Brahms’ Schicksalslied gives its name to a programme of uplifting music from the NZSO

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

VERDI – Overture Nabucco
BRAHMS – Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) Op.54
DVORAK – Symphony No. 8 in G Major Op.88

James Judd (conductor)
Voices New Zealand Choir
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday, 25th November, 2021

Welcome back! We have been starved of orchestral concerts for the last three months. It was a delight to have a full symphony orchestra on the stage, albeit with the players discreetly separated. A very special welcome back was due to James Judd, who was principal conductor of the NZSO for some eight years, and who has been closely associated with the orchestra ever since. And a great thank you was due to the management of the orchestra who organised this series of four concerts for limited audiences in the midst of the Covid epidemic, over four days, and in exceptionally difficult circumstances.

The orchestra and Voices New Zealand were scheduled to perform Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, a colossal, taxing work, but under the circumstances, everyone had to settle for a programme featuring a more seldom-heard work, Brahms’ Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny), as part of a line-up of uplifting music, starting with Verdi’s Overture Nabucco, and ending with Dvorak’s joyous Symphony No. 8.

Verdi – Overture Nabucco
Verdi’s Nabucco was his first major operatic success. Its simple, singable melodies are immediately captivating. The overture uses themes from arias and choruses from the opera, and it is hard to resist the temptation to sing along with them! Nabucco, by Temistocle Solera, which La Scala impresario  Bartolomeo Merelli gave to Verdi to read, was probably not much of a play (and historically inaccurate to boot), but the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” is memorable, and was used separately on many occasions, including at Verdi’s own funeral. James Judd and the orchestra gave the Overture an energetic yet lyrical reading, notable for the beautiful brass ensemble, and the strong rhythmic drive of the strings.

Brahms – Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) Op.54
Brahms’ Schicksalslied is overshadowed in the repertoire by his longer vocal works of the period, the Alto Rhapsody and the German Requiem. Schicksalslied is a shorter work, but it is of equal note. It is a setting by the poet Friedrich Hölderin, a friend and contemporary of Goethe and Schiller, It is a poem that Brahms found particularly meaningful.

The work begins with an ethereal orchestral passage, then joined by the choir, first by the sopranos, then by the rest of the voices. The music is deeply rooted in the Lutheran tradition, influenced by Bach Chorales that Brahms had studied. The music is typically Brahms, self-effacing, and with no scintillating passages. The melodies grow organically from the rich harmonic groundwork. The first part of the work reflects Hölderin’s words:  “Joyful their soul / And their heavenly vision” – but this is followed by a tempestuous section: “To us is allotted / No restful haven to find; / They falter, they perish / Poor suffering mortals….”

Brahms, however, didn’t want to end the work on a tragic and depressing note, and repeated the opening section in a different key, while still keeping its tranquil mood, It was wonderful to hear this profound and seldom-performed work sung by an outstanding choir, New Zealand Voices.

Dvorák – Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88
Dvorák wanted this symphony to be “different from all the other symphonies, with individual thoughts worked out in a new way”. The Eighth Symphony is cheerful and lyrical, and draws its inspiration more from the Bohemian folk music that Dvorák loved –  It is an endearing work full of joyful melodies, and the orchestra entered into the joyous spirit of the work. There was a lot of scope for the various sections of the orchestra to shine – the flutes and clarinets in the charming Adagio, the strings in the graceful Allegretto gracioso third movement. The performance highlighted the outstanding qualities of the orchestra, whose individual members seemed to play with freedom and abandon, the conductor himself appearing to float and dance with the music.

This seemed to be a reflection of the bond between James Judd and his musicians, a bond of mutual respect – Judd complimented the orchestra,  and also the audience for being there, encouraging people to applaud between movements if they saw fit – and so they did! Though audience numbers were limited to 400, and people were scattered far and distant throughout the auditorium, those present made a lot of noise showing their appreciation.

The audience was rewarded at the end with an enthusiastic rendering of Dvorák’s Slavonic Dance No.1 Op.46. The small number of people in the hall were sufficient to enhance the reverberating acoustics of the Michael Fowler Centre, which brought out the special qualities of the ensemble. In brief, a superb concert, leaving people who were there in a happy mood!

Firstly sparks, and then a conflagration – pianist Otis Prescott-Mason in recital

Otis Prescott-Mason (piano) at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

CHOPIN – Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor
RAVEL – Une barque sur l’ocean (from Miroirs)
BEETHOVEN – Piano Sonata No.28 in A Major, Op.101
LISZT – Annees de Pelerinage Book 2 (Italy) S.161

Saturday, 20th November, 2021

Having heard, and spoken or written about so many piano recitals and recordings over the years in a critical capacity, I’m finding myself these days increasingly gravitating towards performances that bring to the fore a sense of sheer enjoyment of and involvement in the music’s playing. On the strength of what I heard at St.Andrews’ Church last Saturday afternoon, the young Wellington pianist Otis Prescott-Mason seemed to me to exhibit such qualities in unselfconscious spadefuls through his playing – here, negotiating a quixotic first half (by turns energetic and thoughtful) which struck sparks of different voltages, and then embarking post-interval on an epic journey whose concluding episodes brought forth a thrilling sense of open conflagration.

Currently studying with Jian Liu at Victoria University of Wellington, Prescott-Mason began his piano studies with Erin Taylor at the age of 5 through to the tertiary level, when he undertook a two-year period of tuition with Emma Sayers. He’s had a number of competition successes over the duration, the most significant being his winning first prize at the New Zealand Junior Piano Competition in Auckland in 2020, while he’s won on several occasions the Wellington Branch of IRMTNZ’s Recital Competition and the Tertiary Sonata Competition.

His choice of repertoire for today’s recital suggested at once his capacity to identify with a wide range of different musical styles and eras, and his readiness to rise to a challenge, with the music of Franz Liszt in particular representing a kind of acme of virtuosity and expression of Romantic feeling, in relation to the entire literature for solo piano. While the composer’s three “Years of Pilgrimage” collections or “Books” of pieces don’t consciously set out to define Romantic keyboard virtuosity as sharply as do his earlier Transcendental Etudes , certain sections of the former (such as the “Dante” Sonata which makes up the Italian Book’s final section)  require a similarly “transcendental” technique. But these works have a more profound purpose, presenting a freshly-wrought synthesis of poetic feeling with music, an uplifting of the kind that the philosopher Hegel referred to as “a free resounding of the soul” – whether manifestations of art, poetry or recollections of direct experience, Liszt sought to consciously fuse all of those things through music’s sounds to an extent that no-one had previously attempted.

Preceding the Liszt pieces in the concert’s first half, however, were whole worlds within themselves to bring into being, each of which Prescott-Mason plunged into wholeheartedly, bent on realising the “character” of whatever phrase, sequence or overall mood he brought to our attention – firstly came the Chopin B-flat Minor Scherzo’s dramatic beginning, with the tentative “knockings” of the opening forcefully countered by the answering phrases, contrasted with a beautiful cantabile melody launched over an exhilaratingly headlong accompaniment. Prescott-Mason delivered all of this and its sudden “breaking off” with arresting verve and focus, bringing out an almost religious feeling to the music’s central story-telling aspect which, by turns animated and becalmed, returned us in wonderment to a “meanwhile, back at the…..” with the reprise of the opening “knock and answer” sequences. The subsequent “working out” of the cantabile melody’s fate became a brilliant certainty in the pianist’s hands, the coda incorporating its strains into a spectacular conclusion!

Though I’ve never forgotten a breath-catching 2014 performance by another young, former Wellington pianist, Ludwig Treviranus, of Ravel’s Une barque sur l’ocean from the suite “Miroirs”, Prescott-Mason’s playing here demonstrated a similarly oceanic sweep allied to an acute ear for detail, accounting for the piece’s remarkable capacity in a sensitive performance to simultaneously transport and engage! Ravel often asks his music’s interpreters for what seem like contradictory qualities, as here, a deeply embedded emotion expressed with the utmost precision (one thinks also of Le Gibet from “Gaspard de la Nuit”, for example); and I got from Prescott-Mason’s playing an underlying nostalgia in the figurations and harmonies which ineffably expressed the solitude of the vessel and a steadily-focused left-handed framework that somehow suggested the vast indifference of the ocean, the whole making for an overwhelming impression.

How wonderful that this young pianist chose one of my favourite Beethoven Sonatas to include in this programme! – its opening always makes me catch my breath, an ascending phrase that seems wrought entirely from the air as if a mere passing thought, but then engenders whole sequences of give-and-take, each ascent having its own impulsive quest within an “off-the-beat” framework, Prescott-Mason dreamily “floating” the sounds in what feels like free space. The ensuing March, as playful as determined, must have surely helped inspire Schumann’s frequent use of similar dotted-rhythm-patterns, the pianist as elfin as magisterial in his approach, avoiding any sense of doggedness  in the music’s insistence. Prescott-Mason “enjoyed” the Trio’s part-fugal, part canonic game of chase between the lines, and then nicely voiced the scherzo’s return as if “from afar”, spontaneously leading us to the conclusion as a surprise rather than a pre-arranged signal.

The slow movement here seemed to resound with wonderment, its focused distillation in the pianist’s hands leading us trance-like to a kind of hiatus filled with longing, then, without warning, bringing out the work’s opening phrase once again! – and after the answering response had followed suit, the music seemed to explode with ecstatic trills and shouts of joy as Prescott-Mason released the finale upon its course! Where to from there? A “Tempest Sonata”-like arpeggiated chord seemed to cast a sea-change over the music, and a fugue began (a trial run for the “Hammerklavier” Sonata’s fugue, perhaps?), adroitly subjecting the finale’s opening phrase to all kinds of variation before crashing over the points and back onto the mainstream, Prescott-Mason giving his all in keeping the impulses on track and pumping out the energies! A reflective, “winding-down” ending is mooted at first, but with a number of precipitate chords right at the end, Prescott-Mason spectacularly paid the composer his dues in grand style.

To the pianist’s credit, there was hardly a sense at the interval of the recital being something of “two halves”, such was the feeling of continuity and ongoing purpose when he appeared to begin the Liszt part of the programme. Having readily enthused about his playing thus far, I confess to finding his rendition of the opening Spozalizio, a piece inspired by Raphael’s painting “The Marriage of the Virgin”, a tad too rushed in places. The music depicts the marriage ceremony, the programme describing “a lovely bridal song with suggestions of wedding bells”, the piece calm and ritualistic at its beginning, the softly-tolling bells alternating with the three-note “motif” that will play such a significant part in the music, the figures evoked by the stillnesses beginning to move and breathe as the sounds become increasingly animated.

Prescott-Mason’s view of the scenario was obviously a young man’s one, filled with eagerness and excitement at the occasion of a marriage, and thus enlivening the ritual aspects and letting the pealing bells “have their head”. Liszt allows the bells moments of growing excitement during the lead-up to the marriage vows, and unleashes them tellingly at the moment of the marriage pronouncement, but otherwise keeps the solemnity of the ritual very much to the fore; whereas here I felt “pushed” a shade too insistently through the ceremonial layers. Having said this I thought the pianist “enabled” the piece’s epilogue beautifully, evoking the distant bells’ pealing as a kind of ambient memory of the day’s events, and resounding them in the mind even when out of earshot. It’s all a matter of individual response, in the end; and certainly the present performance wove plenty of magic, if at a higher voltage in places than I expected.

I had no such qualms regarding Prescott-Mason’s playing of Il penseroso, Liszt’s evocation of Michelangelo’s figure carved for the tomb of Lorenzo de Medici, the music similarly wrought from what the sleeve notes describe as “lightless sonorities and frozen….melodic motion”. The pianist suberbly brought out the pounding crunchiness of the dissonances amid the darkness of the textures, releasing, as Michelangelo did from the marble, the “character” Liszt intended through his sombre evocations. Afterwards, the Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa was the perfect foil for such solemnities, the music a colourful depiction of high spirits.

Where I felt Prescott-Mason particularly excelled was in his sensitive delineation of Liszt’s responses to each of three sonnets written by the scholar and poet Petrarch (born Francesco Petracco in 1304, into a family that was acquainted at the time with Dante Alighieri). Petrarch became popularly renowned for his unrequited love for a woman called Laura, whom he immortalised in a series of poems, which are regarded as polished and perfected forms of the existing “sonnet” form. Liszt set three of these to music, firstly as songs during 1838-39, and then reworking them as piano solos for this Second Book of his pilgrimage years during the 1850s. Incidentally, Petrarchan scholars have since renumbered all 366 of the sonnets, so that Liszt’s numberings for the three (47, 104 and 123) are revised as 61, 134 and 156 respectively and thus don’t correspond with more recent editions of them!

Sonnet No.47 (61) Benedetto sia ‘l giorno (Blessed be the day), featured at the outset such a felicitous touch from Prescott-Mason as to give full moment to the music’s lifting of a curtain allowing light to flood in from the “blessed day”. And the following song of love that the pianist brought into being here abounded with tender nuances, the emotion encompassed beautifully, held at one point by a gorgeously filigree descending passage before being run again, accompanied this time by repeated figurations of heightened beseechment – words of love, indeed!

The most well-known of the three is Sonnet No 104 (134) Pace non trovo (I find no peace), beginning with agitated phrases that became halting, desperate gesturings of bewilderment to the heavens – and finally heartfelt and passionate words addressed to the beloved. Prescott-Mason encompassed it all, bringing out the bard-like character of the opening entreaties, imbuing each phrase with either gravitas or delicacy by turns, and realising the original text’s stark contrasts of emotion with strongly-characterised impulse – “I fear and hope, I burn and freeze like Ice – I have nothing, yet embrace the whole world”. He then delivered the later forthright sequences with such surety as to exclaim “Both life and death displease me – and my sorrow is the cause of my strife!” before essaying the music’s rhapsodic afterthoughts with the most poetic of tones, “placing” the phrase’s highest note with absolute certainty, and resonating the “dying fall” of the remainder with appropriately stoic resignation.

In some ways the third of Liszt’s settings of these Sonnets, No.123 (156), I’vidi in terra angelici costumi  (I saw on earth figures of angelic grace) is the most remarkable of all in its economy of both material and gesture – its opening activates murmuring undulating figures and unassuming crescendi to establish the piece’s quietly rapturous mood, after which the theme continues to freely sound, interlaced with various decorative phrases generated from the opening. I thought Prescott-Mason’s detailing of these of these felicities within the music’s greater flow simply magical, as was his gathering up of the impulses into an ecstatic frisson of enchantment with the world’s “celestial harmony”, before returning, via a spontaneous burst of birdsong to a world of “angelic grace”, all bestowed by the glory of love – a memorable and treasurable sequence!

Had the recital finished at that ecstatic point no-one could have complained – but the grand design of things having already been set, the young pianist unhesitatingly steered our sensibilities towards Liszt’s epic realisation for piano solo of thirteenth-century poet Dante Alighieri’s work The Divine Comedy, a work which took the composer over twenty years to develop into its final definitive form.  Often called merely the “Dante Sonata”, the work was given the title “Apres une Lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata”, one borrowed from the title of a poem by Victor Hugo based on Dante’s work. Rather than come up with a mere synopsis of Dante, Liszt sought to create a series of vivid atmospheric impressions which, when aligned, themselves conveyed a real sense of a musical process or journey. The famous falling tri-tone opening in the music suggests a descent into Hell, while throughout the work the tonal progressions ceaselessly build up links between all the sonata’s themes, gradually becoming an ascent towards the Divine.

From the beginning’s diabolical “ringing-out”, Prescott-Mason’s incisive playing straightaway drove the music purposefully downwards and into Liszt’s evocation of Dante’s world, the repeated “Devil’s interval” motif creepily joining forces with descending chromatic octave scales to generate a kind of infernal “Abandon hope” scenario. How cleverly the music gradually took into the textures the countering elements which brought forth the “redemptive” themes, Prescott-Mason beautifully judging the cumulative effect so as to infuse these same textures with warmth and light, before retrenching the music’s sinews with purpose for the oncoming fray. His playing, both technically and interpretatively, delineated most skilfully the composer’s intermeshing of motifs from both darkness and light to underline the endless conflict between them in both cosmic and individual realms, and he built the excitements and tensions of disharmony as readily as he evoked the serenity and bliss of peaceful order. We were left in no doubt at the recital’s end as to the extent of the journey we had all made together, one exhilarating and revelatory, Otis Prescott-Mason having certainly done the work and its evocations proud for our great pleasure.





Ludwig is My Darling

A Concert of Vocal Ensembles

Lesley Graham (soprano), Linden Loader (mezzo), and Roger Wilson (baritone), Julie Coulson (piano)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace, Wellington

Thursday 18 November, 2021

These well-known singers, old friends and opera collagues, are accustomed to presenting a lunchtime concert at this time of year, and the programme was an interesting mix of songs that reflected their tastes and interests.

Unfortunately, such was the lack of parking on The Terrace, I missed the lighter items that opened the concert, ‘Dashing away with the smoothing iron’, and ‘The Boatie Rows’ from The Book of Scottish Song (1843), and arrived in time for the high seriousness of four Mozart Nocturnes.  Suddenly St Andrews turned into a Viennese drawing-room.  Mozart wrote these songs in 1788 for his friend, the botanist Nicolaus Josef von Jacquin. Set for SSB, they were intended for domestic performance, and the original accompaniment was three basset horns (‘unfortunately not available for today’s concert’, as the learned and witty programme notes put it, although a ‘portative organ’ would ‘work just as well’). The texts are translations of ‘rather stylized Italian poems … translated into equally inconsequential German’, and the sentiments can be discerned by the titles: ‘If you are far from me’ and ‘I bear my pain in silence’ and so on.

The singing was very stylish, and the songs themselves reminded me strongly of Brahms’s Liebeslieder Waltzer (written for four voices, not three, about 80 years later), also designed for domestic performance.

Then Roger Wilson left the stage for the set of three Shakespeare duets for two women’s voices: ‘Ye spotted snakes’ (but by Keel (1871-1954), not Mendelssohn), and two better known songs by Vaughan Williams, ‘It was a lover and his lass’ and ‘Fear no more the heat of the sun’.  The text of ‘Ye spotted snakes’ is considerably better than the music, in my view, whose heart was in the dull decades of the nineteenth century (‘Ye spotted snakes with double tongue, /Thorny hedgehogs be not seen; / Newts and blind-worms, so no wrong, / Come not near our Fairy Queen’). But the Vaughan Williams settings are justly well known (though less so than RVW’s Three Shakespeare Songs for SATB), the women’s voices were beautifully paired, and Lesley Graham’s stage presence sparkled.

Roger Wilson returned to sing ‘The Water Mill’, a ballad that began promisingly, ‘There was a maid…’. Well chosen. The next RVW number was ‘See the Chariot of Love’, from the under-performed opera Sir John in Love, written originally for SATB. But – as Lesley Graham put it – ‘we lost our tenor’, so the trio asked Michael Vinten to rearrange the quartet for SAB. The song is placed near the end of the opera, at the point where the complicated plots come together in a welter of explanations.  Vinten told me he dealt with the tenor line by giving the baritone ‘more jumping about’ to do than in the original. The piano part was ravishingly played by Julie Coulson. I liked it a great deal.

The last two items on this surprising programme were two arrangements by Beethoven. ‘Up! Quit thy bower’ (which sounds like something you’d shout on weekday mornings to sleepy teenagers) was taken from 12 schottische Volkslieder WoO 156, and was fun. But more fun was Beethoven’s arrangement of ‘Charlie is my darling’ (a poem written by Carolina Oliphant, Lady Nairne, as every schoolchild knows), complete with Scotch snaps. The piano part, as you might expect from L van Beethoven, was crisp and fabulous, and so was Julie Coulson’s playing.

Duo pianists charm and delight lunchtime concertgoers at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace

St.Andrew’s Lunchtime Concerts presents:
Sunny Cheng and Otis Prescott-Mason – Piano Four Hands

SCHUBERT – Rondo in A Major D.951
MENDELSSOHN – Andante and Allegro Brilliante Op.82
SAINT-SAENS – Carnival of the Animals

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

Wednesday, 17th November, 2021

A delightful programme! I thought I’d not heard the Mendelssohn Andante and Allegro Brilliante before, but, upon checking the “Middle C” website discovered to my bemusement that I had seen and heard  pianist Sunny Cheng play this and the Schubert Rondo in A Major already, on that occasion with fellow-pianist Kris Zuelicke at Victoria University’s Adam Concert Room over a year ago!  While enjoying the concert as a whole I had doubts regarding the duo’s playing of the Schubert on that occasion, thinking the performance lacked a certain light and shade, and wondered whether the immediacy of the venue had something to do with the impression given – here, in the more ample St.Andrew’s acoustic I appreciated Cheng’s playing of the Schubert far more readily (this time, of course, with a different pianistic partner!) The music here seemed to take on an extra “bloom”, suiting far better Schubert’s “orchestral” writing in places, and allowing the playing’s dynamics more space in which to fully register.

Cheng’s partner this time round was Otis Prescott-Mason, a young Wellington pianist who in recent times has won various awards for his playing – I’ve yet to hear him undertake a complete recital, but what I’ve heard as part of various competitions certainly indicates his enormous promise. He and Cheng certainly seemed well-suited as duo partners, as evidenced by the loveliness of the Schubert Rondo’s opening on this occasion, the music seeming to “happen” rather than consciously begun, with a beautifully flowing tempo that allowed detail the space to register and flower, a journey to be savoured along its course here as well as registered merely in a kind of retrospective afterglow.

I thought the composer’s “orchestral” writing in places finely contrasted with the opening up of new worlds as the music changed key and brought forth variations of texture (beautifully-etched staccato triplets) and for a heart-stopping moment a “ghosting” of the finale of the contemporaneous A Major D.959 Sonata, all integrated winningly into the whole, as was the “role-swapping” towards the end, with the secondo player (Prescott-Mason) taking the theme and the primo (Cheng) providing filigree accompanying chords. And we were able to truly relish the assertiveness of the theme’s last statement making its presence felt before dying away to a poignant ending.

The Schubert had by this time “honed” us to perfection for the Mendelssohn work’s beautiful opening pliability, the melodies bedecked with gentle impulse and spun with great finesse by the duo, before the music’s cheekily irruptive transition spun us into the engaging “allegro”, its “brilliante” expressed as much by an engaging variety of touch and texture as by its velocity or volume. These textures were judiciously layered, the sounds as irresistibility wrought as a fountain’s overflowing, everything splashing and glittering as the impulses rushed everywhere, then towards the end savouring the hesitancies of the “question-and-answer” sequences before plunging headlong into the work’s coda, catching us all up in its excitement and abandonment.

Afterwards came something of a curiosity, one I hadn’t realised even existed – a piano duet version of Camille Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, presumably the one mentioned most frequently on the internet, made by Lucien Garban, a composer and music arranger who made similar transcriptions of numerous works by various French composers, many of whom were his contemporaries – among them Debussy, Ravel, D’Indy, Dukas and Roussel. As Saint-Saens’ original work was scored for two pianos and chamber ensemble, the “four hands” here had a great deal to do on their single keyboard, acquitting themselves with plenty of suitable panache, piquancy and poetry as required by each of the characterisations.

The King of Beasts naturally enough dominated the music’s first menagerie batch, his Royal March given plenty of pomp and circumstance and punctuated by fearsome roarings emanating from the depths of the keyboard, after which the self-satisfied squawkings and crowings of the Hens and Cocks and the madcap scamperings of Wild Asses up and down the keyboard cleared the way for the Tortoises’ Can-can, here beautifully and poignantly realised in slow motion! Only the Elephant was slightly disappointing – I wanted rather more pachydermic weight and girth in the music-making, and greater irony of contrast between the beast’s tender serenade and its portentous gait!

The Kangaroos were lovably quixotic, as were the Persons with Long Ears, while the Cuckoo in the Woods worked its magic. While I thought both the Aquarium and the Aviary could have done with a lighter and more impressionistic touch from both players, I thought Pianists was simply a star turn, the players amusingly coming to grief with their pedagogic scale exercises, depicting in no uncertain terms the servitude exacted by the desire for technical keyboard excellence and the musical aridity that results. Great stuff!

Fossils, which immediately followed, seemed to have unfortunately caught a couple of gremlins from Pianists, sounding a tad unco-ordinated and uncertain in places; though amends were made by The Swan, here limpid and gorgeous, and beautifully laid out for the players’ hands, the piece’s rather Lisztian conclusion pure poetry. It all made the perfect foil for the work’s Grand Finale, both players back on their game and producing an uproariously clangorous and swirling affair, a “curtain call” of the dramatis bestiae featuring lightning characterisations, loads of musical exuberance and great feats of finger-dexterity – all most vertiginously and hair-raisingly satisfying – bravo!

Circa’s “The Little Mermaid” pantomime awash with enjoyment and conjecture

THE LITTLE MERMAID – The Pantomime 2021
Circa Theatre, Taranaki St., Wellington

Written by Simon Leary and Gavin Rutherford
Directed by Susan Wilson
Music arranged and directed by Michael Nicholas Williams
Choreography by Natasha McAllister and Jthan Morgan
Set and Projection design by Anna Lineham Robinson
Lighting Design by Marcus McShane
Costume Design by Sheila Horton

Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St.,Wellington
Wednesday, 17th November, 2021

Until 23rd December, 2021

My first thought upon hearing about the projected scenario for this year’s Circa Pantomime was surprise that a story with grim and murderous elements (Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid”) had been chosen – not having seen or even registered the Disney film adaptation of the story I wasn’t aware that the inevitable process of sanitisation of this story had already begun, as had previously happened to countless other folk- and fantasy-tales adapted for children over the years.

With the prospect of a remake by Disney of the story due for release in 2023 it would seem that “The Little Mermaid” has joined the select “classic fantasy tale” group, duly reinforced, of course, by pantomimic treatment, as witness Circa’s energetic and highly recreative adaptation of the story.

My second thought, independent of the above, was stimulated at the theatre itself upon my reading director Susan Wilson’s paean of praise (thoroughly well-deserved, incidentally) in the programme for all the people, past and present, who have contributed their talents and energies to the Circa Pantomimes for the previous 17 seasons, more-than-usually laudatory – was this some kind of valedictory address on the director’s part? Time will, of course, tell, but even the most successful theatrical undertakings, by dint of their nature, don’t last forever and needs must undergo refurbishment of some kind.

I was thinking particularly of Gavin Rutherford’s superb series of “Dames” which we’ve enjoyed over the years, and which delivered yet again this time round with just as much bristling energy and droll insouciance as his character needed, his “Shelly Bay” persona a brilliant throwback in itself to a time when the world was younger and less “submerged” with troubles, Rutherford’s capacities for drollery here seemingly inexhaustible!

Of course, this was, both onstage and off, an ensemble effort – and Rutherford’s charismatic “Shelly Bay” was more than amply matched by the tale’s “movers and shakers”, both institutional and everyday – Simon Leary’s King Lando, the ex-restauranter-cum-ruler of the largely-submerged 3021 version of Wellington, one whose on-the-spot land speculations have secured him power and influence over what is now left of the eastern “Heights”, posed a credible romantic attraction for the “poor fisher woman” Shelly Bay, when allied to a past association the pair had that Lando was now doing his best to escape from! He had as well, a kind of “alter ego”, a puppet stingray called “Death Shadow, one that flitted voraciously in-and-out between the hapless characters that crossed his path.

King Lando’s rival on all counts came in the form of Kathleen Burns’ wonderfully-vampish Bermuda, the Sea-Witch, a stunning portrayal enhanced by an octopus-tentacled costume whose every movement riveted the attention! Bermuda’s more-than-apparent nastiness was mitigated by her disdain for humankind and the havoc wrought upon the natural world by its representatives, her theatrical vow to “rid the world of humans” a kind of perverse “corrective” to Lando’s self-serving power-grab.

Equally spectacular in a more benign context was Jthan Morgan’s Queen Neptuna, a tragic, subaqueous “Queen of the Night” kind of figure (and similarly bewailing the loss of a daughter), looking and sounding the part as if to the manner born! It was a tour-de-force performance by Morgan, as he had to switch roles occasionally to being King Lando’s Public Relations agent “Shaggy” (and put up with the inevitable barrage of innuendo!)  – Morgan’s extra distinction was his “Shaggy” character’s adeptness with sign language, which certainly resonated with everybody, in the wake of the last couple of years’ Covid updates!

The younger generation was represented by Natasha McAllister  in the title role, as Queen Neptuna’s daughter Coral, charming us from the outset with her singing voice, which of course she has to later relinquish so her fins and tail can be changed into legs after she falls in love with a human – who happens to be a boy called Lyall, who happens to be the son of Shelly, thus further extending the show’s vistas when looking back at a world lost to the rapacious exigencies of climate change.

Lyall was here played by Jake McKay, who to his credit seemed remarkably “boy-next-door-like” considering his mother Shelly had at various times told him he was “special”, being an “immaculate conception”. Apart from each having similarly patronymic-like names, McAlister and McKay seemed ideally suited for their roles – a happy stage partnership! Finally, there was Trae te Wiki’s portrayal of Crabby, the hermit crab who’s Coral’s best friend, and who’s the “ordinary, everyday” personality, the “Everyman” of the drama, who comes across as warm-hearted and faithful, and very much the victim of circumstances -most endearingly she adapts as best she can to life’s changing situations, winning our sympathies in the process.

My third thought (or is it my fourth?), having introduced and summarised the individual personas and characteristics of the show’s dramatis personae, is a reiteration of  my amazement and appreciation of the sheer raw energy this cast puts into the performance (a quality also remarked on by my companion for the occasion, herself a “performance artist”, and as such directly appreciative of the levels of high-octane output generated by all concerned – whether emoting, singing or dancing (or all three at once), the output was almost tangible in its crackling voltage.

This quality was never more never more apparent than during the production’s songs (the actors supported to the hilt by their inexhaustible Music Director Michael Nicholas Williams via his arrangements and on-the-spot accompaniments), Natasha McAllister’s voice soaring  at the beginning, resonating in the memory during her “mute” period (displaying her new-found sign-language skills as the rest of the cast sang “You Can Count on Me”), and gloriously restored for the rousing finale. McAllister’s and Jthan Morgan’s  inspired choreography throughout gave the songs extra “punch”, Sheila Horton’s colourful and apposite costumes also contributing to the flow of body, texture and colour (as I write this I can still see Kathleen Burns’ Bermuda and her witchety tentacles!), and the whole was mellifluously (and sometimes startlingly) illuminated by Marchs McShane’s lighting, adding even further dimensions to Anna Lineham Robinson’s environmentally dystopian sets, evoking a futuristic world we’d probably rather not try to imagine…….

On the strength of what her “support team” of actors and technicians generated through their efforts, director Susan Wilson had every right and cause to thus “stop and reflect” for us on the achievement of this and past pantomime productions, and, of course, revel in the deserved satisfaction of knitting all these strands together to memorable effect.


What I would take through death’s dark door

New Zealand String Quartet National Tour
Programme 2:  MOZART – String Quartet No 21 in D, K. 575
LOUISE WEBSTER – this memory of earth
SHOSTAKOVICH – String Quartet No 11 in F minor, Op. 122
MENDELSSOHN – String Quartet No 2 in A minor, Op. 13

St Peter’s Church, Willis Street, Wellington

Sunday, 14 November 2021

This concert, like its predecessor on Friday 12 November, was delayed by the Covid-19 Level 4/3 restrictions in August and September, and was also displaced from the Hunter Council Chamber to St Peter’s Church. The change of venue was positive. Although the NZSQ has never performed in the church before, it is an excellent venue for chamber music, with its warm and rather dry acoustic contributing to a clear and intimate sound.

The first work on the programme was the well-known String Quartet No 21, K. 575 of Mozart, written as the first of a set of six commissioned by King Frederick William II, a keen cellist. It’s a delightful work, and was played with great style and charm. Because the quartet was written for a cellist, it is impossible to ignore how Mozart made sure to give the cello-playing King plenty to do, occasionally popping out of the texture with an attractive short solo, or in duet with one of the other voices. The allegretto final movement features lovely cello solos beneath an agitated theme that is passed around the upper voices, before the first theme reappears like a burst of brilliant sunshine.

The Louise Webster work did not suffer by being sandwiched in between Mozart and Shostakovich. It was commissioned by the NZSQ, and was first performed in May 2020. Its title, ‘this memory of earth’, was taken from a poem called ‘Fields in Midsummer’ by the New Zealand poet Ruth Dallas (1919-2008), a nature poet who often struck an elegiac tone. The composer (who is also, we were told, a paediatrician and child psychologist) writes: ‘Our earliest memories of the land shape who we are, who we become. …At a time when our world is under such threat, these threads of memory nudge us, reminding us of what we must hold, treasure,reclaim, rebuild…’

The piece is built up of tiny pieces of melody and rhythmic fragments tossed from part to part, evoking memories of the natural world – bird song, often in Violin 1, sometimes over a weird metallic drone created by the inner parts, with sad chords and fast rising glissandi, and the occasional strident outburst. Often the cello part creates an undertow of sadness, reminding us insistently of loss. The complete line from Dallas’s poem is relevant: ‘This memory of earth I would take through death’s dark door’.

This was a beautiful work, insisting upon the memories we carry within us, and on the vulnerability of the natural world. My notes say towards the end: ‘A melody, finally, but almost admonitory: “Do you not see this?” Emphatic sombre cello. Human voice, low and lyrical. Tutti now – but grey harmonies.’

I could have done with hearing the Webster played twice, because there is so much material to understand, and it is hard to make sense of as a whole on first hearing. There is a constant on-rush of new ideas, and many extraordinary brief effects. The Dallas title was well chosen. The composer’s close observation of nature imbued with a strong sense of loss was perfectly suited to Dallas (and perhaps too to the COP26 Summit being held in Glasgow over the past fortnight).

The Shostakovich quartet (No 11 in F minor, Op. 122, written in 1966) would, I thought, have been sufficient to make a complete concert on its own. Despite lasting only 15 minutes, it contains enough music for an entire symphony. The quartet was written not long after Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony, which is based on the ‘Babi Yar’ poems of the Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Yevtushenko was phenomenally popular in the sixties, sufficiently so to get away with publishing the poems, which are about the massacre of Jews at Babi Yar, near Kiev, by the Nazis in 1941. The Soviets were covertly anti-Semitic, and Yevtushenko’s poem both memorialises the atrocity and exposes the complicity of the Soviet authorities, who had not so much as marked the site of the massacre.

The seven short movements of the quartet, played without pausing, evoke the poems, the massacre, and the cynical brutality of the Soviet state. This is angry music, in which the composer seems to conform to the will of the Soviet authorities but provides the most severe and withering critique of their actions. It was written with great courage. For years Shostakovich kept a suitcase packed ready by the door of his flat, so that if he was dragged off to prison in the middle of the night by the KGB, his family would not be disturbed.

The sixth movement, Elegy, was intensely personal. It was written to commemorate the death of Vassily Shirinsky, second violinist in the famous and long-running Beethoven Quartet, which premiered 13 of Shostakovich’s 15 quartets (and whose mantle was passed to the Borodin Quartet). Shostakovich, Rolf Gjelsten told us in his introduction to the work, ‘felt as though he had lost the ground from underneath him’ when his friend died. The first violin has much to tell us about Shirinsky, but the insistent bom-bom-bom rhythm from the cello tells us that nothing can be done. We are standing around a grave. The second violin has stopped playing, just as Shirinsky has.

This was a stupendous performance, bleak and deeply moving. The concert seemed complete. But there was more. After a short interval, we were treated to an early Mendelssohn work, String Quartet No 2 in A minor (Op. 13). It was written when Mendelssohn was only 18 (but with the musical maturity of a 36-year-old) and had just fallen in love with a girl. It is as sunny and lyrical a work as you can imagine, returning us to a world in which beauty, love, and possibility are all around us. This provided a lovely pairing for the Mozart Quartet that opened the concert, as though we needed to be de-gaussed before returning to our lives.

And finally, the Quartet presented an uncharacteristic encore. In this case it was a thank-you to the Turnovsky Endowment Trust, which has supported the NZSQ in its annual National Tour for 20 years. Fred and Lotti Turnovsky’s daughter Helen was present for the acknowledgement, which came in the form of a very Czech polka from the Second String Quartet by the Turnovskys’ compatriot Bedrich Smetana. The idiomatic rhythms gestured to the Shostakovich, but the polka was an innocent and merry dance of joy, a celebration of the Czech national style, not a satirical commentary on totalitarianism.

In all, it felt more like two concerts worth of music, gloriously played. Fred Turnovsky’s vision for bringing the music of great European composers to New Zealand audiences, and his support for the NZSQ, were truly honoured.

From the Bush to the Ballroom: the NZSQ Plays Music from Aotearoa and Central Europe

The New Zealand String Quartet

2021 National Tour –  Programme 1

HAYDN – String Quartet Op. 76, No. 4 “Sunrise”
FARR –  Te Kōanga
LIGETI –  String Quartet No. 1 “Métamorphoses nocturnes”
DVORAK –  String Quartet No. 10, Op. 51

The Public Trust Hall, Wellington

Friday, 12 November 2021

This concert was billed as a “Premium Concert Experience,” the kind of language that sets the teeth of a crusty old pedant like me somewhat on edge. It refers in this instance to a format involving tables instead of serried rows of chairs, with drinks and canapés served at the interval, a concept that also struck me initially as rather naff.  However, I ended up enjoying it thoroughly, partly because it was well done (the hall did not smell like a restaurant, the drinks and canapés were modest and discreetly served, and I didn’t hear anyone slurping during the music!), and partly because the elegant interior of the Public Trust Hall lends itself quite nicely to this atmosphere of discreet bourgeois luxury. The Haydn quartet that opened the programme completed the illusion of being, perhaps, a relatively anonymous guest at the Esterházy court enjoying the fruits of their musical patronage.  (In actual fact we were enjoying the fruits of the Turnovsky Endowment Trust’s patronage — the Trust has supported the Quartet for two decades as of this year — and the strong Austro-Hungarian orientation of the music programmed for this national tour of the NZSQ pays homage to Frederick Turnovsky’s Central European roots, with Czech composers especially featured.)  To my surprise, it was also easier to focus on the music while sitting comfortably at a table rather than in a row of seats; the sightlines were better, and one felt less like a sardine and more like a patron of the arts.  In short: five stars, would attend a “premium concert experience” again.

Of course it didn’t hurt that the music itself was exquisite. It is always a huge pleasure to watch the NZSQ perform; they are so attentive to one another, communicating through their body language both the mood of the music and the relationships within it.  The Haydn “Sunrise” quartet comes by its name honestly, opening with a warm, sustained B-flat major chord in the three lower voices from which the first violin takes off on a series of upward runs that immediately evoke the rising sun. The motif returns throughout the movement (occasionally inverted, sometimes in a minor key suggesting clouds over the sun) and gets passed around from instrument to instrument, while in between the four lines chase each other around in semiquavers that variously evoke running water, scurrying animals, chattering birds, etc. Much opportunity here to enjoy both the individual voices of the Quartet’s four excellent members and the various dialogues forming and dissolving between players, a texture the NZSQ performs brilliantly.  

This “Allegro con spirito” nature study was succeeded by a chorale-like Adagio that largely tethered the lower voices together in a chordal texture while the first violin again soared above in rippling arabesques — the Hungarian Count von Erdődy to whom the Op. 76 quartets are dedicated must have had a first violinist he enjoyed listening to.  The rising semitones from the first movement carried through the second and into the third, a robust and jolly Menuetto that transported the hearer straight to an Eastern European tavern and the very thick of a peasant dance. Strongly rhythmic, as if to evoke stomping feet, the Menuetto also features octave unisons in the violins over a bass drone in the cello that conjured bagpipes in our midst.  One often hears the expression “not a dry eye in the house,” but in this case I think there was not a wet eye in the house; the mirth and jollity of this movement was too contagious. A somewhat more aristocratic-feeling folk dance — say, a ballroom adaptation — formed the atmosphere of the Finale, with the four instruments again passing around fragments of the main theme, coalescing into brief and various alliances without sticking out from the collective.  An accelerating and intensifying coda brought things to a satisfying conclusion and left the audience in no doubt about when to applaud.

If the Haydn quartet transported us by turns to a meadow, a church, a tavern, and a ballroom, Gareth Farr’s 2017 work Te Kōanga took us to the Marlborough Sounds of the composer’s holidays as a teenager, when — according to the Quartet’s programme notes — he heard, and noted down, the song of a particular tui whose voice is immortalised in the piece’s opening bars. Rather than a stylized Classical impression of avian dawn choruses, then, Te Kōanga (“spring” or “planting season” in te reo Māori) offered direct transcriptions of native birdsong — specifically, two tuis and a weka — which gradually gathered into a rich, rhythmic texture in the top three voices while the cello provided a jazzy pizzicato bass line underneath.  The piece, commissioned as a memorial to Wellington luthier and cellist Ian Lyons by his family, is written to evoke, and celebrate, Lyons’ passion for the natural world, and specifically the wild outdoor spaces around Wellington. It was built around three main textures: a hushed, tremulous evocation of the native bush filled with birdsong; angular, airy percussive sections with (what the program called) “powerful plucks and snaps on the strings”; and more solid arco sections that often featured unisons diverging into Shostakovich-like dissonant harmonies. We visited each of these terrains several times, in various permutations, before vanishing once again into hushed space as the bird songs quieted.

It was back to Hungary for the last piece before the interval: György Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 1, nicknamed “Métamorphoses nocturnes.”  Helene Pohl, in her introductory comments, said the Quartet hear strong echoes of late Beethoven in the work, as well as the obvious influence of Bartók (whose works, however, Ligeti knew only insofar as they were approved for performance by the Stalinist government still in place when he was writing his first quartet; the works of other, more frankly avant-garde composers, such as Alban Berg, could not be heard at all, though Ligeti owned a score of Berg’s Lyric Suite and professed it as an influence on this work).  

If images of the natural world had provided the link from Haydn to Farr, the opening of the Ligeti hearkened back to Haydn via the motif of rising semitones. Here, however, far from the warmth of Haydn’s sunrise, chromatic scales — rising from a low C, beginning in the viola and gradually trickling into the cello and second violin — sounded spooky and, well, more Transylvanian (the composer was born in Transylvania in 1923) than plain old sylvanian. I found myself feeling glad that the scales were at least going up rather than down. From here, the first violin introduces the motif that Ligeti identified as the “concept” which “metamorphoses” rather than receiving conventional variations over the course of the piece, which is written as a single movement although distinct “sub-movements” are marked within it.  The texture ranged from delicate tremolo sections over melancholy harmonies to hyperactive fortissimo outbursts.  Though the overall effect was unconventional, formal conventions were not disregarded; the opening “Allegro grazioso” (with its unsettling rising scales) performed the traditional function of introducing the material to be developed; other sections recognizably included standard exercises such as a march, a waltz, a mournful adagio, etc. — but all knocked slightly askew.  


I thought the NZSQ played this superbly, with considerable humor, as well as energy and passion.  Both solo and ensemble playing were flawless. The music seemed to grow out of them more organically than the preceding two pieces (although I had no complaints about the preceding two pieces). From where I was sitting I happened to have a better-than-usual view of the inner voices, Monique Lapins on second violin and Gillian Ansell on viola; it was such a pleasure to watch them knit their lines together, as they were frequently called upon to do. All four players were fully involved in the music and obviously hearing and communicating with all three of their respective colleagues (at least, I am extrapolating in regard to Rolf Gjelsten, whose cello sounded terrific but of whom, from my vantage point, only a tidy haircut could be seen). Sometimes their playing and body language communicated deep empathy; sometimes, mutual hilarity (my notes single out “the bits where everyone is playing glissando and making each other laugh”: glissando was much to the fore, appearing in pizzicato and harmonic as well as arco sections). The “Tempo di Valse” section sounded irresistibly like a couple of Chaplinesque drunks trying to walk home (but was followed immediately by a ringing, urgent “subito prestissimo” lest we get too comfortable in our amusement). Perhaps under the influence of the “nature study” theme introduced by Haydn and Farr, I heard the alternations between prestissimo and allegro “giovale” in the last quarter of the piece as a tale revolving around angry bees; perhaps, those unsuccessfully hunted by Winnie-the-Pooh (who, under the name Micimackó, had been a beloved part of Hungarian children’s culture since 1935, so why not?).  My irreverence was, however, again stopped short by the sorrowful concluding Lento, tapering into silence (another aspect of performance at which the NZSQ excels: holding a silence for a decent length of time before relaxing for applause.)

This was a high note on which to adjourn for the interval (during which I was amused to be served hors d’oeuvres by shining lights of the Wellington Youth Orchestra, whose last concert I had recently reviewed).  On the programme for the second half was just one work, Dvořák’s  Tenth Quartet. This began tentatively but soon warmed up into the luscious and catchy folk-derived melodies for which Dvořák is known. Here as in the fourth movement of the opening Haydn, the folk dances felt less earthy than stylized; not so much an invitation to dance as an invitation to think about dancing. The opening polka is followed up in the second movement by a darker, more melancholic Andante (the “dumka” or folk lament, which is in turn contrasted by a lively Vivace section.  The third movement, labelled “Romanza,” is lyrical, yearning, and optimistic. Finally, the fourth movement returns to the stylized evocation of the dance hall with an exceptionally catchy and upbeat “skočná,” the fast-paced folk dance also used extensively by the composer in his Slavonic Dances. A meno mosso restatement of the main theme followed by a tiny, fast coda provided a final flourish to, as the programme notes suggested “send the listener on his merry way.” 

After such a programme, however, the listener proved not so eager to be sent. Applause continued until the Quartet returned to their designated performance spot in front of the windows to serve us “one more bonbon”: Rolf Gjelsten’s arrangement for string quartet of Janáček’s Znělka (“Sonnet”) in A Major, JW VII/1 (originally composed for four violins). The choice of a Czech composer for the encore was made in deference to Frederick Turnovsky’s original nationality, but also served as a fitting coda to a programme so firmly grounded in the Austro-Hungarian region (with even the deeply local Gareth Farr piece audibly connected by theme and technique to the “Hungarian” works placed before and after it). In all, I would have to say that not only the playing but the programme composition was superb; coherent, surprising, logical yet unexpected. The Haydn and Dvořák “standards” were meaningfully illuminated by juxtaposition with the less-known Farr and Ligeti works (and vice versa). While I may remain dubious about the terminology “Premium Concert Experience,” there is no doubt that this was, absolutely, a “premium” musical experience, and one I’m profoundly glad I had the opportunity to hear.

Dramatic and innovative Haydn in the Church from Camerata with soprano Carleen Ebbs

Camerata – Haydn in the Church

HANDEL – Overture Berenice
HAYDN –  Scena di Berenice (from Metastatio’s “Antigono”)*
HAYDN – Symphony No. 14 in A Hob 1:14

*Carleen Ebbs (soprano)
Anne Loeser (leader)


Friday, 5th November 2021

At the end of a busy and distracted Friday I found myself headed for St.Peter’s-on-Willis-St Church for Camerata’s latest “Haydn in the Church” concert series, which I’d been looking forward to ever since attending and enjoying the last one, though on this occasion I’d not been as assiduous in my preparation for the evening’s music as per usual – I had seen the programme on-line a couple of days previously, and was, of course expecting the accustomed delight of an early Haydn symphony to match that readily afforded by others in the series thus far, but I found myself scratching all about my memory-banks to recall what else I’d glimpsed on the  items “list”. I definitely recalled a soprano’s name, and an operatic scene to do with “Berenice”, which I had always thought was a work by Handel! – so I think at that point I gave up the conscious struggle, and consoled myself at the thought of everything being “revealed” once I’d gotten into the church.

Even then I didn’t get my hands on an actual programme, but  did talk briefly with Greg Hill, who was sitting next to me in a socially-distanced sense, and who actually had written the programme notes for the concert – at the interval he was able to confirm that there had been both a Handel and a Haydn work, each with the name Berenice, on the items list! So I had been on the right track after all.

I knew the Menuetto from Handel’s “Berenice” as my parents had owned a 78rpm disc of the work which I’d often heard when a child, and still remembered. This was, however, the whole of the Overture, a sprightly beginning, with the dotted rhythms beautifully “sprung”, leading to an Allegro whose trajectory had a joyous kind of enlivening energy, the oboe attractively colouring the string textures. The Menuetto featured the oboe-and-string sound prominently at first, before the strings repeated the material, playing the concluding lines of the second part with a beautiful and graceful legato. A lively Gigue rounded off the Overture in suitably festive fashion.

The name of the soprano Carleen Ebbs was one to conjure with, as she had made a richly favourable impression on the one occasion I’d previously seen and heard her, as the nymph Calisto in Cavalli’s eponymous opera, performed in 2015 by Days Bay Opera – on that occasion I was moved to voice the opinion that “Ebbs’ is a voice to listen out for”. She’s now returned to New Zealand after being based in London for 15 years, training at the Guildhall in London and at the Cardiff International Voice Academy, and working with a variety of prestigious coaches and at the great UK Opera Houses.

On the strength of her performance this evening of Haydn’s 1795 Scena di  Berenice, that promise, evident in the Days Bay La Calisto, has been more than fulfilled – Ebbs took us right inside the character of Berenice’s plethora of moods from the outset, capturing our sympathies from the very opening recitative Berenice che fai?, in which she first bemoans her own fear and weakness at the prospect of her lover Demetrio’s death, then expresses a longing to die alongside her beloved, through to the first impassioned aria in which the singer begs to be allowed to “cross that river” with him; and, finally, in some kind of delirium, raging against the cruelty of the gods with a fiery vocal brilliance throughout a second recitative and aria, the music storming to a passionate (and virtuosic) conclusion – tremendous stuff!

It seems from her website information that Ebbs has commitments in the UK regarding ongoing tutelage, and has already made the most of freelancing opportunities with various UK companies, activities which would have established her as a “sought-after” performer, particularly with her avowed enthusiasm for Baroque and early classical repertoire – whatever the uncertainties of the present situation world-wide regarding opportunities for performing musicians, one hopes for her continued successes, including, wherever possible, more appearances back here in New Zealand.

While all eyes (and ears) were on the singer during the drama of Haydn’s “scena”, the ensemble again became the centre of focus for the performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 14, the latest in Camerata’s exploration of the composer’s early symphonies. I note that, in a diverting on-line Classic FM post which featured a music critic asked to numerically “rank” the qualities of ALL of these  works, the hapless commentator gave this Symphony No.14 a high rating, after according some of the other “early” works what I thought were some unduly harsh verdicts regarding their “quality” – this A  Major work Hob 1:14 was actually placed 35th, ahead of many other “tried-and-true” works such as the “Military”, the “Farewell” and the “Surprise” symphonies – doubtless a case of “chacun a son goût” with the choices, as much as any other considerations!

This work’s high-spirited opening featured a repeated octave descent, followed afterwards by an even more vertiginous downward leap of a 10th (I think!), giving the music an attractively energetic character underpinned by the unrelenting bass line – I loved the horns’ ascents into high-wire material,  the oboes providing a less strenuous “echo” effect with their material, joining forces with the horns to great effect in the development, before the energetic rhythms marshalled their forces, the splendid playing driving the music to a part festive, part rustic conclusion.

The Andante moves a dignified but characterful processional along its course, the striding aspect of the melody augmented with graceful decorative notes upon repetition, the strings alone supplying the melodic interest. More fun was to be had from the Minuet (Menuetto)  with its ceremonial horns and chuckling winds, though the oboe introduced a sombre note with its minor-key melody in the trio – all very pastoral, with its hunting-horn ambiences and touches of out-of-doors melancholy!

The finale builds its material almost entirely on a descending figure (the reason for the aforementioned “critic” rating the work’s cleverness and innovation so highly), giving the whole movement a festive, bell-like atmosphere. Here the playing imparted a real sense of “schwung”, the musicians seeming to make their instruments dance to the joyous strains of the figurations, alternating delicacy with delight, and grace with energy. As is often the case with delectable pleasures, it all seemed over in a trice – so it was a good thing that Anne Loeser bade us remain for an “encore”, one which happened to continue the concert’s connection with the story from which Haydn’s scena had been taken. This was an excerpt from Gluck’s Overture to his opera seria Antigono, one which again featured the character of Berenice, the Egyptian princess in love with Demetrio, son of the King of Macedonia, to which monarch Berenice had been “promised” in marriage. Being Gluck, the music had a lyrical “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” quality, the two flutes adding to the ethereal character of the string-writing, and the sensitive accompaniments similarly transported, the whole given a resonant “music of the spheres” kind of sonority, which continued to enchant the senses long after the sounds had ceased.




Transcending the Great Schism: Divine Orthodox Music at the Anglican Cathedral – from the Tudor Consort

The Tudor Consort
Michael Stewart, director
With Andrew Joyce (cello soloist)

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Saturday 24 July  (rescheduled from 26 June)  2021

Review posted 5th November 2021

What? A review of a concert that happened all the way back in July?? Appearing on Middle C in November???

Yes, the bad news is that your faithful reviewer overcommitted herself and failed to review this concert in a timely fashion.  The good news is that this luminous programme by the Tudor Concert is almost as fresh in my memory now as it was in late July, where it formed a highlight of the Wellington choral calendar.  The even better news is that The Tudor Consort has another concert coming up THIS VERY SATURDAY, November 6, so if you missed their foray into Russian Orthodox music — or are simply ready for their next outing — you can satisfy your appetite for their ethereal, impeccably tuned sound this weekend. (Tickets are available at their website:

Full disclosure: I arrived at the concert with a vested interest of sorts, having consulted for the choir on the finer points of Church Slavonic pronunciation.  Let me therefore reassure readers that the choir’s Slavonic pronunciation — albeit of no great concern to anyone but myself — was excellent, with only one or two tell-tale “soft” Ls where “hard” Ls should have been.

On to the main event — the music!  The choir created a properly solemn and devotional atmosphere from the outset, by beginning with the ritually appropriate opening exclamation, glorifying the Trinity, shared between priest (bass) and deacon (tenor), and responded to by the choir with the “Amin'” that begins the actual published score of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil (Op. 37)  Coming at the beginning of the concert, this had the effect of an invocation, calling on the audience to attend to the music as sacred, not merely aesthetically pleasing.  Other audience members I spoke to shared my impression that this actually did deepen their focus on the music. Of course, hearing sacred music in a sacred space also contributes to the sense of atmosphere that the composers strove to create.

The choir continued with the two opening movements of the Vigil: Priidite, poklonimsia (Come, Let Us Worship) and Blagoslovi, dushe moya, Gospoda (Bless the Lord, O My Soul). These were taken a touch faster than I would have done them — it is quite tricky to give Rachmaninoff’s music time enough to breathe without letting it stretch so far that it attenuates.  (Robert Shaw’s much-admired 1990 recording, which introduced the Vigil to Western audiences, leans too far in the latter direction in my opinion.)  Apart from musical considerations, the music is physically challenging to sing and the singers, as well as the music, need time to breathe — so that the tempo is always, in some sense, a contest for oxygen between the score and its performers.  In conclusion, there is much to balance!  The Priidite lost a little of its majesty at the faster tempo, but this was compensated for by the choir’s meticulous attention to tuning and dynamics — the latter being awe-inspiring at any speed. In the Blagoslovi, the alto soloist seemed to want to move more quickly than the choir; an effect that was not entirely out of place with the mood of this movement as a whole, in which the alto soloist represents the earthly, restless and passionate voice of humanity framed by a celestial choir of sopranos, tenors, and the de rigueur Russian low basses, moving in a measured homophony above and below. The soloist, Anna-Maria Kostina, brought a suitably dark, embodied sound to her melodic line, based on the traditional Orthodox chant for this psalm, while the sopranos and male voices provided a transparent, ethereal harmonic backdrop.  The basses nailed their final low “C” (that’s the one two ledger lines below the stave, for those keeping score) to thrilling effect.

The stellar work from the bass section continued in John Tavener’s Song for Athene, where the basses have to maintain a solid drone on two Fs an octave apart for the entire duration of the piece — over 6 minutes. Incredibly difficult to do without wavering or passing out! This drone is one of two elements that can make or break the piece; the other is the rising and falling scales on “Alleluia” which must be justly tuned to the drone. Tuning is where the Tudor Consort shines brightest, and they absolutely hit this piece for six — anyone in the audience hearing it for the first time must surely have felt goosebumps as each new harmony was lifted out and presented clearly to our ears, the dynamics swelling from pp to ff to thrilling effect (in my notes I just have the word “DYNAMICS” in all caps with two happy faces next to it). Famously performed at Princess Diana’s funeral, this is probably Tavener’s best-known composition, but I haven’t heard a better performance of it than the one the Tudor Consort gave here.

Next up were two more obscure works by Arvo Pärt and Georgii Sviridov, respectively.  Pärt’s austere Summa (1977) — a setting of the Credo text in Latin — was sung by a smaller group drawn from the full choir.  This work also exists in an arrangement for strings, and I’m inclined to think its minimalism works better in that format; the music doesn’t seem to correspond to the text in any way, and I found the lack of correspondence somewhat distracting. The repetitious, episodic phrasing sounds weirdly inexpressive in the human voice, especially given a text as narrative as the Credo. Despite an excellent performance, this piece didn’t move from the “competent” into the “transcendent” column for me.  Sviridov’s Trisagion (“Holy God”/Svyatyi Bozhe), from his collection Hymns and Prayers (1980-97), was of greater interest.

Sviridov, a quintessentially Soviet composer strongly influenced by Shostakovich, composed primarily choral music but for political reasons could not write sacred music for most of his life. Nonetheless, Orthodox liturgical singing was a crucial source of inspiration for him — something critics have been able to discuss and analyse freely only since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 — and the post-Soviet resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church allowed him, finally, to compose explicitly in the tradition that had inspired him for so long. The Hymns and Prayers thus stand in a kind of bookend relationship to Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil (1915): one the last gasp of the Russian choral Golden Age before the Revolution, the other groping for reconnection to that severed tradition after a 75-year detour.  One cannot, of course, compare them: while Orthodox music is generally more homophonic than Western sacred music, Rachmaninoff’s choral writing is almost orchestral in its assignment of different roles and colors to different voice parts, and he uses polyphony to create narrative movement, often almost seeming to “translate” the text into musical language (in a completely different way from the word-painting of a Weelkes or a Monteverdi; Rachmaninoff depicts the mood of the text rather than concrete images). The Sviridov settings, on the other hand, are purely chordal; one feels they could be transposed up or down to suit whatever group of voices (women, men, children, etc.) one might have on hand.  The effect lies in the transparency of the harmony, the wide diapason (from angelic thirds in the upper soprano range to rumbly low Cs in the basses) and in the dynamics, all fully animated by the Tudor Consort both here and in the “Come Let Us Worship” movement, which they performed in the second half.

Though enjoyable, Sviridov’s Trisagion felt mostly valuable as an introduction to the text (in Slavonic, “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us”) much more dramatically set by John Tavener in the piece that closed the first half, Svyati (1995). Almost seven times longer than the Sviridov setting, Tavener’s composition incorporates a solo cello (the incomparable Andrew Joyce) in the role of priest or cantor, playing a molto rubato, passionate but austere chant-like solo line over (yes) a bass drone on a low E. The rest of the choir gradually fills in, moving from a “tender, radiant” pianissimo to a “strong, but pleading” forte in 12 parts. I have Opinions about this piece and they did not always coincide with the performers’; Joyce added portamento touches to the cello line that felt a bit too Western-Romantic to me (Tavener notes that the cello should be “played without any sentiment of a Western character”), and some of the moving parts felt a bit lost in the vast space of the Cathedral. However, the performance was very effective and the ending in particular — with the cello playing impossibly high harmonics and the choir singing pianissimo — was absolutely ravishing.

The second half of the concert alternated bits and pieces from Rachmaninoff’s Vigil (Op. 37) and Liturgy (Op. 31) with further entries from Sviridov, Pärt, and Tavener. I’ve already mentioned the Sviridov “Come Let Us Worship” which opened this part of the program. This was followed by two hymns to the Virgin Mary, by Pärt and Rachmaninoff. The Pärt setting was unexpectedly fast, with something of the quality of a Christmas carol sung under one’s window by a group of singers trying to keep warm. In complete contrast, the Rachmaninoff setting (from the Vigil) approached the text with a gentle reverence much more typical of Orthodox treatments of this “feminine” hymn, but swelling to a majestic ff for the high notes on the final “Rejoice” before pulling back to a more lullaby-like pp for the final phrase.  Next came one more movement from the Vigil, “Kvalite” (“Praise the name of the Lord”): here as elsewhere, I felt the tempo was a little rushed, and this was the only time in the programme where I felt the sopranos were a little overtaxed, with fast-moving forte high notes in three-way divisi, but really it seems churlish to say so given how angelic they sounded for 99% of the concert.

A return to the Virgin Mary theme with Tavener’s Hymn to the Mother of God (this one sans bass drone, which must have delighted the basses, but the trademark dramatic dynamics and stained-glass harmonies were in full evidence) was followed by something completely unexpected: a Pärt setting of a Gospel text, The Woman with the Alabaster Box (1997; text from Mt. 26:6-13). I had never heard this before and found it very interesting. Unlike the other Pärt works on the program, this one seemed closely attentive to narrative structure, moving in three sections; first, the opening story about the woman’s actions, carried mostly by women’s voices; second, the discussion between Jesus and the disciples about it, carried mostly by men’s voices with the basses voicing Jesus, touching off isolated syllables like phosphorescent traces in the upper voices; and third, the “Verily I say…” peroration, given by the full choir in stately descending chords.  I don’t know that this was necessarily my favourite piece from the second half, but it was the most surprising and made me want to take a closer look at Pärt’s many settings of Gospel texts (I had only been familiar with his Passio previously).

Finally, two movements from Rachmaninoff’s Liturgy of St John Chrysostom rounded out the program.  The Liturgy feels more domestic to me than the Vigil and in that sense these felt slightly anticlimactic (and the Russian in me felt mildly scandalized that singers were allowed to take breaths in between phrases — totally normal in Western singing but strongly discouraged on the other side of the Great Schism!).  The “Tebe poem” (To Thee We Sing) is a gorgeous, hushed wave of choral sound from which emerges a soprano soloist (name not listed, alas) somewhat like a mermaid, momentarily embodying the prayers of the masses. Michael Stewart enhanced this effect by having the choir hum rather than sing under the solo line. A small disagreement over timing saw the soloist reach the finish line ahead of the choir.  The concert closed on the Cherubic Hymn from the same work, which performs the opposite trick; instead of a soprano voice arising from the harmonies created by the choir, here the harmonies gradually unfold from a single unison “D” in the upper voices, which unfurls through cascading downward scales in the second soprano and alto parts until the tenors and, finally, the basses are swept into the harmony.  At the end, everyone stays in, but the scales rise again until the sopranos are back on their original “D.”  In a way, it tells the whole story of sacred music — from monody all the way to jubilant 9-part harmony with operatic-sounding sopranos and back again. In that sense, it formed a fitting capstone to a lovely concert.  Everyone I spoke to afterward felt, with me, that we had been treated to a very distinguished example of what a concert of sacred music in a sacred space can be.