A brave challenge – Schumann’s “Scenes from Goethe’s Faust” from Orchestra Wellington and the Orpheus Choir

(This review was written by Steven Sedley in conjunction with other Middle C reviewers)

Orchestra Wellington’s Faust

Robert Schumann – Scenes from Goethe’s Faust

Soloists: Emma Pearson, Wade Kernot, Christian Thurston, Jared Holt, Michaela Cadwgan, Maike Christie-Beekman, Barbara  Paterson, Margaret Medlyn, Jamie Young
Marc Taddei (conductor)
Orchestra Wellington
Orpheus Choir
St Mark’s Schola Cantorum

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 3 December 2022

The first performance in New Zealand of this colossal work by Schumann,  was a fitting end for a season with its focus on this composer. It required vast resources, two large choirs, nine soloists, a large orchestra, and it is difficult, complex music, not immediately approachable.

Goethe’s Faust is the overpowering masterpiece of the German literature, and a number of composers tried to find musical expression of it, Berlioz in Schumann’s own time, Gounod, Boito, Mahler, Busoni  and a number of others in later generations.

Goethe died a mere decade before Schumann embarked on this work and part two of his play had not been published till some years later. This explains why Schumann, who started working on Scenes from Goethe’s Faust in 1844,  didn’t complete the last part until shortly before his death fourteen years later, Consequently he never heard the whole work performed.

Did the subject appeal to Schumann because he identified with Faust, the brilliant thinker, who was taken by Mephistopheles, the Devil, to be ultimately redeemed by the love of his life, Gretchen / Clara?  Or did he relish the challenge of writing a major work for choir and orchestra, an oratorio, to prove that he was a significant composer with a weighty large scale work to his name?  Perhaps it was a bit of both. As well, did he see his long term tertiary syphilis and his decline as parallels with Faust’s love of Gretchen and his love of Clara?

At any rate, it was a brave challenge for Orchestra Wellington, the Orpheus Choir and the Children’s Choir of St Marks, the soloists and perhaps above all, for the conductor, Mark Taddei, who having prepared this work, is unlikely to have the opportunity to perform it again any time soon.

The orchestra played at times with a beautiful lush sound, but the rhythmic precision and occasionally, intonation, was not impeccable. It is, after all, a very good part-time orchestra and can’t be compared with the great orchestras of the world available to all on YouTube or recordings.

The nine soloists acquitted themselves pretty well, all displaying a good understanding of their texts,  though it wasn’t made easy for them. A raised platform in the midst of the orchestra behind the strings but ahead of the winds was not an ideal placement, even if,  acoustically,  one would be hard put to it to think of a better one. All had to work hard to achieve parity with the densely orchestrated instrumental sound and none really succeeded in taking command. Emma Pearson’s  lyric soprano was ideal for the role of the innocent Gretchen, tenor Jared Holt was an assertive Arial and Wade Kernot’s firm, sombre tone was fine for Mephistopheles and the Evil Spirit in the Cathedral scene if not perhaps providing the last word in threatening malice. The most demanding parts were those of Faust himself and, after his death, Dr Marianus. Baritone Christian Thurston sang stylishly and well, but the interminable lines of Faust’s monologues lay rather low in his range when in contention with an orchestra that took no prisoners. The smaller parts were all taken well.

The Orpheus Choir was in fine form, as usual, especially in the Dies Irae and the young singers of the St Mark’s Schola Cantorum were bright and lively.

In the grand final section, Faust’s Transfiguration, written some years after the first two Parts, you could hear not only Goethe, but also Beethoven breathing down Schumann’s back with passages clearly recalling  the earlier composer’s Choral Symphony.

Unfortunately the performance was marred by surtitles of startling ineptitude, mis-translated, misspelt, banal, ungrammatical, and in places incoherent. It would have been worse still for any audience members familiar with Goethe’s text –  the Great Man must have been turning in his vault.

Still, with all its imperfections, this was a memorable performance, and, for people in Wellington an opportunity of a lifetime to hear this great work. We must be grateful to Marc Taddei and his team for daring to “think big” and bring to life one of the great masterpieces of the romantic choral repertoire.

Orpheus Choir’s first ‘on their own’ concert in 2020 a Gloria triumph

Orpheus Choir of Wellington

Director: Brent Stewart
Barbara Paterson – soprano, Ruth Armishaw – mezzo
Nicholas Sutcliffe – organ
Instrumental ensemble (Olya Curtis – violin, Karen Batten – flute, Dominic Groom – horn, Toby Pringle – trumpet, Peter Maunder – trombone, Jeremy Fitzsimons – timpani, Thomas Nikora – piano)

Vivaldi: Gloria (RV 589)
Poulenc: Gloria. “reminiscent of a fresco by Bozzoli”
Michael McGlynn: Jerusalem
olst: In the Bleak Midwinter, arr. Ola Gjeilo (poem by Christina Rosetti)
Rutter: Star Carol
Ēriks Ešenvalds: Stars (poem by Sara Teasdale; tuned wine glasses pitched in tonal clusters, painting the picture of a sparkling, starry night sky)
Handel: ‘Worthy in the Lamb’ and the ‘Amen’ from Messiah 

Wellington Cathedral of Saint Paul

Saturday 14 November, 7:30 pm

The introduction to the programme by the chairperson of the Choir, Frances Manwaring, remarks that this was the choir’s first ‘self-presented’ concert in 2020 – the only other public appearance was with Orchestra Wellington’s 3 October concert in Rachmaninov’s The Bells and Fauré’s Requiem.

And I might as well use her background notes to refer to the task of preparing for the concert under review. “Thanks to the tech-savvyness and innovative thinking of our Music Director Brent Stewart, we barely missed a beat. Rehearsals moved on line and choir members logged in from their living rooms or bedrooms. Physical warm-ups were attempted in unusual places and members of the choir displayed skill and flair as Brent found ways to showcase their talents.”

The delay in writing this review has induced me to modify certain earlier words about aspects of the performance, such as comments about the sound of the electronic organ, and the absence of orchestral parts that are somewhat intrinsic to the full sound of both Vivaldi’s and Poulenc’s Glorias.

Vivaldi’s Gloria
It all became unimportant as soon as the choir launched into Vivaldi’s choral masterpiece with the Gloria in excelsis Deo, making such mighty impact. Sitting fairly close, even the cathedral’s rather unmanageable acoustic didn’t interfere too much.

Each of the twelve sections might average about three minutes and they vary sharply in spirit and religious significance, but the genius of the music remained in full command of choir and audience for the full half hour. For example, the calm (the programme notes ‘introspective’ is a good word) second movement, ‘Et in terra pax’, revealed a lovely balance between men, occupying the centre of each of the half dozen rows of singers, and the twice as many women. But they were not at all unbalanced in their combined impact.

Soloists appeared in the third movement, ‘Laudamus Te’, Barbara Paterson and Ruth Armishaw, both making very striking impacts, contrasting comfortably. Part 6, ‘Domine Deus’ is for soprano, delightful, and a fairly limited orchestra, which again, one missed. Then followed mezzo Armishaw’s solo, singing the meditative ‘Domine Deus, Agnus dei’, punctuated by choir and organ; and she sang beautifully without choir in the tenth movement, ‘Qui sedes ad dexterum’.

Poulenc’s Gloria
Instead of an organ in the role of Poulenc’s orchestra, a small ensemble (eight players including the organ again) appeared after the interval to accompany his ‘Gloria’, which was a late product of his adoption, “in his fashion”, of religion in 1936, following the awful death in a car crash of a fellow composer and close friend.

In the opening phase the ensemble’s sound was somewhat heavy, the timpani particularly so and the three brass instruments were pretty audible, but that’s not too alien to Poulenc’s orchestral score. As for the singers, first impressions were of a soprano section that was strong, perhaps a little outweighing the rest. But the general impact of their performance was one of vigour and conviction.

In the ‘Laudamus Te’ the choir and the brass instruments that opened, in darting staccato rhythms, were well balanced from the beginning, and a quiet organ contributed nicely.

Soprano soloist Paterson emerged in the third section, ‘Domine Deus’, her part being to create a sense of peace, which was also the message the choir. The following ‘Dominus Fili unigente’ is a more lively movement, jocular and quite short. ‘Domine Deus, Agnus Dei’ is the protracted fifth movement, with Paterson taking lengthy solo episodes that could have been heard as mysterious rather than peaceful.

The sixth and last movement, ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris’ opened with slow recitative statements from the sopranos singing without accompaniment, the orchestra joined with a motif that was just a little different from the opening of the ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’. The choir and the men followed, singing in a prosaic character, often emphatically untuneful. But Paterson didn’t enter till about halfway through the last movement, casting some light but mostly ambivalence on the solo soprano’s message. The basic theme was taken up for the ‘Amen’ at the end which hardly offers a particularly persuasive feeling of hope for mankind, in spite of positive episodes like the ‘Laudamus Te’.

The choir was most successful in handling the frequent changes of tone and spirit, and the ensemble provided as good a substitute for a full orchestra as was reasonable to expect.

Concert fillers
The concert filled the time that a concert could normally be expected to last, with five varied and quite fascinating pieces.

First, a duet by Irish composer Michael McGlynn, Jerusalem, pursuing a variety of harmonies created an authentic impression through the distribution of the female singers around the sides of the cathedral. Then a song by Holst, In the Bleak Midwinter, arranged by Ola Gjeilo for solo voice with the choir entering later. The solo part was sung most attractively by the young soprano Kitty Sneyd-Utting.

John Rutter’s Star Carol, a lively and attractive Christmas song, with men’s and women’s voices taking distinct sections between substantial episodes by the full choir.

Another unfamiliar name was that of Ēriks Ešenvalds, Latvian (born in 1977); look at his interesting biography on the Internet. (Excuse me: I spent a fascinating week in Riga in 1999, catching four opera performances, and lovely ‘Art Nouveau’ architecture, a bit before Ešenvalds got started).

His Stars, to a poem by Sara Teasdale, involved the playing of tuned wine glasses, not strictly a ‘glass harp’, that were played by a number of the women in the front row, “painting the picture of a sparkling, starry night sky”. My notes describe it as evocative and rather moving; I think some men stroked the glasses too. The star was projected on the wall of the Sanctuary.

Finally, another gesture towards Christmas was ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ and the ‘Amen’, with which Messiah ends: a bit unsynchronised at the start, but then it took off, with gusto till the calm lead-in to the Amen chorus which was full of energy.

If these fillers were a bit like that, they were individually worth singing and being heard, and brought a fine concert, splendidly inspired and led by Brent Stewart, to a very successful end.

Lightning, thunder and Orpheus Choir’s and the NZSO’s “Messiah” – never a dull moment!

HANDEL – Messiah HWV 56 (complete)

Celeste Lazarenko (soprano)
Anna Pierard (mezzo-soprano)
Andrew Goodwin (tenor)
Hadleigh Adams (bass)
Orpheus Choir of Wellington (director Brent Stewart)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Graham Abbott (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 7th December, 2019

There would probably have been a number of people at this “Messiah” performance, both performers and audience members, who had shared something of my own experience a couple of hours before the concert’s starting-time, of the onslaught of an unexpectedly vicious single lightning strike during a storm over the Mt.Victoria area of the city, one whose particular impact on the house I was inside could have been likened to that of a blow from a gigantic iron-clad fist. Perhaps it was rather more in sheer visceral accord with parts of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony which both the choir and orchestra took part in several weeks ago! – still, the “force of nature” aspect to my mind tied in well with some of the more elemental parts of Handel’s score, put across here by the musical forces assembled with properly-focused strength and conviction.

This was Graham Abbott’s third Wellington appearance as conductor of a “Messiah” (previously in 2012 and 2016), and, as in his two previous outings, featured a “complete” performance of the work, the projected length of such an experience countered, as before, by the conductor’s more-than-usually quick tempi. Even so, the “2 hrs” duration suggested by the evening’s programme booklet seemed firstly alarming, and then, as good sense prevailed, unlikely! As it was, the performance by my reckoning took at least half-an-hour longer, but, thanks to the compelling quality of both singing and playing, kept our interest throughout.

Besides the conductor, and, of course, Brent Stewart’s Orpheus Choir, other “old friends” included the soprano, Celeste Lazarenko, last here in 2017, and mezzo-soprano Anna Pierard, who sang the alto part with the conductor here in 2012. New chums were the two male soloists, both, I thought, making a splendid job of their music, handling the more technical aspects of their parts with great aplomb and bringing distinctive character to the words and their meanings.

The orchestra began proceedings, the band a tightly-knit, chamber-sized ensemble, reflecting the conductor’s desire to keep to the kind of sound he imagined the composer would have heard, the playing throughout confident, supple and spontaneous-sounding, able to surprise with an emphasis or phrasing even in a work as oft-heard as this one, and otherwise delivering all the anticipated “moments” with a fresh distinction. Though it seems odious to “single out” players, one couldn’t help but register the skills of trumpeter Michael KIrgan (resplendently note-perfect throughout “The trumpet shall sound”), and with his partner Mark Carter, adding lustre to both the “Glory to God” sequences of Part One, and the magnificence of the concluding sections of both “Halleluiah” and the final choruses. Unfailingly steadfast, too, was the continuo of harpsichordist Douglas Mews and organist Jonathan Berkahn, while the string and wind lines were a delight to register in both their complementing and counterpointing of Handel’s choral writing.

The first voice we heard was that of tenor Andrew Goodwin, who, in his opening ”Comfort ye” solo encompassed solace, comfort, hope and strength by getting his words to “speak” as well as make music (the word “cry”, for example). His tones had plenty of forthright “ring” and accompanying resonance, enabling him to beautifully “shape” his coloratura passages. In Part Two of the work, Goodwin related superbly with the chorus via his declamatory “All they that see Him” and the following incisive and mocking “He trusted in God”, the tenor’s reply full of pathos, and then carrying this intensity through to the insistent, more defiant,  “Thou shalt break them”, which tingled and stung with focused energy. Goodwin also teamed up tellingly with mezzo Anna Pierard for “O death, where is thy sting” the two fitting their lines together to exhilarating effect!

Although her “big moment” was undoubtedly the aria “He was despised”, whose slower, more meditative sections mezzo Anna Pierard delivered with breath-catching presence and feeling, she also coped as well as any I’ve heard with writing that was often low for the voice while requiring some “heft”, as with the “refiner’s fire” sections of “But who may abide”. Her voice gained in presence to arresting effect when the vocal line rose, as at the ending of “Oh thou that tellest”, and throughout “Then shall the eyes of the blind” – and her hand-in-glove teamwork with the tenor throughout “O Death” already noted, was a joy.

Of course the soprano’s entry is exquisitely timed by Handel for maximum effect at “There were shepherds”, and Celeste Lazarenko didn’t disappoint, a fractional “bump” during one of her “Rejoice Greatly” runs aside. But I thought she really came into her own later with “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, which was beautifully shaped and inflected throughout, movingly so in places, not the least of which was the raptness of “the first fruits of them that sleep”. Then, she further enchanted with her “If God be for us”, floating her lines so sweetly, and confidently essaying the coloratura, with  both her ease and energy giving such pleasure and delight!

I can’t recall ever before hearing Palmerston North-born Hadleigh Adams sing, and thought his performance terrific! As if he, as well, had been assailed by that late afternoon‘s thunderbolt from the skies, he proceeded to bring out something of the same drama in “Thus Saith the Lord”, with a terrific cosmic “shake” and powerful upper notes, before delivering his message of the Lord’s “coming” with true theatrical presence. Dramatic, too, was his “haunted” tone at the beginning of “For, behold”, though he didn’t make as much of the crescendo at “the Lord shall rise upon thee” as I wea expecting – nevertheless, his was a properly visceral “The people that walked in darkness”, throwing his voice up and over great archways of tone throughout. Both in “Why do the nations” and “Behold I tell you a mystery” his storytelling gifts came out strongly, carrying us along with his energies and descriptive detailings – a most engaging performance!

Thus, too, was the Orpheus Choir’s contribution to the proceedings, beginning with a truly resplendent “And the glory of the Lord”, though one which then made the sopranos’ momentary ensemble “hiccup” at the beginning of “And He shall purify” all the more unexpected! Things were fortunately restored with “For unto us” apart from a tendency for the tenors to hurry slightly with their running figurations – and thereafter it all grew in stature and magnificence right to the end. The sequence which truly caught up my responses was that beginning with “Surely He hath borne our griefs”, the sheer attack of both voices and instruments most arresting, followed by an amazingly contrasted “And with his stripes”, taken more slowly and intensely that usual, to be followed by “All we like sheep” the burst of energy awakening us from our reverie of having been “healed”, and the dovetailings between the voices themselves and the orchestra so very delicious to experience!

The response of the audience both to the conclusion of the “Halleluia” chorus and the final “Amen” was overwhelming, though I was sorry that the previously-mentioned work of the solo trumpeter, Michael Kirgan, didn’t seem to be specifically acknowledged at the end (or perhaps I missed that bit of the proceedings!). But all in all, very great credit to conductor Graham Abbott for his overall direction, as well as to the Orpheus’s director, Brent Stewart for the truly sonorous preparation of his forces for the concert.

In the wake of yet another expertly-delivered performance of “Messiah” sounded for us “as Handel would have heard it”, I was interested to be reminded, in another reviewer’s report of the concert, of the Mozart version of Messiah, performed here in 2013 (https://middle-c.org/2013/06/mozart-s-take-on-handel-warmth-more-than-refiners-fire/)  – but I’ve also been thinking equally of late about the “Messiahs” that many of us would have grown up with in the 1950s and 60s, and wondering what people would think of a “retrospective” presentation of the work (in other words, “one for old times’ sakes”).

Two famous interpreters of the work from these (and earlier) times were Sir Malcolm Sargent (with his famed Huddersfield Chorus of about five thousand people! – or so it seemed!) and SIr Thomas Beecham with his equally outlandish but splendiferous re-orchestrations which (despite his estate’s claims to the contrary after his death) he had commissioned from another musical knight, Sir Eugene Goossens). My inclination would go towards the Beecham/Goossens version with its splendid array of nineteenth-century instruments accompanying the singers (“Handel would have loved it!” declared the ever imperturbable Sir Thomas!) The authenticists will throw their hands up in horror – but my feeling is that the rest of us will love it too! And what hearing it will probably do is enhance our appreciation of “period-practice” music-making even more. What might the NZSO and Orpheus forces think of THAT prospect, I wonder?




A finely-wrought, light-on-its-feet “Messiah” from Nicholas McGegan with The Tudor Consort and the NZSO

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
HANDEL:  Messiah – An Oratorio, HWV 56

Madeleine Pierard (soprano)
Kristin Darragh (alto)
James Egglestone (tenor)
Martin Snell (bass)
The Tudor Consort (director – Michael Stewart)
Nicholas McGegan (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 8th December 2018

Just for interest’s sakes I hearkened back to my “Middle C” review of an earlier Messiah here in Wellington conducted by Nicholas McGegan with the NZSO three years previously, one which I hailed as a focused and characterful performance throughout. There was plenty to wax enthusiastic about on that occasion – McGegan’s very “visceral “ way with some of the music’s more pictorial evocations, such as the frisson of excitement he and his soprano (Anna Leese in that instance) created when, in the Annunciation to the Shepherds, the “Multitude of the heav’nly hosts“ excitingly made its presence felt, the forcefulness of the scourge-blows on Christ’s body at the chorus’s “Surely He hath borne our griefs”, and the sepulchral darkness wrought by the same voices with the words “Since by man came death”, contrasted all the more by the oceanic surge of energy at the immediately-following “By man came also the resurrection of the dead”.

McGegan’s other soloists besides Anna Leese on that occasion played their part in the characterful realisations, an affecting “He was despised” from mezzo Sally-Ann Russell (though the brutal contrasts of “He gave his back” in the piece’s middle section were dispensed with, then – as this time round),  a ringing, prophetic “voice of him that crieth in the wilderness” from tenor Steve Davislim, and a blood-stirring, skin-and-hair festooned “Why do the nations?” from bass James Clayton. And though she’s already had a mention above, I can’t pass over Anna Leese’s ravishing and warmly-assured “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, which, together with a Halleluiah Chorus that really took flight as an expression of exuberant joyfulness, created what I thought felt like some kind of “transcendence” that carried the performance on the crest of a wave right to its final moments.

Lest the reader regard these words as uncritical warblings, I must emphasise that there were a couple of things I felt a tad short-changed by at the time, the aforementioned truncated “He was despised” for one, and McGegan’s non-inclusion of practically every number other than what might be regarded as “standard” fare for the work, thus ignoring two or three of my absolute favourites – “The Lord gave the word” from Part Two’s The beginnings of Gospel Preaching, along with two from the otherwise unrepresented The Victory over Death and Sin section, a pairing of the superbly-wrought duet for alto and tenor “O Death, where is thy Sting?” and its equally wonderful linked chorus “But thanks be to God”. Apart from these quibbles I found the realisation hard to fault, with soloists, choir and instrumentalists inspired by their conductor to infuse such “bare-essentials” content with music-making of “energy, brilliance, warmth and sheer grandeur”.

Three years later, and with different soloists and a smaller chorus, here was Nicholas McGegan once again, looking to not only recapture that former occasion’s “first, fine careless rapture”, but take us further along the road travelled by performers and listeners alike, all wanting to deepen our involvement with a masterpiece such as “Messiah”. Expectations were high, and anticipations brimful with promise, everything further fuelled by the presence of well-known vocal soloists, along with the highly-regarded choral group, The Tudor Consort. Of course, having a specialist “early music” choir was immediately going to make a difference to last time, when the choir was the 56-member-strong NZSO Messiah Chorale – here, with twenty fewer voices the performances’ sound would obviously be quite different – leaner, more incisive, but less grand and resplendent-sounding.

Only the most diehard “authenticist” or the most stick-in-the-mud “traditionalist” would want to hear the work performed in much the same way each time – fortunately the NZSO’s attitude seems to be one of “vive la difference”, judging by the changes that have been “rung” in the presentations of the last few years. Who knows? – though loving and appreciating the “period performance” kinds of realisations, I’m still hanging out for the day when we get a local reincarnation of the remarkable (or notorious, depending on one’s standpoint) Eugene Goosens-orchestrated version of “Messiah” that was famously recorded by Sir Thomas Beecham in the 1950s, a version that some older listeners would have been brought up on via that magnificent recording.

For now, it was the same “standard version” as McGegan used previously, leaving me again bereft of those aforementioned favourites, which included the central section of “He was despised”, and giving rise to a similar feeling of Part Three being, relatively speaking, over in almost a trice. Of course, there being no “absolute” version of the work sanctioned by the composer, one has to fall back on the idea I proposed last time round – that of the work being a “listening adventure”, with nothing about any performance taken for granted (prior knowledge excepted, of course). The other variables are, of course, the different performers – and here every single voice was a different one to that of 2015, making for fascinating and rewarding listening on that score alone.

McGegan got a gorgeous sound from his instrumentalists at the very opening, the winds prominent at first before the strings alone took the melody at the repeat  – a chirpily “pointed” but flowing allegro generated a spacious, out-of-door feeling, well-suited to the declamatory entry of the first of the soloists, tenor James Egglestone, with “Comfort ye”. His fine, ringing voice readily evoked the prophetic tones with telling emphasis at certain points – “and CRY out to her….”, for example – his “ev’ry valley” grew in exaltation with each repeat – and how ear-catching and mellifluous was the combination of harpsichord and organ here, played respectively by Douglas Mews and Michael Stewart.

Egglestone again measured up during Part Two to his almost confrontational role in close alternation with the chorus, the voice bright and sharply-focused for “All they that see him”, and imbued with sorrow and pity at “Thy rebuke hath broken His heart”. Some of the words I wanted him to “spit out” more vehemently, such as in recitative with “He was cut off”, and in the aria “But thou didst not leave” – all dramatic, angular stuff that I thought needed the consonants flung about a bit more dangerously! – however, his focus sharpened again at “He that dwelleth in heav’n” and “Thou shalt break them”, the “potter’s vessel” well-and-truly dashed to pieces by the aria’s end!

Bass Martin Snell pinned our ears back with his magnificently sonorous and arresting beginning to his recitative “Thus saith the Lord”, giving his extended flourishes on the word “shake” terrific energy and pointing his words superbly throughout – “The Lord whom ye seek shall SUDDENLY come to his temple!…”. Just as startling in a different way was his second appearance, in the wake of a  marvellously sinister introduction by the strings heralding “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth…” His voice had an awe-struck quality, which rose in a great arch at “but the Lord shall arise upon thee” before returning to the gloom to begin his aria “The people that walked in darkness”, his tones again flooding both physical and imagined spaces at the phrase “have seen a great light” – tremendous!

Snell’s later contributions were no less telling, firstly in the frenetically-framed “Why do the nations…”, the orchestral playing on fire with energy and fury, the singer venting the words’ spleen in fine style, hurling out the triplets like sparks from a firecracker in both sections of the aria, and then in the well-known “The trumpet shall sound”, the player sounding a shade tentative over the first few bars, but then hitting the proverbial straps, and the singer resplendent of voice and commanding of manner and presence throughout, the overall effect majestic!

I’d heard Kristin Darragh in smaller operatic roles up to this point, commenting then on the dark and powerful quality of her various assumptions – enough to keenly anticipate what she might do with the alto sections of this score. While I wasn’t ideally placed seat-wise for the first part (my partner and myself judiciously changing our location after the interval for a more front-on, better-balanced sound-picture), I still got a sense of Darragh’s fearlessly engaging way with the texts in “But who may abide”, consistently conveying the impression that every word truly meant something. I wished we had been seated more centrally for the “refiner’s fire” section of the aria, so as to have gotten the full impact of Darragh’s sonorous lower register – a very operatic, Verdian sound in places, also in evidence at ”Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened” and its aria, which she shared (to properly startling effect, the voices creating quite different worlds of expression) with soprano Madeleine Pierard.

But it was in one of the score’s defining numbers, the aria “He was despised” (which  I heard from a better-balanced perspective than I did those previous items) that Darragh really demonstrated what she was capable of – here the voice was decked in purple, the emotion conveyed with real pathos (to the point where one almost imagined a sob in one of the descending phrases), then the tones seriously darkened for “A man of sorrows” so that the following words “acquainted with grief” took on incredible poignancy. What a tragedy we weren’t allowed to hear what Darragh would have made of the bitterly incisive lines of the contrasting section “He gave his back to the smiters”, here, as in 2015, not given.

I fancy I’ve witnessed at least three, and perhaps even four “Messiah” performances featuring soprano Madeleine Pierard, each of them displaying the singer’s brilliance and interpretative powers in their varied contexts of the different conductors’ realisations. At her first entrance in Part One she worked hand-in-glove with her conductor in “There were shepherds”, beautifully terracing the growing realisations and excitements associated with the appearances of, firstly, the angel, and then “a multitude of the heav’nly host”, the last depicted by both soprano and players as if transported by ecstatic joy – scalp-prickling stuff! Part One as well featured from Pierard some brilliant, fiendishly euphoric vocalisings expressing the sentiments “Rejoice greatly” – high-energy music-making from both singer and orchestra, the concluding dotted rhythms bouncing notes in every which direction most excitingly! This was followed later by an easeful, soaringly expressive “Come unto Him”, the second part of an aria shared and nicely contrasted with Kristin Darragh’s more visceral, earthy tones.

Pierard was given only one number to sing in Part Two in McGegan’s schema, the plaintive and expressive “How beautiful are the feet”, Handel reserving for the Third Part in this “version” all but one instance of a lighter-toned solo voice, here winningly characterised by the singer. If “He was despised” denoted a kind of “dark centre” of the work, setting the tone for its Second Part (opinions of both such an idea and such a “moment” will vary), then “I know that my Redeemer liveth” from Part Three was surely its antithesis, Handel skilfully characterising each by the use of voices with appropriately weighted tones, the contrast between the respective singers here well-nigh ideal.

I’ve spoken before of Pierard’s absolute identification with the words’ ideas and sentiments, and the sense I get of her instinctive “inclusiveness” when singing, as if her voice and presence were “embracing” every listener in the hall. This time round I caught an emphasis I hadn’t previously noted in her performances, her exquisite colouring of the words “the first fruits of them that sleep”, right at the piece’s end, made all the more telling by her lovely ascent at “For now is Christ risen”. While not a “carbon copy” of that “Messiah” performance here in Wellington I waxed lyrical about in 2014 (in a review that was published in an off-shore online critical magazine, “Seen and Heard International”) Pierard’s singing here certainly had a comparable “charge” to my ears,  and her approach to the music demonstrated a distinctive and well-focused interpretative viewpoint, as do all great performances.

Sitting where I was for the first part of the work I could clearly see the interactive process at work between conductor Nicholas McGegan and his various forces, choral and orchestral. I didn’t care for the conductor’s physical placement of the soloists when not singing, as they seemed somewhat “removed” from the action, two each on either side, sitting in a kind of divided “limbo” outside the orchestral forces, less able to give each other support and acknowledgement and seem “part of the whole”. It did, I suppose, enable McGegan to interact even more directly with the orchestral players, but I thought it gave less physical and psychological”unity”to the performance in general.

Still, The Tudor Consort voices responded to his direction with focused, detailed lines and plenty of variegated tones to their singing. The silvery tones of the sopranos was always a sheer delight, by turns part of a diaphanous web of sound in hushed sequences, and then gleaming throughout the more forthright passages. But each of the sections possessed a similar ability to spin finely-wrought lines, and maintain an “elfin” ambience, as with some of the long runs and contrapuntal passages  in “And He shall purify”.

McGegan encouraged the music’s dynamic contrasts, as with the “For unto us” opening lines and the climactic shouts of “Wonderful” and “Counsellor” in the same chorus, as also with the contrasts in “His Yoke is easy”. But the chorus that electrified me more than any other with its performance was “All we like sheep”, its convivial exchanges and dovetailings of the words “We have turned” making for sheer delight, until suddenly the music seemed to grow a black brow and a grim aspect, as the voices quietly but intensely “loaded” the hushed ambiences with the crushing weight of the world’s own iniquities, the effect being one of profound shock and dumbfoundment – so very theatrical and psychological! It had the same effect in reverse as the Part Three chorus “Since by Man came death”, here also done with great theatrical flair and atmosphere. My preference in the work would still be for a bigger choir, but despite the relative “lesser” numbers the “bite” required in places like “Surely He hath borne our griefs” was still palpable, as was the splendour of the “Halleluiah” and the final choruses.

In conclusion, no praise can be too high for the orchestra players, who responded to their conductor’s every gesture. I thoroughly enjoyed the instrumental characterisations throughout the whole of the “Annunciation to the Shepherds”, the proceedings reaching a frisson of real excitement at the appearance of the “heav’nly host” with its ecstatic “Glory to God in the highest”, and, at the other end of the emotional spectrum, the sepulchral tones of the introduction to “For behold, darkness shall cover the Earth”. Though strings and wind bore the brunt of the workload, the brass and timpani came into their own at the “Halleluiah” – I loved timpanist Laurence Reese’s crescendo roll at “King of Kings” at one point! – and in the two final choruses, the “Amen” in particular being more-than-usually expansive and exploratory, requiring a “filling-out” of measures and tones from all concerned. Players and singers alike delivered in spadefuls what conductor McGegan asked of them, and for our delight brought the work to a rousing finish!

NZSO and Edo de Waart’s outstanding performance of Damnation of Faust

Berlioz: The Damnation of Faust

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Edo de Waart
Soloists: Alisa Kolosova (mezzo-soprano; Marguérite), Andrew Staples (tenor; Faust), Eric Owens (bass; Méphistophélès), James Clayton (baritone; Brander),
Freemasons New Zealand Opera Chorus, Wellington (Michael Vinten, Chorus Director)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday, 25 August 2017, 6.30pm

Berlioz was a non-conformist, musically.  In an ironic twist, the otherwise excellent programme notes said he ‘flaunted rules and regulations’ whereas in fact he flouted them, falling out with audience and critics in the process.  The work that was the entire programme of this NZSO concert demonstrated to the full the composer’s very different  music from that composed by his contemporaries and recent predecessors.

The work required a large orchestra; there were numbers of additional players, and a large chorus, consisting of 28 women and 43 men – when have we ever heard a Wellington choir with so many men in it?  I was surprised and delighted to see that the orchestra appeared to include an ophicleide, the instrument specified by the composer next to the tuba, not merely a second tuba (the listing in the programme did not give this instrument).

I last heard this work live back in the 1970s, in the marvellous Dunedin Town Hall, with Kiri te Kanawa as Marguerite and Simon Estes (American bass) as Méphistophélès.  The other two singers were David Parker as Faust and Maurice Taylor as Brander.

It was innovative and useful to have surtitles projected in the Michael Fowler Centre, as for a conventional opera (which of course this work is not), so that the audience could follow what was being sung.  The French we heard sounded impeccable, particularly from Eric Owens.

The first character we met was Faust, sung by British tenor Andrew Staples.  He has a very pleasing voice.  At first I thought he was not always strong enough against the orchestra, but soon this opinion changed, as he warmed to the task, and adjusted to the venue being full (well, not completely, which was disappointing) after presumably rehearsing with it virtually empty.

Berlioz’s enchanting music constantly painted pictures.  Following Faust’s first solo there was pungent woodwind, including no fewer than four bassoons, and numerous rhapsodic utterances from the orchestra as a whole.  The chorus’s first entry, as peasants dancing and singing, was clear and immediate.  The singing was precise, with full-bodied tone.

Then came the Hungarian March, featuring fine flute playing especially, with other winds in strong support.  Rousing military bravado was almost palpable.

Next was a complete contrast, as Faust leaves the countryside and returns to his study, in Part II.  The pensive mood is portrayed in the music’s lambent tones.  Then an Easter chorus is sung by the choir and there is a great build-up of volume, as the orchestra becomes more agitated and Méphistophélès appears.  American Owens has a magnificent voice, full of expression and tonal colour, but perhaps his interpretation of the role of Méphistophélès could have been more dramatic, vocally; there was a certain uninvolved quality about his performance.

He takes Faust to a pub, where the chorus of drinkers becomes raucous, and an amazing story about a rat is told in ironic, fugal music, followed by Méphistophélès’s story about a flea. The male chorus was in fine fettle singing the chorale for the rat.  Strong music conveyed the irony of the flea song.  James Clayton, in the part of the drunken Brander, used gesture and movement more than the other singers.

Faust and Méphistophélès retreat from the vulgar scene and the latter sings a lullaby, encouraging rest to come to Faust, amid flowers.  Here, his large, rich voice was imposing, and expressive of the words.  Trombones’ fine playing accompanied him.  The mixed chorus was most effective in invoking the beauty of nature.  The strings lead a quiet dance, as Faust falls into slumber.

The male chorus, now students, are joined by the soloists in singing that was robust and characterful, with full brass, as the two protagonists enter the town where lives Marguérite, whom Faust has seen in visions as he slept.

As they make their way to her room, yet more varied, imaginative music sounds from the orchestra, with a march consisting of trumpets and timpani (6 of them!), plus echo horns and trumpets off stage.  Faust contemplates the air of the countryside, and thinks of Marguérite.  Andrew Staples produced some gorgeous high notes; here there was no problem of balance against the orchestra.

At the opening of Part III, dazzling flutes introduce Marguérite, who sings one of the work’s well-known arias, about the king of Thule.  This aria drew beautiful vocal expression from Alisa Kolosova; she also used more facial expression than the other two principal soloists.  The aria was accompanied by Julia Joyce on viola, a marvellous obbligato played with clarity and broad strokes bringing out the full tone of the instrument.  It was a pity that so much coughing, absent in the first half, was apparent during this aria.

On Méphistophélès’s return he is accompanied by fanciful piccolo pirouettes.  Bass clarinet, too has quite a large part to play; another manifestation of Berlioz’s imaginative orchestration, evoking the dramatic moods and changes, reflecting the detail of Goethe’s great dramatic poem based on the medieval legend of a man who sold his soul to the Devil.
At the moment at which Marguérite and Faust must part, since they are imminently to be discovered together in the bedroom, the full chorus joined in.

Part IV reveals brilliant singing from Alisa Kolosova in the wonderful aria “D’amour l’ardente flamme”.  It was exquisite singing, but even more exquisite was the playing of the orchestra’s cor anglais player, Michael Austin, performing the obbligato.  I cannot recall hearing cor anglais playing more wonderful and dynamically varied than this.  It made the aria exotic and erotic; alternately electrifying and hypnotic.

The soldiers interrupt the mood, but the cor anglais gets a last opportunity to produce the mellifluous, enchanting, expressive melody.  Whereas at times Marguérite seemed to lack the power to project sufficiently.

Faust is heard again, invoking the forces of nature.  The drama builds, the female chorus rises. Méphistophélès brings his rushing horses, portrayed by a combination of pizzicato and bowed strings; they underpin the screams and unearthly songs.  Brass then woodwind add to the horrific scenario of the rush to hell that has full sway in Berlioz’s (and Goethe’s) imagination.  Faust staggers as the men’s chorus and Méphistophélès carry forward the ghastly drama with various names of the Devil, and singing in a ‘devilish tongue’. Méphistophélès wanders off and the women join the chorus.

It was a shattering experience to hear the chorus sing the heavenly ‘Praise’, with the two harps and a solo soprano from the chorus, after what preceded it.  Their tone was gorgeous in this heavenly ending.  The interpretation by the writer of the programme notes was that the horses carry Marguérite to hell as well as Faust, whereas Larry Pruden’s notes to the 1972 performance have her saved by God; hence the heavenly chorus.

This was an outstanding performance .  At the end, the applause was loud, long and accompanied by cheers for all the performers.  Andrew Staples nobly gave his bouquet to Julia Joyce, who had played the viola obbligato so beautifully.  Then, to my delight, Edo de Waart wended his way through the orchestra to present his flowers to Michael Austin.

Descriptions heard from members of the audience afterwards included ‘amazing’, ‘tremendous’, ‘emotional’.  In addition to the privilege of hearing a superb band of soloists, a splendid and well-trained chorus this concert demonstrated again what a fine orchestra we have, under its superb conductor, Edo de Waart.  Above all, however, it revealed the astonishing innovation, inventiveness impetuosity and imagination of Berlioz.


Orpheus Choir’s “Chichester Psalms” concert terrific! – but James MacMillan has the last word……..

The Orpheus Choir of Wellington presents:

JAMES MacMILLAN – Seven Last Words From The Cross
LEONARD BERNSTEIN – Chichester Psalms

MacMillan: Pasquale Orchard (soprano) / Alexandra Woodhouse Appleby (soprano/alto)
Karishma Thanawala (alto) / Giancarlo Lisi, Peter Liley (tenors)
Stephen Clothier, Minto Fung (basses)

Bernstein: Liam Squire (treble) / Pasquale Orchard (soprano)
Alexandra Woodhouse Appleby (alto) / Giancarlo Lisi (tenor)
Joe Haddow (bass)

Orpheus Choir of Wellington
Brent Stewart (Music Director)
Thomas Gaynor (organ)

Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul

Saturday, 29th April 2017

As with music and art in general, people’s responses to matters of spiritual belief seem to vary enormously from individual to individual. Despite what seems like an ever-increasing secularisation of everyday life, we’re still can’t help being either active or passive observers of institutionalised calendar commemorations based on matters of belief in God which affect various human activities – we’re regularly made aware of certain historical frameworks and structures brought forward from times when people in general rendered to a Deity things that were regarded as belonging to that Deity, with few questions asked. A pivotal event in this history is without doubt the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, one which continues to exert significant influence in the Western World along any point of the spectrum of faith, on believers and non-believers alike.

Still, however much belief and spirituality in general takes up people’s lives in the 21st century is well-nigh impossible to gauge, except in the most generalised of terms – it would seem far less than, say, a century ago, and that the unprecedented horrors of the previous century, including the escalation of the human race’s own self-destructive potentialities might suggest a growing crisis of belief in any kind of omnipotent being who might allow or oversee such universal catastrophes, from which advancement of humankind towards any kind of future seems increasingly unlikely.

Creative artists these days seem to me to either mirror or confront these present-day actualities in their work – a case in point regarding confrontation is the Scottish composer James MacMillan, whose compositions actively reflect an active and securely-held Christian faith – at the opposite end of such motivations (to contrast the work of two utterly different “visionaries” I’ve encountered recently) is British playwright Caryl Churchill whose latest work for the stage (Escaped Alone, recently performed at Circa Theatre, Wellington) presents frighteningly dystopian scenarios of the future, one in which God as he/she is presently known seems non-existent. Of course both the dystopian prophetess playwright and the social-justice-driven Catholic composer advocate in different ways strategies for countering certain trends before a point of no return is reached, and so in some respects there’s common ground. Perhaps a basic difference between MacMillan and Churchill is that, for the former, there’s always a sense of optimism for the future amid the struggle – whereas for the latter the proposed scenarios and nihilistic attitudes given voice in her most recent work seem matter-of-factly pessimistic.

As was the case with the great French composer Olivier Messiaen, MacMillan’s creativity is inextricably tied up with his religious beliefs – “For me, religious faith is rooted in the mess of real life” he once said in an interview. And though he may no longer be the Marxist revolutionary of days of yore, his work still has an occasional “firebrand” quality, a confrontational edge which sets him apart from the new-age “Holy Minimalist” school of composition, whose preoccupation is a kind of transcendence set largely above conflict. By contrast, music such as MacMillan’s “Seven Last Words from the Cross” expresses great swathes of anguish and explosions of anger, alongside a sense of grief and sorrow, all of which suggests that its creator is well aware of the pain and suffering of all mankind as articulated by the sacrificed Christ. MacMillan’s text in this work is somewhat more than merely the seven “scripture-gazetted” utterances of Jesus on the cross, but takes also from sources such as the Good Friday Responsaries for Tenebrae which quote from the Book of Lamentations: “All you who pass along this way take heed and consider if there is any sorrow like mine……” – an impassioned call across the ages for human empathy.

This 1993 work for voices and strings (performed here with the instrumental parts transcribed for organ) came across with considerable force within the vast Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul spaces – it was a fairly no-holds-barred setting of the seven finally-reckoned gospel-recorded statements uttered by Christ as he hung on the crucificxion cross in Jerusalem. I’m aware that my comments below are as much descriptive of the music as analytical of the performance – perhaps even more so the former! I hope the reader will forgive such self-indulgence at my delight in coming across such a magnificent piece of relatively “new” music for me, and be reassured that my descriptions inherently recognise the abilities of the musicians involved to “articulate” the music to the point where it was able to make the impressions on me that it did!

There were times when the lush ambiences of the Cathedral told against the music’s clarity, places which I’ve tried to pinpoint as best I’ve been able to. However, as there are usually roundabouts at hand where there are swings, the up-side of the venue was its incredible resonance, which in places “enlarged” the music’s expressive scope to awe-inspiring extents! With a work like MacMillan’s containing both grand and intimate statements, no one venue is going to be ideal, and Wellington Cathedral was certainly no exception. Conductor Brent Stewart certainly brought out the best of the venue’s interaction with the music, and the performers did the rest with their, by turns, sensitive and full-throated music-making.

The organ opened the work with a simple plaintive note, the sounds of deep and inward mourning – as the choir intoned the words “Father forgive them”, the organ became an enormous swinging pendulum over which movement the voices rose and climbed, the cathedral’s spacious acoustic allowing the voices to “float” and soar. As well the cavernous spaces gave the organ’s deepest notes enormous girth, the combination of “space above” and “depth below” making for an amazingly cosmic sound-experience. Much of the plainchant-like agitated exclamations which followed were unintelligible as words from where I sat, at about the halfway mark within the audience – those sounds jumbled in the huge spaces, but the choir’s magnificently-sustained intonings filled the building’s ambience with urgently prayerful impulses and piteous beseeching.

A raw, monumental quality resounded from the voices over the repeated statement “Woman, Behold thy Son”, the utterances underscored with great silences “surging softly backwards” in between each tumultuous command – at first a soft organ pedal measured the depths of the sea of each silence, stirrings and sproutings of energy which grew into sequential melodic patterns, and finally burst forth with bravura-like outpourings of a fantastical nature. Everything was superbly controlled as the voices continued to repeat the phrase, with the organ accompaniments becoming more frenetic and desperate-sounding until a kind of exhaustion-point was reached, the instrumental sounds whimpering and imploring, searching for some kind of resolution or answer – in the throes of these agitations the voices spoke to and for the son, naming the woman as his mother. With fewer words to decipher I found this movement simply overwhelming in its direct, almost confrontational attitude, and in its sense of journeying stepwise towards depictions of a spirit in extremis.

Beginning the third section, the men intoned in Latin a tribute to the wood of the Cross – “Ecce Lignum Crucis” – (Behold the Wood of the Cross..) – accompanied by a singing melody the men sang “Venite Adoramus” – “Come, let us adore him”. Women’s voices at first sounded earthier, almost medieval, as they repeated the “Ecce Lignum” salutation, then rhapsodised more freely with the organ, the voices overlapping and suffusing the acoustic with richly-upholstered tones of adoration.

A great outburst of agitation from the organ ( with the conductor, Brent Stewart, “conducting” the organist!) prepared the way for two women soloists, their voices positively stratospheric, giving voice to Christ’s radiant invitation to the “good thief” to join him in Paradise. Deep organ meditations followed (eight speakers and a sub-woofer, doing the “honours” with a smaller organ, I was told, proudly, before the concert began, by one of the organisers – I can vouch for the effectiveness of the arrangement as the result seemed even more sonorous and wide-ranging as we in the audience had a right to expect!), with the soloist, Thomas Gaynor, skilfully managing the transition from inchoate murmurings to full-blooded transcendent intensities of light and colour, as the men sang, with increasing agitated feeling “Eli, eli lama sabachtani” – My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Again, I found it difficult to decipher some of the words in that cavernous acoustic, though such was the intensity of the music’s rise and fall and the musicians’ control, I was content to be borne along on a tide of pure emotion, unsure of exactly where I was going, but confident in the musicians’ ability to keep things afloat and buoyant. Whether slow or swift-moving, such was the fascination exerted by music and performance, that specific words mattered less than the sense of being caught up in somethingsignificant and deeply felt – The “I thirst” section featured men’s voices barely “registering” against a background of women’s voices by turns, whispering, chanting, and singing, in Latin “I gave you to drink of life-giving water….”, before organ and voices suddenly erupted, flooding the vistas with sonorous urgencies, and then withdrawing into the agitated resonances once again.

Jagged organ chords slashed their way across the sound vistas, occasioning a sudden lighting change, as if the world was suddenly drenched in blood – most effective! Over the agitations the women’s voices began a flowing passage based on the Good Friday Responses for Tenebrae, “My eyes were blind with weeping” joined by the rest of the choir, developing a sombre meditation on sorrow.

The instrumental slashings returned, but couldn’t quell the impassioned cry from the voices of “Father”, which the organ supported with a heartfelt meditation, generating some Janacek-like intensities in places before slowly allowing resignation and a kind of tingling tranquility to drift back and settle all around for what seemed like moments outside time. The performers requested before the concert that no applause should follow the performance, and this strange sense of something continuing to resonate stayed with us throughout the interval – a most telling strategy, and one that worked brilliantly!

The Cathedral’s voluminuous spaces brought out the arresting attack of the voices and the wonderfully percussive scintillations at the opening of the second item on the evening’s programme, Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms”, even if the resonances played havoc with the music’s more incisive, quick-moving sequences.
A dancing organ solo brought the soloists briefly to the platform, before some gently exotic percussive touches introduced the boy soprano, Liam Squire, singing the words of Psalm 23 – “The Lord is my Shepherd – I shall not want” – the melodic line characteristically mixed its composer’s penchant for sentimentality with slightly “grainier” sequences, bringing forth moments of rapt beauty from the young man’s voice, along with passages that seemed more effortful, perhaps too low-lying in places for the voice to properly expand and take flight.

Bernstein’s setting of Psalm 2 “Why do the nations” (the words familiar from Handel’s “Messiah” of course), galvanised the ensemble, with rhythmic passages that seemed to come straight from “West Side Story”, along with exciting percussion effects – even in this acoustic the trajectories of the music danced and enlivened the textures to spectacular effect.

A “grunty” organ solo with harmonic sequences and progressions reminding one of Reger’s music introduced the third section “Adonai, Adonai” (Lord, Lord), sung in the manner of a ballad, the melody graceful and warming, wrapping itself around and about one’s sensibilities, especially so in the wordless sections. The soloists tenderly and sensitively extended the mood with variants of the melodic line, until the sound’s “dying fall” imparted a rapt and devotional sense of valediction to the proceedings, the composer striving to impart the text’s sentiment of “brethren…together in unity” at the work’s very end.

Coming after James MacMillan’s direct and uncompromising exploration of grief and pain in “Seven Last Words From The Cross”, Bernstein’s far less demanding work might have been regarded by some people as a kind of emotional refurbishing in the wake of a series of debilitating meditations, and, in contrast, by others as something of an anticlimax. I inclined more to the latter than to the former view, thinking I would have preferred to leave the concert with those heartfelt gestures of compassion and empathy resounding in my head and playing on my sensibilities. Still, each of the pieces spoke its own particular truths and left the other more-or-less intact – and the performances by solo singers, instrumentalists and the choir, under Brent Stewart’s inspired leadership, along with organist Thomas Gaynor’s brilliant playing, certainly delivered the goods, enabling each work to make its own particular impact in grand style.

Days Bay Opera does it again with Handel’s “Theodora”

HANDEL – Theodora (Oratorio in Three Acts, 1749)
(libretto by Thomas Morell)

Daysbaygarden Opera Company
Director: Rhona Fraser
Conductor: Howard Moody

Cast: William King (Valens, Roman Governor of Antioch
Maaike Christie-Beekman (Didymus, a Roman officer)
Filipe Manu (Septimus, a Roman, friend of Didymus)
Madison Nonoa (Theodora, a Christian noblewoman)
Rhona Fraser (Irene, a Christian)
John Beaglehole (a messenger)

Chorus: (Heathens/Christians) Emily Mwila, Emma Cronshaw Hunt, Sally Haywood,
Alexandra Woodhouse-Appleby, Lily Shaw, Luca Venter, Isaac Stone,
Hector McLachlan, William McElwee

Orchestra: Anne Loeser (Violin, leader), Rebecca Struthers (violin),
Victoria Jaenecke (viola), Eleanor Carter (‘cello), Richard Hardie (d-bass),
Merran Cooke, Louise Cox (oboes), David Angus (bassoon),
Mark Carter (trumpet), Howard Moody (organ)

Canna House, Day’s Bay, Wellington,
Saturday, February 11th, 2017

(Next and final performance: Thursday 16th February, at 7:30pm)

One of the pleasures of reviewing for me is fronting up to performances of music which I simply don’t know, and subsequently asking myself (sometimes in tones of amazement and disbelief) why it is I’ve never encountered this or that work before, finding it so beautiful / profound / thrilling /whatever! Thus it was with this often compelling production of Handel’s oratorio Theodora, a work the composer wrote towards the end of his creative life, and regarded it as one of the best things he’d ever done!

It didn’t get off to a very good start in 1750, the year of its first performance – the consensus of opinion is that Londoners found less favour with the idea of the martyrdom of a Christian saint than with the Old Testament stories which Handel’s previous oratorios had presented. Whatever the case it was played only three times that season, and just once during 1755 before being dropped from the repertoire for well-nigh two hundred years.

According to the work’s librettist, Thomas Morell, the composer himself declared parts of Theodora superior to anything to be found in Messiah, particularly the final chorus of Act Two “He Saw the Lovely Youth”. Naturally Handel was disappointed in the work’s poor reception, though he himself had remarked (again, according to Morell) that his rich Jewish patrons ,who had flocked to hear Judas Maccabeus a few years previously, would probably not be interested in a presentation with such “Christian” themes and characters.

Amazingly, it wasn’t until the famously provocative Peter Sellars’ revival of the work at Glyndebourne in the UK in 1998 that Theodora made a proper “comeback” to the repertoire. It ought to be remembered that this was, of course, an oratorio rather than an original stage work which was inspiring such acclaim/alarm amongst enthusiasts for both genres. Sellars’ production simply put new wine into old bottles, relating the work’s themes of religious intolerance and persecution to contemporary tyrannical practices enforced by certain modern states and rulers.

Perhaps Rhona Fraser’s Days Bay Opera production didn’t generate quite the intoxicating charge of that Glyndebourne affair, but in places it may have effectively “trumped” it! The production’s reduced scale meant the adroit use of a multi-identity chorus whose members at appropriate times merely changed their garb, which here, I thought, worked really well. The staging proclaimed its intentions during the Overture, with chorus members echoing the recent political upheavals in Europe by carrying Brexit-like “Resist” placards, before being moved on by the commando-like armed guards.

The Overture’s grand-gestured opening turned into a nicely-sprung allegro, the players delivering plenty of energy and focus which easily filled-out the performing spaces (unlike with previous Days Bay productions, we were actually inside the house this time). The first solo voice we heard was that Valens, the Roman Governor of Antioch, whose entrance was rapturously augmented by his black-leather-clad brigade, some supporters carrying signs containing the unequivocal message “Make Rome great again”, as well as the more sinister legend “Torture really works”.

William King as Valens delivered a sonorous, strongly-characterised decree, commanding that all citizens commemorate the Emperor’s natal day by taking part in Jovian rites of worship, before similarly dismissing the plea of one of his soldiers, Didymus, for tolerance towards those people who professed a different faith. King brought the same strength and sonorous tones to his threatening “Racks, gibbets, sword and fire”, underlying the contrast of intent with that of Maaike Christie-Beekman’s Didymus, whose dissenting voice expressed all the warmth and pliability of tolerance and concern for those who might fall foul of the Governor in her aria ”The raptured soul defies the sword” – Christie-Beekman threw herself with abandonment into the incredible vocal melismas of the music, despite a couple of occupational spills along the way, emerging with great credit.

I thought the contrast well-drawn between the deeply-felt conviction of Christie-Beekman’s portrayal and the divided emotions of Septimus, a fellow-soldier, sympathetic to dissent, but loyal to his duty as a soldier. Filipe Manu’s assumption of the latter most effectively expressed the character’s inner conflict, his voice securely filling out the phrases of his aria “Descend, kind Pity”, with only a pinched phrase or two drying out the voice in places, not inappropriate to the character’s feelings of stress and conflict.

Theodora’s first entrance, featuring the bright, sweet voice of Madison Nonoa, was accompanied by markedly exposed string lines, suggesting the character’s purity and even isolation in the strength of her belief. Her aria “O flatt’ring world, adieu” carried this idea into even more beautiful and rarefied realms, the singer’s tones full and fresh, voiced accurately and sensitively. Supporting her was Rhona Fraser’s Irene, and the chorus in its Christian garb (having changed sides!), with a serene and radiant “Come, Mighty Father” accompanying the ritualisting lighting of candles.

Not even the entrance of a messenger (John Beaglehole) with his warning of impending arrest of any dissenters from the governor’s edict shook the resolve of the group, with Rhona Fraser investing Irene’s “As with rosy steps the dawn” with plenty of strength and security, emboldening the chorus to give of their best in the canonic “All Pow’r in Heav’n above”, which built to radiant climaxes. The group’s defiant mood disconcerted and frustrated the arriving Septimus, whose recitative “Mistaken wretches” and subsequent aria “Dread the fruits of Christian folly” were given plenty of energy and momentum, Filipe Manu managing the difficult runs with plenty of aplomb and appropriate bluster.

In the exchanges between Theodora and Septimus which followed, each singer “caught” their character’s crisis of moment, Theodora, the captive devastated by her enslavement into prostitution at “Venus’ Temple” as a punishment for her defiance of the Governor’s edict, and Septimus, her captor, torn between sympathy and a soldier’s duty. Madison Nonoa’s reply was to pour all of her artistry and beauty of voice into her character for one of the composer’s most beautiful arias “Angels ever bright and fair”, aided by sensitive and radiant instrumental support from conductor and players – a treasurable and memorable scene.

Didymus’s shock at being told of Theodora’s fate culminated in his resolve to rescue her, in a brilliant show of recitative “Kind Heav’n, if virtue be thy care” combined with aria “With courage fire me”, Christie-Beekman’s more vigorous sequences excitingly counterpointed a florid violin obbligato solo, generating tremendous excitement. It remained for the chorus to invest Didymus with the Almighty’s blessings (a wonderful “Go generous, pious youth”, as he changed his garb for that of a Christian, before setting off to rescue Theodora.

So ended Act One – to go through and “fine-tooth-comb” the rest of the performance would bog the reader of this review down in largely repetitive detail. Each singer by this time had amply demonstrated what they could do and how well they could”flesh out” each character, and no-one disappointed in those terms. While the production was in many ways “abstracted” by dint of its intimacy and confined spaces, Rhona Fraser’s direction firmly held to the essentials of dramatic interaction, allowing the singers sufficient theatricality to flesh out their characters in a totally convincing way. I did feel the chorus members seemed rather more “at home” with the pagan revels than with the Christian rituals, though that seemed a Miltonian problem as much as anything else, a matter for human nature to answer to!

Enough to say that the playing out of the drama was convincingly achieved, with a fine show of orgiastic revelry from Valens’ leather-clad entourage at the beginning of Act Two, the excesses of which were finely counter-balanced by the same singers’ in their opposing roles as the Christians at the “changeover”of Acts Two and Three (the composer described the lamenting chorus “He saw a lovely youth” as belonging to Act Two, though here the sequence in what the group imagines at first to be the death of Didymus was placed at Act Three’s beginning – but no wonder the composer himself had a high opinion of the piece!

I was puzzled by a curiously inert chorus response to the appearance of Theodora, disguised in Didymus’s uniform, in which she had escaped – however, the ensemble roused itself sufficiently to convey most effectively both the Heathens’ wonder at the dignity of the lovers’ response to their own deaths (“How strange their ends, and yet how glorious”), and the final Christian affirmation of the work – “O Love divine, thou source of fame”. here a properly and appropriately moving conclusion.

Each character brought a comparable intensity to his or her role in this playing-out of the story – William King’s Valens, drunk with power during the revels of Act Two, remained an imperious and implaccable presence in the face of pleas from various quarters to spare the lovers’ lives. The agony of Didymus’s soldier friend Septimus became more and more apparent as the denoument approached, from expressing his support for Theodora and Didymus in Act Two, to pleading to Valens for their lives in the final scene. Filipe Manu here brought a full and heartfelt outpouring of tones in “From virtue springs each generous deed”, ennobling his character further in doing so. And the Irene of Rhona Fraser, though following a less tortured moral trajectory, rewarded her part with steady, well-rounded vocalising, readily conveying her real human sympathy and conviction of faith in “Defend her, Heav’n”, sung over Theodora as a prisoner in Act Two, and her freshly-wrought and unquenchable hope in her release in “New Seeds of joy come crowding on” in the final Act, just before the final tragedy’s enactment.

Ultimately it was left to the two main protagonists to properly “carry” the essence of the story’s dramatic and emotional weight, with the help of all those mentioned, along with the instrumentalists and conductor. Maaike Christie-Beekman’s Didymus’s journeyings through what seemed like an entire gamut of emotion to a fulfilment of love reunited in death was classic operatic stuff, comparable in impact to other, later versions of the same, such as that of another soldier, Radames, in Verdi’s Aida, or the love-death of the knight in Wagner’s Tristan, each of these characters confident of progressing towards a loving reunion in another life.

Madison Nonoa’s Theodora was the object of Didymus’s desire, though less passive than that description suggests, her character embracing the idea of salvation in tandem with her once-heathen lover, for whom she was ready to sacrifice her life alone. Handel responded to these characters and their situations with some of his greatest music (he himself thought so too!), nowhere more exquisite than throughout Act Two where the lovers are reunited after Theodora’s arrest when Didymus with his friend Septimus’s help finds her in prison. Didymus sings his enamoured “Sweet Rose and Lily”, then tells Theodora he has come to help her escape though Theodora would rather Didymus kill her and release her unto “gentle death”. Didymus rejects her plea – “Shall I destroy the life I came to save?” and urges her to trade places with him and take his clothes and escape – but Theodora laments “Ah, what is liberty or life to me that Didymus must purchase with his own?” – such heartfelt stuff, and here, by turns, so gutsily and sensitively articulated, voiced and, above all, sung!

The pair’s subsequent duet in which their absolute trust in one another and in the mercy of a Higher Power, enabling them to meet “again on earth” or “in heaven” brought forth an exquisite intertwining of impulse, here full-blooded and forceful, and then rapt and breath-catching, an interaction that came full circle in the final scene of Act Three with their farewell duet “Thither let our hears aspire”. It was singing, and playing, which truly for we in the audience “woke the song and tuned the lyre”, and left us marvelling at the seeming endless invention of its composer. It just went to show that, for our delight, the joys of such music and, as here, its sensitive and whole-hearted presentation, are endless. In the midst of that realisation I felt truly grateful to be there, to Howard Moody, the conductor, to Rhona Fraser the producer, and to all who made the presentation of this glorious music such a profound and for me unforgettable experience.

No Christmas without “Messiah” – with the Tudor Consort and the NZSO

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
HANDEL: Messiah

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Graham Abbott (conductor), with Madeleine Pierard (soprano), Christopher Field (counter-tenor), Henry Choo (tenor), James Clayton (bass), The Tudor Consort (Michael Stewart, Music Director), James Tibbles (harpsichord), Douglas Mews (chamber organ)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday, 10 December 2016, 6.30pm


This was a remarkable performance, in many ways.  The smaller-than-usual orchestra was matched by a larger-than-usual Tudor Consort in fine voice, and splendid soloists, all directed by Australian Handel specialist Graham Abbott.  Unusually, there were no cuts in the score; all was performed.  ‘Their sound is gone out’, in Part II is usually a chorus.  But this was composed three years after the première; in the first performance it was a tenor solo, and so it was in this performance.  (Thank you, Wikipedia).

An excellent printed programme gave much information, as well as the full libretto.  The biographies of the soloists were marred by a number of minor errors – whether the fault of the singers or the NZSO, they should not have been difficult to correct.  No author was given for the excellent notes, but the subscript ‘Approximately 2 hours’ was certainly a considerable understatement.  Perhaps it was based on performances where some numbers are omitted.  As happens so often, the lighting was too low for much of the audience to read the programme easily.  It is a strange New Zealand custom that I have not met in the UK or other countries.  Programme designers for this type of concert need to bear in mind that a large proportion of the audience is over 55 years of age; it is known that older people need more light to read by.  But in any case, this is not a spectacle like ballet, opera, cinema or plays.  There is no detail on stage needing to be seen.  The printed words are what need to be seen – especially at the $10 price-tag.

This was an approach to an ‘authentic’ (aka historically-informed) performance; the soloists introduced their own flourishes to endings of arias; the string players played in baroque style, with little vibrato (but not authentic instruments or bows), and the high trumpet was used.  Tempi were in the main fairly fast compared with what was usual 30+ years ago.

At first I was doubtful of the capacity of a small orchestra and relatively small choir (39 singers) to produce an authentic performance in a huge auditorium such as Handel would not have dreamt of for his oratorio’s initial production in Dublin (in a hall that, at a squeeze, accommodated 700), but I was wrong.  The placement of the choir behind the orchestra, where its sound resonated off the wooden panelling behind provided a more than adequate, accurate sound, for the most part.

The orchestra, too, created a sound that was readily heard, whether forte or pianissimo.  It was led by recently appointed Yuka Eguchi, Assistant Concertmaster.  The opening number, the gorgeous Sinfonia, gave the orchestra a chance to prove its lovely tone, with crisp oboes to the fore; the pace was not too fast.

The choir is really the principal performer in this work; how much of the finished product  was due to Graham Abbott and how much to the choir’s Music Director we cannot tell, but certainly what was produced was accurate, mellifluous, alert, flexible and very pleasing on the ear.

The soloists were a very even bunch (was it because most of them, and the conductor, were Australians?).  Henry Choo was first to be heard. He is a very accomplished singer, although not the most beautiful tenor I have heard in this work.  However, he has superb control and shaping of phrases and runs,  His embellishments at the end of ‘Every valley’ were wondrous.

The choir’s entry of ‘And the glory’ seemed a little understated, but it soon proved that it has plenty of volume, especially the men.  The clarity of words matched that of Henry Choo.  Accuracy was assured; throughout the performance only a few consonants were out of place, and intonation was always spot on.

Bass James Clayton in his declamation ‘Thus saith the Lord’ let us have it, in a robust reading.  His runs were well-articulated, and his words were exemplary.

It was a little surprise to hear the alto solos sung by a counter-tenor.  I find that Handel’s first performances in 1742 had a woman alto soloist; the first use of a male alto was in 1750.  Christopher Field has a fine voice and technique, and his flourishes in his recitatives and arias were remarkable, but his lower notes often disappeared.  He excelled in ‘O thou that tellest’; he had great breath control throughout the aria, taken at a fairly fast tempo.  The chorus section of this was bright and punchy.

The choir was notable in the tricky ‘And he shall purify’; the ensemble was salutary, making for an admirable rendition.  There was no muddiness despite the slick pace, and attacks and cut-offs were absolutely together.  However, here and elsewhere there was too much ‘thuh’ instead of the mute ‘e’ of ‘the’ in normal speech.

Throughout, the orchestra was simply top-class, not least in the lovely Pifa (Pastoral) movement for orchestra alone.  It was followed by the first appearance of Madeleine Pierard, who declaimed with great clarity the recitatives leading to the choir’s ‘Glory to God’, in which the brass instruments are first used – they made their mark.

‘Rejoice greatly’ went at quite a lick; Pierard’s decorations were sublime.  The harpsichord was notable in this aria; I hadn’t always heard it earlier, but there were no violas or organ in this number.  The counter-tenor’s return with the recitative ‘Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened’ revealed the singer’s expressive singing giving the words meaning.  The soprano part of ‘He shall feed his flock’ came as a bit of a shock because of the contrast..  Both singers have incisive but beautiful voices.  Pierard exhibited great control as she sang high notes in a delicate pianissimo.

The choir sang ‘His yoke is easy’ at a cracking pace to end the first part.  Consonants were clear, and accuracy was maintained.  The opening chorus of the second part, ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ surprised me, since the interpretation involved no double-dotting of the rhythm, as had become customary.  This was a beautifully smooth performance; throughout the work, there was admirable contrast between punchy, staccato choral movements and others that were legato.  The choir’s next chorus, ‘Surely he hath borne our griefs’ was an example of the former style.  Then ‘And with his stripes’ reverted, in contrast, to legato, followed by staccato ‘All we like sheep’ with its musical word-painting, and legato ‘And the Lord hath laid on Him’.

Before these, ‘He was despised’, a favourite alto aria, was sung well apart from one or two ugly notes, and a rather unattractive habit of the soloist bending his knees while singing.  There was a wonderful high note in his final embellishment.

The tricky chorus ‘He trusted in God’  had some ‘s’s that happened before they should have, but this is nit-picking; the singing was excellent.  The contrast of tenor recitative ‘Thy rebuke has broken his heart’ was made meaningful by its very slow tempo.  ’Behold and see’ revealed a lovely tone from Henry Choo, followed by ‘He was cut off out of the land of the living’.  Here, as elsewhere, Andrew Joyce (cello) and James Tibbles (harpsichord) were busy providing the continuo – though unlike other baroque composers, Handel frequently used other instruments to accompany recitatives.  Singing again in ‘But Thou didst not leave his soul in hell’, Choo expressed the words clearly and phrased the music intelligently.

One word describes the  chorus ‘Lift up your heads’: splendid!  ‘Let all the angels of God’ is a chorus I had never sung, or heard – it is usually cut, likewise the very florid alto aria ‘Thou art gone up on high’.  In ‘The Lord gave the word’, great was the singing of the chorus.

Another favourite soprano aria, ‘How beautiful are the feet’ followed.  How beautiful is the voice of the one who sang it.  ‘Their sound is gone out’ was slow but strong from the tenor, followed by the rousing ‘Why do the nations’, in which James Clayton was in his element with excellent vigour and clarity. These characteristics persisted in the next tenor recitative and the aria ‘Thou shalt break them’.  Part II concludes with choral music’s most celebrated chorus: Hallelujah’.  Following tradition, the audience took to its feet (but I did not, due to a current infirmity).  It was rendered brilliantly.

The pinnacle of all the solos is probably ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’, and Pierard gave  rich, controlled performance – one out of the box.  The soft notes were exquisite.  The following chorus ‘Since by man came death’, with its contrasts of quiet phrases and  contrasting excitement of ‘…even so in Christ shall all be made alive’ was spectacular.  The choir’s uniform timbre owes a lot to the careful discipline of every singer making the vowels in the same way.

Another highlight is the aria ‘The trumpet shall sound’.  Clayton was in fine form.  The high trumpet was splendidly played by Cheryl Hollinger; it was relatively legato playing, and she only required back-up on a couple of notes.  The only vocal duet in the work ‘O death, where is they sting’ was pleasingly sung by alto and tenor, followed by a good outing for ‘But thanks be to God’ (it is often omitted).

Another less familiar aria ‘If God be for us’ was superbly sung by Pierard, with ethereal high notes.  Finally, the glorious chorus ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ and ‘Amen’.  It was accurate and lively despite coming after much singing and playing.  The two trumpets and timpani brought a jubilant end.  What a magnificent conclusion to a long work!  What a great variety of wonderful music Handel wrote in this masterwork!

All praise to choir, orchestra, conductor and soloists.  The audience’s enthusiastic response was well deserved.

Schumann a winner but Sibelius and Mendelssohn unconvincing in fine Bach Choir performances

Romantic Fairytales from the Bach Choir of Wellington, conducted by Michael Vinten

Sibelius: The Captive Queen
Mendelssohn: Loreley
Schumann: The Pilgrimage of the Rose

Douglas Mews – piano
Soloists: Bianca Andrew, Marian Hawke, Maaike Christie-Beekman, Oliver Sewell, Christian Thurston, Roger Wilson

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Saturday 8 August, 3 pm

Michael Vinten and his Bach Choir had decided to explore some pretty unexpected choral repertoire with this concert of mid-nineteenth century, plus a rather out-of-season, comparable work from half a century later.

I have to praise that initiative.
However, much of the choral music composed during that era has not stood the test of time. The problem can be ascribed to Romanticism, which encouraged composers to find new modes of expression, focusing on their own natures, and on stories that could be interpreted through non-theatrical music.

Traditional opera subjects drawn from Classical Antiquity and the Bible and the Middle Ages were rejected. At the same time, large middle classes arose, developing a taste for pubic orchestral and choral concerts, with ever-increasing numbers of players and singers. These could attract the new audiences which felt out of place in the expensive splendour of opera houses, and who were without the classical education necessary to follow many operas.

Some German composers tended to scorn opera, especially the Italian and French – Rossini, Donizetti, Auber, Boieldieu, Meyerbeer. Some tried to reinvent opera in the Romantic-German manner, like Weber, Spohr, Marschner; but it took the genius of Wagner to make it work.

The fashion for orchestral music telling a story in symphonic poems, and large-scale, theatrical-type choral compositions became the Romantic oratorio.

The Schumann work was an example of the folk-tale oratorio; Mendelssohn’s unfinished opera an example of the failed Romantic folk-tale opera.

Sibelius’s The Captive Queen is a late example of the secular cantata/oratorio; it served a political purpose, the Queen symbolizing the Finns, and her captors, the Russian Empire. I imagine its disappearance after its first performances is explained by the same reasons that left me unimpressed. Finlandia was a much more successful idea.

It seemed a pedestrian work, in a kind of pious, Victorian, English manner, with the composer struggling to find a convincing vein or melodic inspiration that would lift its lame poetry above a level of embarrassment. It would have been a blessing, though a harder learn, to have sung it in Finnish.

However, the choir sang with energy and conviction, though the men sounded thin in their introductory verses, before being buoyed up by the women. The other handicap was the absence of an orchestra which would at least have lent the music colour. I guess my feelings about the music (not the performance) are summed up by my scribbled question: “Was Sibelius’s heart really in it?  At least the choir makes the most of it”.

Mendelssohn’s Loreley was his operatic attempt at the end of his life, probably inspired by the wonderful soprano Jenny Lind. He’d written singspiels in his teens, but only one was produced: Die Hochzeit des Comacho. Its reception did not encourage him to persist.

But I couldn’t help wishing that he’d devoted his last year to something in which his gifts were real, like another string quartet, in the spirit of the one in F minor, Op 80. Again, understanding the words was embarrassing; onomatopoeic effects sounded childish; the cries for vengeance half-hearted. I could detect no theatrical instinct in the composer.

The soloist who sang the role of Leonora was the accomplished Marian Hawke, who lent it genuine feeling, and the choir sang with energy, though perhaps rather too driven, without sufficient rhythmic and dynamic variety and liveliness.

Happily, Schumann’s Der Rose Pilgerfahrt (The Pilgrimage of the Rose) was quite a different story. We are usually encouraged to believe that Schumann’s last years saw a decline in his musical creativity. As a serious Schumann lover, I’ve always been reluctant to take that without a fight, and here, for me, was pretty persuasive evidence of his non-declining musical powers.

The programme note seeks to deflect criticism of the character and worth of the oratorio (if that’s what it is), by mentioning its “slight narrative”, “little drama”, the numbers only “loosely joined”. That may be, but even if the words themselves, again unfortunately, in English, are naïve and straining for effect, the music has a persuasively genuine feel, creating a situation and narrative that in the context of fairy-story, becomes listenable on account of the beguiling music.  It’s the same case as quite a few operas with feeble libretti which succeed because of the music.

Michael Vinten and the chorus seemed to have been inspired by the lyrical and varied music, varied in tempi, with triple-time numbers here and there, and changes of mood and feeling that respond to the sense. The women of the choir became fairies with sprightly singing.

Bianca Andrew was affecting as The Rose and other soloists performed engagingly: their individual as well as ensemble numbers contributed eloquently to the telling of the story. It was a pleasure again to hear Marian Hawke whom I had not heard for a long time, before she reappeared in Days Bay’s Rosenkavalier last year. Both she and Maaike Christie-Beekman contributed in a lively and committed way. Occasionally, soloists moved to sing together, as a trio (Maaike, Marian and Oliver Sewell) or quartet, and this lent the performance greater dramatic life.

Tenor Oliver Sewell sang the big role of Max, the young lover of the Rose, not attempting an operatic style, but handling the rather narrative part seriously, with sensitively shaded dynamics.  Roger Wilson was a well-cast Gravedigger drawing, as usual, on what one feels is to some extent his own personality; and Christian Thurston found the sturdy role of The Miller and a narrator’s bass aria near the end, ‘This Sunday morn…’, well suited to the character of his voice.

In all, conductor, chorus and soloists, as well as Douglas Mews accompanying at the piano (and I wasn’t so conscious here of the need of an orchestra to provide colour and variety) brought this neglected work to life in a surprisingly attractive way.

It was of course, by far the largest work on the programme (just over an hour) and made the concert as a whole quite rewarding. Schumann and the performers involved in his work made the journey very worthwhile.


Impressive semi-staged Elijah from Orpheus Choir, Orchestra Wellington and superb soloists

The Orpheus Choir of Wellington and Orchestra Wellington
Brent Stewart (conductor); Frances Moore (staging director)

Mendelssohn: Elijah

Martin Snell (Elijah), Lisa-Harper-Brown (widow), Maaike Christie-Beekman (Angel), Jamie Young (Obadiah), Archie Taylor (Boy); voice students of New Zealand School of Music,

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 23 May 2015, 7.30pm

I found this performance of Elijah entertaining, inspiring, and of a very high standard.  So did the large, attentive audience, who responded enthusiastically.  After the performance, I heard many favourable comments.

The first thing that struck one coming into the auditorium was the huge screen behind the choir seats.  However, it was not used for projecting images, but was simply suffused with colour.  The colour chosen varied with the mood or location of the various sections of the oratorio.

Martin Snell came on, in business suit but without a tie, and sang the words of the introductory oration, then while the orchestra played the Overture, the choir wandered in, wearing casual clothes in white or light colours, which I took to denote a Middle Eastern setting – but this made it curious that the soloists were dressed in modern garments.  It was good to see the choir appearing to have personalities, rather than being in their usual dour black, which makes the members fade into the background. Bright lighting enhanced the visual effect.

The orchestra members were placed on low platforms, to be above the action on the front of the stage.

Martin Snell immediately impressed; he was in fine voice.  In a radio interview he had said that he had sung the oratorio numbers of times in its language of writing: German, presumably in Germany and Switzerland, where he is based.  (This rather gives the lie to Roger Wilson’s assertion in his excellent programme note, that it ‘is seldom performed in Germany’.)  Snell therefore found it quite difficult, he said, to fit the English words to the notes.  However, that was not apparent.  Except that he sang entirely from the score.  In their much smaller roles, Harper-Brown used it some of the time, but Maaike Christie-Beekman not at all.

After performances in the 1950s and 1960s, the Orpheus Choir sang the work in 1971, and then not again until 1999, when there was a semi-staged performance, when Rodney Macann, dressed in sackcloth, sang the title role entirely from memory, moving round the stage in dramatic fashion.  However, apart from several other soloists being in costume, that version bore little relation to this semi-staged version.

Some of the choir were initially disposed at the front of the stage as a semi-chorus (where they could not see the conductor), before later taking their places in the main chorus.  The orchestra set the atmosphere well.

Brent Stewart conducted clearly and decisively, although it seemed to me that in the first half he was conducting with his hand, the baton being merely an extension.  However, in the second half he found his baton technique.

Almost throughout the performance, the projection of words by both soloists and choir was good – but I was sitting fairly near the front.  All the soloists sang as the real professionals most of them are; this applied also to a couple of the NZSM students who had minor roles of some significance: Katherine McIndoe and William McElwee.  It was most impressive to observe the resonance Martin Snell obtains by using the resonators of the face to assist in delivering the goods.

The orchestra’s every note, rhythm and dynamic seemed to be in place.  This was true of the choir also; I only observed one false, stumbling entry in the whole work in which, after Elijah, the choir has most to do.

I was tempted to say that this was Martin Snell’s night, such is the size of his role and the quality of his performance.  That would be unfair – it was also the choir’s and the orchestra’s night.  Snell handled the high tessitura of most of his role with aplomb – and got an opportunity to use his low notes in the quartet ‘Cast thy burden upon the Lord’, one of the most beautiful moments, with its solo quartet sections and intervening orchestral passages.

There were a few judicious cuts in the work, to bring the length down, but the only number I really missed was the felicitous ‘He that shall endure to the end’.  It would have been another demonstration of the huge variety of Mendelssohn’s writing; his ability to move from rousing to contemplative, to delicate, from chorale-like harmony to fugue.  In the delicate category was the lovely trio ‘Lift thine eyes’, sung by a women’s semi-chorus – in this case, the NZSM students, as angels, sited in the left gallery.  Here, I felt there was insufficient lightness, blend, or ethereal textures.

Elsewhere, they produced lovely tone, balance and blend, although I found them insufficiently impassioned as the priests of Baal (re-costumed in black) compared with the following chorus from
the full choir.  One feature of the choir’s singing was that fortissimo passages were sung with lively tone that was still pleasant on the ear, for example, in ‘Woe to him!  He shall perish’.  In contrast was the delicious ‘He, watching over Israel’, all calm and dignity.

The full choruses were splendid, as was Lisa Harper-Brown, in her roles as widow and soprano soloist.  Jamie Young, the tenor, was a little uneven.  In his first solo, ‘If with all your hearts’ he was fine, apart from a couple of strained higher notes.

Action there was, but it seldom distracted from the music, and in fact added drama and interest.  The inherent drama in the music and words was demonstrated, in a naturalistic way.

Elijah’s solo ‘It is enough!’ featured a solo cello that both precedes the sung aria and continues through it.  This was exquisitely played by Brenton Veitch.  Another delightful instrumental solo was for oboe, in Elijah’s aria ‘For the mountains shall depart’.

Archie Taylor performed his role as the boy more than satisfactorily.  He had to act as well as sing; his voice was clear and true.

The famous solo ‘O rest in the Lord’ was beautifully sung by Christie-Beekman, without being made too sentimental.  The orchestral accompaniment was a marvel of delicacy and subtlety.  I was horrified to see in the printed programme (but not in Roger Wilson’s note) ‘Oh rest in the Lord’ – using the feeble exclamation instead of the ‘O’ of invocation.

The chorus, appropriately, have the last word, singing ‘And then shall your light break forth’.  Who said Mendelssohn was not a genius?  In my book he was, and this triumph of a performance was another proof; the opera he never wrote.

The production involved movement for the choir as well as for the semi-chorus and soloists; all this was a lot of work for a one-off performance.