Grant Tilly at the Southcoast Gallery, Cuba St.


by Peter Coates

June 25th 2010

Cuba Street in Wellington is developing its own special character when it comes to galleries.Amongst my favourites are Cameron Drawbridge’s South Coast Gallery the Fibre Art “Minerva” Gallery and the” Thistle” with its enterprising youthful exhibitions. All are worth visiting, all bring something special to the Wellington Art Scene. Is Cuba Street doing what our Wellington Gallery should be doing ?

Although very small,  the Southcoast Gallery hosts a delightful exhibtion by the Wellington icon Grant Tilly. I have known Grant for ages – since our times at Wellington Teachers College, and illustrating children’s stories for David Crewes’  “Merry-Go-Round” children’s television programme. Later he played the good soldier Schweyk in my first stage production and fronted and voiced many of my television programmes. Grant is always a delight to work with  and his wonderful sculptural pieces (I will avoid boxes) are a permanent reminder  of  his art and friendship in my home.

Grant’s greatest gifts to his Wellington home have been the seemingly endless brilliant displays of character acting with the professional theatres of Wellington, and his legacy of beautiful drawing of the older parts of Wellington, a legacy that constantly reminds us of what we have lost and warns us of what we must not lose in the future. One of the strong features of his current exhibition are two dimensional  street scenes that take you on walks around some of our lovely old streets. Included in this exhibition also are abstract paintings developed from segments of these unusually perspectived works.

Just to keep us up with his recent artistic developments there are examples of his colourful parrot series and the circus exhibition he had at Pataka. The ingenius is evident in everything he does, and Grant like every good artist moves steadily into new challenges.

Keep it up Grant. Everyone who calls himself/herself a Wellingtonian should have one of his works in their home.

Wallowing in International Art while staying at home

The Habit of Art, by Alan Bennett

The National Theatre production, directed by Nicholas Hytner

Richard Griffiths (Fitz/W.H.Auden), Adrian Scarborough (Donald/Humphrey Carter), Alex Jennings (Henry/Benjamin Britten)

Film screened at the Penthouse Theatre, Brooklyn

Tuesday 25th May

Musings and a review by Peter Coates.

This week has been a very exciting one for me. Last Sunday I saw a performance of Wushu martial arts by twenty-four Chinese visiting experts. This was spectacular, colourful and beautifully choreographed and performed in front of an appeciative audience at the Wellington Town Hall. Modern dance choreographers in Wellington should have been along to witness it.

This was followed by another Chinese delight on Thursday. In this case it was an illustrated lecture by visiting sculptor Prof. Zhao from Shanghai. Prof. Zhao was visiting Wellington for a week, working with Richard Taylor, of Weta fame, on ideas of mutual interest.In a sensitively interpreted lecture, illustrated by a long parade of excellent visuals, we saw the dynamic sculptures of the professor, huge in size, using a wide variety of sculptural media mainly on what one would describe as ‘politically viable’ subject matter. Despite this he manages to gain strong individual expression in the subjects he chooses, and his technical brilliance is undeniable. His combination of technical skill and perceptive observation won his an award at a Venice Biennale. Prof. Zhao brought with him formulae for a form of clay unused in New Zealand which he demonstrated to Richard and his team, producing four portraits of Weta colleagues at a rate of 25 minutes each. We were lucky to have Richard along to add his experiences in China to Prof. Zhao’s story.

But this was only one aspect of his lecture. It was followed by an amazing collection of slides of the professors own collection of Chinese tradition craft – thousands of shadow puppets, pottery items, household utensils, weaving, printing blocks, painting ,calligraphy and sculpture. All had been assembled since the cultural revolution. Now highly regarded as important cultural heritage, the Chinese government is building a special museum to house this amazing collection. One day I would love to see this collection “in situ”. So much for the Chinese section of my week.

Next, the British section. On Tuesday I visited the Penthouse theatre in Brooklyn to see the British National theatre production of Alan Bennet’s “Habit of Art” . This is an example of the  relatively new technique of recording top performances overseas and playing then a matter of weeks later in  specially selected theatres throughut the world. This was originally recorded on  April 22nd ,and shown here last week. It is a system already used successfully in opera,but which is now moving into theatre. Having both produced and designed work for the stage and television – Stravinsky’s “Soldier’s Tale” in 1982 and recorded an opera “live” from the stage for television – Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” in 1979 – the prospect for me of seeing the effect of such work today outside my DVD library was very appealing.

Alan Bennet had constructed  a play that was particularly appealing to me. It was set as a  rehearsal for a play about the relationship between Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden,who had originally worked together on documentary films for the British Post office –

“This is the night mail crossing the border,

bringing the cheque and the postal order,

letters for the rich, letters for the poor…

For the shop at the corner and the girl next door……” etc. etc….

They must have had impact on my memory because I saw those films sixty years ago ! The other work I remember was Britain’s first opera “Paul Bunyan”- with the libretto by Auden –  which I saw at London’s Sadlers Wells in the 1960’s. I must admit to not remembering much about that opera, which was originally written when Britten was sheltering in the USA during the second World War.

“The Habit of Art” is a play within a play. The actors played themselves playing Auden and Britten, moving in and out of character as the rehearsal concept demanded. Richard Jennings as Auden (Fitz as the actor) was particularly brilliant, his size and facial characteristics being very appropriate, while Alec Jennings as the less charismatic Britten (Henry as the actor) caught the character of Britten brilliantly and played the piano accompaniment needed in scenes with a boy soprano,with great aplomb.

The action of the play was set while Britten was having trouble with the composition of what turned out to be his last opera “Death in Venice”. His apparent fascination with the theme of “lost  innocence”, a theme that permeates most of his operas, was getting his friends down. Even Peter Pears tried to dissuade him from completing the opera.  Britten in this play went to his friend Auden for reassurance. Despite having a similar homosexual background which allowed him some appreciation of Thomas Mann’s original text, on which the opera was based, the friends did not manage to resolve Britten’s concern. The play was full of brilliantly witty dialogue,which we are beginning to expect from Bennett, and it is well worth seeing if you are fortunate enough to go to London.

But not here in this production. The problem is that the Screen actors Guild will only allow three performances of these video productions over a very short period of time, so it is unlikely to be seen here again. What about a local production, Circa or Downstage ?

I personally thoroughly enjoyed the whole production. I could easily believe  that I was in the National Theatre, and joined in the reactions of the recorded audience. I heard every word  and the close-ups gave me a great appreciation of the  important detail of the acting performances of Richard Griffiths and Alex Jennings. As for the future don’t miss Dion Boucicault’s  “London Assurance” a National Theatre production coming  to the Penthouse soon. It is “an absolute corker of a production, one that will be talked about and chuckled over with reminiscent affection for years to come”says London’s Daily Telegraph critic. Later in the year we will be able to see the new NT production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” that is coming in the next season.

Now to the last, but certainly not the least, of my splendid cultural week. This time from the Metropolitan Opera, New York. It was the Sunday 29th May screening of Rossini’s  “Armida” production, starring the great Renee Fleming and five top coloratura tenors!!! I didn’t know the world had so many!

I suppose most of us have got used to the use of microphones on singers to allow most of the modern music theatre classics to be performed. But this is opera, and it is untainted accoustic sound we are dealing with. Singers must be able to project their voices through an eighty piece orchestra, and communicate to several thousand in a large, often accoustically unsympathetic, theatre.

The main problem is balancing the sound, and the placement and use of microphones so that they are not seen, but can balance the sound to fit the perspective of the picture. This an artform for the sound engineer, but I did spot one shotgun microphone in the orchestral pit. When recording the one opera that I recorded “live” from the stage with an audience I was lucky to have John Neill working with me to solve such problems. John is currently “Head of Sound” for Peter Jackson’s Park Road Post.

Although I did detect six “dropouts” during the four hour performance I was not at all put off the performance by these. I have only had the experience of two Rossini operas ‘the Barber of Seville” which I produced for television,and a brilliant “Count Ory”production by Antony Besch which I saw in London in the 1960’s. “Armida” was totally unknown to me, and because it was a first ever production by the Metropolitan Opera, it would be unknown to most opera lovers.

Unknown it might have been, but like all Rossini operas it was full of very tuneful music, the usual wonderfully accelerating finales that are a Rossini trademark, some absolutely wonderful tenor-soprano duets, coloratura tenor arias and duets, a tenor trio worth paying the thirty dollars entrance fee for, alone, and a dramatic coloratura aria of immense difficulty sung by the great Renee Fleming, that ended the opera with amazing elan.

Described by Renee Fleming as “the most difficult soprano aria in opera” this is amazing in its demands – especially with its wide vocal range and the coloratura gymnastics involved.  But this was not a one woman show. I must also commend the work of yet another great lyric tenor on the international scene – Lawrence  Browlee, a young negro singer who has featured in “The Barber of Seville” and “Cinderella” productions at the Met. He had plenty of top “C’s” and at least two top “D’s” to contend with in the opera, which he did comfortably; and his articulation of the coloratura was accurate and neat. Juan Diego Florez – who is my favourite tenor and who will be in next year’s Met Season playing the principal tenor role in “The Count Ory”- beware!

The opera, we are assured, is about love and revenge..but what opera isn’t ? To emphasize this point the producer creates two miming characters who play the roles of these two emotions – characters who press the point throughout the production. I was initially uncofortable with their use, but by the last act ,when they interacted successfully with Renee Fleming in her demanding final aria, I was persuaded. The concept was entirely justified.

Amongst the other gems in this production is a ballet involving female dancers dressed as soldiers, who become ballerinas and devils that become ballerinas and finally go back to being devils. Sounds odd ,but it is very amusing. The costuming throughout the opera is sumptuous and colorful, especially for the demons.The set is simple but accoustically excellent. The production had its weird elements – with huge insects inhabiting the stage during the third act – but most of the time it was highly entertaining.

One of the features that I particularly enjoyed was to hear the singers and producer talk about their roles during the intervals. Very interesting – but how do they do it, when it is obviously recorded during a performance of a a three hour opera that is so physically demanding for them?

Getting back to the theme of my article, isn’t it wonderful how we are no longer as isolated as we have been from the glories of world culture ? How we no longer have to pay vast fortunes to travel to Europe, Britain ,the United States or China to enjoy the cultural heritage of others and the latest plays and operas and the wonderful new stars that are seemingly being discovered all the time. In one week I saw some outstanding entertainment from Britain, the United States and China. It’s a sign of the times.

But this is only the beginning. In November the 2010 Met season will begin with eleven  new productions including both “Rheingold” and “Walkure” with Bryn Terfel, “Don Pasquale“ with Anna Netrebko, “Lucia du Lammermoor with Natalie Dessay, “Boris Godunov”,”Don Carlos”. “Il Trovatore”, and the “Count Ory” with Juan Diego Florez, and ”Capriccio” with Renee Fleming. Further film delights include “The full Monteverdi” in June…which looks and sounds – according to the brilliant trailer – absolutely  scrumptious. It looks like I’m going to be going to the Penthouse a lot over the next year…if my pocket can bear the strain !

Viennese Connections – Dame Malvina Major and the NZSO

MOZART – Symphony No.41 “Jupiter” / J.STRAUSS Jnr. – Overture and Czardas from “Die Fledermaus”, “Thunder and Lightning” Polka / LEHAR – “Meine Lippen, sie kussen so heiss” from “Giuditta”, “Liebe, du Himmel auf Erden” from “Paganini”, “Vilja” from “Die Lustige Witwe”, Waltz “Gold and Silver” / SIECYNSKI – “Wien, wien, nur du Allein”

Dame Malvina Major (soprano)

Tecwyn Evans (conductor)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 15th May,2010

(A “guest review” by Peter Coates of this concert appears at the end of this article)

Enthusiasts for fine orchestral playing would have been thoroughly diverted by the chance to compare the NZSO’s playing of the Mozart “Jupiter” Symphony in this concert with that of those recent visitors to this country for the International Arts Festival, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. Unfortunately I didn’t get to the concert at which the latter played this particular work, although I did hear the “Prague”, and thus was able to glean something of the orchestra’s style and their particular sound. What struck me with the NZSO’s performance with Tecwyn Evans was how stylish everything sounded, given that the timbres weren’t quite as “characterful” (an authenticist’s euphemism) as those of the Freiburg Ensemble. The key to everything was in the balance between orchestral sections – here winds, brass and timpani were given every opportunity to “speak”, both with solo lines (the playing of both oboist Robert Orr and timpanist Larry Reese a constant delight) and in ensemble, for once properly counterweighting Mozart’s superb string-writing. It made for an absorbing narrative of interaction, especially during the first and last movements, and enhanced by the decision to play all repeats, the amplifications making the symphony truly “Jupiter-like”.

That word “characterful” kept reappearing in my notes hastily scribbled during the performance, referring to various felicitous detailings – the pair of deliciously-played bassoons in thirds during the first movement development, the extra depth of sound asked for and got by the conductor for the second movement’s minor-key episode (and such tenderness in the phrasing of the strings at the recapitulation!) – and the enlivening of the opening melodic lines of the finale by those urgent, scampering accompaniments, already suggesting the fugal ferment to follow. Again, the repeats enlarged the music’s span, properly suggesting vast, imperious orbits of energy around which conductor and players readily danced that joyous cosmic dance proposed and then led by the composer. Life-enhancing stuff!

After the intoxicating draughts of the symphony, it seemed to me the champagne flowed more fitfully during the second half, though there were good moments, especially with Dame Malvina Major, again, the concert’s true centerpiece. Her voice seemed on fine form once again, though again in certain places I found it difficult to “place” her tones as a soloist to those of the orchestra’s. For that reason I enjoyed her singing more the previous night, because we seemed to actually hear more of her – in places the voice seemed subsumed by orchestral textures as if a wind instrument in an ensemble. Oddly enough I sat a lot closer to her on this occasion, but such are the vagaries of concert-hall acoustics!

Best were the Dame’s Lehar items – from “Giuditta” we got a finely-spun “Meine Lippen, sie kussen so heiss”, the voice sustaining the line of the introduction, and then melting us with the awakening of the main tune, including a lovely hushed ascent at the end of the first verse. Finely-honed, sinuous wind accompaniments supported the singing to near-perfection. Again, in “Liebe, du Himmel auf Erden”, from “Paganini”, the voice had a silvery, wonderfully-focused aspect throughout, enhanced by the hushed orchestral playing – a lovely cushion of sound for a singer.

Inevitably, and rightly, the programme finished with one of Malvina’s calling cards, the “Vilja” from “Die Lustige Witwe”, sung in English, the voice slightly masked by the orchestra throughout the verses, but clear and lovely for the soaring tune and reprise, the singer treating us to a brief, skilfully floated stratospheric ascent the second time round, during which time itself seemed to pause and listen.

Again, the more strenuous items seemed to suit the voice less well – the “Czardas” from “Die Fledermaus” (Johann Strauss Jnr.) ultimately required more power, despite moments of lovely detailing (some skilful high trumpet work in the “friss” section), and the balance again seeming to over-favour the orchestra in Sieczynski’s popular “Wien, Wien nur du Allein”. It will be interesting to read reports of the concerts featuring this same programme from further up the island over the touring week – in different venues, the voice-and-orchestra balance may well shift, hopefully towards the side of the singer.

The programme was “fleshed out” a little with some purely orchestral items – and I wish Tecwyn Evans hadn’t agreed to conduct such a horribly truncated version of one of the greatest of all concert waltzes, Lehar’s “Gold and Silver”! Shorn of all repeats, and with at least one important reprise completely excised, the work became a trite collection of pretty waltz tunes, one meaninglessly following the other. Thank goodness for Strauss’s “Die Fledermaus” Overture – spirited and theatrical – and for the rumbustions “Thunder and Lightning” Polka, though anybody who’s played this music in an amateur orchestra, as I have, might just have found themselves wanting a bit less finesse and a touch more “abandonment” from the NZSO percussion!

A QUESTION OF BALANCE – Malvina’s Second NZSO Concert

Guest review by Peter Coates

It is 12 years since Malvina Major appeared in concert with the NZSO, 25 years since I worked with her on a series of television “specials”. Hearing her sing again with the orchestra is a long awaited pleasure. To hear her creamy soprano once again brings back many fond memories to me, and at least two sad ones. These are the two recordings I made with her with conductor John Matheson and New Zealand casts of Puccini’s “Tosca” and Mozart’s “Il Seraglio” for TVNZ that have never been completed. Malvina is special. She holds a place in our hearts because she primarily stayed in New Zealand during her career to entertain us, raised large sums of money for charity and has over the past twenty years worked hard to train and offer opportunities to New Zealand’s growing number of talented young operatic singers.

A goodly number of “grey haired” supporters – like me – came to see our popular “Lady of Song” at the Michael Fowler Centre double concerts last week. The first,a recital featuring the more dramatic arias in her repertoire I did not see, but I certainly saw and enjoyed her second venture into the Viennese. What never fails to impress me is the ease that she can sung those difficult pianissimo high notes, displaying the flawless technique that always has been a feature of her singing.Sadly there were problems though in the balance with the orchestra during the softer passages of her arias, which made her voice difficult to hear.Having recently spent time with Sir Donald McIntyre during the Simon O’Neill Wagner concert, and Donald Munro during his recent visit to Wellington, I have been reminded constantly about the importance of the words in performance. When you find the accompaniment preventing you from hearing the words clearly it is very frustrating, whether it be German or English. A recent performance of “Miss Saigon’ was spoilt for me for example by the distorted amplification of the singers, so the problem of not being able to hear accompanied vocal performances doesn’t occur just with the NZSO.

This contrasted greatly with the  Mozart 41st Symphony that began the concert, where the smaller orchestra gave the chance for the audience to hear the wonderful Mozart orchestration in all its glory. The beautiful interplayof the woodwind was great to hear so clearly, with Robert Orr starring on the oboe. Sadly Malvina’s softer passages were not given the same courtesy. Part of the problem appars to be the accoustic of the  Michael Fowler Centre .A position beside the conductor does not appear to be as accoustically good as the back of the choir stalls. I remember how clearly one could hear the singing of Martin Snell from that position during the wonderful “Parsifal” production in 2006. Having a reflective surface so close behind you certainly helps. Perhaps a position further in front of the orchestra might help? Links with the conductor these days can be provided by monitor. The audience in the past has been ignored by the use of “space stages”, bad stage position and heavy absorbent costumes that affect the ability of the human voice to project to the back of the hall.

The trouble is that it is the singer who tends to get blamed for lack of projection rather than the other accoustic elements involved. Should one blame the excellent conductor of the concert, New Zealander Tecwyn Evans – “ the first New Zealander to hold a conducting position in a major European Opera House for over 30 years”? Not if his wonderful Mozart 41 is anything to go by. Speaking to Malvina following the concert I got the impression that he tried manfully to get the softer passages sung by Malvina properly exposed.

I congratulate the NZSO for two very good operatic programmes this year, but I would like to see further exploration of the accoustics involved with vocal performance at the Michael Fowler Centre.

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.

SMP Ensemble: Nexus – Poles Apart

SMP Ensemble

Music by Jack Body, Anton Killin, Simon Eastwood, Karlo Margetic,

Jan.W.Morthenson, Charles Ives, John Adams, Francis Poulenc,

Henryk Gorecki, Richard Robertshawe, Andrzej Nowicki, Carol Shortis

The SMP Ensemble

St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace Season of Concerts March 2010

Wednesday 10th March

The SMP Ensemble was formed in 2008, and set up as a forum for the work of Wellington-based composers and performers. Over a short period it has, under the direction of Andrzej Nowicki,  already developed a reputation as a fresh and stimulating force in the capital’s contemporary music activity, organising and performing a number of concerts. Its most recent was a presentation at one of the St.Andrew’s March 2010 concerts, set up to run parallel to the NZ International Arts Festival music offerings.

One of the concert’s themes was a Polish connection, hence the “Poles Apart” reference in the concert’s title. A number of the works drew inspiration from Polish writing, history or political events, among them a work by local composer Carol Shortis commemorating the arrival, sixty-five years ago, of a group of Polish refugee children in New Zealand, many of whom still live in this country. Other works by Simon Eastwood and Karlo Margetic took as their starting-points events or artistic achievements whose source was Poland. As it turned out, the concert presented a tantalising mix of home-grown and off-shore music whose sources of inspiration seemed to demonstrate the “music in the air” maxim.

Jack Body’s “Turtle Time” sets a text by Russell Haley, here spiritedly spoken and enacted by Karlo Margetic, his powerful expression of the words and use of the physical spaces heightening the piece’s theatrical qualities. The ensemble produced some lovely sounds which variously chatter, babble, scintillate and clatter, the sound-picture flipping between ambient and pointillistic, sometimes running with, sometimes countering the words of the poem. These constantly-changing colours and patterns of the soundscape were a source of continual delight, apart from the organ’s swell-pedal which I found too crudely applied and rather irritating.  Given that Karlo Margetic used his voice and the stage so well, I wondered whether the musicians and their instruments could have been placed more outrageously antiphonally, emphasising both the fragmentary nature of the realisation and the efforts made by the ensemble itself to bring their individual sounds more in accord with one another. Interestingly, the voice wasn’t microphoned or otherwise enhanced in any way, as it is on the work’s only recording that I know of, made for Kiwi Records in the 1970s – for me the piece worked just as well in the “real” physical space of St.Andrew’s, the sounds exchanging the claustrophobia of the recording’s close-microphoning for a freer, more theatrical interaction. At the piece’s end, the escape by the “voice” from the turtles’ predatory time-snapping, past wave upon kaleidoscopic wave of obsessive instrumental obstruction, had a satisfying, almost ritualistic feel to it in concert. Abstractionists might object, but my feeling regarding a piece such as this, with so many overtly theatrical elements already present, is that the work’s innate capacity for suggesting interactions in visual terms cries out to be exploited further.

Anton Killi’s electroacoustic piece A Priori resembled for me a message in human speech deprived of its consonants, nostalgically accompanied by feed-back-like squeaks, whines and ambient “radio noise” interference, suggesting to my ears memories of the golden age of radio. Along with these half-words underpinned with white-noise resonances came Ligeti-like vocalisings, impulses of communication either dragging themselves from the pupa or distending their resonances into lengthy, ritualistic sequences of mesmeric mystery.  Less equivocal was Simon Eastwood’s “Jericho – Walls Will Fall”, one of several works in the concert with a Polish connection, in this case the music inspired by a protest song from the 1980s Polish Solidarity Movement, describing how walls will fall if people have the will to knock them down. Written for a Brass Trio, featuring trombone, horn and trumpet, the work constantly delights with its inventive explorations over four brief movements. The first sounds plenty of warning warring notes, each instrument in turn allowed to take the lead with its own patternings. Then, Alex Morton’s horn and Mark Davey’s trombone mute their tones and become nature-drones, leaving Dave Kempton’s trumpet to play its own flourishes, before joining with the others in further melodic and rhythmic combinations. A toccata-like piece follows, trumpet and horn stuttering while the trombone swaggers and struts its stuff. By this time the walls seem to have capitulated and fallen, because the fourth-movement brass cantilena is valedictory in tone, though more insistent at the point where things abruptly cease, the fight having been won.

Karlo Margetic’s “Hommage a W.L.” is a tribute to the Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, the gesture itself an interesting idea, giving rise to the question regarding which composer’s work should take the credit for whatever success the ensuing piece earns for itself or is accorded. Quoting Lutoslawski’s idea of using aleatoric compositional techniques in a free and spontaneous way, Margetic characterises the older composer’s avoidance of rigour and dry complexity as “a wonderful act of subversion against the dogmatic avant-garde”. The piece (for mixed ensemble) begins with a woodblock-like roll (repeated at certain “get ready” transition-points throughout the work), and a “Bluebeard’s Door” chord immediately following, whose sustained resonances beautifully build the musical argument through melismatic strings-and-wind repetitions towards magically transformed stratospheric explorations of similar material. A string quartet “jams it” along with tattoo-like percussion rhythms, screwing up the tension until the breaking tides wash up and leave aeolian harp-like figurations teetering backwards and forwards, the strings and winds returning to tighten and screw things up again, to the point of near-frenzy. After still more irruptions the energies and tensions slowly dissipate and unravel, brass and piano contributing to a somewhat crepuscular feeling, which the composer promptly and somewhat unexpectedly banishes with an abrupt forte and a pulsating woodblock having the final word. I thought this was a great work, deserving of future notice.

I liked also Jan W. Morthenson’s Unisono, for bassoon, piano and electronics, a piece in which two instruments play with the idea of working in unison, but experience all kinds of tensions while trying to do so. Kylie Nesbit’s bassoon was amplified after her opening acoustic gambit in tandem with Jonathan Berkahn’s piano harmonies, Richard Robertshawe contriving all kinds of timbral modifications to the former, creating almost surreal effects, especially during the ensuing game of chase with the piano, both instruments occasionally pushed to their physical extremities for single notes or chords, and each trying to outdo the other in constructing edifices of sound. Even more of a “cosmic landscape” was attempted by Charles Ives’ 1906 piece “The Unanswered Question”, a work not published for over thirty years after its creation. Ives writes beautifully for the strings at the beginning, the chords slowly oscillating and changing colours before the trumpet enters (here placed at the back of the church, as were wind and brass ensembles), interacting with the antiphonal forces with a view to solving certain of life’s mysteries, but being little the wiser at the end of it all.

After the interval came John Adams’ rumbustious (and, I thought, rather gruff!) tribute to John Phillip Sousa, one which didn’t really do much for me, apart from evoking marching feet and a sense of cumulative excitement. Far more to my taste was the wonderful Sonata for Bassoon and Clarinet by Francis Poulenc, played here at a crackling pace by Kylie Nesbit and Andrzej Nowicki, with sheer momentum and nimble articulation the order of the day right up to the last few drolleries being lightly tossed off. A nicely-judged slow movement, with each instrument a perfect foil for the other, was followed by a finale whose romp of exchange would have melted all but the hardest of hearts. Songful clarinet and droll bassoon momentarily resembled Don Quixote and Sancho Panza setting off home to recover from the latest set of exploits, while the circus clowns returned to flop-start the exchanges for the stop-start concluding statements of the work. A more telling contrast than the Piano Sonata by Henryk Gorecki (he of “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” fame) couldn’t be imagined. Its ferocity and teeth-in-the-bone tenacity owed much to Bartok, with similar drive and folk-like primitives and repetitions. The brief but exceedingly lovely slow movement provided but a respite for the sensibilities before the finale burst into the ambient spaces, drove through contrasting episodes, then teased us all somewhat with whimsical juxtapositionings of energy and reflectiveness towards the end, before finally delivering a brutal-sounding payoff to finish. Great playing throughout by Sam Jury.

This concert had promised both substance and variety, which by this time had been achieved handsomely on both counts, though there was still more to come. Andrzej Nowicki’s whimsically-titled Concertino 5b was light relief after the Gorecki work, featuring two musicians dressed in pyjamas, one with an amplified clarinet and the other working the electronics.

It was an entertaining piece of music-theatre, with the energetic clarinettist gradually running quite seriously out of steam, and going to sleep, making in the process some suitably drowsy sounds. Synthesised resonances of what the clarinet had commented on and shared before added a kind of coda to the remnants of the performance.

Finally, another work with Polish resonances was performed, a short cantata-like piece by Carol Shortis whose music was inspired and based on both a Polish folk-song “Polskie Kwiaty” and a13th-century hymn Bogurodzica, and was written to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the arrival in New Zealand of Polish refugee children in 1944. Most of these children had been separated from or lost their parents and other family members. Carol Sortis wrote “Tesknota” (Yearning”) as a response to the story told by one of these refugees, using the traditional melodies of folk-song and hymn to evoke “Old Poland” before the Russian and German invasions of 1939.

Beginning darkly on a double bass, then a ‘cello, and climbing into the higher strings the music sweetly and lyrically bloomed as the choir entered, with the words “Spiewa Ci obcy wiatr” (A foreign wind sings to you) to the accompaniment of wind noises made by additional voices. Counter-tenor Laurie Fleming rejoined with “A serce teskni…” (But the heart yearns….”), the voice truthful and clear, if not ideally strong in the lower register, so that he’s somewhat masked by the other voices at times. Stronger and brighter was soprano Olga Gryniewicz with her “Stokrotki, fiolki, kaczence i maki” (Daisies, violets, buttercups and poppies), the voice pure, radiant and beautiful, the high note at the start pure and sweet with little hint of strain. From here, strings and piano radiantly sing an almost Martinu-like accompaniment, the counter-tenor and soprano voices rising briefly for the last time out of the instrumental and vocal ambiences which go on to conclude the work. Heartfelt and extremely moving.

A Requiem to die for……

Requiem for Phillip II

Christobal de Morales – Missa pro Defunctis

Alonso Lobo – Motet: Versa est in luctum

The Tudor Consort

Directed by Michael Stewart

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Hill St., Wellington

Saturday 7th November

The Tudor Consort’s concluding presentation in their splendid 2009 series of musical events was a reconstruction of the funeral music for Phillip II of Spain, a monarch forever associated with the unsuccessful Armada expedition of 1588 sent against England, but whose patronage of the arts during his mere forty-two years identified him more positively with a “Golden Age” of cultural activity throughout the Iberian peninsula during the latter part of the sixteenth century. At the King’s death in 1598, a Requiem Mass written by Cristobal de Morales (1500-1553) was performed, along with a more recent work, the Motet “Versa est in luctum” by Alonso Lobo (1555-1617). Together with an introductory Antiphon, “Circumdederunt me”, also by Morales, these were the works sung by the Consort. The choice of venue was appropriate enough, though I could have imagined an even more evocative ambience wrought by this timeless music at St.Mary’s of the Angels, a more overtly “theatrical” ambience which could then have readily lent itself to some antiphonal placement of different solo voices at various stages of the mass. However, the focus was the music rather than the ceremony; and Michael Stewart’s Tudor Consort voices wove for us a multi-stranded panoply of beautiful sounds throughout the evening, bringing out the telling contrasts between the composer’s use of both plainchant and his own polyphonal settings of the texts.

After the ethereal loveliness of Morales’ opening Antiphon, with the music’s individual strands superbly tuned and balanced by the choir, the starker unisons of the opening Requiem came as something of a shock, creating a real, visceral contrast between the timelessness of the composer’s polyphonic harmonies and the resolutely medieval-sounding plainchant, which was presumably the effect that was intended. Morales employed these dramatic changes throughout the work, revelling in both unities and contrasts by using the “old” chant as a springboard from which to weave his vocal elaborations, long-breathed vocal lines which seemed to span eternities by bringing time to a standstill, everything beautifully sustained by the Consort, with only one or two momentary uncertainties of tuning showing at mood-transitions between paragraphs of texts.

Perhaps Michael Stewart and the Consort might have used solo voices more spatially and ritualistically to create antiphonal effects between celebrant and chorus in places; but one couldn’t fault the character of the actual singing, and the sense of atmosphere created by the sounds of the exchanges. For this nineteen-fifties churchgoer, brought up in the Catholic Latin tradition, it was a chance to revisit long-unheard sound-vistas, none more potent than the thirteenth-century hymn “Dies Irae”, which Morales employs almost in full in its original setting, its principal melody beloved of many more recent composers – I would have added the name “Rachmaninov” to the list of names quoted by the programme note, as the “Dies Irae” was a constantly-recurring motif in the latter’s music. At the end of the hymn, Morales sets merely the last two lines of the poem, the beauty of the polyphonic lines coming like balm to the senses after the severity of the older unison chant. Somehow the applause at the end of this section seemed out of place, even if it was time for an interval.

I particularly enjoyed the Offertorium after the resumption, the singers intoning the plainsong “Domine Jesu Christe Rex gloriae” before unfurling more of the composer’s beautifully-wrought polyphonies, these having a tensile strength whose upward-thrusting impulses emphasised the solidity of Christian faith and belief in heavenly destiny, finding eventual fulfilment at “et semini ejus”. More memory-evocations for me came with the Preface (tenor) leading to the “Sanctus”, Morales creating a rapt, worshipful feeling building up towards long-breathed majesty, as the Heavens and the Earth fill with the Lord’s glory.

The sung “Pater Noster” was another voice heard long ago and brought magically to life here again, its plain, everyman aspect set against the majestic treatment accorded the “Agnus Dei”, its thrice-repeated statements building to a grandiloquence and emphasis that couldn’t help but inspire awe and reverence. Afterwards, the placid, light-suffused “Lux aeterna” brought a measure of consolation, tempered by the imploring energies of the suceeding “Requiem aeternam”, and the sobering declamations of the tenor’s concluding “nunc dimittus”, in which the departing soul is farewelled and committed to the care of the Almighty.

And that was it, but for what was the most telling moment of all – the tiny Motet by Alonso Lobo, whose contribution to the funeral service has forever linked his name with that of Morales, but whose reputation in contemporary Spain stood alongside that of Tomas Luis de Victoria. Michael Stewart and his Consort shaped the work most beautifully, integrating the soaring soprano line with the acompanying textures and allowing the silences to surge softly backwards at the music’s conclusion. Altogether, a richly rewarding experience, and concluding a year of activity and achievement that the Consort and its director can be truly proud of.

A Brace of Troubadours – “Fabulous Guitars” from Caprice Arts

Charlotte Yates (voice and guitar)

Owen Moriarty and Christopher Hill (guitar duo)

Music by Charlotte Yates, Andrew York, Astor Piazzolla, Isaac Albeniz,

Radames Gnatali, Joaquin Rodrigo, Manuel de Falla, Paulo Bellinati

Congregational Church, Cambridge Terrace, Wellington

Friday 6th November 2009

One would have thought, on the evidence provided by this concert, that time couldn’t have been better spent than listening to the dulcet tones of music for guitar (in fact, mostly TWO guitars!). After all, no less a musician than Frederic Chopin was credited with saying at one time, that “Nothing is more beautiful than a guitar – save, perhaps, two…”. Despite such impressive recommendations, only a handful of people took up Caprice Arts’ invitation to hear a concert of music for (mostly) guitars and for guitar and voice, given by songwriter and performer Charlotte Yates, along with guitarists Owen Moriarty and Christopher Hill, in the Congregational Church along Wellington’s Cambridge Terrace. As with the previous week’s concert with Peter and Mary Barber and Annabel Cheetham, the venue and the small attendance suited the intimate nature of the music and the music-making, but part of one couldn’t help but wish for greater audience numbers and a rather larger-scaled “ebb-and-flow” between performers and listeners.

Charlotte Yates began the programme and immediately invited those of us who were there to “come and sit closer”, a gesture which warmed the ambience and drew us all more closely into the proceedings. She sang three songs from a recent CD “Beggar’s Choice”, the first a ballad-like song “Under Black Water”, reminiscent of Joan Baez’s way with similar repertoire, and a second song “Lost – Blue”, a love-song lamenting the end of a relationship, the emotional angst of the piece expressed by astringent vocals and syncopated rhythms. A third song used words by NZ poet Hone Tuwhare, a poem entitled “Mad”, Charlotte Yates bringing out the heavy beat of the poem’s pulse in her setting, and again using syncopated accents for expressive effect – I had trouble catching the words at times, due to the almost orchestral weight of tones and timbres the singer drew from her guitar.

Owen Moriarty and Christopher Hill began their first-half bracket of items with a contemporary work, Andrew York’s “Sanzen-in”, a piece inspired by the composer’s visiting a temple in Japan, The music had a kind of canonic feeling, accentuated by the exchanges between the instruments, everything beautifully and subtly voiced. Interestingly the sounds weren’t pentatonic, and so avoided any feeling of pastiche, bringing out what seemed an inward, individual response to the experience by the composer. We were then whisked a good half-a-world away to the Iberian peninsular, and to Isaac Albeniz’s evocation of “Sevilla”, played here at a quick, challenging tempo, but with tremendously adroit articulation, the players negotiating the many little touches of rubato with near-perfect ensemble, apart from a momentary hiccup at the reprise of the opening section. Next were two pieces by Piazolla, the first, “Zita”, a transcription of a piece for larger ensemble, featuring a spiky opening with astringent harmonics and syncopated accents, and in places generating terrific momentum. The second piece “Whisky” was a scherzo-like dance movement, woven of gossamer thread at the opening, digging into a more trenchant middle section, and then quixotically going into a kind of “twilight zone” of deep thought, before gradually reawakening and revitalising the textures and rhythms. Most entertaining.

Charlotte Yates returned after the interval with two more songs from the “Beggar’s Choice” CD, performing these with the engaging informality that one would perhaps encounter in a club or a bar. Described as a “gentle pop” number, the first song delineates a fruitless search somewhere in Spain for a flamenco club, while the following “Blood Red Moon” in classic ballad style, described the effect of the previous year’s lunar eclipse – a stirring number , delivered with great panache and whimsy, of all of her performances, the one I responded to the most readily and pleasurably.

The Guitar Duo took up the reins for the concert’s remainder, beginning with a piece honouring a composer written by another composer – Radames Gnatali from Brazil paid homage to his composer-peers in a four-movement suite, each part dedicated to a colleague or mentor or inspirational figure. Here, the Brazilian composer Ernesto Nazareth was honoured with a movement entitled “Valsa”, a piece that began with attractive flourishes and introductory gesturings, before leaning into a waltz-rhythm with a lovely, sinuous melody. Contrasts were afforded by exciting accelerandi and occasional breathtaking sotto voce voicings, the ensemble between the two players, supple, flexible and tensile throughout, bringing off the piece’s ending with winning poise and elegance. Perhaps the most popularly well-known composer for guitar is Joachim Rodrigo, whose “Tonadilla” was next played, a work written for the husband-and-wife guitar duo of Alexander Lagoya and Ida Presti, names I remembered from my early days of record-collecting. This was a wonderful piece, engaging and wide-ranging across three movements – a scherzo-like beginning with pinging “wrong-note” harmonies, a “Minuetto Pomposo” whose droll rhythms give way to a baritonal trio melody spiked by ascerbic chords, and a concluding allegro vivace, a deceptively lazy beginning setting the scene for more astringent harmonic clashes and declamatory posturings, everything nicely “debunked” by the return of the attractively relaxed trajectory of the music.

Another well-known Spanish composer is, of course, Manuel de Falla, whose Spanish Dance from “La Vida Breve” figures in all kinds of instrumental arrangements, but works beautifully for two guitars. This was a more restrained, less overtly macho “take” on the music which I thought brought out a more volatile and elusive quality, the notes flickering like firelight, and the tones not so much threatening in places as strong and certain, but with a sense of power in reserve. Finally we were given another Brazilian work, “Jongo”, by Paulo Bellinati, a piece whose “game-of-chase” aspect between the instruments and occasional percussive effects (quite elaborate at one point) provided a brilliant and entertaining finale to the programme. After such guitaristic fireworks, the Duo generously played an encore to settle our pulse rates, a lovely “Evening Dance” by Andrew York, whose “American in Japan” piece we had already enjoyed in the programme’s first half. A pity more people weren’t present to witness this “triumph of the guitars”, fully living up to the sentiments expressed by the concert’s title.