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!

 

 

 

 

Mark Menzies and Michael Endres – linking worlds with violin and piano

Wellington Chamber Music presents
THE MENZIES/ENDRES DUO – Music by Schubert, Schnittke, Fisher and Beethoven

FRANZ SCHUBERT – Rondo in B Minor “Rondo Brilliant”
ALFRED SCHNITTKE – Violin Sonata No. 2 (quasi una sonata)
SALINA FISHER – Mono no aware
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN – Violin Sonata No. 9 “Kreutzer”

Mark Menzies (violin) and Michael Endres (piano)

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

Sunday, 18th June, 2023

This was a well structured, interesting programme, culminating in Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, perhaps the greatest of violin sonatas. The programme notes the connection of the works on the programme to this Sonata and Beethoven: the main theme of Schubert’s Rondo has reference to the first movement of the Kreutzer Sonata, while Schnittke’s Sonata echoes the structure of  Beethoven’s Op 27 piano sonatas, “quasi una fantasia”. This may be a little far fetched, but undoubtedly the programme built up to the climax of Beethoven, while exploring a range of musical idioms in the violin and piano repertoire.

Franz Schubert Rondo in B minor ‘Rondo Brilliant’

Schubert wrote this work for the Czech violinist Josef Slavik. The latter was compared in his circles to Paganini, and was a friend of Schubert. Schubert was essentially a composer of songs, not one noted for the elaborate structures of his works. This piece has beautiful melodic passages interposed with virtuoso displays. It is joyful music, with suggestions of rustic wind band music in places, but ultimately it was not an entirely convincing reading, being very difficult to bring off. In the dialogues between the violin and the piano, some of the nuances of the exchamges were lost. The placing of the violinist with his back to the pianist didn’t help in places, with the voicings not being ideally balanced.

Alfred Schnittke Violin Sonata No 2 (quasi una sonata)

Schnittke’s Second Violin Sonata is a very challenging work, both for the musicians and the audience.  It opens with powerful, discordant chords, separated by precisely timed pauses. This section is followed by a number of distinct episodes, with references to past musicians, from Bach through Beethoven, Wagner, Stravinsky, to Shostakovitch, though to the listener, hearing the sonata for the first time, none of this is obvious. What is clear is the unrelenting drama, the thought provoking process that pose questions about the nature of music. The musicians have to perform actions that are not part of the normal skill sets of violinists or pianists, free ranging glissandos, unpitched tremolos, drum-like chords.

To add to the drama, one of the strings snapped on the violin. Mark Menzies stopped, walked off the stage, came back with the violin re-strung, carried on, and resumed where had left off. This sonata is one of the masterpieces of the post-Soviet Russian era, but it requires vast preparation and deep understanding. The performance was a true partnership between violin and piano, and whatever misgivings one might have had about the balance of the two instruments in the first work no longer applied.

Salina Fisher Mono no aware

This was a peaceful contrast to the drama of Schnittke’s work. It is a calm ethereal piece of music, simple on the surface, plaintive, a meditation on nature. Is it about the ephemeral beauty of cherry blossoms, an awareness of their fragility and their inherent impermanence, as the composer says in her notes, or is it just a sequel of lovely sounds? It was a “breather” in the midst of an afternoon of intense music.

Ludwig van Beethoven Sonata No 9 ‘Kreutzer’

This is, arguable, the greatest violin and piano sonata ever written. It marked the beginning of what is at times termed, Beethoven’s ‘middle period’, beyond the elegant music of the period of Mozart and Haydn, pointing to an era of more expressive, more emotional, romantic music of the years of his Third and Fifth Symphonies. Beethoven had gone deaf, his life was in turmoil, and he wrote some of his most profound music. The Kreutzer foreshadowed the Waldsdtein and Appassionata sonatas, the Rasumovsky quartets. The sonata is so well known that it is a special challenge for performers not to make it just another Kreutzer, to fathom its meaning in their own individual way. Menzies and Endres started with a leisurely opening, flexible, lyrical. They brought out the grandeur and lyricism of the piece, playing it with a nice, controlled tempo. They had a grand conception of the work, bringing out its sublime beauty, particularly in the second, variation movement, with each variation sensitively articulated. The final movement was played with measured energy. It was a very fine performance and both players appeared to share its enjoyment.

For an encore they returned to Schubert with an arrangement of Schubert’s Hark! Hark! The Lark!

This Sunday afternoon concert was notable for its range, the thought-provoking questions it raised about music. No one went home whistling the tunes from the Schnittke Sonata, or even Salina Fisher’s piece,  but everybody left on a high note after the Beethoven.

Both artists, Mark Menzies and Michael Endres, teach at Canterbury University. They both have established international careers.  Mark Menzies taught at the California Institute of the Arts, and gave violin and viola recitals in Los Angeles. He is an advocate of contemporary music, and tours widely.

Michael Endres performs worldwide as soloist and chamber music partner. He has played at festivals in Europe, America, and Asia, including the Beethoven Fest Bonn and the Salzburg Festival.

We are fortunate to have them here in New Zealand.

 

 

 

 

Sounds of Home from man and guitar transcend wet and gloom

SOUNDS OF HOME – Guitar Music from Aotearoa New Zealand

Works by Michael Stoop, John Ritchie, Amanda Riddell,
Kenneth Young, David Farquhar, and Bruce Paine

Christopher Everest (guitar)
at St. Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday, 4th June 2023

(Event sponsored by Jack C. Richards, and SOUNZ (Centre for New Zealand Music)

The most obvious thing to say about Christopher Everest’s guitar recital at St Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace on a wet and windswept Sunday afternoon on a recent King’s Birthday Weekend would be that so many factors contributed to its sparse audience attendance – arriving as I did with ten minutes to spare, and surveying the half-dozen or so people already in attendance I immediately felt sorry for the artist, who would have obviously put a lot of work into the presentation, for what at first  seemed sparse reward regarding his efforts.

However, two things then occurred to me, one at the point when the guitarist made his entrance, and the other at some unspecified time when a particular ambience involving both the music-making and its reception brought the thought into my head………

Firstly, I became conscious from the volume of applause that greeted the artist that the audience had at least tripled, if not quadrupled, in the time since I entered the church – and however small the number remained there was definitely a mini-buzz of excitement, one which Christopher Everest most positively responded to upon appearing to play, complimenting all of us upon our forbearance in braving such inclement weather conditions.

Then, at some stage after Everest had begun playing – perhaps it was as early as during the first item that the thought visited me – I was struck by the memory of something that, long ago, a visiting pianist, Frederic Rzewski, whom I’d heard give a recital – again, I think, in St. Andrew’s, and to a similarly sparse audience on that occasion – told a radio interviewer, when asked afterwards whether small numbers of audience members at concerts he gave bothered or annoyed him. Rzewski replied that he thought there was, at every concert, always the “right” number of people in the audience.

I presumed he meant that, whether ten or two hundred people were in an audience, he always made sure that he played “for everybody present”, so that no-one was disadvantaged, least of all the artist, who was, after all, there to communicate with the audience, whether they were few or many.  And there in St.Andrew’s was Everest, playing, it seemed, for us all, a few who seemed at that moment  the “right” number of people……..

A word about the artist, whom I hadn’t before encountered – beginning his studies as a pupil of Dr. Jane Curry at the NZSM, Everest received a grant to study with the eminent guitarist and pedagogue, Paul Cesarzyck, at Mahidol College of Music in Bangkok, Thailand. Returning to New Zealand, he graduated with First-Class Honours in 2022 from Victoria University, and plans to take up various Masters programmes in various institutions worldwide, while continuing to concertise when he can back in New Zealand as both a soloist and an ensemble member with the New Baroque Generation and the Kowhaiwhai Duo.

So to the concert – whose title “Sounds of Home” suggested a musician suitably well-grounded in music that reflected his place of origin. Everest began with an excerpt from a work by Michael Stoop, who had been one of his composition lecturers at Victoria – the Allegretto movement from Stoop’s Sonatina No. 1. I enjoyed Everest’s voicing of the questioning rise towards the repeated top-of-the-phrase note, a sequence whimsically contrasted with more flowing interludes – making the whole a beautifully reflective piece, touched here-and-there with contrasting timbres.

Next came John Ritchie’s “Whimsies”, three meditations inspired by Shakespeare. The first, “Full Fathom Five” began with slowly rocking rhythmic patternings, suggesting the sea’s action, repetitive notes and chords resonating the “rich and strange” subaqueous atmosphere. “The second “Where is Fancy Bred” features music turning in upon itself, proffering no answer to the question, but implying more fancy, resonating the repetitive melody in different registers towards the piece’s end, with a touch of “Dies Irae” further deepening the mystery. A more energetic “Blow, blow, thou Winter Wind” wasn’t especially “wintry”, more bracingly-textured than bleak and shivery, and of lighter substance, with widely-spaced ritual-like ”knockings” and vigorous strummings – a positive response to seasonal duress, which ends reflectively and philosophically (Shakespeare nay-sayers, take note!).

Further girdles were put around the earth by Amanda Riddell’s work “Vanya’s Lament”, inspired by Anton Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya”, the pieces reflecting an essential mood from each of the four acts of the play – presented as a continuous span, it seemed to me as if the music would work on each listener individually, the titles a “starting-point” rather than an out-and-out description, the sounds by turns quixotic, rhapsodic, wistful and energetic, but seeming to return to a general overall sobriety.  The theme of melancholy persisted with the next item, Kenneth Young’s “Three Sad Waltzes”,  again allowing the listener free rein in characterising emotions by giving the music plenty of contrast. As with Amanda Riddell’s work, Everest brought out the music’s quixotic nature, contrasting more strictly-organised running passages with improvisatory-sounding sequences, very much the “plan” of the first Waltz. By contrast the other two Waltzes expressed their dance-forms more self-consciously, the second’s gentle melancholy the perfect foil for the third’s rather more “insinuating” progressions of rhythm and melodic shaping, such as a deliciously droll bass line.

Everest described David Farquhar’s Suite as the first big “hit” in the New Zealand classical guitar world . It was written in 1966 for Ronald Burt, whose influence as a teacher pioneered classical guitar composition in this country. Farquhar became especially fond of writing for the instrument, his output including more solo guitar and several ensemble pieces, including a guitar concerto (1992).

A work in five sections, the Suite began with a stately opening Prelude, a kind of ritual processional at the outset, though with the sounds taking on a sensuous element, contrasted with a kind of ”tumble down the hill” middle section, before echoing some of the opening’s more haunting sounds.  The following Capriccio, at first restless and exploratory, then took on an almost balladic quality, a strummed accompaniment to a song (with high, harmonic-like sounds in places), before returning to the restless opening.

The Ostinato third movement set repeated notes against discursive, wayward harmonies, creating relationships both combatative and complementary – a “friendly rival” relationship; while the following Rondino seemed to take us some of the way towards the world of Manuel de Falla’s “Three-Cornered Hat” Ballet, Everest excitingly bringing  out the percussive element in a piece where rhythm was all-important. Just as telling in an entirely different way was the piece’s Epilogue, a valediction with a sounding gong marking time in between the musings, not unlike a dialogue between reality and fantasy, or reason and imagination – thoughtful and moving…….

Christopher Everest concluded his recital with a workSeringapatam” (misspelled on the programme cover as “Seringapatum”) by another New Zealand guitarist, Bruce Paine. The piece was written with an historic Auckland homestead in mind, one that came into being through both Scottish and Indian influences, in the latter case from a town of the same name in the Mandya district in the Indian state of Karnataka, the place where the house’s founder, the son of a British Army Lieutenant-Colonel originally from Scotland, was born. The music thus contains both Scottish folk-song and Indian sitar music influences.

The music began in what seemed minstrel-like ways, but with the melody played as if it was “sounded” on an Indian sitar, with the notes having characteristic microtonal “shifts”, giving the folk-song (”The Blue Bells of Scotland”) an additional exotic quality. A more energetic central section evoked something of the exhilarating drive of a characteristic Indian “raga”. The folk-tune then briefly reappeared, and the undulations of the accompaniment gradually faded.

We had, by this time, become totally accustomed to our listening-spaces, and our musician and his instrument, so much so that the concert’s end came as a surprise! In short this presentation had transcended the state of the world outside, so involved we seemed to have become with the music and Christopher Everest’s compelling realisations of it all. Frederic Rzewski had obviously been right all along – “it was, you might say, satisfactory………”

 

Myth and Ritual in everyday life – from Orchestra Wellington

RICHARD STRAUSS – “Dance of the Seven Veils” from “Salome”
ARJUNA OAKES – “Safe Way to Fall”
JOHN PSATHAS – Zahara
BELA BARTOK – “The Miraculous Mandarin”  Ballet

Orchestra Wellington
with……..
Arjuna Oakes (singer)
John Psathas (piano)
Valentina Michaud (saxophone)
Orpheus Choir, Wellington
BalletCollective Aotearoa
Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei  (conductor)
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday June 3rd, 2023

“Myth and Ritual” was something of a concept-bending title, to my initial way of thinking, as a description of the programme Marc Taddei and his musicians put together on Saturday evening (June 3rd). Myth brings to mind legendary figures and events, while ritual suggests some kind of rite to do with religion or culture.

However, with the boundaries pushed out wider, as here, we saw that the concert’s range and scope took in both individual and societal aspects of the human condition, involving both transgressors and victims.

Bookending the evening’s presentation were portrayals of obsession matching that of any mythical hero – while the two central items presented conflict of diametrically opposed kinds, one in terms of individual resolution, and the other in epic, broad brush-stroke happenings putting groups of people at risk.

Not only was the evening‘s content far-flung, but the means by which the performances worked their magic were varied, which was part of sustaining our interest through spectacular orchestral, solo vocal, instrumental, choral and theatrical means.  Perhaps it wasn’t everybody’s “cup of tea” in toto, but it did have a readily-welcomed “different strokes for different folks” sense.

Things began spectacular with the famous “Dance of the Seven Veils” written by Richard Strauss for an episode in his opera “Salome”, which was a setting of Oscar Wilde’s play (written in French) whose subject was the eponymous Biblical character, the beautiful step-daughter of Herod, the Judean king of around the time of Jesus Christ.  Strauss’s set both French and German texts of Oscar Wilde’s play “Salome” which makes mention for the first time of the “Seven Veils” (in Matthew 14 she merely “danced for the guests”).

Wilde designated for Salome a kind of growing sexual obsession with John the Baptist (Jokaanan, in the opera), one which, along with the erotic nature of the Dance Strauss readily took on for the entirety of the character, presenting her as no less an obsessive figure than any mythical hero or heroine bent upon achieving great deeds.

An extraordinary tour de force of composition, the Dance brought forth from Marc Taddei and his players a brilliant response in both corporate orchestral and individual soloistic terms. From the frenetic opening, through the most languid sequences and right up to the final whiplash chords, the playing caught every mood, superbly voicing the chameleon-like progressions with that unique combination of sensuousness and “edge” to themes, rhythms and textures.

What particularly held my attention was the spaciousness of the phrasings in the early stages of the dance by both solo players and sections,  Taddei and his musicians enabling the music’s essential bitter-sweet character to emerge, setting the strings’ almost decadent voluptuousness against the winds’ piquant flavourings, the latter pungently activating the dancer’s growing excitement and urgencies, leading to the unbridled excitement of the concluding section’s abandoned flourishes, the knife-edge wind arabesques, and the cataclysmic whiplash chords at the end – stunning!

Nothing could have been further from these excesses than the concert’s second item, a song for voice, piano and orchestra called “Safe Way To Fall”. Written as a collaboration between singer/songwriter Arjuna Oakes and composer/performer John Psathas, the work grew from a “springboard” award from the NZ Arts Foundation which enabled Oakes to choose Psathas as a mentor, and led to a creative partnership between the two. The pair shared a desire to explore ideas that would “make musical ideas hit home emotionally”, and the song was one of four tracks that emerged from this initial collaboration.

With Psathas himself as the pianist (his debut as a performing pianist in public, he told us afterwards) and the orchestra providing backing of what seemed a “filmic” kind of orchestral texture, Oakes delivered his song via a microphone, words expressing the idea of feelings of vulnerability giving rise to strength in relationships. Psathas’s most telling comment afterwards. I thought, was that collaboration seemed a way for an individual to grow stronger, or in other words, a “Safe Way to Fall”, considering that any creative journey will involve occasional failings and fallings. What I got from the item and its presentation was an insight into creative process that’s outside popular perception of that process, but nevertheless produces a result, whatever one might think of the same as heard here.

John Psathas’s other (somewhat more substantial) contribution to the concert was in a more traditional “inspired by various stimuli” kind of mode, in this case a two-part synthesis of other people’s literary and musical skills. The composer was entranced by author Dean King’s “Skeletons on the Zahara” outlining the historical shipwreck of a group of American sailors off the western coast of Africa in 1815, and their subsequent travails in a hostile desert landscape and at the hands of nomadic tribesmen – so when saxophonist Federico Mondelci, who in turn had been inspired by an earlier concerto for the instrument by Psathas, approached him to write another concerto, it was Zahara which came into being.

Saxophone soloist for the concerto’s performance Valentine Michaud provided considerable visual as well as musical stimulus, appearing on the platform in a stunningly voluminous (social-distancing-style?) orange-crimson dress whose undulating folds seemed to become as desert sands as she launched into the first of the concerto’s four movements,  her instrument straightaway “possessing” the ambience created by the long lines of the ambient orchestral accompaniments, denoting rituals of both physical and spiritual identification.

The concerto moved through these exotic realms with considerable variety, a second movement establishing ostinato-like rhythms as the soloist’s playing gradually “enlivened” the music, the exchanges massively and dramatically irrupting and falling away almost to nothing in attention-riveting ways; and a third movement prayerful and ethereal, the music’s haunting aspect enhanced by the soloist’s playing of multiphonics (two notes played at once) above what seemed to me like enormous blocks of air, as if one was a bird soaring over a landscape far below, before the ostinato rhythm was re-engaged and the soloist rhapsodised with the orchestral winds, oboe, bassoon, and clarinet.

The final movement straightaway re-invoked the whole scenario, creating in my mind a desert environment through winds and brass, over which the strings soared as the sky and beneath which the percussion rumbled as of the deep earth. Valentine Michaud used a soprano sax to scintillate through the movement’s first part, then returned to her tenor instrument to deepen the “earth-connection”, the orchestra keeping the ostinato thread going throughout, and lifting the ambiences into a “cheek-by-jowl” fusion of excitement and oneness with the soloist, all scintillation and coalescence to finish!

Michaud returned us to our lives at Zahara’s conclusion with an encore, playing a fun work which she told us was called “cuku” (a chicken), and further demonstrating her virtuosity with multiphonics, as if two birds were simultaneously calling to one another – a very “rustic farmyard” piece which entertained us most delightfully!

And so, after the interval, we entered the very different world of Bela Bartok’s ballet “The Miraculous Mandarin”, having, incidentally, been warned at the beginning by a “voice-over” announcement that the work we were about to hear contained scenes of rape and sexual violence (one might imagine the present-day general cultural entertainment scene well-versed in such antics, though of course government health warnings are still bandied about, and “live” performances might still shock the unsuspecting with the unexpected!)

Musically, I found the performance as enthralling and satisfying as was the Strauss work in the concert’s first half. The opening vortex of bedlam-like sounds – “humanity’s mad, inhuman noise” (as Alan Jay Lerner wrote in “My Fair Lady” in a somewhat different context) – was superbly and sonorously delivered, though it was disconcerting how, for me, the advent of the dancers (members of “Ballet Collective Aotearoa”) radically changed the focus of my attention to the visual drama (the result of having previously “immersed” myself in the music via recordings).

Each of the clarinet solos depicting the girl’s “luring” of prospective clients to be robbed by her cohorts was superbly wrought as was the orchestral support, given that the visual aspect constantly took one’s focus away from what one was “hearing” to that which was being “watched”. Bartok’s evocation of relative “innocence” in the case of the young boy was touching, as was the girl’s response to him, a situation brusquely ended by the ruffians (who, at one stage seemed to morph as a group into a quartet rather than the original trio).

The dancers conveyed what they could of the different scenarios, hampered as they were by the lack of space which a proper stage would have otherwise afforded. Dramatically, the most effective moment  was the appearance of the Mandarin, who emerged from a trapdoor centre-stage, dressed in a red robe and bathed in bright light. That, and the impact of  the sickly green light which illuminated the Mandarin’s transfixed form after his stabbing by the ruffians were theatrical highlights of the presentation – I only wish someone had thought of deploying an additional light upon the mandarin after he had “embraced” the girl and “satisfied” his desires, at which point his wounds begin to bleed, and he dies – a blood-red spotlight would have provided an apt contrast to the colours that had been previously used.

In all, I thought the presentation was a great success, and especially from the orchestral point of view, in which the flow of the story, the drama and the tension never let up. The Orpheus Choir, too, sonorously and atmospherically played its part, beautifully accompanied by the orchestral violas as the voices gathered intensity, helping to breathe life back into the Mandarin so as to fulfil his destiny with the girl – musically, a scalp-pricking moment, even if hardly the visual embodiment of erotic consummation of desire we had been “threatened with” at the outset.

A definite “feather in the cap” of Orchestra Wellington, then – and the success of “The Miraculous Mandarin” left me longing for the point at which Marc Taddei and his players might again enlist some dancers and give us Ravel’s complete “Daphnis et Chloe” – just a thought, but meant as a compliment for all concerned.

 

 

Tribute to Souvenirs, Sovereigns and Soulmates from the NZSO

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents
“EMPEROR”

Paul Lewis (piano)
Eduardo Strausser (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

ROSS HARRIS – Cento (2005)
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN – Piano Concerto in E-flat Op. 73 “Emperor”
ROBERT SCHUMANN – Symphony No. 2 in C Minor Op.61

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday 11th May 2023

“The work is an abomination” declared fellow-composer Jenny McLeod upon hearing Ross Harris’s “Cento”, commissioned and performed by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra for its 25th Anniversary in 2005. According to the excellent – in fact, indispensable! – SOUNZ website (containing ‘most anything one wishes to know regarding Kiwi music and its composers!), Harris was given the brief of using “pieces that the orchestra has made its own over the last 25 years”. His response was the musical equivalent of a poetry “cento” (a work made up from brief quotes taken from other verses), deftly constructing a musical tapestry of excerpts which takes the listener on a whirlwind orchestral ride of far-flung compositional variety and drawing from at least three hundred years of musical provenances in doing so.

It was all a kind of “first cousin” of antics familiar to those who could recall the zany Hoffnung concerts (which seem to have fallen out of fashion in recent times), with the composer tacitly inviting us to “tease out” from the kaleidoscopic array of sounds any references we detected to works from the standard classical repertoire. Depending on their respective tastes and sensibilities, some listeners might well have sided with Jenny McLeod’s reproachful  reaction to such a farrargo, while others, like myself would have taken the opposite viewpoint and admired both the skill and daring of the accomplished collage of tones, marvelling at the frequent fusing of contrasting sound-colours and rhythmic impulses, here with predictably volatile, and there with surprisingly harmonious results.

I wrote down as many references as my memory could muster during the piece’s eleven minutes, delighted at greeting old friends, abashed by some I knew but couldn’t name, and puzzled by a couple of strangers whose tones rang no bells! To give just a few examples, I noticed the recurring preponderance of Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps” vying with Beethoven’s Seventh, Mahler’s Third and Brahms’ Second Symphonies, along with several “Ivesian” touches of combinations of opposites that “worked” despite diametrically-opposed essences – the most outlandish of these for me being Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony finale being jostled along by F.J.Ricketts’ cheerful “Colonel Bogey” march-rhythms! Conductor Eduardo Strausser’s and his players’ juggling of such determinedly whimsical snippets out for mischief and mayhem was itself, I thought, sheer delight, exhibiting both control and panache in abundance.

After such a work-out the musicians must have been more than ready for whatever challenge was next – and it came with the music of Beethoven, in the form of the “Emperor” Piano Concerto (hence the concert’s title), no less. The orchestra was joined by the English pianist Paul Lewis. making his first-ever appearance in Wellington, following a previous visit during 2022 to Auckland, where he’d already performed a complete cycle of the concertos to  critical acclaim.

Following in the wake of the Harris work, Beethoven’s music was always going to give a more-than-usually purposeful and cogent impression, something that the grand opening exchanges between orchestra and piano further emphasised, proclaiming a kind of “sovereignty” which obviously fuelled the idea in some quarters of the piece having imperial associations, and resulted in its nickname (though whatever its provenance the title “Emperor” had nothing whatever to do with the composer!)

The opening gestures done, the orchestra straightaway took up the “swing” of the music, with conductor Eduardo Strausser encouraging magnificent tutti passages that contrasted memorably with the beautiful “voicings” from the different groups. The strings brought both strength and sensitivity to the journey via eloquent shadings and colourings, as did the winds with phrasings as individually ear-catching as were their various ensembles. The horns sounded wonderful with their duetting lines, while the trumpets and timpani were excitingly impactful! All of this preceded the soloist’s re-entry in which the piano seemed at first very much part of the ensemble’s musical fabric, before building to a more substantial and authoritative soloist’s voice.

I must say Paul Lewis’s playing surprised me at first with what I felt was an amiable quality, having previously listened to various of his piano recital recordings and thinking at the time that he was a very serious musician indeed! Throughout the concerto’s first movement his playing readily exuded both poetry and vivacity by turns, never “barnstorming” the line, even when delivering the great, hammered chords exchanged with the orchestra towards the end of the development section of the music. This was a quality underlined by his sitting still at the instrument, and letting his hands and fingers do the work in relation to the rest of his body. It all suggested what seemed to me something of a “victory beyond the battle” kind of approach to the work, more so than I’d been used to in my previous listening experiences of it – definitely a “musician’s” more than a “virtuoso’s” performance, and one that resulted in my finding myself continually leaning forward in my seat to take in the detail, instead of sitting back and letting the grandeur of it all wash over me….

With the slow movement’s opening the orchestral playing again enchanted the ear, Strausser drawing from his strings a rapt quality of utterance which the pianist’s first notes illuminated like early evening stars, the opening notes of each entry “placing” the sounds to a most disarming effect. Lewis’s subsequent fuller-toned chordal ascent then glowed as if moonbeams were issuing forth from behind a cloud, suggesting warmth more than out-and-out grandeur. After the pianist and the winds had resounded in turn the rapt opening theme, a moment of hushed wonderment led eventually to a joyous explosion of pianistic energy into which the orchestra unreservedly threw itself also. We were aroused, galvanised and charmed in our turn, with Lewis again playful of pianistic aspect rather than scintillating or trenchant, and thoroughly enjoying, along with his conductor and cohorts, the various adventures throughout the finale, right up to that moment of poignant rapport with Larry Reese, the timpanist, at the end of the work! A sudden pianistic irruption of energy goaded the orchestra into doing the same, into which exuberant valediction Lewis actually joined with the players – a final, heart-warming gesture of solidarity!

The interval’s leg-stretching ritual having been undertaken, I was back for the second half, eagerly anticipating the Schumann Second Symphony, the first of the composer’s four I’d gotten to know while still a student. I recall having read over the years various commentaries professing to explain why it was Schumann couldn’t REALLY write for the orchestra and had to be “helped”, a process which certain conductors had gone along with and apparently edited the scoring to order, while others had declared the practice “an abomination” (where HAVE I heard that word before?). As I had not too long ago bought a couple of CD sets of the complete Schumann symphonies conducted by a new generation of maestri who HADN’T thus interfered with the composer’s scoring of his music in any way, I felt heartened that Maestro Strausser, tonight’s conductor, might be of a similar bent in such matters. And so it thankfully proved.

From the outset, the sounds of the brass rang forth clearly and atmospherically over the Bach-like contourings of strings and winds that made up much of the character of this beautiful work. Nowhere was there heard any kind of obfuscation of detail, the lines beautifully balanced and the trajectories nobly advanced. The allegro, when it came perhaps felt at first a bit tense under Strausser’s beat, with the dotted rhythms slightly clipped, as if a shade TOO eager; but the development section of the movement, with its beautiful “sighing” motif enchanted the ear, as did the syncopated wind chatterings and undulating timpani rolls which lead back to the allegro’s beginning. This time, all was suitably heroic and energetic, with repeated-note fanfare figures adding to the excitement and giving the lie to any thought of technical ineptitude on the composer’s part.

The Scherzo, a splendid creation, here bristled with near-obsessive energies, conductor and players making the most of each of the two contrasting Trio interludes, the first featuring quixotic, even garrulous exchanges between the winds and strings, and the second a throwback to the Symphony’s polyphonic opening (Schumann’s homage to the spirit of Bach), again with winds and strings here gorgeously blending lyrical and cerebral lines in masterly fashion. I loved it all, apart from what I thought a somewhat vulgar presto-like tempo adopted by Strausser for the movement’s coda, one certainly not indicated at all in my score – my favourite versions on record (conducted by Kubelik, Sawallisch, Karajan, Schuricht, etc.) all bring out the timpani and the brass to thrilling effect without unduly speeding up the tempo!

Of course the effect here was as momentary as it was subjective, as Strausser and his players then proceeded to give a reading of the slow movement that was as enchanting as any I’d previously encountered! – the opening strings imparted a quiet, deeply-felt beauty to the melody similarly taken up by the solo oboe and counterpointed by the bassoon. The horns, joined by the other winds, with clarinet and flute taking their turn, all made their own magic and paved the way for the strings to return to claim the melody as their own – or so it seemed to our entranced ears, amid all the re-echoings bringing us to the movement’s end.

Strausser took the final at a goodly lick, enough to emphasise the music’s girth and energy in the playing from all the sections, festive brass fanfares alternating with vertiginously swirling string textures and babbling winds at the beginning, before the music got down to an equally vigorous “working out” interaction, the winds calling attention to a kind of redemptive theme which other instruments swirled around and about , as if encouraging it to “flower”. Of course, in tandem with the return of the work’s opening fanfares it eventually blossomed, bringing about a most vibrant conclusion, a sense of recognition and concourse between creative souls, sonorously celebrated on this occasion by superb playing from the entire orchestra.

Rather than the proverbial “darkness to light” journey of the kind beloved by the Romantics, what came across to me seemed like a coming together of different energies – the opening movement’s fanfares posed the question, and then, throughout the course of the work interacted with similar kind of questing impulses, until, step-by-step, the music was able to reach a true synthesis in the work’s final movement. It was, I felt, conductor Eduardo Strausser’s and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s real achievement with this performance that these elements came together so magnificently at this concert

Les Voisins – delicious distortions, with swing

Les Voisins

Justine Cormack, violin
James Bush, cello
Simon Martyn-Ellis, theorbo and guitar

Works by Robert de Visée, Jean Marie Leclair, and Marin Marais

Alex Taylor, Onwhatgrounds (for violin, cello, and theorbo)
Maurice Ravel, Sonata for violin and cello
Stephane Grappelli and the Hot Club de France, Nuages, SweetGeorgiaBrown, MinorSwing

St Andrews on the Terrace, Wellington

Sunday 7 May, 3 pm

This was the first concert of Wellington Chamber Music’s 2023 season, and it promises a great season to come. Les Voisins were scheduled to play this concert two years ago, but the performance was interrupted by a Covid-19 lockdown, which prevented the talented Australian theorbo player Simon Martyn-Ellis from travelling to New Zealand.

The theorbo is a kind of giant lute and is plucked or strummed. It was invented in the 1580s when players wanted an extra bass instrument for accompanying singers in the first operas, so they took a bass lute and extended the neck, adding seven additional strings to extend the bass register. Its bottom note is lower than that of the cello. Whereas the seven higher strings  are fretted and tuned like a guitar, the lower ones are tuned diatonically, like a harp. The low strings are deep and resonant, and the instrument is said to have been much in demand as a continuo instrument. As for a harpsichord, the theorbo player reads the bass line and improvises over the top.

The first work on the programme was by Robert de Visée (1650-1725), a prelude and passacaglia in D minor for solo theorbo. The composer was a musician in the court of Louis XIV, and his works for guitar, lute, and theorbo were written down by others. The prelude sounded tentative, but the passacaglia more assured. Still, it took me a few minutes to get used to its restrained sound.

Next, a sonata for violin and continuo in E minor by Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764), a work which my companion plays often. Leclair is well known to violinists as the founder of the French school of violin playing, and is still a popular composer for violin. This work had both theorbo and cello on continuo, which helpfully reinforced the theorbo against the brilliance of Justine Cormack’s mid-nineteenth century French violin. The first and third movements had their heart in the dance (Leclair was also known as a dancing master), with lively and rhythmic playing, while the middle movement was a sarabande, played gently by theorbo with violin. It is easy to see why so many of Leclair’s compositions have survived.

The second work by de Visée was a suite in C minor for solo theorbo, comprising a prelude, an allemande, and a ‘plainte au tombeau des Mesdemoiselles de Visée, filles de l’Auteur’. This beautiful and melancholy work was written for the souls of the composer’s two daughters. It was followed by a work by Marin Marais (1656-1728) played by all three instruments. The Bells of St Geneviève is much better known than the works that preceded it  in the programme (I’m sure I have heard it on RNZ Concert more than once) and is lively and jazzy, with exciting fortes and idiomatic playing by the excellent Justine Cormack.

Finally, the last work of the first half of the concert: Alex Taylor’s On what grounds. This was commissioned by Les Voisins for this tour, with support from Creative NZ, who certainly got value for their money. It is a set of six movements in the style of a Baroque suite. Justine Cormack introduced the work by quoting the composer, who described it as ‘a series of musical games with an emotional core’ in the chaconne. Taylor wanted to explore the potential of the fretted theorbo alongside the flexibility of the violin and cello, which can glissando between notes via the quartertones between them (whereas the theorbo can only play semitones).

Cormack mentioned the distortions created as the intervals are sometimes stretched or compressed. Taylor, she said, saw the work in terms of patterns of stress and release, with the tension of the quartertones built up in the chaconne section and released in the epilogue. The programme note said that the work explores the notion of a ground: literally, in the case of the ground bass in the chaconne, but also in the sense of ‘returning to a fixed point, collections of harmonies derived from a single pitch, or variations on a specific musical interval’.

This was a delicious work to listen to in the context of the pieces that went before. It was ear candy, with unexpected and interesting sonorities one after another. The chaconne was my favourite movement. (My notes say ‘weird – but very interesting’.) The composer had responded intelligently to the Baroque works in the programme and his work sounded as poised and stylish as they did, evoking Baroque forms within a completely contemporary soundworld. We were disappointed not to hear it twice.

After the interval, the theorbist took a break whilst Cormack and Bush played Ravel’s less well-known sonata for violin and cello in A minor. The players grew up living next door to each other as children, and performed with each other from an early age. Cellist James Bush often performs with some of Europe’s best Baroque musicians, such as the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, and Concerto Köln, and that Baroque flexibility was on show.

The Ravel work was written between 1920 and 1922 and is dedicated to Debussy, who had recently died. This work follows Ravel’s principal composition of the First World War, Le Tombeau de Couperin, and was written at about the same time as his orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Ravel had recently heard Kodaly’s sonata for violin and cello, and the second and fourth movements are said to be influenced by it (though my Hungarian companion heard more Bartók than Kodaly in them). I enjoyed the rustic, lively dances, but my favourite movement was the third movement, a slow and beautiful chorale. The first movement had that characteristic Ravel quality of always moving and never quite arriving.  Irrespective of what influenced whom, this is a gorgeous work and deserves to be heard more often.

Finally, since we were almost at the point when Ravel discovered jazz, we were treated to three transcriptions of Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt at the Hot Club de France: Reinhardt’s versions of Sweet Georgia Brown, Nuages, and Minor Swing. Simon the Theorbist was revealed to be an excellent guitarist as well, and Cormack did a lovely Grappelli. These were terrific (although it always sounds a bit odd to my ears when classically trained musicians faithfully reproduce a transcription of a work that would have had considerable improvisation). A swinging end to a delightful concert, and a great start to WCM’s 2023 season.

 

Mirror of the World – Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony in Wellington

Gustav MAHLER – Symphony No. 3 in D Minor
Robert WIREMU – Waiata “Tahuri koe ki te maunga teitei”

Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano)
Wellington Young Voices & Choristers of Wellington Cathedral of St Paul Children’s Choir
Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir
Karen Grylls and Robert Wiremu (chorus directors)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Gemma New (conductor)
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday, 31st March 2023

“Symphony is like the world – it should contain everything!” – words spoken by Gustav Mahler during a famous encounter in Helsinki in 1907 with his near-contemporary, the Finnish symphonist Jean Sibelius. The idea of what constituted a “symphony” had brought forth vastly different responses from both men, Sibelius having declared his attraction to the “severity” and “profound logic” of symphonic writing (though he had, in fact, only just freed himself from a Tchaikovskian kind of romantic utterance evident throughout his first two symphonies). Mahler, by comparison, had hit the ground running as a symphonist with his idea of the form representing an expansionist, all-encompassing kind of aesthetic expression.

This “world view” of Mahler’s had been evident in each one of the eight symphonies he had thus far completed – and it was the massive Third Symphony of 1896 which to this day seems to be the most unequivocal expression of this philosophy (averaging about 1hr. 45m. in performance, it’s the longest in duration of all Mahler’s symphonies). While working on this piece twelve years before his conversation with Sibelius, Mahler had remarked to a friend that “to call it a symphony is really incorrect, as it does not follow the usual form – to me,  the term “symphony” means creating a world with all the technical means available”.

The composer had originally attached a programme giving each of the six movements separate titles underlining the work’s ultra-pantheist vision, the details of which he eventually suppressed before the work’s first performance, but which still appear in various subsequent programme notes (as was the case here)  – Mahler tended to draw back from his frequent initial euphoria regarding any such programme attached to a work, commenting in a note to a critic on this occasion, that “no music is worth anything if you first have to tell the listener what lies behind it…….what he is supposed to experience in it – you just have to bring along ears and a heart and – not least – willingly surrender to the rhapsodist!”. While I heartily agree in general terms, I still can’t in this instance resist the fascination of reproducing (again!) the composer’s underlying thoughts regarding the music…….

Mvt. 1  Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In
Mvt. 2  What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me
Mvt. 3  What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me
Mvt. 4  What Man Tells Me
Mvt. 5  What the Angels Tell Me
Mvt. 6. What Love Tells Me

Mahler in fact at first planned a seventh movement (“What the Child Tells Me”), but instead reworked the material as the finale of his Fourth Symphony, further underlining the connections and cross-references that especially abound in his first Four Symphonies, particularly with his use of either words or melodic settings of the same taken from the German folk-poem collection Das Knaben Wunderhorn which had appeared in the early 1800s. The work’s fifth movement “What the Angels Tell Me” uses one of these Das Knaben Wunderhorn poems ,”Es sungen drei Engel” (Three Angels sang), while the previous movement “What Man Tells Me” uses a text from  Friedrich Nietzsche‘s Also sprach Zarathustra, ”O Mensch! Gib Acht!” (O Man! – take heed!).

Interestingly, we were treated on this occasion to a similar kind of “seventh movement” as a prelude to the symphony, a waiata, written by Voices NZ Artistic Advisor Robert Wiremu especially for this particular concert, and performed by the different choirs, conducted by Karen Grylls. The waiata’s melodic lines drew from different impulses and resonances in Mahler’s work, a fast rhythmic  counterpoint set against a floating choral, the words delineating whakapapa –  maunga, awa, moana – and equating with the latter composer’s salutations via the symphony’s opening theme to the famous flowing melody of Brahms’ finale to his First Symphony.

It now seems a far cry from the days when Mahler’s music was generally not regarded favourably, and needed the advocacy of people like John Hopkins here in this country, who in 1959 had to put up with opposition (“this boring music”) from the Broadcasting Service Directorship to what was the first National Orchestra performance of a Mahler Symphony (No.4 in G). Hopkins staunchly persisted and Mahler’s music came through, with others such as Uri Segal, Franz-Paul Decker, and more recently Pietari Inkinen and Edo de Waart securely establishing the NZSO’s credentials across all of the composer’s completed symphonies as a “Mahler orchestra”.

Having witnessed some of these earlier ventures (my list by no means an exhaustive one!) and being able to readily recall the impact made by a number of these performances, I was delighted that Gemma New chose such a quintessential work in the orchestra’s recent history with which to mark her concert tenure’s beginning as the NZSO Principal Conductor. Franz-Paul Decker’s was, I think, the first Mahler Sixth I heard live, underlining for me the ironic twist of New’s stunning achievement here with the same orchestra and music when set against the memory of Decker’s by now historic comment that he found women conductors “aesthetically unpleasing”!

All part of the on-going ebb and waft of impression, opinion and reaction among people, a process to which New herself has appeared more than equable in the interviews with her I’ve read. Her concern seems, first and foremost, the music – and here she’s certainly at one with the composer, who, in one of my all-time favourite anecdotes concerning his aforementioned all-embracing world vision, once went as far as admonishing the young Bruno Walter, who was visiting him at Steinbach, Upper Austria at the time of the symphony’s composition, for looking around at the alpine scenery! – with the words, “Don’t bother looking up there – it’s already all been composed by me!”

For Mahler at the time of writing, it had “almost ceased to be music…..hardly anything but the sounds of nature”. New and the orchestra wholeheartedly plunged themselves into this awe-inspiring world right from the work’s beginning, with the silences as baleful as the upheavals of sound. I was particularly taken here with the ferocity of the ‘cellos’ attack in their upward-rushing figures, seeming to burst out of the louring gloom created by the brass’s and percussions’ elemental tread (with David Bremner’s sonorous trombone playing simply a voice for the ages!).Throughout the epic of the opening movement’s unfolding came these incredible releases of energy, by turns soulful, playful, jaunty and menacing – a world that “contains everything”, as Mahler told Sibelius that day – before driving inevitably towards a joyfully unbuttoned, almost savage frenzy of exhilaration at the movement’s end – no wonder the MFC audience were, despite convention, transported to spontaneous applause in response!

After the orgiastic energies of the Symphony’s First Part we enjoyed the relatively limpid lyricism of the second movement’s opening, oboe and strings here creating a “woods-and-fields” world of dream-like  interaction, whimsically enlivened by rhythmic and dynamic contrasts which brought the nature-world to pulsating life, all most evocatively shaped by New and her players. The third movement was begun just as innocently, though in a more playfully evocative way at the outset with  impulses and gestures associated with the animal kingdom characterised most bewitchingly by the musicians, winds and muted trumpets leading to various rumbustious activities.  How diverting and magical, then, was the “posthorn” sound ringing out from the distance (trumpeter Michael Kirgan doing his thing evocatively and near-faultlessly off-stage) – perhaps a fateful impinging by man on the natural world? A second posthorn call was followed by a sudden “cry of anguish” (humankind identified by nature as a threat?) before a kind of desperate rumbustication brought the movement’s curtain down.

Almost as enigmatic as the materialisation of the Earth-Mother Erda in Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” was mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke’s appearance ( strikingly clad in silver) during those last few precipitate bars of the previous movement,  ready to intone Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Midnight Song” from Also Sprach Zarathustra – one felt completely “drawn into” the mystical beauty of it all, as singer and players unerringly placed their tones into the firmament of those strangely vast spaces. What an array of sounds! Such distilled beauty in places such as with “Die Welt ist tief” (The world is deep”) from both voice and instruments, in particular the horns (led by Sam Jacobs) and the winds (led by Robert Orr) – and then, for me, a “lump-in-throat” archway of vocal loveliness from Sasha Cooke, at the words “Doch all’ Lust will Ewigkeit…” (But all joy sings eternity…) – a glorious moment!

If such beauties weren’t disarming enough, the subsequent movement “What the Angels Tell Me” featuring both soloist and the different choirs put the music’s enchantment beyond all doubt, as the sounds from those voices drew our listeners’ sensibilities skywards and into the celestial regions – the teamwork between the different groups of voices, the soloist and the orchestra was exemplary, and those “bimm!-bomm!s” with which the work finished kept resounding in this listener’s mind’s ear long after the concert was concluded.

How perfectly natural and unassuming it was for the singers, soloist included, to quietly sit down even while Gemma New was signalling to the orchestra to begin the great adagio movement which concluded the work (Decker had, I remembered, kept the choir members standing right to the symphony’s end,  to their,  and the audience’s discomfiture!).  The transition made, we settled back to take in the splendours of this much-lauded piece, regarded in some circles as the greatest slow movement written since the time of Beethoven! Subscribing to such a view is beyond the scope of this article, my notes focusing instead on the rapt purity of the playing of the opening string paragraphs, and the cohesion between the sections, each “voice” seeming to be in complete rapport with the others. As the movement unfolded and its purposes by turns placed accord, confrontation and/or conflict to the forefront, the playing in all sections moved surely between serenity and incandescence – horns and strings, for example, in the movement’s first confrontational passage six or so minutes into the movement, the flute, oboe and horn lines stimulating the richest of responses from the strings a few minutes later, to be followed by  the movement’s great midway watershed of tonal outpourings as the strings dare the brasses to match their full-blooded exhortions – there were no holds barred, either here, or as the symphony built up to its final climax – this was Mahler,  after all, where there are no half-measures, and in which New and her players fully understood and expressed that understanding nobly and sonorously.

A truly notable leadership debut for Gemma New, then, and the beginnings of a partnership which on this showing promises much for the orchestra and for its supporters – best wishes to all regarding its on-going success!

TAIORO

Taioro ki te Ao

Text by Sharn Maree, music by Anthony Ritchie

Sharn Maree, poet and narrator

Sherry Grant, piano

Donald Maurice, viola

Bats Theatre

26 February 2023

 

Colonialism was the subject of this musical performance. Colonialism is a much debated historical concept, but Sharn Maree focused on its impact on a Wahine Maori. She described ‘life forces’, and the meaning of ‘Maoriness’, and being Maori in the past, the present and in the future. These found expression in the music,  The piece started with a brief introduction in Maori about past destruction and the viola responds with a haunting theme, capturing the mournful sound of a Maori trumpet, a putatara while the piano played a repeated two note plucking phrase. The further historical account of colonial wars and conflict, land confiscation is echoed in harsh military music on the viola with  disturbing base notes on the piano which represented the clash between Maori and the European Pakeha colonizers. But this was followed by a revival of Maori awareness, and this was depicted by a beautiful passage on the viola, which to me sounded Scottish or Irish, rather than Pacific. The intergenerational trauma was reflected by a sad melody, again more Celtic than Pacific. But the voice, the Maori voice which cannot be silenced, was reflected in the music by a triumphal passage on viola and piano. In the end the positive message of the putatara returned, it was about life’s long journey regardless of race.

Anthony Ritchie’s music encapsulates the complex message of the text. He made superb use of the limited instrumental resources available to him.  One might think of this as occasional music. This event was first performed at the National Gallery, Ottawa on the unceded territory of the Algonquin Nation. and was attended by First Nation leaders, MPs and Diplomats.as guests of the NZ High Commissioner Canada, Martin Harvey. 

It was unfortunate that there were no programme notes available, so those of us in the audience who understood no Maori missed some of the substance of the text. Nonetheless great credit to Sharn Maree who wrote the text and delivered it beautifully, with great clarity and violist Donald Maurice with pianist Sherry Grant who realised the musical rendering of the impact of colonization

NZ Chamber Soloists add lustre to final 2022 Waikanae Concert

Waikanae Music Society presents:
New Zealand Chamber Soloists
Katherine Austin (piano) ; James Tennant (‘cello)
Lara Hall(violin/viola) : Dimitri Atanassov (violin/viola)

MOZART – Piano Quartet No, 2 in E Major K.493
HELEN BOWATER – Fekete Folyó (Black River)
SCHUMANN – Piano Quartet in E-flat Major Op.47

Memorial Hall, Waikanae,

Sunday, 30th October 2022

Waikanae is a 40 minute drive from Wellington, it has its own musical community, and the concerts that the Waikanae Music Society presents complement the concerts in Wellington. I don’t recall hearing the NZ Chamber Soloists in Wellington, which is a great pity, because you wouldn’t find a better ensemble anywhere. Three of its members teach at the Waikato Conservatorium of Music, Hamilton, and for this concert they were joined by  Dimitri Atanassov, former concertmaster of the Auckland Philharmonia.

The repertoire for piano quartets is, compared with string quartets and piano trios, limited. This concert featured two contrasting landmark works, Mozart’s and Schumann’s and a recent New Zealand work, Helen Bowater’s Fekete Folyó, the latter spanning the narrative of the Danube and the people of its basin from the Black Forest in Germany to the Black Sea in Romania.

Mozart: Piano Quartet No.2 in E Major, K 493

This is the second of Mozart’s Piano Quartets, completed in the year of his set of six String Quartets, dedicated to Haydn, three of his piano concertos, and also  while Mozart was working on his opera, The Marriage of Figaro, which was completed in the following year. There is a profusion of ideas, themes and lively contrasts in this quartet, and operatic snippets pervade the work. It has dramatic contrasts and suspense in the first movement, a beautiful aria in the second Larghetto movement and a suggestion of opera buffa in the last movement. It was impeccably played, with a lovely interaction between the violin and viola above the  firm base of the cello.  Their  lovely tone, allied to a natural ease and fluency, was particularly notable.

Helen Bowater: Fekete Folyó (Black River)

The Fekete  Folyó (in English the Danube), flows from the Black Forest to the Black Sea and on its way it traverses many lands of many people each with their unique and tragic histories. This is narrative music, with no evident formal structure, and the more engaging for that. We hear the wild rhapsodic music of gypsies, exuberant sounds of folk bands, and dark melancholic themes reflecting the tragic histories of the lands, moving Jewish themes echoing the terrible fate of the Jews of Hungary (at one point a sad cello solo taken up by the violin and viola). There is a lot of drama packed into this short interesting work, and it concludes with a most effective ending, the music petering out as the river disappears in the sea. Composer Helen Bowater was in the audience to acknowledge the applause.

Schumann: Piano Quartet Eb Major, Op. 47

For the second half of the concert Lara Hall and Dimitri Atanassov exchanged roles, Dimitri Atanassov played violin and Lara Hall viola. Schumann’s Piano Quartet was written some 60 years after Mozart’s K.493., and in that time the musical landscape, as indeed the entire world, had vastly changed. Although Schumann struggled with depression and bi-polar symptoms all his life, this work has an upbeat prevailing mood.  It starts with a dark opening that resolves into a lively allegro. The second movement Scherzo is playful, recalling Schumann’s childlike spirit that was reflected in his earlier Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood) for piano. The third movement is a love song, passionate, and lyrical. The last movement, Vivace, has at its centre a Fugue, joyous, and energetic, and  reflecting Schumann’s lifelong interest in the music of Bach. This is a work full of joy and a happy outlook. Three years later Schumann tried to commit suicide and was institutionalised for the remainder of his life.

This was a memorable concert, a great credit to the team of the Waikanae Music Society for bringing this outstanding group to the Wellington region.

The River of Youth – Arohanui Strings and Orchestra Wellington

Orchestra Wellington  – The River 

Glen Downie (b. 1991) – Well Within the Madding Crowd
(with Arohanui Strings)

Joseph Joachim – Violin Concerto No 2 (‘Hungarian’)
Soloist: Amalia Hall

Julian Kirgan-Baez (b. 1992) – Reflection

 Robert Schumann – Symphony No 3 (‘Rhenish’)

Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 15th October, 2022

There are two rivers in this programme: the Rhine, for which Schumann’s symphony was named, having been written after the Schumanns moved to Düsseldorf, and the Waimapihi Stream, which runs down Aro Valley (albeit mostly underground). Three of the works were written by young men: Joseph Joachim was the youngest, at 27, and Glen Downie the oldest, at 31.  Even Schumann was only 40.

There is consequently a sense of possibility, of a sunlit progress towards a happy future, about all of them. The tangible evidence of such possibility was provided by the Arohanui Strings, a Sistema-inspired orchestra led by Alison Eldredge, based in Taita, now with groups in Stokes Valley, Mt Cook, and Miramar. The Glen Downie work was commissioned for them by Orchestra Wellington, supported by SOUNZ, and Arohanui players joined OW on stage to perform it, plus a few other short favourites. It was striking that the Arohanui players took all the outside player chairs, and played with confidence and enjoyment.

Glen Downie had cunningly written a work with easy string parts – most of the interest was provided by the wind, brass, and percussion. It began with a spooky theme on the lower strings, with the broad, appealing main theme influenced by Henry Mancini. Downie’s programme note wished the Arohanui players ‘the same sort of fun … that I had whilst playing his music’. If it was Mancini crossed with film and television music, so much the better.

Marc Taddei’s showmanship was, naturally, evident. After they finished playing their last piece, a Scottish reel, he said encouragingly, ‘That went pretty well, didn’t it? Can we play it faster?’ and swung into a much faster tempo which almost everyone kept up with. Then, as the stage was cleared for the next work, he told the audience exactly how to donate (see arohanuistrings.org).

Joseph Joachim is known best these days as one of the famous violin soloists of the nineteenth century. Brahms wrote for him, as did Schumann. Born in Budapest, he was for several years the principal violinist of the Gewandhaus Orchestra under Mendelssohn, teaching at the Leipzig Conservatory. He moved to Weimar in 1848, where Liszt was establishing his cultural influence, then on to the court at Hanover where he was principal violin, and eventually to Berlin, where he founded a department of music performance at the Royal Conservatory.

As a composer, he was a protégé of Schumann and Mendelssohn. This work is a big virtuosic concerto, lasting 35-40 minutes – and is consequently described by violinists as ‘like running a marathon’. It is not often performed. My Hungarian colleague Steven Sedley commented quietly beforehand that he was a bit surprised that Amalia Hall had agreed to put in the time and effort to learn it. He described it as ‘a showy piece’, designed to show off the virtuosity of the performer. I could immediately see what he meant. It is a challenging work, with a huge first movement and lots of very fast playing required by the soloist. The players from the Arohanui Strings who had crept in to watch were delighted. There was general applause at the end of the movement.

The second movement is a tender and beautiful rhapsody in the style of a Romany ballad, featuring lots of small duets between the soloist and flute (Karen Batten), clarinet (Nick Walshe), and horn (William Loveless), with a long duet with the cello (Inbal Megiddo). The third movement is full of fiery Hungarian themes, as though it was about to launch into a Hungarian dance at any moment. My knowledgeable colleague noted afterwards that the concept of Hungarian nationality was a development of the Hungarian national movement of 1848 and afterwards; and also that gipsy music, emphasising bravura, scintillating music, a strong beat, and rich melodies, was the music played in well-off homes. It is refined music, not raw peasant music.

Amalia Hall played brilliantly by any standard. She captured the rhythmic subtleties and the heart-warming melodic passages. Further, she looked as fresh when she finished as when she started, so she has extraordinary stamina as well as technical virtuosity.

And then the interval. I felt as though I had sat through a whole concert already, but there were still two works to go.  That is the nature of an Orchestra Wellington concert.

The next work, Reflection, was by Julian Kirgan Baez, known mainly as an orchestral and jazz trombonist (playing with the Royal New Zealand Air Force Band and the Richter City Rebels as well as Orchestra Wellington and the NZSO). He has also been OW’s ‘Emerging Composer in Residence’ for the past year, working with John Psathas. This work, Marc Taddei told us, ‘embraces the harmonic language of Mahler, Strauss, and early Schoenberg’.

It begins with percussion instruments making sounds like water running over stones, with wind and brass, and then an entry from the strings in the big Mahler/Strauss late romantic style, with a brass underlay. The brass section was big: four horns, three trombones, and a tuba as well as two trumpets – all put to excellent use. The brass and wind writing was, I thought, very assured (although when the principal clarinet switched to bass clarinet I found the sound was swamped by everything else that was going on). Then the spirit of Schoenberg seemed to take over (the programme notes spoke of ‘angular harmonic and melodic gestures’) before a big announcement by the trombones and trumpets, and a final climax. This was an interesting work I would have liked to hear twice. There was excellent playing by percussionist Naoto Segawa and timpanists Brent Stewart and Ben Whitton, as well as trumpets Matt Stein and Toby Pringle and the trombones and tuba.

Finally, the Schumann symphony. The Third is very well known, but for Marc Taddei it was a teachable moment. He explained to the audience how the themes of the four outer movements use the interval of the perfect fourth, but the intermezzo at the heart of the work does not. For people not very familiar with the perfect fourth, the strings’ demonstration of how Schumann conjures beautiful tunes out of such an angular interval (to modern ears) would have sounded like a kind of magic. Taddei also told us that Mahler studied Schumann’s symphonies assiduously – as well as reorchestrating them to suit his own taste.  Nor was Mahler the only one – a film composer called James Horner stole the theme from the first movement, turned it from Schuman’s flowing 3/4 into 4/4, and added a shakuhachi (a Japanese flute). There was a burst of music over the PA system to illustrate the point.

This time the music examples were shorter but provided some structure to the listening experience for anyone unfamiliar with the work. The orchestra played well, with great solos from flute (Karen Batten), oboe (Merran Cooke), and great playing by all five horns. I especially loved the Bach-like chorale played by the brass in the solemn fourth movement, Cologne Cathedral, succeeded by the sunny and dancing final movement.

This was a complete musical experience, from the Arohanui kids to the glamour of Amalia Hall’s playing. And Taddei being the salesman he is, there was a pitch for the orchestra’s 2023 season, which includes Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin, Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, Psathas’s Planet Damnation (for timpani and orchestra), and Alban Berg’s Wozzek.  It is a great overstuffed rich plum pudding of a programme, and I can’t wait.