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.

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.


Diverting Debussy-inspired trio charm a responsive audience at Lower Hutt

Toru Trio: Karen Batten (flute), Sophia Acheson (viola), Ingrid Bauer (harp)
(Chamber Music Hutt Valley)

Debussy: Sonate pour flûte, alto et harpe (1915)
Bax: Fantasy Sonata (viola and harp, 1927)
Tabea Squire: Impressions (2018)
Wendelin Bitzan: Zoologischer Garten for flute and viola (2011)
William Mathias: Zodiac Trio (1976)

Lower Hut Little Theatre

Wednesday 16 May, 7:30 pm

Te reo Maori for the numeral 3 is toru; thus ‘Toru Trio’ is a redundancy. This instrumental trio comprises harp, viola and flute, modelled on Debussy’s war-time piece; all are players in Orchestra Wellington. All the pieces were composed in the last 100 years (though the Debussy himself was a couple of years outside that frame).

Their arrival on stage made a striking impression: Karen Batten in a dramatic gold dress, Ingrid Bauer a dress of more coppery gold, and Sophia Acheson wore a near luminous, black dress. And while the Little Theatre is an intimate space with a dry acoustic that leaves performances quite exposed, a distinct compensation is the players closeness. That means the audience could be diverted by three attractive, personable and versatile musicians who use their instruments to produce often unfamiliar sounds and visual experiences; in particular, the harpist’s manipulations of hands and feet on her formidable instrument were always intriguing.

Three of the five pieces engaged all three players while the Bax and Bitzen were scored for only two of them. The way the cards fell resulted in the omnipresence of Sophia Acheson’s viola in all five works.

The concert presented several unusual aspects: the uncommon instrumental combination, that only one piece was by a composer whose name would have been familiar to all the audience, that the trio had invited a young New Zealand composer to compose a piece for them, and that they were in the middle of a Chamber Music New Zealand tour to eight smaller towns and cities from Warkworth via Gisborne, Motueka, etc to Gore in the south.

Debussy creates a new musical form
Debussy started it all. At the beginning of the First World War, Debussy decided to write six sonatas, for different combinations of instruments referencing eighteenth century French musical traditions. Just as Ravel had done with his Tombeau de Couperin, Debussy wanted to make a patriotic French gesture in support of French soldiers facing the horrors of the war. He wrote only three of the six – for cello and piano, this one, and one for violin and piano: he died too soon. The other three were planned: Debussy had written in the manuscript of his violin sonata that the fourth sonata should be written for oboe, horn and harpsichord, the fifth for trumpet, clarinet, bassoon and piano, and the sixth for all the preceding instrument plus others.

For the sixth and final sonata, Debussy envisaged: “a concerto where the sonorites of the ‘various instruments’ combine, with the gracious assistance of the double bass”, making the instrumentation: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, harp, piano, harpsichord, violin, viola, cello, double bass; it would have been a masterpiece. Debussy’s three non-existent works would, like this trio, have inspired scores of works for those new combinations.

In some ways it’s a risky business to combine three such disparate instruments, and to play in such an exposed acoustic as the Lower Hutt Little Theatre, poses an even greater challenge; it’s one thing to be able to hear with such clarity the distinct sounds of each instrument, but it’s something else to deal with the challenge of achieving real blending; and that might be a minor criticism of their playing. Debussy makes a feature of their utterly different sounds by asking each player to introduce her part in its characteristic way, exploiting quite interestingly the differences in compass and tone.

It creates striking effects, viola and flute pursuing very different ranges; early on the harp plays very high while the viola plays repeatedly a very low note. The sonorities are most curious at times; we are not very used, for example, to the viola playing alone over such long passages. The programme note usefully described each theme and their instrumental treatment, and drew attention to their repetition in a different order.

The minuet second movement, primarily in triple, minuet time imperceptibly changes to common time, at times misleading the listener, while the Finale returns to 4/4, and employ the harp at the start in a low register, rather murmuring. For the most part the playing was so sensitive and each player clearly paid such attention to what others were doing that the music began to sound inevitable. While I am familiar enough with it, I remember many years ago finding it elusive and tonally rather disparate. It’s one of those pieces – many of Debussy’s are – that slowly, deeply takes root, more in the instinctive mind than the intellect.

A Bax Fantasy
The Bax piece, for viola and harp, called a Fantasy Sonata, which had become a fashion after English musicologist and a notable compiler of a great encyclopaedia of chamber music, W W Cobbett (it’s near my desk), established a competition that seeking to revive the 16th century English musical form. Numbers of works were produced (Armstrong Gibbs, Bridge, Howells, Ireland, Britten).

Bax’s was perhaps more straight-forward melodically than Debussy’s trio; I didn’t know it, but it’s an attractive piece, and presenting less of an instrumental challenge. And again the players revealed a happy rapport handling dynamics sympathetically, idiomatically.

Tabea Squire is a young Wellington composer whose composing gifts have led to several commissions. This piece, for all three instruments, was not on a large scale and the task was to simulate sounds in nature: the contrasting colours of the kowhai, the image of children dancing in the rain, and a fantail fluttering among trees in the sunlight. While this kind of inspiration for music generally usually doesn’t seem very fruitful (to me); in fact I think it’s more likely to succeed as music without visual or literary or some intellectual construct. Its variety and the handling of parts for each instrument, individually or in ensemble, and the evidence of plain musical invention are enough.

Flute and viola then played a piece by a young (at my age, ‘young’ seems to refer more and more to anyone under 40) German composer, Wendelin Bitzan. This time, zoo animals in curious situations, but stimulating the composer to devise often amusing sonic imagery. Occasionally, the sounds were evocative enough, not to create pictures of the creatures named, but to be engaging nevertheless; moments that were amusing, even bizarre, both in concept and actualisation.

Astrology in music
Then a third piece that had an extra-musical origin: William Mathias’s Zodiac Trio which again presented a scenario that seemed to demand a lot from the imagination, if one sought useful characterisations from Mathias’s impressions of that nature of Pisces, Aries and Taurus. One of the players (I think, violist Sophia Acheson) claimed a Zodiac association with one of the three signs employed by Mathias; I can claim none, so I was able to listen without prejudice to the musical interpretations of these forces.

These three pieces might have been obscure astrologically, but as I wrote above, that was irrelevant; they were attractive musical creations, sometimes beguiling, occasionally droll and often musically inventive. Taurus did indeed suggest the force, energy and danger of a loose bull, as there were moments where these very disparate instruments truly came together in an integrated way.

Debussy’s trio has given rise to an impressive body of musical descendants and to as many threesomes devoted to their performance (look in Wikipedia). There is a rich and every-so-often very rewarding field for Toru to cultivate.

Given that this Hutt Valley concert was Toru’s only appearance in the Wellington region in the course of an eight-concert tour, its excellence deserved a bigger audience.

Big lunchtime audience for interesting programme from professional musicians

Kiwa String Quartet: Malavika Gopal (violin), Alan Molina (violin), Sophia Acheson (viola), Ken Ichinose (cello),
And friends: Carolyn Mills (harp), Bridget Douglas (flute), Yuka Eguchi (violin), Victoria Jaenecke (viola)

Ginastera: Impresiones de la Puna
Celtic pieces for solo harp
Beethoven: String quartet in B flat Op.18 no.6 (2 movts.)
John Adams: ‘Toot nipple’ from John’s Book of Alleged Dances
Arnold Bax: Quintet for harp and strings

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 23 November 2016, 12.15 pm

A large audience greeted a wonderfully varied line-up of professional musicians – and of music.  The opening work immediately grabbed one’s attention; Ginastera’s work was delightful and full of subtle animation.  Especially notable was the floating, uprising flute part.  The programme note describing its ‘gentle, romantic, quasi-impressionist harmonies’ was apt indeed.  Which leads me to comment how excellent was the acknowledgement at the end of the printed programme of the sources, including those to be found on the internet.  How rare this is, even for those, unlike the writers of these notes, who take theirs word-for-word from such sources.

The three sections of this work for flute and strings provided lovely contrasts, but each was felicitous in its musical language.

Just as the previous work had traditional Argentinean links, so the next two pieces were of folk music character or origin: Farewell to music by Tulough O’Carolan (1670-1738, arr. A. O’Farrell), and the traditional She moved through the fair, arranged by Carolyn Mills.  Though played on the orchestral harp, these Celtic pieces were performed in a simple manner befitting their origins.  They were both gracious and mournful.  The second, based on an Irish folk-song, was familiar to me with different words (the Scottish ballad Lord Randal).

A big change again, to the first and second movements of Beethoven’s quartet.  It was wonderful to hear this great work played at a lunchtime concert. It was a spirited performance, with much subtlety as well as elan.  The quartet overflows with wonderful melodic motifs.  The slow movement was serene and graceful with sonorous harmonic changes.  Each instrument spoke its part clearly and unostentatiously, always as a part of the whole.  The audience sat soundlessly attentive.  How fortunate we are to hear such timeless music from skilled professional musicians at a free lunchtime concert!  This was a superb performance.

The next surprise was the Adams piece: a short jokey piece from a set for string quartet and ‘recorded prepared piano’ (which I could not hear).  The programme notes stated that the composer said the dances were alleged because “the steps for them had yet to be invented”.

Finally we heard an unfamiliar but major work by Arnold Bax; his quintet for harp and strings,  returning to the Irish theme of earlier in the concert.  I found it full of mellow enjoyment; it was a pleasurable discovery.  The plucked sound of the harp was beautifully set off by the smooth legato of the other strings.   A quiet section of the one-movement work had a dreamy character.  Then lilting phrases alternated with curious agitations below, followed by minor key utterances and an excited swelling of sound with harp arpeggios and flourishes, over muted violins.  Finally, there was a meditative ending.

The harp was an integral part of the whole quintet, not an add-on for occasional solos or special effects.

It was good to hear a concert combining some music that was familiar with some that was not.  The enthusiastic audience response was more than fully deserved.



Diverting harp duo recital affected by too much musical competition

NZ Harp Duo
Michelle Velvin and Jennifer Newth, harps

John Thomas: Serch Hudol (Love’s Fascination)
Carlos Salzedo: Chanson dans la nuit and Pentacle
Granados: Spanish Dance no.5 in E minor Andaluza Op.37
Bernard Andrès: Parvis – Cortège et Danse
Debussy: La cathédrale engloutie
Caroline Lizotte: Raga for two harps, Op.41

St. Peter’s Church

Saturday, 28 May 2016, 7pm

This harp duo was enjoyed by all those present, but the atrocious weather and the number of other music events on in the city may have contributed to the rather small audience – approx. 40 people.

The Thomas piece made a good opening work for the concert with its robust tones, demonstrating that harps are not just other-worldly instruments. The beginning could have been a hymn tune, with cheerful chords. It was followed by variations in which the two harps worked beautifully together, and in contrast with each other.

After the bold came more subdued passages, and we moved from hymn tune to folksong. As the programme note said “Thomas drew on his Welsh heritage and folk-music background, to create fantasies on traditional melodies.” The fact that Thomas was a harpist himself (1826-1913) showed in his well-crafted music. It was a thoroughly delightful piece.

Jennifer Newth spoke to the audience about their duo and their forthcoming composition competition to encourage New Zealand composers to write for the harp. She spoke about the next piece to be played, written by Carlos Salzedo, an American harpist and composer (1885-1961), who was born and studied in France. Antiphonal playing between the two instruments was most effective, as was the variety of techniques employed. Plucking low on the strings made a very metallic and loud sound, in contrast with the more usual playing in the centre of the strings. Glissandi were not only of the kind we are accustomed to, but also sometimes using the backs of the hands, so that the fingernails produced a more brittle, less sustained tone. Knocking with the hand on the soundboard was another acoustic feature used here and in other works we heard.

The second Salzedo work was quite a long suite, Pentacle. It consisted of five movements. Jennifer Newth introduced some of the ideas behind the names of the movements. ‘Steel’ proved to create sounds of the industrial age, as she said. There were both loud and soft and repetitive phrases, and a variety of non-traditional harp techniques.

‘Serenade’ she described as having harsh nocturnal sounds, but I did not find it unpleasant. It was followed by ‘Félines’, which was fun, with lots of rapid high notes as of cats scampering lightly around. ‘Catacombs’ was spooky and dark in tone, with many different acoustic effects. I could see the multiple pedal changes Michelle had to make. Among the amazing effects the players achieved was one produced when one hand moved up and down a string while the other plucked, or sometimes stroked the strings in glissandi.

Hitting strings with rods; plucking a string and allowing a relatively long period of resonance were two techniques. In contrast to the latter, was playing in a high register with short, repetitive strokes, then fading to nothing. An ethereal sound was obtained by wiping down the strings with a cloth.

The final movement, ‘Pantomime’, was much jollier and livelier. A great variety of dynamics was obtained by plucking the strings more gently or more sharply. This piece involved quite a lot of playing around with intonation, by techniques involving the head of the strings where they went round the tuning pins. Many of these extended techniques I had never seen before.

After the length and intensity of the suite, it was quite a relief to hear something familiar: Granados’s piece for piano (which I played years ago) transcribed by Salvedo. It worked well on two harps, and the use of different tones made it interesting.

The Andrès work had one harpist tapping on strings with a short stick and then tapping the soundboard while the other plucked her strings as the music moved unrelentingly from solemn procession to dance.

Debussy’s well-known piano piece followed. It was good programming to play a couple of familiar works in a programme such as this. There was a lovely build-up throughout; the music depicts very well the story of the sunken cathedral that rises out of the water at sunrise. The transcription was by our two harpists.

The final work was a challenging one, by contemporary Canadian harpist and composer, Caroline Lizotte. Jennifer mentioned that, along with the obvious Indian characteristics, there was an element of imitated whale song in the work. The piece started with a rod being slid down a string while others were being plucked; a spooky effect. On the other harp there were gentle sounds. The pace and musical variation gradually picked up, switching between major and minor modes.

Suddenly there was a clash on a small Indian cymbal suspended from Michelle’s music stand, and a jingle of little Indian bells which I learned that she had round her ankle. Another element was twisting the strings to give a slow vibrato effect, such as Indian musicians obtain with the strings moved on the frets of their sitars. Along with this we had on the other harp knocking on the soundboard and using a drummer’s mallet on it. Jennifer struck a full-sized cymbal on a stand from time to time. There was yet another drumming sound that I couldn’t track down, though it seemed to come from Michelle’s side. Typically of ragas, the piece built in pace and intensity.

These young women are amazing in their skills, and a credit to their teacher, Carolyn Mills. Their playing seemed impeccable, and the range of techniques astonishing. St. Peter’s proved to be an excellent venue for such a concert, the bright acoustic enhanced by all the wood panelling and seating. There was much brilliance here from two highly skilled and talented performers, but despite this, there was a sameness of sound that palled somewhat by the end of the programme.

An encore was a slightly gentler, quite folksy piece with much variety. It was ‘Flitter Song’ by Charles Guard, a Manx harpist and composer.

Trombone meets harp – the intractable made enjoyable!

Peter Maunder (tenor / alto trombone)
Ingrid Bauer (harp / narrator)

Basta  (1982)              Folke Rabe (1935-)
La Source Op.44                Alphonse Hasselmans (1845-1912)
Ngarotopounamu (2009)           Peter Maunder (1960-)
Ancient Walls (1990)            Sergiu Natra (1924-)
Three Songs                  Cole Porter (1891-1964)
So in love,
In the Still of the Night,
Begin the Beguine
Henry Humbleton’s holiday        Guy Woolfenden (1937-)
Tarantula (Fourth Mvt. from “The Spiders’ Suite”)     Paul Patterson (1947-)
Intermezzo Op.118 No.2         Johannes Brahms (1823-1897)
Take Five              Paul Desmond (1924-1977)
At Last               Mack Gordon (1904-1959
                            &Harry Warren (1893-1981)

(all arrangements by Peter Maunder)

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

Saturday, 14th November, 2015

I suppose there must be even more outlandish combinations of pairs of musical instruments than trombone and harp playing somewhere else in the world at this very moment, though none would, I think, bring together and reconcile such profound differences more successfully than did Peter Maunder and Ingrid Bauer with their respective instruments.

Each player performed a “solo” at the programme’s beginning, seeming to tease us further with the unlikelihood of the “Opposites Attract” title by emphasizing the specific character of each instrument – the trombone predominantly abrasive, forthright and assertive, and the harp liquid-sounding, limpid-textured and enchantingly atmospheric. How were these two very different personalities ever going to “get on”?

Peter Maunder began with Basta, a piece written in 1982 by Swedish composer Folke Rabe, himself a trombonist as well as a composer, one who writes a good deal for brass instruments. Rabe wrote this piece (the title “basta” means, of couse “Enough!” in Italian) to convey the idea of a messenger arriving to deliver a piece of news and then wanting to hurry away again, the person’s manner conveying a degree of stress and haste and volatility. But, not only did the player seem to want to convey a sense of urgency and impatience – one sensed there was a burning desire to tell listeners about things that gave rise to frustration and woe – so in contrast to the bluster and agitation, there were passages of remarkable introspectiveness,  sustained, chord-like notes producing harmonied effects most remarkably, having a “baring of the soul” effect upon the hearer in places.

No greater contrast with these candidly-expressed volatilities could have been presented than with Alphonse Hasselmans’ La Source, Ingrid Bauer making the most of the characteristics that we all associate with the harp – magic, wonderment, romance and liquid flow – by playing a piece that exploited these qualities in an almost definitive way, the work”s melody supported throughout by a rich tapestry of arpeggiated beauties.

Having thereby demonstrated to us these potential intractabilities, the musicians proceeded to make delightful nonsense of them with a series of musical partnerships that surprised and delighted the ear. For reasons outlined by Peter Maunder, in his excellent and entertaining spoken introductions to the pieces, most of the items in the concert were arrangements, made by Maunder himself. In nearly all instances I thought them highly effective as presentations, and of course their delivery, in the hands of these skilled players, was well-nigh everything one could wish for.

As one might have expected, Maunder cited the chief difficulty encountered by a trombone-and-harp partnership as lack of repertoire.. Included in the programme were at least two original works for trombone and harp, one written by Maunder himself – I did a quick internet search which turned up only one further work, though, interestingly enough, I found several other examples of, on the face of things, unlikely partnerships with a trombone, one of them involving a marimba..

So, the first two pieces played by the duo in the concert were written specifically for trombone and harp – Maunder’s own piece was Ngarotopounamu, whose English translation locates the name as belonging to the Emerald Lakes which intrepid trampers encounter when making the famous Tongariro Crossing among the Central North Island volcanoes. Such an evocation called for both epic grandeur and shimmering beauty – and in general the trombone evoked the vastness of the terrain and the outlines of the contours, while the harp filled these spaces with ambiences which suggested both beauty and loneliness in tandem.

The second original trombone-and-harp piece was by the Roumanian-born Jewish composer Sergiu Natra, whose early life was spent in Europe before emigrating with his family to Israel in 1961. His work Ancient Walls was written in 1990, a work reflecting the composer’s great fondness for the harp, and manifesting itself in a number of other compositions for the instrument. A prominent Jewish harpist, Adina Hraoz, wrote of her involvement with Natra’s music, comparing the experience with “watching a wonderful plastic arts creation”. In this particular work, the trombone seemed to me like a voice of antiquity, perhaps even Jahweh-like in places (shades of Walton’s “Belshazzar’s Feast”, perhaps?), interacting with the harp’s figurations in, by turns, volatile and concordant ways, and achieving a kind of synthesis of feeling at the piece’s end.

Worlds apart were three transcriptions of songs by Cole Porter, lovely things which indicated Maunder’s fondness for American popular songs of the 1930s and 40s. In general the melody line was carried by the trombone through these arrangements, with the harp preluding and post-scripting as well as occasionally punctuating the episodes with counter-melody or cadential decoration. After the opening “So in love”, Maunder’s use of a mute with his instrument for the second song “In the Still of the Night” took us to just such a scenario, the harp giving us Ravel-like delicacies creating both time and place in which the trombone could lazily and smokily etch out the contours of the melody amid the fume-filled gloom.

FInally, “Begin the Beguine” featured a change of mute (something Maunder called a “harmon mute”), which produced a “wah-wah” sound, and worked deliciously well with the song’s Latin-American rhythm – I particularly liked the harp’s “taking over” of the melody line in places, here, and wondered if that could have been exploited a bit more by the arrangements in places – the varying of textures created added interest to the melody line, the harp here playing the song’s “high” reprise, with enchanting results.

After this we were further entertained by a bit of music-theatre, a work by British composer Guy Woolfenden, entitled Henry Humbleton’s Holiday, a presentation which the performers here had (I presume) cleverly adapted to suit a New Zealand scenario. So, Ingrid Bauer left her harp to become the narrator, and  Maunder and his trombone were the “dramatis personae” of the story, a charming tale of a bank clerk who, after sleeping late, succumbed to the temptation afforded by a beautiful Monday, to naughtily “escape” from his work to the beach, accompanied by his faithful trombone!  By way of enhancing the theatrical atmosphere of it all, we as the audience even got a turn to join in the fun at a couple of points, all of which was very jolly and invigorating.

After all that trombonic self-indulgence on Henry Humbleton’s part, it was appropriate that Ingrid Bauer gave her harp a turn, which she did performing the fourth and final movement of a suite Spiders, a work for solo harp by British composer Paul Patterson called “Tarantula”. Naturally enough, the piece has a fantastically obsessive rhythmic quality, denoting the tarantella dance made by the victim of a bite from this particular creature – for the player it’s obviously a real tour de force technically, and it was despatched here with great brilliance.

At this point in the program Maunder switched trombones, from tenor to alto, to perform what I thought was perhaps the most ambitious of his arrangements, a well-known Intermezzo (the second piece) from the Op.118 set  of Brahms’ Piano Pieces. Maunder set himself a couple of challenges, here, not the least of which was the extremely difficult high entry on the first note of the melody’s inversion, when everything “turns” for home most affectingly – he actually managed it, a bit shakily the first time but nicely the second time! I liked the harp’s “interlude” in the piece’s central section, and thought the piece might be even more effective with more frequent exchanges between the instruments – for example on that exposed note, trombone and harp could have alternated, or even played it together (Brahms harmonizes the melody, so the notes are actually there to use). But I really didn’t like the piece’s final note transposed up an octave – the melody didn’t, for me, find its true, easeful destination at the end. It was the one thing which for me didn’t quite altogether work as an arrangement as it stood, lovely though some moments were.

But Take 5 was a delight from beginning to end, with plenty of interchange between the instruments and some lovely improvisatory “explorations”. After this the Gordon/Warren number At Last  (which kept on reminding me of the Marcus/Seller/Wood number “Till then”) was beautifully done, introduced by a great harp solo, then generating a deliciously indolent gait, though building up to an impressive level of intensity at the melody’s reprise, with a properly declamatory and valedictory pay-off at the end.

Peter Maunder and Ingrid Bauer are to be congratulated upon an inventive and absorbing evocation of worlds within worlds, keeping their audience entertained, intrigued, satisfied and re-educated! They’re repeating the concert in the Wairarapa this weekend, in Greytown on Saturday afternoon. For anybody in the vicinity, it’s well worth giving the enterprising pair – yes, these opposites DO attract, the trombone and harp! – a try!

Enchanting, polished recital by Rebecca Steel, flute and Ingrid Bauer, harp

Rebecca Steel (flute) and Ingrid Bauer (harp)

Music by Debussy (En bateau and La plus que lente), Persichetti (Serenade No 10 for flute and harp), Bach (Flute sonata in G minor, BWV 1020), Piazzolla (Bordello and Café from Histoire du tango)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 21 October, 12:15 pm

I last heard Rebecca Steel in a recital with Simon Brew and Jane Curry, as the Amistad Trio, in May, when I commented that it was the third concert involving the flute in a month. I wasn’t complaining.

Here she was, a confident, conspicuous figure, contrasting with the commonly perceived view of the flute as an instrument of ethereal delicacy. With Ingrid Bauer’s harp, it proved a combination made in heaven even though there was little in their playing that could be dismissed as delicate or transcendental.

They opened with a transcription of Debussy’s En bateau. It is the first part of the Petite Suite which the Amistad Trio played in May.

I think this version worked better. Here, the thought of a marriage of true minds came to me, as the transcription of the original for piano, four hands, called up a spirit that seemed to capture even more than Debussy’s own version did what the composer might really have been seeking; and it’s well known that he tended to avoid orchestrating his music, often leaving it to others. (Yes, I know there are many wonderful exceptions to that observation).

To begin, I thought the flute had a little too much presence, and could imagine a more subtle, languid sound, but the two players soon bewitched me; I’d prefer it to the orchestration by Henri Büsser.

And it so happened that as I was finishing this review I heard Elric Hooper in one of his classic discussions with Des Wilson on Concert FM; talking about his own life, after years of their delightful, insightful discussions on a wide variety of musical, dance, theatrical and generally artistic subjects. Elric’s last words, about music that touched him deeply, that calmed his soul; he said: “En bateau; it always fills me with joy”. Yes, I think so.

At its end Rebecca made a remark about Mallarmé: a poem? Or what? I think En bateau was based on a poem of Verlaine; there’s also Rimbaud’s Bateau Ivre which might also have had a connection.

La plus que lente (‘the more than slow [waltz]’) is in rather a similar vein, written for solo piano; the performance was based on an arrangement for violin and piano. Though it doesn’t purport to suggest water or clouds or anything insubstantial, an expectation of dreaminess and other-worldliness might well be met by these instruments, and they approached that spirit. In fact, as has been observed by others, it can be compared, in its ironic, satirical intention, to Ravel’s in La Valse, reflecting the immense social significance of the waltz in 19th century Europe.

The useful website AllMusic, records: “It represented Debussy’s laconic reaction to the pervasive influence of the slow waltz in France’s coffee-houses, dance-halls, and salons. But, writes Frank Howes, ‘La plus que lente is, in Debussy’s wryly humorous way, the valse lente to outdo all others.’ Apparently Debussy handed the manuscript of this piece to the gypsy fiddler Leoni, whose Romany band played to great popular acclaim in the ballroom of the New Carlton Hotel in Paris. It was almost certainly here that Debussy got the idea for the work in the first place.”

It was a delightful partner to En bateau.

I’ve heard Persichetti’s Serenade No 10 before, most recently in a 2012 performance, by Michelle Velvin, harp, and Monique Vossen, flute; it was reviewed in Middle C. In 2009, I heard, and reviewed, a performance by flutist Lucy Anderson and Ingrid Bauer, as members of the then National Youth Orchestra.

Persichetti is a strangely under-exposed composer, ignored probably for not writing in idioms that impress the academic music industry. Indeed, its eight short movements don’t allow much chance for the material to evolve in clever, complex ways. But Ingrid Bauer had briefly demonstrated a few of the harp techniques that Persichetti used to create an unpretentious work that would not tax too greatly, yet entertain an audience with visual surprises, with its tonal variety and colour as well as finding melodic ideas that were piquant, never hackneyed or sentimental. The movements ranged from triple time, dance rhythms, through many moods and soundscapes: meditative, joyous, dreamy, boisterous, always diverting. It was a performance of elegance, wit and skill.

The Bach flute sonata in G minor is one that invites a certain amount of scholarly scrutiny; it’s the seventh of his flute sonatas – the other six are authentic J S Bach – but this might be by C P E Bach, as Rebecca Steel told us, and I was easy to persuade to hear a ‘galant’ flavour in it rather than heartland J S Bach. It lies beautifully for the harp which plays alone for the entire opening ritornello, but when the flute arrived its lines were so charming that it was hard to sense its minor key modality. One had to search for that flattened ‘mi’. The two players together made wonderfully congenial sounds, especially in the middle Adagio movement, which indeed sounded too Romantic for Bach père. At times I was reminded of the melodic flavour of Telemann.

The first two movements of Piazzolla’s Histoire du Tango ended the recital; Bordello and Café. It’s fair to recall that Rebecca, with her Trio Amistad, had played it in a Wellington Chamber Music concert back in May. There was nothing raunchy or unseemly about the music Piazzolla imagined for his Buenos Aires brothel (bordello is a friendlier word?) It is an engaging exploration of the latent musical potential of the tango, the variety of subtle rhythms and melodic shapes that can evolve under fertile conditions. And it was played with such verve and delight.

The Café scene was very different; I’d heard it played a few days before by Donald Maurice on his viola d’amore and guitarist Jane Curry; while that was very attractive, this offered another, perfectly tasteful approach, the harp acting like the guitar to paint a decorous scene. Without a strong rhythm, dreamily, it soon becomes more lively but after a while tricks the listener to feeling that the subsiding energy is rambling to the end. After a pause it resumes with renewed firmness and a more definite melody which is elaborated and brightens.

It was one of the most charming recitals I’ve heard this year from the very strong competition at the St Andrew’s lunchtime series.

Two Harps create magic at Futuna Chapel

Colours of Futuna Concert Series presents: Two Harps

Music by Debussy, Britten, Young, Fauré, Scarlatti, Becker, Scott and Guard

Jennifer Newth and Michelle Velvin, harps

Futuna Chapel, Karori

Sunday, 26 October 2014

The Futuna chapel proved to be an ideal venue for harp music, being small and intimate,  and very resonant, with its timber and concrete surfaces.  There was no difficulty in hearing the quietest sounds, and the resonance of notes after they had ceased to be plucked, was sustained and beautiful.  The occasional raw tone, upon a string being plucked again while still sounding, also stood out, but this happened rarely.

Unfortunately I missed the first item, Debussy’s Pour Invoquer Pan, transcribed for two harps.  A pity, as I am sure in would have been magical.

Jennifer Newth played ‘Hymn’ from Suite for Harp, Op. 83 by Benjamin Britten.  It was a wonderful piece of intricate music, beautifully played, featuring variations on the hymn tune ‘St. Denio’, most frequently sung to the words ‘Immortal invisible, God only wise’.

This was followed by Kenneth Young’s Autumn Arabesque, which revealed a great variety of dynamics.  This was a brilliant performance, full of subtlety.  Lovely timing and shimmering, ecstatic sounds were notable in this delightful work, demonstrating the skill of the composer as well as that of the performer.  The programme note quoted Young as saying that the piece ‘has a bitter sweet nostalgic quality which I often associate with Autumn’.  We were experiencing a chilly spring day, but the tones and gestures of the music were telling.  The resonance of the final note was sustained for an amazing length of time in this acoustic, thanks to the stillness of the audience.

Fauré’s Impromptu had a much more rambunctious opening than did the previous pieces.  This extended work demonstrated the skill of the composer in writing music absolutely apt for the instrument.  Jennifer Newth played it without the score.  The lush tones and varied dynamics meant the playing was always interesting and the sonorities were enchanting

Following Fauré, Michelle Velvin played her bracket, that began with Sonata in A minor, Kirkpatrick 148 of Domenico Scarlatti, which the performer had transcribed herself.  It sounded so straight-forward after the delicacy of much of the Fauré!  It was very apparent how much more light and shade the harp was able to express compared with the harpsichord.  As with the piano or the harpsichord, notes once struck on the harp cannot be sustained except by resonance, unlike the case with the organ or wind instruments, on which sounds can be held by the fingers.  Thus the magic of playing in a small, resonant venue gave a whole new life to this music on the harp.

However, this very feature meant that it was particularly unwelcome in the quiet music to hear the accompaniment of cellophane wrappers on cough sweets being undone.  I have no shares in the manufacturing company, but I always use and advocate for “Fisherman’s Friend”, a cough lozenge that brings no additional auditory effects to a concert.

The next work was by Wellington singer and composer Pepe Becker: Capricorn 1: Pluto in Terra.  I heard this work just over a year ago, played by Helen Webby.  Its astrological significance was not detailed in the programme note this time, but rather the aspects of the Christchurch earthquakes that the composer was evoking.  In her words that were quoted (though not here in quotation marks!) ‘… evoke both gravelly and murky qualities of slowly-shifting earth’.  I enjoyed it even more on a second hearing.  The use of a piece of paper between the strings early in the work, changing the tone; knocking on the soundboard and passages of low humming from the player all added to the other-worldly effects of the music.  Intriguing off-beat rhythms were a feature.  It was indeed evocative, and very effective.

I was struck by the fact that a harpist is so graceful to watch – the movement is like an elegant dance.  Michelle’s playing was a little less incisive than Jennifer’s; it was interesting to be aware of some difference in tonal quality, but the playing of both was skilled and enjoyable.

Crossing Waves by contemporary British composer Andy Scott was a stunningly beautiful piece and very descriptive of its subject matter.  Amazing glissandi from forte to pianissimo were among its delights, depicting the ocean and its moods.  These were followed by a serene section.  The programme note described the work as reflecting ‘the many moods of such a journey [as that taken by solo rower across the Atlantic Ocean, Roz Savage]: apprehension and excitement at the start, isolation and beauty in the mid-ocean, and energy and optimism as the journey is almost over.’

Finally, for something completely different; three short pieces from the Isle of Man, arranged for two harps by Charles Guard, one of the top Celtic harpists – but played here on the orchestral harp, as was the entire programme.  They were titled “Manannan Mac y Lir”, “Slumber Song” and “Flitter Dance”.  The players demonstrated a variety of technical skills, exploiting the versatility of their instrument in these colourful pieces.

We are fortunate to have such skilled harpists in Wellington, thanks to the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s harpist, Carolyn Mills – obviously an outstanding teacher.  And of course to the dedication and hard work of the soloists, whose musical accomplishment it was a pleasure to hear.

Gorgeous concert of New Zealand commissions for voice and harp

Te Koki New Zealand School of Music:
Pluck; a concert of New Zealand music for harp

Works by Anthony Ritchie, Graeme Downes, Pepe Becker, Lyell Cresswell, Gillian Whitehead, Chris Adams, Claire Cowan, Ross Carey and Mark Smythe.

Helen Webby (harp), Pepe Becker (voice)

Adam Concert Room, New Zealand School of Music

Friday, 13 September, 7.30pm

Everyone at ‘Pluck’ would have been delighted by what they heard.
The works were commissioned by an enterprising Helen Webby, with support from Creative New Zealand.  Most of the composers are New Zealand residents, but several are currently based
overseas.  All the works were written for full-size orchestral harp – pedal harp – unless otherwise stated below.

Anthony Ritchie’s Angels Flow was certainly apt to its title: evocative, misty, and at the end, feeling unfinished, as if it wafted off into spiritual worlds.  It was an appropriate piece to commence a recital of harp music, but more excitement was in store for the moderately-sized audience (there was musical competition elsewhere in the university precinct).

Also based at Otago University, Graeme Downes is an expert on Mahler, and on rock music.  I had not heard any of his compositions before, but despite the rather technical programme note, it proved to be an interesting and varied piece: Introduction and Scherzo.  It opened in a minor
mode, then changed quite abruptly.  There were many delicious moments of arpeggios and techniques of playing at varying levels from top to bottom of the strings. The tempi were quite fast, and the music was jazzy in places.  Towards the end, it struck me as pianistic in character.  Overall, it was a very attractive work.

We are certainly familiar with Pepe Becker as a singer; although I knew she composed also, I had not heard anything of hers for a long time. Her piece was titled  Capricorn I: Pluto in terra.  Knowing little of astrology, much of the programme note was over my head.

The work opened with the strings stopped by a piece of paper between them, giving a tonal quality
rather like pizzicato on a violin.  Then there were low wordless vocal tones from the harpist, and a melody for the left hand, while the pizzicato continued from the right hand.  The paper was removed (in an act of sleight of hand), but the same fast rhythms continued, as did the vocal tones, plus knocking on the soundboard.  All of this made for a dramatic and interesting piece – and difficulty for the performer, but nevertheless she succeeded without problems, it seemed.

Lyell Cresswell, who has lived in Edinburgh for many years, maintains his links with New Zealand.  He wrote his piece based on words by the poet Fiona Farrell, which were written after the February 2011 earthquake.  They had particular relevance, since the poet had been playing “with a harp ensemble under Helen’s tutelage”.  The words related the reaction of the harp and of the cups and plates when the earthquake happened.  Telling, and amusing were the lines about
harps making fine companions in disaster. “You can float on a harp as the ship goes down” and “You can hold onto a single string/ Find your way through a broken city.”

Pepe Becker’s singing was incisive yet smooth in this dramatic piece, which was played with great
panache and a range of fortes and pianos. The disaster was splendidly depicted.

Last in the first half of the concert was Gillian Whitehead’s Cicadas, the vocal part setting a text by Rachel Bush.  Naturally, the insects were depicted in the music, as Whitehead “focuses on the life cycle of the cicada and its mesmeric song.” Whitehead proved yet again to be superb at setting words to music, and also at bringing out the theme through the music.  We heard the cicadas emerging from the ground, and their rhythmic vibrations accompanied the words, epitomising the part that said “…say to themselves over and over.”  At one point Helen Webby used a kind of vibrato on the high notes, employing both hands to achieve this, then smoothed over the strings with both hands, giving an eerie effect.  Such ‘twentieth century harp techniques’ were credited in the programme note to great French-American harpist Carlo Salzedo, who died in 1961 at the age of 76.

I found the singing of the words rather shrill in the bright acoustic of the Adam Concert Room.  However, this was a very skilled composition, and performance.

Following the interval we heard Strata by Chris Adams (another composer with strong Otago University connections).  It employed, in addition to the harp, a ‘loop pedal’.  This is an electronic device, operated by the harpist using a pedal, which can play a loop of the music (the loop could be earlier recorded, or recorded during the performance, I learned later, and is much used by pop musicians). The performer could play with the loop as accompaniment, or without it, or activate the loop on its own, playing its part over and over, with no ‘live’ intervention.

The piece began with what sounded like a medieval melody, modal in nature.  The charming melody was played over a repetitive bass accompaniment.  The disadvantage of using the loop was the clicking noise as the pedal was depressed and the electronics started and stopped.

Claire Cowan’s piece was The Sleeping Keeper, for lap harp and pedal harp.  However, since Helen
Webby couldn’t play two harps at the same time, the loop pedal was employed again to activate the electronic version of the lap harp’s part.  At one point, she used the metal tuning key on the strings to produce a sustained metallic sound from them.  As the programme note said “the piece conjures up… the constant movement of water…”; the resonant sound in ACR was right for this evocative piece, full of the atmosphere of dreams.  However, I believe there was amplification in those piece employing the loop pedal.

The repetitive bass was most effective; the use of the loop pedal made for more complex, and louder, textures than the harp could conjure up on its own.

Ross Carey’s … valse oubliée… was for a wire-strung harp of 22 strings.  This small harp 22 metal strings was placed on a high padded stool and Helen Webby played it standing. What an incisive sound this harp has compared with the pedal harp!  Carey was the only composer to use this smaller instrument.  His piece was in an improvisatory style, with pleasing turns of phrase.

Finally, we heard Moto Mojo from Mark Smythe (Pepe Becker’s brother).  In tonality and rhythmically the piece was similar to Pepe’s composition.  It was true to the title, and to the note “to make the listener feel a sense of momentum” but it was certainly not without melody and charm.  I can believe in amplification used like this – it truly enhanced what can be a very quiet instrument.  The piece made a beautiful ending to a gorgeous concert.  It’s not always that you
can say that about a programme of totally new music.


Harp students of Caroline Mills in recital

Carolyn Mills – Harp Students

The music and the players:
Germaine Tailleferre: Sonata for harp, movements 2 and 1 (Michelle Velvin)
Vincent Persichetti: Serenade no.10 for flute and harp, movements 2, 4, 6, 7 and 8 (Michelle Velvin and Monique Vossen, flute)
Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in C major K.159, and Carlos Salzedo: Bolero and Rumba (Madeleine Griffiths, harp)
Maurice Ravel: Five Greek Folksongs and Habanera (Anita Huang and Je-won, harp and flute)
Jongen: Danse Lente and Gareth Farr: Taheke, movement 3 (Jennifer Newth and Andreea Junc, harp and flute)

Old St. Paul’s

Tuesday, 17 July 2012, 12.15 pm

An attractive concert was detracted from by the lack of a printed programme; the introduction by Carolyn Mills was eminently audible; not all her university student pupils emulated her in this respect, despite the use of a microphone.

The opening work was quiet and impressionistic, consisting of melody and accompaniment.  There were some brilliant effects in these two movements, and a range of dynamics; it was skilfully played.

The Serenade, by an American composer I had not heard of, encompassed a variety of moods and techniques.  The slow second movement played (4th movement)  was particularly attractive, the instruments blending beautifully, yet maintaining their distinctive timbres.  Perhaps because the French have written for the harp more than have composers of other nationalities, the work seemed to me to have a French quality about it.

The third movement played (6th movement) featured complicated cross-rhythms between the two instruments, and harmonic clashes, while the fourth (7th movement) had figures like birds in conversation, reminding me of Messiaen, with whom Persichetti was contemporary.

The final movement was of quite a different character; slashing glissandi on the harp against melodies on the flute made it often seem that the players were quite at variance with each other.  The players were, however, totally in command of their performances, which were of a very high standard.

Madeleine Griffiths played her pieces from memory – a considerable accomplishment on the harp.  The Scarlatti sonata is well-known in its original keyboard form, and I did not find it as effective on the harp, but it was very competently played, and there were more contrasts in dynamics than would be popssible on a harpsichord.  Here, it had a delicious sound.

The Bolero’s lovely lilting quality conjured up charming evocations of Spain.  Its confident, assured player then had us immediately into a fast, energetic dance, in the Rumba.  A variety of techniques were employed.

The next harp and flute duo gave us the fourth and fifth of Ravel’s Five Greek Folksongs, then our second Cuban dance, the Habanera.  The first song was very slow and plaintive, but beautifully played, especially the flute part.  The second song had a brighter mood, yet a piquant quality, and there was more here for the harp to do.  Grove tells me that the title of this song was ‘Tout gai’, and so it was.  (Apparently some of this set of songs have been lost; including one appropriately titled ‘Mon mouchoir, hélas, est perdu’.)

The Habanera is well-known.  These instruments seemed to me a little too refined for this relatively boisterous dance.  Nevertheless, it was very competently played and the players produced pleasing tone; the flutist (or flautist if you prefer) had rather noisy breathing, but great control of dynamics and technique.

Jennifer Newth is, I think, a little older and more experienced than the other harpists.  It was most enjoyable to watch her flowing and graceful technique.  Her playing and that of her flute partner featured exquisite soft sounds; these were very musicianly performances.

The Farr work was lively and quirky, but very idiomatic for these instruments.  It included some unusual writing for the harp solo passage.  Some of it made me think of the American folk-song where each verse ends ‘The cat said fiddle-i-fee’.  The piece was a fun way to end an interesting and enjoyable concert.  I found, thanks to Google, that this last part refers to the Whangarei Falls (Taheke is Maori for waterfall), while the first describes Huka Falls, and the middle section a waterfall on the Farr family land in the Marlborough Sounds.

It was a pleasure to hear such wonderful playing and superb sounds from such young performers.