Sounds of friendship from Vieux Amis at Wellington Chamber Music’s St.Andrew’s concert

Wellington Chamber Music presents:
Vieux Amis (Old friends)

Arvo Pärt Für Alina / JS Bach Viola da Gamba Sonata in D Major, BMW 1028

Arvo Pärt mozart adagio / JS Bach Violin Sonata in E Major, BMW 1016

Dmitri Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue in E minor, Op. 87.No. 4 /

Piano Trio No.2 in E minor Op. 67

Vieux Amis –
Justine Cormack (violin) / James Bush (’cello) / Sarah Watkins (piano)

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

Sunday, 15th August 2021

Vieux Amis (Justine Cormack, James Bush and Sarah Watkins), are old friends indeed. They grew up together in Christchurch, they were neighbours and long-standing colleagues, and their bonds run deep. They put together an innovative programme of music that is, apart from the Shostakovich Trio,  seldom heard in concerts. To add to the innovative aspect of the programme, they asked the audience not to applaud between the Arvo Pärt and the Bach works, and between the Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue and the Trio, so that these pieces became introductions to what followed.

Arvo Pärt Für Alina

This is a simple piece, but its simplicity is deceptive. The music follows strict mathematical rules, the melody grows by one note in each bar, reaching its maximum of eight notes, then it begins to diminish again. The free-flowing melody is united throughout the piece with the so-called tintinnabuli, bell like voice. The long pedalled and held notes are separated by significant pause. This is considered to be one of the most significant works of all Arvo Pärts oeuvre. Its performance requires very sensitive reading attuned not only to the changing notes, but also to the silences separating them. It was a very appropriate introduction to the Bach Sonatas, preparing listeners for the subtleties of the complex baroque works that folloowed.

Johann Sebastian Bach Viola da Gamba Sonata in D Major, BMW 1028

Although this sonata was written for the viola da gamba, it was played by James Bush on a modern cello, with its more powerful tone. He played it with a beautiful, rich, romantic, sound, and the performance was more pleasing for that. The sonata starts with a gentle adagio and a lovely interplay between the cello and the keyboard. The second movement is an unhurried dance movement, the third is a meditative slow movement with keyboard and cello evaluating each evolving phrase, while the last movement is again a relaxed joyful dance. Parts of this sonata were used  in Bach’s St Matthew Passion []

Arvo Pärt mozart adagio

This is an arrangement, or more appropriately, a reinterpretation of the second movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in F minor, K. 280. Pärt explores new sonorities between the strings and piano.

Johann Sebastian Bach Violin Sonata in E Major, BMW 1016

Like the viola da gamba sonatas, these sonatas with keyboard are, unlike the solo partitas and sonatas, seldom played in concerts. They follow the pattern of sonatas by Corelli and Handel, but are more complex, more ornamented. The second movement of this sonata echoes Bach’s earthy cantatas such as the Peasant Cantata. Like James Bush on the cello, Justine Cormack made no concession to the tradition of authentic baroque performance. She played with a vigorous, full-bodied violin tone and her performance was more interesting and enjoyable for that, and appropriate for present day musical tastes. She shed a contemporary light on this seldom heard work.

Dmitri Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue in E minor, Op. 87.No. 4

It was inspired programming to follow the Bach Sonata with one of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues, which were tributes to Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues. But these were written in 1950, in the shadow of the Second World War and the brutal twilight years of Stalin’s reign. Although the form is Bach’s, the language is very much Shostakovich’s Russian idiom. No. 4 of the Preludes and Fugues is full of despair and sorrow which served as a very appropriate prologue to the great Piano Trio No, 2 that followed without a break.

Dmitri Shostakovich Piano Trio No.2 in E minor Op. 67

This Trio is one of the greatest chamber music works of the twentieth century. It was written in 1944 in the midst of the Second World War. Right from the barely audible harmonics on the cello, followed by the violin then the piano, we know that we are in for music that captures the profound sadness of the time. The earthy themes would have sounded corny in anyone else’s hands, but in Shostakovich’s hands they make a point about the universality of the message of the music. One can read all sorts of things into the manic second movement, but there is no doubt about the tragic sadness of the third movement. The last movement uses a klezmer theme, stated by pizzicato on the violin and then elaborated until the sad yet jaunty music dissolves into the final tragic adagio, the violin reiterating tearfully the klezmer theme. Shostakovich was said to have said “The distinguishing feature of Jewish music is the ability to build a jolly melody on sad intonations. Why does a man strike up a jolly song? Because he is sad at heart.” Shostakovich was aware of the fate of the Jews and the Babi Yar massacre, but this music is not just about Jews. It is about the great tragedy of the war and perhaps of the Russian people. This is overwhelming sad music.

These three musicians, Vieux Amis, old friends, growing up in peaceful Christchurch, had the empathy to do justice to this profound work. It was deeply felt, profound performance.

The Shostakovich Trio was received by a resounding applause, quite out of character for the largely elderly audience. For an encore Vieux Amis played the Largo from Bach’s Trio Sonata.

This was an outstanding, fine concert, and the Wellington Chamber Music Society deserves our appreciation for bringing  to Wellington this group of fine artists, with their imaginative programme.



Musicam scribo cogito ergo sum! – with a vengeance! – from the remarkable Ghost Trio

Te Koki NZ School of Music presents:
The Ghost Trio –
Monique Lapins (violin), Ken Ichinose (cello), Gabriela Glapska (piano)

BEETHOVEN – Piano Trio Op 1, No.1 in E flat major (1793)
KELLY-MARIE MURPHY – Give Me Phoenix Wings To Fly (1997)
RODION SHCHEDRIN – Three Funny Pieces (3 heitere Stucke) (1981/1997)

Adam Concert Room, NZ School of Music, Victoria University of Wellington

Friday, July 13th, 2021

This was a concert that packed a great deal into a short time, an out-and-out “moments-per-minute” affair which encouraged and repaid the listener’s active involvement, but also “came to get you” if you had any thoughts of hanging back as if you were some kind of passive observer! Each of the three composers with the help of some extraordinarily dynamic and impactful, infinitely varied playing from the musicians of the Ghost Trio had things to say that seemed to variously brood, seethe, bubble and burst forth all about the available spaces, so that there was nothing for it but to allow oneself to be taken up and possessed accordingly!

The three works chosen by the Trio to perform each shared something of the “no holds barred” character of the music-making, if markedly contrasted in other ways – ‘cellist Ken Ichinose briefly but succinctly introduced the Beethoven work to us as the latter’s Opus One, remarking that it was obviously chosen by the composer to make the most distinctive and memorable effect on the musical world of that time. In fact Beethoven with these three Op.1 works placed the piano trio on a higher “plane” far removed from the domestic music-making aspect the form had previously occupied, adding a “scherzo” that both expanded the form’s parameters and intensified the dynamism of the music.

Straightaway, Beethoven employed simple means with the greatest possible effect,  a strong opening chord leading to various assertive treatments of a rising arpeggio from all the instruments underpinned by virtuoso runs from the piano. All the while the players emphasised the robust nature of the dialogue, very much an “as equals” kind of discourse, the second subject’s engaging contrasts dynamics and phrasings deliciously enjoyed by all. In the development the Trio enacted the “rising arpeggio meets rising scale – will it work?” scenario with characteristic relish, taking us to the recapitulation, where the music beautifully restated and unravelled, Beethoven having a lot of fun with his “concluding” gestures (Haydn’s influence, here?), telling us “this is it – but not yet!” repeatedly, the playing beautifully po-faced throughout!

Gabriella Glapska’s beautifully-played piano solo at the Adagio cantabile’s beginning made me long to hear her play one of the composer’s sonatas – Monique Lapins’ violin solo and cellist Ken Ichinose’s reply carried the mood forward fetchingly, then continued into ghostly minor-key realms of wonderment, the music “rescued” by a kind of “fanfare of being” from all the instruments. Beethoven allowed us further enjoyment of Glapska’s solo playing and of Lapins’ heartfelt delivery of the violin’s emotive phrases – so much light-and-shade, here! – and with Ichinose’s more circumspect ‘cello tones, putting me in mind of a Florestan/Eusebius kind of contrast between the two (yes, it’s the wrong composer, I know!). And what elfin magic there was in the tenderly-sounded concluding piano/pizzicato notes!

One wonders what this music’s first listeners made of the following Scherzo, with its “Minuet-gone-wrong” opening measures, and the roisterous “all together, now!” passage that followed. The players gave the music all the rustic vigour it needed, particularly digging into the “drone” passages which, here, almost made me laugh out loud! – and then, in complete contrast , the Trio seemed to draw back a curtain on a different scene, a dancing piano set against sostenuto string lines, like a butterfly gently hovering over a sleeping child. Tremendous vigour marked the scherzo’s return – but the players wound down these energies at the dance’s end with disarming ease and charm.

The playfulness of the Presto finale’s “ready – steady – go!” beginning, sounded by the piano’s mischievous “tenth” jumps, wound itself into almost frenetic activity from all of the players, with Glapska in particular hugely enjoying the virtuoso piano writing in general, introducing at one point (and revisiting) an uncanny pre-echo of Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody! Both Lapins and Ichinose joined in with the helter-skelter of the writing to stunning effect, the music generating tremendously fiery interchanges before breaking off, becalming, and then reintroducing the “starter’s gun” for another round of fun and games! The music also paid direct homage to Haydn near the end with the piano unexpectedly dancing away in a different key, before all the instruments broke into a cheekily raucous “fooled-ya!” kind of rejoiner and set the trajectories to rights! In all, a tremendously enjoyable and engaging performance of some ground-breaking music!

The name Kelly-Marie Murphy was new to me before I heard this performance of her 1997 piece for piano trio Give Me Phoenix Wings To Fly. She’s a Canadian composer currently based in Ottawa, one whose works have achieved international status, winning prizes in competitions around the world with pieces such as From the Drum comes a Thundering Beat (1996), Utterances (1999), Departures and Deviations (2002) and a Harp Concerto And Then at Night I Paint the Stars (2003).She’s currently writing a Double Concerto for piano and percussion for the Ottawa-based SHHH Ensemble, and has been commissioned to write a Triple Concerto for Trio Sōra and Mikko Frank’s Radio France Philharmonic  Orchestra during 2022.

In a programme note accompanying a previous performance of Give Me Phoenix Wings To Fly Murphy outlined her sources of inspiration for the work alongside the age-old Phoenix from the Ashes myth, each drawn from poetry – firstly, John Keats, from his poem “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again”….

    But when I am consumed in the fire,
Give me new phoenix wings to fly at my desire

And then, Robert Graves, in a poem “To bring the dead to life”, one I confess I didn’t know….

To bring the dead to life
Is no great magic
Few are wholly dead:
Blow on a dead man’s embers
And a live flame will start.

Murphy elaborated on her fascination with the myth of the Phoenix, and its ability to rise again after its immolation from its own ashes. Describing it as a powerful and relevant image for contemporary life as we humans perceive it, she characterised the process as a kind of way forward, and set out to render it in composition terms. She structured the piece in three movements, calling them fire, bleak devastation and rebuilding – and so emerged the Piano Trio Give Me Phoenix Wings To Fly.

It was only after hearing the music that I came upon Murphy’s programme notes, so that the impression the work made upon me at the concert as outlined below was formed almost entirely through the spellbinding efforts of the Ghost Trio in bringing this extraordinary work into being,  apart from my hearing beforehand pianist Gabriela Glapska’s brief summary of the music’s three-movement scheme. The opening gestures, strident and gripping, transfixed one’s attention, as did the rhythmic trajectories that sprang up almost straight afterwards, at once urgent and oppressive, and with each of the players physically involved in what seemed either like desperate gestures of flight or of falling out of control. The piano’s lowest registers took us to the darkest places, the music’s visceral aspect then burgeoning physically and psychologically with a conglomeration of cacophonies that gradually rose up and suddenly exploded and crashed down onto a single held piano note resonating in the shockingly near-empty aural spaces!

Over these spaces drifted bleak, desolate piano tones, joined by the ‘cello in its high register and then the violin, with stricken and forlorn harmonics. Stratospheric piano-note-clusters floated over low, cavernous held notes, the strings sounding piteously-wrought harmonics, and then ghostly col legno tremolandos – music devoid of shape or living substance. Pitiful  impulses of repeated notes from the piano were answered by heartfelt stratospheric cries from the violin, joined by the ‘cello – the piano chimed and shimmered softly as the strings joined to play long-held mantra-like figures, with time seeming to drift almost into a state of negation or non-being…..

The violin suddenly dug into a three-note repeated figure, joined by the cello, giving the impression of something trying to reactivate or revive – the music began a kind of danse macabre pizz-and-arco-with-piano, the rhythms angular and asymmetric, the instruments wrestling with the material – effortful unisons become exchanged figurations,  everything sounding like desperate attempts at reconnectiveness. The piano danced as the strings interchanged motifs – this phoenix was evidently not one for grand perorations of rebirth, but instead a feisty bird, whose refurbishment was an intensely-wrought, obstreperous and defiant process – making for, in Monique Lapins’ words afterwards, “a wild ride!” And here, what a performance it was of that ride!

Perhaps the concert’s third work was less of a “no-holds barred” than an “unbuttoned” experience, a piece by Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin, who will be celebrating his ninetieth birthday this year. Whimsically titled “Three Funny Pieces” for Piano Trio,  and written in 1997, the pieces are arrangements of earlier works, a 1957 “Humoreske” and two pieces from a “Notebook for Youth” dated 1981, the first of these here called “Conversation” and the second given the title “Let’s Play an Opera by Rossini”. Together, they made a riotous trio! Monique Lapins, who introduced the work, even promised us some singing, which, quixotically, did NOT happen in the Rossini piece but in the final “Humoreske”.

The first piece “Conversation” was a series of desultory exchanges between instruments which seemed determined NOT to communicate or even co-operate, each bent on doing its “own thing” – though at least each waited for the other to complete their “fragment” before beginning each new seemingly random, spur-of-the-moment impulse-gesture. The following “Let’s Play an Opera by Rossini” at first mimicked an operatic “Recitative / Aria” sequence, complete with heroine (violin) and hero (‘cello), – though whether one lampooned or truly invented by Shchedrin, I’m not entirely sure – then suddenly “morphed” into what sounded vaguely like the crescendo sequence from the “La Cenerentola” Overture, at the end of which the ensemble  seemed to fall down a flight of stairs and the playing come to an inglorious stop! Lastly, the “Humoreske”, a mock-processional piece of drollery taking the original “humorous” meaning of the term to bizarre extremes, the players bursting into boisterous song for one of the sequences, and concluding the piece with a loud unison in the wrong key!

All in all, it was one of those occasions at the end of which one might have been tempted to pinch oneself and rhetorically ask in tones of wonderment and disbelief, “And we saw and heard all of that for free? – goodness! – What an absolute privilege!” Indeed!

The Queen’s Closet at St.Andrew’s – a window into a seventeenth-century world of music

St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace Lunchtime Concert Series presents:

The Queen’s Closet – For the Chapel at the Table

Agostino Steffani Sinfonia from Niobe
Pavel Josef Vejvanovsky Sonata Tribus Quadrantibus
Johann Heinrich Schmelzer Serenata con alter arie
Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber Sonata VII, Tam Aris Quam Aulis Servientes
Philipp Jakob Rittler Ciaccona a 7


Wednesday, 11 August 2021

The Queen’s Closet is a baroque orchestra that uses historically inspired performance practice, on period instruments at baroque pitch. Their concerts at various venues have been reviewed on Middle C, but this is the first time that I had heard them play as part of the regular Wednesday Lunch Time Concert series at St Andrews.

The music in this programme was pleasant occasional music, but it also represented the musical world of the late seventeenth century, which was the soil from which sprouted the great works of the next generation, Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Telemann and other notable early eighteenth century composers. It was a rare opportunity to hear this music, performed by such highly skilled professional musicians.

For those used to the standard concert repertoire, this was a journey of discovery. Steffani, Vejvanovsky, Schmelzer, Rittler, and even Biber are hardly household names. The theme of the concert was music ‘for chapel and table’, music that is suitable for all occasions. The common bond of the composers was that they all worked in Hapsburg lands. The program featured works that were written for the trumpet especially. The court trumpeter was a person of significance with special privileges at the time when these pieces were written.

Agostino Steffani’s Sinfonia from Niobe featured the following musicians:

Sarah Marten, Emma Brewerton, CJ Macfarlane (violins),Sharon Lehany (hoboy), Nick Hancox (viola), Jane Young, Robert Ibell cellos), Kris Zuelicke (harpsichord), Gordon Lehany, Chris Woolley, Peter Maunder (trumpets) and Sam Rich – (timpani)

Steffani was a cleric and a courtier, but he was also a prolific composer, who wrote sacred works, numerous operas, songs and cantatas. This Sinfonia was from Niobe, one of his operas. It is scored for a chamber orchestra with three trumpets with a prominent timpani part.

Pavel Josef Vejvanovsky’s Sonata Tribus Quadrantibus followed, with Gordon Lehany (trumpet), Peter Maunder (sackbut), CJ Macfarlane (violin), Robert Ibell  (cello) and Kris Zuelicke (harpsichord).

Vejvanovky was one of the outstanding trumpet virtuosos of his age. One of his more remarkable talents was the ability to play certain chromatic passages on the trumpet, which is not normally possible on the largely diatonic natural trumpet.  He wrote this piece while employed at the Court of Kromeriz where he was librarian of music and music copyist as well as composer.

Next was Johann Heinrich Schmelzer’s Serenata con alter arie, with CJ Macfarlane, Emma Brewerton, Sarah Marten, Gordon Lehany (violins), Nick Hancox (viola), Jane Young and Robert Ibell (cellos), Kris Zuelicke (harpsichord, Peter Maunder (guitar) and Sam Rich (percussion).

Schmelzer was one of the most important violinists of his time and made substantial contribution to the development of violin technique. He was composer and musician at the Habsburg court where he was appointed Kapellmeister and was ennobled by the Emperor Leopold 1. This piece was for strings, harpsichord and percussion and song-like passages contrast with orchestral tutti.

A more familiar name is that of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, who contributed a Sonata VII, Tam Aris Quam Aulis Servientes to the concert, played by Gordon Lehany (trumpet), Sharon Lehany (hoboy), Sarah Marten and CJ Macfarlane  (violins), Jane Young (cello), Kris Zuelicke  (harpsichord)and Sam Rich (percussion).

Biber, like Schmelzer, was an outstanding violinist and was influenced by Schmelzer. He is now mainly remembered for his works for violin, with his sonatas seen as precursors of Bach’s solo sonatas. This sonata written for a group of instruments that includes a trumpet, and percussion is one of a set of 12. As the title suggest, these are occasional pieces that can be used in the chapel or around the table.

Finally we heard the music of Philipp Jakob Rittler – his Ciaccona a 7. This was performed by CJ Macfarlane, Sarah Marten, Emma Brewerton (violins), Nick Hancox (viola), Jane Young and Robert Ibell  (cellos), Kris Zuelicke (harpsichord), Peter Maunder (guitar),Gordon Lehany, Chris Woolley (trumpet), Sharon Lehany (hoboy) and Sam Rich hPercussion).

Rittler was a priest as well as a composer. He composed primarily instrumental music before 1675 and after this time he composed mainly music for the church. His instrumental pieces are distinguished by their inventive orchestration and demanding solo parts. This Ciaccona for seven parts grows from a simple ground bass that circles gently in continuo instruments, the work expands outwards, adding ever thicker and more exuberant instrumental embellishments from trumpet and strings, to turn a graceful dance into an ecstatic musical celebration, before reversing the process and dying away to nothing [].

The Queen’s Closet, under their musical director, Gordon Lehaney may be the only baroque orchestra in Australasia using authentic instruments, for example natural trumpets. Their presence enriches and expands the musical experience of the people of Wellington. I cannot do better than quote from the group’s website, which states their goal thus: “….TO BRING MUSIC OF THE BAROQUE ERA TO LIFE IN WAYS WHICH ARE FAITHFUL TO THE PERFORMANCE PRACTICES OF THE TIME AND MAKE IT RELEVANT AND ALIVE FOR MODERN AUDIENCES……TO PROVIDE A TRULY IMMERSIVE AND AUTHENTIC EXPERIENCE OF THIS WONDERFUL MUSIC.”

Orpheus Choir’s Concert title “I Was Glad” eponymously shared by audience response at Wellington’s Cathedral of St.Paul

Orpheus Choir of Wellington presents

SARAH HOPKINS – Past Life Melodies
ERIC WHITACRE – Lux Arumque / Little Birds
CHRIS ARTLEY – I Will Lift up Mine Eyes

Barbara Paterson (soprano), Margaret Medlyn (mezzo-soprano)
Wade Kernot (bass), Martin Setchell (organ)
Karen Batten (flute), Merran Cooke (oboe)
Dominic Groom (horn), Peter Maunder (trombone)
Jeremy Fitzsimons (percussion), Thomas Nikora (piano)
Stephen Mosa’ati, Matthew Stein (trumpets)

Orpheus Choir, Wellington

Brent Stewart (conductor)

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul,

Saturday, 7th August, 2021

We were, I think, all imbued with gladness at Wellington’s Cathedral of St.Paul on Saturday evening at the splendours of the music-making by the Orpheus Choir in partnership with the instrumentalists throughout most of the concert and with the vocal soloists in the concluding  Szymanowski work, the whole directed to lustrous effect by conductor Brent Stewart.

It was an occasion whose intensities and excitements seemed, throughout the evening, to escalate with each item’s performance the content, order and trajectory of the distinctly different works beautifully leading our ears from one unique sound-experience to the other. The musicians’ concentrated and focused efforts helped bring out the essential resonant “character” of each piece as separate aspects of what felt like a single journey, which was, I think one of the concert’s great strengths.

It would have been tempting to have resplendently closed the concert’s first half with its eponymous title-piece, Hubert Parry’s I Was Glad – however I felt it worked brilliantly as a sound-spectacle nearer the evening’s beginning, placed immediately after the extraordinary “opening up” of the space’s resonances by the very first item on the programme, Sarah Hopkins’ Past Life Melodies which in a sense acclimatised us to the cathedral’s enormous potential for sustenance of tones and textures, allowing us to “feel” the spaces all around us.

Hopkins, a New Zealander by birth, has lived and worked in Australia for most of her life – her work performed this evening illustrated her interest in a vocal technique known as “harmonic overtone” singing derived from ancient Mongolian and Tibetan practices. Written in 1991, Past Life Melodies takes its name from the composer’s idea of accessing sounds  from her “other lives” through harmonics and overtones wrought from her own vocal production and combining these effects with other ethnic-based techniques to produce something unique and unworldly. It’s been her most successful choral work to date, having been taken up by vocal ensembles worldwide. The sounds reminded me of a “singing in tongues” phenomenon which I once heard at a Charismatic Christian presentation, strongly ritualistic in atmosphere and wholly mesmerising to the sensibilities. A feature of this performance by Orpheus was the use of ambient lighting, which intensified and dimmed with the piece’s overall shape, to telling effect.

From these “sounds of the earth” we were then made privy to a different kind of ritual belonging to another time and place – Sir Hubert Parry’s I Was Glad, a performance which sounded utterly “right” from the first note, its freshness and energy giving the piece a “newly-minted” quality, the instrumental opening magisterially realised by organ, brass and timpani and the voices full-throatedly delivering the opening words.  The sopranos’ ecstatically beautiful “Our feet shall stand in their gates” led the way forwards for the other voices, the music expressing the “unity in itself” of the text before allowing the brasses their heads in fanfares and tumultuous jubilations! The cathedral’s acoustics in such places made nonsense of the choir’s otherwise superb diction, but what a splendid sound it all gave forth!

There was sweetness, too, in “O, pray for the peace of Jerusalem”, before the brasses heralded a new jubilation at “Peace be within thy walls!” – and there was certainly “ample plenteousness” of ceremonial tones within these same walls as the music reached its vociferous end.  A certain clearing of the air came with James MacMillan’s beautiful A New Song, another Psalm setting, this one from Psalm 96,”Sing unto the Lord a new song”,  one beginning with plainsong-like lines from the sopranos, the organ adding melismatic-like flourishes which brought other voice-lines into the music’s flow, the building’s acoustic allowing the vocal lines to resonate magically, while still preserving the folk-like “turns” delivered by each strand. The men’s voices took up the plainsong melody, accompanied by the deep tones of the organ, which again sounded its windblown melismas as the rest of the choir repeated the section, complete with the “folk-turns” – dark, massive organ notes reintroduced the plainsong, canonic between women’s and men’s voices, leaving the organ to finish the piece, simply but effectively, with a breath-catching crescendo.

Eric Whitacre’s music has made its mark on the contemporary choral scene with its sure-fire shimmering choral clusters and baroque-like recyclings of material for every which purpose – whether his music has the kind of substance that will last is anybody’s guess. His Lux Arumque has achieved cyber-fame with a performance by a “virtual choir”, a tour-de-force synchronisation of voices from all over the world for one single performance, winning fame and garnering scepticism, depending on which commentator one reads  (one writer had it both ways, describing the music as “soupily addictive”!). Orpheus Choir’s performance of the work had it all, the finely-tuned clustered harmonies, the repeated “breathing” effects, and the sostenuto lines gliding over the oscillations – it’s hard not to capitulate to such expertly-wrought beauty and fluency. And the other Whitacre work on the programme, Little Birds, was great fun, complete with piano swirlings, vocal whistlings, and an irruption of birds’ wings at a pre-arranged signal, the choir members suddenly brandishing pieces of paper in a flamingo-like show of flight’s ecstasy!

If not quite a hat-trick, the concert achieved a “Psalm triple” with New Zealand-based Chris Artley’s setting of “I will lift up mine eyes” from Psalm 121, a work written for Auckland’s Kings College Chapel Choir in 2012. Women’s voices intoned a lovely melodic line, repeated by the men, the  beauties at “Shall neither slumber nor sleep” contrasting with an upsurge of tones at” at “The Lord Himself is thy keeper”, the trumpet joining in with the organ to heart-stirring effect, reaching magnificence firstly with the arched “Glory Be” sections, and a stirring return to a stratospheric “Amen” at the conclusion, setting the Cathedral’s precincts resounding with joy.

During the interval I was privileged to make the acquaintance of two audience companions, both of them ex-Orpheus Choir members, and more than ready to enthuse about what we all had heard thus far, as well as answer my queries concerning previous concerts they had both taken part in – though I had never been a choir member I had attended a number of these concert occasions, so our discussion brought back many resounding memories! I was told by one of these women that she was ninety-four, to which I expressed amazement, and a fervent wish that I myself might look forward to a ninety-fourth year sitting somewhere in a concert-hall with my music-appreciation faculties in as superb a condition as both hers and her companion’s obviously were!

So we came to what was for me the evening’s piece de resistance – though I must admit that, thanks in part to the musicians’ committed and finely-judged first-half performances, I was already thoroughly enjoying the concert, more, in fact than I had anticipated. Obviously the choir’s music director Brent Stewart had wisely chosen the repertoire in accordance with the Cathedral’s wondrous-slash-notorious five-second reverberation time, and the Stabat Mater of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski proved just as suited for performance in such a space as anything we had heard thus far.

Szymanowski’s music has its champions, but has still to make the “breakthrough” to gain acceptance in the average concertgoer’s consciousness. This work (especially so through this astounding performance) would have made the composer many new friends by the time the last of its heartfelt utterances had been expertly-sounded by the soloists, choir and ensemble together under their conductor’s inspired direction. The music began with gentle wind lines accompanied by the organ, leading up to the soprano’s entry, describing the grief of Mary, Christ’s mother, at her son’s crucifixion, Szymanowski  dividing the famous thirteenth-century poem depicting the mother’s vigil into six separate movements.

Soprano Barbara Paterson’s finely-honed delivery and complete absorption in the feeling expressed by the Polish text held us in thrall throughout (“Mother, bowed with dreadful grief…”) supported by haunting rejoiners from the choir, and beautiful, sensitive work from the instrumentalists. Soprano and oboe together near the end made such exquisitely heart-rending moments of the concluding “She who saw with grief the unending anguish of her Son”. By contrast, the deep blackness of bass Wade Kernot’s arresting tones plunged our sensibilities into the second part’s grim darkness, complete with throbbing percussion and bass ostinato, the voice laden and sepulchral in feeling, (“…thus beholding Christ’s dear mother in woe unlike any other woe…”) the choir rising from out of the dark agitations, pleading and beseeching, conductor Brent Stewart achieving an overwhelming effect with his soloist, brass and percussion at “When he gave up his spirit”.

The third part (“Tender Mother, sweet fountain of love”) featured mezzo-soprano Margaret Medlyn in fine, focused voice, and blending beautifully with the soprano, unfailingly supported by the winds and brass, and encompassing the great outburst (“Hatred, mockery and scorn”) towards the end with such palpable feeling, both voices true of tone and finely-drawn. How angelic were the women’s voices of the choir at the beginning of the fourth part, tenderly characterising Mary’s vigil at the foot of the Cross (“Under your care, weeping, watching….”), and with the rest of the choir enabling a gorgeous texture of sound at “May I live and mourn for his sake…”, repeated by the soprano with some beautifully-floated high notes, one extended phrase in particular to die for! Paterson was then joined by Medlyn and the choir to conclude their solicitations.

A stern, black-browed accompaniment greeted Wade Kernot’s apocalyptic utterances (“Immaculate Maid, most excellent!…”), the choir and instrumental ensemble responding with urgently rhythmic, almost agitated sotto-voce reactions. The exchanges were repeated, but a third time the bass refused to be put off, and, encouraged by the instruments towards heartfelt declamation, was joined by the choir for a powerfully-delivered “Virgin, let me be protected, when I am called in my turn!” Following these full-blooded beseechments came an opening melody for the work’s final section that the composer described as ”the most beautiful melody I have ever managed to write”, here delivered most movingly by Paterson, again negotiating her high notes with ethereal purity, the choir echoing her beautiful line, and Medlyn with her, steady and pleading at “May He who died here be my friend so that He may pardon me!”.  Kernot’s bass joined in, partnered by the choir and supported by a horn, repeating, along with soprano and mezzo “Grant to my soul all the joys of Paradise” a phrase whose variants and impulses. underpinned by resonant winds and brass, and reiterated at the work’s very end stayed in the silences that followed the last lingering notes.  Exquisite!

Roger Hall’s “terrific couple” at last back on stage in Wellington – “Winding Up” at Circa Theatre

Circa Theatre presents:
Winding Up , written by Sir Roger Hall
and directed by Susan Wilson

Featuring Ginette McDonald (Gen) and  Peter Hayden (Barry)

Set and AV Design – Lisa Maule
Lighting – Marcus McShane
Costumes – Sheila Horton
Music and Soundscape – Michael Nicholas Williams
Technical Operator – Niamh Campbell-Ward
Stage/Production Manager – Deb McGuire

Circa Theatre, Wellington

Sunday, 1st June, 2021 (until 28th August)

Sir Roger Hall’s “Winding Up”, an exploration of love weathering age and untoward circumstance, has finally made the stage at Circa Theatre, over a year after being first scheduled and then waylaid by Covid-19 and Lockdown. This afternoon its performance by Ginette McDonald and Peter Hayden as the play’s two characters, Gen and Barry, flickered all about to begin with, gradually warmed, then connected with, and finished up conflagrating an appreciative audience.

Its unfolding all somehow reminded me of pianist Artur Rubinstein’s account of first going to hear Russian classical superstar Sviatoslav Richter play  – “I thought at first the playing was nothing special – then I realised that tears were actually rolling down my cheeks….”Similarly, Hall’s window-view of “us” gradually penetrated our reserve, awoke our recognitions, tickled our fancies, engaged our sympathies and touched our hearts, giving us more and more “moments per minute” as we delved deeper and deeper into what were, either by direct experience or dint of association, our own lives.

For this reason, it’s very much a play one would ideally share with someone rather than view alone – I was grateful to go with a long-standing friend with whom, by dint of shared sideways glances, wry gesturings and occasional in-tandem chortles and spontaneous comments, I could relish the shared recognitions and empathies generated by the action’s plethora of impulses and nuances via word and gesture. And if not quite “tears rolling down my cheeks” I certainly registered, towards the end, some lump-in-throat moments, making the recognitions and empathies apparent. The playwright’s own attitude to his characters was summed up during a 2019 radio interview as “a terrific couple”, Hall adding that “Anybody in a long-term relationship recognises them and what they talk and argue about”.

Gen and Barry are two retirees, septuagenerians very much in “what’s next?” mode, and equally as much dealing with the “life is what happens when you’re planning something else” phenomenon that happens in the best families – and which certainly brings the same dynamic to bear on the action throughout the evening. The genesis of these two characters sprang from an earlier Hall play, Conjugal Rites, which featured the same Gen and Barry thirty years before, on the point of celebrating their 21st wedding anniversary, and about to examine their marriage, their children and their respective occupations, dealing with both a balance of power change in the relationship (Gen becoming a practising solicitor) and infidelities on both sides (Barry with one of his dental patients, and Jen with a fellow-solicitor), issues that the present play revisit, albeit with passage-of-time mitigating philosophical perspectives.

Are the preoccupations, idiosyncrasies, quips, jokes and life-issues showing signs of wearing thin after thirty years? It’s almost as though Hall has written a kind of “laundered” quality into the first exchanges, something of an implicit “how many times have we heard that one” feeling, which is as much about style as content – like having to gradually get on someone’s “wavelength” so as to fully appreciate what is said (and “how”, as well, incidentally). Ginette McDonald as Gen conveys this nonchalance in her exchanges with Peter Hayden’s well-practised (and nicely “in-character theatrical”) delivery as Barry with a casual brilliance that leaves one open-mouthed with admiration. Opposite her, Peter Hayden’s Barry is something of a “performer”, with a certain command (perhaps historically occupational?) of repartee – “You’ll have to speak up – I’ve got my hearing aids in!” he quips to his daughter during a ‘phone call. Their differences reinforce an “opposites attract” quality that manifests itself elsewhere in their exchanges, more of which below.

As the business of ageing crowds in over the course of the play one realises just how “in tune” the couple are despite their differences – McDonald’s characteristic no-nonsense style as Gen complements Hayden’s ostensible heart-on-sleeve manner for Barry, revealing a “vive la difference” quality of being and doing in an arrangement that has worked long-term, despite the speed-bumps and the debilitating temporary detours along the way. Neither has been diminished by the other in the long haul – perhaps for some people a cloud-cuckoo-land scenario that falls apart in the face of harsher realities, but (on the basis of art suggesting an example for, rather than merely imitating, life) it’s a depiction that’s life-enhancing, and therefore a worthwhile, “act of theatre” to take in and ponder.

The issues are classic and resonantly recognisable, some even from a distance! – they range from individual attitudes to possessions (Barry is a “hoarder” whose responses to enjoiners from Gen to “downsize” regarding clothes and books are priceless! – “My ideal life-style is a mess!” he expostulates at one point!), to sex (a spontaneous “making-out on the shag pile” episode elicits “last of the Mohicans/end of the drought?/in the bed or out here?” comments from both of them as the embers are raked over to risibly indeterminate but still touching effect!) and to dancing to “their” music (“The first time I ever saw your face” to which Gen and Barry dance so touchingly and tenderly – and I think here of my own parents dancing foxtrots and twosteps to Mills Brothers’ tunes) – the music might be dated, but the shared enjoyment is timeless…)

The play’s “elephant in the room” isn’t one really, but it’s all-pervading enough to both “figure” and be “disregarded”, taking cues from the couple’s laudably ornery attitude to the news at the action’s beginning that Barry has been tentatively diagnosed with leukemia. The couple’s plans for a longed-for visit to see distant grandchildren are put under stress and jeopardy – though the outcomes at least didn’t at that time have to deal with Covid-19 as a factor. Funeral plans come into reckoning, then, the situation further pushed near the bone when news of Gen’s brother-in-law’s unexpected death arrives, necessitating the couple’s attendance at a funeral, and inevitable post-funeral talk – not here, but much later, Barry confesses to Gen that, were there “menus” for methods of dying, his preferred choice would be “to wake up dead!”

So, there’s much, and more, to take in from this script which, as I’ve already indicated, felt to me as if it moved from superficial exchange at the beginning to almost Faustian transcendence at the end, where one is confronted with a strangely dream-like set of scenarios in which time, matter and energy are redeployed. Hall here brings his play’s characters to their apotheosis in unforgettably iconic “Goodnight Kiwi” fashion, ensuring their immortality, while keeping us suspended in conjecture as to “what was happening”, as great art is wont to do…….

Credit needs to be articulated in many directions for all of this, firstly to director Susan Wilson for settings and dynamics that had here an inevitability of perspective, seeming to know what to bind and what to loosen, where to space out and where to hone in, and what to specify and what to leave to us to “figure”. Hand-in-glove with all of this was Lisa Maule’s set whose centrepiece was the painting with the “iconic” Wellington Harbour view, complete with Matiu/Soames Island and the resplendent Rimutaka Ranges in the background. Marcus McShane’s on-the-button lighting caught every atmospheric and dynamic nuance, while Sheila Horton’s costumes were everything one might expect from people of this couple’s socio-economic status. And I loved the music, particularly the dance  sequence of “The First Time I ever saw your Face”, which, as Noel Coward might have observed, “took” us, along with the others with surprising potency backwards to times and places, demonstrating the sure touch of Music and Soundscape designer Michael Nicholas Williams.

There’s been a suggestion that this work might be Sir Roger Hall’s swansong as a dramatist – if so we in New Zealand will be the poorer in no longer having “updated” portraits and scenarios from his perceptive sensibilities of people and things we know but perhaps can’t find the words to express for ourselves, or in such a recognisable way. We owe him a great debt of thanks.


A piano recital from a superbly well-prepared young man who obviously enjoyed his playing

Waikanae Music Society presents:
Lixin Zhang – a piano recital

CHOPIN – Ballade No. 1 in G Minor Op.23
Piano Sonata No. 3 in B Minor Op.58
Nocturne in C Minor Op.48 No.1
MOZART – Piano Sonata in C Major K.330
LISZT – Vallée d’Obermann No.6 from “Years of Pilgrimage Bk.1 S.60

Lixin Zhang (piano)

Memorial Hall, Waikanae

Sunday, 1st August, 2021

I, and the larger than usual audience, came to this concert with huge expectations. Lixin Zhang is a young man of 19 who had cleaned up all the main piano competitions in New Zealand and was this year a Silver Medallist at the prestigious Gina Bachauer International Young Artists Piano Competition. And indeed, from the very first chords of the Chopin Ballade, or more importantly, from the first pause after the first chords, it was evident that we had an exceptionally talented young musician here. He played an old fashioned, traditional recital, with a large helping of Chopin, a little Mozart and finally Liszt; nothing more modern or adventurous, but then this was the core of the piano repertoire, and is what people expect at a piano recital.

Chopin Ballade No. 1 in G minor (Opus 23)

A Ballade is is a musical form virtually invented by Chopin. His Ballades are not settings of literary narrative poems, as they don’t have a coherent narrative. They “are music free in form, highly original in thematic development and harmony, with an astonishing varied musical palette” (from programme notes). Like Nocturnes, Scherzos, and even Polonaises, Chopin made this his own musical form. This Ballade is one of Chopin’s most popular works, used in a number of films. It starts with a boldly stated chord, then a pause. This pause determines the character of what is to follow, and with this pause Lixin Zhang asserted his vision of the piece. A dream-like passage followed the opening chord, but there was no trace of nostalgia in Lixin Zhang’s reading, He played it with a sense of freedom, yet giving the impression that he was just improvising the music. There was thought behind every note, every phrase. His playing was forceful when force was required, lyrical when a singing quality was called for. He brought out the brilliant treble passages with his rapid clear finger work, but not at the expense of the strong rhythmic base. He highlighted the dramatic contrasts. It was a well considered performance.

Chopin Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor (Opus 58)

The last of Chopin’s three piano sonatas is a colossus among the sonatas written after Beethoven and Schubert. Though it adheres to the traditional sonata form, in four movements, it is a very complex work. It needs a pianist who can grasp the architecture and densely argued relationship of themes. The melodic lines contrast with powerful virtuoso passages. The first martial section of the sonata leads into a lyrical song-like second theme. Lixin Zhang’s piano sang beautifully, his phrasing was meticulously clear. He was undaunted by the meteoric fast passages of the second movement and brought alive the dramatic contrasts of the second theme. The heart of the sonata is the third movement, Largo, a Nocturne with its sorrowful undertone. Was it longing for Chopin’s Poland, or some other loss that the composer, in failing health, had in mind? – who knows? It is moving music straight from the heart. In Lixin Zhang’s hands this theme was like an aria, a gentle song. The last movement with its heroic subject is an exuberant rondo with great technical challenges, but Lixin Zhang coped with these effortlessly. Every note, every phrase was carefully considered, without losing a sense of spontaneity. A lot of thought went into this performance.

Mozart Sonata in C major (K330)

This one of Mozart’s most popular works for the piano, one of three sonatas he composed in 1783. It is a charming, playful work. Yet this playfulness required great control. The first movement is sprightly, requiring crisp articulation. The second movement recalled graceful operatic passages. The third movement was played at a fast clip – too fast, I first thought, but with Lixin Zhang’s clarity and sensitive phrasing, it proved just right. There was something almost childish in the way Mozart took delight in humour. Think of “The Marriage of Figaro”.

This piece showed another side of Lixin Zhang’s musicianship. This Sonata required a lighter touch than did the Chopin and Liszt works.

 Chopin Nocturne in C minor (Opus 48 No. 1)

A Nocturne, like a Ballade, is a musical form that Chopin made his own. This Nocturne is one of a pair, a short, modest little piece, but so moving, that you, the listener get caught up with it and perhaps even feel like singing or humming along with it. From the first note there is an air of expectation. Every note foreshadows some magical sequence. It was played convincingly. There was something old-fashioned about the reading, recalling pianists of the past, when pianists could afford to play with freedom giving vent to spontaneous feeling.

Franz Liszt Vallée d’Obermann, No.6 from “Year of Pilgrimage” Book 1  S.60

The Chopin Ballade and Nocturne shows the departure of early Romantic piano music from traditional musical forms. Liszt’s Vallée d’Obermann goes a stage further, finds a musical narrative in literature. It was inspired by a now largely forgotten novel of the same title and tells the “story of a young man enthralled, but also also overwhelmed, by his encounter with nature and the feelings of longing it engenders in him”. (Programme notes).  Liszt seeks to depict extra-musical ideas on the piano; landscape, emotion, transformation and consolation. He creates a soundscape, using a palette of tone colours. The music is improvisational, a challenge for the performer. He has to be able to depict different moods and emotional turmoil. Again, it is the gaps between notes that defines the music. Lixin Zhang’s playing was notable for its singing quality; not a note too harsh. He made the most of the wonderful Fazioli piano, arguably the best instrument in the region.

After the well deserved applause Lixin Zhang played Glinka’s Lark as an encore.

This was a sensational concert by a young artist. If you had never heard of him before, don’t worry, he should have a great future ahead of him. Full credit to the Waikanae Music Society for including this promising young artist in their concert series.