Tafelmusik – festive Baroque splendour from Canada

THE GALILEO PROJECT – Music of the Spheres

(New Zealand International Festival of the Arts 2012)

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra / Jeanne Lamon (Music Director)

Shaun Smyth (narrator) / Alison McKay (Concept, Script and Programme)

Wellington Town Hall

Friday, 16th March 2012

It was all a bit too much at first – I confess I found the mega-hype of the Festival booklet’s blurb for “The Galileo Project” concert distinctly off-putting, creating an impression in my mind of an experience involving as many extra-musical “distractions” as one could possibly throw at an audience. We were promised “Dazzling images…a fusion of science and culture…beautiful classical music and poetic narration…” (and much more along those lines). The program – including an Allegro  from a concerto by Handel, a Rondeau from a larger work by Purcell, plus various instrumental exerpts from operas by Lully, Rameau and Monteverdi – seemed diverting enough, to be sure, but was it the kind of fare one could seriously get one’s teeth into?  It looked like an assemblage of baroque-ish bits and pieces designed to augment some new-age “flash-over-substance” entertainment.

Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong – I should have put my trust in The New York Times, whose review of Canadian baroque orchestra Tafelmusik’s concert was also quoted in the Festival booklet – “An event steeped in intellect and imagination”. For the evening had all the ingredients of a truly memorable experience for the concertgoer, presenting an amalgam of music, words and images that contrived to entertain, stimulate, educate, challenge and satisfy all at once. Even crusty old holier-than-thou musical purists like myself were completely won over. In fact I can’t recall attending a concert at the end of which there seemed more smiling, delighted faces and animated voices thronging the corridors and exitways of the hall.

It took only a few moments of the concert’s opening for us to discover why Tafelmusik was described by Gramophone Magazine as “one of the world’s top baroque orchestras”. Beginning with an Allegro movement for two violins from one of Vivaldi’s L’Estro Armonico concerti, the group delivered the music with incredibly engaging buoyancy, the two soloists’ melodic lines conversing, countering, echoing, mirroring and contrasting with one another in a delightfully ambivalent exchange, part-confrontational, part-complementary. In the time it took to draw breath, the concerto’s slow movement stimulated a change of lighting, and a regrouping of musicians, so that a different soloist was playing, the music’s rapt stillness a complete contrast to the previous bristling energies.

As if giving tongue to the rapture of the sounds a speaker at one point interposed with those famous lines of Shakespeare’s from “The Merchant of Venice” – Lorenzo’s “How sweet the moonlight sleeps along this bank…”. Then, at the words “Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn!…” several wind players joined the strings and began Lully’s Overture “Phaeton”. Generally, the orchestra arranged its string-and wind-players in a circle around its continuo players, two ‘cellos, double-bass, guitar and harpsichord, and as the different works required changes of soloist, the musicians revolved accordingly – at times they revolved during the music, and in places in appropriate pieces did dance-steps as they played. All of this was done with such ease and elegance as to make one hold one’s breath, in mute appreciation of it all.

Besides Shakespeare, we were given, in tandem with appropriate pieces of music, a story from mythology (How Apollo’s son Phaeton met his death), readings from letters of Galileo concerning his telescope, parts of the Inquisition’s pronouncements concerning Galileo’s heresy, reminiscences of the great Sir Isaac Newton, from his manservant Humphrey Newton (we were told “no relation”), readings of Kepler’s theories concerning the harmonies of the spheres, and accounts of historical happenings such as the 1719 Dresden Festival of the Planets with its attendant opera, balls, events and concerts in honour of each of the known planets.

All of these things the speaker/narrator Shaun Smyth delivered with finely-tuned focus and judgement, allowing us by turns to feel the gravitas of things such as Galileo’s condemnation and imprisonment by the Church authorities, the wry humour in descriptions of both Galileo and Sir Isaac Newton by their contemporaries, and the ceremonial splendor of festival events honouring the various planets. It was unfortunate that, at the quietest and most intimately-scaled part of the presentation (the episode of Galileo under house-arrest, playing his lute) an audience-member had to be removed from the auditorium for medical reasons; but to everybody’s credit the emergency was registered, and things on the stage were held in suspension while the operation was completed, then continued as before.

Making flesh of the word throughout all of this was the music – the musicians, every demi-semiquaver played from memory, seemed, by dint of their own intense involvement, able to connect us with sounds of worlds we knew from history books but could now feel as direct sensations. The exhilaration of the opening Vivaldi concerto for two violins, the magical antiphonal effects of Lully’s Chaconne, accompanying the story of Phaeton, between the soloists and the ripieno (the larger group, playing so quietly), the remarkable rhythmic interchanges between two solo ‘cellos and the accompanying orchestra in Monteverdi’s music, following Galileo’s description of his observation of Jupiter’s nearby “stars” – all of these pieces enlivened the spoken commentaries and activated the different worlds of each of the personalities we were presented with.

It may have been during the latter stages of one of Monteverdi’s pieces, or while the band was playing Tarquinio Merula’s Ciaconna (difficult to know where one exactly was, musically, at times during this wonderful farrago!) that the musicians actually danced a kind of courtly dance while playing (with an occasional touch of “silly walk” to debunk any pomposity that might have arisen). And during the “Homage to the Planets” sequences, the orchestra spilled over and down into the auditorium aisles, summonsed from the stage, as it were, by a group which had detached itself during the opening “Entrance of Jupiter” from Rameau’s “Tragedie en Musique” Hippolyte et Aricie, their “offstage” tones sounding like music from Fairyland. How wonderful to then have the whole auditorium of the Town Hall sounding and resounding with music in honour of heavenly bodies such as Venus, Mercury and Saturn!

This was all done with such style and unselfconsciousness as to create a kind of organic flow, the music, movement and narrative dovetailed to perfection. These things were capped off by a series of images projected onto a circular (how other?) screen at the back of the stage, the sequences complementing, but never unduly impinging upon the music. It strikes me as appropriate that Tafelmusik has been given the honour, by the International Astronomical Union, of having an asteroid named after the orchestra – a true “Music of the Spheres” gesture, and one which I’m sure everybody who attended the Wellington concert would, as they did the performers themselves at the evening’s conclusion, heartily applaud.











Great enthusiasm at Jenny McLeod’s “Hōhepa” premiere

JENNY McLEOD – HŌHEPA (opera) – World premiere performance

New Zealand International Festival of the Arts / NBR New Zealand Opera

Cast: Phillip Rhodes (Hōhepa) / Jonathan Lemalu (Te Kumete) / Deborah Wai Kapohe (Te Rai)

Jane Mason (Jenny Wollerman) / Nicky Spence (Thomas Mason) / Martin Snell (Governor George Grey)

Narrator (Te Tokotoko /Te Waha): Rawiri Paratene

Director: Sara Brodie

Members of the Vector Wellington Orchestra

Conductor: Marc Taddei

Wellington Opera House

Thursday, 15th March, 2012

I’m not sure whether I ought to admit to readers of this review that, earlier in the same day that I attended the opening of Jenny McLeod’s “Hōhepa” I took up a friend’s invitation to accompany him to a screening of the latest New York Metropolitean Opera production of “Götterdämmerung”.

Perhaps my abrupt juxapositioning of the two experiences was foolhardy, considering the chalk-and-cheese aspect of the works involved. But I found the inevitable comparisons thrown up by these “close encounters” thought-provoking, residues of which have undoubtedly coloured my reactions to Jenny McLeod’s work, outlined below.

The first thing that must be said of “Hōhepa” is that it’s a pretty stunning creative achievement on McLeod’s part, in line with Wagner’s achievement of writing his own texts for his stage works. And as with Wagner in his “Götterdämmerung” I felt an incredible emmeshment of words and music throughout the work, if at the opposite end of the grandly operatic textural and tonal spectrum.

Employing a moderately-sized cast and chorus with a small orchestra, McLeod created an evocative and enduring variety of ambiences throughout the story’s presentation, the sounds shaping and enlivening the narrative with firmly-focused contouring and colorings. In a sense I thought the orchestral score the most consistently dramatic protagonist, one from which nearly everything on the stage seemed to take its cue. One’s ear was constantly being drawn forwards and into that “world of light”, the sounds suggesting an order presided over by ancient gods and disrupted by unexpected change.

To briefly outline some background – Hōhepa Te Umuroa was a Whanganui Maori living in the Hutt Valley during the 1840s, one who, though well-disposed towards the European settlers he met and befriended, opposed the land-confiscation policies of Governor George Grey and took arms against the British militia. Captured, he and others, including his friend Te Kumete, were exiled to a penal colony in Tasmania, where Hōhepa died. His forgotten grave was rediscovered by a New Zealand child visiting Tasmania, whose parents alerted the authorities, and began a process that would see the remains of the exiled chief returned to New Zealand in 1988.

Through her involvement with writing church music for use by Maori people in the Ohakune district, Jenny McLeod had developed an association with Ngati Rangi. She was asked by Matthew Mareikura, elder, and leader of the mission which brought home Hohepa’s remains, if she would undertake to write the history of the entire saga – not as an opera, but hopefully in book form, a task she accepted. She was then approached by the current director of NBR New Zealand Opera, Alex Reedijk to write “a New Zealand work” for the stage, and she thus decided that it would be appropriate to adapt Hohepa’s story for the purpose.

In the course of her compositional career, McLeod has, in a sense, covered more territory than most, her works ranging from avant-garde innovation and her own brand of neo-primitivism, through popular styles, including hymn-writing for present-day worship, to a re-thinking of an avant-garde “tone-clock theory” involving innovative use of the chromatic scale, something she found influenced her writing of “Hōhepa”. She’s refreshingly pragmatic about her use of such techniques in as much as they have an impact on what the ordinary concert- or opera-goer hears in her music – in a recent “Listener” interview she talked about listeners not needing to know too much about the technicalities, expressing confidence that people would instinctively sense a “structural coherence” in her work.

I wondered, as I listened to the evening’s finely-wrought tapestry of sounds, whether this “structural coherence” of McLeod’s would generate sufficient energy of itself to implant a stage work with requisite dramatic possibilities. What I felt must have posed an enormous challenge for director Sara Brodie was how to respond to McLeod’s writing – how to render it onstage as “dramatic” or “theatrical” in an operatic sense. The presentation involved a great deal of “storytelling” via a narrator, one self-styled as a “talking stick” – Te Tokotoko, who is also the hero’s spirit guardian. Actor Rawiri Paratene looked and sounded the role to perfection, though I wondered whether his prominence throughout actually diminished the impact made on the proceedings by Hōhepa himself, whose dramatic character could have “taken on” more of his own story and enhanced the depth of his onstage presence in doing so.

In an article in the programme, Diana Balham writes of Hōhepa that he “is really an ideal opera leading man” – an ordinary man caught up in events which lead to his wrongful exile, imprisonment and eventual death, his fate leavened by a kind of post-mortem coda of wrongs addressed and put to rights. On the face of things that’s perfectly true – but the writer’s words created an expectation that, as a character Hōhepa would behave more “operatically”, which didn’t seem to be the composer’s (and following on, perhaps not the director’s) intention.

McLeod’s work itself seemed to me stylistically more like a kind of “dramatic legend” – something of the ilk of Berlioz’s “La Damnation de Faust”, a work which is equally successful in concert as when staged. There were occasional moments during Hōhepa of physical energy and dramatic movement (a brutal killing was depicted at one point), but in general the stage movement and configuration had a gradually unfolding aspect suggesting pageantry or ritual more than theatrical cut-and-thrust.

This impression was heightened by the composer’s use of some of the drama’s supporting characters, as well as the chorus, to advance the narrative – while the effect wasn’t unlike stylized classical drama, I felt the balance between storytelling and theatrical depiction was pushed away from the latter to the point of dramatic dilution. Ironically, I also thought that Hōhepa himself wasn’t given sufficient prominence throughout the first two acts to capture our attention, to train our focus upon him with sufficient force so that his fate as the tragic embodiment of a victim of gross injustice would later have its full dramatic impact.

Phillip Rhodes, who played Hōhepa, did everything he could with the part – he looked and sounded splendid throughout, and had both powerful and touching moments, the most enduring of which for me over the first two acts were the imposing warrior’s delight in his Christianity-inspired “Holy Family”, and his teaching of the names of birds to his children. But the Pakeha settler couple, Jane and Thomas Mason, made even more of a lasting impression on me, dramatically (splendid singing from both Jenny Wollerman and Nicky Spence), while Deborah Wai Kapohe’s Te Rai (Hōhepa’s wife) and Jonathan Lemalu’s Te Kumete (Hōhepa’s friend), both richly-characterised roles, seemed just as prominent in the scheme of things as the eponymous hero.

And yet – perhaps one shouldn’t be making such an issue of this. After all, in Maoridom it is the whanau, hapu, iwi, and the associated whakapapa which matters more than the individual; and Hōhepa’s tragedy was essentially a communal one, given that he endured great personal privation of both a physical and spiritual kind up until his death in exile in Tasmania. In that sense it’s appropriate that the character be portrayed as an integral member of a group as much as an individual, particularly as the Western operatic concept of a “hero” doesn’t sit well with the scenario that McLeod evokes. Should the work, then, be actually called “Hōhepa”? Is it more about a darker aspect of this country’s history than about what actually happened to him? Is it even more universal than that?

At the time, in the opera house, I felt myself musically entranced by it all, despite some bemusement – upon reflection, and having read back through what I’ve already said in this review, I feel myself beginning to incline towards taking the things I saw and heard on their own terms, and greatly enjoying them. Above all was, as I’ve said, the beauty and variation of McLeod’s illuminated tapestry of instrumental sounds, rendered with the utmost skill by a chamber-sized group of players drawn from the Vector Wellington Orchestra, here under the guidance of conductor Marc Taddei.

Then there were the voices, at the beginning of the work as people of the land enacting the rituals of acknowledging the tipuna, and paying homage to their living descendants. These choruses then merged with the drama, as Hōhepa’s descendants witnessing the recovery and repatriation of his bones, and afterwards as his contemporaries, expressing in heartfelt tones the shared ignominious humiliation of displacement, and the sorrow of his loss to exile and death.

Each of the solo voices suggested oceans more capacity for characterization than was allowed by the composer – apart from those I’ve mentioned, Martin Snell as Governor George Grey quickly established the character’s arrogance and implaccable nature, again largely with audience-directed pronouncements, though in places with engagingly jaunty (and ironic) Stravinsky-like accompaniments.

Given that McLeod’s treatment of the subject-matter demanded a good deal of recitative-like storytelling on the part of the characters, director Sara Brodie wisely responded with stagings designed by Tony de Goldi that emphasized and underpinned the ritual-like aspect of the drama. Her “less-is-more” instincts gave our imaginations space to augment the physical movements of the characters with impulses of our own, suggested either by music, words or backdrop images, sensitively applied here by Louise Potiki Bryant.

Opera is meant to be a visual as well as an aural experience – while this unconventional work of McLeod’s seemed to me to work just as effectively as abstract music and storytelling as it did as a theatrical event, the production’s feeling for ritual and atmosphere grew beautifully from the sounds made by voices and instruments. An enthusiastic and heartwarming reception was accorded the composer, along with her singers and musicians and her creative team, by an enthralled audience at the final curtain. I thought it richly deserved.





















Words, music – and film : Jenny McLeod and Serge Prokofiev

New Zealand International Festival of the Arts presents:

JENNY McLEOD – The Emperor and the Nightingale

SERGE PROKOFIEV  – Peter and the Wolf

Helen Medlyn (narrator – “The Emperor and the Nightingale”)

Suzie Templeton (director, Breakthru Films, UK – “Peter and the Wolf”)

Hamish McKeich (conductor)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 9th March 2012

I’ve never forgotten my delight in reading, a number of years ago, a Charles M. Schulz “Peanuts” comic featuring Marcie and Peppermint Patti at a Symphony Concert, waiting for a performance of “Peter and the Wolf to begin. In the comic strip Marcie, her face suddenly brightening, whispers conspiratorially to her companion, just before the music starts,  “Maybe this time the wolf will get him!”.  I didn’t feel her comment was an indictment of either story or music – merely a reaction to the prospect of yet another humdrum performance.

Had Helen Medlyn narrated “Peter and the Wolf” on that or this present occasion (as I’m sure she’s done at some stage or other), I feel certain that no-one would have thought the occasion in any way humdrum or routine. As it was, her input regarding this concert was confined to the narration of Jenny McLeod’s setting of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Emperor and the Nightingale”. Her performance was, I thought, riveting – she made every word of the story “zing” in places and “ping” in others, and gave the impression that she’d established some kind of “universal” eye contact with her audience all at once, so that we were undoubtedly transfixed by her storyteller persona’s sheer presence.

Though some time ago, I well remember playing in the percussion section of the Manawatu Sinfonia for a performance of McLeod’s delightful realization of Andersen’s story – I can’t recall the exact year, though it was around 1991 or 1992, at the time the Mayor of Palmerston North was Paul Rieger – because he was the narrator! (He was no Helen Medlyn, of course – but as much as a standard “celebrity appearance” could deliver he didn’t let the side down). I don’t remember the composer being present for this performance, but my memory is that it was done beautifully, our modest orchestra surpassing itself for the occasion.

With that experience in mind, what truly astonished me during this recent NZSO performance was the actual sound and impact of the orchestra – the timbres and colours uncharacteristically (for this venue) bright and sharp and to the fore, with the brass-playing in particular making a delightfully visceral impression throughout. Had the orchestra been “brought forward” on the platform, as it were? I didn’t think so – what I put it down to was Hamish McKeich’s encouragement of the players to “play out”, and make certain details really tell. Quite apart from being arresting in itself, the playing was thus able to match the narrator’s “larger-than-life” deliver of the text with similarly characterful instrumental tones.

A scintillation of exotic wonderment from the orchestra launched the music; and after Helen Medlyn’s beautifully-delivered opening statement, there was more of what seemed like the full panoply of orientalism in music refracted through Western sensibilities – pastiche it might have been, but the composer’s grasp of orchestral use was mightily impressive and resulted in some beautifully-focused and characterful sounds. Though in places reminiscent of Ravel’s “Ma Mere l’Oye”, the music readily found its own idiosyncratic character in some episodes, such as the angularities of the courtiers’ journey into the forest following behind the little kitchen-girl, and the inventive, slightly off-beat sonorities given to creatures such as cows and frogs.

Kirstin Eade’s flute-playing (depicting the voice and character of the little nightingale) was gorgeously turned at all points, and deftly characterised with many different colorings. Alongside her, the orchestra’s detailing was woven of similar magic, beautifully unhurried in its unfolding throughout, and (as I’ve said) flaring up excitingly in the bigger, grander moments. Much less obviously a quasi-instructional exercise for those unfamiliar with orchestral and instrumental sounds than the Prokofiev work, McLeod’s music nevertheless seemed beautifully tailored to the Anderson story, perhaps not as “leitmotiv-driven” than was “Peter”, nor as pungently and vividly characterized – but sufficiently colourful and incident-detailed to work successfully, especially in these performers’ hands.

Chalk followed on from cheese, so to speak, with British film-maker Suzie Templeton’s adaptation of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” story, in a trice taking us all to the movies, via a big screen, and with the luxury of a live-performance soundtrack (the film did have its own non–musical sound effects). For anybody expecting a standard, narrator-driven presentation of the work, it would have come as a huge shock, less on account of the spoken words’ absence, and more due to the harshness of the film-maker’s setting. In a half-urban, half-rural setting, Peter and his Grandfather live in a house on the outskirts of a town, making Peter prey to both the Wolf from within the forest and the town bullies from the urban jungle. What Prokofiev depicted as an idyllic rural existence for a boy and his animals, here is shown to be a somewhat fraught, law-of-the-jungle, siege-mentality scenario, almost of the “film noir” variety in places. There were children (and adults) in the audience who found it all a bit too much, though a lot of the (very audible) angst would, I’m sure, have been due to thwarted expectation – on its own terms, the presentation, though not without contentious elements, was, in my view, stunning.

Conductor Hamish McKeich, God bless ‘im, did at the outset nudge us in the direction of the composer’s original intentions by getting the orchestral soloists (as well as the strings) to play the “themes” of the story’s characters (though, for the benefit of us sight-restricted “ground floor concertgoers” it would have been great if every player had been able to stand up while giving us each of the character portraits). Of course, the presence of a film reduced the importance of this process; and indeed the compelling on-screen character-animations and evocative settings throughout put the orchestra’s contribution somewhat in the shade, beautifully though the score was realized by conductor and players.

The experience, cheek-by-jowl with the Jenny McLeod work, made me realize the extent to which our senses and perceptions interact with one another depending upon the nature of whatever stimuli we’re encountering. Suddenly, the orchestra who had played the “Emperor and the Nightingale” music during the first half so vibrantly and engagingly now sounded relatively distant and once-removed, the sounds coming to us as if in a kind of dream, refracted through those images we were all so readily involved with. At times it seemed as though this was no children’s story, but a life-and-death struggle against archetypal forces of darkness, the film-maker, for example “squaring Peter up” to his town-bully tormentors, whose brutality was unvarnishedly depicted. And there was no room for sentimentality – the drop-dead cuteness of Peter’s duck was unremittingly savaged by the wolf (causing the bulk of noticeable audience carnage), those cathartic sounds of a poor creature swallowed whole and therefore still alive, here given no fulfillment of expression, no cause for rejoicing.

Audience participation and involvement throughout, it must be said, was gratifyingly palpable – and if, at the end Charles M. Schulz’s Marcie didn’t get her wish, there was certainly a new twist to the old tale, if one which seemed to unfortunately tie up a loose end that hitherto belonged to the hapless duck, and put paid to her one chance of survival. It seemed to me that Peter’s loyalty towards his small, awkward but obviously lovable friend was sacrificed by the film-maker in favour of a new denouement evoking some kind of libertarian impulse on the part of the hero, in favor of the wolf. Still, it’s hardly surprising in a day and age that seems to actively concern itself with the welfare of perpetrators of crimes, and pay lip service to the suffering of the victims. (In this case, no less a philosopher than Basil Fawlty might have observed, “Well, if you’re a duck – you’re rather stuck!”)….

Technically, the animation resembled those early stop-frame cartoons with the jerky movements that older children like myself remember from our earliest times; and the results are certainly engaging, the figures and their movements having an uncanny realism, a properly tactile effect. I think it was the direct, somewhat primitive aspect of it all (wrought by extremely sophisticated technology and painstaking skill) which heightened the characters’ capacities for expressive gesture, which, of course, had to serve for actual words throughout. In effect, the film represented the substitution, for a well-known story’s retelling, of one powerful communication tool for another, the latter very much for our time. It’s well worth tracking down and watching, and especially with friends who enjoy heated discussion!








Strength, delicacy and deep feeling – the New Zealand String Quartet with Jonathan Lemalu

POWER AND PASSION – New Zealand International Festival of the Arts

The New Zealand String Quartet – Helene Pohl, Douglas Beilman (violins), Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello) – with Jonathan Lemalu (bass-baritone)

ROSS HARRIS – Variation 25 for String Quartet

GAO PING – Three Poems by Mu Xin

SAMUEL BARBER – String Quartet Op.11 / Dover Beach Op.3

SHOSTAKOVICH – String Quartet No.9 in E-flat Op.117

Wellington Town Hall

Sunday 4th March 2012

Despite the fact that there really ought to be a moratorium declared on the use of the words “power” and “passion” anywhere and at any time, this Festival Concert featured the New Zealand String Quartet and bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu in performances that defined the best sense of those very words.

In fact this concert was the latest to somewhat bend the righteous pitch of my on-going complaint regarding the Festival’s paucity of music events – during this and recent previous years. Though they’re relatively thin on the ground this time round, compared with the glory Festival days of, say, the 1990s, I have to say, in all fairness, that the 2012 concerts I’ve attended so far have certainly compensated in sheer quality for their lack of numbers. This one was no exception.

Again, the New Zealand String Quartet was there, at the forefront of a cutting-edge musical experience (following on in like manner from their Beethoven concerts) – I thought this program classic and meaty “Festival” fare, its content and delivery transcending the brain-dead hype of its title, and giving us a treasurable variety of memorable intensities (that description isn’t particularly flash, either, but I think it’s better than you-know-what!).

On the face of things the combination of string quartet and bass-baritone would, I think, pose for the average concertgoer more the immediate prospect of a challenge than out-and-out delight. The moderate attendance seemed to reflect something of this attitude, the organizers optimistically using the Wellington Town Hall for a concert of music  whose ethos seemed to suggest more intimate surroundings. Still, the performers in this case were renowned communicators, able to reach out and fill the vistas of most venues with their personalities and musical skills.

As it turned out, the performances seemed to easily draw in all those who were there – and there’s a certain vicarious excitement to be had from experiencing a “large” silence as opposed to a smaller one, which we were all able to enjoy and repeatedly savour, throughout the evening. Our enthusiastic appreciation at the concert’s end for the performers’ efforts belied our actual numbers, I’m sure.

Beginning the concert was local composer Ross Harris’ music, his meditation on one of JS Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, called simply “Variation 25 for String Quartet”. The Quartet’s Second Violin Douglas Beilman announced before the music began that the group would first play a transcription for string quartet of the original “Goldberg” variation. Presumably the quartet had the approval of the composer to do this – one wonders whether any composer who’d written something inspired by one of the world’s great music masterworks would necessarily want an audience reminded of the original, as it were, cheek-by-jowl! However, in this case, the “putting-together” of the two gave the opening of Ross Harris’s work such a telling ambient context, one fancied one could almost “sense” the direct lines of inspiration and observe something of the creative process of gradually making one’s ideas one’s own.

So, to my way of thinking, hearing the Bach original at the beginning (albeit in a string transcription) was an enrichment regarding what followed – very much in line with what the composer wrote in his accompanying notes about wanting “to pay my respects to the beauty and richness of the music…” It seemed to me at the outset something like a “hall of mirrors” effect, the canonic agglomerations producing a magical overlapping, coloring, intensifying and resounding texture – rather like how one might imagine a note, phrase or theme would be creatively acted upon.

One could sense the composer’s imagination getting into full stride, firstly with a paragraph of intense, stratospherically arched extremities, and then through various scherzo-like passages, the arguments frenetic and the energies ecstatic. After these exertions came a graceful, limpid dance which restored listeners’ equilibriums, the sounds transforming the former intensities of light into rather more dappled and fitful modes. And in much the same way the piece’s linear tensions seemed to melt into floating echoes of their former selves, the first violin then making a somewhat torturous ascent through the textures to conclude the piece, leaving in its wake a stricken viola mid-phrase.

I did think the Quartet’s performance a shade over-wrought at the outset, with some on-the-edge intonations, to my ears, throughout both the theme and the opening measures of the Harris piece – the price one perhaps pays in places for intensity? As the work progressed, the tones centered more readily – and throughout the other works on the program the playing sounded poised and true. The soft playing, in particular, throughout the works featuring a singer, had our sensibilities in thrall with the magic of it all; and bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu was able to match the instrumentalists’ rapt murmurings throughout such moments with equally haunting tones.

The first of Gao Ping’s settings of three poems of Mu Xin (a writer and artist who died last year in China, aged 84) perfectly illustrated the performers’ skills in evoking the beauty of great stillness – strings and voice together, floating sounds that seemed not of this world. This was a world premiere, an occasion which the programme notes didn’t emphasize, apart from Festival Director Lissa Twomey’s introductory welcome message. The poems were, I believe, sung in Mandarin, the translations suggesting a poet’s finely-wrought sensibility, with occasional erotic overtones (as in the first of the three settings, “My Bountiful Desire”, in which figured lines such as “lips eddy, breast piers, thigh ravine….”).The second settting, equating a bird’s life with happiness, is all pointillistic texturing and evocative calling, while the third, “A HIstory of Love”, begins with a saga-like sense of momentum and movement, rather like a river telling its story in passing. The two previous settings had magical interactions between voice and solo instruments at their conclusions (with violin and ‘cello, respectively) – but this one concluded with some equally haunting falsetto-like singing from Jonathan Lemalu, the words chronicling the passing of time, of youth, of love.

American Samuel Barber’s best-known work is his Adagio for Strings, often played as a commemorative piece, and used in various films (“I couldn’t help it – I kept on imagining helicopters” said my concert-hall neighbour at the end, alluding to the Award-winning film “Platoon”). Usually heard as a work for orchestral strings, here we heard it in its original guise, as part of a String Quartet, the second of three movements (officially there are only two, but to my way of thinking, the return to the material of the opening after the Adagio constitutes a movement of its own, however brief). The performance vividly characterized the volatile nature of the first movement, with its jagged opening and its hymn-like chorale intertwined throughout; while the Adagio’s songful lines here had a spell-binding vibrancy, the climax “built” with inexorable purpose and intensity – amazing stuff from the Quartet, no matter how many times previously one might have heard the piece.

Not heard as often, but a piece whose beauties undoubtedly deserve more attention is “Dover Beach”, Barber’s setting for baritone and string quartet of Matthew Arnold’s poem (I thought there might be a version for voice and string orchestra, which could increase the work’s performance frequency – but there doesn’t seem to be). Again, Jonathan Lemalu’s beautifully-focused soft singing made for pure poetry of sound in tandem with the strings – it struck me how Barber used the voice as a “fifth string” in many places, the vocal line often sharing the phrasings and figurations of the quartet’s. Particularly beautiful was the line “and bring the eternal note of sadness in”, at the conclusion of the music’s first section.

The bass-baritone’s tones sounded less mellifluous under pressure, though the artistry of the singer’s phrasing was evident at “Ah, love, let us be true to one another!” – a fantastic outpouring of emotion, especially telling against the setting’s more hushed moments, the controlled anguish of the final “Where ignorant armies clash by night” an ecstasy of intensity approaching pain. Altogether, I thought it a wonderful performance.

Completing what might be regarded as a line-up of varying intensities, the Quartet addressed the Ninth String Quartet of Dmitri Shostakovich with all of the group’s customary energy and focus. Having heard some of its Shostakovich-playing before, I expected and got a veritable roller-coaster ride of full-on incident and raw emotion, all of the music’s spiked energy, droll humor and bleak melancholy given plenty of amplitude. By the sound of such things, these quartets are surely a body of work that these musicians were born to play – and what we heard confirmed my feelings on the subject.

With a “moments-per-minute” performance such as this one, singling out individual moments can seem to do a violence to the whole – but from the very beginning of the work the Quartet caught the music’s character, intense and claustrophobic, with impulses attempting to energize and lighten the mood leading inevitably to a “screwing-up” of tension and anxiety. Right across the work’s five movements (played without a break) the players readily conveyed that echt-feeling of fatalism regarding humanity’s lot, that “to live is to suffer, and to feel is to invite pain” attitude which continuously informs the pages of this music.

I’m sure the unexpectedness of encountering such richly- and readily-wrought listening experiences played its part in making the occasion for me so truly memorable – a truly “surprised by joy” outcome, a festival concert worthy of the name.














The Sixteen’s second concert, a cappella, a benchmark performance

New Zealand International Arts Festival

The Sixteen  conducted by Harry Christophers

A cappella music by Tallis, Morley, Gibbons, Byrd, Sheppard, Tippett, Britten and James MacMillan

The Town Hall, Wellington

Saturday 3 March 7.30pm

The second concert by The Sixteen was devoted to music by composers born in Britain, not simply one who spent most of his life in the country, as was the first of The Sixteen’s concerts.

Two groups of Tallis’s ‘Tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter’ were sung, four at the beginning and four at the end of the concert. They were a sort of purifying wash to introduce the audience to singing that was not too complex – in fact the first began with four men singing in unison – allowing the unprepared ear to adjust to the acoustic of the hall and to sample the sounds of many individual voices.

The choir is perhaps a little unusual in having more men than women, though that is because parts otherwise sung by female altos are here sung by male altos (or counter-tenors). It lent the ensemble a quality that set the exemplary sopranos in marked contrast to the weight of males singing the other parts.

Tallis’s ‘Salvator mundi’, in Latin, was a striking illustration of Tallis’s versatility, coping with the dangers of religious dogma as the country moved back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism. And the choir demonstrated the contrast between Tallis’s setting of English and Latin texts as clearly as his shift from the vertical harmony of English music to traditional Latin polyphony.

The Latin element was very temporary and it was followed by English part-songs: Morley’s ‘April is in my Mistress’ Face’ and Gibbons’s very beautiful ‘The Silver Swan’; the weight and warmth of the men’s voices kept the mood from becoming too ‘hey-nonny-nonny’ in Byrd’s ‘This sweet and merry Month of May’. John Sheppard’s ‘In Manus Tuas III’ returned to a Latin text, opening with a demonstration of men’s voices in unison, and then a strong counter-tenor solo.

The first half finished in the 20th century however with, first, James MacMillan’s ‘Sedebit Dominus Rex’, given a subtle Scottish accent (it’s one of his Strathclyde Motets), an attractive separation of men’s and women’s roles, to produce singing of very great emotion.

There was a second piece from MacMillan’s Strathclyde Motets later: a striking contribution by women’s voices as well as the gentle opening section by basses, marked his ‘Mitte manum tuum’, again quite short and technically approachable.

The best known part of Tippett’s A Child of Our Time – the five spirituals – brought the first half to an end, with several opportunities for strong solo voices, particularly female.

Yet, what is it about a composer’s fundamental well-spring of invention and emotional power that consigns almost all of his music – apart from arrangements of existing melodies – to museum status almost within his own lifetime? No want of trying on my part, yet I feel impelled to revisit almost nothing even of the music I have on my own CDs.

The second half was also a satisfying mixture of the 16th and the 20th centuries; It began with three more Latin motets by Tallis, each with its distinct character, reflected in the tempo, in the varying amounts of legato singing, and the vocal colours produced by the choir.

The curious little dissonances (remarked in the programme notes) gave ‘O nata lux’ vitality; the next, ‘O sacrum convivium’, was by contrast sombre, calm and quite extended. The third motet, ‘Loquebantur variis linguis’, cleverly simulated a complex tissue of disparate languages through elaborate counterpoint: even those without Latin could have worked it out.

There was another Byrd motet, his masterpiece ‘Laudibus in sanctis Dominum’, that seemed to mark him as an English composer, set to song-like music in which vertical harmonies were as audible as the elaborate counterpoint.

The other major contribution from the modern repertoire were the Choral Dances from Britten’s opera Gloriana. For long, these were about all that was much performed from an opera that was inexplicably felt to be a ritual occasional piece, but is now firmly placed among Britten’s greatest operas. I was delighted to catch a performance a couple of years ago in the Ruhr, in Germany. Britten himself arranged this unaccompanied version of the dances, and I have to say, heretically, they did not make quite the impression on me that the original operatic ones did. They emerged, for me, somewhat affected and bloodless; but the performance of them was far from that.

The choir presented an encore: an arrangement by choral composer Bob Chilcott of a Tallis anthem.

Finally, the programme booklet was a model. It provided a wealth of rich and informative material about the choir and its director, but also writings about the composers and their social and political situation, and evocative thoughts about the nature of the music itself, all of which might deepen listeners’ knowledge.

Not enough of the audience bought the programme however.

From time to time I express my view that programmes for concerts – and other performing arts too – should be provided free. For a year or so New Zealand Opera did that, but later reverted to the practice of confining them to those who could pay the fairly high price for them. That is to sacrifice a valuable opportunity to deepen and broaden the audience’s knowledge of what it is hearing, a matter of even more importance now that most of the population under 50 is approaching the more serious arts without the benefit of any formal exposure to them at school where the sounds of good music (and poetry and foreign languages) can be implanted, perhaps subliminally, in the minds of the young – when that faculty is at its most receptive.

The major cost of programmes lies in the preparation of the texts and the design and formatting of the printing; for the fruits of those efforts to be restricted to a minority of the audience is a sad lost opportunity to educate.

The programme also took the trouble to ask the audience to refrain from clapping between the items in a group; the fact that few on the audience had programmes meant that there was applause between the numbers in Tippett’s Five Spirituals.

New Zealand String Quartet revelatory with second group of Beethoven’s Opus 18

New Zealand International Arts Festival

Beethoven: String Quartets, Op 18 Nos 4, 5 and 6

New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl, Douglas Beilman, Gillian Ansell, Rolf Gjelsten)

Church of St Mary of the Angels

Sunday 26 February, 7.30pm

In her brief introductory comments at the first of these two concerts Gillian Ansell had observed how interesting it was to play the quartets in chronological order rather than to mix works from different periods: it highlighted the essential features of these works of the 30-year-old Beethoven, their originality, their imaginativeness, the clear mood contrasts between each.

And so it was.

Many listeners will have heard these quartets in sequence as a result of the availability of several complete recorded sets, but such remarkable live performance in such a beautiful setting is something else.

The New Zealand String Quartet is one of the musical groups that know the importance of lighting and of ambience generally that is necessary to create the best emotional environment for listening to music (which varies of course with different kinds of music). Here the church was dimly lit with evocative under-lighting in the sanctuary that made the most of the deep blue of the back wall.

The programme contained useful and illuminating notes from Nancy November as well as from two of the players – Douglas Beilman and Helene Pohl.

I always enjoy reading the perceptions of others about the spiritual character of music and Helene’s pithy snapshots drew particular attention to certain movements and to the general character of each quartet as a whole.

The fourth quartet, Helene suggests, is ‘dramatic, passionate, with overall orchestral textures’. It’s the only one of the set in a minor key. But that by no means implies any lack of energy, and so its first movement seemed to be leaning into a brisk wind, moving forward energetically, going just a little faster than one’s breath could accommodate. It was a wonderful way to launch the evening! The dynamics undulated like a ship moving on a gentle swell. The players knew precisely how much weight to allow individuals at every stage – sometimes the first violin, sometimes the cello – to give proper voice to the melody.

The second movement – unusually, a scherzo – light, dancing in triple time, in a spirit that seems unBeethovenish, quite singular in its flavour, perhaps offers homage to Haydn. The slow movement comes third; it was played darkly and urgently, in marked contrast to the Scherzo, and in its turn it is in sharp contrast to the finale, where the four players seemed intent on obliterating individual voices in the tangle of almost frenzied activity.

I don’t know whether the fifth quartet is the most played – I seem to have heard it more often – but it is perhaps the most lovable. Helene remarks, ‘“Hommage à Mozart”, buoyant, though not without an edge’; and the programme note suggests ‘a sardonic skit on genteel elegance’. I don’t know about the sardonicity, but it was played in high spirits, the quavers in triple time generating a real delight.

Again, Beethoven breaks with tradition to place his dance-like movement (reverting to a minuet from his more normal scherzo) second, gorgeously lyrical with a Trio sounding like a peasant Ländler, that the players invested with even more gentle though artful simplicity.

One of the most beautiful movements in all six quartets follows with the Andante Cantabile. While Beethoven was, in certain of his other compositions, a man aware of the politics and troubles of his times, I reflected here, as the enchanting and endlessly inventive variations unfolded, on the presence of Napoleon’s armies criss-crossing Europe during 1797–1800, capturing Austrian territory in north Italy, causing social and economic distress for France and other countries. Yet, for Beethoven it was never a reason to compose music that was ugly or violent.

On the contrary, it may be that his sympathy with Napoleon’s overthrow of the oppressive and corrupt absolute monarchies that still ruled much of Europe, obscured the destructive consequences of the wars, and that it was his optimism about political and social advancement that Napoleon sought that allowed him to compose much spiritually joyful and positive music.

And so the performance of this Andante, an elaborate and beautiful set of variations suggesting Beethoven’s contentment with this best of all possible worlds, formed the concert’s centrepiece, giving generous and carefully exploited space to each individual instrument in turn.  All that could follow was the brilliant, contrapuntally complex last movement.

The last of the six quartets was revealed as yet another original and different masterpiece. The famous and percipient writer on the quartets Joseph De Marliave suggested that ‘the ease and breadth of the finale of the preceding quartet flows on to the first movement of this’; support or otherwise for such remarks is one of insights possible through their playing all together, in the order in which they were written.

Writing on the same quartet, De Marliave, also commented on the repetitions of the first theme, and I had found the same: a little surprising in works that otherwise exhibit such profound sensitivity to form and motivic development. Nevertheless, the players responded wonderfully to the energy of this Allegro con brio first movement, finding entertainment in the step-wise motifs and the unusual excursions, for example the grumbling gambits by the cello.

Even in the superficially most uncomplicated movements, Beethoven provides surprise and amusement. The decorative Adagio second movement mocks the cello in a short sequence of false starts, and later there is an unexpected, somewhat mysterious deviation into a minor key.

The contrast between the Adagio and the following Scherzo and Trio was drawn for all it was worth, with syncopated rhythms and an ebullience spirit.

The last movement opens with a slow introduction labelled Malinconia: another singular contrast of mood. A lot of attention has been accorded to it; that its plan pre-figures the last quartets, its remarkable modulations, whether the eventual arrival of the Allegretto really succeeds in creating a satisfactory finale… They played that Adagio as if weighed down by the sorrows of the world, and perhaps by the composer’s own awareness of his solitary life and the first signs of deafness. The requisite Allegro that follows seemed rather a matter of formal necessity yet it was played as if its level of inspiration was just as high as all that had gone before.

It brought to an end what many might come to feel as the most rewarding concerts of the festival, a testament to the maturity and the peak of artistic accomplishment that has been reached by the New Zealand String Quartet.

These two concerts are the first of three series in which the entire oeu vre will be played: the second, mid-year, under Chamber Music New Zealand and the last under the quartet’s own management.


Exhilarating first of two concerts of Beethoven’s Quartets Op 18

New Zealand International Arts Festival

Beethoven: String quartets Op.18, nos. 3, 2, 1

New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl and Douglas Beilman, violins; Gillian Ansell, viola; Rolf Gjelsten, cello)

St. Mary of the Angels church

Saturday, 25 February 2012, 6pm

The New Zealand String Quartet will play all Beethoven’s string quartets this year, in chronological order – a major undertaking in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the founding of the quartet.  As Helene Pohl observes in one of several excellent programme notes, hearing them this way ‘we discover how full of personality these “early” quartets are!’

The Quartet’s fondness for St. Mary of the Angels as a venue was understandable straight away: the first notes demonstrated the warm sound.  However, the lively acoustic does allow every sound to be heard clearly, including a little too much metallic tone from the first violin, at times.

The first quartet played was the third in the set.  Beethoven’s harmonic invention was there in abundance.  In the first movement, allegro, the first violin has most of the interesting work.  The second demonstrated lovely rhythmic variety; the smooth  legato second theme was played superbly, with the sonority of Gjelsten’s cello particularly marvellous.  A few slightly misplaced notes did not detract from a sensitive and fine performance.  The movement came gently to a beautiful conclusion.

The third movement was energy alternating with calmness, followed by increasing complexity, while the fourth, marked presto, was certainly fast.  It was a joyful movement with unanticipated touches of reflection; little turns cause the music to pause in its rush towards the end, which is unexpectedly quiet, almost humorous.

The attentive audience in a full church demonstrated how much people enjoy hearing Beethoven played well.  Where are these people (assuming most of them were Wellingtonians) when the Wellington Chamber Music Society’s winter Sunday afternoon series is on?

The second quartet is quite different.  Its opening allegro features plangent crescendos.  The next movement, adagio cantabile, has a rich-toned opening.  A ‘false scherzo’ intervenes – fast, yet light and frothy.  The slow tempo returns, and sounded all the more sombre by contrast.  The movement ends with delicate figures in the minor key.

The real scherzo that was the third movement, described in the programme note as ‘brilliantly unpredictable’ reminded me of a dragonfly’s dance (having seen a large native one in my garden just recently).  It was too fast and frisky for human feet.  A solemn little set with the dancers bowing to each other was followed by variations, with copious interplay of the instruments.

The final movement was a delightful piece of counterpoint.   Here, the players were equal partners in a jaunty and good-humoured mood, in a movement more democratic  than the others (to use the language of programme note writer Dr Robert Simpson). A strong and vibrant passage is followed by a quiet section, then bang!  Suddenly the music is loud again; a typical gesture of Beethoven’s.

Now to the beginning of Beethoven’s quartet-writing career: Op.18 no.1.  This quartet was the most familiar of the three, to me.  Its lyrical opening was in a cheerful, mellifluous mood.  It presented a great range of dynamics – as indeed did the other two quartets.  It sounded to be a more mature work than the others, and this would be due to the fact that the composer comprehensively revised it two years after its first composition.  This allegro con brio opening movement was very satisfying.

The adagio affettuoso ed appassionato second movement began in sombre fashion, reminding me of Mozart’s Requiem.  Later, the music became passionate.  Its constantly altering moods make for an intensely interesting listening experience.  Slight rubatos added to the effect.  It was magnificently played.

The playful scherzo that followed required plenty of fast finger-work.  The finale was a surprise.  “Where is this going?” was my thought.  This was another democratic movement; all the players were engaged in the many twists and turns, and changes of key.  The constantly altering faces and qualities of the music sustained the attention.  Some of the strongest and most emphatic playing of the evening was in this movement.  It was fast, with an energetic ending.

The New Zealand String Quartet provided an appreciative audience with a thoroughly satisfying, even exhilarating concert.



Stravinsky at the Festival: Distinguished performances of powerful works heard by too few

New Zealand International Arts Festival

Stravinsky:   Symphony of Psalms and Oedipus Rex

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus (Michael Vinten, chorus master), Joana Carneiro (conductor), Stuart Skelton (Oedipus, tenor), Margaret Medlyn (Jocasta, mezzo-soprano), Daniel Sumegi (Creon; Messenger, bass-baritone), Martin Snell (Tiresias, bass), Virgilio Marino (shepherd, tenor), Rawiri Paratene (narrator, speaker)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday, 24 February 2012, 8pm

As a Festival opener, this programme obviously did not have the appeal of the Mahler Symphony no.8 performed at the last Festival, when the hall was packed, and there were people sitting out in Civic Square watching the performance on a huge screen and hearing it relayed on loudspeakers.  Another draw-card on that occasion was the presence of the famous Vladimir Ashkenazy as conductor.

This time, by no means all the seats in the hall were filled, which was a pity, because these were fine and powerful performances.

My first reaction was pleasure at the appearance of the programmes.  The printed programmes in 2010 had a ghostly pallor, and the letters so skinny you could have driven a bus between them.  This time, the font was Times New Roman or similar, there was plenty of ink, no back-grounding of text, and they could be read even during the performance – most important when full libretti and translations into English were generously provided.

The other feature of the programmes were the copious and detailed notes provided.  There was far too much to read before or during the concert, but they make very interesting reading afterwards.  The New Zealand Opera Company has in the past sent programmes ahead of the season to those who book in advance; this practice could have been adopted here, with benefit to the audience’s understanding and appreciation.

The Chapman Tripp opera chorus was obviously augmented; some familiar faces that one doesn’t usually see in the chorus, graced it on this occasion.  My first impression at the opening of the Symphony of Psalms was that the choir was too far distant from the orchestra and the audience, making the sound likewise distant, and therefore the words did not have the clarity they should have.  We got volume at times, but seldom clarity.  This was the fault of the hall and the placement of the choir, not directly of inadequacy on the choir’s part.  If the performance had been in the Town Hall, the problem would not have existed; there would have been more impact.   The problem did not exist with the Mahler two years ago, because the choir was very much bigger, though so too was the orchestra.

Stravinsky’s unusual orchestration for this work provides plenty of wind players, and cellos and basses plus harp, two pianos, and percussion, but no violins or violas.  Therefore there was lots of rich, resonant low bass sound, while the incisiveness and wonderful colours of the winds were more apparent than usual, especially in the delicious melodies with cross-rhythms, played between Psalm 38 and Psalm 39.

Psalm 38 opened with spiky rhythms but they didn’t continue.  Instead, the effect was of long melismatic lines, like old Russian chants, though the work was sung in Latin.

The verses from Psalm 39 were given gentler treatment than the incisive previous psalm.  Sonorities built up; there were dense harmonies and clashes providing a rich sound – although some of the sopranos were a little too strident.  The final verse, ‘He put a new song in my mouth…’ was thunderous in its praise to God.

An Alleluia preceded Psalm 150.  These passages were quiet; the distance between choir and orchestra didn’t matter so much here, and there was some lovely singing. However, the choir, while good, and obviously very well rehearsed, sounded rather pedestrian in the psalm itself.   It again emphasised that a bigger choir would have coped better.

The psalm speaks of trumpets and other instruments; the NZSO instrumentalists fulfilled their parts radiantly, especially the ‘loud clashing cymbals’.  Despite their presence, this was a very lyrical verse, with the last section, ‘Let everything that breathes praise the Lord’ having an ethereal quality.

The pianists, Donald Nicolson and Rachel Thomson, had a very busy part in this last psalm. It ended with another Alleluia – quiet and exultant in tone. The growing woodwind tone against the choir’s soft intoning, along with piano and strings, was magical.  Stravinsky’s constantly shifting chords and soundscapes provided an experience unlike that to be had from any other composer; the result, satisfyingly unique.

Joana Carneiro is petite and very youthful in appearance, yet she conducts with energy and commitment.  In a radio interview prior to the performance, she remarked how good it was to have the narration in Oedipus Rex, since the music was so intense, complicated, yet direct, that time to breathe was needed.  She stressed that the music was not indulgent of the tragedies in the story; rather it was ‘about’ the story and characters.

One suspects that Festival Director Lissa Twomey (an Australian) programmed Oedipus Rex based on the success of this work at the Sydney Festival a couple of years ago, with the same conductor.  But with a much smaller population to draw on, and no full-time opera company here, its drawing power could not be relied on to be the same as in the much bigger city.  Maybe a semi-stage performance would have been more appealing – and it certainly would have conveyed the story in a more meaningful way.

Carneiro also said, and we experienced, that the choir was well-prepared.  The music of Oedipus Rex, she felt, was a pre-cursor of minimalism through its economy of means, but also employed leitmotif.  The latter helped to tie the story together musically, and gave something of a guide to the hearers.

Oedipus Rex, an opera-oratorio, was something completely different from the Symphony of Psalms, composed three years later.  Its similarity to the latter was probably confined to its reference back to polyphony, in the form of breaking up of the words, and the long lines.

Outstanding here, aside from the astonishing music, was the singing of tenor Stuart Skelton, as Oedipus.  This Australian singer has had great international success, and we were fortunate to hear him at the height of his powers.  His voice is  quite brilliant, and he has a wide range.  It cut through the textures without difficulty – strong, with great carrying quality, but never harsh or strident.  When he sang the words translated as ‘Your silence accuses you: you are the murderer! (to Tiresias), there was drama in every syllable.  His further accusation of Tiresias ‘Envy hates good fortune…’ featured high notes that were quite lovely, poignant and eloquent.

The other soloists could not measure up to Skelton, which is not to deny that they were good.  Their roles were all much smaller than that of Skelton.  Daniel Sumegi had the two roles of Creon and the Messenger, and his robust bass-baritone was effective and expressive, with wonderful low notes.  He had a very powerful passage in Act Two, singing ‘Jocasta the Queen is dead!’

Margaret Medlyn sang the mezzo role of the queen with perhaps less force at times than the part required, but nevertheless with appropriate levels of dramatic intensity.  Sometimes her music had echoes of the cabarets of Berlin.  The small part of the Shepherd was well sung by tenor Virgilio Marino.  (Was it really necessary to bring someone from Australia for a role with so little singing?).  He was particularly noteworthy for the duet with the Messenger, where they explain in Act Two that as a baby, Oedipus was found in the mountains.

Martin Snell’s smallish role as Tiresias was confidently and expressively sung, with lustrous resonance and deep, rich tones, but he did not always cut through the orchestra sufficiently.  However, his words were excellent.

An important role was that of the narrator, taken by well-known actor Rawiri Paratene.  He fulfilled it extremely well.  As Rachel Hyde said in her radio review, he was controlled and dignified.  His amplified words were very clear, his tone rich, and neither pompous nor intimate.  He struck the right note in giving the background commentary.

The male chorus sang for all they were worth in their demanding music, but occasionally were out of synch with the orchestra; more often the problem was that the words could not be sufficiently conveyed because the volume of the orchestra overwhelmed them.  At the distance the singers were, it was surprising that they kept together with the orchestra as much as they did; a tribute to their thorough preparation which meant they could keep eyes on the conductor much of the time.  Perhaps the conductor should have done more to tone down the dynamism of the orchestra.  However, it is really more a matter of the size and placement of the choir.  As Rachel Hyde said, the music in this work is really driven by the chorus, which has a large part, but too much in the background in this performance.

The orchestra was returned to its full glory with violins and violas, for this work.  The opening sound from choir and orchestra was tremendous.  Everywhere, we heard Stravinsky’s intriguing and innovative orchestrations brought out relentlessly; his invention knew no bounds.  The orchestra has a major role in Oedipus Rex, compared with its role in most operas or oratorios.

The chorus had its very effective moments, too: when they cry to Oedipus to solve the riddle of who murdered the king, Laius, their intoning of ‘Solve! Solve, Oedipus, solve!’ was startling.  It was strong again in the appeal to the goddesses that followed soon after; here, there was little accompaniment, allowing them to shine.  Soon incessant drumming was heard, adding to the doom-laden atmosphere, as they spoke of the many dead in Thebes, from the plague.

Again with incessant drumming, and with cymbal crashes, the chorus ‘Glory! Glory! Glory!’ sung in praise of the queen Jocasta (Margaret Medlyn) at the end of Act I was very fine, with tremendous unity in declamation.

In the second Act Margaret Medlyn had a long aria with piano – a most difficult part sung in very queenly fashion, and ending with swoops of agitation from the clarinet.  The chorus followed with a beautifully quiet entry, the singing continuing very smoothly over wonderful strumming on the strings.

One of Oedipus’s many notable moments came when he finally confessed to his crimes.  A fanfare followed this despairing utterance.  Skelton was a tremendous and very worthy Oedipus.

More good moments for the chorus: a very incisive short burst stating ‘The shepherd who knows all is here’, and strong, accurate and rhythmic singing of ‘He was not the true father of Oedipus’ (referring to Polybus).  Later, the difficult music for ‘The woman in the chamber…’ was rendered heartily and with precision.  The final chorus ‘Behold!  Oedipus the King!’ spilt out into immense noise from orchestra and chorus, but when full orchestra was employed, the chorus was overwhelmed.

Despite all, the chorus covered itself with glory, especially as amateurs amongst a stage full of professionals.

The performance of Oedipus Rex gave us a tremendous work, brought off with distinction.  It was powerful, shocking and complex, and a triumph (despite its flaws) for the performers and their unassuming young conductor, who held everything in suspense for an appreciable time at the end, so that the impact was not immediately lost in applause.