First in the world with a normal public concert : NZSO’s record, celebrating the emergence from Covid 19 lock-down

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich

Eliza Boom – soprano; Simon O’Neill – tenor; Maisey Rika – ‘vocalist’; Horomona Horo – taonga pūoro
Singers from Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir and schools in the Wellington region

Gareth Farr: From the Depths Sound the Great Sea Gongs: I. ‘The Invocation of the Sea’
Bizet: Carmen Suite No. 1: VI. ‘Les Toréadors’; Duet of Don José and Micaëla: “Parle-moi de ma mère”; Suite No 2: VI. ‘Danse bohème’
John Psathas: Tarantismo
Maisey Rika: Tangaroa Whakamautai and Taku Mana
Puccini: La bohème: duet – “Mi chiamano Mimi”, tenor aria – “O soave fanciulla”
Verdi: Otello: tenor aria: “Niun mi tema”
Strauss: Suite from Der Rosenkavalier, Op. 59
Tomoana: Pōkarekare Ana

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 26 June, 6:30 pm

The orchestra announced that this was the first post-pandemic concert by a professional symphony orchestra anywhere in the World in front of a full audience: the extraordinary achievement of intelligent and clear-sighted management of our response by government and people.

The programme’s content and balance was carefully thought out, with a couple of pieces by established New Zealand composers, opera arias, Māori songs and one extended orchestral work. And there was a particularly rapturous feeling in the large crowd which was obviously thrilled to be in the Michael Fowler Centre once more. It was a fine occasion for the orchestra to show its confidence in conductor Hamish McKeich. It enjoyed a sold-out house.

After some appropriate Māori ritual from the taonga pūoro player Horomono Horo, the concert proper began imaginatively with Gareth Farr’s From the Depths Sound the Great Sea Gongs. The oceanic tone-poem has become genuinely popular both on account of its musical material and through the composer’s flamboyant use of large numbers of tuned and untuned percussion. John Psathas’s Tarantismo, which ended the first half, was less remarkable and rather less familiar, but it offered the orchestra interesting emotional and technical challenges. Both works got performances that were thoroughly accomplished, spectacular and vivid.

There were three impressive singers: Tenor Simon O’Neill is a well-known international opera singer and soprano Eliza Boom; her name was unknown to me but she revealed a most attractive and polished voice. I looked in the usual places for some biographical details. Interesting: she has just gained a place with the Bavarian State Opera in Munich.  See .

A third voice was heard in the second half: Māori singer Maisey Rika; her contribution was a remarkably synthesis of Māori and European musical traditions.

Opera excerpts
In the first half O’Neill and Boom sang the Act I duet by Don José and Micaëla “Parle-moi de ma mère” from Carmen: initially the two voices failed to coalesce perfectly but by the time the big tune arrived, they were well matched, credible and impressive.

In the second half Eliza sang “Mi chiamano Mimi” from La bohème, her voice easily penetrating the occasional heavier orchestration; and the two then joined for the duet that follows, “O soave fanciulla”, as Mimi and Rodolfo suddenly get to know each other… . O’Neill then departed from familiar repertoire to deliver Otello’s “Niun mi tema”, his anguished outpouring after killing Desdemona, not a commonly sung stand-alone aria. It was a striking departure from the otherwise celebratory spirit of the concert to touch on jealousy and tragedy, possibly a subtle reference to the dangers of political or race-driven hatred. (Not that either Carmen or Bohème are particularly filled with joy or comedy).

Before and after the Carmen arias the orchestra played striking excerpts from the suites based on the opera. They were a delight, exhibiting the composer’s many-facetted genius; it’s rare to hear them played live, by an excellent symphony orchestra.

Maisey Rika and co
The second half was introduced by a talented, charming young Māori soprano, Maisey Rika (she was described, in pop music terminology, merely as ‘vocalist’). She was accompanied by Horomona Horo performing on taonga pūoro, uttering subtle sounds – perhaps a koauau , which suggest the deep tones of a mellow, low flute. He accompanied his singing with gestures typical in the performance of waiata. In addition, electronic sounds emerged, managed by Jeremy Mayall, with visuals projected on a screen. Maisey Rika, wearing a flowing, ruby-coloured, loose gown, a near match to the reddish robe worn by Eliza Boom, sang two items, named in the heading, above. Both were engaging, interesting and sophisticated; in a certain way, rather haunting. Her voice is warm and flexible, extensive in its range and colourings.

The blending of taonga pūoro and conventional orchestral instruments was variably successful: sometimes intriguing, sometimes a bit over-orchestrated: that was particularly the case with the second song, Taku Mana. Nevertheless, it was a striking demonstration of how to succeed, quite movingly, in grafting Māori music on to European symphonic language.

And Maisey spoke briefly, dedicating her songs “to those who had kept us safe”.

The item I’d most looked forward to (of course) was the Rosenkavalier Suite.  As well as it was played, exploiting the large orchestra that was available, the early passages somewhat unpersuasive, not particularly evocative of the marvellous delights that are to be found in the opera. But from the arrival of the waltz music one was carried away.

The concert ended with Pokarekare Ana, from members of Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir and singers from Wellington schools, the three solo voices and taonga pūoro, accompanied by electronics. The audience was invited to join – the words were conveniently at hand in the free programme. These kinds of gestures can sometimes seem out of place; but this fitted perfectly, a blending of Māori music and poetry, with sophisticated European music.

This was also the occasion to mark the departure of former Chief Executive Chris Blake and the confirmation of his successor, Peter Biggs. And it was a strong endorsement of the role of Hamish McKeich as Principal Conductor (in residence). His control and inspiration were both visible and audible.

At the end, the audience went wild: everyone on their feet, shouting and whistling like I’ve never heard before.

The orchestra has survived in excellent health, and we can look forward to an even more exciting musical year; bearing in mind however, the risks that still lurk beyond our borders; and especially, the importance of not offending the gods by proclaiming success, by exaggerating human missteps or demanding normality prematurely.


Moving and delightful recital of German Lieder at St Andrew’s

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts

Will King (baritone) and Nicholas Kovacek (piano)

Brahms: Vier ernste Gesänge (Four serious songs)
Schubert: ‘Frühlingsglaube’; two songs from Die schöne Müllerin: ‘Am Feierabend’ and ‘Der Neugierige’; ‘Nacht und Träume’; ‘An die Musik’

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 24 June, 12:15 pm

Though we missed St Andrew’s lunchtime concert last week celebrating the survival of live music in public places, this was warmly encouraging with a back-to-normal audience, from two graduate students at Victoria University’s School of Music.

The last time I heard Will King was in Eternity Opera’s production of The Marriage of Figaro in 2017. Though I’d like to hear him again in opera, this recital showed him as a mature and accomplished Lieder singer, and in particular, one who could deal properly with Brahms’s sombre Four Serious Songs.

What is striking about the first of them, ‘Den es gehet dem Menschen’, is the contrast between the uniform seriousness of the voice, often in contrast with agitated, flashing piano accompaniment. It demonstrated the beautifully controlled lyrical voice over a spectacular piano part that evoked a sort of frenzy. That spirit of the second song is very different. ‘Ich wandte mich’ expresses acceptance of death through the singer’s calm delivery, with occasional appropriate gestures, to suggest that Brahms is explaining what he himself clearly finds philosophically compatible in his contemplation of death.

I find it interesting that several great composers who were confessed non-believers (Berlioz, Verdi, Brahms and Fauré) were comfortable taking thoughts from the Bible to deal with a ‘humanist’ point of view. Each composed what are among the greatest and best-known Requiems).

The third song uses words from Sirach or Ecclesiasticus (not to be confused with Ecclesiastes) one of the so-called Apocrypha or books that were removed from the Protestant Bible in recent times. The words contemplate death as felt by one in full possession of his life; and then by one who is old and weak, with nothing more to hope for: ‘O Tod, wie bitter bist du’.  It could well have been a self-portrait in Brahms’s last year, and the song and the way both singer and pianist delivered a calm and comforting performance, captured its essence.

And the last song is the famous passage from Corinthians I, 13: ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels’, sung with a clear, humane feeling that would be endorsed by believers and non-believers alike. The four songs are not among Brahms’s most popular perhaps and I may have heard only one previous live performance; but they are universally admired, and need to be more performed.

Unhappily, we can no longer expect to hear music of this kind on our debased Concert Programme.

Five Schubert songs completed the programme, which was a bit shorter than is usual (regrettably). All were among Schubert’s best known and most loved. Uhland’s poem ‘Frühlingsglaube’ (Faith in Spring), gained through the reticence of both performers.

Two songs from Schubert’s wonderful settings of Wilhelm Müller’s cycle Die schöne Müllerin followed: ‘Am Feierabend’ (‘Evening rest’ or ‘After work’) set to happy, hopeful music in triple metre; but when it ends with the miller getting no sign that he is even noticed by the mill-owner’s daughter, the rhythm falters. .

And ‘Der Neugierige’ (The Inquirer), in which the miller, next, asks the brook whether the miller’s daughter loves him, there is again no response. The transition from buoyant hope to despair was deeply felt.

‘Nacht und Träume’ is the setting of a poem by Matthäus Casimir von Collin, brother of the author of the play Egmont for which Beethoven wrote the famous overture. It is one of Schubert’s later songs: deeply moving, a good example of a beautiful setting of a poem of no great distinction but which inspires a great composer to capture its calm and underlying disquiet, never revealed or explained.

And finally one of the most poignant of Schubert’s Lieder: ‘An die Musik’, a setting of a simple, touching poem by Schubert’s friend Franz von Schober. Again, it’s a quiet, intimate, restrained song, addressed as it were to a lover – ‘Music’.

This was a fine recital the honour for which music be shared by singer and accompanist. And it renewed my long-standing feeling that audiences today have too little exposure to the real treasures of classical song – especially Schubert and Schumann. I have always counted myself lucky to have been introduced to this music by two German teachers in the lower and upper 6th form who, remarkably, were music lovers in an otherwise artistically sterile institution, and we listened to and sang (after a fashion) many of the best known Lieder as well as many folk songs. Unfortunately, my German vocabulary remains rather confined to the language of those Romanic poets who inspired their composer friends.

Oh for a series of recitals, including the great cycles by Schubert and Schumann, from resident singers including, naturally, talented students, that would expose the happy few to the real thing.


A beautiful “Mozart hat-trick” from Orchestra Wellington

Violin Concerto No, 3 in G Major K.216
Symphony No. 36 in C Major K.425

Amalia Hall (violin and director)
Members of Orchestra Wellington

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Saturday 20th June 2020

This was the third and final of the three programmes of Mozart presented on consecutive Saturdays in June 2020 by Amalia Hall and members of Orchestra Wellington, of which ensemble she is the concertmaster. Intended to be a kind of celebration of the nation’s lifting of “lockdown” conditions originally imposed by the Government to counter the presence of the Covid-19 virus, the concerts, though still limiting audience numbers to a hundred per event brought forth an enthusiastic and appreciative response to the ensemble’s return to “live” music-making in the capital.

My Middle-C colleagues, firstly Janice Potter and then Lindis Taylor, enthusiastically wrote about the previous couple of weeks’ performances by the same musicians, sentiments I was more than happy to echo this third time round. Here, I was firstly charmed and delighted with the direction and solo playing of Amalia Hall in the third of Mozart’s delectable series of Violin Concertos, before being thoroughly invigorated by the spirited response of the Orchestra Wellington players (again directed by Hall, this time from her concertmaster’s seat) to the same composer’s “Linz” Symphony, named after the place where Mozart wrote the music – in the space of a four-day sojourn there, no less!

While enjoying the St.Andrew’s venue as a near-ideal place for chamber and solo instrumental performance I’ve always had reservations about its suitability for orchestral performance – however, as we all know, the capital’s capacity for providing such venues has been more-than-usually under siege of late with strictures involving earthquake risk involving the temporary closure of halls, theatres and churches, necessitating places such as St.Andrew’s being brought in as a welcome stopgap for the time being. Here, with a smaller-than-usual ensemble, and a professional standard of performance, my usual concerns regarding sounds over-burgeoned thru players being crammed into insufficient spaces were happily put aside.

Particularly felicitous was the Violin Concerto’s performance, here, the music’s delight engaging the eye as well as the ear – firstly came the cheering sight of the leader/soloist joining in with the work’s opening tutti, playing the first violin part, and integrating her instrument’s sound with her fellows, and then of a sudden beaming her soloist’s single line (reinforced by frequent double-stopping) upwards and outwards as an independent spirit, and clearing the orchestral sound as a bird clears the treetops! Hers was not a “big” instrumental sound on this occasion, but an intensely focused one, whose detailings were etched and drawn like fine gold, as were the accompaniments from strings and winds – not that vigour and energy were at all lacking when required, of course, with the joyousness of Mozart’s writing given full vent at appropriate moments.

Something of the work’s extraordinary range of colour owed a great deal to its unusual scoring, Mozart substituting two flutes in the slow movement for the pair of oboes that had so characterfully contributed to the first-movement’s textures. Along with the violin’s “floating” line, the whole of the movement took on a kind of airborne quality, the muted strings enhancing the flutes’ suggestion of something not quite of this world. Equally remarkable was Hall’s playing of the cadenza, the lines bedecked with echoes and resonances, counter-voices and harmonies, all creating a remarkable multi-layered manifestation of sublimity

Contrasting with such rarefied beauties was the rumbustious, back-to-earth finale which “bounced” its way engagingly around and about, circumventing a couple of quirky contrasting episodes, before  briefly reappearing, and somewhat insouciantly bidding us farewell with a gentle, un-upholstered statement from the winds! Earlier, I had pricked up my ears at hearing Amalia Hall play what I call a “turn” at the end of each of her phrases after the opening tutti, instead of the “accustomed” trill – the first recording I ever owned of this work was David Oistrakh’s, who also played a “turn” (for want of the correct term, as I’m not a “proper” musician!) and it was nice to be “returned” to the memory of that, for me, so-o-o formative performance of this music after hearing “most” other violinists playing (a tad inconsequentially?) a trill….. either would have been a delight in such a context of fruitfulness as was ours in St.Andrew’s that afternoon….

More was to come, of course, if somewhat different in character to the concerto – a symphony, no less, one which Mozart wrote in the space of four days while sojourning at the city of Linz, the name by which the work has been known ever since. I still have the renowned conductor Bruno Walter’s once-popular “rehearsal recording” of this symphony somewhere on my shelves, and therefore can no longer hear the work’s opening without also hearing Walter’s voice exhorting his players to “come off” the note at the end of each measure at the beginning – “Bahm! – OFF! Ba-bahm! – OFF! Ba-bahm! – OFF!” – and so on! Happily the ghost of that memory wasn’t evoked on this occasion, partly because Amelia Hall’s tempi were quicker and the sounds more resonant – and partly because I was too taken by her slightly elevated “podium seat” which enabled her to more visibly perform the function of “leader” and “conductor” of the orchestra at the same time!

Hall and her players brought out the work’s definite “festive”quality at the beginning with those “Bruno Walter” notes, but also made good the sequences imbued with strains of melancholy (yearning lines from both strings and wind during that same introduction, set against the opening call to attention) and also touches of humour (some droll, quasi-furtive passages predating Leoporello’s music in the yet-to-be-written opera “Don Giovanni”) contrasting with the more assertive “joie de vivre” that drove the music forward. I enjoyed, too, the bringing out of those sinuous lines in the development which wreathed up and over the music, casting a new light on what had transpired, and making us listen afresh to the recapitulation, attended at the conclusion by those “lines of experience”.

The poise and grace of the slow movement’s opening fell gratefully on the ear, with drums and brass making splendid counterweighting points to the lyricism – I thought the different lines “swam” a bit in relation to each other in places, the rhythms a tad soft-edged at some of the different voices’ exchange-points, though one could conclude that the performance in general eschewed a kind of vertical precision as an end in itself and favoured singing lines instead. (I was merely looking for something to criticise, I must confess!) A swift Minuet with a lively “kick” made a gorgeous “rustic impression – or aft the very least, the illusion of gentility being “rusticated”, to pleasing effect! The trio’s seamless flow allowed the oboe a magical couple of moments, nicely taken.

At the outset the finale was a real “scamperer”, the first “sotto voce” phrase brimming with expectation, if the tiniest bit frayed at the edges the first time round – though I liked the phrase ends here being played for all they were worth right to their full length, instead of being given what sounds to my ears a self-conscious, somewhat “mannered” tapering off at the ends by ensembles purporting to be “authentic”. I loved the performance’s energy and sense of fun in the exposition, and the cut and thrust of the more “sturm und drang” parts of the development – Hall got a terrific response from her players throughout, the strings working hard, the winds and brass rock-steady for the most part, apart from a few bars where they lagged fractionally behind the strings (albeit together!), everything building up most satisfyingly to a grandstand finish, the heavyweights (brass and timpani) ringing out with the joy of it all, to great and well-deserved acclaim.




Orchestra Wellington’s second concert featuring Mozart violin concertos and city-named symphonies

Orchestra Wellington
Conductor and violin soloist: Amalia Hall

Mozart: Violin Concerto No 4 in D, K 218
Mozart: Symphony No 38 in D, K 504, “Prague”

St Andrews on The Terrace

Saturday 13 June 2020, 4 pm

This second programme in Orchestra Wellington’s ‘recovery’ series of concerts at St Andrew’s continued with the twin themes: the last three of the five violin concertos written in 1775 when Mozart was 19 {if we don’t count the dubious violin concerto “No 7 (K 271a/271i)”}; and the three symphonies that bear place names.

Now in the pandemic’s ‘alert level 1’, this was a full house, if we don’t count the gallery which was not open.

The acoustic of St Andrew’s has given me problems in the past, when amateur or student orchestras have not calmed exuberant brass and percussion players. But here, an excellent professional orchestra guided by a gifted professional musician as both conductor and soloist found the right dynamic levels.

If there was anything to notice it was the balance in the concerto between strings and the limited wind instruments (two oboes and two horns); and the contrast between the delicacy of Amalia Hall’s solo violin playing and the fairly robust body of orchestral string players. But it’s a matter of taste, whether or not closer dynamic affinities between violin and orchestra might have been rewarding.

As was the unvarying habit in the 18th century, Mozart left no cadenzas for his violin concertos, as the virtuoso soloist was usually pleased to compose his own, thus drawing attention to his genius as both composer and performer. Amalia played cadenzas, not too extended, in each movement. Several violinists have published cadenzas for the Mozart concertos, usually roughly in sympathy with Mozart’s period and style. I don’t know whose versions she played, but they were not uncharacteristic of the period and reminded us that she is a world-class violinist.

The symphony in this concert was the latest of the three. ‘Paris’ was written in 1778, ‘Linz’ in 1783 and ‘Prague’ in 1786/87. It was written 18 months before the three last, great symphonies, after The Marriage of Figaro which had a great success in Prague in December 1786, and was perhaps the occasion for Mozart’s visit when the Prague symphony may have been performed. Don Giovanni was premiered in Prague under the composer later in 1787 and that was the subject of a famous German novella, Mozart auf der Reise nach Prag (‘Mozart on the journey to Prague’) by the poet Eduard Mörike.

There are more dramatic contrasts in style, in instrumentation, in sheer musical genius between a 19-year-old’s violin concerto and a mature 30-year old’s symphony.

The orchestra did it proud, in part because Mozart had access to flutes, bassoons and trumpets, and timpani too, as well as the oboes and horns used in the concertos. Appropriate baroque timpani were used, lighter and crisper than the timpani normally in use today.

Amalia Hall conducted discreetly from her slightly elevated concertmaster’s seat, and the effects were an idiomatic, well integrated performance: both decently bold and light spirited. Her skilled management was evident right from the contemplative opening Adagio introduction, and on through the Allegro with warm strings and timpani; and particularly in the fugal passages in the quite substantial first movement. The second movement acted as both a thoughtful slow movement and also perhaps suggested, in slowish triple time, the normal but here non-existent minuet, third movement,

It’s a symphony that handles many of the emotional elements of the last symphonies, and they were sensitively captured.  Hall’s guidance in the last movement, marked Presto, was indeed that: brisk and robust, reminding us that we have a fine Wellington orchestra, all our own. St Andrew’s provided a fine venue in a crisis environment for a smaller orchestra and more limited audience. We’ll soon be able to hear it at full symphonic scale (here there were about 35 players) in a more generous acoustic with all the luxuries of a modern concert hall.

Orchestra Wellington restores live music to the city with Mozart at St Andrews

Orchestra Wellington
Conductor and violin soloist: Amalia Hall

Mozart: Violin Concerto No 5 in A, K 219

Mozart: Symphony No 31 in D, K 297, “Paris”

St Andrews on The Terrace

Saturday 6 June 2020,  1 pm

This was the first of three concerts entitled “Amalia and Friends” featuring three violin concerti and three symphonies by Mozart:  “Paris”, “Prague” and “Linz”.

After nearly three months of lockdown without live music, this first outing for Orchestra Wellington was an almost festive occasion for its Wellington audience.  Over the past weeks the NZSO has invited us in to individual members’ homes for cameo performances in the “engage@home Play Our Part”, and there has been a multitude of Youtube creations mainly referring to Covid Lockdown situations, but we’ve been starved of live music performances.

With a limited capacity in St Andrews the available tickets “sold out” very quickly and many keen supporters of the orchestra missed out.  Although there was a limit of one hundred in the audience, there were few signs of separation for physical distancing, as many in the audience came in groups and would naturally be comfortable sitting together.  It was a “free” concert but the audience was encouraged to make a koha as names were checked off at the door.

The violin concerto is the last of the five that Mozart wrote while still a teenager and has earned the nickname “Turkish” from the lively dance-like middle section of the final movement.  The orchestra for this work has a reduced string section and only oboes and horns in the wind section.

Amalia made her appearance in an elegant black velvet dress slightly off the shoulder and welcomed the audience.  She then stepped back amongst the strings and directed the orchestra just as Mozart would have done.  But the difference here was that she played with the tutti sections until her solo began.  The first movement is labelled Allegro Aperto – aperto meaning literally “open” – it is thought that Mozart intended this movement to be played more broadly than the “allegro” would suggest.  This was certainly the impression I had with the opening section, assertive yet graceful, followed by a complete change of mood and tempo with the adagio introduction of the soloist.  When she took up the solo she stepped forward, unobtrusively turning pages on her ipad with a foot pedal.

The second movement opened as did the first with an orchestral tutti before the entrance of the soloist. With many modulations this movement seems to be somewhat sombre in mood, which is in great contrast to the Rondo, whose middle section launches into a vigorous dance-like rhythm which has earned the entire work the nickname “Turkish”.  With it’s radical leaps and percussive bass techniques it probably sounded very exotic to Mozart’s audiences.

Each movement features a cadenza, the last two written by Amalia herself.  She has an engaging presence and her performance showed great rapport with this style and in particular she handled the pianissimo passages with faultless delicacy and control.  One member of the audience later told me “her violin sang”.

The “Paris” Symphony was written a few years later when Mozart was, as you might expect, in Paris. It seems he didn’t have a very high opinion of the Parisians and hoped to please the audience with “simple” music and several repeated sections.  It seems he succeeded as the work was greeted enthusiastically at the time, as it was on this occasion.  It was here that he found that he had a much larger orchestra to work with and for the first time used clarinets (and flutes, trumpets, horns, bassoons and timpani).

Perhaps it was because I’d heard nothing but recorded music for nearly three months, or perhaps because I usually hear this orchestra from the far reaches of the Michael Fowler Centre, but in these more intimate surroundings, the orchestra sounded more vibrant with more clarity and more precision than I’ve experienced previously.  What a pity it is that it would not be economic to put on more concerts in similar venues.