SILVER STONE WOOD BONE a miracle of evocation from Rattle Records


Bridget Douglas (flutes)
Al Fraser (taonga puoro)

Instruments used: Putorino (3 -flute, trumpet, voice-enhancer) Karanga Manu (bird-caller) Purerehua
(swung bull-roarer) Tumutumu (tapped percussive instruments)
Flutes (3 – piccolo, C and alto)

Audio acknowledgements: Grant Finlay (opening and closing Aroha Island crickets), Tim Prebble (rain), David Downes (birds), Dave Whitehead (Pureora dawn chorus)

Recorded, mixed and mastered by Graham Kennedy

CD artwork – Bridget Reweti

Accompanying notes – the composers, also Ruby Solly for her piece “Te Ara Ha – The Path of the Breath”  (reproduced by permission of  Chamber Music New Zealand)

Rattle CD D115 2021

I have written less of a review and more of an account of a listening journey, here, which seems, now that I have returned to where I began my listening, a pity to disturb or subject to more conventional reviewing strictures. I hope readers might enjoy this slightly different approach, marked by many moments on my part of wide-eared wonderment at such “age-old newness” as is conjured up by these remarkable sounds.

Track No.1


Hine Raukatauri – goddess of music and dance – takes the form of the female case-moth

In the notes accompanying the CD recording Bridget Douglas and Al Fraser pay tribute to Dame Gillian Whitehead for this, the opening track, “Hine Raukatauri”, as it was the piece that originally brought the two musicians together as a performing duo. Birdsong (Karanga manu), is answered by the flute, at first in “forest” style, then stylised – the flute’s part is notated (though improvisation is encouraged) and the music for the taonga puoro is improvised. I would say it’s the piccolo flute, as many of the notes are so stratospheric. The Putorino calls, and the lower flute answers in a kind of duet – a richly resonant sound when the pitches combine. Chanted words come through the putorino, ghostly and other-worldly in effect, as two different tumutumu tap, one wooden-sounding, the other stone, with entirely different kinds of resonances – joined by the flute (alto? – a very rich and fruity sound), the figurations reminiscent of Ravel’s solo flute writing in Daphnis et Chloe in places – the Putorino calls again, the flute tongues in reply, varying textures in order to make contact, intertwining with the karanga manu. The purerehua rumbles impressively, like a giant voice unlocked from the depths of the earth – the karanga manu is awed, and falls silent after a few chirrups! – again the putorino “voice” and the flute tones intertwine “making” something new from the combination of resonances, the flute half-breath, half tone,  seeking to draw the voices into a common resonance. In this way, the goddess Hine Raukatauri animates her world.


Track No. 2

ROSIE LANGABEER – Drawing Fire from the Well

“Fire is the will. The well is the self”

Breath, harmonic-like sounds, waves of tones coming forth, rising and falling like the body of a giant animal – a sudden irruption of impulse and only the breath remains….after which the bullroarer awakens, vibrating the very air with the deepest of tonal pulsations, while the ambience is flecked with scraps of “spirit voices”, fragmented harmonics, derris-dust of the interactions, something the composer calls “simultaneously charming and unsettling”. The sounds are used by the composer to characterise both “fire” and the “well”, the well perhaps being the “source”, the crucible, the “cradle” of all things, while the fire is the “potential” that enlivens that space. We get something of the ambivalence of fire from the sounds, the “warning” aspects of fire’s presence because of its destructive properties, and conversely the life-enhancing aspects of fire, its warmth and comfort – its capacity for love, as composer Rosie Langabeer mentions, the love that warms and protects rather than destroys. Long-breathed sounds echo and re-echo from this space, gradually energising as the “will” exerts its influence, before being drawn back into the “well” again, the process seeming to take on a ritual-like quality that gives an impression of “playing out” for time immemorial, the infinitesimal differences part of the web and waft of evolution as the will is activated by the self to continue the ever-changing ritual. The sounds themselves invite closer scrutiny – Langabeer describes with a touch of wonderment “the note revealing other notes, multiphonics, the hidden sounds of the sound” and goes on to characterise these as “layers of physical energy, alive and ancient” – when the stick taps, or the bone or stone scrapes, as they both do in this piece, that energy is awakened from its ancient sleep.


Track No. 3

BRIAR PRASTITI – Terra firma

(“Terra firma” – firm land, the land one gratefully returns to)

Briar Prastiti’s piece is inspired by her relocation to Greece and her experience of loss of support of the familiar in doing so, of the immediacy of her surroundings and of relationships. The taonga puoro in this piece represent “terra firma”, the homeland, the place of belonging; while the flute is the kinetic force, representing explorations of arrivals and departures. The flute relies on the support of the taonga puoro, the provision of a “solid home”, and also stability whenever the composer finds herself “running too fast”!  In the piece itself there’s a pronounced dynamic contrast between the almost compulsively exploratory flute and the more “grounded” taonga puoro exchanges, almost a Don Quixote/ Sancho Panza-like relationship of different aspirations but common concerns. The flute-writing is epic in its territorial span throughout, while being accompanied by “guardian-like” wraiths of impulse keeping watch. Particularly moving is the meditative sequence halfway through the piece where the flute’s peregrinations are accompanied by earth-chime sounds, a “home fires burning” kind of ambience holding everything in an embrace – the flute’s sudden bursts of energy and restless exploration spring from this solid foundation. Earth-chimes give way to deep-seated voice-enhancers sounding a reassuring “breath of life”, which then turn skywards to birdsong over the last few measures of the piece, suggesting the idea of a homecoming kind of flight.


Track No. 4

JOHN PSATHAS – Irirangi – a meditation

I found this piece, accompanied as it was in the notes by a wealth of life-experience of its frequent and extraordinary manifestation, extremely moving – it’s as much a testament to the power of evocation possessed by all music as it is to these more specific people-driven instances of “connection” with the spirit world. Irirangi is described here as a “spirit voice”, one “floating alongside” a group of voices singing together. While this might have an unnerving aspect in some instances (Dylan Thomas’s story “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” describes something of this phenomenon happening to a group of youthful carol-singers, who promptly disperse in fright!) it can put people more in touch with their own inner worlds of memory and sensation by attesting to an “uncovering” of sounds and impulses within,  a continuing stream of life-force which one can discover if one is receptive. In Ruby Solly’s essay “Te Ara Ha – The Path of the Breath” in the CD booklet, she alludes to the voice of the “Irirangi” most movingly, as a voice “you already know”….

The composer of this piece, John Psathas, quotes Richard Nunns, an important instigator in the promotion of awareness of taonga puoro and their significance, as remarking upon Irirangi being what was “looked for” when these instruments were being played, and not merely the sounds in themselves. Psathas talks about using natural bird-sound recordings to “activate” the music further in this way, instigating a kind of “aspiration” of the sounds themselves to awaken impulses that express more that initially meets the ear – just as the voices cited in earlier accounts appeared to stimulate “spirit voices”. This singularity of music-making would partly account for performances of similar music having vastly different effects upon listeners (and other performers as well) – the activations having varied effects upon that vast range of harmonics, overtones and partials which inform notes and tones differently……

Psathas calls his work “a meditation” to enhance the idea of sitting and absorbing the natural world’s  “hidden voices” in a state of reflection. The piece begins with birdsong recordings, a stirring of the Purerehua, and what appears to be a pre-recorded “background” of  both airborne and earthbound atmosphere underlying the birdsong, the taonga puoro and the flute. Time and space seem suspended here as the instruments convey the exhalation of breath, the tinkling of stones and living voices – a great spaciousness seems waiting, wanting to be filled, the various irruptions energising the spaces with potent impulses. Such is the breadth of these soundscapes that time’s stillness consumes itself with unnverving swiftness, the interaction between the taonga puoro and the flute achieving to my ears that continuity of inner life and “mingling” of aspiration that results in a sense of “irirangi” imbuing the whole soundscape – remarkable!


Track No. 5

JOSIAH CARR – Tihei Mauri-ora

One would expect this piece, given its title, to declaim the presence of that life-force, the “breath of life” in no uncertain terms – Josiah Carr has done this in a remarkably lyrical, rather than declamatory way, interweaving the taonga puoro and flute voices together , the instruments contributing to a manifestation of the same life-force, the flute gradually “exploring” and pushing upwards with its melodic line, joining another taonga puoro at a higher pitch – the breath of life, the mauriora, allows the flute to soar, with another taonga puoro remaining its guardian close at hand. A frisson of intensity grips both instruments as they appear to reach for the sun towards the piece’s end, their lines and timbres interlocked in a kind of fierce ecstasy.


Track No. 6

GARETH FARR – Silver Stone Wood Bone

“Silver Stone Wood Bone” is a piece about breath and human expressiveness….. words straight from the composer, Gareth Farr, who brings a great deal of previous experience with the use of Taonga Puoro in conjunction with the late Richard Nunns, previously the doyen of Maori musical instruments and their use. Farr describes working with Al Fraser as having its own uniqueness, made all the more fascinating by Fraser’s extensive collection of instruments, many of which were new to Farr. He found the similarities between the European flute and taonga puoro more pronounced than any other combination he’d previously encountered, and decided to make those similarities a point of focus for his work. To draw the instruments as closely together as possible Farr asked Frazer to echo the note pitches of the flute as accurately as was achievable, wanting the instruments to “inhabit” each others’ worlds as completely as they could manage.

The music straightaway impinges on our sensibilities – like a wake-up call or a jolt from a dream than brings sudden consciousness, one material resonantly strikes another and stimulates reactions, coming instantly from the strike itself and then in response to its effect, from other taonga puoro and then from the flute. From the silence that follows the putorino and the flute trace concurrent though not exact pathways, keeping their pitches closely related – at one point the taonga puoro invites the flute to soar, which it does, before returning to the chant-like concourse of related sounds. At this stage in the proceedings I’m wondering whether the title of the work contains a ritualised kind of order of objects or impressions, or whether those elements mentioned are randomly evoked throughout the piece – certainly there’s a “shape” of sorts emerging, as the tintinnabulations of the first section give way to the breath-driven exchanges between taonga puoro and flute. Also, each of the four elements has its own text, which isn’t spoken or sung, but is possibly alluded to in specific instances –  I haven’t yet made any such connections other than the generalised references to “taonga of resonance and “minerals of great power” found in the first of four sections of the text, “Silver”, but am presuming that the “silver” represents the flute, as metallurgy was unknown to pre-European Maori.

The “chanting manner” abruptly changes to a kind of dance, reminiscent of a dancing piwakawaka – this time it’s the flute that drives the interlocking voices upwards and into a sonic “clinch” with the karanga manu (bird-caller). The dancing continues, the putorino voice-enhancer offering encouragement to the dancing flute, whose contrasting soarings are again matched and augmented by the bird-caller. While there seems to be no direct correlation between music and verse in the second “Stone” text, other than the “nose to the grindstone” quote which places breath and stone (pounamu, for instance) together when the stone is being fashioned, the text goes on to unlock the overall message of the sounds – “in this way we animate the inanimate”……

From the pause as the dancers regain their breath comes a rhapsodic meditation suggested by the tranquility of trees – the sounds invite us to reflect a while as we sit within a house made from wood and imagine it as a forest once again, the text of “Wood” powerfully evoking the idea of the trees pushing away the sky’s embracing of the earth to give the latter’s life room to breathe – flute and putorino rhapsodise on these spaces and their power of “presence”, as does Finnish composer Jan Sibelius in his “Tapiola”, in a more elemental and baleful sense.

How magical to return at the end to those sounds which began this evocation! – flute and taonga puoro at one with the bell-like strikes, the irruptions continuing in our minds as with all things in the natural world content for the moment of reflection to play in the confines of her silences.

He pai te mahi – tihei mauri-ora!

“Rockin’ On” with the Lockdown Quartet at St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace

Family Lockdown Quartet

Lucy Maurice and Rupa Maitra, violins: Donald Maurice, viola; and Gemma Maurice, cello

St Andrew’s on The Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday 20 October 2021

From 26 March to 27 May 2020, when New Zealand was locked down in Alert Level 4 and many of us were watching Netflix in our pyjamas until it was time for the 1 pm press briefing, the Maurice-Maitra family were putting in some useful quartet practice. Soon they were giving concerts on Zoom ‘to audiences all over the world’. In this charming lunchtime concert at St Andrew’s, they performed some of their lockdown repertoire.

To say the programme was eclectic doesn’t quite cover it. The pieces in the concert ranged across 200 years, from Mozart to Guns N’ Roses. The concert was in two parts: three short works from more standard repertoire, plus five interesting arrangements of great rock n’ roll songs.

Parents Rupa Maitra (violin) and Donald Maurice (viola) have had the good sense to produce two daughters, cellist Gemma and violinist Lucy. But still, a successful quartet is more than a matter of having the requisite instruments. Chamber music requires technical skill and communication. These they demonstrated – along with a sense of fun.

The first piece was an arrangement for string quartet of a famous tango song by Carlos Gardel, ‘Por Una Cabeza’, stylishly played. The adults’ more polished and powerful playing could have taken over, but with Lucy on first violin the girls held their own and the balance was surprisingly good. In the Presto from Mozart’s Divertimento in D major Lucy showed herself to be an able leader and a good communicator.  Then the parents left the stage while the girls played a charming Air and Variations by Jean-Baptiste Bréval, a contemporary of Mozart. A cellist, Bréval wrote mostly for his own instrument, but this piece gave both cello and violin plenty to do. So far a well-chosen programme, presented with confidence and polish.

When the parents returned to the stage, they had changed their appearance. Rupa was barefoot and wearing a spiky black and white wig, while Donald wore a hippy headband. No one was going to take themselves too seriously.

Donald told us that when he first heard ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ on the car radio one day, he had to pull over. That’s when he found out that he had missed out on ‘about 30 years of rock music’. ‘I had no idea what came after the Beatles.’  It was good, he observed, to be introduced to it now by his children, and to play it together.

Introducing ‘Back in Black’ by AC/DC, Rupa commented that screamed lyrics were hard to reproduce by a quartet but a guitar riff was probably manageable.  And so it turned out. Violin 1 took the lead guitar part, with percussion from violin 2. There was some gutsy playing from viola and cello standing in for bass guitar.

I thought the most successful arrangement was Rupa’s own of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint it Black’. Gemma helpfully explained the colour imagery in the lyrics, and played a plangent cello introduction. Her mother took up the tune in the style of a lead guitar, and then passed it on to the viola. If the piece ended a bit abruptly, it’s because that’s what the song does.

I had no expectations of Aerosmith’s ‘Dream On’, but it worked particularly well for quartet, with an improvisatory quality, wisps of melody floating from voice to voice.

Surprisingly I found the arrangement of Queen’s prog rock classic ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ the least successful of the bunch. The arrangement for quartet was by UK violinist and arranger Mark Lansom, who has arranged Iron Maiden and Cold Play for string quartet, as well several other Queen songs. The remarkable harmonic shifts of the original were there, but the operatic effects had lost their edge when transferred to strings. Roger Taylor’s falsetto ‘Galileo’s were markedly less thrilling when played on the violin, where they are well within the instrument’s range. But it was undeniably interesting.

All in all, an unexpectedly off-beat concert, delivered with confidence and a shared delight.


Individual and ensembled tributes to JS Bach from Pohl-Gjelsten and Friends at an inspired St.Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert

J.S. Bach: Chaconne from Partita in D minor
Helene Pohl, violin

Eugene Ysaye: Sonata No. 5 for solo violin
Peter Gjelsten, violin

Johannes Brahms: Sonata in E minor
Rolf Gjelsten, cello, Nicole Chan, piano

St Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series 2021

Thursday 14th October

J.S. Bach: Chaconne from Partita in D minor
A well planned concert has an underlying narrative. In this case it was twofold, Bach, and the scope of a solo violin. Bach’s Partitas and Sonatas for solo violin are landmarks in the violin repertoire and indeed in the development of the violin as a solo instrument. The Chaconne is the final movement of the second Partita. The great violinist, Yehudi Menuhin, describes it as “the greatest structure for solo violin that exists”  (Menuhin, Yehudi. 2001. Unfinished Journey,) It involves a set of variations based on a simple phrase repeated in harmonic progression in the bass line, but for the present day listener it evokes a whole world of emotions, and for the performer a whole array of technical challenges. Although by Bach’s time works for solo violins were well established, with Biber and Telemann among others writing pieces for solo violin, there was nothing comparable to this monumental work. Bach develops 64 variations from the simple basic theme of four measures. These become increasingly complex of increasing emotional intensity. It may, or may not have been written in memory of Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, who died during a time while Bach was away, but there is no historical evidence for this apart from the date of composition. Helen Pohl’s performance was absolutely convincing. Her playing was clear and unforced as she did justice to the contrasts within the piece and played with a beautiful rich tone. It was a moving performance.

Eugene Ysaye: Sonata No. 5 for solo violin
Although Ysaye was quite a prolific composer, he is now mainly remembered for his six solos sonatas for violin, each dedicated to an eminent violinist, No. 5 to Mathieu Crickboom, second violin of the Ysaye Quartet for a time. Ysaye himself was one of the great violinists of his era, an exponent of the French- Belgian school of violin playing of the tradition of Wieniawski and Vieuxtemps. He was a friend of Debussy and César Franck. Ysaye’s solos sonatas are fiendishly difficult. No.5 is in two sections ,L’Aurore, atmospheric, evoking the mood of the dawn, and Danse Rustique, with its strong rhythms, that of a peasant dance. The piece has a whole bag of tricks, double stop chords, harmonics, fast passages on top of held notes, plucked pizzicatos marking the melodic line of double stops, demonstrating what is possible to play on a violin. It is a great challenge for a young violinist on threshold of his career. Peter Gjelsten coped with these difficulties amazingly well. He gave a convincing reading to this seldom-heard piece .

Johannes Brahms: Sonata in E minor
This is a passionate and lyrical work, written when Brahms was 30 and had just arrived in Vienna. It is one of the few memorable cello sonatas of the nineteenth century. Brahms thought of it as a homage to Bach, and indeed he quotes from the Art of Fugue in the fugal passage of the third movement, but Brahms’ world is very different from that of Bach. This a world in which the emotional world of the artist is paramount. Although the form of the piece is strictly that of classical sonata, it is far from the restrained expression of Bach’s age. It is a very captivating work that calls for a deeply felt response from performer and listener alike. Rolf Gjelsten and Nicole Chao played it as a like minded partnership. Gjelsten played with a lyrical singing tone beautifully balanced by the piano. Emanuel Ax, the great American pianist, wrote in his notes for his recording of this work with Yo-Yo Ma that “The cello is often the bass support of the entire harmonic structure, and the piano is often in the soprano in both hands. This constant shifting of registers, with the cello now above, now below, now in between the hands of the pianist, creates an intimate fusing of the two instruments, so that there is no feeling of a more important voice that is continuous – the lead is constantly shifting.”

We have heard Nicole Chao as half of the delightful Duo Enharmonics, a piano duo with Beth Chen, Peter Gjelsten was the soloist with the Wellington Youth Orchestra, playing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto last week, while Helen Pohl and Rolf Gjelsten are half of the the NZ String Quartet. Like many of the St. Andrews concerts, this lunchtime concert celebrated the vast pool of musical talent in Wellington.


Wellington’s Ghost Trio’s flair and brilliance concludes an eventful 2021 for Chamber Music Hutt Valley

Chamber Music Hutt Valley presents:
The Ghost Trio in concert

Joseph HAYDN – Piano Trio in G Major, Hob.XV:45
Josiah CARR (NZ) – time and glue 2017
Gabriel FAURE – Piano Trio in D Minor Op.120
Antonin DVOŘÁK – Piano Trio  No. 3 in F Minor Op.65

The Ghost Trio :
Monique Lapins (violin). Ken Ichinose (‘cello), Gabriela Glapska (piano)

St. Mark’s Church, Woburn Road, Lower Hutt

Wednesday, 13th October, 2021

What a year for Chamber Music Hutt Valley! – a glance at my season ticket brings back ripples of musical pleasure as memories crowd in of concert following extraordinary concert, with only one pang of disappointment clouding the glow of satisfaction generated by the Society’s 2021 series. This was the cancellation of August’s “Sweet Chance” Vocal Duo presentation – Morag Aitchison (soprano), and Catrin Johnsson (mezzo), with Rachel Fuller (piano) and Serenity Thurlow (viola)  – due to Covid-19 restrictions. One can only hope that audiences get a “Sweet SECOND Chance” in the not-too-distant future to experience what had promised to be an intriguing and unashamedly entertaining evening’s music-making.

Though the shadow of the pandemic took its effect on this, the final concert in the series (masks, social distancing, audience numbers reduced, and the cancellation of post-concert supper), those who attended revelled in an evening’s music-making which fully reinforced the high-watermark standards of achievement set by these 2021 performers. I’d actually reviewed an earlier concert this year by the same performers at the NZ School of Music, and did try to arrange for one of my Middle C colleagues to take this concert – but came the time and nobody else was available (to my secret delight, I freely admit – though, I did wonder what the musicians’ reaction might be to having the same reviewer’s opinions regarding their playing and interpretations “served up” for two concerts running!……)

Fortunately the repertoire in each occasion’s case was “chalk-and-cheese” different, which helped my reviewer’s cause a great deal! – this latest concert was a veritable “showcase” of the art of the Piano Trio, beginning with a work from Joseph Haydn, the composer who had virtually “invented” the present-day version of the genre, before contrasting this with a contemporary work by a New Zealand composer, Josiah Carr, and continuing with two vastly different pieces from more-or-less contemporary figures written at different times in their careers, Gabriel Faure and Antonin Dvořák, each contributing his own individual stamp to the form and creating something uniquely characteristic in doing so.

I felt a tad perplexed when, before writing this review, “looking up” the concert’s opening Haydn item, as listed per the programme note – I was surprised at finding the Hob. Number of the work played not aligning to what I heard the Ghost Trio perform for us – so I remain mightily confused as to just where the work is “placed” in the composer’s oeuvre (in my list of Haydn’s Piano Trios there is no “Hob.XV 45” mentioned, for example, and “Piano Trio No.45”  is actually “Hob: XV 29 in E-flat major”, again, according to my source). Somebody reading this will know, and sort out the correct numbering and key so that I can actually track down a recording……

Monique Lapins introduced the concert for us, her choice of descriptive imagery relating particularly to, and illuminating aspects of both the Josiah Carr and the Faure works for us – I particularly enjoyed her equating the Faure Trio’s sounds to “a warm bath of colour”, a quality that the subsequent performance realised most gorgeously, reinforcing her point about the composer’s instinctive use of harmonic variation determining the music’s character more significantly than did its structure.

First up was the Haydn, however, a work in which the piano dominated, though the strings invariably brought their colours and textures, as well as a sense of interplay, to the music. The work’s development section climbs into different tonal regions, the violin occasionally giving an exuberant “whoop” via accented single notes, while the ‘cello keeps the contrapuntal textures simmering away in tandem with the keyboard. I’d heard it said that the ‘cello part in many of the early examples of Haydn’s Piano Trios is reduced to a kind of “filler” function – but seemingly not here, in most places, and even more not-so with a ‘cellist of Ken Ichinose’s elegance.

The work’s Menuet has a fetching minor-key sequence. Lapins’ violin giving this great poignancy, and Gabriela Lapska’s playing allowing her plenty of ambient space, highlighting  the ensemble’s marked quality of “listening” to one another, something which the following Adagio also readily brought to the fore throughout the music’s journey of enchantment, every note made significant. The finale, too, exudes character, with a rustic “thwang” on the violin’s note-attack, Lapins seeming to “pizzicato” one of these ejaculations at one point, whether by accident or design! – whether bowed or plucked, it all worked just as engagingly!

New Zealand composer Josiah Carr’s “time and glue” employed, through the poetry of Aucklander Emma Harris, a fascinating analogy with the creative process in presenting fragments of sound that become “associated” through interaction. The work provides a time-frame, and the piano the “glue” (the composer helpfully provided a programme-note!), into which scenario the strings contribute ideas and impulses that struggle to “mend” as required along the lines of the piano’s framework. I enjoyed this process, especially the trenchant episodes during which the instruments appeared to “confront” one another, perhaps out of sheer frustration at meeting resistance rather than co-operation! I fancied the idea the sounds then suggested of the piano next “stalking” the strings, which had taken stratospheric “refuge in the treetops”, and gradually enticing them down once more, the violin prevaricating with lurching slides (spanning sevenths?- ninths?) before slowly capitulating, the ‘cello more circumspectedly keeping a pizzicati eye-out for trouble, but eventually making its own connections. A stimulating, thought-provoking piece!

From this we were then taken into the very different world of Gabriel Faure, whose D Minor Piano Trio Op. 120 was written during his final years (he produced only one other work, his single String Quartet, before his death in 1924) and allowed us to savour a unique musical aesthetic, characterised by a quiet strength and truly original attitude towards form and structure. We heard in the first movement of his Piano Trio the mature composer’s obvious delight in daring harmonic modulation, his invention seemingly unconstrained by any “tyranny of key-signature”, and his imaginative fancy transforming convention into something almost child-like in its spontaneity, the results exciting and absorbing!

The Andantino brought us more of these “impulses of delight, the players etching out the composer’s tender dialogues between piano and strings, and violin and cello in turn, the themes allowed to resonate and echo, with the piano sometimes the accomplice, sometimes the leader in the process. There’s a breathtakingly beautiful piano solo from Glapska mid-movement which the strings briefly “touch” with comments, adding their intensities of feeling to the already burgeoning contents of the phrases; and subsequent sequences which once again begin climbing and festooning the music through key-changes into what Robert Schumann used to call “other realms” when sounds seemed to magically transform themselves – did someone mention a “warm bath of colour” at one point?……..

The strings and piano squared off at the finale’s beginning, the piano sparking with excitement in reply to the strings’ dotted-rhythm challenges, until the music disconcertingly skipped away, the players again floating their harmonies freely upwards as the dance energised our listening-pulses! A couple of unison shouts from the strings were peremptorily dismissed by keyboard flourishes, and the dancing continued, the players at first delighting in the music’s hide-and-seek-like harmonic shifts, but gradually “toughening up” on the folk-like ambiences, so that as the music modulated upwards the excitement grew accordingly!

So we came to the concert’s second half, whose music generated its own distinctive energies and tensions, Antonin Dvořák’s first widely-recognised “great” chamber work, the Op.65 F Minor Piano Trio. It’s often described as the composer’s most “Brahmsian” work, referring to  the older composer’s friendship with and frequent advice and encouragement to the younger man at the time this work was written – as with the D Minor Symphony, also composed at around this time, Op.65 seems more-than-usually “European” in its formal and thematic expression, as if Dvořák was emphasising “mainstream” modes ahead of his native “Czech” instincts. Fortunately, his native gifts as a composer were exceptional and distinctive to the point where any such “models” or “influences” didn’t diminish his own achievement – though Brahms’s influence is apparent in this work, it’s still “Czech” enough to be judged on its own merits and enjoyed as such.

The Ghost Trio readily took up the work’s challenges, recreating at the outset the music’s dark, serious purpose via the sombre themes and the terse gestures, though with the occasional touches of Slavonic harmony in places suggesting that this piece has roots in a specific kind of soil. And the second subject, played firstly on the cello and then the violin (Ken Ichinose and Monique Lapins respectively) had a freshness and ardour to the melody that for me proclaimed its Dvořákian provenance in the lilt of its last few bars – and the quasi-martial aspect of the episode immediately following straight away brought to mind a similar sequence in the composer’s later ’Cello Concerto…..

A similar “haunted” quality hung about the Allegretto grazioso second movement, the triplet accompaniments to the melody having to my ears a suggestion of unease amid the thrusting orchestral-like writing, as did the piano’s haunting oscillations a little later – the trio section is more flowing and atmospheric, like “music from another room”, the violin’s and piano’s tender figurations beautifully augmented by the ‘cello’s contributions. And I loved the frisson created by the opening’s return, the cross-rhythms at first hinted at, then suddenly released, the ensemble building the excitement with trenchant rhythmic interjections from all the instruments. The contrasting Poco Adagio slow movement felt like a tranquil woodland recollection in places, before the piano delved into the music’s darker, more troubled side, the strings taking refuge with gorgeous interchanges, the violin soaring, the cello musing and the piano simpatico. The composer’s rich re-imaginings of his material seemed to release a spontaneity of fancy to the journey, the performance here reaching a point of rapture, with the piano’s breathcatching modulations prompting the tenderest response from the strings that one could wish for.

After this the finale puts on dancing shoes, the players making the most of the somewhat angular “falling octave” figure at the beginning, before relaxing into a second minor-key melody with great charm and point, Dvořák imbuing this episode with an inimitably nostalgic, almost “homesick” quality. Vigour and tenderness continue their interplay, the music twice seeming to grow towards a kind of peroration before breaking off for some further reflection – the sounds then become almost confessional in these interludes, the composer unable to resist revealing to us a further precious glimpse of his heart-felt longing – be it mere convention, or a deeply-felt burst of resolve, the work ends with a triumphant flourish, one that on this occasion sparked rapturous acclaim from an appreciative audience.


An Orchestral Feast Showcasing a Rising Star – Peter Gjelsten (violin) with the Wellington Youth Orchestra

The Wellington Youth Orchestra
with Mark Carter (conductor)
and Peter Gjelsten (solo violin)

BEETHOVEN – Overture to “Egmont” (Op. 84)
TCHAIKOVSKY – Violin Concerto (Op. 35)
BIZET – Farandole from L’Arlésienne Suite No. 2

St. Andrews on the Terrace

Sunday, 10 October

Livestreamed and archived at

Pre-concert interview with Peter Gjelsten on RNZ Concert’s Upbeat:

An atmosphere of excitement pervaded St. Andrews as the sold-out Alert Level 2 crowd sorted out its seating arrangements for this much-anticipated season-closing concert showcasing the winner of WYO’s 2021 Concerto Competition, Peter Gjelsten, in Tchaikovsky’s famous violin concerto.  I carefully mulled my seating options — either up in the gallery with many of the cognoscenti, or downstairs in the front row within stabbing range of the principal cellist (Jack Moyer, who heroically overlooked my tactless proximity) — and opted for the latter, more exciting place close to the thick of the action.  There were plenty of fireworks to look forward to, with three well-known and majestic pieces on the program.

First, however, some orchestra business was to be conducted: acknowledgements and encomia for Tom Gott, the outgoing chair of the Wellington Youth Orchestras Board, whose name has been given to a large silver cup which will henceforth be awarded annually to, and inscribed with the names of the Concerto Competition winners.  Aside from being heartwarming, this raised anticipation for the concerto performance to come — but first, the orchestra (sans concerto winner) treated us to a performance of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture.

The stately, portentous opening chords of this overture are thrilling to hear live, and the orchestra sounded as if it was thrilled too, playing with conviction, confidence, and fire.  The string players seemed unafraid to get athletic for the loud bits, and the woodwinds held their own in reply, making for a crisp, well-balanced sound.  Shapely phrases and nicely observed dynamics emerged from under Mark Carter’s elegant, efficient conducting.  It’s clear that he and these players are very comfortable with each other and communicate with ease.

With “Egmont” as entrée, the audience prepared for an equally delicious main course: the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. I first heard this concerto 25 years ago, at the 1996 “Stars of the White Nights” festival in St. Petersburg.  Tickets being cheap and my Russian host family somewhat unfriendly, I tried to go out to concerts every night without too much regard for what was on the programme — and thus it was that I happened to end up hearing the Tchaikovsky concerto on two consecutive nights, with two different orchestras and two different soloists.  On first hearing, I was unmoved.  The music seemed showy but not interesting, and the harmonics and interpolated high notes in the first movement sounded so crude and approximate that I was almost offended to be subjected to them.  (I won’t say who I think the offending soloist was because I’m not 100% sure and can’t find the notebook where I wrote it down!)  The next evening, I returned to the same hall and, after a few moments of déja vu, realized I was hearing the same piece as the night before, this time played by Gidon Kremer.  It was electrifying!  From this experience I learned that, while this concerto is indeed flashy and even macho in places, it falls flat as a pancake without careful attention to phrasing and, especially, intonation.

Fortunately these are particular strengths of Gjelsten’s, as we soon found out.  In an interview the day before on RNZ Concert’s “Upbeat” programme, he had cited Augustin Hadelich’s recording of the concerto as a particular source of inspiration, and the influence was palpable both in his sweetness of tone and in his phrasing which brought out the character, and the lovely melodic material, of the solo line.  Gjelsten also plays with a physical freedom and looseness that is lovely to watch.  Throughout the first movement, he seemed to take its many and diverse technical demands in stride while also feeling totally at home in the music.

A particular pleasure of this concerto is the relationship between the soloist and the orchestra, and in particular the moments where they join each other.  Famously, the piece opens with a melody in the strings that never returns; pretty in its own right, it suggests that we might be in for some sort of pastoral scene, with the woodwinds suggesting a few clouds appearing in the strings’ sunny sky, but before the day takes on any settled character, along comes the solo violin like the Messenger in a Greek play and says something like “Hey, guys, let’s play THIS ONE,” starting up the first movement’s main theme.  Immediately attentive to this charismatic newcomer, the orchestra falls in with his proposal and starts singing back-up, as it were. The same thing happens with the second theme, until after a few minutes of development (featuring some lovely bubbly solo runs for clarinet and flute; overall, the WYO’s woodwinds were excellent) everyone joins in triumphantly on a majestic tutti statement of the main theme, one of the most satisfying moments in any concerto.  In fact it’s so satisfying they do it again a few minutes later (Tchaikovsky never being one to waste an effect he was pleased with, though he obviously had tunes to spare).

There follows the cadenza, not only technically devilish but also challenging to make music out of — as my 1996 experience attests.  I loved Gjelsten’s rendition.  The technicalities of it seemed to disappear — I never felt a gap between the player and his instrument, but rather a sense of complete ease, as though the music was coming directly out of the performer via the violin rather than being coaxed from the latter by the former. The fireworks here — including super-fast runs ending in super-high harmonics — are inevitably impressive but not inevitably pleasurable; Gjelsten’s playing was both, and led beautifully into one of my favourite moments of the entire concerto, the soloist’s culminating trill on a high A that magically transforms from a show-off move into a demure pedal note in the background as the flute comes in with a sweet-voiced restatement of the main theme.  If it were a Disney movie there would be small birds flying around the players’ heads.

After this, things gradually pick up steam again (I have a mysterious scribble in my notes about a particular repeated motif reminding me of Philip Glass; I think this might have been around bar 293), collecting energy for the solo vs. tutti triple-f race to the finish.  The audience REALLY wanted to applaud here, but most of us reluctantly restrained ourselves.  It felt a bit like watching someone land a series of triple axles without cheering, but decorum must have its due I suppose.

Early listeners of this concerto felt that the second movement was the only one Tchaikovsky got right, in between the “unplayable” first movement (Auer) and the “brutal and wretched jollity” of the third (Hanslick).  Hanslick presumably liked it because it didn’t sound “Russian” to him, though I can’t imagine why not; the opening chorale in the woodwinds especially is reminiscent of the nostalgic, sorrowful yet resolute music Tchaikovsky wrote to represent Rus’ under the Mongol yoke in his Moscow Cantata.  One thing this movement IS very good for is giving the audience a moment to breathe and notice that behind the soloist there are other instruments in the orchestra; most notably the woodwinds, who did some lovely playing here. I particularly enjoyed the bassoon solos, but flute and clarinet also shone, emerging and re-merging in brief duets with one another or with the solo violin. We had a few minutes to savour their interplay and the orchestra’s and conductor’s beautiful dynamics before diving headfirst into the breathless “Allegro vivacissimo” third movement.

Here again one hears genuine dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra, with the violin once again saying “Let’s play THIS one!” (or perhaps just “Let’s DANCE!”) to the orchestra, whose various sections play, clap (pizzicato strings; rhythmically bowing cellos), or sing (droning basses, various lyrical counterpoints in the woodwinds) along, adding their own spin on the material and suggesting different moods as it develops (though the violin’s irrepressible will to dance always re-emerges sooner or later).  There are two official themes here but many distinct melodies; the woodwinds, who again did thoroughly delightful work here, get their own “verse” of the song, bringing a slower tempo and a lyrical melancholy before once again getting swept into the dance.  The sinuous “inverse descants” by the clarinet and bassoon in the Quasi Andante section were especially lovely.  And of course we finished on a satisfying loud fast bit — this orchestra sounds absolutely terrific on loud fast bits — and were finally allowed to clap.  This took some time, as the audience had a lot of pent-up admiration to expend.

As it turned out, so did the orchestra, and they took their feelings out on the Farandole movement of Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite No. 2.  This piece is a regulation banger, and the orchestra played it accordingly, with the same verve and panache as the tutti sections of the previous works.  It made for a suitable dessert after the Russian banquet cooked up by Tchaikovsky, and a nice way to reunite Peter Gjelsten (now sitting in the back row of the first violins) with the rest of the team. In fact, one of the most enjoyable things about the whole concert was feeling this sense of teamwork among the performers; in these days of international superstars one rarely gets to hear a concerto played by a violinist with his home orchestra, conducted by their own musical director.  One felt this in the lightness of touch Mark Carter was able to bring to his conducting, in the soloist’s sense of ease, and in the generosity of the orchestra’s response to the soloist.  Overall a very worthwhile way to spend a Sunday afternoon and a magnificent first outing for the new Tom Gott Cup.

The pleasures of intensity – chamber music liberated by distinctive voices, superbly delivered

Wellington Chamber Music presents:
Amici Ensemble

LISZT – Piano Trio “Carnival de Pest”
MOZART – String Quintet in G Minor K.516
CHAUSSON – Concert for Violin, Piano and String Quartet


Sunday, 3rd October

Violinist Donald Armstrong is always an interesting programmer. I loved his
innovative programming for the NZ Chamber Orchestra. But this concert had me
fooled: Liszt, Mozart, Chausson. I was looking forward to hearing the Chausson, but
not sure about the rest. How wrong I was!

The audience was restricted to 100, under Alert Level 2 conditions, and everyone
showed up for the last concert of the Wellington Chamber Music season. This has
been a mostly excellent season, with surprises and delights along the way.
Highlights for me were the revelatory Liam Wooding (piano) and the sheer energy
and fun of the first concert, in which Donald Armstrong, Sarah Watkins (piano), and
Simon Brew (saxophone) played Debussy, Piazzolla, and Farr (amongst others) with
verve and fire.

The Amici Ensemble comprises some of Armstrong’s colleagues from the string
sections of the NZSO plus the protean Professor Jian Liu from NZSM, in various
combinations as the music demanded.

The work by Liszt was an arrangement of his Hungarian Rhapsody No 9 in E major,
known as the ‘Carneval de Pest’, because it evokes the gipsy music of the old town
of Pest (now joined with neighbouring Buda on the other side of the Danube, but still
separate when Liszt wrote the Rhapsody). The arrangement of a solo piano piece for
piano trio was done by Liszt himself, and he used the possibilities offered by violin
and cello to create the distinctive gipsy sound that the piano version could only
gesture towards. Donald Armstrong and Andrew Joyce were gloriously idiomatic.
They played like Hungarian gipsies improvising from folk material, with one bright
idea following another, while Jian Liu sometimes used the piano to imitate the sound
of a cembalom, as Liszt required, or provided glittery cadenzas or scalic passages in
Hungarian rhythms with dazzling elaborations.

The cembalom is a Hungarian hammered dulcimer. It has steel strings (a mixture of
steel treble strings and wound bass strings, like a piano) and a damping pedal, and
looks rather like a harpsichord without the lid. The sound is produced by hitting the
strings with wooden sticks. Jian Liu is a master of producing colours and textures,
and on Sunday his playing rose to Liszt’s bravura heights.

The string textures were varied: pizzicato cello with arco violin to introduce a new
dance idea, or a drone from the cello with busy rhythms from the violin and piano.
Chordal punctuation, as though they were waiting for someone to suggest a new
idea – and then off they swung. It was like time travel: to Pest in the mid nineteenth-

century. Jian Liu finally brought the music back to a Romantic climax. The hectic
accelerando race to the end was sheer delight.

I would have been perfectly content to go home at this point, but there were two
more works to come. The Mozart work was a string quintet in G minor, K516, the
fourth of Mozart’s six string quintets (string quartet plus an extra viola). The
programme notes described the habit of late eighteenth-century composers getting
together with each other to play their own compositions, as well as chamber music
performances of Mozart’s string quintets with Haydn and Mozart taking the two viola
parts. In this case, the viola parts were taken by Nicholas Hancox and Andrew
Thomson, with Malavika Gopal playing second violin, Armstrong on first violin, and
Joyce on cello.

The viola has an undeserved reputation these days, as a dull plodder filling out the
harmony in the middle of the chord. Sheer prejudice. Mozart clearly loved the
instrument, and this quintet exploits its dark sonority and melancholy personality to
the full. The second viola part, played by Andrew Thomson, sometimes had a
woodwind quality, like a bassoon emerging from the string texture. As the quintet
unfolded, I wondered why there are not more viola quintets along Mozartian lines.
Armstrong’s first violin playing was virtuosic, with beautiful clarity of tone and
phrasing over the rich dark sound of the lower strings.

The work itself reveals Mozart in his prime, from the tremulous quavers of the
opening movement in sonata form, the agitated second movement with chordal
punctuation and heavy third beats, the slow movement that moved Tchaikovsky to
tears (‘the feeling of resigned and inconsolable sorrow’), to the rollicking final G
major allegro in rondo form, just to show that all is well after all. (Wipe your tears,
Piotr.) The third movement was glorious, starting with a stately hymn-like unfolding of
deep regret, and the second viola speaking to us directly from its wounded heart.
Aside from the rondo, which I thought could perhaps have done with one less repeat,
the whole work is a stunner. I felt as though a door in the palace of Mozart had
suddenly opened to reveal a whole new wing.

Which left us, after a short interval, with Chausson. Poor Chausson. He died in 1899
at the age of 44 when his bicycle hit a brick wall at the bottom of a hill. People have
wondered about suicide, but mechanical failure strikes me as being much more
likely. This work, Concert for Violin, Piano and String Quartet in D Major, Op. 21,
shows what a major composer he would have become, but for the bike. It was
written between 1888 and 1891 (Chausson did not write quickly), when the
composer was at the centre of French cultural life. He had studied under Massenet
and César Franck at the Paris Conservatoire. He was a chum of Vincent d’Indy; in
fact, they went to Bayreuth together for the première of Parsifal. He was friends with
Duparc, Fauré, Debussy, and Albeniz, not to mention the poet Mallarmé and the
Russian novelist Turgenev. From time to time I heard something of Debussy’s sound
world; better ears than mine would likely have added Massenet, Franck, and Fauré
as well.

Chausson wanted to show that chamber music could have the intensity of opera.
This concert proved his point. The solo violin and piano are sometimes treated as
virtuosic soloists and sometimes as members of a sextet. The first movement
(Décidé – Animé) begins with a simple three-note motif in the piano and then a
passionate violin solo over a liquid piano line. The three-note motif is handed around,
followed by many events and disclosures, complete with commentary and private
conversations. There is such a wealth of thematic material, it is like living through a
nineteenth-century novel written in music. Finally, the solo violin picks up the motif
and takes it higher, and then higher still.

The second movement is a Sicilienne in a slow 6/8, with a lovely dance-like lilt. The
third movement, Grave, is solemn, with grieving solo violin and sympathetic piano.
The quartet players are silent. When they finally enter pianissimo with sombre
chords, it is as though they are expressing sympathy. And so it progresses, the
piano first serene, then searching, walking steadily onward; the strings broken-
hearted. It is an extraordinary piece of writing.

In the Finale, the piano bursts into life in a jaunty ¾, with pizzicato accents from the
strings. And then it’s all on. Themes reappear from earlier, but transformed. Rhythms
come back; new ideas are tossed about, as though there are plenty to spare. I heard
Debussy’s distinctive tone colours most strongly in this movement. But mostly I was
amazed by the variety of Chausson’s ideas. The final climax was huge, rich, and
exciting. What will a standard string quartet sound like after this?

Thanks to Wellington Chamber Music, for a great season under tricky
circumstances. Bravo Donald Armstrong and friends, for such superb playing!