Late afternoon sunlight

Wellington Chamber Music presents:
Aroha String Quartet with Rachel Vernon (clarinet)

St Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace

Sunday, 1 May 2022

This was the first concert of a new season for Wellington Chamber Music, and the organisers must have been anxious. The pandemic has changed audiences and the business of giving concerts. Would they come?

They needn’t have worried. St Andrew’s was pleasantly full for this delightful concert, featuring Rachel Vernon on clarinet.

The Aroha Quartet have been regular performers here over the years – they were founded in 2004 – and they have their own following. But the pandemic has worked some changes on the Quartet, too.  Concerts were cancelled in 2020 and again in 2021, and cellist Robert Ibell had to take time off after an injury last year. Today Anne Loeser was guesting as second violin, although you would never have suspected, such was the rapport between the players.

Two of the works in today’s programme were familiar: Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A major, K 581, and Brahms’s great Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Opus 115. Sandwiched in between these chamber classics was a mysterious little work by Astor Piazzolla, called Oblivion. What could it be?

Mozart’s Quintet of 1789 is a delightful work. Mozart took the clarinet seriously, and helped to establish the instrument as a member of the orchestral woodwind section. He wrote this quintet for the clarinetist Anton Stadler, and subsequently referred to it as the ‘Stadler Quartet’. Stadler played it on the bassett clarinet, which has four additional low notes compared with a standard clarinet. These days the work is usually performed on the clarinet in A flat (and no one is quite sure where those low notes were used, as Mozart’s original manuscripts have never been found).

From the opening phrase of the first movement, the group established their characteristically warm sound, incorporating the deep sonority of the clarinet’s first entry. The balance was beautiful and the phrasing graceful. The cello’s pizzicato passage with the lyrical first violin above set the style for the work: refined, stylistic, beautiful.  The second Larghetto movement unfurls long, long phrases from the clarinet over muted strings. The clarinet is always moving over the more static string passages. There was lyrical playing from first violinist Haihong Liu.

The third movement, Menuetto, is rhythmic and dance-like, with a lovely aria from the clarinet. The middle section, two trios, features some thrilling clarinet playing, first very low, then high, as though to show off what the instrument is capable of. (After all, it wasn’t invented until 1788, the year before Mozart wrote this quintet.) The fourth movement is a theme and variations, which sometimes buried the clarinet in the string texture. There are some fast passages in which the strings chase each other, with the clarinet maintaining a calm presence over the top.

Next came the Piazzolla work. This was fantastic. It began life as film music, written for a film called Enrico IV, which was itself based on the play by Pirandello. But such is the beauty of the writing that the work is often performed as a concert piece, either for bandoneon (as in the film) or adapted for other instruments, including the clarinet, as here. There’s a famous version for string orchestra with Gidon Kremer on violin, another for solo guitar, and even one for two cellos and ice-skater. For me, knowing nothing of these, the string quartet and clarinet version was completely perfect, with loss, longing, and resignation balanced between the voices.

The film is described as a tragicomedy, but tragedy is to the fore in Oblivion. It opens with a weighty and complex sadness, with the clarinet shimmering in and up the scale, first lyrical, then grave. The string writing is passionate, the clarinet calming, a clear true voice. Finally, the cello somehow turns into a bandoneon, with low throbbing from the clarinet before it disappears into a trill. It is a short work. As soon as it had finished, I wanted to hear it again.

If you want to get a sense of this small perfect work, by all means listen to it on YouTube, but you will not experience the beauty of Rachel Vernon’s playing, or the sympathetic accompaniment of the Aroha Quartet.

The last work on the programme was Brahms’s Quintet in B minor for clarinet and string quartet. Like Mozart, Brahms was moved to write a quintet because of the playing of a virtuoso clarinettist. In 1890, no sooner had he announced that he had retired from composing than he heard the playing of Richard Mühlfeld, and promptly de-retired.

This is another well-known and beloved work. For me it shimmers with late afternoon sunlight. That is not to say it lacks drama. There is a moment of passionate agitation in the first movement, yet the darkness is followed by golden light. The second movement is slow and sad, as though the performers are walking, carrying a great weight. The clarinet sings of loss, but also beauty. The third pastorale movement, with its rushing, scurrying strings, allows the clarinet to sing. The fourth movement is a set of variations. It finishes by using the material from the first movement, returning to us the golden shafts of sunlight, falling between the trees. A short duet between clarinet and viola over pizzicato cello, and then a gentle falling into silence.

There are three more performances of this programme. The ones in Rangiora and Thames are probably too far, but if you get a chance to go to Wanganui for their concert on 13 September, take it. A gorgeous first concert to open Wellington Chamber Music’s 2022 season.

A programme of brilliantly scored Romantic era music from Wellington Youth Orchestra

Wellington Youth Orchestra conducted by Mark Carter

Saint-Saëns: Danse macabre, Op 40
Weber: Clarinet Concerto No 2 in E flat, Op 74 (clarinet: Ben van Leuven)
Rimsky-Korsakov: Capriccio espagnol, Op 34
Mussorgsky, orchestrated by Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 4 October, 3 pm

The listing in Middle C’s Coming Events had misread details about this concert; the conductor was identified as Miguel Harth-Bedoya. In fact, he had conducted a rehearsal of the orchestra  a few weeks before.

But there would be no need to attribute the splendid performances on Sunday directed by Mark Carter to anyone but Mark Carter. To begin, it was a colourful programme of music that would have excited any young players (and plenty of old ones, speaking for myself) to which they responded vigorously.

The only one of the four works in the programme likely to have been played recently might have been the Mussorgsky; though the Weber clarinet concerto may be somewhat unfamiliar, both the Saint-Saëns and the Rimsky-Korsakov would surely have been known. I’m not at all sure however, being aware of the declining condition of the Concert Programme and the domination of young people by pops. All four works on the programme deserve to be played by major orchestras to today’s audiences.

Danse macabre 
Both were familiar to any 2YC listener when I was young; the symphonic poem, Danse macabre, though it was not always in its authentic orchestral version (1874); nor is it today. It was an excellent choice for the Youth Orchestra since it’s full of gripping melody and convincing mood music. Here there was no introductory harp but a bold solo violin (Lukas Baker), a nice flute solo (Samantha Sweeney), proceeding with macabre triple time that portrayed the spirit of the Victor Hugo poem so well. The brass might have been a bit overly exuberant, but the whole worked as an excellent, overture-length piece.

Weber Clarinet concerto 
Weber’s second clarinet concerto is one of his not-much-played works. These days Weber is represented mainly by excerpts from Der Freischütz and The Invitation to the Dance (though it’s Berlioz’s orchestration that’s mostly heard). Weber was a friend of notable clarinettist, Heinrich Baermann, and he wrote two concertos, a concertino and a clarinet quintet for him. Among Weber’s other music that should be familiar are two symphonies, two piano concertos and a Konzertstück in F minor (which I have recordings of), a lot of other attractive orchestral and chamber music and several operas other than Freischütz that made Weber an important inspiration for Wagner twenty years later.

The second clarinet concerto is colourful and attractive, and there were successful instrumental episodes before Benedict van Leuven’s delightful clarinet part entered, with a number of challenging leaps from top to bottom of its range. Though there are nice passages for bassoons, oboe, horns as well as the strings, it was the clarinet that led the way with confidence and distinction. It was the second movement however, A Romanze, Andante con moto, where the clarinet demonstrated not merely his dexterity, but also in the pensive episodes, his feeling for the warm, emotional and subtle colours of Weber’s orchestration.

The last movement, Alla Polacca, revived the joyousness of the first movement, with its bars-full of virtuosic semi-quavers, with amusing chirpy phrases that all too soon brought it to the end.

Capriccio Espagnol 
Another once familiar symphonic poem was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol (my early love of is evidenced by a set of 78 rpm shellac discs by the Liverpool Philharmonic under Sir Malcolm Sargent, bought in the mid 1950s!). The opening was rowdy with dominant timpani, that offered little room for discretion, but plenty of opportunities for displays of orchestral skill. Rimsky was one of the most celebrated orchestrators (his Principles of Orchestration is, along with Berlioz’s Grand Treatise on Instrumentation, among the classic texts on the subject), offering many opportunities for individual talent and prowess to be admired: a flute solo, oboes, the five horns and three trombones, as well as general orchestral colour.

Pictures at an Exhibition
Finally, yet another masterpiece of orchestration – Ravel’s translation of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. He wrote it for piano (an overwhelmingly challenging composition it is), and as with several of Mussorgsky’s other works, it was subjected to editing and ‘refinement’ by his friends, particularly Rimsky-Korsakov.

It wasn’t long after Mussorgsky’s early death in 1881 that orchestrations of Pictures began to appear. There have been several orchestral versions, some taking liberties with the music and omitting certain sections. Ravel’s, in 1922, has become universally admired.

The orchestration is wonderfully rich and though not all of the instruments that Ravel called for were employed (harps were missing for example), there were tubular bells, celeste, alto saxophone and (I think) glockenspiel and euphonium. And the lively, high spirited way Mark Carter guided the orchestra was distinguished by its clarity and ebullience.

The performance of such exuberant, noisy orchestration in St Andrew’s has in the past been rather overwhelming, especially from brass and percussion. However, the fact that I was sitting near the back of the gallery may have helped the balance between the more discreet and the noisier instruments. In any case, orchestral balance was successfully managed throughout, and both players and audience (there was virtually a full house) would have had a great time.


Amici Ensemble consolidates its reputation as valuable, adventurous Wellington adornment

Wellington Chamber Music 
Amici Ensemble: Donald Armstrong and Malavika Gopal (violins), Andrew Thomson (viola), Ken Ichinose (cello), Bridget Douglas (flute), Patrick Barry (clarinet) and Carolyn Mills (harp

Mozart: Clarinet Quintet in A, K. 581
Debussy: Syrinx for solo flute
Salina Fisher – Coastlines for string quartet, flute, clarinet and harp
Mozart: Flute Quartet in D, KV 285
Saint-Saëns: Fantaisie in A for Violin and Harp, Op 124
Ravel: Introduction and Allegro for string quartet, flute, clarinet and harp

St. Andrews on The Terrace

Sunday 16 September 3 pm

We have owed a great deal to this splendid, many-facetted ensemble over the years, held together by NZSO Associate Concertmaster Donald Armstrong. Most ‘chamber music’ groups are either trios or quartets, and occasionally a quintet by adding a piano, a cello, a clarinet… Here we had enough variety to give us Mozart’s clarinet quintet, and also Ravel’s septet that is disguised as Introduction and Allegro for string quartet, flute, clarinet and harp, a delightful concoction that clearly inspired Salina Fisher to write her new piece, using the same forces.

Mozart: K 581
I have a feeling that in most of my reviews of Mozart’s clarinet quintet I have regaled readers (if any) with my nostalgic affair with a motor car, a cassette and by-ways of rural France and Spain,  err… 40 years ago. Almost all my discoveries of great music are embedded in memories of time and place of first hearing – not a bad way to prepare for life’s later years.

This performance of the Mozart did that again, for its tones, tempi, spirit were very similar to those produced by that long-ago cassette, and so it aroused admiration for the loving performance that NZSO string players, plus principal clarinettist Patrick Barry, created. Their re-creation of the gorgeous melodies of the dreamy slow movement, again both clarinet and strings equally ‘lime-lit’; the clarinet’s perfectly normal, undulating arpeggios and scales , though mere accompaniment, momentarily stole attention from the strings. The menuetto with its two trios became unusually interesting, more than many a Minuet and Trio; and the ‘Theme and Variations’ of the finale offered surprising contrasts between delight and pensiveness.

The Debussy memorial year was marked here with his Syrinx from Bridget Douglas, warm tone without any hint fluty shrillness that sometimes alters its mood.

Then came Salina Fisher’s Ravel look-alike, but in instrumentation only, Coastlines. The tremulous clarinet begins, then a mere punctuation by flutes. Its title did rather call up the feel of the Kapiti Coast, being a commission from the Waikanae Music Society, though I have difficulty using landscape or narrative as a way of understanding or assessing music. The instrumental combination seems to hint at all kinds of natural or man-made sounds, and the sounds of the sea, wind, birds and the atmosphere conjured by light. The breathy flute, the blend of harp and clarinet, but it was a sense of the music’s trajectory, of one phase evolving towards another, one instrument relating with another, that took hold of the attention for a few moments as a sound pattern took shape.

There was the flow of a story somewhere and satisfaction about the patterns of sound that left me finally with a feeling of contentment with Fisher’s chimerical creation.

After the interval Mozart’s first flute quartet restored conventional sounds and patterns, and again, here was a time for Bridget Douglas to become a leading voice, although with Mozart, even a sort of solo instrument doesn’t remain for long in the limelight, but places the music rather than the player centre stage. The performance emphasised the warmth of melody and the importance of the ensemble element. It never allowed one to think that even in a fairly early piece (1777/78, aged 21), Mozart was not concerned primarily with producing interesting, even unexpected events, for example the unresolved end of the Adagio, making the finale Rondo necessary.

Saint-Saëns: violin and harp 
The novelty (apart from the Fisher piece) was a much older piece: Saint-Saëns at 72, in 1907. It’s quite true, as the programme note writes, that it might have sounded old-fashioned to the more adventurous music lover at the time, though the avant-garde music then starting to emerge would have been quite unknown to the average concert-goer. Nothing essentially ‘Second Viennese School’ was circulating; Debussy and Ravel, and perhaps the Strauss of Salome, were the radicals of 1907.

But the unusual combination – violin and harp – might have gained it some attention. It’s a polished, stylish and idiomatic piece, generally bright and warm and not the least uninteresting. For the record, the sections are: Poco Allegretto – Allegro – Vivo e grazioso – Largamente – Andante con moto – Poco Adagio.

There is momentary darkness with the descending, double stopped notes in the Allegro but a genuine allegro spirit takes over quickly. And the following Vivo e grazioso cannot really be dismissed as fluff. The remaining three sections are fairly slow but do not lose their feeling of continuity; and they create a rather charming picture, especially as played so persuasively by Armstrong and Mills.  The whole thing sounds as if the composer had been taken with the possibilities of using these two instruments and quite attractive ideas came easily to him.

Ravel: Introduction and Allegro 
Finally, the second major piece (second to the Clarinet Quintet). It was interesting that Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro was contemporaneous with the Saint-Saëns Fantaisie. Though I knew the story about commercial competition between Paris piano makers Pleyel and Érard, I couldn’t remember which way the conflict went. In 1904 Pleyel invented a new chromatic harp and commissioned Debussy to demonstrate its worth (Danse sacrée et danse profane), while Érard defended his century-old double action pedal harp by commissioning Ravel’s piece. The latter prevailed in the market place (political corollary: this sort of result from competition does permit an exception to my general scepticism about its social, even economic efficacy).

Happily, both pieces are much-loved favourites, and it was a delight to hear the Ravel played by such accomplished musicians. Ravel might have been too radical for the Prix de Rome judges at the Paris Conservatoire, but this piece is gorgeously romantic and playful, and as this programme showed, there’s plenty of room for both Saint-Saëns and Ravel in civilised society.

The concert more than lived up to the reputation of Donald Armstrong and the Amici Ensemble’s as a valuable and adventurous adornment to Wellington’s rich musical scene.


Swedish-New Zealand ensemble beguiles Waikanae with varied pieces: brand new, interesting, much loved

Klara Kollektiv (Anna McGregor, clarinet; Manu Berkeljon, violin;Taru Kurki, piano)
Waikanae Music Society

Anthony Ritchie: Picture Stone: Trio for clarinet, violin and piano. Op.198
César Franck: Sonata for violin and piano
Brahms: Clarinet Sonata no.1 in F minor, Op.120 no.1
Khachaturian: Trio for clarinet, violin and piano

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 29 July 2018, 2:30 pm

On picking up my printed programme when entering the hall, I recalled the last chamber music concert I reviewed: Wellington Chamber Music Trust’s concert at St. Andrew’s Church in Wellington on 15 July, where larger-size programmes (double A4) were available; an example Waikanae should follow, given the older-age group that comprises the bulk of the audience.

This time the audience was considerably smaller than is usual at this venue, which was a shame.  An interesting programme and top-class players were received enthusiastically.  The trio comprises two New Zealanders resident in Sweden, and a Finnish pianist who also resides and teaches in Sweden.

The opening work (Picture Stone) was written specifically for Klara Kollektiv, last year, and the current New Zealand tour is its premiere outing.  This work, and the Khachaturian are common to the other programmes the Trio will play in New Zealand, but the other works differ.  A few introductory remarks gave us the interesting thought that if we see a painting we do not like in a gallery, we can simply walk away.  Not so with music in a concert.  However, we were assured that the Ritchie work was very likable, and this proved to be the case.

There were headings in the printed programme to indicate topics considered in the music, but they were not formal movements, and the music was continuous, with no breaks.  The headings: Dawn – Child – Journey – Battle – Sacrifice.  The title ‘Picture Stone’ refers to ancient Viking artefacts.  The music takes the point of view of a child in Viking times, contemplating such a stone, and imagining a journey and battles.

After a piano opening, very appealing but somewhat mournful tones came from violin and clarinet, the latter featuring some very high and shrill notes.  The music contained a lot of repeated notes and repeated phrases, and a spiky, jaunty effect, perhaps depicting the child.  This was followed by running figures, especially on the piano, which I considered perhaps denote the journey.  Then a livelier section – battle?  Or sacrifice?  A chord on the piano held for some time by the sustaining pedal and all the players remaining still for some time, presumably symbolising sacrifice, ended the work.  The music was rewarding, but like much music, another hearing would give the opportunity for forming a better impression of it.

I have to confess that the Franck sonata is not one of my favourite chamber works.  One hears it not infrequently on radio, sometimes in arrangements for other instruments.  However, these musicians played it very sensitively, and with plenty of variety from rubato excellent tone, and changes of dynamics.  Thus they made it interesting and diverse compared with other renditions I have heard, which can strike me as merely long-winded repetition.

The music moved from allegretto ben moderato in the first movement to an allegro second.  Again in this faster music, the violin’s tone was varied and lovely, while the piano playing was excellent and full of subtlety.

The third movement, Recitativo – Fantasia, began with a strong and forthright recitative, while the fantasia was played with a variety of timbres, moving from delicacy to almost bombastic utterances, and back again, its pace becoming variable.  Imaginative playing from all the players made for enjoyable listening.

Strong themes and references back to the opening movement feature in this and the Finale (allegrettto poco mosso) – but there is a lot of repetition, and the canon in the last movement becomes tedious as it goes over and over a simple theme related to the first movement theme.  The massive ending required prestidigitation from the pianist – something she was well capable of.

After the interval came the Brahms sonata.  The composer’s fondness for the clarinet in the latter stages of his composing career was evident in his beautiful melodies and  acrobatic figures.  There was plenty of interest to be found in the writing for both instruments.  Following an allegro appassionato first movement, the second (andante un poco adagio) developed a rather plaintive melody, creating a charming effect.

The allegretto grazioso third movement exploited the full range of the clarinet, while providing plenty of appeal in the piano part.  The movement was short and sweet.  The vivace finale was fast and playful, and made a good summing up. This was a satisfying performance, marked by clarity.

Khachaturian’s Trio piano opening struck me as orchestral in style.  The andante opening movement was notable for the delectable writing for both violin and clarinet.  It was short but attractive.  The second, allegro, was bouncy and bright,  and became fast and furious, using folk tunes as a basis, as in the other movements.  In the middle section, the piano became somewhat independent of the other instruments.

The third, and last, movement (moderato) opens with solo clarinet, then the piano is added, and finally violin, in a duet with the clarinet.  The clarinet repeats its part while the others go into new byways.  The Trio has a rather sudden but peaceful ending, after much liveliness.

The trio’s encore was a surprise: a song (presumably a Swedish folk-song), sung by Anna McGregor, accompanied by piano improvisation (very discreet) and violin drone.  In between the verses, the violin played a little tune above the notes of the drone.  So out of character with the rest of the programme, this was an unusual diversion.


Talents and skills of university woodwind students in St Andrew’s lunchtime recital

NZSM Wind Students

Music by Fauré, Francisco Mignone, Lowell Liebermann, Gareth Farr. Krysztof Penderecki and Debussy

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 23 May 2018, 12.15 pm

It is interesting to hear music students at different levels of their courses, and of ability and achievement.  All these students, though, performed well and provided engaging music.  In most cases they were accompanied on the piano, although two students played unaccompanied pieces.  It was pleasing to see a number of school students in the audience; perhaps they are studying wind instruments. Simon Brew, acting head of winds at the New Zealand School of Music, briefly introduced the programme.  Nearly all the students introduced themselves and their music more than adequately, using the microphone.

Fauré was represented by Fantasie for Flute, Op.79, played as the opening piece by Samantha McSweeny, accompanied by Kirsten Robertson.  French composers wrote prolifically for the flute, and this was a lovely example of their work, which for me carried over nicely from the Fauré songs I heard in Waikanae on Sunday.  The piece was inventive and graceful, with a languid opening section.  It changed to sprightly and playful passages.  It was written for a Paris Conservatoire competition, so it aimed to have the students demonstrate a range of techniques, tempi and dynamics.  As well as our player doing this more than adequately, the accompaniment was full of character.

I had never heard of the Brazilian composer Francisco Mignone.  His dates were 1897 to 1986.  (It would have been useful to have the composers’ dates printed in the programme.)   Improvised Waltz no.7  was the title of the piece for solo bassoon, played by Breanna Abbott.    It was quite a jaunty piece to start with, but the deep-toned instrument made it harder to get over a light-hearted mood.  It was short, and very competently played.

Lowell Liebermann is a contemporary American composer (born in 1961) who is a prolific composer as well as a performer.  His Movement 1 from Sonata for Flute and Piano, Op.23 was played by Isabella Gregory, accompanied by Kirsten Robertson.  A leisurely opening was followed by an allegro that brought a rush of notes before falling back to gentle utterances.  In places the piano doubled the part of the flute.  A new section was slow, but both flute and piano jumped around the staves, especially the latter.  Both played angular phrases, the flute employing particularly the lower register of the instrument.  A return to slower, gentler phrases brought the piece to a smooth, mellifluous end.

The only New Zealand composer represented was Gareth Farr; Peter Liley, alto saxophone, accompanied by Catherine Norton on the piano, played Farr’s Meditation very confidently, following an excellent spoken introduction.  The piece opened with notes on the piano, followed by chords, then a slow, pensive melody.  This gradually developed and built to a high climax – most effective.  More climbing motifs – then an abrupt end.

Solo clarinet was played by Harim Hey Oh, performing Penderecki’s Prelude for solo clarinet.  Slow, quiet single notes opened the short piece.  Then the music became quite gymnastic, with quick notes darting here and there, including very high notes and very loud ones (hard on the ears!).  Then it was back to slow, quiet notes, widely spaced – and it was all over.

The other great French composer represented was Debussy, by his Première Rhapsodie for clarinet, played by Frank Talbot with Catherine Norton accompanying.  The piece was written for graduate students at the Paris Conservatoire, so was constructed to test them.  Later, the composer orchestrated it.  This was a highly competent performance, employing a lot of different techniques and idioms. The full range of the instrument’s notes and dynamics were used.  It was most enjoyable music, not only for the clarinet’s role; the piano had a very varied part also.

This was a very satisfactory demonstration of the skills of wind students at the New Zealand School of Music at Victoria University of Wellington.





Atoll Records releases CD conspectus of Ken Wilson: Music For Winds

Music for Winds by Ken Wilson

Atoll Records / CD

Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra (1963)
Patrick Barry and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra strings, conductor Hamish McKeich
Wind Quintet (1965)
Zephyr Wind Quintet
Introduction, Theme and Variations (1965)
Adrianna Lis E flat flute, with string quartet
Duo for Clarinet and Bassoon (1963)
Peter Scholes and Ben Hoadley
Spiderweb for solo clarinet (1988)
Peter Scholes
Duo for Two Clarinets (2002), Duo for Two Clarinets (2004)
Peter Scholes and Andrew Uren
Two clarinet quartets: Slow Piece, & Variations on a Theme of Paganini (1963)
Peter Scholes, Andrew Uren, Donald Nicholls, Elsa T.W. Lam
Octet (1961)
STROMA (consisting of NZSO players), conductor Hamish McKeich

Monday 19 February 2018

A worthy addition to Atoll’s now substantial catalogue of recordings of music by New Zealand composers, this CD should delight many music-lovers.  That it is already doing so is proved by its place at number three on the RNZ Concert Classical Chart, on Saturday, 18 February.  They played an excerpt from Ken Wilson’s Wind Quintet of 1965.  This was recorded by Kiwi Records on LP in the mid-1980s, and much more recently appeared on CD.

On the new CD it is played by Zephyr Wind Quintet, made up of principal wind players from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.  It is a fine, crisp recording, as indeed are those of the other works on the disk.  Chief among these is the Concerto for clarinet and string orchestra, composed in 1963, which receives a marvellous performance from the NZSO with soloist Patrick Barry.

Ken Wilson’s music is great – its Poulenc-ish quirkiness is so much fun.  Also enjoyable is the more serious music.  For those to whom Ken Wilson is an unfamiliar name, it won’t be a surprise to learn that he was a clarinetist as well as a composer.  He was a teacher and mentor, and taught many New Zealand wind players, as well as young musicians in the USA, where he spent a substantial period of his life.

Other works vary from the Octet of 1961 (over ten minutes’ duration) and shorter pieces for clarinets in combinations, down to the ‘Spiderweb for solo clarinet’ (1986) at one-and-a-half minutes.  The most recent of the ten pieces is a Duo for two clarinets, written in 2004.  All exploit the clarinet in interesting and surprising ways, such that only a highly competent player could do.  The shorter pieces are played by a variety of performers, prominent among whom are clarinetist Peter Scholes and the bassoonist Ben Hoadley.  The Octet is played by  STROMA, the Wellington-based contemporary music ensemble.

This disk will be enjoyed not only by lovers of the clarinet, but all lovers of good music.


Orchestra Wellington, Orpheus Choir, clarinet in brilliant Mozartian form

Orchestra Wellington and Orpheus Choir of Wellington, under Marc Taddei
Andrew Simon – clarinet; Emma Fraser – soprano, Elisabeth Harris – alto, Henry Choo – tenor, James Clayton – baritone

Mozart 1791
Ave Verum Corpus, K 618
Clarinet Concerto in A, K 622
Requiem in D minor, K 626

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 20 August 7:30 pm

To put together programmes celebrating periods in a composer’s life has been made pretty easy by the conscientious compilers of catalogues, either by musicologists or by the composers themselves. Some have been catalogued in more sophisticated ways, by genre of composition which leads to an elaborate system like that of Haydn by Hoboken (not the suburb of Antwerp).  But it’s not hard to list the ‘last words’ of Mozart.

There’s always a tendency to exaggerate composers’ troubles and tragedies, and Mozart’s last year is a favourite topic. But, as explained by conductor Taddei, in the months before his death Mozart was almost overwhelmed by commissions, and his prospects were looking very good.

Fruits of Mozart’s last months
The three works played at this concert were only some of the great music of his last six months. There was of course, The Magic Flute, and then the commission in July, when the Flute was well advanced, of La clemenza di Tito for the celebration of the coronation of Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia in Prague in September. The Flute was listed by Koechel as 620 and Clemenza, 621, which includes a wonderful aria with an obbligato basset clarinet part, ‘Parto, ma tu ben mio’, for the same clarinetist as was to play the concerto, Anton Stadler. So there are a couple of evenings’ music; and there’s some other bits and pieces like the last string quintet, and pieces for mechanical organ and for the ethereal glass harmonica.

The concert began with the lovely, and very short, Ave verum corpus. It was brilliantly performed, the choir disciplined so keenly that it gave the impression of a skilled chamber choir of around 30 singers that had somehow acquired huge power and depth of tone, which has to be credited to their conductor Brent Stewart.

The same characteristics were clear throughout the Requiem: remarkable pianissimi alternating with magnificent, powerful outbursts as at the Dies Irae and the Rex Tremendae; and the Sanctus, accompanied by chilling timpani, seemed to leave no room for doubting Mozart’s religious convictions.

While the soloists were individually well equipped with attractive voices, soprano Emma Fraser’s voice was more penetrating than the others, exhibiting a silvery strength, at so many points, in the Recordare and the Benedictus, so that it was hard to escape the feeling that the alto part, taken by mezzo Elisabeth Harris, which was simply not in the same decibel class. It lacked something in terms of weight in, for example, the sonorous Tuba Mirum exposed her, between tenor Henry Choo and Fraser, as a bit uncommitted. Yet there were times when Harris’s lovely voice could be heard to advantage.

Though neither of the men possessed voices that had quite the power of Fraser’s, their distinct tessiturae masked the difference. That was certainly the case in the Recordare where the bass line lies fairly low and James Clayton’s voice injected a degree of drama, to be expected from a singer who has made valuable contributions to opera since he has come here from Australia. Tenor Choo, on a return visit from Australia, after singing in Orchestra Wellington’s Choral Symphony in their first 2016 concert (there too, with Elisabeth Harris at his side), was an asset; an attractive, lightish, quintessentially lyric tenor whose voice sat comfortably in the vocal quartet.

In the Requiem, the choir wavered, not for a minute, in the brilliance, clarity and energy exhibited in the Ave Verum, which could all have contributed, if one was so minded, to religious fervor; deserving further mention of music director Brent Stewart. There was discipline which never got in the way of a sense of spontaneity; the opportunities for distinct sections of the choir demonstrated the strength of each, with no sign of any weakness from tenors which have tended to be a choral problem over the years. In the Confutatis, men were as dramatic as the women in their separate phrases. And the dynamic shifts in the Lacrymosa, inter alia, were highly arresting.

Though the choral scene is perhaps not as robust now as it was in the late 1980s and 90s, when it was energized by the revival of early music practice and the presence of Simon Ravens and the Tudor Consort, the best choirs are in excellent shape; Orpheus continues to lead in Wellington.

The orchestra, stripped back to what was probably the size of such an orchestra of 1792, normal strings running down from ten first violins, with pairs of clarinets, bassoons, horns and three trombones, plus timpani. Interestingly in the context of the clarinet concerto, Mozart’s scoring in the Requiem was for basset horns in F (the instrument’s bottom note, at the bottom of the bass stave).

Concerto for basset clarinet
Then there’s the oddball clarinet employed in the concerto, which Andrew Simon explained came and went with Anton Stadler, the work’s inspirer and first performer: the basset clarinet. Though another lower version of the clarinet, called a basset horn, had become a fairly familiar instrument and survived into the 19th century (see the entry in Wikipedia), Stadler wanted to use a new instrument called the basset clarinet instead of the basset horn. (the latter is bigger, with a curve near the mouth-piece). There is a fragment of a Mozart concerto (K 621b) for basset horn which evidently contains hints of the music for the clarinet concerto. Both the basset horn and the basset clarinet have attracted composers since the early 20th century.

But in the absence of an autograph score, there are unanswered questions. Today, the clarinet concerto is played on either the normal, A clarinet or the basset clarinet.

Interestingly, the concerto is not scored for orchestral clarinets: only for strings, plus pairs of flutes, bassoons and horns. Though it’s always partly a matter of one’s position, the orchestra created a feeling of spaciousness in the interesting MFC acoustic. If one expects to hear touches of sadness in music composed only a month or so before his death, Mozart and no pre-Beethoven composer was really an introspective, believing that music should express something of himself or reflect the troubles of his times. (That was left to the Romantics and of course is a condition that afflicts most of today’s composers). Accordingly, the first and third movements expressed positive characteristics, and the Taddei’s orchestra left no doubt about their grasp of the classical aesthetic.

And I don’t know why it came to mind during the performance, that here I was hearing the descendants of New Zealand’s first, and very fine, professional string orchestra, that Alex Lindsay had formed in 1948, just a year after the National Orchestra itself. It was reputed to be a finer ensemble of string players at the time than its big brother. It survived till 1963, after which its bones were reassembled in various reincarnations of a Wellington city orchestra, more or less continuously to the present time.

Andrew Simon proved an admirably adroit and exuberant player, master of tasteful ornaments, and in wonderful control of varied dynamics. Not least of course were the extra low notes of the basset clarinet and it was very interesting to hear the way Mozart seemed to have framed them particularly, drawing attention to them, and how Simon exploited these opportunities.

Having claimed that an 18th century composer refrained from injecting personal emotion into music, one had to hear a touch of suppressed sadness in the Adagio, though such a change of tone, rather than real emotion, is simply what is intrinsic to slow music: it’s hard to think of much music of the 19th century, depicting tragedy, that goes quicker than, say, Andante.

So this 99.9% full house heard a rather delicious concert, the third in Orchestra Wellington’s season, with the Orpheus Choir in stunning form, the orchestra in excellent condition, with a fine international soloist. In great music.

CMNZ scores with brilliant clarinet and piano trio at the End of Time

Chamber Music New Zealand

Julian Bliss (clarinet) and the NZ Trio (Justine Cormack, Ashley Brown, Sarah Watkins)

Brahms: Trio for clarinet, cello and piano, Op 114
Ross Harris: There May be Light
Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday 28 July, 7:30 pm 

A programme of what, twenty years ago, might have been seen as a bit forbidding, drew a very good house at this concert, and at the end they responded very enthusiastically.

It may have been partly the fact that here was a conventional chamber group with the added interest of an extra player. It might also have been because audiences have come to accept that there is nothing to fear in Messiaen, even though he was in many ways, and still is, a radical composer who followed a unique path, all his own. In addition, Ross Harris’s music has gained more exposure in recent years; while it still sounds very ‘contemporary’, audience familiarity with much of his recent music, cast in traditional forms such as his six symphonies, has probably won him entry to the small group of new Zealand composers whose names are quite familiar, who are now considered mainstream, no longer too forbidding or incomprehensible.

Even though so far, I can recall only one of his symphonies, the second, being played by the NZSO – just a couple of months ago; there was a piano piece played by Emma Sayers last month and last year a piano quartet; and Requiem for the Fallen was played in 2014 – the year we were overwhelmed with WW1 stuff.

So it was perhaps a small surprise that Ross Harris’s piece, more than Messiaen, was now the most challenging listen, something of a retreat from the big public compositions of recent years, back to the sort of uncompromising composer of his earlier years.

The central piece was Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Harris’s There may be light was commissioned by Chamber Music New Zealand with the suggestion that it might be related to the Messiaen piece. In many ways, sonically rather than doctrinally, it inhabited a similar world, using the same four instruments, but while Messiaen’s writing generally remains within the normal technical scope of the clarinet, Harris had made use of its eccentric possibilities such as multiphonics – creating more than one note at a time, exploiting the instrument’s harmonic resources.

English clarinetist Julian Bliss, who was born in 1989, has already built a notable reputation in the world of music festivals and prestigious venues. He was on stage for all three pieces. He talked about multiphonics before the performance, but it was hardly central to the music; instead, to have introduced the audience to the actual musical ideas might have been more useful in creating a receptive hearing. As a result, there was little chance to absorb themes or motifs or to follow an argument that might have woven the music’s fabric.

Its main impact was unease, mystification, restlessness, produced by scrambling sounds, elusive slivers of melody that quickly evaporated. Clarinet and strings tended to carry most of the fragmentary musical ideas with a sense of purpose, while the piano’s gestures were reflective and struck me as somewhat incidental. Nevertheless, one was undeniably caught up with the piece, with its interesting, unaccustomed, even evocative sounds; and though I abhor saying this, as it’s like a confession of incompetence, another hearing could be illuminating.

The Messiaen performance was quite superb; the first time I heard it, perhaps 40 years ago, I found its widely disparate elements and Messiaen’s unique voice (or voices) bewildering, yet today it sounds as normal a part of the chamber music repertoire as the Brahms Clarinet Quintet. Every one of the eight movements was vividly sculpted, and yet created, as a whole, a mosaic that spoke of the situation of the work’s composition and first performance, as well as feeling still relevant to the human condition today, perhaps even more.

The spotlight moves from place to place, from one kind of religious imagery to another, from all four to pairs of instruments or just one, like the extraordinary third movement, Abîme des oiseaux, where the clarinet alone took us on an astonishing and awful (as in ‘full of awe’) journey through disparate spiritual landscapes. (I heard Murray Khouri play it in total darkness in a memorable performance in Whanganui some years ago). The conspicuously spiritual fifth movement, Louage à l’éterinté de Jésus, is an opportunity for an arresting duet between cello and piano (the one movement without the clarinet); steady, ritualized piano chords underpinning one of the (surely) profoundest musical creations for the cello. The two were in perfect accord.

The association of the brilliant NZTrio and one of the today’s most gifted young clarinetists produced an unforgettable performance.

It’s probably just as well that the charming Brahms trio was placed at the beginning. I was slow in coming to love it but it has taken its place, perhaps somewhere below the quintet and the two clarinet sonatas, but it still delights. If some early parts are less than commanding in terms of musical inspiration, the whole was lovingly and rapturously played, and the last movement, quite short, was a wonderful meeting of minds and hearts.


Stunning clarinet playing and a “Great” symphony courtesy of the WCO

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:
MOZART – Overture “The Magic Flute”
WEBER – Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra – No.2 in E-flat Op.74
SCHUBERT – Symphony No.9 in C Major D.944 “The Great”

Wellington Chamber Orchestra
Vincent Hardaker (conductor)
David McGregor (clarinet)

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

Sunday 3rd July 2016

Mozart’s Overture to his opera/pantomime “The Magic Flute” began the Wellington Chamber Orchestra’s latest Sunday concert at St.Andrews in grand and ceremonial fashion, though it wasn’t long before the music slyly stepped out of its ritualistic garb and started to dance. Conductor Vince Hardaker kept the players up-to-speed throughout the introduction with a flowing tempo that moved easily into the allegro. Though there was obviously a “warming up” aspect to the playing, with the wind tuning taking time to settle, the ensemble eventually “found” itself, with some solid work from the individual sections, including adept solos from flute and oboe.

The brass acquitted themselves well with their noble chording in places (the three stately fanfares midway – the flute “helping out” here as well – were played “straight”, without any distancings or echo effects, as is sometimes done in performances in the opera house).  Those tricky subsequent strings-and-wind dovetailings, though occasionally loose-limbed in effect, were generally handled confidently, and conductor and players built up the music to a resplendent final tutti – great brass with rasping trombones, and imposing timpani-playing brought it all to a satisfying conclusion.

We were then introduced to the afternoon’s concerto soloist, clarinettist David McGregor, a former NZSO National Youth Orchestra principal, and a winner of the NYO Alex Lindsay memorial Award two years in succession. His studies included working at Victoria University in Wellington with one of the NZSO’s co-principals, Philip Green, and more recently at the University of Tasmania in Hobart with Sydney Symphony associate principal clarinet, Francesco Celata.

Carl Maria von Weber’s concertino works are de rigueur for capable clarinettists, though perhaps because of their extreme difficulties they seem not to appear too often in concert. I had never heard the second of Weber’s two clarinet concerti performed “live”, so was looking forward to this with some eagerness. I certainly wasn’t disappointed, as, right from the beginning the orchestral playing had a surety and sharpness of focus, and David McGregor’s solo playing was simply breathtaking, right from his first two-octave “leap into space” entrance!

Throughout the first movement, soloist and players seemed to enjoy their interactions, tossing their phrases back-and-forth with great aplomb, the clarinet-playing exhibiting a winning range of dynamic and colouristic responses to the music, capping everything off with a terrific ascent to the high E-flat just before the recapitulation. Another feature of McGregor’s playing was his breath-control – such long, liquid runs with nary a pause in which to gasp for even a skerrick of air to replenish the resources – a remarkable display!

The slow movement brought us romantically murmuring strings supporting long lines for the soloist, again, demonstrating amazing breath control – the programme-note talked about the lyrical lines having ‘the benefit of being unbroken by the breaths that a singer would usually require…” – all very well, except that wind players have to breathe sometime, too! (I did, however, look up some information about something called “circular breathing” which may well be an integral part of most wind players’ technical resource these days…). Conductor Hardaker got very settled playing from his ensemble throughout, making the theatricality of the movement’s “recitative” section all the more striking, the soloist playing as if improvising, and the orchestra following.

Came the jolly “Polacca” finale, which the players were encouraged to take at a real “lick”, in fact faster than the soloist’s fingers wanted briefly to go at one point where a flourish went slightly off the rails. The excitement, though, was palpable at that speed, and soloist and players risked all with their rapid-fire dialogues. Eventually, an exciting orchestral crescendo led to a series of “sextuplet flurries” from the clarinet, the soloist really demonstrating his mettle throughout the work’s final pages. Deserved accolades rang through St.Andrew’s at the piece’s conclusion for David McGregor’s spectacular playing and the support from orchestra and conductor.

After the interval came a differently-flavoured kind of business, a performance of one of the most remarkable of nineteenth-century symphonies. This was Schubert’s Ninth, in the key of C Major, and known also as “The Great” (the composer had written an earlier C Major Symphony, one which posterity has since conveniently nicknamed “The Little”). The music’s had a checquered history, unperformed during Schubert’s lifetime, and then rediscovered by Robert Schumann in the late 1830s, who, upon looking through the work coined the immortal phrase “heavenly length”. It received its first performance in Leipzig in the hands of Felix Mendelssohn, who appparently had more success with the work on this occasion than later on in London in 1844 where the players appparently refused to perform the symphony on account of its length and repetitive figurations.

No such strictures inhibit the work’s performance in this day and age, though along with much of the instrumental repertoire of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the symphony has been “authenticised”, or, in other words,“cleansed” of over a century of romantic “overlay” by many of today’s performers. Consequently, it simply isn’t fashionable to play the work in the manner I first got to know it, via recordings by Furtwangler, Barbirolli, Klemperer, Krips, Bohm and Boult, the great Schubert conductors of the post-war era – taking Robers Schumann’s phrase “heavenly length” at its word, those performances drew out the tempi of sequences such as the work’s introduction, and adopted a free, almost improvisatory attitude to the music’s trajectories, especially in the first and second movements.

Vincent Hardaker’s interpretation of the work reflected these revisionist trends – from the outset we heard sprightly, smartly-paced tempi, which imparted a jauntiness to the music, removing the “poetry of awakening” which romantic sensibilities invested in the opening horn-call and the answering woodwinds. There was still grandeur in the big unison statement of the opening theme, but no longer did we experience the thrill of the accelerando from a stately opening tempo to the urgency of the first movement allegro. To my ears, there were gains and losses – the music certainly took on a fresh overall urgency, but lost some of the grandeur and poetry I’d always associated it with. There was some engaging swagger once the allegro got under way, the playing a bit raucous-sounding in places (partly the fault of the confined St.Andrew’s acoustic, which doesn’t take kindly to a fair-sized orchestral tutti), but with plenty of spirit.

One or two of the transition passages sounded awkward for the players, particularly the change from the first subject’s dotted rhythm into the second subject, though a similar passage leading into the development section was negotiated far more tidily. Here the brass came into their own, the trombones lovely and noble-sounding, while the winds “ensembled” nicely with their triplets leading into the recapitulation, and the horns contributed some telling detail. Energies were gathered up most effectively as the coda was approached, with the brass again resplendent and exciting, and though the tempo was pushed hard right through the sequence conductor and players held it all together, with only the slight rallentando before the final chord catching the ensemble out.

A somewhat Charles Ives-like element was added to the music at the slow movement’s beginning, with a fire alarm sounding from an adjacent building. To their credit conductor and players continued, undaunted by the ensuing cross-rhythms, catching the music’s gait with angular but expressive playing from the winds, though clarinet and oboe seemed to have slightly different ideas as to the tuning at this juncture of the music. Brass and timpani coloured the ambiences strongly and securely at this point, as they did right throughout the movement. The oboist did a splendid job with his extended solos, as did the strings in the movement’s trio-like second subject group, violins singing and cellos counterpointing most fetchingly.

I found it difficult to really “get into” the scherzo, as it seemed the players were feeling the pulse of the music at a slightly slower rate than their conductor wanted – the music’s gait was, I thought, a fraction too rigidly applied. Thus, the second, “swinging” melody on the strings was phrased by the players at a more naturally expansive pulse than the accompaniments, which kept on getting ahead.  The trio was more “together”, if still a bit breathless (usually one of music’s most charming and lovable sequences), with the strings steadfast and the winds and brass dovetailing their rhythmic patternings patiently and accurately – a lovely horn counterpoint at one point added to our pleasure.

Amends were made in the finale by Vince Hardaker’s steady, well-controlled tempi at the opening, allowing the orchestral shouts and the answering rhythmic patternings enough space to properly tell, and, later bring out the “spin” of those repeated sequences which incensed those London players in 1844 to the point of mutiny. The winds did well with the “Beethoven Ninth quotation” episode, and the brass then took to the music with a will, followed by the strings in canonic repy, again directed with plenty of controlled energy by the conductor. And the coda’s growing excitement was unerringly detailed by the winds and coloured by the brass towards those great surges of tone which broke over the soundscape at the end so splendidly and energetically. Hard-won, but exhilarating to achieve, and a sterling effort from all concerned.

An experience to be savoured – Kari Kriikku with the NZSO

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

– with Kari Kriikku (clarinet)
and Miguel Harth-Bedoya (conductor)

JIMMY LOPEZ – Peru Negro
KIMMO HAKOLA – Clarinet Concerto
WITOLD LUTOSLAWSKI – Concerto for Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington,

Friday, 30th October, 2015

The concert certainly lived up to its title – this was no genteel, well-manicured, orderly assemblage of dulcet, well-rounded tones, but a feisty, attention-grabbing trio of pieces which, thanks to on-the-spot advocacy from concerto soloist, conductor and players, certainly made a lasting impact.

Because of the sheer physicality of each of the works, as well as the presence of a soloist in the second piece who wasn’t backward in coming forward in every sense, the concert couldn’t help but take on something of a music-theatre feel. It usually happens that, whenever an orchestra’s percussion section has a lot to do, a strong element of visceral excitement comes cross to the audience because of the to-ing and fro-ing and the palpable gesturings of the players with, in almost every instance, immediate and spectacular results!

However, it wasn’t only the percussion who were working hard – under Miguel Harth-Bedoya’s energetic and flamboyant direction, every section of the orchestra pulled its weight and more, the players seeming to engage with the business of making the sounds come alive and interact with one another, often to exhilarating effect. The concert’s first piece, Jimmy Lopez’s Perú Negro, was written as a kind of evocation of what’s known as Afro-Peruvian music (a genre developed in the composer’s native Peru in the days when Spanish landowners brought African slaves to South America, thus mingling the cultures and producing various unique creative results, particularly in music).

Peruvian Jimmy Lopez (born in 1978) is a long-time friend of Miguel Harth-Bedoya, and in fact  the work is not only dedicated to the conductor, but has specific motivic figures based upon Harth-Bedoya’s initials. Certainly, the music’s vitality and volatility reflects the latter’s own interpretative style – the dancing rhythms, the brilliant orchestrations and the range of contrasts of mood and colour were all brought out here by the conductor and players to stunning effect.

I thought the piece’s only drawback was that it seemed to drive through an exciting and all-embracing crescendo towards a thrilling climax which recapped the spirit of the opening fanfares, but then attempted to try and revisit those same energies which had been so splendidly expended,  losing some of its shape in the attenuated process. Others will have undoubtedly felt differently and responded more wholeheartedly to the excitement’s continuation – despite the musicians’ commitment and the playing’s brilliance I felt the music outstayed its welcome, indulging in some needless repetition towards the end.

Still, the piece certainly sharpened our excitement’s edges in anticipation of the arrival of Finnish clarinettist Kari Kriikku, scheduled to play a concerto by his countryman Kimmo Hakola. I had seen and heard Kriikku in concert before, as long ago as 2009, but vividly recollecting his skill as a player, as well as the showmanship that seemed to be part-and-parcel of his character as a performer in appropriate contexts. Reading the opening paragraph of the description of Hakola’s work as per the programme, I sensed that the music would be pretty-well tailor-made for Kriikku’s skills as a performer and for the theatrical character he seemed to invariably bring to his interpretations.

In fact, the piece was commissioned by Kriikku, and first performed by him in 2001, so it’s obviously a work he’s lived with for some time, reflected by the immense skill with which he negotiated his solo part with all its complexities. But not only did the music ask questions of the soloist, it also taxed the skills of both conductor and players to the utmost, requiring some incredibly “dovetailed” interactions between orchestra and soloist and within the sections of the ensemble itself. I couldn’t fault the orchestral playing at any point throughout the panoply of sounds conjured up for us by the composer, for our delight and (in places) stupefaction!

After the first movement’s “game of chase” between the protagonists, a series of interactions that left notes scattered in their wake across whole vistas of exploration, the slow movement’s ‘Hidden Songs” brought out cool, limpid textures providing some relief from the corruscations that had gone before. In the soloist’s wistful four-note theme and the orchestra’s ostinato accompaniment I sensed something of Stravinsky’s claustrophobic enervations from ‘Le Sacre du Printemps”, a mood broken into by rhapsodic interpolations from the orchestra. These eventually gave way to tocsin-soundings from the orchestral bells, the music’s movement ritualized, as both clarinet and different orchestral sections sang the last of their songs.

I enjoyed the Shostakovich-like aspect of the third movement’s grotesqueries, especially the tuba’s contributions to the fun in places, the soloist at another point “jamming it” with bongo drum and trombones – wonderful stuff! We were disconcerted when the soloist peremptorily walked off the performing platform, though the music kept going, the orchestra continuing to build the structure to the point where the players suddenly broke off and began animatedly talking with one another – obviously conveying  conjecture as to where their clarinetist had disappeared to!

After the timpanist had called his colleagues to order, the brass announced the soloist’s reappearance with stentorian voices. The last movement’s Wedding Dance” aspect expressed itself with contrasting moods, wild rhythmic excitement followed by louring trombones leading a mournful melody. As the soloist bent his line every which way, the orchestra whispered amongst itself, ruminating upon likely outcomes. A brief irruption of the running dance-music introduced the soloist’s cadenza, music filled with the most enchanting and angular birdsong, and choreographed by Kriikku most entertainingly – a gentleman sitting behind me nearly had apoplexy at one point, so delighted was he with the soloist’s antics! There came a brief dance-passage, the clarinetist treading a measure before preparing to deliver his final flourish – and the music was over!

Grimmer purposes hammered their messages out at the beginning of the concert’s second half, with the opening of Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra – I seriously parted company with the conductor at the beginning of the work, finding the opening far too timpani-dominated, and completely drowning out the lower strings’ announcement of the opening motif – force and emphasis was all very well, but this was, for me, too blatant – I heard the work “live” for the first time in the 1970s conducted by Vaclek Smetacek, who allowed the pounding rhythms sufficient force while bringing out the defiant syncopated angularities of the string utterances right from the beginning.

That grumble out of the way, I thought the rest of the work an absolutely thrilling experience as presented here – Harth-Bedoya encouraged his musicians to “play out” at almost all times, while preserving the clarity of the textures, as with the celeste’s unearthly echoing of the work’s opening pulsatings right at the movement’s end. Then, during the second movement, such magic was woven by the scampering strings and the spooky winds, whose beautifully-wrought exchanges were an absolute delight to the ear. The cunningly-wrought orchestral dovetailing reminded me throughout this movement of Holst’s “Mercury the Winged Messenger” from “The Planets” in a way that no other performance I’d heard seemed to have previously done.

With great portent and dark purpose the finale was launched, amid growlings from the piano and an almost primordial wail from the cor anglais, with other winds joining in. Strings built the sound-progressions and brass added their weight to the textures unerringly, as the passacaglia’s fifteen variations strode across the soundstage, each “fretting and strutting….before being heard no more”. The powerful outbursts from brass and percussion properly galvanized these scenarios, with various solos from the winds keeping the textural colours varied and volatile, and sometimes at exciting odds with one another! And the “exuberant twist” at the very end (nicely described as such in the programme notes) brought the work to an exciting and rousing conclusion.

Very great credit to the orchestra throughout all of these three works, most excitingly directed by Miguel Harth-Bedoya, and in colourful collaboration with the characterful Kari Kriikku and his clarinet. Nobody should let the unfamiliarity of the composers’ names put them off going to this concert – from beginning to end, it’s a thrilling, no-holds-barred journey, well worth the experience!