“The Choicest Songs” – an Anniversary concert from Baroque Voices at Futuna Chapel, Karori

Baroque Voices at Futuna Chapel,  Karori,  Wellington,
June 2024
David Morriss (bass), Pepe Becker (director, soprano), Douglas Mews (keyboards), Robert Oliver (bass viol)

                                  Futuna Chapel, Karori

Baroque Voices presents “The Choicest Songs”
A presentation celebrating the 30th anniversary of Baroque Voices
and commemorating various other anniversaries pertaining to Futuna Chapel and its creation

Music by John Dowland and his contemporaries
also Henry Purcell, Monica Verburg and Pepe Becker

Baroque Voices – Pepe Becker (soprano), David Morriss (bass)
Douglas Mews (virginals and recorder), Robert Oliver (bass viol)

Futuna Chapel, Friend St., Karori, Wellington

A review by Peter Mechen (Middle C)

On a still and sunny day, Futuna Chapel (built in 1961) in Karori exudes a unique interior atmosphere wrought by the play of light through angularly-placed stained-glass windows  contrasting  with rather more secluded interior vistas. It’s a singular version of a kind of eternity, one vaster than the actual limited spaces might give one to suggest, but compensating with the mystery wrought by the contrasts. It’s no longer a consecrated chapel, as was the case when I first arrived there as a wide-eyed student from a Palmerston North Catholic school in the 1960s, making one of two separate live-in spiritual retreats here, and relishing  on each occasion what used to be (alas, no longer) a surrounding hinterland of native bush through which one could walk and contemplate what seemed like a natural extension of the intangible mysteries I and my classmates were steeped in at that age.  (I freely admit it wasn’t entirely a haven of concentrated spiritual refurbishment, as we fifteen year-old boys seemed to all too readily find clandestine ways to entertain ourselves in more worldly pastimes thru  games of cards and dice in more secluded parts of that magnificent stand of bush!).

Today, however, was dull and overcast in Karori, as it was elsewhere in Wellington, with the chapel interior having all the more austere and gloomy an atmosphere for our promised concert, organised by the indefatigable Pepe Becker, the “guiding Light” behind the Wellington group “Baroque Voices”, whose 3O-year performing anniversary fell this month. Fortunately the bustle and atmosphere created by an enthusiastic (and practically full-house) audience created an ambience of its own which even the “ticky-tacky suburbia” that has ravaged the once-verdant surroundings couldn’t entirely spoil once we were inside and registering the chapel interior’s still-stunning evocations of its own kind of spirituality.

Pepe Becker’s programme notes reminded us that today’s concert was an occasion of anniversaries, being the 100th birthday of Futuna Chapel’s architect John Scott, who died in 1992 at the age of 68. And, coincidentally, it was the first anniversary of another important creative artist, Jim Allen, four of whose sculptures are embedded in the chapel’s architectural fabric. These anniversaries prompted the Futuna Chapel Trust to commission from Pepe Becker a new work commemorating both architect and artist, one called “concrete, wood and light” and  to be performed at today’s concert.

But there were premieres aplenty today, with two others featuring songs Pepe had written dedicated to two of her performing colleagues, bass David Morriss and the viol player Robert Oliver. First, we heard a song called “Fog”, with words written by the poet Carl Sandburg, and secondly an “Ave Maria” setting , one with an extra dedication to Pepe’s former mother-in-law, Mary Becker, who died in 2022. These songs all included the overall title “Capricorn”, alluding to the star-sign all of the people involved (including the poet!).  Adding further distinction to the concert were two more premieres by a different composer, a pair of songs called “Reflections”, with both words and music written by a flute-player friend of Pepe’s, Monica Verburg, interested in the combination of voice and recorder. Pepe remarked upon the pleasure of performing so many of these songs in close association with the people they were dedicated to.

Besides all of this there were works whose sounds, sentiments and spirit expressed a defining aspect of Baroque Voices’ raison d’etre, songs variously by John Dowland and Henry Purcell rubbing shoulders with a couple of instrumental performances featuring music by lesser-known contemporaries, Tobias Hume (1579-1645) and a name I didn’t know, William Inglot (1553-1621). Though one often encounters the quote “Semper Dowland, semper dolens” from the composer’s own title for one of his consort pieces, not all of his music is steeped in melancholy, as the concert’s opening number demonstrated – Up merry mates, from Dowland’s last book of songs the 1612 A Pilgrimes Solace, was presented here as a lively dialogue song between a ship’s master (Pepe) and his crew (David) on the occasion of rough weather, one which contains a philosophical response to the whims of nature (and some extremely low notes which David Morriss did well to negotiate!). The following heartfelt Toss not my soul was, by comparison, more characteristically sombre, beautifully voiced by the singers and sensitively accompanied.

We then got two delightfully contrasting instrumental solos from Robert Oliver featuring the relatively unknown Tobia Hume’s music – firstly Adieu Sweet Love from the composer’s 1605 book The First Part of Ayres, and then the livelier The spirit of Gambo; then it was back to Dowland again, for an attractive, open-hearted Sleep, wayward thoughts, again expressing a mood somewhat removed from the melancholic character usually accorded his work. I do recall my mother, who was a music teacher, being extremely fond of some of the composer’s Lute Dances which had been transcribed for piano, a number of which were anything but melancholic (the cheerful My Lady Hunsdon’s Puffe being one that particularly sticks in the memory).\

Next were three Purcell songs, each demonstrating the composer’s gift for expressing the actual “energy” of words, the first song Come, let us leave the town from “The Faerie Queen” replete with lively, oft-repeated canonic “comes” and other persuasively impressive urgencies from the two singers, all in stark contrast to the following Lost is my Quiet, a soulful lament for what each singer describes as “life’s happiest part”, though we were given a semblance of contentment by the rather more lively While bolts and bars my days control,  a song describing the mind as unfettered and “freeborn” though the body be held in captivity.

Came the first of the “Capricorn” premieres, with Pepe Becker’s “Fog” leading the way, Sandburg’s text brief and unprepossessing, characterising the fog as a cat-like in its movements and aspect, David Morriss’s voice suitably dark and restrained, and Robert Oliver’s viol-playing spare and stark as befitted the scenario. This was followed by Monica Verburg’s “Two Reflections” for soprano and recorder, written earlier this year, the first “Turn your eyes” imploring the listener with stepwise figurations to “follow a path that’s good and true”, and with the final words “see the beauty all around” reminding one of Mahler’s use of Chinese poetry in part of his “Das Lied Von der Erde”.

The second song “Ocean breeze” had a more meandering kind of opening, one whose phrasings took up a gentle kind of siciliana rhythm, Pepe’s voice and Douglas Mews’ recorder-playing beautifully delineating their own courseways through scenarios lit up by the setting sun and framed by oceanic surgings. I remember at one point the text “ocean breezes come by with the promise of a new day” coincided with a gust of wind outside the chapel which we all heard make its presence felt!

The last of the three Capricorn settings was an “Ave Maria” written by Pepe last year (2023) but only now receiving its premiere performance – set for soprano, bass and bass viol, and dedicated to both David and Robert, the work was written also for Pepe’s “lovely former mother-in-law”, Mary Becker, and was performed today in her memory. The opening of the work had a kind of prayerful, reverential beginning, with a second part that became more interactive between the voices and more imploring via some beautiful ascending phrases, before concluding with repeated “Amens”.

More songs, firstly from Purcell and finally, Dowland – the two Purcell songs brought out some truly satisfying singing from both voices, firstly, we enjoyed Leave these useless arts in loving, the nimbleness of both voices a real delight, and then the absolutely delicious Come let us agree, from the composer’s “Timon of Athens”, the words containing sentiments than no-one present would have dreamed of disputing! – and especially in the wake of this performance!

The return of Dowland for the last three items in the “song” bracket brought a beautiful solemnity to the first of these, Flow my tears, a song that contained the words “Where night’s blackbird her sad infamy sings”, and featured a virginals-only accompaniment (I read somewhere that this became Dowland’s single most famous song, a kind of “signature-tune” – certainly, on the strength of this stirring performance one could understand why!).

At this point we were treated to the second of our instrument-only interludes, this one courtesy of Douglas Mews at the virginals, and featuring a work by another lesser-known composer, one William Inglott (c.1553-1621). Although obscure today, Inglott carved out a sufficient reputation for himself in his lifetime to have a plaque at Norwich Cathedral erected at his death (and after being restored in the 18th Century, one which survives to this present day). Douglas Mews read a poem on which Inglott’s composition, The Leaves Bee Greene, was based – one which I haven’t been able to locate for this review, unfortunately, but was still eminently worth hearing.

Of the two remaining Dowland songs, the first, the renowned Fine knacks for Ladies again most delightfully gave the lie to the idea of the composer being “semper dolens”, the words tripping over the tongues and from the mouths of both singers, and mellifluously accompanied not only by the bass viol, but additionally by Douglas Mews’ recorder in the second and third verses.  After this the last of the songs was always going to sound relatively subdued, but perhaps not inappropriately – words and music of Now, O now I needs must part took on a strong hymn-like character as the singers and instrumentalists (from Verse Three onwards Robert Oliver’s bass viol was joined by Douglas Mews’ recorder once again) gave the sentiments all due sonorous and characterful strength up to the end – very beautiful and heart-warming!

So to the concert’s final item, another premiere, this time a joint commemorative tribute from composer Pepe Becker and poet/writer Gregory O’Brien (whose words had already been written for an earlier publication, and were now set to Pepe’s music for this occasion) to the work of architect John Scott and sculptor Jim Allen. This work, called “Concrete, Wood and Light” was crafted for what the composer called  “an aptly unconventional” Quartet of soprano, recorder, bass and bass viol, with additional wood, stone and body-percussion added to the mix – what Pepe called a “sonic homage” to the building’s many colours and textures.

Begun by vocal humming and various kinds of other vocalisings, singers and instrumentalists began intoning the text, along with ambient irruptions of various percussion sounds, and the recorder joining in with the voices. The work reached a focal point at the words “You are a shelter or clearing in which we find our voices”, continuing towards the text’s final reference  to “the L-shaped silence of your body”. The rest was resonance and presence and awareness, and with a great oneness at the end – all that seemed to matter was the space itself and the renewed and reaffirmed life into which the  artists, performers and audience had poured themselves today.

 

 

 

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Mostly youthful music presented with aplomb by the NZ Trio

Triptych 1: Unquiet Dream

Benjamin Britten: Introduction and allegro for piano trio
Chris Cree-Brown: The Second Triumvirate
Lera Auerbach: Trio No 2 Triptych – this mirror has three faces
Felix Mendelssohn: Trio in D min, Op. 49

 NZ Trio (with guest Sarah Watkins)

Public Trust Hall, Wellington

Wednesday 23 May 2024

 This was a distinctly youthful concert. Not because it was packed with music students (although there were a few there amongst the grey heads, chins thoughtfully propped on knees, listening intently), but because most of the music was written by the young. Britten’s work was composed when he was 18, in his second year at the Royal College of Music, being taught composition by Frank Bridge, who had taken the boy under his wing. The piece was premiered at a party at the Bridge house and then lost. Eventually, a decade after Britten’s death, it was found again and received its public premiere at the Wigmore Hall in 1986.

Lera Auerbach’s piece, the intellectual heart of the concert, was written when she was 38. Auerbach was only 17 and on a concert tour of the US when she defected from the Soviet Union. She is a remarkable talent: a poet, pianist, conductor, and sculptor as well as a composer. She was at the Juilliard with Sarah Watkins, Amalia Hall told us when introducing the work.

Mendelssohn’s D Minor Trio was written, like his best works, when young. He was only 20, and when it was premiered in September 1839, Schumann described it as ‘the master trio of the age’.

So Chris Cree Brown (b. 1953) was the senior composer represented, although his work, a commission by the Trio, is bang up to date, receiving its premiere on this tour.

First to the Britten. It is a terrific work, and I can only imagine Frank Bridge’s excitement when he first saw it. It opens with a beautiful cello solo, but immediately the tonality is unsettled. There is beautiful piano writing, very reminiscent of Ravel, with rippling liquid passages. But the string writing sounds like no one else: questing, unsettled, exploratory – not like the mature Britten, except in flashes. Ashley Brown described it to us as ‘quirky’ and said, ‘It took a while to grow on us.’  It finishes with the strings playing long, very high, pianissimo chords, with the piano continuing to ask questions underneath. I would have very much liked to hear it again.

The Chris Cree Brown followed. It is a follow-up to the first ‘Triumvirate’, written for the Trio in the early 2000s, and conceived as an imagining of the different voices of a trio at work (discussing, disputing, agreeing). But the second Triumvirate posed some difficulties. According to Ashley Brown, the trio found it helpful to discuss it with the composer while they worked on it. His comments were ‘eye-opening’ and ‘transformed the piece’. Being told that the programme of the work is three personalities in discourse, sometimes breaking into argument was certainly helpful to the audience. The rhythms are complex, imitating speech rhythms, and the work might have been impenetrable without that information.

Next to the Lera Auerbach. Immediately I felt as though we were in the hands of a very interesting musical personality. Like the Cree Brown work, this one also evokes three individuals in harmony and conflict. It is a work in five shortish movements. The middle movement is a kind of Schostakovian waltz, very slow and sardonic. Around it the outer movements explore ‘individuality and ensemble, harmony and conflict’. The first movement began with long, sustained, melancholy phrases; the second featured a passionate, romantic rush of sound from the strings, with amazing piano writing that took Sarah Watkins up and down the length of the keyboard. At the end of the third movement, the sardonic waltz returned. It sounded as though a beautiful doll puppet was being forced to dance to an unpleasant commentary. The fourth movement was very fast, a crazy pursuit at breakneck speed.

The last movement had moments of pure nostalgia (the marking is ‘Adagio nostalgico’), beginning with slow beautiful fragments of melody from the strings while the piano marches towards something.  At one point, the tremulous violin sounded like a sad bird; later, after some general agitation, the violin sang over the cello accompaniment like a bird in a ruin. Finally, the violin sang like a theremin.

We can always rely on the NZ Trio to present interesting music with aplomb, but the Auerbach was a triumph.  More, please!

And after the interval, the Mendelssohn Trio. What can I say? Schumann was right. It’s a lovely work, full of the best Mendelssohnian melodies, beautifully played by the NZ Trio. My notes say ‘a perfect example of chamber writing’, with ’lovely clarity and balance between the strings and piano’.

A note on personnel: founding member Sarah Watkins returned to the Trio because Somi Kim is off on maternity leave. It was as though Sarah had never been away.

Conductor Han-Na-Chang’s NZSO debut in music by Leonie Holmes, Richard Strauss and Pyotr Tchaikovsky

Conductor Han-Na Chang scores with her NZSO debut in music by Leonie Holmes, Richard Strauss and Pyotr Tchaikovsky

LEONIE HOLMES – I watched a shadow*
RICHARD STRAUSS – Don Quixote
(with Andrew Joyce, ‘cello, and Julia Joyce, viola)
PYOTR TCHAIKOVSKY – Symphony No. 5 in E Minor Op.64

Han-Na Chang (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
(Vesa-Matti Leppanen, concertmaster)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 18th May, 2024

I’m probably risking accusations of inverted sexism in drawing special attention in this review to the gender of the conductor on the occasion of this concert! – I solemnly do promise never to underline any such point again, but, after living through the tail-end of the age which regarded the role of orchestra conductor as a male bastion, and not ever having actually used the words “end of an era” to underline what has obviously been a change of things, I feel like “coming out” and hailing as such the appearance of South Korean Han-Na Chang on the NZSO’s podium as a guest conductor as signifying, in a local context, a real milestone.

I say these things having watched a number of women over the years mount the podium to direct the orchestra – conductors from overseas such as Dalia Atlas, Jane Glover, Odaline de la Martinez, Simone Young and Suzanna Malkki, and more recently, homegrown talents such as Holly Mathieson, Tianyi Lu and Gemma New, the latter having been appointed the orchestra’s Principal Conductor in 2022.  So, if women are of late no strangers to the conductor’s role here in New Zealand with the country’s leading orchestra, what was it about Han-Na Chang’s appearance that constituted something special?

The difference for me was that, unlike with the names mentioned above, Han-Na Chang’s was one completely unknown to me, as have been the names of many of the NZSO’s guest conductors of recent times. She is a fully-qualitied representative of a wider world of music-making which we in this country can only guess at regarding its range and scope , but can experience through the tried-and-true “guest conductor” system, one in which gender seems no longer an issue!

As with any unknown podium guest, the question “What will she be like?” was on the lips of anybody “not in the know”, as the diminutive Han-Na Chang made her entry and mounted the podium. First up in the programme was a local work by the highly-respected Auckland composer Leonie Holmes, one which had received its world premiere the night before in Auckland and was now making its Wellington debut. For a guest conductor to make her NZSO debut with a premiere of a work by a local composer seemed like a boldly positive and forthright gesture, and certainly one which gave Leonie Holmes’s composition I watched a shadow plenty of added interest.

The programme note for this new work contained the words of the poem by Wellingtonian Anne Powell which inspired Holmes’s music, a meditation on the world of nature’s ebb and flow encapsulated in a single crepuscular-like event, a hill embraced by its own shadow. The sounds took the form of an orchestral rhapsody, beginning with a percussive splash and slowly building an austere soundscape, grounded in string-texturings but with waves of contrastingly-flavoured disturbances, like a kind of gradual oceanic movement enlivened by wind-and-brass irruptions.

The work’s central part animated the discourse with pizzicato strings, wind roulades and atmospheric brass touches, expressing something of the variety of nature-impulse described by the poet’s words as “the hum of the universe”, but with bell-sounds, “knell-like” warnings growing a heavy, ominous tread. Though this trenchant mood was relieved, the sounds reformed with fresh impulse, building excitingly towards a great climax with surges of percussion, leaving us wondering at the ambivalence of what we’d heard. Rather like some of Sibelius’s music, Holmes’ work here seemed relatively unpeopled, our own existence’s fate of little account to these dispassionate comings-and-goings. Whatever the case, all was rendered here as committedly by conductor and players as one might imagine posssible.

From natural attrition we proceeded to a world of fantasy, foolishness and nobility, in the form of Richard Strauss’s tone-poem Don Quixote, a musical realisation of aspects of Miguel de Cervantes’ classic 17th-century novel. Strauss cast his deluded picaresque hero, the Don, as a solo ‘cello, and his down-to-earth squire, Sancho Panza by a solo viola, the ensuing dialogues and soliloquies an absolute delight for the listener, as were the colourful orchestral depictions of some of the Don’s adventures. Strauss here flew in the critical face of those conservative commentators of the time who derided what they called “programme music” by elevating the genre at its best to heights of expression and technique surpassed by no-one before or since, with Don Quixote having long been considered the greatest of his works of this kind.

As the two main protagonists, the husband-and-wife team of cellist Andrew Joyce and violist Julia Joyce gave what I thought were vivid portrayals of their respective characters, the former capturing all the would-be knight’s delusional expressions of chivalrous glory as well as his touching final realisations of mortality, and the latter steadfastedly affirming the squire’s support for his master with wryly matter-of-fact observances. Conductor Han-Na Chung’s control of the orchestra throughout the work was masterly, the detailing richly-informed and the overall sweep of certain moments no less than breathtaking! I shall particularly cherish the image of the wind-machine player “giving his all” at the rear of the orchestra during the work’s notorious “flying horse” sequence!

And so to what seemed like the concert’s readily-publicised “raison d’etre”, the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony, a work not lacking in performance history in this part of the world, but despite such popularity, one with the kind of resilience that instantly responds to a “fresh-as-paint” approach from its interpreters. Which is just what Han-Na-Chang conveyed, right from the opening Andante’s portentous clarinet phrases and ever-resonating string accompaniments (I couldn’t see the player from where I was sitting but I presumed the clarinettist was the ever-reliable Patrick Barry!)

What I particularly enjoyed was Chang’s direct and unsentimental approach throughout the work, never pulling about or unduly elongating lines or phrase-ends in search of “expression” when the composer had already ensured sufficient feeling would be generated by playing what was marked – so there was no “swooning” in the strings when the second subject of the opening movement’s allegro arrived, and no accelerando extremities needed to get back up to speed for the movement’s basic tempo, Chang keeping the music’s blood-pulses from ever becalming and losing their trajectories.

The slow movement, one of Tchaikovsky’s greatest symphonic achievements, here also benefited from Chang’s steadiness, particularly with the pizzicato notes that followed the appearance of the motto theme mid-movement – the octave-pizzicato was “in tempo” from its first entrance, rather than being vulgarly “sped up’ and then awkwardly slowed once more, evidence of our conductor’s “tidy mind” and care for musical structure. Oh, and Sam Jacobs’ magical horn solo in this movement deservedly earned him an ovation of his own at the symphony’s end.

The ever-enchanting Waltz with its gorgeous balletic scherzando character throughout the middle section led straight into the Finale, a fulsome major-key motto-theme at the start, and properly “warning” tones from the brasses, just before the great timpani roll that ignited the strings’ allegro vivace entry. I wondered whether there was a brief rhythmic hiccup between strings , brass and timpani during the maelstrom-like passage that preceded the entry of the winds with their long-held-note melody, but perhaps I was mistaken amidst the super-saturations of sound at that point  – and in the comparable passage later in the movement, I heard no hint of misalignment! What was thrilling was the almost visceral stamping rhythm of the strings throughout these “Russian dance” episodes and the rapidity of the brasses’ stuttering notes pushing the music’s trajectories along so (literally!) breathlessly, in places! The swaggering motto-march-theme at the end seemed to gather up all that had gone before and fill the hall’s overhead spaces with exuberances, capped only by the frenetic energies of the coda, and its march-like codicil at the very end!

Very great credit to all concerned, and especially to conductor Han-Na Chang for an auspicious debut, one which was instsntly and generously acknowledged at the concert’s end by a delighted, near-capacity Michael Fowler Centre audience.

 

An exuberant ‘Cello-and-Piano concert from Robert Ibell and Rachel Thomson

Wellington Chamber Music presents:
Robert Ibell (‘cello) and Rachel Thomson (piano)

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN – Sonata for Piano & Cello in D major, Op 102 No 2
LEOŠ JANÁČEK – Pohádka (Fairytale)
CLAUDE DEBUSSY – Sonata for Cello & Piano
ALEX TAYLOR – Four Little Pieces
ZOLTÁN KODÁLY – Sonata for Cello & Piano Op 4
ROBERT SCHUMANN – Fantasy Pieces Op 73

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington
Sunday, 12th May, 2024

I confess to being tempted to describe this as a well-nigh perfect programme at the concert’s conclusion, except that such fulsome statements are obviously subjective, and have a well-used ring about them when applied to any such compilations, let alone of the “reviewing” kind!

Let me say instead that I found the programme extraordinarily satisfying as such – and this is not to mention the commitment and skill with which the two musicians involved brought to the occasion, though they would obviously have influenced such a judgement.

A reliable measure of the impact made upon audience sensibilities at any concert is the degree of animated conversation that follows the applause – and I found myself almost straightaway afterwards talking with each of my neighbours in turn seated on either side (neither of whom I knew at all, beforehand!), with all of us eager to convey how much we had enjoyed this and that and wanting the other’s response to the same. So, this concert certainly passed the “animated audience response” test with flying colours!

One of the pieces was completely new to me (Alex Taylor’s Four Little Pieces), and another two I’d had to familiarize myself with by finding recordings before going to the concert (Leoš Janáček’s Pohádka (Fairytale) and Zoltán Kodály’s Sonata for Cello & Piano Op 4) – all of which put me in a kind of half-and-half “knew/didn’t know” situation regarding the content, the kind of thing that can put one on one’s mettle as a listener good and proper! I was lucky that I didn’t find myself “overwhelmed” by too many new things – it gave my ears different things to do with the two halves of the programme!

First up was the Beethoven, the fifth and last of the composer’s ‘Cello Sonatas, works that revolutionised the repertoire for the instrument by completely reworking the relationship between cello and keyboard – previously a mere supporting instrument in any ensemble, here the ‘cello was clearly made an equal partner with the piano. Though the two early Op.5 Sonatas were still described as “with a violincello obbligato” the cello parts were through-composed, each having its own voice, something never before attempted. Beethoven was to give the new form its fully-fledged status in the two Op.102 Sonatas.

Rachel Thomson exuberantly sounded the opening piano figure, beginning the lovely give-and-take exchanges that characterised this movement, with its charming contrasts between lyrical expression and forthright con brio manner. Both players observed a judicious balance between the two instruments, with Robert Ibell’s tones readily encompassing the forthright and more lyrical aspects of the music’s lines. The players fully realised the opening solemnity of the central Adagio, the sounds “breathing” as if shared by a single instrument, the con molto sentiment d’affeto direction allowing plenty of expressive freedom, such as in the transitions which moved the music between different intensities – especially lovely! Which of course, made the concluding fugue Allegro even more fun, not so much a narrative as an encapsulation of changing moods, spontaneous and visceral in places, quixotic and playful in others – all so masterful, and all thrown off here with such elan and delight!

Next came a different century’s version of individuality from another master, Leoš Janáček, with his three-movement work for ‘cello and piano Pohádka (Fairytale), a work Janáček, a staunch Russophile, based on a story from a poem by Vasily Zhukovsky which was inspired by Russian folk-lore. Rachel Thomson both enlightened and amused us by reading a droll synopsis beforehand of the work’s original story, written as a programme note by the great cellist Steven Isserlis for one of his concerts.

In three movements, the music tells of the young Tsarevich Prince Ivan and his love for the daughter of Kashchei, the King of the Underworld, the tribulations of the lovers as their plans are seemingly thwarted by magic, and their eventual release from the spell and their eventual happy union. Janáček’s settings are more atmospheric and scene-based than actual narratives, the bardic-like exchanges between piano recitative and ‘cello pizzicato at the very beginning instantly creating a fairy-tale ambience, one in which the urgencies here gradually overwhelmed the music’s lyricism and took hold via driving ostinati as the fearsome underworld King Kashchei pursued the fleeing lovers.

The second movement’s exchanges similarly reflected the hopes and fears of the beleaguered pair, rather than presenting any of the story’s specifics – both Ibell’s cello pizzicato motif and Thomson’s more rhapsodic piano lines vividly “grew” tensions and agitations constantly at the mercy of the fates, eventually reaching a concluding point of suspended unease with a single, resigned piano figure. The finale straightaway had the musicians steadfastedly generating a dancing figure, hopeful, occasionally tinged with anxieties, but eventually subsiding in a kind of glow of contentment, leaving us with the feeling that true love here had actually “made it” over the lovers’ troubles.

Concluding a first half of unfailingly well-wrought musical utterance was Claude Debussy’s 1915 Sonata for ‘Cello and Piano. The composer was determined to celebrate all things French, and especially so at the time of the work’s composition (1915) with the idea to the fore that, in the composer’s words “not even 30 million “boches” can destroy French thought”. The opening Prologue’s introductory piano fanfare, answered by an ardent ‘cello theme, straightaway affirmed the musicians’ commitment to the music’s sound-world, here, with beautiful, wistful exchanges gradually building up archways in places to the composer’s own La Cathedral Engloutie-like sonorities, before the sounds plaintively retreated, leaving in the memory a lovely harmonic-like note from the ‘cello at the end.

If the composer’s earlier solo piano Prelude La serenade interrompue had portrayed something of a thwarted endeavour, this Serenade seemed to engender nothing less than a complete train wreck! Debussy himself strongly objected to one of his interpreters interpolating a commentary characterising the well-known commedia dell’arte character Pierrot in this work, even if the music seems to lend itself to such a programme – the wonderfully quirky and volatile exchanges between the instruments right from the outset pinged our sensibilities and clattered through our receptive chambers! – all so quirky and volatile, with sound-trajectories whose impulses didn’t last, whether pizzicato or arco, staccato or legato, a veritable orgy of indecision or caprice, with only the work’s finale coming to the rescue by breaking the impasse!

After such chronic demarcations of expression the finale here seemed at first to burst out of the music’s shell and flood St.Andrews’s sound vistas with uninhibited energies, the folkish dance melody whirling its notations up and down to great effect. There were still more reflective moments in which one might imagine the by then sick and disillusioned composer feeling he had given his all and venting such inclinations, places where Ibell’s and Thomson’s instruments seemed to, by turns, inwardly lament and even momentarily cry out – but having made such points the players returned the music in rondo-like fashion to the opening dance-like energies, before delivering, in no uncertain terms the work’s final gesture, to suitably appreciative effect among their audience!

Alex Taylor’s highly diverting collection of miniature pieces which began the second half seemed almost over before it had started, as we had very little idea how to differentiate the pieces’ separate characters, especially with each having a German title which one might have worked out without translation given time, but had then been moved along more quickly than did one’s brain! (I “got” the first three titles, I think, but was beaten to the finish-line by the final “rasch”) – so that understanding came hand-in-hand only with the moment when both players leapt to their feet having played the whole set without any discernable breaks! Still, they provided great entertainment.

By contrast, Zoltán Kodály’s Op.4 Sonata which followed drew us into a spacious and meditative sound-world. Originally in three movements, the work was deprived of its original opening by the composer who felt dissatisfied with both his first and yet another, later attempt at an opening, so the sonata was left in its two-movement form. While the beautiful opening ‘cello solo does engender a “slow movement” kind of feeling, it makes a magical opening for a work whose character suggests both the composer’s folk-music researches and the influence of Debussy in its impressionistic colourings. Throughout Ibell and Thomson spun a truly atmospheric dialogue of interchange via the music’s leading/accompanying figures and distinctive instrumental timbres.

The second movement’s spirited folk-dance-like beginning delighted us with its contrasts and volatility, with Rachel Thomson’s fingers all over the keyboard in places, ideally matching Robert Ibell’s trenchant attack and command of dynamic variation – playing which seemed to encompass fully the music’s “no holds barred” expression, as full blooded in places as it was piquant and wistful at the piece’s end – for most of us, a real “discovery”!

More familiar fare was the programme’s last item, the warm-hearted Schumann Fantasy Pieces Op. 73, given here as if it was all second nature to these musicians – everything flowed under their hands with an inevitability the composer would have surely accepted with gratitude and approval. Originally written for clarinet with piano, these pieces eminently suited the darker tones of the ‘cello, and its arguably greater expressive range of colour (note: check to see how many clarinettists are on my Christmas card list!). I particularly loved the last piece’s “accelerated exuberance” with the composer urging the musicians to play faster and faster at the end! We loved it, and I took away from the concert most resoundingly a remark from a friend who delightedly greeted me on the way out with the words, “Golly! -wasn’t that Kodaly really something!” I couldn’t have agreed more…..

Sighs, spontaneities and serenade snatches from the NZSM String Ensemble at St. Andrew’s

St.Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series

Review by Maya Field for “Middle C”

The NZSM String Ensemble, conducted by Kira Omelchenko

EDWARD ELGAR – Sospiri (Sighs) Op. 70
RACHEL MORGAN – Armannai (2003)
ANTONIN DVORAK – Three Movements from Serenade Op.22 –
Scherzo, Larghetto and Finale

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

Wednesday, 7th May, 2024

If ballet is my first reason for loving classical music, then string instruments are my second. A few years of Viola in high school orchestra (hardly a maestro but at least I have some leg to stand on, I suppose) has given me a lot of stubborn opinions about composers and repertoire, but it also has given me a deep love and excitement for string ensembles. Safe to say, I was happy to take a break from my studying to watch the NZSM String Ensemble.

It was particularly cold and clear on Wednesday, but fortunately, St Andrews on the Terrace was nicely warmed by heaters. The ensemble opened with the Adagio by Elgar, which was a lovely and melancholic opening for the crisp early winter day. There were some gorgeous swells of crescendos and diminuendos. An especially good moment was the melody from the Firsts, while the rest carried a nice tremolo.

The second piece was Armannai (2003) by the New Zealand composer, Rachel Morgan. The conductor, Kira Omelchenko, paused before the piece started to explain that this piece is not set in a certain direction for performers. Instead, the performance directions are interpreted by the musicians themselves. As they started playing, it was clear there was some strong interest in dissonance. While some parts were slow, there were harmonies that made you bolt upright. The first movement was nice, but at a slow tempo. Because it followed the Adagio, the two slow pieces sort of blurred together. The second movement was faster, with a strong start from the Cellos and Violas. It was a nice change of pace, with percussive moments and a real ferocity, especially from the Bass and Cello sections. The third movement was a sort of balance between the previous two, and the Cellos had a lovely melody at one point.

The three movements from Dvorak’s Serenade were strong. The ensemble took a moment to settle into the liveliness of the Scherzo Vivace, but they got into the swing of it quickly. The Larghetto felt the most unified, and was my favourite piece from the programme. There was a really nice pizzicato from the Basses that lay under the swelling melodies. The Finale: Allegro Vivace was lively. The Cellos especially created great tension, and the ensemble’s final swell at the end was very strong.

It was a lovely way to spend my lunch break, Kira was a great conductor, and the ensemble did an excellent job. My one critique is sometimes it felt that the ensemble weren’t enjoying themselves. They performed well, but I didn’t get the sense that everyone was excited about playing. I suppose I enjoy performances the most when it feels like the entire ensemble is also enjoying it, and I didn’t always feel this from the ensemble. There were definitely moments, but it would be nice if there were more.

Then again, midday on a cold Wednesday, I’m hardly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and in the end, I really enjoyed the performance, and if applause is any indicator, so did the rest of the audience.

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

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

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

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

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 4th May, 2024

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Witch Music Theatre’s take on Tolstoy at the Hannah Playhouse in Wellington a knockout!

Witch Theatre Productions presents:
Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812
– Music and lyrics by Dave Malloy

Cast: Lane Corby (Natasha), William Duignan (Pierre), Áine Gallagher (Sonya), Frankie Leota (Marya), Jade Merematira (Hélène), Glen Horsfall (Andrey/Prince Nikolai), Henry Ashby (Anatole Kuragin), Princess Mary (Rachel McSweeney), Kevin Orlando (Dolokhov), Patrick Jennings (Balaga) Jackson Cordery (Rope Aerialist):
Chorus: Adriana Calabrese, Tess Lavanda, Kirsty Huszka, Mackenzie Htay, Raureti Ormond, Finlay Morris

Music Director – Haydn Taylor/ Stage Director(s) – Maya Handa Naff, Nick Lerew /
Choreographer(s) – Emily McDermott, Greta Casey-Solly / Set and Technical Design – Joshua Tucker-Emerson / Producer and Costume Designer – Ben Tucker-Emerson
Sound – Oliver Devlin / Alex Fisher – Lighting / Vanessa Woodward – Stage Manager and Props / Charlotte Potts – Ticketing and Audience Experience Manager.

Hannah Playhouse, Wellington

Tuesday 30th April 2024

“What straightaway grabbed me was our vortex-like transition from foyer to auditorium at the Hannah Playhouse earlier tonight, vertiginously drawing us into what seemed like a different world – a journey which then never let up in its exertion of fascination and wonderment upon both mind and body. It was total immersion into “other” realms, to which I unhesitatingly gave myself for the next two-and-a-half hours!”

In the cold, grey light of dawn I’ve quoted myself above, a fleeting impression I managed to scribble down before exhaustion overtook me upon reaching home from my evening’s adventure at Wellington’s Hannah Playhouse last night. I had been at the tender mercies of Witch Music Theatre’s totally compelling production of “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”, an adaptation for the musical stage by the composer/lyricist Dave Malloy of Part Eight of Leo Tolstoy’s great 1869 novel War and Peace – seventy pages of searing emotional intensity expressed here in unreservedly straight-from-the-shoulder dramatic and musical terms!

Dominating the Playhouse’s stage precincts (via designer Joshua Tucker-Emerson’s hypnotically flowing cascading-tongues series of platforms) were seventeen singers-cum-dancers (plus a heart-in-the-mouth rope aerialist) who made both the teemingly populous and more intimate vistas of the story very much their own. Their individual characters flourished under the visionary direction of Maya Handa-Naff and Nick Lerew, and were beautifully and atmospherically elaborated by choreographers Emily McDermott and Greta Casey-Solly.

Throughout, singers and dancers combined with twelve on-and-offstage musicians directed from a centre-stage piano by music director Hayden Taylor to bring this fragment of a famous story to heartfelt and pulsating life, which was done with great instrumental elan at certain memorable moments. While the music’s pulsatings occasionally pushed the decibel levels into saturation point, the lines of the voices, both individual and concerted were never seriously obscured, with the diction from the singers remarkably clear in all but the most full-blooded passages – a tribute both to performers and the skills of the sound designer, Oliver Devlin.

Alex Fisher’s atmospheric lighting designs brought out the many variations of intensity required by the stage action, reaching a kind of apex with the appearance of the title’s Great Comet at the end of the story, but straightaway highlighting the characters’ various period costumes (designed by Ben Tucker-Emerson) with appropriately pleasing visual significance, with those of the dancers also relishing their characterful variants to whimsical effect.

How to single out so many compelling individual performances? Of course the show’s relatively intertwined musical textures allied to the similarly close-knit physical proximities of the cast on-stage made for an essentially ensembled production, one to which everybody responded magnificently, to the point where all the characters seemed, in Omar Khayyam’s somewhat bowdlerised words, “to come and go, like players in a magic-shadow show”. Whether alone or ensembled, all played their parts to a kind of perfection.

Of the titular roles, both Lane Corby’s Natasha and William Duignan’s Pierre negotiated their respective characters’ journeyings through their various travails with, in places, heartfelt, almost painful self-realisation, each in ways that expressed their essential personalities – Natasha’s spontaneity and impulsiveness, leading her to trouble, guilt and shame in the affair with the dissolute Anatole Kuragin, was eventually run together with Pierre’s own journey through disillusionment to hope in a better life through love, hence their mutually heartwarming and vocally reflective “understanding” at the end of the work.

Áine Gallagher’s portrayal of Sonya, Natasha’s cousin emphasised her endlessly patient and selfless regard for her cousin Natasha’s well-being throughout the story, including a full-throated avowal to protect her – stirring stuff! And Frankie Leota’s forthright and principled Marya, Natasha’s godmother, spectacularly and adroitly balanced her disapproval of Natasha’s infatuation over the flashy Anatole with plenty of concern for her young charge’s well-being – a colourful portrait! She was the opposite of Princess Mary Bolkonsky, whose portrayal by Rachel McSweeney touchingly emphasised her well-meaning kindness and propriety; and still more of a contrast with Jade Merematira’s sensual good-time girl portrait of Hélène Kuragin, the disdainful wife of Pierre.

Apart from Pierre, the men included Natasha’s betrothed, Prince Andrei, who left Moscow at the story’s beginning at his father’s wishes, respecting the latter’s objection to his son’s impending marriage. Glenn Horsefall played a soulful Andre on his occasional appearances throughout the story before finally rejecting Natasha in the wake of her dalliance with Anatole. This was in stark contrast to the latter, portrayed with plenty of skin-deep smoulder by Henry Ashby, to splendid effect up until his encounter with an enlightened and vengeful Pierre. The drinking, gambling Dolokhov was given a suitably dissolute air by Kevin Orlando, and teamed up well with Patrick Jennings as “Balaga” the Troika-driver, in his stage- dominating, energetic all-together “troika” rendition, a character who was obviously the life and soul of any party within sleigh-driving distance!

The remaining unnamed characters, sang, danced and INVOLVED their obviously entranced audience throughout, with the production throwing in unexpected delights such as an Aerial Rope performer, (Jackson Cordery) who gave a breathtaking display of agility and skill, as well as, at other times, charming us with his accordion-playing skills. It was all completely in line with the “what’s next” kind of spontaneity and energy the show seemed to continually thrive upon.

I was “blown away” by all of this in a way I didn’t really expect to be, and can thus warm-heartedly recommend the production to anybody who has the merest inkling of the original story (from one of the world’s truly GREAT novels!); or whatever inclination they might have to introduce themselves to and enjoy something of its uniquely compelling characterisations of universal human behaviour.

“Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” will play at the Hannah Playhouse in Wellington until Saturday 4th May (two performances that day, at 2:00pm and 7:30pm!!)

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

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

Presented by Chamber Music New Zealand

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

St.Mary of the Angels Church, Wellington

3:00pm Sunday, October 29th, 2023

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday, 5th August, 2023

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celebrating 70 Years – Royal New Zealand Ballet’s “Lightscapes”

Royal New Zealand Ballet presents
LIGHTSCAPES
St.James Theatre, Wellington

Thursday, July 27th 2023

Serenade (choreography: George Balanchine / Music: Pyotr Tchaikovsky)
Te Ao Marama (choreography: Moss Te Ururangi Patterson / Music: James Webster – adapted Ariana Tikao / Shayne Carter)
Requiem for a Rose (choreography: Annabelle Lopez Ochoa / Music: Franz Schubert
Logos (choreography: Alice Topp / Music: Ludovico Einaudi)
Set and Lighting Design – Jon Buswell
Costumes – Karinska (Serenade), Moss Te Ururangi Patterson (Te Ao Marama),
Tatyana van Walsu (Serenade for a Rose), Alice Topp (Logos)

Currently in the foyer of the St.James Theatre is an exhibition mounted by the Royal New Zealand Ballet, one which commemorates the company’s 70th year. Beginning in 1953 under the stewardship of Danish Royal Ballet Principal Dancer Poul Gnatt, who had arrived in the country the previous year, the fledgling company travelled the length of New Zealand, visiting and bringing dance to the remotest of rural towns. From those beginnings the company’s history is depicted in a series of historical displays up to the present day, concluding with the stewardship of the current artistic director, Patricia Barker (due shortly to retire after more than five years at the helm, and hand over the job to Australian David McAlister.

Accompanying the exhibition is the RNZ Ballet’s current production, a quartet of shorter works with the collective title Lightscapes, each one representing different and distinctive aspects of the talent and scope of the dancers, choreographers and production staff responsible for what we see and hear on and from the stage throughout the evening, the whole as well representing and celebrating the past 70 years of the company’s achievement.

First of the four ballets to be performed was the aptly-named Serenade, which was the first original ballet created by the renowned choreographer George Balanchine after his arrival in America, in the wake of his earlier years with, firstly, the Russian Imperial Ballet School, and the Mariinsky Ballet, before leaving Russia and joining the Ballet Russes as a choreographer until his relocation to the United States in 1933.

Serenade uses one of the most famous compositions of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, the latter’s Serenade in C Major for String Orchestra Op.48. After reworking the ballet a number of times Balanchine reversed the original order of the last two movements, so that the work ended on an elegiac rather than a vigorous and brilliant note, an order which was maintained this evening. Balanchine developed the idea of incorporating everyday chance rehearsal mishaps into the ballet’s choreography, so that the presentation, though without an actual plot or story, reflected the unexpected vagaries which sometimes beset human activity. Una Kai, the company’s fourth artistic director first presented this work here in 1975. which has been since repeated several times, most recently in 2019 by Patricia Barker, following a staging devised by Rebecca Metzger.

With strikingly sparse backdrops predominating, the dancers garnered our full attention throughout, bringing off exhilaratingly flamboyant configurations as easefully and flowingly as they did the simply-nuanced movements and gestures, the whole while mirroring the music’s many-faceted rhythmic configurations, as did in their turn the solo/partner dancers  Maiyu Tanigaito and Kihiro Kusukami, with beautifully-integrated movements and responses.

Serenade was separated by an interval from the next work, Te Ao Mārama, a work devised by Moss Te Ururangi Patterson, who’s currently the CEO and Artistic Director of the New Zealand Dance Company. His description of a sense of inner consciousness formed by that “buoyant, quiet meditative space” which characterised his childhood in Tokaanu on the shores of Lake Taupo seemed somehow to awaken as  I listened my own childhood memories of spending time in some of those same places, so that the evocations of time and place sounded by the taonga puoro of Ariana Tikao, and the guitar playing of Shayne Carter readily evoked a sense of enabling “near-and-far resonances” across time and distance of the kind that Patterson was intending in accord with his own experiences. For this reason I found the whole experience of the bringing-together of worlds here intensely human in both a turangawaewae and a universal sense – and this before any choreographic stage movement had yet taken place!

I was further captivated with Moss Te Ururangi’s personification in gesture and dance of the Te Ao Maori perspective regarding the coming of light to the world over three periods of time, Te Kore, the nothingness, Te Po, the darkness, and finally, Te Ao Mārama, the world of light created by the separation of Ranginui and Papatuanuku, which I’d long been made familiar with from an early age, thanks to parents who were themselves aware of these intensely spiritual beliefs in their own way, and which thus enabled the kind of “connections” Moss talked about encouraging  to help form between cultures. Here, these were “made flesh” through movement, gesture and speech as the dancers personified the growing energies stimulated first by Te Kore (the nothingness) giving birth to Te Po (a great longing) and then bursting out with full-blooded force as Te Ao Mārama (the well-nigh irresistible life-light!). All overwhelming from this observer’s point of view, and cause for great gladness, thanks to dancers, musicians, choreographers and composers alike!

After these raw and invigorating energies were spent, the focus shifted to different archetypal imagery, that of the essential fragility and non-permanence of a flower used as a symbol of love, with Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s arresting choreography featuring both individual and ensembled personification of the power of such an image. From the beginning, solo dancer Kirby Selchow, dressed in a nude leotard and carrying a single rose in her mouth, enacted a tour de force of expressive movement throughout, establishing for me  an almost frightening, nightmarish vulnerability and desperation right from her heartbeat-driven entrance, which then morphed into Franz Schubert’s fraught, deeply-troubled music – the Adagio Movement from the composer’s String Quintet – when twelve red-skirted dancers  appeared, representing the bouquet of roses.

Upon reading the programme notes afterwards I was surprised at first to read that the solo dancer represented Venus, as her characterisation seemed to me to emphasise the raw angularity of love as something driven by desperation and anxiety rather than affording any kind of lasting fulfilment, the character seeming as much a kind of sacrificial victim as an embodiment of love’s passion and transience. The dancers variously duetted, and formed a quartet of various interactions, a tableau which the Venus goddess/victim rejoined as the heartbeat  rhythm returned.

A second interval later we were back with the final Lightscape, “Logos”, choreographed and costumed by Alice Topp to music by Ludovico Einaudi, and with set and lighting design by Jon Buswell. The work featured four tableaux, each dealing with a different focus on a search for meaning in an individual’s life (the title “Logos” meaning reason or logic). The first dominated by a stunningly voluminous mirror-like backdrop in front of which a couple (Mayu Tanigaito and Levi Teachout) spectacularly, almost combatatively danced, presented a scenario of self-focus and awareness, and the surety which that brings, though the interaction had an insistence that felt like boundaries were constantly being pushed between the two – the ebb and flow of this was, I thought superbly realised! The next tableau suggested containment and boundaries as “necessary securities”, with groups of dancers on stage each dealing with and immersed in their own “pools” of activity, a common and observable everyday human trait…..for some reason the ‘soundtrack’ seemed to stop before the dancers did, so that it wasn’t clear whether the last minute or so of dance interaction was intentionally a silent one, or was a technical glitch!

Nothing could have surpassed the moment of transition between the third and fourth tableaux, when, in what seemed like some kind of moment of transcendental release,  one of the “frames” surrounding the third tableau’s backdrop inwardly collapsed without warning onto the stage floor, accompanied by proliferations of mist and light – perhaps representing a “blowing-out” of constraints and obstacles to freedom, accompanied by an enormous “cosmic sigh” of relief from duress!  But more touching was the final dance between the two figures (Ana Gallardo Lobaina and Matthew Slattery) left on the stage amid the swirling mists, rain (real rain!) and ever-burgeoning light, with choreographer Alice Topp’s idea of an experience involving release from all kinds of pressure manifesting itself in all kinds of ways, in, around and about the dancers, an extremely moving conclusion!