Triumph tempered by sadness – Hutt Valley Chamber Music faces dissolution despite a sensational 40th anniversary season capped off by the remarkable Diedre Irons

Hutt Valley Chamber Music presents:
HVCM’s final 40th anniversary concert with Diedre Irons (piano)

Music by JS Bach, Beethoven, Liszt and Schumann

JS BACH – Concerto in the Italian Style BWV 971
BEETHOVEN – Piano Sonata No.23 in F Minor Op.57 “Appassionata”
LISZT – Piano Sonata in B Minor S.178

Diedre Irons (piano)

St.Mark’s Church, Lower Hutt

Thursday 31st October 2019

The evening was earmarked as a celebration, a culmination of the 40th year of presenting chamber music in Lower Hutt by the Hutt Valley Chamber Music Society. And the choice of pianist Diedre Irons to give the concert this evening couldn’t have been more appropriate, as back in October 1980 she and the then-concertmaster of the NZSO, Peter Schaeffer performed a recital as one of the Society’s concerts during that opening season. However, by contrast with the joy and optimism of that inaugural year of music-making, this latest occasion gave cause for great sadness, being the Society’s swan-song of concert-giving, until further notice – for a number of reasons, there are no plans for a 2020 Hutt Valley Chamber Music series.

Diedre herself reminded her audience of that long-standing connection she had with the Society’s concerts after she was invited to cut the “Celebration cake” at the concert’s end, expressing the hope in doing so that the Society would rise again, “like a phoenix from the ashes”. The Society’s problem is similar to that of a decade ago, when it seemed that there were not enough volunteers to form a committee with sufficient numbers to run the concerts in 2010 – on that occasion help was forthcoming – but now, ten years on, after retirements at the end of this year, only four committee-members will be left, with no immediate prospect of new and interested people available to offer their services. This has been in spite of frequent verbal pleas to audiences at concerts and statements made in newsletters, as well as through general networking.

We at Middle C have already expressed our alarm at the prospect, my colleague, Lindis Taylor having reflected at the “catchment” of the HVCM Society being approximately 35% of Greater Wellington’s population, and describing the loss as “a very regrettable hole in the region’s musical scene”. Considering the quality and richness of the 2019 concerts, the removal of the series is nothing less than a tragedy for music-lovers in the region, and must surely be similarly viewed by those authorities concerned with maintaining the range and scope of Hutt Valley’s overall pool of cultural activities.

This particular concert, by dint of its outstanding quality, served to further underline the tragedy of any such impending loss. It also reinforced the fact of our having been so fortunate that Diedre Irons chose all those years ago to make New Zealand her home,  bringing with her, as she has done, such an all-encompassing range of skills relating to her piano-playing, to the delight and enrichment of thousands of people throughout her adopted country. For here was a kind of apogee of the pianist’s art laid out for our gratification and pleasure, via her playing of three of the greatest works for the keyboard ever composed.

Though written for performance on a two-manual harpsichord, and designed to employ the contrast in the music between “solo” and “orchestral” writing for the player between the hands, JS Bach’s “Italian Concerto” has become a favourite of pianists everywhere, all relishing the challenge of realising these contrasting passages on a single keyboard. The work’s three movements provide the fast-slow-fast framework of a concerto, while different voicings inflect both the single lines and the contrasting two-handed, “orchestral” aspects of the music.

From the beginning, Irons’ playing had strength and vigour, the opening paragraph a veritable  irruption of joyful energies, everything having a “schwung” kind of quality that seemed to give the music all the elbow-room it needed. Further into the movement I found myself beguiled by the waxing and waning of so many hues and colours from out of the pianist’s different  phrasings, Bach refracting and reimagining his material before our very ears, until the opening flourish returned almost laughingly, bringing us to a full, deliciously burgeoning circle!

My view of Bach’s slow movements has never been the same since listening to ‘cellist Raeul Pierard’s “masterclass” performances of the ‘Cello Suites about a year ago, a saga whose guided journey “opened up” the composer’s emotional world for me to a hitherto unrealised extent – Here in the Concerto’s middle movement murmured depths of emotion, out of which, under Irons’ fingers, both the stoically-repeated accompaniment and the exposed melodic line created arabesques of feeling through which we drifted in wonderment, a deeper, richer accompaniment intensifying the sequence’s repetition, its sighing conclusion framed by two deeply-felt trills.

Irons’ touch throughout the work’s finale seemed to me to enable us to leave the world of keys and hammers behind, the instrument transformed into something magical admitting to no age or era, merely a “transport of delight” whose tones sing, chatter, whisper and chuckle in all registers, maintaining that sense of captivation by the music which the pianist seems to me to bring to whatever she plays – a joyous experience for all!

I last heard Irons play the mighty “Appassionata” Sonata of Beethoven’s at Wellington Cathedral, of all places, something of a surreal sonic experience in that fearsome reverberation. Partly to her credit and partly due to our sitting as close to the pianist as we could, she seemed to me to make as much musical sense as was possible of the work amid the haloed ambiences of resonance that threatened to swamp much of the fine detail. It was a truly “enhanced” musical event, the sound-picture akin to, in sonic terms, “a mighty Polypheme”, at once fascinating and grotesque to experience.

By comparison, here in the relatively modest confines of Woburn’s St.Mark’s Church, one could appreciate in an almost completely untrammelled way the pianist’s mastery of the music, the portentous opening gestures disturbingly reaching upwards and into the light, before conflagrating and, avalanche-like, rolling thunderously down into the music’s brooding folds, glint-eyed gestures of defiance having their say before giving way to an opening-up of rich, warmly-laden utterances, the defiant opening theme turned on its head and transformed here into something almost Prospero-like in its wisdom. Irons took us into the heart of each episode, relishing each of the work’s tumultuous arpeggiated episodes leading firstly to the appearance of the ominous Fifth-Symphony-like four-note motif, and then the latter’s even more portentous reappearance just before the movement’s tempestuous coda, the playing encompassing a climax and a dying fall whose force and focus left us stunned!

The middle movement’s theme-and-variations here unfolded simply and directly, with Irons giving the second-half of each of the sequences a crescendo-like flowering of warmth and strength, grown beautifully from the first half’s simplicity. She galvanised us with her rapier-like repetition of the questioning upward gesture at the movement‘s end, and the finale was upon us like the surge of a rapidly-burgeoning river in flood. Irons’ command of the music’s trajectories was total, conjuring up as many ghostly half-lights as there were full-blooded onrushings, the onslaught less a question of tempo and more of focused energy and momentum, the music here controlled, there unleashed, and everything balanced within the vistas of a tumultuous overview – to the point that, when Irons DIDN’T plunge into the movement’s (admittedly controversial) second-half repeat, and went straight on into the work’s coda, I found myself for the very first time in my experience not objecting, so taken-up was I with what she WAS doing instead with it all, to resoundingly satisfying effect! – an amazing performance!

In the wake of such an onslaught of focused musical impulse the Liszt B Minor Sonata held its head up proudly, the work’s unities and diversities finely-judged by the pianist, her playing underlining the shape and intent of the structure, while bringing out the music’s poetry and nobility. Liszt hides nothing in this work by artifice or false emotion – every gesture is whole-hearted and part of an overall integration of thought and feeling, as is the almost alchemic synthesis of the work’s different motifs – a remarkable achievement by the composer, and one which Irons enhanced with her acute instinct for proportion and varied emphasis throughout.

Right from the beginning of the work a kind of urgency informed the proceedings, of the kind which sought out essences rather than glossed over them, and honed them to their sharpest extent – the first few pages of the Sonata give the listener nearly all the material the composer is going to use throughout the whole, single-movement work,  Irons here displaying an almost alchemic flair with each fragment in its delineation and later development. At every turn I felt her playing triumphantly balanced the work’s virtuoso elements with the more inward, poetic content, in a way that left one in no doubt as to the logic of the composer’s thinking and the creative mastery of it all.

Faced with such a recreative achievement one hesitates to dwell on any single aspect of Irons’  performance – but I couldn’t help but be particularly moved on this occasion by the delicate poetry of the “Consolations-like” theme at the piece’s very heart, which all but held the music’s pulsings still for a few precious moments, just before the fugue’s darker purpose grew out of the still-to-be-negotiated journeyings – here, its evocation felt to me almost Dante-ish, life-journeying stuff, like a glimpse through a window into a pilgrim’s soul, and as such, a precious and profound moment.

Very great acclaim at the piece’s conclusion from us all for Diedre Irons, who then treated us to an encore in the form of Schumann’s well-known “Träumerei”, a performance which, to my surprise, I must confess to finding somewhat enigmatic from this pianist in its most uncharacteristic “matter-of-factness”, the notes to my ears expertly but somewhat plainly sounded – I reasoned that, at the conclusion of such a recital, a performer’s instinct may well be to return us to our lives, rather than weave further ongoing spells of enchantment. Whatever the case, and however unexpected, it still didn’t lessen the impact of a remarkable recital, one whose resonances will surely fuel our hopes for some kind of as-yet-unspecified “revival” of chamber music performance in the Hutt Valley for the future.









Diverting recital by senior NZSM tutors Inbal Megiddo and Jian Liu at St Andrew’s lunchtime

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts

Inbal Megiddo (cello) and Jian Liu (piano)

Music by Boccherini, Manuel de Falla, Mendelssohn  and David Popper

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 30 October, 12:15 pm

A larger than usual audience came in from the sun to hear these two members of the music faculty of Victoria University (known as the New Zealand School of Music).

They began with one of Boccherini’s cello sonatas: one on A major. A look at the Boccherini catalogue shows 29 cello ‘sonatas, for cello solo (and basso)’, which is believed to mean probably a second cello; most were written when he was young. Of those, two are in A major, the second of which (No 13) was one of the few published in his life-time (unauthorised by the composer according to the programme notes).  However, there’s one in A major that is played by several cellists on YouTube: listed as G. 4 or No 6. Coming across these a few days after the recital, I doubt that this is what Megiddo played.

In any case it was clear at the start why this one has been found worthy of attention today. The music was distinctive and satisfyingly varied through its two movements, and Megiddo played authoritatively, nimbly and with a keen ear to its style and musical substance; this was an interesting, melodious piece that whets the appetite to hear more. As several writers have remarked, though Boccherini has attracted much more attention in the past couple of decades, his very large body of worthwhile music including a dozen cello concertos, is still seriously neglected.

De Falla
That was followed by Manuel de Falla’s Suite populaire espagnole which is an arrangement of Siete canciones populares españolas (‘seven Spanish popular songs’ – the second song, ‘Seguidilla murciana’, was left out of the arrangements that have been made for various instruments). They are widely different in character, a factor in their wide popularity; but they also offer very rewarding opportunity for other musicians, and Megiddo and Liu made flamboyant, colourful yet sensitive use of them.  Though my first impression was that the cello didn’t capture all the sparkle and dancing character of pieces like the ‘Jota’ and the ‘Canción’, it created a different, more mature character. Jian Liu’s piano made a bigger contribution in these pieces, particularly distinctive in the ‘Polo’.

A Song Without Words
One of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words was written for cello and piano, not, like all the others, for piano alone. He published eight books of Songs Without Words for solo piano, six in each, plus some others not published in his lifetime: Decca has recorded a ‘complete’ edition totally 56 pieces. Op 109 was written two years before his early death aged 38. I was surprised to find this lovely piece quite familiar, though I had not been aware of its source; typically charming and played most expressively.

David Popper 
Liszt was not the only composer of Hungarian Rhapsodies; David Popper, Czech cellist, was a prolific composer, mainly for the cello. (I still have a relatively easy piece, Gavotte No 2, Op 23, that I played as a student). His Nocturne No 4 (Op 47) and Hungarian Rhapsody, Op 68 made a nice pair. The Nocturne was quite long with a prominent, interesting piano part, showing Popper as much more than merely a cello virtuoso. The Hungarian Rhapsody prompted the word ‘expostulation’ in my notes, and was a pretty spectacular piece, quite as bravura in style as Liszt’s pieces with the same name, and as startling to watch as to listen to.


Three Beethoven string quartets from brilliant Ébène Quartet: part of their world-wide project

Ébène Quartet
Pierre Colombet, and Gabriel Le Magadure – violins; Marie Chilemme – viola, Raphaël Merlin – cello

Beethoven Live
String Quartet No 2 in G, Op 18 no 2
String Quartet No 11 in F minor, Op 95 (‘Serioso’)
String Quartet No 10 in E flat, Op 74 (‘Harp’)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 25 October 7:30 pm

The concert by the Ébène Quartet was probably the most looked forward to concert of the 2019 Chamber Music New Zealand series, though Middle C this year is not really in a position to make a comprehensive comparison. We missed at least a couple of concerts, including that by the Brodsky Quartet in May.

Ébène is a quartet with far more strings to its bows than merely hard-core classical stuff. They are alleged to be equally at home in jazz and film music, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they ventured into heavy metal and hip-hop too.

One cannot shield oneself altogether from the influence of overseas critiques of prominent groups or from occasional hearings on RNZ Concert; and it was clear from the very first notes there was something remarkable here. The French quartet have, this and early next year, devoted themselves to celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday (December 2020) by performing all his string quartets around the world. And they are recording a 7 CD box for Erato Warner.

Opus 18 no 2 in G
They had the secret of making each of the three quartets chosen for New Zealand (one  other concert, in Auckland) sound like an extraordinary masterpiece, and furthermore, sound as if one had never heard the piece properly before. Op 18 no 2 opened in the most fragile and delicate way imaginable.  But nothing was so febrile that it didn’t emerge meaningfully, with clarity and wide-ranging emotional liveliness and depth, – particularly the interesting development section. The hesitant refinement of the Adagio cantabile seemed to be a matter of delicacy rather than lyricism, though the uniqueness of the second movement comes with the unexpected Allegro that bursts uninvited on the movement’s predominant spirit, and just as abruptly reverts to the character of the first section again.

In the sparkling Scherzo it struck me that in places there was a curious contrast between the melody line and the lower strings; and even though it’s one of the early instances of the Minuet movement being replaced by a Scherzo, Beethoven fills it with unexpected twists that the players exploited with taste and wit.

And the last movement sustains the spirit of what G major is thought to suggest: spirited, perhaps rustic, though such notions strike a cynic, without perfect pitch, as fanciful. Nevertheless, the Allegro molto finale met these expectations with special delight and imaginativeness.

No 11 in F minor – ‘Serioso’
The other two quartets were Nos 10 and 11, labelled as ‘late middle period’, and they are the last before the final five ‘Late Quartets’. This was probably written in 1811, first performed in 1814. If you’re paying attention to the spiritual nature of keys, this F minor quartet seems to fill the bill for F minor: grieving, melancholic; though the first movement is nevertheless full of energy, with abrupt dynamic changes, and the players highlighted these, emphasising the despair suggested by its quiet disappearance at the end. I’ve never heard the second movement, marked Allegretto ma non troppo, played with such hesitancy in spite of the second violin’s long staccato accompaniment that seemed to dominate the mood as others uttered quiet gestures that didn’t really consist of melody. The third movement is also entitled Allegretto, but ‘assai vivace ma serioso’, rather than Scherzo – which it emphatically is not. Its unchanging, intense disquiet was here expressed with more than usual subtlety and other-worldliness. The last movement opens with the most ‘serioso’ feeling of all – it’s marked Larghetto espressivo and even though it accelerates, a feeling of frenzied insecurity dominated the performance, and was alleviated by startling refinement. One is left uneasy even after the final frantic bars at high speed.

The Harp Quartet, Op 74
The title ‘Harp Quartet’ has always seemed to me an odd misnomer as the odd passages of pizzicato are hardly of critical significance in the score, in spite of the case made for them by the writer of the programme notes. The players began the Poco adagio introduction to the first movement with an infinite, remote subtlety that seemed to lie somewhere between the confidence of the Op 18 work and the sombre ‘Serioso’. But the Allegro itself departed at once from any hesitancy with an ebullient lyricism as well as, in this performance, almost a feeling of turmoil; though always with feet on the ground. The second movement, soberly labelled Adagio ma non troppo, has been variously characterised: it’s simply meditative and beautiful, and they played the long quiet passages with a dreamy unease.

Then the third movement, Presto, which Beethoven again avoids using the word Scherzo to describe, was strangely passionate, almost furious in its seriousness especially, after a couple of minutes, with the dynamic cello-led, chaotic sort of chase.  If it wasn’t for the tempo change from triple to common time, it’s easy to overlook the arrival of the last movement, which follows with hardly a pause, and which might be heard as something of an elaboration, emotionally, of the Presto.  It’s a protracted, complex movement, even though formally, it’s merely an old-fashioned theme and variations. The players invested it with a wonderful feeling of ease and ethereal richness; and the quirkiness of the final accelerated bars seemed to epitomise the wonderful range and expressive variety that this quartet could bring to performances of the greatest music.


Admirable NZSO concert touching several rewarding themes: all German apart from Ken Young’s new piece

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jun Märkel with Samuel Jacobs (French horn)

Kenneth Young: Te Māpouriki
Mozart: Symphony No 31 in D, K 297 ‘Paris’
Strauss: Horn Concerto No 1 in E flat, Op 11
Mendelssohn: Overture: Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Op 27
Schumann: Symphony No 1 in B flat, Op 38 ‘Spring’

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday 24 October, 7:30 pm

I had guessed perhaps a bit cynically, that this might not be a hugely well attended concert. The balcony was well populated but the stalls were rather thin. The absentees made a serious mistake.

Its programme looked unorthodox: a relatively brief concerto for horn, an overture at the beginning of the second half, and two symphonies. And a new composition by Ken Young to mark the 250th anniversary of Cook’s first visit to New Zealand.

Mozart: Paris Symphony
The earliest music was Mozart’s ‘Paris’ Symphony, No 31 in D major, written in the hope of pleasing Paris audiences on his 1778 visit to Paris with his mother who died there; his father, Leopold, held Wolfgang responsible. The symphony generally met with the approval of audiences at the Parisian Concert Spirituel where it had several performances. As the programme notes remarked, Mozart was pleased to have a larger orchestra than he was used to in Vienna and he scored this symphony accordingly, in particular, for clarinets for the first time. Apart from the absence of trombones which didn’t arrive in symphonies till Beethoven’s 5th symphony, we heard a wind section that was widespread well into the next century.

The result was music that sounded more ‘symphonic’ in a 19th century sense than anything Mozart had written before and Märkel drew luminous playing of great clarity, achieving distinct contrasts between instruments, though subtle and unpretentious. Charming, crisp themes in the first movement, a gently rhythmic, unpretentious second movement; no minuet third movement, but straight into the Allegro last movement, illuminated alternately with subtlety and energy.

I noted certain player absences: no Andrew Joyce leading the cellos; concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppänen’s place taken by Associate Donald Armstrong whose place was taken in turn by one-time concert-master Wilma Smith.

Mendelssohn overture
Next in chronological order was the youthful Mendelssohn’s overture, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (1828), based on two poems by Goethe. The note pointed out that ‘calm sea’ misrepresents the poet’s meaning which really describes a ‘becalmed’ ship, a matter of serious concern in the days of sailing ships. However, the becalmed episode was breathlessly beautiful.

Fairly clearly, it was chosen as a possible allusion to Cook’s voyages, the subject of Kenneth Young’s piece, discussed later.

It’s a gorgeous, magically orchestrated work, and Märkel presided over a delightful performance, with a charming flute solo introducing the rising wind that enables the ship to make way again. Though written a couple of years after Mendelssohn’s even earlier (16) masterpiece, A Midsummer Night’s Dream overture, it’s no less inspired and masterful. And it reminded me of the former programming tradition of starting concerts with an overture; very rare these days.

This overture is among the many that need to be resurrected, as there’s nothing like of one the scores of beautiful, memorable, thrilling overtures to implant a love of music in young minds: in my youth, an overture almost invariably opened a concert opener, and overtures opened every evening’s 6pm ‘Dinner Music’ programme on RNZ Concert’s predecessor which was important in guiding my own musical explorations.

Schumann’s ‘Spring’ Symphony
Putting a symphony by Schumann together with the Mendelssohn, who was only a year older, was an inspired little gesture, and not merely as our Spring might be arriving. Schumann wrote his first symphony a decade later, in 1841. Apart from Berlioz’s Fantastique, it was the first important and successful symphony since the deaths of Beethoven and Schubert.

Schumann’s orchestral works have long been rather neglected, smeared ritually with criticisms of his orchestration. But this was a performance that should have won the ‘Spring’ Symphony hundreds of new fans. It was revelatory, both for its inspired, lyrical music and its originality, and very importantly through the colourful, lively performance itself, with Märkel’s careful attention to dynamic and rhythmic subtleties that simply lifted the spirit. It’s a work that suffers if played too seriously, with rhythms that are too careful; but this, throughout, was simply beguiling and brilliant: alive with sudden tempo and dynamic changes.

Strauss: Horn concerto No 1
Forty years later the eighteen-year-old Richard Strauss wrote a horn concerto for his horn-playing father (he wrote another during the Second World War). This performance with the NZSO’s principal horn player, Samuel Jacobs, was marked by an authentic stateliness and polish from the first bars; it might have been formally akin to Mozart’s horn concertos, but not so high spirited. There was calm beauty in the playing of the slow movement, and the return to the Allegro of the last movement was something of a renewal of the character of the first. In all a splendid exhibition of precocious composition and brilliant horn playing.

Just to prove that he was not simply a good player of the valve horn, Jacobs returned after spirited applause with a dull bronze coloured natural horn and danced his way through a piece by Rossini: Rendez-vous de Chase (arranged by one Hamuera Makawhio); Wikipedia tells me it’s also known as Fanfare pour quatre trompes composée pour Monsieur le baron Schickler. It was flawless and the audience was transfixed.

Kenneth Young: Te Māpouriki
Ken Young’s piece, Te Māpouriki, opened the concert: an attempt to depict James Cook’s arrival in New Zealand – the actual 250th anniversary this month. It was immediately attractive, opening with a calm, luminous, beautifully orchestrated passage dominated by flutes and piccolo in gentle dancing music. That was soon disturbed by underlying, throbbing, uneasy bass sounds that led to an troubled alternation with the treble woodwinds. Then came the surprising arrival of the New Zealand National Anthem; I couldn’t decide whether it was intended as an ironic comment, suggesting the intrusion of Europeans on the peace-loving native peoples who’d lived in the country for about three hundred years, and had devoted much of their time to waging war with each other.

A touch of history
The dominant feeling of the piece settled around this contrast between gentle, peaceful lamentation, and dissonant, intrusive conquest by more barbaric forces. But I was reluctant to interpret the music in the manner of some of the historically ill-informed, distorted interpretations of Cook’s exploration and the enlightened intentions that guided him in his approach to native peoples with whom he made contact. But the programme notes gave me no comfort from such misrepresentation.

I was mystified by Young’s remarks quoted in the programme notes, “…and Cook, the man unable to divest himself of his background as a hegemonic absolutist…” and that he was “unable to deny the arrogant and imperialistic nature of his temperament and agenda”.

Cook’s brief was to explore, to observe planetary phenomena – the Transit of Venus in Tahiti and the Transit of Mercury at another location which turned out to the Coromandel Peninsula. It’s as if mankind’s urge to explore his planet had not been increasingly important at least from the Renaissance. He was emphatically NOT urged to claim territory, and did not do so.

Indeed, the programme notes seemed to turn away from the better-informed and historically objective views that make it clear that we cannot always apply today’s attitudes to historical events.

Cook, as well as other explorers in the Pacific at the time, such as De Surville who almost encountered Cook around North Cape and Marion du Fresne were creatures of the Enlightenment – in the case of the French, deeply affected by Rousseau’s views on ‘the noble savage’, and they made serious efforts to deal with indigenous people humanely. Du Fresne, after five weeks of exemplary relations with Maori at the Bay of Islands in 1772, was killed along with 24 of his crew, evidently for unknowingly breaching sacred rituals.

The British Royal Society’s advice to Cook embodied this Enlightenment spirit and it’s very clear that Cook and the scientists and artists accompanying him took these matters very seriously.

In the case of Cook at Turangnui-a-Kiwa (Gisborne), his men were attacked and their reprisals, not sanctioned in any way by Cook, were a matter of extreme regret to Cook and his companions.

Nor is anything to be gained from attributing blame for unfortunate events of the past to just one group, especially when the behaviour of the explorers was exemplary by any standards and certainly were, in the context of the late 18th century.

The wrongs between Maori and Europeans occurred not with Cook’s contacts, but with the arrival of whalers and sealers and other adventurers, and during the period of the murderous Musket Wars between Maori iwi in the decades before 1840. In those wars perhaps 10,000 Maori were killed without any involvement by Europeans whatsoever. Nor is there any argument about the unjust and exploitative dealings by land-hungry settlers during the period after the establishment of self-government in New Zealand, from around the 1860s – almost a century after Cook’s arrival here.

It might be useful for those parading these ill-informed views, to read the unimpeachable article by Graeme Lay in the Listener of 12 October.

None of this detracts from Young’s very engaging music and Jun Märkel’s sensitive and sympathetic performance. Whatever its inspiration, its musical and emotional characteristics were most interesting and the orchestra conjured a satisfying feeling of imaginative, descriptive music.

Intelligent programming of piano duets from markedly contrasted pianists at St Andrew’s

St. Andrews lunchtime concert

Piano Duets by Debussy, Brahms and Rachmaninoff

Sunny Cheng and Kris Zuelicke, piano

St. Andrews on the Terrace.,Wellington

Wednesday 23 October 2019, 12:15 pm

Outside it is a bleak, stormy day, but step inside St. Andrews, get warm and listen to some beautiful music and you feel better. Sunny Cheng and Kris Zuelicke are both experienced, skilled pianists, active performers and piano teachers in Wellington. They make a formidable a piano duet team. Their senses of the piano are different; one hears the piano as more of a percussive, rhythmic instrument, while the other as lyrical and melodic. The two pianists complemented each other, in a conversation, a discussion, rather than a unanimous single voice. They presented a carefully constructed programme, four pieces or movements by three very different composers, Debussy, Brahms and Rachmaninoff.

Claude Debussy: Petite Suite for piano four hands, L.65

This is young Debussy, colourful music, perhaps better known in its orchestral version. It is fragile, meditative, other-worldly. This was a technically impressive performance, but some of the fragility, imaginative resonance was missing. The emphasis was on ‘captivating rhythms’ rather than on the ‘lyrical melodies’ alluded to in the programme notes. Still, it was a pleasure to hear these little works, a gentle boat ride, a parade full of colour, a nostalgic echo of the Menuet of an earlier era, and the final movement, the energetic Ballet.

Johannes Brahms: Souvenir de la Russie for piano four hand. Anh IV/6

Brahms was still a teenager, playing the piano in a Hamburg tavern when he was approached by a music publisher to arrange some of the Russian music he might have played or heard for piano duet. These charming little songs are based on Russian and Bohemian folk songs and some considered them to be misattributed to Brahms, but whoever arranged them they are melodious, easy listening. Sunny Cheng and Kris Zuelicke chose four pieces of the collection of six, Der Zweig (the Branch), In der Morgendämmerung wecke sie nicht (Don’t wake her at dawn), Die Nachtingall (The nightingale), and Ein Grosses Dorf liegt auf dem Weg (There is a big village by the road).

These were selected for their connection to the Russian themed duets of Rachmaninoff that followed. The two pianists changed sides, Zuelicke playing treble and Cheng the bass, and the music had a different feel, not just because young Brahms was different from Debussy, but also because the playing had a more mellow quality.

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Four selections from Six Duets, Op.11

Barcarolle is a theme linked to the opening of the concert, Debussy’s En Bateau. Both suggest gliding of oars over water. Scherzo is an energetic movement of highly contrasting sections, Valse suggests the air of a ball a frequent feature of Russian literature, while Slava (Celebration) is based on an old Russian liturgical chant used in the coronation scene in Boris Godunov. This final work was a rollicking conclusion to a fine recital.

This was intelligent programming and the programme notes were informative.

The St. Andrews Wednesday lunch time concerts provide a wonderful opportunity to hear some of the outstanding local talent. It also gives musicians a chance to shine in a public recital. These two pianists deserved to be heard in this delightful enjoyable concert.

Delightful, delicious, and declamatory – a “no-holds-barred” night with Marc Taddei and Orchestra Wellington

Orchestra Wellington presents:

CLAIRE SCHOLES – Cuba on Cuba (with the Arohanui Strings)
SAMUEL BARBER – Violin Concerto (Amalia Hall – violin)
AARON COPLAND – Symphony No. 3

Marc Taddei (conductor)
Arohanui Strings (Claire Scholes)
Orchestra Wellington

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 20th October, 2019

Orchestra Wellington has earned a special niche for itself amid the welter of artistic activities supported by the capital, one that’s steadily developed over the years of Marc Taddei’s tenure as Music Director, and in recent times enjoyed obvious fruition in terms of its enthusiastic audience following. Its appeal is based on several factors, not the least of which is the unflagging wholeheartedness and enthusiasm of conductor Taddei for whatever he’s presently engaged in doing with his players, and the ensemble’s remarkable development in playing standards over the duration. As well, the organisation’s on-going policy of keeping its audiences guessing from year to year as to what’s next in store heightens the fun and excitement of it all, be it the announcement of an oncoming season’s programme or the orchestra’s always delightfully “sprung” collaboration with the youthful Arohanui Strings Ensemble (both of the latter taking place this evening!)

Regular attendees at OW concerts will be well familiarised with the work of this music-education/social development programme, which works with children who grow up in areas of economic deprivation in the Wellington/Hutt Valley area. Begun in 2010 by OW violinist Alison Eldredge, the group includes over 300 children per year in these areas, teaching them string instruments, singing and music notation. Tonight’s concert began with the more advanced students playing a work by Manawatu-born, Auckland-based composer Claire Scholes called Cuba on Cuba, one inspired by the “thriving party zone” atmosphere along Cuba St. in Wellington.

Scholes wanted her piece to be, as far as possible, “children-led”, her writing having the younger musicians presenting the piece’s main ideas, which in turn were taken up and developed by the adult musicians. Beginning with an attractively soulful and melancholic violin solo, the piece brought the dance energies in straight afterwards – aside from a slightly-too-prominent tin-can, the percussive noises brought out catchy, angular figurations  punctuated by occasional “Ooh!” and “Wow!” vocalisations from the players. A brass choir opened up the textures further, revealing a “bright, new country”, not unlike in spirit the vistas to be evoked by Aaron Copland’s music later in the programme., the “tin-can” rhythm joined by other instruments, building up the textures, working jazzy tattoos into the mix between percussion irruptions, and finishing in the time-honoured manner with suitably grand and satisfying gesturings, both music and playing generating a warm reception!

A piece called “Amadeus” followed, an arrangement of the first movement of Mozart’s 25th Symphony (the “little” G Minor!) with some of the writing’s angularities removed. Then the “big guns” were brought out (the youngest of the Arohanui Strings’ students), standing in a line across the front of the platform, to everybody’s great pleasure, and playing a couple of folk-song tunes as well as “What shall we do with a  Drunken Sailor” and the lovely “Hine e Hine”. The response was rapturous!

Came the second instalment of the evening’s packagings, this particular segment unwrapped by the musicians with the utmost delicacy and beauty of feeling. This was Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, a work written in 1939, and one whose history is of a complexity which the concert’s programme-note writer, Erica Challis obviously considered would be best left well alone! Barber wrote the work for a former classmate of his at the Curtis Institute, Iso Briselli, who responded favourably to the first two movements of the work, but not to the brilliant, but comparatively short finale which he considered somewhat insubstantial! Various other people, including Briselli’s own teacher, added their opinions, the teacher, Albert Meiff, even offering to rewrite parts of the work in consultation with the composer! Barber declined the offer and after various other comings-and-goings between him and Briselli (all to no avail, except that they actually remained friends throughout all of this!) gave the concerto to another violinist, Albert Spalding, who premiered the work with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy in February 1941.

Unfortunately for Briselli, a version of the story involving his rejecting the concerto because the third movement was ”too difficult” for him to play gained currency at about this time and actually became the accepted “story” of events in most descriptions of the work’s genesis. It wasn’t until fifty years afterwards, when the violinist published correspondence between him and the composer, that the “correct” version of their interaction re the concerto was given its proper status – that it was the “character” of the final movement, and not its difficulty, which had led Briselli to reject the work.

So, leaving behind all the fuss, both preceding the first performance and its aftermath, how was the concerto and its performance as presented by Amalia Hall and Marc Taddei with Orchestra Wellington? – in a word, dazzling! Where the violinist had demonstrated both technical and intellectual strength and flexibility throughout the rigorously earthy Bartok Second Violin Concerto which she’d played earlier in the year with the Orchestra, here she responded as readily and wholeheartedly to the Barber work’s heart-on-sleeve nostalgia, romantic variation and (in the finale) fleet-fingered brilliance. Throughout, Hall treated her line with the greatest of sensitivity, a finely-wrought “voice” threading its tones through a beguiling orchestral tapestry, one which Marc Taddei and his players supported and abetted at every turn.

After a first movement whose performance surefootedly negotiated the music’s ebb and flow between sunlight and shadow, from the utmost tenderness to full-blooded expression of feeling, the sounds gently and beguilingly dissolving at the end into beguilingly pastoral ambiences, the slow movement brought into play equally veiled strings, golden horns and a plaintive oboe, the strings then further “brokering” the material between clarinet and horn before the soloist took up the line – at first tenderly, then more intensely, and further into  anguish, and a sequence shared with distant , muted trumpets that suggested some private grief.

But then, how sweetly Hall’s playing drew from this unpromising state of things a flow of such warmth as to disarm all woe, the music seeming to suddenly open a vein of nostalgia for golden days of yore, as if bidding them farewell – to youth, or perhaps to innocence – times that will possibly come again only in memory…….I thought Barber’s touch exemplary in its refusal to let the music wallow, instead remaining ready to remind all of us that everything under the sun comes and goes – the orchestral “shudders” that followed these outpourings were here as telling as the climactic moments had been.

As for the work’s finale, the subject of much comment and conjecture over the years stemming from the  non-engagement of the originally intended first performer of the work, violinist Iso Briselli, with the music, it was here a tour de force from all concerned, by turns a shimmering of elfin quicksilver and a veritable whirlwind of energy, brilliantly, and astoundingly played by Hall, the accompanying orchestral playing just as astonishing in its poise and knife-edged dexterity! At the end, the applause simply went on and on, all of us present exhilarated by the music’s energies and the soloist’s brilliance, ideally matched by that of conductor and players. What a work and what a performance!

Before the second half’s music was embarked upon, Marc Taddei annouced that next year’s Orchestra Wellington subscription season tickets were now available for purchasing, and, what was more, at their cheapest price, this being the benefit enjoyed by people willing to “take a chance” with the orchestra’s as yet unannounced programme of six concerts. The only clue Taddei would give us was that the composer was strongly identified with the Romantic era – naturally enough, this was enough to ignite all kinds of post-concert discussion, my friend and myself wavering between Liszt and Schumann as likely candidates! Only time will tell, of course!

Try as I might, I couldn’t raise quite the same unbridled enthusiasm at the end for the final work on the evening’s programme, Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony, despite what seemed utterly committed efforts on the part of Marc Taddei and his orchestral players. Somehow, I found parts of the work too bombastic and overtly rhetorical, as if in places the music’s purpose had somehow run dry and was left seemingly empty-sounding.

Better, more “felt” to my ears, were the work’s less declamatory, more pastoral moments, both rhythmic and lyrical, such as the beautifully “open” string melody at the work’s beginning, and the wind-choir coda to the first movement, the rest impressive, but in a way that seemed too ready to overstate. True, the quieter moments stood out in all-the-more sweeter relief to the grand gesturings, but I thought the latter here simply too much of a good thing.

Outdoor energies were the order throughout the second movement – rhythms turning into dance, and figurations quick and slower juxtaposing. The exuberances recalled Copland scores that I really loved – Appalachian Spring and Rodeo in particular – hence underlining my ongoing surprise at not responding more positively to the composer in this, his more symphonic mode. Still, I did enjoy the cheek-by-jowl contrasts in this movement , with the brass sounding their themes weightily and grandly, as the rest of the orchestra danced underneath and all around. And the “trio” section, with its contrapuntish winds, was particularly delightful!

The playing breathtakingly caught the third movement’s aching, almost spectral feeling at the third movement’s beginning, before winds and strings attempted stoically to energise one another, to try and return confidence and hope, and began to dance. Despite moments of enchantment and energy the strings seemed to suddenly lose heart, the energies dissipate, and the instrumental lines lose direction and drift upwards – the music seemed suddenly lost, beyond redemption.

Out of this suspended chaos sounded the “Fanfare” theme, steadily played by the winds, when suddenly to growls of approval from the basses, the brasses burst in, their theme punctuated by percussion outbursts – tremendous playing by all concerned, even if (to my ears) by this stage the grandiloquence of such gestures seemed already well “milked”! As the music drove mercilessly to its admittedly magnificent-sounding conclusion, there was no doubting the orchestra’s capacity for giving conductor Marc Taddei what he wanted at this or any point in the work – and aficionados of full-blooded, give-it-all-you’ve-got playing would have been in seventh heaven amid the splendours of the work’s final chord, less actual music, I thought, than a truly seismic event! A nineteenth-century American critic fond of writing in the vernacular, at the end of a review of a particularly tumultuous concert given by the first great American piano virtuoso, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, said it all – “I knowed no more that evening!”



















Iconic singer/composer Björk celebrated by Claire Cowan’s Blackbird Ensemble

Tour-Makers presents:
The Blackbird Ensemble
Claire Cowan (director, arranger, small strings, keyboard)
Charmian Keay (violin) / Peau Halapua (violin) / Rachel Grimwood (viola)
Rachel Wells (‘cello) / Sean Martin-Buss (sax) / Callum Passells (sax/clarinet)
Henry Swanson (horn) / Chris Townsend (drums) / Rebecca Celebuski (percussion)

Vocals: Priya Sami, Anna Coddington, Mara TK

Shed 6, TSB Arena, Waterfront
Thursday, 17th October, 2019

Reviewed jointly with Bec Coogan

Fans of the Icelandic singer Björk Guðmundsdóttir (known internationally by her first name, Björk)  will probably have little more than a certain “academic” interest in the following review, written by someone, myself, who’s a dyed-in-the-wool follower of what’s popularly known as “classical” music, and, up until attending this concert didn’t know even whether the singer in whose honour the event took place was male or female! I’d vaguely heard the name Bjork every now-and-then, but, as with most entertainers in these “popular” kinds of genres, knew next-to-nothing about her or her music.

When I was asked to write a review, I found myself more than usually interested in the idea upon discovering that the “Blackbird Ensemble” presenting the music was directed by Claire Cowan, whose music I had previously encountered as a young “up-and-coming” “classical” composer. But even having noted that “crossover” aspect, I’m not going to even attempt to try and synthesise two creative worlds, in as much as it appears to me that the means through which the music of someone like Bjork and any “classical” composer one cares to name are so different that one has to adopt correspondingly alternative kinds of “receptors” in response. In reviewing this concert for “Middle C” I wanted merely to explore, albeit gingerly, and with the help of my niece, Bec Coogan, who attended the concert with me, those kinds of receptors so as to be able to communicate what I felt about the concert to the “Middle C” readership.

This event was styled as a “show” rather than as a concert, implying that there were significant visual components in the presentation, giving it a “music theatre” kind of character. From what I’ve seen of concert presentations of popular music of late, it’s a kind of “genre” in itself, bringing into play theatrical techniques such as lighting, movement around the platform and occasional highlighting of specific musical skills. There is, of course a display element in all forms of music performance, though non-theatrical “classical” music presentations tend to downplay this. Here, there was for each separate item, spectacularly varied lighting involving the backdrops as well as the onstage activity, with the garb of both the instrumentalists and the singers strikingly Illuminated by lights fixed onto the costumes, resembling animated Christmas trees!

The singers and instrumentalists (including Claire Cowan, the music director) all wore identical garb, contributing to the idea of a unified “ensemble”, which I really liked – the “sameness” gave the message of the music added force by allowing our attention to move from those visuals to “what” the ensemble was doing. The three singers who performed the songs variously as solos, duos or trios all had microphones, as has been the custom in popular music genres for some time now, a reflection of accompaniments whose degree of amplification requires any singer to be similarly “helped” – I wasn’t sure that the quartet of string players each had instruments that were “electric” or otherwise, but every instrumentalist seemed to me to be “microphoned”, allowing all contributions to be “heard”. Despite the potential for “overload” I thought the decibel levels nicely-judged throughout, actually, the sound full and rich at climaxes without ever being overbearing.

All of this was in aid of a desire by the group’s members to pay homage to one of contemporary music‘s iconic figures, Icelandic “pop-star” Björk, regarded as one of the contemporary “fin de siècle” music greats as a composer, vocalist. arranger and producer. I went to the show with my niece, who’s a rock musician herself, and who, naturally enough, “knew” Björk and her music. Afterwards, she said (among other comments) something that I thought truly interesting, that the performance came across to her as a “homage” to Bjork by being something “further inspired” by her, and not merely a slavish copy of a collection of “hits” – though I didn’t know the original versions of these songs, Cowan had “arranged” most of them for her ensemble, so that they seemed to come up with what seemed to me appropriately fresh and immediate  force and colour, by way of presenting a “response” to Björk’s artistry and creativity (the songs Hidden Place, Human Behaviour, and Venus as a Boy were arranged by Sarah Belkner).

I thought the performances were terrific – all the instrumentalists shone and “impacted” with various solos and harmonic or contrapuntal combinations (as much a tribute to Cowan’s artistry as an arranger as to both her “model” and the musicians who were the conduit for the music) – and the three singers in their various ways both as soloists and in duet or trio form all “climbed into” Björk’s singularly-expressed words with interesting results. I thought the two women, Priya Sami (after a somewhat subdued, and slightly “overlaid” beginning), and Anna Coddington, from the moment she launched into her first number, put across “total immersion” in what they were doing – in the vocalisings of both you could “feel” the connection with the material. Interesting though it was to have a male singer (Mara TK) celebrating a female vocalist/composer, I found myself wondering why I wasn’t so enthusiastic about what he was doing – he seemed less involved, more like the “guest” artist (as the vocalists were referred to in the programme), rather than, as each of the women singers demonstrated in spadefuls, an integral part of the show.

My niece, Bec Coogan, with whom I went to the show remembered Björk from “way back” in her musical life, being struck at the time by the extent to which the singer brought something raw, a more unrefined emotion, into her music, which, back then, was unusual to the genre – of course there were plenty of non-mainstream people pushing those boundaries, but Björk seemed somehow uniquely able to bring those qualities with her as something new and distinctive in popular music culture – something along with what my niece called (somewhat tongue-in-cheek-like) Björk’s “cute pixie Icelandness”! It was, of course, an era in which women began asserting themselves and their sex in the western world – though Bec thought in Björk’s case it was as much to do with her individuality and strength as a creator as her sex, with her music speaking for itself in new and exciting ways.

As a result of the concert, the name Björk has for me “fleshed out” via her music and some spectacularly-presented performances of it, the “show” bearing the overall title “All is full of love”. I’m sure most people present would have readily identified each song as it came up, and wouldn’t have been at all worried that the programme didn’t have a performing list (which I would have appreciated!) – however the production and the musicians, together with Björk’s music, “held” me for the duration and readily conveyed the feeling of being caught up with something of value.


HK Gruber’s critique of classical music with the NZSO a hit with a younger, if smaller, audience

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by HK Gruber and Håkan Hardenberger

Håkan Hardenberger – trumpet and HK Gruber – chansonnier

Kindersinfonie – ‘Toy Symphony’
Stravinsky: Circus Polka
HK Gruber: Aerial
Haydn: Symphony No. 22 in E flat major
HK Gruber: Frankenstein

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday 10 October 2019, 7:30 pm

‘Why serious?’ the programme notes asks, presumably quoting HK Gruber. The music in this programme was meant to be fun. Gruber wanted to make music simple, approachable, and break down the demarcation between classical and popular music. Simplicity, however does not mean stupidity. Gruber’s models were Kurt Weill and Hans Eisler, and their iconoclastic music of Berlin of the 1920s. So this evening’s music was a long way from the usual symphonic fare, and the audience reflected this. There were empty seats and many of the regular followers of the orchestra were missing. In their place there were many children and young people, not a bad way of attracting a new generation to symphony concerts.

The first half of the concert was conducted by the composer, HK Gruber, with Hardenberger playing the solo, while in the second half, their roles were reversed, the trumpet soloist took over the baton and the composer took on the role of the Chansonnier, narrator.

Kindersinfonie: Toy Symphony

The concert opened with an old favourite of concerts for children, a work variously attributed to Haydn, Joseph or his brother, Michael, Leopold Mozart, or the largely unknown, Edmund Angerer. The music of short movements was written to be played outdoors as light street entertainment to amuse. In this concert the usual classical orchestra was augmented by a toy trumpet, a recorder playing the cuckoo, toy drum, a rattle and a triangle. This signalled what was to come in the rest of the programme.

Stravinsky Circus Polka

The Ringling Brothers and the Barnum and Bailey Circus commissioned Stravinsky to write a piece for 50 young elephants and 50 ballerinas to be choreographed by Balanchine. A couple of years later Stravinsky re-orchestrated the score originally written for a circus band and used a large orchestra, still retaining the sound of the circus performance, with resounding bass drum and crashing cymbals. At the end, with a touch of humour, he introduced Schubert’s March Militaire. All hilarious.

HK Gruber Aerial 

Aerial is a major symphonic work for the trumpet. It was commissioned by Hardenberger, and showcases the different musical attributes of the the trumpet with all its potential. It is a fine vehicle for a brilliant trumpet player and Hardenberger used an array of mutes as well as a piccolo trumpet and even a cow horn to highlight it against a colourful large orchestra that provided not a mere accompaniment but a foundation.

The work is in two parts, ‘two aerial views’ as Gruber describes it, an imaginary landscape beneath the Northern Lights. The first part bears an inscription from Emily Dickinson’s poem, Wild Nights: “Done with the compass, done with the chart”, the second is entitled Gone Dancing. The piece opens softly with an ethereal air, gradually evolving, making use of the resources of the large orchestra with its broad range of percussion. It is this brilliant interplay between the clusters of orchestral sound and the trumpet solo that gives this work its distinctive character. The slow first movement is followed by the energetic second movement with jazzy harmonies and musical quotations embracing the music of the whole last century. It has echoes of Stravinsky, Bernstein and the music of the 1940s. It is full of surprises that kept the audience alert.

Haydn Symphony No. 22 

The second half of the concert opened with an early Haydn symphony nicknamed ‘The Philosopher’. The orchestra was reduced in size to a small string section, with, unusually, two horns, two cor anglais and harpsichord. Haydn was a young man when he wrote this, developing the form that became his distinctive style of classical symphony. The sombre first movement, Adagio, is followed by a buoyant Presto a stately Menuet and Trio, and a high spirited Finale. A slight work played with style. Sandwiched in between the two large orchestral works of Gruber, this modest piece presented an interesting contrast, a respite from the high energy of the work that preceded it.

HK Gruber Frankenstein

Frankenstein is Gruber’s signature piece, his first breakthrough as an internationally recognised composer. He has performed it with major orchestras all over the world since its premier forty years ago. It is a strikingly original work. It is a sprechstimme, a work in which the spoken dialogue is strictly pitched as in a singing. The best known precedent for such a work is Schoenberg’s melodrama, Pierrot Luniare, but what a contrast. Gruber’s is irreverent, cynical, sarcastic, cruel. The text is children’s nursery rhymes, absurd, mocking, shocking, by the Austrian poet H. C. Artman. Originally written for a chamber music ensemble of 13 instruments in 1971, Gruber re-orchestrated it for a huge symphony orchestra with toy instruments, including kazoos, swanee whistles, honking car horns, a melodica, five paper bags, a bird warbler, and hose-pipes.

Enlarging an entertaining work for a small ensemble to a symphonic score is in itself a play on absurdity. Don’t take music too seriously, it is all meant to be fun. Gruber recited the text with great aplomb, earnestly to emphasize its absurdity, in English with clear dramatic diction. Has the text a deeper meaning? Can you read more into it than the words imply? Artman described the poems as being, among other things ‘covert political statements’. This however, doesn’t matter. It is pure entertainment. The poems are about figures in popular culture, demons, heroes, a female vampire, John Wayne, the actor, Robinson Crusoe, Superman, Batman and Robin, James Bond and Goldfinger and Frankenstein, the scientist, who is not a fearsome but a benign figure.

Both the orchestra and the audience entered into the spirit of the fun, and there was an exceptionally large ovation at the end of the performance.

The NZSO is to be commended for trying something quite different. The generous programme notes provided with the full text of the poems in translation and the context of the compositions added to the appreciation of the music.

Accomplished performances from Wellington Youth Orchestra with talented Asaki Watanabe in Bruch concerto

Wellington Youth Orchestra conducted by Mark Carter

Glazunov: ‘Autumn’ from The Seasons, Op 67
Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26 (Asaki Watanabe – violin)
Saint-Saȅns: Symphony No 3 in C minor, Op 78, ‘Organ’

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 6 October, 2019, 3:30 pm

Being part of a symphony orchestra is a huge commitment for young people. It involves rehearsals every Monday evening during term time. It also requires a high degree of competence on an orchestral instrument. A full symphony orchestra needs 20-24 violins, and a corresponding number of violas, cellos and double basses as well as a full compliment of winds, brass and percussion. The Wellington Youth Orchestra mustered an almost full complement of instruments and guest players filled in the missing ranks, but it was short of string players.

Glazunov: Autumn
The concert opened with Glazunov’s Autumnfrom his Seasons. Seasons was composed for the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg in 1900. It is late romantic ballet music. The performance was distinguished by fine disciplined wind playing. The strings had some luscious sustained rich extended melodies. The orchestra played with a strong sense of rhythm.

Bruch Violin Concerto
Joachim, the great violinist, considered Max Bruch’s first violin concerto that he helped to revise, the richest and most seductive of all great German violin concertos. It is one of the most popular concertos in the repertoire. Asaki Watanabe, concert master of the Wellington Youth Sinfonietta won the WYO Concerto Competition with this work. She is a Japanese exchange student studying at Onslow College. She started learning the violin at the age of two and a half and has competed in annual provincial competitions in Japan since she was thirteen. In Wellington she is taught by Yuka Egochi, the NZSO assistant concertmaster.

From the very first notes of her entry it was evident that she is an assured young violinist. She produced a powerful tone, and played with confidence, with meticulously clear phrasing. She inspired and carried the orchestra with her. Every note was clearly and thoughtfully articulated. She displayed a prodigious technique. Her solo had the strong backing of the orchestra, underlining the emotional sweep of the music and beautifully echoing the phrases of the soloist. It was a phenomenal performance.

Organ Symphony
This is a grand symphony scored for a very large orchestra with piano, organ and enlarged percussion section. The music demands a powerful sound. Though called an Organ Symphony, it is not a true symphony for an organ. The organ is used as part of the orchestra in two out of the four sections of the work. In structure the piece is unusual, instead of the usual four movements of a classical symphony it is in two movements with each movement made up of three contrasting parts. The piano is used as a virtuoso soloist in one section, the organ adds colour and power and is used to add an otherworldly effect in the Maestoso section in the second movement. The piece culminates in an all encompassing fugal passage.

This symphony is a challenge for any orchestra, let alone a student orchestra. It has to be played with abandon, but without losing the structure of the work. The orchestra played with enormous dedication, producing some beautiful string sounds, and the winds and brass with the enlarged percussion section managed the exposed individual parts well. It required courage and confidence to cope with the difficult entries and solos. It is a sweeping romantic work, in places overblown, bombastic, but still an important corner stone in the French symphonic repertoire. It was a creditable performance despite all the limitation of the orchestra, too few strings, and the overwhelming acoustics of the venue. All the musicians who participated would have got a lot out of being involved.

Mark Carter, appointed Music Director last year is the Sub-Principal trumpet of the NZSO. He studied conducting and participated in masterclasses with Sir Colin Davis and Sir Simon Rattle. He is also assistant conductor of Stroma, the contemporary music ensemble and music director of the Hutt Valley Orchestra. He is an experienced conductor, conducting with a clear beat. He appeared to have a great rapport with his young musicians. The concert was a wonderful journey for all involved.

If you missed this concert, and Asaki Watanabe’s playing is not to be missed, you can hear the same programme at the St. James Church in Lower Hutt on 12 October, at 3:30 pm.

Ken Young’s final outing with the NZSM Orchestra with a new composition and a concerto with a gifted violinist

New Zealand School of Music Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Young

Luka Venter: ts’onot
Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D minor Op 47 (violin – Nickolas Majić)
Prokofiev: Symphony No 5 in B flat, Op 100

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Friday 4 October, 7:30 pm

This was a little more than a routine concert by the music school of Victoria University, featuring a couple of its post graduate students: one, composer Luka Venter and the other, violinist Nickolas Majić.

At the end  of the concert it emerged, with a large cluster of flowers and speeches, that this was the last concert with the orchestra’s regular conductor, Kenneth Young; it marked his retirement from the position in the school of music, as he is about to take up the Mozart Fellowship at Otago University.

Limestone to music
Venter’s piece was inspired by an unusual geological feature in limestone areas of Mesoamerica, a recondite name for the region inhabited by the Mayan or pre-Columban peoples in what we’d call Mexico and the central American states as far south as Costa Rica. He explains that ‘ts’onot’ is the Yucatec Mayan name for these limestone features, “labyrinths of subterranean tunnels where sheaths of light cut through turquoise groundwater”.

It began with an underlay of strings that was soon joined by an oboe, then horns and soon the involvement of the large orchestra.  It’s not easy to conjure musical sounds from limestone caves and sinks and one had to attempt to relate the sounds and visual impressions that Venter has presumably experienced himself, to what emerged in the music he’d written. It was a shapely sequence, sensitively orchestrated, employing marimbas and a variety of other percussion in an attractive if elusive way. The composer himself conducted his piece with particularly clear and expressive gestures.

Majić with Sibelius
Violinist Nickolas Majić is completing an honours degree under Martin Riseley head of strings at the school. He’s been concert master of the NZSM Orchestra, associate concertmaster of the National Youth Orchestra and a casual player in Orchestra Wellington.

The orchestra supported the Sibelius violin concerto splendidly under Young’s vivid and decisive guidance, providing balanced and rich support for Majić’s violin. His playing was confident and colourfully nuanced, yet perfectly unpretentious. In the past I have sometimes found orchestral performance in St Andrew’s an uncomfortable experience as a result of the position of brass and percussion, not very carefully engaged. Not this time, as brass and timpani were clear of the sanctuary which tends to amplify excessively.

This is a taxing concerto, in no way accommodating an any less than thoroughly accomplished violinist, and there was hardly a moment when a less than fully professional performance would have been heard by an unknowing listener.

Prokofiev Five
The second half was rather in recognition of Ken Young’s long involvement with the orchestra: Prokofiev’s 5th is a celebration of victory by the Red Army over the Nazis approaching the end of the 2nd World War, and its optimism and rejoicing was an excellent way of acknowledging Young’s commitment and achievement in his years at the school of music, and leading and inspiring the orchestra.

The last movement epitomises hopes of a new beginning for the Soviet Union, with its renewed opportunities for material and social progress; it’s undoubtedly one of the most brilliant celebratory orchestral works of the mid 20th century – never mind the cruel realities that were soon to emerge.

For the audience it was a dynamic and stirring musical experience, drawing attention to the musicianship of the players as well as the ensemble coherence and polish of the orchestra under pressure.