The River of Youth – Arohanui Strings and Orchestra Wellington

Orchestra Wellington  – The River 

Glen Downie (b. 1991) – Well Within the Madding Crowd
(with Arohanui Strings)

Joseph Joachim – Violin Concerto No 2 (‘Hungarian’)
Soloist: Amalia Hall

Julian Kirgan-Baez (b. 1992) – Reflection

 Robert Schumann – Symphony No 3 (‘Rhenish’)

Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 15th October, 2022

There are two rivers in this programme: the Rhine, for which Schumann’s symphony was named, having been written after the Schumanns moved to Düsseldorf, and the Waimapihi Stream, which runs down Aro Valley (albeit mostly underground). Three of the works were written by young men: Joseph Joachim was the youngest, at 27, and Glen Downie the oldest, at 31.  Even Schumann was only 40.

There is consequently a sense of possibility, of a sunlit progress towards a happy future, about all of them. The tangible evidence of such possibility was provided by the Arohanui Strings, a Sistema-inspired orchestra led by Alison Eldredge, based in Taita, now with groups in Stokes Valley, Mt Cook, and Miramar. The Glen Downie work was commissioned for them by Orchestra Wellington, supported by SOUNZ, and Arohanui players joined OW on stage to perform it, plus a few other short favourites. It was striking that the Arohanui players took all the outside player chairs, and played with confidence and enjoyment.

Glen Downie had cunningly written a work with easy string parts – most of the interest was provided by the wind, brass, and percussion. It began with a spooky theme on the lower strings, with the broad, appealing main theme influenced by Henry Mancini. Downie’s programme note wished the Arohanui players ‘the same sort of fun … that I had whilst playing his music’. If it was Mancini crossed with film and television music, so much the better.

Marc Taddei’s showmanship was, naturally, evident. After they finished playing their last piece, a Scottish reel, he said encouragingly, ‘That went pretty well, didn’t it? Can we play it faster?’ and swung into a much faster tempo which almost everyone kept up with. Then, as the stage was cleared for the next work, he told the audience exactly how to donate (see arohanuistrings.org).

Joseph Joachim is known best these days as one of the famous violin soloists of the nineteenth century. Brahms wrote for him, as did Schumann. Born in Budapest, he was for several years the principal violinist of the Gewandhaus Orchestra under Mendelssohn, teaching at the Leipzig Conservatory. He moved to Weimar in 1848, where Liszt was establishing his cultural influence, then on to the court at Hanover where he was principal violin, and eventually to Berlin, where he founded a department of music performance at the Royal Conservatory.

As a composer, he was a protégé of Schumann and Mendelssohn. This work is a big virtuosic concerto, lasting 35-40 minutes – and is consequently described by violinists as ‘like running a marathon’. It is not often performed. My Hungarian colleague Steven Sedley commented quietly beforehand that he was a bit surprised that Amalia Hall had agreed to put in the time and effort to learn it. He described it as ‘a showy piece’, designed to show off the virtuosity of the performer. I could immediately see what he meant. It is a challenging work, with a huge first movement and lots of very fast playing required by the soloist. The players from the Arohanui Strings who had crept in to watch were delighted. There was general applause at the end of the movement.

The second movement is a tender and beautiful rhapsody in the style of a Romany ballad, featuring lots of small duets between the soloist and flute (Karen Batten), clarinet (Nick Walshe), and horn (William Loveless), with a long duet with the cello (Inbal Megiddo). The third movement is full of fiery Hungarian themes, as though it was about to launch into a Hungarian dance at any moment. My knowledgeable colleague noted afterwards that the concept of Hungarian nationality was a development of the Hungarian national movement of 1848 and afterwards; and also that gipsy music, emphasising bravura, scintillating music, a strong beat, and rich melodies, was the music played in well-off homes. It is refined music, not raw peasant music.

Amalia Hall played brilliantly by any standard. She captured the rhythmic subtleties and the heart-warming melodic passages. Further, she looked as fresh when she finished as when she started, so she has extraordinary stamina as well as technical virtuosity.

And then the interval. I felt as though I had sat through a whole concert already, but there were still two works to go.  That is the nature of an Orchestra Wellington concert.

The next work, Reflection, was by Julian Kirgan Baez, known mainly as an orchestral and jazz trombonist (playing with the Royal New Zealand Air Force Band and the Richter City Rebels as well as Orchestra Wellington and the NZSO). He has also been OW’s ‘Emerging Composer in Residence’ for the past year, working with John Psathas. This work, Marc Taddei told us, ‘embraces the harmonic language of Mahler, Strauss, and early Schoenberg’.

It begins with percussion instruments making sounds like water running over stones, with wind and brass, and then an entry from the strings in the big Mahler/Strauss late romantic style, with a brass underlay. The brass section was big: four horns, three trombones, and a tuba as well as two trumpets – all put to excellent use. The brass and wind writing was, I thought, very assured (although when the principal clarinet switched to bass clarinet I found the sound was swamped by everything else that was going on). Then the spirit of Schoenberg seemed to take over (the programme notes spoke of ‘angular harmonic and melodic gestures’) before a big announcement by the trombones and trumpets, and a final climax. This was an interesting work I would have liked to hear twice. There was excellent playing by percussionist Naoto Segawa and timpanists Brent Stewart and Ben Whitton, as well as trumpets Matt Stein and Toby Pringle and the trombones and tuba.

Finally, the Schumann symphony. The Third is very well known, but for Marc Taddei it was a teachable moment. He explained to the audience how the themes of the four outer movements use the interval of the perfect fourth, but the intermezzo at the heart of the work does not. For people not very familiar with the perfect fourth, the strings’ demonstration of how Schumann conjures beautiful tunes out of such an angular interval (to modern ears) would have sounded like a kind of magic. Taddei also told us that Mahler studied Schumann’s symphonies assiduously – as well as reorchestrating them to suit his own taste.  Nor was Mahler the only one – a film composer called James Horner stole the theme from the first movement, turned it from Schuman’s flowing 3/4 into 4/4, and added a shakuhachi (a Japanese flute). There was a burst of music over the PA system to illustrate the point.

This time the music examples were shorter but provided some structure to the listening experience for anyone unfamiliar with the work. The orchestra played well, with great solos from flute (Karen Batten), oboe (Merran Cooke), and great playing by all five horns. I especially loved the Bach-like chorale played by the brass in the solemn fourth movement, Cologne Cathedral, succeeded by the sunny and dancing final movement.

This was a complete musical experience, from the Arohanui kids to the glamour of Amalia Hall’s playing. And Taddei being the salesman he is, there was a pitch for the orchestra’s 2023 season, which includes Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin, Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, Psathas’s Planet Damnation (for timpani and orchestra), and Alban Berg’s Wozzek.  It is a great overstuffed rich plum pudding of a programme, and I can’t wait.

 

The stage of the imagination – NZ Opera’s Macbeth

New Zealand Opera presents:
VERDI – Macbeth

Cast:  Macbeth – Phillip Rhodes
Lady  Macbeth – Amanda Echalaz
Banquo – Wade Kermot
Macduff – Jarred Holt
Malcolm – Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono
Lady-in-Waiting – Morag Atchison

With Orchestra Wellington
Conductor: Brad Cohen

Director: Netia Jones /Lightmap
Assistant Director: Jacqueline Coats
Lighting Designer: Matthew Marshall
Chorus Director: Michael Vinten

St James Theatre, Wellington

7th.October 2022 (also 9th October 2:30pm,)

The dark stage is raked up to the left. Not steeply, but enough to throw all the lines and angles off plumb. It is bare and black, with a gauze at the front creating spatial ambiguities.

Long before the last audience member has taken their seat, we are in the dark, crooked world of Macbeth, in which fair is foul and foul is worse than you imagined.

This is a reimagined Macbeth. There is nothing historic and Scottish about it. These are not – despite what the programme says – the brutish leaders of brawling clans, dashing from one pele tower siege to the next. Nor has it been updated to the unstable present. No one carries blue and yellow flags as Birnam Wood retakes Dunsinane.

Instead, the drama is set on the stage of the imagination.

What happens when someone conceives of a wicked act to advance themselves, and then carries it out?  Shakespeare imagines that they become unhinged.  Lacking a moral compass, there is no guide for where to go next. Verdi agrees, though he points to the political and human consequences (the refugees in Act 4). And the director of this production thinks that the desire to kill may be accompanied by other beastly proclivities. In this Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is ravenous for power and sex. She is powerful and controlling. He is weak and often uncertain.

The stage in the opening scene reminded me of a black-and-white television set.  Lots of black, with ambiguous straight lines. Then a woman enters, dressed in black and white, reading a piece of paper – followed by another and another. Finally there are about 20 of them, lined up along the wall on the left-hand side of the stage. They are the witches; in Verdi’s version not three women but ‘three groups of witches’. This is an unfortunate decision on the part of Verdi or his librettist. If they had asked me, I would have argued against it. It sacrifices the particular drama of the three weird sisters, each individualized, for a mass effect – and in this scene the witches look like a group of schoolgirls diligently studying their homework.

Indeed, in his essay on Macbeth the play in the programme, literary scholar Tom Bishop says that the witches ‘were a strong selling point’ in Shakespeare’s productions and the many subsequent revivals. (Samuel Pepys saw it nine times, calling it ‘one of the best plays for a stage … that I ever saw’.)

When Macbeth (Philip Rhodes) enters, he is wearing a stylish dark overcoat that he is careful to show us has a scarlet satin lining. The colour symbolism of the production design is straightforward: lots of black and dark grey, some white (but it doesn’t indicate purity), splashes of scarlet standing for death and lust, sometimes relieved by an intense turquoise. And that’s it.

The lighting design is simple. The stage is mostly shadowed with one or two points of light. Sometimes there is a kind of inhospitable grey light – the blank grey of a black and white television screen with the power off. But creative energy has been poured into the projections. Branches indicate a wood; an enormous closeup of Macbeth’s face with touches of red and turquoise indicates his power as king; giant hands covered in blood or washing themselves indicate guilt. Almost everything is in monochrome, maintaining the moral murk of the action.

With the visual language so simplified, the focus is thrown on the singers. Again, Verdi’s choice of voices is interesting. Macbeth is a baritone, as are Banquo (sung by Wade Kernot), the singing Assassin (Stuart Coats), the Doctor (Matthew Landreth), and the male Apparition (William McElwee). There are no tenors on stage until Act 4, when Macduff (Jared Holt) and Malcolm (Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono) arrive to defeat Macbeth’s army at Dunsinane and take back the throne of Scotland. It is a relief.

The baritone rumble throws the soprano of Lady Macbeth (Amanda Echalaz) into the spotlight. She is the most animated character, with a full emotional palette from ambitious to exultant, lascivious, frustrated (by Macbeth’s weakness), and finally remorseful and unhinged. Accordingly she is given terrific clothes as well as great arias. My favourite outfit was the black and red dress in the Act 2 banquet scene. She vamps around the stage in what seems to be a scarlet skirt with black leggings underneath, throwing herself at her husband with all the propriety of a pole dancer, eventually throwing off the scarlet skirt to show her true self in trousers, taking action.

This being NZ Opera, the production is musically stunning. An essential Orchestra Wellington played well under Brad Cohen, with some great brass playing at portentous moments, and some lovely clarinet and bassoon solos. The chorus sang well, and the soloists were fantastic. I have always been a fan of Philip Rhodes, and he and Wade Kernot (Banquo) carried much of the opera on their shoulders.  South African soprano Amanda Echalaz was excellent. She has a lovely voice with all the brilliance required, and acted well. Readers of my review of Opera Wellington’s recent La Traviata will recall my excited rave about newcomer Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono. He did not disappoint here as Malcolm, mastering the right amount of youthful nobility and strength of purpose, and singing beautifully alongside the experienced Jared Holt (an audience favourite, to judge by the applause).

My favourite moments concerned the apparitions. After the interval, the raked stage is revealed to have a huge fissure in it.  I thought at first it was symbolic of a rift in something – the body politic? – and was painted on. But in Act 3, summoned by the witches, the apparitions rise up from it, singing their fateful prophecies, and eventually a series of nine little child kings emerge, all dressed in red, with small iron crowns on their heads, like Macbeth’s own. They are Malcolm’s children, who will inherit the throne despite Macbeth having murdered their ancestor Duncan.

This is a theatrical device that Shakespeare would have approved of, having used the trapdoor in the stage of the Globe Theatre to have the witches suddenly appear and disappear.  In fact, I think he would have enjoyed the whole production. Verdi’s libretto is more economic than the text of the play – which is itself concise. But this production carried the same diabolical power as the original, and the same ghastly depiction of evil and its effect on the human mind.

 

 

Towards a new Romantic language

Orchestra Wellington: Leviathan

Wagner Lohengrin Prelude to Act 1
Psathas Leviathan Concerto for percussion
Schumann Symphony No 2

Alexej Gerassimez (percussion)
Marc Taddei (conductor)
Orchestra Wellington

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday. 17th September, 2022

The whole concert took the title ‘Leviathan’, which was, frankly, misleading. Much more than half the concert came from the soundworld of nineteenth-century German romanticism. But still, ‘Leviathan’ was a better marketing pitch. And the concert was traditional in format: an overture, a concerto, and a symphony. But this being Marc Taddei’s programming, the effect was anything but traditional.

This concert, like all Orchestra Wellington concerts, began with an introduction to the works by conductor Marc Taddei. The OW audience obviously enjoys these little chats.  The opening words concerned the 2023 season. It was, Taddei informed us with a dramatic flourish, to be called ‘Inner Visions’ (like the Van Morrison song?) and summed up by this quote from the painter Kandinsky: ‘That is beautiful which is produced by the inner vision, which springs from the soul.’ He went on to flatter the audience: ‘You complete this process of music-making. You are the interpreter of what you hear. We try to manifest the composers’ ideas, but you make it come alive.’

Onward to this evening’s concert. Music, Taddei helpfully explained, has two strands. One, which had its roots in the Enlightenment, saw music as Apollonian, idealized. But the other, since medieval times, gave rise to romanticism. And tonight’s concert was in the romantic tradition. ‘It consists of three unassailable masterpieces … with a work by our very own genius, John Psathas.’

The ‘overture’ consisted of the Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin, a most un-overture-like piece of music. When Wagner told his friends, including Schumann, that he planned to write an opera based on the Arthurian legend of one of the Grail knights, Schumann announced he had been thinking of writing an opera on the same theme. (For Arthurians, Lohengrin is the son of Parzifal in the medieval poem Parzifal by Wolfram von Eschenbach.) Naturally Wagner got there first. The introduction begins with the faintest shimmering of the high strings and gently builds, entry by entry, to a big portentous crescendo that culminates in an orgasmic crash on the clash cymbals, and a decrescendo back down to shimmering lyricism. The playing was beautiful, whether it was the strings’ endless delicacy or the tender solos from the winds (a gorgeous cor anglais solo, for instance, from Louise Cox). The work was written in 1848, but already it is possible to hear elements of Wagner’s mature leitmotif style.

John Psathas’s monumental percussion concerto was commissioned by the Tonhalle Dusseldorf and the soloist, a young German percussion virtuoso called Alexej Gerassimez. The artist’s appearance was supported by the German Embassy.  The work is in four movements, and requires two large batteries de percussion, one at the back of the orchestra and the other at the front of the stage, as well as 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, and a tuba.

Alexej Gerassimez is a tall, lithe young man, very light on his feet – because at times he was required to run from one side of the stage to the other – and at one point two extra percussionists came downstage to play instruments on the left while he dealt with several simultaneously on the right-hand side.

The writing is characterized by Psathas’s fast, exciting rhythms and his cumulative, layered climaxes. Sometimes the orchestral writing was rather static, with all the momentum provided by the percussion instruments. The second movement referred to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, with Psathas bringing the ‘background melody’, played ‘with love and compassion and warmth’ by the cellos and basses, into the foreground.

The enormous third movement was titled ‘Soon We’ll All Walk on Water’ and featured an amplified plastic bottle, played by scratching, shaking, and beating. The movement culminates with Gerassimez playing a bowl of water with his hands, and finally using a colander to pour water back into the bowl. Then followed another bottle solo with the strings playing mournful grey chords in the manner of Goretsky’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs against the quite jolly bottle rhythm.

Likewise a Wagnerian passage on wind and brass formed a wash of colour behind a solo on what sounded like small stones being struck. Another crescendo is followed by a quiet, thoughtful clarinet solo (Nick Walshe).

The last movement, ‘A Falcon, a Storm, or a Great Song?’ (quoting Rilke) contained some of the loveliest marimba playing I have ever heard, along with steel drums, what sounded like a slit drum, woodblocks, a whip, tubular bells, bass drum, and timpani, all building to a final crescendo complete with snarling trumpets and a final single triangle note.

Leviathan is a most interesting work. It must have been challenging to bring off. Leaving the soloist to one side, there was still a vast amount of percussion being played by Jeremy Fitzsimons, Brent Stewart, Naoto Segawa, and Yoshiko Tsuruta, with Sam Rich on timpani, and a gazillion notes for the big brass section. The tempo changes must have been challenging. And that’s before the soloist is added, bringing a world of complexity and fast changes.

The audience loved it. There was rapturous applause, with Gerassimez shaking the hand of Concertmaster Amalia Hall and conductor, the composer arriving on stage to hug everyone, and several curtain calls.

After the interval, the symphony. Marc Taddei embarked on an introduction to the work that lasted about 20 minutes. Schumann’s Second Symphony was in fact the third one he wrote. It is ‘personal and deeply felt,’ said Taddei: ‘It is the most personal symphony written in the nineteenth century or indeed in any century.’ I’m not quite sure what this means, or whether it is even true, though I became quite distracted trying to think of candidates for more personal works. (Shostakovich, certainly. Tchaikovsky, definitely. Mahler!!)

Taddei rehearsed the sad facts of Schumann’s mental ill health before telling us about Mendelssohn’s rediscovery of Bach and the great Bach revival that Schumann and Mendelssohn embarked upon around this time. The second symphony, it turned out, was flavoured with Bach whilst containing many references to Schumann’s friends and his beloved wife Clara.

And then the musical examples – every movement was analysed, with the key themes played and musical references unravelled and displayed. It was interesting, and I am certain the audience thought it marvellous, but most of it is so intrinsically part of Schumann’s musical language that in the event it is mostly subliminal.

Finally, the symphony itself. Taddei was right. This is a masterpiece and it deserves to be performed often. If you are thinking of programming a Schubert symphony over the next year, please programme this instead. It was mostly very well played, though without the meticulous attention to detail and clarity that Gemma New would have provided. Taddei conducted without a score, and at one point in the second movement he stopped conducting altogether and turned to grin at the audience. Another favourite trick; the audience grinned back.

Although the Scherzo is fun, and the Allegro vivace creates a big pile-up of overlapping themes with ‘B-A-C-H’ ringing out at the end, the Adagio espressivo that follows is a glorious thing. It takes its theme from Bach’s Musical Offering ‘and turns it into a romantic song without words’. There were beautiful solos by Merran Cook (oboe) and Jamie Dodd (bassoon) and a horn duet (Shadley van Wyk and David Codd). The fourth movement is a bouncing delight, fast end energetic.

It was notable that there was applause after every movement – a spontaneous response to beautiful music. I would love to hear the work again. Indeed, if the concert had started and ended with it, omitting the Wagner, I would have been happy. But Taddei’s point was about the invention of the musical language of romanticism. Schumann wrote the symphony only two years before Lohengrin. And Psathas quoted liberally from that language whilst putting it to wholly novel purposes.

All in all, a very satisfying and absorbing concert. I am intrigued to see what Inner Visions Orchestra Wellington may bring us in 2023.

A state of extreme delight

‘Love Triumphant’ – NZSO’s Immerse 2022 Festival

Ravel Mother Goose Suite
Chausson Poème
Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherazade Op. 35

Hilary Hahn (violin)
Gemma New (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Sunday 7 August, 2.00 pm

This was the third and final concert of the Immerse series, programmed and timed to attract a family audience. And some kids attended, although they were quite hard to spot. It’s not every parent or grand-parent who thinks to bring the smalls to an NZSO concert, and not every child who has the patience to sit still for more than 40 minutes at a stretch. That was a great pity, because the programme was delightful. Even people whose short attention span is in line with their height would have found the music enjoyable to listen to.

Conductor Gemma New dispensed with formalities and opened the concert with a short talk about the music – specifically the plot of the programme for each piece – explaining that all of the music had been inspired by fairy tales and stories. (The concert title asserted that the  scarlet thread holding all the works together was love stories with happy endings, but this notion probably sounded much more convincing in the marketing department than it did in real life.) I was scrambling to keep up with New’s description of the Mother Goose  movements, but we all enjoyed the characterisation of Pat Barry (clarinet) as Beauty and someone called Sam on contrabassoon (David Angus seemed to be away) as the Beast.

Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite is, as I am sure you know, full of delicious colours and textures, with lovely melodies and many exquisite details. New is nothing if not a stickler for detail, so it was all laid out in front of us. Last night I felt that this is the best the NZSO has played in more than a decade. I had the same sensation today; except that this music is full of joy, and moves with ease and grace. All that complexity and emotional challenge had gone with last night’s wind and rain. The afternoon was sunny with a promise of spring, and so was the NZSO’s playing.

Once again, the higher winds and percussion sections were kept busy. There was glorious playing from Robert Orr (oboe) and Bridget Douglas (flute), and delicious textures in the percussion, with xylophone, tam tam, triangle, and tubular bells. Larry Reece’s timpani playing is always a delight, being so precisely placed right on the very front of the beat, but the whole team sounded great on the ear. Carolyn Mills’ dry, percussive harp sound cut through the thick textures. At times the warmth of the string sound could almost have been Elgar.  Once or twice the cut-offs weren’t quite as clean as they had been last night, and I wondered about New’s gestures – too expansive? But the Suite was over far too quickly. I could have listened to it again.

The stage was reset for the Chausson and there was a distinct buzz of excitement in the audience. We would hear the remarkable Hilary Hahn one last time. Indeed, she walked on stage to loud cheering.

The author of the programme notes seemed puzzled by Chausson’s small output, but it is easily explained: he died at the age of 44 in a cycling accident. Had his brakes been more reliable, his name would certainly rival those of Debussy and Ravel today. His Poème was written for Eugène Ysaÿe, who had asked him for a concerto. Chausson thought that was too big an ask, and opted for something shorter, in one movement. It is nonetheless extremely beautiful, and Hahn was doing the cadenza full justice… until she stopped. She laughed, restarted, and carried on. The audience was happy. Then she stopped playing again in about the same place. It seemed that she had got lost navigating the complexities of the cadenza. She took a moment, said ‘I feel like the Cirque de Soleil’, and started that knotty passage again. As violin teacher Lynley Culliford commented in the interval, ‘It was such a human moment. So good for our kids to see.’

The audience went wild, of course. Several curtain calls, and on the third Hahn came out with her violin and, just as she had done last night, played a movement from another of Bach’s partitas for solo violin (perhaps the second movement of the G minor partita?). Her Bach is extraordinary: intimate and tender, delicate, and very moving. Hahn says that she has played a piece for solo violin by Bach every day since she was eight:

Bach is, for me, the touchstone that keeps my playing honest. Keeping the intonation pure in double stops, bringing out the various voices where the phrasing requires it, crossing the strings so that there are not inadvertent accents, presenting the structure in such a way that it’s clear to the listener without being pedantic – one can’t fake things in Bach, and if one gets all of them to work, the music sings in the most wonderful way.

If that is what it takes, we should all play Bach daily, and insist that our children do so too.

The last work in the concert was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. ‘The Sultan was angry,’ Gemma New began. ‘He didn’t trust anyone.’ She characterised the four movements as follows: the adventures of Sinbad’s ship; adventures on land; all the love stories in the world; all the festivals and parties. By this time, I felt as though I had used up all my superlatives about the NZSO’s playing. How wrong I was.

The four movements are, as every child in the Michael Fowler Centre today now knows, linked by the voice of Scheherazade herself, telling the Sultan stories as best she can in order to save her life. Concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppanen is a very fine violinist, and he played wonderfully well. The rest of the orchestra rose to meet him. From the very opening, the sound was huge and enveloping. My notes say things like ‘Tuba! Flutes! Vesa and harp! The waves rolling! Robert and Bridget!’ as though I was in such an advanced state of delight that I had lost most of my brains.  Quite true, of course.

New conducts in an expansive style with a detailed vocabulary of gestures. She is petite, and throws her whole body into it. Yet it is not showy; it is all in the service of drawing the music from the players.  Once or twice last night in Doctor Atomic I wondered what it is like for the orchestra, with so much information coming at them in every bar. Are they secretly longing for a straightforward downbeat (and leave the rest to us?). Whatever, it works. There was a crispness to the playing, with wonderfully tiered crescendos and decrescendos. Some of the pizzicato effects were extraordinary, like a ghostly wind; or the long held notes on the basses; and everywhere fast, tidy tempo changes, with the orchestra turning on a dime. So many gorgeous solos: from the harp (Carolyn Mills), first clarinet (Patrick Barry); first oboe (Robert Orr), first flute (Bridget Douglas); trombones (Dave Bremner), with a gorgeous unified string sound. There were moments when the lower strings provided a dark underlay to the solo above; a trombone and triangle duet; shot notes on improbable combinations of instruments such as triangle and tambourine. One of the crescendos in the fourth movement was so beautiful it bought tears to my cynical old eyes. And then a helter-skelter race to the finish, with some of the fastest tempi I have ever heard in this work. No one lost touch. Finally, it was back to Scheherazade, who comes to the end of her last story, with Vesa’s impossibly high, impossibly long last note. A dazzling and beautiful concert. Bravo!

 

NZSO under New management

‘Style and Substance’ – NZSO’s Immerse 2022 Festival

Brahms Violin Concerto in D major, Opus 77
Tabea Squire Variations
John Adams Doctor Atomic Symphony

Hilary Hahn, violin

Gemma New. conductor
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 6 August 2022

This was the second concert of the Immerse series, and the second outing of the acclaimed
violinist Hilary Hahn with the NZSO under the baton of Gemma New, its newly appointed
Artistic Adviser and Principal Conductor. The house was almost full, with such a happily
expectant air that everyone must surely have been here on Thursday for the first concert of
the series.

Gemma New is a local girl made good – only 35, but already with a long list of appointments
and accolades, including the Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award. She has been called ‘one of
the brightest rising stars in the conducting firmament’, and she is becoming famous around
the world for her precision and the expressive beauty she draws from her orchestras. Hilary
Hahn is one of today’s great violin virtuosos, with three Grammys and a huge global
following. Putting them on the programme together for three concerts must have seemed to
the NZSO a masterstroke of genius and good fortune.

Brahms’s Violin Concerto was Hahn’s suggestion. She first recorded it at the age of 21 with
the Orchestra of St Martin in the Fields under Sir Neville Marriner. That youthful recording
has been named one of the eight great recordings of the work (ahead of one that was my
favourite 40 years ago, David Oistrakh with the French National Radio Orchestra under Otto
Klemperer). It was Gemma New who suggested the two works to accompany it because,
she said, they ‘had a Brahmsian quality’. Not many people would make that observation of
John Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony and fewer of the Variations by Tabea Squire. But
that is the world of Gemma New, in which the exquisite and the unusual are two faces of the
same coin.

From the first bar, it was clear that Gemma New’s Brahms was a very different work. Gone
were the sludgy textures and blurred rhythms I had by heart from the Oistrakh/Klemperer
recording. The NZSO is under New management.

Hilary Hahn’s first entry was electrifying. She has been performing this concerto for more
than half her life, and yet she made it as fresh and exciting as it must have been when
Brahms’s friend Joachim played it for the first time.

New kept the NZSO to a restrained dynamic range for much of the time. In a recording, the
balance between violinist and orchestra can be addressed by microphone placement and
engineering. In the concert hall there is a constant threat that the violinist will be
overwhelmed by the orchestra – the concerto is scored for four horns, two trumpets, and
timpani, after all. Not so here. New is known for her meticulous attention to detail, and the
NZSO obliged with beautiful, shapely, thoughtful playing.

The audience was so moved by the monumental first movement that most of them
applauded at the end of it. I almost joined in, because of the huge gratitude I felt for Hahn’s
superb playing. In the third movement, Allegro giocoso, orchestra and soloist danced for
sheer joy. At the end, most of the audience was on its feet. Hahn took four curtain calls
before coming back to play the Sarabande from Bach’s D minor partita as tenderly as you
could wish.

Gemma New introduced the works for the second half of the concert with evident relish. She
loves new music. In 2010, as soon as she graduated from the Peabody Institute in Maryland,
she formed the Lunar Ensemble to perform new music. Together they premiered 30 works in
six seasons. New’s Carnegie Hall debut in 2013 included works by John Adams and Andrew
Norman.

‘I think Brahms would have liked Tabea Squire’s theme and variations,’ New told us
confidently. The work is a deconstructed set of variations on a sixteenth-century pavane,
‘Belle qui tiens ma vie’ – deconstructed, because the theme doesn’t fully appear until right at
the end (although it is sneakily previewed by the horns and there is a wisp of it audible in the
strings about halfway through). I expected this teasing treatment would soon become
frustrating; but Tabea Squire’s orchestration was clever and the ideas never flagged. The
theme finally made its proper appearance at the end, played by alto flute, piccolo, and cor
anglais with the tenor drum underneath – a nice twist on the recorders and drum she
originally scored it for.

Twenty years ago, when Hilary Hahn was starting to make her name on the concert stage,
Gemma New and Tabea Squire were first and second violinists in Wellington Youth
Sinfonietta. A remarkable journey so far, and much is yet to come.

The final work in the programme was John Adams’ monumental and troubling Doctor Atomic
Symphony (based on his newsreel opera of 2005, about the Manhattan Project and the first
atomic bomb test in New Mexico). The symphony condenses many of the musical ideas of
the opera into 25 minutes of inventive and emotionally shattering music. The symphony calls
for a large orchestra, with a huge batterie (xylophone, tubular bells, timpani, bowed drums,
thunder sheet, tam tam, celeste, tuned gongs…) and more tuba solos than you might
imagine (Andrew Jarvis, Scott Frankcombe). It is a monumental work, terrifying and deeply
troubling. At one point Dave Bremner (Principal Trombone) stands to bark orders
(channelling General Leslie Groves). The emotional heart of the piece is Robert
Oppenheimer’s aria from the opera, a setting of one of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, ‘Batter
my heart, three person’d God’, beautifully played by David Johnson (Guest Principal
Trumpet).

This was a stupendous concert. The NZSO has never played better than this. If you are
reading this review before the last concert of the three, on Sunday 7 August, do not hesitate.
If it’s too late for that, you can’t afford to miss Gemma New’s next outing with the NZSO. She
is an extraordinary talent, and her knack for exciting programming is so very welcome.

La Traviata – postscript from the last night of the run

VERDI – La Traviata

Violetta  –  Emma Pearson
Alfredo  –  Oliver Sewell
Germont  – Philip Rhodes
Flora  – Hannah Catrin Jones
Baron  –  Brent Allcock
Gastone  –  Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono
Doctor  –  Wade Kernot

Orchestra Wellington
Hamish McKeich (conductor)
Michael Vinten (chorus director)
Sara Brodie (director)

St James Theatre, Wellington

16th July  2022

It was good to get back to La Traviata for the last night to see how things had progressed after the Covid-induced drama of opening night.

Things had settled down. Oliver Sewell sang Alfredo as advertised, and Hannah Catrin Jones had recovered and sang Flora. That meant that the glorious Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono was back singing Gastone, and his cover had melted back into the chorus.

But Samuel Downes was down with Covid, so the part of the Baron was taken by the versatile and experienced Brent Allcock. To be frank, this was a big improvement. Allcock made his Barone the sleazy older man envisaged by the librettist.

Finally the drama made sense. Violetta is no innocent but is surrounded by predatory men. The inexperienced and rather inept Alfredo makes a pleasant change – an opportunity to leave all the silliness of high society behind, and live a simple life in the country. Hannah Catrin Jones’s Flora was perfect, and the second party scene went much better as a consequence.

The difficulty with the characterisations is that Oliver Sewell was too smooth by half as Alfredo. He fitted right into the salon scene, but his Alfredo was a man of the world, not a naïf – and none of his ’acting’ made me believe in his naïve sincerity. Still, with a reptilian Barone on stage, the card-playing scene made sense at last.

Germont senior is, in my view (a view not shared by my esteemed co-author of the main review) a conniving fellow who wants to get rid of the sexually experienced Violetta for many reasons, some of which he mentions. He uses every trick in the book to get her to agree. According to this reading of the text, Philip Rhodes’ Germont was too nice.

Poor Violetta is judged by the double standard (after all, no one blames Alfredo for seducing Violetta). Her crime is to be independently minded (‘sempre libera’), to have her own income, and to follow her desires. Wedged between the predatory Baron and the manipulative Germont, she is treated shabbily. She was kind-hearted enough to be duped by Germont’s sob story, and had the moral backbone to agree to give up her adored Alfredo, but as a sexual being she must be made to suffer.

This is the story Verdi wanted to tell us.

The direction was less wobbly on the last night than on the first, but I still didn’t care for some of it. There was quite a bit of the bent knee style of expressing great emotion – even Oliver Sewell went in for some. Worse, he didn’t seem especially fond of Violetta. He certainly told us he was, but he just didn’t convince – not the way Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono had done on the opening night. I am not complaining about Sewell’s voice, which is a bright lyric tenor, with a great top B flat, but about his ability to communicate emotion. His duets with Emma Pearson were nicely done, but he was not in love. (Emmanuel was head over heels – ardent and sincere, scarcely believing his luck.)

On the plus side, thanks to the splendid view from my seat in the dress circle (so much better than from our seats in the stalls on opening night) I could now see exactly what was going on in the dumb show during the overture. The doctor (Wade Kernot) drew up a syringe of something therapeutic, tapped it like an expert, and then stuck it into the resigned Violetta’s thigh. The lighting was again terrific (gorgeous brilliant washes on the back wall, looming shadows for certain entries, starting with the Doctor).

Orchestra Wellington played well, but sometimes lacked momentum. Merran Cook’s oboe solos were lovely and so were Andrew Thomson’s violin solos. I remain convinced, though, that the best thing about opening night was our discovery of the great new talent that is Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono. What a voice! What a future!

I am not the only person who thinks this. As I write, the semi-finals of the Lexus have just been judged. Adjudicator Teddy Tahu Rhodes decided that the only singer to go through to the final from the second semi is Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono. (That is, the other four singers in the final are all from the first semi-final.) We shall see in a week’s time whether he wins. My money is on Emmanuel (as it was, thirty years ago, on Ted himself). And if he does, you heard it here first.

The long way to Bohemia

Wellington Chamber Music Sunday Concerts series  presents:
Czech Mates

Martinů – Piano Trio No 2 in D minor
Janáček – Violin Sonata
Bowater – Fekete Folyó (Black River)|
Dvořák – Piano Trio No 3 in F minor (Op. 65)

New Zealand Chamber Soloists
Lara Hall (violin), James Tennant (‘cello), Katherine Austin (piano)

St Andrew’s on the Terrace

Sunday 19 June 2022

A cold grey afternoon in the middle of winter. But the programme looked interesting: a Czech club sandwich with a slice of Bowater. The New Zealand Chamber Soloists have a history of commissioning new works. The work by Helen Bowater was commissioned in 2020 as part of their ‘Seven by Seven’ project: seven works by seven New Zealand women composers, lasting seven minutes, with support from Creative New Zealand. But how would the Bowater fare, I wondered, surrounded by works written by three of the great Czech composers of the past 150 years?

The programme notes were succinct, but the performers provided excellent introductions to each work.  Cellist James Tennant told us that Martinů grew up in a bell-tower (the tower of St Jakub Church in the small town of Polička), where his father was both a bell-ringer and fire watcher. We should expect lots of bell sounds in this energetic work, especially in the piano part, he said. ‘Bong! Bing! Bang!’

Having been expelled from the Prague Conservatory at the age of 20 for ‘incorrigible negligence’, Martinů managed to get himself to Paris in 1923, where he studied with Roussel and listened to jazz. Back in Prague, Martinů had been keen on the French Impressionists. Now he was living amongst them. But in the late 1930s, he was forced to leave Paris. He had written a work celebrating the Czech resistance and was wanted by the Nazis. He made it to the US by 1941. This Piano Trio was written during a very productive period, 1948-56, when Martinů taught at the Mannes College of Music in New York. (Burt Bacharach was one of his students.)

The Piano Trio, written in just a few weeks in 1950, has all the emotional complexity of the position in which Martinů found himself. On the one hand, he was productive and happy. His symphonies were being performed by the big American orchestras. On the other, his marriage was in difficulties. His wife wanted to return to France; he wanted to go home to Bohemia. But after the coup of 1948, when the Communists came to power, he couldn’t go back to Czechoslovakia.

The trio expresses all of this. There is delight and even fun (James Tennant imagined the young Martinů hopping down the steps of the bell-tower), with sprightly string rhythms and glittering flows of notes from the piano, and a fast scramble to the end of the first movement. But the second movement opens with sombre chords from the violin. The piano is sympathetic, but positive; the cello is supportive and understanding. Where? Why? Eventually all three voices reach a kind of agreement. The third movement starts with a terrifying energy (like Schubert’s Erlkönig) that morphs quickly into energy minus terror. The piano part is busy, lyrical, and positive, but it becomes drawn in by the violin’s insistent rhythms. The bell sounds in the piano part are not soothing. The violin is agitated; the cello supportive. There is much more agitation before the final chords come down.

This is an interesting work, not often performed. I was struck by the expressive beauty of the piano writing, and by Katherine Austin’s gorgeous technique. The voices are pretty evenly balanced, but it is the violin that seems to speak for the composer, directly and frankly, from the heart.

Next was the Janáček Violin Sonata. Katherine Austin explained that, while other Czech composers assiduously researched Czech folk music traditions, Janáček sat in cafés listening to conversations, and notated Czech speech rhythms.  He tried to write a violin sonata when he was a student, studying in Leipzig, and again in Vienna, but his early sonatas have been lost. This work was written in 1914, when he was 60. Janáček said that, in this sonata, ‘I could just about hear the sound of steel clashing in my troubled head.’ The sonata was premièred in Brno in 1922, and the following year it was performed in Frankfurt, with Paul Hindemith playing the violin.

The con moto first movement ‘sounds like a row, really’, as Katherine Austin put it, with the voices continually interrupting and contradicting each other. It opens with a big statement by the violin, with the piano strumming broken chords. The piano part is fast and ranges all over the keyboard, the violin interjects, or comments, and finally has the last word. The second movement, Ballada, Katherine Austin described as being like a lullaby, with ‘quiet breathing’. It opens with a lyrical tune from the violin and a restless piano part underneath. Anxiety turns into a sad but resigned song, full of dark energy, with a rippling motif from the piano. The third movement began with a nursery tune in the piano and ‘something flying overhead’. The fourth movement was pastoral, lyrical, ‘like watching dawn break’, with brusque interruptions from the violin.

And next, the Helen Bowater piece, Fekete Folyó. The Danube is the ‘Black River’ of the title, and the work recalls terrible events happening to the Jewish Hungarian and Romanyi people of Budapest. The cello is given a solo that tells of heartbreak and tragedy, and the violin sings a melancholic song. But its seven minutes also capture the wild rhythms of gypsy music, with plenty of pizzicato and strumming, and some Jewish harmonies. It finishes with a kind of threnody for the violin and cello together, then just the violin. And then silence.

This is an interesting and affecting work that sounded well alongside the Czech composers. It was evocative and sympathetic, with plenty to tell us.

And finally, the Dvořák Piano Trio No 3, written in 1883, the earliest work on the programme. This trio is not as famous as his fourth, the Dumky (1891), and it is not written in his cheerful Slavonic style. It is a big work, nearly 40 minutes long, with a lengthy first movement that Lara Hall described as ‘a great journey, long and deep’. At the time of writing, Dvořák was facing a tricky problem. He had been approached to write a second opera, but on a German subject and with a German libretto. Dvořák longed for recognition as an operatic composer, but he wanted it on his own terms. (He had already suffered from anti-Czech prejudice.) And his mother had just died…

From the first bars, we are back in Bohemia, as though the concert has been a long journey home. After the trio’s first performance, in which Dvořák played the piano part, the contemporary critic Edward Hanslick wrote that ‘the composer finds himself at the pinnacle of his career’. (He was not to know that the best was yet to come.)

In the third movement, the violin introduces the ‘dead mother’ theme, with sympathetic support from cello and piano. It is all so sad. But the piano is more optimistic – perhaps there is a way through. The violin repeats the theme, but higher and sweeter. Perhaps there is.

The fourth movement (allegro con brio) features a furiant, that Bohemian dance in alternating 2/4 and 3/4 time with strong accents. Dvořák used it memorably in the eighth Slavonic Dance. Finally, all tensions resolved, they dance off, presto, to a joyful resolution.

This trio brought out the very best from the players. The NZ Soloists have been playing together since 2006, and it shows. They are well balanced and make a beautiful sound.  James Tennant’s cello was especially warm and beautiful, supported by Lara Hall’s lyrical violin playing and Katherine Austin’s gorgeous support from the piano. The whole concert was conceived as a complete experience, with its moments of emotional intensity and resolution well placed.

Rhapsody and Rapture

Orchestra Wellington presents: RHAPSODY
BRAHMS – Alto Rhapsody
Contralto: Kristin Darragh
Male chorus Orpheus Choir
CLARA SCHUMANN – Piano Concerto in A minor
Piano: Jian Liu
ROBERT SCHUMANN – Symphony No 4 in D minor, Op. 120
Conductor: Marc Taddei
Orchestra Wellington

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 11th June, 2022

‘It’s all about Clara Schumann,’ said Marc Taddei, Orchestra Wellington’s conductor.

Brahms wrote his Alto Rhapsody for the wedding of Clara’s third daughter, Julie, in 1869. The second work on the programme was written by Clara Weick, as she then was, between the ages of 13 and 15. And Robert Schumann’s Symphony No 4, written in the first rapturous year of their marriage, has the word ‘Clara’ musically encoded throughout.

One thinks of Brahms as having always been middle-aged. I blame record sleeves for reproducing those very bearded photos from his fifties and early sixties – but he was an athletic, handsome, blond twenty-year-old when he first met the Schumanns. He was still a handsome man of 36, blond and beardless, when he wrote the Alto Rhapsody.

The programme notes described the work as ‘a rather odd wedding present’. Odd indeed – it seems to be full of the pain Brahms felt on hearing of Julie’s forthcoming wedding. At the
age of 26 he had been engaged to Agathe von Siebold, but the engagement was broken off. Ten years later he began to fall in love with Julie Schumann, then aged 24, but did not declare himself. When the news of her engagement arrived, he wrote the Alto Rhapsody.

The work is a setting of part of a long poem by Goethe, ‘Harzreise im Winter’, from his Sturm und Drang period, about the loneliness of a man climbing in the Harz mountains in winter. ‘Who heals the pains of one for whom balm has turned to poison?’, it begins. The answer
seems to be: ‘No one. Get over it. Music helps.’

The sombre opening chords are from the lower brass; then the texture thickens. The first two stanzas are in C minor, with a shift to C major in the third. Kristen Darragh’s first entry imitated the dark sound of the lower strings. Although the programme described her as a contralto, the biographical note called her a mezzo-soprano. She has qualities of both: a very beautiful bright higher register, with lots of power lower down. The orchestra provided rhapsodic support. The male chorus (TTBB) was provided by about 30 men of the Orpheus Choir, singing sludgy German that sometimes dragged the tempo. They did rather better further on when they got to the German Requiem-like harmonies.

The Alto Rhapsody is recorded pretty often. Wikipedia lists 19 recordings between 1945 and 2012, with two apiece by Kathleen Ferrier and Janet Baker. I first heard the Janet Baker recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult, and there was something of Janet Baker’s approach in Kristen Darragh’s performance, though I found Darragh’s voice beautiful in every register, from her bottom B to her high G flat. But the Alto  Rhapsody is not performed in concert very often, presumably because of the extra cost of the male choir for only a few pages of music. The recordings vary in length from 11 minutes 15 seconds (a French recording) to over 16 minutes (Christa Ludwig with the Vienna Philharmonic under Karl Böhm).

Taddei was pretty brisk, coming in at 12 minutes, but the tempi seemed well judged to me. The soloist was never left hanging out to dry, and the emotional depth was quite deep enough without any wallowing. There were many lovely moments, such as the soprano over pizzicato lower strings in the third stanza, a clarinet solo or two (Nick Walshe), the always-gorgeous horns, and the final words from the chorus, ‘sein Herz’ (his heart), which sounded like a final Amen.

Young Clara Wieck was already an accomplished piano soloist and had performed several times with the Gewandhaus Orchestra by the time she started writing this piano concerto. It is a remarkably mature and accomplished work. Clara’s bossy piano-teacher father tried to limit her composing because he thought it would get in the way of her playing. Robert Schumann, whom she met at one of her first recitals (she was 9, he was 18), encouraged it. Writers and critics have long thought that Robert influenced Clara. But the US musicologist, Nancy Reich, who examined the manuscripts of both Schumanns and wrote an acclaimed biography of Clara (Clara Schumann, the artist and the woman, OUP, 1989), said the boot was on the other foot. Clara was a very significant contributor to Robert’s compositions, said Reich; sometimes a co-composer. On the strength of this piano concerto she was clearly capable of it.

From the start, this is a confident work. Clara had already played some Chopin polonaises, and it shows in the writing. (For his part, Chopin heard her play, aged 18, and told Liszt all about her.) Her orchestral writing here is assured and appealing, and the piano writing is glorious, both virtuosic and lyrical. Jian Liu did it full justice, with crisp, precise playing and gorgeous, subtle gradations of colour. Taddei followed Liu’s tempi, and the orchestra played with sensitivity, matching his palette of bright and dark colours. In the second movement the stage lights came down, leaving only the pianist and the first desk of the cello section lit. The piano plays an extended solo passage, and finally the principal cello (Jane Young) enters. There is a passionate duet; then the cello withdraws. The third movement is also attacca, beginning with a little trumpet fanfare plus timpani, then a big string sound and full lower brass, a horn solo (Shadley van Wyk and Ed Allen), and an echo from bassoon (Preman Tilson). The trumpets introduce a Chopin-esque passage (minus pathos), just lots and lots of notes up and down the keyboard with tempo changes. Jian Liu turned on a dime, with Taddei and the orchestra always keeping in touch.

The audience went wild. They obviously love Jian Liu (who doesn’t?) and they were warm in their applause for Jane Young too. After being called back twice, Jian Liu came back a third time and played an encore, a pleasant nocturne by … Clara Schumann.

Only one work after the interval, Robert Schumann’s well-known Fourth Symphony, written in the rapturous first year of their marriage. Marc Taddei, obviously a great favourite of this large subscriber audience, spent some time explaining how Clara’s name (C B A G# A) appears in every movement, sometimes inverted. Examples were provided on the spot by the cello section, Concertmaster Amalia Hall, the first violins, the trombones, and the horns. The audience loved it.

‘This is one of the most radical symphonies of the nineteenth century,‘ he told them (because each movement flows straight into the next). And then, ‘It is a privilege to serve you.’ The audience purred with pleasure.

And off they went.

Schumann’s Fourth is an attractive work, bathed in sunshine. The orchestra played it well, from the confident opening to the three big final chords. The cellos always made a lovely sound; the string sound was warm and the upper brass bright and clean. Amalia Hall’s ‘filigree’ version of the Clara motif was lyrical and beautiful. The third movement burst open, a fast and furious scherzo, with exquisite violin playing. The horns sang the Clara theme; then the trio section followed with the first violins playing the filigree Clara motif. The fourth movement was all sunshine and daisies, with tidy tempo changes, before the final accelerando to the finish. Rapturous applause.

Late afternoon sunlight

Wellington Chamber Music presents:
Aroha String Quartet with Rachel Vernon (clarinet)

St Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace

Sunday, 1 May 2022

This was the first concert of a new season for Wellington Chamber Music, and the organisers must have been anxious. The pandemic has changed audiences and the business of giving concerts. Would they come?

They needn’t have worried. St Andrew’s was pleasantly full for this delightful concert, featuring Rachel Vernon on clarinet.

The Aroha Quartet have been regular performers here over the years – they were founded in 2004 – and they have their own following. But the pandemic has worked some changes on the Quartet, too.  Concerts were cancelled in 2020 and again in 2021, and cellist Robert Ibell had to take time off after an injury last year. Today Anne Loeser was guesting as second violin, although you would never have suspected, such was the rapport between the players.

Two of the works in today’s programme were familiar: Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A major, K 581, and Brahms’s great Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Opus 115. Sandwiched in between these chamber classics was a mysterious little work by Astor Piazzolla, called Oblivion. What could it be?

Mozart’s Quintet of 1789 is a delightful work. Mozart took the clarinet seriously, and helped to establish the instrument as a member of the orchestral woodwind section. He wrote this quintet for the clarinetist Anton Stadler, and subsequently referred to it as the ‘Stadler Quartet’. Stadler played it on the bassett clarinet, which has four additional low notes compared with a standard clarinet. These days the work is usually performed on the clarinet in A flat (and no one is quite sure where those low notes were used, as Mozart’s original manuscripts have never been found).

From the opening phrase of the first movement, the group established their characteristically warm sound, incorporating the deep sonority of the clarinet’s first entry. The balance was beautiful and the phrasing graceful. The cello’s pizzicato passage with the lyrical first violin above set the style for the work: refined, stylistic, beautiful.  The second Larghetto movement unfurls long, long phrases from the clarinet over muted strings. The clarinet is always moving over the more static string passages. There was lyrical playing from first violinist Haihong Liu.

The third movement, Menuetto, is rhythmic and dance-like, with a lovely aria from the clarinet. The middle section, two trios, features some thrilling clarinet playing, first very low, then high, as though to show off what the instrument is capable of. (After all, it wasn’t invented until 1788, the year before Mozart wrote this quintet.) The fourth movement is a theme and variations, which sometimes buried the clarinet in the string texture. There are some fast passages in which the strings chase each other, with the clarinet maintaining a calm presence over the top.

Next came the Piazzolla work. This was fantastic. It began life as film music, written for a film called Enrico IV, which was itself based on the play by Pirandello. But such is the beauty of the writing that the work is often performed as a concert piece, either for bandoneon (as in the film) or adapted for other instruments, including the clarinet, as here. There’s a famous version for string orchestra with Gidon Kremer on violin, another for solo guitar, and even one for two cellos and ice-skater. For me, knowing nothing of these, the string quartet and clarinet version was completely perfect, with loss, longing, and resignation balanced between the voices.

The film is described as a tragicomedy, but tragedy is to the fore in Oblivion. It opens with a weighty and complex sadness, with the clarinet shimmering in and up the scale, first lyrical, then grave. The string writing is passionate, the clarinet calming, a clear true voice. Finally, the cello somehow turns into a bandoneon, with low throbbing from the clarinet before it disappears into a trill. It is a short work. As soon as it had finished, I wanted to hear it again.

If you want to get a sense of this small perfect work, by all means listen to it on YouTube, but you will not experience the beauty of Rachel Vernon’s playing, or the sympathetic accompaniment of the Aroha Quartet.

The last work on the programme was Brahms’s Quintet in B minor for clarinet and string quartet. Like Mozart, Brahms was moved to write a quintet because of the playing of a virtuoso clarinettist. In 1890, no sooner had he announced that he had retired from composing than he heard the playing of Richard Mühlfeld, and promptly de-retired.

This is another well-known and beloved work. For me it shimmers with late afternoon sunlight. That is not to say it lacks drama. There is a moment of passionate agitation in the first movement, yet the darkness is followed by golden light. The second movement is slow and sad, as though the performers are walking, carrying a great weight. The clarinet sings of loss, but also beauty. The third pastorale movement, with its rushing, scurrying strings, allows the clarinet to sing. The fourth movement is a set of variations. It finishes by using the material from the first movement, returning to us the golden shafts of sunlight, falling between the trees. A short duet between clarinet and viola over pizzicato cello, and then a gentle falling into silence.

There are three more performances of this programme. The ones in Rangiora and Thames are probably too far, but if you get a chance to go to Wanganui for their concert on 13 September, take it. A gorgeous first concert to open Wellington Chamber Music’s 2022 season.

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 https://thequeenscloset.net (.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!