Bach Choir celebrates Saint Cecilia, exploring interesting and important music with flair and taste

Bach Choir of Wellington, directed by Shawn Michael Condon
To St Cecilia and Music

The final concert of the Bach Choir’s 50th year, music from the 16th to 20th Centuries in honour of St Cecilia, patroness of musicians, whose Feast Day is celebrated on 22 November

Nicola Holt (soprano), Jamie Young (tenor), Daniel O’Connor (baritone) and Douglas Mews (organ)

Britten’s Hymn to Saint Cecilia, setting of Auden’s poem
Gerald Finzi: God is gone up with a triumphant shout
Gounod’s Messe Solennelle de Sainte-Cécile
Plus music by Johannes Jeep, William Byrd and Handel

Saint Mary of the Angels

Sunday 16 December, 2 pm

This was a famous concert: not many musical organisations survive for fifty years. In Wellington, only the NZSO and the Orpheus Choir can claim that (and I await outraged contradictions); though it might be possible to add Chamber Music New Zealand, a very important music promoter, which began as a Wellington society in 1945 and spread its reach nationally within a few years.

The Bach Choir has had a distinguished record; founded by organist, harpsichordist, early music scholar and university teacher Anthony Jennings, one of New Zealand’s most gifted musicians, born in 1945 and died tragically young in 1995.

Though Bach has been a pretty constant presence in the choir’s repertoire, he was absent from this concert, which was dedicated to Saint Cecilia, the largely mythical patron saint of music (her day is actually 22 November, which Britten chose as his own birthday in 1913).

The chair of the Choir, Pam Davidson, sketched the choir’s story and explained the way the Saint’s gifts were woven through the concert.

So several of the pieces performed had Saint Cecilia associations. Very appropriately, Britten’s Hymn to Saint Cecilia was here; but perhaps the best known and, for many, the best loved was the Gounod mass.

Renaissance Germany: Johannes Jeep
It began in complete obscurity (for me at least): Johannes Jeep was a Renaissance German composer, contemporary of Scheit, Schein and Schütz, Pretorius, Frescobaldi, Allegri, and in England, Weekles, Gibbons, Campion. He was born and spent his first thirty years in Dransfeld, near Göttingen, NW of Eisenach – and the Bach country, studied in Italy, then Kapellmeister at the court of Hohenlohe (in today’s Baden-Württemberg), then Frankfurt.

With the choir in two parts, half in the organ gallery, Musica, die ganz lieblich Kunst (Music the loveliest art), an a cappella piece, was melodically rather charming and it set the scene for a recital that would be marked by singing of considerable refinement, sensitivity and musicality.

Byrd and Handel
William Byrd’s ‘Sing Joyfully unto God’ was just that, another joyful piece, madrigal-like, with attractive interweaving counterpoint; its huge popularity in the century following its composition was easy to understand.

The piano introduced a chorus from Handel’s oratorio, Solomon, ‘Music, spread thy voice around’, which was another piece that expresses delight in music itself, this time without owing specific indebtedness to God. Now with the choir entirely in front of us, it was harmonically more dense, to be expected in music of 150 years after the previous piece. By this time, I started to pay closer attention to the management of the choir by their director Shawn Michael Condon: his careful ear for balance and integration of parts and matching the sense of the words to singing that made sense of them.

Britten’s Hymn to Saint Cecilia
The substantial item in the first half was Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia set to a poem that Britten had asked his friend WH Auden to write. Auden complied and Britten worked at it in New York during his three year stay in the United States at the beginning of the Second World War. But it was not performed there and when he sought his exit visa to return to Britain in 1942 US Customs confiscated the score, suspecting it could contain a secret code. Fortunately, Britten had the fortitude to recompose it on the torpedo-infested voyage home and it was given a radio performance later that year (I read nothing of the score’s possible return to the composer later, with humble apologies from the paranoid officials). You can find a short but interesting account of Britten’s and Peter Pears’ American episode in a recent article copied from Gramophone magazine: .

The music is quite dense and the church acoustic, generally very sympathetic, allowed it to sound cluttered at times; I think a little modification of the volume, particularly at emphatic moments might have helped. Considering its provenance, and its composition in the middle of the war, it was imbued with delight and optimism – fair enough for a 30-year-old. The dancing liveliness of the second stanza, like a scherzo movement, was brilliantly delivered, and the direct address to the saint at the end of each stanza: “Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions…”, found its contrasting ethereal spirit most successfully.

In the third section, the longest and the poetically and aesthetically most complex, I had the feeling at certain moments that a quite small choir, with most choral parts not far from the effect of solo voices, might produce a more pungent impact. Certainly, the solo parts were among the most joyous elements, though sometimes I wasn’t sure how many voices were involved, not sitting close enough to see who was actually singing. The last part of Section III is simpler, describing individual instruments; it was the most interesting part of this rather enchanting work and the feelings of preciousness that sometimes trouble me with Britten rather fell away (you can tell, I’m not a paid-up Britten groupie).

Poking about on YouTube, I came across a performance of the Britten by Ensemble Vocal du CRR (Conservatoire à Rayonnement Régional) de Montpellier, conducted by Caroline Gaulon; it was sung by small forces, about a dozen by the look of it, with an ecstatic quality and wonderful clarity: pretty good English too: ( Associated was a clip that I felt was a singularly enchanting collection of St Cecilia music: from Marc Minkowski’s Les Musiciens du Louvre, with music by Purcell, Handel and Haydn: Recommended!

Finzi triumphant
The second half opened with Gerald Finzi’s festive setting of words by a 17th century Puritan writer who emigrated to Massachusetts, Edward Taylor, based on verses from Philippians 2:9. This, accompanied by Mews at the organ (‘rather unsubtle at the beginning’, I jotted down) was like a continuous, rhapsodic pean of delight. I felt that the men tended to dominate and unbalance the sound in the early stages, but quickly came to enjoy the enthusiasm that drove conductor and choir. It achieves conventional musical shape by treating the second (last) verse as a meditative, slow, movement and then returning to repeat the first stanza with its ‘praise’, ‘triumphant shout’, ‘sounding trumpets’, ‘King of Glory’, asserting that all is well in this best of all possible worlds.

Gounod’s early years
I remember my surprise when I first encountered the Saint Cecilia Mass, from the Wainuiomata Choir under their splendid conductor, John Knox, in the singular setting of the main lobby of the Railway Station (how about choirs negotiating regular performances there, to astonish the communters and promote their gifts to the great unwashed). It was so full of almost secular vitality and tunefulness, not at all the sound of a typical liturgical work. And so I was not surprised that in certain quarters it tended to be denigrated as on the one hand not properly religious, and on the other, too ‘popular’, lacking the seriousness of proper classical music. Those shortcomings were fine by me; not that I don’t love Bruckner and Palestrina too.

Though Gounod had had a mass performed in 1839, aged 20, at the great church of Saint-Eustache just before leaving Paris on winning the Prix de Rome, the eight or ten years after his return were strangely barren as composer; he was a church organist, wrote several other masses, and various songs but nothing that hasn’t deservedly disappeared. Clearly he did not have what one imagines to be the mark of a real composer: music just flowing from his head demanding to be set down. He seems to have sort-of lost the composer ambition and remarked: ‘Je me sentis une velléité d’adopter la vie ecclésiastique’ – he took a fancy to a religious life.

Success in opera
Gounod’s real career started in 1849 aged 30, after he had become a friend of the distinguished singer Pauline Viardot. She spoke of Gounod to the director of the Opéra and he agreed to mounting an opera by him, especially when she promised to sing the title role in the suggested opera, Sapho. Viardot’s suggestion that prominent playwright, Emil Augier, tackle the libretto was again persuasive and suddenly a production by the Paris Opéra was on. What an extraordinary stroke for a composer with scarcely any reputation! Fortunately it was well received, mainly by the critics rather then the public, including Berlioz, at its first run in 1851. Though an aria, ‘O ma lyre immortelle’ is much anthologised, the opera itself didn’t survive.

Another opera La nonne sanglante and incidental music for a play followed, before the Messe solennelle appeared, in 1855. Its Sanctus too has taken a life of its own, shifted from the tenor to soprano – Kiri Te Kanawa among others.

The Messe solennelle – this performance
Finally, I come to the performance itself. The Kyrie opened with beautifully warm, subdued singing by female voices, quickly joined by other sections, with intermittent phrases from the three soloists; sculpted carefully and sounding as if they were deeply involved, though some tonal quality was lost as the singing intensified towards the end. The high soprano voice of Nicola Holt lit the Gloria serenely, joined by the choir in the same reverent tones. Then with the pregnant words ‘Laudamus te’, the full choir brought a totally new spirit of delight to the music, of determination. And the words ‘Domine fili unigenite’ brought a new narrative tone to it, first with solo baritone Daniel O’Connor, then tenor Jamie Young, both revealing voices well cast for the music. Various words that Gounod obviously considered significant continued to get highlighted, such as ‘Dominus Deus’, and the words ‘…qui tollis peccata mundi…’ which most composers clothe in particularly powerful phrases.

Scarcely anyone dares to observe that the best way to distinguish a masterpiece, a popular masterpiece, is almost always through melody. Some great composers get by without a very rich melodic gift, but there’s usually a powerful compensating element like an arresting flair for manipulation of melodic or rhythmic elements, or engaging the listener in a pattern of harmonic and tonal modulations. Try as certain of the severer class of music critics might to denigrate a Rossini or a Vivaldi, a Johann Strauss, or a Gounod, the presence of melodies that hang around long after the performance has ended, is the touchstone, assuming the composer has enough skill and taste to dress them interestingly.

This mass is certainly one of those, and to hear this Credo sung with any conviction tends to elicit the word masterpiece, much as it might sound a little pompous. Gounod breaks certain sections up, so the Credo completely changes its character from the confidence of the first exclamatory part, the grand ‘Deum de Deo, lumende lumine’, going quiet at ‘Qui propter sunt’, and especially ‘Et incarnatus’ with the soloists pianissimo, the singing moving between soloists to choir constantly, and then dealing with Pilate and the crucifixion in severe tones. The music of the beginning returns with the triumphant ‘Et resurrexit’, while the catalogue of beliefs continues with appropriate religious sanctity.

I dare hardly mention the one drawback of the concert: the absence of an orchestra, noticeable in the instrumental Offertory. Yet Douglas Mews created a sensitive and persuasive account of it on the Maxwell Fernie organ, and of the many moments elsewhere where the orchestra makes attractive gestures. And there was no escaping the quality of the singing under the choir’s director Shawn Michael Condon: clearly articulated, dynamically flexible and varied, and simply interesting in its story-telling character.

Gounod wrote the Sanctus for a tenor with intermittent choir. It’s the most popular part, often sung today by a soprano, like Kiri Te Kanawa. Jamie Young delivered a fine calm account of it, and he sang the ‘Pleni sunt coeli’ with a passion, that the organ supported very well.

The Benedictus is no less affecting and the choir and soprano Nicola Holt gave a moving performance of it, with its highlighted ‘Hosanna in excelsis’ delivered resolutely at the end.

It has always seemed to me that the Agnus Dei was a little less interesting than the rest of the mass. While there were lively things and of course it was splendidly sung in spite of small signs of fatigue, there were a few more signs of conventional harmonic shifts and of a composer who was going through the motions rather than breaking new ground (to use a couple of hackneyed figures of speech).

So in all, this was an excellent concert; a rewarding theme that was intelligently and resourcefully explored and exploited, a fine venue – wonderful to have St Mary’s back in good health, while the City Council has wasted several years dithering over the fate of the Town Hall – and finally, performed with taste and considerable skill under capable leadership.


Camerata’s latest “Haydn in the Church” concert – joyous antiphonal splendours, heart-rending beauties and al fresco hi-jinks!

Camerata presents “Haydn in the Church”

J.S.BACH – Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins, Strings and Basso Continuo BWV 1043
Soloists – Anne Loeser and Malavika Gopal (violins)

J.S.BACH – “Erbarme Dich, mein Gott” (from St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244 )
Soloist – Maaike Christie-Beekman (soprano)

Josef HAYDN – Symphony No.8 in G Major “Le Soir”

Camerata, directed by Anne Loeser (violin)

St.Peter’s-on-Willis-St., Wellington

Thursday 13th December, 2018

I couldn’t remember when I’d last heard JS Bach’s Double Violin Concerto “live” when first posting this review – thanks to violinist Anne Loeser, who reminded me of a 2012 performance by the NZSO strings, I’ve had to sheepishly modify my previous “never before live” declaration; but, to my shame, it gets worse! – I actually reviewed the performance in Middle C! Oh, dear! – I’m dumbfounded as to how I could have forgotten the occasion, particularly as it featured not only the violin-playing of the wonderful Vesa-Matti Leppanen, the NZSO’s concertmaster, but the considerable instrumental skills of the then Music Director of the orchestra, Pietari Inkinen, as his violinist partner! People who wish to revisit that auspicious occasion, in addition to confirming what seems to be oncoming decreptitude on my part may do so by clicking on the following link – – where they will find what seemed to me to be an interesting idea at the time (perhaps as befits a concert with a double concerto) a “double” review!

Nevertheless, despite my having to admit to witnessing  “twice as many” performances in Wellington of the concerto in recent times as I previously had thought, I still maintain that baroque music of this kind has, during my concert-going life, become more what one might call “specialist” repertoire, which I believe isn’t generally to its advantage in terms of dissemination to a wider audience in the concert hall. There are so many baroque masterpieces which symphony orchestras used to perform than seem now of late confined to “period performance” situations, governed by strictures which frown upon any attempts to realise the music away from certain prescribed conditions.

Of course it’s wonderful to encounter presentations which attempt to replicate actual instruments, player numbers and playing styles from this music’s era – but our attempts to slavishly reincarnate these actualities in an exclusive manner would probably be viewed with astonishment by the average Baroque composer, who might think it odd to have his or her music thus perpetuated, instead of being treated more as a “living entity” of work. For reasons too elaborate to go into here at great length, I feel that the “purist” approach to music performance of any era has its pros and cons, and that Baroque composers would possibly have been far more interested in hearing what subsequent ages did DIFFERENTLY with their music rather than merely having it religiously replicated.

In any case, one only has to look at the extent to which these people unhesitatingly “borrowed” music from themselves and from one another to pick up on an intensely pragmatic attitude to the whole business held by composers, performers and audiences alike. Obviously, getting on with the prime concern of making music was paramount – and when something new came along, such as the fledgling pianoforte, for example, people such as JS Bach were straightaway interested in it (not uncritically, it must be said), rather than bent on rejecting it as merely “newfangled”.

I’m beginning to hear the “banging a can” aspect creeping into this diatribe, so I’ll stop – but I’ve always loved the reported comment of Sir Thomas Beecham, who, upon being told of the publication of a new edition of Haydn symphonies, immediately remarked, “Are they scholarly, or musical?” In principle, my feelings exactly – and what better over-riding consideration could one apply to any kind of activity that involved music?

All of this has very little to do with Camerata itself and the group’s performances, which I found by turns, joyously, heart-rendingly and exhilaratingly musical! From the very beginning of the Bach Concerto, when Malavika Gopal’s violin brought in the lower-end instruments of the ensemble, to be thereupon answered by Anne Loeser’s like instrument together with the higher-toned players, the music fairly crackled with exuberance and open-heartedness, the playing judiciously alternating energy with warmth, and strength with subtle nuance. The St.Peter’s Church acoustic instantly gave us back an amalgam of resonance and clarity which played its part in lifting the music up towards what seemed for this listener all-too-brief transports of pleasure and contentment.

Gopal’s violin again led the proceedings in the work’s heavenly slow movement, her warm, open tones followed by Loeser’s more nuanced sounds, the latter’s flecked with half-lights and barely-concealed impulses, the pair’s combination imparting a fascination in the blending of their exchanges, highlighted all the more by the reduced accompaniments, one instrument from each section providing a sensitive supporting network.  The whole resembled a kind of celestial vision on earth, one which, as with the first movement, we all wished could have endured for longer.

Of course the composer recognised the need for a “return to life” after these transports; and the ensemble certainly took him at his word, with playing in the finale whose attack and rhythmic swing had an exhilaration, almost a risk-taking element that brought me to the edge of my pew! Though when compared with the serenity of the first two movements the trajectories suddenly seemed almost “turbocharged” (the opening three-note figure sounded almost like the gruff warning bark of a guard-dog!) the control of the ensemble under Anne Loeser was exemplary, the notes “clicking over the points” with breath-taking precision. I still thought the music as much “combated” at this speed as “relished”, the various exchanges equally daring as they were joyous expressions of energy.

No greater a contrast could be imagined as with the programme’s next item, the aria “Erbarme Dich, mein Gott” from Bach’s St.Matthew Passion, sung here by Maaike Christie-Beekman (described in the programme as a “soprano”, but variously elsewhere as a “mezzo” – the aria, incidentally, is listed as one for alto, or counter-tenor, in most recorded performances.) Despite all of these potential variables it seemed as if Christie-Beekman’s voice was one that could do almost anything, and certainly at her first entry, immediately conjure up the beauty and gravitas of delivery required by this aria. With Anne Loeser’s introductory violin solo finding a “dignified sorrow” in which to project the voice’s emotion, it was left to Christie-Beekman to float those opening phrases so very beautifully but capture also a kind of desolation of utterance – these are, of course, the words of the disciple Peter in the wake of his denial of Christ after the latter’s seizure, words which carry with them all of Peter’s guilt and shame, and here made to resonate down the singer’s long, richly filled lines to telling effect.

Throughout, ebb and flow of opposing emotions tugged at our heartstrings, here from the singer, there from the solo violin, the words pleading for mercy amid despair and sorrow – I thought Christie-Beekman and Loeser made the piece an intensely living experience, constantly and judiciously focusing and “colouring” their tones with hues that expressed these very conflicts, and thus making both texts and notes real for the listener, throughout what is surely one of Bach’s most sublime utterances.

In a different way to that which took place in the concerto, what happened next seemed like a kind of  absolution in the wake of such a deep and profound outpouring of emotion – Christie- Beekman returned to the stage after acknowledging our appreciation of her Bach performance, explaining to us that the opening movement of the Haydn symphony we were about to hear was based on an air by Gluck in his opera-comique Le diable à quatre (The Devil to Pay), “Je n’aimais pas le tabac beaucoup (I didn’t like tobacco much)”, and that she would sing it for us! She translated the aria’s words for us, to the effect that she was a young woman who didn’t like being told what to do by a husband – hence she smoked cigarettes! Her accompaniment was largely pizzicato strings, the delicacy of the sounds ironically adding to the “tongue-in-cheek” stroppiness of the character and the scenario – all beautifully characterised and absolutely delightful!

And, of course, when the Haydn Symphony began, there was the saucy minx flaunting her stroppiness all over again in the music for our delight! – (however un-PC it  may sound, I admit I ENJOYED writing that phrase!) – seriously, the music was here given a different symphonic urgency and drive than in Maaike C-B’s delicious rendering! This was, of course, the third work in the composer’s “Morning, Noon and Night” trilogy of symphonies, No.8 in G Major “Le soir”. Violins in thirds sounded the “Gluck” theme at the outset, one which went on to dominate the movement, the winds having a turn with it as well. The horns displayed plenty of flair, the instruments joining with the winds to help cap off the opening sequence most effectively. Both the bassoon and the double bass had great fun as well, counterpointing these and the development’s various goings-on with much relish, before the horns returned at the movement’s end with exuberant phrases, the spills as exciting and rustic-sounding as the thrills!

Two violins “duetted” the slow movement’s opening, answered by the lower strings and the bassoon – the  solo ‘cello relished a moment of glory before the pair of violins again joined forces, resonating their phrases across a sea of interactions, the antiphonal effects gorgeous! More melancholy strains sounded across the face of things in the development, with the gentleness of utterance led by the solo violin briefly tossed sideways in favour of some muscular unison string figurations, which just as quickly subsided – the solo cello then shared some of the crepuscular-like glory with the violin, with lovely work from both players.

A spirited, striding Minuet indicated that the evening was far from over, however, with the horns making their presence felt and the distinctive oboe sound adding colour to the mix. The brass and winds exchanged major/minor moments, with the contrasting dynamics hinting at winsome echo effects. Most engaging was the gemütlich-sounding Trio, with some fantastic solo playing from the double-bass, finishing high up on his top string – after which the Menuet returned with renewed vigour, the players taking care in sounding the repeatedly-echoing final phrase of the dance throughout as redolently as at the end.

Scampering tremolandi figures from the strings launched the excitable presto finale of the work, one depicting a storm, and inspiring tremendous energy and attack from all, complete with flashes of lightning (flute) and rumblings of thunder (tremolando strings)!  A “development” section took over the opening sequence and hurled it into a new space, joined by “whirling dervish” strings and whooping horns, and with the solo cello managing a special “moment” amid the lightning flashes and grumblings, and just before the horns raise their voices for a do-or-die concluding flourish.

At the finish, I was about to turn to my partner and say to her that I wished they’d done all of the repeats, when to my surprise and delight Anne Loeser announced that they would repeat the final movement! – just the job, I thought, as the music most satisfyingly whirled its way through the tempestuous moments for a second time, giving us an enriched sense of the piece’s infectious energy and dynamism, and leaving us marvelling at the composer’s flair and originality. What joy to have an ensemble such as Camerata performing such things for our pleasure, and in such a natural and unselfconscious manner, simply, one suspects, for the sheer delight of making music – for that, it deserves to be regarded as a “treasure” by those in the Wellington region who love live music-making, a treasure that one hopes will endure for many years to come.

Wellington Chamber Orchestra with rewarding and interesting music from Britain and Armenia

Wellington Chamber Orchestra conducted by Ian Ridgewell, with Matthew Stein (trumpet)

Gerald Finzi: The Fall of the Leaf, Op.20
Alexander Arutiunian: Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra
Charles Villiers Stanford: Symphony no.3, “The Irish”, in F minor, Op.28

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 9 December 2018, 2:30 pm

It was tempting to describe this as a concert of unfamiliar twentieth-century music, however the symphony was composed and first performed in the 1880s.

An enthusiastic audience filled the church to hear this interesting programme, that began with the rather elusive, indefinite opening of the Finzi work.  This had once been intended to be part of a symphony, but it never eventuated, and after many years, the work was completed by a friend of Finzi’s after the latter’s death.  (Finzi’s dates: 1901-1956).

Like much of the composer’s work, it was gentle, nostalgic, and full of beautiful orchestral colours and melodies.  After the opening, a cor anglais gave a folksong-like melody, followed by the horns, then pizzicato strings and harp, the latter deliciously played by Michelle Velvin.  There was a superb passage for violas, sounding deep and resonant.  There was more superb writing for the cor anglais; no wonder it’s called the English horn!

The work revealed a considerable variety of dynamics.  All in all, it was most agreeable music.

The conductor for this concert was an Englishman, now resident in Wellington, and involved in music education.  I was intrigued with his conducting style; he held a baton, but, like many conductors, did not use the stick independently – it was simply an extension of his right hand.  I had just heard a couple of days before, a radio interview with visiting conductor Nicholas McGegan, here to conduct the NZSO (plus choir and soloists) in Handel’s Messiah.  He does not use a stick, and said that the white stick was used in past times to make the conductor’s beat visible in candle-lit auditoriums.  Since these days such places are lit by electric lighting, he saw no reason to use one.

The main drawback to the concert was the relatively small size of the venue, and its resonance.  Wellington desperately needs back the Town Hall and the Ilott Theatre, the latter being of a suitable size for this orchestra, which on Sunday numbered 59 players.  Too much sound, especially from the brass, can be pretty hard on the ears, and this was the case on Sunday.  The cymbals were simply deafening; fortunately they were not used frequently.

Alexander Arutiunian lived from 1920 to 2012; his trumpet concerto was composed in 1950 and is probably his best-known work internationally, although he had a busy composing, teaching and performing life in Armenia and the Soviet Union generally.

In Matthew Stein we had a superb soloist, not long  returned from study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, where he was a prizewinner.  (Pity he was listed on the back of the printed programme as ‘Piano’!)

His playing was brilliant.  The work was played without a break, but there are definite ‘movements’, with different tempi (Wikipedia gives five movements).  Subtle changes of dynamics were a feature throughout.  Its beginning was fast and furious for the orchestra, yet revealed many different colours.  The clarinet had plenty of sequences in the sun.  Occasionally the orchestra was too loud for the soloist to be easily heard.

After a very loud, repetitive section from the orchestra, the music became quiet and reflective, the soloist using a  mute (the second movement).  The music here was calm and somewhat wistful in character.  Here, the strings’ intonation was wayward, but generally, the playing was fine.  Along came lovely harp ripples, and more prominent clarinet episodes.

The strings got worked up in an insistent rhythmic pattern, and there was a general crescendo as the soloist’s removal of his mute signified another movement.  Extraverted phrases came from the soloist; the flute and percussion made fanciful contributions in this very fast movement.  As elsewhere, there was plenty of work for trombones and tuba.

A brilliant cadenza from the trumpet broke forth, with varied dynamics and rhythms, and featuring trills, all executed with skill and apparent ease.

The audience gave this performance a well-deserved rousing reception.  It was an exciting and varied work, played with élan.

My friend and I moved to the back of the church in the interval, which rendered the brass fortissimo into forte or mezzo-forte.

Irish-born Stanford (1852-1924) was once highly regarded as a symphonist, but is now mainly known for his choral music, particularly his church music.  Much of this repertoire is beautiful an appealing.  One of the reasons we can be grateful to him is for his teaching and developing the talents of Vaughan Williams, Holst, Ireland, Frank Bridge (teacher of Benjamin Britten) and many others, as a teacher at music college and university.

A link with the other composers in the programme is the fact that all used folk-like melodies from their countries of origin; not necessarily actual known melodies, although  some genuine Irish ones are said to be present in this Stanford work.  Certainly the opening of the work sounded like one such.

The strings were a little shaky here, but things settled down again.  There were felicitous phrases, and some grand melodies in an Elgarian vein.  The composer’s orchestration was splendid, with an imaginative variety of use of the instruments.  However, I did not think the orchestra played as well in this work as they had in the Finzi.

The music was easy on the ear.  A passage with pizzicato strings and woodwind melodies over the top gave a slightly spooky atmosphere; were there leprechauns about?

The second movement had a sprightly tempo (or should that be spritely, being Irish?), that fell into a quick march, with brass to the fore.  Then a change of mood and rhythm brought a lilting lyrical section, but still with a lot of brass.  Then we were back to the march, followed by an abrupt ending.

The third movement started with the harp (significant, of course, in Irish music).  This was gorgeous, and was soon joined by flutes and clarinet.  These were ethereal sounds, into which the oboe entered, adding its piquancy.  Strings were sotto voce, horns too contributed to the other-worldly aesthetic.  A swaying theme developed, like a slow dance.

More woodwind melodies ensued, then the brass joined in a crescendo with a very four-square theme which I found rather too insistent, saying “Look out for us!  Here we come!”

While I love some of Stanford’s choral music (notably The Blue Bird), I wouldn’t declare this symphony ripe for widespread resurrection, whereas the other works on the programme could certainly stand more frequent airings.  Nonetheless, there were many lovely elements in the work, of which the harp episodes were among the most mellifluous.

The final movement was faster again, and featured more spooky pizzicato, this time on cellos and double-basses, to great effect.  This section ended like a folk-song, before the music became quite rumbustious, making a very positive declaration (what a contrast to much twentieth-century composition!).  Next was a hymn-like tune, which could well be a traditional Irish melody.  Not all the brass coped well here.  The music came close to pomposity.  However, Stanford’s orchestration was splendid.  A rousing, tuneful ending was triple forte, to send us on our way.


A finely-wrought, light-on-its-feet “Messiah” from Nicholas McGegan with The Tudor Consort and the NZSO

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
HANDEL:  Messiah – An Oratorio, HWV 56

Madeleine Pierard (soprano)
Kristin Darragh (alto)
James Egglestone (tenor)
Martin Snell (bass)
The Tudor Consort (director – Michael Stewart)
Nicholas McGegan (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 8th December 2018

Just for interest’s sakes I hearkened back to my “Middle C” review of an earlier Messiah here in Wellington conducted by Nicholas McGegan with the NZSO three years previously, one which I hailed as a focused and characterful performance throughout. There was plenty to wax enthusiastic about on that occasion – McGegan’s very “visceral “ way with some of the music’s more pictorial evocations, such as the frisson of excitement he and his soprano (Anna Leese in that instance) created when, in the Annunciation to the Shepherds, the “Multitude of the heav’nly hosts“ excitingly made its presence felt, the forcefulness of the scourge-blows on Christ’s body at the chorus’s “Surely He hath borne our griefs”, and the sepulchral darkness wrought by the same voices with the words “Since by man came death”, contrasted all the more by the oceanic surge of energy at the immediately-following “By man came also the resurrection of the dead”.

McGegan’s other soloists besides Anna Leese on that occasion played their part in the characterful realisations, an affecting “He was despised” from mezzo Sally-Ann Russell (though the brutal contrasts of “He gave his back” in the piece’s middle section were dispensed with, then – as this time round),  a ringing, prophetic “voice of him that crieth in the wilderness” from tenor Steve Davislim, and a blood-stirring, skin-and-hair festooned “Why do the nations?” from bass James Clayton. And though she’s already had a mention above, I can’t pass over Anna Leese’s ravishing and warmly-assured “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, which, together with a Halleluiah Chorus that really took flight as an expression of exuberant joyfulness, created what I thought felt like some kind of “transcendence” that carried the performance on the crest of a wave right to its final moments.

Lest the reader regard these words as uncritical warblings, I must emphasise that there were a couple of things I felt a tad short-changed by at the time, the aforementioned truncated “He was despised” for one, and McGegan’s non-inclusion of practically every number other than what might be regarded as “standard” fare for the work, thus ignoring two or three of my absolute favourites – “The Lord gave the word” from Part Two’s The beginnings of Gospel Preaching, along with two from the otherwise unrepresented The Victory over Death and Sin section, a pairing of the superbly-wrought duet for alto and tenor “O Death, where is thy Sting?” and its equally wonderful linked chorus “But thanks be to God”. Apart from these quibbles I found the realisation hard to fault, with soloists, choir and instrumentalists inspired by their conductor to infuse such “bare-essentials” content with music-making of “energy, brilliance, warmth and sheer grandeur”.

Three years later, and with different soloists and a smaller chorus, here was Nicholas McGegan once again, looking to not only recapture that former occasion’s “first, fine careless rapture”, but take us further along the road travelled by performers and listeners alike, all wanting to deepen our involvement with a masterpiece such as “Messiah”. Expectations were high, and anticipations brimful with promise, everything further fuelled by the presence of well-known vocal soloists, along with the highly-regarded choral group, The Tudor Consort. Of course, having a specialist “early music” choir was immediately going to make a difference to last time, when the choir was the 56-member-strong NZSO Messiah Chorale – here, with twenty fewer voices the performances’ sound would obviously be quite different – leaner, more incisive, but less grand and resplendent-sounding.

Only the most diehard “authenticist” or the most stick-in-the-mud “traditionalist” would want to hear the work performed in much the same way each time – fortunately the NZSO’s attitude seems to be one of “vive la difference”, judging by the changes that have been “rung” in the presentations of the last few years. Who knows? – though loving and appreciating the “period performance” kinds of realisations, I’m still hanging out for the day when we get a local reincarnation of the remarkable (or notorious, depending on one’s standpoint) Eugene Goosens-orchestrated version of “Messiah” that was famously recorded by Sir Thomas Beecham in the 1950s, a version that some older listeners would have been brought up on via that magnificent recording.

For now, it was the same “standard version” as McGegan used previously, leaving me again bereft of those aforementioned favourites, which included the central section of “He was despised”, and giving rise to a similar feeling of Part Three being, relatively speaking, over in almost a trice. Of course, there being no “absolute” version of the work sanctioned by the composer, one has to fall back on the idea I proposed last time round – that of the work being a “listening adventure”, with nothing about any performance taken for granted (prior knowledge excepted, of course). The other variables are, of course, the different performers – and here every single voice was a different one to that of 2015, making for fascinating and rewarding listening on that score alone.

McGegan got a gorgeous sound from his instrumentalists at the very opening, the winds prominent at first before the strings alone took the melody at the repeat  – a chirpily “pointed” but flowing allegro generated a spacious, out-of-door feeling, well-suited to the declamatory entry of the first of the soloists, tenor James Egglestone, with “Comfort ye”. His fine, ringing voice readily evoked the prophetic tones with telling emphasis at certain points – “and CRY out to her….”, for example – his “ev’ry valley” grew in exaltation with each repeat – and how ear-catching and mellifluous was the combination of harpsichord and organ here, played respectively by Douglas Mews and Michael Stewart.

Egglestone again measured up during Part Two to his almost confrontational role in close alternation with the chorus, the voice bright and sharply-focused for “All they that see him”, and imbued with sorrow and pity at “Thy rebuke hath broken His heart”. Some of the words I wanted him to “spit out” more vehemently, such as in recitative with “He was cut off”, and in the aria “But thou didst not leave” – all dramatic, angular stuff that I thought needed the consonants flung about a bit more dangerously! – however, his focus sharpened again at “He that dwelleth in heav’n” and “Thou shalt break them”, the “potter’s vessel” well-and-truly dashed to pieces by the aria’s end!

Bass Martin Snell pinned our ears back with his magnificently sonorous and arresting beginning to his recitative “Thus saith the Lord”, giving his extended flourishes on the word “shake” terrific energy and pointing his words superbly throughout – “The Lord whom ye seek shall SUDDENLY come to his temple!…”. Just as startling in a different way was his second appearance, in the wake of a  marvellously sinister introduction by the strings heralding “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth…” His voice had an awe-struck quality, which rose in a great arch at “but the Lord shall arise upon thee” before returning to the gloom to begin his aria “The people that walked in darkness”, his tones again flooding both physical and imagined spaces at the phrase “have seen a great light” – tremendous!

Snell’s later contributions were no less telling, firstly in the frenetically-framed “Why do the nations…”, the orchestral playing on fire with energy and fury, the singer venting the words’ spleen in fine style, hurling out the triplets like sparks from a firecracker in both sections of the aria, and then in the well-known “The trumpet shall sound”, the player sounding a shade tentative over the first few bars, but then hitting the proverbial straps, and the singer resplendent of voice and commanding of manner and presence throughout, the overall effect majestic!

I’d heard Kristin Darragh in smaller operatic roles up to this point, commenting then on the dark and powerful quality of her various assumptions – enough to keenly anticipate what she might do with the alto sections of this score. While I wasn’t ideally placed seat-wise for the first part (my partner and myself judiciously changing our location after the interval for a more front-on, better-balanced sound-picture), I still got a sense of Darragh’s fearlessly engaging way with the texts in “But who may abide”, consistently conveying the impression that every word truly meant something. I wished we had been seated more centrally for the “refiner’s fire” section of the aria, so as to have gotten the full impact of Darragh’s sonorous lower register – a very operatic, Verdian sound in places, also in evidence at ”Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened” and its aria, which she shared (to properly startling effect, the voices creating quite different worlds of expression) with soprano Madeleine Pierard.

But it was in one of the score’s defining numbers, the aria “He was despised” (which  I heard from a better-balanced perspective than I did those previous items) that Darragh really demonstrated what she was capable of – here the voice was decked in purple, the emotion conveyed with real pathos (to the point where one almost imagined a sob in one of the descending phrases), then the tones seriously darkened for “A man of sorrows” so that the following words “acquainted with grief” took on incredible poignancy. What a tragedy we weren’t allowed to hear what Darragh would have made of the bitterly incisive lines of the contrasting section “He gave his back to the smiters”, here, as in 2015, not given.

I fancy I’ve witnessed at least three, and perhaps even four “Messiah” performances featuring soprano Madeleine Pierard, each of them displaying the singer’s brilliance and interpretative powers in their varied contexts of the different conductors’ realisations. At her first entrance in Part One she worked hand-in-glove with her conductor in “There were shepherds”, beautifully terracing the growing realisations and excitements associated with the appearances of, firstly, the angel, and then “a multitude of the heav’nly host”, the last depicted by both soprano and players as if transported by ecstatic joy – scalp-prickling stuff! Part One as well featured from Pierard some brilliant, fiendishly euphoric vocalisings expressing the sentiments “Rejoice greatly” – high-energy music-making from both singer and orchestra, the concluding dotted rhythms bouncing notes in every which direction most excitingly! This was followed later by an easeful, soaringly expressive “Come unto Him”, the second part of an aria shared and nicely contrasted with Kristin Darragh’s more visceral, earthy tones.

Pierard was given only one number to sing in Part Two in McGegan’s schema, the plaintive and expressive “How beautiful are the feet”, Handel reserving for the Third Part in this “version” all but one instance of a lighter-toned solo voice, here winningly characterised by the singer. If “He was despised” denoted a kind of “dark centre” of the work, setting the tone for its Second Part (opinions of both such an idea and such a “moment” will vary), then “I know that my Redeemer liveth” from Part Three was surely its antithesis, Handel skilfully characterising each by the use of voices with appropriately weighted tones, the contrast between the respective singers here well-nigh ideal.

I’ve spoken before of Pierard’s absolute identification with the words’ ideas and sentiments, and the sense I get of her instinctive “inclusiveness” when singing, as if her voice and presence were “embracing” every listener in the hall. This time round I caught an emphasis I hadn’t previously noted in her performances, her exquisite colouring of the words “the first fruits of them that sleep”, right at the piece’s end, made all the more telling by her lovely ascent at “For now is Christ risen”. While not a “carbon copy” of that “Messiah” performance here in Wellington I waxed lyrical about in 2014 (in a review that was published in an off-shore online critical magazine, “Seen and Heard International”) Pierard’s singing here certainly had a comparable “charge” to my ears,  and her approach to the music demonstrated a distinctive and well-focused interpretative viewpoint, as do all great performances.

Sitting where I was for the first part of the work I could clearly see the interactive process at work between conductor Nicholas McGegan and his various forces, choral and orchestral. I didn’t care for the conductor’s physical placement of the soloists when not singing, as they seemed somewhat “removed” from the action, two each on either side, sitting in a kind of divided “limbo” outside the orchestral forces, less able to give each other support and acknowledgement and seem “part of the whole”. It did, I suppose, enable McGegan to interact even more directly with the orchestral players, but I thought it gave less physical and psychological”unity”to the performance in general.

Still, The Tudor Consort voices responded to his direction with focused, detailed lines and plenty of variegated tones to their singing. The silvery tones of the sopranos was always a sheer delight, by turns part of a diaphanous web of sound in hushed sequences, and then gleaming throughout the more forthright passages. But each of the sections possessed a similar ability to spin finely-wrought lines, and maintain an “elfin” ambience, as with some of the long runs and contrapuntal passages  in “And He shall purify”.

McGegan encouraged the music’s dynamic contrasts, as with the “For unto us” opening lines and the climactic shouts of “Wonderful” and “Counsellor” in the same chorus, as also with the contrasts in “His Yoke is easy”. But the chorus that electrified me more than any other with its performance was “All we like sheep”, its convivial exchanges and dovetailings of the words “We have turned” making for sheer delight, until suddenly the music seemed to grow a black brow and a grim aspect, as the voices quietly but intensely “loaded” the hushed ambiences with the crushing weight of the world’s own iniquities, the effect being one of profound shock and dumbfoundment – so very theatrical and psychological! It had the same effect in reverse as the Part Three chorus “Since by Man came death”, here also done with great theatrical flair and atmosphere. My preference in the work would still be for a bigger choir, but despite the relative “lesser” numbers the “bite” required in places like “Surely He hath borne our griefs” was still palpable, as was the splendour of the “Halleluiah” and the final choruses.

In conclusion, no praise can be too high for the orchestra players, who responded to their conductor’s every gesture. I thoroughly enjoyed the instrumental characterisations throughout the whole of the “Annunciation to the Shepherds”, the proceedings reaching a frisson of real excitement at the appearance of the “heav’nly host” with its ecstatic “Glory to God in the highest”, and, at the other end of the emotional spectrum, the sepulchral tones of the introduction to “For behold, darkness shall cover the Earth”. Though strings and wind bore the brunt of the workload, the brass and timpani came into their own at the “Halleluiah” – I loved timpanist Laurence Reese’s crescendo roll at “King of Kings” at one point! – and in the two final choruses, the “Amen” in particular being more-than-usually expansive and exploratory, requiring a “filling-out” of measures and tones from all concerned. Players and singers alike delivered in spadefuls what conductor McGegan asked of them, and for our delight brought the work to a rousing finish!

A triumphant culmination of Pinchgut Opera’s work in Sydney: Hasse’s Artaserse

Pinchgut Opera, Sydney

Johann Adolf Hasse’s Artaserse

Conducted by Erin Helyard with the Orchestra of the Antipodes
Stage director: Chas Rader-Shieber; designer: Charles Davis

Cast: Andrew Goodwin (Artaserse, son of Serse (Xerxes), king of Persia), Vivica Genaux (Mandane, Serse’s daughter), David Hansen (Arbace), Carlo Vistoli (Artabano, Arbace’s father), Emily Edmonds (Semira), Russell Harcourt (Megabise)

City Recital Hall, Sydney

Wednesday 5 December, 7 pm

Though exposure to pre-Mozart opera, even of Gluck, has been infrequent in New Zealand, a great deal of 17th and 18th century opera has become main-stream in the Northern Hemisphere. There is hardly a composer of that period, acclaimed in his (or her) lifetime and then forgotten for 200 years, whose music has not been brushed off in recent years and played in a way that echoes the way it probably sounded at the time. Music by composers whose names appeared nowhere but in music history books is now widely played, and can probably be watched on YouTube. In Europe, especially, much can be heard in concert halls and opera houses, as part of the normal repertoire.

It is revelatory to look at an opera guide of the early 20th century, such as early editions of Kobbé’s Complete Opera Book, to find not a single reference to Handel, let alone Monteverdi, Lully or Rameau, Vivaldi, Jommelli, etc.

The re-emergence of Hasse and Metastasio
Hasse was 14 years Handel’s junior and 14 years older than Gluck; but till 20 years ago the name Hasse was known only to scholars.

However, the name is not unknown in New Zealand. I first encountered him through a friendship with Massey University’s Professor Donald Bewley who was an authority on the great 18th century librettist, Metastasio (born in 1698, the year before Hasse), who wrote the libretto of Artaserse. Hasse in fact set almost all his libretti, some two or three times. Metastasio was the most prolific and most frequently set librettist of the century, and perhaps throughout opera history. Mozart cut his teeth, in fact, on Metastasio’s libretti: Il re pastore, Il betulia liberate, Lucia Silla and his penultimate opera, La clemenza di Tito.

Wikipedia writes that over 90 settings of the piece are known, and it names, as well as Hasse: Vinci, Graun, Chiarini, Gluck, Galuppi, J C Bach, Terradellas, Mysliveček, and it was translated into English for Thomas Arne. It was the only surviving opera by the most gifted English composer in the 18th century, holding the stage well into the 19th century, and it too has been successfully revived recently.

The January/February 1998 issue of New Zealand Opera News, which I edited for 16 years, carried an article by Bewley about Metastasio, to mark his 300th anniversary, referring to his researches (‘Metastasio – 300th anniversary’). Bewley’s publications include a discography, an index of the addressees of Metastasio’s correspondence, including many to his friend Hasse.

Hasse’s Tercentenary marked in New Zealand
More to the point, I wrote an article in the May 1999 issue of New Zealand Opera News entitled ‘An Important tercentenary’, marking the 300th anniversary of Hasse’s birth. It remarked that Hasse’s was undoubtedly the biggest opera name of the baroque age ‘remaining to be disinterred after the Handels, Rameaus, Charpentiers, Caldaras and Campras’. (I might have added Alessandro Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Vinci, Galuppi and Jommelli among many others).

Even more surprising: in November 1999, Otago University’s Department of Music produced Hasse’s one-act opera L’Artigiano Gentiluomo or Larinda e Vanesio, the libretto directly related to Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme which became Lully’s comédie-ballet of the same name, later incorporated into Strauss’s curious but delightful concoction Ariadne auf Naxos.

(No one mentions the fact that ‘Hasse’ is close to the German verb Hassen – to hate, and Der Hass – hate. If that was a personal characteristic it was clearly as asset for a highly productive and successful career, mainly as court opera composer in the Saxon court at Dresden, till it and the court library were destroyed by Frederick the Great’s bombardment in the Seven Year War in 1760.)

Hasse wrote about 70 operas and was regarded as one of the best opera composers of the time though, like almost all his contemporaries, he had disappeared from the stage by the end of the century.

Bach occasionally visited Dresden to attend the opera, no doubt often works by Hasse.

Artaserse: the story
The story is set in ancient Persia, apparently during the reigns of Xerxes (Serse in Italian) and Darius.

Some writers seem to assume the Persian kings are those who led the wars against Athens: Darius I, who was defeated at Marathon in 490 BCE and Xerxes who was defeated at the battle of Salamis in 480 BCE.  But the names are chronologically the other way round in the opera, and I wonder if the Metastasio story is based on events a century and a half later. Darius III ruled Persia from 336 to 330. His two predecessors, Artaxerxes and Arses, were poisoned by a eunuch at the court; and Darius III lived to be defeated by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE. Elements conform somewhat to the Metastasio account. Whatever the provenance, Metastasio’s genius has created a fascinating psychological study of human responses to devious and evil machinations by powerful people.

The opera story begins when King Xerxes (Serse) of Persia banishes Arbace, for being in love with his daughter, Mandane. Arbace’s father, the ambitious and ruthless Artabano (costumed as an army officer), responds by assassinating the king and convinces his heir, Artaserse (in formal evening dress, often sporting a wide blue sash) that his brother Darius was responsible (neither kings Serse nor Darius appear in the opera). So Artabano disposes of Darius too, and gives the murder weapon to Arbace to hide, but Arbace is found with the bloody sword before he can do so.  Arbace’s dilemma is to avoid execution for a murder committed by his father, and both try to evade the consequences; the father actually advocates his son’s death! Interesting times.  Mandane (costumed with stunning elegance) is torn between loyalty to her family and her beloved.

There’s a subplot whose omission, one feels, might not damage the story, though it presents a sort of parallel situation in which Arbace’s sister Semira is promised to an unscrupulous general, Megabise, to ensure his loyalty. That one is solved by Megabise’s murder near the end.

Suspense lasts till the very end: it hangs on whether or not a poisoned drink is shared between Artaserse and Arbace. Artabano confesses the truth at the last minute and the goodies survive.

The performance and the cast
As so often, the strengths of this production lay with the excellence of singing and orchestral playing – exquisite with the Orchestra of the Antipodes, conducted with conspicuous elan and Baroque feeling by Erin Helyard at the harpsichord with colourful, even sparkling, use of Baroque instruments, energetic and virtuosic.  He created a constant sense of total commitment to every aspect of the music and its interpretation. Now my fifth encounter with Helyard’s musical direction in Pinchgut productions, I am increasingly overwhelmed by his total involvement in the performance.

One is not attracted by Baroque opera on account of realistic or probable stories. What you do get, and this rediscovery of Hasse and the Dresden Court and its opera is an excellent case, is an opera furnished with lively, attractive music and, thanks to Metastasio and other writers whose stories might look improbable to us, but which held the stage by portraying larger-than-life human emotions that are theatrically arresting. In the same way that unbelievable tales such as Verdi’s Il Trovatore and La forza del destino, clothed in great music and vividly portrayed emotions, do work.

Though there were certain oddities in movement and behaviour between characters, the effect was of scrupulous attention to visual detail and, for the most part, interaction between characters. For the clarity, general coherence and credibility of the activities on stage, credit rests with stage director Chas Rader-Shieber.

One extraordinary feature of the work is the use of three counter-tenors: both father and son, Artabano (Carlo Vistoli) and Arbace (David Hanson), and the crooked general Megabise (Russell Harcourt). (But that’s nothing: Leonardo Vinci’s Artaserse was recorded by Concerto Köln for Virgin Classics and then staged by Opéra Nancy in 2013, employing five countertenors and one tenor!). Though at first it’s not easy to distinguish one from another, it was interesting that their individuality of tone and colour increased as the story unfolded.

Both female roles are mezzos: Vivica Genaux sings Mandane and Emily Edmonds, Semira. Only the title role, Artaserse, is sung by a normal tenor, Andrew Goodwin.

Distinguished American mezzo Vivica Genaux (described by one critic as “by far the greatest sensation that Pinchgut Opera has brought to Australia”) was cast with great success as Mandane. Her many-coloured voice is full of variety and her singing was rich in genuine emotion; she was a true centre of attention. David Hanson sang Arbace, the role that Farinelli famously commanded, with impressive virtuosity along with lifelike acting and stage presence that almost matched that of Genaux.

Carlo Vistoli sang his father, Artabano, with sometimes chilling force but also enough tonal beauty to depict the character as somewhat more than a mere ruthless brute.

Though it could be considered inappropriate casting, Russell Harcourt as the scheming Megabise, revealed a voice of tonal flexibility and beauty.

The title role is not exactly central in the opera. As the only normal tenor, Andrew Goodwin commanded the stage as Artaserse with elegant, flexible singing and regal distinction. Emily Edmonds as Semira, though second to Genaux, was well cast in a role that demanded, not great strength, but expressiveness and sensitivity.

The Staging 
The stage design by Charles Davis was ‘interesting’, not attempting any sort of historical authenticity. It was an elegant palace chamber, with plum coloured damask wall coverings, dominated by a huge painting of King Serse. But there’s a fallen chandelier on the floor, that suggested a decaying empire.

Costumes mixed opulent elegance for the women, with a variety of formal aristocratic dress and military uniforms carefully defined as to rank, for the men.

I have to quote and agree with a reviewer who described this production as “a major milestone in the Pinchgut story, not just entertaining but, to some extent at least, educating their audience and, it is to be hoped, bringing them further into an understanding of Baroque opera”.


An “Enchanted Evening” from The Virtuoso Strings with Jonathan Lemalu

Virtuoso Strings presents:
(with Grammy award-winning bass, Jonathan Lemalu)


Introduction: James Faraimo, Virtuoso Strings Charitable Trust Board
Opening Address: Justin Lester, Mayor of Wellington
MC: Luamanuvao Dame Winifred Laban

Jonathan Lemalu (bass)
Toloa Faraimo (violin)
Concertmistress (Avril Stil)
Virtuoso Strings Players and Guests
Kenneth Young (conductor)

Wellington Opera House, Manners St.

Monday 3rd December, 2018

It had all the makings of a large and vital extended-family affair, with the usual concert rituals and parameters given a relaxed and informal spontaneity that readily brought musicians and audience together. I liked the buzz of excitement in both the foyer and the auditorium, one growing out of a sense of being in a friendly crowd and anticipating the delights to come!

This was “Some Enchanted Evening”, a presentation by The Virtuoso Strings, a group drawing its members from young musicians in the Wellington and Porirua areas. The ensemble’s Concertmistress, Avril Stil, put things succinctly in her welcoming note printed in the programme, referring to the group’s determination to “change the classical music landscape of New Zealand and the world”, by dint of “hard work, dedication and a lot of practice and perseverance”. The results of what she was talking about spoke for themselves this evening.

Central to the operation was bass Jonathan Lemalu, the ensemble’s Patron, and the soloist in the vocal numbers performed in tonight’s concert. Inspired by the visionary zeal of the group’s organisers, Lemalu readily agreed to assist the venture in all possible ways, resulting in his patronage and his inspirational presence as a performer with the group. The singer paid tribute to the group’s principal sponsors in his welcoming programme note, the Deane Endowment Trust, and the Wright Family Foundation.

Beginning proceedings was an “official” welcome to everybody from James Faraimo, representing the Virtuoso Strings Charitable Trust Board, followed by an address from the Mayor of Wellington, Justin Lester. This prepared the way for the evening’s opening item, James Faraimo introducing the evening’s Musical Director Kenneth Young by way of inviting him to the podium to direct the first movement of Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto. This was quite a work-out for the strings, but under Young’s “steady-as-she-goes” guidance the players bent their backs to the task with great spirit, keeping their rhythms buoyant, attacking the beginnings of the lines fearlessly and “terracing” the dynamics so that the sounds had ear-catching ebb-and-flow. Though the intonation sounded a bit raw in places, especially the exposed, single-line sequences, other parts were strongly and vigorously characterised, such as the famous “descent” through the orchestral sections, finishing with the engagingly “growly” double-basses!

James Faraimo then introduced the MC for the remainder of the concert, Luamanuvao Dame Winifred Laban, Associate Professor and Assistant Vice-Chancellor (Pasifika) at Victoria University of Wellington.  After greeting us she then in turn introduced the evening’s soloist, bass Jonathan Lemalu, inviting him to take the stage and perform for us some more Bach, this time the beautiful “Mache, dich, mein Herz rein“ (Make my heart pure) from the “St Matthew Passion”. Lemalu treated the music reverentially, almost to a fault in places where it was difficult to hear him – his tones came through more readily to the ear during the less heavily-accompanied middle section of the aria. However, his capturing of the music’s spirit was extremely moving, as was the players’ rendering of the “lullaby-like” quality of much of the music.

Completely different in character was the following item, from Mozart’s opera “The Marriage of Figaro”, the aria “Non piu andrai” (No more will you go), during which Figaro gleefully describes to a young lovesick boy, Cherubino, how life in the army and in the thick of battle will make a “man” out of him! Lemalu’s acting skills came to the fore, here, characterising the words with glee, and gently mocking the boy’s amorous inclinations by presenting him with the grimmer realities of a soldier’s life! Though some of the vocal detail was hard to pick up, the more “martial” bits were put across by Lemalu with great relish!

Another great Mozartean “character” followed, that of “Papageno”, the bird-catcher from “the Magic Flute”. Lemalu lost no chance to “act up” to the audience while describing his living and his longing for a pretty little wife – the recurring flute-call here made the singer check his cell-phone, to the amusement of us all in the auditorium. After this, we heard a strings-only item, again operatic in origin, the beautiful “Intermezzo” from a much later opera than Mozart’s, a one-acter by Pietro Mascagni, called “Cavalleria Rusticana”. The lines were sweetly and sensitively realised, the phrasing kept simple and direct, Young resisting the temptation to inflate the piece’s overt emotion in any way.

The changes were rung again for the next operatic excerpt, again from Mozart, and this time from one of the most famous of all operas, “Don Giovanni”. Lemalu gave us an Act One aria from the Don’s servant Leoporello, who recounts to one of the Don’s abandoned female conquests the extent of his master’s sexual proclivities, a piece popularly known as the “Catalogue Aria”. Here, Andrew Atkins’ piano-playing helped out with some of the wind-parts of the original! Lemalu’s voice, though not ideally clear against the busy orchestral background during the first half of the aria, nicely caught the mock-serenade mood of the slower second part, with its naughtily-characterised final phrases.

I didn’t know the next aria, from Vincenzo Bellini’s “La Sonnambula”, one which sounded to me very like Rossini in places, but had heard and knew the splendid Vaughan Williams song “The Vagabond’ from the composer’s “Songs of Travel” – here most energetically sung and with great and forthright out-of-doors orchestral playing!

After the interval came the first of two items during this half of the programme that moved me almost to the point of tears, the first of which again being by Vaughan Williams. This time the soloist was a violinist, sixteen year-old Toloa Faraimo, giving us a performance of the composer’s orchestral rhapsody “The Lark Ascending” which was received throughout its duration with the kind of awed silence one associates with truly heart-stopping performances. For here was a beautifully-realised, exquisitely-sounded evocation of a world of loveliness and natural order and simplicity, played with exquisite timing and sense of atmosphere, soloist and orchestral accompaniment mindful as much of the silences as of the notes. Only one or two slightly “drooped” ascending note-tunings from Faraimo caused any sort of “blip” on the radar of the bird’s celestial peregrinations, the rest (including confidently-addressed double-stoppings and diaphanous cadenza-like warblings near the piece’s end) addressed with a serene patience and surety of focus that belied the violinist’s young years. Naturally the audience erupted at the end of it all, the reception all the more tumultuous in the wake of such rapt interweavings of beauty and stillness from the youthful player and his sensitively-wrought orchestral support.

We needed to come back down to earth after this, and Jonathan Lemalu gave us just the thing in the form of three of Aaron Copland’s “Old American Songs”, the first the well-known “Simple Gifts”, here sung in simple, ballad-like fashion. The more declamatory “Zion Halls” I thought suited Lemalu’s gentler voice less than did the lovely “At the River”, the latter sung with ineffable longing and sense of quiet faith.

Samuel Barber’s “Adagio”, originally a movement from a string quartet, has long since found another “life” in a later, string-orchestra guise, as a much-loved and often-performed elegiac piece at times and occasions marked by great sorrow. Ken Young got a beautiful performance of this from his young players – after a lovely, inward-sounding opening, the cellos “opened up” the music’s expressive qualities, stimulating ever-burgeoning feeling and intensity which reached a climax, then quietly retreated , returning to the deep well of hushed emotion awakened by the piece’s opening.

All four remaining items in the concert (including the encore) were sung by Lemalu with a “to the manner born” kind of style, firstly Gershwin’s “I got plenty o’ nuttin’” from “Porgy and Bess, put across with plenty of swagger in the more forthright places, including a properly uninhibited “No use complainin’!” parlando utterance that summed up the spirit of the song in an instant!  I would still have liked more tonal weight from the singer, but by way of compensation got here and in other places some wonderfully alive responses from Lemalu to words and their evocations.

The most affecting were two whose strains instantly took me back in time to childhood experiences of hearing these performed “live” on stage, particularly so in the case of “Some Enchanted Evening” from Richard Rodgers’ “South Pacific”, but just as strongly (through being more richly-voiced in performance) the concert’s encore, a performance of the famous song “Ole’ Man River” from Jerome Kern’s “Showboat”. Here the singer’s deepest resonances were brought into play most effectively with the song’s lowest notes being caught well and truly, and used as the basis of building up intensity of feeling towards the climax – overwhelming in its effect, and a marvellous way to end this truly heart-warming concert.

Creative, thrilling and heart-warming conclusion to Orchestra Wellington’s 2018 season

Orchestra Wellington presents “New World”

MOZART (arr. Busoni) – Overture “Don Giovanni”
MICHAEL NORRIS – Violin Concerto “Sama” (World Premiere)
DVORAK – Symphony No. 9 in E Minor Op. 95 (B.178) “From the New World”

Amalia Hall (violin – Michael Norris)
Andrew Atkins (conductor – Mozart)
Marc Taddei (conductor – Michael Norris, Dvorak)
Orchestra Wellington

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 1st December 2018

Well, it was quite a night for Orchestra Wellington! – in front of an enthusiastic and appreciative audience at the Michael Fowler Centre on Saturday evening the musicians put everything they had into making the final night of the orchestra’s 2018 concert season one to remember. We were presented with a line-up of pieces which, if perhaps not all sure-fire crowd-pleasers, perfectly expressed the desire of the orchestra’s organisers to provide a rich and varied concert experience! There was a fascinating arrangement of one of Mozart most famous operatic overtures, along with the first-ever performance of a New Zealand work, a violin concerto by Wellington composer Michael Norris, both counterweighted after the interval by what is certainly one of the most popular symphonies of all time, Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony in E Minor, best known by its subtitle “From the New World”.

Before the actual music-making began, Marc Taddei, the orchestra’s Music Director, warmly thanked the audience for its support throughout the year, promising that the about-to-be-launched 2019 programme would continue to deliver the excitement and enjoyment of past seasons – in fact, even more so this time round by, in Taddei’s words, “pulling out all of the stops!” The 2019 season sported the title “Epic” by way of indicating something of the range and scope of the presentations, the conductor remarking that in each case the work or works featured in that particular concert introduced something “important” and “pivotal” to music, significant to the art-form’s development.

As an example (I thought this a particularly mouth-watering prospect!) the opening concert in April of next year was to feature both Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” AND Its rarely-performed sequel, “Lelio, or Return to Life”. Even on its own this choice of repertoire amply indicates the innovative spirit that informs the orchestra’s work in general and pays tribute to its enterprising music director and his supporting musicians and artistic management. A further innovation came with the display of a special recording of the orchestra playing a couple of Beethoven Symphonies (these are “live” performances from previous concerts….) captured on both CD and “180 gram vinyl”, the latter especially striking regarding colour and packaging, giving it extra distinction for a collector, though for some people the former at a mere $16.00 (as opposed to $40.00) might be perfectly viable a souvenir of the orchestra.

So, the 2019 season having been “launched” and associated things been given honourable mention, the concert began, Taddei at this point handing over the “conducting reins” to his Assistant Conductor, Andrew Atkins, who was scheduled to conduct the first item. With gestures whose flowing aspect often reminded one of a bird in flight, but which secured as finely-honed and dramatically-sprung a performance of the music as one could wish for, Atkins got a properly dark-browed aspect from the players at the work’s beginning, followed by an engagingly buoyant rendering of the music’s “giocoso” manner – in fact, Mozart himself interestingly styled the work as both a “dramma giocoso”, a dramatic comedy, and an “opera buffa” (comic opera).

Opera overtures are often linked by their composers to the ensuing stage action, Mozart’s music in the theatre in this case flowing seamlessly into the story’s beginning. However, to be performed like that in concert with no opera to follow would result in a kind of unresolved cadence at the piece’s end – so either the composer or a subsequent editor would “recompose” the concluding sequence to make a satisfying conclusive ending to the music. This time round, however, the orchestra played a version I’d never encountered before, one arranged by the brilliant Italian pianist and composer Feruccio Busoni, and which seemed to me to successfully incorporate more of the opera’s whole “flavour” for concert-hall performance. Busoni, at the Overture’s end returns us to the opening, darkly monumental “Stone Guest” music, reminding us of the Don’s eventual fate, and follows this with the music accompanying the opera’s “epilogue” (which Mozart added to the opera AFTER the premiere) – here, the Don’s adversaries, plus his much-maligned manservant, Leoporello, entone a moralistic conclusion – “This is the evil-doer’s end – sinners finally meet their just reward, and always will”, the sentiments (as befits a “dramma giocoso”) delivered with something of an ambivalent twinkle in the eye, a feeling conveyed here by the energetic, high-spirited playing.

By way of providing something of a contrast, next up was Michael Norris’s new Violin Concerto (an Orchestra Wellington commission), one which the composer had subtitled “Sama”, the Arabic word for “listening” and the name given to a Sufi ceremony involving different ritualistic elements. This work was expressly written for Amalia Hall, the orchestra’s Concertmaster, who, though still in her twenties has already developed an international reputation as a soloist, going on from competition successes in New Zealand to win various international awards in various parts of the world. Of coursed she’s already appeared as a soloist with Orchestra Wellington this year in a stunningly-delivered performance of Bartok’s formidable Second Violin Concerto (see the review at, so we were thoroughly spoilt by having this second opportunity to enjoy her magnificent solo playing of music that was, to say the very least, extremely challenging. Incidentally, the Orchestra Concertmaster for the evening was none other than Justine Cormack, ex-APO Concertmaster and NZ Trio violinist, obviously happy to “help out” her conductor-husband and his orchestra in their time of need!

In three movements this concerto evoked a world of exotic ritual inspired by the “Sama”. We were straightaway transported into a mystical realm via “tolling” undulations from the harp and the orchestral winds, joined by ambient strings and then by the solo violin, entering quietly at first , but constantly responding to different aspects of the “Ard” expressed by the orchestral textures and impulses – it seemed to me a kind of “rite of passage” for the soloist and her instrument, both here in accord with the orchestral happenings, and there ostensibly “assailed” by overwhelming forces, which the solo violin did its best to combat, either by accordance or stoic defiance. Perhaps the orchestral irruptions were more manifestations of life-force than they were adversarial, though I still thought there were some baleful moments! However, these were balanced by writing for both violin and orchestra which expressed a gamut of illustration and incident characterising what Norris called “life and growth” throughout the movement, with variety, colour and energy abounding.

The second part, Fada, came cataclysmically into being via a hugely reverberant opening chord, the solo violin exploring the ensuing resonances in the manner of a spirit inhabiting a strange, almost surreal world in a trance-like state of being. There was as much “incident” as stillness throughout, the impulses mostly contained within the parameters of the dream-like writing, though the brasses stirred uneasily at one moment and roused one another in an outburst of disquiet before leaving the violin to join with the harp and the gently-thrumming strings, connecting as much by the sound of breath as by actual tones with the music’s cosmic heartbeat.

Perhaps the solo part’s “display element” was manifest more consistently in the final movement “Semazen”, the composer commenting on the “constant state” of “vortical force” expressed by the music, a reference to the well-known “whirling dervish” aspect of Sufi worship. Beginning with trance-like ritualistic invocations both ruminative and forceful, both soloist and orchestra gave us a rollicking parade of interactive impulses involving quicksilver figurations, galloping drums, galvanising irruptions from the winds and brass, and energetic underpinnings from the strings. The violin seemed “central” to the ritual, obviously a “Master of Ceremonies” but very much an integral thread in the work’s “one among equals” tapestry. The composer used his manifest musical forces with both elan and discretion, not least of all at the work’s very end, with the violin, having decided that its work is done, ascending and disappearing into the silence of the stratospheric spaces – what a work, and what a performance!

The final act of the orchestra’s 2018 season – the performance of Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” – was preceded by a touching tribute made by Taddei to his Principal Second Violin Leader, Pascale Parenteau, who was stepping down from the position after a number of years, though still intending to continue in the orchestra as a rank-and file player. And then it was all hands to the pumps for the Symphony, though the quiet opening of the work was here lightly and fluidly played by the strings, like something almost airborne. A stentorian horn call awoke an answer from the winds, before strings and timpani flexed their muscles and strongly announced their intentions, moving the music on more urgently to and through the allegro molto.

Tempi were kept swift and straight, and the rhythms incisive, Taddei relaxing the trajectories just a little for the more lyrical wind-led themes of the second subject group, allowing the flute enough space in which to phrase most beautifully the famous “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” sound-alike theme, repeated just as sweetly by the strings. What a pleasure to be able to hear all of this again, courtesy of the first-movement repeat (not always played), with the players generating just as much rhythmic excitement and lyrical feeling the second time through. Throughout these more lyrical episodes I loved the prominence given to the wind counterpoints, obviously encouraged by the conductor to “play out”, giving the music such a winning and distinctive “al fresco” feeling.

Dvořák went to a lot of trouble to get the opening of the Largo slow movement right, indicated by the variants of the “chord progressions” in the composer’s sketchbooks – he also thought seriously about using a clarinet for the famous main theme before finally turning to the cor anglais (and in doing so, of course, ensured the instrument’s immortality!). As with the symphony’s opening, the brass kept things moving throughout their richly-wrought introductory chordings, allowing the cor anglais player Louise Cox to follow in kind, the playing lyrical without overt sentimentality, her tones beautifully-rounded while still suitably plaintive-sounding. Her playing was nobly supported throughout, the winds just as feelingly framing the soloist’s melody, the strings echoing the strains with rare beauty and the brass and timpani adding touches of grandeur to it all.

From the rapture of the slow movement’s conclusion we were plunged into a different mindset by the Scherzo, a tighter and more “symphonic” affair than any in the series of symphonies by the composer we’d heard thus far this year, though Dvorak had in mind a passage in Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” that the composer called “the feast where the Indians dance” and thus builds the excitement of the dance’s opening rhythmic gestures into something wild and forceful, contrasting this with charming interludes, including a Trio whose spirit seems more akin to his Czech homeland. I thought the playing outstanding in all aspects, feeling that the wind players, particularly in these interludes seem to “inhabit” the composer’s evocations, via the out-of-doors character of the playing. And Taddei and his players delivered the “surprise” coda, with its reminiscences of the symphony’s first movement, in a properly exciting and dramatic way, the brief (and uncharacteristic) moment of untogetherness by the horns mattering little in the drama of the exchanges.

This same energy carried over and into the finale’s opening, delivered absolutely without rhetoric, directly and powerfully, the brass resplendent, the strings intense and full-bodied, and the trajectories with their cross-rhythms between the sections most exciting! I loved the flexibililty of Mark Cookson’s clarinet solo, and the cheekiness of the winds later in the movement, answered in almost Mahlerian style by the brasses, who built up their opening statement magnificently. And what a resonant and heartwarming exchange between strings winds and horn which followed afterwards!

At this point I thought the whole ensemble imbued with a kind of “playing for keeps” spirit, which of course befitted the last few moments of the season – and out of it came the last charge towards the work’s stirring peroration, begun by the winds, galvanised by the horns, and flung skyward by the strings and the brass, unable to contain their excitement during the final measures until Mark Taddei and the players farewelled us with the last wind chord, held so beautifully and resonantly. It was a moment which will, I’m sure, sustain the orchestra’s many followers over the time before the band again picks up its instruments for the aforementioned new and tumultuous 2019 season!