Worlds within worlds brought to us by the Wellington Chamber Orchestra, with The Tasman Trio and Kenneth Young

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:
MOZART – Overture to “Don Giovanni”
BEETHOVEN – Triple Concerto for Violin, ‘Cello and Piano Op.56
DELIUS – The Walk to the Paradise Garden
SCHUBERT – Symphony No. 8 in B Minor “Unfinished” D.759

The Tasman Trio:
Laura Barton (violin) / Daniel Smith (cello) / Liam Wooding (piano)

Wellington Chamber Orchestra
Kenneth Young (conductor)

St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace Church,

Sunday 30th June, 2019

On paper, a programme for the prospective listener to savour – and this was an expectation I would guess was largely fulfilled, judging from the reception accorded the musicians’ efforts by the audience, and the feelings of satisfaction gleaned from the performers’ general aspect at the end! There was certainly a variety of colour, texture, mood and emotion to be had, with the pieces offering sufficient challenges to ensure the playing  maintained an ‘edge-of seat” quality, often something that can give amateur performance a “head-start” in terms of excitement and surprise for listeners’ edification. While too much tension can of course mar the ambience of some music, here only the Delius work seemed “vulnerable” in that respect – and it was in this music that the players created sounds of a beauty and sensitivity that for me captured the piece’s essence in a way that I’d not heard previously surpassed by this orchestra in any repertoire.

First things first, however; and this was Mozart’s Overture to his “dramma giocoso” Don Giovanni (“dramma giocoso” means, literally, “drama with jokes”). This was perfectly expressed by the music we heard, the opening taken from the work’s final act, featuring the entrance of the famous and unearthly “Stone Guest”, come to dinner ostensibly at the Don’s own invitation, but determined to secure Giovanni’s repentance for his iniquitous behaviour. The music’s “nightmarish” aspect at the Overture’s outset must have galvanised the sensibilities of those first audiences, who were plunged without warning into a “preview” of the events leading to the hero’s downfall and removal to the infernal regions, but were then whisked suddenly into the world of the work’s more comic sequences and situations. While no actual melodies from the opera itself were used, the dramatic opening chords, and eerie scale passages do recur in the final scene, accompanying the “Stone Guest’s” entrance.

Ken Young got a splendidly incisive opening to the work from his players, including some portentously “held” lower notes, supported by baleful brass – a few tuning discrepancies amongst the winds at the outset were properly sorted by the time the “infernal scales” of the opening were sounded. Then, the allegro mischievously activated the rhythms, the strings stirred, and the winds and timpani properly banished the gloom-laden textures with their sparking, forthright replies. Mozart kept hinting at the underlying darkness with the leading note of each phrase of the allegro – a heavily accented chord – but with each of these followed by impish, fleet-footed downward scamperings, and light-as-feather string phrases (a bit “squishy” at first, until the string players’ fingers warmed up!). Basically, there was great work from all concerned, throughout, even with the “cobbled-on” concert ending to the piece – in the theatre, the music slows down and goes straight into the stage action, but here, it was the conventional bang, crash and wallop, so as to make the music seem “rounded off”! (I prefer the music to just stop where the opera’s action begins, the imagination doing the rest……..)

It was then time to welcome the Tasman Trio, an Australasian ensemble formed just last year by two New Zealanders (Laura Barton and Liam Wooding) and an Australian (Daniel Smith), all of whom had been studying at ANAM (the Australian National Academy of Music) in Melbourne. Having heard, in living memory, a performance of this delicious work in St.Andrew’s from Te Koki Trio and the NZSM Orchestra (also with Kenneth Young conducting), I was anxious to re-enjoy the work at similarly close quarters, and interested in hearing a different group playing it – the soloists entered, there was a bit of “folkish-sounding” tuning, and then we were off!

The first low orchestral sounds filled us with expectation, the strings and horns doing well in their first sforzando-like entry, Young keeping the tempi steady, and allowing the triplet rhythms plenty of room. The first solo ‘cello entry was lyrical, poetic and inviting, joined by the other soloists just as sweetly, the piano adding a perkiness to the rhythm, taken up by the others in reply. The work’s frequent “running” passages were excitingly managed by all the players, and the orchestra responded with equal dexterity – the only problems (just one-or-two instances) were soloist-and-orchestra ensemble ones, the occasional rhythm either too hastily or too slowly ‘taken up” – but within a few bars all had come together again. As an ensemble the soloists dovetailed their passages perfectly, the occasional single-line moment of strain made up for with a correspondingly beautiful piece of phrasing from the same player. And I loved the beautiful “turn” by the players towards that moment of lyricism just before the first movement’s coda.

Songful rapture at the slow movement’s beginning! – lovely soft playing from ‘cello and then violin, though with the piano just a tad too heavy in response at first, I thought. Some nice support came from the horns as the soloists began their expectant arpeggiated figures leading to the finale. Having so well created a “mood”, the soloists then seemed to take a while to comfortably “settle” into the finale’s polonaise rhythm, but they grasped their concerted scampering lines firmly (tremendous triplet- playing by the trio) and set the scene for the orchestral tutti, which conductor and players seemed to relish wholeheartedly. Again the running canonic triplet passages were thrown off most excitingly – a real, visceral thrill to experience!

The characterful minor-key “dance” passages that followed wanted, I thought, just a shade more “schwung”, more naughtiness and suggestiveness from all concerned, here sounding to my ears expertly played, but a bit too regimented (I love it when in performances of this people seem to let their hair down, and really “savour” those polonaise rhythms) – still the players brought our beautifully that subsequent “Appassionata” moment (begun by the piano with portentous trills over which the others “reassembled” the main theme with growing excitement), and “dissolved” the subsequent canonic triplet rushings so teasingly, that all was forgiven in the ensuing excitements – the “running water” flow of the coda’s beginning, the more ritualised triplet lines, and the final “stately dance” of the music’s last paragraph. So – while perhaps not as majestically realised as with last year’s Te Koki Trio/NZSM performance of the work, the performance here put its own, equally spontaneous mark on the presentation, giving much pleasure and receiving well-deserved acclaim.

After the interval came a work I desperately wanted to hear “live” – Delius’s orchestral interlude “The Walk to the Paradise Garden” from his opera “A Village Romeo and Juliet”, one I’d previously only heard on record. And at the outset I should say that, even given my pleasure at being “treated” to Beethoven’s adorable Triple Concerto so expertly during the first half, this item was the concert’s highlight for me, with conducting and playing from Young and the orchestra members that utterly captivated me with its beauty and sensitivity. Every phrase, every solo, every surge of emotion, every hushed realisation of beauty was given its due, if not perhaps with quite the tonal splendour and individual  sheen commanded by professional players, certainly with sufficient loveliness of tone, confidence of phrasing and surety of ensemble so as to make Delius’s evocation of beauty laced with tragedy a truly heart-rending concert experience.

From the opening phrases, shared by bassoons, horns and cor anglais, we were immediately taken to a sound-word of enchantment, furthered by oboe, clarinet, flute and tenderly-phrased strings, each sound, whether solo or concerted, imbued with a real sense of the music’s power of evocation, a lovely overall sense of “drifting stillness” informing the quieter reflective moments, and a thrilling pulsation of feeling given full rein at the music’s climactic moments of bitter-sweet irruption. I thought it very, very powerful conducting by Ken Young and suitably no-holds-barred responses from his players, whether full-throated or finely-honed, the harp adding its singularly romantic voice to the plethora of instrumental response, everything superbly shaped and graded in aid of the music’s dying fall at the end. Delius’s first real champion, the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, once remarked on the need for the performer to interpret music such as this with “the maximum virility allied to the maximum sensitivity” – which is what sounded like was happening here (local syntax!).

No let-up in intensity was allowed us at this juncture, with what was to follow – Schubert’s much-loved “Unfinished” Symphony, two movements’ worth of pure drama and poetry, whether by accident or design wrought within two perfectly-tailored and -complementary episodes by its composer! Many have been the attempts to “finish” the work, ignoring the fact that Schubert himself completed a further symphony instead of going back and “dealing to it” himself. Might something have told him that what he’d done was enough?

The contrast with Delius’s music was profound in effect, those exquisitely-tailored lines and subtle textures of the former here replaced by sinister bass mutterings, fraught woodwind strains, and weighty, oppressive blocks of string or brass sounds. It was music which seemed haunted by its own substance; and the performance certainly conveyed a threatening, baleful quality in the first of the two movements, almost to the point of rawness from the brass in places, Young encouraging his forces, it seemed, to pull no punches! The exposition repeat sounded a shade less raw, and more rounded in those same territories, as if the players were hearing more acutely the “pitch of the hall” (as comedian Michael Flanders used to say in his and Donald Swann’s “At the Drop of a Hat” revue).

Whatever solace the music had managed to give its listeners thus far seemed then to be put to the sword by the development and its black-as-night scenarios, haunted by wraith-like figures, consoling winds beaten back by shattering brass chords, not dissimilar in effect to those in a similar place in Tchaikovsky’s ”Pathetique” Symphony– remorseless and unforgiving! The return to the opening brought some relief, but the movement’s coda again provided little consolation! Throughout this performance we got from Young and his brave players the full force of this music’s astounding emotional journey!

The second movement was, thankfully, less harrowing, its tones sunnier, and its melodic shapes more song-like, the players beautifully-dovetailing the exchanges between the strings’ striding steps and the winds’ lyrical replies. We heard some lovely wind solos, clarinet, oboe, and flute, contrasted with some sterling, black-browed sounds from trombones and timpani, but then a heart-easing “playing-out” of the tensions towards the end, lullabic phrases from strings and winds alike (including the horns) assuring us that the sounds had brought us, finally, to a safe haven…..


A joyful, exhilarating Barber of Seville, New Zealand Opera’s first offering of the year

New Zealand Opera
The Barber of Seville by Rossini

Orchestra Wellington and Freemasons New Zealand Opera Chorus
Conductor: Wyn Davies; Director: Lindy Hume; Designer: Tracy Grant Lloyd; Assistant director: Jacqueline Coats; Lighting designer: Matthew Marshall


Count Almaviva: John Tessier
Rosina: Sandra Piques Eddy
Figaro: Morgan Pearse
Dr Bartolo: Andrew Collis
Don Basilio: Ashraf Sewailam
Berta: Morag Atchison
Fiorello/Officer;: Joel Amosa
Ambrogio: Jesse Wikiriwhi

The Opera House, Wellington

Saturday 29 July 2019, 7:30 pm

Colourful, joyful, exhilarating are the words to describe this production of the Barber of Seville. From the very beginning of the Overture, taken at a moderate steady tempo that let every phrase be clearly articulated, we know that we are in for a treat. When the action starts with the chorus, the serenaders, horsing around it is clear that this will be an entertaining show. Almaviva, John Tessier enters and sings his serenade. He is a powerful yet sensitive tenor and sets a high benchmark for the other singers. Figaro joins him and we are at home, this is Figaro the Barber whom everybody knows. Everyone is familiar with the tongue twister ‘Largo al factotum’. Morgan Pearse sang the role with energy and clarity, and with a good deal of comic touch.

We get to know Rosina, Sandra Piques Eddy, as she sings her aria, ‘Una voce poco’ fa’. She has an amazing mezzo-soprano voice, well controlled. Her deep notes were particularly noteworthy for their glorious dark timbre. She sang with meticulous attention to the text and the musical phrasing, while subjecting her aria to the demands of the dramatic action.

Dr. Bartolo, has the least rewarding role, he is a bumbling, comic character whose every endeavour ends in failure. Andrew Collis sang the part with the appropriate rich baritone, while maintaining the sense of comedy of the ridiculous personality of the doctor. Ashraf Sewailam sang the role of Don Basilio, the cunning music teacher and fair weather friend, with a rare resonant bass and an organ like quality of the low notes. Berta, Morag Atchinson had one solo song, that she sang delightfully. She was a striking presence every time she appeared on the stage. The standard of singing was universally outstanding, and this was matched by fine comic acting. If I had any reservation, it was that there was too much unnecessary clowning, situations that were already ridiculous didn’t need to be further highlighted, but the audience obviously greatly enjoyed this.

The staging and production was imaginative, vivid and colourful. There was excellent use of the stage with its many doors, which at various times was a street scene outside Dr, Bartolo’s residence and then the interior of his house. There was ingenious use of strobe lighting highlighting the action. The foils dropping in the last scene just underlined the madcap comedy.

The Barber of Seville dates from 1816, the year after Napoleon was defeated and the normality of the Ancient regime returned to Europe. Beaumarchais on whose play the opera was based had died many years before, but some of the issues explored by the play were very much alive: the power of the aristocracy, the role of the middle class and that of the rising entrepreneur. When soldiers come to arrest Count Almaviva he only had to reveal his name and rank and the soldiers withdrew. Dr. Bartolo, the middle class doctor is a mere figure of fun, wanting to marry his ward for her money. He is also nostalgic for a bygone era, the music of which he much preferred to the new-fangled modern music that Rosina chose to sing. Figaro was the entrepreneur with an eye on money, an obsession shared by Basilio and the singers who were paid to serenade Rosina. Although for Rossini, aged 24 when he wrote this opera, these social considerations were not in the forefront of his mind, the audience that took the opera to heart were probably very aware of these subtle underlying themes.

Nevertheless, the opera was great, rollicking fun. Overheard at the end of the opera, someone said that this was the most enjoyable opera he had ever seen. This impression was endorsed by the enthusiastic applause, the catcalls, the stomping and the whistles coming from the audience the like of which I had never heard before.



From murderous to beguiling – a concert of life and art from the Tudor Consort and Aurora IV

The Tudor Consort presents:
(with Aurora IV)

CARLO GESUALDO DA VENOSA (1565-1613) – Moro lasso (from Sesto libro di madrigali)
ANDREW SMITH (b.1970) – Salme 55
THOMAS WEELKES (1576-1623) – Come sirrah jack ho / Lo, country sports / Strike it up, tabor (madrigals)
WILLIAM BYRD (1543-1623) – Domine quis habitabit
ROBERT SCHUMANN (1810-56) – Talismane Op.141 No.4
HENRY PURCELL (1659-95) – Rejoice in the Lord Alway
WILLIAM BYRD – Kyrie / Agnus Dei (from Mass for 4 Voices)
PAUL HINDEMITH (1895-1963) – Six Chansons (1939)
NICOLAS GOMBERT (c.1495- c.1560) – Magnificat Tertii et Octavi Toni

The Tudor Consort
Michael Stewart (director)
Aurora IV
Toby Gee (countertenor), Julian Chu-Tan, Richard Taylor (tenors), Simon Christie (bass)

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

Saturday, 22nd June 2019

Michael Stewart and the Tudor Consort certainly got their presentation “Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know” off to a properly gruesome start with the music of a composer who’s now generally known to have been a murderer, Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa – in fact, we in the audience were firstly “treated” to a fairly “no holds barred” description by Michael Stewart of the circumstances and salient details of the composer’s central role in the deadly occurrence, one which some people might have thought of as “too much information”! However, it certainly “prepared” us for the composer’s uniquely intense and agitated music in his madrigal “Moro lasso al mio duolo”, whose tones, intervals and harmonies seemed themselves to suffer in situ with the texts’ extreme angsts and tensions.

Commentators have, in relation to the composer, endlessly discussed the “association” between life and art, and the paradox exemplified by people who were creative geniuses but of dubious personal character – of particular interest in Gesualdo’s case is the extent to which one’s interest in his music is fuelled by knowledge of his life and character, and vice-versa (a 2011 New Yorker article by Alex Ross, who wrote “The Rest is Noise” is particularly thought-provoking in this respect  –  The Tudor Consort’s finely-graded performance of “Moro lasso” certainly conveyed its composer’s free-wheeling flamboyance of dynamics, harmony and modulation, making for an entirely spontaneous, unpredictable and ungratified outpouring of sounds, something “rich and strange”.

With Andrew Smith’s Salme 55, performed for us by the vocal quartet Aurora IV, we found ourselves still in “Gesualdo country”, as this work was inspired by the latter’s music as well as those same events which had been outlined for us by Michael Stewart. Smith had composed a set of a capella pieces for a work called Notes for a Requiem which also included some of Gesualdo’s own motets, various spoken texts relating to events in Gesualdo’s life, and a dance, reinforcing those dramatic and tragic happenings. Tonight we got the verse sequences from that work, settings of Psalm 55, the well-known “prayer for deliverance” from both enemy and treacherous friend – the relative “sparseness” of the vocal textures following the Gesualdo work almost like the result of an archaeological exhumation of something whose bones made up in strength and purpose for what else had been pared away by the ravages of time.

While the Gesualdo work had an almost indecent freedom from inhibition of feeling, these settings by Andrew Smith used simpler, starker, more direct modes of expression, albeit framing the different sequences in almost ritualistic ways – in the opening Exaudi, (LIsten!) for example, the tenor expounded the text against evocative, echoing repetitions from the other three singers, firstly of the word “exaudi”, and then in the next section “Cor meum” (My heart), and all finally bursting out with “Timor et tremor” (Fear and trembling) in the final paragraph. The second sequence, Columba, with its famous line “Oh, for the wings of a dove!”, extended this technique to interchanging voices, the singers taking turns to deliver phrases from the text against a backdrop of repetitions of the word “Columba” (dove), and later “Festinabo” (In a hurry), the alternating voices expertly and evocatively imprinting both meaning and manner to the treatment of the text.

The lament’s full force was unleashed at Non enim inimicus (For it is not an enemy), with stinging focus, alternated by phrases voiced with great tenderness – the words’ sorrow and drama were made manifest here by the voices at places such as Veniat super eos mors (Let death take them). I was reminded of Britten’s “Rejoice in the lamb” in parts of the bass-led Extendit manum suam (He extended his hand), with its portentous outlining of treachery, a mood which was dispelled by the tenor with Tu autem Deus (But Thou, God…), the singer’s upwardly-leaping phrases conveying a frisson of faith and hope, and intoning a movingly simple habeo tui (I trust in you).

A world with a difference was evoked by three madrigals from Thomas Weelkes, whose character as outlined by Stewart, was more bad than mad, and perhaps more frustrating than “dangerous” to know! Previously I’d known only the richly-moving work “Death hath deprived me”, which Weelkes wrote at Thomas Morley’s death – by contrast these were earthy, self-indulgent tributes to simple pleasures, perhaps symptomatic of the composer’s unfortunate penchant for alcohol (although not mentioned in any of these works) which caused strife between Weelkes and his employers!

Come, Sirrah Jack, ho, dwelt on the pleasures of a pipe of tobacco (“for the blood, it is very good”), made from lovely, tumbling lines, delightfully calibrated to evoke a throng of unrepentant users making fun of the moralists at “Then those that do condemn it” with relish. Lo, Country Sports was something of a dance ritual, the group sounding the out-of-doors pleasures with ever-increasing delight as the music rolled merrily on; while Strike it up, tabor brought together the earthiness of the first madrigal with the dance-like energies of the second one. These voices properly “danced” throughout the first verse, until things ended somewhat querulously, with the comment “Fie, you dance false!”

How different again was the music we next heard, that of William Byrd, whose claim to inclusion in the programme stemmed from his ability to survive the sometimes murderous goings-on of opposing (Catholic and Protestant) regimes in English history, writing music under both kinds of strictures! Byrd maintained his position in the Chapel Royal under Elizabeth I, though his Domine , quis habitabit dates from an earlier period, a setting of the first half of Psalm 15 (Vulgate 14), set also by his near-contemporaries Thomas Tallis, William Mundy, Robert White and Robert Parsons. The text is concerned with living according to God’s commandments, and could easily have been applied to Protestants as well as Catholics, avoiding the political to-and-fro of the times.

Here the music immediately generated a sense of magnificence and purpose, something equally of its time and timeless, in effect. Stewart and the Consort’s richly-wrought voices brought out the almost celestial, music-of-the-spheres aspects of the work, the sounds describing vistas of timeless, weightless beauty, the soprano line particularly ethereal and radiant. The contrast at “Contemptus est in oculis ejus” (Contemptible in his sight….) was almost tsunami-like it its impact, before the final “Qui facet haec” returned us surely and gratefully to the eternities of the opening. Later in the programme we heard two movements of Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices, a sombre, serious “Kyrie” beautifully voiced by the vocal quartet, and a more “exposed” sound at the beginning of “Agnus Dei”, more contrapuntal than harmonic at first, with all four voices involved the second time through, and increasingly “concerted” for the final repetition, the voices gaining in presence and resonance during the “Dona nobis pacem”.

A “find” for me was Robert Schumann’s Talismane, whose text, by Goethe, is a paean of praise to God as a life-giving force, sentiments that the composer exuberantly responded to at the start, the music hurling its message East and West, then more gently and resonantly encompassing “northern and southern lands” as similarly under his sway, Schumann compellingly setting exultation alongside poetic rumination. The “double choir” employed by the composer created ear-catching antiphonal exchanges and resonant echoings throughout, pushing the St.Andrews’ acoustic to extremes in places – however the poet’s “breathing” imagery of constant renewal brought forth in conclusion a moving sense of turbulent spirits “at peace” in Schumann’s writing. As tenor Richard Taylor informed us during the course of his valuable introduction to the work, whatever such “peace of mind” was enjoyed by Schumann became in later years tragically undermined by mental illness, and resulted in the composer’s confinement to an institution.

I would never have counted Henry Purcell as amongst the “carousers” in any line-up of well-known composers, before attending this concert – an indication, no doubt, of my lack of biographical knowledge regarding the composer – but legend has it that Purcell liked his ale, and was reputedly locked out of the family house by his wife for coming home late after an extended session at the “local”, at which point he caught a chill, leading to his death (the other, rather more romantic story is that he succumbed to tuberculosis)! For the concert’s purposes, conjecture ruled for the moment, the composer’s place in this concert’s lineup secured with some “bad” behaviour! – Purcell’s “Rejoice in the Lord always” was originally called “The Bell Anthem” because of the bell-imitations in the instrumental opening (played here most deliciously by Michael Stewart on the characterful St.Andrew’s chamber organ, the conducting of this piece in the capable hands of Richard Taylor). Begun by a vocal trio, the charming contrast between the single voices and the whole ensemble was one of the piece’s most engaging features, along with the bell-like organ tones.

Far more apposite regarding the programme’s intent was the contribution of Paul Hindemith, a set of “Six Chansons” that I’d never heard, and would never have guessed the composer had I encountered them unnamed! Hindemith, of course, became persona non grata to the Nazis during the 1930s (his music was officially proclaimed as “entartete” (degenerate),  Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels calling him an “atonal noisemaker”!), and left Germany to live temporarily in Turkey, before officially emigrating to Switzerland in 1938, and then to the USA in 1940.

Hindemith wrote this a capella work while in Switzerland, settings of some of the French poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, who usually wrote in German. Less rigorous and more lyrical than a good deal of Hindemith’s other music, the settings are delightful and attractive, as if the composer had been able to, in a chameleon-like way, take on a Gallic kind of voice in his music – the first song, La biche (The doe), having a Ravel-like delicacy. I don’t know Hindemith’s other vocal works, apart from parts of his opera, Mathis der Maler – but it seemed, in the second song Un cygne (A swan)  the composer had the gift of word-painting in his music, the sounds expressing the imagery of the text, the actual movement of the swan upon the water. Even more amazement was conjured up with my reaction to the third song, Puisque tout passe (Since all is passing) which was, here, light, rapid and evanescent – what I would previously had said was very “un-Hindemith”! Printemps (Spring) was a hymn-like seasonal tribute, touchingly characterising the words “Quand il faudra nous taire” (When it comes time for us to fall silent) in a simple, almost parlando fashion. A severe unison began En hiver (In winter) but, despite the almost grisly aspect of the words, evoking the presence of death, the sounds had a light, lyrical character, throughout, “placing” both darkness and light in a balanced way. The final poem, Verger (Orchard) a meditation on the earth’s sustenance of the body and the spirit, interwove melody and rhythmic trajectory with the lightest of touches between upper and lower voices in the first and final verses, while intensifying their exchanges throughout the middle verse, again, the music mirroring the words, strong at ce que pese, et ce qui nourrit (sustains and nourishes us), and light and wind-blown at presque dormant en son ancient rond (almost asleep in the fountain’s circle). Everywhere the conductor’s and singers’ deftness of touch lightly and surely brought out the music’s surprisingly un-Teutonic character.

As if Gesualdo’s bloodsoaked crimes and Weelkes’ penchant for excessive drinking hadn’t sufficiently besmirched the somewhat rarefied “aura” of creativity normally associated with composers. Michael Stewart had one more subject for scrutiny almost certainly to be found wanting, in the person of Nicolas Gombert, a native of Flanders who became court composer to Emperor Charles V and music director of the Royal Chapel, and, as a priest, was the official “Master of the Boys” (Magister Pueorum) at the Chapel, but who, in 1540, was then convicted of sexual congress with a boy in his care, and sentenced to hard labour in the galleys. Freed after a number of years, Gombert never returned to the court, and indeed, faded into obscurity, his actual death date unknown, but probably occurring around 1560. Nonetheless, he was one of the most famous and influential composers in his day, his music exemplifying the fully-developed polyphonic style. Succeeding composers were to write in a more simplified manner, however, as Gombert had pushed his extremely complex  idioms as far as they could go – he influenced instrumental writing in this respect as well.

It’s possible Gombert composed the Magnificat we heard this evening as one of his “Swan Songs”, written by way of seeking a pardon for his crimes from the Emperor (he was eventually released by Charles V, on account of these efforts). One of eight Magnificat composed in each of the “Tones”, this work follows the same pattern as all the others, the odd-numbered verses in “chant” and the even -numbered ones given polyphonic treatment. The chant/polyphonic alternations as a whole gave the work we heard a contrasting vigour, and a theatricality, further exemplified by a certain agglomeration of forces as the music proceeded, as if the music’s influence was spreading throughout the world. By the time the concluding “Gloria Patri” was reached, we in the audience felt the composer had included us in the “Sicut erat” response, and part of each of us seemed to be resonating with the music!

Of course, none of the effects described above could have been achieved without the seemingly inexhaustible voices, skills, and communication capacities throughout an entire evening of the singers The Tudor Consort and their director, Michael Stewart, and the singers of Aurora IV.

Offenbach’s anniversary year: Jewish, German, and essentially French; painstaking emergence and eventual triumph

Offenbach turns 200 today, Thursday 20 June.

If you look hard enough, interesting anniversaries generally show up every year. But few recent years have been as interesting as this, especially for one who ranks the two best-known, French birthday celebrants right at the top of their class.

It’s the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death (on 8 March this year); and the 200th anniversary of the birth of two of the most successful composers of light opera, or comic opera, or operetta, or opera-bouffe – take your pick – in mid 19th century: Franz von Suppé and Jacques Offenbach. Outside Germany and Austria, Suppé is today known almost only for half a dozen sparkling overtures to his forty or so operettas: Die schöne Galathée, Boccaccio, Fatinitza, Die Banditenstreiche, Poet and Peasant, Morning, Noon and Night and Light Cavallery. There are, naturally, similarities between Offenbach and Suppé, but the greatest difference is in the survival of much of the huge quantity of stage works by the one and virtual disappearance of the works of the other.

As I was putting this article together, I was delighted to hear RNZ Concert advertising its week-long plan to celebrate Offenbach, although so far the pickings have been rather scrappy and insignificant. Given the typically breathless hype with which forthcoming programmes are announced, I’d rather expected something substantial every day: a scene or more from three or four of his best opéras-bouffes as well as a decent chunk of The Tales of Hoffmann – the Antonia act is the richest for me; and several of the overtures and samples of his compositions for cello; his very successful ballet Le Papillon – only half an hour or so long – or a suite from the brilliant pastiche ballet, Gaité Parisienne which used to be featured often on 2YC’s dinner music programme in my teens….. There were a few gems however, though I missed most of them. One that intrigued me was excerpts from Fées du Rhin, on Eva Radich’s midday programme. It was originally called Rheinnixen, one of the few he wrote for German audiences – Vienna – in 1864. I’m sure I had never heard any of Rheinnixen before, but the waltz was very familiar, and I thought it was perhaps from his ballet Le Papillon which he’d written a few years earlier. And my copy of Alexander Faris’s biography of Offenbach confirmed that borrowing; indeed, it’s from Le Papillon.

England v. France in comic opera
In the English speaking world Offenbach has till recently, been generally denigrated, certainly given a lower ranking than Sullivan; and given credit, reluctantly, for only The Tales of Hoffmann. But the criteria for assessing the musics of countries as artistically different as Britain and France simply make comparisons dangerous. Offenbach’s theatre works have conventionally been regarded, in Britain anyway, as insubstantial, licentious, clumsy burlesque, in comparison to Gilbert and Sullivan.

That’s reflected in English books about opera. For example, The Viking Opera Guide lists 23 works by Sullivan compared with only seven by Offenbach; a curious view, given that Sullivan’s 23 are his entire stage output while Offenbach produced around a hundred (no one pretends they are all masterpieces!). Inevitably, there are points of similarity since they were roughly contemporaneous: Offenbach’s productive operetta years were from 1855 to 1880, while Sullivan’s were from about 1870 to 1900.

Looking at Offenbach’s references in my own books on opera, ignoring him seems a national passion.
The following shows date of publication and the numbers of operas by 1) Offenach and 2) others.

J Cuthbert Hadden; Favourite Operas (1910)   None out of 57
Leo Melitz: The Opera Goer’s Complete Guide (1914)  4 out of 227
Gustave Kobbé: The Complete Opera Book (1922)  A cursory reference to Hoffmann out of 197
R A Streatfiled: The Opera (1925) Only Hoffmann out of c 320.
The Gramophone Company: Opera at Home (1925) only Hoffmann out of about 170
Ernest Newman: Opera Nights (1943)  None out of 29
Earl of Harewood (ed): Kobbé’s Complete Opera Book (1987)  4 out of over 300
The Viking Opera Guide (1993) 6 out of around 2000
Denis Forman: The Good Opera Guide (1994) none out of 84
Earl of Harewood and Antony Peattie: The New Kobbé’s Opera Book (1997) 6 out of nearly 500 (Sullivan – nil)
Amanda Holden: The New Penguin Opera Guide (2001)  (a major updating of the Viking Opera Guide) 6 out of 2000

Things were very different in New Zealand

A glance at Adrienne Simpson’s splendid history of opera in New Zealand, Opera’s Farthest Frontier, is very interesting. While her references don’t allow a count of actual performances she does list all the traceable operas produced in New Zealand till 1970.

By then, Offenbach was the most performed opera composer in New Zealand – 14 different works had been seen here. Next came Sullivan with 11, Verdi, Mozart and Donizetti with 7 each and Puccini, Planquette and Lecocq at 5 each. That reflects the huge popularity of comic opera in New Zealand edging out major, main-stream opera from the 1870s. A little later the Sullivans and Offenbach’s were being replaced by more ephemeral works, by composers whose names are generally quite forgotten today (Leo Fall, Victor Herbert, Audran, Oscar Straus, and Planquette and Lecocq (mentioned above), After the turn of the century, even they were being replaced by musical comedy.

And after the First World War Offenbach was being bypassed by more mainstream opera, by the far fewer visiting opera companies that came to New Zealand from then.

The Offenbach pieces seen in New Zealand by 1970 were: Barbe-Bleu, La belle Hélène, The Brigands, La fille du Tambour-Major, Fortunio’s Song, Geneviève de Brabant (the one with the famous ‘Gendarmes Duet’), The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, Madame Favart, Madame l’Archiduc, Orpheus in the Underworld, La Périchole, The Princess of Trebizonde, Monsieur Choufleur restera chez lui (RSVP), The Tales of Hoffmann.

Offenbach’s origins
Though Offenbach was a genuinely French composer in both style and spirit, he was born of Jewish parents in Cologne. His father led a peripatetic life as a musician – a cantor in various synagogues, finally settling in Cologne.

Jacques (born Jakob) Offenbach displayed the usual musical precocity of most great composers. Exposed first to the violin he soon fastened on to the cello and it was his playing the cello to Paris Conservatoire Director Luigi Cherubini that won him a place in 1833, aged 14. He abandoned the Conservatoire after a year and soon became a cellist in the orchestra of the Opéra-Comique and also won notoriety as a cello virtuoso in Paris salons, and elsewhere. But the urge to compose took root early although he found no opportunities to compose other than instrumental or theatre music.

However, his mixture of conspicuous talent, engaging charm, wit, and an ability to make friends with certain conspicuous conductors, singers, musicians and composers like Flotow, Halévy, Adolph Adam provided him with constant musical activity. He became well known in the salons of society hostesses where his gifts and personality made a real mark. Biographer James Harding wrote: “His skill at the cello, his lively chatter, entertained people; his accent amused them and gave piquancy to what he said. He was quick and ready in conversation and the presence of smartly dressed men and women stimulated him. He loved the atmosphere of wealth and fashion. His friend, composer Friedrich von Flotow wrote: ‘My friend scored a great success and soon he became a favourite in the salon of the comtesse de Vaux’.”

Cellist as social butterfly
But try as he might his efforts to compose for the Opéra-comique led nowhere, as he seemed to have found an enemy in the shape of its director. Through the late 1830s and early 40s he led a comfortable, but for him, an unfulfilled existence as a popular cello teacher, an accomplished musician, very popular in fashionable society, composing ballads and arrangements of opera arias. At the age of 20 he was invited to compose a vaudeville, Pascal et Chambord, but it sank without trace. He gave his first public concert a couple of years later in a fashionable, new recital hall and that was not a success; another, this time with a well-known singer, was more successful.

Then there was a tour to London in 1844 and a critic wrote after one concert that “He is on the violoncello what Paganini is on the violin”.  He played at Windsor Castle before Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

But still an invitation to compose for the Opéra-Comique didn’t arrive. When it looked as if his luck was changing as Adolphe Adam proposed staging a one-act opéra-comique by Offenbach, Alcôve, at Adam’s newly established Théâtre-Lyrique, the 1848 Revolution broke out and everything froze. He fled to Cologne.

All changes
After a year in Cologne, Offenbach returned to Paris and chanced to meet the man who had just become director of the Comédie-Française (France’s principal national theatre company) and was determined to revive its flagging reputation; he knew about Offenbach and asked him to take charge of the music. Even though it was not opera, it offered Offenbach the chance to compose and arrange incidental music, to manage musicians and build up the orchestra and enhance his reputation in the theatre world.

He flourished and it gave him confidence to set up his own theatre. The early 1850s slowly evolved in Offenbach’s favour. By 1853 his experience at the Comédie-Française was yielding opportunities and contacts that saw the first couple of successful one-act opéras-comiques. He was inspired by the enterprise of another young composer, Hervé, who had successfully set up his own theatre in an unpropitious part of Paris. Offenbach spotted a small run-down theatre near the Champs-Élysées; he recognised the potential of a lively theatre near the forthcoming 1855 Universal Exposition; and finally, he met the recent founder of the great French daily Le Figaro, Henri de Villemessant who recognised Offenbach’s talents, and his energy and agreed to fund the enterprise.

Thereupon, Offenbach threw himself into the huge task of refurbishing the theatre, recruiting singers and musicians, engaging librettists and writing his own music for the four one-act opéras-bouffes that were to be presented on 5 July 1855 at the launch of the Bouffes-Parisiens.

The money poured in and in a few months Offenbach had found another, larger, more suitable theatre on rue Monsigny, that backed onto the Passage Choiseul in the fashionable 2nd Arrondissement. His theatre became the Bouffes-Parisiens, Choiseul. He spent lavishly on its furnishings and amenities and moved there before the end of 1855.

It was the start of Offenbach’s astonishing 25 year career during which a new genre of comic opera, strong on satire and irreverence was created. It brought him into the limelight at once , gave him financial security (though, no matter how much he flourished, his extravagant spending on productions and his own life-style made life always precarious).

The revival of the obscure and neglected
Palazetto Bru-Zane: Centre de musique romantique française
In recent years there has been a remarkable revival of interest in the forgotten and misjudged music of earlier eras. It has moved from a concentration on the Renaissance and Baroque periods to an effort to repair the neglect of the music of ‘second-tier’ composers, of the late 18th and 19th centuries whose music has been forgotten; mainly because of the emergence of an admittedly great composer who has left all others in the shade. It’s a sad commentary on the tendency of most people to confine their attention simply to the most famous figures in an era – life is simpler like that.

In the past ten years, neglected French opera, and its various lesser genres, has been subjected to resuscitation. It has been led by the Venice-based organisation called Palazetto Bru-Zane: Centre de musique romantique française. Based in a palace of an ancient, rich Venetian family, Zane, it has been funded and vigorously supported by a Swiss pharmaceutical company, Bru, which has for ten years poured funds into the production of neglected French operas. They are premiered in the small Venetian theatre and then seen in several co-productions with French opera companies. It is part of a broader aim to reinterpret the meaning of Romanticism in France, to explore the period before the Revolution (operas such as Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride (1779), Salieri’s Les Danaïdes (1784) and Sacchini’s Œdipe à Colone (1786), as well as to revive interest in orchestral works including symphonies by Gossec and Méhul.

The project has also awakened interest in the overlooked works of the post-Revolution period; in particular drawing attention to the creation of several important ‘Romantic’ works around 1830 and the time of the July Revolution that ended Charles X’s reign and launched that of Louis-Philippe (the July Monarchy). Great works of art, literature and music – essentially ‘Romantic’ in character – appeared as if the conservative atmosphere of the post-Napoleonic monarchy had finally gone: Victor Hugo’s Hernani and Notre Dame de Paris, Stendhal’s Le rouge et le noir, Delacroix’s La Mort de Sardanapale, Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, Adolphe Adam’s ballet Giselle, Rossini’s (by now a Frenchman) William Tell, and the Symphonie fantastique of Berlioz.

Their activities have been prodigious: look up:

And this year, naturally, it’s Offenbach. See:

NZSO marks Blake’s retirement with his haunting ‘Angel at Ahipara’, plus splendid Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky

Winter Daydreams

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Fawzi Haimor, conductor and Carolin Widman, violin

Christopher Blake: Angel at Ahipara
Stravinsky: Violin Concerto in D Major
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op.13, ‘Winter Daydreams’

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday, 20 June, 2019

Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, and a piece by a significant contemporary composer, Christopher Blake, might seem like popular programming, but as was evident by the large number of empty seats, the programme lacked wide appeal. Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony is seldom performed, Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto is very different from other more popular twentieth century violin concertos and Christopher Blake’s music is unknown territory. Yet it is important both for the orchestra and the audience to be confronted from time to time with the little known or unknown.

The theme common to all of these three works is the idea of exploration. Blake and Tchaikovsky attempted to give voice to a national identity, New Zealand and Russian, while Stravinsky looked for the bare bones of a violin concerto outside the lush romanticism of his contemporaries.

The inspiration for Blake’s Angel at Ahipara came from a black and white photo of a sculpture on a grave at a remote settlement of Ahipara, as well as from Colin McCahon’s colourful Northland Panels. Blake attempted to represent in music the idea of the Angel that Morrison expressed in photography and McCahon in painting. It is written for a string orchestra and describes seven aspects of the Angel in continuous development of largely minimalist themes, ranging from, peaceful, gentle, meditative, to the turbulent, reflecting the Angel giving hope, the soaring of his spirit, his vigil, the joy he brings and the storm that he calms. It is haunting, beautiful music that stays with you.

Stravinsky had misgivings about writing a violin concerto, but encouraged by Samuel Dushkin, for whom the concerto was commissioned and by Paul Hindemith, he produced a stripped down neo-Baroque work with chamber music texture. The concerto avoids virtuoso display and focuses on the dialogue between the solo violin and the orchestra. The four movements reflect Stravinsky’s interest in the Baroque. The sparkling Toccata has changes of meter, pulsating repeated notes and joyous violin acrobatics. The middle movements, the two Arias are lyrical, while the final movement, Capriccio is full of dazzling demonic energy. Carolin Widman played these with great authority and energy. It was a fine, insightful performance.

Tchaikovsky was just 25 when he embarked on his First Symphony. His teachers didn’t like it. It was different, it didn’t fit the German symphonic tradition. Tchaikovsky wrote a Russian work within the symphonic framework, using Russian folk song themes and strong dance rhythms. Unlike his teachers, Tchaikovsky liked the work and kept revising it. It is a long symphony, over 40 minutes long, but to the credit of the performance and Fawzi Haimor’s direction, it never flagged. An early work, it has its weaknesses. At times the flow of the music seems to stand still while another theme, another ideas is introduced, but these hiatuses lead to glorious, rich passages; and the second movement is one of the Tchaikovsky’s most enthralling pieces. The symphony required superb playing by brass and wind, and a luscious string tone from the strings.

At the end of the concert one came away with the feeling that your musical experiences had been greatly enriched, a testament to the playing by the orchestra under the direction of a fine conductor and with the contribution of a dazzling soloist.



Accomplished though unusual Donizetti Trio assembles a mixed bag programme: some very successful

Chamber Music Hutt Valley
Donizetti Trio (Luca Manghi – flute, Ben Hoadley – bassoon, David Kelly – piano)

Music by Vivaldi, Donizetti, Chris Adams, Respighi, Ben Hoadley, Bellini (via Eugene Jancourt) and Bizet (via Peter Simpson)

Little Theatre, Lower Hutt

Wednesday 19 June, 7:30 pm

The Donizetti Trio is a fairly rare beast; it rather looks as if three musician friends had the idea of playing as an ensemble, but were faced with the problem that hardly any music existed for their combination, and so they set about forcing other material to fit their needs.

That can work well, and to a degree, it did.

To start with, Vivaldi looks a good idea as he wrote hundreds of concertos including many for flute and orchestra; and this one, which exists in two versions. The first version, RV 104, is the more richly scored, for flute or violin and chamber orchestra, including bassoon as a bass component of the continuo. That’s the one we heard. Later he re-scored it to include (RV 439) in his Opus 10, stripping the orchestration, including the bassoon part.

The playing by both flute and bassoon was very convincing, quite virtuosic here and there, particularly in the Largo movement; though at times the bassoon was confined to its more elementary, accompanying function. Given that this version rather relied on its chamber ensemble backing, it left the piano with a burden that it could scarcely discharge. Nevertheless, the pianist revealed a sensitivity to music that was written neither for harpsichord (as it might have been in Vivaldi’s day) nor for piano.

Then came the piece that inspired the trio’s name, a Trio in F (for these instruments), one of Donizetti’s quite numerous chamber pieces which included a number of string quartets and many pieces for various other combinations. As one might expect, the writing is rather conventional, yet attractive and very listenable. And the affectionate performance could well have been felt to endow it with a significance that the even composer had not imagined.

Visual inspiration for Chris Adams and Ben Hoadley 
Chris Adams is an Auckland musician and composer. His Contemporary Triptych employs these three instruments in a singularly original and vivid way. The first, ‘Melancholic Aggression’, beginning with repeated chords (rooted I’d guess, about bottom C), that was eventually joined by the bassoon at the bottom and then flute at the top, moved slowly, without changing tonality, gradually becoming more varied and intense. The second, ‘Beautiful Machine’ was musically more lyrical (by now we get the idea of pictures embodying fundamentally contradictory emotions; in fact, though inspired by the art in Sir James Wallace’s collection). Though if the idea was to create something visual, it didn’t; nor did I need it. ‘Integrated Disconnect’: flute and bassoon duetting, as we’re told, in a disconnected way, while the piano drifted about, seemingly unconcerned. The limitations of the three disparate instruments were somehow exploited successfully to create a piece of music that succeeded in its intentions.

The leap from a triptych based on a non-existent visual source to Ben Hoadley’s arrangement of the Adoration of the Magi, the second of Respighi’s Botticelli Triptych, proved to be rather to the advantage of Adam’s piece. Hoadley was attracted to it as Respighi’s scoring of the medieval hymn ‘Veni, veni Emanuel’, quoted in it, is conspicuously for flute and bassoon. In spite of that, the task of compressing Respighi’s largescale orchestration into a piano part was a bit too hard.

The first piece in the second half was by Hoadley himself: Three poems by Gregory O’Brien, for alto flute and piano, but without a singer (and of course, without the composer’s bassoon), but the voice was hinted at by hard breathing sounds. There was a cool jazz interlude, a series of rolling figures at the bottom of the piano and some beguiling, soft lyrical passages from the flute. Only with the last poem, ‘Winter I was’, did a human voice appear as Hoadley emerged to speak the poem. It was one of those occasions in which more questions and not-understood sequences arose than clarifications.

Opera arrangements 
Finally, two fantasies, potpourris, from opera. Inevitably they got the biggest response from a fairly large audience. One of many arrangements of tunes from Bellini’s Norma: this one was by 19th century Paris Conservatoire bassoon professor, Eugene Jancourt, and suited the trio admirably; it suited the audience too, with the string of familiar arias from ‘Casta Diva’ onwards. The settings were attractive and they were played evocatively, almost as if real singers had materialised.  (It’s sad that the opera has hardly been seen in New Zealand in modern times apart from a Canterbury Opera production in 2002. That was the first professional production in New Zealand since the 1928 tour by the Fuller-Gonsalez Italian Grand Opera Company. Yet Norma was one of the operas brought by the very first touring company in 1864/65 and it was among the productions by many of the touring companies through the 1870s and 80s).

Even more familiar for today’s audiences is Carmen. One Peter Simpson (about whom I can find nothing on the Internet) arranged four pieces most effectively for these instruments. The combination here seemed to energise the three players to create sounds that evoked the character of the opera and its music remarkably.

The audience response at the end proved that my feelings were not isolated.



Inspirare as singular performers of Brahms choral pieces and part songs

Mark L. Stamper, artistic director

An Evening of Brahms: Resolution to Love

Vocal soloists: Alex Gandionco (soprano), Eleanor McGeechie (alto), Richard Taylor (tenor) and Joe Haddow (bass)
Rachel Thomson and Emma Sayers (piano) and Donald Armstrong (violin)

Central Baptist Church, 46 Boulcott Street

Saturday, 15 June 2019, 7:30 pm

This was a concert of music by one composer only, Brahms, and does not stray from traditional classical repertoire. Yet, apart from the piano solo, Rhapsody in G minor, Op 79, No 2, and the first movement of the Violin Sonata No 3 in D minor, Op. 108, the vocal works in the programme are seldom heard.

The concert opened with Vier Quartette, Op.92, sung by Alex Gandionco, soprano, Eleanor McGeechie, alto, Richard Taylor, tenor and Joe Haddow, bass. This is comparatively late Brahms, rich in texture. The four songs are settings of poems by four different poets, Daumier, Allmers, Hebbel, and Goethe. The first, ‘O schöne Nacht’ celebrates a lovely night, sweet comradeship and the young man who steals quietly to his sweetheart. The second, ‘Spätherbst’, is melancholy, the grey mist drops down silently, the flowers will bloom no more. The third, ‘Abendlied’, is about joy and anguish, life is like a lullaby. The final song, ‘Warum?’ asks the question: why do songs resound heavenwards and invoke warm blissful days. The four voices harmonized to beautiful effect.

Zigeunerlieder was sung by a group of eight, two sopranos, two altos, two tenors and two basses. These songs are not authentic gypsy songs, but they present an exotic quality through the use of Hungarian intervals, irregular rhythms and syncopation. They are a reflection of Brahms’s interest in what was considered at the time, exotic gypsy music, as in his better known Hungarian Dances. These songs are set to the text by the Hungarian folk poet Hugo Conrat. The performance by the small group of singers required great discipline, highlighted by the solo singing of tenor Theo Moolenaar. The ten songs are about love, longing, homesickness, disappointment, exile.

Liebeslieder Waltzer is a collection of eighteen short love songs in popular Ländler style, influenced by Schubert, whose Ländler he edited, but these also contain reference to Johann Strauss, who was at the height of his popularity. These were songs by the rest of the choir of sixteen voices, notably accompanied by two pianists, Emma Sayers and Rachel Thomson on one keyboard.

Inspirare is a vocal group like no other in Wellington. They are all individually, highly trained singers; they sing with precision, yet with appropriate lyricism and the concert reflected a sheer love of singing. The two instrumental interludes added to the enjoyment of the evening. Mark Stamper, the musical director of the group played the Brahms’s G minor Rhapsody with sensitivity, Donald Armstrong, associate concert master of the NZSO and Rachel Thomson of the New Zealand School of Music performed the first movement of Brahms’s third violin sonata with deep understanding and a beautiful tone. This greatly enhanced the concert of vocal music.

At the end of the concert, in response to the warm applause, the choir walked off the stage and came forward to stand alongside the audience and sang the beautiful Irish Blessing, arranged by Graeme Langare. This was a lovely conclusion to a memorable concert.

Inspirare are noted for their innovative, interesting programming. Their concerts are not to be missed.

The NZSO “reclaims the night” for Baroque composers at St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace, Wellington

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
THE NIGHT  – music by Corelli, Telemann, Vivaldi and Fux

Bridget Douglas (flute)
Vesa-Matti Leppänen (director/violin)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

CORELLI – Concerto Grosso in D Major Op.6 No.1
TELEMANN – Overture/Suite in D Major TWV 55:D.21
VIVALDI – Flute Concerto in G Minor Op.10 No.2
FUX – Overture in D Minor E109
TELEMANN – Overture/Suite in D Major TWV55:D.22

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

Saturday, 8th June, 2019

To my great relief the NZSO abandoned the idea of presenting this, the second concert of their Baroque Series, in Wellington Cathedral, the first concert there having been a mixed blessing of an affair, with the building’s cavernous acoustic the main impediment to enjoyment of the music. The strictures of the Capital’s current “earthquake-risk” regulations regarding many of its buildings has made finding a venue for concerts involving either large ensembles and/or vocal groups such as choirs, something of a near-intractable “business”. The continued unavailability of the Town Hall is the chief disruption, affecting chamber music as well as both orchestral and choral events; and the council’s spending priorities have now of course been torpedoed by the unexpected closure of the Public Library, whose restoration in whatever shape or form would almost inevitably take priority.

My apologies, at this point of my discourse, for not sufficiently “cautioning” the readership about the non-musical content of the above paragraph, which should have been earmarked with some kind of Government Health Warning regarding its sub-normal percentage of “cultural well-being” content. Anyway, I shall hereby “rescue” the remainder of this article for music, with a description of the concert whose heading “The Night” also graces this review! Most helpfully for all concerned, except for, perhaps, the hard-working players, this presentation was played twice in one evening here at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, presumably to cater for the audience numbers expected in the concert’s original, and much larger venue. I attended the evening’s later performance, and can report that the playing in no way sounded either “fatigued” or “over-cooked” through repetition, everything wrought freshly and immediately.

I enjoyed the programme hugely, featuring as it did music by composers whose work often falls into the “heard about but seldom heard” category – even Vivaldi, for all the popularity of his “The Four Seasons” concerti can be more often named than his music “sounded” for concert-goers these days. Telemann, too, though receiving a recent fillip in the NZSO’s previous “Baroque” Concert with his wonderful “Water Music”, isn’t played as often as his music warrants the attention – though as part of his spoken introduction to the items played tonight, leader Vesa-Matti Leppänen went out on a limb for the composer by confessing that Telemann’s was “his favourite” baroque music!

As for Corelli and Fux, the first-named, Arcangelo Corelli, has enjoyed some “added-value” renown with his use of the well-known Portuguese “La Folia” melody in parts of both his Violin Sonatas and his Op.6 Concerti Grossi, his borrowing “picked up” by none other than Rachmaninov who wrote a set of piano variations “after a theme by Corelli”, of course, none other than the “La Folia” theme!  Johann Joseph Fux (1660-1741) achieved fame throughout his lifetime not only as a composer but as a theorist, with his treatise on counterpoint “Gradus ad Parnassum” becoming perhaps the single most influential book on Renaissance polyphony ever written, influencing practically all the important composers of the classical era. Earlier he had been Court Composer to the Austrian Emperor Leopold I, Kapellemeister at St.Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, and Music Director at the Imperial Court, the highest position of any composer in Europe. He composed operas and oratorios besides instrumental works, but then confined himself to sacred works for the final ten years of his life, after his wife’s death. It was left to Ludwig Ritter von Köchel, also Mozart’s cataloguer, to bring out a biography, and a catalogue of Fux’s work, and thus help reinstate his importance as a composer, midway through the nineteenth century – though his reputation as a dry-as-dust theorist and relatively insignificant composer still needs more pro-active campaign work!

Corelli’s first Op.6 Concerto Grosso began the concert, with rich, warmly-bowed playing throughout a graceful introduction, the voices varied and mellifluous – the first of a number of surges of allegro-energy brought out virtuoso playing from cellist Ken Ichinose, ably supported by his colleagues, the opening movement’s music switching spontaneously between a kind of poised pre-excitement, and exuberantly-released running energies, extremely theatrical and dramatic in effect. The following episodes featured beguiling exchanges between the concertino (solo instruments) and ripieno (accompanying forces), the former involving sweet, sinuous playing from solo violinists Vesa-Matti Leppänen and Janet Armstrong, the music constantly on the move, here suggesting a stillness created by the murmur of continuo instruments only, and there joyously alternating the sweetness of solo string-lines with the richness and grandeur of the full band.

The first of Telemann’s two Overtures (alternatively called “Suites”) in D Major (TWV 55:D.21) covered a lot of musical ground in its quarter-of-an-hour of glory, bringing winds and horns to the platform to diversify the range and scope of the piece’s sonic territories. After a proudly vigorous dotted-rhythm opening, with fabulous oboe and horn exchanges flavouring “civilised” strings with bracing “out-of-door” ambiences, we got a warmly relaxed  “plainte” (complaint), followed by the “madcap dance” (which Vesa-Matti warned us we were in for!) a Réjouissance like no other! Like a sane moment amid mad outbursts, the Carillon charmed our sensibilities, a liquid pizzicato setting off the pair of oboes’ graceful and delicious lines. Back to tumult we were taken with the “Tintamarre”, a piece setting out to “make a din”, the lines garrulous and unrelieved, mercifully brief! The following Loure seemed to me somewhat tipsy of gait, well-intentioned in its fulsome insistence, but making as if to wobble at speed! The concluding Menuet would have none of these foibles, marshalling the strings in the direction of “a good show” though the quirky trio brought smiles with the winds almost garrulously echoing the oboes’ phrases…..

At the other end of the concert stood, sentinel-like, another Telemann Suite, also in D Major TWV 55:D.22), and just as “characterful” a work as its concert companion, this one sporting its own subtitle – Ouverture jointe d’une suite tragi-comique – and taking further the idea of linking music of a specific character to people and situations, an idea that had become very popular in France at the time, especially in keyboard music. In this music Telemann portrayed various human ailments, proffering as well, by way of compensation, a number of quirky remedies.

A sprightly introduction was punctuated by timpani and drums, the music energised further by a jig-like figure, presumably depicting rude health. Not so the laboured, pain-ridden walking gait of “Le Podagre” (according to Vesa-Matti, depicting somebody afflicted with gout!) – two remedies followed, a mail-coach, the trumpets sounding its arrival amid measures of energetic dancing (the characterisations amusing in their brisk, unequivocal application!). Next was L’Hypochondre (Hypochondria) which  gave no rest or relaxation, the melancholy punctured by fevered anxieties. Here, the remedy, Souffrance héroïque (heroic suffering) marched in on the full ensemble (broad grins all round!). There remained the sin of Pride, sounds of overweening self-importance filling the vistas with grand contrivance in the form of resounding drum and trumpet-led cadences of ostentation! All was then blown away by fast and furious figurations from strings and winds, madhouse characterisations underpinned gloriously by brasses and timpani, the deadly sin delivered its come-uppance in grand style!

Though more overtly “serious” in intent, an Overture by the intriguing Johann Joseph Fux gave notice as to our loss with his relative neglect – a confident, bright-toned introduction strutted its stuff, the strings double by oboes bright and assertive throughout, the allegro leaping eagerly forwards, marshalling its varied lines, both concertino and ripeno, oboes to the upper strings what the bassoon was to the lower lines, giving the tones edge and colour, and contributing to the “schwung” of the music’s trajectories.

Fux’s melodies demonstrated a leaping, athletic quality in sequences like the Menuet, equally exploring a different vein of expression in the Aria, the oboes long-breathed and lyrical, singing in tandem with the strings until being moved along by the Fuga’s urgently-propelled lines, the themes tossed about most energetically, the string lines occasionally pulsating with shivers of excitement before joining in the solemn stepwise Lentenment transitions towards a warm-hearted Gigue, strings and winds echoing the dancing figures, a final Aria section restoring the occasion’s dignity, winds and strings bringing the dance to a somewhat wistful strings-only conclusion.

Captivated as I was by all these delights, the evening had already delivered its coup de grace for me immediately after the interval, with the appearance of flutist Bridget Douglas to play the concert’s most overtly spectacular item, Vivaldi’s “La Notte” Flute Concerto, one of a set of six which comprised the composer’s Op.10 – it was certainly the most visually arresting of the evening’s performances, the figure of the soloist taking on a kind of alluring sorceress-like aspect in her red dress, putting all of us in thrall with the spell cast by her playing and the evocative choreography of her movements, along with that of the other players, a scenario whose potency was enhanced by the use of imaginative backdrop lighting.

In terms of the musical language it was probably the concert’s most accessible item, owing to the music’s kinship to the well-known “The Four Seasons” set of concerti in places – in fact part of one of the slower sequences of the music seemed almost like a direct crib by the composer of his own music from  the “Autumn” concerto out of that work. The rest, however, was of a piece with the work’s title – a kind of foreboding generated at the beginning, then impulses of the most volatile and unpredictable kind, tremendous playing from the soloist herself and split-second support from her instrumental cohorts, before the opening mood returned, giving way to another quick section called “Phantasms” – then came the Largo movement reminiscent of “The Four Seasons” before a final Presto skitterishly completed the music’s nightmare, the work concluding on an extraordinarily portentous, minor-key trill.  Phantasmagorical stuff! – all part of a presentation that would have enlarged the average listener’s appreciation of the fantastic array of depth and variety to be found in Baroque music.

Martin Riseley in the second splendid recital of Bach solo violin sonatas and partitas, benefit for St Andrew’s organ restoration

Martin Riseley (violin)
Bach solo violin partitas and sonatas plus New Zealand composers

Bach: Partita No 3 in E major; Sonata No 3 in C major; Partita No. 2 in D minor
Gareth Farr: Wakatipu
Psathas: Gyftiko

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Friday 7 June, 6:30 pm

At one of last year’s lunchtime concerts at St Andrew’s Martin Riseley played one each of Bach’s solo partitas and sonatas, and it led to the suggestion that he might play all six of them. And so he did: he played the first three last month and here were the last three.

This second recital was a generous benefit concert to assist with the restoration of the pipe organ; and Susan Jones spoke about its necessity while organist Peter Franklin gave pithy demonstrations of the character of the organ and examples of its deficiencies.

I should also remark at my surprise that this splendid recital didn’t attract a full house, as I think there are no greater works in the violin repertoire, and Riseley is among the finest violinists in the country.

Though Martin’s notes printed in the programme leaflet are admirable and revelatory (and worth asking St Andrew’s whether they can be emailed), I cannot resist the temptation to share some other particularly illuminating remarks. Here’s what Hilary Hahn wrote to accompany her performances recorded on YouTube: Alongside Paganini’s 24 Caprices for solo violin and Bach’s six cello suites, his Partitas and Sonatas (three apiece) for solo violin stand out among their comparatively few siblings as magnificent music written for an unaccompanied stringed instrument. And while they also represent the zenith of polyphonic writing for a non-keyboard instrument, Bach’s sonatas and partitas were also crucially important in the development of violin technique. With their colossal scope, huge technical demands, and musical complexity, and notwithstanding their awesome intellectual intensity, these creations greatly transcended anything that had preceded them…’

Partita No 3 in E
Riseley began with the third partita and worked in the reverse of the order in which they appear in the Bach catalogue; so that he could end with the second Partita and its great Chaconne. 

The Preludio of the E major Partita is a cheerful, energetic movement to which Riseley contributed the warmth of his fine violin and his own expansive and generous playing. But it’s the Loure that strikes one as contributing something rather special. Forgive me for commenting on this unusual musical dances: best described, from an Internet site: ‘A slow, dignified, French dance of the 17th and 18th centuries usually in 3/4 or 6/4 time. The name derived from a bagpipe used in Normandy; the dance is usually in 6/4 time and has been described as a slow gigue. Examples are found in Bach’s E major partita and in the fifth of his French suites’ (  It’s a reticent, meditative piece whose spirit seems to remain throughout the whole partita.

The Gavotte is one of the more familiar pieces, fresh and spontaneous, while the obligatory menuets are more subdued, the second one takes a more subdued character, almost sounding as if it’s moved to the minor key, though it hasn’t.

Psathas: Gyftiko 
Then came the first of the New Zealand interludes: Psathas’s Gyftiko (or γυφτικο; though not in my Greek dictionary, ‘daddy’ according to ‘Google translate’). Though a test-piece for the Michael Hill Violin Competition, it’s quite an elaborate and substantial piece: melodic, frenzied, unpredictable, and Riseley would presumably have impressed the judges if he had been a competitor.

Bach Sonata No 3 in C 
The third sonata is an imposing piece too: sombre, polyphonic in its Adagio, but its extended Fuga is its core and Riseley allowed its rather near spiritual affinity with the Chaconne of the last partita into view; its imposing fugal structure was its most impressive feature, often sounding as if two or more instruments were involved. Its tone was often so mellow and rich that I looked for a mute on the bridge, but it wasn’t there. The subdued Largo offered no foretaste of the splendid, well-known finale – an Allegro assai with which Riseley brought the first half to a joyous and brilliant conclusion.

Gareth Farr’s piece for the Michael Hill competition, Wakatipu, provided the filling before the second partita, and its Chaconne. Competition pieces have historically been little more than hair-raising technical exploits, but both Psathas and Farr offered much more significant and interesting works and I enjoyed the chance to hear both, so seriously and brilliantly played.

Partita No 2 in D minor 
The second Partita is about half an hour in length. Its movements were omitted from the programme: Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gigue, Chaconne. Riseley noted that it should really be heard in the order that Bach prescribed – after the A minor Sonata (unlike other sets of pieces, the first four sonatas and partitas are in minor keys; only the third of each is in the major). Its D minor key takes charge of its spirit: sombre and serious and profound. The Allemande opened with a sense of wonder, with long, even passages that anchored it through its long piano episodes. The Courante can hardly be called jocular; neither is it spectacular technically, simply preparing us for the first of the two slow, triple-time movements: the Sarabande, which in turn offers in mood, a hint of the spirit and complexity of the Chaconne, though we pass through the humane, cheerful Gigue that’s not really a great technical feat, unlike the great Chaconne to come.

To be present for this performance was a wonderful experience: no hearing from even the greatest violinist on air or an excellent recording can match the live experience; certainly not one as excellent and as satisfying as we heard from Martin Riseley. All the complex emotional, technical and interpretative demands that Bach presents were so beautifully executed and revealed. Here was a performance that made me quite forget Busoni (whose famous piano version I do love), as I became enchanted and overcome by the music’s endless invention and the dynamic and rhythmic variety that the player must deal with. As a long-time lover of the cello suites, this made me realise that none of them contains a movement that approaches this Chaconne.

The audience response at the end was immediate, noisy, even rapturous, and they all knew they has made an infinitely better choice for a Friday evening than the unfortunates who weren’t at this unique recital.

Orchestra Wellington – gone vinyl to splendid effect with live Beethoven

BEETHOVEN – Symphonies Nos.1 & 3
Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Symphony No. 1 in C Major Op. 21
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Op. 55 “Eroica”

(recorded “live” at the Michael Fowler Centre:
Symphony No. 1 on 13th May 2017 – Engineer, Graham Kennedy
Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” on 2nd December 2017 – Engineers, Darryl Stack, Steve Burridge

Orchestra Wellington OWTOWN 001/1-2 (LP issue)
(also available on CD – Concordance Records)

I was there at the 2018 concert when conductor Marc Taddei and Orchestra Wellington launched their ground-breaking classical recording release of two Beethoven Symphonies, recorded “live” at separate Michael Fowler Centre concerts the previous year – and what was more, caught on two splendidly appointed vinyl discs which were displayed most tellingly to a visibly gobsmacked and positively enthusiastic audience. Being an originally-pressed vinyl aficionado, I failed to take much notice of what Marc Taddei might have said about the CD issue of this release, though I registered that such a thing did and does exist, obviously giving the pleasure to be had from these splendid performances even wider currency.

For, to borrow from the words of the old song, I only had eyes for the startlingly, vividly-presented  2-LP vinyl set, one disc snow-white, and the other fire-engine red, both discs being enthusiastically brandished by the conductor (oh! – those poor, precious record surfaces – careful!!) their colours replicated with the words “Orchestra Wellington LIVE” on the outer gatefold sleeve housing the LPs. The publicity I’ve seen since makes much of the recent phenomenon of a “vinyl comeback” amongst the music-buying public, with artists across the board declaring for a number of reasons their newly-found allegiance to the grand old, tried-and-true medium; so a venture like this puts the Orchestra into the forefront world-wide of matters pertaining to the presentation of music in a lasting format.

I was thrilled to get hold of a copy of the LP set, though its arrival coincided with “troubles” developed by my equipment, so that I had to take the recordings for their first hearing to a friend’s abode and listen to them on his (admittedly, far superior to mine in quality) system.  We played the opening movement of the “Eroica”, and, thanks to the skills of recording engineers Darryl Stack and Steve Burridge, found ourselves in what sounded like “the best seats in the hall”, the full flavour of what I remembered from the actual concert coming across as an even more beautifully-balanced sound-picture, and with plenty of “audience ambience” to add to the occasion’s impact.

I reviewed the concert at which the “Eroica” was played in Middle C soon afterwards – and hearing the performance again merely confirmed my opinion as to its quality – what struck me afresh when I finally got the chance to hear the whole of the symphony on my “restored” sound equipment was a characteristic that it shared with all of the “great” performances I had heard, whether monumental, like Klemperer’s or Barbirolli’s, or swift and incisive, like Toscanini’s or Karajan’s, a sense of an unbroken, vibrant musical line sounding and resounding throughout the whole work. This was brought about less by speed than by a sense of unremitting forward movement, enabled by incisive orchestral attack and clearly-focused phrasings – not a bar, not a phrase, not a musical sentence in this performance reflected anything but the inevitability of the whole, the viewpoint of an eagle’s eye. Even what seemed like the most discursive sequences, such as the famous Trio of the Scherzo, featuring the three playful horns, or a most charming variant of the finale’s opening “Prometheus” bass theme in triplets, here ear-catchingly played by solo strings, kept the argument moving forwards, whether teasingly or quirkily, always with the work’s end in the conception’s ear.

New to me was the performance of the First Symphony, which took up Side One of the first of two discs. Taddei and his players gave Beethoven’s somewhat off-beat opening to the work plenty of sounding-space before the strings nimbly set the allegro dancing, the rushing figurations turning to gossamer at the conductor’s tempo, in places the playing sounding as light and airy as thistledown! Having been brought up in this Symphony with the renowned “Kingsway Hall bloom” on the strings in Klemperer’s 1950s version (captured for all time in what was perhaps London’s most well-known recording venue), I thought the sound here beautifully balanced by engineer Graham Kennedy while honestly reflecting the hall’s clear but ungiving quality. If there was little “bloom” the players at least generated whole spadefuls of bubbling energy, each one thrusting upwards, eager to be released.

I enjoyed the ongoing concert ambience in between the symphony’s movements – leaving the microphones “on” was an inspired, enlivening idea, readily recapturing the “whole” occasion’s atmosphere, one which the performances had worked so hard to help bring about in the first place.
The second movement’s brisk, eagerly-phrased dance firmly placed the work in the “Haydn” era, Taddei and the players generating moments of dramatic insistence in the movement’s development section, both strings and timpani accentuating their dotted-rhythm figurations to thrilling effect!  I liked, also, how the Scherzo’s gait wasn’t rushed, but had space in which to “point” the rhythms, and allow the timpani’s contributions plenty of clarity, the Trio similarly relaxed and contrastingly lyrical in character – I have to confess I especially enjoyed the unexpected second-half repeat when it came, in the recap of the opening!

The finale sounded here very Leonore No.3-ish at the outset with trumpets and drums prominently sounding, Taddei then getting his strings to “tease” in a delightfully po-faced way before the allegro skipped its way into the sound-picture. Brimful with infectious energy as things got properly going, the playing gave detailings like the timpani figures opportunities for plenty of robust prominence, with the churning vortex mid-movement gaily teased back into the mainstream by the chirpy winds. It was left to a celebratory, festive-sounding coda to round off the work, bringing forth instant and enthusiastic acclaim from an appreciative audience at the end.

So, these are two remarkably compelling and attractively presented performances! Very great credit to all concerned for this venture, in my view admirable and successful on all counts! Orchestra Wellington’s Marketing Manager Marek Peszynski has already aired some further recording ideas and options – one waits with bated breath to see what will come of it all. The idea of combining popular repertoire with contemporary New Zealand pieces is a laudable one, but there are some New Zealand classics that could do with some help along the way – David Farquhar’s challenging, ambient, descriptive and resonant First Symphony for one! We will all have our wish-lists, but I’d like to think that we’ll also equally get behind and support whatever this remarkable orchestra and its inspirational music director, together with its enterprising and progressive administration, will come up with next!