Illuminating the Bard – sonnets for a 450th birthday

Sonnet Lumiere – light on Shakespeare, man of mystery

Jane Oakshott and Richard Rastall
of Trio Literati

Soprano Pepe Becker
Lutenist Don King

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul, Lady Chapel

Sunday 12th October 2014

This performance was a celebration of Shakespeare’s sonnets on the 450th anniversary of his birth. By happy chance the two actors were in New Zealand during the 50th anniversary celebrations of Wellington’s Cathedral of St. Paul, and as part of those, they had devised a programme to “perform from Shakespeare’s sonnets and other works with sidelights on his mysterious life, some original pronunciation and a few surprises”. There were 16 sonnets in all, grouped according to The Arts, The Seasons of Life and Love, Beauty, and Love.

These brackets were punctuated with extracts from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice, Richard II, and Hamlet and interspersed with some favourite songs and lute music that lent a most appropriate Elizabethan flavour to the hour. The choice of venue was just perfect for this scale of performance, with the exquisite Gothic timber structure of  diocesan architect Frederick de Jersey Clere (1856-1952) providing a most sympathetic ambience. Coupled with Ray Henwood’s quite wonderful one-man Shakespeare programme in the Lady Chapel in August, Wellington has been extraordinarily fortunate in recent offerings from the Bard.

The sonnets and extracts from Shakespeare’s plays were given a most dramatic and engaging delivery, using just a few key props to enhance them. These two experienced actors had judged the scale and acoustics of the chapel with consummate skill, drawing the audience into an intimate yet vivid experience of each piece. Likewise the lute projected warmly and clearly into the space, with a clean crisp delivery underpinned by a truly sympathetic musicianship.

Pepe Becker’s stylistic idioms were entirely appropriate, and her love of this Elizabethan music very apparent,  but her voice could be almost too penetrating at times. No doubt most listeners would have been familiar with the words of the well known songs selected, but the diction was sometimes a struggle to discern. That said, the duo with Don King proved a most rewarding contribution to the programme.

The first musical item was a lute setting of the anonymous air Greensleeves, which was gently and beautifully played by Don King, and served to establish the whole performance very firmly in its time. The next was a duo setting by Robert Johnson (c1583-1633) of Ariel’s song Full Fathom Five from The Tempest. The duo drew us deftly into the world of a composer and lutenist  of the late Tudor and early Jacobean eras, who worked with Shakespeare and provided music for some of his later plays.

There followed an anonymous setting of the Willow Song that set the scene for the gravediggers’ discussion about “Is she to be buried in Christian burial?” from Hamlet. The actors’ humble rustic accents sat wonderfully with their undisguised distaste for the  ecclesiastical privileges enjoyed by the nobility.

Three sonnets on Beauty followed, then one of the “surprises” billed in the programme. It was Carol Ann Duffy’s poem, in sonnet form, about something that has long puzzled many people – Shakespeare’s bequest of his second best bed to his wife Anne Hathaway. It is such a gem, that I must include it here in full:

Anne Hathaway

by Carol Ann Duffy from The World’s Wife (1999)

‘Item I gyve unto my wife my second best bed …’
(from Shakespeare’s will)

The bed we loved in was a spinning world
of forests, castles, torchlight, clifftops, seas
where we would dive for pearls. My lover’s words
were shooting stars which fell to earth as kisses
on these lips; my body now a softer rhyme
to his, now echo, assonance; his touch
a verb dancing in the centre of a noun.
Some nights, I dreamed he’d written me, the bed
a page beneath his writer’s hands. Romance
and drama played by touch, by scent, by taste.
In the other bed, the best, our guests dozed on,
dribbling their prose. My living laughing love –
I hold him in the casket of my widow’s head
as he held me upon that next best bed.

The next songs were Where the bee sucks, again set by Robert Johnson, and Thomas Morley’s O mistress mine, both bracketed with six sonnets on Love. Again the lute and voice gave a faithful delivery of these lovely numbers to round off the duo contribution.

Don King’s final item was a lute setting of Will Kemp’s Jig in which he very aptly set the scene for the Envoi “If we shadows have offended” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. These rounded out a quite delightful hour of wit, sorrow, song, verse and prose, put together in a most rewarding marriage of music and drama. The Lady Chapel was virtually full, and I’d wager that all headed home with that indefinable glow that is the gift of true artistry.




R.S.Thomas – a centenary remembered in poetry, scripture and music

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul presents:
Choral Evensong marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Priest-Poet R. S. Thomas

Choir of Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul,
Director of Music: Michael Stewart
Sermon: Rev. Dr. Tim McKenzie

Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul

29th September 2013

R. S. Thomas was a 20th Century Anglican Priest-Poet who died in the year 2000 after 40 years in the priesthood. He was a passionate Welsh nationalist, and a pacifist active in the C20th Nuclear Disarmament movement. Throughout his life he expressed his  spiritual explorations in poetry whose highly abstract language would sound unfamiliar to most young ears today. Over his ministry he moved progressively further and further from urban centres to ever more rural environments which doubtless nurtured his deeply contemplative writing. A revealing snapshot of the man and his life can be found at

Some of his poetry is, however, fresh and unambiguous, such as The Bright Field which was selected for the Introit at this Evensong service. Exquisitely set to music by former Kings Singer Bob Chilcott, the choral idioms were perfectly suited to the Wellington Cathedral, with the sound floating free and un-muddied by the acoustics. This is a startling feat, given the reverberation times typical of such churches, but then Chilcott was Kings College trained in the long traditions of English church choirs and the huge spaces they often sing in. The Cathedral choir did full justice to the beauty of both music and words:

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

The following Evensong service observed the traditional format with the theme being set by the First Lesson read in the King James version from Isaiah 45:1-8 – the godhead is hidden and entirely beyond human reach or comprehension. Traditional Welsh hymns were selected in keeping with the R. S. Thomas theme: God, that madest earth and heaven (Ar hyd y nos), Immortal, invisible, God only wise (St. Denio), and Guide me, O thou great Redeemer (Cwm Rhondda). These were all conveyed to full breadth and effect with the support of the cathedral choir and acoustics, despite an only modest congregation.

Both the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis were Leighton settings which were realised by choir and organist very much in the European cathedral tradition –a wide dynamic range was used to full dramatic effect, from the blast of triple forte to breathless hushed pianissimo, expressing the whole gamut from divine majesty to mystery in the godhead imagery. The acoustics of the cathedral ruled out any possibility of clear diction, but this too is very much in the European tradition of creating an atmosphere of awe and devotion through the powerful medium of the music.

The second lesson from John 6: 63-69 was read in a modern translation which seemed a less appropriate choice than the King James within the context of this particular Evensong; but the Anthem, composed by Director of Music Michael Stewart, was a very effective setting of R. S. Thomas’s haunting poem “The Other”, which was beautifully rendered by the musicians:

There are nights that are so still
that I can hear the small owl
far off and a fox barking
miles away. It is then that I lie
in the lean hours awake listening
to the swell born somewhere in
the Atlantic
rising and falling, rising and
wave on wave on the long shore
by the village that is without
and companionless. And the
thought comes
of that other being who is
awake, too,
letting our prayers break on him,
not like this for a few hours,
but for days, years, for eternity.

 The service closed with Vaughan Williams’ organ voluntary on the Welsh hymn tune Hyfrydol.  This concluded an Evensong which offered a very interesting and rounded insight into R. S. Thomas, not only through an apposite selection of music and verse, but also through the obvious commitment from both musicians and preacher to conveying a meaningful understanding of the man and his works.



HellHereNow – Anzacs at Gallipoli, Pataka Museum, Porirua

The Gallipoli Diary of Alfred Cameron

Paintings by Bob Kerr

Music by Alfred Hill and Gabriel Faure

Slava Fainitski (violin) / Brenton Veitch (‘cello) / Catherine McKay (piano)

Robin Kerr (speaker)

Pataka Museum, Porirua

Sunday 25th April 2010

At Pataka Museum in Porirua, an exhibition featuring a series of paintings of Gallipoli by Wellington artist Bob Kerr was presented, bearing the title “HellHereNow”.  The ten paintings together made up a sizeable panorama of Anzac Cove in Gallipoli – a place that uncannily resembled Makara, not far from Wellington, one similarly rugged and desolate. Interestingly, the ambience and atmosphere of each panel was reflected by the elements in different ways – the landforms were depicted as more constant and immutable from image to image, whereas the sea and sky expressed movement, change and occasional volatility. The sequence thus engendered at once a sense of permanence and the unceasing movement of time and tide.

At the bottom of each of the panels Bob Kerr wrote an exerpt from a diary written by Alfred Cameron, one of the young New Zealand soldiers who saw action during the First World War at Gallipoli, while along the top of all except the outside pair was written the words of a statement attributed to a Turkish officer, Ismail Hakki, expressing his anger at the senseless of soldiers being made to “kill each other without reason”. The effect of these writings transcribed upon images of a totally unpeopled and forbidding landscape is a somewhat ghostly one – almost as if the land is quietly murmuring the sentiments of the shades of the soldiers who fought there, keeping their stories alive for those coming after who would take the trouble to stop and listen.

Kerr found Alfred Cameron’s diary among a collection of  fifty World War One diaries in the Alexander Turnbull Library, and was struck by the directness, the honesty and the clear-sightedness of the young man’s writing, enough to want to express in visual terms the all-too-enthusiastically expressed spirit of the age, a desire to experience the adventure and excitement of going to war.

Alfred Cameron’s diary captures the wide-eyed idealism of the young men who went off to war, as well as the bitter disillusionment which followed. Over twenty-one days of diary-writing Cameron had gone from reflecting this idealism to expressing the brutal realisation of the situation’s realities in one of the final entries – “It’s hell here, now”. Alfred Cameron was subsequently wounded at Gallipoli, hospitalised, and eventually repatriated. He returned to farming in New Zealand in North Canterbury, married, and raised a family, some of whose descendants now live in Wellington.

The paintings were exhibited at Pataka for over two months, from March 20th until  May 23rd. During this time, appropriately enough on the weekend of Anzac Day, the exhibition featured several performance presentations of the diary writings as a spoken narration to the accompaniment of live music, all set against the backdrop of the series of paintings. With the artist’s son, Robin Kerr as an impassioned and theatrical, though nicely-poised reader,  along with the heartfelt playing of a trio of musicians, violinist Slava Fainitski, ‘cellist Brenton Veitch and pianist Catherine McKay, presenting exerpts of music by Alfred Hill and Gabriel Faure, Alfred Cameron’s diary writings took on even more of the emotive force of a living, cumulative tragedy.

The performers chose Alfred Hill’s music as reflecting the somewhat naive patriotic spirit of the times,  playing a reconstructed work, a piano trio written in 1896, whose piano and violin parts were subsequently lost, but which had also been reworked by the composer as a Violin Sonata. From this work, Australian musicologist and publisher Alan Stiles had been able to put the Trio back together along its original lines, to marvellous effect in the work’s opening movement, much of which was used to reinforce the forthright optimism of the diary’s first few entries, eagerly and youthfully conveyed by narrator Robin Kerr.

The presentation began with Bob Kerr welcoming the audience and speaking about his paintings, after which it was the turn of the musicians and the narrator to take up Alfred Cameron’s story. The first music we heard was the opening of the Trio by Alfred Hill, at the outset arresting, forthright chords and strongly syncopated emphases, with lyrical lines in between the more energetic episodes. A second subject was beautifully prepared by the writing and nicely shaped by the players, the ‘cello having the line and the violin the descant, before the instruments joined, with piano accompaniment.

Whenever the playing broke off to allow the speaker his turn I found myself torn between wanting to hear the music continue, and waiting for the next piece of the narrative. The words of Cameron’s diary brought out the young man’s essential boyishness excitement at the prospect of going to war, and the first exotic ports of call that the young men experienced, in Egypt and at Suez. The music began again at the diary’s description of the young soldiers’ going out to dinner in Cairo, the sounds wistful at first, then gradually returning to the mood of the opening, jagged and athletic, with strength and lyricism well-harnessed together. Throughout I liked the tensile, well-wrought argument between all three instruments, the robust and rugged interworkings and the singing of the lyrical lines contrasting to rich effect.

The diary narrative skilfully dovetailed with the music – the first news of casualties from the “front” was contrasted with descriptions of the beauty of the Mediterranean, and the excitement of the arrival at the Dardanelles, where, upon approaching and landing on the beach the soldiers were suddenly confronted with the realities of war, the company being heavily shelled by the Turkish forces. Before long the situation’s hopeless tragedy became apparent, the diary towards the end describing the desperate conditions, the ill-fated skirmishes, and the loss of life – the description of the soldiers’ graves was placed alongside Gabriel Faure’s  Elegie, beginning with sombre ‘cello and piano, and with violin eventually joining in as the music became more impassioned. The full force of Alfred Cameron’s words seemed to find expression in the instruments’ tones: – “It’s just  hell here, now, no water or tucker, only seven out of thirty-three in number one troop on duty, rest either dead or wounded. Dam the place, no good writing any more.”

At the end, the music took over from the words, the heartfelt playing by the trio of musicians ineffably expressing the mood of the evocation, wrought in tandem with the paintings and the narratives. Altogether, the presentation made a stunning effect, the synthesis of visual art, music and spoken narrative finely and sensitively judged by all concerned, artist, speaker and musicians – an Anzac Weekend event to indeed remember.