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

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

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

Alan Gibbs Centre, Wellington College

Saturday 28th May, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wellington Youth Orchestra – an appealing programme delivered with rich orchestral sound

Wellington Youth Orchestra presents:
ELGAR – Cockaigne Overture  (In London Town) Op. 40
BEETHOVEN – Romance for Violin and Orchestra No. 1 in G Major Op.40
DVORAK – Symphony No. 8 in G Major Op.88

Soloist: Lucas Baker (violin)
Wellington Youth Orchestra
Mark Carter (conductor)

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

Saturday, 30th April, 2022

This was a delightful program of very appealing music, appropriate for the young musicians of the Wellington Youth Orchestra. The orchestra has grown in size since I last reviewed their concert in 2019, when they were short of strings. This time there were 26 violins, 5 violas, 6 cellos, 2 basses, and a full complement of winds, brass and percussion, and they produced a rich orchestral sound. The program really tested their skills as a coherent ensemble.

Elgar: Cockaigne Overture, Op. 40

Elgar is perhaps a somewhat underrated composer. He flourished in the shadow of his contemporaries, the great late-Romantic European composer like Richard Strauss. His music stayed within the romantic idiom of rich lush sounds. These days he is best known for his Pomp and Circumstance March that is played every year on the last night of the Proms in England. But he was a major symphonic composer as borne out by his symphonies, and in particular his moving and profound concerti for violin and cello. The Cockaigne Overture was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society and was first performed in 1901. Elgar described it as ‘cheerful and Londony, “stout and steaky” … honest, healthy, humorous and strong, but not vulgar’. It is a rousing piece for a large orchestra, and the young musicians got into its exuberant spirit more and more as the piece progressed. It is a work that needed to be played with youthful abandon and each section of the large orchestra rose to the occasion and brought out the picaresque, colorful character of the work, church bells, Salvation Army band, the sounds of Cockney London.

Beethoven: Romance for violin and orchestra No1 in G Major, Op. 40

The Opus number and the publication date of 1802, suggests that this Romance belongs to Beethoven’s Middle period between the Third Piano Concerto, the Creatures of Prometheus Overture and the Kreutzer Violin Sonata, but its simplicity, more in line with music of an earlier time, suggests that he might have written it earlier. In spirit it is a world away from his dramatic Violin Concerto published four years later. The Romance starts with a four bar introduction of double stops of melodic chords that Lucas Baker played with meticulous clarity, and this clarity of playing was the hallmark of his playing all along, a clear tone, and fluency of articulation. He didn’t try to over dramatize the work which in its simplicity harks back to an earlier age of Mozart. There was no drama, just a beautiful singing tone. The reduced orchestra supported in him style.

Dvorak: Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op 88

Whereas the adjective I would use for the Elgar piece is ‘exuberant’ and for the Beethoven ‘charming’, the word for Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony is ‘joyful’. From the opening melody, played beautifully by the cellos, the symphony radiates warmth and sunshine. Birdsong is played on the flute, and the whole orchestra joins in with a rich sound that exudes a sense of happiness, of being happy to be alive. One captivating melody follows another. There are peasants dancing, a summer rainstorm, and everybody joins in a jubilant celebration. All this requires sensitive playing by the brass and winds – there are trumpet clarion calls, and irresistible melodies for clarinet and oboe, while the flute is always prominent, very clearly and musically played by the principal flutist, Keeon Perkins-Treacher.

All this is challenging for young musicians and they all acquitted themselves superbly. The work hinges on these short solo passages. There is a whole world of late nineteenth century Bohemia in this symphony, with its vigorous folk culture, its colorful landscape and old traditional roots. Perhaps Dvorak tried to capture a world that had flourished, but would soon decline and disappear, something that such of his contemporaries as Mahler, had sensed already. It is a happy world, but not superficially joyous like that of the operetta world of  Johann Strauss and other composers of light music. Perhaps only Mendelssohn wrote joyful music like this, but in a different era and idiom.

Playing such music as part of a large, full symphony orchestra is an enriching experience for musicians and particularly young musicians who are just exploring the riches of music. Mark Carter, the Music Director of the Wellington Youth Orchestra is also Sub-principal Trumpet in the NZSO. He had a great vision for building the orchestra, based on his own experience playing in youth orchestras in the UK. He studied conducting with some of the masters, and has clearly a good rapport with his players. His wife, also in the NZSO, as well as his son, Benjamin play cello in the orchestra. Eleanor Carter also played the organ when organ was needed in the Elgar. It takes special tact and understanding to work with young musicians, and Mark Carter managed to get the best playing from his team. It was a most enjoyable concert for all, musicians and audience alike.


Steadfast Wellington Chamber Orchestra brings off an exhilarating concert to finish an eventful year

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:

R.STRAUSS – Wind Serenade for 13 instruments
VIVALDI – Double Flute Concerto
ARNOLD – English Dances (Set One)
TCHAIKOVSKY – Symphony No. 2 in C Minor Op.17  “Little Russian”

Kirstin Eade and Bridget Douglas (flutes)
Ian Ridgewell (conductor)
Wellington Chamber Orchestra

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

Sunday, 12th December 2021

Congratulations right at the outset are in order to whomever devised such a scintillating programme for the Wellington Chamber Orchestra to finish this remarkably unpredictable year of years with!  It certainly was one that made up in part for earlier schedules being plagued by the vagaries of Covid-19 and the resulting ripplings of disruption! Here we were freely delivered plenty of satisfyingly full-blooded excitements and festive revelries, side-by-side with contrasting episodes of great beauty, resonant circumspection and purposeful action – a living, breathing entity of life-giving expression!

A lot of the credit must go to conductor Ian Ridgewell, whose direction of much of this eclectic range of music was focused and very much to the point, directly and unfussily intent upon bringing out the music’s “character” in each of the pieces presented. I liked how the conductor left the flute duo of Bridget Douglas and Kirsten Eade entirely free to interact with the continuo instruments in the Vivaldi Concerto’s slow movement as if sharing amongst themselves some exquisite chamber music!  Just occasionally elsewhere I felt a slight “tug” of discrepancy between the conductor and his players, most notably in the Tchaikovsky Symphony’s Andantino movement, the strings in particular wanting to push the march rhythm along more tautly in places – and there were dovetailing difficulties aplenty between orchestral sections in the same work’s treacherous Scherzo movement that required watchful shepherding from the podium!

The concert began most winningly with the early (1882) Richard Strauss work for winds, the piece a kind of homage by the seventeen year-old composer to Mozart’s own Wind Serenade in B-flat Major for the same number of instruments (Mozart’s work is sometimes performed with a string bass, sometimes with a contrabassoon), one obviously a model for Strauss.  I thought the performance by the WCO winds a most affectionate one, a beautifully easeful opening, with the contourings of melodic lines both gorgeous-sounding and characterful, and the different dynamic levels of the music consistently producing ear-catching results. I particularly liked the sonorous contribution of the tuba to the music’s foundations, and relished the crunchiness of the harmonic changes that accompanied the oboe’s lead-in to the piece’s second half. The ensemble’s blend grated ever so slightly once or twice in places during the latter half, but the final paragraph of the work, with its beautiful ascending flute-line, was most felicitously essayed by all concerned.

I was surprised to learn that the Vivaldi Concerto for two flutes and strings was the composer’s only essay for this combination, particularly as the soloists Bridget Douglas and Kirsten Eade amply demonstrated the manifold delights of the work’s seemingly endless invention, aided by some on-the-spot playing from the WCO strings in the outer movements. Straightaway the music captivated one’s attention with its gaiety and exhilarating energies, the dynamics placing solo-instrument delicacies alongside rumbustious tuttis that made the most of both the contrasted and concerted sounds. Though short, the work added a dimension of intimacy with the player-directed slow movement (simply flutes and continuo – two ‘cellos and a harpsichord), beautiful canonic writing alternating with passages in thirds – exquisite in effect!

Ian Ridgewell returned to direct the finale, consisting of more gallivanting and frolicking in Vivaldi’s most ingratiating style, though closer attention also heightened my appreciation of both the composer’s and the players’ skills in realising the singular beauties of the music’s interspersing of solo, chamber and ripieno sequences. It all demonstrated how the composer’s justly famous “Four Seasons” concerti ought to be a “starting-point” and not merely a “one-work” experience for the Vivaldi listener!

To my great delight, Bridget Douglas and Kirstin Eade acknowledged the concerto’s brevity by way of playing us an encore, the final movement from a work by an American composer, Gary Schocker, Three Dances for Two Flutes and Piano, one divertingly subtitled Coffee Nerves, Prestissimo! It’s a very bluesy-vigorous piece with driving rhythms for the flutes in unison lines breaking occasionally into thirds, and with the piano (played by Heather Easting, who had also contributed the harpsichord part in the  Vivaldi concerto’s continuo) punctuating the discourse with droll interludes – also one of the flutes (Kirstin’s on this occasion) indulged in startlingly “ornery” deviations, which were “coaxed” back into seemliness by the other flute – an interesting relationship between the two!

Malcolm Arnold’s invigoratingly breezy English Dances (the first of two sets of four of these) came next, works I’ve always loved for their colour, energy and original inspiration (the melodic invention throughout is the composer’s own, rather than the pieces being orchestrated versions of English folk-songs). I greatly prize a set of these richly and lovingly recorded by Arnold himself, though Ian Ridgewell’s direction took a rather more direct and vigorous view of the music, the opening Andantino’s bell-like awakenings on the move here right from the outset, and a central section sounding like a fairground in the middle of the countryside! If a shade raucous in full tutti, this could be put down to the effect of a largish orchestra playing in a smallish venue. Amends were made by lovely descending wind figurations at the piece’s end.

More chimings, this time vigorous and arresting, were brought into play throughout the second movement’s Vivace, with great work from the horns and winds throughout, the brasses capturing the music’s roisterings most excitingly, and the tutti filled with ear-catching detail.  The following Mesto (“sad and pensive”) flipped the mood of the sounds into melancholy, with tremolando strings, harp and bassoon joined by strings in a most authentic-sounding folk-melody, the wind-choir also making the most of their expressive opportunities, a strongly-focused mood beautifully sustained throughout by the players.

The final dance, Allegro Risoluto, allowed conductor and players to really let their hair down, the uproarious opening “nailed” by the brasses, here, punctuated by squawks of approval from the winds, catching the music’s unbuttoned and celebratory mood – I particularly loved the sound of the tuba’s star turn, egged on by the winds! The whole performance resounded with high spirits and jocularity, the composer here mercifully untroubled by the mental storms and stresses which throughout his life beset his sense of well-being.

A similar sense of well-being over-riding troubles and anxieties also permeates Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony which took up the concert’s second half. Called the “Little Russian” (though not by its composer) because of the frequency of its use of Ukrainian folk melodies, the music has a joyous energy throughout, which the playing readily capitalised upon, coming to fruition in the final movement with its racily colourful variations on a folksong called “The Crane”. I particularly enjoyed the “Russian Sailors’ Dance”-like energies of the strings in places, along with the finely-played antiphonal brass calls punctuating the blending of the finale’s two themes, and the skitterish sequence which featured the piccolo (beautifully played) and the other winds towards the work’s end, immediately prior to the tam-tam stroke which calls the band to order for the work’s “give it all you’ve got” coda!

The horn-playing at the symphony’s beginning beautifully set the atmosphere, carried forward by soulful wind-playing, building the tensions towards the allegro’s snappy beginning, both winds and strings excitingly on the button! Ridgewell kept things on a tight rein throughout, getting good ensemble from the players, though I thought he might have allowed the second allegro subject a bit more breathing-space, the players sounding a little “pushed” here and there. However, the lead-back to the horn’s repeat of its opening solo was nicely controlled, the playing leaving us eager for more.

The March was beautifully brought into being, even if the strings seemed to want to slightly push ahead of the winds’ pointed drolleries – when the march rhythms resumed after the heart-easing middle-section, some of the opening “swagger” seemed by then flattened out, but the grandly ceremonial utterance of the “tune” was brought off nicely by strings and brasses. The Scherzo was a mixed bag, with the dovetailed syncopated figures struggling at times to “fit themselves in” – however the Trio worked beautifully, with the winds enjoying themselves, the flutes being especially on the ball (a lovely solo over pizzicato strings), and with clarinets, oboes and bassoons in full accord.

Altogether, a most successful concert, and a heart-warming way to conclude a somewhat troubled season – and how encouraging to be given notice of the orchestra’s plans for 2022 as well, consisting of four varied concerts, the first commemorating the band’s 50th Anniversary season! One wishes all involved in the undertaking the very best for it!


Brahms’ Schicksalslied gives its name to a programme of uplifting music from the NZSO

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

VERDI – Overture Nabucco
BRAHMS – Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) Op.54
DVORAK – Symphony No. 8 in G Major Op.88

James Judd (conductor)
Voices New Zealand Choir
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday, 25th November, 2021

Welcome back! We have been starved of orchestral concerts for the last three months. It was a delight to have a full symphony orchestra on the stage, albeit with the players discreetly separated. A very special welcome back was due to James Judd, who was principal conductor of the NZSO for some eight years, and who has been closely associated with the orchestra ever since. And a great thank you was due to the management of the orchestra who organised this series of four concerts for limited audiences in the midst of the Covid epidemic, over four days, and in exceptionally difficult circumstances.

The orchestra and Voices New Zealand were scheduled to perform Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, a colossal, taxing work, but under the circumstances, everyone had to settle for a programme featuring a more seldom-heard work, Brahms’ Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny), as part of a line-up of uplifting music, starting with Verdi’s Overture Nabucco, and ending with Dvorak’s joyous Symphony No. 8.

Verdi – Overture Nabucco
Verdi’s Nabucco was his first major operatic success. Its simple, singable melodies are immediately captivating. The overture uses themes from arias and choruses from the opera, and it is hard to resist the temptation to sing along with them! Nabucco, by Temistocle Solera, which La Scala impresario  Bartolomeo Merelli gave to Verdi to read, was probably not much of a play (and historically inaccurate to boot), but the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” is memorable, and was used separately on many occasions, including at Verdi’s own funeral. James Judd and the orchestra gave the Overture an energetic yet lyrical reading, notable for the beautiful brass ensemble, and the strong rhythmic drive of the strings.

Brahms – Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny) Op.54
Brahms’ Schicksalslied is overshadowed in the repertoire by his longer vocal works of the period, the Alto Rhapsody and the German Requiem. Schicksalslied is a shorter work, but it is of equal note. It is a setting by the poet Friedrich Hölderin, a friend and contemporary of Goethe and Schiller, It is a poem that Brahms found particularly meaningful.

The work begins with an ethereal orchestral passage, then joined by the choir, first by the sopranos, then by the rest of the voices. The music is deeply rooted in the Lutheran tradition, influenced by Bach Chorales that Brahms had studied. The music is typically Brahms, self-effacing, and with no scintillating passages. The melodies grow organically from the rich harmonic groundwork. The first part of the work reflects Hölderin’s words:  “Joyful their soul / And their heavenly vision” – but this is followed by a tempestuous section: “To us is allotted / No restful haven to find; / They falter, they perish / Poor suffering mortals….”

Brahms, however, didn’t want to end the work on a tragic and depressing note, and repeated the opening section in a different key, while still keeping its tranquil mood, It was wonderful to hear this profound and seldom-performed work sung by an outstanding choir, New Zealand Voices.

Dvorák – Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88
Dvorák wanted this symphony to be “different from all the other symphonies, with individual thoughts worked out in a new way”. The Eighth Symphony is cheerful and lyrical, and draws its inspiration more from the Bohemian folk music that Dvorák loved – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symphony_No._8_(Dvo%C5%99%C3%A1k)  It is an endearing work full of joyful melodies, and the orchestra entered into the joyous spirit of the work. There was a lot of scope for the various sections of the orchestra to shine – the flutes and clarinets in the charming Adagio, the strings in the graceful Allegretto gracioso third movement. The performance highlighted the outstanding qualities of the orchestra, whose individual members seemed to play with freedom and abandon, the conductor himself appearing to float and dance with the music.

This seemed to be a reflection of the bond between James Judd and his musicians, a bond of mutual respect – Judd complimented the orchestra,  and also the audience for being there, encouraging people to applaud between movements if they saw fit – and so they did! Though audience numbers were limited to 400, and people were scattered far and distant throughout the auditorium, those present made a lot of noise showing their appreciation.

The audience was rewarded at the end with an enthusiastic rendering of Dvorák’s Slavonic Dance No.1 Op.46. The small number of people in the hall were sufficient to enhance the reverberating acoustics of the Michael Fowler Centre, which brought out the special qualities of the ensemble. In brief, a superb concert, leaving people who were there in a happy mood!

Dramatic and innovative Haydn in the Church from Camerata with soprano Carleen Ebbs

Camerata – Haydn in the Church

HANDEL – Overture Berenice
HAYDN –  Scena di Berenice (from Metastatio’s “Antigono”)*
HAYDN – Symphony No. 14 in A Hob 1:14

*Carleen Ebbs (soprano)
Anne Loeser (leader)


Friday, 5th November 2021

At the end of a busy and distracted Friday I found myself headed for St.Peter’s-on-Willis-St Church for Camerata’s latest “Haydn in the Church” concert series, which I’d been looking forward to ever since attending and enjoying the last one, though on this occasion I’d not been as assiduous in my preparation for the evening’s music as per usual – I had seen the programme on-line a couple of days previously, and was, of course expecting the accustomed delight of an early Haydn symphony to match that readily afforded by others in the series thus far, but I found myself scratching all about my memory-banks to recall what else I’d glimpsed on the  items “list”. I definitely recalled a soprano’s name, and an operatic scene to do with “Berenice”, which I had always thought was a work by Handel! – so I think at that point I gave up the conscious struggle, and consoled myself at the thought of everything being “revealed” once I’d gotten into the church.

Even then I didn’t get my hands on an actual programme, but  did talk briefly with Greg Hill, who was sitting next to me in a socially-distanced sense, and who actually had written the programme notes for the concert – at the interval he was able to confirm that there had been both a Handel and a Haydn work, each with the name Berenice, on the items list! So I had been on the right track after all.

I knew the Menuetto from Handel’s “Berenice” as my parents had owned a 78rpm disc of the work which I’d often heard when a child, and still remembered. This was, however, the whole of the Overture, a sprightly beginning, with the dotted rhythms beautifully “sprung”, leading to an Allegro whose trajectory had a joyous kind of enlivening energy, the oboe attractively colouring the string textures. The Menuetto featured the oboe-and-string sound prominently at first, before the strings repeated the material, playing the concluding lines of the second part with a beautiful and graceful legato. A lively Gigue rounded off the Overture in suitably festive fashion.

The name of the soprano Carleen Ebbs was one to conjure with, as she had made a richly favourable impression on the one occasion I’d previously seen and heard her, as the nymph Calisto in Cavalli’s eponymous opera, performed in 2015 by Days Bay Opera – on that occasion I was moved to voice the opinion that “Ebbs’ is a voice to listen out for”. She’s now returned to New Zealand after being based in London for 15 years, training at the Guildhall in London and at the Cardiff International Voice Academy, and working with a variety of prestigious coaches and at the great UK Opera Houses.

On the strength of her performance this evening of Haydn’s 1795 Scena di  Berenice, that promise, evident in the Days Bay La Calisto, has been more than fulfilled – Ebbs took us right inside the character of Berenice’s plethora of moods from the outset, capturing our sympathies from the very opening recitative Berenice che fai?, in which she first bemoans her own fear and weakness at the prospect of her lover Demetrio’s death, then expresses a longing to die alongside her beloved, through to the first impassioned aria in which the singer begs to be allowed to “cross that river” with him; and, finally, in some kind of delirium, raging against the cruelty of the gods with a fiery vocal brilliance throughout a second recitative and aria, the music storming to a passionate (and virtuosic) conclusion – tremendous stuff!

It seems from her website information that Ebbs has commitments in the UK regarding ongoing tutelage, and has already made the most of freelancing opportunities with various UK companies, activities which would have established her as a “sought-after” performer, particularly with her avowed enthusiasm for Baroque and early classical repertoire – whatever the uncertainties of the present situation world-wide regarding opportunities for performing musicians, one hopes for her continued successes, including, wherever possible, more appearances back here in New Zealand.

While all eyes (and ears) were on the singer during the drama of Haydn’s “scena”, the ensemble again became the centre of focus for the performance of Haydn’s Symphony No. 14, the latest in Camerata’s exploration of the composer’s early symphonies. I note that, in a diverting on-line Classic FM post which featured a music critic asked to numerically “rank” the qualities of ALL of these  works, the hapless commentator gave this Symphony No.14 a high rating, after according some of the other “early” works what I thought were some unduly harsh verdicts regarding their “quality” – this A  Major work Hob 1:14 was actually placed 35th, ahead of many other “tried-and-true” works such as the “Military”, the “Farewell” and the “Surprise” symphonies – doubtless a case of “chacun a son goût” with the choices, as much as any other considerations!

This work’s high-spirited opening featured a repeated octave descent, followed afterwards by an even more vertiginous downward leap of a 10th (I think!), giving the music an attractively energetic character underpinned by the unrelenting bass line – I loved the horns’ ascents into high-wire material,  the oboes providing a less strenuous “echo” effect with their material, joining forces with the horns to great effect in the development, before the energetic rhythms marshalled their forces, the splendid playing driving the music to a part festive, part rustic conclusion.

The Andante moves a dignified but characterful processional along its course, the striding aspect of the melody augmented with graceful decorative notes upon repetition, the strings alone supplying the melodic interest. More fun was to be had from the Minuet (Menuetto)  with its ceremonial horns and chuckling winds, though the oboe introduced a sombre note with its minor-key melody in the trio – all very pastoral, with its hunting-horn ambiences and touches of out-of-doors melancholy!

The finale builds its material almost entirely on a descending figure (the reason for the aforementioned “critic” rating the work’s cleverness and innovation so highly), giving the whole movement a festive, bell-like atmosphere. Here the playing imparted a real sense of “schwung”, the musicians seeming to make their instruments dance to the joyous strains of the figurations, alternating delicacy with delight, and grace with energy. As is often the case with delectable pleasures, it all seemed over in a trice – so it was a good thing that Anne Loeser bade us remain for an “encore”, one which happened to continue the concert’s connection with the story from which Haydn’s scena had been taken. This was an excerpt from Gluck’s Overture to his opera seria Antigono, one which again featured the character of Berenice, the Egyptian princess in love with Demetrio, son of the King of Macedonia, to which monarch Berenice had been “promised” in marriage. Being Gluck, the music had a lyrical “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” quality, the two flutes adding to the ethereal character of the string-writing, and the sensitive accompaniments similarly transported, the whole given a resonant “music of the spheres” kind of sonority, which continued to enchant the senses long after the sounds had ceased.




Wellington Youth Orchestra and Andrew Joyce take on quintessential Beethoven and Dvořák

Wellington Youth Orchestra presents:
LEONORE – Music by Beethoven and Dvořák

BEETHOVEN – Overture No. 3 “Leonore” Op.72 No.1c
DVORAK – Symphony No. 6 in D Major Op.60

Andrew Joyce (conductor)
Wellington Youth Orchestra

St.James’ Anglican Church, Lower Hutt

Saturday 31st July 2021

Today’s concert given by the Wellington Youth Orchestra in Lower Hutt’s Anglican Church of St James seemed to me a fascinating instance of a certain event’s “atmosphere” influencing one’s reaction to musical performance. I say this in comparing today’s concert with a not-so-long-ago occasion at the same venue and involving the same players, albeit with a different conductor – though I didn’t think the latter a significant factor in the difference between the two events.

Something about the “Transatlantic” concert in May obviously drew what seemed like an excitedly burgeoning churchful of people, all of whom seemed palpably determined to enjoy what they were about to hear – one could feel the anticipation bubbling away well before the start! To be fair, it was a fantastic programme, one whose delightful prospects would literally have jumped out in front of any potential or prospective audience member with a “Well, are you coming?” aspect of enticement before one knew where one was! Just where many of those same people were today I found it puzzling to comprehend, though a relatively unfamiliar Symphony by Dvorak, however much of a treasure waiting to be more widely appreciated, perhaps wasn’t on paper going to quicken the blood of the orchestra’s regular fans in quite the same way as did the May concert’s items.

That amalgam of audience presence and expectation is one of the reasons that a good “live concert” performance of any music invariably feels more exciting, more vital and connective than does a recording of the same, however expertly played.  Today’s concert, by dint of having a smallish, and largely “spread-out” audience simply didn’t for me have at the start the previous occasion’s electric charge, that trace of “something in the air” producing preliminary crackle and cumulative excitement. All (or nearly all) the notes were played, but the excitement that produces uplifting moments was, despite the players best efforts, more of a “sometimes thing” throughout, and invariably hard-won.

Still, there were many moments to enjoy, during the course of both of the concert’s items, the first of which gave the concert its title, the Overture  Leonore No.3 being the third of four attempts by Beethoven to write a satisfactory overture to his opera “Fidelio”– a beautifully-co-ordinated “whoof-like” quality about the Beethoven work’s opening chord, for instance, the heroine’s “Leonore” theme beautifully sounded by the winds before being contrasted briefly with the darkness and stillness of the dungeon imprisoning the hero, Florestan, and the flute seizing the moment and uplifting the mood to one of hope, paving the way for the first of many heroic flourishes that depicted good striving against evil, throughout the work’s course.

Conductor Andrew Joyce drew real exuberance from his players with the allegro’s theme burgeoning into a full-throated roar of intent, one reinforced by the horns’ sudden shaft of light and hope. I thought the upper strings in particular (who faced where I was sitting, almost directly opposite)  maintained this exuberance and purpose in their playing throughout, keeping the trajectories alive and “charged”, up to the moment when Joyce unleashed the terrific surgings of tone that heralded the famous off-stage trumpet call, played here to perfection – Joyce brought out the sounds’ freshness of new expectation, getting a great response from his flutist in her solo’s ever-increasing excitability, and with the strings’ fantastic explosion of spirit goading the rest of the players into action. Though I thought the brass sometimes seemed a shade too relaxed in their rhythmic responses to the beat, they rallied at the end, triumphally carrying the music to its conclusion.

The Dvořák Symphony also began well, its engaging, off-beat rhythm gurgling away on the winds, over which the strings got to “float” the movement’s principal theme, a lovely, free-as-air idea – if the same players had to then work hard at energising the music to prepare for the melody’s return on the full orchestra, it got to make its impact – Joyce gave us the repeat which allowed us to hear the opening all over again, bringing out even more the strength of the band’s  first violin section (the two front-desk players like veritable forces of nature in their determination to “sound” their lines).

The winds, too, showed their mettle at the development’s beginning, oboes taking the lead, echoed beautifully by the flutes and clarinets, an “echt-Czech” moment readily summonsing up “Bohemia’s Woods and Fields”, and continuing the pastoral feeling throughout the interactions. I thought the brass again strangely reticent in places here, as opposed to the excitingly “up-front” feeling the same players had  conveyed throughout the previous concert (which, incidentally, I PROMISE not to mention again!) – but the music’s gradual build-up of all forces (including splendidly-sounded timpani) awakened their instincts, and they delivered sonorously at the movement’s recapitulation!

The slow movement was captivating at the outset, the winds and strings beautifully floating the sounds over a gently undulating atmosphere – inexplicably, the horn failed to take up the strings’ melody, but the music’s pulse was steadfastedly maintained, and the exchanges continued, the clarinet contributing a beautiful solo and the horn then making amends with a similar appearance – and I thought the violas “sounded “ their turn with the recurring melody so tenderly and well! The movement’s brief but telling moment of minor-key darkness came and went like clouds obscuring the sunlight, with the strings (this time gratefully answered by the horn!) giving the melody full-throated treatment, allowing the emotion its head before the soft, crepuscular ending was wrought by the winds and sensitively-sounded timpani – the composer could be forgiven for allowing one last forceful reiteration of such an appealing tune before the end!

Nowhere in this work is Dvořák more “Bohemian” than with the Scherzo, whose main body is a Furiant, an exciting, quick-moving dance-form seeming to move between two-four and three-four rhythm. Joyce kept his players on their toes throughout, varying the dynamics in an ear-catching way, and delineating the trajectories firmly, even if again I thought the brasses not as quickly-reflexed as were the rest of the players, being left slightly behind the beat at the impetuous coda’s end. The more relaxed trio was an absolute delight, the winds so AIRILY pastoral-sounding, and the accompaniments at once playful and deliciously indolent.

Uncharacteristically, the strings’ ensemble came slightly adrift during the crescendoed section of the finale’s introduction, the conductor expertly bringing them all back together once the first big ”tutti” had shaken the rhythms down and sorted out the trajectories! Joyce kept the music going through the second subject, deliciously and dancingly played by the winds, the strings playing their hearts out, sometimes roughing up their intonations, the brass coming to their rescue with a stirring call to arms that brought the recapitulation, the music swirling, the winds doing famously, the strings now sounding a bit tired, but rallying with astounding rhythmic point and energy by way of introducing the work’s outrageous presto coda – what a blast! Though the ensemble couldn’t quite match the introduction’s fire and energy, the players summonsed up all their reserves and raced their way to the music’s end – as dogged as energetic, but achieving the discharge of the music’s spirit. We couldn’t really mirror the musicians’ sounds with our applause, but we did our best to convey our appreciation of such heartfelt efforts!





Orchestra Wellington under Taddei with Adam Page triumphant in Psathas’s saxophone ‘concerto’

Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei 
“Virtuoso Composer”

Mozart: Symphony No 25 in G minor, K 183
Psathas: Call of the Wild with Adam Page (saxophone), Premiere
Beethoven: Symphony No 4 in  B flat, Op 60

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 17 July, 7:30 pm

It was no surprise, after coming into the city on a thinly populated train, then a wet and windy wait for a bus and into a less than busy auditorium vestibule, to find the Michael Fowler Centre only about 60% full, when this orchestra’s concerts are normally sold out. There was nothing wrong with the programme.

In fact, the programme was admirable. Mozart and Beethoven are rather well-known, and both are full of energy and distinction. Nevertheless, the two symphonies in the programme are not so familiar, even though the opening of Mozart’s No 25, in G minor (which Mozart wrote in 1773 when he was only 17) was, as the programme note said, used most effectively to background Miloš Forman’s 1984 film, Amadeus.

Mozart’s Symphony No 25
Taddei launched into the Mozart dramatically, with vigorous rhythm and striking dynamic contrasts which were immediately in evidence between the syncopated, opening theme and the calm, more regular rhythm and more reflective second theme. The contrasts between instruments were somewhat more distinctive than is heard in some performances: cellos and double basses contributed more noticeably than the rest of the strings; a plangent oboe sounded and, particularly interesting, there are four horns, allowing for chromatic details; four horns instead of two was uncommon till the mid 19th century. The absence of clarinets was normal till a little later: Mozart first used clarinets in his Symphony No 31, five years after No 25.

The second movement is markedly calmer and quiet, and the playing was curiously secretive, each phrase carefully expressed with charming delicacy. The third movement – the typical Menuetto and Trio in triple time – restored an emphatic quality which that the Trio highlighted by playing distinctly slower.

And the last movement, that might have lightened the mood, does no such thing, Taddei took pains to emphasise its seriousness, to illustrate Mozart’s purpose in sustaining the symphony’s emotional seriousness.

Beethoven No 4
The other classical symphony was by Beethoven, but one that was performed with such flair and conviction that an audience may well have thought deserved fame equal to that of the odd-numbered works. The admirable programme note described the circumstances of its composition interestingly.

The fourth opens with a longish, contemplative introduction that offers no hint of what’s to follow, and the orchestra exploited it mysteriously, slowly emerging into daylight in a sudden attack: the Allegro vivace. It lifted the spirit with its energy and joyousness, with a rise and fall of dynamics that inspired an optimism that was elaborated throughout the magical, development section, secretively supported by timpani.

The Adagio was taken at a deliberative pace, though slightly more brisk than I remembered in others; likewise, its main theme sounded richer and more beautiful, particularly by the clarinet’s subtle contribution. The third movement is entitled Allegro vivace rather than simply ‘Scherzo’; holding the attention through its rather mysterious first episode. The Trio followed its title, un poco meno allegro, to prepare for the spirited return of first section. The fourth movement was driven with splendid precision, adding delight with a few bars that dip momentary into the minor key. Emphatic bassoons, clarinets, oboes and flute were enlivened by racing violins.

Both symphonies were performed with sensitivity and remarkable panache, offering a splendidly polished ambience for a rather distinctive masterpiece.

John Psathas
The showpiece of the concert was the premiere of John Psathas’s Call of the Wild. Psathas is Orchestra Wellington’s Composer in Residence, for a three year period from 2020. This is not his first saxophone concerto: that was in 2000 with a work called Omnifenix and was played at a festival in Bologna in Italy.

Psathas’s own programme note described the origins of the work most illuminatingly: a vivid, programmatic work that deals with the experience of both sides of his family over the past century: the terrible population exchanges between Greece and Turkey with awful loss of life on both sides after the First World War, and then the crippling, murderous Civil War after WW2 (Communism v. Capitalism, the war conducted in proxy style by the United States and the Soviet Union). The three movements deal with the experiences and character of his mother, his father and finally Psathas’s own children ‘hearing the call of the wild’ and talking now of living abroad.

The Greek civil war between the end of WW2 and 1949 was still a dominating memory when I was posted in 1964 as Vice Consul at the new New Zealand Consulate General In Athens; that war was still a divisive memory for the Greek people and it continued to influence Greek politics. Twenty years after the end of the Civil War, it was an element in the barbaric coup by the Colonels in April 1967 two months before my return to Wellington, That coup overthrew the democratic government on the pretext of possible left-wing success in approaching elections. Psathas’s reference to experiencing “normalised xenophobia, racism and religious mistreatment” when the family lived in Taumarunui and Napier, relates to my own surprise at encountering similar attitudes among, particularly, many English-speaking residents in Greece, including diplomats. For me, the three enriching years in Athens have remained a profound influence, linguistically, politically and culturally.

A considerably larger orchestra filled the stage for Psathas’s work, with many percussion players, as well as, most vividly, Adam Page’s tenor saxophone. Page led the opening passage, an arresting, rising motif that called us to order, and proclaimed the distinction of his instrument which, while still not standard in orchestras, has been imaginatively used by many composers, notably Ravel, Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Milhaud, Richard Strauss, among others.

I have never heard the saxophone playing with such flamboyant confidence, employing such a wide range of techniques throughout the piece. With the accompaniment of a sharp-voiced side drum and many other percussion-driven features, suggesting civil war, there seemed little doubt to me that at least some of the music was inspired by the political strife after both World Wars. The sounds constantly announced the strong-minded inspiration that spoke clearly of disturbing events and a confident handling of them. And it was very often a partnership between saxophone and brass, along with percussion that carried it. Some of those exuberant episodes were nevertheless supported by quiet string accompaniment.

The music was always very conspicuously inspired by the sort of experiences Psathas had in mind with his parents. The second movement (He can worship it without believing it – his father) began with a sense of mystery: not a conspicuous feature of a saxophone one thinks, but it seemed to find its true character, such as when linked with sounds of marimba

The third movement, Tramontane (meaning, ‘on the other side of the mountains’), featured a frenzied orchestra, that allowed a more subdued saxophone to emerge, perhaps like the revealing of a beautiful landscape after reaching to peaks of a mountain range

This vividly individual music seemed to reinforce my long-held belief that contemporary music doesn’t flourish, or even survive, through sounds that are purposely challenging, tuneless, avant-garde, original in every possible sense. It can and should, like this successful work by Psathas, call for an opportunity to be heard again… and again. It was good to see microphones suspended above the orchestra (one recent and rewarding concert passed without being recorded at all).

This was a highly successful concert, featuring the orchestra and Marc Taddei, along with Adam Page’s saxophone, at their brilliant best.

I look forward to hearing it again – ideally another live performance. And it is noted that the place will be Christchurch, with the CSO, the Psathas piece’s joint commissioner.

A girdle about the earth from Antarctica to Leningrad – the NZSO National Youth Orchestra concert

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

NYO Leningrad

IHIARA McINDOE ( NYO Composer-in-Residence) – Ephemeral Bounds
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH – Symphony No. 7 in C Major “Leningrad”

NZSO National Youth Orchestra
Gemma New (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Sunday 11th July, 2021

It was going to be something of a risk, programming a work by the NYO Composer in Residence against one of the greatest symphonies of the twentieth century. A risk – or an act of faith.

Ihiara McIndoe’s Ephemeral Bounds was written in response to a visit to Antarctica last year, courtesy of the Antarctic Heritage Trust. It used less than half the players required for the Shostakovich, and scattered a few of them around the stalls which added little moments of surprise. The work opened with bold gestures from conductor Gemma New turning on the lighting that illuminated them and other players positioned eccentrically on the staging (such as the double basses behind and above the brass).  Some supplementary NZSO players were also on stage.

The work itself sustained my interest for the full ten minutes. Shimmering ice was suggested by very small glissandi from the upper strings, with the flutes and piccolo creating a chilly distance.  Crystalline harp plus percussion. Muted trumpets. The distant sound of a small engine receding. Waves breaking.  And then the much larger engine of the ice; deep, grinding. Sostenuto tuba. The sound is briefly enveloping. Wind. The violas tell us something sad, something ominous. A crescendo of storm (trombones, bassoons, lower strings). Another growl of motors.  A melancholy tune from the concertmaster – but quickly falls silent. A siren-line sound from a solo cello. Woodwind chords.

The piece closed, as it began, with the tiny string glissandos, then silence.

As usual with a new work, it is hard to see past the many clever effects. I was busy throughout trying to determine which instrument created which effect before it ceased. Will this become a much-loved addition to the concert repertoire? Is it challenging to rehearse and stage? My guess is that it is fun to play, and Gemma New, who enjoys working with new and experimental works, clearly enjoyed conducting it.

At this point the NZSO took advantage of the full house to hand out some awards. This year, CEO Peter Biggs told us, every player in the NYO has been sponsored. In addition, all the string players had to re-audition for their seat at the start of the rehearsal period. The John Chisholm Concertmaster Prize was awarded to Peter Gjelsten (Violin I); the Alex Lindsay Memorial Award to Eli Holmes (Principal Bassoon); and the Norbert Hauser Viola Award to Zephyr Wills. The Bill Clayton Memorial Award winner was selected by Gemma New, who gave the award to Isabella Thomas (Principal Trumpet). The audience stamped its approval.

The pre-concert talk was a series of presentations by players on aspects of the Shostakovich. From the snatches I caught, the players were well aware of the circumstances of its composition and its historical significance. The orchestration is huge: 8 horns, 6 trumpets, 6 trombones, tuba, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, two harps, and at least 16 first violins, 14 seconds, 12 violas, 10 cellos, and 8 double basses. Plus a big percussion section (5 timpani, 2-3 snares, and so on). To make up the numbers, the NYO was augmented by NZSO players as required, which meant we benefited from Robert Orr on oboe, Michael Austin on cor anglais, David Angus on contrabassoon, and Larry Reece on timpani. But the credit remains with the NYO players.

This is a monumental work, and the NYO approached it with the seriousness of purpose and steadfast application it demands. The author of the programme notes seemed to be of the view that Shostakovich wrote the symphony in response to the 1941 attack on Leningrad and its subsequent siege by the Germans. But the ‘invasion theme’ of the first movement builds to such a mirthless climax, that the hidden programme, the destruction of Leningrad and its people by Stalin in the 1930s, was clear to all who had ears. There is wreckage by the end of the movement. There are pitiable wails. There is almost no sign of life. The bassoon threnody is beautiful, but that relentless snare drum rhythm ticks away in a menacing undertone, and the trumpets are still ironic.

For those without ears, the NZSO provided ‘performance visuals’ by ‘leading creatives Nocturnal’. My heart sank when I saw this on the programme, but they were moody and unobtrusive (or as unobtrusive as a projection on a huge screen can be), and not too literal. I expect there were people in the audience who appreciated them, but to my mind Shostakovich’s music needs no visual interpretation, though some iceberg pictures may have usefully added to the atmospherics of the McIndoe work.

The second and third movements are freighted in sorrow. The brass choir that opened the third movement announced loss and doom. There were superb performances by Sam Zhu (tuba), Benedict van Leuven (clarinet), Harrison Chau (harp) and terrifying energy from the lower brass and strings. The percussion was splendid and inexorable. But it’s unfair to single anyone out: everyone played their hearts out, and if some of the best playing came from NZSO players, it hardly matters.

The C major climax in the fourth movement was preceded by elegiac themes in the strings, tenderness turning to tragedy, resilience haunted by loss. The climax itself presented a kind of triumph: grand, certainly, but for how long? Not long, the snare drum says. Not long at all.

I found this performance very moving. At some point in the fourth movement I had tears in my eyes, though I was not aware of them until it was over. All I wanted to do afterwards was to retreat to some quiet corner, alone and silent. The mirthless trumpets, the cynical snare drum came with me.




The NZSO’s “The Rite of Spring” replete with anniversaries and commemorations

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the New Zealand Listener present:

*CHOPIN –  Original piano works orchestrated for the ballet “Les Sylphides” – 1909
◊STRAVINSKY – Ballet “Le Sacre du Printemps” (The Rite of Spring) – 1913

*Michael Houstoun (piano)
Gemma New (conductor)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
◊Performance Visuals – Delainy Kennedy (Nocturnal)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 10th July, 2021

Quite a day on a number of counts, and especially in Wellington! – it all gathered momentum and excitement as the evening approached, with the prospect of Matariki fireworks over the harbour, and immediately afterwards, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s “The Rite of Spring” concert. For people of my generation, anybody typing or repeating out loud the date may have suddenly been revisited in the memory by a resonating radio jingle from the years 1966/67 – “the 10th of July – next/this year!”, referring to the arrival of decimal currency, entertainer Noel Coward’s famous quip regarding “the potency of cheap music” coming true for me all over again on this day!

As well as commemorating two anniversaries pertaining to Igor Stravinsky – sixty years since the composer came to Wellington to conduct the NZSO in parts of his “Firebird” Suite, and fifty years since his death – this NZSO concert was innovative in representing something of the character of that fateful evening of May 29th 1913 on which the composer’s ballet “Le Sacre du Printemps” (The Rite of Spring) was given its premiere at the then newly-opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. The Stravinsky work was preceded on the programme by “Les Sylphides”, a suite of orchestrated piano works by Frédéric Chopin. Stravinsky was actually one of the composers commissioned in 1909 by Serge Diaghilev to produce the suite for the Ballets Russes Company. Here, we had pianist Michael Houstoun playing those same works in their original versions (and, incidentally, celebrating a personal anniversary, it being fifty years since he first performed with the NZSO).

Presumably this, the opening work on the programme that evening in Paris would have scarcely caused an eyebrow to rise. However, the riot that broke out in the auditorium from almost the beginning of the Stravinsky work has earned the evening (and the music) a notoriety which lasted for much of the twentieth century. It has all been well-documented, and, of course, in many instances contradictorily – a number of accounts claimed that the spectators’ bewilderment and subsequent derision of “Le Sacre” was due to the choreography (devised by the legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky), rather than the music. Stravinsky himself referred to Nijinsky’s choreography in later years in contradictory ways – in a letter to a student friend he described Nijinsky’s work as “incomparable: with the exception of a few places, everything was as I (Stravinsky) wanted it”, while, much later to his amanuensis, Robert Craft, he scornfully described Nijinsky’s dancing maidens in the work as “knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas”.

The work’s first conductor, Pierre Monteux (who went on to record “Le Sacre” four times over his lengthy career) once confessed to never liking the music. Speaking of the infamous premiere in an interview almost fifty years afterwards, he observed, “I did not like “Le Sacre” then. I have conducted it fifty times since. I do not like it now.” I’m sure that statements like that of Monteux’s would have actually enhanced the music’s mystique and popularity – it’s irrefutable that most of the world’s eminent conductors, whatever their feelings concerning the work, seem to have either presented it in concert or recorded it. Stravinsky himself also made four recordings as conductor of the work, the earliest (coincidentally, during the same year as Monteux’s) in 1929! Since then, the music has become as much a concert-hall as a stage-ballet classic, and one of the most oft-recorded of all twentieth-century pieces of music.

It was a nice idea getting Michael Houstoun to play the original Chopin pieces from which the ballet “Les Sylphides” was made – of course the orchestrated pieces could have instead been performed to great effect, though I thought the actual visual scenario of the piano being played, as here, in front of numerous empty orchestral chairs and music-stands perfectly evoked the idea of a “ballet-company répétiteur” running through the pieces for the next rehearsal, in preparation for the actual ballet with an orchestra.

The pieces themselves as a group made an extremely effective programme – I’ll probably be thought of as snobbish or elitist by saying that I wish the audience had been asked to save its applause for the end, but I still would have preferred the music to have flowed from dance to dance, continuing uninterrupted until the obvious applause-inducing  fireworks at the end of the concluding “Grande Valse Brilliante”! – I joined in heartily enough at THAT point! Houstoun played them all very much as “dance” pieces, eschewing extremes of interpretative expression, but still managing to bring out the poetic intensities of both the Op.32 No.2 A-flat Nocturne, and the totally adorable A Major Prelude. He caught the essential orchestral swagger of the well-known “Polonaise Militaire”, especially in its Trio section, resonating the stern trills with flair and purpose.

I thought it interesting comparing the characters of the individual pieces, especially the “valses”, having two (Op.70 No. 1, and Op 64 No. 2) composed much later than the Op.18 “Grande Valse Brilliante”, and sounding rather more emotionally “laden” than the earlier work. The Mazurkas are singular beasties, perhaps the closest Chopin got to his native land’s “folk” expression, Houstoun readily conjuring up the stamping of feet and swirling of skirts in Op.33 No. 2, complete with the ending’s impish upward gesture! – and catching the contrasting wistfulness of Op.67 No.3.  As for the Polish composer’s Nocturnes, often very un-Nocturne-like in places, here in Op.32 No. 2 the music’s intensities during the minor-key section were seamlessly integrated by the pianist into the flow, as was the return of the opening theme, with its somewhat vertiginously-decorated variation, followed by the beautifully-contrived echoing of the work’s opening at the end.

Extended applause brought Houstoun back to give us an encore, one which, to my shame, I didn’t recognise, but (thanks to help from Houstoun himself) have at last identified– the second of Chopin’s Trois nouvelles études, in A-flat Major a pretty, very chordal piece with melodies as sub-plots in the bass – Houstoun made the reprise of the opening a magical happening, voicing the cross-rhythms with prayer-like beauty.

Seated before us on our return after the interval for the Stravinsky work was what appeared an enormous group of players, many of whom were obscured almost completely from sight from where I was sitting, mid-auditorium, though the impression of a “large assemblage” still remained. I’ve always thought it a pity that the orchestra’s platform in the MFC isn’t “tiered” right throughout (as was the case for the players when in the Town Hall) so that those players sounding the “middle voices” in orchestral textures (mostly the winds) can be seen as well as heard. There’s no visibility problem for audiences in the galleries above, but in the stalls the physical orchestral aspect often resembles the prow of a ship bearing down upon the observers from “below” so that only the figurehead(s) and the front of the bow are visible, with the “decks” and all who sail on them obscured by the frontispieces!

I was, I confess, anticipating the prospect of the “Nocturnal” performance visuals with little joy, my previous experience of such things being along the lines of thinking them at best irrelevant, and at worst, distracting. Still, an “open mind” was obviously called for, as I reminded myself while waiting for the arrival of the conductor, Gemma New.

Warmly greeted by the audience, New acknowledged the applause, took up her station, and stood before what seemed like a firmament of dimly-lit stillness, before enabling the opening notes from the bassoon to materialise in a sonic sense as if sounded in a dream, slowly and timelessly, a hypnotic beginning, the instrument enabled to almost “speak” in primitive but expressive tones, the sounds unfolding and transfixing us with their direct, spontaneous-sounding lines, mirroring New’s balletic movements of direction and encouragement. We were drawn into the sounds’ gestation, held by the extraordinary panoply of interacting textures creating a tapestry of burgeoning interest.  A sudden silence and the bassoon returned, its melody this time answered rhythmically by plucked strings, softly at first, and then vehemently, with biting, asymmetrical accents, the “Augurs of Spring” dance – I did remember occasionally to look at the screen backdrop, whose images weren’t as intrusive as I’d feared at this stage, dancing detached lines relating to the music’s trajectories.

New kept the rhythms steady, the detailing forthright and precise, picking things up again after the brief brass-and-timpani irruption, the strands regrouping, with the “ringing” percussion adding their various voices to the growing excitement, the trajectories augmented with increasing exhilaration and agitation, rhythmic accents pounding on and off the beat. A moment of disruptive chaos sounded by a “warning” chord and huge percussive beats, brought the “Ritual of Abduction”, with its frenzied, asymmetrical chaotic-like interchanges, the instrumental groupings wondrously detailed, the strands “keeping their heads” amid the uproar, New’s rhythmic control enabling some magnificent playing, the figurations from all parts of the ensemble forward-thrusting and dovetailing their varied impulses with real flair!

Trilling flutes emerged from the remains of the uproar, as clarinets intoned a brief hymn-like chorale, leading to the famous “Spring Rounds”, massive step-wise chords, launched by the lower strings and patterned by the upper strings, with winds and horns advancing the hugely weighty theme as it strode forward, here massively and tumultuously taken up by the heavy percussion, as the brasses roared their savage exultations. Though the music wasn’t giving me much opportunity to register what was appearing on the screen, I did notice a dancing figure seemingly made of water from a cascading fountain, one whicb I thought cleverly and expressively reflected the in-flux nature of the music throughout this section of the work, if predominantly liquid and balletic rather than monumental and primitive!

The trilling flutes and ritualistic clarinets returned, introducing the “Games of the Rival Tribes”, New marshalling her forces brilliantly as brass and percussion seemed to vie for supremacy, with strings and winds advancing the music’s thematic presence amid the agitations – a great trilling, almost maniacal in its energy, seemed to “herd” the music into a giant vortex, with moaning string ostinato and baleful brass calls riding percussive irruptions bubbling up alarmingly from below – virtuoso orchestra stuff was happening here, I thought, as more and more anarchic voices joined the fray, New as kinetic in her movements as ever, as she gave the mayhem its due before suddenly bringing things to silence.

Here was the “Sage’s Sacred Kiss of the Earth”, a breath-catching moment coloured by eerie winds, timpani and strings, then overwhelmed by orchestral tumult (the MFC’s relative lack of resonant tone here reducing the impact of the orchestra’s splendid playing at this point), with New bringing in layer upon layer of frenzied figurations over an ever-burgeoning bass ostinato that rose like a whale out of the sea and crushed the surface activities with a remorseless flick of its tail. Heart-stopping stuff!

As with the first part of the work “The Adoration of the Earth”, the second part “The Sacrifice” also featured a restrained, atmospheric introduction, more eerie and muted than that preceding the first – New and the players evoked a wonderfully claustrophobic sound-scape, here, the atmosphere momentarily spoilt when somebody on stage dropped something with a clatter! The softly-played but hugely suggestive chords conjured up unfathomable depths over which the scarcely-moving ambiences floated (I remember how telling was the Disney animation in the famous “Fantasia” film at this point in the music’s sequence, the sense of unease igniting and  “growing” as inexorably as did the sounds, with wind and brass sounding terse, uncomfortable scraps of feral intent) – what control, here, from conductor and orchestra, as all was suddenly let “off the leash” with yelps of excitement-cum-fear from brass and strings as the percussion suddenly crashed in, announcing “The Glorification of the Chosen One”. Again I felt the hall’s ambience “taming” the impact of the resonances here, acceptable in a theatre’s orchestral pit with action on the stage to take in, but a shade too dry to my ears for purely orchestral realisation!

There was no let-up, with “The Evocation of the Ancestors” bringing forth stenorian orchestral shouts capped off by drum rolls – later with cor anglais and bass flute phrases “colouring” the increasingly fatalistic scenario, culminating in a kind of “nightmare” processional, there followed what sounded to me like the work’s most uncompromising sequence, the “Sacrificial Dance” of the Chosen One. Interrupted by the Ancestors requiring some more “Ritual Action”, the victim then continued her sacrificial dance even more frantically and desperately, , a fantastical dovetailing of different orchestral impulses locked in an ever-tightening grip. We were mesmerised by it all, and held our breath as the dance suddenly gave way to a moment of release from the winds sudden ascent through a brief silence, and a sudden collapse of the music via a final orchestral chord.

I confess to all but forgetting about the screen backdrop images during these latter sequences – they must have been sufficiently “of a piece” with the music , even if the musicians’ stunning realisation of these sounds had obviously captivated me at that stage to the extent where my reaction to any query about them would have been “What images?” The shade of Stravinsky himself would, I’m sure, have purred with pleasure at the thought of the orchestra that was “his” for a few magical moments in the Wellington Town Hall sixty years ago (see the video link below) tackling his music here with such elan, confidence and splendour.




Spacious, enraptured, beautiful – Wellington Chamber Orchestra with Baroque Voices and Nota Bene

MARIA GRENFELL – River, Mountain, Sky
ELGAR – Variations on an original theme – “Enigma”
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS – Five Mystical Songs / Serenade to Music

Wellington Chamber Orchestra with Baroque Voices and Nota Bene
Will King (baritone)
Ewan Clark (conductor)

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

Sunday 4th July 2021

For as long as I can remember, Wellington Chamber Orchestra has been a player-run orchestra which engages conductors by the concert.  This, I suppose, has some advantages. It gives the orchestra maximum freedom and minimum financial commitments. But it also tries to provide solo opportunities for young musicians, and given the inevitable coming and going of people from one concert to the next, the result must be a certain unevenness.

After today’s concert, I have a suggestion to make to WCO’s player managers. Hire Ewan Clark, and extract a two-year programme from him – and you will be going places, I guarantee it. Continuity, artistic vision, and stability have a lot to recommend them.

Ewan Clark is a composer and conductor as well as a trombonist. He has been conducting since he was a music student at Victoria University, nearly 20 years ago. Since then he has studied composition for screen at the Royal College of Music (MMus) and he also has a PhD from Victoria University. For years he worked mostly as a film composer, and his most recent score, for The Turn of the Screw (2020), has already won two awards at international film festivals.

This concert demonstrated what WCO is capable of under a talented conductor, with the support of excellent friends (in this case singers from Baroque Voices and Nota Bene, together with the phenomenal young baritone Will King).

The programme, as first glance, was not exceptionally interesting. Elgar’s Enigma Variations, Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs and Serenade to Music – all agreeable old war-horses – plus a short work by Australian/New Zealand composer Maria Grenfell to open the concert. Apart from the Grenfell work, it wasn’t interesting at all, in the sense of ‘I wonder what will happen next’, but it was very pleasurable. And there were surprises.

Maria Grenfell now lives in Tasmania, but she studied composition in Christchurch before going to Eastman in the US for her Masters, and UCLA for her doctorate. She tells us that she works from ‘poetic, literary, and visual sources’ as well as ‘non-Western music and literature’.  I discerned none of this in River, Mountain, Sky, which was commissioned for Tasmania’s bicentenary in 2004, but it was a delightful work nonetheless, with a clear programme and much to interest the ear. The first section features birdsong sounds from flutes and other woodwind, with first the timpani, then the horns suggesting spaciousness.  Sustained chords painted in a landscape of mountains and plains; recalling first Sibelius in the writing for the horns, then a dissolve into Vaughan Williams. The mountains section built in slow waves of sound, accented by unmuted trumpets and the harp (Anne-Gaelle Ausseil). I was sitting upstairs, and the harp was often overwhelmed by the timpani – perhaps an effect of the gallery? There was some lovely clarinet playing on the way to the sunset crescendo, and then the night sounds – oboe, the sussurations of the higher strings, muted trumpets, another lovely harp passage, and then an undertone of horns with flute, trumpet, and harp to suggest the starry night. A lovely work, I thought.

Next, Elgar’s Enigma Variations. It demands a large orchestra, and bristles with solos, made even harder because everyone in the audience can sing or whistle the tunes. And the playing was patchy.  The upper strings were considerably weaker than the lower strings, with uneasy tuning and a general air of tentativeness that marred the opening of Variation I. But the back of the orchestra rose to the many challenges that Elgar gave them, and the winds played beautifully, with some superb oboe solos and secure flutes and clarinets. I have to say, though, that the horns were terrific. They and the trombones get a lot of work; whilst the trombones were always enthusiastic but not necessarily delicate, the horns were tender as well as bold. By the time they got to the crescendo in Variation IV, the orchestra was making a big, exciting sound. The lower brass were great in Variation VII, and there was terrific wind playing in VIII after the lovely oboe solo, with sensitive piccolo and flute. Nimrod crept out of VIII as intended but although the lower strings played as one, the upper strings sounded uncomfortable and out of tune. Never mind! Here come the horns, winds, and finally the trumpets. Variation X was a curate’s egg, but one with a nice bassoon solo. Variation XI showed off the brass to good effect. By the time we reached Variation XIV the orchestra sensed the end was in sight. They built well to a splendid Elgarian crescendo, with a few rough edges.

The choir came on stage for the second half of the concert, which began with Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs. The soloist was Will King, who was an Emerging Artist with NZ Opera in 2019, and is supported by the Malvina Major Foundation. He has already sung Orfeo (Monteverdi) and Count Almaviva (Marriage of Figaro), along with Sam in Gareth Farr’s opera The Bone Feeder for NZ Opera. He has performed Schubert’s Winterreise, Schumann’s Dichterliebe, and Brahms’s Vier Ernste Gesänge. Later this year, he will understudy Orpheus in the NZ Opera production of Orfeo et Euridice.  When he won the Wellington Aria in 2018, Richard Greagor described him as ‘a baritone clearly with the potential to make a fine career’.

Not surprisingly, Will King made a splendid job of the Five Mystical Songs. He has a big, beautiful voice and excellent musicianship. From his first entry, he demonstrated the vigorous, rapturous sound that these songs demand. His diction is superb – I could have taken dictation from him. At one point during ‘Love bade me welcome’ I wondered whether he understood the poetry – George Herbert was a religious mystic, after all. But it was impossible to tell, because he thoroughly understood the music, and gave a superb performance. ‘The Call’ featured a gorgeous oboe solo, and Will King was lyrical perfection.

The choir acts mostly as backing group for the first four songs, until let off the leash in number five, ‘Let all the world in every corner sing’. I first sang this in the Auckland University Choir under Peter Godfrey, back in the late Cretaceous, and recall it as a bit of a shout. Not in the hands of Ewan Clark and Baroque Voices/Nota Bene. It was big and glad and joyful, with WCO’s wind and brass romping all over it.

The final work in the programme was Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music. This was written at about the time RVW was giving Douglas Lilburn a bad mark for the Drysdale Overture in his composition class at the Royal College of Music. The choir sang well, with various small solos being charmingly taken by one or two voices. Once or twice in quiet passages the orchestra overwhelmed the choir, but mostly the balance was good, with the choir’s sound delightfully imitating the instruments.  (I’m not sure whether to thank Ewan Clark or RVW, but it was lovely nonetheless.) The audience was enraptured, and applauded long enough to be rewarded with an encore, a reprise of ‘Let all the world’, which never sacrificed style for volume.