressing the entirely female-composer essence of Braid. One article I saw concerning the concert was subtitled “The classical blokes saluting unsung women composers”, which certainly conveyed the ironies of the situations in no uncertain terms!

Perhaps it’s a “sign of the times” that both the Trio and Cantoris, mentioned above, featured works by nineteenth-century as well as contemporary female composers, allowing a comparison of contexts in which women worked to create music. Cantoris featured an 1892 Festival Cantata by the American composer Amy Beach, as well as including pieces by Dame Gillian Whitehead and Jenny McLeod, while the NZ Trio gave us chamber works by two different nineteenth-century women, both connected with illustrious male composers by blood or marriage – firstly Clara Schumann, and then Fanny Mendelssohn. Along with these we heard pieces by Australian Elena Kats-Chernin (b.1957), as well as contemporary NZers, Rachel Clement and Victoria Kelly.

To open the concert the Trio chose an attention-grabbing piece by Rachel Clement, one called Sabbia (sand) from a larger work whose title “Shifting States” referred to the process of artistic glass-making in its numerous forms. The opening sounds were flung at us by the composer, the playing positively suggesting flint-like substances with hard, sharp edges, able to change shape and form at a moment’s notice, evoking by turns long, sinuous lines, scintillations and colourings. These sound-impulses developed a certain breadth, suggesting either dreams of a substance morphing into something else, or in the hands of a glassmaker interacting with her or his artistic imagination! A certain “exotic” element in colour, texture and rhythm also evoked something of sand’s natural environment, desert vistas, long lines of unbroken space, something of a wonderous contradiction with the piece’s actual brevity. Austere and yet beautiful and startling!

In the programme Fanny Mendelssohn’s D Minor Piano Trio was next scheduled, but Ashley Brown told us that the group had done a rethink, and swopped the pieces’ order around, which meant we got Clara Schumann’s Trio first. Had the music been unannounced and simply played, then away from any programme listing, I would have hazarded a guess that Robert Schumann was the composer, right from the flowing tune that opened the work – though some of the following piano figurations seemed to push the music slightly more Mendelssohn’s way. I did like the generosity of both melody and interchange throughout, the flowing theme of the opening tempered in its seriousness by the more quixotic second subject.

I enjoyed the charming quirkiness of the Scherzo’s opening, and the “different-worldliness” of the Trio, so circumspect in its poise, equivocal in its rhythmic trajectories, and yet so passionate in its string unisons, played here with the kind of focus that made every note mean something. The third-movement Andante begins as a veritable “song without words”, with a piano solo whose “drawing-room” melody give way to vigorous dotted-rhythm exchanges in the movement’s middle section, the players digging into the forthright statements with a will. The ‘cello leads the music out of this mood and back into its opening lyricism most tenderly, with melting acquiescence from both violinist and pianist.

Again I thought the finale’s opening Schumannesque in its anxieties and suggestions of flight, the melody having a “haunted” quality, which the violinist’s chromatic descents seemed at first to take further, though the rather chirpy second subject was more of a children’s “hide-and-seek” game than anything deeper and more sinister. I liked the chromatic figuration of the fugue-like development, the players giving their various entries a trenchant quality that again took the music away from the drawing-room and into more fairy-tale realms. In the work’s coda the players found both qualities , the anxiety given more energy and punctuated with vigorous phrases that resolved as many doubts as showed their faces.

It seemed quite a quantum leap to go from these gracious drawing-room gestures to Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin’s Spirit and the Maiden – very much an “in your face” work right from the beginning, with driving rhythms and deeply-etched melodic lines creating a strongly “filmic” kind of atmosphere, the trajectories covering a lot of ground, dancing along, wildly and abandonedly, with occasional folkish touches that eventually steer the sounds into wonderment at the first movement’s enigmatic conclusion. The story involves an affair between a young girl and a water-spirit, which ends, as these things seem always to do in folk-lore, tragically – and much of the music’s course over the first two movements was wild and vigorous, as if emotion on all sides was hper-driven by both exhilaration and fear. The second movement’s dance-like course again concluded mysteriously, with added menace and unease suggested by a string tremolando whose sound seemed to dissolve into spectral-like regions.

Unlike the first two movements this concluding piece began lugubriously, with heavy sighing, gradually becoming more animated and florid, everything seemingly trapped in a great trough of despair, the ‘cello upwardly sighing with great glissandi, and joined by the violin, continuing a series of increasingly-despairing moments. The piano then ”upped” the rhythm to a march that became more and more savage until the textures suddenly started to dissolve, as it were, right in front of our ears! All momentum ceased and the sounds drifted into nothingness.

Victoria Kelly’s Sono is, literally, the stuff of dreams, in this case, it seems, a rude awakening from a dream. Not unlike Rachel Clement’s Sabbia in its initial impact, this was more obsessive an experience, long-term, the music trying to both enter into and escape a world from which the sensibilities have been, according to the composer, “untimely ripp’d”. Here, it was a superbly-sustained dreamscape, one half-lit but made altogether tremulous with possibility. As the piano picked its way through its own sound-world, the strings more and more insistently beamed their tones upon the wanderer, half-encouraging, half-mocking the figure’s progress. Depending on one’s mood one could have been wandering lost after being cast adrift, or, more passively, immersed in some kind of meditation amid an extended jazz-piano solo, the strings present either as fellow-musicians or representing a totality of listener-responses, a “did we dream you or did you dream us” scenario. Whatever the case, the music was superbly focused on states of consciousness and their waxing and waning, setting up a state of trance-like wonderment, seeming to me to be in the process of fusing outward and inward states of being.

Awakening us from such reveries was the programme’s final work, a Piano Trio by Fanny Mendelssohn, in fact her last published piece (of almost 500 separate works found posthumously only eleven found their way into print!), and one which was completed only a short time before her death. By all accounts she was as talented a performer as her more famous brother, Felix, and on the strength of her surviving compositions, possessed gifts as a composer that matched his own. In fact Felix occasionally published her songs under his own name to give them a public life otherwise denied most of her work at the time. Pianist Stephen de Pledge introduced the work to us, calling it “remarkable”, and drawing our attention in particular to the finale, in which the writing, he remarked “goes mad”, perhaps partly reflecting the composer’s urgent desire to complete the music in time to present it to her sister as a birthday gift!

I thought on the strength of this evening’s hearing, it overshadowed Clara Schumann’s work in content if not in form, its intensities reflecting what seemed an “inner life” of enormous depths of artistic feeling and imagination. That Fanny desired recognition as a composer was indicated by her decision to publish some of her works, initially without her brother’s approval, but then, in 1846, on being approached by no less than two publishers, six opus numbers of works, with his (probably reluctant) blessing! Hearing this Op.11 Piano Trio with its compelling outer movements, one gets the feeling that this was music which desperately NEEDED to be written!

The opening Allegro vivace began with a remarkably Schumannesque melody sounded by the strings over an agitated piano accompaniment, the players bringing out the music’s restlessness, which was then partly relieved by a wide-leaping melody shared by all three instruments in turn, with variants of the melodic line then tossed about among the individual players. At the development it seemed as though the music’s underlying mood had merely been waiting its chance – with the piano once again in agitated mode, the players built the music towards some wonderfully full-blooded romantic gesturings, with even the wide-leaping melody being subjected to the composer’s “sturm und drang” manner, removing all hints of drawing-room sensibility with splendidly assertive gesturings (I was going to use the word “virile”, but thought better of it!). After what appeared to be a somewhat desolate little coda, the music suddenly re-ignited and flung the last few bars at us most unapologetically!

A piano solo began the slow movement, andante expressivo, joined by the strings, the instruments in turn given ample chances to sing, not only with the opening, but a more flowing minor-key melody in the music’s middle sequence, one which is heard again later as a piquant counterpoint to the opening tune – everything is “voiced” by the players with great poetry and sensitivity. Instead of a third movement scherzo, we got a “Lied”, a brief but beautiful “Song Without Words” kind of movement requiring little comment. Not so the finale – beginning with a heroic recitative-like flourish, the piano took charge from the outset, launching into a swaggering dance-like processional, not unlike a Czardas in rhythm, and one of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies in mood. The strings entered soon enough, joining in with the dance, and helping to build up the tensions, adding weight and pace to the textures, including a forthright “strut” to the dance-rhythms – very sexy in places, with the piano contributing great flourishes. Finally, the coda galvanised the energies further, paused for a brief reminiscence of the slow movement theme, then despatched the rest with a tremendous burst!

All credit to the NZTrio for their scintillating and thoroughly engaging traversal of music which ought to be heard more often.



Exotic, rhapsodic, gruesome and tragic – Wellington Chamber Orchestra with conductor Andrew Atkins and Thomas Nikora (piano)


BORODIN – In the Steppes of Central Asia (1880)
RACHMANINOV – Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini Op.43**
DVOŘÁK – Symphonic Poem “The Wild Dove“ (Holoubek) Op.110  B.198
TCHAIKOVSKY – Fantasy Overture “Romeo and Juliet“ (1880)

Thomas Nikora (piano)**
Andrew Atkins (conductor)
Wellington Chamber Orchestra

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

Sunday, 23rd September 2018

I thought the programme’s given, somewhat “Readers’ Digest”, title “Great Romantic Symphonic Poems” simply didn’t convey the essence of this concert, so I have invented my own, above, thinking that it ought to “grab” people’s attention more readily, even if for the wrong reasons. The adjectives refer, of course, to the concert’s contents, and by no means to the performances, which were simply riveting throughout – and what reservations I might have had concerning the latter can be self-dismissed, in any case, with the words “in my opinion”, writ in water rather than in stone!

At least the title conveys the extraordinary range of content and sensibility to be found in this assemblage of music, of which only Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” could be said to be truly standard fare. I can’t ever remember hearing Alexander Borodin’s delectable piece “In the Steppes of Central Asia” in concert, before, and we don’t get to hear “live” THAT often the most jazzy and contemporary-sounding of all of Rachmaninov’s works for piano and orchestra, the Paganini Rhapsody. As for the Dvořák symphonic poem “The Wild-Dove”, well I didn’t anywhere see any labels on the item with the words “Contains disturbing content” or “Adults must be accompanied by children” – but the material from which the composer drew his inspiration for this and several other tone-poems outdoes even some of the Brothers Grimm’s stories for malevolence and bloodthirstiness (the “Wild-Dove” actually being the least brutal of a very nasty bunch of stories by Karel Jaromir Erben, based on Czech folklore!)

So, ‘twas programming of a most enterprising kind, and its realisation was, I thought, most successful. Beginning with that most evocative of musical realisations, Borodin’s “In the Steppes of Central Asia”, a brilliantly-conceived musical picture of, for we South-Sea Islanders,  a most exotic and fairy-tale part of the world, the performance straightaway took us to a land of seemingly endless vistas, through which occasionally passed travellers from both east and west, in this case a caravan from Asia making its way westwards accompanied by Russian soldiers. Borodin’s idea was to portray these salient characteristics of two worlds in music, separately at first, and then together, all under the sway of the landscape’s vast spaces.

The strings began with a single held note, delineating the vast stillness of the steppes, with solos from firstly clarinet and then horn (beautifully played) establishing firstly the “Russian” presence, followed by the sinuous “Eastern” melody, here most evocatively sounded by the oboe, both wind choirs and brasses beautifully realising their differently-coloured and ambiently spaced-out sequences. And so came the ”big tutti”, which burst upon the scene in brazen glory, the Russian theme splendidly “rasped” by the brasses and ably supported by winds and strings alike – magnificent!

But the most splendid part of the work was to come, with the two melodies then so beautifully and nostalgically combined as the different worlds intermingled, sharing instrumentations and colours and timbres between them in lump-in-throat ways, the strings particularly affecting here as they changed from Russian” to “Eastern” in one of the sequences. A shortness of breath in one of the early wind solos, and some momentary imprecise ensemble between wind and strings in the “intermingling” of melodies did no violence to the power and beauty of the evocation by conductor and players, the horn and wind solos all heroic, the strings and flute heartbreakingly magical at the end.

Enter then Thomas Nikora, taking time out from his duties as Music Director of Cantoris Choir, to essay the soloist’s role in Rachmaninov’s “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini” for piano and orchestra. With a flick of the conductor’s wrist, a couple of emphatic, confident piano chords, and a frisson of orchestral energy, we were away on a wild, spontaneous-sounding ride, the music very much in Rachmaninov the composer’s later leaner, more spiky mode, though with a few melting moments at one or two places. Of course, everybody was waiting for the work’s most well-known sequence, the eighteenth variation (when asked about this variation’s return to the “old” Rachmaninovian style, the composer simply replied “That one was for my agent!”) – and Nikora and Atkins and the players didn’t disappoint, giving the famous melody plenty of room to expand and fill the spaces with luscious tones – even if the strings lacked the “heft” of professional orchestras their backs were bent to the task and their phrasing of the melody fully demonstrated their depth of feeling for the music.

Elsewhere, the soloist and players relished the “cat-and-mouse” moments of the music’s interactions as much as the quieter, more reflective sequences. I was impressed with the articulateness of it all, and the fitting-together at high speed of the various impulses, drolleries, explosions and longer lines – there was only one minor derailment, early on, that I noticed (I think in Variation V), when the orchestra was in one place slightly too quick for the pianist, who adroitly skipped the hiatus and reconnected in an instant, a moment atypical of the performance as a whole, though the realignment was in fact perfectly in line with the quicksilver responses of the musicians in general.

Besides the brilliance there was atmosphere – Variation VII brought the first appearance of the composer’s oft-used  “Dies Irae” theme, with bassoon and lower strings filling out the lugubrious tread of the music, and Variation XI rhapsodised, with tremolando strings and piano recitatives bringing a stillness to the soundscapes into which was poured cascades of piano notes in quasi-cadenza fashion, followed by Variation XII, which disconcertingly turned the “Dies Irae” theme into something like a ballroom waltz, graceful and sultry. More half-lit and even sinister in places was Variation XVI, staccato strings and stealthy piano ushering in a plaintive oboe, with the harp sounding the tocsin and strings shivering with foreboding at the phrase-ends and the solo violin doing its best along with the clarinet to reassure,  despite wonderful moans from the horn and flute – everything so well characterised!

As for Thomas Nikora’s piano-playing, it was by turns brilliant, forthright, charming, poetic and ruminative, as befitted the character of each of the variations – whether scintillating with cascades of notes as in Variation XI, or emoting with elegance and poetry, as in the famous No XVIII, or in complete contrast despatching the virtuoso demands of the last three variations with strength, wit and brilliance, he seemed in complete command of the music and in accord with what conductor and players were doing – at the end of it all we felt we had been “treated” to something out of the ordinary, and responded accordingly – quite unexpectedly, we were then given by the pianist an additional gift of a delicious arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from the “Nutcracker” Ballet.

After the interval we returned for some more serious, not to say grimmer, business – Antonin Dvořák’s “Holoubek“ or “The Wild Dove“ is one of four symphonic poems written in 1896  by the composer, all inspired by a collection of folk-ballads called Kytice (Bouquet) written by Karel Jaromir Eben. Dvořák had previously written works inspired by Eben’s poetry in his “Legends“ (written firstly for piano fourhands, but later orchestrated), and like both Mussorgsky and Janacek in their music sought to reproduce something of the native flavour of the texts, and make specific musical references to objects and events in the stories, in the case of the symphonic poems often using Eben’s actual speech-rhythms in his treatment of the thematic material. The influential and arch-conservative critic Eduard Hanslick, who had previously expressed great enthusiasm for Dvořák’s music, was outraged at this “descent“ into programmatic detailing (Hanslick had previously castigated Liszt’s symphonic poems for similar reasons), calling Eben’s poems “ugly, unnatural and ghastly“, adding that Dvořák “has no cause to go begging before literary texts”. Fellow-composer Leos Janacek, on the other hand, embroiled at the time in his own work on the opera Jenufa, praised Dvorak’s latest pieces, saying that “the direct speech of the instruments……has never sounded with such certainty, clarity and truthfulness”.

The story of “The Wild Dove” involves a woman who has poisoned her husband and taken a new lover, whom she intends to marry. After the wedding a wild dove appears from nowhere and lands on the grave of the former husband. Its piteous cooing reminds the woman of her guilt, and increasingly torments her conscience, so that she eventually takes her own life. Conductor Andrew Atkins and his players brought the whole doom-laden scenario to life, right from the introductory darkness of the funeral march, through the quickening of interest between the widow and her new lover, the music’s pastoral beauties burgeoning into joyful dance-like expression with the wedding celebrations, and the arrival of the dove and its piteous cooing, accompanied by sinister winds and baleful horns, with the bleakness of the scene activating guilt and subsequent suicide on the part of the murderess. Dvorak also adds a kind of “redemptive” coda, suggesting a kind of acceptance and even forgiveness NOT in Eben’s story! I thought it a strong, evocative and sharply-focused performance.

Perhaps after such a gamut of tragic and harrowing dramatic expression, Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy-Overture “Romeo and Juliet” which followed was all just a bit much of a similar mode to take in! I appreciated the conductor letting us know that the piece was special for him, and I wondered whether at times he was “loving” it all a bit too much rather than letting parts of the music simply breathe and establish a more natural flow. Ask person B for his or her opinion and the impression could well be different; but I thought in places the expression was too “full on” at the beginning of a sequence for the music to be able to “go” anywhere except where the players started from. Particularly in the case of the wind choirs at the beginning and end of the work, I thought a lighter, more air-borne texture would have given the music more life and allowed the players room to deepen the expression as the sequences developed – here, it seemed to me that everybody was trying just a bit TOO hard!

That said, the work’s other sequences provided by turns plenty of excitement and lyrical warmth – apart from a too-eager horn at the beginning, the detailing from the different instrumental strands readily and precisely  brought things to life – the timpani and the lower strings built the tension superbly just before the “fight” music, the strings’ swirling exchanges with the winds prepared the way excitingly for the brass and percussion interjections depicting the warring houses, and the combination of strings and cor anglais melted all hearts with the famous love-theme, the harp and strings sounding gorgeous together with the winds when creating a diaphanous resonance in the lovers’ wake.

The return of the “fight”music created even more tension a second time round with great work from the horns, and the strings brandishing great attack and holding tightly-wrought rhythms, so important in this music. The heavy brass made splendid sounds, while the trumpets, fallible at their first big entry, rallied and delivered, contributing to the excitement – amid the exhaustion of these energies, the conductor drove his winds and strings onward to that incredible upsurge of feeling which  flooded in with the love theme’s return, the strings giving all they had with real passion and commitment. One more frenzied upsurge of energy and the music most satisfyingly collapsed, all passions spent, everybody having played their hearts out! A pity that the brass, having done such sterling work throughout were a degree or so too loud for the timpani’s deathly, funereal drumbeats to be heard, though a friend I sat with who was an ex-brass player commented on the difficulty for the players of keeping the instruments’ tones really soft. Though I thought the winds also gave too generously at the end, I thought the strings positively celestial in their rising figure, with the thunderous timpani and powerful brass giving us a most emphatic conclusion to the concert.

I haven’t given sufficient attention to Andrew Atkins’ direction throughout – though parts of the Tchaikovsky I thought needed a lighter touch, I was riveted by his work with the players for the rest of the time – the responses he got from the orchestra throughout the afternoon’s music-making produced, to my way of thinking, a truly memorable musical occasion.





Singular, well-conceived recital by male four-voice ensemble, reaching far and wide

Aurora IV: Dark Light, To mark the Spring Equinox
‘Exploring darkness and light and the shadows in between’

Toby Gee (counter-tenor), Richard Taylor (tenor), Julian Chu-Tan (baritone), Simon Christie (bass)

Music from 500 years ago to five years ago, by Lassus, Sheppard, Jean Mouton, Schubert, William Harris, Andrew Smith, anonymous plainchant and two poems (Emily Dickinson and Anne Glenny Wilson)

Pukeahu National War Memorial, Hall of Memories, Carillon, Mount Cook

Saturday 22 September, 8 pm

The beautiful, and acoustically excellent Hall of Memories carved into the bottom of the Carillon is one of the loveliest places for music in the city. It’s a wonder that it’s not more used for music recitals.

My previous musical experiences here have been by choirs: The Tudor Consort, Nota Bene; and just three months ago, Peter Mechen reviewed a concert by Baroque Voices.

Aurora IV have moved around. Their last concert was in the TGIF series at the Cathedral of St Paul’s, and my last hearing, in November 2017, was at St Andrew’s on The Terrace with a programme that was nearly as wide-ranging at this was.

The Hall was lit by a dozen candles on the floor and others on ledges on the side walls. It created a strangely spiritual atmosphere that was generally appropriate to the sense of the music. However, it made the reviewer’s task tricky, for it was not possible to read the titles of the pieces, and so there was a certain amount of guesswork, later, in fitting my sketchy notes to the works listed on the programme; which was otherwise excellent, offering words of each piece, in English. Ideally, it’s also nice for the original language to be supplied as well… but you can’t have everything.

The programme, of sixteen pieces, with all the words ran to three pages. Though being advertised as being about an hour, it seemed improbable at the outset, but the timing was indeed right.

The theme of the concert, the Equinox, when hours of light start to exceed those of the dark, drew on music, and some poetry, that touched on the transition from darkness to the light, which lends itself to symbolic references, both religious and secular.

The major element was parts of a Requiem Mass by Orlando de Lasso (here Orlandus Lassus), late 16th century.

After the lights went down, distant sounds of singing emerged from behind us, as from nowhere: a plainsong setting of a verse from the Lamenatations of Jeremiah. Sung by a solo tenor – presumably Richard Taylor – it seemed to float into the high vault of the chapel.

There were also pieces by Oslo-resident British composer Andrew Smith. I was intrigued later as I read my notes alongside the programme to find that I’d remarked on the Renaissance sounds, alternating with distinctly contemporary passages; it turned out to be Smith’s Flos regalis virginalis, and was relieved to read that this was the composer’s style: “his modern harmonic twists cast sparks of light against the darker, mystical tones of plainsong and medieval polyphony“.

Furthermore, it created a sound image of more than four voices. Which was a characteristic of their singing that impressed me many times: I was hearing both the richness of a small choir, but of one whose perfect ensemble gave the impression of single voices.

Other Andrew Smith pieces were a Magnificat. Once again I found its nature enigmatic and my notes bore the cryptic word ‘language?’; it must have been Latin. However, I enjoyed the echoey, complex harmonies, along with touches of plainsong. Their third Smith piece was And Surrexit Christus (I’m not sure whether that is usually known as ‘Hodie Christus natus est’). Again, not being able to read the programme, I scribbled ‘wide harmonies evolving into more dissonant’ music. Aurora IV have recently given the New Zealand premieres of all his pieces performed in this concert.

The Introit, ‘Requiem aeternam’ of Lassus’s Missa pro defunctis, was the first of three excerpts; later we heard his setting of Psalm 23, as a Responsory, commonly used in the Mass, then the Sanctus, and near the end of the concert, the Lux aeterna. My note in the dark about the first of Lassus’s excerpts remarked ‘perfectly blended voices’, each sounding of similar impressive quality’, and later that the bass, Simon Christie, sounded ‘clearly of international stature’. That section included ‘Te decet hymnus, Deus, in Sion, Et tibi reddetur votum in Jerusalem’ and then the Kyrie.

Emily Dickinson’s comforting, much loved poem, ‘We grow accustomed to the dark’ followed, seeming to touch emotions very similar to the impact of the preceding music, though written three centuries later. It was admirably read, without a trace of elocuted, ‘poetic’ diction, by Toby Gee who also read Anne Glenny Wilson’s ‘A spring afternoon in New Zealand’ which was very popular in the 1890s. Not a poet I’d come across, and I enjoyed this poem and others by her that I found (inevitably, in these Googling times); quite comparable to Swinburne or Thomas Hardy, Bridges or Drinkwater, and Emily Dickinson if you like, of similar sensibility.

Quis dabit oculis? is a lament on the death of Queen Anne of Brittany by Jean Mouton – 16th century, featuring counter-tenor Toby Gee prominently. The Irish folksong, She moved through the fair, followed, after two of the singers had moved to the sides, conjured such a different aural landscape, in clearly pronounced Irish accents, in the seamless sounds of polyphony. (Was the remote sound of a flute an external coincidence or a part of the performance?).

Schubert’s Die Nacht was the only German entrant in the concert; apart from the distinct sound of the language, I might have been pressed to identify the composer, but the singing was perfectly idiomatic in words by a rather obscure poet of Schubert’s time. (part songs – there are many – by German Lieder composers, seem to be rarely performed).

Another anthem, in English, was William Harris’s Holy is the true light, a typical 20th century, four-part anthem, showing the quartet’s ease in a shift from the Medieval or Renaissance to a musically touching, contemporary idiom, not nearly as saccharine as such pieces sometimes sound.

Another outlier was a Latin motet by John Shepard, English mid-16th century, In Manus tuas, with a dominant tenor line handling the plainchant, between weaving polyphony, written probably during Mary’s reign when it was safe to compose Catholic music in Latin (dangerous not to!).

It ended with plainsong, as it had begun: first, lamenting the fall of Jerusalem, and the last offering the light of everlasting paradise. They were more or less forced to sing an encore: ‘Il bianco e dolore cigno’ by Flemish composer Jacques Arcadelt, which I was driven to find and play several versions of with great delight, on YouTube.

It was a totally admirable concert by four male singers whose voices coalesced in a way that is rare; and as well, they found the appropriate tone and rhythms that coloured the words and their musical settings, with sensitivity, awareness of their era, and just sheer intelligence.


Strong, exemplary student performances of string orchestra masterpieces

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts 
New Zealand School of Music String Ensemble, conducted by Martin Riseley

Handel: Concerto Grosso in D, Op 6 No 5
Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings in C, Op 48

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 19 September, 12:15 pm

I confess I was unprepared for the actual nature of this concert, entitled string students of the NZSM. Naively I’d thought of a string(?) of solos, duets and threesomes, perhaps a string quartet. I was a bit late, arriving as Martin Riseley finished his introduction to the recital, and launched into Handel’s Concerto Grosso in D, Op 6 No 5, inspiring playing that sounded as if it was a prelude to a highly dramatic opera, perhaps not even by Handel.

I’d missed hearing Riseley’s comment about Handel’s borrowing tunes from a contemporary, Gottlieb Muffat, in this and others of his works, a practice that was common and evidently acceptable at that time. Muffat was Handel’s contemporary whose career was at the Austrian court. It explained the impression I got that Handel’s fingerprints were not very conspicuous, certainly in some parts of the work. The Introduction was marked by vivid dotted rhythms, boisterous rather than elegant, while a different energy infused the fugal Allegro that drew vigorous playing from the very distinct concertino and ripieno sections: the concertino parts were taken cleanly and strongly by Nick Majic on first violin, and Sarang Roberts and Ellen Murfitt on second violin; Rebecca Warnes played the concertino cello part.

The Presto was an even more dynamic movement, with the concertino handling the triplet quavers while the ripieno maintained the strong pulse, with its very emphatic first note of each animated and light-spirited triplet. The Largo was a long time coming, but it seemed to speak in a more familiar Handelian language, the last note leaving it unresolved, awaiting the arrival of another Allegro, and further demonstration of the players’ energy that Riseley succeeded in maintaining splendidly. And the Menuett, rather than any kind of Presto Finale, was a calmly played, pensive movement that ended in an elegant, civilised manner.

So I was thoroughly impressed by the ensemble’s competence (only minor flaws of no importance), and looked forward with confidence to the different challenges of the Tchaikovsky. It’s symphonic in length, and so, the Handel having taken about 20 minutes, the concert ended around 1.15pm; and such was their enjoyment of a splendid hearing, right to the end, that scarcely anyone left, convinced as I was that it’s one of the composer’s real masterpieces.

They captured the varied phases of the first movement with distinction, often sounding more like a professional ensemble than a group of students.

Riseley again set the tone and the spirit with big gestures that emphasised rhythm, as if the notes were written in BOLD. I approved. Though there are distinct virtues in taking some parts pretty slowly, such as the Introduction – Andante non troppo, and particularly, the end of the Elegy and the rapturous, almost silent start of the Finale; and these were carried off well.

The Waltz used to be much played on its own, and I’m surprised not to hear it occasionally, removed from its family, on RadioNZ Concert, which now specialises in dismembering substantial pieces of music, for fear of frightening listeners with a 2-minute attention span.

This was no Karajan performance, and no one would have expected to hear a specially subtle or immaculate performance. But it was a very fine student effort, captured the essentials, and dealt with them with confidence, sensitivity and accuracy. In truth, it was probably their level of gusto and energy that masked very successfully what blemishes there were in ensemble and intonation.

It’s a long time since I heard the Serenade in live performance, and I was deeply grateful; reminded me what a great work it really is.

125th Women’s Suffrage Anniversary Concert with Cantoris in Wellington

Cantoris Choir  presents:

AMY BEACH – Festival Jubilate
Hymn – All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name
ELAINE SHARMAN – Works for piano solo – Fish / Rain / Icicles / Deep Water
JENNY McLEOD – Sun Carols

Cantoris Choir

Thomas Nikora, Musical Director

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

Wednesday 19th September 2018

2018 marks the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand.  On 19 September 1893 the Electoral Act 1893 was passed, giving all women in New Zealand the right to vote.  As a result of this landmark legislation, New Zealand became the first self-governing country in the world in which all women had the right to vote in parliamentary elections.

Cantoris Choir in Wellington presented a concert of works on the anniversary of the actual legislation, a presentation intended to “bring to life and shine a spotlight on women’s achievements in music composition”. This extended offshore, with the inclusion in the programme of pieces by the American composer Amy Beach (1867-1944), reflecting a world-wide women’s movement to achieve recognition as creative artists, both in Beach’s era and leading up to the present time.

Works by two present-day New Zealand composers, Dame Gillian Whitehead and Jenny McLeod, took up the remainder of the programme, and were joined by an unassuming but nevertheless distinctive set of piano pieces by a Wellington composer and teacher Elaine Sharman (1939-2018).

In the case of Amy Beach, her music has had a complex history – fighting contemporary attitudes that women lacked the proper facilities to be creative artists (voiced most influentially, perhaps, by Antonin Dvorak in 1892, to the effect that “….they (women) have not the creative power”), Beach’s works achieved considerable success at first, seemingly against all odds – she was entirely American-trained, and became one of the first US composers whose work was recognised in Europe.

A child prodigy pianist, she made her debut in 1883, also having several compositions published that year for the first time. Upon her marriage she concentrated on composition (at her husband’s request), and produced a vast array of music, among which was her “Festival Jubilate”, a work commissioned by the World’s Columbian Exposition which opened in 1892 (celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s landfall in the New World).

Cantoris’s programme notes comment that, prior to the first performance of the work at the Exposition the following year a landmark speech concerning women’s rights and equalities was delivered (by the leader of the Board of Lady Managers of the Exposition, Bertha Honore Palmer, the acknowledged Queen of Chicago Society) to an audience of two thousand people. One critic wrote afterwards that Beach’s work was then “a fitting climax to {Palmer’s} address, which was in itself a “jubilate” over the emancipation of women”, while  another wrote that the music was “a clarion of triumph – the cry of a Balboa discovering a new sea of opportunity and emotion”.

Despite this and other successes in almost all genres of composition, Beach’s music after her death was neglected until relatively recently. Because of the success she experienced in her lifetime she remained a “presence”, although the neglect was a very real phenomena – and even now her music hasn’t taken its place in the repertory alongside that of somebody like Aaron Copland’s, for example. The work of living female composers is increasingly recognised, but there’s a distinct absence from the repertory of music by women in Beach’s era and earlier.

This evening’s major work by Beach, the “Festival Jubilate” though performed by Cantoris in a version with piano, rather than orchestral accompaniment, made a splendidly full-blooded impression, giving us little inkling as to why the work might have suffered neglect since its composer’s death. A heartfelt, full-throated choral sound at the outset, splendidly sustained in slow, harmonic rhythm and bolstered by a turbo-charged orchestral piano straightaway caught and held the attentions, before the piece flowed into a fugal-like sequence, with different strands clearly and sonorously delivered. I particularly relished what seemed like a Beethoven-like moment at the sequence’s end, not unlike the anticipation created by those repeated cries of “Vor Gott!!” in the latter’s Choral Symphony finale.

Beach’s own documented performances of Beethoven’s piano sonatas occasionally seemed to have “informed” her musical fabric in places, as echoes of passages from these works “ghosted“ the piano accompaniments and transitions linking the work’s sections. Jonathan Berkahn’s playing excellently dominated the sound-picture when appropriate and gave sterling support to the singers at other times while Director Thomas Nikora’s conducting allowed the stratospheric lines of the sopranos as much space and freedom as the basses’ lowest notes which here were “sounded” most impressively. What scintillations and energies there were in the renditions of the cries of “Gloria”, the lines riding on high in suitably ceremonial fashion, with the piano adding both sparkle and energy to the mix! And how sonorously the “Amens” sang out, gladdening the hearts and thrilling the senses of listeners revelling in the composer’s mastery of her forces and presentation of the material!

The “Festival Jubilate” was followed by another work by Amy Beach, a hymn written in 1915, to words by Edward Perronet, a Missionary who worked in India in the Eighteenth Century. Obviously hymn-like, the piece was beautifully sung, with the sopranos again shining with their sweet and true tones, and receiving plenty of support from the choir’s other sections. A third verse was begun softly, in contrast to the rest, while a concluding section grandly and unexpectedly modulated to bring the work to a satisfying end.

After the interval, something completely different diverted our attentions to engaging effect – a mini-recital of pieces written by a Wellington teacher and composer, Elaine Sharman. She studied composition at Victoria University of Wellington with both Douglas Lilburn and David Farquhar, but regarded herself more as an educationalist and advocate for music than a composer or performer. Incidentally, each of the four pieces have been published in recent collections of New Zealand piano music edited by composer-teacher Gillian Bibby, three in an anthology called “Take Flight” and one in another collection called “Sunrise”.

“Fish”, the first piece, alternated quirky, angular rhythms with more smoothly-flowing sets of impulses, while the following “Rain” gave us beautifully-wrought resonances deriving from both downward and upward figurations – a simple, but strongly effective illustrative idea, Debussy-like in effect. The third, “Icicles” evoked rows of stalagtites and stalagmites, strong at the base but delicate and scintillating at their tips.The final “Deep Water” began with subaqueous sounds whose impulses occasionally broke away to represent the play of light on the watery surfaces and the downward refraction of those light-strands, beautifully connecting surfaces and depths with murmuring arpeggiations – all simple, but stunningly effective, and played with real sensitivity by a member of Cantoris, bass

The choir re-entered (from the front, a little disconcertingly, this time) to perform Dame Gillian Whitehead’s Missa Brevis, a work I hadn’t heard “live”, even though it’s one of her earliest compositions. It has been given performances in both London and Chicago, as well as by a number of groups here in New Zealand, and recorded on the excellent “Waiteata Collection” series of CDs of NZ composers’ works.

Begun by the sopranos, the elegantly-shaped lines of the “Kyrie” immediately generated a kind of ritual ambience at once timeless and redolent of medieval music – the altos followed, elaborating on the sopranos’ figurations, the effect spreading through the voices, culminating in a resonant and definite chord of a fifth. Sopranos and altos harmonised in thirds with the “Christe”, tightening the intervals as the men’s voices entered, supported by a solo ‘cello. The men’s voices finished on a unison note. Then, with the “Kyrie’s” return the altos took the lead, the music beautifully flowing from line to line, each group “handing over” the music as the flow continued, again concluding with an open fifth.

A tenor solo began the “Gloria”, reinforcing the ritual once again, before the sopranos led off, combining with anxious intervals of a second in places with the altos, the text praising God, but the music displaying some tensions in the Almighty’s presence, settling down again with long unison stretches up to “Jesu Christe”, before rising in a series of layered pleadings at “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris” – quite beautiful!

“Qui tollis” brought forth a different kind of beauty, long-breathed, tightly-harmonised floating lines sopranos lifting upwards, basses remaining anchored, as if all humanity were inhabiting the spaces in between, the different strands resonating with a beautifully-voiced ”Miserere nobis”, with the “fifth” again in evidence at the end. As if unable to restrain their emotions, the voices burst out with the “Quoniam”, pouring energy into their tones for the three “Tu solus…” acclamations, sopranos and altos encouraging each other in the “In Gloria dei Patris”, and then beginning a lovely elongated “Amen”.

We heard the gentle pealing of bells at the “Sanctus” with the sopranos and altos overlapping to redolent effect, melismatic impulses growing from the pealing bells, and a single-strand soprano “Pleni sunt caeli” similarly rising skyward – a beautiful sequence! The “Hosannas” were more declamatory and florid, making a telling contrast with the previous tintinnabulations. The “Benedictus” featured a near-obsessive downward repetition of a phrase from altos and basses, before the “Hosannas” sprang back into hearing, even more euphoric and florid than before.

After the beauties of the “Sanctus” the “Agnus Dei” was a sobering change, the vocal textures austere and bleak at the outset, the lines together but pursuing separate courses, the music rising to despairing heights, before the voices came together once more with “Dona Nobis Pacem”, the lines huddling together at first, but gradually opening up and out and risking a unison of hope right at the work’s end.

To conclude the concert we were given Jenny McLeod’s “Sun Festival Carols”, which was a 1983 commission from the Wellington City Council for the city’s “Sun Festival” of that year. On that occasion a women’s and children’s choir performed the carols, alongside various other festivities, including fireworks, to celebrate the beginning of summer.

The piano here returned as accompaniment, Jonathan Berkhan pitching the instrument once again into the fray with the voices, this time engaging with the attractive “Road Music” aspect of the opening carol, “Vulcan”, whose trajectory wasn’t unlike the well-known “Joshua fit de battle of Jericho”. It all worked well with piano, the syncopated rhythms all the more strongly projected and counter-balanced. By contrast the second carol, “Ochre”, was more ritualised and “circular” – the different lines described circles of their own to meet other strands, not unlike “recite and answer” music. A third carol “Azure” began with brilliant piano scintillations and with sopranos and altos exchanging opening lines, with the sopranos having a gorgeous sequence in the work’s middle, singing in thirds, before joining in unison with the other sections for a final, rousing effect.

A piquant rhythmic pattern supported flowing melodic lines in No.4 “Henna”, a gentle “gospel blues” kind of a rhythm, a marked contrast to the trenchant trajectories and melodies of the following carol No.5 “Gentian” –  an attractive syncopated filigree moment signalling a contrasting sequence during which the opening was momentarily “transformed” before returning to the grunty opening manner. A single note then heralded No.6 “Indigo I” with delicate lullabic sounds, from “out of the blue” as it were, a soprano being put to the test and emerging with credit, the women’s voices combining beautifully with the music’s more “narrative” sections.

The composer’s impish rhythmic invention brought No.7, “Jade”’s beginning to life, with straightforward meters gradually attenuated, sopranos and altos having the melody and the men the rhythm. The music irradiated joy and exuberance throughout its middle section, the piano’s extended postscript giving us the chance to “climb down” from wherever, once again, perhaps in preparation for the nostalgic beauties of the final carol Indigio II (No.8). Its gentle rhythms and beautiful melodic lines were here exquisitely realised, recalling for this listener something of the wonderment of a child’s Christmas. The central section’s long-breathed lines in particular seemed to activate the gift of recollection of long ago, the piano at the end appearing to trail off into a kind of disappearing world, having worked its magic in tandem with the rest of the performers’ sterling efforts.

Afterwards, while walking back to my car I was suddenly and unexpectedly re-struck by the thought that I had been to a concert whose music had been composed entirely by women – but at the time of listening I’d forgotten entirely about that, and so, probably, had most of the rest of the audience! Our enjoyment of it all was seemingly “driven” first and foremost by the sounds themselves and their performance – a sign of the times? – progress? – even a victory? 125 years AND Jacinda Ardern later, here was this music in New Zealand roaring out its message with no inhibitions or self-conscious restraints! Notable thoughts, and not the least for this day of days!…….






















Amici Ensemble consolidates its reputation as valuable, adventurous Wellington adornment

Wellington Chamber Music 
Amici Ensemble: Donald Armstrong and Malavika Gopal (violins), Andrew Thomson (viola), Ken Ichinose (cello), Bridget Douglas (flute), Patrick Barry (clarinet) and Carolyn Mills (harp

Mozart: Clarinet Quintet in A, K. 581
Debussy: Syrinx for solo flute
Salina Fisher – Coastlines for string quartet, flute, clarinet and harp
Mozart: Flute Quartet in D, KV 285
Saint-Saëns: Fantaisie in A for Violin and Harp, Op 124
Ravel: Introduction and Allegro for string quartet, flute, clarinet and harp

St. Andrews on The Terrace

Sunday 16 September 3 pm

We have owed a great deal to this splendid, many-facetted ensemble over the years, held together by NZSO Associate Concertmaster Donald Armstrong. Most ‘chamber music’ groups are either trios or quartets, and occasionally a quintet by adding a piano, a cello, a clarinet… Here we had enough variety to give us Mozart’s clarinet quintet, and also Ravel’s septet that is disguised as Introduction and Allegro for string quartet, flute, clarinet and harp, a delightful concoction that clearly inspired Salina Fisher to write her new piece, using the same forces.

Mozart: K 581
I have a feeling that in most of my reviews of Mozart’s clarinet quintet I have regaled readers (if any) with my nostalgic affair with a motor car, a cassette and by-ways of rural France and Spain,  err… 40 years ago. Almost all my discoveries of great music are embedded in memories of time and place of first hearing – not a bad way to prepare for life’s later years.

This performance of the Mozart did that again, for its tones, tempi, spirit were very similar to those produced by that long-ago cassette, and so it aroused admiration for the loving performance that NZSO string players, plus principal clarinettist Patrick Barry, created. Their re-creation of the gorgeous melodies of the dreamy slow movement, again both clarinet and strings equally ‘lime-lit’; the clarinet’s perfectly normal, undulating arpeggios and scales , though mere accompaniment, momentarily stole attention from the strings. The menuetto with its two trios became unusually interesting, more than many a Minuet and Trio; and the ‘Theme and Variations’ of the finale offered surprising contrasts between delight and pensiveness.

The Debussy memorial year was marked here with his Syrinx from Bridget Douglas, warm tone without any hint fluty shrillness that sometimes alters its mood.

Then came Salina Fisher’s Ravel look-alike, but in instrumentation only, Coastlines. The tremulous clarinet begins, then a mere punctuation by flutes. Its title did rather call up the feel of the Kapiti Coast, being a commission from the Waikanae Music Society, though I have difficulty using landscape or narrative as a way of understanding or assessing music. The instrumental combination seems to hint at all kinds of natural or man-made sounds, and the sounds of the sea, wind, birds and the atmosphere conjured by light. The breathy flute, the blend of harp and clarinet, but it was a sense of the music’s trajectory, of one phase evolving towards another, one instrument relating with another, that took hold of the attention for a few moments as a sound pattern took shape.

There was the flow of a story somewhere and satisfaction about the patterns of sound that left me finally with a feeling of contentment with Fisher’s chimerical creation.

After the interval Mozart’s first flute quartet restored conventional sounds and patterns, and again, here was a time for Bridget Douglas to become a leading voice, although with Mozart, even a sort of solo instrument doesn’t remain for long in the limelight, but places the music rather than the player centre stage. The performance emphasised the warmth of melody and the importance of the ensemble element. It never allowed one to think that even in a fairly early piece (1777/78, aged 21), Mozart was not concerned primarily with producing interesting, even unexpected events, for example the unresolved end of the Adagio, making the finale Rondo necessary.

Saint-Saëns: violin and harp 
The novelty (apart from the Fisher piece) was a much older piece: Saint-Saëns at 72, in 1907. It’s quite true, as the programme note writes, that it might have sounded old-fashioned to the more adventurous music lover at the time, though the avant-garde music then starting to emerge would have been quite unknown to the average concert-goer. Nothing essentially ‘Second Viennese School’ was circulating; Debussy and Ravel, and perhaps the Strauss of Salome, were the radicals of 1907.

But the unusual combination – violin and harp – might have gained it some attention. It’s a polished, stylish and idiomatic piece, generally bright and warm and not the least uninteresting. For the record, the sections are: Poco Allegretto – Allegro – Vivo e grazioso – Largamente – Andante con moto – Poco Adagio.

There is momentary darkness with the descending, double stopped notes in the Allegro but a genuine allegro spirit takes over quickly. And the following Vivo e grazioso cannot really be dismissed as fluff. The remaining three sections are fairly slow but do not lose their feeling of continuity; and they create a rather charming picture, especially as played so persuasively by Armstrong and Mills.  The whole thing sounds as if the composer had been taken with the possibilities of using these two instruments and quite attractive ideas came easily to him.

Ravel: Introduction and Allegro 
Finally, the second major piece (second to the Clarinet Quintet). It was interesting that Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro was contemporaneous with the Saint-Saëns Fantaisie. Though I knew the story about commercial competition between Paris piano makers Pleyel and Érard, I couldn’t remember which way the conflict went. In 1904 Pleyel invented a new chromatic harp and commissioned Debussy to demonstrate its worth (Danse sacrée et danse profane), while Érard defended his century-old double action pedal harp by commissioning Ravel’s piece. The latter prevailed in the market place (political corollary: this sort of result from competition does permit an exception to my general scepticism about its social, even economic efficacy).

Happily, both pieces are much-loved favourites, and it was a delight to hear the Ravel played by such accomplished musicians. Ravel might have been too radical for the Prix de Rome judges at the Paris Conservatoire, but this piece is gorgeously romantic and playful, and as this programme showed, there’s plenty of room for both Saint-Saëns and Ravel in civilised society.

The concert more than lived up to the reputation of Donald Armstrong and the Amici Ensemble’s as a valuable and adventurous adornment to Wellington’s rich musical scene.


Some great hits from NZSO’s popular classics concert; a win by a big margin

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich with Andrew Joyce (cello)

Schubert: Symphony No 8 in B minor ‘Unfinished’ 
Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme
Gillian whitehead: Turanga-nui (premiere)
Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 15 September, 7:30 pm

I don’t know what sort of audiences have been showing up at the other ten performances of this concert between Invercargill and Kerikeri, but the thin population in the MFC was a bit of a surprise. There was certainly competition from the rugby on Saturday evening; but there was probably also a more insidious factor: no glamorous overseas soloist; no internationally recognised conductor.

Other inhibitors: a deterrent for the serious musical aficionado was the presence of music likely to be enjoyed by the masses; and at the other extreme, for those with only superficial interest there wasn’t much they might have encountered in film or TV.

The Unfinished
But it was a good try. Schubert symphonies are not much played, compared with Beethoven, Brahms or Mahler; and they should be (a Schubert series from Orchestra Wellington is worth thinking about). McKeich moved elegantly and sensitively through the Eighth, the pianissimi rather exquisite, the interrupting fortissimo interjections a bit too emphatic, but with absorbing attention to its unique spirit. But the end of the first movement arrived too soon; I’m sure Schubert called for a repeat of the exposition.

The second movement hung together very well, with a chance to admire the composer’s orchestral subtleties, especially the winds that now included trombones, with Beethoven’s innovation in his Fifth Symphony 15 years earlier. In all, this was a beautifully evoked account.

The Rococo Variations had a troubled birth, having been subjected to arrogant revision by Tchaikovsky’s professorial colleague at the Moscow Conservatorium, cellist Fitzenhagen.  I didn’t see the relevance of the programme note’s remarks about an arrangement for piano and cello for that was not publicly performed. Furthermore, the notes left it to be assumed that the orchestra used Fitzenhagen’s controversial revised version which has been more played, since its seven sections were named. Andrew Joyce confirmed to me that it was Tchaikovsky’s original, eight-variation version. Among many minor changes, including the deletion of one variation, the main alteration was the Andante sostenuto which Fitzenhagen had moved from its affecting penultimate place to become the third variation in his version.

In fact, reading accounts of its composition and Tchaikovsky’s strenuous objection to the quite major alterations in Fitzenhagen’s unauthorised interference, it is surprising that it took so long for Tchaikovsky’s own version to be first performed, in Moscow in 1941.

The Rococo Variations were inspired by Tchaikovsky’s love of Mozart, and scoring is more limited than the normal scale in the 1870s: just pairs of winds; no trumpets or trombones, no timpani. While the orchestra played with discretion, even distinction, the aural focus was predominantly on cellist Andrew Joyce, who has to be recognised as a cellist of international standing, such was his splendid bravura as well as the extraordinary beauty of tone that he produced. There were moments of dazzling virtuosity, often climbing to the top of the fingerboard, using thumb position and perfect, false harmonics.

The beauty of the orchestral parts were a fine match with the cellist’s playing, and there were no balance problems. It’s fashionable to denigrate the piece as a concerto-manqué, but Tchaikovsky composed exactly what wanted, a homage to Mozart (who never wrote either concerto or sonata for cello), and you can think of it as a half-breed if you like, but it stands convincingly just as Tchaikovsky composed it and I was utterly delighted by the performance.

Joyce’s encore was a tune from the British Sea Songs of the Last night of the Proms. Wasn’t sure I heard correctly: Tom Bowling?

Gillian Whitehead Turanga-nui 
After the interval came Gillian Whitehead’s Turanga-nui which, though the fact was ignored in the programme note, is the third of a ‘Landfall’ commissions by the NZSO that marks Cook’s 1769 arrival (we’re a little previous, obviously, for the 250th anniversary) at Poverty Bay (Turanga-nui-a-kiwa), though oddly, the programme note didn’t mention that. This piece dwelt initially on the arrival half a millennium earlier of another group of strangers.

Much contemporary orchestral music employs a good deal of percussion and this certainly used percussion, but it was never gratuitous, integrated sensitively with conventional stringed and wind instruments. To some extent it was a depiction of landfall, of encounter that turned ugly between human beings with almost no common context, and conflict. Timpani and ethereal strings set the scene but were followed by shrill wind-led agitation; bird-song, flutterings, the dance of the wind. It often astonishes me that the sounds arising in the composer’s head can be translated into actual orchestral sounds, at all. But the feeling created here was of that magic occurring, and that the offerings from marimba and xylophone, trombones and tuba, discreet Maori instruments, flutes and strings, and a particularly evocative bassoon solo, existed just as precisely on paper as in they had in Whitehead’s mind.

The music and its instrumentation quite enchanted me, and I think it enchanted the audience generally. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if many a sceptic in the audience didn’t came away with a much greater respect for and pleasure in contemporary New Zealand music than they might have had earlier.

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune 
The Debussy; it’s the centenary of his death this year, so he’s being played plenty around the world. In fact, a couple of weeks ago a surprisingly effective version of the Le Faune for flute and piano was played by Diedre Irons and Rebecca Steele at a lunchtime concert, and the day after the present concert, NZSO principal flutist, Bridget Douglas, played his famous little solo flute piece, Syrinx at a Wellington Chamber Music concert. This was a good performance, with much careful and evocative playing by woodwinds and harps. It doesn’t play itself by any means, and there were moments when some of Debussy’s still elusive, mythologizing creation slightly missed its potential.

But the last work, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet symphonic poem, to use the appropriate descriptive term, was a splendid, emotion-laden, orchestrally exciting performance. Curiously, even though there was a full complement of winds, the strings were fewer than is typical in late 19th century orchestral music; it made no perceptible difference. There are things about its orchestration, its near-dissonant harmonies, its structure, not to mention its powerfully emotional, musical inspiration that anticipates the future directions of music as did Debussy’s Faun (only 15 years later). And the tragic passion of its last pages, declining to the subtlest gestures from oboes, clarinets and bassoons, proved a wonderful climax and catharsis.

The programme’s construction might have been a bit unusual, but it worked very well in the end and certainly deserved a much bigger crowd.