Fabulous and compelling evocation of times past

“Lines from the Nile”

A Meeting of the “Port Nicholson Music Appreciation Society”

– held at 1 Essex Street, Aro Valley, Wellington

Mrs Garrett – Rowena Simpson (soprano)

Mr Hammersmith – Douglas Mews (Broadwood square pianoforte 1843)

Written and directed by Jacqueline Coats.

Venue: 1 Essex St., Aro Valley, Welllington

Saturday, 15th February, 2013

This show – an hour’s worth of stunningly-wrought, cheek-by-jowl evocation by just two performers, of an episode in Wellington’s musical, colonial and imperial history – is a “must see”.  Writer and director Jacqueline Coats has recreated a significant colonial musical event, one presented by the “Port Nicholson Music Appreciation Society” to mark the occasion in 1840 of Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

As befitted the relatively new and far-flung colony’s ties with the Mother Country, and its desire to celebrate the young Queen’s marriage, the Society’s presentation here positively reeked of jingoistic splendor.  Special emphasis was accorded the dominance of the high seas by the British Navy, with the exploits of luminaries such as Adam Viscount Duncan and Horatio Lord Nelson celebrated in both music and dramatic declamation.

The audience had a real part to play in the proceedings, issued as its members were with Union Jacks and invitations to wave the same at every appropriate opportunity, as well as joining in with the singing of various lusty choruses and well-known anthems such as “God Save the Queen” and “Rule Britannia”.

Giving the show its name was a song “Lines from the Battle of the Nile” written by Josef Haydn in 1800, dedicated to Lady Hamilton in honour of Lord Nelson, here a tour de force of playing, recitation and singing from fortepianist Douglas Mews alias “Mr. Hammersmith”, and soprano Rowena Simpson alias “Mrs.Garrett” (could these names have been for real in the capital’s colonial past?). The work took its audience through a gamut of colourful evocation, part fantasia, part melodrama, part battle-hymn and victory paean – splendid stuff, and, as I’ve indicated, performed with tremendous élan and unswerving dedication by both pianist and singer.

From her first entry at the show’s beginning, soprano Rowena Simpson as the formidable “Mrs Garrett” by turns charmed, galvanized, electrified and captivated her audience, imbuing us all with the feeling by the end that if we weren’t well-born, true-blue and British to the core, then we jolly well ought to be! Douglas Mews’ portrayal of the less demonstrative and somewhat  phlegmatic “Mr Hammersmith” was the perfect foil for his Britannia-like partner, though he was energised in turn by the music he played throughout, never more so than during the various episodes of both the “Nile” and the “Allegorical Overture” melodrama-like presentations.

One recalls stories of audience members in Haydn’s day swooning during certain tempestuous parts of the composer’s “Military” Symphony – and Douglas Mews’ playing of the sturdily characterful 1843 Broadwood square piano had a similar tactile quality in the battle scenes throughout. I was particularly interested in Daniel Steibelt’s Allegorical Overture “Britannia” – the first music I’d ever encountered by a composer whose chief claim to fame in musical history is a musical drubbing he apparently received at the hands of Beethoven whom he had unwisely challenged in an improvisary piano-playing contest at a private soiree in Vienna in 1800.

I certainly thought on first hearing the work worthy to stand as a keyboard equivalent to the orchestral “Wellington’s Victory” by Steibelt’s more illustrious rival. In fact I thought some passages strangely reminiscent of Beethoven’s work, except that Steibelt got there first by a matter of sixteen years! Still, perhaps considering Beethoven’s low opinion of his own piece, any kind of comparison isn’t therefore much of a compliment to Steibelt – except that on this occasion, Messrs Hammersmith and Garrett made it work resoundingly! – it certainly made a fitting and festive conclusion to the concert.

Along the evening’s way, other pieces gave the presentation plenty of variety – a lovely “Haste to the Wedding” keyboard solo based on a traditional Irish tune in an anonymous arrangement made a nicely pastoral-like beginning to the proceedings, followed by two songs by Haydn, “With Verdure Clad” from “The Creation”, and a “Sailor’s Song”, both sung in English by Rowena Simpson, in glorious voice, by turns rapt and lyrical, and then pictorial and energetic. By way of assisting our recovery from the travails of conflict in “Lines from the Battle of the Nile” which followed, we were charmed by Douglas Mews’ characterful playing of perhaps the best-known of Haydn’s keyboard Sonatas, Hob.XVI:50 in C major, with its delicious dead-end harmonic venturings in the finale.

Later we heard another Haydn song, this one an arrangement of a Scottish traditional air, “Mary’s Dream, here delivered with such heartfelt splendor and depth of feeling as to transcend the words’ somewhat Victorian sentiments and present a powerful utterance. These sentiments managed to survive even a spoken interlude from the singer, equating the song’s story of love and loss with her own bereavement – “the unfortunate Mr Garrett”, whom we were solemnly and artlessly informed “was now at peace”……somewhat ungallantly, I confess to feeling exceedingly glad for him.

All in all, venue, presentation and theatrical and musical standards came together most beguilingly, to create something special and memorable. My advice? –  get to it if you can – it plays at 1 Essex St this week from Thursday 20th to Sunday 23rd February.