The Queen’s Closet’s 2022 “Judgement of Paris” a winner

The Queen’s Closet presents:
Opera – THE JUDGEMENT OF PARIS  (words by William Congreve)
with music by John Eccles, Daniel Purcell, John Weldon and Godfrey Finger
(a new edition by The Queen’s Closet)

CAST:  Paris, a humble shepherd – Toby Gee
Mercury/Hermes, messenger of Jove – David Morriss
Juno/Saturnia, Goddess of Power – Barbara Paterson
Pallas Athena, Goddess of Victory in War – Rowena Simpson
Venus/Aphrodite, Goddess of Love – Anna Sedcole

MUSICIANS: Leader – Gregory Squire: Violins – Gregory Squire, CJ Macfarlane, Sarah Marten, Emma Brewerton: Violas – Lyndsay Mountfort, Gordon Lehany: ‘Cellos – Jane Young, Robert Ibell:  Hoboys –
Sharon Lehany, Rebecca Grimwood: Recorders – Sharon Lehany, Gordon Lehany: Guitar – Peter Maunder: Harpsichord – Kristina Zuelicke: Trumpets – Gordon Lehany, Peter Reid, Chris Woolley, Peter Maunder: Timpani/Percussion – Larry Reese:

The Queen’s Closet Artistic Director: Gordon Lehany

Foxglove Ballroom, 57 Customhouse Quay, Wellington

Sunday 20th February, 2022

It was all as promised! – “…..With our sense of style and fun we will bring this 300 year-old music to life for Wellingtonians today” ran the Queen’s Closet’s online advertising blurb…… the conclusion of all the fun and gaiety a roomful of Wellingtonians at the Foxglove Ballroom venue on the city’s waterfront readily testified to the success of this venture with sustained applause and subsequent babblings of excitement and satisfaction at the entertainment’s end. What might have appeared on paper to be a somewhat dusty-and-fusty, quasi-restoration of a musical event that happened a world away in London several centuries ago was here brought to life with confidence, elan and style, an operatic production refreshingly without the myriad theatrical trappings of a conventional staging – sets, lights, and  elaborate costumes – and in terms of cheek-by-jowl accessibility all the better for it!

Originally, “The Judgement of Paris” was the subject of an event set up in 1700 by a group of “patrons of the arts” in London wanting to promote interest in “through-sung” opera in English, a form which, up to that time mostly consisted of works combining song with spoken drama. A “Musicke Prize” was offered to composers for the most effective setting of a libretto of the same name by William Congreve, already an established dramatist of the day. Four composers, John Weldon (1676-1736), John Eccles (1668-1735), Daniel Purcell (1664-1717) – a nephew (?) of the famous Henry Purcell – and Godfrey Finger (ca.1655/6-1730) entered the lists, their works being first performed individually during 1701, then staged in a kind of “grand final” in June 1703. By all accounts the result, an audience choice, caused some acrimony, with the supposed favourite, Eccles, beaten into second place by the least-favoured Weldon, with Purcell third, and an extremely disgruntled Finger placed last!

Only three of the four finished versions survive in score today, Finger’s having been lost, though other music of his is still extant – however, this didn’t deter the BBC Proms in 1989 from restaging what they could of the competition’s “Grand Final” in the Royal Albert Hall with the three extant operas (Anthony Rooley conducted the Consorte Of Musicke and Concerto Koln). Once again the audience was invited to choose the winner – and on this later occasion it was Eccles!

This production enterprisingly reconstructs a single performance of the work made up of selected excerpts from the three different complete scores, and compensates  for the “missing composer” with an excerpt from one of Finger’s extant theatrical works, his 1701 suite for “Alexander the Great”, in this instance an aria “Morpheus, gentle God”. In this way we’re given a resounding “overview” of the achievement of the original enterprise and the individual composers concerned – alas, at that time the currents of the tides of fashion were set against the objectives of the promoters of “English opera”, with the new craze for Italian opera dominating the London scene, and setting in train a dearth of “true” English opera until the early twentieth century.

One of the most helpful features of the Queen’s Closet’s presentation was the accompanying written programme, which contained a good deal of the background information to the work summarised above, and a detailed synopsis of the opera’s plot complete with the individual musical numbers named and paired with their composer. We in the audience thus knew “where we were” at every step of the proceedings, adding enormously to our relish of the story, the characters and their interactions!

Interestingly, if one counts the numbers assigned to each composer in this realisation, Daniel Purcell wins the “musicians vote” by fourteen numbers to John Eccles’ twelve, with John Weldon scoring a discreet five. The unfortunate Godfrey Finger is represented by a single but important number, the first-half closer “Morpheus, gentle God”, no less!

It would take far too long to go through the entire work, commenting on each of the numbers, so a precis of the action will suffice for this review’s purposes – Paris, a humble shepherd, is visited by the celestial messenger Mercury/Hermes, who tells the amazed mortal that the gods wish him to award a golden apple to the most deserving of three important goddesses, Juno, Pallas Athena, and Venus. Paris is overwhelmed at the prospect and fearful for his survival in the face of the goddesses’ attentions, but Mercury assures him of his protection during the process. The goddesses arrive on the scene and each tries to persuade the shepherd to award her the prize. Paris’s response is to faint into a sleep during which Morpheus, God of Dreams is evoked to guide the shepherd in his choice.

The second half begins with Paris’s reawakening and interacting with the three Goddesses, each of whom he asks what she would offer him in return for the apple. Juno tempts Paris with power to rule over men, while Pallas Athena offers the shepherd victory in war. Lastly Venus reminds Paris of the true joy of love, which she promises will be his. As much through exhaustion as reason, Paris chooses Venus as the victor and gives her the apple, to the relief and satisfaction of the gods.

I was charmed by how well the semi-staged aspect of the presentation worked – everybody, musicians and audience, shared the same floorspace in the Foxglove Ballroom, with the singers moving through and around the musicians, spread in a semi-circle, to a rostrum at the left of the acting area immediately in front of the audience. The immediacy of it all made everything come alive, both the formal and more improvisatory aspects of what everybody did, the magic of stage transformation as strong as if in a more conventional theatre, perhaps by dint of the performers inviting its audience to participate creatively by “imagining for ourselves” each character’s fuller ramifications instead of having it all already “done” for us.

Each of the singers conveyed her or his character’s essence easily and naturally, Toby Gee’s “Paris” properly simple, rustic and unpretentious, set at first against the easy suavity and insouciance of David Morriss’s Mercury, the latter’s black-and-white garb a touch Mephistophelean, I first thought, if complete with a “sacred rod” (an umbrella, used with a “Singin’ in the Rain” kind of flair in places to great effect! The three Goddesses  made the most of their respectively singular qualities, Barbara Paterson’s suave, worldly Juno by turns kittenish and commanding as required, making the perfect foil for both Rowena Simpson’s no-nonsense, forthright and ‘spot-on” Pallas Athena, and Anna Sedcole’s softer, sweeter, wide-eyed and winning Venus/Aphrodite. The stage business had a certain homespun quality which I found endearing, in the sense that nothing seemed overlaid, but instead “grew out of” both the music and the dramatic situations in an unforced way.

The singing, too, shared these qualities, in each case the vocal qualities managing to fit the characterisation splendidly – Toby Gee’s Paris sounded consistently and believably overawed in the situation he inadvertedly found himself, making the most of his bewilderment in “Distracted I turn, but cannot decide”, and aided by John Eccles’ engagingly “swinging” rhythms.  I’ve never heard David Morriss sing with greater beauty, agility and tonal variety as here, with his Mercury – and his promised protection to Paris, “Fear not Mortal, none shall harm thee!” was suitably bolstered by some wry “umbrella-semaphoring”, to hilarious effect.

Each of the goddesses shone whilst vocally plying their respective virtues and powers – Barbara Paterson’s Juno was at her most imperious with Eccles’ “Let Ambition fire thy Mind”, the voice ringing out, bolstered by the other characters in the music’s reprise, to a most exciting and invigorating string accompaniment. Equally authoritative was Rowena Simpson’s Pallas Athena, with bright, pinging notes supported by stirring work from trumpets and drums as she sang “Hark, hark, the glorious voice of war!”, with the following Handelian “O how glorious ‘tis to see!” further underlining the warlike sentiments.

After such entreaties it was a relief for the finer sensibilities to encounter Anna Sedcole’s Venus imploring Paris to listen to her very different message with, firstly Eccles’  “Stay, lovely Youth” (accompanied winningly by recorders, ‘cello and harpsichord), and then Weldon’s “One only joy mankind can know”, the latter becoming a kind of “Ode to Joy”-like chorale with the other singers joining in – heart-warming! – and if that wasn’t sufficiently disarming, then Sedcole’s singing of  Purcell’s “Gentle Shepherd”, with a delicate guitar accompaniment, was the “piece de resistance” which disarmed Paris (and the rest of us!) completely – the rest, as they say, is – um, history! – with the shepherd completely undone and gladly bestowing upon Venus the golden apple –  Paris’s “I yield” made a particularly moving and solemn impression, the voice alternating phrases with a hoboy, while  guitar, ‘cello and harpsichord murmured in attendance.

There remains to extol the virtues of the band – most authoritatively led by Gregory Squire, the players delivered in spadefuls what seemed to me the essential character of each Symphony, Sonata movement and vocal accompaniment, be it grand or intimate, energetic or graceful. Perhaps the “shared space” venue had something to do with a ready quality of infectious enjoyment, evident in the relish with which each number’s singular quality was delivered by the players – the strings en masse stirred the blood in so many and different places (from stern grandeur to energetic abandonment throughout Eccles’s “Let Ambition fire thy Mind”, for example) as did the thrills and occasional spills of the trumpets, all adding to the excitement and stirringly supported by Larry Reese’s timpani (in the same composer’s music for Pallas Athena – ‘Awake! Awake! Thy spirits arise!” and “Hark, hark! – the glorious voice of war!”). Contrasting most beguilingly with all this were the gentler, softer accents of the recorders, the hoboys, the guitar and ‘cello, invariably partnered by Kris Zuelicke’s eloquent harpsichord continuo, in much of the music for Paris (Finger’s “Morpheus, Gentle God”, where the singers’ voices are echoed by the recorders; and Venus’s appearance to Paris, coloured beautifully by recorders and the continuo instruments).

I, for one, would hope to hear more along these lines from the Queen’s Consort, whose efforts brought to life a world of musical and dramatic expression we don’t often get to experience in such a vivid and well-rounded way – very great honour to all concerned!

Restorative music from the Restoration, performed by “The Queen’s Closet”

The Queen’s Closet presents –

Music by William Corbett, Matthew Locke, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, William Croft, Henry Purcell, Godfrey Finger, Godfrey Keller, Phillipp Jakob Rittler

The Queen’s Closet – ensemble
Peter Reid (trumpet and cornetto)
Gordon Lehany (trumpet and recorder)
Peter Maunder (sackbut and recorder)
Sharon Lehany (hoboy)
Hyewon Kim (violin)
Jane Young (‘cello)
Lachlan Radford (d-bass)
Laurence Reese (percussion)
Kris Suelicke (harpsichord)

City Gallery, Civic Square, Wellington

Saturday, June 1st 2019

A well-ordered programme, a cornucopia of colourful-sounding instruments, a group of skilled, expressive players and a relaxed, spontaneous-sounding presentation whose varied amalgam of fascinating and engaging sounds ensured a most attractive and resounding early evening’s music-making were the sure-fire ingredients of this concert from the early music group “The Queen’s Closet”. The ensemble’s name is derived from an eponymously-titled room found in a National Trust house located in Richmond, London, the room regarded as representing the most lavishly-detailed preservation of 17th Century fashion and style of décor in existence.

Considering the historical and cultural importance of such a place, one might expect any group aligning themselves to it by name to be somewhat rigorous in recreating authenticity of voice and perfection of detail, perhaps even to an inhibiting or stultifying degree. However, such potentially museum-like responses in performance seem unequivocally NOT to be the group’s raison d’etre, according to an open, freshly-expressed note in the concert’s written programme, which I’d like to quote:  – “What we aim to do is make the historic modern, rather than aiming to conduct historical enactments of the past. When this music was first heard it was fresh and modern – we seek to make the music new and contemporary for audiences in our time and place, recreating the joyous spirit of the Restoration”.

It seems to me a well-thought-out attitude to music-making in general, imbuing the sounds through skill, focus and enthusiasm with an immediacy of reaction, a living, breathing set of responses. Thus we in the audience were engaged by these ancient sounds through the music-making’s “living value”, one that easily transcended time and space, and imbued us with that same “new and contemporary” spirit, the sounds both joyous and captivating!

Kicking off this resoundingly festive event was an Overture in D major from an English composer William Corbett (b.1680) who played in and composed for both theatre and instrumental concert ensembles – he led theatre orchestras in London such as that at the Haymarket, and later became the Director of the King’s Band. His D major Overture made a bright, stirring initial impression, with percussion adding weight and brilliance to the brasses during the music’s introduction, before an allegro daintily danced in on the strings, soon being joined by the rest of the ensemble, everything then beautifully and variedly detailed over a number of movements.

A “Curtain Tune” (possibly one composed for a production of “the Tempest”) by Matthew Locke (b.1621) kept the “theatrical” aspect of things to the fore, with Larry Reece’s timpani making an exciting “opening-up” of the vistas towards the piece’s end. At first it made a marked contrast to the gentle stepwise opening of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber’s Sonata VII, “Tam Aris Quam Aulis Servientes”, with the trumpets (Peter Reid and Gordon Lehany) answering one another across the platform, with violin and hoboy (oboe) adding their comments, the strings in a continuo kind of role throughout. The trumpets varied this with a dotted rhythm variation accompanied by a tambourine, after which the hoboy and violin had a charming, impish exchange, with the two trumpets joining in the discourse – a beautiful and graceful moment of solemnity! – following which the brasses called to one another to bring the work to its close. I was interested that Biber (b.1644), though not a “Restoration” composer as such through working in Salzburg, was said to have had a definite contemporaneous influence upon the English music of the time.

Throughout the evening the musicians took turns to demonstrate the efficacies of their particular instruments, a process that would have worked even better for me had I not been sitting in the very back row of the auditorium, as I found some of the voices difficult to properly hear. Peter Reid , the trumpet/cornetto player, presented no such problem, his voice happily emulating the instruments’ pleasing audibility, by way of demonstrating for us two kinds of cornetto (“little horn”, incidentally) including a larger “Cornetto Muto”. At the conclusion of a piece which followed, by an unknown composer (a jolly dance!) from a collection of music known as the Magdalene College Part-Books, percussionist Larry Reece talked about his timpani, built in 1830, brighter and sharper-toned than modern orchestral timpani. He also elaborated, most interestingly, upon the practical application of “kettledrums” (often mounted on horseback) in warfare, different sounds conveying different messages to troops on the battlefield.

Appropriately there followed an “Overture with Noise of Cannon” by William Croft (b.1678), very Handelian-sounding, trumpets and drums dominating, following which a fugue, instigated by Hyewon Kim’s nimble violin and Sharon Lehany’s hoboy, furthered the discourse most engagingly, the music’s energy further invigorated by Jane Young’s cello and Lachlan Radford’s double-bass! A beautiful and sombre processional followed, fraught with feeling and the players’ almost palpable engagement with the sounds, before violin and hoboy (again!) roused themselves and danced their way into and through the final movement – splendid!

Purcell’s Symphony from Act V of “King Arthur” here carried a dignity and quiet authority, with beautifully-voiced fanfares exchanged across vistas of imagination and recreation. However, Godfrey Finger (b.1660), I thought, provided one of the evening’s highlights with his Sonata for Trumpet and Hoboy – a heavenly discourse between the two instruments was beautifully supported by the continuo of Kris Zuelicke’s harpsichord and Jane Young’s ‘cello, morphing into a kind of running bass (reminiscent of that in Purcell’s “Sound the Trumpet”, from his “Birthday Ode for Queen Mary”). A stirring call to arms followed (great trumpet-playing from Peter Reid), was then overtaken by sudden melancholy! – the hoboy stricken with sorrow, solemn of movement, downcast of spirit – lovely, heartrending work from Sharon Lehany!  Eventually, he veil of angst was lifted by both instruments, and contentment restored.

Another Trumpet Sonata followed, this one by another Godfrey, with the surname of Keller. Beginning with a sprightly “statement and answer” sequence, the trumpet “played” with the endless permutations of this, before reversing the sequences in the next section, the ensemble “calling the tune” this time, as it were. A gentle 3/4 melancholy pervaded the next section, with lovely, delicately-moulded lines here for the sackbut, from Peter Maunder. A running bass, heroic trumpet and celebratory opening of the last movement brought out some lovely exchanges, the ensemble as a whole generating an almost alchemic “feel” for tempi and instrumental balances, producing mellifluous results – the timpani “rounded off” the festive ambience with suitably reinforced “effect”!

Sackbut player Peter Maunder talked briefly about his instrument, clarifying further for me its distinctiveness from a trombone, and telling us something I hadn’t before realised, that sackbuts and trombones were historically associated with church, as opposed to trumpets’ better-known martial connections and horns being always bracketed with hunting. In the next piece by Matthew Locke (Music for the play “Psyche”), Peter Maunder’s playing of his sackbut in a recitative-like passage during the introduction brought out the most beautiful tones, a lovely cantabile, followed by a stately dance movement.  The solo lines reminded me of the trombone solo in Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Russian Easter Overture”, the playing beautifully-phrased and sumptuously-toned.

Last on the programme was the music of Phillipp Jakob Rittler (b.1637), the piece being a Ciaconna, or Chaconne. At the outset the music was slow, stately, relaxed and quietly joyous, with various percussive bells and cymbals adding to the gradual agglommeration of texture and ambience, everything more and more animated and wide-ranging! Antiphonal trumpets had a fine old time as did other instrument “pairs”, such as the violin and hoboy. The music reached its apex, then gradually receded, leaving us with dying tones and “fled is that music?” echoes of mingled regret and pleasure. At the concert’s end the weather outside was even more frightful than when I came at the beginning – but the palpable enjoyment of both the music and its performance throughout the evening amply compensated for my twice-told soaking!