Wellington Youth Orchestra and Andrew Joyce take on quintessential Beethoven and Dvořák

Wellington Youth Orchestra presents:
LEONORE – Music by Beethoven and Dvořák

BEETHOVEN – Overture No. 3 “Leonore” Op.72 No.1c
DVORAK – Symphony No. 6 in D Major Op.60

Andrew Joyce (conductor)
Wellington Youth Orchestra

St.James’ Anglican Church, Lower Hutt

Saturday 31st July 2021

Today’s concert given by the Wellington Youth Orchestra in Lower Hutt’s Anglican Church of St James seemed to me a fascinating instance of a certain event’s “atmosphere” influencing one’s reaction to musical performance. I say this in comparing today’s concert with a not-so-long-ago occasion at the same venue and involving the same players, albeit with a different conductor – though I didn’t think the latter a significant factor in the difference between the two events.

Something about the “Transatlantic” concert in May obviously drew what seemed like an excitedly burgeoning churchful of people, all of whom seemed palpably determined to enjoy what they were about to hear – one could feel the anticipation bubbling away well before the start! To be fair, it was a fantastic programme, one whose delightful prospects would literally have jumped out in front of any potential or prospective audience member with a “Well, are you coming?” aspect of enticement before one knew where one was! Just where many of those same people were today I found it puzzling to comprehend, though a relatively unfamiliar Symphony by Dvorak, however much of a treasure waiting to be more widely appreciated, perhaps wasn’t on paper going to quicken the blood of the orchestra’s regular fans in quite the same way as did the May concert’s items.

That amalgam of audience presence and expectation is one of the reasons that a good “live concert” performance of any music invariably feels more exciting, more vital and connective than does a recording of the same, however expertly played.  Today’s concert, by dint of having a smallish, and largely “spread-out” audience simply didn’t for me have at the start the previous occasion’s electric charge, that trace of “something in the air” producing preliminary crackle and cumulative excitement. All (or nearly all) the notes were played, but the excitement that produces uplifting moments was, despite the players best efforts, more of a “sometimes thing” throughout, and invariably hard-won.

Still, there were many moments to enjoy, during the course of both of the concert’s items, the first of which gave the concert its title, the Overture  Leonore No.3 being the third of four attempts by Beethoven to write a satisfactory overture to his opera “Fidelio”– a beautifully-co-ordinated “whoof-like” quality about the Beethoven work’s opening chord, for instance, the heroine’s “Leonore” theme beautifully sounded by the winds before being contrasted briefly with the darkness and stillness of the dungeon imprisoning the hero, Florestan, and the flute seizing the moment and uplifting the mood to one of hope, paving the way for the first of many heroic flourishes that depicted good striving against evil, throughout the work’s course.

Conductor Andrew Joyce drew real exuberance from his players with the allegro’s theme burgeoning into a full-throated roar of intent, one reinforced by the horns’ sudden shaft of light and hope. I thought the upper strings in particular (who faced where I was sitting, almost directly opposite)  maintained this exuberance and purpose in their playing throughout, keeping the trajectories alive and “charged”, up to the moment when Joyce unleashed the terrific surgings of tone that heralded the famous off-stage trumpet call, played here to perfection – Joyce brought out the sounds’ freshness of new expectation, getting a great response from his flutist in her solo’s ever-increasing excitability, and with the strings’ fantastic explosion of spirit goading the rest of the players into action. Though I thought the brass sometimes seemed a shade too relaxed in their rhythmic responses to the beat, they rallied at the end, triumphally carrying the music to its conclusion.

The Dvořák Symphony also began well, its engaging, off-beat rhythm gurgling away on the winds, over which the strings got to “float” the movement’s principal theme, a lovely, free-as-air idea – if the same players had to then work hard at energising the music to prepare for the melody’s return on the full orchestra, it got to make its impact – Joyce gave us the repeat which allowed us to hear the opening all over again, bringing out even more the strength of the band’s  first violin section (the two front-desk players like veritable forces of nature in their determination to “sound” their lines).

The winds, too, showed their mettle at the development’s beginning, oboes taking the lead, echoed beautifully by the flutes and clarinets, an “echt-Czech” moment readily summonsing up “Bohemia’s Woods and Fields”, and continuing the pastoral feeling throughout the interactions. I thought the brass again strangely reticent in places here, as opposed to the excitingly “up-front” feeling the same players had  conveyed throughout the previous concert (which, incidentally, I PROMISE not to mention again!) – but the music’s gradual build-up of all forces (including splendidly-sounded timpani) awakened their instincts, and they delivered sonorously at the movement’s recapitulation!

The slow movement was captivating at the outset, the winds and strings beautifully floating the sounds over a gently undulating atmosphere – inexplicably, the horn failed to take up the strings’ melody, but the music’s pulse was steadfastedly maintained, and the exchanges continued, the clarinet contributing a beautiful solo and the horn then making amends with a similar appearance – and I thought the violas “sounded “ their turn with the recurring melody so tenderly and well! The movement’s brief but telling moment of minor-key darkness came and went like clouds obscuring the sunlight, with the strings (this time gratefully answered by the horn!) giving the melody full-throated treatment, allowing the emotion its head before the soft, crepuscular ending was wrought by the winds and sensitively-sounded timpani – the composer could be forgiven for allowing one last forceful reiteration of such an appealing tune before the end!

Nowhere in this work is Dvořák more “Bohemian” than with the Scherzo, whose main body is a Furiant, an exciting, quick-moving dance-form seeming to move between two-four and three-four rhythm. Joyce kept his players on their toes throughout, varying the dynamics in an ear-catching way, and delineating the trajectories firmly, even if again I thought the brasses not as quickly-reflexed as were the rest of the players, being left slightly behind the beat at the impetuous coda’s end. The more relaxed trio was an absolute delight, the winds so AIRILY pastoral-sounding, and the accompaniments at once playful and deliciously indolent.

Uncharacteristically, the strings’ ensemble came slightly adrift during the crescendoed section of the finale’s introduction, the conductor expertly bringing them all back together once the first big ”tutti” had shaken the rhythms down and sorted out the trajectories! Joyce kept the music going through the second subject, deliciously and dancingly played by the winds, the strings playing their hearts out, sometimes roughing up their intonations, the brass coming to their rescue with a stirring call to arms that brought the recapitulation, the music swirling, the winds doing famously, the strings now sounding a bit tired, but rallying with astounding rhythmic point and energy by way of introducing the work’s outrageous presto coda – what a blast! Though the ensemble couldn’t quite match the introduction’s fire and energy, the players summonsed up all their reserves and raced their way to the music’s end – as dogged as energetic, but achieving the discharge of the music’s spirit. We couldn’t really mirror the musicians’ sounds with our applause, but we did our best to convey our appreciation of such heartfelt efforts!





Sonata and Revolution – pianist Liam Furey at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace


Ludwig van Beethoven Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major, Op. 110
Alban Berg Piano Sonata in B minor Op. 1
Pierre Boulez Sonata no. 1 (1946 (movement 1), “Lent – Beaucoup plus allant”
Frederic Chopin Ballade no 1. in G minor, Op. 23

Liam Furey (piano)

St. Andrews on the Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday, 28th July 2021

Liam Furey is an Honours student of Classical Piano and Composition at the NZ School of Music. This ambitious program was a journey of exploration  by a young musician. He invested an incredible effort into memorizing this wide ranging music, which he considered essential to the understanding of these pieces as the theme of “Sonata and Revolution”.

Ludwig van Beethoven Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major, Op. 110

This is the middle of the last three sonatas of Beethoven and in some ways the most difficult of them with its huge double fugue in its last movement. It is a profound piece that may require a lifetime of contemplation, but you have to start somewhere and challenging as it might have been, Liam Furey took the trouble to master it. He called on his audience to get behind the notes, to consider the pauses, the phrases, the contrasts, the riotous levity of the second movement and the dark undertone of the final movement.

Alban Berg Piano Sonata in B minor Op. 1

Berg, under the influence of Schoenberg, explored new harmonies, chromaticism, yet he intended this piece to be in traditional sonata form in B minor. To understand music that preceded it it was instructive to view it in light of what followed. Berg’s beautiful sonata shed light on Beethoven.

Pierre Boulez Sonata no. 1 (1946 (movement 1), “Lent – Beaucoup plus allant”

This is the first of Boulez’s three piano sonatas. He wrote it when he was 21, while studying with Messiaen and under the influence of the music of Schoenberg and René Leibowitz. He experimented with sounds and effects that can be produced on the piano. He sought the rhythmic element of perfect atonality.  This short work is in two movements, with no thematic material, but contrasting sound effects. By 1946 the world moved on a long way from Beethoven and the soundscape of the great composers of the previous century. Boulez, like some of his contemporaries, asked questions about the nature of music. It is these questions that Liam Furey set out to investigate.

Frederic Chopin Ballade no 1. in G minor, Op. 23

With this, one of Chopin’s most popular pieces, we returned to the main stream repertoire. Somehow, after listening to Boulez and Berg, we listened more attentively, and the work proved to be the appropriate climax of the concert. This old warhorse sounded fresh. There were a lot of notes in this piece and lots of Polish passion. Liam Furey played it with feeling, had the music well under control. It was a beautiful way to end a concert of exploration which involved a journey from the first quarter of the nineteenth century to middle of the twentieth, from rules of harmony and form to atonality.

One of the great features of these Wednesday lunchtime recitals is that it gives a platform to young, emerging musicians, who need such opportunities, and for the audience the opportunity to explore, discover and celebrate.

Liam Wooding – Reflections and Connections at Woburn’s St.Mark’s Church, Lower Hutt

Chamber Music Hutt Valley presents:

DOUGLAS LILBURN – Sonata for Piano in F-sharp Minor (1939)
STUART GREENBAUM – Remote Connection (2021)
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN – Sonata for Piano in C-sharp Minor Op.27. No.2 “Moonlight”
DUKE ELLINGTON – Reflections in D (1953)
CLAUDE DEBUSSY – Images, Book 1 (1905)
1. Reflects dans l’eau  2. Hommage a Rameau  3. Mouvement
JOHN ADAMS – Phrygian Gates (1977)

Liam Wooding (piano)

St.Mark’s Church, Woburn, Lower Hutt

Tuesday, 27th July 2021

Music today has a lot to thank Franz (Ferenc) Liszt for. Among his achievements throughout a life devoted to performing, composing, teaching, promoting, and collegially supporting and encouraging the art-form is his single-handed invention of the phenomenon we know today as “the piano recital”. On June 9th,1840, in London at Hanover Square, Liszt gave the first of two London concerts that were advertised as “recitals”, the first documented occasion on which the word “recital” had been used in describing a musical event (he had previously called his solo concerts “soliloquies”). He had already turned the idea of a concert as was then known on its head, by being the only performer, by the music presenting overall “themes” instead of being hotch-potch collections of unrelated items, and by turning the piano to its side so audiences could see the performer better and the instrument could with its lid opened, project the music more clearly.

How long it might have taken for others to evolve a similar kind of presentation without Liszt will never be known – as with most revolutionary developments in all human endeavour, surprise seems to be a regular and necessary component, one which Liszt certainly utilised at the outset of his stellar, if relatively brief, performing career. Since then, little has radically changed (as one might thankfully observe!), the “piano recital” at its best continuing to deliver some of the purest, most unadulterated music-listening experiences available to audiences anywhere. Liszt would have undoubtedly poured his whole being into such presentations to overwhelming effect – and something of that directly-wrought, straight-from-the-shoulder essence of committed performance and recreativity freely emanated from pianist Liam Wooding’s engaging musical personality in St Mark’s Church, Woburn over the course of an evening’s music-making!

The pianist, relaxedly sporting a colourful loose-fitting top which straightway suggested he might be on holiday, rather than “at work”, welcomed us by way of providing a context for the occasion, telling us that this was the “last stop” stop of a ten-venue tour of the country, which was another way of saying that he’d gotten to know the pieces well!  He didn’t “announce” each piece individually (his own, simply-expressed, and to-the-point programme notes told us all we needed to know as an introduction to each item), merely informing us that there would be an interval after the Beethoven Sonata. The rest he would obviously be expressing via the music!

First up was the remarkable 1939 Piano Sonata in F-sharp Minor by Douglas Lilburn. In Wooding’s hands the music’s opening Lento readily burgeoned with emotional impulses amid evocations of familiar landscapes, to my ears a prophetic precursor in sound and intent of the forces that produced the remarkable flowering of the performing arts in this country over a decade hence. Throughout, the music freely alternated between purposeful rhythmic structure and spontaneously-evolving spaces, allowing impulses, gesturings and tones to play, interact and resonate.  With playing as committed and passionate as here from Wooding, I thought these full-toned utterances beautifully defined by dint of contrast the intensities of their opposites, such as found in the magically withdrawn sequences leading to the brief but achingly lyrical coda to the movement.

The Theme-and-Variations second movement began with a chant-like invocation which readily bore fruit, elaborating on the simple mantra both quizzically and excitably – a wonderful scherzando variation contained that characteristic Lilburn rhythmic snap, while a further one exuded bumptious, angular qualities, markedly contrasting with a subsequent show of keyboard brilliance! – in response, a bell-like sequence prettily danced its approval. Came a more sober minor-key-change, filled with nostalgia, the composer listening to his world with deeply-moving feeling, before activation once again by a running figure, one insouciantly inventive! – a brief presto display of bravado and the journey was finished – obviously, a significant work still needing to come into its own, if here given the kind of advocacy that makes such things happen!

Australian composer Stuart Greenbaum’s freshly-conceived (2021) Remote Connection, was written for Wooding, the piece a response by the composer to the pandemic privations of 2020, a year of “remote connection” for many people. While directly evoking the technical manifestations of various electronic connecting devices at the start, the music also grew a wider realm of human interaction and emotional response to isolation and loneliness. Throughout, Wooding patiently brought out the work’s contrastings of the machine-like figures with long-held, deep-breathing chords, the more animated figures seeming to develop anxieties of their own in places, gesturings beset by impatience and insistence amid the different variants of touchingly human response. The jazzy, almost boogie-woogie trajectories at the end seemed almost nihilistic in their exuberance and exhilaration, perhaps speaking for desperate people tempted into doing desperate things…..

Wooding took us then to a different age’s manifestation of human isolation and loneliness, via Beethoven’s renowned “Moonlight” Sonata, one, of course, forever “coloured” by the famous contemporary description of the first movement’s undulations as resembling moonlight on lake waters, a remark which conveniently passed over the agitated violence of the final movement’s character. In his notes Wooding very properly quoted (and agreed with) fellow-pianist Michael Houstoun’s thoughts on the work as “relentlessly dark” and “violently black”, although here, his playing of the eponymous first movement seemed to me strangely contained to the point of inhibition, scarcely hinting at any deeper, darker undercurrents – an adagio that I thought needed more breadth, and a sostenuto that wanted more depth and blackness of tone.

Oddly enough these things manifested themselves readily In the two movements that followed – an Allegretto “spooked” by some of its own phrase-endings, and a Presto agitato that was just that! The latter movement I thought took time to “settle”, with the first couple of upward runs slightly muddying the two concluding notes’ whiplash sforzando effect, but the rest were most excitingly and (in one instance towards the end) even wildly brought off. After such coruscations an interval seemed like an excellent idea!

We came back to a different world, one of dreamily impressionist sounds emanating firstly from Duke Ellington’s appropriately-titled piece Reflections in D, many of whose familiar, jazzily-tinted gesturings may well have been “invented” by this same composer. In his programme note Wooding told us that an idea of “pairing” Ellington’s work with that of another composer, Claude Debussy, came from the work of an American pianist and composer, Timo Andres, who made video recordings during the pandemic underlining the links between Debussy’s works and Ellington’s material. An example was straightaway forthcoming – the seamless “running together” of the latter’s Reflections in D with Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau from Book 1 of Images, clearly demonstrating “the Duke’s” drawing from Debussy’s work, with whole phrases from the former’s piece seeming to readily align themselves with the latter’s delicately impressionist-sounding evocations.

Both pieces enchanted by turns, Wooding’s superbly-crafted playing encapsulating the “movement of stillness” world conveyed by the play of light upon watery surfaces and the disruptive animations of the fountain’s sparkling turbulence, with a nostalgic note at the end suggesting a farewell of sorts, perhaps one to the day via a sunset, or to a friend or lover in the wake of a passionate encounter…..

I’ve always been somewhat intrigued by the second Image, Hommage à Rameau, looking in vain for a reference to some motivic quotation from the earlier composer’s music, and finally figuring out that the piece is far more abstract, any such connection being expressed by the use of a solemn and serious Sarabande (a processional dance-form often used by Baroque composers to express significant and meaningful ideas and feelings). Debussy was one of the editors of a planned complete Rameau Edition, and was working on the latter’s opera Les Fêtes de Polymnie when he wrote the first Book of Images. Here, he seemed to me to awaken “ghosts” from the past, whole entourages of bygone grandeur made to live again, Wooding’s resonant playing allowing us full access to the glory and enduring resonance of one composer’s tribute to another.

What a contrast with the following Mouvement, here, the pianist’s playing brilliantly embodying the music’s title, building the crescendo leading up to the ebulliently-sounded fanfare motif, and taking us on a mercurial harmonic exploration throughout the piece’s central panoplies of sound before whirly-gigging us on to a feathery-fingered conclusion.

And so we were brought to the evening’s final item, John Adams’ monumentally self-defining minimalist work “Phrygian Gates” (the composer called it his true “Opus 1” as representing his first “mature composition” exhibiting a “personal style”. I had never heard this particular piece before (Wooding voiced the view that the work’s performances on his tour were the first heard in this country), so it was, for me, an absorbing journey of discovery, over twenty minutes of mesmeric repeated-note rhythmic and harmonic exploration which cycled its way through six of the twelve key-centres of the “circle of fifths” on a more-or-less nonstop tour.

Adams has stated that the piece requires a pianist of considerable physical endurance and sustaining capabilities, and Wooding seemed to fulfil those criteria to an astounding degree – I could detect no sign of flagging of either energy or concentration throughout the work’s entire span, and marvelled at what seemed like his complete identification with and focus upon the music’s myriad variation of impulse, colour and intensity, in places mesmeric scintillations of delicate light-and shade, while in others harrowing, agitated hammerings of dark purpose!  A “proper” musician would, as a listener, have doubtless registered the piece’s on-going technicalities of sequence and change and perhaps even predicted what was to follow, whereas my untrained sensibilities revelled in the frisson created by so many unexpected moments of stimulation, and relished to the full the “epic” experience of the work’s scale and outreach.

Afterwards I reflected on my Middle C colleague Anne French’s single comment regarding the same recital she had attended in Wellington a few days before, at St.Andrew’s – mindful of my plans to attend this concert and not wanting to unduly influence my reaction, all she conveyed to me by way of her impression of Liam Wooding’s playing was “Wow!” All I can say by way of appropriate response is “Absolutely fair comment!”

Monstrous and idiosynchrophiliac goings-on with Stroma at Wellington’s Bats Theatre

Stroma presents:
IDIOSYNCHROPHILIA – Stroma meets invented instruments!

Rosie Langabeer (composer)
Idiosynchrophilia (2021)

Invented instruments devised and built by Neil Feather

Stroma – conducted by Mark Carter
Daniel Beban, Erika Grant, Neil Feather (invented instruments)
Anna van der Zee (violin), Andrew Thomson (viola), Ken Ichinose (‘cello)
Alexander Gunchenko (double bass), Shannon Pittaway (bass trombone),
Todd Gibson-Cornish (bassoon) Thomas Guldborg, Lenny Sakofsky (percussion)

The Heyday Dome, Bats Theatre, 1 Kent Terrace, Wellington

Sunday 25th July, 2021

The perils of reviewer-conviviality are never so real as when one attends a concert of contemporary music, and sits next to someone in the audience one knows by sight but has never had a chance to talk with seriously, so most pleasantly spends the entire pre-concert time getting properly acquainted, as a result of which one completely forgets to read the concert’s programme notes before the lights are dimmed and the music gets under way!

Being thus plunged into the sound-world of an intriguingly and unconventionally “new” piece of music certainly put me on my mettle, especially as my “reviewing-brief” involved the substance of the presentation and its outcomes and the production of a dissertation of sorts on the same!  I knew beforehand that the concert featured at least three “invented” musical instruments, the work of one Neil Feather (also one of the musicians), for which an accompanying “soundscape” inspired by 1960s “monster” movies had been wrought by composer Rosie Langabeer. The fact that the contemporary music ensemble Stroma was involved also suggested that there would be interactions between these “deliciously idiosyncratic” inventions and conventional instruments of the kind any concertgoer would be familiar with – string, wind, brass, percussion instruments – perhaps!

I wasn’t entirely sure of my ground when it came to thinking about 1960s “monster movies” – though I had lived through that era, I was a timid, largely unadventurous moviegoer, who avoided anything “scary” through being prone to nightmares and other uncontrollable imaginings. I presumed there would be lots of “creepy” sounds with plenty of ominous ambiences and sudden dynamic irruptions designed to stimulate equally calamitous and involuntary bodily mechanisms to do with fright! In order to get more in alignment with the composer in this matter I googled the “monster movies” genre, pondering over what I’d missed in my formative years when reading descriptions such as “atomic mutants, monstrous throwbacks, monsters made and/or controlled by mad scientists, animal-man combinations, scientists who transform themselves into monsters, the various species of resurrected dead, and creatures from outer space, including alien parasites”.

Conversely, when the music actually began I instantly felt on familiar territory – was not that baleful bass trombone sound over sinister percussion a first cousin of Fafner, the mighty giant-turned-dragon from Wagner’s Siegfried? The sequence was repeated, with strings reinforcing the trombone, and on a third repetition Erica Grant began to tremulously activate the Nondo, a large sheet steel string instrument, which was resonated with strikers, and further activated by the rolling of a steel pole across (near invisible) strings stretched from end-to-end , the sounds electronically amplified – in fact I thought at first the pole was magnetised and seemed to “balance itself” mid-air with the help of attracting/repulsing forces! I thought in places of Len Lye’s famous steel-sheet installation in New Plymouth which I’d seen and heard a number of years ago, now, the timbres as remarkable as there but uniquely “here”, and responsive to different kinds of touches from the player, wonderfully cavernous sounds as well as delicate ones.

I ought to remark at this point that audience involvement in these gesturings couldn’t help but be total and visceral, due to the auditorium’s wonderfully-raked seating, giving every person a clear view of what the various players were doing – obviously the venue, which I had never been to previously, is something of a treasure!

The room’s immediacies were underlined when, at one point the wind and string players were goaded into launching a violent, positively seismic tutti, to which another player, Dan Beban, responded with his Vibrowheel activation, impressive in a “miniature” sense to view, and belying its size to listen to a “Mutt and Jeff” kind of comparison with the voluminous and visibly-impassive Nondo! As the latter was again roused by its player, Erica Grant. the timpani rumbled in a more spontaneously-interactive way, transferring energies towards both the bassoonist and the strings, the latter essaying eerie glissandi whose sense of unease proves a precursor to more demonstrably threatening sounds,  abrasive, fractured, and almost anarchic utterances from trombone, double bass and bassoon.

Diverting the menace somewhat was the activation of the third “invented instrument”, this one by its actual creator, Neil Feather – the Wiggler consisted of four wires stretched horizontally between two metal bars laid flat, creating a Koto-like, or dulcimer-like playing aspect, but with the wires activated by metal rods laid upon or balanced at right angles in the space between the iron bars – the rods were dropped/bounced upon or balanced in between the wires, and allowed to bounce on, and scrape against the same, gently or more forcefully as the scenario required – almost the “music of industry” seemed to resonate from this arrangement, factory-like in its repetitions, but also delicate and natural in its evocation of gentler impulses, a “music is where you find it” realisation…..

As the Wiggler was put through its paces (the ensemble percussionists took their respective triangles for a walk in separate directions at this point, possibly as a dissociative gesture!), the ensemble “crept” its diverse sounds in “under the radar”, with the strings in lament-like mode , a spell broken, intentionally or otherwise with a start-inducing crash from the vicinity of the Nondo, Erica Grant unable to supress a smile at this point as if she’d pre-planned the disturbance.

I’ve not mentioned the presentation’s notable lighting properties up to this point – artfully atmospheric and, I think, gradually morphing between different tones – but suddenly there was a marked change of atmosphere and lighting, and the ensemble immediately struck up a sentimental dance-tune, complete with wire-brush percussion accompaniment, most divertingly and engagingly delivered, the trombonist phrasing the leading melody superbly! The strings took over the tune’s first part and the bassoon and trombone concluded the phrase with some smart dovetailing!

“Time for you and time for me, and for the taking of a toast and tea” the music seemed to say, when another abrupt lighting change and a dissolution of sounds into something metallic and mechanical “flicked a switch” to a kind of “noises off” or “underbelly” scenario. Most disconcerting!  The scenarios then switched backwards and forwards from dance-scene to Nibelungen-like slave-labour industry, with each switch inducing a more desperate and anarchic feeling. A change back to the dance scene then introduced a more “hep to the jive” rhythm, the muted bass trombone sounding what seemed like a reminiscence of a 1960s television action programme, and the bassoonist out of his chair and wielding his instrument like some kind of Grim Reaper with his scythe!

Conductor Mark Carter abruptly left the podium at this point, leaving the musicians at odds with the activated “invented” instruments, whose sounds died away as the lights dimmed for the last time. Altogether it seemed like a kind of dissolution of order, and a leaving of things to nature at the eventual silencing of the machines. Whatever impressions of intent were at large, the audience’s reaction to the performance was unalloyed delight, both at its manifest entertainment value and its idiosyncrophiliac singularity.

Afterwards, at home I read the programme! – it was there! – the ominous awakening of a monster somewhere deep in the underground, followed by its pursuit of a gradual path of destruction through both nature and civilisation, ending in human oblivion. As to the place of spontaneity and improvisation in the work, such was the freedom with which the musicians brought the sounds into being, it all gave the impression of the musicians being “played” by the piece as much as playing it. I was fascinated by the manipulations of the “invented” instruments, even if I thought the Vibrowheel a tad under-represented in the work, compared with the others.

Though I didn’t feel the ‘idiosynchrophiliac” instruments integrated musically with the ensemble’s monster scenario, that perhaps wasn’t the point of what the exercise was all about – what remained in my mind was a sense of spontaneous creation and recreation having random and unexpected outcomes exhibited by all facets of the presentation, from nature’s own “dimension cleft in twain” manifestation of chaos (arguably representative of a virus waiting to strike, as well), to seemingly innocuous if titillating sound ambiences wrought from invented machines – manifestations of unpredictability from which we can each draw our own conclusions.

“The Long Day Closes” – Mozart, with “Evening Music and Lullabies” from the Bach Choir of Wellington

Mozart Vesperae Solennes de Confessore, K339
Evening Music and Lullabies by Franck, Brahms, JS Bach, Karg-Elert, Haydn, Lauridsen, Whitacre, Sullivan and David Hamilton

The Bach Choir of Wellington
Music Director:  Shawn Michael Condon
Accompanist:  Douglas Mews
Vocal Soloists: Shaunagh Chambers (soprano), Kate Manahi (mezzo), LJ Crichton (tenor), Samuel McKeever (bass)

St Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace

Saturday, 24 July 2021

This was a concert of two halves, as they say in rugby. The first half consisted of the advertised Mozart Solemn Vespers, and the second half consisted of ‘Evening Music and Lullabies’, on the basis, I suppose, that Vespers is the evening prayer service, one of the Canonical Hours in the Catholic liturgy, although you wouldn’t find any of these items following a Catholic Vespers. But more of this later.

The liturgical Vespers consists of five psalms, preceded by a chant and followed by the Magnificat, with the doxology (‘Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto…’) at the end of every psalm. Mozart wrote this Vespers for the Cathedral of Salzburg in 1780. It is scored SATB with a small orchestra including two trumpets and three trombones, basso continuo plus organ, but in this case Douglas Mews substituted for everything.

For the first half of the concert, the choir was stationed in the gallery of St Andrews, around the organ. This must have been a bit of a squeeze, because there are nearly 60 of them, plus four soloists. I couldn’t see how cramped they were, though, because I was sitting at the front of the back half of the seating, facing forwards. The front half of the seating had been rearranged to face inwards, separated by a narrow aisle.

I was in St Andrew’s a few weeks ago for the terrific Inspirare concert, where the choir (all 18 of them) sang from the choir loft, but that evening all the downstairs seating faced backwards.  In both cases, putting the choir up in the gallery worked well. Now that St Andrew’s has thrown a cool three million at the organ, we can probably expect more of it. It strikes me that the choir sound is enhanced by singing upstairs, even in a dryish acoustic.

In any event, I was waiting for the choir’s first note with slight trepidation. The Bach Choir was once an excellent choir, but it fell on hard times. ‘What do they sound like these days under Shawn Condon?’ I wondered. Much, much better is the answer. The first phrase of the ‘Dixit Dominus’ was full and confident; the second higher and louder. The choir’s sound had a fuzzy quality, a bit like peach fuzz, which I found oddly beautiful. With a choir of sixty, it’s easier to sing loudly than quietly, and very hard to sing exactly together, so the fuzz was probably the result of dozens of tiny inexactnesses. Still, the opening filled me with confidence. This was going to be a great concert.

And so it proved. There were four soloists supporting the choir, all young singers at the start of their careers. The soprano gets the most work, being given the well-known Laudate Dominum (aka Psalm 117) with the choir as backing group. In this case, it was Shaunagh Chambers who was doing the full Kiri. She is in her honours year at New Zealand School of Music, where she is taught by Jenny Wollerman and Margaret Medlyn. She has a lovely voice for Mozart, bright and agile, and she sang the few florid passages she was granted with athleticism, plus Wollerman-like precision and beauty. But the other soloists were no slugs, even though they had hardly anything to do. I was especially taken with the delicious dark sound of Samuel McKeever, the bass soloist. He is a graduate of Project Prima Volta and recently performed with the NZSO. Tenor Lila Crichton was also great, and mezzo Kate Manahi, like the tenor and bass, a Project Prima Volta graduate, has a glorious voice. They sounded beautiful together in their quartet passages.

Early on the choir’s diction was rather muddy, but it had improved by the time they got to the doxology of the second psalm, Confiteor tibi. The dynamics were somewhat samey at first with a lot of mf and not much else until the third psalm, Beatus vir. Here the soloists sang as a quartet, and the choir’s first entry was a bit pallid after their brilliant tone. The basses begin No 4 Laudate pueri, but the tenors follow straight after. There are currently 12 basses in the choir but only six tenors, yet the tenors sounded gorgeous: they have a completely unified sound, young and fresh, which creates the effect of much bigger forces. The altos, I thought, often sounded underpowered, getting lost in the texture, yet there are 17 of them.

Mozart’s Magnificat in this Vespers is not subtle: word-painting applied by trowel. By the time they got to ‘quia respexit’ the choir was giving it plenty of welly, and the tenor section briefly overblew. But the soloists came to their rescue. Though the women nearly came to grief in ‘dispersit’, they were brought into cohesion in ‘Abraham et semini eius’ which sounded definitive. The soloists led into the doxology, followed by the choir. The tenors were briefly a bit on the rough side – pushing too hard? And then it was over.

The pieces in the second half of the concert were a mixed bag. It opened with César Franck’s setting of Psalm 150, a gorgeous thing, with the choir accompanied by the organ. The work was composed to inaugurate the new organ at the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles in Paris, and was scored for organ, choir, and orchestra. The aim is to show off the capabilities of the organ, and Douglas Mews did a splendid job; supported by the choir, with fluting sopranos and the men lyrical and majestic by turns.

Next came my favourite work of the concert, a very Brahmsian rendering of ‘Wie lieblich sint deine Wohningen’, the most performed movement from the German Requiem. They sang in great rolling waves of sound, with the altos sometimes getting lost in the texture, and then found again. The basses sounded splendid. The subito piano was dramatic, and the occasional drop in tuning (a loss of energy at the ends of phrases) went almost unnoticed.

Then came an organ and chorus version of Bach’s ‘Nun danket alle Gott’ from BWV 79 which seemed a bit antique after the lush chords of the Brahms, with the choir singing the harmonized hymn tune and the organ providing all the elaborations. I wondered why it was here, out of time and not very ‘evening’ in theme; but before I had formed the thought it was attaca Karg-Elert’s rowdy setting of the same tune as a triumphal march, in case the Bach had put anyone to sleep. It was a magisterial showing off of everything the refurbished organ can do. Douglas Mews must have eleven arms.

The choir moved downstairs, and stood at the front of the church to sing David Hamilton’s ‘God be in my head’, a movement from a mass written for the choirs of Westlake Boys and Girls schools. I was surprised to see that the Bach Choir is older than it sounds. (In my day, the Bach Choir comprised under-35s.) The Hamilton was a capella and more challenging, but they sang it sweetly and simply, heads mostly buried in their scores. Mews came down to join them at the piano for Haydn’s ‘Evening Song’, a rare work for accompanied choir that was not commissioned. But it was one choral part song too many for me. This would have been the moment to use the four soloists, who had sung so little.

Next came ‘Sure on this Shining Night’, a poem setting by the American composer and mystic Morten Lauridsen. Shawn Condon was on home turf now; the dynamic indications were clear, the tuning mostly excellent. It was followed by another popular American, Eric Whitacre (b.1970). ‘The Seal Lullaby’ was originally composed for wind ensemble. Whitacre is beloved of choirs, and it’s likely that no one ever lost money by programming him, although I find him light to the point of weightlessness. But the choir sang with conviction.

And still two more works to go! Arthur Sullivan’s ‘The Long Day Closes’ came next. This too would have been great to give the soloists (although there was already too much music for one concert). Or not sing it at all. Still, there were some great low notes from the second basses.

Finally, the last work in the programme, David Hamilton’s arrangement of ‘Hine, e Hine’, a lovely thing that benefited from the assistance of the soloists singing with the choir. Alas, it was over too fast. All in all, a delightful concert that would have been better if it had been shorter.







Henry Purcell’s “Food of Love” at Wellington’s Cathedral of St.Paul

Wellington Cathedral’s TGIF recital series presents:
HENRY PURCELL – Songs and Duets
Anna Sedcole (soprano) / Helene Page (mezzo-soprano)
Michael Stewart (harpsichord)

Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul

Friday, 23rd July 2021

There is a particular pleasure in hearing a duet sung by two voices that are well-matched in timbre, especially when the singers obviously share not only a vocal quality but a musical sensibility and a personal rapport.  Such were the harmonies on offer at this presentation of Purcell songs, performed by old friends Anna Sedcole and Helene Page, and accompanied fluently and unobtrusively on harpsichord by Michael Stewart, the Cathedral’s Director of Music, who also happens to be married to Sedcole — completing the sense of a musical afternoon among friends.  At its best, the concert felt almost spontaneous, as if the three felt a common impulse to burst into song. Such a carefree effect, of course, bespeaks careful and devoted preparation.

The recital opened with “Music for a while” from the incidental music to Oedipus, sung by Page in a warm but austere mezzo-soprano reminiscent of a Baroque recorder. While the vast vertical space of the Cathedral did its best to swallow her low notes, she made a compelling case for the “beguiling” properties of music, which was amply borne out by the next two numbers, “Let us wander” and “Lost is my quiet.” Here we got to appreciate fully how well-suited the two voices were to each other, each striking overtones off the other that showcased Purcell’s harmonies beautifully.  Ornaments and fast-moving passages were clearly articulated for the audience to appreciate.  Next came “If music be the food of love,” showcasing Sedcole’s agile, flute-like soprano.  I especially appreciated her sensitive dynamics (again not easy given the voracity of the space) and bright, clean articulation, so necessary in this music (and the polar opposite of the viscous legato required for the Russian choral repertoire the singer would be performing the following night as a member of the Tudor Consort!).

Page then returned and the two sang a gorgeous love duet, “My dearest, my fairest,” making the most of long, languishing melismas, suspensions, resolutions, and a hocketing “no, no” at the end that recalled bird song (and made one wonder whether a tragic ending was secretly encoded in this otherwise idyllic pastoral-sounding romance.  Having now looked up the play for which Purcell wrote this song, Pausanias, the betrayer of his country: a tragedy by Richard Norton, I find it indeed precedes a scene in which the eponymous hero’s lover, Pandora, attempts to seduce his lieutenant — so Purcell seems to have caught the mood here exceptionally well).

A slight technical malfunction in the harpsichord recalled us to Michael Stewart’s labours at the keyboard, and afforded an opportunity to marvel a second time at the family likeness between Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus and the opening bars of the next duet, “Sound the trumpet” (from Come Ye Sons of Art, one of the odes Purcell wrote to commemorate the birthday of Queen Mary II in 1694).  Appropriately jubilant, it was sung with fine rhythm, vigour, and precision, and went with a swing.  The next piece was a total contrast in all but the technical excellence of the performance: the slow, melancholy and poignant “O Solitude,” sung by Helene Page in a tender legato which reminded one of liquid honey, the vocal decorations — mordents and small trills — offered to the listener precise and unhurried.

The final two songs, both duets, were drawn from King Arthur, an opera I’m now extremely curious to see performed in its “Restoration spectacular” entirety.  The first of these, a duet of shepherdesses entitled “Shepherd, shepherd, leave decoying” was the highlight of the program for me: witty and nimble. I would have placed it last on the program instead of “Two daughters of this aged stream” (a song for two sirens), whose more languid tempo and theme (and final refrain of “And circle round, and circle round”) suggested intrigue rather than peroration.  Intrigue, however, was there none; the performers ended their recital promptly at the destined hour, leaving their audience satisfied but not surfeited with Baroque harmonies.

Ravel and Bartók make companionable and stimulating piano-and-percussion bedfellows in stunning NZSM Adam Concert Room performances

Te Kōkī  NZ School of Music presents:
RAVEL – Rapsodie Espagnole (arr. 2 pianos and percussion)
BARTÓK – Sonata for 2 pianos and percussion SZ110

Gabriela Glapska and Jian Liu (pianos)
Sam Rich and Naoto Segawa (percussion)

Adam Concert Room, Victoria University of Wellington

Friday 23rd July 2021

While waiting in the foyer for the Adam Concert Room to be opened for the NZSM concert, and pricking up my ears to flute snippets from Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and trumpet phrases from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade being practised by students in an adjoining studio, I couldn’t help but reflect on the charm and delight of experiencing such a “music-in-the-air” ambience about where I was and what was about to happen – a free concert of great music given by some of New Zealand’s finest musicians, at this particular time balm for the soul in the midst of a sea of troubles.

With its various series of lunchtime concerts, and a more-or-less constant flow of music and theatre presentations on all sides, Wellington still remains a wellspring of artistic endeavour, and particularly in music, despite the privations of ongoing earthquake strengthening operations at much-loved and -missed venues such as the Town Hall, St.James’ Theatre and the Sacred Heart Basilica in Hill St.

For various reasons the Adam Concert Room has been a godsend over the years, enabling Te Kōkī  NZ School of Music to showcase the talents of both its students and their tutors, the latter highly-esteemed performers in their own right, and apparently inexhaustible in their efforts to advance music’s cause in diverse contexts around the capital.

This latest concert provided a mouth-watering opportunity to hear “live” one of the most renowned of twentieth-century chamber music classics, Bartók’s Sonata for 2 pianos and percussion, together with another earlier “classic”, Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole, here served up in a relatively unfamiliar guise via an arrangement presumably made by German percussionist Peter Sadlo.  The four “star performers” on this occasion were pianists Gabriela Glapska and Jian Liu, with percussionists Sam Rich and Naoto Segawa.

As it turned out, I enjoyed the Ravel at least as much as I did the Bartok, partly, I think, because I was prepared for something of a disappointment with the former – I’d read a lukewarm review of a performance of the Rapsodie in this form given by fairly illustrious names, with the implication being that the results didn’t justify the efforts made by the artists due to the material. I was, however, instantly held in thrall with the intensities generated by the two pianists in their delineations of the opening Prélude à la Nuit’s “heavily-scented pianissimi”, its occasional surges exquisitely coloured by percussion, the players giving the music all the space and sensousness it required – a totally absorbing “sleeping before the awakening” beginning!

Malagueña, too, captivated with its combination of rhythmic verve and sultriness, the pianos dancers and the percussionists guitarists, moving and playing with edge and physicality, leading the music fluently between substance and suggestiveness towards one of Ravel’s enigmatic endings. Even more beguiling was the Habanera which followed (and which particularly captured Manuel de Falla’s admiration for its “Spanish character”), the piece’s languid melancholy here superbly wrought by the musicians, bringing utmost delicacy cheek-by jowl with deep-seated resonance, the gentle tolling of accompanying figures bringing to mind another evocative Ravelian soundscape, that of “Le Gibet” from Gaspard de la Nuit. It all somehow awoke in this listener a nostalgia for the sounds of a distant (and unknown) land where melodies and rhythms mingled with splashes and slivers of evocation along with deeper, darker imaginings.

Though I thought the “piping” opening theme of the concluding Feria (Fiesta) could have been more incisively delivered by whichever pianist (they both had their backs to me!), it was my only quibble regarding a tour-de force of positively orchestral realisation by the players! We got energetic, detailed, and incisive playing punctuated with great upward flourishes, the dovetailed piano figurations pulsating with energy and the percussion ringing and roaring with uninhibited exhilaration before the music seemed midstream to spectacularly collapse in a smouldering heap!

Amidst the sonic wreckage stirred a plaintive, languorous theme, here played by Liu, and a “sighing” rejoiner, delivered by Glapska, both exuding that characteristic brooding Iberian torpor, holding us in a spell underpinned by the return of the melancholy ostinato figure from the opening of the work, the whole further charged by atmospheric “night noises” from the percussion. Soon, the festive sounds  reawakened the slumbering rhythms, with first the timpani and then side-drum rapping out its insistent figures, and castanets unashamedly joining in with the dance! Such tremendous exuberance from everybody over the last few pages, with even the brief hiatus before the end halting only momentarily the surges of released energy emanating from all sides – a triumph!

So, here was a how-de-do! – would the players be able to “recapture that first fine careless rapture” for the Bartók work after such an energy-sapping display? As it proved all those present were obviously “fired up” for what was about to happen – both Glapska and Liu talked a little with us about the oncoming work , Liu in particular stressing that performing it was for him an exhilarating, if also “frightening” experience!

Bartók’s work was written in 1937, and first performed early the following year by the composer and his second wife, Ditta Pásztory-Bartók, at an  International Society for Contemporary Music anniversary concert in Basel, Switzerland. Besides two pianos and pianists, the work employs two percussionists who play seven instruments between them – timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, snare-drum, tam-tam and xylophone. Bartók as well gave the percussionists numerous detailed playing instructions, besides stipulating the layout of the instruments.

The longest of the three movements began the work, with dark, portentous timpani rolls introducing low, overlapping piano notes from both instruments,  the sombre scenario suddenly set alight by the first of two violent irruptions, each generating a sense of something waiting in the ambient darkness to strike. Gradually the players led the way out of the gloom with a firm grip, judging the acceleration to a nicety, the percussion forward and “present”, each strand properly telling, and playing its part in the delineation of each section’s character.

Trilling piano lines and scampering figurations led from a dotted-rhythm toccata-like sequence to a rollicking, angular section, each player contributing to a kind of juggernaut of sound, tumultuous in effect with energetic piano dovetailings between the players driving a series of great crescendi that burst out brilliantly in fanfare-like figures. What was notable from this performance were the sharply-etched contrasts the musicians brought out from the different episodes, the music falling back from the enormous climax into almost folksongish figurations, underpinned by bell-like percussion sonorities, the piano exchanges wandering for a while in what seemed like ambient wastelands. A side drum roll then led into the Bartókian equivalent of “a devil of a fugue”, hair-raising in its effect, with the heavy percussion excitingly prominent! I thought the forceful angularities of the exchanges at the movement’s end could have been rammed home even more lustfully and with an even greater rhetorical sense of finality, here – (but the “sensationalist within” often gets me over-excited at tumultuous times such as these, so I cautioned him to keep his composure and not over-project)!

Bartók’s “night music” movements are proverbial, and this one was no exception – the players breathtakingly caught both the stillness and the depths of the music’s world. The various rhythmic  impulses that punctuated the soundscape became almost a “processional” of their own, accompanied by chord clusters that morphed into swirling chromatic figures before becoming eerie glissandi, uncovering an element of unease and disquiet at the feral nature of forces in play, before the impulses dissolved into three hushed, beautifully-poised chords at the end.

The attacca which brought the last movement into play burst the sounds about our senses like a firecracker, the xylophone playing especially incisive and almost festive in impact! – I thought the initial theme almost Shostakovich-like in its folkish appeal. The pianists varied their trajectories in places, here  direct and almost business-like, and there, droll and loping, the whole time turbo-charged by the percussive  elements, most satisfyingly “present!” I loved the pianists’ “cake-walk” treatment of the theme, almost a parody, as in the folksy treatment of the music in  the “Concerto for Orchestra” finale,  a sequence which alternated tongue-in-cheek insouciance with rumbustiousness, before exploding into a final, exciting accelerando! That done, Bartok’s little waltz-tune at the end brought smiles of pleasure, as did the unexpected courtliness of the final piano chords and the muttered percussion codicil ending the work!

What a piece, and what a performance! Come to think of it, what a concert! Very great credit and honour to those concerned – Gabriela Glapska, Jian Liu, Sam Rich and Naoto Segawa!






Breathtakingly accomplished piano playing from Ya-Ting Liou at St. Andrew’s

St.Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series 2021

Dimitri Shostakovich: Prelude and Fugue No. 5 in D Major
Franz Schubert: Sonata in C minor, D. 958
Vladimir Horowitz: Carmen Fantasy (after Bizet)

Ya-Ting Liou piano

St. Andrews on the Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday, 21 July, 2021

Although Ya-Ting Liou is a regular visitor to Wellington and plays recitals all over New Zealand, she is hardly recognized among New Zealand’s best known pianists. This is undoubtedly due to her excessive modesty, because she is, without any doubt, technically the most accomplished pianist you are likely to hear.

She opened the programme with Shostakovich’s Prelude and Fugue No. 5. This is not Shostakovich of the Leningrad Symphony. This is Shostakovich introverted, meditating on Bach’s Preludes and Fugues. The Prelude is chorale like, the Fugue is like a clarion call. Ya-Ting Liou gave it a powerful, crystal-clear reading.

The Schubert is a grand powerful work written in the shadow of Beethoven, but Schubert was a very different composer. Whereas Beethoven’s mind set was dramatic Schubert’s was lyrical. He thought of songs, singable melodies. Ya-Ting Liou emphasized the dramatic quality of the piece, the grand chords, the contrasts at the expense of, what I thought, lyricism. It was a valid reading and I appreciated her impeccable playing, but I, with my Middle-European background, would have liked to have more singing, the song-like themes brought out more, with more flexible phrasing. It was a clear, consistent, but somewhat driven performance. Yet it is significant that the work is in C minor, the key of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, his Pathétique Sonata and his 32 Variations, works that suggest disquiet and restlessness and gloom.

The second movement, Adagio, has an air of sadness, while the third movement, Menuetto, is a graceful dance movement, but whatever lightness this might have suggested was banished by the furious Tarantella last movement heading towards darkness. This was Schubert making a grand statement, not the loveable little Schubert with a song in his heart, who was everybody’s friend.

Vladimir Horowitz’s Carmen Fantasy was the highlight of the concert. Horowitz was perhaps the last of the era of pianists basking in their ability to show off their brilliance. It was a time when every middle class home had a piano, many middle class girls, and indeed some boys struggled to master the piano that dominated the parlour. People valued, appreciated sheer virtuosity. Ya-Ting Liou’s playing was just simply breathtaking.

Seldom would one have the opportunity in a lifetime to hear such daemonic brilliance. Yet, when after the concert I complimented Ya-Ting Liou on her playing and complained that I couldn’t find any music played by her on YouTube, she said, with a self-effacing smile, that she couldn’t record anything to make it available for people anywhere,  because her playing is just not good enough – maybe in twenty years’ time!

We must really applaud this superb artist for her modesty. In the meantime make the most of any opportunity to hear her.

Fever’s Candlelight Jazz Standards with Retro Pack at Wellington’s Public Trust Hall

Retro Pack at the Public Trust Hall
Andrew London (guitar); Kirsten London (bass and vocalist); James Tait-Jamieson (saxophone); Lance Philip (drums); and April Phillips (vocalist). 

Public Trust Hall, Stout St, Wellington

Wednesday 21 July, 2021

Jazz is a polarizing genre. For aficionados, it’s all about innovation, pushing the boundaries, expanding the genre whilst respecting its traditions. Technical skill is prized, but always in the service of new ideas. For your average classical concert-goer, it’s pretty much a mystery, and sometimes incomprehensible.

But everyone loves a jazz standard. Jazz musicians know them inside out and sometimes reference them on their way to something else. Every Wellington Jazz Festival includes two or three gigs that incorporate standards in some way – this year Whirimako Black performed ‘Cry Me a River’ and’ Summertime’ alongside traditional Tūhoe waiata, while Ruth Armishaw channelled Ella Fitzgerald at Cable Top.

This concert of jazz standards by candlelight, presented by Fever Original, was commercially well judged. There were two concerts on the same night. I went to the 6.30 pm concert, and the Public Trust Hall was almost full. The audience was pretty mixed in age – from RNZ Concert to the Rogue and Vagabond crowd. Someone had done a great marketing job.

The quintet, billed as the Retro Pack (an indication to expect some Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin), wore dinner suits with bow ties or sparkly dresses. The volume was on the low side for a jazz concert, so it was perfectly comfortable for a non-jazz audience. And the stage area was marked by a bank of electric candles, flickering pleasantly.

Of the members of the Retro Pack, only James Tait-Jamieson (saxophone) and Lance Philip (drums) were familiar to me. Lance Philip has taught percussion in the jazz programme at Massey since the early 1990s and now at NZ School of Music. James Tait-Jamieson is a Massey graduate in saxophone who has also spent time on cruise ships. Lance plays all around town and is always excellent; Tait-Jamieson is a good sax player. The ones I didn’t know were Andrew London, guitar (ex-Hot Club Sandwich); Kirsten London, bass; and April Phillips, vocalist. The Retro Pack goes back to 2002, and the line-up has been remarkably constant over the years, though April Phillips seems to be a recent addition. She is billed elsewhere as a ‘singer, actress, playwright and movie-maker’. She researched, scripted, and delivered all the song intros, and did much of the singing.

The repertoire was, as promised, jazz standards, from the 1920s to the 1960s. The programme began with ‘Summertime’ from Gershwin’s groundbreaking opera Porgy and Bess, but there was no hint of the stage production in this version, just a tasteful cover version that showed off April Phillips’s low notes, with lovely vibrato. She had a nice duet with the saxophone, subtle, tasteful, understated, and all too short. And that was how the show went. The bass player took the vocals for Jerome Kern’s ‘Can’t help lovin’ that man’, with harmonies from the guitarist and lead vocalist, and another short sax solo.  I felt that the key was too low for Kirsten London, who has a pleasant, untrained voice; and I felt the same about the other songs she sang, Peggy Lee’s ‘It’s a Good Day’ (livened up with close harmonies from the others) and ‘Why don’t you do Right’ (with the sax solo providing some heat).

I would have preferred to hear more from April Phillips, who has a wider vocal range, and offered more colour and more power, with a gorgeous lower register. But that is a minor quibble.

April Phillips was a dab hand at suggesting whose version of a well-known song she was channeling. She did Ella Fitzgerald’s version of ‘Cry me a River’, and Ella’s version too of ‘Night and Day’ and ‘Witchcraft’, but the Billie Holliday version of ‘The Man I love’, complete with Holliday’s choppy phrasing and asthmatic in-breaths. It was subtle, and would have provided reassurance to someone less familiar with the repertoire than me. Andrew London did a couple of great Louis Armstrong covers, ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street’ and in ‘Mack the Knife;’ where the vocals were shared around, and he provided the Satchmo growl. Even Tait-Jamieson got in on the act, in his pleasant light baritone, doing a passable Frank Sinatra. The audience loved ‘Mack the Knife’, but not being a jazz audience, they left their applause until the end of the song.

It was all a bit too tasteful for me, I’m afraid. There is a terrific singer inside April Phillips who barely got allowed out – we had just a glimpse of her in Cole Porter’s ‘Night and Day’. There were some classy tempo changes. The sax solos were all well-judged and, I thought, too short. This is a polished act. But it wasn’t until the encore, a Cuban number made into a hit by Dean Martin, that the band showed what they are capable of. A faster tempo at last. Lance Philip was even allowed a (very short) solo, and the higher energy swept the audience away into raptures. The welcome rise in temperature made me sorry that there wasn’t a Cuban set to follow.




Jade Quartet presents a somewhat “patchworked” concert at St.Andrew’s

Wellington Chamber Music series – Jade Quartet

JOSEF HAYDN –  ‘Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross’ Op. 51 (extracts)
DAVID HAMILTON – String Quartet No 3, Quartetto Piccolo (2021)
PETER ADAMS –  ‘Proclamations, Canons and Dances’ (2018)
FRANZ SCHUBERT – String Quartet No 14 in D min ‘Death and the Maiden’, D810

St Andrews on the Terrace,

Sunday 18th July, 2021

This was an unlucky concert from the first. It was originally scheduled for 27 June,
but had to be rescheduled when Wellington went into Level 2 lockdown a few days
prior. At some point the second violin (William Hanfling) and cello (Edith Salzmann)
became unavailable: the first due to illness and the second being caught in a
COVID-19 lockdown in Melbourne. When the Jade Quartet finally arrived to present
this concert, Hanfling had been replaced by Charmian Keay, a first violinist in
Orchestra Wellington (and daughter of Miranda Adams, the quartet’s founder, who
has been Assistant Concertmaster of the APO since 1994). The new cellist,
replacing Salzmann, was James Yoo, who teaches cello and chamber music at the
University of Auckland and is a graduate of the Sydney Conservatorium and the
Musikhochschule of Cologne.

This made for a patchy concert, the weakest in the current Wellington Chamber
Music Season so far, which began with a bang with Trio Elan in April.

Haydn’s Op. 51 was originally an orchestral work, commissioned in 1786 by the
Canon of the Cathedral of Cadiz as a work for Good Friday. The Cathedral was in
the habit of commissioning new music for the solemn mass on Good Friday. The
church would be draped in black, and the windows shrouded. The Bishop would
speak each of the last words in turn, provide an exegesis, and prostrate himself
before the altar, while the orchestra played the relevant movement, each movement
about ten minutes long. The effect must have been arresting.

Haydn wrote nine sections, starting with an introduction and finishing with an
earthquake in C minor (‘Il terremoto’) with the marking Presto e con tutta la forza.
Although Haydn complained about the commission (‘it was no easy task to compose
seven adagios lasting ten minutes each, and to succeed one another without
fatiguing the listeners’), the work was immediately popular. Haydn produced a
reduced version for string quartet the following year, and also a piano version. In
1794, on his way to London, he heard a choral version in Passau, with the choir
singing a German text rather than the Gospel texts in Latin that the Bishop of Cadiz
had spoken. Haydn rather liked the effect, and wrote his own version with the
German text improved by van Swieten, which premiered in Vienna for Easter 1796.
He and van Swieten went on to work together on The Creation and The Seasons.

The Jade Quartet played only extracts from the quartet version of the work: the
Introduction; Sonata V (‘Sitio’ – I thirst); Sonata VI (‘Consummatum est’ – It is
finished), and Sonata VI (‘In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum’ – In
thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit’), plus the earthquake mentioned in Matthew
27: 51. The result was unsatisfactory, to say the least. This is a solemn work, written
for the most solemn ceremony of the most solemn day in the Church year.
Wrenched out of the liturgical context, it becomes an interesting example of Haydn’s
tonal exploration, but little more.

The Jade Quartet may have done their best, but their performance lacked profundity
or, indeed, conviction of any kind. There are a lot of notes, and although they were
all there, the tragedy and pathos were completely lacking. At times the music
sounded insouciant, even jaunty. The only movement that the players seemed to
believe in was the last one, the earthquake, in which the earth trembled and we were
all afraid.

Next in the programme was David Hamilton’s brand-new String Quartet No 3,
nicknamed ‘piccolo’ because there are only three movements, labelled ‘A little night
music’, ‘Helter Skelter’, and ‘Song without Words’. The Quartet commissioned this work, and they enjoyed playing it. The first movement starts with sustained slow
glissandi creating starry effects, before each voice enters in turn. There is a beautiful
cantabile passage from the cello with glittery sounds from the higher instruments,
before the cello’s tune is passed to the viola, sad and regretful.

The middle movement is fast and jazzy, with lovely textures (pizzicato cello under
the upper voices, and then a swapping around). And the ‘Song without Words’
began with the song in the viola, followed by the second violin, again with pizzicato
cello, then passed to the first violin, and eventually back to the cello, with silvery
harmonies again from the higher voices.

By this time, I was becoming aware that James Yoo is a superb cellist, with a
glorious sound, by turns commanding and incisive, then investing Hamilton’s rather
filmic writing with moments of beauty.

The last work in the first half of the concert was by Peter Adams, though the piece
was originally billed by Wellington Chamber Music as being by the exciting and
prolific young Chris Adams. Peter Adams was not known to me, but he is an
Associate Professor in Music at Otago, and Miranda Adams’ brother. He graduated
from Kings College London with an MMus in music theory, but he is perhaps better
known as a conductor than a composer. working with brass bands, Dunedin
Symphony Orchestra, and St Kilda Brass.

His second string quartet was written for Jade Quartet in 2018, and its title, ‘Proclamations, Canons, and Dances’ gives a sense of the work. The opening proclamation was big and imposing, as though announcing a portent. Already the emotional content was weightier than for the
entire Haydn item. This was followed by a dance led by the first violin, anxious and
restless. And so it continued.

The individual sections are short, and there’s a lot of anxious running around within
sub-sections, so it’s hard to know where the work is going as one idea is followed by
another and another. Adams describes his writing as incorporating ‘poly-stylism’ and
‘a mixed-modal language’. My notes say things like ‘another melancholy song’,
‘ghost music’, ‘a frenzied dance’, indicating that I was barely keeping up. A second
listening would clarify matters, I think.

After the interval came Schubert’s famous quartet No 14, known as ‘Death and the
Maiden’, because of the riff on his lied of the same name. It began well, and there
was some incisive playing in the first movement, but there were signs throughout of
being under rehearsed – a tempo change that almost fell apart, and a lot of choppy
playing, as though no one quite knew what to expect of the others. Often the tempi
felt rushed, which meant that the work lost some of its emotional intensity. The second
movement was under better control, except that the tragedy was often missing –
except from the cello, which held the emotional centre. The Scherzo was exciting,
and the Presto was positively hectic. The chorale section was under-powered and a
bit garbled, and there was another meno mosso that wasn’t quite together, before
the final prestissimo, which was.

And there was an encore – a syrupy arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Stardust’
by Russ Garcia, who wrote an orchestral version at the age of 11. You may be
familiar with the John Coltrane version. If so, you’d have wondered where the tune