Conductor Han-Na-Chang’s NZSO debut in music by Leonie Holmes, Richard Strauss and Pyotr Tchaikovsky

Conductor Han-Na Chang scores with her NZSO debut in music by Leonie Holmes, Richard Strauss and Pyotr Tchaikovsky

LEONIE HOLMES – I watched a shadow*
RICHARD STRAUSS – Don Quixote
(with Andrew Joyce, ‘cello, and Julia Joyce, viola)
PYOTR TCHAIKOVSKY – Symphony No. 5 in E Minor Op.64

Han-Na Chang (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
(Vesa-Matti Leppanen, concertmaster)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 18th May, 2024

I’m probably risking accusations of inverted sexism in drawing special attention in this review to the gender of the conductor on the occasion of this concert! – I solemnly do promise never to underline any such point again, but, after living through the tail-end of the age which regarded the role of orchestra conductor as a male bastion, and not ever having actually used the words “end of an era” to underline what has obviously been a change of things, I feel like “coming out” and hailing as such the appearance of South Korean Han-Na Chang on the NZSO’s podium as a guest conductor as signifying, in a local context, a real milestone.

I say these things having watched a number of women over the years mount the podium to direct the orchestra – conductors from overseas such as Dalia Atlas, Jane Glover, Odaline de la Martinez, Simone Young and Suzanna Malkki, and more recently, homegrown talents such as Holly Mathieson, Tianyi Lu and Gemma New, the latter having been appointed the orchestra’s Principal Conductor in 2022.  So, if women are of late no strangers to the conductor’s role here in New Zealand with the country’s leading orchestra, what was it about Han-Na Chang’s appearance that constituted something special?

The difference for me was that, unlike with the names mentioned above, Han-Na Chang’s was one completely unknown to me, as have been the names of many of the NZSO’s guest conductors of recent times. She is a fully-qualitied representative of a wider world of music-making which we in this country can only guess at regarding its range and scope , but can experience through the tried-and-true “guest conductor” system, one in which gender seems no longer an issue!

As with any unknown podium guest, the question “What will she be like?” was on the lips of anybody “not in the know”, as the diminutive Han-Na Chang made her entry and mounted the podium. First up in the programme was a local work by the highly-respected Auckland composer Leonie Holmes, one which had received its world premiere the night before in Auckland and was now making its Wellington debut. For a guest conductor to make her NZSO debut with a premiere of a work by a local composer seemed like a boldly positive and forthright gesture, and certainly one which gave Leonie Holmes’s composition I watched a shadow plenty of added interest.

The programme note for this new work contained the words of the poem by Wellingtonian Anne Powell which inspired Holmes’s music, a meditation on the world of nature’s ebb and flow encapsulated in a single crepuscular-like event, a hill embraced by its own shadow. The sounds took the form of an orchestral rhapsody, beginning with a percussive splash and slowly building an austere soundscape, grounded in string-texturings but with waves of contrastingly-flavoured disturbances, like a kind of gradual oceanic movement enlivened by wind-and-brass irruptions.

The work’s central part animated the discourse with pizzicato strings, wind roulades and atmospheric brass touches, expressing something of the variety of nature-impulse described by the poet’s words as “the hum of the universe”, but with bell-sounds, “knell-like” warnings growing a heavy, ominous tread. Though this trenchant mood was relieved, the sounds reformed with fresh impulse, building excitingly towards a great climax with surges of percussion, leaving us wondering at the ambivalence of what we’d heard. Rather like some of Sibelius’s music, Holmes’ work here seemed relatively unpeopled, our own existence’s fate of little account to these dispassionate comings-and-goings. Whatever the case, all was rendered here as committedly by conductor and players as one might imagine posssible.

From natural attrition we proceeded to a world of fantasy, foolishness and nobility, in the form of Richard Strauss’s tone-poem Don Quixote, a musical realisation of aspects of Miguel de Cervantes’ classic 17th-century novel. Strauss cast his deluded picaresque hero, the Don, as a solo ‘cello, and his down-to-earth squire, Sancho Panza by a solo viola, the ensuing dialogues and soliloquies an absolute delight for the listener, as were the colourful orchestral depictions of some of the Don’s adventures. Strauss here flew in the critical face of those conservative commentators of the time who derided what they called “programme music” by elevating the genre at its best to heights of expression and technique surpassed by no-one before or since, with Don Quixote having long been considered the greatest of his works of this kind.

As the two main protagonists, the husband-and-wife team of cellist Andrew Joyce and violist Julia Joyce gave what I thought were vivid portrayals of their respective characters, the former capturing all the would-be knight’s delusional expressions of chivalrous glory as well as his touching final realisations of mortality, and the latter steadfastedly affirming the squire’s support for his master with wryly matter-of-fact observances. Conductor Han-Na Chung’s control of the orchestra throughout the work was masterly, the detailing richly-informed and the overall sweep of certain moments no less than breathtaking! I shall particularly cherish the image of the wind-machine player “giving his all” at the rear of the orchestra during the work’s notorious “flying horse” sequence!

And so to what seemed like the concert’s readily-publicised “raison d’etre”, the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony, a work not lacking in performance history in this part of the world, but despite such popularity, one with the kind of resilience that instantly responds to a “fresh-as-paint” approach from its interpreters. Which is just what Han-Na-Chang conveyed, right from the opening Andante’s portentous clarinet phrases and ever-resonating string accompaniments (I couldn’t see the player from where I was sitting but I presumed the clarinettist was the ever-reliable Patrick Barry!)

What I particularly enjoyed was Chang’s direct and unsentimental approach throughout the work, never pulling about or unduly elongating lines or phrase-ends in search of “expression” when the composer had already ensured sufficient feeling would be generated by playing what was marked – so there was no “swooning” in the strings when the second subject of the opening movement’s allegro arrived, and no accelerando extremities needed to get back up to speed for the movement’s basic tempo, Chang keeping the music’s blood-pulses from ever becalming and losing their trajectories.

The slow movement, one of Tchaikovsky’s greatest symphonic achievements, here also benefited from Chang’s steadiness, particularly with the pizzicato notes that followed the appearance of the motto theme mid-movement – the octave-pizzicato was “in tempo” from its first entrance, rather than being vulgarly “sped up’ and then awkwardly slowed once more, evidence of our conductor’s “tidy mind” and care for musical structure. Oh, and Sam Jacobs’ magical horn solo in this movement deservedly earned him an ovation of his own at the symphony’s end.

The ever-enchanting Waltz with its gorgeous balletic scherzando character throughout the middle section led straight into the Finale, a fulsome major-key motto-theme at the start, and properly “warning” tones from the brasses, just before the great timpani roll that ignited the strings’ allegro vivace entry. I wondered whether there was a brief rhythmic hiccup between strings , brass and timpani during the maelstrom-like passage that preceded the entry of the winds with their long-held-note melody, but perhaps I was mistaken amidst the super-saturations of sound at that point  – and in the comparable passage later in the movement, I heard no hint of misalignment! What was thrilling was the almost visceral stamping rhythm of the strings throughout these “Russian dance” episodes and the rapidity of the brasses’ stuttering notes pushing the music’s trajectories along so (literally!) breathlessly, in places! The swaggering motto-march-theme at the end seemed to gather up all that had gone before and fill the hall’s overhead spaces with exuberances, capped only by the frenetic energies of the coda, and its march-like codicil at the very end!

Very great credit to all concerned, and especially to conductor Han-Na Chang for an auspicious debut, one which was instsntly and generously acknowledged at the concert’s end by a delighted, near-capacity Michael Fowler Centre audience.

 

New Zealand String Quartet – Soundscapes 2024 – and all good wishes to Monique Lapins

The New Zealand String Quartet presents:
NZSQ SOUNDSCAPES

CLAIRE COWAN – Celestia-Terralia
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH – String Quartet No. 14
DEBUSSY – String Quartet

Helene Pohl (violin, leader), Monique Lapins (violin),
Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

MOZART- String Quintet in B-flat K.174 Finale
(with Peter Clark, violin, and Monique Lapins, viola)

St.Mary-of-the-Angels Church,
Boulcott St., Wellington

Wednesday 15th May 2024

What a beautiful venue for a concert! St. Mary of the Angels Church in Wellington has played host to the New ZeaIand String Quartet on numerous occasions over the years; and while I’ve found that a seat near the front works ideally well in terms of the music-making’s clarity, there’s also an attractive bloom to the sound which conveys something of the character of the surroundings in truly memorable fashion. And if for whatever reason one arrives with little time to spare and is relegated to a place further from the performers than one would like, then there are both visual and sonic compensations for the proportionate diminution of absolute clarity, even if the sounds which can still reach beyond the heart of the nave are best made by choral voices or the solo organ!

Fortunately I was able to get a seat near the front, close enough to even make out the welcoming remarks of Aislinn Ryan, the Quartet’s general manager, here deprived of a sonorously amplified voice by a vagrant microphone, but still managing to convey suitably heartfelt greetings to all of us. The pre-concert publicity had already alerted most of us present to the occasion’s most piquant feature, this being one of second violinist Monique Lapins’ final appearances with the Quartet after eight years of membership before moving on to other artistic ventures, and the introduction of her replacement, Peter Clark, via a ”special item” at the concert’s end – so the event had a distinction of its own to add on that score.

A programme had been chosen to reflect the Quartet’s wide-ranging strands of musical activity within its particular genre, including a contemporary New Zealand work. a string quartet classic and a mainstay of twentieth-century quartet-writing – and though any from the classical “triumvirate” of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven weren’t included in this survey, amends were made by the inclusion of the “Peter Clark introductory piece” at the concert’s end, more of which to come.

Auckland composer Claire Cowan’s music for me never fails to strike sparks with each encounter; and I was grateful to the NZSQ for giving me the chance to catch up with one of her latest pieces, the visionary “Celestia-Terralia”, a kind of meditation for string quartet on the relationship of our world to the vistas of space through which we ceaselessly move, stunningly rendered in sonic terms by this other-worldly exploration of life’s extremes.

In their introduction to the work the players mentioned the composer’s initial fascination with the historic 1957 Russian space probe that sent a live dog into space to orbit the earth, a venture which was then motivated as much by political gain as scientific advancement in what had become a “space race” between the USSR and the USA. (The dog, who was known as “Laika”, actually made several orbits of the earth, but within a few hours sadly died as a result of overheating in the spacecraft.)

At the beginning the sounds presented a kind of technological minimalist character of beeps, blips and other kinds of warning signals, setting up a tangibly propulsive character that suggested some kind of voyage, with an occasional legato-like phrase that could have signified a rather more living, organic presence! These chattering pulses then became wave-like motions, the harmonic-like timbres intensifying a hypnotic other-worldly effect. Again the trajectories suddenly changed, reverting to the opening figures but occasionally breaking without warning into almost “square-dancing quatrains”, everything scampering onwards until the music’s energies finally seemed to ‘cut adrift” and float, punctuated by huge viola-drops of sound and scampering ‘cello-pizzicati mutterings – from then on, the piece with its extraordinarily spacious harmonies took on an elegiac and trance-like character with an intense, austere beauty, haunted by an underlying sense of loss…..

Somewhat more earthly than all of this, but in no sense less epic or emotionally far-reaching was the programme’s next item, Shostakovich’s Fourteenth String Quartet, dedicated by the composer to the cellist, Sergei Shirinsky, a member of the Beethoven Quartet, the ensemble that gave the premiere performances of all but the first and last of Shostakovich’s fifteen quartets. It was the last of a set of four quartets (Nos 11-14) each of which was dedicated to a member of the ensemble, in this case featuring the ’cello in a pivotal role throughout.

After a kind of “Once upon a time” introduction by the viola, the cello took the music’s reins and brought in a droll playfulness, realised here with gusto by Rolf Gjelsten, and taken up by the violins, the music’s characterisations here physically enhanced by three of the group’s “standing to play”, an NZSQ trademark I’ve always relished! Throughout, the two violins gladly followed the cello’s dance-like framework, but as well occasionally pushed their timbres into agitato mode, goading “cello and viola into responsive bouts of the same – but then I loved Gillian Ansell’s viola impassioned “reading of the riot act” solo which prompted both cello and violins to take up the dancing playfulness once more! And with what eloquence did the cello here combine recitative and dance with which to gather up its companions for some jogtrot concordance at the movement’s end!

Helene Pohl’s beautiful violin solo began the second movement, supported by her colleagues and encouraged to extend the instrument’s reverie as well as beautifully descanting the cello’s entry, furthering what had become something of an extended duo for the pair, piquantly decorated by tender pizzicato from second violin and viola! When all four finally joined bowed forces again it was Monique Lapins’ instrument’s turn to shine, further in keeping with the dark beauties of what we had heard thus far in this deeply-felt movement. After further musings from the first violin, a pizzicato passage suddenly became animated (sounding the notes which spell the affectionate form of the name of the work’s dedicatee, “Seryozha” (for Sergei Shirinsky) and the Allegretto was thus made to spring almost miraculously from these relatively comatose soundscapes!

Suddenly here were raw, stridently burgeoning utterances being tossed around between the instruments rather like a twelve-tone exercise with “attitude”, searing and sharp-edged, variously in stepwise, triplet and running aspect before subsiding, the cello quietly quoting the opening of Katerina’s aria “Seryozha, khoroshiy moy” from Act 4 of the composer’s opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, and both second and first violins ruminating over their exhausting troubles! After all this had run its course, how blessed were those calmly stoic concluding phrases! What a work and what a performance!

This left still another quartet masterpiece to work its spell upon our sensibilities (a cup that runneth over!) – in our somewhat fraught state as listeners by this time (in the wake of the Shostakovich work) I felt it would be such a joy to relish a piece of music whose qualities put one in mind of those piano concertos referred to by Mozart in a letter to his father as “works that both connoisseurs and ordinary people would equally enjoy, the former because they would both delight in and understand the music’s many felicities, and the latter because they would enjoy the music equally well, but without fully knowing why!” I was certainly anticipating the full tactile enjoyment of Debussy’s sound-world in his only String Quartet and certainly wasn’t disappointed!

What arresting contrasts we were straightaway presented with in this performance by the point and focus of the opening phrases of the work and the subsequent swirling masses of finely-crafted diaphanous detailing which followed! My proximity to the quartet enabled me to appreciate as much the beautifully ambient support of the middle voices surrounding the principle lines, whatever their source. The players all “sounded” detail in marvellously pliant and spontaneous tones, everything seeming naturally analogue and organic, as if we were all swimming irresistibly through the conduits of a living organism, with sounds seeming to coalesce and dissolve at will, culminating in a wonderfully fashioned-on-the-spot unison!

Just as beguiling at the scherzo’s beginning were the plethora of pizzicato which tumbled over one another with what seemed like infectious delight at the cross-rhythms and their interaction, then contrasting these pin-point accuracies with ear-catching “whisperings’, mere slivers and shavings of tone swept into almost ghostly unanimities punctuated with sforzandi and echoes of uncanny laughter at the insouciance of it all. The third movement, Andatino, doucement expressif, began with a brief solo from Monique Lapins, its beauty uncannily replicated by Gillian Ansell’s viola, all with gorgeously recessed muted tones and played “con amore”. How disarming it feels when hearing such music played with the kind of absorption that “unlocks” an impulse or memory one knows without being able to name! The beautiful viola-playing and the accompanying modal-like chordings here put me in mind of Vaughan Williams’ music for similar forces, the flow of emotion as spontaneous as was its hushed recession at the end….

As for the finale, we enjoyed its wistful launching by the ‘cello into a drifting, peripatetic world, whose sounds seemed inclined towards melting and merging, rather than forward movement – but the players then insinuated, goaded and eventually tumbled the music into vigorous trajectories with its unashamed Cesar Franck-like repetitions, regaling us with oceans of ebb-and-flow before plunging into the return of the work’s opening theme – such a full-blooded and attention-grabbing moment! It seemed by this time we were so transported that, when brought to us by a precipitate coda, Helene Pohl’s final violin ascent to those final chords was both thrilling and tinged with regret on our part that there suddenly wasn’t any more! And what more could one ask of a performance?

I mentioned earlier the exclusion of any music by the accepted “string quartet triumvirate” of composers in the concert – but there was actually a scheduled “extra” piece which in terms of musical content almost compensated entirely for the neglect – this was a movement from one of Mozart’s String Quintets, chosen by the Quartet to feature both the group’s departee, Monique Lapins, and the newcomer, Peter Clark, thereby merging the bitter-sweet process of farewelling and welcoming into a musically-satisfying whole. So there actually WAS some more after the Debussy, the finale of Mozart’s String Quintet in B-flat K.174, played by the ensemble with all of the spirit, feeling and skill of execution that one might expect from these players and within their “moment in time”. The NZSQ has a few of these concerts left in various venues around the country – anybody within coo-ee of any of these occasions would be well-advised on several counts to enjoy what many of us obviously regarded as a very special event.

It remains to say “Vale, Monique Lapins! – Waimarie pai! It has been an honour!”

An exuberant ‘Cello-and-Piano concert from Robert Ibell and Rachel Thomson

Wellington Chamber Music presents:
Robert Ibell (‘cello) and Rachel Thomson (piano)

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN – Sonata for Piano & Cello in D major, Op 102 No 2
LEOŠ JANÁČEK – Pohádka (Fairytale)
CLAUDE DEBUSSY – Sonata for Cello & Piano
ALEX TAYLOR – Four Little Pieces
ZOLTÁN KODÁLY – Sonata for Cello & Piano Op 4
ROBERT SCHUMANN – Fantasy Pieces Op 73

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington
Sunday, 12th May, 2024

I confess to being tempted to describe this as a well-nigh perfect programme at the concert’s conclusion, except that such fulsome statements are obviously subjective, and have a well-used ring about them when applied to any such compilations, let alone of the “reviewing” kind!

Let me say instead that I found the programme extraordinarily satisfying as such – and this is not to mention the commitment and skill with which the two musicians involved brought to the occasion, though they would obviously have influenced such a judgement.

A reliable measure of the impact made upon audience sensibilities at any concert is the degree of animated conversation that follows the applause – and I found myself almost straightaway afterwards talking with each of my neighbours in turn seated on either side (neither of whom I knew at all, beforehand!), with all of us eager to convey how much we had enjoyed this and that and wanting the other’s response to the same. So, this concert certainly passed the “animated audience response” test with flying colours!

One of the pieces was completely new to me (Alex Taylor’s Four Little Pieces), and another two I’d had to familiarize myself with by finding recordings before going to the concert (Leoš Janáček’s Pohádka (Fairytale) and Zoltán Kodály’s Sonata for Cello & Piano Op 4) – all of which put me in a kind of half-and-half “knew/didn’t know” situation regarding the content, the kind of thing that can put one on one’s mettle as a listener good and proper! I was lucky that I didn’t find myself “overwhelmed” by too many new things – it gave my ears different things to do with the two halves of the programme!

First up was the Beethoven, the fifth and last of the composer’s ‘Cello Sonatas, works that revolutionised the repertoire for the instrument by completely reworking the relationship between cello and keyboard – previously a mere supporting instrument in any ensemble, here the ‘cello was clearly made an equal partner with the piano. Though the two early Op.5 Sonatas were still described as “with a violincello obbligato” the cello parts were through-composed, each having its own voice, something never before attempted. Beethoven was to give the new form its fully-fledged status in the two Op.102 Sonatas.

Rachel Thomson exuberantly sounded the opening piano figure, beginning the lovely give-and-take exchanges that characterised this movement, with its charming contrasts between lyrical expression and forthright con brio manner. Both players observed a judicious balance between the two instruments, with Robert Ibell’s tones readily encompassing the forthright and more lyrical aspects of the music’s lines. The players fully realised the opening solemnity of the central Adagio, the sounds “breathing” as if shared by a single instrument, the con molto sentiment d’affeto direction allowing plenty of expressive freedom, such as in the transitions which moved the music between different intensities – especially lovely! Which of course, made the concluding fugue Allegro even more fun, not so much a narrative as an encapsulation of changing moods, spontaneous and visceral in places, quixotic and playful in others – all so masterful, and all thrown off here with such elan and delight!

Next came a different century’s version of individuality from another master, Leoš Janáček, with his three-movement work for ‘cello and piano Pohádka (Fairytale), a work Janáček, a staunch Russophile, based on a story from a poem by Vasily Zhukovsky which was inspired by Russian folk-lore. Rachel Thomson both enlightened and amused us by reading a droll synopsis beforehand of the work’s original story, written as a programme note by the great cellist Steven Isserlis for one of his concerts.

In three movements, the music tells of the young Tsarevich Prince Ivan and his love for the daughter of Kashchei, the King of the Underworld, the tribulations of the lovers as their plans are seemingly thwarted by magic, and their eventual release from the spell and their eventual happy union. Janáček’s settings are more atmospheric and scene-based than actual narratives, the bardic-like exchanges between piano recitative and ‘cello pizzicato at the very beginning instantly creating a fairy-tale ambience, one in which the urgencies here gradually overwhelmed the music’s lyricism and took hold via driving ostinati as the fearsome underworld King Kashchei pursued the fleeing lovers.

The second movement’s exchanges similarly reflected the hopes and fears of the beleaguered pair, rather than presenting any of the story’s specifics – both Ibell’s cello pizzicato motif and Thomson’s more rhapsodic piano lines vividly “grew” tensions and agitations constantly at the mercy of the fates, eventually reaching a concluding point of suspended unease with a single, resigned piano figure. The finale straightaway had the musicians steadfastedly generating a dancing figure, hopeful, occasionally tinged with anxieties, but eventually subsiding in a kind of glow of contentment, leaving us with the feeling that true love here had actually “made it” over the lovers’ troubles.

Concluding a first half of unfailingly well-wrought musical utterance was Claude Debussy’s 1915 Sonata for ‘Cello and Piano. The composer was determined to celebrate all things French, and especially so at the time of the work’s composition (1915) with the idea to the fore that, in the composer’s words “not even 30 million “boches” can destroy French thought”. The opening Prologue’s introductory piano fanfare, answered by an ardent ‘cello theme, straightaway affirmed the musicians’ commitment to the music’s sound-world, here, with beautiful, wistful exchanges gradually building up archways in places to the composer’s own La Cathedral Engloutie-like sonorities, before the sounds plaintively retreated, leaving in the memory a lovely harmonic-like note from the ‘cello at the end.

If the composer’s earlier solo piano Prelude La serenade interrompue had portrayed something of a thwarted endeavour, this Serenade seemed to engender nothing less than a complete train wreck! Debussy himself strongly objected to one of his interpreters interpolating a commentary characterising the well-known commedia dell’arte character Pierrot in this work, even if the music seems to lend itself to such a programme – the wonderfully quirky and volatile exchanges between the instruments right from the outset pinged our sensibilities and clattered through our receptive chambers! – all so quirky and volatile, with sound-trajectories whose impulses didn’t last, whether pizzicato or arco, staccato or legato, a veritable orgy of indecision or caprice, with only the work’s finale coming to the rescue by breaking the impasse!

After such chronic demarcations of expression the finale here seemed at first to burst out of the music’s shell and flood St.Andrews’s sound vistas with uninhibited energies, the folkish dance melody whirling its notations up and down to great effect. There were still more reflective moments in which one might imagine the by then sick and disillusioned composer feeling he had given his all and venting such inclinations, places where Ibell’s and Thomson’s instruments seemed to, by turns, inwardly lament and even momentarily cry out – but having made such points the players returned the music in rondo-like fashion to the opening dance-like energies, before delivering, in no uncertain terms the work’s final gesture, to suitably appreciative effect among their audience!

Alex Taylor’s highly diverting collection of miniature pieces which began the second half seemed almost over before it had started, as we had very little idea how to differentiate the pieces’ separate characters, especially with each having a German title which one might have worked out without translation given time, but had then been moved along more quickly than did one’s brain! (I “got” the first three titles, I think, but was beaten to the finish-line by the final “rasch”) – so that understanding came hand-in-hand only with the moment when both players leapt to their feet having played the whole set without any discernable breaks! Still, they provided great entertainment.

By contrast, Zoltán Kodály’s Op.4 Sonata which followed drew us into a spacious and meditative sound-world. Originally in three movements, the work was deprived of its original opening by the composer who felt dissatisfied with both his first and yet another, later attempt at an opening, so the sonata was left in its two-movement form. While the beautiful opening ‘cello solo does engender a “slow movement” kind of feeling, it makes a magical opening for a work whose character suggests both the composer’s folk-music researches and the influence of Debussy in its impressionistic colourings. Throughout Ibell and Thomson spun a truly atmospheric dialogue of interchange via the music’s leading/accompanying figures and distinctive instrumental timbres.

The second movement’s spirited folk-dance-like beginning delighted us with its contrasts and volatility, with Rachel Thomson’s fingers all over the keyboard in places, ideally matching Robert Ibell’s trenchant attack and command of dynamic variation – playing which seemed to encompass fully the music’s “no holds barred” expression, as full blooded in places as it was piquant and wistful at the piece’s end – for most of us, a real “discovery”!

More familiar fare was the programme’s last item, the warm-hearted Schumann Fantasy Pieces Op. 73, given here as if it was all second nature to these musicians – everything flowed under their hands with an inevitability the composer would have surely accepted with gratitude and approval. Originally written for clarinet with piano, these pieces eminently suited the darker tones of the ‘cello, and its arguably greater expressive range of colour (note: check to see how many clarinettists are on my Christmas card list!). I particularly loved the last piece’s “accelerated exuberance” with the composer urging the musicians to play faster and faster at the end! We loved it, and I took away from the concert most resoundingly a remark from a friend who delightedly greeted me on the way out with the words, “Golly! -wasn’t that Kodaly really something!” I couldn’t have agreed more…..

Orchestra Wellington’s “The Grand Gesture” presentation casts its spell

Orchestra Wellington presents:
THE GRAND GESTURE – a reflection of music and art of the Baroque era

IGOR STRAVINSKY – Suite from the Ballet “Pulcinella”
JOHANN SEBASTIEN BACH – Concerto for two Violins and Orchestra in D Minor BWV 1043
GEORGE FRIDERICH HANDEL – Concerto Grosso Op.6 No.12 in B Minor
LUKAS FOSS – Baroque Variations (1967)

Amalia Hall (violin)
Monique Lapins (violin)
Jonathan Berkahn (harpsichord)
Orchestra Wellington (Concertmaster – Justine Cormack)
Marc Taddei – Conductor

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 4th May, 2024

On this occasion I couldn’t get to the usual pre-concert presentation which can so rewardingly illuminate what’s about to be presented in the concert – I arrived to catch only the final stages, and caught some musical excerpts from the oncoming concert played in the foyer by members of The Queen’s Closet for the audience’s pleasure and delight. It was obviously enough to whet appetites of even those like myself who were standing at the back, probably feeling a bit like those “Gentlemen of England now abed (who) shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here!”

A few empty seats on the fringes of the downstairs auditorium apart, the concert appeared well-attended, and the mood expectant – as is the usual wont with any Orchestra Wellington concert these days, thanks to the sterling efforts of the players and maestro Marc Taddei in obviously putting body and soul into their presentations, and bringing to life even what might seem at times like somewhat intractable material!

Tonight’s presentation title “The Grand Gesture” set out to demonstrate some of the continuing resonances of the work of composers from the Baroque era – if not for our present specific time, certainly of living memory for some in the case of the work of German-born American composer and conductor Lucas Foss, and delightfully so regarding a neo-classical response from twentieth-century giant Igor Stravinsky to the music supposedly the work of a contemporary of Bach, Handel and Scarlatti, one Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-36), more of which circumstance below.

A good deal of thought had obviously gone into the concert’s structure (a valued characteristic of this Orchestra’s work), including what were some unscheduled appearances of musicians playing what appeared to be on “first take” simply further examples of memorable and enduring Baroque music – thus to begin the concert we were treated to a dream-like vignette of violinist Amalia Hall spotlit amid the darkness and high up on the stage platform giving us a stellar performance of the Prelude to JS Bach’s Violin Partita in E Major that transported all of us to our own “other” places for its duration, and for some time afterwards.

Then came the Stravinsky all splendidly articulated, robustly trajectoried and beautifully-voiced throughout. The original “Pulcinella” ballet had its genesis in an idea by the great impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who wanted a work based on the long-established Italian theatre tradition of “commedia dell’arte”, one that used age-old characters wearing masks, “types” such as foolish old men, wanton courtesans, devious servants, and jesters or clowns – a well-known type of the latter was Harlequin, who became the “Pulcinella” of Diaghilev’s scheme.

At that time, the music Diaghilev gave to Stravinsky was believed to have been by Pergolesi (Stravinsky regarded his contact with this music as “a love affair” with the older composer), but much of it has subsequently proved to have been the work of others. In Stravinsky’s original ballet, the vocal sections of the score were based on songs genuinely by Pergolesi which Diaghilev had found, but the purely orchestral music used by Stravinsky from the suite we heard tonight was all adapted from the works of different composers, names otherwise unknown to history – Gallo, van Wassenaer, Monza and Parisotti.

Such an “inconvenient truth” hasn’t been allowed to get in the way of anybody’s enjoyment of what Stravinsky did with this music, who added to the original themes his own twentieth-century harmonies, cadences and rhythms, producing a suitably light-textured and nimble-footed score which served Diaghilev’s purposes admirably. The suite which the composer extracted from the ballet was written in 1922, two years after the ballet’s first performance, and uses eight of the latter’s original twenty movements.

Though Stravinsky took pains to reproduce in Pulcinella something of the reduced orchestral forces of earlier times, there were certain touches that “advanced” the musical language beyond the scope of eighteenth-century practice, mainly found in the “Vivo” movement towards the Suite’s end, such as the use of the solo trombone and double-bass with their “glissando” passages. I’ve always loved this Suite, and Marc Taddei’s and Orchestra Wellington’s performance was, I thought, musically engaging, stylistically evocative and technically outstanding!

Next came what for many would have been the “jewel” of the evening’s presentations, the adorable D Minor Double Violin Concerto of JS Bach, and with two soloists whose performances I wouldn’t imagine being bettered anywhere – Amalia Hall, the usual concertmaster of Orchestra Wellington, but a frequent concerto soloist with the orchestra itself to impressive effect was here joined by Monique Lapins, the sadly-about-to-depart second violinist of the illustrious New Zealand String Quartet, leaving for pastures afresh after eight years with the Quartet. Together with the orchestra they wove a diaphanous continuum of textured interaction that allowed the music to express whatever range of emotions and awareness of structural potentialities this performance couldn’t help but inspire among its listeners.

By inclination I tend to go for warmer, fuller performances than what I sometimes hear from so-called ”authentic” ones – but this performance seemed to tread securely between heart and mind, warmth and clarity, breathing-space and momentum, and deliver spades of intent and realisation from both worlds. And though ideally matched, the pair were not carbon copies of one another’s sound – I imagined a tad rounder, and more sensuous tone from Monique Lapins’ playing compared with Amalia Hall’s marginally brighter and shinier sound, as if what was passing between them was a REAL conversation. But, ah! – that slow movement! – why does it ALWAYS seem as though it’s over too quickly, no matter who the performers are?…….

As with the concert’s opening, the second half began with another performer “spotlit” up behind the orchestral platform in almost “deus ex machina” fashion! This time it was Jonathan Berkahn at the harpsichord performing a relaxed, even somewhat “other-worldly” rendition of one of Domenico Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas, the well-known E Major (K.380/L.23). As with the violinist’s rendition of the Bach Partita’s Prelude at the concert’s beginning, the episode had the air of some kind of “visitation” from distant realms – both beautifully-wrought moments.

In more “down-to-earth” mode then came the Handel Concerto Grosso Op.6 No.12, the last of the set of concertos inspired by Handel’s great Italian contemporary, Archangelo Corelli. I was hoping we might get my favourite of the Op. 6 set, No. 9 (with its wonderful borrowings from the composer’s famous Organ Concerto “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale”). But this work, which I didn’t know as well, was itself, in the words of the vernacular, a “real doozy”, with plenty to do for soloists Amalia Hall and Monique Lapins once again, in the form of some enchanting moments along the way. There was appropriately ”grand gesturing” at the beginning, with the two violins sharing solo passages with a solo ‘cello, both in reply to and augmenting the orchestra. And what a delicious allegro to follow! – with some enchanting dovetailing of parts, and the silvery tones of the violin soloists inspiring some similarly feathery playing from the orchestra strings. A lovely and graceful Larghetto was followed by an even more enchanting Largo section, the soloists (both, I think) playing with mutes and producing, along with the solo ‘cello, some breathtakingly unworldly textures – brief but memorable moments in time to be savoured long afterwards. A sprightly dotted-rhythmed fugal Allegro brought us home with a no-nonsense, but still ceremonial finish.

Conductor Marc Taddei then issued for us something in the nature of the old-fashioned “Government Health Warning” regarding the programme’s final item, Lucas Foss’s “Baroque Variations”. He spoke of the piece being very much of the “psychedelic era” of the 1960s during which the work was composed, with numerous allusions to sounds associated with various electronic gadgetry of that time, but with its composer bent also upon reaching back to resonances as far distant as the music from the Baroque era which we had heard earlier in the concert, including the two pieces which our celestial-like “visitors” had performed in those uplifted and spotlit places!

The first of the three movements “On a Handel Larghetto” quietly and almost spectrally elaborated on fragments of the corresponding sequence in Handel’s Op 6 No.12 Concerto, the sounds seeming to do little more than resonate each other’s muted repetitions between strings and brass, lines occasionally drifting away from one another and exploring dream-like imaginings as more instruments joined in with the reminiscings, gathering tonal weight as notes were sustained for longer periods and percussive irruptions became more frequent.

A second movement also began mysteriously, its diaphanously filmic texture of sound featuring floating droplets of notes and occasional percussive thuds, into which sounded the strains of fragments of the Scarlatti sonata we had heard in full on the harpsichord. Here its themes and rhythms seemed as if they were being disconcertingly dismembered for us, as if the music was “a patient etherised upon a table” and referred to in fragmented and mesmerizingly repetitive terms.

After two somewhat restrained movements, the third “On a Bach Prelude (Phorion)” opened up the air-waves somewhat, beginning with the reappearance of the “phantom” Bach Partita violinist, whose playing was this time “echoed” in a fragmented way by the orchestra concertmaster and the other orchestral strings, as well as being “pecked at” by the orchestral winds and “wailed over” by the brass. This process became rather Charles Ives-like as the violas and the brasses played echoing notes and phrases against skittering winds and violins “chasing down” the lines, until the orchestra seemed to lose its patience with its wayward children and exploded a volley of indiscriminate sounds that added to the “things running wild” atmosphere, awakening an electric organ’s more seismic qualities. The “Phorion” part of the movement’s title was a reference to a Greek word meaning “stolen goods”, perhaps indicating how Bach’s violin prelude music was being chaotically rent via a plethora of sounds indicating an exhilarating (and liberating?) loss of control.

Afterwards I found myself talking with others of our different impressions of the work, the opinions ranging from “genius” to “madness” in general terms, but concurring regarding the hugely fascinating range and scope of the programming and the dedication and skill with which conductor and orchestra carried out its philosophy and execution – above all else, with a whole-heartedness whose qualities we’ve come to expect and hope to continue to enjoy.

Witch Music Theatre’s take on Tolstoy at the Hannah Playhouse in Wellington a knockout!

Witch Theatre Productions presents:
Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812
– Music and lyrics by Dave Malloy

Cast: Lane Corby (Natasha), William Duignan (Pierre), Áine Gallagher (Sonya), Frankie Leota (Marya), Jade Merematira (Hélène), Glen Horsfall (Andrey/Prince Nikolai), Henry Ashby (Anatole Kuragin), Princess Mary (Rachel McSweeney), Kevin Orlando (Dolokhov), Patrick Jennings (Balaga) Jackson Cordery (Rope Aerialist):
Chorus: Adriana Calabrese, Tess Lavanda, Kirsty Huszka, Mackenzie Htay, Raureti Ormond, Finlay Morris

Music Director – Haydn Taylor/ Stage Director(s) – Maya Handa Naff, Nick Lerew /
Choreographer(s) – Emily McDermott, Greta Casey-Solly / Set and Technical Design – Joshua Tucker-Emerson / Producer and Costume Designer – Ben Tucker-Emerson
Sound – Oliver Devlin / Alex Fisher – Lighting / Vanessa Woodward – Stage Manager and Props / Charlotte Potts – Ticketing and Audience Experience Manager.

Hannah Playhouse, Wellington

Tuesday 30th April 2024

“What straightaway grabbed me was our vortex-like transition from foyer to auditorium at the Hannah Playhouse earlier tonight, vertiginously drawing us into what seemed like a different world – a journey which then never let up in its exertion of fascination and wonderment upon both mind and body. It was total immersion into “other” realms, to which I unhesitatingly gave myself for the next two-and-a-half hours!”

In the cold, grey light of dawn I’ve quoted myself above, a fleeting impression I managed to scribble down before exhaustion overtook me upon reaching home from my evening’s adventure at Wellington’s Hannah Playhouse last night. I had been at the tender mercies of Witch Music Theatre’s totally compelling production of “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”, an adaptation for the musical stage by the composer/lyricist Dave Malloy of Part Eight of Leo Tolstoy’s great 1869 novel War and Peace – seventy pages of searing emotional intensity expressed here in unreservedly straight-from-the-shoulder dramatic and musical terms!

Dominating the Playhouse’s stage precincts (via designer Joshua Tucker-Emerson’s hypnotically flowing cascading-tongues series of platforms) were seventeen singers-cum-dancers (plus a heart-in-the-mouth rope aerialist) who made both the teemingly populous and more intimate vistas of the story very much their own. Their individual characters flourished under the visionary direction of Maya Handa-Naff and Nick Lerew, and were beautifully and atmospherically elaborated by choreographers Emily McDermott and Greta Casey-Solly.

Throughout, singers and dancers combined with twelve on-and-offstage musicians directed from a centre-stage piano by music director Hayden Taylor to bring this fragment of a famous story to heartfelt and pulsating life, which was done with great instrumental elan at certain memorable moments. While the music’s pulsatings occasionally pushed the decibel levels into saturation point, the lines of the voices, both individual and concerted were never seriously obscured, with the diction from the singers remarkably clear in all but the most full-blooded passages – a tribute both to performers and the skills of the sound designer, Oliver Devlin.

Alex Fisher’s atmospheric lighting designs brought out the many variations of intensity required by the stage action, reaching a kind of apex with the appearance of the title’s Great Comet at the end of the story, but straightaway highlighting the characters’ various period costumes (designed by Ben Tucker-Emerson) with appropriately pleasing visual significance, with those of the dancers also relishing their characterful variants to whimsical effect.

How to single out so many compelling individual performances? Of course the show’s relatively intertwined musical textures allied to the similarly close-knit physical proximities of the cast on-stage made for an essentially ensembled production, one to which everybody responded magnificently, to the point where all the characters seemed, in Omar Khayyam’s somewhat bowdlerised words, “to come and go, like players in a magic-shadow show”. Whether alone or ensembled, all played their parts to a kind of perfection.

Of the titular roles, both Lane Corby’s Natasha and William Duignan’s Pierre negotiated their respective characters’ journeyings through their various travails with, in places, heartfelt, almost painful self-realisation, each in ways that expressed their essential personalities – Natasha’s spontaneity and impulsiveness, leading her to trouble, guilt and shame in the affair with the dissolute Anatole Kuragin, was eventually run together with Pierre’s own journey through disillusionment to hope in a better life through love, hence their mutually heartwarming and vocally reflective “understanding” at the end of the work.

Áine Gallagher’s portrayal of Sonya, Natasha’s cousin emphasised her endlessly patient and selfless regard for her cousin Natasha’s well-being throughout the story, including a full-throated avowal to protect her – stirring stuff! And Frankie Leota’s forthright and principled Marya, Natasha’s godmother, spectacularly and adroitly balanced her disapproval of Natasha’s infatuation over the flashy Anatole with plenty of concern for her young charge’s well-being – a colourful portrait! She was the opposite of Princess Mary Bolkonsky, whose portrayal by Rachel McSweeney touchingly emphasised her well-meaning kindness and propriety; and still more of a contrast with Jade Merematira’s sensual good-time girl portrait of Hélène Kuragin, the disdainful wife of Pierre.

Apart from Pierre, the men included Natasha’s betrothed, Prince Andrei, who left Moscow at the story’s beginning at his father’s wishes, respecting the latter’s objection to his son’s impending marriage. Glenn Horsefall played a soulful Andre on his occasional appearances throughout the story before finally rejecting Natasha in the wake of her dalliance with Anatole. This was in stark contrast to the latter, portrayed with plenty of skin-deep smoulder by Henry Ashby, to splendid effect up until his encounter with an enlightened and vengeful Pierre. The drinking, gambling Dolokhov was given a suitably dissolute air by Kevin Orlando, and teamed up well with Patrick Jennings as “Balaga” the Troika-driver, in his stage- dominating, energetic all-together “troika” rendition, a character who was obviously the life and soul of any party within sleigh-driving distance!

The remaining unnamed characters, sang, danced and INVOLVED their obviously entranced audience throughout, with the production throwing in unexpected delights such as an Aerial Rope performer, (Jackson Cordery) who gave a breathtaking display of agility and skill, as well as, at other times, charming us with his accordion-playing skills. It was all completely in line with the “what’s next” kind of spontaneity and energy the show seemed to continually thrive upon.

I was “blown away” by all of this in a way I didn’t really expect to be, and can thus warm-heartedly recommend the production to anybody who has the merest inkling of the original story (from one of the world’s truly GREAT novels!); or whatever inclination they might have to introduce themselves to and enjoy something of its uniquely compelling characterisations of universal human behaviour.

“Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” will play at the Hannah Playhouse in Wellington until Saturday 4th May (two performances that day, at 2:00pm and 7:30pm!!)

Sextet scintillations from Dohnányi and Penderecki, courtesy of the Morton Trio and Friends, at Wellington’s St Andrews-on-The-Terrace

Wellington Chamber Music presents:
Morton Trio and Friends
Sextets by ERNST VON DOHNÁNYI and KRYZSTOF PENDERECKI

Morton Trio – Arna Morton (violin), Alex Morton (horn), Liam Wooding (piano)
with David McGregor (clarinet), Sharon Baylis (viola) and Jeremy Garside (‘cello)

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

Sunday, 28th April 2024

The first thing I did when I got home from this concert was to get onto the computer and find recordings of each of these unfamiliar and incredible pieces of chamber music that I could purchase without delay, such was the compulsive fascination exerted by each of the works I’d heard that afternoon and brought to the fore by the brilliance and beauty of the performances by the Morton Trio and Friends. In fact I’d already been knocked sideways by the sheer elan of the ensemble’s playing of the Dohnányi piece by the interval, and it did take much longer for the Penderecki Sextet to similarly get under my skin – but the end result of the concert’s presentation was my wanting to have both of these works on hand to enjoy once again as soon as possible.

For me it was fascinating to experience how the two separate processes of coming to grips with each piece took me on quite a different listening course, though concluding in each case with no less of a compulsive quality regarding my wanting to hear the music again. Right from the beginning of the Dohnányi work I was struck by its almost wilful plenitude of spontaneously-wrought sonorities, setting up a more-or-less constant flow of compulsive, “whatever-next?” kinds of expectations that continued in joyful abundance right to the end.

But then, how different seemed my journey throughout much of the Penderecki work, confronted at the outset by a rather more tightly-woven company of motivic impulses and varied texturings over more expansive sound-vistas, a panoply of impressionable happenings whose intent seemed to evolve from out of a first movement’s closely-knit conflict, but whose eventual second-movement resolution “from within” slowly but surely captivated my sensibilities as the sounds strove with all their might towards a kind of dark transfiguration which alternated glimmerings of hope and shadows of tragedy .

I straightaway loved the “questing “ quality of the Dohnányi work, its darkly-hued restlessness at the outset seeming to investigate every possible pathway set up by the music’s trajectories and harmonic shifts. The flexibility of the music’s trajectories gave the work a kind of Cesar Franck-like volatility, and also with an occasional “diabolique” kind of flavour thrown in from a tritone-like interval. Throughout, the ensemble’s virtuoso use of a wide dynamic range took one’s “listener’s breath” away, especially throughout the stormy development section. Then. the second movement’s ghostly opening grew from within a rhapsodic passage interrupted by a ruggedly march-like “carving out” by the players characteristic of the volatility of the piece, as was the return to tranquility at the music’s end.

The next theme-and-variations movement was begun by a clarinet melody, phrased here with an engaging mix of sentiment and insouciance, and followed by a piano solo that had set its mind on goading the rest of the ensemble into action, resulting in a series of delightfully divergent inspirations – running, circus-like exchanges, skitterish triplet-led sequences and occasional returnings to the gentle soulfulness of the clarinet theme. The playing here flowed like oil in an almost Mozartean way, with horn and clarinet striking an attractively elegiac note (was there a brief horn “slip upwards” from the otherwise impeccable Alex Morton at one point?) towards the end with the piano’s steadfast support.

But then, how excitingly the music then “gathered” itself, sounding the tritone as a kind of “something’s happening” signal, and then, without a break, plunging into a “ragtime” dance-rhythm, here so especially “grunty” and joyous in the exuberance and abandonment with which the players dug into the accents! And what a wonderful moment it was when the heart-on-sleeve waltz-rhythm suddenly appeared, sparring with the ragtime rhythm and working up to an almost Rachmaninovian climax, before the coda carried all before it, waltz-tune, diabolus reference and all, teetering towards a gorgeously wrong-harmonied grandstand finish, and then cheekily correcting itself – outrageous and exhilarating!

It was naturally expected that Penderecki’s would be a different world, with the tersely-tattooed piano figure at the very beginning “setting the scene” for the pointillistic, spaced-out exchanges with which the work began, activating the other instruments by turns as the sounds unfolded – a flurry of toccata-like interchange marched along, fell away briefly and almost sorrowfully, but then renewed with even more vigour – such full-blooded playing, I thought, from all concerned! The sounds slowed to a trudge, and took on an almost Mahlerian funereal aspect, mixing grief and anger. I was amazed at the clarity with which the musicians delivered detail, here, despite the insistence of the contrapuntal detailings and the pace at which the ensemble maintained its agitated interactions. Horn and clarinet then paved the way in sonorous fashion for a grotesque kind of march-cum cakewalk which built up to a frenzied bout of gesturings from all concerned before abruptly collapsing!

The viola began the second movement tersely, drawing further elaborations from the piano, before the other strings echoed the viola’s theme, the piano continuing to explore the spaces. A clarinet call evinced a sombre, almost ghostly response from the strings, augmented by a restrained, self-communing horn (I did see a You-Tube performance of this in which the horn player left the stage at the second movement’s beginning to play in the “wings” for a period, but this event wasn’t replicated here). Again, I thought the players’ various detailings of the lines seemed never to miss a trick – the music seemed in “ebb-and-flow” mode, by turns desolate and then forthright and determined, and always “knowing” where it was going, however rudderless the trajectories sometimes seemed.

The volatilities of the work couldn’t be kept down, as even the most mournful of sequences would suddenly energise and flare up, as in a hair-raising triplet sequence featuring the instruments flying up and down the scale in desperate frissons of energy of their own making, trying either to “connect” or “escape” the manifestations and implications of this journey. As I listened I began to feel just what it was the music was heading towards amid its trajectoral and dynamic contrasts. It was a feeling that was summed up best by one commentator, himself a horn player, whose thoughts on the work I shared: – “Underlying the chatter of these contrasting episodes is a minor-key dirge that ultimately subsumes everything else in the work – the message being that you can have all the fun that you want, but the end bears only bitterness and loss.”

Something of this realisation came to me as the work entered a sequence towards the end consisting of long-held chords, a melody from the ‘cello, and a repeated two-note “lament-like” motif which again brought Mahler’s music to mind – the players here held this mood as if it were second nature to them, “inhabiting” the notes and expressing their underlying tragedy, the unearthly string harmonics which concluded the work leaving each of us with little else in mind but to ponder our own destinies.

At the concert’s scheduled end, violinist Arna Morton thanked us for our attendance and observed that the afternoon’s music had probably been akin for a lot of people to a “heavy meal”! – nutritious and satisfying in that sense, but needing something of a sweet for complete homegoing satisfaction! She proposed that the group would thus perform an encore, a piece by the French composer Lili Boulanger originally written for a mixed choir, but arranged by Arna herself for the ensemble today to perform. The piece was originally titled ”Sus bois”, a name translated as “forest floor” or “undergrowth”, a gentle, and beautifully harmonised piece which reminded me in places of Ravel. Its sylvan beauty was certainly an antidote for the sensibilities after the travails of the Penderecki Sextet! In all, a concert long to be remembered!

Roger Wilson’s and Guy Donaldson’s “Son vecchio ma robusto” tribute to age and experience at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

“Son vecchio ma robusto” (Seniors, but still in form)
Reflections on Maturity – a programme of songs presented by Roger Wilson (baritone) and Guy Donaldson (piano)

Music by Brahms, Schubert, Ravel, Poulenc, Stravinsky, Lilburn

St.Andrews-on-The-Terrace , Wellington

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2024

Judging from their bright-eyed and bushy-tailed showing at St Andrew’s on-The-Terrace Church in Wellington on Wednesday, baritone Roger Wilson and pianist Guy Donaldson seem all set to take Palmerston North’s Globe Theatre Matinee Concert Series presentation by storm this coming weekend when they repeat the occasion this coming Sunday afternoon. Here, their performance of the programme, “Son vecchio ma robusto”, a collection of various vocal-and-piano observations regarding age and experience, absolutely delighted a goodly number of regular St.Andrews lunchtime concert cognoscenti.

Jointly describing their presentation as “a whimsical approach to senior years”, the pair have ample cause to celebrate a fruitful musical partnership, which began as far back as 1976, Roger Wilson having since then frequently sung with Guy Donaldson as a piano accompanist and under his baton as a choral conductor. I did hear a stirring “Messiah” in Palmerston North (actually from the timpanist’s seat on that notable occasion when I too was a “performer”) featuring both musicians in their respective roles, but regret I wasn’t able to witness their later collaboration in Schubert’s iconic song-cycle “Winterreise” – still, the occasion obviously remains a vibrant memory for those lucky enough to have heard it.

How fortunate, therefore, to have something both different and innovative served up for our pleasure by these two experienced and ultra-capable musicians. There are plenty of songs, light and serious, about ageing, and music is obviously one of the most life-enhancing ways to help deal with the process, whether one is a performer or a listener – Wilson and Donaldson hit the spot almost invariably with their choices of repertoire, with only the strange Stravinsky song (augmented by a spoken narrative) about a Bear not doing very much for me at all.

The programme enterprisingly printed translations of the songs, putting us in touch with many of the varied, expressive nuances employed by the performers, which obviously enhanced our enjoyment. Thus, in the very first song, by Brahms, “Keinen hat es noch gereut” , one recounting an old man’s retelling of his youthful adventures, we could hear how the performers responded to the composer’s “bringing out” of the music’s energies and subtler nuances in the vocal narrative and in the piano’s use of different trajectories, both depicting different stages of life.

Two Schubert songs which followed markedly contrasted attitudes to life in general, the first “Greisengesang” (An Old Man’s Song), expressing forthright responses to both outward cold and harshness, and inner warmth and feeling, the voice expressing the territories covering these differences and the piano remarkably sentient in its response to the changes. Perhaps because I was so looking forward to the following “Der Einsame” (The Solitary One) I felt some disappointment in being able to relish so little of the character’s “enjoyment” Zufriedenheit) of his “single” life in the performance, here given at what seemed to me slightly too brisk a tempo for the song, and with little obvious self-satisfaction in his “gemutlich” contentment.

A different world was given us by the three Ravel songs which were the ailing composer’s final compositions, written for a film whose subject was Don Quixote, and in which the great Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin was to play the title role. Ravel completed three of the four commissioned songs but his growing illness prevented him completing the project. The composer’s friend and colleague Jacques Ibert was able to write four new songs for the film, though Ravel’s work has remained in the repertoire.

The three songs present the knight of the sorrowful countenance firstly as a lover, then a principled hero, and finally even a joyful reveller. First came the “Chanson Romanesque”, a sinuously-rhythmed and suggestively-hued Spanish serenade, which was followed by an intensely-imploring prayer to Saint Michael for purity and chastity as a knight – singer and pianist at one, the voice conveying steadfast virtue, and the piano underlining the sentiment with gently sonorous organ-like tones. Finally, the knight declares his simple enjoyment of drink with some Falstaff-like roisterings, accompanied by suitably florid pianistic gestures – a great song, here lustily shared with an appreciative audience!

Ibert’s “La Mort de Don Quichotte” was no less involving, here – a sultry Habanera rhythm conveyed the song’s plethora of emotion, the singer having all the time in the world to reflect on the character’s delineation of the “happy isle of death” as conveyed by the famed book’s telling of the tale, and the pianist colouring, echoing and reflecting the words’ emotions through to a “time standing still” postlude – very beautiful!

Each of Francis Poulenc’s Two “Chansons Villageoises” (with words by Maurice Fombeure) presented old age in unvarnished terms via characters who had suffered hardship and loss – the first, “Le Mendiant” (The Beggar) is old Jean Martin, with his sack and gnarled dogwood stick, found dead on the ice, and is a kind of cautionary socialist-like tale warning people to take pity on those who have little or nothing – one day all such Jean Martins will rise in revolt and take revenge! Roger Wilson’s histrionic abilities made the most of this “day of reckoning” scenario, with Guy Donaldson’s pounding, vengeful piano sonorities similarly taking no prisoners! The second song “Le retour du sergent” painted a somewhat grimmer version of “Where have all the Flowers Gone?”, with the old soldier returned home and alternating between bitter anger and heartfelt sadness at the loss of his friends on the battlefield! – again vivid characterisation and remorseless silences at the end.

A third song by Poulenc, “La Carpe”, opened with a dark stillness whose constant repetition underlined the near-timelessness of the fish’s existence as observed by humankind – a somewhat odd choice for the recital but perhaps suggesting something of the tranquility/emptiness of an aged person’s world. It had a piquancy which in a sense qualified its presence to a reasonable extent. In terms of such a process I found myself unequal to the task of figuring out what Igor Stravinsky’s song “The Bear” was doing in such company, and decided I would leave the business of expressing its relevance to abler minds and cyber-pens! No such reservation accompanied my reaction to the inclusion of Douglas Lilburn’s well-known and quintessentially Kiwi song-cycle, “Sings Harry”, one which Roger Wilson has well-nigh made his own upon the occasions I’ve heard him perform the work.

Here, from the first, bardic-like piano notes was an evocation of an older, more rooted-in-the-soil rural New Zealand expressed in a characterful vernacular that owed its place to nowhere else and took pride in its self sufficiency. Roger Wilson and Guy Donaldson became, for a few treasurable moments, the authentic bringers and declaimers of these “once the days were clear” times, tracing and fleshing out those same moments as enduring memories and resonating self-truths. The heart of the cycle has for me always been “The Flowers of the Sea”, and the voice and piano became as one, here, with the tide and the wind as the composer unerringly “placed” all of us within something of an eternal action of being – to which the concluding song “I remember” took us in a return to the childhood farm, and the hill over which the hawk forever flies – very moving.

In one sense the Lilburn/Glover cycle was the perfect way in which to conclude the programme – but despite the outrageous nature of the iconically non-PC Flanders and Swann song “Have some Madeira, m’dear!”which followed as an encore, its Rabelaisian performance here was an unmitigated delight, with the performers literally giving it all they’d got in terms of characterful roguishness. It was in a sense a “Do not go gentle into that good night” gesture which rounded off the tongue-in-cheek “growing old disgracefully” aspect of the programme! Palmerstonians should on no account miss it when these splendid performers take the stage at the city’s Globe Theatre on Sunday 28th April at 2:30pm.

Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park” – an operatic transfiguration

New Zealand Opera presents:
MANSFIELD PARK– an opera by Jonathan Dove (composer) and Alasdair Middleton (librettist)
Based on the novel “Mansfield Park” by Jane Austen (published 1814)
Director: Rebecca Meltzer
Wardrobe and Props: Sophie Ham
Piano Accompaniment: Soomin Kim and David Kelly
Stage Manager: Chanelle Muirhead
Production: courtesy Waterperry Opera Festival, UK
Cast: Fanny Price – Ashlyn Tymms
Lady Bertram – Kristin Darragh
Sir Thomas Bertram – Robert Tucker
Maria Bertram – Sarah Mileham
Julia Bertram – Michaela Cadwgan
Edmund Bertram – Joel Amosa
Aunt Norris – Andrea Creighton
Mary Crawford – Joanna Foote
Henry Crawford – Taylor Wallbank
Mr. Rushworth – Andrew Grenon

Wellington Public Trust Hall
Lambton Quay, Wellington

Thursday 18th April 2024

First staged in 2011, composer Jonathan Dove’s and librettist Alasdair Middleton’s adventurous adaptation of Jane Mansfield’s novel “Mansfield Park” has since achieved world-wide exposure, eventually finding its way to what author Adrienne Simpson once called “opera’s farthest frontier”, the shores of Aotearoa New Zealand, the work taking pride of place as the first 2024 production staged by New Zealand Opera.

It occupies territory close to the heart of the company’s recently-appointed general director, Brad Cohen, whose vision centres upon “getting a wider range of people to attend the opera” by diversifying the various presentation spaces and enlarging the scope of the repertoire in a “something for everybody” manner. It’s a philosophy straightaway borne out by the “outside-the-box” delivery that characterises this latest production, which is, of course, very much in line with the original story’s essentially domestic setting.

Mansfield Park has an ensemble of ten on-stage singers (an audience member makes a brief appearance as a non-singing “extra” at one point) accompanied by a piano duet, everybody occupying a shared space in the same room (the venue on this occasion Wellington’s Public Trust Hall), and with the performers making entrances and exits from and towards various directions including through the audience itself, creating a vibrantly inclusive ambience for all concerned to enjoy. Nothing more removed from the usual operatic scenario of stage, proscenium archway and auditorium, all clearly delineated, could have been imagined.

Composer Jonathan Dove has since recast the work with a chamber orchestra accompaniment, but I hugely enjoyed the omnipresent sound of the original piano duet (here superbly realised by Soomin Kim and David Kelly), the pair completely out of my view from where I was sitting mid-hall, but whose pianistic ambiences unfailingly conjured up the largely drawing-room atmosphere of most of the story’s action. The music might have occasionally seemed “vocally minimalist” or suggestive of “silent film” accompaniment – but the score’s different, more thoughtful or even grandly epic evocations in other places were etched in just as surely and atmospherically. I kept on thinking about the composer telling us that he recalled moments of “hearing music” when first reading parts of the novel, and how we might be hearing the results of those reimagined moments.

I was grateful for the production’s use of subtitles, despite the opera being in English – I’d found in various “opera in the vernacular” performances the text often suffering from a lack of clarity in places. Fortunately I found this cast particularly well-drilled in this respect, and especially in the case of singers such as Andrea Creighton as the voluble Aunt Norris, even when having a lot to say in a short time! Also exemplary in this respect were Robert Tucker and Kristin Darragh as the parents, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram – and I must mention the special pleasure I derived from Andrew Grenon’s vivid word-characterisations as the bumbling Mr. Rushworth!

So, within the elegant frame of what would have otherwise been something like an original Gainsborough-like landscape oil painting on the drawing-room wall appeared the opera’s libretto, written by Alasdair Middleton. The action was divided into two acts containing altogether eighteen “chapters” (Austen’s original novel has over forty of the latter!). The cast itself announced the name and number of each chapter, with the setting, aside from a couple of al fresco forays into “wilderness”, “shrubbery” and “grottoes”, largely taking place in Mansfield Park’s stylish interior. It all had a surface charm “mirroring” the emphasis placed on social climbing and material expectation in society, to which young people’s affairs of the heart were constantly shaped and manipulated.

The heroine of the piece, Fanny Price, has a “back-story” in the novel that’s here hardly touched upon – and then in the most negative terms by her widowed Aunt Norris – she seems to be constantly berating Fanny for her lack of “ostensible” gratitude to her rich Aunt and Uncle, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, for taking her into the household at all to relieve the pressure on Fanny’s own family. There’s a lot going in in the Bertram household, with Sir Thomas having a business in Antigua which takes him away from his four children, all of whom are looking either for suitable careers (the boys, one of whom , Tom, doesn’t appear in the opera) or marriage-matches (the girls, one of whom, Maria, is already engaged to the wealthy but exceedingly boring Rushworth!).

Fanny’s covert interest is in the younger brother, Edmund, who, unlike his sisters, treats her kindly, but as he would a kid-sister for most of the time. Of course, the pair finally make good their largely unspoken deeper interest in one another, despite the various cajoleries of a neighbouring and outwardly attractive brother-and-sister pair, Mary and Henry Crawford who arrive on the scene early in the piece to disrupt things for their own ends. The production cleverly cuts through this and more besides of the elaborate and complex Austen original, thanks to some judiciously- focused textual distillations and sharply-characterised, forward-driving music.

Director Rebecca Meltzer originally created this production for Waterperry Opera in Oxford, UK in 2018, resulting in her being invited here to direct the production with NZ Opera. Her fondness for working with singers in intimate audience environments was readily evident in the detailed delivery given the texts by the cast. As well, her direction of the opera’s “outdoor” scenes (such as the hilariously-contrived journey of the company to the estate of Mr.Rushworth at Southerton in the “barouche”, and the deployment of people not in the scene as characters but instead as “stage-props”, such as trees and gateways!) caused plenty of merriment.

We also relished the sensitive treatment of the more lyrical chorus-like moments in the work, like the almost Mozartean farewell (one thought of Soave sia il vento in Cosi fan Tutte) accorded Sir Thomas from the ensemble on his departure to Antigua, and the lovely “Stargazing” music duetted between Fanny and Edmund in Chapter Six. At the other expressive end of the work’s range was the wonderful scene “A Newspaper Paragraph” in which the general ensemble seemed to revolve like a flywheel around the sensational newspaper publication of Henry’s elopement with Mrs Rushworth, the characters gradually splintering off in different directions and leaving Edmund at last able to come to his senses regarding Mary Crawford’s true character via HER reaction to the news – fabulous musical theatre! – (but more about the work’s final chorale in a minute……)

In the title role of Fanny, mezzo-soprano Ashlyn Tymms looked, moved and sang with ease, grace and decorum as befitted her character and station in the Bertram household (Sophie Ham’s costumes beautifully modulated across the entire cast), though she allowed her emotions to betray her feelings given the chance, as when steadfast in her refusing to comply with Sir Thomas’s wishes that she should accept Henry Crawford as a husband. Her and Edmund’s final vows of commitment to one another were all the more touching for their “surprised by joy” aspect and given all due warmth of tone by both singers. As Edmund, Joel Amosa looked and sounded all the while steadfast, straightforward and upright, even if his head had been turned by the all-too superficially engaging Mary, whose portrayal brought forth resplendent and characterful singing from Joanna Foote.

Mary’s rakish brother Henry received a confident, swashbuckling rendering from Taylor Wallbank even if I felt some of his higher notes evinced a degree of strain. In the pathetic and thankless role of Mr Rushworth, I thought Andrew Grenon’s characterisation brilliantly and almost painfully engaging, as was his singing. As for the remainder of the Bertrams, both Robert Tucker and Kristin Darragh brought an ease of vocal delivery to their roles that itself gave their characters a kind of status and authority as Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, in stark contrast to Andrea Creighton’s waspish and petulant yet wonderfully sung Aunt Norris, a thorn in her niece’s side as of her own god-given right! And each of the two sisters, the “twelve thousand-a-year-obsessed” Maria, and the younger, impressionable and impetuous Julia were played with characterful spirit and sung with attractive tones and well-crafted “surface” by Sarah Mileham and Michaela Cadwgan respectively.

What brought home to me an enduring feeling of the production’s depth and resonance of quality and truth was the opera’s final scene – after all Fanny’s trials and tribulations, endured with the utmost steadfastness, she is rewarded by the love she has wanted for herself for some time, that of Edmund Bertram. Austen celebrates her Fanny’s ultimate triumph somewhat matter-of-factly in the novel, whereas the composer and librettist of the opera obviously felt the need for some kind of outward catharsis, at any rate on Fanny’s part, and by extrapolation, on Edmund’s as well. So, at the end is the most beautiful of the opera’s sequences, with all the characters of the story, family, friends, villains and monsters alike gathering in a group on the stage to intone these beautiful words – not Austen’s own, but the librettist’s, speaking, as it were, for all of us who have been through the experience afforded in all of its forms by this remarkable work:
“Too soon falls the dusk,
Too soon comes the dark;
Let us learn to love, laugh and live –
at Mansfield Park!”

Circle Of Friends throws open the doors at St.Andrew’s

Wellington Chamber Music presents:
CIRCLE OF FRIENDS
– an afternoon with Natalia Lomeiko (violin), Sarah Watkins (piano) and Yuri Zhislin (violin/viola)

CLARA SCHUMANN – Three Romances Op.22 (1853)
ROBERT SCHUMANN Phantasie in C Major Op.131 (1853)
KAROL SZYMANOWSKI – La Fontaine d’Arethuse (from Myths Op.30 – 1915)
Nocturne and Tarantella Op.28 (1915)
JOHANNES BRAHMS – Viola Sonata No. 2 in E-flat Op.120 No. 2 (1895)
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH – 5 pieces for violin, viola and piano (1955)

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

Sunday, 14th April 2024

The elves had been busy overnight at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, changing all the seating back to “normal” after the previous day’s Janáček / Dvořák choral concert, for which everything had been reversed in deference to the singers and instrumentalists who had filled to bursting the organ/choir-loft at the rear of the church’s nave – in the light of the normality now firmly re-established it might have seemed to those who had also attended the previous day’s concert like a “did we dream you or did you dream us?” situation.

Whether those same elves had remained hiding in the church’s nooks and crannies to get a taste of the beauties and excitements of today’s programme wasn’t obvious to the eye, but in retrospect the many delights and gratifications afforded by the playing of the three musicians throughout would have caused ripples of pleasure activating the sensibilities of all but the most inert life forms on hand this afternoon.

The programme’s “circle of friends” title encompassed not only the performers (the “wife-and-husband’ team of violinist Natalia Lomeiko and violist Yuri Zhislin in partnership with pianist Sarah Watkins) but three of the composers whose music was about to be performed, and whose ties have since become legendary – Clara and Robert Schumann, and their mutual friend and protégé, Johannes Brahms. However, the range and scope of the performers extended even further in the case of several other items, and most entertainingly with a near-riotous encore piece , about which you will have to read the rest of the review in order to learn more!

First up was Clara Schumann’s Three Romances for violin and piano Op.22, written in 1853 , a year of both triumph and troubles for Clara, touring successfully with violinist Joseph Joachim (to whom these piece are dedicated), but with her husband Robert’s deteriorating mental condition causing serious concerns. The pieces here seem like strands of hope stretching forth for a kind of deliverance, the first gentle and richly-toned, Lomeiko and Watkins moving gracefully as one through a beautifully-wrought sensibility; after which they brought out in the second piece a rather more sober and melancholy feeling, happier and even quixotic in places in the middle section’s major key, but inevitably drawn back to the opening’s darker mood. The third’s long-breathed melodies had a rippling accompaniment, Lomeiko’s violin ardent in song and Watkins’s piano mirroring every impulse – the latter’s able fingers as impish throughout her staccato passages as they were liquid and flowing at the piece’s beginning.

Dating from the same year was Clara’s husband Robert’s astonishing Phantasie in C Major Op.131, a work that had dropped out of the repertoire until reintroduced in a version for violin and piano conceived by Fritz Kreisler in 1937 (I can’t find any reference to the work having been performed by anybody earlier in this form, the Dusseldorf premiere having been played by Joseph Joachim with the composer conducting the orchestra). It’s an incredible piece of violin writing by somebody thought of as being in a state of mental duress and decline at that time, a one-movement work filled with contrasts of expression which here “marry” its composer’s often wildly-opposing creative personas in remarkably cogent ways. Most of the virtuosic fireworks came from the violinist, though pianist Sarah Watkins readily backed up Natalia Lomeiko’s more florid violin gesturings with appropriately orchestral tones and figurations at climactic points, the duo elsewhere “playing into” one another’s hands with some equally heartfelt melodic phrasings that in places made one hold one’s breath.

Other repertoire that’s been gradually re-establishing its place in musical history in recent times is the music of Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937), now regarded as one of the greatest of Polish composers. Included in his output are a number of chamber works for violin and piano, two of which Lomeiko and Watkins played – firstly we heard one of a group of three poems called Mythes, inspired by Greek mythology, with the title “La Fontaine d’Arethuse”. This concerns the story of the nymph Arethusa, fleeing from the attentions of the river-god Alpheus (those Greek deities were something of a randy lot, I must say – perhaps a case of “if it was good enough for Zeus, then….”) and being turned into the waters of a fountain to avoid capture.

We heard the piano notes shimmer and scintillate at the beginning, as the violin called forth the nymph Arethusa with its silvery, enchanting line – the music began to agitate with the appearance of the river-god, Alpheus, but the latter’s desire to ensnare the nymph was thwarted by the eerie stillness of the violin harmonics concealing her presence. The river-god renewed his desperate agitations (amazing pyrotechnic playing from both musicians!) and Arerthusa was snatched away and concealed by her protector, Artemis. Hearing Alpheus’s lament, the other gods allowed the fountain waters to mingle with those of the river (violin and piano mingled their sounds), and honour was satisfied.

Where the “myth” was primarily impressionistic and suggestive in effect, the following piece Nocturne and Tarantella Op.28, though dating from a similar period, inhabited a different sound-world, the introductory Nocturne evoking a more Iberian ambience, with sultry evocations of stillness set against episodes of vigorous Spanish dance-rhythms. By stark contrast, the following “Tarantella” was a riot of impulse, movement, and raw vigour which left us all breathless with amazement and stupefaction at both performers’ energy levels throughout!

Having taken all of these intensities in our listening stride, an interval gave us the chance to come up for some air before turning our attentions to the music of Brahms, via the playing of violist Yuri Zhislin with Sarah Watkins, in a work I’ve always loved in its original form, the second of two sonatas originally written for the renowned clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld, whose playing had inspired the composer to produce an unexpected “Indian Summer” of additional chamber music! Brahms (somewhat, it seems, against his better judgement) had subsequently produced viola versions of these two same sonatas.

Whatever the composer’s misgivings – “sehr ungeschickt und unerfreulich” (clumsy and ungratifying) was his comment to Joseph Joachim re the transcriptions – he would surely have revised his opinion had he heard Yuri Zhislin’s performance with Sarah Watkins, here – it really made me love the music all over again (I had, of course, heard recordings of the viola versions, but still preferred the original clarinet ones until now) – the eloquent ease with which Zhislin negotiated the lines was matched by his tonal range which for me “inhabited” the music’s character at every point of the discourse. Also, Sara Watkins’ playing similarly illuminated the music from within – the central interlude in the work’s middle movement Scherzo here wove a spell whose realms I’d never previously been taken into so deeply. Then, the “Theme and Variations” finale was a similar joy which the “hit-and-run” excitement of the final variation’s coda rounded off in exhilarating fashion!

I’d thought that, after these heady excitements, the concert’s final printed item, Shostakovich’s Five Pieces (a kind of “assemblage” work brought together by Lev Atovmyan from the composer’s various film and ballet scores) would prove to be somewhat “small beer” – but Lomeiko and Zhislin (the latter now playing a violin) found, with Watkins’ help, a lot more “character” in the pieces than did the somewhat bland rendition I’d previously auditioned on a “You Tube” clip. Where the trio REALLY set the usually staid and respectably-wrought venue alight was with the encore, a piece by Igor Frolov, a violinist in his own right (he was a pupil of David Oistrakh) who enjoyed a distinguished career in the Soviet Union as a teacher, artistic director and musical arranger, well-known for his composition of pieces written using what have been described by certain viewpoints as “forbidden” musical styles, such as jazz (there are various opinions regarding the much-vaunted “Soviet disapproval” of western-style forms of entertainment during the 194os and 50s). Whatever the case Frolov’s 1979 “Divertimento” with its outrageous juxtaposing of pastiche baroque-styled sequences alternated with jazzed-up and “swung” passages of tongue-in-cheek variants and vagaries of style, was all “turned” in what seemed like the manner born, with spadefuls of elan from the players! We loved them for it and made no bones about our appreciation of the whole afternoon’s feast of music-making!

Flavoursome Janáček and Dvořák from the Bach Choir

The Bach Choir of Wellington presents:
JANÁČEK – Otče náš (Our Father)
DVOŘÁK – Mass in D Major, Op.86

Laura Dawson (soprano), Sinéad Keane (alto),
Theo Moolenaar (tenor). Simon Christie (bass)
Michelle Velvin (harp), Douglas Mews (organ)
Bach Choir of Wellington
Musical Director – Shawn Michael Condon

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

Saturday, 13th April 2024

I couldn’t recall a previous time I’d walked into St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace Church in Wellington and straightaway been confronted by an audience of faces rather than heads entirely – well in most cases! – of hair – as if in a dream I had suddenly and bewilderingly been thrust into the role of a performer or celebrant in what was to follow, instead of an accustomedly passive onlooker!

Of course this audience volte-face was arranged so that singers and instrumentalists in both works could be more closely arrayed than was often the case in works requiring the services of the splendid pipe organ and a choir of reasonable size, not to mention a quartet of solo singers and a harpist with her instrument to boot! It resulted in a different kind of “spaciousness” to that end-to-end kind normally afforded by the church for choral concert music accompanied by an organ.

Actually, the relative “novelty” of the arrangement further intensified the stimulation I’d previously noted in listening to recordings of these works which were entirely new to me! I put a lot of it down to the music’s distinctive “Czech” quality, present in spadefuls throughout Leos Janáček’s Otče náš (the setting of the prayer ”Our Father”) by dint of so many characteristic composer-fingerprints in the music’s making.

But even in the more conventionally-presented Dvořák Mass there were numerous aspects which proclaimed a kind of expression which, though influenced by, was nevertheless apart from most of the familiar stylistic formalities of the Austro-German tradition of church music, drawing instead from the composer’s folk-influenced roots with a plaintiveness and simplicity of utterance that readily evoked an awareness of and a feeling for the natural world and an ordinary, simple being’s place in it.

First up, however, was the Janáček work, opened by the organ and harp, and joined by the voices, firstly the basses, and then in canonic imitation, the altos, a strong, simple and beautiful effect, with both vocal strands drawing resonances, it seemed, from one another, as with the lighter and no less beautiful exchanges between tenors and sopranos which followed. Tenor soloist Theo Moolenaar brought a wonderful fervour to his first solo, his ringing top notes creating a frisson which was carried forward by the entry of the choir in reply. A rhapsodic instrumental interlude for organ and harp paved the way for another solo from the tenor, beautifully echoed by the choir and by the organ, joined by the harp for further rhapsodising (delightful playing, as throughout, from both Douglas Mews and Michelle Velvin!)

What a contrast, then, came with the choir’s tumultuous entry imploring our “daily bread”, with particular insistence upon dnes, the word for bread, flung upwards and outwards into the spaces overhead! – and how readily the tenor then implored the choir’s responses to his plea for forgiveness of humankind’s trespasses, with organ hand harp adding their own heartfelt contributions. Finally, a particularly “grunty” organ passage heralded a vigorous and even biting response from the voices in matters pertaining to temptation and evil before assenting the prayer’s plea further and finally with a number of ringing and rousing “Amens!”

My delight in recent discovery concerning the Dvořák Mass which followed was happily taken further by this performance, complete with the “togetherness” of the entire ensemble crowded into the St.Andrew’s organ-loft doubtless reflecting the circumstances of the work’s premiere. Dvořák’s original commission for the work had come from one of his patrons, the architect Josef Hlavka, and involved the inauguration of a small chapel in the Bohemian village of Lužany, the place which gave the Mass its nickname.

I was able to savour all over again those sweet opening phrases of the work in the “Kyrie”, here beautifully floated by the choir, with conductor Shawn Michael Condon beautifully controlling the “ebb-and-flow’ dynamics of the lines, creating an almost lullabic sound around a crescendo of tones and associated emotions. The “Christe” passages made a telling contrasted effect, especially when the Kyrie refrain returned at the end, plus some briefly reiterated “Christe christe” murmurings.

A vigorously-begun, declamatory “Gloria” took us to a stately and lyrical “Et in terra pax hominibus”, which grew back the music’s jubilation through the following “Laudamus te”, before reaching a splendid choral climax at “Glorificamus te”. The most moving sequences for me came with the interplay of the soloists and choir throughout the “Domine Deus” sections where first the choir, and then the soloists brought out the beauty of the exchanges, the choir then excitingly bringing out the music’s energies at “Suscipe deprecationem nostrum”, and continuing with a robust “Cum Sancto Spiritu’ followed by resoundingly satisfying “Amens”.

Another moment to savour was the surprisingly lyrical and serenade-like opening to the “Credo”, the women’s voices sweetly alternating with the rest of the choir – by contrast, the “Deum de Deo” sections brought forth some unexpectedly explosive interjections, with the organ’s chording in places bordering on the discordant. A pause gave us breathing-space for the contrast at the soloists’ taking up of the “Et incarnatus est” with beautiful work from all concerned, beginning with alto Sinéad Keane and bass Simon Christie, and followed just as effulgently by soprano Laura Dawson and tenor Theo Moolenaar, who, together with the choir, brought about a palpable sense of peace with the gently-breathed “Et homo factus est”.

Dvořák doesn’t disappoint with the contrasting force of his setting of “Crucifixus etiam pro nobis” – the voices unsparingly produced fierce and harrowing tones, while the following “Passus et sepultus est” expressed the grief in a vastly different way, with hushed tones and ever-increasing resignation. How appropriate, then was the different kind of contrast again wrought by “Et resurrexit tertia die”, one expressed with lilting rhythms and ascending lines blossoming with the help of the organ. The rest of the setting seemed to me to emulate a pealing of church bells expressed in vocal terms, an effect accentuated by the “swinging” trajectories of the music and the “folksiness” of the organ’s squeeze-box-like timbres, leading inevitably to the joyously-voiced “Amens” at the end.

Bells were again brought to mind by the opening of the Sanctus, the voices enchanting us with a well-nigh irresistible carillion of sounds and resonating “HJosannas” at the end. Came the “Benedictus” with its piquant organ solo at the beginning and “entranced” vocal entries, producing slow-moving near-oceanic waves of sound – a wonderful sequence, broken by the joyous return of the Sanctus.
It was left to the “Agnus Dei’ to conclude the work, simply and sonorously sung by the soloists in turn, beginning with the tenor, and then the alto, soprano and bass. After repeated and affecting soundings of the words “Miserere nobis” from the choir, the tenor then introduced the words “Dona nobis pacem”, echoed with most affecting beauty by the choir, the word “pacem” seeming to ring in our ears as a haunting message, indeed, even a directive, for our time……

Very great credit to all concerned with the Bach Choir of Wellington for a well-planned and engagingly-delivered concert, eminently worthy of ongoing memory…….