Chorus And Keys – Festival Singers with Organists

CHORUS AND KEYS – Festival Singers and Wellington Organists

DVORAK – Mass in D Major


Festival Singers

(Rosemary Russell, director)

Soloists: Clarissa Dunn (soprano) / Rosel Labone (m-soprano)

John Beaglehole (tenor) / Kieran Raynor (baritone)

Organists: Paul Rosoman, Jonathan Berkahn, Judy Dumbleton

Church of St.John’s in the City, Willis St., Wellington

Saturday 12th September 2009

This was a concert devised by Wellington organists and the Festival Singers to present music which combined the sounds of voices and organ. Similar concerts with the same forces have been held in the past during the annual “Organ Week” festivals, but 2009 being the 50th Anniversary of the Wellington Organists’ Association, this became a special occasion, celebrated in fine style with performances of a variety of music from different times and places.

I wondered at the very beginning whether the word “birdsong” ought to have been added to the concert’s title, as the first sounds we heard were those of the kakapo, the haunting and evocative notes allowed to resound in the spaces of St.John’s in the City for some seconds before organist Paul Rosoman began his first item, Jan Sweelinck’s attractively melancholic set of variations on a old German tune Mein junges Leben hat ein End. This manuals-only work imparted a charming, chamber-like feeling, though a brilliant trumpet stop invigorated one of the variations excitingly. Voices provided a contrast with the next item, Purcell’s well-known anthem Rejoice in the Lord Always, featuring soloists Rosel Labone and Kieran Rayner, blending their voices characterfully as they exchanged attractive antiphonal episodes with the chorus. Both soloists and chorus made sonorous and strongly-focused contributions throughout, the former at the reprise of “Rejoice”, while the latter produced a stirring impact at their final massed entry.

If the J.C.Bach “Organ Duet” Sonata showed neither Paul Rosoman nor Judy Dumbleton at their best (perhaps through nerves and/or lack of rehearsal time), each made amends with a solo performance afterwards – first, Paul Rosoman gave a powerful reading of Mendelssohn’s Allegro, Choral and Fugue, the imposing toccata-like opening alternating great rhythmic drive and sinuously-wrought chromatic progressions, before relaxing into a major key in a way entirely characteristic of this composer (it would never have done for “Old Bach”, whose music Mendelssohn revered above all other, but whose musical sinews were obviously made of sterner stuff). The subsequent Chorale and Fugue were strongly characterised, with plenty of tension and sharp focus, before the music was triumphantly brought home in splendid D Major. For her part, Judy Dumbleton gave an exhilarating and open-aired reading of Eugene Gigout’s E Major scherzo, with reedy timbres and hunting-horn echoes to the fore, the playing not note-perfect, but with just the right amount of joie de vivre. The trio section particularly delighted us, the rhythmic phrases skipping along and jumping between registers, and managing to get the last saucy word in after the Scherzo’s brassier timbres had returned.

After the interval came the Dvorak Mass in D Major, a work I’d not previously heard, and an absolute charmer. The music began with a “Kyrie” whose lilting, lullaby-like accents built to more stirring utterances, leading to the “Christe” in which soprano Clarissa Dunn beautifully interwove her lines with that of the choir.

Throughout, the energetic triumph of the “Gloria” was splendidly directed by conductor Rosemary Russell, and featured some nice solo work at “Domine Deus”, with Kieran Rayner particularly sonorous at “Qui tollis peccata mundi”. In the “Credo” I liked the deceptively gentle altos-only beginning, with the whole choir bursting in at “Patrem omnipotentem” to great dramatic effect, as were the exchanges between choir and soloists at “Deum de Deum”. More lovely singing from Kieran Rayner, as well as from alto Rosel Labone, brought true mystery and reverence to “Et incarnatus est”, helped by beautifully reedy organ tones from Jonathan Berkahn’s playing. A harsh, confrontational “Crucifixus” was brought off with great strength of purpose, while tenor John Beaglehole supplied plenty of heroic energy in “Et ascendit in caelum”, the choir a shade shaky with the fugal writing at “Et iterum venturus”, but bringing it together well at “Cujus regni”. More good work from altos at “Credo in unam sanctam” and tenors with their “Confiteor unum baptisma” brought us resoundingly to the repeated and majestically-delivered final cries of “Amen!” at the Credo’s end.

The “Sanctus” which followed featured some lovely work in thirds by the women, their high lines leading surely to the celebratory “Hosannas”, and contrasting nicely with the rapt and reverential tones of the “Benedictus”, the organ again reedy and atmospheric, the choir sustaining the tones well (women a little more securely and surely than the men), and relishing the return of the “Hosannas” with glorious and vigorous outpourings of tone. The “Agnus Dei” gave the soloists further chances to shine, the tenor leading the way with nicely lyrical, suppliant petitionings, echoed by the altos and sopranos from the choir, and joined by soprano Clarissa Dunn with some beautifully-floated high notes. As for the concluding “Dona nobis pacem” it was beautifully managed here, the minor-to-major modulation nicely brought off, and the hushed choral entries giving the work an appropriately valedictory feeling at the close.

Not programmed on paper, but included as an item in the concert as a (somewhat specious) “filler” between the 19th and 20th centuries was Britten’s organ piece “Prelude and Fugue on a theme of Vittoria”, introduced and played by Jonathan Berkahn. Despite its brevity, the music made a big and imposing overall impression in Jonathan Berkahn’s hands, with majestic tones at the start, spiced by some glorious dissonances, and followed by a nicely processional fugue which explored contrasting bell-like sonorities and different rhythmic patternings through to a gradually receding conclusion. After this, the festive irruptions of joyful sounds occasioned by William Matthais’s setting of Psalm 67 “Let the People Praise Thee, O God” brought the concert to an exuberant conclusion, the Singers enjoying the Walton-like rhythmic syncopations of the writing as much as the celestially floated unisons of the music’s more luminous episodes. A great and celebratory way to end a concert.

Asher Fisch, Louis Lortie and the NZSO in splendid form with classical masterpieces

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Asher Fisch with Louis Lortie (piano)

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor, Op 18
Strauss: Tod und Verklärung, Op 24
Wagner: Overture to Tannhäuser

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 6 September, 6:30 pm

Asher Fisch is taking this NZSO programme with pianist Louis Lortie on a four city tour. It’s his first visit to New Zealand, though I encountered him as conductor of the production of Wagner’s Ring cycle in Adelaide in 2004 (it was an Australian production, in some kind of reaction to the cycle borrowed from the Châtelet Theatre in Paris, six years before).

Rachmaninov’s Number Two
‘Rach 2’, along with the Tchaikovsky No 1, are probably the most popular of all piano concertos. The opening is magical: seeming to emerge from nowhere and by no means easy to invest with definable feelings; however, they got it absolutely right, with the slow emergence of the crescendo of rich, opulent sounds. Perhaps the piano was a bit recessed during the following violin-led passage, but the balance was recovered and Lortie’s command technically and interpretationally was immaculate.

I was seated centre stalls and was a little surprised how, in full-orchestra passages, individual instruments tended to be obscured, while those less densely orchestrated had impact and clarity. All the usual wind instrument strengths were there – particularly, a beautifully pure solo horn passage expressed peace after Rachmaninov’s long period of depression following the shameful performance of and reaction to his first symphony.

There was fitful applause at the end of the first movement which I charitably ascribed to a genuine feeling that it had been particularly moving.

The second movement offers lovely solo opportunities to flute, then clarinet, over calm rolling arpeggios from the piano. My pleasure increased here as I reflected on how long it had been since hearing a live performance of this richly romantic masterpiece. There are several near-solo, piano passages that serve as kinds of cadenzas with quite subtle music from individual instruments, till eventually an actual cadenza takes over, rather briefly, followed by a resumption by dreamy, legato strings. Again, Lortie’s performance was of the greatest subtlety, wonderfully in sympathy with the entire work.

The last movement, more rich in tumbling bravura, is also music of engrossing variety of emotion, pace, with a return in the first few minutes of a meditative beauty; and it resumed its basic character, maintaining a fast pace to the finish. Rachmaninov’s orchestration never drew attention to itself but it is a major element in the concerto’s greatness and that was thoroughly exploited in the subtlety of its performance, wrapping itself sensitively around the piano part.

Greatly loved, some might even call it hackneyed, it might be; but that in no way diminishes its reputation, and this evening’s performance confirmed its standing most convincingly.

It puzzled the audience at the end when Lortie manoeuvred himself back to the piano and another chair was brought out; and it dawned on us that Fisch himself was going to take part in an encore. I didn’t recognise the duet movement they played, though it was pretty clearly Mozart era though I didn’t think it was actually him. So I was surprised to learn that it was in fact Mozart: the second movement, Andante, from his Sonata in D for piano duet, K 381.

Tod und Verklärung
In the second half German classics held sway. Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung is among the composer’s earlier compositions and for many, his most moving (for me too). Written aged 24, immediately after Don Juan, it always feels like the music of a much older composer, long exposed to the pains of life and realities of death.

My last recollection of it by the NZSO is in 2010, under Alexander Shelley.

Immediately, it created a sombre mood of a unique character, opening without first violins, confining the orchestra to second violins, violas, cellos and bases, bassoons and timpani.  But soon its mood is modified as first violins enter as well harp and flute. The sudden outburst by timpani, trombones and tuba, announcing the struggle between life and death, was more stunning than I have ever heard before. It quickly subsides as the orchestra’s handling of the tortured mood and dynamic changes took charge, expansive, with a sort of profound grandeur. Bridget Douglas’s flute created a trembling agitation depicting one part of the battle.

Through the turmoil of near-death experiences, Fisch never allowed the tension and excitement to subside. Its singular beauties were constantly threatened but never overwhelmed by brass-led crescendo passages that depicted the dying man’s agonies, and his reflections on a heroic life, on love, on his pursuit of ideals. Interestingly, Strauss commented on the fact that while Don Juan started and ended in E minor, this work dwelling fundamentally on death starts in C minor and ends in C major, the most sanguine of keys.

There dwelt, throughout, a powerful, ecstatic feeling that one might consider the epitome of late Romantic sensibility. That is certainly the way I have always felt about it, since first hearing it in my 20s, and the many hearings since then have not altered my opinion or reduced the profound impact of the work. This performance confirmed again my love of its conception, enhanced strongly in this musical realisation from Asher and the NZSO.

Wagner’s Tannhäuser overture
It seemed slightly odd to end the concert with an overture, though I could tell, given the decision to perform these works, that arranging things in terms of length and in handling the piano in the easiest way, led to this sequence. Before the concert I had wondered whether scheduling it last might have encouraged the orchestra to follow the overture with the Venusberg music, the ballet music that Wagner had to write for its 1860 Paris Opera production, and which is often played immediately after the overture in concert. Given that the concert ended a quarter of an hour before usual, that would have been entirely possible.

Asher Fisch emphasised the pseudo-religious character of the music with the tune from the Pilgrims’ hymn, evoking sounds hinting at an organ in the apotheosis of a religious occasion.  But the equally important element in the overture is the Venusberg music, which is expanded in the ballet that became Act I, scene one in the Paris version, and Fisch drew from it all the wildness that is inherent in it, with as much as possible of the erotic freedom permitted in a respectable concert. The overture ended with a grand return to the pious strains of the Pilgrims chorus, leaving no doubt about the success of conductor and orchestra in handling this rather over-the-top music.

The performance of overtures, which used to be a standard way of opening concerts till a couple of decades ago, should be resurrected. This case, even though in an unorthodox position in the programme, at least offered an example of the sort of music to be found in scores of the once popular and well-known overtures that introduced and illuminated most concerts in the old days; and more importantly, are still an ideal way for young people to be won over to classical music.

Delightful, witty Così fan tutte from Wanderlust Opera

Così fan tutte (Mozart) in concert
Wanderlust Opera: produced by Georgia Jamieson Emms

Musical director: Bruce Greenfield (piano)
Narrator: Kate Mead
Georgia Jamieson Emms (Fiordiligi); Bianca Andrew (Dorabella); Imogen Thirlwall (Despina); Cameron Barclay (Ferrando); Robert Tucker (Guglielmo); Matthew Landreth (Don Alfonso)

English translation by John Drummond, Ruth and Thomas Martin and Georgia Jamieson Emms

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Saturday 15 August, 7:30 pm

It’s best to start with comment about the somewhat unfortunate timing of this wonderful enterprise. A clash with the university school of music’s double bill, running four performances from Thursday to Sunday. On top of that, many vocal enthusiasts would also have been torn by having to choose between the last day of the Big Sing, the choral competition/jamboree/gala of secondary school choirs, held this year in Wellington.

Because of conflicting commitments among the cast, no alternative date could be found however, and the audience (around 100) was a bit smaller than I’d expected: it certainly deserved a full house.

Though it was not a fully staged performance, there were many other features that contributed to a sparking, highly entertaining show; the mere absence of sets and costumes of the era didn’t deny the singers plenty of histrionic scope. Recitatives were replaced by a ‘performance’ by Kate Mead, named ‘narrator’. She was much more than that; in a flamboyant black and silver costume, she entered arm-in-arm with Bruce Greenfield, took her place on a platform on the right while Greenfield went to the piano, which served very well as orchestra.

He launched impulsively into the overture, hitting the keys with staccato ferocity. But after only a minute the overture was cut short and Kate took over to set the scene, with detail rich in witty hyperbole, insight, oxymoron, cynicism and meticulous Neapolitan geography. (If you’re interested, Piazza Carolina is close to the great San Carlo Theatre; their five-storey house is on the corner of Via Gennaro Serra – check it out next time you’re in Naples).

Kate’s dramatic elan ran the risk of upstaging more than one of the real performers. Like the singers, she spoke in English, which, in theory, negated the need for surtitles; but as usual, they’d often have been a help, as voices vary in clarity and carrying ability. (I have to confess a very strong preference, always, for the original language, with surtitles of course). So the scene was promptly set for a comedy in which there was no hope of rational intelligibility.

The other most important actor was the one-man-orchestra, the piano, which did get in the way sometimes, and made it hard to catch some of the Italian-inflected English. But it was always worth paying attention to the sheer brilliance of Greenfield’s playing of the delicious score.

However, the more important thing is the singing.

The three men, in dinner suits, established their characters at once, voices very distinct, though Cameron Barclay’s self-confident Ferrando was at first a little better projected than the Guglielmo of Robert Tucker whose well-grounded baritone slowly distinguished itself. The sisters’ several duets were nicely differentiated in timbre, and models of emotional excess. Bianca Andrew as Dorabella, the more susceptible of the sisters, used her fine penetrating mezzo wonderfully; Georgia Jamieson Emms benefitted as a result of the different character of her voice and personality, easily capturing the nature of Fiordiligi. They both wore glamorous, timeless, ball dresses.

Matthew Landreth as Don Alfonso did not, early on, quite command the nonchalant, Figaro-factotum character that Da Ponte and Mozart envisaged, but by the advent of the quintet, ‘Sento, o dio’, he was fitting comfortably into the texture of the performance.

It’s true that quite a lot was left out (there were 17 numbers listed in the programme from a total of 31 usually numbered in the score), though none of the well-known arias and ensembles was missing, like the divine trio ‘Soave sia il vento’, Fiordiligi’s ‘Come scoglio’ with a conspicuously splendid piano accompaniment; or tenor Ferrando’s touching ‘Un’ aura amorosa’. As an opera without a chorus, it is famous for its beautiful duets, trios and quintets, and they were often more beguiling than the solo arias.

With Alfonso’s pecuniary persuasion, Despina (Imogen Thirlwall) has entered the fray; her performance is vivacious and her initial hesitation to be complicit in Alfonso’s scheme quickly falls away.

The implementation of Alfonso’s plot is followed by a big sextet, as the two Albanians are introduced, and offer the most taxing of all suspensions of disbelief with the most improbable of disguises in all theatre, sporting moustaches and with unstable fezes (plural?), still wearing dinner suits, but with loosened ties.

Despina assumes great importance in Act II, starting with her perky ‘Una donna a quindici anni’, in her attempt to modify the girls’ self-denying virtue. With a few cuts in the score, we miss the agonising vicissitudes of the four as Despina’s principled counsel slowly takes root, especially in the Fiordiligi, the more virtuous of the two, leading precipitately to a double wedding officiated by Despina the notary.

To be sure, one missed the often hilarious, accelerating marital climax that a well-staged performance can offer, but the combination of fine singing and nearly believable acting was not a bad substitute. The outcome from the collapse of earlier assumptions about human behaviour is often left obscure; though I feel that an enigmatic outcome makes better dramatic, psychological sense, here the return to the original pairing was clear (perhaps it would be more acceptable in the provinces).

This splendid, entertaining, Wanderlust Opera enterprise is a serious attempt to find a way to bring opera to wider audiences. Georgia Jamieson Emms and her co-conspirators are to be congratulated on their courage and success which, given some financial support, has the potential to relieve operatic starvation in parts of the country.

The plan is for this performance to become fully staged under director Jacqui Coats and to travel next year to Wanganui, the Kapiti Coast, New Plymouth and Carterton. What is clearly needed is a change of attitude by Creative New Zealand which has a wretched history over many decades of rejecting applications for assistance by admirable, small opera groups.


Terfel’s style and musicality offer something for everyone in varied concert

NZSO and Bryn Terfel: A Gala Evening

Wagner: Excerpts from Tannhäuser, Das Rheingold, Die Walküre
Boito: ‘Son lo Spirito: from Mefistofele
Songs by Kurt Weill, Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Bock and Harnick, and Traditional, arranged by Chris Hazell
Lilburn: Aotearoa Overture

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra with Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone), conducted by Tecwyn Evans

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday, 3 May 2013, 6.30pm

One wonders if all the words that can be said about Bryn Terfel have already been said: his magnificent voice, his control of dynamics and vocal nuance, his infinite variety of vocal colour, his resonance, his communication with his audience.

He has been gifted with a splendid voice, which he uses with the utmost musical intelligence. 

The Michael Fowler Centre had but few empty seats on Friday evening.  Not only was there a great singer to hear, but the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra was in outstanding form.  We don’t often have the opportunity to hear the orchestra play Wagner, but on this showing the musicians are very good at it.

The horns were in marvellous fettle for the opening of the Tannhäuser overture, with lovely tone and phrasing; the cellos followed in like fashion.  The players proceeded with a wonderful build-up and range of dynamics.  There was choice woodwind to enjoy, and the woodwind choir playing the theme was beguiling, against the mysterious, rapid violins.  Then the theme was punched out in a masterly manner by cellos and brass.  It all added up to a fine and totally convincing performance.

The beautiful aria ‘O! du mein holder Abendstern’ is perhaps the most well-known solo in all of Wagner’s œuvre.  Wagner’s fondness for chromaticism is most apparent here.  Bryn Terfel’s was a gentle introduction, his low notes benign.  His breath and vocal control were wonderful to behold, as was his enunciation, and the contrast between his pianissimos and strong, ringing top notes.  The cellos echoed his tone superbly.  Wonderful too, were the delicious harp passages.

In a radio interview earlier in the week, Terfel said that he considered himself a lyrical Wagner singer, and that he wasn’t there to sing loudly, but to give colour and dynamics to the solo parts.

‘Abenlich strahlt der Sonne Auge’ from Das Rheingold enabled the depiction of quite a different character.  The horns again, along with trumpets, got us into the mood.  Trombones and tuba were added to the mix, making a formidable sound for Terfel to encounter.  His stylish declamation came across despite the huge amount of noise created; some of the sound bounced off unexpected places in the auditorium.

Horns to the fore in Die Walküre, of course.  ‘The  Ride of the Valkyries’ was described in the printed programme as ‘one of the most famous moments of music ever composed’.  Certainly, but it has been so often parodied that I found it hard to banish some of these treatments of it from my mind.

‘Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music’ gave both singer and orchestra their heads.  Its dramatic character was belied by Terfel’s ‘stand and deliver’ concert stance, with few gestures, and little facial expression, relying on his voice and outstanding, indeed flawless, diction to get over the message.  The performance was characterful and commanding, the singer producing huge sound, supported by an orchestra in top gear – including the playing of the ear-piercing anvil! 

Everything changed after the interval.  Bryn Terfel spoke to the audience between composers, his large speaking voice reaching throughout the auditorium without difficulty.  He spoke of the words of Boito’s aria and their meaning (better than did the printed translation, which substituted the word ‘through’ for ‘throw’).  As he said, bass-baritones get to sing the evil guys.

Here, facial expression and gesture helped to convey the evil of Mephistopheles, as did the brilliant, loud, whistling that interspersed the aria.  Another nice touch was the singing of the word ‘No’ in a high, childish voice the second-last time it occurred.  The whistling at the end was imitated by some of the audience; Bryn Terfel told us ‘See why the dogs went crazy when I rehearsed this on my father’s farm!’

Kurt Weill’s ‘Mack the Knife’ from Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) is more familiar to us in English, but Terfel sang in the original German.  It begins with just piano accompaniment, then gradually percussion and brass are added, then pizzicato strings.  Back to piano, and the same process happens again.  This was all totally pleasing on the ear; the singer’s soft notes were quite lovely.

Oklahoma’s overture and most famous song, ‘Oh what a beautiful mornin’’ followed.  A charming xylophone was a feature of the suave and smooth overture.  Terfel played around with the rhythm in the song – why not, in something like this?  The orchestra sang the second chorus – then we all joined in. 

Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot is not as enduring as some of the other shows.  Terfel portrayed a quite different character in the winsome ‘How to handle a woman’, that featured sprechstimme.

‘If I were a rich man’ is another winner, from Fiddler on the Roof.  Here, Terfel was acting through his voice – shading the tone, making the sounds for ducks, geese and turkeys, and using an appropriate accent for Tevye.  At the end, he bounced off the stage to the rhythm of the piece. 

The orchestra played what is probably my favourite Lilburn piece: Aotearoa Overture.  The singer would have needed the break, but the piece was somewhat out of character with the rest of the concert.  It was impressively rendered.

A series of traditional songs came next, arranged by Englishman Chris Hazell.  The first, ‘Passing By’ had rather strange harmonisations, but ‘My Little Welsh Home’ included appropriately, the harp, and lovely oboe passages.  In the last of these, ‘Molly Malone’, the audience was again invited to sing along in the chorus.

A standing ovation obtained several encores: ‘Shenandoah’ in a beautiful arrangement with lots of flute and delightful pianissimos; ‘Ar hyd y nos’ (‘All through the night’) sung in Welsh with notable cor anglais in the orchestra – and a verse sung directly to the people seated behind the stage, and finally, ‘Pokarekare ana’.  Not every Maori vowel was correct, but it was a beautiful arrangement (I assume these arrangements were also by Chris Hazell) and a fitting finale to a wonderful evening of superb music from a great artist.

Bryn Terfel is totally in command of a magnificent voice, and of all the characters he portrayed.  He comes over as a jovial and friendly human being.



Gao Ping’s winning presentation of Debussy, New Zealand and east Asian piano music

Gao Ping – piano (Wellington Chamber Music)

Debussy: Book II of Images for piano and L’Île joyeuse; Jack Body: Five melodies for piano; Eve de Castro Robinson: And the garden was full of voices; Gao Ping: Outside the window; Takemitsu: Rain Tree Sketch and Rain Tree Sketch II

Ilott Theatre, Town Hall

Sunday 11 September, 3pm

The first thing to remark is the unfortunate clash between this concert and that in the Michael Fowler Centre by the Vector Wellington Orchestra with pianist Diedre Irons. But in addition to that, there was a concert by the Wellington Community Choir next door, in the Town Hall main auditorium.

Though there were only two pieces, both by Debussy, that could be regarded as standard repertoire, the audience was nearly as large as at most other recent recitals, though that is rather fewer than was usual a few years ago.

There were two works by New Zealand composers.

Gao Ping introduced Jack Body’s Five Melodies for Piano by describing his first contact with the composer in Chengdu, not in person, but through a music tape that he’d left during a visit. He was moved and impressed and spoke warmly about Body, who was in the audience; it was an engaging way of putting the audience in a positive, receptive state of mind. Working the inside of the piano was novel forty years ago; now, there should be reason other than the novelty of a sound that’s distorted from its normal character. Happily, Gao Ping’s manner and his clear enjoyment of the music, its memorable riffs and motifs and drones, the muted strings produced by his left hand helped to make the pieces sound almost standard repertoire, familiar, even congenial. And, in the third piece, the stopping of partials on the piano strings to produce harmonics, and the plain comfortableness of his demeanor at the piano, as awkward as it often looks to be leaning sideways across the keyboard to do things that the instrument’s inventors never dreamed of (they might have said – why not use a harp? or lute? or theorbo? or guitar?)

Eve de Castro Robinson’s And the Garden was full of Voices is a three-part work evoking, with success, the sounds of birds in a garden inspired by a line in a Bill Manhire poem (with contribution from pianist Barry Margan). The composer still finds the need to manipulate the strings of the piano with the hands, but she also uses techniques that have become fashionable a generation after the body-contorting, piano-interior fashion: the integration of the pianist’s voice in the texture. In the second section, ‘Moon darkened by song’, the pianist resumed his seat and treated the instrument conventionally, with a prayerful gesture and two sharp claps from raised hands, bringing it to an end. Especially dramatic in the third section, ‘The ancient chants are echoes of death’, was the dark throbbing, the heavy beat, and the echoes of death evoked from the extreme ends of the keyboard. It made music that expressed both visual and unusual emotional perceptions.

Gao Ping, who seems at least a fairly permanent New Zealand resident, introduced his own piece Outside the window engagingly, recalling the childhood sense of a different – more real or more distant – world outside, and the music was now speaking in a language that offered more familiar resonances.

The first movement (of four, ‘On the way’) suggested a certain Janáček flavour (am I subject to suggestion, partly by the similar subject/title On an overgrown path?), at times touches of jazz, in its rhythms and melodic finger-prints. ‘Chorus of Fire Worms’ was a surprising avian evocation; Debussy was inevitably nearby in ‘Clouds’ (Nuages?), though I was not really reminded of clouds, unless they were of the fast-forward kind. The girls dancing on rubber bands (iv) was a flight of the imagination which Jack Body’s sound-world might have had some influence on.

Gao Ping again diverted us with a story related by Takemitsu: after the devastation and deprivation of the post-war, he had no piano and wandered the streets knocking on doors where he heard a piano, to ask whether he could play for 15 minutes; 40 years later he was greeted, at a concert, by one of his piano benefactors. The two Rain Tree Sketches are among his more popular pieces, not reflecting a particularly Japanese character but impressing with their coherent and confident musical substance and Gao’s playing seemed somehow to incarnate the composer himself, who has always seemed to me a man of warmth and deep humanity – like Gao Ping.

The three pieces of Debussy’s Images Book II, not the best known of his piano pieces, was a clever way to induct the audience into the climate and landscape of the New Zealand and East Asian music in the rest of the concert. The bells of No 1 were sounded in disembodied abstraction; another essential quality of Debussy’s piano music lay in the black-and-whiteness character that’s suggested by the second part – ‘Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut’ – the coldness of the moon, static harmonies, stillness. ‘Poissons d’or’ is the most familiar of the three, quite formidable in its spirit in spite of the shimmering dance rhythm that portrays the golden fishes whose flashing movements became quite corporeal and substantial; yet all the time, firmly rooted in the black and white piano keys. Gao Ping’s unobtrusive virtuosity illuminated them all.

And so it was fitting to return to Debussy at the end with his brilliant hail of notes that bespangle the glittering and very difficult L’Ile joyeuse; Gao Ping gave it strong pulse and danced excitedly through it with an almost visceral joyousness.

The encore was what Gao Ping called a vocalizing-pianist piece, written by him to a poem, “perhaps-song of burial”, by Wen Yi-duo. Again, the role of the pianist’s voice complemented his piano-playing; it lamented the death of the poet’s daughter, sustained by a steady rhythm throughout in rolling motifs in the left hand. Whether the words expressed profound grief or a more metaphysical emotion one knew not, but the music seemed to express a calm stoicism rather than unrestrained distress; it was no doubt all the more impressive and moving as a result.

With each of these various composers, Gao Ping, demonstrated an intuitive awareness of the music’s essence, and a refinement, enlivened by virtuosity that was always at the service of the music.

Composer/pianist Frederic Rzewski (who was a guest at Victoria University a few years ago) said: “Gao Ping is one of a new generation that is breathing new life into the classical tradition. An evening with Gao Ping’s music is a true adventure!”

I couldn’t put it better. It was his music, in particular, this afternoon that seemed to me to point in a most fruitful, human, and optimistic direction for the future of ‘classical’ music that will again succeed in reaching out to the large audiences it enjoyed a century ago.

Another snippet.

He was asked in an interview posted on his website how he would define ‘interpreting’. His answer: “In terms of performing? Well, it is a vague word. I prefer ‘recreating’. Playing a Beethoven sonata is to recreate something, not really an interpretation because interpretation seems to suggest ‘explaining’, which is not what one can do with Beethoven sonatas performing it.”

Just one of many tendentious, pretentious words beloved of critics that have always made me uneasy, even though I’ve been guilty occasionally.

Robert Wiremu’s REIMAGINING MOZART – a mind-enlarging expression of human tragedy in music

(dedicated to Helen Acheson)

Presented by Chamber Music New Zealand

Karanga to the Composer – Melissa Absolum (Voices Chamber Choir)
Composer – Robert Wiremu
Instrumental Ensemble – Liu-Yi Retallick. Joelia Pinto (violins), Johnny Chang, Helen Lee (violas)
James Bush, Sarah Spence (‘cellos), Eric Renick (vibraphone)
Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir
Music Director – Karen Grylls

St.Mary of the Angels Church, Wellington

3:00pm Sunday, October 29th, 2023


Apart from it all having  a superlatives-exhausting effect from a critical point of view, I found as an audience member, composer Robert Wiremu’s “reimagining” of sequences from Mozart’s final work, his “Requiem”, a profoundly engaging and deeply moving experience. It was thus on so many levels, though naturally the presentation exerted its fullest and deepest effect with all things considered – the atmosphere of the venue (the beautiful St.Mary of the Angels Church in Wellington), the cultural merging of ritualistic procedures, European and Maori, the idea of a “requiem” in the presence of karanga (call), kaupapa (matter for discussion) and poroporoaki (leave-taking) relating to and delivered by the composer in relation to  his subject matter, the use of both specific and “re-presented” parts of the Mozart work, both the overall and specific parts of the presentation’s “narrative”, the technical prowess of the performers, the beauty of their singing and playing, and, of course the skills and complete authority of Music Director Karen Grylls. All of these things interacted to present a work whose range and scope was breathtaking, both when experienced in situ and in subsequent resonant reflection.

Earlier this same month (October) Wiremu had outlined in a radio interview certain aspects of the presentation which conveyed a real sense of what we would subsequently hear in its performance – and to the production’s credit the printed programme available at the venue further enabled the listener to clearly follow the general organisation of the work. Wiremu recalled that the idea of using Mozart’s Requiem as a kind of “starting-point” was part of the commission given to him by CMNZ’s chief executive at the time, Gretchen la Roche, and that he was able to then sublimate the kind of universal human grief for the dead in Mozart’s work as a statement focusing on a more specific and immediate tragedy involving this country, the Mt.Erebus plane crash which claimed 257 lives late in 1979.

Wiremu was given certain specific directives regarding the commission. because the piece was going to go “on tour” – his resources were limited accordingly, thus  the use of a chamber choir and a limited-sized instrumental ensemble . Along with a small group of strings Wiremu chose the vibraphone as an ideal instrument of evocation particularly as the thought of the Erebus happening took shape in his mind.  Though he himself remembered the news of the actual incident (he was nine years old at that time), Wiremu decided he would make no reference in the work to any specific person or organisation involved in the incident in any way, his purpose being to emphasise the idea of sorrow and grief in universal human terms of loss connecting the Mozart work and the Erebus disaster. He also resolved that he would not change the actual notes of Mozart’s that he used,  instead adapting different instrumentations from those of the original.

Interestingly Wiremu developed in his mind a tenuous link between Mozart’s work and the Erebus accident via a tape cassette player called a “Walkman” (available in 1979) and the Requiem thereby being recorded on a cassette and becoming part of the event of the plane’s destruction and the deaths of the plane’s occupants – all of which regarding the player and its cassette being pure conjecture on the composer’s part, with no ACTUAL evidence of a tape of any of Mozart’s music on the plane. However Wiremu imagined the notes of the music on the mythical tape carried into and through the same “fractured, scattered, broken, distorted, twisted (and) disfigured” process as all else on the aircraft, and in places the notes are thus subjected to similar kinds of treatment. At the beginning and end of the piece there is birdsong reproduced by the instruments and by the choir members actually whistling some of Mozart’s own notes from the work as they walk to and from their places – in Wiremu’s schema the piece also features a dedication, remembering a singer in the group, Helen Acheson, who was involved with this project but who died earlier this year – this was Mozart’s last completed work, and Wiremu introduces its performance by the choir with 43 bell-notes played by the vibraphone and accompanied by major-minor chordal undulations from the strings, a note for every year of the dedicatee’s all-too-short life.

Each of the seven movements of Robert Wiremu’s  piece was given a Maori name, the opening KARANGA here performed arrestingly and sonorously by alto Melissa Absolum from the Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir, welcoming the composer to the place of performance and inviting him to speak about what we were going to hear this afternoon. Wiremu then greeted us, explaining something of the grieving ethos of human loss in Mozart’s work as being redirected and reimagined to reflect a tragedy in the South Pacific in similarly non-specific terms.

The instrumentalists began the work, creating eerie harmonies from “bowing” the keys on the vibraphone, the sounds of birdsong realised in a variety of ways, from glissando notes on the string instruments to vocalisings (whistlings) from as the singers as they entered down each of the side-aisles and congregatged with the instrumentalists at the front, followed by Music Director Karen Grylls. Amidst these ambiences the strings and vibraphone began the instrumental introduction to the Requiem, joined by the choir, the singing sonorous and clearly-lined, with the Kyrie Eleison fugue gloriously articulated, those treacherously dramatic ascents thrown off with great elan, leading to the powerfully dramatic concluding ELEI-SON!

The opening having captured the growing excitement of the plane nearing Antarctica, the following RERENGA (flight) features the driving rhythms of Confutatis Maledictis depicting the aircraft’s propulsion, with contrasting emotions represented by the interspersed, gentler Voca me cum benedictis from the choir. A culmination came with the ecstatic response of the voices in their great, unaccompanied cries of Sanctus! as the icebergs were glimpsed from the aircraft, along with the breathless exultation of the unaccompanied Hosanna fugue. By contrast the HINGA (descent) which followed used part of the Recordare in a blurred, unclear way as the flight entered a clouded-over unknown world, the strings expressing confused, discordant progressions, with downward glissandi depiction a descent into the gloom. The vibraphone briefly evoked dislocation and confused suspension before the strings plunged the scenario into darkness and confusion, unisons attacking and blurring each other’s lines, the sounds strained, stretched, stressed and tortured until the process gradually abated, the punishing clashes and dissonances drawing  back, and leaving only confused silence – TE KORE, the emptiness, is all that is left…..

Into the silence burst the Dies Irae, here fantastically realised, the lines at once powerful and knife-edged, with both instruments and voices throwing themselves at the notes Mozart wrote! The vibraphone’s sudden interspersed moment of terrible nothingness and emptiness compressed and eventually fractured the Dies Irae utterances, the words broken up into whisperings and single word gesturings, the chant then reduced to ghostly, spectral whisperings of both the Dies Irae and Quantus tremor verses. It is over – there are no survivors of the crash.

In the ensuing silence the vibraphone played the Lacrymosa, joined by the voices only, the strings silent, the voices rising in grief and sorrow and anger – the vibraphone took us to strange tonal realms as if the music was denying its own home key and annihilating its own essence, the voices sounding similarly estranged, with individual notes stuttering and halting, and the vibraphone having to reinvent harmonies for the voices’ melody. As for the choir’s singing of the “Amen” – such a cathartic moment, sounding a kind of run-through realisation of an awful finality.

MUTUNGA stands for completion, here accompanied by anguished string chords and bell-chiming descants from the vibraphone as the chorus sang the Agnus Dei, alternating forthright opening phrases with gentler replying Dona eis Requiem utterances, to which the instruments played a gentle contrapuntal accompaniment. We were led back to the beginning, with strings and bowed vibraphone notes joined by the choir, the plaintive vocal lines turning vigorous as the words Requiem and Dona eis Domine were repeated, all so very wondrously and ardently realised. The awful inevitability of nature’s processings of the tragedy were duly acknowledged by Wiremu as Mozart’s response to the words in the Requiem seek to console all those who suffer the anguish of loss in all its forms.

As if bringing into individual human focus these archetypal processes of grief, Wiremu concluded his work with a Dedication given the title MARAMA (light), with a performance of Mozart’s last “finished” work, his “Ave Verum Corpus”, one integrated into the earlier-expressed, more collective consciousness of tragedy through a kind of “summons” via bell sounds, here given no less than the 43 strokes in commemoration of the life of Helen Acheson, a friend and colleague of Wiremu’s who as previously mentioned died earlier this year. Strings and vibraphone played a contrapuntal accompaniment of some glorious singing from Voices New Zealand under Karen Grylls’ inspirational direction, leaving all of us in no doubt that we had witnessed something unique and special, and to be remembered and appreciated for a long time to come.

Choral concert to celebrate new digital organ at Cathedral of Saint Paul

Organ Festival: Choral anthems 

Choirs and Choristers of Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul, Choir of the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Sacred Heart (Directors Michael Stewart and Michael Fletcher, organists Richard Apperley and Michael Stewart)

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Saturday, 13 August 2018, 7 pm

With the organ moved to the side, the rather small audience had full view of the choirs in their red cassocks.  In his introduction, Michael Stewart referred to ‘choral blockbusters’; we had a few of them!  First was Handel’s famous coronation anthem ‘Zadok the Priest’.  It was sung with the usual robust cheerfulness, as was the next anthem, Parry’s ‘I was glad’.  Richard Apperley accompanied this in fine style, giving a ringing fanfare at the beginning.  The effect when the choir came in was thrilling.

Again (cf Friday night’s organ recital) I did not hear the clarity from this digital organ that would have been present in the pipe organ that was damaged in the November 2016 Kaikoura earthquake.  In the quiet parts, Apperley used the Choir manual, and throughout both choir and organ had a commendable range of dynamics.  The choir moved to several different positions for the different items; throughout, the singing was good.  The sound from the two choirs was unified in singing this music, which is tricky in places.  It is one of Parry’s most effective compositions, and not as bombastic as some of his utterances; rather it has a positive mood.

Before his solo item, Michael Stewart remarked that the organ was very comfortable to play.  He played ‘Fête’ by Jean Langlais (French composer for the organ again), an appropriate choice for initiating a new organ.  In festive style, we were caught up in a whirligig of excitement.  Especially in the slower sections, both Solo (right hand) and Choir (left hand) organs were used.  The final passages were jubilant, with plenty of foot-work.

Now it was the turn of the children who make up the Cathedral Choristers.  First, they sang a piece by Sir John (alias Johnny) Dankworth: ‘Light of the World”.  This was beautifully sung.  Next was ‘Look at the world’, words and music both, by the prolific British choral composer John Rutter.  This was a more difficult sing, but well performed.  Both items were sung in unison, accompanied by Richard Apperley.   The choristers were joined by the Cathedral choir to perform Jonatham Dove’s ‘Gloria’ from his Missa Brevis.  This British composer’s bright and jazzy piece incorporated a rapid organ accompaniment and a grand ending.

Gerald Finzi, another Brit. despite his surname, wrote charming, lyrical music. The combined three choirs sang his anthem ‘Lo, the full, final sacrifice’, with words by the mystical poet Richard Crashaw, who flourished in the early seventeenth century.  The performance was notable for the very fine men’s voices.  Not to demean the women, who sang extremely well, but it is often the men who are the weaker parts of a choir.

It was good to have the words printed in the programme, because it was not always easy to pick them up in this resonant building.  The music was very varied; some pensive, some jubilant.  Likewise the organ accompaniment – very dramatic.  The piece ended in a calm, peaceful ‘Amen’.

After the interval came an organ solo from Richard Apperley.  In his introductory remarks, the organist said that his improvisation upon this piece was the final music at the last service in the Cathedral before the earthquake – therefore the very last on the pipe organ.  He explained that the music built to cataclysmic effects, not inappropriately.  It was not clear if today’s performance included improvisation.

The piece was ‘Evocation II’ by Thierry Escaich, another French organist and composer, this time, contemporary. A repeated pedal note and staccato chords above gave a sense of foreboding as did the alternation between manuals, and gradual build-up of volume.  It ended in a ‘Wow!’ moment.

Michael Fletcher from Sacred Heart Cathedral now conducted the two adult choirs in Edward Bairstow’s ‘Blessed city, heavenly Salem’, with Michael Stewart at the organ.  The composer’s dates (1874-1946) put him between Parry and Rutter.  A lyrical  piece, it was in a style distinct from both his predecessor and his successor.  The music changed moods to suit the words.  The choirs not only sang accurately, they exhibited a splendid soaring tone.  The organ also went from ff to ppp.  A soprano solo in the last verse, with sotto voce accompaniment from choir and organ, was most effective; the anthem had a beautiful, subtle ending.

Zoltán Kodály was the only non-English composer represented.  His quite substantial choral and organ work, ‘Laudes Organi’ simply means ‘In praise of organs’.  It was based on a medieval text, and was written in 1966, a year before the composer died.  The organ as an instrument goes back to much more ancient times than the medieval; the Romans had small organs.

The Latin text was translated in the programme.  The second verse consists of instruction to the musician who will play the instrument.  The organist is instructed not to stand on the bellows, but to practice hard.  The choirs were preceded by a long, varied organ introduction.

The choral music not only featured very effective part-writing, it was illustrative of the words, notably at the beginning of the second verse: ‘Musician! Be a soldier; train yourself…’  Before the last verse (of four) there was a gorgeous organ interlude.  A jubilant organ postlude followed by a lovely polyphonic ‘Amen’, and final grand organ chords ended the work.  This was very fine singing and organ-playing indeed.

Like much of the composer’s music, the tonalities ran through a bunch of keys, or rather, made use of Hungarian modes, not exclusively those used in northern and western European music.  This made the music striking, significant, even magical in places; an admirable composition.

The last item of the evening was Vaughan Williams’s setting of the canticle ‘Let all the world in every corner sing’, words by the great metaphysical poet and cleric George Herbert.  After a great build-up from the organ, the choirs came in, in full voice for this well-known and dramatic setting.  Gymnastics were required from the organist, especially on the pedals.  Like the previous item, it was directed by Michael Stewart, with Richard Apperley at the organ.  Great refinement was evident in the quiet passages, before the piece’s upbeat ending.

Thus ended a memorable concert, aptly celebrating the new organ.

Yahoo New Zealand Mail

    • 👤ROBIN L H

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Astonishing performance of complete Daphnis et Chloé ballet music, plus a Schumann allusion

Orchestra Wellington and the Orpheus Choir conducted by Marc Taddei with Stephen de Pledge (piano)

Schumann: Carnaval (four scenes arranged by Ravel)
Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor Op 54
Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé – complete ballet score

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 5 August, 7:30 pm

Orchestra Wellington continued its 2017 series theme that focuses on the great impresario Sergei Diaghilev, the genius behind the Ballets Russes which changed the face of ballet before the First World War, and also impacted on most of the other arts. For he employed the most gifted choreographers, composers, dancers and designers, of the age, and inspired them to produce work that would radically enrich and rejuvenate, even revolutionise the arts generally. One of the greatest ballets inspired by Diaghilev was Daphnis et Chloé; and the orchestra must have faced the necessity of performing it with trepidation.

But we began with an arrangement of Schumann’s Carnaval. What’s the link with Diaghilev?

Carnaval is a bit of an oddity, for it was first used, at Fokine’s initiative, in a collaborative orchestration by Glazunov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Arensky, Lyadov, and Tcherepnin for the Ballets Russes in 1910. So it is curious that in 1914 Nijinsky asked Ravel to do another arrangement of Carnaval, this time for a London season; a Ravel arrangement was inspired no doubt by the success of Daphnis et Chloé in 1912, the year before Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps.  Most of Ravel’s score is lost and only four parts are extant: Preamble – German waltz – Paganini – March of the ‘Davidsbündler’ against the Philistines. So it was a minor work in the Ballets Russes story, but it acted as a sort of overture to this concert.

It is hard for me to adopt an objective feeling towards an orchestration of music that seems so utterly, quintessentially for the piano and which I’ve loved in that form for hundreds of years. Clearly, the orchestra decided to include it, as Marc Taddei explained, because Schumann’s piano concerto was scheduled in the first half, and the idea of some kind of link was attractive.

So, it’s essentially a scrap, a remnant in which there is not enough time to become much engaged by the sort of delightful, eccentric magic that a performance of the entire 20 pieces of the original creates, making emotional and artistic sense of the complete score.

I couldn’t avoid the feeling that it presented the orchestra with an insuperable task, to ingest the music, firstly to overcome resistance to sounds not from a piano, and to be persuaded that Ravel himself was convinced by it. Though whimsy, children’s make-believe, a chimerical world, the exotic, are common to both Schumann and Ravel, I have the feeling that they imagined them in quite different ways.

So I was not surprised to find in the scoring little that I’d have ascribed to Ravel in a blind-fold test.

Schumann Piano Concerto
The Piano Concerto was an entirely different matter: it was among my first LP purchases as a Schumann-enraptured teenager; but it’s a long time since I’ve heard a live performance. Adding the visual element to the music, I found myself noting aspects of the score that spoke of a composer not as much at ease with an orchestra as with his piano (a very familiar view which I decided was unhelpful). My attention nevertheless, was largely on the beautifully lyrical piano writing and the sympathetic, unostentatious playing by Stephen de Pledge which (in spite of blemishes here and there) soon took my attention away from the rather traditional orchestral score. Though very different in character, the reputation of Schumann’s concerto a little like that of Chopin’s two concertos: one disparages the orchestration. However, De Pledge’s playing, and particularly his cadenza that was musical rather than flashy, were enough to draw applause at the end of the first movement; that might also have indicated large numbers of the audience fairly new to classical music – one of the positive achievements of Orchestra Wellington’s policies.

The little encore was, appropriately, from CarnavalChiarina, a portrait of Schumann’s fiancée and future wife, Clara Wieck.

Daphnis et Chloé
The main purpose of the evening was the rare performance of, not the more familiar suites that Ravel himself took from the work, but the whole nearly hour-long ballet, Daphnis et Chloé, complete with chorus.

The huge array of instrumentalists (over 80) and the 100-strong Orpheus Choir could not been a more striking contrast to the music before the interval. These 70 years had led to music that was as different as Matisse and Braque are from Ingres and Delacroix.

Though it is in three parts or Tableaux – not, formally speaking or conspicuously in ‘Acts’, one does not notice the sort of contrasted movements that characterise traditional classical music.  The overwhelming impression is of organic growth, through a series of evolutionary mood changes and a story that moves to and fro, in and out of focus. Thus there is no point in trying to point to particular episodes as ‘effective’ or ‘unfocused’ or ‘particularly arresting’, in the way a critic often feels obliged to do. What do tend to stand out, to sound familiar, are naturally enough the parts that form the two suites that Ravel compiled, which include the Nocturne, Interlude and Danse-guerrière; and Lever de jour, Pantomime, and Danse générale, mostly from Tableau III.

Even though the impact on the listener is so overwhelming that there’s little chance to attend to details of thematic evolution, of the use and significance of contrasting keys, one has to take as read the fact that its success in maintaining rapt attention, and perhaps a longing for it to continue for another half hour, is due to those inconspicuous compositional secrets.

Though there’s no question about the singular brilliance and emotional power of the ballet, as music, there is an old-fashioned idea that the best test of the real depth of music’s originality and genius, lies in its likely impact if it could be heard without the trappings, regalia, colours and jewellery that adorns it. Would the music, stripped of its gaudy, overwhelming orchestration, reveal weakness in invention, in structure, in the unfolding of a musical narrative; would it remain engrossing if reduced to a piano score? Might it emerge featureless and drab? Who knows?

Of course, that’s as nonsensical as looking at a Turner or a Monet and asking that it be judged in a black and white reproduction. So the flamboyant and luxurious orchestration was an essential element, a major attraction, achieved through an orchestra of Mahlerian or Straussian size, and a great choir. And to think that a merely part-time orchestra, though overflowing with experienced professional musicians, both permanent and as frequent guests, had the temerity to take on one of the most famous, most challenging, sometimes acknowledged as the greatest, orchestral masterpieces of the 20th century. Not only were the wind sections enhanced with relatively infrequent instruments like bass clarinet, E flat clarinet, alto flute, but there were two harps and nine players lined up behind timpani and percussion, more than I can recall at any previous concert. Just for the record, percussion (taken from details in Wikipedia) were snare drum, bass drum, field drum, tambourine, castanets, crotales, cymbals, celesta, glockenspiel, xylophone, wind machine, tam-tam and triangle.

Then there’s the wordless choral element, present throughout most of its length: music that to some extent, is rather like what I described above: dense in complex harmony but sonically uniform. Learning the choral parts was probably more challenging than it would have been with conventional word setting where memory of words and music are inter-dependent and mutually supportive; and the choir’s performance sounded as near faultless as I imagine it gets (particularly conspicuous in the impressive passage without accompaniment). If diction was never an issue, the sheer energy and incisiveness of the singing, and the incessant demands on singers spoke of thorough rehearsal and dedication under their conductor, Brent Stewart (who was not named in the programme but singled out at the end).

This was the most courageous and momentous enterprise of Orchestra Wellington’s entire 2017 season, and perhaps one of the orchestra’s all time finest hours; it was mainly a tribute to conductor Marc Taddei, for its conception, inspiration and leadership that carried it through to a performance of astonishing dramatic and musical subtlety, insight and sheer splendour.


Michael Houstoun’s musical journeyings at Waikanae

Waikanae Music Society Inc.

MICHAEL HOUSTOUN plays music by Jenny McLeod and JS Bach

McLEOD – Six Tone Clock Pieces Nos.19-24 (world premiere)

JS BACH – Goldberg Variations

Memorial Hall, Waikanae

Sunday 12th February 2012

In her notes for the program composer Jenny McLeod pays a heartfelt tribute to the occasion and to those taking part, reserving special thanks for Michael Houstoun. Her words “a musician of such immense gifts, high reputation and tireless dedication” would have surely been echoed by those present at the recital, as we were able to sense in Houstoun’s playing something of McLeod’s “pleasure and privilege” in writing music for him to perform.

This music was “Six Tone Clock Pieces”, and was the culmination for the composer of over twenty years of work, this set completing a larger collection of twenty-four pieces. McLeod tells us that “Tone Clock” refers to a chromatic harmonic theory pioneered by Dutch composer Peter Schat, one which she adapted for her own purposes.

Having explained in her notes that composers such as Bach, Chopin and Debussy also wrote pieces in groups or multiples of 12, based on the subdivision of the keyboard into twelve semitones, McLeod dismissed further theoretical explanation of the music’s organization as “essentially of interest only to composers”, adding that she believed “structural coherence can be sensed intuitively by the listener”. Well stated.

The individual movements are evocatively titled, though McLeod admitted that these “names for things” arrived sometimes months after the music had been completed. She talked about precedents for such descriptions set by people like Debussy and Messiaen, and obviously regards her own music as similarly able to stand and be appreciated on its own unadorned merits. I did, I confess, find each of the titles a helpful starting-point for my listening fancies.

The first piece, Moon, Night Birds, Dark Pools, mixed evocation and delineation with great skill (Houstoun an ideal interpreter for such a blend of opposing sound-impulses), our sensibilities taken to the edges of a world of chromatic nocturnal fancies but keeping our status intact as spectators rather than participants in the scenario. Set against these stillnesses was the bustling energy-in-miniature of Te Kapowai (Dragonfly), which then gave way to deeper-voiced portents of oncoming day (Early Dawn to Sunrise-Earthfall), a primeval chorus of impulses gradually awakening the earth’s light, the piano tones suffusing the listener with richly golden energies, Messiaen-like in their insistence.

Haka opened darkly, the music thrustful and threatening at first, before the jazzy off-beat rhythms began rubbing shoulders with more playful figurations. Houstoun skillfully controlled the vacillating light-and-dark moods of the music, then allowed the silences of the disturbed land to creep slowly backwards. The next piece, Pyramids, Symmetries, Crevices of Sleep reminded me on paper of Debussy’s Canope, a composer’s parallel meditation upon an object honouring the dead. Of the pieces, I found this the most abstracted and self-contained, appropriately enigmatic, even more so than the final Dream Waves, with its “surfing the planet” subtitle, whose angularities and contrasts were more readily engaging on a visceral level for this listener.

At a first hearing I was fascinated by the variety of the piano-writing, the titles of the individual pieces giving me some intriguing contexts in which to place the sounds. I thought the music in general terms intensified in abstraction as piece followed piece, the last two of the set very determinedly stating their independence of any kind of glib representation whatever. Incidentally, the first eleven from the complete set of Tone Clock Pieces can be heard on a Waiteata Music Press disc (WTA 005)  available from either The Centre For New Zealand Music (SOUNZ) or the New Zealand School of Music. I haven’t yet gone back to these earlier pieces to listen, but it will be fascinating to compare them with these latest sounds of the composer’s.

Michael Houstoun gave us rather more familiar fare after the interval, a work that’s recognized as one of the cornerstones of Western keyboard literature, JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  This was a performance which I thought was taken in a single great breath, one whose flow of substance never let up, right to the point where Houstoun allowed the final restatement of the simple “Goldberg” theme to steal in even before the jollity of the concluding Quodlibet had finished resounding in our ears – a magical moment.

Of course, this s a work that demands a considerable amount of ebb and flow of mood and motion from the player; and Houstoun’s achievement was to encompass the enormity of variety between these moods, while keeping the audience’s interest riveted (on the face of things, an ironic circumstance with a work whose original purpose was popularly supposed to be that of putting a nobleman to sleep!). The evidence actually suggests that the Count Von Keyserlingk wanted not “a sleeping draught” as is popularly supposed, but music “soothing and cheerful in character” for his young chamber harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, to play. This would account for the good-humored, even robust nature of the final Quodlibet, with its menage of well-known, characterful melodies, more suitable for a kind of cheerful sing-a-long than a cure for insomnia.

Throughout I thought Houstoun’s different emphases of rhythm, touch and tone-colour illuminated each of the variations. One would hardly expect a note-perfect performance of such a colossal undertaking, but the very few inaccuracies and the one-or-two rhythmic uncertainties that sounded had that “spots on the sun” quality with which commentators used to characterized wrong notes played by Alfred Cortot. Basically, Houstoun made every note sound as though it mattered – there was nothing of the mechanus about his playing, but always a strong undertow of something organic – a varied terrain, but one with a living spinal chord.

To mention highlights of the playing might seem to be placing trees in the way of the forest – nevertheless, I found the buoyancy of Houstoun’s delivery in the energetic variations created a real sense of “schwung” – the very first variation had strut and poise, No.15 had marvellously energetic orchestral dialogues and rapid-fire triplets, terrific scampering momentum was generated in No.18, and the whirl of further triplets made No.27 an exhilarating and vertiginous experience. As for some of the slower, grander, or more meditative pieces, these were delivered with a focus and concentration which played their part in ennobling the whole work. Longest and slowest of these was No.25, in which the music takes performer and listener to depths of feeling and self-awareness that give the “return to higher ground” an unforgettable, life-changing poignancy. The aria itself was strong and confident at the outset, then other-worldly and meditative at the very end, as if spent from having finished recounting a lifetime’s experience.

Michael Houstoun is repeating this program at Upper Hutt’s Expressions Theatre on Monday 16th April. For those who couldn’t get to this Waikanae concert, I would say that going to Upper Hutt to hear two very different, but equally thought-provoking works marvellously played would be, on many different levels, a very worthwhile journey.









Audience cheers the last of the NZSO’s Brahms concerts

Academic Overture, Op 80
Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor, Op.102 (allegro, andante, vivace non troppo – poco meno allegro meno allegro)
Symphony no.4 in E minor, Op.98 (allegro non troppo, andante moderato, allegro giocoso, allegro energico e passionata)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen, with Mikhail Ovrutsky (violin) and Andrew Joyce (cello)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday, 15 October 2011, 2pm

In this concert, unlike any of the others in this series, the major works were both in minor keys.  However, it started with a work of a cheerful and light nature, described by Inge van Rij in her pre-concert talk, as “Popular and serious styles working hand in hand”.

It was pleasing to see a much bigger audience at this concert.   Obviously there are many people for whom the weekend is a much more suitable time to come to a concert, rather than 6.30pm on a weekday – at which time, inexplicably, most of the NZSO concerts have been scheduled this year.  As befitted an afternoon concert, the orchestra members wore a different mode of dress, the men in white shirts and grey ties with dark lounge suits, while Pietari Inkinen wore a dark shiny suit, and shiny black shoes.

The Overture used a smaller orchestra than that required for most of Brahms’s symphonic works; this was in response to the requirement of Breslau University, from whom the composer received an honorary doctorate in 1879.  Nevertheless, the work has flair as well as precision, in its reworking of student songs, including at the end, the well-known ‘Gaudeamus igitur’.  The playing was robust and energetic, and despite fewer brass and woodwind players, there was a loud and emphatic ending.

Compared with the violin concerto, the double concerto for violin and cello is seldom played.  Yet it is a very fine work, Brahms’s last for orchestra, and worthy of more frequent airings.  Some have thought it strange using instruments of such different pitch and timbre, but the cello has a huge range – and Beethoven’s Triple Concerto is one of the most mellifluous works of the classical repertoire.

The cello opened the action, with double-stopping and high notes.  Then cellist Joyce played a brilliant duet with the violin soloist, both players employing great subtlety and expression, rhythmic drive and unanimity.   Maybe sitting a few rows further forward than I did on Thursday evening was better for sound, or perhaps Mikhail Ovrutsky played with a more mellow tone.  Whichever applies (or neither), I did not find fault with his tone on this occasion.  On the contrary, he played with great feeling, especially in the lyrical middle section of the first movement.

The second movement, too, revealed the unified interpretation and performance of the soloists.  There was an evocative woodwind chorus, and the mellow sound of melodious strings in the final section.  Always, Andrew Joyce produced a rich and attractive timbre.

The third movement featured lithe cello, followed by the same liveliness and spirit on the violin.  The technical proficiency of both soloists was very apparent, while the positive mood of this movement gave the whole work a hopeful feel, despite its earlier minor key.  While the movement is serious for much of the time, it is not as sombre as many of Brahms’s works are.  Its triumphal ending resulted in a show of great enthusiasm from the audience, while the orchestra showed its warm appreciation; the members were obviously very impressed with the playing of the visiting soloist and of their own new principal cellist.

The flowers which Joyce received at the end he gallantly gave to his wife, acting principal violist Julia Joyce; Ovrutsky felt obliged to emulate, and gave his flowers to the nearest female cellist.

The symphony constituted the major work on the programme.  Its swaying opening bars immediately drew attention.  This was deliberate, careful, skilled writing.  Here, there was a little untidy string playing, but this was most unusual.  Drive and energy were characteristic of the attack.  Falling thirds formed part of the massive architecture; the movement was characterised by almost relentless forte.

The andante second movement stopped short of being relentless.  It had even more vigour, but was also more luminous and meditative, this mood alternating with tension and grandiosity.   Typically with Brahms, it featured memorable themes.

Allegro giocoso was just that – bright, jolly and exuberant, and according to some commentators, this was his only orchestral scherzo.  At the end, it is almost overwhelming in its power and volume.

The finale is in the form of a passacaglia, with 31 variations on a theme from a Bach cantata.  A grand opening in the brass department was followed by ominous chords before the figure from Bach was stated, coupled with the falling thirds from the opening movement.  Lovely deep brass dissonances interspersed the lines of the other players.

At times, Brahms is portentous and annoyingly repetitive.  At times, he is sublime and a master of melody, and of lofty thought and expression.  The music is frequently scintillatingly soft and expressive.  His frequent favouring of the cello and the oboe makes one wish he had written concertos for these instruments.  Indeed, he is reported to have greeted Dvořák’s cello concerto with the remark “If I had known it was possible to write a cello concerto like that, I would have written one myself”.

The falling thirds appeared again, with the brass playing a sequence rising from the bass.  There was a rousing end to the symphony, and the series, and a warm reception from the audience, the cheers resounding as the leaders of the wind section stood individually, before the whole orchestra received the applause all its members richly deserved.