Cantoris Choir celebrates its fiftieth anniversary with the help of Te Kōkī NZSM Orchestra and Mozart

NZSM and Cantoris Choir present:
MOZART –  Symphony No. 35 in D K.385 “Haffner”
– Mass in C Minor K.427 “The Great”
– Motet “Ave Verum Corpus” K.618

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music Orchestra
Reuben Brown (conductor – “Haffner” Symphony)

Cantoris Choir
Georgia Jamieson Emms, Michaela Cadwgan (sopranos)
Jamie Young (tenor), William King (bass)
Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music Orchestra
Thomas Nikora (Music Director, Cantoris Choir – “The Great” Mass)

St.Peter’s-on-Willis, Wellington

Saturday, 24th April, 2021

“The devil take organisations that programme concerts for Saturday nights” I muttered repeatedly to myself, driving around Wellington’s busy streets, and looking for a car-park with mounting desperation as the Cantoris/NZSM concert’s starting time drew nearer and nearer! Eventually, after hurriedly walking to the church from a circuitously discovered parking space several blocks away, I arrived to find the front door closed and everybody else seated! I was, however, admitted, and, thanks to some introductory preamble from the concert’s organisers, actually got to my seat before a note had been played, as a result admitting to myself grudgingly that my near-lateness was really my own fault!

Such a good thing that I’d “made it” though, despite my organisational misjudgements – because the concert’s opening item, Mozart’s joyous and celebratory “Haffner” Symphony was given a totally invigorating performance by the student musicians under the direction of their conductor, Reuben Brown, one whose every note I thought tingled with life in the playing! – nowhere could I sense a mechanical or a “going through the motions” impulse, be it those opening shouts of octave-spanning exuberance or the murmured exchanges that contrasted with the enthusiastic outbursts.

Throughout, the dynamics constantly made us prick up our ears to exhilarating effect, as did the balancing of winds and strings in the upward flourishes, the winds elsewhere making the most of their expressive passages, conductor and players together shaping the themes with real feeling, but without ever letting the life-pulses of the music slacken.

The exquisite slow movement was given the space its themes needed to work their magic, the string passages having a delicacy that charmed our senses, as did the bassoon’s droll accompaniments, the lyrical lines singing their hearts out, with strings, then winds taking the lead, the oboes’ partnership a pleasure,  and the horns discreetly colouring the ambiences.

I thought the Minuet needed a touch more rustic bravado for the opening to make the most of its “swagger set against elegance” exchange, but the point was made, and the trio allowed the winds, led by the oboes, to emphasise the “grace” of the sequence.

The finale I thought terrific, the control by conductor and players over the accented dynamics of the contrasting phrases was so very ear-catching, done with a feeling of spontaneity that gave it all an edge and an excitement that I thought captured the composer’s youthful genius – a most enjoyable performance that was enthusiastically received at the end, and justly so!

And so, after an interval, it was Cantoris Choir’s turn, this evening celebrating its fiftieth anniversary year by showing what it could do with a work reckoned to be one of Mozart’s finest, his Mass in C Minor K.427, often called the “Great Mass”. Mozart was no stranger to settings of the liturgy, having produced at least fifteen settings of what was known as the “Ordinary” (the Latin text) of the Mass during his early Salzburg years, besides various other “sacred” works for different forms of worship, However, once he had left Salzburg for Vienna, he concentrated almost exclusively on secular works, apart from this “Great Mass”, and the later Requiem (1791), both works being left unfinished. The Great Mass was actually written for the occasion of his first return visit to Salzburg with his new wife, Constanza, in 1783 – in fact Constanza sang the “Et incarnatus est” section from the “Credo” at the work’s premiere in Salzburg. Interestingly, Mozart never attempted to finish the mass’s uncompleted parts (such as in the “Credo”), or add the missing “Agnus Dei”.

Beginning with a great archway of sounds growing out of a sombre instrumental beginning, the work’s opening Kyrie here sang out splendidly, the textures rich and full, thanks to adroit balancing of the forces, with perhaps the brasses being accorded slightly more ear-catching prominence than we needed, exciting though the sounds were. Thomas Nikora and his singers brought out plenty of sonorous tones and dynamic variations leading up to soprano Michaela Cadwgan’s serene entry at Christe Eleison, her soaring lines confidently rising to meet the tessitura, as well as relishing the interactive moments with the choir.

A solo voice intoned the opening line of the “Gloria”, to which the choir burst out in response, everything festive and joyous, with the music quickly and adroitly switching moods between the opening joyfulness and the serenity of “Et in terra pax hominibus”. The following “Laudamus Te” sparkled both instrumentally and vocally, Michaela Cadwgan’s firm, focused singing putting one in mind in places of the vocal energies generated by the composer’s “Queen of the Night” arias from “The Magic Flute” without the latter character’s angst and malevolence, the “Glorificamus Te” sections being particularly florid.

A sudden dramatic shift at “Gratias agimus tibi” from the chorus became more fraught with the words  “Propter magnam Gloriam Tuam”,  this somewhat awe-struck reverence happily leavened by the music for the two sopranos at “Domine Deus”, Georgia Jamieson Emms and Michaela Cadwgan teaming up beautifully, and making a virtue of their different vocal timbres in the exchanges at “Agnus Dei”, thrilling us in places with their stratospheric note-swapping. The dotted Handelian rhythms of “Qui tollis peccata mundi” brought forth an amazingly incisive sound from both choir and orchestra, the rawness of the louring brass in places either (depending on one’s tastes as a listener!) overbearing or excitingly “present”, but dramatically telling in the contrast with the hushed pleas of “Miserere nobis” which followed, before building again towards further waves of cataclysmic energy! – what an amazing build-up of intensity was got here at “Qui sedes a dextram Patris!”, with by turns, haunting, then full-throated cries of “Miserere nobis!” – astonishing!

Both sopranos with tenor Jamie Young then made a remarkable trio of voices for the amazing “Quoniam Tu Solus Sanctus” the writing as florid as could be imagined, partly canonical, and partly fugal, the singers hanging onto the precarious solo lines with terrific elan! A great orchestral chord announced the words “Jesu Christe”, majestically delivered by the combined forces, before the men’s voices began a fugue with “Cum Sancto Spiritu”, spreading like wildfire and as excitingly through the voices before introducing the “Amens”, combining these with both fugue and inversion in a ferment of exhilaration before hurling the final “Amens” heavenwards with great surety and gusto!

The Credo, such as it was, began with a solo voice, answered by rumbustious orchestral figures over which the choir vigorously proclaimed the prayer’s basic tenets of faith and belief, breaking into decorative contrapuntal lines at the words “Ante omnia saecula “(before all time began), and giving the words rapid canonic treatment from men’s and women’s voices ( some briefly blurred lines here entirely forgiveable) from “Deum de Deo, Lumen de Lumine” (God from God, Light from Light), as far as Descendit de Caelis (Descended from Heaven), the voices suggesting similar trajectories.

This was followed by the heavenly “Et incarnatus est”, soft strings, organ and celestial winds introducing the soprano voice of Georgia Jamieson Emms, the voice here beautifully “floated”, negotiating both the high notes and the torturous coloratura which follows with great aplomb, and given sterling support by the various wind instruments. In fact her voice seemed to grow in surety and confidence as she approached the cadenza-like sequence again accompanied by the winds, both singer and players drawing on some kind of alchemic quality of loveliness throughout – a memorable performance!

There was little time to reflect on what we had been denied through the rest of the Credo’s absence – for here was the “Sanctus”, grand and imposing, with the brasses echoing the choir’s shouts, and a beautifully deep organ pedal accompanying the words “Domine Deus Sabaoth”, the atmosphere joyous and celebratory! Conversely, the fugal “Hosanna” was excitable and energetic, but with Thomas Nikora’s direction allowing the girth and “swagger” of the music to cone through, up to the great shouts of “In excelsis” at the end, though the strings continued, leading on to the “Benedictus”, featuring all four soloists for the first time,  bass William King making his long-awaited entrance! All the soloists acquitted themselves beautifully, the individual voices resounding like church bells with their repeated “Benedictuses” and blended lines, all coping with some particularly demanding concerted writing towards the end with great credit, their final “In Nomine Domini” as vigorous and incisive as any of the evening’s utterances.

It remained for the choir to deliver the final moments of the Sanctus’s return,  and the work’s journey was completed – well, actually, not quite, as we had been promised at the beginning that, to make up for the parts that the composer DIDN’T write, we would be given a kind of “bonus”, one that would “finish” the Mass in a more appropriately closing kind of manner. For this reason the work and the evening were both “rounded off” by another of Mozart’s works, the motet “Ave Verum Corpus” K.618, written in 1791 for a choirmaster friend in Baden, Anton Stoll, who had helped the Mozarts find lodgings in the town for Wolfgang’s wife Constanze, who was pregnant and needed the relief given by the local mineral springs.

Lasting only two-and-a-half minutes, this astonishing piece captures a tranquility that would have been entirely absent from Mozart’s life at that time  – he was currently working on the opera “The Magic Flute”, and still to come that year (the year of his death) were the opera “La Clemenza di Tito” the Clarinet Concerto and the unfinished Requiem. Perhaps the inner peace of this work expressed an outward longing for the same, freed from the difficulties he was at that time embroiled with. Its performance here, one infused with light and warmth, made an entirely appropriate conclusion to a concert whose undertaking and execution Cantoris Choir and its Musical Director, Thomas Nikora, could be justly proud of.











Mozart’s Don Giovanni from the new Wellington Opera Company – a promising beginning

Wellington Opera presents
MOZART – DON GIOVANNI (dramma giocoso)
(libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte)

Cast:   Christian Thurston  (Don Giovanni)
James Ioelu  (Leoporello)
Amelia Berry  (Donna Anna)
Paul Whelan  (The Commendatore)
Oliver Sewell  (Don Ottavio)
Amanda Atlas (Donna Elvira)
Natasha Wilson  (Zerlina)
Joel Amosa  (Masetto)

Wellington Opera Chorus and Orchestra
Music Director –  Matthew Ross
Director – Sara Brodie
Assistant Director – Matthew Kereama
Production Designer – Meg Rollandi
Lighting Designer – Jo Kilgour

Wellington Opera House
Tuesday 20th April, 2021

(to Saturday 24th April 2021 7:30pm)

How refreshing to read in the programme accompanying Wellington Opera’s “Don Giovanni” an appreciation of Mozart’s and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte’s opera from the Governor-General, Dame Patsy Reddy, thus: “Quite apart from the exquisite pleasures of Mozart’s score, it (the opera) offers a timeless plot line that will resonate with audiences in the “Me Too” era.” For me, that sums up in a nutshell the potential for a classic work born in this case of what historians have termed “The Enlightenment” to express a viewpoint relating to sexual mores in society whose judgement is unequivocally delivered – the condemnation and downfall of a sexual predator.

After I’d read the original “Stuff” article that appeared, one purporting to be a review of the Company’s opening night’s performance, but morphing into a “woke-rant” condemning any age-old artistic portrayals of what’s seen as interaction of male dominance and female submission, my first reaction was along the disturbed lines of “Look out, Classics! – THEY’RE coming for you!” One doesn’t wish to demonise any feminist viewpoint thus – but to gratuitously offload coals of fire upon the heads of the world’s classics holus-bolus is to beg the question of why things are portrayed the way they are in the first place in these works, and how “workings-out” of what people do in human interactive terms can counter and triumph over many such exploitative attitudes. Mozart and da Ponte obviously understood human nature and its resultant behaviours, and in this case responded to the excesses of the opera’s eponymous miscreant in delivering an archetypal “come-uppance” to him at the end.

I once saw a production of “The Don” where the ghostly avenging “Statue” of the man Giovanni had earlier killed in a duel turned out actually to be the peasant lad Masetto in disguise, wanting revenge for Giovanni’s attempted seduction of his girlfriend. After reducing Giovanni to submission, the “stone” figure threw off his disguise and summarily despatched him. It all became something in the manner of a “shabby little shocker” involving nothing more than rough justice, with no overtones of the archetypal or supernatural or any kind of higher moral force at work.  I felt suitably cheated on that occasion, the “rustic revenge” conclusion having nothing uplifting or awe-inspiring about it, no “outward sign of inner expiation”, change or cleansing. Interestingly, Mozart’s “epilogue”, in which the characters whose lives were so intertwined with the Don’s tell one another their plans and deliver a vocal “coup de grace” to the departed libertine, was performed at the premiere in Prague, but omitted when the opera was restaged by the composer in Vienna, and not reintroduced until the early part of the 20thCentury – so the opera’s ending, with Giovanni dragged down to Hell, as depicted in the film “Amadeus”, was the standard for many years!

That “resonance” which Dame Patsy Reddy mentioned regarding recent “Me Too” revelations has already coloured a number of manifestations of this opera worldwide, among them the subject of an in-depth review of a UK production in North London from 2017 which I chanced upon, one staged by an all-female creative team, with modern dress and up-dated surtitles, giving a definite contemporary feel to the goings-on. The characterisations seemed to ring true with the women Giovanni tried to seduce in the opera, with the noblewoman Donna Anna and (eventually) the peasant girl Zerlina portrayed as strong and independent, while the once-abandoned Donna Elvira remaining seriously conflicted to the end by her ex-lover. And there were echoes of Hollywood impresario Harvey Weinstein’s recently-exposed crimes and the initial disbelief at the allegations made by various women concerning his sexual abuse of them, in Donna Anna’s fiancée Don Ottavio’s similar doubts uttered upon first hearing of Giovanni’s transgressions.

Fast forward to 2021 and a girdle about the earth’s distance to Wellington Opera, a recently-formed Trust here in the capital, and presently making the most of the Covid travel restrictions resulting in the availability of so many able home-grown singers for this, the Trust’s first production.  Having enjoyed a number of director Sara Brodie’s productions in the past, I was brimful with expectation, firstly all ears for the Overture, here occasioning a “sneak preview” of the opera’s inaugural crime, the Don’s invasion of the beautiful Donna Anna’s bedroom via a ladder. I thought Matthew Ross’s direction of the music a shade short-breathed with the very opening chords, terse and contained, not conveying to me the sheer drama of those opening sounds, and being too intent with forward movement. smart and snappy, which mode of course does come into its own with the allegro – no qualms about Ross’s urgency and the terrific orchestral response, there!

As the curtain opened again, there was Leoporello, waiting for his master – with an un-nervingly spectral figure gazing at him from further away for a few seconds, before leaving just as mysteriously as he had come. James Ioelu’s Leoporello had the common touch, the voice a roughish edge, the body language casual and footloose. His master, the Don, was all elegance by comparison, Christian Thurston laid-back and casual with his movements, almost an insouciance, but one masking an underlying focus of pursuit and would-be capture. My companion for the evening being of a younger generation, afterwards compared the Don’s “manner” to a Swedish singer she knew of, one Günther, having, she said, a similar kind of euro-trash party energy, complete with pout, open shirt and eye-liner! (on the strength of that, I think Middle C will keep her on……..)

Paul Whelan seemed luxury casting as the Commendatore, Donna Anna’s father, though I actually found him more effective in the “Stone Guest” Scene than here, where I thought his characterisation was, like so many I’ve seen in this opera, a tad too elderly and lacking in real energy in the fight (the ensemble also got a bit “out” necessitating some “catch-up” singing) – surely the Commendatore would be only in his forties and therefore still a dangerous adversary, hence Giovanni’s killing of him to save his own skin! The fight certainly didn’t take enough cues from the slashing, whirling music Mozart provided, though the Commendatore’s actual despatch, by both the Don and Leoporello with a knife, was convincing enough.

Donna Anna’s discovery of her father’s body gave Amelia Berry’s voice the chance to shine – both she and her fiancée, Don Ottavio (a vocally steadfast Oliver Sewell) characterised the confused jumble of emotions beautifully, moving, separately and together, from despair to tenderness to vengeful attack – though their interaction was more static in movement than I would have expected, things like the oath sworn together on the Commendatore’s sword gave the scene both great gravitas and high drama.

After Giovanni affably dismissed Leoporello’s “character references” of his master as of little consequence, the sudden ”scent of a woman” heralded the arrival on the scene of Donna Elvira and her maid (the latter a non-singing role). I couldn’t help but enjoy Amanda Atlas’s extremely gutsy (if in places squally) A Chi mi dice mai, as it captured the character’s agitated,  unfettered feelings, something which carried right through her exchanges for the rest of the evening with the hapless Don, who lost no time here in volunteering Leoporello as a source of further information for her before making himself scarce!

James Ioelu made the most of his opportunities with the notorious “Catalogue Aria”, in which Leoporello presents a list to Elvira of the Don’s female conquests – the most interesting reaction I’ve seen to this from any Elvira (not here) was one during which the latter ridiculed the “list”, thus consigning the activity’s significance to the realms of adolescent train-spotting, or teenaged autograph-collecting!  Here it began as something almost voyeuristic on Leoporello’s part, before burgeoning into the public realm with an enlarged version of the list lowered from above as a banner for all the world to “tut-tut” over, presumably accompanied by some local (though not recent!) conjecture and embarrassment on the part of certain individuals (including, perhaps, a pregnant young woman who appeared from nowhere straight afterwards and disappeared as quickly as she had come, amongst the others….. earlier Leoporello had gotten “carried away” with some mock-gratuitous characterisations  pertaining to “the tall ones” on the list (È la grande maestosa!), before being “snapped out of it” by Elvira in no uncertain terms!

Came the “peasant wedding” scene, and the chance for us to be introduced to the “common folk” couple Zerlina (Natasha Wilson), and Masetto (Joel Amosa), each endowed with engaging voices and winning stage presences, establishing their characters with great elan! I thought the Don’s laid-back manoeuverings regarding  Masetto didn’t sufficiently generate menace and tension between them to motivate the latter’s reaction as per his Ho capito, Signor si aria, though with his fiancée Zerlina, the sparks certainly flew, giving the couple’s subsequent reconciliation scenes plenty of dramatic (and in places suggestive) interest.

From that point, with the dramatis personae introduced, the story’s often vertiginous events whirled us along, with the Don entirely failing here to live up to his reputation as a seducer, being countered by the desperate actions of Donna Elvira (rescuing Zerlina from the seducer’s clutches and sparking off Donna Anna’s recognition of Giovanni as her would-be seducer at the opera’s beginning) and the eventual confrontation at the “Masker’s Ball” scene between the adversaries. The latter scene was, I thought, superbly staged by Sara Brodie’s creative team of Matthew Kereama, Meg Rollandi and Jo Kilgour, particularly its introduction, the sinister, “avenging angels” aspect of Elvira, Anna and the latter’s fiancée, Don Ottavio well-caught by their emergence from the street’s darkness, their appearance illumed from within by the loveliness of their singing at “Protegga il giusto cielo” – “May the just heavens protect us”, and their energies when denouncing Giovanni galvanising the latter into evasive action!

The Second Act afforded numerous delights – the spirited interaction between Giovanni and Leoporello at the beginning, Amanda Atlas’s touching, unforced  Ah taci, ingiusto core – “Ah, be quiet unjust heart”, and in response, Christian Thurston’s loveliest singing of the evening with Giovanni’s entreaty to Elvira, Discendi, o gioia bella – “Come down here, my lovely”, (Leoporello, disguised as the Don, amusingly “miming” the latter’s gesturings throughout). We then enjoyed the sequence involving Giovanni deceiving and then beating the unfortunate Masetto, leaving it to Zerlina to find her beset fiancée and comfort him with some age-old remedies, Natasha Wilson delightfully suggestive during her Vedrai, carino, se sei buonino, – “If you are good, my darling”. And the confusion generated by the trio of Anna, Elvira and Ottavio’s discovery of Leoporello disguised as the Don convincingly drove the action forward through the latter’s escape and to the welcome reflectiveness of Oliver Sewell’s (slightly shortened) Il mio Tesoro“meanwhile, my treasure” (he had, as Ottavio, already contributed a lyrical, in places beautifully-floated first-Act Dalla sua pace – “Upon her peace of mind”), the second aria contrasting with Elvira’s impassioned Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata – “That ungrateful wretch betrayed me” soon after.

Of course, the overall focus of flight in the opera’s Second Act is towards the denoument of the Final Scene, though a “tipping-point” is the graveyard scene, where the Don, with a casual libidinous remark too many, activates his impending doom. I liked the eeriness of the opening scenario, strange lights and mist and statuesque figures, but wanted it to ambiently change in some way when the statue spoke. I could have imagined an even bigger and blacker voice, but as the statue Paul Whelan was much more in his element, though the impact of his “coming alive” was lessened for me through the figure being veiled, concealing both the moving lips and the nodding head. Then, allowing that scene’s culmination some stand-alone space, was the interim episode where Donna Anna again refused to marry Don Ottavio until a year had elapsed in the wake of her father’s death, Amelia Berry expressing the character’s angst and grief in beautifully fetching tones with Non mi dir, “Do not tell me” though like everybody else I’ve heard in this role, she had to work hard at the coloratura conclusion – what amazing singers Mozart must have had at his disposal to write for them like that!

So to one of opera’s greatest scenes, one which begins with what seem like more of the same from the Don, empty carousings and mindless debaucheries in the company of wrung-out revellers (the Don appearing to feast upon the “spent bodies” of his fellow-carousers as Leoporello helped himself to real food) when suddenly, with Donna Elvira’s scream came a rending asunder of the fabric of the work’s universe accompanied by a reckoning! Again, I thought the great orchestral chords (which we had heard in the Overture) missed an elemental quality, though Paul Whelan’s “Stone Guest” sounded suitably remorseless and sepulchral. As with so many assumptions I’ve seen of this role, I thought it just that bit too unrelievedly static in places to suggest the music’s inexorable advance – and while the hooded Goya-esque figure that bore down on and enfolded the Don at the end made an imposing impression I imagined it could have been altogether darker, even more sinister and elemental,  appearing to have been awakened from the void by the statue’s baleful summons.

However anticlimactic the epilogue after such a profound consignment of the guilty party to the nether regions, it did have the effect of returning the rest of us to our lives, laden with both a plethora of wind-born sound-memories and considerable food for thought. All in all, I’ve reflected since that for a new opera company to bring off such a production and performance first up was a stellar achievement due to committed effort by all concerned. The Wellington Opera Trust would, as well, have been heartened by the public response to this venture – may the company go from strength to strength after such a promising beginning!



Unusual trio ensemble with a highly satisfying, widely international series opens Wellington Chamber Music year

Wellington Chamber Music: first concert in 2021 season

Trio Elan
Donald Armstrong (violin)
Simon Brew (saxophone)
Sarah Watkins (piano)

Russell Peterson: Trio for alto saxophone, violin and piano
Peter Liley: Deux Images for Trio: Small Scurrying and Glimpse
Albeniz: Evocación, from Iberia (piano solo)
Barry Cockcroft: Beat Me (tenor saxophone solo)
Debussy: Violin Sonata in G minor
Marc Eychenne: Cantilène et Danse
Piazzolla: Otoño Porteño 
Farr: Tango: Un Verano de Passion

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 18 April, 3 pm

The first concert in Wellington Chamber Music’s 2021 season attracted a fairly full audience, no doubt partly a response to their deprivation in 2020. It would have appealed to chamber music aficionados on account of the three well-known musicians and the inclusion of at least one well-known work, plus a couple of others by familiar and attractive composers – Albéniz and Piazzolla, and a popular New Zealand composer – Gareth Farr. That offered the prospect that the rest might be interesting: it certainly was.

Russell Peterson
It opened with a trio by American saxophonist and composer, Russell Peterson. It troubled me almost at once. Though it was a vigorous, rhythmic piece, throwing violin and saxophone against each other, each delivered such individual sounds that the wide spacing of the two gave the impression that unity could be in conflict. But rhythmic unity was always conspicuous and superficially disparate sounds were clearly studied and not simply tonal antipathy.

The second movement, Adagio, was more audibly genial, occupying the space in the church more comfortably. A congenial duet between violin and saxophone might have been rather shrill but the piano’s steady pace imposed a calmer spirit. The last movement, labelled ‘moto perpetuo’, again given to repetitive rhythms and terse themes, created an excitement that might again have been taxing in the church’s acoustic. Nevertheless, the performance of this deliberate music was admirably studied, displaying the trio’s vigour and unanimity, and however the instruments were assembled in performance, there was no doubt that it was a carefully studied, meaningful interpretation.

Deux Images by young Wellington saxophonist and composer, Peter Liley, created contrasting sound pictures with darting, tremulous motifs; first by the violin, then the saxophone. Its two movements seemed to vary mainly through the music’s general pitch; a hypnotic quality pervaded both movements, creating a distinctly enchanted feeling.

It was good to hear Sarah Watkins in a solo piano piece such as one of Albéniz’s Ibéria: ‘Evocación’, the first of the twelve pieces. They are rarely played in New Zealand, as far as I can recall, and the likelihood of their being heard on Concert FM gets increasingly dim. Sarah Watkins’ playing was beautifully idiomatic, capturing both the essential Spanish spirit and her own obvious admiration for the composer’s music.

Next was a piece for solo tenor saxophone: Beat me, by Australian composer, Barry Cockroft. It was a display of the varied sounds available, including many that were unpitched, essentially non-musical; but it was driven by rhythmic, dancing or percussive sounds; a repeated bleat around bottom G or A flat offered a kind of stability. It was an intriguing experience, though I confess to being somewhat unclear about the purpose of and relationships between many of the sounds. I felt indeed that its formidable technical difficulties might take a very long time to master.

Debussy violin sonata
After the Interval, violin and piano played Debussy’s last piece, from 1917: the third of his planned six sonatas far various instruments: he died of cancer in 1918. This was an admirable performance of a piece that ends in a spirit of sheer delight; and it was an opportunity to hear both a pianist that Wellington rarely hears since she left the NZTrio, and a violinist who is conspicuous mainly at Associate concert master of the NZSO and leader of the Amici Ensemble (they give the last concert, in October, in this Wellington Chamber Music series). Their performance was multi-facetted and as near to flawless as you’d get.

Marc Eychenne is a French composer born in Algeria in 1933. In some ways, not merely because it called for the same instruments as the Peterson piece, the two seemed to have similar, or at least related characteristics, even though Eychenne’s piece was composed before Peterson was born. There was no sign of any attempt here to draw attention to the dissimilarity between violin and saxophone; in fact when the saxophone entered several bars after the violin had established itself, the two seemed to seek common elements, to find considerable homogeneity. The effect was certainly in contrast to that in the Peterson piece. The contrast between the ‘Cantilène’ and the ‘Danse’ in itself was engaging: once again, in the writing and the playing of the two movements there was a sense of unanimity as well as contrast.

It encouraged me later to look (through the inevitable YouTube) for other pieces by Eychenne; it proved a rewarding excursion. Both works were obviously composed in the post-Serialist, post extreme avant-garde era, neither seemed persuaded to employ such defeatist techniques in an attempt to emulate the influences that so alienated much music composed in the late 20th century.

Piazzolla and Farr
The same goes, of course for the last two pieces, by Piazzolla and Gareth Farr. The Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (‘Four Seasons of Buenos Aires’) by Piazzolla have become very familiar and the Otoño (Autumn) movement in its attractive arrangement including saxophone was charmingly idiomatic.

It was a nice idea to link Piazzolla’s piece with a piece that Farr wrote for a TV series, The Strip. In the words of the programme note, it was “incidental music for a smouldering scene between a stripper and choreographer”; as described, it proved dreamy and seductive. A nice way to bring the wholly attractive concert to a close.

The remaining six concerts in Wellington Chamber Music’s series look most interesting: chairman David Hutton mentioned special concessions available to those attending the concert to subscribe for the rest of the year.Don’t hestitate!


Dvorak’s “Stabat Mater” given sweet and resounding treatment by Wellington’s Bach Choir

The Bach Choir of Wellington presents –
DVOŘÁK – Stabat Mater Op.58

Michaela Cadwgan (soprano)
Linden Loader (contralto)
Jamie Young (tenor)
Simon Christie (bass)

Douglas Mews (piano)

Shawn Michael Condon (conductor)

Queen Margaret College, Thorndon, Wellington

Saturday, 17th April, 2021

I had momentarily forgotten that my Middle C colleague of the time, Lindis Taylor, had reviewed a performance of this work in Paraparaumu as recently as 2018, a circumstance which effectively stymied any thoughts I might have had of extravagantly proclaiming it a “neglected masterpiece”! However, as I didn’t attend this earlier performance and thus came new to the work as a “live” experience on Saturday at Queen Margaret College, I still felt very much imbued with the feeling of “discovery” as a concert-goer (I do own a recording of the music, so was familiar with its general outlines and ebb and flow of emotion, though without having enjoyed that thrill of immediacy that a live concert gives….).

An extra “edge” was given my experience here, quite unintentionally – though I’ve never considered myself dyslexic, I somehow got it into my head that the venue for the concert was Marsden College in Karori! (Well, both “Marsden” and “Margaret” begin with “M”, so surely it was a mistake anybody could have made…….yes? Er, no! – as I found myself to be the ONLY ONE wandering around the grounds and buildings of Marsden after I’d arrived in Karori with only ten minutes to go before starting time!) Thanks to some nifty driving, a reasonably handy car-park in Thorndon, and two kindly people associated with the event who “took care” of me upon my out-of-breath arrival at the Queen Margaret College Hall, I was able to hear most of the opening “Stabat Mater Dolorosa” from the hall doorway, and then squirrel myself into a seat near the door for the rest! My relief at feeling I’d navigated the obstacles, and grateful pleasure at receiving the kind assistance that I did, was then somewhat mitigated by my dropping the car key noisily on the floor of the hall midway through the vocal quartet’s Quis est homo qui non fleret – but afterwards I found myself gradually settling into the atmosphere cast by the music’s spell and its committed-sounding performance.

Though I wasn’t ideally placed to clearly hear parts of the opening movement , from where I was standing it nevertheless sounded as if all sections of the choir were blending their tones beautifully, differentiating the music’s flowing dynamic levels with telling intent, and seeming to give their all in conveying the dramatic building-up of sounds and emotions which took over the music towards the movement’s end in its truly inexorable way – largely a recapitulation of the introductory section, which I was glad to “catch”. The tenor, Jamie Young, also repeated his dramatic entry, which introduced the other vocal soloists’ participation in the ebb and flow of piteous emotion expressed by the words and their settings. At the beginning of the following Quis est homo qui non fleret  (Who is the person who would not weep) contralto Linden Loader’s tremulous but focused tones brought out the words’ desolation, before being joined by the tenor, Jamie Young’s rather more urgently histrionic delivery. Bass Simon Christie contributed a sonorous Quis est homo, sparking a ferment of exchange, before soprano Micaela Cadwgan pinned our ears back with an arresting Pro peccatis suae gentis (for the sins of his people), and then duetted beautifully with Linden Loader, repeating the same phrase, Dvořák here repeatedly giving his singers the movement’s most striking music when delivering these same words, Simon Christie delivering a particularly sonorous solo line at one point. With exemplary pianistic support from the wonderful Douglas Mews, conductor Shawn Michael Condon brought his singers through the torturous ways of their exchanges to a place of suitable contemplation with the words Vidit sum dulcem natum moriendo (She saw her sweet offspring dying) to appropriately moving effect.

The grim, Schubert-like Eja mater, fons amoris (Mother, fountain of love), was given appropriately sombre treatment, the cries of “fac!” properly rending the air, contrasting tellingly with the hushed Ut tecum lugeam (that I may grieve with you).  And in the following Fac, ut ardeat cor meum (Grant that my heart may burn), Simon Christie’s baritonal timbres enabled a moving cantabile line at Un sibi complaceam (to please My Lord), sweetly backed by angelic voices invoking the Mother of God at Sancta mater, istud agas (Grant, Holy Mother) with beatific tones ostensibly at odds with the words’ conjuring up of images suggesting suffering and agony! Though the lack of numbers in the tenor section of the choir were evident, the choir ‘s intensification of delivery made its effect, as did Christie’s more lyrical passages.

Some of Dvořák’s most beautiful writing in the work was for the opening of the chorus Tui nati vulnerate (Let me share with thee his pain), before an anguished and agitated middle section which soon dispersed, the music returning to its lullabic character, here, most winningly realised. Tenor Jamie Young’s delivery of the following Fac me vere tecum flere (Let me sincerely weep with you)  for me came across more successfully in its forthright than in its more lyrical sequences, the singer seeming to find it difficult to relax his voice, and more at home when pumping out the intensities, given that anguish seemed the order of the day, here. The male voices of the choir provided sweet-toned support, echoing the singer’s phrases (very Schubertian, here!), with Young revelling in the “sturm und drang” of Juxta crucem tecum stare (To stand beside the cross with you).

Another lovely choral sequence was provided by Virgo Virginum (VIrgin of Virgins), conductor Shawn Michael Condon getting his voices to sweetly “own” the soaring tessituras, blending the whole-choir strands most beautifully, with Douglas Mews contributing, according to my notes , a “mean accompaniment” here!  If the “piano” version allowed less of the “Slavic” colour of the work to catch the ear, the music’s melodic charm and rhythmic charge was well served by Mews’ idiomatic-sounding playing. The soprano and tenor duet Fac ut portem Christi mortem (Grant that I may bear the death of Christ) came off excitingly, due to their give-and-take combination, and their shared fearlessness at risking rawness when tackling the high-lying passages in each of their parts. The final solo section was given the contralto, a piece which seemed positively Handelian at the start, and certainly very baroque-like! The sentiments also seemed Handelian, calling for trenchant tones! – Inflammatus et accencus (Inflame and set on fire). The central, more lyrical section of the movement brought out the lyric quality of Linden Loader’s voice, returning to forthrightness at the opening’s reprise, and including touches of theatrical darkness at the end, with Confoveri gratia (Let His grace cherish me).

And so, we were brought to the final movement of the work, Quando Corpus Morietur (When my body dies).  The contralto and bass began in beseeching mode, drawing in the soprano and tenor and eventually the choir, building towards a climax in the manner of the first movement, except that this one peaked more positively! As the soloists rhapsodised, in the expectation of the prospect of Paradise, the “Amens” suddenly burst out, soloists and choir exchanging these impulses of affirmation with a wondrous ferment, conductor Shaun Michael Condon steering everything expertly forwards towards a great peroration. The final  Quando corpus morietur , slow, grand and solemn, left Douglas Mews’ piano rhapsodising, and the voices repeating all kinds of ecstatic “Amens” – at the conclusion of it all, the musicians were happily spent, and the audience exhilarated, and appreciative, with a real “buzz” of excitement in the foyer afterwards! Certainly, I thought, a concert well worth desperately scrambling to get to the right venue on the day, for!

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P.S. on a more sombre note, I read the kindly and appreciative note in the programme concerning the recent death of a former director of the Bach Choir, Stephen Rowley, whom I also well remember. I would like to add the condolences of Middle C reviewers past and present to those expressed, to  Stephen’s family.

Wellington Chamber Orchestra’s Mendelssohn and Shostakovich make for stimulating contrast

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:
MENDELSSOHN – Violin Concerto in E Minor Op.64
SHOSTAKOVICH – Symphony No. 5 in D Minor Op.47

Hayden Nickel (violin)
Rachel Hyde (conductor)
Wellington Chamber Orchestra

St Andrew’s on The Terrace, Wellington

Saturday, 17th April, 2021

It says a lot about Wellington’s musical life that groups such as the Wellington Chamber Orchestra – an orchestra made up of about 70 players, all proficient amateur musicians, young, and not-so-young – can thrive and enrich the city’s music, with four interesting and varied concerts during this 2021 season.

This concert began with the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, one of the most popular works in the repertoire, and understandably so – a loveable work , full of delightful melodies, yet unpretentious.

The music is not about showing off the artist’s virtuosity – there are no bravura passages to distract from the sheer beauty of the melodies. There is no high drama, like the opening drum beats of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, or the opening operatic tuttis pf the Mozart concertos that anticipate the drama to follow. There is just one orchestral chord and the soloist is right into a beautifully-sustained melody. The orchestra echoes the soloist as if to imply that “we are with you – we are a team supporting each other”. There are filigree passages  requiring agile finger-work from the soloist, but these don’t distract from the music’s flow.

The slow movement is one extended song, presented through the interplay of soloist and orchestra, and a challenging double-stopped passage where the soloist seems to accompany himself. The last movement starts with a few dark E Minor chords, then moves into E major and becomes exuberant, a joyful, sun-filled spring!

The simplicity of this work presents special challenges for the soloist – although there are technically difficult passages, nothing distracts from the piece’s essential beauty. Hayden Nickel, a young Samoan violinist who is studying at Victoria University, has been involved with various music programmes around New Zealand, including Arohanui Strings and Virtuoso Strings. His was an impressive performance, playing with a beautiful, and in places, powerful tone, and was a complete master of the music, playing with the freedom that allowed him to impose his own vision upon this great concerto.

The Shostakovich Symphony No. 5  was an ambitious work for an amateur orchestra to programme. It is to the great credit of the group and the conductor Rachel Hyde, that they gave a thoroughly moving performance. The work made great demands on the various soloists, particularly the wind and brass players, and they are to be commended for doing justice to their parts for 45 minutes of intense concentration!

The Symphony starts with a slow, descending melancholic theme, which heralds the ambiguity of the work throughout. Ominous brass chords, dark and disturbing, interrupt the second theme, with the raucous music that follows merely adding to the sense of unease . This turns into a furious march dominated by the side-drum. Where does this march lead to? And does the ethereal flute solo at the end suggest some sort of Arcadia?

The second movement is also a march, but like fairground music, for clowns or a carousel. A sense of cynicism prevails, an “enjoy it while you can” kind of fun.  Conversely, the third movement Largo begins with an exquisitely beautiful passage, but as the music progresses, tensions develop and suggest a sense of agony. A vigorous triumphal March begins the last movement, with echoes of popular songs, but is there a suggestion that this sense of something triumphal is not to be taken seriously?

This symphony was written in 1937 after Shostakovich had already withdrawn his Fourth Symphony, fearing “official disapproval” . He was already in deep trouble because Stalin and his cultural tzars had taken exception to his opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, and he couldn’t afford to fall foul of party orthodoxy.  In the event, the new Symphony, the Fifth, was an unqualified success, being received with a forty-minute ovation (it was probably this reception which saved the composer’s life!).

The symphony was subtitled by its composer “The creative reply of a Soviet artist to justified criticism” – even if Shostakovich’s biographer, Solomon Volkov claimed that the composer had said “I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth (Symphony). The rejoicing is forced, created under threat…you have to be a complete oaf not to hear that.”


The Capital Band in Brooklyn – Pärt, Janáček and Bartók a great workout for the Vogelmorn Hall

The Capital Band presents:
Arvo Pärt – Summa
Leoš Janáček – Suite for Strings
Béla Bartók – Divertimento

The Capital Band
Douglas Harvey (conductor)

Vogelmorn Hall, Vennell St.,
Brooklyn, Wellington

Saturday, 10th April 2021

This was the first of four concerts scheduled by The Capital Band for 2021, a fascinating programme of music which engaged throughout for different reasons – the works played were straightforwardly presented in their “original” forms, or (in the case of Arvo Pärt’s Summa) an alternative form crafted by the composer. The remaining concerts in the 2021 series will each contain a chamber work “rearranged” for The Capital Band’s body of strings – though in a sense Arvo Pärt’s Summa as played here demonstrated something of the same Baroque-like principle of musical transposition, one laying the music’s importance primarily with the notes rather than the types of instruments themselves (Pärt originally wrote Summa for voices, but has since produced versions of the work for various instruments, including one for four recorders!).

Much has been written about the “objectivity” of Pärt’s music, in a way that almost suggests that it might be better “performed” if played by machines, devoid of disruptive “emotion” and enjoying built-in control of things like vibrato, dynamics and tempo. One commentator declared that in Pärt’s music, conventional “expression” has little meaning for performers, and that its effect depends upon “careful self-observation and self-control”. True, the simplicity of the notes can be misleading, as players need to strive to “get close to the sound”, to realise the composer’s declaration that “It is enough to beautifully play this one and only tone – to escape into a self-imposed aestheticism of sound…” – but to an extent the same is true of any “simple” passage in any work requiring a certain “purity”; and performers already undertake to “sound” such passages with whatever is required to make the music produce its required effect. I would hope that, however much any musician strives to realise Pärt’s dictates, the result will still carry a certain individuality because of the variables – otherwise we may as well leave the realisation of such “pure” objectivities to machines to play!

The strings of The Capital Band performed this work without a conductor, an effect which in an unexpected way for me “democratised” the music, a phenomenon heightened by the ritualistic exchanges between the groups which suggested a “coming together” of equals and a spontaneous development of phraseology seemingly practised, as it were, in response to each other – the tapestries “floated” by each of the episodes, dovetailed at their beginnings and ends, built up a kind of layered after-resonance of exchange, the “character” of the different sequences determined by the different-sized instruments variously adding texture and colour to the compendium of sounds, and certainly imparting a contrasting grainy, even gutsy aspect to the proceedings! Though this in theory seemed some way from the kind of intensification the composer might have intended, I relished the musicians’ whole-hearted use of both air and earth in the work’s realisation.

Re the next item on the programme, I knew beforehand who the composer was, of course, but after hearing a recording prior to going to the concert (the Suite for Strings wasn’t a work I’d previously heard), was disconcerted at finding the music so very unlike the Janáček I’d gotten to know and love over the years.  Hoping that a second hearing might elucidate my understanding of the music, I did manage to pick up some “clues” as to the music’s provenance this time round (a touch of wildness in the very opening, a hint of Bartok-like darkness at the beginning of the fifth movement Adagio, and some Dvorak-like plaintiveness in the final movement’s opening), but practically nothing that even suggested the characteristic Janacek astringencies that were to make his mature works so uniquely compelling!

Janacek was 23 when he completed the work, originally giving the movements of his Suite baroque titles, but removing them later. Here, the players, under the direction of conductor Douglas Harvey spiritedly attacked the opening’s agitations, together working their way through some intonation vagaries with high-lying passages towards the ”marching-song” middle section of the work, begun by the lower strings, and building up to a confident and spirited outpouring of energies and lyrical warmth! – a kind of order wrought from chaos, the music briefly revisiting the agitated opening figures, before receding beautifully and tenderly into silence! A sweet, Grieg-like melody began the following Adagio, the ensemble steadily holding the lines throughout as the music seemed to touch its forelock to places in Wagner’s “Lohengrin”, the players admirably maintaining their sweetness of intonation. The jolly, but comfortably sprung Andante con moto provided a cosily folkish contrast to the frenetic Presto that followed, with the dynamic contrasts tellingly caught, the rawness of tone in places not inappropriate to the sense of abandonment – a gentle, sentimental Trio section allowed some respite before the rumbustions returned!

The lower strings began the fifth movement Adagio with splendidly dark purpose not unlike Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra” opening, the upper strings joining in, hymn-like, before a solo cello sang a comforting song. Briefly, the lower strings returned the music to the opening, before allowing their lighter-voiced colleagues the last word. A touch of Slavic intensity enlivened the strings’ beginning of the finale, the energies generated bringing the composer’s older colleague Dvorak to mind, nicely alternating strife and plaintiveness up to the work’s sudden switch to the surety of a major key with the final chord.

So we came to the work I for one had come to the concert for – and to my great joy I wasn’t disappointed, as conductor and players launched the opening of the wonderful Bartok Divertimento as full-bloodedly as they meant to go on! It was all done with rather more girth and energy than I actually had been previously used to, in fact, the weight and focus of the playing returning to my ears rich dividends as the movement proceeded, the sinuous violin lines keeping the lilting lines and the “noises off” contrasts to the dance rhythms splendidly alive! I thought the playing caught the music’s rusticity beautifully, the full-blooded textures capturing our involvement as surely as did the contrasting interplay between solo strings and ripieno, in true concerto grosso fashion! And then, the reprise was like a kind of homecoming, the solo violin sounding a tad uncertain, but steadfastedly able to maintain the music’s poise and spirit.

The slow movement had a telling “wandering” aspect at the outset, the lower strings burrowing their way underneath the upper strings’ textures, until the latter sounded a warning with a single laser-beam note! Thereupon all was dark uncertainty, muted tones, creepy rhythms and frightening outbursts, culminating in a truly ghoulish “night-music’ crescendo to an abyss’s edge, the movement’s coda transfixed by some amazingly intense tremolandi set against desperate rapier-like strokes prior to the darkness swallowing everything.

Great and energetic gesturings extricated the music from the void at the finale’s beginning, before setting it on its feet and inviting it to dance! Some terrific playing from the first violin galvanised the band into joyful agreement and like energies, the players diving into busy fugue-like passagework and affirming unisons, the solo violin again shining with some melismatic flourishes, and imitative figures. As the music reinvented its own material the musicians appeared to relished the upward flourishes and the rapid ostinati, the effect totally exhilarating, the ensemble in a ferment! – which made the gradual “winding down” of momentums all the more heart-stopping, and the subsequent “playful pizzicati” irresistibly captivating, only to have the “whirling dervish” ostinati figures return, and bid the movement’s opening dance motif farewell with a flourish! All of this came off in so whole-hearted and full-blooded a fashion, it left no room for any response other than appreciative and enthusiastic applause, to which the band responded with a sweetly-played “return to our lives” rendition for string ensemble of Alexander Borodin’s famous Nocturne movement from his Second String Quartet, one variously featuring some lovely solo work in places from violin and cello, and making for us a soulful, and in places exquisite “homeward-bound’ present.


Music of magical flight – Palmer, Mozart and Stravinsky from the NZSO

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents

Juliet Palmer – Buzzard
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 23 in A K.488
Igor Stravinsky (ed. Jonathan McPhee) – The Firebird Ballet

Diedre Irons (piano)
Hamish McKeich (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday 8th April, 2021

Throughout the first half of Canadian-based New Zealand-born composer Juliet Palmer’s work Buzzard, I was enraptured,  totally enthralled by Palmer’s self-proclaimed “digestion” of Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird. I was bowled over as much by the former’s mastery of orchestral techniques we all readily ascribe to the latter’s music, the brilliance of the orchestrations, the motoric rhythms, and, by turns, the fluency and the angularity of the changing time-signatures, as by the curious phenomenon of the music having been “masticated” by Palmer into resembling in many places something more like Petrouchka! I confess that for some time I couldn’t extricate myself from imagining fairground ambiences, even complete with a slow-motion thematic “quote” at one point in the music! Still, the essence of Stravinsky was all there, the rumbustious rhythmic trajectories, the dynamic punctuations, the angularity of the different cheek-by-jowl time signatures, and the ear-catching variety of orchestral texture, feathery and diaphanous soundscapes co-existing with explosive irruptions and roistering rhythms.

This was “transmorgrified” Stravinsky, wondrous and strange in its “familiar-but-new” guise, and even possibly emerging (as the composer put it) somewhat “damaged” and “disfigured” as a by-product of the process. Gradually, it seemed to me that the ambience of the piece was shifting to something more sombre, though Palmer chose to indulge mid-way in some Ibert-like sequences involving sounds evoking whistles, shouts and extraneous noises, before introducing an almost “worry to death” motif, one which created what sounded almost like an impasse in the work’s unfolding. An oboe-led sequence which finally suggested something of the atmospheres of Palmer’s “other” subject for “dismemberment”, one relating to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, with its mystery of Odette and her enchanted cygnets under the sway of an enchanter, was given but a brief moment to develop, before being overtaken by a skitterish section of sounds that for me reflected only the helplessness and vacuity of the swan’s and her cygnets’ peregrinations, with few “echoings” of the would-be-lovers’ predicament – in general, on one hearing I felt a far more resounding sense of identification with Stravinsky’s work than of Tchaikovsky’s, on Palmer’s part when the piece had finished. (I note that microphones were present, suggesting the concert was recorded, and presenting the possibility of my hearing the work again)….

Moving on to the concert’s second item, Mozart’s adorable A Major Piano Concerto K.488, I instantly warmed to the work’s opening, played here by the orchestra with what sounded like a certain expectation, something of a “wait and see” exposition. Hamish McKeich and players gave the full tutti in the opening its due, but elsewhere brought out a dynamic differentiation that nicely suggested things held in reserve. Diedre Irons, whose playing I’ve always greatly admired, appeared also to hold the music “up for inspection” at first, her passagework having a delicacy that seemed to me to resemble a flower about to open, but with a certain tremulousness, bent on a kind of journey which I felt began to “flow” more freely as the first-movement cadenza approached – the orchestra then proclaimed and the pianist responded, the display exhibiting a marvellous gathering of flowering energy, the confident flourishes conveying to us that the Mozartean “oil” had begun to flow.  In the slow movement which followed, every piano note resounded and shone, with both clarinet and then flute in response to the piano so eloquent, and the bassoon so steadfast in support. The playing’s rapt togetherness created an intensity from which the winds gave us some relief, some gorgeous quintessential Le Nozze di Figaro-like moments enabling us to breathe more freely before immersing ourselves once again in the music’s deeper waters, with the piano and then the winds leaving us spellbound once more, right to the movement’s end.

Played almost attacca, here, Irons set the finale on its course with supreme poise, the effect playful rather than breathless or thrusting, the phrases and rhythms having real girth – some listeners may have wanted a touch more rumbustion in the galumphing, two-note descending figures, but I enjoyed the “spin” of the rhythms, and the “delighted” interaction between the soloist and various sections of the orchestra. Irons’ occasional impishly energised impulses brough such life to places such as her perky interchange with the winds just before the final recapitulation of the opening – both the relish with which she then launched this concluding paragraph of the music, and the enthusiasm with which McKeich and the players responded, underlined for us the pleasure of its overall presentation, the musicians’ efforts warmly received at the work’s conclusion.

I had previously heard (and reviewed) a performance of Jonathan McPhee’s “reduced orchestra” version of Firebird before, presented by Orchestra Wellington in May 2017, one which on that occasion presented an orchestra seemingly at the top of its game, a “spectacularly-realised performance” (to quote the Middle C writer!). I’ve not been able to ascertain whether, amidst these somewhat astringent times, that concert was actually recorded by RNZ technicians, as I believe this present one was – if not, a pity that posterity has denied local music-lovers the chance to compare performances of the same work from Wellington’s two foremost orchestras.

As with the Orchestra Wellington performance (and I shan’t mention the latter again), the great glory of this evening’s realisation was that the work was given complete, allowing people familiar with only the “suites” assembled by the composer from the work, to place such excerpts in the context of a glorious performance of the whole ballet. This gave the composer’s idea of using folk-inspired diatonic music to portray his human characters and octatonic and chromatic music for the story’s supernatural characters far greater focus and dramatic ebb-and flow than in a performance of either of the suites. Of course this “great glory” here became like a word made flesh over the course of the work’s unfolding, with conductor and players realising, by turns, every subtlety and shade of atmosphere and detailing while, at the other end of the dynamic range conjuring up the weight and brilliance of the music’s more forthright sequences with incredibly sustained focus and
unflagging energy.

At the beginning the evocation of dark, mysterious space was palpable, the playing enabling the scene’s ambivalent interplay of wonderment and menace to register, preparing the way for the Firebird’s brilliance and her interaction with Prince Ivan, who was able to capture her, before securing a magic feather from her as the price of her freedom – all characterised with a beautiful violin solo from the concertmaster, Vesa-Matti Leppänen, and taken up tenderly by other instruments. Both irrepressible gaiety and youthful grace marked the accompaniments for the Twelve Princesses, whose Round Dance was accompanied by the fresh folksiness of the Borodin-like oboe melody, courtesy of Robert Orr. The strings’ taking up of the melody was superb, at the same time liquid and focused – how adroitly McKeich and his players were able to  move between diaphanous delicacy and full-throated feeling, as Ivan and one of the princesses fell in love! Similarly, the trumpet warning set in play a superb transition from these scenes to those depicting the arrival of Koshchey, the ogre, and his followers. As mentioned before, the famous Dance of Koshchey’s Cohorts brilliantly burst from the agitated build-up and wrought appropriate havoc (I loved the trombone glissandi, “rescued” from one of the composer’s “retouched” suites by Jonathan McPhee to great effect here!). And what coruscating playing from the orchestra as the Firebird reappeared! – the music dashing and crashing the dance to its scintillating conclusion.

None of the suites depict the actual destruction of Koshchey’s magic egg and the death of the monster, a sequence whose vivid sequencing here brought about a true sense of cathartic release from oppression, the music burgeoning from its subterranean beginnings to a tumult whose seismic force couldn’t help but move mountains. Then came the famous Berceuse, from out of which, via the golden horn-tones of Sam Jacobs, grew various manifestations of rebirth from the once-besieged land – fabulously and grandly epic phrasings at the first climax, whereupon the music burst forth excitedly and festively as Ivan and his Princess were farewelled by the Firebird and the garden’s rejuvenated inhabitants.

All of this received a properly enraptured reception from a thrilled audience, who were pleased to respond to conductor McKeich’s acknowledgement of his players both individually and collectively with the acclaim they deserved. Somebody said to me as we walked out of the hall, “Well! – if the orchestra can do that so wonderfully, isn’t it about time we had a complete Daphnis et Chloe, with a chorus? What an occasion THAT would be, with playing like this!” I couldn’t have agreed more!