Wanganui Music Society 75th Jubilee Concert
Vocal and instrumental music
The Concert Chamber, War Memorial Centre,
Queen’s Park, Watt St,. Whanganui
Sunday, 8th March 2020
Every now and then (and without warning) a “Middle C” reviewer will be overcome by a “questing s
pirit” which will result in the same reviewer popping up somewhere unexpected and writing about an event whose location, on the face of things, seems somewhat outside the parameters of the usual prescription for “Middle C’”s coverage – vis-à-vis, “concerts in the Greater Wellington region”. In this case mitigating circumstances brought a kind of “Capital connection” to a Whanganui occasion, and certainly one that, when I heard about the details beforehand, was (a) eager and (b) pleased to be able to take advantage of the chance to attend and enjoy!
This was the 75th Jubilee Concert given by the Wanganui Music Society in the city’s magnificent Concert Chamber, part of the superbly-appointed War Memorial Centre. The concert was one which brought together musicians who were either members of the Society or who had previously contributed to past programmes – so there was a real sense of appropriateness concerning the event’s overall essence and presentation of community performance and guest participation. And though my own connections with the city and its cultural activities were more tenuous, I felt here a kind of “once-removed” kinship with the efforts of the Society and its artists, being a Palmerstonian by origin and in the past having taken part in similar events in that not-too-far-away sister-city.
To be honest, however, my presence at the concert was largely to do with a particular piece of music being performed that afternoon – Douglas Lilburn’s song-cycle, Sings Harry must be one of the most quintessential Kiwi artistic creations of singular expression ever made, bringing together, as it does, words and music formed out of the flesh and blood, sinews and bones of two this country’s most archetypal creative spirits, Lilburn himself and poet Denis Glover. The Sings Harry poems were the poet’s homespun observations about life made by a once-vigorous old man looking back on his experiences for better or for worse – and six of these poems were taken by the composer and set to music that seemed to many to fit the words like a second skin.
Glover, at first enthused by his friend Lilburn’s settings, gradually came to disapprove of them, at one low point famously and disparagingly characterising the music as “icing on my rock cakes!”. The work has survived all such vicissitudes, but still today doesn’t get performed as often as I, for one, would like to hear it. Which is where this concert came in, offering the chance to hear one of the piece’s most respected and widely-acknowledged exponents, Wellington baritone Roger Wilson, bring it all to life once more, rock-cake, icing and all, for the edification of those who attended this Jubilee event.
Another Wellington connection was afforded by a second singer, mezzo-soprano Linden Loader, who’s been in the past a familiar performer in the Capital’s busy round of concerts, if mostly, in my experience, as a member of a vocal ensemble rather than as soloist. Here, though, she took both roles, firstly as a soloist in two of Elgar’s adorable Sea Pictures and a folksong arrangement, My Lagen Love by Hamilton Harty, and then joining Roger Wilson for three vocal duets, one by Brahms and two by Mahler, the latter calling for some “characterful” expression which both singers appeared to relish to the utmost!
The only other performer whose name I knew, having seen and heard her play in Wellington as well, was flutist-cum-pianist Ingrid Culliford, whose prowess as a flutist I’d often seen demonstrated in concert, but not her pianistic skills, which made for a pleasant surprise – her partnership with ‘cellist Annie Hunt created a winning “ebb-and-flow” of emotion in Faure’s Elegy; and while not particularly “appassionato” the playing of Saint-Saens’s work Allegro appassionato by the pair had plenty of wry mischief – an affectionate performance! She also collaborated as a pianist with the excellent young flutist Gerard Burgstaller, in a movement from a Mozart Flute Concerto, and then as a flutist herself with soprano Winifred Livesay in beautifully-voiced and -phrased renderings of American composer Katherine Hoover’s evocative Seven Haiku.
Other performers brought to life what was in sum a varied and colourful amalgam of music, among them being pianist Kathryn Ennis, possibly the afternoon’s busiest performer! As well as partnering both Linden Loader in music by Elgar and Hamilton Harty, with Roger Wilson joining the pair for vocal duets by Brahms and Mahler, Ennis then later returned with Wilson for Lilburn’s Sings Harry, and, finally, closed the concert with two piano solos, pieces by Liszt and Khachaturian. I though her a sensitive and reliable player, very much enjoying her evocations with Loader of the differing oceanic characters in the Elgar Songs, singer and pianist rich and deep in their response to “Sea Slumber Song”, and creating a bard-like kind of exotic wonderment with “Where Corals Lie”. Harty’s My Lagen Love also teased out the best in singer and pianist, here a winning mix of lyricism and candid expression, with a nicely-moulded piano postscript.
Piano duettists Alison Safey and Alton Rogers brought flow and ear-catching variety of tone to their performance of the first movement of a Mozart Sonatina K.240, before further treating us to Matyas Seiber’s Three Short Dances, each one given an appropriate “character” (I liked the slow-motion Habanera-like aspect of the opening “Tango” a good deal!). Afterwards came violinist Jim Chesswas, most sensitively accompanied, I thought, by pianist Leonard Cave, the two recalling for me childhood memories of listening to Gracie Fields’ voice on the radio, with a strong, sweetly-voiced rendition of The Holy City, giving me a lot of unexpected pleasure!
Roger Wilson’s and Linden Loader’s “Duets” bracket both charmed (Brahms) and entertained (Mahler) us, the singers collaborating with pianist Kathryn Ennis in Brahms’s “Es rauschet das Wasser” to bring out moments of true magic in the lines’ interaction (ardent, steadfast tones from Loader, and tenderly-phrased responses from Wilson, the two voices blending beautifully towards the song’s end, with everything admirably echoed by Ennis’s resonant piano evocations). After this the Mahler duets were riotous fun, each singer a vivid foil for the other, the characterisations almost larger-than-life, but readily conveying the texts’ none-too-subtle directness.
Soprano Marie Brooks began the concert’s second half, her sweet, soubrettish-like tones well-suited to Faure’s Après Un Rêve, her line secure, somewhat tremulous of character, but well-focused – her pianist, Joanna Love, proved an admirable collaborator, whose sounds blended happily with the voice. Flutist Gerard Burgstaller then impressed with his control and command of line and breath in Mozart’s opening movement of K313, as did soprano Winifred Livesay in Katherine Hoover’s Seven Haiku, her partnership with Ingrid Culliford as mentioned above, distilling some memorable moments of loveliness.
Sings Harry was a focal point for me, of course, Roger Wilson here admirably characterising the work’s unique qualities in his brief spoken introduction, remarking on its essential “elusiveness” for the performer, and nicely characterising his “journey” of involvement with the work. Here I thought singer and pianist effectively evoked “Harry and guitar” at the outset, and caught the whimsicality of the character’s “sunset mind” which followed, in a suitably harlequinesque manner. Of course, Glover and Lilburn whirl us almost disconcertingly through such moments before setting us down in deserts/oases of aching reflection – firstly “Once the days”, and even more tellingly, after the whirlwind of “Come mint me up the golden gorse”, leaving us almost bereft in the following “Flowers of the Sea”, The latter sequence here palpably grew in poignant resignation with each utterance, leaving us at the end “broken open” and completely at the mercy of those ceaseless tides. I thought Wilson’s and Ennis’s presenting of both this and the concluding “I remember” totally “inside” the words and music, and felt somewhat “lump-in-the-throat” transfixed by the ending – Harry, with his guitar, was left as we had found him, but with so much understanding and intense wonderment by then imparted to us……
Kathryn Ennis concluded the concert with two piano solos, firstly Franz Liszt’s well-known Liebestraum No. 3 and then a work new to me, a Toccata by Aram Khachaturian. While I thought the Liszt technically well-managed I thought everything simply too reined-in as the piece gathered in intensity, the expression held back as if the player was fearful of provoking that often-voiced criticism of “vulgarity” made by detractors of the composer and his work, but which in committed hands can, of course, produce such an overwhelming effect! Better was the Khachaturian, presented like some kind of impressionistic “whirl” here, to great and memorable effect – happily, a fitting conclusion to the proceedings!