Big audience for the first NZSO Shed series avoiding the mainstream classics

Shed Series: Symmetries

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich

Brahms: Hungarian Dances No 1 and 3 (orchestrated by the composer)
Lissa Meridan: Tuning the head of a pin
Mozart: Divertimento No 11 in D, K 251 – Rondo
Birtwistle: Bach Measures from eight Chorale Preludes from the Orgelbüchlein:
Russell Peck: Drastic Measures, II. Allegro
John Adams: Fearful Symmetries

Shed 6, Wellington Waterfront

Friday 31 January, 7:30 pm

The idea of using the first of its Shed concerts to open the NZSO’s 2020 series proved a winner, as there was a bigger audience than I’ve seen at these before and the result was an endorsement of the idea of a less than formal affair to attract a different audience. Everyone I spoke to agreed that it had attracted people you wouldn’t see in the Michael Fowler Centre which has – mistakenly of course – the reputation of hosting forbidding, heavy-weight music.

It followed the same pattern as other Shed concerts: a mixture of light classical pieces, easy to grasp, some as the composer wrote them, some as a composer of today had arranged or transformed them. No ‘pop’ music but music influenced by jazz and pop styles, as well as a couple of contemporary pieces by a New Zealander and others.

Two of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances put the audience at rest, played in a genial manner, without too much finesse, but plenty of energy and rhythm.

Tuning the head of a pin
Though Lissa Meriden graduated from Auckland University she spent a few years as leader of the Sonic Arts Progamme at Victoria University from 2000, and is now based in Paris. Tuning the head of a pin was written in 2002, but according to McKeich it had not been performed here. As well as the usual chamber orchestra, it demands a huge and fascinating range of percussion. Such scoring sometimes seems merely a way of showing off a composer’s versatility without making the music more interesting or exciting. But I soon found myself more than a little absorbed by a sense evolution, in which the musical ideas did actually make use of exotic instrumental sounds inevitable. The spectacular scoring slowly played itself out and strings and winds introduced some comfortably diatonic sounds. Strong, highly varied rhythms continued but an agreeable character sustained it, holding the attention and I found myself rather delighted by the whole composition. Not least, it made clear that its successful performance demanded a versatile and well resourced orchestra.

Mozart Divertimento
The fifth movement from Mozart’s Divertimento in D, K 251 followed: a nice illustration of one of the clearest classical forms – the Rondo. It happily involved charming tunes that would, I hope, have been enjoyed by a not especially knowledgeable audience, though that is a dangerous observation as I had the feeling that many of the audience were musically very aware if not erudite. It was an excellent piece to end the first bracket.

Birtwistle on Bach
The second set of pieces, after the first interval as the orchestra moved to the south end of the space, opened with the arrangements by Harrison Birtwistle of five of Bach’s 45 Chorale Preludes (variously, between BWV 599 and 639). They were orchestrated with an eye (ear) to the unusual, perhaps even the eccentric. But in spite of such a first impression, one maintains an open mind and I found myself oddly intrigued by them; which is not to say I thought Bach emerged very intact or prominent at times. But that’s irrelevant as there would be little point in a major composer devoting time to such an exercise if the original work was still very audible and he hadn’t contributed something significant.

It was another opportunity for the reduced NZSO to exibit its brilliant versatility with unusual scoring.

Drastic Measures
A saxophone quartet (soprano, alto, tenor and baritone) then appeared on a low platform in the middle of the shed, to play the second movement, Allegro, of Drastic Measures, a jazz-style piece by Russell Peck. Spiky, witty, immediately attractive, and played with panache, it struck me as a particularly successful case of cross fertilisation by a fertile composer, at home with jazz but not tempted into hyper-intellectual, avant-garde idioms. It ended with a sudden calm and a gentle smile. I was drawn to explore Peck’s music on YouTube and was even more attracted to the first movement of the piece, Cantabile e molto rubato.

After a second interval the orchestra returned to the north end. I hadn’t fully grasped McKeich’s first rather sketchy programme announcements, and it took a few moments to realise that here were the last three of Birtwistle’s eight Chorale Preludes. Having had an hour to acclimatise to the earlier pieces I found this second group kind-of familiar. Each piece expressed a distinct idea or emotion and I suspect someone who studied the words of the chorales themselves, would be able to recognise their musical interpretation.

Adams’s Fearful Symmetries
Then came the piece that was probably most looked-forward-to: John Adams’s Fearful Symmetries.  (Do you notice the fashion for music titles using two-word, abstract notions?) It arrests the listener from the first moment, though I confess that I’d never heard it before. But I recognised close relatives such as Adams’s Chairman Dances and Reich’s Three Movements. It’s driven by an incessant, heavy rhythmic pulse, that easily conjures the sounds of high speed trains such as exists in a YouTube recording of the Reich music, perhaps with the wonderful throb of a steam locomotive. Though there are long stretches with little variation, the changes are actually very marked over its 25 minutes and it holds the listener transfixed. Like most minimalist music, the changes, a single chordal shift or the arrival of different instrument, though no instrument had special attention. Those subtle changes of timbre and dynamics removed any risk of tedium, and the acoustic, lighting and general atmosphere suited the performance admirably.

If I’ve had reservations about programmes of earlier Shed concerts, and can think of many delightful dance-like pieces I’d prefer to the Brahms dances, this scored very high and might have proven the Shed project beyond doubt.

Poulenc’s “La Vox Humaine” given a stunning performance

Francis POULENC – The Human Voice (“La voix humaine”)
Words by Jean Cocteau (English translation by Johana Arnold and Barbara Paterson)

Barbara Paterson (soprano)
Gabriela Glapska (piano)

Tabitha Arthur (director)
Meredith Dooley (costumier)
Isadora Lao (lighting designer and operator)

{Suite} Gallery, 241 Cuba St., Te Aro, Wellington

Friday 31st January 2020

As we took our seats in the confined spaces of Cuba St.’s Suite gallery, pianist Gabriela Glapska was playing the music of Satie, beautifully coalescing the sounds of the composer’s Gymnopedies, the dance figurations wrought by the pianist almost as “held” as if depicted on a Grecian urn and the tones as “imagined” as they were real – “heard melodies are sweet, but…..” – here, time seemed to be slowed down, every note taking on a suspenseful, becalmed feeling, so much so that I thought Debussy’s Clair de lune which followed broke the spell that had been created (perhaps one of the Gnossiennes may have carried us further along, and into the ensuing silence more appropriately) …………. however, after the piano fell silent I was drawn into  the breathless poise of the stage setting’s opening, with singer Barbara Paterson (as “Elle”, the show’s only on-stage performer) having entered, the character tremulously waiting for what must have been a prearranged telephone call, the silences deliciously redolent with expectation and anxiety, impatience and foreboding.

Our viewing space’s angular intimacy was augmented by asymmetrically-placed ladders and a structural pillar for a centrepiece to boot, besides the art displayed on the gallery walls, Megan Archer’s depictions of what looked like entwined, almost convoluted limbs in various “clinches” underpinning the claustrophobia of the surroundings. The lighting seemed at first impersonal a la a hotel suite or utilitarian meeting-space, but as the interactive play between Elle and her telephone began to take shape, the hues and intensities of the lights responded to certain influences, reflecting the passing of time, the changing of the day and Elle’s state of mind as she struggled to make sense of her interaction with the person (her ex-lover) who had called her.

This was the scenario for a performance of Francis Poulenc’s setting of fellow-countryman Jean Cocteau’s monodrama, La vox humaine, the opera following the original play after a gap of 30 years. In each case a woman is onstage alone throughout, speaking on a telephone with her “ex” from whom she has not long parted. Poulenc worked with the role’s creator, soprano Denise Duval, in adapting Jean Cocteau’s work to operatic form, the composer reducing the original to a more malleable length, and writing for an orchestra as the accompaniment, and, in fact stating at one point that “the work should bathe in the greatest orchestral sensuality”. Duval was the composer’s favourite singer, and the pair seemed ideally matched to tackle what Poulenc described as “a musical confession” – in fact the composer was to describe later how the pair wept together “page-by-page, bar-by-bar” in what he called “a diary of our suffering” – both composer and singer had recently undergone emotional crises, obviously bringing their experiences to bear on these outpourings. Despite Poulenc’s remark concerning orchestral sensuality (I have listened to several performances with orchestral accompaniment) I thought Gabriela Glapska’s piano-playing here beautifully abstracted the colour in the orchestral score and gave us an immediacy of interaction between Elle and her “ex” whose direct quality had a definite and focused impact of their own – and singer and piano could and did, in those intimate spaces of Cuba St’s Suite venue, run a gamut of radiant, searing, euphoric and despairing emotion which made a proper foil for the myriads of more lyrical and intimate moments.

Though the opera was given in English on this occasion, I’m going to briefly revert to the work’s original language in describing this performance by singer and pianist as a veritable tour de force! (incidentally, this was a translation made, and previously performed, by an American soprano, Johana Arnold, who is in fact the mother of THIS performance’s “Elle”!) The opening “charged” silences during which Barbara Paterson compellingly held our attention while waiting for her telephone to ring were nothing short of riveting, her aspect conveying to us both her vulnerability and her determination, with movements affecting a measure of command and confidence but all too readily revealing tension and uncertainty when put under pressure, responding with bird-like rapidity to the telephone’s ringing and various unwanted external interruptions.  Both her face and form displayed remarkable aspects of grace and fluidity throughout (such as her almost coquettish teasing of her “ex” in places, as if either forgetting or choosing to ignore their actual disfunctionality) when contrasted with her rapid, almost furtive reactions to moments of shock or conflict, often succeeded by sequences of deflation and despair as if she suddenly felt drained of energy and will. Incidentally, I was pleased there was a “proper” telephone, and thought the interactions of the singer with the medium totally in keeping with telephonic use at the time – the interruptions of the singer’s conversation with her “ex” by somebody using a “party line”, though outside present-day telephonic experience, are nevertheless significant here, as they underline and indeed symbolise the overall breakdown of the relationship and its presently fraught concourse.

Always Paterson’s movements and expressions synchronised beautifully with both the words and the unheard voices of the people who talked with her, the telephone operator at the very beginning, the party-line neighbour, and, of course, her “ex”, whose status as such we didn’t really “pick up” on until that lump-in-the-throat moment where Elle plaintively responded to a request from him for a “bag” of what she called “your letters and mine” with the submissive words “You can send for it when you like”, conveying the “hurt” of the request all the more poignantly with the phrase “I had no idea you wanted them so quickly” , and of course when contrasted with the playful sensuality and kittenish aspect that entered her description for him (all a fabrication) of what she was wearing at that time.

The singer’s own arresting looks and engaging stage personality couldn’t help but sharpen the focus of our conjecture generated by her character’s relationship’s obvious dissolution – and throughout all of the possible scenarios were adroitly “brushed into” the opera’s action by the production, momentarily reflecting the attitudes and behaviours of both characters and as quickly superseded by other possibilities. Volatilities were suggested on both sides, with Elle in places abruptly and passionately responding to both her own realisations of her conflicted state and her ex’s “anger” in places as a result of things she had said, her more agitated irruptions sometimes ending in tears.  She’s shown as a romantic dreamer, whether by nature or by artifice or both – at one point the mood created by some exquisite pianissimo singing was broken by her own realisation that she was in a dream of denial, while the world pursued its own course, leaving her stranded. Her attempts to preserve the vestiges of an old intimacy was given a wonderful sensuality in places, no more so when she used the piano as if it were her lover’s body, stretching out upon it at one point as if reimagining her words “when we were in bed and I had my head in that small place against your chest”, making the intrusion of the loud music from the ‘phone all the more symptomatic. The subsequent “confession” to him that “what is really hard to bear is the second night, and the third….” is the most enduring impression of all, the mood evoked by singer and pianist readily bringing pathos as we empathise with her predicament, the empty despair of “and getting up and going out, and to go – where?” unequivocally laying all of our emotions bare…….

Very great credit to all concerned regarding this production, the performers’ sterling efforts backed up steadfastedly by Tabitha Arthur’s fluid, naturalistic and unobtrusive direction and Isadora Lao’s sensitively-wrought illuminations. Such finely-crafted and deeply-committed presentations deserve the widest possible currency, as well as the heartfelt thanks of those of us fortunate enough to enjoy what was, for this audience member, a profoundly moving experience

Further performances –
NZ Academy of Fine Arts, 1 Queens Wharf, Wellington
27 – 29 February 2020