“Rockin’ On” with the Lockdown Quartet at St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace

Family Lockdown Quartet

Lucy Maurice and Rupa Maitra, violins: Donald Maurice, viola; and Gemma Maurice, cello

St Andrew’s on The Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday 20 October 2021

From 26 March to 27 May 2020, when New Zealand was locked down in Alert Level 4 and many of us were watching Netflix in our pyjamas until it was time for the 1 pm press briefing, the Maurice-Maitra family were putting in some useful quartet practice. Soon they were giving concerts on Zoom ‘to audiences all over the world’. In this charming lunchtime concert at St Andrew’s, they performed some of their lockdown repertoire.

To say the programme was eclectic doesn’t quite cover it. The pieces in the concert ranged across 200 years, from Mozart to Guns N’ Roses. The concert was in two parts: three short works from more standard repertoire, plus five interesting arrangements of great rock n’ roll songs.

Parents Rupa Maitra (violin) and Donald Maurice (viola) have had the good sense to produce two daughters, cellist Gemma and violinist Lucy. But still, a successful quartet is more than a matter of having the requisite instruments. Chamber music requires technical skill and communication. These they demonstrated – along with a sense of fun.

The first piece was an arrangement for string quartet of a famous tango song by Carlos Gardel, ‘Por Una Cabeza’, stylishly played. The adults’ more polished and powerful playing could have taken over, but with Lucy on first violin the girls held their own and the balance was surprisingly good. In the Presto from Mozart’s Divertimento in D major Lucy showed herself to be an able leader and a good communicator.  Then the parents left the stage while the girls played a charming Air and Variations by Jean-Baptiste Bréval, a contemporary of Mozart. A cellist, Bréval wrote mostly for his own instrument, but this piece gave both cello and violin plenty to do. So far a well-chosen programme, presented with confidence and polish.

When the parents returned to the stage, they had changed their appearance. Rupa was barefoot and wearing a spiky black and white wig, while Donald wore a hippy headband. No one was going to take themselves too seriously.

Donald told us that when he first heard ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ on the car radio one day, he had to pull over. That’s when he found out that he had missed out on ‘about 30 years of rock music’. ‘I had no idea what came after the Beatles.’  It was good, he observed, to be introduced to it now by his children, and to play it together.

Introducing ‘Back in Black’ by AC/DC, Rupa commented that screamed lyrics were hard to reproduce by a quartet but a guitar riff was probably manageable.  And so it turned out. Violin 1 took the lead guitar part, with percussion from violin 2. There was some gutsy playing from viola and cello standing in for bass guitar.

I thought the most successful arrangement was Rupa’s own of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint it Black’. Gemma helpfully explained the colour imagery in the lyrics, and played a plangent cello introduction. Her mother took up the tune in the style of a lead guitar, and then passed it on to the viola. If the piece ended a bit abruptly, it’s because that’s what the song does.

I had no expectations of Aerosmith’s ‘Dream On’, but it worked particularly well for quartet, with an improvisatory quality, wisps of melody floating from voice to voice.

Surprisingly I found the arrangement of Queen’s prog rock classic ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ the least successful of the bunch. The arrangement for quartet was by UK violinist and arranger Mark Lansom, who has arranged Iron Maiden and Cold Play for string quartet, as well several other Queen songs. The remarkable harmonic shifts of the original were there, but the operatic effects had lost their edge when transferred to strings. Roger Taylor’s falsetto ‘Galileo’s were markedly less thrilling when played on the violin, where they are well within the instrument’s range. But it was undeniably interesting.

All in all, an unexpectedly off-beat concert, delivered with confidence and a shared delight.


Sounds of friendship from Vieux Amis at Wellington Chamber Music’s St.Andrew’s concert

Wellington Chamber Music presents:
Vieux Amis (Old friends)

Arvo Pärt Für Alina / JS Bach Viola da Gamba Sonata in D Major, BMW 1028

Arvo Pärt mozart adagio / JS Bach Violin Sonata in E Major, BMW 1016

Dmitri Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue in E minor, Op. 87.No. 4 /

Piano Trio No.2 in E minor Op. 67

Vieux Amis –
Justine Cormack (violin) / James Bush (’cello) / Sarah Watkins (piano)

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

Sunday, 15th August 2021

Vieux Amis (Justine Cormack, James Bush and Sarah Watkins), are old friends indeed. They grew up together in Christchurch, they were neighbours and long-standing colleagues, and their bonds run deep. They put together an innovative programme of music that is, apart from the Shostakovich Trio,  seldom heard in concerts. To add to the innovative aspect of the programme, they asked the audience not to applaud between the Arvo Pärt and the Bach works, and between the Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue and the Trio, so that these pieces became introductions to what followed.

Arvo Pärt Für Alina

This is a simple piece, but its simplicity is deceptive. The music follows strict mathematical rules, the melody grows by one note in each bar, reaching its maximum of eight notes, then it begins to diminish again. The free-flowing melody is united throughout the piece with the so-called tintinnabuli, bell like voice. The long pedalled and held notes are separated by significant pause. This is considered to be one of the most significant works of all Arvo Pärts oeuvre. Its performance requires very sensitive reading attuned not only to the changing notes, but also to the silences separating them. It was a very appropriate introduction to the Bach Sonatas, preparing listeners for the subtleties of the complex baroque works that folloowed.

Johann Sebastian Bach Viola da Gamba Sonata in D Major, BMW 1028

Although this sonata was written for the viola da gamba, it was played by James Bush on a modern cello, with its more powerful tone. He played it with a beautiful, rich, romantic, sound, and the performance was more pleasing for that. The sonata starts with a gentle adagio and a lovely interplay between the cello and the keyboard. The second movement is an unhurried dance movement, the third is a meditative slow movement with keyboard and cello evaluating each evolving phrase, while the last movement is again a relaxed joyful dance. Parts of this sonata were used  in Bach’s St Matthew Passion [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sonatas_for_viola_da_gamba_and_harpsichord_(Bach)]

Arvo Pärt mozart adagio

This is an arrangement, or more appropriately, a reinterpretation of the second movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in F minor, K. 280. Pärt explores new sonorities between the strings and piano.

Johann Sebastian Bach Violin Sonata in E Major, BMW 1016

Like the viola da gamba sonatas, these sonatas with keyboard are, unlike the solo partitas and sonatas, seldom played in concerts. They follow the pattern of sonatas by Corelli and Handel, but are more complex, more ornamented. The second movement of this sonata echoes Bach’s earthy cantatas such as the Peasant Cantata. Like James Bush on the cello, Justine Cormack made no concession to the tradition of authentic baroque performance. She played with a vigorous, full-bodied violin tone and her performance was more interesting and enjoyable for that, and appropriate for present day musical tastes. She shed a contemporary light on this seldom heard work.

Dmitri Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue in E minor, Op. 87.No. 4

It was inspired programming to follow the Bach Sonata with one of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues, which were tributes to Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues. But these were written in 1950, in the shadow of the Second World War and the brutal twilight years of Stalin’s reign. Although the form is Bach’s, the language is very much Shostakovich’s Russian idiom. No. 4 of the Preludes and Fugues is full of despair and sorrow which served as a very appropriate prologue to the great Piano Trio No, 2 that followed without a break.

Dmitri Shostakovich Piano Trio No.2 in E minor Op. 67

This Trio is one of the greatest chamber music works of the twentieth century. It was written in 1944 in the midst of the Second World War. Right from the barely audible harmonics on the cello, followed by the violin then the piano, we know that we are in for music that captures the profound sadness of the time. The earthy themes would have sounded corny in anyone else’s hands, but in Shostakovich’s hands they make a point about the universality of the message of the music. One can read all sorts of things into the manic second movement, but there is no doubt about the tragic sadness of the third movement. The last movement uses a klezmer theme, stated by pizzicato on the violin and then elaborated until the sad yet jaunty music dissolves into the final tragic adagio, the violin reiterating tearfully the klezmer theme. Shostakovich was said to have said “The distinguishing feature of Jewish music is the ability to build a jolly melody on sad intonations. Why does a man strike up a jolly song? Because he is sad at heart.” Shostakovich was aware of the fate of the Jews and the Babi Yar massacre, but this music is not just about Jews. It is about the great tragedy of the war and perhaps of the Russian people. This is overwhelming sad music.

These three musicians, Vieux Amis, old friends, growing up in peaceful Christchurch, had the empathy to do justice to this profound work. It was deeply felt, profound performance.

The Shostakovich Trio was received by a resounding applause, quite out of character for the largely elderly audience. For an encore Vieux Amis played the Largo from Bach’s Trio Sonata.

This was an outstanding, fine concert, and the Wellington Chamber Music Society deserves our appreciation for bringing  to Wellington this group of fine artists, with their imaginative programme.



Liam Wooding – Reflections and Connections at Woburn’s St.Mark’s Church, Lower Hutt

Chamber Music Hutt Valley presents:

DOUGLAS LILBURN – Sonata for Piano in F-sharp Minor (1939)
STUART GREENBAUM – Remote Connection (2021)
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN – Sonata for Piano in C-sharp Minor Op.27. No.2 “Moonlight”
DUKE ELLINGTON – Reflections in D (1953)
CLAUDE DEBUSSY – Images, Book 1 (1905)
1. Reflects dans l’eau  2. Hommage a Rameau  3. Mouvement
JOHN ADAMS – Phrygian Gates (1977)

Liam Wooding (piano)

St.Mark’s Church, Woburn, Lower Hutt

Tuesday, 27th July 2021

Music today has a lot to thank Franz (Ferenc) Liszt for. Among his achievements throughout a life devoted to performing, composing, teaching, promoting, and collegially supporting and encouraging the art-form is his single-handed invention of the phenomenon we know today as “the piano recital”. On June 9th,1840, in London at Hanover Square, Liszt gave the first of two London concerts that were advertised as “recitals”, the first documented occasion on which the word “recital” had been used in describing a musical event (he had previously called his solo concerts “soliloquies”). He had already turned the idea of a concert as was then known on its head, by being the only performer, by the music presenting overall “themes” instead of being hotch-potch collections of unrelated items, and by turning the piano to its side so audiences could see the performer better and the instrument could with its lid opened, project the music more clearly.

How long it might have taken for others to evolve a similar kind of presentation without Liszt will never be known – as with most revolutionary developments in all human endeavour, surprise seems to be a regular and necessary component, one which Liszt certainly utilised at the outset of his stellar, if relatively brief, performing career. Since then, little has radically changed (as one might thankfully observe!), the “piano recital” at its best continuing to deliver some of the purest, most unadulterated music-listening experiences available to audiences anywhere. Liszt would have undoubtedly poured his whole being into such presentations to overwhelming effect – and something of that directly-wrought, straight-from-the-shoulder essence of committed performance and recreativity freely emanated from pianist Liam Wooding’s engaging musical personality in St Mark’s Church, Woburn over the course of an evening’s music-making!

The pianist, relaxedly sporting a colourful loose-fitting top which straightway suggested he might be on holiday, rather than “at work”, welcomed us by way of providing a context for the occasion, telling us that this was the “last stop” stop of a ten-venue tour of the country, which was another way of saying that he’d gotten to know the pieces well!  He didn’t “announce” each piece individually (his own, simply-expressed, and to-the-point programme notes told us all we needed to know as an introduction to each item), merely informing us that there would be an interval after the Beethoven Sonata. The rest he would obviously be expressing via the music!

First up was the remarkable 1939 Piano Sonata in F-sharp Minor by Douglas Lilburn. In Wooding’s hands the music’s opening Lento readily burgeoned with emotional impulses amid evocations of familiar landscapes, to my ears a prophetic precursor in sound and intent of the forces that produced the remarkable flowering of the performing arts in this country over a decade hence. Throughout, the music freely alternated between purposeful rhythmic structure and spontaneously-evolving spaces, allowing impulses, gesturings and tones to play, interact and resonate.  With playing as committed and passionate as here from Wooding, I thought these full-toned utterances beautifully defined by dint of contrast the intensities of their opposites, such as found in the magically withdrawn sequences leading to the brief but achingly lyrical coda to the movement.

The Theme-and-Variations second movement began with a chant-like invocation which readily bore fruit, elaborating on the simple mantra both quizzically and excitably – a wonderful scherzando variation contained that characteristic Lilburn rhythmic snap, while a further one exuded bumptious, angular qualities, markedly contrasting with a subsequent show of keyboard brilliance! – in response, a bell-like sequence prettily danced its approval. Came a more sober minor-key-change, filled with nostalgia, the composer listening to his world with deeply-moving feeling, before activation once again by a running figure, one insouciantly inventive! – a brief presto display of bravado and the journey was finished – obviously, a significant work still needing to come into its own, if here given the kind of advocacy that makes such things happen!

Australian composer Stuart Greenbaum’s freshly-conceived (2021) Remote Connection, was written for Wooding, the piece a response by the composer to the pandemic privations of 2020, a year of “remote connection” for many people. While directly evoking the technical manifestations of various electronic connecting devices at the start, the music also grew a wider realm of human interaction and emotional response to isolation and loneliness. Throughout, Wooding patiently brought out the work’s contrastings of the machine-like figures with long-held, deep-breathing chords, the more animated figures seeming to develop anxieties of their own in places, gesturings beset by impatience and insistence amid the different variants of touchingly human response. The jazzy, almost boogie-woogie trajectories at the end seemed almost nihilistic in their exuberance and exhilaration, perhaps speaking for desperate people tempted into doing desperate things…..

Wooding took us then to a different age’s manifestation of human isolation and loneliness, via Beethoven’s renowned “Moonlight” Sonata, one, of course, forever “coloured” by the famous contemporary description of the first movement’s undulations as resembling moonlight on lake waters, a remark which conveniently passed over the agitated violence of the final movement’s character. In his notes Wooding very properly quoted (and agreed with) fellow-pianist Michael Houstoun’s thoughts on the work as “relentlessly dark” and “violently black”, although here, his playing of the eponymous first movement seemed to me strangely contained to the point of inhibition, scarcely hinting at any deeper, darker undercurrents – an adagio that I thought needed more breadth, and a sostenuto that wanted more depth and blackness of tone.

Oddly enough these things manifested themselves readily In the two movements that followed – an Allegretto “spooked” by some of its own phrase-endings, and a Presto agitato that was just that! The latter movement I thought took time to “settle”, with the first couple of upward runs slightly muddying the two concluding notes’ whiplash sforzando effect, but the rest were most excitingly and (in one instance towards the end) even wildly brought off. After such coruscations an interval seemed like an excellent idea!

We came back to a different world, one of dreamily impressionist sounds emanating firstly from Duke Ellington’s appropriately-titled piece Reflections in D, many of whose familiar, jazzily-tinted gesturings may well have been “invented” by this same composer. In his programme note Wooding told us that an idea of “pairing” Ellington’s work with that of another composer, Claude Debussy, came from the work of an American pianist and composer, Timo Andres, who made video recordings during the pandemic underlining the links between Debussy’s works and Ellington’s material. An example was straightaway forthcoming – the seamless “running together” of the latter’s Reflections in D with Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau from Book 1 of Images, clearly demonstrating “the Duke’s” drawing from Debussy’s work, with whole phrases from the former’s piece seeming to readily align themselves with the latter’s delicately impressionist-sounding evocations.

Both pieces enchanted by turns, Wooding’s superbly-crafted playing encapsulating the “movement of stillness” world conveyed by the play of light upon watery surfaces and the disruptive animations of the fountain’s sparkling turbulence, with a nostalgic note at the end suggesting a farewell of sorts, perhaps one to the day via a sunset, or to a friend or lover in the wake of a passionate encounter…..

I’ve always been somewhat intrigued by the second Image, Hommage à Rameau, looking in vain for a reference to some motivic quotation from the earlier composer’s music, and finally figuring out that the piece is far more abstract, any such connection being expressed by the use of a solemn and serious Sarabande (a processional dance-form often used by Baroque composers to express significant and meaningful ideas and feelings). Debussy was one of the editors of a planned complete Rameau Edition, and was working on the latter’s opera Les Fêtes de Polymnie when he wrote the first Book of Images. Here, he seemed to me to awaken “ghosts” from the past, whole entourages of bygone grandeur made to live again, Wooding’s resonant playing allowing us full access to the glory and enduring resonance of one composer’s tribute to another.

What a contrast with the following Mouvement, here, the pianist’s playing brilliantly embodying the music’s title, building the crescendo leading up to the ebulliently-sounded fanfare motif, and taking us on a mercurial harmonic exploration throughout the piece’s central panoplies of sound before whirly-gigging us on to a feathery-fingered conclusion.

And so we were brought to the evening’s final item, John Adams’ monumentally self-defining minimalist work “Phrygian Gates” (the composer called it his true “Opus 1” as representing his first “mature composition” exhibiting a “personal style”. I had never heard this particular piece before (Wooding voiced the view that the work’s performances on his tour were the first heard in this country), so it was, for me, an absorbing journey of discovery, over twenty minutes of mesmeric repeated-note rhythmic and harmonic exploration which cycled its way through six of the twelve key-centres of the “circle of fifths” on a more-or-less nonstop tour.

Adams has stated that the piece requires a pianist of considerable physical endurance and sustaining capabilities, and Wooding seemed to fulfil those criteria to an astounding degree – I could detect no sign of flagging of either energy or concentration throughout the work’s entire span, and marvelled at what seemed like his complete identification with and focus upon the music’s myriad variation of impulse, colour and intensity, in places mesmeric scintillations of delicate light-and shade, while in others harrowing, agitated hammerings of dark purpose!  A “proper” musician would, as a listener, have doubtless registered the piece’s on-going technicalities of sequence and change and perhaps even predicted what was to follow, whereas my untrained sensibilities revelled in the frisson created by so many unexpected moments of stimulation, and relished to the full the “epic” experience of the work’s scale and outreach.

Afterwards I reflected on my Middle C colleague Anne French’s single comment regarding the same recital she had attended in Wellington a few days before, at St.Andrew’s – mindful of my plans to attend this concert and not wanting to unduly influence my reaction, all she conveyed to me by way of her impression of Liam Wooding’s playing was “Wow!” All I can say by way of appropriate response is “Absolutely fair comment!”

Monstrous and idiosynchrophiliac goings-on with Stroma at Wellington’s Bats Theatre

Stroma presents:
IDIOSYNCHROPHILIA – Stroma meets invented instruments!

Rosie Langabeer (composer)
Idiosynchrophilia (2021)

Invented instruments devised and built by Neil Feather

Stroma – conducted by Mark Carter
Daniel Beban, Erika Grant, Neil Feather (invented instruments)
Anna van der Zee (violin), Andrew Thomson (viola), Ken Ichinose (‘cello)
Alexander Gunchenko (double bass), Shannon Pittaway (bass trombone),
Todd Gibson-Cornish (bassoon) Thomas Guldborg, Lenny Sakofsky (percussion)

The Heyday Dome, Bats Theatre, 1 Kent Terrace, Wellington

Sunday 25th July, 2021

The perils of reviewer-conviviality are never so real as when one attends a concert of contemporary music, and sits next to someone in the audience one knows by sight but has never had a chance to talk with seriously, so most pleasantly spends the entire pre-concert time getting properly acquainted, as a result of which one completely forgets to read the concert’s programme notes before the lights are dimmed and the music gets under way!

Being thus plunged into the sound-world of an intriguingly and unconventionally “new” piece of music certainly put me on my mettle, especially as my “reviewing-brief” involved the substance of the presentation and its outcomes and the production of a dissertation of sorts on the same!  I knew beforehand that the concert featured at least three “invented” musical instruments, the work of one Neil Feather (also one of the musicians), for which an accompanying “soundscape” inspired by 1960s “monster” movies had been wrought by composer Rosie Langabeer. The fact that the contemporary music ensemble Stroma was involved also suggested that there would be interactions between these “deliciously idiosyncratic” inventions and conventional instruments of the kind any concertgoer would be familiar with – string, wind, brass, percussion instruments – perhaps!

I wasn’t entirely sure of my ground when it came to thinking about 1960s “monster movies” – though I had lived through that era, I was a timid, largely unadventurous moviegoer, who avoided anything “scary” through being prone to nightmares and other uncontrollable imaginings. I presumed there would be lots of “creepy” sounds with plenty of ominous ambiences and sudden dynamic irruptions designed to stimulate equally calamitous and involuntary bodily mechanisms to do with fright! In order to get more in alignment with the composer in this matter I googled the “monster movies” genre, pondering over what I’d missed in my formative years when reading descriptions such as “atomic mutants, monstrous throwbacks, monsters made and/or controlled by mad scientists, animal-man combinations, scientists who transform themselves into monsters, the various species of resurrected dead, and creatures from outer space, including alien parasites”.

Conversely, when the music actually began I instantly felt on familiar territory – was not that baleful bass trombone sound over sinister percussion a first cousin of Fafner, the mighty giant-turned-dragon from Wagner’s Siegfried? The sequence was repeated, with strings reinforcing the trombone, and on a third repetition Erica Grant began to tremulously activate the Nondo, a large sheet steel string instrument, which was resonated with strikers, and further activated by the rolling of a steel pole across (near invisible) strings stretched from end-to-end , the sounds electronically amplified – in fact I thought at first the pole was magnetised and seemed to “balance itself” mid-air with the help of attracting/repulsing forces! I thought in places of Len Lye’s famous steel-sheet installation in New Plymouth which I’d seen and heard a number of years ago, now, the timbres as remarkable as there but uniquely “here”, and responsive to different kinds of touches from the player, wonderfully cavernous sounds as well as delicate ones.

I ought to remark at this point that audience involvement in these gesturings couldn’t help but be total and visceral, due to the auditorium’s wonderfully-raked seating, giving every person a clear view of what the various players were doing – obviously the venue, which I had never been to previously, is something of a treasure!

The room’s immediacies were underlined when, at one point the wind and string players were goaded into launching a violent, positively seismic tutti, to which another player, Dan Beban, responded with his Vibrowheel activation, impressive in a “miniature” sense to view, and belying its size to listen to a “Mutt and Jeff” kind of comparison with the voluminous and visibly-impassive Nondo! As the latter was again roused by its player, Erica Grant. the timpani rumbled in a more spontaneously-interactive way, transferring energies towards both the bassoonist and the strings, the latter essaying eerie glissandi whose sense of unease proves a precursor to more demonstrably threatening sounds,  abrasive, fractured, and almost anarchic utterances from trombone, double bass and bassoon.

Diverting the menace somewhat was the activation of the third “invented instrument”, this one by its actual creator, Neil Feather – the Wiggler consisted of four wires stretched horizontally between two metal bars laid flat, creating a Koto-like, or dulcimer-like playing aspect, but with the wires activated by metal rods laid upon or balanced at right angles in the space between the iron bars – the rods were dropped/bounced upon or balanced in between the wires, and allowed to bounce on, and scrape against the same, gently or more forcefully as the scenario required – almost the “music of industry” seemed to resonate from this arrangement, factory-like in its repetitions, but also delicate and natural in its evocation of gentler impulses, a “music is where you find it” realisation…..

As the Wiggler was put through its paces (the ensemble percussionists took their respective triangles for a walk in separate directions at this point, possibly as a dissociative gesture!), the ensemble “crept” its diverse sounds in “under the radar”, with the strings in lament-like mode , a spell broken, intentionally or otherwise with a start-inducing crash from the vicinity of the Nondo, Erica Grant unable to supress a smile at this point as if she’d pre-planned the disturbance.

I’ve not mentioned the presentation’s notable lighting properties up to this point – artfully atmospheric and, I think, gradually morphing between different tones – but suddenly there was a marked change of atmosphere and lighting, and the ensemble immediately struck up a sentimental dance-tune, complete with wire-brush percussion accompaniment, most divertingly and engagingly delivered, the trombonist phrasing the leading melody superbly! The strings took over the tune’s first part and the bassoon and trombone concluded the phrase with some smart dovetailing!

“Time for you and time for me, and for the taking of a toast and tea” the music seemed to say, when another abrupt lighting change and a dissolution of sounds into something metallic and mechanical “flicked a switch” to a kind of “noises off” or “underbelly” scenario. Most disconcerting!  The scenarios then switched backwards and forwards from dance-scene to Nibelungen-like slave-labour industry, with each switch inducing a more desperate and anarchic feeling. A change back to the dance scene then introduced a more “hep to the jive” rhythm, the muted bass trombone sounding what seemed like a reminiscence of a 1960s television action programme, and the bassoonist out of his chair and wielding his instrument like some kind of Grim Reaper with his scythe!

Conductor Mark Carter abruptly left the podium at this point, leaving the musicians at odds with the activated “invented” instruments, whose sounds died away as the lights dimmed for the last time. Altogether it seemed like a kind of dissolution of order, and a leaving of things to nature at the eventual silencing of the machines. Whatever impressions of intent were at large, the audience’s reaction to the performance was unalloyed delight, both at its manifest entertainment value and its idiosyncrophiliac singularity.

Afterwards, at home I read the programme! – it was there! – the ominous awakening of a monster somewhere deep in the underground, followed by its pursuit of a gradual path of destruction through both nature and civilisation, ending in human oblivion. As to the place of spontaneity and improvisation in the work, such was the freedom with which the musicians brought the sounds into being, it all gave the impression of the musicians being “played” by the piece as much as playing it. I was fascinated by the manipulations of the “invented” instruments, even if I thought the Vibrowheel a tad under-represented in the work, compared with the others.

Though I didn’t feel the ‘idiosynchrophiliac” instruments integrated musically with the ensemble’s monster scenario, that perhaps wasn’t the point of what the exercise was all about – what remained in my mind was a sense of spontaneous creation and recreation having random and unexpected outcomes exhibited by all facets of the presentation, from nature’s own “dimension cleft in twain” manifestation of chaos (arguably representative of a virus waiting to strike, as well), to seemingly innocuous if titillating sound ambiences wrought from invented machines – manifestations of unpredictability from which we can each draw our own conclusions.

Jade Quartet presents a somewhat “patchworked” concert at St.Andrew’s

Wellington Chamber Music series – Jade Quartet

JOSEF HAYDN –  ‘Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross’ Op. 51 (extracts)
DAVID HAMILTON – String Quartet No 3, Quartetto Piccolo (2021)
PETER ADAMS –  ‘Proclamations, Canons and Dances’ (2018)
FRANZ SCHUBERT – String Quartet No 14 in D min ‘Death and the Maiden’, D810

St Andrews on the Terrace,

Sunday 18th July, 2021

This was an unlucky concert from the first. It was originally scheduled for 27 June,
but had to be rescheduled when Wellington went into Level 2 lockdown a few days
prior. At some point the second violin (William Hanfling) and cello (Edith Salzmann)
became unavailable: the first due to illness and the second being caught in a
COVID-19 lockdown in Melbourne. When the Jade Quartet finally arrived to present
this concert, Hanfling had been replaced by Charmian Keay, a first violinist in
Orchestra Wellington (and daughter of Miranda Adams, the quartet’s founder, who
has been Assistant Concertmaster of the APO since 1994). The new cellist,
replacing Salzmann, was James Yoo, who teaches cello and chamber music at the
University of Auckland and is a graduate of the Sydney Conservatorium and the
Musikhochschule of Cologne.

This made for a patchy concert, the weakest in the current Wellington Chamber
Music Season so far, which began with a bang with Trio Elan in April.

Haydn’s Op. 51 was originally an orchestral work, commissioned in 1786 by the
Canon of the Cathedral of Cadiz as a work for Good Friday. The Cathedral was in
the habit of commissioning new music for the solemn mass on Good Friday. The
church would be draped in black, and the windows shrouded. The Bishop would
speak each of the last words in turn, provide an exegesis, and prostrate himself
before the altar, while the orchestra played the relevant movement, each movement
about ten minutes long. The effect must have been arresting.

Haydn wrote nine sections, starting with an introduction and finishing with an
earthquake in C minor (‘Il terremoto’) with the marking Presto e con tutta la forza.
Although Haydn complained about the commission (‘it was no easy task to compose
seven adagios lasting ten minutes each, and to succeed one another without
fatiguing the listeners’), the work was immediately popular. Haydn produced a
reduced version for string quartet the following year, and also a piano version. In
1794, on his way to London, he heard a choral version in Passau, with the choir
singing a German text rather than the Gospel texts in Latin that the Bishop of Cadiz
had spoken. Haydn rather liked the effect, and wrote his own version with the
German text improved by van Swieten, which premiered in Vienna for Easter 1796.
He and van Swieten went on to work together on The Creation and The Seasons.

The Jade Quartet played only extracts from the quartet version of the work: the
Introduction; Sonata V (‘Sitio’ – I thirst); Sonata VI (‘Consummatum est’ – It is
finished), and Sonata VI (‘In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum’ – In
thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit’), plus the earthquake mentioned in Matthew
27: 51. The result was unsatisfactory, to say the least. This is a solemn work, written
for the most solemn ceremony of the most solemn day in the Church year.
Wrenched out of the liturgical context, it becomes an interesting example of Haydn’s
tonal exploration, but little more.

The Jade Quartet may have done their best, but their performance lacked profundity
or, indeed, conviction of any kind. There are a lot of notes, and although they were
all there, the tragedy and pathos were completely lacking. At times the music
sounded insouciant, even jaunty. The only movement that the players seemed to
believe in was the last one, the earthquake, in which the earth trembled and we were
all afraid.

Next in the programme was David Hamilton’s brand-new String Quartet No 3,
nicknamed ‘piccolo’ because there are only three movements, labelled ‘A little night
music’, ‘Helter Skelter’, and ‘Song without Words’. The Quartet commissioned this work, and they enjoyed playing it. The first movement starts with sustained slow
glissandi creating starry effects, before each voice enters in turn. There is a beautiful
cantabile passage from the cello with glittery sounds from the higher instruments,
before the cello’s tune is passed to the viola, sad and regretful.

The middle movement is fast and jazzy, with lovely textures (pizzicato cello under
the upper voices, and then a swapping around). And the ‘Song without Words’
began with the song in the viola, followed by the second violin, again with pizzicato
cello, then passed to the first violin, and eventually back to the cello, with silvery
harmonies again from the higher voices.

By this time, I was becoming aware that James Yoo is a superb cellist, with a
glorious sound, by turns commanding and incisive, then investing Hamilton’s rather
filmic writing with moments of beauty.

The last work in the first half of the concert was by Peter Adams, though the piece
was originally billed by Wellington Chamber Music as being by the exciting and
prolific young Chris Adams. Peter Adams was not known to me, but he is an
Associate Professor in Music at Otago, and Miranda Adams’ brother. He graduated
from Kings College London with an MMus in music theory, but he is perhaps better
known as a conductor than a composer. working with brass bands, Dunedin
Symphony Orchestra, and St Kilda Brass.

His second string quartet was written for Jade Quartet in 2018, and its title, ‘Proclamations, Canons, and Dances’ gives a sense of the work. The opening proclamation was big and imposing, as though announcing a portent. Already the emotional content was weightier than for the
entire Haydn item. This was followed by a dance led by the first violin, anxious and
restless. And so it continued.

The individual sections are short, and there’s a lot of anxious running around within
sub-sections, so it’s hard to know where the work is going as one idea is followed by
another and another. Adams describes his writing as incorporating ‘poly-stylism’ and
‘a mixed-modal language’. My notes say things like ‘another melancholy song’,
‘ghost music’, ‘a frenzied dance’, indicating that I was barely keeping up. A second
listening would clarify matters, I think.

After the interval came Schubert’s famous quartet No 14, known as ‘Death and the
Maiden’, because of the riff on his lied of the same name. It began well, and there
was some incisive playing in the first movement, but there were signs throughout of
being under rehearsed – a tempo change that almost fell apart, and a lot of choppy
playing, as though no one quite knew what to expect of the others. Often the tempi
felt rushed, which meant that the work lost some of its emotional intensity. The second
movement was under better control, except that the tragedy was often missing –
except from the cello, which held the emotional centre. The Scherzo was exciting,
and the Presto was positively hectic. The chorale section was under-powered and a
bit garbled, and there was another meno mosso that wasn’t quite together, before
the final prestissimo, which was.

And there was an encore – a syrupy arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Stardust’
by Russ Garcia, who wrote an orchestral version at the age of 11. You may be
familiar with the John Coltrane version. If so, you’d have wondered where the tune

A girdle about the earth from Antarctica to Leningrad – the NZSO National Youth Orchestra concert

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

NYO Leningrad

IHIARA McINDOE ( NYO Composer-in-Residence) – Ephemeral Bounds
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH – Symphony No. 7 in C Major “Leningrad”

NZSO National Youth Orchestra
Gemma New (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Sunday 11th July, 2021

It was going to be something of a risk, programming a work by the NYO Composer in Residence against one of the greatest symphonies of the twentieth century. A risk – or an act of faith.

Ihiara McIndoe’s Ephemeral Bounds was written in response to a visit to Antarctica last year, courtesy of the Antarctic Heritage Trust. It used less than half the players required for the Shostakovich, and scattered a few of them around the stalls which added little moments of surprise. The work opened with bold gestures from conductor Gemma New turning on the lighting that illuminated them and other players positioned eccentrically on the staging (such as the double basses behind and above the brass).  Some supplementary NZSO players were also on stage.

The work itself sustained my interest for the full ten minutes. Shimmering ice was suggested by very small glissandi from the upper strings, with the flutes and piccolo creating a chilly distance.  Crystalline harp plus percussion. Muted trumpets. The distant sound of a small engine receding. Waves breaking.  And then the much larger engine of the ice; deep, grinding. Sostenuto tuba. The sound is briefly enveloping. Wind. The violas tell us something sad, something ominous. A crescendo of storm (trombones, bassoons, lower strings). Another growl of motors.  A melancholy tune from the concertmaster – but quickly falls silent. A siren-line sound from a solo cello. Woodwind chords.

The piece closed, as it began, with the tiny string glissandos, then silence.

As usual with a new work, it is hard to see past the many clever effects. I was busy throughout trying to determine which instrument created which effect before it ceased. Will this become a much-loved addition to the concert repertoire? Is it challenging to rehearse and stage? My guess is that it is fun to play, and Gemma New, who enjoys working with new and experimental works, clearly enjoyed conducting it.

At this point the NZSO took advantage of the full house to hand out some awards. This year, CEO Peter Biggs told us, every player in the NYO has been sponsored. In addition, all the string players had to re-audition for their seat at the start of the rehearsal period. The John Chisholm Concertmaster Prize was awarded to Peter Gjelsten (Violin I); the Alex Lindsay Memorial Award to Eli Holmes (Principal Bassoon); and the Norbert Hauser Viola Award to Zephyr Wills. The Bill Clayton Memorial Award winner was selected by Gemma New, who gave the award to Isabella Thomas (Principal Trumpet). The audience stamped its approval.

The pre-concert talk was a series of presentations by players on aspects of the Shostakovich. From the snatches I caught, the players were well aware of the circumstances of its composition and its historical significance. The orchestration is huge: 8 horns, 6 trumpets, 6 trombones, tuba, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, two harps, and at least 16 first violins, 14 seconds, 12 violas, 10 cellos, and 8 double basses. Plus a big percussion section (5 timpani, 2-3 snares, and so on). To make up the numbers, the NYO was augmented by NZSO players as required, which meant we benefited from Robert Orr on oboe, Michael Austin on cor anglais, David Angus on contrabassoon, and Larry Reece on timpani. But the credit remains with the NYO players.

This is a monumental work, and the NYO approached it with the seriousness of purpose and steadfast application it demands. The author of the programme notes seemed to be of the view that Shostakovich wrote the symphony in response to the 1941 attack on Leningrad and its subsequent siege by the Germans. But the ‘invasion theme’ of the first movement builds to such a mirthless climax, that the hidden programme, the destruction of Leningrad and its people by Stalin in the 1930s, was clear to all who had ears. There is wreckage by the end of the movement. There are pitiable wails. There is almost no sign of life. The bassoon threnody is beautiful, but that relentless snare drum rhythm ticks away in a menacing undertone, and the trumpets are still ironic.

For those without ears, the NZSO provided ‘performance visuals’ by ‘leading creatives Nocturnal’. My heart sank when I saw this on the programme, but they were moody and unobtrusive (or as unobtrusive as a projection on a huge screen can be), and not too literal. I expect there were people in the audience who appreciated them, but to my mind Shostakovich’s music needs no visual interpretation, though some iceberg pictures may have usefully added to the atmospherics of the McIndoe work.

The second and third movements are freighted in sorrow. The brass choir that opened the third movement announced loss and doom. There were superb performances by Sam Zhu (tuba), Benedict van Leuven (clarinet), Harrison Chau (harp) and terrifying energy from the lower brass and strings. The percussion was splendid and inexorable. But it’s unfair to single anyone out: everyone played their hearts out, and if some of the best playing came from NZSO players, it hardly matters.

The C major climax in the fourth movement was preceded by elegiac themes in the strings, tenderness turning to tragedy, resilience haunted by loss. The climax itself presented a kind of triumph: grand, certainly, but for how long? Not long, the snare drum says. Not long at all.

I found this performance very moving. At some point in the fourth movement I had tears in my eyes, though I was not aware of them until it was over. All I wanted to do afterwards was to retreat to some quiet corner, alone and silent. The mirthless trumpets, the cynical snare drum came with me.




Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” a triumph for Witch Music Theatre at Wellington’s Te Auaha

Witch Music Theatre Charitable Trust presents:
SONDHEIM  –  Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler (from a play by Christopher Bond)

Cast: Sweeney Todd – Chris Crowe
Mrs Lovett – Vanessa Stacey
Beggar Woman – Frankie Leota
Judge Turpin – Thomas Barker
Tobias Ragg – Jared Palleson
Beadle Bamford – Jthan Morgan
Anthony Hope – Zane Berguis
Johanna Barker – Olivia Stewart
Adolfo Pirelli – Ben Paterson

Ensemble: Devon Neiman, Emma Salzano, Nino Raphael, Katie Atkins, Isaac Andrews, Allegra Canton, Patrick Jennings, Michaela Cadwgan, Jackson Burling, Sinéad Keane, Minto Fung,  Natasha McAllister, Fynn Bodley-Davies, Joanne Hodgson, Jason Henderson, Tania Dreaver

Musicians: Mark W.Dorrell (Music director/keyboard), Karla Norton (violin), Samuel Berkhan(‘cello), Simon Eastwood/Jandee Song (double basses), Nick Walshe (clarinet), Peter Lamb (bassoon), Brendan Agnew (trumpet), Viv Read (horn), Brent Stewart (percussion)

Ben Emerson (director)
Nick Lerew (assistant director)
Joshua Tucker (technical designer)
Greta Casey-Solley (choreographer)
Emma Stevens (costumes)
Patrick Barnes (sound)

Te Auaha Performing Arts Centre, 65 Dixon St,. Wellington

Wednesday, 30th June, 2021

“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd” proclaimed the first singer shortly after the opening of Witch Music Theatre’s instantly-riveting Te Auaha production of the eponymous show  – no argument or dissent was brooked, as we had already been ensnared and drawn into an ominous, all-pervading scenario of compelling unease  generated by gothic, phantom-sounding organ figurations, dimly-perceived Nibelungen-like figures materialising from nowhere performing scrubbing-like tasks of enslavement, and a sudden, “scream-like” irruption of fearful , anguished noise, overwhelmingly visceral in its impact. We needed no further enjoiners to “attend” to what developed from this into a veritable cornucopia of theatrical action, the chorus’s taking up of the work’s exposition in an overwhelming and incisive way that never once flagged throughout the evening.

Director Ben Emerson’s approach to Stephen Sondheim’s recreation of the Victorian “penny dreadful” tale of the murderous barber Sweeney Todd has been to pull the action from Victoriana into post WW2 London, though somehow emphasising the more timeless themes of love and loss, lust and cruelty, obsession and vengeance which drive the social, economic and moral backgrounds, of the original tale, thereby, as Emerson puts it, “stay(ing) true to the text while creeping us ever closer to a chilling and hauntingly recognisable reality”, a recreative attitude that has enlivened many a starkly and impossibly cruel and monstrous folk-tale from various cultures. For me the “updating” of the scenario is always less important than the valid and believable depiction of those  qualities of “cynicism, moral ambiguity and corruption” – all of which are by no means new sins, however coloured by changing social mores.

A significant feature of this production was the integration of the orchestra in relation to the stage action. At first I thought this had been miscalculated as regards the solo singing – even with discreet microphoning, the vocal soloists’ tones often seemed masked by the sheer proximity of the instruments, no matter how sensitively played. My seat position, I think, accentuated this problem – second row from the front – from where everything at first seemed very loud. As the show went on, either the balances or my ears seemed to adjust, and I found myself less concerned regarding the singers’ audibility, and more increasingly attuned to the interaction between voices and instruments, to the point where it simply ceased to be a problem.

Central to the interaction between stage and instruments, and to the production’s general ebb and flow was music director Mark W.Dorrell, through whose hands and gestures it all came to life, increasingly so as the first part of the action proceeded. The characterisation of each musical moment, whether physical and energetic, lyrical and flowing, or poised and heart-stopping, was here  “grown” by Dorrell with his players and singers out of the whole with an inevitablilty that took our sensibilities inexorably onward and left us resonating with it all at the action’s end – masterful music-making from all concerned. I particularly relished the lurid deliciousness of the waltz tunes that accompanied some of the story’s blackest sequences, an instance being the hatching of the plan by Sweeney and his accomplice Mrs Lovett to not let the cadaver of the unfortunate “Signor Pirelli” become “an awful waste”! How wonderfully  macabre and gruesomely fascinating a marriage of music and theatre, with moods also brilliantly set alongside others inhabiting different parts of the spectrum – such as the song of the lovers, Anthony’s and Joanna’s “Kiss Me” counterpointing Judge Turpin’s and the Beadle’s discussion re enhancing the judge’s attractiveness to his ward, with “Ladies in their sensitivities”.

Ben Emerson’s direction made the most of the potentialities offered by the venue’s cheek-by-jowl proximity of stage and audience – the first few rows of seats in which I sat, were, most excitingly, in practically the same space as were the performers! – the propinquity of so many energetic, pulsating, sweating bodies right from the beginning gave the choruses a tactile quality not for the faint-hearted! I found the physicality of choreographer Greta Casey-Solly’s deployment of her forces most exhilarating (the asylum scene in Act Two had a particularly urgent, white-hot  quality), and the boldly-contrasted relief of the stillness of some scenes all the more telling – the raptness of Sweeney’s reunitement with his set of shaving razors (“These are my friends”) had a savagely ironic poignancy which then exploded into fierce joy as he exclaimed, holding the blades “My right arm is complete again!” – a moment whose power was as much the sum of the evocative surrounding parts as the gesture itself!

Technically, it was all a tour de force, the various stagings making the most of both different levels and refracted views (a clear perspex “curtain” making a telling variation on the “through a glass darkly” principle at certain moments – characters seen by us but not by those onstage, or given the illusion of concealment, adding a fantastic visual element to the barber’s various throat-cutting despatchings of some of his victims). Post-war and 1950s London would have in places probably have been almost as ill-lit, and smoke- and fog-filled as in Victorian times – though the  exterior scenarios recreated here reminded me more in places of Dennis Potter’s television series “The Singing Detective” than of Dickens. Joshua Tucker’s evocative lighting enhanced Emma Stevens’ costumes’ authentic period glow, and underpinned the morbid juxtaposition of the ordinary and the grotesque, with Mrs Lovett and  Sweeney, dressed in their “blood aprons” discussing a visit to the seaside.

Though some of the singing needed a tad more projection in places throughout the first act, I thought the characterisations of the principals irresistible and compelling throughout – the lovers, Zane Berghuis and Olivia Stewart as Anthony and Joanna, looked and sounded just as one might imagine them to do, Berghuis’s voice properly lyrical and romantic and Stewart’s voice sweet and tremulous, making a poignant blend, both responding wholeheartedly to the energies of their roles as well as to the romantic delicacies. As the Beggar-Woman Frankie Leota captured both the pitiable and the hard-bitten aspects of her character with real gusto, giving her frenzied “City on Fire!” sequence plenty of juice and her mutterings of “Mischief!” real bite.

The “villains”, Judge Turpin (Thomas Barker) and Beadle Bamford (Jthan Morgan), were sharply differentiated, Barker’s depiction of the Judge a no-holds-barred, cruel, but torn and divided man, in enslavement to his lust for his ward Joanna, and seemingly in thrall to his guilt, as witness the self-flagellation scene (as convincing in this scene as any I’ve seen “live” or on video). By contrast, Jthan Morgan’s Beadle here was very much the dandified dilettante-like fop, his affected manner making him appear more to me like a character from a Restoration Comedy – but post-war Europe was in flux and manners and modes up for grabs, a world in which personalities such as Quentin Crisp could and did flourish. Here in Morgan’s portrayal was menace of a different kind, lurking beneath a polished, suave exterior.

Another “character” was the “Italian” showman Adolfo Pirelli, colourfully played by Ben Paterson, with his young helper, Tobias Ragg, (a sensitive characterisation by Jared Palleson), the showman delivering his song brilliantly in front of the crowd,  then later calling on Sweeney after the latter “outshaved” him in a contest, threatening to expose the barber’s secret past (as a deported convict), and meeting an aforementioned grisly end at Sweeney’s hands as a result, the “Italian’s” young helper Tobias duly “adopted” by the versatile Mrs Lovett.  The boy came to regard her as his “charge”, Jared Pallesen subsequently singing a heartfelt, almost desperate  “Nothing’s gonna harm you” to her, voicing his fears for her safety in the company of “Mr. Todd”, fears that ultimately proved all too real.

Though Sondheim’s work is ultimately about the central character, one couldn’t have a great “Sweeney” without a similarly larger-than-life stage partner – and Vanessa Stacey’s Mrs Lovett was the perfect foil for the haunted, obsessive “demon barber”, bringing all of the energy and magnetism the character needed to imprint her own personality on the action – affable, vivacious, practical, earthy and occasionally sensual, classically the opposite of her destined partner in almost every way, she was, in effect, Sweeney’s “dark angel”, firstly recognising his former self, and then reconnecting him with the initial talismanic instruments that once represented his livelihood, and now were transformed into tangible means of vengeance. Stacey’s singing and acting brought out both the character’s everyday qualities listed above, and crucially realised Mrs Lovett’s ultimate tragedy – that she deserved a better fate, but, however brutally and savagely, was somehow, with  ruinous irony, enabled to fulfil her destiny.

As Sweeney Todd, I thought Chris Crowe profoundly satisfying, both in terms of his stand-alone qualities as a character, and in his interactions with others and with the world in general. His acting epitomised a damaged, insufficiently nurtured being, replete with barely-repressed fear and anger, unable to shake off his desire for revenge, as if everything, including his own ultimate destruction, was predestined; while his singing was always finely-honed, his gradations of tone and timbre set upon specific intensities and emotions throughout. I felt an edge to his stage presence the whole time, one that exuded unease and wounded feeling, though never to excess – I’ve already mentioned the totality of feeling he brought to his reconnection with his barber’s razors, characterising their functions so viscerally and chillingly with the words “you shall drip rubies” – but in  so many other places he brought different tones of menace to the part, at one point “calling out” individual audience members as his potential victims in his desire for revenge upon humanity in general and at another cursing London and its cruelties –  “It’s a hole in the world like a great black pit, and the vermin of the world inhabits it”……. He and Vanessa Stacey as Mrs Lovett  made, I thought, a splendid pair!

Circumstances prevented me from completing this review before the show’s Wellington season finished – however I would imagine the production to be regarded by anybody who attended as an excellent advertisement for any forthcoming Witch Charitable Trust Theatre presentations, as well as for the splendidly atmospheric Te Auaha venue and its tireless team of enablers. What else can I say but “Hats off to all concerned!”










Holly Mathieson’s “Dream” debut concert with the NZSO….

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
FANTASTIQUE – Music by Takemitsu, Dorothy Ker and Berlioz

TORU TAKEMITSU – Dream (Yume no Toki)
DOROTHY KER – The Third Dream
HECTOR BERLIOZ – Symphonie Fantastique Op.14

Holly Mathieson (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington,

Friday, May 14th, 2021

If this were Australia, the use of the word “Dreamtime “ would perhaps more readily come to mind as an idea which loosely connects the three pieces played in this evening’s concert – as it is, in the case of the opening work, Toru Takemitsu’s 1981 work Dreamtime (Yume no Toki), the composer proclaimed his interest in the idea as a kind of starting-point, inspired by an invitation to attend a gathering of Aboriginal singers, dancers, musicians and storytellers at Groot Eylandt, an island in the Australian Northern Territory. Takemitsu never intended the work which eventuated to represent Australian indigenous culture, and much less the “true concept” of the Dreamtime, as would more obviously neither Dorothy Kerr’s nor Hector Berlioz’s work – each piece instead evokes in its own way a “sense” of what the subconscious mind can convey in the form of dreams pertaining to vastly different worlds and personalities.

It made for an extraordinarily thought-provoking and ultimately satisfying evening’s music, one I thought most skilfully reimagined and directed by New Zealand conductor Holly Mathieson, making her debut with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. I first encountered her work as a conductor of opera, which to my ears resulted in a riveting realisation for New Zealand Opera of Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw”; and was thus anxious to compare her work as a symphonic conductor with another New Zealander who’s recently made HER debut with the orchestra, Gemma New – it’s kind of ironic that both musicians currently have music directorships of orchestras in Canada after working as assistant conductors with prestigious ensembles, Mathieson with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and New with the St.Louis Symphony Orchestra in the US.

Hazardous though the practice can prove for those less adept, Mathieson took the microphone on her arrival and spoke with us, enthusiastically welcoming us to the concert, and deftly characterising the pieces we were about to hear with some well-wrought descriptions and images.  She advised us to “put on our Debussy/Ravel ears” for the Takemitsu work we were about to hear, before cautioning us that the Dorothy Ker work that followed would be a completely different kind of “dream experience”. She then demurely indicated that we would be left to our own imaginations’ devices regarding the Berlioz “Symphonie Fantastique”, the music’s scenario being so well-known and the movement’s titles allowing our fancy plenty of free rein.

Takemitsu’s self-avowed love of French music to my ears haunted his Dreamtime, its textures hovering between a kind of Debussy-esque impressionism and a Messiaen-like unpredictability, yet throughout the composer brought his own kind of gentle volatility to its language, a capriciousness that made each of the work’s wave-like impulses weave its own spell before drawing back into mystery – we found ourselves at one and the same time sated with the fantastical detailing of each outpouring, every gentle irruption of sound uniquely constituted, yet refreshed by the wonder of the ebb which ruled the course of each flow. I found it all exerted a spell from which I was awoken by silence, everything miraculously wrought by orchestral playing of the utmost delicacy and the surest motivation, and contrived by what seemed like limitless sensitivity of direction from the conductor. I was reminded here of the famous British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham’s well-known prescription for successful interpretation as “maximum virility allied to maximum sensitivity”, with the music’s focus never in doubt throughout moments of both intensity and serenity. The piece’s fourteen minutes seemed akin in a timeless sense to poet William Blake’s phrase “eternity in an hour”, where the poet’s words become the agents of vast possibilities similar to those in Takemitsu’s music.

Nothing could have been more different to Takemitsu’s evocations of light and movement than the deep darkness of the concert’s next piece, Dorothy Ker’s The Third Dream, a work whose cavernous percussive impulses at the beginning suggested primordial gestation processes involving deep awakenings, as if the listener had been put in synch with “deep earth” mysteries. The programme note quotes Ker as tracing the origins of this work back to a music theatre work she wrote derived from the Greek myth of Iphigenia, a princess whom the gods demanded be sacrificed by her own father, Agamemnon, in exchange for a “fair passage” to the wars at Troy for him and his army, and whose mother, Clytemnestra relived her anger and despair at her daughter’s sacrifice through dreams. These dreams intensified her anger to the point where “The Third Dream” culminated in Clytemnestra murdering her husband on his return from the Trojan Wars – Ker “lifted” this sequence from the theatre work and reorchestrated it for full symphony orchestra.

From the darkness the sounds gradually coagulated, each impulse a kind of “awakening strand” which wrapped itself around others and stimulated further growth, much of which came from instruments whose players were directed by the composer to establish their own trajectories, unsynchronised with others, a textural and rhythmic scenario which at once engendered “freedom and chaos”, the flecks of impulse becoming like shrapnel, the detailings leaving harsh, indelible imprints. The percussion’s frenzied tatooings and seismic rumblings stimulated shouts of exuberance  from the brass before the opening thundersheet textures returned, bringing with its unrelenting presence an increased volatility, allied to a tremendous weight of baleful, almost vengeful intent, some of the darkest-browed music I’ve ever directly experienced! A rawness, befitting spent and despairing inclination, moaned a lament as the music sounded its death-knell.

After the interval we were intrigued to see a relatively unfamiliar figure approaching the podium to take up the microphone – it turned out to be the orchestra’s contrabassoon player, David Angus, bent upon a mission, that of marking the retirement and final appearance of his colleague in the orchestra, Principal Bassoonist Robert Weeks, with a speech of appreciation and farewell that was amongst the funniest and drollest salutation to a colleague I’ve ever heard given. To his credit, Robert Weeks, after taking a few moments to recover, managed to get to his feet to acknowledge our tribute made by way of applause – amid all the amusement, a moving moment!

So it was then time for a “third dream” of a different kind, that of Hector Berlioz in his “Symphonie Fantastique” of 1830. The work’s title immediately poses a difficulty for any aspiring interpreter of this work – does she or he emphasise the “Symphonie” or the “Fantastique” in the piece? In a sense the two terms denote opposing characteristics, broadly, those of order and fancy, respectively – and any conductor of the work will seek to “marry” these opposite qualities in a more-or-less coherent sense according to her or his idea of what will “work” best.

I thought Holly Mathieson got the first movement absolutely right in terms of finding a balance between structure and spontaneity – the opening music dreamlike, fragmented, episodic, creative, seemingly conjured out of the ether,  the conductor fluid in her movements, tending to use both arms as well as the baton to describe whole roulades of sound with her gestures, but getting the required “attack” as the strings raced through the cross-rhythms to the first “peak” of excitement, and pointedly bringing out the wind augmentations to the strings’ excitable reiteration of the opening. And what a magical sequence we next enjoyed! – with the strings descanting the horn and winds just before the marvellous string tremolandi which led to the appearance of the “idee fixe”, the “motif” which Berlioz will use to denote his ‘beloved” in her many guises throughout the work.
The melody here was buoyant, eager, supple and yielding, and readily “gathered in” as the music gratifyingly pirouetted into the repeat, the fluency and dexterity of the playing even more free and astonishing a second time round! At the development. It was the lower strings that burgeoned forth excitingly with a series of phrases that excitably led to a series of great crescendi, breaking off to allow the horn to introduce the “idee fixe” on the winds this time, the strings grabbing the attention again with a fugal passage, at the end of which Mathieson beautifully facilitated a “moment” of reflection, an “are we all here” sequence, with the lower strings growling their assent.

It was time for the oboe to instigate the thematic passage that must have amazed contemporary ears with its startling modulatory explorations and almost vertiginous swerves of harmony, building up to a great tutti passage, the conductor here not perhaps getting the most exciting and recklessly abandoned playing I’ve heard, but certainly the most detailed! – a second crescendo reinforced its confident sense of arrival, and subsequent readiness to “sing” the movement’s epilogue as if it were a hymn, and the moment had created something almost transfigured…..

At the swirling, mist-shrouded beginning of the second movement, “Un Bal”, I noticed the conductor actually pirouetting on one foot at one point, giving an extra bit of swing to the dance’s opening, the waltz-tune itself then relaxing into a sensual and dream-like manner. I liked the extra angularity of the double basses’ accompaniments to the “idee fixe” in its appearance, and the richness of the string-tone, even if the solo cornet’s optional extra colour and character was missed. Mathieson caught the gathering of excitement at the dance’s end, the clarinets and flutes bringing out the sensual beauty of the melody associated with the “beloved”, before the strings spectacularly whirled everything and everybody away in the dance’s coda.

The beautiful exchanges between the shepherds’ pipes at the beginning of the “Scène aux champs”, with the offstage oboe replying to the song of the cor anglaise onstage, inspired the violas to enchant us with their rapt voicing of the ascending melody which followed (a lovely accented note at one point!), the conductor getting such astonishingly atmospheric playing from all concerned here – the textures achieve a real “glow” with the help of the horn and the wind choir. Later, the cellos similarly delighted us with the richness of their tones, enhanced by the double-basses’ accenting of their accompaniments, though in the string passages that subsequently built up I thought that the conductor “kept back” the tremolandi outbursts that accompanied the winds playing of the “idee fixe”, as she seemed to do the tempestuous full orchestral outburst that followed. But how lovely were both flutes and clarinet in the passage that followed, joined by the equally poetic oboe at the end, Mathieson then deftly shaping the strings decrescendo just before the return of the shepherd’s song. The heartbreak of the abandoned cor anglais here was almost palpable, even if I thought the timpani were in reply allowed to get too loud too quickly, missing some of the initial menace.

Mathieson chose a quickish tempo for the “Marche au supplice”, exciting in its way, though perhaps having the effect of glossing over the nightmarish crudities and grotesqueries of the scene – the  bassoons’ mockery of the victim in the tumbrel, the timpani’s rumbling of the cart’s wooden wheels and the brass’s snarlings with the mob’s blood-lust – even so, the orchestral detailing leading up to the tremendous crashes in the march’s central section unerringly captured the ear, as did the ironic charge of emotion in the clarinet’s playing of the “idee fixe”, just before the piece’s gruesome climax, Mathieson grimly cutting off the brass’s shouts of triumph at the victim’s beheading.

Even if I felt that I wanted the climax of the symphony’s final “Witches’ Sabbath” scene to be a notch or two wilder and harsher, I thought Mathieson’s control of the opening of the scene was stunningly evocative, with the players delivering the focus and bite the music seemed to call for, the winds balefully “bending” their raptor-like cries, and the basses rumbling their cavernous tones with real menace. I did think the bells underpowered, the idea seeming to be that they sound from a distance, which unfortunately had the effect of lessening their louring, clamorous impact. The brass and percussion response throughout was for the most part overwhelming, even if those two simultaneously-played-though-not-quite-concurrent sets of repeated chords amidst the frenzy of the Witches’ Dance could have been further de-synchronised by the conductor – they sounded too integrated and well-behaved!! Still, the absolute mayhem that broke out at the end was properly gratifying, as was the audience response to the music-making, which, in tandem with Holly Mathieson’s promising NZSO debut, had helped to make this concert such a memorable and significant event, a most appropriate scenario in which to wish her the warmest of welcomes!




Unusual trio ensemble with a highly satisfying, widely international series opens Wellington Chamber Music year

Wellington Chamber Music: first concert in 2021 season

Trio Elan
Donald Armstrong (violin)
Simon Brew (saxophone)
Sarah Watkins (piano)

Russell Peterson: Trio for alto saxophone, violin and piano
Peter Liley: Deux Images for Trio: Small Scurrying and Glimpse
Albeniz: Evocación, from Iberia (piano solo)
Barry Cockcroft: Beat Me (tenor saxophone solo)
Debussy: Violin Sonata in G minor
Marc Eychenne: Cantilène et Danse
Piazzolla: Otoño Porteño 
Farr: Tango: Un Verano de Passion

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Sunday 18 April, 3 pm

The first concert in Wellington Chamber Music’s 2021 season attracted a fairly full audience, no doubt partly a response to their deprivation in 2020. It would have appealed to chamber music aficionados on account of the three well-known musicians and the inclusion of at least one well-known work, plus a couple of others by familiar and attractive composers – Albéniz and Piazzolla, and a popular New Zealand composer – Gareth Farr. That offered the prospect that the rest might be interesting: it certainly was.

Russell Peterson
It opened with a trio by American saxophonist and composer, Russell Peterson. It troubled me almost at once. Though it was a vigorous, rhythmic piece, throwing violin and saxophone against each other, each delivered such individual sounds that the wide spacing of the two gave the impression that unity could be in conflict. But rhythmic unity was always conspicuous and superficially disparate sounds were clearly studied and not simply tonal antipathy.

The second movement, Adagio, was more audibly genial, occupying the space in the church more comfortably. A congenial duet between violin and saxophone might have been rather shrill but the piano’s steady pace imposed a calmer spirit. The last movement, labelled ‘moto perpetuo’, again given to repetitive rhythms and terse themes, created an excitement that might again have been taxing in the church’s acoustic. Nevertheless, the performance of this deliberate music was admirably studied, displaying the trio’s vigour and unanimity, and however the instruments were assembled in performance, there was no doubt that it was a carefully studied, meaningful interpretation.

Deux Images by young Wellington saxophonist and composer, Peter Liley, created contrasting sound pictures with darting, tremulous motifs; first by the violin, then the saxophone. Its two movements seemed to vary mainly through the music’s general pitch; a hypnotic quality pervaded both movements, creating a distinctly enchanted feeling.

It was good to hear Sarah Watkins in a solo piano piece such as one of Albéniz’s Ibéria: ‘Evocación’, the first of the twelve pieces. They are rarely played in New Zealand, as far as I can recall, and the likelihood of their being heard on Concert FM gets increasingly dim. Sarah Watkins’ playing was beautifully idiomatic, capturing both the essential Spanish spirit and her own obvious admiration for the composer’s music.

Next was a piece for solo tenor saxophone: Beat me, by Australian composer, Barry Cockroft. It was a display of the varied sounds available, including many that were unpitched, essentially non-musical; but it was driven by rhythmic, dancing or percussive sounds; a repeated bleat around bottom G or A flat offered a kind of stability. It was an intriguing experience, though I confess to being somewhat unclear about the purpose of and relationships between many of the sounds. I felt indeed that its formidable technical difficulties might take a very long time to master.

Debussy violin sonata
After the Interval, violin and piano played Debussy’s last piece, from 1917: the third of his planned six sonatas far various instruments: he died of cancer in 1918. This was an admirable performance of a piece that ends in a spirit of sheer delight; and it was an opportunity to hear both a pianist that Wellington rarely hears since she left the NZTrio, and a violinist who is conspicuous mainly at Associate concert master of the NZSO and leader of the Amici Ensemble (they give the last concert, in October, in this Wellington Chamber Music series). Their performance was multi-facetted and as near to flawless as you’d get.

Marc Eychenne is a French composer born in Algeria in 1933. In some ways, not merely because it called for the same instruments as the Peterson piece, the two seemed to have similar, or at least related characteristics, even though Eychenne’s piece was composed before Peterson was born. There was no sign of any attempt here to draw attention to the dissimilarity between violin and saxophone; in fact when the saxophone entered several bars after the violin had established itself, the two seemed to seek common elements, to find considerable homogeneity. The effect was certainly in contrast to that in the Peterson piece. The contrast between the ‘Cantilène’ and the ‘Danse’ in itself was engaging: once again, in the writing and the playing of the two movements there was a sense of unanimity as well as contrast.

It encouraged me later to look (through the inevitable YouTube) for other pieces by Eychenne; it proved a rewarding excursion. Both works were obviously composed in the post-Serialist, post extreme avant-garde era, neither seemed persuaded to employ such defeatist techniques in an attempt to emulate the influences that so alienated much music composed in the late 20th century.

Piazzolla and Farr
The same goes, of course for the last two pieces, by Piazzolla and Gareth Farr. The Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (‘Four Seasons of Buenos Aires’) by Piazzolla have become very familiar and the Otoño (Autumn) movement in its attractive arrangement including saxophone was charmingly idiomatic.

It was a nice idea to link Piazzolla’s piece with a piece that Farr wrote for a TV series, The Strip. In the words of the programme note, it was “incidental music for a smouldering scene between a stripper and choreographer”; as described, it proved dreamy and seductive. A nice way to bring the wholly attractive concert to a close.

The remaining six concerts in Wellington Chamber Music’s series look most interesting: chairman David Hutton mentioned special concessions available to those attending the concert to subscribe for the rest of the year.Don’t hestitate!


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

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents

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

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

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday 8th April, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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