NZSO, Gorecki and Ponifasio/MAU share singularly successful juxtaposing of utterly disparate creations, of profound common human vulnerabilities

New Zealand Festival of the Arts

“Chosen and Beloved”: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kristjan Järvi with MAU Wahine
Created by Lemi Ponifasio

Performers: MAU Wāhine
In white: Kahumako Rameka and Ria Te Uira Paki
In black: Rosie Te Rauawhea Belvie, Kasina Campbell, Terri Crawford, Rangipo Ihakara-Wallace, Anitopapa Kopua, Taiahotea Paki-Hill

Gorecki: Symphony No 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs), with soprano Racha Tizk

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 21 February, 7:30 pm

It might have been slightly unusual to open a festival with a work (two works?) whose subject was the nature of woman, childbirth, even death, and dealing indirectly with one of the most terrible episodes in history.

However, it drew attention to the way in which this festival has been created and conceived. Substantially put together by three leading figures in the performing arts, ‘Guest Curators’, carefully chosen with attention to racial and cultural balance, and sheer imaginative and creative genius.

This concert was the inspiration of Lemi Ponifasio, ‘director and choreographer’. Though not a name very familiar to music audiences in New Zealand, he’s been involved for many years in performance activities that don’t match ordinary categories at international arts festivals, for example, at festivals at Avignon, Marseille, the Theater Der Welt and the Ruhr Triennale in Germany, at the Venice Biennale, for the opening of the Louvre in Abu Dhabi; in Noumea, and Sydney; and even an appearance at the 2012 festival in Wellington (which I didn’t see).

[You may be interested (I was) in the surprising history of MAU’s activities around the world: I copy an article in an appendix at the end.]

The Maori ‘ceremony’ from MAU Wahine
When the audience was allowed into the auditorium at 7:15 it was greeted at once with the performance, though there were no sounds. The stage itself delivered an immediate message: the entire back wall and choir stalls was shrouded by black curtains and a white sheet covered a four metre, or so, width of the stage extending from side to side in front of the empty orchestra seats. An array of rocks was scattered over it.

A woman in white, with long black hair (Kahumako Rameka), was walking very slowly from side to side, and she began to deliver a long lamenting whaikorero (a Karakia – about protection), about her origins, the different stages of birth and re-birth.

Soon two black-clad women appeared at the foot of aisles on either side of the balcony; they intoned first one then the other, though amplification made it difficult to tell who was singing, especially after five others appeared on the stage – that didn’t matter, but amplification removes that important aspect. However, the voices created a transcendent, ethereal effect that sought to avoid literal or precise understanding.

These were MAU Wahine, Ponifasio’s dance theatre company (‘Mau’ is the Samoan word meaning ‘the declaration of the truth’). For some time it bothered me that I could not understand their words, or at least their drift, but eventually I concluded that the women and a child in the arms was simply a reflection, or an anticipation, of the Gorecki composition, perhaps encompassing the experience of the loss of a child in awful circumstances. Gorecki said that his symphony was an evocation of the ties between mother and child, and I sensed that that might also have been the best way of interpreting the Mau ‘ceremony’ that had preceded it.

These were my own surmises, but I found myself taking it all very seriously, and I decided it would be useful to me as well as others if I could elaborate the meaning of what was happening.

So I contacted the Festival, asking whether members of the company could help my understanding (I could do this, not having a tight dead-line to adhere to). Very helpful information reached me later on Monday. I’m indebted to MAU Wahine for responding to my request.

I continue, with the benefit of their help.

When eventually a second white-clad woman appeared (Ria Te Uira Paki) with a baby in her arms, the message, expressed through their lamentations at the suffering and exploitation of women, chimed with the essential message of Gorecki’s music.

Ria Te Uira Paki delivered “a Pātere (chant), specifically Māreikura, perhaps the embodiment of the female essence. The word Māreikura can be translated or described as in all of its forms. The Pātere recites the genealogical connection to seven pro-dominant female entities within Māoridom and how they imbued their qualities within wāhine Māori. It talks of their journeys and connections being interwoven into our own feminine beings. It is a reminder of the feminine essence of Papatuanuku our terrestrial mother and the unbroken connection of the umbilical cord that  bonds us all the cosmic divine. A power, a strength and the beauty that we all hold and can conjure from within.”

My only uncertain criticism might have been of the length of this creation, with its quite protracted expanses of chant that ninety percent of the audience could not understand, even though its likely significance could be guessed at. Was it so different from the wordless 80 minutes of a Bruckner symphony or an extended liturgical work in Latin whose literal text is not understood in detail? In the end I dismissed this thought as a reasonable criticism.

The Gorecki Symphony
The words ‘Chosen and Beloved’ are taken from the first line of the first poem used in the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.

But first, some of Ponifasio’s words:
“In the ceremony of Chosen and Beloved, we greet and embrace those who have gone before us, and prepare to welcome those who are about to join us. We acknowledge the difficulties of the past, share our sufferings and hopes, and with deep empathy begin to construct together the world we wish for ourselves, and for the new generation.”

Gorecki is recorded as not wanting to write a symphony ‘about war’, dealing with the horrors of war; and so in no way does he display in this work, bitterness or hatred of the perpetrators of the three events that inspire the symphony’s three movements. He wanted his work to be heard as three independent laments, and not really like a symphony at all.

The famous words of the second movement were found on the wall of a Gestapo prison at Zakopane in southern Poland. The words used in the two other movements also had their origin in poems that touched, not on the horrors of war or the Holocaust, but on mothers’ grief for the loss of a son, probably in the Silesian Uprisings in 1919-21, and for the third movement, words from a folk song in which Mary speaks to Jesus dying on the cross.

Reading about the reactions to its original performances in the late 70s and even after the huge success of the famous Dawn Upshaw recording in 1991, the critical nastiness that was uttered comes as a surprise now, when devotion to the sterility of the avant-garde, dissonance, and serialism has largely disappeared. I recall the anger vented on some of the reviews I wrote at that time, unappreciative as I was of the slavishly disagreeable music composition students were expected to write then.

Gorecki himself had rejected the dictates of the avant-garde Inquisition; and it’s almost a surprise to observe how, in many ways there’s been  a return to the idea that music needs to engage audiences.

There’s much to be fascinated and moved by in the work: first, though the orchestra is quite large, with quadruple flutes, clarinets and bassoons, horns and trombones the range of instruments is limited: no oboes or trumpets, no timpani or percussion. Each string section is in two parts and often operate separately. One’s attention is drawn to that at the beginning as the first almost inaudible sound is from the double basses, taking about 15 minutes to move through all the strings and a sequence of keys each in a different mode. That sequence was followed in reverse before the soprano entered.

Racha Rizk is a Syrian with an attractive, ethereal soprano voice, that was beautifully suited to the lamenting quality of Gorecki’s music which in turn reflected the emotions of each of the verses.

She sang in a sort of isolation from the front of the balconies nearest the stage: first on the right, then on the left, and for the third movement, from a high, obscure platform in the middle of the black curtain that covered the entire wall behind the orchestra. That separation of voice from the orchestra meant that the balance between the two varied with each movement and according to ones’ seat in the auditorium. That is no criticism: merely an observation.

What might have been a bother for some was the array of fluorescent tubes suspended above the front and rear of the stage which probably affected the visibility of the stage for those in the centre of the balcony.

I was interested to read about Rizk’s background: Syrian classical music performers do not flood the concert halls and opera houses. The programme note included this (to me) interesting item:

After her exile in France due to the war in Syria, Racha is continuing her concerts in Europe with orchestras including the Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra and ORNINA Orchestra, performing Syrian symphonic compositions in concert halls including the Berliner Konzerthaus, Bremen’s Die Glucke, Berlin Philharmonie and Athens Megaron.

In the hands of Kristjan Järvi the orchestra was electrifying in the extraordinarily restrained and spiritual passages (and there are really no other kinds of music in it). There’s a full hour of music, and it cast a spell over the audience, so that at the end when the entire back wall turned into a vivid cascade, the audience remained subdued.

The audience, uncertain about the end, clapped before the water ceased to flow and the lights came up, breaking off as they sensed that it was emotionally unfinished. So they clapped again when the real ending was signalled and the conductor rested his baton.


Appendix 1

Lemi Ponifasio / ‘MAU Jerusalem Inside Us’

From the programme booklet for the Jerusalem concert on the following evening, which was more complete than the notes for Chosen and Beloved.

Lemi Ponifasio founded MAU in 1995 working with diverse cultures and communities around the world. His collaborators are people from all walks of life, performing in factories, remote villages, opera houses, schools, marae, castles, galleries and stadiums. Mau is the Samoan word meaning the declaration of the truth.

Lemi Ponifasio is acclaimed internationally for his radical work as a choreographer, stage director and designer, and for his collaborations with many communities.

The projects have included fully staged operas, theatre, dance, exhibitions, community forums and festivals in more than 30 countries.

He has presented his creations with MAU in many places including Festival d’Avignon, Lincoln Center New York, BAM New York, Ruhrtriennale, LIFT Festival London, Edinburgh International Festival, Theater der Welt, Festival de Marseille, Theatre de la Ville Paris, Onassis Cultural Centre Athens, Holland Festival, Luminato Festival Toronto, Vienna Festival, Santiago a Mil Chile, the Venice Biennale and in the Pacific region.

His recent works include Love To Death (2020) with MAU Mapuche, Santiago Chile; KANAKA (2019) with Theatre Du Kanaky, New Caledonia; Mausina with MAU Wāhine for 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand (2018) and Standing In Time (2017) with MAU Wāhine; Die Gabe Der Kinder (2017) with children and community of Hamburg; Ceremony of Memories (2016 and 2017) with MAU Mapuche of Chile; Recompose (2016) with MAU Wāhine and Syrian women for Festival Herrenhausen, Hanover; Lagimoana Installation (2015) for the Venice Biennale 56th Visual Arts Exhibition; Apocalypsis, Toronto (2015); I AM: Mapuche, Chile (2015) and I AM for the 100th Anniversary of WW1 (2014), which premiered at Festival d’Avignon.

Other major international performance tours by Lemi Ponifasio and MAU include The Crimson House (2014), Stones In Her Mouth (2013), the opera Prometheus by Carl Orff (2012), Le Savali: Berlin (2011), Birds With Skymirrors (2010), Tempest: Without A Body (2008), Requiem (2006) and Paradise (2005).


Appendix 2

From The New Zealand Herald

From an interview with Lemi Ponifasio before the performance at the New Zealand International Arts Festival in 2012

Birds With Skymirrors …..

“Some people think I am God, some people think I am the devil,” says choreographer Lemi Ponifasio, whose Birds With Skymirrors will cast his usual controversial spell, this time over Wellington’s St James Theatre for two nights of the New Zealand International Arts Festival.

Ponifasio and his dance theatre company Mau – which he prefers to speak of in terms of “community”, just as he repels the label of “performance” for his work – are far more feted in Europe than in New Zealand. Mau is a regular highlight of all the great arts festivals, biennales, triennales and “festspieles” of Europe, but it will be his first time at the New Zealand festival.

“Well, well,” he says, with the sly, characteristic smile than might mean amusement, cynicism – or pain.

The title Birds With Skymirrors was inspired by the apocalyptic sight of frigate birds flying over the ocean off Tarawa Island, in the Pacific, carrying glittering pieces of black plastic waste in their beaks, the ripped plastic looking like liquid mirrors.

The momentous issue of climate change, and the global discussions and negotiations about the future of the planet, were already on Ponifasio’s mind, and a subject he wanted to work with. “The frigate birds provided the symbolic image,” he says. “Birds have long been attached to our desire to be free.”

The resulting work, a powerful reflection on our connection with our environment, expressed through dance, poetry, ceremony, chant and oratory, premiered in Europe in 2010.

Formerly based at the Corban Estate in West Auckland, where he also regularly held the extraordinary Mau Forums, Ponifasio declares himself a failure in that he no longer has a home in New Zealand, the Pacific heart-spring and source of inspiration for all he does. “I have had to go international to survive,” he says.

Ponifasio is back in New Zealand briefly, between extensive European engagements, to find a new base, probably in South Auckland. The constant travelling between New Zealand and Europe is difficult for his immediate family and for his Mau family. And expensive.

“I am working on it, it will come,” he says. “The nature of current work in New Zealand has been that of a production line that I don’t fit. Europe has a bigger capacity to take on something provocative, something more than just arts and crafts and the entertainment industry.”

Born and raised in Samoa until he was 15, he came to New Zealand to complete his formal education, living in a Catholic priory until he was 21. But it is the experience of living in the natural world far more than human-made cultures and religious ideologies that inform Ponifasio’s unique voice. It is a voice that reflects the primal drama of the rhythms of the earth, the cycles of light and dark, life and death, rain and sun, the moon, the cosmos and mankind’s vulnerability, struggles, rituals, strange ceremonies and surrender within.

“To negotiate this exchange in life, Samoan parents tell their children the most important motto: to teu le va – to tender the space, to reverence the space, to be the space, to beautify the space, to embellish the space,” he says. “This is relational space, consciousness, a cosmological relationship with all existence. We call this ‘va’.”

Mau Forum 2010 took place at Schloss Charlottenberg, a historic palace in Berlin, and illustrates Ponifasio’s va in action.

“Not long ago, not far from this place, the people of Berlin exhibited Samoan people, like animals, in their zoo,” Ponifasio said on that occasion, “and not long ago, the people of Berlin came all the way down to Samoa and dominated and colonised the Samoan people.

“So it is very important that today we welcome and host the people of Berlin with respect, ceremony, theatre and art and share a meal, to allow for the clearing of space and the harmonising of spirit – so the work can begin.”

Ponifasio aims, he says, for “transformation”, which is equal parts prayer and political activism.

His work Tempest: Without a Body featured New Zealand’s own “face of terror” Tama Iti and terrorist suspect (since exonerated) Ahmed Zaoui.

“I make work for those who love this kind of work,” he says, “and for those who don’t like it, it is something to talk about. Art is not enough. I don’t want to make myself an artist. It has to be the path of love, the path of activism and its origins have to be in the community.”

Mau’s most recent work, Le Savali: Berlin, prompted French newspaper Le Figaro to propose Lemi Ponifasio as “the new miracle” on the choreographic landscape.

Ponifasio returns to Germany this year to produce his first opera, Carl Orff’s Prometheus, for the Ruhr Triennial 2012.


“Cello for Africa” at Porirua City a spectacular and moving multi-cultural collaborative event

The Sinfonia for Hope presents:
CELLO FOR AFRICA – a multi-institutional and multi-cultural collaboration
Director – Donald Maurice

Performing Individuals and Groups:
Te Kura Māori o Porirua (kapa haka and waiata)
Inbal Megiddo, Rolf Gjelsten, Jane Young (cellos) Stringendo (director: Donald Maurice)
Linkwood Guitar Duo (Jane Curry and Owen Moriarty)
Sam Manzana (Congo drum)
Virtuoso Strings (directors – Craig Utting and Elizabeth Sneyd)
Cellophonia (director – Inbal Meggido)
Amalia Hall (violin), Tinashe Chidanyika and Sarah Hoskyns (mbira)
Ruby Solly (taonga puoro), Hannah Neman (percussion)
Lyrica Choir, Kelburn Normal School (director – Nicola Holt)
Sinfonia for Hope  (conductor: Hans Huyssen)
Heleen du Plessis (‘cello)

Music by Antonio Vivaldi, Jack Body, Craig Utting, Anthony Ritchie, Hans Huyssen

Guest Speakers:
Dr.Taku Parai (Chairman, Kaumātua, Ngāti Toa)
Her Worship Anita Baker, Mayor of Porirua
Associate Professor Hon. Luamanuvao Dame Winnie Laban
Professor Sunny Collings, Dean and Head of Wellington Campus, University of Otago
Professor Donald Maurice, director of Sinfonia for Hope

Te Rauparaha Arena, Porirua City

Sunday, 24th November, 2019

“Cello for Africa” was, in the words of co-organisers Heleen du Plessis and Donald Maurice, an event designed “to bring people from different cultures together using music, and specifically, ‘cellos, to help create a platform for cultural interaction and human connection in support of causes in Africa”. The concert’s specific target was to raise funds for a school established in Nairobi five years ago, the Tamariki Education Centre, by New Zealander Denise Carnihan (who was present at the concert).

The event brought together four youth performance groups augmented by a goodly number of professional performers to perform, among other things, at least one world and one New Zealand performance premiere (not a Venn diagram in words – I meant TWO separate pieces!). New Zealand composer Anthony Ritchie contributed the world “first” with his piece “Kia Kaha Tamariki”, and South African composer Hans Huyssen the New Zealand premiere of his “Concerto for an African ‘Cellist”. There was a Vivaldi concerto for two ’cellos, a work for two guitars by Jack Body, and a piece for strings called “Goodnight Kiwi” by Craig Utting. And extending the diversity of the occasion were various haka and waiata performed by Te Kura Māori o Porirua Kapa Haka, a colourful sequence of Congo drumming by master percussionist Sam Manzanza, and a bracket of songs performed by Kelburn Normal School’s Lyrica Choir, directed by Nicola Holt.

We were welcomed at the outset by Dr Taku Parai, the Ngāti Toa Chairman and Kaumātua, accompanied by Ranei Parai and the splendid Te Kura Māori o Porirua Kapa Haka group. I was struck by the similarities in places between the sound of the Maori chant and some of the Gregorian chant I’d heard, with similar nuances and impulses in places, and underlined by the plangency of the young women’s tones – by contrast the haka passages were incisive and striking for different reasons! After the group had moved off to the side in the time-honoured manner, the Mayor of Porirua, Her Worship Anita Baker spoke to us, most impressively, drawing resonant parallels between Ntairobi in Kenya, and Porirua, here in New Zealand, and welcoming our support for the “Cello in Africa” venture. At this point I felt it would have been good for the event to have had a properly-appointed MC, merely to provide a kind of ongoing flow during the transitions between the numbers – the members of the Stringendo group simply “appeared” with the continuo ‘celllist, Jane Young, after whom came the two soloists for the next item, ‘cellists Inbal Megiddo and Rolf Gjelsten, together with conductor, Donald Maurice.

The two soloists began the work vigorously and adroitly, Megiddo taking the more assertive lead with Gjelsten seeming somewhat “laid back” of projection in reply, both in this way most effectively “terracing” the exchanges, while Jane Young’s continuo kept a watching brief over the exchanges. The tutti passages had great effect, with the extra weight of numbers producing a real “What does the crowd think?” kind of response in the sound’s impact – I’m certain the spontaneous applause at the first movement’s end would have underlined for the players our enjoyment. The slow movement featured the soloists and continuo only, the players again differentiating their lines via a fetching minor-key melody, with Megiddo’s sumptuous tones stimulating a thoughtful, more circumspect response from her companion. Some of the younger players weren’t expecting or had forgotten about a repeat in the music, as several moved to make a grand tutti entry at one point, but lowered their bows again when the music turned on its tracks and repeated a second-half section – very sweet! The younger players got their chance at the “true” beginning of the finale, playing the repeated theme as the soloists overlaid the  music with decorative passages, then intensifying the repetitions with a couple of modulations – all sounding very daring on their part, and garnering considerable applause at the end!

Next was a transcription for two guitars by Jack Body, made from recordings of the Madagascan “vahila”, a kind of “zither” made from a bamboo tube, and regarded by many as the country’s “national” musical instrument. A tumbling, rhythmically teasing piece called “Ramandriana”, it kept shifting its emphasis and thus varying its gait, the players, Jane Curry and Owen Moriarty, finding a wealth of variation of tone and timbre, which would have stemmed from the original instrument recording. (The duo should, I think, have been at least introduced to the audience as “The Linkwood Guitar Duo”, but, again, there was no “MC”.There were names and  information in the programme to be sure, but again, a welcoming voice would have, I think, made a more easeful difference.

We were delighted to welcome Sam Manzanza, the Congloese drummer, resident in New Zealand since the 1980s, where he’s been popularising traditional African music for a number of years with his AfroBeat Band – here he was performing solo with a single drum, and producing an amazing variety of sounds , accompanying his rhythmic patternings with various chants, and encouraging audience participation most successfully! Continuing on an African “wave”, we responded warmly to the next speaker, Associate Professor Hon. Luamanuvao Dame Winnie Laban’s congratulations to South Africa for winning the World Rugby Cup! Her acknowledgement of the work of the organisers of this evening’s concert also elicited an enthusiastic response, as did her confirmation of the Te Ata Festival Project for 2020.

Composer, and co-director of Virtuoso Strings, Craig Utting introduced his ensemble in preparation for the nest item, a version of TV NZ’s famous shutting-down-transmission piece, “Goodnight Kiwi”. Accompanied by the lowering of lights for the music’s beginning, the piece established an all-energies-spent feeling, the string figurations drowsy and  droopy at the phrase-ends, the fragments of one phrase answering another across the vistas created by the ensemble standing in a wide half-circle to perform. The music suddenly energised into angular waltz-like movement, the rhythms and themes lazily dovetailing, its bitter-sweet ambience underlined by a “wilting” kind of inclination, until finally a driving, toccatalike 7/4 rhythm awoke a voice singing the famous Hine e hine words, with heartfelt feeling – the singer beautifully maintained her line and steadiness of tone , right until darkness overtook the music and the players on the stage………

After an interval, and a welcome and brief address from the Dean and Head of Otago University’s Wellington Campus, Professor Sunny Collings, we were treated to composer Anthony Ritchie’s Kia Kaha Tamariki, a musical tribute to the Kenyan School whose founding five years ago in Nairobi has changed the lives of so many African children. The work (a world premiere) was performed here by Cellophonia (40+ cellists!) along with violinist Amalia Hall, cellist Inbal Megiddo, mbira players Tinashe Chidanyika and Sarah Hoskyns, taonga puoro player Ruby Solly, and percussionist Hannah Neman.

Ritchie’s work emphasised the ideas of exchange and accessibility of different musical sounds – a pity the orchestral “platform” was so far away from its audience, across the vistas of what was another performing-space, as it reduced the visceral effects of the more exotic instruments, such as a view of “how they were being played” (the Huyssen Concerto which concluded the evening had a similar kind of “removed” aspect to it – we were, indeed, in the same “space” as the performers, but arguably with too much “air” between us all!). Still, the sounds made an impact, and the conventional and exotic instruments created wholly unique worlds,  even if I felt the music sounded more “Caribbean” than African (ethnomusicologists may well apply to have my travel visas revoked upon reading that statement, though it’s just my (admittedly uninformed) opinion!).

Moments of “Elgarian-sounding” string-writing for the ‘cellos rubbed shoulders with more exotic rhythms and timbres as the non-string-players took up their instruments, the whole given an additional ambient context by Ruby Solly’s taonga puoro sounds. After a colourful sequence featuring the more exotic instruments alone, the drums intensified the rhythms and the cellos intoned an eminently singable/danceable melody, immediately suggesting a ready response in kind from listeners – the work was rounded off by a brief irruption of percussive impulse and gesture – altogether a direct and approachable tribute to a worthwhile cause.

There were hurryings and scurryings from certain people in preparation for the next item, the outcome seeming a little Houdini-esque as it turned out, with everybody’s attention focused on a completely different entrance to that through which the members of Lyrica (Kelburn Normal School Choir) and its director, Nicola Holt, finally appeared! – the group sang three songs bringing out poignancies and sweet colourings in the first two and plenty of rhythmic energy in the third, all accompanied on an electric piano most adroitly played by Nicole Chao, though I thought the second song, a lullaby could have just as effectively been performed voices-only. The choir recently took part in the Orpheus Choir of Wellington’s performance of Orff’s Carmina Burana, which I attended, and remember enjoying the children’s singing a great deal.

I wondered whether programming a fully-fledged three movement instrumental concerto at the end of a tumultuous evening was the best course, as the attrition rate among the audience was certainly noticeable at that stage, despite people’s best efforts – still, the work was meant to be symbolic of a fusion of voices and languages and cultures, and therefore judiciously placed at the concert’s climax. It represented a herculean effort of technique, emotion and crossover sensibility on the part of the solo cellist, Heleen du Plessis, who gave what sounded like a totally committed performance, from the “Partida”, or exploratory opening movement in which she enabled her instrument to “speak its language”, through the exchanges with other instruments over the second and third sections (the latter movement including a vocalised section from mbira-player Tinashe Chidanyika), and into the final Mapfachapfacha (in the Zezuru language, “a sudden arrival of many”), which sounded like a celebration of the coming together of diverse voices.

Composer Hans Huyssen’s use of non-standardised instruments (and the human voice) as constituent parts of such a formalised composition as a “concerto” has plenty of precedent in Western music, as witness, for example, the various instances of use of such things in the Mahler symphonies. And there were precedents of all kinds for the use of voices in such works as well, from Beethoven onwards, giving the words intoned by the orchestra players at the end of this work, referring to the music’s journey in search of a commonality amid the diversity, and its discovery within, their own unique resonances – the whole occasion generated so much warm feeling it was difficult to be analytical or judgemental regarding what we had heard! Its task, as far as I could discern from everybody’s response at the evening’s conclusion, was completed most successfully.










Martinborough Music Festival; Saturday evening of songs and Schubert String Quintet

Martinborough Music Festival
Between Darkness and Light

Jenny Wollerman – soprano, Michael Houstoun – piano, Vesa-Matti Leppänen – violin, Wilma Smith – violin, Christopher Moore – viola, Ken Ichinose – cello, Matthias Balzat – cello

BRITTEN: ‘Not even summer yet’
DEBUSSY: Two songs from Ariettes Oubliées
RACHMANINOV: Lilacs Op 21/5
FAURÉ: Mandoline Op 58/1
PROKOFIEV: Two songs from Op 27 on poems by Anna Akhmatova
PROKOFIEV: Prelude Op 12/7
BARBER: ‘O Boundless, Boundless Evening’ Op 45/3
FAURÉ: ‘Clair de Lune’ Op 46/2
DEBUSSY: ‘Recueillement’
FAURÉ: ‘En Sourdine’
RACHMANINOV: ‘In my Garden at Night’ op 38/1
SCHUBERT: String Quintet in C major

Martinborough Town Hall

Saturday 28 September, 7:30 pm

(This review from Charlotte Wilson arose as a result of my being unable to attend the third and fourth concerts: Festival chairman Ed Allen told me that he’d mentioned the matter to Charlotte; she offered to help and I welcomed her readiness to fill the gap between my review of the Friday concert and Steven Sedley’s covering the two afternoon concerts: Middle C is delighted to publish her sparkling review. L.T.)  

This is my first encounter with the Martinborough Music Festival. I leapt in my car up from Wellington to catch the last available seat for the Saturday evening concert and I’m so glad I did. People were there from all over: Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington, Auckland. Note: I am not a music critic. I just talk on the radio. But I do love music. They give me a pen to make notes and I sit down.

The first thing you notice is how lovely the hall and the acoustic is: after three years, their first year in this beautiful, brand new renovated town hall, which has been strengthened and polished and expanded (lovely new library) to a point. Three cheers for the council. The mayor was there and spoke at the after-party.

They set the stage side-ways for this occasion; makes sense I suppose: wide point of view, everyone in the audience is close. And what a lucky audience we were! Even disregarding the songs which were of themselves exquisite, and I’m sure it’s Michael Houstoun’s appearance here (his last concert in Martinborough, and since he announced his retirement one of his last concerts ever) that contributed to the full house. But more – this is the greatest Schubert C major quintet I have ever heard, and one that I am going to remember for the rest of my life.

Jenny Wollerman: French and Russian songs 
The first half of the programme consisted of Jenny Wollerman and Michael Houstoun performing excerpts, for spring, of their celebrated disc of songs Between Darkness and Light (Rattle) – mainly French and Russian art song, settings of Verlaine and Baudelaire, which they augmented for this concert with some Britten and Barber, Rachmaninov, more Fauré and Debussy – a sensual, impressionistic little cycle traversing the course of an early summer day.

Britten’s ’Not even summer yet’ opened. You’re immediately aware of the lovely acoustic, and Jenny’s spectacular power and control. Other highlights:  Prokofiev’s sunlit settings of Anna Akhmatova, Op 27, those wonderful Russian dance accents that crop up, thrilling: the gorgeous harmonies of Debussy’s ‘Recueillement’ and famous ‘Ariettes Oubliées’ (Verlaine), the singer and pianist so totally inhabiting the words and the music, Jenny’s perfect French. How beautiful Verlaine is, you forget. Lovely to have the song texts printed out. And why do we not hear Fauré’s songs more often? ‘Clair de Lune’, ‘En Sourdine’, both so exquisitely muted in this lovely acoustic, ‘Mandoline’ which conjures up a painting by Watteau, classical figures dancing. It was all like being transported to a fin-de-siècle gallery in Paris, or to a picnic on a river-bank with poplars rustling in the spring. Rachmaninov’s famous ‘Lilacs’ was so shimmering, you think of those little paintings by Vuillard.

Jenny’s in fabulous voice. Dramatic and powerful when needed, expressive and pianissimo when needed, she’s such a wonderful lieder singer with superb control and this lovely depth, even in the high notes. And need I mention the accompaniment? Perfection. Michael’s a master accompanist and a master impressionist, exquisite at this repertoire. We got Prokofiev’s ‘Harp’ prelude in the middle, too, as a treat. I hadn’t heard them perform these live, and they were all that the recording is and so much more: shimmering and splendid, sensual, ravishing songs from a duo that understood and inhabited them completely.

String Quintet in C Major
And then the highlight of the evening. One of the musical events of my life! Schubert’s C major quintet has always been everybody’s favourite. That slow movement. And the whole thing of it being his last work; completed only two months before he died; he tried to get it published but his block-head publishers had already written him off as just as song composer and besides, wanted pretty salon piano pieces, not anything near so important or sublime, the most profound work of the nineteenth century.

Michael and Jenny have exited, are now sitting in the audience, and we have on stage four string (or former string) principals – Vesa-Matti Leppänen, Wilma Smith, Christopher Moore from the Melbourne SO (astonishing viola) and Ken Ichinose Associate principal NZSO. Plus Matthias Balzat, back from the middle of his master’s study in Germany, playing first cello. They’re all brilliant soloists in their own right. Never heard such perfect intonation. But also they’re all dead keen chamber musicians – there’s Matthias watching Vesa-Matti like a hawk – and that meant perfect attacks, perfect Schubertian unisons, gorgeous duets like the one between the violin and cello in the second movement, perfect arpeggios tossed up and down from violin to cello the way that Schubert loves doing, changes totally imperceptible to the ear. Dynamics, perfectly judged. Utterly sense-making tempos, dancing where it dances, with a lovely Viennese lilt. Quite fast in the slow movement. And above all – because of course there was all the beauty and pathos of Schubert: the divine melodies, the exquisite textures (that pizzicato!), the extraordinary wandering as he does (sleepwalking as Brendel puts it) up and down through the keys. There was the urgent seat-of-your-pants-ness of a live performance which nothing can match. But there was also something else – the grit that is Schubert, the muscularity, the little surprises. I loved hearing this. Through the whole performance you just had this sense of one overarching conception underpinning everything and I would not have been so very totally surprised to see him sitting there with us in the room.

Can’t wait for next year now. What a performance, what a programme! New Zealand has a new, top-notch chamber music festival! Massive kudos to Ed Allen, the chair, and the whole of the organising committee. Martinborough, celebrate.


Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson; the second installment, of Monday and Tuesday reviews

Part II of Middle C’s coverage of the Festival

From Monday 4 Feb to Tuesday 5, evening

Mozart on the organ, by Douglas Mews

Mozart: Suite in C, K 399
Variations on ‘Ah vous dirai-je Maman’, K 265
Eine kleine Gigue in G K 574
Andante in F, K 616
Fantasy and Fugue in C, K 394
Rondo alla Turka, from sonata, K 331

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts

Monday 4 February, 10 am

Perhaps the decision to celebrate the restoration of the organ in the Nelson School of Music took a slightly eccentric course, by programming some pieces by Mozart. For while Mozart is known to have enjoyed playing, especially improvising on, organs wherever he encountered them, he wrote scarcely anything specifically for the organ.

The Andante in F, K 616, written a short time before he died, is the only music that he wrote for the organ and that was for a mechanical organ or ‘musical clock’. All the other pieces that Mews played were arrangements that were felt to have some connection or relationship with the sort of music that might have suited the organ.

Douglas Mews began by speaking interestingly about his approach to Mozart and his tenuous relationship with the organ.

The Suite in C was one of the few Mozart pieces, this one for keyboard, that was modelled on the Baroque suite; it’s referred to as ‘in the style of Handel’ in some references. It consists of three movements: Overture, Allemande and Courante and there is evidence that he would have added further movements of the kind that were common in the baroque suite, such as Bach used for the orchestral, cello and violin suites:  Sarabande, Minuet, Gigue, and perhaps a Passepied, Bourée, Badinerie or Réjouissance.

But then Mews said that for time reasons, he would play only the Overture of the Suite. The overture was not very long and it did seem curious that he refrained from playing the other two movements which together are only a little longer.  He used strongly contrasted registrations for the Overture, and I was particularly struck by the timbre of one of the lower register stops which was unusually dense: I’d call it nasal; in fact, the sounds seemed almost too varied. Nevertheless, it was clear that Mozart had absorbed the style and spirit of the composers of two generations before him. It could certainly have passed for Handel, if not Bach… with a perfectly good fugue that took over after a couple of minutes.

Ah, vous dirai-je Maman
Mews chose fairly light registrations for Mozart’s familiar theme and variations on what we know as ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star’. Each variation has a distinct character and there was plenty of bravura that didn’t sound quite as convincing on the organ as on the piano (my first encounter with it was aged about 16, at a recital by the (very) late Richard Farrell in the Wellington Town Hall). As long as I don’t hear it every day, it remains an engaging work, even on the organ.

Mews introduced Eine kleine Gigue with a story that I didn’t entirely catch, about a small girl and a visitor’s book in the Thomas Kirche in Leipzig. So I looked at Wikipedia and found this:

Kleine Gigue in G major, K 574, is a composition for solo piano by  Mozart during his stay in Leipzig. It is dated 16 May 1789, the day before he left Leipzig. It was directly written into the notebook of Leipzig court organist Karl Immanuel Engel. It is often cited as a tribute by Mozart to J S Bach, although many scholars have likened it to Handel’s Gigue from the Suite No. 8 in F minor, HWV 433. In fact, the subject of the gigue bears a marked similarity to the subject of J S Bach’s B minor fugue, no 24 from Book 1 of Das wohltemperierte Klavier.”

The sounds of the organ’s action were audible during the Gigue and, having become alerted to it, I could hear the sounds later; not a troublesome matter in the least.

The Andante in F, the genuine mechanical organ piece, sounded like what was intended – basically a toy, and there’s a letter to his wife Constanza saying how its composition bored him. Even if Mozart knew it hardly did him credit the rest of us probably enjoyed its few harmless minutes, especially as Mews played it, in a lively, unserious way.

The Fantasia and Fugue was also written for the piano but Mews’s note suggests that it might best reflect Mozart’s style of organ improvisation. Widely spaced rising arpeggios on sharply contrasted stops in the Fantasy, with deliberate, emphatic playing that I felt probably did sound better on the organ than the piano. Though if it was in the nature of an improvisation, it sounded rather too studied. The Fugue clearly demonstrated Mozart’s wide-ranging genius, in a serious and well thought-out work inspired by Bach, and Mews’s imaginative registrations kept one alert through its monochrome, unchanging key.

Alla Turca
Finally, perhaps very tenuously, he chose the Alla Turca from the Sonata in A, K 331; a send-up of a send-up perhaps, Mews simply played it, I suspect, so that he’d be able to employ a wide and surprising range of stops, and on that level it was a fun ending to the recital.


Wilma and Friends

Wilma Smith – violin, Anna Pokorny – cello, Ian Munro – piano

Gareth Farr: Mondo Rondo
Ian Munro: Tales from Old Russia
Françaix: Trio for violin, cello and piano

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts

Monday 4 February, 2 pm

An hour-long recital from Wilma Smith and her two friends took place in the afternoon. Wilma was the founding leader of the New Zealand String Quartet, though she later became concertmaster of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and then of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra has never lost contact with New Zealand and her former colleagues. Her two friends here were Australians: Anna Pokorny is a versatile young cellist who has won awards in several important competitions, played in leading Australian orchestras and with various chamber ensembles. Pianist Ian Munro has enjoyed a long and distinguished career. His compositions have been played by eminent ensembles such as the Eggner Trio and the Brentano Quartet, as well as the Goldner Quartet with Munro himself as soloist.

And here was the trio’s playing of Munro’s Tales from Old Russia, inspired by some of the tales collected by Russian folklorist Alexander Afanasiev. The composer’s notes mention three but there may have been more: Fair Vassilisa, The Snow Maiden and Death and the Soldier. The Snow Maiden was the first, with fluttering imagery, interrupted by noisy galloping before a return to quietness. Death and the Soldier involved tapping the lowered lid of the keyboard, and ended in a waltz-like rhythm.

Though I found the first two pieces rather longer than seemed useful, I felt by the end that they created a kind of dramatic coherence.

Mondo Rondo
Gareth Farr’s Mondo Rondo which has become one of the more familiar pieces by New Zealand composers opened the recital. This too involved the pianist in what are called ‘extended piano techniques’ in the second movement, evocatively called Mumbo Jumbo (the last movement is Mambo Rambo). Though one might be excused for thinking that Farr’s often quizzical titles reflect music that is less than serious, the reality is generally very different, and I suspect that his aim is to induce an expectation of drollerie or comedy in order to induce unlettered audiences to expect to be amused; they generally are, but not in the way they expected. There are indeed a lot of unusual techniques, but in comparison with some music that finds it useful to use instruments in unorthodox ways, Farr’s piece creates a feeling of sense, with music that has come from the imagination rather than from some concept or experimental intention.

Françaix piano trio
The last piece returned us to the European heartland, though now truly in music whose aim was to amuse as well as to stimulate a musical response. The mere fact that it’s in four movements suggests that Françaix didn’t intend that his music was to be heard as light or trivial; rather that it was legitimate for music to amuse as well as to call for some degree of listener attention. The programme note remarks that while his music seems simple, in reality it is full of unexpected chromaticism and interesting details. My first awareness of Françaix was with his arrangement of Boccherini’s music for the ballet, Scuolo di ballo, an often played suite on 2YC, the predecessor of RNZ Concert many years ago.

And this performance met those expectations very well.


Bach by Candlelight

Oboe sonata in G minor, BWV 1030b
Violin Partita No 1 n B minor, BWV 1002
Arias from Cantatas 21 ‘Seufzer Tränen’, 84 ‘Ich esse mit Freuden’, 187, ‘Gott versorget’, 202 (Wedding Cantata)
Sarabande from the 5th cello suite (BWV
Brandenburg Concerto no 3 in G minor, BWV 1048

The New Zealand String Quartet, Thomas Hutchinson – oboe, Anthony Marwood, Nikki Chooi and Wilma Smith – violins; Ori Kam – viola and Kyril Zlotnikov – cello, from the Jerusalem Quartet; Anna Pokony – cello, Douglas Mews – harpsichord, Joan Perarnau Garriga – double bass

Nelson Cathedral

Monday 4 February, 7:30 pm

Central to the festival has always been a concert in the Cathedral entitled Bach by Candlelight. Though the School of Music is back in business, the Cathedral concert could not be forsaken. Like all the other evening concerts, the Cathedral was sold out, with customers squeezed into every crevice, and all the traditional shortcomings were suffered and enjoyed: mainly, the lack of cool air, obviously not a matter that the designers and builders of this neo-Gothic edifice, used to English climatic pleasures, could be expected to contemplate. The usual safety warning was delivered in a singularly irreverent and amusing manner by Festival director Bob Bickerton.

The tradition is to employ as many as possible of the musicians currently in town. That included the New Zealand String Quartet, violist and cellist from the Jerusalem Quartet, Wilma Smith and her cellist friend Anna Pokorny, Douglas Mews and bass player Joan Perarnau Garriga, brilliant violinists Anthony Marwood and Nikki Chooi, oboist Thomas Hutchinson and soprano Anna Fraser. It’s also normal to play a range of solo pieces, small chamber music pieces, some vocal items, usually from the 200-odd cantatas, and one larger work, such as a Brandenburg Concerto or an orchestral suite.

Oboe sonata
The young oboist Thomas Hutchinson and harpsichordist Douglas Mews opened with a sonata with a solo part that’s not specified: it’s thought to be an earlier version of the first flute sonata, BWV 1030, and while it might also be for flute, the oboe is a possibility; so it’s given the BWV number 1030b. Hutchinson’s oboe here sounded a world away from the sound he created for the Dorati pieces that he played on Saturday evening. Discreet and detached in articulation, and cast mainly in the oboe’s high register, his playing was admirably supported by the harpsichord (the lid of which featured a gorgeous painting of the island at the end of the Boulder Bank). This was a most elegant performance, fluent and often impressing with Hutchinson’s long sustained breaths that were often demanded.

Violin Partita No 1
The second solo violin partita is more often played on account of the great Sarabande with which it ends; so it was good to hear Anthony Marwood play this one which is characterised by the varied repeat of each of the four ‘dance’ movements, which amount to a faster and more varied account of the movement. It means the partita has, in effect, nine ‘movements’; the ‘Double’ of the Courante was particularly brilliant. It would have been useful if I’d had the score with me as I’m not very familiar with it. Marwood’s playing was spectacular as well as having the flavour of the baroque style as might have been delivered by one of the brilliant violinists of Bach’s time.

Then came a couple of arias from the church cantatas: No 187, ‘Gott versorget’ and No 21, Seufzer, Tränen’.  An Australian soprano took the vocal parts. Though the initial impression of the first aria was of a large and voluminous voice, it soon struck me that those qualities, in her upper register, were somewhat unvaried, markedly distinct from the character of the lower voice, and it scarcely reflected the humility that seems expressed in the words. However, the accompaniment by oboe, cello and harpsichord was admirable. The oboe again offered the essential support in the long lines of the aria from No 21.

A break in the vocal pieces came with Rolf Gjelsten’s modest playing of the Sarabande from the 5th solo cello suite: slow, careful and unostentatious.

Anna Fraser returned to sing the aria ‘Ich esse mit Freuden mein weniges Brot’, again with oboe, Chooi’s violin, cello and harpsichord. The large, bright character of Fraser’s voice was more appropriate here, with the aria’s brisk tempo and the repetition of the word ‘Freude’, in joyous triple time.

The vocal line of the Wedding Cantata was supported by a larger body of instrumentalists, including two violins and Joan Perarnau Garriga on the double bass as well as oboe, viola, cello and harpsichord. While the vocal line can support a certain amount of unrestrained joy, here a quality of unrestraint was on full throttle, with very little variety of timbre and none of dynamics.

Gjelsten’s cello had much to do, contributing sensitively to the music’s character.

Brandenburg Concerto No 3
The last item was, as usual, an orchestral work – the third Brandenburg Concerto, which is scored for three each of violins, violas and cellos, necessarily drawing players from both string quartets (Monique Lapins switching to viola), Wilma Smith and her cellist friend Anna Pokorny. For me this was the most satisfying and delightful music in the concert; its performance was simply splendid, full of energy and optimism that was vigorously expressed.


Nikki Chooi – violin

Paganini: Caprices no 17 and 21
Joan Tower: String Force
Bach: Chaconne from solo violin partita no 2 in G minor (BWV 1004)
Eugene Ysaÿe: Ballade Op 27 no 3

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts

Tuesday 5 February 2 pm

It was nice to get a couple of Paganini’s 24 caprices, without the usually compulsory No 24, though it would have been even nicer if Chooi had given us three or four of them, for they deserve to be better known. However, Chooi’s playing of these two did a good job in presenting Paganini as something more than an extraordinary violinist.

No 17 is brilliant, varied and witty, and of course it exploits all the tricks that the composer as well as this violinist commanded, though I felt that Chooi didn’t find all the subtleties and refinement that is also there. To hear a second one was useful in allowing those who’ve never heard them all to be aware of the range of Paganini’s imagination and musical taste; each is brilliant in an entirely different way.

American composer Joan Tower’s String Force seemed to be an exercise in contrasting violin techniques, comparable to but entirely different from Paganini’s aim. Flutterings, then lengthy glissandi seemingly on two strings, hair-raising bowing and harmonic effects, but I wondered, in a scribbled note whether there was much musical substance to be discovered.

That need was completely fulfilled in the playing of the great Chaconne from Bach’s second violin partita. Here, Chooi’s performance was profoundly thoughtful, scrupulously studied and paced; a performance has to demonstrate the ultimate spiritual character of the music and one of my notes had a question-mark after that remark, but it was immediately followed by my admiring the long sequence of arpeggiated lines, and the flawless (without the score), passionate way he made his way through the gloriously protracted final pages.

Most of the great instrumental practitioners of the 19th century were also quite good composers, and the Spaniard Ysaÿe passed that test. I’ve heard the Ballade from his Op 27 before, played at Sty Andrew’s on The Terrace some years ago, though I can’t recall by whom. And one wonders what the other pieces in Op 27 are like, and for that matter, the preceding 26 opus numbers. The histrionics are very conspicuous, but there’s music inside them, with a healthy emotional content, and the melodic ideas retain the listener’s attention. Chooi presented it with musical honesty as well as very conspicuous technical accomplishment.


Slavic Rhapsody

Dvořák: Slavonic Dances in E minor, Op 46/2 and in D, Op 46/6  (Dénes Várjon and Izabella Simon – pianos)
Louise Webster: The Shape of your Words  (Wilma Smith and Helene Pohl – – violins)
Bartók: Violin Sonata no 2 in C, Sz 76.BB 85  (Monique Lapins – violin and Dénes Várjon – piano)
Dvořák: Piano Quintet No 2 in A, Op 81  (Helene Pohl and Moniqe Lapins – violins, Gillian Ansell – viola, Rolf Gjelsten – cello, Dénes Várjon – piano)

Nelson Centre of Musical Arts

Tuesday 5 February, 7:30 pm

Slavic in the sense that the majority of the pieces were by Dvořák, but Bartók might have preferred a more geographical rather than ethnic definition. But certainly, the Czech composer’s music was by far the best known.

Two Slavonic Dances
As I remarked about the limited selection of Paganini Caprices, three or four of the Slavonic Dances, including a couple of less known ones would have been interesting. The delight about these however was that they were played in their original piano duet version by Dénes Várjon and his wife Izabella Simon. Four hands on a keybopard can sometimes sound very dense, but when the two are perfectly synchronised, clearly been playing together for a long time and take pains with the clarity of the various lines, the result is revelatory: No 2 was delightfully sentimental and dreamy with touches that are usually obscure in the orchestral version. No 6 in the Op 46 set is in a sort of slow triple time, though nothing like a waltz or mazurka; it was simply charming.

‘The Shape of Your Words’
The piece by Louise Webster, featured another duet: this time the violins of Wilma Smith and Helene Pohl; a curious duet beginning with falling semi-tones, soon revealing itself as a carefully dissonant piece, gently barbaric in flavour, yet somewhat hypnotic. The composer’s note simply remarked that ‘it arose in the context of recent events in which courageous individuals have spoken out about injustice of many kinds’. But one was left to guess whether she had in mind, political, artistic, social issues or issues affecting the treatment of women or ethnic minorities… However, the music’s character did indeed present a tone, an intelligence and seriousness of intent that invited one to pay attention.  The programme gave no information about Louise Webster; however, she was present and came up to take a bow at its end.

I later consulted SOUNZ’s very useful and interesting article about her and am rather shame-faced at not having come across her, and her dual citizenship, as it were, as doctor and musician, or at least to have registered her as a significant figure in New Zealand music.

Then came Bartók’s Sonata for violin and piano which was the subject of the discussion on Saturday afternoon which had involved the performers, Monique Lapins and Dénes Várjon. That introduction had given me a little familiarity with an otherwise unknown (to me) work. The first of the two movements opened with delicate glissandi, creating a sensitive, Debussyian feeling that slowly became more dense, soon shedding much suggestion of French music of the time – immediate post-WW1. The second movement becomes more dissonant, with hard-plucking pizzicato and heavy bowing, with dense chords demanded from both instruments. This was more or less my first hearing of Lapins playing such music; she appeared a formidable violinist, not shy of crunching down-bowing or of playing that could be described as masculine, handling the irregular rhythms with conviction; and her facial expressions and body language offered a vivid commentary on the music. I was reminded, in this second movement, of the sounds of Bartók’s sonata for two pianos and percussion, which came of course rather later.

Piano Quintet Op 81
Finally, the piece that most of the audience had probably been waiting for: Dvořák’s second piano quintet, in A. (Not so long ago I looked for the first piano quintet, to find that it’s a very early work, rarely played). First, one was struck by the sharp clothing adopted here by the five players, black with silvery detailing. Though the arrange of players on stage lend prominence to the strings, Várjon’s playing quickly commanded attention; but so did the playing by the strings, very possibly driven by the pianist’s energy and commitment. Each member of the quartet came to one’s attention with striking solo episodes, and the entire performance was all that the happy audience members could have hoped for. I will quote one of the thoughts that I scribbled towards the end: that even if Várjon was not the main driving force, his musical personality had the effect of releasing a remarkable level of passion and abandon in the others.


Nelson Chamber Music festival again New Zealand’s biennial musical highlight

The Adam International Chamber Music Festival (Thursday 2 to Saturday 11 February 2017)

Theatre Royal, Nelson and Nelson Cathedral

These reviews cover concerts from Tuesday 7 to Friday 10 February 2017

My visit this year to the Nelson Chamber Music Festival was shorter than in previous years, arriving late afternoon on the Tuesday and departing midday Saturday.

The highlights from abroad were the presence of Hungarian pianist Dénes Varjon, the Australian tenor, Andrew Goodwin (singing Schumann’s Dichterliebe), the Goldner Quartet and cellist Matthew Barley.

The essence of the festival rests with the New Zealand String Quartet, which founded and sustained the festival from its beginning in 1992: for many years, artistic directors Helene Pohl and Gillian Ansell. The quartet whose membership remained fixed for over 20 years, saw the retirement last year of second violinist, Doug Beilman and his replacement by Australian violinist Monique Lapins, who at this festival enjoyed solo exposure, notably in Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor.

Frequent visitors over the years have been the New Zealand Piano Trio (NZTrio) which played as a group and also played individually with a variety of other players. And the Goldner Quartet from Australia which has visited a couple of times in the past.

An old friend, clarinettist James Campbell, returned, to join in music by Brahms, Gao Ping, Schumann, Jean Françaix…    as well as several New Zealand and other contemporary pieces. Plus marimba player Ian Rosenbaum.

A central element of this festival was ‘The Cello’, involving the performance of all five of Beethoven’s cello sonatas, from five different cellists, who were joined by eight others for the cello jamboree in two concerts on Friday the 10th.

Waitangi Day has always fallen within the festival and has offered an opportunity to feature New Zealand works. This time Gillian Whitehead was present for the New Zealand premiere of her new one-voice opera Iris Dreaming.

Naturally, I was there for only some of these, from the Tuesday evening.

My first concert on Tuesday 7 February, 7:30 pm, was entitled ‘Cadenzas’. It began with the third Beethoven cello sonata (Op 69), this one from Matthew Barley accompanied by Dénes Varjon. (the Op 5 sonatas had already been played). I have never felt that the cello sonatas were among Beethoven’s real masterpieces, but Barley gave this one a sort of raw individuality that, while not speaking in unmistakably Beethovenish tones, was a study in vivid contrasts between movements and within movements, lyrical or tough-minded, rhapsodic or strictly formulated.

Pre-eminent Canadian clarinettist James Campbell has been at Nelson, perhaps twice before, and is clearly a good friend to both the New Zealand String Quartet and the festival itself. While I truly lamented missing his playing in the Brahms clarinet quintet in the final Gala performance, it was a pleasure to hear him with marimba player Ian Rosenbaum in Canadian composer Alexina Louie’s Cadenza II.

Louie is of mixed Chinese-Canadian descent and this improvisatory piece drew on those contrasting influences. Rosenbaum’s virtuosity may visually have somewhat outshone the less flamboyant character of a clarinet player, and the mingling of sounds did not especially persuade me of their natural affinity, but the vitality and exotic character of the music provided an excellent punctuation mark between two pillars at either end of the 19th century.

Brahms first piano trio, essentially a youthful piece (aged 20), is a favourite of most chamber music fans, such as me. And its performance by Varjon with New Zealand String Quartet’s Helene Pohl and Rolf Gjelsten was a huge success, rich and romantic, refined and compelling.

Wednesday the 8th began with a meet-the-artists with the Goldner Quartet in the morning – most entertaining and interesting according to those who attended.

The 2pm, hour-long Theatre Royal concert, entitled Fire in the Belly, focused on the last piece, of that name by Jack Body commissioned by the New Zealand Trio in 2008 and played by the trio here. It might be something of departure from much of Body’s music that shows the influence of the indigenous music from many parts of the world. It was perhaps a reassurance for those who might wonder whether he also succeeded in writing music in a fairly traditional form, for traditional western instruments, in an idiom that was original yet accessible; it held my attention firmly, and is worthy of its place in the piano trio literature.

The concert began however with the fourth of Beethoven’s cello sonatas (Op 102 No 1) which Rolf Gjelsten played beautifully; though in his introduction he spoke, uncharacteristically, a bit too long. His pianist was Dénes Varjon who’d accompanied the Op 69 sonata on Tuesday and the accord was again heart-warming.

It was followed by Kakakurenai, by Japanese composer Andy Akiho, for marimba, vibraphone and glockenspiel, originally for ‘prepared steel pan’, having an effect rather like Caribbean steel drums; that quality could be heard through the two keyed percussion instruments. It started interestingly but became repetitive in its rhythmic and melodic ideas, though it came comfortably to an end at the right time.

Then a piece for viola and piano, Märchenbilder (Fairytale pictures), Op 113, by Schumann; one of his last works. Though played by affectionately and persuasively by Gillian Ansell and Dénes Varjon, it rather lacked much energy and its melodic interest was routine in comparison with the enchanting inspirations of his earlier piano music and Lieder.

On Wednesday evening at 7.30pm came one of the festival’s centre-pieces – ‘Bach by Candlelight’, inevitably, in the Cathedral, with the evening sun setting through the western stained glass. The pattern has been established over the years: a mixture of arias from cantatas and some instrumental works. As usual it involved most of the string players at the festival, from the NZTrio, the New Zealand String Quartet, the Goldner Quartet and the young Nelson ‘Troubadours’, as well as Matthew Barley, NZSO bassist Joan Perarnau Garriga, Ian Rosenbaum, Douglas Mews – harpsichord and organ, and Australian tenor Andrew Goodwin.

The two orchestral works this time were the lovely violin concerto in A minor, solo by the New Zealand String Quartet’s second violinist, Monique Lapins. At the end, Brandenburg Concerto No 6 which is unusual as it uses no violins: just violas and a cello and a bass, producing a gorgeous warm sound that I really love. So that was a delight.

The four arias were sung by Australian tenor Andrew Goodwin, a smooth, beautifully nuanced voice, strong and full of character. In some previous years I have found some cantata excerpts s a bit tedious, but these four, as sung by him, were just wonderful, simply creating music that may have been religious in intent but were typically rich in musical substance, easily sustaining the rapt attention of the capacity audience in the cathedral.

The one oddball element in the concert was Bach’s fifth cello suite, C minor, arranged for marimba. Ian Rosenbaum performed it from memory, with astonishing energy and musicality, but the sound, for me, was simply not right. It performance on a stringed instrument is so embedded in my head that playing the notes on a percussion instrument, even one capable, as is the marimba, of very subtle dynamic variety, was too hard to accommodate. Furthermore, the ability to strike four keys at once created more harmonic opportunities and that too altered its character, to the point where I would have wondered, hearing it for the first time, who the composer might have been.

In the 2pm Thursday concert in the Cathedral Matthew Barley began with Bach’s first cello suite. His playing revealed a rhythmic freedom, with the tempo in the Prelude far from the strict, steady rhythms that are sometimes imposed on Bach’s music. The Allemande was painted with a soft brush while in the Courante the bow skipped lightly, never biting into the strings. But it was the Sarabande where the greatest rhythmic freedom appeared, with a surprising silence before the final note. The whole performance was infused with an appealing, organic sense that prepared the ground for the following very recent compositions.

Tavener’s Threnos for solo cello is somehow a seminal late 20th century work that uses the simplest material with utter sincerity. There are three phases that move from the deepest spiritual level through lighter realms in higher registers before returning to the first phase; beautifully played as it was, I wondered whether Barley had quite discovered its essential profundity.

Appalachia Waltz by Mark O’Connor explored another spiritual region; its waltz character is unimportant but its roots half way between the classical and folk music realms as well as its beautiful unpretentiousness have made it famous. Barley’s lovely playing of its strange, haunting quality stilled the audience.

Italian cellist and composer Giovanni Sollima’s name might not be familiar to classical audiences (though one is shamed to see the long list of compositions in his Wikipedia listing). He too spans the fields of popular and classical music and his Lamentatio is easily associated with the two earlier pieces on this programme. The ‘lamentation’ was given extra impact through the cellist’s vocalisations at certain points, and while it began in the spirit that its title suggested, it soon became a frenetic double-stopping farrago, eventually ending with racing, descending staccato arpeggios, spiced by hard spiccato bowing below the bridge.

Improvisation was a major element in Barley’s performance of the last three works. However, there were no formal markers indicating where the composed music ended and improvisation began, and it was rather a matter of guesswork for me, since I had not heard either the O’Connor or the Sollima before. Sometimes I felt a change of tone and direction; sometimes the improvisatory music seemed completely fused with what the composer had written.

The concert was both an illuminating demonstration of the art of improvisation, and a fascinating awakening to some music that proved very much worth knowing and which I have enjoyed hearing again on YouTube clips since getting home.

(As a quite irrelevant aside, after looking on the Internet after getting home, I found one of Sollima’s performance colleagues has been poet and musician Petti Smith; both have been associated with Yo-Yo-Ma’s Silk Road Project – and both O’Connor and Sollima have been associated with it. At Nelson’s interesting new boutique bookshop Volume (on Church Street) I picked up Smith’s recent autobiographical M Train).

The concert on Thursday evening, 9 February, in the Theatre Royal was one of the true high points for me: both Schumann’s Dichterliebe and Brahms’s Piano quintet, Op 34 are right at the top of my musical loves.

But the concert, entitled ‘Love Triangle’, naturally included Clara Schumann: Helene Pohl and Dénes Farjon played her Three Romance for violin and piano, Op 22. Dedicated to violinist Joseph Joachim, it consisted of three contrasted pieces that showed real compositional talent, if not truly memorable music such as her husband or Brahms created. The first, Andante molto, was a dreamy, meandering melody, and a more vigorous middle section formed by wide-spaced intervals.  that was carefully constructed and agreeable; followed by an Allegretto built around a pensive melody, with a more lively middle section. I wrote during the performance: ‘Charming little morceaux’, or I might have said ‘Bagatelles’.

I can’t resist quoting a comment in a Wikipedia reference: “Joachim continued to play the pieces on his own tours. He reported, in a letter to Clara, from the court in Hanover that the king was in ‘ecstasy’ over the Romances and could ‘hardly wait’ to enjoy such ‘marvellous, heavenly pleasure again.’ They are lovely, private pieces, conceived in one of music history’s richest households.” (Tim Summers, violinist).

Dichterliebe is a song cycle that is commonly rated alongside Schubert’s two great cycles. We’d heard Australian tenor Andrew Goodwin in the four arias from Bach cantatas on Wednesday evening and while not detracting from the rare enjoyment of those, his singing of Schumann might have been a more significant endorsement of his musical scholarship and vocal sensibility. Apart from the singing, the piano parts are even more intrinsic to Schumann’s songs than to Schubert’s. And the spirit of many of them is foreshadowed in a longish piano introduction and in a postlude that sometimes offers a commentary that elaborates or lays to rest troubled emotions in the words.

Pianist Isabella Simon, Dénes Varjon’s wife, with whom she often plays duets, has accompanied many singers in Lieder and other art song; she was here for Schumann. Her introduction to the very first song, ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai’, her personal, idiomatic approach was evident; there was often a studied waywardness, evident from the start, and which matched Goodwin’s discreet and careful handling of Heine’s words (all the poems were drawn from his highly successful collection, Buch der Lieder of 1827). Even for those not understanding the German, there was a distinction between the purely lyrical and the more narrative songs, such as ‘Aus meinen Tränen…’, or ‘Ein Jungling liebt ein Mädchen’. There were often quite long pauses to allow the impact of an emotion to be ingested by the listener, and the vivid expressive qualities of Schumann’s settings would have told almost as much as fully understanding the words about the poems’ meaning.

One of the great strengths of the cycle is the pithiness of the poems, no word wasted, no emotion tediously prolonged. Schumann plunges straight into some, like ‘Wenn ich in deine Augen’ while in others there’s a long preamble or a long postlude, such as that following ‘Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome’ or ‘Ein Jungling’, or the extraordinary piano mediation in ‘Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen’. Yet there are songs where the voice starts alone, like ‘Ich hab’ ein Traum geweinet’, with breathless angst, and its ending too, a pained dialogue between voice and piano, with frozen, wide-spaced piano chords, was magically paced. In all these, voice and piano found instinctive rapport.

And the stark contrasts between ‘Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube’ – passionate, impulsive – and sombre songs like ‘Im Rhein’ (above), created a singular dramatic antithesis.

Naturally one waited in high anticipation for ‘Ich grolle nicht’, but the start shocked me – it was so calm, so restrained, compared with the typical performance where a proud disdain for self-pity is often cried out, declaimed fortissimo; Goodwin maintained a calm tension right up to the last lines when he let go, with full voice with a far greater impact.

It was the one of Schumann’s songs that first impacted me through a music-loving German master at secondary school; that class room, east wing, lower floor, in the morning sun, remains vivid in my memory.

The rare experience of hearing the full cycle from these two fine artists was one of the true highlights of the festival.

Brahms Piano Quintet
As if that wasn’t treasure enough, in the second part of the recital, Dénes Varjon and the New Zealand String Quartet played Brahms’s wonderful piano quintet, Op 34. The magic impacts at once with that strange, exploratory opening which quickly becomes such a gorgeous whole-hearted, melodious movement, though an underlying sobriety is never far below the surface. Again, Varjon showed his gift for embracing at once the musical personalities of his fellow players, as indeed the quartet reciprocated, and there was simply no moment where one could sense disparate musical tastes or sensibilities.

It’s a long work and I have to confess that I’ve sometimes felt that the first movement seems paralysed in its aversion to quitting that stage, but whether that feeling arises is totally dependent on the performance. Here the thought never entered my mind; in fact I dreaded its ending, even after its full quarter hour. All other movements had the same effect, and it had me composing a petition to the NZSQ to make a habit of offering at least one concert a year with Varjon or another comparably collegial pianist to fully explore the piano quintet repertoire (the known masterpieces few, but there’s really a lot worth exploring).

Friday the 10th of February brought my stay to an end. The day of the cello.
The 2pm concert in the Cathedral was ‘Cellissimo’
: a dozen cellists, probably the cream of resident New Zealand cellists, from the three ensembles present, from orchestras and university music schools around the country, along with three of the visitors.
Bach’s Air (‘on the G string’, if you like) from the third orchestral suite, BWV 1068, opened to such opulent beauty that I wondered whether one could any longer justify its performance on the (violin) G string. Would it be hard for any of those present to tolerate any other version? Four cellists played: Megiddo, Barley, Joyce and Edith Salzmann. Presumably it was an arrangement of the ‘arrangement’ (which was transposed from Bach’s D to C major) and not derived directly from the original air.

A different group played a Bach Toccata (Gjelsten, Eliah Sakakushev von Bismarck, Ken Ichinose and Ashley Brown); not the famous Toccata from the organ toccata and fugue in D minor, but one from an unidentified source by Alan Shulman.

And a different mix of players performed an arrangement of Bach’s Viola da gamba sonata No 1, BWV 1027. This had a particularly authentic feel, as the viola da gamba is a close relation of the modern cello.

Five cellists then played an attractive piece by Dvořák, Silent Woods, originally No 5 of a set of pieces for piano-four-hands (Op 68), which Dvořák arranged for cello and piano. Its singling out, here for five cellos, could be explained by its warm, opulent melody, which offered Eliah Sakakushev and then Julian Smiles (of the Goldner Quartet) the limelight.

Bartók’s Romanian Dances (six of them) also began life as piano pieces and were arranged for orchestra by the composer. Rolf Gjelsten duetted with Inbal Megiddo, alternating lyrical affection, with rhythmic energy, building to barbaric excitement in the last.

And the concert ended with five players. including Matthew Barley, in yet another arrangement of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise.

The Friday evening concert, entitled ‘Cellos by Candlelight’, again in the Cathedral, included varied cellists, ending with all present – I counted thirteen for the last two pieces by Piazzolla and Julius Klengel.

It consisted of mainly short  well-known pieces, but the whole was presented by ever-changing groups of players. Starting with the quintessentially enrapturing Canon by Pachelbel, and then the opening of the William Tell Overture, which I supposes everyone expected to continue for its full 12 minutes or so, but when the opening cello melody ended, that was it.

We heard two of Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasilleiras: No 1, actually written for an orchestra of cellos, it engaged eight players (if I’m not mistaken: Eliah Sakakushev, Megiddo, Tennant, Du Plessis, Brown, Salzmann, Ichinose, and the cellist from the young Troubadours quartet, Anna-Marie Alloway).

Later Jenny Wollerman sang the beautiful soprano part in Bachianas Brasileiras No 5 with a different cello assemblage, with a singular ethereal quality, the sort-of-wordless vocal line seeming to emerge from far up in the cathedral vault.

There were also two pieces by Pablo Casals, the Song of the Birds and Sardana, which the composer famously conducted with 100 cellists in New York in 1970. These provided a few minutes of variety, music that was probably as unfamiliar to most of the audience as it was to me.

Continuing to honour Casals perhaps, other cellist combinations played more Latin music: the six pieces that comprise Manuel de Falla’s Suite populaire espagnole, which had been arranged from the composer’s original Siete canciones populares españolas (Seven Spanish Popular Songs). Variously, they provided solo opportunities for lovely playing by several of the cellists. The surprising thing about these pieces, and indeed the whole cello-dominated concert, was the remarkable variety of tone and dramatic character to be found in this most human of the string instrument family.

And the concert, and for me, the festival itself, ended, with Piazzolla’s seductive Oblivion and Tango, and another rather obscure piece that proved emotionally attractive, a Hymnus for 12 cellos (Op 57) by Julius Klengel, a German cellist and prolific composer, mainly for the cello, whose life spread across the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Friday was very much a celebration of the cello, of massed cellos, which only becomes a possibility in a festival setting; it is one of the most important features of a festival, the opportunity to create musical ensembles that can make music that is rarely possible in the ordinary course of concert-giving.

Let’s list those involved in the Klengel piece, just for fun, as it was the total of the cello phalange at the festival: Anna-Marie Alloway, Matthew Barley, Ashley Brown, Rolf Gjelsten, Ken Ichinose, Andrew Joyce, Inbal Megiddo, Brigid O’Meeghan, Heleen du Plessis, Eliah Sakakushev von Bismark, Edith Salzmann, Julian Smiles, James Tennant.

Stage management was a most particular undertaking which had been noticed at earlier concerts but which reached a climax of complexity and precision at the Friday concerts, since they involved so many cellists. Each clearly had his or her own seating preference and as the players changed places for each piece, manoeuvres with chairs, as well as with music stands equipped for sheet music or tablets, took place with military precision and efficacy. Detailed maps had obviously been drawn up and memorised so that the stage managers could prepare fresh seat dispositions for each piece. In charge was stage manager Brendyn Montgomery and his assistant, Janje Heatherfield.

One must also acknowledge other management of the festival, a body of musical passionnées whose devotion to the cause goes way beyond whatever they are paid.

There’s the festival trust, chaired by Colleen Marshall who introduced many of the concerts and artists; Bob Bickerton, manager, and droll anecdoteur as he shared the introductor-assignment, in addition to being the multi-instrumentalist and entertainer of children.
The fundamental task of artistic planning and management remained the role of two members of the New Zealand String quartet: Helene Pohl and Gillian Ansell. Success of the festival rests essentially on them, for the music chosen and the musicians who play it.

To end, I should add that one of the little curiosities of this festival was a series of little addenda at the end of each set of programme notes, entitled ‘Conversation Piece’.
An example from this last concert read:
“How can one work of art or music exist successfully in many contexts? Does the emotional affect of a work change depending on its context, or do these works succeed because of the strength of the original content?”
(and note the carefully distinguished use of the word ‘affect’, commonly confused with ‘effect’).


Last three days of the triumphant 2015 Chamber Music Festival in Nelson

Adam Chamber Music Festival, Nelson 2015
29 January to 7 February 

Part Three

The Nelson Cathedral and Old St John’s church

Thursday 5 to Saturday 7 February

Thursday 5 February

For the first time, at this festival, two trips out of Nelson were organised, primarily as part of the full festival pass package; on Tuesday it was St Arnaud on Lake Rotoiti; today, to Upper Moutere to visit Höglund’s glass studio, the Neudorf Winery and a concert by The Song Company in a beautiful country church.

I decided to remain in Nelson in spite of that meaning foregoing the concert which included songs from the late Middle Ages – the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The song, Crist and Sainte Marie by St Godric, is one of four, ‘the oldest songs in English for which the original musical settings survive’, according to Wikipedia. I will record a personal reference, that Godric spent many years in the famous Lindisfarne Priory (indirectly giving me my name), where the beautiful illuminated eponymous Gospels were probably written in the early eighth century.  There was also a song by the enlightened Castilian King Alfonso X (13th century), English madrigals by Tomkins, Morley, Gibbons and Weelkes; and then a song cycle by Gareth Farr, the Les Murray Song Cycle, and modern madrigals from Australia and Denmark.

In Nelson the concert by the Ying Quartet that I heard on Tuesday at the lake was repeated.

French piano music
Thus there was only the 7:30 pm concert at Old St John’s, entitled Joie de vivre. That was on account of the full programme of French music in which Kathryn Stott was the still point of the turning world.

The earliest piece was five dances by Marin Marais (recall the film, Tous les matins du monde). Phillip Ying took Marais’s viola da gamba part on his viola which might not have altered it materially, but did remove the music from a particularly idiomatic 1700ish sound, partly the effect of a piano in place of a harpsichord or similar instrument of the period. The dances were varied and charming.

A Ravel rarity, which I’d not heard before: Trios beaux oiseaux du paradis, was sung by the Song Company, a cappella.

Kathryn Stott returned to join Rolf Gjelsten’s cello to play first, Fauré’s Après un rêve and then Debussy’s Cello sonata. Rolf read us a translation of the poem by Romain Bussine, a poet and singer who co-founded, with Saint-Säens, an important society in Paris, the Société nationale de musique, for the promotion of French music in the face of, mainly, Germanic influence. It included Franck, Fauré, Massenet and Duparc and several others. The former is very well-known and its performance was enchanting, not at all sentimental (which it rather lends itself to). The Debussy sonata may not be quite as assured a work as the violin sonata but this was a most attractive performance that both distinguished and brought together the distinct lines of the two instruments.

The New Zealand String Quartet joined Stott in César Franck’s Piano Quintet, in a performance whose spirit was very much guided by Stott’s playing, poised and restrained, with space between the phrases, her chords lean and clear. These remarks were true for the first two movements, following the composer’s indications, but in the third, Franck’s marking ‘con fuoco’ was licence for the release of the feelings it was rumoured that Franck had for a particular student at the Conservatoire. The big throbbing melody seemed steadily to increase in speed and dynamics, to quite a climax.

This most welcome performance added to the little effort initiated with Stott’s performance on Tuesday of the splendid Prelude, chorale and fugue, no doubt driven by the pianist, to pay attention to Franck’s unjustly neglected masterpieces.

Friday 6 February

Waitangi Day has usually fallen during the festival and offers an obvious excuse to explore New Zealand music, familiar and unfamiliar.

Nicola Melville remembers Judith Clark and shared friends
The 1pm concert served to showcase former Wellington pianist Nicola Melville who now teaches at Carlton College Minnesota, in music associated with her teacher and mentor at Victoria University, Judith Clark who died last year.

The programme note explained that the pieces were by composers dear to Judith’s heart. And there was a second set of pieces by composers who are among Nicola’s favourites.

The first played was Lilburn’s Three Sea Changes, the first two written in 1946 and the last in 1981. They have become familiar through the sensitive performances by Margaret Nielsen of 40 years ago, and it was good to hear them played by a pianist with a couple of generations’ longer perspective, of their acceptance as among the most characteristic of Lilburn’s piano music.

Then followed a new commission called simply, Gem, by Gareth Farr, a kaleidoscope of shifting tones, sentiment and sparkle. Its performance was full of affection and delight.

Ross Harris recorded in note about his offering, In Memory – Judith Clark, which was written for her 80th birthday, that she addressed him ‘you flea’. In it there was an immediate feeling of sadness, the notes spaced in a gentle and thoughtful way. It seemed to touch a deeper vein, especially in Nicola’s delicate and sensitive performance.

Eve de Castro-Robinson marked her tribute to Judith, “free, capricious, whimsical”, and that was the case. It might have been a characterisation as much of Eve as of Judith, with its scampering, quirky wit, that may well have enlivened the meetings between the two.

Jack Body’s offering was changed from the advertised Five Melodies to two pieces labelled ‘Old Fashioned Songs’, in Body’s inimitable treatment of them: Silver Threads among the Gold and Little Brown Jug. The expected and the unexpected in ‘Threads’, diversions from cadences that the ear and mind might have expected, yet enough of the original remained to tease. The ‘jug’ was treated to semi-staccato, spaced plantings of notes, it increased steadily in complexity, liveliness and interest, and Melville played them both with clarity and a keen sense of their wit and eccentricities.

Nicola in America
The music then moved abroad, to the United States. The first composer was an avant-gardist with wit and a mind to entertain: Jacob TV which is the American version of his Dutch name, Jacob ter Veldhuis. The Body of Your Dreams is a scathing look at the mindless world of TV advertising, using tapes and loops, rock idioms, of an advert for an electronic weight-loss programme, using repeated words a few of which I could pick up like ‘fat’, ‘press the button’ ‘no sweat’, ‘amazing’, the language of the bottom end of youth culture, advertising and the electronic media.

The piano was very busy in collaboration with the junk-burdened noises on the tape, good for a moment’s contemplation of the meaning of music, satire and what passes for culture.

And finally, a return to a composer I think ranks high in Melville’s pantheon: William Albright who wrote a number of rags, among much else. These two were entitled: Dream Rags, comprising The Nightmare Rag, with the parenthesis suggesting Night on Rag Mountain (though I detected no hint of Mussorgsky) and Sleepwalker’s Shuffle. They were, I have to confess, closer to the idiom of ragtime than the pieces by Novacek heard a few days before. In any case, Melville was very much at home with them and they delighted the audience.

Verklärte Nacht in the evening
The 7:30pm concert called on The Song Company and both string quartets. The Song Company sang songs from the 14th and 16th centuries. William Cornish’s ‘Ah Robin, gentle Robin’ with the singers taking varied roles, the men first and then the women while conductor Peelman accompanied with a drum; voices and the drum steadily rose in pitch and intensity, as the words revealed the singer’s despondency at the realisation of his lover’s likely faithlessness.

‘Where to shud I expresse’ possibly by Henry VIII followed, along with the anonymous, c1350 song ‘The Westron Wynde’, each a lament on a lover’s fickleness, or at least, absence. Here was the style of singing that best suited The Song Company, capturing lovers’ troubles with individual voices most advantageously on display, between their coming together to create beautiful vocal fusion.

Two New Zealand pieces were Lilburn’s Phantasy for Quartet, and John Cousin’s Duos for violin and viola of 1973. The Lilburn was a 1939 exercise written at the Royal College, for Vaughan Williams, winning the William Cobbett Prize. Here was a nice link with the previous song bracket, as Lilburn used the tune from The Westron Wynde, at first with restraint, and then increasingly energetic. The New Zealand String Quartet gave it a sweet, loving performance; apart from an early performance in Christchurch, I think it was said to be the near premiere in New Zealand.

Cousin’s three duos were Waltz Lee, Lullaby for Peter and Polka for Elliot, very much a family affair. These early examples of the composer’s work are charming, characteristic, offering a nice opportunity to hear other than his more commonly encountered electro-acoustic music. They were played engagingly by Janet and Phillip Ying.

The Ying Quartet returned in full to play their own arrangement of an Alleluia composed by Randall Thompson in response to the early years of the Second World War. There were hints of Samuel Barber sure enough, but its somewhat incongruous lamenting character in contrast to its title, led to an interesting, quite complex contrapuntal piece; the quartet may well have made it something of a personal utterance.

Which left the rest of the concert to Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night (Verklärte Nacht). The programme note described it rightly as ‘his glorious Sextet’, and this performance by the New Zealand String Quartet, plus the violist and cellist from the Ying Quartet, made a wonderfully rich and emotional job of it.

Saturday 7 February

Cornerstone Classics – Haydn and Mozart
Here, on the festival’s last day, was the chance to hear three New Zealand players not otherwise represented. Their style however, conformed with the approach to early music that was one of the hall-marks of the Song Company. Douglas Mews at the fortepiano and Euan Murdoch on the cello are well-known exponents of ‘period performance practice’; the violinist replacing the advertised Catherine Mackintosh, Anna van der Zee, is a regular member of the NZSO’s first violins, but proved to be fully sensitive to the playing style considered appropriate for the ‘classical’ period.

Two Haydn piano trios (Hob.XV/18 and 19) enclosed Mozart’s violin sonata in C, K 403. The feathery decoration applied to Haydn’s G minor trio enhanced the fortepiano’s lightness of sound, which in turn coloured the playing by the two stringed instruments. Even for one who is perfectly used to music played in accordance with historical practice, the first impression when a new and, I must confess, unfamiliar piece is played, is of a touch of the insubstantial. But the ears quickly adjust. Haydn’s trio in A (No 18), played after the Mozart, was as full or ornaments as was No 19, but more lightened with wit, and quirky gestures as well as the modulations that even one quite used to Haydn’s behaviour finds surprising.

I really enjoyed Mozart’s violin sonata, played in comparable, genuine style, it sounded closer to the Romantic era than Haydn, even though written ten years earlier; it’s part of an incomplete set that his friend the clarinettist Anton Stadler tidied up/completed. The first movement is marked by a strong rhythm, with an unusually emphatic first note in the bar, or at least that is the way it was played (I hadn’t heard it before). It seemed that the Andante might have been marked molto andante on account of its rather imposing slowness. I found the whole thing very attractive and so it did surprise me that I hadn’t come across it before.

Grand finale –cries of the cities
No doubt the big crowd at the final concert in the cathedral was there mainly for the Brahms Sextet. Yet there may well have been a good deal of curiosity about the set of seven ‘cries’; they filled the first half.

They involved, again, both quartets and the Song Company. The order departed from that in the programme. First came not the earliest, but the Cries of London by Orlando Gibbons, inspired by the earlier Cries of Paris. It’s a far cry from Gibbons’s familiar madrigals and keyboard pieces with its colourful and probably sociologically interesting words and atmosphere.

Louise Webster’s Cries of Kathmandu succeeded in using music of a generalised Indian character embroidered with Hindu religious imagery to paint an intriguing though on balance, distressing picture of a once charming subalpine city largely ruined by capitalism and mass tourism.

It was a short step to Jack Body’s Cries from the Border, a piece typifying the composer’s profound human and political concerns, now coloured by his own imminent mortality. The tale of the fate of German-Jewish philosopher, Walter Benjamin, trapped on the French-Spanish border attempting to escape from Vichy France and the Nazis in 1940. Body wrote: “Unlike Benjamin, I am a traveller reluctant to transit. But the sentence has been pronounced…”. Musically it expressed these complex emotions committedly and convincingly.  Jack Body was there to stand for the applause.

The Cries of Paris of c. 1530 by Clément Janequin was a predictable sequel. Like that of its imitator Gibbons, it did contain the cries of the city’s street vendors, which were no mere medieval phenomenon, but petered out only around the First World War. The performance left no doubt about the reason for their survival and now renewed popularity.

Then came two New Zealand latter-day efforts: Cries of Auckland by Eve de Castro Robinson which dealt with the anti-Springbok Tour and the cries of the protesters throughout the country, still vivid in the memories of all of us who were involved: “1 2 3 4, we don’t want your racist tour! … Shame! Shame! …Amandla, Amandla”  and hints of later protests about asset-sales and the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.

And Chris Watson contributed a comparable political offering from Wellington. More words, and a wider lens: the morning commuter trials (cries of frustration?), the dramatic revealing of Wellington Harbour at the bottom of Ngauranga Gorge (cries of spiritual uplift?), but then the realities of political Wellington at the time of the negative, dirty politics, election campaign – the cries of debate, perhaps the cries of hopelessness, from the victims of the victory of inequality.

Brahms Sextet
The Ying Quartet plus the violist and cellist of the New Zealand String Quartet had the last word, with the glorious second string sextet by Brahms (Op 36). Reference is usually made, and was here, to the belief that it contained hidden reference to Agathe von Siebold with whom he had been in love with a few years before, encoded in the first theme of the first movement. Typically, Brahms shied away from commitment, which he apparently later regretted. The work’s high emotional intensity, especially the Adagio, slow movement, can colour the listening experience, but it hardly matters what specific narrative the listener allows to accompany a performance, for it is such a transcendent experience from the young composer, aged 33.

These festivals have often succeeded in bringing things to a conclusion with a musical creation of unusual splendour and emotional power. This one achieved that very movingly.


Nelson chamber music festival: the second three days, with a trip to St Arnaud

Adam Chamber Music Festival, Nelson 2015
29 January to 7 February 

Part Two

The Nelson Cathedral and Old St John’s church

Monday 2 to Wednesday 4 February

Monday 2 February

PianoFest I: Dance
Sunday’s rain which had been threatened to continue today, disappeared and there was sun first thing, but clouds soon returned and umbrellas reappeared as we set off for the 10.30 PianoFest I: Dance.

It featured four prominent New Zealand pianists: David Guerin, Jian Liu, Stephen de Pledge and Sarah Watkins. ‘Dance’ was a rather approximate term as the first piece, Ravel’s Mother Goose, in the original piano duet form, was not designed for dancing; though Ravel’s later orchestration was in fact expanded into a ballet in 1912. I don’t know how successful it was or how much it is performed today. But predominantly it consists of charming, quiet depictions of some of Perrault’s (and others’) famous fairy stories. It was played by Jian Liu and Sarah Watkins, who brought to each scene a wonderful delicacy, precision, an awareness of the spirit of each tale and the pianistic colours demanded by that character. There were vivid revelations in each of the five movements – a special finesse in the depiction of the Beauty and the Beast (Les entretiens de la belle et de la bête).

There were three pieces by New Zealand composers: David Hamilton’s Three Rags were genuine dance material, closer to the Scott Joplin originals than the elaborate and over-sophisticated rags by Novacek, heard the day before. These were for eight hands at two pianos, positioned face to face, Watkins and de Pledge on the Steinway on the left and Guerin and Liu at the Yamaha on the right. Lilburn’s rather untypical Tempo di Bolero written when he was flatting in his twenties in Christchurch with Leo Benseman and Lawrence Baigent, both pianists. So it was for three pianists, in very close proximity; the three this time were, treble to bass, Guerin, Liu and Watkins. It was an energetic piece, that rather burdened the bolero rhythms with complexity, but nevertheless made one rather wish that Lilburn had been drawn into the business of composing for the theatre, to find the sort of popular success that Farquhar found with his Ring round the Moon music. Though the three Canzonettas, that were played on Wednesday in the Stabat Mater concert were teasing hints at what might have developed if the climate had been different.

The last piece in the programme was an extended exploration of Bottom’s characterisation in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ‘A Tedious Brief Scene: Bottom’s Dance’ by Leonie Holmes. The employment of all four pianists (left: Watkins, Guerin; right: de Pledge and Liu) imposed a certain chaos on the music that depicted Bottom, the butt of jokes and teasing, through rhythms and in the handling of musical ideas.

Also in the hour-long programme was the third Slavonic dance from Dvořák’s first set, in the composer’s original piano duet form. It occurred to me that we could use a couple of nationwide recitals featuring the two pianists, de Pledge and Guerin, doing the entire two books of these small masterpieces.

The only music by Scharwenka that I knew till a few years ago was this Polish Dance (Op 3 No 1) that both my wife and I were surprised to confess to have played, after a fashion, in our youth. The programme note explained how commonplace our experience was, noting that it had been one of the ‘greatest hits’ of its time, the sheet music selling in millions.

Prokofiev’s own piano arrangement of parts of his Romeo and Juliet ballet is for one pianist – here, Stephen de Pledge alone. The Lily Dance of the Maidens: curious and careful, contrasting with the heavy, confrontational Montagues and Capulets.

In the afternoon we got PianoFest II
It was advertised as ‘World Voyage’, for the usual reason of widespread composer birthplaces, though the distribution was pretty normal: France and Germany, the United States and a couple of pieces by New Zealanders.

This festival has been given a certain quirky interest by pairing music that has been transformed, generally by the composer from the original instrumentation to something else.

Beethoven featured twice. Late in his life, he had rewritten his third piano trio (heard on Sunday), as a string quintet (heard on Saturday); and on Monday we heard his Piano Sonata in E, Op 14 No 1 which he later transcribed as a string quartet to be heard on Wednesday from the young Nelson quartet, The Troubadours.

The Piano sonata was the first piece in the PianoFest II programme and it was played by Jian Liu.

I was enchanted by Liu’s playing of this unpretentious sonata, evincing a very carefully considered, understated performance of beautiful delicacy, with fleet little decorative passages, that, again, made me long to hear Liu in performances of a lot more Beethoven.

The contribution from France was Messiaen’s Regard du silence from the huge canvas, the Vingt regards sur L’Enfant Jésus, played with enormous authority by David Guerin. From the United States: John Adams’s Hallelujah Junction for two pianos, from Stephen and Sarah who exploited the interesting sonic possibilities that Adams wrote into his boisterous piece.

New Zealand composer Sarah Ballard wrote a set of four pieces representing the four medieval elements: earth, air, fire and water, and here we heard the four pianists (treble to bass, left to right: de Pledge, Guerin, Watkins and Liu) in two that portrayed an ancient Mexican cave and Mount Erebus.

A different disposition of the four pianists then played Gareth Farr’s Bintang, probably danceable enough, but a stimulating and impressive listen.

Bach by Candlelight
The evening concert was the focus on Bach which has become a key element in the festival. It was made particularly distinguished as the first appearance of The Song Company; and the forces also included both resident string quartets Douglas Mews (organ), Robert Orr (oboe) and Loan Perernau Garriga (double bass).

To start, Ying Quartet’s leader Ayano Ninomiya gave an impressive performance of the Prelude from Bach’s Partita No 3 for solo violin, and followed with Eugène Isaÿe’s astonishing treatment of the music  in his second sonata for solo violin. The performances of both pieces were distinguished by extremely high technical brilliance and artistic integrity.

The first of Bach’s vocal pieces on the programme was Jesu meine Freude. This is one of Bach’s real masterpieces and demands exquisite balance and blending between parts and both richness and dramatic characterization. Inner parts sounded too prominent, and though each voice was technically assured, the tone was not uniform; I am not bothered by vibrato in baroque music, but here it obtruded occasionally. Here was an example, I felt, when the possibly authentic use of one voice to a part made it very hard to meet achieve a simple, beautiful, dramatic performance.

Hannah Fraser sang the best-known aria from the St Matthew Passion, ‘Erbarme dich’. I’d loved her Brahms songs the night before, but was not so convinced by this, perhaps on account of a voice that was so warm and emotional, beautifully adapted to the 19th century, but didn’t meet the stylistic expectations that have become normal for Bach today. Her lovely accompaniment was from a blend of players from the two quartets plus bassist Joan Perarnau Garriga and organist Douglas Mews.

Soprano Mina Kanaridis sang the gorgeous aria, ‘Mein gläubiges Herze’, from Cantata No 68, with a real sense of ecstasy and conviction. But the real triumph of the concert was the performance by bass Alexander Knight of the cantata Ich habe genug (Cantata No 82), with a simply superb voice, and a stage demeanour that commanded the entire space both by means of his penetrating gaze at his audience and the sombre expressiveness of his singing. He was supported admirably by oboist Robert Orr, and again bassist Perernau Garriga and Mews at the chamber organ, all three of whom had given comparable backing to Mina Kanaridis.

A second instrumental piece was the third of Bach’s not often played Gamba Sonatas (BWV1029): on Gillian Ansell’s viola, accompanied by Douglas Mews, it was modest and unpretentious, and free of artifice of any kind.


Tuesday 3 February

To St Arnaud on Lake Rotoiti
This was the day of the lake: when the music and the pass holders go to St Arnaud on Lake Rotoiti where the Ying Quartet play in the lovely little chapel whose windows give on the beech forest and to the distant mountains. We walk to the School of Music where the bus will depart at 9.30am. The uncertainty of the weather, though the sun was shining then, means there is a wide variety of dress, from optimists to pessimists: I was in the middle with a light jacket and proper shoes.

Most of the way in through varied farmland and the series of villages south of Nelson till we turn off after about half an hour; the road becomes more winding and we travel through more plantation forest; almost no native trees apart from occasional patches of totara till within about five miles of St Arnaud. Why did the State allow land sales and native forest felling to make way for exotics so close to this beautiful lake? However, the immediate environment is largely beech.

After morning tea at the Visitor Centre we go to the little chapel where the Ying Quartet is already seated, backs to the windows, while the audience gets lovely views of close kanuka and more distant beech.

Quartets by Haydn and Tchaikovksy and a trio by Anthony Ritchie
The acoustic is gorgeous in the small timbered space with its curved laminated beams that create the feel of a vaulted gothic crossing; and the first few minutes are spent wallowing in the immediacy of the individual and collective sounds of the Haydn first movement. Better than at earlier performances we could here enjoy the quartet’s elegant and sensitive playing, Haydn’s wit and teasing, all with such care for the ebb and flow of phrases and dynamics.

The programme is Haydn, Op 20 No 4, Tchaikovsky, Quartet No 1 and a trio by Anthony Ritchie, entitled Spring String Trio. The Tchaikovsky drew more power and drama from the players, their painstaking attention to fluctuating dynamics and rhythmic effects more exploited.

In introducing Ritchie’s little piece, in which leader, Ayano Ninomiya stood down, giving the violin part to second violin Janet Ying, Phillip Ying referred to the piece as Spring String Ying Trio. Though commissioned as a birthday present, its tone was initially serious though quite brisk: getting older is no laughing matter.

But it was a delight to hear Janet Ying’s fine, confident violin playing, unobscured by her leader’s dominance, which is the common fate of the second violin. Its slower second section cemented its place as a small but substantial work.

Helene Pohl talks with the four PianoFest pianists
Back in Nelson later in the afternoon, it was the turn of the four pianists participating in the PianoFest, to chat with Helene Pohl. As well as exploring each pianist’s early experiences, and how a commitment to a professional career emerged, there was interesting discussion on the sense or otherwise of multi-pianist performances such as we had at the first and second ‘PianoFests’: the consensus was that it was fundamentally an eccentricity and perhaps stupid, except for Schubert’s which were justified as a means of getting very close to members of the opposite sex.

Kathryn Stott
Kathryn Stott’s major piano recital was in the evening. It demonstrated her special interest in French music with Ravel’s Sonatine, a nocturne by Fauré, L’Isle joyeuse by Debussy and Franck’s formidable Prelude, chorale and fugue. Their variety, and the rare hearing of the splendid Franck made it a memorable and, for the many probably unfamiliar with Franck, a revelatory event. The second half was dominated by Stott’s illuminating playing of the original piano version of Grieg’s Holberg Suite, too rarely heard, that restored Grieg’s place as a great piano composer; the rest was from South America, Villa-Lobos’s Choros No 5, Guanieri’s Danza negra and Ginastera’s Dance No 2 from Argentinian Dances. It ended terrifyingly with a rather extended, killer piece she had commissioned from Graham Fitkin called Relent, evidently a mark of his sense of humour since its speed, ferocity, complexity and sheer impossibility for anyone less than a Stott, was utterly unrelenting.

Wednesday 4 February  

The anchors of the festival
Three main groups provide the backbone of this year’s festival. The New Zealand String Quartet of course; the Ying Quartet from the United States; and the Song Company from Australia. Some festivals are very particular in the range of musical genres, but most like to include players that lie perhaps a little apart from the popular central element of a festival’s character.

Several times it has been a singer or singers. That is excellent because the world of chamber music tends to give rise to somewhat narrow areas of acceptability for quite a few, who might just surprise themselves if they ventured out of their narrow comfort zone.

So the Song Company had an important role to play in a festival like this, and they tackle it on several different levels: inserting a couple of Brahms Lieder in a chamber music programme; doing several of Bach best loved choruses and arias alongside violin pieces; testing the water with a wide variety of styles and musical periods – Medieval and Renaissance polyphony and madrigals, the Baroque, the classical and the romantic periods, the modern or twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

And of course, there are factions within each of those categories, those who turn off early music, or scorn romantic music, or art songs, or opera but love religious choral music, find English music boring, and so on.

Roland Peelman and The Song Company
A challenge to all these limiting fads and fashions was offered on Wednesday morning in the vigorous and wide-ranging discussion between Rolf Gjelsten and Roland Peelman, the director of The Song Company.

As with all these sessions designed to shed light on the making of a musician, this began with Peelman’s description of the unmusical life in a small Flemish town in Belgium where, from nowhere, a strong musical impulse arose, that sought out a music teacher at about age eight and induced the family to buy a piano. Then a quite rich musical life at a boarding school, a useless year at a local conservatorium (he mentioned almost no Belgian place names apart from Ghent), but more fruitful general education at university.

His learning went on to Cologne, the base of the post-Darmstadt, avant-garde school led by Stockhausen, and it included the important (for Peelman) teaching of Alois Kontarsky (you’ll remember him from a chamber group at one of the very early New Zealand Festivals in Wellington in the late 1980s).

Insights into conducting came mainly from those with almost no standing as a conductor but with a flair for giving invaluable guidance and inspiration. One had said he could tell him everything about conducting technique in an hour but it would take a lifetime to learn.

While he had initially said that the impression of Australasians that Europe was seething with culture was delusional, his later account of rich and flourishing arts and music scenes in at least the main centres of Europe, hardly supported his argument. Much of what he said seemed to place high value on wide general cultural awareness and knowledge instead of on narrow, music-only, highly technical, and detailed analytical study.

His own wide exposure to literature, several languages, history, the arts generally and music in particular was enviable, especially in a country with steadily narrowing cultural and intellectual horizons.

Peelman was interesting about the close relationship between musicians who inhabited the avant-garde and those who explored early music performance practice from the 1970s. The one had spawned and informed the other; especially the realisation that one could not live on the former but there were growing audiences for the latter.

To Australia
His account of his shift to Australia in 1982 was fascinating. His contact with Aboriginal ‘Dreaming’ music at Waggawagga left a mark on his brain; his first job was at Mt Gambier on the South Australia/Victoria southern border teaching keyboard and singing and conducting the brass band.

Life became serious when he was appointed assistant chorus master at Australian Opera in Sydney, in the far-off days when the company had 22 productions in its annual repertoire (now about half that in a good year; it was the late 80s when I started going to Australia to make wonderful opera discoveries). Though he allowed himself reservations about aspects of opera as spectacle and its perception as amusement for the wealthy (“music takes second place”, he said – maybe, but not for me), he gained varied and valuable skills, describing the hectic, non-stop life as intoxicating.

Then in 1990 came an offer of appointment with The Song Company, Australia’s only full-time professional small choir. He had much to say about its evolution, about the fundamental contrast between four and six voices. A finally he disclosed that, after 25 years, he’s ready to take on something else.

PianoFest IV
After lunch on this fine day, when the rain had gone, the fourth in the series of PianoFests, which had been planned and organised by Stephen de Pledge as a mini-festival-within-a-festival, took place in Old St John’s, as its deconsecrated embodiment is now known.

More multi-pianist performances, this one subtitled ‘Opera’. Official participants were: David Guerin, Jian Liu, Stephen de Pledge, Sarah Watkins.

The first, played by De Pledge by himself was Liszt’s transcription of Isolde’s ‘Liebestod’ from Tristan und Isolde. Liszt had the taste to ensure that Wagner’s scoring did not lose anything in the process, and the piano version moved just as ecstatically from calm grief to necro-erotic frenzy.

Nor did the transcription of the prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg suffer with four hands at two piano (Stephen on piano A, left, and David Guerin on piano B, right); in the transcription by Max Reger, its lines were if anything etched with more clarity than in the original.

But the real revelation was the fantasia drawing melodies from Bellini’s wonderful opera, Norma, by Czerny, a contemporary of Bellini, as well as of Rossini and Schubert. He was a piano teacher and composer of piano etudes and impossible exercises: this one for six hands at one piano. The emotions remained alive and well, and the rhythmic pulse under the final heart-rending melody, rather undid me.

It lay in the way he spread the melodies to the very limits of the keyboard, with not inappropriate adornments; inter alia, it called for De Pledge, in the treble position, to reach repeatedly with his right arm across Sarah Watkins to plant notes outside of his own territory; Sarah was wedged between, with David Guerin at the bass. The combination, towards the end, of exciting, pulsing bass rhythms and gorgeous, heart-rending melody, rather undid me. As I remarked yesterday, I felt, as the result of the glorious music that Bellini wrote for this great opera, and Czerny’s sensitive and exciting treatment, that this piece had a serious independent existence, vindicating the genre of six or more hands at one piano.

Then came another kind of novelty, though it was not altogether clear whether Double F for Freddie, had another life as some kind of opera, it was, as described, a humorous romp at the very limits of one piano: viz. four at one keyboard – from top to bottom, Guerin, Watkins, Liu, with de Pledge offering, as far as I could see, just the final deep bass note at the end.

Carmen for the madhouse
Then came an indescribable, extraordinary party piece devised by De Pledge for all four pianists in riotous disarray. It’s mainly Carmen, but there are other impertinences: Die Fledermaus, and Sarah suddenly interrupting Stephen doing Micaela’s act 3 aria with the opening of Grieg’s piano concerto, which was the signal for the arrival of other players, of growing chaos, of shifting piano stools, of forcible position changes at different keyboards, some corruptions like the Habanera delivered by Jian with feminine delicacy.

Carmen herself arrives (Rae de Lisle), tosses the rose to the pianists and then joins the riot. Five at two keyboards is unbalanced however, and De Pledge set out to find another pianist in the audience, and finally forcibly arrests Kathy Stott; she puts up a considerable fight to avoid this unseemly press-gang musical recruitment but joined the chaos of six at two keyboards with gusto to deliver the coup-de-grace to Carmen.

The third event of the day was at 6.30pm in the Cathedral, restoring a more orderly and civilised tone. The Troubadours, the noted student string quartet, who have been spotted around the city during the week, playing at schools and charities, were here to play Mozart’s Divertimento K 136, and the old filmic hit, Over the Rainbow. In particular, they played Beethoven’s own arrangement for string quartet of his piano sonata in E, Op 14 No 1.

These players, students variously at Auckland, Waikato and Victoria universities, were Julian Baker, Hilary Hayes, Jin Kim and Heather Lewis. Their playing was stylistically idiomatic, beautifully articulated, nicely phrased and judged for gentle rhythmic and dynamic variations.

Stabat Mater
This title referred of course to the great Pergolesi cantata that filled the second half. Sung by two sopranos from The Song Company, Mina Kanaridis and Anna Fraser, it was accompanied by the Ying Quartet, minus Janet Ying, plus Donald Armstrong and Douglas Mews at the chamber organ.

For a work that is so famous and so well-loved, I have heard it too few times, more in other countries than in New Zealand. I think it is no longer spoken of as it once was, with a degree of scorn or superciliousness, the result of a piece of music being too much loved on account of its beauty, not a virtue in mid-20th century avant-garde circles.

This performance was truly beautiful, fully justifying the employment mainly of the festival guests from Australia and the United States. The voices expressed the overwrought religious grieving that lies at the heart of the medieval poem, with sobriety and restraint, as well as extraordinarily sensitive control of tempi and expressive gesture. Led by Ayano Ninomiya’s strong but scrupulously handled violin, the ensemble gave a performance that would have impressed the most discriminating audiences anywhere in the world.

The earlier part of the concert had comprised a lovely Song without Words by Gillian Whitehead from Rolf Gjelsten’s solo cello. Donald Armstrong and Gillian Ansell played Lilburn’s entrancingly lyrical Three Canzonettas for violin and viola. Ayano Ninomiya delivered a Kreisler piece of high virtuosity and musical interest, breathtakingly.

Then the Song Company appeared to sing El fuego by Mateo Flecha, a 16th century (and so, contemporary with Tudor England) Spanish (Catalan) ‘ensalada’, in five parts, or was it six?  Vividly Hispanic, it and its performance were a delight.

All this highly heterogeneous material made it one of the most unexpected and delightful programmes of the festival.