Technically brilliant, varied and versatile recital by New Zealand Guitar Quartet

New Zealand Guitar Quartet
(Christopher Hill, Jane Curry, John Couch, Owen Moriarty)

Djembe by Andrew York
Capriol Suite by Peter Warlock (arr. Owen Moriarty)
Three Short Pieces by Mike Hogan
Percussion Guitar Music: Kalimba, Kangogi, Berimbao by Jurg Kindle
Ratschenita by Jack Body (arr. Owen Moriarty)
Music in Four Sharps  by Ian Krouse
Onslow College Suite by Craig Utting (arr. Owen Moriarty)
Bluezilian by Clarice Assad

NZSM Concert Hall, Massey University, Wellington.

Wednesday 16 September 2016, 7:30 pm

Djembe is based on its namesake, a traditional African stretched-skin drum played with the hands. To reflect these origins, York makes full play of the various drumming abilities of the guitar with wonderfully lively writing, as well as other clever effects like harmonics. York’s passion for this ensemble combination (he is a former member of the renowned Los Angeles Guitar Quartet) shone through every bar. The group effectively exploited its wide dynamic contrasts from the most delicate pianissimo to full throated vigorous ensemble volumes, and it was a great choice to open the programme.

Warlock’s  familiar  Capriol Suite was very successfully arranged by Owen  Moriarty, and sounded most convincing for guitar quartet. The various voices were clearly expressed, and we heard a wide dynamic range that did full justice to the characteristic surges of the work. The playing enhanced the contrasts between the energetic, almost breathless numbers, and the sedate, courtly measures of such movements as the Pavane, and finished with a gutsy flourish in the final Sword Dance (Mattachins).

Wellington-based Mike Hogan’s Three Short Pieces opened with a brief snippet called A Bad Ant, described by the composer as “essentially a rhythmic exercise which focuses on the spaces between the notes, alternating fast flourishes with broad rests”. I found that the stumbling rhythms held very little appeal as a concert offering, sounding frankly like no more than the earlier piano study on which they were based. Song for Mum is another snippet lasting a couple of minutes, but it was crafted in a simple, transparent style, and its gentle delivery from the quartet seemed fresh and attractive. The Ed is a pentatonic number, apparently named for the $5 denomination of the banknote showing Sir Edmund Hillary. Any connection seemed extremely remote and unlikely to me except as a convenient numeric “handle”. The music had no hint of the measured, rock-solid  approach that I associate with Ed Hillary, but was full of lively extrovert energy that was attractive and invigorating in its own right.

Percussion Guitar Music is based on African and Afro-Cuban rhythms and by imitating archaic percussion instruments. Kalimba is the name of an African “thumb piano” (Jurg Kindle). To achieve the Kalimba sound on the guitar the quartet dampened the strings with a bubble wrap insert underneath. Kindle had suggested a handkerchief, but the substitute was very effective, giving a muted, semi-staccato delivery to the sound that in no way diminished the lively and energetic delivery from the group. Kangogi are bells used in the traditional music of Ghana, and the piece used gentle harmonics very effectively to evoke the sound effects, dying away to nothing at the close as though a traveller hearing the chimes were moving gradually out of earshot. Berimbao is scored using a pencil to strike the strings in order to resemble the sound of this instrument, which was first brought to Brazil by slaves from Angola. The three pieces of this suite gave great play to the versatility of sound effects that can be produced by the classical guitar, and was an excellent and interesting choice to include in the programme.

Ratschenita is Jack Body’s transcription of music from a Bulgarian village band. The quartet’s enthusiastic delivery of its lively idioms and energetic 7/8 time evoked milling crowds and busyness in a highly colourful performance that built to an exhilarating climax.

Ian Krouse based his Music in Four Sharps on Dowland’s Frog Galliard. The beautiful renaissance original makes only intermittent appearances that I personally find barely sufficient to provide adequate cohesion throughout the piece. Nevertheless, the quartet did full justice to the wide range of styles it encompasses, from drifting “hymn-like musing” (Krouse) to the build-up of a passionate climax.

Craig Utting’s Onslow College Suite (originally written for six hands on two pianos) has been very convincingly arranged by Owen Moriarty for guitars. The quartet projected the colour  and liveliness of the opening and closing movements most effectively, and provided an evocative contrast in the central Romanza where a wistful melody hovers over the passacaglia theme from the bass of the lower seven string guitar.

Bluezilian comes from the pen of multi-talented Brazilian musician Clarice Assad, “accomplished as a classical and jazz composer, arranger, pianist and vocalist” (Programme notes). Jane Curry said that Assad was the only woman composer of guitar music that she had been able to find, so this is a unique piece in the quartet’s repertoire. It is full of quirky rhythms and pauses, with occasional forays into melodic idioms and episodes of traditional strumming. The tonalities are also highly mobile, contributing to a piece that seems to reflect the many and varied interests of the writer.

The audience was treated to an encore realisation of the traditional Tarantella dance, by a Chilean folk group who were political exiles in Europe. The frenetic music graphically depicted the frenzied dancing of a victim of a tarantula bite, building into a hectic race to the finish, which was carried off by the quartet with a most enthusiastic flourish.

Although there was the occasional uncharacteristic departure from the group’s normal impeccable precision of entries, this was a concert that amply demonstrated the technical and musical skills of the New Zealand Guitar Quartet.  The programme, however, included very little repertoire that showcased the wonderful melodic and romantic qualities of the guitar, which are for me paramount elements of its remarkable versatility. The almost unrelieved scurrying of successive numbers would have been enhanced by the contrast of repose and reflection.



Spectacular NZSO concert with violinist Janine Jansen in the Tchaikovsky

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Blendulf with Janine Jansen (violin)

Liadov: The Enchanted Lake
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D Major
Prokofiev: Symphony No.5 in B flat Major

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 28 March 7:30 pm

Liadov’s atmospheric painting The Enchanted Lake was a great choice to open an evening of wonderful music, rich with the delights of that fantastic orchestration which marks the pens of the Russian greats in an abundance matched by no other race. There was the opening mystery of the dark, rumbling bass entry, the dreamy lilting melodies that floated in and out from the woodwind, and the clear crystal notes from the harp falling like raindrops into the shimmering, surging waters of the strings. The orchestra crafted this work with wonderful artistry, culminating in dying phrases that simply evaporated into the hanging silence of the auditorium.  Superb.

Janine Jansen is an on-stage tour de force in every way. She proved a spectacular “soloist” but not because she attempted to grab the limelight; rather she shaped the score in a completely mutual conversation with the orchestral players, and whenever her part paused briefly you felt she couldn’t wait for the chance to engage again in the privilege of making music together. She captured the contrasting moods of the opening Allegro moderato to telling effect, and delivered the spiccato episode with masterful grace and clarity. You could have heard a pin drop in the central cadenza. The following flute re-entry was very special, as was the later bassoon countermelody to the solo line. She pulled off the coda at breakneck speed yet somehow with complete clarity – clearly she was excited to be playing this work, and she conveyed her delight without reservation.

The central Canzonetta: Andante opens with a wistful pianissimo phrase which comes and goes throughout, and Jansen presented each appearance with the freshness of first discovery. She and the orchestra wove in this movement a tapestry of wonderful melodic exchanges and a mood of gracious calm. This made all the more dramatic the catapult of sound that launches the Allegro vivacissimo finale. It was taken at incredible speed, yet again with total clarity in each rondo appearance. The stamp of Cossack boots thundered out, interspersed with beautifully languid playing from the woodwind in the contrasting melodic episodes. The whole concerto was performed with consummate musicianship, and the runaway freight train of the closing coda brought a stampede of audience appreciation – amply rewarded with an exquisite encore, an arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir D’un Lieu Cher.

What could possibly follow this riveting Tchaikovsky? A Prokofiev reading that was positively mind blowing.  Blendulf made the most of the huge percussion, brass and string bodies right from the sweeping grandeur of the opening to the last dramatic chords of the finale. The massive demands of this score were embraced by the players with total commitment, huge passion, and the exemplary musicianship and technical mastery that mark all their work. Yet somehow they found an even higher notch than usual in this Prokofiev, emerging at the end with a clear glow of fulfilment on faces that should, by rights, have been etched with exhaustion after such a programme.

Daniel Blendulf’s conducting style was a pleasure to observe. His was an entirely unassuming manner, directing the orchestra with complete economy of gesture. He obviously recognised that no more was needed, given the wonderful resources and musicianship of the NZSO players, and their exemplary ensemble skills. They were the stars of the evening no less than the spectacular soloist, and he rightly called each section to its feet, giving the audience ample opportunity to express their appreciation for an amazing night’s music making. Bravo!


Lucy Gijsbers shines in ‘cello recital at St.Andrew’s

St Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series

Duo Cecilia: Lucy Gijsbers, cello; Andrew Atkins, piano

Prokofiev: Sonata for Cello and Piano in C major, Op.119 (1949)
Andante Grave, Moderato.
Beethoven: Sonata No.21 in C Major “Waldstein”: Allegro con brio
Liszt: Concert Etude in D flat major “Un sospiro”
Kapustin: Nearly Waltz Op.98 (1999)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 25th March 2015

The first two movements of Prokofiev’s Op.119, chosen to start this programme, put Lucy Gijsbers straight into the limelight from the word go. The beautifully crafted phrases and full throated, rich sound she drew from the lower register of the cello in the opening solo bars showed immediately what an accomplished musician she is. Likewise as she moved up the register in the later reflective episodes, her tone was sweet and warm. The duo shaped the mood in those recurring sections with poetic sensitivity, working with one mind to craft the melodies. This made the contrast very effective when they attacked the allegro interludes with real vigour and a sense of the dramatic. But unfortunately, when the dynamic rose above forte, the pianist simply swamped the cello part. It was a mistake to attempt this work on full piano stick; worst of all it caused the sweeping dynamism and passion of the closing cello passagework to be swallowed up in a maelstrom of concert grand fortissimo. The same problem persisted in forte sections of the Moderato; but at other times the duo captured its lively, puckish mood very effectively, and provided a beautiful contrast in the slow melodic bars. Prokofiev’s startling false harmonics in the coda melody were superbly executed by Lucy Gijsbers – you could have heard a pin drop as the final notes evaporated into the barrel vault.

Andrew Atkins had clearly put a lot of work into the Beethoven movement, but I’m afraid I felt disappointed. That was because he seemed to interpret Beethoven’s direction of allegro con brio to mean “extra fast” allegro. But the term means simply “with spirit, energy, vigour”. The busy, repetitive opening idioms started too fast for clarity and the later cascading runs were further rushed in a number of places. The dramatic sweeping passagework that recurs throughout this movement was doubtless designed around Beethoven’s legendary skills at the keyboard. It requires crystal clear execution and nuance to express the melodic structure concealed in the subtle complexity. There is an amazing musical architecture in there that is all too readily lost in those huge handfuls of notes, and sadly that is what happened here. The Listz was better controlled in the opening piano section, but the fast centralforte section was again too hectic to come across satisfactorily.

Beethoven made a habit of spending time in the countryside, away from his keyboard and quill pen, throughout his life, and this somehow permeates his composition despite its extraordinary demands and complexity. Our local version may needs be the New Zealand bush, but every performer must somehow tap into this dimension, and this is what I hankered for here.

Kapustin’s Nearly Waltz for piano-cello duo opens with a disarming rhythm that alternates almost randomly between 5/4 and 3/4. The duo picked up on its lively whimsical mood with just the right touch, although later forteinterludes again suffered from too much piano volume. However, this capricious three minute gem was wrapped up with a delightful final phrase, finishing in high register with the music simply floating away……It was a great way to finish an interesting and varied programme that was clearly appreciated by the audience.

There are a couple of issues the duo needs to work on if they are to optimise their professional profile. Firstly, the programme information provided was far from satisfactory – only composers and titles were given; no opus numbers, keys, or movement designations. And secondly, an adequate assessment of a venue’s acoustics before each performance must surely go without saying. Every concert room is unique, and performers must play the acoustics just as they play their instruments. A failure to do so can lead to serious imbalance, and no professional musician wants to court that hazard.



Acclaimed Guitarist Recital highlights venue shortcomings

New Zealand School of Music presents:

Matt Withers – Australian guitarist

F.Tarrega – Recuedos de la Alhambra
I.Albeniz – Asturias
Blue Moon & Somewhere over the Rainbow
La Catedral – A.Barrios
Black Wattle Caprices – R.Edwards
Usher Waltz – N.Koshkin
Libre Tango, Verano Porteno, La Muerte Del Angel – A.Piazzolla
Three Irish Folk-Songs
Cuban Dance – J.Pernambuco

Adam Concert Room, NZSM Victoria University

Friday 20th March, 2015

Matt Withers is head of Guitar at the University of Canberra and a widely acclaimed performer who has picked up many awards in his relatively short career. He is currently touring New Zealand for the first time doing recitals and master classes, and this was a welcome opportunity to hear someone of this calibre whose reputation has gone before them.

He described his varied programme as “a round-the-world tour”, and it opened appropriately with two well loved Spanish classics from Tarrega and Albeniz. He immediately put his own stamp on these familiar works by an amazingly delicate touch and sensitivity of interpretation, calling frequently on rubato and the power of the pregnant pause before resolving a phrase or section. He marked Tarrega’s move from minor to major mode with a very creative brightening that highlighted the shift most effectively. These were both very romantic readings, quite devoid of any Iberian brashness.

So too were Almeida’s two settings of Blue Moon and Rainbow – delicate, laid back, almost hinting at the louche, caressing every single note. My heart leapt with joy to see Barrios’ La Catedral on the programme – one of my favourite pieces –     and it too was presented with great tenderness and lightness of touch.

The Black Wattle Caprices by Australian composer Edwards (who apparently lives in Black Wattle Bay in Sydney) were indeed capricious, leaping from one idea to another with, to my ear, no clear idea of a destination or overarching concept. But Withers is a strong supporter of Australian composers, and he clearly engaged with these works, playing them with very obvious enthusiasm.

Throughout the first half, however, I had been disappointed, and frankly baffled, by the apparent shortcomings of Matt Withers’ technique. In many pianissimo passages there had been missing notes, or even clusters of notes entirely missing, and phrases that he was not able to project even to where I was sitting only 3-4 metres distant. This despite his modern lattice-built instrument which provides greater projection than traditional designs.

It was very odd, and could hardly be attributed to nerves in so experienced a recitalist. Something was clearly not right, but it was not until a brief conversation I had in the interval that the pieces of the jigsaw fell into place. I had been listening to an artist who was, literally, not warmed up. While I sat comfortably in the room in a winter jersey, scarf and jacket on this southerly Wellington night, the conditions played havoc with the performance. There are two basic requirements for a successful technical performance: a relatively high radiant temperature for the hands (essential for high speed dexterity), and a lowish air temperature (for keeping a clear head and sharp concentration). If the air temperature is raised to a level sufficient for high speed dexterity, concentration is seriously impaired. Likewise a low air temperature makes that same dexterity physiologically impossible.

At the time the Victoria School of Music was designed in the 1980s, these parameters were clearly presented to the authorities. They were at that time the Ministry of Works, who oversaw all design, construction, and funding approvals for universities. The architects proposed wall mounted radiators, which had a long history of meeting the required parameters for optimum musical performance. This proposal was completely at odds with current government policy which was to use gas (usually air) heating, but the evidence was sufficiently compelling to convince the ministry, and an exception was allowed.

This system has since been removed from the Adam Concert Room, depriving players of the most basic environmental conditions for a competent performance. I now realised that what I had observed in the first half of the programme was the classic situation of a player who was too cold. By the last pair of items things were improving, and they continued to come right throughout the second half. This is such a familiar situation (ask anyone who has played, shivering, in provincial wooden churches for the local music society!) that the penny should have dropped sooner. The other serious difficulty with cold venues is that they do not address the fundamental physics of musical instruments, which must be sufficiently warm to speak properly and in tune.

The second half of the programme opened with Koshkin’s Waltz, which expresses the chaotic torrent of fearful and anxious thoughts besieging the unfortunate Usher of Edgar Alan Poe’s story. The interlude of lightning and thunder came across with power and urgency, before the beautifully crafted and poignant collapse into final silence as Usher’s house disappeared into the enveloping marsh.

The Piazzolla bracket comprised a very attractive group of pieces where Withers captured the contrasting moods with delightful whimsy, be they lively, or gently evocative and reminiscent. Likewise the Irish songs, very simply and effectively set by British guitarist Steve Marsh, were beautifully rendered, full of longing, and played with great affection.

With Pernambuco’s energetic Cuban Dance, Matt Withers offered a vigorous and enthusiastic finale to a very interesting and varied programme. The audience were most appreciative, and they were rewarded by a lovely rendering of Stanley Meyers’ wistful Cavatina as an encore.

Ecstatic applause for Freddy Kempf’s first three Beethoven concertos with the NZSO

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra with Freddy Kempf, Piano/Conductor

Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op.15
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op.19
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op.37

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 28 February, 7:30 pm

The NZSO undertook this programme with significantly pruned string resources, making a nod towards  the size  of orchestra Beethoven would have performed these works with himself. The balance and sympathy between the sections was, as always, exemplary and the concert was marked throughout by superb solo playing from wind and brass principals alike, and the impeccable string work that audiences never fail to hear from the NZSO.

Born in London in 1977,  Freddy Kempf made his first solo appearance with the RPO at the age of eight. In the intervening thirty years he has forged a reputation as an outstanding musician who performs to a punishing schedule all over the world.  His formidable dexterity at the keyboard encompassed the composer’s demands with complete aplomb and accomplishment, yet it was Beethoven’s  contemplative writing where, for me, Kempf’s talents most sang. He shaped the opening bars of the first concerto with great delicacy, which made the following tutti outburst a contrasting tour de force that was quite riveting. Likewise the Largo second movement opened with great tenderness that blossomed into a conversation of complete understanding with the orchestra. The Rondo finale was taken at breakneck speed, but both piano and orchestra imbued it with playful lightness, delicacy and clarity.

The pinnacle of the second concerto was again the beautiful central Adagio movement, whose melodic nuances were expressed with exquisite artistry in both phrasing and dynamic. The Rondo finale burst into life with its puckish syncopated rhythms almost gleeful in their exuberance. Despite the breakneck
tempo there was not the slightest loss of clarity or precision from either keyboard or orchestra.

The third concerto was likewise highlighted by the beautifully crafted melodies of the central Largo,
imbued with a clear sympathy of vision between solo and orchestra. The Rondo finale took off at an attractive bouncing tempo that concluded by catapulting headlong into a bold and hectic coda.

Despite the quality of the music, however, and moments of sublime stillness in Kempf’s slow movements, the performance was marred overall for me by the constant intrusiveness of Kempf’s conducting. In theory he was “conducting from the keyboard” as Beethoven was in the habit of doing. But in practice he was constantly leaping up and down between seated and upright, and sometimes
playing high speed runs with one hand while waving the other about in the air.

Nevertheless, the climax of the Final of No 3 brought ecstatic applause from the large audience, many of whom got to their feet. Kempf rightly acknowledged the various section leaders  and instrumental groups, all of whom had contributed so outstandingly to the music making.


Splendid Orpheus Choir and NZSO shine along with Madeleine Pierard in Trans-Tasman Messiah

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the Orpheus Choir of Wellington conducted by Stephen Mould

Handel: Messiah

Soloists: Madeleine Pierard – soprano, Jacqueline Dark – mezzo-soprano, Paul McMahon – tenor, James Clayton – bass

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 13 December 2014

Handel’s Messiah remains a work of perennial popularity, be it in great cities of the Old World, or in tiny provincial settlements clinging to specks of land in far flung southern oceans. Whether presented by massed singers and a huge orchestra or a small parish choir with traditional harmonium, its magic never fails to evoke wonder and worship. There must be very few works which can claim such status across all sectors of the public – from the regular cognoscenti of classical concert goers to the family from the local gospel hall making their sole visit each year to a concert hall. Saturday’s performance saw an NZSO ensemble of 37 players plus harpsichord and chamber organ, in tandem with 150 voices from the Orpheus Choir, four soloists with extensive experience in professional operatic roles and oratorio, and conductor Stephen Mould from a predominantly opera background.

As always, the NZSO provided an impeccable contribution of total technical skill and musicianship with never a hint of laissez faire from musicians who must have played this work umpteen times. Rather, they responded to Handel’s mastery and magic with the freshness of discovering Messiah for the first time. The choristers too threw themselves into the performance with a fire that suggested they’d been waiting all year for this opportunity. Considerable demands were made on their technique through the tempi imposed by Mould in many of the highly elaborate fugal numbers, but the choir was quite undaunted. Soprano and bass lines managed to survive, in fact the sopranos sparkled, but the middle voices were less comfortable. However accurate their high speed runs, they could not be cleanly discerned at such speeds, and were therefore denied their rightful place in the wonderful complexity and richness of Handel’s contrapuntal textures. It was an approach to Baroque interpretation that had me sympathizing with a fellow listener who remarked that “the conductor must have an early train to catch”. Handel had gone to the trouble of selecting every single one of those notes in the amazing florid lines of his fugues, and such quick tempi seemed to cloud his intentions. All power to the choristers that they stepped up to the plate with such determination and aplomb. The tempi of the grand chorale-style sections was, by contrast, almost always stately and dignified, and Mould’s shaping of dynamics enhanced every number in the work, so I was left wondering how that same sympathy and sureness of touch had deserted him in the fugues..

The soloists were all Australian bar New Zealand soprano Madeleine Pierard, who proved to be the standout performer of the four.  (Though James Clayton now lives in Wellington. Ed.), With effortless grace and consummate technical command she traversed the whole gamut of soprano numbers: her great artistry in ‘He shall feed His flock’ left her duo partner mezzo Jacqueline Dark somewhat in the shadows – a position she occupied throughout the evening as her voice simply did not have the power needed to project the mid-range in the Michael Fowler Centre. By contrast Pierard’s incisive technique made mincemeat of numbers like ‘Rejoice greatly’, where she was in full coloratura flight that was frankly riveting, even while the Mould’s challenging tempo was imposing undue haste upon Handel’s music.

Tenor Paul McMahon sometimes had problems with projection too, but his numbers were always competent if in places lacking sufficient energy. Bass James Clayton, however, had the commanding stature, presence and voice to excite considerable attention in his more dramatic arias, particularly in the fury of those like ‘Why do the nations?’ But all up I was left wondering why New Zealand conductors and singers were, yet again, passed over by NZSO management in favour of those from offshore. There is an abundance of New Zealand talent which could have done, in some instances, a better job. The Australians may be able to best us consistently on the cricket pitch, but that is no reason to behave as though they do on the concert stage. I thought we were supposed to have grown out of the cultural cringe, but it seems not yet. New Zealand audiences deserve better, but it appears one must still live in hope………

On that cultural note, I could not help reflecting on how extraordinarily fortunate we may be tucked away on these tiny islands falling off the bottom of the planet but our musical heritage is incredibly rich and varied. Not only is there the great Judeo-Christian tradition which has given birth to innumerable musical treasures like Messiah, but from the mid C20th century we have been discovering our own unique musical voices, be they Maori or pakeha. These in turn reflect the character of our land, where none lives far from the sea, the mountains, the lakes, or the grinding tectonic plates – so totally different from those other European and Levantine origins. Here we can enjoy it all, and the enthusiasm and appreciation of Saturday’s full turn-out demonstrated that we relish the opportunity to do so. In spite of some interpretive qualms, this Messiah was a splendid ending to the NZSO’s concert year.


Large audience hear unfamiliar Christmas music in enthusiastic performance by Festival Singers

Festival Singers. Director: Jonathan Berkhan

Feliz Navidid – A South American Christmas
Music from the 16th to 21st centuries

Accompanist: Thomas Nikora; tenor solo: Joe Fecteau; guitar: Bernard Wells; percussion: Ingrid Schoenfeld, Monika Smith; bass: Samuel Berkahn

Jonathan Berkahn: Gloria
Pedro de Cristo: Es nasçido
Pedro Bermúdez: Christus natus est nobis
Gaspar Fernandes: Xicochi xicochi
Domenico Zipoli: Organ pieces from his Sonate d’intavolatura
José Maurício Nunes Garcia: Two responsories from Matinas do Natal. (no 2: Hodie nobis de coelo pax and No 4: O magnum mysterium
Ariel Ramírez: Misa Criolla (Kyrie, Gloria, Agnus Dei)
Jonathan Berkahn: Gloria

Bravo Ensemble: accordion: Emilio Bertrand; piano: Thomas Nikora; violin: Slava Fainitski; violin: Sarah Martin; viola: David Daniela; cello: Brenton Veitch; contrabass: Louis van der Mespel

Astor Piazzolla: Five Tangos

Island Bay Presbyterian Church

Friday 28 November 2014

This festive concert programme drew a large audience to the Island Bay Presbyterian Church, and it was apparent from the first bar that the choristers hugely enjoyed singing it. The opening Gloria by the choir’s director Jonathan Berkahn immediately set the scene with its vigorous, bouncy rhythms and easy harmonies, cleverly offset by a central section of more stately and peaceful mood. The following three items formed a most interesting bracket of contrasted works from three of many Baroque missionary priest-musicians who moved out from Europe, taking their musical and ecclesiastical traditions with them, and developed these in the fresh environment of the New World.

Es nasçido is a Portuguese nativity hymn of full-bodied harmonies and traditional Baroque chorale tonalities, which was given a warm and enthusiastic delivery. Christus natus est nobis was more subdued, and displayed clear part singing from the various interweaving choral voices. And the third item, the lullaby Xicochi xicochi sung for the baby Jesus in the Aztec language, was a beautifully crafted piece, using solo guitar accompaniment. It opened with women’s voices only, and was marked by gently lilting melodies, later offset by busier syncopated rhythms from the men. It was a remarkably liberal fusion of Old and New World elements resulting in a composition that had moved a very considerable way from contemporary European practice.

We were treated next to two organ pieces from Domenico Zipoli’s Sonate d’intavolatura, very masterfully played by Jonathan Berkahn. The first was a Pastorale, in structure and style very reminiscent of the Pastoral Symphony in Handel’s Messiah. Gentle triplet figures wove attractively over the top of a rich bass pedal note, with a brief and lively episode providing contrast in the centre. The following number was an Offertory, where busy contrapuntal development unfolded once again over a bass pedal, culminating in a closing coda of rich, full throated chords. Jonathan Berkahn had voiced both pieces to show off the very best of the electronic organ, and they provided a very successful contrast to the other works in the programme.

José Garcia apparently wrote a huge amount of both choral and instrumental music, from which Berkahn had selected two responsories from Christmas Matins. Their full, warm harmonies, warmly delivered, closed off most satisfactorily this selection of works that gave the audience a fascinating glimpse into Baroque music making in the New World.

Bravo Ensemble was given a free hand by the director, and they chose five tangos by the well known 20th century composer Astor Piazzolla. Though born in Argentina, he spent most of his life in the USA, and these pieces displayed a very wide range of stylistic influences including the traditional dance tango, jazz, Joplin-esque ragtime, modern music, you name it. All were rooted in the fundamental tango idioms, but the first piece was a wild celebratory dance, while the second oozed slow, sultry rhythms, and lazy melodies full of veiled innuendo, where you could almost smell the smoke rings wafting on the warm night air.

The central number was composed on the day Piazzolla’s father died, and it captured so vividly the violently conflicting emotions of grief and loss. Episodes of deep contemplative sadness, marked by exquisite melodic writing and rich harmonies, were contrasted with others which raged, raged against the dying of the light, recalling Dylan Thomas’ extraordinary poem written as his father too approached death.

The Bravo Ensemble marked every phrase and mood with a passion and dedication that elevated this particular number to an artistic level I had never associated with traditional tango music. But likewise the next piece was a work of art in a very special way – an exquisite accordion melody floated over swaying tango rhythms and rich harmonies from the strings, underpinned by a pizzicato bass line beautifully crafted by Louis van der Mespel, which swelled from the whisper of the opening bars, through the rich sonorities of the central section, and faded finally into a breathless pianissimo close.

The last number was called Ave Maria, a title which had me wondering how this hallowed Catholic prayer might sit with tango. In Piazzolla’s creative hands, however, it proved to be an extraordinary marriage. No arbitrary boundaries here between sacred and profane –  even the term “sacred dance” seemed artificial. The depths of tango sensuality were somehow in complete harmony with the profundities of religious experience. It was a piece that rounded off a truly eye-opening selection of compositions in tango form. I don’t know whether any of them has ever been set to dance, but it would be fascinating to see how creative choreographers/dancers would express the huge range of emotions and idioms they encapsulate. Thank you Jonathan Berkahn for the inspired inclusion of this bracket in the programme.

The choral programme was rounded off by three movements from Ariel Ramírez’ Misa Criolla. The director explained that the decision in 1963 by Vatican II to allow mass in the vernacular had led the creative flood gates to burst wide open in South America. This 1964 work used a tenor soloist, choristers and instrumental accompaniment to achieve a very creative and different setting for the mass. A lyrical tenor solo above muted humming voices marked the Kyrie setting, then a colourful instrumental introduction led into the vigorous jazzy dance rhythms of the Gloria. A calm central episode had the tenor declaiming the text above quiet choral writing before a repeat of the opening section.

The audience loved this enthusiastic movement, which was followed by the calm of the Agnus Dei. Here the tenor voice again floated above the humming choristers, to bring the number to a beautifully serene close. Joe Fecteau handled the solo tenor role very ably with a voice that has some attractive timbres, yet is crying out to be trained. There is real potential there that would merit some skilled teaching and development.

The evening closed very aptly with a repeat performance of Jonathan Berkahn’s vigorous Gloria.

It rounded off a thoroughly enjoyable evening’s music making, where the director had very skilfully put together a programme offering a glimpse into a whole world of South American musical tradition that most of the audience would, I imagine, have been previously quite unaware of. The concert was built around the central theme of Christmas, yet it spanned an astonishing breadth of styles, all of which the musicians took easily in their stride.

The enthusiasm of both singers and players was infectious, and it caught up everyone in an evening that was a refreshing celebration of this great Christian festival. No matter that modern scholarship has revealed more myth making than history in the gospel stories – their musical traditions are clearly still alive and well-loved in a world now full of plastic commercialism.

Feliz Navidad!



A divided NZSO with a breathtaking cellist in a sparkling touring programme for the South Island

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Benjamin Northey; Narek Hakhnazaryan (cello)

“In the Hall of the Mountain King”

Mozart: Symphony No. 31 ‘Paris’
Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme
Grieg: Holberg Suite
Peer Gynt Suite No. 1

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 21 November. 6:30 pm

From the first downbeat of Mozart’s ‘Paris’ Symphony, Australian conductor Ben Northey galvanised the orchestra into a sparkling and vivacious performance, and set the tone for an authoritative, yet electrifying evening’s music making. His engagement with the players was almost tangible, epitomised in the initial Allegro assai where he drew out real magic from the contrabasses, in episodes that can often pass almost unnoticed. In the following Andante he fashioned the delicate melodies with gossamer lightness before bursting into the Allegro finale at breakneck speed. His two silent upbeats established a total control that achieved crystal clarity in high speed runs that never felt hectic or hurried. It was an electric, riveting finale that harnessed the extraordinary talent of the players with complete unity of vision between conductor and orchestra.

Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme  gave New Zealand audiences their first opportunity to appreciate the breathtaking talent and musicianship of Armenian cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan. All of 26 years old, he nevertheless exhibits a total technical mastery that is completely at the command of his extraordinary musical depth and vision. At the pre-concert talk, Northey remarked that no two readings of the Variations were ever the same from Hakhnazaryan, a comment that I recall Barenboim making about the performances of Du Pré. In my mind this newly emerging cellist certainly sits in the same pantheon, and like Du Pré, he held the audience totally spellbound with his interpretation.

You could have heard a pin drop in his magical pianissimo moments, for which Northey fashioned the orchestral support in perfect balance – no small feat for a low register solo in an auditorium seating 2500. The opening theme was offered with loving delicacy in a silken tone that immediately set his playing apart. And likewise the second theme was delivered with deep affection, indeed reverence for every note. Throughout the whole performance he engaged in a mutual conversation with the orchestra that was completely devoid of soloistic bravura; rather they were fellow players making music together with just the lightest touch from Northey at the helm. All shared a common, deeply romantic concept of the work that drew in the audience completely, and led to rapturous applause at the end.

We were treated to two solo encores: first Giovanni Sollima’s Lamentatio that opened with stark, spare harmonies, and dirge-like vocalisations from the cellist. This idiom alternated with episodes of frenzied despair as though the bereaved were tearing his hair out, interrupted by the recurring, and eventually terminal exhaustion of the dirges. It was a deeply moving performance, and left the audience hungering for still more. Hakhnazaryan obliged with a final offering: first he enquired for any fellow Armenians in the audience, of which there were a few (I understand that there are about 50 such living in Wellington). Then he announced that he would play a setting of an Armenian folk song by a “suffering, lonely person far from their homeland”. It was a soulful, almost anguished piece, exquisitely performed, and obviously very personal to him.

It is a rare and very real pleasure to hear the NZSO strings alone, and what better choice of work than Grieg’s much loved Holberg Suite. Ben Northey’s  sure touch again opened the piece with real lightness and grace, but the super fast tempo he chose sometimes put at risk the clarity of that very distinctive rhythmic motif which drives the whole Praeludium. However, his dynamic control was brilliant, as he built the sound from a feathery piano to a rich full throated climax. He made the most of the contrasting three central movements, Sarabande, Gavotte and Air, which were marked by graceful lilting melodies and lovingly wistful phrasing. He skilfully set their moods of pathos against episodes of warmth and fullness where every string player seemed to relish the chance to draw the maximum richness from their instrument.

The final Rigaudon is a hectic celebratory folk dance gallop distinguished by fiery roles for two soloists – violin and viola – here Donald Armstrong and Peter Barber. So often the lower pitch of the viola comes off second best in this movement, but Peter was not having a bar of that. With vigorous competition from Donald, he made brilliant, spirited play for the attention of the prettiest girl in the troupe, and I’d put my money on his winning out. A great romp!

The full NZSO is currently divided for two separate tours, with this programme being played in Wellington and the South Island. The lesser string resources of this particular ensemble proved, however, that they were more than equal to working with the full blown line-up of wind, brass and percussion needed for Grieg’s Peer Gynt. This suite again showcased Ben Northey’s skill in creating huge contrasts in mood and dynamics: there was the wonderful fresh transparency of the opening Morning Mood; the incredible build-up from pianissimo to fortissimo in The Death of Aase; the beautifully fashioned and puckish pizzicato sections of Anitra’s Dance; and the lovely murky bassoons at the opening of the Mountain King finale, that Northey built on inexorably in tempo and dynamics to create a monumental climax.

The audience was hugely appreciative of this evening of sparkling music making, turning out a virtually full house to hear works they knew and loved. The pedants may speak of hackneyed familiarity, but the listeners voted very clearly with their feet when offered the best of classical and romantic works performed by the outstanding talents of the NZSO and Ben Northey. They worked together in such obvious empathy and produced outstanding results. I very much hope we will see more of Northey on the rostrum in future, and more of this sort of programming.

Diversity and enthusiasm from Gale Force voices at Futuna

Colours of Futuna presents:
Gale Force Gospel Choir  (Small Ensembles)

The Yorkett Quartet – Carol Lough, Gunilla Jensen, Neil Pryor, Gina Coyle
Bring Me Little Water Sylvie  (H Ledbetter, arr. Max Maxwell)
When I get Inside / Our Father  Trad gospel, arr. Tony Backhouse
Going Down to Jordan (Trad, arr. Soweto Gospel Choir)

Gracenotes Quintet – Juli Usmar, Leigh Talamaivao, Fiona Walker                                                                       Richard Hale, Shelly Andrews
There is a Balm in Gilead (W Dawson, arr. Tony Backhouse)
Gotta do Right (Trad, after a version by the Heritage Singers)

Peter & Anne (Williams)
I Had a Real Good Mother & Father / By the Mark
(Trad, after Gillian Welch)

Vocalicious – Shona McNeil, Rachel MacLeod, Shelly Andrews
Halleluyah (Leonard Cohen, arr Shona McNeil)
Go to Sleep Little Baby (Harris/Kraus/Welch arr Vocalicious)

Indonesian Quartet – Mark Standeven, Carol Shortis,
Anne Manchester, Bill Shortis
Betapa Baiknya (Freddy Ahuluheluw arrr. Carol Shortis)

Triceratops Trio – Ben Woods, Laura Durville, Amber Coyle
Beams of Heaven (Charles A.Tindley, arr. Laura Durville)
Wanting Memory (Ysaye M. Barnwell, after Cantus)

Rise Up Trio – Gina & Jim Coyle
Cross Over to the Other Side of Jordan (from James & Martha Carson)

Pieces of Eight Octet – Liz King, Leigh Talamaivao, Bill Shortis, Gracie McGregor, Angela Torr, Ian Brewer, Andrew Thompson-David, Laura Durville
One Mornin’ Soon (arr. Tony Backhouse, after Johnita and Joyce Collins)
All Night, All Day (arr. Tony Backhouse, after The Caravans)

Futuna Chapel

 Sunday 9th November 2014

Right from the word go this short concert had the feeling of a community event, rather than a formal recital, and I’m sure that’s how the organisers wanted it. Gale Force Gospel choir is a diverse bunch of singers from many different backgrounds, who obviously enjoy the idioms of Negro Spirituals, both the singing and the swinging. They put together a varied programme of small ensemble pieces, incorporating both traditional numbers handed down from the original slaves, and subsequent compositions in similar vein.

Their enthusiasm was infectious, and it captured the full-house audience from first to last. It carried the singers through the odd loss of memory, and the not infrequent dodgy intonation of their a cappella style, but nobody seemed to mind – everyone was clearly having a ball, both singers and listeners.

The Yorkett Quartet was the most polished of the groups, and their opening bracket of traditional numbers was beautifully controlled in phrasing, intonation and ensemble, with exemplary clear diction. This is not easy to achieve in the lively acoustic of Futuna Chapel, but they judged their dynamics most effectively to suit.

The Gracenotes Quintet followed with a sensitive rendering of Balm in Gilead, then a complete switch in mood to the swinging rhythms and clapping beat of Gotta Do Right that was particularly popular.

The Vocalicious group’s Go to Sleep Little Baby was likewise acted out with rhythmic and rocking motions that brought their gentle lullaby very warmly to life.

The Rise Up Trio enacted the story of the Jews’ escape from captivity in Egypt very graphically with their swinging number Cross Over to the Other Side of Jordan despite some highly variable intonation. They invited the audience to join in the choruses, which was done with considerable enthusiasm.

This left the final bracket to the largest ensemble, the Pieces of Eight Octet, who closed the concert with two numbers full of the immediacy of angels. One Mornin’ Soon was propelled along by lively vocal “percussion” from the basses, and the vivid imagery of angels surrounding an ecstatic supplicant kneeling at prayer.

By contrast, All Night, All Day was a gentle, rocking number that rounded off the programme by committing the singers to the loving care of their guardian angels as sleep took over. It was an apposite finish to a well balanced and highly popular concert that epitomised community music making in the very best tradition.


Carnival for Guy Fawkes’ Day – the music of Alfred Hill

St.Andrews-on-The-Terrace Lunchtime Concert Series:
Alfred Hill on Guy Fawkes Day

ALFRED HILL (1869-1960)
Quartet No.3 in A minor “The Carnival” 1912 (orchestral version)
Movements: In the Streets / Andantino / Scherzo / Finale

The Dominion Strings, conducted by Donald Maurice

St. Andrews-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday 5th November 2014

This work was the earliest of Alfred Hill’s string quartets to be expanded later into an orchestral version, and is better known as Symphony No.5 “The Carnival”. He frequently “recycled” existing works into new formats, and this transcription benefitted from the larger forces which could very successfully convey the bustling, crowded atmosphere of a fiesta.

The opening street scene was graphically depicted with vigorous, sunlit writing and attractive melodies, propelled along by dancing triplet rhythms. Closing gently, as though the fading light of evening were approaching, it could easily have been an evocative film score, no less effective for the absence of visual effects.

The Andantino was full of gentle melody passing from voice to voice, supported by rich harmonies that conjured up the balmy night air, and the pleasures of wandering hand in hand, somewhat apart from the noisy revellers. The languid, surging phrases eventually subsided into a pianissimo close, as though the moon were sinking, heavy with sleep, below the horizon.

The Scherzo woke to a new, sunlit morning, a bright breezy romp full of the new day’s energy, evoking colourful stalls selling wild flowers and sweet treats. It led quite naturally into the energetic Finale which opened with the vigour of almost flamenco rhythms and colour, then moved into a central contrasting section of lilting melodies, with almost a hint of pathos, before returning to the opening mood. There was a dramatic accelerando coda to round off the work with brilliant, festive flair.

This was a thoroughly attractive, almost programmatic work, from a composer who understood the appeal and art of skilful melody writing. The familiar tonal structure made it easy listening, while never sounding tired, but always fresh and creative. The players were clearly enjoying themselves, and their enthusiastic and lively engagement in the work spilled over easily to the appreciative audience.

This concert marked the release of Vol.5 of Hill’s string quartets from Naxos, recorded on CD by the Dominion String Quartet. The last recordings are just complete, with the final Vol.6 due next year. Before the concert, Donald Maurice spoke of the genesis and development of this project over a number of years, then Chris Blake (NZSO CEO) gave some background to Hill’s life and work.

The latter’s prolific output included ten operas (some on Maori themes), thirteen symphonies, seventeen string quartets, many choral works, concertos, chamber music, sonatas, songs and short works for a variety of instruments. Researcher and publisher Allan Stiles has noted that there are over 2,000 titles attributable to Alfred Hill and of those, many have never been published and relatively few commercially recorded. (Programme notes.)

Chris Blake spoke of Hill as “the only significant Australasian composer representing the Late Romantic era”, but I would put Richard Fuchs (1887-1947) very firmly in that category too, although he was a naturalised New Zealander who lived here only from 1939 to 1947. Like Hill he was prolific in many genres, and all his surviving works have been published by the Richard Fuchs Archive, though as yet only a handful of his beautiful songs are available on CD (see

Both these composers have been too little heard and enjoyed by New Zealand audiences, but those who attended today’s concert obviously appreciated this opportunity, judging by the turnout and their most enthusiastic applause.