A Rossini Opera for Down Under – from NZ Opera

Gioachino ROSSINI – Le Comte Ory  –  NZ Opera June 2024, St.James Theatre, Wellington –  Wade Kernot (Coach), Manase Latu (Count Ory), Moses MacKay (Raimbaud) – photo credit: Lewis Ferris

Original libretto by Eugenè Scribe and Charles-Gaspard Delestre-Poirson, freely adapted for NZ Opera by Simon Phillips

Cast: Manase Latu (Count Ory), Emma Pearson (Countess Adele), Hanna Hipp (Isolier), Moses Mackay (Raimbaud), Wade Kernot (Tutor/Coach), Andrea Creighton (Ragonde), Tayla Alexander (Alice)

New Zealand Opera Chorus Wellington /Te Whanganui-a-Tara
Orchestra Wellington (Concertmaster: Amalia Hall)
Brad Cohen (conductor)

Simon Phillips (director)
Tracy Grant Lord (set and costume designer)
Matthew Marshall (lighting designer)
Luka Venter (assistant conductor)
Matthew Kereama (assistant director)

St. James’ Theatre, Wellington
Thursday 13th June, 2024

New Zealand Opera continues its progressive “new look” agenda for 2024 under its new General Director Brad Cohen with a rarity for local audiences, Gioachino Rossini’s penultimate opera, Le Comte Ory. Regarded by many as the composer’s comic masterpiece, the opera has a story whose exploration of sexual deception, disguise and manipulation not only adroitly ticks all the boxes of its own time and place, but responds remarkably well to a near-complete reworking in its relocation to Aotearoa New Zealand, with all of the associated updates necessary for the change of scenario amusingly (and in places disconcertingly) kicking in with a vengeance!

It took a while to win me over to director Simon Phillips’ in places radical reworking of the libretto’s English translation (a French speaker would have been totally nonplussed attempting to marry a good deal of the words enunciated by the singers with the surtitle texts!), but I eventually “gave in” to the idea – I think the moment of my actual capitulation was when the story’s young and inveterately libidinous “Count Ory”, posing as a spiritual guru at a wellness retreat for women, was spectacularly unmasked as his true lecherous self at the end of Act One by the appearance of his own rugby coach, plus team-mates, hot on his AWOL trail and intent upon returning him to “the fold”. This near-apocalyptic moment all but transfixed our sensibilities when the singers’ exclamation “Ciel!” (Heavens!) appeared on the surtitle screen as “What the f….?” All reservations from that point onwards were made null and void by the sheer crypto-current impact of the subsequent revampings! My misgivings, despite themselves,  knew no more that evening!

I’m still tickled by the thought of the transcription of the words “du sang du Sarracin” (the blood of the Saracens)  as “Springboks’ blood” in the husbands’ homeward message of triumph on the contemporary field of battle to their wives! In Act Two the updated amendments came thick and fast, most of them funky and to the point, even though some didn’t seem worth the effort (one of them to do with “an over-forward forward” and another making reference to a “coccyx”) – and Ory’s slip of the tongue when first calling his sisterhood “the squad” didn’t work as well as the original’s faux pas “ce sont eux…..er, ce sont ells!”. A by-product of the surtitle rewritings was that I felt they became a kind of “reality TV” in themselves in places, frequently taking our attention away from what the singers were actually doing with the words on the stage. Most of what Phillips came up with I enjoyed, but, as I’ve said, it was for me laid on a tad too thickly at times.

The rest of the updated on-stage detailings hardly missed a trick, with many a delightful and amusing touch – the birdsong right at the start, the “Hi-de-hi!” welcoming entourage at the station, complete with a truly wonderful steam-train entrance, and the preponderance of cell-phones among the “guests” invited to the “Chateau Whareora”. Word has spread regarding the presence of the “guru” thanks to the efforts of his right-hand man, Raimbaud, who prepares for Ory’s entrance with a red carpet and coloured flags, and various “gifts” donated by people who have heard of the hermit’s “healing powers” and helpful advice. We meet Ragonde who’s the PA for the Countess, and worried about both her mistress’s melancholic state and her own husband’s continued absence, then afterwards Isolier, young, feminine and sporty, who’s Ory’s personal physio, but in love with the Countess, and Tutor, the rugby team coach who’s looking for Ory, having heard about the “guru” and having his suspicions as to where “Horny McOry” is.  Another red carpet entry, complete with photo-popping paparazzi, brings us the extremely chic Chateau-owner, Countess Adele, to the joy of the love-sick Isolier – but just as the goatish guru-in-residence thinks he has Adele at his fingertips and outmanoeuvred his rival, the Coach suddenly reappears and denounces Ory by revealing his true identity (see above!)….

The Second Act features Ory’s follow-up plan to gain access to the Countess, disguising himself and his teammates as women members of a local religious sect being pursued by the same Ory and his men. The so-called pilgrims are let into the lodge when a fierce storm breaks – wonderful sound and lighting effects – and the women/men are given shelter by the Countess and her women. Left to themselves the imposters show their true colours with a round of drinking songs (did Berlioz take a leaf out of Rossini’s book here for his roistering  Auerbach’s Cellar Scene in “La Damnation de Faust”?) as all make merry while anticipating further sport afterwards (“There’s nosh as well as potential nookie”) but they retire at last. When Isolier arrives with news of the womens’ husbands’ unexpectedly early return, she warns the Countess that in fact the pilgrims they are housing are Ory and his men in disguise! This is resolved by a delicious trio where the randy intruder is tricked into bed with the two women and then tied up, having to admit defeat and leave, taking his “entourage” with him as (thanks to adroit changes behind the scenes) none other than the All Blacks (in traditional uniform to boot!) arrive home to their wives, as champions – and all is well.

Whatever one’s opinion of the antipodean reworkings of the original scenario of the opera, one couldn’t help but admire the zest, energy, enthusiasm and the palpable enjoyment that emanated from the St James’ stage this evening – everybody I spoke with afterwards had that sense of experiencing something of what Simon Phillips called the vibrancy and amusement of human behaviour’s foibles in what they’d seen and heard in this modern realisation of the opera. And as Phillips also put it, even if such treatment was not to some people’s taste they would still have revelled in what he called the “sheer virtuosity of this dazzlingly talented cast” in bringing the performance to life.

One couldn’t help but reflect on how the transformation of the original opera’s time-and-place scenario resonated in the present, however unexpectedly and incidentally – simply the Countess Adele’s idea at the beginning of the Act Two to provide shelter for whom she considered at first to be firstly homeless people, and then more seriously refugees fleeing from oppression straightaway reflected contemporary situations of which we here and now are all too aware. And while the libretto’s reworked translations might have seemed in places crudely expressed, their overall mood here expressed a shift away from what’s been a long-held feminist viewpoint that opera seems to regularly institutionalise the undoing of women, who are often the victims of male brutality; and that “calling out” certain attitudes and behaviours as exhibited by Count Ory for what they represent in a larger picture is in fact long overdue. The recent “me too” movement also reflects a change in the balance of power regarding interaction between the sexes that these more candid commentaries resoundingly echo.

In whatever sense, each cast member brought a distinctive quality of whole-heartedness to his or her role – as Count Ory, Manase Latu seemed to fill out every cubic measure of his character with roguish intention of a concupiscently self-serving kind, almost Falstaffian in his buffoonish scheming and ultimate humiliation – his voice impressively negotiated the numerous stratospheric notes in a way that readily conveyed his character’s overweening confidence. Equally compelling was Emma Pearson’s enticing portrayal of the Countess Adele, by turns confidently imperious and vulnerably girlish, and with a vocal armoury that seemed in charge of every emotion – an enthralling performance.

Ory’s partner-in-crime, Raimbaud, was sung by the mellifluous-voiced Moses Mackay, the first solo voice we heard in the opera, summoning the people who had gathered to attend to his master, his tones ringing and clear, his presence persuasive and credible. And in Act Two his retelling to the disguised “pilgrims” of his liquor-collecting adventure became a tour de force when echoed by the chorus’s enthusiastic interjections. Another voice we heard early on was that of Andrea Creighton’s with her steady, whole-hearted and ever-solicitous assumption of Ragonde, the Countess’s PR agent and confidante, one whose husband was among those absent on the “field of battle”, and, along with the other women, intrigued by the presence of the “holy man”.

I enjoyed Hanna Hipp’s whole-hearted Isolier, completely at ease with her character’s delightfully equivocal function in the story’s re-working of the “trouser-role” practice common in opera, here as a same-sex would-be lover of the Countess. As in last year’s “Cosi fan tutte” I found her singing and absorption of her character totally compelling, with her devotion to the Countess touching and resonant throughout. She also effectively established her connection as team masseur with Wade Kernot’s authoritative Coach, with whom she arrived at the resort, in search of the missing Ory, Wade Kernot then riveting us with his imposingly-voiced “tale of travail” regarding his troublesome protégé!

Rossini always writes engagingly and excitingly for his choruses in opera and “Le Comte Ory is no exception – particularly in the Second Act there’s fun and games aplenty, which  the “Wellington Chapter” of the New Zealand Opera Chorus took to like the proverbial ducks to water. In terms both of singing and stage deportment, the singers achieved marvels of evocation, delighting us with their antics in all manifestations.  Of course it was Michael Vinten in Wellington doing the honours as Chorus Director in his accustomedly splendid manner.

All of this, of course, was conceived, planned and executed with aplomb by director Simon Phillips, set and costume designer Tracy Grant Lord and lighting designer Matthew Marshall, whose efforts couldn’t have helped but been admired in regard to their (at times) breathtaking daring but still ultimately well-grounded sense of what was possible to make work on a stage in Aotearoa New Zealand. As Oscar Wilde once put it, the important thing is “being talked about” – and this is what’s been here achieved.

As befits somebody who’s actually made a recording as a conductor of this very work (Naxos 8.660207-08 – https://www.naxos.com/CatalogueDetail/?id=8.660207-08), conductor Brad Cohen (who also happens to be the current General Director of NZ Opera) seemed to bring to the performance all the musical and theatrical qualities needed to put across the zany escapades of the work with burning conviction. Perhaps the charm of a previous generation of Rossini conductors I’ve encountered on recordings (Vittorio Gui, Tulio Serafin, Carlo Maria Giulini) has been of late overshadowed by a more up-to-date snappiness of manner and generally higher-octane virtuosity among today’s maestri and their musicians. That old-world charm is something I occasionally find myself again yearning for – but there was no doubting the brilliance of both individual and corporate skills from Cohen and Orchestra Wellington in the pit of the St.James Theatre on this particular night, garnering a well-earned tumult of applause and appreciative shouts at the work’s conclusion from an obviously well-satisfied audience.

“The Choicest Songs” – an Anniversary concert from Baroque Voices at Futuna Chapel, Karori

Baroque Voices at Futuna Chapel,  Karori,  Wellington,
June 2024
David Morriss (bass), Pepe Becker (director, soprano), Douglas Mews (keyboards), Robert Oliver (bass viol)

                                  Futuna Chapel, Karori

Baroque Voices presents “The Choicest Songs”
A presentation celebrating the 30th anniversary of Baroque Voices
and commemorating various other anniversaries pertaining to Futuna Chapel and its creation

Music by John Dowland and his contemporaries
also Henry Purcell, Monica Verburg and Pepe Becker

Baroque Voices – Pepe Becker (soprano), David Morriss (bass)
Douglas Mews (virginals and recorder), Robert Oliver (bass viol)

Futuna Chapel, Friend St., Karori, Wellington

A review by Peter Mechen (Middle C)

On a still and sunny day, Futuna Chapel (built in 1961) in Karori exudes a unique interior atmosphere wrought by the play of light through angularly-placed stained-glass windows  contrasting  with rather more secluded interior vistas. It’s a singular version of a kind of eternity, one vaster than the actual limited spaces might give one to suggest, but compensating with the mystery wrought by the contrasts. It’s no longer a consecrated chapel, as was the case when I first arrived there as a wide-eyed student from a Palmerston North Catholic school in the 1960s, making one of two separate live-in spiritual retreats here, and relishing  on each occasion what used to be (alas, no longer) a surrounding hinterland of native bush through which one could walk and contemplate what seemed like a natural extension of the intangible mysteries I and my classmates were steeped in at that age.  (I freely admit it wasn’t entirely a haven of concentrated spiritual refurbishment, as we fifteen year-old boys seemed to all too readily find clandestine ways to entertain ourselves in more worldly pastimes thru  games of cards and dice in more secluded parts of that magnificent stand of bush!).

Today, however, was dull and overcast in Karori, as it was elsewhere in Wellington, with the chapel interior having all the more austere and gloomy an atmosphere for our promised concert, organised by the indefatigable Pepe Becker, the “guiding Light” behind the Wellington group “Baroque Voices”, whose 3O-year performing anniversary fell this month. Fortunately the bustle and atmosphere created by an enthusiastic (and practically full-house) audience created an ambience of its own which even the “ticky-tacky suburbia” that has ravaged the once-verdant surroundings couldn’t entirely spoil once we were inside and registering the chapel interior’s still-stunning evocations of its own kind of spirituality.

Pepe Becker’s programme notes reminded us that today’s concert was an occasion of anniversaries, being the 100th birthday of Futuna Chapel’s architect John Scott, who died in 1992 at the age of 68. And, coincidentally, it was the first anniversary of another important creative artist, Jim Allen, four of whose sculptures are embedded in the chapel’s architectural fabric. These anniversaries prompted the Futuna Chapel Trust to commission from Pepe Becker a new work commemorating both architect and artist, one called “concrete, wood and light” and  to be performed at today’s concert.

But there were premieres aplenty today, with two others featuring songs Pepe had written dedicated to two of her performing colleagues, bass David Morriss and the viol player Robert Oliver. First, we heard a song called “Fog”, with words written by the poet Carl Sandburg, and secondly an “Ave Maria” setting , one with an extra dedication to Pepe’s former mother-in-law, Mary Becker, who died in 2022. These songs all included the overall title “Capricorn”, alluding to the star-sign all of the people involved (including the poet!).  Adding further distinction to the concert were two more premieres by a different composer, a pair of songs called “Reflections”, with both words and music written by a flute-player friend of Pepe’s, Monica Verburg, interested in the combination of voice and recorder. Pepe remarked upon the pleasure of performing so many of these songs in close association with the people they were dedicated to.

Besides all of this there were works whose sounds, sentiments and spirit expressed a defining aspect of Baroque Voices’ raison d’etre, songs variously by John Dowland and Henry Purcell rubbing shoulders with a couple of instrumental performances featuring music by lesser-known contemporaries, Tobias Hume (1579-1645) and a name I didn’t know, William Inglot (1553-1621). Though one often encounters the quote “Semper Dowland, semper dolens” from the composer’s own title for one of his consort pieces, not all of his music is steeped in melancholy, as the concert’s opening number demonstrated – Up merry mates, from Dowland’s last book of songs the 1612 A Pilgrimes Solace, was presented here as a lively dialogue song between a ship’s master (Pepe) and his crew (David) on the occasion of rough weather, one which contains a philosophical response to the whims of nature (and some extremely low notes which David Morriss did well to negotiate!). The following heartfelt Toss not my soul was, by comparison, more characteristically sombre, beautifully voiced by the singers and sensitively accompanied.

We then got two delightfully contrasting instrumental solos from Robert Oliver featuring the relatively unknown Tobia Hume’s music – firstly Adieu Sweet Love from the composer’s 1605 book The First Part of Ayres, and then the livelier The spirit of Gambo; then it was back to Dowland again, for an attractive, open-hearted Sleep, wayward thoughts, again expressing a mood somewhat removed from the melancholic character usually accorded his work. I do recall my mother, who was a music teacher, being extremely fond of some of the composer’s Lute Dances which had been transcribed for piano, a number of which were anything but melancholic (the cheerful My Lady Hunsdon’s Puffe being one that particularly sticks in the memory).\

Next were three Purcell songs, each demonstrating the composer’s gift for expressing the actual “energy” of words, the first song Come, let us leave the town from “The Faerie Queen” replete with lively, oft-repeated canonic “comes” and other persuasively impressive urgencies from the two singers, all in stark contrast to the following Lost is my Quiet, a soulful lament for what each singer describes as “life’s happiest part”, though we were given a semblance of contentment by the rather more lively While bolts and bars my days control,  a song describing the mind as unfettered and “freeborn” though the body be held in captivity.

Came the first of the “Capricorn” premieres, with Pepe Becker’s “Fog” leading the way, Sandburg’s text brief and unprepossessing, characterising the fog as a cat-like in its movements and aspect, David Morriss’s voice suitably dark and restrained, and Robert Oliver’s viol-playing spare and stark as befitted the scenario. This was followed by Monica Verburg’s “Two Reflections” for soprano and recorder, written earlier this year, the first “Turn your eyes” imploring the listener with stepwise figurations to “follow a path that’s good and true”, and with the final words “see the beauty all around” reminding one of Mahler’s use of Chinese poetry in part of his “Das Lied Von der Erde”.

The second song “Ocean breeze” had a more meandering kind of opening, one whose phrasings took up a gentle kind of siciliana rhythm, Pepe’s voice and Douglas Mews’ recorder-playing beautifully delineating their own courseways through scenarios lit up by the setting sun and framed by oceanic surgings. I remember at one point the text “ocean breezes come by with the promise of a new day” coincided with a gust of wind outside the chapel which we all heard make its presence felt!

The last of the three Capricorn settings was an “Ave Maria” written by Pepe last year (2023) but only now receiving its premiere performance – set for soprano, bass and bass viol, and dedicated to both David and Robert, the work was written also for Pepe’s “lovely former mother-in-law”, Mary Becker, and was performed today in her memory. The opening of the work had a kind of prayerful, reverential beginning, with a second part that became more interactive between the voices and more imploring via some beautiful ascending phrases, before concluding with repeated “Amens”.

More songs, firstly from Purcell and finally, Dowland – the two Purcell songs brought out some truly satisfying singing from both voices, firstly, we enjoyed Leave these useless arts in loving, the nimbleness of both voices a real delight, and then the absolutely delicious Come let us agree, from the composer’s “Timon of Athens”, the words containing sentiments than no-one present would have dreamed of disputing! – and especially in the wake of this performance!

The return of Dowland for the last three items in the “song” bracket brought a beautiful solemnity to the first of these, Flow my tears, a song that contained the words “Where night’s blackbird her sad infamy sings”, and featured a virginals-only accompaniment (I read somewhere that this became Dowland’s single most famous song, a kind of “signature-tune” – certainly, on the strength of this stirring performance one could understand why!).

At this point we were treated to the second of our instrument-only interludes, this one courtesy of Douglas Mews at the virginals, and featuring a work by another lesser-known composer, one William Inglott (c.1553-1621). Although obscure today, Inglott carved out a sufficient reputation for himself in his lifetime to have a plaque at Norwich Cathedral erected at his death (and after being restored in the 18th Century, one which survives to this present day). Douglas Mews read a poem on which Inglott’s composition, The Leaves Bee Greene, was based – one which I haven’t been able to locate for this review, unfortunately, but was still eminently worth hearing.

Of the two remaining Dowland songs, the first, the renowned Fine knacks for Ladies again most delightfully gave the lie to the idea of the composer being “semper dolens”, the words tripping over the tongues and from the mouths of both singers, and mellifluously accompanied not only by the bass viol, but additionally by Douglas Mews’ recorder in the second and third verses.  After this the last of the songs was always going to sound relatively subdued, but perhaps not inappropriately – words and music of Now, O now I needs must part took on a strong hymn-like character as the singers and instrumentalists (from Verse Three onwards Robert Oliver’s bass viol was joined by Douglas Mews’ recorder once again) gave the sentiments all due sonorous and characterful strength up to the end – very beautiful and heart-warming!

So to the concert’s final item, another premiere, this time a joint commemorative tribute from composer Pepe Becker and poet/writer Gregory O’Brien (whose words had already been written for an earlier publication, and were now set to Pepe’s music for this occasion) to the work of architect John Scott and sculptor Jim Allen. This work, called “Concrete, Wood and Light” was crafted for what the composer called  “an aptly unconventional” Quartet of soprano, recorder, bass and bass viol, with additional wood, stone and body-percussion added to the mix – what Pepe called a “sonic homage” to the building’s many colours and textures.

Begun by vocal humming and various kinds of other vocalisings, singers and instrumentalists began intoning the text, along with ambient irruptions of various percussion sounds, and the recorder joining in with the voices. The work reached a focal point at the words “You are a shelter or clearing in which we find our voices”, continuing towards the text’s final reference  to “the L-shaped silence of your body”. The rest was resonance and presence and awareness, and with a great oneness at the end – all that seemed to matter was the space itself and the renewed and reaffirmed life into which the  artists, performers and audience had poured themselves today.

 

 

 

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The NZSQ and Quintessence – a day in the life of a string quartet

Quintessence: an NZSQ Celebration

Concert introduced by Jeremy Johnson, Chairman of the New Zealand String Quartet Trust

BRAHMS – String Quartet No 3 in B-flat Major Op.67
Helene Pohl (leader), Monique Lapins (violin), Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

Farewell speech made by Monique Lapins, Second Violin of the New Zealand String Quartet

MOZART – String Quintet No.1 in B-flat major K.174
Helene Pohl (leader), Peter Clark (violin), Gillian Ansell (viola), Monique Lapins (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University of Wellington
Kelburn Parade, Wellington

Friday 7th June, 2024

It had to come – this was Monique Lapins’ final concert with the New Zealand String Quartet, marking her decision to move on after eight years spent as the group’s second violinist. With characteristic aplomb and due ceremony and not a little emotion, the process of change was here accorded appropriately bitter-sweet valedictory form by all of us who had gathered in the Hunter Council Chamber that evening. We were welcomed by Jeremy Johnson, Chairman of the New Zealand String Quartet Trust, who then paid the warmest of tributes to Monique regarding the significance and success of her tenure with the quartet before wishing her well, to which expression we all gave heartfelt accord.

Monique’s choice of repertoire as her “swan song” with the group was Brahms’s Third String Quartet, a kind of acme of expression for the ensemble, here given extra memorability by the circumstances.
Quartet leader Helene Pohl introduced the work for us, making due reference to the composer’s awareness of Beethoven and his legacy, and its “intimidating” factor for him. As Monique was to specifically mention the Beethoven cycle she had taken part in over the last eight years as a “career highlight” one understood the choice of Brahms as a kind of act of shared homage uniting composer and performer!

It did seem from the outset a kind of “master-class” of quartet-writing, with the composer obviously delighting in the contrasts between the opening “galloping” motiv sounded first in pairs, and then by the whole ensemble, the trajectories then being wreathed with almost insinuating diaphanous textures, and suggesting a Brahms with rather more impressionistic inclination than on previous occasions, as if stepping boldly into unknown territories. I loved the players’ voicings here, with Helene Pohl’s remarkable, almost “ghostly” tones darting around the others’ sombre impulses leading up to the almost artless dance-tune over which the cross-rhythms firstly send the players scurrying back to the beginning, and then dare those brave and bold enough to “sound out” the unknown territories before calling their bluff with some trenchant figurations. Masterly!

The second movement had Brahms in an almost “Salut d’amour” mood at its beginning, with ravishing playing of the opening theme from Helene Pohl, before a minor key-change heralded rather more forceful outbursts, tempered by thoughtful contributions from viola and ‘cello. Again, the quartet’s different voicings beautifully opened up for us these moments of impulse encircled by wonderment, and towards a disarming “Amen” at the movement’s close.

Surely the dark-toned Scherzo is one of the composer’s most compelling! – the players here drew us into its almost phantasmagorical world, right from Gillian Ansell’s hypnotic playing of the strangely lurching, almost anguished opening waltz-theme, embellished by the first violin, the music’s poise restored momentarily by a smilingly vigorous dance like major-key figure, and some hauntingly-played modulations into more wistful realms – enchanting, but precarious, with the viola all too ready to take up the agitato opening once again! We waited for the outcome of the exchanges between Gillian’s viola and Helene’s violin, with the viola prevailing and summonsing us onwards to the Trio. As well it might have, because in the beautifully circumspect Trio the viola at first “called the tune”,  even if the violins did between them manage to grab some limelight – but what splendid focus the music gave to the instrument throughout this characterful movement right up to the end!

No better homage to Beethoven could have been devised here by Brahms than through the finale’s theme-and variations, a simple theme’s triplet rhythms cantering in and setting off a variety of characterful responses. How wonderful, though, after we’d welcomed these newcomers, was the sudden reappearance of the work’s opening, and for us to be able to warm to this “old friend” in the music, duly introduced to other characters from different parts of the work! After “who was who” had been sorted out, a brief coda proclaimed honour satisfied, and ended the work with a no-nonsense Brahmsian flourish!

After we’d expressed our heartfelt appreciation regarding the performance, it was, sadly, Monique Lapins’ turn to speak to us all regarding her “having come to the end” of her time with the New Zealand String Quartet, an experience which over the past eight years, she said, had been “the greatest honour” to share the performing stage with such wonderful colleagues, speaking of their “boundless energy, enthusiasm, rich musicality and unwavering commitment to music”. She also paid a warm tribute to the Quartet’s management team (regrettably Quartet Manager Aislinn Ryan couldn’t attend the concert because she had COVID) as well as to all the people who had made up the group’s “wonderful network of supporters” all of whom had helped make the experience for her such a rewarding one. She expressed a warm welcome to her successor, Peter Clark, wishing him well in his new adventure with the group of “making music together”. And with that, she invited the quartet members back onto the performing platform with their new second violinist, so that they could together perform one of Mozart’s most adorable works – the first of the composer’s String Quintets, K.174 in B-flat Major….

We’d previously heard a single movement of this work from the same group at the Quartet’s St Mary of the Angels concert last month (see review at https://middle-c.org/2024/05/18231/), but this time we were treated to the whole of the Quintet. It’s always been a favourite of mine, partly through an ongoing exchange of reactions with an old friend over the work’s opening, vis-à-vis the debatable issue of rhythm predominating over melodic line, or vice-versa (I’ve always plumped for the physical excitement of that driving rhythm, whereas he would “bliss out” over the violin’s soaring melody!). Here, I thought the two were well-nigh equally weighted, as the ensemble chose not to unduly “dig into” the initial notes as did the players on the recording I learned the work from (the Amadeus Quartet with Cecil Aronowitz, whose sound I continue to “hear” in my head as a kind of “template” whenever listening to anybody else play!).

Gorgeous “touches” abounded in this work, such as the introspective moments where individual lines muse and “call out” responses from other instruments, here sounding particularly thoughtful and wistful in places, the lovely duetting between two violas which added a unique colour to the sound, and the sections where the composer’s modulations have that naturally improvisatory flow that his contemporaries envied. The players further enchanted our sensibilities with the slow movement’s beautiful unison opening and the following “Serenata Notturna”-like exchanges, as they also did with the evocative “fairground” aspect of the Menuetto’s carnival-like opening, and the Trio’s beguiling echo effects.

But it was the finale that truly delighted us, especially with the scampering passagework, both canonic and in “unison thirds” from all the players, with some sequences resembling high-speed criss-crossings of trains on rail networks with nary a mishap! We particularly enjoyed the almost naughty incursion of triplets at one point, Mozart simply demonstrating that it could be done and without a misstep! Throughout, the players demonstrated in spadefuls that characteristic aspect of the ensemble, an all-encompassing enjoyment of the act of music-making together, one which Monique Lapins had emphasised in her tribute to her colleagues as perhaps the defining quality that had made her time with the quartet such a positive and memorable experience.

Having at the end of a previous review bade my farewells and good wishes already to Monique, I hesitate to awkwardly repeat myself – except to say that in regard to the evening, I thought her playing, her spoken tributes and her gracious relinquishing of her second violin role to her successor in concert all played a part in contributing to a response from all of us intended to express our warmest appreciation, heartfelt thanks and very best wishes towards her for her journey to come.

 

 

 

 

 

JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations for String Trio – a benefit concert for ‘cellist Jack Moyer

JS BACH – Goldberg Variations BWV 988  (arranged for String Trio by Dmitri Sitkovetsky)

Monique Lapins (violin)
Alex McFarlane (viola)
Jack Moyer (‘cello)

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

Sunday, 26th May, 2024

Firstly, a bit of history – in 1741 Bach had published a keyboard work with the painstaking title , Aria, with diverse variations for a harpsichord with two manuals. It was the concluding work in the composer’s Clavier-Ubung (Keyboard Practice), a publication Bach intended would show a complete range of possibilities for keyboard players, technical, virtuosic, and interpretative.

The work’s opening Aria came from a copy written out by the composer’s second wife, Anna Magdalena of music Bach had made before, one from which he then devised 30 new variations. The legend largely accompanying these pieces grew up out of an 1802 biography of Bach by one Johann Nikolaus Forkel, that the music was written for use by a Count Kaiserling to counter bouts of insomnia, played by the count’s personal harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a pupil of Bach’s son Wilhelm Friedmann. Scholars reckon the story to relate more to the history of the work rather than its origins, as the young Goldberg also took lessons with JS Bach and may have encountered the work as a student.

Estimates regarding the music’s circulation at the time reckon something like 100 printed copies (several of which survive today), but no documented performances were recorded apart from the occasional mention in late nineteenth century recital programmes for the piano. The first name associated with public performance of the work is of the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, who began her own “Bach revival” in 1903, eventually recording the work on the harpsichord firstly in 1933 and again in 1946, albeit on her inauthentic custom-built instruments.

Though pianist Claudio Arrau had performed the complete keyboard works of Bach in 1935, and made a recording of the Goldbergs in 1942, the latter recording wasn’t released until the 1980s – by then the work had already “come of age” in gramophone terms thanks to the phenomenon that was the young Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, whose renowned 1955 LP recording traversed the globe, bringing the Variations into the mainstream of classical music listening.

Today there are all manner of performances and arrangements of the work, bringing the echt-baroque practice of transcription into our technological age, and taking the work through instruments such as the piano, harp and string ensembles to the world of accordions and marimbas, not to mention saxophone and guitar ensembles and various other jazz trios. One presumes the composer, whose music seemed consigned almost to oblivion for most of the century following his death, would have been gratified at his creation’s remarkable resurgence.

Violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s 1985 transcription of the Variations for string trio in 1985 was the one which today’s ensemble of Monique Lapins (violin), Alex McFarlane (viola) and Jack Moyer (‘cello) brought resplendently to life at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace in Wellington. The occasion was a “benefit concert” for the young ‘cellist in the group, Jack Moyer, due to take up a four-year Honours Bachelor of Music programme at London’s prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the near-full attendance happily rewarding both the organisers’ and performers’ efforts on behalf of the project.

I had retained a vivid memory of a previous occasion when the New Zealand String Quartet (then with Douglas Bielman as the second violinist, and amazingly, as far back as 2013) performed a quartet arrangement of the work, made by William Cowdery – one of several performances by the quartet at around that time. This later concert was, of course, a different kind of experience in almost every way, apart from my shared feeling here at the work’s end, as in 2013, that “we were able to coexist, for a short time, with a kind of transcendental awareness of things, by way of music whose being somehow seemed to accord with our own existence” – for interest’s sakes, a link to the original review is here provided – https://middle-c.org/2013/05/the-goldbergs-with-strings-attached/

Right from violinist Monique Lapins’ beautifully-nuanced delivery of the theme, with its spacious vistas inviting the most delicate of embellishments when repeated, we were drawn into the Bachian world of infinite possibility! All was stimulated further by the entirely characteristic change of mood with the instantly-engaging dance rhythm of the first variation, both Alex McFarlane’s viola and Jack Moyer’s ‘cello establishing at various times, whether leading or accompanying, a presence of character in their exuberantly-wrought figurations.

Whatever the nature of each variation as regards tone colour or trajectory, the players took to it instantly, giving as much pleasure in the transition from one mood to another as to their sustaining a piece’s character – so the sequence beginning with the chunkily-voiced, down-to-earth Variation 5, followed by the deftly elfin peregrinations of Variation 6, and the diverting contrasts between song-like melody and dance-like rhythm in Variation 7 made for a delightful string of progressions in itself, capped off by the elegant humour of the composer’s more-than-usually graceful “Gigue” in Variation 8, with every move and gesture, nuance and  decisive movement “sounded” here with conviction.

To neglect or pass lightly over any section of the Goldbergs would seem reprehensible, though I’m not able to resist recounting certain moments in the performance which drew me an indefinably extra “way” into the music. I loved, for instance, the “strut” of the players’ rhythms in the Fuguetta of Variation 10, begun irresistibly by Jack Moyer’s ‘cello, and reinforced in every sense of an occasion by each of the others. How appropriate, then that the following Variation, with its cascading ritual-like descending figures would put one in mind of the ringing of bells! And I warmed, in a different way, to the group’s playing of the beautiful Variation 13, with the viola’s and ‘cello’s tenderly-voiced melodic lines freeing the violin’s descant-like decorations with a bird-like overview. No wonder, then, that what Glenn Gould called the “neo-Scarlatti” energies of the following Variation 14 made such an invigorating contrast – and what virtuoso playing there was from all concerned!

I’m obviously not going to be able to “get to” all the performance highlights whose details I scribbled down in my notebook as quickly as I could, trying to keep up with so many rapid-fire fiddlings! I did, I admit, think the St.Andrews’ acoustic at times bright to a fault, in running the tones of the lighter instruments in particular together more than I would have wished for, so that one or two of the more busily-scored sequences in the concert seemed almost as confused-sounding as conversational to my ears – I rather preferred the string-sound we had enjoyed from the NZSQ in the acoustic of St. Mary of the Angels Church, a little more than a week ago! Fortunately most of the players’ efforts here “worked with” the venue’s sound, enabling them to make a grand and satisfying thing of the work’s halfway point Variation 16’s “French Overture”, phrasing the notes generously rather than over-emphatically as seems to be the “period practice” wont these days. And special mention must be made of the playing here of the famous “Black Pearl” Variation No. 25 (described as such by harpsichordist Wanda Landowska) – incredible music, with the kind of sombre beauty that induces awe, especially those sounds which suggest, as here, that one is in unchartered waters, confronted by the unknowable (simply writing about these moments we heard here still gives me goosebumps!)

As for the “Holy Trinity” of the last three Variations, I (a) loved the players’ almost surreal switching between full-throated and filigree sounds in Variation 27, including some heartfelt chromatic “sighs” in places; (b) was slightly disconcerted by the heavy-handedness of Variation 28, thinking that we might have enjoyed a lighter, more circumspect or humourful touch; and (c) thoroughly enjoyed the earthy “bonhomie” of the renowned Quodlibet Variation – after all of which the return of the Aria was like a benediction in itself – as if the composer was setting the words “And we shall be changed” in a deeply human kind of context, but with every note, bowed or plucked, resonating with us and conveying more than words could ever say……

What an occasion for Jack Moyer! – playing his part superbly alongside two extraordinarily talented fellow musicians at this stage of a musical career will surely rank as an unforgettable experience,  Whatever he goes on to achieve, the uniqueness of this day’s occasion will remain – good luck to him for it all!

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!