Freiburg Baroque Orchestra – sounds from the Old World

HAYDN – Symphony No.91 in E-flat Hob.1:91

MOZART – Concerto for Horn and Orchestra in E-flat K.495

MOZART – Symphony No.38 in D Major “Prague” K.504

Teunis van der Zwart (natural horn)

Freiburg Baroque Orchestra

Rene Jacobs, conductor

New Zealand International Festival of the Arts Concert

Wellington Town Hall

Wednesday 17th March, 7.30pm

Without a doubt, a Festival highlight – two concerts on consecutive evenings in the Town Hall by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra with conductor Rene Jacobs gave local aficionados the chance to hear a crack European “authentic instrument” ensemble perform. Recent recordings, mostly on the Harmonia Mundi label, have already established something of the group’s and the conductor’s name and reputation in this country, and the concert programmes mirrored some of that repertoire, such as the Haydn and Mozart symphonies featured. And how interesting, for people both familiar with and as yet unaware of those recordings, to hear these live performances in a local context, in venues where we’re accustomed to hearing our own orchestras play.

My brief was the first of the two concerts; and although each was similar in format – Haydn Symphony/Mozart Concerto/Mozart Symphony – there would have been ample interest and variety for those fortunate enough to attend both.  Each Haydn symphony (No.92 in the second concert) would demonstrate the composer’s incredibly fertile invention and contrapuntal skills, the different Mozart concertos (the “Turkish” Violin Concerto featured on the second night) would bring out the specific instrumental character in each case; and having the “Jupiter” Symphony (Thursday) follow the “Prague” on the previous evening would, I think be a Mozart-lover’s heaven.

As much as I applaud in theory the work of “authenticists” who try to perform baroque, classical and early romantic music as the composers themselves would have heard it, I confess to finding the results in many cases disappointing, my pet dislike being pinched, vibrato-less string-playing in particular, a horror invariably compounded by impossibly rushed tempi and brusque phrasing – all of which is frequently served up in the name of “authenticity”. In the pioneering days of authentic baroque and classical performance many musicians seemed to be seized with a “born again” fervour in their rigid application of the “no vibrato” rule for either string players or singers. Fortunately, there’s been a degree of modification on the part of some of these performers in their playing style, allowing for some warmth and flexibility in a way that, to my ears, the music often cries out for. So, what kind of “authenticated” impression did the musicians from Freiburg make during their concert?

Tempi were generally swift, apart from the rather more relaxed interpretation of the Mozart Horn Concerto, whose trajectories gave both soloist and players plenty of time to “point” their phrases and make the most of the music. Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony went several notches more swiftly in its outer movements than I’ve ever heard it taken previously, to exhilarating effect, as the players still seemed to have ample time to phrase and point their accents. Perhaps having had a solo career as a singer, conductor Rene Jacobs was able to impart a flexible, “breathing” quality to the orchestra’s playing, in a way so as to make nothing seem unduly rushed – though I generally prefer slower tempi for this music, I found the performance of the “Prague ” Symphony on this occasion quite exhilarating. I’d never before heard the connections between this work and “Don Giovanni” so underlined, with great timpani irruptions and minor key explosions in the slow introduction to the work. Then, again like in Don Giovanni, the mood switches from tragedy to an “opera buffa” feeling with the allegro, energy spiced with great trumpet-and-timpani interjections.

Rene Jacobs got a “flowing river” kind of feeling from the slow movement’s opening, with winds full-throatedly singing out their contributions. I loved the D-major “drone’ sound mid-movement, lovely and rustic, bringing forth some lovely ambient timbres from the winds, and contrasting markedly with the darker, more dramatic utterances of the development and recapitualtion. The finale’s near-breakneck speed worked, thanks to the skills of the players, miraculously able to articulate their phrases at Jacobs’ urgent tempo, strings and winds even managing a giggle with the trill just before the fanfares at the end of the exposition. It was fun to listen to, while perhaps at once regretting that so much wonderful music was literally speeding by – thank heavens for the repeats, both of the exposition and the development, which means we got to enjoy those marvellously angular syncopations of the melody twice over!

Still, I enjoyed the Haydn Symphony that began the programme even more – there’s something abut the tensile strength and muscularity of this music that responds to vigorous treatment, more so, I think, than does Mozart’s. I thought the players produced a lovely colour throughout the introduction, which was followed by a fleet and flexible allegro, with unanimity from the strings and solo work from the winds that reminded me of Charles Burney’s oft-quoted remark concerning the Mannheim Orchestra of the time – “an army of generals” – even a mishap concerning a broken string of one of the violins disturbed the music not a whit!  A briskly-walking Andante featured beautiful phrasing from a solo basson at one point, and some exciting dynamic contrasts, the lively tempo enlivening the textures and giving the music a strong sense of shape. Even more sprightly was the Minuet, with whirling passagework for strings, and lovely “fairground” trio section, horns chuckling off the beat, and winds counterpointing the strings’ tune the second time round, and with a “nudge-wink” dash to the end. Again, in the finale, the players exhibited the capacity to nicely sound and phrase the music at rapid speeds, the rapid, hushed figurations creating real excitement and expectation, the infectious joy breaking out accompanied by whoops of joy from the horns and rollicking oom-pahs from the lower strings.

Just as life-enhancing was the well-known Mozart Horn Concerto K.495, the one whose finale was adapted by Michael Flanders and Donald Swann to perform in their “At the Drop of Another Hat” concerts. However, this performance had its own set of distinctions, largely through being played by a soloist using a valveless horn, of the kind that Mozart would have written the music for. I had never heard such an instrument played “live” before, and marvelled both at the sklll of the player, Teunis van der Zwat, and at the remarkably distinctive tones produced by his instrument – many of the notes sounded “stopped” or “pinched”, giving the sounds a kind of “other-worldly” ambience in places, quite pale but very characterful – a wonderful cadenza, with great low notes and lovely trills, and a final flourish that brought in the orchestra on a low chord before the cadence.

In the slow movement in particular, the scale passages brought out notes of different individual timbres so that the music had a kind of “layered” effect, almost antiphonal in places. I wondered to what extent the soloist deliberately engineered this effect with his hand-stopping, or whether the variegated timbres happened anyway when he played. His tones were quite withdrawn for a lot of the time, even in the finale, though he brought out an exciting rasping effect on the repeated triple-note patterns, and some nice out-of-door flourishes at the work’s end which pleased the punters immensely.

I should add that Rene Jacobs and the orchestra gave us a lovely bonus item, in fact the finale of the Haydn symphony programmed in the second concert, the “Oxford”. Its delicately-scampering opening measures and full-throttled tutti passages made the perfect “sweetmeat” encore – and, of course, was the perfect “taster” for those intending to go the following evening. Joyous, exhilarating playing, bringing out the music’s wit alongside its colour and brilliance – marvellous sounds, indeed, from the Old World.

Ravi Shankar – a living legend in Wellington


(with Anoushka Shankar – sitar)

Accompanying Musicians:

Tanmoy Bose (tabla)

Ravichandra Kulur (flute and tanpura)

New Zealand International Festival of the Arts, Wellington

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 12th March 2010

To convey something of the atmosphere and flavour of a remarkable concert at the Michael Fowler Centre, one of the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts series of concerts,  I can do no better than quote the words of the musician around whom this same concert was centred:

” Music can be a spiritual discipline on the path to self realisation, for we follow the traditional teaching that sound is GOD – Nada Brahma. By this process individual consciousness can be elevated to a realm of awareness where the revelation of the true meaning of the universe – its eternal and unchanging essence – can be joyfully experienced. Our ragas are the vehicles by which this essence can be perceived”.

The words are, of course, those of Ravi Shankar, 90 years young this year (2010) and performing in New Zealand for the first time, with his daughter Anoushka, with tabla-player Tanmoy Bose and flute-player Ravichandra Kulur. This was more than a concert occasion – it was an act of homage on the part of a receptive Western audience towards one of the acknowledged “great ones” of World Music. Even if he played for only half of the concert, Ravi Shankar made his presence felt through the wonderful playing of his daughter Anoushka,who gave us two ragas in the concert’s first half. Since the age of nine she had studied the sitar with her father, making her debut in public in 1994, at the age of thirteen. She’s obviously also become a powerful force in the world of Indian music, and in World music in general. Her playing made, to these untutored ears, an interesting contrast with that of her father’s, when he made his appearance after the interval – obviously she had inherited his focus and directness of expression, and had the physical means to apply that energy to her music-making more consistently and strongly than he was now able to do. Her tones were fuller, her rhythmic detailings more direct, and her passagework more even – manifestations of youthful strength and stamina which the elder Shankar could command no longer.

But in Ravi’s playing one constantly sensed the imagination going beyond the boundaries of the technique – there was nothing “contained” about what his very physical way with the sitar suggested. Rather like passages in the late Beethoven Quartets, whose ideas transcend their means of execution, the Indian master’s explorations of fancy took us right through and above the means of making the sounds, into realms whose relative frailty of physical manifestation seemed to further “charge” the experience. A player able to resound his or her instrument with far less apparent physical effort may produce a more beautiful, more even and well-rounded sound, but might be satisfied with what is produced and no more. What I sensed we took from Ravi’s playing was a feeling that there was always something beyond, something that his gestures often suggested even when there was little sound – his movements choreographed the act of reaching out towards those regions where sound is indeed God,  beyond reason and understanding, and into the realms of awareness and revelation.

So, it was very much a concert of two halves, each with its own specific kind of raison d’etre, as well as reflecting in the lustrous glow cast by the other. At the beginning, Anoushka Shankar introduced her fellow-musicians and told us that her father would appear for the concert’s second half. The group then played two ragas, the music in each case arising out of the ambient colour of the concert’s general atmosphere, the familiar “drone” sound and downward flourish of plucked strings introducing each of the works. In the first raga, the flute joined in with the opening recitative-like explorations, the cannily-placed microphones “catching” the sounds and their resonances and overtones, and bringing them out without seeming to interfere with the antiphonal relationships of the instruments. The entry of the tabla opens up the vistas, especially by means of the instrument’s deep bass notes, the rhythms at this stage teasing, going in surges and pulling back, but maintaining a mesmeric pulse. Heretical though this might sound, I actually found the flute a distraction whenever it entered, so mesmerised was I by the interaction of sitar and tabla, and the spectacularly complex rhythmic patternings made by the drummer. The second raga presented was written by Ravi Shankar for his daughter, the sounds at the outset giving the impression of being made upon impulse, as if something spiritual is using player and instrument as a conduit through which to pass whatever message. Whether or not I had penetrated several layers into a different kind of time-frame by this stage, I coudn’t be sure – but this work seemed to move more quickly towards the tabla’s entry, the music more forthright than in the previous raga, the drumming very lively and volatile-sounding, with scalp-prickling szforzandi matched by the sitar, indicating something of the framework of the piece beneath the surface configuration’s spontaneity.

After the interval Ravi Shankar’s arrival onstage was a great moment. Smiling, gracious, both frail-seeming and with bird-like resilience, he acknowledged the tribute before settling to the ritual of tuning. He then welcomed his audience “to Wellington” to great applause and some amusement, and told us about what he would be playing. The first piece he began dreamily and unhurriedly, as if reflecting on a great deal of experience. More so than his daughter Anoushka, he moved his instrument about, choreographing the shakes and swoops and crests of tone, occasionally shaking the sitar almost tonelessly, as if the notes were suggested rather than played. Anoushka joined in with the recitative, taking up the argument – her joining in underlined the very ‘tactile” feeling communicated by Ravi in his playing, perhaps partly due to age, and partly to the physical effort of realising those sounds. Together the sitars built up the mood’s momentum and amplitude almost imperceptibly, each exchange adding a kind of different level of energy, the result magnetic and compelling. No tabla was in this part of the piece – the sitars carried it all before them. It was unclear whether the tabla-accompanied episode which followed the audience’s applause was part of the same work or a different stand-alone work, but it involved exhilarating exchanges between the sitars, with remarkable agility displayed by both musicians.

The final work was a raga in classical form but with modern improvised interpolations – my Indian friend who accompanied me to the concert called it a “crowd-pleaser”! Again, one could experience and enjoy the contrast in styles between father’s and daughter’s playing, Ravi’s meditative, almost other-world fancies set alongside Anoushka’s more direct and cleanly-focused phrasings. The themes and accompaniments seemed quite Westernised in places, with a very quasi-Oriental theme brought out at one point (rather “cheesy” in effect), which was then blown away by a terrific accelerando, featuring some remarkable thematic invention expressed with a lot of energy from the sitars plus the tabla. The player of the last-named instrument, Tanmoy Bose, was able to show his mettle in a cadenza-like sequence whose volatile physicality was almost transcendental in effect, music-making visibly acknowledged by both Shankars, before they joined in with bringing the Sawal jabab, the exciting final section of the raga, to a close.

Not unexpectedly, the applause was rapturous at the end, especially so when Ravi himself came out to take the final bow – the acclaim was for many things at once, but set the seal on a rich and truly memorable occasion.

Organics for free at the International Arts Festival in Wellington

John Wells – Organ Recital at the Wellington Town Hall

JS Bach – Toccata and Fugue in D Minor BWV 565 / Frank Bridge – Adagio in E Major

Alfred Hollins – Concerto Overture No.2 / Cesar Franck – Piece Heroique

Josef Rheinberger – Sonata No.3 “The Pastoral” Op.88 / Alfred Louis James Lefebure-Wely – Sortie in B-flat

Saturday 6th March

Douglas Mews – Organ Recital at the Wellington Town Hall

Edwin Lemare – Marche Moderne / Erima Maewa Kaihau –  A koako o te Rangi (Whisper of Heaven)

JS Bach – Prelude and Fugue in A Minor BWV 543 / Brahms – 2 Chorale Preludes Op.122

Tchaikovsky (arr. Lemare) – Fantasy Overture “Romeo and Juliet”

Sunday 7th March

Each one of these recitals was given for free at the Wellington Town Hall, both showing off the resplendent grandeur and variety of tones of the Town Hall’s recently refurbished organ. Of the two recitals I enjoyed John Wells’ as a whole better, largely because of the programming, though both his and Douglas Mews’s recitals had some very fine and interesting things in them. Each featured  some resplendent Bach, Wells treating us to the old warhorse the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (which showed off the organ excellently) and Douglas Mews the A Minor Prelude and Fugue BWV 543, a tighter, rather less theatrical and Gothic work, though one with some light and shade during the fugue, via an episode of contrasting registration, before the final payoff returned us to imposing magnificence. But John Wells’s programme showed us more of the instrument’s byways via works by Frank Bridge, Alfred Hollins and Josef Rheinberger, then concluding with some absolutely delightful music by Alfred Louis James Lefebure-Wely, a lovely Andante from a larger work “Meditaciones Religiosas” and a “Sortie in E flat” of a kind that would be played as a postlude to a Mass at a Parisian Church such as Saint Suplice.

What came off best for me in Douglas Mews’ recital, besides the Bach Prelude and Fugue, was a charming work by Erima Maewa Kaihau, one called “A koako o te Rangi” (Whisper of Heaven), music which readily evoked a strong, rich period charm. I was moved to try and find out something about Erima Maewa Kaihau, a name I didn’t know (as it turned out, to my shame!) – born in 1879 at Whangaroa, she was given the name Louisa Flavell by her European father, whose background was suffused with romantic conjecture. He was supposedly descended from a member of the French aristocracy who escaped the bloodshed of the Revolution, and also from a musician connected with the court of the Austrian Emperor. On her mother’s side her whakapapa could boast the Nga Puhi chief Hone Hika of Ngati Rahiri. Maewa married Henare Kaihau, by whom she had six daughters and two sons – Kaihau was the MP for Western Maori until about 1920. Maewa’s musical talents expressed themselves readily in song-writing, most famously with the song  “Haere ra”, known in English as “Now is the Hour”, and also “A koako o te Rangi” (“Whisper of Heaven”). The latter was recorded by the famous singer Ana Hato, but I don’t as yet know who made the transcription for organ solo. Erima Maewa Kaihau died in 1941.

I thought it was unfortunate that Douglas Mews chose to conclude his recital with a transcription of Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” Overture. In theory the idea had some interest, but in practice it wasn’t a success – the transcription, though it suited some aspects of the work (the slow wind chording at the beginning, for example) failed to deliver the goods in other places. What disappointed me most seriously was the conflict music between the Montagues and the Capulets, which sounded both underpowered and rhythmically out-of-sorts. I could imagine that transcriptions of this sort would have had their place in the days when symphony concerts were less common and accessible to people than they are now, and this was the means by which a lot of music got a hearing at all. As such, the exercise had, I suppose, a kind of historical-kitsch value. But really, Tchaikovsky’s music wasn’t done any favours; and I couldn’t help thinking that, if organists really wanted to play symphonic music they ought to investigate (or make) transcriptions of things like the Bruckner symphonies, whose harmonies, textures, and rhythmic trajectories would seem far more suited to the instrument. I could even, I think, really enjoy a work like the Cesar Franck Symphony in an inspired transcription – there would be some point to hearing in transcription such works which probably owe some of their gestation to the activities of their composers in the organ-loft. However, I fear that, on the evidence of what we heard, some music might well be left well alone!

DIRTY BEASTS and other stories

Oliver Hancock – Three Tolkien Miniatures / Paul Patterson – Rebecca / Little Red Riding Hood

Martin Butler – Dirty Beasts

Nigel Collins (narrator), Diedre Irons (piano)

ZEPHYR – Bridget Douglas (flute), Robert Orr (oboe), Robert Weeks (bassoon), Phil Green (clarinet)

with: Vessa-Matti Leppanen (violin), Rowan Prior (‘cello), Patrick Barry (clarinet), Mark Carter (trumpet),

David Bremner (trombone), Leonard Sakofsky (percussion), Emma Sayers (piano)

New Zealand International Festival of the Arts

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday, 7th March 2010, 2pm

Music, theatre and story together provided diverting entertainment for an enthusiastic audience of children of all ages at the Town Hall, with something for everybody, young and old and somewhere in between. These settings of different generations of cautionary tales for children by contemporary composers were brought to life by narrator Nigel Collins, with vivid and colourful support from some of Wellington’s finest musicians, some of whom were, at times, tantalisingly difficult to recognise in their various costumes.

A pity the staging of this presentation wasn’t ideal, with the Town Hall platform built out as a smallish square onto which the performers crowded, the musicians in a rather tight and inwardly-looking semi-circle that didn’t help generate enough performer-and-audience contact – we weren’t sufficiently encouraged by the arrangement to project ourselves into the music-making spaces. What it meant was that Nigel Collins and his cohorts had to work all the harder to draw their audience in and enable that fusion with fancy and imagination which makes for memorable theatrical (and musical) experiences. And, if the stage was too small, the venue itself was too big, the empty spaces not allowing that sense of intimacy and involvement between and with all those present, performers and audience members.

This said, the energies and skills of the performers kept up the flow between platform and auditorium – of course, the “nature of the beast” meant that there would possibly be a few surprises in store, everything seeming to be somewhat outside the parameters of a “normal” concert-going experience, which was itself an enticing prospect. The performers certainly entered into the spirit of the entertainment, and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves – as did the audience, a few “drop-offs” apart (which is par for the ‘children-entertainment’ course, I would expect).

Nigel Collins’ appearance as The White Rabbit was the occasion for great mirth, though I thought the section describing the predatory habits of wolves, vividly illustrated by the musicians though it was, elongated the somewhat arch Roald Dahl story of Little Red Riding Hood overmuch in Paul Patterson’s setting. Even the narrator’s gorgeously dipsomaniac Grandma didn’t rescue the retelling from its longueurs (partly the author’s fault), though the denoument, with a very modern Miss Riding Hood conquering all, finally got things moving (and I loved the epilogue’s Facade-like strains accompanying Miss Hood’s parading of her wolf-skin coat). Oliver Hancock’s Three Tolkien Miniatures was next, the wind players, helped by some magical piano-string activations, marvellously evoking the dark expanses of the Forest, with its gradually-burgeoning alarms and horrors recalled by the Tolkien poems, focusing upon both Middle-Earth and pre-Hobbit characters.

Paul Patterson’s Rebecca (who slammed doors for fun and perished miserably) brought to mind for those with long enough memories a different, somewhat more punitive era of child-rearing. Projected with a deliciously awful French accent by Nigel Collins, the “contes de fée noir” came to life with the help of the deliciously disguised Emma Sayers on piano and Lenny Sakofsky contriving percussive noises, the latter making excruciating sounds with a number of balloons after releasing a brace of helium-filled ones (an opportunity for child-involvement missed, there, I thought). Nigel Collins mixed up a couple of words in the excitement surrounding the unfortunate eponymous heroine’s demise, but it all added suitably to the furore, which became nicely funereal towards the end (apart from a rogue balloon leaving its mark on the proceedings, doing what balloons do best).

Last was Martin Butler’s “Dirty Beasts”, settings of Roald Dahl’s somewhat nauseously crude poems depicting various interactions between animals and humans. Of the three sections I enjoyed the music for the first most of all, the spiky, chattering writing for winds readily evoking the pig’s rising panic concerning his fate and his vengeful plan of grisly retribution. Somehow the other two realisations didn’t have sufficient visceral impact to be truly memorable, the “Tummy Beast” in particular disappointing us with its refusal to explore any truly gastro-endocrinal depths in the writing – perhaps a contra-bassoon was what was lacking! Nevertheless, appetites were more-or-less satisfied, and a sense of good having more-or-less prevailed sent everybody home contented.

New Zealand Trio in excerpts for the Festival

(New Zealand International Arts Festival)

Music by Beethoven, Ross Edwards, Dvorak, Chen Yi, Ravel, Phil Dadson. David Downes

New Zealand Trio: Justine Cormack – violin, Ashley Brown – cello, Sarah Watkins – piano

Wellington Town Hall

Saturday 6 March 2010, 4pm 

(With a contribution from Peter Mechen)

The juxtaposition of single movements from orthodox piano trios and two New Zealand pieces that set music against images was an unusual idea, and one that ran a serious risk of puzzling many of the audience.

To present a concert of single movements risks automatic disapproval by most regular concert-goers and those at all familiar with classical music and its playing traditions. This suggested an effort to court ‘a new audience’ of those unfamiliar with chamber music, or classical music generally. While well-intentioned, the efficacy of such programming is dubious and to have included some very atypical and, frankly, problematic pieces in the programme hardly seemed likely win over any neophytes.

Three of the movements were among the real classics of the repertory: the first movements from Beethoven’s Ghost Trio and Dvorak’s F minor trio, Op 65, and the Pantoum movement from the Ravel trio; the others pieces, both New Zealand and from abroad, were unfamiliar.

As an aside, I must record a certain style-based concern with the trio’s ‘trade name’, NZTrio. In my long career with writing, a fundamental tenet has been the impropriety of abbreviating the names of, inter alia, countries. Look, for example, at the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage and the New Zealand Style Book (Government Publications Ltd).

The piano sparkled in passage-work in the Beethoven, the cello spoke eloquently and the playing was of exceptional finesse, balance, refinement, each player demonstrating a polish and virtuosity, perfectly judged dynamics and rubato, that simply puts them in very distinguished company, internationally.

The Dvorak sounded at times like a small concerto, so full and rich was the ensemble, expressing a thoughtfulness, resoluteness, a sanguine quality that are some of Dvorak’s essential characteristics. One of the very small handful of real masterpieces in the 20th century trio repertoire, the Ravel Trio, with its inimitable French sound and its energy, simply left me wanting it all.

Ravel’s movement followed a highly diverting, brilliantly coloured piece by ChenYi, Tibetan Tunes. He is a Chinese-born American and his piece was a successful recycling of a folk tune in western classical clothes and its startling variety of string effects that derived from the Chinese violin, the erhu, were handled with marvellous skill.   

Earlier, we had heard a movement from Ross Edwards’s Piano Trio, written for the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition; it began as a duo for violin and piano, easy, tuneful, in the same class as his well-loved violin concerto, Maninyas. There was a dream-like quality that could not have been more at odds with another kind of dream that we were offered in the last piece in the programme by David Downes.

The last two pieces both used images projected on a large screen as part of the performances. Phil Dadson’s Firestarters, cast in at least half a dozen sections, was used to show the unusual, though by now rather hackneyed, games that some composers liked to play with their instruments: using objects to strike or stroke the strings inside the piano, using two violins propped on chairs in percussive ways; later unusual camera angles focused on the players themselves. What about music itself? I closed my eyes to hear sounds that were of the kind that a thousand other avant-garde composers have created over the past half century.

Let me add that I have always had great affection for Dadson’s music with From Scratch, which I first heard in the 1987 Sonic Circus, the wonderful, but last such jamboree of 24 hours of New Zealand music in Wellington’s Town Hall and Michael Fowler Centre.

In David Downes’s piece, Kingdom, it was the images that dominated, more a film with musical accompaniment, of nightmarish character revealing a weirdly disturbed personality. The images varied from ghoulish doll-like figures representing an unhinged family in a surreal, lunatic eating ritual, interspersed with reproductions of medieval portrayals of the cosmos, astronomical charts, wheels of fortune. On the whole, I didn’t get it,

My colleague Peter Mechen reviewed the concert on Radio New Zealand Concert on Monday and reacted more patiently than I did to these two works. I asked him to allow me to use the notes that formed the basis of his review, in order to allow readers a fairer view of the pieces.


“The first of two New Zealand works in this concert was written by Phil Dadson. Phil was, of course the founder of this country’s most original rhythm/performance group “From Scratch”, and has become well-known in the area of experimental and invented instruments, video/sound installations, sound-sculptures and graphic scores.This work was called Firestarters, and it gave the impression, aided by some wonderful close-up camera work of the musicians creatively manipulating their instruments (they did much more than “play” them in an accepted sense!).

“Looking at the screen enabled us to feel as though we had metamorphosed into insects, with an insect’s-eye view of things and an insect’s awareness of barely discernable sounds – because some of these sounds were micro- to say the least.

“Besides the string players, the pianist also contrived out-of-the-ordinary sounds from within the instrument, manipulating the strings with various objects such as a golf ball at one point, and what looked like stones at another (the camera enabling us to “peep” over the instrument’s side and into the heart of the beast). It became as much a visual choreographic outpouring as well as an aural one, and had a kind of unique beauty and grace as such, accompanied sounds of a fabulous, out-of-the-ordinary sense.

“Different sections of the music brought different and innovative sound-makers to play, such as electric fans in the second section, whose tintinabulations against the strings and cases of all three instruments compelled us to listen with what one might imagine was a new dimension of musical awareness. At the end a Dali-esque dissolution of sounds within time was suggested by the players’ rhythms running slowly down to eventual silence – to be aware of such actual dissolution was to again enlarge one’s aural sensibilities in an unexpected and thoughtful direction.

“The concert’s world premiere was a piece by David Downes, written to be played in tandem with a film, a piece of music animation described as an exploration of ritual and fantasy surrounding a family meal. The animations were best described as surreal, though a psychoanalyst might have had a wonderful time ascribed certain subconscious preoccupations with the shapes of the figures and their preoccupations with appetite and obsessive fulfilment, underlined by several close-ups of rodent-like mouths.

“With the Brothers Grimm stories in mind, and the subsequent analyses of the themes, motivations and actions of the stories and characters there for the reading, one could extrapolate at will regarding the composer’s own childhood, and the fantasy/reality syndrome. There was humour of a dark,obsessive kind, underscored by sounds which, in places made one think of Noel Coward’s remark about “the power of cheap music”, while in other places there were more overt references to menace and disturbance.

“The dissolution of order and security at the end, if a trifle cliched, was perhaps to be expected, given that the scenario was dream-like and hallucinatory, but nevertheless the suggested dismemberment and burning of family members made a disturbing impression. Of course, the problem with any piece of music-theatre or animation, is that the eye is sometimes engaged to the detriment of the ear’s ability to register sounds – and something of this process happened for me. I can only report that the composer’s scoring would seem to have underpinned the visuals appropriately, such was the effect of the whole on my sensibilities. I look forward to seeing/hearing the piece again.

“And one could, at the end, only applaud with great wholeheartedness the commitment of a trio of fine musicians in bringing to us an astonishing variety of music and performing it with such incredible verve and skill.”







A truly festive “Symphony of a Thousand”

MAHLER – Symphony No.8

(“Symphony of a Thousand”)

Twyla Robinson (sop.) / Marina Shaguch (sop.) / Sara Macliver (sop.) / Dagmar Peckova (m-sop.) / Bernadette Cullen (m-sop.) / Simon O’Neill (tenor) / Markus Eiche (baritone) / Martin Snell (bass)

New Zealand Youth Choir / Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir / Christchurch City Choir / Orpheus Choir of Wellington / Choristers of Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor)

New Zealand International Festival of the Arts Opening Concert Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 26th February, 2010

No, it wasn’t opera, but it was in its own way as spectacular, and as an occasion did give a “festive” kind of thrill for all concerned, which was exactly what was wanted. This most flamboyant of all of Mahler’s works (its nickname “Symphony of a Thousand” stemming from the first public performance in Munich in 1910, conducted by the composer, in which 858 singers and 171 instrumentalists took part) is perhaps the most perfect festival offering that symphonic music can provide. Of course the work can be performed quite satisfactorily with somewhat lesser numbers, as it was on this occasion (three hundred choral voices, eight soloists and a hundred-and-twenty instrumentalists) all of whom when singing and playing together made a wonderful noise in Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre!

Spectacle was certainly one of the ingredients of the proceedings, to which was added the lustrous glow of the presence on the podium of one of the world’s most renowned musicians, Vladimir Ashkenazy. Originally finding fame and honour as one of the great interpreters of the romantic keyboard classics, Ashkenazy has for the past thirty years consolidated a “second career” as a conductor, though he continues to perform and record as a pianist. In the past I’d not associated him greatly with the music of Mahler, although he’s conducted the symphonies with various orchestras in different parts of the world, coming to them through his involvement with the music of Shostakovich, the latter a professed admirer of the older composer’s music. Ashkenazy has recorded several of the Mahler Symphonies with the Czech Philharmonic already, but over the next two years there are plans to both perform and record all of the symphonies with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, of which he’s Principal Conductor.

Along with Ashkenazy, the performance boasted an impressive lineup of soloists, one which included two New Zealanders presently building successful career portfolios as performers overseas, tenor Simon O’Neill and bass Martin Snell. With German baritone Markus Eiche the men made a formidable trio of voices, their strength and consistency overshadowing the women’s quartet, in which soprano Marina Shaguch alone seemed completely at home with her part, delivering her soaring lines with an ease and freedom that her colleagues couldn’t quite match. Fellow soprano Twyla Robinson approached her in fervour, even if her highest notes occasionally showed strain; while both mezzos, Dagmar Peckova and Bernadettte Cullen kept their lines secure and reliable throughout. If they seemed relatively underpowered in places when singing solo, they made up for it through their sterling ensemble work, especially amid the feverish energies of the Symphony’s first, and largely vocal part. Soprano Sara McLiver’s brief but mellifluous contribution to Part Two as Mater Gloriosa was another strength of the performance, her voice placed further back than the other soloists for an other-worldly effect, even if her all-too-workmanlike entrance and exit through the choral ranks somehow didn’t go with the ethereal quality of her singing.

Mahler’s intention with this work was to give the impression of “the whole universe beginning to sing and resound… longer human voices, but coursing planets and suns”. Ashkenazy very quickly set the music on its course at the start, galvanising his forces into action, almost before the audience had finished welcoming the great man onto the platform, and was settling itself down once again in preparation for the work’s beginning. The music was more fire and volatile energy in Ashkenazy’s hands than cosmic majesty, his precise beat keeping things moving, with the sound-surges erupting like geysers and blowholes, but without ever tipping over into stridency or incoherent noise. During Part One the few orchestra-only passages were packed with beautifully-articulated detail, the sheer effervescence of the string-playing more than compensating for a slight moment of imprecision at the final surge forward in tempo towards the end, where the build-up of overlapping voices and instrumental tones did indeed give the impression of the universe itself bursting into full-throated song.

By contrast with the “music of the spheres” aspect of the symphony’s opening, the second part takes us to the very heart of German Romanticism, Mahler’s setting of the final part of Goethe’s Faust. Here the orchestra paints a stark, rugged landscape representing a world of direct contact between nature and the human spirit – Goethe’s directions, reproduced with the text, speak of “Mountain, gorge, forest, cliff, desert”, with “Holy Anchorites…sheltering in rocky clefts”. Ashkenazy and the orchestra seemed to underline the contrasts within the instrumental prelude between the starker, more jagged and elemental writing, and passages of smoother, warmer legato harmonies, as if representing human aspiration and feeling seeking communion with these wild, rugged natural places. I felt the dry-ish aspect of the MFC robbed the hushed choral entries of much of their resonance and atmosphere, so that the musicians had to work that extra bit harder to convey the depth and fullness of Mahler’s vision – fortunately the performers possessed the necessary skill, concentration and focus to bring out the music’s raw power and sense of awe. Both Markus Eiche as Pater Ecstaticus and Martin Snell as Pater Profundus made the most of their wonderful declamations, the former energetic and passionate, the latter rich and sonorous, if ever-so-slightly troubled by the highest of his notes. As for Simon O’Neill, singing the part of Doctor Marianus, once one accepted a slightly “pinched” quality to his highest tones, his whole-hearted, engagingly radiant acclamation of the Mater Gloriosa, accompanied by the children’s and women’s choruses, readily evoked the presence of the “Eternal Feminine”, and even managed to transcend the incredibly cheesiness of the euphonium-accompanied string passage which Mahler wrote to depict Goethe’s directive “Mater Gloriosa soars into view”.

Throughout, the choruses gave their all, including the children’s choir whose singing made up in charm and point what it lacked in sheer volume, in places. After the magnificently energetic and all-encompassing fervour of Part One, the different choirs girded their loins and with Ashkenazy’s encouragement gave us exactly what the more diffuse Part Two demanded – long-breathed utterances interspersed with episodes of transcendent delight. What Mahler said about symphony – “It is like the world – it should contain everything!” was brought to triumphant fruition by the final “Chorus Mysticus”, whose gigantic paean of acclamation must have rumbled and shaken every fibre of being in the auditorium. Ashkenazy responded charmingly to the enthusiastic applause of the audience at the end by insisting upon repeated bows from the soloists, to further applause, and so on.

It’s well worth recording that, as if these goings-on within the Michael Fowler Centre weren’t enough to proclaim “festive occasion”, there were worlds wrought outside worlds for a wider audience, courtesy of good will and technological wizardry. The performance of the symphony was relayed “live” via big screen and speaker colonnades to a crowded Civic Square, an absolutely splendid gesture on the part of the festival organisers, the orchestra and, one supposes, Ashkenazy himself, as the concert itself had been sold out for many days beforehand. Happily, the weather was kind that evening, and the music-making was, according to my spies, conveyed vividly and truthfully enough to make for a memorable out-of-doors Mahlerian experience. So whether one was outside or within the hall, that sense of the spectacular and extraordinary was all around, which for an Arts Festival is, of course, just how it should have been.

‘Home’, a musical play of New Zealand and World War I

Weaving Scottish songs into a New Zealand war. (The Fringe Festival) 

Artistic direction: Jacqueline Coats; graphic design: Katie Chalmers; singers: Rowena Simpson and Stuart Coats; piano: Douglas Mews

Tararua Tramping Club, Moncrieff Street, Mount Victoria

Thursday 25 February 2010

The New Zealand war, so advertised in the production’s publicity, turns out to be not the land wars of the 19th century, but World War I, specifically the Gallipoli experience to which it has become fashionable to attribute the emergence of some sort of national New Zealand soul and identity.

The promotion also offers the following: “‘Home’ is an original performance of song and spoken word, weaving the story of Scottish immigrants into the story of a nation.  The performance uses diary entries and letters to tell the story of Maggie, a recent immigrant from Scotland, and Johnnie, a first generation New Zealander, who meet in Wellington just before the outbreak of WWI . The text is set to traditional Scottish folk songs from a book bought in Invercargill in the 1890s.”

It is a duodrama, with an important third performer in Douglas Mews who plays the piano accompaniments to the songs and some music on his own.

The action takes place in the very untheatrical space, a former church belonging to the Tararua Tramping Club. It’s 1910; the only props are two clothes lines with blankets hanging on them; there is no lighting or scenery to help distinguish the changes of place later in the action, from a New Zealand farm to the steep hills of Gallipoli.

After Douglas Mews has played a prelude consisting of a couple of Scottish folk songs, Johnny, Stuart Coats, welcomed us to a concert by the local Caledonian Society. He sings the first stanza of Mairi’s Wedding, calling up Maggie, a recent arrival from Scotland, to sing the rest. There’s initial attraction between them, a tactical blunder that temporarily separates them, then love which is again disturbed for a while by political differences (he’s a Massey supporter – not unexpected for a young man proud of his farming credentials while she, from a poor background, is Liberal), and then the war which inspires Johnny to enlist.

Scottish and North country songs illuminate each phase of the story, some tenuously. But both singers showed a vocal skill, musicality and theatrical flair that gave the piece its reality and proved the main source of enjoyment. Coats’s voice is coloured by a tremulous vibrato that recalls an older singing style that enhances the show’s authenticity. It would not be fair to say that Rowena Simpson’s accomplishment in early music styles through study in Holland and performance with various important baroque and classical ensembles was demanded here but her vocal talents were a major asset in the performance. The broad Scottish accent that she adopted was convincing if a bit hard to understand at times.

The core of the drama is conveyed through letters exchanged between the two, which each reads either as writer or recipient. Knowing, with hind-sight, the high risk of death or serious injury in that ill-conceived campaign, tension was automatic; the story exploited it well and the singers made it more believable than the unforgiving staging might have allowed.

The tension held till the very end when reports of Johnny’s missing were revealed as the result of a not uncommon name confusion, and he returns with only minor wounds to his happy wife.

The story prompted me to reflect on recent reading about the First World War. New Zealanders like to paint the Gallipoli experience as the key nation-building event, forged in the horror of casuality rates per head of population that were something extraordinary.

But it’s odd how our knowledge is so confined to the relatively limited British and Empire involvement in the war.

The chronology in the programme notes that 2721 New Zealanders died at Gallipoli, when New Zealand’s total population was just over a million. In the following year, 1916, the prolonged and hideous battle of Verdun claimed some 160,000 French lives, when France’s population was 40 million, some 60 percent greater than New Zealand’s losses on a per capita basis. German losses were not far short of the French.