Steadfast Wellington Chamber Orchestra brings off an exhilarating concert to finish an eventful year

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:

R.STRAUSS – Wind Serenade for 13 instruments
VIVALDI – Double Flute Concerto
ARNOLD – English Dances (Set One)
TCHAIKOVSKY – Symphony No. 2 in C Minor Op.17  “Little Russian”

Kirstin Eade and Bridget Douglas (flutes)
Ian Ridgewell (conductor)
Wellington Chamber Orchestra

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

Sunday, 12th December 2021

Congratulations right at the outset are in order to whomever devised such a scintillating programme for the Wellington Chamber Orchestra to finish this remarkably unpredictable year of years with!  It certainly was one that made up in part for earlier schedules being plagued by the vagaries of Covid-19 and the resulting ripplings of disruption! Here we were freely delivered plenty of satisfyingly full-blooded excitements and festive revelries, side-by-side with contrasting episodes of great beauty, resonant circumspection and purposeful action – a living, breathing entity of life-giving expression!

A lot of the credit must go to conductor Ian Ridgewell, whose direction of much of this eclectic range of music was focused and very much to the point, directly and unfussily intent upon bringing out the music’s “character” in each of the pieces presented. I liked how the conductor left the flute duo of Bridget Douglas and Kirsten Eade entirely free to interact with the continuo instruments in the Vivaldi Concerto’s slow movement as if sharing amongst themselves some exquisite chamber music!  Just occasionally elsewhere I felt a slight “tug” of discrepancy between the conductor and his players, most notably in the Tchaikovsky Symphony’s Andantino movement, the strings in particular wanting to push the march rhythm along more tautly in places – and there were dovetailing difficulties aplenty between orchestral sections in the same work’s treacherous Scherzo movement that required watchful shepherding from the podium!

The concert began most winningly with the early (1882) Richard Strauss work for winds, the piece a kind of homage by the seventeen year-old composer to Mozart’s own Wind Serenade in B-flat Major for the same number of instruments (Mozart’s work is sometimes performed with a string bass, sometimes with a contrabassoon), one obviously a model for Strauss.  I thought the performance by the WCO winds a most affectionate one, a beautifully easeful opening, with the contourings of melodic lines both gorgeous-sounding and characterful, and the different dynamic levels of the music consistently producing ear-catching results. I particularly liked the sonorous contribution of the tuba to the music’s foundations, and relished the crunchiness of the harmonic changes that accompanied the oboe’s lead-in to the piece’s second half. The ensemble’s blend grated ever so slightly once or twice in places during the latter half, but the final paragraph of the work, with its beautiful ascending flute-line, was most felicitously essayed by all concerned.

I was surprised to learn that the Vivaldi Concerto for two flutes and strings was the composer’s only essay for this combination, particularly as the soloists Bridget Douglas and Kirsten Eade amply demonstrated the manifold delights of the work’s seemingly endless invention, aided by some on-the-spot playing from the WCO strings in the outer movements. Straightaway the music captivated one’s attention with its gaiety and exhilarating energies, the dynamics placing solo-instrument delicacies alongside rumbustious tuttis that made the most of both the contrasted and concerted sounds. Though short, the work added a dimension of intimacy with the player-directed slow movement (simply flutes and continuo – two ‘cellos and a harpsichord), beautiful canonic writing alternating with passages in thirds – exquisite in effect!

Ian Ridgewell returned to direct the finale, consisting of more gallivanting and frolicking in Vivaldi’s most ingratiating style, though closer attention also heightened my appreciation of both the composer’s and the players’ skills in realising the singular beauties of the music’s interspersing of solo, chamber and ripieno sequences. It all demonstrated how the composer’s justly famous “Four Seasons” concerti ought to be a “starting-point” and not merely a “one-work” experience for the Vivaldi listener!

To my great delight, Bridget Douglas and Kirstin Eade acknowledged the concerto’s brevity by way of playing us an encore, the final movement from a work by an American composer, Gary Schocker, Three Dances for Two Flutes and Piano, one divertingly subtitled Coffee Nerves, Prestissimo! It’s a very bluesy-vigorous piece with driving rhythms for the flutes in unison lines breaking occasionally into thirds, and with the piano (played by Heather Easting, who had also contributed the harpsichord part in the  Vivaldi concerto’s continuo) punctuating the discourse with droll interludes – also one of the flutes (Kirstin’s on this occasion) indulged in startlingly “ornery” deviations, which were “coaxed” back into seemliness by the other flute – an interesting relationship between the two!

Malcolm Arnold’s invigoratingly breezy English Dances (the first of two sets of four of these) came next, works I’ve always loved for their colour, energy and original inspiration (the melodic invention throughout is the composer’s own, rather than the pieces being orchestrated versions of English folk-songs). I greatly prize a set of these richly and lovingly recorded by Arnold himself, though Ian Ridgewell’s direction took a rather more direct and vigorous view of the music, the opening Andantino’s bell-like awakenings on the move here right from the outset, and a central section sounding like a fairground in the middle of the countryside! If a shade raucous in full tutti, this could be put down to the effect of a largish orchestra playing in a smallish venue. Amends were made by lovely descending wind figurations at the piece’s end.

More chimings, this time vigorous and arresting, were brought into play throughout the second movement’s Vivace, with great work from the horns and winds throughout, the brasses capturing the music’s roisterings most excitingly, and the tutti filled with ear-catching detail.  The following Mesto (“sad and pensive”) flipped the mood of the sounds into melancholy, with tremolando strings, harp and bassoon joined by strings in a most authentic-sounding folk-melody, the wind-choir also making the most of their expressive opportunities, a strongly-focused mood beautifully sustained throughout by the players.

The final dance, Allegro Risoluto, allowed conductor and players to really let their hair down, the uproarious opening “nailed” by the brasses, here, punctuated by squawks of approval from the winds, catching the music’s unbuttoned and celebratory mood – I particularly loved the sound of the tuba’s star turn, egged on by the winds! The whole performance resounded with high spirits and jocularity, the composer here mercifully untroubled by the mental storms and stresses which throughout his life beset his sense of well-being.

A similar sense of well-being over-riding troubles and anxieties also permeates Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony which took up the concert’s second half. Called the “Little Russian” (though not by its composer) because of the frequency of its use of Ukrainian folk melodies, the music has a joyous energy throughout, which the playing readily capitalised upon, coming to fruition in the final movement with its racily colourful variations on a folksong called “The Crane”. I particularly enjoyed the “Russian Sailors’ Dance”-like energies of the strings in places, along with the finely-played antiphonal brass calls punctuating the blending of the finale’s two themes, and the skitterish sequence which featured the piccolo (beautifully played) and the other winds towards the work’s end, immediately prior to the tam-tam stroke which calls the band to order for the work’s “give it all you’ve got” coda!

The horn-playing at the symphony’s beginning beautifully set the atmosphere, carried forward by soulful wind-playing, building the tensions towards the allegro’s snappy beginning, both winds and strings excitingly on the button! Ridgewell kept things on a tight rein throughout, getting good ensemble from the players, though I thought he might have allowed the second allegro subject a bit more breathing-space, the players sounding a little “pushed” here and there. However, the lead-back to the horn’s repeat of its opening solo was nicely controlled, the playing leaving us eager for more.

The March was beautifully brought into being, even if the strings seemed to want to slightly push ahead of the winds’ pointed drolleries – when the march rhythms resumed after the heart-easing middle-section, some of the opening “swagger” seemed by then flattened out, but the grandly ceremonial utterance of the “tune” was brought off nicely by strings and brasses. The Scherzo was a mixed bag, with the dovetailed syncopated figures struggling at times to “fit themselves in” – however the Trio worked beautifully, with the winds enjoying themselves, the flutes being especially on the ball (a lovely solo over pizzicato strings), and with clarinets, oboes and bassoons in full accord.

Altogether, a most successful concert, and a heart-warming way to conclude a somewhat troubled season – and how encouraging to be given notice of the orchestra’s plans for 2022 as well, consisting of four varied concerts, the first commemorating the band’s 50th Anniversary season! One wishes all involved in the undertaking the very best for it!

 

Unfamiliar music given a chance to shine in characterful performances at St. Andrew’s

St. Andrew’s Luchtime Concert Series presents:
Music for Flute and Piano

Aaron Copland: Duo for Flute and Piano
Claude Debussy: En bateau
Mel Bonis: Sonata for Flute and Piano in C-sharp minor

St. Andrews on the Terrace

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

One of the great joys of the lunch time concerts at St. Andrews on the Terrace is that these provide opportunities to hear some of the talented artists living among us, the other is to hear music that otherwise is seldom performed. Rebecca Steel is one of the most experienced flautists around, having played with orchestras both overseas and here in Wellington and Christchurch. Kris Zuelicke moved from Germany to New Zealand. Here she added to her skills as an accomplished pianist a doctorate in harpsichord performance. The programme they presented is largely unknown. Mel Bonis, though a prolific French composer, who studied with César Franck and wrote some 300 works, is largely forgotten. Writing music was not a respectable profession for a woman at her time. Copland has a regular place in the repertoire, but the Duo for Flute and Piano, though a substantial work, is not often played. Debussy is, of course, a major figure, but his popular En bateau is better known in its original four-hand piano version as part of the Le Petite Suite, than in this arrangement for flute and piano.

Copland’s  Duo for Flute and Piano opens with a haunting flute solo, that sets the mood which is typical of Copland – an evocative distant, lonely American prairie sound. Think of the Call of the Wild. The second movement is melancholic, well suited to the timbre of the flute. It is intense, touching music. As a contrast, the last movement is spirited, joyful. It is a challenging work for the flute, that requires clarity of phrasing and articulation.

Debussy’s En bateau is a sweet, charming little piece, suggesting gently undulating waves on some peaceful water. Played on the flute it has a special endearing quality.

Bonis’s Sonata for Flute and Piano, published in 1904 is a major work that reflects the music of Bonis’s better known late romantic contemporaries, Franck and Faure. Bonis, a very talented young woman, who shared a bench with the young Debussy at the Conservatoire, gave up composition for some years when her life was devoted to bringing up the children of her 25 year older widowed husband and children of her own. Late in life she returned to composition. Her many works include chamber music, music for piano solos, orchestral, religious and organ music, and music for children. The Sonata for Flute and Piano  is founded on the interplay of the rich harmonies of the piano and an appealing melodic line on the flute. The four movements projected the four different elements of the work, a passionate Andantino followed by a contrasting Scherzo, a moving adagio, and finally a Moderato summing up the mood of the piece. The performance was notable for the passionate playing of the piano and the somewhat cool, clear, restrained playing of the flute.

Hearing these pieces in a live performance was specially rewarding. It is to the credit of these two experienced musicians that the audience at this lunch time concert was given an opportunity to get to know these unfamiliar works.

 

NZSM Orchestra with conductor Hamish McKeich showcases achievements by 2020 award-winning composer and instrumentalist at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music presents:
Music by Mica Thompson, Carl Reinecke and Johannes Brahms

THOMPSON  – Song
REINECKE – Flute Concerto In D Major Op.283
BRAHMS – Symphony No. 2 in D Major Op.73

Isabella Gregory (flute)
Hamish McKeich (conductor)
New Zealand School of Music Orchestra

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

Saturday, 26th September, 2020

Pandemic restrictions having been relaxed of late (though judiciously more “on hold” than entirely done away with), we were allowed more-or-less regularly-spaced seating at St. Andrew’s to hear the most recent of the NZSM Orchestra’s public concerts, one featuring the recent winner of the School’s Concerto Competition, flutist Isabella Gregory (see the review at https://middle-c.org/2020/07/nzsm-concerto-competition-an-evening-of-elegance-frisson-and-feeling/), playing the Reinecke concerto with which she won the prize, though on this occasion with a full and proper orchestral accompaniment! Flanking her polished, sparkling efforts were two other items, the concert beginning with a work for orchestra  entitled “Song” by Hawkes Bay-born composer Micah Thompson, and concluding with the well-known Second Symphony by Brahms.

Thanks to the aforementioned ravages of Covid-19 upon the present year in respect of public music-making and -presentation, this was, I think, the first 2020 NZSM orchestral concert I’d attended , though I had seen a few of the individual players in other orchestral and chamber presentations at various times. It was certainly one worth the wait for, and promised much beforehand, with the NZSO’s principal Conductor-in-Residence Hamish McKeich due to rehearse and direct the performances. Also, one of the NZSO’s recent Guest Conductors, Miguel Harth-Bedoya apparently worked with the orchestra during this period – though it’s not clear whether the latter had any direct involvement with the orchestra’s preparation for this concert.

The evening began with “thanks and praise” from the director of the School, Prof. Sally Jane Norman, thanks for the efforts of people in staging the concert in the face of near-insuperable difficulties, and praise for the efforts of the musicians and their tutors – mixed in with all of this was warm appreciation for people’s actual attendance at the concert, supporting the school’s activities in fostering the careers of young composers/musicians.

First we heard a work by composer Micah Thompson, called “Song”, and inspired in part by the poetry of British poet Ted Hughes (1930-1998), specifically in this case a 1957 poem “The Hawk in the Rain”. Thompson explained, both in a progamme note and by means of an internet post (https://www.facebook.com/NZSMusic/videos/1186964995018168) how the poet’s interest in the “identity, history and mythologies of particular animals” had informed his own approach to exploring musical instruments’ characteristics and their use – he used Hughes’s “wild, sometimes brutal, but always expressive and melancholic” verses as a kind of counterpoint to his own creative impulses. As the programme printed the text of Hughes’ verses, I couldn’t help comparing his earthier, more confrontational expressiveness to that of an earlier poet, Gerard Manly Hopkins, in the latter’s comparatively rarefied (but just as dramatic and musical) poem from 1877, “The Windhover”, describing the flight of another bird of prey, a falcon.

Thompson’s work also took a number of previously-composed solo pieces, for piano, clarinet and flute, and “collaged” them into what he called “an orchestral space”. This space coalesced into life, the ambient beginnings featuring slivers of percussion, mingled with taonga-puoro-like calls, creating an atmosphere of wildness and vast resonances of possibility – long string lines were punctuated with birdsong and wild gesturings, the sounds suggesting flight both with impulses of wing-beatings and the stillnesses of soaring. Long-held notes for cello, winds, brass and violins accentuated the spaces while various scintillations suggested light-changes, both osmotic and sharp-edged. The celeste brought an almost cow-bell nostalgia into play, contrasting with the increasing combatative-edged intrusions from both clarinet and horn solos, the implicit violence of the poem’s words here suggested abstractedly, one of a number of “perceptions” hinted at by the music. Returning to whisperings, the sounds took on a kind of “mystic” feeling, the flute playing a fanfare-like birdcall, a cadenza-like passage which seemed to awaken the surrounds more markedly, the strings rustling, the percussions tinkling, the basses gently rumbling, the piano chirruping, everything freely modulating before drifting into a silence coloured only by the flute’s gentle call. I like the “assuredness” of it all, its focus supporting tangible imagery and feeling amid all the ambient suggestiveness.

Carl Reinecke’s Flute Concert has long been regarded as the instrument’s principal Romantic flagbearer, given that the composer was of the Romantic persuasion  along the lines of Mendelssohn and Schumann, rather than of Liszt or Wagner – though befriended by Liszt and given introductions by the latter to contacts in Paris, Reinecke remained a firm adherent of the more conservative 19thCentury school. The work’s gentle, Brahmsian opening was essayed beautifully by the players, here, with some lovely horn playing, and beautiful phrasing from the flute at the player’s entrance. The soloist’s “big tune” was answered by the brasses the exchanges taking us into a melancholic, romantic world of feeling, rounded off by a stirring orchestral tutti. I thought Gregory’s playing even more astonishing than when encountering her in the competition’s final, the orchestral accompaniment perhaps giving the soloist more variety to react to and establish a personality very much her own.

The slow movement took on the character of a kind of “Romantic legend”, a gift for a skilled storyteller, dramatic brass and timpani preparing the way for the flute’s narrative, which was here developed with a real sense of occasion and adventure, the ensemble seizing its chances to dramatize the music at every opportunity, an impulse somewhat tamed by the flute’s bringing the ending of the movement into the major key, as an antidote to the relative darkness! Horns and wind threw out a jaunty aspect at the finale’s opening, the flute taking up the polonaise rhythm with gusto, throughout the movement steadfastedly steering the music back to the dance whenever different episodes sought to diversify the expression – a charmingly winsome game of dominance, in which the flute was triumphant, the work’s coda featuring exciting exchanges between Gregory and the musicians, Hamish McKeich keeping the momentums simmering, right to the work’s festive conclusion.

Concluding the programme was a quintessential conservative-Romantic work, the Brahms Second Symphony, one which gave  the composer opportunity for some impish fun in describing the music beforehand to his friends – his tongue-in-cheek characterisations of parts of the work were reproduced in the excellent programme notes, comments such as the words “so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it – I have never written anything so sad, and the score itself will have to come out in mourning”. If at times gruffly expressed, Brahms certainly didn’t lack a sense of humour!

I enjoyed the performance enormously, in the first movement right from the near-perfect horn-playing at the work’s beginning, with its answering winds and floating string responses, through the “lilt” of the playing of the second subject theme by all concerned, and the stirring brass response to the increasing ferment of the development’s exchanges, to the lovely “spent” character of the climbing strings and the glowing wind replies when the opening was recapitulated (I loved the confidently-produced “zinging” quality of the strings’ playing of the dotted-rhythm fanfares shortly afterwards!). And though not absolutely note-perfect, the solo horn’s valedictory passage towards the movement’s end was so beautifully shaped and sounded, the string-playing that followed couldn’t help but sound ravishing (ravished, perhaps?) in reply.

The strings dug into the second movement’s opening as if the players really meant it, the top note of the succeeding upward phrase a bit shaky first time round, but more secure on its repetition – again the horn-playing shone, with the strings, and the winds following, and similarly shining   in succession. As the music floated over graceful pizzzicati both winds and strings sang full-throatedly, confidently leading from this into the music’s darker-browed sequences and holding their ground amid the storms and stresses, the winds eventually coming to the rescue, encouraging the strings to pick their way through the wreckage, putting the crooked straight and making the rough places plain as they went……the return of the opening sequence by strings and winds here made such a heart-warming  impression, even if  the horizons were again darkened and the brasses and timpani held sway for a few anxious moments – amid the uncertainties, winds and strings registered a further brief moment of apprehension with the timpani, before squaring up with a “let’s get on” gesture that brought the sounds to rest.

The third movement, an Allegretto grazioso featured a perky oboe supported by clarinets and followed by flutes  – lovely! The strings delicately danced into the picture, the tempi amazingly swift, the playing precise! – fabulous playing and skilful dovetailing when the oboe rejoined the mix with the opening theme – the lovely “flowering” of the wind textures was then matched  by the strings’ “darkening” of the same, after which the dancing resumed with earnest and energy – and I loved the re-delivery of the opening wind tune by the strings, the downward part of the phrase played with what sounded like a satisfied sigh! – very heartfelt!

The finale was, by contrast, all stealth and mystery at the start, creating great expectation before bursting forth, McKeich and his players creating an invigorating “togetherness” of ensemble, the winds gurgling with excitement when given their turn! The strings gave their all with their “big tune”, the tempo kept steady, the tutti blazing forth with excitement, the syncopations flying past at a tempo, and the sotto voce of the opening’s return maintained. Another excitable tutti was relished, before the triplet-led episode allowed a hint of melancholy to descend upon the textures before the movement’s opening sequence returned with a few ear-catching variants – a bit of scrawny playing here and there simply added to the excitement and abandonment, the brass heaving to with some elephantine comments, and the rest of the orchestra girding its loins for the work’s cataclysmic coda – noisy, but joyful and exuberant! It was a performance which got at the end a well-deserved accolade, doing the composer, as well as the conductor and players, proud!

NZSM Concerto Competition – an evening of elegance, frisson and feeling

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music Concerto Competition 2020 – Final

Finalists

Lucas Baker (violin) – BARBER: Violin Concerto
Isabella Gregory (flute) – REINECKE: Flute Concerto in D Major, Op.283
Otis Prescott-Mason (piano) – SAINT-SAENS – Piano Concerto No.2

Collaborative Pianist: David Barnard
Adjudicators: Catherine Gibson (CMNZ)
Vincent Hardaker (APO)

Adam Concert Room, NZSM Kelburn Campus
Victoria University of Wellington

Thursday, 30th July 2020

This year’s final of the NZSM Concerto Competition provided something of a musical feast, even if one of the concertos performed (Saint-Saens’ Second Piano Concerto) was presented with a somewhat truncated finale, for whatever reason. With three promising and extremely accomplished performers playing their respective hearts out (and admirably supported by the efforts of collaborative pianist David Barnard, whose playing of the orchestral part of the Samuel Barber Concerto was a treat in itself to experience), it made for an absorbing listening experience, one to rate at least equally with the actual result of the contest, at least for this listener, with no “affiliations” connected with the outcome!

First up was violinist Lucas Baker, whose chosen work (Samuel Barber’s beautiful Violin Concerto) brought out the young player’s seemingly instinctive feel for the “shape” of the composer’s largely rhapsodic phrases and larger paragraphs – throughout, I was convinced by Baker’s heartfelt approach to both the work’s lyrical and more heroic sequences, his instantly characterful tones enabling us to quickly enter the “world” of the music, despite some untidiness of rhythm and intonation in some of the transitions. The player then confidently attacked the angularities of the second movement, and nicely brought out the fervour of the lyrical writing and the silveriness of the contrasting stratospheric section, concluding with beautifully withdrawn tones at the movement’s end.

The finale’s technical difficulties were also most excitingly squared up to by Baker, his fingers flying over his instrument’s fingerboard to exhilarating effect, with his pianist an equally committed and involved participant in the composer’s vortices of note-spinning – the spills were as exciting and involving as the thrills, both players capturing the devil-may-care spirit which abounds throughout this final movement. Whatever niceties of detail were smudged or approximated, Baker readily conveyed to us an engaging sense of “knowing how it should go”, which carried the day as a performance.

No greater contrast could have been afforded by both the player to next appear and the work chosen! – this was flutist Isabella Gregory, and the work Carl Reinecke’s D Major Flute Concerto, written (somewhat surprisingly, I thought, upon hearing the piece) in 1908, the composer hardly deviating from his early enthusiasms for the music of Mendelssohn and Schumann. In effect, the work is that rarity, a romantic flute concerto – here, it was given a sparklingly lyrical performance by its gifted performer, obviously in complete command of both the piece’s overall shape, and the mellifluous detailings that gave the music such a unique character – complete with a surprisingly abrupt conclusion to the first movement! The sombre nature of the second movement’s opening accompaniment contrasted with the solo instrument’s more carefree manner, played here by Gregory as a somewhat easy-going accomplice to rather more stealthy mischief-making, though I found the Moderato finale a wee bit under-characterised – I thought the rhythms could have a bit more “kick” in places, though this was something which the more energetic concluding sequence in due course suitably enlivened, the virtuosity of the soloist making a breathlessly exciting impression to finish! Altogether, a delightful and suitably brilliant performance!

The evening’s final contestant was pianist Otis Prescott-Mason, who had chosen Saint-Saens’s wonderful Second Piano Concerto – a work whose character I recall once described as “beginning like Bach and ending like Offenbach”! Throughout the first movement I found myself riveted by the young musician’s spell-binding command of the music’s ebb-and-flow, the “spontaneous” element of the opening improvisation as finely-judged as I had ever heard it played, Prescott-Mason truly “making the music his own” and working hand-in-glove with his collaborator to create the sense of Baroque-like splendour that informs the music – what I particularly liked was the spaciousness of it all, allied to the clear direction of the underlying pulse of the music, to the point where the sounds had an inevitability of utterance which perfectly fused freedom and structure, Saint-Saens at his most potent as a creator. What a pity, then that such poised, and finely-tuned focus seemed to me to be then somewhat impatiently cast aside, the second movement’s playfulness over-rushed and the rhythmic deliciousness and delicacy of it all to my ears duly lost – Saint-Saens’s humour is always po-faced and elegant, and the playing in this movement I thought unfortunately failed to realise that “insouciance” which keeps the music’s character intact. I then hoped that the whirlwind brilliance of the finale might have restored some of the impression created by the pianist in that superbly-crafted first movement – but the work was unexpectedly and severely shortened, allowing little opportunity for a “renaissance” of identification with the music’s world on the young player’s part.

All in all, the result of the competition very justly, I thought accorded the laurels to flutist Isabella Gregory, whose performance indicated an impressive totality of identification with the music she played, as regards both execution and interpretation. Both her rivals, Lucas Baker and Otis Prescott-Mason, I thought, turned out most engaging performances of their pieces, without quite rivalling the winner’s consistency and strength of purpose. But what things all three achieved in their different ways!  And how richly and gratefully we all relished their talent and musicality in entertaining us us so royally during the evening!

Wanganui Music Society 75th Jubilee Concert includes Wellington guest musicians

Wanganui Music Society 75th Jubilee Concert

Vocal and instrumental music
Various Artists

The Concert Chamber, War Memorial Centre,
Queen’s Park, Watt St,. Whanganui

Sunday, 8th March 2020

Every now and then (and without warning) a “Middle C” reviewer will be overcome by a “questing s

pirit” which will result in the same reviewer popping up somewhere unexpected and writing about an event whose location, on the face of things, seems somewhat outside the parameters of the usual prescription for “Middle C’”s coverage – vis-à-vis, “concerts in the Greater Wellington region”. In this case mitigating circumstances brought a kind of “Capital connection” to a Whanganui occasion, and certainly one that, when I heard about the details beforehand, was (a) eager and (b) pleased to be able to take advantage of the chance to attend and enjoy!

This was the 75th Jubilee Concert given by the Wanganui Music Society in the city’s magnificent Concert Chamber, part of the superbly-appointed War Memorial Centre. The concert was one which brought together musicians who were either members of the Society or who had previously contributed to past programmes – so there was a real sense of appropriateness concerning the event’s overall essence and presentation of community performance and guest participation. And though my own connections with the city and its cultural activities were more tenuous,  I felt here a kind of “once-removed” kinship with the efforts of the Society and its artists, being a Palmerstonian by origin and in the past having taken part in similar events in that not-too-far-away sister-city.

To be honest, however, my presence at the concert was largely to do with a particular piece of music being performed that afternoon – Douglas Lilburn’s song-cycle, Sings Harry must be one of the most quintessential Kiwi artistic creations of singular expression ever made, bringing together, as it does, words and music formed out of the flesh and blood, sinews and bones of two this country’s most archetypal creative spirits, Lilburn himself and poet Denis Glover. The Sings Harry poems were the poet’s homespun observations about life made by a once-vigorous old man looking back on his experiences for better or for worse – and six of these poems were taken by the composer and set to music that seemed to many to fit the words like a second skin.

Glover, at first enthused by his friend Lilburn’s settings, gradually came to disapprove of them, at one low point famously and disparagingly characterising the music as “icing on my rock cakes!”. The work has survived all such vicissitudes, but still today doesn’t get performed as often as I, for one, would like to hear it. Which is where this concert came in, offering the chance to hear one of the piece’s most respected and widely-acknowledged exponents, Wellington baritone Roger Wilson, bring it all to life once more, rock-cake, icing and all, for the edification of those who attended this Jubilee event.

Another Wellington connection was afforded by a second singer, mezzo-soprano Linden Loader, who’s been in the past a familiar performer in the Capital’s busy round of concerts, if mostly, in my experience, as a member of a vocal ensemble rather than as soloist. Here, though, she took both roles, firstly as a soloist in two of Elgar’s adorable Sea Pictures and a folksong arrangement, My Lagen Love by Hamilton Harty, and then joining Roger Wilson for three vocal duets, one by Brahms and two by Mahler, the latter calling for some “characterful” expression which both singers appeared to relish to the utmost!

The only other performer whose name I knew, having seen and heard her play in Wellington as well, was flutist-cum-pianist Ingrid Culliford, whose prowess as a flutist I’d often seen demonstrated in concert, but not her pianistic skills, which made for a pleasant surprise – her partnership with ‘cellist Annie Hunt created a winning “ebb-and-flow” of emotion in Faure’s Elegy; and while not particularly “appassionato” the playing of Saint-Saens’s work Allegro appassionato by the pair had plenty of wry mischief – an affectionate performance! She also collaborated as a pianist with the excellent young flutist Gerard Burgstaller, in a movement from a Mozart Flute Concerto, and then as a flutist herself with soprano Winifred Livesay in beautifully-voiced and -phrased renderings of American composer Katherine Hoover’s evocative Seven Haiku.

Other performers brought to life what was in sum a varied and colourful amalgam of music, among them being pianist Kathryn Ennis, possibly the afternoon’s busiest performer! As well as partnering both Linden Loader in music by Elgar and Hamilton Harty, with Roger Wilson joining the pair for vocal duets by Brahms and Mahler, Ennis then later returned with Wilson for Lilburn’s Sings Harry, and, finally, closed the concert with two piano solos, pieces by Liszt and Khachaturian. I though her a sensitive and reliable player, very much enjoying her evocations with Loader of the differing oceanic characters in the Elgar Songs, singer and pianist rich and deep in their response to “Sea Slumber Song”, and creating a bard-like kind of exotic wonderment with “Where Corals Lie”. Harty’s My Lagen Love also teased out the best in singer and pianist, here a winning mix of lyricism and candid expression, with a nicely-moulded piano postscript.

Piano duettists Alison Safey and Alton Rogers brought flow and ear-catching variety of tone to their performance of the first movement of a Mozart Sonatina K.240, before further treating us to Matyas Seiber’s Three Short Dances, each one given an appropriate “character” (I liked the slow-motion Habanera-like aspect of the opening “Tango” a good deal!). Afterwards came violinist Jim Chesswas, most sensitively accompanied, I thought, by pianist Leonard Cave, the two recalling for me childhood memories of listening to Gracie Fields’ voice on the radio, with a strong, sweetly-voiced rendition of The Holy City, giving me a lot of unexpected pleasure!

Roger Wilson’s and Linden Loader’s “Duets” bracket both charmed (Brahms) and entertained (Mahler) us, the singers collaborating with pianist Kathryn Ennis in Brahms’s “Es rauschet das Wasser” to bring out moments of true magic in the lines’ interaction (ardent, steadfast tones from Loader, and tenderly-phrased responses from Wilson, the two voices blending beautifully towards the song’s end, with everything admirably echoed by Ennis’s resonant piano evocations). After this the Mahler duets were riotous fun, each singer a vivid foil for the other, the characterisations almost larger-than-life, but readily conveying the texts’ none-too-subtle directness.

Soprano Marie Brooks began the concert’s second half, her sweet, soubrettish-like tones well-suited to Faure’s Après Un Rêve, her line secure, somewhat tremulous of character, but well-focused – her pianist, Joanna Love, proved an admirable collaborator, whose sounds blended happily with the voice. Flutist Gerard Burgstaller then impressed with his control and command of line and breath in Mozart’s opening movement of K313, as did soprano Winifred Livesay in Katherine Hoover’s Seven Haiku, her partnership with Ingrid Culliford as mentioned above, distilling some memorable moments of loveliness.

Sings Harry was a focal point for me, of course, Roger Wilson here admirably characterising the work’s unique qualities in his brief spoken introduction, remarking on its essential “elusiveness” for the performer, and nicely characterising his “journey” of involvement with the work. Here I thought singer and pianist effectively evoked “Harry and guitar” at the outset, and caught the whimsicality of the character’s “sunset mind” which followed, in a suitably harlequinesque manner. Of course, Glover and Lilburn whirl us almost disconcertingly through such moments before setting us down in deserts/oases of aching reflection – firstly “Once the days”, and even more tellingly, after the whirlwind of “Come mint me up the golden gorse”, leaving us almost bereft in the following “Flowers of the Sea”, The latter sequence here palpably grew in poignant resignation with each utterance, leaving us at the end “broken open” and completely at the mercy of those ceaseless tides. I thought Wilson’s and Ennis’s presenting of both this and the concluding “I remember” totally “inside” the words and music, and felt somewhat “lump-in-the-throat” transfixed by the ending – Harry, with his guitar, was left as we had found him, but with so much understanding and intense wonderment by then imparted to us……

Kathryn Ennis concluded the concert with two piano solos, firstly Franz Liszt’s well-known Liebestraum No. 3 and then a work new to me, a Toccata by Aram Khachaturian. While I thought the Liszt technically well-managed I thought everything simply too reined-in as the piece gathered in intensity, the expression held back as if the player was fearful of provoking that often-voiced criticism of “vulgarity” made by detractors of the composer and his work, but which in committed hands can, of course, produce such an overwhelming effect! Better was the Khachaturian, presented like some kind of impressionistic “whirl” here, to great and memorable effect – happily, a fitting conclusion to the proceedings!

 

 

Accomplished though unusual Donizetti Trio assembles a mixed bag programme: some very successful

Chamber Music Hutt Valley
Donizetti Trio (Luca Manghi – flute, Ben Hoadley – bassoon, David Kelly – piano)

Music by Vivaldi, Donizetti, Chris Adams, Respighi, Ben Hoadley, Bellini (via Eugene Jancourt) and Bizet (via Peter Simpson)

Little Theatre, Lower Hutt

Wednesday 19 June, 7:30 pm

The Donizetti Trio is a fairly rare beast; it rather looks as if three musician friends had the idea of playing as an ensemble, but were faced with the problem that hardly any music existed for their combination, and so they set about forcing other material to fit their needs.

That can work well, and to a degree, it did.

To start with, Vivaldi looks a good idea as he wrote hundreds of concertos including many for flute and orchestra; and this one, which exists in two versions. The first version, RV 104, is the more richly scored, for flute or violin and chamber orchestra, including bassoon as a bass component of the continuo. That’s the one we heard. Later he re-scored it to include (RV 439) in his Opus 10, stripping the orchestration, including the bassoon part.

The playing by both flute and bassoon was very convincing, quite virtuosic here and there, particularly in the Largo movement; though at times the bassoon was confined to its more elementary, accompanying function. Given that this version rather relied on its chamber ensemble backing, it left the piano with a burden that it could scarcely discharge. Nevertheless, the pianist revealed a sensitivity to music that was written neither for harpsichord (as it might have been in Vivaldi’s day) nor for piano.

Then came the piece that inspired the trio’s name, a Trio in F (for these instruments), one of Donizetti’s quite numerous chamber pieces which included a number of string quartets and many pieces for various other combinations. As one might expect, the writing is rather conventional, yet attractive and very listenable. And the affectionate performance could well have been felt to endow it with a significance that the even composer had not imagined.

Visual inspiration for Chris Adams and Ben Hoadley 
Chris Adams is an Auckland musician and composer. His Contemporary Triptych employs these three instruments in a singularly original and vivid way. The first, ‘Melancholic Aggression’, beginning with repeated chords (rooted I’d guess, about bottom C), that was eventually joined by the bassoon at the bottom and then flute at the top, moved slowly, without changing tonality, gradually becoming more varied and intense. The second, ‘Beautiful Machine’ was musically more lyrical (by now we get the idea of pictures embodying fundamentally contradictory emotions; in fact, though inspired by the art in Sir James Wallace’s collection). Though if the idea was to create something visual, it didn’t; nor did I need it. ‘Integrated Disconnect’: flute and bassoon duetting, as we’re told, in a disconnected way, while the piano drifted about, seemingly unconcerned. The limitations of the three disparate instruments were somehow exploited successfully to create a piece of music that succeeded in its intentions.

The leap from a triptych based on a non-existent visual source to Ben Hoadley’s arrangement of the Adoration of the Magi, the second of Respighi’s Botticelli Triptych, proved to be rather to the advantage of Adam’s piece. Hoadley was attracted to it as Respighi’s scoring of the medieval hymn ‘Veni, veni Emanuel’, quoted in it, is conspicuously for flute and bassoon. In spite of that, the task of compressing Respighi’s largescale orchestration into a piano part was a bit too hard.

The first piece in the second half was by Hoadley himself: Three poems by Gregory O’Brien, for alto flute and piano, but without a singer (and of course, without the composer’s bassoon), but the voice was hinted at by hard breathing sounds. There was a cool jazz interlude, a series of rolling figures at the bottom of the piano and some beguiling, soft lyrical passages from the flute. Only with the last poem, ‘Winter I was’, did a human voice appear as Hoadley emerged to speak the poem. It was one of those occasions in which more questions and not-understood sequences arose than clarifications.

Opera arrangements 
Finally, two fantasies, potpourris, from opera. Inevitably they got the biggest response from a fairly large audience. One of many arrangements of tunes from Bellini’s Norma: this one was by 19th century Paris Conservatoire bassoon professor, Eugene Jancourt, and suited the trio admirably; it suited the audience too, with the string of familiar arias from ‘Casta Diva’ onwards. The settings were attractive and they were played evocatively, almost as if real singers had materialised.  (It’s sad that the opera has hardly been seen in New Zealand in modern times apart from a Canterbury Opera production in 2002. That was the first professional production in New Zealand since the 1928 tour by the Fuller-Gonsalez Italian Grand Opera Company. Yet Norma was one of the operas brought by the very first touring company in 1864/65 and it was among the productions by many of the touring companies through the 1870s and 80s).

Even more familiar for today’s audiences is Carmen. One Peter Simpson (about whom I can find nothing on the Internet) arranged four pieces most effectively for these instruments. The combination here seemed to energise the three players to create sounds that evoked the character of the opera and its music remarkably.

The audience response at the end proved that my feelings were not isolated.

 

 

The NZSO “reclaims the night” for Baroque composers at St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace, Wellington

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
THE NIGHT  – music by Corelli, Telemann, Vivaldi and Fux

Bridget Douglas (flute)
Vesa-Matti Leppänen (director/violin)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

CORELLI – Concerto Grosso in D Major Op.6 No.1
TELEMANN – Overture/Suite in D Major TWV 55:D.21
VIVALDI – Flute Concerto in G Minor Op.10 No.2
FUX – Overture in D Minor E109
TELEMANN – Overture/Suite in D Major TWV55:D.22

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

Saturday, 8th June, 2019

To my great relief the NZSO abandoned the idea of presenting this, the second concert of their Baroque Series, in Wellington Cathedral, the first concert there having been a mixed blessing of an affair, with the building’s cavernous acoustic the main impediment to enjoyment of the music. The strictures of the Capital’s current “earthquake-risk” regulations regarding many of its buildings has made finding a venue for concerts involving either large ensembles and/or vocal groups such as choirs, something of a near-intractable “business”. The continued unavailability of the Town Hall is the chief disruption, affecting chamber music as well as both orchestral and choral events; and the council’s spending priorities have now of course been torpedoed by the unexpected closure of the Public Library, whose restoration in whatever shape or form would almost inevitably take priority.

My apologies, at this point of my discourse, for not sufficiently “cautioning” the readership about the non-musical content of the above paragraph, which should have been earmarked with some kind of Government Health Warning regarding its sub-normal percentage of “cultural well-being” content. Anyway, I shall hereby “rescue” the remainder of this article for music, with a description of the concert whose heading “The Night” also graces this review! Most helpfully for all concerned, except for, perhaps, the hard-working players, this presentation was played twice in one evening here at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, presumably to cater for the audience numbers expected in the concert’s original, and much larger venue. I attended the evening’s later performance, and can report that the playing in no way sounded either “fatigued” or “over-cooked” through repetition, everything wrought freshly and immediately.

I enjoyed the programme hugely, featuring as it did music by composers whose work often falls into the “heard about but seldom heard” category – even Vivaldi, for all the popularity of his “The Four Seasons” concerti can be more often named than his music “sounded” for concert-goers these days. Telemann, too, though receiving a recent fillip in the NZSO’s previous “Baroque” Concert with his wonderful “Water Music”, isn’t played as often as his music warrants the attention – though as part of his spoken introduction to the items played tonight, leader Vesa-Matti Leppänen went out on a limb for the composer by confessing that Telemann’s was “his favourite” baroque music!

As for Corelli and Fux, the first-named, Arcangelo Corelli, has enjoyed some “added-value” renown with his use of the well-known Portuguese “La Folia” melody in parts of both his Violin Sonatas and his Op.6 Concerti Grossi, his borrowing “picked up” by none other than Rachmaninov who wrote a set of piano variations “after a theme by Corelli”, of course, none other than the “La Folia” theme!  Johann Joseph Fux (1660-1741) achieved fame throughout his lifetime not only as a composer but as a theorist, with his treatise on counterpoint “Gradus ad Parnassum” becoming perhaps the single most influential book on Renaissance polyphony ever written, influencing practically all the important composers of the classical era. Earlier he had been Court Composer to the Austrian Emperor Leopold I, Kapellemeister at St.Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, and Music Director at the Imperial Court, the highest position of any composer in Europe. He composed operas and oratorios besides instrumental works, but then confined himself to sacred works for the final ten years of his life, after his wife’s death. It was left to Ludwig Ritter von Köchel, also Mozart’s cataloguer, to bring out a biography, and a catalogue of Fux’s work, and thus help reinstate his importance as a composer, midway through the nineteenth century – though his reputation as a dry-as-dust theorist and relatively insignificant composer still needs more pro-active campaign work!

Corelli’s first Op.6 Concerto Grosso began the concert, with rich, warmly-bowed playing throughout a graceful introduction, the voices varied and mellifluous – the first of a number of surges of allegro-energy brought out virtuoso playing from cellist Ken Ichinose, ably supported by his colleagues, the opening movement’s music switching spontaneously between a kind of poised pre-excitement, and exuberantly-released running energies, extremely theatrical and dramatic in effect. The following episodes featured beguiling exchanges between the concertino (solo instruments) and ripieno (accompanying forces), the former involving sweet, sinuous playing from solo violinists Vesa-Matti Leppänen and Janet Armstrong, the music constantly on the move, here suggesting a stillness created by the murmur of continuo instruments only, and there joyously alternating the sweetness of solo string-lines with the richness and grandeur of the full band.

The first of Telemann’s two Overtures (alternatively called “Suites”) in D Major (TWV 55:D.21) covered a lot of musical ground in its quarter-of-an-hour of glory, bringing winds and horns to the platform to diversify the range and scope of the piece’s sonic territories. After a proudly vigorous dotted-rhythm opening, with fabulous oboe and horn exchanges flavouring “civilised” strings with bracing “out-of-door” ambiences, we got a warmly relaxed  “plainte” (complaint), followed by the “madcap dance” (which Vesa-Matti warned us we were in for!) a Réjouissance like no other! Like a sane moment amid mad outbursts, the Carillon charmed our sensibilities, a liquid pizzicato setting off the pair of oboes’ graceful and delicious lines. Back to tumult we were taken with the “Tintamarre”, a piece setting out to “make a din”, the lines garrulous and unrelieved, mercifully brief! The following Loure seemed to me somewhat tipsy of gait, well-intentioned in its fulsome insistence, but making as if to wobble at speed! The concluding Menuet would have none of these foibles, marshalling the strings in the direction of “a good show” though the quirky trio brought smiles with the winds almost garrulously echoing the oboes’ phrases…..

At the other end of the concert stood, sentinel-like, another Telemann Suite, also in D Major TWV 55:D.22), and just as “characterful” a work as its concert companion, this one sporting its own subtitle – Ouverture jointe d’une suite tragi-comique – and taking further the idea of linking music of a specific character to people and situations, an idea that had become very popular in France at the time, especially in keyboard music. In this music Telemann portrayed various human ailments, proffering as well, by way of compensation, a number of quirky remedies.

A sprightly introduction was punctuated by timpani and drums, the music energised further by a jig-like figure, presumably depicting rude health. Not so the laboured, pain-ridden walking gait of “Le Podagre” (according to Vesa-Matti, depicting somebody afflicted with gout!) – two remedies followed, a mail-coach, the trumpets sounding its arrival amid measures of energetic dancing (the characterisations amusing in their brisk, unequivocal application!). Next was L’Hypochondre (Hypochondria) which  gave no rest or relaxation, the melancholy punctured by fevered anxieties. Here, the remedy, Souffrance héroïque (heroic suffering) marched in on the full ensemble (broad grins all round!). There remained the sin of Pride, sounds of overweening self-importance filling the vistas with grand contrivance in the form of resounding drum and trumpet-led cadences of ostentation! All was then blown away by fast and furious figurations from strings and winds, madhouse characterisations underpinned gloriously by brasses and timpani, the deadly sin delivered its come-uppance in grand style!

Though more overtly “serious” in intent, an Overture by the intriguing Johann Joseph Fux gave notice as to our loss with his relative neglect – a confident, bright-toned introduction strutted its stuff, the strings double by oboes bright and assertive throughout, the allegro leaping eagerly forwards, marshalling its varied lines, both concertino and ripeno, oboes to the upper strings what the bassoon was to the lower lines, giving the tones edge and colour, and contributing to the “schwung” of the music’s trajectories.

Fux’s melodies demonstrated a leaping, athletic quality in sequences like the Menuet, equally exploring a different vein of expression in the Aria, the oboes long-breathed and lyrical, singing in tandem with the strings until being moved along by the Fuga’s urgently-propelled lines, the themes tossed about most energetically, the string lines occasionally pulsating with shivers of excitement before joining in the solemn stepwise Lentenment transitions towards a warm-hearted Gigue, strings and winds echoing the dancing figures, a final Aria section restoring the occasion’s dignity, winds and strings bringing the dance to a somewhat wistful strings-only conclusion.

Captivated as I was by all these delights, the evening had already delivered its coup de grace for me immediately after the interval, with the appearance of flutist Bridget Douglas to play the concert’s most overtly spectacular item, Vivaldi’s “La Notte” Flute Concerto, one of a set of six which comprised the composer’s Op.10 – it was certainly the most visually arresting of the evening’s performances, the figure of the soloist taking on a kind of alluring sorceress-like aspect in her red dress, putting all of us in thrall with the spell cast by her playing and the evocative choreography of her movements, along with that of the other players, a scenario whose potency was enhanced by the use of imaginative backdrop lighting.

In terms of the musical language it was probably the concert’s most accessible item, owing to the music’s kinship to the well-known “The Four Seasons” set of concerti in places – in fact part of one of the slower sequences of the music seemed almost like a direct crib by the composer of his own music from  the “Autumn” concerto out of that work. The rest, however, was of a piece with the work’s title – a kind of foreboding generated at the beginning, then impulses of the most volatile and unpredictable kind, tremendous playing from the soloist herself and split-second support from her instrumental cohorts, before the opening mood returned, giving way to another quick section called “Phantasms” – then came the Largo movement reminiscent of “The Four Seasons” before a final Presto skitterishly completed the music’s nightmare, the work concluding on an extraordinarily portentous, minor-key trill.  Phantasmagorical stuff! – all part of a presentation that would have enlarged the average listener’s appreciation of the fantastic array of depth and variety to be found in Baroque music.

Mozart the wonderful vehicle for supporting an important charity from Karori Classics

Karori Classics: Purely Mozart
Anna van der Zee and Emma Brewerton (violins), Christian van der Zee and Lyndsay Mountfort (violas), Alegria Solana Ramos (cello), Ignacio de Nicolas Gaya (flute)

Mozart: Flute Quartet in C, K 285b
Mozart: Quintet in G minor, K 526

St Mary’s Church, 176 Karori Road

Friday 31 May, 7 pm

This third concert in the 2019 series, Karori Classics was a benefit concert for Cystic Fibrosis New Zealand, for it’s a wretched condition that afflicts the child of two of the players, Emma Brewerton and Lyndsay Mountfort.

We were sorry to have missed the earlier two concerts; the first, on 1 March, by duet pianists Beth Chen and Nicole Chao, known as Duo Enharmonics; and the second on 22 March for an interesting mixture of pieces involving the flutes of Kirsten Eade and new NZSO flutist/piccolo player Ignacio de Nicolas Gaya in music by Reger, Karg-Elert, a Haydn quartet played by Baroque music group the Orion Quartet (and a composer referred to in the website as J W Bach – presumably a misprint for another Bach).

This, obviously, was a more orthodox programme, which naturally raises more serious expectations. Though there was also an extra-musical interest in that all six players formed three pairs, maritally or romantically speaking. Flutist Ignacio de Nicolas Gaya was here joined by his partner Alegria Solana Ramos, cellist, together with core players named above.

Mozart’s Flute quartet K 285b
They played the third of Mozart’s four flute quartets (the first three are curiously numbered K 285, K 285a and K 285b and the fourth is K 298 in the Köchel catalogue).

Even though the character of players and their instruments didn’t create an especially uniform sound, especially between violin and cello, such niceties are not very significant in a group containing a non-stringed instrument. It was a charming performance, with its sanguine and lyrical first movement, Allegro. The second is a theme and variations, a form that can be dull and predictable in the hands of an ordinary composer, but even though Mozart is on record as disliking the flute, he wrote a totally diverting movement here, with the penultimate variation a secretive, reclusive affair and a deliciously enlivened final variation, which they played with affection and conspicuous pleasure.

The string quintet K 516 is the fourth of the six that he wrote; the first was an early work, and the second, in C minor K 406, was a transcription of his wind serenade K 388. That leaves four great, mature works, and K 516 was alone among them in a minor key. Many a Mozart devotee regards it a one of his greatest works, and I sensed that even without being told that secret, the audience listened with rapt attention as its sombre, reflective spirit unfolded; that was particularly striking through the near quarter hour of the first movement (not a moment too long and the longest movement in any of the quintets). Even though, as with the flute quartet, the tonal ensemble between the instruments was not the main feature of their playing, and the warm beauty of Alegria Solana Ramos’s cello constantly caught the ear, the five players displayed a unanimity of affection and even a degree of awe that made it a singular, lovely experience.

These early evening Friday recitals are very much worth watching out for.

 

 

 

 

Amici Ensemble consolidates its reputation as valuable, adventurous Wellington adornment

Wellington Chamber Music 
Amici Ensemble: Donald Armstrong and Malavika Gopal (violins), Andrew Thomson (viola), Ken Ichinose (cello), Bridget Douglas (flute), Patrick Barry (clarinet) and Carolyn Mills (harp

Mozart: Clarinet Quintet in A, K. 581
Debussy: Syrinx for solo flute
Salina Fisher – Coastlines for string quartet, flute, clarinet and harp
Mozart: Flute Quartet in D, KV 285
Saint-Saëns: Fantaisie in A for Violin and Harp, Op 124
Ravel: Introduction and Allegro for string quartet, flute, clarinet and harp

St. Andrews on The Terrace

Sunday 16 September 3 pm

We have owed a great deal to this splendid, many-facetted ensemble over the years, held together by NZSO Associate Concertmaster Donald Armstrong. Most ‘chamber music’ groups are either trios or quartets, and occasionally a quintet by adding a piano, a cello, a clarinet… Here we had enough variety to give us Mozart’s clarinet quintet, and also Ravel’s septet that is disguised as Introduction and Allegro for string quartet, flute, clarinet and harp, a delightful concoction that clearly inspired Salina Fisher to write her new piece, using the same forces.

Mozart: K 581
I have a feeling that in most of my reviews of Mozart’s clarinet quintet I have regaled readers (if any) with my nostalgic affair with a motor car, a cassette and by-ways of rural France and Spain,  err… 40 years ago. Almost all my discoveries of great music are embedded in memories of time and place of first hearing – not a bad way to prepare for life’s later years.

This performance of the Mozart did that again, for its tones, tempi, spirit were very similar to those produced by that long-ago cassette, and so it aroused admiration for the loving performance that NZSO string players, plus principal clarinettist Patrick Barry, created. Their re-creation of the gorgeous melodies of the dreamy slow movement, again both clarinet and strings equally ‘lime-lit’; the clarinet’s perfectly normal, undulating arpeggios and scales , though mere accompaniment, momentarily stole attention from the strings. The menuetto with its two trios became unusually interesting, more than many a Minuet and Trio; and the ‘Theme and Variations’ of the finale offered surprising contrasts between delight and pensiveness.

The Debussy memorial year was marked here with his Syrinx from Bridget Douglas, warm tone without any hint fluty shrillness that sometimes alters its mood.

Coastlines
Then came Salina Fisher’s Ravel look-alike, but in instrumentation only, Coastlines. The tremulous clarinet begins, then a mere punctuation by flutes. Its title did rather call up the feel of the Kapiti Coast, being a commission from the Waikanae Music Society, though I have difficulty using landscape or narrative as a way of understanding or assessing music. The instrumental combination seems to hint at all kinds of natural or man-made sounds, and the sounds of the sea, wind, birds and the atmosphere conjured by light. The breathy flute, the blend of harp and clarinet, but it was a sense of the music’s trajectory, of one phase evolving towards another, one instrument relating with another, that took hold of the attention for a few moments as a sound pattern took shape.

There was the flow of a story somewhere and satisfaction about the patterns of sound that left me finally with a feeling of contentment with Fisher’s chimerical creation.

After the interval Mozart’s first flute quartet restored conventional sounds and patterns, and again, here was a time for Bridget Douglas to become a leading voice, although with Mozart, even a sort of solo instrument doesn’t remain for long in the limelight, but places the music rather than the player centre stage. The performance emphasised the warmth of melody and the importance of the ensemble element. It never allowed one to think that even in a fairly early piece (1777/78, aged 21), Mozart was not concerned primarily with producing interesting, even unexpected events, for example the unresolved end of the Adagio, making the finale Rondo necessary.

Saint-Saëns: violin and harp 
The novelty (apart from the Fisher piece) was a much older piece: Saint-Saëns at 72, in 1907. It’s quite true, as the programme note writes, that it might have sounded old-fashioned to the more adventurous music lover at the time, though the avant-garde music then starting to emerge would have been quite unknown to the average concert-goer. Nothing essentially ‘Second Viennese School’ was circulating; Debussy and Ravel, and perhaps the Strauss of Salome, were the radicals of 1907.

But the unusual combination – violin and harp – might have gained it some attention. It’s a polished, stylish and idiomatic piece, generally bright and warm and not the least uninteresting. For the record, the sections are: Poco Allegretto – Allegro – Vivo e grazioso – Largamente – Andante con moto – Poco Adagio.

There is momentary darkness with the descending, double stopped notes in the Allegro but a genuine allegro spirit takes over quickly. And the following Vivo e grazioso cannot really be dismissed as fluff. The remaining three sections are fairly slow but do not lose their feeling of continuity; and they create a rather charming picture, especially as played so persuasively by Armstrong and Mills.  The whole thing sounds as if the composer had been taken with the possibilities of using these two instruments and quite attractive ideas came easily to him.

Ravel: Introduction and Allegro 
Finally, the second major piece (second to the Clarinet Quintet). It was interesting that Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro was contemporaneous with the Saint-Saëns Fantaisie. Though I knew the story about commercial competition between Paris piano makers Pleyel and Érard, I couldn’t remember which way the conflict went. In 1904 Pleyel invented a new chromatic harp and commissioned Debussy to demonstrate its worth (Danse sacrée et danse profane), while Érard defended his century-old double action pedal harp by commissioning Ravel’s piece. The latter prevailed in the market place (political corollary: this sort of result from competition does permit an exception to my general scepticism about its social, even economic efficacy).

Happily, both pieces are much-loved favourites, and it was a delight to hear the Ravel played by such accomplished musicians. Ravel might have been too radical for the Prix de Rome judges at the Paris Conservatoire, but this piece is gorgeously romantic and playful, and as this programme showed, there’s plenty of room for both Saint-Saëns and Ravel in civilised society.

The concert more than lived up to the reputation of Donald Armstrong and the Amici Ensemble’s as a valuable and adventurous adornment to Wellington’s rich musical scene.

 

Polished recital from Steel and Irons of flute and piano masterpieces at St Andrew’s

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts

Rebecca Steel (flute) and Diedre Irons (piano)

Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Prokofiev: Flute sonata in D, Op 94

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 5 September, 12:15 pm

While the series of concerts from students that occupies St Andrew’s lunchtime series regularly around this time of the year, are always a delight and sometimes expose unusual and interesting music, it’s nice to get back to the mainstream, with truly accomplished professional musicians.

The concert’s pun-prone title (Steel and Iron{s}} did announce a couple of New Zealand’s finest artists in their fields.

Though I tend to be wary of arrangements-of-convenience, the treatment of Debussy’s ground-breaking masterpiece, is a natural for such treatment (though its arranger was not mentioned), as the flute occupies such a central place in the work. And even though the rest of the orchestral parts are there in the mind, their transmutation at the hands of such an accomplished pianist seemed to meet all the expectations. Undulating piano sounds others depicting the heavy hooves of the faun (spelling in English looks wrong we’ve become more used to Debussy’s, French faune). From the flute, meandering sounds, rippling arpeggios, moments of lazy voluptuousness and dappled shade; and it was hard to think that most of the writing for both flute and piano was transcription from a rich orchestral tapestry. I thought it all lost very little in translation.

Prokofiev’s 1943 flute sonata is the music he later transcribed at David Oistrakh’s suggestion, for violin and piano, which is the form that’s more familiar to me. However, the original, in the hands of this duo, emerged as a ever-slightly more idiomatic and made to measure, flute-inspired. For one thing, there were hints of the world of a flute-playing faun, in certain melodic turns of phrase.

It holds an important place in the flute repertoire which seems to include few formal sonatas: on thinks of Poulenc’s, Hindemith’s, and there’s apparently one by Reinecke which was originally included in this programme, and a few by Bach and other baroque composers. But only miscellaneous (some very fine) flute pieces by most of the ‘great’ composers.

This is a four-movement work that meets all the normal classical sonata criteria. It contains no suggestion of wartime, partly I suppose because Prokofiev was among the Soviet artists evacuated to pleasant sanctuary in the Caucasus or Urals. Certainly, the first movement breathes quietude between passages of busyness, and the second, Scherzo, Allegro, bustles with cheerfulness and high spirits, where the duo captured it all, including the pensive moment in the middle; and where their playing became almost reckless before coming to a halt – one of those that announces clearly that it’s not the end of the piece.

There was an airiness in the playing of the Andante: typical Prokofiev, excluding any hint of emotion, any revealing of personal feelings. That is also the nature of the longish Finale, Allegro con brio, in which piano and flute often seemed to inhabit different spaces, the flute fluttering brightly, up high, while the piano goes its independent way with heavier chordal diversions. One is strung along, expecting the end some time before it actually arrives, and it did strike me either that the composer was filling it out to meet certain dimensions, or that the players here were secretly waiting for the last page to be turned.

That may have been an unkind thought for a recital all of which I had thoroughly enjoyed.