The Bach Choir of Wellington – ambitious and imaginative ANZAC concert

DURUFLE –  Requiem
– and  music for ANZAC Day.

The Bach Choir of Wellington
Directed by Shawn Michael Condon

Sinéad Keane – mezzo soprano
William McElwee -baritone
Lucas Baker – violin|
Eleanor Carter – cello
Douglas Mews – piano & organ

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul

Saturday 22 April 2023

(Guest reviewer – Roger Wilson)

The Bach Choir, an important component of Wellington’s musical life for the past 55 years, is in good heart. Under the astute direction of Shawn Michael Condon the overall sound made by 50-odd voices is well integrated, intonation and the balance  between the parts good. It was easy to see that the choir has been well rehearsed with considerable attention to detail, but it has to be said that in the notoriously cavernous acoustic of Wellington Cathedral of St Paul it was sometimes more a matter of seeing people doing all the right things rather than always hearing the benefits. A pity, because this was an enterprising and interesting programme. Were it not for needing the organ close by it might have been worth turning the pews round and placing the choir in the gallery against the west wall.

The first half of the concert comprised a selection of pieces selected with themes appropriate for ANZAC Day, remembrance of the fallen, contrition, a longing to escape the horrors of war, praise of the saviour, grief for the separation from a beloved, a reflection on mortality and jubilation at the vision of a better world post-War. Some of these works  were very  familiar, especially Elgar’s We will remember them, a setting of Binyon’s For the Fallen, and Parry’s account of Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar, others new to most listeners. None was more effective than contemporary composer Thomas LaVoy’s The Last Letter, a poignant  farewell written by an American Civil War soldier to his dearly loved wife. The performance was much enhanced by the addition of a baritone soloist, William McElwee, which ensured that the all-important text was declaimed with a clarity difficult for the choir to achieve  in the circumstances. Another highlight of the half – even occasioning spontaneous applause – was the fifth movement, Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus,  of Messiaen’s visionary Quartet for the End of Time, composed and first performed in a German prison camp. The duet for cello and piano was beautifully played by Eleanor Carter and Douglas Mews who observed the difficult instruction ‘Infiniment lent, extatique’ scrupulously. In the  preceding Parry work Lucas Baker’s solo violin also sounded beautifully in the space.

Perhaps less successful, despite the choir’s best efforts, was Tallis’ motet O sacrum convivium, anglified to I call and Cry to thee, where the clarity of the musical lines was harder to distinguish. Another living American composer, Craig Carnahan, supplied a wonderfully exuberant Armistice 1918, War poet Siegfried Sassoon’s Everyone suddenly burst out singing,  to end the first half with enthusiasm.

The second half of the concert was Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem, really the only work for which the French composer is remembered. It was commissioned by the collaborationist Vichy régime in 1941 and completed in 1947 so it is also very much wartime music. The original commission was for a symphonic poem but Duruflé decided instead on a requiem, eventually dedicated to the memory of his father, but it might well also be for the fallen in World War II. A church musician all his life, Duruflé used a great deal of thematic material from the Gregorian chant of the Mass for the Dead, skilfully interwoven with his own harmonies. The ghost of Fauré and his Requiem with the whiff of incense are never far away. Both composers deliberately avoid the terrors of the Day of Judgment, such a feature of other Requiems, stressing rather tranquillity and rest, and the configurations of both French Requiems, for all their differences, are also similar, even to the apportioning of solo voices (Offertorium, Pie Jesu and Libera Me). Duruflé’s work, conceived for a large church, lent itself  to Wellington Cathedral’s particular properties and such is his skill as an organist that one does not miss the full orchestral version. With its sinuous Gregorian lines, the choral singing of the Requiem, underpinned by the masterful Douglas Mews on the organ, worked convincingly in this cathedral, and the Bach Choir did composer and conductor proud. William McElwee took the baritone solos tidily and Sinéad Keane sang the Pie Jesu with stylish commitment.

This was an ambitious and imaginative concert, despite some reservations about the building, well conceived and executed to a good-sized audience.

NZSO under New management

‘Style and Substance’ – NZSO’s Immerse 2022 Festival

Brahms Violin Concerto in D major, Opus 77
Tabea Squire Variations
John Adams Doctor Atomic Symphony

Hilary Hahn, violin

Gemma New. conductor
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 6 August 2022

This was the second concert of the Immerse series, and the second outing of the acclaimed
violinist Hilary Hahn with the NZSO under the baton of Gemma New, its newly appointed
Artistic Adviser and Principal Conductor. The house was almost full, with such a happily
expectant air that everyone must surely have been here on Thursday for the first concert of
the series.

Gemma New is a local girl made good – only 35, but already with a long list of appointments
and accolades, including the Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award. She has been called ‘one of
the brightest rising stars in the conducting firmament’, and she is becoming famous around
the world for her precision and the expressive beauty she draws from her orchestras. Hilary
Hahn is one of today’s great violin virtuosos, with three Grammys and a huge global
following. Putting them on the programme together for three concerts must have seemed to
the NZSO a masterstroke of genius and good fortune.

Brahms’s Violin Concerto was Hahn’s suggestion. She first recorded it at the age of 21 with
the Orchestra of St Martin in the Fields under Sir Neville Marriner. That youthful recording
has been named one of the eight great recordings of the work (ahead of one that was my
favourite 40 years ago, David Oistrakh with the French National Radio Orchestra under Otto
Klemperer). It was Gemma New who suggested the two works to accompany it because,
she said, they ‘had a Brahmsian quality’. Not many people would make that observation of
John Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony and fewer of the Variations by Tabea Squire. But
that is the world of Gemma New, in which the exquisite and the unusual are two faces of the
same coin.

From the first bar, it was clear that Gemma New’s Brahms was a very different work. Gone
were the sludgy textures and blurred rhythms I had by heart from the Oistrakh/Klemperer
recording. The NZSO is under New management.

Hilary Hahn’s first entry was electrifying. She has been performing this concerto for more
than half her life, and yet she made it as fresh and exciting as it must have been when
Brahms’s friend Joachim played it for the first time.

New kept the NZSO to a restrained dynamic range for much of the time. In a recording, the
balance between violinist and orchestra can be addressed by microphone placement and
engineering. In the concert hall there is a constant threat that the violinist will be
overwhelmed by the orchestra – the concerto is scored for four horns, two trumpets, and
timpani, after all. Not so here. New is known for her meticulous attention to detail, and the
NZSO obliged with beautiful, shapely, thoughtful playing.

The audience was so moved by the monumental first movement that most of them
applauded at the end of it. I almost joined in, because of the huge gratitude I felt for Hahn’s
superb playing. In the third movement, Allegro giocoso, orchestra and soloist danced for
sheer joy. At the end, most of the audience was on its feet. Hahn took four curtain calls
before coming back to play the Sarabande from Bach’s D minor partita as tenderly as you
could wish.

Gemma New introduced the works for the second half of the concert with evident relish. She
loves new music. In 2010, as soon as she graduated from the Peabody Institute in Maryland,
she formed the Lunar Ensemble to perform new music. Together they premiered 30 works in
six seasons. New’s Carnegie Hall debut in 2013 included works by John Adams and Andrew

‘I think Brahms would have liked Tabea Squire’s theme and variations,’ New told us
confidently. The work is a deconstructed set of variations on a sixteenth-century pavane,
‘Belle qui tiens ma vie’ – deconstructed, because the theme doesn’t fully appear until right at
the end (although it is sneakily previewed by the horns and there is a wisp of it audible in the
strings about halfway through). I expected this teasing treatment would soon become
frustrating; but Tabea Squire’s orchestration was clever and the ideas never flagged. The
theme finally made its proper appearance at the end, played by alto flute, piccolo, and cor
anglais with the tenor drum underneath – a nice twist on the recorders and drum she
originally scored it for.

Twenty years ago, when Hilary Hahn was starting to make her name on the concert stage,
Gemma New and Tabea Squire were first and second violinists in Wellington Youth
Sinfonietta. A remarkable journey so far, and much is yet to come.

The final work in the programme was John Adams’ monumental and troubling Doctor Atomic
Symphony (based on his newsreel opera of 2005, about the Manhattan Project and the first
atomic bomb test in New Mexico). The symphony condenses many of the musical ideas of
the opera into 25 minutes of inventive and emotionally shattering music. The symphony calls
for a large orchestra, with a huge batterie (xylophone, tubular bells, timpani, bowed drums,
thunder sheet, tam tam, celeste, tuned gongs…) and more tuba solos than you might
imagine (Andrew Jarvis, Scott Frankcombe). It is a monumental work, terrifying and deeply
troubling. At one point Dave Bremner (Principal Trombone) stands to bark orders
(channelling General Leslie Groves). The emotional heart of the piece is Robert
Oppenheimer’s aria from the opera, a setting of one of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, ‘Batter
my heart, three person’d God’, beautifully played by David Johnson (Guest Principal

This was a stupendous concert. The NZSO has never played better than this. If you are
reading this review before the last concert of the three, on Sunday 7 August, do not hesitate.
If it’s too late for that, you can’t afford to miss Gemma New’s next outing with the NZSO. She
is an extraordinary talent, and her knack for exciting programming is so very welcome.

La Traviata – postscript from the last night of the run

VERDI – La Traviata

Violetta  –  Emma Pearson
Alfredo  –  Oliver Sewell
Germont  – Philip Rhodes
Flora  – Hannah Catrin Jones
Baron  –  Brent Allcock
Gastone  –  Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono
Doctor  –  Wade Kernot

Orchestra Wellington
Hamish McKeich (conductor)
Michael Vinten (chorus director)
Sara Brodie (director)

St James Theatre, Wellington

16th July  2022

It was good to get back to La Traviata for the last night to see how things had progressed after the Covid-induced drama of opening night.

Things had settled down. Oliver Sewell sang Alfredo as advertised, and Hannah Catrin Jones had recovered and sang Flora. That meant that the glorious Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono was back singing Gastone, and his cover had melted back into the chorus.

But Samuel Downes was down with Covid, so the part of the Baron was taken by the versatile and experienced Brent Allcock. To be frank, this was a big improvement. Allcock made his Barone the sleazy older man envisaged by the librettist.

Finally the drama made sense. Violetta is no innocent but is surrounded by predatory men. The inexperienced and rather inept Alfredo makes a pleasant change – an opportunity to leave all the silliness of high society behind, and live a simple life in the country. Hannah Catrin Jones’s Flora was perfect, and the second party scene went much better as a consequence.

The difficulty with the characterisations is that Oliver Sewell was too smooth by half as Alfredo. He fitted right into the salon scene, but his Alfredo was a man of the world, not a naïf – and none of his ’acting’ made me believe in his naïve sincerity. Still, with a reptilian Barone on stage, the card-playing scene made sense at last.

Germont senior is, in my view (a view not shared by my esteemed co-author of the main review) a conniving fellow who wants to get rid of the sexually experienced Violetta for many reasons, some of which he mentions. He uses every trick in the book to get her to agree. According to this reading of the text, Philip Rhodes’ Germont was too nice.

Poor Violetta is judged by the double standard (after all, no one blames Alfredo for seducing Violetta). Her crime is to be independently minded (‘sempre libera’), to have her own income, and to follow her desires. Wedged between the predatory Baron and the manipulative Germont, she is treated shabbily. She was kind-hearted enough to be duped by Germont’s sob story, and had the moral backbone to agree to give up her adored Alfredo, but as a sexual being she must be made to suffer.

This is the story Verdi wanted to tell us.

The direction was less wobbly on the last night than on the first, but I still didn’t care for some of it. There was quite a bit of the bent knee style of expressing great emotion – even Oliver Sewell went in for some. Worse, he didn’t seem especially fond of Violetta. He certainly told us he was, but he just didn’t convince – not the way Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono had done on the opening night. I am not complaining about Sewell’s voice, which is a bright lyric tenor, with a great top B flat, but about his ability to communicate emotion. His duets with Emma Pearson were nicely done, but he was not in love. (Emmanuel was head over heels – ardent and sincere, scarcely believing his luck.)

On the plus side, thanks to the splendid view from my seat in the dress circle (so much better than from our seats in the stalls on opening night) I could now see exactly what was going on in the dumb show during the overture. The doctor (Wade Kernot) drew up a syringe of something therapeutic, tapped it like an expert, and then stuck it into the resigned Violetta’s thigh. The lighting was again terrific (gorgeous brilliant washes on the back wall, looming shadows for certain entries, starting with the Doctor).

Orchestra Wellington played well, but sometimes lacked momentum. Merran Cook’s oboe solos were lovely and so were Andrew Thomson’s violin solos. I remain convinced, though, that the best thing about opening night was our discovery of the great new talent that is Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono. What a voice! What a future!

I am not the only person who thinks this. As I write, the semi-finals of the Lexus have just been judged. Adjudicator Teddy Tahu Rhodes decided that the only singer to go through to the final from the second semi is Emmanuel Fonoti-Fuimaono. (That is, the other four singers in the final are all from the first semi-final.) We shall see in a week’s time whether he wins. My money is on Emmanuel (as it was, thirty years ago, on Ted himself). And if he does, you heard it here first.

An Eastern European smorgasbord at St.Andrew’s

St. Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace Lunchtime Concert Series presents:

Music for Cello & Piano from Eastern Europe

Josef Suk: Ballade & Serenade Op 3 for Cello & Piano  (1898)

Witold Lutoslawski Grave Metamorphoses for Cello & Piano (1981)

Bohuslav Martinů Sonata No 2 for Cello & Piano.  (1941)

Robert Ibell (cello) and Rachel Thomson (piano)

St. Andrew on the Terrace

Wednesday, 22 June 2022

We are very fortunate in Wellington to have artists of the calibre of Robert Ibell and Rachel Thomson. They are both very versatile musicians. Ibell is the cellist of the Aroha Quartet, a past member of the NZSO, and now he plays with a number of different ensembles. Rachel Thomson is an accompanist, associated with many local artists. They presented a program of largely unfamiliar works from Eastern Europe. I am giving here a brief account of this, their recent cello-and-piano recital  for the historical record.

Josef Suk: Ballade & Serenade Op 3 for Cello & Piano

This is an early work of Suk. Ibell and Thomson gave the opening sombre Ballade plenty of emotion and intensity, following this with a playful Serenade. Both movements required soulful playing by cellist and pianist alike. They brought out the melodious, approachable character of the work most successfully.

Witold Lutoslawski:i Grave Metamorphoses for Cello & Piano

This was written more than eighty years after the previous piece. A lot had happened to the world and music in those intervening years – two world wars, and the disintegration of the received ideas of what music should sound like. Lutoslawski uses the first four notes of Debussy’s opera, Pelléas and Mélisande which then becomes the metamorphoses, the transformation, the breakup of the notes into different rhythmic configurations. At the end of the piece the four-note configuration from Pelléas returns.  Ibell’s and Thomson’s playing rose splendidly to meet both the technical and musical challenges posed by this work.

Bohuslav Martinů: Sonata No 2 for Cello & Piano

It’s good to hear Martinu’s music being played more frequently in concerts. This substantial sonata was written in 1941. The war was at its most brutal early stages, and Martinů’s Czechoslovakia was no more, causing him to seek refuge in the United States. He wrote this major work, which is essentially in the traditional three movements. The first movement is vigorous and energetic, the second is full of passionate longing with a gorgeous lyrical cello line, and the finale makes use of strong rhythms suggesting Bohemian peasant dances.

This, in tandem with the other works, made for a stimulating concert, and brought to us seldom performed music that was well worth hearing. I thought there was a real sense of fine partnership between Robert Ibell and Rachel Thomson throughout. Their playing was thoroughly convincing demonstrating what sounded like real affinity with this repertoire. For their committed efforts these two musicians deserve our gratitude.





Steadfast Wellington Chamber Orchestra brings off an exhilarating concert to finish an eventful year

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:

R.STRAUSS – Wind Serenade for 13 instruments
VIVALDI – Double Flute Concerto
ARNOLD – English Dances (Set One)
TCHAIKOVSKY – Symphony No. 2 in C Minor Op.17  “Little Russian”

Kirstin Eade and Bridget Douglas (flutes)
Ian Ridgewell (conductor)
Wellington Chamber Orchestra

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday, 12th December 2021

Congratulations right at the outset are in order to whomever devised such a scintillating programme for the Wellington Chamber Orchestra to finish this remarkably unpredictable year of years with!  It certainly was one that made up in part for earlier schedules being plagued by the vagaries of Covid-19 and the resulting ripplings of disruption! Here we were freely delivered plenty of satisfyingly full-blooded excitements and festive revelries, side-by-side with contrasting episodes of great beauty, resonant circumspection and purposeful action – a living, breathing entity of life-giving expression!

A lot of the credit must go to conductor Ian Ridgewell, whose direction of much of this eclectic range of music was focused and very much to the point, directly and unfussily intent upon bringing out the music’s “character” in each of the pieces presented. I liked how the conductor left the flute duo of Bridget Douglas and Kirsten Eade entirely free to interact with the continuo instruments in the Vivaldi Concerto’s slow movement as if sharing amongst themselves some exquisite chamber music!  Just occasionally elsewhere I felt a slight “tug” of discrepancy between the conductor and his players, most notably in the Tchaikovsky Symphony’s Andantino movement, the strings in particular wanting to push the march rhythm along more tautly in places – and there were dovetailing difficulties aplenty between orchestral sections in the same work’s treacherous Scherzo movement that required watchful shepherding from the podium!

The concert began most winningly with the early (1882) Richard Strauss work for winds, the piece a kind of homage by the seventeen year-old composer to Mozart’s own Wind Serenade in B-flat Major for the same number of instruments (Mozart’s work is sometimes performed with a string bass, sometimes with a contrabassoon), one obviously a model for Strauss.  I thought the performance by the WCO winds a most affectionate one, a beautifully easeful opening, with the contourings of melodic lines both gorgeous-sounding and characterful, and the different dynamic levels of the music consistently producing ear-catching results. I particularly liked the sonorous contribution of the tuba to the music’s foundations, and relished the crunchiness of the harmonic changes that accompanied the oboe’s lead-in to the piece’s second half. The ensemble’s blend grated ever so slightly once or twice in places during the latter half, but the final paragraph of the work, with its beautiful ascending flute-line, was most felicitously essayed by all concerned.

I was surprised to learn that the Vivaldi Concerto for two flutes and strings was the composer’s only essay for this combination, particularly as the soloists Bridget Douglas and Kirsten Eade amply demonstrated the manifold delights of the work’s seemingly endless invention, aided by some on-the-spot playing from the WCO strings in the outer movements. Straightaway the music captivated one’s attention with its gaiety and exhilarating energies, the dynamics placing solo-instrument delicacies alongside rumbustious tuttis that made the most of both the contrasted and concerted sounds. Though short, the work added a dimension of intimacy with the player-directed slow movement (simply flutes and continuo – two ‘cellos and a harpsichord), beautiful canonic writing alternating with passages in thirds – exquisite in effect!

Ian Ridgewell returned to direct the finale, consisting of more gallivanting and frolicking in Vivaldi’s most ingratiating style, though closer attention also heightened my appreciation of both the composer’s and the players’ skills in realising the singular beauties of the music’s interspersing of solo, chamber and ripieno sequences. It all demonstrated how the composer’s justly famous “Four Seasons” concerti ought to be a “starting-point” and not merely a “one-work” experience for the Vivaldi listener!

To my great delight, Bridget Douglas and Kirstin Eade acknowledged the concerto’s brevity by way of playing us an encore, the final movement from a work by an American composer, Gary Schocker, Three Dances for Two Flutes and Piano, one divertingly subtitled Coffee Nerves, Prestissimo! It’s a very bluesy-vigorous piece with driving rhythms for the flutes in unison lines breaking occasionally into thirds, and with the piano (played by Heather Easting, who had also contributed the harpsichord part in the  Vivaldi concerto’s continuo) punctuating the discourse with droll interludes – also one of the flutes (Kirstin’s on this occasion) indulged in startlingly “ornery” deviations, which were “coaxed” back into seemliness by the other flute – an interesting relationship between the two!

Malcolm Arnold’s invigoratingly breezy English Dances (the first of two sets of four of these) came next, works I’ve always loved for their colour, energy and original inspiration (the melodic invention throughout is the composer’s own, rather than the pieces being orchestrated versions of English folk-songs). I greatly prize a set of these richly and lovingly recorded by Arnold himself, though Ian Ridgewell’s direction took a rather more direct and vigorous view of the music, the opening Andantino’s bell-like awakenings on the move here right from the outset, and a central section sounding like a fairground in the middle of the countryside! If a shade raucous in full tutti, this could be put down to the effect of a largish orchestra playing in a smallish venue. Amends were made by lovely descending wind figurations at the piece’s end.

More chimings, this time vigorous and arresting, were brought into play throughout the second movement’s Vivace, with great work from the horns and winds throughout, the brasses capturing the music’s roisterings most excitingly, and the tutti filled with ear-catching detail.  The following Mesto (“sad and pensive”) flipped the mood of the sounds into melancholy, with tremolando strings, harp and bassoon joined by strings in a most authentic-sounding folk-melody, the wind-choir also making the most of their expressive opportunities, a strongly-focused mood beautifully sustained throughout by the players.

The final dance, Allegro Risoluto, allowed conductor and players to really let their hair down, the uproarious opening “nailed” by the brasses, here, punctuated by squawks of approval from the winds, catching the music’s unbuttoned and celebratory mood – I particularly loved the sound of the tuba’s star turn, egged on by the winds! The whole performance resounded with high spirits and jocularity, the composer here mercifully untroubled by the mental storms and stresses which throughout his life beset his sense of well-being.

A similar sense of well-being over-riding troubles and anxieties also permeates Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony which took up the concert’s second half. Called the “Little Russian” (though not by its composer) because of the frequency of its use of Ukrainian folk melodies, the music has a joyous energy throughout, which the playing readily capitalised upon, coming to fruition in the final movement with its racily colourful variations on a folksong called “The Crane”. I particularly enjoyed the “Russian Sailors’ Dance”-like energies of the strings in places, along with the finely-played antiphonal brass calls punctuating the blending of the finale’s two themes, and the skitterish sequence which featured the piccolo (beautifully played) and the other winds towards the work’s end, immediately prior to the tam-tam stroke which calls the band to order for the work’s “give it all you’ve got” coda!

The horn-playing at the symphony’s beginning beautifully set the atmosphere, carried forward by soulful wind-playing, building the tensions towards the allegro’s snappy beginning, both winds and strings excitingly on the button! Ridgewell kept things on a tight rein throughout, getting good ensemble from the players, though I thought he might have allowed the second allegro subject a bit more breathing-space, the players sounding a little “pushed” here and there. However, the lead-back to the horn’s repeat of its opening solo was nicely controlled, the playing leaving us eager for more.

The March was beautifully brought into being, even if the strings seemed to want to slightly push ahead of the winds’ pointed drolleries – when the march rhythms resumed after the heart-easing middle-section, some of the opening “swagger” seemed by then flattened out, but the grandly ceremonial utterance of the “tune” was brought off nicely by strings and brasses. The Scherzo was a mixed bag, with the dovetailed syncopated figures struggling at times to “fit themselves in” – however the Trio worked beautifully, with the winds enjoying themselves, the flutes being especially on the ball (a lovely solo over pizzicato strings), and with clarinets, oboes and bassoons in full accord.

Altogether, a most successful concert, and a heart-warming way to conclude a somewhat troubled season – and how encouraging to be given notice of the orchestra’s plans for 2022 as well, consisting of four varied concerts, the first commemorating the band’s 50th Anniversary season! One wishes all involved in the undertaking the very best for it!


“Roxy” at Te Auaha, from WITCH Music Theatre – a whirl of visceral impressions from Tinseltown’s golden age of movie musicals

Witch Music Theatre and Te Auaha presents:
ROXY – A New Hollywood Cabaret

Featuring: Nick Erasmuson, Jason Chasland, Emily Burns, Bailea Twomey, Aine Gallagher, Jade Merematira, William Duignan, Fynn Bodley-Davies, Zane Berghuis, Rebecca Ansell, Lane Corby, Jared Pallesen, Pippa Drakeford, Patrick Jennings, Katy Pakinga, Glenn Horsfall, Rachel Te Tau, Allegra Canton, Thomas Laybourn, Karli Holdren, Björn Aslund, Emily McDermott, Jackson Cordery

Musicians: Sue Windsor, Steve ‘Shack’ Morrison, Rachael Hinds, Bec Watson, Emma Salzano, Jonathan Woolley, Zane Berghuis, Ben Hunt, Brendan Agnew, Fynn Bodley-Davies

Directed by Ben Emerson and Greta Casey-Solly
Music directed and Arranged by Hayden Taylor
Choreography by Greta Casey-Solly, Leigh Evans and Briar Franks
Costume Design by Emma Stevens
Set and Technical Design by Joshua Tucker
Lighting Design by Shanell Bielawa
Sound Design by Patrick Barnes
Produced by WITCH Charitable Trust – Briar Franks, Joshua Tucker, Charlotte Potts, Patrick Jennings and Ben Emerson

Te Auaha, 65 Dixon St., Poneke (Wellington)

Wednesday, 8th December, 2021

“Reimagining the Golden Age of the Silver Screen” ran the blurb announcing ROXY – A New Hollywood Cabaret, a no-holds-barred delivery of a collection of classic movie-musical hits, which certainly lived up to its publicity in terms of its sheer visceral impact – “…a rip-roaring revue, fuelled by an exhilarating fusion of musical theatre, drag, dance and circus” indeed. The directors of the show, Greta Casey-Solly and Ben Emerson described working on this production as putting together “a liberating love-letter to movie musicals, the world of entertainment, and a collective celebration for Wellington Musical Theatre”, continuing the high-impact trademark of WITCH production “Love-letter” tributes to genres and eras, in this case “some of Hollywood’s most memorable musical moments, prolific people and the unforgettable tales of Tinseltown”.

At the outset, we were casually, even voyeuristically drawn into an unmistakably cabaret setting, with dancers waiting for the cameras to roll and the band to strike up and galvanise a growing air of expectancy. Though from where I was sitting I found Nick Erasmuson’s voice as the eponymous “Roxy” difficult to understand at times, his energetic “drag” characterisation never flagged, and his “Get Happy” with the dancers developed plenty of charisma. As the programme didn’t match the characters’ names with the items each one performed I had little idea regarding who was singing what, but “Almost like Being in Love” introduced a singer who began the number sweetly, allowing us some welcome dynamic variation, though the orchestra and soloists let rip with the following “Big Spender”, the burlesque-like figurations being given plenty of “grunt”, building the number’s suggestive crescendi towards tidal-wave overbreakings.

There was certainly nothing half-hearted about Hayden Taylor’s arrangements or his direction of the songs, even if I felt the volume levels seemed too ready to push the needle into the red, giving an unrelieved effect too quickly in places. For this reason I welcomed the “Singin” in the Rain” number, enjoying the cool quirkiness of the singers armed with unopened umbrellas, and the “rain” being represented by snow-flakes! A “wanabe” girl turned up next, advancing a kind of story, being told “Show us what you’ve got” and re-entering in a tight red dress, flanked by snappy choreography from the dance ensemble for “The 20th Century Fox Mambo” – foot-tapping stuff! I hadn’t heard “We’re in the Money” for many years, and the solo vocalist excitingly built the song into something of a “screamer”, producing some fantastically “zinging” high notes!

A “blonde bombshell” soloist appropriately informed us in suitably raunchy accents that “Diamonds are a Girl’s best Friend”, emphasising the character’s brashness as much as her seductiveness, but generating plenty of energy, and impressively morphing into the dance-troupe’s movements – excellent choreography, readily capturing the eye! The next song “Black and Gold” was marred in places by a bass line that frequently “ballooned” as if over-modulating, and inhibiting the soloist’s voice at first until she “found” a different register and made her presence felt – though her triumph was short-lived, as she had to compete with a sensational turn from an acrobat who, far above the stage-floor, floated, bounced and rolled on and around two hanging strands of material, the dare-devilness of it all quite upstaging the singer (who got her revenge by brandishing a pistol, and shooting the hapless high-wire performer when he once again reached terra firma)!

I didn’t know any of the first half’s last three numbers, the final item bluesy and with a terrific “swing”, unashamedly cranking up the sounds’ physicality, the ensemble making the most of the “first-half-closer” licence to bring the house down with “Push da Button”, everybody working at full throttle, and leaving us breathless with such all-pervading displays of energy.

The second half began more promisingly with a “cool’ beat depicting a sultry atmosphere! – people moving around, setting the stage for the well-known Ann Miller original/”Kiss me Kate” number, “Too Darn Hot”, a great introduction and building up with plenty of dynamic variation – though the upping of the tempo ironed out the subtleties the singing remained focused and the dancing took me back to the “swing” of the original show – a great start to the half! The return of the athletic acrobat provided more breath-taking diversion, before the entry of the “new starlet” from Act One gave us a song “Movin On”, with great singing, and choreography to match.

I liked the “fetching couple” cameo act of MC Nick Erasmuson with his partner, framed by the dancers’ creatively eating and playing with popcorn while watching “Science Fiction, Double Feature” – its relative stasis emphasising the volcanic energies of the boys’ number that followed – “Don’t say yes until I finish talking” – the joys of an entertainment producer! Nothing, however, prepared us for the onslaught that followed in the guise of “The Hot Dog Song”, the incredibly raunchy portrayal of the singer “knowed no bounds of taste or decency”, in keeping with the total abandonment of the presentation and its subject, a “tour de force” of unashamedly risqué expression!

I thought the accompanying energy levels for “Sit Down, you’re rockin’ the boat!” seemed to overwhelm the performer at the beginning, but the dynamics seemed to synchronise better as the song, progressed, the choreography “framing” the vocalist’s efforts helping the number’s trajectories to properly expand. After this, “Swings both ways” featured a chorus of angels “watching over” the beautifully-vocalised attraction of two young men for one another – a nice touch, poignantly set against the following “I’ve found a new Baby”, the woman vocalist duetting teasingly with the “agent”, before opening the voice-throttle and saturating the space with heartfelt emotion at the end – lump-in-throat stuff! – and when set against “Losing my Mind”, a double-whammy emotional journey of two halves – a late microphone placement hampered the latter singer’s initial lyrics, but, in tandem with a beautifully-played saxophone counterpoint, the mood was caught and held touchingly and strongly.

More booming bass tones didn’t mar the dance chorus’s superb work (great choreography by Leigh Evans) introducing “Let’s Be Bad”, the energies carrying the day, leaving a kind of valedictory atmosphere into which which MC Nick Erasmuson “conjured up” the singer of “Over the Rainbow”, who gave a free and spontaneous-sounding rendition during which the intensities were very beautifully “growed” into full-blooded outward flow.

I didn’t recognise the final number “Lady Marmalade” (my head-count of recognised items was lamentably low throughout!), but the song was accorded the kind of treatment we’d come to expect from what we’d witnessed thus far, a veritable orgy of full-on involvement from all concerned and which, at the end, produced a veritable explosion of physically demonstrative audience appreciation totally in accord with the ambiences we’d been subsumed by throughout.

While I found myself craving for more “shape” in the realisation of many of the numbers, more light and shade, and more playfulness and irony and sentiment, and greater “spaces” into which these contrasts could be set and savoured, I couldn’t help thinking that mine was a somewhat old-fashioned view of performance, and that what seemed to be required here, and which was freely given, was a markedly “visceral” result, of the kind that could induce a kind of tactile euphoria, heart-and soul stuff, rather than any once-removed kind of in-situ reflection. Of course, there were moments in which this state was achieved, but they were quickly moved on – appetites on my side of the footlights seemed ravenous and were, by my reckoning, most satisfyingly sated.

I would have liked to have credited the individual performers in the separate numbers, but the programme wasn’t particularly helpful to someone like myself who couldn’t make the connections with the different names and the items in which they performed – so I’ve listed all the performers, in the hope that they’ll all “find” themselves mentioned here by what they did – I “dips me lid” to them all, along with the people behind the scenes who had a part in making the show so irrepressibly impactful – in a word, WOW!

An Orchestral Feast Showcasing a Rising Star – Peter Gjelsten (violin) with the Wellington Youth Orchestra

The Wellington Youth Orchestra
with Mark Carter (conductor)
and Peter Gjelsten (solo violin)

BEETHOVEN – Overture to “Egmont” (Op. 84)
TCHAIKOVSKY – Violin Concerto (Op. 35)
BIZET – Farandole from L’Arlésienne Suite No. 2

St. Andrews on the Terrace

Sunday, 10 October

Livestreamed and archived at

Pre-concert interview with Peter Gjelsten on RNZ Concert’s Upbeat:

An atmosphere of excitement pervaded St. Andrews as the sold-out Alert Level 2 crowd sorted out its seating arrangements for this much-anticipated season-closing concert showcasing the winner of WYO’s 2021 Concerto Competition, Peter Gjelsten, in Tchaikovsky’s famous violin concerto.  I carefully mulled my seating options — either up in the gallery with many of the cognoscenti, or downstairs in the front row within stabbing range of the principal cellist (Jack Moyer, who heroically overlooked my tactless proximity) — and opted for the latter, more exciting place close to the thick of the action.  There were plenty of fireworks to look forward to, with three well-known and majestic pieces on the program.

First, however, some orchestra business was to be conducted: acknowledgements and encomia for Tom Gott, the outgoing chair of the Wellington Youth Orchestras Board, whose name has been given to a large silver cup which will henceforth be awarded annually to, and inscribed with the names of the Concerto Competition winners.  Aside from being heartwarming, this raised anticipation for the concerto performance to come — but first, the orchestra (sans concerto winner) treated us to a performance of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture.

The stately, portentous opening chords of this overture are thrilling to hear live, and the orchestra sounded as if it was thrilled too, playing with conviction, confidence, and fire.  The string players seemed unafraid to get athletic for the loud bits, and the woodwinds held their own in reply, making for a crisp, well-balanced sound.  Shapely phrases and nicely observed dynamics emerged from under Mark Carter’s elegant, efficient conducting.  It’s clear that he and these players are very comfortable with each other and communicate with ease.

With “Egmont” as entrée, the audience prepared for an equally delicious main course: the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. I first heard this concerto 25 years ago, at the 1996 “Stars of the White Nights” festival in St. Petersburg.  Tickets being cheap and my Russian host family somewhat unfriendly, I tried to go out to concerts every night without too much regard for what was on the programme — and thus it was that I happened to end up hearing the Tchaikovsky concerto on two consecutive nights, with two different orchestras and two different soloists.  On first hearing, I was unmoved.  The music seemed showy but not interesting, and the harmonics and interpolated high notes in the first movement sounded so crude and approximate that I was almost offended to be subjected to them.  (I won’t say who I think the offending soloist was because I’m not 100% sure and can’t find the notebook where I wrote it down!)  The next evening, I returned to the same hall and, after a few moments of déja vu, realized I was hearing the same piece as the night before, this time played by Gidon Kremer.  It was electrifying!  From this experience I learned that, while this concerto is indeed flashy and even macho in places, it falls flat as a pancake without careful attention to phrasing and, especially, intonation.

Fortunately these are particular strengths of Gjelsten’s, as we soon found out.  In an interview the day before on RNZ Concert’s “Upbeat” programme, he had cited Augustin Hadelich’s recording of the concerto as a particular source of inspiration, and the influence was palpable both in his sweetness of tone and in his phrasing which brought out the character, and the lovely melodic material, of the solo line.  Gjelsten also plays with a physical freedom and looseness that is lovely to watch.  Throughout the first movement, he seemed to take its many and diverse technical demands in stride while also feeling totally at home in the music.

A particular pleasure of this concerto is the relationship between the soloist and the orchestra, and in particular the moments where they join each other.  Famously, the piece opens with a melody in the strings that never returns; pretty in its own right, it suggests that we might be in for some sort of pastoral scene, with the woodwinds suggesting a few clouds appearing in the strings’ sunny sky, but before the day takes on any settled character, along comes the solo violin like the Messenger in a Greek play and says something like “Hey, guys, let’s play THIS ONE,” starting up the first movement’s main theme.  Immediately attentive to this charismatic newcomer, the orchestra falls in with his proposal and starts singing back-up, as it were. The same thing happens with the second theme, until after a few minutes of development (featuring some lovely bubbly solo runs for clarinet and flute; overall, the WYO’s woodwinds were excellent) everyone joins in triumphantly on a majestic tutti statement of the main theme, one of the most satisfying moments in any concerto.  In fact it’s so satisfying they do it again a few minutes later (Tchaikovsky never being one to waste an effect he was pleased with, though he obviously had tunes to spare).

There follows the cadenza, not only technically devilish but also challenging to make music out of — as my 1996 experience attests.  I loved Gjelsten’s rendition.  The technicalities of it seemed to disappear — I never felt a gap between the player and his instrument, but rather a sense of complete ease, as though the music was coming directly out of the performer via the violin rather than being coaxed from the latter by the former. The fireworks here — including super-fast runs ending in super-high harmonics — are inevitably impressive but not inevitably pleasurable; Gjelsten’s playing was both, and led beautifully into one of my favourite moments of the entire concerto, the soloist’s culminating trill on a high A that magically transforms from a show-off move into a demure pedal note in the background as the flute comes in with a sweet-voiced restatement of the main theme.  If it were a Disney movie there would be small birds flying around the players’ heads.

After this, things gradually pick up steam again (I have a mysterious scribble in my notes about a particular repeated motif reminding me of Philip Glass; I think this might have been around bar 293), collecting energy for the solo vs. tutti triple-f race to the finish.  The audience REALLY wanted to applaud here, but most of us reluctantly restrained ourselves.  It felt a bit like watching someone land a series of triple axles without cheering, but decorum must have its due I suppose.

Early listeners of this concerto felt that the second movement was the only one Tchaikovsky got right, in between the “unplayable” first movement (Auer) and the “brutal and wretched jollity” of the third (Hanslick).  Hanslick presumably liked it because it didn’t sound “Russian” to him, though I can’t imagine why not; the opening chorale in the woodwinds especially is reminiscent of the nostalgic, sorrowful yet resolute music Tchaikovsky wrote to represent Rus’ under the Mongol yoke in his Moscow Cantata.  One thing this movement IS very good for is giving the audience a moment to breathe and notice that behind the soloist there are other instruments in the orchestra; most notably the woodwinds, who did some lovely playing here. I particularly enjoyed the bassoon solos, but flute and clarinet also shone, emerging and re-merging in brief duets with one another or with the solo violin. We had a few minutes to savour their interplay and the orchestra’s and conductor’s beautiful dynamics before diving headfirst into the breathless “Allegro vivacissimo” third movement.

Here again one hears genuine dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra, with the violin once again saying “Let’s play THIS one!” (or perhaps just “Let’s DANCE!”) to the orchestra, whose various sections play, clap (pizzicato strings; rhythmically bowing cellos), or sing (droning basses, various lyrical counterpoints in the woodwinds) along, adding their own spin on the material and suggesting different moods as it develops (though the violin’s irrepressible will to dance always re-emerges sooner or later).  There are two official themes here but many distinct melodies; the woodwinds, who again did thoroughly delightful work here, get their own “verse” of the song, bringing a slower tempo and a lyrical melancholy before once again getting swept into the dance.  The sinuous “inverse descants” by the clarinet and bassoon in the Quasi Andante section were especially lovely.  And of course we finished on a satisfying loud fast bit — this orchestra sounds absolutely terrific on loud fast bits — and were finally allowed to clap.  This took some time, as the audience had a lot of pent-up admiration to expend.

As it turned out, so did the orchestra, and they took their feelings out on the Farandole movement of Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite No. 2.  This piece is a regulation banger, and the orchestra played it accordingly, with the same verve and panache as the tutti sections of the previous works.  It made for a suitable dessert after the Russian banquet cooked up by Tchaikovsky, and a nice way to reunite Peter Gjelsten (now sitting in the back row of the first violins) with the rest of the team. In fact, one of the most enjoyable things about the whole concert was feeling this sense of teamwork among the performers; in these days of international superstars one rarely gets to hear a concerto played by a violinist with his home orchestra, conducted by their own musical director.  One felt this in the lightness of touch Mark Carter was able to bring to his conducting, in the soloist’s sense of ease, and in the generosity of the orchestra’s response to the soloist.  Overall a very worthwhile way to spend a Sunday afternoon and a magnificent first outing for the new Tom Gott Cup.

Musicam scribo cogito ergo sum! – with a vengeance! – from the remarkable Ghost Trio

Te Koki NZ School of Music presents:
The Ghost Trio –
Monique Lapins (violin), Ken Ichinose (cello), Gabriela Glapska (piano)

BEETHOVEN – Piano Trio Op 1, No.1 in E flat major (1793)
KELLY-MARIE MURPHY – Give Me Phoenix Wings To Fly (1997)
RODION SHCHEDRIN – Three Funny Pieces (3 heitere Stucke) (1981/1997)

Adam Concert Room, NZ School of Music, Victoria University of Wellington

Friday, July 13th, 2021

This was a concert that packed a great deal into a short time, an out-and-out “moments-per-minute” affair which encouraged and repaid the listener’s active involvement, but also “came to get you” if you had any thoughts of hanging back as if you were some kind of passive observer! Each of the three composers with the help of some extraordinarily dynamic and impactful, infinitely varied playing from the musicians of the Ghost Trio had things to say that seemed to variously brood, seethe, bubble and burst forth all about the available spaces, so that there was nothing for it but to allow oneself to be taken up and possessed accordingly!

The three works chosen by the Trio to perform each shared something of the “no holds barred” character of the music-making, if markedly contrasted in other ways – ‘cellist Ken Ichinose briefly but succinctly introduced the Beethoven work to us as the latter’s Opus One, remarking that it was obviously chosen by the composer to make the most distinctive and memorable effect on the musical world of that time. In fact Beethoven with these three Op.1 works placed the piano trio on a higher “plane” far removed from the domestic music-making aspect the form had previously occupied, adding a “scherzo” that both expanded the form’s parameters and intensified the dynamism of the music.

Straightaway, Beethoven employed simple means with the greatest possible effect,  a strong opening chord leading to various assertive treatments of a rising arpeggio from all the instruments underpinned by virtuoso runs from the piano. All the while the players emphasised the robust nature of the dialogue, very much an “as equals” kind of discourse, the second subject’s engaging contrasts dynamics and phrasings deliciously enjoyed by all. In the development the Trio enacted the “rising arpeggio meets rising scale – will it work?” scenario with characteristic relish, taking us to the recapitulation, where the music beautifully restated and unravelled, Beethoven having a lot of fun with his “concluding” gestures (Haydn’s influence, here?), telling us “this is it – but not yet!” repeatedly, the playing beautifully po-faced throughout!

Gabriella Glapska’s beautifully-played piano solo at the Adagio cantabile’s beginning made me long to hear her play one of the composer’s sonatas – Monique Lapins’ violin solo and cellist Ken Ichinose’s reply carried the mood forward fetchingly, then continued into ghostly minor-key realms of wonderment, the music “rescued” by a kind of “fanfare of being” from all the instruments. Beethoven allowed us further enjoyment of Glapska’s solo playing and of Lapins’ heartfelt delivery of the violin’s emotive phrases – so much light-and-shade, here! – and with Ichinose’s more circumspect ‘cello tones, putting me in mind of a Florestan/Eusebius kind of contrast between the two (yes, it’s the wrong composer, I know!). And what elfin magic there was in the tenderly-sounded concluding piano/pizzicato notes!

One wonders what this music’s first listeners made of the following Scherzo, with its “Minuet-gone-wrong” opening measures, and the roisterous “all together, now!” passage that followed. The players gave the music all the rustic vigour it needed, particularly digging into the “drone” passages which, here, almost made me laugh out loud! – and then, in complete contrast , the Trio seemed to draw back a curtain on a different scene, a dancing piano set against sostenuto string lines, like a butterfly gently hovering over a sleeping child. Tremendous vigour marked the scherzo’s return – but the players wound down these energies at the dance’s end with disarming ease and charm.

The playfulness of the Presto finale’s “ready – steady – go!” beginning, sounded by the piano’s mischievous “tenth” jumps, wound itself into almost frenetic activity from all of the players, with Glapska in particular hugely enjoying the virtuoso piano writing in general, introducing at one point (and revisiting) an uncanny pre-echo of Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody! Both Lapins and Ichinose joined in with the helter-skelter of the writing to stunning effect, the music generating tremendously fiery interchanges before breaking off, becalming, and then reintroducing the “starter’s gun” for another round of fun and games! The music also paid direct homage to Haydn near the end with the piano unexpectedly dancing away in a different key, before all the instruments broke into a cheekily raucous “fooled-ya!” kind of rejoiner and set the trajectories to rights! In all, a tremendously enjoyable and engaging performance of some ground-breaking music!

The name Kelly-Marie Murphy was new to me before I heard this performance of her 1997 piece for piano trio Give Me Phoenix Wings To Fly. She’s a Canadian composer currently based in Ottawa, one whose works have achieved international status, winning prizes in competitions around the world with pieces such as From the Drum comes a Thundering Beat (1996), Utterances (1999), Departures and Deviations (2002) and a Harp Concerto And Then at Night I Paint the Stars (2003).She’s currently writing a Double Concerto for piano and percussion for the Ottawa-based SHHH Ensemble, and has been commissioned to write a Triple Concerto for Trio Sōra and Mikko Frank’s Radio France Philharmonic  Orchestra during 2022.

In a programme note accompanying a previous performance of Give Me Phoenix Wings To Fly Murphy outlined her sources of inspiration for the work alongside the age-old Phoenix from the Ashes myth, each drawn from poetry – firstly, John Keats, from his poem “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again”….

    But when I am consumed in the fire,
Give me new phoenix wings to fly at my desire

And then, Robert Graves, in a poem “To bring the dead to life”, one I confess I didn’t know….

To bring the dead to life
Is no great magic
Few are wholly dead:
Blow on a dead man’s embers
And a live flame will start.

Murphy elaborated on her fascination with the myth of the Phoenix, and its ability to rise again after its immolation from its own ashes. Describing it as a powerful and relevant image for contemporary life as we humans perceive it, she characterised the process as a kind of way forward, and set out to render it in composition terms. She structured the piece in three movements, calling them fire, bleak devastation and rebuilding – and so emerged the Piano Trio Give Me Phoenix Wings To Fly.

It was only after hearing the music that I came upon Murphy’s programme notes, so that the impression the work made upon me at the concert as outlined below was formed almost entirely through the spellbinding efforts of the Ghost Trio in bringing this extraordinary work into being,  apart from my hearing beforehand pianist Gabriela Glapska’s brief summary of the music’s three-movement scheme. The opening gestures, strident and gripping, transfixed one’s attention, as did the rhythmic trajectories that sprang up almost straight afterwards, at once urgent and oppressive, and with each of the players physically involved in what seemed either like desperate gestures of flight or of falling out of control. The piano’s lowest registers took us to the darkest places, the music’s visceral aspect then burgeoning physically and psychologically with a conglomeration of cacophonies that gradually rose up and suddenly exploded and crashed down onto a single held piano note resonating in the shockingly near-empty aural spaces!

Over these spaces drifted bleak, desolate piano tones, joined by the ‘cello in its high register and then the violin, with stricken and forlorn harmonics. Stratospheric piano-note-clusters floated over low, cavernous held notes, the strings sounding piteously-wrought harmonics, and then ghostly col legno tremolandos – music devoid of shape or living substance. Pitiful  impulses of repeated notes from the piano were answered by heartfelt stratospheric cries from the violin, joined by the ‘cello – the piano chimed and shimmered softly as the strings joined to play long-held mantra-like figures, with time seeming to drift almost into a state of negation or non-being…..

The violin suddenly dug into a three-note repeated figure, joined by the cello, giving the impression of something trying to reactivate or revive – the music began a kind of danse macabre pizz-and-arco-with-piano, the rhythms angular and asymmetric, the instruments wrestling with the material – effortful unisons become exchanged figurations,  everything sounding like desperate attempts at reconnectiveness. The piano danced as the strings interchanged motifs – this phoenix was evidently not one for grand perorations of rebirth, but instead a feisty bird, whose refurbishment was an intensely-wrought, obstreperous and defiant process – making for, in Monique Lapins’ words afterwards, “a wild ride!” And here, what a performance it was of that ride!

Perhaps the concert’s third work was less of a “no-holds barred” than an “unbuttoned” experience, a piece by Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin, who will be celebrating his ninetieth birthday this year. Whimsically titled “Three Funny Pieces” for Piano Trio,  and written in 1997, the pieces are arrangements of earlier works, a 1957 “Humoreske” and two pieces from a “Notebook for Youth” dated 1981, the first of these here called “Conversation” and the second given the title “Let’s Play an Opera by Rossini”. Together, they made a riotous trio! Monique Lapins, who introduced the work, even promised us some singing, which, quixotically, did NOT happen in the Rossini piece but in the final “Humoreske”.

The first piece “Conversation” was a series of desultory exchanges between instruments which seemed determined NOT to communicate or even co-operate, each bent on doing its “own thing” – though at least each waited for the other to complete their “fragment” before beginning each new seemingly random, spur-of-the-moment impulse-gesture. The following “Let’s Play an Opera by Rossini” at first mimicked an operatic “Recitative / Aria” sequence, complete with heroine (violin) and hero (‘cello), – though whether one lampooned or truly invented by Shchedrin, I’m not entirely sure – then suddenly “morphed” into what sounded vaguely like the crescendo sequence from the “La Cenerentola” Overture, at the end of which the ensemble  seemed to fall down a flight of stairs and the playing come to an inglorious stop! Lastly, the “Humoreske”, a mock-processional piece of drollery taking the original “humorous” meaning of the term to bizarre extremes, the players bursting into boisterous song for one of the sequences, and concluding the piece with a loud unison in the wrong key!

All in all, it was one of those occasions at the end of which one might have been tempted to pinch oneself and rhetorically ask in tones of wonderment and disbelief, “And we saw and heard all of that for free? – goodness! – What an absolute privilege!” Indeed!

Monstrous and idiosynchrophiliac goings-on with Stroma at Wellington’s Bats Theatre

Stroma presents:
IDIOSYNCHROPHILIA – Stroma meets invented instruments!

Rosie Langabeer (composer)
Idiosynchrophilia (2021)

Invented instruments devised and built by Neil Feather

Stroma – conducted by Mark Carter
Daniel Beban, Erika Grant, Neil Feather (invented instruments)
Anna van der Zee (violin), Andrew Thomson (viola), Ken Ichinose (‘cello)
Alexander Gunchenko (double bass), Shannon Pittaway (bass trombone),
Todd Gibson-Cornish (bassoon) Thomas Guldborg, Lenny Sakofsky (percussion)

The Heyday Dome, Bats Theatre, 1 Kent Terrace, Wellington

Sunday 25th July, 2021

The perils of reviewer-conviviality are never so real as when one attends a concert of contemporary music, and sits next to someone in the audience one knows by sight but has never had a chance to talk with seriously, so most pleasantly spends the entire pre-concert time getting properly acquainted, as a result of which one completely forgets to read the concert’s programme notes before the lights are dimmed and the music gets under way!

Being thus plunged into the sound-world of an intriguingly and unconventionally “new” piece of music certainly put me on my mettle, especially as my “reviewing-brief” involved the substance of the presentation and its outcomes and the production of a dissertation of sorts on the same!  I knew beforehand that the concert featured at least three “invented” musical instruments, the work of one Neil Feather (also one of the musicians), for which an accompanying “soundscape” inspired by 1960s “monster” movies had been wrought by composer Rosie Langabeer. The fact that the contemporary music ensemble Stroma was involved also suggested that there would be interactions between these “deliciously idiosyncratic” inventions and conventional instruments of the kind any concertgoer would be familiar with – string, wind, brass, percussion instruments – perhaps!

I wasn’t entirely sure of my ground when it came to thinking about 1960s “monster movies” – though I had lived through that era, I was a timid, largely unadventurous moviegoer, who avoided anything “scary” through being prone to nightmares and other uncontrollable imaginings. I presumed there would be lots of “creepy” sounds with plenty of ominous ambiences and sudden dynamic irruptions designed to stimulate equally calamitous and involuntary bodily mechanisms to do with fright! In order to get more in alignment with the composer in this matter I googled the “monster movies” genre, pondering over what I’d missed in my formative years when reading descriptions such as “atomic mutants, monstrous throwbacks, monsters made and/or controlled by mad scientists, animal-man combinations, scientists who transform themselves into monsters, the various species of resurrected dead, and creatures from outer space, including alien parasites”.

Conversely, when the music actually began I instantly felt on familiar territory – was not that baleful bass trombone sound over sinister percussion a first cousin of Fafner, the mighty giant-turned-dragon from Wagner’s Siegfried? The sequence was repeated, with strings reinforcing the trombone, and on a third repetition Erica Grant began to tremulously activate the Nondo, a large sheet steel string instrument, which was resonated with strikers, and further activated by the rolling of a steel pole across (near invisible) strings stretched from end-to-end , the sounds electronically amplified – in fact I thought at first the pole was magnetised and seemed to “balance itself” mid-air with the help of attracting/repulsing forces! I thought in places of Len Lye’s famous steel-sheet installation in New Plymouth which I’d seen and heard a number of years ago, now, the timbres as remarkable as there but uniquely “here”, and responsive to different kinds of touches from the player, wonderfully cavernous sounds as well as delicate ones.

I ought to remark at this point that audience involvement in these gesturings couldn’t help but be total and visceral, due to the auditorium’s wonderfully-raked seating, giving every person a clear view of what the various players were doing – obviously the venue, which I had never been to previously, is something of a treasure!

The room’s immediacies were underlined when, at one point the wind and string players were goaded into launching a violent, positively seismic tutti, to which another player, Dan Beban, responded with his Vibrowheel activation, impressive in a “miniature” sense to view, and belying its size to listen to a “Mutt and Jeff” kind of comparison with the voluminous and visibly-impassive Nondo! As the latter was again roused by its player, Erica Grant. the timpani rumbled in a more spontaneously-interactive way, transferring energies towards both the bassoonist and the strings, the latter essaying eerie glissandi whose sense of unease proves a precursor to more demonstrably threatening sounds,  abrasive, fractured, and almost anarchic utterances from trombone, double bass and bassoon.

Diverting the menace somewhat was the activation of the third “invented instrument”, this one by its actual creator, Neil Feather – the Wiggler consisted of four wires stretched horizontally between two metal bars laid flat, creating a Koto-like, or dulcimer-like playing aspect, but with the wires activated by metal rods laid upon or balanced at right angles in the space between the iron bars – the rods were dropped/bounced upon or balanced in between the wires, and allowed to bounce on, and scrape against the same, gently or more forcefully as the scenario required – almost the “music of industry” seemed to resonate from this arrangement, factory-like in its repetitions, but also delicate and natural in its evocation of gentler impulses, a “music is where you find it” realisation…..

As the Wiggler was put through its paces (the ensemble percussionists took their respective triangles for a walk in separate directions at this point, possibly as a dissociative gesture!), the ensemble “crept” its diverse sounds in “under the radar”, with the strings in lament-like mode , a spell broken, intentionally or otherwise with a start-inducing crash from the vicinity of the Nondo, Erica Grant unable to supress a smile at this point as if she’d pre-planned the disturbance.

I’ve not mentioned the presentation’s notable lighting properties up to this point – artfully atmospheric and, I think, gradually morphing between different tones – but suddenly there was a marked change of atmosphere and lighting, and the ensemble immediately struck up a sentimental dance-tune, complete with wire-brush percussion accompaniment, most divertingly and engagingly delivered, the trombonist phrasing the leading melody superbly! The strings took over the tune’s first part and the bassoon and trombone concluded the phrase with some smart dovetailing!

“Time for you and time for me, and for the taking of a toast and tea” the music seemed to say, when another abrupt lighting change and a dissolution of sounds into something metallic and mechanical “flicked a switch” to a kind of “noises off” or “underbelly” scenario. Most disconcerting!  The scenarios then switched backwards and forwards from dance-scene to Nibelungen-like slave-labour industry, with each switch inducing a more desperate and anarchic feeling. A change back to the dance scene then introduced a more “hep to the jive” rhythm, the muted bass trombone sounding what seemed like a reminiscence of a 1960s television action programme, and the bassoonist out of his chair and wielding his instrument like some kind of Grim Reaper with his scythe!

Conductor Mark Carter abruptly left the podium at this point, leaving the musicians at odds with the activated “invented” instruments, whose sounds died away as the lights dimmed for the last time. Altogether it seemed like a kind of dissolution of order, and a leaving of things to nature at the eventual silencing of the machines. Whatever impressions of intent were at large, the audience’s reaction to the performance was unalloyed delight, both at its manifest entertainment value and its idiosyncrophiliac singularity.

Afterwards, at home I read the programme! – it was there! – the ominous awakening of a monster somewhere deep in the underground, followed by its pursuit of a gradual path of destruction through both nature and civilisation, ending in human oblivion. As to the place of spontaneity and improvisation in the work, such was the freedom with which the musicians brought the sounds into being, it all gave the impression of the musicians being “played” by the piece as much as playing it. I was fascinated by the manipulations of the “invented” instruments, even if I thought the Vibrowheel a tad under-represented in the work, compared with the others.

Though I didn’t feel the ‘idiosynchrophiliac” instruments integrated musically with the ensemble’s monster scenario, that perhaps wasn’t the point of what the exercise was all about – what remained in my mind was a sense of spontaneous creation and recreation having random and unexpected outcomes exhibited by all facets of the presentation, from nature’s own “dimension cleft in twain” manifestation of chaos (arguably representative of a virus waiting to strike, as well), to seemingly innocuous if titillating sound ambiences wrought from invented machines – manifestations of unpredictability from which we can each draw our own conclusions.

“The Long Day Closes” – Mozart, with “Evening Music and Lullabies” from the Bach Choir of Wellington

Mozart Vesperae Solennes de Confessore, K339
Evening Music and Lullabies by Franck, Brahms, JS Bach, Karg-Elert, Haydn, Lauridsen, Whitacre, Sullivan and David Hamilton

The Bach Choir of Wellington
Music Director:  Shawn Michael Condon
Accompanist:  Douglas Mews
Vocal Soloists: Shaunagh Chambers (soprano), Kate Manahi (mezzo), LJ Crichton (tenor), Samuel McKeever (bass)

St Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace

Saturday, 24 July 2021

This was a concert of two halves, as they say in rugby. The first half consisted of the advertised Mozart Solemn Vespers, and the second half consisted of ‘Evening Music and Lullabies’, on the basis, I suppose, that Vespers is the evening prayer service, one of the Canonical Hours in the Catholic liturgy, although you wouldn’t find any of these items following a Catholic Vespers. But more of this later.

The liturgical Vespers consists of five psalms, preceded by a chant and followed by the Magnificat, with the doxology (‘Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto…’) at the end of every psalm. Mozart wrote this Vespers for the Cathedral of Salzburg in 1780. It is scored SATB with a small orchestra including two trumpets and three trombones, basso continuo plus organ, but in this case Douglas Mews substituted for everything.

For the first half of the concert, the choir was stationed in the gallery of St Andrews, around the organ. This must have been a bit of a squeeze, because there are nearly 60 of them, plus four soloists. I couldn’t see how cramped they were, though, because I was sitting at the front of the back half of the seating, facing forwards. The front half of the seating had been rearranged to face inwards, separated by a narrow aisle.

I was in St Andrew’s a few weeks ago for the terrific Inspirare concert, where the choir (all 18 of them) sang from the choir loft, but that evening all the downstairs seating faced backwards.  In both cases, putting the choir up in the gallery worked well. Now that St Andrew’s has thrown a cool three million at the organ, we can probably expect more of it. It strikes me that the choir sound is enhanced by singing upstairs, even in a dryish acoustic.

In any event, I was waiting for the choir’s first note with slight trepidation. The Bach Choir was once an excellent choir, but it fell on hard times. ‘What do they sound like these days under Shawn Condon?’ I wondered. Much, much better is the answer. The first phrase of the ‘Dixit Dominus’ was full and confident; the second higher and louder. The choir’s sound had a fuzzy quality, a bit like peach fuzz, which I found oddly beautiful. With a choir of sixty, it’s easier to sing loudly than quietly, and very hard to sing exactly together, so the fuzz was probably the result of dozens of tiny inexactnesses. Still, the opening filled me with confidence. This was going to be a great concert.

And so it proved. There were four soloists supporting the choir, all young singers at the start of their careers. The soprano gets the most work, being given the well-known Laudate Dominum (aka Psalm 117) with the choir as backing group. In this case, it was Shaunagh Chambers who was doing the full Kiri. She is in her honours year at New Zealand School of Music, where she is taught by Jenny Wollerman and Margaret Medlyn. She has a lovely voice for Mozart, bright and agile, and she sang the few florid passages she was granted with athleticism, plus Wollerman-like precision and beauty. But the other soloists were no slugs, even though they had hardly anything to do. I was especially taken with the delicious dark sound of Samuel McKeever, the bass soloist. He is a graduate of Project Prima Volta and recently performed with the NZSO. Tenor Lila Crichton was also great, and mezzo Kate Manahi, like the tenor and bass, a Project Prima Volta graduate, has a glorious voice. They sounded beautiful together in their quartet passages.

Early on the choir’s diction was rather muddy, but it had improved by the time they got to the doxology of the second psalm, Confiteor tibi. The dynamics were somewhat samey at first with a lot of mf and not much else until the third psalm, Beatus vir. Here the soloists sang as a quartet, and the choir’s first entry was a bit pallid after their brilliant tone. The basses begin No 4 Laudate pueri, but the tenors follow straight after. There are currently 12 basses in the choir but only six tenors, yet the tenors sounded gorgeous: they have a completely unified sound, young and fresh, which creates the effect of much bigger forces. The altos, I thought, often sounded underpowered, getting lost in the texture, yet there are 17 of them.

Mozart’s Magnificat in this Vespers is not subtle: word-painting applied by trowel. By the time they got to ‘quia respexit’ the choir was giving it plenty of welly, and the tenor section briefly overblew. But the soloists came to their rescue. Though the women nearly came to grief in ‘dispersit’, they were brought into cohesion in ‘Abraham et semini eius’ which sounded definitive. The soloists led into the doxology, followed by the choir. The tenors were briefly a bit on the rough side – pushing too hard? And then it was over.

The pieces in the second half of the concert were a mixed bag. It opened with César Franck’s setting of Psalm 150, a gorgeous thing, with the choir accompanied by the organ. The work was composed to inaugurate the new organ at the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles in Paris, and was scored for organ, choir, and orchestra. The aim is to show off the capabilities of the organ, and Douglas Mews did a splendid job; supported by the choir, with fluting sopranos and the men lyrical and majestic by turns.

Next came my favourite work of the concert, a very Brahmsian rendering of ‘Wie lieblich sint deine Wohningen’, the most performed movement from the German Requiem. They sang in great rolling waves of sound, with the altos sometimes getting lost in the texture, and then found again. The basses sounded splendid. The subito piano was dramatic, and the occasional drop in tuning (a loss of energy at the ends of phrases) went almost unnoticed.

Then came an organ and chorus version of Bach’s ‘Nun danket alle Gott’ from BWV 79 which seemed a bit antique after the lush chords of the Brahms, with the choir singing the harmonized hymn tune and the organ providing all the elaborations. I wondered why it was here, out of time and not very ‘evening’ in theme; but before I had formed the thought it was attaca Karg-Elert’s rowdy setting of the same tune as a triumphal march, in case the Bach had put anyone to sleep. It was a magisterial showing off of everything the refurbished organ can do. Douglas Mews must have eleven arms.

The choir moved downstairs, and stood at the front of the church to sing David Hamilton’s ‘God be in my head’, a movement from a mass written for the choirs of Westlake Boys and Girls schools. I was surprised to see that the Bach Choir is older than it sounds. (In my day, the Bach Choir comprised under-35s.) The Hamilton was a capella and more challenging, but they sang it sweetly and simply, heads mostly buried in their scores. Mews came down to join them at the piano for Haydn’s ‘Evening Song’, a rare work for accompanied choir that was not commissioned. But it was one choral part song too many for me. This would have been the moment to use the four soloists, who had sung so little.

Next came ‘Sure on this Shining Night’, a poem setting by the American composer and mystic Morten Lauridsen. Shawn Condon was on home turf now; the dynamic indications were clear, the tuning mostly excellent. It was followed by another popular American, Eric Whitacre (b.1970). ‘The Seal Lullaby’ was originally composed for wind ensemble. Whitacre is beloved of choirs, and it’s likely that no one ever lost money by programming him, although I find him light to the point of weightlessness. But the choir sang with conviction.

And still two more works to go! Arthur Sullivan’s ‘The Long Day Closes’ came next. This too would have been great to give the soloists (although there was already too much music for one concert). Or not sing it at all. Still, there were some great low notes from the second basses.

Finally, the last work in the programme, David Hamilton’s arrangement of ‘Hine, e Hine’, a lovely thing that benefited from the assistance of the soloists singing with the choir. Alas, it was over too fast. All in all, a delightful concert that would have been better if it had been shorter.