Encore visit to counter-tenor Xiao Ma, with Stephen Diaz and Gao Ping (piano), at Te Papa

Songs, arias by Handel, Chausson, Britten, Mahler, Ravel, Dvořák, Chopin, Rossini, Mozart, Maori songs sung as duets, the music arranged by Ashley Heenan

Xiao Ma and Stephen Diaz (counter-tenors), Gao Ping (piano)

Soundings Theatre, Te Papa

Saturday 18 February, 4pm

I attended this one-hour recital with a friend, with whom I had just had afternoon tea in the 4th floor café at Te Papa.  She insisted that we should queue for Xiao Ma at 3.30pm; in fact, we went earlier, and soon a huge queue built up.  The doors weren’t opened until nearly 4pm, and people poured in till the theatre was absolutely full.

Mere Boynton welcomed the audience and introduced the performers, including a good plug for the opera Hōhepa, to be premiered in the Arts Festival, in which Stephen Diaz will appear, following his just-completed stunning turn of acting and singing in Handel’s Alcina, at Opera in a Days Bay Garden.

He opened the programme with an aria he sang, as Ruggiero, in that opera: ‘Verdi Prati’.  He looked rather nervous, but soon warmed up.  He has a way to go, to being a fully-fledged singer, still being young, but has some of the vital attributes, such as his exquisite control in the quiet passages.

What struck me straight away, and right through the recital, was the astonishing pianism of Gao Ping.  Here is a pianist who caresses the keys rather than hitting them.  It was pleasing to watch him, too.

Next came Xiao Ma, to sing two Handel arias that he sang in his concert on Wednesday night at St. Mary of the Angels: ‘Ombra mai fu’ from Serse, and ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from Rinaldo.  There is a drier sound in this theatre; St. Mary of the Angels church suited him better.  Here, I could hear his breathing quite frequently, which I could not the other night.  This is not to denigrate his superb breath control, especially notable in the second aria.  Both singer and accompanist incorporated decorations in the da capo repeat.

Chausson’s Le colibri (The humming-bird) has always been a favourite of mine, from a splendid rendition by Gérard Souzay on a recording I was given many years ago.  The song (and his subsequent items) was given a spoken introduction by Stephen Diaz.  It was beautifully and sensitively sung.

His next song was ‘I know a bank’ from Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  This aria is perhaps a little too austere to be sung as a solo divorced from the opera context and setting, despite the rather over-done gestures from the singer.  However, it was competently sung, and the accompaniment was a model of supportive expression.

Xiao Ma returned to sing ‘Oft denk ich’ from Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder.   I don’t think he had quite the sense of foreboding required for these songs, and to my taste it was sung a little too fast.

A song I did not know was ‘Le réveil de la mariée’ from Five Greek songs by Ravel; it proved to be a lively song, rather like a Greek dance.

After that came the sublime Dvořák song known in English as ‘Songs my mother taught me’, from Gypsy Melodies.  Xiao Ma sang it in Czech, just one of the seven languages he sang in.  This was an exquisitely sung piece, fulfilling the expectations of all of us who love this song; the accompaniment, my notes say, was ‘out of this world’.  The totality was an ecstatic experience, to which the audience responded very enthusiastically.

Another item unfamiliar to me was ‘The wish’ from Poland Melodies by Chopin.  Sung in Polish it was very bright and lively, with lovely flourishes.

Stephen Diaz returned to sing an aria from Rossini’s Semiramide: ‘In si Barbara’.  Here, the tone was a trifle inconsistent.  This was typical Rossini stuff, with a repetitive accompaniment.  It was florid and powerful, high in the soloist’s voice – it really got the audience going in response.

Xiao Ma followed with the well-known ‘Voi, che sapete’ from Le Nozze di Figaro by Mozart.  The singer showed great breath control in this item, and gave a very accomplished performance.

His final aria was another famous one: ‘Una voce poco fa’ from Il barbiere di Siviglia by Rossini.  Xiao Ma extracted maximum humour from the aria, to the audience’s delight, with facial expression and vocal colouring.  It was a characterful performance with plenty of variety of dynamics and vocal agility.  The trills employed were quite brilliant, sending the audience into ecstasies.

There followed three Maori songs, sung as a duet by the two singers.  The arrangements were by Ashley Heenan, and were very lovely; they derive from April 1966, when Heenan arranged five songs especially for a New Zealand youth music concert with orchestra, choir and soloists put on by the government for the Queen Mother, on her visit.  Two sopranos sang the songs then, some of them with choir; one of the duet was Donna Awatere, later famous in spheres other than music.

The richness of Stephen Diaz’s voice came through in these songs.  Both singers use their resonators superbly, being heard even in very quiet passages, without having to open their mouths wide.  Although Xiao Ma took the higher part, Diaz had to sing quite high also.

The first song was the well-known Hine e Hine.  In the second song, about the sound of the locust, Poi kihikihi, both singers used their tenor voices, to great effect.  In the third, Tahi nei taru kino, the singers varied their voices a great deal.  A unison section hardly sounded that, due to the very different timbres of the voices.

As encore, Mozart’s ‘Soave sia il vento’ from Cosi fan Tutte was sung; while beautifully rendered, the lack of a bass to sing the third part of the trio detracted from the performance somewhat.  The harmony was very fine.

A second encore was an attractive Chinese song.  For this, Gao Ping did not need a score.

A thoroughly enjoyable concert was greeted warmly by the audience, with a partial standing ovation.  We do not hear singers in live concerts enough, compared with some years ago; this concert (admittedly, free) showed there is an enthusiasm for such performances.  Soundings Theatre holds approximately 300 people; hopefully this success will encourage Te Papa and other promoters to put on more such recitals.


Exceptional recital from Chinese counter-tenor, Xiao Ma

Music at St. Mary of the Angels

Xiao Ma (counter tenor)

Baroque instrumental ensemble (Gregory Squire, violin, Anne Loeser, viola, Robert Oliver, viola da gamba, Erin Helyard, harpsichord)

Vivaldi:  ‘Nisi Dominus’ (verses 1 & 9);  Trio Sonata in G minor, Op.1 no.1; ‘Sposa son disprezza’ (from Bajazet); Trio Sonata in D minor Op.1 no.12 (‘La Follia’); ‘Gloria Patri’ (from the psalm Domine ad adiuvandum me festina RV 593); ‘Agitata da due venti’ (from Griselda)
Handel:     Trio Sonata in D major Op.5 no.2
Riccardo Broschi (c1698-1756)     ‘Son qual nave ch’agitata’ (from Ataserse)
Handel:   ‘Ombra mai fu’ (from Serse);  Trio Sonata in G major Op.5 no.4;  ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ (from Rinaldo); ‘Vivi, Tiranno’ (from Rodelinda)

St. Mary of the Angels church

Wednesday, 15 February 2012, 7.30 pm

Counter-tenors have come a long way since Alfred Deller revived the voice in the 1940s – not to demean that gentleman’s superb singing.  Xiao Ma’s voice is probably the most beautiful counter-tenor I have heard live – and I have heard some very good ones.  This voice has a bright, sweet tone, and is never strained.  It is well rounded, with huge variety.  There was a tendency at times, particularly in the first item, for the singer to lower his head, which sometimes covered the tone.  Raising the shoulders, as he also did from time to time, can affect the tone also.

Xiao Ma’s is a very flexible voice, and his execution of runs and other ornamentation was quite amazing; he was very skilled in the florid music of the Nisi Dominus.  He and the instrumentalists conveyed Vivaldi’s magnificent music in all its glory.  The short but effective ‘Amen’ verse 9 was repeated at the end of the concert, as an encore.

The first trio sonata of five movements was notable particularly for the lambent tone of the viola.  The expertise of these players is such that one could easily imagine oneself in an eighteenth century ducal court.  Vivaldi’s striking contrasts between the movements, as in the more famous Four Seasons concertos, were given full play.

The aria ‘Sposa son disprezza’ is from an opera entitled Bajazet, whose music was compiled rather than composed by Vivaldi.  Perhaps by this time Xiao Ma felt more comfortable with the venue and the audience; certainly his singing was even better in this item.  The representation of a scorned wife was given strongly, yet expressively.

The phrasing was done with subtlety and complete smoothness, which is not always the case with counter-tenors.  The instrumental accompaniment was utterly sympathetic.

The second Vivaldi trio sonata was based on the well-known ‘La Follia’ melody.  This version began rather more austerely than Corelli’s famous Concerto Grosso, though the variations lacked nothing in rapidity.  A variation with solo first violin accompanied by pizzicato on the other strings was charming, while a very quiet one that gradually sped up and got louder was dramatic.  A graceful siciliana movement restored calm after its stormy predecessor.

These players are in total accord.

The aria ‘Agitata da due venti’ employed extremely florid writing for voice and instruments, but all was accomplished without a hitch.  Vivaldi’s very descriptive music of a ship tossed by the winds as the billows roared made for vocal gymnastics from the singer and appropriate writing for the instruments.  A couple of times the singer had to drop to his low register, but this was negotiated apparently effortlessly, which is not always the case with counter-tenors; no graunchy gear-change here!

After the interval, the concert changed to (mainly) Handel, and his Italian operas.  First, though, was a Handel trio sonata.  In seven movements, this delightful work incorporated movements (e.g. Musette) unknown in the Vivaldi works we heard.

The first musette movement featured an intriguing intoning of low notes by the viola da gamba.  The other strings followed in the allegro with an unaccompanied duet, which gave a refreshing change of timbre.  The march was typical of Handel’s writing in this form (Royal Fireworks music, etc.)  It wasn’t hard to visualise a stately dance with ladies curtseying in long dresses and fascinating headgear.

More storm and stress came in the aria by Broschi.  Another ship on stormy seas reminded one of the very real dangers of being at sea before accurate charts, radar and radio were available (nevertheless, we still have ships hitting ‘reefs hidden beneath the waves’).  This aria demonstrated the singer’s huge range, and how accurately he can negotiate the vocal gymnastics asked of him by Broschi.

Now to something very familiar: Handel’s recitative and the lovely aria from Serse: ‘Ombra mai fu’.  The accompaniment was superb, as was the purity of the opening notes of the sublime aria.  The music floated, yet was purposeful.

The trio sonata that followed comprised five movements, on of which one, Passacaille, was quite long, with a great deal of development.  Ending on a minuet marked allegro moderato, the work seemed to finish rather lamely after the riches that preceded its final movement.

The well-known ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from Rinaldo was introduced on harpsichord only, very effectively.  This gorgeous aria was sung simply and ravishingly.  The singer varied the repeat sections, in authentic baroque style.  The performance was quite lovely, and was repeated at the end, as an encore, with more trills. As the evening wore on, Xiao Ma increasingly used gesture while singing – but it was not excessive.

The concert ended in more lively style, however, with ‘Vivi, tiranno’ from Rodelinda, with more florid phrases, enabling Xiao Ma to demonstrate his consummate skill.

The singer’s breathing was imperceptible; he had excellent control, and performed many long runs in one breath.  The top of his voice has a glorious sound.

This was a well thought-out programme; not only did it intersperse appropriate instrumental music with the vocal, but contrasting sonatas of Handel with those of Vivaldi introduced us to delightful but little-known music.  The instruments were by turns mellow and incisive, but always musical.  All played with skill, sensitivity and attention to baroque style and detail.  There were just a few moments when intonation briefly went awry.

St. Mary of the Angels was a very suitable venue in which to perform baroque music; it being the nearest thing we have in Wellington to a baroque church.

While it was good to have a printed programme giving the words of the arias etc. in both the original languages (Latin and Italian) and English, notes about the works from which they were taken would have been useful.

A good-sized audience heard this remarkable recital.   A distraction for those of us on the right-hand side of the church was the constant clicking of cameras while Ma was singing.  No doubt the photos were official, but this is not a usual feature (in fact, normally a prohibited one) of classical concerts.

This was an exceptional concert; I think Handel would have been delighted, and probably Vivaldi too.  Xiao Ma sings again on Friday in Masterton, having already performed in Akaroa, Auckland and Christchurch, and performs this Saturday at 4pm, at Soundings Theatre, Te Papa.  On Sunday he sings twice in the Hamilton Gardens Arts Festival.