Christmas in 1677

‘SALVATORIS’  – Christmas music from THE QUEEN’S CLOSET

Works by Vejvanovsky, Fux, and Volckmar

Old St Paul’s, Mulgrave St., Wellington

Saturday, 18th December, 2021

The Queen’s Closet is an early music ensemble specialising in ‘historically-inspired’ performance of music from the English Restoration (1660-1714, approximately) on period instruments at Baroque pitches.  The focus of this concert was two works by the Habsburg composer Pavel Vejvanovsky (c. 1633-1693), with a piece each by Fux and Volckmar. The performers were members of The Queen’s Closet (Sarah Marten and Emma Brewerton (violins), Lyndsay Mountfort (viola), Jane Young (cello), Peter Reid and Chris Woolley (trumpets), Peter Maunder (alto and tenor sackbut), Sharon Lehany (hoboy), Gordon Lehany (director, and also trumpet, horn and viola), Anna Sedcole (soprano), Andrea Cochrane (alto) and David Morriss (bass))plus Paul Rosoman (organ).

There was no printed programme. What follows is gleaned from the brief oral introductions to the works given in the concert by Gordon Lehany, the ensemble’s artistic director; his answers to my questions after the concert; and The Queen’s Closet web site; as well as what my imperfect ears told me. Should you seek more information from the web site, note that the URL is (.com will take you somewhere quite different). The programme is up on the web site on the ensemble’s “Past Performances” page

The first work was Vejvanovsky’s Sonata Natalis, featuring strings (two violins, a viola, and a cello), the organ, and two natural trumpets played by Gordon Lehany and Peter Reid. The instruments were tuned to ‘about A 415’, a semitone lower than the organ, although Lehany described the pitch for the concert as ‘a compromise’, saying that the work by Vejvanovsky should probably be played at A 466.  The Sonata Natalis was charming, with a beautiful slow movement featuring solo first violin bookended by two faster movements demanding much of the trumpets.

The sound of the natural trumpet is much softer and warmer than that of modern trumpets. It has no valves and the tubing is twice as long. The mouthpiece is both wider and shallower than a standard trumpet mouthpiece. All of that requires a softer attack than is used on a modern instrument. No valves means that the instrument is restricted to the notes of the harmonic series and all the tuning is created by the player’s embouchure. . Thanks to the physics of natural brass instruments, certain notes in the harmonic series sit higher or lower than most of us expect to hear today.  Vejvanovsky was himself a trumpet player and he wrote sensitively for the instrument, skilfully contrasting pure consonances created by two natural trumpets in harmony, with the dissonances that stem from writing the high or low partials. It was immediately apparent that two trumpets did not overwhelm the strings (the players use gut strings, baroque bows and baroque technique) as modern trumpets would have done, and the balance between brass, strings, and organ was consequently very attractive. Old St Paul’s is a sympathetic venue for early music, and its size and acoustics seemed just right.

The next work was a setting of the Marian hymn ‘Alma Redemptoris Mater’ by Fux, featuring solos by alto sackbut and soprano. Peter Maunder played the sackbut elegantly and Anna Sedcole sang the soprano part with style. The sackbut is the Renaissance and Baroque ancestor or cousin of the modern trombone. It comes in various sizes, from alto to contra-bass, and has a smaller and more cylindrical bore and a less flared bell. The sound is more covered and blends well with voices. (A duet between a soprano and a modern trombone would tax both singer and audience beyond endurance.)

Johann Joseph Fux wrote Gradus ad Parnassum, the textbook on counterpoint that educated Bach and Mozart and is still quoted today. So it is no surprise that he was a dab hand at managing the various voices. Like Palestrina, whom Fux greatly admired, he allowed the music to illuminate the text, without using excessively melismatic ‘look at me’ passages. I especially loved the melisma on the ‘ran’ syllable of ‘natura mirante’, which made it sound even more marvellous. It was a tribute to Sedcole’s diction and Fux’s writing that I could follow every word without the aid of a written text. The sackbut sometimes supported the voice, sometimes imitated it; there were also delicious imitative rhythms. The sackbut was in supportive mode on the words ‘virgo prius’; and together they sincerely sought the Virgin’s intercession for their sins on the final ‘peccatorum miserere’. Gorgeous!

The Volckmar work was written around 1720, which makes him a contemporary of Bach. ‘Little is known about Volckmar,’ Lehany told us, ‘except that he was a Kapellmeister somewhere in Germany.’ The work was not titled – the manuscript is headed ‘In tempore Adventus’, i.e. to be performed during Advent – but it was an aria for bass-baritone and natural horn. I think it was a setting of Psalm 95 from the Lutheran Bible, judging by the fragments of German I caught. Lehany swapped his trumpet for a horn, and a viola was added to the string section. The bass-baritone was David Morriss, whose speaking voice is well known to RNZ Concert listeners.

The structure seemed to be as follows: the singer would cant (introduce) the introduction to each verse (e.g. ‘Der Herr ist gross’ – God is great) and the instruments would comment on it; then the singer would join them in a harmonic elaboration of the musical idea. The natural horn, like the trumpets, is softer than the modern instrument and also allows the composer to make the most of the dissonances generated by high and low partials in the instrument’s harmonic series. Morriss’s bottom notes were lovely, though not loud. The pitch at A415 may have been an issue for him in the lower register, when he was sometimes covered by the horn. But I was struck by his beautiful upper register, when he and Lyndsay Mountfort (viola) had duets. I also very much liked Morriss’s baroque technique in the semi-quaver runs. Overall the Volckmar was interesting and pleasant to listen to, but I felt that practically any bass aria by Bach would knock it into a cocked hat.

The final work was the Missa Salvatoris by Vejvanovsky. ‘Imagine yourself in the year 1677, in a church in Kroměříž….’. The mass is scored for soprano, alto, tenor and bass  with optional sackbuts, plus two trumpets as well as violins, violas (the versatile Lehany played viola, with Peter Reid and Chris Woolley playing trumpet), cello, and organ. Morriss and Sedcole were joined by alto Andrea Cochrane. With only three singers, Peter Maunder performed the tenor line on the tenor sackbut, and Sharon Lehany added hoboy to the mix. The Missa Salvatoris consisted of the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei.

Immediately I could hear why the Queen’s Closet are so excited about Vejvanovsky’s music. Andrea Cochrane sounded glorious, with Sedcole’s upper register stylish and beautiful. (Morriss was sometimes a bit buried by the sackbut.) The opening to the Gloria was canted by the bass, followed by lovely brass writing, and immediately a beautiful matching of alto and trumpets on ‘gloriam tuam’. ‘Suscipe, suscipe,’ sang the bass, answered first by the women, then the trumpets. There was a trio on ‘Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto’; then a separate entry by the alto for ‘Crucifixus’, followed sombrely by soprano and then bass, with ‘etiam pro nobis’ stated as plain fact. ‘Et unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam’ was announced by the trumpets playing their highest notes of the whole concert.

And so it continued. The setting of the text was sensitive, and the deft use of instrumental and vocal colour by composer and performers was a joy to the ear.

The Queen’s Closet, like the rest of us, had a difficult year, with cancelled concerts and stalled projects. But coming up next year is a collaboration with playwright (and trumpeter) Dave Armstrong: a completely new semi-opera with Purcell’s music re-imagined with a contemporary New Zealand text. Count on it: I’ll be there!


Dolce e misterioso

Nota Bene at the Hilma af Klint Exhibition
Wellington City Gallery

Saturday 18 December, 11.30 am and 12.15 pm

The City Gallery invited Nota Bene to perform a short programme (about 20 minutes
of a capella music) to accompany their exhibition of the Swedish mystical painter,
Hilma af Klint, in the upper gallery of the exhibition. The original idea was that the
concert would provide agreeable background music: a sympathetic soundscape in
which to view the works.

But conductor Shawn Condon put together a programme of works for women’s
voices by Swedish, Estonian, Finnish, and American composers that cleverly
complemented the paintings. The works were ten large abstract paintings that
represented the transition from childhood and youth to maturity and the end of life.
The result was a programme of unfamiliar music that added another dimension to
the paintings. The concert was delivered twice, at 11.30 am and 12.15 pm, to
attentive audiences of about 100, mostly seated on folding chairs. The Nota Bene
women wore black and were barefoot, which added a sacerdotal quality.

The first work was Pärt Uusberg’s Muusika, which asks, ‘Where does the music
come from?’ This very beautiful piece was set for SSAA, is strophic and rhythmically
complex (the first eight bars move from 3/8 to 3/4, 7/8, 4/4, 6/8, 4/4 and back to 3/8),
yet harmonically simple. The sensibility and the Estonian text were ideally suited to
af Klint’s work: ‘Somewhere the original harmony must exist/ hidden somewhere in
the vast wilds/ in the vast reaches of swirling galaxies/ in sunshine’. The effect
created was a kind of child-like simplicity and wonder.

Next was a more complex setting of a text by Hildegard of Bingen, ‘O frondens virga’
(‘O verdant branch’), one of Hildegard’s meditations on the Virgin Mary, arranged by
the US composer Drew Collins. The original text came from a psalm antiphon
(D155r), set in plainchant; that is, it was written as a single melodic line for unison
women’s voices. Collins has arranged it for three voices, SAA, distributing the
melodic material between the parts. Other arrangements exist, including SAA and
SATB. The Collins arrangement was limpid and beautiful, evoking the beauty of the
natural world and retaining the freshness that is characteristic of Hildegard’s music.

Then came the piece that the singers seemed to relish the most. ‘Finding Her Here’ is
a setting by Joan Szymko (b. 1957) of a poem by Jayne Relaford Brown. Szymko is
a contemporary US composer, known for her lyricism and exquisite attention to text.
‘I am becoming the woman I wanted’, the sopranos sang, over the altos’ ‘knows
she’s a survivor’. The ‘I am becoming’ phrase was repeated underneath the upper
parts, then handed around. ‘I find her becoming, this woman I wanted’, they sang
tutti; ‘who knows she is plenty’. It’s a lovely work, and the Note Bene women sang it
with a calm assurance that matched the confidence of af Klint’s ten largest paintings.

‘Vem kan segla’ (‘Who can sail without wind?) is a folk song from Åland. There are
many arrangements. Condon chose one by the Finnish composer Jonna Salminen
for SSAA. It has a jazzy swung rhythm and beautiful harmonic effects, with some
lovely close part-writing. That was followed by a surprising setting of Tennyson’s
words ‘There is Sweet Music’ from ‘Song of the Lotos-Eaters’. Set for SSAA by the
American composer Daniel E. Gawthrop, it was delicate, not in the least Victorian,
and very sweet.

‘In the Sweet Summertime’ is a traditional Swedish folk song arranged by the
Norwegian Kim André Arnesen (b. 1980). It had a lilting 3/4 insouciance, with a
soprano solo over sustained chords from the four parts. ‘Go forth my heart, and seek
the light’, she sang, as though speaking of the artist and her intentions.

The last work was intended to respond to the last painting in the series, about the
end of life. ‘I go with a thousand thoughts’ is a Swedish folk song arranged for SSAA
by the Swedish composer, teacher, and choir-master Anna Cederberg-Orreteg (b.
1958). It is a love song (‘I grieve till death/ for the one I cannot have’) and there are
many arrangements. Cederberg-Orreteg’s arrangement had a lovely syncopated
introduction and was poised and accepting.

This small concert was beautifully programmed by Shawn Condon, who has lived in
Finland and is familiar with the music of the Baltic. A fitting complement to the
mysterious paintings of Hilma af Klint.

Steadfast Wellington Chamber Orchestra brings off an exhilarating concert to finish an eventful year

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:

R.STRAUSS – Wind Serenade for 13 instruments
VIVALDI – Double Flute Concerto
ARNOLD – English Dances (Set One)
TCHAIKOVSKY – Symphony No. 2 in C Minor Op.17  “Little Russian”

Kirstin Eade and Bridget Douglas (flutes)
Ian Ridgewell (conductor)
Wellington Chamber Orchestra

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

Sunday, 12th December 2021

Congratulations right at the outset are in order to whomever devised such a scintillating programme for the Wellington Chamber Orchestra to finish this remarkably unpredictable year of years with!  It certainly was one that made up in part for earlier schedules being plagued by the vagaries of Covid-19 and the resulting ripplings of disruption! Here we were freely delivered plenty of satisfyingly full-blooded excitements and festive revelries, side-by-side with contrasting episodes of great beauty, resonant circumspection and purposeful action – a living, breathing entity of life-giving expression!

A lot of the credit must go to conductor Ian Ridgewell, whose direction of much of this eclectic range of music was focused and very much to the point, directly and unfussily intent upon bringing out the music’s “character” in each of the pieces presented. I liked how the conductor left the flute duo of Bridget Douglas and Kirsten Eade entirely free to interact with the continuo instruments in the Vivaldi Concerto’s slow movement as if sharing amongst themselves some exquisite chamber music!  Just occasionally elsewhere I felt a slight “tug” of discrepancy between the conductor and his players, most notably in the Tchaikovsky Symphony’s Andantino movement, the strings in particular wanting to push the march rhythm along more tautly in places – and there were dovetailing difficulties aplenty between orchestral sections in the same work’s treacherous Scherzo movement that required watchful shepherding from the podium!

The concert began most winningly with the early (1882) Richard Strauss work for winds, the piece a kind of homage by the seventeen year-old composer to Mozart’s own Wind Serenade in B-flat Major for the same number of instruments (Mozart’s work is sometimes performed with a string bass, sometimes with a contrabassoon), one obviously a model for Strauss.  I thought the performance by the WCO winds a most affectionate one, a beautifully easeful opening, with the contourings of melodic lines both gorgeous-sounding and characterful, and the different dynamic levels of the music consistently producing ear-catching results. I particularly liked the sonorous contribution of the tuba to the music’s foundations, and relished the crunchiness of the harmonic changes that accompanied the oboe’s lead-in to the piece’s second half. The ensemble’s blend grated ever so slightly once or twice in places during the latter half, but the final paragraph of the work, with its beautiful ascending flute-line, was most felicitously essayed by all concerned.

I was surprised to learn that the Vivaldi Concerto for two flutes and strings was the composer’s only essay for this combination, particularly as the soloists Bridget Douglas and Kirsten Eade amply demonstrated the manifold delights of the work’s seemingly endless invention, aided by some on-the-spot playing from the WCO strings in the outer movements. Straightaway the music captivated one’s attention with its gaiety and exhilarating energies, the dynamics placing solo-instrument delicacies alongside rumbustious tuttis that made the most of both the contrasted and concerted sounds. Though short, the work added a dimension of intimacy with the player-directed slow movement (simply flutes and continuo – two ‘cellos and a harpsichord), beautiful canonic writing alternating with passages in thirds – exquisite in effect!

Ian Ridgewell returned to direct the finale, consisting of more gallivanting and frolicking in Vivaldi’s most ingratiating style, though closer attention also heightened my appreciation of both the composer’s and the players’ skills in realising the singular beauties of the music’s interspersing of solo, chamber and ripieno sequences. It all demonstrated how the composer’s justly famous “Four Seasons” concerti ought to be a “starting-point” and not merely a “one-work” experience for the Vivaldi listener!

To my great delight, Bridget Douglas and Kirstin Eade acknowledged the concerto’s brevity by way of playing us an encore, the final movement from a work by an American composer, Gary Schocker, Three Dances for Two Flutes and Piano, one divertingly subtitled Coffee Nerves, Prestissimo! It’s a very bluesy-vigorous piece with driving rhythms for the flutes in unison lines breaking occasionally into thirds, and with the piano (played by Heather Easting, who had also contributed the harpsichord part in the  Vivaldi concerto’s continuo) punctuating the discourse with droll interludes – also one of the flutes (Kirstin’s on this occasion) indulged in startlingly “ornery” deviations, which were “coaxed” back into seemliness by the other flute – an interesting relationship between the two!

Malcolm Arnold’s invigoratingly breezy English Dances (the first of two sets of four of these) came next, works I’ve always loved for their colour, energy and original inspiration (the melodic invention throughout is the composer’s own, rather than the pieces being orchestrated versions of English folk-songs). I greatly prize a set of these richly and lovingly recorded by Arnold himself, though Ian Ridgewell’s direction took a rather more direct and vigorous view of the music, the opening Andantino’s bell-like awakenings on the move here right from the outset, and a central section sounding like a fairground in the middle of the countryside! If a shade raucous in full tutti, this could be put down to the effect of a largish orchestra playing in a smallish venue. Amends were made by lovely descending wind figurations at the piece’s end.

More chimings, this time vigorous and arresting, were brought into play throughout the second movement’s Vivace, with great work from the horns and winds throughout, the brasses capturing the music’s roisterings most excitingly, and the tutti filled with ear-catching detail.  The following Mesto (“sad and pensive”) flipped the mood of the sounds into melancholy, with tremolando strings, harp and bassoon joined by strings in a most authentic-sounding folk-melody, the wind-choir also making the most of their expressive opportunities, a strongly-focused mood beautifully sustained throughout by the players.

The final dance, Allegro Risoluto, allowed conductor and players to really let their hair down, the uproarious opening “nailed” by the brasses, here, punctuated by squawks of approval from the winds, catching the music’s unbuttoned and celebratory mood – I particularly loved the sound of the tuba’s star turn, egged on by the winds! The whole performance resounded with high spirits and jocularity, the composer here mercifully untroubled by the mental storms and stresses which throughout his life beset his sense of well-being.

A similar sense of well-being over-riding troubles and anxieties also permeates Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony which took up the concert’s second half. Called the “Little Russian” (though not by its composer) because of the frequency of its use of Ukrainian folk melodies, the music has a joyous energy throughout, which the playing readily capitalised upon, coming to fruition in the final movement with its racily colourful variations on a folksong called “The Crane”. I particularly enjoyed the “Russian Sailors’ Dance”-like energies of the strings in places, along with the finely-played antiphonal brass calls punctuating the blending of the finale’s two themes, and the skitterish sequence which featured the piccolo (beautifully played) and the other winds towards the work’s end, immediately prior to the tam-tam stroke which calls the band to order for the work’s “give it all you’ve got” coda!

The horn-playing at the symphony’s beginning beautifully set the atmosphere, carried forward by soulful wind-playing, building the tensions towards the allegro’s snappy beginning, both winds and strings excitingly on the button! Ridgewell kept things on a tight rein throughout, getting good ensemble from the players, though I thought he might have allowed the second allegro subject a bit more breathing-space, the players sounding a little “pushed” here and there. However, the lead-back to the horn’s repeat of its opening solo was nicely controlled, the playing leaving us eager for more.

The March was beautifully brought into being, even if the strings seemed to want to slightly push ahead of the winds’ pointed drolleries – when the march rhythms resumed after the heart-easing middle-section, some of the opening “swagger” seemed by then flattened out, but the grandly ceremonial utterance of the “tune” was brought off nicely by strings and brasses. The Scherzo was a mixed bag, with the dovetailed syncopated figures struggling at times to “fit themselves in” – however the Trio worked beautifully, with the winds enjoying themselves, the flutes being especially on the ball (a lovely solo over pizzicato strings), and with clarinets, oboes and bassoons in full accord.

Altogether, a most successful concert, and a heart-warming way to conclude a somewhat troubled season – and how encouraging to be given notice of the orchestra’s plans for 2022 as well, consisting of four varied concerts, the first commemorating the band’s 50th Anniversary season! One wishes all involved in the undertaking the very best for it!


“Roxy” at Te Auaha, from WITCH Music Theatre – a whirl of visceral impressions from Tinseltown’s golden age of movie musicals

Witch Music Theatre and Te Auaha presents:
ROXY – A New Hollywood Cabaret

Featuring: Nick Erasmuson, Jason Chasland, Emily Burns, Bailea Twomey, Aine Gallagher, Jade Merematira, William Duignan, Fynn Bodley-Davies, Zane Berghuis, Rebecca Ansell, Lane Corby, Jared Pallesen, Pippa Drakeford, Patrick Jennings, Katy Pakinga, Glenn Horsfall, Rachel Te Tau, Allegra Canton, Thomas Laybourn, Karli Holdren, Björn Aslund, Emily McDermott, Jackson Cordery

Musicians: Sue Windsor, Steve ‘Shack’ Morrison, Rachael Hinds, Bec Watson, Emma Salzano, Jonathan Woolley, Zane Berghuis, Ben Hunt, Brendan Agnew, Fynn Bodley-Davies

Directed by Ben Emerson and Greta Casey-Solly
Music directed and Arranged by Hayden Taylor
Choreography by Greta Casey-Solly, Leigh Evans and Briar Franks
Costume Design by Emma Stevens
Set and Technical Design by Joshua Tucker
Lighting Design by Shanell Bielawa
Sound Design by Patrick Barnes
Produced by WITCH Charitable Trust – Briar Franks, Joshua Tucker, Charlotte Potts, Patrick Jennings and Ben Emerson

Te Auaha, 65 Dixon St., Poneke (Wellington)

Wednesday, 8th December, 2021

“Reimagining the Golden Age of the Silver Screen” ran the blurb announcing ROXY – A New Hollywood Cabaret, a no-holds-barred delivery of a collection of classic movie-musical hits, which certainly lived up to its publicity in terms of its sheer visceral impact – “…a rip-roaring revue, fuelled by an exhilarating fusion of musical theatre, drag, dance and circus” indeed. The directors of the show, Greta Casey-Solly and Ben Emerson described working on this production as putting together “a liberating love-letter to movie musicals, the world of entertainment, and a collective celebration for Wellington Musical Theatre”, continuing the high-impact trademark of WITCH production “Love-letter” tributes to genres and eras, in this case “some of Hollywood’s most memorable musical moments, prolific people and the unforgettable tales of Tinseltown”.

At the outset, we were casually, even voyeuristically drawn into an unmistakably cabaret setting, with dancers waiting for the cameras to roll and the band to strike up and galvanise a growing air of expectancy. Though from where I was sitting I found Nick Erasmuson’s voice as the eponymous “Roxy” difficult to understand at times, his energetic “drag” characterisation never flagged, and his “Get Happy” with the dancers developed plenty of charisma. As the programme didn’t match the characters’ names with the items each one performed I had little idea regarding who was singing what, but “Almost like Being in Love” introduced a singer who began the number sweetly, allowing us some welcome dynamic variation, though the orchestra and soloists let rip with the following “Big Spender”, the burlesque-like figurations being given plenty of “grunt”, building the number’s suggestive crescendi towards tidal-wave overbreakings.

There was certainly nothing half-hearted about Hayden Taylor’s arrangements or his direction of the songs, even if I felt the volume levels seemed too ready to push the needle into the red, giving an unrelieved effect too quickly in places. For this reason I welcomed the “Singin” in the Rain” number, enjoying the cool quirkiness of the singers armed with unopened umbrellas, and the “rain” being represented by snow-flakes! A “wanabe” girl turned up next, advancing a kind of story, being told “Show us what you’ve got” and re-entering in a tight red dress, flanked by snappy choreography from the dance ensemble for “The 20th Century Fox Mambo” – foot-tapping stuff! I hadn’t heard “We’re in the Money” for many years, and the solo vocalist excitingly built the song into something of a “screamer”, producing some fantastically “zinging” high notes!

A “blonde bombshell” soloist appropriately informed us in suitably raunchy accents that “Diamonds are a Girl’s best Friend”, emphasising the character’s brashness as much as her seductiveness, but generating plenty of energy, and impressively morphing into the dance-troupe’s movements – excellent choreography, readily capturing the eye! The next song “Black and Gold” was marred in places by a bass line that frequently “ballooned” as if over-modulating, and inhibiting the soloist’s voice at first until she “found” a different register and made her presence felt – though her triumph was short-lived, as she had to compete with a sensational turn from an acrobat who, far above the stage-floor, floated, bounced and rolled on and around two hanging strands of material, the dare-devilness of it all quite upstaging the singer (who got her revenge by brandishing a pistol, and shooting the hapless high-wire performer when he once again reached terra firma)!

I didn’t know any of the first half’s last three numbers, the final item bluesy and with a terrific “swing”, unashamedly cranking up the sounds’ physicality, the ensemble making the most of the “first-half-closer” licence to bring the house down with “Push da Button”, everybody working at full throttle, and leaving us breathless with such all-pervading displays of energy.

The second half began more promisingly with a “cool’ beat depicting a sultry atmosphere! – people moving around, setting the stage for the well-known Ann Miller original/”Kiss me Kate” number, “Too Darn Hot”, a great introduction and building up with plenty of dynamic variation – though the upping of the tempo ironed out the subtleties the singing remained focused and the dancing took me back to the “swing” of the original show – a great start to the half! The return of the athletic acrobat provided more breath-taking diversion, before the entry of the “new starlet” from Act One gave us a song “Movin On”, with great singing, and choreography to match.

I liked the “fetching couple” cameo act of MC Nick Erasmuson with his partner, framed by the dancers’ creatively eating and playing with popcorn while watching “Science Fiction, Double Feature” – its relative stasis emphasising the volcanic energies of the boys’ number that followed – “Don’t say yes until I finish talking” – the joys of an entertainment producer! Nothing, however, prepared us for the onslaught that followed in the guise of “The Hot Dog Song”, the incredibly raunchy portrayal of the singer “knowed no bounds of taste or decency”, in keeping with the total abandonment of the presentation and its subject, a “tour de force” of unashamedly risqué expression!

I thought the accompanying energy levels for “Sit Down, you’re rockin’ the boat!” seemed to overwhelm the performer at the beginning, but the dynamics seemed to synchronise better as the song, progressed, the choreography “framing” the vocalist’s efforts helping the number’s trajectories to properly expand. After this, “Swings both ways” featured a chorus of angels “watching over” the beautifully-vocalised attraction of two young men for one another – a nice touch, poignantly set against the following “I’ve found a new Baby”, the woman vocalist duetting teasingly with the “agent”, before opening the voice-throttle and saturating the space with heartfelt emotion at the end – lump-in-throat stuff! – and when set against “Losing my Mind”, a double-whammy emotional journey of two halves – a late microphone placement hampered the latter singer’s initial lyrics, but, in tandem with a beautifully-played saxophone counterpoint, the mood was caught and held touchingly and strongly.

More booming bass tones didn’t mar the dance chorus’s superb work (great choreography by Leigh Evans) introducing “Let’s Be Bad”, the energies carrying the day, leaving a kind of valedictory atmosphere into which which MC Nick Erasmuson “conjured up” the singer of “Over the Rainbow”, who gave a free and spontaneous-sounding rendition during which the intensities were very beautifully “growed” into full-blooded outward flow.

I didn’t recognise the final number “Lady Marmalade” (my head-count of recognised items was lamentably low throughout!), but the song was accorded the kind of treatment we’d come to expect from what we’d witnessed thus far, a veritable orgy of full-on involvement from all concerned and which, at the end, produced a veritable explosion of physically demonstrative audience appreciation totally in accord with the ambiences we’d been subsumed by throughout.

While I found myself craving for more “shape” in the realisation of many of the numbers, more light and shade, and more playfulness and irony and sentiment, and greater “spaces” into which these contrasts could be set and savoured, I couldn’t help thinking that mine was a somewhat old-fashioned view of performance, and that what seemed to be required here, and which was freely given, was a markedly “visceral” result, of the kind that could induce a kind of tactile euphoria, heart-and soul stuff, rather than any once-removed kind of in-situ reflection. Of course, there were moments in which this state was achieved, but they were quickly moved on – appetites on my side of the footlights seemed ravenous and were, by my reckoning, most satisfyingly sated.

I would have liked to have credited the individual performers in the separate numbers, but the programme wasn’t particularly helpful to someone like myself who couldn’t make the connections with the different names and the items in which they performed – so I’ve listed all the performers, in the hope that they’ll all “find” themselves mentioned here by what they did – I “dips me lid” to them all, along with the people behind the scenes who had a part in making the show so irrepressibly impactful – in a word, WOW!

Resounding Huia calls and Tui songs from pre-1950 New Zealand composers


The third of a three-part presentation of early New Zealand art-songs (1892-1953)
Researched and curated by Michael Vinten

Previous 2021 presentations:
THE CALL OF THE HUIA (12th February)

Singers: Jenny Wollerman (soprano), Sarah Court (m-soprano), Amelia Berry (soprano), Oliver Sewell (tenor), Robert Tucker (baritone)
Pianists: Bruce Greenfield, David Barnard

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

(Friday 3rdDecember, 2021)

Michael Vinten’s intention in presenting these programmes was to draw attention to the art song as a creative form produced by New Zealand composers prior to 1950 (essentially the pre-Douglas Lilburn years for music composition in this country) and highlighting the activity as part of our cultural heritage before the Second World War – one that we are still in the process of discovering.

Vinten was inspired by similar research in the area of solo piano music of the period undertaken in recent years by Wellington pianist, composer, and teacher Gillian Bibby, and also by comments made from singing teachers and performers regarding the scarcity of ‘New Zealand art-song material’ from this heritage era. He began his own exploration, finding literally hundreds of songs, primarily from the Alexander Turnbull Library’s collections and the resources of the New Zealand National Library, but also from private sources.

In choosing songs for the three presentations, he devised ‘a working definition of art song – one based on the definition of German lieder’. He used certain basic tenets as a yardstick, such as ‘the importance of the piano part is equal to that of the singer’, and ‘the poet’s words are as important as the composer’s music’. Such a totality in itself suggests as part of the definition that the Lieder/ Art-Song genre ‘requires a greater level of technical skill on the part of the performers to execute the songs’. Vinten intended such parameters would sift out material written for either amateur or domestic use, as well as patriotic War Effort songs and specifically Sacred songs, as the musical merit of many seemed secondary to commercial or social considerations.

Altogether, the songs he chose dated from 1892 to 1950, though to conclude the third and final presentation Vinten sneaked in a 1953 song (not inappropriately titled ‘I saw a Tui’) by the renowned Alfred Hill,  Australian-born but for a time New-Zealand-domiciled, whom author John Mansfield Thompson described in his 1980 OUP book A Distant Music as ‘New Zealand’s first professional composer’. As the first song in the first presentation happened to be also one of Hill’s, Vinten commented that ‘it was fitting…..that his (Hill’s) songs should bookend the collection, as New Zealand‘s first composer’. Despite the date, Hill’s ‘Tui’ song seemed to unashamedly express its allegiance to a bygone era, with Schumannesque modulations between major and minor amply presenting a New Zealand scene in European musical language.

I was fortunate enough to attend the first of these presentations at the year’s beginning. That programme presented the songs composed or published up to 1929. It included some examples of unique interest, but most of the songs engagingly avoided the pitfalls outlined in Vinten’s comments regarding the later 1930s and 1940s songs, which suggested a drop-off in quality and a tendency to resort to the kinds of cliched generalities of verse and music that gave both a bad name. I didn’t manage to get to the second of the symposiums, but made it to this, the final one, which of the three featured the widest chronological range of items. Happily, I was able to compare impressions (mostly favourable) at the interval with my Middle C colleague Anne French, who had attended the series’ second programme, and who confessed to having been enthralled throughout, despite Vinten’s own reservations concerning some of the material!

Interesting, too, was Vinten’s breakdown of the people engaged in composition over these periods into three main groups, the first being men whose profession was music who came to this country to take up official positions at institutions: organists, choirmasters, and teachers. The second group was made up of New Zealand-born men who were enthusiasts engaging in ancillary musical activities, whilst having major careers in other disciplines. The third group was the women, whom Vinten described as the backbone of musical activities in this country. He was surprised in spite of himself at the number of women who wrote music in the New Zealand of this period and whose standard of musical training was sufficient to enable them to do so.

The post-Second World War period was very much a ‘blow winds of fruitfulness’ time for New Zealand.  Music performance moved out of the realm of dominance by amateur and part-time musicians into an era of professional full-time musicians, beginning with the establishment of the country’s National Orchestra in 1946. Suddenly music composition seemed as if it was something to be taken seriously, almost as if one’s own livelihood depended on it. Up to that time the country’s composers were those diverse groups of people outlined above. Somewhat serendipitously, 1946 also saw the first Cambridge (Waikato) Music School, at which composer-in-residence Douglas Lilburn delivered his ground-breaking talk ‘A Search for Tradition’,  which challenged a whole new generation of local composers to find their own ‘New Zealand voice’. Such was the force of this new beginning, Vinten contended, that ‘the previous body of work in music composition (along with other creative endeavours in Aotearoa) tended to be swept away by this fresh wave of creativity’.

Not only were the composers of an earlier era overshadowed, but so were the writers and poets, in some cases curtly and dismissively. Vinten made reference to poet Allen Curnow’s scathing remarks concerning what had been considered a landmark anthology of New Zealand verse, Kowhai Gold, published in 1929. Curnow famously commenting that the material consisted of ‘insipidities mixed with puerilities. To illustrate the extent to which things had been galvanised by this new order, Vinten referred to the work of two song composers, Alice Forrester MacKay and Claude Haydon, who had been ‘at the forefront of the pre-First World War era of local song-writing…. but whose output, including a great many more (still) unpublished songs, remained musically static during the 1930s and 40s…..’.

Having so many names to contend with inhibits a full listing of either the composers or poets here, though some by dint of circumstance or other association are already known. The composers include Alfred Hill, Claude M. Haydon, Arnold Trowell, Warwick Braithwaite, Paul Schramm, Alice Forrester MacKay, Erima Maewa Kaihau, Princess Te Rangi Pai, Alexander Aitkens, Maugham Barnett, Owen Jensen, Harry Luscombe, and Alan Heathcote White. The New Zealand poets included Jessie MacKay, Eileen Duggan, C.R. Allen, and Keith Sinclair. If Vinten’s research is properly taken up in the future by singers and teachers, further names will certainly be pressing their claims to be added to the list.

Without a doubt, part of what generated one’s ongoing fascination with these songs was the quality of the three presentation performances. My colleague Anne French and I were in full agreement about the quality of performance across the programmes. Each of the singers was seemingly incapable of delivering a meaningless or routine phrase. They gave the vocal lines both the focused intensities and the range of colour and dynamics that made the music and the words a pleasure to listen to. Complementing this level of identification with the material was the piano-playing of both Bruce Greenfield and David Barnard, each doing his utmost to invest the sounds with a kind of recreative response that, in tandem with the voices instantly caught the listener’s attention. The result of such efforts on the musicians’ part gave each song its best chance to shine with its own radiance – a splendid concerted achievement!

It remains to salute Michael Vinten for his work (with help from many others, individuals and organisations, whose assistance he has gratefully acknowledged) in enabling a restoration to life of these once-integral impulses of creative musical endeavour. His presentations have, in a unique way refocused present-day sensibilities and judgements on what our composers and writers managed to achieve on their own merits during that singular era prior to Douglas Lilburn’s emergence. It must have seemed fit and just to Vinten that a better integration of past and present was definitely in order. Such enlargements of knowledge and awareness can’t help but enrich our appreciation of where our contemporary creative minds have come from and what they’re achieving in this, our present time.