“Strings for Africa” joyously fill the vistas of St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace

Sinfonia for Hope and Stringendo presents:

JS BACH – Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D Minor BWV 1052
Antonio VIVALDI – Concerto for 4 Violins and ‘Cello – No.10 of Op.3 “L”estro armónico” RV 580
Gabriel FAURE – Cantique de Jean Racine (arr. for ‘cello ensemble)
JS BACH – Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 BWV 1051 (arr for viola/’cello ensemble)

Diedre Irons (piano),
Amelia Hall, Martin Riseley. Monique Lapins, Konstanze Artmann, Rupa Maitra, Martin Jaenecke, Lucas Baker, Claire Macfarlane, Sandra Logan, Sarah Marten, Robin Perks, Lucy Maurice (violins),
Sophia Acheson, Peter Barber, Elyse Dalabakis, Xi Liu (violas)
Inbal Megiddo, Heleen du Plessis (‘cellos)
Chris Everest (continuo guitar)
Sinfonia for Hope
Donald Maurice (conductor)

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

Tuesday, May 18th, 2021

Back In November of 2019 I attended an event called “Cellos for Africa”, at Te Rauparaha Arena in Porirua City,  one described by its organisers as “a multi-institutional and multi-cultural collaboration”, featuring a variety of performing individuals and groups brought together by Heleen du Plessis and Donald Maurice. The event’s primary purpose was to raise funds for a school in Africa which had been established in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2011 by New Zealander Denise Carnihan and her husband Chris. More than $8,000 was raised by this Porirua concert to support the venture, named the “Tamariki Educational Centre”, and situated in the poorest part of Nairobi. This latest concert, “Strings for Africa”, was a kind of follow-up, the funds intended to help establish a fully-fledged music programme at the school.

Both Denise and Chris Carnihan were present at this latest concert, and at the conclusion expressed their heartfelt thanks at the efforts of the event’s organisers and the assembled musicians, as well as acknowledging the support of the members of the audience. We were, throughout the evening,  treated to what could be best described as a kind of “string-fest” – if one forgot official designations and regarded Diedre Irons’ piano as a “stringed instrument”, one could indeed say that the entire company of musicians were string-players!

As befitted the occasion’s focus on the establishment of a school music programme, a goodly number of the evening’s instrumentalists were school-aged children, members of a group called Stringendo, a Wellington-based children’s string orchestra, one which opened the evening’s programme with a performance of JS Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in D Minor, conducted by Donald Maurice, the soloist with the ensemble being none other than the aforementioned Diedre Irons! Playing the St.Andrew’s grand piano set back amidst the ensemble players as befitted a kind of “sinfonia concertante” work,  Irons gave a sturdily-focused and clearly-articulated reading of the first movement’s solo part, duetting most charmingly with the violins in a number of places, and plunging into a mini-cadenza which sparked and scintillated like a firecracker, the pianist’s characteristic spontaneity of manner keeping us nicely guessing as to the moment of her instrument’s reunitement with the orchestra!

The sombre, unison statement of the slow movement’s opening theme gave it all great gravity, and a modicum of tension as to its eventual destination! I enjoyed the accompanying strings “sighing tones”, a touching sensitivity evident in the young players’ relating their phrases to the soloist, and the latter in turn elaborating upon the simple, emotionally-direct string figurations. The final  episode enchanted as well, with the strings quietly joining Irons’ melodic line in unison, the utterances spare, and extremely moving!

Sprightly, energetic and animated at the outset, the finale began with the piano creating its own frisson of excitement, and the orchestra its own version of exhilaration, the notes clearly played and their energies well-conveyed. The soloist was never left unattended by the strings for long, the fount of Bach’s invention astonishingly vigorous and varied throughout, and the detailings never less than ear-catching, such as the observance of different dynamic levels and the setting of soaring lines against rapid-fire accompaniments. Irons’s solo part became somewhat fired up towards the piece’s end, but the orchestral musicians maintained active participants right to the final exchanges – well done!

One couldn’t help catching one’s breath as the soloists for the next work on the programme, Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins RV 580, came on to the platform – it was as though the concert had momentarily “cornered the local market” regarding violinistic talent! With Amalia Hall and Martin Riseley on one side, and Monique Lapins with Konstanze Artmann on the other, sparks were ready and set to fly in this work, the music catching into conflagration from the very opening, Amalia Hall and Martin Riseley setting things in motions, answered by Monique Lapins and Konstanze Artmann with the ensemble’s support, straightaway establishing a dynamic variation in the exchanges by way of indicating that no stone of interpretative contrast would be left unturned.

Every solo was characteristically “eventful”, not only notes-wise, but in dynamics and antiphonal direction and its augmentation by any one or more of the “company”, the interchanges filled with the drama of variety of utterance – what to the casual listener might have at first seemed a “sameness” of texture and figuration, with the propulsive opening theme driving the music along, drew us with each repetition further into the panoply of the music’s fantastic world.

The slow movement began with a series of dramatically-delivered gestures, the big dotted-note chords alternating with shimmering arpeggiated figures for both the soloists and the ripeno  – a central episode contrasted this solemn mood with a ghostly dance, as if a chorus of sprites lurking behind the great columns of sound briefly and impishly showed themselves, enjoying their “moment” before dancing out of sight once more.

The sprightly, triple-time finale reinvigorated the sound-picture, the company bending all backs in delivering the vigorous opening theme, before each of the soloists launched by turns into an elaborately modulated discourse, Amalia Hall getting the lion’s share at first, but with the others joining in the rapid-fire exchanges, Inbal Megiddo’s cello as well reminding us at times that the concerto is actually designated “for four violins AND ‘cello” in its place in the Op.3 “L’Estro L’Armonico” collection! What else could one feel when it was all over but privileged to have “been here” to witness the euphoric joy of such music making!

The next item was “unprogrammed” in a written sense, being intended as something of a “surprise”. A group of ‘cellists currently under the tuition of Inbal Megiddo, here gave us a transcription  of an 1865 choral work by Gabriel Faure, Cantique de Jean Racine, originally a four-part work for mixed choir and keyboard. I forgot to actually count the cellists in the group, but there must have been at least eight, including Inbal herself – a gorgeously rich sound! The players infused their various lines with plenty of feeling, nicely inflected and tellingly shaped – I thought there was remarkable strength and confidence in the lead cellist’s playing (at the opposite end of the line from where Inbal was sitting). I liked the group’s intensities in the softer moments of the piece, catching the feeling as readily as during the more outwardly-expressive moments in the music, concluding with a particularly touching final phrase.

Finally, it was the turn of the Sinfonia for Hope to perform for us, an orchestral group established in 2018 for fundraising purposes supporting humanitarian causes, the present Nairobi project being the group’s 2021 focus. Before the group’s item got underway conductor Donald Maurice expressed thanks to both Inbal Megiddo and Heleen du Plessis, describing them as central to the organisation of the evening’s music-making, after which he invited the organisers of the Nairobi Project, Denise and Chris Carnihan, onto the stage as well, the couple expressing their thanks to the musicians, organisers and the audience for their support for the Nairobi venture via the evening’s musical activities. It was gratifying to be told that, as a result of this evening’s concert, the projected music programme at the “Tamariki Educational Centre” in Nairobi would be able to be established.

The Sinfonia’s item was one with a difference, a performance of JS Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 played by an astounding assemblage of no less than twenty-four viola players, along with a large group of ‘cellists, plus a continuo guitar, all conducted by Donald Maurice. It all began with a will, the rich massed viola sound rolling around and about the church’s vistas, each group’s phrases gleefully bouncing off the other’s with almost bumptious heft in places, though allowing ample spaces for the lines of the two ‘cello groups to come through as well. At the outset I found the reiterations of the main theme exciting when re-emphasised by each of the groups, but my ear began increasingly to listen for and appreciate the less assertive lines and phrases and their interplay, finding a different kind of excitement in the play of the “terraced” sounds at the varied dynamic levels.

The slow movement then provided the greatest possible contrast to what we had heard thus far, with solo strings and guitar continuo, the four players, Peter Barber and Sophia Acheson (violas), Inbal Megiddo (‘cello) and Chris Everest (guitar) transporting our sensibilities in the most delightful fashion, a truly memorable performance expressing such finely-wrought contrasts of light and shade, warmth and focus, and strength allied to delicacy as to disarm critical processes…..

After this, the finale’s “jolly hockey sticks” effect of the massed strings’ return brought us back down to earth in the most appropriate way, with sequences of tumbling warmth vying with moments of delicacy and playfulness.  I enjoyed the music’s modulatory swerves into more distant realms, and the dogged meticulousness of the figurations’ homeward journey to the point where the main theme relievedly gathered the threads together and roared out for the last time – what palpable pleasure there was in its final delivery, and in the audience response , a moment to acknowledge and truly cherish as a memory of the evening’s delights!

Welington Youth Orchestra and Mark Carter with violinist Lucas Baker – a Transatlantic treat!

Wellington Youth Orchestra presents:
Music by Barber, Britten, Gershwin and Vaughan Williams

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS – Overture “The Wasps” (1909)
BARBER – Violin Concerto,  Op.14
BRITTEN – Sinfonia da Requiem,  Op.20
GERSHWIN – An American in Paris  (1928)

Lucas Baker (violin)
Mark Carter (conductor)
Wellington Youth Orchestra

St. James’ Church, Woburn, Lower Hutt

Saturday, 15th May, 2021

The idea of “music that makes one’s mouth water” is, of course, an entirely personal matter, there being literally hundreds of pieces and combinations of pieces which would produce such a response amongst music-lovers – but for me, the Wellington Youth Orchestra’s presentation at Woburn’s St.James’ Church on Saturday hit the spot from the moment I opened the printed programme just before the concert began. I’d seen the “Transatlantic” publicity blurb, with its highlighting of the Barber Violin Concerto, performed by Lucas Baker, but only the names of the composers whose music was to be played alongside this work – so I was all the more delighted at the prospect of hearing the other three pieces, all particular favourites, in the one concert!

Another pleasant surprise was rediscovering the positive aspects of the venue’s acoustic regarding the orchestral sound, one which I’d commented on in a previous review as actually being somewhat “too lively” – here, the  different orchestral textures of the opening piece, Vaughan Williams’ attention-grabbing orchestral frolic  The Wasps  Overture, rang out most divertingly, from the raucous whirrings which opened the piece to the plethora of instrumental strands delivering the concluding “combined” themes of the work at its climax. The generous reverberation gave added weight and tone to parts of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, and enhanced various touches of glamour and sophistication to Gershwin’s adventurous An American in Paris. We certainly felt as if we were inhabiting the “same space” as the band, and enjoying a lot more besides just the notes!

Any concert that begins with VW’s “Wasps” Overture immediately “commands” its audience’s attention – and so it proved here, with the great orchestral “buzzings” goaded to a frenzy by various percussive punctuations. Mark Carter set a jolly dancing tempo for the allegro which allowed the combination of rhythmic verve and soaring melody to “swing” in entirely complementary ways, leaning nicely into the “big tune” which was taken up gloriously by the strings, the winds giving poignant support as the music’s colours rang the changes. The jauntiness of rhythm got by Carter from the players at the return of the “wasps” was positively infectious, leading to the brass’s exciting  clarion calls and irruptions of percussion which pounced on their opportunities to join in the welter of sound! – I liked the lovely legato of the trumpet’s reiteration of the soaring theme, beneath which the strings energetically danced the allegro, the ensemble splendidly robust, conductor and players capping the piece’s ending off with an exhilarating sense of arrival.

What could have contrasted more to this than the opening of the Barber Violin Concerto? – a lovely, lyrical outpouring from soloist and orchestra alike began the work with great tenderness and ardour hand-in-hand, the winds contrasting this heart-on-sleeve manner with a dancing, descending motif that reappeared throughout the movement.  The evolving orchestral textures by turns took us through sequences where full-bloodedly melody gave way to sequences of wistfulness and playful impulse which were suddenly became irruptions clouding the soundscape. Lucas Baker’s playing seemed, chameleon-like, to flower with the music –  more confident, I thought, with the bigger gesturings than with some of the more filigree figurations, his vigorous attack steadfastedly carried the music through the dancing sequence towards those massive orchestral gesturings which seemed suddenly to collapse under their own weight! Baker and his oboe soloist colleague together brought us reassurance by turning once again to the composer’s comforting descending dance theme, one which floated upwards to finish the movement.

A beautiful oboe solo began the slow movement, superbly delivered here, the strings , clarinet and horn taking the melody onto the soloist, whose first focused musings were “charged” by orchestral agitations led by the brass. Though Baker seemed less sure of himself in the heavier, more angular sequences, his confidence returned for the more romantic horn-accompanied passages – and the  rarefied solo sequence just before the impassioned entry of the strings was simply lovely, as was the recitative passage immediately following the orchestra’s taking on of the full-blooded gesturings, Baker delivering the open-hearted beauty of the writing to the rapt ending with great commitment.

A timpani figure began the finale, over which the soloist began a molto-perpetuo rhythm, with the orchestra contributing flecks of colour, a wonderfully rollicking journey brought off here with great aplomb. Baker’s control was splendid throughout, his energies carrying everything along with his instrument as the orchestral presence grew through a crescendo to a hammered climax, the strings taking over the rhythm, the soloist wrestling it back for a few measures, and the orchestra seizing control once again. At the work’s end, soloist and orchestra went for broke hammer and tongs, mixing concerted shouts with helter-skelter solo figurations, and  unequivocal concluding chords.

The church’s ample acoustic helped make the beginning of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem something of a sonic event, highlighting the committed efforts of the players, the irruptions thunderous and oppressive, engendering a sense of deep hurt, sorrow and anger, the instruments speaking for human voices and giving tongue to feelings. From the utmost depths the sounds gradually ascended, the strings followed by the brass and winds, the textures increasingly strident and agitated. With the heavy percussion adding its weight the full orchestral force was superbly brought into play, through to a shell-shocked aftermath – the sudden irruptive fragments of energy then re-ignited brilliantly spreading inexorably through the orchestra, tongued notes from the winds, stinging col legno strings and mocking chatter from brasses. The saxophone lamented, the trumpets sneered, the percussion flecked off shrapnel-shards of notes, while the rhythms built to brutal unisons at the climax, after which the exhausted textures fragmented into silence – how heart-warming, then, was the ensuing dialogue sung here between winds and horns, with the strings turning the textures into upward-thrusting columns of light, augmented by the whole orchestra! The aftermaths were so very moving, with the brass solemnly sounding a warning phrase for the future before the final hope-filled roulade from the strings dissolved into the quietly stoic wind chords at the end. Such great work from the orchestra, conductor and instrumental soloists!

The concert concluded on a rather less burdened note with George Gershwin’s exuberant An American in Paris, a world that seemed far removed from the previous work’s troubles! I’d thought the Britten piece showed off the orchestra’s qualities splendidly, but this differently-focused, more  extroverted Gershwinreally opened up the band’s corporate and individual capabilities, even if the first Parisian taxi whose horn we heard had a first-note hiccup! – but no problems thereafter! That first orchestral paragraph really “set the scene” here, with the tunes roaring through, a prominent one being  “My Mum gave me a nickel”, a vivid contrast with some of the piece’s mood-changes, as the traveller wandered from place to place, the loneliness (a gorgeous violin solo) as palpable as the hustle and bustle.

Throughout, I thought Gershwin’s score was made a living entity by these players, as with the cool bluesiness of the famous trumpet solo, and the insouciant swagger of the accompanying rhythmic trajectories, the style caught to perfection, its extrovert manner beautifully tempered in places by the playing’s tenderness and sensitivity (the strings’ delivery of the bluesy tune, for instance), and the ebb and flow between the two modes beautifully controlled by Mark Carter. Gershwin’s scoring of this work throughout indicated here that both of the eminent French musicians he approached for lessons were right to recognise there was little either of them could teach him, and that his own home-grown “idioms” were the important things to further nurture and develop, the second, jauntier trumpet tune, for instance, again played here with incredible panache – and I loved the “drenched” string/wind sound the players brought to the swinging theme that followed soon after, immediately precluding the music’s “breaking up” and reforming with a vigorous rendition of the original bluesy trumpet theme.

Suddenly we were swinging along with the opening music, taxicab horns and all, and heading for a great peroration – a final bluesy turn of phrase, a crashing chord, and we in the audience were left applauding and shouting our approval! Heroes all, these players, with some star turns, all of which were properly acknowledged – very great honour to all at the realisation of such a splendid concert!







Camerata at St.Peter’s-on-Willis does Haydn (and others) proud…..

CAMERATA  – Haydn in the Church

JS BACH – Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major BWV 1049
MOZART – Serenade No. 6 in D Major K.239 “Serenata Notturna”
HAYDN – Symphony No. 13 in D Major Hob.1:13

JS Bach – Kamala Bain, Louise Cox (recorders), Anne Loeser (violin)
Mozart – Anne Loeser, Ursula Evans (violins), Victoria Jaenecke (viola),
Joan Perernau Garriga (bass), Laurence Reese (timpani)
Haydn – Ken Ichinose (‘cello)
Anne Loeser (director)

St. Peter’s-on-Willis, Wellington

Saturday, 1st May, 2021

Camerata’s leader, Anne Loeser was kind enough to alert us to two musical anniversaries on this particular day, opening the concert at St.Peter’s-on-Willis with one, and concluding the evening’s music with another as a delightful “encore surprise”, more of the latter in a moment.  It was in fact the 300th anniversary of the presentation by JS Bach of his six Brandenburg Concertos to Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg, though not of their first performance in this form, as Bach had assembled a collection of already-composed works for purposes of the gift. No record exists of their performance for Christian Ludwig, whose ensemble in Berlin seems not to have contained the players needed to perform these highly variegated pieces; and the original manuscripts were rediscovered in the Brandenburg archives only in 1849, and published the following year.

So this music had waited an incredible hundred and twenty-eight years for the re-discovery that led to its publication in its “Brandenburg” form, though it’s hard to imagine Bach himself resisting opportunities to perform these works with his own ensemble at Köthen, which DID have the players to do so – but we don’t know for sure whether this ever happened. The earliest known recordings come from the 1920s from ensembles with “historic” names such as the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra and the Berlin State Opera Orchestra. As Bach had written for almost every instrument in the orchestra known to him in these works, twentieth-century ensembles would at first have had to do a fair amount of “adapting” the music for modern instruments, though more recent advances in historical knowledge of and skills in early music performance practice have resulted in many successful performances and recordings of these works more akin to what Bach himself might have imagined (or heard!).

Concerto No. 4 as performed this evening featured a solo violin and two recorders, along with strings and continuo, Bach’s score specifying a pair of “fiauti d’echo”, a description perhaps reflected in the pair’s playing of their instruments at the very back of the ensemble during the slow movement, as in a kind of “echo chamber”, most effectively conveying the music’s spatial characteristics in the ample St.Peter’s acoustic. I thought at the concerto’s beginning, the fleet-of-finger tempo conveyed a bright-and-breezy spirit, if in places the figurations sounded to my ears a tad breathless, with the recorders’ lines speeding by, and missing something of the charm of interplay. At times it seemed as if the lines were “running together” and thus sacrificing a little definition, even though the ensemble held, with Anne Loeser’s beautifully diaphanous solo violin-playing a tour de force of gossamer dexterity.

At the back of the ensemble for the slow movement Kamala Bain’s and Louise Cox’s playing blossomed, their instruments more clearly-defined and characterful than when in the front, their interplay beautifully filling the ambient spaces, the sounds remarkably “opened out” – and, by some alchemic means, maintained with the third movement’s beginning, even with the wind soloists returning to the front of the platform. I felt the tempi here sprang eagerly and naturally from the music’s character, a kind of out-of-doors ebullience driving it all. Bach delightfully “played” with his listeners by  blurring the distinctions between soloists and ensemble, making as if the movement was fugal at the beginning, but then introducing a violin solo (whose helter-skelter character was brilliantly thrown off by Anne Loeser), and going on to mix tutti and solo passages with fugal echoes, the ensemble relishing the accented dance-like hesitations towards the end as a precursor to a kind of “well, that’s it, folks!” concluding gesture.

Next came the adorable “Serenata Notturna” by Mozart, his “Serenade no, 6 in D K.239”. Despite being one of many originally written as background music for social occasions, this particular work merited direct listening attention, with its timpani-augmented introductory march, and quixotic middle section alternating arco and pizzicato figurations. Laurence Reese’s period timpani made a suitably pompous impression throughout the opening March, further enriched by the loveliness and variety of the ensemble’s “inner voices” and the warmth and vigour of Anne Loeser’s violin playing.

The middle movement Minuet began fairly conventionally with an engaging “kick” to its rhythmic gait, but with writing which constantly engaged one’s attention via the occasional unexpected modulatory “swerve” that delighted with its impudence. And the Trio’s garrulous triplet figures here and there over-ran themselves with cascading energies that sparkled and babbled impishly – here, altogether delicious in effect, as played by the quartet within the ensemble (with a double bass instead of a ‘cello), an ear-tickling contrast to the full band!

Straight into the finale we went, introduced by the droll opening violin theme, with its hearty answering phrase from the ensemble, and, to everybody’s delight, developing into an entertainment that the composer himself might well have relished, with the fun by turns hearty (buoyant timpani interjections), quizzical (“After you…” – “No, after you!” kinds of expressions shared in the exchanges between the Quartet’s Ist and 2nd Violins!) and faintly subversive (nonchalant interpolations of ANOTHER Mozartean Serenade, from the timpani and double-bass!). Happily, we all enjoyed the goings-on at least as much as the players did, and the music framing the fun was, as with the rest of the work, not just a pretty serenade, but filled with interest and variety.

For the final work on the programme the platform seemed to be suddenly crowded with extra players, most notably horns, whose contributions certainly added tonal weight and colour to the ensemble. Haydn’s Symphony No, 13 in D was in fact written for his largest orchestral complement to date available, with an extra pair of horns and timpani, even though the latter part in the autograph score seems to have been penned by someone else! The full-blooded D Major chord that began the work reflected this exciting new sonority, the winds and brass holding their lines through the strings’ and timpani’s sprightly opening figures – an extremely ceremonial and festive beginning! – rather like great and sonorous tolling bells sounding while human beings scurried busily about on the ground below!

The adagio cantabile that followed was notable for a solo ‘cello part accompanied by strings without winds, Ken Ichinose’s playing heartfelt and direct, the repeats giving the sequence something of an epic serenity, a mood which the following Minuet set about enlivening! Here, the timpani were a joy, and Karen Batten’s flute-playing eagerly took the chance to shine in the Trio. In my earlier Middle C review of the concert published a day ago I expressed puzzlement at the programme note-writer Gregory Hill’s comment that the finale, like the parallel movement in Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, quotes a theme based on Thomas Aquinas’s 13th Century Hymn “Pange Lingua Gloriosi”, which was one I thought I knew well, having frequently sung verses from it during my school days. By way of response I opinioned that the Haydn/Mozart “crib” could have been actually taken from the “Kyrie” of the sixteenth-century composer Josquin Des Prez’s Missa Pange Lingua, a work derived from Aquinas’s hymn. However, after a revelatory exchange of messages, I’m find myself both surprised and indebted to Gregory Hill, who precisely pinpointed for me the occurrence of the motif in the original hymn – thus, I stand corrected! Certainly Haydn’s “treatment” of the famous four-note sequence yielded little or nothing to his great contemporary’s better-known exercise, using a similar amalgam of sonata form and fugue to telling effect, ranging from magnificently-sounded horn statements to ubiquitious string and wind exchanges, the whole enhanced by the liberal observance of repeats, and making for a veritable feast of orchestral interaction.

At the symphony’s conclusion, Anne Loeser made her “anniversaries” announcement, the second of which involved one of music’s most notable “one-hit” composers, Engelbert Humperdinck, whose name is forever associated with the opera “Hänsel und Gretel”, first performed in 1893, and whose death occurred one hundred years ago this year. Perhaps too,  it was partly the presence of all of those horns for the Haydn Symphony which inspired the choice of music for the encore, the opening “Evening Prayer” sequence from the opera’s Overture, the melody here superbly sounded by the heroic quartet of players in their most meltingly heart-warming mode, with alternatingly sonorous and delicate support from the rest of the ensemble – Haydn would surely have approved!




Wellington Chamber Orchestra’s Mendelssohn and Shostakovich make for stimulating contrast

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:
MENDELSSOHN – Violin Concerto in E Minor Op.64
SHOSTAKOVICH – Symphony No. 5 in D Minor Op.47

Hayden Nickel (violin)
Rachel Hyde (conductor)
Wellington Chamber Orchestra

St Andrew’s on The Terrace, Wellington

Saturday, 17th April, 2021

It says a lot about Wellington’s musical life that groups such as the Wellington Chamber Orchestra – an orchestra made up of about 70 players, all proficient amateur musicians, young, and not-so-young – can thrive and enrich the city’s music, with four interesting and varied concerts during this 2021 season.

This concert began with the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, one of the most popular works in the repertoire, and understandably so – a loveable work , full of delightful melodies, yet unpretentious.

The music is not about showing off the artist’s virtuosity – there are no bravura passages to distract from the sheer beauty of the melodies. There is no high drama, like the opening drum beats of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, or the opening operatic tuttis pf the Mozart concertos that anticipate the drama to follow. There is just one orchestral chord and the soloist is right into a beautifully-sustained melody. The orchestra echoes the soloist as if to imply that “we are with you – we are a team supporting each other”. There are filigree passages  requiring agile finger-work from the soloist, but these don’t distract from the music’s flow.

The slow movement is one extended song, presented through the interplay of soloist and orchestra, and a challenging double-stopped passage where the soloist seems to accompany himself. The last movement starts with a few dark E Minor chords, then moves into E major and becomes exuberant, a joyful, sun-filled spring!

The simplicity of this work presents special challenges for the soloist – although there are technically difficult passages, nothing distracts from the piece’s essential beauty. Hayden Nickel, a young Samoan violinist who is studying at Victoria University, has been involved with various music programmes around New Zealand, including Arohanui Strings and Virtuoso Strings. His was an impressive performance, playing with a beautiful, and in places, powerful tone, and was a complete master of the music, playing with the freedom that allowed him to impose his own vision upon this great concerto.

The Shostakovich Symphony No. 5  was an ambitious work for an amateur orchestra to programme. It is to the great credit of the group and the conductor Rachel Hyde, that they gave a thoroughly moving performance. The work made great demands on the various soloists, particularly the wind and brass players, and they are to be commended for doing justice to their parts for 45 minutes of intense concentration!

The Symphony starts with a slow, descending melancholic theme, which heralds the ambiguity of the work throughout. Ominous brass chords, dark and disturbing, interrupt the second theme, with the raucous music that follows merely adding to the sense of unease . This turns into a furious march dominated by the side-drum. Where does this march lead to? And does the ethereal flute solo at the end suggest some sort of Arcadia?

The second movement is also a march, but like fairground music, for clowns or a carousel. A sense of cynicism prevails, an “enjoy it while you can” kind of fun.  Conversely, the third movement Largo begins with an exquisitely beautiful passage, but as the music progresses, tensions develop and suggest a sense of agony. A vigorous triumphal March begins the last movement, with echoes of popular songs, but is there a suggestion that this sense of something triumphal is not to be taken seriously?

This symphony was written in 1937 after Shostakovich had already withdrawn his Fourth Symphony, fearing “official disapproval” . He was already in deep trouble because Stalin and his cultural tzars had taken exception to his opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, and he couldn’t afford to fall foul of party orthodoxy.  In the event, the new Symphony, the Fifth, was an unqualified success, being received with a forty-minute ovation (it was probably this reception which saved the composer’s life!).

The symphony was subtitled by its composer “The creative reply of a Soviet artist to justified criticism” – even if Shostakovich’s biographer, Solomon Volkov claimed that the composer had said “I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth (Symphony). The rejoicing is forced, created under threat…you have to be a complete oaf not to hear that.”


Music of magical flight – Palmer, Mozart and Stravinsky from the NZSO

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents

Juliet Palmer – Buzzard
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 23 in A K.488
Igor Stravinsky (ed. Jonathan McPhee) – The Firebird Ballet

Diedre Irons (piano)
Hamish McKeich (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday 8th April, 2021

Throughout the first half of Canadian-based New Zealand-born composer Juliet Palmer’s work Buzzard, I was enraptured,  totally enthralled by Palmer’s self-proclaimed “digestion” of Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird. I was bowled over as much by the former’s mastery of orchestral techniques we all readily ascribe to the latter’s music, the brilliance of the orchestrations, the motoric rhythms, and, by turns, the fluency and the angularity of the changing time-signatures, as by the curious phenomenon of the music having been “masticated” by Palmer into resembling in many places something more like Petrouchka! I confess that for some time I couldn’t extricate myself from imagining fairground ambiences, even complete with a slow-motion thematic “quote” at one point in the music! Still, the essence of Stravinsky was all there, the rumbustious rhythmic trajectories, the dynamic punctuations, the angularity of the different cheek-by-jowl time signatures, and the ear-catching variety of orchestral texture, feathery and diaphanous soundscapes co-existing with explosive irruptions and roistering rhythms.

This was “transmorgrified” Stravinsky, wondrous and strange in its “familiar-but-new” guise, and even possibly emerging (as the composer put it) somewhat “damaged” and “disfigured” as a by-product of the process. Gradually, it seemed to me that the ambience of the piece was shifting to something more sombre, though Palmer chose to indulge mid-way in some Ibert-like sequences involving sounds evoking whistles, shouts and extraneous noises, before introducing an almost “worry to death” motif, one which created what sounded almost like an impasse in the work’s unfolding. An oboe-led sequence which finally suggested something of the atmospheres of Palmer’s “other” subject for “dismemberment”, one relating to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, with its mystery of Odette and her enchanted cygnets under the sway of an enchanter, was given but a brief moment to develop, before being overtaken by a skitterish section of sounds that for me reflected only the helplessness and vacuity of the swan’s and her cygnets’ peregrinations, with few “echoings” of the would-be-lovers’ predicament – in general, on one hearing I felt a far more resounding sense of identification with Stravinsky’s work than of Tchaikovsky’s, on Palmer’s part when the piece had finished. (I note that microphones were present, suggesting the concert was recorded, and presenting the possibility of my hearing the work again)….

Moving on to the concert’s second item, Mozart’s adorable A Major Piano Concerto K.488, I instantly warmed to the work’s opening, played here by the orchestra with what sounded like a certain expectation, something of a “wait and see” exposition. Hamish McKeich and players gave the full tutti in the opening its due, but elsewhere brought out a dynamic differentiation that nicely suggested things held in reserve. Diedre Irons, whose playing I’ve always greatly admired, appeared also to hold the music “up for inspection” at first, her passagework having a delicacy that seemed to me to resemble a flower about to open, but with a certain tremulousness, bent on a kind of journey which I felt began to “flow” more freely as the first-movement cadenza approached – the orchestra then proclaimed and the pianist responded, the display exhibiting a marvellous gathering of flowering energy, the confident flourishes conveying to us that the Mozartean “oil” had begun to flow.  In the slow movement which followed, every piano note resounded and shone, with both clarinet and then flute in response to the piano so eloquent, and the bassoon so steadfast in support. The playing’s rapt togetherness created an intensity from which the winds gave us some relief, some gorgeous quintessential Le Nozze di Figaro-like moments enabling us to breathe more freely before immersing ourselves once again in the music’s deeper waters, with the piano and then the winds leaving us spellbound once more, right to the movement’s end.

Played almost attacca, here, Irons set the finale on its course with supreme poise, the effect playful rather than breathless or thrusting, the phrases and rhythms having real girth – some listeners may have wanted a touch more rumbustion in the galumphing, two-note descending figures, but I enjoyed the “spin” of the rhythms, and the “delighted” interaction between the soloist and various sections of the orchestra. Irons’ occasional impishly energised impulses brough such life to places such as her perky interchange with the winds just before the final recapitulation of the opening – both the relish with which she then launched this concluding paragraph of the music, and the enthusiasm with which McKeich and the players responded, underlined for us the pleasure of its overall presentation, the musicians’ efforts warmly received at the work’s conclusion.

I had previously heard (and reviewed) a performance of Jonathan McPhee’s “reduced orchestra” version of Firebird before, presented by Orchestra Wellington in May 2017, one which on that occasion presented an orchestra seemingly at the top of its game, a “spectacularly-realised performance” (to quote the Middle C writer!). I’ve not been able to ascertain whether, amidst these somewhat astringent times, that concert was actually recorded by RNZ technicians, as I believe this present one was – if not, a pity that posterity has denied local music-lovers the chance to compare performances of the same work from Wellington’s two foremost orchestras.

As with the Orchestra Wellington performance (and I shan’t mention the latter again), the great glory of this evening’s realisation was that the work was given complete, allowing people familiar with only the “suites” assembled by the composer from the work, to place such excerpts in the context of a glorious performance of the whole ballet. This gave the composer’s idea of using folk-inspired diatonic music to portray his human characters and octatonic and chromatic music for the story’s supernatural characters far greater focus and dramatic ebb-and flow than in a performance of either of the suites. Of course this “great glory” here became like a word made flesh over the course of the work’s unfolding, with conductor and players realising, by turns, every subtlety and shade of atmosphere and detailing while, at the other end of the dynamic range conjuring up the weight and brilliance of the music’s more forthright sequences with incredibly sustained focus and
unflagging energy.

At the beginning the evocation of dark, mysterious space was palpable, the playing enabling the scene’s ambivalent interplay of wonderment and menace to register, preparing the way for the Firebird’s brilliance and her interaction with Prince Ivan, who was able to capture her, before securing a magic feather from her as the price of her freedom – all characterised with a beautiful violin solo from the concertmaster, Vesa-Matti Leppänen, and taken up tenderly by other instruments. Both irrepressible gaiety and youthful grace marked the accompaniments for the Twelve Princesses, whose Round Dance was accompanied by the fresh folksiness of the Borodin-like oboe melody, courtesy of Robert Orr. The strings’ taking up of the melody was superb, at the same time liquid and focused – how adroitly McKeich and his players were able to  move between diaphanous delicacy and full-throated feeling, as Ivan and one of the princesses fell in love! Similarly, the trumpet warning set in play a superb transition from these scenes to those depicting the arrival of Koshchey, the ogre, and his followers. As mentioned before, the famous Dance of Koshchey’s Cohorts brilliantly burst from the agitated build-up and wrought appropriate havoc (I loved the trombone glissandi, “rescued” from one of the composer’s “retouched” suites by Jonathan McPhee to great effect here!). And what coruscating playing from the orchestra as the Firebird reappeared! – the music dashing and crashing the dance to its scintillating conclusion.

None of the suites depict the actual destruction of Koshchey’s magic egg and the death of the monster, a sequence whose vivid sequencing here brought about a true sense of cathartic release from oppression, the music burgeoning from its subterranean beginnings to a tumult whose seismic force couldn’t help but move mountains. Then came the famous Berceuse, from out of which, via the golden horn-tones of Sam Jacobs, grew various manifestations of rebirth from the once-besieged land – fabulously and grandly epic phrasings at the first climax, whereupon the music burst forth excitedly and festively as Ivan and his Princess were farewelled by the Firebird and the garden’s rejuvenated inhabitants.

All of this received a properly enraptured reception from a thrilled audience, who were pleased to respond to conductor McKeich’s acknowledgement of his players both individually and collectively with the acclaim they deserved. Somebody said to me as we walked out of the hall, “Well! – if the orchestra can do that so wonderfully, isn’t it about time we had a complete Daphnis et Chloe, with a chorus? What an occasion THAT would be, with playing like this!” I couldn’t have agreed more!

NZSO launches into 2021 determined, with a splendid, dynamic programme to evade Covid 19

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hamish McKeich with Stephen De Pledge – piano
First concert in ‘Podium’ Series: entitled Carnival

Ravel: La Valse and Piano Concerto in G
Anna Clyne: Masquerade
Stravinsky: Petrushka Ballet (1947 version)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 26 March, 6:30 pm

The first of the NZSO’s main concert series, which is entitled the “Podium Series”, proved a conspicuous triumph. Though it might have seemed difficult to account for the name “Carnival” which was given to this particular concert, it was vividly illuminated in Feby Idrus’s colourful and well-informed programme notes, indirectly with La Valse, but quite specifically with Petrushka, where the word relates directly to Stravinsky’s setting of the first tableau of the ballet – Carnival or Shrovetide which precedes Lent.

However, it was a near full house, marking an encouraging change from audiences in the past year or so; it also marked the steadily rising reputation and popularity of the orchestra’s Principal Conductor in Residence, Hamish McKeich.

The programme booklet was free: an excellent move, considering the intelligence and illuminating character of Feby Idrus’s writing.

There were two distinctive aspects to the programme: two of Ravel’s most distinguished works and one of Stravinsky’s first ballet scores: Petrushka which retains its undiminished popularity as a vivid and colourful ballet as well as being a brilliant, luminous orchestral masterpiece.

La Valse
I must seek vindication for the pleasure I get from Ravel’s La valse, in live performance compared with a recording, since I’ve recently been enjoying a personal Ravel festival, recapturing CDs, recordings of Ravel from the SKY Arts channel, and on the ubiquitous You Tube on the Internet. This music reflects both Ravel’s and my love of the Viennese waltz, especially of the Strauss family, Waldteufel, Offenbach, Kalman, etc.

This performance illuminated the music’s dynamism and rhythmic energy through Ravel’s remarkably colourful scene of a Viennese dance-hall which, in her programme notes, Feby Idrus captured beautifully. She related not only the scornful reaction by ballet impresario Diaghilev to Ravel’s piano performance of the score, but an illuminating description of the evolution of the music and its ‘growing wildness’, depicting a ‘heartbeat fraught with panic’. They were words that vividly described this frenzied yet disciplined performance.

Ravel’s piano concerto (for both hands) is a profoundly different work, with the piano part in the hands of one of New Zealand’s leading pianists, Stephen De Pledge. It emerged with clarity and the careful application of rhythmic energy, even in the jazz coloured Adagio movement with its extended solo piano opening: idiomatic but essentially classical in character. To quote again from the programme notes, the concerto as a whole ‘remains aerated by jazz’s sweet perfume’. After several returns demanded by the audience, De Pledge played Couperin’s fairly familiar song La Basque with a lively spirit; though its translation from the clarity of the harpsichord to the modern piano is not quite the same.

The second half began with what I assume was the first New Zealand performance of a rowdy piece written for the Last Night of the Proms in 2013 by 40-year-old English composer Anna Clyne: Masquerade; inspired by the kind of music played in London’s 18th century pleasure gardens, such as the famous Vauxhall Gardens; judging by its spirit and liveliness it would have been a hit there, as it probably was at the Proms. Boisterous and constantly varied as it was, it hardly matched Stravinsky’s melodically and rhythmically inspired ballet music that followed.

Stravinsky revised the 1911 original version of Petrushka in 1946 (performed in 1947) for a slightly smaller orchestra, altering certain instrumental features, but partly because the original was not covered by copyright in all countries, and thus delivered the composer no royalties. The orchestra played that later version, probably detectable to no one but the relative instrumentalists and conductor.

Of course, the theme of the ballet doesn’t demand music of a profound character, but it is nevertheless a unique score, quite as remarkable as The Right of Spring which rather outshone Petrushka two years later with its violence, rhythmic and thematic complexity. The score derives its profundity by means of its unique, half-hour-long musical inspiration.  Yes there were moments of a certain ensemble smudginess in Petrushka, but the overwhelming energy and passion were dominant throughout the entire performance.

But if you’d like to see and hear a very remarkable, yet somehow genuine performance of the composer’s Three Movements for piano, look at Yuja Wang on YouTube.

What a splendidly successful way for the orchestra to open its year!


Camerata – continuing the joy of new discovery with Haydn at St.Peter’s-on-Willis.St Church

HAYDN – Symphony No. 12 in E (1763) Hob.1/12
Concerto for ‘Cello and Orchestra No. 2 in D Major, Hob.VIIb:2

Andrew Joyce (‘cello)
Camerata  (Anne Loeser – leader and concertmaster)

St.Peter’s-on-Willis St. Church

Saturday, 20th February, 2021

I do have recordings of Haydn’s early symphonies (part of the first-ever “complete” recorded cycle of the works made back, it now seems, when Adam was a boy, by Antal Dorati and the Philharmonia Hungarica), but prior to attending each of Camerata’s concerts featuring these works I didn’t make a point of listening to them. This was because I wanted to experience as far as possible that “thrill of excitement” at hearing something new, which this ensemble and its leader, Anne Loeser delivers in spadefuls every time (excuse the somewhat agricultural metaphor, but its earthy aspect seems here to admirably suit the invigorating “al fresco” quality of both music and performance!).

What a delight was provided by the opening of the E major No.12 – an innocent, “conversational” phrase suddenly energised  with attack, light, and colour, augmented by horns and winds to which the St.Peter’s acoustic gave a lovely “bloom”, the whole conveying a kind of existentialist joy which must have galvanised the sensibilities of the work’s early Esterhazy listeners, if the performance had anything of Camerata’s joie de vivre, here. I loved, too, the sudden descent into the unknown with the development’s beginning, moments of minor-key mystery, as quickly chased away by the reappearance of the sun through the clouds. The sounds all had both a “play” and “play with” aspect which conveyed a sense of the players relishing the work’s colours, energies and contrasts.

A sombre but graceful Siciliano made up the second, E minor-key movement, its decorum occasionally ruffled by impulsive strands shooting upwards or plunging downwards, something in the style of CPE Bach, I thought, the whole a compelling encapsulation of melancholy. It was all chased away in no uncertain terms by the work’s Presto finale, with the ample acoustic seeming at first to make the rushing figurations sound less crisp than they were actually played, something the ear then “sorted out” better at the repeat.  Again, both the ear-catching dynamics and occasional unison energies reminded me of CPE Bach, and brought home the idea of the latter’s influence on a whole generation of composers – “He is the father – we are the children”, said no less a person than Mozart. The driving energy of this finale, with its potent dynamic contrasts swept our sensibilities along in grand style, somewhat belying, I thought, the writer of the otherwise excellent programme note’s assertion that the symphony was “a slight, intimate work”. How differently people hear and interpret the same music!

I had been occasionally “peeping” at a post concerning a 2016 UK Classic FM project involving the Haydn Symphonies, one in which a single commentator was asked to listen to and “rate” all 104 of them in order of what he considered their “merits”. To my surprise this symphony was put at slot No.101 by the adjudicator with dismissive comments such as “a fun bit of fluff”, and “a lot of composing by numbers, especially the PONDEROUS slow movement” (Heavens! – whose performance was he listening to?), and finishing with a bit of a kick down the stairs, vis-à-vis – “Not without interest, but there’s so much better to come!” (Incidentally, it doesn’t say anywhere in the post whose recordings the hapless listener was auditioning.) To my mind, all the exercise proves is the point I made in the last paragraph – that we all hear music and its performance quite differently!

A more “tried and true” work for concertgoers was the ‘Cello Concerto No. 2 in D Major (Hob.VIIb:2) which was considered for a long time (a) to be the work of a contemporary of Haydn, Anton Kraft, a cellist of some repute, and then (b) to be Haydn’s only effort in this genre. The work was given the extra title No. 2 when a manuscript of an earlier, cheekier and spunkier work turned up in 1961, and was dated as an earlier work than the D Major concerto by the scholars.

Andrew Joyce was the soloist, well-known as the NZSO’s Principal ‘Cellist and as a chamber musician in Wellington, regularly performing with the Puertas Quartet (which he founded), and exploring the chamber repertoire with various colleagues. He seemed right in his element here, joining in with a will in the opening orchestral tutti of the concerto, and winningly projecting his smokily attractive tone at his first soloist’s entry, bringing to the writing a plaintive, lyrical quality in the solo line during the first interchanges with the ensemble. Later he brought out plenty of the quixotic aspect of Haydn’s writing with some deft fingerwork and bowing, illustrating how the music “dances” its way through much of the movement’s terrain. I liked also the vein of melancholy which coloured the music just after the return of the recapitulation’s first subject, the beautifully half-lit notes which rounded the phrases most beguiling, as did the passages in sixths (?) between the soloist and the orchestral violins. An extraordinarily virtuosic cadenza, somewhat apart from the character of the movement as a whole, produced some exciting, full-stretch playing to finish!

The second movement gently lulled us into a reverie, the soloist supported by the orchestral strings, before the full orchestra repeated the opening, leading to a subsidiary theme which was loveliness in both itself and the playing. Such was the delicacy of it all that every detail could be heard, the contrast with a brief moment of minor-key angst making its point before passing as quickly as it came; and the cadenza just as briefly reaffirming the music’s inclination towards beauty of utterance.

The Rondo-finale’s graceful opening trajectories allowed for both elegant lines and subsequent mischievous energising figurations on the soloist’s part. Andrew Joyce left us in no doubt as to the work’s capacity for generating excitement, with some spectacular jumps and runs, and at one particularly and excitingly trenchant point, some especially nifty octave double stopping pricking up our ears! The whole left behind in no uncertain terms any expectation of this work being a relatively “contained and well-mannered” classical piece, the music’s energies infusing the final tutti with a truly joyous and festive quality that brought forth great acclamation from the near-capacity audience at the end.

We were generously given an encore, something I didn’t know, and guessed that it might be Scandinavian! – it turned out to be a piece by Max Reger, “Lyric Andante”, its lyricism seeming to carry both warmth and a hint of remoteness, the cello in concert with the ensemble at first, but with a solo line in a subsequent sequence – a lovely, sonorous conclusion to the concert.


End of the musical year for Wellington Chamber Orchestra with an Emperor and Franck’s symphony

Wellington Chamber Orchestra
Conductor and piano soloist: Andrew Atkins

Verdi: La Forza del Destino overture
Beethoven: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.5 in E flat major. op.73 ‘The Emperor’
César Franck: Symphony in D minor, FWV 48

St. Andrews on the Terrace

Sunday, 13 December 2020

Verdi: La Forza del Destino overture
The overture to Verdi’s opera, ‘The Power of Fate’ is much more popular than the opera itself. It encapsulates the drama of the opera, its lyricism and its wonderful melodies. It opens with three unison chords for the brasses, followed by repeated agitated phrases by the lower strings, which foreshadows the tragedy of the drama to follow. A beautiful mournful theme from Act 3 of the opera is introduced by the winds, followed by the haunting prayer of Leonora, the heroine of the story, played by the strings, and towards the end of the overture a theme from Act 2 is played by the oboe and winds, suggesting the emotional resolution and redemption before Leonora death. It was a great opening for the concert, testing all sections of the orchestra. Some beautiful playing by the wind solo stood out. This was a colourful lyrical reading of the piece. Andrew Atkins conducted with graceful movements and a clear beat.

Beethoven: Emperor Concerto
This concerto, Beethoven’s longest and arguably his most dramatic, is a challenge even for seasoned pianists who play it repeatedly on international concert tours. For a young musician without the benefit of such opportunities and conducting from the keyboard, this is bordering on chutzpah. But from the very beginning, the opening runs on the piano, it was evident that Andrew Atkins was up to the challenge. His playing was sensitive, lyrical, and confident.

The orchestra provided a sound support notwithstanding the distraction of the conductor jumping up and down from the keyboard during the tutti passages. The chorale of the second movement, with the fine interaction between the soloist and the orchestra stood out for its sensitivity. The last movement reflected the sense of joy of the performers. To the great credit of soloist and orchestra, every note sounded carefully considered, yet this did not detract from the natural flow of the music. For an encore, Andrew Atkins played a beautiful meditative piece, Liszt’s Consolation No.3, with the flair of a fine pianist and with a true love of music.

Franck: Symphony in D minor
César Franck’s Symphony is a difficult nut to crack. It is an amalgam of the German tradition of Wagner and Liszt, it quotes late Beethoven, yet has a certain French sensitivity. In its form it differs from the classical symphonic model of Haydn to Brahms. It is in three movements which are interrelated. The opening themes keep recurring in modified form as they modulate throughout the symphony. It is one of the landmarks of the symphonic repertoire. It starts with a hardly audible pianissimo on the lower strings, echoing the Muss es sein? (Must it be?) phrase from Beethoven’s Op 135 String Quartet, then a piercing cor anglais solo introduces the main theme. This theme recurs throughout symphony in different forms, slow and fast, expansive and agitated.

The orchestra rose to the technical challenges of the work, but somehow the tempi sounded driven and variable. I felt that the brass were not given the space to fly, or the strings the air to let the music sing. The subtlety of the symphony was somehow missing, The listeners should have been left sitting on the edge of their seats. But let this not detract from the laudable effort of every single musician in the orchestra. Just mastering this complex work deserves credit.

The concert reflected the objective of the orchestra, to ‘enjoy the experience of creating live music together’. Whatever reservations I might have had, it was great to have the opportunity to hear these wonderful works live in Wellington on a Sunday afternoon. We value the talent in our midst.



Compelling Beethoven recordings from Eugene Albulescu

BEETHOVEN – Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major Op. 15
Piano Concerto No, 5 in E-flat Major Op.73 “Emperor”

Eugene Albulescu (piano/conductor)
Orchestra of Friends

(Recorded January 12th 2020,
Baker Hall, Zoeliner Arts Centre, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA, USA)

AMP Recordings


It’s a measure of the remarkable staying power of Beethoven’s music that new performances and recordings of works that many of us know so well through having heard them countless times over the years simply keep coming (and show no signs of abating two hundred and fifty years after the composer’s birth).  Having recently heard a good deal of the New Zealand String Quartet’s acclaimed traversal of the great man’s works in that genre, I can directly testify as to the music’s almost uncanny capacity for renewal – “forever contemporary” as Igor Stravinsky once said of one of these pieces, the “Grosse Fugue” op. 133, a description that, although specifically intended, suggests also something of the capacity of most of Beethoven’s music to speak directly to us, free from time, place or convention.

So, when I heard of Eugene Albulescu’s recording of two of the piano concertos (both of which, incidentally, the pianist directs from the keyboard), I was immediately interested. I’d experienced at first hand his playing in concert during those years he’d spent in New Zealand (his family had emigrated from Roumania in 1984), and had previously reviewed at least two of his earlier recordings, including an astonishing Liszt recital, released on the Ode/Manu label, one which won the young pianist the Grand Prix du Disque Liszt in 1994. He’d by then left these shores, going to Indiana University to study with Edward Auer, and graduating in 1994; and he’s since performed in various places around the world, as a solo pianist, chamber musician and conductor, establishing himself firmly in the United States with successful concert appearances and radio broadcasts. He’s currently a Professor of Piano on the music faculty at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA.

Albulescu’s orchestra in this recording is described as the “Orchestra of Friends”, which suggests a “pick-up” group, though in fact it’s an ensemble associated with the University made up largely of players who had recently worked together with the pianist/conductor on another performance project, so that they were more than usually “in accord” with one another for the Beethoven sessions. In a fascinating essay presented in the booklet accompanying the disc, Albulescu outlines his “history” of contact with the concertos, involving his taking three different roles in performing them at various times – as soloist, as conductor, and as a soloist/conductor – which for him has shaped and formulated many insights and attitudes towards the music and its performance over the years. I was delighted to learn of his association with another advocatee of the practice of “conducting from the keyboard”, one of my all-time pianistic heroes, Paul Badura-Skoda, whom I never heard play “in the flesh”, alas, but who was the pianist who “introduced” me to Beethoven via his recordings of a number of the piano sonatas during the 1960s..

Albulescu stresses at one point in the essay (in all its parts it’s an absorbing “read”) that his attitude towards performing these works as a soloist/conductor wasn’t designed to eschew  or even undermine the role of a conductor in performances of these works, but merely to explore the processes of music-making and its effect on the work when soloist and conductor are one and the same. Implementing this practice certainly seems to me to make a radical shift in terms of weighting the music’s basic message, not so much in the two earlier Beethoven works, but very much so in the more romantic and dramatic theatres of exchange presented by the later concerti. Even so, I find myself taking some issue with Albulescu’s subsequent characterisation of a separate conductor’s presence in performance of these works as an “interference”, further compounded by what he terms the “non-playing” contribution of the latter (which then raises an age-old point of discussion regarding a conductor’s “influence” upon sounds made by his or her musicians!). I agree regarding the likelihood of a performance’s “unity of vision” being easier to realise under the control of a single interpreter, but would also argue that the alternative – a creative partnership between a soloist and conductor – can bring just as fascinating outcomes and rewards to concerto performances.

But this is supposed to be a review rather than any kind of dissertation on MY part – so I’ll forego any further comment along these lines and concentrate henceforth on the music-making on the disc!  For the most part I found these totally engaging performances, presented in fresh, crisp and immediate sound whose touch of dryness makes for a degree of clarity that allows us to enjoy all the more these players’ distinctive orchestral textures – the timpani rolls are especially “present”, as opposed to the indistinct rumble we often hear in recordings. Albulescu’s own playing is characterful from the outset, his phrasings having a spring and urgency that suggests pulsating life rather than something on any kind of safe, “middle-of-the-road” course. One senses a truly symbiotic partnership between players, such as the horns’ exchanges with the soloist just before the first movement’s recapitulation, full of poised, deliciously- sprung expectation – or the way the ensemble builds the excitement in the leadup to the first movement cadenza.  Incidentally what a cadenza this was! – no less than the third Beethoven had written for the concerto, and written much later than the other two (I thought it was possibly the pianist’s own, until I read the booklet notes more carefully!). It certainly encapsulates a somewhat transcendent mood compare with the remainder of the movement, though the performance had, in a retrospective sense, already prepared the way for something special to happen at this point.

Perhaps the slow movement’s ambience took a while to counter the sound’s dryness but the playing still resonates amply throughout – and the resulting instrumental clarity allows the listener full awareness of the detailings and dovetailings that give the music so much inner life. It’s not exactly “innigkeit”, here, but something fresher, a living flow, an eagerness to communicate which I found myself constantly aware of and relishing to the full. Came the finale, however, and I confess I was initially taken aback at the brusqueness of the piano’s introduction, Albulescu’s energies driving the figurations past the point of carefree fun towards and into a “Rage over a Lost Penny”-like urgency. While perhaps compelling in itself, it imparts for me an “edge” to the light-hearted theme which I’m still not entirely used to at this stage, preferring far more of a sense of fun and delicious interplay between piano and orchestra. Albulescu’s players are, however, with him all the way, grandly introducing the solo cadenza, then at the very end, bidding the piano a fond farewell, then abandoning the instrument altogether in their final tutti, given here with loads of panache.

So to the “Emperor” – and here was grandeur aplenty right from the start, the orchestral chording rich and sonorous, the replying piano flourishes combining flair, excitement, energy, control and quixotic impulse. The allegro sets off with no-nonsense singularity which burgeons into detailed purpose as the music broadens its scope, though still keeping the forward thrust to the fore even as the different instrumental groups strut their bounteous stuff. With the piano’s entry, Albulescu establishes his credentials as a worthwhile keyboard partner in the journey ahead, working hand-in-glove with the ensemble, bringing out the “character” of each episode, and maintaining that inexorable sense of forward movement that marks any “great” Beethoven interpretation.

And it’s a momentous journey, filled with the drama of both collaboration and confrontation during moments when imposing brass and timpani join forces to “slug it out” with the soloist, hammering single notes back-and-forth at one another in a trial of endurance, before the combatants regroup their forces and come out together with a reprise of the concerto‘s opening! This and other exchanges seem to me tailor-made for a test of different wills exemplified by piano and orchestra with soloist and conductor respectively, the ensuing confrontations causing sparks to fly, points of view to be contrasted, bargains to be struck and dovetailings to come together, a process that advances the music’s drama and resolutions in a properly full-blooded way. But Albulescu and his players also keep such potentialities open throughout, holding nothing back on either the piano’s or orchestra’s side and setting impulse against impulse in a convincingly dramatic manner, the piano by turns strong, spiky and combatative to the end, and the orchestra equally sonorous and responsive in reply!

After the energies, storms and rapprochements of the first movement, the Adagio un poco moto exudes a welcome calmness and serenity at its opening, Abulescu and his players giving the floating lines plenty of play over a strong, spacious undertow that keeps things constantly interactive, connected the whole time to terra firma with those beautiful wind and brass realisations suggesting a kind of replenishment of the spirit by nature. Having experienced the relative severity of the treatment given the C Major Concerto’s finale by these musicians, I was wondering whether a similarly “edgy” spirit would be unleashed by the players here, and couldn’t help a feeling of sharp-edged expectation hanging about the opening, the strains of the finale’s theme “plucked from the ether” so magically by the piano……

At the beginning Albulescu’s vigorously-propelled, somewhat angular projection of the theme on the piano suggested various kinds of feelings regarding his intent and mood – was it natural exuberance, excitabililty or sheer devilment of purpose which fuelled such  impulsiveness? As with the C Major Concerto’s finale, the pianist’s fingers imparted an “edge” to any sense of Olympian or Godlike ebullience or jocularity, here rather more appropriately suggesting perhaps serious intent in itself, or else intended as a “foil” to some of the movement’s contrasting episodes. We heard gentler tones sound the ringing of the key-changes throughout the central sequences, for instance, delivered by the pianist with grace and charm, before bigger-boned phrasing introduced the vigorous minor-key section which then tremulously and radiantly blossoms into a shared paean of exuberant praise of existence itself as the opening piano theme returns. Finally, the beginning of the movement’s coda is here so beautifully crepuscular in its realisation, pianist/conductor and timpanist capturing a sense of spacious resonance that one imagines as gently undulating throughout a cosmos stirred and shaken by a unique creative exuberance – one which bursts out over the final bars of the work in a vigorous exchange of life-affirmations!

Despite the quibbles, there’s no doubt in my mind that with this disc Eugene Albulescu has triumphantly demonstrated, together with his intrepid band of excellent players, that these oft-played and recorded works can still surprise, startle and arrest the attention, with performances that both challenge and affirm, as well as surprise and delight. Having said all of this, I’m aware that the business of actually procuring the recording might well be an “easier said than done” process for anybody! Though the disc doesn’t appear to have found its way to Marbecks in Auckland, yet (or hadn’t the last time I checked), it does feature on Amazon –https://www.amazon.com/Beethoven-Concertos-Emperor-Eugene-Albulescu/dp/B08GMTSND4, – and there are these things called “downloads” which remain a mystery to me, as I’m firmly of the persuasion that still prefers a physical object such as a CD to the ephemeral idea of a download from the ether. This site seems to offer some help in this regard, though I’m not sure about purchasing any kind of product – but it does seem as though you can get to listen to the performances!  The “link” I found to a site that promises a review AND the complete recording doesn’t seem active, but I found it on Google by typing “piano magazine Eugene Albulescu” – the rest is over to the intrepid and the fearless!  Whatever it costs in effort or riches, the rewards are well worthwhile ……

Orchestra Wellington: huge percussion resources exploited in Psathas masterpiece from Olympus complemented by huge Rachmaninov symphony

Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei
With Jeremy Fitzsimons (percussion) and Michael Houston (piano)

John Psathas: View from Olympus: Concerto for percussion, piano, and orchestra
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op 27

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday, 5 December 2020

The large line-up of percussion instruments at the front of the orchestra would have given an inkling to the audience that they would be in for a challenging, interesting evening of music. Although the John Psathas’ View from Olympus has had many performances, premiered by the Halle Orchestra in Manchester in 2002, it is still music off the beaten track for an audience of predominantly older concert goers. The Rachmaninoff Symphony is something else, a justifiably well-worn favourite of the concert repertoire.

John Psathas, View from Olympus
This concerto work was commissioned by the internationally renowned percussionist, Evelyn Glennie. It draws on the New Zealand composer’s Greek heritage. It makes use of Greek mythology and describes in three movements 1. The Furies and their avenging spirits, 2. To Yelasto Paithi (The smiling child), and 3. Dance of the Maenads. The first movement, conjuring up the Furies opens with vigorous rhythms that echoed some of Stravinsky’s early ballet music, but the music was distinctively Psathas, exploiting the tone colours, tone quality and unique sounds of the large array of percussion instruments.

In the midst of the furious loud noises a solo violin is introduced for a few bars, something that clearly had a special meaning for Psathas and Greek listeners familiar with the music of the popular Greek violinist, Stathis Koukoularis. The second movement is calm and peaceful, reflecting, as Psathas said, ‘the feelings inspired by his own precious children. A passage with wind chimes gently ringing creates an otherworldly dreamlike sound. The rhythmic patterns suggest children’s songs, games. nursery rhymes, without explicitly quoting any. The last movement is violent, suggesting the Maenads possessed, in an ecstatic frenzied dance, belabouring each other. The loud drum beats create an unsettling impression of mayhem.

The piano was a partner in a dialogue with the percussion instruments. It was also a link, a commentator, that gave coherence to the sounds of a large group of diverse percussion. There is none of the romantic singing tone, the light and shade that is associated with the grand piano. The piece is an exploration of rhythmic texture, and asks questions about the nature of music, can there be music without melody, based purely on rhythm and various tone colours?

The constant repetition of small musical patterns suggests minimalism, but there is nothing minimal in this huge innovative concerto. It uses large resources with not only a percussion solo that involves vibraphone, marimba, simtak (a steel cylinder played with fingers), dulcimer, steel drums, wind chimes, drum stations, cymbals, tom-toms and various other instruments to hit or stroke, as well as a solo amplified piano, but also an orchestra with two percussion players, timpani, two harps, a full complements of brass, wind and strings.

John Psathas does not belong to any modern musical tradition. He is an individual, unique entity, and his music is like that of no one else according to his publisher Promethean Editions.  Innovative, different, perhaps difficult as this work might have been, it was received with an enthusiastic ovation by the large audience.

As an encore Michael Houston and Jeremy Fitzsimons played Fragments for vibraphone and piano, a work associated with this concerto. It is related in musical material to the second movement of the concerto. John Psathas joined Michael Houston to turn the pages.

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2
Rachmaninoff harks back to a very different era. This symphony was written in the turbulent times of 1906-7 and this is reflected in the tension and drama of the music.  It captures the spirit of old Russia that was about to change. Rachmaninoff wrote it in Dresden where he moved to escape the turmoil in Russia in the wake of the 1905 revolution. He set out to write a symphony following the success of his Second Piano Concerto and establish himself as a symphonic composer after the critical failure of his first symphony.

The Second Symphony is a huge challenging work for an orchestra. It is a long, demanding work that lasts about an hour. It is very intense music which places, great demands on every section of the orchestra. The first movement starts with a brooding, dark, slow introduction. This leads to a haunting melody which is then expanded, broken up into small blocks that become a constituent part of the development. There are colourful wind and brass passages. The strings are required to dig deep to produce a lush, rich tone. The second movement starts with a hectic, driven passage that leads to an expressive melody. Then layers upon layers of the song-like melodies lead to a grand climax.

The third movement introduces a lyrical theme that has at times a fairy-tale like quality. The final movement starts with an energetic gopak kind of dance, followed by a haunting melody. It is no wonder that the rich texture of the themes of this symphony have been used in a number of films and were adopted in popular music. The orchestra mastered the challenges of this colossal work, with some beautiful playing in the solo wind and brass passages. It was a clear but restrained reading. The orchestra did Rachmaninoff proud.

This was the end of a very difficult season, but despite its challenges, the orchestra performed all its subscription concerts and gave some 180 performances. Marc Taddei, the conductor, congratulated the orchestra in a short speech.  He describes it as a virtuoso orchestra, he also congratulated the audience, and noted that this orchestra had the largest audiences of any orchestras in the country during the season,

Taddei then announced the concerts of the next season, with focus on ‘virtuoso’ music, from Paganini and Liszt to Bartók and Lutosławski as well as the orchestra’s Composer in Residence, John Psathas. It was a beautiful, moving concert, with the grand sound of the Rachmaninoff Symphony left ringing in people’s ears.