Ludwig is My Darling

A Concert of Vocal Ensembles

Lesley Graham (soprano), Linden Loader (mezzo), and Roger Wilson (baritone), Julie Coulson (piano)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace, Wellington

Thursday 18 November, 2021

These well-known singers, old friends and opera collagues, are accustomed to presenting a lunchtime concert at this time of year, and the programme was an interesting mix of songs that reflected their tastes and interests.

Unfortunately, such was the lack of parking on The Terrace, I missed the lighter items that opened the concert, ‘Dashing away with the smoothing iron’, and ‘The Boatie Rows’ from The Book of Scottish Song (1843), and arrived in time for the high seriousness of four Mozart Nocturnes.  Suddenly St Andrews turned into a Viennese drawing-room.  Mozart wrote these songs in 1788 for his friend, the botanist Nicolaus Josef von Jacquin. Set for SSB, they were intended for domestic performance, and the original accompaniment was three basset horns (‘unfortunately not available for today’s concert’, as the learned and witty programme notes put it, although a ‘portative organ’ would ‘work just as well’). The texts are translations of ‘rather stylized Italian poems … translated into equally inconsequential German’, and the sentiments can be discerned by the titles: ‘If you are far from me’ and ‘I bear my pain in silence’ and so on.

The singing was very stylish, and the songs themselves reminded me strongly of Brahms’s Liebeslieder Waltzer (written for four voices, not three, about 80 years later), also designed for domestic performance.

Then Roger Wilson left the stage for the set of three Shakespeare duets for two women’s voices: ‘Ye spotted snakes’ (but by Keel (1871-1954), not Mendelssohn), and two better known songs by Vaughan Williams, ‘It was a lover and his lass’ and ‘Fear no more the heat of the sun’.  The text of ‘Ye spotted snakes’ is considerably better than the music, in my view, whose heart was in the dull decades of the nineteenth century (‘Ye spotted snakes with double tongue, /Thorny hedgehogs be not seen; / Newts and blind-worms, so no wrong, / Come not near our Fairy Queen’). But the Vaughan Williams settings are justly well known (though less so than RVW’s Three Shakespeare Songs for SATB), the women’s voices were beautifully paired, and Lesley Graham’s stage presence sparkled.

Roger Wilson returned to sing ‘The Water Mill’, a ballad that began promisingly, ‘There was a maid…’. Well chosen. The next RVW number was ‘See the Chariot of Love’, from the under-performed opera Sir John in Love, written originally for SATB. But – as Lesley Graham put it – ‘we lost our tenor’, so the trio asked Michael Vinten to rearrange the quartet for SAB. The song is placed near the end of the opera, at the point where the complicated plots come together in a welter of explanations.  Vinten told me he dealt with the tenor line by giving the baritone ‘more jumping about’ to do than in the original. The piano part was ravishingly played by Julie Coulson. I liked it a great deal.

The last two items on this surprising programme were two arrangements by Beethoven. ‘Up! Quit thy bower’ (which sounds like something you’d shout on weekday mornings to sleepy teenagers) was taken from 12 schottische Volkslieder WoO 156, and was fun. But more fun was Beethoven’s arrangement of ‘Charlie is my darling’ (a poem written by Carolina Oliphant, Lady Nairne, as every schoolchild knows), complete with Scotch snaps. The piano part, as you might expect from L van Beethoven, was crisp and fabulous, and so was Julie Coulson’s playing.

Voices of the World – Stroma’s ambient “girdle round about the earth”

Stroma presents:

Works by Celeste Oram, John Psathas, Luciano Berio. Julia Wolfe, Jack Body, Anna Clyne

CELESTE ORAM – An Overture (1807, rev. 2018, 2019)
(devised by Celeste Oram, Rob Thorne (taonga puoro), Ludwig van Beethoven and Stroma Ensemble, with Keir Gogwilt, violin, and Matthew Allison, trombone)

JACK BODY – “Bouyi” (from “Yunnan”2008)
Anna Van der Zee, Emma Baron (violins), Andrew Thomson (viola),Ken Ichinose (‘cello)

ANNA CLYNE – A Wonderful Day (2013)
Patrick Barry (bass clarinet), Thomas Guldborg (percussion), Sarah Watkins (piano),
Callum Allardice (guitar), Ken Ichinose (‘cello), Alexander Gunchenko (double-bass)

JULIA WOLFE – Reeling (2012)
Patrick Barry (clarinet), Thomas Guldborg (percussion), Sarah Watkins (piano), Callum Allardice (guitar), Ken Ichinose )’cello), Alexander Gubchenko (double-bass)

JOHN PSATHAS – Irirangi (Meditation) 2019
Alistair Fraser (taonga puoro), Bridget Douglas (flute)

LUCIANO BERIO – Folk Songs 1964
Bianca Andrew (soprano), Bridget Douglas (flute), Patrick Barry (clarinet), Michelle Velvin (harp), Thomas Guldborg/Sam Rich (percussion), Andrew Thomson (viola), Ken Ichinose (‘cello)

Stroma, conducted by Hamish McKeich

Hannah Playhouse, Wellington

Thursday 1st August, 2019

Every Stroma concert I’ve had the good fortune to attend has pushed back my frontiers regarding what I’d thought of as viable and coherent musical expression, and by use of techniques and/or media that I might have previously regarded somewhat removed from “musical” realms. This “giving voice” to unconventional objects and means could be seen as taking one’s listening back to a time when music existed only as natural sounds which would have then slowly been developed alongside speech as a kind of language, the sounds then imitated by whatever objects came to hand, and which could in some cases be manipulated and varied for different results and purposes.

This latest Stroma presentation “Voices of the World” featured a couple of items which explored the idea of these pure, primitive sounds making their way into and through various human cultures and being gradually shaped for descriptive or expressive purposes. The concert’s first item was one of these, a new, intensely collegial work-in-progress called Overture 1807, rev.2018, rev.2019 (an impressive stand-alone chronology of connection in itself!). The work was the brainchild of NZ-born California-based composer Celeste Oram, an overture to a projected opera-in-progress whose material was “collectively devised and improvised” by a whole host of performer thus far in the work’s life, and included the playing of Rob Thorne, a noted exponent of taonga puoro, and material from 18th Century Vienna (though the overture as heard here extensively quoted Beethoven’s “Coriolan” Overture, a work from the early 19th Century).

Stroma’s programme note most illuminatingly told of one Georg Forster (1754-94), who, as a teenager, accompanied his father, a naturalist and scientist, on the voyage with Captain James Cook on the HMS Resolution between 1772 and 1775, visiting many South Seas Island places including New Zealand. As well as displaying sophisticated ethnographical skills in analysing different Polynesian Societies, the young Forster was a talented essayist whose book A Voyage around the World, published in 1777, earned him great fame as it uniquely combined factual and reliable data with colourful descriptions and observations of the different peoples and their customs, even including notated and translated  Polynesian songs. Goethe, Wieland, and even Beethoven were all said to have read some of Forster’s work, one commentator in the 1930s even suggesting that the slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony was inspired by a Maori chant!

By way of relating  the work of a great composer to a host of creative impulses that might have preceded it, and even “prepared its way” in generic forms, Celeste Oram chose the composer’s “Coriolan” Overture as the fulcrum around which were encircled various sounds and gesturings instigated by the taonga puoro playing of Rob Thorne – I found this experience a kind of “turned on one’s head” happening, the haunting tones, textures and timbres of the older instruments (including stones) “giving birth” as it were to the impulses that became the Beethoven Overture, by helping create the surrounding agglomerated ambiences. So this wasn’t “deconstructed” Beethoven, but rather “inseminated” (is there a unisex expression for this?) thought, impulse and gesture, all given musical and theatrical expression. Rob Thorne’s taonga puoro evocations of an ancient “being” instigating processes of creativity which, rather than self-consciouslessly wrought had a kind of “uncovered” aspect, made discernable by creative awareness, and leading towards the measures of (here) oddly-syncopated Beethoven that we knew so well, though underlining for us at the piece’s end the infinite patience of the sources of these tones and impulses in returning our sensibilities to the place of origin, though, of course, never to be quite the same again.

Each one of the concert’s next three pieces featured pre-recorded human voices (a duet and two solos) given a kind of freshly-wrought reactive ambience, as likely to contrast with as complement the singers’ sounds. These were “field” recordings, caught on the wing, as it were, and thus requiring from the instrumentalists a similar kind of spontaneity of utterance, an “entering into” the world of the vocalisings in both a physical and a spiritual sense. Jack Body’s Bouyi was something of a “rogue entry” into a catalogue of field recordings from Yunnan province in China, this being actually from Guizhou, a neighbouring province. It featured the voices of two Bouyi women duetting, though no translation was provided.

Two violins began softly and folkishly, evoking a spacious kind of serenity, enlivened by the women’s voices, to which the viola and ‘cello responded – the instruments gave the impression of “listening” to the voices, the instrumental harmonisings tender, sensitive and ambient, contrasted with the voices’ elegant earthiness. The instruments occasionally copied the voices’ interval of a second in places, but always discreetly and resonantly – it all gave an impression of a precious moment in time caught on the wing, to be enjoyed and marvelled at in times to come.

The ambient contrast between this and a similar kind of undertaking by British composer Anna Clyne couldn’t have been more marked, the recording being of an elderly man in a Chicago Street singing and tapping his walking-cane as he walked down the city’s “Magnificent Mile”. Stroma’s resident conductor Hamish McKeich magically appeared to direct this piece which was titled A Wonderful Day. The man’s voice made a great subject – very forthright, his “feeling” very emotional and overt, both in speech and song, the instrumental accompaniments gently “played with” the singer, before cranking the delivery up into a kind of gospel hymn! The piano and percussion helped to “open up” the ambiences, the double-tracking of song and commentary giving the performance a kind of resonance, riding triumphantly atop the traffic noise – a tremendously involving and great-hearted realization, the first of a collection of electro-acoustic recordings of street noises entitled “Chicago Street Portraits”.

American composer Julia Wolfe’s work Reeling used a recording of a French-Canadian singer who possessed an extremely rhythmic and lively vocal style, one generating tremendous momentum from the outset – the instrumentalists took up the vocalised rhythms firstly with fingers and feet, gradually bringing in clarinet, piano, cello and guitar, and finally the double-bass – the “ditty” was challengingly angular and syncopated in rhythm, sounding very street-wise, and clinching the “interactive” illusion when the percussion joined in with what seemed like proper “jamming”. The instruments were allowed a few measures without the singer, keeping the energy levels primed, the players matching the singer’s exuberance with gestures like the clarinet’s “transported” bird-calls sounded at the height of the tumult, and the singer then concluding with a flourish of strung-together cadences almost vertiginous in effect! Fabulous!

One would expect John Psathas’s music to easily replicate such Dionysian exuberances – but here was the composer of View from Olympus exploring a completely different realm of expression, one concerned with hidden, almost metaphysical properties of sounds and music, and evocations of such sounds. Psathas used the word “Irirangi” as a title for his piece, meaning a “faint voice”, a kind of “aspiration” produced by what he called a “reaching out” of realms towards other realms, but equating awareness of this phenomenon with the idea of “meditation”, a listening for these hidden voices (shades, to my surprise, of Robert Schumann’s proclaimed “one soft note for he who listens secretly” in his solo piano work Fantasie in C Major of 1839). As with the concert’s opening “Overture”, the piece here began with sounds equating more to the natural than to the “human” world via recordings of insects, birdsong, and rain, along with taonga puoro  played by Alistair Fraser, to which Bridget Douglas’s flute responded at first with simple, descending figurations, which gradually took on the character of something like an Aeolian harp, with as much breath as tone – all of these delicacies and subtleties attuned and honed our listening sensibilities in a way the composer undoubtedly meant with the word “meditation”, bringing into play the phenomena of normally inanimate objects such as stones being given the capacity to sound and “speak”, and “suggest” to the flute that it absorb these same sounds and “echo” them as the “faint voice” or “irirangi”. Haunting and moving……

As most people know, Luciano Berio wrote his Folk-Songs for the singer Cathy Berberian, to whom he was married. First performed in 1964, these are arrangements of folk songs and melodies from various parts of the world, and scored at that time for voice, flute/piccolo, clarinet, harp, viola, cello and percussion (Berio made an orchestral arrangement  in 1973). He’d set two of the songs, “La donna ideale” and “Ballo” much earlier (part of a student work from 1947 “Tre canzoni popolari”), before reworking them for the later collection. One presumes that the composer’s professed “profound uneasiness” when listening to piano-accompanied popular songs stemmed from his dislike of what he regarded as some kind of “gentrification” of the music, and that his scoring for a chamber ensemble to accompany the singer was meant to bring listeners closer to what he called “the expressive and cultural roots of each song”. Certainly the individuality of each setting is sharply expressed by the instrumentation,  more so than could a piano accompaniment alone provide – though it’s worth remembering that, often, “less is more” in these matters, and that we all (the composer himself included) “hear” things differently…….

As much as I would like to pleasurably dwell on soprano Bianca Andrew’s smilingly-voiced and vividly-characterised realisations of each one of these songs, I must hold myself in check and report merely that she seemed to me to take us right into the ambient realm of each song’s idiosyncratic world – the work of an artist with a gift for direct communication. I never, alas, heard soprano Victoria de los Angeles “live”, but a good friend of mine who did would always recall that singer’s ability to communicate a kind of “personalized” warmth of utterance, as if performing for each individual listener alone – throughout these songs I felt a similar directness of giving from this singer, an invitation to “share” the words and the music, with each item a delightfully individualized experience.

The first two songs aren’t actual folk-songs, but were composed by a Kentucky song-writer, John Jacob Niles – in “Black, black, black” the viola introduced the song, then whispered an accompaniment, before “answering” the singer after the first voice, together with the harp, everything ambient and lovely – “I wonder as I wander” was more processional, like a harp-accompanied carol, the winds contributing gently-floating harmonies, with flute and clarinet impulsively contributing some duetting bird-song! The Armenian “Loosin yelav” featured liquid harp notes and a gentle clarinet descant to the voice, concluding with a flurry of wind notes as the moon was chased into the clouds! – after which the French “Rossignolet du bois” gently told of a nightingale instructing a lover how to woo a sweetheart, voice, harp, clarinet and gentle percussive effects used here to persuasive effect.

What a contrast with the Sicilian “A la feminisca”! – at once herioc and dangerous seafaring sounds, the vocal line declamatory, in places low and trenchant, the accompaniments strident, but concluding with some lullabic assurances! The two Italian songs, “La donna ideale” and “Ballo” are both droll philosophical pronouncements concerning love, the former lyrical, the second energetic, with fantastic instrumental playing and a soaring vocal line rounding up the “whirling dervish-like” energies. More darkness with “Motettu de tristura” from Sardinia, plaintive vocal utterances, with deep, resonant chords, the flute and percussion piquant and pleading – far better to be in the Auvergne, unhappily married or no, as the case may be, in the first song! – the light, pastoral atmosphere here seeming somewhat at odds with the querulous subject-matter (Ironic as only the French can be, perhaps!) With the second Auvergne song we enjoyed the contrast between the viola’s and cello’s grim, sombre soundings, and the quasi-cautionary tale aspect of the singer’s story, the voice arched upwards so freely and expressively, the harp at the end adding a telling, liquidly-flowing  postscript.

As for the concluding Azerbaijan song, with the “untranslatable” words, here it swept along with plenty of elan, the musicians “telling” its unmistakably focused story without need of any translation, the discourse filled with glint, energy, mischief and scandalous revelation, finishing with a slate-cleansing shout, and metaphorically bringing the house down! –  the evening a triumph for Stroma’s avowed goal of engagement of its audiences with new music and new ideas, via performances of unfailing interest and brilliance.



Orpheus – a Dance Drama – beautiful, complex and thought-provoking work from Michael Parmenter

New Zealand Festival 2018 presents:
Conceptualised and choreographed by Michael Parmenter
New Zealand Dance Company
Co-produced by the Auckland Arts Festival, the New Zealand Festival
and the New Zealand Dance Company
The Opera House, Wellington

Friday, 16th March, 2018

The “Orpheus legend” is obviously one of the seminal “stories” which has contributed towards western civilisation’s view of itself and its place in the world down the ages. Orpheus himself is a multi-faceted figure whose qualities and exploits have been variously treated and interpreted at different stages, a process that continues to this day, as witness choreopher Michael Parmenter’s ambitious and wide-ranging “take” on the character’s far-reaching exploits.

Most people who know of the name of Orpheus straightaway associate it with that of his lover Euridice.  Their tragic story has been represented variously in practically all of Western art’s different disciplines, notably that of opera – in fact it figured prominently throughout opera’s very beginnings, with Jacopo Peri’s “Euridice” appearing as early as 1600, and Claudio Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo” in 1607.  Virgil and Ovid are the two writers from antiquity most readily associated with the early forms of this story, though there are various other Orphic strands which Parmenter’s work alludes to, such as the hero’s exceptional musical skills, his association with the Voyage of the Argonauts,  his rejection of the love of women after the death of Euridice, and his own death at the hands of the Maenads.

Considering this plethora of material it was no wonder Parmenter was drawn to the story and its variants, the scenarios seeming to offer ample scope for elaboration and reinterpretation in the light of more contemporaneous human experience, as with all mythological archetypes. Using a core group of dancers supported by a larger “chorus” whose movement consistently created a kind of cosmic rhythm involving both naturalistic and metaphorical ebb and flow, the production consistently and constantly suggested order coming from and returning towards an unfathomable chaos which frames the human condition as we know it, a beautiful and magical synthesis of both natural patternings and human  ritual.

Lighting, costuming and staging throughout the opening sequences wrought a kind of “dreaming or being dreamt” wonderment, as a bare, workmanlike stage was unobtrusively but inexorably clothed, peopled and activated in masterly fashion. As if summonsed and borne by divination, a platform on which were seated a group of musicians playing the most enchanting music imaginable, literally drifted to and fro, as if in a kind of fixed and preordained fluidity, in accordance with the magical tones produced by these same musicians and their instruments. Not unlike the dancers, the singers grouped and regrouped with the action’s “flow”, effectively choreographing  sounds in accordance with the whole. The music was largely from the baroque era, from the world of Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Jean de Saint-Colombe, Antoine Boesset, Michel Lambert, Etienne Moulinie and Jean-Philippe Rameau, hauntingly sung and played by singers and musicians from both sides of the Tasman. Their efforts were interspersed with the sonicscapes of composer David Downes, whose elemental interpolations at key dramatic points underpinned the powerful fusion of immediacy and other-worldliness of the baroque sounds with something inexplicably primordial in effect, a sense of interplay between order and chaos far beyond human control.

During the work’s course I was stunned by the range and scope of expression wrought by the dancers, their bodies both individually and collectively driven, it seemed, by a compelling energy and physicality whose expression spoke volumes – I felt hampered by not being able to get a reviewer’s programme, for some inexplicable reason (there were still some on sale when I asked but I had insufficient money to actually purchase one), and thus found myself “in the dark” in situ regarding some of the specific intents of the stage action, particularly in the work’s second part – borrowing a copy from a friend afterwards helped to clear up some of the moments where I felt myself not quite in synch with the stage action at the time.

In the light of the comments made by Parmenter and his team in the booklet I would wish, if I could, to go back and explore more deeply the layers of action, thought and suggestion which the show embedded beneath the basic stories. Some people I spoke to afterwards shared my feeling that the production’s content seemed TOO overlaid, and that less would have meant more – I remain equivocal in my reaction to the effect of things such as the “storming of the ramparts” representation, to give but one example, even after considering Parmenter’s idea of a “knocking down” of a bastion of male ego by the female agents of being, in the story.

Still, what endures for me is the memory of the dancers and their skills – approaching transcendence in their fluency and articulation, as well as conveying incredibly layered and interactive meanings both in individual and concerted movement and gesture. Assisted by the flowing effect of Tracy Grant-Lord’s costumes, the characters’ bodies enacted eloquent and atmospheric chiaroscuro play between clarity and concealment, whose visual tensions everywhere enhanced the power of the story-telling. While readily feeling the power of presence of the two principal name-character dancers, Carl Tolentino as Orpheus and Chrissy Kokiri as Euridice, I was equally taken with the individual characterisations of their colleagues (see below), even if, towards the end I thought the distinctiveness of their movements lost a little of their cutting edge through repetition (perhaps I was the one who was tired by this time, trying to make better sense of the cornucopia of stage incident!).

Full credit, then to this company of dancers who supported the efforts of the two leads already mentioned – Katie Rudd, Sean McDonald, Lucy Marinkovich, Eddie Elliott, Bree Timms, Toa Paranihi and Oliver Carruthers – as well as to the dedicated work of the local “movement chorus” (all of whom were volunteers). Enabling Tracy-Lord-Grant’s costumes and John Verryt’s inventive settings to display their full effect was the atmospheric lighting of Nik Janiurek, whose stated purpose was keeping “the flow of light across the stage” in accord with Orpheus’music. Michael Parmenter’s engaging choreography did the rest in tandem with his dancers’ and musicians’ focused efforts.

No one work of art will reveal all of its secrets in one encounter or during one performance – and the subjective nature of any one critical response is a moveable feast when put against others’ reactions. Michael Parmenter’s creation, I freely admit, took me by surprise in its range and scope of expression, by turns striking things truly home and taking me into places where I felt some confusion – all of which leads me towards expressing the hope that it might be re-staged at some time in the near future, and that certain aspects of the presentation might come to seem clearer in their overall purpose. Parmenter himself admitted that not every theatrical image in the work was “a complete success” in response to a more-than-usually dismissive reaction from another review quarter – but so much of “Orpheus” was, I thought, powerful, innovative and challenging theatre, deserving to be thought and rethought about. It’s certainly a theatrical experience to which I doubt whether anybody could remain indifferent.

Artistic Director and Choreographer – Michael Parmenter (and the Company)
Dancers – Carl Tolentino, Chrissy Kokiri, Katie Rudd, Sean McDonald, Lucy Marinkovich, Eddie Elliott,
Bree Timms, Oliver Carruthers, Toa Paranihi
Singers – Aaron Sheehan, Nicholas Tolputt, William King, Jayne Tankersley
Musicians –  Donald Nicolson, Julia Fredersdorff, Laura Vaughan (Latitude 37)
Polly Sussex, Sally Tibbles, Miranda Hutton, Jonathan Le Cocq, David Downes
Sound Score – David Downes
Producer – Behnaz Farzami
Set Designer – John Verryt
Costumes – Tracy Grant Lord
Lighting – Nik Janiurek
Rehearsal Director – Claire O’Neil
Chorus Director – Lyne Pringle




Two resounding recordings from Rattle – classics and a feisty newcomer

Sonatina – piano (1960) / Three Pieces – violin and piano (1967)
Black, White and Coloured – solo piano (selections – 1999/2002)
Swan Songs for voice and guitar (1983)
Dance Suite from “Ring Round the Moon” (1957 arr. 2002)
Jian Liu (piano) / Martin Riseley (violin)
Jenny Wollerman (soprano) / Jane Curry (guitar)
Rattle RAT-D062 2015

MODEST MUSSORGSKY – Pictures at an Exhibition
Henry Wong Doe (piano)
Rattle RAT-D072 2017

How best does one describe a “classic” in art, and specifically in music?

Taking the contents of both CDs listed above, one might argue that there are two “classic” compositions to be found among these works, one recognised internationally and the other locally, each defined as such by its popularity and general recognition as a notable piece of work. If this suggests a kind of facile populist judgement, one might reflect that posterity does eventually take over, either continuing to further enhance or consigning to relative neglect and near-oblivion the pieces’ existence in the scheme of things.

Though hardly rivalling the reputation and impact in global terms of Modest Mussorgsky’s remarkable Pictures at an Exhibition on the sensibilities of listeners and concert-goers, it could safely be said that New Zealand composer David Farquhar’ s 1957 incidental music for the play Ring Round the Moon has caught the imagination of local classical music-lovers to an extent unrivalled by any of the composer’s other works, and, indeed by many other New Zealand compositions. I would guess that, at present, only certain pieces by Farquhar’s colleague Douglas Lilburn would match Ring Round the Moon in popularity in this country, amongst classical music aficionados.

The presence of each of these works on these recordings undoubtedly gives the latter added general interest of a kind which I think surely benefits the lesser-known pieces making up each of the programmes. In both cases the combinations are beautifully thought-out and judiciously placed to show everything to its best possible advantage. And visually, there’s similar accord on show, the art-work and general layout of each of the two discs having its own delight and distinction, in the best tradition previously established by the Rattle label.

So enamoured am I still with Farquhar’s original RIng Round the Moon for small orchestra (that first recording featuring the Alex Lindsay Orchestra can be found by intrepid collectors on Kiwi-Pacific Records CD SLD-107), I thought I would give myself more time to get used to the idea of a violin-and-piano version (arranged by the composer in 1992). I therefore began my listening with the more recent disc, Pictures, featuring pianist Henry Wong Doe’s enterprising coupling of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and a 2016 work by Auckland composer Eve de Castro-Robinson, A zigzagged gaze, one which similarly presents a series of musical responses to a group of visual artworks.

Mussorgsky’s collection of pieces commemorated the work of a single artist, Victor Hartmann, a close friend of the composer, whereas de Castro-Robinson’s series of pieces, commissioned by the pianist, were inspired by work from different artists in a single collection, that of the Wallace Arts Trust. In the booklet notes accompanying the CD the composer describes the process of selecting artworks from the collection as “a gleeful trawling through riches”. And not only does she offer a series of brief but illuminating commentaries regarding the inspirational effect of each of the pictures, but includes for each one a self-written haiku, so that we get a series of delightfully-wrought responses in music, poetry and prose.

Henry Wong Doe premiered de Castro Robinson’s work, along with the Mussorgsky, at a “Music on Madison Series” concert in New York on March 5th 2017, and a month later repeated the combination for the New Zealand premiere in Auckland at the School of Music Theatre. His experience of playing this music “live” would have almost certainly informed the sharpness of his characterisations of the individual pieces, and their almost theatrical contrasts. For the most part, everything lives and breathes, especially the de Castro Robinson pieces, which, of course, carry no interpretative “baggage” for listeners, unlike in the Mussorgsky work, which has become a staple of the virtuoso pianist repertoire.

While not effacing memories of some of the stellar recorded performances of the latter work I’ve encountered throughout the years, Wong Doe creates his own distinctive views of many of the music’s sequences. He begins strongly, the opening “Promenade” bright, forthright, optimistic and forward-looking, evoking the composer’s excitement and determination to get to grips with the business of paying tribute to his artist friend, Viktor Hartmann whose untimely death was commemorated by an exhibition of his work.

The pianist relishes the contrasts afforded by the cycle, such as between the charm of the Tuileries scene with the children, and the momentously lumbering and crunching “Bydlo” which immediately follows. He also characterises the interactive subjects beautifully – the accents of the gossipping women in “The Market-Place at Limoges” tumble over one another frenetically, while the piteous cries of the poor Jew in “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” are sternly rebuffed by his well-heeled, uncaring contemporary.

I liked Wong Doe’s sense of spaciousness in many places, such as in the spectral “Catacombs”, and in the following “Con Mortuis in lingua mortua” (the composer’s schoolboy Latin still manages to convey a sense of the transcendence he wanted) – the first, imposing part delineating darkness and deathly finality, while the second part creating a communion of spirits between the composer and his dead artist friend – Wong Doe’s playing throughout the latter properly evoked breathless beauty and an almost Lisztian transcendence generated by the right hand’s figurations.)

Only in a couple of places I wanted him to further sustain this spaciousness – steadying a few slightly rushed repeated notes at the opening of the middle section of “Baba Yaga”, and holding for a heartbeat or so longer onto what seemed to me a slightly truncated final tremolando cadence right at the end of “The Great Gate of Kiev”. But the rest was pure delight, with the fearful witch’s ride generating both properly razor-sharp cries and eerie chromatic mutterings along its course, and the imposing “Great Gate” creating as magnificent and atmospheric a structure of fanciful intent as one would wish for.

Following Mussorgsky’s classic depiction of diverse works of art in music with another such creation might seem to many a foolhardy venture, one destined to be overshadowed. However, after listening to Wong Doe’s playing of Auckland composer Eve de Castro Robinson’s 2016 work, A Zigzagged Gaze, I’m bound to say that, between them, composer and pianist have brought into being something that can, I think, stand upright, both on its own terms and in such company. I listened without a break to all ten pieces first time up, and, like Mussorgsky at Viktor Hartmann’s exhibition, found myself in a tantalising network of connection and diversity between objects and sounds all wanting to tell their stories.

The work and its performance here seems to me to be a kind of celebration of the place of things in existence – the ordinary and the fabulous, the everyday and the special, the surface of things and the inner workings or constituents. As with Mussorgsky’s reactions to his artist friend Hartmann’s creations, there’s both a “possessing” of each work’s essence on de Castro-Robinson’s part and a leap into the kind of transcendence that music gives to things, be they objects, actions or emotions, allowing we listeners to participate in our own flights of fancy and push out our own limits of awareness.

As I live with this music I’m sure I’ll develop each of the composer’s explorations within my own capabilities, and still be surprised where and how far some of them take me. On first hearing I’m struck by the range of responses, and mightily diverted by the whimsy of some of the visual/musical combinations – the “gargantual millefiori paperweight” response to artist Rohan Wealleans’ “Tingler” in sound, for example. I’m entertained by the persistent refrains of Philip Trusttum’s “The Troubadour”, the vital drollery of Miranda Parkes’ “Trick-or-Treater” and the rousing strains of Jacqueline Fahey’s “The Passion Flower”. But in other moods I’ll relish the gentle whimsicalities inspired by Josephine Cachemaille’s “Diviner and Minder” with its delight in human reaction to small, inert things, and the warm/cool beauties of Jim Speers’ “White Interior”, a study of simply being.

Most haunting for me, on first acquaintance, however, are “Return”, with Vincent Ward’s psychic interior depiction beautifully reflected in de Castro Robinson’s deep resonances and cosmos-like spaces between light and darkness, and the concluding tranquilities of the initially riotous and unequivocal rendering of Judy Miller’s “Big Pink Shimmering One”, where the composer allows the listener at the end space alone with oneself to ponder imponderables, the moment almost Rimbaud-like in its powerful “Après le déluge, c’est moi!” realisation.

Henry Wong Doe’s playing is, here, beyond reproach to my ears – it all seems to me a captivating fusion of recreativity and execution, the whole beautifully realised by producer Kenneth Young and the Rattle engineers. I can’t recommend the disc more highly on the score of Eve de Castro-Robinson’s work alone, though Wong Doe’s performance of the Mussorgsky is an enticing bonus.

Turning to the other disc for review, one featuring David Farquhar’s music (as one might expect of a production entitled “Ring Round the Moon”) I noted with some pleasure that the album’s title work was placed last in the programme, as a kind of “all roads lead to” gesture, perhaps to encourage in listeners the thought that, on the face of things, the journey through a diverse range of Farquhar’s music would bring sure-fire pleasure at the traversal’s end.

Interestingly, the programme replicates a “Remembering David Farquhar” concert on the latter’s seventh anniversary in 2014, at Wellington’s NZSM, curated by Jack Body and featuring the same performers – so wonderful to have that occasion replicated here in preserved form. The disc is packaged in one of Rattle’s sumptuously-presented booklet gatefold containers, which also features details from one of artist Toss Woolaston’s well-known Erua series of works, and a biography of the artist.

Beginning the disc is Sonatina, a work for solo piano from 1950, which gives the listener an absorbing encounter with a young (and extremely promising) composer’s music. Three strongly characterised movements give ample notice of an exciting talent already exploring his creativity in depth. Seventeen years later, Farquhar could confidently venture into experimental territory with a Sonata for violin and piano which from the outset challenged his listeners to make something of opposing forces within a work struggling to connect in diverse ways. A second movement dealt in unconventionalities such as manipulating piano strings with both fingers and percussion sticks, after which a final movement again set the instruments as much as combatants as voices in easy accord.

The Black, White and Coloured pieces for piano, from 1999-2002, are represented in two selections on the disc – they represent a fascination Farquhar expressed concerning the layout of the piano keyboard, that of two modal sets of keys, five black and seven white. By limiting each hand to one mode Farquhar created a kind of “double” keyboard, with many opportunities for colour through interaction between the two “modes”. Altogether, Farquhar had twenty-five such pieces published in 2003.

I remember at the NZSM concert being less than enamoured of these works, thinking then that some of the pieces seemed too skeletal and bloodless compared with the originals, especially the settings of Negro Spirituals – but this time round I thought them enchanting, the “double harmonied” effect producing an effect not unlike Benjamin Britten’s treatment of various English folk-songs. A second bracket of these pieces were inspired by diverse sources, among them a Chopin Mazurka, a Landler from a Mahler Symphony, and a theme from a Schubert piano sonata, among others. Again I thought more highly of these evocations this time round, especially enjoying “Clouds”, a Debussy-like recreation of stillness, stunningly effective in its freedom and sense of far-flung purpose.

Swan Songs is a collection of settings which examines feelings and attitudes relating to existence and death, ranging from fear and anxiety through bitter irony to philosophical acceptance, using texts from various sources. Written originally for baritone voice and guitar in 1983, the performances I’ve been able to document have been mostly by women, with only David Griffiths raising his voice for the baritonal record. Here, as in the NZSM Memorial concert, the singer is Jenny Wollerman, as dignified and eloquent in speech as she is in song when delivering the opening “The Silver Swan” by Orlando Gibbons (it’s unclear whether Gibbons himself wrote the song’s words or if they were penned by someone else). Throughout the cycle, Jane Curry’s beautiful guitar-playing provides the “other half” of a mellifluous partnership with both voice and guitar gorgeously captured by producer Wayne Laird’s microphones.

Along with reiterations of parts of Gibbons’ work and a kind of “Swan swan” tongue-twister, we’re treated to a setting by Farquhar of his own text “Anxieties and Hopes”, with guitarist and singer interspersing terse and urgent phrases of knotted-up fears and forebodings regarding the imminence of death. As well, we’re served up a setting of the well-known “Roasted Swan” sequence from “Carmina Burana”, Jenny Wollerman poignantly delineating the unfortunate bird’s fate on the roasting spit. As in the concert presentation I found the effect of these songs strangely moving, and beautifully realised by both musicians.

As for the “Ring Round the Moon” set of dances, I suspect that, if I had the chance, I would want to hear this music played on almost any combination of instruments, so very life-enhancing and instantly renewable are its energies and ambiences. I’m therefore delighted to have its beauties, charms and exhilarations served up via the combination of violin and piano, which, as I remember, brought the live concert to a high old state of excitement at the end! And there’s a lot to be said for the process of reinventing something in an unfamiliar format which one thinks one already knows well.

What comes across even more flavoursomely in this version are the music’s angularities – though popular dance-forms at the time, Farquhar’s genius was to impart the familiar rhythms and the easily accessible tunes with something individual and distinctive – and the many touches of piquant harmony, idiosyncratic trajectory and impish dovetailing of figuration between the two instruments mean that nothing is taken for granted. Martin Riseley and Jian Liu give masterly performances in this respect – listen, for example, to the ticking of the clock leading into the penultimate Waltz for a taste of these musicians’ strength of evocation! Only a slight rhythmic hesitation at a point midway through the finale denies this performance absolutely unreserved acclaim, but I’m still going to shout about it all from the rooftops, and challenge those people who think they “know” this music to try it in this guise and prepare to be astounded and delighted afresh.

Purcell’s “happier graces” prevail in concert of improvisations

Chamber Music New Zealand presents:
L’Arpeggiata – Music for a while
Improvisations on Henry Purcell

L’Arpeggiata – the Musicians:
Christina Pluhar (director – theorbo)
Céline Scheen (soprano)
Vincentzo Capezzuto (alto)
Gianluigi Trovesi (clarinet)
Doron Sherwin (cornetto)
Veronika Skuplik (baroque violin)
Eero Palviainen (Baroque guitar / archlute)
Sergey Saprychev (percussion)
Boris Schmidt (double-bass)
Francesco Turrisi (piano)
Haru Kitamika (harpsichord)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 18th March 2017

This was a concert whose music-making seemed to connect with practically everybody who sat within coo-ee of me in the Michael Fowler Centre, judging by the warmth and enthusiasm of the reception for the musicians at the end of the evening. While I must confess I wasn’t as obviously enamoured of some of the concert’s offerings as most people were, I certainly registered the individual and corporate skills of the musicians of the ensemble L’Arpeggiata, who delighted us with their virtuosity across a fantastic range of playing styles.

The concert’s title “Music for a while” suggested that we would be treated to an evening of music owing its inspiration to that of Henry Purcell, England’s greatest Restoration composer. Only two of the eighteen individual pieces were by composers other than Purcell, the “Ciaccona” by Maurizio Cazzati which opened the concert, and “La Dia Spagnola”, another instrumental-only item which followed soon after. The rest was written by, derived from or inspired by Purcell’s music.

The two “odd ones out” were Maurizio Cazzati from Mantua and Nicola Matteis, a Neapolitean, both seventeenth-century composers, and both almost forgotten today, though each was prominent in the musical world of their time. Cazzati’s composition was a Ciaccona (Chaconne), begun by the ensemble in conventional baroque fashion until the da capo, at which point the double bass and piano improvised bluesy lines and catchy rhythms, inspiring Gianluigi Trovesi’s saxophone to contribute swinging, sultry utterances to the mix. Matteis’s “La Dia Spagnola” began with the lute and violin setting up a definite harmonic round-like pattern before the cornetto counterpointed with what seemed like an improvised line, joined by the clarinettist, and then the drummer, the latter chalking up a percussive moment of glory.

These items framed two Purcell songs, firstly the “Music for a while” exerpt from the composer’s settting of Dryden’s adaptation of Sophocles the King, soprano Céline Scheen’s singing of the words (atmospheric and true-toned, but difficult to hear and make sense of the words) preluded and postluded by a bluesy clarinet line, voice and instrument conveying some of the context’s ghostly ambience, a voice from the Underworld. Then came a contrasting jolly number “‘Twas within a furlong of Edinburgh Town”, from a play called “the Mock Marriage”, featuring the group’s second singer, alto Vincenzo Cappezzuto – again the vocal means produced a generally mellifluous result, but the words were often lost. Had the group been performing in the Town Hall I’m certain the impact made by the singers would have been more sharply and pleasingly defined.

Next was “A Prince of Glorious Race Descended” taken from his Birthday Ode “Who can from joy refrain”, written for the Young Prince William, Duke of Gloucester (all part of the duties expected from a Court Composer, which Purcell had become at this time) – another Birthday Ode (perhaps the most well-known) was “Come Ye, Sons of Art” from which the vigorous “Strike the Viol” was taken, both sung by Céline Sheen – though sung with by turns, proper ceremony and spirit, I thought the instrumental accompaniments tended to stylistically “generalise” the music, so that we found ourselves having to reinvent its context, one far removed from its origins and with its own set of rules.
In places throughout the concert I found myself feeling unsure of just what these rules were – yes, the voices had affiliations with jazz and blues which I recognised, but I found it difficult to go further and focus the sounds on specific feelings. I’m sure it was my particular problem, because the audience response was generally rapt and responsive to whatever these musicians did.

I related much more readily to the recognisably (for me) Purcellian moments of the concert, specifically Céline Sheen’s moving rendition of Dido’s final aria from the composer’s eponymous opera “When I am laid in earth”, introduced by a wistful, atmospheric piano, the music drifting in a forlorn manner, and commented on by clarinet and double bass, with the percussion further colouring the ambiences. The singer’s beautifully-shaped way with the melody reached impassioned heights at “Remember me”, with the cornetto adding its sorrowing voice, before the double bass, then clarinet, then piano all commented with great sensitivity on the tragedy, in the singer’s wake.

Earlier, I’d thought the ensemble’s treatment of “Ah Belinda” also from “Dido and Aeneas” had a counter-intuitive effect in terms of its accompanying the words “I am pressed with torment” with cool-sounding jazz textures, suggesting liquid serenities rather than mental anguish, which the pianist’s subsequent improvisatory meditations similarly ignored. Still, the later “Here the Deities Approve” was good fun, the note-spinning aspect of the music given plenty of shared energy from singer Vincenzo Capezzuto and the ensemble, before adroitly morphing into a kind of calypso rhythm, with a saucy clarinet solo – here, Purcell was, I thought, really “jazzed up”, with exhilarating results!

I got myself confused over the relationship between the “Curtain Tune on a Ground” and the extended percussion solo with preceded it (I think!) – be that as it may, the percussionist Sergey Saprychev showed extraordinary skill throughout his display, involving first one then two tambourine-like instruments, passing the single drum from hand to hand while rhythmically activating its surface over an astonishing variety of pitches and timbres. With the use of two drums the performance tensions sharpened to the point where the player spun one drum on the floor, creating both a visual and sonic counterpoint to the rhythms played on the other – a tour de force!

After Vincenzo Capezzuto’s entertainment of us with the racy “Man is for Woman made”, where amongst the players’ madcap instrumental textures the word-clarity was less important than gesture, expression and overall insinuation, we eventually arrived at its antithesis, the heartfelt “O let me forever weep”, with Céline Sheen’s voice supported by lute accompaniment in counterpoint with Veronika Skuplik’s baroque violin, the conception close to Purcell’s own, especially at the beginning, but with no dilution of or distraction from the essential feeling of the music – here, instead was an appropriate intensification, with everything beautifully played.

We were helped return to our lives by the performance of the final listed item in the programme, “Hark! How the songsters of the groves”, the infectious running rhythms brought out by the instruments allowing the singers’ duet to take wing (figuratively as well as literally), the piece a celebration of the union of music with nature in the form of birdsong.

An extremely poetic duet version of “Pokarekare Ana” sung by soprano and alto further delighted the audence at the end, most of whom stood and applauded after the final programme number. We actually got TWO encores, the second one being a lively song-and-dance item during which the singers indulged themselves in a few measures of hip-hop rhythmic contrast and conveyed to us huge enjoyment of it all.

As I’ve already indicated, the audience response to the concert was little short of rapturous – I was sorry not to “go along” with the many heartfelt expressions of enjoyment breaking around and about me, but reflected that there was “something for everybody”” in the evening’s presentation. I liked the extremes of it all – mostly the almost cheek-by-jowl realisations of sequences from Purcell’s work, but also some of the more outlandish and abandoned flights of creative fancy from the various musicians – if I didn’t respond as wholeheartedly to the gentler, more middle-of-the-road adaptations, it’s because I often found myself wishing I was hearing Purcell ‘s own voice instead of what sometimes sounded to me like paler imitations. But of the musicians’ individual and collective skills there could be no doubt – and I joined in with the accolades on those counts unreservedly.

Wit, theatricality and food for thought from Affetto, in Lower Hutt

Chamber Music Hutt Valley presents:
AFFETTO – early music ensemble
“A Play Upon Words” – settings of texts with music of various kinds…..

Jane Tankersley (soprano), with Polly Sussex (viols, baroque ‘cello),
Rachael Griffiths-Hughes (harpsichord)
Philip Grifin (theorbo/baroque guitar),  Peter Reid (cornetto, baroque trumpet)

St.Mark’s Church, Woburn, Lower Hutt

Wednesday 8th July 2015

An unexpected “bonus” for me, during this enterprising and innovative concert by the early music ensemble Affetto in St.Mark’s Church, Woburn, came midway through – just before the interval, actually – when the ensemble played Henry Purcell’s rousing Lilliburlero. I hadn’t heard the tune for years (the last time was when I went to see Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 1975 film “Barry Lyndon” which used the melody as a rousing ceremonial marching tune). But I remembered it from much earlier days –  from the radio back in my childhood – when it was used as an advertising ditty, to the words, “Make your floors and furniture clean / always use Tanol Polishing Cream!” (see below)…….

I mention this as only one of the many (and varied) delights of the group’s presentation, all of which sprang to life with considerable élan for the enjoyment and pleasure of those of us who had braved the elements to get to the concert. Despite occasional bouts of ambient noise-background from a roof rattling from the southerly wind-gusts, the evening’s “ballads, songs and snatches” came across to us with plenty of feeling, colour and excitement.

Drawing from music written and well-known during the 17th Century, the programme featured a mixture of vocal and instrumental pieces, the choices designed to show how composers of that time were inspired by ideas stemming from the new art-form of opera, creating word-settings with considerable dramatic and theatrical emphasis to convey specific feelings or paint particular pictures or scenes.

The composers’ names were a mixture of the well-known – Henry Purcell, John Dowland, William Byrd, Jeremiah Clarke, John Blow and the great George Friedrich Handel – along with a number I’d never heard of – Diego Ortiz, Farbritio Caroso de Sermoneta, Andrea Falconieri, and Gaspar Sanz, plus one or two whose names were known to me but whose music I had little idea of – Tarquinio Merula, William Young, and Henry Eccles. And amidst all of “the old” was a “new” piece by New Zealand composer Janet Jennings, a setting of words spoken by Lady Macbeth (in Shakespeare’s “Scottish play”) with the title Exultation.

Well, we were well-and-truly taken upon a journey, one whose many and varied stages were simply too numerous and wide-ranging to catalogue in full, and therefore requiring a certain “highlighting” selection process from me, the hapless critic! That said, it was the variety of presentation which struck me most forcibly and memorably throughout the evening – and a friend whom I’d taken with me to the concert agreed that it was all “rich and strange and ever-changing”!

Central to the enterprise was soprano Jayne Tankersley, well-known to Wellington audiences for her voice’s brilliance and beauty in repertoire such as Monteverdi’s Vespers and his sets of madrigals, as well as Faure’s Requiem. Here she seemed just as truly in her element as a performer, displaying similar qualities of total involvement in the music and engagement with the various texts.

Whether conveying the implaccable arrival of the Day of Judgement with stentorian tones (Awake, awake, O England!), the sweetness and despair of a lover’s sorrow in the guitar-accompanied Dowland song I saw my Lady weep, or the fury and scorn of a drunkard’s wife in Henry Eccles’ Drunken Dialogue (sung as a riotous duet with Philip Grifin), her voice “carried” all of the different qualities needed to make words and music come alive in each case. Only in Henry Purcell’s Bess of Bedlam was the singer’s impact blunted by too far-back a placement on the platform.

So she was able to convey a good deal of Queen Dido’s tragic stature in the character’s final aria from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the lament forward-moving, dignified and graceful as befits a monarch – some might have felt the performance perhaps a shade TOO forward-moving. But, a few minutes afterwards, she was duetting with cornettist Peter Reid in a rendition of happier music from Purcell, “Sound the Trumpet” from Come Ye Sons of Art – originally for two counter-tenors, the arrangement of voice and cornetto worked splendidly, the “other voice” effectively worked into an instrumental rendition.

An additional delight were the instruments on display by dint of their sounds as well as their appearance – we heard a range of tones and timbres throughout the evening which were far removed from the relatively manicured sounds made by their modern equivalents. I’ve already mentioned the cornetto, a straight, clarinet-length conical-shaped horn, whose notes were made by a combination of finger-holes and lip-pressure (its sound in my mind forever associated with music accompanying performances of Elizabethan drama, Shakespeare first and foremost of them).

Peter Reid also sported a “baroque trumpet”, another instrument relying on lip-pressure exerted by the player, splendid in effect but obviously treacherous to try and play accurately! We enjoyed a cobbled-together assemblage called the “English Trumpet Suite”, including a couple of Baroque “pops” such as the Trumpet Voluntary (long attributed to Purcell, but more recently to Jeremiah Clarke, as The Prince of Denmark’s March), as well as Handel’s stirring “La Rejouissance” from his Royal Fireworks Music. Thrills and spills there were aplenty, but it was a throughly invigorating listening experience.

If the other instruments were less “prominent” it was because their function was largely to support the continuo (figured bass) part of each item, though in some of the instrumental pieces prominence in some sequences was allowed instruments like the harpsichord, the bass viol and the baroque guitar. Philip Grifin, the guitarist, also played the theorbo, a kind of “extended” lute (the instrument was actually made in this country), its extended bass notes needing a fretboard of considerable (and even alarming!) length, the player having to bear in mind the risk of unexpectedly decapitating any of his fellow-musicians who wandered too close during excitable moments!

Together with Polly Sussex’s bass viol and baroque ‘cello, and Rachael Griffiths-Hughes’ harpsichord, the musicians brought their innate grace, charm and vigour to things like the Ciaconna L’Eroica (whose composer, Andrea Falconieri, I’d never head of) with its fascinatingly interlocking lines, and in their interactions with the voice throughout parts of Purcell’s Of All the Instruments – incidentally, I wonder if Jayne Tankersley knows John Bartlett’s Sweete Birdes deprive us never, an “entertainment” for soprano voice and lute that would have “sat” beautifully in this programme…….

A brief word concerning the one piece of contemporary music in the programme, written for the group by Waikato-based Janet Jennings – a work for soprano and ensemble exploring the character of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. The group performed the opening movement of this five-part work, one depicting Lady Macbeth’s ruthless determination to make her husband King of Scotland. The music’s ceremonial, cornetto-led opening cleverly took our sensibilities back in time, before reflecting the character’s murderous, determined intent with haunting, close-knit harmonies and convolted chromatic lines for both singer and the ensemble, the music chillingly underlining the strength of the text’s concluding statement “We’ll not fail”. On this evidence, what a compelling entertainment the whole work promised to be!

During the interval we were invited to “inspect the goods” at closer quarters, and so had a lovely time examining the intricacies of the theory and the simplicities of the cornet and baroque trumpet, the experience giving more girth to our appreciate of the sounds wrought for us by this talented ensemble. Afterwards, we felt pleased and delighted that the wishes of the group, as expressed in the accompanying notes – to create “a very entertaining program of lively, poignant, and uplifting music” – had been so satisfyingly realized.

P.S. Appendix 1. (I had to search for this, to make sure my memory wasn’t playing me false…….!)

 Nelson Evening Mail, Volume XLVIII, 3 March 1913, Page 2

“Wise grocers everywhere stock TANOL – the polish of polishers!
It makes bright homes, happy wives,  and contented husbands. 
Order a tin today! – Liquid 1s, Paste 6d “




Ballades, Songs and Snatches – singer and piper at Futuna Chapel

Colours of Futuna Concert Series

Songs, instrumentals and duos

Rowena Simpson (soprano)

Kamala Bain (recorders)

Futuna Chapel, Friend St., Karori, Wellington

Sunday 2nd November, 2014

If there’s anybody reading this who hasn’t made the mini-pilgrimage to the exquisite Futuna Chapel in Karori, Wellington, I would strongly recommend to whomever that action be urgently taken. The building alone is worth the visit – an award-winning architectural design by Hawkes Bay architect John Scott, commissioned in 1958 by the Catholic Society of Mary, and built by the brothers of the Society themselves as a place of spiritual retreat and contemplation.

Alas, the chapel’s original setting amid native bush stretching back to the hillsides has been besmirched by development, a process which threatened to gobble up not only the land and the bush, but the chapel itself, until a Trust was formed to negotiate with the developers to save the original building, at the very least.

Part of the Trust’s fund-raising efforts to maintain the chapel is the establishment of this concert series, something that happens to be both worthwhile and instantly rewarding for all contributors to the enterprise. While virtually nothing of the original setting remains, it’s possible, once inside the chapel, to shut out the ironies of the cultural despoilations around and about, and experience something of the place’s original purpose – John Scott’s design continues to resonate and overwhelm, simply and quietly utilising light and space in a timeless and unforgettable manner.

So, Futuna Chapel has been, thanks to sterling efforts on the part of people for whom such things have a transcendence beyond material gain, more fortunate in its preservation than, say, another historic Wellington venue, Island Bay’s Erskine College, much older, but as beautiful and distinctive and as worthy of preservation. Alas, efforts to instigate restoration of Erskine have encountered attendant problems which come with ownership, age and costs that I suspect may well require the attentions of some arts-loving, community-minded millionaire for anything lasting to be achieved.

Back in Karori, the “Colours of Futuna” concert series provides the Sunday afternoon visitor to the chapel with added value, a fusion of light, space and sound for which the building might seem to have been purpose-built.  Of course music has always been part-and-parcel of most expressions of spiritual faith, and the venues constructed for this purpose have usually enhanced this propensity for supporting “voices raised in worship” – though hardly cathedral-like in size, Futuna Chapel certainly supports and fulfills this state of things according with and in addition to the building’s original purpose.

For the latest Sunday concert we were delighted by a programme that could have been called “ballades, songs and snatches”, given by soprano Rowena Simpson and recorder-player Kamala Bain. Spanning centuries and continents, the two musicians moved easily between different musical forms and styles, sounds and languages, observations and emotions, enough variety without neglecting deeper feelings, and including both familiar strains and in places, newer, ear-catching sounds.

I’ve encountered both of these musicians revelling in presentations with more than a whiff of the theatre about them – so it seemed entirely natural that each should comfortably utilize the performing platform as a kind of “stage”, especially such one as this, whose light and space would suggest any kind of naturalistic or dramatic vista – Rowen Simpson began the concert with an unaccompanied setting by English composer Michael Head of poet Bronnie Taylor’s “The Singer”, a piece with some haunting major/minor key alternating, and some beautiful vocal ascents, such as at the words “and the sound of fairy laughter” right at the end.

Right at the song’s end Kamala Bain’s recorder took up the melodic threads, the player remaining at the back of the chapel for an antiphonal effect, one which further opened up our vistas appropriate to such an out-of-doors song, bringing a touch of ritual to it all with an anonymous 14th Century Italian ballata “Lucente Stelle’ – even more distant antiquities were shaken and stirred by the next settings, two exerpts from the Exeter Book of Riddles, the work of contemporary English composer Nicola LeFanu.

The soprano read us the riddles first, not to spoil the game, but to clarify the texts – the first, Siren, had a lament-like aspect, a wide-ranging vocal line, part ecstatic, part tragic, in places almost “Queen-of-the-Night”-like in its melismatic demands – complementing the singer, the recorder sounded a kind of birdsong obbligato, underlining the ‘nature-piece’ aspect of the music. The second riddle “Swan” not unexpectedly proved smoother-toned, calmer of movement, the recorder dulcetly reflecting the waters, the vocal line again soaring, but very gracefully, briefly trilling ecstatically with the recorder, before the latter returns to those long watery lines.

One could have been excused for imagining we had been transported to an aviary for the next item, Australian John Rodgers’ “Three Short Pieces”, featuring the movement of the recorder-player to a different location for three different birdsongs, very effective and naturalistic. From evocation we were taken to invocation, with Lyell Creswell’s “Prayer to appease the Spirit of the Land”, a work dedicated to Tracy Chadwick, a New Zealand soprano who died young, from leukemia. This was original a Maori text rendered into English, sung gently, with floated lines over a very “earthy” recorder accompaniment, with breathy tones and pitch-bending suggesting wind-notes – altogether a moving tribute to a young singer.

Another New Zealand work, by Dorothy Ker, was a setting of a poem by Ruth Dallas, “On the Bridge” for soprano solo, a folkish setting, sounding in effect like a spontaneously-conceived improvisation from the singer, the impulses at first high-flying, then trailing off gently.  And then came the next item, a work by the Dutch composer Karel van Steenhoven, one called “Nachtzang”  (Night Song). Recorder-player Kamala Bain “warned” us about this piece beforehand, stressing the necessity for we listeners to “use our imaginations” – it was a bit like the musical equivalent of a “Government Health Warning”, but at least we were prepared!

The soprano’s wordless line floated long-breathed notes over the top of an agitated molto perpetuum figure, before singer and recorder wove their lines around one another in bird-songish fashion, producing some extraordinary unison and intervalled passages. In places the singer “vocalized” the lines, occasionally breathing agitatedly, at other places crying out like a baby – the recorder contributed ghosty tremolandi to various episodes, with the outside wind occasionally contributing a naturalistic counterpoint!  The sounds certainly took us “out of ourselves” and into more uncertain worlds somewhat removed from our comfort-zones.

Such were the contrasts and drastic changes of sounds and moods wrought by the performers throughout the afternoon that we were beginning to expect almost anything could happen at this stage – and it did, with the presentation of several Scottish Songs from the eighteenth-century “Orpheus Caledonius” collection made by the singer and folk-song enthusiast William Thomson. Kamala Bain brilliantly caught the “snap” of the rhythms of Auld Rob Morris, and was then joined by Rowena Simpson for the second song, Lady Ann Bothwel’s Lament, which had a lovely high vocal tessitura in places and a droll drone recorder accompaniment. The music of the third song, Sleepy Body, seemed to belie its title, the soprano turning instrumentalist and playing a glockenspiel to assist with the delightful recorder-tones.

“This brand new work” began the sentence introducing the programme’s next item, “Night Countdown” by Wellington composer Philip Brownlee (present at the performance). Setting the words of a poem by Peggy Dunstan, the music explores the state of being that exists “in the space between wakefulness and sleep”. to quote the composer’s own words. The sounds weren’t necessarily literal reproductions of the poem’s images, but were used in an attempt to encourage different interpretations of the words’ meanings. The singer read the poem before the music began, to give us an idea of the word-terrain to follow. Rowena played the glockenspiel and Kamala the largest of the recorders, the latter encouraging some amazing timbal variation from the instrument, including a kind of simultaneously-produced array of harmonic/overtone sounds.

The vocal line moved lazily and sensuously at first, but arched confidently towards more ecstatic regions as the night’s multifarious elements were “banked up” in an impressive catalogue. Singer and recorder-player enjoyed the “chorus of barking”, before joining voices for the last few phrases of the poem – the climactic “one me” was sung and spoken together as if by a chorus. A lovely work, the words and music having more than a whiff of the power of those “A Child’s Garden of Verses” poems by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Jacopo da Bologna’s 14th Century madrigal Non al su’amante featured the story of the Goddess Diana bathing in a mountain stream and being observed by a passing hunter – what beautiful singing and playing lines, here!  Especially telling was the blend of lyrical voice and excitable recorder figurations. The story didn’t appear to have a happy ending, judging by the melancholia that seemed to grip the piece over its last minute or so’s duration! A happier, more energetic outing for all concerned was provided by an anonymous 14th Century French ballade, “Constantia”, a dancing, tintinabulating expression of joy from voice and instrument that makes one wish one could be a time-traveller!

This was a great concert for home-grown music, as next was Helen Fisher’s setting of Lauris Edmond’s poem I name this place, one of the verses from a collection “Scenes from a Small City”. As befitted the occasion for which the piece was written (the wedding of friends) the music has a renaissance-like feel, a ritualistic elegance to its lines and counterpoints, flavoured also in places by a “folkish” quality – the concluding flourishes by singer and player towards the end underlined the celebratory nature of the occasion. And to bring things to a close on a further optimistic note, we heard “Sumer is icumen in”, an appropriately cheerful and sonorous farewell to the afternoon’s evocations.


A world in a grain of sand – Pepe Becker and Stephen Pickett at Futuna



15th, 16th, and17th Century Songs of love and life,

from Italy, England, France and Spain

Pepe Becker (soprano)

Stephen Pickett (lute and chitarrino)

Futuna Chapel , Friend Street, Karori

Sunday 9th December 2012

All that was needed for perfection to be had in this concert was a more substantial audience – but for one reason or another, people stayed away. Perhaps it was the weather – when Wellington turns on a beautiful day, it’s a place to be out and about like no other, and the prospect of an indoor concert, however felicitous, becomes proportionally less inviting. Still, it was an event whose qualities led one to recall those reproving words from Henry V – “and Gentlemen of England now abed / shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here….”

True, there’s been a superabundance of great concerts in the Wellington region throughout the year, and faced with the delights of such weather, many otherwise committed concert-goers could well have reflected upon cups that “runneth over” and chosen something different this time round. But the much bandied-about “arts capital” epithet which Wellingtonians are certainly proud to own by dint of location did receive a dent, or at least a paintwork scratch in this case, in my opinion. Whatever may have been the alternatives, world-class performances such as what we handful of audience members present heard from Pepe Becker and Stephen Pickett deserved better support than this.

This was my second visit to Futuna Chapel for a concert of recent times, and the venue again worked its unique magic, helping to impart a timeless feeling to the musicians’ explorations of music from distant times and places, and bringing the sounds triumphantly to life for our twenty-first century ears. The acoustic and general ambience admirably suited Pepe Becker’s voice and Stephen Pickett’s accompaniments, catching all of us present up in the music’s world and allowing its full force and flavour, thanks in equal measure to the skills of these performers.

The concert began with a short instrumental solo played on the lute by Stephen Pickett, a Ricercar by Joan Ambrosio Dalza, whose was a composer-name new to me – the work was published in 1508, which goes some of the way towards explaining my ignorance. From this uncommonly elegant beginning we moved to the first song, by Antonio Caprioli, Quella Bella e Bianco Mano (“That fair white hand”), in which love is depicted as both a wounding and a healing experience – beautifully performed.

Pepe Becker welcomed us graciously to the concert, expressing pleasure and gratitude at our attendance (for our part, as an audience, I think we felt embarrassed at our lack of real numbers, but both musicians quickly put us at our ease!). In fact, we were treated like kings and queens throughout, with song following beautiful song as if in some kind of “dream-ritual”. Especially evocative was this first “Mediterranean” bracket, with the soft, musical Hispanic word-sounds in particular adding to the general romantic effect – the last two songs of the group presented different aspects of the Spanish character, the first, by Miguel de Fuenliana, Passevase ei rey moro, a lament for the “Alhambra” in Granada, declamatory and serious in intent; and the second energetic and celebratory, Juan Encina’s dance-like Hoy comamos y bebamos, (“Today we eat and drink”), a roistering song complete with clapping and dance movements.

Stephen Pickett changed from the guitar to the lute for the bracket of English songs, introduced by a piece for solo lute Go from My Window, and followed by John Dowland’s Flow My Tears, with Pepe Becker opening the vocal throttle and suffusing the ambience with glorious resonant tones. If the singer paid rather less attention to word-pointing and more to a sense of  flooding the listeners’ sensibilities with sorrowful sounds, the latter carried the day triumphantly. Robert Johnson’s Hark, hark ,the Lark was also splendidly delivered, with a trio of lovely bird-like ascents to the tops of the phrases, each better than the last. A stratospheric Willow Song from the Dallis Lute Book of 1583 completed the bracket in beautifully bell-like style.

“Charlatans and Mountebanks” was the intriguing title of the next bracket (courtesy of a description (1619) by Michael Praetorius of music made by comedians and clowns), beginning with a solo by Stephen Pickett on the guitar-like chitarrino, and then plunging us into the no-emotional-holds-barred world of Barbara Strozzi, with the singer declaiming wonderfully melismatic lines high and low, stressing different rhythm-points in a way that created occasional mini-tensions, all to a passacaglia-like accompaniment – like much of this fascinating composer-performer’s music, the lines wept, raged and just as quickly dissolved once again. An instrumental Fantasia terza by Melchior Barberiis nicely effected a contrast with the following dance-song, Amor ch’attendi by Giulio Caccini, the singer augmenting the music’s energy and colour with a drum.

With Music for a While by Henry Purcell the musicians concluded eponymously both the final bracket of items and the entire concert, a section which featured as well works for voice by Merula, Monteverdi and Strozzi (again). Some of these were the most overtly expressive of the afternoon, Tarquinio Merula’s Canzonetta sopra la nanna for one, an extraordinarily doom-laden and fate-ridden lament by a mother made over a sleeping child, to an insistently “sighing” lute accompaniment, singing and playing which I found riveting in its intensity. Another was Claudio Monteverdi’s Ohimè, ch’io cado, energetic and volatile, with Pepe Becker demonstrating an exhilarating combination of force and focus over a wide-ranging terrain of emotion. The third of the “trio of intensity” was Barbara Strozzi’s somewhat suggestively-titled L’eraclito Amoroso, a conceit for despairing lovers, with different rhythmic trajectories underlining the spontaneity of thought and impulse, and words like “piangere” brought out and beautifully coloured by the singer. Altogether, a real “tour de force” of vocal expression from Pepe Becker, alternating beautifully “held” lines, with passionately delivered recitative, and holding us in thrall throughout.

As well that Purcell came to the rescue of our somewhat tenderized sensibilities at the very end – here was emotion cleansed of all excess, and rarefied as a pure stream of melody. No wonder he was so esteemed by his contemporaries – his setting of Dryden’s and Nathaniel Lee’s words, presented here by singer and player, persuaded we listeners that , indeed, “beauty is truth, truth, beauty…” and seemed to soothe for a brief time in our lives the sea of the world’s troubles.






Rain, wind and moonlight – Stroma’s “Pierrot Lunaire” and more……


Madeleine Pierard (soprano)

Hamish McKeich (conductor)

Kirstin Eade (flute/piccolo) / Phil Green (clarinet/bass clarinet)

Blas Gonzalez (piano) / Megan Molina (violin)

Andrew Thomson (violin/viola) / Robert Ibell (‘cello)

HANNS EISLER – 14 Arten den Regen zu beschreiben (Fourteen Ways of depicting Rain)

AMNTON WEBERN – String Trio Op.20


Ilott Theatre, Wellington

Sunday, 25th November, 2012

Stroma brought up the 100th anniversary of Arnold Schoenberg’s landmark creation Pierrot Lunaire in unique style at Wellington’s Ilott Theatre, as part of a program featuring the music of both pupils and contemporaries of the composer.

Naturally, the concert’s focus centered firmly on Pierrot Lunaire, with the advance publicity’s imagery suggesting a theatrical presentation, one featuring the extremely gifted singer Madeleine Pierard. This performance took up the second half of the program, with Hanns Eisler’s Vierzehn Arten den Regen zu beschreiben (Fourteen Ways of depicting Rain) sharing the first half with Anton Webern’s String Trio.

The Hanns Eisler work was played here in accordance with the composer’s original intention, in tandem with a film. Dedicated to Schoenberg on the occasion of his 70th birthday and scored for the same instrumentation as the master’s Pierrot Lunaire, the music was a manifestation of Eisler’s fascination with and study of music’s relationship to the medium of film. The composer “set to music” an existing silent film, Regen (Rain) made in 1929 in Amsterdam by filmmaker Joris Ivens.  Its montage-like construction featured scenes whose placement suggested a kind of understated interplay between natural elements, mostly rain, and people going about their business in a city.

Completing the first half was Anton Webern’s String Trio Op.20, to the uninitiated, a work presenting the wonder of new sensations, especially the lyrical explorations and variants of the same throughout the first movement, then with the second movement introducing what felt like a more “physical” kind of engagement, stimulated by greater contrasts of timbre and rhythm. Interesting that the performance was “conducted” by Hamish McKeich, something that, for me, added a kind of dimension to the sounds, almost like a life-pulse beneath the contrasting plethora of surface incident.

As for “Pierrot”, it has always been regarded as “new”, even a hundred years after its creation. After the premiere in Berlin in October 1912, with the composer conducting and Albertine Zehme as the vocalist, the musicians took the work around Germany and Austria. A critic after a performance in Augsburg the following month suggested that, in order for people to “understand, enjoy, or at least feel” the work, they would need to grow “ears of the future” – a statement with particular relevance for concert-hall audiences.

It’s a truism that in almost any creative sphere things which seemed like daring, almost anarchic cutting-edge first-up presentations can in many cases become absorbed by the main-stream of forward movement, and their edges rounded-off for more general consumption. Where “shock value” was and is an integral part of a work’s message, this can place extra stress on contemporary performers to try and replicate that essential sense of outrage and anarchy, public or private.

Of course, in a world all-too-accustomed to daily presentations of atrocity and carnage as television news entertainment and much worse (so I’m told) awaiting mere mouse-click activation via the Internet, it’s perhaps the performance-context that then becomes all-important for art-music.

I believe that’s why the “refined order” of the concert-hall and its age-old associations continues to allow music of all eras their specific kinds of impact and impressions. And, with reference to this present concert, even though our ears may have gotten “used” to the relative astringencies of the sounds produced by members of the “Second Viennese School” (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, et al…), in performance situations certain impulses activated by intensities unique to that performance will always have an impact.

Also, one doesn’t underestimate the increased familiarity and better-developed understanding of any work that comes with repeated exposure, a kind of “roundabout” that makes up for the loss of the shock value’s “swing”. This concert afforded us plenty of food for reflection along these lines, the items able to engage us in all kinds of ways and at different levels of receptivity, from surfaces to inner recesses.

Regarding the opening work by Hanns Eisler, I loved the combination of film and music on this occasion (being normally a last-ditch opponent of add-on visual accoutrement to music presentation). Of course, this was different to that, the film being the composer’s original inspiration for his music. On the face of it, fourteen musical vignettes stitched together would, one might think, produce a disjointed hotchpotch of impressions in sound, with no guarantee that the whole would be greater, etc….. But for a variety of reasons we as listeners seemed to be taken out of ourselves and ‘put in touch” with a kind of synthesis of sounds and images throughout, in places cleverly dovetailed, and in others interestingly contrasted in terms of feelings produced.

I could detect no strain, no discomfort or lack of co-ordination regarding the musicians’ performance (expertly duetted, cross-media-style, with the on-screen happenings through Hamish McKeich’s direction). It all seemed as one, the music-making reaching back from its immediate “face” to make the connections, as any piece of music might similarly fuse with aspects of a listener’s previous experience.

In the wake of Eisler’s work Webern’s Op.20 String Trio promised a potentially less immediate and engaging experience for the listener, an expectation that for me was confounded by the austere beauty of the sounds made by the trio of violinist Megan Molina, violist Andrew Thomson and ‘cellist Robert Ibell. Originally intended by the composer as a three-movement work, the surviving two movements seemed complementary, a kind of “air and dance” pairing. A commentator whose analysis I read called the work “jagged and severe”, qualifying the judgement with “yet strangely beautiful and lyrical”. The latter statement came out more readily with these musicians’ playing.

Here were finely-wrought exhalations of breath at the beginning, a gentle flow of movement, angular in places, and flecked with little irruptions and pizzicati impulses. Its companion movement seemed more impulsive, volatile in line and figuration as well as in dynamics, each player in this performance seeming both singer (in places more like “sprechgesang”) and listener, such was the playing’s interactive spirit throughout.

The interval done, Madeleine Pierard took the platform, dressed and made-up as Pierrot and accompanied by Hamish McKeich and the ensemble. She was stationed to one side, well-lit, while the musicians and conductor were in the centre. Immediately behind the group was a backdrop of a screen on which titles, translations and images were played, giving the audience plenty of help regarding the texts of the poems. First impressions were of an immediacy and clarity of utterance from both singer (beautiful diction) and players (beautifully-focused, transparent lines and atmospheric tones). The voice encompassed a frequently startling dynamic range, wonderfully mirrored by similarly explosive accents and contrasts from the players.

I confess I was transfixed by the clarity and focus of it all throughout the first couple of numbers. It actually took me until midway through Part One’s grouping of seven songs to regain my critical senses sufficiently to realize just why it was that Madeleine Pierard’s performance sounded so much more lyrical, wistful and engagingly human than any other singer I’d heard on record (I had never heard the work in concert before). She was actually SINGING a great deal of the text and sustaining many of the pitches of her notes to a greater extent that any other exponents of the role I’d encountered. There was, of course, variation in what I’d previously experienced, to the extent that, without a score it was impossible to plot precisely where Schoenberg had intended his “singer” to sing and where to break into speech, or at least “bend” the note pitches. But this performance was, to my ears, “sung” like no other I’d heard.

The effect was to “humanize” many of the poems’ utterances, and play down the more grotesque, often deranged-sounding modes adopted by the singer. Whether this was how Madeleine Pierard “saw” the work, along with her conductor, Hamish McKeich, or whether it was due partly or wholly to a lack of experience in performing it, resulting in more conventionally accepted modes of utterance being used, I’m not sure. Schoenberg himself was undoubtedly influenced when writing the work by the vocal capabilities of the first person to “create” the role of Pierrot, the actress Albertine Zehme (who, incidentally, chose the poems for the work). I came across a fragment of the correspondence between composer and singer-actress which was revealing:

The singing voice, that supernatural, chastely-controlled instrument, ideally beautiful precisely in its ascetic lack of freedom, is not suited to strong eruptions of feeling…..Life cannot be exhausted by the beautiful sound alone. The deepest final happiness, the deepest final sorrow dies away unheard, as a silent scream within our breast, which threatens to fly apart, or to erupt like a stream of lava from our lips…..We need both the tones of song as well as those of speech. My unceasing striving in search of the ultimate expressive capabilities for the “artistic experience in tone” has taught me this fact.

There was no doubting Madeleine Pierard’s considerable skills in bring this work to life, and her ability to make the words of the poetry pulsate – only in one or two instances did I feel that she hadn’t freed the music completely from the page, partly due to her playing-down the grotesque, spectral element which the sprechgesang mode would have helped emphasise – in Der kranke Mond which concludes the first part, she didn’t quite match the ambience of her flutist Kirsty Eade’s wonderful solo, her voice a shade earthbound, without the suspended gleam of the moonlight’s focus. But what a contrast, then, with her almost primordial, pitch-dark rendering of the following Nacht! – her deep-throated tones redolent of the abyss, as it were. She also captured the out-and-out horror of the Rote Messe, with its “gruesome Eucharist”, though I thought the sound of the words of Die Kreuze, the final song of Part Two, needed more of a certain spectral, “blood-bled” quality, something that more focused sprechgesang would have possibly given. But certainly there was vocal energy and finesse from this artist to burn.

The singer’s costuming and make-up was first-class, as was the organization of the backdrop screen and the timing of the text translations. I did wonder whether her lighting-pool was too unrelieved – some shadow on the face at certain angles would have given some contrast and allowed her a bit of freedom – as it was, every glance and every flicker of expression was laid bare, throughout. Make-up and costume suggested a theatrical statement was being made, and I felt it could have been followed through more strongly and consistently. Again,I don’t know whether Madeleine Pierard’s presentation was “directed” as such by anybody, but she could have been encouraged to incorporate what glances she did give her conductor (understandable in a score such as this!) into a kind of pattern of derangement or moonstruckness – something theatrical, or at least cabaret-like. And I would have liked her lighting to have had SOME shadow, a dark line allowing some facial contouring which she could have used for some respite along with more covert purposes.

Enough! Hang these comments, which matter far less than the fact that Pierrot was here a “tour de force”, a work whose stature was overwhelmingly conveyed by singer, conductor and players. Each of the instrumentalists did splendid things, conductor Hamish McKeich was the music’s flexible but unbreakable anchor-chain, and Madeleine Pierard’s voice gave us its beating heart. Performers and everybody associated with the Stroma team deserve our gratitude for giving us the chance to share so graphically and tellingly in a great work’s hundredth anniversary.


Cantatas in their proper place at St.Paul’s Lutheran


Cantata BWV 47 “Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedriget werden”

Rebecca Woodmore (soprano) / Jenny Potter (alto) / John Beaglehole (tenor)

Timothy Hurd (bass)

Richard Apperley (director)

Ensemble Abendmusik (leader: Martin Jaenecke)

St.Paul’s Lutheran Church,

King St., Mt.Cook, Wellington

Saturday 29th September, 2012

In presenting performances of JS Bach’s sacred cantatas in their original liturgical settings, Wellington’s St.Paul’s Lutheran Church is unique in New Zealand. The church is part of a network of world-wide Lutheran worship offering this same ministry, including the composer’s own St.Thomas’s Church in Leipzig.

This practice was established at St.Paul’s in 2007 by Mark Whitfield,  President of the Lutheran Church in New Zealand, and Pastor at St.Paul’s in Wellington since 2001.  Prior to this he had taken up a scholarship to complete a Master of Sacred Music Degree at Luther Seminary and St.Olaf College, Minnesota, where he majored in organ (his skill on the instrument evident at various times during the service in which this cantata was presented).

Collaborating in this ongoing enterprise are well-known choral conductor and organ recitalist Richard Apperley, and a group of singers and instrumentalists who perform under the name of Ensemble Abendmusik – the group’s personnel varies from occasion to occasion, depending upon the performers’ availability and according to the requirements of each cantata. This is the second such performance I’ve attended, and the singers and some of the musicians were different on each occasion.

The church itself is smallish, and has a chamber organ, though its vaulted ceiling does give the sounds of the music some resonating-space.  The first time I attended one of these services the day outside was gloomy and grey, and something of the oppressive atmosphere seemed to colour the proceedings – however, my recent experience had a completely different ambience, everything warm and glowing  from the late afternoon sunbeams which had found their way inside the space, so that I felt a kind of sacramental ‘illuminating from within” this time round.

The service in each case “framed” the cantata performance, choral singing preceded by chorale preludes played on the organ, and liturgical prayers, responses and chanting, and followed by some preaching, readings from the Bible and prayer and singing. The congregation was asked not to “applaud” the music presentations during the course of the service, keeping the focus throughout on the overall service and its various acts of worship, of which the cantata performance was an integral part.

When it came to the cantata, following the Epistle and Gospel readings and a congregational “Magnificat” composed by a sixteenth-century composer Giovanni Giacomo Gastoldi, the music seemed to flow from the performers as part of a continuum, rather than resemble something brought in for the occasion. The work was BWV 47 Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedriget werden (Whoever exalts himself will be abased) – and its instrumental opening brought forth playing whose sweet tones and simple, direct focus seemed to draw both strength and beauty from its purpose as much as its intrinsic value. The quartet of soloists, though varying in strength and projection of voices, made the most of the opening fugal chorus, with only a slight uncertainty of attack at the harmonic lurch into the movement’s coda.

The soprano soloist, Rebecca Woodmore, I liked very much indeed – her aria featured strong, direct vocalizing, and graceful handling of the long lines. Martin Jaenecke’s solo violin obbligato supported her truly almost all the way, perhaps tiring a little during the reprise after the aria’s central, more agitated section, where the intonation was less consistent. During this vigorous middle section, the soprano caught the sense of anger and agitation in her singing, even if some of the figurations were blurred at speed – still, the energy and bite made a telling contrast with the aria’s outer sections.

Bass Timothy Hurd relished the juicy admonitions of his recitative text, with references to “Du, armer Wurm”, giving the delivery proper force and colour. His aria, Jesu, beuge douche mien Herz (Jesus, bow down my heart) was a bit more effortful, the voice having to be pushed through the lines, with breath occasionally an issue – though he managed to inflect the text tellingly in places, while keeping his tones true and focused. I wished we had heard a little more of the alto and tenor as well, but the work had no “solos” for either of them.

Instrumental lines (Jane Young’s ‘cello work a particular delight) nicely augmented the work of soloists and chorus, the final chorale a case in point, which here received a properly dignified rendition – one had a real sense of Bach’s work as music that contributed to a community’s expression of spiritual strength and determination. At the end of the service we were able to express our appreciation of the performers, which also included the auspices of the church and its ministers. The result of all of these people’s efforts seemed to me something eminently rich and worthwhile.