Jonathan Lemalu and Virtuoso Strings blaze forth in Porirua’s Te Ata Festival

Virtuoso Strings  – O Matou Malaga (Our Voyage), with Jonathan Lemalu

Jonathan Lemalu (bass)
Nina Noble (trumpet) / Elijah Futi (piano) / Martin Riseley (violin)
Kitty Sneyd-Utting/Jillian Tupuse (violin, vocals) /Toloa Faraimo (concertmaster)
Rochelle Pese Akerise (violin) Benjamin Sneyd-Utting (‘cello)
Glenview School Choir and friends
Virtuoso Strings, Sinfonia for Hope
Andrew Atkins (conductor)

Te Rauparaha Arena, Porirua

Saturday, 22nd February 2020

Though the two events weren’t directly related, this heart-warming, youth-driven classical music event in Porirua involving Jonathan Lemalu and the Virtuoso Strings flew in the most appropriate and timely way right in the face of attitudes and rationales voiced by certain forces who had recently proposed the closure of RNZ Concert, the public network’s classical music station. Though on the face of things driven by demographic concerns (RNZ Concert’s replacement station, we were told, represented “a new music “brand” to reach a wider, younger audience”) the proposed change sadly reflects a world-wide trend involving governments in the process of defunding these “creative” activities regarded by official bean-counters as “non-profitable”, with art- music everywhere having to fight to justify its existence. Because a lot of people these days simply aren’t exposed to any classical music the latter is regarded as elitist and the preserve of “old white people”, although the “cheap-shot” by a certain commentator characterising RNZ Concert-listeners as “privileged cardigan-wearers” does seem to have backfired of late! A spirited demonstration in the grounds of Parliament on Monday 24thmade the reactions of the classical station’s loyal listeners to the proposals absolutely clear to the Government  – “Set up your new “Youth Station” by all means, but don’t cannibalise our RNZ Concert in the process!”

The perfect answer to the spurious claim of lack of significant youth involvement in classical music was provided by both performers and their audience at the Te Rauparaha Arena, Porirua’s “O Matou Malaga – Our Voyage” event, a concert featuring the artists listed above in the opening presentation of Te Ata, an “interactive cultural festival for young people in Porirua”, one sponsored by the 2020 New Zealand Festival of the Arts. Virtuoso Strings, based in Cannons Creek, Porirua, is a charitable trust which provides free music tuition and instruments to students at low decile schools in Porirua East, involving over 300 Porirua East students over the past year alone, and establishing a youth and community orchestra which has performed in many community events. Last year the orchestra toured Northland giving concerts in various centres; and a String Octet from the group  performed in Auckland during August at the National Chamber Music finals in the Town Hall, capturing the People’s Cholce Award in doing so (playing the “Goodnight Kiwi” piece by composer Craig Utting referred to below).

Grammy Award-winning bass Jonathan Lemalu is the Patron of the Virtuoso Strings Orchestra, intent on fostering the talents of the young performers, and helping individuals learn from the skills of making music, and in doing so, enrich their own lives and that of their families and community. The orchestra’s founders, Elizabeth Sneyd and Craig Utting, began the group in 2013, and have, with the help of the Virtuoso Strings Charitable Trust, former Board member Siang Lim and current members James Faraimo, Paul Setefano and Luamanuvao Dame Winnie Laban built a successful and flourishing music scheme which today is an integral part of the Porirua Community. The centrepiece of the concert’s first half on this occasion was in fact a work originally written (and arranged especially for this ensemble) by Craig Utting, a beautiful piece called “Goodnight Kiwi”, which I’d heard performed before, and here was presented as an orchestral work, with the original Octet “wrapped” in extra orchestral ambience, an attractive and atmospheric “variant” on what I’d encountered and enjoyed so much last year.

Before the concert Sir Roderick Deane welcomed us and introduced the performers, after which Jonathan Lemalu took the stage, announcing, after a few introductory remarks, that “In the beginning there was just one piano” – which was the signal for the pianist Elijah Futi to hurl forth, firstly, a keyboard version of the well-known 20thCentury-Fox signature-tune, and then gradually morph through some Gershwin-type rhythm-‘n-blues impulses (apparently excerpts from the theme music to the TV show “The Simpsons”!) and into the Grieg Piano Concerto’s first movement, accompanied gorgeously by the strings! From this grew a sequence devised and composed by Craig Utting, running the entire length of the concert’s first half, and whose sounds were accompanied by images assembled and presented by Moses Viliamu and Kitty Sneyd-Utting.  Jonathan Lemalu’s commentary  words stressing “solace” and “companionship” accompanied some Vaughan Williams-like “Greensleeves” fragments, the poignantly-phrased solo cello (Benjamin Sneyd-Utting) joined by violins sweetly descanting a counterpoint.

Then, at the announcement “Virtuoso Strings was born”, it seemed almost as if Shostakovich had come amongst the tumult, and gone “pasifika”,  with drums excitedly roaring forth as first, but the strings then underpinned the rhythm with swaying single notes, and calmed the excitement, allowing an ethereal atmosphere to settle over the ambience, with Kitty Sneyd-Utting’s wordless voice a stratospheric strand in the mix. It led seamlessly to an invocation of “Travelling” together and on individual journeys, characterising the players’ both touring with the orchestra and developing their individual skills, Lemalu singing a text written by Adrienne Jansen, asking the question “What shall I give you to take on this journey?”

Te Rangirua o Toiri was a forceful outpouring from acoustic and electric strings, piano and percussuion, in accordance with Lemalu’s words: – Te galu afi mua vaka! Oi Aue! Te lakilua! (“The first wave of fire!”), the music originally written by Utting for the Black Grace Dance Company to perform accompanied by inexperienced orchestra players needing plenty of electric and percussive support!  After this, the song Lota Nu’u, referred to by various people as Samoa’s second Nationa Anthem, was lullabic in effect, well chosen in this case by Gillian Deane, the music’s mood heightened by the singer’s suddenly raising the song’s emotional temperature with a single-toned upward modulation – a place where the request at the concert’s beginning for no applause before the interval was severely tested!

“Moving “with confidence to their own beat”, the players took Lemalu’s enjoiner to heart, the string-players augmenting the percussive outpourings with energetic angularity, the tumult assuming a kind of “thorn between two roses” character as it turned out, the speaker signalling the final homecoming with the words “The sound of our kiwis were heard”, and the leading strings standing to play Utting’s haunting “Goodnight Kiwi” set of variations. This was most engaging – we relished a remarkably free-ranging exploration by the players of tone, texture and rhythm, setting cosy nostalgia against zany humour, and rhythmic abandonment against semi-macabre disintegrations, the lump-in-throat “Hine e hine” melody flitting between the gaps at first, then sustained by the haunting voice of Jillian Tupuse, allowing her tones a variety of colourings and giving the music a “sliding”, Salvador Dali-like “do I wake or sleep?” aspect! –  all backdropped most poignantly by the original “Goodnight Kiwi “footage from TV One’s original close-down ritual – so very moving!

The programme’s second half was just as rich in a more variegated way, consisting of instrumental, orchestral, vocal and choral pieces designed to sound and celebrate the skills, both technical and musical, of players connected with the Virtuoso Strings. Introduced by the Trust’s chairman, James Faraimo,  the music of the half began with Handel’s The Trumpet Shall Sound, sung, of course by Lemalu (in excellent voice), and featuring the trumpet-playing of Nina Noble from Christchurch, a Deane Endowment scholar who will be attending the NZSM this year in Wellington – splendid playing from her, and a great and giving partnership between trumpet and voice, given that the  two are not normally positioned close together when the piece is performed as part of “Messiah”. Singers from Glenview School in Porirua East then performed a work by Christopher Tin, Kia Hora Te Marino, (Let Peace be widespread) with the added assistance from Isaac Stone and Tawa College’s Blue Notes Choir, making up a group of all ages, a full-blooded affirmation of positive feeling, the message punched out in no uncertain terms by an enthusiastic percussion section.

Came the Sinfonia for Hope’s appearance, the group consisting of musicians from various Wellington groups coming together to make music to raise funds for various humanitarian causes, and appearing on this occasion to support the Te Ata Festival’s celebration of youthful creativity. They firstly accompanied Lemalu in two characterful operatic arias, the subversive “La Calumnia” from Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia”, and the boastful “O wie will ich Triumphiren” sung by the odious Osmin in Mozart’s “Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail”, each one allowing the singer ample scope for vivid characterisation, which was achieved here with considerable elan. Then the group’s concertmaster, Martin Riseley, gave us a virtuoso performance of the last movement of Vivaldi’s “Summer” Concerto from “The Four Seasons”  with stirring support from the Sinfonia’s players.

After this was the Virtuoso Strings’ turn to accompany their patron, in two items I recalled from the previous year’s “Some Enchanted Evening” concert at the Wellington Opera House – here Lemalu seemed to me in better voice, negotiating the demands of “Ole Man River” from Jerome Kern’s “Showboat” with sonorous ease, and bringing a deep nostalgic feeling to Richard Rogers’ “Some Enchanted Evening from “South Pacific”, the singer again, I thought, freer and more detailed than in that previous performance.

Luamanuvao Dame Winnie Laban, the current Pasifika Vice-Chancellor at Victoria University of Wellington, and a recently-appointed trustee of Virtuoso Strings Charitable Trust made the most of a brief opportunity to speak to us, conveying her congratulations to the concert’s organisers and performers, before both orchestras came on stage for the final item This was Danzón No.2 by Arturo Márquez, a work from Mexico that has nevertheless gained currency as a “signature tune” for the Venezuelan Simon Bolivar Orchestra – Craig Utting rearranged the work’s scoring to include double string orchestra and piano to make up for the original’s lavish wind-and-brass parts. It all worked brilliantly under the leadership of conductor Andrew Atkins, from the sultry danzón  beginning of the piece, through the interplay between instrumental solos and tutti passages, right to the spirited pay-off at the end. The reception accorded the musicians by the audience at the concert’s conclusion capped off the excitement and enjoyment of the music-making evident throughout – altogether a heart-warming demonstration of youthful skills and energies brought out by the power of music!

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