“Packed (and) buzzing” audience acclaim Wellington Chamber Orchestra’s 50th Anniversary Concert

Wellington Chamber Orchestra
Rachel Hyde (conductor)
The 50th Anniversary Concert

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH – Festive Overture Op.96
GARETH FARR Terra Incognita (2008)
GUSTAV HOLST – The Planets  Op.32

Alan Gibbs Centre, Wellington College

Saturday 28th May, 2022

The Alan Gibbs Centre was packed to the gills, and buzzing with celebratory vibes, for this ambitious concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the WCO. The stage as well was crowded and festive, with past members of the Orchestra making a return to its ranks for this gala programme. In keeping with the mood and the occasion, the programme opened with Shostakovich’s Festive Overture (Op. 96). Written in 1954 for the 37th anniversary of the October Revolution, this party of a piece contains no hint of the shadows and ironies that mark the composer’s more contemplative works – likely because he was given no time to contemplate it: the overture was commissioned at the last minute by the Bolshoi Theatre and had to be ready in three days, with couriers whisking each freshly-completed page off to the theatre to be copied for parts.  The piece opens with an arresting fanfare whose grandeur was slightly blunted by the fact that two of the WCO’s brass players had had to be replaced that very morning due to untimely Covid infections. Here and elsewhere, the brass section struggled heroically on, but with a certain lack of cohesion that reflected the ad-hoc nature of the ensemble. Elsewhere, the effects of Covid (which disrupted the personnel, rehearsal schedule, and timing of the concert itself) were felt more occasionally, with the most supple and resilient ensemble playing coming from the woodwinds.  Rachel Hyde’s crisp, clear conducting was a pleasure to watch, and yielded its best results in the pizzicato section of the work, where a crackling energy and rhythm drove the music forward.

Next up was Gareth Farr’s Terra Incognita (2008), written after a sojourn in Antarctica. Its libretto, by Paul Horan, incorporates excerpts from the diaries of Robert Falcon Scott and Frank Debenham (a scientist with Scott’s expedition), as well as from Tennyson’s Ulysses (Scott’s favourite poem, apparently) and Horan’s own “poetic” reflections on the breaking up of the Larsen B ice shelf. The mood thus runs the gamut from awestruck (“This earth was never ours”) to heroic (“Come, my friends….smite/The sounding furrows”) to elegiac (“Goodbye Larsen B”), as the ice first dwarfs, then kills men, only to be ultimately killed by them. Choristers made up from many Wellington choirs, including The Glamaphones, Cantoris, Nota Bene, Orpheus and others, singing in long static phrases evoked a frozen landscape and acted as a kind of Greek chorus of the “transient strangers” referenced by Debenham, “stunned and stunted” by the mystique of the ice. The foreground characters – Scott, Debenham, and the poems’ lyric speakers – were voiced by Samuel McKeever in a deep, imposing bass.  The flat acoustics of the Gibbs Center, especially when filled with people bundled up in winter layers, did the singers no favours, alas. Nonetheless McKeever’s “Great God! This is an awful place” in the sixth movement – drawn from Scott’s diary – penetrated to the back of the hall, a grim highlight of the sung text.

The piece followed the overall form of a song cycle, without pauses between movements, the textures in the orchestra reflecting and co-creating the mood of each text. A hushed opening movement, “This earth was never ours,” began with glass chimes over tremulous (and slightly out of tune) pianissimo strings, a stylised evocation of cold and cracking ice, gradually joined by the woodwinds and then by the choir on its long, “frozen” chords. This gave way to the contrasting second movement, “Come, my friends,” in which the heroic words of Ulysses, sung by McKeever, were chased about by striving, strenuously rhythmic accompaniment from the orchestra, led by the strings. This in turn yielded to another “frozen” choral movement, “I never knew you” (to an original text by Horan), followed by a very cinematic setting of text from Scott’s diary, “Night light,” which McKeever managed to make genuinely songlike. The fifth movement, “Quiet land,” was heralded (counterintuitively) by a snare drum, with the woodwinds and percussion underpinning a restless setting of Debenham’s text (“Ever moving…ceaselessly circling”), joined by the strings and choir at its climax (“And above all, the dream is here”). A slow, foreboding sixth movement (“Eternal Silence”) juxtaposed Scott’s anguished words with a hushed but strenuous discord in the orchestra and choir, produced by asking each chorister to sing their highest comfortable note. If the mood here recalled Penderecki’s famous Threnody, the seventh and final movement, “Goodbye Larsen B” – elegiac in tone, with lush harmonies in the orchestra – was closer to Górecki. The circular structure that often distinguishes Farr’s works was evident here only in the return of the glass chimes, which seemed slightly incongruous given the narrative of the work, documenting the destruction of the icy wilderness they had evoked at the start. McKeever’s diction, excellent throughout, made it impossible to hide from the rather pedestrian character of the lyrics in this final song. His heroic performance was warmly applauded.

After an intermission, players and audience returned for Holst’s Planets. Covid notwithstanding, the number of musicians onstage amply bore out this work’s generic label, “Suite for Large Orchestra.”  As Holst fans know, the piece’s seven movements proceed in astrological rather than astronomical order: Mars first, then Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. (Earth doesn’t get a look-in, but was, one supposes, indirectly represented by Farr’s Terra Incognita in the first half.) “Mars, the Bringer of War,” a regulation banger in 5/4 time, was beautifully shaped by Rachel Hyde’s eloquent conducting and went with a swing. In contrast, “Venus, the Bringer of Peace” sounded initially uncertain, with some hesitant entrances and wobbly tuning. As sometimes happens, a collective loss of confidence seemed to set in, infecting each soloist in turn. On the other hand, in tutti passages, especially when playing driving rhythms or conveying a sense of sweeping passion, the orchestra made a magnificently lustrous sound. One might say that they felt more at home in war than in peace….a tempting metaphor for human nature.

“Mercury, the Winged Messenger” featured some lovely woodwind duets and an ethereal “celesta” contribution from the always excellent Heather Easting on an electric keyboard which doubled as the (sadly inaudible against a full orchestra playing ffff) “organ” later on. These were the moments where the triple subdivision of the beat in this movement felt most comfortable; elsewhere, the players could perhaps have used more help in navigating it. The problem of keeping stringed instruments in tune in an increasingly warm and humid hall also asserted itself here; a pause between movements to re-tune didn’t seem to help much.  However, the alternately rollicking and majestic “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity,” with its maestoso middle section featuring the famous tune later adapted into “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” went with a bang, followed by the colder and more forbidding “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age,” with its relentless “tick-tock” theme and (slightly unsteady) plodding brass. “Uranus, the Magician” is built on a tension between the rather portentous four-note theme in the brass (later picked up by other instruments) and the mischievous, stomping dance led by a trio of bassoons. It feels rather like a circus parade until the sudden drop in tempo and dynamic fatally interrupts it, preparing the ground for the final movement, “Neptune, the Mystic.”  Some lovely playing from the woodwinds opened this disorienting, genuinely mystical movement, which closed on a hidden chorus of treble voices (supplied by the sopranos and altos of the choir seen earlier in Terra Incognita). 

In a nice touch from a historical perspective, the chorus was conducted by Robert Oliver, not only a veteran singer and choral conductor himself but also the inaugural conductor (1972-74) of the WCO itself.  This 50th anniversary concert thus concluded, fittingly, with two conductors, bookends as it were to the orchestra’s leadership from its earliest beginnings to the present.  This poetic conclusion was not lost on the enthusiastic audience, which rose to its feet to applaud the orchestra as much for its performance of this epic programme as for its half-century of service to the Wellington music scene. A good time having been had by all, it remained only to secure a cup of tea and congratulate the performers.  Felicitations to the WCO on its persistence through five decades of music and two years of Covid to bring this programme to us all.


Music of our time – Duo Enharmonics and Ensemble Gȏ, at St.Andrew’s

Duo Enharmonics and Ensemble Gȏ

Music of our time

Monique Lapins, violin, Beth Chen and Nicole Chao, piano, Naoto Segawa, percussion
St. Andrews on the Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday, 20th  April 2022

This was a varied concert of mainly short works by contemporary composers, two New Zealanders, Ross Harris and John Psathas, one Turkish, Fazil Say, and two American, Paul Schoenfeld and Glenn Stallcop. They are hardly household names, but this short concert of about 60 minutes gave us a glimpse of what composers of the present time are writing, although each of the five pieces on the programme were quite different.

String and Wood  (Ross Harris)

Monique Lapins and Naoto Segawa

This short work for Marimba and Violin reminder me of Gamelan music, once popular at the NZ School of Music. The violin was plucked echoing the marimba. It was a duet of the melodic violin used mainly with plucking like a percussive instrument and the rich vibrant gong like sound of the marimba

Five days of the life of a manic-depressive’  (Paul Schoenfeld)

Nicole Chao and Beth Chen

Paul Schoenfeld is an American composer known for combining popularfolk, and classical musical forms. ‘From Bintel Brief‘ and ‘Boogie‘ are the last two movements of a group of short pieces for Piano Duet. From Bintel Brief‘ has echoes of Jewish melodies, but in particular, the feel of popular Broadway musicals. Boogie‘ is a very energetic work endeavoring to capture the youthful frenzy of popular swing or rock dance. Nicole Chao and Beth Chen threw their all into this fiery work.

Sonata No. 1  (Fazil Say)

Monique Lapins and Beth Chen

Fazil Say is a Turkish pianist and composer. This sonata for violin and piano was the major work of the programme. It is in five short movements, with the first movement, ‘Melancholy’ repeated as the final movement. It is an approachable work, but it has its challenges for the performers, the manic second movement, ‘Grotesque’ and the fiercely fast ‘Perpetuum, mobile’ of the third movement. It gave Monique Lapins a chance to shine and show what a fine, sensitive violinist she is.

Matre’s Dance  (John Psathas)

Naoto Segawa and Nicole Chan

Maitre’s Dance is a dance performed by a group of fanatics in Frank Hebert’s science fiction classic, Dune. John Psathas’ piece depicting this dance, became part of the standard repertoire of concerts by percussionists. It is a conversation, or perhaps more appropriately, a duel between piano and a range of percussion instruments, in this performance only a modest range of drums with no tympani. It is entirely based on strong rhythms, though occasionally something resembling a melody was trying to emerge from the keyboard. It is a virtuoso piece for percussionist and pianist alike. It is not for the fainthearted traditionalist, but it is an interesting challenge for those who are prepared to explore new varieties of sounds.

Tarantella from Midsummer Night  (Glenn Stallcop)

Monique Lapins, Naoto Segawa Nicole Chao and Beth Chen

For the final item of the concert we had the whole complement of instruments on stage, violin, marimba, piano with two pianists. Glenn Stallcop is an American composer. The Tarantella is the third movement of a three movement work. It is a colorful piece with an interesting array of sounds, the gypsy sound of the violin, the bell like resonant timbre of the marimba, all underpinned by the strong rhythmic piano part.

This was an important concert, adding a new dimension to the Wellington concert experience introducing unfamiliar compositions and composers. The performance was absolutely convincing, the pieces were superbly played. A great credit to all the four performers who put so much effort into presenting this colorful variety pieces. A larger than usual audience showed their appreciation.



Taioro – words and music of Aotearoa New Zealand at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

St.Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series 2022 presents:

TAIORO – A new ensemble (2021)  presents New Zealand Chamber Music with Poetry,
for speaker, viola, cello and piano

(“TAI, the tide. Representing the ebbs and flows of tangaroa and the energy that we ourselves hold.
ORO, to resound or resonate, and the word used for a musical note.”)

Music by Antony Ritchie, Alfred Hill, Douglas Lilburn and David Hamilton

Sharn Maree Cassady – poet and speaker
Donald Maurice  – viola / viola d’amore
Inbal Megiddo – ‘cello
Sherry Grant – poet and piano

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

Wednesday 16th February, 2022

This lunchtime concert at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace furthered what’s become a refreshing change of late for ears inundated in the past with “standard” repertoire and presentations – a recital of words and music from a recently-formed group, Taioro, presenting works whose origins and inspirations stemmed from our own place, Aotearoa New Zealand.  Of course, there’s an impressively-growing body of work already emanating from our own composers, with names too numerous to mention; and with contemporary performance groups such as Stroma occasionally emerging in concert with some stimulatingly ear-prickling sounds. The challenge for these composers and musicians is to keep up the momentums, fostering continued interest in “our” sounds and our singular ways of doing things.

While some of the works presented today could be almost deemed “historic”, with music by Alfred Hill (1870-1960) and Douglas Lilburn (1915-2001), along with poetry by ARD Fairburn (1904-57) and James K.Baxter (1926-72), we heard also music by living composers Anthony Ritchie and David Hamilton (the latter present at the concert), in tandem with poetry written by both the concert’s presenter, Sharn Maree Cassady, and pianist Sherry Grant, along with another poem “Stone Woman” written by Christchurch poet Bernadette Hall and set to music by Anthony Ritchie – it was, all-in-all, a judicious mix of past and present creative endeavour!

We began our listening with Anthony Ritchie’s wonderfully storm-tossed Allegro tempestuoso for viola and piano, taken at a real lick by Donald Maurice and Sherry Grant. Amid the sparks generated by the playing I heard an exotic flavouring or two in the piece’s harmonies and the folksy rhythmic drive, emphasised also by the viola’s “eastern” kind of melodic line in a slower, expressive middle section. The performers adroitly brought out the numerous different characters in the music’s widely-ranging explorations, bluesy one moment and then whirling and vertiginous the next – after all the sound and fury, the performers brought the piece to its somewhat amiably halting conclusion.

A second piece by Anthony Ritchie was titled In Memoriam, the music dedicated to the life and passing of a woman called “Angela”, whose AGEA motive the piece featured was demonstrated on Donald Maurice’s viola beforehand. This was a beautiful-sounding work, the violist playing variants of the “Angela” theme over a kind of threnody from the ‘cello (a gorgeous tonal outpouring from both string-players, here, the music brief but extremely moving). We heard also a piece Ritchie had named after a poem by Bernadette Hall, entitled “Song – Stone Woman”, the music seeming almost anecdotal in effect, rhythms “jamming” in an improvisatory way and accompaniments wry and loose-limbed. The poem was read simply and almost conversationally by Sharn Maree Cassady, Hall’s style as a poet seeming to lend itself to such treatment.

Thanks, it seems, to some vagary of the venue’s particular acoustic, I had to strain to hear much of this spoken content of the presentation at the concert, though I was sitting almost right at the front, albeit on the opposite side from where the speaker, Sharn Maree, was placed. After the concert I checked with the person sitting next to me, and she said she also had difficulty hearing the words accompanying firstly the Alfred Hill tribute piece, and then both of Douglas Lilburn’s tribute pieces to ARD Fairburn and James K.Baxter (the latter two including the poets’ own poetry). The music, by contrast, seemed to present no problem – about which circumstance I thereupon wrote a “draft review” of what I had heard, and contacted the performers outlining the  difficulties I’d experienced.

I would, of course, have far preferred to have heard more clearly Sharn Maree Cassady’s comments in situ (all delivered seemingly in similar poetic style) regarding all three of the “past” personalities, belonging as they did to eras which had different attitudes, values and modes to our present PC-dominated world.  At the time, the music provided ample compensation, but I was still aware I was missing an integral part of things. Project co-ordinator Donald Maurice thereby arranged most kindly for me to view and hear the entire concert as it was videoed, something which I have just finished watching. To my delight speaker Sharn Maree’s words in the recording came over perfectly clearly, enabling me to truly take in each of her poetically-expressed responses to the texts associated with the chosen pieces that made up the concert.

Though Alfred Hill’s piece that was presented had no accompanying text, his numerous interactions with Maori during his time in New Zealand were well-documented, giving Cassady sufficient material to craft a response to Hill’s work, words and philosophies. The poetry of ARD Fairburn (1904-57) by turns swashbuckling, wry and romantic, and definitely from an age which more contemporary attitudes would almost certainly find in places at best old-fashioned, and at worst with racist and sexist overtones – so it was no surprise to find in her reply to James K.Baxter (1926-72)  a far more sympathetic and shared acceptance of certain values in both the poetry and regarding the ethos of the man in popular legend, than in her reaction to Fairburn’s verses.  This was underlined via a nicely-flowing and readily-nuanced reading of Baxter’s poem Sisters at Jerusalem, followed by a response begun with a whimsical “May I call you James?” from Cassedy, prefacing her reply.

The  music of Alfred Hill’s chosen was simply  called Andantino, one which I later discovered was a transcription for viola and piano of the slow movement of the composer’s Viola Concerto. Like everything I’ve heard of Hill’s, the work had a distinction and a surety of touch which Donald Maurice’s and Sherry Grant’s playing enriched and ennobled with their rich, heartfelt tones. The piece’s ending had its own singularity – an exquisitely-voiced modulation Into “other realms” before the voices found their way back to the home key at the end.

Douglas Lilburn’s “salute” to Fairburn began with a lovely mantra-like piano figure whose sound for me exerted considerable emotional pull, like a seabird’s song calling a traveller home, one whose response in the hands of ‘cellist Inbal Megiddo matched such feelings with beautifully-projected tones, the feelings truly “grounded” by the piano’s deep-sounding pedal-points and the cello’s joyous life-dance, one that eventually brought forth ringing bell-like resonances at the piece’s conclusion. Just as resonant in its own way was Lilburn’s tribute to James K.Baxter, beginning with a ritualised exchange of bugle-like calls between viola and piano that put one in mind of a walking song, one that engagingly broke into a 5/4 dance, replete with energy and humour – at the revelry’s height the dance cried off with the piano’s deep-throated call to attention, bringing the viola back to the by-now nostalgic bugle-like calls from the beginning, the energies having come full circle and brought us home once more.

With the work of David Hamilton our concert returned to the here-and-now with a world premiere of a work for narrator, viola d’amore and piano “Avec amour” (With love). This was Hamilton’s setting for those instruments of the words to a poem by Sherry Grant, the concert’s pianist. Unfortunately the programme I picked up at the concert’s beginning was missing its inner section with the poet’s text printed in full, so that I struggled throughout to pick up “shreds and patches” in tandem with the ongoing musical discourse, the instruments often masking the words.

I thought the music both soulful and  piquant at first, then more declamatory and bardic as the way was prepared for the narrator. The poem’s words seemed to describe some kind of conceit, idealistically describing something perhaps as imagined as real, which the sounds of the viola d’amore and the piano reflected – all framed by the  phrase “a true rarity in this age”. The setting gave the discourse and their sounds a somewhat detached air in places, a feeling that the music’s epilogue reinforced for me, leaving a “do I wake or sleep” kind of impression at the end. It was a piece that I wanted to hear again immediately afterwards, as there was a dreamlike air about it all that seemed to defy direct engagement – one could “drift” rather than properly engage (and I wasn’t helped by not having the words available to read and follow in situ.) The voice’s diffused sound gave its timbre an almost instrument-like quality, another strand to the argument, another layer to the textures…

Having (a) procured a copy of the poem’s words, and (b) been kindly sent by Donald Maurice both a full script and a copy of the finished video, I was able to more justly “relive” the concert’s experience and, hopefully make proper recourse at last to the efforts of all of the performances, in particular this, the concert’s final item. Described by narrator Sharn Maree Cassady as “a tribute to the viola d’amore”, the work began with a recitative-like passage for the viola d’amore before being joined quixotically by the piano, the speaker then adding to the narrative strands as if the words were threads weaving their way through a sound-tapestry. At the verse’s end the music reflected on the meeting of hitherto free spirits and the tremulous attraction of unchartered emotional waters. Sharn Maree Cassady’s delivery weighed every word patiently, precisely, almost dispassionately, letting the music delineate the impulses, and the “ancient brilliance so unexpected, yet familiar in every turn, in each corner”.

Winsomely, the piano responded to the viola’s quizzical utterances, opening a vein of longing,  towards the igniting of the “infinitely burning desire” to the point of conflagration, the voice again the serene, objective observer, letting the heat of the “feverish pair of flaming swords” pass as if sunlight had suddenly broken through clouds, and then been again obscured…. the moment was here celebrated with incisive piano chords and then, prompted by the speaker’s words, “together we sing in joy”, moved on by the viola into an exchange of here-and-now fulfilment from both instruments…….the “song” became both rapturous and exploratory, the sudden upward modulation at the speaker’s words “Avec Amour” taking the listener to “different realms” beyond experience, transcending the usual “order” of things, even to the point of calling Cupid, the God of Love, to question with the “true rarity” of emotion beyond reason. Sharn Maree Cassady’s tones here evoked “time-standing still” ambiences, as the poem’s words, the viola, and the piano all appeared to take up the “feel” of the music’s opening once more, as if we had journeyed right around the sun – but, (as TS Eliot observed) “never the same time returns”, which was attested by the coda, with its different, more valedictory feeling.

We were asked at the concert’s beginning not to applaud between numbers, as the proceedings were being recorded. Aside from my frustrations at the time, I loved the concert and its sounds and the care and commitment with which the performers obviously brought these things to us for our enjoyment, and am so grateful to Donald Maurice, and to Antony Donovan, the recording engineer, for allowing me access to  the video recording in order to get the “full picture” of what the performers were able to achieve.

What I would take through death’s dark door

New Zealand String Quartet National Tour
Programme 2:  MOZART – String Quartet No 21 in D, K. 575
LOUISE WEBSTER – this memory of earth
SHOSTAKOVICH – String Quartet No 11 in F minor, Op. 122
MENDELSSOHN – String Quartet No 2 in A minor, Op. 13

St Peter’s Church, Willis Street, Wellington

Sunday, 14 November 2021

This concert, like its predecessor on Friday 12 November, was delayed by the Covid-19 Level 4/3 restrictions in August and September, and was also displaced from the Hunter Council Chamber to St Peter’s Church. The change of venue was positive. Although the NZSQ has never performed in the church before, it is an excellent venue for chamber music, with its warm and rather dry acoustic contributing to a clear and intimate sound.

The first work on the programme was the well-known String Quartet No 21, K. 575 of Mozart, written as the first of a set of six commissioned by King Frederick William II, a keen cellist. It’s a delightful work, and was played with great style and charm. Because the quartet was written for a cellist, it is impossible to ignore how Mozart made sure to give the cello-playing King plenty to do, occasionally popping out of the texture with an attractive short solo, or in duet with one of the other voices. The allegretto final movement features lovely cello solos beneath an agitated theme that is passed around the upper voices, before the first theme reappears like a burst of brilliant sunshine.

The Louise Webster work did not suffer by being sandwiched in between Mozart and Shostakovich. It was commissioned by the NZSQ, and was first performed in May 2020. Its title, ‘this memory of earth’, was taken from a poem called ‘Fields in Midsummer’ by the New Zealand poet Ruth Dallas (1919-2008), a nature poet who often struck an elegiac tone. The composer (who is also, we were told, a paediatrician and child psychologist) writes: ‘Our earliest memories of the land shape who we are, who we become. …At a time when our world is under such threat, these threads of memory nudge us, reminding us of what we must hold, treasure,reclaim, rebuild…’

The piece is built up of tiny pieces of melody and rhythmic fragments tossed from part to part, evoking memories of the natural world – bird song, often in Violin 1, sometimes over a weird metallic drone created by the inner parts, with sad chords and fast rising glissandi, and the occasional strident outburst. Often the cello part creates an undertow of sadness, reminding us insistently of loss. The complete line from Dallas’s poem is relevant: ‘This memory of earth I would take through death’s dark door’.

This was a beautiful work, insisting upon the memories we carry within us, and on the vulnerability of the natural world. My notes say towards the end: ‘A melody, finally, but almost admonitory: “Do you not see this?” Emphatic sombre cello. Human voice, low and lyrical. Tutti now – but grey harmonies.’

I could have done with hearing the Webster played twice, because there is so much material to understand, and it is hard to make sense of as a whole on first hearing. There is a constant on-rush of new ideas, and many extraordinary brief effects. The Dallas title was well chosen. The composer’s close observation of nature imbued with a strong sense of loss was perfectly suited to Dallas (and perhaps too to the COP26 Summit being held in Glasgow over the past fortnight).

The Shostakovich quartet (No 11 in F minor, Op. 122, written in 1966) would, I thought, have been sufficient to make a complete concert on its own. Despite lasting only 15 minutes, it contains enough music for an entire symphony. The quartet was written not long after Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony, which is based on the ‘Babi Yar’ poems of the Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Yevtushenko was phenomenally popular in the sixties, sufficiently so to get away with publishing the poems, which are about the massacre of Jews at Babi Yar, near Kiev, by the Nazis in 1941. The Soviets were covertly anti-Semitic, and Yevtushenko’s poem both memorialises the atrocity and exposes the complicity of the Soviet authorities, who had not so much as marked the site of the massacre.

The seven short movements of the quartet, played without pausing, evoke the poems, the massacre, and the cynical brutality of the Soviet state. This is angry music, in which the composer seems to conform to the will of the Soviet authorities but provides the most severe and withering critique of their actions. It was written with great courage. For years Shostakovich kept a suitcase packed ready by the door of his flat, so that if he was dragged off to prison in the middle of the night by the KGB, his family would not be disturbed.

The sixth movement, Elegy, was intensely personal. It was written to commemorate the death of Vassily Shirinsky, second violinist in the famous and long-running Beethoven Quartet, which premiered 13 of Shostakovich’s 15 quartets (and whose mantle was passed to the Borodin Quartet). Shostakovich, Rolf Gjelsten told us in his introduction to the work, ‘felt as though he had lost the ground from underneath him’ when his friend died. The first violin has much to tell us about Shirinsky, but the insistent bom-bom-bom rhythm from the cello tells us that nothing can be done. We are standing around a grave. The second violin has stopped playing, just as Shirinsky has.

This was a stupendous performance, bleak and deeply moving. The concert seemed complete. But there was more. After a short interval, we were treated to an early Mendelssohn work, String Quartet No 2 in A minor (Op. 13). It was written when Mendelssohn was only 18 (but with the musical maturity of a 36-year-old) and had just fallen in love with a girl. It is as sunny and lyrical a work as you can imagine, returning us to a world in which beauty, love, and possibility are all around us. This provided a lovely pairing for the Mozart Quartet that opened the concert, as though we needed to be de-gaussed before returning to our lives.

And finally, the Quartet presented an uncharacteristic encore. In this case it was a thank-you to the Turnovsky Endowment Trust, which has supported the NZSQ in its annual National Tour for 20 years. Fred and Lotti Turnovsky’s daughter Helen was present for the acknowledgement, which came in the form of a very Czech polka from the Second String Quartet by the Turnovskys’ compatriot Bedrich Smetana. The idiomatic rhythms gestured to the Shostakovich, but the polka was an innocent and merry dance of joy, a celebration of the Czech national style, not a satirical commentary on totalitarianism.

In all, it felt more like two concerts worth of music, gloriously played. Fred Turnovsky’s vision for bringing the music of great European composers to New Zealand audiences, and his support for the NZSQ, were truly honoured.

“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.