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


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

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

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

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

(Friday 3rdDecember, 2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Camus’s La Peste … our Covid-19 … the sterility of opera … and …

Camus’s novel La Peste: the production in Oran, Algeria, of Gluck’s Orphée. A metaphor for the static, morbid condition of opera … and of our civilisation?

I subscribe to Opera News, the magazine published by the Metropolitan Opera Guild, New York. It is the United States’ principal opera magazine.

The August 2020 issue is, unsurprisingly, short on articles on forthcoming operas and reviews of new productions across the States and elsewhere. But there is a number of articles on people and issues connected with opera which make the current issue a very good read.

One of the unusually interesting articles, inspired in various ways by the pandemic, is by David J Baker.

Here is the article:

‘It may surprise people to learn that Albert Camus once wrote about opera – in his definitive novel about a twentieth century epidemic. La Peste (The Plague) includes a bizarre, disturbing scene in an opera house. Seventy-five years after its publication, the novel can still speak to us about such a plague, and even more about opera.

‘Yet Camus describes a very different epidemic from ours. Social distancing, let alone the use of masks or a shut-down of stores and other public places, is never mentioned or practised in the novel; instead, the Algerian city of Oran, where the novel takes place, is ‘distanced’ – cut off entirely from the outside world for almost a year.

‘A touring opera troupe, trapped in Oran by the quarantine, has decided to continue to perform Gluck’s Orphée, which makes up its entire touring repertoire. They have presented it every Friday evening for the duration of the plague. The opera is always the same; yet the house is sold out each time. Like the overcrowded restaurants, bars and cinemas described in the novel – such a contrast to our recently vacant cities – the plague city’s municipal opera house has helped to satisfy the citizens craze for distraction from the mortal threat they face.

‘An anomaly in Camus’s plague is that people are satisfied with watching, over and over again, the same film or play or opera, because no new material is coming into the city. In Camus’s hands, this restricted repertoire, and audiences’ acceptance of it, becomes an especially apt way to typify one effect of the epidemic – limited choices, repetitive behaviour, numbing distractions, the sense, familiar today as well, of living on a treadmill, in a closed circle.

‘But why select Gluck’s Orphée as the one opera played weekly throughout the long months of the Oran plague? Orpheus is one of the most symbolic of all mythological figures: in Western aesthetics and consciousness; he epitomises the power of art (specifically music), a power stronger than death. In operas by Monteverdi, Gluck and others, his lyre and his voice work the miracle of rescuing his wife from Hades – from death itself.

‘Attending one of Oran’s weekly performances, Jean Tarrou (one of the narrators) is intrigued by the posh audience as couples begin to file in ostentatiously, well-dressed, mingling and clearly regaining some of their habitual (pre-plague) assurance. During the performance, Tarrou begins to notice something unusual on stage. The Act I ‘ariettes’, we are told, are sing by principals and chorus with “facility” and “grace”. Then, almost imperceptibly, the Orphée (a male singer, as was traditionally more common with French performances) “inserted tremolos” that were not part of his Act II aria and, “with a slight excess of pathos, beseeched the master of Hell to heed his pleas. Certain jerky gestures escaping him seemed, to the more savvy spectators, a stylistic effect that added appreciably to the singer’s interpretation”.

‘Only during the duet in Act III, “the point where Eurydice escaped Orphée” does the audience begin to react. And, “as if these noises from the audience confirmed the singer in what he was feeling, at the moment he advanced to the footlights, Grotesquely, stretching his arms and legs in his antiquarian costume, and collapsed,” overturning scenery in his fall. The orchestra falls silent, and the audience begins to leave the theatre “at first discreetly (as they would leave a church, or a funeral) and then in a desperate, disorderly rush”.

‘The narrator and his companion are left alone, confronted with an image “of what their life had become: the plague onstage in the form of a contorted tragedian and, in the hall, signs of luxury now useless … forgotten opera glasses, and lace garments discarded against the crimson upholstered seats”. Art – like its more frivolous accessories among the elite audience – falls prey to the ravages of the epidemic.

‘Opera audiences in 2020 are being spared such dreadful scenes, thanks to the precautions taken during “our” pandemic. We are also deprived of live opera altogether. How significant is this aesthetic and social loss in the greater scheme of the pandemic? Should we complain about the plight of the opera world when we appreciate the mortal risk of the coronavirus – which, in a small distortion of a word used by Sartre and Camus, we can call an “existential threat”?

‘At the end, when normal life returns, one minor character says: “What does the plague really matter? It’s life, that’s all”. Afflicted for years with tuberculosis, and starting this novel during the war, Camus saw life as struggle and resistance, a response to our “absurd” condition. In a less momentous sense, this philosopher, novelist and playwright may have seen opera, too, as not without absurdity. Perhaps, in presenting a company and a theatre with a repertoire of just one opera, he was presciently suggesting one of the weaknesses of this art form as it is practised  and marketed today; the opera scene in La peste could be taken as parody, as a metaphor for opera’s basically fixed, unchanging repertoire. Few new works keep the repertoire alive and growing; what we see on stage, as in Camus’s scene, is a form of death.

‘When the curtain goes up again – on our cities, and in our opera houses – we can hope that it’s not just a return to business as usual. Our pandemic has brought painful reminders of social disparities, prompting calls for reform. What remains to be seen is how our plague will affect arts institutions. Will we return to the opera marketplace as Camus depicted it so starkly, in his exaggerated dramatization – as a shrinking repertoire, a moribund institution, a privilege for the few?’

The author is identified thus: David J Baker, whose translations of the Camus excerpts appear here, taught La Peste and other novels to undergraduates while preparing his PhD in French.

Opera News is a relatively low-priced opera magazine. New Zealanders can subscribe for US$69.99 per annum, for 12 issues. It was the price that first attracted me about 30 years ago and I have been a subscriber ever since.
Opera News has for many years been much more than simply a newsletter for well-healed ‘Friends’; it offers a fair view of the surprising extent of opera in the United States and Canada (there are about 150 professional opera companies, members of Opera America), as well as some news and reviews from elsewhere.

Apart from the injury currently being inflicted on the performing arts world-wide, opera is flourishing in terms of the numbers of opera companies. The wretched condition of opera in New Zealand is not typical of its extent elsewhere. 

Lindis Taylor

A comprehensive update on the Concert FM crisis; courtesy New Zealand Opera News

The following is an article from the February-March issue of New Zealand Opera News

The Plight and Future of RNZ Concert

A report and comment on what were the proposed changes to this important Public Service Radio Broadcast Medium

RNZ Concert to be Gutted
On 5 February 2020 this announcement hit the headlines immediately before the Waitangi Day Holiday period on 6 February 2020. This announcement was not signalled in advance and we believe was not sanctioned by the Broadcasting Minister, Kris Faafoi who was blindsided by RNZ CEO Paul Thompson’s announcement, as discussions and decisions were pending about the way forward for public service broadcasting’s planned merging of Radio New Zealand and TVNZ to form a new public broadcasting entity.

We believe that this was possibly a determined political stance by Thompson, although we hesitate to suggest that it might have been a ploy, to angle for increased funding from government, although the resultant outrage was possibly not expected by RNZ Management.

Out with Classical; in with “youth platform”
In the biggest overhaul of its music services in years, Radio New Zealand (RNZ) is planning to cut back its classical music station RNZ Concert and replace it on their FM radio frequency with music for a younger audience as part of a new multimedia music brand. Mediawatch asks RNZ Chief Executive (CEO) Paul Thompson and music content director Willy Macalister to explain the move.

The broadcaster was proposing to remove RNZ Concert from its FM frequencies and transform it into an automated non-stop music station which will stream online and play on AM radio.

It was to be replaced on FM by a service aimed at a younger, more diverse audience as part of a new multimedia “music brand”. RNZ Concert would be taken of FM radio on May 29 and the youth platform would be phased in ahead of its full launch on August 28. RNZ’s music staff were informed about the proposed changes on 5 February 2020 in an emotional, occasionally heated meeting with the RNZ music content director Willy Macalister, head of radio and music David Allan, and chief executive Paul Thompson.

According to documents for staff, the move would eliminate 17 jobs at RNZ Music, including all RNZ Concert presenter roles, from late March. Those would be replaced with 13 jobs at the new youth platform, while four remain in the downsized RNZ Concert service and RNZ Music in Wellington.

The documents for staff say the proposed changes are aimed at securing new audiences for RNZ. While its listenership is predominantly Pākehā and skewed towards older people, the new music brand would target people aged 18 to 34, including Māori and Pasifka audiences, the proposal says.

“RNZ has strong audiences but they skew older. We are thinking five and ten years ahead. We need to start to connect with younger New Zealanders,” RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson told Mediawatch. He said RNZ Concert’s classical music focus has prevented RNZ from fulfilling its Charter’s requirement to broadcast a range of music and performances.

“We are expanding our services off our current resources. There are some tough choices in that but this is a really good story of RNZ getting to more New Zealanders,” he said.

But it’s not a good story for those accustomed to a repertoire of classical music on FM radio for many years. AM transmission is sub-optimal for live concerts and it would be interrupted when Parliament sessions are broadcast on the AM network.

‘Consume’ your classics off ‘Freeview’, says Macalister
“It is still available on Freeview and listening to RNZ Concert is mostly in the home so the ability to consume it in stereo is still there,” said Willy Macalister. The scaled-back Concert will offer recorded music round the clock, but few of the RNZ Concert programmes currently on air will be made after the new music brand is established.

“We are in consultation over that but are going to pull back on some of it,” said Macalister. “We will continue to record and air concerts and support orchestras where we can,” said Paul Thompson. Mediawatch understands the new youth platform would have a playlist spanning multiple musical genres with a heavy focus on New Zealand music. It would be active on social media.

“Genre is no longer relevant to the audience,” the proposal document says. “We intend to be a broad proposition for everyone … but it’s got to have relevance for 18 – 35 year old audience,” Macalister told Mediawatch. “One of the things that streaming services have taught us is that when you look at the top playlists, they’re not necessarily talking about genres of music. They’re talking about emotional state and activities. We’re not the only country that has this kind of brand. Australia, the UK and other countries have vibrant radio returning profits.”

“We’re not chasing dollars. We are commercial-free, and we will play more New Zealand music than any commercial format would sustain” said Paul Thompson, adding that the new RNZ Music would feature news content tailored to the younger audience it hopes to attract.

This all began in 2015
RNZ has been looking at drawing younger audiences with music since 2015 when an internal review concluded its “approach to the delivery of music content remains in a time warp.” A year later – with little fanfare – the ‘RNZ Music’ brand was launched as part of a strategy to bring in new listeners.

At the time, Thompson told Mediawatch he wasn’t interested in duplicating commercial broadcasting on the air or online. “Why would we provide anything the commercial broadcasters are quite happily doing?” he said. “I hope what we do will pull in more people – especially online – but I don’t see it as a massive New Zealand Opera News 34 audience growth initiative,” he said in 2015.

The station also launched youth-focused digital platform The Wireless – which had some music content – in 2014. But the Wireless was closed down and folded into the rest of in 2018. “That didn’t have the broadcast component in it and that’s what will make this proposal far more effective,” said Paul Thompson.

Editorial Comment:
It was the arrogance of CEO Thompson, Macalister and Allan in totally misunderstanding the strong audience support for RNZ Concert, combined with the complicit full support of the Board, as stated by Board chair Dr Jim Mather and the total ineptitude in their handing of this issue that really disappointed and angered faithful listeners.

It beggars belief that they were ignorant of how RNZ Concert listeners would respond to this sacrilege in dismantling an iconic treasure, a taonga, of an artist entity, and they did so, scathingly and swiftly and with real passion. Critical comments about the RNZ management’s handling of the announcement of their proposed plans, that would decimate RNZ Concert and actions came thick and fast from previous Prime Minster, Helen Clark, Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, ministers, ex-ministers, parliamentarians, of all stripes to high profile performers for example, such as Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and outraged listeners of all ages including from the so-called “18 – 34 years old young demographic” alike.

Clearly the CEO and Chairman of the Board hadn’t anticipated such a powerful reaction, and initially foolishly attempted to defend their actions, complaining about funding levels. To alienate the demographic of their listeners arguably including the most highly qualified intellectuals, and not expect pushback seems folly by Thompson and his managers.

All of that added to the ire of listeners as numerous letters to the editor published in newspapers attest along with petitions attracting thousands of signatures and a #Save RNZ Concert campaign was launched. Thankfully in appeasement, eventually a change-of-heart back-down from Thompson emerged with the plan shelved as proposed for now, with a reprieve for those threatened presenter and music staff positions.

Thompson finally is in discussion possibilities and options with the music staff, but why wasn’t careful and informed discussion held before this, and why should the music staff be presented with the challenge?

Where are the so-called management staff in all of this?
Willy’s previous experience and position at George FM prior to this suggests that the implied “youth platform” was intended as a replacement for RNZ Concert all along, not a coexisting of both genres. So why is one genre to be sacrificed for another, alienating the known 173,000 RNZ Concert Listeners?

And with little or no interest in classical music and the proper future of RNZ Concert how could or would he understand or have knowledge in what he was doing.
Why was he appointed to this position in the first place?

Tacit in this messy fiasco is a mostly silent board, February – March 2020 35 apart from unconvincing and unsatisfactory words from the Chair Dr Jim Mather.

There is so much that is unsatisfactory in this badly managed and organised proposed plan that for any proper lasting resolution there really needs to be a complete cleanout of all of that management team and board for anyone to have any confidence in them, or that they will do the job properly. Where was the proper governance and control that we should and would expect from highly paid people such as these?

Faafoi’s major quandary
The Broadcasting Minister, Kris Faafoi now has a major quandary to resolve, if he can, and the RNZ Management needs to be swept clean and a new and different set of qualified board members and management needs to be put in place. Surely that can happen?

We await with huge interest and hope that a sensible resolution will emerge with RNZ Concert and its talented, expert presenters and music staff essentially remain intact, while any “youth platform” is carefully and thoughtfully considered for Radio New Zealand, now offered a separate FM bandwidth, option so that they can co-exist, on an FM broadcast bandwidth, and most listeners to RNZ Concert can be satisfied with what is on offer.

But the fate of Concert FM is still far from being resolved. Coinciding with the 87th birthday of the original radio station that morphed into the current day RNZ Concert, a large rally with a variety of music, orchestral players, massed choir and opera chorus, and individual speakers addressing the crowd, presented, the musical pieces on the steps and the grass outside of Parliament.

A determined and strong throng of a few thousand made their thoughts on the future of RNZ Concert very obvious, egged on by the exuberant MCs, Linda & Jools Topp, and actor, Wellington Paranormal’s Karen O’Leary.

Hopes inspired by Grant Robertson
Associate Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, Grant Robertson impressed with his eloquent, honest, genuine and impassioned support for public broadcasting and the future of RNZ Concert with a message to CEO Paul Thompson as to what he expected. Speaking to the crowd, he said.. “… the only proposals government were interested in were ones that built on the strengths of Concert FM (sic).”

Given the strength of the argument delivered with such intensity and passion by Robertson, Thompson would be foolish not to accommodate the sentiments and feelings of the vociferous crowd, the minister’s and government stance. The celebratory nature of the colourful, tuneful event was capped off by the singing of “Happy Birthday” and the shared cutting of the cake, by the youngest supporter at 2 years old and the oldest supporter at 89 years old!

We do feel hopeful and heartened by the response of all present and similar gatherings of support elsewhere and in the letters to the editors and editorials and look forward to a satisfying conclusion to this self-generated messy debacle created by the Board, the CEO and his management team at Radio New Zealand.

Originally published in the February – March 2020 issue of New Zealand Opera News; published here with permission from New Zealand Opera News Editor Garth Wilshere, it remains the intellectual property of the editor. 

The composer of Kopernikus, Claude Vivier: interview with conductor Vladimir Jurowski

Why Quebec composer Claude Vivier was ahead of his time

In the absence of real concerts that Middle C can review, why not publish things of musical interest that might in small part make up for the deprivations we all suffer at present? 

Here is an article that appeared in 2018 in the Montreal Globe and Mail that might interest those who saw Claude Vivier’s opera, Kopernikus, at the recent festival in Wellington. I came across a reference to Vivier in the French magazine, Opéra Magazine: a concert performance of Vivier’s Hiérophanie, scheduled for performance at the Paris Philharmonie (the city’s brilliant new concert hall) in September last.

See Middle C review at

In seeking information about Hiérophanie, I found this interview/article. 

Article by Catherine Kustanczy

Special to The Globe and Mail

Published April 13, 2018

This article was published more than 1 year ago. Some information in it may no longer be current.

Many things can be said about the music of Claude Vivier, but one thing is certain: No one who hears it is quite the same afterward. Vivier, who would have turned 70 on April 14th, is a unique figure in music. Orphaned as a baby, he attended Catholic boarding school and later the Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Montréal, before studying composition with Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne. A boisterous figure known for his distinct laugh and an omnipresent sheepskin coat, Vivier’s works, largely biographical, were, as British musicologist Bob Gilmore has written, a way of “confronting loneliness, darkness, terror; of negotiating a relationship with God; of voicing an insatiable longing for acceptance and for love.”

His music combines voice, rhythm and instrumental textures, in French, German, and even imaginary languages. Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele (Do you believe in the immortality of the soul), his final, unfinished work, concerns a narrator (named Claude) meeting a young man and being fatally stabbed; Vivier would perish in this exact way on March 8, 1983.

An interview with conductor Vladimir Jurowski: his views about Vivier

There have been numerous tributes to Vivier over the past year, with Canadian outlets Soundstreams, Against the Grain Theatre and Esprit Orchestra (the latter being long-time supporters) presenting work. But if the old Canadian trope holds true about foreign recognition being a litmus test for success, then Vivier passes, with flying colors.

One notable tribute unfolded in Berlin in late February. Presented by contemporary classical group ensemble unitedberlin (who have previously explored Vivier’s work), the concert saw Russian conductor and artistic adviser Vladimir Jurowski exercising his music talents and theatrical instincts with equal zeal, particularly during Hiérophanie (1970-71), in which he played a stern priest/judge, directing members of the ensemble through shouts, shuffles and prostrations, in a performance faithful to Vivier’s animated instructions.

Days later, Jurowski led the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester (Radio Symphony Orchestra) Berlin, where he is chief conductor and artistic director, in a harrowing performance of works by Berg, Shostakovich and contemporary Australian composer Brett Dean, whose operatic adaptation of Hamlet was given its world premiere at the Glyndebourne opera festival last summer, with Jurowski on the podium.

As well as being principal conductor of the London Philharmonic, he holds a directorship in Moscow and keeps a busy schedule of dates across Europe. Building creative programs, especially ones featuring 20th-century work, is his specialty, and in the case of Vivier, he notes that “the further away we’re getting from him physically, the more important he becomes spiritually and artistically.”

In 2021, Jurowski begins duties as general music director of the Bavarian State Opera and has indicated that Munich audiences can anticipate lesser-known works alongside opera hits. Will that include Vivier’s 1980 opera Kopernikus? Only Jurowski knows for sure.

Why Vivier in 2018?

He was, in many ways, ahead of his time, and he was beyond time and space. Some people who were very much in their time, like [Karlheinz] Stockhausen or [Pierre] Boulez, made their time, made it an epoch – an era – and in some of their aspects, remain timeless, but in other aspects sound extremely dated. For instance, Stockhausen, who Vivier studied with, a lot of his work sounds incredibly dated today. Vivier, because he was creating his style from scratch, precreated something which came into full effect only after he departed. So now, of course, we can only imagine what he could have developed had he lived any longer.

When did you first hear the work of Vivier?

My personal route was via [French composer] Gérard Grisey . I discovered his last piece, which he also tragically left unfinished, because he died – Four Songs for Crossing the Threshold – and that piece was, in its initial stages, connected to Vivier’s death. So Grisey was trying to pay tribute to his friend, and they were near-contemporaries. I somehow instinctively felt that in the case of Vivier, we have one of those rare, highly romantic cases where the life of a composer and the work of a composer become one thing. In my head, Vivier is sitting up there with people like Gustav Mahler and Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Franz Schubert, those people for whom an artistic expression became an existentialist act which could be life-changing, life-saving or life-annihilating. So without having any facts at hand to prove the case, I am convinced, more than I am convinced about anything else, that Vivier had initiated and planned and nearly, could say, staged, his departure.

You think so?

I’m convinced. Having composed this imaginary death, he felt he had to oblige his own artistic imagination, and go. It’s like one of the traditional Japanese beliefs, that if you cannot change the world and strongly dislike it, you’re supposed to leave the world to its karma and leave. For someone like Vivier, who’d been strongly connected to all sorts of Oriental spiritual beliefs and practices, that was the most natural thing to do. The unnatural aspect of course is the form of death.

So his passing was his final artistic act?

That’s exactly what I feel about it.

What’s it been like to be so involved with a work that demands more as a conductor?

I think that’s to do with me generally being some kind of, I call it bat syndrome, a bat in the sense of it being an animal which has left the world of mammals but hasn’t quite reached the world of birds. I am flying between the worlds.

So you don’t want to be a traditional conductor?

No, it’s boring. There’s a whole new generation, people like Teodor Currentzis – he also goes over borders stylistically – we are very different, but still I think it’s a genuine interest for not just one direction in the music. For me, the predominant points of my artistic being are symphonic music, early music, contemporary music and music theatre. And sometimes I’m even allowed to combine all of them in one.


Is the Government paralysed by timidity? An update on the RNZ Concert crisis and a mass protest concert at Parliament

An update on the RNZ Concert crisis

A protest concert on Parliament’s steps
News website Scoop has published details of a concert involving hundreds of musicians performing in Parliament Grounds to voice their opposition to plans to axe RNZ Concert, the country’s only classical and jazz music station.

A massed choir and orchestra, conducted by Wellington’s Brent Stewart, have chosen RNZ Concert’s 87th birthday, Monday 24th February, to voice their support, with a performance of the classical hit Carmina Burana by Carl Orff.

The protest concert will be on the steps of Parliament at 4 pm on Monday 24 February

Government appears paralysed on RNZ crisis 
You won’t be surprised that I am more than a little agitated, dismayed, even angry about this attack on RNZ Concert. While it looks as if they’ve found a spare FM frequency, so allowing them to persist with their misguided intention of creating a new radio channel ‘catering for’ young audiences, many other destructive things could still happen.

Starting from the top, Thompson must be removed along with the board who have been unbelievably complicit in and ignorant in their promoting plans virtually to wipe Concert out.

Bearing in mind that the Government has in the past abolished statutory bodies such as regional councils and school boards, only a little courage is needed to remove a wrong-headed, incompetent CEO of Radio New Zealand, and perhaps its entire board.

The issues are far from resolved, yet they are extremely serious  
Will all existing staff be retained and given secure positions? Or is the unspoken intention still to turn it into an anonymous station, like the present midnight to 6am broadcasts, playing endless, unidentified music, as in some web media?

And will RNZ Concert abandon its tedious practice of endlessly self-promoting various ‘programmes’, promoting personalities and individual announcers’ sessions, in the style of TV presenters? And will the ‘popularising’ policy cease, that seeks to generate an intimacy through the presenters’ language, encouraging them to decorate their words with personal anecdotes, gushings about the rapturous or wonderful music about to be played?

Yes, it’s nice to sound friendly and interested (and all current presenters do that), but we also want them to treat us like grown-ups, and not patronised with adolescent speech and affectations.

Will RNZ Concert be more adequately funded (drastically reduced over the past decade and more) so that more live performances can be recorded for rebroadcast, and their ability restored to commission talks and documentaries about music and the other arts, such as there were up to 20 or so years ago? Being increasingly constrained in the quid-pro-quo of exchanging programmes with European and American networks, I gather we are now being treated as a charity case; a shameful situation that should embarrass the Government.

And will it reverse the shabby practice of playing single movements instead of entire works? About 80% of broadcasts of symphonies, sonatas, chamber and other multi-movement pieces are confined to single movements that leave you hanging, or longing to have heard the earlier movements. It’s very unprofessional.

Thompson must go and board cleaned out
Unless Thompson goes life will continue to be horrible for Concert staff as he will be able to continue to act, in a more obscure, less overt manner perhaps, to dumb down the channel. We must have a chief executive who understands and believes unreservedly in the importance of a classical music channel and energetically restores its essential character; someone who will recover its freedom to use its huge resources of recorded music most of which is locked in the basement.

Somehow, RNZ must be convinced that the success of public radio is not measured by its level of appeal to a particular age or any other group, in the same way as might apply to commercial radio. Very few young people listen to radio, PERIOD! And those that do occasionally, listen to commercial stations that broadcast the sort of music that RNZ plans to broadcast over its new channel.

It would be an irresponsible waste of money to set up a youth-oriented network, unless there was a clear intention to sue it to awaken interest in good music, classical music, music that has stood the test of time. It is not the job of public radio to attract any of those who do not in effect invite themselves.

RNZ’s job is comparable to that of a national library or art museum that devotes itself to storing and exhibiting and promoting works of art or literature of proven importance. Things that might not be looked at every day but which are a vital element in a civilised country. The success of such bodies is not to be measured solely by listener numbers but rather, by the responses of those whose background or long devotion to good music equips them to assess its qualities and its ability to stimulate interest in all those with any sort of curiosity about classical music. That’s not just popular music, though the best of contemporary popular music certainly finds a place.

Nevertheless, it has also been shown by a survey in the UK that the NZ Concert Program has, in terms of audience percentages, the largest listening numbers of all classical music stations in the world.

Silence and passing time makes Minister look indecisive 
It is becoming increasingly disturbing that no decisive action has yet been taken by the Minister, primarily on the need to terminate Thompson’s employment. The more time that passes, the more the Government will appear indecisive and timid, and it will also be plain for all to see that it either isn’t conscious of or doesn’t care about the implications, both domestic and international, of allowing the neglect and indifference of the previous Government to persist. This is an extremely important aspect of New Zealand’s cultural reputation.

Get to Parliament 4pm on Monday 24 February.
Here are links to relevant websites:

There is a Give a Little campaign set up to raise $10,000 to help with costs of this concert in Parliament Grounds.

SOUNZ (Centre for New Zealand Music) media release on the need to keep full presentation, scheduling and recording:


Revealing background from former Concert manager

A former manager of RNZ Concert, Miles Rogers, contributed an article in The Dominion Post last week, revealing important background information that illuminates the troubles of RNZ Concert, going back many years.

RNZ Concert from the inside

As a former manager of RNZ Concert, I’m aware that this network has been progressively side-lined and marginalised.

Until the late 1990s a defined funding split operated between National and Concert – c.78% to 22%.  A decision was then taken to apply funding where “most needed” and from that point Concert began to lose ground. By 2003, there was no longer a budget to purchase broadcasting rights to the numerous recorded performances from our professional musical bodies and the various international soloists and ensembles that tour – from that time these rights have generously been given gratis. And since an internal restructuring in late 2014, this stream – a whole RNZ network – has had no direct report to the CEO and therefore no appropriate representation.

Further, the vast library of classical CDs was removed from RNZ House, Wellington in 2017.  This repository is Concert’s bread-and-butter for maintaining variety and scope in its daily schedule.  In recent times, presumably in a directive to appeal to and gain greater listenership, and in part through ever decreasing funding and staffing levels, the output has been reduced to something like a “top 500”, with popular classics often occurring every couple of days, alongside a predominance of single movements. Compounding this, continuity music programming is selected by computer, rather than by musical minds. These factors severely limit programmers’ choice and listeners’ experience. The threat of presenters now facing redundancies continues the present trend that Concert is already automated for most of weekend transmissions and was for a period on weekday evenings – ie no warm body behind the microphone at these times.

Though most listeners would value RNZ Concert for its range of classical music, Concert exists and is funded particularly for the nurturing, recording and dissemination of our musicians and composers… think NZSO, Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, Chamber Music NZ, New Zealand String Quartet, pianists Michael Houstoun and Diedre Irons, Dames Kiri Te Kanawa and Malvina Major, Douglas Lilburn, John Psathas, – names at the peak of our indigenous talent.  Yet Concert’s work for emerging talent extends to secondary schools’ level through annual recordings of such as the NZCT Chamber Music Contest and The Big Sing.  There must surely be listeners too at Epsom Girl’s Grammar, who successfully hijacked 2019’s “Settling the Score”. Decreased funding has made such recording more and more difficult to carry out. I can only applaud the dedication of remaining staff, the lengths they go to in maintaining a professional product that still retains agreed quotas of NZ performance and composition within the overall schedule.

There’s a defined, finite audience for every music brand. That classical music has a smaller audience than popular brands should not diminish its value. RNZ Concert covers the broad range of classical, jazz, popular, film and World musics – much as then Director General, John Schroder envisaged when introducing the original YC stations c.1950. As our country’s population ages, more probably migrate from the commercial radio world for the sanity non-commercial radio affords. In truth, RNZ Concert needs a shot in the arm – increased funding – to enhance and regain its former prestige. Of RNZ’s funding from Government in Year 2018/19 totalling $43.4 million, I wonder what percentage was apportioned to RNZ Concert?  Throughout the 1980s RNZ’s technical and music staffs built a country-wide FM transmission network for fine music. To relegate this stream to much lesser quality AM transmission would be a retrograde step.

Section 175 of the Radiocommunications Act 1989: Conditions of licences relating to the FM Concert Programme and National Radio” includes the following: “that the first priority for the use of the frequency to which the licence relates shall be the broadcasting of (1) in the case of a licence that relates to the service known as the FM Concert Programme”. Does this not guarantee FM transmission for RNZ Concert?

Miles Rogers

And write to Minister of Broadcasting Kris Faafoi  ( and the Prime Minister (

Those at work, get an hour off to attend this important concert, and think about making a donation through Give-a-little to the large cost of staging a performance like this.

Send this to your friends.

Lindis Taylor

RNZ Chief plans to destroy RNZ Concert

Crisis in our intellectual and cultural life!

We reproduce below a report on Stuff website about the unbelievably barbaric plans of Radio New Zealand to sack all RNZ Concert staff, broadcast music without presenters, either live or recorded, transmit on only AM radio which is virtually defunct in New Zealand and throughout the world.

We know no country in the western world that does not have a classical music broadcaster of the kind New Zealand has had since 1950.

We find it extraordinary that a State-owned enterprise appears to be free to act in this way without the sanction of the relevant controlling body or the Minister.

There were warning signals last year with a report that there were plans to shift half of RNZ staff to Auckland.

That was hard to understand when it’s the State that should be leading the way in encouraging the dispersal of employment and the demand for housing to other parts of the country, from a city that seems unable to cater for the results of uncontrolled population growth.

And the ‘popularisation’ of the presentation in recent months, the incessant use of  ‘trailers’, encouraging presenters to exploit their personalities, and to ‘gush’ over what’s about to be played was prescient. It was a warning that management believed its listeners were either children or people without their own feelings about music, their long-cultivated tastes and generally a knowledge of classical music, just as of major literature and the visual arts.

We must wonder how someone so lacking in an understanding of the importance of maintaining fundamental elements of civilised life and culture. could have been appointed to a position in charge of the the nation’s public radio.

Is there any hope that RNZ’s board will reject this absurdity? Not likely, as there’s no one on the board with any sign of an interest in classical music, or indeed in any of the major arts.

When there were moves in the 1980s to undermine through commercial advertising, what was then the Concert Programme, it led to the formation of Friends of the Concert Programme. There were some 50,000 adherents and they stopped it. Unfortunately the record of those members has been lost.

We need to create immediately a new Friends of RNZ Concert, to raise the roof to show the strength of opinion about these unbelievable plans.

The report on Stuff: 

RNZ says new ‘youth oriented’ music brand will lift whole radio industry

Tom Pullar-Strecker 16:20, Feb 05 2020

RNZ has brushed off concerns that a radical overhaul of its music services will take it into a turf-fight with the country’s commercial radio stations.

The state-owned broadcaster began consulting staff on Wednesday on a proposal that would see it make 18 redundancies and axe almost all jobs at RNZ Concert.

It plans to create 17 new jobs at a new youth-oriented music channel based in Auckland that it plans to launch during the second half of this year.

But sources suggested that only a few existing staff were being given the opportunity to transfer.

“There will be a whole lot of new jobs doing some quite new things,” chief executive Paul Thompson said.

RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson says there will be different views on its new music strategy but it needs to connect with younger audiences.

Public Service Association national secretary Glenn Barclay said RNZ staff were “shocked and upset”.

“They knew change was coming, but nobody expected it would be this far reaching or aggressive in terms of timeframes.”

Concert FM had been part of New Zealand households for generations, and its “skilled and hardworking staff” did exemplary work every day, he said.

“PSA members will meet in the days ahead to discuss this proposal with colleagues, and they will decide on an appropriate response.”

RNZ head of music Willy Macalister said RNZ’s new music service would feature a higher proportion of New Zealand music and “talk content” than commercial radio stations.

But it would also play international hits in order to provide “something that is palatable to a broader audience”, he said.

RNZ’s support of the Rhythm and Vines music festival points to the direction it expects its new music service to take.

“You can’t ‘niche yourself’ out of relevance.”

The new commercial-free service, which has yet to be named, will be carried on FM and made available online, both in a streaming format and “on demand”.

RNZ Concert would lose its FM slot and all its presenters, but would broadcast classical music around the clock on AM, online and on Sky.

Staff whose jobs were on the line have criticised the moves as a step towards replacing RNZ’s music division with “Spotify”, sources said.

But Thompson said it needed to create the new brand and that decision had been signed off by its board.

“While RNZ is doing really well, we just don’t have enough connection with younger New Zealanders.

“The bit we are working with staff on is the impact of the new strategy on them.”

Commercial radio broadcasters NZME and MediaWorks are understood to have had discussions with the Radio Broadcasters Association about RNZ’s new direction.

Its chief executive Jana Rangooni gave a guarded response to RNZ’s plans.

“If the public service media principle of delivering content to New Zealand audiences that are not currently catered for is applied to RNZ’s youth music strategy, this could deliver benefits for all sectors of our industry and for New Zealanders,” she said.

But she said the association would have “serious concerns” if a taxpayer-funded broadcaster launched products and platforms that targeted audiences “already well served by commercial radio broadcasters”.

“We note that there are already many networks operating in New Zealand that service youth music audiences,” she said.

“While it’s true RNZ is non-commercial, the networks it operates with taxpayer funding compete for audiences which has an impact on New Zealand’s commercial networks.”

Macalister downplayed that concern saying a lot of thought had gone into avoiding a clash.

“A rising tide will float all boats. We are going to be offering something that is different.

“There is a section of the audience that is not consuming radio at the moment and we really do hope we can appeal to them.”

That would involve the new service supporting more “grass roots” music, emerging artists and live performances, he said.

Commercial radio businesses might “talk a bit loud at the start, but I think everybody will be okay and we will all get along”, he said.

Thompson said it would be “pointless” for RNZ to launch a service that replicated what the commercial market already did well, and said it would aim to offer any new content it created to other broadcasters.

“We have this strategy of ‘radical sharing’ because that is how we are growing our impact.”

RNZ would do “all it could” to support existing staff through the consultations, Thompson said.

But he said changes of the kind RNZ was considering were “always really difficult”.

“Of course there are going to be different views and opinions of this,” he said.


Offenbach’s anniversary year: Jewish, German, and essentially French; painstaking emergence and eventual triumph

Offenbach turns 200 today, Thursday 20 June.

If you look hard enough, interesting anniversaries generally show up every year. But few recent years have been as interesting as this, especially for one who ranks the two best-known, French birthday celebrants right at the top of their class.

It’s the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death (on 8 March this year); and the 200th anniversary of the birth of two of the most successful composers of light opera, or comic opera, or operetta, or opera-bouffe – take your pick – in mid 19th century: Franz von Suppé and Jacques Offenbach. Outside Germany and Austria, Suppé is today known almost only for half a dozen sparkling overtures to his forty or so operettas: Die schöne Galathée, Boccaccio, Fatinitza, Die Banditenstreiche, Poet and Peasant, Morning, Noon and Night and Light Cavallery. There are, naturally, similarities between Offenbach and Suppé, but the greatest difference is in the survival of much of the huge quantity of stage works by the one and virtual disappearance of the works of the other.

As I was putting this article together, I was delighted to hear RNZ Concert advertising its week-long plan to celebrate Offenbach, although so far the pickings have been rather scrappy and insignificant. Given the typically breathless hype with which forthcoming programmes are announced, I’d rather expected something substantial every day: a scene or more from three or four of his best opéras-bouffes as well as a decent chunk of The Tales of Hoffmann – the Antonia act is the richest for me; and several of the overtures and samples of his compositions for cello; his very successful ballet Le Papillon – only half an hour or so long – or a suite from the brilliant pastiche ballet, Gaité Parisienne which used to be featured often on 2YC’s dinner music programme in my teens….. There were a few gems however, though I missed most of them. One that intrigued me was excerpts from Fées du Rhin, on Eva Radich’s midday programme. It was originally called Rheinnixen, one of the few he wrote for German audiences – Vienna – in 1864. I’m sure I had never heard any of Rheinnixen before, but the waltz was very familiar, and I thought it was perhaps from his ballet Le Papillon which he’d written a few years earlier. And my copy of Alexander Faris’s biography of Offenbach confirmed that borrowing; indeed, it’s from Le Papillon.

England v. France in comic opera
In the English speaking world Offenbach has till recently, been generally denigrated, certainly given a lower ranking than Sullivan; and given credit, reluctantly, for only The Tales of Hoffmann. But the criteria for assessing the musics of countries as artistically different as Britain and France simply make comparisons dangerous. Offenbach’s theatre works have conventionally been regarded, in Britain anyway, as insubstantial, licentious, clumsy burlesque, in comparison to Gilbert and Sullivan.

That’s reflected in English books about opera. For example, The Viking Opera Guide lists 23 works by Sullivan compared with only seven by Offenbach; a curious view, given that Sullivan’s 23 are his entire stage output while Offenbach produced around a hundred (no one pretends they are all masterpieces!). Inevitably, there are points of similarity since they were roughly contemporaneous: Offenbach’s productive operetta years were from 1855 to 1880, while Sullivan’s were from about 1870 to 1900.

Looking at Offenbach’s references in my own books on opera, ignoring him seems a national passion.
The following shows date of publication and the numbers of operas by 1) Offenach and 2) others.

J Cuthbert Hadden; Favourite Operas (1910)   None out of 57
Leo Melitz: The Opera Goer’s Complete Guide (1914)  4 out of 227
Gustave Kobbé: The Complete Opera Book (1922)  A cursory reference to Hoffmann out of 197
R A Streatfiled: The Opera (1925) Only Hoffmann out of c 320.
The Gramophone Company: Opera at Home (1925) only Hoffmann out of about 170
Ernest Newman: Opera Nights (1943)  None out of 29
Earl of Harewood (ed): Kobbé’s Complete Opera Book (1987)  4 out of over 300
The Viking Opera Guide (1993) 6 out of around 2000
Denis Forman: The Good Opera Guide (1994) none out of 84
Earl of Harewood and Antony Peattie: The New Kobbé’s Opera Book (1997) 6 out of nearly 500 (Sullivan – nil)
Amanda Holden: The New Penguin Opera Guide (2001)  (a major updating of the Viking Opera Guide) 6 out of 2000

Things were very different in New Zealand

A glance at Adrienne Simpson’s splendid history of opera in New Zealand, Opera’s Farthest Frontier, is very interesting. While her references don’t allow a count of actual performances she does list all the traceable operas produced in New Zealand till 1970.

By then, Offenbach was the most performed opera composer in New Zealand – 14 different works had been seen here. Next came Sullivan with 11, Verdi, Mozart and Donizetti with 7 each and Puccini, Planquette and Lecocq at 5 each. That reflects the huge popularity of comic opera in New Zealand edging out major, main-stream opera from the 1870s. A little later the Sullivans and Offenbach’s were being replaced by more ephemeral works, by composers whose names are generally quite forgotten today (Leo Fall, Victor Herbert, Audran, Oscar Straus, and Planquette and Lecocq (mentioned above), After the turn of the century, even they were being replaced by musical comedy.

And after the First World War Offenbach was being bypassed by more mainstream opera, by the far fewer visiting opera companies that came to New Zealand from then.

The Offenbach pieces seen in New Zealand by 1970 were: Barbe-Bleu, La belle Hélène, The Brigands, La fille du Tambour-Major, Fortunio’s Song, Geneviève de Brabant (the one with the famous ‘Gendarmes Duet’), The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, Madame Favart, Madame l’Archiduc, Orpheus in the Underworld, La Périchole, The Princess of Trebizonde, Monsieur Choufleur restera chez lui (RSVP), The Tales of Hoffmann.

Offenbach’s origins
Though Offenbach was a genuinely French composer in both style and spirit, he was born of Jewish parents in Cologne. His father led a peripatetic life as a musician – a cantor in various synagogues, finally settling in Cologne.

Jacques (born Jakob) Offenbach displayed the usual musical precocity of most great composers. Exposed first to the violin he soon fastened on to the cello and it was his playing the cello to Paris Conservatoire Director Luigi Cherubini that won him a place in 1833, aged 14. He abandoned the Conservatoire after a year and soon became a cellist in the orchestra of the Opéra-Comique and also won notoriety as a cello virtuoso in Paris salons, and elsewhere. But the urge to compose took root early although he found no opportunities to compose other than instrumental or theatre music.

However, his mixture of conspicuous talent, engaging charm, wit, and an ability to make friends with certain conspicuous conductors, singers, musicians and composers like Flotow, Halévy, Adolph Adam provided him with constant musical activity. He became well known in the salons of society hostesses where his gifts and personality made a real mark. Biographer James Harding wrote: “His skill at the cello, his lively chatter, entertained people; his accent amused them and gave piquancy to what he said. He was quick and ready in conversation and the presence of smartly dressed men and women stimulated him. He loved the atmosphere of wealth and fashion. His friend, composer Friedrich von Flotow wrote: ‘My friend scored a great success and soon he became a favourite in the salon of the comtesse de Vaux’.”

Cellist as social butterfly
But try as he might his efforts to compose for the Opéra-comique led nowhere, as he seemed to have found an enemy in the shape of its director. Through the late 1830s and early 40s he led a comfortable, but for him, an unfulfilled existence as a popular cello teacher, an accomplished musician, very popular in fashionable society, composing ballads and arrangements of opera arias. At the age of 20 he was invited to compose a vaudeville, Pascal et Chambord, but it sank without trace. He gave his first public concert a couple of years later in a fashionable, new recital hall and that was not a success; another, this time with a well-known singer, was more successful.

Then there was a tour to London in 1844 and a critic wrote after one concert that “He is on the violoncello what Paganini is on the violin”.  He played at Windsor Castle before Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

But still an invitation to compose for the Opéra-Comique didn’t arrive. When it looked as if his luck was changing as Adolphe Adam proposed staging a one-act opéra-comique by Offenbach, Alcôve, at Adam’s newly established Théâtre-Lyrique, the 1848 Revolution broke out and everything froze. He fled to Cologne.

All changes
After a year in Cologne, Offenbach returned to Paris and chanced to meet the man who had just become director of the Comédie-Française (France’s principal national theatre company) and was determined to revive its flagging reputation; he knew about Offenbach and asked him to take charge of the music. Even though it was not opera, it offered Offenbach the chance to compose and arrange incidental music, to manage musicians and build up the orchestra and enhance his reputation in the theatre world.

He flourished and it gave him confidence to set up his own theatre. The early 1850s slowly evolved in Offenbach’s favour. By 1853 his experience at the Comédie-Française was yielding opportunities and contacts that saw the first couple of successful one-act opéras-comiques. He was inspired by the enterprise of another young composer, Hervé, who had successfully set up his own theatre in an unpropitious part of Paris. Offenbach spotted a small run-down theatre near the Champs-Élysées; he recognised the potential of a lively theatre near the forthcoming 1855 Universal Exposition; and finally, he met the recent founder of the great French daily Le Figaro, Henri de Villemessant who recognised Offenbach’s talents, and his energy and agreed to fund the enterprise.

Thereupon, Offenbach threw himself into the huge task of refurbishing the theatre, recruiting singers and musicians, engaging librettists and writing his own music for the four one-act opéras-bouffes that were to be presented on 5 July 1855 at the launch of the Bouffes-Parisiens.

The money poured in and in a few months Offenbach had found another, larger, more suitable theatre on rue Monsigny, that backed onto the Passage Choiseul in the fashionable 2nd Arrondissement. His theatre became the Bouffes-Parisiens, Choiseul. He spent lavishly on its furnishings and amenities and moved there before the end of 1855.

It was the start of Offenbach’s astonishing 25 year career during which a new genre of comic opera, strong on satire and irreverence was created. It brought him into the limelight at once , gave him financial security (though, no matter how much he flourished, his extravagant spending on productions and his own life-style made life always precarious).

The revival of the obscure and neglected
Palazetto Bru-Zane: Centre de musique romantique française
In recent years there has been a remarkable revival of interest in the forgotten and misjudged music of earlier eras. It has moved from a concentration on the Renaissance and Baroque periods to an effort to repair the neglect of the music of ‘second-tier’ composers, of the late 18th and 19th centuries whose music has been forgotten; mainly because of the emergence of an admittedly great composer who has left all others in the shade. It’s a sad commentary on the tendency of most people to confine their attention simply to the most famous figures in an era – life is simpler like that.

In the past ten years, neglected French opera, and its various lesser genres, has been subjected to resuscitation. It has been led by the Venice-based organisation called Palazetto Bru-Zane: Centre de musique romantique française. Based in a palace of an ancient, rich Venetian family, Zane, it has been funded and vigorously supported by a Swiss pharmaceutical company, Bru, which has for ten years poured funds into the production of neglected French operas. They are premiered in the small Venetian theatre and then seen in several co-productions with French opera companies. It is part of a broader aim to reinterpret the meaning of Romanticism in France, to explore the period before the Revolution (operas such as Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride (1779), Salieri’s Les Danaïdes (1784) and Sacchini’s Œdipe à Colone (1786), as well as to revive interest in orchestral works including symphonies by Gossec and Méhul.

The project has also awakened interest in the overlooked works of the post-Revolution period; in particular drawing attention to the creation of several important ‘Romantic’ works around 1830 and the time of the July Revolution that ended Charles X’s reign and launched that of Louis-Philippe (the July Monarchy). Great works of art, literature and music – essentially ‘Romantic’ in character – appeared as if the conservative atmosphere of the post-Napoleonic monarchy had finally gone: Victor Hugo’s Hernani and Notre Dame de Paris, Stendhal’s Le rouge et le noir, Delacroix’s La Mort de Sardanapale, Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, Adolphe Adam’s ballet Giselle, Rossini’s (by now a Frenchman) William Tell, and the Symphonie fantastique of Berlioz.

Their activities have been prodigious: look up:

And this year, naturally, it’s Offenbach. See:

Rebranding strikes academia: Victoria University victim of corporate-style image-making

Rebranding strikes academia

In a radical break from the knitting pattern that Middle C usually follows, I am driven to raise my voice to protest about the planned rebranding of my alma-mater, Victoria University of Wellington, or simply ‘Vic’ as it has always been universally known. Music in Wellington has its most important educational institution in Victoria University.

This ‘review’ is prompted by the publication of Dave Armstrong’s column in this morning’s Dominion Post drawing attention to the announcement by the Vice Chancellor that the obscene word ‘Victoria’ would be dropped from the name.

In May I became aware of the proposal and wrote to the Vice Chancellor. This is the essence of my letter, slightly modified:

The propensity to change long-standing names has always seemed to have been a characteristic of authoritarian regimes, most conspicuously used by Communist states.

I happen to be a graduate of the university (actually, a pre-1961 graduate of the University of New Zealand). For me, the habit of changing a name other than for an overwhelmingly important reason, has always struck me as a mark of an immature institution, and in particular, one that places greater importance on what might be called ‘political correctness’ or fashion than on tradition, constancy; even integrity.

I am not the least persuaded that there is any merit in the argument that its name is a matter of confusion. Ours in the Victoria University of Wellington; surely that is clear enough: after all this is the capital city.

Two other universities (and I imagine there may well be others) that use the name Victoria, are mentioned; both geographically related. They are perfectly justified, but they too are likely to be subject of confusion by people who take no trouble to identify them. What are they doing?

I suspect that a secondary, unstated reason is the lingering imperialist flavour associated with the name; it may also reflect a pro-republican spirit. I too am in favour of a republican constitution, but it has nothing to do with the anti-Victorian temper that arose in the early decades of last century!

Many universities carry names associated with a founder or a political leader whose reputation, by standards of today, might be dubious. But those universities will have achieved a reputation that obliterates the shortcomings of that individual. My university should likewise be mature and self-respecting enough to withstand such adolescent, ephemeral pressures.

I plead that you take a more academically and politically mature view of this matter, and retain the name which already has more than a century of history behind it.

I had a very courteous and friendly reply from the Vice Chancellor and an update in the last few days about the council’s decision, to press ahead with the change.

He followed up last Friday with a circular letter announcing that: “The University Council today approved in principle a change to ‘University of Wellington’ along with the adoption of a new Māori name of Te Herenga Waka.”

And the letter added that “This is a draft decision and Council will consider further feedback over the next two weeks. This can be emailed to ‘’ or posted to ‘The Chancellor, Victoria University of Wellington, PO Box 600, Wellington 6140’.  Feedback closes at 5:00pm Monday 13 August 2018.”

And there’s a petition: And in its report on the issue, Stuff has an article on the subject:

Armstrong mentions several other reasons to oppose this senseless move.

They include reference to the university’s not irrelevant behaviour over the Karori campus, the former Wellington Teachers’ College, which should have been held for educational purposes, sold for $28 million to Ryman!!

For me, a curious weakness in the case is the list of other universities (or tertiary institutions) around the world that enjoy the word ‘Victoria’. There are nine. Are any of them embarrassed at having the offensive word attached to them, and planning to change their name, and if not why not? And why, as the one that may well be the oldest and most distinguished, is our Victoria University so lacking in self-confidence, a sense of its own reputation and traditions?

I think it is disgraceful.


Musical anniversaries: composers and music

Composer Anniversaries

Composer-related dates interest me

This bit of pointless research began as an appendix to my review of Supertonic’s concert on Sunday 20 May in the Pipitea Marae. It was prompted in that review by the death in 1918 of Lili Boulanger, one of whose songs was performed there.

In an appendix to that review I mentioned the obvious ones: Debussy’s death 100 years ago, Bernstein’s birth 100 years ago, Gounod’s birth 200 years ago, Rossini’s death 150 years ago.

I was half aware of several other composers who were born or died in these years. There’s Arrigo Boito (Verdi’s librettist for Otello and Falstaff and also the composer of Mephistophele, which was produced in 1868), and Hubert Parry, both of whom died in 1918.

Then I came upon a contribution to the topic from a kindred spirit who writes a column in the French Opéra Magazine, Renaud Machart. He wrote about Lili Boulanger, naturally, and he also noted Charles Lecocq (1832-1918) who was Offenbach’s successor, even his rival towards the end of his career in the post Franco-Prussian war period (1870 – 1880). His best known pieces were La fille de Madame Angot and Le petit Duc.

More and more obscure
And very tongue-in-cheek, Machart also pointed to one Procida Bucalossi (1832-1918), a British/Italian composer of light music; with that background, naturally, he wrote a successful operetta for London in neither language, entitled Les Manteaux Noirs (The Black Cloaks).

Looking back to 1868, as well as Rossini’s death, Swedish composer Berwald died. Scottish composer Hamish MacCunn (Overture: Land of the Mountain and the Flood) and English composer Granville Bantock were born. And in 1668 both François Couperin and interesting English composer John Eccles, were born, 250 years ago.

Gottfried von Einem was born the same year as Bernstein. Austrian, his best-known operas were Dantons Tod and Der Besuch der alten Dame, based on a play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, a biting satire dealing with what a lot of money will do to overcome all moral scruples. I stumbled on a performance in Vienna around 1990; not rich in tunes but musically gripping and damn good theatre.

And now I’m prompted to add another curiosity who has made this year propitious.

Two are the result of a picking up a CD in Sydney a year or so ago, from the splendid record shop, Fish, which used to be in the Queen Victoria Building. A release by a rather recondite French recording company, Gaieté Lyrique, which specialised in the recording of opéra-comique and opérette (which experts take pains to distinguish).

Nicolas Isouard
The CD I picked up contained two short pieces, one by Nicolas Isouard, the other by Ferdinand Poise. Isouard, died in 1818 (Poise was born in 1828). Isouard was born, probably in 1775, in Malta of part French descent, studied in Paris till the Revolution when he returned to Malta. Later, he studied in Palermo and Naples, ostensibly to pursue a banking career but he continued piano studies and counterpoint, and opera composition. His first opera, a drama giocoso, was produced in Florence in 1794.

After returning to Malta he composed four more operas, was favoured by Napoléon when the French occupied Malta from 1798 to 1800. But because he had become a conspicuous Francophile, a problematic attitude after Napoléon was ousted, caution suggested he get out of Malta and he went to Paris where he called himself Nicolo de Malte. There he became a successful composer of some 40 operettas and opéras-comiques, achieving such fame as to be celebrated among the busts that grace the façades of both the Opéra Garnier and the Opéra-Comique in Paris.

And now I see in both the UK opera magazines, Opera and Opera Now, that his home town, Valetta in Malta is reviving his fame with a production of his Cendrillon (which Rossini played round with a few years later as La cenerentola; it was Massenet who wrote the next French version of Cendrillon at the end of the century).

Isouard was among the till recently, totally forgotten composers who flourished around the Revolution between the death of Rameau and the arrival of reasonably well known composers Boïeldieu, Auber, Hérold and so on.

French composers of the Revolution
Opera composers earlier in that inter-regnum – 20 years or so on either side of the Revolution – were Philidor, Gossec, Grétry, Dalayrac, Lesueur, Méhul, Kreutzer, all of whom are now being explored and performed in an upsurge of interest by the French in their many neglected composers. The thrust to discover is substantially driven by a highly enterprising French, Venice-domiciled foundation, Palazzetto Bru Zane – centre de musique romantique française. They are funding the production of many neglected operas, both by totally obscure composers but also by famous composers known by only one or two operas, like Gounod, Thomas, Bizet, Massenet, Delibes …

Not composers – their works
Apart from composer anniversaries, 2018 is also the sesquicentenary of the premiere of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, in the Court Theatre, Munich, 1868. Brahms’s German Requiem was performed that year too. There were other significant opera premieres in 1868, perhaps considered by some to inhabit the second rank: Boito’s Mefistofele, Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas, Smetana’s Dalibor, La périchole by Offenbach.

Just 100 years ago, as the First World War was ending, Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle was premiered in Budapest, and Puccini’s Trilogy (Il tabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi) premiered in New York.

The only important composers active around 1818 were Beethoven, Weber and Rossini; and Cherubini, whom Beethoven thought the greatest composer (after himself, implicitly), after Haydn had died and Schubert hadn’t quite achieved fame . It was a very unproductive period for Beethoven, though he was probably at work on the Hammerklavier sonata. And Rossini was specialising that year in operas that would earn the titles ‘obscure’ or ‘neglected’, though all have of course been revived in recent years. Mosè in Egitto, Adina or Il califfo di Bagdad (though not performed till 1826), and Ricciardo e Zoraide.



Lower Hutt Little Theatre gets new Steinway, but several much cheaper improvements still needed

A new Steinway for Lower Hutt

Welcome reception and concert for the new piano at the Lower Hutt Little Theatre

Sunday 4 May, 2014

On Sunday friends of the piano were invited to see and hear the new Steinway that had been bought for the Lower Hutt Little Theatre. Replacing the earlier Steinway which had been used in the Little Theatre since the 1950s, it had arrived and been run-in.

Ten years ago at the urging of players, teachers and audiences the Hutt City Council set about building up a fund for the purchase of a new piano, and a charitable trust was set up in parallel to encourage individual contributions. Committee members of Chamber Music Hutt Valley have been vigorous and prominent in promoting the whole exercise.

Among other contributions were a large number of small donations from individuals and small businesses; and particular value was placed on a ‘Kids for Keys’ piano playing initiative, organised by local music teachers. And individual keys were up for purchase: there are still some for sale.

Concerts by the Hutt Valley Orchestra, Chamber Music Hutt Valley and the newly established Chopin Club also yielded funds for the piano.

While the old model D piano continued to serve pretty well, and most professional pianists tended to be discreetly charitable about its sound and the problems of producing top-class performances, there was little dispute about the need for a new instrument.

The target has nearly been reached through the $60,000 raised by donations to the Trust and most of the balance from the City Council with the proceeds of the sale of the old piano, to meet the $170,000 cost of the new piano.

However, the Trust still needs $7000 to meet its commitment.

After a formal welcome with speeches from Mayor Ray Wallace and the Chair of the Trust, Joy Baird, a varied programme was presented. Poulenc’s Sonata for Piano, four hands, began the concert, with Diedre Irons and Richard Mapp at the keyboard. It was an excellent demonstration of the piano’s dynamic and tonal range, and sensitivity. A virtually unknown piece by Alfred Hill followed: his early Miniature Trio for violin, cello and piano, the violin and piano parts taken by pupils at Hutt Valley High School, Hayden Nickel and Nicholas Kovacev.

Two students of piano teacher and composer Susan Beresford, Thomas Minot and Hannah Louis, played three of her compositions plus a remarkably ebullient piece, Carnival, by Thomas. Pianist Ludwig Treviranus who was a high school student in the Hutt Valley, studied music with Rae de Lisle at Auckland University and took his doctorate at Florida State University, has been a loyal friend of music in both Upper and Lower Hutt. He and his jazz group played a set of jazz pieces as well as the Alla Turca movement from Mozart’s Sonata in A major.

Finally, Diedre Irons showed the piano’s responsiveness to Chopin’s ‘Heroic’ Polonaise (Op 53).

So far, so good.

But in spite of the upgrade of the auditorium and back-stage a year or so ago, and now the new piano, the ambience of the foyer remains bleak and unwelcoming, even though a café has been created and doors now give access to the Library. There are no comfortable seats for the audience before, during the interval and after a concert.

There is no décor of any kind, not even places on which posters about forthcoming concerts could be fixed. The walls could well be used to illustrate aspects of musical activities in the valley since the Little Theatre was built, making use of archival photographs which I’m sure could be unearthed.  And racks could be provided for brochures and flyers advertising future concerts and cultural activities in the Hutt Valley, and in the wider Wellington region.

Given an attractive venue, music lovers will come from far and wide for good concerts: I am just one case, living in Tawa and having been a regular at concerts in both Lower and Upper Hutt for many years. Though one hesitates to make a point that might strike a parochial note, city officials could well take a look at the most attractive environment that has been created and maintained in the Arts and Entertainment Centre in Upper Hutt.

Incidentally, I gather the city council is contemplating acoustic enhancement. In the light of the several much easier and cheaper enhancements that still cry out for attention, the professional services of acoustic engineers would be just a little ridiculous. No auditorium is perfect, and one of the first tasks that a performer new to a hall undertakes is to listen to the acoustic and to ensure that he or she obtains the most rewarding sounds. As it stands, I can see (or hear) no justification for such needless extravagance.