Music to celebrate an anniversary of international friendship

Chinese Arts and Entertainment Group presents
East / West: A Symphonic Celebration

XILIN WANG The Torch from ‘Symphonic Poem from Yunnan’
DOUGLAS LIBURN Drysdale Overture
YUANKAI BAO Chinese Sights and Sounds
Happy Sunrise
Green Willow
Lan Huahua
Song of Riddles
Dialogue on Flowers
TIAN ZHOU – Gift (Commissioned work of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra)
TRADITIONAL Pokarekara Ana|
SHIGUANG WANG The song of the Yangtze River
PIANO CONCERTO ‘Yellow River’

Orchestra Wellington
Conductor: Brent Stewart
Soloists: Jian Liu, piano
Joanna Foot, soprano
Bo Jiang, tenor

Wellington Opera House

Tuesday, 20th September 2022

This concert, presented by the Chinese Arts & Entertainment Group, celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic of China and New Zealand. What a lovely way of celebrating this anniversary, with a full symphony orchestra, distinguished soloists and appealing music, Chinese and New Zealand.

Xilin Wang is one of the most remarkable older Chinese composers. The Torch Festival conjures up images of the traditional Yunnan province festival. Energetic wild  rhythmic celebratory passages are interspersed gentle melodious sections.

This Chinese landmark composition was followed by a work of New Zealand’s senior composer, Douglas Lilburn. Drysdale Overture was his first major composition. He wrote it while he was still a student at the Royal College of Music. It is a tribute to his father and the farm on which he grew up. It sounds a little like the music of his teacher, Vaughan Williams, but there are also echoes of Copland.

Pokarekare Ana is a popular traditional New Zealand love song probably originating during World War 1. It has been widely recorded, notably by Kiri Te Kanawa, with orchestral accompaniment, but it is also moving with only a simple guitar accompaniment. On this occasion, it was sung by the well known New Zealand operatic soprano, Joanna Foote. Lovely voice, impressive stage presence.

To balance the New Zealand item the next item was the popular Chinese song, The Song of the Yangtze by Shinguang Wang, President of the Chinese Opera. It was sung as a duet by Joanna Foote and the tenor, Bo Jiang, both well known opera singer.  Bo Jiang enhanced the performance not only with his fine light tenor voice, but also with his engaging smile and his dramatic gestures. The song was clearly very meaningful to the young Chinese woman sitting next to me, her eyes lit up, this was something she was very familiar with.

The Yellow River Concerto is a piano concerto arranged by a collaboration between Chinese composers, including Yin Chengzong and Chu Wanghua, and based on the Yellow River Cantata by composer, Xian Xinghai. This was done by order of Jiang Qing, wife of Chairman Mao. It has been popular around the world ever since. It is rousing music with vigorous dramatic virtuoso passages alternating with simple folk song like interludes. It was played with brilliance by Jian Liu, Head of Piano Studies and Director of Classical Performance at the New Zealand School of Music, Victoria University.

As an encore Joanna Foote and Bo Jiang sang the popular Chinese song, No Sleep Tonight, much liked by the Chinese members of the audience.

This was an interesting concert of  music, largely unknown to a local audience, but it was more than that. It was a gesture of friendship, a statement that music is international with no barriers.

Towards a new Romantic language

Orchestra Wellington: Leviathan

Wagner Lohengrin Prelude to Act 1
Psathas Leviathan Concerto for percussion
Schumann Symphony No 2

Alexej Gerassimez (percussion)
Marc Taddei (conductor)
Orchestra Wellington

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday. 17th September, 2022

The whole concert took the title ‘Leviathan’, which was, frankly, misleading. Much more than half the concert came from the soundworld of nineteenth-century German romanticism. But still, ‘Leviathan’ was a better marketing pitch. And the concert was traditional in format: an overture, a concerto, and a symphony. But this being Marc Taddei’s programming, the effect was anything but traditional.

This concert, like all Orchestra Wellington concerts, began with an introduction to the works by conductor Marc Taddei. The OW audience obviously enjoys these little chats.  The opening words concerned the 2023 season. It was, Taddei informed us with a dramatic flourish, to be called ‘Inner Visions’ (like the Van Morrison song?) and summed up by this quote from the painter Kandinsky: ‘That is beautiful which is produced by the inner vision, which springs from the soul.’ He went on to flatter the audience: ‘You complete this process of music-making. You are the interpreter of what you hear. We try to manifest the composers’ ideas, but you make it come alive.’

Onward to this evening’s concert. Music, Taddei helpfully explained, has two strands. One, which had its roots in the Enlightenment, saw music as Apollonian, idealized. But the other, since medieval times, gave rise to romanticism. And tonight’s concert was in the romantic tradition. ‘It consists of three unassailable masterpieces … with a work by our very own genius, John Psathas.’

The ‘overture’ consisted of the Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin, a most un-overture-like piece of music. When Wagner told his friends, including Schumann, that he planned to write an opera based on the Arthurian legend of one of the Grail knights, Schumann announced he had been thinking of writing an opera on the same theme. (For Arthurians, Lohengrin is the son of Parzifal in the medieval poem Parzifal by Wolfram von Eschenbach.) Naturally Wagner got there first. The introduction begins with the faintest shimmering of the high strings and gently builds, entry by entry, to a big portentous crescendo that culminates in an orgasmic crash on the clash cymbals, and a decrescendo back down to shimmering lyricism. The playing was beautiful, whether it was the strings’ endless delicacy or the tender solos from the winds (a gorgeous cor anglais solo, for instance, from Louise Cox). The work was written in 1848, but already it is possible to hear elements of Wagner’s mature leitmotif style.

John Psathas’s monumental percussion concerto was commissioned by the Tonhalle Dusseldorf and the soloist, a young German percussion virtuoso called Alexej Gerassimez. The artist’s appearance was supported by the German Embassy.  The work is in four movements, and requires two large batteries de percussion, one at the back of the orchestra and the other at the front of the stage, as well as 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, and a tuba.

Alexej Gerassimez is a tall, lithe young man, very light on his feet – because at times he was required to run from one side of the stage to the other – and at one point two extra percussionists came downstage to play instruments on the left while he dealt with several simultaneously on the right-hand side.

The writing is characterized by Psathas’s fast, exciting rhythms and his cumulative, layered climaxes. Sometimes the orchestral writing was rather static, with all the momentum provided by the percussion instruments. The second movement referred to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, with Psathas bringing the ‘background melody’, played ‘with love and compassion and warmth’ by the cellos and basses, into the foreground.

The enormous third movement was titled ‘Soon We’ll All Walk on Water’ and featured an amplified plastic bottle, played by scratching, shaking, and beating. The movement culminates with Gerassimez playing a bowl of water with his hands, and finally using a colander to pour water back into the bowl. Then followed another bottle solo with the strings playing mournful grey chords in the manner of Goretsky’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs against the quite jolly bottle rhythm.

Likewise a Wagnerian passage on wind and brass formed a wash of colour behind a solo on what sounded like small stones being struck. Another crescendo is followed by a quiet, thoughtful clarinet solo (Nick Walshe).

The last movement, ‘A Falcon, a Storm, or a Great Song?’ (quoting Rilke) contained some of the loveliest marimba playing I have ever heard, along with steel drums, what sounded like a slit drum, woodblocks, a whip, tubular bells, bass drum, and timpani, all building to a final crescendo complete with snarling trumpets and a final single triangle note.

Leviathan is a most interesting work. It must have been challenging to bring off. Leaving the soloist to one side, there was still a vast amount of percussion being played by Jeremy Fitzsimons, Brent Stewart, Naoto Segawa, and Yoshiko Tsuruta, with Sam Rich on timpani, and a gazillion notes for the big brass section. The tempo changes must have been challenging. And that’s before the soloist is added, bringing a world of complexity and fast changes.

The audience loved it. There was rapturous applause, with Gerassimez shaking the hand of Concertmaster Amalia Hall and conductor, the composer arriving on stage to hug everyone, and several curtain calls.

After the interval, the symphony. Marc Taddei embarked on an introduction to the work that lasted about 20 minutes. Schumann’s Second Symphony was in fact the third one he wrote. It is ‘personal and deeply felt,’ said Taddei: ‘It is the most personal symphony written in the nineteenth century or indeed in any century.’ I’m not quite sure what this means, or whether it is even true, though I became quite distracted trying to think of candidates for more personal works. (Shostakovich, certainly. Tchaikovsky, definitely. Mahler!!)

Taddei rehearsed the sad facts of Schumann’s mental ill health before telling us about Mendelssohn’s rediscovery of Bach and the great Bach revival that Schumann and Mendelssohn embarked upon around this time. The second symphony, it turned out, was flavoured with Bach whilst containing many references to Schumann’s friends and his beloved wife Clara.

And then the musical examples – every movement was analysed, with the key themes played and musical references unravelled and displayed. It was interesting, and I am certain the audience thought it marvellous, but most of it is so intrinsically part of Schumann’s musical language that in the event it is mostly subliminal.

Finally, the symphony itself. Taddei was right. This is a masterpiece and it deserves to be performed often. If you are thinking of programming a Schubert symphony over the next year, please programme this instead. It was mostly very well played, though without the meticulous attention to detail and clarity that Gemma New would have provided. Taddei conducted without a score, and at one point in the second movement he stopped conducting altogether and turned to grin at the audience. Another favourite trick; the audience grinned back.

Although the Scherzo is fun, and the Allegro vivace creates a big pile-up of overlapping themes with ‘B-A-C-H’ ringing out at the end, the Adagio espressivo that follows is a glorious thing. It takes its theme from Bach’s Musical Offering ‘and turns it into a romantic song without words’. There were beautiful solos by Merran Cook (oboe) and Jamie Dodd (bassoon) and a horn duet (Shadley van Wyk and David Codd). The fourth movement is a bouncing delight, fast end energetic.

It was notable that there was applause after every movement – a spontaneous response to beautiful music. I would love to hear the work again. Indeed, if the concert had started and ended with it, omitting the Wagner, I would have been happy. But Taddei’s point was about the invention of the musical language of romanticism. Schumann wrote the symphony only two years before Lohengrin. And Psathas quoted liberally from that language whilst putting it to wholly novel purposes.

All in all, a very satisfying and absorbing concert. I am intrigued to see what Inner Visions Orchestra Wellington may bring us in 2023.

NZSO under New management

‘Style and Substance’ – NZSO’s Immerse 2022 Festival

Brahms Violin Concerto in D major, Opus 77
Tabea Squire Variations
John Adams Doctor Atomic Symphony

Hilary Hahn, violin

Gemma New. conductor
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 6 August 2022

This was the second concert of the Immerse series, and the second outing of the acclaimed
violinist Hilary Hahn with the NZSO under the baton of Gemma New, its newly appointed
Artistic Adviser and Principal Conductor. The house was almost full, with such a happily
expectant air that everyone must surely have been here on Thursday for the first concert of
the series.

Gemma New is a local girl made good – only 35, but already with a long list of appointments
and accolades, including the Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award. She has been called ‘one of
the brightest rising stars in the conducting firmament’, and she is becoming famous around
the world for her precision and the expressive beauty she draws from her orchestras. Hilary
Hahn is one of today’s great violin virtuosos, with three Grammys and a huge global
following. Putting them on the programme together for three concerts must have seemed to
the NZSO a masterstroke of genius and good fortune.

Brahms’s Violin Concerto was Hahn’s suggestion. She first recorded it at the age of 21 with
the Orchestra of St Martin in the Fields under Sir Neville Marriner. That youthful recording
has been named one of the eight great recordings of the work (ahead of one that was my
favourite 40 years ago, David Oistrakh with the French National Radio Orchestra under Otto
Klemperer). It was Gemma New who suggested the two works to accompany it because,
she said, they ‘had a Brahmsian quality’. Not many people would make that observation of
John Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony and fewer of the Variations by Tabea Squire. But
that is the world of Gemma New, in which the exquisite and the unusual are two faces of the
same coin.

From the first bar, it was clear that Gemma New’s Brahms was a very different work. Gone
were the sludgy textures and blurred rhythms I had by heart from the Oistrakh/Klemperer
recording. The NZSO is under New management.

Hilary Hahn’s first entry was electrifying. She has been performing this concerto for more
than half her life, and yet she made it as fresh and exciting as it must have been when
Brahms’s friend Joachim played it for the first time.

New kept the NZSO to a restrained dynamic range for much of the time. In a recording, the
balance between violinist and orchestra can be addressed by microphone placement and
engineering. In the concert hall there is a constant threat that the violinist will be
overwhelmed by the orchestra – the concerto is scored for four horns, two trumpets, and
timpani, after all. Not so here. New is known for her meticulous attention to detail, and the
NZSO obliged with beautiful, shapely, thoughtful playing.

The audience was so moved by the monumental first movement that most of them
applauded at the end of it. I almost joined in, because of the huge gratitude I felt for Hahn’s
superb playing. In the third movement, Allegro giocoso, orchestra and soloist danced for
sheer joy. At the end, most of the audience was on its feet. Hahn took four curtain calls
before coming back to play the Sarabande from Bach’s D minor partita as tenderly as you
could wish.

Gemma New introduced the works for the second half of the concert with evident relish. She
loves new music. In 2010, as soon as she graduated from the Peabody Institute in Maryland,
she formed the Lunar Ensemble to perform new music. Together they premiered 30 works in
six seasons. New’s Carnegie Hall debut in 2013 included works by John Adams and Andrew
Norman.

‘I think Brahms would have liked Tabea Squire’s theme and variations,’ New told us
confidently. The work is a deconstructed set of variations on a sixteenth-century pavane,
‘Belle qui tiens ma vie’ – deconstructed, because the theme doesn’t fully appear until right at
the end (although it is sneakily previewed by the horns and there is a wisp of it audible in the
strings about halfway through). I expected this teasing treatment would soon become
frustrating; but Tabea Squire’s orchestration was clever and the ideas never flagged. The
theme finally made its proper appearance at the end, played by alto flute, piccolo, and cor
anglais with the tenor drum underneath – a nice twist on the recorders and drum she
originally scored it for.

Twenty years ago, when Hilary Hahn was starting to make her name on the concert stage,
Gemma New and Tabea Squire were first and second violinists in Wellington Youth
Sinfonietta. A remarkable journey so far, and much is yet to come.

The final work in the programme was John Adams’ monumental and troubling Doctor Atomic
Symphony (based on his newsreel opera of 2005, about the Manhattan Project and the first
atomic bomb test in New Mexico). The symphony condenses many of the musical ideas of
the opera into 25 minutes of inventive and emotionally shattering music. The symphony calls
for a large orchestra, with a huge batterie (xylophone, tubular bells, timpani, bowed drums,
thunder sheet, tam tam, celeste, tuned gongs…) and more tuba solos than you might
imagine (Andrew Jarvis, Scott Frankcombe). It is a monumental work, terrifying and deeply
troubling. At one point Dave Bremner (Principal Trombone) stands to bark orders
(channelling General Leslie Groves). The emotional heart of the piece is Robert
Oppenheimer’s aria from the opera, a setting of one of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, ‘Batter
my heart, three person’d God’, beautifully played by David Johnson (Guest Principal
Trumpet).

This was a stupendous concert. The NZSO has never played better than this. If you are
reading this review before the last concert of the three, on Sunday 7 August, do not hesitate.
If it’s too late for that, you can’t afford to miss Gemma New’s next outing with the NZSO. She
is an extraordinary talent, and her knack for exciting programming is so very welcome.

The band is back – NZSO with Hilary Hahn and Gemma New

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

JOHN RIMMER – Lahar
SERGE PROKOFIEV – Violin Concerto No. 1
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH – Symphony No. 5

Hilary Hahn (violin)
Gemma New (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday 4th August 2022

The band is back. This was the first concert by the NZSO for some time, apart from their outing to open the St James Theatre a couple of weeks ago. And what a splendid concert this was! The orchestra was at its best. I have never heard them play better. They appear to have a special rapport with Gemma  New, the newly appointed Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Like many of the members of the orchestra, she came through the ranks of the Youth Orchestra system, and played in the Wellington and New Zealand Youth Orchestras as a violinist, but then went to America to learn the art of conducting. She has served as Resident Conductor of the St Louis Symphony Orchestra, and is Resident Conductor of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra in Canada, and the Principal Guest Conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. To say that this young woman, still only in her mid thirties is vastly talented is an understatement. As a conductor, her style is energetic, athletic and dramatic. She seemed to draw music out of the very essence of the players in the orchestra with her meticulous attention to details, to phrasing, to dynamics, yet giving the solo instrumentalists space to play their lines freely.

John Rimmer : Lahar

The concert opened, very appropriately, with Lahar, a short piece by one of New Zealand’s senior composers, John Rimmer. It is the arrangement and development of the last movement of Rimmer’s major work: The Ring of Fire. Quoting the programme notes: It is intimately connected to the sound of nature. Rimmer is an electronic composer. Electronically virtually any sound can be reproduced and the instruments of the orchestra emulate that in this piece that captures the environmental sounds. You get the earth rumbling on the tympani, birds chirping on the flute and piccolo, powerful brass chords, falling woodwind passages, depicting a volcanic eruption and the silent peaceful aftermath. Rimmer explained in his introduction before the performance that the piece is hot, very hot. You hear explosions, the noise of the forest. Amidst the cacophony a melody emerges played on the piccolo and the cello solo, which is transformed into a lament. For the listener there was a whole world of musical experience within this seven minute orchestral work.

Serge Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1

Prokofiev was an up and coming young composer in Paris, already making a name for himself when he composed this concerto. After the shock of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913, discordant music became widely accepted and even became mainstream. Prokofiev evolved his own harmonic language, taut harmonies and driving rhythm,  combined with lyricism. The First Violin Concerto opens with a scarcely audible melody  played by the solo violin on top of the orchestral accompaniment. This develops into an energetic dance and the movement ends with an ethereal flute solo. The second movement, a virtuoso scherzo, is driven, and energetic. Prokofiev later reused some of this material in the duel scene in his ballet Romeo and Juliet. The final movement is dominated by a lush violin solo interposed with strong rhythmic drive. Hilary Hahn’s playing seemed effortless, spontaneous, straight from the heart, with a beautiful tone and great control. Soloist and conductor, two prodigiously talented young women, were of one mind with total mutual understanding.

For an encore Hilary Hahn played a scintillating rendering of the Gigue from Bach’s Partita No. 3 for Solo Violin.

Dmitri Shostakovich – Symphony No. 5 

This symphony has a tragic history. After Stalin went to see the composer’s opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, and walked out before the end Shostakovitch felt doomed. He withdrew his Fourth Symphony, which was ready for performance, and wrote a grand 44 minute work, which, according to the Pravda article attributed to him, was ‘a Soviet artist’s practical and creative response to justified criticism’. The symphony was an immediate success, both in the Soviet Union and in the rest of the world. It certainly has powerful themes, pulsating patriotic rhythms, folk music elements. It is immediately moving and captivating, but perhaps, in this peaceful remote corner of the world, far from the threats of Stalin’s Russia in 1937, it seems a little drawn out, the themes over elaborated. The shadows of a terrified composer lurks behind the triumphal tone of the work. One can read all sorts of things into the first movement, Allegro moderato, full of dread, or into the lyrical second movement, ‘a malevolent march’. The third movement, Largo, mournful, made the audience at the first performance openly weep. It is indeed, music full of grief. The triumphal march returns in the final movement, but it resolves into a haunting funeral march. Does the symphony end on a hopeful note or a note a desperation ? It depends on your interpretation not only of the music, but also of the tragic world of Stalin’s Russia. In either case, it is very moving and all-absorbing music. One will never hear a better performance of this work than this one under the baton of Gemma New. It was all minutely crafted, carefully thought out, every phrase, every dynamic change and contrast was sensitively molded.

This was a splendid concert and the very large audience, a virtually full Michael Fowler Centre, responded with a huge ovation. I am looking forward to a new era of exciting music with Gemma New at the helm of the orchestra. My one gripe is that the excitement of this wonderful concert should have been shared by people all over the country. It should have been videoed and shown live, available to all, no matter where they live, be it Reefton or Ruatoria, and perhaps available anywhere in the world to show that Aotearoa is not just a country of milk powder and the All Blacks – that it is not an international cultural backwater, but an exciting place with its own cultural landscape. It was appropriate that the concert opened with Rimmer’s Lahar, depicting just that.

Plaudits for the Wellington Youth Orchestra with Donald Maurice

Wellington Youth Orchestra presents:
CHILDHOOD
Music by Boris Pigovat and Anthony Ritchie

PIOGOVAT – IN the Mood to Tango
RITCHIE – Symphony No. 5 “Childhood”

Donald Maurice (conductor)
Wellington Youth Orchestra

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

Sunday, 31st July 2022

Donald Maurice has had a long association with both Boris Pigovat and Anthony Ritchie. He perfumed and recorded Pigovat’s Holocaust Requiem with Orchestra Wellington, a major work for viola and orchestra, and commissioned Ritchie’s First Viola Concert and other works. It is appropriate that he programmed works by both of these composers, though Pigovat’s piece was a late substitute for the Second Symphony by the youthful Richard Strauss, which had to be abandoned because Covid played havoc with rehearsals.

A youth orchestra concert that strayed from the well-known classics was an interesting challenge for the young players. They had to come to terms with the unfamiliar idiom of two composers whose music they had never played before. It was a tour of exploration.

Pigovat: In the mood to tango

This was delightful light music for strings only. It captured the mood of Piazolla’s Argentinian tangos,  and recreated the atmosphere, the musical imagery and style of Piazolla’s music. It was a great way of bringing the strings together as an orchestral body and it was great fun.

Ritchie: Symphony No. 5, Childhood

Unlike the previous piece, this Symphony is a major 40-minute, colorful work, in five interlinked movements. It commemorates the Christchurch Earthquakes and is dedicated to the refurbished Christchurch Town Hall. It uses childhood as a metaphor for renewed hope and optimism. It calls for a vast orchestra with a full complement of winds, brass, and in particular, percussion, that includes a ratchet, tubular bells, xylophone, and marimba as well as the usual drums and cymbals, plus a harp, and a celesta (in this performance substituted very satisfactorily by harp and piano). Seeing the destruction and reconstruction through a child’s eyes, the symphony is built on little short motifs that suggest simple nursery rhymes or children’s songs. Ritchie wrote a thesis on Bartok’s music and there may be a suggestion of the children’s themes such as those that Bartok employed. Unlike Bartok’s music, which is terse and concise, Ritchie’s music is expansive. Ritchie also went through a minimalist phase in his career, and uses minimalist techniques, short repeated phrases, in this piece.

The First Movement: Beginnings, opens with a ratchet; you sit up, listen, ‘what is this all about?’, then a simple 5 note phrase is played on the celesta which is taken over by the flute, then the whole orchestra, which elaborates on it, dissects it, and opens it up into a vivid chiaroscuro of music. This simple phrase haunts the entire symphony and returns at the end. The Second Movement: Play, is playful. A simple joyful theme is tossed from one section of the orchestra to another. Everybody gets a turn at playing this phrase, like a ball thrown around among the musicians. Hopes and Dream, the Third Movement, is ethereal, introduced by a gentle soulful melody on the oboe. First the horn, then the trumpet expand on the tune and it flowers into a rich melody, with the strings and the whole orchestra joining in. Life- force, the Fourth Movement, is built on energetic rapid figures, shadowed by dark themes in the winds. The final Movement, A Future, is triumphal, and towards the end the initial simple theme returns played on a whole range of percussion instruments. Finally the Symphony ends on a wistful note.

This was the first performance of this symphony beyond Dunedin and Christchurch, and we can applaud the Wellington Youth Orchestra and its guest conductor, Donald Maurice, for tackling this difficult work. It enriched the musical experience of all the young musicians who took part in it – and after all, this is the main purpose of a youth orchestra – but it also expanded the experience of those in the audience.

Hearing a new major work performed and, moreover, performed in the presence of the composer, is an opportunity to be treasured. Anthony Ritchie was in the audience and at the end of the symphony he came forward and acknowledged the applause. As to the Wellington Youth Orchestra, all its musicians put everything into the performance of this challenging work, the untold hours of hard work and rehearsals, years of study, paid off in this fine concert. Without singling out any individual player, there were some beautiful flute solos, and great playing by the horns and the whole brass section, who had a lot of notes to play. There was some very fine string playing, and a lovely entry by the cellos at the beginning of the symphony. The contribution of experienced senior players and, especially, the percussionists who joined the orchestra to fill gaps at short notice must be acknowledged. It was a great and memorable concert.

 

 

 

The long way to Bohemia

Wellington Chamber Music Sunday Concerts series  presents:
Czech Mates

Martinů – Piano Trio No 2 in D minor
Janáček – Violin Sonata
Bowater – Fekete Folyó (Black River)|
Dvořák – Piano Trio No 3 in F minor (Op. 65)

New Zealand Chamber Soloists
Lara Hall (violin), James Tennant (‘cello), Katherine Austin (piano)

St Andrew’s on the Terrace

Sunday 19 June 2022

A cold grey afternoon in the middle of winter. But the programme looked interesting: a Czech club sandwich with a slice of Bowater. The New Zealand Chamber Soloists have a history of commissioning new works. The work by Helen Bowater was commissioned in 2020 as part of their ‘Seven by Seven’ project: seven works by seven New Zealand women composers, lasting seven minutes, with support from Creative New Zealand. But how would the Bowater fare, I wondered, surrounded by works written by three of the great Czech composers of the past 150 years?

The programme notes were succinct, but the performers provided excellent introductions to each work.  Cellist James Tennant told us that Martinů grew up in a bell-tower (the tower of St Jakub Church in the small town of Polička), where his father was both a bell-ringer and fire watcher. We should expect lots of bell sounds in this energetic work, especially in the piano part, he said. ‘Bong! Bing! Bang!’

Having been expelled from the Prague Conservatory at the age of 20 for ‘incorrigible negligence’, Martinů managed to get himself to Paris in 1923, where he studied with Roussel and listened to jazz. Back in Prague, Martinů had been keen on the French Impressionists. Now he was living amongst them. But in the late 1930s, he was forced to leave Paris. He had written a work celebrating the Czech resistance and was wanted by the Nazis. He made it to the US by 1941. This Piano Trio was written during a very productive period, 1948-56, when Martinů taught at the Mannes College of Music in New York. (Burt Bacharach was one of his students.)

The Piano Trio, written in just a few weeks in 1950, has all the emotional complexity of the position in which Martinů found himself. On the one hand, he was productive and happy. His symphonies were being performed by the big American orchestras. On the other, his marriage was in difficulties. His wife wanted to return to France; he wanted to go home to Bohemia. But after the coup of 1948, when the Communists came to power, he couldn’t go back to Czechoslovakia.

The trio expresses all of this. There is delight and even fun (James Tennant imagined the young Martinů hopping down the steps of the bell-tower), with sprightly string rhythms and glittering flows of notes from the piano, and a fast scramble to the end of the first movement. But the second movement opens with sombre chords from the violin. The piano is sympathetic, but positive; the cello is supportive and understanding. Where? Why? Eventually all three voices reach a kind of agreement. The third movement starts with a terrifying energy (like Schubert’s Erlkönig) that morphs quickly into energy minus terror. The piano part is busy, lyrical, and positive, but it becomes drawn in by the violin’s insistent rhythms. The bell sounds in the piano part are not soothing. The violin is agitated; the cello supportive. There is much more agitation before the final chords come down.

This is an interesting work, not often performed. I was struck by the expressive beauty of the piano writing, and by Katherine Austin’s gorgeous technique. The voices are pretty evenly balanced, but it is the violin that seems to speak for the composer, directly and frankly, from the heart.

Next was the Janáček Violin Sonata. Katherine Austin explained that, while other Czech composers assiduously researched Czech folk music traditions, Janáček sat in cafés listening to conversations, and notated Czech speech rhythms.  He tried to write a violin sonata when he was a student, studying in Leipzig, and again in Vienna, but his early sonatas have been lost. This work was written in 1914, when he was 60. Janáček said that, in this sonata, ‘I could just about hear the sound of steel clashing in my troubled head.’ The sonata was premièred in Brno in 1922, and the following year it was performed in Frankfurt, with Paul Hindemith playing the violin.

The con moto first movement ‘sounds like a row, really’, as Katherine Austin put it, with the voices continually interrupting and contradicting each other. It opens with a big statement by the violin, with the piano strumming broken chords. The piano part is fast and ranges all over the keyboard, the violin interjects, or comments, and finally has the last word. The second movement, Ballada, Katherine Austin described as being like a lullaby, with ‘quiet breathing’. It opens with a lyrical tune from the violin and a restless piano part underneath. Anxiety turns into a sad but resigned song, full of dark energy, with a rippling motif from the piano. The third movement began with a nursery tune in the piano and ‘something flying overhead’. The fourth movement was pastoral, lyrical, ‘like watching dawn break’, with brusque interruptions from the violin.

And next, the Helen Bowater piece, Fekete Folyó. The Danube is the ‘Black River’ of the title, and the work recalls terrible events happening to the Jewish Hungarian and Romanyi people of Budapest. The cello is given a solo that tells of heartbreak and tragedy, and the violin sings a melancholic song. But its seven minutes also capture the wild rhythms of gypsy music, with plenty of pizzicato and strumming, and some Jewish harmonies. It finishes with a kind of threnody for the violin and cello together, then just the violin. And then silence.

This is an interesting and affecting work that sounded well alongside the Czech composers. It was evocative and sympathetic, with plenty to tell us.

And finally, the Dvořák Piano Trio No 3, written in 1883, the earliest work on the programme. This trio is not as famous as his fourth, the Dumky (1891), and it is not written in his cheerful Slavonic style. It is a big work, nearly 40 minutes long, with a lengthy first movement that Lara Hall described as ‘a great journey, long and deep’. At the time of writing, Dvořák was facing a tricky problem. He had been approached to write a second opera, but on a German subject and with a German libretto. Dvořák longed for recognition as an operatic composer, but he wanted it on his own terms. (He had already suffered from anti-Czech prejudice.) And his mother had just died…

From the first bars, we are back in Bohemia, as though the concert has been a long journey home. After the trio’s first performance, in which Dvořák played the piano part, the contemporary critic Edward Hanslick wrote that ‘the composer finds himself at the pinnacle of his career’. (He was not to know that the best was yet to come.)

In the third movement, the violin introduces the ‘dead mother’ theme, with sympathetic support from cello and piano. It is all so sad. But the piano is more optimistic – perhaps there is a way through. The violin repeats the theme, but higher and sweeter. Perhaps there is.

The fourth movement (allegro con brio) features a furiant, that Bohemian dance in alternating 2/4 and 3/4 time with strong accents. Dvořák used it memorably in the eighth Slavonic Dance. Finally, all tensions resolved, they dance off, presto, to a joyful resolution.

This trio brought out the very best from the players. The NZ Soloists have been playing together since 2006, and it shows. They are well balanced and make a beautiful sound.  James Tennant’s cello was especially warm and beautiful, supported by Lara Hall’s lyrical violin playing and Katherine Austin’s gorgeous support from the piano. The whole concert was conceived as a complete experience, with its moments of emotional intensity and resolution well placed.

“Packed (and) buzzing” audience acclaim Wellington Chamber Orchestra’s 50th Anniversary Concert

Wellington Chamber Orchestra
Rachel Hyde (conductor)
The 50th Anniversary Concert

DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH – Festive Overture Op.96
GARETH FARR Terra Incognita (2008)
GUSTAV HOLST – The Planets  Op.32

Alan Gibbs Centre, Wellington College

Saturday 28th May, 2022

The Alan Gibbs Centre was packed to the gills, and buzzing with celebratory vibes, for this ambitious concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the WCO. The stage as well was crowded and festive, with past members of the Orchestra making a return to its ranks for this gala programme. In keeping with the mood and the occasion, the programme opened with Shostakovich’s Festive Overture (Op. 96). Written in 1954 for the 37th anniversary of the October Revolution, this party of a piece contains no hint of the shadows and ironies that mark the composer’s more contemplative works – likely because he was given no time to contemplate it: the overture was commissioned at the last minute by the Bolshoi Theatre and had to be ready in three days, with couriers whisking each freshly-completed page off to the theatre to be copied for parts.  The piece opens with an arresting fanfare whose grandeur was slightly blunted by the fact that two of the WCO’s brass players had had to be replaced that very morning due to untimely Covid infections. Here and elsewhere, the brass section struggled heroically on, but with a certain lack of cohesion that reflected the ad-hoc nature of the ensemble. Elsewhere, the effects of Covid (which disrupted the personnel, rehearsal schedule, and timing of the concert itself) were felt more occasionally, with the most supple and resilient ensemble playing coming from the woodwinds.  Rachel Hyde’s crisp, clear conducting was a pleasure to watch, and yielded its best results in the pizzicato section of the work, where a crackling energy and rhythm drove the music forward.

Next up was Gareth Farr’s Terra Incognita (2008), written after a sojourn in Antarctica. Its libretto, by Paul Horan, incorporates excerpts from the diaries of Robert Falcon Scott and Frank Debenham (a scientist with Scott’s expedition), as well as from Tennyson’s Ulysses (Scott’s favourite poem, apparently) and Horan’s own “poetic” reflections on the breaking up of the Larsen B ice shelf. The mood thus runs the gamut from awestruck (“This earth was never ours”) to heroic (“Come, my friends….smite/The sounding furrows”) to elegiac (“Goodbye Larsen B”), as the ice first dwarfs, then kills men, only to be ultimately killed by them. Choristers made up from many Wellington choirs, including The Glamaphones, Cantoris, Nota Bene, Orpheus and others, singing in long static phrases evoked a frozen landscape and acted as a kind of Greek chorus of the “transient strangers” referenced by Debenham, “stunned and stunted” by the mystique of the ice. The foreground characters – Scott, Debenham, and the poems’ lyric speakers – were voiced by Samuel McKeever in a deep, imposing bass.  The flat acoustics of the Gibbs Center, especially when filled with people bundled up in winter layers, did the singers no favours, alas. Nonetheless McKeever’s “Great God! This is an awful place” in the sixth movement – drawn from Scott’s diary – penetrated to the back of the hall, a grim highlight of the sung text.

The piece followed the overall form of a song cycle, without pauses between movements, the textures in the orchestra reflecting and co-creating the mood of each text. A hushed opening movement, “This earth was never ours,” began with glass chimes over tremulous (and slightly out of tune) pianissimo strings, a stylised evocation of cold and cracking ice, gradually joined by the woodwinds and then by the choir on its long, “frozen” chords. This gave way to the contrasting second movement, “Come, my friends,” in which the heroic words of Ulysses, sung by McKeever, were chased about by striving, strenuously rhythmic accompaniment from the orchestra, led by the strings. This in turn yielded to another “frozen” choral movement, “I never knew you” (to an original text by Horan), followed by a very cinematic setting of text from Scott’s diary, “Night light,” which McKeever managed to make genuinely songlike. The fifth movement, “Quiet land,” was heralded (counterintuitively) by a snare drum, with the woodwinds and percussion underpinning a restless setting of Debenham’s text (“Ever moving…ceaselessly circling”), joined by the strings and choir at its climax (“And above all, the dream is here”). A slow, foreboding sixth movement (“Eternal Silence”) juxtaposed Scott’s anguished words with a hushed but strenuous discord in the orchestra and choir, produced by asking each chorister to sing their highest comfortable note. If the mood here recalled Penderecki’s famous Threnody, the seventh and final movement, “Goodbye Larsen B” – elegiac in tone, with lush harmonies in the orchestra – was closer to Górecki. The circular structure that often distinguishes Farr’s works was evident here only in the return of the glass chimes, which seemed slightly incongruous given the narrative of the work, documenting the destruction of the icy wilderness they had evoked at the start. McKeever’s diction, excellent throughout, made it impossible to hide from the rather pedestrian character of the lyrics in this final song. His heroic performance was warmly applauded.

After an intermission, players and audience returned for Holst’s Planets. Covid notwithstanding, the number of musicians onstage amply bore out this work’s generic label, “Suite for Large Orchestra.”  As Holst fans know, the piece’s seven movements proceed in astrological rather than astronomical order: Mars first, then Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. (Earth doesn’t get a look-in, but was, one supposes, indirectly represented by Farr’s Terra Incognita in the first half.) “Mars, the Bringer of War,” a regulation banger in 5/4 time, was beautifully shaped by Rachel Hyde’s eloquent conducting and went with a swing. In contrast, “Venus, the Bringer of Peace” sounded initially uncertain, with some hesitant entrances and wobbly tuning. As sometimes happens, a collective loss of confidence seemed to set in, infecting each soloist in turn. On the other hand, in tutti passages, especially when playing driving rhythms or conveying a sense of sweeping passion, the orchestra made a magnificently lustrous sound. One might say that they felt more at home in war than in peace….a tempting metaphor for human nature.

“Mercury, the Winged Messenger” featured some lovely woodwind duets and an ethereal “celesta” contribution from the always excellent Heather Easting on an electric keyboard which doubled as the (sadly inaudible against a full orchestra playing ffff) “organ” later on. These were the moments where the triple subdivision of the beat in this movement felt most comfortable; elsewhere, the players could perhaps have used more help in navigating it. The problem of keeping stringed instruments in tune in an increasingly warm and humid hall also asserted itself here; a pause between movements to re-tune didn’t seem to help much.  However, the alternately rollicking and majestic “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity,” with its maestoso middle section featuring the famous tune later adapted into “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” went with a bang, followed by the colder and more forbidding “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age,” with its relentless “tick-tock” theme and (slightly unsteady) plodding brass. “Uranus, the Magician” is built on a tension between the rather portentous four-note theme in the brass (later picked up by other instruments) and the mischievous, stomping dance led by a trio of bassoons. It feels rather like a circus parade until the sudden drop in tempo and dynamic fatally interrupts it, preparing the ground for the final movement, “Neptune, the Mystic.”  Some lovely playing from the woodwinds opened this disorienting, genuinely mystical movement, which closed on a hidden chorus of treble voices (supplied by the sopranos and altos of the choir seen earlier in Terra Incognita). 

In a nice touch from a historical perspective, the chorus was conducted by Robert Oliver, not only a veteran singer and choral conductor himself but also the inaugural conductor (1972-74) of the WCO itself.  This 50th anniversary concert thus concluded, fittingly, with two conductors, bookends as it were to the orchestra’s leadership from its earliest beginnings to the present.  This poetic conclusion was not lost on the enthusiastic audience, which rose to its feet to applaud the orchestra as much for its performance of this epic programme as for its half-century of service to the Wellington music scene. A good time having been had by all, it remained only to secure a cup of tea and congratulate the performers.  Felicitations to the WCO on its persistence through five decades of music and two years of Covid to bring this programme to us all.

 

Music of our time – Duo Enharmonics and Ensemble Gȏ, at St.Andrew’s

Duo Enharmonics and Ensemble Gȏ

Music of our time

Monique Lapins, violin, Beth Chen and Nicole Chao, piano, Naoto Segawa, percussion
St. Andrews on the Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday, 20th  April 2022

This was a varied concert of mainly short works by contemporary composers, two New Zealanders, Ross Harris and John Psathas, one Turkish, Fazil Say, and two American, Paul Schoenfeld and Glenn Stallcop. They are hardly household names, but this short concert of about 60 minutes gave us a glimpse of what composers of the present time are writing, although each of the five pieces on the programme were quite different.

String and Wood  (Ross Harris)

Monique Lapins and Naoto Segawa

This short work for Marimba and Violin reminder me of Gamelan music, once popular at the NZ School of Music. The violin was plucked echoing the marimba. It was a duet of the melodic violin used mainly with plucking like a percussive instrument and the rich vibrant gong like sound of the marimba

Five days of the life of a manic-depressive’  (Paul Schoenfeld)

Nicole Chao and Beth Chen

Paul Schoenfeld is an American composer known for combining popularfolk, and classical musical forms. ‘From Bintel Brief‘ and ‘Boogie‘ are the last two movements of a group of short pieces for Piano Duet. From Bintel Brief‘ has echoes of Jewish melodies, but in particular, the feel of popular Broadway musicals. Boogie‘ is a very energetic work endeavoring to capture the youthful frenzy of popular swing or rock dance. Nicole Chao and Beth Chen threw their all into this fiery work.

Sonata No. 1  (Fazil Say)

Monique Lapins and Beth Chen

Fazil Say is a Turkish pianist and composer. This sonata for violin and piano was the major work of the programme. It is in five short movements, with the first movement, ‘Melancholy’ repeated as the final movement. It is an approachable work, but it has its challenges for the performers, the manic second movement, ‘Grotesque’ and the fiercely fast ‘Perpetuum, mobile’ of the third movement. It gave Monique Lapins a chance to shine and show what a fine, sensitive violinist she is.

Matre’s Dance  (John Psathas)

Naoto Segawa and Nicole Chan

Maitre’s Dance is a dance performed by a group of fanatics in Frank Hebert’s science fiction classic, Dune. John Psathas’ piece depicting this dance, became part of the standard repertoire of concerts by percussionists. It is a conversation, or perhaps more appropriately, a duel between piano and a range of percussion instruments, in this performance only a modest range of drums with no tympani. It is entirely based on strong rhythms, though occasionally something resembling a melody was trying to emerge from the keyboard. It is a virtuoso piece for percussionist and pianist alike. It is not for the fainthearted traditionalist, but it is an interesting challenge for those who are prepared to explore new varieties of sounds.

Tarantella from Midsummer Night  (Glenn Stallcop)

Monique Lapins, Naoto Segawa Nicole Chao and Beth Chen

For the final item of the concert we had the whole complement of instruments on stage, violin, marimba, piano with two pianists. Glenn Stallcop is an American composer. The Tarantella is the third movement of a three movement work. It is a colorful piece with an interesting array of sounds, the gypsy sound of the violin, the bell like resonant timbre of the marimba, all underpinned by the strong rhythmic piano part.

This was an important concert, adding a new dimension to the Wellington concert experience introducing unfamiliar compositions and composers. The performance was absolutely convincing, the pieces were superbly played. A great credit to all the four performers who put so much effort into presenting this colorful variety pieces. A larger than usual audience showed their appreciation.

 

 

Taioro – words and music of Aotearoa New Zealand at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

St.Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series 2022 presents:

TAIORO – A new ensemble (2021)  presents New Zealand Chamber Music with Poetry,
for speaker, viola, cello and piano

(“TAI, the tide. Representing the ebbs and flows of tangaroa and the energy that we ourselves hold.
ORO, to resound or resonate, and the word used for a musical note.”)

Music by Antony Ritchie, Alfred Hill, Douglas Lilburn and David Hamilton

Sharn Maree Cassady – poet and speaker
Donald Maurice  – viola / viola d’amore
Inbal Megiddo – ‘cello
Sherry Grant – poet and piano

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

Wednesday 16th February, 2022

This lunchtime concert at St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace furthered what’s become a refreshing change of late for ears inundated in the past with “standard” repertoire and presentations – a recital of words and music from a recently-formed group, Taioro, presenting works whose origins and inspirations stemmed from our own place, Aotearoa New Zealand.  Of course, there’s an impressively-growing body of work already emanating from our own composers, with names too numerous to mention; and with contemporary performance groups such as Stroma occasionally emerging in concert with some stimulatingly ear-prickling sounds. The challenge for these composers and musicians is to keep up the momentums, fostering continued interest in “our” sounds and our singular ways of doing things.

While some of the works presented today could be almost deemed “historic”, with music by Alfred Hill (1870-1960) and Douglas Lilburn (1915-2001), along with poetry by ARD Fairburn (1904-57) and James K.Baxter (1926-72), we heard also music by living composers Anthony Ritchie and David Hamilton (the latter present at the concert), in tandem with poetry written by both the concert’s presenter, Sharn Maree Cassady, and pianist Sherry Grant, along with another poem “Stone Woman” written by Christchurch poet Bernadette Hall and set to music by Anthony Ritchie – it was, all-in-all, a judicious mix of past and present creative endeavour!

We began our listening with Anthony Ritchie’s wonderfully storm-tossed Allegro tempestuoso for viola and piano, taken at a real lick by Donald Maurice and Sherry Grant. Amid the sparks generated by the playing I heard an exotic flavouring or two in the piece’s harmonies and the folksy rhythmic drive, emphasised also by the viola’s “eastern” kind of melodic line in a slower, expressive middle section. The performers adroitly brought out the numerous different characters in the music’s widely-ranging explorations, bluesy one moment and then whirling and vertiginous the next – after all the sound and fury, the performers brought the piece to its somewhat amiably halting conclusion.

A second piece by Anthony Ritchie was titled In Memoriam, the music dedicated to the life and passing of a woman called “Angela”, whose AGEA motive the piece featured was demonstrated on Donald Maurice’s viola beforehand. This was a beautiful-sounding work, the violist playing variants of the “Angela” theme over a kind of threnody from the ‘cello (a gorgeous tonal outpouring from both string-players, here, the music brief but extremely moving). We heard also a piece Ritchie had named after a poem by Bernadette Hall, entitled “Song – Stone Woman”, the music seeming almost anecdotal in effect, rhythms “jamming” in an improvisatory way and accompaniments wry and loose-limbed. The poem was read simply and almost conversationally by Sharn Maree Cassady, Hall’s style as a poet seeming to lend itself to such treatment.

Thanks, it seems, to some vagary of the venue’s particular acoustic, I had to strain to hear much of this spoken content of the presentation at the concert, though I was sitting almost right at the front, albeit on the opposite side from where the speaker, Sharn Maree, was placed. After the concert I checked with the person sitting next to me, and she said she also had difficulty hearing the words accompanying firstly the Alfred Hill tribute piece, and then both of Douglas Lilburn’s tribute pieces to ARD Fairburn and James K.Baxter (the latter two including the poets’ own poetry). The music, by contrast, seemed to present no problem – about which circumstance I thereupon wrote a “draft review” of what I had heard, and contacted the performers outlining the  difficulties I’d experienced.

I would, of course, have far preferred to have heard more clearly Sharn Maree Cassady’s comments in situ (all delivered seemingly in similar poetic style) regarding all three of the “past” personalities, belonging as they did to eras which had different attitudes, values and modes to our present PC-dominated world.  At the time, the music provided ample compensation, but I was still aware I was missing an integral part of things. Project co-ordinator Donald Maurice thereby arranged most kindly for me to view and hear the entire concert as it was videoed, something which I have just finished watching. To my delight speaker Sharn Maree’s words in the recording came over perfectly clearly, enabling me to truly take in each of her poetically-expressed responses to the texts associated with the chosen pieces that made up the concert.

Though Alfred Hill’s piece that was presented had no accompanying text, his numerous interactions with Maori during his time in New Zealand were well-documented, giving Cassady sufficient material to craft a response to Hill’s work, words and philosophies. The poetry of ARD Fairburn (1904-57) by turns swashbuckling, wry and romantic, and definitely from an age which more contemporary attitudes would almost certainly find in places at best old-fashioned, and at worst with racist and sexist overtones – so it was no surprise to find in her reply to James K.Baxter (1926-72)  a far more sympathetic and shared acceptance of certain values in both the poetry and regarding the ethos of the man in popular legend, than in her reaction to Fairburn’s verses.  This was underlined via a nicely-flowing and readily-nuanced reading of Baxter’s poem Sisters at Jerusalem, followed by a response begun with a whimsical “May I call you James?” from Cassedy, prefacing her reply.

The  music of Alfred Hill’s chosen was simply  called Andantino, one which I later discovered was a transcription for viola and piano of the slow movement of the composer’s Viola Concerto. Like everything I’ve heard of Hill’s, the work had a distinction and a surety of touch which Donald Maurice’s and Sherry Grant’s playing enriched and ennobled with their rich, heartfelt tones. The piece’s ending had its own singularity – an exquisitely-voiced modulation Into “other realms” before the voices found their way back to the home key at the end.

Douglas Lilburn’s “salute” to Fairburn began with a lovely mantra-like piano figure whose sound for me exerted considerable emotional pull, like a seabird’s song calling a traveller home, one whose response in the hands of ‘cellist Inbal Megiddo matched such feelings with beautifully-projected tones, the feelings truly “grounded” by the piano’s deep-sounding pedal-points and the cello’s joyous life-dance, one that eventually brought forth ringing bell-like resonances at the piece’s conclusion. Just as resonant in its own way was Lilburn’s tribute to James K.Baxter, beginning with a ritualised exchange of bugle-like calls between viola and piano that put one in mind of a walking song, one that engagingly broke into a 5/4 dance, replete with energy and humour – at the revelry’s height the dance cried off with the piano’s deep-throated call to attention, bringing the viola back to the by-now nostalgic bugle-like calls from the beginning, the energies having come full circle and brought us home once more.

With the work of David Hamilton our concert returned to the here-and-now with a world premiere of a work for narrator, viola d’amore and piano “Avec amour” (With love). This was Hamilton’s setting for those instruments of the words to a poem by Sherry Grant, the concert’s pianist. Unfortunately the programme I picked up at the concert’s beginning was missing its inner section with the poet’s text printed in full, so that I struggled throughout to pick up “shreds and patches” in tandem with the ongoing musical discourse, the instruments often masking the words.

I thought the music both soulful and  piquant at first, then more declamatory and bardic as the way was prepared for the narrator. The poem’s words seemed to describe some kind of conceit, idealistically describing something perhaps as imagined as real, which the sounds of the viola d’amore and the piano reflected – all framed by the  phrase “a true rarity in this age”. The setting gave the discourse and their sounds a somewhat detached air in places, a feeling that the music’s epilogue reinforced for me, leaving a “do I wake or sleep” kind of impression at the end. It was a piece that I wanted to hear again immediately afterwards, as there was a dreamlike air about it all that seemed to defy direct engagement – one could “drift” rather than properly engage (and I wasn’t helped by not having the words available to read and follow in situ.) The voice’s diffused sound gave its timbre an almost instrument-like quality, another strand to the argument, another layer to the textures…

Having (a) procured a copy of the poem’s words, and (b) been kindly sent by Donald Maurice both a full script and a copy of the finished video, I was able to more justly “relive” the concert’s experience and, hopefully make proper recourse at last to the efforts of all of the performances, in particular this, the concert’s final item. Described by narrator Sharn Maree Cassady as “a tribute to the viola d’amore”, the work began with a recitative-like passage for the viola d’amore before being joined quixotically by the piano, the speaker then adding to the narrative strands as if the words were threads weaving their way through a sound-tapestry. At the verse’s end the music reflected on the meeting of hitherto free spirits and the tremulous attraction of unchartered emotional waters. Sharn Maree Cassady’s delivery weighed every word patiently, precisely, almost dispassionately, letting the music delineate the impulses, and the “ancient brilliance so unexpected, yet familiar in every turn, in each corner”.

Winsomely, the piano responded to the viola’s quizzical utterances, opening a vein of longing,  towards the igniting of the “infinitely burning desire” to the point of conflagration, the voice again the serene, objective observer, letting the heat of the “feverish pair of flaming swords” pass as if sunlight had suddenly broken through clouds, and then been again obscured…. the moment was here celebrated with incisive piano chords and then, prompted by the speaker’s words, “together we sing in joy”, moved on by the viola into an exchange of here-and-now fulfilment from both instruments…….the “song” became both rapturous and exploratory, the sudden upward modulation at the speaker’s words “Avec Amour” taking the listener to “different realms” beyond experience, transcending the usual “order” of things, even to the point of calling Cupid, the God of Love, to question with the “true rarity” of emotion beyond reason. Sharn Maree Cassady’s tones here evoked “time-standing still” ambiences, as the poem’s words, the viola, and the piano all appeared to take up the “feel” of the music’s opening once more, as if we had journeyed right around the sun – but, (as TS Eliot observed) “never the same time returns”, which was attested by the coda, with its different, more valedictory feeling.

We were asked at the concert’s beginning not to applaud between numbers, as the proceedings were being recorded. Aside from my frustrations at the time, I loved the concert and its sounds and the care and commitment with which the performers obviously brought these things to us for our enjoyment, and am so grateful to Donald Maurice, and to Antony Donovan, the recording engineer, for allowing me access to  the video recording in order to get the “full picture” of what the performers were able to achieve.

Resounding Huia calls and Tui songs from pre-1950 New Zealand composers

SONG OF THE TUI

The third of a three-part presentation of early New Zealand art-songs (1892-1953)
Researched and curated by Michael Vinten

Previous 2021 presentations:
THE CALL OF THE HUIA (12th February)
THE GOLDEN KOWHAI (4th May)

Singers: Jenny Wollerman (soprano), Sarah Court (m-soprano), Amelia Berry (soprano), Oliver Sewell (tenor), Robert Tucker (baritone)
Pianists: Bruce Greenfield, David Barnard

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

(Friday 3rdDecember, 2021)

Michael Vinten’s intention in presenting these programmes was to draw attention to the art song as a creative form produced by New Zealand composers prior to 1950 (essentially the pre-Douglas Lilburn years for music composition in this country) and highlighting the activity as part of our cultural heritage before the Second World War – one that we are still in the process of discovering.

Vinten was inspired by similar research in the area of solo piano music of the period undertaken in recent years by Wellington pianist, composer, and teacher Gillian Bibby, and also by comments made from singing teachers and performers regarding the scarcity of ‘New Zealand art-song material’ from this heritage era. He began his own exploration, finding literally hundreds of songs, primarily from the Alexander Turnbull Library’s collections and the resources of the New Zealand National Library, but also from private sources.

In choosing songs for the three presentations, he devised ‘a working definition of art song – one based on the definition of German lieder’. He used certain basic tenets as a yardstick, such as ‘the importance of the piano part is equal to that of the singer’, and ‘the poet’s words are as important as the composer’s music’. Such a totality in itself suggests as part of the definition that the Lieder/ Art-Song genre ‘requires a greater level of technical skill on the part of the performers to execute the songs’. Vinten intended such parameters would sift out material written for either amateur or domestic use, as well as patriotic War Effort songs and specifically Sacred songs, as the musical merit of many seemed secondary to commercial or social considerations.

Altogether, the songs he chose dated from 1892 to 1950, though to conclude the third and final presentation Vinten sneaked in a 1953 song (not inappropriately titled ‘I saw a Tui’) by the renowned Alfred Hill,  Australian-born but for a time New-Zealand-domiciled, whom author John Mansfield Thompson described in his 1980 OUP book A Distant Music as ‘New Zealand’s first professional composer’. As the first song in the first presentation happened to be also one of Hill’s, Vinten commented that ‘it was fitting…..that his (Hill’s) songs should bookend the collection, as New Zealand‘s first composer’. Despite the date, Hill’s ‘Tui’ song seemed to unashamedly express its allegiance to a bygone era, with Schumannesque modulations between major and minor amply presenting a New Zealand scene in European musical language.

I was fortunate enough to attend the first of these presentations at the year’s beginning. That programme presented the songs composed or published up to 1929. It included some examples of unique interest, but most of the songs engagingly avoided the pitfalls outlined in Vinten’s comments regarding the later 1930s and 1940s songs, which suggested a drop-off in quality and a tendency to resort to the kinds of cliched generalities of verse and music that gave both a bad name. I didn’t manage to get to the second of the symposiums, but made it to this, the final one, which of the three featured the widest chronological range of items. Happily, I was able to compare impressions (mostly favourable) at the interval with my Middle C colleague Anne French, who had attended the series’ second programme, and who confessed to having been enthralled throughout, despite Vinten’s own reservations concerning some of the material!

Interesting, too, was Vinten’s breakdown of the people engaged in composition over these periods into three main groups, the first being men whose profession was music who came to this country to take up official positions at institutions: organists, choirmasters, and teachers. The second group was made up of New Zealand-born men who were enthusiasts engaging in ancillary musical activities, whilst having major careers in other disciplines. The third group was the women, whom Vinten described as the backbone of musical activities in this country. He was surprised in spite of himself at the number of women who wrote music in the New Zealand of this period and whose standard of musical training was sufficient to enable them to do so.

The post-Second World War period was very much a ‘blow winds of fruitfulness’ time for New Zealand.  Music performance moved out of the realm of dominance by amateur and part-time musicians into an era of professional full-time musicians, beginning with the establishment of the country’s National Orchestra in 1946. Suddenly music composition seemed as if it was something to be taken seriously, almost as if one’s own livelihood depended on it. Up to that time the country’s composers were those diverse groups of people outlined above. Somewhat serendipitously, 1946 also saw the first Cambridge (Waikato) Music School, at which composer-in-residence Douglas Lilburn delivered his ground-breaking talk ‘A Search for Tradition’,  which challenged a whole new generation of local composers to find their own ‘New Zealand voice’. Such was the force of this new beginning, Vinten contended, that ‘the previous body of work in music composition (along with other creative endeavours in Aotearoa) tended to be swept away by this fresh wave of creativity’.

Not only were the composers of an earlier era overshadowed, but so were the writers and poets, in some cases curtly and dismissively. Vinten made reference to poet Allen Curnow’s scathing remarks concerning what had been considered a landmark anthology of New Zealand verse, Kowhai Gold, published in 1929. Curnow famously commenting that the material consisted of ‘insipidities mixed with puerilities. To illustrate the extent to which things had been galvanised by this new order, Vinten referred to the work of two song composers, Alice Forrester MacKay and Claude Haydon, who had been ‘at the forefront of the pre-First World War era of local song-writing…. but whose output, including a great many more (still) unpublished songs, remained musically static during the 1930s and 40s…..’.

Having so many names to contend with inhibits a full listing of either the composers or poets here, though some by dint of circumstance or other association are already known. The composers include Alfred Hill, Claude M. Haydon, Arnold Trowell, Warwick Braithwaite, Paul Schramm, Alice Forrester MacKay, Erima Maewa Kaihau, Princess Te Rangi Pai, Alexander Aitkens, Maugham Barnett, Owen Jensen, Harry Luscombe, and Alan Heathcote White. The New Zealand poets included Jessie MacKay, Eileen Duggan, C.R. Allen, and Keith Sinclair. If Vinten’s research is properly taken up in the future by singers and teachers, further names will certainly be pressing their claims to be added to the list.

Without a doubt, part of what generated one’s ongoing fascination with these songs was the quality of the three presentation performances. My colleague Anne French and I were in full agreement about the quality of performance across the programmes. Each of the singers was seemingly incapable of delivering a meaningless or routine phrase. They gave the vocal lines both the focused intensities and the range of colour and dynamics that made the music and the words a pleasure to listen to. Complementing this level of identification with the material was the piano-playing of both Bruce Greenfield and David Barnard, each doing his utmost to invest the sounds with a kind of recreative response that, in tandem with the voices instantly caught the listener’s attention. The result of such efforts on the musicians’ part gave each song its best chance to shine with its own radiance – a splendid concerted achievement!

It remains to salute Michael Vinten for his work (with help from many others, individuals and organisations, whose assistance he has gratefully acknowledged) in enabling a restoration to life of these once-integral impulses of creative musical endeavour. His presentations have, in a unique way refocused present-day sensibilities and judgements on what our composers and writers managed to achieve on their own merits during that singular era prior to Douglas Lilburn’s emergence. It must have seemed fit and just to Vinten that a better integration of past and present was definitely in order. Such enlargements of knowledge and awareness can’t help but enrich our appreciation of where our contemporary creative minds have come from and what they’re achieving in this, our present time.