“Strings for Africa” joyously fill the vistas of St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace

Sinfonia for Hope and Stringendo presents:
STRINGS FOR AFRICA

JS BACH – Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D Minor BWV 1052
Antonio VIVALDI – Concerto for 4 Violins and ‘Cello – No.10 of Op.3 “L”estro armónico” RV 580
Gabriel FAURE – Cantique de Jean Racine (arr. for ‘cello ensemble)
JS BACH – Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 BWV 1051 (arr for viola/’cello ensemble)

Diedre Irons (piano),
Amelia Hall, Martin Riseley. Monique Lapins, Konstanze Artmann, Rupa Maitra, Martin Jaenecke, Lucas Baker, Claire Macfarlane, Sandra Logan, Sarah Marten, Robin Perks, Lucy Maurice (violins),
Sophia Acheson, Peter Barber, Elyse Dalabakis, Xi Liu (violas)
Inbal Megiddo, Heleen du Plessis (‘cellos)
Chris Everest (continuo guitar)
Stringendo
Sinfonia for Hope
Donald Maurice (conductor)

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

Tuesday, May 18th, 2021

Back In November of 2019 I attended an event called “Cellos for Africa”, at Te Rauparaha Arena in Porirua City,  one described by its organisers as “a multi-institutional and multi-cultural collaboration”, featuring a variety of performing individuals and groups brought together by Heleen du Plessis and Donald Maurice. The event’s primary purpose was to raise funds for a school in Africa which had been established in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2011 by New Zealander Denise Carnihan and her husband Chris. More than $8,000 was raised by this Porirua concert to support the venture, named the “Tamariki Educational Centre”, and situated in the poorest part of Nairobi. This latest concert, “Strings for Africa”, was a kind of follow-up, the funds intended to help establish a fully-fledged music programme at the school.

Both Denise and Chris Carnihan were present at this latest concert, and at the conclusion expressed their heartfelt thanks at the efforts of the event’s organisers and the assembled musicians, as well as acknowledging the support of the members of the audience. We were, throughout the evening,  treated to what could be best described as a kind of “string-fest” – if one forgot official designations and regarded Diedre Irons’ piano as a “stringed instrument”, one could indeed say that the entire company of musicians were string-players!

As befitted the occasion’s focus on the establishment of a school music programme, a goodly number of the evening’s instrumentalists were school-aged children, members of a group called Stringendo, a Wellington-based children’s string orchestra, one which opened the evening’s programme with a performance of JS Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in D Minor, conducted by Donald Maurice, the soloist with the ensemble being none other than the aforementioned Diedre Irons! Playing the St.Andrew’s grand piano set back amidst the ensemble players as befitted a kind of “sinfonia concertante” work,  Irons gave a sturdily-focused and clearly-articulated reading of the first movement’s solo part, duetting most charmingly with the violins in a number of places, and plunging into a mini-cadenza which sparked and scintillated like a firecracker, the pianist’s characteristic spontaneity of manner keeping us nicely guessing as to the moment of her instrument’s reunitement with the orchestra!

The sombre, unison statement of the slow movement’s opening theme gave it all great gravity, and a modicum of tension as to its eventual destination! I enjoyed the accompanying strings “sighing tones”, a touching sensitivity evident in the young players’ relating their phrases to the soloist, and the latter in turn elaborating upon the simple, emotionally-direct string figurations. The final  episode enchanted as well, with the strings quietly joining Irons’ melodic line in unison, the utterances spare, and extremely moving!

Sprightly, energetic and animated at the outset, the finale began with the piano creating its own frisson of excitement, and the orchestra its own version of exhilaration, the notes clearly played and their energies well-conveyed. The soloist was never left unattended by the strings for long, the fount of Bach’s invention astonishingly vigorous and varied throughout, and the detailings never less than ear-catching, such as the observance of different dynamic levels and the setting of soaring lines against rapid-fire accompaniments. Irons’s solo part became somewhat fired up towards the piece’s end, but the orchestral musicians maintained active participants right to the final exchanges – well done!

One couldn’t help catching one’s breath as the soloists for the next work on the programme, Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins RV 580, came on to the platform – it was as though the concert had momentarily “cornered the local market” regarding violinistic talent! With Amalia Hall and Martin Riseley on one side, and Monique Lapins with Konstanze Artmann on the other, sparks were ready and set to fly in this work, the music catching into conflagration from the very opening, Amalia Hall and Martin Riseley setting things in motions, answered by Monique Lapins and Konstanze Artmann with the ensemble’s support, straightaway establishing a dynamic variation in the exchanges by way of indicating that no stone of interpretative contrast would be left unturned.

Every solo was characteristically “eventful”, not only notes-wise, but in dynamics and antiphonal direction and its augmentation by any one or more of the “company”, the interchanges filled with the drama of variety of utterance – what to the casual listener might have at first seemed a “sameness” of texture and figuration, with the propulsive opening theme driving the music along, drew us with each repetition further into the panoply of the music’s fantastic world.

The slow movement began with a series of dramatically-delivered gestures, the big dotted-note chords alternating with shimmering arpeggiated figures for both the soloists and the ripeno  – a central episode contrasted this solemn mood with a ghostly dance, as if a chorus of sprites lurking behind the great columns of sound briefly and impishly showed themselves, enjoying their “moment” before dancing out of sight once more.

The sprightly, triple-time finale reinvigorated the sound-picture, the company bending all backs in delivering the vigorous opening theme, before each of the soloists launched by turns into an elaborately modulated discourse, Amalia Hall getting the lion’s share at first, but with the others joining in the rapid-fire exchanges, Inbal Megiddo’s cello as well reminding us at times that the concerto is actually designated “for four violins AND ‘cello” in its place in the Op.3 “L’Estro L’Armonico” collection! What else could one feel when it was all over but privileged to have “been here” to witness the euphoric joy of such music making!

The next item was “unprogrammed” in a written sense, being intended as something of a “surprise”. A group of ‘cellists currently under the tuition of Inbal Megiddo, here gave us a transcription  of an 1865 choral work by Gabriel Faure, Cantique de Jean Racine, originally a four-part work for mixed choir and keyboard. I forgot to actually count the cellists in the group, but there must have been at least eight, including Inbal herself – a gorgeously rich sound! The players infused their various lines with plenty of feeling, nicely inflected and tellingly shaped – I thought there was remarkable strength and confidence in the lead cellist’s playing (at the opposite end of the line from where Inbal was sitting). I liked the group’s intensities in the softer moments of the piece, catching the feeling as readily as during the more outwardly-expressive moments in the music, concluding with a particularly touching final phrase.

Finally, it was the turn of the Sinfonia for Hope to perform for us, an orchestral group established in 2018 for fundraising purposes supporting humanitarian causes, the present Nairobi project being the group’s 2021 focus. Before the group’s item got underway conductor Donald Maurice expressed thanks to both Inbal Megiddo and Heleen du Plessis, describing them as central to the organisation of the evening’s music-making, after which he invited the organisers of the Nairobi Project, Denise and Chris Carnihan, onto the stage as well, the couple expressing their thanks to the musicians, organisers and the audience for their support for the Nairobi venture via the evening’s musical activities. It was gratifying to be told that, as a result of this evening’s concert, the projected music programme at the “Tamariki Educational Centre” in Nairobi would be able to be established.

The Sinfonia’s item was one with a difference, a performance of JS Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 played by an astounding assemblage of no less than twenty-four viola players, along with a large group of ‘cellists, plus a continuo guitar, all conducted by Donald Maurice. It all began with a will, the rich massed viola sound rolling around and about the church’s vistas, each group’s phrases gleefully bouncing off the other’s with almost bumptious heft in places, though allowing ample spaces for the lines of the two ‘cello groups to come through as well. At the outset I found the reiterations of the main theme exciting when re-emphasised by each of the groups, but my ear began increasingly to listen for and appreciate the less assertive lines and phrases and their interplay, finding a different kind of excitement in the play of the “terraced” sounds at the varied dynamic levels.

The slow movement then provided the greatest possible contrast to what we had heard thus far, with solo strings and guitar continuo, the four players, Peter Barber and Sophia Acheson (violas), Inbal Megiddo (‘cello) and Chris Everest (guitar) transporting our sensibilities in the most delightful fashion, a truly memorable performance expressing such finely-wrought contrasts of light and shade, warmth and focus, and strength allied to delicacy as to disarm critical processes…..

After this, the finale’s “jolly hockey sticks” effect of the massed strings’ return brought us back down to earth in the most appropriate way, with sequences of tumbling warmth vying with moments of delicacy and playfulness.  I enjoyed the music’s modulatory swerves into more distant realms, and the dogged meticulousness of the figurations’ homeward journey to the point where the main theme relievedly gathered the threads together and roared out for the last time – what palpable pleasure there was in its final delivery, and in the audience response , a moment to acknowledge and truly cherish as a memory of the evening’s delights!

“Cello for Africa” at Porirua City a spectacular and moving multi-cultural collaborative event

The Sinfonia for Hope presents:
CELLO FOR AFRICA – a multi-institutional and multi-cultural collaboration
Director – Donald Maurice

Performing Individuals and Groups:
Te Kura Māori o Porirua (kapa haka and waiata)
Inbal Megiddo, Rolf Gjelsten, Jane Young (cellos) Stringendo (director: Donald Maurice)
Linkwood Guitar Duo (Jane Curry and Owen Moriarty)
Sam Manzana (Congo drum)
Virtuoso Strings (directors – Craig Utting and Elizabeth Sneyd)
Cellophonia (director – Inbal Meggido)
Amalia Hall (violin), Tinashe Chidanyika and Sarah Hoskyns (mbira)
Ruby Solly (taonga puoro), Hannah Neman (percussion)
Lyrica Choir, Kelburn Normal School (director – Nicola Holt)
Sinfonia for Hope  (conductor: Hans Huyssen)
Heleen du Plessis (‘cello)

Music by Antonio Vivaldi, Jack Body, Craig Utting, Anthony Ritchie, Hans Huyssen

Guest Speakers:
Dr.Taku Parai (Chairman, Kaumātua, Ngāti Toa)
Her Worship Anita Baker, Mayor of Porirua
Associate Professor Hon. Luamanuvao Dame Winnie Laban
Professor Sunny Collings, Dean and Head of Wellington Campus, University of Otago
Professor Donald Maurice, director of Sinfonia for Hope

Te Rauparaha Arena, Porirua City

Sunday, 24th November, 2019

“Cello for Africa” was, in the words of co-organisers Heleen du Plessis and Donald Maurice, an event designed “to bring people from different cultures together using music, and specifically, ‘cellos, to help create a platform for cultural interaction and human connection in support of causes in Africa”. The concert’s specific target was to raise funds for a school established in Nairobi five years ago, the Tamariki Education Centre, by New Zealander Denise Carnihan (who was present at the concert).

The event brought together four youth performance groups augmented by a goodly number of professional performers to perform, among other things, at least one world and one New Zealand performance premiere (not a Venn diagram in words – I meant TWO separate pieces!). New Zealand composer Anthony Ritchie contributed the world “first” with his piece “Kia Kaha Tamariki”, and South African composer Hans Huyssen the New Zealand premiere of his “Concerto for an African ‘Cellist”. There was a Vivaldi concerto for two ’cellos, a work for two guitars by Jack Body, and a piece for strings called “Goodnight Kiwi” by Craig Utting. And extending the diversity of the occasion were various haka and waiata performed by Te Kura Māori o Porirua Kapa Haka, a colourful sequence of Congo drumming by master percussionist Sam Manzanza, and a bracket of songs performed by Kelburn Normal School’s Lyrica Choir, directed by Nicola Holt.

We were welcomed at the outset by Dr Taku Parai, the Ngāti Toa Chairman and Kaumātua, accompanied by Ranei Parai and the splendid Te Kura Māori o Porirua Kapa Haka group. I was struck by the similarities in places between the sound of the Maori chant and some of the Gregorian chant I’d heard, with similar nuances and impulses in places, and underlined by the plangency of the young women’s tones – by contrast the haka passages were incisive and striking for different reasons! After the group had moved off to the side in the time-honoured manner, the Mayor of Porirua, Her Worship Anita Baker spoke to us, most impressively, drawing resonant parallels between Ntairobi in Kenya, and Porirua, here in New Zealand, and welcoming our support for the “Cello in Africa” venture. At this point I felt it would have been good for the event to have had a properly-appointed MC, merely to provide a kind of ongoing flow during the transitions between the numbers – the members of the Stringendo group simply “appeared” with the continuo ‘celllist, Jane Young, after whom came the two soloists for the next item, ‘cellists Inbal Megiddo and Rolf Gjelsten, together with conductor, Donald Maurice.

The two soloists began the work vigorously and adroitly, Megiddo taking the more assertive lead with Gjelsten seeming somewhat “laid back” of projection in reply, both in this way most effectively “terracing” the exchanges, while Jane Young’s continuo kept a watching brief over the exchanges. The tutti passages had great effect, with the extra weight of numbers producing a real “What does the crowd think?” kind of response in the sound’s impact – I’m certain the spontaneous applause at the first movement’s end would have underlined for the players our enjoyment. The slow movement featured the soloists and continuo only, the players again differentiating their lines via a fetching minor-key melody, with Megiddo’s sumptuous tones stimulating a thoughtful, more circumspect response from her companion. Some of the younger players weren’t expecting or had forgotten about a repeat in the music, as several moved to make a grand tutti entry at one point, but lowered their bows again when the music turned on its tracks and repeated a second-half section – very sweet! The younger players got their chance at the “true” beginning of the finale, playing the repeated theme as the soloists overlaid the  music with decorative passages, then intensifying the repetitions with a couple of modulations – all sounding very daring on their part, and garnering considerable applause at the end!

Next was a transcription for two guitars by Jack Body, made from recordings of the Madagascan “vahila”, a kind of “zither” made from a bamboo tube, and regarded by many as the country’s “national” musical instrument. A tumbling, rhythmically teasing piece called “Ramandriana”, it kept shifting its emphasis and thus varying its gait, the players, Jane Curry and Owen Moriarty, finding a wealth of variation of tone and timbre, which would have stemmed from the original instrument recording. (The duo should, I think, have been at least introduced to the audience as “The Linkwood Guitar Duo”, but, again, there was no “MC”.There were names and  information in the programme to be sure, but again, a welcoming voice would have, I think, made a more easeful difference.

We were delighted to welcome Sam Manzanza, the Congloese drummer, resident in New Zealand since the 1980s, where he’s been popularising traditional African music for a number of years with his AfroBeat Band – here he was performing solo with a single drum, and producing an amazing variety of sounds , accompanying his rhythmic patternings with various chants, and encouraging audience participation most successfully! Continuing on an African “wave”, we responded warmly to the next speaker, Associate Professor Hon. Luamanuvao Dame Winnie Laban’s congratulations to South Africa for winning the World Rugby Cup! Her acknowledgement of the work of the organisers of this evening’s concert also elicited an enthusiastic response, as did her confirmation of the Te Ata Festival Project for 2020.

Composer, and co-director of Virtuoso Strings, Craig Utting introduced his ensemble in preparation for the nest item, a version of TV NZ’s famous shutting-down-transmission piece, “Goodnight Kiwi”. Accompanied by the lowering of lights for the music’s beginning, the piece established an all-energies-spent feeling, the string figurations drowsy and  droopy at the phrase-ends, the fragments of one phrase answering another across the vistas created by the ensemble standing in a wide half-circle to perform. The music suddenly energised into angular waltz-like movement, the rhythms and themes lazily dovetailing, its bitter-sweet ambience underlined by a “wilting” kind of inclination, until finally a driving, toccatalike 7/4 rhythm awoke a voice singing the famous Hine e hine words, with heartfelt feeling – the singer beautifully maintained her line and steadiness of tone , right until darkness overtook the music and the players on the stage………

After an interval, and a welcome and brief address from the Dean and Head of Otago University’s Wellington Campus, Professor Sunny Collings, we were treated to composer Anthony Ritchie’s Kia Kaha Tamariki, a musical tribute to the Kenyan School whose founding five years ago in Nairobi has changed the lives of so many African children. The work (a world premiere) was performed here by Cellophonia (40+ cellists!) along with violinist Amalia Hall, cellist Inbal Megiddo, mbira players Tinashe Chidanyika and Sarah Hoskyns, taonga puoro player Ruby Solly, and percussionist Hannah Neman.

Ritchie’s work emphasised the ideas of exchange and accessibility of different musical sounds – a pity the orchestral “platform” was so far away from its audience, across the vistas of what was another performing-space, as it reduced the visceral effects of the more exotic instruments, such as a view of “how they were being played” (the Huyssen Concerto which concluded the evening had a similar kind of “removed” aspect to it – we were, indeed, in the same “space” as the performers, but arguably with too much “air” between us all!). Still, the sounds made an impact, and the conventional and exotic instruments created wholly unique worlds,  even if I felt the music sounded more “Caribbean” than African (ethnomusicologists may well apply to have my travel visas revoked upon reading that statement, though it’s just my (admittedly uninformed) opinion!).

Moments of “Elgarian-sounding” string-writing for the ‘cellos rubbed shoulders with more exotic rhythms and timbres as the non-string-players took up their instruments, the whole given an additional ambient context by Ruby Solly’s taonga puoro sounds. After a colourful sequence featuring the more exotic instruments alone, the drums intensified the rhythms and the cellos intoned an eminently singable/danceable melody, immediately suggesting a ready response in kind from listeners – the work was rounded off by a brief irruption of percussive impulse and gesture – altogether a direct and approachable tribute to a worthwhile cause.

There were hurryings and scurryings from certain people in preparation for the next item, the outcome seeming a little Houdini-esque as it turned out, with everybody’s attention focused on a completely different entrance to that through which the members of Lyrica (Kelburn Normal School Choir) and its director, Nicola Holt, finally appeared! – the group sang three songs bringing out poignancies and sweet colourings in the first two and plenty of rhythmic energy in the third, all accompanied on an electric piano most adroitly played by Nicole Chao, though I thought the second song, a lullaby could have just as effectively been performed voices-only. The choir recently took part in the Orpheus Choir of Wellington’s performance of Orff’s Carmina Burana, which I attended, and remember enjoying the children’s singing a great deal.

I wondered whether programming a fully-fledged three movement instrumental concerto at the end of a tumultuous evening was the best course, as the attrition rate among the audience was certainly noticeable at that stage, despite people’s best efforts – still, the work was meant to be symbolic of a fusion of voices and languages and cultures, and therefore judiciously placed at the concert’s climax. It represented a herculean effort of technique, emotion and crossover sensibility on the part of the solo cellist, Heleen du Plessis, who gave what sounded like a totally committed performance, from the “Partida”, or exploratory opening movement in which she enabled her instrument to “speak its language”, through the exchanges with other instruments over the second and third sections (the latter movement including a vocalised section from mbira-player Tinashe Chidanyika), and into the final Mapfachapfacha (in the Zezuru language, “a sudden arrival of many”), which sounded like a celebration of the coming together of diverse voices.

Composer Hans Huyssen’s use of non-standardised instruments (and the human voice) as constituent parts of such a formalised composition as a “concerto” has plenty of precedent in Western music, as witness, for example, the various instances of use of such things in the Mahler symphonies. And there were precedents of all kinds for the use of voices in such works as well, from Beethoven onwards, giving the words intoned by the orchestra players at the end of this work, referring to the music’s journey in search of a commonality amid the diversity, and its discovery within, their own unique resonances – the whole occasion generated so much warm feeling it was difficult to be analytical or judgemental regarding what we had heard! Its task, as far as I could discern from everybody’s response at the evening’s conclusion, was completed most successfully.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Popular guitarists with delightful though unfamiliar music at St Andrew’s

Owen Moriarty and Jane Curry – guitars

Music by Fernando Sor, Almer Imamovic, Emilio Pujol and Napoléon Coste

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 21 November, 12:15 pm

Guitarists Jane Curry and Owen Moriarty are familiar figures at the St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts, and the sounds they make are particularly suited to the church’s acoustic. Furthermore, for anyone open to discoveries, more of the guitar repertoire than that of almost any other well-known instrument is unfamiliar. It’s not that only in recent years has it become a popular instrument in the classical music world; in fact, it was familiar in recital by the early 19th century, by a number of excellent guitarist/composers.

And that’s where this recital started.

Composer/guitarists flourishing at that time included François de Fossa, Francesco Molino, Mauro Giuliani, Ferdinando Carulli, Antoine Meissonnier, among many others; even Boccherini and Paganini played and wrote for the guitar. At this Wednesday concert Curry and Moriarty played pieces from that era by Fernando Sor and Napoléon Coste.

Owen Moriarty played three solo pieces before being joined by Jane Curry to play Coste’s Grand Duo Concertante. His first piece was Sor’s Grand Solo, Op 14. Moriarty played its slow Introduction very quietly with great delicacy: little hint of its ‘Grandness’. The arrival of the Allegro was like a sudden powerful beam of light, illuminating it with bright Spanish colours, but yet with a distinct sense of its period – Haydn and the spirit of the French Revolution. There were striking dynamic changes, abrupt pauses and emotional shifts, switching from plaintiveness to confidence. And Moriarty took pains to highlight harmonic changes and the teasing cadences that presaged the end the piece, but carried on regardless.

A piece called Scott’s Guitar was composed by a friend of Moriarty’s, Almer Imamovic, Bosnian by origin, if I heard Moriarty’s preliminary comments correctly; he now teaches in California. It was hard to locate this charming, pensive piece in a national or stylistic context. It lay in the centre of the guitar’s range, relishing the lovely sonority of Moriarty’s instrument and the piece’s emotional subtlety and sense of regret.

A Seguidilla by Emilio Pujol, who was a pupil of Tarrega, and died after a very long life in 1980, reflected a style that most would associate with guitar music: a Spanish dance. Strongly rhythmic, melodically delightful, seeming to endorse a view that merely to be brought up a Spanish musician is to access inexhaustible melodic inspiration. And Moriarty’s playing captured it fluently and with very evident relish.

Then Jane Curry emerged to join Moriarty in a splendid piece by Napoléon Coste: his Grand Duo Concertante. Coste was born in the midst of the Napoleonic era – hence his name; he was a contemporary of Berlioz and Schubert, of Bellini and Donizetti.  It was very emphatically a duo, by no means one instrument accompanying another, so stylistically intimate was it. Naturally, the melody line was handled by each in turn, though it seemed more often to fall to Curry. Its character encouraged me to hear the difference in tone between the two guitars.

The Duo’s form was a very traditional four contrasting movements: Allegro, Andante, Barcarolle and the Finale, Allegro. The opening Allegro was lively enough, but it was its charm and the excellent rapport between the two players that made listening such pleasure, and it made me wonder whether hearing a piece like this might have inspired Chopin’s famous remark that ‘nothing was more beautiful than a guitar – except perhaps, two guitars’. (though given Chopin’s famous acerbity and ungenerosity, that sounds uncharacteristic).

The Andante was thoughtful and seemed an even more delightful example of musical sharing. The Barcarolle created yet another sort of delight, though like any art, there were moments of hesitation and doubt; I was glad it was not played too quickly. The Finale however, was lively and spoke of contentment, highlighting the splendid unanimity of musicianship and spirit between the two.

Diverting, varied, guitar recital by NZSM students

New Zealand School of Music Guitars

Music by Brahms, de Falla, Ravel, Philip Houghton, Barrios

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 10 October 2018, 12.15pm

It was not easy to understand what were the alterations to this concert’s programme, caused in part by illness; the microphone not working (as indeed it did not the previous week) didn’t help matters.

First up in this varied programme were Rameka Tamaki and Oliver Featherston.  They played as a guitar duo Theme & Variations from Sextet Opus 18 (second movement) by Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897), arranged by the great guitarist John Williams.  The work was in B-flat major, and was composed in the summer of 1860, while Brahms was staying near the River Elbe. It was premiered later in Hanover, by an ensemble led by Brahms’s colleague, the violinist Joseph Joachim.

The second movement andante was played in a very pleasant arrangement. The fact of it being a theme and variations based on Hungarian rhythms and sonorities made it somehow suitable for guitars. There was perfect co-ordination between the players, despite plenty of technical demands.  For the most part the music was gentle and delicate, throughout this quite long movement.

Music from Falla’s opera La Vide Breve is quite well-known, particularly the orchestral music from it, such as this Spanish Dance, adapted for performance by two guitars by Emilio Pujol, and played by the same duo as was the first piece on the programme.  It was a thoroughly pleasing performance of this delightful, bright piece.

Next were two solos, both by Agustin Barrios (1885-1944), who was born in Paraguay, but lived in other parts of Latin America for most of his life.  He wrote many works, mainly short ones, for guitar.  Chris Everest played his La Catedral and Rameka Tamaki played Julia Florida.   The first consisted of three movements; after a short Preludio came an Andante, followed by Allegro.  This was an attractive solo, the player obtaining gorgeous resonance from his instrument.  The middle movement was slow and pensive, beautifully executed.  The third movement was fast, with a sustained melody over  running accompaniment.  This demanded, and achieved, great skill.

Like the first, the second soloist played from memory.  Gentle and lilting Julia Florida qualified as a pretty piece (that is not meant to sound demeaning!).  Like the previous piece by Barrios, it was full of interest, and quite demanding on the player – I thought I noticed a few missed notes, but overall, it was another fine performance.

Megan Robson, Finn Perring, Chris Everest played an arrangement of String Quartet in F, (second movement) by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), arranged by Winton Yuichiro White, a contemporary American composer chiefly associated with film music. Ravel completed the quartet in 1903.

The movement is marked Assez vif – très rythmé. The pizzicato theme is eminently suited to the guitar; what was striking in the arrangement was the long passages played at a very high pitch – not so common perhaps in guitar music.  It was a spirited rendition, ending in a flourish.  As the programme note stated “White made use of the classical guitar’s large range of colours and techniques, utilising a 7-string guitar, to create a convincing impression of the piece.”

The programme ended with a delightful Suite by Australian Phillip Houghton (1954-2017): A Masque for Lady Nothing.  It was made up of seven short movements, and was played by Joel Baldwin and Oliver Featherston (violin and guitar).
1. Fanfare
2. Bonsai Garden
3. Tinkers’ Dance
4. Le Tombeau de Juliet
5. The King’s Blue Frog Galliard
6. Lovers Dance
7. Spanish Spaniards Pilfer Portuguese Parrots

The work was commissioned by the Sydney Guitar Trio, for the 1999 Darwin International Guitar Festival and is inspired by ancient modal music illustrating seven scenes for a masque (a Renaissance celebration of dance, song, art and all things magical), held in a long-lost kingdom. Below I reproduce the programme note, slightly edited.

“Each movement depicts a different story – Fanfare: the entire kingdom gathering in the woods outside the castle. Jugglers, incense, dancing and a body painter named Bosch. Let the celebrations begin! Bonsai Garden: a world where everything big is small, where stillness is a fragrant breeze. Tinker’s Dance: bawdy and swaggering, not too fast though, they’re all drunk.  “Le Tombeau de Juliet” depicts the tomb of Juliet in silence, all hearts each recall their own true love. “The King’s Blue Frog Galliard”: is a gleeful and slightly clumsy dance, obnoxious and rude. The typical instrumentation of the lute is imitated with bright ponticello and harmonics. “Lovers Dance” is flowing, graceful and entwined. Spanish Spaniards Pilfer Portuguese Parrots depicts how in olden days, not only did Spain have a superior armada than Portugal, but also a superior network of parrot smuggling.”

 

Piquant and entertaining programme from guitar and viola d’amore at St Andrew’s

Jane Curry (guitar) and Donald Maurice (viola d’amore)

Music by Locatelli, Hindemith, Bruce Paine, Pablo de Sarasate, Ciprian Porumbescu and Miroslav Tadeć

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 9 May 2018, 12.15 pm

I heard these two musicians last year, and once again I can only say that their playing is highly skilled and utterly delightful, and the repertoire charming.

A sizeable audience, including numbers of young people, heard them play a diverse range of music, not all of it composed for precisely this instrumentation, but all of it well worth hearing and apt for the combination.

The Locatelli Sonata Op.2, no.4 was enchanting.  Originally written for flute and continuo, it worked very well in this instrumentation, the guitar performing the continuo part, amply producing a sound closer to the harpsichord than the piano would in an arrangement that exists for violin and piano.  The sweet tone of the viola d’amore in the hands of a thoroughly competent musician is a treat to hear.  The movements, adagio-allegro-largo-allegro were beautifully contrasted, the subtle nuances and variety of tone of the viola d’amore giving everything character and life.

Paul Hindemith was one of the first of the modern composers to write for the old instrument; his Kleine Sonata Op.25, no.2 was indeed short.  There was much lively interplay between the two instruments, and discordant passages part of the humour of the composition

Bruce Paine is an Auckland =based guitarist and composer.  His Finchdean Duet is named after a peaceful village in England, and was originally a solo piece.  Maurice employed the deeper, richer tones of his instrument in this work, which I found attractive but not adventurous.

Pablo de Sarasate was a nineteenth century Spanish violinist and composer.  He wrote many pieces based on Spanish dances, for his instrument.  ‘Playera’ was one in a collection of such dances for violin and piano – though according to my Spanish dictionary, the word literally means ‘canvas shoes’.  It was appealing music.

Romanian composer Ciprian Porumbescu had a short life, and his ‘Balada’ was  probably written in confinement to his home region, where his political views kept him.  He contracted tuberculosis, which accounted for his early death.  It was a sad piece (written for violin and piano), but eloquent and plaintive.  It had these two instruments sounding so well together; the effect was lovely, and elegant.

The final offering in the concert consisted of two ‘Macedonian Pieces’ by Miroslav Tadeć, a Serbian now resident in the USA.  He is a prolific guitarist, composer and recording artist.  Maurice’s parts in ‘Jovka Kumanovka’ and ‘Cajdarsko Oro’ were originally written for flute.  The first one was rather wistful but folksy in character.

The second sounded like a folk dance, fast and very rhythmic.  The viola d’amore made it sound quite skittish. It rounded out a piquant and entertaining programme.

 

 

 

 

 

Intriguing improvisatory performances by Robbie Duncan and Bernard Wells at St Andrew’s

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts
Sonic explorations – original music for guitar and piano

Robbie Duncan (guitar, effects) and Bernard Wells (piano, keyboard)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 21 March 12:15 pm

This is a belated, ‘sort-of’ review of the St Andrew’s concert on Wednesday 21 March. So I have filed it out of date order for a few days so that it will be noticed.

I didn’t arrive at the concert till after 12.30; the first few minutes were spent tuning my head to the sounds and to the character of the playing, and trying to sense the players’ personalities and that of the music, so I lost further time before my receptors were working properly. Nevertheless, from the start, I felt in the presence of genuine, serious and imaginative music making. For one who has neither been gifted with nor been able to cultivate improvisatory musical abilites, these gifts in others have always seemed to be a kind of magic making.

Improvisatory talent is not especially rare, but as with every kind of art, the degree of talent varies hugely.

Being rather unfamiliar with the language of jazz commentary, I had initially decided that I couldn’t offer any kind of sensible review. But I gathered that guitarist Robbie Duncan had spoken interestingly and perceptively at the start of the concert; and because I had found the performances more than commonly interesting, I decided to ask whether Robbie could send me an outline of what he (they?) had said. The indirect email messages between us took some time to get through however, and so this is two weeks late.

Robbie began by remarking on the sound qualities of the church, noting that for many years he had used digital emulations of a natural reverberation in recording music. “Now at St Andrews we get to play with the real thing – a beautiful natural reverb, and a real Steinway piano.” Now they could play into and work with the natural reverberation, “allowing silence and space be part of the music”.

Then he touched on the nature of extemporisation as it is more commonly called in classical music. “Not all music has to be written down”, he said. “Jamming is what some musicians do purely for fun – it can be a social activity that those with the language and the interpersonal skills can do simply for fun. Listening is as important as speaking.”

“The scary thing is taking it into the public domain”, he said, likening the process to quantum physics where the observer (the audience) changes the outcome.

“I was initially introduced to improvisation in the 70’s by a Wellington band named Highway, and was then was inspired by Keith Jarrett’s solo piano playing where he would just make it up –  the music has a flow and a trajectory of its own.”

Then he turned to the music that they had played in the concert. “The first piece we played was to settle us down and to tune us into the sound, the acoustic space and to each other. The piece East Cape originated from a back injury I had sustained.” He found that through being in constant pain his guitar playing would speed up, and East Cape was composed with the intention of slowing himself down, with pauses, “where I could remember my breathing and reset myself tempo-wise”.

“The second and third pieces were totally improvised; we knew the start point – that is, the guitar tuning – but from there the music has a life of its own.

Improvising is all about the present moment, he said: relying on both the conscious and the subconscious mind. But more, he suggested, by the unconscious, “for by the time you have analyzed what the other musician is playing the moment has gone – for me, I just have to trust my fingers will know what to do”.

“For me this is extreme sport for musicians – there is no pre-planned structure, It’s like surfing  – you catch the wave and flow with it – sometimes you fall off but that creates the space for the next wave and the next wave.”

Another analogy would be like a dance, Robbie remarked; “sometimes one leads and sometimes one follows”.

Then he touched on his role as master of ‘effects’. “I used the ‘Empress’ echo system for the guitar effects – I believe our brains subliminally like the subtle tensions which can be created both rhythmically and harmonically.”

And unorthodox tunings also featured. He is exploring alternative tunings.
“Creating a new tuning means you can’t play your usual chords or scales,” meaning the fingers don’t instinctively go to the right places on the finger board. “It forces me as a guitar player to develop a new vocabulary, and each new tuning creates a constraint within which to work.”

Bernard responded a bit later to my approach, offering comments on the art of improvisation, and specifically on their own approach to it. He stressed that they practise together to make ‘composition in the moment’ a conscious process, “a dialogue that can continue in conversation long after we have stopped playing! There is however, always an unconscious or intuitive element entering when we play”.

All sorts of different music can be their point of departure, and he mentions everything from Gregorian Chant, through Renaissance and Baroque music to dance traditions, popular songs, jazz….

The process of improvisation “can begin with a meditative, spiritual aspect, a sense of listening to something outside ourselves (the music of the spheres or sensing a ‘potential for music’) that is always there, waiting to manifest through musicians in the physical world”.

The spiritual element begins, he says, “with musicians and the audience in silence and involves trust that we will somehow begin and honour this creative process through to its completion”.

Bernard then described the different or additional challenges with collective improvisation: “We adapt our individual styles to the fact that we are often improvising together and we thus play perhaps fewer notes, e.g. single finger piano lines to make space for the other. This approach leaves us open to invite others to participate in an expanded lineup and yet preserve our transparent musical texture where every voice is heard. We play together with an awareness for transparent quality in the combined musical line and dynamics and pitch register allowing the different qualities of the piano and guitar to be heard (timbre, attack, dynamic, sustain etc.).”

Bernard referred to listening and intuition in exploring “the unspoken communication between musicians improvising as we listen, react and respond to one another in the moment”, which involved practice and the development of intuition, “to sense who is leading at a particular moment and where the music is going (taking us)”.

So although I had missed the first 20 minutes or so of their performance, I found these perceptions by the two musicians retrospectively illuminating, and they resonated with my impressions of the ways in which the two reacted and interacted in the process of spontaneous creativity. Though one has heard improvisation of all kinds over the years, I had the feeling that these two were, more that is often the case, allowing themselves to be genuinely inspired by what had been played by each other, and by what felt like some kind of inevitable elaboration of what had just fallen from their fingers.

There was no question of trying to identify consciously just what was happening in the shape of shifting tonalities, of contrapuntal moments, elaboration of melodic fragments and all the other musical processes that musicians have devised and practised over the centuries. The resultant music had simply left the impression of something that was aesthetically attractive and emotionally rewarding.

I’d certainly like a chance to hear Wells and Duncan again in this environment.

Two resounding recordings from Rattle – classics and a feisty newcomer

DAVID FARQUHAR – RING ROUND THE MOON
Sonatina – piano (1960) / Three Pieces – violin and piano (1967)
Black, White and Coloured – solo piano (selections – 1999/2002)
Swan Songs for voice and guitar (1983)
Dance Suite from “Ring Round the Moon” (1957 arr. 2002)
Jian Liu (piano) / Martin Riseley (violin)
Jenny Wollerman (soprano) / Jane Curry (guitar)
Rattle RAT-D062 2015

PICTURES
MODEST MUSSORGSKY – Pictures at an Exhibition
EVE De CASTRO ROBINSON – A Zigzagged Gaze
Henry Wong Doe (piano)
Rattle RAT-D072 2017

How best does one describe a “classic” in art, and specifically in music?

Taking the contents of both CDs listed above, one might argue that there are two “classic” compositions to be found among these works, one recognised internationally and the other locally, each defined as such by its popularity and general recognition as a notable piece of work. If this suggests a kind of facile populist judgement, one might reflect that posterity does eventually take over, either continuing to further enhance or consigning to relative neglect and near-oblivion the pieces’ existence in the scheme of things.

Though hardly rivalling the reputation and impact in global terms of Modest Mussorgsky’s remarkable Pictures at an Exhibition on the sensibilities of listeners and concert-goers, it could safely be said that New Zealand composer David Farquhar’ s 1957 incidental music for the play Ring Round the Moon has caught the imagination of local classical music-lovers to an extent unrivalled by any of the composer’s other works, and, indeed by many other New Zealand compositions. I would guess that, at present, only certain pieces by Farquhar’s colleague Douglas Lilburn would match Ring Round the Moon in popularity in this country, amongst classical music aficionados.

The presence of each of these works on these recordings undoubtedly gives the latter added general interest of a kind which I think surely benefits the lesser-known pieces making up each of the programmes. In both cases the combinations are beautifully thought-out and judiciously placed to show everything to its best possible advantage. And visually, there’s similar accord on show, the art-work and general layout of each of the two discs having its own delight and distinction, in the best tradition previously established by the Rattle label.

So enamoured am I still with Farquhar’s original RIng Round the Moon for small orchestra (that first recording featuring the Alex Lindsay Orchestra can be found by intrepid collectors on Kiwi-Pacific Records CD SLD-107), I thought I would give myself more time to get used to the idea of a violin-and-piano version (arranged by the composer in 1992). I therefore began my listening with the more recent disc, Pictures, featuring pianist Henry Wong Doe’s enterprising coupling of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and a 2016 work by Auckland composer Eve de Castro-Robinson, A zigzagged gaze, one which similarly presents a series of musical responses to a group of visual artworks.

Mussorgsky’s collection of pieces commemorated the work of a single artist, Victor Hartmann, a close friend of the composer, whereas de Castro-Robinson’s series of pieces, commissioned by the pianist, were inspired by work from different artists in a single collection, that of the Wallace Arts Trust. In the booklet notes accompanying the CD the composer describes the process of selecting artworks from the collection as “a gleeful trawling through riches”. And not only does she offer a series of brief but illuminating commentaries regarding the inspirational effect of each of the pictures, but includes for each one a self-written haiku, so that we get a series of delightfully-wrought responses in music, poetry and prose.

Henry Wong Doe premiered de Castro Robinson’s work, along with the Mussorgsky, at a “Music on Madison Series” concert in New York on March 5th 2017, and a month later repeated the combination for the New Zealand premiere in Auckland at the School of Music Theatre. His experience of playing this music “live” would have almost certainly informed the sharpness of his characterisations of the individual pieces, and their almost theatrical contrasts. For the most part, everything lives and breathes, especially the de Castro Robinson pieces, which, of course, carry no interpretative “baggage” for listeners, unlike in the Mussorgsky work, which has become a staple of the virtuoso pianist repertoire.

While not effacing memories of some of the stellar recorded performances of the latter work I’ve encountered throughout the years, Wong Doe creates his own distinctive views of many of the music’s sequences. He begins strongly, the opening “Promenade” bright, forthright, optimistic and forward-looking, evoking the composer’s excitement and determination to get to grips with the business of paying tribute to his artist friend, Viktor Hartmann whose untimely death was commemorated by an exhibition of his work.

The pianist relishes the contrasts afforded by the cycle, such as between the charm of the Tuileries scene with the children, and the momentously lumbering and crunching “Bydlo” which immediately follows. He also characterises the interactive subjects beautifully – the accents of the gossipping women in “The Market-Place at Limoges” tumble over one another frenetically, while the piteous cries of the poor Jew in “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” are sternly rebuffed by his well-heeled, uncaring contemporary.

I liked Wong Doe’s sense of spaciousness in many places, such as in the spectral “Catacombs”, and in the following “Con Mortuis in lingua mortua” (the composer’s schoolboy Latin still manages to convey a sense of the transcendence he wanted) – the first, imposing part delineating darkness and deathly finality, while the second part creating a communion of spirits between the composer and his dead artist friend – Wong Doe’s playing throughout the latter properly evoked breathless beauty and an almost Lisztian transcendence generated by the right hand’s figurations.)

Only in a couple of places I wanted him to further sustain this spaciousness – steadying a few slightly rushed repeated notes at the opening of the middle section of “Baba Yaga”, and holding for a heartbeat or so longer onto what seemed to me a slightly truncated final tremolando cadence right at the end of “The Great Gate of Kiev”. But the rest was pure delight, with the fearful witch’s ride generating both properly razor-sharp cries and eerie chromatic mutterings along its course, and the imposing “Great Gate” creating as magnificent and atmospheric a structure of fanciful intent as one would wish for.

Following Mussorgsky’s classic depiction of diverse works of art in music with another such creation might seem to many a foolhardy venture, one destined to be overshadowed. However, after listening to Wong Doe’s playing of Auckland composer Eve de Castro Robinson’s 2016 work, A Zigzagged Gaze, I’m bound to say that, between them, composer and pianist have brought into being something that can, I think, stand upright, both on its own terms and in such company. I listened without a break to all ten pieces first time up, and, like Mussorgsky at Viktor Hartmann’s exhibition, found myself in a tantalising network of connection and diversity between objects and sounds all wanting to tell their stories.

The work and its performance here seems to me to be a kind of celebration of the place of things in existence – the ordinary and the fabulous, the everyday and the special, the surface of things and the inner workings or constituents. As with Mussorgsky’s reactions to his artist friend Hartmann’s creations, there’s both a “possessing” of each work’s essence on de Castro-Robinson’s part and a leap into the kind of transcendence that music gives to things, be they objects, actions or emotions, allowing we listeners to participate in our own flights of fancy and push out our own limits of awareness.

As I live with this music I’m sure I’ll develop each of the composer’s explorations within my own capabilities, and still be surprised where and how far some of them take me. On first hearing I’m struck by the range of responses, and mightily diverted by the whimsy of some of the visual/musical combinations – the “gargantual millefiori paperweight” response to artist Rohan Wealleans’ “Tingler” in sound, for example. I’m entertained by the persistent refrains of Philip Trusttum’s “The Troubadour”, the vital drollery of Miranda Parkes’ “Trick-or-Treater” and the rousing strains of Jacqueline Fahey’s “The Passion Flower”. But in other moods I’ll relish the gentle whimsicalities inspired by Josephine Cachemaille’s “Diviner and Minder” with its delight in human reaction to small, inert things, and the warm/cool beauties of Jim Speers’ “White Interior”, a study of simply being.

Most haunting for me, on first acquaintance, however, are “Return”, with Vincent Ward’s psychic interior depiction beautifully reflected in de Castro Robinson’s deep resonances and cosmos-like spaces between light and darkness, and the concluding tranquilities of the initially riotous and unequivocal rendering of Judy Miller’s “Big Pink Shimmering One”, where the composer allows the listener at the end space alone with oneself to ponder imponderables, the moment almost Rimbaud-like in its powerful “Après le déluge, c’est moi!” realisation.

Henry Wong Doe’s playing is, here, beyond reproach to my ears – it all seems to me a captivating fusion of recreativity and execution, the whole beautifully realised by producer Kenneth Young and the Rattle engineers. I can’t recommend the disc more highly on the score of Eve de Castro-Robinson’s work alone, though Wong Doe’s performance of the Mussorgsky is an enticing bonus.

Turning to the other disc for review, one featuring David Farquhar’s music (as one might expect of a production entitled “Ring Round the Moon”) I noted with some pleasure that the album’s title work was placed last in the programme, as a kind of “all roads lead to” gesture, perhaps to encourage in listeners the thought that, on the face of things, the journey through a diverse range of Farquhar’s music would bring sure-fire pleasure at the traversal’s end.

Interestingly, the programme replicates a “Remembering David Farquhar” concert on the latter’s seventh anniversary in 2014, at Wellington’s NZSM, curated by Jack Body and featuring the same performers – so wonderful to have that occasion replicated here in preserved form. The disc is packaged in one of Rattle’s sumptuously-presented booklet gatefold containers, which also features details from one of artist Toss Woolaston’s well-known Erua series of works, and a biography of the artist.

Beginning the disc is Sonatina, a work for solo piano from 1950, which gives the listener an absorbing encounter with a young (and extremely promising) composer’s music. Three strongly characterised movements give ample notice of an exciting talent already exploring his creativity in depth. Seventeen years later, Farquhar could confidently venture into experimental territory with a Sonata for violin and piano which from the outset challenged his listeners to make something of opposing forces within a work struggling to connect in diverse ways. A second movement dealt in unconventionalities such as manipulating piano strings with both fingers and percussion sticks, after which a final movement again set the instruments as much as combatants as voices in easy accord.

The Black, White and Coloured pieces for piano, from 1999-2002, are represented in two selections on the disc – they represent a fascination Farquhar expressed concerning the layout of the piano keyboard, that of two modal sets of keys, five black and seven white. By limiting each hand to one mode Farquhar created a kind of “double” keyboard, with many opportunities for colour through interaction between the two “modes”. Altogether, Farquhar had twenty-five such pieces published in 2003.

I remember at the NZSM concert being less than enamoured of these works, thinking then that some of the pieces seemed too skeletal and bloodless compared with the originals, especially the settings of Negro Spirituals – but this time round I thought them enchanting, the “double harmonied” effect producing an effect not unlike Benjamin Britten’s treatment of various English folk-songs. A second bracket of these pieces were inspired by diverse sources, among them a Chopin Mazurka, a Landler from a Mahler Symphony, and a theme from a Schubert piano sonata, among others. Again I thought more highly of these evocations this time round, especially enjoying “Clouds”, a Debussy-like recreation of stillness, stunningly effective in its freedom and sense of far-flung purpose.

Swan Songs is a collection of settings which examines feelings and attitudes relating to existence and death, ranging from fear and anxiety through bitter irony to philosophical acceptance, using texts from various sources. Written originally for baritone voice and guitar in 1983, the performances I’ve been able to document have been mostly by women, with only David Griffiths raising his voice for the baritonal record. Here, as in the NZSM Memorial concert, the singer is Jenny Wollerman, as dignified and eloquent in speech as she is in song when delivering the opening “The Silver Swan” by Orlando Gibbons (it’s unclear whether Gibbons himself wrote the song’s words or if they were penned by someone else). Throughout the cycle, Jane Curry’s beautiful guitar-playing provides the “other half” of a mellifluous partnership with both voice and guitar gorgeously captured by producer Wayne Laird’s microphones.

Along with reiterations of parts of Gibbons’ work and a kind of “Swan swan” tongue-twister, we’re treated to a setting by Farquhar of his own text “Anxieties and Hopes”, with guitarist and singer interspersing terse and urgent phrases of knotted-up fears and forebodings regarding the imminence of death. As well, we’re served up a setting of the well-known “Roasted Swan” sequence from “Carmina Burana”, Jenny Wollerman poignantly delineating the unfortunate bird’s fate on the roasting spit. As in the concert presentation I found the effect of these songs strangely moving, and beautifully realised by both musicians.

As for the “Ring Round the Moon” set of dances, I suspect that, if I had the chance, I would want to hear this music played on almost any combination of instruments, so very life-enhancing and instantly renewable are its energies and ambiences. I’m therefore delighted to have its beauties, charms and exhilarations served up via the combination of violin and piano, which, as I remember, brought the live concert to a high old state of excitement at the end! And there’s a lot to be said for the process of reinventing something in an unfamiliar format which one thinks one already knows well.

What comes across even more flavoursomely in this version are the music’s angularities – though popular dance-forms at the time, Farquhar’s genius was to impart the familiar rhythms and the easily accessible tunes with something individual and distinctive – and the many touches of piquant harmony, idiosyncratic trajectory and impish dovetailing of figuration between the two instruments mean that nothing is taken for granted. Martin Riseley and Jian Liu give masterly performances in this respect – listen, for example, to the ticking of the clock leading into the penultimate Waltz for a taste of these musicians’ strength of evocation! Only a slight rhythmic hesitation at a point midway through the finale denies this performance absolutely unreserved acclaim, but I’m still going to shout about it all from the rooftops, and challenge those people who think they “know” this music to try it in this guise and prepare to be astounded and delighted afresh.

Splendid Bartók; evocative New Zealand piece; guitarist substitution perhaps not a misfortune

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Alexander Shelley (conductor), with Pablo Sáinz Villegas (guitar)

Leonie Holmes: ‘Frond’ from Three Landscapes for Orchestra
Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez
Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday, 29 July 2017, 7.30pm

The programme for the concert obviously did not appeal to everyone; there were a lot of empty seats, and even more after the interval when it became obvious that many devotees of the guitar, and of the Rodrigo work, did not wish to encounter Bartók, which was a great shame.  Not so tonight’s soloist, who joined the audience after the interval of this, the final concert of his tour.  He made apparent how much he had enjoyed working with the NZSO.

Leonie Holmes’s work was written in 2004, and recalls her feelings as a child in the bush.  It began with a tubular bell sounding, and a single violin, reminding me rather of a karakia.  Then piccolo was added, and strings entered quietly, followed by some of the brass, solo cello and piano.

Harp, celeste and percussion all had their moments, and there were extensive passages for solo and duet violins plus cello..  Xylophone and marimba both had important roles.  The piece ended in mid-air, with the piccolo.

I found the short piece (11 minutes) evocative and attractive; it was played with impeccable attention to detail.  It is worth noting here the important role played by Kirsten Robertson, as player of both piano and celeste.  She had to do a lot of moving between the two instruments – but the composer had spared her from having to play both at once!  Her playing was lucid and contributed a great deal to the work.

Since a considerably smaller orchestra was needed to be set up for the concerto, conductor Alexander Shelley took the chance to speak to the audience.  He spoke briefly but interestingly about each of the works on the programme.  He commented that our solo guitarist was ‘one of the best alive.’

Initially I was disappointed at the change of programme (due to the illness of the scheduled soloist) from a new guitar concerto by Howard Shore, of LOTR fame to the rather hackneyed Rodrigo concerto.  Not that I have heard it performed live, but it is programmed far too frequently on RNZ Concert.  The Shore was premiered in Canada quite recently, by the intended soloist for this concert, Miloš Karadaglić.  Wikipedia rates the Rodrigo as ‘easy listening’, and I daresay the work by the prolific film composer might well have been in the same category.

However, I tried to listen with fresh ears, and the delight of watching the orchestra, and even more the soloist in action soon charmed away any ennui.  To watch Villegas play was to be astonished; his fingers at times flew faster than the speed of light.

The concerto begins with an introduction from the soloist with flamenco-style strumming of chords, the strings of the orchestra playing spiccato beneath.  Very quickly we were introduced to the great range of dynamics this guitarist is able to produce from his instrument.  The memorable themes are repeated rather frequently.

The second movement opens with a most effective, wistful theme from cor anglais, accompanied by guitar.  This is repeated and varied.   The different timbres of the two instruments is most appealing.  Villegas produced a remarkable, soulful tone when using vibrato, and when playing pianissimo.  The final movement recalls courtly dances, but in a chirpy manner.  Strumming is interspersed with melodic use of individual strings, and includes a brilliant cadenza for the soloist.

The audience greeted the performance firstly with absolute silence through the playing, and secondly with enthusiastic applause at the end, many standing.  It was only then that it was pointed out to me that there were two microphones at the edge of the small podium on which the soloist was seated.  The amplification was very sensitively done, and not apparent through the performance; thanks to the composer very seldom having full orchestra and soloist playing together, it could have passed not being amplified in a smaller auditorium.  The MFC is rather too large for it to be the case here.

Our superb soloist then played quite an extended encore: a Jota, or Aragonese dance, made famous in orchestral circles by the Russian composer Mikhail Glinka’s Jota Aragonesa written in 1845.  I did not hear any composer mentioned for this one – was it the soloist’s own improvisation on a traditional dance theme?  It was electric; lively, and much fresher in character than the Rodrigo.  Its playing included some astonishing techniques, such as fingering notes with the left hand, which sounded, while the right hand was rapping the body of the instrument.  There were many variations incorporated.   An enraptured audience rose to cheer this astonishing performer.

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is described by Wikipedia as one of his best-known, most popular and most accessible works.  It was also one of his last.  In five movements, it truly lives up to its name, highlighting different sections of the orchestra, constantly passing between sections to give wonderful variety and contrasts; probably more variety of this sort than any symphony in the canon.

The sombre opening of the Introduzione to the first movement is even ominous. Chromatic woodwind and incisive brass followed.  Two harps added to the variety of aural pleasures as the andante non troppo and allegro vivace sections of the movement proceeded.  Hungarian folk melodies appear – and elsewhere in the work.

The second movement, called (in Italian) ‘Game of couples’ (i.e. pairs of instruments), allegretto scherzando opened unusually with bassoon, along with percussion and soon other woodwind instruments.  The character was of a slightly lugubrious dance, followed by a brass choir playing a hymn-like sequence.  Still the side-drum kept tapping its irritating little rhythm, as if drawing attention to something more ominous that was about to happen.  There is much pizzicato for the lower strings.   Later, the movement is loud and passionate.

The third movement (Elegia) introduces many colours, while the humour is apparent in the fourth (Intermezzo interrotto), with syncopated strings and a raspberry from the tuba.

In the finale, there are fugal passages intermittently; one in which bassoons and clarinets feature prominently.  Harps had a brief moment to themselves before another fugal section, beginning  for strings only.  All was magnificently played.  A splashy, somewhat bombastic ending finished this work of many exotic and exciting sounds.  Certainly some passages could be regarded as discordant or atonal, but there is much that is cheerful, even humorous.  Yet other sections sound like traditional symphonies.  There were many opportunities for players to shine as soloists or sections and they were rewarded by the conductor walking around the orchestra giving individuals and groups their own separate bows to the applause.

The programme notes shall have the last word: “ Triumphant, fantastically detailed and unfailingly optimistic, this is the work of a composer at his very best”.

 

 

 

Archi d’Amore Zelanda with delightful programme of New Zealand compositions, plus Bach

Archi d’Amore Zelanda
Donald Maurice (viola d’amore), Jane Curry (guitar), Inbal Megiddo (cello)

David Hamilton: Imagined Dances
J.S. Bach: Suite no 1 in G major for solo cello
Michael Williams: Archi Antichi

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 14 June 2017, 12.15 pm

The ensemble brought a thoroughly delightful programme to an appreciative audience.  What was unusual was that apart from the solo Bach work, the music played was contemporary, whereas one would expect that the viola d’amore would be playing music from a much earlier times.  The programme notes included this comment ‘…the instrument has been enjoying a renaissance since the mid-twentieth century, with new works being composed and old works being adapted…’

Just over a year ago I reviewed a concert of Vivaldi music performed by Archi d’Amore Zelanda, which on that occasion consisted of eight players.

The common factor between the items was that all were suites of movements (almost all) based on dances.

The David Hamilton work suffered from the fact that all three instruments were stringed, whereas the composer’s original had been for flute, violin and guitar, though the composer had approved the version we heard.  The original would have had more contrasting timbres than this version.  Thus, in this version individual instrumental lines and characters did not always stand out; the closeness in pitch of the guitar to the viola d’amore was another factor.  The Williams work, on the other hand, was written for these instruments, and it was constructed differently, with more solo, or solo and accompaniment passages.

Hamilton’s dances began with a pensive Sarabande, a slow dance.  A flamboyant Tango followed, then a Waltz with a lilting melody; after a slow introduction, it was fast and rhythmic.  The final Mexicana had stirring rhythms and repetitive phrases, with a shriek at the end.

Inbal Meggido made some introductory remarks, as did Donald Maurice at the beginning of the concert, but unlike him, she held rather than used the microphone, so I did not catch most of what she said.  However, her performance of Bach’s first Suite for Cello was superb.  Never have I heard it played with such variety of dynamics and tone.  The opening Prelude was a statement in which her playing overcame familiarity; its freshness was a delight.  There was a fine resonance, and very subtle bending of the rhythm.

The Allemande was gracious but at the same time rhythmically sparkling.  Courante was a fast and spirited run.  Meggido’s variety of tone and dynamics gave the music meaning.  There was nothing mechanical about the playing.

The Sarabande, being slower and more thoughtful was an excellent contrast to its predecessors.  Minuets 1 and 2 were bright and vigorous, working up to the lively Gigue that ended the Suite.  This was a splendid performance.

Archi Antichi was written for Archi d’Amore Zelanda, and as the title indicates, was based on antique dances, to some extent.  It consisted of Fugue, Cavatina, and Arrhythmia (though missing its first ‘h’; commemorating the heart condition the composer had experienced).  As Donald Maurice said in his remarks opening the concert, it was somewhat ‘Lilburnish’ – particularly in the opening movement, I found.

Jane Curry introduced the work, and I was pleased to hear her pay tribute to Marjan van Waardenberg for the work she does organising these lunchtime concerts.

The Williams work began with the cello alone, in Bach-like manner.  The others joined in with pizzicato.  Moving into a minor key, the music became more complex, the parts following their individual lines clearly, but nevertheless making a pleasing and cohesive whole.  A slower section again had each instrument complementing the others in a satisfying way.

The cavatina had a slow, undemonstrative start, followed by a strong but mournful duet for cello and viola d’amore.  The guitar joined in after a time, in a beautiful piece of writing.  The other instruments blended gorgeously in accompanying the melody.  The “Arrythmia” featured pizzicato in an off-beat rhythms and good interplay between the parts before the music became agitated; it ended with a delicious little motif – perhaps saying ‘everything is all right now’, to end a fine concert of interesting and well-played music.

 

 

 

 

Mature performances by undergraduate NZSM guitar students at St Andrew’s

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts

Classical guitar students of the New Zealand School of Music
Dylan Solomon, Olivia Fetherston, Joel Baldwin, Rameka Tamaki, Amber Madriaga

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 28 September, 12:15 pm

This student recital was a showcase for an honours student (Solomon) set beside four first and second year students. The test for the audience might have been to have asked them to identify the levels of accomplishment of each, without knowing their place in the academic hierarchy. Without denigrating the splendid playing of Solomon, I was often surprised at both the skill and the interpretive insights displayed by the undergraduate students.

Because soprano saxophonist Kim Hunter had a conflicting engagement, Solomon substituted for the planned piece for saxophone and guitar by Giulianni, a solo guitar piece by James Mountain, Four Fountains, and the Gigue from Bach’s Lute Suite in C minor (BWV 997).

James Mountain is an Australian composer/guitarist, and this piece was inspired by Len Lye’s Four Fountains, a central installation at the Len Lye Centre in the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth.

He began with such unobtrusive hand movements at the top of the strings, that I thought he was perhaps tuning in an unusual way. But it soon became clear that we were in flight and the ethereal sounds seemed to confirm the sense of a Len Lye creation. I have not yet got to see the new Len Lye gallery so I’ll satisfy myself with an extract from the gallery’s website:

“The new Len Lye Centre opened in July 2015 with an audience favourite: the gentle swaying Fountain, a bundle of rotating stainless-steel rods that twist, flex and shimmer. Among the earliest of Lye’s ‘tangible motion sculptures’, Fountain became a work he returned to throughout the 1960s and 1970s with numerous variations in collections around the world.

“Performing alongside three earlier versions of Fountain, a new member of this family of works arrived in 2015 with the 8-metre tall version – Fountain IV – engineered by the Len Lye Foundation based on Lye’s detailed design drawings and notes.”

Having made this connection, I would rather like to hear the piece again. There were two parts: the first an ethereal, spectral melody in a gently swaying motion; the second, more corporeal, with faster, rolling chords, yet still enigmatic and hypnotic with an endlessly repeated note in the centre of the surrounding sounds.

Solomon’s second piece was the Gigue from Bach’s Lute Suite in C minor. The authenticity of the lute suites and other pieces for the lute is a subject that the layman might well avoid. At one end of the controversy is the lack of evidence that Bach wrote any suites specifically for the lute, and that the so-called lute suites (BWV 995 – 1000), are arrangements of music written for other instruments. The water is muddied by transcriptions of, for example, Bach’s solo violin sonatas and partitas being entitled (by Hopkinson Smith for example) as ‘lute sonatas and partitas’.

It was a rather moderato version of a gigue which is often presented as a quicker dance, but then all the dances that came to be employed by composers over the centuries were treated in individual ways, without the focus primarily on dancing. The way this went was very attractive.

A couple of weeks earlier I’d attended the concert in the Adam Concert Room at Victoria University where Marek Pasieczny himself played; here, first-year student Olivia Fetherston played his Little Sonata of 2011; she reported that it was based to some extent on pieces by Hindemith and Schubert, though I didn’t recognise anything very reminiscent of the styles of either composer. It’s a carefully written work which does not, as the name suggests, outlive the interest of its material; it called for the player to give much attention to dynamics, vibrato, subtle tempo changes, interesting sequences of chords that are always an engaging aspect of the instrument’s resources, and flashes of flamenco-like strumming in the last movement. All played with impressive accuracy and sensitivity.

Joel Baldwin played three of Lilburn’s Canzonas. Though I’ve heard them played on guitar before, I had not heard the one presented as No 1 which is based on Sings Harry; perhaps it’s a changed sequence adopted for the guitar arrangements. The usual No 1 is that composed as incidental music, as were two of the others, for Ngaio Marsh’s famous Shakespeare productions for the Canterbury University College Drama Society: this one for Hamlet, and Joel played that second. I didn’t catch the origin of the third one – either for Marsh’s Othello, or for Maria Dronke’s reading of Rilke’s famous The Lay of Love and Death of Cornet Rilke. They lie very well for the guitar, but are deceptively hard to capture, given Lilburnian elusiveness and reticence; and it’s no disgrace not to have mastered every subtlety. He followed with the Fugue from Bach’s solo violin sonata in G minor, BWV 1001, one of those transcribed via a lute arrangement. His playing was fluent and managed to find the outlines of the fugal workings clearly.

Rameka Tamaki played two contemporary pieces, the first by Cuban composer Leo Brouwer and the second by eminent French composer Roland Dyens. With Brouwer’s Danza del Altiplano Tamaki showed a surprisingly comfortable familiarity, as if he’d lived on the Altiplano (the high plateau straddling Bolivia, Peru and Chile) rather than Cuba. There was an instinctive feel for the rhythm and his fingering was agile; he seemed to rejoice in the nasal sound created by strumming close to the bridge.

Dyens’s famous Tango en Skaï, has cropped up in school of music recitals a few times over the years. For a young first year student, Rameka Tamaki exhibited an air of confidence and considerable virtuosity in the varied demands on each hand. Perhaps it’s a kind of send-up of the Argentinian tango and the playing commanded the complex rhythms and flourishes with seeming ease.

Finally Amber Madriaga. First she played the pair of minuets from Bach’s solo violin partita in E minor, BWV 1006, the first of which is a gentle piece, very exposed for a violinist though not that hard simply to play the notes and the same goes for the guitarist. The second minuet, a little more subdued in spirit, is usually played at the same tempo, but she emphasised its meditative character by slowing further; a satisfying performance.

I recalled Madriaga’s name from her participation in the university’s Young Musicians Programme in 2012 where she played the Tango en Skaï. Here she played, instead, Dyens’s Fuoco (from his Libra sonatina), a furiously virtuosic piece that was, perhaps, not technically perfect, but nevertheless exemplifying the admirable level of accomplishment that the school of music is achieving, specifically in guitar.