Taioro – words and music of Aotearoa New Zealand at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

St.Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series 2022 presents:

TAIORO – A new ensemble (2021)  presents New Zealand Chamber Music with Poetry,
for speaker, viola, cello and piano

(“TAI, the tide. Representing the ebbs and flows of tangaroa and the energy that we ourselves hold.
ORO, to resound or resonate, and the word used for a musical note.”)

Music by Antony Ritchie, Alfred Hill, Douglas Lilburn and David Hamilton

Sharn Maree Cassady – poet and speaker
Donald Maurice  – viola / viola d’amore
Inbal Megiddo – ‘cello
Sherry Grant – poet and piano

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

Wednesday 16th February, 2022

This lunchtime concert at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace furthered what’s become a refreshing change of late for ears inundated in the past with “standard” repertoire and presentations – a recital of words and music from a recently-formed group, Taioro, presenting works whose origins and inspirations stemmed from our own place, Aotearoa New Zealand.  Of course, there’s an impressively-growing body of work already emanating from our own composers, with names too numerous to mention; and with contemporary performance groups such as Stroma occasionally emerging in concert with some stimulatingly ear-prickling sounds. The challenge for these composers and musicians is to keep up the momentums, fostering continued interest in “our” sounds and our singular ways of doing things.

While some of the works presented today could be almost deemed “historic”, with music by Alfred Hill (1870-1960) and Douglas Lilburn (1915-2001), along with poetry by ARD Fairburn (1904-57) and James K.Baxter (1926-72), we heard also music by living composers Anthony Ritchie and David Hamilton (the latter present at the concert), in tandem with poetry written by both the concert’s presenter, Sharn Maree Cassady, and pianist Sherry Grant, along with another poem “Stone Woman” written by Christchurch poet Bernadette Hall and set to music by Anthony Ritchie – it was, all-in-all, a judicious mix of past and present creative endeavour!

We began our listening with Anthony Ritchie’s wonderfully storm-tossed Allegro tempestuoso for viola and piano, taken at a real lick by Donald Maurice and Sherry Grant. Amid the sparks generated by the playing I heard an exotic flavouring or two in the piece’s harmonies and the folksy rhythmic drive, emphasised also by the viola’s “eastern” kind of melodic line in a slower, expressive middle section. The performers adroitly brought out the numerous different characters in the music’s widely-ranging explorations, bluesy one moment and then whirling and vertiginous the next – after all the sound and fury, the performers brought the piece to its somewhat amiably halting conclusion.

A second piece by Anthony Ritchie was titled In Memoriam, the music dedicated to the life and passing of a woman called “Angela”, whose AGEA motive the piece featured was demonstrated on Donald Maurice’s viola beforehand. This was a beautiful-sounding work, the violist playing variants of the “Angela” theme over a kind of threnody from the ‘cello (a gorgeous tonal outpouring from both string-players, here, the music brief but extremely moving). We heard also a piece Ritchie had named after a poem by Bernadette Hall, entitled “Song – Stone Woman”, the music seeming almost anecdotal in effect, rhythms “jamming” in an improvisatory way and accompaniments wry and loose-limbed. The poem was read simply and almost conversationally by Sharn Maree Cassady, Hall’s style as a poet seeming to lend itself to such treatment.

Thanks, it seems, to some vagary of the venue’s particular acoustic, I had to strain to hear much of this spoken content of the presentation at the concert, though I was sitting almost right at the front, albeit on the opposite side from where the speaker, Sharn Maree, was placed. After the concert I checked with the person sitting next to me, and she said she also had difficulty hearing the words accompanying firstly the Alfred Hill tribute piece, and then both of Douglas Lilburn’s tribute pieces to ARD Fairburn and James K.Baxter (the latter two including the poets’ own poetry). The music, by contrast, seemed to present no problem – about which circumstance I thereupon wrote a “draft review” of what I had heard, and contacted the performers outlining the  difficulties I’d experienced.

I would, of course, have far preferred to have heard more clearly Sharn Maree Cassady’s comments in situ (all delivered seemingly in similar poetic style) regarding all three of the “past” personalities, belonging as they did to eras which had different attitudes, values and modes to our present PC-dominated world.  At the time, the music provided ample compensation, but I was still aware I was missing an integral part of things. Project co-ordinator Donald Maurice thereby arranged most kindly for me to view and hear the entire concert as it was videoed, something which I have just finished watching. To my delight speaker Sharn Maree’s words in the recording came over perfectly clearly, enabling me to truly take in each of her poetically-expressed responses to the texts associated with the chosen pieces that made up the concert.

Though Alfred Hill’s piece that was presented had no accompanying text, his numerous interactions with Maori during his time in New Zealand were well-documented, giving Cassady sufficient material to craft a response to Hill’s work, words and philosophies. The poetry of ARD Fairburn (1904-57) by turns swashbuckling, wry and romantic, and definitely from an age which more contemporary attitudes would almost certainly find in places at best old-fashioned, and at worst with racist and sexist overtones – so it was no surprise to find in her reply to James K.Baxter (1926-72)  a far more sympathetic and shared acceptance of certain values in both the poetry and regarding the ethos of the man in popular legend, than in her reaction to Fairburn’s verses.  This was underlined via a nicely-flowing and readily-nuanced reading of Baxter’s poem Sisters at Jerusalem, followed by a response begun with a whimsical “May I call you James?” from Cassedy, prefacing her reply.

The  music of Alfred Hill’s chosen was simply  called Andantino, one which I later discovered was a transcription for viola and piano of the slow movement of the composer’s Viola Concerto. Like everything I’ve heard of Hill’s, the work had a distinction and a surety of touch which Donald Maurice’s and Sherry Grant’s playing enriched and ennobled with their rich, heartfelt tones. The piece’s ending had its own singularity – an exquisitely-voiced modulation Into “other realms” before the voices found their way back to the home key at the end.

Douglas Lilburn’s “salute” to Fairburn began with a lovely mantra-like piano figure whose sound for me exerted considerable emotional pull, like a seabird’s song calling a traveller home, one whose response in the hands of ‘cellist Inbal Megiddo matched such feelings with beautifully-projected tones, the feelings truly “grounded” by the piano’s deep-sounding pedal-points and the cello’s joyous life-dance, one that eventually brought forth ringing bell-like resonances at the piece’s conclusion. Just as resonant in its own way was Lilburn’s tribute to James K.Baxter, beginning with a ritualised exchange of bugle-like calls between viola and piano that put one in mind of a walking song, one that engagingly broke into a 5/4 dance, replete with energy and humour – at the revelry’s height the dance cried off with the piano’s deep-throated call to attention, bringing the viola back to the by-now nostalgic bugle-like calls from the beginning, the energies having come full circle and brought us home once more.

With the work of David Hamilton our concert returned to the here-and-now with a world premiere of a work for narrator, viola d’amore and piano “Avec amour” (With love). This was Hamilton’s setting for those instruments of the words to a poem by Sherry Grant, the concert’s pianist. Unfortunately the programme I picked up at the concert’s beginning was missing its inner section with the poet’s text printed in full, so that I struggled throughout to pick up “shreds and patches” in tandem with the ongoing musical discourse, the instruments often masking the words.

I thought the music both soulful and  piquant at first, then more declamatory and bardic as the way was prepared for the narrator. The poem’s words seemed to describe some kind of conceit, idealistically describing something perhaps as imagined as real, which the sounds of the viola d’amore and the piano reflected – all framed by the  phrase “a true rarity in this age”. The setting gave the discourse and their sounds a somewhat detached air in places, a feeling that the music’s epilogue reinforced for me, leaving a “do I wake or sleep” kind of impression at the end. It was a piece that I wanted to hear again immediately afterwards, as there was a dreamlike air about it all that seemed to defy direct engagement – one could “drift” rather than properly engage (and I wasn’t helped by not having the words available to read and follow in situ.) The voice’s diffused sound gave its timbre an almost instrument-like quality, another strand to the argument, another layer to the textures…

Having (a) procured a copy of the poem’s words, and (b) been kindly sent by Donald Maurice both a full script and a copy of the finished video, I was able to more justly “relive” the concert’s experience and, hopefully make proper recourse at last to the efforts of all of the performances, in particular this, the concert’s final item. Described by narrator Sharn Maree Cassady as “a tribute to the viola d’amore”, the work began with a recitative-like passage for the viola d’amore before being joined quixotically by the piano, the speaker then adding to the narrative strands as if the words were threads weaving their way through a sound-tapestry. At the verse’s end the music reflected on the meeting of hitherto free spirits and the tremulous attraction of unchartered emotional waters. Sharn Maree Cassady’s delivery weighed every word patiently, precisely, almost dispassionately, letting the music delineate the impulses, and the “ancient brilliance so unexpected, yet familiar in every turn, in each corner”.

Winsomely, the piano responded to the viola’s quizzical utterances, opening a vein of longing,  towards the igniting of the “infinitely burning desire” to the point of conflagration, the voice again the serene, objective observer, letting the heat of the “feverish pair of flaming swords” pass as if sunlight had suddenly broken through clouds, and then been again obscured…. the moment was here celebrated with incisive piano chords and then, prompted by the speaker’s words, “together we sing in joy”, moved on by the viola into an exchange of here-and-now fulfilment from both instruments…….the “song” became both rapturous and exploratory, the sudden upward modulation at the speaker’s words “Avec Amour” taking the listener to “different realms” beyond experience, transcending the usual “order” of things, even to the point of calling Cupid, the God of Love, to question with the “true rarity” of emotion beyond reason. Sharn Maree Cassady’s tones here evoked “time-standing still” ambiences, as the poem’s words, the viola, and the piano all appeared to take up the “feel” of the music’s opening once more, as if we had journeyed right around the sun – but, (as TS Eliot observed) “never the same time returns”, which was attested by the coda, with its different, more valedictory feeling.

We were asked at the concert’s beginning not to applaud between numbers, as the proceedings were being recorded. Aside from my frustrations at the time, I loved the concert and its sounds and the care and commitment with which the performers obviously brought these things to us for our enjoyment, and am so grateful to Donald Maurice, and to Antony Donovan, the recording engineer, for allowing me access to  the video recording in order to get the “full picture” of what the performers were able to achieve.

William Berry – a “young lion of the keyboard” at St.Andrew’s


(In preparation for the National Piano Competition 2022)

  • performing the following three 30-minute programmes:

Programme 1: Scriabin – Trois Etudes op. 65 Beethoven – Sonata in E major op. 109 Albeniz – Triana William Berry – On Edge

Programme 2: Haydn – Sonata in B minor Hob. XVI:32 Rachmaninoff – Sonata in Bb minor op. 36

Programme 3: Carl Vine – Sonata 1 Chopin – Polonaise-Fantaisie op. 61

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

Sunday, 30th January, 2022

I was invited to attend this concert merely as a listener rather than as a reviewer; but the playing of eighteen year-old William Berry, a finalist in last year’s National Competition, calls, I think, for some comment by way of appreciation of what I consider to be the young performer’s tremendous talent. The competition he’s about to take part in stipulates two thirty-minute programmes of music chosen by the pianist – so one presumes Berry will either perform two of the three thirty-minute sequences of works he presented to us this afternoon, or else rearrange the items into the desired framework, depending upon which he thought came off best in performance.

Looking at the three different programmes presented by the pianist, I thought they each provided a judiciously-balanced range of repertoire which allowed him to demonstrate his capabilities to their best advantage. The first programme began with Scriabin’s Trois Etudes Op.65, the opening study all fantasy and vertiginous impulse, featuring in particular beautifully-feathery right-handed work, the whole balancing mercurial whimsy against both abandonment and circumspect inwardness. This was followed by a long-breathed meditation, one whose notes for the most part resembled exquisite stalactite-like progressions, though the latent energies flickered tantalisingly a couple of times before returning to the piece’s essential quietitude. As for the third etude , Berry breathtakingly set the opening fleet-fingered figurations against the heavier, more insistent shouts which eventually won the day with a spectacular ascending flourish at the piece’s end.

In its own way the world of Beethoven’s Op.109 E major Sonata sounded as distinctive as Scriabin’s, the evocations of each of the movements as singular and “from the air” as those of the Russian master we heard, written almost a century later. Berry gave the opening movement the free space that both the first flowing notes and the contrasting expansive rejoiners themselves suggested, impulses which alchemically made firstly poetry and then grandeur out of motion. While I thought he risked taking the swagger out of  the march-like second movement by taking it all a shade too fast, the rushing torrent that the playing evoked suited the work’s free-spirited aspect as admirably. I was sorry the repeats in the “theme and variations” were not observed, as I felt we seemed to move more quixotically than ecstatically through some of the movement’s treasurable mood-changes (I particularly wanted to hear again that wonderful “delayed modulation” sequence in one of the variations, but had to be content with this more-than-usually austere view of things, if beautifully played. But Berry made amends with his heartfelt treatment of the contrast between the “trills” sequences and the return of the movement’s quietly ecstatic chordal opening at the sonata’s end.

How thrilling to hear a piece from Albeniz’s Iberia , the colourful and evocative Triana, with its distinctive flamenco rhythms and textures characteristic of gypsy music. Berry warmed to this music from its deceptively dainty beginnings, investing the sequences with increasing textural and colouristic girth, and arriving at the piece’s middle section with considerable relish, the trajectories readily inviting the “big tune” to dance, Berry’s sure-fingered playing beautifully augmenting the textures with all kinds of tactile harmonic clusters that distinctively and irresistibly flavour the music.

We heard one of Berry’s own compositions to conclude this part of the programme, a short but hair-raising piece entitled On Edge. The music opened flowingly at first, before entangling its lines in what seemed claustrophobic fashion, with figurations shouldering one another aside as fresh impulses sprang forth, the whole gathering itself up into a scherzando section of considerable brilliance and excitement.

A Haydn Sonata (Hob.XVI:32 in B Minor) proved an excellent choice to begin the second thirty-minute section of the recital – the opening music was delivered with wit, point and schwung, giving the dynamic and textural contrasts proper dramatic life, especially in the movement’s second subject. The composer didn’t disappoint with his development sequence, enabling us to enjoy as much as did the soloist the garrulity of the repeated figures and their burgeoning interactions. And what a heartwarming homecoming here under Berry’s fingers to conclude the movement!

An attractive Menuetto was gracefully and winsomely brought into play, the opening contrasting startlingly with a middle section that seemed to fancy itself as some kind of feisty toccata for a few measures, before returning abashedly to its former manner. Continuing its litany of surprises, the work’s finale then straightaway began a kind of “cat-and-mouse” fugue, one which drew upon ever-burgeoning reserves of energy to produce a brilliant effect via Berry’s scintillating fingerwork, ideas shouldering one another aside with freshly-wrought impulses, before surprising us all at the work’s conclusion with a nicely-timed throwaway ending!

Because of Berry’s boldly-conceived programming, I enjoyed the juxtapositioning of Haydn’s and Rachmaninov’s treatment of sonata form in this segment of the concert as much as anything I heard this afternoon. Here we were able to experience a no-holds-barred arch-romantic approach to a traditionally classical format made to work from ”within” as effectively, for me, as did Haydn’s in its own context. Interestingly, Berry chose to perform Rachmaninov’s 1913 “original” version of a work he was to extensively revise in 1931 – regarding the revision, the composer himself wrote: – “I look at some of my earlier works and see how much there is that is superfluous. Even in this Sonata so many voices are moving simultaneously, and it is so long. Chopin’s Sonata lasts nineteen minutes and all has been said……” To this day pianists and commentators argue whether Rachmaninov’s alterations to the work are to its advantage, whether they eliminate unnecessary material and tighten up the structure, or whether they are a mutilation which upset the work’s formal balance and thematic argument.

My own feeling is that the first two movements are superb in their original versions, but the finale doesn’t for me sustain its overall level of creative flow to the same extent, relying over much on a certain rhetorical flamboyance which requires white heat in performance to really make work. Most astonishingly, William Berry’s passionate commitment to the cause carried us all away, riveting  our sensibilities and leaving us imbued with the music’s fervour of expression and its composer’s unique sense of a world in the turmoil of change. I loved the slow movement’s long-breathed resonances here, Rachmaninov personalising his deep identification with the ambiences he loved, those of ritual, song and music simply in the air of his native land.

The one piece across the three programmes which for me didn’t quite “fire” was in the last group, and the very last work Berry played in the concert proper, Chopin’s enigmatic Polonaise-Fantasie Op.61 – his reading here seemed almost too fluently-propelled to my ears, smoothing out some of the music’s rhythmic girth which connects with its native earth vis-à-vis the dance, and as such leaving a somewhat under-characterised impression.  I wondered whether the Chopin’s proximity to Berry’s brilliant performance of Carl Vine’s Piano Sonata No. 1  (part of which I had previously reviewed in a concert more than a year ago – https://middle-c.org/2020/09/wellington-entrants-shape-up-for-the-national-junior-piano-competition-finals/) had resulted in the former’s more circumspect manner being somewhat over-galvanised in the slipstream of such brilliance, coruscation and crackling voltage as evoked by Vine in his Sonata and realised here by the performer.

To tumultuous applause Berry took his final bow, then returned to play us an encore, characteristically, something off the beaten track and filled with interest – it was a piece of Nikolai Medtner’s, one of his numerous skazka (translated; “fairy tales”) this one Op.20 No. 1. It wasn’t something I knew, but the piece sounded very like Rachmaninov (he and Medtner were contemporaries)……it made for a satisfying and sonorous conclusion to a wide-ranging recital.

I feel certain that everybody present would want to wish William Berry all the best in his forthcoming competition – judging by the no-holds-barred aspect of his playing for us throughout the afternoon he seems sufficiently fired up so as to give it all his best shot.


Ali Harper’s Circa Theatre tribute to the extraordinary Carole King

Carole King  – A Natural Woman

Ali Harper (vocals)
With Nick Granville (guitar), Scott Maynard (bass), Francis Meria (piano)
and Francis Leota (guest singer).

Producer(s) – Ali Harper, Iain Cave (Ali-Cat Productions)
Music arrangements – Tom Rainey
Lighting, sound design and operator – Rich Tucker
Costume design – Roz Wilmott-Dalton, Ali Harper

Circa Theatre, I Taranaki St., Wellington

Saturday 22nd January

If you’re like me, you’ll still have a headful of songs playing away in your cerebral jukebox which instantly bring back nostalgic memories of different eras, but in many cases have neglected the “fine detail” of actually knowing who WROTE some of these songs…….well, if that’s so, then singer Ali Harper’s latest presentation “A Natural Woman” at Circa Theatre (which opened on Saturday night) is a “must see” for you!

The music and its presentation here felt for me like a series of oceanic currents which caught me up and swept me along through music’s wider vistas, leaving me at the end somewhat dumbfounded at both the force and unexpected variety of songwriter Carole King’s creative genius. Of course I knew her name (automatically bracketing her with Jerry Goffin, her husband and writer of her song’s lyrics for almost twenty years of her career, up to 1968), and was certainly aware of her most famous recording, the album “Tapestry”, which appeared in 1971 (but which I never bought or got to know, to my great regret, being too enamoured of her friend Joni Mitchell’s music at the time). But what I didn’t grasp was the extent to which King wrote songs that other people made famous – or made other people famous!

I could go through Ali Harper’s show and pinpoint the epiphanous (both retrospective and “then-and-now”) moments, but thought I would leave such delights of belated recognition for those, like myself, who relish such things in situ apart from the ones I simply HAVE to mention! Of course, to Carole King’s fans, aware of her far-reaching and resonating influence, each song Harper presented here was a gem, to be re-exhibited and relished all over again, including several I didn’t really know, and therefore couldn’t, in perhaps the show’s most touching moment, respond to the singer’s ready invitation to “join in” with the lyrics of “You’ve got a friend”, which was also a hit for King’s colleague James Taylor in 1971. Now, had I bought that “Tapestry” LP back in the 1970s (along with those Joni Mitchell albums!) I would have been able to sing along with the rest!

Harper opened her show in atmospheric style, with a sultry rendition of the opening words of one of King’s most iconic songs “I feel the earth move” (the song that opened her “Tapestry” LP), then gradually and excitingly building up the music’s trajectories with the help of her accompanying musicians into that captivating state of physicality that’s part of her work’s whole-heartedness. Harper’s generous acknowledgements of the contributions made by pianist Francis Mena, guitarist Nick Granville and bassist Scott Maynard throughout the evening drew attention to the occasion’s celebration of musicianship per se in a way one couldn’t help feeling King herself would have very much endorsed and enjoyed.

This show largely followed the format and style of a previous Ali Harper “special” featuring the life and work of songwriter Burt Bacharach, though a significant difference was that the musical accompaniments here were generated “live”, with, midway through the show’s first half, another singer added to the vocal mix, the sweet-voiced Francis Leota, duetting with Harper in some of the numbers, and adding to the vocal support provided by the band throughout. As with Bacharach, Harper could use her subject’s songwriting output as material illustrating the latter’s lifestory; though King’s activities (however belated) as a performer of her own songs enlarged in scope the means by which her “presence” was evoked. Ali herself took over the piano for the accompaniment of one of King’s songs, “Lay Down My Life”, remarking wryly at the number’s end that it was the first occasion on which she had accompanied a song on the piano on a stage, and that she had a further 25 shows to get her fingers properly into shape before the season’s end!

Apart from the pleasures of composer-discovery in the case of a number of well-known songs, I was as intrigued by hearing a number of King’s compositions I didn’t know at all and really liked – I’ve already mentioned the heartfelt strains of “You’ve got a Friend” – and responded with, firstly, as much relish to the Joni-Mitchell-like “At this time in my life” as to the later and more confident “Natural Woman”, and then to the deeply-touching “Child of Mine”, a beautiful meditation on the significance of parenthood – all performed by Harper (the latter a vocal collaboration with Francis Leota) with a certain frisson resonating further as Harper spoke of her own admiration for King and her singular qualities of courage and determination in the face of life’s difficulties.

The show’s title “A Natural Woman” summed up this sympathetic and squarely-faced portrayal of King throughout her various career, taking in her stride significant personal highlights and setbacks, and bringing out  the heartfelt, almost confessional nature of her songwriting, and subsequently her performances. The breakup of her first marriage to Jerry Goffin was a turning-point for King, leading her reluctantly to focus on building a parallel career as a performer, to which end the release of “Tapestry” in 1971 succeeded beyond her wildest dreams, topping the US sales charts for a record-breaking fifteen weeks. In it she repossessed some of her own songs such as “It’s Too Late” and “Will you love me Tomorrow”.  And, three subsequent marriages produced altogether four children for King, here giving the song “Child of Mine” an extra fillip of emotion in its significance.

Harper’s was, for me, more of a retrospective tribute to Carole King than a re-evocation of her as an on-stage personality – I was a little surprised at this, considering the effect of her incredibly moving recreation of another icon, Doris Day, in an earlier show, in which we seemed to be taken right into Day’s world with Harper herself on that occasion seemingly infused with her subject’s charismatic persona. Here, conversely, she seemed to take pains to emphasise parallel worlds of then and now, telling us, for example, that King’s record-breaking release “Tapestry” appeared the year that she, Harper, was born. True, the dresses Harper wore (a different one for each half) seemed to me most apposite, straight from the ‘70s, and whose effect augmented those moments when in direct vocal flight the singer seemed suitably (and satisfyingly) possessed with her subject’s singular focus, one triumphantly embodied by the title given to the evening’s presentation.

Sadly, the advent of the Omicron virus would seem to already indicate a marked effect upon A Natural Woman’s season, with future shows (at time of writing) continuing to require vaccine passes and face masks, but also limiting audience numbers per performance, due to social distancing. The performances are scheduled to run until February 22nd, so people who intend to go (or have already booked) should contact Circa for updates and clarification without delay.

To Ali Harper and her colleagues, on- and off-stage, all the best for the show’s continuance under these trying circumstances! To my mind, both the material and the performances fully deserve whatever interest and attention is still possible!


Steadfast Wellington Chamber Orchestra brings off an exhilarating concert to finish an eventful year

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:

R.STRAUSS – Wind Serenade for 13 instruments
VIVALDI – Double Flute Concerto
ARNOLD – English Dances (Set One)
TCHAIKOVSKY – Symphony No. 2 in C Minor Op.17  “Little Russian”

Kirstin Eade and Bridget Douglas (flutes)
Ian Ridgewell (conductor)
Wellington Chamber Orchestra

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

Sunday, 12th December 2021

Congratulations right at the outset are in order to whomever devised such a scintillating programme for the Wellington Chamber Orchestra to finish this remarkably unpredictable year of years with!  It certainly was one that made up in part for earlier schedules being plagued by the vagaries of Covid-19 and the resulting ripplings of disruption! Here we were freely delivered plenty of satisfyingly full-blooded excitements and festive revelries, side-by-side with contrasting episodes of great beauty, resonant circumspection and purposeful action – a living, breathing entity of life-giving expression!

A lot of the credit must go to conductor Ian Ridgewell, whose direction of much of this eclectic range of music was focused and very much to the point, directly and unfussily intent upon bringing out the music’s “character” in each of the pieces presented. I liked how the conductor left the flute duo of Bridget Douglas and Kirsten Eade entirely free to interact with the continuo instruments in the Vivaldi Concerto’s slow movement as if sharing amongst themselves some exquisite chamber music!  Just occasionally elsewhere I felt a slight “tug” of discrepancy between the conductor and his players, most notably in the Tchaikovsky Symphony’s Andantino movement, the strings in particular wanting to push the march rhythm along more tautly in places – and there were dovetailing difficulties aplenty between orchestral sections in the same work’s treacherous Scherzo movement that required watchful shepherding from the podium!

The concert began most winningly with the early (1882) Richard Strauss work for winds, the piece a kind of homage by the seventeen year-old composer to Mozart’s own Wind Serenade in B-flat Major for the same number of instruments (Mozart’s work is sometimes performed with a string bass, sometimes with a contrabassoon), one obviously a model for Strauss.  I thought the performance by the WCO winds a most affectionate one, a beautifully easeful opening, with the contourings of melodic lines both gorgeous-sounding and characterful, and the different dynamic levels of the music consistently producing ear-catching results. I particularly liked the sonorous contribution of the tuba to the music’s foundations, and relished the crunchiness of the harmonic changes that accompanied the oboe’s lead-in to the piece’s second half. The ensemble’s blend grated ever so slightly once or twice in places during the latter half, but the final paragraph of the work, with its beautiful ascending flute-line, was most felicitously essayed by all concerned.

I was surprised to learn that the Vivaldi Concerto for two flutes and strings was the composer’s only essay for this combination, particularly as the soloists Bridget Douglas and Kirsten Eade amply demonstrated the manifold delights of the work’s seemingly endless invention, aided by some on-the-spot playing from the WCO strings in the outer movements. Straightaway the music captivated one’s attention with its gaiety and exhilarating energies, the dynamics placing solo-instrument delicacies alongside rumbustious tuttis that made the most of both the contrasted and concerted sounds. Though short, the work added a dimension of intimacy with the player-directed slow movement (simply flutes and continuo – two ‘cellos and a harpsichord), beautiful canonic writing alternating with passages in thirds – exquisite in effect!

Ian Ridgewell returned to direct the finale, consisting of more gallivanting and frolicking in Vivaldi’s most ingratiating style, though closer attention also heightened my appreciation of both the composer’s and the players’ skills in realising the singular beauties of the music’s interspersing of solo, chamber and ripieno sequences. It all demonstrated how the composer’s justly famous “Four Seasons” concerti ought to be a “starting-point” and not merely a “one-work” experience for the Vivaldi listener!

To my great delight, Bridget Douglas and Kirstin Eade acknowledged the concerto’s brevity by way of playing us an encore, the final movement from a work by an American composer, Gary Schocker, Three Dances for Two Flutes and Piano, one divertingly subtitled Coffee Nerves, Prestissimo! It’s a very bluesy-vigorous piece with driving rhythms for the flutes in unison lines breaking occasionally into thirds, and with the piano (played by Heather Easting, who had also contributed the harpsichord part in the  Vivaldi concerto’s continuo) punctuating the discourse with droll interludes – also one of the flutes (Kirstin’s on this occasion) indulged in startlingly “ornery” deviations, which were “coaxed” back into seemliness by the other flute – an interesting relationship between the two!

Malcolm Arnold’s invigoratingly breezy English Dances (the first of two sets of four of these) came next, works I’ve always loved for their colour, energy and original inspiration (the melodic invention throughout is the composer’s own, rather than the pieces being orchestrated versions of English folk-songs). I greatly prize a set of these richly and lovingly recorded by Arnold himself, though Ian Ridgewell’s direction took a rather more direct and vigorous view of the music, the opening Andantino’s bell-like awakenings on the move here right from the outset, and a central section sounding like a fairground in the middle of the countryside! If a shade raucous in full tutti, this could be put down to the effect of a largish orchestra playing in a smallish venue. Amends were made by lovely descending wind figurations at the piece’s end.

More chimings, this time vigorous and arresting, were brought into play throughout the second movement’s Vivace, with great work from the horns and winds throughout, the brasses capturing the music’s roisterings most excitingly, and the tutti filled with ear-catching detail.  The following Mesto (“sad and pensive”) flipped the mood of the sounds into melancholy, with tremolando strings, harp and bassoon joined by strings in a most authentic-sounding folk-melody, the wind-choir also making the most of their expressive opportunities, a strongly-focused mood beautifully sustained throughout by the players.

The final dance, Allegro Risoluto, allowed conductor and players to really let their hair down, the uproarious opening “nailed” by the brasses, here, punctuated by squawks of approval from the winds, catching the music’s unbuttoned and celebratory mood – I particularly loved the sound of the tuba’s star turn, egged on by the winds! The whole performance resounded with high spirits and jocularity, the composer here mercifully untroubled by the mental storms and stresses which throughout his life beset his sense of well-being.

A similar sense of well-being over-riding troubles and anxieties also permeates Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony which took up the concert’s second half. Called the “Little Russian” (though not by its composer) because of the frequency of its use of Ukrainian folk melodies, the music has a joyous energy throughout, which the playing readily capitalised upon, coming to fruition in the final movement with its racily colourful variations on a folksong called “The Crane”. I particularly enjoyed the “Russian Sailors’ Dance”-like energies of the strings in places, along with the finely-played antiphonal brass calls punctuating the blending of the finale’s two themes, and the skitterish sequence which featured the piccolo (beautifully played) and the other winds towards the work’s end, immediately prior to the tam-tam stroke which calls the band to order for the work’s “give it all you’ve got” coda!

The horn-playing at the symphony’s beginning beautifully set the atmosphere, carried forward by soulful wind-playing, building the tensions towards the allegro’s snappy beginning, both winds and strings excitingly on the button! Ridgewell kept things on a tight rein throughout, getting good ensemble from the players, though I thought he might have allowed the second allegro subject a bit more breathing-space, the players sounding a little “pushed” here and there. However, the lead-back to the horn’s repeat of its opening solo was nicely controlled, the playing leaving us eager for more.

The March was beautifully brought into being, even if the strings seemed to want to slightly push ahead of the winds’ pointed drolleries – when the march rhythms resumed after the heart-easing middle-section, some of the opening “swagger” seemed by then flattened out, but the grandly ceremonial utterance of the “tune” was brought off nicely by strings and brasses. The Scherzo was a mixed bag, with the dovetailed syncopated figures struggling at times to “fit themselves in” – however the Trio worked beautifully, with the winds enjoying themselves, the flutes being especially on the ball (a lovely solo over pizzicato strings), and with clarinets, oboes and bassoons in full accord.

Altogether, a most successful concert, and a heart-warming way to conclude a somewhat troubled season – and how encouraging to be given notice of the orchestra’s plans for 2022 as well, consisting of four varied concerts, the first commemorating the band’s 50th Anniversary season! One wishes all involved in the undertaking the very best for it!


“Roxy” at Te Auaha, from WITCH Music Theatre – a whirl of visceral impressions from Tinseltown’s golden age of movie musicals

Witch Music Theatre and Te Auaha presents:
ROXY – A New Hollywood Cabaret

Featuring: Nick Erasmuson, Jason Chasland, Emily Burns, Bailea Twomey, Aine Gallagher, Jade Merematira, William Duignan, Fynn Bodley-Davies, Zane Berghuis, Rebecca Ansell, Lane Corby, Jared Pallesen, Pippa Drakeford, Patrick Jennings, Katy Pakinga, Glenn Horsfall, Rachel Te Tau, Allegra Canton, Thomas Laybourn, Karli Holdren, Björn Aslund, Emily McDermott, Jackson Cordery

Musicians: Sue Windsor, Steve ‘Shack’ Morrison, Rachael Hinds, Bec Watson, Emma Salzano, Jonathan Woolley, Zane Berghuis, Ben Hunt, Brendan Agnew, Fynn Bodley-Davies

Directed by Ben Emerson and Greta Casey-Solly
Music directed and Arranged by Hayden Taylor
Choreography by Greta Casey-Solly, Leigh Evans and Briar Franks
Costume Design by Emma Stevens
Set and Technical Design by Joshua Tucker
Lighting Design by Shanell Bielawa
Sound Design by Patrick Barnes
Produced by WITCH Charitable Trust – Briar Franks, Joshua Tucker, Charlotte Potts, Patrick Jennings and Ben Emerson

Te Auaha, 65 Dixon St., Poneke (Wellington)

Wednesday, 8th December, 2021

“Reimagining the Golden Age of the Silver Screen” ran the blurb announcing ROXY – A New Hollywood Cabaret, a no-holds-barred delivery of a collection of classic movie-musical hits, which certainly lived up to its publicity in terms of its sheer visceral impact – “…a rip-roaring revue, fuelled by an exhilarating fusion of musical theatre, drag, dance and circus” indeed. The directors of the show, Greta Casey-Solly and Ben Emerson described working on this production as putting together “a liberating love-letter to movie musicals, the world of entertainment, and a collective celebration for Wellington Musical Theatre”, continuing the high-impact trademark of WITCH production “Love-letter” tributes to genres and eras, in this case “some of Hollywood’s most memorable musical moments, prolific people and the unforgettable tales of Tinseltown”.

At the outset, we were casually, even voyeuristically drawn into an unmistakably cabaret setting, with dancers waiting for the cameras to roll and the band to strike up and galvanise a growing air of expectancy. Though from where I was sitting I found Nick Erasmuson’s voice as the eponymous “Roxy” difficult to understand at times, his energetic “drag” characterisation never flagged, and his “Get Happy” with the dancers developed plenty of charisma. As the programme didn’t match the characters’ names with the items each one performed I had little idea regarding who was singing what, but “Almost like Being in Love” introduced a singer who began the number sweetly, allowing us some welcome dynamic variation, though the orchestra and soloists let rip with the following “Big Spender”, the burlesque-like figurations being given plenty of “grunt”, building the number’s suggestive crescendi towards tidal-wave overbreakings.

There was certainly nothing half-hearted about Hayden Taylor’s arrangements or his direction of the songs, even if I felt the volume levels seemed too ready to push the needle into the red, giving an unrelieved effect too quickly in places. For this reason I welcomed the “Singin” in the Rain” number, enjoying the cool quirkiness of the singers armed with unopened umbrellas, and the “rain” being represented by snow-flakes! A “wanabe” girl turned up next, advancing a kind of story, being told “Show us what you’ve got” and re-entering in a tight red dress, flanked by snappy choreography from the dance ensemble for “The 20th Century Fox Mambo” – foot-tapping stuff! I hadn’t heard “We’re in the Money” for many years, and the solo vocalist excitingly built the song into something of a “screamer”, producing some fantastically “zinging” high notes!

A “blonde bombshell” soloist appropriately informed us in suitably raunchy accents that “Diamonds are a Girl’s best Friend”, emphasising the character’s brashness as much as her seductiveness, but generating plenty of energy, and impressively morphing into the dance-troupe’s movements – excellent choreography, readily capturing the eye! The next song “Black and Gold” was marred in places by a bass line that frequently “ballooned” as if over-modulating, and inhibiting the soloist’s voice at first until she “found” a different register and made her presence felt – though her triumph was short-lived, as she had to compete with a sensational turn from an acrobat who, far above the stage-floor, floated, bounced and rolled on and around two hanging strands of material, the dare-devilness of it all quite upstaging the singer (who got her revenge by brandishing a pistol, and shooting the hapless high-wire performer when he once again reached terra firma)!

I didn’t know any of the first half’s last three numbers, the final item bluesy and with a terrific “swing”, unashamedly cranking up the sounds’ physicality, the ensemble making the most of the “first-half-closer” licence to bring the house down with “Push da Button”, everybody working at full throttle, and leaving us breathless with such all-pervading displays of energy.

The second half began more promisingly with a “cool’ beat depicting a sultry atmosphere! – people moving around, setting the stage for the well-known Ann Miller original/”Kiss me Kate” number, “Too Darn Hot”, a great introduction and building up with plenty of dynamic variation – though the upping of the tempo ironed out the subtleties the singing remained focused and the dancing took me back to the “swing” of the original show – a great start to the half! The return of the athletic acrobat provided more breath-taking diversion, before the entry of the “new starlet” from Act One gave us a song “Movin On”, with great singing, and choreography to match.

I liked the “fetching couple” cameo act of MC Nick Erasmuson with his partner, framed by the dancers’ creatively eating and playing with popcorn while watching “Science Fiction, Double Feature” – its relative stasis emphasising the volcanic energies of the boys’ number that followed – “Don’t say yes until I finish talking” – the joys of an entertainment producer! Nothing, however, prepared us for the onslaught that followed in the guise of “The Hot Dog Song”, the incredibly raunchy portrayal of the singer “knowed no bounds of taste or decency”, in keeping with the total abandonment of the presentation and its subject, a “tour de force” of unashamedly risqué expression!

I thought the accompanying energy levels for “Sit Down, you’re rockin’ the boat!” seemed to overwhelm the performer at the beginning, but the dynamics seemed to synchronise better as the song, progressed, the choreography “framing” the vocalist’s efforts helping the number’s trajectories to properly expand. After this, “Swings both ways” featured a chorus of angels “watching over” the beautifully-vocalised attraction of two young men for one another – a nice touch, poignantly set against the following “I’ve found a new Baby”, the woman vocalist duetting teasingly with the “agent”, before opening the voice-throttle and saturating the space with heartfelt emotion at the end – lump-in-throat stuff! – and when set against “Losing my Mind”, a double-whammy emotional journey of two halves – a late microphone placement hampered the latter singer’s initial lyrics, but, in tandem with a beautifully-played saxophone counterpoint, the mood was caught and held touchingly and strongly.

More booming bass tones didn’t mar the dance chorus’s superb work (great choreography by Leigh Evans) introducing “Let’s Be Bad”, the energies carrying the day, leaving a kind of valedictory atmosphere into which which MC Nick Erasmuson “conjured up” the singer of “Over the Rainbow”, who gave a free and spontaneous-sounding rendition during which the intensities were very beautifully “growed” into full-blooded outward flow.

I didn’t recognise the final number “Lady Marmalade” (my head-count of recognised items was lamentably low throughout!), but the song was accorded the kind of treatment we’d come to expect from what we’d witnessed thus far, a veritable orgy of full-on involvement from all concerned and which, at the end, produced a veritable explosion of physically demonstrative audience appreciation totally in accord with the ambiences we’d been subsumed by throughout.

While I found myself craving for more “shape” in the realisation of many of the numbers, more light and shade, and more playfulness and irony and sentiment, and greater “spaces” into which these contrasts could be set and savoured, I couldn’t help thinking that mine was a somewhat old-fashioned view of performance, and that what seemed to be required here, and which was freely given, was a markedly “visceral” result, of the kind that could induce a kind of tactile euphoria, heart-and soul stuff, rather than any once-removed kind of in-situ reflection. Of course, there were moments in which this state was achieved, but they were quickly moved on – appetites on my side of the footlights seemed ravenous and were, by my reckoning, most satisfyingly sated.

I would have liked to have credited the individual performers in the separate numbers, but the programme wasn’t particularly helpful to someone like myself who couldn’t make the connections with the different names and the items in which they performed – so I’ve listed all the performers, in the hope that they’ll all “find” themselves mentioned here by what they did – I “dips me lid” to them all, along with the people behind the scenes who had a part in making the show so irrepressibly impactful – in a word, WOW!

Resounding Huia calls and Tui songs from pre-1950 New Zealand composers


The third of a three-part presentation of early New Zealand art-songs (1892-1953)
Researched and curated by Michael Vinten

Previous 2021 presentations:
THE CALL OF THE HUIA (12th February)

Singers: Jenny Wollerman (soprano), Sarah Court (m-soprano), Amelia Berry (soprano), Oliver Sewell (tenor), Robert Tucker (baritone)
Pianists: Bruce Greenfield, David Barnard

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

(Friday 3rdDecember, 2021)

Michael Vinten’s intention in presenting these programmes was to draw attention to the art song as a creative form produced by New Zealand composers prior to 1950 (essentially the pre-Douglas Lilburn years for music composition in this country) and highlighting the activity as part of our cultural heritage before the Second World War – one that we are still in the process of discovering.

Vinten was inspired by similar research in the area of solo piano music of the period undertaken in recent years by Wellington pianist, composer, and teacher Gillian Bibby, and also by comments made from singing teachers and performers regarding the scarcity of ‘New Zealand art-song material’ from this heritage era. He began his own exploration, finding literally hundreds of songs, primarily from the Alexander Turnbull Library’s collections and the resources of the New Zealand National Library, but also from private sources.

In choosing songs for the three presentations, he devised ‘a working definition of art song – one based on the definition of German lieder’. He used certain basic tenets as a yardstick, such as ‘the importance of the piano part is equal to that of the singer’, and ‘the poet’s words are as important as the composer’s music’. Such a totality in itself suggests as part of the definition that the Lieder/ Art-Song genre ‘requires a greater level of technical skill on the part of the performers to execute the songs’. Vinten intended such parameters would sift out material written for either amateur or domestic use, as well as patriotic War Effort songs and specifically Sacred songs, as the musical merit of many seemed secondary to commercial or social considerations.

Altogether, the songs he chose dated from 1892 to 1950, though to conclude the third and final presentation Vinten sneaked in a 1953 song (not inappropriately titled ‘I saw a Tui’) by the renowned Alfred Hill,  Australian-born but for a time New-Zealand-domiciled, whom author John Mansfield Thompson described in his 1980 OUP book A Distant Music as ‘New Zealand’s first professional composer’. As the first song in the first presentation happened to be also one of Hill’s, Vinten commented that ‘it was fitting…..that his (Hill’s) songs should bookend the collection, as New Zealand‘s first composer’. Despite the date, Hill’s ‘Tui’ song seemed to unashamedly express its allegiance to a bygone era, with Schumannesque modulations between major and minor amply presenting a New Zealand scene in European musical language.

I was fortunate enough to attend the first of these presentations at the year’s beginning. That programme presented the songs composed or published up to 1929. It included some examples of unique interest, but most of the songs engagingly avoided the pitfalls outlined in Vinten’s comments regarding the later 1930s and 1940s songs, which suggested a drop-off in quality and a tendency to resort to the kinds of cliched generalities of verse and music that gave both a bad name. I didn’t manage to get to the second of the symposiums, but made it to this, the final one, which of the three featured the widest chronological range of items. Happily, I was able to compare impressions (mostly favourable) at the interval with my Middle C colleague Anne French, who had attended the series’ second programme, and who confessed to having been enthralled throughout, despite Vinten’s own reservations concerning some of the material!

Interesting, too, was Vinten’s breakdown of the people engaged in composition over these periods into three main groups, the first being men whose profession was music who came to this country to take up official positions at institutions: organists, choirmasters, and teachers. The second group was made up of New Zealand-born men who were enthusiasts engaging in ancillary musical activities, whilst having major careers in other disciplines. The third group was the women, whom Vinten described as the backbone of musical activities in this country. He was surprised in spite of himself at the number of women who wrote music in the New Zealand of this period and whose standard of musical training was sufficient to enable them to do so.

The post-Second World War period was very much a ‘blow winds of fruitfulness’ time for New Zealand.  Music performance moved out of the realm of dominance by amateur and part-time musicians into an era of professional full-time musicians, beginning with the establishment of the country’s National Orchestra in 1946. Suddenly music composition seemed as if it was something to be taken seriously, almost as if one’s own livelihood depended on it. Up to that time the country’s composers were those diverse groups of people outlined above. Somewhat serendipitously, 1946 also saw the first Cambridge (Waikato) Music School, at which composer-in-residence Douglas Lilburn delivered his ground-breaking talk ‘A Search for Tradition’,  which challenged a whole new generation of local composers to find their own ‘New Zealand voice’. Such was the force of this new beginning, Vinten contended, that ‘the previous body of work in music composition (along with other creative endeavours in Aotearoa) tended to be swept away by this fresh wave of creativity’.

Not only were the composers of an earlier era overshadowed, but so were the writers and poets, in some cases curtly and dismissively. Vinten made reference to poet Allen Curnow’s scathing remarks concerning what had been considered a landmark anthology of New Zealand verse, Kowhai Gold, published in 1929. Curnow famously commenting that the material consisted of ‘insipidities mixed with puerilities. To illustrate the extent to which things had been galvanised by this new order, Vinten referred to the work of two song composers, Alice Forrester MacKay and Claude Haydon, who had been ‘at the forefront of the pre-First World War era of local song-writing…. but whose output, including a great many more (still) unpublished songs, remained musically static during the 1930s and 40s…..’.

Having so many names to contend with inhibits a full listing of either the composers or poets here, though some by dint of circumstance or other association are already known. The composers include Alfred Hill, Claude M. Haydon, Arnold Trowell, Warwick Braithwaite, Paul Schramm, Alice Forrester MacKay, Erima Maewa Kaihau, Princess Te Rangi Pai, Alexander Aitkens, Maugham Barnett, Owen Jensen, Harry Luscombe, and Alan Heathcote White. The New Zealand poets included Jessie MacKay, Eileen Duggan, C.R. Allen, and Keith Sinclair. If Vinten’s research is properly taken up in the future by singers and teachers, further names will certainly be pressing their claims to be added to the list.

Without a doubt, part of what generated one’s ongoing fascination with these songs was the quality of the three presentation performances. My colleague Anne French and I were in full agreement about the quality of performance across the programmes. Each of the singers was seemingly incapable of delivering a meaningless or routine phrase. They gave the vocal lines both the focused intensities and the range of colour and dynamics that made the music and the words a pleasure to listen to. Complementing this level of identification with the material was the piano-playing of both Bruce Greenfield and David Barnard, each doing his utmost to invest the sounds with a kind of recreative response that, in tandem with the voices instantly caught the listener’s attention. The result of such efforts on the musicians’ part gave each song its best chance to shine with its own radiance – a splendid concerted achievement!

It remains to salute Michael Vinten for his work (with help from many others, individuals and organisations, whose assistance he has gratefully acknowledged) in enabling a restoration to life of these once-integral impulses of creative musical endeavour. His presentations have, in a unique way refocused present-day sensibilities and judgements on what our composers and writers managed to achieve on their own merits during that singular era prior to Douglas Lilburn’s emergence. It must have seemed fit and just to Vinten that a better integration of past and present was definitely in order. Such enlargements of knowledge and awareness can’t help but enrich our appreciation of where our contemporary creative minds have come from and what they’re achieving in this, our present time.

Firstly sparks, and then a conflagration – pianist Otis Prescott-Mason in recital

Otis Prescott-Mason (piano) at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

CHOPIN – Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor
RAVEL – Une barque sur l’ocean (from Miroirs)
BEETHOVEN – Piano Sonata No.28 in A Major, Op.101
LISZT – Annees de Pelerinage Book 2 (Italy) S.161

Saturday, 20th November, 2021

Having heard, and spoken or written about so many piano recitals and recordings over the years in a critical capacity, I’m finding myself these days increasingly gravitating towards performances that bring to the fore a sense of sheer enjoyment of and involvement in the music’s playing. On the strength of what I heard at St.Andrews’ Church last Saturday afternoon, the young Wellington pianist Otis Prescott-Mason seemed to me to exhibit such qualities in unselfconscious spadefuls through his playing – here, negotiating a quixotic first half (by turns energetic and thoughtful) which struck sparks of different voltages, and then embarking post-interval on an epic journey whose concluding episodes brought forth a thrilling sense of open conflagration.

Currently studying with Jian Liu at Victoria University of Wellington, Prescott-Mason began his piano studies with Erin Taylor at the age of 5 through to the tertiary level, when he undertook a two-year period of tuition with Emma Sayers. He’s had a number of competition successes over the duration, the most significant being his winning first prize at the New Zealand Junior Piano Competition in Auckland in 2020, while he’s won on several occasions the Wellington Branch of IRMTNZ’s Recital Competition and the Tertiary Sonata Competition.

His choice of repertoire for today’s recital suggested at once his capacity to identify with a wide range of different musical styles and eras, and his readiness to rise to a challenge, with the music of Franz Liszt in particular representing a kind of acme of virtuosity and expression of Romantic feeling, in relation to the entire literature for solo piano. While the composer’s three “Years of Pilgrimage” collections or “Books” of pieces don’t consciously set out to define Romantic keyboard virtuosity as sharply as do his earlier Transcendental Etudes , certain sections of the former (such as the “Dante” Sonata which makes up the Italian Book’s final section)  require a similarly “transcendental” technique. But these works have a more profound purpose, presenting a freshly-wrought synthesis of poetic feeling with music, an uplifting of the kind that the philosopher Hegel referred to as “a free resounding of the soul” – whether manifestations of art, poetry or recollections of direct experience, Liszt sought to consciously fuse all of those things through music’s sounds to an extent that no-one had previously attempted.

Preceding the Liszt pieces in the concert’s first half, however, were whole worlds within themselves to bring into being, each of which Prescott-Mason plunged into wholeheartedly, bent on realising the “character” of whatever phrase, sequence or overall mood he brought to our attention – firstly came the Chopin B-flat Minor Scherzo’s dramatic beginning, with the tentative “knockings” of the opening forcefully countered by the answering phrases, contrasted with a beautiful cantabile melody launched over an exhilaratingly headlong accompaniment. Prescott-Mason delivered all of this and its sudden “breaking off” with arresting verve and focus, bringing out an almost religious feeling to the music’s central story-telling aspect which, by turns animated and becalmed, returned us in wonderment to a “meanwhile, back at the…..” with the reprise of the opening “knock and answer” sequences. The subsequent “working out” of the cantabile melody’s fate became a brilliant certainty in the pianist’s hands, the coda incorporating its strains into a spectacular conclusion!

Though I’ve never forgotten a breath-catching 2014 performance by another young, former Wellington pianist, Ludwig Treviranus, of Ravel’s Une barque sur l’ocean from the suite “Miroirs”, Prescott-Mason’s playing here demonstrated a similarly oceanic sweep allied to an acute ear for detail, accounting for the piece’s remarkable capacity in a sensitive performance to simultaneously transport and engage! Ravel often asks his music’s interpreters for what seem like contradictory qualities, as here, a deeply embedded emotion expressed with the utmost precision (one thinks also of Le Gibet from “Gaspard de la Nuit”, for example); and I got from Prescott-Mason’s playing an underlying nostalgia in the figurations and harmonies which ineffably expressed the solitude of the vessel and a steadily-focused left-handed framework that somehow suggested the vast indifference of the ocean, the whole making for an overwhelming impression.

How wonderful that this young pianist chose one of my favourite Beethoven Sonatas to include in this programme! – its opening always makes me catch my breath, an ascending phrase that seems wrought entirely from the air as if a mere passing thought, but then engenders whole sequences of give-and-take, each ascent having its own impulsive quest within an “off-the-beat” framework, Prescott-Mason dreamily “floating” the sounds in what feels like free space. The ensuing March, as playful as determined, must have surely helped inspire Schumann’s frequent use of similar dotted-rhythm-patterns, the pianist as elfin as magisterial in his approach, avoiding any sense of doggedness  in the music’s insistence. Prescott-Mason “enjoyed” the Trio’s part-fugal, part canonic game of chase between the lines, and then nicely voiced the scherzo’s return as if “from afar”, spontaneously leading us to the conclusion as a surprise rather than a pre-arranged signal.

The slow movement here seemed to resound with wonderment, its focused distillation in the pianist’s hands leading us trance-like to a kind of hiatus filled with longing, then, without warning, bringing out the work’s opening phrase once again! – and after the answering response had followed suit, the music seemed to explode with ecstatic trills and shouts of joy as Prescott-Mason released the finale upon its course! Where to from there? A “Tempest Sonata”-like arpeggiated chord seemed to cast a sea-change over the music, and a fugue began (a trial run for the “Hammerklavier” Sonata’s fugue, perhaps?), adroitly subjecting the finale’s opening phrase to all kinds of variation before crashing over the points and back onto the mainstream, Prescott-Mason giving his all in keeping the impulses on track and pumping out the energies! A reflective, “winding-down” ending is mooted at first, but with a number of precipitate chords right at the end, Prescott-Mason spectacularly paid the composer his dues in grand style.

To the pianist’s credit, there was hardly a sense at the interval of the recital being something of “two halves”, such was the feeling of continuity and ongoing purpose when he appeared to begin the Liszt part of the programme. Having readily enthused about his playing thus far, I confess to finding his rendition of the opening Spozalizio, a piece inspired by Raphael’s painting “The Marriage of the Virgin”, a tad too rushed in places. The music depicts the marriage ceremony, the programme describing “a lovely bridal song with suggestions of wedding bells”, the piece calm and ritualistic at its beginning, the softly-tolling bells alternating with the three-note “motif” that will play such a significant part in the music, the figures evoked by the stillnesses beginning to move and breathe as the sounds become increasingly animated.

Prescott-Mason’s view of the scenario was obviously a young man’s one, filled with eagerness and excitement at the occasion of a marriage, and thus enlivening the ritual aspects and letting the pealing bells “have their head”. Liszt allows the bells moments of growing excitement during the lead-up to the marriage vows, and unleashes them tellingly at the moment of the marriage pronouncement, but otherwise keeps the solemnity of the ritual very much to the fore; whereas here I felt “pushed” a shade too insistently through the ceremonial layers. Having said this I thought the pianist “enabled” the piece’s epilogue beautifully, evoking the distant bells’ pealing as a kind of ambient memory of the day’s events, and resounding them in the mind even when out of earshot. It’s all a matter of individual response, in the end; and certainly the present performance wove plenty of magic, if at a higher voltage in places than I expected.

I had no such qualms regarding Prescott-Mason’s playing of Il penseroso, Liszt’s evocation of Michelangelo’s figure carved for the tomb of Lorenzo de Medici, the music similarly wrought from what the sleeve notes describe as “lightless sonorities and frozen….melodic motion”. The pianist suberbly brought out the pounding crunchiness of the dissonances amid the darkness of the textures, releasing, as Michelangelo did from the marble, the “character” Liszt intended through his sombre evocations. Afterwards, the Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa was the perfect foil for such solemnities, the music a colourful depiction of high spirits.

Where I felt Prescott-Mason particularly excelled was in his sensitive delineation of Liszt’s responses to each of three sonnets written by the scholar and poet Petrarch (born Francesco Petracco in 1304, into a family that was acquainted at the time with Dante Alighieri). Petrarch became popularly renowned for his unrequited love for a woman called Laura, whom he immortalised in a series of poems, which are regarded as polished and perfected forms of the existing “sonnet” form. Liszt set three of these to music, firstly as songs during 1838-39, and then reworking them as piano solos for this Second Book of his pilgrimage years during the 1850s. Incidentally, Petrarchan scholars have since renumbered all 366 of the sonnets, so that Liszt’s numberings for the three (47, 104 and 123) are revised as 61, 134 and 156 respectively and thus don’t correspond with more recent editions of them!

Sonnet No.47 (61) Benedetto sia ‘l giorno (Blessed be the day), featured at the outset such a felicitous touch from Prescott-Mason as to give full moment to the music’s lifting of a curtain allowing light to flood in from the “blessed day”. And the following song of love that the pianist brought into being here abounded with tender nuances, the emotion encompassed beautifully, held at one point by a gorgeously filigree descending passage before being run again, accompanied this time by repeated figurations of heightened beseechment – words of love, indeed!

The most well-known of the three is Sonnet No 104 (134) Pace non trovo (I find no peace), beginning with agitated phrases that became halting, desperate gesturings of bewilderment to the heavens – and finally heartfelt and passionate words addressed to the beloved. Prescott-Mason encompassed it all, bringing out the bard-like character of the opening entreaties, imbuing each phrase with either gravitas or delicacy by turns, and realising the original text’s stark contrasts of emotion with strongly-characterised impulse – “I fear and hope, I burn and freeze like Ice – I have nothing, yet embrace the whole world”. He then delivered the later forthright sequences with such surety as to exclaim “Both life and death displease me – and my sorrow is the cause of my strife!” before essaying the music’s rhapsodic afterthoughts with the most poetic of tones, “placing” the phrase’s highest note with absolute certainty, and resonating the “dying fall” of the remainder with appropriately stoic resignation.

In some ways the third of Liszt’s settings of these Sonnets, No.123 (156), I’vidi in terra angelici costumi  (I saw on earth figures of angelic grace) is the most remarkable of all in its economy of both material and gesture – its opening activates murmuring undulating figures and unassuming crescendi to establish the piece’s quietly rapturous mood, after which the theme continues to freely sound, interlaced with various decorative phrases generated from the opening. I thought Prescott-Mason’s detailing of these of these felicities within the music’s greater flow simply magical, as was his gathering up of the impulses into an ecstatic frisson of enchantment with the world’s “celestial harmony”, before returning, via a spontaneous burst of birdsong to a world of “angelic grace”, all bestowed by the glory of love – a memorable and treasurable sequence!

Had the recital finished at that ecstatic point no-one could have complained – but the grand design of things having already been set, the young pianist unhesitatingly steered our sensibilities towards Liszt’s epic realisation for piano solo of thirteenth-century poet Dante Alighieri’s work The Divine Comedy, a work which took the composer over twenty years to develop into its final definitive form.  Often called merely the “Dante Sonata”, the work was given the title “Apres une Lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata”, one borrowed from the title of a poem by Victor Hugo based on Dante’s work. Rather than come up with a mere synopsis of Dante, Liszt sought to create a series of vivid atmospheric impressions which, when aligned, themselves conveyed a real sense of a musical process or journey. The famous falling tri-tone opening in the music suggests a descent into Hell, while throughout the work the tonal progressions ceaselessly build up links between all the sonata’s themes, gradually becoming an ascent towards the Divine.

From the beginning’s diabolical “ringing-out”, Prescott-Mason’s incisive playing straightaway drove the music purposefully downwards and into Liszt’s evocation of Dante’s world, the repeated “Devil’s interval” motif creepily joining forces with descending chromatic octave scales to generate a kind of infernal “Abandon hope” scenario. How cleverly the music gradually took into the textures the countering elements which brought forth the “redemptive” themes, Prescott-Mason beautifully judging the cumulative effect so as to infuse these same textures with warmth and light, before retrenching the music’s sinews with purpose for the oncoming fray. His playing, both technically and interpretatively, delineated most skilfully the composer’s intermeshing of motifs from both darkness and light to underline the endless conflict between them in both cosmic and individual realms, and he built the excitements and tensions of disharmony as readily as he evoked the serenity and bliss of peaceful order. We were left in no doubt at the recital’s end as to the extent of the journey we had all made together, one exhilarating and revelatory, Otis Prescott-Mason having certainly done the work and its evocations proud for our great pleasure.





Duo pianists charm and delight lunchtime concertgoers at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace

St.Andrew’s Lunchtime Concerts presents:
Sunny Cheng and Otis Prescott-Mason – Piano Four Hands

SCHUBERT – Rondo in A Major D.951
MENDELSSOHN – Andante and Allegro Brilliante Op.82
SAINT-SAENS – Carnival of the Animals

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

Wednesday, 17th November, 2021

A delightful programme! I thought I’d not heard the Mendelssohn Andante and Allegro Brilliante before, but, upon checking the “Middle C” website discovered to my bemusement that I had seen and heard  pianist Sunny Cheng play this and the Schubert Rondo in A Major already, on that occasion with fellow-pianist Kris Zuelicke at Victoria University’s Adam Concert Room over a year ago!  While enjoying the concert as a whole I had doubts regarding the duo’s playing of the Schubert on that occasion, thinking the performance lacked a certain light and shade, and wondered whether the immediacy of the venue had something to do with the impression given – here, in the more ample St.Andrew’s acoustic I appreciated Cheng’s playing of the Schubert far more readily (this time, of course, with a different pianistic partner!) The music here seemed to take on an extra “bloom”, suiting far better Schubert’s “orchestral” writing in places, and allowing the playing’s dynamics more space in which to fully register.

Cheng’s partner this time round was Otis Prescott-Mason, a young Wellington pianist who in recent times has won various awards for his playing – I’ve yet to hear him undertake a complete recital, but what I’ve heard as part of various competitions certainly indicates his enormous promise. He and Cheng certainly seemed well-suited as duo partners, as evidenced by the loveliness of the Schubert Rondo’s opening on this occasion, the music seeming to “happen” rather than consciously begun, with a beautifully flowing tempo that allowed detail the space to register and flower, a journey to be savoured along its course here as well as registered merely in a kind of retrospective afterglow.

I thought the composer’s “orchestral” writing in places finely contrasted with the opening up of new worlds as the music changed key and brought forth variations of texture (beautifully-etched staccato triplets) and for a heart-stopping moment a “ghosting” of the finale of the contemporaneous A Major D.959 Sonata, all integrated winningly into the whole, as was the “role-swapping” towards the end, with the secondo player (Prescott-Mason) taking the theme and the primo (Cheng) providing filigree accompanying chords. And we were able to truly relish the assertiveness of the theme’s last statement making its presence felt before dying away to a poignant ending.

The Schubert had by this time “honed” us to perfection for the Mendelssohn work’s beautiful opening pliability, the melodies bedecked with gentle impulse and spun with great finesse by the duo, before the music’s cheekily irruptive transition spun us into the engaging “allegro”, its “brilliante” expressed as much by an engaging variety of touch and texture as by its velocity or volume. These textures were judiciously layered, the sounds as irresistibility wrought as a fountain’s overflowing, everything splashing and glittering as the impulses rushed everywhere, then towards the end savouring the hesitancies of the “question-and-answer” sequences before plunging headlong into the work’s coda, catching us all up in its excitement and abandonment.

Afterwards came something of a curiosity, one I hadn’t realised even existed – a piano duet version of Camille Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, presumably the one mentioned most frequently on the internet, made by Lucien Garban, a composer and music arranger who made similar transcriptions of numerous works by various French composers, many of whom were his contemporaries – among them Debussy, Ravel, D’Indy, Dukas and Roussel. As Saint-Saens’ original work was scored for two pianos and chamber ensemble, the “four hands” here had a great deal to do on their single keyboard, acquitting themselves with plenty of suitable panache, piquancy and poetry as required by each of the characterisations.

The King of Beasts naturally enough dominated the music’s first menagerie batch, his Royal March given plenty of pomp and circumstance and punctuated by fearsome roarings emanating from the depths of the keyboard, after which the self-satisfied squawkings and crowings of the Hens and Cocks and the madcap scamperings of Wild Asses up and down the keyboard cleared the way for the Tortoises’ Can-can, here beautifully and poignantly realised in slow motion! Only the Elephant was slightly disappointing – I wanted rather more pachydermic weight and girth in the music-making, and greater irony of contrast between the beast’s tender serenade and its portentous gait!

The Kangaroos were lovably quixotic, as were the Persons with Long Ears, while the Cuckoo in the Woods worked its magic. While I thought both the Aquarium and the Aviary could have done with a lighter and more impressionistic touch from both players, I thought Pianists was simply a star turn, the players amusingly coming to grief with their pedagogic scale exercises, depicting in no uncertain terms the servitude exacted by the desire for technical keyboard excellence and the musical aridity that results. Great stuff!

Fossils, which immediately followed, seemed to have unfortunately caught a couple of gremlins from Pianists, sounding a tad unco-ordinated and uncertain in places; though amends were made by The Swan, here limpid and gorgeous, and beautifully laid out for the players’ hands, the piece’s rather Lisztian conclusion pure poetry. It all made the perfect foil for the work’s Grand Finale, both players back on their game and producing an uproariously clangorous and swirling affair, a “curtain call” of the dramatis bestiae featuring lightning characterisations, loads of musical exuberance and great feats of finger-dexterity – all most vertiginously and hair-raisingly satisfying – bravo!

Circa’s “The Little Mermaid” pantomime awash with enjoyment and conjecture

THE LITTLE MERMAID – The Pantomime 2021
Circa Theatre, Taranaki St., Wellington

Written by Simon Leary and Gavin Rutherford
Directed by Susan Wilson
Music arranged and directed by Michael Nicholas Williams
Choreography by Natasha McAllister and Jthan Morgan
Set and Projection design by Anna Lineham Robinson
Lighting Design by Marcus McShane
Costume Design by Sheila Horton

Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St.,Wellington
Wednesday, 17th November, 2021

Until 23rd December, 2021

My first thought upon hearing about the projected scenario for this year’s Circa Pantomime was surprise that a story with grim and murderous elements (Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid”) had been chosen – not having seen or even registered the Disney film adaptation of the story I wasn’t aware that the inevitable process of sanitisation of this story had already begun, as had previously happened to countless other folk- and fantasy-tales adapted for children over the years.

With the prospect of a remake by Disney of the story due for release in 2023 it would seem that “The Little Mermaid” has joined the select “classic fantasy tale” group, duly reinforced, of course, by pantomimic treatment, as witness Circa’s energetic and highly recreative adaptation of the story.

My second thought, independent of the above, was stimulated at the theatre itself upon my reading director Susan Wilson’s paean of praise (thoroughly well-deserved, incidentally) in the programme for all the people, past and present, who have contributed their talents and energies to the Circa Pantomimes for the previous 17 seasons, more-than-usually laudatory – was this some kind of valedictory address on the director’s part? Time will, of course, tell, but even the most successful theatrical undertakings, by dint of their nature, don’t last forever and needs must undergo refurbishment of some kind.

I was thinking particularly of Gavin Rutherford’s superb series of “Dames” which we’ve enjoyed over the years, and which delivered yet again this time round with just as much bristling energy and droll insouciance as his character needed, his “Shelly Bay” persona a brilliant throwback in itself to a time when the world was younger and less “submerged” with troubles, Rutherford’s capacities for drollery here seemingly inexhaustible!

Of course, this was, both onstage and off, an ensemble effort – and Rutherford’s charismatic “Shelly Bay” was more than amply matched by the tale’s “movers and shakers”, both institutional and everyday – Simon Leary’s King Lando, the ex-restauranter-cum-ruler of the largely-submerged 3021 version of Wellington, one whose on-the-spot land speculations have secured him power and influence over what is now left of the eastern “Heights”, posed a credible romantic attraction for the “poor fisher woman” Shelly Bay, when allied to a past association the pair had that Lando was now doing his best to escape from! He had as well, a kind of “alter ego”, a puppet stingray called “Death Shadow, one that flitted voraciously in-and-out between the hapless characters that crossed his path.

King Lando’s rival on all counts came in the form of Kathleen Burns’ wonderfully-vampish Bermuda, the Sea-Witch, a stunning portrayal enhanced by an octopus-tentacled costume whose every movement riveted the attention! Bermuda’s more-than-apparent nastiness was mitigated by her disdain for humankind and the havoc wrought upon the natural world by its representatives, her theatrical vow to “rid the world of humans” a kind of perverse “corrective” to Lando’s self-serving power-grab.

Equally spectacular in a more benign context was Jthan Morgan’s Queen Neptuna, a tragic, subaqueous “Queen of the Night” kind of figure (and similarly bewailing the loss of a daughter), looking and sounding the part as if to the manner born! It was a tour-de-force performance by Morgan, as he had to switch roles occasionally to being King Lando’s Public Relations agent “Shaggy” (and put up with the inevitable barrage of innuendo!)  – Morgan’s extra distinction was his “Shaggy” character’s adeptness with sign language, which certainly resonated with everybody, in the wake of the last couple of years’ Covid updates!

The younger generation was represented by Natasha McAllister  in the title role, as Queen Neptuna’s daughter Coral, charming us from the outset with her singing voice, which of course she has to later relinquish so her fins and tail can be changed into legs after she falls in love with a human – who happens to be a boy called Lyall, who happens to be the son of Shelly, thus further extending the show’s vistas when looking back at a world lost to the rapacious exigencies of climate change.

Lyall was here played by Jake McKay, who to his credit seemed remarkably “boy-next-door-like” considering his mother Shelly had at various times told him he was “special”, being an “immaculate conception”. Apart from each having similarly patronymic-like names, McAlister and McKay seemed ideally suited for their roles – a happy stage partnership! Finally, there was Trae te Wiki’s portrayal of Crabby, the hermit crab who’s Coral’s best friend, and who’s the “ordinary, everyday” personality, the “Everyman” of the drama, who comes across as warm-hearted and faithful, and very much the victim of circumstances -most endearingly she adapts as best she can to life’s changing situations, winning our sympathies in the process.

My third thought (or is it my fourth?), having introduced and summarised the individual personas and characteristics of the show’s dramatis personae, is a reiteration of  my amazement and appreciation of the sheer raw energy this cast puts into the performance (a quality also remarked on by my companion for the occasion, herself a “performance artist”, and as such directly appreciative of the levels of high-octane output generated by all concerned – whether emoting, singing or dancing (or all three at once), the output was almost tangible in its crackling voltage.

This quality was never more never more apparent than during the production’s songs (the actors supported to the hilt by their inexhaustible Music Director Michael Nicholas Williams via his arrangements and on-the-spot accompaniments), Natasha McAllister’s voice soaring  at the beginning, resonating in the memory during her “mute” period (displaying her new-found sign-language skills as the rest of the cast sang “You Can Count on Me”), and gloriously restored for the rousing finale. McAllister’s and Jthan Morgan’s  inspired choreography throughout gave the songs extra “punch”, Sheila Horton’s colourful and apposite costumes also contributing to the flow of body, texture and colour (as I write this I can still see Kathleen Burns’ Bermuda and her witchety tentacles!), and the whole was mellifluously (and sometimes startlingly) illuminated by Marchs McShane’s lighting, adding even further dimensions to Anna Lineham Robinson’s environmentally dystopian sets, evoking a futuristic world we’d probably rather not try to imagine…….

On the strength of what her “support team” of actors and technicians generated through their efforts, director Susan Wilson had every right and cause to thus “stop and reflect” for us on the achievement of this and past pantomime productions, and, of course, revel in the deserved satisfaction of knitting all these strands together to memorable effect.


Dramatic and innovative Haydn in the Church from Camerata with soprano Carleen Ebbs

Camerata – Haydn in the Church

HANDEL – Overture Berenice
HAYDN –  Scena di Berenice (from Metastatio’s “Antigono”)*
HAYDN – Symphony No. 14 in A Hob 1:14

*Carleen Ebbs (soprano)
Anne Loeser (leader)


Friday, 5th November 2021

At the end of a busy and distracted Friday I found myself headed for St.Peter’s-on-Willis-St Church for Camerata’s latest “Haydn in the Church” concert series, which I’d been looking forward to ever since attending and enjoying the last one, though on this occasion I’d not been as assiduous in my preparation for the evening’s music as per usual – I had seen the programme on-line a couple of days previously, and was, of course expecting the accustomed delight of an early Haydn symphony to match that readily afforded by others in the series thus far, but I found myself scratching all about my memory-banks to recall what else I’d glimpsed on the  items “list”. I definitely recalled a soprano’s name, and an operatic scene to do with “Berenice”, which I had always thought was a work by Handel! – so I think at that point I gave up the conscious struggle, and consoled myself at the thought of everything being “revealed” once I’d gotten into the church.

Even then I didn’t get my hands on an actual programme, but  did talk briefly with Greg Hill, who was sitting next to me in a socially-distanced sense, and who actually had written the programme notes for the concert – at the interval he was able to confirm that there had been both a Handel and a Haydn work, each with the name Berenice, on the items list! So I had been on the right track after all.

I knew the Menuetto from Handel’s “Berenice” as my parents had owned a 78rpm disc of the work which I’d often heard when a child, and still remembered. This was, however, the whole of the Overture, a sprightly beginning, with the dotted rhythms beautifully “sprung”, leading to an Allegro whose trajectory had a joyous kind of enlivening energy, the oboe attractively colouring the string textures. The Menuetto featured the oboe-and-string sound prominently at first, before the strings repeated the material, playing the concluding lines of the second part with a beautiful and graceful legato. A lively Gigue rounded off the Overture in suitably festive fashion.

The name of the soprano Carleen Ebbs was one to conjure with, as she had made a richly favourable impression on the one occasion I’d previously seen and heard her, as the nymph Calisto in Cavalli’s eponymous opera, performed in 2015 by Days Bay Opera – on that occasion I was moved to voice the opinion that “Ebbs’ is a voice to listen out for”. She’s now returned to New Zealand after being based in London for 15 years, training at the Guildhall in London and at the Cardiff International Voice Academy, and working with a variety of prestigious coaches and at the great UK Opera Houses.

On the strength of her performance this evening of Haydn’s 1795 Scena di  Berenice, that promise, evident in the Days Bay La Calisto, has been more than fulfilled – Ebbs took us right inside the character of Berenice’s plethora of moods from the outset, capturing our sympathies from the very opening recitative Berenice che fai?, in which she first bemoans her own fear and weakness at the prospect of her lover Demetrio’s death, then expresses a longing to die alongside her beloved, through to the first impassioned aria in which the singer begs to be allowed to “cross that river” with him; and, finally, in some kind of delirium, raging against the cruelty of the gods with a fiery vocal brilliance throughout a second recitative and aria, the music storming to a passionate (and virtuosic) conclusion – tremendous stuff!

It seems from her website information that Ebbs has commitments in the UK regarding ongoing tutelage, and has already made the most of freelancing opportunities with various UK companies, activities which would have established her as a “sought-after” performer, particularly with her avowed enthusiasm for Baroque and early classical repertoire – whatever the uncertainties of the present situation world-wide regarding opportunities for performing musicians, one hopes for her continued successes, including, wherever possible, more appearances back here in New Zealand.

While all eyes (and ears) were on the singer during the drama of Haydn’s “scena”, the ensemble again became the centre of focus for the performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 14, the latest in Camerata’s exploration of the composer’s early symphonies. I note that, in a diverting on-line Classic FM post which featured a music critic asked to numerically “rank” the qualities of ALL of these  works, the hapless commentator gave this Symphony No.14 a high rating, after according some of the other “early” works what I thought were some unduly harsh verdicts regarding their “quality” – this A  Major work Hob 1:14 was actually placed 35th, ahead of many other “tried-and-true” works such as the “Military”, the “Farewell” and the “Surprise” symphonies – doubtless a case of “chacun a son goût” with the choices, as much as any other considerations!

This work’s high-spirited opening featured a repeated octave descent, followed afterwards by an even more vertiginous downward leap of a 10th (I think!), giving the music an attractively energetic character underpinned by the unrelenting bass line – I loved the horns’ ascents into high-wire material,  the oboes providing a less strenuous “echo” effect with their material, joining forces with the horns to great effect in the development, before the energetic rhythms marshalled their forces, the splendid playing driving the music to a part festive, part rustic conclusion.

The Andante moves a dignified but characterful processional along its course, the striding aspect of the melody augmented with graceful decorative notes upon repetition, the strings alone supplying the melodic interest. More fun was to be had from the Minuet (Menuetto)  with its ceremonial horns and chuckling winds, though the oboe introduced a sombre note with its minor-key melody in the trio – all very pastoral, with its hunting-horn ambiences and touches of out-of-doors melancholy!

The finale builds its material almost entirely on a descending figure (the reason for the aforementioned “critic” rating the work’s cleverness and innovation so highly), giving the whole movement a festive, bell-like atmosphere. Here the playing imparted a real sense of “schwung”, the musicians seeming to make their instruments dance to the joyous strains of the figurations, alternating delicacy with delight, and grace with energy. As is often the case with delectable pleasures, it all seemed over in a trice – so it was a good thing that Anne Loeser bade us remain for an “encore”, one which happened to continue the concert’s connection with the story from which Haydn’s scena had been taken. This was an excerpt from Gluck’s Overture to his opera seria Antigono, one which again featured the character of Berenice, the Egyptian princess in love with Demetrio, son of the King of Macedonia, to which monarch Berenice had been “promised” in marriage. Being Gluck, the music had a lyrical “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” quality, the two flutes adding to the ethereal character of the string-writing, and the sensitive accompaniments similarly transported, the whole given a resonant “music of the spheres” kind of sonority, which continued to enchant the senses long after the sounds had ceased.