A new film commemorates the 1941 Babiy Yar Massacre of Ukraine Jews by the Nazis

Featuring excerpts from “Requiem – The Holocaust” by Israeli composer Boris Pigovat, a work for orchestra and viola soloist.

Narrator – Valentyna Bugrak
Composer – Boris Pigovat
Viola soloist – Xi Liu
Conductor – Martin Riseley
New Zealand School of Music Orchestra
Designer and Producer – Donald Maurice
Director – Bill McCarthy
Assistant Producer and translator – Xi Liu
Photographer – Dwight Pounds
Sound Engineer  – Graham Kennedy

Project funded by Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

A 2008 concert in Wellington given by the then Vector Wellington Orchestra conducted by Marc Taddei featured the very first performance in New Zealand of Russian-born Israeli composer Boris Pigovat’s “Requiem”, with violist Donald Maurice as the soloist.  This work, completed in 1995, commemorated the horrific massacre by the Nazis of thousands of Jewish citizens of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv during 1941. Pigovat’s grandparents and an aunt were among those murdered by the occupying Nazi forces in what has come to be known as “the Babiy Yar massacre”.

The “Requiem” was originally intended to be premiered in Israel, but (not inappropriately) the venue was changed by dint of circumstances to Kyiv itself, an event notable for the co-operation between the Israeli Cultural Attache in the city and the Goethe Institute, the work finally being premiered in 2001. Almost eight years later came the first New Zealand performance mentioned above (attended by the composer, and recorded by Atoll Records), which was followed by an invitation to the solo violist, Donald Maurice, to take part in the work’s first performance in Germany later in the year.  (The Middle C review of the Atoll recording can be read here: https://middle-c.org/2011/09/boris-pigovats-requiem-a-stunning-cd-presentation/).

All of this is by way of preamble to the 2020 making of a film, one which designer/producer Donald Maurice calls a “miracle”, considering it was all put together during a pandemic! The name “Lacrimosa Dies Illa” (Latin for “Full of tears will be that day”) is taken from the Dies Irae {“Day of Wrath”) sequence of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass, words which have previously inspired various composers who have undertaken to compose a Requiem. The production boldly juxtaposes past and present images of the actual location with narrations of actual events, a commentary by the composer on the work’s specific content and general structure, and filmed excerpts from a performance of the work in the Adam Concert Room at the University’s School of Music.

The film opens with scenes from the place close to the ravine where the atrocities took place, now an idyllic park-like memorial, with long avenues of trees and various commemorative monuments and statues, one in particular dedicated to the children who lost their lives there. The latter is singled out in the presentation by a sudden orchestral cry of pain and lament during the introductory music of the opening “Requiem Aeternam” movement accompaniment. After this, Ukrainian violist Valentyna Bugrak, a member of the Kyiv Kamerata Ensemble orchestra, begins to narrate an outline of the horrific story of the massacres. Filmed on location at the park by Roman Strakhov, Bugrak appears at various times during the film to recount the continued “saga of atrocity” which took place at that location. Somehow, for me, her youthful presence and beauty, though separated by more years than would have allowed her to be directly associated with the events, seems to speak directly for the children whose lives were not allowed the chance to blossom, but instead caught up and ended by these brutal actions of the Nazis towards people they deemed expendable. Her commentary also outlines the tactics employed by the Nazis to trick the Jewish population into thinking that people were to be relocated to their historic homeland, and thus securing their compliance up to the point where it was too late for them to escape.

Composer Boris Pigovat, filmed at Rosh Ha’Ayin in Israel by Gyuqin Cao, is depicted explaining and  demonstrating on a piano the Requiem’s leading motifs, how and why they make their appearance and where they occur in the course of the music. Sitting with him is the violist we see performing much of the work, Xi Liu – I would have liked her interaction with the composer to have been rather less passive – there’s no chance for her to articulate any of her feelings about any parts of the work and its particular challenges, except via her superb playing with the NZSM Orchestra conducted by Martin Riseley. But to be fair, the film’s duration, five minutes over the hour, doesn’t waste a second in regard to what it does contain, a powerful and gripping amalgam of information, context and creative insight regarding content that’s at once fascinating and deeply tragic.

Some may find Pigovat’s explanations and analyses of his material too much of a good thing – but he does have the gift of describing his raw musical material and its relevance to the whole in emotive-based nontechnical language, which enables one to connect with a set of raw kind of impulses whose effects can be characterised in words – he readily points out his influences from non-Jewish sources, such as the Christian Requiem and its use of Latin as a language of ritual in both structure and content, but is able to set it in a kind of context of connection with faith and humanity in general, even a unifying force for those prepared to make the journey. The film is  good at demonstrating how the composer’s “raw” material is employed in the finished product, by playing orchestral rehearsal excerpts featuring the same motifs and their interaction. Pigovat is particularly eloquent when  explaining the significance of his use of the Latin title for the second movement “Dies Irae”, and its interaction with the Jewish prayer “Shema Israel”, paying special attention in the music to the idea of the horror being a kind of mechanism, a “murder machine” as well as a “devilish dance”. The orchestral performance which follows uses various concentration camp images to underline the sense of persecution and mechanised and systematic elimination of a significant body of people, the playing by the NZSM musicians under Martin Riseley’s direction building up and into a ferocious orchestrally-wrought maelstrom, followed by an equally macabre “dance of death”, concluding with the composer’s idea of a beating heart slowly dying, signifying life ebbing from those people caught up in the nightmare.

In view of the film’s title I expected much would be made of the similarly-named third movement of the Requiem – and so it proves, with Pigovat indicating his awareness of the usual response by composers to the “Lacrimosa” (weeping) text, but wanting something different in the wake of the Dies Irae movement, expressions of anger and strangulated pain, leading to a kind of madness whose intensity seems to take the human spirit to a state of oblivion in which everything is “burnt out”, the music primordial and impulse-driven – an amazing solo viola passage in which these things are unleashed is given in full, the music at once insensible and searingly eloquent in Xi Liu’s hands. Pigovat expresses the idea given to him by Prokofiev in his opera Semyon Kotko, a sequence in which a man is executed and his fiancee will not believe he is dead –  and like Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet she loses her mind with grief, the music strange and “lost”, until an “explosion” of realisation finally brings tears. Pigovat was inspired at this point by Mozart’s Lacrimosa in his “Requiem”, the music a series of finely-wrought impulses of grief ebbing and flowing between silences……

The composer thought the concluding “Lux Aeterna” would be the lightest and most serene part of the work, but felt that  it needed a “fresh” approach, with themes that had not been heard before. We hear the themes sketched out for us, and then played by the soloist and orchestra, the music calling for a renewal of faith and hope – a beautiful passage for solo flute which the film highlights “speaks” for the character of this section of the music, and the Martinu-like ostinati for various instruments takes the music to the coda, a sequence which Pigovat considers connected with the souls of the dead, the viola interacting with sombre brass and percussion, the tones allowed to resonate into silence.

Valentyna Bugrak returns at the film’s end to tell us of how much was remembered and retold by the survivors of this tragic series of events, more so that we might appreciate and understand the full extent of the atrocity and be reminded that this must never be allowed to happen again.  The film’s gathering together of history, commentary and deeply-felt creative response concerning the horrific events at Babiy Yar inevitably makes for, in places uncomfortably heart-rending viewing and listening, but it serves to further remind us of our own human capacities for inhuman behaviour which, as more recent events have disturbingly demonstrated, can take unexpected shape and form in so many ways.

A website devoted to the  film will be launched shortly, one containing the documentation through which people’s work on all aspects of the production can be fully recognised and acknowledged. As this is the 80th anniversary year of the massacre, a number of countries have already indicated their interest in screening this film at this time.  Meanwhile, a trailer for the film can be viewed at the following link: – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Um-KIbm48ck&feature=youtu.be

Following last year’s NZ Opera production, another local “take” on Henry James’ famous ghost story “The Turn of the Screw”

THE TURN OF THE SCREW – A film (2020) by Alex Galvin  after the novella by Henry James (1898)

Cast: Greer Phillips (Julia/Governess) / Ralph Johnson (Richard) / Ben Fransham (Uncle/Peter Quint) / Jane Waddell (Mrs Grose) / Ella Olssen (Flora) / Alex Usher (Miles) / Sarah Munn (Miss Jessel)

Writer – Alex Galvin
Producers – Alex Galvin, Emma Beale, Nicola Peeperkoorn, Edward Sampson
Production Designer – Debbie Fish
Costume Designer – Sally Gray
Music – Ewan Clark
Musicians – NZSM Orchestra
Sound – Matthew Lambourne, Callum Scott, John McKay
Cinematographer – Mark Papallii
Editors – Elizabeth Denekamp, Edward Sampson, John McKay
Executive Producers – James Partridge, John McKay

Embassy Theatre, Wellington

Thursday, 6th August, 2010 (NZ Premiere)

A recent feather in the cap of New Zealand film-making has been the inclusion of “The Turn of the Screw”, an adaptation of Henry James’s classic ghost story by Wellington director Alex Galvin, in the recent Shanghai film Festival. Within a few days of the Shanghai showing the film had its New Zealand premiere at the Embassy Theatre in Wellington, an event that was sold out. Its audience witnessed an intriguing “take” on James’ novella, one which effectively paralleled the way the author “framed” his original story by having a guest at a country house party produce a written account of a new governess’s experience with two children she claimed were “haunted” by two dead servants wanting to “possess” them. Here, the story was enacted as a dress rehearsal for a stage production at the Wellington Opera House,  where a replacement actress for the part of the governess (Greer Phillips) arrives by taxi just before the rehearsal is about to begin, and is quickly and somewhat bewilderingly thrust into her stage character by Richard, her director (Ralph Johnson). The latter’s slightly creepy fulsomeness supported James’s own observation that there should be “a suggestion of strangely gruesome effect” in the story from the beginning, and even if none too subtly as the action proceeded, this state of things was certainly engendered here.

What was also straightaway evoked as the story itself began, by dint of superbly-wrought lighting and properly-suggestive music (a tangibly atmospheric, if perhaps sometimes over-wrought, score by composer Ewan Clark) was a sense of disorientation on the part of both Julia, the actress, and her character the governess, most convincingly “inhabited” by Greer Phillips at this and every other point. This was aided by a prevailing opaque luminosity of visual effect working hand-in-glove with a soundscape that engendered and harboured all-pervading unease – unlike with the written word, which the reader can modulate at his or her pleasure in terms of a time-frame, a spoken narration or drama grips the listener or observer in a more-or-less continual flow – so James’s story was here essentially telescoped into what seems like a much shorter period, having the effect of taking over in real time a “house of horrors” from which there could be no relief. The reader might register with the story’s telling the gradual disappearance of summer into autumn, and the succession of days passing “without another encounter” (with the ghosts), but we in the theatre seemed as prey to omnipresent interaction with these spectral forces, or the threat of it, as seemed the story’s ill-fated governess to be.

The effect of this concentration of untoward incident I thought akin to a ride on one of those “ghost trains” of my youth set up in the amusement parts of fairs, with bangs, screeches and crashes at regular intervals, each played for its maximum effect!  At first the sheer visceral impact of each “scare” I found overwhelmingly sonorous and atmospheric but soon felt the too-frequent scares becoming counter-productive with every irruption (one has only to recall F.W.Murnau’s silent film “Nosferatu” to remind oneself how the visual alone can make as terrifying an impression). I thought the “bird” incident, for example, the killing of a stray sparrow by the housekeeper, Mrs Grose, gratuitous in effect, accompanied by a noise out of all proportion to the action. Still, there were places during which  the camerawork allowed images to create their full effect largely unaided, generating enormous tension and anxiety – the governess’s discovery of and approach towards the veil worn by Miss Jessel, for example, let us for a few moments ourselves do some of the work towards creating tensions in our own minds, culminating just as fraughtfully with the shock of our unexpectedly encountering the housekeeper.

Something the film certainly conveys is the ever-burgeoning obsessiveness of the governess regarding the presence of the ghosts and their intent regarding the children, a point which has taxed analyses of the original James story since its appearance – there have been various “stances” taken by critics, ranging from those who regard the story as an out-and-out supernatural tale, to the argument that the governess herself is an “unreliable” narrator, bringing her own imaginative, deluded and, ultimately fatal obsessions to bear on the situation. Complicating the ambiguities of James’s own colouring of the character’s narrative is the stress and uncertainty the film’s setting and action puts her as an actress under from the outset, so that we are having to take into account her having to “feel her way” through the stage business’s unknown territories irrespective of her knowledge of the script – her “off the cuff” expletives in response to various happenings are mere tips of the iceberg which compound her uncertainties (and her reactions) in this role, and effectively “run together” the strains of motivation for her actions.

Generally I thought the actors’ characterisations had a basic and attractive naturalness and ease, cleverly contrived to create tension whenever this was disturbed. Alongside, and a perfect foil for, the governess of Greer Phillips was the non-imposing figure of the housekeeper, Mrs Grose, played by Jane Waddell with disarming literalness – in James’s narrative she is described by the governess as “a magnificent monument to the blessings of a want of imagination” (itself an intentionally spontaneous self-revealing remark), and Waddell’s unequivocal, if occasionally uncertain response to the governess’s quickness of supposition effectively throws the latter’s obvious susceptibility to such things into bold relief.

The children, Ella Olssen as Flora, and Alex Usher as Miles, both looked and lived their respective roles most assuredly, playing their part in heightening the ambivalence of our feelings towards their states of awareness, the camera-work a particularly candid exploration of skilfully-wrought expressive nuance on the young actors’ part delineating their interactions with the governess. With Miles, the elder of the two,  around whom an aura of misconduct had already been created by his supposed expulsion from school, the sexual tensions which are contrived via the governess’s superheated protectiveness of the boy from the house’s malignant presences, are inversely reflected by her earlier alienation from the girl, Flora, in dramatically confronting her with a kind of  supposed “guilt of awareness” of those same presences. Each of the encounters exploits the full impact of one’s immersion in appropriately dramatic visual and sonic happenings – climaxes in a veritable symphony of drama, and appropriately full-blooded at those particular moments.

Regarding the “ghosts”, both brought to their respective presences a time-honoured frisson of fearful thrill through their unerring immersion in the drama’s capacities for shock and surprise, however much I thought some of the gestures might have been wrought or framed in a less obvious kind of way. An interesting touch was having Ben Fransham play the roles of both the Uncle (in the story’s Prologue) and the ghostly manservant, Peter Quint, underlining the elsewhere-expressed theory of Quint being a kind of “alter ego” of the Uncle (whom the governess gives every indication of being infatuated with), a juxtaposition which would heighten her “reverse abhorrence” of the idea of Quint having anything to do with Miles. The other ghost, Miss Jessel, an even more enigmatic presence (James deliberately sparing with his detailings concerning her, with Mrs Grose being the “agent” of information for the governess in each of the ghost’s cases, rendering the unfortunate pair in terms mixing memory and heresay. Sarah Munn as Jessel fully matches and fills out whatever projection of fear and unease we might bring to an encounter with her character in such a context.

How these “onion layers” of supposed actuality, conjecture and fantasy play themselves out is a process which I thought here made by and large a riveting experience in the cinema/theatre. And the drama’s closing post-rehearsal scene presents a final enigma, one that bonds with the film’s opening circumstance of the young replacement actress, Julia, tossed into a kind of maelstrom of her character’s overall fantasy and (possibly) self-delusion. Interestingly, the circumstance is presented plainly and simply, its stark actuality all that is needed to suitably disturb. Writer, producer and director Alex Galvin has here formulated an absorbing “take” on a much-examined story, at once “bringing it home” to us in a localised and contemporary way via the setting, and expanding our own sensibilities and visions in the context of a vibrant occasion of world-wide currency.


Forbidden Voices: Documentary film on German/Jewish composer Richard Fuchs, also neglected in New Zealand

New Zealand School of Music: Conference: Recovering Forbidden Voices 2014

Film: The Third Richard
An 80-minute documentary of the life of Richard Fuchs, made by Danny Mulheron and Sara Stretton

Embassy Theatre, Wellington

Sunday 24 August

“Richard Fuchs was a composer believed by his father to be ‘the third Richard’, successor to Strauss and Wagner. He loved German culture above all others. Unfortunately German culture hated him. His music was banned by the Nazis and he was banished, so he fled to New Zealand in the 1940s. No longer persecuted, just ignored. A man out of place and out of time. An enemy in Germany because he was Jewish and an enemy alien in war-time New Zealand because he was German. Through this film, Danny Mulheron discovers the life and work of his grandfather, Richard Fuchs.”

These few lines, which billed this particular event, gave little hint of how extraordinary a story this film uncovered. Richard Fuchs was born in Germany in 1887 and died in Wellington in 1947, From an opening portrayal of privilege and rich cultural life in pre-war Karlsruhe, it followed the heart rending vicissitudes of Fuchs and his family in their struggle to escape from Hitler’s Jewish programme and the Holocaust, and make a new home in New Zealand.

This was the historical framework for the film, against which unfolded an artistic and musical life of amazing creativity that spanned architecture, drawing and painting, and an astonishingly broad and versatile musical oeuvre. Such a rich outpouring of creative talent could be only lightly touched upon in 80 minutes of film, but viewers were treated to some wonderful samples of his musical repertoire that left one with the impression that New Zealanders will be in for some profoundly rewarding listening if more of Fuchs’ music can be performed here.

This composer stands in the grand German Romantic tradition of Wagner, Mahler and Bruckner, yet I found all the musical excerpts in the film had a refreshing quality about them that refrained, even in the major Symphonic Movement played by the NZSO, from straying into the overblown heroics of his predecessors. The dark experiences of his life uncovered by some of the other excerpts were deeply moving and full of pathos, yet again free of the almost stifling weight of some Romantic pens.  Fuchs wrote piano compositions (he was an accomplished pianist), chamber music, lieder, choral and orchestral works, and what remains is today housed in the Turnbull Library.

Every excerpt I heard in the film made me want to hear more of this remarkable talent, and I was pleased to be alerted by director Danny Mulheron, to a very comprehensive website covering all aspects of his life and work www.richardfuchs.org.nz.  Under Recordings one can listen to over thirty items – more than enough to whet the appetite for more of this lovely music. There are also sections covering The Archive, Catalogue, Composer (with 2 CDs available), Publications (including a biography by Steven Sedley) and the Documentary film (available on DVD). This is a rich musical resource, well worth exploring, and there is provision to expand it into his visual arts as well.

I came away from this screening with the clear understanding that New Zealand, and the wider world, deserves to hear much more of this enriching music. The NZSO and regional orchestras are clear candidates for airing his work; it would also sit well in Radio NZ Concert’s Made in New Zealand
slot, and in Chamber Music NZ’s programmes. An ideal “sampler” for this last could comprise a showing of the DVD, informed by the willing attendance of the film makers or Richard Fuchs’ Trustees, plus perhaps a live or recorded performance of some shorter works. I think it would not be long before there were requests to hear more of this haunting and evocative voice so long neglected, very much to our musical cost.



Cathedral’s festival celebrated by satanism and the supernatural in film and music

The Phantom of the Opera – silent film accompanied by organ
A Cathedral Jubilee Festival Event
Barry Brinson – organ, Hannah Catrin Jones – soprano

Cathedral of Saint Paul

Saturday 26 July, 7:30 pm

How satisfying is the experience of a silent film?

As part of the Cathedral’s 50th anniversary, a famous silent film made in 1925 was screened, with a dedicated sound-track comprising a live organ performance. The inspiration for an organ accompaniment came from the theme of the film itself set in the Paris Opéra where performances of Gounod’s Faust were taking place. The film tells the tale of an organ-playing ‘Phantom’ which has taken up residence in the dungeons beneath the theatre and is doomed to remain there with his deformed face until a woman loves him.

The woman targeted is an opera singer, Christine, who is understudy to the role of Marguérite in a production of Faust. The Phantom makes it known that the prima donna, Carlotta, must stand aside so that Christine can sing the role.

Our first encounter with the opera is the ballet scene (well, two of the seven numbers in the ballet) which Gounod wrote when Faust was produced by the Paris Opéra in 1869 (it had premiered at the Théâtre Lyrique in 1859, with spoken dialogue and various other differences from the version usually performed today). The ballet was an addition to the orgiastic witches’ scene on the Brocken in the Harz mountains in central Germany, known as the Walpurgisnacht: another appropriate link with the Gothic (last year your reviewer went by steam train up to the Brocken searching for evidence of earlier heathen depravity, but was disappointed).

After the threat has been fulfilled and Carlotta is ‘sick’, we hear Christine singing Marguérite’s affecting last act aria, ‘Anges purs, anges radieux’, sung beautifully by Hannah Catrin Jones. But the next night in spite of the Phantom’s threat, Carlotta again attempts the role, and Hannah sings the Jewel Song (it would have been nice to have had surtitles for the words of these), but amid flickering lights, the mighty chandelier in the auditorium crashes on to the audience. The Phantom seizes Christine and holds her in the dungeon below the theatre.

In the second half Hannah sang ‘Il était un roi de Thule’ and the Phantom at his organ went through the motions of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C sharp minor: M. Brinson did it much better, as he did with Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. After the final chase leading to the disposal of the Phantom in the Seine, Brinson played one of those splendid Lefébure-Wély-type pieces with which Parisians make their exits from church.

There is no need to narrate the complex and rather contrived story after that, and its departures from the original novel as well as the changes made in the course of the film’s production; the ad hoc modifications that had to happen in the course of recovering and restoring the film, the original 35 mm version of which had been lost, are to be found on the Internet.

So: how satisfying as a theatrical and music experience was this silent movie?

The film cannot really rank as a classic of the silent film era, as there is far too much incoherent, clichéd, ‘horror’ effects, suspense, pointless chase scenes, dwelling on the Phantom’s hideous face and the satanic elements, not to mention a story that echoes, in a confused way, aspects of the ancient Wandering Jew or Flying Dutchman legends, hinting at the idea of redemption through a woman’s sacrifice, as well as echoes of the Faust story itself.

Many would have been there for the music though. While Barry Brinson accompanied with imagination and frequent pointed effects, any attempts to echo the supernatural and the intended terrifying phases of the story did not quite measure up to the kinds of music such things might inspire from an imaginative composer of today, so that the dated visual devices were hardly rescued from their weaknesses by the injection of dramatic and chilling music.

Nevertheless, the presence of an organist who knew his way around this versatile instrument and managed generally to find music, some from related material such as the Andrew Lloyd Webber version of the story, with a lot of tremolo rather than much real musical evocation of scenes of ‘horror’ and suspense. Yet we heard a musician of impressive improvisatory, and well as memory skills who actually produced the kind of musical accompaniment that might have been heard in the 1920s in a movie theatre.

The novel and the film of The Phantom of the Opera fall into the broad class of Gothic fiction that arouse in the late 18th century.

The Gothic pattern involved calling up a variety of effects and situations: mysterious, supernatural, terrifying or horror-filled. There are visions, omens, shadows on walls, ghosts, ancient castles, or, in this case, a rather wondrous neo-gothic – architecturally neo-almost-everything – opera house; they often involved a woman threatened by violence from a fiendish character, accompanied by staring eyes, fainting, screaming.  The story makes great use of suspense, supernatural events, inanimate things coming to life, appearances and disappearances, a woman in danger, tyranised by a crazed or evil man.

The French origin of the film was a novel of the same name that appeared in serialised form in 1909-10. It was emphatically in the tradition of the Gothic fiction that touched poetry, drama and the novel, as well as opera and ballet and the visual arts throughout the 19th century. It was a very important sub-genre of the Romantic movement.

The movement had started with Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto in 1764 and novels of Ann Radcliffe such as The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian, The Monk by Matthew Lewis (who became known as ‘Monk Lewis’), aspects of Walter Scott’s novels, the stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, elements of Dickens, like Little Dorrit and Great Expectations. Later examples were Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White.

The genre flourished in the German Romantic movement from the time of Schiller’s Die Räuber in 1782 (which became Verdi’s I masnadieri), Kleist, Tieck and most importantly ETA Hoffmann. Jean Paul’s novels were steeped in the genre (his Titan reverberated through the 19th century, even, misleadingly, to Mahler’s First Symphony). In opera there was Weber’s Der Freischütz, with Samiel, the Satanic ‘Black Hunter’ and the magic bullets, Marschner’s Der Vampyr drawn from a story by John William Polidori, the creator of ‘Vampire literature’ – a sub-genre; and de la Motte Fouqué’s Undine (a water sprite) which inspired much later writing and music, such as operas by Hoffmann himself, Lortzing and Dvorák’s Rusalka.

In Russia, Gothic elements exist in Pushkin’s Queen of Spades and Lermontov’s Demon (both of which inspired operas by, respectively, Tchaikovsky and Anton Rubinstein).

Later in the 19th century the style revived with R L Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, Henry James The Turn of the Screw. And of course it could be no surprise that the cinema soon realised how brilliantly the whole assemblage of hysterical and supernatural nonsense could be exploited on the screen.


SMP Ensemble plays Contag for “The Crowd”

Forty-second Wellington Film Festival 2013 presents:

The Crowd

Silent Film with live score performed by SMP Ensemble

Composer: Johannes Contag
SMP Ensemble conducted by Karlo Margetic

Paramount Theatre,  Courtenay Place, Wellington

Sunday 11 August 2013

This film dates from 1928 and is in the timeless tradition of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. It was written and directed by King Vidor, and the score was commissioned by Creative NZ from young Wellington composer Johannes Contag. The 12-piece SMP Ensemble comprised a handful of strings, flute, clarinets (including bass), bassoon, percussion and piano, a selection which gave Contag a varied colour palette to work with, and the tools he needed to support the wide sweep of settings, emotions and characters depicted in the film.

The composer comments of the film that “Despite being received very well at the time, its bold modernism and systemic cultural critique defy most Hollywood tropes. Already an enormously successful director, King Vidor had the rare privilege of flouting studio expectations, and consequently there’s not a single hero or villain to be found here. Instead, we are treated to an engaging dissection of everyday city life, one that refuses to succumb to the predictabilities of comedy and tragedy alike. What really makes The Crowd a delight to watch is its underlying love story……..It is in its astute depiction of the romantically mundane that The Crowd wins us over, making us care for the underdog despite his follies.”

King Vidor’s film is a poignant drama of a charming but all-too-fallible dreamer and the exasperated woman who loves him unconditionally and never gives up on him through thick and thin. The dramatic range of this screenplay presents an enormous challenge for the composer – almost two hours of non-stop music for scenes that encompass the dreamer’s gentle rural upbringing, the shock of a parent’s premature death, the heady thrill of setting off to seek his fortune in New York, the grinding reality of employment as a pen-pushing clerk in a vast office, then the romantic encounter that drives the remainder of the plot.

Each of these settings was sympathetically handled in Contag’s score, with the frenetic pace of New York life being perfectly captured in his Twenties-style ragtime idioms. The colour of the score more than compensated for the 35mm Black and White medium which seems so spare to modern viewers. The scoring for the courtship and honeymoon scenes trod a masterly knife edge between the extremes of lust and tenderness, with never a hint of predictable banality. The central part of the screenplay covers the mundane realities of daily work and commuting, and the monotony of suburban life for the stay-at-home wife and children. This called for essentially background music but, given that,  I nevertheless felt that Contag’s writing here was somewhat short on melodic, rhythmic and  tonal variety. It became rather pedestrian compared with the earlier score but, that said, his sense of drama was still keenly expressed in his very effective use of silence at key dramatic moments.

The latter part of the screenplay covers the increasing pressures on the marriage that result from the heartrending death of their daughter – a catastrophe which catapults the husband into a reckless decision to quit his pen-pushing job. Contag captured the poignancy of grief and crippling self doubt with great sympathy, together with the agonized indecision of a wife who still unswervingly loves her man, but has finally reached the end of her tether. When their fortunes finally seem to be recovering, the score sashays effortlessly into a conclusion filled with the brighter moods of optimism and hope.

Bouquets are due to the Film Archive and Creative NZ for putting their efforts and funding into this very successful collaboration between the composer, the Wellington Film Festival, and the local SMP Ensemble, who did such justice to the score. Together they made possible the only live performance of this year’s festival, and the fact that the house was sold out well in advance demonstrates the soundness of backing this endeavour. Hopefully this will be just one of many similar collaborations in the future.





Tribute to Kurt Sanderling from ICA Classics

KURT SANDERLING (1912-2011)  – a great maestro

BRUCKNER – Symphony No.3 in D Minor (CD)

Kurt Sanderling (conductor) / BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra

(recorded Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1978 – the disc also includes an interview with Kurt Sanderling)

CD ICAC 5005

SCHUMANN – Symphony No.4 in D Minor / MAHLER – Das Lied von der Erde (DVD)

Kurt Sanderling (conductor) / BBC Philharmonic Orchestra

Soloists: Carolyn Watkinson (mezzo-soprano) / John Mitchinson (tenor)

(recorded Royal Albert Hall, London, 1988


Available from ICA Classics at www.icartists.co.uk/classics

Kurt Sanderling, who died last year in Berlin at the age of 98, was a name known to me from my formative days of record-collecting, through his 1950s recording made with the Leningrad Phllharmonic of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony – one of those early cotton-stitched white-and-yellow panelled Deutsche Grammophon LP covers with the composer’s facsimile autograph scribbled across the central vertical yellow panel (all very tasteful and esoteric, obviously aimed at the “discerning” record buyer of the time).

Sanderling worked with the legendary Yevgeny Mravinsky as assistant conductor of the Leningrad orchestra for eighteen years, from 1942 until 1960, when he took on the task of rebuilding the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, returning to the country he had left in 1936 because of his Jewish ancestry. As well, he became for a number of years conductor-in-chief of the Dresden Staatskapelle. But it wasn’t until 1970 that he first conducted in the UK, developing a relationship with the Philharmonia Orchestra after he deputized at a concert for an indisposed Otto Klemperer, and then in 1975 appearing for the first time with the then BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra (later renamed the BBC Philharmonic). He conducted the latter group often, making his Proms debut with them in 1982 with Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.

In 1981 Sanderling made his only visit to New Zealand, conducting the NZSO on a couple of occasions, most notably in Brahms and Shostakovich, of which I saw and heard the former concert (I wish I’d heard the Shostakovich as well, which drew forth clusters of superlatives from the local critics).  I well remember the imposing, authoritative figure on the podium in the Town Hall, head held high, magisterial glances and flowing gestures holding the players in thrall and producing from them glorious sounds throughout the Brahms First Symphony. Interestingly, it was Sanderling’s ability to get first-rate sounds out of orchestras not quite in the top rank that was a significant feature of several of the many tributes I read after his death – and my memory of the NZSO concert he conducted certainly confirmed that judgement.

Now, thanks to the new audio and audiovisual ICA Classics label (go visit the label’s website at www.icartists.co.uk/classics to get an idea of the riches being made available) two previously unreleased “live” recordings of Sanderling’s work as a conductor have appeared, an audio-only of Bruckner’s Third Symphony and a DVD of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, both with the BBC Philharmonic. I’d not previously encountered any of the conductor’s Bruckner, but had heard the 1981 BBC Mahler Ninth with the same orchestra – so I was delighted upon hearing both of the new recordings that Sanderling seemed as much at home with those big, rolling Brucknerian symphonic paragraphs as Das Lied’s more overtly varied, coloristic and volatile Mahlerian outpourings.

I began my listening with Bruckner, a performance of the Third Symphony recorded in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in April 1978 (presented here on ICAC 5005) at which time Sanderling had been a guest conductor with the orchestra over three seasons. The interpretation is strongly-etched, both energetic and supple, suggesting that the rapport between conductor and players was a well-established one. There’s a Klemperer-like strength and grain to the tones and textures, a straightforwardness to the big, Brucknerian rhetorical gestures, such as the declamatory unison which caps the symphony’s very first crescendo. Sanderling keeps it all moving, as if obeying some kind of primordial pulse beneath the music’s surface, the steadiness having a cumulative, organic effect entirely avoiding any kind of rigidity.

Even if one is occasionally reminded that we aren’t listening to the Vienna Philharmonic or the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, there’s a far more cherishable sense of experiencing music-making that doesn’t deliver a glib or mechanical phrase. There are one or two momentary ensemble glitches – the strings have a less-than unanimous moment at the beginning of the development section, for example – but the playing is every bit as good as one might expect from a live concert, and the brass in particular are, in my opinion, superb.

Between the movements the microphones are left on, allowing the audience atmosphere to register and preserving a “live” continuity throughout the work. Again, there’s a beautiful unhurriedness about the playing in the slow movement, suggesting, in between evocations of elemental grandeur, long-breathed natural undulations doing their thing and encouraging the listener to connect with the music’s ebb and flow. What one realizes at the movement’s end is how Sanderling has build up the tensions and concentrated feelings of the sounds right throughout, investing the last few pages with a truly valedictory feeling, the horns’ held notes at the end the stuff of planets and stars – this is conducting and playing that feels to me as though it properly “owns” the music.

The scherzo’s pointed urgencies are put across with plenty of stamping girth, the earthiness of the playing carrying over into the trio, putting the countryman in dancing clothes and holding his rough edges temporarily in check. There’s an even greater contrast at the finale’s beginning, where we get playing of dangerous whirling exuberance, whose energies gradually give way to the insinuations of the ländler, one decorated by a chorale-like theme on the brass (Bruckner described this episode once as “life’s gaiety standing side-by-side with death”). Sanderling gets the orchestra to play the unsettling, syncopated second subject theme with tremendous power and agitation, as he does the recapitulation of the opening, with its chromatic variants that sound so like the final pages of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, when the River Rhine overflows its banks. Everything – the reprise of the Ländler, its interruption by the jagged syncopations, the magnificent lead-back to the symphony’s opening theme (triumphantly in the major key, with the brass again playing their hearts out) has a compelling inevitability. The audience’s applause is thunderous – and rightly so!

Abruptly, we are taken to an interview with Sanderling at the symphony’s end, a fascinating ten-minute picture of a musician whose authority and clear-sightedness comes across in his speech as unequivocally as his music-making. He speaks of his early years in Germany, his early experiences as a repetiteur at the Berlin State Opera, of his admiration for Otto Klemperer during those times, of his having to leave because of his Jewish ancestry, and his departure for Russia, leading to his first conducting experiences and his subsequent collaboration with Evgeny Mravinsky in Leningrad. He talks about Haydn and Shostakovich and Mahler, and has interesting things to say about all three, including the latter’s “triumvirate” of musical farewells. Interviewer Piers Burton-Page chooses his questions well and allows Sanderling plenty of room to give his answers sufficient breadth and depth.

ICA scores equally well with the Sanderling DVD presentation, which, in addition to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, features the Schumann Fourth Symphony from the same Proms concert, in July 1988 (incidentally, more than ten years after the Bruckner CD performance). Watching Sanderling at work confirms what one heard on the Bruckner CD, the conductor’s confidence and authority inspiring powerful and committed playing from his orchestra players, though not in a martinet-like way, as was the style of his great mentor at Leningrad, Mravinsky. Like his own hero, Klemperer, Sanderling at work looks formidable, but he’s also animated and expressive in places, giving as much the impression of coaxing what he wants from his players as imposing on them a determined will.

The Schumann Symphony leaps from the players’ instruments with a will – not surprisingly, there’s a Klemperer-like steadiness about it all, a dark, brooding introduction and a powerful, clearly-articulated allegro, the music’s exuberance breaking out in the movement’s coda to exhilarating effect. I liked Sanderling’s underlining of the continuities between the movements, each luftpause enough to gather both breath and strength before the music plunges into a new episode without lack of continuity. Sanderling gives his players time and space to float the slow movement’s phrases across the bar-lines to wondrously lyrical effect, the trio graced by some sensitive solo playing from the orchestra’s leader. I liked the players’ pointing of the Scherzo rhythms – plenty of tonal “girth” in this dance, set against the trio’s graceful and gossamer difference, the latter leading to the finale’s grandly ritualistic introduction, filled with strength and inevitability. Though lacking the last ounce of physical excitement, the cumulative effect of Sanderling’s direction invests the work’s ending with thrilling power and purpose.

As for Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, it’s a performance that reaches out and grasps the music’s greatness, with everybody, soloists, orchestra and conductor completely caught up in the intensities generated through the composer’s fusion of music with his chosen texts. Both soloists are wonderful, tenor John Mitchinson a winning combination of philosopher, poet and inebriate, and Baroque specialist mezzo Carolyn Watkinson giving us a touchingly vulnerable view of the world’s beauties and disappointments. She’s perhaps a shade dry-eyed and distant in the closing stages of the “Abschied”, an approach that rivets one’s attention without overtly tugging at the heartstrings. Also, to my ears, she occasionally phrases ever-so-fractionally under the note, though never in a way that gives rise to serious alarm – what’s of paramount importance is her whole-heartedness, her investing of each phrase with meaning and involvement. Sanderling and the orchestral players support their singers with both solo and ensembles lines of great beauty and sharply-wrought focus, making every description of time, place and emotion a meaningful one. The camera-work is excellent, as it was throughout the Schumann symphony, balancing the overall with the specific to great effect, and giving a sense of everybody’s contributions to things which truly reflects the nature of a concerted effort on behalf of the music.

One comes from both experiences of Sanderling’s work here, audio and visual, with a sense of having encountered greatness. For most people music exists as sound rather than on the printed page, making the performer an essential component of that combination which produces great performance art. Sanderling and his musicians deliver the music’s greatness in all cases, to splendid and satisfying effect. I, for one, am now anxious to explore more of ICA’s issues, on both DVD and CD – this, for me, couldn’t have been a better introduction to the company’s catalogues.

Website: www.icartists.co.uk/classics

Flawed silent film, Metropolis, with original score in splendid NZSO realisation

Metropolis – silent film by Fritz Lang, accompanied by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra playing the reconstructed score by Gottfried Huppertz, conducted by Frank Strobel

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 5 November, 6.30pm

The first thing that struck me about the otherwise excellent programme notes was the absence of any direct comment about the thrust of the 1927 German film as an anti-capitalist document.

The notes suggest that the scenes of forced labour foreshadowed the concentration camps. That seems a misleading remark, considering NAZI taking power was still six years away, while exploitation of industrial workers had characterized most industrial enterprises since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.  The pervasive message of the work is a trenchant if rather simplistic portrayal of capitalism’s unspoken but ever-present aim to control and exploit labour. It would be unusual for a film dealing with the dominant economic and social character of the age to be otherwise.

The notes also remark on the presence of the Star of David on the door of the evil inventor Rotwang, which is taken to link both Lang and his wife to incipient Nazism, and remarking on the story that Goebbels had offered him the position of Head of the film studio UFA. However, there is no evidence that Goebbels did so. Lang fled Germany as early as 1933, mere months after the NAZIs came to power. Lang’s wife did remain in Germany and did become a member of the party, however.

It is historically invalid to link anti-semitism exclusively with the NAZIs. The Star of David simply suggests that Lang shared the widespread anti-semitism that throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, had less a racist basis than an association between capitalism and the major role played by Jews in the financial sphere, particularly in the minds of the working classes.  Anti-semitism was a widespread phenomenon in left-wing thinking.

The film is set in the future where the city, Metropolis, is controlled by its apparent sole industrial magnate, Fredersen (not ‘Federson’), with a sharp separation between owners-managers, who live above ground in luxurious art deco apartments, and the workers who live and work underground in slave-like conditions.

The film’s present fame is due to its complex and interesting provenance more than to its particularly insightful political message. The denouement is summed up at the end, rather portentously, and childishly: “The Mediator between the head and hands must be the heart!” The head is capitalist master Joh Fredersen, and the hands are the exploited worker/slaves; Fredersen’s sympathetic son, Freder, is the mediator/heart.

Was Lang carefully avoiding alienating part of his audience by refraining from pointing to the film’s more obvious theme: the exploitation and oppression of labour by capital; or was he really that naïve?

The film owes some of its notoriety to the vicissitudes of its survival. After its indifferent reception in Germany in 1927, the German studio UFA and Paramount Pictures butchered it for American screening, reducing its 153 minutes to 90, as well as revising the script to turn it into a shabby Frankenstein-like film. .

The original premiere version disappeared and the cut parts were believed lost.  In 2001, a new 75th anniversary restoration was screened in Berlin; it restored the original story line using stills and intertitles to bridge missing footage, and it added a soundtrack of the original orchestral score by Gottfried Huppertz.  But the cut parts of the film remained lost. Then in June 2008, a 16mm copy of the original film was discovered in an archive of the Museum of Cinema in Buenos Aires.   It filled most of the gaps. The 16-mm copy was made from a 35-mm print owned by a private collector, who obtained it from the distributor who brought the original cut to Argentina in 1927.

Some contemporary critics panned it. The New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall called it a “technical marvel with feet of clay”. The Times went on the next month to publish a lengthy review by H G Wells who accused it of “foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general.” He faulted Metropolis for its premise that automation created drudgery rather than relieving it, wondered who was buying the machines’ output if not the workers, and found parts of the story derivative of Shelley’s Frankenstein,  Karel Capek robot stories, and his own The Sleeper Awakes.  Joseph Goebbels was impressed however and took the film’s message to heart. In a speech of 1928 he noted: “The political bourgeoisie is about to leave the stage of history. In its place advance the oppressed producers of the head and hand, the forces of Labour, to begin their historical mission”.

But in the meantime, New Zealand had a piece of the action; strangely, ignored by the notes in the NZSO’s programme booklet.

As Wikipedia tells it:

In 2005, Wollongong-based historian and politician Michael Organ examined a print of the film in the New Zealand Film Archive.  It had been thought that it was the same cut as the Australian version, but Organ discovered that it contained missing scenes not seen in the cut versions of the film. After hearing of the discovery of the Argentine print of the film and the restoration project currently under way, Organ contacted the German restorers about his find. The New Zealand print was found to contain 11 missing scenes and included seconds of footage which were missing from the Argentine print and also footage which could be used to restore damaged sections of the Argentine print.

It is believed that the editor in charge of editing the New Zealand print for some unknown reason excised different scenes than that of the Australian print, keeping scenes missing from other versions intact. It is believed that the Australian, New Zealand and Argentine prints were all scored from the same master. The newly discovered footage was used in the restoration project.

The rights holders of Metropolis, F. W. Murnau Stiftung (Foundation), later confirmed that the newly discovered footage completes the missing footage except for a few missing frames.

How did the screening go? As an art form that depends for its existence on technology, early films encounter more impediments for modern audiences than other arts. The plain technical shortcomings are soon accommodated by the viewer, but political and social views and attitudes present more serious barriers, and even some of the critics’ comments from the film’s time drew attention to those. These failings have not become less obvious.

Acting that is unaccompanied by dialogue is very different – more like mime – and I can only conclude that many of the audience had more acute intuitive senses than I do if they understood what was going on all the time.

For it’s a long film and a fairly detailed story, not, I would have thought, the ideal for silent movie treatment. That’s a long-winded way of saying that I found the story both obscure in places and then not presenting a very profound view of the subject.  After all the exposure of hideous maltreatment of the workers, both in their working conditions and their accommodation, it seemed bizarre to present a conclusion that hardly suggested that any kind of radical change was needed other than a bit of kindness.

Its division into three ‘acts’ (Prologue, Intermezzo and Furioso) with an interval between the first and second, helped create the feeling of a theatrical rather than a cinematic, experience. The music itself was interesting. Certain episodes such as the scenes in the cabaret were presented with the kind of jazz-inflected music of the 20s, and the somewhat chilling, heavy theme that depicted the machinery was evocative, but the music did not succeed in delineating character differences or in supporting the episodes that should have been frightening or romantic. Though there were several effective musical moments such as Maria’s terrified underground chase pursued by an inexorable torch beam, in general, the music did not, in comparison with operatic or tone poem scores of the previous half-century, contribute very much to the emotional fabric.

The score, for large orchestra, showed the influence of Strauss and Wagner, perhaps, but more particularly Korngold and Schreker.  In spite of its lack of acute emotional characterization, the richness of the orchestral palette was nevertheless a revelation of the scale of the orchestral resources available in the silent movie theatres.

The orchestral score is, as the programme note records, cued with the film scenes in a very detailed way, and this would have made the job of conductor Frank Strobel less accident-prone, though no less taxing. The result was certainly a most impressive achievement by the orchestra, which undoubtedly sustained interest in the film’s narrative which, I suspect, would have been very difficult without it, over its two and a half hour duration.

There is enough music of independent substance for an orchestral suite or ‘paraphrase’ to be drawn from it.

More on Wells’s “brilliant” (Dom Post) doco on the NZSO tour

But the New Zealand Herald didn’t see eye to eye with the Dominion Post’s Linda Burgess who reviewed it as television on Monday 1 August.

See William Dart’s admirable, clear-sighted comment in today’s paper: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/movies/news/article.cfm?c_id=200&objectid=10743356

Subsequent to this post, we’ve been told that the Herald is being pressured to remove Dart’s review.
In case that happens, here it is:

Jeremy Wells’s doco on the NZSO tour

by William Dart

Saturday 6 August 2011 – New Zealand Herald

Last October, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra was proud that Jeremy Wells would front a documentary about its upcoming world tour. And Wells, fresh from his rather clever Birdland series, responded that “it was time to align myself with something a little more cultured than birds or half-baked local celebrities. The NZSO was an obvious choice”.

I shuddered at this cruel put-down of the delightful, idiosyncratic characters who made Birdland a success. If this casual insult occasioned shudders, then the completed documentary, The Grand Tour, which screened on Prime TV last Sunday, was rage-inducing.

Shuffling around the concert halls of China and Europe, Wells, the eternal slacker, patched together a script of snide swipes and innuendo. China was the home of Sars and, looking to porn for inspiration, Wells described Garry Smith, the NZSO operations manager, as a fluffer.

Wells’ feeble attempts at in-depth interview had harpist Carolyn Mills valiantly fielding his banter about playing in the nude; trombonist David Bremner was reduced to a giggling school boy when Wells likened his trombone playing to a sex act, or confronted him with scatological humour more familiar in shows like Back of the Y.

We hardly had time to marvel at some of the glorious venues before Wells chirped in with the observation that classical music is woven into German culture like automotive engineering and barebacking. The American soloist Hilary Hahn was asked whether she had tried solvent abuse as a teenager, masseuse Bronwen Ackerman was drawn out on the subjects of “happy endings” and conductor’s erections. Shamefully, Wells teased a German doctor to the point of harassment with a discussion of a surreal testicle injury.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa quite rightly showed little patience with Wells’ interview tactics. When she did respond, she was cut off mid-sentence.

Clearly The Grand Tour was more about Jeremy Wells cracking out a good spit in Shanghai or, for two long minutes, attempting to introduce Lucerne against traffic noise.

There were glimmers of thoughtful commentary here and there but there should have been much more on the rare occasion of classical music making it to prime time. Those who care about New Zealand music have reason to worry about its obvious marginalisation in this film; Ross Harris and his specially commissioned orchestral pieces were neither heard nor discussed.

And what does the orchestra itself think of this travesty, this deeply philistine mockery of indubitably great culture? Most organisations would insist on quality control and final approvals; if this documentary got a tick from the NZSO, then our classical music culture is indeed in a sorry state.

Musicologist Robin Maconie posted a comment on Scoop.

But it’s no use referring you to that because Scoop removed it from their website rather abruptly.

Maconie writes: “This article went global and within a day was pulled from the Scoop website, with no reason given. Scoop is supposed to be an independent news medium. Robin Maconie has refused to allow the article to be reinstated in edited form.”

So here it is:

After the NZSO:

Jeremy Wells plays with his Wiener experience


Like a convict facing the hangman’s noose, a cornered rat turns, bares its teeth, hisses and fouls itself.

Step forward Jeremy Wells, poster boy for a sinking New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Except the NZSO is not sinking. At least, not yet. The rats will eventually leave and the orchestra will survive. It is a good orchestra. It has high standards and a serviceable reputation in the wider world of serious music and musicians. It has still to expose, let alone properly exploit, the cultural  resources of a gifted conductor and hardworking team of musicians. The orchestra recently toured a number of distinguished and not so distinguished concert halls in Europe. A cut-price effort fuelled by desperation and putting considerable strain on the players, organized by a management team behaving as though a symphony orchestra were the equivalent of a national rugby team in drag.

The tour was three years in preparation. While the world economy crumbled around them and the money began to run out, as Wellington bureaucrats do the tour organizers doggedly stuck to their original plan. There was no Plan B. The tour finally took place at the worst possible time for a New Zealand shaken by the first of several major earthquake disasters in Christchurch, then Pike River Mine. The orchestra was accompanied by a photographer and a television crew, but no independent musically competent reporters. A surprising omission, since New Zealand has at least two music journalists of good standing in regular employment, but a decision that may have something to do with the fact that both are based in Auckland, home of the rival Auckland Philharmonia. The only way the New Zealand public was able to follow the NZSO’s tour of fortune in the court of European public opinion – the New Zealand public whose declining subscriber base the entire exercise was arguably intended to recover – was through the intermittent blog of an amiable but not terribly literate brass player and a succession of all too brief and nervously managed press releases of doubtful credibility.

Following the muted triumph of the orchestra’s return home at a time of national mourning the NZSO marketing gurus, crass and insensitive as ever, began loudly complaining that their achievement had not been taken seriously enough by the government or the public.

It was their own fault. A tour planned and staged as a marketing gesture for home consumption – just like a Silver Ferns tour – took place in conditions of almost total media blackout. Apparently it is not the done thing in the world of art music to keep your existing or potential customers informed.  No explanation in the national media as to why the tour was necessary in the first place, leaving readers to suspect that the whole exercise was no more than a promotional quid pro quo to massage the vanity of one or two people at the top.

The frankly obscene idea that inflatable toyboy Wells should front a potentially vote-winning television documentary, and its disastrous consequences, speaks volumes. Wellington, the city of culture? Of course you must be joking. It is what happens when empty heads prevail and responsibility for a national orchestra and national radio part company. The orchestra loses all sense of connection with its national constituency and retreats into a conservative and toxic backwater in desperation to retain its national, tax funded position of advantage. In abandoning the original BBC inspired formula, our national radio no longer sees itself as having a stake in NZSO success at home or abroad, as promotional, educational, and service wing of the orchestra.

Promoting the NZSO among the wider population in New Zealand is further hindered by serious broadcast reception difficulties, compared to countries in Europe. The problem affects listener satisfaction in all media: radio, television, and broadband. When the Rolling Stones come to play, they bring their own crew. Rock music is not the same game, is much easier to control, compared to classical music at its best. So ask yourself, if listeners cannot receive a decent uncluttered signal at home or on the road, how can they be expected to develop an empathy for music of high quality of any culture, not just western symphonic and opera. Classical music, whether live or prerecorded, is technically the most demanding of all acoustic signals to deliver to an audience. New Zealand has the engineering and digital skills, but not the smarts nor the will, to address the problem. Appreciation of the NZSO will only improve once our institutions of higher learning take delivery of relevant teaching expertise and introduce suitable training and production skills programmes.

Can the NZ Symphony Orchestra survive the brutalizing attentions of media mouthpiece Jeremy Wells? Certainly it can; the question is whether it deserves to survive under its present regime. The documentary material can certainly be re-edited to present the NZSO in a more flattering light to an international public. All that has to be done is for the television footage to be edited to leave Wells’s contribution on the cutting room floor,  and for it to be gathered up and burned.

It is only too obvious, both from the way the 2010 European tour was sold, and from the series of blunders that led to Wells tagging along and then actually fronting the souvenir documentary aired on Prime last Sunday, that the NZSO marketing people were only interested in impressing the folks back home.

This was a shame. A properly researched international tour would have unearthed real opportunities to present the orchestra and our national culture distinctively and proudly, in a way designed to impress the orchestra’s European audiences and media, rather than leave them feeling perplexed, blindsided and somewhat taken aback.

A tour of Austria and Germany was a wasted opportunity to remind New Zealanders just how much our concert life and traditions are indebted to European refugees seeking a better life in this country who brought classical music with them as part of a precious old world heritage. Think just for a moment of  the cultural commitment of the people of Nelson who, back in 1890,  at the suggestion of visiting string virtuoso Michael Balling, an associate of Wagner and Brahms, willingly subscribed to a scheme to build a School of Music on the European model, and to hire a succession of German-trained specialists to direct it. Today the building survives, mothballed, a neglected relic of cultural heroism in the midst of an indecently prosperous wine community that has lost its soul.

The NZSO might well have taken a very real message back to Europe about our contribution as a remote Polynesian nation to the history and development of European artistic consciousness. But in order to do so one would have to understand more exactly who we are and what we have to offer. New Zealand Maori’s history of contact with European civilization goes back to the time of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. A century in advance of the first All Black tour, European art and music was already reverberating to the exotic sounds and rhythms of plaintive karakia and the violently confrontational haka recorded in widely-published chronicles of visiting eighteenth-century explorers.

New Zealand music can no more repudiate our connection with European culture than we can erase the memory of those Austrian and German explorers and scientists whose skills and patient discipline laid the foundations of our current reputation in conservation and the natural sciences. Or ignore the image of a Nowhere Land described by  nineteenth-century English visitor Samuel Butler, writing letters and commentaries on Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species for the Christchurch Press by day, and by night playing Beethoven sonatas on an upright piano in his isolated sheep station in the Canterbury hinterland.

Who would know that Christchurch was once the home of the Dresden Piano Company, and Begg’s, piano manufacturers and music retailers to the New Zealand settler community from the time of sailing ships? Who among NZSO management cherishes – or even remembers – the young teenage violinist Alfred Hill, sent off to Leipzig by enthusiastic public subscription in 1887 to train as a professional and return to serve his people, only to be insulted and repudiated by the local community after World War I for the double offence of association with the enemy, and for fraternising with Maori. Not forgetting more recent arrivals like the Francis Rosners, the Marie Vanderwarts, the Fred Turnovskys, and the Michael Wiecks, seeking relief from religious persecution in Vienna and elsewhere before and during the era of Nazi persecution.

What publicity value is served, I wonder, either here in New Zealand or anywhere else in the western world where culture is prized, by the shameful spectacle of an ignorant prick  insulting a woman, his senior, and an artist of the quality and international status of Dame Kiri, not only by his words but even by  his blank, shovel-faced presence?

Aided by a compliant and nepotistic administration New Zealand’s cultural life has over the years been infiltrated, not to say contaminated, by a steady stream of articulate and rebarbartive middle-class refugees of conservative taste, mediocre talent, and restricted vision, decision makers and opinion formers who have no idea or interest in New Zealand’s unique history or its place in the greater pattern of world events. They are vain, cruel, cunning, vastly overpaid, and indifferent to the significant damage they inflict on New Zealand’s image abroad as well as what hurt they effect on morale at home.

Why, I wonder, should the NZSO be courting the attentions of such people. And why should the public be content to put up with, let alone pay for, the insult of a Paul Henry style makeover? Such errors of judgement are hugely counter-productive. They risk alienating commercial supporters among media sensitive national industries such as Air New Zealand, as well as international brands such as Siemens and BMW. They only serve to draw attention to national standards of ignorance and vandalism that, as well as being irritating to the local public and calculatedly offensive to members of the orchestra, would be incomprehensible to media watchers in any other part of the civilized world, including Murdoch’s Australia.

Let’s face it. The NZSO management just don’t have a clue. They have to go. For much too long our cultural life has been infected by glib and alienated mediocrities with the gift of the gab but no grasp of New Zealand history or cultural values, empty vessels with a sense of entitlement to badmouth the very values they came to New Zealand in order to escape.

Rare and beautiful trio explores its repertoire for Nelson’s festival


Adam Chamber Music Festival. Fairytales: Schumann: Märchenerzählungen, Op 132; Brahms: Intermezzi, Op 117; Bruch: Eight Pieces, Op 83, Nos 5, 2, 6, 7.


James Campbell (clarinet), Gillian Ansell (viola), Martin Roscoe (piano)


Nelson School of Music, Friday 11 February 1pm


The festival’s artistic directors, no doubt always in close rapport with the artists concerned, have had an unerring ability to fit the music together in contexts that were coherent but also fitted the time of day and the venue.


That has been so true of the midday concerts in the charming church of St John.


Schumann’s Fairy Tales were among the last pieces he wrote before his mind collapsed, and it is possible to suggest that the quality of melodic inspiration has declined. But the spirit of whimsy and playfulness remained, clearly enough here. Nevertheless it is true that the weaker the music, the more dependent it is on loving and inspiring performance. The four pieces here, melodically not very memorable, came to life with these players who could invest them with such affecting charm and colour.


Though nothing much came to mind when I tried to conjure up images or fairy tales to accompany the pieces, no visual support was really needed to accompany this delicate music.


Martin Roscoe then played comparable, though one must admit, much more inspired and imaginative music – Brahms’s Three Intermezzi of Op 117. They were the kind of performance that one imagines might reside in a Platonic heaven of Ideals: absolutely immaculate, richly expressive in their nostalgia or gaiety, full of life, so natural and simply beautiful in pace, articulation and dynamics.


Then there were four of Max Bruch’s Eight Pieces for this trio of instruments, his Op 83 – the combination that exists because Mozart wrote the only truly great music for it in the Kegelstatt Trio, K 498. One or two groups have lighted upon these Bruch pieces recently, but none had convinced me of their charm and sheer musical worth as much as this performance has. The tunes were clear and memorable and the balance and ensemble of the trio brought them to life in the most beguiling way, with some quite beautiful clarinet playing. Hearing such attractive pieces always induces me to explore more of the neglected Bruch, but one is usually a little bit disappointed; I shall keep exploring.  


This was the last performance by Martin Roscoe in the Festival; other concert promoters could do worse than invite him back soon.



Wallowing in International Art while staying at home

The Habit of Art, by Alan Bennett

The National Theatre production, directed by Nicholas Hytner

Richard Griffiths (Fitz/W.H.Auden), Adrian Scarborough (Donald/Humphrey Carter), Alex Jennings (Henry/Benjamin Britten)

Film screened at the Penthouse Theatre, Brooklyn

Tuesday 25th May

Musings and a review by Peter Coates.

This week has been a very exciting one for me. Last Sunday I saw a performance of Wushu martial arts by twenty-four Chinese visiting experts. This was spectacular, colourful and beautifully choreographed and performed in front of an appeciative audience at the Wellington Town Hall. Modern dance choreographers in Wellington should have been along to witness it.

This was followed by another Chinese delight on Thursday. In this case it was an illustrated lecture by visiting sculptor Prof. Zhao from Shanghai. Prof. Zhao was visiting Wellington for a week, working with Richard Taylor, of Weta fame, on ideas of mutual interest.In a sensitively interpreted lecture, illustrated by a long parade of excellent visuals, we saw the dynamic sculptures of the professor, huge in size, using a wide variety of sculptural media mainly on what one would describe as ‘politically viable’ subject matter. Despite this he manages to gain strong individual expression in the subjects he chooses, and his technical brilliance is undeniable. His combination of technical skill and perceptive observation won his an award at a Venice Biennale. Prof. Zhao brought with him formulae for a form of clay unused in New Zealand which he demonstrated to Richard and his team, producing four portraits of Weta colleagues at a rate of 25 minutes each. We were lucky to have Richard along to add his experiences in China to Prof. Zhao’s story.

But this was only one aspect of his lecture. It was followed by an amazing collection of slides of the professors own collection of Chinese tradition craft – thousands of shadow puppets, pottery items, household utensils, weaving, printing blocks, painting ,calligraphy and sculpture. All had been assembled since the cultural revolution. Now highly regarded as important cultural heritage, the Chinese government is building a special museum to house this amazing collection. One day I would love to see this collection “in situ”. So much for the Chinese section of my week.

Next, the British section. On Tuesday I visited the Penthouse theatre in Brooklyn to see the British National theatre production of Alan Bennet’s “Habit of Art” . This is an example of the  relatively new technique of recording top performances overseas and playing then a matter of weeks later in  specially selected theatres throughut the world. This was originally recorded on  April 22nd ,and shown here last week. It is a system already used successfully in opera,but which is now moving into theatre. Having both produced and designed work for the stage and television – Stravinsky’s “Soldier’s Tale” in 1982 and recorded an opera “live” from the stage for television – Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” in 1979 – the prospect for me of seeing the effect of such work today outside my DVD library was very appealing.

Alan Bennet had constructed  a play that was particularly appealing to me. It was set as a  rehearsal for a play about the relationship between Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden,who had originally worked together on documentary films for the British Post office –

“This is the night mail crossing the border,

bringing the cheque and the postal order,

letters for the rich, letters for the poor…

For the shop at the corner and the girl next door……” etc. etc….

They must have had impact on my memory because I saw those films sixty years ago ! The other work I remember was Britain’s first opera “Paul Bunyan”- with the libretto by Auden –  which I saw at London’s Sadlers Wells in the 1960’s. I must admit to not remembering much about that opera, which was originally written when Britten was sheltering in the USA during the second World War.

“The Habit of Art” is a play within a play. The actors played themselves playing Auden and Britten, moving in and out of character as the rehearsal concept demanded. Richard Jennings as Auden (Fitz as the actor) was particularly brilliant, his size and facial characteristics being very appropriate, while Alec Jennings as the less charismatic Britten (Henry as the actor) caught the character of Britten brilliantly and played the piano accompaniment needed in scenes with a boy soprano,with great aplomb.

The action of the play was set while Britten was having trouble with the composition of what turned out to be his last opera “Death in Venice”. His apparent fascination with the theme of “lost  innocence”, a theme that permeates most of his operas, was getting his friends down. Even Peter Pears tried to dissuade him from completing the opera.  Britten in this play went to his friend Auden for reassurance. Despite having a similar homosexual background which allowed him some appreciation of Thomas Mann’s original text, on which the opera was based, the friends did not manage to resolve Britten’s concern. The play was full of brilliantly witty dialogue,which we are beginning to expect from Bennett, and it is well worth seeing if you are fortunate enough to go to London.

But not here in this production. The problem is that the Screen actors Guild will only allow three performances of these video productions over a very short period of time, so it is unlikely to be seen here again. What about a local production, Circa or Downstage ?

I personally thoroughly enjoyed the whole production. I could easily believe  that I was in the National Theatre, and joined in the reactions of the recorded audience. I heard every word  and the close-ups gave me a great appreciation of the  important detail of the acting performances of Richard Griffiths and Alex Jennings. As for the future don’t miss Dion Boucicault’s  “London Assurance” a National Theatre production coming  to the Penthouse soon. It is “an absolute corker of a production, one that will be talked about and chuckled over with reminiscent affection for years to come”says London’s Daily Telegraph critic. Later in the year we will be able to see the new NT production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” that is coming in the next season.

Now to the last, but certainly not the least, of my splendid cultural week. This time from the Metropolitan Opera, New York. It was the Sunday 29th May screening of Rossini’s  “Armida” production, starring the great Renee Fleming and five top coloratura tenors!!! I didn’t know the world had so many!

I suppose most of us have got used to the use of microphones on singers to allow most of the modern music theatre classics to be performed. But this is opera, and it is untainted accoustic sound we are dealing with. Singers must be able to project their voices through an eighty piece orchestra, and communicate to several thousand in a large, often accoustically unsympathetic, theatre.

The main problem is balancing the sound, and the placement and use of microphones so that they are not seen, but can balance the sound to fit the perspective of the picture. This an artform for the sound engineer, but I did spot one shotgun microphone in the orchestral pit. When recording the one opera that I recorded “live” from the stage with an audience I was lucky to have John Neill working with me to solve such problems. John is currently “Head of Sound” for Peter Jackson’s Park Road Post.

Although I did detect six “dropouts” during the four hour performance I was not at all put off the performance by these. I have only had the experience of two Rossini operas ‘the Barber of Seville” which I produced for television,and a brilliant “Count Ory”production by Antony Besch which I saw in London in the 1960’s. “Armida” was totally unknown to me, and because it was a first ever production by the Metropolitan Opera, it would be unknown to most opera lovers.

Unknown it might have been, but like all Rossini operas it was full of very tuneful music, the usual wonderfully accelerating finales that are a Rossini trademark, some absolutely wonderful tenor-soprano duets, coloratura tenor arias and duets, a tenor trio worth paying the thirty dollars entrance fee for, alone, and a dramatic coloratura aria of immense difficulty sung by the great Renee Fleming, that ended the opera with amazing elan.

Described by Renee Fleming as “the most difficult soprano aria in opera” this is amazing in its demands – especially with its wide vocal range and the coloratura gymnastics involved.  But this was not a one woman show. I must also commend the work of yet another great lyric tenor on the international scene – Lawrence  Browlee, a young negro singer who has featured in “The Barber of Seville” and “Cinderella” productions at the Met. He had plenty of top “C’s” and at least two top “D’s” to contend with in the opera, which he did comfortably; and his articulation of the coloratura was accurate and neat. Juan Diego Florez – who is my favourite tenor and who will be in next year’s Met Season playing the principal tenor role in “The Count Ory”- beware!

The opera, we are assured, is about love and revenge..but what opera isn’t ? To emphasize this point the producer creates two miming characters who play the roles of these two emotions – characters who press the point throughout the production. I was initially uncofortable with their use, but by the last act ,when they interacted successfully with Renee Fleming in her demanding final aria, I was persuaded. The concept was entirely justified.

Amongst the other gems in this production is a ballet involving female dancers dressed as soldiers, who become ballerinas and devils that become ballerinas and finally go back to being devils. Sounds odd ,but it is very amusing. The costuming throughout the opera is sumptuous and colorful, especially for the demons.The set is simple but accoustically excellent. The production had its weird elements – with huge insects inhabiting the stage during the third act – but most of the time it was highly entertaining.

One of the features that I particularly enjoyed was to hear the singers and producer talk about their roles during the intervals. Very interesting – but how do they do it, when it is obviously recorded during a performance of a a three hour opera that is so physically demanding for them?

Getting back to the theme of my article, isn’t it wonderful how we are no longer as isolated as we have been from the glories of world culture ? How we no longer have to pay vast fortunes to travel to Europe, Britain ,the United States or China to enjoy the cultural heritage of others and the latest plays and operas and the wonderful new stars that are seemingly being discovered all the time. In one week I saw some outstanding entertainment from Britain, the United States and China. It’s a sign of the times.

But this is only the beginning. In November the 2010 Met season will begin with eleven  new productions including both “Rheingold” and “Walkure” with Bryn Terfel, “Don Pasquale“ with Anna Netrebko, “Lucia du Lammermoor with Natalie Dessay, “Boris Godunov”,”Don Carlos”. “Il Trovatore”, and the “Count Ory” with Juan Diego Florez, and ”Capriccio” with Renee Fleming. Further film delights include “The full Monteverdi” in June…which looks and sounds – according to the brilliant trailer – absolutely  scrumptious. It looks like I’m going to be going to the Penthouse a lot over the next year…if my pocket can bear the strain !