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!

 

An Eastern European smorgasbord at St.Andrew’s

St. Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace Lunchtime Concert Series presents:

Music for Cello & Piano from Eastern Europe

Josef Suk: Ballade & Serenade Op 3 for Cello & Piano  (1898)

Witold Lutoslawski Grave Metamorphoses for Cello & Piano (1981)

Bohuslav Martinů Sonata No 2 for Cello & Piano.  (1941)

Robert Ibell (cello) and Rachel Thomson (piano)

St. Andrew on the Terrace

Wednesday, 22 June 2022

We are very fortunate in Wellington to have artists of the calibre of Robert Ibell and Rachel Thomson. They are both very versatile musicians. Ibell is the cellist of the Aroha Quartet, a past member of the NZSO, and now he plays with a number of different ensembles. Rachel Thomson is an accompanist, associated with many local artists. They presented a program of largely unfamiliar works from Eastern Europe. I am giving here a brief account of this, their recent cello-and-piano recital  for the historical record.

Josef Suk: Ballade & Serenade Op 3 for Cello & Piano

This is an early work of Suk. Ibell and Thomson gave the opening sombre Ballade plenty of emotion and intensity, following this with a playful Serenade. Both movements required soulful playing by cellist and pianist alike. They brought out the melodious, approachable character of the work most successfully.

Witold Lutoslawski:i Grave Metamorphoses for Cello & Piano

This was written more than eighty years after the previous piece. A lot had happened to the world and music in those intervening years – two world wars, and the disintegration of the received ideas of what music should sound like. Lutoslawski uses the first four notes of Debussy’s opera, Pelléas and Mélisande which then becomes the metamorphoses, the transformation, the breakup of the notes into different rhythmic configurations. At the end of the piece the four-note configuration from Pelléas returns.  Ibell’s and Thomson’s playing rose splendidly to meet both the technical and musical challenges posed by this work.

Bohuslav Martinů: Sonata No 2 for Cello & Piano

It’s good to hear Martinu’s music being played more frequently in concerts. This substantial sonata was written in 1941. The war was at its most brutal early stages, and Martinů’s Czechoslovakia was no more, causing him to seek refuge in the United States. He wrote this major work, which is essentially in the traditional three movements. The first movement is vigorous and energetic, the second is full of passionate longing with a gorgeous lyrical cello line, and the finale makes use of strong rhythms suggesting Bohemian peasant dances.

This, in tandem with the other works, made for a stimulating concert, and brought to us seldom performed music that was well worth hearing. I thought there was a real sense of fine partnership between Robert Ibell and Rachel Thomson throughout. Their playing was thoroughly convincing demonstrating what sounded like real affinity with this repertoire. For their committed efforts these two musicians deserve our gratitude.

 

 

 

 

Goldner Quartet – old friends return to Wellington

A Concert presented by Chamber Music New Zealand

Gareth Farr – Te Koanga
Felix Mendelssohn – String Quartet No. 1 in e-flat Major Op.12
Ross Edward – White Cockatoo Spirit Dance
Antonin Dvořák – String Quartet No.12 in f Major Op. 96 “American”

The Goldner String Quartet:
Dene Olding, Dimity Hall (violins), Irina Morozova (viola), Julian Smiles (‘cello)

Public Trust Hall, Lambton Quay, Wellington

Tuesday 14th June, 2022

Chamber Music is back after a long break, and a glorious return it was. The Goldner Quartet were once regular visitors, but it was nine years since they were last here. The four members of the quartet had played together for 27 years, rare among touring string quartets, and they developed an understanding over the years and a wealth of musical experience that places them among the best quartets anywhere in the world. This time they offered something new and something old, a panorama of music from Mendelssohn’s quartet of 1829 to Farr’s of 2017.

Gareth Farr: Te Koanga – Gareth Farr’s piece starts with the four instruments imitating a rich chorus of bird songs which then develops into a rhythmic conversation, into which appears a rich melodic passage reminiscent of a quote from a late Beethoven quartet.  There’s a variety of sound effects, colorful and simple melodic phrases, new and different sonorities. At time Farr uses the strings as percussion instruments. He poses the question: what is music? With random bird songs, percussive effects of bows hitting strings, and strange harmonies, Gareth Farr sees this work as a joyous celebration of nature, the beautiful and rich natural environment of Wellington, which was important for Ian Lyons, the much loved and respected luthier, in whose memory the piece was commissioned. Te Kōanga presents many technical challenges for the musicians, but it also challenges listeners to open their ears and their minds to new and different frontiers.

Felix Mendelssohn: String Quartet No 1 in E flat Major, Op 12

The year was 1829, Schubert had died the year before, Beethoven two years earlier, and a precocious young man, Felix Mendelssohn, just 20, had the chutzpah to write a string quartet in the wake of the late Beethoven quartets and Schubert’s epic quartets. He didn’t take up the challenge to write something that followed in the footsteps of the earlier masters, which, in any case were then generally misunderstood. He wrote a work full of appealing melodies and cheerful joyous passages. The work opens with a sombre Adagio and a dramatic Allegro with the four instruments developing the beautiful theme, discussing it, and arguing about it. The second movement has a filigree passage that is typical of Mendelssohn, that he uses in his Midsummer Night’s music, his octet and is one of his hallmarks. It is a joyous interlude. This is followed by an Andante Expressivo, a beautiful song, straight from the heart. The last movement is fast, manic, but ends on a sombre note, not the jubilant sound the foregoing music might have anticipated. It is a quartet that is seldom played and the Goldner Quartet deserves our gratitude for playing it for us.

Ross Edwards: White Cockatoo Spirit Dance

The Goldner Quartet took us back across the ditch with this short cheerful rhythmic dance movement. It is an engaging piece, one that drew its  inspiration from Australia’s indigenous culture and nature. The varied obsessive rhythms over a static harmonic basis captures the shapes and patterns of the natural world, but it might also echo tribal Aborigine dances.

Antonin Dvořák: String Quartet No 12 in F Major, Op 96, ‘American’

Dvořák’s ‘American’ quartet is one of the most beloved works of the quartet repertoire. He wrote it during his stay in America, where he had a happy time living among the people of the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa, where his family joined him. There is nothing particularly American in the piece, though people tried to find echoes of Negro and Indian themes It just has lovely singable melodies. It reflects Dvořák’s contented state of mind after his hard early life and the success he attained culminating in his appointment as Director of the National Conservatory in New York. The work is notable for its simplicity, its immediately captivating themes and its folksy charm. Dvořák wrote that he wanted to write something very melodious and straightforward. Living in America, however briefly, had a liberating influence on Dvořák and he sketched the quartet in three days completing it in 13 days. The viola starts the first movement, followed by a passage reminiscent of Czech gypsy music. The simple melody of the Second movement is the one some associate with Negro Spirituals or an American Indian tune, The third movement is a somewhat quirky scherzo full of off-beats and cross rhythms. The final movement, a scherzo, has a fair ground atmosphere about it, jolly, exuberant. The four musicians in the quartet brought out the captivating themes. The music is full of beautiful harmonies and at time, a happy coffeehouse spirit.

The audience that filled the hall appreciated the wonderful performance with an enthusiastic applause and was rewarded with a charming encore, a work by Peter Sculthorpe called Bird Song 2.

Sculthorpe said that he wanted people to feel better and happier for having listened to his music. This short delightful piece certainly achieved that.

This was a wonderful, immensely enjoyable concert. The beautiful playing of each member of the quartet reflected their individual personality yet together they jelled into an outstanding ensemble. Their playing was tasteful, elegant, sonorous. There was a lovely rapport between the four musicians. Playing together for 27 years, touring the world, they have developed a great understanding of each other. The acoustics of the Public Trust Hall, with its high ceiling, and ample space within a concrete box enhanced the sensitive playing and the sounds of the great instruments on which the four players performed.

A solo tour-de-force from violinist Monique Lapins

St.Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series
MONIQUE LAPINS (solo violin)
A concert for solo violin – music by Georg Philipp Telemann,
Erwin Schulhoff, and Jacob Ter Veldhuis (a.k.a. Jacob T.V.)

St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace Church

Wednesday, 8th June 2022

I left this concert on a high, and started composing my notes and comments on the way home in the bus!

One violin, one solitary violinist at the centre of the stage, and a program of music largely unfamiliar to concert audiences; this promised to be an exceptional musical experience. Monique Lapins is a very versatile musician, a member of the NZ String Quartet, of the Ghost Trio with Gabriela Glapska (piano) and Ken Ichinose (cello) and, of the contemporary group, Ensemble Gô. She presented a programme that ranged from the first half of the eighteenth century to the 21st century – all on just four strings!

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1761)
Fantasias for solo Violin – No. 1 in B-flat TWV 40.14 / No.6 in E Minor TWV 40.19 / No. 7 in E-flat Major  TWV 40.20

Telemann, a contemporary of JS Bach, Handel and Vivaldi, was a self-taught and immensely prolific composer. He wrote operas, church music (cantatas and oratorios), orchestral and chamber music, keyboard and other instrumental music (both concertos and works for various solo instruments). Among these were 12 Fantasias for solo violin.

The great violin makers of the age, Nicola Amati and Stradivari in Italy, and Jacob Stainer and the Klotz family in Germany, greatly exploded the potential of the simple fiddle. These Fantasias, like Bach’s Partitas and Sonatas for Solo Violin should be seen in this light, that complex polyphonic music can  be produced, played on a simple instrument with only four strings.

These works, based on elaborations of simple dance tunes and rhythms evolve into major musical statements, involving technically challenging double-stopping and rapid, spectacular ornamentation. Monique Lapins played these with a clear tone that easily filled the hall – she articulated each phrase distinctly so that they each became part of a musical narrative. She played with ease, as if these complex dance fragments had come to her spontaneously.

Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942)
Sonata for Solo Violin (1927)

Schulhoff was a significant Czech composer from the post-World War One years, who experimented with the new styles of music which emerged in the wake of the cataclysm of the war. This Sonata opened with a fast, manic first movement, followed by a slower movement that was tinged with sadness and nostalgia. Then came a scherzo with folksy rhythms, and finally a movement made up of more barbarous sounds of a kind the composer intended would shock the status quo.

The whole Sonata, but particularly the last two movements evoked Bartok’s use of Hungarian peasant songs and dances, but Schulhoff also employed tone rows, the result of the influence of Schoenberg and his school. It is a fiendishly difficult piece, seldom heard; and yet an important work from the 20th Century’s violin repertoire.

Jacob Ter Veldhuis – a.k.a. Jacob T.V. (b.1951)
The Garden of Love, for violin and soundtrack (2022)

Another war, with further destruction of civilisation, and here was another composer of this later time, exploring what others such as Steve Reich were doing with their music. The Garden of Love is a poem by William Blake, whose words here are uttered in sound-bytes, together with others from voices, oboes, harpsichord, bird-song and electronic sound. The violin is here in dialogue with the machine producing these sounds. It must have been incredibly difficult to keep this dialogue going in a convincing manner, but to the great credit of Monique Lapins she did this, so that the audience was at first puzzled and bewildered, but responded to the challenge by the end.

This was an amazing and unique concert, quite unlike other violin recitals. It’s a great pity that Radio NZ’s Concert Programme no longer records concerts like this. There was a time when people could share such musical experiences no matter where they lived, anywhere from Kaitaia to the Bluff., with those who were fortunate enough to live in the main centres Perhaps with the shakeup of Radio NZ and TVNZ room will be found for those whose interests go beyond the latest popular tunes, nostalgia and selected news handouts, even if there is no money in it and no-one makes a profit. There is value in expanding and challenging the interests and cultural horizons of people, citizens, taxpayers, no matter where they live.