Splendiferous sounds captured on CD from Christchurch Town Hall’s rejuvenated Rieger organ courtesy of Martin Setchell


Martin Setchell at the Rieger Organ of Christchurch Town Hall

Mons Leidvin Takle – Celebration
JS Bach – Prelude in G Major BWV 541
Alexander Guilmant – Grand Choeur in D (alla Handel)
Reynaldo Hahn “A Chloris” (arr. Setchell)
Noël Goemanne – El dia de Fiesta
Enrico Bossi – Scherzo in G Minor Op. 49 No. 2
Bonaventura Somma – Toccata in A
Louis Vierne – Romance from Symphony IV
Reger – Variations and Fugue on “God Save the Queen”
Denis Bédard – Cats at Play
Marcel LAnquetuit – Toccata in D
Madeleine Dring – Caribbean Dance (arr. Setchell)
Louis James Alfred Lefébure-Wély – Andante in F
*Charles-Marie Widor – Toccata in F

Pipeline Press PP2

*Original Recording from Ode Manu 1539, Sept.1997

This recording, “Resounding Aftershocks”  broke an eight-year silence for the Christchurch Town Hall Rieger organ which followed the catastrophic 2011 earthquakes, and, as befitted the occasion, celebrated the instrument’s return to full prowess in heady fashion! Organist Martin Setchell’s long-established brilliance and elan as a performer is here demonstrated to the utmost thanks to the skills and expertise of the disc’s sound engineer Mike Clayton, capturing the occasion most resplendently. Purely as a sound-spectacle it’s a thrilling experience; and the mix of well-known (Widor’s ubiquitous “Toccata”), sure-fire crowd-pleasers (Guilmant’s Handelian “Grand Choeur”), ear-tickling discoveries and gentler/more humourful moments (Reynaldo Hahn’s “A Chloris” and Denis Bédard’s “Cats at Play”) and out-and-out celebratory free-for-alls (Mons Leidvin Takle’s “Celebration” – a riot of sounds, suitably “cheesy” in places and all the more enjoyable and festive for that), suggests a time for uninhibited listening-pleasure in a variety of shapes and forms, if ever there was one!

Continuing the “resounding” ambiences are JS Bach’s Prelude In G Major BBWV 541 closely followed by the Guilmant “Grand Choeur in D”, suitably subtitled “a la Handel”! Contrasts come with Setchell’s arrangement of Reyaldo Hahn’s son “A Chloris”, before we are thrown back into sterner stuff with Noël Goermanne’s energetic, if somewhat dour, “El Dia de Fiesta” (impressive in its own way, but I think I would have rather been somewhere with a bit more cheerful an aspect!)

Thank goodness for Enrico Bossi’s mischievous Scherzo in G minor immediately afterwards, with its charming antiphonal-like echo effects, and piquant mood-changes wrought by some gorgeously-varied registrations. Bonaventura Somma’s ebullient Toccata in A undoubtedly echoes the sound-world of THE more famous Widor, but fascinates as an engaging variant, all the same, as does Marcel Languetuit’s Toccata in D Major, the textures also remarkably similar to Widor’s, even if the trajectories are differently calibrated! Incidentally, I’m sure the dedicatee to this piece, Albert Dupré, was actually the father of organist MARCEL Dupré, and not “Maurice”, as commented on in the booklet notes!

Louis Vierne’s Romance from his Fourth Organ Symphony straightaway haunted the ear like no other track heard thus far, with an excerpt that seemed to capture the essence of the instrument’s soul more deeply and ambiently than anything else on the CD – a deep well of feeling in the midst of so many sparkling, sunlit fountains and cascading waterfalls. Vierne wrote the work in 1914, in the shadow cast by the oncoming European hostilities, the piece’s darker, more agitated middle section reflecting these tensions and uncertainties in contrast to the serenities of the outer sequences of the music.

Max Reger’s “Variations and Fugue on God Save the Queen” (somewhat oddly written after the death of Queen Victoria in 1901) was included by Setchell to pay due respect to Christchurch’sEnglish heritage, and to honour Queen Elizabeth II, now the British throne’s longest serving monarch. However ill-timed one might think the piece’s original provenance, there’s no doubt it all makes a rather gorgeous and resplendent noise, especially as the music works up to an undeniably sonorous climax! I had never heard of English composer Madeleine Dring, but her “Caribbean Dance” from 1959, as arranged by Setchell, has a lazily attractive rhythm, crunching some unexpectedly bluesy-plus harmonies at one point, before leading  to a suitably insouciant conclusion.

I loved the tremulous Voix humaine’s other-worldly sound in Louis James Alfred Lefébure-Wély’s Andante in F, a demonstration, incidentally, of one of two new stops “gained” by the refurbished instrument, the other being the Clarinette sound in the transcription of the Hahn song. The piece’s spacious serenity provides the utmost contrast to the opening tones of the long-awaited, tried-and-true favourite, Charles-Marie Widor’s arresting Toccata, from the Fifth of the composer’s organ symphonies, Setchell’s recording , here “lifted” without any signs of wear-and-tear from the organist’s 1997 MANU recording “Let the Pealing Organ Blow” as an appropriate “link” with the instrument’s history, one underlining the “return to life” of one of Christchurch’s most important cultural assets, and further reinforcing the inestimable qualitative value to the city of one of its most illustrious performers.

Cinderella (Rogernella? Gingerfella?) the Pantomime, delightfully mixed-up fun at Circa Theatre

Circa Theatre presents:
CINDERELLA – the Pantomime
Written by Simon Leary and Gavin Rutherford

Directed by Susan Wilson
Musical Director: Michael Nicholas Williams
Set Design: John Hodgkins
Lighting Design: Marcus McShane
Costume Design: Sheila Horton
Musical Staging: Leigh Evans

Cast: Gavin Rutherford (Rosie Bubble)
Natasha McAllister (Cinderella)
Jonathan Morgan (Bayley)
Kathleen Burns (Tommy)
Bronwyn Turei (Dandini)
Simon Leary (Buttons)
Jack Buchanan (Prince Ashley)

Circa Theatre, Taranaki St, Wellington

Until 20 December, 2020, then 2-16 January 2021

Two of the show’s actors, Simon Leary (Buttons the Rat) and Gavin Rutherford (Rosie Bubble, the Fairy Godmother) are the authors of this wonderfully irreverent “take” on the classic Cinderella story, complete with up-to-date parochial and international references, foot-tapping music (two songs I actually KNEW, despite my advanced years!) and entertainingly-staged ensemble dancing, some of the best I’ve seen at Circa Pantomimes. In fact I thought Leigh Evans’ actual staging of characters’ movements throughout these was among the most polished and slickly-contrived I’d encountered at a pantomime in recent times, there being various breathless sequences of more-or-less constant fluidity of character, incident and venue to enjoy.

Audiences vary, as any experienced performer will affirm; but I also can’t remember a Circa Pantomime at which an audience seemed to demonstrably enjoy the show more than this one did. We all seemed to be enclosed, fore and aft, in a kind of appreciative bubble of responsiveness with some very noisy company, everybody determined to make the most of every gag, clever one-liner, spectacular routine or irruption of surprise contrived for us by director Susan Wilson! And, of course, such a “chain reaction” fore and aft of the footlights added immeasurably to the show’s essential dynamic, leaving us both exhausted and replete at the end.

Pantomimes are occasions where, besides indulging in child-like enjoyment of innocent fun, one can give satisfying vent to one’s biases and prejudices of social and political kinds, thanks to the “types” embodied in the story-line or stage action – and especially when they’re connected, however tenuously or otherwise, to prominent public figures who are the representatives of things we love to love or love to hate! Gavin Rutherford’s portrayal of the Fairy Godmother “Rosie Bubble” bestrode all of these worlds, being in a theatrical sense an on-the-fence commentator, while also having an integral “part” in the proceedings – we loved his/her “fairy” aspect both for the wish-fulfilment magical powers and the LGBTQ association (underlined by Rosie’s sudden cry when surprised – “Don’t hurt me! – I’m a fairy! – You’ll be done for a hate crime!” at one point), as well as the inexhaustible stream of drollery, constantly mispronouncing Cinderella’s name throughout (with “Salmonella” being just one of a stream of hilariously Malapropish misnomers!).

The “good” characters drew from both established lore (Natasha McAllister’s Cinderella, Bronwyn Turei’s Dandini, and Simon Leary’s Buttons the Rat, Cinderella named as such by Charles Perrault in the classic French retelling of the story, Dandini, the Prince’s valet, by Jacopo Feretti, the librettist of La Cenerentola, Rossini’s operatic version of “Cinderella”, and Buttons the Rat a manifestation of that common fairy-tale phenomenon, a creature changed against its will into something less salubrious) and from present-day role models of positive renown (Jack Buchanan’s Prince Ashley of the Blooming Fields, whose modestly-expressed ambition during the drama’s course is to have “a meaningful job in the Public Service”)! The “bad guys” were both cross-dressed (Jonathan Morgan’s outrageous “Bayley” and Kathleen Burns’s spivish “Tommy”), each stigmatised with blatant “Real Estate Agent” labels through Buttons the Rat confessing to hiding from them in the rubbish bin!  One of them (I forget which)  admitted to being an “ex-parking-warden”, and both of them expressed delusions of a grandeur which would be attained by plotting  a connubial connection between Bayley and the hapless Prince Ashley!

Just as a pandemic is presently wreaking havoc through many peopled parts of the world, so was here an unnamed dread seen to be occasionally visited upon the land and its inhabitants in the form of a lightning-and-thunder sequence which intermittedly cast fear and uncertainty into the characters’ minds most effectively. But “kindness”, a recently-projected spin-off panacea for national ills, made a welcome appearance in the mix, here, if in a different, more personalised way, with the Prince’s recognition of Cinderella as an individual person, despite his “face blindness” affliction. And at the delusional end of the spectrum was the immortal line spoken by one of the villains, Tommy and Bayley, while in disguise: – “Ere! Don’t you know who we THINK we are?” – something I made a mental note to use for my own purposes somewhere socially as soon as I could!

Though very much the “acted upon” throughout, both Natasha McAllister’s Cinderella and Jack Buchanan’s Prince Ashley were perfect exemplars of goodness and innocence throughout, with McAllister’s singing voice a fulcrum throughout for the success of Musical Director Michael Nicholas Williams’ sure-fire musical continuities that played such a part in forwarding the action. The ever-pleasing Bronwyn Turei as Dandini I thought magnetic as always with her voice and physical presence enlivening the ensembles, and though I wasn’t familiar with songs like “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and “I need a Hero”, my 1960s antennae were sent into paroxysms of retro-excitement by the company’s full-blooded renditions of “Five O’Clock World” and “I’m a Believer”!

The props were simple but spectacularly effective as witnessed the remarkable skeletal-but-still-stunning coach which took Cinderella to the ball! And I liked the simple but similarly stunning transformation effect of Cinderella’s costume-turned-ball-gown, replicated by Bayley as part of the dastardly plot to install the latter as the Prince’s bride. The children who were called up onto the stage at one point during the second act would have relished the excitement and wonderment of entering into such a phantasmagorical land – such a pleasure to register the looks and feelings writ-large on their faces at certain points!

It was what it was all about for all of us, at our varying individual stages of appreciation, and real enjoyment of others’ pleasure! The show plays at Circa Theatre until December 20th this year, and from the 2nd to the 16th of January, 2021.



NZSO with three widely varied works: two masterpieces and a charming, approachable New Zealand concerto

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gemma New with Stephen De Pledge (piano)

Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Anthony Ritchie: Piano Concerto No 3
Sibelius: Symphony No 5 in E flat, Op 82

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 20 November, 6:30 pm

The audience at this concert would have been intrigued, as they took their seats, to see some orchestra members finding their way to a row of music stands in the gallery above and behind the orchestra: two players each of first and second violins, violas, cellos and one double bass.  The rest – strings only of course – were in their normal places

Vaughan Williams with Tallis
The position of players was for Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. As the programme note explained, the two groups reflected, not a sort of concerto grosso as it might have been reflecting the music of a century later, but the two fundamental manuals of a pipe organ: the Great and the Swell.

The nine concertino players, standing high at the rear, handling the “Swell” part, entered first, sounded singularly remote and ethereal (at least from my seat middle stalls) while the ripieno section, the remainder of the strings reflecting the “Great” organ sounded normal; and each took turns at articulating the Tallis melody.  To have been intrigued by this disposition suggested that I had perhaps not heard the piece played live before, or certainly not in this arrangement, and I was enchanted.

After a few minutes during which my attention was drawn to the singularly expressive gestures from the conductor Gemma New; then to a warm solo viola in the main orchestra introducing solos by other strings. New inspired the orchestra to such vivid playing, with such commitment that the entire work had the audience transfixed. The music lends itself to such treatment of course, though I can imagine that not long ago many conductors and audience members of a critical disposition might have found her intense, large-scale gestures excessive. But if it brings the music to life in such a remarkable way, then what’s to criticise?

I have been heard to lament that RNZ Concert’s Settling the Score has, I suspect through unfamiliarity, not placed the Tallis Fantasia at No 1 place instead of the Skylark. The entire audience here could be guaranteed to vote for it in 2021, if possible in this wonderful account under Gemma New.

Ritchie’s Piano Concerto 3
Anthony Ritchie’s Third Piano Concerto could hardly have been a more singular contrast. It was written in 2008 for Emma Sayers and the Manakau Symphony Orchestra and has been performed several times and been recorded by SOUNZ with its dedicatee Sayers and the APO under Uwe Grodd. Stephen de Pledge’s piano opened quietly, creating a peaceful, pensive spirit that lasts about three minutes. It’s followed by a traditional Allegro whose purpose is to be playable and enjoyable rather than an exhibition of either the composer’s cleverness or the pianist’s virtuosity. There were no suggestions of its composition by a disciple of Schoenberg or Boulez, and the end of the first movement had a piano part that could be by Rachmaninov.

The orchestral score, written for a semi-professional orchestra, creates no impossibilities, though there are striking opportunities for brass phrases. The vividness of the orchestral playing was conspicuously the result of New’s understanding of its unpretentious character.

Much of the slow second movement is for piano solo (hardly a ‘cadenza’), with orchestral instruments such as a bassoon participating quietly. The entire movement is based on a recognisable melody which develops in a charming, meditative way; as the programme notes explain, it’s in modal keys, but it’s essentially melodic and any departure from conventional harmony is for the attention of musicologists. It created a charming experience that New and De Pledge handled with great sensitivity. The last movement, much shorter, was bright and playful, offering the pianist attractive opportunities to be both demonstrative and congenial.

As an encore, De Pledge played one of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces – the charming Nocturne in C, Op 54 No 4. Is it still as well-known as it always seemed to me?

Sibelius Fifth
The performance of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony was the climax of the concert where, having got a taste of Gemma New’s dynamism and influence over the players, there was no doubt that this great symphony would be a thrilling experience. For one thing, the performance immediately created a sense of the music’s originality; every phrase, the opening horns and woodwinds, seemed to be both a fresh perception and a new revelation of a long-loved masterpiece.

New revealed a talent for building Sibelius’s several accelerating climaxes as if an entirely new experience. The climax at the end of the first movement created an outburst of applause and shouting that could in no way be ascribed to new-comers’ ignorance of the shape of the symphony. And the deliberate slow movement created suspenseful, deeply felt experience; rhythmically firm and compelling, endlessly repeated motifs that were steadily hypnotic as they accelerated.

The shift into the last movement without any sense of a missing Scherzo is the norm, but it’s always interesting to listen to the fade-out, the moment’s pause and then the clap of the timpani that begins the last movement. It created at once an expectation of the extraordinary suspense of the endless repetition and evolution, sometimes a mere whisper, of the monumental theme that cohabits with the dancing woodwind tune; but eventually takes charge into the glorious, suspenseful finale.

Again the applause was long and serious, celebrating a concert that in its imaginative entirety was a huge success.



Unfamiliar music given a chance to shine in characterful performances at St. Andrew’s

St. Andrew’s Luchtime Concert Series presents:
Music for Flute and Piano

Aaron Copland: Duo for Flute and Piano
Claude Debussy: En bateau
Mel Bonis: Sonata for Flute and Piano in C-sharp minor

St. Andrews on the Terrace

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

One of the great joys of the lunch time concerts at St. Andrews on the Terrace is that these provide opportunities to hear some of the talented artists living among us, the other is to hear music that otherwise is seldom performed. Rebecca Steel is one of the most experienced flautists around, having played with orchestras both overseas and here in Wellington and Christchurch. Kris Zuelicke moved from Germany to New Zealand. Here she added to her skills as an accomplished pianist a doctorate in harpsichord performance. The programme they presented is largely unknown. Mel Bonis, though a prolific French composer, who studied with César Franck and wrote some 300 works, is largely forgotten. Writing music was not a respectable profession for a woman at her time. Copland has a regular place in the repertoire, but the Duo for Flute and Piano, though a substantial work, is not often played. Debussy is, of course, a major figure, but his popular En bateau is better known in its original four-hand piano version as part of the Le Petite Suite, than in this arrangement for flute and piano.

Copland’s  Duo for Flute and Piano opens with a haunting flute solo, that sets the mood which is typical of Copland – an evocative distant, lonely American prairie sound. Think of the Call of the Wild. The second movement is melancholic, well suited to the timbre of the flute. It is intense, touching music. As a contrast, the last movement is spirited, joyful. It is a challenging work for the flute, that requires clarity of phrasing and articulation.

Debussy’s En bateau is a sweet, charming little piece, suggesting gently undulating waves on some peaceful water. Played on the flute it has a special endearing quality.

Bonis’s Sonata for Flute and Piano, published in 1904 is a major work that reflects the music of Bonis’s better known late romantic contemporaries, Franck and Faure. Bonis, a very talented young woman, who shared a bench with the young Debussy at the Conservatoire, gave up composition for some years when her life was devoted to bringing up the children of her 25 year older widowed husband and children of her own. Late in life she returned to composition. Her many works include chamber music, music for piano solos, orchestral, religious and organ music, and music for children. The Sonata for Flute and Piano  is founded on the interplay of the rich harmonies of the piano and an appealing melodic line on the flute. The four movements projected the four different elements of the work, a passionate Andantino followed by a contrasting Scherzo, a moving adagio, and finally a Moderato summing up the mood of the piece. The performance was notable for the passionate playing of the piano and the somewhat cool, clear, restrained playing of the flute.

Hearing these pieces in a live performance was specially rewarding. It is to the credit of these two experienced musicians that the audience at this lunch time concert was given an opportunity to get to know these unfamiliar works.


Belated rapture from Orchestra Wellington’s “Rachmaninov 1”, but well worth the wait…..

Orchestra Wellington presents:

DVOŘÁK – Serenade for Strings In E Major Op. 22
JENNIFER HIGDON – Violin Concerto 2008
RACHMANINOV – Symphony No. 1 in D Minor Op.13

Amalia Hall (violin)
Marc Taddei (conductor)
Orchestra Wellington

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Sunday 15th November 2020

Covid-19 has played havoc with many things over 2020, not the least with schedules of music performances, hence the somewhat belated “Rachmaninov 1” title for this concert. Fortunately, the quality of the music and its making seemed unimpaired by any such privations, leaving us grateful all over again for the experience, similar to the feeling engendered by the Orchestra Wellington’s previous concert I’d attended – https://middle-c.org/2020/10/riveting-performances-by-the-orpheus-choir-and-orchestra-wellington-of-works-by-faure-and-rachmaninoff/

Here, I found myself straightaway drawn in by the playing of the programme’s opening work, Antonin Dvořák’s adorable Serenade for Strings – it was all beautifully and sensitively shaped by Marc Taddei and his players, and given flight with the utmost beauty and grace, perhaps ever-so-slightly at the expense of some of the music’s “gruntier” aspects in places such as the finale, but everywhere else for me lovingly reimagining the composer’s sound-world of  intensely poetic feeling. It seemed at times as if we in the audience were eavesdropping on an almost private world of emotion, so tenderly were some of the lines voiced by the players. both in smaller groups and as a whole. The second-movement Waltz made a more impulsive contrast, with much of the string-tones sounding like either rushing water or whispering wind-blown foliage, a real out-of-doors quality. Marc Taddei’s meticulously-wrought transitions between sections to my ears sounded deeply-felt and caring for the music.

The will-‘o-the-wisp-like opening of the third movement began a truly adventuresome narrative, urgent and pent-up with excitement at first, vigorous and joyful, but then afterwards imbued with a longing quality, exemplified by the melody’s wonderfully downward-swooping intervals, and building the anxieties towards relief at the opening’s reprise – all so characterful, here, with the strings lacking only the numbers to fully activate the emotion of those deeply-affecting interval swoops! The slow movement then stole in, the sounds shaping the music’s emotion with real character, the violas in particular touching our hearts with their playing. The middle section was more urgent, more wistful than dark, returning to the main melody, sung in canon by ‘cellos and violins so tenderly, and building up to a rich and gorgeous climax – very satisfying!

The last movement began and ended with a game of chase between upper and lower strings, the syncopations deliciously voiced, and the droll second subject seeming to smile out loud! Its reprise reached upwards and bubbled over with exhilaration before allowing the work’s opening to steal back in like an old friend just before the final, joyously rumbustious payoff! I occasionally imagined still more string tone than we were getting, but the playing’s attack and intensity made up for the lack of numbers and achieved a memorable result. Bravo!

A name known to me (but not, until this evening, her music) was Jennifer Higdon (1962 – ), an American composer who wrote her Violin Concerto in 2008 for violinist Hilary Hahn with many of the virtuoso’s distinctive characteristics as an interpreter in mind (they first met when Hahn was a student in Higdon’s Curtis Institute of music’s 20th Century Music class – in fact the first movement of the concerto was given the name 1726 because it was the Philadelphia street address number of the Institute!). Hearing Hahn perform the Schoenberg Violin Concerto inspired Higdon to write the opening of tonight’s work, with its beautiful, Aeolian-harp-like string harmonics, and by association, the rest of the movement.

This opening sequence suggested to me an awakening, the dream-like reverie of the harmonics quickened into playful exchanges with both solo lines and concerted passages, finally rousing the “noisy kids on the block”, the percussionists, who “let ‘er rip”, thereby encouraging the rest of the orchestra to have its say as well. Amalia Hall’s violin-playing was right on top of the music’s complexities, conveying a sense of dancing with delight at the various interactions, and, aided by conductor Mark Taddei’s superb control of his forces, keeping the exchanges wry and equivocal-sounding in terms of their emotional significance. Episode followed colourful episode, quicksilver turnovers of texture, a mock-march enlivened with triplet rhythm, and brassy shouts calling for reinforcements, resulting in a vigorous toccata-like ensemble strutting its stuff before Hall  tackled an extraordinary sequence of double-stopped intervals such as sevenths, the effect both hair-raising and exhilarating! Gradually the sequences gradually eased in tension as the soloist drew increasingly cantabile-like tones from  instrument, and the work’s opening returned, a magic-sounding “reawakening” of nature which the percussion and winds again joined in with, before allowing the silences to surge softly backwards at the end. It was a journey that left this listener open-mouthed in amazement with both the abundance of musical ideas and their execution…..

The second movement, named “Chaconni”, was the composer’s tribute to the tonal qualities of Hahn’s playing, projecting the idea that her beauty of utterance would inspire solo players in the orchestra to reply in kind. Thus it was here, with the winds setting the scene at the outset for the soloist’s exchanges with solo cello and cor anglais over constantly-murmuring resonances, in places reminiscent of Vaughan Williams’ “Pastoral Symphony”. Such wind-blown sounds from the strings and various solo lines soaring in tandem like birdsong made a beautiful evocation of orchestral tapestry for the violinist to decorate with spontaneous-sounding outpourings. The winds enlivened the music’s trajectories, and the strings unfurled their sails for a few exhilarating moments – but Hall and Taddei were equal to the task of calling their cohorts to order and bid them hold their tones fast and and look at where they had come with the music. So it all became a celebration of being, of “living the moment”, of recognising that something special had been achieved, Hall’s solo violin murmuring the last notes with rapt delicacy.

After this, I felt the finale was less striking,  promising more than it actually seemed to give – being a sucker for the obvious I relished the thought of an Olympic Games-like orgy of excitement in victory and stellar achievement, as both the composer, in interview, and the movement’s title “Fly forward” suggested. In the wake of a “ready, steady…” couple of chords, the music lifted its head and gathered speed, everything very physical  and motoric, with plenty of cumulative excitement along the way punctuated by moments of on-the-spot realignment, allowing those of us  a bit out of condition to “catch up” before the trajectories kicked in again.  However, though the final orchestral tutti generated some steam, it seemed to me as if the “race” was suddenly finished with a lap or two still to go, the suddenness of the ending taking us all by surprise and leaving this listener disconcerted (no pun intended!)…..

Whatever one thought of this movement in isolation, one nevertheless felt exhilarated by the whole, the larger work whose development we had seemed almost to collaborate in by the act of listening! I thought it a fascinating and compulsively-wrought coalescence of the creative process, one which tonight’s incredible soloist, Amalia Hall, seemed to “own” the music in a way the composer would have imagined the work’s dedicatee, Hilary Hahn, would do. Fascinating, too, for me to encounter immediately afterwards, two diametrically-opposed reactions from other people (one a composer) regarding the work, a sure sign of the music’s (and the performance’s) power of engagement – something that simply couldn’t be passed over lightly – a great choice of repertoire for that alone!

The concert’s second half could hardly have been more different to the first’s finely-wrought explorations of poetic sensibility and high spirits (Dvořák) coupled with an act of musical homage by demonstration to a great performer’s skills and salient characteristics as a musician (Higdon). The inspiration for the 24 year-old Sergei Rachmaninov in beginning his First Symphony in 1895 remains something of an enigma – the work’s dedication bore the initials of a beautiful Gypsy woman acquaintance, Anna Lodyzhenskaya, the wife of a friend of the composer,  as well as a biblical quote from Romans 12:19 – “Vengeance is Mine – I will repay” (which Tolstoy used as an epigraph to his novel “Anna Karenina”) – but the symphony itself unequivocally expresses a tragic, pessimistic view of life which was deeply rooted in the composer’s psyche from the beginning. Thanks to an unfortunate first performance in 1897 badly conducted by fellow-composer Alexander Glazunov (who was very possibly drunk), and a vitriolic review from another fellow-composer, Cesar Cui, Rachmaninov experienced a crisis of creative confidence from which I feel he never really recovered as a creative artist. With the possible exception of the final movement of his 1913 oratorio “The Bells”, he never revisited such a blatantly despairing mode to such a remarkably focused and potent extent as in this work.

I imagined this music would be a gift for the combination of talents of Marc Taddei and Orchestra Wellington, and so it proved, the players as per usual punching far above their weight (effectively demonstrated by the platform’s surprisingly vast empty space at the rear of the violins, a space the NZSO would have easily filled with a bigger pool of players!) and tellingly substituting sharp-edged focus for sheer massiveness of sound in the biggest orchestral moments of the work. Throughout the first movement I was repeatedly taken aback by the richness of the string-led climaxes generated from so relatively few players, ably backed by winds and brasses, with the percussion playing its part in the big moments, though I thought the cymbal rolls a tad over-loud as “colour” in that wonderful Rimsky-Korsakov-like section leading to the reprise of the opening motif, however much their incisiveness contributed to the impact of the big moments.

The Scherzo movement here evoked a world of phantoms and shadows, the urgency and sense of agitation reinforced by rapier-like strokes from brass and percussion, and a trenchant solo from leader Justine Cormack, with everything suggested rather than stated outright, and adding to the unease and half-lit nightmarish quality of the music – the strings capture a certain hopelessness in their “dying fall” phrase, as from the “inferno” sequences of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”.  By contrast the slow movement brought out the work’s first evocations of stillness, with the strings, followed by the clarinet and the other winds, creating an unmistakably Russian ambience which, on the surface, seemed “ghosted” by the shades of Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov, but then introduced both darker, and longer-breathed strands of deep, tragic feeling. The candour and grim purpose of these utterances made a perfect foil for the plaintiveness of the various solo strings whose tones were inexorably built up to a heartfelt lyrical climax,  winds and brass counterpointing the strings’ fervour with portentous reminiscences of the opening theme (the horns superb, here!), before allowing the sounds to subside, bringing about an uneasy close, despite the beauty of the clarinets’ playing in thirds at the end.

Vigorous, thrusting orchestral statements opened the finale, giving way to ceremonial fanfares punctuated by percussion, and answered by strings reiterating the opening rapier-thrusts, Taddei opening the orchestral throttle to great effect, the strings singing their hearts out and the winds, brass and percussion replying with frenzied outbursts. Some glorious playing from the oboe brought the other winds out from hiding, the strings joining in the lament-like figurations and seeming to placate the sufferings – but suddenly, the basses transformed the resigned mood into one of  defiance, the impulses building up to conflagrate the orchestral textures like wildfire, Taddei encouraging his players to stampede wildly and excitingly towards a sudden, fearful abyss-like silence. A pity the climactic resonating gong-stroke was activated a fraction late – it surely should have sounded in unison with the final note of the orchestral tutti, resonating in the gaping maw of the silence’s empty space.

What followed – one of the great orchestral perorations in Russian music – rendered in sound the grim “Vengeance is mine – I will repay” inscription on the score to overwhelming effect, the players giving what their conductor was asking for and more besides, lacking the sheer weight of some other performances I’d experienced, with greater numbers of players, but rivalling any in intensity and focus of sound – a thrilling experience!





Orpheus Choir’s first ‘on their own’ concert in 2020 a Gloria triumph

Orpheus Choir of Wellington

Director: Brent Stewart
Barbara Paterson – soprano, Ruth Armishaw – mezzo
Nicholas Sutcliffe – organ
Instrumental ensemble (Olya Curtis – violin, Karen Batten – flute, Dominic Groom – horn, Toby Pringle – trumpet, Peter Maunder – trombone, Jeremy Fitzsimons – timpani, Thomas Nikora – piano)

Vivaldi: Gloria (RV 589)
Poulenc: Gloria. “reminiscent of a fresco by Bozzoli”
Michael McGlynn: Jerusalem
olst: In the Bleak Midwinter, arr. Ola Gjeilo (poem by Christina Rosetti)
Rutter: Star Carol
Ēriks Ešenvalds: Stars (poem by Sara Teasdale; tuned wine glasses pitched in tonal clusters, painting the picture of a sparkling, starry night sky)
Handel: ‘Worthy in the Lamb’ and the ‘Amen’ from Messiah 

Wellington Cathedral of Saint Paul

Saturday 14 November, 7:30 pm

The introduction to the programme by the chairperson of the Choir, Frances Manwaring, remarks that this was the choir’s first ‘self-presented’ concert in 2020 – the only other public appearance was with Orchestra Wellington’s 3 October concert in Rachmaninov’s The Bells and Fauré’s Requiem.

And I might as well use her background notes to refer to the task of preparing for the concert under review. “Thanks to the tech-savvyness and innovative thinking of our Music Director Brent Stewart, we barely missed a beat. Rehearsals moved on line and choir members logged in from their living rooms or bedrooms. Physical warm-ups were attempted in unusual places and members of the choir displayed skill and flair as Brent found ways to showcase their talents.”

The delay in writing this review has induced me to modify certain earlier words about aspects of the performance, such as comments about the sound of the electronic organ, and the absence of orchestral parts that are somewhat intrinsic to the full sound of both Vivaldi’s and Poulenc’s Glorias.

Vivaldi’s Gloria
It all became unimportant as soon as the choir launched into Vivaldi’s choral masterpiece with the Gloria in excelsis Deo, making such mighty impact. Sitting fairly close, even the cathedral’s rather unmanageable acoustic didn’t interfere too much.

Each of the twelve sections might average about three minutes and they vary sharply in spirit and religious significance, but the genius of the music remained in full command of choir and audience for the full half hour. For example, the calm (the programme notes ‘introspective’ is a good word) second movement, ‘Et in terra pax’, revealed a lovely balance between men, occupying the centre of each of the half dozen rows of singers, and the twice as many women. But they were not at all unbalanced in their combined impact.

Soloists appeared in the third movement, ‘Laudamus Te’, Barbara Paterson and Ruth Armishaw, both making very striking impacts, contrasting comfortably. Part 6, ‘Domine Deus’ is for soprano, delightful, and a fairly limited orchestra, which again, one missed. Then followed mezzo Armishaw’s solo, singing the meditative ‘Domine Deus, Agnus dei’, punctuated by choir and organ; and she sang beautifully without choir in the tenth movement, ‘Qui sedes ad dexterum’.

Poulenc’s Gloria
Instead of an organ in the role of Poulenc’s orchestra, a small ensemble (eight players including the organ again) appeared after the interval to accompany his ‘Gloria’, which was a late product of his adoption, “in his fashion”, of religion in 1936, following the awful death in a car crash of a fellow composer and close friend.

In the opening phase the ensemble’s sound was somewhat heavy, the timpani particularly so and the three brass instruments were pretty audible, but that’s not too alien to Poulenc’s orchestral score. As for the singers, first impressions were of a soprano section that was strong, perhaps a little outweighing the rest. But the general impact of their performance was one of vigour and conviction.

In the ‘Laudamus Te’ the choir and the brass instruments that opened, in darting staccato rhythms, were well balanced from the beginning, and a quiet organ contributed nicely.

Soprano soloist Paterson emerged in the third section, ‘Domine Deus’, her part being to create a sense of peace, which was also the message the choir. The following ‘Dominus Fili unigente’ is a more lively movement, jocular and quite short. ‘Domine Deus, Agnus Dei’ is the protracted fifth movement, with Paterson taking lengthy solo episodes that could have been heard as mysterious rather than peaceful.

The sixth and last movement, ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris’ opened with slow recitative statements from the sopranos singing without accompaniment, the orchestra joined with a motif that was just a little different from the opening of the ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’. The choir and the men followed, singing in a prosaic character, often emphatically untuneful. But Paterson didn’t enter till about halfway through the last movement, casting some light but mostly ambivalence on the solo soprano’s message. The basic theme was taken up for the ‘Amen’ at the end which hardly offers a particularly persuasive feeling of hope for mankind, in spite of positive episodes like the ‘Laudamus Te’.

The choir was most successful in handling the frequent changes of tone and spirit, and the ensemble provided as good a substitute for a full orchestra as was reasonable to expect.

Concert fillers
The concert filled the time that a concert could normally be expected to last, with five varied and quite fascinating pieces.

First, a duet by Irish composer Michael McGlynn, Jerusalem, pursuing a variety of harmonies created an authentic impression through the distribution of the female singers around the sides of the cathedral. Then a song by Holst, In the Bleak Midwinter, arranged by Ola Gjeilo for solo voice with the choir entering later. The solo part was sung most attractively by the young soprano Kitty Sneyd-Utting.

John Rutter’s Star Carol, a lively and attractive Christmas song, with men’s and women’s voices taking distinct sections between substantial episodes by the full choir.

Another unfamiliar name was that of Ēriks Ešenvalds, Latvian (born in 1977); look at his interesting biography on the Internet. (Excuse me: I spent a fascinating week in Riga in 1999, catching four opera performances, and lovely ‘Art Nouveau’ architecture, a bit before Ešenvalds got started).

His Stars, to a poem by Sara Teasdale, involved the playing of tuned wine glasses, not strictly a ‘glass harp’, that were played by a number of the women in the front row, “painting the picture of a sparkling, starry night sky”. My notes describe it as evocative and rather moving; I think some men stroked the glasses too. The star was projected on the wall of the Sanctuary.

Finally, another gesture towards Christmas was ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ and the ‘Amen’, with which Messiah ends: a bit unsynchronised at the start, but then it took off, with gusto till the calm lead-in to the Amen chorus which was full of energy.

If these fillers were a bit like that, they were individually worth singing and being heard, and brought a fine concert, splendidly inspired and led by Brent Stewart, to a very successful end.

Another entertaining Shed Concert from the NZSO touching the Weimar era

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich
Shed Series

Hanns Eisler: Kleine Sinfonie, Op. 29
Simon Eastwood: Quanta
Franz Schreker: Kammersymphonie
Erik Satie, orch. Debussy: Gymnopedies Nos. 1 & 3
Kurt Weill: Suite from ‘Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny‘, arranged by Brückner-Rüggerberg

Shed 6, Queen’s Wharf

Friday 13 November, 7:30 pm

This was one of the few concerts, including several from the NZSO, which was not cancelled or changed (apart here, from the order of the pieces) by the effect of the Coronavirus.

Most concerts have come to be ’named’, in a way intended to reflect the character of the music, and this one was Kabarett, German for the obvious English word: the European cabaret scene of the 1920s and 30s, which was a focus not only for composers like Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler, but also writers like Brecht, W H Auden and Isherwood, Aldous Huxley, and artists Dix, Beckmann, Kirchner. Liebermann, Grosz.

But, not to be too pedantic, not all the music fell within the Weimar era. Schreker’s Chamber Symphony was composed in 1916; Satie’s Gymnopedies were written in the 1880s and Debussy orchestrated two of them in 1897.  The programme’s aim may well have been to suggest the nature of the music that led, with the collapse of Imperial Germany, to what came out of the Weimar Republic, and the mixed blessing of the era of the decadent Berlin scene on the 1920s. Anyway: there’s no reason to be too literal with the name ‘Kabarett’.

Hanns Eisler: Kleine Sinfonie
Hanns Eisler was a genuine, and notable composer of the 20s in Germany. He left Germany after the advent of Hitler and travelled widely in Europe and North America, finally settling in the United States in 1938. His Communist convictions eventually saw him expelled by the notorious McCarthy Committee on Un-American Activities in 1948 and he wound up in East Berlin, teaching at the East Berlin music conservatory, later named after him as the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler.

His Kleine Sinfonie was written in 1932, just before the Nazi take-over. The first movement, simply called Theme and Variations, is pensive and slow though it starts with spiky trumpets, then staccato flutes and clarinets, but is predominantly thoughtful though shifting abruptly at times from one instrumental group to another: it’s a series of about 20 variations on the theme, which does take root, lasting for almost half of the four movements.

The second movement is Allegro assai, with the word ‘sostenuto’ seeming like an after-thought. Over long periods it is incessant, often led by trumpet, though there were sudden mood shifts to flute, clarinet and saxophones. The third movement, after an abrupt stop and long pause, is called Invention and is quiet and thoughtful, again with isolated winds. It seemed to go nowhere with little variety, then stopped. The finale, Allegro, alternating brisk and slow passages, finishing after a repeat of the movement’s beginning, without ado.

Simon Eastwood’s Quanta had its first hearing in the Royal Academy of Music in London. It exhibited its era with its conspicuous – important – emphasis on percussion, here tuned percussion, xylophone and marimba, perhaps glockenspiel, and roto-toms. A minute or so in, the sounds began to create some sort of repetitiveness or sequence, with hints of a tune or that some more substantial event might be emerging. But none of the conventional shapes, melodic or rhythmic, were about to arrive because what seemed to drive its course seemed non-musical notions suggested by the title that presumably refers to Einstein’s theories. Nevertheless, setting aside musical characteristics of an earlier decade or two, it created an atmosphere and a flow of ideas that, with further hearings were moving in the direction of an interesting musical structure.

Schreker’s Kammersymphonie
Then came Franz Schreker’s Kammersymphonie (Chamber Symphony). Written in 1916, Kammersymphonie was not really ahead of its time since it presents as a heartfelt and almost traditional work, perhaps anticipating orchestral music’s wide use in film. It was the Weimar republic era in fact, that wrecked his musical career: the bad reception in Cologne of his opera Irrelohe in 1924; and Anti-Semitism and right-wing agitation also caused the failure or cancellation of others.

After ten minutes or so of music that flourished engagingly, without succumbing to distinctive melodies, a series of conventional themes emerged: a happy tune from woodwinds, for example, that became an engaging episode that seemed to keep recalling other music of the time.

So I was bemused to run into this description of Schreker’s music in Wikipedia: “…aesthetic plurality (a mixture of Romanticism, Naturalism, Symbolism, Impressionism, Expessionism and Neue Schlichkeit, timbral experimentation, strategies of extended tonality and conception of total music theatre into the narrative of  20th century music.”

But Schreker has become a fairly well-known opera composer with the popularity of such works as Der ferne Klang, Die Gezeichneten and Der Schatzgraber which were getting a lot of performances a few years ago. On trips through Germany in the 90s and 2000s I was disappointed to miss one or the other several times.

Satie’s Gymnopedies, via Debussy
After the interval the music became more conventional, or at least a bit more familiar. Debussy’s arrangement of Satie’s Gymnopedies, Nos 1 and 3. So popular are they that one hears them in various patterns and colours. It’s recorded that Debussy thought No 2 was not fit for orchestral treatment, a typical example of Debussyish finesse. Hardly any remnant of piano sound could be detected apart from a delightful harp at the beginning of No 3 (which Debussy placed first). They could easily have been by Debussy, as their French character was hard to conceal; again, another opportunity for disapproval of the programme by pedants. However, they offered a charming intermezzo in the midst of entirely Austro-German music.

Kurt Weill and Die Stadt Mahagonny
The concert ended with excerpts from Kurt Weill’s setting of Brecht’s libretto: Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny – ‘Rise and fall of the city of Mahagónny’ (rather easily pronounced as ‘Mahógany’: which is in fact derived from the German language equivalent of the tree, Mahagoni). The arrangement was made in the 1950s by the conductor Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg, consisting of Allegro giusto, Moderato assai, Lento, Molto vivace, Largo. A score that includes a range of percussion and timpani, piano, alto and tenor saxophone, banjo and guitar, captured the spirit of Weill’s mocking, ironical tunes perhaps rather more opulently than does the opera score itself, of the late 1920s. That was to be expected from a conductor associated with the likes of Knappertsbusch, Furtwängler, Karajan, with his latter years in Hamburg. It was a good choice with which to end the concert, as it epitomised the essential character of the music of that time and place.

In all, it was yet another of Hamish McKeich’s successful, well-designed concerts that once more presented a range of music that exhibited aspects of ‘classical’ music that genuinely characterised the pre-WW2 era – particularly exhibiting its more listenable and entertaining aspects. Well populated (though naturally far short of an MFC audience), it lost not too many at the interval though still finding its way with well-arranged seating and sightlines.  I am still waiting for the revival of the then National Orchestra’s promenade concerts of the 1950s and 60s that completely populated the floor of the Town Hall with their mix of very popular classics and the more experimental.

Warm response for an innovative “Seen-and-Heard” Kristallnacht Concert at Wellington’s Public Trust Hall

The Holocaust Centre of New Zealand presents:
Kristallnacht Concert 2020

Music – Korngold, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Waxman, Weinberg, Toch, Rozsa, Bechet, Zorn

Excerpts from films with music  – “Robin Hood” 1938 (Korngold), “Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde” 1941 (Castelnuovo-Tedesco), “Rebecca” 1940, and “Bride of Frankenstein” 1935 (Waxman),  “The Cranes are Flying” 1957 (Weinberg), “None Shall Escape” 1944 (Toch), “Ben-Hur” 1959 (Rozsa), “It Must Schwing!” (The “Blue Note” Story) 2018 – various composers and artists

Musicians: Inbal Megiddo (‘cello), Jian Liu (piano), Jenny Wollerman (soprano), David Barnard (piano)
Martin Riseley (violin), Yury Gezentsvey (violin), The New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl, Monique Lapins violins, Gillian Ansell viola, Rolf Gjelsten ‘cello), Dave Wilson (clarinet), Callum Allardice (guitar), Phoebe Johnson (double-bass), Hikurangi Schaverein-Kaa (drums), Daniel Hayles (keyboards)

Concert presenter: Donald Maurice
Speaker, Holocaust Centre of NZ Chair: Deborah Hart

Public Trust Hall, Wellington

Monday, November 9th, 2020

I was surprised to find, upon arriving at the Public Trust Hall a good quarter-of-an-hour before the concert’s scheduled starting time, at least three-quarters of the seats already filled, and the queues still bringing people in – by the time I got my ticket sorted I found myself almost at the back of the hall, and was left wondering how I could possibly get from such a position a reasonably “filled-out” sound that would do justice to the performances.

I need not have worried, because the acoustic of the hall (a place where I’d never previously attended a concert) seemed by some alchemic means able to convey enough brightness, body and clarity of detail, even at a distance, to bring the musicmaking well-and truly to life. It was partly that the performers were such a stellar bunch whose “business” as performers was obviously the expert conveyance of the essence of whatever they were currently playing – but I simply had no qualms throughout the evening regarding any perceived lack of projection, character and personality on the part of any of the musicians. How lucky were both the concert organisers and we, the audience, to be able to enjoy such a “line-up” – and in such a venue!

We had been promised an out-of-the-ordinary kind of presentation this evening, along with the live music-making, one involving both the medium of soundtracked film, and the participation of a jazz combo paying its own tribute to a US record label called Blue Note, founded by two Jewish refugees in 1939, for which many of the great black jazz musicians recorded in the 1940s and 50s after being shunned by the more ‘establishment” record labels – we were able to enjoy a 2018 documentary film called “It must Schwing!” along with those clips from films whose soundtracks featured music written by those among the concert’s “composer roll-call”.

Concert host Donald Maurice began the proceedings by welcoming us to the hall, before introducing the chairperson of the Holocaust Centre of NZ, Deborah Hart. She spoke of the original Kristallnacht events and their commemoration by this concert, her words serving the purpose of reminding us afresh of the on-going nature of oppression fuelled by racial prejudice and cultural bigotry world-wide. She then thanked everybody, musicians and audience members, for their attendance and participation in this evening’s event.

Opening the presentation part of the concert was the music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, firstly via an excerpt from the 1938 film “Robin Hood” for which he wrote the music (we were treated to the scene where Robin and his adversary, Guy of Gisborne, fight to the death, in tandem with the followers of both men similarly battling it to the end – the “separated” conflicts rather like contrasting individual instrumental lines in an orchestral work with tutti passages!) What a film! – still with the power to engage a good sixty years since my last viewing of it!

We then welcomed ‘cellist Inbal Megiddo and pianist Jian Liu to the platform to perform Korngold’s ‘Cello Concerto” a thirteen-minute long work itself written for a film “Deception”, and a piece that packs a lot of incident into its brief span. It was made the most of by Megiddo and Liu, who most surely characterised all of the piece’s contrasting episodes, the work’s “singing” quality being as well-rounded as the spikier, more agitated episodes were made sharp-edged and impactful. In a piece so condensed one felt almost cheated when the end came, so glorious here was the music and its making!

Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s “classic horror” contribution to the 1941 film “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” was then highlighted, followed by a performance by soprano Jenny Wollerman and pianist David Barnard of music in an entirely different vein, the same composer’s “Three Sephardic Songs”, whose text was Labino, an old form of Spanish. The poetic declamations of the first song betrayed its origins, with strongly-focused vocal lines and  ambient support from the piano, while the second song was gentler, expressed with a gentle, folkish walking-gait, and a beguilingly light touch. It was music that seemed to “entice” us into the countryside, the characterisations from singer and pianist creating a distinctively ambient world of expression.

Next we saw two contributions to film from German composer Franz Waxman, who famously wrote the music for the first full-length German film in the 1930s, “The Blue Angel”, but, on leaving Germany went to the US where he wrote many film scores, among them “Rebecca” (1940) and “Bride of Frankenstein” (1945) – the excerpts featured a range of musical evocations, from the romantic to menacing (Rebecca) to downright blood-curdling (Frankenstein)! An entirely different matter was his “Carmen Fantasy” for solo violin, here played with jaw-dropping virtuosity (what can a listener do but desperately cling to cliches when one is stunned?) by violinist Martin Riseley, with pianist Jian Liu hair-raisingly hanging onto the violinist’s coat-tails throughout!

Polish-born Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s music began the second half of the concert, beginning with excerpts from the 1957 Soviet film “The Cranes are Flying”, set at the time of the Second World War, the clips showing sequences with hugely contrasting emotions of love and despair, each conveying a different kind of compelling intensity. We then heard, courtesy of the New Zealand String Quartet, two movements from Weinberg’s Fifth String Quartet Op.27, written in 1945 in the Soviet Union, to where Weinberg had escaped (and remained) after the Germans invaded Poland. First came the opening “Melodia”, music which not surprisingly seemed to express uncertaintly and discord, a ‘cello solo towards the end leading to a kind of concourse of quiet despair. The Scherzo movement was, by contrast, a wild dance integrating quixotic and fiercely desperate passages with fraught unison passages sorely seeking a kind of liberation – very exciting playing from the ensemble, with an “over-the-top” solo violin part fearlessly presented by the Quartet’s leader, Helene Pohl.

Like most of the composers mentioned, Austrian Jew Ernst Toch left Nazi-controlled Europe for the US during the 1930s. He found some work as a film composer, though he also maintained his academic career as a teacher of Philosophy and Music in California, and as a composer of concert music. The 1944 film “None shall Escape” was a projection of the post-war trials of individuals responsible for wartime atrocities, Toch’s opening music there suitably authoritative, but a later excerpt was warmer-sounding, and more reminiscent of Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo. Pianist Jian Liu then played Toch’s Tanz und Spielstücke Op.40, the opening gentle and lyrical, the lines floating, and alternating as if “looking” for one another – the music gradually convinced itself it was allowed to “animate”, though it all remained very spare and unadorned, strange, gnomic music, the occasional impulse apart, appearing to “sit upon” its own character and not give anything away.

All of this was in stark contrast to the music of Hungarian composer Miklós Rózsa, whose fame has up until recently rested on his many film scores, but whose concert music is now achieving more frequent hearings – particularly renowned are his scores for the films “Ben Hur” (1959) and “El Cid” (1961).  We saw the well-remembered opening of the legendary chariot race from “Ben Hur” (suitably Respighi-ish in effect) as well as the dramatically-underlined confrontation scene between Ben-Hur and his boyhood friend Messala, when politics put an end to their friendship!  After all of this, violinist Yuri Gezentsvey and pianist David Barnard played a transcription of Rózsa’s music for the “Love-Scene” from “El Cid”, its sweetness and romance beautifully held in check at first, then allowed to expand and unfold with the utmost feeling – a beautiful piece of concerted playing!

Being  somebody whose knowledge of jazz could be summed up on the back of a postage stamp, I somewhat nervously approached the final segment of the concert, a tribute to the German Jewish refugee pair of Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, who developed a jazz label called Blue Note Records, a company dedicated to furthering the careers of non-establishment (usually black) musicians, such as Sidney Bechet, Art Blakey and Thelonious Monk, and later signing up and  working with Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane and Quincy Jones.  Wayne Shorter called the “Blue Note” pair “The Lion and the Wolf”, bent on realising their vision of creating a platform for musical talent to express itself without prejudice of any kind getting in the way.

A film made in 2018 “It must SCHWING”, reputedly the motto of Alfred Lion, directed by Eric Friedler, made clear, in the excerpts we were shown, the positive feelings of people who were associated with these “glory days” concerning the leadership of Lion and Wolff, the family atmosphere they created, and the fairness with which the musicians were treated. Following this the jazz musicians came together to perform a 1993 work by American composer John Zorn “Shtetl” (Ghetto Life) taken from an album entitled “Kristellnacht”, succeeding it with a tribute to clarinettist, saxophonist and composer Sidney Bechet, playing his 1939 work “Blues for Tommy”.

To my uncultured ears, the playing of the members of the jazz combo was above reproach, the lament-like opening of the music they began with coloured by the character of each of the instruments, the clarinet mournful, the piano philosophising, the double bass dark and resonant, the guitar anecdotal and chatty – the clarinet sounded like a cantor calling the prayers while the drummer at the back jazzed and spiked the rhythms.  Together, the instruments generated a processional quality that I related to Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony (in particular, the “Frere Jacques” movement), before the clarinet suddenly skipped into “swing” which sounded not unike “Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider”! At its swingin’ height the music suddenly dissolved into more and more abstracted realms, with the guitar playing a chiming kind of ostinato, supported by the drums “kicking into” the same repeated pattern, and the clarinet taking up a kind of valediction…….for some listeners I imagined it would have been a truly sentimental journey……

It was left to Deborah Hart to thank us once again for attending the concert, and thanking also the musicians who contributed their services, besides paying tribute to the owners of the Public Trust Building, Kay and Maurice Clark, for their generosity in making the venue available to the Holocaust Centre – appreciative words which were readily supported by all in attendance at this remarkable and heart-warming event.



Wellington vocal trio delights its Whanganui audience with a “charmer” of a programme…..

Wanganui Music Society presents:
A Concert of Part-Songs
Lesley Graham (soprano),  Linden Loader (mezzo-soprano), Roger Wilson (baritone)
Phillipa Safey (piano)

St.Paul’s Hall, Cooks St., Whanganui

Sunday 8th November 2020

This delightful concert was the second of three concerts I was scheduled to attend and review over three consecutive days – and now, looking back at the three events while writing the notices for this second one , I’m suddenly reminded of Franz Liszt’s description of the Allegretto movement in the middle of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 27 No. 2, commonly nicknamed the “Moonlight” Sonata. Liszt called the movement “a flower between two abysses”, which is something of how I feel about this particular concert in relation to the other two on either side of it. It was, in fact an absolute joy to attend, as far as I could discern, giving pleasure to all, participants, organisers and audience alike.

It’s not that the other two concerts weren’t enjoyable in their different ways, with each of them achieving great things in providing their respective audiences with plenty of excitement and deep satisfaction. But this one’s pleasures were singular in that there was a beguiling ease, a sunniness of disposition, a joyful relaxation in the music-making which reflected the programme’s delight in simple pleasures of life and love. True, the programme’s second half charted more varied emotional territory, with the four Mozart Nocturnes for vocal trio dwelling on love’s pangs as much as its bliss – and the real “elephant in the room” which somewhat counters the effusive tone of my warblings above, was Carl Loewe’s setting of the grisly Scottish ballad “Edward” – here, put across by Roger Wilson and Phillipa Safey with plenty of menace, growing horror and blood-curdling relish, the singer’s Caledonian inflexions convincingly adding to the impact of the performance!

The concert was performed in a lovely space, a hall adjoining the magnificent St.Paul’s/St.Mark’s Church in Cooks St. – the hall afforded a clear and responsive acoustic, enabling listeners to enjoy the finely-modulated balances between the three voices themselves and with the piano. Even sitting at the back of the four-fifths-filled hall, I could clearly hear each of the contributions of the individual singers, with the piano a judiciously-balanced partner.

These balances were immediately apparent in the concert’s opening number, a deliciously presented ”Dashing away with the smoothing iron”, the first of the half’s exploration of English, Irish and Scottish part-song settings – I don’t propose to comment on each individual item, but this one’s performance encapsulated all the virtues of the concert’s first half – the overall lightness of touch from all concerned being the framework of strength that allowed full play to the constantly-shifting impulses of emphasis, light and colour along the way of the song, the freedom and spontaneity of it all totally beguiling! “My gentle Harp” was another to impress, with beautifully stratospheric opening work from soprano Lesley Graham and gently-undulating support from the others.

Teamwork was winningly apparent in “Tis the last rose of summer”, with lovely ensembled singing, the restraint from all adding to the glow of nostalgia, reinforced by the piano’s murmuring tones to gorgeous effect. But not only the gentler, more poetic songs came off well – things like the jolly, rollicking “The De’il’s awa’ wi’ the’ Exciseman”, and the “Scottish snap” evident in “The Dance” were given full rein, both tonally and rhythmically, with the enjoyment of it all readily conveyed to the audience. The defiant “strut” of “The Dance” splendidly energised the music, with Roger Wilson’s “hummed” lines adding a rustic touch to the textures, like a “ground bass”.  Finally, Beethoven’s arrangement of “Charlie is my darling” brought the half to a good-humoured close, the performance replete with rhythmic and dynamic detailings which brought it all to pulsating life.

I hadn’t ever encountered the three Shakespeare duet settings that began the second half, the first (“Ye Spotted Snakes” by Frederick Keel) again featuring some beautifully-negotiated “snow-capped” vocal work from Lesley Graham, supported most ably by mezzo Linden Loader, with the concluding reiterations of “lullaby” from the two so very dream-like and ethereal. In the first of Vaughan Williams’ two settings (“It was a lover and his lass”) the composer’s gentle major/minor alternations expressed something so elusively English about the sounds, while the third (“Fear no more the heat o’ sun” from “Cymbeline”) gave each singer solo lines before the concluding “Like chimney-sweepers, come to dust” beguilingly blended the two voices. This was something of a “find” for me for which I was so grateful, both music-and performance-wise.

I’ve already waxed lyrical regarding Roger Wilson’s splendidly evocative and theatrical performance of Loewe’s setting of the gruesome “Edward”. In order to minimise the possibility of nightmare-ridden sleep that night for hapless audience members after being exposed to such ghastly happenings, the musicians finished the afternoon’s concert with some rather more ingratiating sounds which those more susceptible to such things might well have put to good use to “paper over the horrors”!  For whatever reason, we all welcomed this set of four Mozart “Nocturnes”, again all new to me, and perhaps all the more delightful for it!

I loved the comment in the programme notes regarding the texts of these songs – “The rather stylised Italian poems, possibly by Metastasio were translated into equally inconsequential German” – (Pietro Metastasio 1698-1782 was the most famous opera librettist of his time but whose formulaic style of writing soon became out-dated). Mozart’s music transcended the somewhat high-flown, idealised sentiments of the verses, inspiring the quartet of musicians to give finely-honed, exquisitely gradated performances, my notes while listening replicating phrases like “beautifully balanced”, “perfectly focused”, “finely poised” and “deliciously turned” – altogether, a most mellifluous ending to a satisfying and entertaining programme.

Adventurous programming and bold concert presentation from The Capital Band, at Vogelmorn Hall, Brooklyn

The Capital Band presents:
MENDELSSOHN – String Symphony No. 7 in D Minor
JS BACH – The Art of Fugue (with extracts from the Dhammapada)*
HINDEMITH – Einleitung ( from “Nobilssima Visione”)

The Capital Band
Douglas Harvey (conductor)
*(extracts from the Dhammapada spoken/acted by Bethany Miller)

Vogelmorn Hall,
Vennell St., Brooklyn, Wellington

Saturday, 7th November, 2020

The success of The Capital Band’s first concert (reviewed by Middle C in September of this year – see https://middle-c.org/2020/09/a-memorable-debut-by-a-new-ensemble-the-capital-band-presents-works-by-mozart-and-schubert/) augured well for this, the ensemble’s second outing at the same venue, particularly in view of the announced programme’s adventurous spirit, incorporating as it did a “spoken word” performance element in some shape or form associated with the music of JS Bach. It all added interest to the expectation of something “out of the ordinary”, and in that respect certainly didn’t disappoint.

First on the programme was a work by Felix Mendelssohn, one of his String Symphonies. a group of works long considered an epitome of youthful genius (they were written between the boy’s twelfth and fourteenth years). The one chosen for tonight’s performance was No. 7, a work in D minor whose tempestuous unison opening immediately suggested young Felix’s familiarity with the music of CPE Bach. The Band pointed the contrasts at the outset between loud and soft, heightening the drama of exchange between the different dynamic levels, and emphasising the interplay between physicality and lyricism. Though intonation was occasionally a bit scrappy, the basic rhythmic pulsing suggested a well-drilled ensemble at work throughout.

The “amorevole’ marking for the second movement’s andante brought out great delicacy and tenderness in the playing at the beginning, which then contrasted with the second subject’s warmth, the two modes of expression then playfully intertwining throughout the movement. By contrast, the players’ attack at the minuet’s start seemed to practically turn the music into a volatile scherzo, the musicians “digging into” the notes as if a kind of elemental spirit had been unleashed.  The “skipping” Trio, an astonishing piece of invention, seemed to come out of the ether, at once disconcerting by its marked contrast to the “Menuetto”, and gripping with its intense build-up to an abruptly dramatic climax – an amazing sequence!

The finale was no less startling, two assertive chords performing a “ready, steady – go!” gesture which led firstly to madcap racings and chasings interspersed by fugal passages which were dovetailed into more “whirling dervish” sequences by turns wild and furious, then delicate and gossamer, finishing with a spirited repetition of the movement’s principal theme – all highly entertaining and involving, and serving notice that Mendelssohn, for all his fame and reputation, remains a somewhat under-appreciated composer.

One couldn’t say exactly the same about JS Bach (whose music Mendelssohn actually helped to “revive” during the 19th Century), although opportunities to hear the great man’s unfinished composition “The Art of Fugue” in any presentation form come rarely for the concert-goer.  The work has been the subject of great controversy amongst scholars regarding its realisation in performance, despite (or perhaps because of) which it has received any number of recordings featuring both solo keyboard instruments and different ensembles. Here, the Capital Band’s string-players took up the challenge, varying the numbers performing each of the pieces as deemed appropriate for the part-writing and in the interests of variety and contrast.

What gave this performance a particular kind of distinction, however, was the use of a speaker interspersing the movements with quotations from the Dhammapadra, a Buddhist collection of over 400 verses containing “steps of religious virtue”, an anthology of moral precepts and maxims as uttered by Gotama Buddha himself to his disciples. Here the speaker was actor Bethany Miller, a vital and vibrant “presence” by dint of her voice and physicality, all of which was certainly engaging, even if she occasionally lapsed into inaudibility in places through movement that was simply too far-flung.  In general, to me it all seemed to be too much in terms of both speech and movement – I thought the considerable inherent power of her presentation would have been enhanced by fewer words and more stillness. What she did was a “tour de force” – but after a while I began to crave for the “more” that “less” would give…….

The music’s austere strength was fully demonstrated in the Contrapunctus 1 movement which immediately followed the speaker’s opening words, sounds which featured the three notes of a D minor chord and a scale, elements which Bach then proceeded, over the next twelve movements, to subject to what seemed like endless variation, by way of inversions, embellishments, and tempo and rhythm changes. Here, in Contrapunctus 1, individual players took up the fugal entries before others in each of the sections joined in, adding their weight to the sound. This deployment of forces took place in a number of the movements, the solo strings beginning the “lines”, and then being joined by their colleagues (as is generally known, Bach didn’t specify any kind of instrumentation in his score, leaving it for the performers to decide how they would present the music).

The Capital Band string-players bent their backs to what was a considerable task, and generally emerged with considerable credit. I particularly enjoyed the solo-string passages throughout the performance, which were delivered in most cases with beauty and precision. To analyse each movement as played would take too much time and space, but some are worth particular mention, such as the generous, richly-played No.5, slow and stately music which built up to a most satisfying fullness, and the No. 6 which followed, the cello beginning a swinging dotted rhythm, answered by the violin, everything nicely dove-tailed to include the flourishes in the solo lines, all beautifully-focused.

Even when difficulties were made manifest – and especially as in the neighbouring vicinity outside the hall some sort of “party” was contributing, not altogether helpfully, a somewhat Charles Ives-ish effect with musical counter-rhythms at odds with what Bach had intended – our splendid performers seemed not even slightly put off their stride. Though playing with considerable spirit, the cellos found the figurations of Contrapunctus 8 something of a trial in places – to their credit they stayed not on the order of their going, throughout – and then the following No. 9 seemed to have a “false start” and needed a re-launch at a slightly modified tempo, which produced a better flow. Against these tribulations one could set the beautiful cello-playing of Contrapunctus 12, the effect almost lullabic in its serenity, and the excitement of the trio-playing  (violin, viola and cello) of No.13a, with the players right on top of their music – thrilling stuff!

There was stillness again for 13b, the speaker’s voice here more effective, making the words more evenly-focused, and the playing (a “contrary motion” version of the theme) allowing the ear to take in the lighter textures more readily and tease out the lines, to near-enchanting effect. And it all came together for the final Contrapunctus 10, with the speaker’s voice again “contained”, perhaps lacking the nth degree of focus at this stage, but with the effect for me indescribably moving, and the music in response reverential at the outset, but quickening in intensity towards the theme’s grand announcement, the playing finding variants of nuance and impulse, the contrast between smaller numbers and the full tutti most satisfying to experience at the journey’s end.

Some consider Paul Hindemith’s music “heavy going”, but I’ve found the key to listening to his music is identifying a particular “sound”, one that’s distinctively “central European” and definitely responsive to repetition, which puts flesh on the slightly dry-boned aspect that his work presents. This work, “Einleitung” (introduction) is actually the opening part of a Suite “Noblissima Visione” drawn from a ballet of the same name completed by Hindemith in 1938 and featuring episodes in the life of St. Francis of Assisi. The composer had been overwhelmed by an encounter with the great Giotto frescoes in a church in Florence, depicting scenes from the saint’s life. Hindemith intended the suite to present the most effective concert-hall music from the ballet, rather than follow any kind of dramatic order.

Right from the beginning of the piece there was captured that distinctive “warm-but-cool” sound characteristic of the composer, the great paragraphs of lyricism securely launched and growing in intensity, the sounds pushing the needle towards the red in places as part of the experience, but easing gently back to each starting-point as the sequences rounded their utterances off, the violas especially distinctive at the music’s end. It made a resonant adjunct to the evening’s journeyings, rounding off in almost ritualistic fashion the sterling efforts of the performers in bringing to life an absorbingly “out-of-the- ordinary” programme!