A few hours of sun as the annual concert at Government House garden returns

Vector Wellingon Orchestra Summer Concert in the Government House Garden

Conductor: Marc Taddei; soloists: Julia Booth (soprano), Helen Medlyn (mezzo soprano), Benjamin Makisi (tenor).
The Footnote Dance Company

Government House Garden

Saturday 11 February, 2pm

There was more than the usual amount of nervousness about the weather which has disrupted things at least once before, but by dawn, no doubt after a sleepless night by the management and performers, the matter seemed to be under control, and the afternoon turned into the very special Wellington musical adventure that it has become over the past decade. This was the first concert in the grounds since the house was closed for refurbishment.

I was relieved to find it hard to find a good spot to sit on the slopes when I arrived at about a quarter to one: big adverts on the day were clearly not needed and perhaps suggested over-exuberance on the part of the sponsors, The Dominion Post.

Appropriately, Ian Fraser (replacing Kate Mead who’d been host in previous years) referred to the death two days before of notable Wellingtonian, Lloyd Morrison, who supported the arts, especially music, through recordings of much New Zealand music on his label, Trust Records; as well he demonstrated a rare determination to retain business in Wellington against pressures to relocate to the north, a loyalty few others in business bother to display.

The concert was dedicated to Lloyd Morrison

Ian Fraser’s style was different.  His carefully dissembled erudition might not have had Kate’s smile-inducing recklessness, but we learned a few relevant facts and a few opinions.

One of his better quips came as he introduced the first piece, Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien (that odd mix of Italian and French). He noted that so many composers and others (Tchaikovsky was one of many) from the cold north of Europe yearned for the warmth of southern Europe; ‘rather like’, said Fraser, ‘Wellingtonians who in mid-summer, yearn for sultry climes’.

But Marc and the orchestra had decided that the gods should not be provoked by playing that was too lively and sun-drenched. As always with music that I heard when young and have retained a perhaps undue love of; so a far more exuberant performance raced ahead of what I was hearing (my landmark first performance was at a school concert by the then National Orchestra in the Town Hall, probably about 1950. By the way, how many times a year does the NZSO or the Wellington Orchestra these days fill the Town Hall or MFC with secondary school pupils?).

A Frenchman’s impression of Spain – Chabrier’s España – was livelier but, even though one doesn’t get an honest sound picture through heavy amplification in the open air, it sounded a little ragged.

It should have been enlivened by the dancing of six members of the Footnote Dance Company. They danced in front of the stage, in dark costumes and in the shade so that their efforts were largely lost, I imagine, to a great part of the audience. It was the same with their accompanying Strauss’s Pizzicato Polka and the 1812 Overture.

Earlier concerts had focussed on the music of particular countries; this time the orchestral pieces were simply from the more exotic parts of Europe. Well: Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No 4 is exotic for an Iranian; the overture to The Bartered Bride served as a great introduction to NBR New Zealand Opera’s second production in its 2012 season.

The solo orchestral offerings, indeed, were not the principal ornaments and opera arias (and duets and a trio) filled the rest of the programme. All three singers were in top form. The first bracket showcased each with a solo aria: Julia Booth opened with a lovely, unhurried and carefully enunciated Song to the Moon (in Czech) from Dvořák’s Rusalka. Ben Makisi, his voice quite without signs of strain that have sometimes been there in the past, seemed perfectly poised in the Flower Song from Carmen, urgent, lyrical. And Helen Medlyn, who was the first (and only) performer to wear colour – a beautiful, ground-trailing turquoise dress – could hardly have chosen better than Rosina’s confident ‘Una voce poco fa’ from The Barber of Seville. She leapt dangerously but successfully across wide intervals to the remote top notes.

Ben Makisi next sang ‘Where’er you walk’ from Handel’s only English opera, Semele, again with simple rhetorical sincerity. Later, with Julia, he sang the love duet from Madama Butterfly; though the blend was not perfect as each voice seemed to inhabit a separate space, they evoked the contrast between her naïve faith and his cynical sexual wants.

In the second half Makisi made a splendid impact in his singing of the favourite of every tenor, Granada; and in complete contrast, the aria from The Magic Flute in which Tamino looks on the tiny portrait of Pamina, ‘Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön’, in ringing, fairy-tale, love-at-first-sight style.

Julia’s other solo aria was from Manon – ‘Adieu, notre petite table’ – in which the coquettish, fickle Manon says goodbye to the little table which represents what she and her now-to-be-abandoned lover had for a while. This year is the centenary of Massenet’s death, a matter being commemorated in more musical-aware parts of the world. (Fraser remarked that while successful, Manon was never accepted as family entertainment in Paris. That may have been some parents’ inclination, but the Opéra-Comique where it had its first triumphant run, was essentially a family theatre. It premiered only nine years after the slightly controversial opening season at the Opéra-Comique of Carmen). Julia sang it with warm feeling, again displaying a voice of charm and beauty.

Julia also sang in duet with Helen Medlyn, the Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffmann, in which initially there seemed a slight imbalance between the two voices, as Helen’s voice emerged with a little more fullness than Julia’s.

Helen’s other solo aria was from little-known French composer Ambroise Thomas whose bicentenary (his birth) was marked in many quarters last year. Like Gounod, his two most famous operas were drawn respectively from Shakespeare and Goethe: Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet and Faust; Thomas’s Hamlet and Mignon (a small part of Goethe’s sprawling Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre). Here was one of the couple of well-known pieces from the latter: ‘Connais-tu le pays’, one of the poems Goethe embellished his novel with, much set by many composers (the other once-popular piece is the Gavotte). Helen’s rendering was a little more worldly than one might expect from the simple Mignon, but full of character.

Finally, the sparkling (of course) Champagne chorus from Die Fledermaus was sung by all three, vividly, with plenty of gusto, with Helen taking something of a lead in pushing the tempo to its brilliant finish.

Perhaps a repeat of that might have done instead of the statutory 1812 (nothing was made of this year being the bicentenary of Napoleon’s terrible campaign) which ended the afternoon with alarming cannons that had us blocking our ears as the earth shook, making us fear that Christchurch had suddenly arrived under us.