NZSM Concerto Competition – an evening of elegance, frisson and feeling

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music Concerto Competition 2020 – Final


Lucas Baker (violin) – BARBER: Violin Concerto
Isabella Gregory (flute) – REINECKE: Flute Concerto in D Major, Op.283
Otis Prescott-Mason (piano) – SAINT-SAENS – Piano Concerto No.2

Collaborative Pianist: David Barnard
Adjudicators: Catherine Gibson (CMNZ)
Vincent Hardaker (APO)

Adam Concert Room, NZSM Kelburn Campus
Victoria University of Wellington

Thursday, 30th July 2020

This year’s final of the NZSM Concerto Competition provided something of a musical feast, even if one of the concertos performed (Saint-Saens’ Second Piano Concerto) was presented with a somewhat truncated finale, for whatever reason. With three promising and extremely accomplished performers playing their respective hearts out (and admirably supported by the efforts of collaborative pianist David Barnard, whose playing of the orchestral part of the Samuel Barber Concerto was a treat in itself to experience), it made for an absorbing listening experience, one to rate at least equally with the actual result of the contest, at least for this listener, with no “affiliations” connected with the outcome!

First up was violinist Lucas Baker, whose chosen work (Samuel Barber’s beautiful Violin Concerto) brought out the young player’s seemingly instinctive feel for the “shape” of the composer’s largely rhapsodic phrases and larger paragraphs – throughout, I was convinced by Baker’s heartfelt approach to both the work’s lyrical and more heroic sequences, his instantly characterful tones enabling us to quickly enter the “world” of the music, despite some untidiness of rhythm and intonation in some of the transitions. The player then confidently attacked the angularities of the second movement, and nicely brought out the fervour of the lyrical writing and the silveriness of the contrasting stratospheric section, concluding with beautifully withdrawn tones at the movement’s end.

The finale’s technical difficulties were also most excitingly squared up to by Baker, his fingers flying over his instrument’s fingerboard to exhilarating effect, with his pianist an equally committed and involved participant in the composer’s vortices of note-spinning – the spills were as exciting and involving as the thrills, both players capturing the devil-may-care spirit which abounds throughout this final movement. Whatever niceties of detail were smudged or approximated, Baker readily conveyed to us an engaging sense of “knowing how it should go”, which carried the day as a performance.

No greater contrast could have been afforded by both the player to next appear and the work chosen! – this was flutist Isabella Gregory, and the work Carl Reinecke’s D Major Flute Concerto, written (somewhat surprisingly, I thought, upon hearing the piece) in 1908, the composer hardly deviating from his early enthusiasms for the music of Mendelssohn and Schumann. In effect, the work is that rarity, a romantic flute concerto – here, it was given a sparklingly lyrical performance by its gifted performer, obviously in complete command of both the piece’s overall shape, and the mellifluous detailings that gave the music such a unique character – complete with a surprisingly abrupt conclusion to the first movement! The sombre nature of the second movement’s opening accompaniment contrasted with the solo instrument’s more carefree manner, played here by Gregory as a somewhat easy-going accomplice to rather more stealthy mischief-making, though I found the Moderato finale a wee bit under-characterised – I thought the rhythms could have a bit more “kick” in places, though this was something which the more energetic concluding sequence in due course suitably enlivened, the virtuosity of the soloist making a breathlessly exciting impression to finish! Altogether, a delightful and suitably brilliant performance!

The evening’s final contestant was pianist Otis Prescott-Mason, who had chosen Saint-Saens’s wonderful Second Piano Concerto – a work whose character I recall once described as “beginning like Bach and ending like Offenbach”! Throughout the first movement I found myself riveted by the young musician’s spell-binding command of the music’s ebb-and-flow, the “spontaneous” element of the opening improvisation as finely-judged as I had ever heard it played, Prescott-Mason truly “making the music his own” and working hand-in-glove with his collaborator to create the sense of Baroque-like splendour that informs the music – what I particularly liked was the spaciousness of it all, allied to the clear direction of the underlying pulse of the music, to the point where the sounds had an inevitability of utterance which perfectly fused freedom and structure, Saint-Saens at his most potent as a creator. What a pity, then that such poised, and finely-tuned focus seemed to me to be then somewhat impatiently cast aside, the second movement’s playfulness over-rushed and the rhythmic deliciousness and delicacy of it all to my ears duly lost – Saint-Saens’s humour is always po-faced and elegant, and the playing in this movement I thought unfortunately failed to realise that “insouciance” which keeps the music’s character intact. I then hoped that the whirlwind brilliance of the finale might have restored some of the impression created by the pianist in that superbly-crafted first movement – but the work was unexpectedly and severely shortened, allowing little opportunity for a “renaissance” of identification with the music’s world on the young player’s part.

All in all, the result of the competition very justly, I thought accorded the laurels to flutist Isabella Gregory, whose performance indicated an impressive totality of identification with the music she played, as regards both execution and interpretation. Both her rivals, Lucas Baker and Otis Prescott-Mason, I thought, turned out most engaging performances of their pieces, without quite rivalling the winner’s consistency and strength of purpose. But what things all three achieved in their different ways!  And how richly and gratefully we all relished their talent and musicality in entertaining us us so royally during the evening!

Lexus Song Quest 2018: Semi-finalists

The semi-finalists for this year’s Lexus Song Quest have been announced.
They are:

Joel Amosa (bass-baritone) – from Auckland, currently Regional Admin Manager for ASB Central Auckland branches banking, while working on numerous oratorios and operas.

Eliza Boom (soprano) – from Whangarei, currently studying her Masters in Music at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.

Chelsea Dolman (soprano) – from Taupō, currently living in Hamilton and a Freemasons NZ Opera Artist with New Zealand Opera.

Jonathan Eyers (baritone) – Grew up on a Waikato dairy farm and studied Bachelor of Music (Hons) at University of Waikato. Currently living in Berlin, Germany.

Joe Haddow (baritone) – from Porirua, currently studying a double Science Major in E Bio and C Bio at Victoria University, while working on The Elixir of Love with New Zealand Opera.

Manase Latu (tenor) – from Tonga and Auckland, currently a Dame Malvina Major Emerging Artist with New Zealand Opera working on The Elixir of Love.

Filipe Manu (tenor) – from Auckland, currently studying a Masters of Music at the Opera Studies programme at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Emily Mwila (soprano) – from Wellington, currently studying a Master of Music in Voice at Mannes School of Music in New York.

Madison Nonoa (soprano) – from Hamilton and currently in London studying a Masters of Music at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Natasha Wilson (soprano) – from Auckland, about to begin a graduate programme at San Francisco University and currently a Dame Malvina Major Emerging Artist with New Zealand Opera working on The Elixir of Love.

The next stage:
The 10 semi-finalists will meet in Wellington mid-July to work with the Head Judge, esteemed soprano and Australian Opera School founder Lisa Gasteen, for an intensive week of coaching including singing technique, stage craft and study proposals.
Semi-Finalists then perform at two live invitation-only Semi-Final concerts on 21 & 22 July in Wellington, where Ms Gasteen will select the five Finalists who will go on to perform with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra at the
Lexus Song Quest Grand Final Gala, on 28 July at the Auckland Town Hall.
Selected Lexus Song Quest entrants will also have the opportunity to participate in the public Lexus Song Quest Masterclass series presented by the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation and conducted by Head Judge Lisa Gasteen.

These open classes will be held at St Andrew’s on the Terrace in Wellington on 24 July and at New Zealand Opera (The Freemasons Foundation Opera Studio) in Auckland on 29 July.


The NZCT Chamber Music Contest results

Michael Fowler Centre

Sunday 6 August

Though Middle C did not manage to get to the final stages of this year’s concert in Wellington, we have copied the results from the website of Chamber Music New Zealand listing of the finalists and award winners


Druz’ya Quartet (Wellington) – Shostakovich | String Quartet No. 8, op. 110, mvts 1, 2 and 3


Buda and the Pests (Canterbury) – Bartók | Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, mvts. 2 and 3


Mahuta Trio (Auckland) – Ben Hoadley | Oboe Trio


Mahuta Trio (Auckland) – Ben Hoadley | Oboe Trio



(in performance order)

Buda and the Pests (Canterbury) – Bartók | Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, mvts. 2 and 3
Raysken Trio (Waikato) – Shostakovich | Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, op. 67, mvts. 2 and 4
Amadeus (Canterbury) – Mozart | String Quintet No.4 in G Minor, K. 516, mvt. 1
Mahuta Trio (Auckland) – Ben Hoadley | Oboe Trio


Trio Astor (Auckland) – Astor Piazzolla | Four Seasons Trio, Spring and Autumn
Druz’ya Quartet (Wellington) – Shostakovich | String Quartet No. 8, op. 110, mvts 1, 2 and 3

National Semi-finalists

(in performance order)

Amadeus (Canterbury) – Mozart | String Quintet No.4 in G Minor, K. 516, mvt. 1
Korngold Quartet (Canterbury) – Korngold | Suite op. 23, mvt. 5
Konec Trio (Auckland) – Gideon Klein | Trio for Violin, Viola and Cello (Terezin 1944)
M + M’s (Northland) – William Grant Still | Danzas de Panama
Mahuta Trio (Auckland) – Ben Hoadley | Oboe Trio
Bedřiška Trio (Wellington) – Smetana | Piano Trio in G Minor, op. 15, mvt. 3
Buda and the Pests (Canterbury) – Bartók | Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, mvts. 2 and 3
Zest (Canterbury) – Mark Walton | Selwyn Quartet
Raysken Trio (Waikato) – Shostakovich | Piano Trio No. 2 in E Minor, op. 67, mvts. 2 and 4
The French Connection (Canterbury) – Milhaud | Sonata for Two Violins and Piano, op. 15, mvts. 1 and 3
Druz’ya Quartet (Wellington) – Shostakovich | String Quartet No. 8, op. 110, mvts 1, 2 and 3
TrioAstor (Auckland) – Astor Piazzolla | Four Seasons Trio, Spring and Autumn



Presented in association with SOUNZ and CANZ

Benjamin Sneyd-Utting – Tawa College, Wellington
Toroa Rising / Piwakawaka Dancing (for string quintet)

Highly Commended
Samba Zhou – Rangitoto College, Auckland
Dream of a Home (for piano quintet)

Stefenie Pickston – Lynfield College, Auckland
Bolero: A Short Piece for String Quartet

Highly Commended
Michelle Tiang – Waikato Diocesan School for Girls, Hamilton
Earth Collapse (for string quartet)



Druz’ya Quartet (Wellington)

Shostakovich | String Quartet No. 8, mvts 1, 2 & 3
Lucas Baker, violin, Home Educated
Andy Yu, violin, Wellington College
Lauren Jack, viola, Wellington High School
Milo Benn, cello, Scots College

(in performance order)

Ritchie Trio (Hawke’s Bay) – Anthony Ritchie | Song, He Moemoea
No Frets (Manawatu) – Glinka | Trio pathétique, mvts 1, 2 and 4
The Atmospherics (Wellington) – Eric Ewazen | Dance for Flute, Horn and Piano
Trio Felsen (Whanganui) – Schubert | Shepherd on the Rock (Dir Hert auf Dem Felsen)
Hail Cesar (Manawatu) – Cesar Cui | Cinq petit duos
Druz’ya Quartet (Wellington) – Shostakovich | String Quartet No. 8, op. 110, mvts 1, 2 and 3
Les Trois Amies (Wellington) – Benjamin Godard | Sechs Duette
The Naughty Nortons (Hawke’s Bay) – Christopher Norton | Regrets, Free ‘n’ Easy, strengths of Feeling
FIRE (Wellington) – Gareth Farr | Ahi Trio
Leipzig Connection (Whanganui) – Mendelssohn | Piano Trio in D Minor, op. 49, mvt 1
Fauntastic (East Coast) – Debussy | Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Bedřiška Trio (Wellington) – Smetana | Piano Trio in G Minor, op. 15, mvt 3



Choral singing flourishes in Wellington region Big Sing gala concert

New Zealand Choral Federation Secondary Schools’ Choral Festival
Big Sing, second gala concert

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday, 8 June 2017, 7.00pm

As I said in 2015 (in a review of the Big Sing National Finale concert), it is marvellous to find so many young people taking part in choirs and obviously enjoying it.  Apparently there are more choirs in the 2017 Festival than ever before, and it seems to me that the standard is always rising.  The fact that all the choirs learn all their pieces by heart is staggering to us mere adults who sing in choirs, to whom this is an almost overwhelming difficulty.  An excellent effect of memorisation is that for the most part, words come over clearly – not always the case when singers are constantly glancing down at printed copies.   Every eye here was on the conductors – except for those few choirs who were able to perform without anyone standing in front of them to direct things.

This year, there will be 10 regional finales.  39 choirs participated in the two evening concerts (the other on Wednesday), from 22 schools in this region, plus one from Tauranga.  As always, the excitement in the hall and the large, enthusiastic audience made for a memorable occasion.  Compared with the first of these events I attended some years ago, not only is the number of participants much greater this time (choirs varied from about 20 members, to one of near 200), the audience is much larger.  Each choir sang one item, chosen from the three it had performed in the daytime sessions.

Everything is run with almost military precision by excellent young stage managing staff, plus the very professional but friendly manner of Christine Argyle, the compère.  The judge was well-known local soprano, Pepe Becker, who made helpful remarks at the awards presentation at the end, comparing attitudes required for singing to those for sport.

The performances were being recorded, so that the judges for the national finale later in the year could choose the best choirs from all the regional concerts.

The printed programme could not contain a lot of detail, but it would be an advantage to have the names of choir directors and composers printed in a less skinny, pale type-face, since during items the house lights are lowered completely, and in between items is a short space of time, such is the precision with which choirs move on and off the stage.

The first choir was Dawn Chorus from Tawa College – over 100-strong.  Like a number of the choirs, it has taken part in most, if not all, the regionals since The Big Sing began 29 years ago.  ‘The Seal Lullaby’, a peaceful song by American Eric Whitacre involved singing in both unison and harmony – the former is often harder than the latter.  Sections of ‘oo-oo’ singing were excellently done; the choir’s tone was good.

Tawa’s Early Birds, a small all-girls choir with a student director, came next singing ‘Homeward Bound’ by Marta Keen.  I found this song rather bland, and not the best suited to this group.

Yet a third Tawa College choir, Blue Notes, consisted of about 30 boys and girls.  Their item was by New Zealand composer David Childs: ‘Peace, my heart’.  This quite complex song was given a very restrained rendition.  It was accompanied by solo cellist Benjamin Sneyd-Utting.  It was a musically satisfying performance.

Whitby Samuel Marsden Collegiate’s 30-strong choir Viridi Vocem performed Gershwin’s well-known ‘Fascinating Rhythm’, the mixed choir employing actions to amplify the rhythm.  Words were clear, but the tone left something to be desired, and there was little variety.

Wellington College, and one of the other choirs, employed a professional accompanist.  Their chorale sang ‘Yo le canto’ by David Brunner, a contemporary American songwriter.  The rhythmic clapping enhanced the good sound the 35 boys made.  The harmony was extremely well rendered, and the intonation was spot on.  There was a feeling of unanimity in this spirited performance.

Boys from this school then combined with girls from Wellington Girls’ College to sing a spiritual ‘How can I keep from singing?’.  It was a very competent performance.

From across the city came 35-strong Wellington East Girls’ College Senior Choir.  They performed the ABBA song ‘Super Trouper’ by Barry Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus, with a student director.  I found the tone and dynamics unvarying.  Although words and notes were very clear, it was a dull performance – though the audience was enthusiastic to be hearing something they knew

The same school’s Multi Choir, of about 60 singers, sang ‘Ki Nga Tangata Katoa’, by Lernau Sio, the choir’s student director.  The performance was accompanied by guitar, and there was a student vocal soloist (amplified).  The choir made a robust, authentically Maori sound, and matched their excellent ensemble with appropriate actions.

From the Wairarapa came two schools forming one choir: Viva Camerata, with students from Rathkeale College and St. Matthew’s Collegiate.  They sang a traditional African Xhosa song, ‘Bawo Thixo Somandla’, transcribed by their director, Kiewet van Devente.  The performance incorporated a lot of movement.

The singing was very good, with a strong, forward sound.

Next came the largest choir of the evening, Wellington Girls’ College’s Teal – reflecting the colour of their school uniform.  Despite the choir’s large size, here was clarity plus, in the excellent performance of Gluck’s ‘Torna, O Bella’, the only truly classical piece we heard all night.  It was a delightful performance of this piece from Gluck’s opera Orpheus and Euridice.

The Year 9 Choir from the same school was smaller, but still numbered about 80 members.  They sang David Hamilton’s ‘Ave Maria’.  The sound was a little too restrained, with insufficient variation of dynamics, and the piano sounding a mite too loud.

New Zealand composer David Hamilton appeared again with yet another choir from Wellington Girls’ College – Teal Voices.  They sang his beautiful ‘My Song’.  And it was beautifully sung, with feeling, fabulous clarity and a great dynamic range.

Heretaunga College’s Phoenix Chorale gave us ‘Skyfall’ by Adele Adkins (not Atkins) and Paul Epworth.  The song is based on the theme music from the James Bond film of the same title.  I’m afraid I found it boring.  It began quietly, but later the singers pushed their voices unattractively.  The students’ faces showed no involvement or communication whatever.

Chilton St. James School in Lower Hutt has featured frequently in The Big Sing over the years.  Its first choir to sing was I See Red.  They sang ‘L’Dor Vador’, a Jewish song by Meir Finkelstein.  The approximately 40 singers sang with delightful tone; both notes and words were very clear.

The school’s second choir, Seraphim, performed a Basque song, by Eva Ugalde: ‘Tximeletak’.  Mastering the language must have been quite an assignment!   Though we couldn’t understand the words, they and the music were clear; it was an interesting composition.

Another long-standing regular at The Big Sing, St. Patrick’s College’s Con Anima choir, sang Phil Collins’s ‘Trashin’ the Camp’, a song from the 1999 film Tarzan.  It was accompanied by electric bass guitar and piano, and featured a brief vocal solo.  The 30-strong choir’s rendition involved lots of movement; the piece was very popular with the audience and was sung with style, accuracy and splendid vocal tone.

To end the evening were performances from choirs at Samuel Marsden Collegiate in Karori.  The first, Ad Summa, was directed by the student who composed the piece sung by the second choir.  First up was ‘Te Iwi E’, transcribed by student Gabrielle Palado, who, Google tells me, is a champion golfer.  The singing was accompanied by actions in the best traditions of the action song.  A guitar was used to accompany this 90-strong choir.  It was a fine performance.

The other choir, Altissime, was conducted by teacher (and distinguished soprano) Maaike Christie-Beekman.  She gave a demonstration of active, intelligent, involving directing.  The song ‘I am a sailor’ was by student Neakiry Kivi.  It was an impressive composition for a student to have written.  Its music was in places quite difficult.  The composer herself narrated, using a microphone, through part of the song; the last part was in te reo.  The 30 singers had wonderful tone, control and blend.  The dynamics were superb.  Perhaps this was the best item of the night.  I rather think this is the same song, given now an English title rather than its Maori equivalent, with which Kivi won the Royal New Zealand Navy’s 75th anniversary Secondary Schools’ Creative Competition.

Judging was on the basis of the day’s performances as well as those at the evening concert; the same went for the Wednesday sessions and concert – there were awards at the close of that concert too, though the printed programme did not distinguish as it should have between the awards given each night.

There were many certificates presented, but here I list only the cups.  The Victoria University of Wellington College of Education award  for the best performance of a New Zealand composition was awarded to Rathkeale College and St. Matthew’s Collegiate choir Viva Camerata.  The Shona Murray Cup for classical performance went to Wellington College Chorale; the Dorothy Buchanan Cup for ‘other styles of music’ was won by St. Patrick’s Con Anima choir.  The Festival Cup for ‘overall attitude to The Big Sing’ was awarded to Wellington Girls’ College.  Finally, a new financial award from the Ministry of Youth Development, named ‘Spirit of the Festival’ Youth Ambassadors Award, presented   in the form of a framed certificate, went to Heretaunga College.

Every choir member, director, trainer and accompanist deserves congratulations – not ignoring the fact that a number of the choirs sang unaccompanied, with accuracy and consistency, showing excellent musicianship.  Let’s hope that the students will maintain their singing, through youth and community choirs, when they leave school.


Annual Wellington Aria Contest final showcases some fine talent

Wellington Regional Vocal Competitions: Final
(Hutt Valley Performing Arts Competition Society)

Adjudicator: Martin Snell
Finalists: Laura Loach, Elyse Hemara, Emily Mwila, Sophie Sparrow, Frederick Jones, Pasquale Orchard, Olivia Sheat, Joe Haddow
Accompanists: Catherine Norton and Mark Dorrell
Commentator: Georgia Jamieson Emms

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 18 September, 7:30 pm

This year eighteen singers entered for the annual aria contest (it used to be the Hutt Valley Aria, when there was also a Wellington-based contest, run by the Wellington Competitions Society which died in the 1970s).

Some names were more familiar to me than others. I had only recalled Laura Loach in a smaller role in last year’s Gondoliers from Wellington G&S Light Opera, but couldn’t recall her voice. Her first aria was ‘Vissi d’arte’ from Tosca in which her large voice emerged both accurately but perhaps with rather more ferocity than pathos. Her second piece was Agathe’s beautiful ‘Leise, leise fromme Weise’ from Der Freischütz; it calls for quite marked contrasts, as it moves from the recitative-like ‘Wie nahte mir der Schlummer’, to the aria proper. Her voice was under nice control, even and subdued, then preparing a good contrast as the intensity builds to the big tune from the overture: ‘All meine Pulse schlagen, Und das Herz wallt ungestüm…’ which I thought was really fine.

Elyse Hemara’s first aria was one of Massenet’s loveliest from his little known Hérodiade, ‘Il est doux, il est bon’, that one only hears in anthologies by the likes of Kiri and Angela Gheorghiu. Intonation was a bit shaky to begin, but as she gained confidence there was sensitivity, and a sense that she meant what she was saying. Here she was in a quite different sort of role, having heard her as Lady Billows in the excerpt from Albert Herring a couple of weeks ago; but just as comvincing.

Like Massenet’s Hérodiade, I Vespri siciliani is not one of Verdi’s best known operas, but Elena’s fifth act aria, ‘Mercé, dilette amiche’, known as the ‘Bolero’, stands out in a somewhat laborious, if essentially Verdian score. Elyse, now in a rich deep purple dress, hinting at Roman aristocracy, shone in this bravura aria (no matter the missing top note), supported by Mark Dorrell’s scintillating piano.

I’d been impressed by Emily Mwila who sang Zerlina in both casts of Eternity Opera’s Don Giovanni: made for her. I was impressed that she’d tackle the only pre-Mozart aria in the Finals and she succeeded in expressing dignified grief in Handel’s Giulio Cesare (‘Piangero’); slightly desperate in the faster middle section, with accurate bravura flourishes.

For her second item, Emily also departed from the Italian repertory to which almost all the other finalists confined themselves: ‘Je veux vivre’, or the Waltz Song as it used to be called, from Roméo et Juliette. I admired Emily’s taste in dress, a subdued brocaded yellow. With teen-aged delirium she almost danced through her excitement at attending the ball where she’ll meet Romeo for the first time. Fully in command of her technique, it confirmed her radiant soubrette flair.

For the last year or so Georgia Jamieson Emms has introduced each item with amusing and pertinent remarks and sometimes a flippant precis of an opera plot which have added richly to the audience’s enjoyment. Her remarks about obscure works were particularly engaging.

I hadn’t come across the fourth finalist, Sophie Sparrow, before. Accompanied with colour and subtlety by Catherine Norton, she unearthed an aria from Mozart’s youthful La finta giardiniera, which I seem to recall, inconsequentially, as an opera in which Malvina Major had a principal role in the late 1980s. It was at La Monnaie, the national opera in Brussels, when her career was seriously taking off. ‘Gema la tortorella’ is sung by one Sandrina, the name assumed by the ‘fake gardener’. In truth, as Georgina hinted, it’s one of the more absurd opera plots, but contains lovely music; I wondered whether Miss Sparrow had picked an aria about a bird (a dove) deliberately (better known of course is Antonia’s aria in The Tales of Hoffmann ‘Elle a fui, la tourterelle’, and perhaps Stephano’s ‘Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle?’ from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette). A fine bird simulation, with high staccato notes.

Her second choice was from an American opera that has become reasonably well known in the United States: Douglas Moore’s 1956 work, Baby Doe (not a nice story). It revealed a voice under very good control, again much of it lying high yet comfortably within her range, without becoming attenuated.

Sophie Sparrow was placed as runner-up by adjudicator Martin Snell.

Frederick Jones has a tenor voice of considerable purity and emotional range. I’ve come across him at the Opera School in Whanganui and in a couple of productions (Il Corsaro from the NZSM in 2013 and Der Rosenkavalier from Opera at Days Bay). He stuck to arias that exploited both his command of major tenor roles as well as strongly contrasted emotions : great happiness in the case of Alfredo in La traviata, and despair at becoming victim of a stupid masculine honour code in the case of Lensky in Eugene Onegin.

That he wore a dinner suit for both, in contrast to all the other singers who sought to match dress with the roles, clearly did him no harm. His voice was refined and polished and created, with limited hand or facial gestures, the emotion of each aria. Even so, it seemed to me that Alfredo’s words ‘bollenti spiriti’ lacked much real ecstasy. Lensky’s aria however, was full of helpless grief.

Jones was awarded the main prize, the $4000 Dame Malvina Major Foundation Wellington Aria Prize.

Pasquale Orchard has sung in at least a couple of G&S Light Opera’s productions; and she also reached for Der Freischütz, this time the aria from Agathe’s cousin Ännchen, ‘Kommt ein schlanker Bursch gegangen’, her effort to relieve Agathe’s anxiety about Max’s chances in the shooting contest. She was in cheerful peasant gear, a green top and pink apron and she sang with even tone, investing it with a similar spirit.

Pasquale also sang Norina’s spunky aria from Don Pasquale (no pun intended). ‘Quel guardo il cavalieri’. Though she sang excellently, her voice showed more brilliance and accuracy than beauty in her high register.

Pasquale Orchard won the Rokfire prize for the most outstanding singer overall (strangely, a prize that seemed not to be mentioned in the programme).

She and the next singer, Olivia Sheat, had sung together as Frasquita and Mercedes in the Card Scene from Carmen at the NZSM opera excerpts concert 10 days ago.

Olivia Sheat’s first item was from Peter Grimes: the Embroidery Aria where Ellen sees the jersey that she had embroidered for Grimes’s apprentice who is presumed drowned. With every sign of natural dramatic talent, she captured the vein of confusion and enigmatic concern that invest not just this episode but the whole opera; her choice was no doubt a mark of her training at the New Zealand School of Music.

For her second aria Olivia also drew on Faust, with Marguérite’s Jewel Song, in which, with slightly excessive gestures, she displayed a well-supported voice in growing wonderment and susceptibility to the combined forces of avarice and passion.

Finally, Joseph Haddow, who was winner of the Robin Dumbell Memorial Cup for the young aria entrant with most potential, sang first ‘Ah, per sempre io ti perdei’ from I Puritani, and then the Catalogue aria from Don Giovanni.

I’d heard him a couple of weeks before singing Mozart’s Figaro in the School of Music’s concert of opera scenes. His is a well-founded baritone, a warm voice with a resonant quality, that handled the bravura aspect of the Bellini’s belcanto role well.

And the final offering of the evening, Leporello’s list of the Count’s conquests, is one of the most quintessential and well known arias. Though he didn’t hold the famous ‘catalogue’ in his hands, the hands and facial gestures, with even a touch of cynical sleeziness at the end were the marks of an instinctive singer.

So, as with every occasion when gifted young singers (and classical musicians in general) perform, one feels deep uneasiness at the ever-increasing numbers of fine young artists facing a steadily declining market, in a society that is led by a purportedly educated class that is largely unlettered and uncultivated in fields that separate the civilised from the barbarians.

In addition to the occasional reference in the above notes, I have to remark on the very supportive and artistically appropriate accompaniments from both Catherine Norton and Mark Dorrell.

It may be unorthodox to mention singers that I felt were a bit unlucky not to be named, either those among the Finalists or other entrants whom I’ve heard singing recently. Jamie Henare, heard as Leporello in Don Giovanni last month; Emily Mwila (Zerlina in the same production of Don Giovanni, as well as in the school of music’s recent ‘Scenes from opera’).

The Big Sing Finale Gala Concert at the Michael Fowler Centre

(New Zealand Choral Federation Secondary Schools’ Choir Festival)

Twenty-four choirs competing in the Final Gala

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday, 15 August 2015, 6.30pm

It is marvellous to find so many young people taking part in choirs and obviously enjoying it.  The fact that all the choirs learn all their pieces by heart is staggering to us mere adults who sing in choirs, to whom this is an almost overwhelming difficulty.  An excellent effect of memorisation is that for the most part, words come over clearly – not always the case when singers are constantly glancing down at printed copies.   Every eye here was on the conductors – except for those few choirs who were able to perform without anyone standing in front of them to direct things.  Overall, the performances were of a high standard.

This year, nearly 10,000 school students from 150 schools participated in local performances, and for the first time, there were three regional finales, so that the national Finale did not become unmanageable.  24 choirs participated in this Gala concert.  As always, the excitement in the hall and the large, enthusiastic audience made for a memorable occasion.  There is no other buzz like that at the Gala concert of The Big Sing Finale! I observed with interest that, whereas Finale choirs from the North Island were exclusively from Auckland (10) and Wellington (6), those from the South Island were much more spread in their representation.  Christchurch produced four choirs, but in addition, Blenheim, Nelson, Timaru and Dunedin all had one representative choir.

A significant feature was the number of languages in which the choirs performed.  In this concert there were, in addition to English, songs in French Spanish, Latin, Maori and German, plus more unusual languages: Hebrew, Finnish, Bulgarian, Hungarian and a language new to me; Visayan, from the Philippines.  These were only those used in the Gala concert; there were many other foreign-language songs performed throughout the Finale sessions.  It was a pity that without translations in front of them, the audience couldn’t get the import of the songs beyond a brief introductory description from Christine Argyle, the compère.

Judges were Carl Crossin, Professor of Music and Head of Vocal, Choral and Conducting Studies at the University of Adelaide, Judy Bellingham, soprano soloist and Associate Professor in Voice at the University of Otago, and Michael Fulcher, former Director of Music at the Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul, and currently involved in church and community choral music-making in Melbourne.

A slightly disturbing element this year was that a couple of choirs used adult professional string players to accompany them.  This seems inappropriate for such a festival as this, when many choirs had student piano accompanists. The repertoire chosen for this concert from what the choirs sang over the previous two-and-a-half days was extremely varied and musically interesting. The awards are based on performances on those days, not on Gala concert performances.  I did not envy the judges their task.

Another important feature is the scale of the organisation, whereby choirs at this concert are ready to move onto the platform the moment the last choir moves off, and all take their places without a hitch.  Christine Argyle has her introduction at the ready, and stage crew have unobtrusively done what was required in no time at all.  Elizabeth Crayford and her team from New Zealand Choral Federation Wellington Region are to be congratulated on their management and organisation skills.  Not least of their accomplishments is producing a handsome programme for the three days, with the names of all choirs, all choir directors and accompanists, items to be sung and names of all choristers printed.

For the final concert, a sheet is produced with the order, choirs and items listed – this can only be done, presumably, after the last choirs have sung on Saturday morning.

Euphony, an all-girls choir from Kristin School in Auckland began the programme with a song in Maori, by David Hamilton, ‘A Charm for Rain: He Tua I Te Rangi’. While it was difficult to pick up the words, though this did improve, the piece was delightful, with a lovely accompaniment of rain sounds, and a charming section sung by a small group.  Euphony won a gold award, and also sponsor Tour Time’s award for the best performance of a classical item.

Gold was the award also for Burnside High School’s Senior Chorale, a large mixed choir, who sang ‘Kalá Kallá’ from Five Hebrew Love Songs by American choral composer Eric Whitacre, who proved to be the most popular composer in the concert, with four items.  This choir also won the ultimate award, the platinum.  The male singers had a distinctive tone, while the accompanying violin solo added interest, as did tambourine.  A joyful piece, full of variety of moods, made for a classy performance.  Appearance was also classy; all the girls had their hair up, making for a very neat turn-out.

Sings Hilda, the choir from St. Hilda’s Collegiate School in Dunedin, chose a work by New Zealand choral composer David Hamilton (another popular composer throughout the festival): ‘Läksin mina kesäyönä käymään’.  This item was in the Finnish language.  How does a New Zealand composer become sufficiently conversant with that language to be able to set it so well, presumably with correct emphasis and stress?  It is about a girl siting on the shore for her loved one to return.  It began with a solo voice and accompanying wordless vocalisations. and was unaccompanied.  The choir appeared to have mastered the words; and the tricky music was sung well, without music score, of course. There were lovely nuances, phrasing and dynamics.  The choir won bronze.

Stella Nova, the choir from Nelson College for Girls, performed a Bulgarian traditional song, ‘Kafal sviri’.  In smart red dresses, the singers formed into groups of three.  Their singing was startling – they used no vibrato, but a deliberate, strong, forward tone for this folk music.  This voice production was strikingly different from that used by all the other choirs.  Although my Bulgarian is a little rusty, I found the choir had superb enunciation. For their pains, they won a silver award, and the award as Youth Ambassadors: the NZCF prize for the choir ‘that in the opinion of the organisers demonstrated outstanding engagement with all elements of the Finale’.

A change now, to a choir with the ominous, punning name ‘Menasing’: boys from St. Kentigern College.  Like many of the lighter music items in the concert, ‘Leaning on a lamp-post involved well-executed movement.  A very stylish performance with piano accompaniment, clear words and splendid singing in both unison and harmony were features, as was playing on numbers of toy instruments, not to mention air guitars and violins.  The choir produced gorgeous pianissimos, and its presentation was easy and precise.  Their efforts won them a gold award.

Teal Voices from Wellington Girls College was notable for singing without a conductor; teacher Nicola Sutherland played the piano.  Words were clear in their performance of ‘I say a little prayer’ by Burt Bacharach, and the singing was in appropriate style.  However, I felt more dynamic variation was required.  They gained a silver award.

At this point I had to leave the hall to attend another function, so the remainder of the programme I heard either on radio, or on tapes from the radio broadcast.

Macleans College Choir sang unaccompanied a fast song, ‘Rosas Pandan’ very proficiently. It was in the Visayan language (of which I had never heard) of the Philippines.  Clarity of words was notable, and very bright tone.  A bronze was their reward.

Resolutions is the choir from Rangi Ruru Girls School.  They sang unaccompanied and in the Hungarian language ‘Táncnóta’, arranged by Kodály. This song about dancing revealed a good dynamic range, although there was some strain on higher notes.  The pace sped up towards the end, and the choir was rewarded with silver.

Dilworth School in Auckland contributed its choir Fortissimo, who sang (accompanied) ‘Taku Kahurangi’ by Joby and Otene Hopa.  It opened with splendid deep tone, and continued with excellent enunciation of the Maori words and wonderful subtlety of phrasing and changes in tone. It earned them bronze, plus the award for the best performance of a work using Maori text.

Altissime is the choir from Samuel Marsden Collegiate School.  Their contribution was a Mexican song ‘Les amarillas’, which incorporated the sound of an egg shaker, plus clapped rhythms, some of them (deliberately) off-beat.  The piece had unusual tonality, and sounded quite difficult, especially the high singing.  It was lively, but the sound was not well blended.  A silver award was the result.

The St. Cecilia Singers from Auckland Diocesan School for Girls gave us ‘Ain’t misbehavin’’ a Fats Waller favourite at The Big Sing over the years.  This was accompanied, and sung brightly and confidently, with an excellent solo part.   The choir achieved a gold award.

Wellington College Chorale performed ‘Audition Day’ by student Joshua Hopton-Stewart, without a conductor.  I found the melody and harmony rather limited, but it was sung well, including a short section in falsetto.  The conception and the words were fun, and along with actions, all was executed well.  A silver was earned, and the Hutt City Trophy for best performance of a New Zealand or Pacifica composition.

Paradisum from Epsom Girls Grammar School chose Eric Whitacre’s ‘She weeps over Rahoon’ a setting of a poem by James Joyce.  It was performed with a cor anglais lending its plangent tone, along with piano.  It was a difficult work with tricky harmonies, but the singing was excellent, and justified the gold award.

Bel Canto from Burnside High School sang two items – a traditional Ecuadorean song in Spanish ‘Cancion de los tsáchilas’, played with drum accompaniment and some wonderful whistled bird-song.  This mixed choir was very skilled, and revealed a great range of dynamics. They also sang ‘Requiem’, the prize-winning composition, by Rosa Elliott of their school.  The accompanied piece seemed very singable.  It was based on the well-known poem by Robert Louis Stevenson that begins ‘Under the wide and starry sky…’; perhaps appropriate in the year in which we recall the many graves on Gallipoli.  The choir earned a gold award.

After the interval, Saints Alive from St. Cuthbert’s College performed a traditional French song, ‘La Maumariée’.  Fast and lively, with an oboe accompaniment, it was rendered in very good French.  A silver award resulted.

Voicemale is from Westlake Boys High School, and is a 50-strong choir of accomplished choristers.  They sang Eric Whitacre’s ‘Lux aurumque’.  They lived up to the great reputation that this school (and its girls’ equivalent) has built over the years.  When I heard them on Thursday, they performed a humorous item, with actions. Their Latin item wasn’t quite up to that standard, but was nevertheless well sung and effective, and they earned a gold.

Cantala from Wellington East Girls College sang in appropriate pop style ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ by Alan Menken, but I couldn’t tell what language they were singing in till part-way through, when I picked up a few English words.  They gained a silver award.

Christchurch’s Collegium is formed from Christ’s College and St. Margaret’s College. ‘Beati quorum via’ by Charles Stanford is a beautiful unaccompanied piece, but here the tone was variable, the males’ sound unattractive, and intonation was sometimes suspect.  A bronze was awarded.

Craighead Chorale followed, with ‘Salmo 150’ by Ernani Aguiar.  A Spanish piece, it was unaccompanied, revealing some very good voices.  Tuning, rhythm and enunciation of words were all very good, and a silver award was earned.

St. Patrick’s College Wellington has often ‘produced the goods’ at the Finale, and its choir Con Anima did so on this occasion, with ‘Hol’ you han’’, a Jamaican traditional song, in Jamaican English.  It was given an idiomatic rendering with marvellous enunciation. The boys accompanied with various sound effects; they sang as one in a very professional manner.  A silver was awarded.

Blue Notes from Tawa College followed, with ‘Richte mich, Gott’ by Mendelssohn. This mixed choir made a good beginning, the voices clear and well-produced.  The German was rendered well, but there was not much expression in this unaccompanied performance, and intonation was astray occasionally.  However, they made a full-bodied sound.   They received a bronze award.

Cantare from Westlake Girls sang a Debussy anti-war song, Debussy’s last.  Fine French pronunciation  and a very good performance were let down by top notes just missing the mark a little.  A silver award was made.

All the King’s Men from King’s College in Auckland chose a work by another prominent American choral composer, Morten Lauridsen: ‘Dirait-on’, from Les Chansons des Roses.  There was splendid gradation of dynamics in this French song; the choir gained a silver.

The concert ended with Whitacre; Marlborough Girls College’s Ovation sang ‘The Seal Lullaby’ with smooth, blended tone.  It would indeed send a baby to sleep – especially at the end of a long programme!  It was awarded bronze.

The presentation of awards followed, after some remarks from Carl Crossin on behalf of all three judges.  He emphasised the importance of well-chosen repertoire that suits the individual choir’s strengths and weaknesses.  He stressed also the necessity to adapt to the acoustics of the venue, and congratulated the choirs on doing so at the Michael Fowler Centre.  He said all choirs had been successful, but praised the artistry of the most successful.

In addition to the awards mentioned above, there was the composition award, to Rosa Elliott of Burnside High School for her ‘Requiem’.

The massed choirs, comprising 730 singers, then sang ‘Ride the chariot’, a spiritual, conducted by Rowan Johnston.  With singers dispersed throughout the downstairs, the stage, and part of the upstairs of the hall, it was not a particularly cohesive sound, but the following national anthem, in Maori and English, achieved a fine sonority, to finish a remarkable evening of great singing, special effects, use of percussion, wind instruments and strings as well as piano, in diverse and interesting repertoire.


Plentiful talent at Wellington’s Aria Contest courtesy Hutt Valley Competitions Society

Hutt Valley Performing Arts Competitions Society

Aria Final, 2014

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday, 7 September 2014, 7 pm

The adjudicator at this year’s senior vocal competitions was José Aparicio, from Hawke’s Bay.  The aria competition attracted a record 23 entries, and eight finalists were called, rather than the usual six. The performers were all of a high standard, and the size of the audience was greater than it has sometimes been for this annual event.

Mark Dorrell accompanied all the finalists except one, in his usual splendid fashion; Tamara Buckland was accompanied by Catherine Norton – it was good to see the latter back in action in New Zealand after study overseas.

The concert was divided into two halves, with the competitors singing, in the same order, an aria in each half.

Compèring the evening was Georgia Jamieson Emms, summarising the plot of each opera for the audience.  Throughout, she gave us introductions that were witty and well-expressed, of just the right length.  Not only did she inform the audience, her ebullient turns of phrase must have helped to put the contestants at ease.

The evening opened with the rich, powerful voice of Tamara Buckland singing an aria from Massenet’s Werther. Buckland’s French was excellent, and she expressed the sentiments of the aria well.

Elisabeth Harris is dramatic both in appearance and voice; her low notes in “Give him this orchid” from Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia were full of delicious timbre.  This was a difficult aria, with a very wide vocal range; the drama was all there in Harris’s face and voice. All in all, it was a very fine performance.  Another Britten aria was next: “The embroidery aria” from Peter Grimes.  The grim story was put over with very clear English words by Rebecca Howan.  Her voice has a lovely quality of unforced clarity.

Hannah Jones also sang Gounod’s famous “Jewel” aria, and acted it out in gesture and facial expression.  Her tone was very pleasing, though it was lost a little on the lowest notes and she sang slightly sharp at times, early on.  This performance was also quite fast, but Jones was better able to manage the tempo.  Many words needed more projection.

Olivia Sheat proved to be the possessor of a lovely voice.  What with her clear words, the fact that her low notes were as clear as her high ones and her gorgeous rendition of the beautiful “Song to the Moon” from Rusalka by Dvořák, with its long-breathed notes.  I was very impressed.  She has great stage presence, and alone among the performances, I found her singing of this wonderful aria moving.

Katherine McIndoe’s performance of Mozart’s “Ah, ich fühl’s” from The Magic Flute was excellent, and she conveyed the mood well through her voice, but her face was completely bland, and she was a shade flat once or twice.  Finally, the sole male in the contest, Christian Thurston (who came third in the recent Lexus Song Quest final) sang “Avant de quitter ces lieux”, another venture into Gounod’s Faust.  His fine baritone was rich, and he gave a splendid performance.

After the break, we heard “Song to the Moon” again.  Once more, Tamara Buckland made a great sound, but occasionally sustained notes did not stay on pitch.

Elisabeth Harris sang “O ma lyre immortelle” from Sappho by, yes, Gounod.  The long legato lines were carried beautifully.  This aria also exploited her excellent range and dramatic skills (and thrills).  Rebecca Howan didn’t quite reach the standard of her first aria, but she shows promise. “O war’ ich schon mit dir vereint” from Fidelio by Beethoven was perhaps a little too demanding for a young singer.

Hannah Jones followed with “Quel guardo il cavaliere” from Don Pasquale by Donizetti.  This gave her the opportunity for good facial and musical expression, since it is humorous in its effect.  The words needed to be clearer through being projected more, but it was a fine performance in other respects.  Olivia Sheat gave another attractive performance, full of character and nuance, this time with Puccini’s “Quando m’en vo” from La Bohème.  She told the story that Musetta was conveying, and had me smiling.

Katherine McIndoe made a more accomplished and involving performance this time, of the difficult aria “No word from Tom”, from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.  To end the evening’s singing, Christian Thurston sang “Per me giunto… O Carlo ascolta” from Verdi’s Don Carlos.  As probably the most experienced singer in the group, it was appropriate that he was the only one to sing Verdi.  He evinced great breath control, but I found some of his notes rather muddied.

Some words from the adjudicator were not all easily heard; unfortunately he did not use the microphone, so I missed most of them.  Awards were: 1st prize of $4000 from the Dame Malvina Major Foundation and Rosina Buckman Memorial Cup, to Christian Thurston; 2nd prize $1000 from the New Zealand Opera Society, to Elisabeth Harris. The Robin Dumbell Cup for the singer with the most potential went to Olivia Sheat; the Rokfire Cup for most outstanding competitor throughout the senior vocal classes, to Katherine McIndoe. The Jenny Wollerman award of $200 for the best rendition of a song or aria in French was won by Hannah Jones, and the $200 Patricia Hurley Opera Tours award for the best song or aria in Italian by Katherine McIndoe.

Congratulations to all the winners, and to The Hutt Valley Performing Arts Competitions Society for encouraging young singers and putting on a splendid evening of singing.