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!



Wellington Youth Orchestra take on Verdi, Grieg and Tchaikovsky


Wellington Youth Orchestra
Music by Verdi, Grieg and Tchaikovsky

VERDI – Overture “Nabucco”
GRIEG – 4 Norwegian Dances
TCHAIKOVSKY – Symphony No.5 in E Minor

Mark Carter (conductor)
Wellington Youth Orchestra

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

Sunday, 30th April, 2023

St. Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace was positively burgeoning with people on this holiday afternoon, all bent on celebrating what was the final day of April. The auditorium was jam-packed full, and bristling with excitement and expectation as well as sporting what seemed like a forest of violin bows brandished by seated uniformed platoons of fresh-faced youngsters, affiliated with similarly attired groups sporting wooden and metal whistles, and backed up by others carrying  gleaming brass bells with tubes attached or standing next to pairs and trios of sizeable rounded objects that straightaway invited banging and crashing together.

In fact the orchestra (which was what this assemblage was) seemed to take up at least half the auditorium’s floor-space, a prospect which seemed very likely to involve at some particular stage a right royal welter of assorted sound! One presumed that attendance at such a farrago would certainly not be for the faint-hearted!

Such was the bustling scene that any Sunday afternoon passer-by would have encountered. who might have  looked into the church to see what was going on!  Posters displayed on the street outside would  have given people in the “know” more clues as to what was brewing within, and especially as the name “Tchaikovsky” dominated what seemed a tantalisingly lurid seascape image which most excitingly took up the whole of the display. And once tempted through the doors of St.Andrew’s the casual visitor would have then been irresistibly drawn into the  ferment, with no possible chance of having second thoughts regarding the adventure, or of resisting the ready blandishments  and associated excitements being primed for tumultuous action!

Of course, for me it was at first simply another concert to add to the cache of my own musical experiences – and with all the things I’d seen and heard since arriving at that oft-visited church on Wellington’s The Terrace, part of the by-now-familiar fabric of preparation for music-making. And yet, from the time I’d ascended the church steps and eased my way through the entrance portals and into the auditorium, I’d again caught that whiff of excitement in my nostrils that can still, even on the ultra-umpteenth concert occasion, stimulate one’s interest – and the hubbub of the things I’ve already described upon arriving certainly did it for me again this time round.

Although the name of Tchaikovsky dominated the bill of fare, no less interest was generated by the supporting items from the equally illustrious pens of Verdi and Grieg – each as well being striking examples of orchestra virtuosity and of sounds characteristic of its respective composer. I hadn’t actually heard Verdi’s “Nabucco” Overture for some time, never having seen the opera on the stage, though the music brought back many recollections of my youthful tourings as a beginner actor in a children’s theatre troupe, our play using a recording of the very same overture! – excellently vivid, impactful sounds which, thanks to the composer’s irrepressible native theatrical instincts, have stayed vividly in my memory.

So it was, from the first solemn utterances of the brass chorale that opened the work, an evocation of magic from trombones and tuba, the sounds beautifully-rounded and splendidly-finished – and the characteristic, theatrical Verdian outburst from the entire orchestra that followed, stunning in its impact and setting the theatrical tone for the rest of the work. I was impressed with the response of  the players to their conductor Mark Carter’s insistence upon razor-sharp orchestral attack and beautifully graded dynamics, bringing out the composer’s native theatrical instincts, and preparing the way for our first taste of the famous melody “Va pensiero”, which was to bring the composer such lasting fame in its choral version from later in the opera. Time and again throughout the piece a particular orchestral detail in the playing from these youthful musicians made me prick my ears, such as the delightfully insouciant wind episode which lightened the wound-up tensions of the martial-sounding allegro, the nail-biting crescendo which then followed, and the “caution-thrown-to-the-winds” coda of the work, which left us all breathless with exhilaration at its conclusion.

Where Verdi’s music was innately theatrical and dramatic, Grieg’s was, by contrast, redolent with folkish charm and out-of-doors exhilaration, the Four Norwegian Dances positively exuding a bracing northern outlook – by turns each one bewitches and invigorates the senses with its specific evocation of time and place. Yet Grieg in his own music was never content to merely copy his country’s traditional melodies and rhythms, wanting to convey to a wider world these characteristics by echoing them in his own music. Though these Dances are all derived from Norwegian folk-tunes, he invested them with his very own harmonic brands (whose strains were to subsequently inspire Debussy, Ravel and Delius in their music) and similarly flavoured the native dance rhythms the composer so loved with the same piquancies and contrasts of mood and atmosphere. Written in 1881 first of all for piano four-hands by Grieg, the set of Dances has become more widely-known through their orchestral version, made in 1888 by the distinguished Czech violinist, Hans Sitt, and presumably used here.

Surprisingly, the players sounded to my ears at first slightly less comfortable with Grieg’s more bucolic measures than they had done with Verdi’s tight-as-a-drum rhythmic patterns, the opening of the first Dance seeming a shade “drunken” rather than spot-on with the rhythms, as if the dancers had helped themselves too freely to the Aquivit before the band struck up – but all seemed well by the time the music’s gorgeous trio section was reached, some beautiful oboe playing alternating with heart-on-sleeve string responses. And I had no reservations whatever with the Second Dance, utterly entranced as I was by the performance here of one of the world’s most charming melodies, again on the oboe (principal David Liu thoroughly deserving a mention!) and then just as beguilingly on the strings. I wasn’t prepared for the extent to which conductor Mark Carter put his foot down for the Trio section, but the fast and furious response by the players was brilliantly achieved! – making, of course, the reprise of the opening all the more “lump-in-throat” than before!

After which the Third Dance might well have made many people like myself get up and actually begin dancing, with the winds right on form and the strings and brasses even having a friendly rhythmic “tussle” at one point during their replies. In this Dance’s Trio, too,  I could hear instances of Grieg’s chromatic harmonisings of the kind that Delius obviously admired and would “echo” in his own music. The Fourth Dance seemed, at the outset, as it was going to pre-date its more sophisticated cousin-to-be, the Fourth Symphonic Dance in the later Op.64 set of Dances – more portentous than any so far at the outset, and threatening to maintain the ominous mood throughout (with even Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony’s introduction briefly echoed) – but then, with a few enlivening gestures, the dance spirit was reactivated and the music “ready!-steadied” into life once more, though the accompaniments here were interestingly enough the “darkest” of any throughout the set. On this occasion, too,  the Trio sounded especially melancholy, becoming a kind of miniature tone-poem of contrasting mood, with strings and brasses darkly accompanying first the oboe and then the flute, before further intensifying the melancholy mood (wonderfully black-browed brass and timpani here, almost Wagnerian in effect!) – then, suddenly, the dance broke in again, as before. This time, there was a gorgeous “We’ll see you again sometime” kind of coda, with flutes and horn making “farewell” exchanges, before the music suddenly erupted with energy and stormed to a brilliantly abrupt finish!

A short interval later and we were ready for the Tchaikovsky, his Fifth Symphony being the most classically-conceived of the composer’s three numbered later symphonies, though still imbued with plenty of characteristic late-romantic feeling – as this performance was to demonstrate with considerable elan. The orchestral masses having suitably regrouped, we were off, straightaway plunged into melancholy with superbly delivered clarinet phrases underpinned by dark-toned strings, intoning the work’s hauntingly sombre “motto theme”.

Conductor Mark Carter gave his players enough room to maintain a portentous march-tread for the Allegro con anima  opening theme while  keeping the music’s energies active in the rippling wind counterpoints to the theme, and to all of its various adaptations, such as the strings’ and then the winds’ beautiful rising variant, followed by the winds’ perky repeated fanfare call. The only difficulty for the strings came with the equally gorgeous but trickily syncopated second subject, whose rhythm pattern the players repeatedly anticipated, pushing it ahead of the accompaniments – however, the repeated fanfare figures on full orchestra fortunately restored order, with the horns and winds reliable in their turn.

Carter had obviously worked the players meticulously through the tricky rhythmic dovetailings of the development, so that the few strands that unravelled were easily pulled into place once more, the players achieving a fine cataclysmic ferment of interaction at the climax before the sounds gradually wound themselves back into the recapitulated allegro con anima, the winds doing the honours at first with distinction before the strings strode into the picture once again. The same problem of the strings’ syncopated melody recurred, but things were again righted by that same repeated fanfare figure of yore, which then led excitingly and defiantly to the movement’s coda – at the ferment’s zenith-point Carter gave his players extra elbow-room to hurl out the phrases expansively, before allowing the music to subside into a kind of brooding silence.

One of Tchaikovsky’s greatest symphonic slow movements followed, on its own terms a lyrical drama with a central episode leading to a magnificent motto-theme-led climax (that same motto theme makes an unscheduled return towards the movement’s end as well, which gives the drama extra “clout”) – but all the greater as a central part of an overall symphonic plan with each of its unifying strands fully activated. The scope of this review doesn’t permit a full description, but allows tribute to be paid to the conductor and players in this case who breathed life into every aspect of the structure – the darkly ample strings at the beginning, the magnificently-realised horn solo (played by principal Isabelle Faulkner) featuring the first of the themes that unify this movement, the oboe/horn duet that sounds the second and most-repeated theme, and the clarinet theme (played by Joseph Craggs, and backed up by Maya Elmes’ bassoon) that dominates the movement’s central episode until the motto theme’s reappearance blows it all out of the water. I felt in general that we got the best playing in the whole work from this movement, both with the soloists involved in the different themes and with the orchestra as a whole superbly committed towards expressing the different character of each of the sections.

Another concerted effort from the players was in the ballet-like Waltz movement which followed, one demanding particularly adroit instrumental counterpointing from both the different string sections and  a number of soloists, particularly the winds, all of whom performed like heroes, including the flute principal, Keeson Perkins-Treacher, and, as well, the trumpet principal, Lewis Grey, whose notes I clearly and cleanly heard at salient points.

Having already remarked that I thought the Symphony’s second movement contained the work’s best playing on the part of the WYO, I must confess that I can’t anywhere in my notes find reference to any mishap, failing or inadequacy in the orchestra’s full-blooded tackling of the work’s finale. Beginning with the words – “Finale – attacca!” I proceeded to nail my critical colours to my private mast (my notebook), and generally wax lyrical! – viz. “Splendid at the outset – brass forthright and confident, and winds the same! – the climax to the Intro is worked up well! The brass subsequently sonorous and oracular in their pronouncements!” That, of course, was the slow introduction….

Then came the allegro vivace (alla breve) – “Strings and chattering winds and brass do excellently well through the allegro’s opening charge! Winds are lovely and sonorous….strings also keep the melody buoyant! Brass resound the Motto splendidly! Winds give us plenty of swirling detail – the stamping theme is magnificent, underpinned by the timpani! Brass calls really nail the essential tumult, Winds and strings lean into the “Russian Dance: episode – the music gradually becalms, conductor holding the players nicely in check until the explosion restarts the conflagration….”

So far, so good! – the reprise of part of the finale elicited a comment, “Again the orchestra handles it all well – as before,  strings are fantastic! The brass and winds support the tumult! – the music rushes airborne towards the motto theme!”

Then came the Apotheosis – “Triumphal homecoming, great and heartwarming! Everybody playing their hearts out! What a coda! Mark is keeping it splendidly on the rails! Majestic right at the end!” And that was it! – a glorious and celebratory occasion! (I obviously knowed no more that afternoon!)

With those final in situ comments I rest my case! Well played, WYO!!


Masterworks from the WYO

Wellington Youth Orchestra
Mark Carter, conductor
Emica Taylor (flute)

JOHANNES BRAHMS – Academic Festival Overture
CARL NIELSEN – Concerto for Flute and Orchestra
ALEXANDER BORODIN – Symphony No. 2 in B Minor

St Andrew’s on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Saturday, 1st October, 2022

A grey and damp Saturday afternoon in Wellington was the perfect environment from which to seek refuge in this concert of brilliant and invigorating works played by the WYO at the top of its game. While the centerpiece of the programme was necessarily the Nielsen Flute Concerto, showcasing the virtuosity of WYO 2022 Concerto Competition winner Emica Taylor, the works by Brahms and Borodin that flanked it were also a great pleasure to listen to. The concert opened with Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture, a work your humble reviewer was forced to study for School Cert Music in a bygone century and therefore has not (or not deliberately) listened to since.  This was an enjoyable reintroduction.  As is well known, Brahms composed the piece by way of a thank you gift to the University of Breslau upon being awarded an honorary PhD, so that its title (Akademische Festouvertüre in German) refers directly to the joyful occasion of receiving the degree.  However, it can also be understood as describing the contents of the score.  While the “festive” nature of the overture is immediately apparent in the collection of student drinking songs it famously samples, its “academic” qualities emerge in Brahms’s use of counterpoint, and in the orchestration, which cannily exploits the individual colours of the instrumental forces employed.  This means it is a piece of many moving parts, which can feel “bitty” as it moves from theme to theme and colour to colour. The WYO, however, played like a single organism under Mark Carter’s baton.  I really enjoyed their feeling of unity as well as the beautifully articulated “highlights” given to various players and sections. In particular, I was impressed by the disciplined pizzicato in the cellos, and the thrilling fortes that succeeded the tiptoeing opening section. The orchestra also appeared to be enjoying itself, at least if the grins on the first-desk violinists as they rounded the corner into the triumphant finale on “Gaudeamus Igitur” were any indication.  My seat did not afford a clear sightline to the woodwinds (alas! Purely because of my own poor planning), but did offer an excellent view of the two percussionists (both guest players, according to the programme), who also played with verve and evident elation.  (The manic triangle riff at the end of the piece was a particular highlight.)

This appetizer having got the party well underway, it was now time for the main course: the Nielsen flute concerto.  In a brief introduction, Music Director Mark Carter characterized this piece as “fiendishly difficult….a real test for the orchestra.” It was a test they seemed well prepared to pass, even before the soloist, Emica Taylor, made her appearance onstage with enviable poise and in a beautiful gown. Nielsen doesn’t mess around: after a furiously chromatic four-bar introduction – really more of a scene-setting – the solo flute enters in a cascade of limpid triplets, matching the athleticism of the orchestra but introducing a contrast to their vehemently zigzagging semiquavers.  Taylor proved more than equal to the acrobatics required in her relentlessly hyperactive solo line, while the strings and woodwinds traded off duties in the accompaniment – one section providing a rhythmic underlay (I was particularly impressed with the disciplined pizzicato of the string players here) while the other offered lush countermelodies. A series of brief duets between the flute and the various woodwinds were beautifully played: in particular an extended dialogue between flute and clarinet, interrupted by enthusiastic strings and a surprise bass trombone, only to resume and infect the whole orchestra with a lyricism that continued to the end of the first movement.

The second movement was again introduced by vigorous strings only to give way almost immediately to a charming duet between flute and bassoon, gradually pulling in an accompaniment from the lower strings, then the remaining woodwinds. An ethereal adagio section followed, with a bit more canoodling between flute and bassoon, interrupted by agitated strings, ushering in a more playful interlude that in turn gave way to a lively march. A mood of building anticipation culminated in a duet of flute and timpani leading into a triumphant tutti finale. The entire performance felt committed, fluent, and professional.

It is safe to say that the audience was delighted with the concerto, and abuzz over Taylor’s virtuoso playing. This, therefore, was a good moment for an interlude, and the presentation of the Tom Gott cup – awarded annually to the winner of the WYO’s concerto contest, in this case, obviously, Emica Taylor.

The final piece on the programme was Borodin’s Symphony No. 2 in B minor, subtitled “The Bogatyrs” (something like “warrior-heroes” in Russian legend). The symphony has a complicated genesis story; Borodin (working simultaneously at his day job as an organic chemist) worked on it on and off for six years, with interruptions for the opera Prince Igor and the ill-fated opera-ballet Mlada (both also drawing heavily on the legends of mediaeval Rus’). He then proceeded to lose the full score and, having found copies of movements 2 and 3, had to (re-)orchestrate the other two movements while sick in bed.

One might be tempted to imagine that this contributed to the extremely pesante character of the first movement, in which a suitably “heroic,” ponderous theme is introduced by unison strings – the whole movement is dominated by unison or homophonic playing – and then compulsively repeated and returned to.  Interruptions by the trumpets (with a brisker martial-sounding motif) and woodwinds (with more lyrical material) inexorably lead back to the heroic theme, often “enforced” so to speak by the low brass. The second movement, marked “Scherzo – molto vivo” was a (as expected) a merrier romp, featuring more terrific pizzicato, especially in the low strings, and lovely woodwind playing among other delights.  Its syncopated second theme went with a swing – a chance to appreciate Mark Carter’s economical, elegant conducting and his seamless rapport with his players.

The third movement, claimed (by Borodin’s biographer Stasov) to represent the legendary Slavic bard Bayan singing and accompanying himself on the gusli, is easy to imagine as a kind of aural montage. It opens with a lyrical duet of clarinet and harp (presumably representing the voice of the bard and his instrument, respectively), followed by a gorgeous horn solo that seems to take us back to the “time immemorial” of heroic deeds – soon introduced in foreboding tones by orchestral forces reminiscent of the first movement: unison strings and low brass. The mood of agitation in the bottom half of the score is offset by cantabile playing in the woodwinds and horns – the winds and brass really shone in this movement! – which gradually takes over the whole orchestra, until we “fade out” back to the solo horn, harp and clarinet, a sort of musical “the end” which perversely leads straight into the Allegro fourth movement without a break. This movement had everything one might want in a finale – building excitement, catchy tunes, dynamic contrast, lots of tutti playing, and most of all plenty of action for the percussionists! I particularly enjoyed watching them gingerly pass the triangle back and forth in between managing their respective duties on cymbals, drums, and tambourine. Good fun. The syncopation and mixed metres showcased this orchestra’s strong grasp of rhythm and caused more than one toe to tap. 

Perhaps the best thing I can say about this concert is that I frequently forgot to take notes, as the music drew me in.  The WYO on a good day is really a terrific orchestra, and this was definitely a good day. Stellar playing all around and engaged, communicative conducting made for a really invigorating afternoon of music, and I look forward to the next one.

Plaudits for the Wellington Youth Orchestra with Donald Maurice

Wellington Youth Orchestra presents:
Music by Boris Pigovat and Anthony Ritchie

PIOGOVAT – IN the Mood to Tango
RITCHIE – Symphony No. 5 “Childhood”

Donald Maurice (conductor)
Wellington Youth Orchestra

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

Sunday, 31st July 2022

Donald Maurice has had a long association with both Boris Pigovat and Anthony Ritchie. He perfumed and recorded Pigovat’s Holocaust Requiem with Orchestra Wellington, a major work for viola and orchestra, and commissioned Ritchie’s First Viola Concert and other works. It is appropriate that he programmed works by both of these composers, though Pigovat’s piece was a late substitute for the Second Symphony by the youthful Richard Strauss, which had to be abandoned because Covid played havoc with rehearsals.

A youth orchestra concert that strayed from the well-known classics was an interesting challenge for the young players. They had to come to terms with the unfamiliar idiom of two composers whose music they had never played before. It was a tour of exploration.

Pigovat: In the mood to tango

This was delightful light music for strings only. It captured the mood of Piazolla’s Argentinian tangos,  and recreated the atmosphere, the musical imagery and style of Piazolla’s music. It was a great way of bringing the strings together as an orchestral body and it was great fun.

Ritchie: Symphony No. 5, Childhood

Unlike the previous piece, this Symphony is a major 40-minute, colorful work, in five interlinked movements. It commemorates the Christchurch Earthquakes and is dedicated to the refurbished Christchurch Town Hall. It uses childhood as a metaphor for renewed hope and optimism. It calls for a vast orchestra with a full complement of winds, brass, and in particular, percussion, that includes a ratchet, tubular bells, xylophone, and marimba as well as the usual drums and cymbals, plus a harp, and a celesta (in this performance substituted very satisfactorily by harp and piano). Seeing the destruction and reconstruction through a child’s eyes, the symphony is built on little short motifs that suggest simple nursery rhymes or children’s songs. Ritchie wrote a thesis on Bartok’s music and there may be a suggestion of the children’s themes such as those that Bartok employed. Unlike Bartok’s music, which is terse and concise, Ritchie’s music is expansive. Ritchie also went through a minimalist phase in his career, and uses minimalist techniques, short repeated phrases, in this piece.

The First Movement: Beginnings, opens with a ratchet; you sit up, listen, ‘what is this all about?’, then a simple 5 note phrase is played on the celesta which is taken over by the flute, then the whole orchestra, which elaborates on it, dissects it, and opens it up into a vivid chiaroscuro of music. This simple phrase haunts the entire symphony and returns at the end. The Second Movement: Play, is playful. A simple joyful theme is tossed from one section of the orchestra to another. Everybody gets a turn at playing this phrase, like a ball thrown around among the musicians. Hopes and Dream, the Third Movement, is ethereal, introduced by a gentle soulful melody on the oboe. First the horn, then the trumpet expand on the tune and it flowers into a rich melody, with the strings and the whole orchestra joining in. Life- force, the Fourth Movement, is built on energetic rapid figures, shadowed by dark themes in the winds. The final Movement, A Future, is triumphal, and towards the end the initial simple theme returns played on a whole range of percussion instruments. Finally the Symphony ends on a wistful note.

This was the first performance of this symphony beyond Dunedin and Christchurch, and we can applaud the Wellington Youth Orchestra and its guest conductor, Donald Maurice, for tackling this difficult work. It enriched the musical experience of all the young musicians who took part in it – and after all, this is the main purpose of a youth orchestra – but it also expanded the experience of those in the audience.

Hearing a new major work performed and, moreover, performed in the presence of the composer, is an opportunity to be treasured. Anthony Ritchie was in the audience and at the end of the symphony he came forward and acknowledged the applause. As to the Wellington Youth Orchestra, all its musicians put everything into the performance of this challenging work, the untold hours of hard work and rehearsals, years of study, paid off in this fine concert. Without singling out any individual player, there were some beautiful flute solos, and great playing by the horns and the whole brass section, who had a lot of notes to play. There was some very fine string playing, and a lovely entry by the cellos at the beginning of the symphony. The contribution of experienced senior players and, especially, the percussionists who joined the orchestra to fill gaps at short notice must be acknowledged. It was a great and memorable concert.




Wellington Youth Orchestra – an appealing programme delivered with rich orchestral sound

Wellington Youth Orchestra presents:
ELGAR – Cockaigne Overture  (In London Town) Op. 40
BEETHOVEN – Romance for Violin and Orchestra No. 1 in G Major Op.40
DVORAK – Symphony No. 8 in G Major Op.88

Soloist: Lucas Baker (violin)
Wellington Youth Orchestra
Mark Carter (conductor)

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

Saturday, 30th April, 2022

This was a delightful program of very appealing music, appropriate for the young musicians of the Wellington Youth Orchestra. The orchestra has grown in size since I last reviewed their concert in 2019, when they were short of strings. This time there were 26 violins, 5 violas, 6 cellos, 2 basses, and a full complement of winds, brass and percussion, and they produced a rich orchestral sound. The program really tested their skills as a coherent ensemble.

Elgar: Cockaigne Overture, Op. 40

Elgar is perhaps a somewhat underrated composer. He flourished in the shadow of his contemporaries, the great late-Romantic European composer like Richard Strauss. His music stayed within the romantic idiom of rich lush sounds. These days he is best known for his Pomp and Circumstance March that is played every year on the last night of the Proms in England. But he was a major symphonic composer as borne out by his symphonies, and in particular his moving and profound concerti for violin and cello. The Cockaigne Overture was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society and was first performed in 1901. Elgar described it as ‘cheerful and Londony, “stout and steaky” … honest, healthy, humorous and strong, but not vulgar’. It is a rousing piece for a large orchestra, and the young musicians got into its exuberant spirit more and more as the piece progressed. It is a work that needed to be played with youthful abandon and each section of the large orchestra rose to the occasion and brought out the picaresque, colorful character of the work, church bells, Salvation Army band, the sounds of Cockney London.

Beethoven: Romance for violin and orchestra No1 in G Major, Op. 40

The Opus number and the publication date of 1802, suggests that this Romance belongs to Beethoven’s Middle period between the Third Piano Concerto, the Creatures of Prometheus Overture and the Kreutzer Violin Sonata, but its simplicity, more in line with music of an earlier time, suggests that he might have written it earlier. In spirit it is a world away from his dramatic Violin Concerto published four years later. The Romance starts with a four bar introduction of double stops of melodic chords that Lucas Baker played with meticulous clarity, and this clarity of playing was the hallmark of his playing all along, a clear tone, and fluency of articulation. He didn’t try to over dramatize the work which in its simplicity harks back to an earlier age of Mozart. There was no drama, just a beautiful singing tone. The reduced orchestra supported in him style.

Dvorak: Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op 88

Whereas the adjective I would use for the Elgar piece is ‘exuberant’ and for the Beethoven ‘charming’, the word for Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony is ‘joyful’. From the opening melody, played beautifully by the cellos, the symphony radiates warmth and sunshine. Birdsong is played on the flute, and the whole orchestra joins in with a rich sound that exudes a sense of happiness, of being happy to be alive. One captivating melody follows another. There are peasants dancing, a summer rainstorm, and everybody joins in a jubilant celebration. All this requires sensitive playing by the brass and winds – there are trumpet clarion calls, and irresistible melodies for clarinet and oboe, while the flute is always prominent, very clearly and musically played by the principal flutist, Keeon Perkins-Treacher.

All this is challenging for young musicians and they all acquitted themselves superbly. The work hinges on these short solo passages. There is a whole world of late nineteenth century Bohemia in this symphony, with its vigorous folk culture, its colorful landscape and old traditional roots. Perhaps Dvorak tried to capture a world that had flourished, but would soon decline and disappear, something that such of his contemporaries as Mahler, had sensed already. It is a happy world, but not superficially joyous like that of the operetta world of  Johann Strauss and other composers of light music. Perhaps only Mendelssohn wrote joyful music like this, but in a different era and idiom.

Playing such music as part of a large, full symphony orchestra is an enriching experience for musicians and particularly young musicians who are just exploring the riches of music. Mark Carter, the Music Director of the Wellington Youth Orchestra is also Sub-principal Trumpet in the NZSO. He had a great vision for building the orchestra, based on his own experience playing in youth orchestras in the UK. He studied conducting with some of the masters, and has clearly a good rapport with his players. His wife, also in the NZSO, as well as his son, Benjamin play cello in the orchestra. Eleanor Carter also played the organ when organ was needed in the Elgar. It takes special tact and understanding to work with young musicians, and Mark Carter managed to get the best playing from his team. It was a most enjoyable concert for all, musicians and audience alike.


“Strings for Africa” joyously fill the vistas of St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace

Sinfonia for Hope and Stringendo presents:

JS BACH – Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D Minor BWV 1052
Antonio VIVALDI – Concerto for 4 Violins and ‘Cello – No.10 of Op.3 “L”estro armónico” RV 580
Gabriel FAURE – Cantique de Jean Racine (arr. for ‘cello ensemble)
JS BACH – Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 BWV 1051 (arr for viola/’cello ensemble)

Diedre Irons (piano),
Amelia Hall, Martin Riseley. Monique Lapins, Konstanze Artmann, Rupa Maitra, Martin Jaenecke, Lucas Baker, Claire Macfarlane, Sandra Logan, Sarah Marten, Robin Perks, Lucy Maurice (violins),
Sophia Acheson, Peter Barber, Elyse Dalabakis, Xi Liu (violas)
Inbal Megiddo, Heleen du Plessis (‘cellos)
Chris Everest (continuo guitar)
Sinfonia for Hope
Donald Maurice (conductor)

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

Tuesday, May 18th, 2021

Back In November of 2019 I attended an event called “Cellos for Africa”, at Te Rauparaha Arena in Porirua City,  one described by its organisers as “a multi-institutional and multi-cultural collaboration”, featuring a variety of performing individuals and groups brought together by Heleen du Plessis and Donald Maurice. The event’s primary purpose was to raise funds for a school in Africa which had been established in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2011 by New Zealander Denise Carnihan and her husband Chris. More than $8,000 was raised by this Porirua concert to support the venture, named the “Tamariki Educational Centre”, and situated in the poorest part of Nairobi. This latest concert, “Strings for Africa”, was a kind of follow-up, the funds intended to help establish a fully-fledged music programme at the school.

Both Denise and Chris Carnihan were present at this latest concert, and at the conclusion expressed their heartfelt thanks at the efforts of the event’s organisers and the assembled musicians, as well as acknowledging the support of the members of the audience. We were, throughout the evening,  treated to what could be best described as a kind of “string-fest” – if one forgot official designations and regarded Diedre Irons’ piano as a “stringed instrument”, one could indeed say that the entire company of musicians were string-players!

As befitted the occasion’s focus on the establishment of a school music programme, a goodly number of the evening’s instrumentalists were school-aged children, members of a group called Stringendo, a Wellington-based children’s string orchestra, one which opened the evening’s programme with a performance of JS Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in D Minor, conducted by Donald Maurice, the soloist with the ensemble being none other than the aforementioned Diedre Irons! Playing the St.Andrew’s grand piano set back amidst the ensemble players as befitted a kind of “sinfonia concertante” work,  Irons gave a sturdily-focused and clearly-articulated reading of the first movement’s solo part, duetting most charmingly with the violins in a number of places, and plunging into a mini-cadenza which sparked and scintillated like a firecracker, the pianist’s characteristic spontaneity of manner keeping us nicely guessing as to the moment of her instrument’s reunitement with the orchestra!

The sombre, unison statement of the slow movement’s opening theme gave it all great gravity, and a modicum of tension as to its eventual destination! I enjoyed the accompanying strings “sighing tones”, a touching sensitivity evident in the young players’ relating their phrases to the soloist, and the latter in turn elaborating upon the simple, emotionally-direct string figurations. The final  episode enchanted as well, with the strings quietly joining Irons’ melodic line in unison, the utterances spare, and extremely moving!

Sprightly, energetic and animated at the outset, the finale began with the piano creating its own frisson of excitement, and the orchestra its own version of exhilaration, the notes clearly played and their energies well-conveyed. The soloist was never left unattended by the strings for long, the fount of Bach’s invention astonishingly vigorous and varied throughout, and the detailings never less than ear-catching, such as the observance of different dynamic levels and the setting of soaring lines against rapid-fire accompaniments. Irons’s solo part became somewhat fired up towards the piece’s end, but the orchestral musicians maintained active participants right to the final exchanges – well done!

One couldn’t help catching one’s breath as the soloists for the next work on the programme, Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins RV 580, came on to the platform – it was as though the concert had momentarily “cornered the local market” regarding violinistic talent! With Amalia Hall and Martin Riseley on one side, and Monique Lapins with Konstanze Artmann on the other, sparks were ready and set to fly in this work, the music catching into conflagration from the very opening, Amalia Hall and Martin Riseley setting things in motions, answered by Monique Lapins and Konstanze Artmann with the ensemble’s support, straightaway establishing a dynamic variation in the exchanges by way of indicating that no stone of interpretative contrast would be left unturned.

Every solo was characteristically “eventful”, not only notes-wise, but in dynamics and antiphonal direction and its augmentation by any one or more of the “company”, the interchanges filled with the drama of variety of utterance – what to the casual listener might have at first seemed a “sameness” of texture and figuration, with the propulsive opening theme driving the music along, drew us with each repetition further into the panoply of the music’s fantastic world.

The slow movement began with a series of dramatically-delivered gestures, the big dotted-note chords alternating with shimmering arpeggiated figures for both the soloists and the ripeno  – a central episode contrasted this solemn mood with a ghostly dance, as if a chorus of sprites lurking behind the great columns of sound briefly and impishly showed themselves, enjoying their “moment” before dancing out of sight once more.

The sprightly, triple-time finale reinvigorated the sound-picture, the company bending all backs in delivering the vigorous opening theme, before each of the soloists launched by turns into an elaborately modulated discourse, Amalia Hall getting the lion’s share at first, but with the others joining in the rapid-fire exchanges, Inbal Megiddo’s cello as well reminding us at times that the concerto is actually designated “for four violins AND ‘cello” in its place in the Op.3 “L’Estro L’Armonico” collection! What else could one feel when it was all over but privileged to have “been here” to witness the euphoric joy of such music making!

The next item was “unprogrammed” in a written sense, being intended as something of a “surprise”. A group of ‘cellists currently under the tuition of Inbal Megiddo, here gave us a transcription  of an 1865 choral work by Gabriel Faure, Cantique de Jean Racine, originally a four-part work for mixed choir and keyboard. I forgot to actually count the cellists in the group, but there must have been at least eight, including Inbal herself – a gorgeously rich sound! The players infused their various lines with plenty of feeling, nicely inflected and tellingly shaped – I thought there was remarkable strength and confidence in the lead cellist’s playing (at the opposite end of the line from where Inbal was sitting). I liked the group’s intensities in the softer moments of the piece, catching the feeling as readily as during the more outwardly-expressive moments in the music, concluding with a particularly touching final phrase.

Finally, it was the turn of the Sinfonia for Hope to perform for us, an orchestral group established in 2018 for fundraising purposes supporting humanitarian causes, the present Nairobi project being the group’s 2021 focus. Before the group’s item got underway conductor Donald Maurice expressed thanks to both Inbal Megiddo and Heleen du Plessis, describing them as central to the organisation of the evening’s music-making, after which he invited the organisers of the Nairobi Project, Denise and Chris Carnihan, onto the stage as well, the couple expressing their thanks to the musicians, organisers and the audience for their support for the Nairobi venture via the evening’s musical activities. It was gratifying to be told that, as a result of this evening’s concert, the projected music programme at the “Tamariki Educational Centre” in Nairobi would be able to be established.

The Sinfonia’s item was one with a difference, a performance of JS Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 played by an astounding assemblage of no less than twenty-four viola players, along with a large group of ‘cellists, plus a continuo guitar, all conducted by Donald Maurice. It all began with a will, the rich massed viola sound rolling around and about the church’s vistas, each group’s phrases gleefully bouncing off the other’s with almost bumptious heft in places, though allowing ample spaces for the lines of the two ‘cello groups to come through as well. At the outset I found the reiterations of the main theme exciting when re-emphasised by each of the groups, but my ear began increasingly to listen for and appreciate the less assertive lines and phrases and their interplay, finding a different kind of excitement in the play of the “terraced” sounds at the varied dynamic levels.

The slow movement then provided the greatest possible contrast to what we had heard thus far, with solo strings and guitar continuo, the four players, Peter Barber and Sophia Acheson (violas), Inbal Megiddo (‘cello) and Chris Everest (guitar) transporting our sensibilities in the most delightful fashion, a truly memorable performance expressing such finely-wrought contrasts of light and shade, warmth and focus, and strength allied to delicacy as to disarm critical processes…..

After this, the finale’s “jolly hockey sticks” effect of the massed strings’ return brought us back down to earth in the most appropriate way, with sequences of tumbling warmth vying with moments of delicacy and playfulness.  I enjoyed the music’s modulatory swerves into more distant realms, and the dogged meticulousness of the figurations’ homeward journey to the point where the main theme relievedly gathered the threads together and roared out for the last time – what palpable pleasure there was in its final delivery, and in the audience response , a moment to acknowledge and truly cherish as a memory of the evening’s delights!

Welington Youth Orchestra and Mark Carter with violinist Lucas Baker – a Transatlantic treat!

Wellington Youth Orchestra presents:
Music by Barber, Britten, Gershwin and Vaughan Williams

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS – Overture “The Wasps” (1909)
BARBER – Violin Concerto,  Op.14
BRITTEN – Sinfonia da Requiem,  Op.20
GERSHWIN – An American in Paris  (1928)

Lucas Baker (violin)
Mark Carter (conductor)
Wellington Youth Orchestra

St. James’ Church, Woburn, Lower Hutt

Saturday, 15th May, 2021

The idea of “music that makes one’s mouth water” is, of course, an entirely personal matter, there being literally hundreds of pieces and combinations of pieces which would produce such a response amongst music-lovers – but for me, the Wellington Youth Orchestra’s presentation at Woburn’s St.James’ Church on Saturday hit the spot from the moment I opened the printed programme just before the concert began. I’d seen the “Transatlantic” publicity blurb, with its highlighting of the Barber Violin Concerto, performed by Lucas Baker, but only the names of the composers whose music was to be played alongside this work – so I was all the more delighted at the prospect of hearing the other three pieces, all particular favourites, in the one concert!

Another pleasant surprise was rediscovering the positive aspects of the venue’s acoustic regarding the orchestral sound, one which I’d commented on in a previous review as actually being somewhat “too lively” – here, the  different orchestral textures of the opening piece, Vaughan Williams’ attention-grabbing orchestral frolic  The Wasps  Overture, rang out most divertingly, from the raucous whirrings which opened the piece to the plethora of instrumental strands delivering the concluding “combined” themes of the work at its climax. The generous reverberation gave added weight and tone to parts of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, and enhanced various touches of glamour and sophistication to Gershwin’s adventurous An American in Paris. We certainly felt as if we were inhabiting the “same space” as the band, and enjoying a lot more besides just the notes!

Any concert that begins with VW’s “Wasps” Overture immediately “commands” its audience’s attention – and so it proved here, with the great orchestral “buzzings” goaded to a frenzy by various percussive punctuations. Mark Carter set a jolly dancing tempo for the allegro which allowed the combination of rhythmic verve and soaring melody to “swing” in entirely complementary ways, leaning nicely into the “big tune” which was taken up gloriously by the strings, the winds giving poignant support as the music’s colours rang the changes. The jauntiness of rhythm got by Carter from the players at the return of the “wasps” was positively infectious, leading to the brass’s exciting  clarion calls and irruptions of percussion which pounced on their opportunities to join in the welter of sound! – I liked the lovely legato of the trumpet’s reiteration of the soaring theme, beneath which the strings energetically danced the allegro, the ensemble splendidly robust, conductor and players capping the piece’s ending off with an exhilarating sense of arrival.

What could have contrasted more to this than the opening of the Barber Violin Concerto? – a lovely, lyrical outpouring from soloist and orchestra alike began the work with great tenderness and ardour hand-in-hand, the winds contrasting this heart-on-sleeve manner with a dancing, descending motif that reappeared throughout the movement.  The evolving orchestral textures by turns took us through sequences where full-bloodedly melody gave way to sequences of wistfulness and playful impulse which were suddenly became irruptions clouding the soundscape. Lucas Baker’s playing seemed, chameleon-like, to flower with the music –  more confident, I thought, with the bigger gesturings than with some of the more filigree figurations, his vigorous attack steadfastedly carried the music through the dancing sequence towards those massive orchestral gesturings which seemed suddenly to collapse under their own weight! Baker and his oboe soloist colleague together brought us reassurance by turning once again to the composer’s comforting descending dance theme, one which floated upwards to finish the movement.

A beautiful oboe solo began the slow movement, superbly delivered here, the strings , clarinet and horn taking the melody onto the soloist, whose first focused musings were “charged” by orchestral agitations led by the brass. Though Baker seemed less sure of himself in the heavier, more angular sequences, his confidence returned for the more romantic horn-accompanied passages – and the  rarefied solo sequence just before the impassioned entry of the strings was simply lovely, as was the recitative passage immediately following the orchestra’s taking on of the full-blooded gesturings, Baker delivering the open-hearted beauty of the writing to the rapt ending with great commitment.

A timpani figure began the finale, over which the soloist began a molto-perpetuo rhythm, with the orchestra contributing flecks of colour, a wonderfully rollicking journey brought off here with great aplomb. Baker’s control was splendid throughout, his energies carrying everything along with his instrument as the orchestral presence grew through a crescendo to a hammered climax, the strings taking over the rhythm, the soloist wrestling it back for a few measures, and the orchestra seizing control once again. At the work’s end, soloist and orchestra went for broke hammer and tongs, mixing concerted shouts with helter-skelter solo figurations, and  unequivocal concluding chords.

The church’s ample acoustic helped make the beginning of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem something of a sonic event, highlighting the committed efforts of the players, the irruptions thunderous and oppressive, engendering a sense of deep hurt, sorrow and anger, the instruments speaking for human voices and giving tongue to feelings. From the utmost depths the sounds gradually ascended, the strings followed by the brass and winds, the textures increasingly strident and agitated. With the heavy percussion adding its weight the full orchestral force was superbly brought into play, through to a shell-shocked aftermath – the sudden irruptive fragments of energy then re-ignited brilliantly spreading inexorably through the orchestra, tongued notes from the winds, stinging col legno strings and mocking chatter from brasses. The saxophone lamented, the trumpets sneered, the percussion flecked off shrapnel-shards of notes, while the rhythms built to brutal unisons at the climax, after which the exhausted textures fragmented into silence – how heart-warming, then, was the ensuing dialogue sung here between winds and horns, with the strings turning the textures into upward-thrusting columns of light, augmented by the whole orchestra! The aftermaths were so very moving, with the brass solemnly sounding a warning phrase for the future before the final hope-filled roulade from the strings dissolved into the quietly stoic wind chords at the end. Such great work from the orchestra, conductor and instrumental soloists!

The concert concluded on a rather less burdened note with George Gershwin’s exuberant An American in Paris, a world that seemed far removed from the previous work’s troubles! I’d thought the Britten piece showed off the orchestra’s qualities splendidly, but this differently-focused, more  extroverted Gershwinreally opened up the band’s corporate and individual capabilities, even if the first Parisian taxi whose horn we heard had a first-note hiccup! – but no problems thereafter! That first orchestral paragraph really “set the scene” here, with the tunes roaring through, a prominent one being  “My Mum gave me a nickel”, a vivid contrast with some of the piece’s mood-changes, as the traveller wandered from place to place, the loneliness (a gorgeous violin solo) as palpable as the hustle and bustle.

Throughout, I thought Gershwin’s score was made a living entity by these players, as with the cool bluesiness of the famous trumpet solo, and the insouciant swagger of the accompanying rhythmic trajectories, the style caught to perfection, its extrovert manner beautifully tempered in places by the playing’s tenderness and sensitivity (the strings’ delivery of the bluesy tune, for instance), and the ebb and flow between the two modes beautifully controlled by Mark Carter. Gershwin’s scoring of this work throughout indicated here that both of the eminent French musicians he approached for lessons were right to recognise there was little either of them could teach him, and that his own home-grown “idioms” were the important things to further nurture and develop, the second, jauntier trumpet tune, for instance, again played here with incredible panache – and I loved the “drenched” string/wind sound the players brought to the swinging theme that followed soon after, immediately precluding the music’s “breaking up” and reforming with a vigorous rendition of the original bluesy trumpet theme.

Suddenly we were swinging along with the opening music, taxicab horns and all, and heading for a great peroration – a final bluesy turn of phrase, a crashing chord, and we in the audience were left applauding and shouting our approval! Heroes all, these players, with some star turns, all of which were properly acknowledged – very great honour to all at the realisation of such a splendid concert!







Cantoris Choir celebrates its fiftieth anniversary with the help of Te Kōkī NZSM Orchestra and Mozart

NZSM and Cantoris Choir present:
MOZART –  Symphony No. 35 in D K.385 “Haffner”
– Mass in C Minor K.427 “The Great”
– Motet “Ave Verum Corpus” K.618

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music Orchestra
Reuben Brown (conductor – “Haffner” Symphony)

Cantoris Choir
Georgia Jamieson Emms, Michaela Cadwgan (sopranos)
Jamie Young (tenor), William King (bass)
Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music Orchestra
Thomas Nikora (Music Director, Cantoris Choir – “The Great” Mass)

St.Peter’s-on-Willis, Wellington

Saturday, 24th April, 2021

“The devil take organisations that programme concerts for Saturday nights” I muttered repeatedly to myself, driving around Wellington’s busy streets, and looking for a car-park with mounting desperation as the Cantoris/NZSM concert’s starting time drew nearer and nearer! Eventually, after hurriedly walking to the church from a circuitously discovered parking space several blocks away, I arrived to find the front door closed and everybody else seated! I was, however, admitted, and, thanks to some introductory preamble from the concert’s organisers, actually got to my seat before a note had been played, as a result admitting to myself grudgingly that my near-lateness was really my own fault!

Such a good thing that I’d “made it” though, despite my organisational misjudgements – because the concert’s opening item, Mozart’s joyous and celebratory “Haffner” Symphony was given a totally invigorating performance by the student musicians under the direction of their conductor, Reuben Brown, one whose every note I thought tingled with life in the playing! – nowhere could I sense a mechanical or a “going through the motions” impulse, be it those opening shouts of octave-spanning exuberance or the murmured exchanges that contrasted with the enthusiastic outbursts.

Throughout, the dynamics constantly made us prick up our ears to exhilarating effect, as did the balancing of winds and strings in the upward flourishes, the winds elsewhere making the most of their expressive passages, conductor and players together shaping the themes with real feeling, but without ever letting the life-pulses of the music slacken.

The exquisite slow movement was given the space its themes needed to work their magic, the string passages having a delicacy that charmed our senses, as did the bassoon’s droll accompaniments, the lyrical lines singing their hearts out, with strings, then winds taking the lead, the oboes’ partnership a pleasure,  and the horns discreetly colouring the ambiences.

I thought the Minuet needed a touch more rustic bravado for the opening to make the most of its “swagger set against elegance” exchange, but the point was made, and the trio allowed the winds, led by the oboes, to emphasise the “grace” of the sequence.

The finale I thought terrific, the control by conductor and players over the accented dynamics of the contrasting phrases was so very ear-catching, done with a feeling of spontaneity that gave it all an edge and an excitement that I thought captured the composer’s youthful genius – a most enjoyable performance that was enthusiastically received at the end, and justly so!

And so, after an interval, it was Cantoris Choir’s turn, this evening celebrating its fiftieth anniversary year by showing what it could do with a work reckoned to be one of Mozart’s finest, his Mass in C Minor K.427, often called the “Great Mass”. Mozart was no stranger to settings of the liturgy, having produced at least fifteen settings of what was known as the “Ordinary” (the Latin text) of the Mass during his early Salzburg years, besides various other “sacred” works for different forms of worship, However, once he had left Salzburg for Vienna, he concentrated almost exclusively on secular works, apart from this “Great Mass”, and the later Requiem (1791), both works being left unfinished. The Great Mass was actually written for the occasion of his first return visit to Salzburg with his new wife, Constanza, in 1783 – in fact Constanza sang the “Et incarnatus est” section from the “Credo” at the work’s premiere in Salzburg. Interestingly, Mozart never attempted to finish the mass’s uncompleted parts (such as in the “Credo”), or add the missing “Agnus Dei”.

Beginning with a great archway of sounds growing out of a sombre instrumental beginning, the work’s opening Kyrie here sang out splendidly, the textures rich and full, thanks to adroit balancing of the forces, with perhaps the brasses being accorded slightly more ear-catching prominence than we needed, exciting though the sounds were. Thomas Nikora and his singers brought out plenty of sonorous tones and dynamic variations leading up to soprano Michaela Cadwgan’s serene entry at Christe Eleison, her soaring lines confidently rising to meet the tessitura, as well as relishing the interactive moments with the choir.

A solo voice intoned the opening line of the “Gloria”, to which the choir burst out in response, everything festive and joyous, with the music quickly and adroitly switching moods between the opening joyfulness and the serenity of “Et in terra pax hominibus”. The following “Laudamus Te” sparkled both instrumentally and vocally, Michaela Cadwgan’s firm, focused singing putting one in mind in places of the vocal energies generated by the composer’s “Queen of the Night” arias from “The Magic Flute” without the latter character’s angst and malevolence, the “Glorificamus Te” sections being particularly florid.

A sudden dramatic shift at “Gratias agimus tibi” from the chorus became more fraught with the words  “Propter magnam Gloriam Tuam”,  this somewhat awe-struck reverence happily leavened by the music for the two sopranos at “Domine Deus”, Georgia Jamieson Emms and Michaela Cadwgan teaming up beautifully, and making a virtue of their different vocal timbres in the exchanges at “Agnus Dei”, thrilling us in places with their stratospheric note-swapping. The dotted Handelian rhythms of “Qui tollis peccata mundi” brought forth an amazingly incisive sound from both choir and orchestra, the rawness of the louring brass in places either (depending on one’s tastes as a listener!) overbearing or excitingly “present”, but dramatically telling in the contrast with the hushed pleas of “Miserere nobis” which followed, before building again towards further waves of cataclysmic energy! – what an amazing build-up of intensity was got here at “Qui sedes a dextram Patris!”, with by turns, haunting, then full-throated cries of “Miserere nobis!” – astonishing!

Both sopranos with tenor Jamie Young then made a remarkable trio of voices for the amazing “Quoniam Tu Solus Sanctus” the writing as florid as could be imagined, partly canonical, and partly fugal, the singers hanging onto the precarious solo lines with terrific elan! A great orchestral chord announced the words “Jesu Christe”, majestically delivered by the combined forces, before the men’s voices began a fugue with “Cum Sancto Spiritu”, spreading like wildfire and as excitingly through the voices before introducing the “Amens”, combining these with both fugue and inversion in a ferment of exhilaration before hurling the final “Amens” heavenwards with great surety and gusto!

The Credo, such as it was, began with a solo voice, answered by rumbustious orchestral figures over which the choir vigorously proclaimed the prayer’s basic tenets of faith and belief, breaking into decorative contrapuntal lines at the words “Ante omnia saecula “(before all time began), and giving the words rapid canonic treatment from men’s and women’s voices ( some briefly blurred lines here entirely forgiveable) from “Deum de Deo, Lumen de Lumine” (God from God, Light from Light), as far as Descendit de Caelis (Descended from Heaven), the voices suggesting similar trajectories.

This was followed by the heavenly “Et incarnatus est”, soft strings, organ and celestial winds introducing the soprano voice of Georgia Jamieson Emms, the voice here beautifully “floated”, negotiating both the high notes and the torturous coloratura which follows with great aplomb, and given sterling support by the various wind instruments. In fact her voice seemed to grow in surety and confidence as she approached the cadenza-like sequence again accompanied by the winds, both singer and players drawing on some kind of alchemic quality of loveliness throughout – a memorable performance!

There was little time to reflect on what we had been denied through the rest of the Credo’s absence – for here was the “Sanctus”, grand and imposing, with the brasses echoing the choir’s shouts, and a beautifully deep organ pedal accompanying the words “Domine Deus Sabaoth”, the atmosphere joyous and celebratory! Conversely, the fugal “Hosanna” was excitable and energetic, but with Thomas Nikora’s direction allowing the girth and “swagger” of the music to cone through, up to the great shouts of “In excelsis” at the end, though the strings continued, leading on to the “Benedictus”, featuring all four soloists for the first time,  bass William King making his long-awaited entrance! All the soloists acquitted themselves beautifully, the individual voices resounding like church bells with their repeated “Benedictuses” and blended lines, all coping with some particularly demanding concerted writing towards the end with great credit, their final “In Nomine Domini” as vigorous and incisive as any of the evening’s utterances.

It remained for the choir to deliver the final moments of the Sanctus’s return,  and the work’s journey was completed – well, actually, not quite, as we had been promised at the beginning that, to make up for the parts that the composer DIDN’T write, we would be given a kind of “bonus”, one that would “finish” the Mass in a more appropriately closing kind of manner. For this reason the work and the evening were both “rounded off” by another of Mozart’s works, the motet “Ave Verum Corpus” K.618, written in 1791 for a choirmaster friend in Baden, Anton Stoll, who had helped the Mozarts find lodgings in the town for Wolfgang’s wife Constanze, who was pregnant and needed the relief given by the local mineral springs.

Lasting only two-and-a-half minutes, this astonishing piece captures a tranquility that would have been entirely absent from Mozart’s life at that time  – he was currently working on the opera “The Magic Flute”, and still to come that year (the year of his death) were the opera “La Clemenza di Tito” the Clarinet Concerto and the unfinished Requiem. Perhaps the inner peace of this work expressed an outward longing for the same, freed from the difficulties he was at that time embroiled with. Its performance here, one infused with light and warmth, made an entirely appropriate conclusion to a concert whose undertaking and execution Cantoris Choir and its Musical Director, Thomas Nikora, could be justly proud of.











At last! – the 2020 NZSO National Youth Orchestra gets to show what it can do

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:
“Finale” –  the NZSO National Youth Orchestra 2020

LISSA MERIDAN – Firecracker
JOSHUA PEARSON – When a pale blue dot breathes
PYOTR TCHAIKOVSKY – Fantasy-Overture “Romeo and Juliet”
SERGE PROKOFIEV – Suite from “Lieutenant kije”

(Joshua Pearson is the NZSO National Youth Orchestra Composer-in-Residence 2020)

NZSO National Youth Orchestra 2020
Hamish McKeich (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Thursday 18th December, 2020

NZSO Chief Executive Peter Biggs called this evening’s concert “a belated wish come true”, after the NZSO NYO’s plans for mid-year Wellington and Auckland performances together with the NZSO of Shostakovich’s epic “Leningrad” Symphony were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. After such a disappointment, the young players were “overjoyed” that the lifting of restrictions nation-wide enabled a new concert to be announced for the year’s end, with the Shostakovich project re-scheduled for 2021.

Conductor Hamish McKeich put the occasion in an even wide perspective in welcoming us all to the concert after the orchestra had performed the first two items, Lissa Meridan’s spectacular 2000 work Firecracker, and Joshua Pearson’s 2020 NYO-commissioned When a pale blue dot breathes, by asking us, amid the joy of having our National Youth Orchestra performing tonight, to spare a thought for young musicians in other places around the world at this time unable to come together in like manner due to pandemic-induced restrictions. So, added to the relief of being able to perform was a determination on the part of all present to make the very most of the occasion, which the music-making to my ears certainly achieved.

I can still remember the excitement of first hearing the Auckland Philharmonia’s CD set of NZ commissioned “Millenium Fanfares” brought out by Atoll Records in 2000, one that began, as here, with the aforementioned Firecracker by Lissa Meridan, a brilliant evocation in orchestral terms of light, colour and energy, stunningly realised by McKeich and the players – what an “ear” for sound on the composer’s part was displayed here! Meridan wrote this fanfare while serving as the Director of the Lilburn Electroacoustic Music Studios at Wellington’s NSZM, and the music’s astonishing blend of textural fluidity and dynamic variation suggests the kind of limitless possibilities open to one well-versed in sonic explorations, the kaleidoscopic instrumental combinations as ear-catching when lightly-scored as they were overwhelming when flooding the ambiences with wave upon variegated wave of brilliant and impactful irruption.

As the thoughtful programme note by Febry Idrus indicates, NZSONYO Composer-in-Residence Joshua Pearson’s new work When a pale blue dot breathes suggested a kind of antithesis to Lisa Meridan’s scintillating creation, at the outset a realisation of a kind of William Blake-like “world in a grain of sand”, the “pale blue dot” of the title representing the earth glimpsed from outer space silhouetted in a sunbeam, a dot containing “a crowd of cacophony”. Its componentry is further characterised by sound-vignettes representing the space-ship Voyager’s “Golden Record”, one containing sounds and images from Earth as a kind of “message in a bottle” for forms of life as yet unknown to us conveying various “essences” of human existence, including examples of spoken language.  The piece’s opening underlined its subject’s relative insignificance in relation to the surroundings, the sounds creaking, shuddering and shivering into being, the ambiences eerie and strangely non-corporate, until, like nature abhorring a void, a tumult of voices rose as if an act of sheer will, looking to somehow co-ordinate its impulses, rallying trumpet fanfares and jaunty piccolo tunes putting flesh on the music’s bones and characterising the self-conscious “outreach” of humankind into the unknown, from its “best of all possible worlds”.

It’s all somewhat Tower-of-Babel-like, one that appears to lose its voice at one point when the wind and brass players “sigh” tonelessly through their instruments, as a mute recognition of language and gesture perhaps needing more, or perhaps giving way to simply being and putting faith in a process of continuance. I liked the balloons being spectacularly burst towards the end, possibly as a sign of risking all and expending empty baggage……the composer was well received by the audience at the piece’s thoughtful, enigmatic conclusion, the latter prompting thoughts of the music being a kind of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” for our time, perhaps?

After this, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture might have required something of a quantum shift of brain-cell response on the part of listeners – but in the end the music’s opening ambiences seemed to grow out of the resonances already stirred and shaken, the winds this time unusually “weighted” by the bassoon’s prominence over the clarinet throughout the introductory measures. Hamish McKeich kept everything else poised and expectant, hinting at the unease and tension which then sprang eagerly forward at the fist signs of warring unrest between two feuding families, the strings generating speed rather than weight and building the excitement towards full-blooded conflict most excitingly.

McKeich prepared his players beautifully for the famous love-theme’s appearance, the oboes deftly supported by the horns, and the strings’ veiled quality readily suggesting the tenderness between the lovers from the outset – again some lovely work from the winds and horns, and afterwards harp and cor anglais. Urgency ahead of any initial suggestiveness marked the strings’ plunge into their reiteration of hostilities between the warring families, the percussion nicely “terracing” the music’s dynamics, and delivering maximum weight when required – the return of the lovers’ theme wrung our sensibilities out properly (excitingly supported by the bass drum at one point) – and the players brought off the music’s jagged syncopations with great elan as the conflict peaked and suddenly imploded, the lower strings digging deeply into the black depths of tragedy reinforced by the shattering timpani roll, the ensuing funeral march almost perfunctory with sheer numbness.

As much as I would rather the composer had defied his mentor, Mily Balakirev, and retained his earlier, quieter ending for the piece (I’ve always found the brassy ending to the work too “stock”, too conventional, and seeming to run counter to Shakespeare’s concluding lines in his play  “A glooming peace this morning with it brings/the sun for sorrow will not show his head”), the players here made Tchaikovsky’s harshly-expressed finality hit home with all appropriate force at the end.

And what a brilliantly-conceived contrast followed! – even when separated by an interval! – Serge Prokofiev’s totally delightful Suite (originally music for a Soviet film of the same name, “Lieutenant Kije” – actually, in Russian, “Kizhe”) was put together by the composer shortly after the film’s release in 1934, with the composer’s Paris-based publisher using the French form of the name. Prokofiev then expanded the somewhat fragmentary film music soundtrack, and re-orchestrated it for full orchestra – he described the process as “difficult”, but was determined to complete the task, as he wanted to try and “normalise” his relationship with the Soviet authorities after returning to Russia from the West.

The film’s source for the story was lexicographer Vladimir Dahl’s 1870 publication of a collection of “Stories from the Time of Paul I” (son of Catherine the Great and Peter III, Paul I was Tsar between 1796 and 1801 prior to his being assassinated), the tale describing the life, adventures and death of a mythical officer, invented as a result of a clerical error, which couldn’t be admitted to for fear of angering the Tsar! It was taken up by the novelist Yury Tynyanov, who wrote the screenplay for the film. The story naturally appealed to the Soviets as an example of ridicule of the “old order”, though the bureaucratic bungling and fear of displeasing one’s superiors was to remain a worldwide trait throughout most of the twentieth century.

Prokofiev’s music was a wholly delightful affair, right from the very first magical solo cornet/trumpet strains  (it isn’t specified which one was played here, but Isabella Thomas was the flawless off-stage soloist) which announced “The Birth of Kije”, to the same theme’s slightly augmented reappearance at the Suite’s end. This dream-like encapsulation belied the rest of the music’s excitement, colour and immediacy, the characterisations of both the hero and his adventures springing engagingly to life-life, as with all rattlingly good yarns! The composer’s penchant for vivid orchestration gave the NYO players ample opportunities to shine, the percussion in particular having a proverbial field day though mention must be made of the distinctive contribution made by the tenor saxophonist (Tessa Frazer), her playing deliciously enlivening the textures of both the second movement Romance and the third movement, Kije’s Wedding. My favourite of the Suite’s movements has always been the Wedding, though its effectiveness depends on the degree of tongue-in-cheek “swagger” given the trajectories by the conductor and players – here, the “oohm-pah” brass rhythms were an absolute delight, underpinned by outrageous explosions of festive joy from the full orchestra, the percussion holding nothing back!

Concluding the concert’s listed items was a piece by Mexican composer Arturo Márquez, Danzón No. 2, a piece championed by the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela under Gustavo Dudamel during that orchestra’s tour of Europe and America in 2007. I thought the music had a kind of “Latin American Gershwin” kind of feeling in places, with firstly the clarinet and then the oboe voicing the melodic lines, piano, percussion and pizzicato strings encouraging the music’s impulse to ‘dance’, each refrain introducing livelier trajectories, swooning into sultry, suggestive passages which build the harmonies to expressive heights before re-energising the rhythms once again – the bursts of energy set against contrasting episodes of languor gave the piece a volatility whose climax drew from conductor and players plenty of edge-of-the-seat abandonment and a cataclysmic finish!

Despite, or perhaps because of the brilliance of the concert’s ending an encore seemed more than appropriate by way of extending the occasion’s frisson of excitement, with Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance from the ballet “Gayaneh” brought scintillatingly into play, the famous glissandi brass notes more expressive that I can ever remember, rather than producing merely the usual “snarl”, and the shock of the abrupt changes of texture and dynamics towards the end startlingly pulled off! Very great glory, indeed, to this year’s NYO, conductor and players making the most of their opportunities and to the NZSO for making it all happen in the face of unforseeable difficulties.



Orchestra Wellington and Sistema Orchestra Hutt Valley in varied and colourful concert

Orchestra Wellington conducted by Marc Taddei with Jian Liu (piano), plus Arohanui Strings – Sistema Hutt Valley

Josef Suk; Serenade for Strings in E flat, Op 6
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No 1 in D flat, Op 10
Rachmaninov: Symphony No 3 in A minor, Op 44

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday 17 October, 7:30 pm

This concert was one of Orchestra Wellington’s rather special events, not only in parallel with a rather singular election day that tended to absorb the animated attention of most of the audience before the concert and during the interval, but also sharing the platform of the MFC with another orchestra: the Arohanui Strings. That band was founded in 2010 on the model of the Sistema Youth Orchestra in Venezuela, and is directed by violist Alison Eldredge. It involves about 300 young string players, mainly from the Hutt Valley. Naturally, by no means all participated on Saturday evening.  I guessed there were about thirty promising Arohanui Strings – Sistema Hutt Valley players, eleven first violins and down to two double basses, plus around 20 very small players who found their way across the front of the stage for the later pieces.

Arohanui Strings
The first piece was the commissioned premiere of Alissa Long’s Domino Effect, which involved both wind and percussion players of Orchestra Wellington, plus a few OW players to give body to the string sections. One of the several curiosities was a three-metre long wind instrument that I thought was a kind of didgeridoo; I’m informed: a ‘Rainstick’.

This more advanced group also played an arrangement of Poor Wayfaring Stranger; then the littlies, some around 5 years old I’d guess, formed a long line across the front, some on special, small cello chairs, to join the orchestra playing, and singing, Ode to Joy, Square Dance and Lean On Me.

Audience delight rested with the simple spectacle of very young children evidently thrilled, and a bit overwhelmed, at the experience of playing with grown-up professionals to an audience approaching 2000.

The result of this preliminary episode was to prolong the concert; it didn’t end till about 10.15pm, a mere 45 minutes more than usual; very few left early – even to catch up on the excitement of the election result!

Suk’s Serenade for Strings
The first piece played by the host orchestra was the lovely Serenade for Strings by Josef Suk, who was a pupil of Dvořák at the Prague Conservatorium. It’s his earliest published piece (1892) and today probably his best loved. (I have some recollection of Suk’s Asrael Symphony played by the NZSO a fair while ago; it didn’t overwhelm me).

In the Serenade, Suk picked up Dvořák’s suggestion for something happier and more charming than what he had previously composed; he was probably inspired by Dvořák’s own Serenade for Strings of 1875; though there were several good earlier examples of the string suite or serenade.

I knew Suk’s early work well enough and this experience only enhanced admiration for its touching, ingenious orchestration; the first movement is immediately enchanting with its tuneful richness and warmth as well as its rhythmic variety and individuality, which the orchestra explored so well. The second movement is in changeable triple time, and soon takes root according to the ‘grazioso’ description. I was particularly captivated by the playing of the long and lovely third movement, Adagio, scored interestingly and subtly, moving about with charming thematic and rhythmic variety. It’s been compared with the ‘Dumka’ style that Dvořák had made famous, rhythmically and emotionally various. The last movement is characteristically brusque, with each group particularly firm and clear.

If, like me, you are often led to explore a class or type of music that is presented itself in a concert, there’s a lot of comparably delightful music: some of Mozart’s divertimenti, to start with; Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C, Op 48 (1880), which happened to be one of my early teenage experiences from the then 2YC radio (now RNZ Concert), when nothing but entire works were played, presenting no problems for its then large audiences. Then there’s Dvořák’s in E major (1875); Nielsen’s Little Suite for Strings, Op 1 – particularly charming); Elgar’s Serenade for Strings in E minor, Op 20 (once it was second in popularity only to the Enigma Variations); and Holst’s St Paul’s Suite (and the Brook Green Suite is only a little behind it). There’s Grieg’s Holberg Suite, Op 40, echoing the Baroque period of Norwegian dramatist Holberg [born 1684, making him a contemporary of Dryden and Pope, Voltaire and Prévost (writer of the Manon Lescaut story)]. A discovery as I put this list together was the charming, seven-movement Idyll, Suite for string orchestra (you wouldn’t recognise its composer, Janáček!). Even later, there’s Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances for string orchestra.

Prokofiev Piano Concerto No 1 
The most successful work in the programme might have been Prokofiev’s first piano concerto with Jian Liu, Head of Piano Studies at Victoria University’s school of music, as soloist. Like Suk’s piece, this too was a teenage masterpiece. Prokofiev had played it first in Moscow in 1912, again playing it himself and winning at the St Petersburg Conservatorium piano competition in 1914; to the shock and disapproval of many faculty members on account of its originality, invention and flamboyance. I got the full measure of those Prokofiev characteristics in Vienna in 2014 hearing Russian pianists playing all five concertos at the Konzerthaus with the Marjinski Orchestra under Gergiev. Alexei Volodin played No 1.

After brief blasts from horns, shrill flutes and cracking timpani, Jian Liu opened the piano part at once with brilliant, startling sounds; it might have astonished Prokofiev himself. A singular piece for 1911, before The Rite of Spring, it still catches the ear, as much by its rhythmic and harmonic adventurism as by its unconventional shape. The programme named its three normal-sounding movements but in reality there are many quite distinct parts – eleven have been listed by some authorities. It’s taxing enough for the orchestra and there were indeed slight missteps between piano and others but the general impact was of startling bravura and accuracy, not only from the pianist, and a keen awareness of the virtues of pushing the boundaries of musical composition.

Rachmaninov’s 3rd symphony has not the same popularity or scholarly respect as the second, partly a result of his need to concentrate on piano performance after leaving Russia following the overthrow of the Empire in 1917. It was written in the mid-1930s, after the Rhapsodie on a theme of Paganini for piano and orchestra; in some ways it’s more radical than might have been expected in the light of the composer’s earlier works. There were moments of ensemble imperfection, but the overall impression was of energy and liveliness, and considerable flamboyance by brass and percussion. I might have exaggerated my feeling that lead to my notes remarking, in the Allegro vivace section of the second movement, that some of the orchestral passages lacked refinement and discretion; were too flamboyant.

In all however, Rachmaninov’s works, like Sibelius’s symphonies and Strauss’s last operas, remained true to his own integrity, imagination and inspiration, and they steadily gain popularity, ignoring dismissal by the more extreme elements of the Darmstadt/Donaueschingen school.

And so, a work like this, that is certainly a masterpiece by one of the early 20th century’s greatest composers, is steadily regaining favour; in spite of perceived structural weaknesses, it generates compelling interest and pleasure, and we were lucky to have heard it under Marc Taddei and Orchestra Wellington in such an enthusiastic and committed performance.

The other event of the concert was Taddei’s announcement of the general theme of the orchestra’s 2021 concert series: “Virtuoso”, with cheap tickets as usual, for those booking early.