Great singer, and audience, sold short at hybrid festival concert

New Zealand Festival 2018

Anne Sophie von Otter (mezzo-soprano) with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Benjamin Northey

Schubert: Overture to Rosamunde
Lieder: Der Vollmond strahlt (one of the songs from the incidental music for the play Rosamunde)
Die Forelle (orch. Britten)
Gretchen am Spinnrade (orch. Reger)
Im Abendrot (orch. Reger)
An Sylvia (orch. Anon.)
Erlkönig (orch. Reger)
and her encore: Nacht und Träume

Zemlinksy: Die Seejungfrau – orchestral fantasy

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday 15 March 2018, 7:30 pm

I’ll see if I can find space later on to mention the few good things about this concert, apart from the fact that the great Anne Sophie von Otter actually came here and sang for a while.

The Programme
First, let’s see what we could have expected. The first statement in the notice of her recital in the festival season brochure wrote: “Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sophie von Otter is one of the titans of grand opera and French chanson”. And the very abbreviated profile mentioned singing at two famous opera houses, sharing the stage “with the world’s greats”. And the Wellington programme was to “include personal favourites from Schubert lieder and more” (my underlining).

But behold! No opera or French chanson; and certainly, not “more”!

Anyone familiar with the international opera scene and classical music in general knows Von Otter’s wide range in classical vocal music as well as various kinds of folk and tastefully chosen popular music. Since she was the only artist mentioned in the advertising, apart from the orchestra and conductor, it was reasonable to assume that she would dominate the programme with several brackets of opera arias and art songs and perhaps a few European popular songs.

Characteristically, such a programme is fleshed out with three or four orchestral pieces, perhaps an opera overture, an intermezzo, a shortish symphonic poem. But the second half was filled by an unfamiliar symphonic work by Zemlinsky, which turned out to be well worth hearing but seemed an odd accompaniment for a solo vocal recital.

A few days before, Von Otter had sung an excellent programme at the Adelaide Festival, which has, from the very beginning, been a key associate of our festival, in its use of major international artists. There, she had sung, with piano accompaniment, just the sort of programme I might have was expected: innovative, stimulating, appropriate festival fare, doing full justice to both herself and a reasonably knowledgeable audience.

Lieder with orchestra?
Then there’s the question of singing Schubert with an orchestra. Yes, she had done that before, winning a Grammy Award in 1997 for her recording of Schubert Lieder with Orchestra with Abbado and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. The impact of performances with orchestra on record is very different from those in a big concert hall, where the problems of balance and atmosphere are difficult. Many such arrangements exist and were popular especially in earlier times: seen as a way of breaking down barriers for people who might be afraid of a concert entirely from a singer and piano accompanist. That was the reason offered here, in the belief that there was no audience for solo vocal recitals, a fiction broadcast by some music promoters here too; which I have always refused to believe.

If she had come here with Bengt Forsberg, her long-standing accompanist, they would have made a tremendous impact. Erlkönig would have set the audience by the ears with its miraculously dramatic piano accompaniment; it and scores of other wonderful Lieder and French mélodies would immediately have created a huge audience for classical song.

Earlier festivals had some wonderful solo voice concerts, one of the most memorable for me being from tenor Peter Schreier in 1990 or 92 in a packed Town Hall.

The concert opened with the overture to the unsuccessful play, Rosamunde, for which Schubert wrote a variety of incidental music; it was a nice idea, and conductor Benjamin Northey led the orchestra through it carefully – a very slow opening – with clarity and energy supporting its sparkling Rossini character.

And the first song was from the Rosamunde music: a simple, unaffected melody to typically sentimental words: Der Vollmond strahl, naturally orchestrated as part of the orchestral incidental music. (Rather like Bizet’s incidental music for Daudet’s play L’Arlésienne, the music was immediately popular as the play bombed.) The audience had clapped unrestrainedly after the Rosamunde song, persisting even in the absence of any acknowledgement by singer and conductor; and the audience failed to read their clear messages after each subsequent song. Even if unfamiliar with the etiquette, one might have thought they’d have read the musicians’ expressionless wait between the songs. The determination to clap persisted later between movements of the Zemlinsky piece.

Then came five genuine Lieder. Die Forelle written aged about 19, was sung first; it was orchestrated imaginatively by Britten, more interestingly than the three by Reger; I was not altogether captivated by its singular pathos and wit of words and music. Gretchen am spinnrade followed, Schubert’s second published, in 1813 when he was 16, after Erlkonig; both are considered miracles in their musical invention and extraordinarily acute emotion expression. The genius of Gretchen was not much obscured by the orchestration and the singing of the first two songs offered the singer wonderful opportunity to let her undimmed vocal gifts be heard, finding the unsettled innocence of Goethe’s heroine, though one has heard more passionate outbursts, of phrases like ‘…und ach! Sein Kuss!’

Im Abendrot is a slightly less familiar song, and since its piano accompaniment is a little less embedded in the mind, Reger’s orchestration was tolerable, and the performance evoked its oddly religious character well.  An Sylvia is a very old favourite. It was among my parents’ collection of 10” 78s; not much played by them, but it became part of my aural furniture as a child. Even though the orchestra, in the anonymous arrangement, was pared down, the chomping cellos and basses did sound odd.

And finally Erlkönig; Here was a disappointment, not only the absence of the irreplaceable piano part, but also, I fear, not a male voice that for me at least has become such an essential character in the story, perhaps inadmissibly these days. The awakening of the father’s terror with ‘Der Vater grauset’s, er reitet geschwind…’ (the translations of these marvellous words were pathetic) just passed by…

The best song of all was the encore: Nacht und Träume, a late-ish song from around 1825, where I actually enjoyed the horn’s opening phrases followed by other orchestral felicities that, because it’s a song whose piano part has not taken root in my head so much; though I love it. It was beautiful.

Die Seejungfrau
Introducing Zemlinsky’s Die Seejungfrau, in the second half the conductor congratulated those in the hall for staying (many had left in the interval, compensated by a great increase in orchestral forces with quadruple, and more, winds!). And he talked about the link between this and the NZSO’s earlier festival venture into Star Wars, the music by John Williams, and his film music predecessors Bernard Herrmann and Korngold, to Zemlinsky who taught Korngold in Vienna. And he filled in possible gaps in musical knowledge noting the loss of his first wife, Alma Schindler to Gustav Mahler, who in turn lost her to Walter Gropius. Northey noted another detail that might well have been mentioned in the programme note, the orchestra’s recording of the work, under James Judd, for Naxos.

Much as I was uncertain about how the Zemlinsky, which I had failed to familiarise myself with, would sit in this context (on the face of it, strangely ill-assorted), I was quickly won over by its Strauss-era character (its opening might have suggested the beginnings of Tod und Verklärung or Also sprach Zarathustra) as well as its own character that in fact is some distance from Strauss. The performance had a vivid quality that was immediately charming, colourful, warmly lyrical. The work felt coherently structured in spite of the composer refraining from calling it a symphony or even a symphonic poem. The second movement (unnamed) was more light-hearted and mercurial. I didn’t attempt to create from the music images of mermaids and the ocean or other details of Hans Andersen’s tale. And the third movement became more reflective and elegiac, allowing anyone so-disposed to conjure the mermaid’s sad fate.

It was a most accomplished performance, Northey showing himself as fully capable of extracting the emotional qualities, the rich orchestral fabric, the dynamic and rhythmic pulses that brought it convincingly to life. At the end, the enthusiastic applause here was indeed in the right place.

As I load this on Monday morning, I see an excellent, pertinent letter on the programme from Deryn and David Groves in The Dominion Post.

Interesting if unorthodox Festival programme of music for organ and brass at St Mary of the Angels

New Zealand Festival 2018: Chamber Music Series

“Fields of Poppies”
Paul Rosoman (organ)
and Monarch Brass Collective: Mike Kirgan, Mark Carter, Barrett Hocking (trumpets), David Bremner, Matthew Allison, Shannon Pittaway (trombones), Andrew Jarvis (tuba), Lenny Sakofsky (percussion)

Music by Schubert, Stanford, Widor, J C Kerll, Giovanni Gabrieli, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Bach, Vierne

Church of St Mary of the Angels

Tuesday 13 March, 6 pm

Having attended the previous chamber music concert in St Mary of the Angels which seemed to have an audience of only about 60 or 70, I was rather astonished to find that what was a predominantly organ recital was a full house (or should that be una chiesa piena?).

I have been heard to express a certain weariness at the four-year-long obsession with remembering the horrors of World War I; and the prospect of further intensification in November and perhaps long after, is perhaps not looked forward to.

Anyway, there were interesting features here: a chance to hear Maxwell Fernie’s organ played again after the church’s restoration and strengthening; the combining of organ and orchestral brass instruments, including a composer like Gabrieli; and a couple of French organ works from around the turn of the 2oth century (Widor and Vierne) – as a unredeemed francophile, I am susceptible.

The military setting was actually a very successful feature, with the crackling of a side drum (Sakofsky?) preceding the trumpet’s sounding of The Last Post (Michael Kirgan?): slow and poignant.

It was followed by an arrangement for organ and brass instruments by David Dobson of Schubert’s nonet for wind instruments, Eine kleine Trauermusik, written when he was 16 (already No 79 in the Deutsch catalogue!). I didn’t know it, but in this arrangement it certainly made a splendid sound in the church.

Stanford and Widor
Then came what I felt a less successful, and much longer work, the second organ sonata (in G minor, op 151) by Charles Villiers Stanford (the habitual use of his first names suggests that he’s still unknown to most people). Written in 1917 and dedicated to Widor (who was 7 years Stanford’s senior) and to France; its three movements depicted aspects of the war (Rheims, a solemn march and Verdun). However, its length was hardly justified by its portentousness and lack of any real humane feeling. Use of La Marseillaise was a feature but that hardly rescued it from its repetitiveness and distinctly second rating. However, the performance was bold and served to display both the organ’s clarity and colours, and the splendid acoustics of the church.

It was naturally a nice idea to follow the Stanford sonata with a Widor piece, also written during the war and actually composed for organ and the brass instruments engaged here. It displayed some of the same characteristics as the Stanford and one could sense an almost coming together of the two composers’ styles, from which Widor might have been the more disadvantaged. In spite of his famous toccata, Widor was not really a composer of flamboyant, heroic music.

The 16th and 17th centuries
Though the Thirty Years War (1628-48) set the German-speaking lands and some of their neighbours back a century in terms of cultural development (compare what was going on in 17th century France and England, even taking account of the Civil War; and look for Book Week star AC Grayling’s The Age of Genius: the Seventeenth Century), it seemed to have inspired music.

During and after the war music depicting battles was not uncommon; the example most familiar to me is by J C Kerll’s contemporary, Biber. Here, in Kerll’s ‘Imperial Battle’, brass was again as important as the organ in a piece that was processional and triumphant rather than reflecting the horrors of war. Yet the organ was adroitly integrated in the imperious clamour, and there was enough suggestion of a somewhat neglected Bach predecessor to make one curious about other Kerll compositions.

Then the brass players disappeared from the organ loft and reappeared making their way to the sanctuary where they played the following three works – by Giovanni Gabrieli, Brahms and Mendelssohn.

One expects to find prominent brass offerings in the splendid Venetian music of the Gabrieli, written to exploit with voices, organ and brass, the splendid acoustic of St Mark’s, Venice. Monarch Brass Collective chose one of the numerous pieces for brass in the Sacrae Sympnoniae, and the players’ impact with the Exultavit cor meum in Domino (C 53), in the even finer acoustics of the post-restoration church was very impressive.

Nineteenth century Germany
Brahms’s Geistliches Lied, Op 30, is an early work, written in 1856 but not performed till 1865. The programme notes remark that it was composed for chorus and organ, and so it was surprising to find it performed by the brass, without organ as far as I could tell from my restricted view of the organ loft. (I also had a restricted view of the screen suspended over the sanctuary showing Rosoman’s hands and feet at the organ, as well as the brass players and roaming around the splendid vaulting and stained glass. It was a good initiative.)

The brass ensemble remained in front of the altar to perform Mendelssohn’s second organ sonata; here I confess, I was perhaps even more surprised and perhaps a little disappointed to hear a brass arrangement of one of Mendelssohn’s six organ sonatas instead of the real thing. Not that I have ever been especially enamoured of his organ works, but I’m always ready to be invited to reconsider: not this time though. I was not the only one to find the lack of specific information in the programme a little confusing; here there was no mention of its rearrangement for brass, or details of its movements which allowed applause after each break between movements.

The arrangement for entirely different instruments rather obliterated Mendelssohn’s fingerprints, causing one to wonder whether it was indeed, Mendelssohn.

A Bach Chorale Prelude
For the following Bach piece, the brass collective, accompanied by the rattle of side drum, retreated again to the organ loft where they joined with the organ in the Chorale Prelude ‘Aus tiefer Not’ which was drawn from his cantata of the same name, BWV 38; the former is considered a more interesting piece, indeed, one of the most admired of his chorale preludes. The addition of brass was not as alienating from one’s awareness of Bach’s genius as it had been with Mendelssohn, and it came off well.

Finale in France
The concert ended with a piece by Vierne, also with a connection with war. 1921 marked the centenary of Napoleon’s death and this was a commission for the commemorative service at Notre Dame Cathedral. It was very appropriate for this concert, as it returned to the character of Widor’s piece in employing the same instrumental forces and adopting a comparable triumphant, celebratory character. Its finale was particularly effecting: as the brass died away the organ took up a great concluding fugue, and brass rejoined with a certain un-Viernish triumphalism and grandeur.

Though I have had several minor criticisms of the programme booklet and of the musical arrangements, the concert broadly achieved its aims in attracting a big audience to interesting and worthwhile music that would have been unfamiliar to most. And that’s always a good thing.

Largely successful Japanese chamber music concert at St Mary of the Angels

New Zealand Festival
Chamber Music Series

Dylan Lardelli (conductor and guitar); Miyata-Yoshimura-Suzuki Trio(sho, koto, recorder); soloists from Ensemble Musikfabrik (Peter Veale – oboe, Hannah Weirich – violin, Makiko Goto – bass koto); Yuriko Sakamoto (shamisen)

Music by Chris Gendall, Dieter Mack, Keiko Harada, Kikuoka Kengyo, Rebecca Saunders, Dylan Lardelli, Samuel Holloway

St Mary of the Angels, Boulcott Street

Friday 9 March 2018, 6 pm

There are, inevitably, concerts where a critic feels out of his depth; music that is almost of the future, or from a sophisticated culture that one has little experience of. One often approaches them with trepidation, fearing that it will be music that is so remote in spirit and language from familiar Western music that one has no touchstone by which to assess it fairly, certainly with any sense of authority.

So it didn’t help when a young man came out after the stage had been arranged, seats and music stands, to tell us something about changes to the programme. He was on the right; I was seated on the far left; clearly he had little experience in projecting the voice, unamplified, into a big space and I caught about one word in 10.

However, it emerged that two items had been deleted – by Takemitsu  and a recorder fantasie by Telemann, and a couple of others had their order reversed.

What remained as a challenge was simply the style of much of the music from the Gagaku, ancient Japanese court music, from around the 8th century. Though I have heard this music in various contexts over the years, I don’t recall a concert where such refined and sophisticated examples dominated most of the programme. Unfortunately I was not at Chamber Music New Zealand’s concert by this Japanese trio in February 2016 (you’ll find the review by Peter Mechen in Middle C) which would have somewhat acclimatised me to the sounds here.

The remoteness of the music was compounded by the appearance of the word ‘extended’ in the programme note, a word that usually implies that the musicians are taking liberties with the traditional performance styles by exploiting extremes of pitch range or articulation to produce multiphonics (two or more notes simultaneously) on a wind instruments.

One was launched unceremoniously into one of the most refined and attenuated pieces of the evening with an anonymous, traditional piece, Hyojo No Choshi (described as ‘an extremely elegant performance ritual’), played by Mayumi Miyata on the sho. It is a Japanese reed instrument where a bundle of reeds are tied together vertically, and held in front of the face. The sound might be compared to a very high reed stop on the organ, though it struck me that the bamboo reeds produced a hint of string sound as well.

The music evolved with extreme slowness, two or more notes sounding simultaneously – multiphonics, some a semitone apart thus producing what to most ears would be discords. The visual effect too was very striking: Mayumi Miyata in white stood behind the altar, freshly painted in white or similar colour under very bright light. Behind her was the beautifully carved reredos.

Two or three minutes were spent between most pieces to rearrange seats, music stands and to bring in or take out various instruments – the most conspicuous being the 13-stringed koto and the even bigger bass koto (I assume also having 13 strings), which could be likened to a lute, zither or cimbalom, though played by plucking rather than using mallets.

Gendall: music and joinery
Both were brought out next, played by Nanae Yoshimura and Makiko Goto. The piece was by Chris Gendall: Reverse Assembly, which the notes described as “a rather adorable internet-search translation of a type of interlocking Japanese joinery”. One had to assume that Gendall had managed to create a piece, regardless of its recondite inspiration, that measured up to the Gagaku aesthetic tradition. Four other players, including two New Zealanders: oboist Peter Veale and guitarist Dylan Lardelli, handled sho and recorder (Tosiya Suzuki) and violin (Hannah Weirich). While the six players indeed created an singular, alien sound, and the inspiration of Japanese joinery quite escaped me, I confess to falling under the spell – eventually.

Dieter Mack: a trio with koto
Next was a piece by German composer Dieter Mack, with a more familiar title: ‘Trio VII for oboe, violin and bass koto’ (commissioned by the German element in the group, Musikfabrik). My notes included words like ‘squeaks’ and ‘screeching’ (violin harmonics) but later my response to Veale’s alternating oboe and cor anglais, the emphatic, low notes on the kotoa, hints of melody, indicated a degree of curious appreciation.

Keiko Harada
The fourth piece was a quartet from a Japanese composer, Keiko Harada: a ‘quartet for sho, recorder, guitar and bass koto’ composed specifically for these players. Suzuki used three recorders: one, the biggest I’ve ever seen, standing more than two metres high with a long mouth-piece that extended, unlike the bassoon, to the top of the instrument; the other two, conventional. Clearly a most serious intention underlay the ensemble of sounds, often most arresting, occasionally evocative even if at the end my notes recorded a degree of mystification: I could only feel that its real secrets rather eluded me.

The shamisen arrives 
Kikuoka Kengyo’s Iso Chdori (Beach plover) brought out Yuriko Sakamoto’s shamisen, a mandolin shaped three-stringed instrument, with a very long neck with a febrile, delicate sound. The other plucked instrument, filling the lower register was the koto whose player, Yoshimura, also gave voice occasionally. This struck me as more evocative of a traditional Japanese idiom, with subtle, coherent tunes, derived from real musical impulse rather than an urge to experiment.

Glance back to Europe with Saunders
Next, a piece the composer Rebeca Saunders attributed to inspiration by lines from a poem by Samuel Beckett: To and Fro, for oboe and violin. Opening with slow warm notes on the G string, some multiphonics from the oboe. Though no Japanese instruments were employed, nor overt references to Japanese music, her obscure, perhaps pretentious inspiration could well have derived from an ultra-refined eastern culture; this listener felt that occasional arresting passages gave the music coherence in spite of the sense of Beckett’s words escaping him altogether.

Lardelli conducts Lardelli 
Dylan Lardelli’s composition, Holding, involved five players with Lardelli conducting; they were arrayed from the left: sho, oboe, koto, violin and bass recorder. Their impact was to create a generally convincing coalescing of European and Japanese cultures; in this instance Lardelli’s words contrasting sound and silence, intimacy and distance, light and shadow did reflect something of the music’s spirit.

The summing up, by Holloway
Finally, six players; sho, recorder, oboe, guitar, shamisen and bass koto performed Samuel Holloway’s Japonisme, a comment, reflection on European approaches to Japanese culture, including ‘appropriation and misrepresentation’, involving what seemed a deeply ingested understanding of the complex processes of cultural integration experiments.

In spite of a frequent sense of being out of my depth, of failing to be sufficiently familiar with the spiritual nuances of Japanese music, this was a most interesting and largely successful attempt in cross-cultural creativity.



Remarkable integration of musical cultures in spite of documentation and presentation shortcomings

New Zealand Festival
Te Ao Hou; This New World

New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl and Monique Lapins violins; Gillian Ansell, viola; Rolf Gjelsten, cello); Rob Thorne (taonga pūoro)

Works by Rob Thorne, Selina Fisher, Gillian Whitehead, Gareth Farr

St. Mary of the Angels Church

Tuesday, 6 March 2018, 6pm

Of the skill manifest in this unusual concert there can be no doubt.  Regarding the audience’s involvement there are regrets: there were no notes about individual works in the brief three pages in the composite programme booklet; most of the information was about the players.  No spoken introductions were given, and no explanation of the taonga pūoro, as Richard Nunns gave at a Festival concert years ago.  I am sure this was to maintain a spiritual, non-material atmosphere, which was enhanced by the attractive greenery on the platform, that included an ponga..  (Wikipedia has an excellent article on taonga pūoro, with photographs.)

I beg leave for a little special pleading: I had had eye-drops administered at hospital a couple of hours prior to the concert, which in the dim lighting made it impossible to identify most of the instruments employed, and added to the confusion caused by there not being apparent breaks between works and thus no opportunity for the audience to applaud until the end of the concert.

The effect was of a continuous work, although individual styles could be detected.  It seemed that possible pauses were filled with improvisations by Rob Thorne on a great variety of instruments.

The programme gave the opening item as Rob Thorne’s ‘Improvisations for Taonga Pūoro’; it seems that these were interspersed throughout the concert, that began with the audience being greeted by extensive sounding of the conch shell and by a member of the flute family of taonga pūoro, the one into which the players blow into the middle of the instrument.  (There may have been others that I didn’t pick.  Most of this could not be seen from where I was seated.  This was a problem later, too, as the performances took place rather to the right of the platform; I was seated left.)

What was amply demonstrated already was the variety of tones and pitches that could be played; the conch shell particularly was hugely variable in pitch and timbre.

Poetry in English was read: Te Ao Hou; This New World.  Next came loud and emphatic Maori chants, from the rear of the church.  The instrument faded away and then returned.  The sounds varied from that of a cow bellowing to quieter tones like a French horn being stopped by the hand.  Squeaks, whistles and quieter notes were produced, and then one became aware that Helene Pohl and Monique Lapins were slowly approaching the platform from different sides, making notes on their instruments very similar in sound to the quieter notes of the conch.  They were soon followed by Gillian Ansell and Rolf Gjelsten.

This was a remarkable feature of the concert: how the strings could imitate the sounds of taonga pūoro, whether loud or soft, strident or sweet.  Throughout, the string players did not employ vibrato; the effect of this technique would have been foreign to the sound-world featured.

The more formal part of the programme began with Salina Fisher’s Tōrino: Echoes on pūtōrino improvisations by Rob Thorne, premiered by NZSQ in 2016.  Notes interweaving sounded like karakia and other chants put together.  Bird songs were another feature, as were mournful tones.  The use of drone notes in the bass were effective, yet gave a sameness to some of the music.  Slurring between pitches was an interesting technique.

Among the taonga pūoro used was a long wooden wind instrument with a trumpet-like sound.  Dynamics varied, and the sound was focused   The instruments played a variety of pure notes, presumably pitched with the mouth, as with the natural brass trumpet.  The strings played repetitive notes, and then they were joined by another instrument, not so long, with less focused tone.  This was followed by a higher pitched instrument, then by the conch shell, playing solo.  Its doleful sounds were followed by whistled bird sounds from two different small instruments.

A stick tapping on a small wooden box contributed complex rhythms, and the strings joined in, making a sound almost identical to that of the conch shell.  The same happened with the violins making an almost identical sound to the whistle-like flutes.

Scoop web-site has this to say about Rob Thorne’s Tomokanga: ‘This was music that segued seamlessly between the various composers, imbued with the same sort of shimmering luminosity and glistening iridescence as a rain forest after thunderstorm. The interweaving of disparate sonorities created limpid, mesmerizing, and hypnotic motifs that lingered on the margins of the transcendental.’

Then came another repeat work from 2016: Dame Gillian Whitehead’s Poroporoaki.  An effective technique used in her work was the strings playing spiccato.

Gareth Farr’s He Poroporoaki followed, beginning with Helene Pohl playing little finger cymbals most effectively.  A tiny flute played, while the cello sounded a drone below varied string harmonies and lovely sonorities.  This work had more elements of European classical music in it than did the other pieces in the programme.  It includes the tune of the song we know in English as ‘Now is the Hour’.  (The Google note under Promethean Editions says the piece, written for Gallipoli commemorations in 2008, is a ‘deconstructed Now is the Hour’, significant of course for soldiers departing to war, and the families and friends on the wharf to see them off).  Rob Thorne was kept busy swapping between instruments: conch, flute, hammer on wood, whistles.  Gillian Ansell tapped the stones while Thorne was busy.

The final work was Gillian Whitehead’s Puhake ki te Rangi.  It was written in 2006.  It was amazing to hear Rob Thorne producing a variety of tones from the same instrument.

It was  remarkable concert that nevertheless left some in the a good-sized audience confused as to whether the concert was actually over at the end, since it was not easy to trace where we were in the programme at any point, and because the performance ended earlier than expected.  The quality of performance was astonishingly good.



Polished Australian string quartet at St Mary of the Angels Festival series

New Zealand Festival

‘Romance and Revolution’
Orava Quartet (Daniel Kowalik, violin; David Dalseno, violin; Thomas Chawner, viola; Karol Kowalik, cello)

Haydn: String Quartet no.2 in E flat, Op.33, ‘The Joke’
Shostakovich: String Quartet no.8 in C minor, Op.10
Mendelssohn: String Quartet no.2 in A minor, Op.13

St. Mary of the Angels Church

Thursday, 1 March 2018, 6pm

The series of chamber music concerts in the Festival are all being held at St. Mary of the Angels Church.  They are all listed in one programme booklet – which means not much detail is provided for each; for example brief programme notes, no enumeration or tempi markings for the movements.  Brief introductions were given by one of the players.  The concert was being recorded by RNZ Concert.  It was pleasing to see the church almost packed, with a very attentive audience for this Australian ensemble on their first visit to New Zealand.  However, it couldn’t e said to be the most comfortable venue in Wellington, especially if one has forgotten to take a cushion!

The Haydn Quartet immediately demonstrated what a good sound is created in this church.  The playing was spacious, yet incisive.  As with most of this composer’s creations, the music was mellifluous and cheerful.  The first movement is marked allegro moderato, the second scherzo: allegro, the third largo, and the fourth rondo: presto.  The keys are interestingly varied, as are the time signatures.

The second movement was full of contrasts; it was Haydn’s first foray into replacing a minuet with a scherzo.  There were some quirky little surprise phrases that presaged the joke at the end of the work, and changes of tempo.  The third movement was more serious; a feature was the rich tone from the cello.  Throughout, the quartet players were spot-on with timing and ensemble.  All sat to play, in contrast to the New Zealand String Quartet.

The final movement was light and bright.  The audience did not succumb to Haydn’s joke by clapping in the wrong places, but delighted in his series of joyful ‘endings’.

Shostakovich used his initials DSCH as the motif for much of his 8th Quartet: D, E flat, C, H (the latter the German name for the note B; the name B is reserved for B flat).  He had already used this motto in the 7th symphony.  There are elements taken from other earlier works.  The movements are continuous, but the five comprise: largo, allegro molto, allegretto, largo and a final largo.  It was written ‘in memory of the victims of fascism and war’, following his visit to the devastated city of Dresden, home of much German culture.  The autobiographical nature of the music was said to be because he didn’t expect anyone to write his biography.

The doleful opening was followed by mournful tones, performed with much subtlety and feeling.  Then the rushing allegro takes over.  The viola was flat out, playing nevertheless with strong, rich tone.  There followed the elaboration of several short themes, insistent in nature.  The slower movements that followed brought out all the variety in the work – pathos, mourning, anger, resignation.  The two largo movements were solemn in their lamentation and surrender.   Rich, sombre harmonies and changes of key embellished the complex, soulful writing.

In his ravishing second Quartet, written when he was only 18 years old Mendelssohn quotes from Beethoven. It is dedicated to his great predecessor.  This is a particular favourite of mine, right from its heartfelt adagio opening theme with its rich, romantic harmony.  After this slow, thoughtful mood the music came alive,  changing to a spirited, animated allegro vivace.  The blend of the players’ sound was superb.  Then there was a return to more contemplative passages.  The adagio theme returns throughout the work.

The adagio non lento second movement opens slowly and beautifully; gorgeous harmonies are embellished with suspensions.  A calm and peaceful mood pervades, although it is interrupted by a passionate interlude before the Quartet’s adagio theme returns in all its sincerity.  All is beautifully played.

The Intermezzo third movement is marked allegretto con moto – allegro di molto.  The jaunty yet nostalgic first melody is played by the first violin with pizzicato accompaniment from the other instruments.  The following section is fast and frolicsome, reminiscent of his Midsummer Night’s Dream music – though that was written a few years later.  The music was scampering and light-spirited.  Then a return to the opening of he movement before a gracious and grave coda, with short elements from what had gone before.

The finale opened in stormy fashion, with rapid passages following reminiscences of earlier music, much changed in mood, to one of urgency and even portentousness, all at a fast tempo (presto).   Some recollections are slower, and in a minor key; others are fugal, while others are grand, interspersed with a quiet sequence recalling  earlier moods, and the opening theme of the Quartet.

It completed a most rewarding and satisfying early evening of chamber music from a highly polished and accomplished group of performers.