Orchestra Wellington’s “The Grand Gesture” presentation casts its spell

Orchestra Wellington presents:
THE GRAND GESTURE – a reflection of music and art of the Baroque era

IGOR STRAVINSKY – Suite from the Ballet “Pulcinella”
JOHANN SEBASTIEN BACH – Concerto for two Violins and Orchestra in D Minor BWV 1043
GEORGE FRIDERICH HANDEL – Concerto Grosso Op.6 No.12 in B Minor
LUKAS FOSS – Baroque Variations (1967)

Amalia Hall (violin)
Monique Lapins (violin)
Jonathan Berkahn (harpsichord)
Orchestra Wellington (Concertmaster – Justine Cormack)
Marc Taddei – Conductor

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 4th May, 2024

On this occasion I couldn’t get to the usual pre-concert presentation which can so rewardingly illuminate what’s about to be presented in the concert – I arrived to catch only the final stages, and caught some musical excerpts from the oncoming concert played in the foyer by members of The Queen’s Closet for the audience’s pleasure and delight. It was obviously enough to whet appetites of even those like myself who were standing at the back, probably feeling a bit like those “Gentlemen of England now abed (who) shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here!”

A few empty seats on the fringes of the downstairs auditorium apart, the concert appeared well-attended, and the mood expectant – as is the usual wont with any Orchestra Wellington concert these days, thanks to the sterling efforts of the players and maestro Marc Taddei in obviously putting body and soul into their presentations, and bringing to life even what might seem at times like somewhat intractable material!

Tonight’s presentation title “The Grand Gesture” set out to demonstrate some of the continuing resonances of the work of composers from the Baroque era – if not for our present specific time, certainly of living memory for some in the case of the work of German-born American composer and conductor Lucas Foss, and delightfully so regarding a neo-classical response from twentieth-century giant Igor Stravinsky to the music supposedly the work of a contemporary of Bach, Handel and Scarlatti, one Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-36), more of which circumstance below.

A good deal of thought had obviously gone into the concert’s structure (a valued characteristic of this Orchestra’s work), including what were some unscheduled appearances of musicians playing what appeared to be on “first take” simply further examples of memorable and enduring Baroque music – thus to begin the concert we were treated to a dream-like vignette of violinist Amalia Hall spotlit amid the darkness and high up on the stage platform giving us a stellar performance of the Prelude to JS Bach’s Violin Partita in E Major that transported all of us to our own “other” places for its duration, and for some time afterwards.

Then came the Stravinsky all splendidly articulated, robustly trajectoried and beautifully-voiced throughout. The original “Pulcinella” ballet had its genesis in an idea by the great impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who wanted a work based on the long-established Italian theatre tradition of “commedia dell’arte”, one that used age-old characters wearing masks, “types” such as foolish old men, wanton courtesans, devious servants, and jesters or clowns – a well-known type of the latter was Harlequin, who became the “Pulcinella” of Diaghilev’s scheme.

At that time, the music Diaghilev gave to Stravinsky was believed to have been by Pergolesi (Stravinsky regarded his contact with this music as “a love affair” with the older composer), but much of it has subsequently proved to have been the work of others. In Stravinsky’s original ballet, the vocal sections of the score were based on songs genuinely by Pergolesi which Diaghilev had found, but the purely orchestral music used by Stravinsky from the suite we heard tonight was all adapted from the works of different composers, names otherwise unknown to history – Gallo, van Wassenaer, Monza and Parisotti.

Such an “inconvenient truth” hasn’t been allowed to get in the way of anybody’s enjoyment of what Stravinsky did with this music, who added to the original themes his own twentieth-century harmonies, cadences and rhythms, producing a suitably light-textured and nimble-footed score which served Diaghilev’s purposes admirably. The suite which the composer extracted from the ballet was written in 1922, two years after the ballet’s first performance, and uses eight of the latter’s original twenty movements.

Though Stravinsky took pains to reproduce in Pulcinella something of the reduced orchestral forces of earlier times, there were certain touches that “advanced” the musical language beyond the scope of eighteenth-century practice, mainly found in the “Vivo” movement towards the Suite’s end, such as the use of the solo trombone and double-bass with their “glissando” passages. I’ve always loved this Suite, and Marc Taddei’s and Orchestra Wellington’s performance was, I thought, musically engaging, stylistically evocative and technically outstanding!

Next came what for many would have been the “jewel” of the evening’s presentations, the adorable D Minor Double Violin Concerto of JS Bach, and with two soloists whose performances I wouldn’t imagine being bettered anywhere – Amalia Hall, the usual concertmaster of Orchestra Wellington, but a frequent concerto soloist with the orchestra itself to impressive effect was here joined by Monique Lapins, the sadly-about-to-depart second violinist of the illustrious New Zealand String Quartet, leaving for pastures afresh after eight years with the Quartet. Together with the orchestra they wove a diaphanous continuum of textured interaction that allowed the music to express whatever range of emotions and awareness of structural potentialities this performance couldn’t help but inspire among its listeners.

By inclination I tend to go for warmer, fuller performances than what I sometimes hear from so-called ”authentic” ones – but this performance seemed to tread securely between heart and mind, warmth and clarity, breathing-space and momentum, and deliver spades of intent and realisation from both worlds. And though ideally matched, the pair were not carbon copies of one another’s sound – I imagined a tad rounder, and more sensuous tone from Monique Lapins’ playing compared with Amalia Hall’s marginally brighter and shinier sound, as if what was passing between them was a REAL conversation. But, ah! – that slow movement! – why does it ALWAYS seem as though it’s over too quickly, no matter who the performers are?…….

As with the concert’s opening, the second half began with another performer “spotlit” up behind the orchestral platform in almost “deus ex machina” fashion! This time it was Jonathan Berkahn at the harpsichord performing a relaxed, even somewhat “other-worldly” rendition of one of Domenico Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas, the well-known E Major (K.380/L.23). As with the violinist’s rendition of the Bach Partita’s Prelude at the concert’s beginning, the episode had the air of some kind of “visitation” from distant realms – both beautifully-wrought moments.

In more “down-to-earth” mode then came the Handel Concerto Grosso Op.6 No.12, the last of the set of concertos inspired by Handel’s great Italian contemporary, Archangelo Corelli. I was hoping we might get my favourite of the Op. 6 set, No. 9 (with its wonderful borrowings from the composer’s famous Organ Concerto “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale”). But this work, which I didn’t know as well, was itself, in the words of the vernacular, a “real doozy”, with plenty to do for soloists Amalia Hall and Monique Lapins once again, in the form of some enchanting moments along the way. There was appropriately ”grand gesturing” at the beginning, with the two violins sharing solo passages with a solo ‘cello, both in reply to and augmenting the orchestra. And what a delicious allegro to follow! – with some enchanting dovetailing of parts, and the silvery tones of the violin soloists inspiring some similarly feathery playing from the orchestra strings. A lovely and graceful Larghetto was followed by an even more enchanting Largo section, the soloists (both, I think) playing with mutes and producing, along with the solo ‘cello, some breathtakingly unworldly textures – brief but memorable moments in time to be savoured long afterwards. A sprightly dotted-rhythmed fugal Allegro brought us home with a no-nonsense, but still ceremonial finish.

Conductor Marc Taddei then issued for us something in the nature of the old-fashioned “Government Health Warning” regarding the programme’s final item, Lucas Foss’s “Baroque Variations”. He spoke of the piece being very much of the “psychedelic era” of the 1960s during which the work was composed, with numerous allusions to sounds associated with various electronic gadgetry of that time, but with its composer bent also upon reaching back to resonances as far distant as the music from the Baroque era which we had heard earlier in the concert, including the two pieces which our celestial-like “visitors” had performed in those uplifted and spotlit places!

The first of the three movements “On a Handel Larghetto” quietly and almost spectrally elaborated on fragments of the corresponding sequence in Handel’s Op 6 No.12 Concerto, the sounds seeming to do little more than resonate each other’s muted repetitions between strings and brass, lines occasionally drifting away from one another and exploring dream-like imaginings as more instruments joined in with the reminiscings, gathering tonal weight as notes were sustained for longer periods and percussive irruptions became more frequent.

A second movement also began mysteriously, its diaphanously filmic texture of sound featuring floating droplets of notes and occasional percussive thuds, into which sounded the strains of fragments of the Scarlatti sonata we had heard in full on the harpsichord. Here its themes and rhythms seemed as if they were being disconcertingly dismembered for us, as if the music was “a patient etherised upon a table” and referred to in fragmented and mesmerizingly repetitive terms.

After two somewhat restrained movements, the third “On a Bach Prelude (Phorion)” opened up the air-waves somewhat, beginning with the reappearance of the “phantom” Bach Partita violinist, whose playing was this time “echoed” in a fragmented way by the orchestra concertmaster and the other orchestral strings, as well as being “pecked at” by the orchestral winds and “wailed over” by the brass. This process became rather Charles Ives-like as the violas and the brasses played echoing notes and phrases against skittering winds and violins “chasing down” the lines, until the orchestra seemed to lose its patience with its wayward children and exploded a volley of indiscriminate sounds that added to the “things running wild” atmosphere, awakening an electric organ’s more seismic qualities. The “Phorion” part of the movement’s title was a reference to a Greek word meaning “stolen goods”, perhaps indicating how Bach’s violin prelude music was being chaotically rent via a plethora of sounds indicating an exhilarating (and liberating?) loss of control.

Afterwards I found myself talking with others of our different impressions of the work, the opinions ranging from “genius” to “madness” in general terms, but concurring regarding the hugely fascinating range and scope of the programming and the dedication and skill with which conductor and orchestra carried out its philosophy and execution – above all else, with a whole-heartedness whose qualities we’ve come to expect and hope to continue to enjoy.

Handel’s “Messiah” – stimulation and distinction for 2023 in Wellington from the Orpheus Choir and Orchestra Wellington

Photo credit "Latitude Creative"

Photo credit “Latitude Creative”

Orpheus Choir of Wellington and Orchestra Wellington present:
GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL – MESSIAH HMV 56
Madeleine Pierard (soprano), Margaret Medlyn ONZM (alto), Frederick Jones (tenor), Paul Whelan (bass)
Orpheus Choir of Wellington (Brent Stewart, director)
Orchestra Wellington (Amalia Hall, concertmaster)
Jonathan Berkahn (continuo)
Brent Stewart (conductor)

MIchael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, December 2nd, 2023

At the Interval, during the Orpheus Choir’s recent “Messiah” performance at the Michael Fowler Centre, I took stock – all very thought-provoking so far, the concert having begun promisingly by conductor Brent Stewart with a soberly-delivered but well-rounded orchestral Overture, grave, but not too solemn, and jaunty without being too punchily “born-again-authentic”, and the orchestra proceeding to confidently work its way through the chameleon-like contrasts of  character required to support each of the oratorio’s items.

We heard several distinctive soloists’ turns that conveyed the spirit and essence of the notes and texts, balancing the requirements of the score with the theatricality of the subject-matter, and in almost every case rising splendidly to the challenges suggested by the texts, braving a couple of low-octane moments with enough resolve to hold words and music together. And there were the choruses which explored their own heights and depths of situation and emotion, the voices seeming to me to “sing themselves in” more surely as the sequences proceeded, as did the players with their instruments in like manner.

Highlights of the first half included tenor Frederick Jones’s persuasively prophetic declamation in his opening recitative “Comfort Ye”, pleasingly emphasised by his continuo-only accompaniment for “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness”, with only the long runs in “Ev’ry Valley” which involved the word “exalted” and “plain” seeming to affect his powers somewhat. Bass Paul Whelan seemed to have limitless reserves of strength, pinning back our ears with his “Thus Saith the Lord” and his near seismic runs on the word “shake” later in the recitative. I thought his response at “For Behold” curiously neutral at first, eschewing a growing intensity of tone leading up to the words “light” and “glory”, but admittedly making amends in the aria that followed with his sonorous utterance of the words “have seen a great light”.

Margaret Medlyn in the mezzo part made the most of her word-pointing with “Behold, a virgin shall conceive”, and then in the aria “O Thou that tellest” coped with a cracking pace, investing the words “Arise” and “Shine” with suitable radiance as an incentive for the chorus to follow with their even more vigorous incitements of “Arise!” and “Behold!”. And with her colleague, Madeleine Pierard, Medlyn contrived to charm us with the lullabic tones of “He shall feed his flock”, preparing the way for the soprano’s transcending upward-lifting entry with the same melody – always a beautiful moment! Early, the justly famous “Pastoral Symphony” had paved the beguiling way for the soprano, Pierard’s voice as angelic as I previously remembered in this music,  making her words tell in announcing the heavenly hosts’ presence, the chorus’s celestial “Glory to God in the Highest” underpinned by some superb trumpet playing!

Here, the chorus work was enchanting – earlier I’d thought that Brent Stewart’s tempi for his forces were too rushed to allow “And the Glory of the Lord” its proper “glory”, and “And He shall purify” its captivating deliciousness in the lines’ effervescent intersecting, like strands of impulse in a bubbling brook! What I admit then bewitched my ear was the first half’s concluding item, the chorus “His yoke is easy”, with Stewart’s tempo quick enough to challenge his voices, but spacious enough to allow the phrases to both bloom and catchily syncopate on the word “easy”.  Handel had devised a kind of fugue which plays beautifully with the phrase, before mercilessly subjecting the word “light” to a state of sudden ambivalence – is it a reference to Christ’s teachings and their liberation for all peoples from the laws and strictures of the Pharisees? Or is it an ironic comment upon Jesus’s intention to suffer and die for our sins so that we may be redeemed? The performance illustrated the salient characteristics of the setting in all its contradictory splendour.

I should say at this point that the sum total of what I had heard thus far was disposing me towards looking forward to the second half! – and my expectations were set alight by the opening chorus of the Second Part of the work, “Behold the Lamb of God” the effect of which was hypnotic and compelling to a degree I hadn’t previously registered. Then it suddenly struck me that all the chorus members had closed their scores, and were obviously singing from memory! – it was such a focused “moment” of both sight and sound, and was somehow signalling to us that what we were about to hear was worthy of every skerrick of our attention from this moment on.

And so it proved – Margaret Medlyn again seemed to “own” the words in “He was despised” – no morbidity or sentimentality, here, but somehow pure emotion, expressed by a storyteller in real human terms for another human being – the added force of her articulation of the words “despised” and “rejected” (the latter here almost “sprechgesang”) was a moment of unique feeling, powerful in its conveyed spontaneity.

Then came another of the work’s great sequential sections, one which for me lifted conductor Brent Stewart and his voices “up on high” for a few exalted moments – the chorus “Surely He hath borne our griefs” expressed with such shock and anger as to its significance, with the orchestral support here almost percussive in its attack by way of reinforcing the notes’ jagged angularity – incredible emotion! From this “full frontal” assault sprang the similarly austere “And With His Stripes” whose rigour and severity seemed to bind the music’s course with strong, impenetrable bonds, before Handel suddenly disarmed the exactitude of such sounds at a stroke, with “All We like sheep”, the voices suddenly freed from constraint and revelling in their dynamic contrasts and energies. Handel again here makes inspired and mercurial use of the words’ seeming caprice as a ploy to suddenly plunging our short-lived exuberances into a state of shame and sadness, with the words “…has laid on him the iniquity of us all”, a moment almost stupefying in its effect….

The music’s inexorable ebb-and-flow strength continued with Frederick Jones’s stentorian “All they who have seen him” provoking a derisive “He trusted in God” response from the choir, one then eloquently lamented with Jones’s “Thy rebuke hath broken his heart”, and the accompanying “Behold and see”, with Christ’s sufferings and punishment on humankind’s behalf further emphasised by the singer in a remarkable and well-sustained sequence. And a slight rhythmic stumble along the way didn’t deter Jones in his defiant “Thou shalt break them”, the power of God sustaining the music’s and the singer’s determination.

Margaret Medlyn’s “How Beautiful are the Feet” made an appropriately meditative contrast to the travails of Christ’s trials and sufferings, with its intimately–focused solo string accompaniments, a moment of meditation then swept away by the whole orchestra’s whirlwind introduction to Paul Whelan’s rousing “Why Do the Nations”, and with the choir goaded into a kind of similar frenzy in its frantic “Let us break their bonds asunder”, the flailing lines spectacularly dovetailed! The redemption to all of this came surely and squarely with the deservedly beloved “Halleluiah” chorus – of course, we all leapt to our feet (isn’t it, by this time, in our DNA to do so?)! Terrific stuff from all concerned, voices and instruments, and especially the brass and timpani – though a friend of mine afterwards complained that conductor Brent Stewart seemed to “play” with the dynamics too much instead of really “letting ‘er rip!”. You simply can’t please some people, no matter what!

It was left to Madeleine Pierard’s supremely confident and appropriately celestially-bound “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, Paul Whelan’s authoritative “The trumpet shall sound” (supported to the hilt by his trumpeter!), and the Orpheus Choir’s by this time almost transcendental range of articulations, tones and dynamics in taking us through the well-wrought certainties of both “Since by man came death” and “Worthy is the Lamb”, to reach the work’s final “Amen” chorus. I loved the latter’s  “building blocks” aspect, rising inexorably from the opening phrase with the voices, and being drawn skywards by the orchestral instruments before the clouds rolled back to reveal its completed grandeur. Great honour and praise are due to conductor/choir director Brent Stewart for his work in enabling and then taking us through such an inspired and far-reaching journey.

Expressions of joyful energies – JS Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos from the Amici Ensemble

Waikanae Music Society presents:

The Amici Ensemble
JS BACH – The Six Brandenburg Concertos

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday, 23rd July 2023

Time can easily wrong-foot one’s perceptions of things through distraction and/or inattention  – to read in Sunday afternoon’s Waikanae programme featuring the splendid Amici Ensemble that the group is currently in its 34th season was for me something of a jaw-dropping realisation, not the least because the performers themselves all seemed as imbued as ever with youthful zest and boundless enthusiasm! – how on earth could it be so many years’ worth? Where did all the time go?

And if that wasn’t enough, what a stupendous undertaking it all was on this present occasion! – one with which a music ensemble could justly demonstrate its capabilities and proclaim its calibre! I don’t know whether this was actually the first time all six of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos had been performed in a single concert in this country, but the music’s sheer variety of invention and its technical and interpretative challenges seemed to me the perfect vehicle with which a group could make a “who-we-are” and “what-we-do” statement that would resonate so readily and widely among audiences.

Pretty well every instrumental ensemble worth its salt world-wide would have had a “go” at the Brandenburgs at one stage or other, and the recordings on all kinds of carriers are, of course, legion! Longer-term listeners like myself have found ourselves living through different “eras” of style and performance practice that have variously established and then turned on their heads ways of doing things over the duration, but leaving us, I think, enriched in the process. I still treasure my 1950s Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra LPs of these works, for example, while being newly invigorated by some of the later and totally different efforts of various modern-day ensembles.

As is the case with all music performance the listener’s “individual preference” factor continues to lend a fascination to hearing performances that can differ to what’s hoped for and/or expected. Of the performances we heard, I can say that I unreservedly enjoyed every one of the “middle” concertos, Nos 2, 3, 4 and 5, while finding myself responding positively to PARTS of the First and Sixth Concertos – I simply didn’t want to feel quite so “rushed” in either of the latter two’s opening and (in the First Concerto) closing movements. (I’ll get such subjective niggles out of the way, first, in order to be able to express my unreserved joy regarding the rest of the concert!)

I did think the playing order that the group devised made good sense, particularly concerning No. 1 being placed last, this being the grandest of all of the concertos, with the most instruments and the greatest number of movements. It was an obvious choice for the concert’s finale, and especially with the horns making their only appearance across the entire set, and, in a sense stealing the show with their spectacular playing. Still, here, I wanted the tempi for the first and last movements to be “chunkier”, more bucolic and rustic-sounding, and not create quite such a “hurried along” impression as I gleaned. I found myself thinking “Why rush through such delightfully detailed music?” as, to me, if felt that that this performance of the “grandest” of the works didn’t evoke quite enough grandeur…..

My other bout of “modified rapture” came with the opening of No. 6, where I wanted the violists to phrase more “affectionately” and relaxedly together, instead of the crisp repartee it seemed we got – (this is a “preference” of course, as I’ve said) – and I straightaway must add that violists Nicholas Hancox and Beatrix Francis beautifully dovetailed their phrasings in the finale, which more than  made up for the impression of undue haste in the first movement – I particularly enjoyed the ensemble’s’ wholehearted  “plunge” into the minor-key section of the finale – real “temperament” at work here, and most enjoyable!

As I’ve said, the rest of the concert was sheer undiluted delight! Beginning with No. 2, and its joyous and energetic opening, we were enchanted by the stellar playing of trumpeter Michael Kirgan, whose dexterity upon his instrument was little short of wondrous, both here and in the finale, a single note during the latter at one point failing to “sound” being neither here nor there!  His fellow-soloists (Donald Armstrong, violin, Bridget Douglas, flute, and Robert Orr, oboe) were not to be outdone in this work, as the slow movement gave them the opportunity to bring out a most touching melancholy, so creating something of this great music’s “eternity” in their evocations of sounds amid a deep sense of stillness.

No. 5 seemed to lap up the musicians’ energies with glee, with flutist Kirsten Eade and violinist Donald Armstrong at first sharing the solo limelight with harpsichordist Michael Stewart, whose “concerto” this work ostensibly is, and whose solo cadenza on this occasion was momentarily “held up” by a page-turning mishap which necessitated some quick rearguard action by the player to regain his place in the music before launching into the movement’s cadenza – which he eventually did with what seemed like unflappable surety! – (I noted one of the ensemble helping him out by becoming his page-turner for the next little while!) The slow movement of this work – harpsichord, flute, violin and cello – was gorgeously done; while the gigue-like Allegro finale resembled a dance to which all the players gradually joined, with both spring and girth making an irresistible combination of buoyancy and energy!

I remember my first “live” encounter with these works in earlier days was through the Third Concerto, a kind of Baroque “Concerto for Orchestra” played at an NZSO concert, though I can’t remember who conducted – in any case, it all made for a vastly different sound-world to the one which the Amici Ensemble recreated here at the second half’s beginning, a briskly energetic, light-footed dance with crispy-wrought lines and plenty of tonal and textural variation in the strings-and-harpsichord sound. It all worked so well, especially the finale, whose wonderfully-wrought crescendi were irresistibly grown out of the molto-perpetuo rhythms before scintillatingly breaking at their apexes like finely-modulated oceanic waves – all very exciting and visceral an experience!  Incidentally, the  famous “chordal modulation” that constituted the slow movement was made into a satisfyingly “mysterious and enigmatic moment” from which the work’s finale whirled us into those “other realms” outlined above.

This was followed by the contrasting No. 4, one probably vying in popularity with No. 3, and perhaps even surpassing the latter in terms of having singable melodies! Two flutes (Bridget Douglas and Kirsten Eade) and a solo violin (Donald Armstrong) were the soloists, supported here by strings and harpsichord. Light and vivacious on its feet, the music featured delectable duetting from the flutes, and some violin pyrotechnics from Donald Armstrong that caused sparks to fly, both in the first and last movements. In between were sequences of exchange between flutes and strings, creating a fanciful aura that evoked exchanges between mythical beings, such as Echo and Narcissus, Apollo and Daphne, or Pan and Syrinx. The finale brought the strings into the limelight via a brilliant Presto, during which all the instruments adroitly interwove their lines, while revelling in the sharing of songful expressions of joyful  energies.

Certainly, such “songful expressions” and “joyful energies” were readily brought out by the musicians, keeping my sensibilities on the boil for practically all of the concert, a response obviously shared by the Waikanae audience, judging by their prolonged applause at the concert’s end. I haven’t mentioned all the musicians by name thus far, and want to pay tribute to both their individual and collegial skills in helping to make this “Brandenburg journey” such a delightful and resounding experience – Anna van der Zee (violin/ piccolo violin), Malavika Gopal (violin/viola), Andrew Thomson (violin/viola), Ian Greenberg (‘cello), Ken Ichinose  (‘cello), Damien Eckersley (bass), Louise Cox (oboe), Michael Austin (oboe) Justin Sun (bassoon), Alex Hambleton (horn), Kate King (horn). All deserve acclaim for their part in making these works for our pleasure at once a wondrous evocation of an era and such living, thrusting expressions of timeless human relevance.

Les Voisins – delicious distortions, with swing

Les Voisins

Justine Cormack, violin
James Bush, cello
Simon Martyn-Ellis, theorbo and guitar

Works by Robert de Visée, Jean Marie Leclair, and Marin Marais

Alex Taylor, Onwhatgrounds (for violin, cello, and theorbo)
Maurice Ravel, Sonata for violin and cello
Stephane Grappelli and the Hot Club de France, Nuages, SweetGeorgiaBrown, MinorSwing

St Andrews on the Terrace, Wellington

Sunday 7 May, 3 pm

This was the first concert of Wellington Chamber Music’s 2023 season, and it promises a great season to come. Les Voisins were scheduled to play this concert two years ago, but the performance was interrupted by a Covid-19 lockdown, which prevented the talented Australian theorbo player Simon Martyn-Ellis from travelling to New Zealand.

The theorbo is a kind of giant lute and is plucked or strummed. It was invented in the 1580s when players wanted an extra bass instrument for accompanying singers in the first operas, so they took a bass lute and extended the neck, adding seven additional strings to extend the bass register. Its bottom note is lower than that of the cello. Whereas the seven higher strings  are fretted and tuned like a guitar, the lower ones are tuned diatonically, like a harp. The low strings are deep and resonant, and the instrument is said to have been much in demand as a continuo instrument. As for a harpsichord, the theorbo player reads the bass line and improvises over the top.

The first work on the programme was by Robert de Visée (1650-1725), a prelude and passacaglia in D minor for solo theorbo. The composer was a musician in the court of Louis XIV, and his works for guitar, lute, and theorbo were written down by others. The prelude sounded tentative, but the passacaglia more assured. Still, it took me a few minutes to get used to its restrained sound.

Next, a sonata for violin and continuo in E minor by Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764), a work which my companion plays often. Leclair is well known to violinists as the founder of the French school of violin playing, and is still a popular composer for violin. This work had both theorbo and cello on continuo, which helpfully reinforced the theorbo against the brilliance of Justine Cormack’s mid-nineteenth century French violin. The first and third movements had their heart in the dance (Leclair was also known as a dancing master), with lively and rhythmic playing, while the middle movement was a sarabande, played gently by theorbo with violin. It is easy to see why so many of Leclair’s compositions have survived.

The second work by de Visée was a suite in C minor for solo theorbo, comprising a prelude, an allemande, and a ‘plainte au tombeau des Mesdemoiselles de Visée, filles de l’Auteur’. This beautiful and melancholy work was written for the souls of the composer’s two daughters. It was followed by a work by Marin Marais (1656-1728) played by all three instruments. The Bells of St Geneviève is much better known than the works that preceded it  in the programme (I’m sure I have heard it on RNZ Concert more than once) and is lively and jazzy, with exciting fortes and idiomatic playing by the excellent Justine Cormack.

Finally, the last work of the first half of the concert: Alex Taylor’s On what grounds. This was commissioned by Les Voisins for this tour, with support from Creative NZ, who certainly got value for their money. It is a set of six movements in the style of a Baroque suite. Justine Cormack introduced the work by quoting the composer, who described it as ‘a series of musical games with an emotional core’ in the chaconne. Taylor wanted to explore the potential of the fretted theorbo alongside the flexibility of the violin and cello, which can glissando between notes via the quartertones between them (whereas the theorbo can only play semitones).

Cormack mentioned the distortions created as the intervals are sometimes stretched or compressed. Taylor, she said, saw the work in terms of patterns of stress and release, with the tension of the quartertones built up in the chaconne section and released in the epilogue. The programme note said that the work explores the notion of a ground: literally, in the case of the ground bass in the chaconne, but also in the sense of ‘returning to a fixed point, collections of harmonies derived from a single pitch, or variations on a specific musical interval’.

This was a delicious work to listen to in the context of the pieces that went before. It was ear candy, with unexpected and interesting sonorities one after another. The chaconne was my favourite movement. (My notes say ‘weird – but very interesting’.) The composer had responded intelligently to the Baroque works in the programme and his work sounded as poised and stylish as they did, evoking Baroque forms within a completely contemporary soundworld. We were disappointed not to hear it twice.

After the interval, the theorbist took a break whilst Cormack and Bush played Ravel’s less well-known sonata for violin and cello in A minor. The players grew up living next door to each other as children, and performed with each other from an early age. Cellist James Bush often performs with some of Europe’s best Baroque musicians, such as the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, and Concerto Köln, and that Baroque flexibility was on show.

The Ravel work was written between 1920 and 1922 and is dedicated to Debussy, who had recently died. This work follows Ravel’s principal composition of the First World War, Le Tombeau de Couperin, and was written at about the same time as his orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Ravel had recently heard Kodaly’s sonata for violin and cello, and the second and fourth movements are said to be influenced by it (though my Hungarian companion heard more Bartók than Kodaly in them). I enjoyed the rustic, lively dances, but my favourite movement was the third movement, a slow and beautiful chorale. The first movement had that characteristic Ravel quality of always moving and never quite arriving.  Irrespective of what influenced whom, this is a gorgeous work and deserves to be heard more often.

Finally, since we were almost at the point when Ravel discovered jazz, we were treated to three transcriptions of Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt at the Hot Club de France: Reinhardt’s versions of Sweet Georgia Brown, Nuages, and Minor Swing. Simon the Theorbist was revealed to be an excellent guitarist as well, and Cormack did a lovely Grappelli. These were terrific (although it always sounds a bit odd to my ears when classically trained musicians faithfully reproduce a transcription of a work that would have had considerable improvisation). A swinging end to a delightful concert, and a great start to WCM’s 2023 season.

 

Orpheus Choir tackles JS Bach’s Mass for the Ages

JS BACH – Mass in B Minor BWV 232

Brent Stewart (conductor)
Anna Leese (soprano)
Jenny Wollerman (soprano)
Maaike Christie-Beekman (alto)
Benjamin Madden (tenor)
Simon Christie (bass)
David Morriss (bass)

Orpheus Choir of Wellington
Orchestra Wellington
Jonathan Berkahn (harpsichord)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 29th April 2023

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor is one of those works that has taken on a life of its own largely independent of the intentions of its composer. The work was composed in separate sections at different times, the two opening sequences (Kyrie and Gloria) appearing as early as 1733, so that the composer could at that time demonstrate his credentials for a job as Court Composer in Dresden – unfortunately, it was a position he failed to secure. Fifteen years later he returned to these sequences and completed the work with the Credo, Sanctus, and the remaining movements – Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Dona Nobis Pacem. No-one knows exactly what his intentions were, and there’s no evidence that the whole work was ever performed in Bach’s lifetime.

Musicologists however tend to the view that Bach wanted to set down a kind of compendium of his skills as a composer, an overview of his life’s work. Adding credence to this view is the extent to which the composer employs practically every church music style ranging from austere counterpoint to dance and operatic styles which he’d used in previous works, the result a compilation of matchless variety. However, probably because of Bach’s localised and therefore limited reputation during his lifetime, the work did not find favour in general terms until some way through the 19th century – the music wasn’t printed until 1845, and the first documented performance didn’t occur until 1859.

Of course the actual performance sound-world of Bach’s music in itself has undergone radically change in relatively recent times, spearheaded by a desire of musicians to attempt to reconstruct something akin to what the composer himself might have heard in his own performances of his music.  Consequently, at the present time no two scholars’, conductors’ or musicians’ interpretations of practically any baroque work will sound alike as current ideas concerning just what earlier eras DID hear can markedly differ. Available recordings today offer a fascinating range of practices,  from the still-conventionally-sized choral groups and orchestral ensembles to certain new-age minimalist one-to-a-part performances that stress clarity ahead of sheer visceral vocal impact as a prime concern.

The programme accompanying the Orpheus Choir’s and Orchestra Wellington’s performance here in Wellington at the MFC contained a note (uncredited, but almost certainly from conductor Brent Stewart) on certain performance practices followed in the music on this occasion. Probably the most radical in terms of frequency this evening was to reallocate certain sections of the chorus’s music to the soloists as well as enabling those soloists to join in with the sections of the choir that correspond with their particular voices. This very probably accords with Bach’s own practice of using small ensembles of 12-16 voices, and sometimes only solo voices, in certain of his cantatas. In such instances the reduced number of voices can highlight changes of mood and/or atmosphere in the pieces, and underline the clarity of the polyphonic lines.

The ensuing variety of vocal colours, textures and tones from the soloists in their freshly-allocated concerted roles certainly made for interesting results, even in the somewhat ungiving Michael Fowler Centre acoustic (which has never to my ears particularly favoured solo voice lines when compared with those heard in the warmer and more generous ambiences of the Town Hall). Generally the trio of female solo voices coped better, I thought, with the prevailing MFC conditions than did the males, though each of the latter had their moments in either their solo or duet numbers.

Tenor Benjamin Madden most ably partnered soprano Anna Leese in the enchantingly “give-and-take” lines of the  “Domine Deus” duet from the Gloria, though I thought he found the high tessitura of his later solo “Benedictus” aria  somewhat effortful in places. Bass David Morriss negotiated his runs in the “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” with growing certainty as the voice and Logan Bryck’s solo horn-playing gradually asserted a shared confidence. And fellow-bass Simon Christie made, I opinioned, a generally good fist (if just ahead of the beat, I thought, in places) of his demanding traversal of the difficult “Et in Spiritum Sanctum” from the “Credo”. As previously indicated, I did tend towards hearing the women’s solo voices more easily in these various choral “cribbings”  throughout.

Of the women’s voices it was as much a case of “vive la difference” as of varying amplitude of tones between them. In one or two instances I found myself lost in admiration for how well the singer was coping with the various melismatic demands as much as for the sheer vocal quality, a particular example  being Jenny Wollerman’s stirring duet performance with violinist Martin Riseley of the beautiful “Laudamus te”,  even at a tempo that set the pulses racing faster than I had been used to hearing, and having an exhilaration all of its own!

Maaike Christie-Beekman gave particular pleasure with her alto voice throughout, specifically in both her partnering of Alison Dunlop’s gorgeously-played oboe d’amore  in “Qui sedes a dextram Patris”, and even more feelingly in the “Agnus Dei”, her finely-chiselled tones beautifully augmented by the strings throughout. And the somewhat dry acoustic seemed to hold no terrors for soprano Anna Leese, whose tones set even the MFC precincts dancing in places, such as in each of the two sensuous duets within the work’s Part One, the “Christe eleison”, with an equally responsive Jenny Wollerman, and my out-and-out favourite duet, the “Domine Deus” from the Gloria, in which her deliciously insouciant, sinuous lines were matched by Karen Batten’s radiant flute-playing and Benjamin Hodder’s reliably responsive vocal partnering. Yet another duet, “Et in Unum Dominum” , featured Leese’s and Christie-Beekman’s voices spectacularly playing off against one another’s, their teamwork exemplary.

The Orpheus Choir’s numbers perhaps didn’t on this occasion accord size-wise with the resources Bach himself used, but one would have had to possess a heart of stone to remain unmoved by certain moments in the work whose resounding impact couldn’t have been achieved with fewer voices – the very opening Kyrie, for instance, and in the Gloria, the climaxes of “Gratias agimus tibi” with its steady, scalp-pricking accumulation of vocal tone at the end, and similarly with the  celestial jubilations at the beginning and the conclusion of “Cum Sancto Spiritu” , an effect also replicated by those cascading vocal triplets throughout the “Sanctus”, drenching us in all-enveloping tonal torrents!

Not that our enjoyment of the choir’s efforts was confined merely to the “spectacular moments” – Bach’s aforementioned penchant for exploring a plethora of musical styles brought to us such varied vocal expression as that characterising the deeply-concentrated and awe-struck “Et incarnatus est” , followed by a subtle change of mood and tone to one of sorrow and grief  for the ‘’Crucifixus”, with the ensuing “Et Resurrexit” giving, of course, the voices the chance to demonstrate their versatility with the change from desolate feeling to unbridled joy. And what better way to conclude the whole work than with the majesty of the “Dona Nobis Pacem”, Brent Stewart’s visionary direction of his forces inspiring the Orpheus’s utmost commitment towards and (as throughout the work) admirable technical finish in this valedictory expression of the composer’s faith and confidence in his Maker.

Up there with the chorus’ sterling efforts deserving of the highest praise were those of the Orchestra Wellington players, who in both solo and ensemble terms had under conductor Stewart’s direction a burnished brilliance which fitted Bach’s music like a glove. The numerous instrumental solos were delivered in full accordance with the music’s character in each case, ranging from the elan of Martin Riseley’s violin solo in “Laudamus te”, piquant elegance in the case of Karen Batten’s flute solos in both “Domine Deus”, and “Benedictus (the latter supported additionally by Brenton Veitch’s ‘cello), and heroic energies from Logan Bryck‘s horn in “Quoniam”, to Alison Dunlop’s  heartfelt oboe d’amore solo in “Agnus Dei”, and her mellifluous partnership with fellow-oboist Alison Jepson and bassoonist Jessica Goldbaum in “Et in Spiritum Sanctum”.  But as with the voices, the corporate energies of the players formed the bedrock on which this performance proved such a great success, to which Jonathan Berkahn’s harpsichord continuo provided unfailing sustenance. Whether it was a hushed ambience, a playful energy or a monumental magnificence required, the players in so many instances spectacularly delivered, the strings endlessly providing lyrical and rhythmic support, the winds beautifully colouring the different textures, and the brass and timpani frequently capping off the big moments with plenty of requisite tonal splendour and impact.

Having touched upon many of the exemplary features of the performance from those concerned, it seems appropriate to underline the fact of the event’s circumstances having had various teething problems – included was a kind of “historical” aspect to the undertaking, relating to postponements of the event due to COVID restrictions going back as far as 2020, recurring in both 2021 and 2022, and then finally easing sufficiently to allow this 2023 performance! To add to these difficulties came a clutch of more recent glitches involving indisposition of scheduled singers and players, resulting in belated replacements for the original bass singer and horn-player (and very nearly for one of the female soloists as well! In recounting these mishaps, director Brent Stewart did, he told me, wonder whether some “higher power” really didn’t want this performance to go ahead, almost right up to the scheduled starting time on the day, when what he termed “apocalyptic traffic” added to the stress and strain (and caused a ten-minute delay to the concert’s actual “kickoff”!)

When thinking back to the performance, with its memory continuing to churn and resound in my head, what remains for me is a sense of the music being propelled by its many committed performers with boundless energies and in beguiling varieties of ways.  All of these qualities arguably lead the work’s listeners to realms which encourage singular manifestations of purpose in human existence, as many as there are different people. All of it left me with a profuse gratitude to Brent Stewart and his forces at so readily bringing their abundant skills to bear on this enthralling  music.

A solo tour-de-force from violinist Monique Lapins

St.Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series
MONIQUE LAPINS (solo violin)
A concert for solo violin – music by Georg Philipp Telemann,
Erwin Schulhoff, and Jacob Ter Veldhuis (a.k.a. Jacob T.V.)

St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace Church

Wednesday, 8th June 2022

I left this concert on a high, and started composing my notes and comments on the way home in the bus!

One violin, one solitary violinist at the centre of the stage, and a program of music largely unfamiliar to concert audiences; this promised to be an exceptional musical experience. Monique Lapins is a very versatile musician, a member of the NZ String Quartet, of the Ghost Trio with Gabriela Glapska (piano) and Ken Ichinose (cello) and, of the contemporary group, Ensemble Gô. She presented a programme that ranged from the first half of the eighteenth century to the 21st century – all on just four strings!

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1761)
Fantasias for solo Violin – No. 1 in B-flat TWV 40.14 / No.6 in E Minor TWV 40.19 / No. 7 in E-flat Major  TWV 40.20

Telemann, a contemporary of JS Bach, Handel and Vivaldi, was a self-taught and immensely prolific composer. He wrote operas, church music (cantatas and oratorios), orchestral and chamber music, keyboard and other instrumental music (both concertos and works for various solo instruments). Among these were 12 Fantasias for solo violin.

The great violin makers of the age, Nicola Amati and Stradivari in Italy, and Jacob Stainer and the Klotz family in Germany, greatly exploded the potential of the simple fiddle. These Fantasias, like Bach’s Partitas and Sonatas for Solo Violin should be seen in this light, that complex polyphonic music can  be produced, played on a simple instrument with only four strings.

These works, based on elaborations of simple dance tunes and rhythms evolve into major musical statements, involving technically challenging double-stopping and rapid, spectacular ornamentation. Monique Lapins played these with a clear tone that easily filled the hall – she articulated each phrase distinctly so that they each became part of a musical narrative. She played with ease, as if these complex dance fragments had come to her spontaneously.

Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942)
Sonata for Solo Violin (1927)

Schulhoff was a significant Czech composer from the post-World War One years, who experimented with the new styles of music which emerged in the wake of the cataclysm of the war. This Sonata opened with a fast, manic first movement, followed by a slower movement that was tinged with sadness and nostalgia. Then came a scherzo with folksy rhythms, and finally a movement made up of more barbarous sounds of a kind the composer intended would shock the status quo.

The whole Sonata, but particularly the last two movements evoked Bartok’s use of Hungarian peasant songs and dances, but Schulhoff also employed tone rows, the result of the influence of Schoenberg and his school. It is a fiendishly difficult piece, seldom heard; and yet an important work from the 20th Century’s violin repertoire.

Jacob Ter Veldhuis – a.k.a. Jacob T.V. (b.1951)
The Garden of Love, for violin and soundtrack (2022)

Another war, with further destruction of civilisation, and here was another composer of this later time, exploring what others such as Steve Reich were doing with their music. The Garden of Love is a poem by William Blake, whose words here are uttered in sound-bytes, together with others from voices, oboes, harpsichord, bird-song and electronic sound. The violin is here in dialogue with the machine producing these sounds. It must have been incredibly difficult to keep this dialogue going in a convincing manner, but to the great credit of Monique Lapins she did this, so that the audience was at first puzzled and bewildered, but responded to the challenge by the end.

This was an amazing and unique concert, quite unlike other violin recitals. It’s a great pity that Radio NZ’s Concert Programme no longer records concerts like this. There was a time when people could share such musical experiences no matter where they lived, anywhere from Kaitaia to the Bluff., with those who were fortunate enough to live in the main centres Perhaps with the shakeup of Radio NZ and TVNZ room will be found for those whose interests go beyond the latest popular tunes, nostalgia and selected news handouts, even if there is no money in it and no-one makes a profit. There is value in expanding and challenging the interests and cultural horizons of people, citizens, taxpayers, no matter where they live.

Steadfast Wellington Chamber Orchestra brings off an exhilarating concert to finish an eventful year

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:

R.STRAUSS – Wind Serenade for 13 instruments
VIVALDI – Double Flute Concerto
ARNOLD – English Dances (Set One)
TCHAIKOVSKY – Symphony No. 2 in C Minor Op.17  “Little Russian”

Kirstin Eade and Bridget Douglas (flutes)
Ian Ridgewell (conductor)
Wellington Chamber Orchestra

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

Sunday, 12th December 2021

Congratulations right at the outset are in order to whomever devised such a scintillating programme for the Wellington Chamber Orchestra to finish this remarkably unpredictable year of years with!  It certainly was one that made up in part for earlier schedules being plagued by the vagaries of Covid-19 and the resulting ripplings of disruption! Here we were freely delivered plenty of satisfyingly full-blooded excitements and festive revelries, side-by-side with contrasting episodes of great beauty, resonant circumspection and purposeful action – a living, breathing entity of life-giving expression!

A lot of the credit must go to conductor Ian Ridgewell, whose direction of much of this eclectic range of music was focused and very much to the point, directly and unfussily intent upon bringing out the music’s “character” in each of the pieces presented. I liked how the conductor left the flute duo of Bridget Douglas and Kirsten Eade entirely free to interact with the continuo instruments in the Vivaldi Concerto’s slow movement as if sharing amongst themselves some exquisite chamber music!  Just occasionally elsewhere I felt a slight “tug” of discrepancy between the conductor and his players, most notably in the Tchaikovsky Symphony’s Andantino movement, the strings in particular wanting to push the march rhythm along more tautly in places – and there were dovetailing difficulties aplenty between orchestral sections in the same work’s treacherous Scherzo movement that required watchful shepherding from the podium!

The concert began most winningly with the early (1882) Richard Strauss work for winds, the piece a kind of homage by the seventeen year-old composer to Mozart’s own Wind Serenade in B-flat Major for the same number of instruments (Mozart’s work is sometimes performed with a string bass, sometimes with a contrabassoon), one obviously a model for Strauss.  I thought the performance by the WCO winds a most affectionate one, a beautifully easeful opening, with the contourings of melodic lines both gorgeous-sounding and characterful, and the different dynamic levels of the music consistently producing ear-catching results. I particularly liked the sonorous contribution of the tuba to the music’s foundations, and relished the crunchiness of the harmonic changes that accompanied the oboe’s lead-in to the piece’s second half. The ensemble’s blend grated ever so slightly once or twice in places during the latter half, but the final paragraph of the work, with its beautiful ascending flute-line, was most felicitously essayed by all concerned.

I was surprised to learn that the Vivaldi Concerto for two flutes and strings was the composer’s only essay for this combination, particularly as the soloists Bridget Douglas and Kirsten Eade amply demonstrated the manifold delights of the work’s seemingly endless invention, aided by some on-the-spot playing from the WCO strings in the outer movements. Straightaway the music captivated one’s attention with its gaiety and exhilarating energies, the dynamics placing solo-instrument delicacies alongside rumbustious tuttis that made the most of both the contrasted and concerted sounds. Though short, the work added a dimension of intimacy with the player-directed slow movement (simply flutes and continuo – two ‘cellos and a harpsichord), beautiful canonic writing alternating with passages in thirds – exquisite in effect!

Ian Ridgewell returned to direct the finale, consisting of more gallivanting and frolicking in Vivaldi’s most ingratiating style, though closer attention also heightened my appreciation of both the composer’s and the players’ skills in realising the singular beauties of the music’s interspersing of solo, chamber and ripieno sequences. It all demonstrated how the composer’s justly famous “Four Seasons” concerti ought to be a “starting-point” and not merely a “one-work” experience for the Vivaldi listener!

To my great delight, Bridget Douglas and Kirstin Eade acknowledged the concerto’s brevity by way of playing us an encore, the final movement from a work by an American composer, Gary Schocker, Three Dances for Two Flutes and Piano, one divertingly subtitled Coffee Nerves, Prestissimo! It’s a very bluesy-vigorous piece with driving rhythms for the flutes in unison lines breaking occasionally into thirds, and with the piano (played by Heather Easting, who had also contributed the harpsichord part in the  Vivaldi concerto’s continuo) punctuating the discourse with droll interludes – also one of the flutes (Kirstin’s on this occasion) indulged in startlingly “ornery” deviations, which were “coaxed” back into seemliness by the other flute – an interesting relationship between the two!

Malcolm Arnold’s invigoratingly breezy English Dances (the first of two sets of four of these) came next, works I’ve always loved for their colour, energy and original inspiration (the melodic invention throughout is the composer’s own, rather than the pieces being orchestrated versions of English folk-songs). I greatly prize a set of these richly and lovingly recorded by Arnold himself, though Ian Ridgewell’s direction took a rather more direct and vigorous view of the music, the opening Andantino’s bell-like awakenings on the move here right from the outset, and a central section sounding like a fairground in the middle of the countryside! If a shade raucous in full tutti, this could be put down to the effect of a largish orchestra playing in a smallish venue. Amends were made by lovely descending wind figurations at the piece’s end.

More chimings, this time vigorous and arresting, were brought into play throughout the second movement’s Vivace, with great work from the horns and winds throughout, the brasses capturing the music’s roisterings most excitingly, and the tutti filled with ear-catching detail.  The following Mesto (“sad and pensive”) flipped the mood of the sounds into melancholy, with tremolando strings, harp and bassoon joined by strings in a most authentic-sounding folk-melody, the wind-choir also making the most of their expressive opportunities, a strongly-focused mood beautifully sustained throughout by the players.

The final dance, Allegro Risoluto, allowed conductor and players to really let their hair down, the uproarious opening “nailed” by the brasses, here, punctuated by squawks of approval from the winds, catching the music’s unbuttoned and celebratory mood – I particularly loved the sound of the tuba’s star turn, egged on by the winds! The whole performance resounded with high spirits and jocularity, the composer here mercifully untroubled by the mental storms and stresses which throughout his life beset his sense of well-being.

A similar sense of well-being over-riding troubles and anxieties also permeates Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony which took up the concert’s second half. Called the “Little Russian” (though not by its composer) because of the frequency of its use of Ukrainian folk melodies, the music has a joyous energy throughout, which the playing readily capitalised upon, coming to fruition in the final movement with its racily colourful variations on a folksong called “The Crane”. I particularly enjoyed the “Russian Sailors’ Dance”-like energies of the strings in places, along with the finely-played antiphonal brass calls punctuating the blending of the finale’s two themes, and the skitterish sequence which featured the piccolo (beautifully played) and the other winds towards the work’s end, immediately prior to the tam-tam stroke which calls the band to order for the work’s “give it all you’ve got” coda!

The horn-playing at the symphony’s beginning beautifully set the atmosphere, carried forward by soulful wind-playing, building the tensions towards the allegro’s snappy beginning, both winds and strings excitingly on the button! Ridgewell kept things on a tight rein throughout, getting good ensemble from the players, though I thought he might have allowed the second allegro subject a bit more breathing-space, the players sounding a little “pushed” here and there. However, the lead-back to the horn’s repeat of its opening solo was nicely controlled, the playing leaving us eager for more.

The March was beautifully brought into being, even if the strings seemed to want to slightly push ahead of the winds’ pointed drolleries – when the march rhythms resumed after the heart-easing middle-section, some of the opening “swagger” seemed by then flattened out, but the grandly ceremonial utterance of the “tune” was brought off nicely by strings and brasses. The Scherzo was a mixed bag, with the dovetailed syncopated figures struggling at times to “fit themselves in” – however the Trio worked beautifully, with the winds enjoying themselves, the flutes being especially on the ball (a lovely solo over pizzicato strings), and with clarinets, oboes and bassoons in full accord.

Altogether, a most successful concert, and a heart-warming way to conclude a somewhat troubled season – and how encouraging to be given notice of the orchestra’s plans for 2022 as well, consisting of four varied concerts, the first commemorating the band’s 50th Anniversary season! One wishes all involved in the undertaking the very best for it!

 

Dramatic and innovative Haydn in the Church from Camerata with soprano Carleen Ebbs

Camerata – Haydn in the Church

HANDEL – Overture Berenice
HAYDN –  Scena di Berenice (from Metastatio’s “Antigono”)*
HAYDN – Symphony No. 14 in A Hob 1:14

*Carleen Ebbs (soprano)
Camerata
Anne Loeser (leader)

St.Peter’s-on-Willis-St
Wellington

Friday, 5th November 2021

At the end of a busy and distracted Friday I found myself headed for St.Peter’s-on-Willis-St Church for Camerata’s latest “Haydn in the Church” concert series, which I’d been looking forward to ever since attending and enjoying the last one, though on this occasion I’d not been as assiduous in my preparation for the evening’s music as per usual – I had seen the programme on-line a couple of days previously, and was, of course expecting the accustomed delight of an early Haydn symphony to match that readily afforded by others in the series thus far, but I found myself scratching all about my memory-banks to recall what else I’d glimpsed on the  items “list”. I definitely recalled a soprano’s name, and an operatic scene to do with “Berenice”, which I had always thought was a work by Handel! – so I think at that point I gave up the conscious struggle, and consoled myself at the thought of everything being “revealed” once I’d gotten into the church.

Even then I didn’t get my hands on an actual programme, but  did talk briefly with Greg Hill, who was sitting next to me in a socially-distanced sense, and who actually had written the programme notes for the concert – at the interval he was able to confirm that there had been both a Handel and a Haydn work, each with the name Berenice, on the items list! So I had been on the right track after all.

I knew the Menuetto from Handel’s “Berenice” as my parents had owned a 78rpm disc of the work which I’d often heard when a child, and still remembered. This was, however, the whole of the Overture, a sprightly beginning, with the dotted rhythms beautifully “sprung”, leading to an Allegro whose trajectory had a joyous kind of enlivening energy, the oboe attractively colouring the string textures. The Menuetto featured the oboe-and-string sound prominently at first, before the strings repeated the material, playing the concluding lines of the second part with a beautiful and graceful legato. A lively Gigue rounded off the Overture in suitably festive fashion.

The name of the soprano Carleen Ebbs was one to conjure with, as she had made a richly favourable impression on the one occasion I’d previously seen and heard her, as the nymph Calisto in Cavalli’s eponymous opera, performed in 2015 by Days Bay Opera – on that occasion I was moved to voice the opinion that “Ebbs’ is a voice to listen out for”. She’s now returned to New Zealand after being based in London for 15 years, training at the Guildhall in London and at the Cardiff International Voice Academy, and working with a variety of prestigious coaches and at the great UK Opera Houses.

On the strength of her performance this evening of Haydn’s 1795 Scena di  Berenice, that promise, evident in the Days Bay La Calisto, has been more than fulfilled – Ebbs took us right inside the character of Berenice’s plethora of moods from the outset, capturing our sympathies from the very opening recitative Berenice che fai?, in which she first bemoans her own fear and weakness at the prospect of her lover Demetrio’s death, then expresses a longing to die alongside her beloved, through to the first impassioned aria in which the singer begs to be allowed to “cross that river” with him; and, finally, in some kind of delirium, raging against the cruelty of the gods with a fiery vocal brilliance throughout a second recitative and aria, the music storming to a passionate (and virtuosic) conclusion – tremendous stuff!

It seems from her website information that Ebbs has commitments in the UK regarding ongoing tutelage, and has already made the most of freelancing opportunities with various UK companies, activities which would have established her as a “sought-after” performer, particularly with her avowed enthusiasm for Baroque and early classical repertoire – whatever the uncertainties of the present situation world-wide regarding opportunities for performing musicians, one hopes for her continued successes, including, wherever possible, more appearances back here in New Zealand.

While all eyes (and ears) were on the singer during the drama of Haydn’s “scena”, the ensemble again became the centre of focus for the performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 14, the latest in Camerata’s exploration of the composer’s early symphonies. I note that, in a diverting on-line Classic FM post which featured a music critic asked to numerically “rank” the qualities of ALL of these  works, the hapless commentator gave this Symphony No.14 a high rating, after according some of the other “early” works what I thought were some unduly harsh verdicts regarding their “quality” – this A  Major work Hob 1:14 was actually placed 35th, ahead of many other “tried-and-true” works such as the “Military”, the “Farewell” and the “Surprise” symphonies – doubtless a case of “chacun a son goût” with the choices, as much as any other considerations!

This work’s high-spirited opening featured a repeated octave descent, followed afterwards by an even more vertiginous downward leap of a 10th (I think!), giving the music an attractively energetic character underpinned by the unrelenting bass line – I loved the horns’ ascents into high-wire material,  the oboes providing a less strenuous “echo” effect with their material, joining forces with the horns to great effect in the development, before the energetic rhythms marshalled their forces, the splendid playing driving the music to a part festive, part rustic conclusion.

The Andante moves a dignified but characterful processional along its course, the striding aspect of the melody augmented with graceful decorative notes upon repetition, the strings alone supplying the melodic interest. More fun was to be had from the Minuet (Menuetto)  with its ceremonial horns and chuckling winds, though the oboe introduced a sombre note with its minor-key melody in the trio – all very pastoral, with its hunting-horn ambiences and touches of out-of-doors melancholy!

The finale builds its material almost entirely on a descending figure (the reason for the aforementioned “critic” rating the work’s cleverness and innovation so highly), giving the whole movement a festive, bell-like atmosphere. Here the playing imparted a real sense of “schwung”, the musicians seeming to make their instruments dance to the joyous strains of the figurations, alternating delicacy with delight, and grace with energy. As is often the case with delectable pleasures, it all seemed over in a trice – so it was a good thing that Anne Loeser bade us remain for an “encore”, one which happened to continue the concert’s connection with the story from which Haydn’s scena had been taken. This was an excerpt from Gluck’s Overture to his opera seria Antigono, one which again featured the character of Berenice, the Egyptian princess in love with Demetrio, son of the King of Macedonia, to which monarch Berenice had been “promised” in marriage. Being Gluck, the music had a lyrical “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” quality, the two flutes adding to the ethereal character of the string-writing, and the sensitive accompaniments similarly transported, the whole given a resonant “music of the spheres” kind of sonority, which continued to enchant the senses long after the sounds had ceased.

 

 

 

Individual and ensembled tributes to JS Bach from Pohl-Gjelsten and Friends at an inspired St.Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert

J.S. Bach: Chaconne from Partita in D minor
Helene Pohl, violin

Eugene Ysaye: Sonata No. 5 for solo violin
Peter Gjelsten, violin

Johannes Brahms: Sonata in E minor
Rolf Gjelsten, cello, Nicole Chan, piano

St Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series 2021

Thursday 14th October

J.S. Bach: Chaconne from Partita in D minor
A well planned concert has an underlying narrative. In this case it was twofold, Bach, and the scope of a solo violin. Bach’s Partitas and Sonatas for solo violin are landmarks in the violin repertoire and indeed in the development of the violin as a solo instrument. The Chaconne is the final movement of the second Partita. The great violinist, Yehudi Menuhin, describes it as “the greatest structure for solo violin that exists”  (Menuhin, Yehudi. 2001. Unfinished Journey,) It involves a set of variations based on a simple phrase repeated in harmonic progression in the bass line, but for the present day listener it evokes a whole world of emotions, and for the performer a whole array of technical challenges. Although by Bach’s time works for solo violins were well established, with Biber and Telemann among others writing pieces for solo violin, there was nothing comparable to this monumental work. Bach develops 64 variations from the simple basic theme of four measures. These become increasingly complex of increasing emotional intensity. It may, or may not have been written in memory of Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, who died during a time while Bach was away, but there is no historical evidence for this apart from the date of composition. Helen Pohl’s performance was absolutely convincing. Her playing was clear and unforced as she did justice to the contrasts within the piece and played with a beautiful rich tone. It was a moving performance.

Eugene Ysaye: Sonata No. 5 for solo violin
Although Ysaye was quite a prolific composer, he is now mainly remembered for his six solos sonatas for violin, each dedicated to an eminent violinist, No. 5 to Mathieu Crickboom, second violin of the Ysaye Quartet for a time. Ysaye himself was one of the great violinists of his era, an exponent of the French- Belgian school of violin playing of the tradition of Wieniawski and Vieuxtemps. He was a friend of Debussy and César Franck. Ysaye’s solos sonatas are fiendishly difficult. No.5 is in two sections ,L’Aurore, atmospheric, evoking the mood of the dawn, and Danse Rustique, with its strong rhythms, that of a peasant dance. The piece has a whole bag of tricks, double stop chords, harmonics, fast passages on top of held notes, plucked pizzicatos marking the melodic line of double stops, demonstrating what is possible to play on a violin. It is a great challenge for a young violinist on threshold of his career. Peter Gjelsten coped with these difficulties amazingly well. He gave a convincing reading to this seldom-heard piece .

Johannes Brahms: Sonata in E minor
This is a passionate and lyrical work, written when Brahms was 30 and had just arrived in Vienna. It is one of the few memorable cello sonatas of the nineteenth century. Brahms thought of it as a homage to Bach, and indeed he quotes from the Art of Fugue in the fugal passage of the third movement, but Brahms’ world is very different from that of Bach. This a world in which the emotional world of the artist is paramount. Although the form of the piece is strictly that of classical sonata, it is far from the restrained expression of Bach’s age. It is a very captivating work that calls for a deeply felt response from performer and listener alike. Rolf Gjelsten and Nicole Chao played it as a like minded partnership. Gjelsten played with a lyrical singing tone beautifully balanced by the piano. Emanuel Ax, the great American pianist, wrote in his notes for his recording of this work with Yo-Yo Ma that “The cello is often the bass support of the entire harmonic structure, and the piano is often in the soprano in both hands. This constant shifting of registers, with the cello now above, now below, now in between the hands of the pianist, creates an intimate fusing of the two instruments, so that there is no feeling of a more important voice that is continuous – the lead is constantly shifting.”

We have heard Nicole Chao as half of the delightful Duo Enharmonics, a piano duo with Beth Chen, Peter Gjelsten was the soloist with the Wellington Youth Orchestra, playing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto last week, while Helen Pohl and Rolf Gjelsten are half of the the NZ String Quartet. Like many of the St. Andrews concerts, this lunchtime concert celebrated the vast pool of musical talent in Wellington.

 

Sounds of friendship from Vieux Amis at Wellington Chamber Music’s St.Andrew’s concert

Wellington Chamber Music presents:
Vieux Amis (Old friends)

Arvo Pärt Für Alina / JS Bach Viola da Gamba Sonata in D Major, BMW 1028

Arvo Pärt mozart adagio / JS Bach Violin Sonata in E Major, BMW 1016

Dmitri Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue in E minor, Op. 87.No. 4 /

Piano Trio No.2 in E minor Op. 67

Vieux Amis –
Justine Cormack (violin) / James Bush (’cello) / Sarah Watkins (piano)

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

Sunday, 15th August 2021

Vieux Amis (Justine Cormack, James Bush and Sarah Watkins), are old friends indeed. They grew up together in Christchurch, they were neighbours and long-standing colleagues, and their bonds run deep. They put together an innovative programme of music that is, apart from the Shostakovich Trio,  seldom heard in concerts. To add to the innovative aspect of the programme, they asked the audience not to applaud between the Arvo Pärt and the Bach works, and between the Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue and the Trio, so that these pieces became introductions to what followed.

Arvo Pärt Für Alina

This is a simple piece, but its simplicity is deceptive. The music follows strict mathematical rules, the melody grows by one note in each bar, reaching its maximum of eight notes, then it begins to diminish again. The free-flowing melody is united throughout the piece with the so-called tintinnabuli, bell like voice. The long pedalled and held notes are separated by significant pause. This is considered to be one of the most significant works of all Arvo Pärts oeuvre. Its performance requires very sensitive reading attuned not only to the changing notes, but also to the silences separating them. It was a very appropriate introduction to the Bach Sonatas, preparing listeners for the subtleties of the complex baroque works that folloowed.

Johann Sebastian Bach Viola da Gamba Sonata in D Major, BMW 1028

Although this sonata was written for the viola da gamba, it was played by James Bush on a modern cello, with its more powerful tone. He played it with a beautiful, rich, romantic, sound, and the performance was more pleasing for that. The sonata starts with a gentle adagio and a lovely interplay between the cello and the keyboard. The second movement is an unhurried dance movement, the third is a meditative slow movement with keyboard and cello evaluating each evolving phrase, while the last movement is again a relaxed joyful dance. Parts of this sonata were used  in Bach’s St Matthew Passion [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sonatas_for_viola_da_gamba_and_harpsichord_(Bach)]

Arvo Pärt mozart adagio

This is an arrangement, or more appropriately, a reinterpretation of the second movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in F minor, K. 280. Pärt explores new sonorities between the strings and piano.

Johann Sebastian Bach Violin Sonata in E Major, BMW 1016

Like the viola da gamba sonatas, these sonatas with keyboard are, unlike the solo partitas and sonatas, seldom played in concerts. They follow the pattern of sonatas by Corelli and Handel, but are more complex, more ornamented. The second movement of this sonata echoes Bach’s earthy cantatas such as the Peasant Cantata. Like James Bush on the cello, Justine Cormack made no concession to the tradition of authentic baroque performance. She played with a vigorous, full-bodied violin tone and her performance was more interesting and enjoyable for that, and appropriate for present day musical tastes. She shed a contemporary light on this seldom heard work.

Dmitri Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue in E minor, Op. 87.No. 4

It was inspired programming to follow the Bach Sonata with one of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues, which were tributes to Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues. But these were written in 1950, in the shadow of the Second World War and the brutal twilight years of Stalin’s reign. Although the form is Bach’s, the language is very much Shostakovich’s Russian idiom. No. 4 of the Preludes and Fugues is full of despair and sorrow which served as a very appropriate prologue to the great Piano Trio No, 2 that followed without a break.

Dmitri Shostakovich Piano Trio No.2 in E minor Op. 67

This Trio is one of the greatest chamber music works of the twentieth century. It was written in 1944 in the midst of the Second World War. Right from the barely audible harmonics on the cello, followed by the violin then the piano, we know that we are in for music that captures the profound sadness of the time. The earthy themes would have sounded corny in anyone else’s hands, but in Shostakovich’s hands they make a point about the universality of the message of the music. One can read all sorts of things into the manic second movement, but there is no doubt about the tragic sadness of the third movement. The last movement uses a klezmer theme, stated by pizzicato on the violin and then elaborated until the sad yet jaunty music dissolves into the final tragic adagio, the violin reiterating tearfully the klezmer theme. Shostakovich was said to have said “The distinguishing feature of Jewish music is the ability to build a jolly melody on sad intonations. Why does a man strike up a jolly song? Because he is sad at heart.” Shostakovich was aware of the fate of the Jews and the Babi Yar massacre, but this music is not just about Jews. It is about the great tragedy of the war and perhaps of the Russian people. This is overwhelming sad music.

These three musicians, Vieux Amis, old friends, growing up in peaceful Christchurch, had the empathy to do justice to this profound work. It was deeply felt, profound performance.

The Shostakovich Trio was received by a resounding applause, quite out of character for the largely elderly audience. For an encore Vieux Amis played the Largo from Bach’s Trio Sonata.

This was an outstanding, fine concert, and the Wellington Chamber Music Society deserves our appreciation for bringing  to Wellington this group of fine artists, with their imaginative programme.