Cantoris’s enterprising coupling of Gounod and CPE Bach

CHARLES GOUNOD – St. Cecilia Mass
CARL PHILLIPP EMMANUEL BACH – Magnificat

Cantoris Chamber Choir, with the Queen’s Closet
Thomas Nikora (conductor)

St.Peter’s-on-Willis, Wellington

Saturday 18 May 2024

Saint-Saëns thought the St Cecilia Mass was Gounod’s best work. But I’d never heard it before, so I was interested to go along to Cantoris’s first concert for 2024 to hear it. As for the ‘Bach Magnificat’, I was excited to find it wasn’t the familiar Magnificat in D major by JS Bach but a completely different work by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel, supported by the early music ensemble The Queen’s Closet.

The St Cecilia Mass was written to be performed on St Cecilia’s Day, 22 November1855, at St Eustache Church in Paris, where they customarily presented a new mass setting each St Cecilia’s Day. It was originally scored for enormous forces: a large orchestra including six harps, an organ, a four-part chorus, and three soloists (STB). Last night Cantoris gave us Jonathan Berkahn on the organ of St Peter’s Church, as busy as you might imagine, as well as the chorus and three soloists.

It is a big Romantic work, even without the six harps, full of impressive effects. The three soloists usually sing in a trio or duets, rather than taking solo arias, which gave an opportunity to assess them together as well as separately. Soprano Caroline Burchell has a lovely voice, well suited to Gounod’s requirements, silvery and expressive, with plenty of power. There was a slight risk at times that she could overwhelm the light, flexible tenor of Herbert Zielinski, a young chorister who was tenor lead in the 2021-22 Secondary Students’ Choir and currently sings in the National Youth Choir. But she kept things in check. Zielinski sounded most interesting in duets with the bass soloist, Mark Bobb, an opera singer and teacher: together their voices blended with an unusual timbre.

Conductor Thomas Nikora had the forces of the choir mostly under control, although there was a bit of rough tuning from time to time. If Gounod had been directing operations, he would have asked for a more uniform ensemble sound – and an orchestra to support them. With harps.

This is an interesting work. The text setting is slightly quixotic (or perhaps reflects mid-nineteenth century French practice), with a Kyrie in which tenor and bass do much of the work, a slightly plodding Credo; and the ‘non sum dignus’, which is usually said before the Eucharist, tacked on to the end of the Agnus Dei (it is usually not attached) before a final Amen. The Offertory was an organ solo in this version, with a distinctly spooky quality. I’d love to hear the work performed again with larger forces.

CPE Bach was only nine years old when he heard his father’s Magnificat performedfor the first time, in 1723. Ten years later, Bach revised it and put it into the key of D major. Carl Phillipp Emanuel, the second surviving son of that remarkable family, wrote his own Magnificat in 1749, just in time for the old boy to hear it. But he kept revising it until 1786, which makes it an interesting record of the change from Baroque to Classical style. CPE was a prolific keyboard composer, but the Magnificat is his most substantial choral work.

Last night Cantoris was supported by The Queen’s Closet, an early music ensemble,with Gordon Lehany on first violin, Antonia Grant on second, Samuel Berkahn viola, Tomos Christie cello, and the versatile Jonathan Berkahn on spinet. This was in place of a Baroque orchestra comprising two transverse flutes, two oboes, two horns, bassoon, plus three trumpets and timpani in addition to the strings and continuo. That would have been ruinously expensive at today’s prices, but gorgeous.

Once again, it was interesting to hear CPE ring the changes. He was definitely not a pale imitator of his father. Apart from ‘Deposuit’, which they both gave to the tenor (CPE also adding the alto), the disposition of soloists and chorus was quite different. ‘Quia respexit’ was given to the soprano soloist, who sounded fabulous. It sat very well in her voice. Sadly ‘Quia fecit mihi magna’ falls to the tenor soloist, and the young singer managed the runs gamely but struggled with some of the wider leaps. The bass soloist showed what he could do with ‘Fecit potentiam’. Mark Bobb has an operatic sound and the necessary fearlessness. ‘Deposuit’ started with the tenor, with the alto being added.

What a delightful singer Helene Page is, poised and assured, with lovely tone and phrasing. Tenor and alto sang in close harmony, and sounded beautiful together. CPE gave ‘Suscepit Israel’ to the alto, which Helene Page sang beautifully, blending sensitively with the instrumental support.

This Magnificat has relatively little for the choir to do (only the first movement, the fourth, with soprano and alto, and the last two). Moreover, the chorus writing is mostly in four parts, with divisi tenors and basses at times for effect (whereas JS Bach wrote his for SSATB). But it is a most attractive and interesting work, and I would love to hear it again.

‘I find her becoming’: Nota Bene at 20

Nota Bene
Twentieth Anniversary Gala Concert

St Andrews on the Terrace,
27 April 2024

What’s the difference between an orchestra and a choir? No, not a trick question. The
difference is that choirs usually love their music directors.

At Nota Bene’s 20 th anniversary concert on Saturday, the affection and trust between
conductor and choir were evident. Nota Bene is a Wellington choir founded by Christine
Argyll, who served for ten years. She was followed by Peter Walls (2016-19) and Maaike
Christie-Beekman (from 2020 to the present). All three were conducting on Saturday, along
with choir member Shawn Condon, who has been guest conductor at times. The result was
interesting. The audience could observe the different styles and approaches and compare
the results.

Nota Bene is a chamber choir, but the anniversary concert attracted a few former members,
so it fielded 43 singers, including the conductors, all of whom sang when they were not
waving their arms about. The programme was a kind of greatest hits of the last 20 years,
favourite works of the conductors – which worked most of the time. Brackets were
interspersed by little histories of this or that aspect of choir life. Too many of them, I thought;
a bit too cosy and self-congratulatory, since the audience was mostly people who are not
choir members. Some of the content would have been better suited to the after-match party.

Nota Bene, on its best days, has a beautiful sound. The tenor section is warm and creamy,
the sopranos bright and tuneful. This was evident in the first work on the programme, an
arrangement of the timeless ‘Es ist ein Ros’, which incorporated humming (very hard to stay
in tune) and a vocal quartet singing the tune, very slowly. There was an alto solo from
Maaike Christie-Beekman (such a gorgeous voice). A lovely start.

Next was ‘The Shepherd’s Carol’ (Sansom/Chilcott), which also featured humming, again
with bright, fresh soprano tone, gorgeous tenor sound, and subtle bass action. It was
followed by Arvo Pärt’s ‘Bogoroditse Devo’ (a setting of the Russian Orthodox Ave Maria).

Most of us are used to the slow, alto-driven Rachmaninov version. Pärt’s setting is fast and
lively (though not very Russian or even reverent in feel), and the Nota Bene basses rose to
the occasion.

Jacqui Coats, who has been responsible for the choir’s stagecraft, spoke about the staged
concerts, one of which was St Nicholas (in 2011), under Michael Vinten. I was sorry to have
missed that. Another that the choir was proud of was ‘A Sentimental Journey’, based on the
conceit of a late-night radio request session, which sounded like great fun.

Next came David Hamilton’s ‘Caliban’s Song’. I am used to the Viva Voce version, which still
gets airplay on RNZ Concert. VV has a much more operatic sound than NB, especially in
the higher voices, whereas NB is more choral in tone. The Hamilton was exciting, with very
beautiful singing in the chordal passages.

Then Peter Walls took over for a bracket of Purcell Psalm settings. Psalm 63 was scored for
Treble Countertenor Tenor and Bass. Peter Walls used an ATB trio for one of the verses
and trio of women’s voices (SSA) for the other, which worked well. He followed it up with
Psalm 79 (SSATB) that incorporated a beautiful quartet, and Psalm 104 (SSATB), originally
written with a basso continuo. Once again, rich Purcellian sonority, enlivened texturally by
two trios: first ATB (Virginia Earle, Nick McDougall, and Robert Easting) taking the cantor’s
part, and next SAA (Tina Carter, Marian Wilberg, and Marian Campbell). Intellectual,
restrained beauty.

Maaike Christie-Beekman took the podium for the last two items in the first half:
Rheinberger’s ‘Abendlied’, with mellifluous tenors and, later, bright soprano voices floating
over the chords of the three lower parts; followed by Lauriden’s schmaltzy crowd-pleaser,
‘Sure on this Shining Night’, dedicated to Peter Barber and two other deceased choir
members. Heather Easting played the piano with delicacy, and the choir showed off its lovely
lower voices, followed by a fabulous first soprano moment – ‘bright but not shrill’, say my
notes. There are big dynamic movements in this work, an exciting crescendo to ff, and a
very beautiful decrescendo from mp to pp.

After the interval, Shawn Condon took the podium to conduct Fergus Byett’s sentimental
Karanga Akau. There’s an awful lot of Māori in this work, and the language wasn’t entirely
convincing. Once again, the choir was supported by Heather Easting on piano; the tenors
led and were lovely as ever, and the choir navigated the interesting harmonies with
conviction. The next work was by Graham Parsons, a charming setting of a poem by Jenny
Bornholdt, ‘How to get ahead of yourself while the light still shines’, with Heather Easting on
piano. Despite some tricky writing, the choir performed it with verve, clearly enjoying
themselves.

Next the men took a back seat, and the women sang ‘Sing Creation’s music on’, a setting of
the John Clare poem by Stephen Paulus. Although Heather Easting and the women did a
good job of this under Shawn Condon’s direction, the work sounds ill-judged as a
composition, far too big and bombastic for the slender little poem. Clare is not a poet who
shows off; but Stephen Paulus, an American composer and Grammy winner, did not let that
get in his way. It was, I fear, noisy.

Undaunted, we had some Hildegard of Bingen (the lovely ‘O Frondens Virga’) arranged by
the American composer Drew Collins. I’ve sung the original Hildegard plainchant, and I was
unconvinced by this arrangement on first hearing, but I would need to hear it again to make
a judgement. Next came ‘There is Sweet Music’, a piece of Tennyson set by the American
choral composer Daniel Gawthrop, which I thought was absolutely gorgeous – ‘static and
tender’, according to my notes. The last work of this women’s bracket with Shawn Condon
was ‘Finding her here’ by Joan Szymka, a terrific work that I first heard NB perform at the
Hilma af Klint exhibition at the City Gallery. It was just as good on a second hearing.

Next, the men came forward for an unconducted version of Billy Joel’s ‘And so it goes’,
arranged by Bob Chilcott. This was a show-stopper – insouciant, plaintive, resigned – with
excellent singing on the part of the tenors, and a ravishing solo by baritone Simon Christie
with humming sotto voce support. It doesn’t do to interrogate the words if you are not given
to sentimentality, but the arrangement was anything but sentimental. Stunning!

The choir came back together for the last two works under Maaike Christie-Beekman. One,
‘Bruremarsj’, I think may have been included in the Hilma af Klint concert. It’s a Norwegian
wedding song, and required audience participation (clicking or clapping on the off beats). It is
a sunny work and it was sung with gusto. The last work in a very full concert was another
Gawthrop work, ‘Sing me to Heaven’. Whilst it was well sung, I greatly disliked the text,
which is pretentious (‘In my heart’s sequestered chambers/lie truths stripped of poet’s gloss’)
and bathetic (‘and my soul finds primal eloquence’). Save me! The sentimental nonsense of
the work certainly established the low-brow end of NB’s repertoire. What a shame, I thought,
to wallow in tosh at the end of an otherwise lovely concert. If only they had done a reprise of
the Billy Joel to take the sickly taste away. But I may have been alone in this thought.

Congratulations, Nota Bene, on a great first twenty years. Onward!

Flavoursome Janáček and Dvořák from the Bach Choir

The Bach Choir of Wellington presents:
JANÁČEK – Otče náš (Our Father)
DVOŘÁK – Mass in D Major, Op.86

Laura Dawson (soprano), Sinéad Keane (alto),
Theo Moolenaar (tenor). Simon Christie (bass)
Michelle Velvin (harp), Douglas Mews (organ)
Bach Choir of Wellington
Musical Director – Shawn Michael Condon

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

Saturday, 13th April 2024

I couldn’t recall a previous time I’d walked into St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace Church in Wellington and straightaway been confronted by an audience of faces rather than heads entirely – well in most cases! – of hair – as if in a dream I had suddenly and bewilderingly been thrust into the role of a performer or celebrant in what was to follow, instead of an accustomedly passive onlooker!

Of course this audience volte-face was arranged so that singers and instrumentalists in both works could be more closely arrayed than was often the case in works requiring the services of the splendid pipe organ and a choir of reasonable size, not to mention a quartet of solo singers and a harpist with her instrument to boot! It resulted in a different kind of “spaciousness” to that end-to-end kind normally afforded by the church for choral concert music accompanied by an organ.

Actually, the relative “novelty” of the arrangement further intensified the stimulation I’d previously noted in listening to recordings of these works which were entirely new to me! I put a lot of it down to the music’s distinctive “Czech” quality, present in spadefuls throughout Leos Janáček’s Otče náš (the setting of the prayer ”Our Father”) by dint of so many characteristic composer-fingerprints in the music’s making.

But even in the more conventionally-presented Dvořák Mass there were numerous aspects which proclaimed a kind of expression which, though influenced by, was nevertheless apart from most of the familiar stylistic formalities of the Austro-German tradition of church music, drawing instead from the composer’s folk-influenced roots with a plaintiveness and simplicity of utterance that readily evoked an awareness of and a feeling for the natural world and an ordinary, simple being’s place in it.

First up, however, was the Janáček work, opened by the organ and harp, and joined by the voices, firstly the basses, and then in canonic imitation, the altos, a strong, simple and beautiful effect, with both vocal strands drawing resonances, it seemed, from one another, as with the lighter and no less beautiful exchanges between tenors and sopranos which followed. Tenor soloist Theo Moolenaar brought a wonderful fervour to his first solo, his ringing top notes creating a frisson which was carried forward by the entry of the choir in reply. A rhapsodic instrumental interlude for organ and harp paved the way for another solo from the tenor, beautifully echoed by the choir and by the organ, joined by the harp for further rhapsodising (delightful playing, as throughout, from both Douglas Mews and Michelle Velvin!)

What a contrast, then, came with the choir’s tumultuous entry imploring our “daily bread”, with particular insistence upon dnes, the word for bread, flung upwards and outwards into the spaces overhead! – and how readily the tenor then implored the choir’s responses to his plea for forgiveness of humankind’s trespasses, with organ hand harp adding their own heartfelt contributions. Finally, a particularly “grunty” organ passage heralded a vigorous and even biting response from the voices in matters pertaining to temptation and evil before assenting the prayer’s plea further and finally with a number of ringing and rousing “Amens!”

My delight in recent discovery concerning the Dvořák Mass which followed was happily taken further by this performance, complete with the “togetherness” of the entire ensemble crowded into the St.Andrew’s organ-loft doubtless reflecting the circumstances of the work’s premiere. Dvořák’s original commission for the work had come from one of his patrons, the architect Josef Hlavka, and involved the inauguration of a small chapel in the Bohemian village of Lužany, the place which gave the Mass its nickname.

I was able to savour all over again those sweet opening phrases of the work in the “Kyrie”, here beautifully floated by the choir, with conductor Shawn Michael Condon beautifully controlling the “ebb-and-flow’ dynamics of the lines, creating an almost lullabic sound around a crescendo of tones and associated emotions. The “Christe” passages made a telling contrasted effect, especially when the Kyrie refrain returned at the end, plus some briefly reiterated “Christe christe” murmurings.

A vigorously-begun, declamatory “Gloria” took us to a stately and lyrical “Et in terra pax hominibus”, which grew back the music’s jubilation through the following “Laudamus te”, before reaching a splendid choral climax at “Glorificamus te”. The most moving sequences for me came with the interplay of the soloists and choir throughout the “Domine Deus” sections where first the choir, and then the soloists brought out the beauty of the exchanges, the choir then excitingly bringing out the music’s energies at “Suscipe deprecationem nostrum”, and continuing with a robust “Cum Sancto Spiritu’ followed by resoundingly satisfying “Amens”.

Another moment to savour was the surprisingly lyrical and serenade-like opening to the “Credo”, the women’s voices sweetly alternating with the rest of the choir – by contrast, the “Deum de Deo” sections brought forth some unexpectedly explosive interjections, with the organ’s chording in places bordering on the discordant. A pause gave us breathing-space for the contrast at the soloists’ taking up of the “Et incarnatus est” with beautiful work from all concerned, beginning with alto Sinéad Keane and bass Simon Christie, and followed just as effulgently by soprano Laura Dawson and tenor Theo Moolenaar, who, together with the choir, brought about a palpable sense of peace with the gently-breathed “Et homo factus est”.

Dvořák doesn’t disappoint with the contrasting force of his setting of “Crucifixus etiam pro nobis” – the voices unsparingly produced fierce and harrowing tones, while the following “Passus et sepultus est” expressed the grief in a vastly different way, with hushed tones and ever-increasing resignation. How appropriate, then was the different kind of contrast again wrought by “Et resurrexit tertia die”, one expressed with lilting rhythms and ascending lines blossoming with the help of the organ. The rest of the setting seemed to me to emulate a pealing of church bells expressed in vocal terms, an effect accentuated by the “swinging” trajectories of the music and the “folksiness” of the organ’s squeeze-box-like timbres, leading inevitably to the joyously-voiced “Amens” at the end.

Bells were again brought to mind by the opening of the Sanctus, the voices enchanting us with a well-nigh irresistible carillion of sounds and resonating “HJosannas” at the end. Came the “Benedictus” with its piquant organ solo at the beginning and “entranced” vocal entries, producing slow-moving near-oceanic waves of sound – a wonderful sequence, broken by the joyous return of the Sanctus.
It was left to the “Agnus Dei’ to conclude the work, simply and sonorously sung by the soloists in turn, beginning with the tenor, and then the alto, soprano and bass. After repeated and affecting soundings of the words “Miserere nobis” from the choir, the tenor then introduced the words “Dona nobis pacem”, echoed with most affecting beauty by the choir, the word “pacem” seeming to ring in our ears as a haunting message, indeed, even a directive, for our time……

Very great credit to all concerned with the Bach Choir of Wellington for a well-planned and engagingly-delivered concert, eminently worthy of ongoing memory…….

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

Photo credit "Latitude Creative"

Photo credit “Latitude Creative”

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

MIchael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, December 2nd, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Wiremu’s REIMAGINING MOZART – a mind-enlarging expression of human tragedy in music

Robert Wiremu’s REIMAGINING MOZART
(dedicated to Helen Acheson)

Presented by Chamber Music New Zealand

Karanga to the Composer – Melissa Absolum (Voices Chamber Choir)
Composer – Robert Wiremu
Instrumental Ensemble – Liu-Yi Retallick. Joelia Pinto (violins), Johnny Chang, Helen Lee (violas)
James Bush, Sarah Spence (‘cellos), Eric Renick (vibraphone)
Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir
Music Director – Karen Grylls

St.Mary of the Angels Church, Wellington

3:00pm Sunday, October 29th, 2023

 

Apart from it all having  a superlatives-exhausting effect from a critical point of view, I found as an audience member, composer Robert Wiremu’s “reimagining” of sequences from Mozart’s final work, his “Requiem”, a profoundly engaging and deeply moving experience. It was thus on so many levels, though naturally the presentation exerted its fullest and deepest effect with all things considered – the atmosphere of the venue (the beautiful St.Mary of the Angels Church in Wellington), the cultural merging of ritualistic procedures, European and Maori, the idea of a “requiem” in the presence of karanga (call), kaupapa (matter for discussion) and poroporoaki (leave-taking) relating to and delivered by the composer in relation to  his subject matter, the use of both specific and “re-presented” parts of the Mozart work, both the overall and specific parts of the presentation’s “narrative”, the technical prowess of the performers, the beauty of their singing and playing, and, of course the skills and complete authority of Music Director Karen Grylls. All of these things interacted to present a work whose range and scope was breathtaking, both when experienced in situ and in subsequent resonant reflection.

Earlier this same month (October) Wiremu had outlined in a radio interview certain aspects of the presentation which conveyed a real sense of what we would subsequently hear in its performance – and to the production’s credit the printed programme available at the venue further enabled the listener to clearly follow the general organisation of the work. Wiremu recalled that the idea of using Mozart’s Requiem as a kind of “starting-point” was part of the commission given to him by CMNZ’s chief executive at the time, Gretchen la Roche, and that he was able to then sublimate the kind of universal human grief for the dead in Mozart’s work as a statement focusing on a more specific and immediate tragedy involving this country, the Mt.Erebus plane crash which claimed 257 lives late in 1979.

Wiremu was given certain specific directives regarding the commission. because the piece was going to go “on tour” – his resources were limited accordingly, thus  the use of a chamber choir and a limited-sized instrumental ensemble . Along with a small group of strings Wiremu chose the vibraphone as an ideal instrument of evocation particularly as the thought of the Erebus happening took shape in his mind.  Though he himself remembered the news of the actual incident (he was nine years old at that time), Wiremu decided he would make no reference in the work to any specific person or organisation involved in the incident in any way, his purpose being to emphasise the idea of sorrow and grief in universal human terms of loss connecting the Mozart work and the Erebus disaster. He also resolved that he would not change the actual notes of Mozart’s that he used,  instead adapting different instrumentations from those of the original.

Interestingly Wiremu developed in his mind a tenuous link between Mozart’s work and the Erebus accident via a tape cassette player called a “Walkman” (available in 1979) and the Requiem thereby being recorded on a cassette and becoming part of the event of the plane’s destruction and the deaths of the plane’s occupants – all of which regarding the player and its cassette being pure conjecture on the composer’s part, with no ACTUAL evidence of a tape of any of Mozart’s music on the plane. However Wiremu imagined the notes of the music on the mythical tape carried into and through the same “fractured, scattered, broken, distorted, twisted (and) disfigured” process as all else on the aircraft, and in places the notes are thus subjected to similar kinds of treatment. At the beginning and end of the piece there is birdsong reproduced by the instruments and by the choir members actually whistling some of Mozart’s own notes from the work as they walk to and from their places – in Wiremu’s schema the piece also features a dedication, remembering a singer in the group, Helen Acheson, who was involved with this project but who died earlier this year – this was Mozart’s last completed work, and Wiremu introduces its performance by the choir with 43 bell-notes played by the vibraphone and accompanied by major-minor chordal undulations from the strings, a note for every year of the dedicatee’s all-too-short life.

Each of the seven movements of Robert Wiremu’s  piece was given a Maori name, the opening KARANGA here performed arrestingly and sonorously by alto Melissa Absolum from the Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir, welcoming the composer to the place of performance and inviting him to speak about what we were going to hear this afternoon. Wiremu then greeted us, explaining something of the grieving ethos of human loss in Mozart’s work as being redirected and reimagined to reflect a tragedy in the South Pacific in similarly non-specific terms.

The instrumentalists began the work, creating eerie harmonies from “bowing” the keys on the vibraphone, the sounds of birdsong realised in a variety of ways, from glissando notes on the string instruments to vocalisings (whistlings) from as the singers as they entered down each of the side-aisles and congregatged with the instrumentalists at the front, followed by Music Director Karen Grylls. Amidst these ambiences the strings and vibraphone began the instrumental introduction to the Requiem, joined by the choir, the singing sonorous and clearly-lined, with the Kyrie Eleison fugue gloriously articulated, those treacherously dramatic ascents thrown off with great elan, leading to the powerfully dramatic concluding ELEI-SON!

The opening having captured the growing excitement of the plane nearing Antarctica, the following RERENGA (flight) features the driving rhythms of Confutatis Maledictis depicting the aircraft’s propulsion, with contrasting emotions represented by the interspersed, gentler Voca me cum benedictis from the choir. A culmination came with the ecstatic response of the voices in their great, unaccompanied cries of Sanctus! as the icebergs were glimpsed from the aircraft, along with the breathless exultation of the unaccompanied Hosanna fugue. By contrast the HINGA (descent) which followed used part of the Recordare in a blurred, unclear way as the flight entered a clouded-over unknown world, the strings expressing confused, discordant progressions, with downward glissandi depiction a descent into the gloom. The vibraphone briefly evoked dislocation and confused suspension before the strings plunged the scenario into darkness and confusion, unisons attacking and blurring each other’s lines, the sounds strained, stretched, stressed and tortured until the process gradually abated, the punishing clashes and dissonances drawing  back, and leaving only confused silence – TE KORE, the emptiness, is all that is left…..

Into the silence burst the Dies Irae, here fantastically realised, the lines at once powerful and knife-edged, with both instruments and voices throwing themselves at the notes Mozart wrote! The vibraphone’s sudden interspersed moment of terrible nothingness and emptiness compressed and eventually fractured the Dies Irae utterances, the words broken up into whisperings and single word gesturings, the chant then reduced to ghostly, spectral whisperings of both the Dies Irae and Quantus tremor verses. It is over – there are no survivors of the crash.

In the ensuing silence the vibraphone played the Lacrymosa, joined by the voices only, the strings silent, the voices rising in grief and sorrow and anger – the vibraphone took us to strange tonal realms as if the music was denying its own home key and annihilating its own essence, the voices sounding similarly estranged, with individual notes stuttering and halting, and the vibraphone having to reinvent harmonies for the voices’ melody. As for the choir’s singing of the “Amen” – such a cathartic moment, sounding a kind of run-through realisation of an awful finality.

MUTUNGA stands for completion, here accompanied by anguished string chords and bell-chiming descants from the vibraphone as the chorus sang the Agnus Dei, alternating forthright opening phrases with gentler replying Dona eis Requiem utterances, to which the instruments played a gentle contrapuntal accompaniment. We were led back to the beginning, with strings and bowed vibraphone notes joined by the choir, the plaintive vocal lines turning vigorous as the words Requiem and Dona eis Domine were repeated, all so very wondrously and ardently realised. The awful inevitability of nature’s processings of the tragedy were duly acknowledged by Wiremu as Mozart’s response to the words in the Requiem seek to console all those who suffer the anguish of loss in all its forms.

As if bringing into individual human focus these archetypal processes of grief, Wiremu concluded his work with a Dedication given the title MARAMA (light), with a performance of Mozart’s last “finished” work, his “Ave Verum Corpus”, one integrated into the earlier-expressed, more collective consciousness of tragedy through a kind of “summons” via bell sounds, here given no less than the 43 strokes in commemoration of the life of Helen Acheson, a friend and colleague of Wiremu’s who as previously mentioned died earlier this year. Strings and vibraphone played a contrapuntal accompaniment of some glorious singing from Voices New Zealand under Karen Grylls’ inspirational direction, leaving all of us in no doubt that we had witnessed something unique and special, and to be remembered and appreciated for a long time to come.

Anton Webern steals the show! – Orchestra Wellington and Marc Taddei with “Pharaoh”

ORCHESTRA WELLINGTON presents “PHARAOH”
GEMMA PEACOCKE – Manta
(with Arohanui Strings)
ANTON WEBERN – Passacaglia Op.1
JOHN PSATHAS – Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra  “Pharaoh”
(with Tomoni Nozaki – timpani)
BRIAR PRASTINI (vocalist) – White, Red, Black
WOLFGANG MOZART – Incidental Music to “Thamos , King of Egypt”
(with the Orpheus Choir of Wellington – Brent Stewart, Director)

Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 7th October, 2023

Programme-holding audience members at Orchestra Wellington’s Saturday evening concert “Pharaoh” at the Michael Fowler Centre might have been a little confused upon turning to the opening page of a publication to find the heading “Prophecy” at the top of the page containing the evening’s listed items – hang on! – wasn’t “Prophecy” the title of the previous concert? There was also some disagreement in print regarding John Psathas’s scheduled Timpani Concerto – was it called “Planet Damnation” as on that introductory page with the programme listing? Or was the work’s name actually “Pharaoh”, which stood at the top of the section in the booklet devoted to each individual item, and which gave “Planet Damnation” as the name of the concerto’s third movement?

These things were, of course, minor hiccups which distracted little from the concert’s overall impact, which was considerable, and, thanks to Music Director Marc Taddei’s extraordinary empathy with young musicians demonstrated a heart-warming variety of delights throughout the presentation’s opening segment of music-making. Wellington’s long-established youth programme for aspiring string players, Arohanui Strings, were there in force, from tiny tots to teens, and obviously bursting to play their part in the concert’s opening item, Kiwi composer Gemma Peacocke’s beautiful, multi-stranded instrumental response to the subaqueous world of manta rays who populate the waters of the Outer Hauraki Gulf Tikapa Moana, as characterised in a story by Wiremu Grace, called Whaitere, the Enchanted Stingray.

Peacocke’s piece seemed wrought from sounds at once pulsating with movement and endlessly regenerating, beginning with attention-grabbing soaring and descending lines, a seascape with something of the quality of Sibelius in “The Oceanides”. The supporting winds and brasses sounded repeated figures and long-held pedal notes, with the youthful string-players steadfastedly holding their own lines as the creatures of the deep in the music reaffirmed possession of their world. A solo violin characterised for a moment something of a single creature’s adventure and undertaking, as the oceanic frisson with which the piece began rose and fell impressively once more before the waters resumed their preordained rituals of ceaseless movement.

Marc Taddei then took the opportunity to allow the youngsters their moment of glory, encouraging them to join in with a simplified version of Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”. After starting them all off, the conductor stood motionless, leaving them to it,  exclaiming to us “Don’t they all sound better when I stop conducting them?” to great amusement all round! Then it was the “Tiny Tots” turn to impress (with even more than their obvious cuteness!), coming on stage with their tiny instruments and playing a folk-tune, then playing it again much faster, to breathless effect! After a lullaby restored composure, Taddei proceeded to give all of us a hint regarding one of the pieces of music scheduled for the as yet unannounced 2024 programme for Orchestra Wellington, telling us the Arohanui Strings will play a tune that “will give the show away!: – which it certainly did! And with that the youthful players took their leave……

What then was wondrous was how such heartwarming vignettes of youthful musicians playing what might in some cases have been their first-ever concert notes then “morphed” into the spectacle of the full Orchestra Wellington on the platform with their conductor tackling a score which truly represented a kind of acme of orchestral execution and epoch-making-and-breaking composition – this was the 1908 Op. 1 Passacaglia of Anton Webern, the composer’s simultaneous tribute and farewell to Romanticism in music, his only composition to be performed in public that was written under the tutelage of his teacher at that time, Arnold Schoenberg.

The 20-plus variations of this work (a Passacaglia traditionally consists of a short theme in the bass which becomes a foundation for a set of variations on that theme) use a brilliantly-worked array of sounds, often lush in the manner of Mahler but at times hushed and sparse, with brilliantly inventive combinations of instruments – Webern organises his variations into an almost symphony-like plan of movements, with a central slow section and contrasting scherzo-like textures, all concluding with a ghostly epilogue. Listening to the players negotiating this tightly-worked scheme with what seemed like absolute confidence and conviction, I found myself simply taking off my mythical hat to both conductor and players – I knew the work reasonably well, but couldn’t remember hearing on record or seeing on film a more exciting and involving performance!

I must confess to finding John Psathas’s Timpani Concerto which followed a bit perplexing in contrast to what I’d just heard – and unfortunately my seat was in a place where my view of the timpanist was obscured by the conductor, so I missed some of the visual excitement of the soloist’s obviously virtuosic command of the instruments. As it wasn’t a work I’d heard before I figured earlier I might find a You-Tube performance with which to familiarise myself regarding the piece – and I found a clip which bore the title “Planet Damnation”, featuring a most exciting performance by Larry Reese, the NZSO timpanist. I didn’t know I was hearing and getting to know only the final movement at that stage, so the onset of the first movement nonplussed me for a while, as did what seemed like an over-insistence of the percussionist playing the woodblocks! The slow movement, when it came, was something of a blessed relief.

Though it was just as unfamiliar, I really enjoyed the slow movement, as it gave the timpanist, Tomoni Nozaki, a beautiful young Japanese woman, a chance to demonstrate the skill and variety of her touch and her ear for all kinds of sonority, instead of her being often drowned out by the rest of the orchestra (I found the woodblock part for one far too insistent!). Then came the movement I’d already heard, and I was able to better relate to the plethora of percussive irruption that the first movement had seemed to unfetter upon our sensibilities. I don’t think it’s a work I shall ever love, but the skills on display by the soloist were sufficiently interesting to make the piece work throughout those two latter movements.

We had a different running-order to that of the printed programme, so we got Briar Prastiti’s “White, Red, Black” after the interval. I liked this work a lot, admiring the composer’s orchestrations of her material, the wind-blown ambiences of the opening carrying my sensibilities along with the music’s trajectories, sharpening my interest more with bird-song-like figurations suggesting in places things coming into focus. What I found slightly disappointing was not being able to hear a single word of the vocalist’s line (despite a microphone being used) from where I was sitting (and my companion similarly reported that he could not hear the singer, and nor could somebody else I spoke to afterwards)….the accompaniment was invariably beautiful, but whenever the song’s intensities sharpened or  grew in body, so did the accompaniments! For this reason, the most telling vocal moments for me were towards the end, when the voice became as an orchestral instrument, the wordless vocalising as haunting as any other of the sounds we were hearing.

Before the final item of the evening, Marc Taddei announced certain salient details of the Orchestra’s 2024 programme, certainly whetting our appetites with some of the detailings – it seems to be a kind of survey of masterpieces representing different eras of artistic creativity, beginning (if I remember correctly) with the Baroque era, and finishing with a contemporary work (I didn’t write all the “clues” down, but Taddei assured us that full details would be released at the Orchestra[‘s final programme for the year, “Red Moon”, on November 11th.

And so to the evening’s final item, which, though splendidly performed and presented, with resplendent singing from Brent Stewart’s Orpheus Choir, and, by turns, stirring and meltingly beautiful orchestral playing, either in support or leading the way, I thought it all essentially lacked the last modicum of focus and interest to be truly engaging. Perhaps if we had had the words, the extra focus would have enlivened the undoubtedly “Game of Thrones” like scenario for which Mozart produced this music. Or, perhaps we needed a narrator with a suitably theatrical “presence” to knit the scenario together more readily –  In reality, everybody – choir and orchestra – did their best with the material, but for me it never really caught fire! I found myself wishing at times that the orchestra was instead giving us the G Minor Symphony K.183, which was what the music occasionally sounded a bit like. And, as I walked to my car after the concert, the thing I found myself wanting to do the most was to get home and play that sensational Webern work again! It was , for me, the evening’s indisputable highlight, and I remain grateful to Marc Taddei and his players for THAT most of all – a truly remarkable experience!

 

 

Orchestra Wellington’s “Prophecy” – promise and fulfilment by young composers

Orchestra Wellington presents:
PROPHECY – Music by Thomas Ades, Benjamin Britten, Briar Prastiti and William Walton

THOMAS ADES – ….but all shall be well 1993
BENJAMIN BRITTEN – Violin Concerto 1939
BRIAR PRASTITI – Akri
WILLIAM WALTON – Belshazzar’s Feast 1931

Amalia Hall (violin)
Benson Wilson (baritone)
Orpheus Choir, Wellington (director Brent Stewart)
Wellington Brass band
Hutt City Brass
Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday, 5th August, 2023

 

What appeared to be a nearly-full-house turned up at the Michael Fowler Centre for the latest of the 2023 season’s inspirational Orchestra Wellington concerts – I was intrigued to learn from Marc Taddei during the course of his welcoming remarks regarding the concert that the presented works were all written by composers when in their twenties or early thirties, and thus making up a bevy of youthful creative efforts, augmenting the concert’s “Prophecy” title with the idea of a foretaste of creativity still to come at that time. I hadn’t fully “taken in” the youthfulness of William Walton, for one, in relation to his work, so it certainly added an energy-charged degree of expectation to the proceedings!

The title of Thomas Ades’  1993 work “….but all shall be well” is a quote from poet TS Eliot quoting in turn the fourteenth-century mystic seer Julian of Norwich, whose Revelations of Divine Love which she wrote at the time of the Plague and other widespread human tribulations continue to this day to inspire hope in people in the midst of human privations of great suffering, and of thus “finding calm and quiet and focus in a chaotic world”. Ades’s music begins as slivers of percussion, with additional keyboard notes gradually morphing into orchestrally-conceived impulses, which in turn give rise to repeated scales rising and falling half-an-octave, frequently counterpointed by deep percussion notes and occasional figures resembling dance-band scraps of melody, and evolving a seemingly limitless panoply of texture, timbre and colour in this constant mesmeric movement of impulse – an effect not unlike a slowly-revolving mirror-ball reflecting an entire surrounding world of contrasts, including an almost malevolent avalanche of sounds in one sequence which are eventually quelled.  The fine programme notes (well-nigh impossible to read when the auditorium lights, as here, are dimmed, for whatever reason) performed a great service, here, if only in retrospect! – with new music (this being a New Zealand premiere) it can be helpful to have a guide to lead one through what can seem in some cases like a thicket of unfamiliar sounds. These from Thomas Ades, though relatively easy on the ear, still benefitted from the written commentary (presumably the meticulous work of Erica Challis) and allowed us, if largely in retrospect, to enjoy the expertise of playing and direction of this music all the more.

Next was Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto, completed in the United States in 1939, a work which reflects the composer’s reaction to both the horrors of  the Spanish Civil War and the growing unrest in Europe leading to World War II. Inspired at first by the “intellectually emotional” character of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto which he had heard in 1936, Britten’s work runs a gamut of conflicting emotional states (he was in the company of his lover, tenor Peter Pears, throughout this time), which his partnership with the work’s first performer, Spanish violinist Antonio Brosa further refracted through the inclusion of technical demands of the utmost virtuosity. Various violinists have since remarked on the works’ difficulty, though with the consensus being that such obstacles are, in the words of one of the work‘s exponents, “always in the service of the music, and not for its own sake – sometimes the strain of the performer is actually the point! If the piece was too easy it wouldn’t communicate the struggle and anguish that Britten was going for”.

Amalia Hall, tonight’s soloist, certainly conveyed a no-holds-barred aspect to her addressing of the work’s many differing moods, even if the relatively unsupportive character of the MFC acoustic meant she had to work hard to make detail really “tell” in places for people like myself sitting some distance away. The first movement, with its portentous exchanges between the violin and the orchestra’s insistent rhythms, moved between a kind of charged serenity (lovely silvery violin tones alternated with chunky pizzicato interpolations from Hall) and more rumbustious declarations from orchestral winds and brasses, with the movement seeming to express its “soul” at the point where  the strings, introduced by the harp, take up the beautiful cantilena theme, and the violin provides the motto-like accompaniment with a combination of arco and pizzicato notes, which exchange grows in intensity until soloist and orchestra seem entranced in a sea of dreamlike harmonics and gently plucked notes.

The Scherzo which then bursts in is driving and dangerous, Hall pushing her instrument over a number of obstacle-like ascents with verve and surety, with the orchestra both supporting and occasionally seeming to “duel” with the soloist! Hall and Taddei relish the sparrings of sequences such as the soloist’s exotically sensual theme gleefully “trounced” with boisterous chordings by the orchestral brass and percussion, leading to an amazing “trio” involving piccolos and the tuba whose angularity recalls Berlioz! And the orchestra reacts accordingly, with a crescendo that threatens to engulf all and sundry, breaking off at the point of internal collapse, and leaving the soloist to reassemble the music’s fragments in a cadenza, Hall displaying her technical armoury with unrelenting resolve, taking the music to its uppermost reaches before being joined by the trombones from out of the depths, intoning the first notes of the final Passacaglia movement.

Trombones, strings, trumpets, winds, percussion all impressively have their say, before the violin embarks on its journey of infinite variation, a journey made in conjunction with orchestral forces requiring utmost virtuosity from the soloist and big-boned responses from all orchestra departments in a magnificently resonant middle section whose aftermaths include a long-breathed kind of lament by the soloist over a D major chord in the orchestra, Hall’s instrument however, hovering undecidedly between F and G-flat, and seeming to tread a fine line between hope and despair, before letting the silence being the judge, and with it our enthusiastic, if somewhat dumbfounded, applause!

The interval gave us all time and space to realign our thoughts before squaring up to a new work by a composer presently making a name for herself, locally. This was Briar Prastiti whose work Akri we were about to hear and who has another work scheduled for the orchestra in a concert later in the year, besides having completed music written for a play, Prima Facie by Suzie Miller, recently staged at Circa Theatre.  The title of Prastiti’s piece, Akri, means “edge” and symbolises a certain predicament experienced by people such as herself, who belong to two different cultures (Prasititi is of mixed New Zealand/Greek heritage), and feel never wholly at one with either.

Carrying the thought in my own head of having to experience such a conflict when preparing to listen to Prastiti’s piece I was surprised to find myself engulfed in the sounds of a gorgeously ambient opening chord which developed its own oceanic-type modulatory patterns, vaguely Sibelian or Baxian in character, resonant and flexible in surface aspect, the tones “bending” and pliably responding to impulse, somewhat belying the “edge” sobriquet borne by the composition’s title. The music opens up with full brass and percussion textures widening the sounds’ vistas, but with an intensity of focus giving birth to both rhythmic and thematic material, with particularly lovely writing for winds “caught” between gestures that have a rounded monumentality to my ears rather than any abrasive or intransient surface. I was naturally looking for tensions that would suggest alienation of a kind suggested by the piece’s name, but found instead a kind of kaleidoscopic change whose “dramatic contrasts” had more holistic “centres” whose presence meant life that had learned to coexist, though (as the piece’s abrupt ending seemed to demonstrate)  not without a certain volatility…….I liked Prastiti’s  idea of a unifying “thread” which holds the characters together and facititates the process of journeying from one kind of awareness to another…….it was. I thought, music with a certain filmic power of expression that I would be interested in hearing again…..

How ear-opening, therefore, to encounter in this same concert such marked variances of expression, when setting Prastiti’s all-encompassing soundscape variants against the young William Walton’s fervently bardic declamations delineating oppression, captivity and liberation of peoples from privation and slavery. Walton’s oratorio “Belshazzar’s Feast” is splendidly virile Old Testament stuff whose text is taken straight from the Bible (the Book of Daniel and Psalm 137) courtesy of Osbert Sitwell with whose family the young Walton had already formed a long-lasting association, most famously with the 1923 work Façade, its poetry by Osbert‘s sister, Edith having inspired Walton’s music.

First performed in 1931 under Malcolm Sargent, Belshazzar had a colourful genesis, with Walton originally commissioned by the BBC for a work with “a small choir, soloist, and an orchestra not exceeding 15 players! Walton found that, as the work proceeded so did his conception of the work “enlarge”. When the Leeds Festival agreed to stage the work’s first performance its director Thomas Beecham famously suggested to the young composer that he should “throw in a couple of brass bands” to the work (the Berlioz Requiem was being performed at the same Festival, and there were plenty of brass players on hand), as this was likely, Beecham opinioned, to be the only performance he would ever hear! However, thanks in part to the outstanding choral skills of Sargent the work was a great success, with Walton himself subsequently conducting (and recording) the work.  In fact, on a visit to New Zealand in 1956 Walton himself conducted the work in Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland, all with the Christchurch Harmonic Society Choir and the (then) NZBC Symphony Orchestra!

Doing the honours with Marc Taddei and Orchestra Wellington this time round were baritone Benson Wilson (presently developing a career in the UK with the English National Opera), the Orpheus Choir of Wellington, and players from both the Wellington Brass Band (current New Zealand champions) and the Hutt City Brass. With the mentioning of Berlioz and all those brass players I was hoping for a similarly splendid kind of effect in places to that I’d experienced when hearing my first live Berlioz Requiem! – alas, the Michael Fowler Centre is certainly no Wellington Town Hall, acoustically speaking, so I had to be content with modified rapture….

What could be wrought from the occasion both the Orpheus Choir and the brass-augmented Orchestra Wellington splendidly achieved under Marc Taddei’s incisive leadership! The opening brass calls pinned back our ears, as did the stenorian “Thus spake Isaiah!” responses  from the choir, the introduction’s essential theatricality given full rein with its pauses and dynamic contrasts, and the baritone’s sorrowful entry at “If I forget thee, Jerusalem”, intoning his words like a character rather than as a mere narrator. The choir, too conveyed the angst of the captive Israelites, both in the aching, arching lament “By the waters of Babylon”, and in the vengeful tones of the prophet at “O Daughter of Babylon”, hurling forth the words of doom, which resonated a kind of fateful ambience over what was to follow.

Benson Wilson made the most of his Babylonic “shopping-list”, allowing rather more fateful tones to take over his concluding item of currency “…and the souls of men”. In contrast to the lament-like aspect of the opening the Orpheus voices then relished their energetic and enthusiastic descriptions of the revels of the Babylonian king and his courtiers, backed up by terrific orchestral detailing,  Benson Wilson leading in kingly fashion the acclamation for the pagan gods of Gold, Silver, Iron and others, echoed by the choir and amplified by the orchestral voices, including the brass players from their antiphonal positions with voices such as the saxophone underlining the composer’s jazzed-up rhythmic inflections, and the extra brasses adding splendour to the general acclaim for the heathen deities.

The fateful scene of the “fingers of a man’s hand” and the fateful words written on the wall was declaimed in suitably chilling tones by the baritone, then translated by the implacable choral voices – and the choir, of course, relished its famous “shouted” exclamation “slain!” in response to the soloist’s utterance of Belshazzar’s grim fate. The silences that followed were beset and then overcome with joyous energies from voices and instruments alike, with the bandspeople on each side rising to their feet to join in the acclamations, which, with the exception of a more reflective sequence, “…..the trumpeters and pilers are silent, and the harpers have ceased to harp, and the light of a candle shall sign no more….” express full, unalloyed joy at the deliverance of the Children of Israel from their yoke of captivity – and Marc Taddei and his players, to use the vernacular, “go for it” over the work’s final pages, with the youthful Walton’s exuberant writing for both voices and instruments given free and joyous rein. Even the relatively unresponsive recesses of the MFC could scarcely  forbear to resonate in acknowledgement!

“Sing Joyfully” sings its name – The Tudor Consort’s 400th-year anniversary tribute to William Byrd

The Tudor Consort presents:
SING JOYFULLY –

A 400th Year Celebration of the works of William Byrd (c.1540-1623)

Mass for Four Voices
– Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus & Benedictus, Agnus Dei
Ave Verum Corpus
Ne irascaris Domine satis
– Civitas Sancti tui
The Great Service
– Kyrie, Venite, Credo, Benedictus, Te Deum
Praise our Lord all ye Gentiles
Sing Joyfully

The Tudor Consort
– sopranos:  Erin King, Jane McKinlay, Melanie Newfield, Rebecca Stanton
–  altos:  Emma Drysdale, Alexander Granville, Tahlia Griffis. Kassandra Wang
–  tenors:  John Beaglehole, Peter Liley, Joshua Long, Herbert Zielinski
–  basses:  Brian Hesketh, Joshua Jamieson, Matthew Painter, Isaac Stone

Music Director;  Michael Stewart

Instrumentalists (The Great Service)
–  Cornetti:  Andrew Weir, Paula Weir
–  Sackbuts:  Jonathan Harker, Byron Newton, Peter Maunder, Luke Spence

Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul, Molesworth St.

Saturday, 1st July 2023

Being a music-lover but still made occasionally aware of certain “gaps” in my knowledge of and love for various musical eras and their characteristic styles, I was forced to confront head-on such a one of these unchartered spots over recent days when asked to review a concert presented by the Tudor Consort, one devoted to the music of William Byrd on the occasion of the latter’s 400th anniversary. I make this statement knowing fully well that my opinions as expressed below of the quality of music-making I heard at the scheduled concert inevitably consist more of the fruits of nascent revelation than of prior knowledge or experience. Rather than striving to somehow “paper over” such gaping holes in my musical education I thought I would readily acknowledge my defects and seek to present my “delight in discovery”, hopefully, in the process of doing so conveying a measure of the extent to which the performers brought the music to glorious life for everybody present, including the uninitiated, such as myself.

Happily, much of the background information relating to the concert was provided in a pre-concert talk by the Tudor Consort’s Director Michel Stewart, who outlined some of the flavour of the times in which William Byrd lived and worked as a musician and a composer in England. It was of course a period dominated by religious and political upheavals brought about by both the Reformation and the changes in succession to the English throne, resulting in the older Roman Catholicism having to eventually give way to Protestantism as decreed by the Monarch of the time. Byrd, who was a devout Catholic, found himself unable to publicly practise his faith when the 1559 Act of Uniformity forbad the celebration of the Catholic liturgy. He was fortunate, however, that Queen Elizabeth I, who had taken the throne and firmly established the Protestant Church of England, was herself a music-lover and musician, and was at first tolerant of both Byrd’s and his fellow-composer (and former teacher) Thomas Tallis’ religious beliefs. Both composers were members of and wrote for the prestigious Chapel Royal, Byrd continuing to produce a substantial amount of English liturgical music, among which can be found numerous English Anthems, and “The Great Service”. The latter was not published in Byrd’s lifetime, about which there has been considerable conjecture – was this due to potential difficulties for Byrd caused by increasing anti-Catholic sentiment, even though the work was probably his most significant contribution to the Anglican liturgical world? He was, as well, engaged in writing settings of the Latin mass after he’d left London, removing himself from the scrutiny of the Queen’s “informers” regarding his participation in and contributions to secret Catholic rites of worship.  He continued to write settings in English as well, both sacred and secular, though his music’s Latin texts frequently made allusions to the plight of the Jews in Biblical times, relating the same to the English Catholic community’s present privations. After living for a while at Harlington, in Middlesex, he eventually moved his family to Stondon Massey in Essex where he died 400 years ago.

Michael Stewart drew our attention to several examples of what the evening’s programme would present us with, beginning with the “Catholic” first half, and mentioning in particular an item which the Consort had performed in their inaugural 1986 concert – the five-part motet Ne Irascaris Domine – Civitas sancti tui (Be not angry, O Lord…). The text consists of verses from Isaiah (64:9,10) interpolated into the Mass, an example of text derived from Scripture which could easily pertain to the situation of Catholics wanting to practise their faith in England at Byrd’s time. Another, earlier interpolation in the mass was the motet “Ave Verum Corpus”, for centuries a “forbidden pleasure” in England, being a Catholic work, but more recently a staple of what one might describe as almost interdenominational worship – and at Evensong, no less (all of this according to what I’ve recently read about the work!)

Regarding the concert’s “Anglican” second half, Stewart spoke of Byrd’s “The Great Service”, telling us that the evening’s performance would be augmented by instrumentalists in places (along with an accompanying organ, there were to be cornetts and sackbuts) as was sometimes done (and, according to some accounts I read, to the “indignation” of some more Puritan listeners!).  A particular feature of tonight’s performance was that, as well as two cornetts, it featured no less than four sackbuts accompanying the singers, and (as one of the players told me) was the first time so many of these particular instruments had been assembled for a concert in this country!

So it was with a good deal of anticipation that we awaited the arrival of the Tudor Consort voices for the concert’s first half, sixteen soloists in groups of four per single part, to firstly perform for us Byrd’s Mass for four voices. This was probably the first of his three Mass settings to be written, but the exact dates are unknown, due to the composer’s reluctance to publish these works in complete form at a time when such pro-Catholic activity was a potentially punishable offence. This also explains in part the simpler resources required for this music compared with those compositions by the composer for the Chapel Royal.

The opening Kyrie was exquisitely realised, sounded with a delicacy that suggested an awakening – with the following Christe came an increased sense of space, not merely from the cathedral acoustic, but a kind of widening of vocal possibility, as if after an awakening came a flowering.  The Kyrie’s return imparted a strengthening of this resolve, and a plaintiveness whose edge could be felt amidst the sound’s beauty, fully drawn by the end.

A tenor solo introduced the Gloria, an announcement followed by some concerted vocal excitement, even, I felt, a touch of urgency here and there, the lines thankfully binding together at Gratias agimus tibi, and building joyfully towards the soprano line at Deus Pater Omnipotens. The voices brought out Byrd’s different portrayal of Jesus Christi as unigenite (Only Son) and Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) – in other words as a sacrifice! And what ritualistic beauty and wonderment the ensemble imparted to Qui tollis peccata mundi, an amalgam of radiance and faith, all the more intensified by Qui sedes a dextram Patris, with its sense of majesty. By contrast, the juices start to run with  Quoniam tu solus sanctus, building up to exhilaration at Cum Sancto Spiritu right through to the conclusive Amen!

It seems as though Byrd intended his movements of his masses to be interspersed with other material, perhaps randomly, perhaps in conjunction with various feast-days on the liturgical calendar, Whatever the case, the Tudor Consort chose firstly the motet Ave Verum Corpus, written by Byrd for the feast of Corpus Christi, a holy day outlawed in England following the Reformation, but still celebrated secretly – which circumstance would have given rise to its insertion in a Mass, as here. Its beautifully harmonic blend of tones at the opening has a resonance and richness befitting the sacredness of the image – Ave verum corpus natum – Hail, the true body! – while the voices’ incisive, pinpoint attack upon the words at Cuius latus perforatum (from whose pierced flank) readily pierced the flesh of one’s listening sensibility. And what a touching contrast we heard with O dulcis, O pie, O Jesu Filii Mariae, the lovely thirds of Miserere mei giving a real sense of mercy implored. The repeat of O Dulcis, and Miserere Mei was even more “covered” and replete with intent, which the defiant and resolute Amen strengthened splendidly.

The Credo, announced by the tenor once again, began with the women’s voices in a canon-like opening exchange which filled out as the men’s voices joined the mosaic-like textures of Patrem omnipotentem  and the abstracted word-painting of visibilium omnium et invisibilium with celestial assurance. I relished all over again my distant but still well-remembered delight in “bouncing” some of these words back and forth as a child in our penny-plainchant parish church version – Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine, Deum verum, de deo vero…. Such quasi-celestial pleasures were brought down to earth at Qui propter nos homines, the singers allowing a haze of luminosity to descend from the heights via a lovely cascading soprano line at de caelis. The almost lullabic Et in carnatus est was beautiful, culminating in a swaying factus est from the sopranos and tenors, before the pitiless announcement of the Crucifixus  darkened the spirits. What relief the announcement Et resurrexit tertia die here brought! And how thrillingly visceral was Et ascendit in coelum, along with the roulades of tone that accompanied Sedet ad dexteram Patris, and the reassuring cujus regni non erit finis.  Then the ceremonial declaration of faith at “Et unam sanctam catholicam Ecclesiam” gave all the more more life and overt purpose to the final Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum, which made leaps and bounds through Et vitam venturi saeculi to a resounding “Amen”.

By way of another break from the liturgical narrative we then heard the motet Ne Iracaris Domine – Civitas sancti tui (Be not angry, O Lord…), whose commentary regarding the plight of the Jewish people at the hands of  the oppressors would have resonated in the hearts and minds of Byrd’s fellow Catholics under a similar yoke of oppression. It received a performance from the Consort which, in my humble opinion produced the most beautifully sustained singing of the evening – begun by the male voices, the opening “Be not angry, O Lord” registered as a gentle lament rising from the depths, the words repeated with the entry of the women’s voices, the music growing in intensity as the “iniquities” of privation are mentioned, and bursting forth at Ecce, respice (the building’s resonances wondrously activated at this point!), continuing the beseechment with populus tuus omnes nos (Behold, we are all your people!) – everything long-breathed and intertwined, as if the whole world was raising its voice! The motet’s second part, Civitas sancti tui (Your Holy City),refers to the resultant desolation of Jerusalem (Zion), the music imparting more sorrow than anger throughout, and in places seeming to evoke memories of past glories and the iniquities that have brought desolation to the place of these glories.

I thought the Sanctus strangely austere and lament-like at first, the singers solemnly and intensely drawing us into the ceremonial realm, with the Hosanna at last bringing us some relief! All very beautiful……similarly, the Benedictus invited us to contemplate, at first, the “one who comes”, before giving voice to joyful energies with the concluding Hosanna. The Agnus Dei seemed like an extended return to the opening Kyrie at first, with the women’s voices beautifully filling out the two-part textures; but the music morphs into perhaps the most moving part of the whole Mass with the intensification of tones and textures towards the third Agnus Dei and its beautiful Dona Nobis Pacem at the end.

This was, as previously outlined, very much a concert of two halves, and it was possible to sense a different kind of excitement regarding the Consort’s presentation of the second part, featuring Byrd’s “The Great Service”, in addition to two “interpolations”, the 1611 “Praise Our Lord all ye Gentiles”, and the earlier anthem “Sing Joyfully”, both written for use in the Anglican service. What galvanised one’s interest was the appearance of the instrumentalists, whose task was to accompany those parts of “The Great Service” performed this evening – incidentally, two of these, the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, were omitted, to be included instead at the Cathedral‘s Evensong service the following day.

Byrd wrote the work for the Chapel Royal, which accounts for the elaboration of the writing, both vocal and instrumental, compared with that for his Masses – he therefore had sufficient scope for six, eight and even ten-part counterpoint, often contrasting solo and small-ensemble lines with the larger groupings for dramatic and structural effect. According to what I’ve read Byrd was not averse to sackbuts and cornetti accompanying the voices alongside the organ, though various commentaries and reviews seem to differ on this point. My only comment as to their use in this present context is that their presence certainly contributed to the overall magnificence of the music’s sound, but made it even more difficult for the actual words to be deciphered – in the voluminous spaces of Wellington Cathedral, size (i.e., the number of performers) is one of the considerations which does seem to really matter!

For this reason most of the second half was a markedly different listening experience to that heard before the interval – the exceptions were the aforementioned “interpolations”, the texts of both of which I could follow more readily, as with the Mass and the motets we heard before the interval. In a less cavernous acoustic I would imagine we could experience (and enjoy) much of the added magnificence of the wind-and-brass sounds without sacrificing the clarity of the words to the same extent. After the deliciously light and airy opening “O come, let us sing unto the Lord”, the full range of voices and instruments in most of the other movements created an overwhelming impression which one simply had to relish for its own, (admittedly at times thrilling!) sonorous qualities. The sound by no means lacked variety, but the contrasts in tone and colour I found difficult to pinpoint in the text. I wasn’t alone in this as my companion similarly attested afterwards to a strain throughout in making out where the voices had gotten up to in the ensembled passages.

The difference became obvious with the following unaccompanied Praise our Lord all ye Gentiles, in which the singing and word-pointing had such an infectious sense of unbridled energy throughout, as if “all ye peoples” around the globe were helping to make it spin, the final “Amen” being particularly vertiginous for all concerned, with the acoustic actually heightening the sense of abandonment.

Next was the Creed, introduced by the tenor, then with voices uplifted at first to God alone, then with the sounds opened up to creation at And of all things visible and invisible  (my familiarity with the text here helping to identify the words!).The Almighty was suitably solemnised at God of Gods, Light of Light, Very God of very God, the voices then descending and imparting a more human voice at who, for us men, then celebrating at and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost. The voices beautifully resonated the words He suffered and was buried,  the day of resurrection “grown” within the music as if by divine will, as was the following and ascended into heaven, drawn upwards by the airborne voices.

I found both the Benedictus and  the Te Deum from “The Service” more difficult to follow through unfamiliarity with each of the texts, despite having the words to hand, though there were compensations afforded by the music’s kaleidoscopic textures, the constant shifting of form, pattern and colour in the music making for endless fascination, especially as these qualities were so writ-large in such a listening environment, if at the expense of the words’ clarity. The instruments themselves never obtruded in an unseemly or ill-balanced sense – as an orchestral texture they blended richly and colourfully, providing a fascinatingly flavoured contrast with the other music in the evening’s programme. Perhaps because of my relative inexperience with these genres, I had no “puritan” objection whatever to the presence of the instruments, which, if performed in a less resonant location would have given more ambient space to word-sounding while still making a world of difference.

Happily, I also took away from the concert the impression made by the programme’s second-to-last item, the name of which, incidentally, Sing Joyfully, was  given to the presentation by the group – an impression of joyful immersion in singing and musicality from all concerned, and of communication to listeners via sound, aspect and movement. I had an opportunity to briefly talk with one of the singers afterwards whose only complaint regarding what they’d done was that they were only getting one chance at performing the music – quite apart from any idea that they might be able to “improve” things that didn’t quite come off as hoped, the singer lamented the “end” of the experience as it was, rather than having the opportunity to do something all over again that was so wonderful! Apart from the sadness at it coming to such an abrupt end, I thought the sentiment paid a richly-deserved tribute to the composer and his music and to the excellence of what was achieved by those who took part – Tudor Consort Director, Michael Stewart, and his wonderful singers and (for the second half) instrumentalists. It’s a tribute I’m pleased to be able to endorse as a listener new to this music and duly captivated by the beauty and lasting relevance of it all.

 

Orpheus Choir tackles JS Bach’s Mass for the Ages

JS BACH – Mass in B Minor BWV 232

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

Orpheus Choir of Wellington
Orchestra Wellington
Jonathan Berkahn (harpsichord)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 29th April 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mirror of the World – Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony in Wellington

Gustav MAHLER – Symphony No. 3 in D Minor
Robert WIREMU – Waiata “Tahuri koe ki te maunga teitei”

Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano)
Wellington Young Voices & Choristers of Wellington Cathedral of St Paul Children’s Choir
Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir
Karen Grylls and Robert Wiremu (chorus directors)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Gemma New (conductor)
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday, 31st March 2023

“Symphony is like the world – it should contain everything!” – words spoken by Gustav Mahler during a famous encounter in Helsinki in 1907 with his near-contemporary, the Finnish symphonist Jean Sibelius. The idea of what constituted a “symphony” had brought forth vastly different responses from both men, Sibelius having declared his attraction to the “severity” and “profound logic” of symphonic writing (though he had, in fact, only just freed himself from a Tchaikovskian kind of romantic utterance evident throughout his first two symphonies). Mahler, by comparison, had hit the ground running as a symphonist with his idea of the form representing an expansionist, all-encompassing kind of aesthetic expression.

This “world view” of Mahler’s had been evident in each one of the eight symphonies he had thus far completed – and it was the massive Third Symphony of 1896 which to this day seems to be the most unequivocal expression of this philosophy (averaging about 1hr. 45m. in performance, it’s the longest in duration of all Mahler’s symphonies). While working on this piece twelve years before his conversation with Sibelius, Mahler had remarked to a friend that “to call it a symphony is really incorrect, as it does not follow the usual form – to me,  the term “symphony” means creating a world with all the technical means available”.

The composer had originally attached a programme giving each of the six movements separate titles underlining the work’s ultra-pantheist vision, the details of which he eventually suppressed before the work’s first performance, but which still appear in various subsequent programme notes (as was the case here)  – Mahler tended to draw back from his frequent initial euphoria regarding any such programme attached to a work, commenting in a note to a critic on this occasion, that “no music is worth anything if you first have to tell the listener what lies behind it…….what he is supposed to experience in it – you just have to bring along ears and a heart and – not least – willingly surrender to the rhapsodist!”. While I heartily agree in general terms, I still can’t in this instance resist the fascination of reproducing (again!) the composer’s underlying thoughts regarding the music…….

Mvt. 1  Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In
Mvt. 2  What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me
Mvt. 3  What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me
Mvt. 4  What Man Tells Me
Mvt. 5  What the Angels Tell Me
Mvt. 6. What Love Tells Me

Mahler in fact at first planned a seventh movement (“What the Child Tells Me”), but instead reworked the material as the finale of his Fourth Symphony, further underlining the connections and cross-references that especially abound in his first Four Symphonies, particularly with his use of either words or melodic settings of the same taken from the German folk-poem collection Das Knaben Wunderhorn which had appeared in the early 1800s. The work’s fifth movement “What the Angels Tell Me” uses one of these Das Knaben Wunderhorn poems ,”Es sungen drei Engel” (Three Angels sang), while the previous movement “What Man Tells Me” uses a text from  Friedrich Nietzsche‘s Also sprach Zarathustra, ”O Mensch! Gib Acht!” (O Man! – take heed!).

Interestingly, we were treated on this occasion to a similar kind of “seventh movement” as a prelude to the symphony, a waiata, written by Voices NZ Artistic Advisor Robert Wiremu especially for this particular concert, and performed by the different choirs, conducted by Karen Grylls. The waiata’s melodic lines drew from different impulses and resonances in Mahler’s work, a fast rhythmic  counterpoint set against a floating choral, the words delineating whakapapa –  maunga, awa, moana – and equating with the latter composer’s salutations via the symphony’s opening theme to the famous flowing melody of Brahms’ finale to his First Symphony.

It now seems a far cry from the days when Mahler’s music was generally not regarded favourably, and needed the advocacy of people like John Hopkins here in this country, who in 1959 had to put up with opposition (“this boring music”) from the Broadcasting Service Directorship to what was the first National Orchestra performance of a Mahler Symphony (No.4 in G). Hopkins staunchly persisted and Mahler’s music came through, with others such as Uri Segal, Franz-Paul Decker, and more recently Pietari Inkinen and Edo de Waart securely establishing the NZSO’s credentials across all of the composer’s completed symphonies as a “Mahler orchestra”.

Having witnessed some of these earlier ventures (my list by no means an exhaustive one!) and being able to readily recall the impact made by a number of these performances, I was delighted that Gemma New chose such a quintessential work in the orchestra’s recent history with which to mark her concert tenure’s beginning as the NZSO Principal Conductor. Franz-Paul Decker’s was, I think, the first Mahler Sixth I heard live, underlining for me the ironic twist of New’s stunning achievement here with the same orchestra and music when set against the memory of Decker’s by now historic comment that he found women conductors “aesthetically unpleasing”!

All part of the on-going ebb and waft of impression, opinion and reaction among people, a process to which New herself has appeared more than equable in the interviews with her I’ve read. Her concern seems, first and foremost, the music – and here she’s certainly at one with the composer, who, in one of my all-time favourite anecdotes concerning his aforementioned all-embracing world vision, once went as far as admonishing the young Bruno Walter, who was visiting him at Steinbach, Upper Austria at the time of the symphony’s composition, for looking around at the alpine scenery! – with the words, “Don’t bother looking up there – it’s already all been composed by me!”

For Mahler at the time of writing, it had “almost ceased to be music…..hardly anything but the sounds of nature”. New and the orchestra wholeheartedly plunged themselves into this awe-inspiring world right from the work’s beginning, with the silences as baleful as the upheavals of sound. I was particularly taken here with the ferocity of the ‘cellos’ attack in their upward-rushing figures, seeming to burst out of the louring gloom created by the brass’s and percussions’ elemental tread (with David Bremner’s sonorous trombone playing simply a voice for the ages!).Throughout the epic of the opening movement’s unfolding came these incredible releases of energy, by turns soulful, playful, jaunty and menacing – a world that “contains everything”, as Mahler told Sibelius that day – before driving inevitably towards a joyfully unbuttoned, almost savage frenzy of exhilaration at the movement’s end – no wonder the MFC audience were, despite convention, transported to spontaneous applause in response!

After the orgiastic energies of the Symphony’s First Part we enjoyed the relatively limpid lyricism of the second movement’s opening, oboe and strings here creating a “woods-and-fields” world of dream-like  interaction, whimsically enlivened by rhythmic and dynamic contrasts which brought the nature-world to pulsating life, all most evocatively shaped by New and her players. The third movement was begun just as innocently, though in a more playfully evocative way at the outset with  impulses and gestures associated with the animal kingdom characterised most bewitchingly by the musicians, winds and muted trumpets leading to various rumbustious activities.  How diverting and magical, then, was the “posthorn” sound ringing out from the distance (trumpeter Michael Kirgan doing his thing evocatively and near-faultlessly off-stage) – perhaps a fateful impinging by man on the natural world? A second posthorn call was followed by a sudden “cry of anguish” (humankind identified by nature as a threat?) before a kind of desperate rumbustication brought the movement’s curtain down.

Almost as enigmatic as the materialisation of the Earth-Mother Erda in Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” was mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke’s appearance ( strikingly clad in silver) during those last few precipitate bars of the previous movement,  ready to intone Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Midnight Song” from Also Sprach Zarathustra – one felt completely “drawn into” the mystical beauty of it all, as singer and players unerringly placed their tones into the firmament of those strangely vast spaces. What an array of sounds! Such distilled beauty in places such as with “Die Welt ist tief” (The world is deep”) from both voice and instruments, in particular the horns (led by Sam Jacobs) and the winds (led by Robert Orr) – and then, for me, a “lump-in-throat” archway of vocal loveliness from Sasha Cooke, at the words “Doch all’ Lust will Ewigkeit…” (But all joy sings eternity…) – a glorious moment!

If such beauties weren’t disarming enough, the subsequent movement “What the Angels Tell Me” featuring both soloist and the different choirs put the music’s enchantment beyond all doubt, as the sounds from those voices drew our listeners’ sensibilities skywards and into the celestial regions – the teamwork between the different groups of voices, the soloist and the orchestra was exemplary, and those “bimm!-bomm!s” with which the work finished kept resounding in this listener’s mind’s ear long after the concert was concluded.

How perfectly natural and unassuming it was for the singers, soloist included, to quietly sit down even while Gemma New was signalling to the orchestra to begin the great adagio movement which concluded the work (Decker had, I remembered, kept the choir members standing right to the symphony’s end,  to their,  and the audience’s discomfiture!).  The transition made, we settled back to take in the splendours of this much-lauded piece, regarded in some circles as the greatest slow movement written since the time of Beethoven! Subscribing to such a view is beyond the scope of this article, my notes focusing instead on the rapt purity of the playing of the opening string paragraphs, and the cohesion between the sections, each “voice” seeming to be in complete rapport with the others. As the movement unfolded and its purposes by turns placed accord, confrontation and/or conflict to the forefront, the playing in all sections moved surely between serenity and incandescence – horns and strings, for example, in the movement’s first confrontational passage six or so minutes into the movement, the flute, oboe and horn lines stimulating the richest of responses from the strings a few minutes later, to be followed by  the movement’s great midway watershed of tonal outpourings as the strings dare the brasses to match their full-blooded exhortions – there were no holds barred, either here, or as the symphony built up to its final climax – this was Mahler,  after all, where there are no half-measures, and in which New and her players fully understood and expressed that understanding nobly and sonorously.

A truly notable leadership debut for Gemma New, then, and the beginnings of a partnership which on this showing promises much for the orchestra and for its supporters – best wishes to all regarding its on-going success!