Orchestra Wellington under Taddei with Adam Page triumphant in Psathas’s saxophone ‘concerto’

Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei 
“Virtuoso Composer”

Mozart: Symphony No 25 in G minor, K 183
Psathas: Call of the Wild with Adam Page (saxophone), Premiere
Beethoven: Symphony No 4 in  B flat, Op 60

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 17 July, 7:30 pm

It was no surprise, after coming into the city on a thinly populated train, then a wet and windy wait for a bus and into a less than busy auditorium vestibule, to find the Michael Fowler Centre only about 60% full, when this orchestra’s concerts are normally sold out. There was nothing wrong with the programme.

In fact, the programme was admirable. Mozart and Beethoven are rather well-known, and both are full of energy and distinction. Nevertheless, the two symphonies in the programme are not so familiar, even though the opening of Mozart’s No 25, in G minor (which Mozart wrote in 1773 when he was only 17) was, as the programme note said, used most effectively to background Miloš Forman’s 1984 film, Amadeus.

Mozart’s Symphony No 25
Taddei launched into the Mozart dramatically, with vigorous rhythm and striking dynamic contrasts which were immediately in evidence between the syncopated, opening theme and the calm, more regular rhythm and more reflective second theme. The contrasts between instruments were somewhat more distinctive than is heard in some performances: cellos and double basses contributed more noticeably than the rest of the strings; a plangent oboe sounded and, particularly interesting, there are four horns, allowing for chromatic details; four horns instead of two was uncommon till the mid 19th century. The absence of clarinets was normal till a little later: Mozart first used clarinets in his Symphony No 31, five years after No 25.

The second movement is markedly calmer and quiet, and the playing was curiously secretive, each phrase carefully expressed with charming delicacy. The third movement – the typical Menuetto and Trio in triple time – restored an emphatic quality which that the Trio highlighted by playing distinctly slower.

And the last movement, that might have lightened the mood, does no such thing, Taddei took pains to emphasise its seriousness, to illustrate Mozart’s purpose in sustaining the symphony’s emotional seriousness.

Beethoven No 4
The other classical symphony was by Beethoven, but one that was performed with such flair and conviction that an audience may well have thought deserved fame equal to that of the odd-numbered works. The admirable programme note described the circumstances of its composition interestingly.

The fourth opens with a longish, contemplative introduction that offers no hint of what’s to follow, and the orchestra exploited it mysteriously, slowly emerging into daylight in a sudden attack: the Allegro vivace. It lifted the spirit with its energy and joyousness, with a rise and fall of dynamics that inspired an optimism that was elaborated throughout the magical, development section, secretively supported by timpani.

The Adagio was taken at a deliberative pace, though slightly more brisk than I remembered in others; likewise, its main theme sounded richer and more beautiful, particularly by the clarinet’s subtle contribution. The third movement is entitled Allegro vivace rather than simply ‘Scherzo’; holding the attention through its rather mysterious first episode. The Trio followed its title, un poco meno allegro, to prepare for the spirited return of first section. The fourth movement was driven with splendid precision, adding delight with a few bars that dip momentary into the minor key. Emphatic bassoons, clarinets, oboes and flute were enlivened by racing violins.

Both symphonies were performed with sensitivity and remarkable panache, offering a splendidly polished ambience for a rather distinctive masterpiece.

John Psathas
The showpiece of the concert was the premiere of John Psathas’s Call of the Wild. Psathas is Orchestra Wellington’s Composer in Residence, for a three year period from 2020. This is not his first saxophone concerto: that was in 2000 with a work called Omnifenix and was played at a festival in Bologna in Italy.

Psathas’s own programme note described the origins of the work most illuminatingly: a vivid, programmatic work that deals with the experience of both sides of his family over the past century: the terrible population exchanges between Greece and Turkey with awful loss of life on both sides after the First World War, and then the crippling, murderous Civil War after WW2 (Communism v. Capitalism, the war conducted in proxy style by the United States and the Soviet Union). The three movements deal with the experiences and character of his mother, his father and finally Psathas’s own children ‘hearing the call of the wild’ and talking now of living abroad.

The Greek civil war between the end of WW2 and 1949 was still a dominating memory when I was posted in 1964 as Vice Consul at the new New Zealand Consulate General In Athens; that war was still a divisive memory for the Greek people and it continued to influence Greek politics. Twenty years after the end of the Civil War, it was an element in the barbaric coup by the Colonels in April 1967 two months before my return to Wellington, That coup overthrew the democratic government on the pretext of possible left-wing success in approaching elections. Psathas’s reference to experiencing “normalised xenophobia, racism and religious mistreatment” when the family lived in Taumarunui and Napier, relates to my own surprise at encountering similar attitudes among, particularly, many English-speaking residents in Greece, including diplomats. For me, the three enriching years in Athens have remained a profound influence, linguistically, politically and culturally.

A considerably larger orchestra filled the stage for Psathas’s work, with many percussion players, as well as, most vividly, Adam Page’s tenor saxophone. Page led the opening passage, an arresting, rising motif that called us to order, and proclaimed the distinction of his instrument which, while still not standard in orchestras, has been imaginatively used by many composers, notably Ravel, Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Milhaud, Richard Strauss, among others.

I have never heard the saxophone playing with such flamboyant confidence, employing such a wide range of techniques throughout the piece. With the accompaniment of a sharp-voiced side drum and many other percussion-driven features, suggesting civil war, there seemed little doubt to me that at least some of the music was inspired by the political strife after both World Wars. The sounds constantly announced the strong-minded inspiration that spoke clearly of disturbing events and a confident handling of them. And it was very often a partnership between saxophone and brass, along with percussion that carried it. Some of those exuberant episodes were nevertheless supported by quiet string accompaniment.

The music was always very conspicuously inspired by the sort of experiences Psathas had in mind with his parents. The second movement (He can worship it without believing it – his father) began with a sense of mystery: not a conspicuous feature of a saxophone one thinks, but it seemed to find its true character, such as when linked with sounds of marimba

The third movement, Tramontane (meaning, ‘on the other side of the mountains’), featured a frenzied orchestra, that allowed a more subdued saxophone to emerge, perhaps like the revealing of a beautiful landscape after reaching to peaks of a mountain range

This vividly individual music seemed to reinforce my long-held belief that contemporary music doesn’t flourish, or even survive, through sounds that are purposely challenging, tuneless, avant-garde, original in every possible sense. It can and should, like this successful work by Psathas, call for an opportunity to be heard again… and again. It was good to see microphones suspended above the orchestra (one recent and rewarding concert passed without being recorded at all).

This was a highly successful concert, featuring the orchestra and Marc Taddei, along with Adam Page’s saxophone, at their brilliant best.

I look forward to hearing it again – ideally another live performance. And it is noted that the place will be Christchurch, with the CSO, the Psathas piece’s joint commissioner.

Unusual trio ensemble with a highly satisfying, widely international series opens Wellington Chamber Music year

Wellington Chamber Music: first concert in 2021 season

Trio Elan
Donald Armstrong (violin)
Simon Brew (saxophone)
Sarah Watkins (piano)

Russell Peterson: Trio for alto saxophone, violin and piano
Peter Liley: Deux Images for Trio: Small Scurrying and Glimpse
Albeniz: Evocación, from Iberia (piano solo)
Barry Cockcroft: Beat Me (tenor saxophone solo)
Debussy: Violin Sonata in G minor
Marc Eychenne: Cantilène et Danse
Piazzolla: Otoño Porteño 
Farr: Tango: Un Verano de Passion

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 18 April, 3 pm

The first concert in Wellington Chamber Music’s 2021 season attracted a fairly full audience, no doubt partly a response to their deprivation in 2020. It would have appealed to chamber music aficionados on account of the three well-known musicians and the inclusion of at least one well-known work, plus a couple of others by familiar and attractive composers – Albéniz and Piazzolla, and a popular New Zealand composer – Gareth Farr. That offered the prospect that the rest might be interesting: it certainly was.

Russell Peterson
It opened with a trio by American saxophonist and composer, Russell Peterson. It troubled me almost at once. Though it was a vigorous, rhythmic piece, throwing violin and saxophone against each other, each delivered such individual sounds that the wide spacing of the two gave the impression that unity could be in conflict. But rhythmic unity was always conspicuous and superficially disparate sounds were clearly studied and not simply tonal antipathy.

The second movement, Adagio, was more audibly genial, occupying the space in the church more comfortably. A congenial duet between violin and saxophone might have been rather shrill but the piano’s steady pace imposed a calmer spirit. The last movement, labelled ‘moto perpetuo’, again given to repetitive rhythms and terse themes, created an excitement that might again have been taxing in the church’s acoustic. Nevertheless, the performance of this deliberate music was admirably studied, displaying the trio’s vigour and unanimity, and however the instruments were assembled in performance, there was no doubt that it was a carefully studied, meaningful interpretation.

Deux Images by young Wellington saxophonist and composer, Peter Liley, created contrasting sound pictures with darting, tremulous motifs; first by the violin, then the saxophone. Its two movements seemed to vary mainly through the music’s general pitch; a hypnotic quality pervaded both movements, creating a distinctly enchanted feeling.

It was good to hear Sarah Watkins in a solo piano piece such as one of Albéniz’s Ibéria: ‘Evocación’, the first of the twelve pieces. They are rarely played in New Zealand, as far as I can recall, and the likelihood of their being heard on Concert FM gets increasingly dim. Sarah Watkins’ playing was beautifully idiomatic, capturing both the essential Spanish spirit and her own obvious admiration for the composer’s music.

Next was a piece for solo tenor saxophone: Beat me, by Australian composer, Barry Cockroft. It was a display of the varied sounds available, including many that were unpitched, essentially non-musical; but it was driven by rhythmic, dancing or percussive sounds; a repeated bleat around bottom G or A flat offered a kind of stability. It was an intriguing experience, though I confess to being somewhat unclear about the purpose of and relationships between many of the sounds. I felt indeed that its formidable technical difficulties might take a very long time to master.

Debussy violin sonata
After the Interval, violin and piano played Debussy’s last piece, from 1917: the third of his planned six sonatas far various instruments: he died of cancer in 1918. This was an admirable performance of a piece that ends in a spirit of sheer delight; and it was an opportunity to hear both a pianist that Wellington rarely hears since she left the NZTrio, and a violinist who is conspicuous mainly at Associate concert master of the NZSO and leader of the Amici Ensemble (they give the last concert, in October, in this Wellington Chamber Music series). Their performance was multi-facetted and as near to flawless as you’d get.

Marc Eychenne is a French composer born in Algeria in 1933. In some ways, not merely because it called for the same instruments as the Peterson piece, the two seemed to have similar, or at least related characteristics, even though Eychenne’s piece was composed before Peterson was born. There was no sign of any attempt here to draw attention to the dissimilarity between violin and saxophone; in fact when the saxophone entered several bars after the violin had established itself, the two seemed to seek common elements, to find considerable homogeneity. The effect was certainly in contrast to that in the Peterson piece. The contrast between the ‘Cantilène’ and the ‘Danse’ in itself was engaging: once again, in the writing and the playing of the two movements there was a sense of unanimity as well as contrast.

It encouraged me later to look (through the inevitable YouTube) for other pieces by Eychenne; it proved a rewarding excursion. Both works were obviously composed in the post-Serialist, post extreme avant-garde era, neither seemed persuaded to employ such defeatist techniques in an attempt to emulate the influences that so alienated much music composed in the late 20th century.

Piazzolla and Farr
The same goes, of course for the last two pieces, by Piazzolla and Gareth Farr. The Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (‘Four Seasons of Buenos Aires’) by Piazzolla have become very familiar and the Otoño (Autumn) movement in its attractive arrangement including saxophone was charmingly idiomatic.

It was a nice idea to link Piazzolla’s piece with a piece that Farr wrote for a TV series, The Strip. In the words of the programme note, it was “incidental music for a smouldering scene between a stripper and choreographer”; as described, it proved dreamy and seductive. A nice way to bring the wholly attractive concert to a close.

The remaining six concerts in Wellington Chamber Music’s series look most interesting: chairman David Hutton mentioned special concessions available to those attending the concert to subscribe for the rest of the year.Don’t hestitate!


NZSO launches into 2021 determined, with a splendid, dynamic programme to evade Covid 19

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich with Stephen De Pledge – piano
First concert in ‘Podium’ Series: entitled Carnival

Ravel: La Valse and Piano Concerto in G
Anna Clyne: Masquerade
Stravinsky: Petrushka Ballet (1947 version)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 26 March, 6:30 pm

The first of the NZSO’s main concert series, which is entitled the “Podium Series”, proved a conspicuous triumph. Though it might have seemed difficult to account for the name “Carnival” which was given to this particular concert, it was vividly illuminated in Feby Idrus’s colourful and well-informed programme notes, indirectly with La Valse, but quite specifically with Petrushka, where the word relates directly to Stravinsky’s setting of the first tableau of the ballet – Carnival or Shrovetide which precedes Lent.

However, it was a near full house, marking an encouraging change from audiences in the past year or so; it also marked the steadily rising reputation and popularity of the orchestra’s Principal Conductor in Residence, Hamish McKeich.

The programme booklet was free: an excellent move, considering the intelligence and illuminating character of Feby Idrus’s writing.

There were two distinctive aspects to the programme: two of Ravel’s most distinguished works and one of Stravinsky’s first ballet scores: Petrushka which retains its undiminished popularity as a vivid and colourful ballet as well as being a brilliant, luminous orchestral masterpiece.

La Valse
I must seek vindication for the pleasure I get from Ravel’s La valse, in live performance compared with a recording, since I’ve recently been enjoying a personal Ravel festival, recapturing CDs, recordings of Ravel from the SKY Arts channel, and on the ubiquitous You Tube on the Internet. This music reflects both Ravel’s and my love of the Viennese waltz, especially of the Strauss family, Waldteufel, Offenbach, Kalman, etc.

This performance illuminated the music’s dynamism and rhythmic energy through Ravel’s remarkably colourful scene of a Viennese dance-hall which, in her programme notes, Feby Idrus captured beautifully. She related not only the scornful reaction by ballet impresario Diaghilev to Ravel’s piano performance of the score, but an illuminating description of the evolution of the music and its ‘growing wildness’, depicting a ‘heartbeat fraught with panic’. They were words that vividly described this frenzied yet disciplined performance.

Ravel’s piano concerto (for both hands) is a profoundly different work, with the piano part in the hands of one of New Zealand’s leading pianists, Stephen De Pledge. It emerged with clarity and the careful application of rhythmic energy, even in the jazz coloured Adagio movement with its extended solo piano opening: idiomatic but essentially classical in character. To quote again from the programme notes, the concerto as a whole ‘remains aerated by jazz’s sweet perfume’. After several returns demanded by the audience, De Pledge played Couperin’s fairly familiar song La Basque with a lively spirit; though its translation from the clarity of the harpsichord to the modern piano is not quite the same.

The second half began with what I assume was the first New Zealand performance of a rowdy piece written for the Last Night of the Proms in 2013 by 40-year-old English composer Anna Clyne: Masquerade; inspired by the kind of music played in London’s 18th century pleasure gardens, such as the famous Vauxhall Gardens; judging by its spirit and liveliness it would have been a hit there, as it probably was at the Proms. Boisterous and constantly varied as it was, it hardly matched Stravinsky’s melodically and rhythmically inspired ballet music that followed.

Stravinsky revised the 1911 original version of Petrushka in 1946 (performed in 1947) for a slightly smaller orchestra, altering certain instrumental features, but partly because the original was not covered by copyright in all countries, and thus delivered the composer no royalties. The orchestra played that later version, probably detectable to no one but the relative instrumentalists and conductor.

Of course, the theme of the ballet doesn’t demand music of a profound character, but it is nevertheless a unique score, quite as remarkable as The Right of Spring which rather outshone Petrushka two years later with its violence, rhythmic and thematic complexity. The score derives its profundity by means of its unique, half-hour-long musical inspiration.  Yes there were moments of a certain ensemble smudginess in Petrushka, but the overwhelming energy and passion were dominant throughout the entire performance.

But if you’d like to see and hear a very remarkable, yet somehow genuine performance of the composer’s Three Movements for piano, look at Yuja Wang on YouTube.

What a splendidly successful way for the orchestra to open its year!


Sleep-walking as Rhona Fraser’s Days Bay Opera returns with a delightful Bellini masterpiece

Opera in a Days Bay Garden

La Sonnambula (Bellini)

Conductor: Mark Carter; producer and director: Rhona Fraser

Cast: Natasha Wilson (Lisa), Morgan-Andrew King (Alessio), Rhona Fraser (Teresa), Elizabeth Mandeno (Amina), Lila Crichton (Notary), Andrew Grenon (Elvino), James Ioelu (Count Rodolfo).
Chorus: Jemma Chester, Emily Yeap, Sinéad Keane, Olivia Stewart, Simon Hernyak, Samuel McKeever, Patrick Shanahan, Alica Carter

Canna House, Days Bay, Wellington

Friday 12 February, 5:30 pm

In common with most of the world, Bellini is no longer a famous composer in New Zealand; his operas are now rarely performed. Of Bellini’s operas only Norma gets much attention. I’m only aware of Canterbury Opera’s production of it in 2002, since its last professional production by a touring company in 1928.

However, in 2016 Rhona Fraser’s Opera in a Days Bay Garden was responsible for a somewhat rarer Bellini opera – the story that Shakespeare had used in Romeo and JulietI Capuleti e i Montecchi; which was staged by Auckland Studio Opera in 2018.

After two productions in 2017 – Handel’s Theodora and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin – Rhona and her husband have been away for two years, in Germany. They returned last year and Rhona seems determined to resume the professional production of interesting operas. Her enterprise has been very missed.

Hers is just one of the small opera groups around the country which, very unevenly, offer opportunities for the public to discover opera and for advanced, mainly young singers, to gain first-class experience. None of these small companies, some, like Days Bay, fully professional, has attracted financial or other significant help from central or local government and few have lasted more than a couple of years.

If anything, there is less amateur or small-scale professional opera in New Zealand than there was 20 years ago, when, for example, both the Victoria University School of Music and the then Wellington Polytechnic Conservatorium produced an opera every year; now Victoria alone produces an opera every other year.

La sonnambula’s history 
Now, Days Bay Opera has brought one of Bellini’s most popular operas, La sonnambula, back to life, though this time, Auckland Opera Studio has been first with it, in 2011, The last previous production was in 1881. More interesting still is the fact that Sonnambula was just the second opera, after Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment, to be performed in New Zealand: in 1862. Adrienne Simpson’s splendid history of opera in New Zealand (Opera’s farthest Frontier) records these and a couple of now forgotten English operas in the amateurish English Opera Troupe’s historic productions in the make-shift Royal Princess Theatre in Dunedin.

And the book records that in 1863 the company brought Sonnambula to Wellington: absolutely the first opera in Wellington.

Fine, warm weather offered a delightful environment for the first (and the other two) performances on the lawn below the house and narrow terraces on which the audience sat, The tree-filled garden surrounded by beech forest create what might be the most unique opera setting in the world.

The opera’s staging, created by Rhona Fraser, was contemporary, with a limited number of seats and other props, and with costumes that spoke more of the attitudes and situations of the characters than of their period. The orchestra comprised thirteen players, led by Anne Loeser and conducted by Mark Carter, was somewhat behind and to the left of the audienec; inevitably, it was  bit remote for some of the audience.

During the brief prelude an ill-tempered Lisa (Natasha Wilson) is tidying and cleaning impatiently, though her vivid singing and acting showed a more charming character. But that was not in relation to any member of the chorus; especially, she flaunted contempt for the heedless Alessio, rich-voiced baritone Morgan-Andrew King, who gained attention at the recent Whanganui Opera School. She rejects his love: any qualms about his beard or rude appearance must be set aside in our age of unorthodoxy.

The coming marriage between Amina and Elvino is heralded by the arrival of the Notary (the impressive Samoan bass Lila Crichton).

The opera really took off with the arrival of Amina (Elizabeth Mandeno), and her first big aria, “Come per me sereno” and the cabaletta “Sovra il sen la man” rejoicing in her expected marriage to Elvino. His voice, with his moving greeting “Perdona, o mia diletta”, picking up later with “Prendi: a’nel ti dono”, was agreeable though his demeanour might have fallen short of his propertied standing; however, he portrayed a credibly decent chap. Though one might wonder, as the story evolves, how someone so improbably sensitive could have gained his reputation in the village.

Rodolfo, the Count (James Ioelu), arrives, presenting an imposing demeanour and vocal confidence, all the signs of small-time nobility which he shows through fundamental decency.

The ensemble of villagers has its significant role throughout. In an interesting later episode the villagers in an effective evocation tell Rodolfo of the phantom that locals see at midnight, “Udite, a fosca cielo”,

Elvino and misplaced jealousy
Scene I of Act I ends with Elvino, prompted by the Count making flattering gestures to Amina, confessing to Amina his uncontrollable jealousy, his “Son geloso del zefiro errante” was a curious revelation.

Even though Amina convinces Elvino that his jealousy is misplaced and peace reigns, in scene ii she sleep-walks into Rodolfo’s room at Lisa’s inn (here an AirBNB), and there’s a tentative attraction between them. Amina’s entry, sleep-walking, changes everything; she sees Rodolfo as Elvino and throws herself at him but he gets out before Elvino and the villagers arrive. However, there is Amina, now in Rodolfo’s bed, and no sleep-walking excuse (they’ve never heard of somnambulism) persuades any of the villagers that things are different from what they seem.

It was a splendid scene. Even if suspended at a very high level of improbability and absurdity, it was both dramatic and funny. Throughout, Amina’s foster-mother Teresa (Rhona Fraser), exhibiting calm sanity and in excellent voice in all her several episodes, remains faithful to her, even, one supposes, if Amina were guilty.

At the beginning of the second scene of Act II, Natasha Wilson, as Lisa, plays a vividly stylish part, now seeing herself as the likely winner, able to capture Elvino for herself, and her short, tight white dress illuminated her expectations; she adorns it with a white veil.

The suspense, awaiting Rodolfo’s explanation to the villagers and specifically to Elvino about the nature of somnambulism is protracted. It’s clinched by Amina’s walking along a riskless board between rows of audience (instead of on a fragile plank above the mill-wheels on the river).   The last scene eventually brings an understanding of “sleep-walking” and Amina’s singing at the end is plaintive and moving.

Though sung in Italian, the notes in the programme were sufficient for those new to the work to understand – in any case, the Italian from all singers was admirably clear. Accepting the limitations fundamental to the out-doors setting and various sound and production constraints, the entire performance was admirable and completely enjoyable. Rhona Fraser is warmly welcome back in New Zealand.

If you missed this one, don’t hesitate to book early for the next.

For the record, these are the operas Days Bay has produced so far:

2010   The Marriage of Figaro
2010   The Journey to Rheims  (Rossini)
2012   Alcina (Handel)
2012   Maria Stuarda  (Donizetti)
2013   Cosi fan tutte
2013   L’oca del Cairo (Mozart)
2014   Der Rosenkavalier
2015   Calisto (Cavalli)
2016   Agrippina (Handel)
2016   I Capuleti e i Montecchi (Bellini)
2017   Theodora (Handel)
2017   Eugene Onegin
2021   La sonnambula

The third group, the Glorious Mysteries, from Biber’s Rosary Sonatas from Loeser, Young and Mews

Biber’s Rosary Sonatas: The Glorious Mysteries  

Anne Loeser (baroque violin), Jane Young  (baroque cello) and Douglas Mews (harpsichord/organ)

The third and final part of Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s Rosary Sonatas
The Glorious Mysteries and the concluding Passacaglia: ‘The Guardian Angel’

St Teresa’s Catholic Church, 301 Karori Road, Karori

Friday 5 February 6pm

Middle C missed the first two parts of Biber’s famous Rosary Sonatas late last year. These are instrumental compositions inspired by the sense of each of the fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary.  So it was rewarding to hear the third group of ‘sonatas’, which comprises sonatas 11 to 15, plus the famous, stand-alone Passacaglia; and to be told that it was hoped to perform the entire series again later this year.

Not a great deal is known about Biber’s Mystery Sonatas. We don’t even know when they were written, although it is guessed at somewhere around 1680. But we do know from  a letter of dedication that they were written for Biber’s employer, the Archbishop of Salzburg.

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704) composed them for violin and continuo (baroque cello and harpsichord), which is how they were played on Friday. Other instrumental arrangements have been created, as will be evident by looking at the Internet. Biber lived about two generations before Bach, rather a contemporary of Corelli, Buxtehude, Alessandro Scarlatti, Purcell, Lully, Charpentier, Pachelbel, Bononcini, Stradella….

Much of the following is drawn from Wikipedia and the notes Gregory Hill wrote to read at this and the first two concerts in 2020.

The manuscript of Biber’s Mystery Sonatas was discovered in the Bavarian State Library in about 1890, and first published in 1905.  They had never been published or disseminated and in the previous 200 years, nobody had heard them, or heard of them. Once rediscovered, the Mystery Sonatas became Biber’s best known composition.

The title page is missing from the manuscript, so we don’t know what Biber called them. But we know from Biber’s dedication letter to the Archbishop of Salzburg that they were written to reflect the 15 Sacred Mysteries in the lives of the Virgin Mary and Jesus.

While the individual mysteries are not named either, there is a blank space at the top of each sonata in which a copperplate engraving is printed, representing each of the mysteries of the Rosary, thus associating each sonata with that mystery. When the sonatas were first discovered, they were in fact referred to as The Copperplate Engraving Sonatas.

The work is prized for its virtuosic style, scordatura tunings and its programmatic structure.

Scordatura tuning
One of the most singular aspects of the music is the way the violin is tuned, differently for each sonata, known as ‘Scordatura’, a term familiar, I imagine, to most string players: it involves modifying the tone of the violin by changing the pitch of certain strings. For example, No 13 is tuned, upwards: A E C# E and No 15: G C G D (compared with the normal, in fifths, G D A E).

Biber uses scordatura primarily to manipulate the violin’s tone colour, while the creation of otherwise impossible chords and textures are a secondary opportunity.

In addition, the eleventh sonata, the first of the Glorious Mystery group, requires the violinist to cross the middle strings at both the bridge and the nut to allow octave tunings – two Gs and two Ds – between the adjacent pairs of outer strings. There was a photo on a screen illustrating how that looked.

Every sonata required a different scordatura tuning. So that no long pauses for re-tuing were needed, Anne Loeser used four violins: two, her own, the others lent by Shelley Wilkinson and Gregory Squire. Gregory Hill thanked Gregory Squire for the job “of keeping all those violins in perfect mistune”; he went back and forth between the sonatas with the appropriately tuned violin.

Middle C seems to have had rather limited experience of Biber. There have been reviews of performances of certain of the Rosary Sonatas; in addition, in 2014, the ‘Battle’ scene from his Battalia, a singular portrayal of aspects of war (only some 30 years after the end of the devastating Thirty Years War, an aspect of European history that used to be ignored when the British Empire was almost the sole history subject; I fear that things may not be much better now with New Zealand’s emphasis on the, shall-we-say, parochial).

This concert: The Glorious Mysteries
The recital was in the Catholic church of Saint Teresa, a large, acoustically splendid space that sometimes had me looking for signs of a sound system, so warm and rich were the performances.

The Glorious Mysteries consists of:
The Resurrection
The Ascension
The Assumprion of Mary into Heaven
The Coronation of Mary in Heaven
the Passacaglia – The Guardian Angel which is scored for violin alone.

The music was introduced by Gregory Hill (recently retired principal horn in the NZSO) who began by outlining the character of the entire series of 15 Rosary Sonatas, plus the final Passacaglia. The series is divided into three groups of ‘mysteries’, five in each. Middle C missed the first two series in late 2020: The Joyful Mysteries and The Sorrowful Mysteries. This concert completed the series with the third and final part: The Glorious Mysteries (sonatas 11 to 15) plus the concluding Passacaglia The Guardian Angel, not strictly one of the Rosary Sonatas.

The playing of the Resurrection sonata arrested the audience by emerging from behind, in the organ gallery: Douglas Mews’ sustained organ pedal note that was punctuated by sporadic cello sounds and a simple repetitive phrase by the violin. The second phase (is ‘movement’ the right word? – it’s named Surrexit Christus hodie – ‘Christ in born today’, after the old Latin hymn) soon emerged as a calming melody in triplets against balanced, harmonising passages on the organ. It’s a long movement that gains a hypnotic feeling before long in spite of the occasional playing of the hymn melody. The last movement became contemplative.

The players descended to the floor of the church to explore – incongruously – the character of No 12, the Ascension, about Christ’s rise to Heaven after 40 days. The rhythmic character of the opening part (described as a ‘martial intrada’) expressed a cheerful enough spirit. The following movement, entitled ‘Aria tubicinum’, or ‘trumpet tune’ which the players succeeded in investing with a certain spiritual feeling from the calm delight of being in heaven. Now that the players were closer to us, their wonderful technical command and animated musical feeling was evident, and the major contributions by Jane Young’s baroque cello and Mews’s harpsichord, often equal in importance to the violin, as well as in expression and colour.

Though it would not have been obvious to the audience, the nature of the scordatura for the Ascension was, as remarked by Gregory Hill, tuned to the simple C major chord (C E G C) with the G string tuned up a fourth to C which makes it ‘painfully tight’ for the fingers.

The third of the Glorious Mysteries, No XIII, the Pentecost, begins with a movement simply entitled ‘Sonata’, mainly in ¾ time; then short episodes, Gavotta and a Gigue with much excitable cross-string playing. It ended with a contemplative Sarabanda, and underlying drone passages, in ‘wonderment of the holy spirit’, in the words of the commentary.

The Assumption of Mary into Heaven is the fourth Mystery, Sonata 14.  After a few flighty bars a Grave, then an Adagio episode followed, creating a peaceful scene; then an Aria which sounded more like a dance, in triple time, becoming more and more excitable and delightful. There seemed to be an almost Spanish flavour in the music. Though I hardly noticed it, the very danceable Aria movement moved subtly into a very similar Gigue. It was probably the gayest sonata in the group of ‘Glorious Mysteries’, though it ended enigmatically as the violin, which represented Mary, disappeared, leaving the last bars to cello and harpsichord.

The last of the actual ‘Glorious Mysteries’, No XV, is The Coronation of Mary in Heaven. A distinct difference was marked by the players’ return to the organ gallery, with the keyboard part again taken by the organ. It started with considerable solemnity, with an undefined ‘Sonata’. Though it’s in C major, there’s a general sense of peace, of acceptance in the music. Another neutral word, Aria, describes the next section with its three variations. It was replete with warmth, tumbling triplet semi-quavers and flashes of demi-semi-quavers. The playing was technically engrossing and emotionally at peace. It ended in the same general mood, though the concluding Sarabande, with endless presto semi-quavers in gay triple time.

Outside the strict series of the ‘Glorious Mystery’ sonatas, is the Passacaglia, ‘The Guardian Angel’, where Anne Loeser’s violin is left alone. Apart from the score marking it as a ‘Passacaglia’ no descriptive title is shown, apart from occasional tempo indications: Adagio, Allegro. The name comes from the copper-plate engraving at the beginning of the manuscript, as you’ll see from the website: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtoh-i5yU64. There are no distinct movements or episodes, so the rhythm is constant through its roughly eight minutes – about the same as each of the five Glorious Mystery sonatas themselves. Its commanding, hypnotic attention was simply the result of the spiritual and emotional delivery of Loeser’s playing.

It did not eclipse the polished, intelligent and emotion-led playing of all three musicians in the Glorious Mysteries themselves; and the quite numerous audience applauded them with enthusiasm.


End of the musical year for Wellington Chamber Orchestra with an Emperor and Franck’s symphony

Wellington Chamber Orchestra
Conductor and piano soloist: Andrew Atkins

Verdi: La Forza del Destino overture
Beethoven: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.5 in E flat major. op.73 ‘The Emperor’
César Franck: Symphony in D minor, FWV 48

St. Andrews on the Terrace

Sunday, 13 December 2020

Verdi: La Forza del Destino overture
The overture to Verdi’s opera, ‘The Power of Fate’ is much more popular than the opera itself. It encapsulates the drama of the opera, its lyricism and its wonderful melodies. It opens with three unison chords for the brasses, followed by repeated agitated phrases by the lower strings, which foreshadows the tragedy of the drama to follow. A beautiful mournful theme from Act 3 of the opera is introduced by the winds, followed by the haunting prayer of Leonora, the heroine of the story, played by the strings, and towards the end of the overture a theme from Act 2 is played by the oboe and winds, suggesting the emotional resolution and redemption before Leonora death. It was a great opening for the concert, testing all sections of the orchestra. Some beautiful playing by the wind solo stood out. This was a colourful lyrical reading of the piece. Andrew Atkins conducted with graceful movements and a clear beat.

Beethoven: Emperor Concerto
This concerto, Beethoven’s longest and arguably his most dramatic, is a challenge even for seasoned pianists who play it repeatedly on international concert tours. For a young musician without the benefit of such opportunities and conducting from the keyboard, this is bordering on chutzpah. But from the very beginning, the opening runs on the piano, it was evident that Andrew Atkins was up to the challenge. His playing was sensitive, lyrical, and confident.

The orchestra provided a sound support notwithstanding the distraction of the conductor jumping up and down from the keyboard during the tutti passages. The chorale of the second movement, with the fine interaction between the soloist and the orchestra stood out for its sensitivity. The last movement reflected the sense of joy of the performers. To the great credit of soloist and orchestra, every note sounded carefully considered, yet this did not detract from the natural flow of the music. For an encore, Andrew Atkins played a beautiful meditative piece, Liszt’s Consolation No.3, with the flair of a fine pianist and with a true love of music.

Franck: Symphony in D minor
César Franck’s Symphony is a difficult nut to crack. It is an amalgam of the German tradition of Wagner and Liszt, it quotes late Beethoven, yet has a certain French sensitivity. In its form it differs from the classical symphonic model of Haydn to Brahms. It is in three movements which are interrelated. The opening themes keep recurring in modified form as they modulate throughout the symphony. It is one of the landmarks of the symphonic repertoire. It starts with a hardly audible pianissimo on the lower strings, echoing the Muss es sein? (Must it be?) phrase from Beethoven’s Op 135 String Quartet, then a piercing cor anglais solo introduces the main theme. This theme recurs throughout symphony in different forms, slow and fast, expansive and agitated.

The orchestra rose to the technical challenges of the work, but somehow the tempi sounded driven and variable. I felt that the brass were not given the space to fly, or the strings the air to let the music sing. The subtlety of the symphony was somehow missing, The listeners should have been left sitting on the edge of their seats. But let this not detract from the laudable effort of every single musician in the orchestra. Just mastering this complex work deserves credit.

The concert reflected the objective of the orchestra, to ‘enjoy the experience of creating live music together’. Whatever reservations I might have had, it was great to have the opportunity to hear these wonderful works live in Wellington on a Sunday afternoon. We value the talent in our midst.



RNZAF Wind Quintet plus piano, in diverting programme closes Marjan van Waartenberg’s era at St Andrew’s

St Andrew’s Lunchtime concert
RNZAF Wind Quintet: Rebecca Steel – flute, Calvin Scott – oboe, Moira Hurst – clarinet, Vivien Reid – horn), Oscar Lavën – bassoon; with David Codd – piano

Giulio Briccialdi: Wind Quintet, Op 124 (the Allegro marziale)
Poulenc: Sextet for piano and winds, Op 100
Bizet: Jeux d’enfants, arranged by Gordon Davies: 1. Trompette et tambour, marche; 2. Petit mari, petite femme; 3. La toupie
Zequinha de Abreu: Tico-tico (‘Bird in the cornmeal’)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 9 December, 12:15 pm

Not only was this the last in the 2020 St Andrew’s lunchtime concert series (not counting the church’s Christmas carol service next Wednesday, 16 December); but the last concert organised by Marjan van Waardenberg at St Andrew’s: a voluntary job she has done since 2005. The concerts have been transformed dramatically during the time she has led them, from short series of concerts through the year to an unbroken series usually starting in February, sometimes twice in a week, apart from their disturbance in the face of pandemics. The church’s generous role in allowing free use by musicians, without fees, dependent solely on donations, has also been singular. Such is their support by musicians that there’s often a waiting list for performance dates. Free concerts are a valued benefit for many audience members who might be unable to afford to pay for weekly concerts.

There is no comparable series of free, weekly concerts anywhere else in the country. They have become a very significant concert series in the city, enhancing the Wellington’s reputation as a leading musical centre; in particular, providing excellent opportunities for students from Victoria University School of Music to be heard in a down-town venue.

Marjan’s organisational role will be taken by Kristina Zuelicka while actual hosting of each concert will be done by other individuals; the programme encouraged ‘concert host’ volunteers to approach Jillene Everett in the church office; office@standrews.org.nz.

The concert 
The last appearance by the RNZAF Wind Quintet at St Andrew’s was reviewed in July 2019 by Steven Sedley. This, led again by flutist Rebecca Steel, with the same colleagues, elegantly dressed in formal air force uniforms attracted a bigger-than-average audience to this memorable recital.

There were two rather unfamiliar names among the composers represented at this week’s concert: the mid-19th century Italian, Giulio Briccialdi and the Brazilian composer, Zequinha de Abreu (really known solely for the popular Tico-tico), who lived in the early 20th century.

Briccialdi was a distinguished flutist and composer, and the melodious piece with which the recital began makes his popularity during his life very credible. Though the flute was prominent, it was far from the dominant instrument in the piece, which, apart from the repetitive bassoon motif, offered attractive passages for the other three instruments.

Poulenc’s Sextet
The main work was Poulenc’s Sextet for piano and winds, probably written in 1932. Its most distinctive feature is its variety in the treatment of musical ideas as well as the variety offered each instrument at various times. The first such case was a dreamy solo from the bassoon, more than compensating for its treatment in the earlier piece, and the horn enjoyed occasional solo episodes. The music typified Poulenc with its almost rude dissonances, but which actually delight, not merely because they shift suddenly into a reflective mood but because it’s wit that characterises them.

No movement remained consistent. Though the second movement starts quietly, its title Divertissement soon took over with the reappearance of first-movement liveliness. Unfortunately, the church’s teasing acoustic occasionally interfered with clarity, blurring the amusing character of both individual instruments and ensembles. So the most satisfactory parts were those in which only one or two instruments led the way. Though the third movement, Finale, is marked ‘Prestissimo’ it is only partly accurate as there’s a sudden slowing of speed halfway through, allowing the three treble clef instruments to be heard with closer, more rewarding attention.

Its last few minutes are both surprising and charming, as the mood – the tempo – suddenly changed: enigmatically. In spite of little shortcomings this performance was a delight.

I realise I haven’t mentioned the piano: that’s simply because David Codd’s playing integrated so well with the wind players. Poulenc was in fact a fine pianist and chamber pieces for piano and various solo-string and wind instruments are significant though not numerous.

I’ve been a Poulenc captive since my late teens, when I heard the witty ballet Les biches on the radio. It could still be worth an airing.

Jeux d’enfants  
Three pieces from Bizet’s Jeux d’enfants provided music that is somewhat related to Poulenc, and these twelve purportedly children’s pieces rested interestingly alongside him, making one aware how Bizet’s Mozart-aged death was such a tragedy for far more than simply opera. Though I can’t remember who played them, I can recall quite a while ago hearing the full suite of twelve piano pieces played in Wellington. And of course, apart from piano and chamber music there’s the evidence of a gifted symphonist in Bizet’s now famous, eighteen-year-old Symphony in C, lost for eighty years in the Paris Conservatoire archives.

The quintet played just three of the Jeux d’enfants: La toupie, Trompette et tambour and Petit mari et petite femme (in their published order).

Trompette et Tambour was an appropriate opening: a nice arrangement of this prancing, jaunty piece while Petit mari, petite femme, a dreamy middle movement, featured the horn nicely; and the brief but lively Toupie was a well-chosen conclusion. The quintet justified their appropriation of Bizet’s piano duet original, or its orchestrations by Bizet and others, very persuasively.

Finally, perhaps a time-filler, was Tico-tico, once familiar on radio in all sorts of versions. It proved a lively arrangement for the wind quintet’s closure.

Marjan: “duizendmaal dank”.



Orchestra Wellington: huge percussion resources exploited in Psathas masterpiece from Olympus complemented by huge Rachmaninov symphony

Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei
With Jeremy Fitzsimons (percussion) and Michael Houston (piano)

John Psathas: View from Olympus: Concerto for percussion, piano, and orchestra
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op 27

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday, 5 December 2020

The large line-up of percussion instruments at the front of the orchestra would have given an inkling to the audience that they would be in for a challenging, interesting evening of music. Although the John Psathas’ View from Olympus has had many performances, premiered by the Halle Orchestra in Manchester in 2002, it is still music off the beaten track for an audience of predominantly older concert goers. The Rachmaninoff Symphony is something else, a justifiably well-worn favourite of the concert repertoire.

John Psathas, View from Olympus
This concerto work was commissioned by the internationally renowned percussionist, Evelyn Glennie. It draws on the New Zealand composer’s Greek heritage. It makes use of Greek mythology and describes in three movements 1. The Furies and their avenging spirits, 2. To Yelasto Paithi (The smiling child), and 3. Dance of the Maenads. The first movement, conjuring up the Furies opens with vigorous rhythms that echoed some of Stravinsky’s early ballet music, but the music was distinctively Psathas, exploiting the tone colours, tone quality and unique sounds of the large array of percussion instruments.

In the midst of the furious loud noises a solo violin is introduced for a few bars, something that clearly had a special meaning for Psathas and Greek listeners familiar with the music of the popular Greek violinist, Stathis Koukoularis. The second movement is calm and peaceful, reflecting, as Psathas said, ‘the feelings inspired by his own precious children. A passage with wind chimes gently ringing creates an otherworldly dreamlike sound. The rhythmic patterns suggest children’s songs, games. nursery rhymes, without explicitly quoting any. The last movement is violent, suggesting the Maenads possessed, in an ecstatic frenzied dance, belabouring each other. The loud drum beats create an unsettling impression of mayhem.

The piano was a partner in a dialogue with the percussion instruments. It was also a link, a commentator, that gave coherence to the sounds of a large group of diverse percussion. There is none of the romantic singing tone, the light and shade that is associated with the grand piano. The piece is an exploration of rhythmic texture, and asks questions about the nature of music, can there be music without melody, based purely on rhythm and various tone colours?

The constant repetition of small musical patterns suggests minimalism, but there is nothing minimal in this huge innovative concerto. It uses large resources with not only a percussion solo that involves vibraphone, marimba, simtak (a steel cylinder played with fingers), dulcimer, steel drums, wind chimes, drum stations, cymbals, tom-toms and various other instruments to hit or stroke, as well as a solo amplified piano, but also an orchestra with two percussion players, timpani, two harps, a full complements of brass, wind and strings.

John Psathas does not belong to any modern musical tradition. He is an individual, unique entity, and his music is like that of no one else according to his publisher Promethean Editions.  Innovative, different, perhaps difficult as this work might have been, it was received with an enthusiastic ovation by the large audience.

As an encore Michael Houston and Jeremy Fitzsimons played Fragments for vibraphone and piano, a work associated with this concerto. It is related in musical material to the second movement of the concerto. John Psathas joined Michael Houston to turn the pages.

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2
Rachmaninoff harks back to a very different era. This symphony was written in the turbulent times of 1906-7 and this is reflected in the tension and drama of the music.  It captures the spirit of old Russia that was about to change. Rachmaninoff wrote it in Dresden where he moved to escape the turmoil in Russia in the wake of the 1905 revolution. He set out to write a symphony following the success of his Second Piano Concerto and establish himself as a symphonic composer after the critical failure of his first symphony.

The Second Symphony is a huge challenging work for an orchestra. It is a long, demanding work that lasts about an hour. It is very intense music which places, great demands on every section of the orchestra. The first movement starts with a brooding, dark, slow introduction. This leads to a haunting melody which is then expanded, broken up into small blocks that become a constituent part of the development. There are colourful wind and brass passages. The strings are required to dig deep to produce a lush, rich tone. The second movement starts with a hectic, driven passage that leads to an expressive melody. Then layers upon layers of the song-like melodies lead to a grand climax.

The third movement introduces a lyrical theme that has at times a fairy-tale like quality. The final movement starts with an energetic gopak kind of dance, followed by a haunting melody. It is no wonder that the rich texture of the themes of this symphony have been used in a number of films and were adopted in popular music. The orchestra mastered the challenges of this colossal work, with some beautiful playing in the solo wind and brass passages. It was a clear but restrained reading. The orchestra did Rachmaninoff proud.

This was the end of a very difficult season, but despite its challenges, the orchestra performed all its subscription concerts and gave some 180 performances. Marc Taddei, the conductor, congratulated the orchestra in a short speech.  He describes it as a virtuoso orchestra, he also congratulated the audience, and noted that this orchestra had the largest audiences of any orchestras in the country during the season,

Taddei then announced the concerts of the next season, with focus on ‘virtuoso’ music, from Paganini and Liszt to Bartók and Lutosławski as well as the orchestra’s Composer in Residence, John Psathas. It was a beautiful, moving concert, with the grand sound of the Rachmaninoff Symphony left ringing in people’s ears.



NZSO with three widely varied works: two masterpieces and a charming, approachable New Zealand concerto

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gemma New with Stephen De Pledge (piano)

Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Anthony Ritchie: Piano Concerto No 3
Sibelius: Symphony No 5 in E flat, Op 82

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 20 November, 6:30 pm

The audience at this concert would have been intrigued, as they took their seats, to see some orchestra members finding their way to a row of music stands in the gallery above and behind the orchestra: two players each of first and second violins, violas, cellos and one double bass.  The rest – strings only of course – were in their normal places

Vaughan Williams with Tallis
The position of players was for Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. As the programme note explained, the two groups reflected, not a sort of concerto grosso as it might have been reflecting the music of a century later, but the two fundamental manuals of a pipe organ: the Great and the Swell.

The nine concertino players, standing high at the rear, handling the “Swell” part, entered first, sounded singularly remote and ethereal (at least from my seat middle stalls) while the ripieno section, the remainder of the strings reflecting the “Great” organ sounded normal; and each took turns at articulating the Tallis melody.  To have been intrigued by this disposition suggested that I had perhaps not heard the piece played live before, or certainly not in this arrangement, and I was enchanted.

After a few minutes during which my attention was drawn to the singularly expressive gestures from the conductor Gemma New; then to a warm solo viola in the main orchestra introducing solos by other strings. New inspired the orchestra to such vivid playing, with such commitment that the entire work had the audience transfixed. The music lends itself to such treatment of course, though I can imagine that not long ago many conductors and audience members of a critical disposition might have found her intense, large-scale gestures excessive. But if it brings the music to life in such a remarkable way, then what’s to criticise?

I have been heard to lament that RNZ Concert’s Settling the Score has, I suspect through unfamiliarity, not placed the Tallis Fantasia at No 1 place instead of the Skylark. The entire audience here could be guaranteed to vote for it in 2021, if possible in this wonderful account under Gemma New.

Ritchie’s Piano Concerto 3
Anthony Ritchie’s Third Piano Concerto could hardly have been a more singular contrast. It was written in 2008 for Emma Sayers and the Manakau Symphony Orchestra and has been performed several times and been recorded by SOUNZ with its dedicatee Sayers and the APO under Uwe Grodd. Stephen de Pledge’s piano opened quietly, creating a peaceful, pensive spirit that lasts about three minutes. It’s followed by a traditional Allegro whose purpose is to be playable and enjoyable rather than an exhibition of either the composer’s cleverness or the pianist’s virtuosity. There were no suggestions of its composition by a disciple of Schoenberg or Boulez, and the end of the first movement had a piano part that could be by Rachmaninov.

The orchestral score, written for a semi-professional orchestra, creates no impossibilities, though there are striking opportunities for brass phrases. The vividness of the orchestral playing was conspicuously the result of New’s understanding of its unpretentious character.

Much of the slow second movement is for piano solo (hardly a ‘cadenza’), with orchestral instruments such as a bassoon participating quietly. The entire movement is based on a recognisable melody which develops in a charming, meditative way; as the programme notes explain, it’s in modal keys, but it’s essentially melodic and any departure from conventional harmony is for the attention of musicologists. It created a charming experience that New and De Pledge handled with great sensitivity. The last movement, much shorter, was bright and playful, offering the pianist attractive opportunities to be both demonstrative and congenial.

As an encore, De Pledge played one of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces – the charming Nocturne in C, Op 54 No 4. Is it still as well-known as it always seemed to me?

Sibelius Fifth
The performance of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony was the climax of the concert where, having got a taste of Gemma New’s dynamism and influence over the players, there was no doubt that this great symphony would be a thrilling experience. For one thing, the performance immediately created a sense of the music’s originality; every phrase, the opening horns and woodwinds, seemed to be both a fresh perception and a new revelation of a long-loved masterpiece.

New revealed a talent for building Sibelius’s several accelerating climaxes as if an entirely new experience. The climax at the end of the first movement created an outburst of applause and shouting that could in no way be ascribed to new-comers’ ignorance of the shape of the symphony. And the deliberate slow movement created suspenseful, deeply felt experience; rhythmically firm and compelling, endlessly repeated motifs that were steadily hypnotic as they accelerated.

The shift into the last movement without any sense of a missing Scherzo is the norm, but it’s always interesting to listen to the fade-out, the moment’s pause and then the clap of the timpani that begins the last movement. It created at once an expectation of the extraordinary suspense of the endless repetition and evolution, sometimes a mere whisper, of the monumental theme that cohabits with the dancing woodwind tune; but eventually takes charge into the glorious, suspenseful finale.

Again the applause was long and serious, celebrating a concert that in its imaginative entirety was a huge success.



Orpheus Choir’s first ‘on their own’ concert in 2020 a Gloria triumph

Orpheus Choir of Wellington

Director: Brent Stewart
Barbara Paterson – soprano, Ruth Armishaw – mezzo
Nicholas Sutcliffe – organ
Instrumental ensemble (Olya Curtis – violin, Karen Batten – flute, Dominic Groom – horn, Toby Pringle – trumpet, Peter Maunder – trombone, Jeremy Fitzsimons – timpani, Thomas Nikora – piano)

Vivaldi: Gloria (RV 589)
Poulenc: Gloria. “reminiscent of a fresco by Bozzoli”
Michael McGlynn: Jerusalem
olst: In the Bleak Midwinter, arr. Ola Gjeilo (poem by Christina Rosetti)
Rutter: Star Carol
Ēriks Ešenvalds: Stars (poem by Sara Teasdale; tuned wine glasses pitched in tonal clusters, painting the picture of a sparkling, starry night sky)
Handel: ‘Worthy in the Lamb’ and the ‘Amen’ from Messiah 

Wellington Cathedral of Saint Paul

Saturday 14 November, 7:30 pm

The introduction to the programme by the chairperson of the Choir, Frances Manwaring, remarks that this was the choir’s first ‘self-presented’ concert in 2020 – the only other public appearance was with Orchestra Wellington’s 3 October concert in Rachmaninov’s The Bells and Fauré’s Requiem.

And I might as well use her background notes to refer to the task of preparing for the concert under review. “Thanks to the tech-savvyness and innovative thinking of our Music Director Brent Stewart, we barely missed a beat. Rehearsals moved on line and choir members logged in from their living rooms or bedrooms. Physical warm-ups were attempted in unusual places and members of the choir displayed skill and flair as Brent found ways to showcase their talents.”

The delay in writing this review has induced me to modify certain earlier words about aspects of the performance, such as comments about the sound of the electronic organ, and the absence of orchestral parts that are somewhat intrinsic to the full sound of both Vivaldi’s and Poulenc’s Glorias.

Vivaldi’s Gloria
It all became unimportant as soon as the choir launched into Vivaldi’s choral masterpiece with the Gloria in excelsis Deo, making such mighty impact. Sitting fairly close, even the cathedral’s rather unmanageable acoustic didn’t interfere too much.

Each of the twelve sections might average about three minutes and they vary sharply in spirit and religious significance, but the genius of the music remained in full command of choir and audience for the full half hour. For example, the calm (the programme notes ‘introspective’ is a good word) second movement, ‘Et in terra pax’, revealed a lovely balance between men, occupying the centre of each of the half dozen rows of singers, and the twice as many women. But they were not at all unbalanced in their combined impact.

Soloists appeared in the third movement, ‘Laudamus Te’, Barbara Paterson and Ruth Armishaw, both making very striking impacts, contrasting comfortably. Part 6, ‘Domine Deus’ is for soprano, delightful, and a fairly limited orchestra, which again, one missed. Then followed mezzo Armishaw’s solo, singing the meditative ‘Domine Deus, Agnus dei’, punctuated by choir and organ; and she sang beautifully without choir in the tenth movement, ‘Qui sedes ad dexterum’.

Poulenc’s Gloria
Instead of an organ in the role of Poulenc’s orchestra, a small ensemble (eight players including the organ again) appeared after the interval to accompany his ‘Gloria’, which was a late product of his adoption, “in his fashion”, of religion in 1936, following the awful death in a car crash of a fellow composer and close friend.

In the opening phase the ensemble’s sound was somewhat heavy, the timpani particularly so and the three brass instruments were pretty audible, but that’s not too alien to Poulenc’s orchestral score. As for the singers, first impressions were of a soprano section that was strong, perhaps a little outweighing the rest. But the general impact of their performance was one of vigour and conviction.

In the ‘Laudamus Te’ the choir and the brass instruments that opened, in darting staccato rhythms, were well balanced from the beginning, and a quiet organ contributed nicely.

Soprano soloist Paterson emerged in the third section, ‘Domine Deus’, her part being to create a sense of peace, which was also the message the choir. The following ‘Dominus Fili unigente’ is a more lively movement, jocular and quite short. ‘Domine Deus, Agnus Dei’ is the protracted fifth movement, with Paterson taking lengthy solo episodes that could have been heard as mysterious rather than peaceful.

The sixth and last movement, ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris’ opened with slow recitative statements from the sopranos singing without accompaniment, the orchestra joined with a motif that was just a little different from the opening of the ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’. The choir and the men followed, singing in a prosaic character, often emphatically untuneful. But Paterson didn’t enter till about halfway through the last movement, casting some light but mostly ambivalence on the solo soprano’s message. The basic theme was taken up for the ‘Amen’ at the end which hardly offers a particularly persuasive feeling of hope for mankind, in spite of positive episodes like the ‘Laudamus Te’.

The choir was most successful in handling the frequent changes of tone and spirit, and the ensemble provided as good a substitute for a full orchestra as was reasonable to expect.

Concert fillers
The concert filled the time that a concert could normally be expected to last, with five varied and quite fascinating pieces.

First, a duet by Irish composer Michael McGlynn, Jerusalem, pursuing a variety of harmonies created an authentic impression through the distribution of the female singers around the sides of the cathedral. Then a song by Holst, In the Bleak Midwinter, arranged by Ola Gjeilo for solo voice with the choir entering later. The solo part was sung most attractively by the young soprano Kitty Sneyd-Utting.

John Rutter’s Star Carol, a lively and attractive Christmas song, with men’s and women’s voices taking distinct sections between substantial episodes by the full choir.

Another unfamiliar name was that of Ēriks Ešenvalds, Latvian (born in 1977); look at his interesting biography on the Internet. (Excuse me: I spent a fascinating week in Riga in 1999, catching four opera performances, and lovely ‘Art Nouveau’ architecture, a bit before Ešenvalds got started).

His Stars, to a poem by Sara Teasdale, involved the playing of tuned wine glasses, not strictly a ‘glass harp’, that were played by a number of the women in the front row, “painting the picture of a sparkling, starry night sky”. My notes describe it as evocative and rather moving; I think some men stroked the glasses too. The star was projected on the wall of the Sanctuary.

Finally, another gesture towards Christmas was ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ and the ‘Amen’, with which Messiah ends: a bit unsynchronised at the start, but then it took off, with gusto till the calm lead-in to the Amen chorus which was full of energy.

If these fillers were a bit like that, they were individually worth singing and being heard, and brought a fine concert, splendidly inspired and led by Brent Stewart, to a very successful end.