Emotion-laden concert an appropriate response to the remembrance of the Holocaust

Music of Remembrance

Compositions by Laurence Sherr

Elegy and Vision (1993)
Flame Language (2008)
Khayele’s Waltz (2018)
Sonata for Cello and Piano – Mir zaynen do! (2014)

Adam Concert Room, New Zealand School of Music, Victoria University of Wellington

Tuesday 30 July 2019, 7 pm

Laurence Sherr is Composer-in-Residence and Professor of Music at Kennesaw State University, Georgia. He is a prolific and versatile composer. The son of a couple who escaped Poland just before the outbreak of the Second World War and settled in the United States, he has a strong interest in the Holocaust and Holocaust education. He lectures all over the world on Holocaust remembrance music and first came to Wellington for the 2014 Conference on Suppressed Music at Victoria University of Wellington. His compositions range from the avant-garde to the accessible, and include new timbres, spatiality, nature, and Judaic music. He is especially interested in music as a mode of resistance and a means for survival.

The first work on the programme was Elegy and Vision, a work for solo cello. Sherr wrote it in memory of his brother who died young. It employs cantorial lamentations used in Jewish memorial prayers. Like Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, a transcription of the memorial prayer on the Day of Atonement, the music suits the deep mournful passages on the cello. The repeated phrases, the sounds of crying, the high notes evoke heart-breaking sorrow. Some of the music had the quality of improvisation, but there was also a note of rebellion, with a dramatic passage ending with plucked strings and harsh dissonance. Inbal Megiddo played with great sensitivity and a beautiful rich tone.

The next piece, Flame Language, was performed by Margaret Medlyn (mezzo-soprano), Deborah Rawson (clarinet), Inbal Megiddo (cello), Jian Liu (piano), and Leonard Sakofsy (percussion), conducted by Donald Maurice. This is an unusual combination of instruments with the percussionist moving from one set of percussion instruments to another and adding colourful sounds to the ensemble. The song is a setting of a poem by the Jewish Nobel Prize winning poet, Nelly Sachs, who found sanctuary in Sweden during the period of the Holocaust. The poem, ‘The Candle that I have Lit For You’ comes from a collection of poems, Prayer for the Dead Bridegroom. Although these poems are about the Holocaust, written in Sweden about friends and relatives who were left behind and died in Poland, they are also about universal suffering. The music opens with an extended introduction using the particular tones of each instrument, the clarinet plays Jewish modal patterns, then the mezzo-soprano comes in with a haunting melodic line. Margaret Medlyn sang this beautifully. The various instruments explore the components of the musical theme. It is an interesting work that is hard to place in the context of contemporary music.

Khayele’s Waltz was based on a song written by a fifteen year old girl in the ghetto. It is written for an unusual combination of two instruments: a clarinet, played by Deborah Rawson, and cello, played by Inbal Megiddo. It makes use of a well known Yiddish melody, but set to a dissonant duet capturing the disturbing memory of the period. The cello and the clarinet echo each other, but out of sync, creating uneasy tension.

The final work, the longest, was the Sonata for Cello and Piano, played by Inbal Megiddo and Jian Liu. It attempts to deliberately tell the story of the Holocaust as an act of defiance, resistance and hope of survival. Sherr uses five well known songs embedded in the work, a song associated with resistance in the Vilna ghetto, ‘El Mo V’Rahamim’, the Jewish memorial prayer, sung notably by Cantor Shlomo Katz, spared on the edge of a mass grave from execution when he was allowed to sing this for those who had been killed, and the final movement, a set of eight variations on the Jewish Partisan song Mir Zaynen Do. This song was inspired by the news of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the words set to the melody from a pre-war Soviet film. It became one of the chief anthems of Holocaust survivors. The words are:

“Never say that you have reached the very end,
When leaden skies a bitter future may portend;
For sure the hour for which we yearn will yet arrive,
And our marching step will thunder: we survive!”

These were very meaningful words not only for those who survived the Holocaust, but also for young Zionists who saw Israel as a shield against future threats to Jews. It is an impressive and difficult work for the cello, but it is weighted by too much history. Incorporating emotionally laden themes in a piece of music presents special problems. Tchaikovsky did it in the 1812 Overture, Beethoven did it in the Battle Symphony, but these themes were not the substance of the music. In Sherr’s Cello Sonata it was impossible to separate the musical content from the emotion that the contemplation of history involved. Having said this, many in the audience were greatly moved by this long difficult piece, which was brilliantly played by Jian Liu and Inbal Megiddo.

It was an emotionally laden concert, and perhaps this moving reaction is the appropriate response to the remembrance of the Holocaust. It is to the great credit of the New Zealand School of Music that it has staff from different corners of the world capable of preparing, playing and recording this music. All the players participating in this concert deserve our accolade.

The best drawn from Wellington Youth Orchestra in taxing programme under Donald Armstrong

Wellington Youth Orchestra (WYO)
Guest conductor – Donald Armstrong

Dukas: Fanfare to precede La Péri
Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings in C Major, Op. 48
Weill: Little Threepenny Music (Kleine Dreigroschenmusik)
Enescu: Rhapsody No. 1 in A major

St Andrews on The Terrace

Sunday 28 July 2019, 7 pm

The Wellington Youth Orchestra is the only full-size symphony orchestra for young players in Wellington. The ages of the members range from 25 to 13. They all have to go through a rigorous audition to join. The orchestra has an important place in the Wellington musical scene, not only for the varied and interesting programmes it offers, but because it is a stepping stone for young people who aspire to be professional musicians. A number of its alumni now study overseas or are members of professional orchestras. These include Gemma New, who is now carving out a successful career as a conductor in Canada and the US. In an interview she talked about the sheer pleasure of being part of an orchestra and its sound produced through the cooperation of a large team. This pleasure radiated from more than 60 young musicians who participated in this concert. The programme was designed for orchestral training as much as for its musical interest.

The concert opened with a Fanfare to precede Dukas’ ballet La Péri. Dukas is now mainly remembered for his Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but in his time he was a greatly respected teacher and composer. He was extremely critical of his own music and destroyed most of his works, which almost included La Péri. The ballet is now largely forgotten, but its magnificent fanfare which was originally used as the opener for the ballet is still enjoyed. It was played by the full brass section. Getting an ensemble of brass players to play with the subtlety and clarity that is demanded in an orchestra is a challenge to which these players responded ably. It was a grand piece that made the various brass instrumentalists listen to each other and make their sounds blend.

Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings was the string section’s opportunity to shine. The gorgeous rich string sound reverberated in the friendly acoustics of the church. The title and the structure of this work paid homage to Mozart and 18th century divertimento music, but Tchaikovsky renders these in his own Russian late 19th century idiom. The work is in the traditional four movements, ‘ I Pezzo in forma di Sonatina’, ‘Waltzer’, ‘Élégie’, and ‘Finale’. The first movement is a beautiful rich chorale scored for the whole orchestra with the cellos playing lots of fast notes underneath a slower moving passage in the upper strings. The cellos came through with an opulent sound, while the upper strings played the melody with a rich silky tone. The second movement, the Waltz, takes the place of the 18th century minuet. It is the best known part of the work, often played on its own. The third movement is lyrical, elegiac, with a hint of Tchaikovsky’s other worldly fairy tale like music. The final movement goes from a subdued opening based on a Russian theme to a vibrant section of Russian dance sequence. The orchestra played with clear precision and confidence, undaunted by the difficult filigree passages of this substantial symphonic work.

The brass and the strings having had their turn to shine, it was the turn of the winds and percussion to display their skills in Kurt Weill’s Little Threepenny Music. The cultural gulf between the Berlin of the 1920s and Wellington of 2019 is huge, but the group of eight woodwind, four brass, piano, banjo and guitar, and percussion managed to capture the cynical, decadent feel of the popular themes from the Threepenny Opera, all tinged with parody. It is a difficult work with all the players exposed in solo parts. Credit to the whole team for tackling this seemingly light but technically difficult piece. It is very enjoyable music.

The whole orchestra came together for the final work, Enescu’s Rhapsody No. 1. This is an early work, based on popular dance tunes and songs of the time. It uses Romanian dance rhythms that get faster and faster until they get to a quite dizzying speed. It is ebullient, and outgoing, with none of the barbaric quality of the music of his contemporary, Bartók, who also explored the music of Romania. A clarinet, introduces the theme song that is gradually taken up by the whole orchestra. It is exuberant music and the large orchestra in full flight playing these wild gypsy rhythms was a joy to behold.

For an encore the orchestra played Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance from his ballet Gayane. It is a rumbustious, energetic piece, very appropriate for this concert by young musicians to end on.

Donald Armstrong is in appearance modest, self-effacing, but as Associate Concert Master of the NZSO, and vastly experienced conductor of various ensembles, he knew how to get the best from his players. He allowed them to play with confidence, gave them space, air, and freedom to express themselves. He let them play with a bold sound, yet still playing with discipline.

The Wellington Youth Orchestra is a great asset to the city. Such a concert augurs well for the city’s musical future.

The next concert of the WYO is on Sunday, 5 October.

The programme will include Saint-Saëns, Bruch and Glazunov.



Warming our hearts in mid-winter – Cantoris directed by Thomas Nikora

Cantoris Choir presents:
Music by Eric Whitacre, Morgan Andrew-King, Samuel Berkahn, Thomas Nikora, Robert Schumann, Ludwig van Beethoven and Josef Haydn

ERIC WHITACRE – Sleep / The Seal Lullaby / Lux Aurumque
SAMUEL BERKAHN – With Ships the Sea was Sprinkled
ROBERT SCHUMANN – The Two Grenadiers
JOSEF HAYDN – Cello Concerto in C Major (Ist Mvt.)
THOMAS NIKORA – Mass in E Minor

Barbara Paterson (soprano)
Morgan-Andrew King (baritone)
Samuel Berkahn (‘cello)
Liam Furey (piano)
Diana Muggleston (violin)
Thomas Nikora (piano and conductor)
Cantoris Choir

St.Mark’s Chapel, St. Mark’s Church School,

Saturday 27th July 2019

This was the kind of programme whose content and presentation couldn’t have done a better job of warming the cockles of both audience hearts and sensibilities, having already drawn our attention via the concert’s title to the evening’s delightful and characteristic seasonal ambiences. Choral items naturally enough made up the lion’s share of the presentations, but by way of contrast and variety we heard two songs for baritone with piano, and a piano-accompanied movement from a Haydn ‘Cello Concerto . Amazingly, too, we were given, during the course of the concert, no less than three (presumably world) premieres of works all written by composer/performers associated with Cantoris Choir, two of the singers and the choir’s conductor. It was all in line with an overall warmth of utterance that suggested “living music”, as if we were at something like a Bach family get-together, with various members coming forward as both creators and performers.

The  work of American composer Eric Whitacre has figured prominently of late in choral concerts worldwide, his range of compositions catering for professional and amateur groups alike. Here we had three of his works, each of  which illustrated both the music’s attractive craftsmanship and ready accessibility as regards performers and audiences. I should have liked to have heard Whitacre’s original setting of Robert Frost’s words from his poem “Stopping by Woods of a Snowy Evening” for his “Sleep” (the composer was denied publishing rights for his work by the poet’s estate, and new words for the setting had to be substituted!), but the alternative text seemed just as evocative for Whitacre’s purposes – the final word “sleep” (shared by the original Frost poem) made a haunting conclusion to a finely-crafted, sonorous performance by the choir.

I recently encountered Morgan-Andrew King on the operatic stage in the NZSM production at the Hannah Playhouse of Puccini’s one-acter Gianni Schicchi (playing the part of one of the avaricious relatives awaiting the death of a would-be benefactor), so was, naturally enough, intrigued to find that he composed as well as performed – his work  River of Song was inspired, he told us in a spoken introduction by the Waikato River, the writing cleverly evoking the movement of water, the piece’s wordless opening  conjuring up a multitude of impulses, currents and streamlets whose lines coalesced in rich harmonic surges that expanded warmly at climaxes, everything truly suggesting that the composer “knew” the music’s subject well.

Another Eric Whitacre piece The Seal Lullaby readily “sounded” its name, the story of the piece’s genesis and history adding to its piquancy – a most affecting lullaby, with a beautiful piano accompaniment. The piece’s wordless sequences took on a “living instrumental” quality, enhanced by the choir’s gorgeously-voiced tunings – lovely stuff!  As a comparison, Lux Aurumque, the piece that followed, by the same composer, had a far more “international” quality, a “sheen” whose quality impressed for different reasons to the Seal Lullaby. At the piece’s end the choir managed some exquisite harmonisings set against held notes.

Samuel Berkahn brought a breath of bracing air to the proceedings with his assertion that his music would, after Eric Whitacre’s, “wake everybody up!”. His piece, beginning with a catchy “waltz-trot” kind of rhythm, was named with words of Wordsworth’s, and set melodic lines to angular piano accompaniments, the voices teetering on the edges of fugues throughout their exchanges, Berkahn hinting tongue-in-cheek at his recent interest in Renaissance madrigals and baroque polyphony, and keeping us “primed” as to their encoded presences.

After the interval, we were treated to two songs, each of whose subject-matter was steeped in the early Romantic era, and given suitably full-blooded treatment via the sonorous baritone voice of Morgan-Andrew King, firstly with Schumann’s ballade-like setting of Heine’s verses “Die beiden Grenadiere”, telling the story of two French soldiers making their way home from the Napoleonic Wars, only to learn that their beloved Emperor had been imprisoned. Schumann effectively contrasts the over-the-top patriotism of the French soldier, complete with the “Marseilles” quotation, with the sombre, utterly downcast piano postlude, superbly “voiced” by Thomas Nikora. King’s beautiful and sonorous voice I thought captured the “heroic” aspect of the song to perfection, though still leaving room for future explorations of the conflicted and contrasting range of emotion from each of the men. However, in Beethoven’s setting of Goethe’s “Song of the Flea”, the singer’s characterisations ignited more readily, working hand-in-glove with Thomas Nikora’s impish, volatile rendering of the piano part, and instantly engaging our interest and delight – marvellous!

Samuel Berkahn returned to the platform, this time with his ‘cello, to perform for us the opening movement of Haydn’s sunny C-major ‘Cello Concerto. With Thomas Nikora leading the way, bringing the opening orchestral “tutti” excitingly to life on the piano, the ‘cellist took up the challenge right from his opening phrase, superbly “sprung” at first, then full-throated and song-like in the second subject group, the solo lines speaking, bubbling and glowing. Intonation was sometimes a bit hit-and-miss in the instrument’s higher registers, but the overall line of the performance remained, thanks to the player’s energy and “recovery instinct” keeping the musical fabric taut and even, and maintaining a sense of enjoyment and buoyancy.

Which brought us to the third premiere of the evening’s concert, Thomas Nikora’s Mass in E minor, a work which the composer told us was inspired by his performing with Cantoris another Mass, that by Schubert, in G Major (D.167), and which Nikora had promised himself he would complete for his fourth year as Cantoris’s music director (time flies!). He mentioned also the Latin Mass’s flexibility and versatility as a text for musical settings, allowing him so many creative possibilities and options. Along with the SATB choir, the composer scored the work for solo soprano, violin, cello and piano.

Beginning with the Kyrie, the composer’s promise that there will be “plenty of fugal stuff” was immediately suggested with the voices’ opening contrapuntal entries, giving way to the solo soprano (the angelic-voiced Barbara Paterson) without a break at the Christe eleison with soaring lyrical lines. The return of the Kyrie was announced by the tenors with clipped, fugal figures, the texture thereby considerably enlivened with staccato chatterings, urgent and insistent, but softened by lyrical utterances from Samuel Berkahn’s cello.

Without a break, the Gloria burst in, the sopranos doing some lovely stratospheric work, and the pianist, Liam Furey, moulding beautiful bell-like chords to accompany “Et in terra pax hominibus”, the section somewhat surprisingly finishing with an “Amen”, allowing the Laudamus te to start afresh – again very fugal, and leading to a fanfare-like “Glorificamus te” with contrapuntal lines encircling the music. Violinist Diana Muggleston sweetly added her instrument’s voice to that of the cello to prepare for the soprano’s contribution to Gratias agimus tibi, an angel’s pure and fervent exclamation of thanks. I did feel here that the music had too many “stop-starts”, and that the whole could have been given a stronger sense of  “through-line” via the occasional ear-catching transition, imagining, for instance, that the morphing into waltz-time at the Domine Deus from the Gratias would have a stunning effect!

A true-and-steady solo voice (that of Ruth Sharman’s) from the choir introduced each line of Qui tollis peccata mundi, the effect moving and empathetic – as was Barbara Paterson’s delivery of Quoniam, being joined as sweetly by the choir’s sopranos after the solo utterances. And, while not as toe-tappingly infectious as Rossini’s “Cum sancto spiritum” fugue from the latter’s Petite Messe sollenelle, Nikora’s setting of the same passage had plenty of spirit, with wreaths of garlanded “Amens” honouring the deity’s glory, and violin and ‘cello lines most satisfyingly adding their voices to the tumult.

The Credo opened urgently, “running” in a fugal sense, and serious and sombre in tone,  the instruments keeping the fugal spin going underneath the voices’ “Et in unum Dominum”, then movingly ritualise the central “Et incarnatus est” with chorale-like accompaniments to the voices’ focused fervour, the soprano further lyricising the line “Crucifixus estiam pro nobis” (He was crucified for us), until the instruments cranked up the running accompaniments to Et resurrexit with exciting, stamping staccato figures. Then, true to intent, the music “grew” a giant fugal structure from Et in spiritus sanctus, all voices woven into the fabric in fine style – a strong, sudden major-key “Amen” brought to an end this impressive musical declamation of faith.

But not the Mass as such, of course – whose next sequence turned convention on its head with a Sanctus set in what sounded like the rhythmic trajectory of a Habanera! It made for a treasurable  “Now that I have your attention” moment, flecked with grins of delight from all sides, especially at the sultry piano glissandi and the exotic touch of the tambourine, giving the words a kind of extra potency in their delivery.  The Benedictus took a rather more circumspect rhythmic character, more of a “floating” aspect generated by “humming” sequences from the choir and a wordless melody from the soprano flowering into something that had the feeling of a heartfelt “personal” faith. The return of the “Hosanna” re-established the feeling of ritual, wordless voice-resonatings and instrumental accompanyings reinforcing the message of glory.

Agnus Dei gave us lovely, floating lines, creating a kind of living, gently-walking mosaic of sounds, snow-capped by a heartfelt “Dona nobis pacem” from Barbara Paterson – which brought us to the fugal (as opposed to “frugal”) Amen, not unlike Handel’s “Messiah” Amen, the tenors’ vigorous vocalisings particularly engaging! – as well as this “focusedly fugal” aspect, the writing included expansive lyrical lines as well, voices and instruments relishing their vigorous and full-throated exchanges right to the work’s conclusion. An enthusiastic reception, partly for the Mass itself and its composer, and partly for the performers’ delivery of the whole concert, carried the evening through in a satisfyingly warm-hearted manner – such pleasure to be had from an evening’s music-making!


Cheerful winds of fruitfulness blowing through St. Andrews

RNZAF Wind Quintet

Rebecca Steel (flute), Calvin Scott (oboe), Moira Hurst (clarinet), Vivien Reid (horn), Oscar Laven (bassoon)

JS Bach: “Little” Fugue in G minor BWV 278
Mozart: Divertimento KV 240
Ravel: Pièce en forme de Habanera
Ibert: Trois pièces brèves
Malcolm Arnold: Three Shanties

St Andrews on The Terrace

Wednesday 24 July 2019, 12:15 pm

This was a concert of cheerful short pieces.

Bach’s Fugue is referred to a ‘Little’ to distinguish it from its longer and very grand ‘Great Fantasia and Fugue in G minor’. Bach wrote it for the organ and it was arranged for various different groups, including a wind quintet. It requires very precise, accurate playing by each of the players. The five individual voices have to be clearly articulated and blend. It was a challenge for the musicians and they all coped well.

Mozart’s Divertimento is an early work. He wrote it as Tafelmusik, background music to a dinner at the court of the Archbishop of Salzburg. It was originally written for a wind sextet with two horns. In this arrangement one horn was replaced by a clarinet, and the work was rearranged for five instruments. It probably sounded the better for it. It is in the usual contrasting four movements, Allegro, Andante gracioso, Menuett and Trio and Allegro. Even a little piece like this that Mozart might have tossed off in no time still has the charm, humour, grace and the variety typical of Mozart. It was a very appropriate work for a lunch time concert.

Pièce en forme de Habanera was originally written by Ravel as a Vocalise for bass voice and piano, but has been transcribed for cello and other various combination of instruments. In this arrangement the oboe had the virtuoso solo of the original, and Calvin Scott played it with a lovely beautiful singing tone. The work required unrelenting rhythmic precision from all the players to capture the sensuous feel of the habanera dance.

Trois pièces brèves by Ibert was the only work on the programme originally written for a wind quintet. It has the hallmarks of Ibert, a blend of irony, wit and lyricism. Each of the five instruments gets a turn at starring. The clarinet and flute engage in a banter. The five instruments bounce off each other, their contrasting timbres are highlighted. A short light hearted enjoyable work.

Three Shanties of Malcolm Arnold is a work in three movements, each paying homage to a different sea shanty, some, like the first, ‘What Should We Do With a Drunken Sailor’ is well known, the other two, ‘Boney Was a Warrior’ and ‘Johnny Come Down to Hilo’ less so. Arnold takes each of these shanties and deconstructs them into their melodic and rhythmic components and then reassembles them. The shanties come through as very original pieces.

For an encore the group played a vigorous rendition of Shostakovich’s Polka form his ballet, The Golden Age. It summed up the whole concert, very joyous music.

You can hear these outstanding musicians again as part of ‘The Air Force in Concert’ on Sunday, 10 August 2019, at 2.30 pm at the Michael Fowler Centre.

Two out of three from Puccini’s Il Trittico boldly and confidently presented by the NZSM

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music presents:
PUCCINI – Suor Angelica / Gianni Schicchi (from “Il Trittico”)

Cast(s):  Suor Angelica

Suor Angelica………………..Michaela Cadwgan
The Princess………………….Margaret Medlyn
The Abbess……………………Teresa Shields
The Monitress……………….Jennifer Huckle
Sister Genovieffa……………Olivia Stewart
Sister Osmina………………..Lydia Joyce
Sister Dolcina………………..Ruby McKnight
Sister Lucilla………………….Sinéad Keane
Alms sisters…………………..Shaunagh Chambers / Simon Hernyak
Novices and lay sisters……Nikita Aranga / Caitlin Roberts
Ruobing Wang / Emily Yeap
Boy……………………………….Edward Usher

Gianni Schicchi

Gianni Schicchi………………Robert Tucker
Lauretta…………………………Jessie Rosewarne
Zita………………………………..Grace Burt
Rinuccio…………………………LJ Crichton
Gheraldo………………………..Jeffrey Dick
Gheraldino……………………..Edward Usher
Nella………………………………Cheyney Biddlecombe
Betto di Signa………………….Morgan Andrew-King
Simone……………………………Samuel McKeever
Marco……………………………..Masunu Tuua
La Ciesca…………………………Nina Gurau
Maestro Spinelloccio (a doctor)………..Zane Berghuis
Ser Amantio di Nicolao (a lawyer)…….Matt Barris
Pinellino (a cobbler)………………………..Elian Pagalilawan
Guccio (a dyer)………………………………..Tomairangi  Henare
Buoso Donati…………………………………..Gabriel Wee

Director: Jon Hunter
Designer: Sean Coyle
Lighting: Glenn Ashworth
Costumes: Sarah Carswell

Conductor: Kenneth Young
The New Zealand School of Music Orchestra

Hannah Playhouse, Wellington,

Friday 19th July, 2019

(until Sunday, 21st July)

When Giacomo Puccini first penned his Il Trittico (Triptych), consisting of three short operas designed to fill a single evening (premiered as such in New York in December 1918), various considerations combined to elevate the third of these works, the rollickingly comic Gianni Schicchi, to pride of place in the public’s affections, leaving the other two, the violent, bloody Il Tabarro (The Cloak) and the somewhat sanctimonious Suor Angelica (Sister Angelica), to fend for themselves, often elsewhere and in isolation. It would certainly be a tall order to perform all three in a single evening, the time-frames alone creating a certain awkwardness (either with two intervals, or one very long first or second half!). Even then, resources would be fully stretched in terms of casting and of staging, leaving opera houses far more likely to opt for a “double” bill at the most, à la the famous verismo twins, “Cav” and “Pag”.  Of late, there’s been revived interest in going thus far towards Puccini’s original intentions (usually with “Schicchi” as the “drawcard” along with either of the other two).

Here, from Victoria University of Wellington’s Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music we had a classic pairing of tragedy (Suor Angelica) and comedy (Gianni Schicchi) whose contrasts, I thought, worked brilliantly, each to the other’s advantage. Partly I think  due to a welcome circumspection of presentation in both cases, here, neither work was made into a caricature of itself – Suor Angelica’s overtly Catholic ethos wore its religiosity lightly, as did the knockabout comedy of Gianni Schicchi maintain a stylishness that never descended into coarse buffoonery – and this deftness of touch on the part of Jon Hunter’s direction for the most part gave each story the theatricality it needed to work, the climax of Suor Angelica here giving rise to my only reservations in this regard, more of which below.

In keeping with the intimate nature of the performing venue and the corresponding space available, conductor, chorusmaster and musicologist Michael Vinten undertook the task of making a “reduction” of the composer’s orchestral scores which preserved the essential spirit and sound of the originals, and which, if not delivering as much “physical” impact as the full opera orchestra does in places (such as the climax of Suor Angelica), amply suggested a comparable kind of emotional impact. Of course the physical immediacy of the instrumental detailings coupled with the players’ confidence and elan throughout made for stunning orchestral results under conductor Ken Young’s inspirational leadership.

What a vehicle for soprano and mezzo voices is Suor Angelica! The leading role especially runs the gamut of emotion and “fills out” the character in such a short space of time – she goes from being “just another nun” at the opera’s beginning, to a figure of the utmost tragedy within minutes, as another character, one who proves to be her “nemesis”, turns up in the story and whose “hatchet job” on the hapless Angelica is remorseless. As Suor Angelica, Michaela Cadwgan poured herself into the role up to the brim, fearlessly attacking a vocal line which required her in places to push her voice to what seemed almost past its limits in places, readily conveying the character’s intensity and depth of sorrow. Her acting paid full regard to the added tension of maintaining her dignity and bearing as a member of a religious order, while expressing her tragedy of having had to give up what was her greatest worldly joy, her son, before discovering, through the agency of her “nemesis” that her son had actually died without her knowing – the anguish was all too palpable in places, while  in context making total emotional sense.

With her surely-felt dramatic instinct brought fully into play, Margaret Medlyn’s troubled but   still unforgiving Princess made the perfect foil for her unfortunate niece’s desperately-enacted sorrows. We were made to “feel” something of the subtext behind the character’s cruelty and remorseless response to Angelica – a “wicked-stepmother”-like figure but with complex demons of her own. Amongst the other nuns the voice of Jennifer Huckle  resonated steadily and sweetly as the Monitress, while  Olivia Stewart ‘s shining tones enlivened her entreaties to the sisters to observe the rays of sunlight setting the image of Our Lady glowing in the courtyard. All the voices contributed to an essential sense of the ensemble, their surety of “belonging” and contributing to that feeling contrasting all the more with Suor Angelica’s growing desperation to be reunited with her dead son.

Expertly though the production conveyed the ambivalence of the “cloistered” atmosphere with its security/imprisonment dichotomies, and the oppressive ambiences surrounding the visit of the Princess to her virtually incarcerated niece, its staging at the very end didn’t for me catch enough of the transcendence of the story’s climax – the dead boy’s sudden appearance, the “vision from heaven” which draws Angelica towards and up into a numinous web of acceptance and forgiveness. I wanted him to directly “materialise” from the  blinding light which flooded the stage, and be the unequovical focus of things just for a telling instant – but his entrance from the side didn’t for me sufficiently turn into any kind of front-on, fully-focused engagement, missing an overwhelming sense of “revelation” which the music (and the lighting) was doing its best to evoke. It certainly deserved, I felt, at that point,  a surer moment of consummation, which, up to then, had been most whole-heartedly prepared for by all concerned.

Confidence was restored after the interval by the beginning of the opera which followed – Gianni Schicchi – an amusing and ironic vignette involving a photograph of the Donati clan closest to the recently deceased (?) Buoso Donati “freeze-framing” the setting, one which then clicked immediately into the business of the story. This is one of opera’s greatest “ensemble” works, and the give-and-take between all of the “living” characters made for thoroughly convincing and characterful results. All kinds of voices and personalities were registered throughout the interactions, each one conveying its character’s attitude and intent in tandem with engaging physical presence.

Crucial to the action was the information quickly given us by a young man in the group of relatives, Rinuccio, who tells everybody he is in love with and wants to marry Lauretta, the daughter of the well-known “wheeler-and-dealer” Gianni Schicchi, a plan which scandalises his snobbish Aunt, Zita. We were treated to a splendidly open-hearted and ringing-voiced portrayal of the character by LJ Crichton, his tones warm, open and ardent, almost to the very top of his register. If the other voices in the group didn’t match such freedom and amplitude, each still carried sufficient weight and colour to tellingly advance the drama – and the physical interactions were most splendidly choreographed, photo opportunities included!

Of course the attitudes of the relatives to the “upstart Schicchi” change considerable when they find Buoso’s actual will and realise they have been disinherited, and that something needs to be done, quickly. Schicchi’s help is sought, but he is disinclined to help the Donatis when Zita refuses point-blank to allow Rinuccio to marry Lauretta “without a dowry” – which, of course, leads to the opera’s most famous single moment, the girl’s pleading with her father to help, or else she will throw herself into the river Arno (“O mio babbino caro”). Jessie Rosewarne’s direct, simply expressed plea as Lauretta (her singing very much on the trajectory of the dramatic action, rather than self-consciously proclaiming a “great opera moment”) does the trick and wins her father over to the cause, turning the story’s action on a fresh course.

As Schicchi, Robert Tucker rightly dominated the scenario from his first entry, holding everybody in thrall with the workings of his scheming mind, and even convincing us to suspend disbelief at the unlikelihood of the penalty of dismemberment and banishment from the city imposed on people who forge a will having any credence in the 1970s throughout the Western world. Like the “curse” in Verdi’s Rigoletto, this is the stumbling block for me in accepting any “modernising” of the opera’s action unaccountably beloved of present-day productions, however nonsensical the result! Still, here, everything went hilariously and hair-raisingly according to plan, with  both doctor and notary, along with witnesses, convinced that the disguised Schicchi was in fact “dear Buoso”, the deception then deliciously running away from the astonished relatives when Schicchi again turned the story around, proclaiming himself as the heir to the dead man’s house and most valuable assets! – pandemonium!

A great success, then, and an extraordinary achievement on the part of all concerned with both productions, powerfully evoking worlds as different as chalk from cheese! I’ve already mentioned conductor Ken Young’s surety of direction and the dazzling instrumental detailing by the players throughout both works, working hand-in-glove with the onstage action, and  positively oozing atmosphere in both scenarios, aided and abetted by the set, lighting and costumes. Its overall impact, to my mind, worked surely towards director Jon Hunter’s intention that the production express “the enduring power of music”, the raison d’etre of all opera here for all present to enjoy.




A piano recital at St Andrew’s deserving a full house: Beethoven’s Eroica Variations surrounded by circus variety

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts
Pianist Ya-Ting Liou

Couperin: Le rossignol en amour
Gareth Farr: The Horizon from Owhiro Bay
Beethoven: Variations and Fugue, Op 35 ‘Eroica’
Paderewski: Nocturne Op 16 No 4
Rachmaninov: andante from Cello sonata, Op 19 (transcribed by Arcadi Volodos)
Stravinsky: Circus Polka: for a young elephant

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 17 July, 12:15 pm

Her name rang a bell, but I couldn’t recall actually seeing or hearing her play. The Middle C archive revealed that my colleague, Peter Mechen had reviewed an earlier lunchtime recital by her in August 2016 when, inter alia she had played Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänz, later Rameau’s Le rappel des oiseaux. Born in Taiwan and educated mainly in the United States, she now lives in Auckland.

That sort of programming clearly appeals to her: it would have been very interesting to have heard the Rameau and the Couperin that she played today, alongside each other. And centre spot in both concerts was occupied by a major German composer: this time Beethoven’s Eroica Variations.

She proved an exemplary baroque pianist, turning Couperin’s Le rossignol en amour, from harpsichord original into perfectly genuine piano music; slow and thoughtful, it was replete with tasteful ornaments that according to the programme note were detailed by the composer. Couperin’s evocation of elements of nature, here, a nightingale, was done very differently from the way a Debussy, let alone a Messiaen would have, yet a perfectly natural way of handling a non-human source. The challenges of Couperin’s keyboard writing were affectionately handled, with no apparent difficulty.

Gareth Farr’s impression of his view of Cook Strait from his south coast house, though three centuries later than Couperin’s evocation of a bird (Farr was born exactly 300 years after Couperin), were curiously related in creating a moment in nature, and in the employment of modest means. It was well chosen on a distinctly chilly day with a southerly breeze: a picture of the often wild coast in a mood of magical calm. Nor sure that I’d heard it before, and Liou’s beautiful performance reinforced for me the unpretentious yet extraordinarily evocative invention that Farr demonstrates. In the sort of music for which he is not so widely appreciated, but which speaks to me much more magically and inspiringly.

The Eroica Variations
I have known Beethoven’s Eroica Variations most of my life though I can’t remember my last live hearing. Dated in 1802, early in his middle period, they not to be approached with an expectation of kinship to the tremendous Diabelli Variations of his last years; nevertheless, these fifteen variations plus an imposing fugue at the end are already at some remove from those of Mozart and Haydn. Their sound and musical evolution quickly restrict composer possibilities to Beethoven alone. Unlike its classical period predecessors, its impact is impressive and I quickly realised I was in the company of a splendidly competent interpreter by nature avoiding any kind of major-work pretentiousness, yet able to bring to life the increasingly original and treatment unique to Beethoven.

The formidable fugal finale alone might have been a splendid lunchtime piece. So the entire work made this a memorable lunchtime experience.

Paderewski, Rachmaninov and Stravinsky 
Then three well-chosen shorter pieces. Apart from the famous Minuet once a standard piece in every young pianist’s album, Paderewski’s considerable output seems to have been off-limits: suffering as neither obviously great music in the tradition of Rachmaninov or Prokofiev, nor acceptably post-romantic, or atonal to compare with Stravinsky or Bartok. This Nocturne was far better than many a composition by a famous executant, mainly for his own use; it handled itself according to the dictates of the composer’s inspiration and developed melodically rather attractively. In any case it was in the hands of a pianist capable of investing anything with charm and musical conviction.

Great Russian pianist Arcadi Volodos’s hair-raising arrangement of the third movement, Andante, from Rachmaninov’s cello sonata for solo piano seems to have multiplied the numbers of notes ten-fold, and so it was a surprise that Liou began without the score on the piano (as she had safely enough till now), but within the first few bars there was a wee lapse calling for a repeat of a bar. Though probably shaken by that she soldiered on but a couple of minutes later stopped again and picked up the score to place in front of her. Volodos’s frenetic adornments might have seemed mere frenzied pyrotechnics for the sake of it – initially they did – but slowly one became accustomed to it as a sort of new ‘normal’ and especially as the main melody began to be audible through the dense undergrowth, it became rather engrossing, overwhelmingly so. Nevertheless, another part of me felt that Volodos’s journey might better have been abandoned, leaving the lovely slow movement to itself.

Stravinsky’s Circus Polka for a young elephant was not the least obscured by following the Rachmaninov (but Liou had the score in front of her again). It’s an eccentric piece and again not for any pianist short of the A-grade virtuoso class on account of rhythmic and tonal craziness, switching back and forth at the end between the polka, 2-in-a-bar, and triple time.

There was a reasonable audience, but here we had a recital of top professional quality that deserved a full house, at normal prices.

Extraordinary music-making from the 2019 Adam Troubadours

Chamber Music Hutt Valley presents:
2019 Adam Troubadours

Claudia Tarrant-Matthews (leader), Sophia Tarrant-Matthews, violins,
Grant Baker, viola / Olivia Wilding, ‘cello

HAYDN – String Quartet in C Major Op.76, No.3 “Emperor”
GARETH FARR – Te Tai-o-Rehua (The Tasman Sea) for String Quartet (2013)
DVORAK – String Quartet in G Major Op.106

St.Mark’s Church, Woburn, Lower Hutt

Wednesday 17th July, 2019

Behold, the 2019 Adam Troubadours! – a name that suggested something adventuresome and “here-and-now”, performers whose defining characteristics would give their music-making real distinction – and so it proved, in a concert for Chamber Music Hutt Valley that disarmed one’s listening by the act of its performers simply surpassing themselves as the evening ran its course. The above are young string musicians selected from those attending Adam Summer Schools for Chamber Music, and their coming-together led to this, a tour sponsored by Chamber Music New Zealand. All were, it seems, mentored by members of the New Zealand String Quartet, who would, I think, be extremely proud of these youngsters and what they have proved capable of doing. In fact a system which fosters performers of this quality, indicates to my mind that whatever is happening in the upper echelons of music education at Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music is working splendidly!

One might say this programme was a classic kind of “string quartet concert” format – and here, thanks to a happy combination of performers and repertoire, the results were, for this listener, truly memorable. The Haydn Emperor Quartet which began the evening’s music couldn’t be described as an innovative choice (time enough for such things later!), but it demonstrated that these musicians knew what they were on about, rendering as whole-hearted a performance as I’ve ever heard.

From the beginning, the group’s sound made a bright, eager impression, each player’s line beautifully “centred”, with the various concerted passages a delight. The group strongly characterised each section, contrasting the busy-ness of the interactive development sequences with the earthier, more pesante elements, and conveying such an intensity of involvement with every phrase. The well-known second movement’s hymn-tune-cum-anthem got a rapt, heartfelt reading, with sensitive detailing woven into securely-wrought lines. By way of contrast, the sprightly Menuetto sang its first few measures and then quirkily danced the answering phrases with great gusto, the Trio surprising with a sombre minor-then-major manner, so “inward” compared with the rumbustions of the Menuetto – and such delicate pianissimi! As for the finale, the Adam Troubadours pulled no punches, the opening strident and challenging, single lines flung across the spectrum of interaction like grappling hooks, the musical argument remaining feisty and combatative amongst the players even when in accord at the work’s exciting finish!

Gareth Farr’s work for string quartet Te Tai-o-Rehua (The Tasman Sea) has been reviewed three times before by Middle C, (all different reviewers), having secured a number of performances after its commission by the Australian ensemble the Goldner Quartet  (in conjunction with CMNZ) in 2013.  Enthusiastically acclaimed on each occasion both work- and performance-wise, it gave me enormous fun simply comparing the three sets of previous impressions! – and I couldn’t help forming the opinion that Gareth Farr had here created something of an “Antipodean” classic (I’m using the adjective in a “generic” rather than strictly “literal” sense, of course). But I loved the composer’s candour in writing, in a note accompanying the music, “I intended to write a happy and joyous piece, because that’s the way I feel about my relationship with Australia and New Zealand……the music, however, came out dark, mysterious and edgy” – a case, perhaps, of more “at work” in the creative process, perhaps than meets the eye……(incidentally, Farr contributed another equally apposite comment regarding this piece, one which playfully “begs the question” of its provenance – “a really interesting dinner party for four people”…..)

Beginning the work were a number of terse figurations, initiated by the second violin and carried on by the viola, whether a kind of primitive chanting, or the undulating movement of water, remaining open to conjecture – eerie harmonic-like notes and disembodied tremolandi from the first violin and cello respectively, helped to evoke the ‘mysterious wild”, impulses which gathered focus and girth, reached a point of near-anguish, then broke off and began  (the viola leading the way) an edgy, angular “ritual of rhythm” the voices fugal-like but punctuated with sforzando-like pizzicati from the  cello – great, compulsive writing, here realised by the players with palpable physical involvement! Throughout, Farr evoked an almost Sibelius-like ambience which put me repeatedly in mind of the latter’s incidental music for “The Tempest”, the oceanic swells, the multifarious surface texturings, and the strange, half-lit ambiences of ships and seafarers “caught up” in it all…..

Having demonstrated his acute sense of detailing, leaving no depth unfathomed, no surge unsounded and no ripple unremarked on, Farr then plunged his instruments into a frenzy of concerted movement, enough to set the pulses racing and convey an entirely characteristic “exhilaration of physicality” (while adroitly avoiding the excesses of his somewhat fulsome “Great Sea Gongs”!). After gathering itself, the music rebuilt the intensities, firstly in long-breathed arched chordings and then with Stravinskian “Sacrificial Dance”-like passages (skin and hair flying everywhere!), building to a similar point of climactic excitement! The young  players completed their task by flinging the final phrase at us with a stunning sense of elemental closure that left nothing in its wake but a sense of an incredible listening and interpretative journey completed.

After the interval we were treated to an equally overwhelming performance of one of Antonin Dvořák’s finest chamber words, his Op.106 String Quartet in G Major. This turned out to be a work that demonstrated the composer’s entry into a somewhat more complex and rarified world of creative expression, a  more adventurous style of writing, using fragments of motifs instead of extended themes and with restless, volatile results. The upshot was exhilarating, if disconcerting – a “ride” through a profuse treasure-grove of  brief gestures and fragmented motives, a style Dvořák would presumably have developed further had he been granted more time on this earth.

Right from the work’s beginning we heard sounds whose harmonic explorations maintained a constancy of contrast.  The delicacy of the opening figurations, alternating with tumbling warmth, soon became the movement’s recurring pattern, presenting and developing a panoply of themes and gestures – what seemed like two “theme-groups”, the first one  seemingly more fragmentary than a second, more lyrical one. The harmonic explorations and developments were like an array of “sprung” possibilities, dazed by their own activation, and leaving us dazed in turn! I was simply blown away by the technical and musical mastery with which these young players fitted all of these detailings into a complex but still richly coherent argument – even then it all flashed past with the surest and fleetest of individual and ensembled touches!

The slow movement seemed to exist on two simultaneous planes of expression, in a minor key to begin with and then contrasting the mood with its major-key equivalent – all so rich and heartwarming. Dvořák again seemed to be opening vein after vein of possibility, the music gliding with sublime surety towards radiance, before turning on its heels and striding darkly down a parallel causeway of contrasted feeling! Not every note was sounded with consummate ease or perfect intonation by the players, but that’s because they were all striving to realise the breadth and depth of this music’s emotional reach. The music gave me a feeling not unlike a sensation of being trapped in a dream and turning the details over and over in trying to figure out how many ways it could be differently expressed and understood –  at the very end the players’ tones were so rapt, themselves seemingly entranced with it all.

The scherzo was a vigorous dance, here, both viola and cello extremely Beethoven-like in manner, trenchant and insistent, the mood more so than one usually expected from Dvořák. There was a lovely lyrical episode that one might have presumed was the trio – but the “real McCoy” came later, a lullabic, if elaborately-decorated song-episode, whose mood was constantly energised by fleet-fingered arpeggios and upwardly-soaring lines.

The finale teased our sensibilities with a tender, heart-warming introduction, before picking up its skirts and dancing away, the players alternating joy and abandonment with darker, more intense moments, the composer somehow maintaining a “lyrical” vein of feeling amidst figurations of some energy and agitation!  A peaceful, hymnlike interlude in the midst of the upheavals unreservedly captured our hearts, and an ensuing “dialogue” between recitatives and concerted replies held us in thrall even further…..then, via a string of reminiscing echoes, the players returned us to the main theme, whose energetic spirit took over the performance and danced us all, joyously and wildly, to its end. What a performance!

The Night Watch’s “Every Breath you take” a great success at the NZSM

EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE – A Concert of Baroque Music

Works by Pachebel, Telemann, Vivaldi, Caldara, Handel, Zelenka, Buxtehude and Willaert

The Night Watch
Andrew Doyle (alto and soprano chalumeaux/baroque clarinet)
Mark Cookson (tenor chalumeau)
Lizzy Welsh (baroque violin)
The Won Kim (baroque violin)
Kamala Bain (recorders)
Imogen Granwal (viola da gamba/baroque ‘cello)
Douglas Mews (harpsichord/organ)
Pepe Becker (soprano)
Helen Acheson (alto)
Philip Collins (tenor)
David Morriss (bass)

Adam Concert Room, Te Koki, NZ School of Music, Wellington

Sunday, 14th July, 2019

2019 is turning into a “bumper” year for me as regards richly-stimulating and keenly-recalled concert experiences! As befits a place that likes to style itself as something of a cultural centre, Wellington has certainly played host to the efforts of some remarkable musicians performing some fascinating assemblages of repertoire so far this year, and with more to come, as a glance at any collection of concert schedules to hand will bear out with appropriate flourishes!

This present concert by an ensemble with the arresting name “The Night Watch” demonstrated a continuation of this  happy state of affairs with flair, expertise and energy, as with the group’s  first Wellington appearance earlier this year (which was reviewed by Rosemary Collier: https://middle-c.org/2019/02/from-the-night-watch-love-me-tender-a-baroque-style-celebration-of-loves-intangibility/ ). Each concert in its own way served to demonstrate the incredible richness of the music of the Baroque era, this second presentation having a kind of doubly unique distinction in, firstly, showcasing the qualities of the chalumeau, a single-reed wind instrument which predates the clarinet, and then presenting a New Zealand premiere of a little-known cantata by the Bohemian composer Jan Dismas Zelenka.

Beginning a concert of Baroque music with a performance of Johann Pachelbel’s Canon and Gigue might have seemed on paper an almost cliched gesture, were it not for the way the music here grew from the ambiences of instruments being tuned and fingers being “warmed up”, with sounds coming from Douglas Mews’ keyboard which spontaneously activated firstly the viola da gamba, with its ground bass, and then the violin and recorder, with their canonic figurations, whose variants seemed to pour out from the composer’s fertile imagination as gaily as water gushing from a mountain spring. The following Gigue had a vigorous, almost animal energy, what seemed like gleeful “pouncing” on the notes and almost mischievous stringendo aspect enlivening each crescendo phrase.

Part of the concert’s charm was the musicians’ direct engagement with the audience (a delicate balance between information and entertainment) which, done sensitively, despite attendant hazards, can enrich an audience’s enjoyment, especially of something unfamiliar. Thus it was for me with the musicians’ demonstration of the chalumeau, a clarinet-like single reed instrument, here presented in three sizes, soprano, alto and tenor, between two players, Andrew Doyle and Mark Cookson, the former doing the talking and most of the demonstrating. When it came to the Concerto by Georg Philipp Telemann, the alto and tenor instruments were used, the timbres mellow and slightly “grainy” compared with clarinet tones, Telemann’s opening Largo conjuring up a ritual-like sobriety, giving way to a vigorous Allegro with the solo instruments in thirds for most of the time. Soft pizzicato strings allowed first the alto then the tenor chalumeau a gentle, sensitive vocal line throughout the Adagio, before the final Vivace, with the instruments again in thirds, the impression of playful but essentially small-scale voices most engagingly sounding their grainy and occasionally guttural tones in distinctive ways.

An aria from Vivaldi’s oratorio “Veni. me sequera fida” featured alto Helen Acheson, the vocal line low and conversational, enlivened by a few moments of declamation, the voice partnered by the soprano chalumeaux in gentle collusion, every sound soft-grained and beautifully mellow in effect, the ensemble moving as one throughout the music’s gentle undulations. Antonio Caldara’s “Nel mio coro” which followed, swopped the alto and a violin for a soprano, Pepe Becker, whose true and intensely-focused tones flooded our sensibilities with the song’s piteous sorrow “hope is dying….and constancy is weeping…..” – it was a relief to turn from such raw emotion to expressions of joy and confidence via Handel’s “Eternal Source of Light Divine”, a work intended for performance in vast spaces, thus being scored for baroque trumpet – but here, in more intimate surroundings, Andrew Doyle’s baroque clarinet brought a sweetness to the ceremonial outpourings, while Pepe Becker’s mellifluous tones added warmth, glory and lustre to the proceedings.

After the interval we were treated to the New Zealand premiere – a work by the enigmatic Jan Dismas Zelenka, a Bohemian composer who worked as a composer at the Saxon court of Dresden from 1679 until his death in 1745. Recognised by both Bach and Telemann as a composer of worth during his lifetime, Zelenka’s reputation and his music virtually disappeared after his death. But whereas Bach had a Mendelssohn who “rediscovered” and generated fresh interest in his work, Zelenka had to wait until the twentieth century for his achievement as a composer to be recognised, and his music’s astonishing qualities to be rediscovered.

Zelanka’s cantata Immisit Dominus pestilentiam (spelt “Pestilarium” in the programme) dates from 1709, when it was premiered not in Dresden but in Prague, with Zelenka himself conducting, making it one of the earliest pieces of the composer’s music that has survived. Even here, his approach to word-setting and to overall structure is remarkably distinctive – central to the work are the opening accompanied recitatives with soft string suspensions, from which “grow” the subsequent arias and instrumental solos, with many a vividly-rendered passage or detail, courtesy of both singers and instrumentalists.

The opening declamation of tragedy and deep mourning – “The Lord set a pestilence upon Israel” (sung in Latin, incidentally, the programme containing an English translation) was superbly delivered by Pepe Becker, the voice pitiless in its detailing and heartfelt in its focus. Equally overwhelming was bass David Morriss’s forthright “Voice of The Lord”, proclaiming “the end of all flesh has come before me”, to suitably chilling effect. The pleading voice of the alto at “Remember Lord”,coupled with the touching tones of the chalumeaux, and additional support from the bass viol, made for a properly sombre entreaty, rising to a passionate appeal at the end. A splendidly Handelian fugue, featuring all voices and instruments, brought out the resolve to “sacrifice to our Lord”, while the soprano solo that followed “Pray for me, with tears” brought forth lovely, heartfelt and sensitive phrases from Pepe Becker, with sterling support from Kamala Bain’s recorder-playing, both lines seeming to convey the “fallibility” of sin and the dignity of suffering.

More forthright tones came from tenor Phillip Collins, with cries of “Be merciful!” ably supported by the instruments, and again very Handelian in effect. Perhaps more distinctive and individual was the following “Cry out, drops of blood”, David Morriss delivering the text with sharp focus, augmented by Helen Acheson’s more sombre tones, the lines low and mutes, the instrumentation spare, creating great tensions, as the strings’ staccato notes depict the “drops of blood”. Two choruses rounded the work off, the first, “O God”, brief and declamatory, and the second fugal, “And grant”, the singers’ lines clear and compelling, given excellent support by the instruments, and the whole ensemble blending and conveying individual strengths and detailings magnificently!

Baroque violinist Lizzy Welsh introduced the next item, a Trio Sonata (Op.2 No.5 in A Major) by Dieterich Buxtehude, the Danish-German organist and composer. Renowned as the Lübeck organist whom the young JS Bach walked 250 miles from Armstadt to meet and hear play, Buxtehude was known more for his vocal and organ music than his chamber works, though as Lizzy Walsh told us with some relish, his contribution to musical history also involved his eldest daughter, whom none of the prospective candidates (including Handel and Johann Mattheson) for Buxtehude’s position on his retirement seemed to want to marry (at the time a common ‘prerequisite” of such an appointment!)

This was , I thought, a beautiful performance – the exchanges epitomised the whole of the evening’s music-making, having an improvisatory sense, but obviously with the music well under the fingers – the third movement was passacaglia-like, a violin solo with harpsichord, while the fourth movement featured the viola da gamba as if extemporising, most expressively. Even more “concerted’ was the fifth movement Allegro, with deft exchanges between violin and da gamba, leading to a recitative-like flourishes, and in a sequence marked poco presto some brilliant concluding passagework from all the players.

The remainder of the programme consisted of three songs of Italian origin, the first, Ninna Nanna, a lament of the Virgin for her Son, here hauntingly sung by Philip Collins, the violin joining in after one verse, then with the recorder, elaborating on the melody before the singer returned, repeating the verse. Then came Antoneddu, a folkish, if somewhat exotic-sounding ballad, featuring Helen Acheson being partnered by the sultry tones of the soprano chalumeau – the singer’s line was suggestive of trouble and tragedy, the da gamba’s accompaniment a heavily-accented pizzicato, all sounding earthy and fraught with danger. The entire ensemble took the stage for the final song, Vecchie Letrose, written by Adrian Willaert (1490-1562), a lively, angular item whose sentiments definitely belonged to a more repressive and discriminatory age, but whose music could still be enjoyed. Two of the singers played tambourines to heighten the impact of it all, and the spiky vocal line added to the heavily accented satisfyingly earthy instrumental playing.

“Every Breath You Take” having been a great success for “The Night Watch”, the group is already planning another presentation, that of French music – La Vie en Rose – for November of this year, which will be, on the strength of this fine showing, eagerly awaited.















Splendid, richly satisfying NZSO concert of four strongly contrasted works played with mastery and conviction

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Carlos Kalmar with Steven Osborne (piano)

Michael Norris: Matauranga
Mozart: Piano Concerto No 12 in A, K 414
Osvaldo Golijov: Last Round
Nielsen: Symphony No 4, Op 29 (‘The Inextinguishable’)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 13 July, 7:30 pm

Anniversary: Cook’s first voyage and Matauranga 
The first piece in Saturday’s concert was entitled Matauranga, which means ‘knowledge, wisdom, understanding, skill’, according to the programme note. It was in part to mark the 250th anniversary of Cook’s first voyage one of whose purposes was to observe the transit of Venus in Tahiti in June 1769. His reaching New Zealand was timely to observe the transit of Mercury on the Coromandel Peninsula in November 1769, and the names Cook’s Beach and Mercury Bay celebrate it.

The intelligent programme note also places in perspective Cook’s voyage (voyages) as a product of The Enlightenment in Europe. The notes write: “The ideals of the Enlightenment sprang from a rejection of institutional religion, entrenched tradition and superstition in favour of rational thought, logic and the empirical, organised advancement of knowledge”.

Michael Norris’s approach to the subject was to combine taonga puoro with the orchestral strings and live electronics. Nevertheless, the score created an attractive pattern of subtle sounds, the Maori instruments having the most conspicuous role while the strings and the electronics seemed present in principle rather than in their actual impact. However, this piece offered an interesting range of sounds generated by taonga puoro, a wider range of these instruments than I think I’ve encountered before; scored with considerable sensitivity and clarity and played confidently by the versatile Alistair Fraser.

This is not the first time that I’ve rather wished that a little time had been taken in naming and sampling the sounds of each instrument, and for the programme book to have illustrated and named each one. I have the same feelings about the value of identifying with visual and sound examples the huge range of less familiar orchestral percussion instruments which, apart from timpani, are referred to merely as ‘percussion’.

The orchestra might have hoped that the inclusion of a quite approachable piece highlighting taonga pouro might have attracted a number of Maori to the concert; it didn’t. Furthermore, the concert as a whole attracted a much smaller audience that is usual for NZSO subscription concerts.

This was a surprise and a disappointment given the programming of a charming Mozart piano concerto by a particularly gifted pianist, and an arresting, strong-minded yet beautiful Nielsen symphony.

Steven Osborne in Mozart
Mozart’s piano concerto no 12 is one of the first group of three that he wrote for his own very successful subscription concerts after he moved to Vienna from Salzburg. Conductor Carlos Kalmar didn’t reduce the size of the string sections to the extent than has become common for music of the ‘Classical’ period. Instead, he concentrated on a warm, quite opulent sound that the modest-sized orchestra produced, while Steven Osborne’s piano offered quite a contrast with crisp, semi-detached playing that was nevertheless in perfect accord with the orchestra. His articulation was varied and subtle, and that modesty characterised the not especially bravura cadenza. The Andante, second movement, though at a walking pace, gave off a restful air. Here, as with the first movement, the orchestral part is very much simply a polite accompaniment, and though there’s quite an extended solo episode, it wasn’t the occasion for anything flashy.

The unostentatious character of the concerto ran through the Finale too; again, little work for the winds: just oboes and horns. Though Mozart also scored optionally for bassoons, none were audible (I couldn’t see).

This performance of this very charming concerto was, along with the other three very significant pieces, the reason for being dispirited about the size of the audience. It also prompts a comment about the failure of the NZSO to make better use of their soloists, especially ones as distinguished as Steven Osborne, in solo and other recitals in Wellington and other parts of the country. A few decades ago it was normal; now, with declining audiences for good music and their increasing unfamiliarity with what one could formerly consider standard, popular repertoire, it strikes me as even more important for concert promoters to exploit every means to get people through the doors. For many people, even one unfamiliar or New Zealand piece is a turn-off.

I would love a subscription series to be devoted to Mozart’s piano concertos, with particular attention to these earlier Viennese ones, before the much more played ones from No 20 in D minor. But does the poor audience tell us something about the general level of cultural awareness? I think it does.

Golijov and the culture of the tango
Osvaldo Golijov was born in Argentina to Romanian-Jewish parents and has quite suddenly put contemporary Latin American music on the map. Many will remember the impact made at the 2014 festival by a semi-staged performance of his opera Ainadamar (the place where Federico García Lorca was killed by Franco’s Falangist assassins in 1936).

Last Round was inspired by the sudden death in 1992 of Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla and refers also to notable Argentinian singer and composer Carlos Gardel, the most important main-stream tango musician.  We were fortunate in having this performance from the hands of a particularly vigorous and inspiring conductor whose background lends a special insight into the spirit of the music; and the orchestra responded with great enthusiasm.

Last Round is tango in character though obviously unorthodox. Symbolic conflict dominates the first movement, Movido, urgente, between the divided strings: violins, violas and cellos, half on each side with double basses in the centre, behind. The tango rhythm remains steady for long periods before accelerating and becoming agitated or violent, with characteristic sudden screeching glissandi – very bandoneon. Without an actual pause, the pulsing first movement rhythms subside and the tragic spirit of the second movement, Deaths of the Angel emerges, much slower and exhibiting less overt tango in rhythm and articulation. In the words of the programme note, the tango flavour returns as Golijov “yearningly quotes the refrain from Carlos Gomes’ ‘My beloved Buenos Aires’”.

This is no forbidding, intellectually pretentious avant-garde music: it seems to summarise aspects of contemporary music, through an Argentinian lens that injects a powerful emotional spirit in a perfectly coherent accent, perfectly accessible yet of our age.

Nielsen No 4
Nielsen is a symphonist who is in many ways the equal of Sibelius, and not just through being born in the same year and coming from the broad Scandinavian region; his six symphonies are so different in character both from any other symphonist and from each other that they are difficult to characterise. I would like to think that an enterprising Wellington orchestra might perform all six in the course of a season, but I’d have my work cut out, looking at the size of the audience here.

The fourth, the Inextinguishable, is probably his best known: particularly dramatic, coloured by the First World War, calling up words like ‘violence’, ‘intensity’, ‘headlong energy’, ‘the indomitability of life itself’. The massive brass call to attention at the start might have set the scene, but there are extended passages of beautiful, calm music, such as we are suddenly presented with from the lovely woodwinds of the NZSO in the shorter second movement and in the pensive, beautiful third movement. In all the quicksilver variety of emotion and musical character Carlos Kalmar led the orchestra with energy and rigour, yet with a sense of freedom, giving rein to all Nielsen’s detailed and instrumentally vivid orchestration.

If I had to choose, it would be the Nielsen that I found the most richly satisfying in the concert, and that’s from a field of four very successful, strongly contrasted works each of which was performed with mastery and conviction and should have pulled in all but deeply prejudiced, half-hearted concert goers.

Medlyn and Greager give rewarding and intelligent recital of early 20th century songs, plus four by Vincent O’Sullivan/Ross Harris

Wednesday Lunchtime Concerts at St Andrew’s

Margaret Medlyn (mezzo-soprano), Richard Greager (tenor), with David Barnard (piano)

Songs by Berg, Ross Harris, Poulenc, Strauss, Puccini and Rachmaninov

St Andrews on The Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday 10 July 2019, 12;15 pm

A song recital by two internationally renowned singers based in Wellington is a significant musical event. The programme was like a snapshot of the music of the first half of the twentieth century across a wide range of countries, Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, with a more recent item from New Zealand.

The concert began with Margaret Medlyn singing Alban Berg’s Seven Early Songs (1907). These songs were written under the influence of Arnold Schoenberg, but also show echoes of Mahler, Wolf, Richard Strauss, and even Debussy. They were sung with understanding. Margaret Medlyn is a commanding singer with a powerful voice. Her beautiful deep register is penetrating and moving. The songs are set to texts by Carl Hauptman, Nikolaus Lenau, Theodore Storm, Rainer Maria Rilke, Johannes Schlaf, Otto Erich Hartleben, and Paul Hohenberg, a mirror of the Austrian literary world in which Berg was immersed. They reflected a great variety of emotions.

Richard Greager sang four short songs by Ross Harris, set to poems by Vincent O’Sullivan. Three of these were about father and son relationship, gentle domestic thoughts, one had a rollicking sea shanty feel. Vincent O’Sullivan and Ross Harris have a close association, and the songs were written for Richard Greager, all very Wellington, very Victoria University, but they were lovely and unpretentious.

This was followed by Poulenc’s Cinq poèmes de Paul Eluard. Poulenc moved in artistic and literary circles and had set the poems of many of his contemporaries to music. These songs are about down-and-outs, a subject that was meaningful in the Paris of the first quarter of the twentieth century. These songs are very much dialogues between voice and piano, and this was demonstrated by the sensitive piano playing of David Barnard responding to the singing of Richard Greager.

Margaret Medlyn then sang three songs by Richard Strauss. The first, ‘Befreit’, is a setting of a poem of Richard Dehmel, and one of Strauss’ most popular songs. The second, ‘Heimliche aufforderung’, the text by John Henry Mackay, was a wedding present to Strauss’s wife, the singer Pauline de Ahna. The third song, ‘Ich trage meine Minne’, ‘I bear my love /Silent with joy’ is one of the many songs that Strauss wrote for his wife. These songs appear to be simple, but they all have the hallmark of the special Richard Strauss sense of harmony and unexpected chords and twists in the melody.

Richard Greager sang three songs by Puccini. Puccini is hardly known for his songs, but he used these as sketches for arias in his operas. Richard Greager’s warm light tenor is well suited to these songs. In the second, ‘Sole e amore’, one can clearly hear ideas later used in La Boheme.

The final bracket of songs, again from Greager, consisted of three songs by Rachmaninov. These are imbued with a sense of nostalgia for the countryside. Though the setting is Russian the melodic line is often more Italian. It is the rich piano accompaniment that makes it characteristically Rachmaninov.

This was an ambitious programme and a rewarding concert. It was notable for the intelligent approach to the music, the clear phrasing and diction of the two singers. David Barnard’s piano playing, his sensitive support of the singers is worth a special mention. With teachers such as these at the New Zealand School of Music, it is not surprising that it turns out so many fine singers. Some of these singers will be performing Puccini’s Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi at the Hannah Playhouse next week.