Anton Webern steals the show! – Orchestra Wellington and Marc Taddei with “Pharaoh”

(with Arohanui Strings)
ANTON WEBERN – Passacaglia Op.1
JOHN PSATHAS – Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra  “Pharaoh”
(with Tomoni Nozaki – timpani)
BRIAR PRASTINI (vocalist) – White, Red, Black
WOLFGANG MOZART – Incidental Music to “Thamos , King of Egypt”
(with the Orpheus Choir of Wellington – Brent Stewart, Director)

Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 7th October, 2023

Programme-holding audience members at Orchestra Wellington’s Saturday evening concert “Pharaoh” at the Michael Fowler Centre might have been a little confused upon turning to the opening page of a publication to find the heading “Prophecy” at the top of the page containing the evening’s listed items – hang on! – wasn’t “Prophecy” the title of the previous concert? There was also some disagreement in print regarding John Psathas’s scheduled Timpani Concerto – was it called “Planet Damnation” as on that introductory page with the programme listing? Or was the work’s name actually “Pharaoh”, which stood at the top of the section in the booklet devoted to each individual item, and which gave “Planet Damnation” as the name of the concerto’s third movement?

These things were, of course, minor hiccups which distracted little from the concert’s overall impact, which was considerable, and, thanks to Music Director Marc Taddei’s extraordinary empathy with young musicians demonstrated a heart-warming variety of delights throughout the presentation’s opening segment of music-making. Wellington’s long-established youth programme for aspiring string players, Arohanui Strings, were there in force, from tiny tots to teens, and obviously bursting to play their part in the concert’s opening item, Kiwi composer Gemma Peacocke’s beautiful, multi-stranded instrumental response to the subaqueous world of manta rays who populate the waters of the Outer Hauraki Gulf Tikapa Moana, as characterised in a story by Wiremu Grace, called Whaitere, the Enchanted Stingray.

Peacocke’s piece seemed wrought from sounds at once pulsating with movement and endlessly regenerating, beginning with attention-grabbing soaring and descending lines, a seascape with something of the quality of Sibelius in “The Oceanides”. The supporting winds and brasses sounded repeated figures and long-held pedal notes, with the youthful string-players steadfastedly holding their own lines as the creatures of the deep in the music reaffirmed possession of their world. A solo violin characterised for a moment something of a single creature’s adventure and undertaking, as the oceanic frisson with which the piece began rose and fell impressively once more before the waters resumed their preordained rituals of ceaseless movement.

Marc Taddei then took the opportunity to allow the youngsters their moment of glory, encouraging them to join in with a simplified version of Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”. After starting them all off, the conductor stood motionless, leaving them to it,  exclaiming to us “Don’t they all sound better when I stop conducting them?” to great amusement all round! Then it was the “Tiny Tots” turn to impress (with even more than their obvious cuteness!), coming on stage with their tiny instruments and playing a folk-tune, then playing it again much faster, to breathless effect! After a lullaby restored composure, Taddei proceeded to give all of us a hint regarding one of the pieces of music scheduled for the as yet unannounced 2024 programme for Orchestra Wellington, telling us the Arohanui Strings will play a tune that “will give the show away!: – which it certainly did! And with that the youthful players took their leave……

What then was wondrous was how such heartwarming vignettes of youthful musicians playing what might in some cases have been their first-ever concert notes then “morphed” into the spectacle of the full Orchestra Wellington on the platform with their conductor tackling a score which truly represented a kind of acme of orchestral execution and epoch-making-and-breaking composition – this was the 1908 Op. 1 Passacaglia of Anton Webern, the composer’s simultaneous tribute and farewell to Romanticism in music, his only composition to be performed in public that was written under the tutelage of his teacher at that time, Arnold Schoenberg.

The 20-plus variations of this work (a Passacaglia traditionally consists of a short theme in the bass which becomes a foundation for a set of variations on that theme) use a brilliantly-worked array of sounds, often lush in the manner of Mahler but at times hushed and sparse, with brilliantly inventive combinations of instruments – Webern organises his variations into an almost symphony-like plan of movements, with a central slow section and contrasting scherzo-like textures, all concluding with a ghostly epilogue. Listening to the players negotiating this tightly-worked scheme with what seemed like absolute confidence and conviction, I found myself simply taking off my mythical hat to both conductor and players – I knew the work reasonably well, but couldn’t remember hearing on record or seeing on film a more exciting and involving performance!

I must confess to finding John Psathas’s Timpani Concerto which followed a bit perplexing in contrast to what I’d just heard – and unfortunately my seat was in a place where my view of the timpanist was obscured by the conductor, so I missed some of the visual excitement of the soloist’s obviously virtuosic command of the instruments. As it wasn’t a work I’d heard before I figured earlier I might find a You-Tube performance with which to familiarise myself regarding the piece – and I found a clip which bore the title “Planet Damnation”, featuring a most exciting performance by Larry Reese, the NZSO timpanist. I didn’t know I was hearing and getting to know only the final movement at that stage, so the onset of the first movement nonplussed me for a while, as did what seemed like an over-insistence of the percussionist playing the woodblocks! The slow movement, when it came, was something of a blessed relief.

Though it was just as unfamiliar, I really enjoyed the slow movement, as it gave the timpanist, Tomoni Nozaki, a beautiful young Japanese woman, a chance to demonstrate the skill and variety of her touch and her ear for all kinds of sonority, instead of her being often drowned out by the rest of the orchestra (I found the woodblock part for one far too insistent!). Then came the movement I’d already heard, and I was able to better relate to the plethora of percussive irruption that the first movement had seemed to unfetter upon our sensibilities. I don’t think it’s a work I shall ever love, but the skills on display by the soloist were sufficiently interesting to make the piece work throughout those two latter movements.

We had a different running-order to that of the printed programme, so we got Briar Prastiti’s “White, Red, Black” after the interval. I liked this work a lot, admiring the composer’s orchestrations of her material, the wind-blown ambiences of the opening carrying my sensibilities along with the music’s trajectories, sharpening my interest more with bird-song-like figurations suggesting in places things coming into focus. What I found slightly disappointing was not being able to hear a single word of the vocalist’s line (despite a microphone being used) from where I was sitting (and my companion similarly reported that he could not hear the singer, and nor could somebody else I spoke to afterwards)….the accompaniment was invariably beautiful, but whenever the song’s intensities sharpened or  grew in body, so did the accompaniments! For this reason, the most telling vocal moments for me were towards the end, when the voice became as an orchestral instrument, the wordless vocalising as haunting as any other of the sounds we were hearing.

Before the final item of the evening, Marc Taddei announced certain salient details of the Orchestra’s 2024 programme, certainly whetting our appetites with some of the detailings – it seems to be a kind of survey of masterpieces representing different eras of artistic creativity, beginning (if I remember correctly) with the Baroque era, and finishing with a contemporary work (I didn’t write all the “clues” down, but Taddei assured us that full details would be released at the Orchestra[‘s final programme for the year, “Red Moon”, on November 11th.

And so to the evening’s final item, which, though splendidly performed and presented, with resplendent singing from Brent Stewart’s Orpheus Choir, and, by turns, stirring and meltingly beautiful orchestral playing, either in support or leading the way, I thought it all essentially lacked the last modicum of focus and interest to be truly engaging. Perhaps if we had had the words, the extra focus would have enlivened the undoubtedly “Game of Thrones” like scenario for which Mozart produced this music. Or, perhaps we needed a narrator with a suitably theatrical “presence” to knit the scenario together more readily –  In reality, everybody – choir and orchestra – did their best with the material, but for me it never really caught fire! I found myself wishing at times that the orchestra was instead giving us the G Minor Symphony K.183, which was what the music occasionally sounded a bit like. And, as I walked to my car after the concert, the thing I found myself wanting to do the most was to get home and play that sensational Webern work again! It was , for me, the evening’s indisputable highlight, and I remain grateful to Marc Taddei and his players for THAT most of all – a truly remarkable experience!



Music to celebrate an anniversary of international friendship

Chinese Arts and Entertainment Group presents
East / West: A Symphonic Celebration

XILIN WANG The Torch from ‘Symphonic Poem from Yunnan’
DOUGLAS LIBURN Drysdale Overture
YUANKAI BAO Chinese Sights and Sounds
Happy Sunrise
Green Willow
Lan Huahua
Song of Riddles
Dialogue on Flowers
TIAN ZHOU – Gift (Commissioned work of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra)
TRADITIONAL Pokarekara Ana|
SHIGUANG WANG The song of the Yangtze River

Orchestra Wellington
Conductor: Brent Stewart
Soloists: Jian Liu, piano
Joanna Foot, soprano
Bo Jiang, tenor

Wellington Opera House

Tuesday, 20th September 2022

This concert, presented by the Chinese Arts & Entertainment Group, celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic of China and New Zealand. What a lovely way of celebrating this anniversary, with a full symphony orchestra, distinguished soloists and appealing music, Chinese and New Zealand.

Xilin Wang is one of the most remarkable older Chinese composers. The Torch Festival conjures up images of the traditional Yunnan province festival. Energetic wild  rhythmic celebratory passages are interspersed gentle melodious sections.

This Chinese landmark composition was followed by a work of New Zealand’s senior composer, Douglas Lilburn. Drysdale Overture was his first major composition. He wrote it while he was still a student at the Royal College of Music. It is a tribute to his father and the farm on which he grew up. It sounds a little like the music of his teacher, Vaughan Williams, but there are also echoes of Copland.

Pokarekare Ana is a popular traditional New Zealand love song probably originating during World War 1. It has been widely recorded, notably by Kiri Te Kanawa, with orchestral accompaniment, but it is also moving with only a simple guitar accompaniment. On this occasion, it was sung by the well known New Zealand operatic soprano, Joanna Foote. Lovely voice, impressive stage presence.

To balance the New Zealand item the next item was the popular Chinese song, The Song of the Yangtze by Shinguang Wang, President of the Chinese Opera. It was sung as a duet by Joanna Foote and the tenor, Bo Jiang, both well known opera singer.  Bo Jiang enhanced the performance not only with his fine light tenor voice, but also with his engaging smile and his dramatic gestures. The song was clearly very meaningful to the young Chinese woman sitting next to me, her eyes lit up, this was something she was very familiar with.

The Yellow River Concerto is a piano concerto arranged by a collaboration between Chinese composers, including Yin Chengzong and Chu Wanghua, and based on the Yellow River Cantata by composer, Xian Xinghai. This was done by order of Jiang Qing, wife of Chairman Mao. It has been popular around the world ever since. It is rousing music with vigorous dramatic virtuoso passages alternating with simple folk song like interludes. It was played with brilliance by Jian Liu, Head of Piano Studies and Director of Classical Performance at the New Zealand School of Music, Victoria University.

As an encore Joanna Foote and Bo Jiang sang the popular Chinese song, No Sleep Tonight, much liked by the Chinese members of the audience.

This was an interesting concert of  music, largely unknown to a local audience, but it was more than that. It was a gesture of friendship, a statement that music is international with no barriers.

A Springful of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” music, from Orchestra Wellington


Robert Schumann Dichterliebe arranged by Henrik Hellstenius
Deborah Wai Kapohe, mezzo

Robert Schumann Cello Concerto
Inbal Megiddo, cello

Felix Mendelssohn Midsummer Night Dream
Barbara Paterson, Michaela Codwgan, sopranos,
Dryw McArthur, Alex Greig and Danielle  Meldrum, actors,
Women’s voices of the Orpheus Choir.

Orchestra Wellington
Marc Taddei (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 20th August, 2022

Schumann and Mendelssohn may seem like traditional programming for an orchestral concert, but – trust Marc Taddei, – it was anything but run of the mill standard fare. This was a concert of works seldom heard or seldom heard in the form presented.

Schumann Dichterliebe, arranged by Henrik Hellstenius

It opened with Schumann’s song cycle, Dichterliebe. This, along with Schubert’s Winterreise and Die schöne Müllerin is a work that established the song cycle form as more than a collection of songs, and is a landmark of the lieder repertoire. The songs are settings of sixteen poems by Heine. Heine was some ten years older than Schumann and was already celebrated as the leading German lyric poet. Perhaps Heine’s intrinsic contradictions appealed to Schumann’s split personalities. Maybe the cunning craft of Heine’s poetry brought something out of Schumann the master miniaturist. But what we were presented with was not the well known song cycle of Schumann with its dramatic piano accompaniment, but an arrangement by the contemporary Norwegian composer,  Henrik Hellstenius.

Instead of the piano, we had a large orchestra with even an exotic ophicleide, a keyed brass instrument.  Its deep voice was a welcome addition to the brass section. The piece started with a bell-like sound produced by violin and flute. The piano part is deconstructed right through the songs into a kaleidoscope of colourful orchestral sounds. Wai Kapohe sang not as the usual image of a classical lieder singer, but like a jazz singer, or more like a chanteuse, using a microphone, and despite the vast auditorium of the Michael Fowler Centre, she gave the impression of singing intimately for every person of the large audience. Her beautiful warm voice touched every one.

The  settings of sixteen of Heine’s poems are about love,  flowers, sorrow and pain, dream, memory of a kiss, the Cathetral of Cologne, a lark’s song of longing, a broken heart, fairy tale, and death.. The arrangement of Hellstenius turned Schumann’s music into a haunting post-modern musical experience. It is not a matter of being better than Schumann, bringing Schumann up to date; it is about looking at Schumann’s music through a contemporary lens, hearing it as eternally meaningful music.

Schumann Cello Concerto

The song cycle was followed by Schumann’s last orchestral work, his cello concerto, which he completed two weeks before he attempted suicide, and never had the opportunity of hearing it performed. It is a remarkable work, the first ‘romantic’ concerto written for the cello, a world away from preceding works for the cello, the cello concertos of Haydn and Boccherini.  The concerto starts with three chords played by the strings then the cello takes over with a beautiful melody, which Inbal Megiddo played with a ravishing sound. This set the tone of the whole work. The piece is episodic, a mark of much of Schumann’s work, short contrasting themes make up the building blocks of the overall piece, slow melodic sections interspersed with dramatic virtuoso passages.

The themes are like his songs, melodious. engaging.  The three movements, a lyrical yet dramatic first movement,  a slow second movement and a lively, energetic final movement, are connected by brief bridging sections. A song like quality pervades the work. Inbal Megiddo gave this concerto a beautiful, convincing reading. Acknowledging the warm applause, she played as an encore the Gigue from Bach’s Cello Suite No.1. She played it with a scintillating light touch. It was an appropriate bridge to the final item on the programme.

Mendelssohn A  Midsummer Night Dream

Mendelssohn wrote the overture to Midsummer Night Dream for the house concerts in his family’s lavish home, when he was a boy of seventeen and this it stayed in the popular repertoire ever since. It is a scintillating piece of music, but the Incidental Music was written much later, at the instigation of Frederick William IV, King of Prussia, a music lover. Mendelssohn expanded the Overture into a forty-five minute suit exploring scenes from the play, that included the among its thirteen movements, the sprightly goblin-like Scherzo, the light jolly, otherworldly song with the choir, the dreamy Nocturne with its solo horn, the stately Wedding March, played at innumerable weddings since its first performance, and the foot stomping Dance of the Clown. The use of three actors as narrator reading out the lines from the play, and two solo sopranos singing some of the choral numbers greatly enhanced the music.

Hearing the whole Incidental Music to Midsummer Night Dream was a joyous experience. But it was more than that, it was an insight into Romanticism in music, fairies, dreams, magic, ingredients of romantic music and literature, that echoed the music of Schumann and other romantic composers.

Orchestra Wellington and Marc Taddei offered, as usual. an imaginative programme,  played well, with understanding, which amounted to more than the sum total of the works performed. It captured the spirit of an era, with contemporary commentary on it by the orchestral arrangement of the Schumann songs by Henrik Hellstenius

Rhapsody and Rapture

Orchestra Wellington presents: RHAPSODY
BRAHMS – Alto Rhapsody
Contralto: Kristin Darragh
Male chorus Orpheus Choir
CLARA SCHUMANN – Piano Concerto in A minor
Piano: Jian Liu
ROBERT SCHUMANN – Symphony No 4 in D minor, Op. 120
Conductor: Marc Taddei
Orchestra Wellington

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 11th June, 2022

‘It’s all about Clara Schumann,’ said Marc Taddei, Orchestra Wellington’s conductor.

Brahms wrote his Alto Rhapsody for the wedding of Clara’s third daughter, Julie, in 1869. The second work on the programme was written by Clara Weick, as she then was, between the ages of 13 and 15. And Robert Schumann’s Symphony No 4, written in the first rapturous year of their marriage, has the word ‘Clara’ musically encoded throughout.

One thinks of Brahms as having always been middle-aged. I blame record sleeves for reproducing those very bearded photos from his fifties and early sixties – but he was an athletic, handsome, blond twenty-year-old when he first met the Schumanns. He was still a handsome man of 36, blond and beardless, when he wrote the Alto Rhapsody.

The programme notes described the work as ‘a rather odd wedding present’. Odd indeed – it seems to be full of the pain Brahms felt on hearing of Julie’s forthcoming wedding. At the
age of 26 he had been engaged to Agathe von Siebold, but the engagement was broken off. Ten years later he began to fall in love with Julie Schumann, then aged 24, but did not declare himself. When the news of her engagement arrived, he wrote the Alto Rhapsody.

The work is a setting of part of a long poem by Goethe, ‘Harzreise im Winter’, from his Sturm und Drang period, about the loneliness of a man climbing in the Harz mountains in winter. ‘Who heals the pains of one for whom balm has turned to poison?’, it begins. The answer
seems to be: ‘No one. Get over it. Music helps.’

The sombre opening chords are from the lower brass; then the texture thickens. The first two stanzas are in C minor, with a shift to C major in the third. Kristen Darragh’s first entry imitated the dark sound of the lower strings. Although the programme described her as a contralto, the biographical note called her a mezzo-soprano. She has qualities of both: a very beautiful bright higher register, with lots of power lower down. The orchestra provided rhapsodic support. The male chorus (TTBB) was provided by about 30 men of the Orpheus Choir, singing sludgy German that sometimes dragged the tempo. They did rather better further on when they got to the German Requiem-like harmonies.

The Alto Rhapsody is recorded pretty often. Wikipedia lists 19 recordings between 1945 and 2012, with two apiece by Kathleen Ferrier and Janet Baker. I first heard the Janet Baker recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult, and there was something of Janet Baker’s approach in Kristen Darragh’s performance, though I found Darragh’s voice beautiful in every register, from her bottom B to her high G flat. But the Alto  Rhapsody is not performed in concert very often, presumably because of the extra cost of the male choir for only a few pages of music. The recordings vary in length from 11 minutes 15 seconds (a French recording) to over 16 minutes (Christa Ludwig with the Vienna Philharmonic under Karl Böhm).

Taddei was pretty brisk, coming in at 12 minutes, but the tempi seemed well judged to me. The soloist was never left hanging out to dry, and the emotional depth was quite deep enough without any wallowing. There were many lovely moments, such as the soprano over pizzicato lower strings in the third stanza, a clarinet solo or two (Nick Walshe), the always-gorgeous horns, and the final words from the chorus, ‘sein Herz’ (his heart), which sounded like a final Amen.

Young Clara Wieck was already an accomplished piano soloist and had performed several times with the Gewandhaus Orchestra by the time she started writing this piano concerto. It is a remarkably mature and accomplished work. Clara’s bossy piano-teacher father tried to limit her composing because he thought it would get in the way of her playing. Robert Schumann, whom she met at one of her first recitals (she was 9, he was 18), encouraged it. Writers and critics have long thought that Robert influenced Clara. But the US musicologist, Nancy Reich, who examined the manuscripts of both Schumanns and wrote an acclaimed biography of Clara (Clara Schumann, the artist and the woman, OUP, 1989), said the boot was on the other foot. Clara was a very significant contributor to Robert’s compositions, said Reich; sometimes a co-composer. On the strength of this piano concerto she was clearly capable of it.

From the start, this is a confident work. Clara had already played some Chopin polonaises, and it shows in the writing. (For his part, Chopin heard her play, aged 18, and told Liszt all about her.) Her orchestral writing here is assured and appealing, and the piano writing is glorious, both virtuosic and lyrical. Jian Liu did it full justice, with crisp, precise playing and gorgeous, subtle gradations of colour. Taddei followed Liu’s tempi, and the orchestra played with sensitivity, matching his palette of bright and dark colours. In the second movement the stage lights came down, leaving only the pianist and the first desk of the cello section lit. The piano plays an extended solo passage, and finally the principal cello (Jane Young) enters. There is a passionate duet; then the cello withdraws. The third movement is also attacca, beginning with a little trumpet fanfare plus timpani, then a big string sound and full lower brass, a horn solo (Shadley van Wyk and Ed Allen), and an echo from bassoon (Preman Tilson). The trumpets introduce a Chopin-esque passage (minus pathos), just lots and lots of notes up and down the keyboard with tempo changes. Jian Liu turned on a dime, with Taddei and the orchestra always keeping in touch.

The audience went wild. They obviously love Jian Liu (who doesn’t?) and they were warm in their applause for Jane Young too. After being called back twice, Jian Liu came back a third time and played an encore, a pleasant nocturne by … Clara Schumann.

Only one work after the interval, Robert Schumann’s well-known Fourth Symphony, written in the rapturous first year of their marriage. Marc Taddei, obviously a great favourite of this large subscriber audience, spent some time explaining how Clara’s name (C B A G# A) appears in every movement, sometimes inverted. Examples were provided on the spot by the cello section, Concertmaster Amalia Hall, the first violins, the trombones, and the horns. The audience loved it.

‘This is one of the most radical symphonies of the nineteenth century,‘ he told them (because each movement flows straight into the next). And then, ‘It is a privilege to serve you.’ The audience purred with pleasure.

And off they went.

Schumann’s Fourth is an attractive work, bathed in sunshine. The orchestra played it well, from the confident opening to the three big final chords. The cellos always made a lovely sound; the string sound was warm and the upper brass bright and clean. Amalia Hall’s ‘filigree’ version of the Clara motif was lyrical and beautiful. The third movement burst open, a fast and furious scherzo, with exquisite violin playing. The horns sang the Clara theme; then the trio section followed with the first violins playing the filigree Clara motif. The fourth movement was all sunshine and daisies, with tidy tempo changes, before the final accelerando to the finish. Rapturous applause.

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

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

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

Alan Gibbs Centre, Wellington College

Saturday 28th May, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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


Christmas in 1677

‘SALVATORIS’  – Christmas music from THE QUEEN’S CLOSET

Works by Vejvanovsky, Fux, and Volckmar

Old St Paul’s, Mulgrave St., Wellington

Saturday, 18th December, 2021

The Queen’s Closet is an early music ensemble specialising in ‘historically-inspired’ performance of music from the English Restoration (1660-1714, approximately) on period instruments at Baroque pitches.  The focus of this concert was two works by the Habsburg composer Pavel Vejvanovsky (c. 1633-1693), with a piece each by Fux and Volckmar. The performers were members of The Queen’s Closet (Sarah Marten and Emma Brewerton (violins), Lyndsay Mountfort (viola), Jane Young (cello), Peter Reid and Chris Woolley (trumpets), Peter Maunder (alto and tenor sackbut), Sharon Lehany (hoboy), Gordon Lehany (director, and also trumpet, horn and viola), Anna Sedcole (soprano), Andrea Cochrane (alto) and David Morriss (bass))plus Paul Rosoman (organ).

There was no printed programme. What follows is gleaned from the brief oral introductions to the works given in the concert by Gordon Lehany, the ensemble’s artistic director; his answers to my questions after the concert; and The Queen’s Closet web site; as well as what my imperfect ears told me. Should you seek more information from the web site, note that the URL is (.com will take you somewhere quite different). The programme is up on the web site on the ensemble’s “Past Performances” page

The first work was Vejvanovsky’s Sonata Natalis, featuring strings (two violins, a viola, and a cello), the organ, and two natural trumpets played by Gordon Lehany and Peter Reid. The instruments were tuned to ‘about A 415’, a semitone lower than the organ, although Lehany described the pitch for the concert as ‘a compromise’, saying that the work by Vejvanovsky should probably be played at A 466.  The Sonata Natalis was charming, with a beautiful slow movement featuring solo first violin bookended by two faster movements demanding much of the trumpets.

The sound of the natural trumpet is much softer and warmer than that of modern trumpets. It has no valves and the tubing is twice as long. The mouthpiece is both wider and shallower than a standard trumpet mouthpiece. All of that requires a softer attack than is used on a modern instrument. No valves means that the instrument is restricted to the notes of the harmonic series and all the tuning is created by the player’s embouchure. . Thanks to the physics of natural brass instruments, certain notes in the harmonic series sit higher or lower than most of us expect to hear today.  Vejvanovsky was himself a trumpet player and he wrote sensitively for the instrument, skilfully contrasting pure consonances created by two natural trumpets in harmony, with the dissonances that stem from writing the high or low partials. It was immediately apparent that two trumpets did not overwhelm the strings (the players use gut strings, baroque bows and baroque technique) as modern trumpets would have done, and the balance between brass, strings, and organ was consequently very attractive. Old St Paul’s is a sympathetic venue for early music, and its size and acoustics seemed just right.

The next work was a setting of the Marian hymn ‘Alma Redemptoris Mater’ by Fux, featuring solos by alto sackbut and soprano. Peter Maunder played the sackbut elegantly and Anna Sedcole sang the soprano part with style. The sackbut is the Renaissance and Baroque ancestor or cousin of the modern trombone. It comes in various sizes, from alto to contra-bass, and has a smaller and more cylindrical bore and a less flared bell. The sound is more covered and blends well with voices. (A duet between a soprano and a modern trombone would tax both singer and audience beyond endurance.)

Johann Joseph Fux wrote Gradus ad Parnassum, the textbook on counterpoint that educated Bach and Mozart and is still quoted today. So it is no surprise that he was a dab hand at managing the various voices. Like Palestrina, whom Fux greatly admired, he allowed the music to illuminate the text, without using excessively melismatic ‘look at me’ passages. I especially loved the melisma on the ‘ran’ syllable of ‘natura mirante’, which made it sound even more marvellous. It was a tribute to Sedcole’s diction and Fux’s writing that I could follow every word without the aid of a written text. The sackbut sometimes supported the voice, sometimes imitated it; there were also delicious imitative rhythms. The sackbut was in supportive mode on the words ‘virgo prius’; and together they sincerely sought the Virgin’s intercession for their sins on the final ‘peccatorum miserere’. Gorgeous!

The Volckmar work was written around 1720, which makes him a contemporary of Bach. ‘Little is known about Volckmar,’ Lehany told us, ‘except that he was a Kapellmeister somewhere in Germany.’ The work was not titled – the manuscript is headed ‘In tempore Adventus’, i.e. to be performed during Advent – but it was an aria for bass-baritone and natural horn. I think it was a setting of Psalm 95 from the Lutheran Bible, judging by the fragments of German I caught. Lehany swapped his trumpet for a horn, and a viola was added to the string section. The bass-baritone was David Morriss, whose speaking voice is well known to RNZ Concert listeners.

The structure seemed to be as follows: the singer would cant (introduce) the introduction to each verse (e.g. ‘Der Herr ist gross’ – God is great) and the instruments would comment on it; then the singer would join them in a harmonic elaboration of the musical idea. The natural horn, like the trumpets, is softer than the modern instrument and also allows the composer to make the most of the dissonances generated by high and low partials in the instrument’s harmonic series. Morriss’s bottom notes were lovely, though not loud. The pitch at A415 may have been an issue for him in the lower register, when he was sometimes covered by the horn. But I was struck by his beautiful upper register, when he and Lyndsay Mountfort (viola) had duets. I also very much liked Morriss’s baroque technique in the semi-quaver runs. Overall the Volckmar was interesting and pleasant to listen to, but I felt that practically any bass aria by Bach would knock it into a cocked hat.

The final work was the Missa Salvatoris by Vejvanovsky. ‘Imagine yourself in the year 1677, in a church in Kroměříž….’. The mass is scored for soprano, alto, tenor and bass  with optional sackbuts, plus two trumpets as well as violins, violas (the versatile Lehany played viola, with Peter Reid and Chris Woolley playing trumpet), cello, and organ. Morriss and Sedcole were joined by alto Andrea Cochrane. With only three singers, Peter Maunder performed the tenor line on the tenor sackbut, and Sharon Lehany added hoboy to the mix. The Missa Salvatoris consisted of the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei.

Immediately I could hear why the Queen’s Closet are so excited about Vejvanovsky’s music. Andrea Cochrane sounded glorious, with Sedcole’s upper register stylish and beautiful. (Morriss was sometimes a bit buried by the sackbut.) The opening to the Gloria was canted by the bass, followed by lovely brass writing, and immediately a beautiful matching of alto and trumpets on ‘gloriam tuam’. ‘Suscipe, suscipe,’ sang the bass, answered first by the women, then the trumpets. There was a trio on ‘Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto’; then a separate entry by the alto for ‘Crucifixus’, followed sombrely by soprano and then bass, with ‘etiam pro nobis’ stated as plain fact. ‘Et unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam’ was announced by the trumpets playing their highest notes of the whole concert.

And so it continued. The setting of the text was sensitive, and the deft use of instrumental and vocal colour by composer and performers was a joy to the ear.

The Queen’s Closet, like the rest of us, had a difficult year, with cancelled concerts and stalled projects. But coming up next year is a collaboration with playwright (and trumpeter) Dave Armstrong: a completely new semi-opera with Purcell’s music re-imagined with a contemporary New Zealand text. Count on it: I’ll be there!


Henry Purcell’s “Food of Love” at Wellington’s Cathedral of St.Paul

Wellington Cathedral’s TGIF recital series presents:
HENRY PURCELL – Songs and Duets
Anna Sedcole (soprano) / Helene Page (mezzo-soprano)
Michael Stewart (harpsichord)

Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul

Friday, 23rd July 2021

There is a particular pleasure in hearing a duet sung by two voices that are well-matched in timbre, especially when the singers obviously share not only a vocal quality but a musical sensibility and a personal rapport.  Such were the harmonies on offer at this presentation of Purcell songs, performed by old friends Anna Sedcole and Helene Page, and accompanied fluently and unobtrusively on harpsichord by Michael Stewart, the Cathedral’s Director of Music, who also happens to be married to Sedcole — completing the sense of a musical afternoon among friends.  At its best, the concert felt almost spontaneous, as if the three felt a common impulse to burst into song. Such a carefree effect, of course, bespeaks careful and devoted preparation.

The recital opened with “Music for a while” from the incidental music to Oedipus, sung by Page in a warm but austere mezzo-soprano reminiscent of a Baroque recorder. While the vast vertical space of the Cathedral did its best to swallow her low notes, she made a compelling case for the “beguiling” properties of music, which was amply borne out by the next two numbers, “Let us wander” and “Lost is my quiet.” Here we got to appreciate fully how well-suited the two voices were to each other, each striking overtones off the other that showcased Purcell’s harmonies beautifully.  Ornaments and fast-moving passages were clearly articulated for the audience to appreciate.  Next came “If music be the food of love,” showcasing Sedcole’s agile, flute-like soprano.  I especially appreciated her sensitive dynamics (again not easy given the voracity of the space) and bright, clean articulation, so necessary in this music (and the polar opposite of the viscous legato required for the Russian choral repertoire the singer would be performing the following night as a member of the Tudor Consort!).

Page then returned and the two sang a gorgeous love duet, “My dearest, my fairest,” making the most of long, languishing melismas, suspensions, resolutions, and a hocketing “no, no” at the end that recalled bird song (and made one wonder whether a tragic ending was secretly encoded in this otherwise idyllic pastoral-sounding romance.  Having now looked up the play for which Purcell wrote this song, Pausanias, the betrayer of his country: a tragedy by Richard Norton, I find it indeed precedes a scene in which the eponymous hero’s lover, Pandora, attempts to seduce his lieutenant — so Purcell seems to have caught the mood here exceptionally well).

A slight technical malfunction in the harpsichord recalled us to Michael Stewart’s labours at the keyboard, and afforded an opportunity to marvel a second time at the family likeness between Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus and the opening bars of the next duet, “Sound the trumpet” (from Come Ye Sons of Art, one of the odes Purcell wrote to commemorate the birthday of Queen Mary II in 1694).  Appropriately jubilant, it was sung with fine rhythm, vigour, and precision, and went with a swing.  The next piece was a total contrast in all but the technical excellence of the performance: the slow, melancholy and poignant “O Solitude,” sung by Helene Page in a tender legato which reminded one of liquid honey, the vocal decorations — mordents and small trills — offered to the listener precise and unhurried.

The final two songs, both duets, were drawn from King Arthur, an opera I’m now extremely curious to see performed in its “Restoration spectacular” entirety.  The first of these, a duet of shepherdesses entitled “Shepherd, shepherd, leave decoying” was the highlight of the program for me: witty and nimble. I would have placed it last on the program instead of “Two daughters of this aged stream” (a song for two sirens), whose more languid tempo and theme (and final refrain of “And circle round, and circle round”) suggested intrigue rather than peroration.  Intrigue, however, was there none; the performers ended their recital promptly at the destined hour, leaving their audience satisfied but not surfeited with Baroque harmonies.

Fever’s Candlelight Jazz Standards with Retro Pack at Wellington’s Public Trust Hall

Retro Pack at the Public Trust Hall
Andrew London (guitar); Kirsten London (bass and vocalist); James Tait-Jamieson (saxophone); Lance Philip (drums); and April Phillips (vocalist). 

Public Trust Hall, Stout St, Wellington

Wednesday 21 July, 2021

Jazz is a polarizing genre. For aficionados, it’s all about innovation, pushing the boundaries, expanding the genre whilst respecting its traditions. Technical skill is prized, but always in the service of new ideas. For your average classical concert-goer, it’s pretty much a mystery, and sometimes incomprehensible.

But everyone loves a jazz standard. Jazz musicians know them inside out and sometimes reference them on their way to something else. Every Wellington Jazz Festival includes two or three gigs that incorporate standards in some way – this year Whirimako Black performed ‘Cry Me a River’ and’ Summertime’ alongside traditional Tūhoe waiata, while Ruth Armishaw channelled Ella Fitzgerald at Cable Top.

This concert of jazz standards by candlelight, presented by Fever Original, was commercially well judged. There were two concerts on the same night. I went to the 6.30 pm concert, and the Public Trust Hall was almost full. The audience was pretty mixed in age – from RNZ Concert to the Rogue and Vagabond crowd. Someone had done a great marketing job.

The quintet, billed as the Retro Pack (an indication to expect some Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin), wore dinner suits with bow ties or sparkly dresses. The volume was on the low side for a jazz concert, so it was perfectly comfortable for a non-jazz audience. And the stage area was marked by a bank of electric candles, flickering pleasantly.

Of the members of the Retro Pack, only James Tait-Jamieson (saxophone) and Lance Philip (drums) were familiar to me. Lance Philip has taught percussion in the jazz programme at Massey since the early 1990s and now at NZ School of Music. James Tait-Jamieson is a Massey graduate in saxophone who has also spent time on cruise ships. Lance plays all around town and is always excellent; Tait-Jamieson is a good sax player. The ones I didn’t know were Andrew London, guitar (ex-Hot Club Sandwich); Kirsten London, bass; and April Phillips, vocalist. The Retro Pack goes back to 2002, and the line-up has been remarkably constant over the years, though April Phillips seems to be a recent addition. She is billed elsewhere as a ‘singer, actress, playwright and movie-maker’. She researched, scripted, and delivered all the song intros, and did much of the singing.

The repertoire was, as promised, jazz standards, from the 1920s to the 1960s. The programme began with ‘Summertime’ from Gershwin’s groundbreaking opera Porgy and Bess, but there was no hint of the stage production in this version, just a tasteful cover version that showed off April Phillips’s low notes, with lovely vibrato. She had a nice duet with the saxophone, subtle, tasteful, understated, and all too short. And that was how the show went. The bass player took the vocals for Jerome Kern’s ‘Can’t help lovin’ that man’, with harmonies from the guitarist and lead vocalist, and another short sax solo.  I felt that the key was too low for Kirsten London, who has a pleasant, untrained voice; and I felt the same about the other songs she sang, Peggy Lee’s ‘It’s a Good Day’ (livened up with close harmonies from the others) and ‘Why don’t you do Right’ (with the sax solo providing some heat).

I would have preferred to hear more from April Phillips, who has a wider vocal range, and offered more colour and more power, with a gorgeous lower register. But that is a minor quibble.

April Phillips was a dab hand at suggesting whose version of a well-known song she was channeling. She did Ella Fitzgerald’s version of ‘Cry me a River’, and Ella’s version too of ‘Night and Day’ and ‘Witchcraft’, but the Billie Holliday version of ‘The Man I love’, complete with Holliday’s choppy phrasing and asthmatic in-breaths. It was subtle, and would have provided reassurance to someone less familiar with the repertoire than me. Andrew London did a couple of great Louis Armstrong covers, ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street’ and in ‘Mack the Knife;’ where the vocals were shared around, and he provided the Satchmo growl. Even Tait-Jamieson got in on the act, in his pleasant light baritone, doing a passable Frank Sinatra. The audience loved ‘Mack the Knife’, but not being a jazz audience, they left their applause until the end of the song.

It was all a bit too tasteful for me, I’m afraid. There is a terrific singer inside April Phillips who barely got allowed out – we had just a glimpse of her in Cole Porter’s ‘Night and Day’. There were some classy tempo changes. The sax solos were all well-judged and, I thought, too short. This is a polished act. But it wasn’t until the encore, a Cuban number made into a hit by Dean Martin, that the band showed what they are capable of. A faster tempo at last. Lance Philip was even allowed a (very short) solo, and the higher energy swept the audience away into raptures. The welcome rise in temperature made me sorry that there wasn’t a Cuban set to follow.




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

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

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

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

Sunday 4th July 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schubert’s “Winterreise” a truly unforgettable journey at St.Mark’s, Woburn for HVCM

Hutt Valley Chamber Music presents:
SCHUBERT – Winterreise  (Winter Journey) D.911

Will King (baritone)
Nicholas Kovacev (piano)

St.Mark’s Church, Woburn, Lower Hutt

Friday 2nd July 2021

I was brought up to believe that Franz Schubert was one of music’s most tragic figures, one whose circumstances were marked by privation, neglect and suffering – his was the archetypal Romantic scenario, fuelled by conjecture and fantasy, and bolstered up with a certain emphasis on the “tragic” aspects of his numerous works. Consequently, his song-cycle “Winterreise” came to be regarded as the ultimate nihilistic will and testament of the suffering and misunderstood creative artist, an outpouring of despair and disillusionment fit to be compared with the visionary paintings of the last years of Vincent Van Gogh.

Though such a made-to-order recipe supporting this idea of incomprehensible genius spurned was taken up as proof of greatness and institutionalised as such over many years, the truth of the matter serves not to diminish Schubert’s creative stature, but to actually enhance it, and bring it closer in spirit and intent to life as we ordinary mortals understand it. Schubert was certainly known and recognised as a creative artist in Vienna during his lifetime (a letter apparently addressed to “Franz Schubert, famous composer in Vienna” has been documented as reaching him from Germany!).

He was for a long time considered Beethoven’s inferior – his symphonies and piano sonatas were unfavourably compared with those of the older composer, and even the stellar qualities of the songs seemed to reinforce the attitude that he was little more than a “miniaturist”. The piano sonatas particularly suffered from neglect – Sergei Rachmaninov was, in the 1920s, amazed to learn that Schubert had written any at all! Today we know differently – and we are able to “place” more significantly in the scheme of things the incredible emotional range of Schubert’s music, and its ambiguity of expression.  As with Beethoven, one is left with a “great divide” between works of geniality and great voyages upon a sea of troubles – the coexistence of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony and the Op.132 String Quartet, for example, can be equated in Schubert’s oeuvre with that of the “Trout” Quintet and, say, the String Quintet, or, again, with this great song-cycle Winterreise.

Schubert’s early death, as a result of syphilis and its horrific treatment, has also “coloured” his achievement as a composer (Franz Grillparzer’s much-quoted epitaph, “The art of music here entombed a rich possession, but even fairer hopes” encouraged the “tragic figure” image), one to which the subject of Winterreise has also contributed. Interestingly, Schubert had seen only half of the twenty-four poems by Wilhelm Müller when he began composing the cycle in 1827, telling his friend Joseph von Spaum when emerging from a period of self-imposed isolation that he had  written ”some terrifying songs”, and sang and played for his circle of friends the whole of the first book. Spaum recalled the disturbance created by the songs’ “black mood” as well as the composer’s Beethoven-like response to his friends’ bewilderment that they would eventually “hear and understand them”. The second group of songs were completed later that year; and in the time left to him afterwards Schubert produced some of his greatest works, including the String Quintet, the E-flat Piano Trio, the last three Piano Sonatas, and the remaining songs collected and published after his death as Schwanengesang.

Wilhelm Müller was, of course the poet whose verses Schubert had already set in his earlier song-cycle of 1823, Die schöne Müllerin, a group of poems which pursue a definite narrative and culminate with the hero’s death, Schubert’s music transforming the somewhat stock-in-trade sentiments of the German Romantic literary tradition into sound-vignettes of infinitely suggestive depths of emotional insight, culminating in the extraordinary Des Baches Wiegenlied (“The Brook’s Lullaby”), where the brook consoles the lifeless form of the hero beneath its waters with words of rest and peace. Here, in Winterreise, by contrast, there is no rest, no peace, merely loneliness and isolation, loss and bitterness for the  traveller. One of the main differences between the cycles is in the piano part, in the earlier cycle readily colourful, physical, descriptive and engaging, while in the latter disconcerting in its austerity (I found the comments reproduced in tonight’s programme attributed to Benjamin Britten regarding the piano part of Winterreise most illuminating, stressing the piano’s conjuring up of mood and detail with the use of so few notes).

I’d heard only one live Winterreise performance previous to this present one  from Will King and Nicholas Kovacev at St.Mark’s Church in Woburn, Lower Hutt – this was a sobering ten years previously, from tenor Keith Lewis and pianist Michael Houstoun, at Waikanae, a reading that was especially notable for its progress towards a transcendence that “caught” the music in a mesmeric spell over the last five songs of the cycle, the numbed, essential bleakness of spirit conveyed with a feeling of “other-worldliness” underlined at the end by the traveller’s “passing over” into the realm of the ghostly hurdy-gurdy man, a place where earthly considerations seemed no longer to matter. Lewis and Houstoun seemed to me able to balance the sense of a palpable journey made by the lovelorn traveller with the equally pressing idea of there being no resolution of the spirit’s predicament to hope for, the bleakness of such an outlook in line with Schubert’s reported words describing his “terrifying songs”.

After what I thought was a slightly tentative beginning to Gute Nacht (Goodnight) from pianist Nicholas Kovacev, the playing thereupon seemed hand-in-glove with Will King’s beautifully “sounded” opening phrase – there was intensity of focus from both musicians, with the singer able to “illume from within” a word or phrase whose expression coloured the whole line, whether in anticipation or following. The third verse’s emphasis at Was soll ich langer weilen  (Why should I stay longer) was beautifully countered by the fourth’s sweetness at its major-key beginning, and further thrown into relief by the darkened minor-key final line. Next, the agitated opening of Die Wetterfahne (The Weather-vane) brought forth plenty of give and take of vocal intensities, concluding with almost desperate anger, which took on different, more desolate forms in the two songs leading up to Der Lindenbaum (The Lime Tree), dark and melancholy for Gefrorene Tränen  (Frozen Tears), and unsettled and troubled during Erstarrung (Turned to Ice), King managing to convey distress while phrasing with such elegance and variety.

Der Lindenbaum is, I think, the cycle’s first great in-transit “signpost”, given here with tender loveliness from both singer and pianist, the voice opening and radiating as the line rises and reaches the light at the top. King doesn’t make a “meal” of the minor key-change, darkening his tone, and suggesting the heartbreak without coarsening his delivery, singer and pianist eloquently making the beauty of the music’s return to an equanimity of sorts the true moment of catharsis. All the more bleak then the following song Wasserflut (Flood), here, with its Denis Glover-like bird call (a more desolate “Quardle Oodle Ardle Wardle Doodle”) reiteration of the opening figuration. From soft beginnings, King arched the line beautifully upwards each time, varying the intensities of its climax, all the while haunted by the repeated piano motif. The following Auf dem Flusse (On the River) energised this bleakness with a stepwise tread, King and Kovacev making the most of its fearful progress, surfaces crusted with still ice, yet surging fearfully beneath.

Rūckblick (Looking back) was here a classic “longing to return” moment, King and Kovacev conveying the torn, distraught emotions of one who longed to escape while wishing to go back to a happier time, with “zwei Mädchenaugen glühten” (a girl’s two eyes sparkling). The contrast with the ghostly, fatalistic Irrlicht (Will-o’the-Wisp) – lovely breath-control from the singer at the song’s end – and the ritualistic Rast (Rest), with its dramatic crescendi moving from physical stillness to inner turmoil, brought the wanderer to exhausted sleep and to dreams (Fruhlingstraume – Dream of Spring), King and Kovacev here charting a course between escapist delight and bitter reality with strongly-characterised focus. The disconsolate trudge of the ensuing Einsamkeit (Loneliness) turned gradually to desperation, Kovacev’s piano agitated and King’s tones dramatic and laden, the voice searching for some relief from the gloom. With the cycle’s second great “signpost” – the song Die Post (The Post) – the gloom momentarily lifted, King’s Wanderer running the gamut of emotion from expectation to disillusionment as the song tripped bitterly and ironically onwards.

Der greise Kopf (The grey head) which followed caught the desolation of the singer’s feelings of age and mortality though still a young man, conveyed by emptied-out vocal tones most effectively and dramatically. And both the crow (Die Krähe) and the falling leaves of Letzte Hoffnung (Last Hope) brought a sense of the traveller’s abandonment by nature itself, the singer desperately beseeching the crow to remain faithful, and then despairing as the last leaf fell blithely from a tree to the ground, King’s long-breathed legato lines a dying farewell to hope. With Im Dorfe (In the Village) Kovacev’s piano phrases smugly delineated the sleeping villagers’ dreams as King’s bitter tones renounced their world before taking his leave, and, with the added weight of the piano’s vigorous gesturings confronting the winter (Der sturmische Morgen), with near-manic phrases and exclamations, for me the third of the cycle’s “signposts” delineating a change or intensification of direction.

A sudden contrast of mood with Tauschung (Deception) suggested the onset of delirium as the traveller pursued a “dancing light” to which he confessed abandonment despite its possible “trickery” – King’s voice brought out vagaries of hope and disillusionment, which the following song, Der Wegweiser (The Signpost) gently but sombrely corrected, taking him further into the darkness of forsakenness. I thought King and Kovacev did so well with the next song, Das Wirthaus (The Inn), the almost ritualistic splendour and sacramental peace of the graveyard’s surroundings richly conveyed by the singing and playing, here, the tones then taking on a feeling of hollow, empty grandeur as the traveller realised that there was nowhere for him to rest.

What, then, of the triumverate of deception, delirium and disillusionment embodied by the final three songs? King and Kovacev generated a desperate kind of  foolhardiness, a delusional heroism with the first of the three, Mut (Courage), the voice almost manic in its upward thrusts, an amalgam of defiance and desperation,  before the trance-like Die Nebensonnen (The Mock Suns) gripped the singer with its hymnal focus and vision, the voice expressing wonderment at first and then disbelief and sadness, the piano resonating with the singer’s feelings as the tones died away. All that remained was Der Leiermann (The hurdy-gurdy man), the encounter with the old street musician, the piano articulating the haunting repeated refrain, the singer’s tones bleached of emotion and feeling, the heartbreakingly naïve concluding plea to the old man to be his companion made so focused and resonant as to linger on in the silence that followed, until we in the audience were allowed by the musicians to break the spell and show our (by then) gobsmacked appreciation of what we had just heard and experienced! Very great credit to these two on the occasion of a stunning achievement!