History and Geography in Music: Pipa player Wu Man and the NZSQ

Wu Man (pipa) and the New Zealand String Quartet
Music by Tan Dun, Zhao Jiping and Zhao Lin, Tabea Squire and arrangements

St. Mary of the Angels

Thursday 28 September  2017, 7:30 pm

If you didn’t hear Kim Hill on RNZ Saturday on 23 September, go and listen to the online archive now. A poignant interview with Douglas Wright, New Zealand’s most compelling dancer / choreographer, is to be found there … as humane and considered a conversation about art as practised and life as lived that you could hope to find.

Alongside it sits Hill’s interview with Wu Man, the world’s leading player of pipa, traditional Chinese lute, and the inspiration for many contemporary composers who have contributed to the revival in popularity of the instrument. The petite and spirited Wu Man  featured in Yo Yo Ma’s film and project, The Music of Strangers, and she shares with him a sense of urgency about the need for communication between peoples in different parts of the world who see music as a way, possibly the best way, to explore what is different and distinct, and what his identical and shared, among us.

An insightful spoken introduction by Luo Hui recounted the planning and managing needed for a visit such as this, which has also included a workshop and masterclass lecture. The Confucius Institute and the New Zealand School of Music have done the yards, and Kim Hill’s interview will have lit the candle to result in a capacity audience.

From the programme note by Sally Jane Norman, NZSM’s director: “In addition to her legendary musicianship, Wu Man’s commitment to cross-cultural communication resonates with the vibrant legacy established by Jack Body, central to our Asia Pacific identity”. It seemed only logical to pass to Wu Man a copy of the book Jack! celebrating composer Jack Body that Steele Roberts generously published, just before we lost our dear friend and colleague in 2015. (That ‘and’ is problematic when talking about Jack. If you were his colleague you were his friend. If you were his friend you were his colleague…perhaps ‘and’ should be ‘equals’).

The programme opened with two solos, traditional pieces for pipa, Flute and Drum Music at Sunset, exquisitely and accurately titled as the percussive effects of this instrument were shown to equal the melodic. White Snow in Spring is a Chinese echo to Le Sacre du Printemps that combined the promise of new season with wild storms demanding sacrifice. Butterfly Love, for pipa and string quartet, used the folk and opera musics from Wu Man’s hometown, Hangzhou. Such practice appealed very much to Chinese composers in 1960 – 1980, and here it was shaped into concerto form. It is by now clear from Wu Man’s playing that the pipa demands virtuosity of the highest order yet can also whisper the quietest secrets.

A movement from Chimaera for violin and pipa, was a lively and adventurous work by Wellington composer Tabea Squire. It was given a spirited introduction and then spunky performance by Monique Lapins together with Wu Man who keeps clarity within a shimmering dexterity. (I’d have been glad to see composition dates included on the otherwise excellent printed programme).

Red Lantern for Pipa and String Quartet was derived from the original score for the film Raise the Red Lantern by composer Zhao Jiping, here adapted by him and his composer-son, Zhao Lin. There were  narrative-cum-poetic moods in its five sections – Prelude moonlight, Wandering, Love, Death, Epilogue. About all there is really.

The second half of the concert opened with the string quartet Eight Colours by Tan Dun, from 1986, which he describes as “almost like a set of brush paintings … with timbre and actual string techniques developed from the Peking Opera… finding in it a way to mingle old materials from my culture with the new …”.

The final work, Concerto for String Quartet and Pipa, again  by Tan Dun,  makes demands of many sorts –  percussive, lyrical, and vocal – of the performers and they rise to and relish that fully. A great deal of rhythmic movement and expressive gesture is delivered so you might say that these musicians are dancing… but they are now seasoned performers sharing the stage with Royal New Zealand ballet dancers, so why not?

In the restored and beautiful St. Mary of the Angels church, the capacity audience gave a standing ovation for a programme of exquisite music from long ago, far away, as well as right now, right here. Radio New Zealand was recording, bless them. Tell me I’m breathless and using too many superlatives. Who cares? It’s the truth.

As I wrote this review Kim Hill was interviewing an inspirational school teacher (I think he later became Dean of Arts at University of Auckland) but basically History and Geography were his classroom subjects.  He’d have loved this concert because those subjects were effectively its theme.

Two pianists: rapport, stamina, poetry at NZSM Adam Concert Room

Lunchtime recital, piano four hands – Jian Liu and Hamish Robb

Te Koki: New Zealand School of Music, in Adam Concert Room at Victoria University

Friday 22 September 2017, lunchtime

Lucky we were to attend this lunchtime concert at New Zealand School of Music. It was luminous in several respects.

Firstly the choice of programme – three works, by Schubert, Hindemith and Debussy.

… with pithy and pertinent verbal introductions by Hamish Robb before each piece. Not every musician has this gift of communication, to wear his learning lightly in talking about composition in a way that makes audience feel drawn in to the work, as active participants in its performance. Two pianists, four hands, many ears.

These two men play with such rapport, stamina, clarity and poetry that we are taken on a journey out and about, round and back to ourselves… then left simply to roar our gratitude. How else can an audience communicate a transcendent experience? Actually there were plenty of smiling and talking audience members lingering for ages afterwards to confirm that it was indeed a shared experience, and that I am not making this up.

Schubert’s  Fantasie in f minor, D940 opens with an allegro molto moderato of clear strength in half the world, with a wistful motif that will return to haunt us.  The largo is next, bringing a gentle sadness … the other half of the world. Well, there is life and there is death, and stuff in between, this we all know. The scherzo, action-station, journeys out to do what has to be done. The finale confirms that although these movements are distinct in contrasting moods, and were set in 1828,  they are also tightly bound together so that the nigh-20 minute composition plays out as one, today. It seemed a kind of testament, albeit almost 200 years later, to what’s still out there. ( I had spent two days and nights of agonized waiting for news of family in Mexico. This music was a dreamed report from the field).

Then the Hindemith Sonata for four hands. What is consonant, what is dissonant? It’s Germany 1938.  I had really only known Hindemith as composer of Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadisches Ballett, and that remains a striking piece  of 20th century dance history if ever there was one… oh, and the memory that our daughter who as a college student had played the Eight Pieces for flute in an exam – scoring honours for that (but failing in the Scales section as she didn’t realize — read, couldn’t believe — that you also had to play scales). I remember a crispness, an unpredictability, a weightlessness to that music.  Something distilled.

Debussy’s Petite Suite – in four movements that again scope the options of the ways we are in the world. En bateau – no-one composes the sea like Debussy. Cortège, a progressing, then Menuet : moderato. I’ve never known a menuet like it … calm and courteous, as any menuet would be, a friendship between two people … then whacko, a post-modern middle bit that goes awol, cats are dancing, this ain’t no menuet any more, lawks however will this end? Eventually they move back to the danse-a-deux, and safely home from a risky encounter. Then to the final movement, Ballet : Allegro giusto – and what a waltz, the world whirling in triple time, heartbeat rhythm, so it’s “yes to everything” though nothing mindless in saying / playing that.

I was aware that Debussy  knew a great deal about dance, and intuited even more …   (Nijinksy knew that too, so his Après Midi d’un Faune , to Debussy, remains one of the finest entwinings of the two-arts-into-one that we have, and the only surviving work of that output of choreographic genius we have let slip away, to our eternal loss).

This was a free lunch-time concert, all praise to Te Koki – New Zealand School of Music. Furthermore it was demonstration of civilized co-operation between two gun pianists who, in other times and places, might behave as rival colleagues — here instead they share a keyboard. Politicians should have been there.

The day before, I had attended, because a grandmother would, a school concert to hear a granddaughter play her small cello in the little orchestra. Afterwards the Principal of the school spoke to performers and audience alike, reminding us that the two things that matter most in the world are Music and Family – ( then he added Dance, since a row of keen kids had performed the cancan to one of their schoolmates’ items. Phew, that was lucky, I thought). All told and on balance, I had a very good week.

It is such an infectious affair to hear musicians performing so absolutely at the top of their game, and communicating their own immense pleasure in doing so.  It transfers to a mood of hope that people can help people, that elections within a democracy can work, more or less, that there are worthwhile things to say to children, and that daylight saving means there’s not one hour to waste in whatever we consider important. Do it.

The recital could well be repeated but by the time this review is published both pianists will have played half a dozen more programmes — they were at The Third Eye that same night …  soon leaving for China … allegro ma non troppo,  vivace, con brio. Godspeed. Safe travel. Happy returns. And I am grateful that there’s a website to whom I can offer a retrospective review.

Inspirare vocal ensemble carves unique niche with music of very contemporary resonance: a full house for peace

Symmetry – Conflict and Resolution

Inspirare choir, with Wellington College Chorale.   Director, Mark Stamper

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 13 August 2017, 6:30 pm

On the programme cover for this unusual concert, there’s an image of a white dove struggling to take off in flight, in search of peace. It’s not soaring yet, still having trouble with its wings, in a telling metaphor for the concert’s theme of conflict & resolution, war & peace.  A commentary, delivered by David Morriss,  links each of the 17 songs to aspects of the endless cycle in history of recurring conflicts leading to inevitable wars. His reference to the insanely dangerous sabre-rattling between leaders of USA and North Korea presented daily to us, sharpened that theme. Would that the politicians in question had been at the concert.

Some of the city’s finest singers are in this choir – smallish in number (27 singers) but strong in voice, all with an obvious commitment to the vision of its director, Mark Stamper. It has been his practice to invite ensembles of young musicians with whom  he also works, to join Inspirare in concert – this time, it was Wellington College Chorale, and there are also guest accompanists, aside from the principal accompanist, Rachel Thomson.

It is a considerable achievement to assemble a range of songs from quite disparate sources and to sequence them so they belong together. Some songs we know well, others not at all – That which remains, by Andrea Ramsay to a text by Helen Keller;  Yo le Canto, by David Brunner, with flamenco-like clapping rhythms delivered with admirable skill by the Wellington College Chorale.

Elgar’s Lux Aeterna was soaring and soft by turns; Soldier Boy, set by John Milne to the poem by Siegfried Sassoon, featured a poignant solo by Richard Taylor. A haunting setting by Mark Hayes of Danny Boy had a soft swell of flute accompaniment by Rebecca Steel; the spirited Invocation and Dance used lively percussion from Jacob Randall and James Fuller.  Homeland, after Holst, arranged by Randall Stroope, featured trumpet evocatively played by Michael Taylor from the choir loft, and carried some stunning vocal cadences, as also did the following For the Fallen by Mike Stammes.

Across the Bridge of Hope, by Jan Sandström, had an exquisite solo sung by Rowena Simpson, highlighting the grief for a 12 year old boy killed in the Armagh bombing. ”Orange and green does not matter now…”   Indeed. Don’t even think about the songs we’ll be singing if nuclear war ever erupts. None I should think.

All Works of Love set a poem by Mother Teresa; a Quaker prayer became The Tree of Peace – with flute and trumpet, brother and sister, whispering and listening.  The final song, We shall Walk through the Valley in Peace, ended a sensitively crafted concert from a choir that produces beautiful sounds within an impressive dynamic range.  It is carving a unique niche for itself in Wellington. The full audience was clearly engaged, and will no doubt be looking to the next concert by Inspirare, on 5 November, The Cycle of Life, with guests BlueNotes from Tawa College.



Kindred Spirits indeed – Nota Bene and Guests at Sacred Heart Cathedral

Kindred Spirits: Nota Bene Chamber Choir and guests
Peter Walls (conductor)

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill St., Wellington

Sunday 7 May, 2017

The choral concert, ‘Kindred Spirits’, by Nota Bene Chamber Choir and guests, was a luminous and lovely affair. The themed programme juxtaposed compositions of Benjamin Britten and Jack Body, offering more substance than a ‘regular’ concert might, the sum more than its parts. The acoustic in this light-filled space is clear and clean, and enterprising use was made of different areas in the church. Good sightlines make it a most attractive and comfortable concert venue and the capacity audience could tell they were in for a good time.

Peter Walls in an interview with Eva Radich on Upbeat (worth listening to on RNZ archive) gave background to his idea that these two composers could indeed be seen as kindred spirits, sharing musical sensibilities, as well as similar concerns … including pacifism, an appreciation of the music in other cultures especially Indonesia, and an empathy for those struggling in different times and places for their society’s acceptance of homosexuality.

The opening work, a traditional Macapat sung by Budi Putra, director of the Gamelan Padhang Moncar of VUW, was delivered in the rich and astonishingly resonant voice that Putra has long been recognized for. The violin of Tristan Carter danced a bridge between music worlds.

Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin, with its ascetic clarity, was followed by Body’s Carol to St.Stephen. The voice of the itinerant soprano seems to arrive through stained glass windows around the church, and Jeltsje Keizer delivered that beautifully. (Some of us remember Marilyn Waring in the premiere of this work 1976, in St. Peters Church in Willis St. There is much in Wellington’s music history to hold dear).

Lesley Graham sang ‘S’un casto amor, s’una pieta superna’ an excerpt from Body’s Love Sonnets of Michelangelo ( from the 1976 season Between Two Fires, choreographed by Michael Parmenter, another work that has remained etched in the memory). This was followed by Britten’s setting of the same poetic text. Both composers had also written a Hymn to St. Cecilia – and in the Body work, Daisy Venables, newcomer to the choir, revealed a voice of heavenly quality.

During the interval many expressed regret at the absence of recording microphones from such an engaging concert which could surely have been broadcast to an appreciative national audience? Lucky we were to be there in person.

Wellington Young Voices, over 30 young singers directed by Christine Argyle (founding director of Nota Bene) sang Britten’s Psalm 150 with spirited and sweet sounds, and later This little babe from his A Ceremony of Carols. This choir is brimming with talent and enthusiasm to give us much to look forward to.

Gamelan Padhang Moncar played Jack Body’s So Short the life – a lively, lovely, poignant piece, being played close to the second anniversary of the death of this much loved composer. ‘Vita brevis’ indeed, but ‘ars longa’. The gamelan instruments produce familiar sounds yet are played without the intensity of interlocking patterns of the traditional gamelan music we are accustomed to hearing – as though voices from the past join the players, and a microphone involved as a musical instrument helps carry the sound towards the future. A remarkable composition.

Finally Jack Body’s People Look East, based on the ecstatic poem and melody by Eleanor Farjeon, sent out a joyful clarion that made fitting finale to an inspired and inspiring concert.

Peter Walls had had a good idea, followed it through, and all the performers did the occasion proud. The chance we had to contemplate echoes, contrasts and parallels in works from two stunning composers is one that will not easily be forgotten.