Sighs, spontaneities and serenade snatches from the NZSM String Ensemble at St. Andrew’s

St.Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series

Review by Maya Field for “Middle C”

The NZSM String Ensemble, conducted by Kira Omelchenko

EDWARD ELGAR – Sospiri (Sighs) Op. 70
RACHEL MORGAN – Armannai (2003)
ANTONIN DVORAK – Three Movements from Serenade Op.22 –
Scherzo, Larghetto and Finale

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

Wednesday, 7th May, 2024

If ballet is my first reason for loving classical music, then string instruments are my second. A few years of Viola in high school orchestra (hardly a maestro but at least I have some leg to stand on, I suppose) has given me a lot of stubborn opinions about composers and repertoire, but it also has given me a deep love and excitement for string ensembles. Safe to say, I was happy to take a break from my studying to watch the NZSM String Ensemble.

It was particularly cold and clear on Wednesday, but fortunately, St Andrews on the Terrace was nicely warmed by heaters. The ensemble opened with the Adagio by Elgar, which was a lovely and melancholic opening for the crisp early winter day. There were some gorgeous swells of crescendos and diminuendos. An especially good moment was the melody from the Firsts, while the rest carried a nice tremolo.

The second piece was Armannai (2003) by the New Zealand composer, Rachel Morgan. The conductor, Kira Omelchenko, paused before the piece started to explain that this piece is not set in a certain direction for performers. Instead, the performance directions are interpreted by the musicians themselves. As they started playing, it was clear there was some strong interest in dissonance. While some parts were slow, there were harmonies that made you bolt upright. The first movement was nice, but at a slow tempo. Because it followed the Adagio, the two slow pieces sort of blurred together. The second movement was faster, with a strong start from the Cellos and Violas. It was a nice change of pace, with percussive moments and a real ferocity, especially from the Bass and Cello sections. The third movement was a sort of balance between the previous two, and the Cellos had a lovely melody at one point.

The three movements from Dvorak’s Serenade were strong. The ensemble took a moment to settle into the liveliness of the Scherzo Vivace, but they got into the swing of it quickly. The Larghetto felt the most unified, and was my favourite piece from the programme. There was a really nice pizzicato from the Basses that lay under the swelling melodies. The Finale: Allegro Vivace was lively. The Cellos especially created great tension, and the ensemble’s final swell at the end was very strong.

It was a lovely way to spend my lunch break, Kira was a great conductor, and the ensemble did an excellent job. My one critique is sometimes it felt that the ensemble weren’t enjoying themselves. They performed well, but I didn’t get the sense that everyone was excited about playing. I suppose I enjoy performances the most when it feels like the entire ensemble is also enjoying it, and I didn’t always feel this from the ensemble. There were definitely moments, but it would be nice if there were more.

Then again, midday on a cold Wednesday, I’m hardly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and in the end, I really enjoyed the performance, and if applause is any indicator, so did the rest of the audience.

Vibrant Concerti Grossi old and new light up a refurbished Old St.Paul’s in Thorndon

Baroque Music Community and Educational Trust of NZ, in partnership with
University of Canterbury Music presents:

Mark Menzies – Solo Violin / Tomas Hurnik – Solo ‘Cello
Ensemble of participants in Baroque Music Workshop 2021
Rakuto Kurano, Ashley Leng, Leo Liu, Henry Nicholson, Jack Tyler, Thomas Bedggood (violins)
Rebecca Harris (viola) / Daniel Ng (cello) / Frederick Bohan-Dyke, Oliver Jenks (harpsichord)

Old St.Paul’s, Thorndon, Wellington

Monday, 16th February, 2021

I was thrilled beyond words when told that this concert would take place in the breathtakingly beautiful Old St/ Paul’s Church in Thorndon, a building which extensive earthquake-strengthening renovations had closed to the public for so long! So for me it was like greeting an old friend when walking through the church’s entranceway for the New Baroque Generation’s Wellington concert, one which concluded the ensemble’s enterprising “11 concerts in 16 days” tour of the country.

This initiative, set up by the Baroque Music Community and Educational Trust along with the University of Canterbury Music included an intensive week-long workshop on baroque instrumental practices as well as the aforementioned concert tour. At the forefront of the project were two well-known professional musicians – violinist Mark Menzies and Czech baroque specialist and cellist, Tomas Hurnik – under whose guidance the musicians who attended the workshop were able to put their newly-honed skills into practice over the duration.

The concert included a new work especially commissioned for the tour, one specifically designed for the project, a neo-baroque work by emerging composer Rakuto Kurano, a violinist in the touring ensemble. The work formed the finale of a concert devoted to that most baroque of all musical forms, the Concerto Grosso, of which we heard various representative examples from that “era”. Apart from Rakuto Kurano’s splendid work, the one which surprised me the most was by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704), a composer I’d hitherto associated almost exclusively with vocal works.

Basically a “Concerto Grosso” features a small grouping of instruments interacting with a larger ensemble, instead of a single instrument being pitted against an orchestra in a standard “concerto”. My introduction to the “Concerto Grosso” form was via Handel on a 1967 set of Decca recordings made by the then world-famous Academy of St.Martin-in-the-Fields, under the leadership of Neville Marriner – such a delight! – and not least due to Handel’s freely “borrowing” from his own music, some of which I already knew. In his Op. 6 set of 12 Concerti Grossi, for instance,  No.9 (HWV 327) and No.11 (HWV 329) both contained delightful reworkings of parts of the composer’s organ concerti, most prominently the famous “Cuckoo and the Nightingale” Concerto (HWV 295).

We did get some Handel in this evening’s presentation, one of those Op.6 Concerti, though, alas, not either of those already referred to. Instead we got the first of the set, No. 1 in G Major (HWV 319), for which the composer again “poached” some of his previous music, an Overture from one of his “Italian” operas, Imeneo, as well as freely imitating passages in one of fellow-composer Domenico Scarlatti’s newly-published “Harpsichord Exercises”. Handel’s work came as the penultimate item on the programme, a kind of “state-of-the-art” example of a Baroque form.

I made a lot of performance notes in the “heat of the listening moment”, which would be too tiresome for anybody to read in full afterwards, so will attempt to summarise my impressions – of the Handel, I thought the opening “A tempo giusto” beautifully sounded, the terracing of dynamics  between the duetting violins and the ensemble exquisite – then, in the “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba-like” Allegro which followed, I thought the players amply demonstrated in places that Handel seemed almost to have invented the “Mannheim Crescendo” before the musicians of that august ensemble did! I loved the detailings in the Adagio, such as the elaborate trills which introduced some of the cadences; and relished the different trajectories of the two concluding Allegro sections, the second one particularly exuberant, with plenty of “joicks! – tally-ho!” kind of stuff, thankfully with no horses, hounds or unfortunate fox present!

Of course, I have things the wrong way round, here, as the concert opened with the M-A Charpentier work, the H.545 “Concert pour 4 parties de violes” – two Preludes, each as shapely and flowing as the other, played in the “authentic” manner with little vibrato, but not without warmth and expression, and plenty of dynamic variation. The following Sarabande took our sensibilities to solemn, thoughtful realms at the outset, the Trio section (2 violins and ‘cello) alternating with the ripieno (the full ensemble), with a sweetly-toned piano conclusion. By contrast the Gigues gave off terrific energies, first the “Angloise” in ¾ time, contrasting with the “Francois” in common time, the whole ceremonially rounded by the concluding “Passecaille”, varying the textures between trios of instruments and full band, before concluding the work with a hushed version of the theme – so very lovely!

The works followed one another in more-or-less chronological order, Giuseppe Torelli’s “Concerto musicale a quattro in G Major Op.6, No. 1”, niftily throwing the figurations about in lively fashion at the beginning before calling order with a winsome Adagio sequence. I felt the music-making already had hit its stride in terms of a “naturalness” of utterance with the succeeding Allegro, nothing being “forced” or “squeezed”, the energies always expressive and properly “breathed”.  The first violin’s floridly-expressed decoration of the Adagio seemed to grow naturally from what had come before, transforming into a more energetic but still graceful Allegro movement, and seemingly to gather energy as it proceeded, until a wry, almost mischievous softer postlude ended the work.

While not named as a “Concerto Grosso” Antonio Vivaldi’s “Concerto in B-flat for violin, ‘cello and strings RV 547” featured the violin and cello soloists as both collaborators and combatants, with great teamwork from the pair alternating trenchant and exciting exchanges, each player relishing the dynamic variation of his line both when interlocked with the other’s and when solo – so exciting! The slow movement brought out more co-operation than competition, each instrument seeming to “listen” to the other in an affecting way; while the finale seemed like a kind of “anything you can do I can do as well/better” kind of interchange, the violin in particular “digging in” during a central trenchant section, before both instruments surrendered to the sheer elan of the massed tutti ending!

Arcangelo Corelli, generally acknowledged as the “master“ of the concerto grosso form produced his set of 12 works in 1714 some years after they were actually written – in an “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” kind of gesture, Handel subsequently brought out his own set of works directly modelled on Corelli’s, effectively “bringing to fruition” the form, with younger composers already beginning to move towards the solo concerto and the sinfonia concertante kind of work. As we got from Handel’s Op.6,  we were given the first of Corelli’s set, No. 1 in D Major, a beautifully rich ceremonial Largo opening, the Allegro sections that  followed interspersed with the return of the slower music. The Largo that followed had beautiful “birdsong” elements in the figurations, which suddenly scampered off in “edge-of-the-seat” style, as if dancing on the edge of a precipice, the playing somehow conveying a whiff of dangerous excitement! The solo violin began the opening of the ensuing Adagio with the second violin attractively imitating, echo-wise, the phrases, and the cello steadfastedly counterpointing the progressions. What really delighted our sensibilities was the final Allegro, the two solo violins in thirds excitingly dashing away at the  music’s beginning, relishing the interplay between each other and with the ripieno strings, and turning to the audience as if “bringing us in” to add our breathed “Amens” to the final phrases!

At the conclusion of the already-described Handel work, we were given what promised to be the evening’s most thought-provoking work – a Concerto Grosso commissioned from one of the ensemble’s violinists, Rakuto Kurano. I wasn’t prepared for what seemed like the work’s complete absorption of the historical concerto grosso form but straightaway with its own distinction, the introduction tempestuous and arresting (almost “sturm und drang” in its mood), succeeded by a poised, breath-catching series of quiet gestures, the solo violin adding some stratospheric decoration to the line, then plunging into a fugue, hair-raisingly active and with some terrific dove-tailing gestures to boot! The Fourth section, Grave, sounded gorgeous, steadily-moving chords over which the two solo violins elaborated, bringing the solo cello briefly into the argument at the end. A boisterous Allegro gave the two violins a fine “duelling” sequence, the supporting players either dashing round about or soaring away with their own flights of fancy. The Adagio which followed was  a kind of freeze-frame or slow-interlude in a motion picture, and with the harpsichord, so discreetly balanced to a fault throughout the evening, allowed a brief moment of soloistic glory! The Allegro Vivace that followed – a boisterous, percussive dance, complete with tambourine – primed us up for the brief but exhilarating “The Birds”, antiphonal dialogues pithy but hair-raising! The Finale, energetic and involving, concluded with a trenchant tutti  that “grounded” the sounds in a satisfyingly conclusive way – a gesture of unequivocal and inspiring surety.

A brief encore piece was, I was told, Luigi Boccherini’s “Night music from the streets of Madrid” – if “more Courtenay Place than Thorndon” at that hour, it certainly returned us to our lives, and prompted more of the same enthusiasm and enjoyment. Very great honour and glory to the members of this ensemble, and to their inspirational teachers over the duration, violinist Mark Menzies and ‘cellist Tomas Hurnik, their leadership and encouragement here wrought of magic.


Concerted and ensembled efforts from NZSM string players give pleasure at St.Andrew’s

St Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series presents:
The New Zealand School of Music STRING ENSEMBLE

Music by Haydn, Kimber and Bartok

Rebecca Warnes (‘cello)
JOSEF HAYDN – ‘Cello Concerto in C Major (Ist.Mvt. – Moderato)

Ellen Murfitt (violin)
JOSEF HAYDN – Violin Concerto in G Major (2nd Mvt. – Adagio)

Henry Burton-Wood (violin)
JOSEF HAYDN – Violin Concerto in G Major (3rd Mvt. – Allegro)

Debbie King (viola)
MICHAEL KIMBER – Variations on a Polish Folk-Song (abridged version)

BELA BARTOK – Divertimento for String Orchestra  Sz 113 BB.118
Allegro non troppo / Molto Adagio / Allegro assai

New Zealand School of Music String Players
Martin Riseley (conductor)

Wednesday September 25th 2019

What a heartwarming occasion this was, counteracting the bitter chill of the wind outside, making nonsense of what appeared to be a sunny day. Josef Haydn’s music was just the job to lighten the spirits, and we were lucky enough to get a kind of “made-up” concerto for violin and cello, freshly discovered (!)and performed forthwith for our pleasure by various students from the New Zealand School of Music!

No happier beginning to a concerto exists than the first movement of Haydn’s C Major ‘Cello Concerto, and conductor Martin Riseley encouraged his players to plunge into the notes energetically and emerge smiling, then launch the ascending lines of the second subject with plenty of air beneath the notes! Soloist Rebecca Warnes, having contributed to the opening tutti and “played herself in”, fearlessly dived into the music with similar élan, her command of the music’s shape and emphasis compelling, allowing the notes to sing in places where a vocal line was called for, and attacking the more demanding passages with plenty of energy – an occasional phrase I wanted her to “expand” just a bit more, as if expressing just as much enjoyment as determination; but such things evolve with and from within performers, and she showed plenty of identification with the composer’s irrepressible and adventurous spirit.

The composer remained, but player, instrument, concerto and key-signature were changed in a trice for the second movement! This was the adagio from Haydn’s G Major violin concerto, played with generously-wrought tones by Ellen Murfitt, her singing line warmed by the merest touch of vibrato, the intensity seeming to leave little room for light and shade at first, which did come with the second, minor-key section of the music. An assuredly-delivered cadenza finished with what I though a slightly awkward “taking up” of the music by the ensemble, but the accompanying was otherwise easeful and atmospheric. A change of soloist again, and the music danced onwards, the new player, Henry Burton-Wood, joining in with the opening tutti, before carrying the splendidly vigorous energies of the work forward, his instrument producing a bright, silvery tone, the higher passages a particularly engaging feature of his playing.

A new name to me was that of Michael Kimber, an American viola-player and composer, currently based as a teacher at Iowa City’s Coe College, and with an impressive list of compositions for both viola and violin to his credit. We heard a work “Variations on a Polish Song” for viola and ensemble , here played in what the programme called a “shortened version”.The viola soloist, Debbie King, brought the music into being with characteristically soulful tones, an expressive, out-of-doors sound, in keeping with the “folk song” aspect, the orchestra stealing in over a viola phrase, and accompanying the melody’s repeat.

The work allowed the soloist ample opportunity for both display and expression of feeling, moving between double-stopping sequences for the viola against intense accompaniments, followed by dance-like variations, firstly graceful and ritual-like, then catchy, more vigorous Polonaise-like.moments, and leavening these energies with more inward expressions of feeling. The music was rounded off with such a moment, the ensemble reintroducing the theme, before a brief flourish from the viola concluded a pleasing and well-supported solo performance.

The students then tackled one of the string orchestra repertoire’s most challenging pieces, Bela Bartok’s Divertimento, written in the shadow of the oncoming Second World War, and the last work the composer would write before leaving his native Hungary for good. In three movements, the piece opened with a folk-like theme, here presented strongly and purposefully, bringing out the writing’s acerbic qualities along with a sense of the dance – the solo strings sequences provided an engaging contrast (lovely solo viola phrases), before the opening theme returned building the intensities into exchanges which seemed to  “play” with the material – Martin Rieseley and the students eased their way through the music’s often disconcerting changes of trajectory and mood, returning with a sense of having “been somewhere” to the music’s gentle, rueful conclusion.

The work’s Molto adagio second movement evoked winter chills and sombre thoughts, the atmosphere cold and dark – violins and violas exchanged characteristic intensitites, the former piercing and intense, the latter dark-browed and purposeful. The playing brought out the music’s confrontational anxieties and questionings, the buildup of sounds amazing in their focused intensities, the ensemble bluntly “shutting down” any solo instrumental attempt to lighten the mood, and further deepening the despair with an eerie Shostakovich-like sequence.  Almost out of nowhere came a forthright, bitter-sweet folk-like utterance, one which “rescued” our forsaken sensibilities and guided us gently towards the music’s rather “spooked” conclusion – all very involving!

At first we seemed to be plunged back into conflict by the finale’s beginning, but the players suddenly kicked up the music’s allegro assai heels in the manner of a lively dance, the first violin leading the way, and the rest of the orchestra following, in ripieno style. This was all tremendous-sounding fun! – Riseley marshalled his players’ tones, producing an impressive unison, which was then “morphed”  into a fugal passage, inverting the theme along the way! A lovely violin solo led to a motoric rhythm with the dance theme inverted, swarms of angry bees dive-bombing the dancers! The cellos came to the rescue, dancing the music off in a different direction, and taking evasive action against the bee-swarms, intent on causing confusion and chaos! The players then began a most charmingly tip-toe pizzicati version of the dance which left the bees angrily buzzing, the dancers frenetically throwing themselves every which way, the lower strings shrugging their shoulders at the goings-on and the music signing off with an upward flourish!

Carnival for Guy Fawkes’ Day – the music of Alfred Hill

St.Andrews-on-The-Terrace Lunchtime Concert Series:
Alfred Hill on Guy Fawkes Day

ALFRED HILL (1869-1960)
Quartet No.3 in A minor “The Carnival” 1912 (orchestral version)
Movements: In the Streets / Andantino / Scherzo / Finale

The Dominion Strings, conducted by Donald Maurice

St. Andrews-on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday 5th November 2014

This work was the earliest of Alfred Hill’s string quartets to be expanded later into an orchestral version, and is better known as Symphony No.5 “The Carnival”. He frequently “recycled” existing works into new formats, and this transcription benefitted from the larger forces which could very successfully convey the bustling, crowded atmosphere of a fiesta.

The opening street scene was graphically depicted with vigorous, sunlit writing and attractive melodies, propelled along by dancing triplet rhythms. Closing gently, as though the fading light of evening were approaching, it could easily have been an evocative film score, no less effective for the absence of visual effects.

The Andantino was full of gentle melody passing from voice to voice, supported by rich harmonies that conjured up the balmy night air, and the pleasures of wandering hand in hand, somewhat apart from the noisy revellers. The languid, surging phrases eventually subsided into a pianissimo close, as though the moon were sinking, heavy with sleep, below the horizon.

The Scherzo woke to a new, sunlit morning, a bright breezy romp full of the new day’s energy, evoking colourful stalls selling wild flowers and sweet treats. It led quite naturally into the energetic Finale which opened with the vigour of almost flamenco rhythms and colour, then moved into a central contrasting section of lilting melodies, with almost a hint of pathos, before returning to the opening mood. There was a dramatic accelerando coda to round off the work with brilliant, festive flair.

This was a thoroughly attractive, almost programmatic work, from a composer who understood the appeal and art of skilful melody writing. The familiar tonal structure made it easy listening, while never sounding tired, but always fresh and creative. The players were clearly enjoying themselves, and their enthusiastic and lively engagement in the work spilled over easily to the appreciative audience.

This concert marked the release of Vol.5 of Hill’s string quartets from Naxos, recorded on CD by the Dominion String Quartet. The last recordings are just complete, with the final Vol.6 due next year. Before the concert, Donald Maurice spoke of the genesis and development of this project over a number of years, then Chris Blake (NZSO CEO) gave some background to Hill’s life and work.

The latter’s prolific output included ten operas (some on Maori themes), thirteen symphonies, seventeen string quartets, many choral works, concertos, chamber music, sonatas, songs and short works for a variety of instruments. Researcher and publisher Allan Stiles has noted that there are over 2,000 titles attributable to Alfred Hill and of those, many have never been published and relatively few commercially recorded. (Programme notes.)

Chris Blake spoke of Hill as “the only significant Australasian composer representing the Late Romantic era”, but I would put Richard Fuchs (1887-1947) very firmly in that category too, although he was a naturalised New Zealander who lived here only from 1939 to 1947. Like Hill he was prolific in many genres, and all his surviving works have been published by the Richard Fuchs Archive, though as yet only a handful of his beautiful songs are available on CD (see

Both these composers have been too little heard and enjoyed by New Zealand audiences, but those who attended today’s concert obviously appreciated this opportunity, judging by the turnout and their most enthusiastic applause.

Strings and winds – New Zealand School of Music Lunchtime Concerts

New Zealand School of Music Lunchtime Concerts

NZSM String Ensemble (Martin Riseley, conductor)

MENDELSSOHN – String Symphony in C Minor

DVORAK – Serenade for Strings in E Major

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

Wednesday 18th July 2012

NZSM Woodwind Soloists  (Emma Sayers, piano)

Music by Vivaldi, Arnold, Creston, Sancan, Milhaud, Cockcroft

Old St.Paul’s Church

Tuesday 31st July 2012

It’s always a pleasure to attend and write about concerts of music featuring student performers. Somehow, there’s a unique dimension of expression involved, a kind of tremulousness which at different ends of the performance spectrum can either set things a-tingle with wholehearted enthusiasm or else undermine efforts with nervousness.

There are, of course, plenty of nooks and crannies in-between these extremes, into which inexperienced performers can slot themselves – it’s always a fascinating process to observe and experience, but essentially a heart-warming one, listening to youngsters pouring their feelings into sound-vistas suggested by great music and opened up by the performers’ own skills.

I’ve been to two July concerts recently at which students from the NZ School of Music were performing – one on Wednesday 18th, at St.Andrew’s Church, involving a string ensemble playing music by Mendelssohn and Dvorak, and the other on Tuesday 31st, at Old St.Paul’s Church, which featured individual wind instrumentalists making plenty of variety of sounds in music from different composers.

At St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Martin Riseley, violinist extraordinaire, and a tutor at the School of Music, directed the string ensemble. He got a terrific response from the young players right throughout the Mendelssohn work, the String Symphony in C Minor – at the outset the players’ precise attack and focused tones gave us a foretaste of the whole performance’s strength and clarity. Throughout the whole ensemble there seemed a similar full-blooded commitment to giving the music resplendent tones and clear articulation – the lower strings sang their lines and figurations with as much eloquence and finesse as their lighter-toned cousins opposite.

The lunchtime concert time-schedules wouldn’t permit the whole of the work which followed, Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings, so that we had to do without the gorgeous slow movement. For the Dvorak the violin sections “swopped around”, bringing some different faces to the fore for the concert’s second part. Though a lovely work, the Serenade contains many pitfalls of articulation and rhythm, to the despair of amateur orchestras I’ve heard attempt it; and so I was interested as to how these young players would fare.

It began well, the serene opening nicely floated and counterpointed between upper and lower strings, the lines relaxed in flight and with plenty of elbow-room. The second subject I found a bit beefily-played, wanting, I thought, a lighter, more quixotic touch, so as to make a telling contrast with the crescendo, and render that top note in each phrase a bit more wide-eyed with wonderment. But the divisi ‘cellos were lovely, the players able to fill out their tones and fine them down in places most sensitively, as with the movement’s end. The following Waltz-movement was beautifully done, with violas making their presence felt in those all-important middle textures – and the music’s trio-section brought out the dynamic contests with plenty of heartfelt expression.

Dvorak’s wonderfully out-of-doors manner throughout the third movement was nicely captured, the excitement built up in the opening measures as the melody spread throughout the orchestra, and the melting romance of the music’s descending theme expressed beautifully, especially by the ‘cellos. However, I wanted a bit more emphasis given to those wonderful downwardly leaping intervals at the phrase-ends during the middle section (I think they’re fifths and sevenths) – here they were all “snapped shut” too readily for me, without being properly savoured! But then there was nice work from the violins leading back to the opening “running” section, a real sense of the music riding the crest of a wave in places, even if the string-tone was a bit dogged and scrappy here and there.

Maybe the ensemble ought to have finished with the slow movement instead of the finale, the latter being such a tricky beast to bring off. The rhythms really have to be “felt” rather than “counted” (as Ken Young would have said!) – and the lines are so cruelly exposed. There’s also a lot of near “sotto voce” work which I thought the players found it hard to make into part of a coherent line – I felt we got “going through the motions” playing rather than something with sweep, drive and purpose. Better, surely for these young musicians to have been encouraged to throw themselves into things like the ferment of that famous crescendo, and make something rough but exciting and abandoned of it, rather than produce the somewhat dogged get-the-notes-right impression that we got in places here.

However, we did get a lovely transition back into the return of the work’s very opening (a heart-warming touch from the composer!), and the energetic plunge back into the allegro vivace rounded it all off with honour satisfied. Still, it was the group’s playing of the Mendelssohn which I enjoyed, nay, really took to heart on this occasion – so very engaging and exciting to experience.


My second NZSM reviewing assignment was just under a fortnight later at Old St.Paul’s, where a number of wind students presented their “pieces”, the exercise being part of their course requirements, to, I might say, the audience’s pleasure and delight. This concert also brought added value with the wonderful accompaniments (some of them more out-and-out partnerships than accompaniments!) by the School of Music’s Emma Sayers, whose playing invariably adds a new dimension to whatever music she takes part in presenting.

Beginning the program (with a Vivaldi concerto, rather than the Handel the program was suggesting) was Oscar Laven, playing the bassoon. Here was the instrument relishing the role of singer and romancer as well as being a “character”. Oscar Laven’s phrasing of the lyrical episodes was of bel canto quality, to which was added a strong but flexible rhythmic sense, and plenty of virtuoso verve, as withness the rapid runs towards the end of the work. This was followed by Jeewon Um’s performance of Malcolm Arnold’s Fantasy for Solo Flute, the lyrical opening enchanting and the dance-like episodes spectacularly virtuosic.

Saxophonist Sam Jones very “correctly” introduced the Paul Creston Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano, wanting to emphasize for the audience the difficulty of the Sonata’s piano part, and properly acknowledge Emma Sayers’ contribution to the performance. He played brilliantly, with a stunning command of colour and technical agility, crucial in music with as much rhythmic energy as this! As absorbing to listen to was the piano part, the two musicians triumphantly realizing the piece’s tonal variety and underlying dynamism – a great listen!

An almost complete contrast was afforded by flutist Monique Vossen’s choice of Pierre Sancan’s Sonatine, the composer’s best-known work – the opening sequences impressionistic-sounding, rather in the style of Ravel, and with corresponding fairy-tale ambiences and textures. I thought the tuning between instruments wasn’t right in places, here (no tuning of the flute  was done beforehand that we could see), but though it didn’t mask the player’s artistry the pitch discrepancy was occasionally a distraction. In other respects rapport between flute and piano was exemplary, each taking rhythmic and melodic cues from one another, everything done with an enviably light touch and expressive purpose.

Another saxophonist, Reuben Chin, played an exerpt from Milhaud’s Scaramouche, a work whose popularity had resulted in all kinds of arrangements being made of the original piano duo for various instruments, not all of them by the composer. Here, the player exhibited a lovely singing tone as the music moved from dreamscape to graceful dance, the musicians relishing the expressive possibilities of lyrical saxophone and gently rhythmic piano accompaniment. Nothing could have been further from the style of Patrick Hayes’ performance for solo clarinet of Barry Cockcroft’s “Blue Tongue” (the composer simply HAD to be an Australian to write a piece with such a title!). More decomposition than anything else, the piece involved the player gradually dismantling the instrument, while trying to keep the piece going, and unifying the music with an reiterated rhythmic note. In putting it all across, Patrick Hayes demonstrated an entertainer’s gift as well as a musician’s skills in keeping the proceedings alive and buoyant throughout.

Yet another saxophonist, Katherine Macieszac, finished the concert in fine style with the third movement of the same work that Sam Jones had earlier played part of, Paul Creston’s Sonata for Alto Sax and Piano. Bustling 5/4 beginnings and an engaging garrulity swept the opening argument along between the musicians – first we heard the sax singing songs over the piano’s toccata-like drive, then listened to the instruments swap places, the saxophone rolling the rapid-fire notes into a blur agains the piano’s melodic progressions. For respite there were a few lyrical sequences before the 5/4 rhythm reawakened, and the piece drove to its energetic, breathless conclusion.

Fine, virtuosic playing from all concerned throughout the concert, communicating in almost all the items we heard, a real sense of enjoyment in the music-making.



School of Music string ensemble brings lovely music to Upper Hutt

Mendelssohn: Symphony in C minor (two movements)
Dvořák: Serenade for Strings Op.22 (four movements)

New Zealand School of Music String Ensemble, conducted by Martin Riseley

Expressions, Upper Hutt

Tuesday, 24 July 2012, 1pm

This was a good-looking ensemble, all players were smartly dressed in black, hair just so, and all standing to play (except for the cellos), and an attractive programme had been chosen.  The ensemble comprised four first violins, four second violins, three violas, three cellos and one double bass; 12 women and three men.  Some of the audience seats were close to the players; people sensibly steered clear of the danger of sitting in those seats that might have resulted in their becoming bow-legged (aren’t cellists anyway?) from having a cello bow thrust into their legs.

The Mendelssohn work was written for strings alone, when the composer was only 12 years old, one of a number of works written in his childhood to which he never gave opus numbers.  Two movements were played: the short slow movement marked grave, and the allegro finale.

The players were all highly competent, and played well together.  There was a strong sound from them in this happy piece; an astonishing composition for a 12-year-old.

The violinists rearranged themselves for the second work.   The first movement, moderato, I thought was a little pedantic, and could have done with more phrasing – not to say that there was none.  However, things improved as the movement went along.  Like so much of  Dvořák’s output, this work is wonderfully cheerful and tuneful.  A serenade was originally a work played out-of-doors; one could imagine having this played while strolling in a garden, or while eating a meal outdoors on a warm evening.

The wooden floor and mainly wooden walls and ceiling in the large foyer space at Expressions made for a good sound on the whole, but sometimes it was somewhat harsh or shrill.  This effect may have depended on where one was sitting.

In the second and third movements, tempo di valse and scherzo, the slower passages were played with a rich timbre; the faster ones suffered from rather too frequent intonation discrepancies.  The lively, dry acoustic may have shown these up more than would be the case in some venues.  Nevertheless, I was surprised at their number.

However, there are some very fine players here, notably the leaders of each of the four main sections of the ensemble.

The final movement played (the fifth, allegro vivace) featured delightful cello and double bass pizzicato, which I’m not sure I had been sufficiently aware of before.  Sitting close to the cellos revealed how enchanting this part of the music was.

The last quiet section began rather out of kilter – no-one appeared to be watching the conductor.  The return of the robust main theme terminated the work happily.

The concert was well-attended; over 100 people came to hear the young musicians.