Brass septet produces haunting and enjoyable chamber music at the MFC

Septura Brass Septet: An American in Paris
(Chamber Music New Zealand)

Ravel: Ma mére l’Oye (Mother Goose)
Debussy: Preludes
Gershwin: Three Piano Preludes; Songbook; An American in Paris

Michael Fowler Centre

Tuesday 30 April, 7:30 pm, 2019

Three trumpets, three trombones, one a bass trombone, and a tuba is not the usual combination for a chamber music concert, but seven principal brass players of London Symphony orchestras got together to demonstrate that brass is capable of producing chamber music. Horns, such an integral part of the brass section of an orchestra, were missing. They might have added a mellower sound to the ensemble, but obviously this was not what these players had in mind. Simon Cox and Matthew Knight, the two artistic directors of the group arranged the music for them. Their guiding principle was that the music should sound as if it was originally written for brass.

The audience was challenged to leave their preconceived ideas of what the music should sound like at the door and listen with fresh ears. The pieces in this programme are well known and familiar, but played by a brass ensemble they all sounded new.

Ravel and Gershwin knew each other and held each other in high esteem; they were both influenced by Debussy. It was this relationship that was the theme that held these works together.

The Mother Goose Suite, arranged from the piano duet rather than the orchestral version sounded colourful. It had a depth that cannot be attained on the piano. The special effects were enhanced by the innovate use of mutes. The beautiful rich sound of the brass was specially effective in the chorale sounding last movement, The Fairy Garden.

The Debussy Preludes for solo piano are lovely miniatures and played by the brass they attained a different, richer sound. The rich brass chords, the underlying bass of the trombones and tuba underscored the well-known melody of the Girl with the flaxen hair played on the trumpet. The trombones produced the humorous sound effects appropriate for the Minstrels. The Sunken Cathedral had beautiful bell like sounds produced with layer upon layer of brass sound. This was a different Debussy.

The second half of the programme was devoted to the music of Gershwin, arrangement of the Three Piano Preludes, short little pieces from the Songbook and the major work, An  American in Paris. Gershwin created a colourful world of his own which encapsulated the jazz age, the frivolity of the 1920s, and these pieces sounded particularly appropriate for a brass ensemble. It was an era after the First World War in which people believed that life was short, people had to make the most of it, live it up, seek happiness in gaiety, but underlying it all there was a touch of melancholy. This was captured by the joyful yet sensitive performance.

Britain has a great tradition of brass music, but this concert was a world away from the usual sound of brass bands. This group had a flexibility that tested the limits of the players’ ability and together they produced a sonority seldom heard. They shed new light on familiar music; one came away from the concert with the haunting sound of beautiful brass playing. It was a concert with a difference, but very enjoyable.


Darth Vader, Storm Troopers, The Millenium Falcon… and the NZSO. Sounds unlikely? Don’t judge it until you’ve heard it.


Film with live Orchestra

Music by John Williams
Presented by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
NZSO Associate Conductor Hamish McKeich

TSB Bank Arena, Wellington Waterfront

6:30pm  Sunday 28th April 2019

Important note from reviewers Lindis Taylor and Peter Mechen:

 Star Wars isn’t the usual cup of tea for Middle C – or its visionary but old-fashioned reviewers.

So, from Middle C’s Intergalactic critical arm, Cosmic Comparisons, we sent two of our young people along to tell us what they thought.

 Jeremy Mechen and Julia Wells report in! – (materialise….reconstitute…..welcome!)


What is The Empire Strikes Back?

The Empire Strikes Back is the second film in the original Star Wars trilogy. It continues the story of the conflict between the evil Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance/the good guys. Fun fact: it is the second highest grossing sequel of all time. The score was composed and conducted by John Williams and was played on the film soundtrack by the London Symphony Orchestra.

The NZSO playing Star Wars? How does that work?

The screening/concert was held in the TSB Bank arena on the Wellington waterfront. There was a large screen at the front with a projection of the film, then underneath was a stage with the orchestra. As the film played on the screen above, the orchestra played the score. There were recordings used for the voices (plus subtitles on-screen) and also for more unusual sound-effects, such as blasters and lightsabres.

What did you like?

Julia Wells: Firstly, I loved the enthusiasm and energy of the audience. The TSB arena is a huge venue, but the place was crowded – there was barely an empty seat to be seen. The audience was mainly young/middle aged and absolutely thrilled to be there. We saw lots of big grins, Star Wars T-shirts and even a glow-in-the-dark lightsabre. Someone whooped the first time Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) appeared on screen.

The orchestra was fantastic – it was magical when the title caption started scrolling and they began to play the iconic Star Wars theme. The highlight for me was the imperial theme music (the musical riff for the bad guys), which recurs throughout the film. It had a drama and richness that you just don’t get with a cinema screening.

In general my favourite bits were the climatic moments, particularly the fights scenes (for example, the Alliance fighter pilots’ defence against the Imperial Walkers). However, the softer and sweeter bits of the score were also lovely – the scene when Luke Skywalker starts to explore the planet of Dagobarth stood out for me.

Jeremy Mechen: The takeaway for me was the enormous potential that these type of performances have. When I heard about the orchestra’s plans to play the score of Star Wars live I knew it would be a popular event. Star Wars’ position in the cultural zeitgeist spans generations, and so walking into the packed arena of diehard fans didn’t surprise me. What did, was how inarguably well the organisers and the musicians pulled it off. As the iconic yellow on black text scrolled across the screen the music burst into life to a cheering crowd. The movie had begun.

Merely five minutes had passed and I was enthralled. The camera panned over the otherworldly vistas as the music rose to a crescendo, and for a couple of minutes the subpar quality of the screen didn’t matter – I was completely transported to another world.  It also didn’t hurt that the environment shots are a part of the film that has aged much more gracefully than certain other aspects, like the visual effects.

Overall the experience was undoubtedly greater than the sum of its parts. The NZSO did an amazing job in demonstrating the unparalleled strength of a live orchestra. What might have otherwise been background music was transformed into a gripping soundscape that rose and fell throughout the movie, and iconic moments like the imperial march were brought to life in a way I’d never heard before. I have no doubt John Williams would have been more than happy with the performance.

What didn’t work so well for you?

JM: This is not exactly a negative, but I think at some points it almost became too cohesive an experience. The orchestra did such an impeccable job of synchronizing with the action; and Star Wars is such an engaging film, that I occasionally had to remind myself that I was hearing the soundtrack live, and not just listening to a very impressive recording.

JW: This is not a comment on the NZSO’s playing, but some parts of the film have not aged well. It was first released in 1980s, and post #MeToo, some of Han Solo’s interactions (read: harassment) of Leia now appear more creepy than charming. It’s certainly a product of its time. However, there’s still a lot to love in the film – it’s a classic for a reason.

Would you go again?

JW: Yes, definitely. I think this is an awesome thing for the NZSO – not to try to attract a wider audience to their classical concerts (I don’t think it will), but because on its own terms it’s a great performance. I hope in the future they will consider trying out other film/TV scores. Game of Thrones, anyone? I’d be there.

JM: Without a doubt. The worlds of movies and video games have so much to offer in terms of beautiful orchestral scores, it’s a shame they’re often overlooked compared to more traditional offerings. It’s not about subtracting from the culture of classical music that already exists, it’s about exploring the huge amount of genuine talent that exists in the world today.




The third in the ten-part series of Widor’s organ symphonies from Stewart and Apperley at St Paul’s Cathedral

The Widor Project
Organ Symphony No 3, Op 13, No 3

Richard Apperley at the digital organ

Wellington Cathedral of Saint Paul

Friday 26 April, 12:45 pm

This performance, by Richard Apperley, of Widor’s third organ symphony confirmed me as an organ devotee, a condition facilitated by my being free from the (usually ill-founded) reservations that many classical music lovers cherish concerning French music.

This was one of Widor’s first four ‘symphonies’, Op 13, published in 1872, shortly after his appointment to the prestigious position of organist at the church of Saint-Sulpice in the 6th arrondissement (Paris, Left Bank). It is the second largest church in Paris, after Notre Dame, and the organ is the largest of the many built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll through the mid 19th century, in churches all over France and elsewhere. The one in Saint-Sulpice is his master-piece. (The biggest organ in France is in Saint-Eustache and is not by Cavaillé-Coll).

After hearing the second organ symphony a month ago, I felt as if I was meeting an old friend with this one. The complex of rich sounds that Widor prescribes from the organ’s huge range was wonderfully captured by Apperley on the digital organ which the Cathedral has bought awaiting the restoration of the earthquake-damaged pipe organ. As with the previous performance from Michael Stewart, the placing of the console at floor level in front of the choir allowed us to admire the spectacle of the organist at close quarters: the ranging of hands across all four manuals and the feet dancing on the pedals. It’s an experience that in some ways beats a pianist’s virtuosic activities at the single keyboard.

It struck me that the constantly changing registrations at all five keyboards, prescribed in detail in Widor’s score, was a good deal more varied than in most organ performances. Though one doesn’t usually get such a close-up view of the performer’s activities.

Cavaillé-Colle plus Widor produces the organ symphony
The reason that Widor described the work as a symphony is the revelatory experience of the remarkable range of sounds that Cavaillé-Colle’s versatile and spectacular instruments had made available: a lot more symphonic than was possible on earlier organs. Though it’s pointed out that the early symphonies don’t conform to the normal specifications of a symphony (but Berlioz had broken that tradition forty years before), since then it has been the length, complexity, intellectual quality and aesthetic sophistication of later 19th century works that tended to distinguish the orchestral symphony from, say, a suite. Likewise, for an organ symphony.

I had no difficulty in hearing the first movement, Prélude, as introducing a work of symphonic scale, with its chromatic and harmonic qualities, its symphonically evolving thematic material and the thrilling range of near-orchestral sounds. The Minuette, second movement, had a charming pastoral spirit, easily associated with the ‘minuet’ of the classical symphony, with a contrasting middle section that becomes airy and insubstantial, with its modified rhythms though still in triple time. The Marcia, third movement, is the most striking, with a great deal delivered on the powerful ‘Great’ manual, switching suddenly to quieter, more muffled stops on the Solo (or was the top manual the ‘Swell’?). It was interesting to be able to see these transitions, not merely to guess which manual the player was using. The Marcia climaxed in a real militaristic, victorious fff (really? two years after French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war?).

The slow movement was the fourth, Adagio; played with a variety of subtle stops, creating a beautiful rhapsodic quality. I couldn’t help feeling that it was the sort of movement that RNZ Concert, with its obsession with playing isolated movements ripped from the body in which they had been conceived, could make use of. It might even be justified if it were to introduce people to a neglected corner of classical music.

And the last movement, though not labelled ‘Toccata’, has recognisable characteristics of the 5th symphony; marked Allegro molto. Thematically more varied than the famous one, and almost as arresting, it was also a spectacle for the ‘happy few’ in the audience. Apperley’s hands raced vertically as well as horizontally across the four manuals and the 60 odd keys on each, plus agile feet on pedals. But I was left with far more than the excitement of a half hour of organ virtuosity; I’m looking forward to booking part of Friday lunchtimes to hear all the rest, and even exploring the possibility of finding recordings to buy. Joseph Nolan is the one, by the look of it.

Widor’s innovation has had a significant impact on organ music. Wikipedia lists 29 composers who have written organ symphonies, only one of whom predates Widor by a couple of years.

So this is probably an organ exploration with a certain claim to international significance. The musical gifts and the interpretive insights of the two organists involved certainly justify such a claim.

Tudor Consort revives ancient Tenebrae rituals marking the stories of Holy Week

Tudor Consort directed by Michael Stewart

Tenebrae – music for Holy Week
Plainchant, and polyphony by Victoria, Edmund Rubbra, James MacMillan and Gesualdo

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul

Friday 19 April, 7:30 pm

The number of people familiar with the word Tenebrae is probably getting fewer by the year as religious belief declines and the deep-rooted traditions, including the use of Latin, are ‘modernised’. It’s not just a Roman Catholic Easter observance but it is also in the Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran, Western Orthodox and other churches. And since the Roman church ditched the use of Latin in normal services, the spirit of the past is offered in concert settings where the rituals are chanted and sung in Latin.

Tenebrae is a special office particular to Holy Week which used to be observed on the three days preceding Easter Sunday: that is, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. It has now been reduced to just once or twice, and has generally retreated from performance in the small hours of the morning.

The introduction in the programme book explained that there are two parts of the office of Tenebrae: Matins and Lauds. There are three Matins on each of the three days and each consists of three ‘Nocturns’ which begin with an ‘Antiphon’ followed by Psalms, both in plainchant. The following Responsory settings are in polyphony, drawn from words respectively, in the Book of Lamentations, Saint Augustine’s commentaries and the third from the New Testament Epistles.

They are followed by settings of texts that had come traditionally to form part of the office of Tenebrae before the 1955 reforms of Pope Pius XII. Michel Stewart confined the settings of parts of the service to four composers: justified as being considered by some music scholars as among the greatest composers of liturgical music: Tomás Luis de Victoria, Edmund Rubbra, James MacMillan, and Gesualdo.

Matins, Nocturns, Antiphons, Responsories …
The first ‘Nocturn’, after the plainsong Psalm 2, consisted of five settings by Victoria and Rubbra formed the ‘Readings from the Lamentations, answered by a responsory’, which can be chosen from the 27 ‘responsories’ (three ‘nocturns’ on each of the three days), that have become traditional and have been set by various composers., according to the agendas of particular priests. Victoria’s ‘Incipit lamentatio Jeremiae’ was a beautiful, slow example of Renaissance polyphony, that was splendidly enriched in the Cathedral’s big acoustic; it presents difficulties for more recent music, but seems perfectly adapted to this.

The juxtaposition of Victoria and Rubbra seemed to reinforce the impression that their sources of inspiration were very close, only separated, not by any radical compositional transformation such as atonality or serialism, but by a naturally richer sensibility and harmonic freedom. Rubbra’s name is not very familiar today. In the first decades after WW2 his name was better known and I owned (and still might have somewhere) recordings of a couple of Rubbra’s symphonies, as I’d encountered his music on the ‘Concert’ programme of the 1950s (2YC) which was a major part of my musical education. Such programming was far from the narrow and misguidedly ‘popular’ classical music that is broadcast today.

Rubbra’s settings of the ‘Amicus meus’ and ‘Judas Mercator’ might have sounded more angular than Victoria but they were tonal and comparably sombre, though women’s voices became more optimistic towards the end.  Rubbra’s third setting, ‘Unus ex discipulis’ – one of the disciples, deal with the story of Judas…

The second ‘Nocturn’ was based on Psalm 53, and it was followed by both Victoria’s and, instead of Rubbra, James MacMillan’s settings of appropriate Responsories.  It was striking that the 60 or so years from Rubbra to MacMillan sounded far greater than the 350 years between Victoria and Rubbra as a result of the radicalisation of musical language. And his first utterance, ‘Tenebrae factae sunt’ in which Christ calls out ‘God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ was delivered in dense, almost terrifying dissonances that expressed the emotion perhaps more powerfully than any earlier style of composition might have allowed. Not that I under-estimate the power of the musical language of the height of the Renaissance or the most gifted of Romantic composers.

It was somehow most fitting for this tragic, exclamatory phase to be accompanied by the extinguishing one by one, of the 15 candles on the candelabra (or ‘hearse’) at the front of the choir (which, incidentally, made it impossible to read the programme and identify what was being sung). Here was a point at which it was probably a shame for those unfamiliar with the narrative details, to be in the dark… For those unfamiliar; for the non-adherent, or non-believer, its meaning and enjoyment would derive only from the singing.

The third Nocturn began, again with an Antiphon and a Psalm – No 93, rather vengeful in spirit. The Responsories were again from MacMillan (‘Tradiderunt me’ and ‘Jesus tradidit impius’, respectively from the books of Job and Lamentations) and one from Victoria (‘Caligaverunt oculi mei’), about Christ’s betrayal and finally the crucifixion, a piece that expresses the deepest grief.

After the last of the Matins responsories comes the Lauds which were just represented by the ‘Miserere Mei’, Psalm 51, in a setting by Gesualdo, in which verses are alternately chanted and spoken.

By then all candles had been extinguished and the church was in darkness: the final step in the Tenebrae is the Strepitus, or ‘great noise’ which took the form of a fireworks-type blast accompanied by smoke, symbolising the earthquake that followed Christ’s death.

Even in its inevitably abbreviated form, performances of one of the major rituals of the church, dominated by a great deal of wonderful plainchant and polyphony continues to attract good audiences of believers and others. The performance by the Tudor Consort under Michael Stewart was impressively accomplished and deeply moving.

There are times when the use of Latin rather than a vernacular language is a huge advantage. Here we had an admirable programme pamphlet that printed both the Latin and an English translation. Improbabilities of religious tales seem to be far more acceptable sung in Latin (or any other language) than in English where the meaning of words and sentences is unambiguous, and something of the mystery lacking. Even more important is the fact that what we hear when the original language is used, are the very sounds that the composer was setting: his resonse to the sounds, and rhythms of the original language; it’s an important aspect too in arguments about use of the original language in opera and in song recitals.


Maria Mo: a fine recital by a promising artist at St Andrew’s

Maria Mo – piano 

Beethoven: Piano Sonata in C, Op.53 (Waldstein)
Albeniz: Iberia, Book 1
                Evocación; El Puerto; El Corpus en Sevilla

St. Andrews on The Terrace

Wednesday 17 April, 2019

Mario Mo is a talented young pianist at the threshold of her career. She has won awards and scholarships, studied with Katherine Austin at the University of Waikato and then at the Vienna Conservatory and the University for Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. She has had a thorough grounding. She played an ambitious programme.

Beethoven stretches the limits of the piano in the Waldstein Sonata and apart from a few glitches Mo coped with these challenges capably. The problem was that because the work is so well known it is hard not to draw comparisons with performances by some of the great pianists. Mo is a thoughtful performer who paid a lot of attention to the phrasing, the dynamic contrasts and melodic flow of the piece. I am sure that with greater experience and maturity her playing will acquire greater fluidity.

The Albeniz pieces were more successful. Albeniz, virtuoso pianist, one of the foremost composers of the latter years of the 19th and the first decade of the 20th centuries had a significant influence on composers of a younger generation, Debussy and Ravel among others. His piano pieces were based on Spanish folk idiom. The best known of these works is Iberia. Mo played these pieces with a delightful freedom bringing out their lovely Spanish lilt. Evocación set the spirit of the work, El Puertocaptured the busy port, expressed through the use of the zapataedo, a lively traditional Andalusian dance. El Corpus en Sevilla is the longest and most dramatic of the three movements. It is a colourful depiction of the Spanish celebration of the feast days of Corpus Christi with its solemn march, religious fervour and ecstasy. It called for a great tonal range and sharp contrasts. Mario Mo gave an enjoyable account of these pieces. This was a fine recital by a promising artist.

Wide-ranging and imaginative song recital at Waikanae: Mellaerts and Baillieu

Waikanae Music Society
Julien van Mellaerts (baritone) and James Baillieu (piano) Schubert: song selection

Five Schubert songs
Schumann: Dichterliebe song cycle Op 48
Gareth Farr: Ornithological Anecdotes
Vaughan Williams: Songs of Travel
Ballads and legends by Gershwin, Manning Sherwin and Cole Porter

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 14 April, 2:30 pm

The Waikanae Music society had taken this recital from Chamber Music New Zealand’s associate society series. It was about the last of a ten-concert tour around the country.

It was a courageous step since, for many years – decades? – there has been a belief that audiences avoid song recitals; the same belief has been cultivated about piano recitals. There is not a huge amount of evidence for either display of timidity.

This past week I’ve been to a well-supported piano recital at Upper Hutt and this song recital at Waikanae. I’d guess there were around 300 at Waikanae.

Julien van Mellaerts took a degree at Otago University and studied further at the Royal College of Music, London. In the programme notes, neither date or place of birth or education of Baillieu, were mentioned. His biographical notes were restricted to references to his competition successes: British, apart from Das Lied International Song Competition, which not even his own website tells me, is in Heidelberg. The shyness about background details confined to ritual listings of prestigious performance venues and distinguished musical partners, is virtually universal in the hand-outs from artists’ managements.

Nevertheless, both displayed great musical accomplishment and polish.

They began with five songs by Schubert: Seligkeit, Der Musensohn, Der Wanderer an den Mond, Prometheus and Rastlose Liebe (three of them by Goethe). Mellaerts handled the challenge of projecting the sense of each poem without costume, props or staging very well: after mastering the music and words, it’s one of the solo recitalist’s hardest tasks. One had to admire his efforts. All but one were sung with what I felt were keenly observed vocal and physical gestures, the voice and manner expressing joy, peacefulness, capturing very well the meaning and emotions of each poem. The exception was well-known Der Musensohn which they took at a speed that seemed mistaken: that is to say, I suppose, not the way I have heard it sung by other singers. Goethe’s Prometheus is a sort of narrative poem which Schubert treats rather like an operatic recitative: it was a harder proposition.

The centre-piece, no doubt, was Schumann’s great song cycle, Dichterliebe, all sixteen drawn from one of Heine’s earliest collections, of 66 poems entitled Lyrische Intermezzo, published in 1823.*

The sixteen settings reflected the violently shifting moods that the lovelorn poet experiences; from the peaceful, Springtime evocation of Im wunderschöne Monat Mai, the anticipatory excitement of Die Rose, die Lilie…, and then the strangely enigmatic Im Rhein, im schöne Strome. Next comes the sudden plunge into realisation/courageous acceptance of his lost love: with perhaps the best known, Ich grolle nicht, where his voice hovers darkly round his empty bravado. It’s curious that Schumann didn’t set the poem that follows Im Rhein in Heine’s collection: it’s Du liebst mich nicht: explicit awareness that she loves him not.

From then on the mood fluctuates between bravery and despair and singer and pianist delivered a convincing series of cries and laments, to end, first with Aus alten Märchen wink es, pleading for redemption through the imagery of the old myths and stories, which he sang in determined optimism, and then, in Die alten bösen Lieder, his evocation of the biggest ever coffin in which to bury his love and pain, and though one is tempted to think he means himself to join his grief in it, life goes on. One of Schumann’s moving post-ludes describes his final grief: he’s saying that only music alone, without words, can express some human conditions.

It’s a wonderful sequence and this was a fine rendering from both artists.

Birds to music
The recital then turned to a most interesting and imaginative new composition: Gareth Farr’s settings of words from Bill Manhire, Ornithological Anecdotes, describing four of New Zealand’s birds, their songs, and their predicament, including the huia which sings: “I lived among you once and now I can’t be found”. They were quirky, touching, firmly urging this generation to repair as far as possible, the carelessness and crimes of past generations. The words, the music, the physical presentation all contributed vividly to an unusual and rather memorable experience.

Songs of Travel
We hear individual songs from Vaughan Williams’s Song of Travel, but I can’t remember a performance of all nine of his settings of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poems (the ninth, in fact came to light only about 1960). They are commonly associated with Schubert’s Winterreise: I don’t think very helpfully. As a cycle, if that’s what VW actually intended, they are not as convincing as the great German song cycles, but this warmly studied performance was to be taken seriously. The last song, I have trod the Upward and Downward Slope, emerged impressively, a full-bodied creation that could be felt as an optimistic expression of the value of exploratory effort.

And the recital ended with three carefully chosen songs from musicals: ‘The Lorelei’ from Gershwin’s Pardon My English; then A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, the affecting pre-war song of 1939 that became a hit during the war, and Cole Porter’s droll Tale of the Oyster, which completed a trio of disparate but entertaining numbers. Versatility on display.

The whole was a real delight and it’s to be hoped that Chamber Music New Zealand will seek out other worthy and entertaining song recitalists again.


* Schumann was the son of a Zwickau (south-west of Dresden in Saxony) bookseller, publisher and novelist and was thus brought up surrounded by literature. He  became one of the most literate of music critics, founding his own periodical Die Neue Zeitschrift (Magazine) für Muzik in 1834 which gained widespread circulation. It was natural that he read much of the huge output of poetry inspired by the Romantic movement, in English as well as German. Heine was probably Schumann’s most often set poet. Both poet and composer had been unwilling law students, ten years apart, at various universities, with Göttingen in common.

A dramatic and sharply-focused St.John Passion from Nota Bene and the Chiesa Ensemble at St Mary of the Angels

JS BACH – St.John Passion BWV 245
Presented by Nota Bene Choir and the Chiesa Ensemble
Directed by Peter Walls

Evangelist – Lachlan Craig / Christ – Simon Christie
Soprano – Nicola Holt / Alto –  Maaike Christie-Beekman
Tenor –  LJ Crichton / Bass: William King
Pilate – Chris Whelan / Servant – Patrick Geddes
Ancilla – Katie Chalmers / Peter – Peter McClymont

Nota Bene Choir (Peter Walls – Music director)
The Chiesa Ensemble (Rebecca Struthers – leader)

St.Mary of the Angels Church, Boulcott St., Wellington

Sunday 14th April, 2019

Of four Scriptural “Passion” settings associated in some way or another with Johann Sebastian Bach, two have been fully “authenticated”, the larger St.Matthew Passion, and the smaller, more intense and visceral St.John Passion – while two others, settings of the other evangelists’ accounts of Jesus’ death, are either spurious or recyclings of lost material. Bach undertook the St.John Passion during his first year as director of church music in Leipzig, and the work was first performed in 1724, though not in St Thomas’s Church where Bach was stationed, but in the St Nicholas Church, it being customary to alternate such services yearly between the two principal Leipzig churches. Bach’s predesessor in Leipzig, Johann Kuhlau, had directed his own St.Mark Passion at St.Thomas’s Church three years before, in 1721, setting in motion a “Leipzig tradition” of presenting such works.

Bach himself heard his work only four times, on various Good Fridays during his tenure as “Thomaskantor” at Leipzig, and, like a good baroque composer, continued to make additions and revisions to the work right up to the last performance he directed, in 1749 – scholarly opinion is that the first (1724) and last “versions” have the closest relationship to one another of the four. The way these presentations were written was to incorporate a sermon in the action as the “high point” of the Good Friday service – though any preacher of the time would have probably viewed his place amid such a magnificent musical framework as Bach provided with mixed feelings – inspiration aplenty, but with awe and even misgiving in the face of such heartfelt, all-pervading expression!

The St.John retelling of Christ’s betrayal, trial, crucifixion and death is shorter, sharper and more brutally told than in the longer, more reflective St.Matthew Passion, (which was written three years afterwards). The earlier work begins more dramatically, too, with the opening chorus bursting in amid piteous instrumental lamentations, calling on God to display his might and glory throughout his suffering and humiliation, before the action hurries towards the scene of Jesus’ betrayal and Peter’s denial of his Master. It’s all vividly characterised, the crowd a howling mob baying for blood, and the Roman Governor, Pilate, vividly prevailed upon by the high priests and the mob to condemn him to death – the interactions between personalities and groups give off surges of energy with the only respite being the occasional aria or chorus, all the more affecting for their quiet wisdom and reflective beauties and sorrows.

In performances of works such as this, I’m always struck by their sense of  “inclusiveness”, brought about through the use of a great range of voices to bring the story to theatrical and dramatic life, as if almost anybody could have been randomly “caught up” in these events of that time. In fact I’m often reminded of numerous Good Friday services of my childhood, during which the Passion story was enacted in spoken form by various clergy and congregation members of the church I attended, all of whom I knew in their “ordinary, everyday” guises, but who were, for those brief sequences, using those familiar voices and gestures to convey something of the essence of these so very archetypal characters in the story – followers, officials, soldiers and onlookers, all indelibly touched by their involvement, however involuntary or otherwise, in these great events.

Each of the voices in this presentation, though varied in tone, timbre, weight and colour, was strongly united in the purpose and direction of conveying the story – and, as we in the audience/congregation were as children listening to an absorbing tale, giving us a sense of their total involvement essential to the task. How important, therefore, were those singers who took the “lessser” roles in Part One, the bystanders and onlookers who were suddenly “drawn in” to the drama, taking each of us with them – Katie Chalmers and Patrick Geddes as servants in the garden where Jesus was betrayed, commenting on Jesus’s disciple Peter’s association with his master, and Peter McClymont as the unfortunate Peter refuting their comments, their voices striking the right note of righteous speculation and subsequent rebuttal, an almost “social-media-like” interaction as an impulse in the drama.

Even more significant and engaging was the contribution of Chris Whelan’s Pilate, throughout Part Two,  the voice strong and sufficiently authoritative, but most importantly conveying the Roman governor’s ambivalence regarding any judgement he felt compelled to make regarding Jesus’ fate, while struggling to maintain what dignity he could – his final rebuff to the Jewish priests of  “Was ich geschrieben habe….” (What I have written, I have written) regarding the “insignia” on the cross above Jesus’s head, effectively silencing further protest.

As for Simon Christie’s authoritative and sonorous Jesus, one felt  from the singer’s very first notes an overwhelming sense of identification with the character’s enormous burden of responsibility, the “sins of the world” as exemplified by the hostility and inhumanity of most of those around him throughout these sequences. His voice was an excellent “foil” for that of the Evangelist’s in this performance, Lachlan Craig, whose spare, lithe tones I found took a little getting used to, but whose ability to vary his instrument’s qualities in the services of the narrative soon won me over. Whatever the mood or mode, his delivery, be it biting and cutting when characterising the crowd scenes, piteous and emotion-laden in conveying the anguish of Simon Peter in the wake of the latter’s betrayal of Jesus, or tender when describing the ministrations of both Jesus’ mother and Mary Magdalene, was equal to the task of bringing to us the essence of whatever “moment” was paramount.

Each of the four singers impressed with their heartfelt identifications relating to the varying moods of their solo sequences. Nicola Holt’s radiant soprano voice created a veritable halo of sound which seemed to me to fill the church’s precincts in glorious fashion, the occasional moment of strain incorporated wholeheartedly in the sound’s tapestry of emotion in heartfelt style – her bright, eager, “Ich folge dir” (I follow thee) exemplified her intense commitment to the words and sense of the music’s burning zeal. Tenor L.J.Crichton used his brightly-focused voice to fearless effect in “Ach mein Sinn” (Ah, my Soul) despite touches of strain in places, singing intelligently and tackling the difficulties with great credit – his later ” Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken” (Consider how his bloodstained back) was more easily and mellifluously essayed, giving notice of the inherent beauty in his tones, and his further potentialities as a performer.

Alto Maaike Christie-Beekman instantly drew us into a world of expressive pity with her “Von den Stricken meiner Sünden” (From the bonds of my sins), her focus riveting, and her tones rich and engaging throughout, the singer’s gift for characterisation coming into its own in the later “Es ist vollbracht!” where her deeply moving tones of resignation were suddenly tossed to one side in a frisson of jubilation at the words “Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht” (The Hero from Judah triumphs), before returning to the meditative opening – a great moment! Just as potent and moving in expressiveness was the singing of William King, whose lovely arioso “Betrachte, meine Seel”  (Consider, my Soul) was put across with such sweet and mellifluous dignity, and whose dramatic, haunted rendition of  “Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen” (Hurry, you tormented souls) with the chorus providing thrilling, split-second support, was a highlight of the performance. I liked, too, another “bass and chorus” item, the lullabic (though here a shade too quick for my tastes) “Mein teurer Heiland”, remarkable nevertheless in its expressive power.

That I’ve left the chorus, orchestra and music director Peter Walls to last and all together means that the credit for providing the performance’s tightly-knit and securely-delivered sense of ensemble and finely-judged expressive power can be equally and justly shared. St. John‘s palpable urgency and emotional directness depends upon the singers’ and players’ ability to “give” with focus and precision, and the result when achieved, as here, is sharply moving, both in situ and in the work’s aftermath. The chorus encompassed the work’s incredible range of feeling with total assurance, its depth of sorrow, its anger, its biting fury, its resigned pathos and its moments of beauteous lyricism – and much the same could be said for the work of the instrumentalists and the Chiesa Ensemble, both in the sum of their individual continuo contributions and the band’s whole, sonorous “presence”.

Conductor Peter Walls enabled what seemed to me a stunningly unified presentation which never faltered – I did think a  couple of tempi might have been “driven” somewhat less relentlessly (the very opening, for example), but it was all in line with a conception that enabled the work to speak volumes regarding aspects of humanity and transcendence of everyday existence. It all made for a deeply moving experience to which it seemed all who took part unreservedly participated and all who were present deeply appreciated.

Edo de Waart’s NZSO subscription concert full of charm and affection with Brahms, Elgar and Strauss

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Edo de Waart with Joyce Yang (piano)

Brahms: Piano Concerto No 1 in D minor, Op 15
Strauss: Serenade for Wind Instruments in E flat, Op 7
Elgar: Variations on an Original Theme, Op 36 (‘Enigma Variations’)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 13 April, 7:30 pm 

Two professional orchestral concerts on successive days looks more like the style of a significant European city, but here it was the chance to display one of the few remaining signs that Wellington is, or rather, used to be, the country’s cultural capital, a title that has really belonged to Auckland for the past 20 years or so.

Orchestra Wellington celebrated the sesquicentenary (150 years) of Berlioz’s death by programming not just the Symphonie fantastique but also its almost never heard sequel, Lélio: le retour à la vie, mélologue en six parties. Probably the most exciting live performance of the former that I’ve ever heard. In certain respects it outshone the Saturday evening concert by the NZSO; though in part that’s a certain Berliozian fanaticism with which I’m afflicted. .

Nevertheless, to hear such a beautiful performance of Brahms’s first piano concerto made this a richly satisfying event.

Brahms’s Opus 15
The programme note had drawn attention to the relative failure of its first performances, when he was 25, in Hanover on 22 January 1859 and in Leipzig five days later, again with Brahms at the piano when it was again hissed. However, it was performed for a third time in March that year by the Hamburg Philharmonic and was acclaimed: perhaps being Brahms’s birthplace helped there.

Though it is not remarkably different from Brahms’ other works, it can certainly be heard as something new in comparison with the piano concertos till that time. *

This was no barn-storming performance of Brahms; in fact, my early feeling was that, apart from the initial assertiveness, there was a gentle, careful atmosphere both from piano and orchestra. The extended piano passages were poetic and meditative rather than flamboyant which linked it perhaps with Schumann rather than the more flashy compositions by the school of virtuosos who were dominating the piano scene around mid-century. However, it did occur to me that the calmness could have been darkened with a little more uneasiness. The element of unease was left mainly to Larry Reese’s singularly emphatic timpani, vividly supported by other percussionists Sakofsky, Guldborg and McKinnon.

The orchestra has a role equal to that of the piano and the two partners remained faithful to Brahms’s intentions. The orchestral playing was exquisite: lovely warm episodes from cellos, Robert Orr’s specially beautiful oboe playing.

It was probably the unusually discreet and subtle slow movement that might have mystified mid-century audiences: no readily memorable tunes perhaps, yet a great deal of delicate, moving music, with long passages where the piano was accompanied by very slender but exquisite orchestral sounds.

The third movement is enriched with enjoyable fugal (canonic?) passages though within a fairly formal Rondo framework. Its performance had piquant charm, yet remaining largely in the minor key, and both piano and orchestra refrained from much that could be called theatrical or dramatic, but which was wholly engaging through scraps of playful wind music. One of the features that puts it in the class of great classical masterpieces is the taste that avoids an excessively protracted Finale peroration. Right to the end, both conductor and pianist displayed their perfect response to the essentially unostentatious character of Brahms’s music.

Strauss’s Serenade
Apart from chronological connection, there was little kinship between the two pieces in the second half: not much more than having been born about seven years apart. Strauss’s youthful Serenade might have been modelled, instrumentally, on Mozart’s wonderful Serenade for 13 wind instruments (one of which is of course, a double bass – I suppose he could have used a contra-bassoon). But it’s a rather slighter piece, nowhere near the length of Mozart’s, yet quite delightful. The real treat was to have a small group of orchestral players in isolation, producing sounds that were perfectly integrated and homogeneous: the sort of sound that one hears only from recordings by the half dozen finest orchestras in the world.

Next: how about programming the Mozart exemplar, K 361, and soon? and yes, I know it’s 50 minutes long. And while we’re in that environment, I love both the Haffner and Posthorn serenades.

The Enigma Variations are among the most played of orchestral works, especially, I imagine, in English-speaking countries. The NZSO has played it well over 100 times in its career; and in Wellington about 15 times since I’ve been reviewing music (since 1987). And while beforehand, Imight have allowed myself to think enough is enough, the reality usually overcomes such churlishness. It did this time.

These were enthusiastically and vividly etched portraits that held the attention, to some extent through Elgar’s arranging them as one might a more structurally formal composition with varying moods, speeds, musical styles complementing and supporting each other. As often with a timpanist of Larry Rees’s flair, his offerings were often very, err… striking. But most instruments had their moments in the spotlight: my notes remarked on flutes, clarinet… Strange recollections from school crop up: the music master at Wellington College telling us that Elgar was one of the greatest orchestrators; and it was hard to dispute that right from the loving first variation describing his wife, the interplay of strings and winds in II, and the bassoons in III, and so on.

And then the link with Matthew Arnold, through his son Richard, (No V). My affection for prophetic poems like Dover Beach, and this:
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,”

The familiar Nimrod emerged clothed with special affection. And I’m always intrigued by No XIII, identified with asterisks and the title ‘Romanza’, with its possible association with a lady to whom Elgar was engaged till she emigrated to New Zealand, Helen Weaver. It got a lovely gentle performance.

Elgar clearly had a gift for friendship. And the sort of self-revelation which is often implicit in other composers’ works, become more explicit with this. Edo de Waart clearly has an attachment to the composer. I await his performance of Elgar’s second symphony.

Meantime, this might have been an unusual mix of music but it was entirely successful on the night.


*The best known of recently composed concertos, in the late 1850s, would have been those of Beethoven Mendelssohn, Schumann, and minor composers like Hummel, Hiller, Ries, perhaps Kalkbrenner, Litolff, Moscheles, Anton Rubinstein. The 1850s and 60s were not a fruitful period for orchestral music.

Liszt’s two were premiered in 1855 and 1857 in Weimar and may have been known beyond Weimar, though perhaps not by the average concert-goer. So apart from Liszt’s, Brahms’s No 1 was the only important piano concerto between Schumann’s in 1845 and Saint-Saëns’s second in 1868 and Grieg’s in 1869.

Berlioz, and his “Lelio”, given their dues and more by Orchestra Wellington

Orchestra Wellington presents:


BERLIOZ – Symphonie Fantastique Op.14
Lelio, or “A Return to Life” Op.14b

Andrew Laing (Lelio)
Declan Cudd (Horatio)
Daniel O’Connor (Captain)

Orpheus Choir of Wellington
Brent Stewart (music director)
Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday, April 12th, 2019

My first reaction to the news that Orchestra Wellington was planning to give the New Zealand premiere of Hector Berlioz’s  Lelio, or “A return to life” in its properly-ordered place as a sequel to the well-known Symphonie Fantastique was a delightful amalgam of excitement, admiration, incredulity and skepticism regarding the idea. I knew the work from recordings, and it had long seemed to me of the order of something the composer obviously had to “entertain” and get out of his head before progressing onwards to “the next thing” – all more akin to a ritual of private expiation rather than material for a viable public presentation.

I didn’t, however, take into account two things, the first involving the work itself, the extraordinary capacity of Berlioz’s music for generating interest out of its sheer novelty, each part in isolation having its own fascination , but in tandem agglomerating a kind of theatrical through-line entirely of its own, and with idiosyncrasies becoming touch-points! In situ Berlioz’s sheer conviction both fused and propelled the material forwards, in ways that live musical performances often surpass recorded efforts of the same material in sheer spontaneous excitement.

Just as important was the zeal, enthusiasm and energy of the performers giving all of the above the necessary “juice” with which to “fire”. Conductor Marc Taddei was of course at the forefront of the concerted efforts of singers, instrumentalists and actors, as well as choir and orchestra members, bringing about a fruition of their efforts with inspired and unflagging direction. What I’d thought might fatally drag down any stage performance were the spoken sequences, the composer seemingly carried away by his own eloquence in thus anatomising his passions! – but here, a combination of an English translation, judicious editing and fully-committed performance brought those same sequences compellingly to life. With those patches having had their “purple” aspect removed, it suddenly seemed possible that the thing might work!

In “Lelio” the composer’s original stipulation was that the orchestra, chorus and soloists be out of sight on a stage behind a curtain, with only an actor speaking the part of Lelio in front of the curtain before the audience. The six separate pieces that made up the musical fabric of the whole are each  interspersed with a dramatic monologue, after which the curtain is lifted for the “finale”, a Fantasia on Shakespeare’s “Tempest”  for chorus and orchestra. Here, most enterprisingly, mists and atmospheric lighting created a kind of rather more naturalistic curtain for the musicians who, though visible, were most effectively shrouded in mystery. The singers, too, were able to be seen, in each case theatrically lit, with billowing mists heightening the almost Goethean atmosphere of their different evocations. Most pictorial of all was the Brigand Leader, whose swashbuckling aspect and colourful costume, complete with sword, suited his rollicking music to perfection.

The presentation didn’t go as far as following the composer’s instruction to reinforce the “awakening” idea by proceeding straight into Lelio without a break at the end of the Symphonie. Instead, during an interval the stage was reset, with a large couch as the central feature, on which the young artist was cast in a stupor, and behind which the musicians reassembled, as the mists gathered and the strange, eerie lighting was brought into play –  all sufficiently conveying the “do I wake or sleep” ambience required by the composer. As Lelio himself, actor Andrew Laing mesmerically held our attention from his first appearance as the young artist who had “dreamed” the Symphonie Fantastique’s different episodes (that we’d heard in the concert’s “first half” that evening). His monologue describing the dream’s torments gave us the essence of the original, with occasional amendments (checking his cell-phone, for example) and judicious editings supporting and colouring his full-hearted, hypnotic delivery of the words.

After this, each of the different pieces (all sung in French, except for the final chorus) followed their own spoken introductions, beginning with the setting of Goethe’s Ballad Le Pêcheur (The Fisherman) for tenor voice and piano, here beautifully and ardently delivered by Declan Cudd (from my seat I couldn’t tell which of the two wonderfully adroit pianists, Rachel Thomson or Thomas Nikora, was playing here). At one point here the music was interspersed with a poignant, dream-like remnant of the Symphonie’s “idée fixe” the melody associated with the composer’s beloved which appeared in different guises throughout the work.

Then followed  various free-ranging changes of scenario and mood – firstly a magnificent Choeur d’ombres (Chorus of the Shades), inspired by the “ghost” scene in “Hamlet”, and introduced by the brasses with lugubrious, sinister-sounding tones, the Orpheus Choir’s delivery of the words spookily evocative, certain parts reminiscent of the Prince’s invocation to the warring families at the beginning of the composer’s “Romeo and Juliet” Symphony, and everything brought into atmospheric play by the interaction of light, mist and darkness on the stage – wonderful!

The poet then castigated society in general for bringing the lofty ideals of Shakespeare into disrepute, before enjoined all artists to turn their backs on such besmirchment and  become brigands instead – introduced by a vigorous orchestral passage,  baritone Daniel O’Connor looked, sang and acted the part to perfection in the Chanson de Brigands, vigorously exchanging blandishments regarding the life of a brigand with the chorus’s male voices, and moving towards the front of the stage to great theatrical effect, to the strains of tremendously rollicking and abandoned orchestral playing!

Emotions wildly fluctuating, the young poet then imagined far-away music resembling the voice of his beloved, and sank into a reverie, as tenor Declan Cudd and his accompanying harpist Madeleine Crump joined with the orchestra to perform a Chant de bonheur (Song of bliss), the effect positively celestial, the voice again sweet and pure and the harp an ideal blissful companion. From this the poet further conjured up the idea of an Aeolian Harp strung across the branches of an oak tree besides his grave, a tree  through whose branches the wind would sound the ongoing strains of his dying happiness in the arms of his beloved – the tremulous sounds that emanated from the strings and a solo clarinet were breathtaking in their evocation of the beauteous power of the composer’s imagination!

Having thus considered his “options” the poet then announced he would embrace life, and celebrate the intoxications of music, his “faithful and pure mistress” by plunging himself into a work which he’d already planned as a sketch – a Fantasy on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. What followed was almost Brechtian in its theatrical manipulation, the poet suddenly becoming the self-appointed “producer” of the performance about to take place, freely dispensing advice to the musicians, chorus and orchestral players alike! Along with a few moments of engaging bombast, the work had some exquisite sequences, particularly the opening scintillations of piano duet and twinkling of winds accompanying the women’s voices, calling to Miranda (the text here in Italian rather than French). The strings then began a swirling, agitated section which conjured up a fierce storm underpinned by the timpani, then after some “Le Carnaval Romain”-like instrumental passages, the voices again called to Miranda, farewelling her from the isle, after which the orchestra exploded in a kind of ferment of agitated farewell. There was praise from the poet for the players of “Orchestra Wellington” at the end! – and then – from out of the silence came the same remnant of the Symphonie’s “idée fixe” as before – to which the poet murmured, “Again, again! – and forever…..”

Of course, these sound-reminiscences were reaching right back to the evening’s beginning, with the orchestra’s performance of the work that had started the whole process, the Symphonie Fantastique. Having not been able to resist the temptation to dive immediately into the intricacies of something unfamiliar and our of the ordinary, I now propose to make amends re the concert’s first half by declaring that the performance here of what is probably Berlioz’s famous work was no less remarkable than that of Lelio. In fact, conductor and players seemed to me to sound the work’s opening as if THIS music was the hitherto undiscovered or neglected treasure we had come to hear this evening.

Every phrase of this introductory sequence seemed to me to contain some “clue” as to what would follow, as if we were being asked to fit the pieces of some vast puzzle together, and that eventually it would cohere – the rapt concentration with which these sound-impulses were made was remarkable, with even the brief, dancing string passage catching and drawing itself back in, the detailing by the winds and the horns adding to the wonderment of each moment. I loved the horn-playing in the passage leading up to the strings’ growing excitement at the approach of the famous “idée fixe”, the long-breathed string motif Berlioz used to characterise his “beloved”. Here it was playful, capricious and tender all at once, and was received by the rest of the orchestra with joy, interest and longing – and who would not want to repeat the sequence straight away after such a reception?

The repeat allowed us to focus on something different a second time, the impulsive, grainy-textured lower strings accentuating the melody’s qualities, but maintaining an outstanding orchestral sensitivity – I thought the focus on what every instrument was doing remarkably detailed!  When we reached the oboe’s subsidiary melody I felt the focus and feeling of the strings “wandering” chromatic accompaniments brought out the music’s sinister undertow, a brief but telling antithesis of the bright nervous energies which we’d heard the instruments express so well in the movement thus far.

The big “tutti” was beautifully “voiced”, the excitement shared among the different orchestral families as the music gathered even more momentum – I felt that perhaps the accelerandi might have been just a shade less controlled and a bit more “animal” (easier said than done, of course!) – but the ending was superbly brought off, sounding just like a “prayer”!

The second movement, Un bal grew nicely from out of the swirling mists, the tune articulated beautifully and the detailing a joy – here the “idée fixe” was dovetailed in as deftly as I’ve ever heard it done, and the trumpet (cornet?) made a lovely florid impression over some of the dance’s measures, as the composer intended.

Out of the silences came the sound of a cor anglais, its rusticity emphasised by an answering companion oboe somewhere in the distance (beautifully managed!), followed by exquisitely limpid string playing. I thought the different texturings, accentuations and antiphonies of the string sounds throughout this movement stunningly realised. Conductor Marc Taddei didn’t overtly “push” the change of mood mid-movement – I wanted a shade more orchestral tumult, more “panic”, as the fierce fortissimos approached – but the moment still generated considerable impact! And the strings’ ensuing accompaniment of the clarinet solo was a divine moment, epitomising the performance’s romantic sensibility. The famous timpani responses to the despairingly unanswered cor anglais calls at the movement’s end were superbly controlled – one person in the audience, lost in admiration, NEARLY clapped, both forgivably and contrariwise under the circumstances!

Dark, menacing rumblings began the renowned Marche au supplice  (March to the Scaffold), with the bassoons playing up to their capacity for grotesquerie, the brass snarling and blaring, the strings excitable and vehement – the repeat gave us double the impact of the opening, while the climax of the piece gripped the sensibilities and wouldn’t let go until the final crash of the guillotine drowned out all traces of the “idée fixe” and its brief appearance – truly the stuff of nightmares!

If the March evoked Goya-esque imageries, the final Songe d’une nuit du sabbat (Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath) conjured up even more grotesque Hieronymus Bosch-like scenarios, the eerie, air-borne cries and squealings summonsed by harsh, whining wind-calls and subterranean rumblings, the orchestral playing gleefully giving itself over to the macabre and the fantastical! Here the “idée fixe” was transformed into a bizarre mockery of the original, galumphing accompanying rhythms reaching thundering levels before being mocked and ridiculed by the rest of the orchestra – taken up by the clarinets, the distortions become even more marked and awkward-sounding, again laughed to scorn by the rest of the band.

The bell chimes evoked great barren wastes, across which the spectral sounds drifted, answered by baleful brasses announcing the thirteenth-century “Dies Irae” chant.  Cataclysmic percussion set in motion grotesque “dance of death”-like sequences, eerily leading to scenes of total abandonment and dissolution whose aspect grew wilder and wilder, conductor Taddei finally unleashing an orchestral coda whose hair-raising impetus very nearly unhorsed us all, necessitating a wild and grimly wrought “hanging on” until the music’s tumultuous end. Pandemonium!

What more could one say except that it seemed Orchestral Wellington’s “Epic” 2019 season had begun as it obviously meant to go on – with a pair of suitably “epic” performances, that of Lelio an act of “resurrection” in more ways than one! And for Wellingtonians, faced with the further attraction of a night out with the NZSO the following evening, obviously a “bumper” weekend for orchestra enthusiasts here in the capital! In the words of Lelio himself “Encore! Encore! – et pour toujours….” indeed!

Dazzling pianist, Alessio Bax, gives sole Wellington performance at Upper Hutt

Classical Expressions 2019, Upper Hutt
Alessio Bax – piano

Bach: solo keyboard arrangement of Alessandro Marcello’s Oboe Concerto in D minor, SD935; BWV 974
Rachmaninov: Variations on a Theme of Corelli
Dallapiccola: Quaderno musicale di Annalibera
Liszt: St. François d’Assise: La prédication aux oiseaux, S.175/1 and Après une lecture de Dante: Fanatsia quasi sonata, S 161

Expressions Arts and Entertainment Centre, Upper Hutt

Monday 8 April, 7:30 pm

Last Thursday, 4 April. RNZ Concert broadcast the usual Thursday concert from the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. It included Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony and Grieg’s Piano Concerto. A generation and more ago it was common to be dismissive of the Grieg concerto, but the classical music world has grown up a bit since then and sensible people with cultivated but unpretentious tastes rate it among the loveliest in the repertoire.

I hadn’t heard of Alessio Bax, but it didn’t take long to be more than a little arrested by the dynamism, beauty and subtlety of his playing. He was born in Bari on Italy’s Adriatic coast, graduating from the Conservatoire there aged 14, won the Leeds Competition aged 22 and his career has followed a remarkable path, though it has not been blessed with the sort of frenzy that has followed Trifonov, Yuja Wang or Lang-Lang. The Editor of Gramophone wrote: “Alessio Bax is clearly among the most remarkable young pianists now before the public.”

He also knows how to construct a programme that is challenging, fascinating and hair-raising. The programme he has been taking around Australia and New Zealand is Italian-themed.

It opened with an unusual piece – an arrangement by Bach for solo keyboard of an oboe concerto in D minor by Alessandro Marcello. There’s the Italian element: Marcello (there were two composer brother – Benedetto and Alessandro, the former being a year younger than Bach). In the dark, and without having read the programme properly, I thought it might have been a group of three Scarlatti sonatas, and even after seeing Bach’s name attached to it, that was still not a silly guess.

There was all the bright, staccato attack, tunes that sounded Italian – more lyrical than was common north of the Alps; and there was Bax’s wonderful dexterity in his handling of the piano, with elegant, adroit decorations that had a perceptible harpsichord feeling, but which his playing turned into a perfectly genuine piano piece. Though I’m sure I’d never heard it before, the slow movement was akin to any other of Bach’s loveliest adagio or andante movements. But it was the third movement that seemed both familiar and combined the sensibilities of Bach and Scarlatti.

Rachmaninov’s La Folia
The programme was Italian themed perhaps, but Italian entirely through other eyes (or ears).  Rachmaninov wrote two sets of piano variations: first on a theme by Chopin (Op 22) and later this, on the ubiquitous ‘La folia’ late medieval tune that was used by many composers; Rachmaninov used the version by Corelli as Opus 42. Considering its importance in the composer’s catalogue it has not been much played here. The range of colours, technical and lyrical demands that Bax fulfilled effortlessly, suggested why not too many tackle it.

Rachmaninov seems to have taken the name ‘folia’ literally injecting moments of madness in certain variations, such as the Vivace and the Agitato, and elsewhere, when the plain little tune is thoroughly dismembered; they seem to break out of the pattern of sharply varied yet harmonious moods, and these Bax delivered with a sort of wild abandon.

After the Interval came the piece that the audience might have felt most dubious about: Quaderno musicale di Annalibera; for Dallapiccola was one of the Italian composers (the other conspicuous ones were Maderna, Nono, Berio) who subscribed to the 12-tone or serial technique invented by Schoenberg and promoted through the famous Darmstadt School. (My own major exposure to his music was a dozen years ago at La Scala, Milan, his one-act opera Il Prigioniero which was certainly a taxing but memorable experience).

He spoke about the piece in the most engaging and fluent way, so that his very personality and his devotion to at least some of the precepts of serialism seemed to break down any immediate knee-jerk reaction to it. The story of its inspiration – dedicated to Dallapiccola’s 8-year-old daughter, the title an echo of Bach’s Notebook (‘quaderno’) for Anna Magdalena.  Bax’s introduction certainly encouraged, predisposed one to listen seriously, unprejudiced, even sympathetically to the music. So in the end it was the tonal and dynamic variety, the commitment of his performance, filled with lyricism and liveliness, that held the attention and led one to hear some kind of serious creative imagination at work.

Two great Liszt pieces
One could find references in Liszt’s music to quite a number of countries other than his native Hungary, but Italy became important to him quite early: for example the Second year, Italy, of his Années de pèlerinage, from which the ‘Dante sonata’ is taken. The two ‘legends’ of 1863 depict two Francises: St Francis of Assisi and St Francis of Paola (his was Liszt’s saint’s name). An opportunity for glittering, joyous story-telling, the saint’s voice contrasted starkly with that of the birds.

Bax linked the two by launching into the ‘Dante Sonata’ without pause, evading any applause. Rather than attempting to depict any of the legendary or classical figures in the great epic, Liszt’s narrative work is largely a description of paradise and hell, contrasting silvery peacefulness and chaotic vengeance. But while the general impression is of a violent narrative dominated by hell, Bax takes every proper opportunity to reveal the intimate, gentle character of many passages. If he’d orchestrated it, the Dante Sonata would have been called a symphonic poem and it strains the resources and the limitations of the most resilient Steinway, which in this case responded impressively.  The piece contains some of Liszt’s most dramatic, ferocious music, which served as a splendid vehicle for Bax’s virtuosity, and his gift of injecting genuine emotional power into this great music.

It was wonderful to hear such exciting, compelling and poetic performances of these two marvellous piano works.

Reflections on musical management in New Zealand 
Given the ways in which the most important arts are so often denigrated and deprived of necessary funding and support, it is disappointing that a musician of Bax’s stature has not been engaged to play more concerts around the country. A great credit to Upper Hutt, but a serious oversight that, for example, Chamber Music New Zealand failed to engage him for half a dozen concerts.

The other issue that such a concert highlighted was Upper Hutt’s support of music and other arts in their excellent Arts and Entertainment Centre, in contrast to their neglect by local authorities elsewhere in Greater Wellington: for example the struggling local chamber music society in Lower Hutt, virtually ignored by the city authorities.

Much greater collaborative relationships should be cultivated among all New Zealand classical music organisations.