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.


The Creation of Music Futures: object lesson in enterprise

Music Futures – the birth of a good idea
A new voluntary body to help young musicians find their way

Sunday 2 August 2015

This post refers to our review of the concert of 26 July promoted by Music Futures, featuring young Wellington musicians, some of whom were involved with the current Chamber Music contest staged annually by Chamber Music New Zealand, and supported by the New Zealand Community Trust.

(The National Finale was held on Sunday 2 August, and was won by the Wellington piano trio which had played in the concert of 26 July, the Glivenko Trio).

After publishing our review of the 26 July concert, the organizer, Valerie Rhodes, emailed us with some interesting background to the project.

She described how the idea was born after an NZSO musician had contacted her to ask if she would consider starting an organisation to support young musicians.

“The initial meeting to form Music Futures was in December 2011,” Valerie explained. “In 2012 – we became an incorporated society and a registered charity as well as holding a launch concert in August 2012. Our first awards were given in April 2013.”

A couple of months before they launched, she had called, with Brigid O’Meeghan (cello NZSO), on Denis Adam, of the Adam Foundation, to ask whether he would offer a donation to cover the hire of St Andrew’s and the printing of a programme for that initial concert.

“At first he said ‘no’,” Valerie said. “When I was a boy”, Denis Adam observed, “we went out and got a job if we wanted something”. “Today’s youngsters want everything handed to them on a plate ……”. Valerie thanked him for listening to their pitch and they got up to go.

Then Denis said, “So how much were you going to ask me for, Valerie?”
He laughed, “I thought you’d be asking for a few thousand. Have you got a budget?”
“Yes, here it is.”

Valerie was chagrined to discover that the copy she’d brought had print on the other side. Denis turned it over. “So, you even use second-hand paper. In that case, I’ll give you $600 as long as you report back to me how you spent it.”

“So I did.”

She is thrilled that the group’s prescience has resulted in the Glivenko Trio winning the national contest for Wellington – the first Wellington win for many years.

Offers of financial assistance for Music Futures are most welcome. Contact Valerie Rhodes, Ph (04) 473 2224).


Il Corsaro – a New Zealand premiere, but not the Australasian one

A post-script to the New Zealand School of Music’s production of Verdi’s Il Corsaro
In reference to the reviews published in this website on 26 July.

In the review I sent to Opera magazine (London) of the New Zealand School of Music’s production of Il Corsaro in July, I wrote not only that was it the New Zealand premiere but surmised that it was probably the Australian premiere too.

Browsing for something else I have come across a listing of earlier performances of Il Corsaro in Australia, by the small Melbourne City Opera – in November 2006. It took place in the Melba Hall of Melbourne University. The conductor was Erich Fackert; Joseph Talia was named director, though that did not mean ‘stage director’, as a review called it a concert performance. Talia is the general manager and artistic director of the company.

Wellington may well feel aggrieved at the way the so-called merger between its opera company, Wellington City Opera and the company that had been called Auckland Opera has turned out. Melbourne has long felt the same about the shared access it has to the Sydney-based Opera Australia. Melbourne sees only about half the number of performances that are presented in Sydney.

Things were different up to 1996 which was the year the professional, enterprising Victoria State Opera was driven to an accommodation with Opera Australia, the result, it has to be admitted, of extravagance and mismanagement on the part of the Melbourne company. The merger was supposed to entail some improvement in the attention paid to Melbourne by Opera Australia, but things have not really worked out like that.

A year later, 1997, Melbourne City Opera was founded, successor to the semi-professional Globe Opera which had been a highly successful company since 1978. The intention was to supplement what the Sydney-based company would deliver in Melbourne, and the company has staged two or three operas a year since then, including the occasional rarity like Verdi’s Ernani and Il Corsaro.

Then in 2003, a break-away company was formed, the result, evidently, of some kind of dispute. The name alone, Melbourne Opera, was an irritant to the older company.

However, both companies have successfully tilled their own fields and their activities can be seen through the Internet.

Other opera companies have sprung up too: Lyric Opera of Melbourne which has mounted lighter opera of an enterprising kind: Spanish zarzuela, Offenbach’s La belle Hélène, Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti.
Scheduled in September is Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride.

In the meantime, another Melbourne opera company with more serious intent was set up, in 2007: Victorian Opera which gets State government support; its artistic director is Richard Mills who recently made a rather spectacular exit from the musical direction of the Melbourne Ring cycle.

The company avoids the familiar, popular repertoire but aims to attract new audiences with pieces
such as Nixon in China, Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires, a tango opera. In an attempt to engage young audiences there’s Norman Lindsay’s tale The Magic Pudding – the opera written and composed by Calvin Bowman and Anna Goldsworthy, and Xavier
Montsalvatge’s Puss in Boots.

Melbourne is also home to Chamber Made Opera now in its 25th year. It’s run by Artistic Director David Young, about to step aside for Tim Stitz, It claims to be Australia’s most radical and experimental opera company. A look at its repertoire vividly supports that. Many new Australian operas plus significant contemporary works from abroad, such as Turnage’s Greek, Teorema by Battistelli, Philip Glass’s The Fall of the House of Usher.

In 2003 I had visited Melbourne and caught performances by both Melbourne City Opera (Il tabarro and Pagliacci)  and Melbourne Opera (The Magic Flute). I remember talking to both Talia (of the former) and whoever was the manager of Melbourne Opera and was surprised to find the level of animosity between the two, who had earlier worked together in one company.

The company website had a short review of its performance of Il Corsaro by a regular Melbourne critic, Clive O’Connell, which referred to it as a concert performance:

“From all accounts the recently quiescent Melbourne City Opera administration has finally decided to leave the usual fields that it tills of well-known if not mainstream opera.

“This concert performance of a rarely heard Verdi work served the excellent purpose of filling out part of those large gaps in one’s live performance experiences and also helped to lay to rest certain legends about Il Corsaro that have acquired the status of received truth simply because any opposing arguments could not be voiced with assurance.

“Not surprisingly, these three performances from MCO were the Australian premieres.

“Having little to do but stand and sing their contributions from behind the orchestra, the MCO chorus made a sterling impact; both the pirate men and the odalisques…

“Similarly Erich Fackert’s orchestra gave a brisk reading of the score, staying on the ball. The concentrated body of violins worked with a will in the opera’s demandingly active pages, particularly the storm music that accompanies Gulnara’s murder of the Pasha which was performed with Rossinian brio.”


(it appeared in the now defunct Opera-Opera monthly (previously called Opera Australia till the company changed its name to that, putting the magazine’s nose seriously out of joint); it had, till about 2007, covered the Australian opera field admirably, and even took some reviews from me in its later years).


Cantoris and Rachel Hyde take flight with Pärt


Bogoroditze Djev  (O Mother of God) / The Woman With the Alabaster Box

Kanon Pokojanen (Odes 1, 7 & 9) / Nunc Dimittis

Cantoris, directed by Rachel Hyde

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington – Lunchtime Concert Series

Wednesday, 17th August 2011

(review adapted from transcript notes of a review on RNZ Concert’s “Upbeat”,with Clarissa Dunn, 19.08.11)

Tell us about listening to Arvo Pärt in the middle of a wintry Wellington day!

Arvo Pärt’s music was, I think a wonderful choice of repertoire with which to finish one’s work with a choir. Pärt is a composer who’s contributed of late to a quiet revolution that’s taken place within the confines of contemporary classical music, turning his back on much of the avant-garde modes of expression in favor of something whose simplicity and beauty of utterance has won a huge following, including  many listeners who would have regarded most contemporary music as too elitist, difficult, austere, esoteric and frankly unattractive.

Was Cantoris’ programme a good representative selection of Pärt’s choral music?

Yes,I think it was – the choices were both vibrant and contemplative, outwardly expressive and inwardly mystical, simply beautiful and quietly austere – people who didn’t know the composer’s music would, I think, get a good idea of its salient qualities from attending this concert.

He’s a composer who’s undergone something of a journey to reach his present status.

Well, certainly a multi-faceted journey – inwardly and outwardly, as they say in analytical circles. In his youth Pärt was remarked of as a composer who “only had to shake his sleeves and notes fell out of them”. His early compositions followed the austere lines of Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Bartok, and then to the serialism of Schoenberg – this quickly got him into trouble with the Soviet Authorities (Estonia had been taken over by the Soviet Union) and performances of his works were actually banned. His response was to withdraw and study early music from Medieval and Renaissance times, the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church plainchant making its mark as well. He emerged from this silence with an entirely new compositional philosophy.

How would you describe this change?

Pärt has famously described his later music as “tintinnabuli” – like the ringing of bells, music characterized by simple harmonies, using single unadorned notes or triads, deriving from the music of medieval and renaissance times studied so intently by the composer. The interesting thing is that this music, like a lot of the early music that was Pärt’s inspiration, has such a powerful simplicity – using little rhythmic complexity, unselfconscious harmonic display using pure intervals and almost no dissonance, and a clarity of texture at all times. What comes from this is music that touches many listeners deeply and profoundly. Pärt’s own words sum up this new way of making music: I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements – with one voice, two voices. I build with primitive materials – with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells and that is why I call it tintinnabulation”.

Tell us about Rachel Hyde, who’s stepping down an musical director of “Cantoris” after this series of concerts.

Rachel is going to concentrate on finishing a law degree – in her own words “it’s now or never”! She felt that with all the things she wanted to do, her work with the choir was suffering, so it was better to relinquish that and let somebody else carry on with the good work. She’s going to continue working with her children’s orchestra, the Schola Sinfonica, and also, hopefully, will do the occasional public concert with groups like Bow, the String Ensemble she helped to found, and the Wellington Chamber Orchestra.

This series of concerts – where are they taking place?

The choir is giving two more concerts in this series – free of charge to the public, incidentally – the first tonight at Wellington’s City Gallery at 6pm and then on Sunday in Porirua, at the Pataka Arts Centre at 2pm.

I understand the weather has caused some performing groups some difficulties this week – what about Cantoris?

Rachel told me that the rehearsals hadn’t been without difficulties due to the weather – at least one rehearsal was called off entirely, and one of the choir’s strongest-voiced male singers has been left with next to no voice due to a cold – the entrails weren’t exactly propitious, one would have thought, and it’s a tribute to both Rachel and her choir that the music was delivered with such expertise and energy and beauty, despite all tribulations.

So, let’s look at the programme, six shorter pieces for choir – in general, how well did you feel the voices put across this music?

I’m pretty much a beginner listener, when it comes to Arvo Pärt’s music, and going to this concert and listening to the recordings we’re going to play has been a revelation for me, as I’m sure it will to others who go to any of the concerts. Compared with the singing on the recordings, Cantoris’s approach was gentler, less assertive than the singing of choirs such as the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, a group who would have been pretty well steeped in the composer’s music. In view of the difficulties experienced by the group in preparing for this concert, their achievement in making the music live and breathe the way it sounded to me is, I think all the more commendable.

The first piece, very short, was Bogoroditse Djevo (translated, it means “O Mother of God”) – here, a lovely, well-focused performance, not trumpet-toned in the big moments (as I’m sure the trebles of the Kings College Cambridge Choir were able to do when it was first performed by them in 1992 – Pärt wrote the piece for the Choir to perform at their Christmas Concert that year) but gentler-grained, like the pipings of woodwinds.

The Woman With the Alabaster Box (1997) came next – an interesting work, a setting of Matthew’s Gospel (from Chapter 26 Verse 7 onwards). Again, the piece was very nicely and ambiently sung, and somewhat more demanding to bring off compared with some of Pärt’s output, duet to the composer’s extending his harmonies to include some expressive dissonances. Interestingly, this was a setting of the words in English, the story of the woman who empties a box of expensive oil over Christ’s head, to the consternation of the disciples, who complain that the oil would have been better sold so that money could be given to the poor. In places the setting seemed almost deliberately unidiomatic, as if to avoid English speech stresses and render the words as pure sound – a kind of marmoreal effect, which I found was a bit alienating. I admired this work but didn’t fall in love with it!  Actually, I thought Cantoris’s performance was warmer than the one I heard on the commercial recording – here, we heard some lovely work in thirds from the men, well sustained, and carrying them through some uncertain moments later on. Throughout the concert, there was this imbalance between the men’s and women’s voices, the tenors and basses obviously missing strength of tone due to the effects from colds.

The next three items I did fall in love with! These were exerpts from the composer’s Kanon Pokajanen, written in 1995, an extended eighty-minute work in total, and dedicated by the composer to commemorate the 750th anniversary of Cologne Cathedral. This is a stunning work, and it features Pärt’s slow-moving triadic harmonies, intensifying in places into bell-like tones – a real embodiment of the composer’s idea of “tintinabuli”. The music has a strongly-flavoured Slavic tone, to my ears – I think you can hear that Russian Orthodox Chant tradition which the composer explored, very reminiscent, naturally of Rachmaninov’s writing for choirs in his Vespers – the same kind of sound, not like any other music I know. It places great demands on the singers, and Cantoris, again struggling in places with a slight imbalance between women’s and men’s voices managed to convey plenty of atmosphere and feeling. The women’s voices were particularly steady – very mesmeric and evocative. The occasional rawness of tone gave the performance an attractive “here-and-now” quality, rather than something that sounded as though it was being performed celestially or somewhere comparable on the other side of the Great Divide. While looking up information on the internet about recorded performances of this music, I read a heartfelt review of the work from a teenaged boy who described how he lay on his bed and sobbed at the music’s sheer beauty and expressive power – a life-changing experience, one would suspect. The work’s been famously recorded by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir on the ECM label – over eighty minutes of pure, simple other-worldly sound.

The concert finished with Pärt’s “Nunc Dimittis”, the well-known prayer for a soul’s departure*. Though not without some momentary unsteadiness in the voices at the initial cry, this was quickly corrected, and gave us that sense of humanity searching for the light – some lovely solo work from one of the sopranos, very secure in her pitching, creating a real feeling of frisson in places, and leading with surety towards the great moment of salutation of the light by the massed voices at the word “lumen”. Later there came more of Pärt’s tintinnabuli, bell-like oscillations from all parts of the choir, the men’s deep voices almost being felt rather than heard, and the women’s secure tones nicely pitched – the music seems not to resolve at the end, but simply stops, as if, in one’s mind the sounds repeat down the ages, representing humanity’s everlasting supplication towards light and goodness.

(*not “Out of the Depths” as I blurted out on air unthinkingly, which was, of course “De Profundis”)

Further to the review of Lewis’s Winterreise in Nelson: surtitles

My review of the recital at Nelson at which Keith Lewis and Michael Houstoun performed Schubert’s Winterreise had overlooked what I felt at the time to be a major innovation: the use of surtitles. I have now inserted the following paragraphs in my review of 9 February.

“First, I should note an innovation that sets an admirable precedent for voice recitals: the projection of surtitles. Occasional whines are still heard about them in the opera house though I have been a wholehearted supporter from their first appearance in the late 80s. If there are plausible objections to their use in opera, however, there can be none in the recital. The decision was made to not include the words or translations in the programme, to avoid the interrupting rustle of collective page turning and the dispiriting vision, for the artists, of audience heads down during the performance. In recital, eyes do not need to be constantly on the stage watching movements, gestures, expressions; nothing is lost by raising the eyes to read the words. And the surtitle screen was of ideal size, allowing easy reading of full translations in images that were very clear.

“At the end of the concert booklets containing full German and English texts were distributed. The whole process was handled with great care and thoughtfulness.”

Ensembles combine in magnificent Nelson concert

Mozart: Divertimento in E flat, K 563; Brigid Bisley: Unbound for String Quartet; Strauss: Metamorphosen for string septet

Hermitage String Trio, New Zealand String Quartet, Hiroshi Ikematsu (double bass)

Nelson Cathedral, Saturday 5 February, 5pm

At several points during the festival the question what was the essence of chamber music arose through the pieces played. Given thaat the essential ingredient of chamber music is music with one player to a part, the rearranging of music from orchestral to chamber music, and vice-versa, raises interesting questions; and there’s the related question, the effect of arrangements for other instruments or for more or fewer instruments that originally conceived, either by the composer or by another.

The Saturday evening concert presented a case of the latter.

Strauss wrote his Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings, surely one of the largest pieces of genuine chamber music, though we still await the instrumental equivalent of Tallis’s 40-part motet. It was later rescored for string septet by Rudolph Leopold, after Strauss’s sketches were found in 1990 showing that his original intention was for a septet. This could well have been a mistake, an artistic travesty, which is what I feel about some of the contractions of Romantic orchestral music for chamber ensembles by Schoenberg and Webern. But I was delighted by this, by the greater clarity and purity of expression produced by the seven instruments (the three members of the Hermitage Trio, and three of the New Zealand String Quartet – not Helene Pohl – plus Hiroshi Ikematsu, bass). It seemed to be a better vehicle for the expression of emotion, of grief at the destruction of so much of Germany’s cultural substance. Oddly, I have always hoped to feel a more powerful emotion listening to the usual version of the piece, and have felt that it is too dense and thickly textured for that to find its expression.

Here it was however.

Obviously some of its rich harmony has been dispensed with, but what is left struck me as achieving more effectively what I suppose Strauss had wanted. The programme notes recorded that it was Swiss music philanthropist and conductor Paul Sacher who had asked Strauss for the big ensemble.

This was one of two masterpieces played at the 5pm concert in the Cathedral.

The concert had started with another of Mozart’s pieces given names that suggest light, occasional music. Just as the big wind serenade is no doubt the most powerful and delightful piece of music in its genre, so the Divertimento in E flat stands above any formally named String Trio in existence.

Not only did we hear this all-too-rarely played work, but it was played by a trio which had invested it with enormous attention, detailed study and reflection. There are times when excessive layering of nuances and ever-changing colour and dynamics can become ridiculous. It all depends on the musical intelligence and instinct of the players; the Hermitage Trio had done all that and had sacrificed none of its compositional inventiveness, compromised none of its essential greatness. Their leaning into phrases, their subtle tempo changes – rubato, changes of colour and timbre within a note, were a matter of constant delight. It was often cellist Leonid Gorokhov who seemed to lead the most acute dynamic shifts, while violinist Denis Goldfelt relished tensile, high-lying flights; the violist, Alexander Zemtsov, sustained the centre, offering more steady dynamics and contributing to but not extending the cellist’s gestures.

The six-movement work is quite long, but this performance was such that one hoped it will never end.

Lying between these two great works was a new string quartet by New Zealand composer Brigid Ursula Bisley, called Unbound. I am not known for unbounded and uncritical enthusiasm for every new piece by our composers. This one felt like music that might have had a slow gestation, but had nevertheless derived from musical inspiration that came from within. It did not sound as if the composer had sat looking at each bar wondering what to write next. It felt as if it was there and only needed refinement and arranging.

It certainly helped that the composer spoke to us and asked the players to illustrate certain elements. And it was a relief that she concluded by saying “I hope you enjoy the music”, instead of the fatuous injunction “Enjoy!” which has become almost universal. “Thanks, but would you mind if I remain responsible for my own feelings?”

It opened quietly, each instrument contributing intriguingly to a pattern of disharmony till a melody emerged and after a while viola and cello laid down some bass support. Influences? Yes, Bartók quite distinctly, but more important was an impression of music that was beholden to no school or musical ideology, but simply sounded alive to today’s environment, whatever that means, and aimed at engaging with the listener. Lots happened; there was a beguiling, dreamy phase, a yearning spirit as Doug Beilman’s second violin cried while Helene Pohl’s first violin sang a high descant over the cello’s pedal support.

There were so many elements that appeared distinct but ultimately created a coherant musical story; and it ended without flourish or rhetoric.

Dialogues des Carmélites – the sources

In my review of the New Zealand Opera School’s gala concert on 13 January, I mentioned that Poulenc’s opera, Dialogues des Carmélites, in the last scene of which the Carmelite sisters are guillotined and which the women singers at the opera school performed, was based on a novel by Georges Bernanos.

I erred.

It was based on a drama by that novelist, but the story’s origins go much further back.

It derives from actual events during the Terror that followed the French Revolution in 1793/94, when the sisters of the Carmelite convent at Compiègne were indeed guillotined. The story was told by one of their members, Mother Marie, who is assistant prioress in the opera and survived the massacre to live till 1836. The publication of her chronicle, Relation, led to the beatification of the sisters in 1906. The German writer Gertrude von Le Fort turned it into a novel in 1911, inventing the role of Blanche, naming her ‘de la Force’, an adaptation of her own name.

After the Second World War, the French resistance fighter Father Brückberger created a screen-play on the story, and invited Bernanos to write the dialogue. He too invested something of himself in the work; he was dying of cancer, like the Prioress, Madame de Croissy, and he even gave her his own age, 59. And he clothed the Prioress’s discourse with Blanche on theological matters and the character of their order. with his own religious obsessions and feelings.

But Bernanos’s work was regarded as unsuitable for film and it was turned into a stage play which Poulenc saw in the early 1950s. So that when his publisher, Ricordi, suggested it to Poulenc as the subject of an opera, he seized the chance at once. The opera was premiered at La Scala, Milan, in 1957, in which the role of Blanche was sung by Virginia Zeani, founding principal tutor at the Wanganui opera school.

As I wrote in the review, this ensemble was perhaps the most striking of all the performances at this year’s concert. Perhaps it will prompt an enterprising impresario or opera company to tackle the entire opera, generally considered one of the greatest of the twentieth century.

(drawn from the Grove Book of Operas)