New Zealand String Quartet – Soundscapes 2024 – and all good wishes to Monique Lapins

The New Zealand String Quartet presents:
NZSQ SOUNDSCAPES

CLAIRE COWAN – Celestia-Terralia
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH – String Quartet No. 14
DEBUSSY – String Quartet

Helene Pohl (violin, leader), Monique Lapins (violin),
Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

MOZART- String Quintet in B-flat K.174 Finale
(with Peter Clark, violin, and Monique Lapins, viola)

St.Mary-of-the-Angels Church,
Boulcott St., Wellington

Wednesday 15th May 2024

What a beautiful venue for a concert! St. Mary of the Angels Church in Wellington has played host to the New ZeaIand String Quartet on numerous occasions over the years; and while I’ve found that a seat near the front works ideally well in terms of the music-making’s clarity, there’s also an attractive bloom to the sound which conveys something of the character of the surroundings in truly memorable fashion. And if for whatever reason one arrives with little time to spare and is relegated to a place further from the performers than one would like, then there are both visual and sonic compensations for the proportionate diminution of absolute clarity, even if the sounds which can still reach beyond the heart of the nave are best made by choral voices or the solo organ!

Fortunately I was able to get a seat near the front, close enough to even make out the welcoming remarks of Aislinn Ryan, the Quartet’s general manager, here deprived of a sonorously amplified voice by a vagrant microphone, but still managing to convey suitably heartfelt greetings to all of us. The pre-concert publicity had already alerted most of us present to the occasion’s most piquant feature, this being one of second violinist Monique Lapins’ final appearances with the Quartet after eight years of membership before moving on to other artistic ventures, and the introduction of her replacement, Peter Clark, via a ”special item” at the concert’s end – so the event had a distinction of its own to add on that score.

A programme had been chosen to reflect the Quartet’s wide-ranging strands of musical activity within its particular genre, including a contemporary New Zealand work. a string quartet classic and a mainstay of twentieth-century quartet-writing – and though any from the classical “triumvirate” of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven weren’t included in this survey, amends were made by the inclusion of the “Peter Clark introductory piece” at the concert’s end, more of which to come.

Auckland composer Claire Cowan’s music for me never fails to strike sparks with each encounter; and I was grateful to the NZSQ for giving me the chance to catch up with one of her latest pieces, the visionary “Celestia-Terralia”, a kind of meditation for string quartet on the relationship of our world to the vistas of space through which we ceaselessly move, stunningly rendered in sonic terms by this other-worldly exploration of life’s extremes.

In their introduction to the work the players mentioned the composer’s initial fascination with the historic 1957 Russian space probe that sent a live dog into space to orbit the earth, a venture which was then motivated as much by political gain as scientific advancement in what had become a “space race” between the USSR and the USA. (The dog, who was known as “Laika”, actually made several orbits of the earth, but within a few hours sadly died as a result of overheating in the spacecraft.)

At the beginning the sounds presented a kind of technological minimalist character of beeps, blips and other kinds of warning signals, setting up a tangibly propulsive character that suggested some kind of voyage, with an occasional legato-like phrase that could have signified a rather more living, organic presence! These chattering pulses then became wave-like motions, the harmonic-like timbres intensifying a hypnotic other-worldly effect. Again the trajectories suddenly changed, reverting to the opening figures but occasionally breaking without warning into almost “square-dancing quatrains”, everything scampering onwards until the music’s energies finally seemed to ‘cut adrift” and float, punctuated by huge viola-drops of sound and scampering ‘cello-pizzicati mutterings – from then on, the piece with its extraordinarily spacious harmonies took on an elegiac and trance-like character with an intense, austere beauty, haunted by an underlying sense of loss…..

Somewhat more earthly than all of this, but in no sense less epic or emotionally far-reaching was the programme’s next item, Shostakovich’s Fourteenth String Quartet, dedicated by the composer to the cellist, Sergei Shirinsky, a member of the Beethoven Quartet, the ensemble that gave the premiere performances of all but the first and last of Shostakovich’s fifteen quartets. It was the last of a set of four quartets (Nos 11-14) each of which was dedicated to a member of the ensemble, in this case featuring the ’cello in a pivotal role throughout.

After a kind of “Once upon a time” introduction by the viola, the cello took the music’s reins and brought in a droll playfulness, realised here with gusto by Rolf Gjelsten, and taken up by the violins, the music’s characterisations here physically enhanced by three of the group’s “standing to play”, an NZSQ trademark I’ve always relished! Throughout, the two violins gladly followed the cello’s dance-like framework, but as well occasionally pushed their timbres into agitato mode, goading “cello and viola into responsive bouts of the same – but then I loved Gillian Ansell’s viola impassioned “reading of the riot act” solo which prompted both cello and violins to take up the dancing playfulness once more! And with what eloquence did the cello here combine recitative and dance with which to gather up its companions for some jogtrot concordance at the movement’s end!

Helene Pohl’s beautiful violin solo began the second movement, supported by her colleagues and encouraged to extend the instrument’s reverie as well as beautifully descanting the cello’s entry, furthering what had become something of an extended duo for the pair, piquantly decorated by tender pizzicato from second violin and viola! When all four finally joined bowed forces again it was Monique Lapins’ instrument’s turn to shine, further in keeping with the dark beauties of what we had heard thus far in this deeply-felt movement. After further musings from the first violin, a pizzicato passage suddenly became animated (sounding the notes which spell the affectionate form of the name of the work’s dedicatee, “Seryozha” (for Sergei Shirinsky) and the Allegretto was thus made to spring almost miraculously from these relatively comatose soundscapes!

Suddenly here were raw, stridently burgeoning utterances being tossed around between the instruments rather like a twelve-tone exercise with “attitude”, searing and sharp-edged, variously in stepwise, triplet and running aspect before subsiding, the cello quietly quoting the opening of Katerina’s aria “Seryozha, khoroshiy moy” from Act 4 of the composer’s opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, and both second and first violins ruminating over their exhausting troubles! After all this had run its course, how blessed were those calmly stoic concluding phrases! What a work and what a performance!

This left still another quartet masterpiece to work its spell upon our sensibilities (a cup that runneth over!) – in our somewhat fraught state as listeners by this time (in the wake of the Shostakovich work) I felt it would be such a joy to relish a piece of music whose qualities put one in mind of those piano concertos referred to by Mozart in a letter to his father as “works that both connoisseurs and ordinary people would equally enjoy, the former because they would both delight in and understand the music’s many felicities, and the latter because they would enjoy the music equally well, but without fully knowing why!” I was certainly anticipating the full tactile enjoyment of Debussy’s sound-world in his only String Quartet and certainly wasn’t disappointed!

What arresting contrasts we were straightaway presented with in this performance by the point and focus of the opening phrases of the work and the subsequent swirling masses of finely-crafted diaphanous detailing which followed! My proximity to the quartet enabled me to appreciate as much the beautifully ambient support of the middle voices surrounding the principle lines, whatever their source. The players all “sounded” detail in marvellously pliant and spontaneous tones, everything seeming naturally analogue and organic, as if we were all swimming irresistibly through the conduits of a living organism, with sounds seeming to coalesce and dissolve at will, culminating in a wonderfully fashioned-on-the-spot unison!

Just as beguiling at the scherzo’s beginning were the plethora of pizzicato which tumbled over one another with what seemed like infectious delight at the cross-rhythms and their interaction, then contrasting these pin-point accuracies with ear-catching “whisperings’, mere slivers and shavings of tone swept into almost ghostly unanimities punctuated with sforzandi and echoes of uncanny laughter at the insouciance of it all. The third movement, Andatino, doucement expressif, began with a brief solo from Monique Lapins, its beauty uncannily replicated by Gillian Ansell’s viola, all with gorgeously recessed muted tones and played “con amore”. How disarming it feels when hearing such music played with the kind of absorption that “unlocks” an impulse or memory one knows without being able to name! The beautiful viola-playing and the accompanying modal-like chordings here put me in mind of Vaughan Williams’ music for similar forces, the flow of emotion as spontaneous as was its hushed recession at the end….

As for the finale, we enjoyed its wistful launching by the ‘cello into a drifting, peripatetic world, whose sounds seemed inclined towards melting and merging, rather than forward movement – but the players then insinuated, goaded and eventually tumbled the music into vigorous trajectories with its unashamed Cesar Franck-like repetitions, regaling us with oceans of ebb-and-flow before plunging into the return of the work’s opening theme – such a full-blooded and attention-grabbing moment! It seemed by this time we were so transported that, when brought to us by a precipitate coda, Helene Pohl’s final violin ascent to those final chords was both thrilling and tinged with regret on our part that there suddenly wasn’t any more! And what more could one ask of a performance?

I mentioned earlier the exclusion of any music by the accepted “string quartet triumvirate” of composers in the concert – but there was actually a scheduled “extra” piece which in terms of musical content almost compensated entirely for the neglect – this was a movement from one of Mozart’s String Quintets, chosen by the Quartet to feature both the group’s departee, Monique Lapins, and the newcomer, Peter Clark, thereby merging the bitter-sweet process of farewelling and welcoming into a musically-satisfying whole. So there actually WAS some more after the Debussy, the finale of Mozart’s String Quintet in B-flat K.174, played by the ensemble with all of the spirit, feeling and skill of execution that one might expect from these players and within their “moment in time”. The NZSQ has a few of these concerts left in various venues around the country – anybody within coo-ee of any of these occasions would be well-advised on several counts to enjoy what many of us obviously regarded as a very special event.

It remains to say “Vale, Monique Lapins! – Waimarie pai! It has been an honour!”

A Midday Education in the Organ, at St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace

Organ Recital at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace
Organist – Paul Rosoman

Review by Maya Field

J.S. Bach – Alla Breve in D Major, BWV589
Bjarne Sløgedal – Variations on a Norwegian Folk Tune
Heinrich Scheidemann – Alleluja Laudem dicite Deo Nostro
J.S. Bach – Two Choral Preludes: Cantata BWV22, Cantata BWV75
Marcel Dupre – Lamento
Dieterich Buxtehude – Praeludium in G Minor, BuxWV150

Lunchtime at St Andrew’s on the Terrace, Wellington
Wednesday, 15th May,

Nothing can prepare for how the organ sounds in person. No matter how many times you watch Phantom of the Opera, or listen to Bach, you don’t realise how much the organ surrounds you in sound until you’re sitting in a room with one. At least, this was the case for me. To me, the organ means the masked Phantom and loud, heavy chords that ring through churches. This was partly true, as it was at St Andrews on the Terrace, but I didn’t realise the full range of the organ until Paul Rosoman opened with Bach’s Alla Breve (D Major).

The audience was seated below Rosoman, with his back turned to us. This is quite unique from other recitals, as you can’t look to the musician’s face for clues of enjoyment or feeling. Instead, it’s all in the body language of the shoulder and the back of his head. I probably should’ve realised this before the concert, but I didn’t quite put two and two together until he sat with his back turned to us.

For an organ recital, Bach is a fantastic way to open the programme. The organ underpinned much of Bach’s career, and he was primarily considered an organist in the 18th century. While he composed brilliant works for a variety of instruments, including other keyboard instruments, the organ is Bach’s home instrument. At least, that’s the way his pieces feel. The Alla Breve introduced us to the programme very nicely, as it showcased the weight and beauty of the organ. Rosoman had a perfect balance of all parts, which is crucial for the classic Bach counterpoint.

Bjarne Sløgedal is a more obscure composer. Norwegian, lived from 1927-2014, an organist and composer, studied at Julliard, was an organist in Kristiansand Cathedral for 45 years. That’s the summary of his Wikipedia page, which I had to google translate from Norwegian to English, so hopefully I didn’t get incorrect facts from a poor translation.

This was when I realised how little I knew about the organ. It’s absolutely beautiful. I didn’t realise that the organ could take on such a soft, almost wind-like quality. Sløgedal’s Variations on a Norwegian Folk Tune felt like a walk through a forest. There were slight pauses in between sections, as (I’m assuming) stops were changed, or pages were turned. It started with a soft gasp, then a full gust. An airy breeze filtered in, then wind began to build to a gorgeous and rich howl.

The programme went onto Heinrich Scheidemann, one of the important predecessors to organists like Bach and Buxtehude (who will be played later on in the programme). The Alleluja Laudem was originally played on an organ twice the size of the organ in St Andrew’s. Rosoman explained how he had to alter and adjust different stops to achieve the same effects as Scheidemann’s organ. I admit, I had to look up what stops were after the concert: they’re the knobs on the organ that alter the sound quality of the organ. Rosoman’s alterations were very good, and the piece felt very balanced, with no overpowering or underwhelming parts of the piece.

We then returned to Bach, with two Choral Preludes. The first was “Ertot uns dutch dein Gute” (Mortify us by Thy goodness, Cantata BWV 22), which Bach auditioned (successfully) with for the role of Cantor in Leipzig. This cantata felt like a soft walk to a countryside chapel. Quite an idealised image from me, I know, but I can’t help it. As an organ-layman, I have to resort to some nice language and images to make up for my lacking knowledge.

The second was “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan” (Whate’er my God ordains is right, Cantata BWV 75), another important piece in Bach history, as this was the cantata he presented for his first service In Liepzig. I particularly enjoyed the gorgeous counterpoint near the end, classic Bach.

Dupre’s Lamento was my favourite. I listened to it on repeat immediately, and have added it to my playlist of favourite classical pieces. The piece was dedicated to friends of Dupre, whose son had died at three years old. There were two themes of the piece: a quiet theme, and a childish theme, both of which had the deep anguish of the parent’s grief. The quiet theme was melancholic and beautiful. The childish theme was haunting. It was grief itself, and Rosoman understood this. There was a cacophony of ripping-heart-out-anguish in loud sequences, followed by a final counterpoint of both themes. I remember thinking that I could’ve cried. Rosoman did a beautiful job at such a devastating piece.

We finished with Buxtehude’s Praeludium (G Minor), the piece that Bach famously walked 280 miles to hear. I understand why he would’ve walked so far, but perhaps because I was so moved by Dupre, I don’t know if I would’ve done the same as Bach. The piece had three fugues which grew in animation as they went on. The first was mild, then it grew more animated, then the third grew to a “wildly extravagant” finish (Rosoman’s words). It was a great way to finish the programme, and a fantastic performance from Rosoman.

As a performer, Rosoman is wonderful. He’s an expert at the organ, and takes time between pieces to explain important parts of the pieces and the instrument. He’s affable and a great showman. Even though I couldn’t see his face while he played, you felt that he was feeling the same emotion as you while he played.

The lunchtime concerts at St Andrews are a great way to share classical music to the public. The concerts are free, take an hour, and showcase a great range of music and instruments. This organ recital, for me, is a great example of how important these lunchtime concerts are. I went into St Andrews only knowing the organ in terms of Phantom of the Opera, but I left absolutely enamoured with Lamento and a new appreciation for the instrument. If you can spare the hour between 12 and 1pm on a Wednesday, I strongly urge you to spend it at St Andrews on the Terrace.

An exuberant ‘Cello-and-Piano concert from Robert Ibell and Rachel Thomson

Wellington Chamber Music presents:
Robert Ibell (‘cello) and Rachel Thomson (piano)

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN – Sonata for Piano & Cello in D major, Op 102 No 2
LEOŠ JANÁČEK – Pohádka (Fairytale)
CLAUDE DEBUSSY – Sonata for Cello & Piano
ALEX TAYLOR – Four Little Pieces
ZOLTÁN KODÁLY – Sonata for Cello & Piano Op 4
ROBERT SCHUMANN – Fantasy Pieces Op 73

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington
Sunday, 12th May, 2024

I confess to being tempted to describe this as a well-nigh perfect programme at the concert’s conclusion, except that such fulsome statements are obviously subjective, and have a well-used ring about them when applied to any such compilations, let alone of the “reviewing” kind!

Let me say instead that I found the programme extraordinarily satisfying as such – and this is not to mention the commitment and skill with which the two musicians involved brought to the occasion, though they would obviously have influenced such a judgement.

A reliable measure of the impact made upon audience sensibilities at any concert is the degree of animated conversation that follows the applause – and I found myself almost straightaway afterwards talking with each of my neighbours in turn seated on either side (neither of whom I knew at all, beforehand!), with all of us eager to convey how much we had enjoyed this and that and wanting the other’s response to the same. So, this concert certainly passed the “animated audience response” test with flying colours!

One of the pieces was completely new to me (Alex Taylor’s Four Little Pieces), and another two I’d had to familiarize myself with by finding recordings before going to the concert (Leoš Janáček’s Pohádka (Fairytale) and Zoltán Kodály’s Sonata for Cello & Piano Op 4) – all of which put me in a kind of half-and-half “knew/didn’t know” situation regarding the content, the kind of thing that can put one on one’s mettle as a listener good and proper! I was lucky that I didn’t find myself “overwhelmed” by too many new things – it gave my ears different things to do with the two halves of the programme!

First up was the Beethoven, the fifth and last of the composer’s ‘Cello Sonatas, works that revolutionised the repertoire for the instrument by completely reworking the relationship between cello and keyboard – previously a mere supporting instrument in any ensemble, here the ‘cello was clearly made an equal partner with the piano. Though the two early Op.5 Sonatas were still described as “with a violincello obbligato” the cello parts were through-composed, each having its own voice, something never before attempted. Beethoven was to give the new form its fully-fledged status in the two Op.102 Sonatas.

Rachel Thomson exuberantly sounded the opening piano figure, beginning the lovely give-and-take exchanges that characterised this movement, with its charming contrasts between lyrical expression and forthright con brio manner. Both players observed a judicious balance between the two instruments, with Robert Ibell’s tones readily encompassing the forthright and more lyrical aspects of the music’s lines. The players fully realised the opening solemnity of the central Adagio, the sounds “breathing” as if shared by a single instrument, the con molto sentiment d’affeto direction allowing plenty of expressive freedom, such as in the transitions which moved the music between different intensities – especially lovely! Which of course, made the concluding fugue Allegro even more fun, not so much a narrative as an encapsulation of changing moods, spontaneous and visceral in places, quixotic and playful in others – all so masterful, and all thrown off here with such elan and delight!

Next came a different century’s version of individuality from another master, Leoš Janáček, with his three-movement work for ‘cello and piano Pohádka (Fairytale), a work Janáček, a staunch Russophile, based on a story from a poem by Vasily Zhukovsky which was inspired by Russian folk-lore. Rachel Thomson both enlightened and amused us by reading a droll synopsis beforehand of the work’s original story, written as a programme note by the great cellist Steven Isserlis for one of his concerts.

In three movements, the music tells of the young Tsarevich Prince Ivan and his love for the daughter of Kashchei, the King of the Underworld, the tribulations of the lovers as their plans are seemingly thwarted by magic, and their eventual release from the spell and their eventual happy union. Janáček’s settings are more atmospheric and scene-based than actual narratives, the bardic-like exchanges between piano recitative and ‘cello pizzicato at the very beginning instantly creating a fairy-tale ambience, one in which the urgencies here gradually overwhelmed the music’s lyricism and took hold via driving ostinati as the fearsome underworld King Kashchei pursued the fleeing lovers.

The second movement’s exchanges similarly reflected the hopes and fears of the beleaguered pair, rather than presenting any of the story’s specifics – both Ibell’s cello pizzicato motif and Thomson’s more rhapsodic piano lines vividly “grew” tensions and agitations constantly at the mercy of the fates, eventually reaching a concluding point of suspended unease with a single, resigned piano figure. The finale straightaway had the musicians steadfastedly generating a dancing figure, hopeful, occasionally tinged with anxieties, but eventually subsiding in a kind of glow of contentment, leaving us with the feeling that true love here had actually “made it” over the lovers’ troubles.

Concluding a first half of unfailingly well-wrought musical utterance was Claude Debussy’s 1915 Sonata for ‘Cello and Piano. The composer was determined to celebrate all things French, and especially so at the time of the work’s composition (1915) with the idea to the fore that, in the composer’s words “not even 30 million “boches” can destroy French thought”. The opening Prologue’s introductory piano fanfare, answered by an ardent ‘cello theme, straightaway affirmed the musicians’ commitment to the music’s sound-world, here, with beautiful, wistful exchanges gradually building up archways in places to the composer’s own La Cathedral Engloutie-like sonorities, before the sounds plaintively retreated, leaving in the memory a lovely harmonic-like note from the ‘cello at the end.

If the composer’s earlier solo piano Prelude La serenade interrompue had portrayed something of a thwarted endeavour, this Serenade seemed to engender nothing less than a complete train wreck! Debussy himself strongly objected to one of his interpreters interpolating a commentary characterising the well-known commedia dell’arte character Pierrot in this work, even if the music seems to lend itself to such a programme – the wonderfully quirky and volatile exchanges between the instruments right from the outset pinged our sensibilities and clattered through our receptive chambers! – all so quirky and volatile, with sound-trajectories whose impulses didn’t last, whether pizzicato or arco, staccato or legato, a veritable orgy of indecision or caprice, with only the work’s finale coming to the rescue by breaking the impasse!

After such chronic demarcations of expression the finale here seemed at first to burst out of the music’s shell and flood St.Andrews’s sound vistas with uninhibited energies, the folkish dance melody whirling its notations up and down to great effect. There were still more reflective moments in which one might imagine the by then sick and disillusioned composer feeling he had given his all and venting such inclinations, places where Ibell’s and Thomson’s instruments seemed to, by turns, inwardly lament and even momentarily cry out – but having made such points the players returned the music in rondo-like fashion to the opening dance-like energies, before delivering, in no uncertain terms the work’s final gesture, to suitably appreciative effect among their audience!

Alex Taylor’s highly diverting collection of miniature pieces which began the second half seemed almost over before it had started, as we had very little idea how to differentiate the pieces’ separate characters, especially with each having a German title which one might have worked out without translation given time, but had then been moved along more quickly than did one’s brain! (I “got” the first three titles, I think, but was beaten to the finish-line by the final “rasch”) – so that understanding came hand-in-hand only with the moment when both players leapt to their feet having played the whole set without any discernable breaks! Still, they provided great entertainment.

By contrast, Zoltán Kodály’s Op.4 Sonata which followed drew us into a spacious and meditative sound-world. Originally in three movements, the work was deprived of its original opening by the composer who felt dissatisfied with both his first and yet another, later attempt at an opening, so the sonata was left in its two-movement form. While the beautiful opening ‘cello solo does engender a “slow movement” kind of feeling, it makes a magical opening for a work whose character suggests both the composer’s folk-music researches and the influence of Debussy in its impressionistic colourings. Throughout Ibell and Thomson spun a truly atmospheric dialogue of interchange via the music’s leading/accompanying figures and distinctive instrumental timbres.

The second movement’s spirited folk-dance-like beginning delighted us with its contrasts and volatility, with Rachel Thomson’s fingers all over the keyboard in places, ideally matching Robert Ibell’s trenchant attack and command of dynamic variation – playing which seemed to encompass fully the music’s “no holds barred” expression, as full blooded in places as it was piquant and wistful at the piece’s end – for most of us, a real “discovery”!

More familiar fare was the programme’s last item, the warm-hearted Schumann Fantasy Pieces Op. 73, given here as if it was all second nature to these musicians – everything flowed under their hands with an inevitability the composer would have surely accepted with gratitude and approval. Originally written for clarinet with piano, these pieces eminently suited the darker tones of the ‘cello, and its arguably greater expressive range of colour (note: check to see how many clarinettists are on my Christmas card list!). I particularly loved the last piece’s “accelerated exuberance” with the composer urging the musicians to play faster and faster at the end! We loved it, and I took away from the concert most resoundingly a remark from a friend who delightedly greeted me on the way out with the words, “Golly! -wasn’t that Kodaly really something!” I couldn’t have agreed more…..

Sighs, spontaneities and serenade snatches from the NZSM String Ensemble at St. Andrew’s

St.Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series

Review by Maya Field for “Middle C”

The NZSM String Ensemble, conducted by Kira Omelchenko

EDWARD ELGAR – Sospiri (Sighs) Op. 70
RACHEL MORGAN – Armannai (2003)
ANTONIN DVORAK – Three Movements from Serenade Op.22 –
Scherzo, Larghetto and Finale

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

Wednesday, 7th May, 2024

If ballet is my first reason for loving classical music, then string instruments are my second. A few years of Viola in high school orchestra (hardly a maestro but at least I have some leg to stand on, I suppose) has given me a lot of stubborn opinions about composers and repertoire, but it also has given me a deep love and excitement for string ensembles. Safe to say, I was happy to take a break from my studying to watch the NZSM String Ensemble.

It was particularly cold and clear on Wednesday, but fortunately, St Andrews on the Terrace was nicely warmed by heaters. The ensemble opened with the Adagio by Elgar, which was a lovely and melancholic opening for the crisp early winter day. There were some gorgeous swells of crescendos and diminuendos. An especially good moment was the melody from the Firsts, while the rest carried a nice tremolo.

The second piece was Armannai (2003) by the New Zealand composer, Rachel Morgan. The conductor, Kira Omelchenko, paused before the piece started to explain that this piece is not set in a certain direction for performers. Instead, the performance directions are interpreted by the musicians themselves. As they started playing, it was clear there was some strong interest in dissonance. While some parts were slow, there were harmonies that made you bolt upright. The first movement was nice, but at a slow tempo. Because it followed the Adagio, the two slow pieces sort of blurred together. The second movement was faster, with a strong start from the Cellos and Violas. It was a nice change of pace, with percussive moments and a real ferocity, especially from the Bass and Cello sections. The third movement was a sort of balance between the previous two, and the Cellos had a lovely melody at one point.

The three movements from Dvorak’s Serenade were strong. The ensemble took a moment to settle into the liveliness of the Scherzo Vivace, but they got into the swing of it quickly. The Larghetto felt the most unified, and was my favourite piece from the programme. There was a really nice pizzicato from the Basses that lay under the swelling melodies. The Finale: Allegro Vivace was lively. The Cellos especially created great tension, and the ensemble’s final swell at the end was very strong.

It was a lovely way to spend my lunch break, Kira was a great conductor, and the ensemble did an excellent job. My one critique is sometimes it felt that the ensemble weren’t enjoying themselves. They performed well, but I didn’t get the sense that everyone was excited about playing. I suppose I enjoy performances the most when it feels like the entire ensemble is also enjoying it, and I didn’t always feel this from the ensemble. There were definitely moments, but it would be nice if there were more.

Then again, midday on a cold Wednesday, I’m hardly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and in the end, I really enjoyed the performance, and if applause is any indicator, so did the rest of the audience.

Orchestra Wellington’s “The Grand Gesture” presentation casts its spell

Orchestra Wellington presents:
THE GRAND GESTURE – a reflection of music and art of the Baroque era

IGOR STRAVINSKY – Suite from the Ballet “Pulcinella”
JOHANN SEBASTIEN BACH – Concerto for two Violins and Orchestra in D Minor BWV 1043
GEORGE FRIDERICH HANDEL – Concerto Grosso Op.6 No.12 in B Minor
LUKAS FOSS – Baroque Variations (1967)

Amalia Hall (violin)
Monique Lapins (violin)
Jonathan Berkahn (harpsichord)
Orchestra Wellington (Concertmaster – Justine Cormack)
Marc Taddei – Conductor

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 4th May, 2024

On this occasion I couldn’t get to the usual pre-concert presentation which can so rewardingly illuminate what’s about to be presented in the concert – I arrived to catch only the final stages, and caught some musical excerpts from the oncoming concert played in the foyer by members of The Queen’s Closet for the audience’s pleasure and delight. It was obviously enough to whet appetites of even those like myself who were standing at the back, probably feeling a bit like those “Gentlemen of England now abed (who) shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here!”

A few empty seats on the fringes of the downstairs auditorium apart, the concert appeared well-attended, and the mood expectant – as is the usual wont with any Orchestra Wellington concert these days, thanks to the sterling efforts of the players and maestro Marc Taddei in obviously putting body and soul into their presentations, and bringing to life even what might seem at times like somewhat intractable material!

Tonight’s presentation title “The Grand Gesture” set out to demonstrate some of the continuing resonances of the work of composers from the Baroque era – if not for our present specific time, certainly of living memory for some in the case of the work of German-born American composer and conductor Lucas Foss, and delightfully so regarding a neo-classical response from twentieth-century giant Igor Stravinsky to the music supposedly the work of a contemporary of Bach, Handel and Scarlatti, one Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-36), more of which circumstance below.

A good deal of thought had obviously gone into the concert’s structure (a valued characteristic of this Orchestra’s work), including what were some unscheduled appearances of musicians playing what appeared to be on “first take” simply further examples of memorable and enduring Baroque music – thus to begin the concert we were treated to a dream-like vignette of violinist Amalia Hall spotlit amid the darkness and high up on the stage platform giving us a stellar performance of the Prelude to JS Bach’s Violin Partita in E Major that transported all of us to our own “other” places for its duration, and for some time afterwards.

Then came the Stravinsky all splendidly articulated, robustly trajectoried and beautifully-voiced throughout. The original “Pulcinella” ballet had its genesis in an idea by the great impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who wanted a work based on the long-established Italian theatre tradition of “commedia dell’arte”, one that used age-old characters wearing masks, “types” such as foolish old men, wanton courtesans, devious servants, and jesters or clowns – a well-known type of the latter was Harlequin, who became the “Pulcinella” of Diaghilev’s scheme.

At that time, the music Diaghilev gave to Stravinsky was believed to have been by Pergolesi (Stravinsky regarded his contact with this music as “a love affair” with the older composer), but much of it has subsequently proved to have been the work of others. In Stravinsky’s original ballet, the vocal sections of the score were based on songs genuinely by Pergolesi which Diaghilev had found, but the purely orchestral music used by Stravinsky from the suite we heard tonight was all adapted from the works of different composers, names otherwise unknown to history – Gallo, van Wassenaer, Monza and Parisotti.

Such an “inconvenient truth” hasn’t been allowed to get in the way of anybody’s enjoyment of what Stravinsky did with this music, who added to the original themes his own twentieth-century harmonies, cadences and rhythms, producing a suitably light-textured and nimble-footed score which served Diaghilev’s purposes admirably. The suite which the composer extracted from the ballet was written in 1922, two years after the ballet’s first performance, and uses eight of the latter’s original twenty movements.

Though Stravinsky took pains to reproduce in Pulcinella something of the reduced orchestral forces of earlier times, there were certain touches that “advanced” the musical language beyond the scope of eighteenth-century practice, mainly found in the “Vivo” movement towards the Suite’s end, such as the use of the solo trombone and double-bass with their “glissando” passages. I’ve always loved this Suite, and Marc Taddei’s and Orchestra Wellington’s performance was, I thought, musically engaging, stylistically evocative and technically outstanding!

Next came what for many would have been the “jewel” of the evening’s presentations, the adorable D Minor Double Violin Concerto of JS Bach, and with two soloists whose performances I wouldn’t imagine being bettered anywhere – Amalia Hall, the usual concertmaster of Orchestra Wellington, but a frequent concerto soloist with the orchestra itself to impressive effect was here joined by Monique Lapins, the sadly-about-to-depart second violinist of the illustrious New Zealand String Quartet, leaving for pastures afresh after eight years with the Quartet. Together with the orchestra they wove a diaphanous continuum of textured interaction that allowed the music to express whatever range of emotions and awareness of structural potentialities this performance couldn’t help but inspire among its listeners.

By inclination I tend to go for warmer, fuller performances than what I sometimes hear from so-called ”authentic” ones – but this performance seemed to tread securely between heart and mind, warmth and clarity, breathing-space and momentum, and deliver spades of intent and realisation from both worlds. And though ideally matched, the pair were not carbon copies of one another’s sound – I imagined a tad rounder, and more sensuous tone from Monique Lapins’ playing compared with Amalia Hall’s marginally brighter and shinier sound, as if what was passing between them was a REAL conversation. But, ah! – that slow movement! – why does it ALWAYS seem as though it’s over too quickly, no matter who the performers are?…….

As with the concert’s opening, the second half began with another performer “spotlit” up behind the orchestral platform in almost “deus ex machina” fashion! This time it was Jonathan Berkahn at the harpsichord performing a relaxed, even somewhat “other-worldly” rendition of one of Domenico Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas, the well-known E Major (K.380/L.23). As with the violinist’s rendition of the Bach Partita’s Prelude at the concert’s beginning, the episode had the air of some kind of “visitation” from distant realms – both beautifully-wrought moments.

In more “down-to-earth” mode then came the Handel Concerto Grosso Op.6 No.12, the last of the set of concertos inspired by Handel’s great Italian contemporary, Archangelo Corelli. I was hoping we might get my favourite of the Op. 6 set, No. 9 (with its wonderful borrowings from the composer’s famous Organ Concerto “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale”). But this work, which I didn’t know as well, was itself, in the words of the vernacular, a “real doozy”, with plenty to do for soloists Amalia Hall and Monique Lapins once again, in the form of some enchanting moments along the way. There was appropriately ”grand gesturing” at the beginning, with the two violins sharing solo passages with a solo ‘cello, both in reply to and augmenting the orchestra. And what a delicious allegro to follow! – with some enchanting dovetailing of parts, and the silvery tones of the violin soloists inspiring some similarly feathery playing from the orchestra strings. A lovely and graceful Larghetto was followed by an even more enchanting Largo section, the soloists (both, I think) playing with mutes and producing, along with the solo ‘cello, some breathtakingly unworldly textures – brief but memorable moments in time to be savoured long afterwards. A sprightly dotted-rhythmed fugal Allegro brought us home with a no-nonsense, but still ceremonial finish.

Conductor Marc Taddei then issued for us something in the nature of the old-fashioned “Government Health Warning” regarding the programme’s final item, Lucas Foss’s “Baroque Variations”. He spoke of the piece being very much of the “psychedelic era” of the 1960s during which the work was composed, with numerous allusions to sounds associated with various electronic gadgetry of that time, but with its composer bent also upon reaching back to resonances as far distant as the music from the Baroque era which we had heard earlier in the concert, including the two pieces which our celestial-like “visitors” had performed in those uplifted and spotlit places!

The first of the three movements “On a Handel Larghetto” quietly and almost spectrally elaborated on fragments of the corresponding sequence in Handel’s Op 6 No.12 Concerto, the sounds seeming to do little more than resonate each other’s muted repetitions between strings and brass, lines occasionally drifting away from one another and exploring dream-like imaginings as more instruments joined in with the reminiscings, gathering tonal weight as notes were sustained for longer periods and percussive irruptions became more frequent.

A second movement also began mysteriously, its diaphanously filmic texture of sound featuring floating droplets of notes and occasional percussive thuds, into which sounded the strains of fragments of the Scarlatti sonata we had heard in full on the harpsichord. Here its themes and rhythms seemed as if they were being disconcertingly dismembered for us, as if the music was “a patient etherised upon a table” and referred to in fragmented and mesmerizingly repetitive terms.

After two somewhat restrained movements, the third “On a Bach Prelude (Phorion)” opened up the air-waves somewhat, beginning with the reappearance of the “phantom” Bach Partita violinist, whose playing was this time “echoed” in a fragmented way by the orchestra concertmaster and the other orchestral strings, as well as being “pecked at” by the orchestral winds and “wailed over” by the brass. This process became rather Charles Ives-like as the violas and the brasses played echoing notes and phrases against skittering winds and violins “chasing down” the lines, until the orchestra seemed to lose its patience with its wayward children and exploded a volley of indiscriminate sounds that added to the “things running wild” atmosphere, awakening an electric organ’s more seismic qualities. The “Phorion” part of the movement’s title was a reference to a Greek word meaning “stolen goods”, perhaps indicating how Bach’s violin prelude music was being chaotically rent via a plethora of sounds indicating an exhilarating (and liberating?) loss of control.

Afterwards I found myself talking with others of our different impressions of the work, the opinions ranging from “genius” to “madness” in general terms, but concurring regarding the hugely fascinating range and scope of the programming and the dedication and skill with which conductor and orchestra carried out its philosophy and execution – above all else, with a whole-heartedness whose qualities we’ve come to expect and hope to continue to enjoy.

RNZB’s production of Swan Lake – a Triumph of Balletic Tragedy

Swan Lake – a Ballet in Four Acts
Music – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Royal New Zealand Ballet with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Choreography – Russell Kerr, after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov

Conductor – Hamish McKeich
Staging – Turid Revfeim
Principal Coaching – Amber Scott
Lighting – Jon Buswell
Artistic Director – Ty King-Wall
Executive Director – Tobias Perkins

Odette/Odile – Kate Kadow
Siegfried – Branden Reiners
Rothbart – Joshua Guillemot Rodgerson
Jester – Timothy Ching
Princess Mother – Kirby Selchow
Wolfgang – Paul Matthews
Pas de Trois – Jennifer Ulloa, Dane Head, Cadence Barrack
Cygnets – Tessa Karle, Cadence Barrack, Monet Galea-Hewitt, Catarina Estevez Collins
Big Swans – Gretchen Steimle, Macy Cook
Spanish – Calum Gray, Jemima Scott, Laurynas Vejalis
Hungarian – Zacharie Dun, Hannah Thomson, Luke Cooper
Neapolitan – Levi Teachout, Ema Takahashi, Shaun James Kelly

St.James Theatre, Wellington,

Friday 3rd May 2024

Reviewed by Maya Field

I feel it’s very fitting that my debut onto the Middle-C scene is a review of a ballet, particularly Swan Lake. I’ve been in love with ballet since I was five years old, and I would go to RNZB productions with my mother as often as possible. Most of the classical music I listen to are ballets. It’s no wonder then, that I was so excited for last night’s performance of Swan Lake. I was not disappointed.

Aside from the crinkling of ice cream wrappers, the opening piece was beautiful, and opened to a sumptuous set of mossy trees and classical columns. The dancers were in restored costumes, originally designed by Kristian Fredrikson in 1996. The Corps de Ballet had beautiful unison, in perfect time with the orchestra. All dancers have a vital part, but frequent RNZB attendees will always notice dancers like Shaun James Kelly, who shines just as bright in the Corps as he does in solos. The Princess Mother (Kirby Selchow) was elegant, with even her walk and simple hand gestures displaying grace. The dynamic between the Jester (Timothy Ching) and Wolfgang (Paul Matthews) was very funny. Ching especially had amazing height and lightness to his leaps, and the audience was especially impressed with his turns. The Pas de Trois (Jennifer Ulloa, Dane Head, Cadence Barrack) were lovely, perfectly synchronised with each other. Their solos were lovely as well, with great energy and timing. The prince Siegfried (Branden Reiners) was also excellent. He felt truly alone and despondent to his coming of age, and his long, fluid movements never seemed to be totally still.

The Second Act was met with excitement, as the audience murmured and sat up straighter as the famous melody on the oboe began, and opened to the lake. Rothbert (Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson) was hawklike, and had excellent musicality. He truly moved with the orchestra. The Corps de Ballet of Swans had beautiful lines and unity, a real flock of swans. Kate Kadow as Odette, however, is nearly impossible to write about. She was so stunning that I forgot to take notes. I was absolutely entranced by her movement and characterisation. You simply cannot write how Kate Kadow dances.

The rest of Act 2 was also excellent. The Dance of the Swans was beautiful and synchronised. Carolyn Mills on the harp sounded beautiful. The Dance of the Cygnets, the iconic dance, was almost entirely synchronised, and was met with loud applause.

Act 3 was rich and ornate, with costumes of red, gold, black and green. Perfectly sumptuous. The Spanish, Hungarian and Neapolitan dances all had excellent energy and charm. Kate Kadow as Odile was just as perfect as her Odette. Before, she was shy, mournful, innocent, and elegant. Now, she is confident, alluring, and far more brazen, while still dancing with the same beautiful fluidity. The Pas de Deux between Odile and Siegfried was seductive – the strings felt sexy! There’s no other way to phrase it, I’m afraid. The Coda was just breathtaking. Kadow and Reiner’s fouettes and turns were incredible. Reiner really seemed to fly in this part, truly soaring as he believed he was in love with the right girl. The reveal that the girl was not Odette, but Odile, was brilliant, and there was a slight undercurrent of dread in the music as Siegfried swore fidelity to Odile. Rothbart’s cloak made amazing use as wings.

If Act 3 was the dramatic act, then Act 4 was the tragic act. The opening music was melancholic as the curtains opened on a distraught Odette in the middle of the lake. I remember the audience gasping at this. The timing with the music in this Act was excellent, with Siegfried and Odette’s embrace being perfectly in time, as well as their various lifts with the swell of music. As for the final Pas de Trois between Odette, Siegfried, and Rothbart – call me melodramatic, but I was happy that all three died! Rothbart was defeated, a moment which had great physicality from Guillemot-Rodgerson as he died, as well as the swans condemning him. Odette and Siegfried had to sacrifice themselves to defeat him, and after seeing a previous version where they appear to live ‘happily ever after,’ I was glad that the traditional ending of them dying was chosen. It’s a tragedy, after all. The final moment of dawn breaking on the swans was breathtaking – the orchestra felt like the sunrise.

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the RNZB worked incredibly well together to bring justice to Tchaikovsky’s ballet. No section in the orchestra overpowered the other, and the orchestra didn’t overpower the dancers, nor did the dancers overtake the orchestra. It was all balanced perfectly.

When I imagined myself writing reviews, I thought I would be an eagle-nosed critic, able to pick apart the performance, finishing with a witty and brilliant line about art and music. Instead, I’m just writing “excellent,” and “lovely,” over and over again. I’m sure I know other words, it’s just that last night’s performance seems to have taken them from me.

Witch Music Theatre’s take on Tolstoy at the Hannah Playhouse in Wellington a knockout!

Witch Theatre Productions presents:
Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812
– Music and lyrics by Dave Malloy

Cast: Lane Corby (Natasha), William Duignan (Pierre), Áine Gallagher (Sonya), Frankie Leota (Marya), Jade Merematira (Hélène), Glen Horsfall (Andrey/Prince Nikolai), Henry Ashby (Anatole Kuragin), Princess Mary (Rachel McSweeney), Kevin Orlando (Dolokhov), Patrick Jennings (Balaga) Jackson Cordery (Rope Aerialist):
Chorus: Adriana Calabrese, Tess Lavanda, Kirsty Huszka, Mackenzie Htay, Raureti Ormond, Finlay Morris

Music Director – Haydn Taylor/ Stage Director(s) – Maya Handa Naff, Nick Lerew /
Choreographer(s) – Emily McDermott, Greta Casey-Solly / Set and Technical Design – Joshua Tucker-Emerson / Producer and Costume Designer – Ben Tucker-Emerson
Sound – Oliver Devlin / Alex Fisher – Lighting / Vanessa Woodward – Stage Manager and Props / Charlotte Potts – Ticketing and Audience Experience Manager.

Hannah Playhouse, Wellington

Tuesday 30th April 2024

“What straightaway grabbed me was our vortex-like transition from foyer to auditorium at the Hannah Playhouse earlier tonight, vertiginously drawing us into what seemed like a different world – a journey which then never let up in its exertion of fascination and wonderment upon both mind and body. It was total immersion into “other” realms, to which I unhesitatingly gave myself for the next two-and-a-half hours!”

In the cold, grey light of dawn I’ve quoted myself above, a fleeting impression I managed to scribble down before exhaustion overtook me upon reaching home from my evening’s adventure at Wellington’s Hannah Playhouse last night. I had been at the tender mercies of Witch Music Theatre’s totally compelling production of “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”, an adaptation for the musical stage by the composer/lyricist Dave Malloy of Part Eight of Leo Tolstoy’s great 1869 novel War and Peace – seventy pages of searing emotional intensity expressed here in unreservedly straight-from-the-shoulder dramatic and musical terms!

Dominating the Playhouse’s stage precincts (via designer Joshua Tucker-Emerson’s hypnotically flowing cascading-tongues series of platforms) were seventeen singers-cum-dancers (plus a heart-in-the-mouth rope aerialist) who made both the teemingly populous and more intimate vistas of the story very much their own. Their individual characters flourished under the visionary direction of Maya Handa-Naff and Nick Lerew, and were beautifully and atmospherically elaborated by choreographers Emily McDermott and Greta Casey-Solly.

Throughout, singers and dancers combined with twelve on-and-offstage musicians directed from a centre-stage piano by music director Hayden Taylor to bring this fragment of a famous story to heartfelt and pulsating life, which was done with great instrumental elan at certain memorable moments. While the music’s pulsatings occasionally pushed the decibel levels into saturation point, the lines of the voices, both individual and concerted were never seriously obscured, with the diction from the singers remarkably clear in all but the most full-blooded passages – a tribute both to performers and the skills of the sound designer, Oliver Devlin.

Alex Fisher’s atmospheric lighting designs brought out the many variations of intensity required by the stage action, reaching a kind of apex with the appearance of the title’s Great Comet at the end of the story, but straightaway highlighting the characters’ various period costumes (designed by Ben Tucker-Emerson) with appropriately pleasing visual significance, with those of the dancers also relishing their characterful variants to whimsical effect.

How to single out so many compelling individual performances? Of course the show’s relatively intertwined musical textures allied to the similarly close-knit physical proximities of the cast on-stage made for an essentially ensembled production, one to which everybody responded magnificently, to the point where all the characters seemed, in Omar Khayyam’s somewhat bowdlerised words, “to come and go, like players in a magic-shadow show”. Whether alone or ensembled, all played their parts to a kind of perfection.

Of the titular roles, both Lane Corby’s Natasha and William Duignan’s Pierre negotiated their respective characters’ journeyings through their various travails with, in places, heartfelt, almost painful self-realisation, each in ways that expressed their essential personalities – Natasha’s spontaneity and impulsiveness, leading her to trouble, guilt and shame in the affair with the dissolute Anatole Kuragin, was eventually run together with Pierre’s own journey through disillusionment to hope in a better life through love, hence their mutually heartwarming and vocally reflective “understanding” at the end of the work.

Áine Gallagher’s portrayal of Sonya, Natasha’s cousin emphasised her endlessly patient and selfless regard for her cousin Natasha’s well-being throughout the story, including a full-throated avowal to protect her – stirring stuff! And Frankie Leota’s forthright and principled Marya, Natasha’s godmother, spectacularly and adroitly balanced her disapproval of Natasha’s infatuation over the flashy Anatole with plenty of concern for her young charge’s well-being – a colourful portrait! She was the opposite of Princess Mary Bolkonsky, whose portrayal by Rachel McSweeney touchingly emphasised her well-meaning kindness and propriety; and still more of a contrast with Jade Merematira’s sensual good-time girl portrait of Hélène Kuragin, the disdainful wife of Pierre.

Apart from Pierre, the men included Natasha’s betrothed, Prince Andrei, who left Moscow at the story’s beginning at his father’s wishes, respecting the latter’s objection to his son’s impending marriage. Glenn Horsefall played a soulful Andre on his occasional appearances throughout the story before finally rejecting Natasha in the wake of her dalliance with Anatole. This was in stark contrast to the latter, portrayed with plenty of skin-deep smoulder by Henry Ashby, to splendid effect up until his encounter with an enlightened and vengeful Pierre. The drinking, gambling Dolokhov was given a suitably dissolute air by Kevin Orlando, and teamed up well with Patrick Jennings as “Balaga” the Troika-driver, in his stage- dominating, energetic all-together “troika” rendition, a character who was obviously the life and soul of any party within sleigh-driving distance!

The remaining unnamed characters, sang, danced and INVOLVED their obviously entranced audience throughout, with the production throwing in unexpected delights such as an Aerial Rope performer, (Jackson Cordery) who gave a breathtaking display of agility and skill, as well as, at other times, charming us with his accordion-playing skills. It was all completely in line with the “what’s next” kind of spontaneity and energy the show seemed to continually thrive upon.

I was “blown away” by all of this in a way I didn’t really expect to be, and can thus warm-heartedly recommend the production to anybody who has the merest inkling of the original story (from one of the world’s truly GREAT novels!); or whatever inclination they might have to introduce themselves to and enjoy something of its uniquely compelling characterisations of universal human behaviour.

“Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” will play at the Hannah Playhouse in Wellington until Saturday 4th May (two performances that day, at 2:00pm and 7:30pm!!)

‘I find her becoming’: Nota Bene at 20

Nota Bene
Twentieth Anniversary Gala Concert

St Andrews on the Terrace,
27 April 2024

What’s the difference between an orchestra and a choir? No, not a trick question. The
difference is that choirs usually love their music directors.

At Nota Bene’s 20 th anniversary concert on Saturday, the affection and trust between
conductor and choir were evident. Nota Bene is a Wellington choir founded by Christine
Argyll, who served for ten years. She was followed by Peter Walls (2016-19) and Maaike
Christie-Beekman (from 2020 to the present). All three were conducting on Saturday, along
with choir member Shawn Condon, who has been guest conductor at times. The result was
interesting. The audience could observe the different styles and approaches and compare
the results.

Nota Bene is a chamber choir, but the anniversary concert attracted a few former members,
so it fielded 43 singers, including the conductors, all of whom sang when they were not
waving their arms about. The programme was a kind of greatest hits of the last 20 years,
favourite works of the conductors – which worked most of the time. Brackets were
interspersed by little histories of this or that aspect of choir life. Too many of them, I thought;
a bit too cosy and self-congratulatory, since the audience was mostly people who are not
choir members. Some of the content would have been better suited to the after-match party.

Nota Bene, on its best days, has a beautiful sound. The tenor section is warm and creamy,
the sopranos bright and tuneful. This was evident in the first work on the programme, an
arrangement of the timeless ‘Es ist ein Ros’, which incorporated humming (very hard to stay
in tune) and a vocal quartet singing the tune, very slowly. There was an alto solo from
Maaike Christie-Beekman (such a gorgeous voice). A lovely start.

Next was ‘The Shepherd’s Carol’ (Sansom/Chilcott), which also featured humming, again
with bright, fresh soprano tone, gorgeous tenor sound, and subtle bass action. It was
followed by Arvo Pärt’s ‘Bogoroditse Devo’ (a setting of the Russian Orthodox Ave Maria).

Most of us are used to the slow, alto-driven Rachmaninov version. Pärt’s setting is fast and
lively (though not very Russian or even reverent in feel), and the Nota Bene basses rose to
the occasion.

Jacqui Coats, who has been responsible for the choir’s stagecraft, spoke about the staged
concerts, one of which was St Nicholas (in 2011), under Michael Vinten. I was sorry to have
missed that. Another that the choir was proud of was ‘A Sentimental Journey’, based on the
conceit of a late-night radio request session, which sounded like great fun.

Next came David Hamilton’s ‘Caliban’s Song’. I am used to the Viva Voce version, which still
gets airplay on RNZ Concert. VV has a much more operatic sound than NB, especially in
the higher voices, whereas NB is more choral in tone. The Hamilton was exciting, with very
beautiful singing in the chordal passages.

Then Peter Walls took over for a bracket of Purcell Psalm settings. Psalm 63 was scored for
Treble Countertenor Tenor and Bass. Peter Walls used an ATB trio for one of the verses
and trio of women’s voices (SSA) for the other, which worked well. He followed it up with
Psalm 79 (SSATB) that incorporated a beautiful quartet, and Psalm 104 (SSATB), originally
written with a basso continuo. Once again, rich Purcellian sonority, enlivened texturally by
two trios: first ATB (Virginia Earle, Nick McDougall, and Robert Easting) taking the cantor’s
part, and next SAA (Tina Carter, Marian Wilberg, and Marian Campbell). Intellectual,
restrained beauty.

Maaike Christie-Beekman took the podium for the last two items in the first half:
Rheinberger’s ‘Abendlied’, with mellifluous tenors and, later, bright soprano voices floating
over the chords of the three lower parts; followed by Lauriden’s schmaltzy crowd-pleaser,
‘Sure on this Shining Night’, dedicated to Peter Barber and two other deceased choir
members. Heather Easting played the piano with delicacy, and the choir showed off its lovely
lower voices, followed by a fabulous first soprano moment – ‘bright but not shrill’, say my
notes. There are big dynamic movements in this work, an exciting crescendo to ff, and a
very beautiful decrescendo from mp to pp.

After the interval, Shawn Condon took the podium to conduct Fergus Byett’s sentimental
Karanga Akau. There’s an awful lot of Māori in this work, and the language wasn’t entirely
convincing. Once again, the choir was supported by Heather Easting on piano; the tenors
led and were lovely as ever, and the choir navigated the interesting harmonies with
conviction. The next work was by Graham Parsons, a charming setting of a poem by Jenny
Bornholdt, ‘How to get ahead of yourself while the light still shines’, with Heather Easting on
piano. Despite some tricky writing, the choir performed it with verve, clearly enjoying
themselves.

Next the men took a back seat, and the women sang ‘Sing Creation’s music on’, a setting of
the John Clare poem by Stephen Paulus. Although Heather Easting and the women did a
good job of this under Shawn Condon’s direction, the work sounds ill-judged as a
composition, far too big and bombastic for the slender little poem. Clare is not a poet who
shows off; but Stephen Paulus, an American composer and Grammy winner, did not let that
get in his way. It was, I fear, noisy.

Undaunted, we had some Hildegard of Bingen (the lovely ‘O Frondens Virga’) arranged by
the American composer Drew Collins. I’ve sung the original Hildegard plainchant, and I was
unconvinced by this arrangement on first hearing, but I would need to hear it again to make
a judgement. Next came ‘There is Sweet Music’, a piece of Tennyson set by the American
choral composer Daniel Gawthrop, which I thought was absolutely gorgeous – ‘static and
tender’, according to my notes. The last work of this women’s bracket with Shawn Condon
was ‘Finding her here’ by Joan Szymka, a terrific work that I first heard NB perform at the
Hilma af Klint exhibition at the City Gallery. It was just as good on a second hearing.

Next, the men came forward for an unconducted version of Billy Joel’s ‘And so it goes’,
arranged by Bob Chilcott. This was a show-stopper – insouciant, plaintive, resigned – with
excellent singing on the part of the tenors, and a ravishing solo by baritone Simon Christie
with humming sotto voce support. It doesn’t do to interrogate the words if you are not given
to sentimentality, but the arrangement was anything but sentimental. Stunning!

The choir came back together for the last two works under Maaike Christie-Beekman. One,
‘Bruremarsj’, I think may have been included in the Hilma af Klint concert. It’s a Norwegian
wedding song, and required audience participation (clicking or clapping on the off beats). It is
a sunny work and it was sung with gusto. The last work in a very full concert was another
Gawthrop work, ‘Sing me to Heaven’. Whilst it was well sung, I greatly disliked the text,
which is pretentious (‘In my heart’s sequestered chambers/lie truths stripped of poet’s gloss’)
and bathetic (‘and my soul finds primal eloquence’). Save me! The sentimental nonsense of
the work certainly established the low-brow end of NB’s repertoire. What a shame, I thought,
to wallow in tosh at the end of an otherwise lovely concert. If only they had done a reprise of
the Billy Joel to take the sickly taste away. But I may have been alone in this thought.

Congratulations, Nota Bene, on a great first twenty years. Onward!

Sextet scintillations from Dohnányi and Penderecki, courtesy of the Morton Trio and Friends, at Wellington’s St Andrews-on-The-Terrace

Wellington Chamber Music presents:
Morton Trio and Friends
Sextets by ERNST VON DOHNÁNYI and KRYZSTOF PENDERECKI

Morton Trio – Arna Morton (violin), Alex Morton (horn), Liam Wooding (piano)
with David McGregor (clarinet), Sharon Baylis (viola) and Jeremy Garside (‘cello)

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

Sunday, 28th April 2024

The first thing I did when I got home from this concert was to get onto the computer and find recordings of each of these unfamiliar and incredible pieces of chamber music that I could purchase without delay, such was the compulsive fascination exerted by each of the works I’d heard that afternoon and brought to the fore by the brilliance and beauty of the performances by the Morton Trio and Friends. In fact I’d already been knocked sideways by the sheer elan of the ensemble’s playing of the Dohnányi piece by the interval, and it did take much longer for the Penderecki Sextet to similarly get under my skin – but the end result of the concert’s presentation was my wanting to have both of these works on hand to enjoy once again as soon as possible.

For me it was fascinating to experience how the two separate processes of coming to grips with each piece took me on quite a different listening course, though concluding in each case with no less of a compulsive quality regarding my wanting to hear the music again. Right from the beginning of the Dohnányi work I was struck by its almost wilful plenitude of spontaneously-wrought sonorities, setting up a more-or-less constant flow of compulsive, “whatever-next?” kinds of expectations that continued in joyful abundance right to the end.

But then, how different seemed my journey throughout much of the Penderecki work, confronted at the outset by a rather more tightly-woven company of motivic impulses and varied texturings over more expansive sound-vistas, a panoply of impressionable happenings whose intent seemed to evolve from out of a first movement’s closely-knit conflict, but whose eventual second-movement resolution “from within” slowly but surely captivated my sensibilities as the sounds strove with all their might towards a kind of dark transfiguration which alternated glimmerings of hope and shadows of tragedy .

I straightaway loved the “questing “ quality of the Dohnányi work, its darkly-hued restlessness at the outset seeming to investigate every possible pathway set up by the music’s trajectories and harmonic shifts. The flexibility of the music’s trajectories gave the work a kind of Cesar Franck-like volatility, and also with an occasional “diabolique” kind of flavour thrown in from a tritone-like interval. Throughout, the ensemble’s virtuoso use of a wide dynamic range took one’s “listener’s breath” away, especially throughout the stormy development section. Then. the second movement’s ghostly opening grew from within a rhapsodic passage interrupted by a ruggedly march-like “carving out” by the players characteristic of the volatility of the piece, as was the return to tranquility at the music’s end.

The next theme-and-variations movement was begun by a clarinet melody, phrased here with an engaging mix of sentiment and insouciance, and followed by a piano solo that had set its mind on goading the rest of the ensemble into action, resulting in a series of delightfully divergent inspirations – running, circus-like exchanges, skitterish triplet-led sequences and occasional returnings to the gentle soulfulness of the clarinet theme. The playing here flowed like oil in an almost Mozartean way, with horn and clarinet striking an attractively elegiac note (was there a brief horn “slip upwards” from the otherwise impeccable Alex Morton at one point?) towards the end with the piano’s steadfast support.

But then, how excitingly the music then “gathered” itself, sounding the tritone as a kind of “something’s happening” signal, and then, without a break, plunging into a “ragtime” dance-rhythm, here so especially “grunty” and joyous in the exuberance and abandonment with which the players dug into the accents! And what a wonderful moment it was when the heart-on-sleeve waltz-rhythm suddenly appeared, sparring with the ragtime rhythm and working up to an almost Rachmaninovian climax, before the coda carried all before it, waltz-tune, diabolus reference and all, teetering towards a gorgeously wrong-harmonied grandstand finish, and then cheekily correcting itself – outrageous and exhilarating!

It was naturally expected that Penderecki’s would be a different world, with the tersely-tattooed piano figure at the very beginning “setting the scene” for the pointillistic, spaced-out exchanges with which the work began, activating the other instruments by turns as the sounds unfolded – a flurry of toccata-like interchange marched along, fell away briefly and almost sorrowfully, but then renewed with even more vigour – such full-blooded playing, I thought, from all concerned! The sounds slowed to a trudge, and took on an almost Mahlerian funereal aspect, mixing grief and anger. I was amazed at the clarity with which the musicians delivered detail, here, despite the insistence of the contrapuntal detailings and the pace at which the ensemble maintained its agitated interactions. Horn and clarinet then paved the way in sonorous fashion for a grotesque kind of march-cum cakewalk which built up to a frenzied bout of gesturings from all concerned before abruptly collapsing!

The viola began the second movement tersely, drawing further elaborations from the piano, before the other strings echoed the viola’s theme, the piano continuing to explore the spaces. A clarinet call evinced a sombre, almost ghostly response from the strings, augmented by a restrained, self-communing horn (I did see a You-Tube performance of this in which the horn player left the stage at the second movement’s beginning to play in the “wings” for a period, but this event wasn’t replicated here). Again, I thought the players’ various detailings of the lines seemed never to miss a trick – the music seemed in “ebb-and-flow” mode, by turns desolate and then forthright and determined, and always “knowing” where it was going, however rudderless the trajectories sometimes seemed.

The volatilities of the work couldn’t be kept down, as even the most mournful of sequences would suddenly energise and flare up, as in a hair-raising triplet sequence featuring the instruments flying up and down the scale in desperate frissons of energy of their own making, trying either to “connect” or “escape” the manifestations and implications of this journey. As I listened I began to feel just what it was the music was heading towards amid its trajectoral and dynamic contrasts. It was a feeling that was summed up best by one commentator, himself a horn player, whose thoughts on the work I shared: – “Underlying the chatter of these contrasting episodes is a minor-key dirge that ultimately subsumes everything else in the work – the message being that you can have all the fun that you want, but the end bears only bitterness and loss.”

Something of this realisation came to me as the work entered a sequence towards the end consisting of long-held chords, a melody from the ‘cello, and a repeated two-note “lament-like” motif which again brought Mahler’s music to mind – the players here held this mood as if it were second nature to them, “inhabiting” the notes and expressing their underlying tragedy, the unearthly string harmonics which concluded the work leaving each of us with little else in mind but to ponder our own destinies.

At the concert’s scheduled end, violinist Arna Morton thanked us for our attendance and observed that the afternoon’s music had probably been akin for a lot of people to a “heavy meal”! – nutritious and satisfying in that sense, but needing something of a sweet for complete homegoing satisfaction! She proposed that the group would thus perform an encore, a piece by the French composer Lili Boulanger originally written for a mixed choir, but arranged by Arna herself for the ensemble today to perform. The piece was originally titled ”Sus bois”, a name translated as “forest floor” or “undergrowth”, a gentle, and beautifully harmonised piece which reminded me in places of Ravel. Its sylvan beauty was certainly an antidote for the sensibilities after the travails of the Penderecki Sextet! In all, a concert long to be remembered!

Roger Wilson’s and Guy Donaldson’s “Son vecchio ma robusto” tribute to age and experience at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

“Son vecchio ma robusto” (Seniors, but still in form)
Reflections on Maturity – a programme of songs presented by Roger Wilson (baritone) and Guy Donaldson (piano)

Music by Brahms, Schubert, Ravel, Poulenc, Stravinsky, Lilburn

St.Andrews-on-The-Terrace , Wellington

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2024

Judging from their bright-eyed and bushy-tailed showing at St Andrew’s on-The-Terrace Church in Wellington on Wednesday, baritone Roger Wilson and pianist Guy Donaldson seem all set to take Palmerston North’s Globe Theatre Matinee Concert Series presentation by storm this coming weekend when they repeat the occasion this coming Sunday afternoon. Here, their performance of the programme, “Son vecchio ma robusto”, a collection of various vocal-and-piano observations regarding age and experience, absolutely delighted a goodly number of regular St.Andrews lunchtime concert cognoscenti.

Jointly describing their presentation as “a whimsical approach to senior years”, the pair have ample cause to celebrate a fruitful musical partnership, which began as far back as 1976, Roger Wilson having since then frequently sung with Guy Donaldson as a piano accompanist and under his baton as a choral conductor. I did hear a stirring “Messiah” in Palmerston North (actually from the timpanist’s seat on that notable occasion when I too was a “performer”) featuring both musicians in their respective roles, but regret I wasn’t able to witness their later collaboration in Schubert’s iconic song-cycle “Winterreise” – still, the occasion obviously remains a vibrant memory for those lucky enough to have heard it.

How fortunate, therefore, to have something both different and innovative served up for our pleasure by these two experienced and ultra-capable musicians. There are plenty of songs, light and serious, about ageing, and music is obviously one of the most life-enhancing ways to help deal with the process, whether one is a performer or a listener – Wilson and Donaldson hit the spot almost invariably with their choices of repertoire, with only the strange Stravinsky song (augmented by a spoken narrative) about a Bear not doing very much for me at all.

The programme enterprisingly printed translations of the songs, putting us in touch with many of the varied, expressive nuances employed by the performers, which obviously enhanced our enjoyment. Thus, in the very first song, by Brahms, “Keinen hat es noch gereut” , one recounting an old man’s retelling of his youthful adventures, we could hear how the performers responded to the composer’s “bringing out” of the music’s energies and subtler nuances in the vocal narrative and in the piano’s use of different trajectories, both depicting different stages of life.

Two Schubert songs which followed markedly contrasted attitudes to life in general, the first “Greisengesang” (An Old Man’s Song), expressing forthright responses to both outward cold and harshness, and inner warmth and feeling, the voice expressing the territories covering these differences and the piano remarkably sentient in its response to the changes. Perhaps because I was so looking forward to the following “Der Einsame” (The Solitary One) I felt some disappointment in being able to relish so little of the character’s “enjoyment” Zufriedenheit) of his “single” life in the performance, here given at what seemed to me slightly too brisk a tempo for the song, and with little obvious self-satisfaction in his “gemutlich” contentment.

A different world was given us by the three Ravel songs which were the ailing composer’s final compositions, written for a film whose subject was Don Quixote, and in which the great Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin was to play the title role. Ravel completed three of the four commissioned songs but his growing illness prevented him completing the project. The composer’s friend and colleague Jacques Ibert was able to write four new songs for the film, though Ravel’s work has remained in the repertoire.

The three songs present the knight of the sorrowful countenance firstly as a lover, then a principled hero, and finally even a joyful reveller. First came the “Chanson Romanesque”, a sinuously-rhythmed and suggestively-hued Spanish serenade, which was followed by an intensely-imploring prayer to Saint Michael for purity and chastity as a knight – singer and pianist at one, the voice conveying steadfast virtue, and the piano underlining the sentiment with gently sonorous organ-like tones. Finally, the knight declares his simple enjoyment of drink with some Falstaff-like roisterings, accompanied by suitably florid pianistic gestures – a great song, here lustily shared with an appreciative audience!

Ibert’s “La Mort de Don Quichotte” was no less involving, here – a sultry Habanera rhythm conveyed the song’s plethora of emotion, the singer having all the time in the world to reflect on the character’s delineation of the “happy isle of death” as conveyed by the famed book’s telling of the tale, and the pianist colouring, echoing and reflecting the words’ emotions through to a “time standing still” postlude – very beautiful!

Each of Francis Poulenc’s Two “Chansons Villageoises” (with words by Maurice Fombeure) presented old age in unvarnished terms via characters who had suffered hardship and loss – the first, “Le Mendiant” (The Beggar) is old Jean Martin, with his sack and gnarled dogwood stick, found dead on the ice, and is a kind of cautionary socialist-like tale warning people to take pity on those who have little or nothing – one day all such Jean Martins will rise in revolt and take revenge! Roger Wilson’s histrionic abilities made the most of this “day of reckoning” scenario, with Guy Donaldson’s pounding, vengeful piano sonorities similarly taking no prisoners! The second song “Le retour du sergent” painted a somewhat grimmer version of “Where have all the Flowers Gone?”, with the old soldier returned home and alternating between bitter anger and heartfelt sadness at the loss of his friends on the battlefield! – again vivid characterisation and remorseless silences at the end.

A third song by Poulenc, “La Carpe”, opened with a dark stillness whose constant repetition underlined the near-timelessness of the fish’s existence as observed by humankind – a somewhat odd choice for the recital but perhaps suggesting something of the tranquility/emptiness of an aged person’s world. It had a piquancy which in a sense qualified its presence to a reasonable extent. In terms of such a process I found myself unequal to the task of figuring out what Igor Stravinsky’s song “The Bear” was doing in such company, and decided I would leave the business of expressing its relevance to abler minds and cyber-pens! No such reservation accompanied my reaction to the inclusion of Douglas Lilburn’s well-known and quintessentially Kiwi song-cycle, “Sings Harry”, one which Roger Wilson has well-nigh made his own upon the occasions I’ve heard him perform the work.

Here, from the first, bardic-like piano notes was an evocation of an older, more rooted-in-the-soil rural New Zealand expressed in a characterful vernacular that owed its place to nowhere else and took pride in its self sufficiency. Roger Wilson and Guy Donaldson became, for a few treasurable moments, the authentic bringers and declaimers of these “once the days were clear” times, tracing and fleshing out those same moments as enduring memories and resonating self-truths. The heart of the cycle has for me always been “The Flowers of the Sea”, and the voice and piano became as one, here, with the tide and the wind as the composer unerringly “placed” all of us within something of an eternal action of being – to which the concluding song “I remember” took us in a return to the childhood farm, and the hill over which the hawk forever flies – very moving.

In one sense the Lilburn/Glover cycle was the perfect way in which to conclude the programme – but despite the outrageous nature of the iconically non-PC Flanders and Swann song “Have some Madeira, m’dear!”which followed as an encore, its Rabelaisian performance here was an unmitigated delight, with the performers literally giving it all they’d got in terms of characterful roguishness. It was in a sense a “Do not go gentle into that good night” gesture which rounded off the tongue-in-cheek “growing old disgracefully” aspect of the programme! Palmerstonians should on no account miss it when these splendid performers take the stage at the city’s Globe Theatre on Sunday 28th April at 2:30pm.