Towards a new Romantic language

Orchestra Wellington: Leviathan

Wagner Lohengrin Prelude to Act 1
Psathas Leviathan Concerto for percussion
Schumann Symphony No 2

Alexej Gerassimez (percussion)
Marc Taddei (conductor)
Orchestra Wellington

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday. 17th September, 2022

The whole concert took the title ‘Leviathan’, which was, frankly, misleading. Much more than half the concert came from the soundworld of nineteenth-century German romanticism. But still, ‘Leviathan’ was a better marketing pitch. And the concert was traditional in format: an overture, a concerto, and a symphony. But this being Marc Taddei’s programming, the effect was anything but traditional.

This concert, like all Orchestra Wellington concerts, began with an introduction to the works by conductor Marc Taddei. The OW audience obviously enjoys these little chats.  The opening words concerned the 2023 season. It was, Taddei informed us with a dramatic flourish, to be called ‘Inner Visions’ (like the Van Morrison song?) and summed up by this quote from the painter Kandinsky: ‘That is beautiful which is produced by the inner vision, which springs from the soul.’ He went on to flatter the audience: ‘You complete this process of music-making. You are the interpreter of what you hear. We try to manifest the composers’ ideas, but you make it come alive.’

Onward to this evening’s concert. Music, Taddei helpfully explained, has two strands. One, which had its roots in the Enlightenment, saw music as Apollonian, idealized. But the other, since medieval times, gave rise to romanticism. And tonight’s concert was in the romantic tradition. ‘It consists of three unassailable masterpieces … with a work by our very own genius, John Psathas.’

The ‘overture’ consisted of the Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin, a most un-overture-like piece of music. When Wagner told his friends, including Schumann, that he planned to write an opera based on the Arthurian legend of one of the Grail knights, Schumann announced he had been thinking of writing an opera on the same theme. (For Arthurians, Lohengrin is the son of Parzifal in the medieval poem Parzifal by Wolfram von Eschenbach.) Naturally Wagner got there first. The introduction begins with the faintest shimmering of the high strings and gently builds, entry by entry, to a big portentous crescendo that culminates in an orgasmic crash on the clash cymbals, and a decrescendo back down to shimmering lyricism. The playing was beautiful, whether it was the strings’ endless delicacy or the tender solos from the winds (a gorgeous cor anglais solo, for instance, from Louise Cox). The work was written in 1848, but already it is possible to hear elements of Wagner’s mature leitmotif style.

John Psathas’s monumental percussion concerto was commissioned by the Tonhalle Dusseldorf and the soloist, a young German percussion virtuoso called Alexej Gerassimez. The artist’s appearance was supported by the German Embassy.  The work is in four movements, and requires two large batteries de percussion, one at the back of the orchestra and the other at the front of the stage, as well as 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, and a tuba.

Alexej Gerassimez is a tall, lithe young man, very light on his feet – because at times he was required to run from one side of the stage to the other – and at one point two extra percussionists came downstage to play instruments on the left while he dealt with several simultaneously on the right-hand side.

The writing is characterized by Psathas’s fast, exciting rhythms and his cumulative, layered climaxes. Sometimes the orchestral writing was rather static, with all the momentum provided by the percussion instruments. The second movement referred to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, with Psathas bringing the ‘background melody’, played ‘with love and compassion and warmth’ by the cellos and basses, into the foreground.

The enormous third movement was titled ‘Soon We’ll All Walk on Water’ and featured an amplified plastic bottle, played by scratching, shaking, and beating. The movement culminates with Gerassimez playing a bowl of water with his hands, and finally using a colander to pour water back into the bowl. Then followed another bottle solo with the strings playing mournful grey chords in the manner of Goretsky’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs against the quite jolly bottle rhythm.

Likewise a Wagnerian passage on wind and brass formed a wash of colour behind a solo on what sounded like small stones being struck. Another crescendo is followed by a quiet, thoughtful clarinet solo (Nick Walshe).

The last movement, ‘A Falcon, a Storm, or a Great Song?’ (quoting Rilke) contained some of the loveliest marimba playing I have ever heard, along with steel drums, what sounded like a slit drum, woodblocks, a whip, tubular bells, bass drum, and timpani, all building to a final crescendo complete with snarling trumpets and a final single triangle note.

Leviathan is a most interesting work. It must have been challenging to bring off. Leaving the soloist to one side, there was still a vast amount of percussion being played by Jeremy Fitzsimons, Brent Stewart, Naoto Segawa, and Yoshiko Tsuruta, with Sam Rich on timpani, and a gazillion notes for the big brass section. The tempo changes must have been challenging. And that’s before the soloist is added, bringing a world of complexity and fast changes.

The audience loved it. There was rapturous applause, with Gerassimez shaking the hand of Concertmaster Amalia Hall and conductor, the composer arriving on stage to hug everyone, and several curtain calls.

After the interval, the symphony. Marc Taddei embarked on an introduction to the work that lasted about 20 minutes. Schumann’s Second Symphony was in fact the third one he wrote. It is ‘personal and deeply felt,’ said Taddei: ‘It is the most personal symphony written in the nineteenth century or indeed in any century.’ I’m not quite sure what this means, or whether it is even true, though I became quite distracted trying to think of candidates for more personal works. (Shostakovich, certainly. Tchaikovsky, definitely. Mahler!!)

Taddei rehearsed the sad facts of Schumann’s mental ill health before telling us about Mendelssohn’s rediscovery of Bach and the great Bach revival that Schumann and Mendelssohn embarked upon around this time. The second symphony, it turned out, was flavoured with Bach whilst containing many references to Schumann’s friends and his beloved wife Clara.

And then the musical examples – every movement was analysed, with the key themes played and musical references unravelled and displayed. It was interesting, and I am certain the audience thought it marvellous, but most of it is so intrinsically part of Schumann’s musical language that in the event it is mostly subliminal.

Finally, the symphony itself. Taddei was right. This is a masterpiece and it deserves to be performed often. If you are thinking of programming a Schubert symphony over the next year, please programme this instead. It was mostly very well played, though without the meticulous attention to detail and clarity that Gemma New would have provided. Taddei conducted without a score, and at one point in the second movement he stopped conducting altogether and turned to grin at the audience. Another favourite trick; the audience grinned back.

Although the Scherzo is fun, and the Allegro vivace creates a big pile-up of overlapping themes with ‘B-A-C-H’ ringing out at the end, the Adagio espressivo that follows is a glorious thing. It takes its theme from Bach’s Musical Offering ‘and turns it into a romantic song without words’. There were beautiful solos by Merran Cook (oboe) and Jamie Dodd (bassoon) and a horn duet (Shadley van Wyk and David Codd). The fourth movement is a bouncing delight, fast end energetic.

It was notable that there was applause after every movement – a spontaneous response to beautiful music. I would love to hear the work again. Indeed, if the concert had started and ended with it, omitting the Wagner, I would have been happy. But Taddei’s point was about the invention of the musical language of romanticism. Schumann wrote the symphony only two years before Lohengrin. And Psathas quoted liberally from that language whilst putting it to wholly novel purposes.

All in all, a very satisfying and absorbing concert. I am intrigued to see what Inner Visions Orchestra Wellington may bring us in 2023.

An evocative blend of liturgy, history, and magisterial polyphony

PALESTRINA –  Missa Papae Marcelli 

The Tudor Consort,
director, Michael Stewart

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul

3rd September 2022

For readers without a keen interest in Renaissance polyphony performance practice, let me say upfront that the Tudor Consort gave a luminous, beautifully tuned, highly polished and uplifting performance of Palestrina’s most famous mass setting, one which could easily hold its own against the many existing recordings of the piece by eminent choral ensembles. Arguably, the first challenge of performing such a well-beloved masterpiece is simply to live up to people’s memories of it; not to place unwanted obstacles on the well-worn path the audience has looked forward to treading. This, however, gives rise to a second challenge: how to make the experience of listening new, interesting, and worth showing up for on a chilly Wellington evening?  The Tudor Consort (henceforth TC) is more than capable of meeting the first challenge, and one could easily imagine the live recording of this performance taking up a place in RNZ Concert’s regular rotation. I could end this review here were it not for the much more interesting question of how Michael Stewart and his singers addressed themselves to the second challenge.

Per the concert programme, the Missa Papae Marcelli (henceforth MPM) was presented “in the form of a Mass reconstruction for the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” This practice of liturgical reconstruction, established by TC’s founding director Simon Ravens, might seem a straightforward idea enough, but in fact it raises more questions than it answers: which liturgy is to be reconstructed? How strictly? On the basis of what information? And to what artistic end?  

In the given case, one might have expected to hear a Catholic Mass as Palestrina himself would have experienced it – a literal reconstruction of the historical context from which the MPM arose.  What we got, however, was something more creative and nuanced. Michael Stewart’s programming is always thoughtful and intelligent, and here he made strategic departures from both liturgical and historical fidelity for the sake of musical interest. These included (1) the selection of Gregorian chants, (2) the inclusion of polyphonic settings of some of the chants, and (3) the voicing of the Gospel reading. Essentially, the programme presented the music of the Tridentine Mass as it might have been heard in the century before Vatican II (i.e., well after Palestrina) with a few additional flourishes that, while extra-liturgical, made sound artistic sense.  

First, the selection of chants. The liturgical chants that comprise the fabric of the Mass fall into two categories, ordinary (performed at every Mass) and proper (specific to the date in the liturgical calendar). Mass settings like Palestrina’s provide polyphonic versions of the ordinary chants (the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Santus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei), leaving space for the propers (Introit, Gradual, etc.) to be filled in as appropriate; for this Mass reconstruction, Stewart selected the chants proper to the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which falls on 8 September.  Gregorian chant itself underwent a significant “reconstruction” process in the nineteenth century, led by the monks of Solemnes Abbey in France, whose editions provide the basis of most contemporary chant performance, including this one (though many conductors, including Stewart, disregard the Solemnes rhythm markings, which are controversial). While the Solemnes editions purport to restore the chants to their “original” forms, this is precisely why they don’t reflect what Palestrina himself would have heard – since he lived in the very midst of the ongoing process of revision (“corruption”!) that the Solemnes monks would later seek to reverse.

The legend that Palestrina “saved” church polyphony from a death sentence at the Council of Trent by writing the MPM – in which the wordiest texts, those of the Gloria and Credo, are pronounced simultaneously by (almost) all the singers, making the words easy to hear – makes the juxtaposition of the Mass with the “restored” 19th-century chants particularly piquant. While the Palestrina-as-saviour story is considered apocryphal, the textual transparency of the MPM is undeniably striking, and probably does reflect the composer’s awareness of contemporary concerns about the intelligibility of liturgical texts – concerns that would also have influenced ongoing revisions to the plainchant sections of the mass. The refurbished Solemnes chants, however, are often quite complex and ornate, making few concessions to intelligibility! This complexity was underscored by the slow, careful chanting of TC’s tenors and basses during the Introit, as the choir processed to the front of the church; though monodic, the chant is not so simple that walking and singing at the same time comes easily. They got palpably livelier once they had arrived in place and had a conductor in front of them.

In a second departure from strict authenticity, Stewart followed the plainchant Introit, “Salve, Sancta Parens,” with a polyphonic setting of the same text by Adrian Willaert (1490-1562), who (as maestro di cappella at St Mark’s in Venice 1527-62) was a dominant figure in the musical landscape of Palestrina’s youth. Willaert’s motet is scored for six voices: two free-composed and the others paired off in canons, one of which paraphrases the plainchant melody. This produces the effect of a self-propelling machine in perpetual motion, as each new phrase interrupts the echo of the preceding one and sets off its own echo, which is in turn interrupted.  Although the plainchant melody – which we had just heard – serves as a cantus firmus, it is virtually indistinguishable in the complex interplay of voices, even in TC’s crisp and disciplined performance. Their ensemble singing here was spectacular; I particularly enjoyed their smooth braking at the end of the piece, with Stewart’s conducting imposing an orderly ritardando and clearly laying out the resolution of each line into the final cadence. 


By the time we got to Palestrina, then, the audience had already heard two ways in which a liturgical text could be both beautified and, to some extent, obscured by a musical setting. The comparative transparency of the MPM settings – the Kyrie and Gloria are sung back-to-back – was immediately palpable, underscored by TC’s crisp singing, clear entrances, and (in the Kyrie at least) perfectly simultaneous consonants.  These were followed by a brief Collect, then the Gradual and Alleluia chants, both gloriously melismatic, followed by the Gospel reading, also chanted in Latin (I should mention that the performance was accompanied by slides which gave the Latin text and English translation of each piece of liturgy, an excellent idea, much better than forcing people to squint at program notes, and only slightly marred by typos in the Latin).  Here we met Stewart’s third piece of artistic licence, which was to split up the Gospel reading among many (all?) of the male voices, rather than having one singer impersonate the priest.  This innovation was inspired by the form of the text, which for this Feast Day happens to be the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel – the genealogy of Jesus stretching all the way back to Abraham, a long, long series of “begat”s. Scattering these among a series of soloists, entering as it were on each other’s heels, both added textural interest and sped things up.  By breaking up the monotony of the text, it paradoxically underlined it, adding a new dimension of meaning to the text by calling our attention to the sheer number of generations that had to survive, and meetings (each a small miracle in its way) that had to occur, to get from Abraham to Jesus via King David.  As a scholar of literature, I appreciated this – but nonetheless welcomed the relief of Palestrina’s exuberant Credo setting, performed with a beautifully blended tone and perfect diction to round off the first half of the concert.


The Credo marks the end of the Mass of the Catechumens, which is followed in the Tridentine rite by the Mass of the Faithful, so this was a liturgically as well as musically appropriate place to break for a short interval before recommencing with the Offertory, this time chanted by the treble voices. The Offertory text, “Beata Es, Virgo Maria,” would return at the end of the concert in Palestrina’s glorious 8-part setting, another inspired moment of liturgical deconstruction. First, however, we had to get through the central drama of the Mass, the liturgy of the Eucharist.  The choir gave beautiful renderings of Palestrina’s Sanctus and Agnus Dei movements, with legato lines so sinuous they could plausibly pass for angelic. If I had a wish here, I’d have liked to hear the sopranos open up more – I’m a fan of the adult soprano sound in early music, a huge improvement over the children favoured by some – and similarly in the Merulo motet that duplicated the Communion chant, “Beata viscera,” later on (bookending the duplication of the Introit at the start of the programme).  Merulo, eight years younger than Palestrina, provided an interesting contrast to their older contemporary Willaert, and to Palestrina himself, but I can’t say this piece made a huge impression on me; in contrast, the choir absolutely lit up when they returned to Palestrina with the closing “Beata Es” motet. Whether this reflects my taste, or theirs, or the solemnity of the Roman liturgy, or simply the mastery of Palestrina as compared to everyone else, who can say, but the choir felt like a different instrument performing Palestrina than they did in the rest of the programme; here, they genuinely soared.  

Congratulations to the Tudor Consort on this moving and evocative concert, a compelling tribute to Palestrina as well as an intellectually and artistically coherent performance.

 

Colour and excitement aplenty – Monique Lapins and Jian Liu play Bartók for Rattle

Rattle Records presents:
BARTÓK – Violin Sonata No. 1 Sz 75
Violin Sonata No. 2 Sz 76
Rumanian Folk-Dances Sz 56 (arr. for Violin and Piano by Zoltan Székely)
Sonatina for Piano Sz 55 (arr. For Violin and Piano by Andre Gertler)

Monique Lapins (violin) and Jian Liu (piano)
Producer: Kenneth Young
Recorded: Graham Kennedy
Mastering: Steve Garden
Cover and Booklet Art: Night Music II by  Ernestine Tahedl

RATTLE RAT-D130 2022

Both violinist Monique Lapins and pianist Jian Liu are well-known to me via various recent live concert experiences, though I’ve yet to see them perform together (my Middle C colleague Steven Sedley reviewed a St.Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert at which the pair performed Béla Bartók’s First Violin Sonata – https://middle-c.org/2021/05/monique-lapins-and-jian-liu-give-consummate-performances-of-bartok-and-debussy-at-st-andrews-of/). Rattle’s new CD devoted to Bartók’s works for violin and piano certainly whets the appetite for more from the pair! Backed by stunning visual presentation (the fantastical Bartók-inspired work of Austrian-born Canadian domiciled artist Ernestine Tahedl adorns the front cover and the booklet pages), everything about the production is so  attractively wrought and sonorously captured one can’t help but be drawn willingly into the music’s colour and excitement.

Bartók’s extensive researches in to and collecting of Hungarian folksongs strongly permeate both of the major works on this recording,  given that, at the time of their writing (1921-22) he was also expressing  interest in the Second Viennese School’s modernity and atonal explorations, along with the works of Debussy and Stravinsky. The folk-song element is evident at the opening of the First Sonata when the impressionistic whirlwind of piano tones introduces a folkish lament-like song from the violin.  An ebb and flow of exchange between the instruments dominates the first section, now forceful now rhapsodical, with the piano often set a-dancing by the violin’s roller-coasterings! The “great calm” that settles over the music’s central sequences is beautifully caught by the recording, the piano’s crystalline patternings augmented by the violin’s delicately-sculptured lines – all so haunting and magical, and gorgeously realised by both Lapins and Liu. Though interspersed with further trenchant violin lines and monumental piano tones, a sense of contained calm (with echoes of a “Dies Irae” chant!)  returns at the movement’s end.

The slow movement is begun raptly and wistfully by Lapins’ violin,  a gorgeous outpouring of tone, eventually joined by Liu’s piano – the plaintive and heartfelt exchanges bring to my mind the Debussy of Canope,, from his Book II Preludes,  the sounds suggestive of a deep yearning, so tender and inward. Distant gongs which sound mid-movement then build in weight and focus,  the rhapsodic mood gradually made excitable as the violin pours forth folk-like declamations, though the piano grounds the music once more, planting footprints in the music’s snow – we hear some ethereal high violin notes and responses of limpid beauty from the piano, before the enchantment of it all regretfully draws to an end.

The third movement is a foil to all of this, something of a madcap house,  not unlike the contrast between the second and third movements of Ravel’s G Major Piano Concerto – though Bartók’s differing moods in his finale are even more quixotic than Ravel’s! Wild, combatative chords from the piano issue a call to arms, a challenge taken up by the violin, its wild dance hotly pursued by the piano (lovely smoky, pesante-like tones from Lapins’ violin) resulting in a right old set-to between the instruments – extraordinary declamations, each blaming the other for the ruckus! – the instruments plunge into the “friss” again and again, but come to grief each time with different issues, one of them marked by almost grotesquely clumsy figurations from the piano, to which the violin cocquettishly responds, and another a sudden salon-like gesture of genteel insouciance – but both are whirled away once again by almost (at this stage) “silent-movie-galloping” sequences, with Lapins and Liu both on fire, the piano dancing and the violin rocketing up and down! – when, perhaps at the brink of exhaustion’s point,  a couple of mutually wrought, no-nonsense gestures conclude the mayhem!

The composer described the violin parts of both his two Violin Sonatas in a 1924 letter as “extraordinarily difficult…..it is only a violinist of the top class who has any chance of learning them” – though violinists “of the top class” may proliferate today, the difficulties of this music remain formidable, both technically and interpretatively. The Second Sonata has two movements, replicating the traditional “verbunkos” (translated as a “recruiting dance”), a sequence featuring a slow lassu introduction and a concluding friss. Lapins and Liu launch the work with expressive, long-breathed gestures right from the beginning, the opening folkish phrases beautifully sung by the violin and resonated by the piano, creating atmospheric and gorgeously-modulated sequences burgeoning with intent.  They “grow” the composer’s slow-motion intensities patiently, the playing by turns suggestive and full-throated, keeping the music’s exploratory musings and the folk-like figurations poised and expectant throughout as the movement comes to its tremulous conclusion.

As for the second movement, Lapins and Liu keep the listener virtually on the edge of the seat throughout the music’s brilliantly kaleidoscopic energies, beginning with portentous piano rhythms, brash string pizzicatos and impetuous running sequences, the exchanges growing wilder as the music develops. Along with an improvisatory kind of feeling – the music lurches from quiet and brooding to raucous and energetic almost without warning throughout – there’s a strong sense of striving towards somewhere the music might call home, expressed most convincingly in the folk-like themes that recurs on each instrument by turns throughout, a lyrical fragment of which eventually calls the work to rest. But along the way one relishes some familiar Bartókian gestures, such as the “tipsy” sequences mid-movement, during which one can almost smell the wine on the music’s breath; and the suggestions of “night-music” in places, though more hinted at than actual in such capricious music as here.  Elsewhere, the quicksilver volatility of these players’  exchanges and responses to the music are remarkable, from the brooding expectancies to the more trenchant, full-on engagements, the music seeming to reach out and summon the questing, exhausted spirit home at the end….

I enjoyed comparing Lapins’ and Lui’s playing with that on another New-Zealand-made recording of the same sonata, that by violinist Justine Cormack and pianist Sarah Watkins on the Atoll label (ACD 101) coupled with sonatas by Debussy and Janacek. I thought Cormack and Watkins found more light and shade in the work’s various sequences, their lighter touch enabling a quicker tempo for the first movement and lighter textures in places in the second. Having said that one couldn’t possibly nominate a preference for one performance or the other based on anything except raw feeling – suffice to say that I felt the Bartók performance by each duo was engagingly of a piece in style and intent with their presentations of the other music on their recordings.

It was a good idea for Lapins and Liu to present each Sonata with a kind of “makeweight” top provide some “breathing-space” for the listener in the wake of such intensities! – thus after the First Sonata we hear a set of “Romanian Folk Dances” which first appeared as a piano solo, but has since been arranged for various instruments as well as in an orchestral version by the composer – Bartók’s friend Zoltan Szekely made this particular arrangement. I first heard this music in its solo piano form on my very first Bartók LP featuring the pianist Gyorgy Sandor – on the sleeve of that disc the LP’s contents were described as  “A timid soul’s approach to….” (in small lettering) “BARTÓK” (in big print)! With works like the “Out of Doors” Suite and the ”Allegro Barbaro” on the disc, it was all an exhilarating experience,  here replicated for me by Monique Lapins and Jian Liu but without a trace of timidity!

After the Second Sonata the disc concludes with another arrangement, that of a Sonatina for solo piano SZ55, originally titled Sonatina on Romanian Folk Tunes when written in 1915 by Bartok, and subsequently reset for violin and piano by violinist Andre Gertler, who frequently performed with the composer. Lapins and Liu give these pieces all the fun and directness one imagines first attracted the composer to the “original” melodies. I felt sorry for the poor captive bear, in the middle “Medvetanc” (Bear Dance), but the concluding Allegro vivace restored my jolly listening mood. Throughout, as with the rest of the disc, I was lost in admiration at the players’ ability to adapt their style to the material, these dance-like items for me as warmly spontaneous and fun-loving to listen to as the performances of the two Sonatas were gripping and profound.

A Springful of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” music, from Orchestra Wellington

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

Robert Schumann Dichterliebe arranged by Henrik Hellstenius
Deborah Wai Kapohe, mezzo

Robert Schumann Cello Concerto
Inbal Megiddo, cello

Felix Mendelssohn Midsummer Night Dream
Barbara Paterson, Michaela Codwgan, sopranos,
Dryw McArthur, Alex Greig and Danielle  Meldrum, actors,
Women’s voices of the Orpheus Choir.

Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 20th August, 2022

Schumann and Mendelssohn may seem like traditional programming for an orchestral concert, but – trust Marc Taddei, – it was anything but run of the mill standard fare. This was a concert of works seldom heard or seldom heard in the form presented.

Schumann Dichterliebe, arranged by Henrik Hellstenius

It opened with Schumann’s song cycle, Dichterliebe. This, along with Schubert’s Winterreise and Die schöne Müllerin is a work that established the song cycle form as more than a collection of songs, and is a landmark of the lieder repertoire. The songs are settings of sixteen poems by Heine. Heine was some ten years older than Schumann and was already celebrated as the leading German lyric poet. Perhaps Heine’s intrinsic contradictions appealed to Schumann’s split personalities. Maybe the cunning craft of Heine’s poetry brought something out of Schumann the master miniaturist. But what we were presented with was not the well known song cycle of Schumann with its dramatic piano accompaniment, but an arrangement by the contemporary Norwegian composer,  Henrik Hellstenius.

Instead of the piano, we had a large orchestra with even an exotic ophicleide, a keyed brass instrument.  Its deep voice was a welcome addition to the brass section. The piece started with a bell-like sound produced by violin and flute. The piano part is deconstructed right through the songs into a kaleidoscope of colourful orchestral sounds. Wai Kapohe sang not as the usual image of a classical lieder singer, but like a jazz singer, or more like a chanteuse, using a microphone, and despite the vast auditorium of the Michael Fowler Centre, she gave the impression of singing intimately for every person of the large audience. Her beautiful warm voice touched every one.

The  settings of sixteen of Heine’s poems are about love,  flowers, sorrow and pain, dream, memory of a kiss, the Cathetral of Cologne, a lark’s song of longing, a broken heart, fairy tale, and death.. The arrangement of Hellstenius turned Schumann’s music into a haunting post-modern musical experience. It is not a matter of being better than Schumann, bringing Schumann up to date; it is about looking at Schumann’s music through a contemporary lens, hearing it as eternally meaningful music.

Schumann Cello Concerto

The song cycle was followed by Schumann’s last orchestral work, his cello concerto, which he completed two weeks before he attempted suicide, and never had the opportunity of hearing it performed. It is a remarkable work, the first ‘romantic’ concerto written for the cello, a world away from preceding works for the cello, the cello concertos of Haydn and Boccherini.  The concerto starts with three chords played by the strings then the cello takes over with a beautiful melody, which Inbal Megiddo played with a ravishing sound. This set the tone of the whole work. The piece is episodic, a mark of much of Schumann’s work, short contrasting themes make up the building blocks of the overall piece, slow melodic sections interspersed with dramatic virtuoso passages.

The themes are like his songs, melodious. engaging.  The three movements, a lyrical yet dramatic first movement,  a slow second movement and a lively, energetic final movement, are connected by brief bridging sections. A song like quality pervades the work. Inbal Megiddo gave this concerto a beautiful, convincing reading. Acknowledging the warm applause, she played as an encore the Gigue from Bach’s Cello Suite No.1. She played it with a scintillating light touch. It was an appropriate bridge to the final item on the programme.

Mendelssohn A  Midsummer Night Dream

Mendelssohn wrote the overture to Midsummer Night Dream for the house concerts in his family’s lavish home, when he was a boy of seventeen and this it stayed in the popular repertoire ever since. It is a scintillating piece of music, but the Incidental Music was written much later, at the instigation of Frederick William IV, King of Prussia, a music lover. Mendelssohn expanded the Overture into a forty-five minute suit exploring scenes from the play, that included the among its thirteen movements, the sprightly goblin-like Scherzo, the light jolly, otherworldly song with the choir, the dreamy Nocturne with its solo horn, the stately Wedding March, played at innumerable weddings since its first performance, and the foot stomping Dance of the Clown. The use of three actors as narrator reading out the lines from the play, and two solo sopranos singing some of the choral numbers greatly enhanced the music.

Hearing the whole Incidental Music to Midsummer Night Dream was a joyous experience. But it was more than that, it was an insight into Romanticism in music, fairies, dreams, magic, ingredients of romantic music and literature, that echoed the music of Schumann and other romantic composers.

Orchestra Wellington and Marc Taddei offered, as usual. an imaginative programme,  played well, with understanding, which amounted to more than the sum total of the works performed. It captured the spirit of an era, with contemporary commentary on it by the orchestral arrangement of the Schumann songs by Henrik Hellstenius

A state of extreme delight

‘Love Triumphant’ – NZSO’s Immerse 2022 Festival

Ravel Mother Goose Suite
Chausson Poème
Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherazade Op. 35

Hilary Hahn (violin)
Gemma New (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Sunday 7 August, 2.00 pm

This was the third and final concert of the Immerse series, programmed and timed to attract a family audience. And some kids attended, although they were quite hard to spot. It’s not every parent or grand-parent who thinks to bring the smalls to an NZSO concert, and not every child who has the patience to sit still for more than 40 minutes at a stretch. That was a great pity, because the programme was delightful. Even people whose short attention span is in line with their height would have found the music enjoyable to listen to.

Conductor Gemma New dispensed with formalities and opened the concert with a short talk about the music – specifically the plot of the programme for each piece – explaining that all of the music had been inspired by fairy tales and stories. (The concert title asserted that the  scarlet thread holding all the works together was love stories with happy endings, but this notion probably sounded much more convincing in the marketing department than it did in real life.) I was scrambling to keep up with New’s description of the Mother Goose  movements, but we all enjoyed the characterisation of Pat Barry (clarinet) as Beauty and someone called Sam on contrabassoon (David Angus seemed to be away) as the Beast.

Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite is, as I am sure you know, full of delicious colours and textures, with lovely melodies and many exquisite details. New is nothing if not a stickler for detail, so it was all laid out in front of us. Last night I felt that this is the best the NZSO has played in more than a decade. I had the same sensation today; except that this music is full of joy, and moves with ease and grace. All that complexity and emotional challenge had gone with last night’s wind and rain. The afternoon was sunny with a promise of spring, and so was the NZSO’s playing.

Once again, the higher winds and percussion sections were kept busy. There was glorious playing from Robert Orr (oboe) and Bridget Douglas (flute), and delicious textures in the percussion, with xylophone, tam tam, triangle, and tubular bells. Larry Reece’s timpani playing is always a delight, being so precisely placed right on the very front of the beat, but the whole team sounded great on the ear. Carolyn Mills’ dry, percussive harp sound cut through the thick textures. At times the warmth of the string sound could almost have been Elgar.  Once or twice the cut-offs weren’t quite as clean as they had been last night, and I wondered about New’s gestures – too expansive? But the Suite was over far too quickly. I could have listened to it again.

The stage was reset for the Chausson and there was a distinct buzz of excitement in the audience. We would hear the remarkable Hilary Hahn one last time. Indeed, she walked on stage to loud cheering.

The author of the programme notes seemed puzzled by Chausson’s small output, but it is easily explained: he died at the age of 44 in a cycling accident. Had his brakes been more reliable, his name would certainly rival those of Debussy and Ravel today. His Poème was written for Eugène Ysaÿe, who had asked him for a concerto. Chausson thought that was too big an ask, and opted for something shorter, in one movement. It is nonetheless extremely beautiful, and Hahn was doing the cadenza full justice… until she stopped. She laughed, restarted, and carried on. The audience was happy. Then she stopped playing again in about the same place. It seemed that she had got lost navigating the complexities of the cadenza. She took a moment, said ‘I feel like the Cirque de Soleil’, and started that knotty passage again. As violin teacher Lynley Culliford commented in the interval, ‘It was such a human moment. So good for our kids to see.’

The audience went wild, of course. Several curtain calls, and on the third Hahn came out with her violin and, just as she had done last night, played a movement from another of Bach’s partitas for solo violin (perhaps the second movement of the G minor partita?). Her Bach is extraordinary: intimate and tender, delicate, and very moving. Hahn says that she has played a piece for solo violin by Bach every day since she was eight:

Bach is, for me, the touchstone that keeps my playing honest. Keeping the intonation pure in double stops, bringing out the various voices where the phrasing requires it, crossing the strings so that there are not inadvertent accents, presenting the structure in such a way that it’s clear to the listener without being pedantic – one can’t fake things in Bach, and if one gets all of them to work, the music sings in the most wonderful way.

If that is what it takes, we should all play Bach daily, and insist that our children do so too.

The last work in the concert was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. ‘The Sultan was angry,’ Gemma New began. ‘He didn’t trust anyone.’ She characterised the four movements as follows: the adventures of Sinbad’s ship; adventures on land; all the love stories in the world; all the festivals and parties. By this time, I felt as though I had used up all my superlatives about the NZSO’s playing. How wrong I was.

The four movements are, as every child in the Michael Fowler Centre today now knows, linked by the voice of Scheherazade herself, telling the Sultan stories as best she can in order to save her life. Concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppanen is a very fine violinist, and he played wonderfully well. The rest of the orchestra rose to meet him. From the very opening, the sound was huge and enveloping. My notes say things like ‘Tuba! Flutes! Vesa and harp! The waves rolling! Robert and Bridget!’ as though I was in such an advanced state of delight that I had lost most of my brains.  Quite true, of course.

New conducts in an expansive style with a detailed vocabulary of gestures. She is petite, and throws her whole body into it. Yet it is not showy; it is all in the service of drawing the music from the players.  Once or twice last night in Doctor Atomic I wondered what it is like for the orchestra, with so much information coming at them in every bar. Are they secretly longing for a straightforward downbeat (and leave the rest to us?). Whatever, it works. There was a crispness to the playing, with wonderfully tiered crescendos and decrescendos. Some of the pizzicato effects were extraordinary, like a ghostly wind; or the long held notes on the basses; and everywhere fast, tidy tempo changes, with the orchestra turning on a dime. So many gorgeous solos: from the harp (Carolyn Mills), first clarinet (Patrick Barry); first oboe (Robert Orr), first flute (Bridget Douglas); trombones (Dave Bremner), with a gorgeous unified string sound. There were moments when the lower strings provided a dark underlay to the solo above; a trombone and triangle duet; shot notes on improbable combinations of instruments such as triangle and tambourine. One of the crescendos in the fourth movement was so beautiful it bought tears to my cynical old eyes. And then a helter-skelter race to the finish, with some of the fastest tempi I have ever heard in this work. No one lost touch. Finally, it was back to Scheherazade, who comes to the end of her last story, with Vesa’s impossibly high, impossibly long last note. A dazzling and beautiful concert. Bravo!

 

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
Norman.

‘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
Trumpet).

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.

The band is back – NZSO with Hilary Hahn and Gemma New

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

JOHN RIMMER – Lahar
SERGE PROKOFIEV – Violin Concerto No. 1
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH – Symphony No. 5

Hilary Hahn (violin)
Gemma New (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday 4th August 2022

The band is back. This was the first concert by the NZSO for some time, apart from their outing to open the St James Theatre a couple of weeks ago. And what a splendid concert this was! The orchestra was at its best. I have never heard them play better. They appear to have a special rapport with Gemma  New, the newly appointed Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Like many of the members of the orchestra, she came through the ranks of the Youth Orchestra system, and played in the Wellington and New Zealand Youth Orchestras as a violinist, but then went to America to learn the art of conducting. She has served as Resident Conductor of the St Louis Symphony Orchestra, and is Resident Conductor of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra in Canada, and the Principal Guest Conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. To say that this young woman, still only in her mid thirties is vastly talented is an understatement. As a conductor, her style is energetic, athletic and dramatic. She seemed to draw music out of the very essence of the players in the orchestra with her meticulous attention to details, to phrasing, to dynamics, yet giving the solo instrumentalists space to play their lines freely.

John Rimmer : Lahar

The concert opened, very appropriately, with Lahar, a short piece by one of New Zealand’s senior composers, John Rimmer. It is the arrangement and development of the last movement of Rimmer’s major work: The Ring of Fire. Quoting the programme notes: It is intimately connected to the sound of nature. Rimmer is an electronic composer. Electronically virtually any sound can be reproduced and the instruments of the orchestra emulate that in this piece that captures the environmental sounds. You get the earth rumbling on the tympani, birds chirping on the flute and piccolo, powerful brass chords, falling woodwind passages, depicting a volcanic eruption and the silent peaceful aftermath. Rimmer explained in his introduction before the performance that the piece is hot, very hot. You hear explosions, the noise of the forest. Amidst the cacophony a melody emerges played on the piccolo and the cello solo, which is transformed into a lament. For the listener there was a whole world of musical experience within this seven minute orchestral work.

Serge Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1

Prokofiev was an up and coming young composer in Paris, already making a name for himself when he composed this concerto. After the shock of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913, discordant music became widely accepted and even became mainstream. Prokofiev evolved his own harmonic language, taut harmonies and driving rhythm,  combined with lyricism. The First Violin Concerto opens with a scarcely audible melody  played by the solo violin on top of the orchestral accompaniment. This develops into an energetic dance and the movement ends with an ethereal flute solo. The second movement, a virtuoso scherzo, is driven, and energetic. Prokofiev later reused some of this material in the duel scene in his ballet Romeo and Juliet. The final movement is dominated by a lush violin solo interposed with strong rhythmic drive. Hilary Hahn’s playing seemed effortless, spontaneous, straight from the heart, with a beautiful tone and great control. Soloist and conductor, two prodigiously talented young women, were of one mind with total mutual understanding.

For an encore Hilary Hahn played a scintillating rendering of the Gigue from Bach’s Partita No. 3 for Solo Violin.

Dmitri Shostakovich – Symphony No. 5 

This symphony has a tragic history. After Stalin went to see the composer’s opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, and walked out before the end Shostakovitch felt doomed. He withdrew his Fourth Symphony, which was ready for performance, and wrote a grand 44 minute work, which, according to the Pravda article attributed to him, was ‘a Soviet artist’s practical and creative response to justified criticism’. The symphony was an immediate success, both in the Soviet Union and in the rest of the world. It certainly has powerful themes, pulsating patriotic rhythms, folk music elements. It is immediately moving and captivating, but perhaps, in this peaceful remote corner of the world, far from the threats of Stalin’s Russia in 1937, it seems a little drawn out, the themes over elaborated. The shadows of a terrified composer lurks behind the triumphal tone of the work. One can read all sorts of things into the first movement, Allegro moderato, full of dread, or into the lyrical second movement, ‘a malevolent march’. The third movement, Largo, mournful, made the audience at the first performance openly weep. It is indeed, music full of grief. The triumphal march returns in the final movement, but it resolves into a haunting funeral march. Does the symphony end on a hopeful note or a note a desperation ? It depends on your interpretation not only of the music, but also of the tragic world of Stalin’s Russia. In either case, it is very moving and all-absorbing music. One will never hear a better performance of this work than this one under the baton of Gemma New. It was all minutely crafted, carefully thought out, every phrase, every dynamic change and contrast was sensitively molded.

This was a splendid concert and the very large audience, a virtually full Michael Fowler Centre, responded with a huge ovation. I am looking forward to a new era of exciting music with Gemma New at the helm of the orchestra. My one gripe is that the excitement of this wonderful concert should have been shared by people all over the country. It should have been videoed and shown live, available to all, no matter where they live, be it Reefton or Ruatoria, and perhaps available anywhere in the world to show that Aotearoa is not just a country of milk powder and the All Blacks – that it is not an international cultural backwater, but an exciting place with its own cultural landscape. It was appropriate that the concert opened with Rimmer’s Lahar, depicting just that.

Plaudits for the Wellington Youth Orchestra with Donald Maurice

Wellington Youth Orchestra presents:
CHILDHOOD
Music by Boris Pigovat and Anthony Ritchie

PIOGOVAT – IN the Mood to Tango
RITCHIE – Symphony No. 5 “Childhood”

Donald Maurice (conductor)
Wellington Youth Orchestra

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

Sunday, 31st July 2022

Donald Maurice has had a long association with both Boris Pigovat and Anthony Ritchie. He perfumed and recorded Pigovat’s Holocaust Requiem with Orchestra Wellington, a major work for viola and orchestra, and commissioned Ritchie’s First Viola Concert and other works. It is appropriate that he programmed works by both of these composers, though Pigovat’s piece was a late substitute for the Second Symphony by the youthful Richard Strauss, which had to be abandoned because Covid played havoc with rehearsals.

A youth orchestra concert that strayed from the well-known classics was an interesting challenge for the young players. They had to come to terms with the unfamiliar idiom of two composers whose music they had never played before. It was a tour of exploration.

Pigovat: In the mood to tango

This was delightful light music for strings only. It captured the mood of Piazolla’s Argentinian tangos,  and recreated the atmosphere, the musical imagery and style of Piazolla’s music. It was a great way of bringing the strings together as an orchestral body and it was great fun.

Ritchie: Symphony No. 5, Childhood

Unlike the previous piece, this Symphony is a major 40-minute, colorful work, in five interlinked movements. It commemorates the Christchurch Earthquakes and is dedicated to the refurbished Christchurch Town Hall. It uses childhood as a metaphor for renewed hope and optimism. It calls for a vast orchestra with a full complement of winds, brass, and in particular, percussion, that includes a ratchet, tubular bells, xylophone, and marimba as well as the usual drums and cymbals, plus a harp, and a celesta (in this performance substituted very satisfactorily by harp and piano). Seeing the destruction and reconstruction through a child’s eyes, the symphony is built on little short motifs that suggest simple nursery rhymes or children’s songs. Ritchie wrote a thesis on Bartok’s music and there may be a suggestion of the children’s themes such as those that Bartok employed. Unlike Bartok’s music, which is terse and concise, Ritchie’s music is expansive. Ritchie also went through a minimalist phase in his career, and uses minimalist techniques, short repeated phrases, in this piece.

The First Movement: Beginnings, opens with a ratchet; you sit up, listen, ‘what is this all about?’, then a simple 5 note phrase is played on the celesta which is taken over by the flute, then the whole orchestra, which elaborates on it, dissects it, and opens it up into a vivid chiaroscuro of music. This simple phrase haunts the entire symphony and returns at the end. The Second Movement: Play, is playful. A simple joyful theme is tossed from one section of the orchestra to another. Everybody gets a turn at playing this phrase, like a ball thrown around among the musicians. Hopes and Dream, the Third Movement, is ethereal, introduced by a gentle soulful melody on the oboe. First the horn, then the trumpet expand on the tune and it flowers into a rich melody, with the strings and the whole orchestra joining in. Life- force, the Fourth Movement, is built on energetic rapid figures, shadowed by dark themes in the winds. The final Movement, A Future, is triumphal, and towards the end the initial simple theme returns played on a whole range of percussion instruments. Finally the Symphony ends on a wistful note.

This was the first performance of this symphony beyond Dunedin and Christchurch, and we can applaud the Wellington Youth Orchestra and its guest conductor, Donald Maurice, for tackling this difficult work. It enriched the musical experience of all the young musicians who took part in it – and after all, this is the main purpose of a youth orchestra – but it also expanded the experience of those in the audience.

Hearing a new major work performed and, moreover, performed in the presence of the composer, is an opportunity to be treasured. Anthony Ritchie was in the audience and at the end of the symphony he came forward and acknowledged the applause. As to the Wellington Youth Orchestra, all its musicians put everything into the performance of this challenging work, the untold hours of hard work and rehearsals, years of study, paid off in this fine concert. Without singling out any individual player, there were some beautiful flute solos, and great playing by the horns and the whole brass section, who had a lot of notes to play. There was some very fine string playing, and a lovely entry by the cellos at the beginning of the symphony. The contribution of experienced senior players and, especially, the percussionists who joined the orchestra to fill gaps at short notice must be acknowledged. It was a great and memorable concert.

 

 

 

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.

Yuka and Kemp – a concert of popular violin music

Wellington Chamber Music Society presents:

Yuka and Kemp – violin and piano

Elgar – Salut- d’Amour
Beethoven – Sonata in F Major, Op. 24 (Spring)
Maria Theresia von Paradis – Sicilienne
Anthony Ritchie – Song for Minstrel, Op. 120
Massenet – “Méditation” from Thaïs
William Kroll – Banjo and Fiddle
Handel – Sonata in D Major HWV371
Paganini (arr. R. Schumann) – Caprice No. 24 in A minor
Kreisler – Recitativo and Scherzo – Caprice for solo violin Op. 6
–   Liebesleid  / La Gitana
John Williams Theme from Schindler’s List
Monti – Csárdás

Yuka Eguchi (violin) and Kemp English (piano/organ)

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

Sunday, 10th July 2022

Yuka Eguchi is the Assistant Concert Master of the NZSO; Kemp English is a solo organist, a specialist in playing the fortepiano, and a collaborative pianist. The two put together a programme of violin music that most people know from such collections as the ‘best loved violin pieces’, but which are seldom featured in concert programmes. They are light, and lack substance that form the backbone of serious classical recitals, but  they are all immediately appealing.

Edward Elgar Salut d’Amour
The first item in the concert was Elgar’s Salut d’Amour, a popular salon piece that was Elgar’s engagement present to his future wife. It is lovely, personal, and melodious. The performance was not only notable for Yuka’s impeccable violin playing, but also for Kemp’s sensitive piano accompaniment.

Ludwig van Beethoven Sonata in F Major, Op. 24 (Spring)
Yuka and Kemp gave this much – loved Beethoven Sonata a straight forward reading. There is much to this piece, questions and answers, humour, and whimsy. The lyrical, gentle, extended song like slow movement, which is the heart of the work, is followed by a limping cheeky third movement. The final movement sums up the whole Sonata; this is what life is all about. Because the playing was so clear, there were details which came through which might have been glossed over in a less precise reading.

Maria Theresia von Paradis Sicilienne
Paradis was a pianist, blind, with a prodigious memory that she needed with no eyesight. She was a contemporary of Mozart whose concertos she played. She was a prolific composer and a teacher, but Sicilienne  that she is best remembered for was, not, in fact written by her. It is a musical hoax, composed by Samuel Dushkin,  –  a Polish American violinist, who worked with Stravinsky and William Schumann on their violin concertos. He also composed pieces under the names of largely forgotten composers such as Paradis and Benda. His Sicilienne is a charming, sentimental piece harking back to another era.

Anthony Ritchie Song for Minstrel, Op. 120
Anthony Ritchie, a contemporary New Zealand composer and, Professor of Music at Otago University, is  best known for his symphonic works. Song for Minstrel, however, is a short work for violin. It starts with a violin solo of sheer beauty, followed by a jazzy development. Minstrel was a dog, not a person: the dog of the poet, Sam Hunt.

Jules Massenet Méditation from “Thaïs”
This popular work is the embodiment of a sentimental romantic age. Suspense awaits each note.

William Kroll Banjo and Fiddle
William Kroll was the leader of the Kroll Quartet, one of the great American string quartets of the 1950s and 1960s. He was an eminent teacher and chamber music player, but is perhaps best known for this short popular fiddle piece, capturing an American folksy idiom with something of a gypsy feel. It has a touch of Hollywood sentimentality. It is both showy and technically difficult.

George Frederick Handel Sonata in D Major HWV371
This sonata is Handel’s last piece of chamber music. It is rich music, evoking Handel’s operatic music, elegant, gallant. Kemp English sat down at the organ instead of the piano and played the keyboard part on the organ, which added a special effect to the piece. The organ made it sound grander, and the violin part more operatic. Like everything in this concert, it was different and illuminating.

Niccolò Paganini (arr. Robert Schumann) Caprice No. 24 in A minor
Paganini’s 24 Caprices for the violin are landmarks in the violin literature, and No. 24 is the best known of them all. It is such a compelling piece that Brahms, Rachmaninov, Boris Blacher, Chopin, Liszt, Andrew Lloyd Weber, Witold Lutoslawski, Karol Szymanowski, Eugéne Ysaÿe, Benny Goodman and many other composers have incorporated it in their work. Robert Schumann decided that a piano accompaniment would enhance the work – who are we, mortals in a later age, to argue with him? Yuka’s was certainly a virtuoso dazzling performance with Kemp quietly in the background on the piano.

Fritz Kreisler Recitativo and Scherzo – Caprice for solo violin Op. 6
Liebesleid / La Gitana
Fritz Kreisler was among the foremost violinists of his time, a generation before Jascha Heifetz. Heifetz rewrote people’s expectations of a violin virtuoso. After Heifetz Kreisler might have been considered old school. Much of his music is charming and gemütlich  evoking old-time Vienna as  in Liebesleid and La Gitana, (The Gypsy). The latter is full of exotic colours and flamenco-type rhythms. Both pieces are from a collection Kreisler published under the title of ‘Classical Manuscripts’. Some  pieces were attributed to Baroque composers, though all were his own compositions. Recitativo and Scherzo – Caprice is something else, a truly challenging virtuoso piece in the tradition of Paganini, or for that matter, Ysaÿe, to whom the piece was dedicated. Yuka was undaunted by these challenges. Jaw-dropping stuff!

John Williams Theme from Schindler’s List
Schindler’s List is a sorrowful Holocaust film and the music captures its deep unrequited sadness with its beautiful haunting melody.

Before she played the piece, Yuka said, that she dedicated it to Peter Barber, long time, colourful and much-loved member of the NZSO who passed away recently, and to Shinzo Abe, former Japanese Prime Minister, who was assassinated the day before this concert.

She also talked about her violin, made by Carlo Ferdinando Landolfi in 1766. one of the great luthiers of the golden age of violin making. It is truly a beautiful instrument with a wonderful tone. It was appropriate for Yuka to acknowledge her instrument in this violin recital for violinists.

Vittorio Monti Csárdás
With the final item in the concert we are back in the jubilant mood of the earlier part of the programme. Vittorio Monti was a Neapolitan composer. This is by far his best known work. It is a rhapsodical concert piece, written in 1904, and is based on the Csárdás, a Hungarian folk dance. It is invigorating music, a showpiece for violinists.

The artists received a standing ovation, quite unusual for the sedate, elderly audience of Sunday afternoon concerts. The audience was rewarded with an encore of another lovable Fritz Kreisler piece, Rondino on a theme by Beethoven – and we all left happier for this afternoon of enchanting solo violin music music. Yuka and Kemp are wonderfully accomplished musicians. One wonders why we haven’t heard them before in Wellington.