Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

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

By , 03/12/2018

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

Music by JS BACH, MOZART, MASCAGNI, BELLINI, VAUGHAN WILLIAMS, COPLAND, BARBER, GERSHWIN, and RODGERS

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.

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