A brave challenge – Schumann’s “Scenes from Goethe’s Faust” from Orchestra Wellington and the Orpheus Choir

(This review was written by Steven Sedley in conjunction with other Middle C reviewers)

Orchestra Wellington’s Faust

Robert Schumann – Scenes from Goethe’s Faust

Soloists: Emma Pearson, Wade Kernot, Christian Thurston, Jared Holt, Michaela Cadwgan, Maike Christie-Beekman, Barbara  Paterson, Margaret Medlyn, Jamie Young
Marc Taddei (conductor)
Orchestra Wellington
Orpheus Choir
St Mark’s Schola Cantorum

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 3 December 2022

The first performance in New Zealand of this colossal work by Schumann,  was a fitting end for a season with its focus on this composer. It required vast resources, two large choirs, nine soloists, a large orchestra, and it is difficult, complex music, not immediately approachable.

Goethe’s Faust is the overpowering masterpiece of the German literature, and a number of composers tried to find musical expression of it, Berlioz in Schumann’s own time, Gounod, Boito, Mahler, Busoni  and a number of others in later generations.

Goethe died a mere decade before Schumann embarked on this work and part two of his play had not been published till some years later. This explains why Schumann, who started working on Scenes from Goethe’s Faust in 1844,  didn’t complete the last part until shortly before his death fourteen years later, Consequently he never heard the whole work performed.

Did the subject appeal to Schumann because he identified with Faust, the brilliant thinker, who was taken by Mephistopheles, the Devil, to be ultimately redeemed by the love of his life, Gretchen / Clara?  Or did he relish the challenge of writing a major work for choir and orchestra, an oratorio, to prove that he was a significant composer with a weighty large scale work to his name?  Perhaps it was a bit of both. As well, did he see his long term tertiary syphilis and his decline as parallels with Faust’s love of Gretchen and his love of Clara?

At any rate, it was a brave challenge for Orchestra Wellington, the Orpheus Choir and the Children’s Choir of St Marks, the soloists and perhaps above all, for the conductor, Mark Taddei, who having prepared this work, is unlikely to have the opportunity to perform it again any time soon.

The orchestra played at times with a beautiful lush sound, but the rhythmic precision and occasionally, intonation, was not impeccable. It is, after all, a very good part-time orchestra and can’t be compared with the great orchestras of the world available to all on YouTube or recordings.

The nine soloists acquitted themselves pretty well, all displaying a good understanding of their texts,  though it wasn’t made easy for them. A raised platform in the midst of the orchestra behind the strings but ahead of the winds was not an ideal placement, even if,  acoustically,  one would be hard put to it to think of a better one. All had to work hard to achieve parity with the densely orchestrated instrumental sound and none really succeeded in taking command. Emma Pearson’s  lyric soprano was ideal for the role of the innocent Gretchen, tenor Jared Holt was an assertive Arial and Wade Kernot’s firm, sombre tone was fine for Mephistopheles and the Evil Spirit in the Cathedral scene if not perhaps providing the last word in threatening malice. The most demanding parts were those of Faust himself and, after his death, Dr Marianus. Baritone Christian Thurston sang stylishly and well, but the interminable lines of Faust’s monologues lay rather low in his range when in contention with an orchestra that took no prisoners. The smaller parts were all taken well.

The Orpheus Choir was in fine form, as usual, especially in the Dies Irae and the young singers of the St Mark’s Schola Cantorum were bright and lively.

In the grand final section, Faust’s Transfiguration, written some years after the first two Parts, you could hear not only Goethe, but also Beethoven breathing down Schumann’s back with passages clearly recalling  the earlier composer’s Choral Symphony.

Unfortunately the performance was marred by surtitles of startling ineptitude, mis-translated, misspelt, banal, ungrammatical, and in places incoherent. It would have been worse still for any audience members familiar with Goethe’s text –  the Great Man must have been turning in his vault.

Still, with all its imperfections, this was a memorable performance, and, for people in Wellington an opportunity of a lifetime to hear this great work. We must be grateful to Marc Taddei and his team for daring to “think big” and bring to life one of the great masterpieces of the romantic choral repertoire.

NZ Chamber Soloists add lustre to final 2022 Waikanae Concert

Waikanae Music Society presents:
New Zealand Chamber Soloists
Katherine Austin (piano) ; James Tennant (‘cello)
Lara Hall(violin/viola) : Dimitri Atanassov (violin/viola)

MOZART – Piano Quartet No, 2 in E Major K.493
HELEN BOWATER – Fekete Folyó (Black River)
SCHUMANN – Piano Quartet in E-flat Major Op.47

Memorial Hall, Waikanae,

Sunday, 30th October 2022

Waikanae is a 40 minute drive from Wellington, it has its own musical community, and the concerts that the Waikanae Music Society presents complement the concerts in Wellington. I don’t recall hearing the NZ Chamber Soloists in Wellington, which is a great pity, because you wouldn’t find a better ensemble anywhere. Three of its members teach at the Waikato Conservatorium of Music, Hamilton, and for this concert they were joined by  Dimitri Atanassov, former concertmaster of the Auckland Philharmonia.

The repertoire for piano quartets is, compared with string quartets and piano trios, limited. This concert featured two contrasting landmark works, Mozart’s and Schumann’s and a recent New Zealand work, Helen Bowater’s Fekete Folyó, the latter spanning the narrative of the Danube and the people of its basin from the Black Forest in Germany to the Black Sea in Romania.

Mozart: Piano Quartet No.2 in E Major, K 493

This is the second of Mozart’s Piano Quartets, completed in the year of his set of six String Quartets, dedicated to Haydn, three of his piano concertos, and also  while Mozart was working on his opera, The Marriage of Figaro, which was completed in the following year. There is a profusion of ideas, themes and lively contrasts in this quartet, and operatic snippets pervade the work. It has dramatic contrasts and suspense in the first movement, a beautiful aria in the second Larghetto movement and a suggestion of opera buffa in the last movement. It was impeccably played, with a lovely interaction between the violin and viola above the  firm base of the cello.  Their  lovely tone, allied to a natural ease and fluency, was particularly notable.

Helen Bowater: Fekete Folyó (Black River)

The Fekete  Folyó (in English the Danube), flows from the Black Forest to the Black Sea and on its way it traverses many lands of many people each with their unique and tragic histories. This is narrative music, with no evident formal structure, and the more engaging for that. We hear the wild rhapsodic music of gypsies, exuberant sounds of folk bands, and dark melancholic themes reflecting the tragic histories of the lands, moving Jewish themes echoing the terrible fate of the Jews of Hungary (at one point a sad cello solo taken up by the violin and viola). There is a lot of drama packed into this short interesting work, and it concludes with a most effective ending, the music petering out as the river disappears in the sea. Composer Helen Bowater was in the audience to acknowledge the applause.

Schumann: Piano Quartet Eb Major, Op. 47

For the second half of the concert Lara Hall and Dimitri Atanassov exchanged roles, Dimitri Atanassov played violin and Lara Hall viola. Schumann’s Piano Quartet was written some 60 years after Mozart’s K.493., and in that time the musical landscape, as indeed the entire world, had vastly changed. Although Schumann struggled with depression and bi-polar symptoms all his life, this work has an upbeat prevailing mood.  It starts with a dark opening that resolves into a lively allegro. The second movement Scherzo is playful, recalling Schumann’s childlike spirit that was reflected in his earlier Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood) for piano. The third movement is a love song, passionate, and lyrical. The last movement, Vivace, has at its centre a Fugue, joyous, and energetic, and  reflecting Schumann’s lifelong interest in the music of Bach. This is a work full of joy and a happy outlook. Three years later Schumann tried to commit suicide and was institutionalised for the remainder of his life.

This was a memorable concert, a great credit to the team of the Waikanae Music Society for bringing this outstanding group to the Wellington region.

A concert of “music from then and now” with the NZSO

Legacy – The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Stephen de Pledge (Piano)
Alexander Shelley (Conductor)

Gillian Whitehead retrieving the fragility of peace
Mozart Piano Concerto No, 20 in D Minor, K466
Brahms Symphony No, 1 in C Minor Op. 68

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 1 October 2022

This was a concert that spanned almost two and a half centuries, from Gillian Whitehead’s work commissioned by the NZSO and receiving its first performance during this series of concerts, through Mozart’s most popular piano concerto written in 1785, and culminating with Brahms’ First S ymphony of 1876. I found it a collection of works that asked questions about the nature of music, and what this music meant to people of their time and also to audiences at present.

Gillian Whitehead retrieving the fragility of peace

Gillian Whitehead is one of the doyens of New Zealand composers. Over her long and distinguished career she has drawn on the European Modernist tradition, but she has also mined her Maori heritage. Three years ago the NZSO commissioned her to write a piece, Turanga Nui, commemorating Cook’s landing on these shores in 1769. Now, a new work,  Retrieving the fragility of peace, commissioned by the NZSO for this tour, uses a similar soundscape, using the resources of a large orchestra to capture the sounds of the forest, its bird songs, and perhaps the thumping rhythms that suggest haka, war dance.

Forget conventions such as extended melodies and themes – this piece is about the basic ingredients of music, sound, tones, beat and silences. It challenges the listener, steeped in a European classical musical tradition to sit up and listen. There are instrumental interludes of sheer beauty – an extended cor anglais solo, for example, and  a cello solo – flute, winds, brass and a wide range of percussion and string sounds add colour, but significantly, it is silences that define the piece. It ends in silence, a pause over a few bars, a few seconds. The war dance resolves into peace. It has a distinctive beauty of its own.

Mozart Piano Concerto No, 20 in D Minor, K466

Over a period of two years Mozart wrote 11 concertos, most for his series of subscription concerts in Vienna, making use of the new developments of the piano. Of these, only two are in a minor key, D Minor K466, No. 20 and C Minor K491, No. 24, written in the following year. The D Minor concerto was, and probably still is, the most popular of Mozart’s concertos, foreshadowing the later romantic concertos of Beethoven and other composers. It starts with a haunting phrase repeated, calling to mind the final scene of Don Giovanni, an opera that was written two years later.

The soloist who was expected to play at this concert was the Venezuelan pianist, Gabriela Montero, but in the event she was unavailable, isolating after contracting Covid. At short notice the Auckland pianist, Stephen de Pledge was called upon to replace her. In no way did this seem to disadvantage Wellington. Stephen de Pledge played at a relaxed, expansive tempo which let the music breath. The dramatic first movement was followed by a lyrical extended song of the second movement that his sensitive playing did justice to. The unhurried last movement was a fitting climax to the concert, its dark shadow already there in Mozart’s imagination. A notable feature of this performance was de Pledge’s use of additional ornamentation, which seemed very appropriate to the piece. He also improvised his own cadenzas, with echoes of Mozart’s operas and even of Beethoven, who wrote a cadenza that is widely used. The orchestra supported the soloist with precise yet sensitive responses. For an encore de Pledge played Schumann’s Traumerei,  a very personal, romantic reading of which Schumann would have approved.

Brahms Symphony No, 1 in C Minor Op. 68

Brahms had written a number of large scale orchestral works before writing his first symphony. The shadow of Beethoven loomed large and he had to write something that followed Beethoven’s tradition, yet was different and uniquely his. This symphony is, like the Mozart Concerto, in a minor key. Brahms had a grand vision, a work with a confluence, a mosaic, of short themes that developed into overarching subjects to fill out symphonic sonata form. His musical language was that of the North German choral tradition. The coalescence of these themes created a rich many-layered sound, and in a less clearly-focused performance these individual themes could have got lost, overwhelmed by the main theme, – however, the mark of this performance was that every little nuance came through clearly, the competing themes carefully balanced. The first movement is a dialogue between an overtly military theme and a tranquil subject. The second movement is an extended chorale embellished by a beautiful flute solo, then a plaintive melody played by the strings. This movement is one of the most exquisite pieces of music in the symphonic repertoire. The third movement has the feel of a dark German song on which the rest of the movement elaborates. It is all a long way from the cheerful, lighthearted third movements, Minuet and Trios, of earlier symphonies. The final movement is the conclusion, the summation of the previous movements. The horns, winds, call to mind the Wagnerian sound. Then the Allegro con brio introduces the triumphal final theme, a theme that brings to mind Beethoven’s Ninth. And there, in the horns, there is a synergy with the trumpet calls of Gillian Whitehead’s piece that the concert started with.

It was a beautiful, clear, measured performance. If there were some slight inaccuracies that some picked up, these were completely lost amid the overpowering beautiful playing. The audience responded with a spontaneous ovation that you seldom hear at the end of the symphony. There was a general sense of elation, with people walking out at the end of the concert on a high, with the music ringing in their ears.

Music to celebrate an anniversary of international friendship

Chinese Arts and Entertainment Group presents
East / West: A Symphonic Celebration

XILIN WANG The Torch from ‘Symphonic Poem from Yunnan’
DOUGLAS LIBURN Drysdale Overture
YUANKAI BAO Chinese Sights and Sounds
Happy Sunrise
Green Willow
Lan Huahua
Song of Riddles
Dialogue on Flowers
TIAN ZHOU – Gift (Commissioned work of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra)
TRADITIONAL Pokarekara Ana|
SHIGUANG WANG The song of the Yangtze River
PIANO CONCERTO ‘Yellow River’

Orchestra Wellington
Conductor: Brent Stewart
Soloists: Jian Liu, piano
Joanna Foot, soprano
Bo Jiang, tenor

Wellington Opera House

Tuesday, 20th September 2022

This concert, presented by the Chinese Arts & Entertainment Group, celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic of China and New Zealand. What a lovely way of celebrating this anniversary, with a full symphony orchestra, distinguished soloists and appealing music, Chinese and New Zealand.

Xilin Wang is one of the most remarkable older Chinese composers. The Torch Festival conjures up images of the traditional Yunnan province festival. Energetic wild  rhythmic celebratory passages are interspersed gentle melodious sections.

This Chinese landmark composition was followed by a work of New Zealand’s senior composer, Douglas Lilburn. Drysdale Overture was his first major composition. He wrote it while he was still a student at the Royal College of Music. It is a tribute to his father and the farm on which he grew up. It sounds a little like the music of his teacher, Vaughan Williams, but there are also echoes of Copland.

Pokarekare Ana is a popular traditional New Zealand love song probably originating during World War 1. It has been widely recorded, notably by Kiri Te Kanawa, with orchestral accompaniment, but it is also moving with only a simple guitar accompaniment. On this occasion, it was sung by the well known New Zealand operatic soprano, Joanna Foote. Lovely voice, impressive stage presence.

To balance the New Zealand item the next item was the popular Chinese song, The Song of the Yangtze by Shinguang Wang, President of the Chinese Opera. It was sung as a duet by Joanna Foote and the tenor, Bo Jiang, both well known opera singer.  Bo Jiang enhanced the performance not only with his fine light tenor voice, but also with his engaging smile and his dramatic gestures. The song was clearly very meaningful to the young Chinese woman sitting next to me, her eyes lit up, this was something she was very familiar with.

The Yellow River Concerto is a piano concerto arranged by a collaboration between Chinese composers, including Yin Chengzong and Chu Wanghua, and based on the Yellow River Cantata by composer, Xian Xinghai. This was done by order of Jiang Qing, wife of Chairman Mao. It has been popular around the world ever since. It is rousing music with vigorous dramatic virtuoso passages alternating with simple folk song like interludes. It was played with brilliance by Jian Liu, Head of Piano Studies and Director of Classical Performance at the New Zealand School of Music, Victoria University.

As an encore Joanna Foote and Bo Jiang sang the popular Chinese song, No Sleep Tonight, much liked by the Chinese members of the audience.

This was an interesting concert of  music, largely unknown to a local audience, but it was more than that. It was a gesture of friendship, a statement that music is international with no barriers.

Heartland of the Romantic Piano Repertoire – Michael Endres at Waikanae

Michael Endres (piano)

SCHUBERT Drei Klavierstück, D 946

LISZT Rhapsodie Espagnole, S 254

SCHUMANN Kreisleriana, Opus 16

Memorial Hall, Waikanae

Sunday 18th  September 2022

A solo piano recital featuring the heartland of the romantic piano repertoire, Schubert, Liszt, Schumann, is very rare indeed in Wellington. International luminaries flit in occasionally, play a concerto with an orchestra and flit our again, and the solid works that were once the rock foundation of piano recitals are just no longer heard. We must therefore be grateful to the organizers of the Waikanae Music Society for engaging Michael Endres for this recital. We in Wellington have not had the opportunity to hear him recently, though, going through the reviews on Middle C, I see that he has played in Waikanae a number of times over the years. Part of the problem is, of course, that we don’t have a suitable hall in Wellington at present, nor a piano that can compare with Waikanae’s magnificent Fazioli.

Michael Endres has world-wide reputation, has made a number of recordings, and a range of his concerts and recordings can be accessed on YouTube, and he has made the very sensible decision to move to Christchurch.

He started this recital with Schubert’s Drei Klavierstücke (Three Piano Pieces). Schubert wrote this in the last year of his all too short life, a year in which he wrote some of his greatest works including some of his monumental sonatas. This, however is a work on a much more modest scale. It is like a set of three Impromptus, and it is the more personal, moving for that. Endres brought out its understated lyrical charm and its sometimes innocent child-like quality. He brought out the contrasts, the drama and the gentle melodies. His sensitive playing did justice to the music, that flowed like songs, much like Schubert’s accompaniments to his songs, and underlying it all was a touch of nostalgia, very much part of this music.

Schubert was followed by Liszt’s Rhapsodie Espagnole. This was a striking contrast to the self-effacing modest mood of the Schubert work. Liszt’s piece is based on two Spanish dances that he had heard during the time he had spent in Spain and Portugal in 1845, La Folia de Espagnol and Jota, It is a dazzling bravura work. Endres did justice to the virtuosity of the piece. He exercised great control, while bringing out the elements of sheer fun. He let the music breath, playing it with natural fluency, straight from the heart.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Schumann, the central figure of romantic music. It started with Kreisleriana, Opus 16, It is a series of eight contrasting fantasy-like pieces in which Schumann attempted to encapsulate the constant swings of moods of Kappellmeister Kreisler, a character in E. T. A. Hoffman’s novel, something that must have been close to Schumann’s heart. He wrote these pieces in the course of just four days in 1838. Hoffman’s Kreisler was an eccentric musician at odds with the world around him, half crazed and intensely passionate. This might have meant something very personal for him with his own issues of mental balance. In the eight short pieces you hear the full gamut of moods and passions, but you also hear the power and musical resources of the piano. It is one of Schumann’s most popular piano pieces, and one is unlikely to ever hear a better performance of it then Endre’s, with its subtlety and sensitivity to the range of moods.

The concert ended with transcriptions of two of Schumann’s songs,  firstly Du bist wie eine Blume (You are like a flower), transcribed by Clara Schumann, and,Frülingnacht (Spring Night),  transcribed by Liszt. 

For an encore Endres played a charming little piece Pensée Fugitive by Smetana.  It was a most satisfying and enjoyable concert. Come back again Michael Endres!

A Springful of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” music, from Orchestra Wellington

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

Robert Schumann Dichterliebe arranged by Henrik Hellstenius
Deborah Wai Kapohe, mezzo

Robert Schumann Cello Concerto
Inbal Megiddo, cello

Felix Mendelssohn Midsummer Night Dream
Barbara Paterson, Michaela Codwgan, sopranos,
Dryw McArthur, Alex Greig and Danielle  Meldrum, actors,
Women’s voices of the Orpheus Choir.

Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 20th August, 2022

Schumann and Mendelssohn may seem like traditional programming for an orchestral concert, but – trust Marc Taddei, – it was anything but run of the mill standard fare. This was a concert of works seldom heard or seldom heard in the form presented.

Schumann Dichterliebe, arranged by Henrik Hellstenius

It opened with Schumann’s song cycle, Dichterliebe. This, along with Schubert’s Winterreise and Die schöne Müllerin is a work that established the song cycle form as more than a collection of songs, and is a landmark of the lieder repertoire. The songs are settings of sixteen poems by Heine. Heine was some ten years older than Schumann and was already celebrated as the leading German lyric poet. Perhaps Heine’s intrinsic contradictions appealed to Schumann’s split personalities. Maybe the cunning craft of Heine’s poetry brought something out of Schumann the master miniaturist. But what we were presented with was not the well known song cycle of Schumann with its dramatic piano accompaniment, but an arrangement by the contemporary Norwegian composer,  Henrik Hellstenius.

Instead of the piano, we had a large orchestra with even an exotic ophicleide, a keyed brass instrument.  Its deep voice was a welcome addition to the brass section. The piece started with a bell-like sound produced by violin and flute. The piano part is deconstructed right through the songs into a kaleidoscope of colourful orchestral sounds. Wai Kapohe sang not as the usual image of a classical lieder singer, but like a jazz singer, or more like a chanteuse, using a microphone, and despite the vast auditorium of the Michael Fowler Centre, she gave the impression of singing intimately for every person of the large audience. Her beautiful warm voice touched every one.

The  settings of sixteen of Heine’s poems are about love,  flowers, sorrow and pain, dream, memory of a kiss, the Cathetral of Cologne, a lark’s song of longing, a broken heart, fairy tale, and death.. The arrangement of Hellstenius turned Schumann’s music into a haunting post-modern musical experience. It is not a matter of being better than Schumann, bringing Schumann up to date; it is about looking at Schumann’s music through a contemporary lens, hearing it as eternally meaningful music.

Schumann Cello Concerto

The song cycle was followed by Schumann’s last orchestral work, his cello concerto, which he completed two weeks before he attempted suicide, and never had the opportunity of hearing it performed. It is a remarkable work, the first ‘romantic’ concerto written for the cello, a world away from preceding works for the cello, the cello concertos of Haydn and Boccherini.  The concerto starts with three chords played by the strings then the cello takes over with a beautiful melody, which Inbal Megiddo played with a ravishing sound. This set the tone of the whole work. The piece is episodic, a mark of much of Schumann’s work, short contrasting themes make up the building blocks of the overall piece, slow melodic sections interspersed with dramatic virtuoso passages.

The themes are like his songs, melodious. engaging.  The three movements, a lyrical yet dramatic first movement,  a slow second movement and a lively, energetic final movement, are connected by brief bridging sections. A song like quality pervades the work. Inbal Megiddo gave this concerto a beautiful, convincing reading. Acknowledging the warm applause, she played as an encore the Gigue from Bach’s Cello Suite No.1. She played it with a scintillating light touch. It was an appropriate bridge to the final item on the programme.

Mendelssohn A  Midsummer Night Dream

Mendelssohn wrote the overture to Midsummer Night Dream for the house concerts in his family’s lavish home, when he was a boy of seventeen and this it stayed in the popular repertoire ever since. It is a scintillating piece of music, but the Incidental Music was written much later, at the instigation of Frederick William IV, King of Prussia, a music lover. Mendelssohn expanded the Overture into a forty-five minute suit exploring scenes from the play, that included the among its thirteen movements, the sprightly goblin-like Scherzo, the light jolly, otherworldly song with the choir, the dreamy Nocturne with its solo horn, the stately Wedding March, played at innumerable weddings since its first performance, and the foot stomping Dance of the Clown. The use of three actors as narrator reading out the lines from the play, and two solo sopranos singing some of the choral numbers greatly enhanced the music.

Hearing the whole Incidental Music to Midsummer Night Dream was a joyous experience. But it was more than that, it was an insight into Romanticism in music, fairies, dreams, magic, ingredients of romantic music and literature, that echoed the music of Schumann and other romantic composers.

Orchestra Wellington and Marc Taddei offered, as usual. an imaginative programme,  played well, with understanding, which amounted to more than the sum total of the works performed. It captured the spirit of an era, with contemporary commentary on it by the orchestral arrangement of the Schumann songs by Henrik Hellstenius

The band is back – NZSO with Hilary Hahn and Gemma New

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

JOHN RIMMER – Lahar
SERGE PROKOFIEV – Violin Concerto No. 1
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH – Symphony No. 5

Hilary Hahn (violin)
Gemma New (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday 4th August 2022

The band is back. This was the first concert by the NZSO for some time, apart from their outing to open the St James Theatre a couple of weeks ago. And what a splendid concert this was! The orchestra was at its best. I have never heard them play better. They appear to have a special rapport with Gemma  New, the newly appointed Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Like many of the members of the orchestra, she came through the ranks of the Youth Orchestra system, and played in the Wellington and New Zealand Youth Orchestras as a violinist, but then went to America to learn the art of conducting. She has served as Resident Conductor of the St Louis Symphony Orchestra, and is Resident Conductor of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra in Canada, and the Principal Guest Conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. To say that this young woman, still only in her mid thirties is vastly talented is an understatement. As a conductor, her style is energetic, athletic and dramatic. She seemed to draw music out of the very essence of the players in the orchestra with her meticulous attention to details, to phrasing, to dynamics, yet giving the solo instrumentalists space to play their lines freely.

John Rimmer : Lahar

The concert opened, very appropriately, with Lahar, a short piece by one of New Zealand’s senior composers, John Rimmer. It is the arrangement and development of the last movement of Rimmer’s major work: The Ring of Fire. Quoting the programme notes: It is intimately connected to the sound of nature. Rimmer is an electronic composer. Electronically virtually any sound can be reproduced and the instruments of the orchestra emulate that in this piece that captures the environmental sounds. You get the earth rumbling on the tympani, birds chirping on the flute and piccolo, powerful brass chords, falling woodwind passages, depicting a volcanic eruption and the silent peaceful aftermath. Rimmer explained in his introduction before the performance that the piece is hot, very hot. You hear explosions, the noise of the forest. Amidst the cacophony a melody emerges played on the piccolo and the cello solo, which is transformed into a lament. For the listener there was a whole world of musical experience within this seven minute orchestral work.

Serge Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1

Prokofiev was an up and coming young composer in Paris, already making a name for himself when he composed this concerto. After the shock of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913, discordant music became widely accepted and even became mainstream. Prokofiev evolved his own harmonic language, taut harmonies and driving rhythm,  combined with lyricism. The First Violin Concerto opens with a scarcely audible melody  played by the solo violin on top of the orchestral accompaniment. This develops into an energetic dance and the movement ends with an ethereal flute solo. The second movement, a virtuoso scherzo, is driven, and energetic. Prokofiev later reused some of this material in the duel scene in his ballet Romeo and Juliet. The final movement is dominated by a lush violin solo interposed with strong rhythmic drive. Hilary Hahn’s playing seemed effortless, spontaneous, straight from the heart, with a beautiful tone and great control. Soloist and conductor, two prodigiously talented young women, were of one mind with total mutual understanding.

For an encore Hilary Hahn played a scintillating rendering of the Gigue from Bach’s Partita No. 3 for Solo Violin.

Dmitri Shostakovich – Symphony No. 5 

This symphony has a tragic history. After Stalin went to see the composer’s opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, and walked out before the end Shostakovitch felt doomed. He withdrew his Fourth Symphony, which was ready for performance, and wrote a grand 44 minute work, which, according to the Pravda article attributed to him, was ‘a Soviet artist’s practical and creative response to justified criticism’. The symphony was an immediate success, both in the Soviet Union and in the rest of the world. It certainly has powerful themes, pulsating patriotic rhythms, folk music elements. It is immediately moving and captivating, but perhaps, in this peaceful remote corner of the world, far from the threats of Stalin’s Russia in 1937, it seems a little drawn out, the themes over elaborated. The shadows of a terrified composer lurks behind the triumphal tone of the work. One can read all sorts of things into the first movement, Allegro moderato, full of dread, or into the lyrical second movement, ‘a malevolent march’. The third movement, Largo, mournful, made the audience at the first performance openly weep. It is indeed, music full of grief. The triumphal march returns in the final movement, but it resolves into a haunting funeral march. Does the symphony end on a hopeful note or a note a desperation ? It depends on your interpretation not only of the music, but also of the tragic world of Stalin’s Russia. In either case, it is very moving and all-absorbing music. One will never hear a better performance of this work than this one under the baton of Gemma New. It was all minutely crafted, carefully thought out, every phrase, every dynamic change and contrast was sensitively molded.

This was a splendid concert and the very large audience, a virtually full Michael Fowler Centre, responded with a huge ovation. I am looking forward to a new era of exciting music with Gemma New at the helm of the orchestra. My one gripe is that the excitement of this wonderful concert should have been shared by people all over the country. It should have been videoed and shown live, available to all, no matter where they live, be it Reefton or Ruatoria, and perhaps available anywhere in the world to show that Aotearoa is not just a country of milk powder and the All Blacks – that it is not an international cultural backwater, but an exciting place with its own cultural landscape. It was appropriate that the concert opened with Rimmer’s Lahar, depicting just that.

Plaudits for the Wellington Youth Orchestra with Donald Maurice

Wellington Youth Orchestra presents:
CHILDHOOD
Music by Boris Pigovat and Anthony Ritchie

PIOGOVAT – IN the Mood to Tango
RITCHIE – Symphony No. 5 “Childhood”

Donald Maurice (conductor)
Wellington Youth Orchestra

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

Sunday, 31st July 2022

Donald Maurice has had a long association with both Boris Pigovat and Anthony Ritchie. He perfumed and recorded Pigovat’s Holocaust Requiem with Orchestra Wellington, a major work for viola and orchestra, and commissioned Ritchie’s First Viola Concert and other works. It is appropriate that he programmed works by both of these composers, though Pigovat’s piece was a late substitute for the Second Symphony by the youthful Richard Strauss, which had to be abandoned because Covid played havoc with rehearsals.

A youth orchestra concert that strayed from the well-known classics was an interesting challenge for the young players. They had to come to terms with the unfamiliar idiom of two composers whose music they had never played before. It was a tour of exploration.

Pigovat: In the mood to tango

This was delightful light music for strings only. It captured the mood of Piazolla’s Argentinian tangos,  and recreated the atmosphere, the musical imagery and style of Piazolla’s music. It was a great way of bringing the strings together as an orchestral body and it was great fun.

Ritchie: Symphony No. 5, Childhood

Unlike the previous piece, this Symphony is a major 40-minute, colorful work, in five interlinked movements. It commemorates the Christchurch Earthquakes and is dedicated to the refurbished Christchurch Town Hall. It uses childhood as a metaphor for renewed hope and optimism. It calls for a vast orchestra with a full complement of winds, brass, and in particular, percussion, that includes a ratchet, tubular bells, xylophone, and marimba as well as the usual drums and cymbals, plus a harp, and a celesta (in this performance substituted very satisfactorily by harp and piano). Seeing the destruction and reconstruction through a child’s eyes, the symphony is built on little short motifs that suggest simple nursery rhymes or children’s songs. Ritchie wrote a thesis on Bartok’s music and there may be a suggestion of the children’s themes such as those that Bartok employed. Unlike Bartok’s music, which is terse and concise, Ritchie’s music is expansive. Ritchie also went through a minimalist phase in his career, and uses minimalist techniques, short repeated phrases, in this piece.

The First Movement: Beginnings, opens with a ratchet; you sit up, listen, ‘what is this all about?’, then a simple 5 note phrase is played on the celesta which is taken over by the flute, then the whole orchestra, which elaborates on it, dissects it, and opens it up into a vivid chiaroscuro of music. This simple phrase haunts the entire symphony and returns at the end. The Second Movement: Play, is playful. A simple joyful theme is tossed from one section of the orchestra to another. Everybody gets a turn at playing this phrase, like a ball thrown around among the musicians. Hopes and Dream, the Third Movement, is ethereal, introduced by a gentle soulful melody on the oboe. First the horn, then the trumpet expand on the tune and it flowers into a rich melody, with the strings and the whole orchestra joining in. Life- force, the Fourth Movement, is built on energetic rapid figures, shadowed by dark themes in the winds. The final Movement, A Future, is triumphal, and towards the end the initial simple theme returns played on a whole range of percussion instruments. Finally the Symphony ends on a wistful note.

This was the first performance of this symphony beyond Dunedin and Christchurch, and we can applaud the Wellington Youth Orchestra and its guest conductor, Donald Maurice, for tackling this difficult work. It enriched the musical experience of all the young musicians who took part in it – and after all, this is the main purpose of a youth orchestra – but it also expanded the experience of those in the audience.

Hearing a new major work performed and, moreover, performed in the presence of the composer, is an opportunity to be treasured. Anthony Ritchie was in the audience and at the end of the symphony he came forward and acknowledged the applause. As to the Wellington Youth Orchestra, all its musicians put everything into the performance of this challenging work, the untold hours of hard work and rehearsals, years of study, paid off in this fine concert. Without singling out any individual player, there were some beautiful flute solos, and great playing by the horns and the whole brass section, who had a lot of notes to play. There was some very fine string playing, and a lovely entry by the cellos at the beginning of the symphony. The contribution of experienced senior players and, especially, the percussionists who joined the orchestra to fill gaps at short notice must be acknowledged. It was a great and memorable concert.

 

 

 

Yuka and Kemp – a concert of popular violin music

Wellington Chamber Music Society presents:

Yuka and Kemp – violin and piano

Elgar – Salut- d’Amour
Beethoven – Sonata in F Major, Op. 24 (Spring)
Maria Theresia von Paradis – Sicilienne
Anthony Ritchie – Song for Minstrel, Op. 120
Massenet – “Méditation” from Thaïs
William Kroll – Banjo and Fiddle
Handel – Sonata in D Major HWV371
Paganini (arr. R. Schumann) – Caprice No. 24 in A minor
Kreisler – Recitativo and Scherzo – Caprice for solo violin Op. 6
–   Liebesleid  / La Gitana
John Williams Theme from Schindler’s List
Monti – Csárdás

Yuka Eguchi (violin) and Kemp English (piano/organ)

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

Sunday, 10th July 2022

Yuka Eguchi is the Assistant Concert Master of the NZSO; Kemp English is a solo organist, a specialist in playing the fortepiano, and a collaborative pianist. The two put together a programme of violin music that most people know from such collections as the ‘best loved violin pieces’, but which are seldom featured in concert programmes. They are light, and lack substance that form the backbone of serious classical recitals, but  they are all immediately appealing.

Edward Elgar Salut d’Amour
The first item in the concert was Elgar’s Salut d’Amour, a popular salon piece that was Elgar’s engagement present to his future wife. It is lovely, personal, and melodious. The performance was not only notable for Yuka’s impeccable violin playing, but also for Kemp’s sensitive piano accompaniment.

Ludwig van Beethoven Sonata in F Major, Op. 24 (Spring)
Yuka and Kemp gave this much – loved Beethoven Sonata a straight forward reading. There is much to this piece, questions and answers, humour, and whimsy. The lyrical, gentle, extended song like slow movement, which is the heart of the work, is followed by a limping cheeky third movement. The final movement sums up the whole Sonata; this is what life is all about. Because the playing was so clear, there were details which came through which might have been glossed over in a less precise reading.

Maria Theresia von Paradis Sicilienne
Paradis was a pianist, blind, with a prodigious memory that she needed with no eyesight. She was a contemporary of Mozart whose concertos she played. She was a prolific composer and a teacher, but Sicilienne  that she is best remembered for was, not, in fact written by her. It is a musical hoax, composed by Samuel Dushkin,  –  a Polish American violinist, who worked with Stravinsky and William Schumann on their violin concertos. He also composed pieces under the names of largely forgotten composers such as Paradis and Benda. His Sicilienne is a charming, sentimental piece harking back to another era.

Anthony Ritchie Song for Minstrel, Op. 120
Anthony Ritchie, a contemporary New Zealand composer and, Professor of Music at Otago University, is  best known for his symphonic works. Song for Minstrel, however, is a short work for violin. It starts with a violin solo of sheer beauty, followed by a jazzy development. Minstrel was a dog, not a person: the dog of the poet, Sam Hunt.

Jules Massenet Méditation from “Thaïs”
This popular work is the embodiment of a sentimental romantic age. Suspense awaits each note.

William Kroll Banjo and Fiddle
William Kroll was the leader of the Kroll Quartet, one of the great American string quartets of the 1950s and 1960s. He was an eminent teacher and chamber music player, but is perhaps best known for this short popular fiddle piece, capturing an American folksy idiom with something of a gypsy feel. It has a touch of Hollywood sentimentality. It is both showy and technically difficult.

George Frederick Handel Sonata in D Major HWV371
This sonata is Handel’s last piece of chamber music. It is rich music, evoking Handel’s operatic music, elegant, gallant. Kemp English sat down at the organ instead of the piano and played the keyboard part on the organ, which added a special effect to the piece. The organ made it sound grander, and the violin part more operatic. Like everything in this concert, it was different and illuminating.

Niccolò Paganini (arr. Robert Schumann) Caprice No. 24 in A minor
Paganini’s 24 Caprices for the violin are landmarks in the violin literature, and No. 24 is the best known of them all. It is such a compelling piece that Brahms, Rachmaninov, Boris Blacher, Chopin, Liszt, Andrew Lloyd Weber, Witold Lutoslawski, Karol Szymanowski, Eugéne Ysaÿe, Benny Goodman and many other composers have incorporated it in their work. Robert Schumann decided that a piano accompaniment would enhance the work – who are we, mortals in a later age, to argue with him? Yuka’s was certainly a virtuoso dazzling performance with Kemp quietly in the background on the piano.

Fritz Kreisler Recitativo and Scherzo – Caprice for solo violin Op. 6
Liebesleid / La Gitana
Fritz Kreisler was among the foremost violinists of his time, a generation before Jascha Heifetz. Heifetz rewrote people’s expectations of a violin virtuoso. After Heifetz Kreisler might have been considered old school. Much of his music is charming and gemütlich  evoking old-time Vienna as  in Liebesleid and La Gitana, (The Gypsy). The latter is full of exotic colours and flamenco-type rhythms. Both pieces are from a collection Kreisler published under the title of ‘Classical Manuscripts’. Some  pieces were attributed to Baroque composers, though all were his own compositions. Recitativo and Scherzo – Caprice is something else, a truly challenging virtuoso piece in the tradition of Paganini, or for that matter, Ysaÿe, to whom the piece was dedicated. Yuka was undaunted by these challenges. Jaw-dropping stuff!

John Williams Theme from Schindler’s List
Schindler’s List is a sorrowful Holocaust film and the music captures its deep unrequited sadness with its beautiful haunting melody.

Before she played the piece, Yuka said, that she dedicated it to Peter Barber, long time, colourful and much-loved member of the NZSO who passed away recently, and to Shinzo Abe, former Japanese Prime Minister, who was assassinated the day before this concert.

She also talked about her violin, made by Carlo Ferdinando Landolfi in 1766. one of the great luthiers of the golden age of violin making. It is truly a beautiful instrument with a wonderful tone. It was appropriate for Yuka to acknowledge her instrument in this violin recital for violinists.

Vittorio Monti Csárdás
With the final item in the concert we are back in the jubilant mood of the earlier part of the programme. Vittorio Monti was a Neapolitan composer. This is by far his best known work. It is a rhapsodical concert piece, written in 1904, and is based on the Csárdás, a Hungarian folk dance. It is invigorating music, a showpiece for violinists.

The artists received a standing ovation, quite unusual for the sedate, elderly audience of Sunday afternoon concerts. The audience was rewarded with an encore of another lovable Fritz Kreisler piece, Rondino on a theme by Beethoven – and we all left happier for this afternoon of enchanting solo violin music music. Yuka and Kemp are wonderfully accomplished musicians. One wonders why we haven’t heard them before in Wellington.

 

Opera in the time of Covid

Wellington Opera presents:
VERDI – La Traviata

Cast –
Violetta – Emma Pearson
Alfredo –  Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono
Germont – Philip Rhodes

Orchestra Wellington
Hamish McKeich (conductor)
Michael Vinten (chorus director)
Sara Brodie (director)

St James Theatre, Wellington

Saturday 9 July (and until 16 July)

(Review by Steven Sedley and Anne French)

Opening night of La Traviata, in the refurbished St James. The house was full and there was an excited buzz when Artistic Director Matthew Ross came out in front of the curtain to make an announcement. His message, that three players had fallen ill with Covid-19, was not amplified and consequently very hard to hear. Tenor Oliver Sewell, who was to sing Alfredo, was to be replaced by the cover, Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono (who was  himself to have sung Gastone). His place on stage would be taken by Nino Raphael, the Assistant Director. The knock-on was that Gastone would be sung by Xavier Krause (the cover from the chorus), and he would be represented on stage by Sara Brodie, the Director. Hannah Catrin Jones was also ill with Covid, so Flora would be sung by Hannah Ashford-Beck, also from the chorus.

‘We have a show and the show must go on,’ said Matthew Ross. It sounded brave. How exactly would it work?

Next, the words La Traviata were projected on the curtain, followed by a translation: ‘The Fallen Woman’, and then ‘Amore e morte’, ‘Love and death’. I’m not sure who this was for. Most of the audience seemed to be regular opera-goers, who hardly need the reminder. Perhaps it was intended to make the opera accessible for the young people in the audience who don’t know the story and can’t read Italian. In that case, you would first need to explain to them the term ‘fallen woman’ and the moral universe of the nineteenth century.

This is a matter of historical record. Verdi wrote the opera in 1853. It was based on La Dame aux Camellias, an enormously popular novel published in 1848 by Alexandre Dumas fils, as well as events from Verdi’s own life – he put something of his current girlfriend into the character of Violetta. Verdi conceived the opera as a contemporary (i.e. 1850s) story about the lives of ordinary people (a sophisticated lady, an immature and irresponsible young man, his concerned and caring father), unlike the heroes, kings, dukes, and princes in the operas of the previous generation.

But the authorities at Teatro La Fenice in Venice where it was premièred were outraged by the edgy libretto. They forced Verdi to set his opera at least 100 years in the past – about 1700.  It wasn’t until the 1880s that it received a modern setting.

The curtain rose for the overture showing a cold, grey, empty stage dominated by four large free-standing wall panels, complete with deep skirtings and traditional architraves, meant to suggest Dior. The artistic team had decided to set the opera in a semi-modern style! A huge round mirror is set in one of wall panels. A woman wearing a full-skirted red dress is seated against the wall; a man in a dark business suit arrives. The woman lifts her skirt and matter-of-factly rolls down her stocking. Why? To pose for him? He appears to take a photograph on his phone, hands her something, and leaves. She resumes her pose. The chirpy second theme of the overture chirrups on.

The beautiful woman in the red dress was of course Violetta (sung by the ineffable Emma Pearson). She held the very first few moments together as Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono got his bearings, singing from a music stand set up in the box closest to the stage on the right-hand side (stage left), with his eyes fixed on conductor Hamish McKeich. But almost immediately Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono was in complete control and singing gloriously. Meanwhile, on stage and wearing a black Covid mask was Nino Raphael, miming the most unconvincing Alfredo you could imagine. Sara Brodie, the Director, was also busy on stage during the party scene, miming Gastone. Hannah Ashford-Beck did a great job as Flora. She had benefited from a week’s production rehearsals because Hannah Catrin Jones went down with Covid-19 earlier than Oliver Sewell.

Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono is only 24. He grew up in Flaxmere, sang at home and at church, and developed his chops with Project Prima Volta. He has already won some prizes. This year he is supported by the Dame Malvina Major Foundation and the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation. Those dames know what they are doing! He has a gorgeous voice and on this challenging opening night he sang Alfredo superbly. If only he had been allowed on stage. His singing was musically and dramatically convincing. Alfredo is young, impulsive, and a bit of an idiot, but utterly sincere in his love of the glamorous, older, generous Violetta.

The original Alfredo, Oliver Sewell, has a large, bright tenor voice. But Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono is another kind of tenor entirely. His voice is warm and lyrical, with that beautiful Polynesian bloom – a bit like the young Pati brothers before they went to Wales. His sincerity shone out from his music stand in the box. He deftly managed all the rapid emotional shifts that Verdi required. Whether he was singing of his love for Violetta or his regret about his foolish actions, he was completely believable. His duets with Emma Pearson were sublime. To pick up Alfredo at the last minute and sing it flawlessly makes me think he has a great career ahead of him.

Emma Pearson was outstanding as Violetta. She held the show together. She has a versatile and agile voice, with a huge colour palette, equally capable of convincing coloratura and gorgeous pianissimos. Violetta is a big role – she is on stage almost all the time – and it requires excellent acting. Pearson was as lovely to watch as to listen to, and her acting was as credible as the production would allow, shifting from confidence to compassion and vivacity to vulnerability as Verdi demanded. It helped in Act 3 that she looked convincingly frail and feverish. So many Violettas look altogether too bonny to be credible. (Why did she have to sleep on the floor to die?)

Phillip Rhodes also has a very fine voice and is a superb actor, but one of us felt the part needed more gravitas. Germont Senior is an older man, very kind, understanding, but concerned for his children – his feckless son, his daughter whose future will be ruined if Alfredo continues to live in sin with Violetta. His dignified character was insufficiently projected, perhaps because the direction limited his ability to project it. Sam McKeevor as the Marchese was excellent and convincing. Sam Downes (Barone) has a big voice but was merely stolid.

The Wellington Opera Chorus looked to be mostly opera students, so their sound had the freshness of youth. They were confident within the limits of the production. Properly they should have reflected the well-heeled, spoiled young men who were Alfredo’s circle of friends. Fortunately neither the grey suits nor the ridiculously skimpy costumes in Flora’s ‘exclusive club’ in Act 2 (more like a scene from Cabaret) affected their singing, which had the characteristically warm, full-blooded operatic sound that Verdi requires and that Chorus Director Michael Vinten is known for.

Orchestra Wellington were in the pit under the experienced orchestral conductor Hamish McKeich. Their playing was very sensitive, full of gorgeous textures, with a sublime oboe solo and some great horn playing.

When I asked afterwards what the dumb show during the overture was supposed to signify, I learned that the opera has been set in the 1950s (which explains Violetta’s full-skirted, knee-length dress, though not the grey suits). The perfunctory man in the dark suit but no doctor’s bag was the doctor, administering a therapeutic injection, rather than the punter I had taken him for.

What is the problem? It’s simple. By the 1950s, tuberculosis could be completely cured by antibiotics. If Violetta doesn’t have to die of TB in Act 3, there is no plot. Likewise the concept of the ‘fallen woman’. It is intrinsic to the story but makes absolutely no sense in Paris in the 1950s. The moral universe that the opera inhabits is clearly that of the mid-nineteenth century. Setting it in the 1950s makes no dramatic sense.

Musically the performance deserves very high praise, with fine singing and excellent orchestral playing. (One of us thought the design and lighting were great, but objected to the direction. The other disliked the costumes and staging.) Someone who doesn’t know the opera or is unfamiliar with the social mores of the nineteenth century probably wouldn’t have noticed. Book now, before it’s gone!