Woodwind students present entertaining, varied music at St Andrew’s lunchtime concert

Wind Ensembles of the New Zealand School of Music

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 24 May 2017, 12.15 pm

To hear young performers is always a pleasure; here we had seven young woodwind players, along with three pianists.  The first piece used  a student pianist, and the Bach work was unaccompanied.  Hugh McMillan and Kirsten Robertson were authoritative pianists for the other items.

Bridget Douglas, principal flute with the NZSO is acting Head of Winds, and she introduced the concert.  After that, the players introduced their items, and it was pleasing that all used the microphone, so their words could be heard clearly.

A trio opened the programme: Leah Thomas and Laura Brown (clarinets) and Tasman Richards (piano), playing Mendelssohn’s 2nd Concert Piece.  Grove tells me that this was written in 1833, for basset horn (a close relative of the clarinet) and piano.  The excellent introduction from Leah Thomas explained that the players decided to use two clarinets.  They alternated the music between them, and this worked well.  The presto opening movement was lively and played with flair, with a good variety of dynamics.

The following andante included passages for clarinet alone; these were played with gorgeous subtlety.  The allegro grazioso last movement again had beautiful parts for the clarinets, but the piano was rather ‘rum-te-tum’.   The clarinettists produced wonderful tone, and were accurate and confident.

A Bach Cello Suite on saxophone!!?   Peter Liley explained that the range of pitch of the baritone saxophone he was using was the same as that of the cello.  But I have to say that I found the tone in his ‘Allemande’ from the Suite no.1 a bit weird, so different is the timbre from that of a stringed instrument.  There is not the variety of tone colours as are attainable on a cello.  Nevertheless the higher notes can be very sweet, and the player was well in command of his instrument.

Telemann followed; his Sonata for Oboe and Continuo in A minor  began with a lovely andante from oboist Finn Bodkin-Olen.  Kirsten Robertson’s was a very busy part, played judiciously and producing a fine tone, as indeed did Bodkin-Olen’s oboe.  The vivace second movement was clear and joyful.  This was a splendid performance.

For something completely different, Billie Kiel played on clarinet Malcolm Arnold’s Sonatina for clarinet and piano, Op.29.  This was a challenging selection, with snappy melodies and delightful quirky passages and techniques, all of which Kiel played with the competence of a professional.  The piece’s two movements were both fast.

However, the reliance of the accompanist on reading his music on an iPad or similar had an obvious disadvantage when it seemed that his foot-pedal for the device didn’t work, and he could not continue, making an unwritten break in the piece.  From there he had to rely on a finger to stab the screen in order to turn the pages.

I was not familiar with the name Gaubert (and nor is Grove), but Google is.  Philippe Gaubert lived from 1879 to 1941.  Like many French composers, he was obviously keen on the flute.  His Madrigal for flute and piano was a complete change of mood from the Arnold work, being calm and pastoral.  The flowing accompaniment had its own charm.  It was a thoroughly enchanting performance by Samantha McSweeney and Kirsten Robertson.

The concert ended with the Rondo: allegretto from Weber’s Clarinet Concerto no.1 in F minor, Op.73.   As Frank Talbot, the performer, explained in his introduction, Weber was using the concerto to demonstrate the latest improvements to the clarinet. This third movement was a spirited piece, full of interest and liveliness, and played with assurance and technical mastery.  While the soloist had pauses, Hugh McMillan was kept busy substituting for a symphony orchestra.  It was a good work with which to end the concert.


Happy concert from the New Zealand School of Music saxophone ensemble and soloists

St Andrew’s lunchtime concert

NZSM Saxophone Orchestra directed by Simon Brew (Kim Hunter, Reuben Chin, Geneviève Davidson, Peter Liley, Giles Reid, Frank Talbot, Graham Hanify)

Music by Piazzolla, J S Bach, Debussy, Peter Liley, Milhaud, Johann Strauss Sr.

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 1 June, 12:15 pm

The woodwind (more specifically, the Saxophone) department of the New Zealand School of Music has become a fairly conspicuous player in the school’s activities. It’s led by Deborah Rawson, who, as well as being a clarinetist often seen in professional orchestral ranks, plays saxophone, usually the soprano sax.

While she introduced this lunchtime concert, the ensemble was directed by Simon Brew, an ‘artist teacher’ in the school.

The concert began with a piece by Astor Piazzolla which has become very popular, Histoire du Tango: the second movement, Café 1930. Originally for flute and guitar, it exists in several arrangements (evidently none for bandoneon, surprisingly), this time for Kim Hunter, soprano saxophone and Dylan Solomon, guitar. It starts secretively, plaintively, and becomes lively in the middle section as it moves from the smoky Buenos Aires café seemingly into the open. It was nicely played though it could have survived a little more seductiveness.

Then came an arrangement of the Allegro movement of Bach’s concerto for two violins (in D minor, BWV 1043), nicely translated to soprano saxes of Reuben Chin and Kim Hunter, together with the five-piece saxophone ensemble (consisting of soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones). The foreign sound took a moment to adjust to, and even though Bach’s music is generally very adaptable to all manner of treatments, it was perhaps just a fraction too far from its origin: interesting rather than convincing, but very nicely played.

Debussy’s Petite Suite survived the process much more successfully, perhaps because Debussy worked in an environment that was host to the saxophone family (he wrote a Rhapsody for alto saxophone and orchestra). Petite Suite was an early work, c 1889, originally written for piano four hands, but was transcribed for orchestra, presumably with Debussy’s concurrence, by Henri Büsset; that has given licence for a number of other transcriptions. The ensemble, now seven after the two soloists in the Bach joined the ranks, played all four movements. The range of saxophones provided quite a lot of variety of tone as well as spanning several octaves, and the four interestingly contrasted parts proved very listenable. Cortège was bright and tumbling in character, successfully disguising any imperfections. It contrasted well with the more 18th-century sounding Menuet where the saxophones did seem a little anachronistic; on the other hand, the accents of the inner lines of the piece still identified it as belonging around the turn of last century.

One of the players had composed the next piece: Waltz for Saxophone Ensemble by Peter Liley. He introduced it in mock seriousness, employing the pretentious expression “world premiere” with nicely judged drollery. It was an engaging little piece, with hints of the charm and playfulness of Satie or Ibert; I’d guess it could have a life after its premiere – a rarer event than a premiere.

Two pieces from Milhaud’s delightful suite, Scaramouche, were arranged by Debbie Rawson for the ensemble with alto sax, which suited the music beautifully and was probably much easier to listen to than to play. The popularity of this music, Modéré and Brazileira, irritated Milhaud after a while as there were endless demands for arrangements, one for 16 saxophones. But I wasn’t inclined to sympathise with Milhaud, as music that people love and don’t get tired of is not in oversupply, especially of music written lately.

Things ended in the same way as Vienna’s New Year’s Day concerts in the Musikverein, with Strauss Senior’s Radetzky March, where Simon Brew invited the audience to clap, as is the custom in Vienna; incidentally, Brew exhibited singular panache as conductor, not only in Radetzky, but in all the lively and attractive music that this happy band of musicians played.


Admirable, heart-warming concert closes an inspiring NZSM chamber music weekend

Combined Final Concert of the 2015 NZSM Queen’s Birthday Chamber Music Weekend
The culmination of the weekend

Adam Concert Room, Victoria University

Monday 1 June, 1:30 pm

The New Zealand School of Music helped keep the Queen’s Birthday road toll down by attracting scores of secondary and tertiary students to a sort of immersion programme that would prepare secondary school competitors in the NZCT Chamber Music Contest and general tuition for chamber music groups in a communal atmosphere, and keep them off the roads.

It had been a busy week for many of the participants, as I noticed the names of about ten of the players in the Wellington Youth Orchestra on Friday evening were among those at this Monday afternoon concert.

The Chamber Music Weekend had coincided and in some way combined with the school of music’s Classical Saxophone Festival, and student saxophonists as well as a couple of tutors contributed to the concert. Otherwise the programme consisted of a series of string and piano trios. While Debbie Rawson led the saxophone section, Helene Pohl and New Zealand String Quartet colleagues Douglas Beilman and Rolf Gjelsten led in the general chamber music area.

The School of Music Saxophone Quartet opened the concert with a couple of pieces that they’d played in the Wednesday concert of the school’s Showcase at St Andrew’s on The Terrace. Excellent individual performances, though I felt that their sound would have coalesced better if they had placed themselves further back from the audience.

Almost all the groups announced their music, some well projected, some not so well; but the practice is very important, for to be a live musician involves more than just musical skill and talent. Delivery: speech comfortably paced; don’t gabble composers’ names and musical terms and titles; make it sound as if you’re really interested.

A string trio was next, by Taneyev (stress on second syllable – Tanyéyev), and played by the eponymous group. Though written early in the 20th century, for two violins and a viola, it sounded remarkably Haydnish, showing little of the influence of Tchaikovsky, his teacher and life-long friend. Here was a creditable performance from a promising young trio of a piece that was not overtly very interesting.

The Alsergrund Trio (cellist Tessa told us that’s the Vienna suburb when Schubert was born), played their namesake’s first piano trio and made a very good job of it, both individually and as an ensemble. Their playing of the first movement was bold and confident, fully justifying their courage in taking on one of the great masterpieces of the repertoire.

It would have come as a pleasant surprise to many to hear the set of three songs by Glinka (we hear too little Russian song), attractively arranged for piano and two violins – the violins making as if the songs really were lovely duets. (I wondered why the title of the three songs was in German: I don’t see a group of Glinka’s songs so-named).  All three players acquitted themselves beautifully.

The first half ended with the opening movement of Smetana’s anguished piano trio in which the oddly named Melodious Thunk (what connection with the great jazz pianist?) captured the drama and the close-to-the-surface emotion. All players were in command of it, though the piano was a bit loud: I was tempted single out cellist Bethany Angus, in particular, but it would be invidious to attempt singling out.

A solo saxophone piece opened the second half: Tomomi Johnston demonstrated an understanding of Piazzolla’s style, and we could hear the breathing challenges that she managed very well.

The rather forgotten but slowly being revived Benjamin Goddard has not been known for much other than his opera Jocelyn; famous for a lovely Berceuse. These movements from Six Duettini, were charming music which the three very young-looking players, called Trio Souvenirs, handled sympathetically and very musically.

The Debussy Trio played his very early and unfamiliar piano trio (only rediscovered in recent years); all three captured the tone of the work, which reflected Fauré’s very strong influence, in a performance of, was it two or three(?), movements. The three players didn’t blend very comfortably, but I suspect the reason lay more with Debussy’s inexperience in his teens; nevertheless they played with impressive confidence and accuracy.

Two of the weekend’s saxophone tutors broke the domination by violins and pianos with three amusing Conversations by Richard Rodney Bennett: two baritone saxophones exhibited accord and sympathy and mild dissent.

To play Saint-Saëns’s second piano trio, a particularly impressive group, named after the composer, awakened me to the first movement of a piece I didn’t know: another persuasive exhibit for the defence and rehabilitation in the court of his reputation.

Finally came the ‘other’ piano trio of Shostakovich; that written when at the Leningrad Conservatorium in 1923. Lyrical, light-hearted though far from straight-forward, with several moments of curious complexity, it has been called “the most romantic music that Shostakovich ever wrote”. It too was revelatory, in the hands of Trio Glivenko (Who? S. fell in love with Tatyana Glivenko as he was recovering from tuberculosis in Crimea, and dedicated the work to her). The trio included two musicians who’d greatly impressed me earlier, Bethany Angus and Claudia Tarrant-Matthews (now at the piano, having been the accomplished violinist in the Debussy), plus the equally talented Shweta Iyer: confidence, in total command.

I had hoped to discover more details about the music, about the groups that performed, where they came from, which ones were competitors in the forthcoming NZCT Chamber Music Contest, which were at university level. And I’d wondered why there were no groups of wind instrument players.

However, this was an admirable initiative which I hope becomes a regular event. School of Music director Euan Murdoch remarked during the interval that the high achievement of young New Zealanders in the field of chamber music is admired internationally. The work of Chamber Music New Zealand and the various programmes undertaken with the universities, particularly Victoria, are helping compensate for the increasing neglect of the arts in general, and classical music in particular, by most primary and secondary schools.


Ensembled delights from the NZSM Saxophones at St.Andrew’s

St.Andrews Lunchtime Concert Series 2015
Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music Saxophone Orchestra

The players:
Ryan Hall, Reuben Chin (soprano sax)
Genevieve Davidson, Laura Brown (alto sax)
Giles Reid, Elizabeth Hocking, Nick Walshe (tenor sax)
Graham Hanify, Kim Hunter, Simon Brew (Baritone sax)
Director – Debbie Rawson

The music:

ASTOR PIAZZOLLA – Tango Suite for Saxophone Quartet
ROGER MAY – Sax Circus for Saxophone Orchestra
PHILIP BUTTALL – Eclogue for Saxophone Orchestra
ANTONIN DVORAK (arr. Doug. O’Connor)

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

 Wednesday 27th May 2015

There’s more “classical” music written for the saxophone than you might think exists – after all the instrument has been around since 1846, and as such is more “established ” than its twentieth-century prominence in jazz might suggest. Still, there remains an “exoticism” about the instrurment’s particular sound for classically-attuned ears such as mine(!), and one which I find particularly exciting whenever I hear it, be it solo, in a chamber ensemble or in an orchestral context.

So, I found myself looking forward to the NZ School of Music’s Saxophone Orchestra presentation at St.Andrew’s. I wasn’t REALLY expecting to hear my favourite pieces for the instrument, Eric Coates’s Saxo-Rhapsody, and the opening movement of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, with its haunting middle  section “owned” by the instrument – both, after all, have orchestral accompaniment. But I was hoping for something comparably luscious, albeit on a smaller scale.

The concert began with Astor Piazzolla’s Tango Suite, played by a sax quartet, two movements of Latin “soul”, at the outset with lovely, distinctive timbres, particularly the lower echelons – a gentle melancholy, wistful in character, the music embroiled in what sounded like some private emotion. The players balanced everything beautifully, allowing the middle voices their easeful, engaging trajectories, the phrasings never having to be forced or over-cooked to make the music’s point.

Though hearing Debbie Rawson’s spoken introductions  was a difficulty in the venue with a microphone that was a “sometimes thing”, I did register the programmme rearrangement from what was printed – so that we got Roger May’s madcap Sax Circus next, three additional players appearing like Cheshire Cats for the performance, and immediately making their mark with a kind of jolly circus opening to the music.

Enormous fun was generated on both sides of the performer/listener divide, poking huge holes in the gauze through which the sounds galloped and romped and our appreciation (I’m sure) registered. Our popcorn was forgotten as we were regaled by a baritone sax kick-starting a rumbustious gallop, which divertingly morphed into subsidiary episodes, as far-removed as elephantine ploddings, but returned us to the energies of the opening by the end.

Philip Buttall’s Eclogue restored our sonic equilibriums with the piece’s patiently-unfolding, almost ceremonial tapestries of sound, giving the soprano sax the melody atop beautifully-balanced osmotic harmonies. Then it was the alto saxes’ turn with the tune, as the sopranos counterpointed with high-wire variants – all very beautiful and deeply-felt.

To conclude the programme came an arrangement of the Dvorak Serenade for Winds, the work of somebody called Doug O’Connor – and even more players turned up for this item! So it was a very merry company indeed, which began the work, led by Debbie Rawson, the opening Tempo di Marcia barely able to contain itself in the excitement of the occasion. Amid all the thrusting energies I did feel it all needed a bit more “Moderato”, as something of the music’s bucolic swagger was sacrificed at such an insistent tempo. With the movement’s coda came the breadth that I was hanging out for, a glow settling over the playing, the musicians given the elbow-room to voice their phrases beautifully, right to the end.

The following Minuetto had all the grace and charm necessary for the music to bloom, the ensemble creating some lovely colours, and beautifully droll accompaniments, readily evoking the dance – but wow! – at what a lick the music’s “trio” section was taken! – hats off to the players for managing their notes without falling off the musical tightrope! Exciting, but for me just a bit of a blur, more breathless than truly exhilarating – to my mind relying a little too much on sheer speed rather than rhythmic “pointing” to be truly delicious!

This arrangement having omitted the original work’s Andante con moto movement, the players went straight into the Allegro molto finale – here most thankfully not rushed off its feet, but at a tempo that gave the players time to articulate their phrases with a sense of fun, rather than sheer desperation – the main tune was jolly and rumbustiously delivered, and the “gurgling” accompaniments were a delight! I was reminded of the story I heard of a wind player’s remark about playing Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe, that “you just waggle your fingers and hope for the best!”. But these young players seemed to have no such fears, so exuberant and whole-hearted were their own finger-wagglings!

Dvorak’s marvellous finale has as well, of course, a delicious accelerando passage, a quasi-pompous return to the work’s opening, and an exciting coda, complete with stirring fanfares, all of which were delivered with great élan. So, it was pretty wonderful stuff from the ensemble, the student musicians having obviously, from this showing, been expertly schooled, and thus made ready to take their instruments and make a great and pleasing noise in the world.