Conductor Han-Na-Chang’s NZSO debut in music by Leonie Holmes, Richard Strauss and Pyotr Tchaikovsky

Conductor Han-Na Chang scores with her NZSO debut in music by Leonie Holmes, Richard Strauss and Pyotr Tchaikovsky

LEONIE HOLMES – I watched a shadow*
RICHARD STRAUSS – Don Quixote
(with Andrew Joyce, ‘cello, and Julia Joyce, viola)
PYOTR TCHAIKOVSKY – Symphony No. 5 in E Minor Op.64

Han-Na Chang (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
(Vesa-Matti Leppanen, concertmaster)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 18th May, 2024

I’m probably risking accusations of inverted sexism in drawing special attention in this review to the gender of the conductor on the occasion of this concert! – I solemnly do promise never to underline any such point again, but, after living through the tail-end of the age which regarded the role of orchestra conductor as a male bastion, and not ever having actually used the words “end of an era” to underline what has obviously been a change of things, I feel like “coming out” and hailing as such the appearance of South Korean Han-Na Chang on the NZSO’s podium as a guest conductor as signifying, in a local context, a real milestone.

I say these things having watched a number of women over the years mount the podium to direct the orchestra – conductors from overseas such as Dalia Atlas, Jane Glover, Odaline de la Martinez, Simone Young and Suzanna Malkki, and more recently, homegrown talents such as Holly Mathieson, Tianyi Lu and Gemma New, the latter having been appointed the orchestra’s Principal Conductor in 2022.  So, if women are of late no strangers to the conductor’s role here in New Zealand with the country’s leading orchestra, what was it about Han-Na Chang’s appearance that constituted something special?

The difference for me was that, unlike with the names mentioned above, Han-Na Chang’s was one completely unknown to me, as have been the names of many of the NZSO’s guest conductors of recent times. She is a fully-qualitied representative of a wider world of music-making which we in this country can only guess at regarding its range and scope , but can experience through the tried-and-true “guest conductor” system, one in which gender seems no longer an issue!

As with any unknown podium guest, the question “What will she be like?” was on the lips of anybody “not in the know”, as the diminutive Han-Na Chang made her entry and mounted the podium. First up in the programme was a local work by the highly-respected Auckland composer Leonie Holmes, one which had received its world premiere the night before in Auckland and was now making its Wellington debut. For a guest conductor to make her NZSO debut with a premiere of a work by a local composer seemed like a boldly positive and forthright gesture, and certainly one which gave Leonie Holmes’s composition I watched a shadow plenty of added interest.

The programme note for this new work contained the words of the poem by Wellingtonian Anne Powell which inspired Holmes’s music, a meditation on the world of nature’s ebb and flow encapsulated in a single crepuscular-like event, a hill embraced by its own shadow. The sounds took the form of an orchestral rhapsody, beginning with a percussive splash and slowly building an austere soundscape, grounded in string-texturings but with waves of contrastingly-flavoured disturbances, like a kind of gradual oceanic movement enlivened by wind-and-brass irruptions.

The work’s central part animated the discourse with pizzicato strings, wind roulades and atmospheric brass touches, expressing something of the variety of nature-impulse described by the poet’s words as “the hum of the universe”, but with bell-sounds, “knell-like” warnings growing a heavy, ominous tread. Though this trenchant mood was relieved, the sounds reformed with fresh impulse, building excitingly towards a great climax with surges of percussion, leaving us wondering at the ambivalence of what we’d heard. Rather like some of Sibelius’s music, Holmes’ work here seemed relatively unpeopled, our own existence’s fate of little account to these dispassionate comings-and-goings. Whatever the case, all was rendered here as committedly by conductor and players as one might imagine posssible.

From natural attrition we proceeded to a world of fantasy, foolishness and nobility, in the form of Richard Strauss’s tone-poem Don Quixote, a musical realisation of aspects of Miguel de Cervantes’ classic 17th-century novel. Strauss cast his deluded picaresque hero, the Don, as a solo ‘cello, and his down-to-earth squire, Sancho Panza by a solo viola, the ensuing dialogues and soliloquies an absolute delight for the listener, as were the colourful orchestral depictions of some of the Don’s adventures. Strauss here flew in the critical face of those conservative commentators of the time who derided what they called “programme music” by elevating the genre at its best to heights of expression and technique surpassed by no-one before or since, with Don Quixote having long been considered the greatest of his works of this kind.

As the two main protagonists, the husband-and-wife team of cellist Andrew Joyce and violist Julia Joyce gave what I thought were vivid portrayals of their respective characters, the former capturing all the would-be knight’s delusional expressions of chivalrous glory as well as his touching final realisations of mortality, and the latter steadfastedly affirming the squire’s support for his master with wryly matter-of-fact observances. Conductor Han-Na Chung’s control of the orchestra throughout the work was masterly, the detailing richly-informed and the overall sweep of certain moments no less than breathtaking! I shall particularly cherish the image of the wind-machine player “giving his all” at the rear of the orchestra during the work’s notorious “flying horse” sequence!

And so to what seemed like the concert’s readily-publicised “raison d’etre”, the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony, a work not lacking in performance history in this part of the world, but despite such popularity, one with the kind of resilience that instantly responds to a “fresh-as-paint” approach from its interpreters. Which is just what Han-Na-Chang conveyed, right from the opening Andante’s portentous clarinet phrases and ever-resonating string accompaniments (I couldn’t see the player from where I was sitting but I presumed the clarinettist was the ever-reliable Patrick Barry!)

What I particularly enjoyed was Chang’s direct and unsentimental approach throughout the work, never pulling about or unduly elongating lines or phrase-ends in search of “expression” when the composer had already ensured sufficient feeling would be generated by playing what was marked – so there was no “swooning” in the strings when the second subject of the opening movement’s allegro arrived, and no accelerando extremities needed to get back up to speed for the movement’s basic tempo, Chang keeping the music’s blood-pulses from ever becalming and losing their trajectories.

The slow movement, one of Tchaikovsky’s greatest symphonic achievements, here also benefited from Chang’s steadiness, particularly with the pizzicato notes that followed the appearance of the motto theme mid-movement – the octave-pizzicato was “in tempo” from its first entrance, rather than being vulgarly “sped up’ and then awkwardly slowed once more, evidence of our conductor’s “tidy mind” and care for musical structure. Oh, and Sam Jacobs’ magical horn solo in this movement deservedly earned him an ovation of his own at the symphony’s end.

The ever-enchanting Waltz with its gorgeous balletic scherzando character throughout the middle section led straight into the Finale, a fulsome major-key motto-theme at the start, and properly “warning” tones from the brasses, just before the great timpani roll that ignited the strings’ allegro vivace entry. I wondered whether there was a brief rhythmic hiccup between strings , brass and timpani during the maelstrom-like passage that preceded the entry of the winds with their long-held-note melody, but perhaps I was mistaken amidst the super-saturations of sound at that point  – and in the comparable passage later in the movement, I heard no hint of misalignment! What was thrilling was the almost visceral stamping rhythm of the strings throughout these “Russian dance” episodes and the rapidity of the brasses’ stuttering notes pushing the music’s trajectories along so (literally!) breathlessly, in places! The swaggering motto-march-theme at the end seemed to gather up all that had gone before and fill the hall’s overhead spaces with exuberances, capped only by the frenetic energies of the coda, and its march-like codicil at the very end!

Very great credit to all concerned, and especially to conductor Han-Na Chang for an auspicious debut, one which was instsntly and generously acknowledged at the concert’s end by a delighted, near-capacity Michael Fowler Centre audience.

 

An exuberant ‘Cello-and-Piano concert from Robert Ibell and Rachel Thomson

Wellington Chamber Music presents:
Robert Ibell (‘cello) and Rachel Thomson (piano)

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN – Sonata for Piano & Cello in D major, Op 102 No 2
LEOŠ JANÁČEK – Pohádka (Fairytale)
CLAUDE DEBUSSY – Sonata for Cello & Piano
ALEX TAYLOR – Four Little Pieces
ZOLTÁN KODÁLY – Sonata for Cello & Piano Op 4
ROBERT SCHUMANN – Fantasy Pieces Op 73

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington
Sunday, 12th May, 2024

I confess to being tempted to describe this as a well-nigh perfect programme at the concert’s conclusion, except that such fulsome statements are obviously subjective, and have a well-used ring about them when applied to any such compilations, let alone of the “reviewing” kind!

Let me say instead that I found the programme extraordinarily satisfying as such – and this is not to mention the commitment and skill with which the two musicians involved brought to the occasion, though they would obviously have influenced such a judgement.

A reliable measure of the impact made upon audience sensibilities at any concert is the degree of animated conversation that follows the applause – and I found myself almost straightaway afterwards talking with each of my neighbours in turn seated on either side (neither of whom I knew at all, beforehand!), with all of us eager to convey how much we had enjoyed this and that and wanting the other’s response to the same. So, this concert certainly passed the “animated audience response” test with flying colours!

One of the pieces was completely new to me (Alex Taylor’s Four Little Pieces), and another two I’d had to familiarize myself with by finding recordings before going to the concert (Leoš Janáček’s Pohádka (Fairytale) and Zoltán Kodály’s Sonata for Cello & Piano Op 4) – all of which put me in a kind of half-and-half “knew/didn’t know” situation regarding the content, the kind of thing that can put one on one’s mettle as a listener good and proper! I was lucky that I didn’t find myself “overwhelmed” by too many new things – it gave my ears different things to do with the two halves of the programme!

First up was the Beethoven, the fifth and last of the composer’s ‘Cello Sonatas, works that revolutionised the repertoire for the instrument by completely reworking the relationship between cello and keyboard – previously a mere supporting instrument in any ensemble, here the ‘cello was clearly made an equal partner with the piano. Though the two early Op.5 Sonatas were still described as “with a violincello obbligato” the cello parts were through-composed, each having its own voice, something never before attempted. Beethoven was to give the new form its fully-fledged status in the two Op.102 Sonatas.

Rachel Thomson exuberantly sounded the opening piano figure, beginning the lovely give-and-take exchanges that characterised this movement, with its charming contrasts between lyrical expression and forthright con brio manner. Both players observed a judicious balance between the two instruments, with Robert Ibell’s tones readily encompassing the forthright and more lyrical aspects of the music’s lines. The players fully realised the opening solemnity of the central Adagio, the sounds “breathing” as if shared by a single instrument, the con molto sentiment d’affeto direction allowing plenty of expressive freedom, such as in the transitions which moved the music between different intensities – especially lovely! Which of course, made the concluding fugue Allegro even more fun, not so much a narrative as an encapsulation of changing moods, spontaneous and visceral in places, quixotic and playful in others – all so masterful, and all thrown off here with such elan and delight!

Next came a different century’s version of individuality from another master, Leoš Janáček, with his three-movement work for ‘cello and piano Pohádka (Fairytale), a work Janáček, a staunch Russophile, based on a story from a poem by Vasily Zhukovsky which was inspired by Russian folk-lore. Rachel Thomson both enlightened and amused us by reading a droll synopsis beforehand of the work’s original story, written as a programme note by the great cellist Steven Isserlis for one of his concerts.

In three movements, the music tells of the young Tsarevich Prince Ivan and his love for the daughter of Kashchei, the King of the Underworld, the tribulations of the lovers as their plans are seemingly thwarted by magic, and their eventual release from the spell and their eventual happy union. Janáček’s settings are more atmospheric and scene-based than actual narratives, the bardic-like exchanges between piano recitative and ‘cello pizzicato at the very beginning instantly creating a fairy-tale ambience, one in which the urgencies here gradually overwhelmed the music’s lyricism and took hold via driving ostinati as the fearsome underworld King Kashchei pursued the fleeing lovers.

The second movement’s exchanges similarly reflected the hopes and fears of the beleaguered pair, rather than presenting any of the story’s specifics – both Ibell’s cello pizzicato motif and Thomson’s more rhapsodic piano lines vividly “grew” tensions and agitations constantly at the mercy of the fates, eventually reaching a concluding point of suspended unease with a single, resigned piano figure. The finale straightaway had the musicians steadfastedly generating a dancing figure, hopeful, occasionally tinged with anxieties, but eventually subsiding in a kind of glow of contentment, leaving us with the feeling that true love here had actually “made it” over the lovers’ troubles.

Concluding a first half of unfailingly well-wrought musical utterance was Claude Debussy’s 1915 Sonata for ‘Cello and Piano. The composer was determined to celebrate all things French, and especially so at the time of the work’s composition (1915) with the idea to the fore that, in the composer’s words “not even 30 million “boches” can destroy French thought”. The opening Prologue’s introductory piano fanfare, answered by an ardent ‘cello theme, straightaway affirmed the musicians’ commitment to the music’s sound-world, here, with beautiful, wistful exchanges gradually building up archways in places to the composer’s own La Cathedral Engloutie-like sonorities, before the sounds plaintively retreated, leaving in the memory a lovely harmonic-like note from the ‘cello at the end.

If the composer’s earlier solo piano Prelude La serenade interrompue had portrayed something of a thwarted endeavour, this Serenade seemed to engender nothing less than a complete train wreck! Debussy himself strongly objected to one of his interpreters interpolating a commentary characterising the well-known commedia dell’arte character Pierrot in this work, even if the music seems to lend itself to such a programme – the wonderfully quirky and volatile exchanges between the instruments right from the outset pinged our sensibilities and clattered through our receptive chambers! – all so quirky and volatile, with sound-trajectories whose impulses didn’t last, whether pizzicato or arco, staccato or legato, a veritable orgy of indecision or caprice, with only the work’s finale coming to the rescue by breaking the impasse!

After such chronic demarcations of expression the finale here seemed at first to burst out of the music’s shell and flood St.Andrews’s sound vistas with uninhibited energies, the folkish dance melody whirling its notations up and down to great effect. There were still more reflective moments in which one might imagine the by then sick and disillusioned composer feeling he had given his all and venting such inclinations, places where Ibell’s and Thomson’s instruments seemed to, by turns, inwardly lament and even momentarily cry out – but having made such points the players returned the music in rondo-like fashion to the opening dance-like energies, before delivering, in no uncertain terms the work’s final gesture, to suitably appreciative effect among their audience!

Alex Taylor’s highly diverting collection of miniature pieces which began the second half seemed almost over before it had started, as we had very little idea how to differentiate the pieces’ separate characters, especially with each having a German title which one might have worked out without translation given time, but had then been moved along more quickly than did one’s brain! (I “got” the first three titles, I think, but was beaten to the finish-line by the final “rasch”) – so that understanding came hand-in-hand only with the moment when both players leapt to their feet having played the whole set without any discernable breaks! Still, they provided great entertainment.

By contrast, Zoltán Kodály’s Op.4 Sonata which followed drew us into a spacious and meditative sound-world. Originally in three movements, the work was deprived of its original opening by the composer who felt dissatisfied with both his first and yet another, later attempt at an opening, so the sonata was left in its two-movement form. While the beautiful opening ‘cello solo does engender a “slow movement” kind of feeling, it makes a magical opening for a work whose character suggests both the composer’s folk-music researches and the influence of Debussy in its impressionistic colourings. Throughout Ibell and Thomson spun a truly atmospheric dialogue of interchange via the music’s leading/accompanying figures and distinctive instrumental timbres.

The second movement’s spirited folk-dance-like beginning delighted us with its contrasts and volatility, with Rachel Thomson’s fingers all over the keyboard in places, ideally matching Robert Ibell’s trenchant attack and command of dynamic variation – playing which seemed to encompass fully the music’s “no holds barred” expression, as full blooded in places as it was piquant and wistful at the piece’s end – for most of us, a real “discovery”!

More familiar fare was the programme’s last item, the warm-hearted Schumann Fantasy Pieces Op. 73, given here as if it was all second nature to these musicians – everything flowed under their hands with an inevitability the composer would have surely accepted with gratitude and approval. Originally written for clarinet with piano, these pieces eminently suited the darker tones of the ‘cello, and its arguably greater expressive range of colour (note: check to see how many clarinettists are on my Christmas card list!). I particularly loved the last piece’s “accelerated exuberance” with the composer urging the musicians to play faster and faster at the end! We loved it, and I took away from the concert most resoundingly a remark from a friend who delightedly greeted me on the way out with the words, “Golly! -wasn’t that Kodaly really something!” I couldn’t have agreed more…..

Sighs, spontaneities and serenade snatches from the NZSM String Ensemble at St. Andrew’s

St.Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series

Review by Maya Field for “Middle C”

The NZSM String Ensemble, conducted by Kira Omelchenko

EDWARD ELGAR – Sospiri (Sighs) Op. 70
RACHEL MORGAN – Armannai (2003)
ANTONIN DVORAK – Three Movements from Serenade Op.22 –
Scherzo, Larghetto and Finale

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

Wednesday, 7th May, 2024

If ballet is my first reason for loving classical music, then string instruments are my second. A few years of Viola in high school orchestra (hardly a maestro but at least I have some leg to stand on, I suppose) has given me a lot of stubborn opinions about composers and repertoire, but it also has given me a deep love and excitement for string ensembles. Safe to say, I was happy to take a break from my studying to watch the NZSM String Ensemble.

It was particularly cold and clear on Wednesday, but fortunately, St Andrews on the Terrace was nicely warmed by heaters. The ensemble opened with the Adagio by Elgar, which was a lovely and melancholic opening for the crisp early winter day. There were some gorgeous swells of crescendos and diminuendos. An especially good moment was the melody from the Firsts, while the rest carried a nice tremolo.

The second piece was Armannai (2003) by the New Zealand composer, Rachel Morgan. The conductor, Kira Omelchenko, paused before the piece started to explain that this piece is not set in a certain direction for performers. Instead, the performance directions are interpreted by the musicians themselves. As they started playing, it was clear there was some strong interest in dissonance. While some parts were slow, there were harmonies that made you bolt upright. The first movement was nice, but at a slow tempo. Because it followed the Adagio, the two slow pieces sort of blurred together. The second movement was faster, with a strong start from the Cellos and Violas. It was a nice change of pace, with percussive moments and a real ferocity, especially from the Bass and Cello sections. The third movement was a sort of balance between the previous two, and the Cellos had a lovely melody at one point.

The three movements from Dvorak’s Serenade were strong. The ensemble took a moment to settle into the liveliness of the Scherzo Vivace, but they got into the swing of it quickly. The Larghetto felt the most unified, and was my favourite piece from the programme. There was a really nice pizzicato from the Basses that lay under the swelling melodies. The Finale: Allegro Vivace was lively. The Cellos especially created great tension, and the ensemble’s final swell at the end was very strong.

It was a lovely way to spend my lunch break, Kira was a great conductor, and the ensemble did an excellent job. My one critique is sometimes it felt that the ensemble weren’t enjoying themselves. They performed well, but I didn’t get the sense that everyone was excited about playing. I suppose I enjoy performances the most when it feels like the entire ensemble is also enjoying it, and I didn’t always feel this from the ensemble. There were definitely moments, but it would be nice if there were more.

Then again, midday on a cold Wednesday, I’m hardly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and in the end, I really enjoyed the performance, and if applause is any indicator, so did the rest of the audience.

Roger Wilson’s and Guy Donaldson’s “Son vecchio ma robusto” tribute to age and experience at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

“Son vecchio ma robusto” (Seniors, but still in form)
Reflections on Maturity – a programme of songs presented by Roger Wilson (baritone) and Guy Donaldson (piano)

Music by Brahms, Schubert, Ravel, Poulenc, Stravinsky, Lilburn

St.Andrews-on-The-Terrace , Wellington

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2024

Judging from their bright-eyed and bushy-tailed showing at St Andrew’s on-The-Terrace Church in Wellington on Wednesday, baritone Roger Wilson and pianist Guy Donaldson seem all set to take Palmerston North’s Globe Theatre Matinee Concert Series presentation by storm this coming weekend when they repeat the occasion this coming Sunday afternoon. Here, their performance of the programme, “Son vecchio ma robusto”, a collection of various vocal-and-piano observations regarding age and experience, absolutely delighted a goodly number of regular St.Andrews lunchtime concert cognoscenti.

Jointly describing their presentation as “a whimsical approach to senior years”, the pair have ample cause to celebrate a fruitful musical partnership, which began as far back as 1976, Roger Wilson having since then frequently sung with Guy Donaldson as a piano accompanist and under his baton as a choral conductor. I did hear a stirring “Messiah” in Palmerston North (actually from the timpanist’s seat on that notable occasion when I too was a “performer”) featuring both musicians in their respective roles, but regret I wasn’t able to witness their later collaboration in Schubert’s iconic song-cycle “Winterreise” – still, the occasion obviously remains a vibrant memory for those lucky enough to have heard it.

How fortunate, therefore, to have something both different and innovative served up for our pleasure by these two experienced and ultra-capable musicians. There are plenty of songs, light and serious, about ageing, and music is obviously one of the most life-enhancing ways to help deal with the process, whether one is a performer or a listener – Wilson and Donaldson hit the spot almost invariably with their choices of repertoire, with only the strange Stravinsky song (augmented by a spoken narrative) about a Bear not doing very much for me at all.

The programme enterprisingly printed translations of the songs, putting us in touch with many of the varied, expressive nuances employed by the performers, which obviously enhanced our enjoyment. Thus, in the very first song, by Brahms, “Keinen hat es noch gereut” , one recounting an old man’s retelling of his youthful adventures, we could hear how the performers responded to the composer’s “bringing out” of the music’s energies and subtler nuances in the vocal narrative and in the piano’s use of different trajectories, both depicting different stages of life.

Two Schubert songs which followed markedly contrasted attitudes to life in general, the first “Greisengesang” (An Old Man’s Song), expressing forthright responses to both outward cold and harshness, and inner warmth and feeling, the voice expressing the territories covering these differences and the piano remarkably sentient in its response to the changes. Perhaps because I was so looking forward to the following “Der Einsame” (The Solitary One) I felt some disappointment in being able to relish so little of the character’s “enjoyment” Zufriedenheit) of his “single” life in the performance, here given at what seemed to me slightly too brisk a tempo for the song, and with little obvious self-satisfaction in his “gemutlich” contentment.

A different world was given us by the three Ravel songs which were the ailing composer’s final compositions, written for a film whose subject was Don Quixote, and in which the great Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin was to play the title role. Ravel completed three of the four commissioned songs but his growing illness prevented him completing the project. The composer’s friend and colleague Jacques Ibert was able to write four new songs for the film, though Ravel’s work has remained in the repertoire.

The three songs present the knight of the sorrowful countenance firstly as a lover, then a principled hero, and finally even a joyful reveller. First came the “Chanson Romanesque”, a sinuously-rhythmed and suggestively-hued Spanish serenade, which was followed by an intensely-imploring prayer to Saint Michael for purity and chastity as a knight – singer and pianist at one, the voice conveying steadfast virtue, and the piano underlining the sentiment with gently sonorous organ-like tones. Finally, the knight declares his simple enjoyment of drink with some Falstaff-like roisterings, accompanied by suitably florid pianistic gestures – a great song, here lustily shared with an appreciative audience!

Ibert’s “La Mort de Don Quichotte” was no less involving, here – a sultry Habanera rhythm conveyed the song’s plethora of emotion, the singer having all the time in the world to reflect on the character’s delineation of the “happy isle of death” as conveyed by the famed book’s telling of the tale, and the pianist colouring, echoing and reflecting the words’ emotions through to a “time standing still” postlude – very beautiful!

Each of Francis Poulenc’s Two “Chansons Villageoises” (with words by Maurice Fombeure) presented old age in unvarnished terms via characters who had suffered hardship and loss – the first, “Le Mendiant” (The Beggar) is old Jean Martin, with his sack and gnarled dogwood stick, found dead on the ice, and is a kind of cautionary socialist-like tale warning people to take pity on those who have little or nothing – one day all such Jean Martins will rise in revolt and take revenge! Roger Wilson’s histrionic abilities made the most of this “day of reckoning” scenario, with Guy Donaldson’s pounding, vengeful piano sonorities similarly taking no prisoners! The second song “Le retour du sergent” painted a somewhat grimmer version of “Where have all the Flowers Gone?”, with the old soldier returned home and alternating between bitter anger and heartfelt sadness at the loss of his friends on the battlefield! – again vivid characterisation and remorseless silences at the end.

A third song by Poulenc, “La Carpe”, opened with a dark stillness whose constant repetition underlined the near-timelessness of the fish’s existence as observed by humankind – a somewhat odd choice for the recital but perhaps suggesting something of the tranquility/emptiness of an aged person’s world. It had a piquancy which in a sense qualified its presence to a reasonable extent. In terms of such a process I found myself unequal to the task of figuring out what Igor Stravinsky’s song “The Bear” was doing in such company, and decided I would leave the business of expressing its relevance to abler minds and cyber-pens! No such reservation accompanied my reaction to the inclusion of Douglas Lilburn’s well-known and quintessentially Kiwi song-cycle, “Sings Harry”, one which Roger Wilson has well-nigh made his own upon the occasions I’ve heard him perform the work.

Here, from the first, bardic-like piano notes was an evocation of an older, more rooted-in-the-soil rural New Zealand expressed in a characterful vernacular that owed its place to nowhere else and took pride in its self sufficiency. Roger Wilson and Guy Donaldson became, for a few treasurable moments, the authentic bringers and declaimers of these “once the days were clear” times, tracing and fleshing out those same moments as enduring memories and resonating self-truths. The heart of the cycle has for me always been “The Flowers of the Sea”, and the voice and piano became as one, here, with the tide and the wind as the composer unerringly “placed” all of us within something of an eternal action of being – to which the concluding song “I remember” took us in a return to the childhood farm, and the hill over which the hawk forever flies – very moving.

In one sense the Lilburn/Glover cycle was the perfect way in which to conclude the programme – but despite the outrageous nature of the iconically non-PC Flanders and Swann song “Have some Madeira, m’dear!”which followed as an encore, its Rabelaisian performance here was an unmitigated delight, with the performers literally giving it all they’d got in terms of characterful roguishness. It was in a sense a “Do not go gentle into that good night” gesture which rounded off the tongue-in-cheek “growing old disgracefully” aspect of the programme! Palmerstonians should on no account miss it when these splendid performers take the stage at the city’s Globe Theatre on Sunday 28th April at 2:30pm.

“A sense of belonging somewhere” – The New Zealand String Quartet’s “Notes from a Journey” on Atoll Records

Notes from a Journey
Atoll Records ACD 118   Vol.1 (2010)
Music by JOHN PSATHAS, ROSS HARRIS, JACK BODY, MICHAEL NORRIS and GARTH FARR
Atoll Records ACD 289  Vol.2 (2023)
Music by GILLIAN WHITEHEAD, GARETH FARR, TABEA SQUIRE, ROSS HARRIS, LOUISE WEBSTER and SALINA FISHER

The New Zealand String Quartet  –  Helene Pohl, leader / Douglas Beilman (2010), Monique Lapins (2023) violins / Gillian Ansell, viola / Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

Atoll Records Producer – Wayne Laird / Recording Engineer – Graham Kennedy

Notes from a Journey

is the title of a story in music that reaches a new chapter with the release of a new  (November 2023) CD from Atoll Records, one which furthers the New Zealand String Quartet’s already-impressive commitment to home-grown musical sounds. This present recording echoes a previous, similarly-titled presentation from 2010, and forges links of all kinds in doing so, both through direct connection and ongoing influences upon the works of a younger generation.

The title of these CDs is taken from a 1974 poem by Sam Hunt, one dedicated to fellow-poet Hone Tuwhare, appropriate in that, like a fellow-versifier, these are properly home-spun voices, as are the sounds brought to performance-life by these gifted musicians who feel the “flesh and blood” of the composers’ soundscapes and present it all with such heartfelt intensities…..

The earlier of these two notes from a journey recordings, incidentally, won a Vodafone Award in 2011 as the Best Classical Album of that year, and with a different second violinist in the ensemble, Douglas Beilman, who altogether completed 26 years with the Quartet before moving on in 2015. By this time the group had firmly established its credentials as an advocate of New Zealand music, with previous noteworthy recordings of string quartets by Anthony Watson, Gareth Farr and Helen Fisher, and premiere performances of the String Quartets of Ross Harris. There were also landmark collaborations that featured works by Gillian Whitehead, Jack Body and John Psathas. So, when this first notes from a journey collection appeared, it effectively showcased the expressive and varied flowering of some of the era’s most striking homegrown creative outpourings, as well as confirming the ensemble’s identification with and commitment to these and associated works.

John Psathas’s 1996 work Abhisheka began the first of the two recordings. Psathas’s work takes its title from the Sanskrit word for “anointment”, creating a sinuous and sensual feeling of something ritualistic, singular interactions of sounds with silences which represented a major departure for the composer at that time from what he himself had somewhat ruefully described as “an over-caffeinated style”, here instead opting for contemplative, slowly-paced soundings of tones alternating with wondrously-wrought spaces. There’s interplay between a quartet of voices creating resonating chordal sounds and solo lines, sometimes employing quarter-tones whose unchartered territories set tensions against profundities to wondrous effect. The Quartet gave this work’s premiere in Nelson in 1998, and previously recorded it on a Rattle disc called “Rhythm Spike” – even then something of a “moment of calm” in turbulent seas!

The proverbial modernity of JS Bach’s musical inclinations is given sufficient emphasis in the original Variation 25 from his set of “Goldberg Variations”, a string quartet transcription of which I heard the NZSQ play in its entirety in Lower Hutt an unbelievable decade of years ago, now!  Even to this day the memory of that occasion haunts any subsequent rehearing, be it of the original keyboard version, a transcription or (as here) an evolutionary step-child! Composer Ross Harris in his Variation 25 takes the original’s “immensity of human sorrow” and adroitly finds more refracted expressions of emotion through harmonic tensions and explorations which briefly pit their own momentums against one another in piquant displays of independence which stay in the memory long after order of sorts is restored!

What a pleasure to re-encounter Jack Body’s “Three Transcriptions”!  –  each has a haunting  “presence” by way of capturing the candour of the sound’s “openness”, the first being a Chinese  version of the “Jews’ Harp”  sound in Long GI YI, the harmonics so very plaintive and captivating, and with vocalisings bolstering the persistent rhythms. Ramandriana is a dance from Madagascar, mostly pizzicato, with occasionally piquant “held” bowings to colour the rhythms., all wonderfully complex and often asymmentrical, and marching off so engagingly! If the latter dance was essentially a “plucked-note” one, the last, Ratschenitsa, from Bulgaria, as much emphasised the “bowed” as the “plucked”, with foot-stamping and yelped vocalisings adding to the excitement, as did the 7/8 driving rhythms which constantly bent one’s ears and kept one’s inner trajectories on the boil!

One encounters a number of evocations of a projected “afterlife” in music of all kinds, with Michael Norris’s Exitus here adding a stimulating quartet of contrivances pertaining to different cultures’ view of an afterworld. A composer might conceivably select at random from the manifold cultural examples worldwide of corresponding scenarios, but the four Michael Norris have chosen contrast so markedly both with one another and with archetypal Western concepts of afterlife, the results in themselves are morbidly fascinating, underpinned by the composer’s own sonic imaginings for each.

We began with Quidlivun – The Land of the Moon where, in Inuit mythology, the virtuous are taken to their eternal rest, the soundscape appropriately remote, spare and dry, alternating engagingly animated impulse (new arrivals, perhaps?) with spacious, long-breathed lines which suggest endless, infinitely varied connections. A sudden irruption brought instant relocation to Xibalbá – The Place of Fear, the underworld of Mayan civilisation with the latter’s dominant societal figures of kings who were the intermediateries between humans and gods and wielded absolute power over ordinary people. This meant subjugation to a belief system that, amongst other things , threatened departing souls to Xibalbá with numerous trials and tribulations both on their journey to and throughout the Underworld. Involving delights such as “darkness, cold, fire, razor blades, hungry jaguars and shrieking bats” – long-held string lines punctuated by vicious sforzandi buffetings, eerie sul ponticello-like whip-lashings and poisonously-curdling cries and mutterings.

While the all-out assault was then somewhat relieved by the following  Niflheim – the House of Mists, the oppressiveness of a different kind was just as unrelenting – this was the cold, dark world of the dead ruled by the goddess Hel. I was reminded in places of Sibelius’s similarly bleak and implaccable ambiences in one of his Four Legends, Lemminkainen in Tuonela, except that Michael Norris’s evocation is an even more unequivocally bloodless and lifeless realm “from which no traveller returns” – no Orpheus would seek an Eurydice, nor a mother recover the body parts of her son for reassemblage in such totally unremitting  territories!

After so nihilistic an evocation it was something of a relief to encounter the more positive, dance-like aspect of Oka Lusa Hacha (Black Water River), over which the soul passes to reach the “good hunting grounds” of the native American Choctaw Tribe. Despite readily employing similarly sharp-edged, biting string timbres and tones to the previous evocations, the ritualistic rite of passage depicted had an almost joyous and certainly anticipatory aspect for most of the journey, with even the “log crossing” trial presenting  concentrated, almost positively ritualistic efforts and gesturings rather than the more fearful and despairing earlier depictions!

The disc’s final work, Gareth Farr’s He Poroporoaki (A Farewell) commemorated a premiere for similar forces undertaken at Anzac Cove in Gallipoli in 2008. Upon first hearing, I thought Richard Nunns’ playing of the putatara (conch) and putorino (flute) together with the composer’s sounding of the pahu pounamu (Greenstone gong) conjured up a vividly raw presence which the string lines  sought to “ritualise” in suitably elegiac style. I liked the Vaughan Williams-ish modal sequences which then “framed” the famous “Now is the Hour” melody – but I thought the latter might have been given more “suggestive” treatment rather than played in full and harmonised.I confess to finding the effect here a shade syrupy, but perhaps only because I was expecting more abstracted melodic treatment somewhat along the lines of the disc’s other pieces. A second hearing worried me less, being more along the lines of my thinking ”it is what it is” and accepting it as such.

So – with the sounds of this first recording still ringing in my head I was drawn to make the connection with Notes from a Journey II, recorded thirteen years later by the same Quartet but with a different second violinist, Monique Lapins having taken over from  Douglas Beilman in 2016.

The new disc underlines the journey’s continuation, sharing with the first recording both a title and the work of artist Simon Kaan, with cover art detail from images named as a related series. It began powerfully with a work by Gillian Whitehead, Poroporoaki, dedicated to Richard Nunns, one of the pioneers of the use of Maori instruments (taonga puoro) in composition – this was a stirring imitation of the pūtōrino (trumpet), and went on to imitate other instruments outlined in the text. The transcription powerfully blended ritual with individually characterful voices expressing melodic, rhythmic and specifically timbral sounds in aid of giving breath to the process of farewell.

Gareth Farr’s Te Koanga  is next, an evocation of the title, which means “Planting Season”, and the activities associated with such a time, activities which naturally involve the ritual of work and song for purposes of evocation as much as productivity. The work is as atmospheric and melodic as structural, incorporating the intrinsic value of the presence of birdlife in Wellington’s natural environment – there is a tui’s song enshrined in the detailing as well as contributions from other birds such as the weka. As the piece draws to a close the ambiences bid us a farewell…

Tabea Squire’s piece I Danced, Unseen captivated me on its first hearing – it seemed as though the composer was at first awakening her store of inner voices more than any latent physical urgings, but with the music suddenly enlivened our focus was energised and sharpened, bringing  our sensibilities to their feet! These impulses continue to gravitate from melody to rhythm as the piece progressed until the sounds achieved full bloom as a unified conception, the players’ breathing strongly in evidence in places giving extra palpable energy to the proceedings.

In a different way Ross Harris’s String Quartet No. 9 straightaway compelled one’s attention with the players vocalising as part of the “chorale” motif which itself underwent as profound a journey as did the “episodes” which each chorale rendition introduced. Beginning as inwardly glowing blocks of sound, the chorale vocalisations stimulated increasingly colourful, discursive and exploratory variants of the same, alternating between gestures whose thrusting and angular aspects coruscated with what sounded like irruptions of both col legno and sul ponticello timbres,  the players swapping pizzicato and arco techniques at will  (as if opening and closing a kind of a Pandora’s Box of bombardment!). These energies eventually dissipated into independent  phrases and single notes, with the chorale “released “ to the strings alone, the players and their instruments “reaching out” towards the end, seeking a kind of transfigured resolution.

Louise Webster’s work This memory of earth presented perhaps for me the most epic of the disc’s scenarios, beginning with an ambience shaken and stirred through bird-calls repeated by different instruments to form a kind of consort communing with a sonic environment. These solo instrument calls variously brought into focus a remarkably concerted tactile picture of a world in accord with a growing individual sensibility, with the composer gradually morphing the sounds into a new, somewhat more desperate and in places lamenting scenario, as if the world of childhood order was threatened – the cello intoned a moving lament-like chorale which drew the other instruments into its mode. The utterance became in places almost mystic as the long-remembered bird cries searched for their once-prized ambient responses from their surroundings – a sobering, exhortatory soundscape of recollection and remonstration, conscious of and fearful for the fragility of the natural world that was once ours – all extraordinarily moving.

Lastly, Salina Fisher, the youngest of the composers represented by their works on this CD, expressed with her work Tōrino the resounding effect of taonga puoro artist Rob Thorne’s music upon her listening experiences. The work was premiered by the New Zaland String Quartet in 2016 and went on to win the SOUNZ Contemporary Award the same year. Tōrino means “spiral”, with the music suggesting parallel kinds of recurring patterns as the strings seek to explore expressive similarities with the pūtōrino (known as both a trumpet and a flute due to its capabilities for reproducing both kinds of timbres and tones).

Fisher’s piece begins with vigorously ear-catching “trumpet” tones (kokiri o te tane, or male voice),  which give the impression of  summonsing calls and gesturings by the strings, both cello and viola readily sounding and overlapping one another, then joined by the two violins echoing the same figures and their variants.  The pūtōrino can also sing in different registers such as its “flute” personality when played at its other end, or when the player activates a different voice again by blowing over a “middle hole” in the instrument. Fisher achieves a “spiralling” effect with each of these expressive modes echoing and developing their material,  while in addition her inventiveness creates as much a sonic environment as a panoply of characterful voices.

Growing out of this synthesis come the more elusive, almost self-communing “middle hole” utterances, the piece’s “echoing” inclinations giving each impulse a resonating connection with what follows, be it a variant or a silence. They are the harbingers of the pūtōrino’s waiata o te hine (female voice), outpourings whose insistences slowly but assuredly reawaken the trumpet-toned voices, their reaffirmations proving to be the final, enduring sounds as the piece closes.

The performance of Fisher’s piece here epitomises the New Zealand String Quartet’s generous and single-minded commitment to the whole enterprise, with at every moment of engagement the players’ attack, phrasings and tones seemed to take us “inside” the notes and phrases, ambiences and silences. The two discs, of course, are separate entities, but their “bringing together” here reaffirms the extraordinary commitment of the players to these home-grown manifestations of what Douglas Lilburn in his celebrated 1969 essay “A search for a Language” called on behalf of local composers at the time “a sense of belonging somewhere”. And the works on these two discs are here reproduced with a fidelity of letter, spirit and atmosphere enabled in splendid partnership with Atoll Records producer Wayne Laird and recording engineer Graham Kennedy, people whose skills enable the sounds to retain what feels to me on each hearing as “an urgency of recreation” –  a listening  experience I would strongly recommend to all to try. The earlier disc has actually been sold out for some time, so perhaps a new and augmented groundswell of interest in this more recent notes from a Journey Vol.II production might well awaken and even rejuvenate its older, and no less worthy “sleeping partner”.

Whatever the fates decree, let plaudits be given to all for such a stellar achievement!

Robert Wiremu’s REIMAGINING MOZART – a mind-enlarging expression of human tragedy in music

Robert Wiremu’s REIMAGINING MOZART
(dedicated to Helen Acheson)

Presented by Chamber Music New Zealand

Karanga to the Composer – Melissa Absolum (Voices Chamber Choir)
Composer – Robert Wiremu
Instrumental Ensemble – Liu-Yi Retallick. Joelia Pinto (violins), Johnny Chang, Helen Lee (violas)
James Bush, Sarah Spence (‘cellos), Eric Renick (vibraphone)
Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir
Music Director – Karen Grylls

St.Mary of the Angels Church, Wellington

3:00pm Sunday, October 29th, 2023

 

Apart from it all having  a superlatives-exhausting effect from a critical point of view, I found as an audience member, composer Robert Wiremu’s “reimagining” of sequences from Mozart’s final work, his “Requiem”, a profoundly engaging and deeply moving experience. It was thus on so many levels, though naturally the presentation exerted its fullest and deepest effect with all things considered – the atmosphere of the venue (the beautiful St.Mary of the Angels Church in Wellington), the cultural merging of ritualistic procedures, European and Maori, the idea of a “requiem” in the presence of karanga (call), kaupapa (matter for discussion) and poroporoaki (leave-taking) relating to and delivered by the composer in relation to  his subject matter, the use of both specific and “re-presented” parts of the Mozart work, both the overall and specific parts of the presentation’s “narrative”, the technical prowess of the performers, the beauty of their singing and playing, and, of course the skills and complete authority of Music Director Karen Grylls. All of these things interacted to present a work whose range and scope was breathtaking, both when experienced in situ and in subsequent resonant reflection.

Earlier this same month (October) Wiremu had outlined in a radio interview certain aspects of the presentation which conveyed a real sense of what we would subsequently hear in its performance – and to the production’s credit the printed programme available at the venue further enabled the listener to clearly follow the general organisation of the work. Wiremu recalled that the idea of using Mozart’s Requiem as a kind of “starting-point” was part of the commission given to him by CMNZ’s chief executive at the time, Gretchen la Roche, and that he was able to then sublimate the kind of universal human grief for the dead in Mozart’s work as a statement focusing on a more specific and immediate tragedy involving this country, the Mt.Erebus plane crash which claimed 257 lives late in 1979.

Wiremu was given certain specific directives regarding the commission. because the piece was going to go “on tour” – his resources were limited accordingly, thus  the use of a chamber choir and a limited-sized instrumental ensemble . Along with a small group of strings Wiremu chose the vibraphone as an ideal instrument of evocation particularly as the thought of the Erebus happening took shape in his mind.  Though he himself remembered the news of the actual incident (he was nine years old at that time), Wiremu decided he would make no reference in the work to any specific person or organisation involved in the incident in any way, his purpose being to emphasise the idea of sorrow and grief in universal human terms of loss connecting the Mozart work and the Erebus disaster. He also resolved that he would not change the actual notes of Mozart’s that he used,  instead adapting different instrumentations from those of the original.

Interestingly Wiremu developed in his mind a tenuous link between Mozart’s work and the Erebus accident via a tape cassette player called a “Walkman” (available in 1979) and the Requiem thereby being recorded on a cassette and becoming part of the event of the plane’s destruction and the deaths of the plane’s occupants – all of which regarding the player and its cassette being pure conjecture on the composer’s part, with no ACTUAL evidence of a tape of any of Mozart’s music on the plane. However Wiremu imagined the notes of the music on the mythical tape carried into and through the same “fractured, scattered, broken, distorted, twisted (and) disfigured” process as all else on the aircraft, and in places the notes are thus subjected to similar kinds of treatment. At the beginning and end of the piece there is birdsong reproduced by the instruments and by the choir members actually whistling some of Mozart’s own notes from the work as they walk to and from their places – in Wiremu’s schema the piece also features a dedication, remembering a singer in the group, Helen Acheson, who was involved with this project but who died earlier this year – this was Mozart’s last completed work, and Wiremu introduces its performance by the choir with 43 bell-notes played by the vibraphone and accompanied by major-minor chordal undulations from the strings, a note for every year of the dedicatee’s all-too-short life.

Each of the seven movements of Robert Wiremu’s  piece was given a Maori name, the opening KARANGA here performed arrestingly and sonorously by alto Melissa Absolum from the Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir, welcoming the composer to the place of performance and inviting him to speak about what we were going to hear this afternoon. Wiremu then greeted us, explaining something of the grieving ethos of human loss in Mozart’s work as being redirected and reimagined to reflect a tragedy in the South Pacific in similarly non-specific terms.

The instrumentalists began the work, creating eerie harmonies from “bowing” the keys on the vibraphone, the sounds of birdsong realised in a variety of ways, from glissando notes on the string instruments to vocalisings (whistlings) from as the singers as they entered down each of the side-aisles and congregatged with the instrumentalists at the front, followed by Music Director Karen Grylls. Amidst these ambiences the strings and vibraphone began the instrumental introduction to the Requiem, joined by the choir, the singing sonorous and clearly-lined, with the Kyrie Eleison fugue gloriously articulated, those treacherously dramatic ascents thrown off with great elan, leading to the powerfully dramatic concluding ELEI-SON!

The opening having captured the growing excitement of the plane nearing Antarctica, the following RERENGA (flight) features the driving rhythms of Confutatis Maledictis depicting the aircraft’s propulsion, with contrasting emotions represented by the interspersed, gentler Voca me cum benedictis from the choir. A culmination came with the ecstatic response of the voices in their great, unaccompanied cries of Sanctus! as the icebergs were glimpsed from the aircraft, along with the breathless exultation of the unaccompanied Hosanna fugue. By contrast the HINGA (descent) which followed used part of the Recordare in a blurred, unclear way as the flight entered a clouded-over unknown world, the strings expressing confused, discordant progressions, with downward glissandi depiction a descent into the gloom. The vibraphone briefly evoked dislocation and confused suspension before the strings plunged the scenario into darkness and confusion, unisons attacking and blurring each other’s lines, the sounds strained, stretched, stressed and tortured until the process gradually abated, the punishing clashes and dissonances drawing  back, and leaving only confused silence – TE KORE, the emptiness, is all that is left…..

Into the silence burst the Dies Irae, here fantastically realised, the lines at once powerful and knife-edged, with both instruments and voices throwing themselves at the notes Mozart wrote! The vibraphone’s sudden interspersed moment of terrible nothingness and emptiness compressed and eventually fractured the Dies Irae utterances, the words broken up into whisperings and single word gesturings, the chant then reduced to ghostly, spectral whisperings of both the Dies Irae and Quantus tremor verses. It is over – there are no survivors of the crash.

In the ensuing silence the vibraphone played the Lacrymosa, joined by the voices only, the strings silent, the voices rising in grief and sorrow and anger – the vibraphone took us to strange tonal realms as if the music was denying its own home key and annihilating its own essence, the voices sounding similarly estranged, with individual notes stuttering and halting, and the vibraphone having to reinvent harmonies for the voices’ melody. As for the choir’s singing of the “Amen” – such a cathartic moment, sounding a kind of run-through realisation of an awful finality.

MUTUNGA stands for completion, here accompanied by anguished string chords and bell-chiming descants from the vibraphone as the chorus sang the Agnus Dei, alternating forthright opening phrases with gentler replying Dona eis Requiem utterances, to which the instruments played a gentle contrapuntal accompaniment. We were led back to the beginning, with strings and bowed vibraphone notes joined by the choir, the plaintive vocal lines turning vigorous as the words Requiem and Dona eis Domine were repeated, all so very wondrously and ardently realised. The awful inevitability of nature’s processings of the tragedy were duly acknowledged by Wiremu as Mozart’s response to the words in the Requiem seek to console all those who suffer the anguish of loss in all its forms.

As if bringing into individual human focus these archetypal processes of grief, Wiremu concluded his work with a Dedication given the title MARAMA (light), with a performance of Mozart’s last “finished” work, his “Ave Verum Corpus”, one integrated into the earlier-expressed, more collective consciousness of tragedy through a kind of “summons” via bell sounds, here given no less than the 43 strokes in commemoration of the life of Helen Acheson, a friend and colleague of Wiremu’s who as previously mentioned died earlier this year. Strings and vibraphone played a contrapuntal accompaniment of some glorious singing from Voices New Zealand under Karen Grylls’ inspirational direction, leaving all of us in no doubt that we had witnessed something unique and special, and to be remembered and appreciated for a long time to come.

Anton Webern steals the show! – Orchestra Wellington and Marc Taddei with “Pharaoh”

ORCHESTRA WELLINGTON presents “PHARAOH”
GEMMA PEACOCKE – Manta
(with Arohanui Strings)
ANTON WEBERN – Passacaglia Op.1
JOHN PSATHAS – Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra  “Pharaoh”
(with Tomoni Nozaki – timpani)
BRIAR PRASTINI (vocalist) – White, Red, Black
WOLFGANG MOZART – Incidental Music to “Thamos , King of Egypt”
(with the Orpheus Choir of Wellington – Brent Stewart, Director)

Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 7th October, 2023

Programme-holding audience members at Orchestra Wellington’s Saturday evening concert “Pharaoh” at the Michael Fowler Centre might have been a little confused upon turning to the opening page of a publication to find the heading “Prophecy” at the top of the page containing the evening’s listed items – hang on! – wasn’t “Prophecy” the title of the previous concert? There was also some disagreement in print regarding John Psathas’s scheduled Timpani Concerto – was it called “Planet Damnation” as on that introductory page with the programme listing? Or was the work’s name actually “Pharaoh”, which stood at the top of the section in the booklet devoted to each individual item, and which gave “Planet Damnation” as the name of the concerto’s third movement?

These things were, of course, minor hiccups which distracted little from the concert’s overall impact, which was considerable, and, thanks to Music Director Marc Taddei’s extraordinary empathy with young musicians demonstrated a heart-warming variety of delights throughout the presentation’s opening segment of music-making. Wellington’s long-established youth programme for aspiring string players, Arohanui Strings, were there in force, from tiny tots to teens, and obviously bursting to play their part in the concert’s opening item, Kiwi composer Gemma Peacocke’s beautiful, multi-stranded instrumental response to the subaqueous world of manta rays who populate the waters of the Outer Hauraki Gulf Tikapa Moana, as characterised in a story by Wiremu Grace, called Whaitere, the Enchanted Stingray.

Peacocke’s piece seemed wrought from sounds at once pulsating with movement and endlessly regenerating, beginning with attention-grabbing soaring and descending lines, a seascape with something of the quality of Sibelius in “The Oceanides”. The supporting winds and brasses sounded repeated figures and long-held pedal notes, with the youthful string-players steadfastedly holding their own lines as the creatures of the deep in the music reaffirmed possession of their world. A solo violin characterised for a moment something of a single creature’s adventure and undertaking, as the oceanic frisson with which the piece began rose and fell impressively once more before the waters resumed their preordained rituals of ceaseless movement.

Marc Taddei then took the opportunity to allow the youngsters their moment of glory, encouraging them to join in with a simplified version of Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”. After starting them all off, the conductor stood motionless, leaving them to it,  exclaiming to us “Don’t they all sound better when I stop conducting them?” to great amusement all round! Then it was the “Tiny Tots” turn to impress (with even more than their obvious cuteness!), coming on stage with their tiny instruments and playing a folk-tune, then playing it again much faster, to breathless effect! After a lullaby restored composure, Taddei proceeded to give all of us a hint regarding one of the pieces of music scheduled for the as yet unannounced 2024 programme for Orchestra Wellington, telling us the Arohanui Strings will play a tune that “will give the show away!: – which it certainly did! And with that the youthful players took their leave……

What then was wondrous was how such heartwarming vignettes of youthful musicians playing what might in some cases have been their first-ever concert notes then “morphed” into the spectacle of the full Orchestra Wellington on the platform with their conductor tackling a score which truly represented a kind of acme of orchestral execution and epoch-making-and-breaking composition – this was the 1908 Op. 1 Passacaglia of Anton Webern, the composer’s simultaneous tribute and farewell to Romanticism in music, his only composition to be performed in public that was written under the tutelage of his teacher at that time, Arnold Schoenberg.

The 20-plus variations of this work (a Passacaglia traditionally consists of a short theme in the bass which becomes a foundation for a set of variations on that theme) use a brilliantly-worked array of sounds, often lush in the manner of Mahler but at times hushed and sparse, with brilliantly inventive combinations of instruments – Webern organises his variations into an almost symphony-like plan of movements, with a central slow section and contrasting scherzo-like textures, all concluding with a ghostly epilogue. Listening to the players negotiating this tightly-worked scheme with what seemed like absolute confidence and conviction, I found myself simply taking off my mythical hat to both conductor and players – I knew the work reasonably well, but couldn’t remember hearing on record or seeing on film a more exciting and involving performance!

I must confess to finding John Psathas’s Timpani Concerto which followed a bit perplexing in contrast to what I’d just heard – and unfortunately my seat was in a place where my view of the timpanist was obscured by the conductor, so I missed some of the visual excitement of the soloist’s obviously virtuosic command of the instruments. As it wasn’t a work I’d heard before I figured earlier I might find a You-Tube performance with which to familiarise myself regarding the piece – and I found a clip which bore the title “Planet Damnation”, featuring a most exciting performance by Larry Reese, the NZSO timpanist. I didn’t know I was hearing and getting to know only the final movement at that stage, so the onset of the first movement nonplussed me for a while, as did what seemed like an over-insistence of the percussionist playing the woodblocks! The slow movement, when it came, was something of a blessed relief.

Though it was just as unfamiliar, I really enjoyed the slow movement, as it gave the timpanist, Tomoni Nozaki, a beautiful young Japanese woman, a chance to demonstrate the skill and variety of her touch and her ear for all kinds of sonority, instead of her being often drowned out by the rest of the orchestra (I found the woodblock part for one far too insistent!). Then came the movement I’d already heard, and I was able to better relate to the plethora of percussive irruption that the first movement had seemed to unfetter upon our sensibilities. I don’t think it’s a work I shall ever love, but the skills on display by the soloist were sufficiently interesting to make the piece work throughout those two latter movements.

We had a different running-order to that of the printed programme, so we got Briar Prastiti’s “White, Red, Black” after the interval. I liked this work a lot, admiring the composer’s orchestrations of her material, the wind-blown ambiences of the opening carrying my sensibilities along with the music’s trajectories, sharpening my interest more with bird-song-like figurations suggesting in places things coming into focus. What I found slightly disappointing was not being able to hear a single word of the vocalist’s line (despite a microphone being used) from where I was sitting (and my companion similarly reported that he could not hear the singer, and nor could somebody else I spoke to afterwards)….the accompaniment was invariably beautiful, but whenever the song’s intensities sharpened or  grew in body, so did the accompaniments! For this reason, the most telling vocal moments for me were towards the end, when the voice became as an orchestral instrument, the wordless vocalising as haunting as any other of the sounds we were hearing.

Before the final item of the evening, Marc Taddei announced certain salient details of the Orchestra’s 2024 programme, certainly whetting our appetites with some of the detailings – it seems to be a kind of survey of masterpieces representing different eras of artistic creativity, beginning (if I remember correctly) with the Baroque era, and finishing with a contemporary work (I didn’t write all the “clues” down, but Taddei assured us that full details would be released at the Orchestra[‘s final programme for the year, “Red Moon”, on November 11th.

And so to the evening’s final item, which, though splendidly performed and presented, with resplendent singing from Brent Stewart’s Orpheus Choir, and, by turns, stirring and meltingly beautiful orchestral playing, either in support or leading the way, I thought it all essentially lacked the last modicum of focus and interest to be truly engaging. Perhaps if we had had the words, the extra focus would have enlivened the undoubtedly “Game of Thrones” like scenario for which Mozart produced this music. Or, perhaps we needed a narrator with a suitably theatrical “presence” to knit the scenario together more readily –  In reality, everybody – choir and orchestra – did their best with the material, but for me it never really caught fire! I found myself wishing at times that the orchestra was instead giving us the G Minor Symphony K.183, which was what the music occasionally sounded a bit like. And, as I walked to my car after the concert, the thing I found myself wanting to do the most was to get home and play that sensational Webern work again! It was , for me, the evening’s indisputable highlight, and I remain grateful to Marc Taddei and his players for THAT most of all – a truly remarkable experience!

 

 

Orchestra Wellington’s “Prophecy” – promise and fulfilment by young composers

Orchestra Wellington presents:
PROPHECY – Music by Thomas Ades, Benjamin Britten, Briar Prastiti and William Walton

THOMAS ADES – ….but all shall be well 1993
BENJAMIN BRITTEN – Violin Concerto 1939
BRIAR PRASTITI – Akri
WILLIAM WALTON – Belshazzar’s Feast 1931

Amalia Hall (violin)
Benson Wilson (baritone)
Orpheus Choir, Wellington (director Brent Stewart)
Wellington Brass band
Hutt City Brass
Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday, 5th August, 2023

 

What appeared to be a nearly-full-house turned up at the Michael Fowler Centre for the latest of the 2023 season’s inspirational Orchestra Wellington concerts – I was intrigued to learn from Marc Taddei during the course of his welcoming remarks regarding the concert that the presented works were all written by composers when in their twenties or early thirties, and thus making up a bevy of youthful creative efforts, augmenting the concert’s “Prophecy” title with the idea of a foretaste of creativity still to come at that time. I hadn’t fully “taken in” the youthfulness of William Walton, for one, in relation to his work, so it certainly added an energy-charged degree of expectation to the proceedings!

The title of Thomas Ades’  1993 work “….but all shall be well” is a quote from poet TS Eliot quoting in turn the fourteenth-century mystic seer Julian of Norwich, whose Revelations of Divine Love which she wrote at the time of the Plague and other widespread human tribulations continue to this day to inspire hope in people in the midst of human privations of great suffering, and of thus “finding calm and quiet and focus in a chaotic world”. Ades’s music begins as slivers of percussion, with additional keyboard notes gradually morphing into orchestrally-conceived impulses, which in turn give rise to repeated scales rising and falling half-an-octave, frequently counterpointed by deep percussion notes and occasional figures resembling dance-band scraps of melody, and evolving a seemingly limitless panoply of texture, timbre and colour in this constant mesmeric movement of impulse – an effect not unlike a slowly-revolving mirror-ball reflecting an entire surrounding world of contrasts, including an almost malevolent avalanche of sounds in one sequence which are eventually quelled.  The fine programme notes (well-nigh impossible to read when the auditorium lights, as here, are dimmed, for whatever reason) performed a great service, here, if only in retrospect! – with new music (this being a New Zealand premiere) it can be helpful to have a guide to lead one through what can seem in some cases like a thicket of unfamiliar sounds. These from Thomas Ades, though relatively easy on the ear, still benefitted from the written commentary (presumably the meticulous work of Erica Challis) and allowed us, if largely in retrospect, to enjoy the expertise of playing and direction of this music all the more.

Next was Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto, completed in the United States in 1939, a work which reflects the composer’s reaction to both the horrors of  the Spanish Civil War and the growing unrest in Europe leading to World War II. Inspired at first by the “intellectually emotional” character of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto which he had heard in 1936, Britten’s work runs a gamut of conflicting emotional states (he was in the company of his lover, tenor Peter Pears, throughout this time), which his partnership with the work’s first performer, Spanish violinist Antonio Brosa further refracted through the inclusion of technical demands of the utmost virtuosity. Various violinists have since remarked on the works’ difficulty, though with the consensus being that such obstacles are, in the words of one of the work‘s exponents, “always in the service of the music, and not for its own sake – sometimes the strain of the performer is actually the point! If the piece was too easy it wouldn’t communicate the struggle and anguish that Britten was going for”.

Amalia Hall, tonight’s soloist, certainly conveyed a no-holds-barred aspect to her addressing of the work’s many differing moods, even if the relatively unsupportive character of the MFC acoustic meant she had to work hard to make detail really “tell” in places for people like myself sitting some distance away. The first movement, with its portentous exchanges between the violin and the orchestra’s insistent rhythms, moved between a kind of charged serenity (lovely silvery violin tones alternated with chunky pizzicato interpolations from Hall) and more rumbustious declarations from orchestral winds and brasses, with the movement seeming to express its “soul” at the point where  the strings, introduced by the harp, take up the beautiful cantilena theme, and the violin provides the motto-like accompaniment with a combination of arco and pizzicato notes, which exchange grows in intensity until soloist and orchestra seem entranced in a sea of dreamlike harmonics and gently plucked notes.

The Scherzo which then bursts in is driving and dangerous, Hall pushing her instrument over a number of obstacle-like ascents with verve and surety, with the orchestra both supporting and occasionally seeming to “duel” with the soloist! Hall and Taddei relish the sparrings of sequences such as the soloist’s exotically sensual theme gleefully “trounced” with boisterous chordings by the orchestral brass and percussion, leading to an amazing “trio” involving piccolos and the tuba whose angularity recalls Berlioz! And the orchestra reacts accordingly, with a crescendo that threatens to engulf all and sundry, breaking off at the point of internal collapse, and leaving the soloist to reassemble the music’s fragments in a cadenza, Hall displaying her technical armoury with unrelenting resolve, taking the music to its uppermost reaches before being joined by the trombones from out of the depths, intoning the first notes of the final Passacaglia movement.

Trombones, strings, trumpets, winds, percussion all impressively have their say, before the violin embarks on its journey of infinite variation, a journey made in conjunction with orchestral forces requiring utmost virtuosity from the soloist and big-boned responses from all orchestra departments in a magnificently resonant middle section whose aftermaths include a long-breathed kind of lament by the soloist over a D major chord in the orchestra, Hall’s instrument however, hovering undecidedly between F and G-flat, and seeming to tread a fine line between hope and despair, before letting the silence being the judge, and with it our enthusiastic, if somewhat dumbfounded, applause!

The interval gave us all time and space to realign our thoughts before squaring up to a new work by a composer presently making a name for herself, locally. This was Briar Prastiti whose work Akri we were about to hear and who has another work scheduled for the orchestra in a concert later in the year, besides having completed music written for a play, Prima Facie by Suzie Miller, recently staged at Circa Theatre.  The title of Prastiti’s piece, Akri, means “edge” and symbolises a certain predicament experienced by people such as herself, who belong to two different cultures (Prasititi is of mixed New Zealand/Greek heritage), and feel never wholly at one with either.

Carrying the thought in my own head of having to experience such a conflict when preparing to listen to Prastiti’s piece I was surprised to find myself engulfed in the sounds of a gorgeously ambient opening chord which developed its own oceanic-type modulatory patterns, vaguely Sibelian or Baxian in character, resonant and flexible in surface aspect, the tones “bending” and pliably responding to impulse, somewhat belying the “edge” sobriquet borne by the composition’s title. The music opens up with full brass and percussion textures widening the sounds’ vistas, but with an intensity of focus giving birth to both rhythmic and thematic material, with particularly lovely writing for winds “caught” between gestures that have a rounded monumentality to my ears rather than any abrasive or intransient surface. I was naturally looking for tensions that would suggest alienation of a kind suggested by the piece’s name, but found instead a kind of kaleidoscopic change whose “dramatic contrasts” had more holistic “centres” whose presence meant life that had learned to coexist, though (as the piece’s abrupt ending seemed to demonstrate)  not without a certain volatility…….I liked Prastiti’s  idea of a unifying “thread” which holds the characters together and facititates the process of journeying from one kind of awareness to another…….it was. I thought, music with a certain filmic power of expression that I would be interested in hearing again…..

How ear-opening, therefore, to encounter in this same concert such marked variances of expression, when setting Prastiti’s all-encompassing soundscape variants against the young William Walton’s fervently bardic declamations delineating oppression, captivity and liberation of peoples from privation and slavery. Walton’s oratorio “Belshazzar’s Feast” is splendidly virile Old Testament stuff whose text is taken straight from the Bible (the Book of Daniel and Psalm 137) courtesy of Osbert Sitwell with whose family the young Walton had already formed a long-lasting association, most famously with the 1923 work Façade, its poetry by Osbert‘s sister, Edith having inspired Walton’s music.

First performed in 1931 under Malcolm Sargent, Belshazzar had a colourful genesis, with Walton originally commissioned by the BBC for a work with “a small choir, soloist, and an orchestra not exceeding 15 players! Walton found that, as the work proceeded so did his conception of the work “enlarge”. When the Leeds Festival agreed to stage the work’s first performance its director Thomas Beecham famously suggested to the young composer that he should “throw in a couple of brass bands” to the work (the Berlioz Requiem was being performed at the same Festival, and there were plenty of brass players on hand), as this was likely, Beecham opinioned, to be the only performance he would ever hear! However, thanks in part to the outstanding choral skills of Sargent the work was a great success, with Walton himself subsequently conducting (and recording) the work.  In fact, on a visit to New Zealand in 1956 Walton himself conducted the work in Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland, all with the Christchurch Harmonic Society Choir and the (then) NZBC Symphony Orchestra!

Doing the honours with Marc Taddei and Orchestra Wellington this time round were baritone Benson Wilson (presently developing a career in the UK with the English National Opera), the Orpheus Choir of Wellington, and players from both the Wellington Brass Band (current New Zealand champions) and the Hutt City Brass. With the mentioning of Berlioz and all those brass players I was hoping for a similarly splendid kind of effect in places to that I’d experienced when hearing my first live Berlioz Requiem! – alas, the Michael Fowler Centre is certainly no Wellington Town Hall, acoustically speaking, so I had to be content with modified rapture….

What could be wrought from the occasion both the Orpheus Choir and the brass-augmented Orchestra Wellington splendidly achieved under Marc Taddei’s incisive leadership! The opening brass calls pinned back our ears, as did the stenorian “Thus spake Isaiah!” responses  from the choir, the introduction’s essential theatricality given full rein with its pauses and dynamic contrasts, and the baritone’s sorrowful entry at “If I forget thee, Jerusalem”, intoning his words like a character rather than as a mere narrator. The choir, too conveyed the angst of the captive Israelites, both in the aching, arching lament “By the waters of Babylon”, and in the vengeful tones of the prophet at “O Daughter of Babylon”, hurling forth the words of doom, which resonated a kind of fateful ambience over what was to follow.

Benson Wilson made the most of his Babylonic “shopping-list”, allowing rather more fateful tones to take over his concluding item of currency “…and the souls of men”. In contrast to the lament-like aspect of the opening the Orpheus voices then relished their energetic and enthusiastic descriptions of the revels of the Babylonian king and his courtiers, backed up by terrific orchestral detailing,  Benson Wilson leading in kingly fashion the acclamation for the pagan gods of Gold, Silver, Iron and others, echoed by the choir and amplified by the orchestral voices, including the brass players from their antiphonal positions with voices such as the saxophone underlining the composer’s jazzed-up rhythmic inflections, and the extra brasses adding splendour to the general acclaim for the heathen deities.

The fateful scene of the “fingers of a man’s hand” and the fateful words written on the wall was declaimed in suitably chilling tones by the baritone, then translated by the implacable choral voices – and the choir, of course, relished its famous “shouted” exclamation “slain!” in response to the soloist’s utterance of Belshazzar’s grim fate. The silences that followed were beset and then overcome with joyous energies from voices and instruments alike, with the bandspeople on each side rising to their feet to join in the acclamations, which, with the exception of a more reflective sequence, “…..the trumpeters and pilers are silent, and the harpers have ceased to harp, and the light of a candle shall sign no more….” express full, unalloyed joy at the deliverance of the Children of Israel from their yoke of captivity – and Marc Taddei and his players, to use the vernacular, “go for it” over the work’s final pages, with the youthful Walton’s exuberant writing for both voices and instruments given free and joyous rein. Even the relatively unresponsive recesses of the MFC could scarcely  forbear to resonate in acknowledgement!

Celebrating 70 Years – Royal New Zealand Ballet’s “Lightscapes”

Royal New Zealand Ballet presents
LIGHTSCAPES
St.James Theatre, Wellington

Thursday, July 27th 2023

Serenade (choreography: George Balanchine / Music: Pyotr Tchaikovsky)
Te Ao Marama (choreography: Moss Te Ururangi Patterson / Music: James Webster – adapted Ariana Tikao / Shayne Carter)
Requiem for a Rose (choreography: Annabelle Lopez Ochoa / Music: Franz Schubert
Logos (choreography: Alice Topp / Music: Ludovico Einaudi)
Set and Lighting Design – Jon Buswell
Costumes – Karinska (Serenade), Moss Te Ururangi Patterson (Te Ao Marama),
Tatyana van Walsu (Serenade for a Rose), Alice Topp (Logos)

Currently in the foyer of the St.James Theatre is an exhibition mounted by the Royal New Zealand Ballet, one which commemorates the company’s 70th year. Beginning in 1953 under the stewardship of Danish Royal Ballet Principal Dancer Poul Gnatt, who had arrived in the country the previous year, the fledgling company travelled the length of New Zealand, visiting and bringing dance to the remotest of rural towns. From those beginnings the company’s history is depicted in a series of historical displays up to the present day, concluding with the stewardship of the current artistic director, Patricia Barker (due shortly to retire after more than five years at the helm, and hand over the job to Australian David McAlister.

Accompanying the exhibition is the RNZ Ballet’s current production, a quartet of shorter works with the collective title Lightscapes, each one representing different and distinctive aspects of the talent and scope of the dancers, choreographers and production staff responsible for what we see and hear on and from the stage throughout the evening, the whole as well representing and celebrating the past 70 years of the company’s achievement.

First of the four ballets to be performed was the aptly-named Serenade, which was the first original ballet created by the renowned choreographer George Balanchine after his arrival in America, in the wake of his earlier years with, firstly, the Russian Imperial Ballet School, and the Mariinsky Ballet, before leaving Russia and joining the Ballet Russes as a choreographer until his relocation to the United States in 1933.

Serenade uses one of the most famous compositions of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, the latter’s Serenade in C Major for String Orchestra Op.48. After reworking the ballet a number of times Balanchine reversed the original order of the last two movements, so that the work ended on an elegiac rather than a vigorous and brilliant note, an order which was maintained this evening. Balanchine developed the idea of incorporating everyday chance rehearsal mishaps into the ballet’s choreography, so that the presentation, though without an actual plot or story, reflected the unexpected vagaries which sometimes beset human activity. Una Kai, the company’s fourth artistic director first presented this work here in 1975. which has been since repeated several times, most recently in 2019 by Patricia Barker, following a staging devised by Rebecca Metzger.

With strikingly sparse backdrops predominating, the dancers garnered our full attention throughout, bringing off exhilaratingly flamboyant configurations as easefully and flowingly as they did the simply-nuanced movements and gestures, the whole while mirroring the music’s many-faceted rhythmic configurations, as did in their turn the solo/partner dancers  Maiyu Tanigaito and Kihiro Kusukami, with beautifully-integrated movements and responses.

Serenade was separated by an interval from the next work, Te Ao Mārama, a work devised by Moss Te Ururangi Patterson, who’s currently the CEO and Artistic Director of the New Zealand Dance Company. His description of a sense of inner consciousness formed by that “buoyant, quiet meditative space” which characterised his childhood in Tokaanu on the shores of Lake Taupo seemed somehow to awaken as  I listened my own childhood memories of spending time in some of those same places, so that the evocations of time and place sounded by the taonga puoro of Ariana Tikao, and the guitar playing of Shayne Carter readily evoked a sense of enabling “near-and-far resonances” across time and distance of the kind that Patterson was intending in accord with his own experiences. For this reason I found the whole experience of the bringing-together of worlds here intensely human in both a turangawaewae and a universal sense – and this before any choreographic stage movement had yet taken place!

I was further captivated with Moss Te Ururangi’s personification in gesture and dance of the Te Ao Maori perspective regarding the coming of light to the world over three periods of time, Te Kore, the nothingness, Te Po, the darkness, and finally, Te Ao Mārama, the world of light created by the separation of Ranginui and Papatuanuku, which I’d long been made familiar with from an early age, thanks to parents who were themselves aware of these intensely spiritual beliefs in their own way, and which thus enabled the kind of “connections” Moss talked about encouraging  to help form between cultures. Here, these were “made flesh” through movement, gesture and speech as the dancers personified the growing energies stimulated first by Te Kore (the nothingness) giving birth to Te Po (a great longing) and then bursting out with full-blooded force as Te Ao Mārama (the well-nigh irresistible life-light!). All overwhelming from this observer’s point of view, and cause for great gladness, thanks to dancers, musicians, choreographers and composers alike!

After these raw and invigorating energies were spent, the focus shifted to different archetypal imagery, that of the essential fragility and non-permanence of a flower used as a symbol of love, with Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s arresting choreography featuring both individual and ensembled personification of the power of such an image. From the beginning, solo dancer Kirby Selchow, dressed in a nude leotard and carrying a single rose in her mouth, enacted a tour de force of expressive movement throughout, establishing for me  an almost frightening, nightmarish vulnerability and desperation right from her heartbeat-driven entrance, which then morphed into Franz Schubert’s fraught, deeply-troubled music – the Adagio Movement from the composer’s String Quintet – when twelve red-skirted dancers  appeared, representing the bouquet of roses.

Upon reading the programme notes afterwards I was surprised at first to read that the solo dancer represented Venus, as her characterisation seemed to me to emphasise the raw angularity of love as something driven by desperation and anxiety rather than affording any kind of lasting fulfilment, the character seeming as much a kind of sacrificial victim as an embodiment of love’s passion and transience. The dancers variously duetted, and formed a quartet of various interactions, a tableau which the Venus goddess/victim rejoined as the heartbeat  rhythm returned.

A second interval later we were back with the final Lightscape, “Logos”, choreographed and costumed by Alice Topp to music by Ludovico Einaudi, and with set and lighting design by Jon Buswell. The work featured four tableaux, each dealing with a different focus on a search for meaning in an individual’s life (the title “Logos” meaning reason or logic). The first dominated by a stunningly voluminous mirror-like backdrop in front of which a couple (Mayu Tanigaito and Levi Teachout) spectacularly, almost combatatively danced, presented a scenario of self-focus and awareness, and the surety which that brings, though the interaction had an insistence that felt like boundaries were constantly being pushed between the two – the ebb and flow of this was, I thought superbly realised! The next tableau suggested containment and boundaries as “necessary securities”, with groups of dancers on stage each dealing with and immersed in their own “pools” of activity, a common and observable everyday human trait…..for some reason the ‘soundtrack’ seemed to stop before the dancers did, so that it wasn’t clear whether the last minute or so of dance interaction was intentionally a silent one, or was a technical glitch!

Nothing could have surpassed the moment of transition between the third and fourth tableaux, when, in what seemed like some kind of moment of transcendental release,  one of the “frames” surrounding the third tableau’s backdrop inwardly collapsed without warning onto the stage floor, accompanied by proliferations of mist and light – perhaps representing a “blowing-out” of constraints and obstacles to freedom, accompanied by an enormous “cosmic sigh” of relief from duress!  But more touching was the final dance between the two figures (Ana Gallardo Lobaina and Matthew Slattery) left on the stage amid the swirling mists, rain (real rain!) and ever-burgeoning light, with choreographer Alice Topp’s idea of an experience involving release from all kinds of pressure manifesting itself in all kinds of ways, in, around and about the dancers, an extremely moving conclusion!

Bravo NYO!

ENIGMA
NZ National Youth Orchestra 2023
Conductor: Giancarlo Guererro

Nathaniel Otley – The convergence of oceans
Aaron Copland – Billy the Kid: Suite
Edward Elgar – Enigma Variations

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 30th  June 2023

This year’s NYO conductor started playing in the local youth orchestra in Costa Rica, where he grew up, before studying percussion and conducting at a university in Texas. He was an inspired choice for the NYO, given the percussion-heavy first half of the programme, and they clearly enjoyed working with him.

Nathaniel Otley is this year’s Conductor-in-Residence. He has already received a Fulbright Scholarship and a scholarship from the Sydney Conservatorium, and in 2019 won the Todd Corporation Young Composer’s Award. The convergence of oceans was written with the percussion section in mind, featuring what the composer called ‘novel techniques’ and a huge array of percussion effects, including sounds made by ‘found instruments’. Unfortunately, from my seat in the back of the stalls it was impossible to see what was being played, so I cannot explain what made the various bangs and hisses unless it was clearly evident: the tam tam, the whip, bowed timpani. The composer encouraged the percussionists to assemble a trap table of objects that might be picked up along the shore, so it’s anyone’s guess. Bottles? Rocks?

The convergence of oceans was a 10-minute work that felt longer. It is composed in short sections that feature many different effects (a harp glissando, a sussuration of lightly bowed higher strings that becomes a rumour of sound, mouthpiece pops from the brass) without adding together into a whole. It certainly didn’t sound like the convergence of oceans to me, which is both continuous, noisier, and considerably more chaotic. I can imagine that it was a complex and frustrating work to rehearse. The large (six desks each of first and second violins) and highly competent (led by Peter Gjelsten) string sections didn’t have much to do. Even the harpist (Harrison Chau) was under-employed, with occasional single notes and once or twice a glissando. I would have liked the work more if it had been half the length and a bit more horizontal. But the orchestra was fully committed to the performance.

Billy the Kid is the orchestral suite Copland wrote based on the ballet score of 1938.  It’s a perfect work for a youth orchestra, being both attractive and crammed full of solo opportunities for everyone. It demands a large orchestra (four horns, bass trombone and tuba, contrabassoon, lots of percussion) but the music is eminently accessible. The sad story of Billy the Kid can be discerned from the music, but the hero of the work is the Wild West itself. From the spacious opening featuring a wistful oboe solo (Milli Manins) and muted trumpets, to the movements that capture the journey westwards by the settlers, all jaunty tunes, wild rivers, and long days in the saddle (woodblocks!), Billy the Kid evokes both a period and a myth.

The orchestra clearly enjoyed the work, and rose to the playing demands it imposed, which are essentially solo after solo after solo, with complex rhythms and fast tempo changes. I loved it, especially the gunfight scene, with volleys of shots from bass drum, timpani, xylophone, and side drum, assisted by shot notes from the trumpets. Impressive too were the big crescendos, and the careful detail of the build up and down. Some gorgeous playing from the lower brass, especially the bass trombone (Tavite Tonga) and tuba (Sam Zhu). Guerrero is a detailed and sensitive conductor without being fussy. There was evidence of a lot of careful work during rehearsals that resulted in a crisp and atmospheric performance.

The work after the interval was Elgar’s beloved Enigma Variations. Oh to be a young orchestral player, coming to the work for the first time!  The NYO played it as though they had fallen in love with it. There was a change of concertmaster, with Hazuki Katsukawa, the co-concertmaster, taking over from Peter Gjelsten. The string sound was gorgeous, rich and golden, and the tempi were well chosen. Once again, terrific timpani playing (Camryn Nel and Ciaran Wright) and a very beautiful warm horn sound (Evan Metcalfe, Maia O’Connell, Caspar Adams, and Hannah McLellan), well supported by the bassoons, trombones and tuba.

My favourite movement is ‘Nimrod’ (Variation IX), and I was delighted by the way it grew from almost-silence into a stately inevitability, tender and loving, never rushed. There was a very nice bassoon solo from Tor Chiles, with excellent lower brass and timpani, and a glorious string sound. I suspect Guererro’s tempo was well under Elgar’s marking of adagio, but there was absolutely no sense of strain in the playing, just an elegant crescendo, then a beautiful diminuendo e ritenuto. Still, Variation XII gave Nimrod a run for its money, featuring gorgeous solos from Benjamin Carter.

The last movement began with textures of Sibelius (lovely horn playing), and finished with a beautifully controlled crescendo, pulled as if from nowhere. This was a reading that was more subtle and better played than most performances I’ve heard from professional English orchestras.

Of course, the almost full Michael Fowler Centre went wild.  For the third curtain call, Guerrero came out and stood with the flutes and oboes to take the bow, expressing his solidarity with the players, whom he had called ‘truly inspiring’. Bravo!