Beautiful, visceral, hypnotic, disconcerting – Stroma’s “essential experimental” at Wellington’s Pyramid Club

Stroma presents:
An intimate evening of song, water, glass, harmonics, beat frequencies and vases

Music by John Cage, Peter Ablinger, Antonia Barnett-McIntosh,
Alvin Lucier, James Tenney, Chiyoko Szlavnics

Stroma: Michael Norris (sponges), Barbara Paterson (soprano, voice), Ken Ichinose (‘cello)
Antonia Barnett-McIntosh (voice) Rebecca Struthers, Kristina Zelinska (violins)
Reuben Jelleyman (accordion), Emma Barron (viola), Matthew Cave (double-bass)

Venue: The Pyramid Club, Taranaki St., Wellington

Thursday 29th November 2018

The venue really brought it all alive, in a way that I thought a more conventional concert-chamber-like place wouldn’t have done. In the most positive way we in the audience seemed to be “put at ease” by the “late-night club” surroundings at Taranaki Street’s Pyramid Club, and, rather than attending a concert, were instead made to feel we were “eavesdropping” on the ongoing creative processes constituting and shaping each item. It was a feast of visceral interaction between performers, media and audience; and even if the results at times gave rise to as much bemusement as illumination (speaking for myself, here!) I felt these moments pulled our apertures further apart and teased our sensibilities with even more of the workings and their trajectories.

This was the first of two performances scheduled that evening, and the venue was packed in the most encouraging and atmospheric way possible. Stroma’s presentations, under the leadership of Michael Norris have constantly sought to stimulate, engage and challenge audiences, and have steadily earned the group a loyal following based on its remarkable set of capacities for renewal in the form of fresh explorations and bold, and compelling performance practices. This evening’s programme, entitled “Essential Experimental”, was no exception, the items generating sounds from sources and practices in some cases far removed from conventional means, even when a number of familiar instruments were involved in the process.

Michael Norris called the outcomes of these presentations “unusual but beautiful sound-worlds”, and the first of these, featuring a 2002 work by Austrian composer Peter Ablinger called Weiss Weisslich 31e, certainly made good that description by way of a most intriguing and diverting set of procedures. Norris himself was cast in the role of “performer”, with the title given in the programme of “kitchen-sponge hanger-upperer”, his function being to fix a number of wetted sponges to places along a line strung over a number of amplified glass tubes laid on the ground, allowing the drips of water from each sponge to land on corresponding individual tubes. Because the “operator” can only hang or remove one sponge at a time, the acceleration and deceleration of “drip incidence” from each sponge takes place at a different time from each of its seven fellows, making for complicated “canonic” results involving different tones from the amplified tubes. Norris further varied the interplay of the drips and their sounds by rehanging the freshly-wetted sponges in a different order a second time round! Magical!

At times the very slow drips found themselves “paired” with rapid ones – and with the different amplifications directed through speakers placed in different parts of the room, both the different speeds, pitches and physical placements of the speakers made for some atmospheric antiphonal effects. Interestingly I found that in sequences where many different drips were sounding, I often noticed specific ones ONLY when they stopped or the sponge was removed, indicating that it was as much my subconscious as my conscious hearing that was “registering” the drips. The composer himself wrote that his material here “was not sound but audibility” and that he could “set audibility then inaudibility”, further explaining that “inaudibility can arise through…too little occurring, but also through too much occurring…” The drips created pulse, melody, counterpoint and texture at various times, ranging from altogether what one commentator somewhere called “a turbulent polyrhythmic forest”.

From these abstractions we were taken to John Cage’s 1958 composition Aria, originally dedicated to one of the most renowned performers of contemporary vocal music, soprano Cathy Berberian, and here performed with remarkable assurance by Barbara Paterson, her voice dealing most adroitly with the work’s many changes of mode, style, timbre and character – at certain points I was in fact reminded of composer/pianist Donald Swann’s virtuoso rendering of his similarly exploratory song “Korkoraki” (part of the well-known Flanders and Swann “At The Drop of a Hat” presentation). Here were far more divergencies from the conventional “art-song”, including words from different languages and rapid fluctuations between different styles of delivery – the emotional effect of Paterson’s cornucopian rendering was not unlike witnessing a performer attempting to piece together some kind of coherent message while in the process of either suffering from a kind of schizophrenia, reliving a series of traumatic experiences, or giving us the full gamut of what any singer’s physical and vocal equipment is put through in performance, most of which the performer has ordinarily been taught to suppress! – an incredible display!

Continuing to ring the changes, the concert next featured a work by Alvin Lucier, featuring the ‘cello-playing of Ken Ichinose, performing in tandem alongside a number of empty, differently-sized vases, all amplified – somewhat literally, the work was called Music for ‘Cello with One of More Amplified Vases.  The cellist was required to begin with his lowest note and slowly play an upward glissando, right up to halfway along his top string. At certain points along this journey, the resonances created by the notes reverberated within the empty jars and created an additional “presence” surrounding the tones already being sounded by the player. To my surprise I thought I distinctly heard the nostalgic “drone” of the engines of a distant DC3 taking off from Milson Airport in Palmerston North, a regular occurrence for me when a small child. Sometimes the vases seemed to be “duetting” or “quartetting” with the soloist, while at other times the effect was that of a companion ghost or guardian angel. Perhaps the work ought to be retitled “Unlocked…” or “Liberated” Voices………..

I must confess to the readership that I found the next piece, by Antonia Barnett-McIntosh, the current composer-in-residence at the Lilburn House in Thorndon, a REAL challenge! This was a work given the title yesterday blocks, and one to which the term “composed” seemed to me, for some reason, an inadequate description of the process! In Barnett-McIntosh’s own words, her work is described as presenting “the specificity of sound gestures and their variation, translation and adaptation, often employing chance-based and procedural operations.” As with John Cage’s Aria the only instrument in evidence was the voice, here the composer’s own voice in tandem with that of Barbara Paterson’s. The two “artists” produced narratives that seemed at several degrees’ removal from one another, though towards the end of the different discourses there seemed to be glimmerings of TS Eliot-Waste-Land-like attempts at communication, of the “Speak to me – why do you never speak?” kind of impulsiveness. Up to then, the composer’s disjointed narratives had run teasingly and tantalisingly alongside the other speaker’s half-conversation with what seemed like unheard inner voices. Was it delineating a fragmentary relationship between thinking and vocalising, an out-of-phase attempt to bring together recall and the present, or a conversation between parts of the same personality? – somebody playing with/being played by their alter ego? I found the crossover aspects involving both spoken theatre and music fascinating, as the voices seemed to me to increasingly coalesce, as if they were starting to “decode” one another – in effect very daring! – but for me very confusing!

More “conventional” (if such a word is allowed ANY currency pertaining to this concert!) was the next piece, Canadian composer Chiyoko Szlavnics’ Triptych for AS, written in 2006 for two violins and an accordion (“AS” is the composer’s mother, incidentally). Described as a “visual artist” as well as a composer Szlavnics is credited by the programme note with an “idiosyncratic” method of working, something about converting lines on a drawing to glissandi that exactly replicate the drawing (to say the first thought that came into my head, which was “Oohh, what about the “Mona Lisa” in sound?”, is to trivialise the concept, which I won’t!) What I also thought (hardly rocket-science!) was that there would be three “somethings” in all of what we were about to experience, as per the title.

The sounds were to be produced both acoustically (Rebecca Struthers and Kristina Zelinska the violinists and Reuben Jelleyman the accordion-player) and electronically (a bank of five sine tones). The opening chords straightaway had an “electric” quality, the upward glissandi generating incredible intensity, sounds with long, burgeoning lines, reminiscent of Ligeti’s “Atmospheres”. They seemed cyclic in effect with the strings re-entering the fusion and working their glissandi gradually upwards again. Both the second and the third pieces seemed to use higher pitches with a more intense result and a clearly augmented string-sound, the “quality” agglomerated by the electronic resonances. I liked the growing tensions, and the uncertainties of the points where the lines for the individual instruments “crossed” and the sounds “reared up”, Then, at the third piece’s conclusion, the accordion was suddenly left to carry the thread, a lone plaintive and isolated voice.

So we came to the final presentation in this hugely enjoyable panoply of creative innovation, a work by American James Tenney that’s part of a multi-movement piece called “Glissade”, in fact the first movement of the work, itself called Shimmer. Its three instrumentalists (Emma Barron, Ken Ichinose and Matthew Cave playing viola, ‘cello, and double-bass respectively) shared the sound-stage with ”delayed” computer-recorded reminiscences of what the strings played, the ensuing “womb of resonances” the agglomerated and on-going result of this five-second delay.

The viola began with a drawn-out repeated note, before moving into harmonics in a repeated arpeggiated pattern, before the ‘cello did the same, as did the double-bass – with all three instruments contributing plus their overlaid recorded echoings, I found the effect uncannily similar to parts of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” Prelude, hypnotic and compelling, drawing one’s listening into the web and waft of it all. The discernible flecks of colour and tone added to the ongoing magic, as did the ever-increasing prominence of the glissandi, the sounds eerily ascending, before becoming like impulses of sunlight dancing on cloud-tops! As the tones gradually surrendered their intensities we became aware of being returned to a “place of origin”, eventually reaching a point where the players ceased, and allowed their own resonances to continue for a brief further moment in time, a treasure as much in the hearing as the letting go……what better a way to end such an absorbing collection of sound-adventures?



Baroque music, rare and familiar, in a happy St Andrew’s concert

HyeWon Kim (violin), Jane Young (cello), Kris Zuelicke (harpsichord)

Leclair: Sonata in C, Op.2 no.3
Cervetto, Giacomo Basevi: Sonata in F, Op.2 no.9
J.S. Bach: Italian Concerto, BWV 971 (1st movement)
Sonata no.1 in G minor for solo violin, BWV 1001
Handel: Sonata in A, Op 1 No 3, HWV 361

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 28 November 2018, 12.15pm

A larger-than-average audience came to hear this programme of a mixture  of familiar and unfamiliar baroque works.

Sometimes musical (and other) works from the past are lost sight of because their worth is slight.  This seemed to me to be true of the Cervetto piece.  Extraordinary as it is to read of a a composer from 17th-18th centuries who lived to be at least 101 (c.1682-1783), his music didn’t live up to the quality of other music presented.

The programme began with another rather lightweight piece, by Jean Marie Leclair ((1697-1764).  It had a slow, even lethargic, but tuneful andante opening movement.  The second movement (allegro) was lively, but again, somewhat undistinguished.

Next was a largo movement (you can see the pattern: slow-fast-slow-fast).  The music included a lot of sequences and repetitions, but its character was pleasant.  The allegro final movement was buoyant and dance-like.  The relationship between the instruments featured skilful interweaving, but the violin seemed the only one to carry the melody, with the others accompanying.

The Cervetto Sonata was for cello and harpsichord; the composer was a cellist, and apparently did a lot to popularise the cello as a solo instrument in England, where he lived for the latter half of his life.

The solemn andante first movement featured much double-stopping for the cellist; the second, comprised of a minuet with two trios, was lyrical and rhythmic with the cellist contributing fast passage-work.  Some splendid melodies emerged, and the composer utilised a wide range up and down the cello strings.

The caccia (literally ‘chase’, so in the style of hunting music) last movement had a very strong pulse, and much repetition.  The cellist achieved great resonance especially in this movement.

The Bach excerpts were well-played, but it might have been more satisfying to have had the whole of the ‘Italian’ concerto on the harpsichord or the whole of the violin sonata, rather than one movement of each.  Of course, programming single movements gave each instrumentalist a chance to shine on their own.

As the performers told us, Bach’s counterpoint is more dense and complex than that of the other composers featured.  The ‘Italian’ concerto is a familiar work, utilising the two-manual harpsichord to obtain the contrasts that in a ‘normal’ concerto would be made by a soloist and an orchestra.  Kris Zuelicke gave a very satisfactory performance.

The solo violin sonata was typical  of Bach’s exacting writing for the instrument, frequently requiring for the violinist to play chords on two or more strings, and execute double-stopping.  HyeWon Kim produced splendid tone, and gave a very fine performance.  She played in a baroque style, without vibrato – as did Jane Young on the cello.

Finally, we had the Handel, with the same four-movement tempo sequence as in the Leclair sonata.  The sombre andante had an appealing melodic line.  The trio played as an organic unit, and together brought out the broad sweep of the music, which contained less detail than found in the Bach compositions.

The third movement (adagio) was slow and contemplative, but very short, while the final movement startled me with its familiarity – I think I learned it as a child, as a piano piece.  It was cheerful and elevating at the same time, contained some interesting modulation, and made a happy, smiling ending to the concert.

Rutter’s lovely Magnificat accompanied by carols of bells and the Orpheus Choir in sold out concert

The Orpheus Choir of Wellington conducted by Brent Stewart
‘Carol of the Bells’

John Rutter’s Magnificat
Carol of the Bells by Mykola Leontovych and Peter Wilhousky (arr. Barlow Bradford)
Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on Christmas Carols
Mozart: ‘Laudate Dominum’ from Vesperae solennes de confessore, K 339
Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah

Wellington Cathedral of Saint Paul

Saturday 24 November, 7:30 pm

Though conductor Brent Stewart entertained the audience with his introduction to the unconventional Carol of the Bells, he waited till its end before engaging in his lively promotion of the choir’s next year’s programme, using the choir to sing striking excerpts from Mozart’s Requiem and Carmina Burana by Carl Orff. As well, he mentioned three concerts in which the choir will sing with both Orchestra Wellington and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (Mahler’s second symphony and Messiah).

And taking a leaf out of Orchestra Wellington’s highly successful promotional gambit, Brent Stewart drew attention to the offer of their two independent concerts for the price of one: till Christmas Eve, buy the two for $60.

That this concert had the ‘Full House’ sign at the door, should be added encouragement to re-subscribe in 2019.

But the concert had started with Rutter’s Magnificat, the opening part of which rather drew attention to the famous acoustic of the cathedral which tends to protest at loud and complex music, making it difficult to understand words (though in Latin, so no worse for those familiar with it than for those innocent of the language) but more seriously harder to discern the musical details or to hear clearly what instruments were used in the accompaniment. A stripped-down orchestra was employed, of piano, flute, horn, trumpet, trombone and percussion.

I had the feeling I’d heard it before, and so it proved as I searched in the Middle C archive. I had, in fact, reviewed a performance that Thomas Nikora conducted with Cantoris, with Mark Dorrell’s piano accompaniment, in July 2017.

Rutter’s orchestration was quite colourful, even in the composer’s reduced chamber orchestra version, though without any strings, and this ensemble enhanced this lively and radiant work. I think it was wise to leave strings out in favour of winds and percussion, which lent a picturesque note, leaving it to the voices to supply the timbres and the more legato playing that would have been delivered by strings.

So although the acoustics were a bit confused during noisy passages in the opening ‘Magnificat anima mea’ and later in more furious episodes such as the ‘Fecit potentiam’, the joyful spirit and the confidence that infused the opening chorus nevertheless filled the cathedral with splendid enthusiasm, and the intervening gentler passages were clear and beautiful.

Particularly memorable is the haunting setting of the beautiful 15th century poem, ‘Of a Rose, a lovely Rose’ that Rutter inserted. It fitted the spirit of the motet movingly, both in meaning and in musical character, and it offered a proper opportunity to admire the choir’s studied and sensitive singing. In the words of a programme note found on the Internet, it “uses the image of a rose as an allegory for the Blessed Virgin Mary and her powers to intercede for mankind”.

‘Quia fecit’ then set the record straight with its insistence on God’s might, with timpani emphasising the point. Next, at the ‘Et misericordia’, soprano Pasquale Orchard appeared, uttering many repetitions of that word to create a lovely effect: the horn offered warm support. The choir alone handled the ever-more important message, putting down the mighty and exalting the humble and meek, the main message of the ‘Fecit potentiam’.

The soprano, with help from the flute, returned to the front to lead in the gentle ‘Esurientes’ which further expanded on the sadly misleading report that “He hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich he hath sent empty away”. (In my Latin studies I never encountered esurientes – ‘the hungry’, though sure enough, it’s in Lewis and Short) The choir expressed it properly as a lament rather than a triumph and its final pages sung by Orchard, repeating ‘in saecula’, was particularly lovely.

Timpani and winds lined up for an ecstatic rendering of the short ‘Gloria Patri’. Rutter attached the ‘Sancta Maria’ to the Gloria, and here was Pasquale Orchard’s final, beautiful appearance, fading out with a gentle ‘Alleluia’. The Coda as it were, is ‘Sicut erat’, which sounded a bit perfunctory, ritualistic to me, sort-of wrapping it up cheerfully with a good orchestral finale-style peroration.

But that’s not to deny the wonderful musical quality if the piece, such a refreshing corrective to the majority of serious classical being written today.

The balance of the concert included its title-track, Carol of the Bells, a short, oddball work written during the First World War by Ukrainian composer Leontovych, then re-arranged by American Wilhousky for orchestra; it employs the cathedral bells as well as hand bells. It proved a splendid exclamatory piece, delivered with great gusto by all concerned. The Wellington Society of Bellringers were on hand to bring this aspect of the concert to an audience beyond the walls of the cathedral.

Like Rutter, Vaughan Williams was one of the long list of religiously sceptical composers who seem to have produced some of the greatest religious music. His Fantasia on Christmas Carols, opened with the new digital organ, then the piano, before women’s voices, humming, emerged. Baritone Joe Haddow joined at the second verse of ‘The Truth sent from Above’, and finally the whole choir entered. Haddow’s diction was exemplary though much of the choir’s texts escaped me – not that this music is about the message conveyed by the words. Men, appropriately, launched into ‘Come all ye worthy Gentlemen’, but equality with the women was soon restored, and it was lively and harmonically opulent. The third carol, ‘On Christmas Night’, attracted contributions from organ, piano, brass, tubular bells and timpani, as well as Haddow, and brought this delightful little anthology to a fine conclusion.

The concert ended with the beautiful ‘Laudate Dominum’ from Mozart’s Solemn Vespers, with Pasquale singing the part famously done by Kiri (and lots of others); if her voice lacked a comparable degree of sustained legato, the whole piece was heart-warming.

And most of the audience saw fit to stand, true to tradition, for the Halleluia Chorus, and they clapped, many remaining standing, for quite a few minutes to offer choir, conductor, soloists and instrumentalists well-earned praise for a fine, varied and greatly enjoyed concert.


NZSO in splendid Beethoven: the first and the last, under Edo de Waart

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (led by Donald Armstrong).  conductor Edo de Waart

Beethoven:  Symphony no.1  in C major, Op.21
Symphony no 9 in D minor, Op.15

Madeleine Pierard (soprano), Kristin Darragh (mezzo), Simon O’Neill (tenor), Anthony Robin Schneider (bass), Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir (Music Director Dr Karen Grylls)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday, 23 November 2018, 6.30pm

Such is the popularity of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony (no.9) that the Michael Fowler Centre auditorium was sold out.  There were two empty seats next to me, but I did not see many others.

The gentle prologue to  Beethoven’s first symphony (the symphony premiered in 1800) almost sounds like an ending, and reminds one immediately of Haydn, the great master of the symphony, who was still around for the first 40 years of Beethoven’s life.

Excellent programme notes needed much more time to read than was available to me before the concert, but, as at other concerts, I couldn’t read them during the performances because of the strange New Zealand custom of dowsing the lights during orchestral and choral performances, as though they were visual spectacles like plays, opera or ballet.  This is not the case in the United Kingdom, where I recently attended concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and London’s Festival Hall – all performed with full auditorium lighting.

Symphony No 1
The first movement soon bounced into its allegro con brio tempo after its andante molto  introduction. There is then a gradual build-up of volume. Fine woodwind and horn interjections arrived.  The orchestra for this work was  much smaller than that employed later for the Ninth Symphony; brass consisted of two horns and two trumpets.

Crisp, articulated playing was the norm.  Sublime oboe and flute playing was a predominant feature. The music included pleasant variations.

The second movement, andante cantabile con moto, had a tuneful, dance-like opening.  All was very classical and orderly, but modulation passages proved a little more adventurous than Haydn perhaps would have been.

Menuetto: allegro molto e vivace – Trio was the tempo marking for the third movement.  Its lively tempo had woodwinds to the fore; the timpani had plenty of interesting work to do, and an unusual prominence for music of the period.  This movement featured some lovely string playing.

The fourth movement began portentously.  After a rather short adagio introduction, which held the audience in suspense,  until a jolly dance broke out. The dance ends, and there is declamation of trenchant chords again.  The dance theme develops, becoming more complex and intertwined with declamation, syncopation featuring also.  Peace returns, then a wind-up to the end.

The Choral Symphony
After the interval, we were treated to a marvellous performance of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. This final symphony, composed between 1822 and 1824, was performed first in 1825 under the great composer’s ‘direction’, although he was by now totally deaf, and another did the actual conducting.  It received a rapturous reception.  A huge orchestra is required; its premiere in Vienna saw a larger orchestra than possibly had ever been assembled there for a symphony concert.  Many more of every section are required here than in the first symphony.

The first movement, allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso, begins with only a quiet harbinger of things to come, yet its quietude has an amazing quality in its softness.  Some have said that the opening resembles the sound of an orchestra tuning up.  Then comes the first of many outbursts, demonstrating the composer’s revolutionary use of extreme dynamics magnificent crescendo and diminuendo at various points throughout the work. The trumpets became prominent, adding to the rich colours.  A high level of excitement was engendered, accompanied by magisterial majesty,  Horns were splendid, and the whole orchestra made huge, dramatic sounds.

The second movement (Scherzo: molto vivace – presto) carried on much the same mood,  but with incessant rhythms.  Its great theme somewhat foreshadowed the fourth movement. The trio section introduces trombones into the orchestra for the first time in the work.

The adagio molto e cantabile – andante moderato third movement contains many interesting and entrancing variations.  Some brief fugal treatment ensues; what Tovey describes as ‘…fragmentary counterpoint which enhances the effect…’; the movement has an emphatic outrburst before ending quietly.

The mighty fourth movement, is almost of symphonic length in itself, following the relatively short third movement.  The soloists came on, ready for their contributions, the women both in beautiful red gowns.  It has a graceful, almost tentative introduction to the theme, principally from cellos and basses, and a peaceful, quasi-pastoral passage with lovely variations  Horns took over the theme.  The variation from woodwinds with pizzicato strings was utterly transporting.  Brass did their piece, but never too dominating.  Variation was in dynamics as well as on the theme.  A quiet wind-down, a diversion, splendid flutes, and a gradual rise in tension, especially from the strings followed.  Again, the theme came from cellos and double-basses, with the other instruments taking it up, with variations – but the violins gave it to us straight.

Finally we are awakened by soloists and choir.  Bass Anthony Robin Schneider’s invocation ‘O friends!… Joy!’ was intoned richly and incisively by his superb voice.  (A pity that the translation in the programme, and in Wikipedia, gives the mild ‘Oh’ of exclamation, not the dramatic ‘O’ of invocation).

The choir soon joined in. Their words were taken from the “Ode to Joy”, a poem written by Friedrich Schiller in 1785 and revised in 1803, with text additions made by the composer.  The varied tempi in this movement make for increased excitement, until the last words are hurled out at high speed.  The music became dramatic in its build-up; it always seems to be going somewhere.

There were 60 voices in the Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir on this occasion – quite large for a chamber choir, but needed for Beethoven’s ecstatic utterances.  Their contribution was accurate and sonorous, with clear words, and animation.  The choir’s singing and that of the soloists was thrilling.

Only Kristin Darragh had some rather ugly notes near the beginning – possibly they were rather low for her tessitura.  Elsewhere, in the ensembles she was not easily heard at times; the soprano has the advantage (fully utilised by Madeleine Pierard, the superb soprano) of being at the top, while the bass stands out for being the lowest sound, and the tenor stands out because the .music is high in his voice.  Simon O’Neill had the right voice and volume for this role.

Martial airs came from the orchestra, excellently delineated, adding to the grandeur of the music. More percussion is introduced in this movement; bass drum and triangle both have notable solos.

All parts, solo and chorus, are written high in their respective voices.   I noticed that the soloists, when seated and not performing solo, ‘sang along’ with the chorus parts – a nice gesture.  The choir was absolutely great on the final section; the work finishes triumphantly for them, interspersed with beautiful ensembles for the soloists – but some detail was lost in all that was going on.

This was a wonderfully nuanced performance under the highly experienced Maestro Edo de Waart, and the audience showed appreciation most enthusiastically.


Baching at the Moon – ‘Cellist Raeul Pierard at St.Peter’s on-Willis, Wellington

J.S.BACH – Six Suites for solo ‘Cello
Raeul Pierard (‘cello)

St.Peter’s on-Willis, Wellington

Friday 23rd November 2018

Long and involved stories or series of tales have always attracted me – I’m a sucker for sagas, an enthusiast for epics, a connoisseur of chronicles. In music there’s nothing I like better to involve myself with than something that covers a wide span of time, incident and characterisation. I’m a completist who’s in seventh heaven when about to embark upon things like Bach’s “forty-eight”, Haydn’s “Salomon Symphonies”, Liszt’s “Transcendental Etudes” or Albeniz’s “Iberia”. I could go on, but don’t want to run the risk of getting side-tracked and losing my bearings……

Still, I mention these things because it seems to me that people are presently being encouraged in artistic matters to do the opposite to what I’ve just described – to skip in-and-out of encounters and experiences rather than cast themselves into the heart of things, body and soul, and especially so in music. One has only to tune into Radio New Zealand’s Concert Programme in its present form to experience the increased fragmentation of musical presentation that’s being served up as a kind of “standard” – lately, more often than not we get ”movements” rather than whole works and a preponderance of shorter pieces which suggests an inclination to merely “entertain” on the part of the powers that be, rather than to invite listeners to push back boundaries and undergo any kind of in-depth exploration.

I could go on about this trend as well, so that readers would soon give up on the prospect of my ever getting to the business in hand, that of reviewing a performance of all of JS Bach’s six Suites for solo ‘Cello – but what’s interesting in the framework of what I’ve just been talking about is the reaction of a number of people to my having gone to the performance of these works – things like “Oooh, that’s a LOT of solo ‘cello!” and “Didn’t it all start to sound like the same, after a while?”…… be fair, there were many comments of the “wish I’d been there” variety, as well…..

As far as the player, Raeul Pierard, was concerned there was obviously no problem, having been inspired by one of his teachers to make a point of regularly performing the complete cycle. Accordingly, Pierard had entitled his concert “Baching at the Moon”, equating the regularity of his performances of these works with the lunar cycle, thus calling each of them a “full-moon event”. It wouldn’t be inappropriate to link the two occurrences as different manifestations of life-forces, bringing together cosmic and human patterns of behaviour as a way of contextualising a significant kind of co-existence, Bach’s music speaking for humanity in tandem with celestial processes.

So, to the concert, given in the remarkably beautiful interior of the Church of St.Peter’s-on-Willis:  a number of things came to my mind as I registered work following work, movement following movement and phrase following phrase – first and foremost was the sheer intensity of the experience, by way of both the music’s amazing variety and depth. I had listened with the utmost interest to Raeul Pierard’s spoken introduction to his playing of these works, taking to heart several points he made which for me further “opened up” both the music’s structural and emotional content, one of them being that his feeling was that the music was “autobiographical”, especially when considering that Bach’s life had ample potential for both joy and sorrow, having two wives, one of whom died; and twenty children, ten of whom did not survive him. Of the six Suites, two of them are set in minor keys and result in “darker” sounds than the other four, while the works numbered as fourth and sixth in the authorised “edition” of the composer’s works are more angular and exploratory of expression than their major-key fellows.

Not that it’s possible to “date” any of the works, Bach’s own autograph manuscript of them being lost, the most ostensibly reliable copy being that made by Anna Magdalena Bach, the composer’s second wife, with no details as to the origin of the works regarding time or place. The other three extant eighteenth-century copies are just as unhelpful, with further confusion arising from their differences, resulting in none of them being regarded as “the” authentic version. Instead, the ‘cellist wanting to play these works has a choice of over a hundred different “editions” offering different solutions to the discrepancies. It would have been interesting to have asked the cellist regarding “editions” and whether he had any particular “models” for his own playing style and/or interpretation (so many great names, from Casals onwards….) – however, I found myself at the end wanting to bring away the “sound” of the music in my head unadulterated by such detail, and so never got to actually talk with him…..

There being a smallish audience (the concert clashed with a sell-out performance of the Beethoven “Choral” Symphony from the NZSO that same evening!) Pierard invited all of us to sit up closer to him, freely talking to us at various places during the recital, but requesting that we restrain from applauding until the conclusion of each of the “halves” of the presentation – we actually got in first at the end of the First Suite and applauded, but no real harm was done! I could understand what he meant, though, and especially in the case of the minor-key works and those in the concert’s second half, where the act of listening seemed in itself a sufficient response to such sounds and the applause a superfluous, almost trite act juxtaposed with these evocations of something ineffably precious and timeless.

The First Suite’s opening allowed us to appreciate the St.Peter’s acoustic to the full, the instrument’s tones rich and focused, and “answered” by the surroundings in an enriching rather than confusing or blurring manner by an ambient glow. The Prelude unfolded under Pierard’s fingers with the utmost simplicity and natural-sounding freedom, followed by an Allemande which seemed to almost extend the opening with added whimsy and divergency, the repeat further deepening the explorations. These being “Suites” the movements were, of course, all dances of various kinds and nationalities (whose characteristics Pierard outlined for us), the following Courante rhythmically engaging from the very opening note, the trajectories impish and impulsive! Then came a Sarabande, a slow dance of (according to the ‘cellist) Turkish origin, one often given considerable gravitas by Bach in his various works, Pierard here bringing out the music’s meditative quality, the sounds having moments of deep wonderment. There’s usually a marked contrast with the following Minuet, though less so, here, the ‘cellist enabling the music’s “more than usual” circumspection of feeling, more poetic of motion than physical of impulse – as was the contrasting minor-key Trio section of the dance. A change came with the Gigue (English – “jig”), which was far more precipitate and impulsive in phrasing and overall movement.

From the very opening, the Prelude of the Second Suite seemed to suggest tragedy, with the three opening notes defining the mood and the following figurations exploring it. Pierard’s tone spoke volumes of eloquence throughout, especially in the piece’s second half where the intensity built to great depths of feeling before suddenly retreating, allowing the emotions some space to realign, the feelings as intense, though incredibly “inward” at the piece’s end. The Allemande brought a different kind of energy to what sounded like a purposeful journey, the Courante even more so with its vigorous phrases and its forthright display passages. Again, the Sarabande was played “con amore”, allowing the measures time and space to indelibly fix their phrases on the listeners’ sensibilities. This time the Menuet broke the spell, with purposeful, energetic playing at the onset on the part of Pierard helping to make really “something” of the shift to the major for the second Menuet. The Gigue was more angular and serious, using a drone in places to both “ground” the music and delineate the intensities with great characterisation, especially over the last few bars before the final ascent flung the music out into the cosmos with a defiant gesture.

After the grittiness of the Second Suite the Third came as a kind of bucolic relief, the drone-notes this time creating an earthy, pesante effect during the Prelude, while the figurations were made by Pierard into something organic and even theatrical at the end, involving elongated cadences and lots of trills! – in other words, quite an adventure. The Allemande here sounded almost like a rock-climbing exercise, delighting in scaling heights and plumbing the depths, Pierard conveying both the music’s vertiginous whimsy and its exhilaration. The Courante, too, was energetic and playful, the music featuring lots of antiphonal jumping about and “call and response”, with the second part even wilder and more varied in dynamics. This time the Sarabande was declamatory and theatrical, its repeat bringing more thoughtfulness and a touch more ambience, the lines drawn throughout with the utmost nobility.

Bouree made a nice change from a Menuet, the trajectory a bit freer and more spontaneous, less prone to seriousness. The contrasting minor-key section had a kind of absent-minded melancholy, wistful and attractive. The Gigue had one of my favourite “moments” in all of these works, an almost grinding drone voice creating a tense moment before the music nonchalantly skipped away and upwards, illustrating the composer’s sharp sense of humour and mastery of mood, the sequence here strongly played and wryly characterised.

Raeul Pierard compared the Fourth of these Suites to Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” – something embodying both comedy and seriousness, light and darkness. To begin with we heard the Prelude’s gorgeously leonine tones, the music curiously “mirroring” the First Suite’s Prelude by a series of descending gestures anchored by the final note of each of the phrases. Breaking up the pattern were “flurries” of impulses at the music’s halfway point and again at the end. The Allemande brought playing that brought out the music’s inclination to swing and soar, in contrast to the somewhat volatile Courante, with its “scampering” figure that launched each phrase. But it was the Sarabande which, if anything, brought the “What You Will” feeling to mind – beginning with a long-breathed three-note harmonised declamation that dominated the first part, the movement’s second half then further darkened and intensified the discourse with increased “weight” from the harmonisations, relieved only by a wistful ascent right at the end. Quixotically, the Bouree played with our sensibilities with a four-note flourish instigating each of the dance’s phrases, both ascending and descending, then switching to a portentous, tongue-in-cheek Trio section. In the Gigue we got an almost outlandish “rolling-ball” juggernaut from out of whose path our sensibilities nimbly leapt as we listened, Pierard adroitly bringing out both the claustrophobic and exhilarating alternate characters of the music!

For the Fifth Suite (in the key of C Minor), the ‘cellist needed to retune his instrument, not because of intonation problems, but because Bach used a different kind of tuning for this work, the A string lowered to the note G (a practice termed scordatura). This was to enable certain chords to be played which, on a normally-tuned instrument, would be too awkward to manage. Straightaway this deepened the work’s general sonority, then further so by the composer’s use of harmonies weighted with lower notes – very impressive and imposing-sounding! In this case the Prelude was followed by a fugue, played here with amazing steadiness, implaccable in aspect, but with a lot of variation in dynamics and tone, Pierard’s bowing having a flexibility and variety that brought to my mind qualities associated with the voice of a great singer or actor.

The Allemande was also declamatory in style, but considerably more expansive in manner, after the Prelude, almost like an “inward” version of the music’s outer journey thus far. And the Courante seemed far more severe of mien than those we’d heard already this evening, with lots of dark-browed mutterings, closely-harmonised phrasings darkening the textures. The Sarabande had a different kind of austerity, the music single-voiced and alone in the wilderness, Pierard seeming very much at one with its dark, plaintive quality. After this almost confessional outpouring the Gavotte seemed almost reluctant to dance, the measures awkward and hesitant, with the accompanying Trio almost reptilian-sounding in its slithery, ground-grabbing aspect – one almost breathed a sigh of relief at the dance’s return! Even the concluding Gigue’s exuberance was muted, a kind of expiation of energy rather than a joyous outpouring, with almost uncomfortably intense moments – terrific playing from the ‘cellist here, alive to all of these possibilities!

Of course, what was retuned had to be “detuned” (untuned?), which the ‘cellist then did before tackling the final Suite of the six, in D Major. As might have been expected, the music’s mood was markedly different, with horn fanfares beginning the Prelude in a festive, out-of-doors fashion, and the SOUND of the music brighter and more open, with the player’s hands working higher up on the fretboard than in the other works – properly exhilarating, high-wire stuff! Bach wrote this work for a five-stringed cello, with an E string tuned a fifth above the A string – no wonder the music sounded brighter and more open! As well Bach provided the player with ample opportunity for display over the Prelude’s concluding measures, with sixteenth-notes flying everywhere! The Allemande was declamatory and long-breathed, Pierard making the sounds a pleasure to experience with his command of legato, everything very “viola-sounding” with its higher tessitura. After this the Courante sounded almost “normal”, with its high-energy racing moments, contrasting markedly once again with its companion, a Sarabande, whose opening section gave the ‘cellist a brief moment of uncharacteristically strained intonation, one which Pierard was “waiting for” the second, sweeter-toned time round! The higher-pitched lines gave the music a different kind of intensity which here seemed somewhat removed from the world of the first three Suites. The familiar Gavotte was played with the “scooped” chordings that imparted a colourful, almost “orchestral” character to the music, splendidly setting off the “fairground hurdy-gurdy”quality of the Trio, Pierard subtly softening the phrasing of the dance when the Gavotte proper returned. Finally, the Gigue seemed to return us to the fairground, with earthy energies abounding in the cellist’s ”caution-thrown-to-the-winds” manner, the music’s characterful rhythmic trajectories given their head in a performance that brought out the writing’s buoyancy and daring, leaving us properly exhilarated at the end – bravo!

We thought it was the end, but Raeul Pierard wanted to play us something completely different to us as a kind of “encore”, a piece composed by an ex-pupil of his who was at the concert, one Elise Brinkeman, who had written a piece called “Sad Song”. This was a long-breathed, resonating piece made up of chords of different colours and intensities, sounds which initially reminded me of great tolling bells via a long-limbed swaying rhythm that briefly allowed a melodic line to make an appearance before being overwhelmed by the return of the resonating chords. The figurations intensified, creating an anguished climax-point wholly saturated by the bell-sounds, before dying away and ceasing, more abruptly than I for one was expecting – perhaps part of the piece’s considerable impact was, however subconsciously, reinforced by this relatively rapid plunge into a silence. Though having little ostensibly in common with Bach’s work, the piece certainly had an epic quality which perhaps suited the reflectiveness inevitably generated by the former, and equated with a certain timelessness often attributed to the older composer. It made for an unexpected but powerful postscript, having a “quality” of its own,  and was thus an inspired choice with which to end a remarkable concert.

Popular guitarists with delightful though unfamiliar music at St Andrew’s

Owen Moriarty and Jane Curry – guitars

Music by Fernando Sor, Almer Imamovic, Emilio Pujol and Napoléon Coste

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 21 November, 12:15 pm

Guitarists Jane Curry and Owen Moriarty are familiar figures at the St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts, and the sounds they make are particularly suited to the church’s acoustic. Furthermore, for anyone open to discoveries, more of the guitar repertoire than that of almost any other well-known instrument is unfamiliar. It’s not that only in recent years has it become a popular instrument in the classical music world; in fact, it was familiar in recital by the early 19th century, by a number of excellent guitarist/composers.

And that’s where this recital started.

Composer/guitarists flourishing at that time included François de Fossa, Francesco Molino, Mauro Giuliani, Ferdinando Carulli, Antoine Meissonnier, among many others; even Boccherini and Paganini played and wrote for the guitar. At this Wednesday concert Curry and Moriarty played pieces from that era by Fernando Sor and Napoléon Coste.

Owen Moriarty played three solo pieces before being joined by Jane Curry to play Coste’s Grand Duo Concertante. His first piece was Sor’s Grand Solo, Op 14. Moriarty played its slow Introduction very quietly with great delicacy: little hint of its ‘Grandness’. The arrival of the Allegro was like a sudden powerful beam of light, illuminating it with bright Spanish colours, but yet with a distinct sense of its period – Haydn and the spirit of the French Revolution. There were striking dynamic changes, abrupt pauses and emotional shifts, switching from plaintiveness to confidence. And Moriarty took pains to highlight harmonic changes and the teasing cadences that presaged the end the piece, but carried on regardless.

A piece called Scott’s Guitar was composed by a friend of Moriarty’s, Almer Imamovic, Bosnian by origin, if I heard Moriarty’s preliminary comments correctly; he now teaches in California. It was hard to locate this charming, pensive piece in a national or stylistic context. It lay in the centre of the guitar’s range, relishing the lovely sonority of Moriarty’s instrument and the piece’s emotional subtlety and sense of regret.

A Seguidilla by Emilio Pujol, who was a pupil of Tarrega, and died after a very long life in 1980, reflected a style that most would associate with guitar music: a Spanish dance. Strongly rhythmic, melodically delightful, seeming to endorse a view that merely to be brought up a Spanish musician is to access inexhaustible melodic inspiration. And Moriarty’s playing captured it fluently and with very evident relish.

Then Jane Curry emerged to join Moriarty in a splendid piece by Napoléon Coste: his Grand Duo Concertante. Coste was born in the midst of the Napoleonic era – hence his name; he was a contemporary of Berlioz and Schubert, of Bellini and Donizetti.  It was very emphatically a duo, by no means one instrument accompanying another, so stylistically intimate was it. Naturally, the melody line was handled by each in turn, though it seemed more often to fall to Curry. Its character encouraged me to hear the difference in tone between the two guitars.

The Duo’s form was a very traditional four contrasting movements: Allegro, Andante, Barcarolle and the Finale, Allegro. The opening Allegro was lively enough, but it was its charm and the excellent rapport between the two players that made listening such pleasure, and it made me wonder whether hearing a piece like this might have inspired Chopin’s famous remark that ‘nothing was more beautiful than a guitar – except perhaps, two guitars’. (though given Chopin’s famous acerbity and ungenerosity, that sounds uncharacteristic).

The Andante was thoughtful and seemed an even more delightful example of musical sharing. The Barcarolle created yet another sort of delight, though like any art, there were moments of hesitation and doubt; I was glad it was not played too quickly. The Finale however, was lively and spoke of contentment, highlighting the splendid unanimity of musicianship and spirit between the two.

“Puss in Boots” Pantomime gives delight for young and old alike at Circa Theatre

Circa Theatre presents:
Puss in Boots – the Pantomime, by Paul Jenden

Directed by Susan Wilson
Musical Director / Arranger – Michael Nicholas Williams
Set and AV design – Lisa Maule
Lighting – Marcus McShane
Costumes – Sheila Horton
Choreography – Leigh Evans

Cast: Gavin Rutherford (Camilla Miller)
Simon Leary (King Justin/Citizen)
Natasha McAllister (Martha/Citizen)
Jeff Kingsford-Brown (Mr.Brown/Troll/Citizen)
Jonathan Morgan (Puss-in-Boots/Citizen)
Carrie Green (Ms Green /Troll/Citizen)
Ben Emerson (Arthur Miller/Citizen)

Circa Theatre
Taranaki St., Wellington

Sunday 18th November, 2018

A director’s note in the programme from Susan Wilson paid tribute to the late Paul Jenden 1955-2013), actor, dancer, director and author of this and several other pantomines performed by Circa over the years, describing his presence as “sadly missed”. One of his most successful pantomime adaptations was of the well-known story of “Puss-in-Boots”, based on the European fairy-tale known in Italy as Il gatto con gli stivali, and in France as Le Maître chat ou le Chat botté (“The Master Cat” or “The Cat with the Boots”). The story tells how a cat uses his wits to gain power and riches for his poor, lowly-born master. Jenden’s pantomime, first performed by Circa in 2012, was here revamped and updated to catch the current drift of events and personalities that make Wellington the ideal on-going setting for such fairy-tale goings-on!

With recent Circa pantomimes “Peter Pan” (2017) and “Jack in the Beanstalk” (2016) having set positively vertiginous levels of expectation, I was thrilled to here find myself just as freshly “caught up” in the time-honoured fairy-tale theatricality of larger-than-life characters palpably becoming flesh-and-blood for a few precious hours of make-believe. I did struggle a bit at the very outset, finding it difficult to take in all the words of the very first musical number, despite the best efforts of the otherwise superbly characterised trolls of Jeff Kingsford-Brown and Carrie Green, my ears obviously adjusting to the acoustic – what English comedian Michael Flanders once called “getting the pitch of the hall”. Still, the gist of the characters’ intent (evil and mayhem! – naturally enough!), came across strongly in the dance movement, depicting the pair bent on taking the “Well” out of Wellington by being the spanner in the works of all recent disruptions such as the chaos caused by changed buses, bus routes and timetables. The Wellington settings and references continued throughout the show, giving it all a truly home-grown flavour and striking regular chords of approval with the audience.

The appearance of the remarkable Gavin Rutherford as the show’s “Dame”, in this case Mother Camilla Miller, established an immediate rapport with a sympathetic audience, Camilla losing no time in articulating to us her plight as a poor, lonely widow woman in the Aro Valley, “ruined” by the activities of her late husband, whose feckless behaviour had squandered the family fortunes. She then introduced her son, Arthur Miller (played by Ben Emerson with plenty of boy-next-door goofy appeal), the name  immediately occasioning the remark by Camilla “Google it, kids!”, first of a goodly number of wry references, including the priceless remark “Can you see Arthur Miller getting married to a rich and glamorous woman?” Social positioning in a “desirable” suburb – “Hataitai? – or Naenae? – or even Karori?” gives the song “Movin’ on up” its chance, as  we catch a glimpse of the eponymous cat for the first time – though Jonathan Morgan’s character lacked an ounce or two of voice-projection when singing he made up for it in sheer puss-onality, his dance leading to the entrance of a bevy of cats for a number inspiring a near show-stopping fusillade of cat-calls!

Adroitly evading both Mother Miller’s Trade Me “Talking Cat” schemes and the “Gareth Morgan” bogeyman threats, the Puss inherited the late Mr.Miller’s boots (along with his “hippie gear”), and lo! – we were suddenly in business! The cat was magically empowered and empowering, galvanising Arthur’s sensibilities with the suggestion that he could, with the Puss’s help, become “The Marquis of Makara” and then cementing their partnership with a song “Stick with me kid”, one whose positive vibrations countered the reappearance of the Trolls and their avowed goal of the city’s ruination, little by little, troll by troll!

Where would a modern scenario of Wellington be without a leader? – enter King Justin (Simon Leary a wonderfully “fairy-story-obsessed” monarch), here heralded at first by his feisty, kick-boxing daughter, Marilyn/Moana/Martha, whom he wished “was more like the princess you are!” while easing the patience of “a poor, lonely widower man”, taking time out from his troublesome affairs of family and state with a lavish picnic.  Marilyn (played beautifully by Natasha McAllister as a tomboy with simple-life, anti-princess yearnings) encounters Arthur, who, of course, falls in love with her – but she will have none of the “wooing of a princess” rigmarole, introducing herself to him as “Moana”. All of this was to the chagrin of Puss, who tells Arthur in no uncertain terms that he “deserves a princess” and to that end has been setting up the well-known “duckpond” scene for his master to make the happy transition from commoner to aristocrat, courtesy of King Justin and his daughter.

The fast and furious action involving all of the characters heading for the duckpond, with the Trolls, Mr Green and Mr.Brown (Carrie Green and Jeff Kingsford-Brown in scintillating and energetic song-and-dance form), embodying delight in mischief and malice, Marilyn/Moana/Martha rejecting the hapless would-be Marquis, Camilla Miller and King Justin disconcerted by each other’s presence, and the Cat pronouncing the ensuing mayhem a “cat-astrophe”, closes the first Act with the kind of gusto that leaves a quivering mass of unresolved tensions awaiting the best possible outcomes, which of course are realised in suitably quirky and post-happily-ever-after ways by the time the Second Act runs its breathless course.

Buoyed along by the music, a mixture of old and new (one particularly heart-warming number I’d forgotten that I knew!), contemporary and generational, with absolutely delightful word-adaptations in places, the show is a tribute in itself to the skills of musical director Michael Nicholas Williams, who accompanied most of the songs and joined in the vocalisations on occasions. Cheek-by-jowl with these energies was the engaging choreography of Leigh Evans, brilliantly tailored to fit both songs and situations, and performed with real panache by the cast members.

Pantos need “add-water” audiences to work, and this one was no exception – I found it at least as entertaining and involving from my “relatively sedentary” point of view as the other Circa productions along the same lines I’ve seen, with Gavin Rutherford’s command of blandishment and persuasiveness as potent with grown-ups as it is charming with children – the “bringing-onto” the stage of younger audience members is always a highlight of the proceedings, particularly the ensuing “out of the eyes of babes” expressions on some of the faces, immersed as they are in such a wondrous and magical land of flesh-and-blood make-believe! The range of jokes and gags covered all ages and sensibilities, with nothing too obviously risqué though still sufficiently “naughty” for the outrage to be funny. I thought the costumes and set designs and props deliciously colourful and beautifully lit (two highlights being the “cups” sequence performed by the King and Martha/Moana/Marilyn as they sang “When I’m Gone”, and the entrance of the royal carriage, with wondrously inventive horses providing a visual feast of spectacle and movement.)

In short, I would lose no time finding a jolly soul-mate (ideally along with one child at the very least!) with whom to go to this presentation. Susan Wilson’s direction and collaboration with her “creative team” has produced both a winner and a worthy memorial to the talents of the show’s original creator, Paul Jenden.

At Circa Theatre to the 23rd December 2018, and then from the 2nd to the 12th of January 2019.


Eternity Opera sings triumphantly once again at Wellington’s Hannah Playhouse – Puccini’s Madam Butterfly

Eternity Opera presents:
PUCCINI – Madam Butterfly (Opera in Three Acts)
(libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa – sung in English)

Cast:  Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San) – Hannah Catrin Jones
Pinkerton – Boyd Owen
Sharpless – Kieran Rayner
Suzuki – Laura Loach
Goro – Declan Cudd
The Bonze – Roger Wilson
Kate Pinkerton – Jess Segal
Mother – Ruth Armishaw
Cousin – Tania Dreaver
Aunt – Sally Haywood
Imperial Commissioner – Minto Fung
The Registrar – Chris Berentson
Yakuside – Garth Norman
Bridesmaids – Milla Dickens / Beatrix Poblacion Cariño
Butterfly’s son – Leo McKenzie

Orchestra:  Claudia Tarrant-Matthews (leader), Vivian Stephens, Emma Colligan, Sofia Tarrant-Matthews (violins),  David Pucher (viola), Brenton Veitch (‘cello), Jessica Reese (double-bass),  Tjaša Dykes (flute/piccolo), Merran Cooke (oboe/cor anglais), Mark Cookson (clarinet), Leni Hoischen (bassoon), Shadley van Wyk (horn), Bruce Roberts (trumpet), Madeleine Crump (harp), Natoko Segawa (timpani/percussion)

Conductor: Matthew Ross
Director: Alex Galvin
Producers: Emma Beale and Minto Fung
Designer: Jennifer Eccles
Costumes: Sally Gray
Lighting: Haami Hawkins
Repetiteur: Bruce Greenfield

Hannah Playhouse, Wellington

Friday 16th November 2018

Eternity Opera’s presentation at Wellington‘s Hannah Playhouse of one of the most famous of all grand operas, Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, used a reduced orchestral accompaniment, a “rhyming” English translation of the Italian, and cut one of the more colourful episodes in the work’s Second Act, albeit involving the brief appearance of a “lesser”character. And yet, despite these diminutions of the original, the piece worked its usual theatrical and musical magic, thanks to a production which incorporated the visceral energies and sharply-etched focus of the orchestral playing under conductor Matthew Ross’s clear-headed direction, and the direct, openhearted involvement of all the singers, principals and chorus. Director Alex Galvin’s clear and unobtrusive shaping of both detail and completed picture ensured that the singers gave us the essentials of the piece and consistently and powerfully brought their characters to life, musically and theatrically.

From the outset we got incisive, involving playing from the musicians, conveying these essences as much through sheer will and imaginative purpose in the absence of the usual “weight of numbers” which give the piece such power at the climaxes. In fact I can’t recall a moment during the performance when I found myself longing for the thrill of a full Puccini orchestra doing its “thing”, so involving was the presentation of the fabric of sounds in its more intimate context here.

When it came to the arrival of the characters on stage I was struck by the vivid quality of each of the voices, the opening exchanges between Goro, the Marriage-broker, and Pinkerton, the U.S.naval officer putting across their phrases easily and distinctly. Boyd Owen’s Pinkerton had instant surface-engaging “well-met, fellow” quality of utterance, while Declan Cudd’s Goro was as much “real-estate agent” in his characterisation as anything else (reflecting the production’s 1950s setting), his tones having the suavity one associates with that profession, but less of the spiky, Goro-like busy-bodyness we usually enjoy from the character. Laura Loach as Suzuki, Butterfly’s handmaid, vocalised beautifully at the outset, nicely mingling the character’s awkwardness and deference with a singer’s clarity and warmly-expressed tones.

It took me a while to register that the English translation was a ”rhyming”one, so readily did the words seem to flow without any overtly self-concious “striving for effect” that renderings in English of opera libretti often have – the discourse between Pinkerton and his friend Sharpless, the American Consul (played and sung sensitively and sonorously by Kieran Rayner), flowed easily and naturally throughout, and led up to Pinkerton’s jingoistic “America forever” declaration with irresistible exuberance. Both Owen and Rayner differentiated their characterisations with many a telling remark, response and gesture, even if the “full-on” aspects of their singing tended to emphasise at cardinal points the somewhat “cheek-by-jowl” nature of our listening-space!

This lack of spaciousness in the acoustic made for a slighty different problem in regard to off-stage voices“, notably the entry of Butterfly’s retinue (“heard from the path outside”, says the direction in my libretto) which to me sounded much too close at their first entry, reflecting the lack of backstage space – though I thought using the stairs leading up from the lower level in the foyer might have done the trick, instead….we lost that initial sense of fragility in Butterfly’s character, having her voice so immediate from the beginning. However, despite such strictures, the scene then unfolded beautifully and touchingly, with the “ordinariness” of Butterfly and her cohorts underlined by the modest 1950s  garb worn by the various relatives, all at that point in history, presumably, trying to be “Western”.

As Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly), Hannah Catrin Jones looked and sounded the part, the fragility of the instrumental accompaniment serving to underline her self-effacing quality, though her vocal personality was extremely well-focused throughout. Only when the voice was put under any kind of pressure did I register a vibrato which she soon managed to incorporate for me into her “sound”. I thought her portrayal believable and sympathetic, her rapport with whomever she was on stage warm and wholehearted, and her solo scenes stamped with a touching amalgam of vulnerability and strength that enabled the listener to take on a sense of her life-blood coursing the whole time through her being.

The Bonze’s startling entry (Roger Wilson wondrously menacing of voice and manner, almost Commendatore-like, in fact, as Butterfly’s uncle), come to condemn her for renouncing her “true religion”, effectively tore Cio-Cio-San’s world apart, alienating her from her family and placing her almost completely in the hands of Pinkerton, who, despite the intensity of feeling generated between him and Butterfly during the ensuing “love-scene”, subsequently abandons her. Cio-Cio-San’s isolation was here underscored in a different way, of course, by the excision of that aforementioned Second-Act scene in which she is wooed by Yamadori, a rich Japanese Prince, eager to add her to his coterie of wives, and which offer she rejects, remaining faithful to Pinkerton, despite his callous behaviour.

In a similar fashion to that in Verdi’s “La Traviata”, the opera’s core is found in the exchange between the heroine and a friend or associate of her lover, in this case, Sharpless, the American Consul (Kieran Rayner), who’s sceptical of Pinkerton’s intentions towards Cio-Cio-San from the beginning. The scene of his interaction with Butterfly came almost in the wake of the latter’s magnificently-realised “Un bel di” (sorry, I mean, “One fine day”!), Catrin Jones giving her all in thrilling fashion, with again, the relatively lightweight orchestral support delivering oceans of intensity in support of the singer. One would think that whatever followed would be something of an anti-climax, but Catrin Jones and Rayner exhibited such warmth and flow of feeling towards one another’s characters, that we were soon caught up in the interchanges and “moved on”, more than ready for the next stage of the drama.

This came, of course, with Butterfly’s fear and anxiety at the thought of being abandoned, mingled with the hope that hers and Pinkerton’s child (born and raised in secret) would bring them together again. The sudden arrival of an American warship, denoted by a cannon-shot, sent everything into a state of frenzied suspension, Butterfly commanding Suzuki to strew every flower about the house “as close as stars about the heavens”, and bringing the child to wait with her for Pinkerton’s arrival. I thought Catrin Jones’ interaction with the young Leo McKenzie as Butterfly’s little son simply charming and warmly whole-hearted on both sides, the heroine in the process excitedly and determinedly setting up her “welcome” to her long-absent husband, and preparing to wait for “as long as it takes”.

My one disappointment of the evening was the staging of the beautiful “Humming Chorus” which followed – I thought its enchanting, if bitter-sweet effect underdone by uncharacteristically fulsome stage-lighting. It seemed to me the waiting figures were “transfixed” in a strained and uncomfortable state of rigidity at odds with the music’s organic presentation of  an overnight vigil spent amid a mass of conflicting impulses shaped in the direction of somebody’s long-awaited arrival. In the context of the production’s whole, the sequence was something that for me didn’t knit music and stage together with the same sure-footed focus as the rest did.

Still, the final act was, in a word, terrific! – though at times for us in the audience almost claustrophobically so in that small space! Pinkerton’s arrival, with Sharpless, and with Suzuki as Butterfly’s would-be “protector” created enormous tensions and outpourings of emotion, Boyd Owen’s remorse as Pinkerton pushing against the threshold of pain, albeit expressing HIS anguish rather than any real concern for the hapless Butterfly, leaving Sharpless and Suzuki to do what they could for Butterfly instead – the somewhat thankless part of Pinkerton’s American wife, Kate, who accompanied him to the house, was expressed in dignified and graceful fashion by Jess Segal, her presence adding to the almost palpable psychological torture inflicted on Butterfly as she realised, upon entering the room and encountering her visitor, the truth of her situation.

Again, though wanting in sheer tonal heft, the playing of the orchestra in support of Butterfly’s final scene was properly overwhelming in its capacity for generating tension, helped immeasurably by the singer’s fearlessness in addressing the writing’s full-throated outpourings of unmitigated despair. These were the moments where nothing needed to be held back, and Catrin Jones certainly carried our sensibilities along with her towards the inevitability of that moment when she plunged her character’s life into existence’s oblivion.

Altogether, I thought the production a remarkable demonstration of the power of heartfelt and concentrated focus from limited resources to conjure up whole worlds of feeling and imagination. Very great credit to Eternity Opera and all associated with the production, for making opera’s star shine so very brightly once more at Wellington’s Hannah Playhouse.

(Until 24th November)



First-class performance of a Brahms masterpiece by Vivanti String Sextet

Vivanti  String Sextet: Yuka Eguchi, Malavika Gopal (violins), Victoria Jaenecke, Martin Jaenecke (violas), Ken Ichinose, Rowan Prior (cellos)

Brahms: String Sextet no.1 in B flat, Op.18

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 14 November 2018, 12:15 pm

A sizeable audience heard this masterwork from Brahms, played by a sextet made up of members of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (plus friend Martin Jaenecke).  The work is seldom heard, probably because of the difficulty of assembling a sextet.  I don’t think I have heard it live since a concert given by a visiting ensemble in a Festival concert many years go – was it 1988?  1990?  They played also the String Sextet no.2.

Immediately the musicians commenced, we were treated to a gorgeous sound. – mellow, reassuring, in the first movement’s allegro ma non troppo.  The players performed with confidence and panache, and the church’s acoustics did them proud.  Darker tones entered; a cello solo was most mellifluous.  The music approached grandeur, but in a rather nostalgic manner.  Plucking from the cellos added piquancy.

A general excitement of tempo and volume led to a new, placid theme, which was passed around the players.  Its chromaticism gave a persuasive romanticism to the music.  A waltz towards the end was graceful, then a brief passage with all playing pizzicato finished the movement.

Throughout, the playing was splendid from all the musicians.  The second movement (andante ma moderato) had a strong opening to its theme and variations.  The song-like theme was harmonised in a very straightforward way.  The first variation was for the cello, and was given an excellent performance by Ken Ichinose.  (From where I was seated I could not see if Rowan Prior also played in this variation).  The violas took it up, and gave the theme considerable embroidery, before the cello had another complex variation, jumping all over the fingerboard.

Then the violas returned with a strong hymn-like variation.  The violins now had their chance, playing the same variation, before they had a passage playing a melody against the violas playing a drone accompaniment.  The cellos were at first absent from this interchange, until they took up with some pizzicato.  Cellos now had the melody, more-or-less straight.  The music became quieter, and slowly wound down to its end.

The Scherzo third movement was a very tuneful dance,  full of good spirits.  It was bouncy and euphonious.  The short trio lived up to its tempo (animato), driving forward constantly, as did the also animated scherzo, on its return.

The final movement, Rondo, was marked poco allegretto e grazioso.  It was sonorous and cheerful.  There was plenty of dynamic variety, and all was played splendidly, with superb subtlety and fabulous tone.  Gentle passages echoing the first movement helped the music wind down gradually in sombre vein, but it picked up animation again in the final bars.  This is a great work of chamber music, and it was marvellous to hear it, in such a first-class performance.


World Premiere in Palmerston North of 216 year-old work by English composer Samuel Arnold

The Renaissance Singers of Palmerston North presents:

A NEW CREATION – Music by Josef Haydn (1732-1809) and Samuel Arnold (1740-1802)

HAYDN:  Oratorio “The Creation” (1798) – Part Three
ARNOLD:  Oratorio “The Hymn of Adam and Eve” (1802) – World premiere performance
(edited and realised by Robert Hoskins and David Vine)

Pasquale Orchard (soprano) , Shayna Tweed (soprano), Jennifer Little (soprano),
Nigel Tongs (tenor), Lindsay Yeo (bass-baritone)

Renaissance Singers (Music Director – Guy Donaldson)
Schola Sacra Choir, Whanganui (Music Director – Roy Tankersley)
Manawatu Sinfonia (Leader – Gillian Gibb)
Conductor: Guy Donaldson

Regent on Broadway, Palmerston North

Saturday 10th November, 2018

Musical history was made on Saturday evening at Palmerston North’s Regent on Broadway, when local forces (the city’s Renaissance Singers and the Manawatu Sinfonia, plus a clutch of home-grown/nurtured vocal soloists) combined forces with Wellington soprano Pasquale Orchard and neighbouring Whanganui’s Schola Sacra Choir, under the inspired direction of conductor Guy Donaldson, to bring into being a world premiere with a difference.

New Zealand being geographically as far away as one can get from Europe, and the UK in particular, it’s surely something of a red-letter occasion when a significant musical work written by an English composer is given its first-ever performance in this country. Last year, an original manuscript, long thought lost, of an orchestral work by Gustav Holst was discovered in a music Library in Tauranga, and given its first performance anywhere for 111 years (since the 1906 premiere), by local musicians to considerable amazement and acclaim – but this present work, “The Hymn of Adam and Eve”, composed by the little-known Samuel Arnold in 1802(!) trumped even that circumstance, having never previously been performed.

There’s more than a whiff of romance and intrigue surrounding Arnold’s birth and heritage, certain sources suggesting he may have been the illegitimate son of one Thomas Arnold, a commoner, and Princess Amelia, daughter of George II and Queen Caroline, a princess who remained unmarried, and was known for her independent spirit. Arnold was educated at the Chapel Royal, making rapid progress in his music studies, and soon earning his living writing both instrumental and vocal works for performance at various London “Gardens”, including operas and oratorios for Covent Garden and other theatres. He eventually became organist and composer to the Chapel Royal, and afterwards organist to Westminster Abbey, as well as becoming the conductor (so early in the history of that profession!) of the Academy of Ancient Music.

Along with all of this Arnold found the time to compose for cathedral service, producing a four-volumed adjunct to William Boyce’s 1790 Cathedral Music, and to undertake the first collected edition of the works of Handel, of which he completed forty volumes, a copy of which Beethoven received during the last weeks of his life, reputedly declaring that “Handel is the greatest composer that ever lived”. Judged by modern standards Arnold’s scholarship was wanting in places (the edition comprises only three-quarters of Handel’s output), but was for its time a notable and ground-breaking enterprise.

While searching for further pieces of information regarding Samuel Arnold to counter my lamentably skimpy knowledge of him I came across a couple of references to his activities as a musician which I thought significant, the first being the touching occasion in 1773 when Oxford University requested a performance of Arnold’s oratorio The Prodigal Son to mark the appointment of a new Chancellor for the institution, in return for which favour the composer was offered an honorary degree. Arnold at first declined, wanting to “entitle himself to it” by the usual academic course, to which end he submitted an exercise for examination – but his score was returned unopened by the music professor, assuring Arnold that it was “quite unnecessary to scrutinize an exercise by the author of The Prodigal Son.

The other reference I thought telling in that it probably shaped whole generations of opinion concerning Arnold’s music was the entry on the composer in the 1900 edition of Grove’s “A Dictionary of Music and Musicians”, written by Edward Francis Rimbault, to the effect that “Dr. Arnold wrote with great facility and correctness, but the demand upon his powers was too varied and too incessant to allow of his attaining great excellence in any department of his art”. One recalls a similar “put-down” kind of treatment meted out half-a-century later to the music of Rachmaninov by the same publication, words that ring hollow in the light of THAT composer’s subsequent status and popularity.

Dr. Robert Hoskins, former Associate Professor of Music at Massey University and the New Zealand School of Music, “rediscovered” Samuel Arnold’s final and unperformed work “The Hymn of Adam and Eve” while researching the life and work of the composer in the early 1980s. Hoskins’ subsequent judgement of Arnold’s complete oeuvre takes issue with the aforementioned comment in Grove’s Dictionary regarding the composer’s lack of “excellence in any part of his art”, and attests to the best of his music attaining “a certain individuality” resulting in “attractive and dramatically vivid music”. Hoskins also makes mention of the documented popularity of Arnold’s works, which rivalled and perhaps even surpassed that of any of his English contemporaries throughout the last quarter of the eighteenth century.

Arnold composed much of his music in an environment that was very much under the combined spell of two creative “giants” – Handel, whose oratorios had won the hearts of the English public fifty years previously, and, more recently, Haydn, whose “Salomon” or “London” Symphonies had, along with the composer’s own visits to London, stimulated enormous interest in the (by then) venerable composer and his music. Arnold had become steeped in the music of both men – and at the time he was writing “The Hymn of Adam and Eve” he conducted performances in London of  both Handel’s “Messiah” and Haydn’s “The Creation”. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Arnold’s work comes across in places as a kind of “amalgam” of the two, almost as if he was unconsciously paying homage to each of them.

It was entirely fitting, therefore, that we heard as a kind of prelude to Arnold’s work the third and final part of Haydn’s “The Creation”, the two works sharing a similar theme courtesy of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” – in Haydn’s case, the poetry translated and adapted by Baron Gottfried Van Swieten (who had also provided Haydn with his libretto for “The Seasons”), but here, translated back into English! Conductor Guy Donaldson however began the concert most appropriately with the final Chorus from Part Two, “Achieved is the Glorious Work”, giving the evening’s music-making a most auspicious and stirring beginning, the choral strands strong and firm in their fugal exchanges, the instrumental support full and energetic, with plenty of “schwung” in the rhythms, the whole capped off by wonderful timpani flourishes!

The Part three opening-proper was exquisitely-realised, the flute-playing limpid and “dewy”, and the horns “touching-in” the first rays of sunlight with real poetic feeling. Tenor Nigel Tongs kept a true line for “In rosy mantle”, his tone a tad wheezy in places, but steadily maintaining the musical shape of every phrase, giving his instrumental support plenty of beautiful “echo-material” to relish. Soprano Pasquale Orchard as Eve floated her first ascending phrase beautifully at “By thee with bliss, o bounteous Lord”, her Adam, baritone Lindsay Yeo counterweighting her line strongly and securely, and the oboe completing the “early-morning” scenario with a properly sylvan accompaniment– and how beautifully the chorus “stole” in with almost subterraneous murmurings, almost like the awakening of an “earth-noise”, underpinned in places by the timpani.

It took a little time for the orchestra to “bring together” the catchiness of the rhythmic gait leading up to the baritone’s “Of stars the brightest”, which the singer “opened up” securely – the chorus’s energy at “proclaim throughout vastness” seemed to galvanise the players somewhat, and the soprano’ s “And thou, the solace of the night” was more sturdily supported. Chirpily alert winds decorated the baritone’s next entry, and both soprano and chorus contributed to the infectious excitement and growing energy, finely controlled and gloriously released by conductor Donaldson, as all living creatures were enjoined by the singers to “praise the Lord” throughout crescendo after crescendo.

The singers’ rapport was evident in their exchanges throughout the recitative and duet that followed, both pointing their words and “relating” their trajectories and impulses to achieve a sense of true dialogue. The tenor returned, Nigel Tongs again reliably focused of line and elegant of phrase in his admonition to the couple to be content with what they have, before giving way to the splendour of the concerted forces’ concluding hymn of praise to the Almighty. The choir did itself and its conductor proud in its focusing and dovetailing of the fugal lines with the orchestral punctuations, the brass, winds and timpani suitably splendid of utterance, backed by the strings’ energy and colour – everybody at the piece’s conclusion giving their all, most satisfyingly.

After an intermission came the “real business” of the evening, the “public birth” of Samuel Arnold’s similarly-themed work for soloists, choir and orchestra, the “Hymn of Adam and Eve”, whose emergence from obscurity into the limelight had been lovingly enabled by Robert Hoskins as a result of his researchings. The performance was to also mark the retirement from the music directorship of the Renaissance Singers of conductor Guy Donaldson, after thirty years’ service in the role – so, altogether, the occasion promised a uniquely distinctive combination of a beginning and an ending, with each circumstance adding extra gravitas to the other.

Samuel Arnold fully intended his work to be performed shortly after its completion in January of 1802 – in fact he had planned the work for the Lenten concerts at the Haymarket Theatre Royal that year. His principal soloists were hand-picked for their roles by the composer – the soprano was to be German-born Gertrude Elizabeth Mara, one whose voice had been described as “remarkable for its extent and beauty”, as well as “its agility and flexibility” – it was for her particular abilities that Arnold had written the fiendishly difficult vocal bravura parts we were to hear in tonight’s performance. The baritone was the well-known singer Thomas Welsh, renowned for his voice’s  richness of tone. All was set to begin rehearsals, when the composer was stricken with ill health and was forced to cancel the proceedings.

Arnold died that same year in October, his oratorio unperformed and neglected, and eventually forgotten – fortunately the manuscript was given to the Royal College of Music in London, there to be rediscovered and reconstituted for the present performance, a premiere delayed for 216 years!

Arnold had set the “Morning Hymn” from Book 5 of Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, a passage describing the sequel to a dream of temptation experienced by Eve, and to Adam’s reassurance that she can overcome any such thoughts in her waking life. After an orchestral introduction, the soprano’s (Eve) is the opening voice, praising God and enjoining all creation to do the same – As Part One proceeds the pair join with the Seraphs to address the heavenly entities, beginning with the angels, the “Sons of Light” and including Venus, the brightest star. Adam then attends to the sun, and Eve the moon and the planets, each urging these entities to acknowledge their Creator. In the Second Part, the singers (predominantly the soprano) then turn their attentions to the earth and its attendant elements and various forms of life, concluding with a salutation from Adam to the “universal Lord” and a plea that whatever evil is concealed will be dispersed “as now light dispels the dark”.

I thought, in general terms, the performance was terrific, and largely because of the musicians’ willingness to make the commitment required to address the challenges of some of the writing. In particular, the soprano part (written for the illustrious Mara) was of an order of difficulty that almost beggared belief, and which was tackled by Pasquale Orchard with near-tigerish intensity in places – the only possible response that could have made it really “work”. There was no holding back – we all felt “engaged” by her utter vocal fearlessness, even in the one or two places where the outcomes seemed angular, almost awkward in effect. It all seemed to go with the territory, the visceral stimulus veritably coursing this listener’s blood through the veins at what seemed at times like breakneck speed! – most exhilarating!

In parallel, I did think that Arnold’s writing seemed particularly attuned to the pieces featuring the soprano – which, of course applied to a staggering thirteen numbers out of nineteen! By my count baritone Lindsay Yeo had, in comparison, only three solo opportunities throughout, which did seem a little curmudgeonly of the composer. And, despite some challenging and skilfully-realised writing for the horn, I felt Arnold’s invention wasn’t quite on the same ecstatic level for the baritone in the aria “Sound His praise”, though Yeo did his best to make it “sing”. Better was the final “Hail, universal Lord”, the singer bringing vigour and accuracy to the opening and making a good fist of the difficult coloratura passages.

The work began with an orchestral Symphony, sturdy and Handelian, followed by an appropriately lustrous opening declamation from the soprano, “These are thy glorious works”, Orchard projecting the sound of her voice with radiant character both here, and in the aria “Speak ye, who best can tell”, accompanied by lovely work from the horns and winds, the bassoon-playing particularly eloquent in its support of the singer. The Seraphs’ Duet which followed featured mellifluous teamwork between Shayna Tweed and Jennifer Little, supported faithfully by oboe continuo, and sturdily framed by an orchestral response which worked triumphantly through one or two shaky dovetailings. The somewhat tricky triplet passages were boldly tackled by the singers, with lovely teamwork at the repetitions of “And with songs”. If a strenuous quality occasionally “grabbed” a phrase or two of the figurations, it added to the excitement and colour of the singers’ work.

The Quartet and Chorus “Ye in heaven , on earth join all ye creatures” was introduced somewhat tentatively on the strings, who then seemed to warm to the task in support of the fugal passages, the choral work enlivened by timpani and brass in the middle section, and made very dramatic and theatrical at the end with portentous pauses! A complete contrast came with the delicate play between the flutes wreathing delicacies around and about the recitative “Fairest of stars”, and the soprano making the most of her words – again, with the aria “Praise Him in thy sphere” the winds set the scene most charmingly alternating with the voice, the long-breathed phrases contrasting with the brief, shooting-star-like cadenza at the end.

Adam’s recitative “Thou sun” brought vigorous phrases from the strings and sturdy singing from Lindsay Yeo, which carried over into the subsequent aria – the singer held his line, and gave of his best with the cadenza, even if I sensed a severity about the writing that didn’t quite take flight. What a difference with the following recitative “Moon, that now meet’st the orient sun“, singer and instrumentalists working with their conductor to evoke the grandeur of the “wandering fires that move in mystic dance”, before energising the sounds in praise of the Lord and Giver of Light – the soprano casting caution to the starry firmament with her vocal pyrotechnics and the chorus dramatically plunging into the ferment of excitement, each relishing the exchanges and banishing the darkness with their energies, the singer’s coloratura gripping and breath-taking in its effect.

With Part Two, things “came down to earth”, the opening recitative almost scientifically delineating the biosphere as the starting-point, life deriving from and nourished by “air” – the aria, “Let your ceaseless change”, that followed (both sung by Orchard as Eve, who dominated the proceedings from here on) sounded to me particularly Handelian, the flowing lines steadily and purposefully flowering into realms of great beauty, wrought and relished by the singer and her conductor, with the help of some lovely liquid clarinet phrasings. Even more visceral in effect were the instrumental evocations of the following Recitative “Ye mists and exhalations”, the overtly descriptive texts finding the composer’s imaginative powers equal to the task of rendering the words’ descriptions, culminating in bursts of magnificence from brass and timpani hailing the sun and gentle pizzicato strings suggesting delicate rain.

Again, Handel’s spirit rose majestically skyward in Arnold’s “Rising or falling”, firstly with Orchard’s utterly uninhibited vocal pyrotechnics, culminating in a “knockout” of a cadenza that bordered on the outlandish – what commitment to the cause!! – and then followed by a chorus using the same text to   put across majesty and might with great relish. Arnold’s gift for word-painting came to the fore once again in “His praise, ye winds”, the strings deployed most exquisitely and ambiently, both here and in the subsequent aria, “Fountains and ye that warble”, along with some fetching wind contributions, the singer’s voice floating her line across the gentle dotted rhythms. Next, it was the choir’s turn, a confidently joyous rendition of “Join voices all ye living souls”, the wind writing decorating the voices’ counterpointed lines, the latter sometimes in strongly-shaped thirds and in places very Handelian, the former an absolute delight, and to that end, most mellifluously played.

From things airborne we were then taken to things “that in waters glide” and “that walk the earth” – here was an intensely beauteous declamation, Orchard never letting up the intensities of her expression, just momentarily pushing her tones a shade sharp, but always with a vibrancy that infused the words and notes with a quality of engagement that characterised her work throughout the whole evening – a magnificent performance. She was supported by string playing whose quiet energies brought out something of the music’s own life-force, which I felt was partly derived from the concert’s overall spirit, one which enabled something challenging but within reach, and in the process generating considerable delight and satisfaction.

The work’s final act came with “Hail, universal Lord”, Lindsay Yeo’s Adam managing to get a word or two in at last, singing his lines with vigour and making a splendid thing out of the difficult figurations. Then came a truly overwhelming “all-in” flood of energy and colour from all the musicians throughout the work’s final pages which set the spaces of the venerable Regent Theatre aglow “as now light dispels the dark”. It was all, in a word, magnificent! – and both maestro Guy Donaldson and editor-extraordinaire Robert Hoskins would have been well-pleased with the musicians’ efforts and the audience’s response – as would the shade of Samuel Arnold, after more than two hundred years, able to finally proclaim his “last compositional will and testament” as fulfilled.