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Concerts

Jubilation: Strauss & Shostakovich | Regional News

Jubilation: Strauss & Shostakovich

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: James Judd

Michael Fowler Centre, 30th Jun 2024

Reviewed by: Ruth Corkill

Jubilation presented an eclectic smorgasbord of orchestral music. NZSO music director Emeritus James Judd returned to the conductor’s podium as the evening’s featured artist, and provided friendly and accessible commentary. The concert included two short pieces from young New Zealand composers alongside works by Richard Strauss and Dmitri Shostakovich. As a group these pieces felt incongruous, and I don’t think the programming opened up fruitful conversations between them. That said, the variety and virtuosity on display still made for an enjoyable evening.

The performance opened with Henry Meng’s fleeting Fanfare, which was bitingly concentrated and exuberant. The two-minute work contains plenty of complexity, transitioning rapidly from its domineering brass opening to an expressive oboe melody and back to straining violins. Meng shuns resolution or breathing space in Fanfare to an extreme but exhilarating degree.

This was followed by Strauss’ Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, an orchestral suite adapted from the musical accompaniment to a comedy of the same name, which details the disastrous exploits of a middle-class man who longs to be accepted into the aristocracy. The many soloists couldn’t be faulted, and the light, comedic tone of the work shone through.

After interval we were treated to Sai Natarajan’s We Long for an Adventure. Featuring a playfully jazzy theme interspersed with forceful strings, Natarajan’s composition is a delicious snack that felt more substantial than its four-minute runtime would suggest.

However, the night belonged to Shostakovich’s ninth. Symphony No. 9 in E-flat Major, Op. 70 premiered in 1945 and was received with hostility both in the Soviet Union and by American critics. The work is irreverent to the point of hostility, but still deeply felt. As in the NZSO’s past performances of Shostakovich, the orchestra demonstrated mastery of the heady combination of humour and anguish that drives his compositions. The woodwind section deserves particular praise, with the flutes’ gorgeous molten phrases echoed heartbreakingly by the oboe in the fourth movement.

Tchaikovsky 5 | Regional News

Tchaikovsky 5

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Han-Na Chang

Michael Fowler Centre, 18th May 2024

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

Han-Na Chang showed herself to be a passionate, expressive, and energetic conductor. Born in Korea, Chang was an acclaimed cellist at the age of 11, winning a major international competition before later turning to conducting.

Opening the concert was a new work by New Zealander Leonie Holmes, I watched a shadow. Holmes created a dense, multi-layered soundscape, the swirling texture frequently pierced by higher, sharper, or louder interjections. Inspired by a poem that depicts a shadow climbing and gradually extinguishing the light on a hill, the work ends with a fortissimo climax which Chang exploited to the full.

The second work in the concert was Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote, depicting episodes from the 17th-century novel about the hapless, would-be knight adventurer, and his off-sider Sancho Panza. The solo cello part, played by Andrew Joyce, represented the Don, while Sancho Panza is represented principally by a viola played by Julia Joyce. The work is inventive, energetic, and varied in texture and mood, sometimes dramatic and heroic, sometimes lyrical, and often straight-up hilarious, as when the orchestra becomes a flock of sheep which the deluded hero imagines is an enemy to be attacked. It felt to me that the Don’s musical character got a bit submerged in the riotousness of the orchestral parts. On the other hand, it was great for once to hear a viola in an extended solo part.

Tchaikovsky’s well-loved Symphony No. 5 concluded the performance. A theme, known as the Fate theme, runs through the four movements, with mournful foreboding about fate gradually giving way to a heroic and optimistic acceptance of it. Beautiful melodies abound and there are wonderful opportunities for flute, oboe, bassoon, and horn to shine. Chang’s robust and dramatic interpretation drew the best from the orchestra and engendered wild applause from an appreciative audience.

The Grand Gesture  | Regional News

The Grand Gesture

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 4th May 2024

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

This was a brilliantly designed and executed concert. The theme for The Grand Gesture was to illustrate how composers often go to the music of fellow composers, past and present, for inspiration. In this concert, Stravinsky’s Suite from Pulcinella borrowed from works composed by 18th century Pergolesi, Handel modelled his Concerti Grossi on forms used by his contemporary Corelli, while 20th century Lukas Foss’ Baroque Variations transformed baroque works by Handel, Scarlatti, and Bach.

This borrowing was illustrated by unexpected solo performances of source works at the start of each half of the programme. The soloists, violinist Amalia Hall and harpsichord player Jonathan Berkahn, were spotlit in the darkened hall as they played. Magic!

Pulcinella is an appealing work, full of good rhythms, good tunes, and good humour. Maybe the orchestra was a bit tentative at the start but it was a spirited performance on the whole. There were lots of opportunities for individual instruments to shine, especially in the wind and brass sections.

The soloists for Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins were Amalia Hall and Monique Lapins. It’s an immensely lovely work with the two violins echoing and chasing each other. I also enjoyed the fine basso continuo work of the cellos and double basses. Handel’s grand gesture, Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 12, also featured Hall and Lapins with principal cellist Inbal Megiddo. Again, this was elegantly played with clarity and balance by soloists and orchestra.

Then came Foss’ work! His sources were transformed, so that one heard sometimes just a ghost of the original, with strings bowing some notes silently or playing half phrases completed by other instruments. The effect was like splintered sound in an echo chamber. Foss also marshalled an array of unusual percussion in the last movement. It was wild. Taddei compared it to an old-fashioned acid trip!

When the Cat’s Away | Regional News

When the Cat’s Away

Michael Fowler Centre, 21st Apr 2024

Reviewed by: Graeme King

When the Cat’s Away, featuring Annie Crummer, Debbie Harwood, Dianne Swann, Margaret Urlich, and Kim Willoughby, were a New Zealand vocal supergroup formed in 1986 for fun – only to become one of our most successful bands ever! This concert, mainly including songs by iconic NZ songwriters, was also a celebration of Urlich’s rich musical catalogue.

From the moment When the Cat’s Away walked onto the stage for the first song Outlook for Thursday it was party time, and the almost 2000-strong crowd was in dance mode… who cared if it was Sunday night! What’s the Time Mr Wolf? had us singing loudly and heading into the aisles to boogie.

Original band members Gary Verberne and Brett Adams (guitars), Barbara Griffin (keys), and Mike Russell (trumpet) were ably joined by The Band of Gold – forming a rock-solid platform for the singers.

Sharon O’Neill’s Maxine, featuring a searing sax solo by Nick Atkinson, and Asian Paradise including Harwood’s beautiful clear voice, were early highlights. Boy in the Moon, from the poignant set dedicated to Urlich, was a standout and cleverly segued into The Horses.

The Herbs duo Tama Lundon and Morrie Watene joined the stage to a standing ovation. A set of their greatest hits followed, including Crummer’s gorgeous soaring vocals on her song See What Love Can Do, finishing with E Papa sung a cappella – a highlight showcasing the duo’s rich voices.

Gutter Black took us back into full party mode and Sweet Lovers, featuring lead vocals by ex-Holidaymaker Griffin, was a treat. The pumping Room that Echoes was faultless and another standout.

Let’s Go Crazy featuring blistering guitar by Adams was followed by the Netherworld Dancing Toys’ For Today – again featuring Crummer’s sublime vocals. Melting Pot had most of the crowd singing in unison to finish the set. But the party wasn’t over yet.

The first encore Free Ride had everyone either standing up at their seats, in the aisles, or in front of the stage! I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll finished the night on a high. After 30 songs and almost two and a half hours of non-stop partying, Crummer bade the crowd goodnight with “Thank you everybody and God bless. I’ll see you at PAK’nSAVE!”

Mahler 5  | Regional News

Mahler 5

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Gemma New

Michael Fowler Centre, 5th Apr 2024

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

Conductor Gemma New was on fire throughout this performance and she drew an impassioned response from the orchestra, soloist, and audience. 

Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 was the major work of the concert. Two works preceded it which, in contrast to Mahler’s abstract music, had a concept to convey. Salina Fisher’s Kintsugi was beautifully evocative of the Japanese practice of using melted gold to reassemble broken pottery. Fisher has stated that for her, “Kintsugi is a metaphor for embracing brokenness and imperfection as a source of strength.” The gold shimmered while limpid and singular sounds shot through the denser orchestration.

Losing Earth, a percussion concerto by American composer Adam Schoenberg, sought to raise awareness of climate threats. Particularly dramatic were the drum rolls from all corners of the auditorium and the sudden silences intended to force focus on the threats. It was not all noisy: Schoenberg also magicked up a great translucent watery world to highlight sea-level rise. The soloist was the extraordinarily rhythmic Jacob Nissly from the San Francisco Symphony, who displayed such athleticism as he moved around his array of instruments and such co-ordination to simultaneously wield drum mallets on one instrument while his foot operated another. The audience loved it.

But it was, in the end, the Mahler symphony that really electrified the audience. Profound sadness and mourning, chaos and frenzy eventually gave way to serenity, love, and merriment. This symphony is always wonderful for its depth and range of feeling, but truly I think this was an exceptional performance. One has to acknowledge the horn and trumpet players for their delivery of some of the most dramatic moments, but the intensity of the whole orchestra’s playing throughout was even more striking. New’s interpretation of the work and her ability to draw the shape and passion she wanted from NZSO players were exceptional.

Songbirds | Regional News

Songbirds

Presented by: The King’s Singers

Michael Fowler Centre, 13th Mar 2024

Reviewed by: Tanya Piejus

UK-based male sextet The King's Singers have represented the gold standard in a cappella singing on the world's greatest stages for over 50 years. They are renowned for their unrivalled technique, versatility, and skill in performance, and for their consummate musicianship, drawing on the group's rich heritage and its pioneering spirit to create a wealth of original works and unique collaborations.

Following an impeccably pronounced reo Māori greeting, the concert programme celebrates compositions ancient and modern by, or inspired by, songbirds avian and human. It kicks off appropriately with a delicious rendition of Songbird by Fleetwood Mac.

Cleanly swooping from The Beatles’ Blackbird to a Canadian folk song called She’s Like the Swallow, they flutter onto a quirky Australian piece called Cuckoo in the Pear Tree, Schubert, Ravel, French and Italian madrigals, and an entertaining French song called Le Chant des Oiseaux in which the composer “crammed in as many silly bird noises as he could”. This last number elicits a sly miaow from an audience member during the applause. They finish the first half with a charming song written for the group in 1972 based on a German folk story about a donkey, dog, cat, and chicken going to a singing competition in Bremen.

The second half kicks off with three stunning numbers from Disney films. The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond is followed by This Little Light of Mine, which I heard just two weeks ago on the same stage sung completely differently. Two Paul Simon songs, a gorgeous piece called Father, Father by Laura Mvula, and a George Gershwin classic round out the second half. They made me even happier by coming back for an encore of And So It Goes by Billy Joel. All of this was delivered under beautifully lit and sparkling chandeliers.

By the end of the concert, I felt like I’d had a quart of Bailey’s poured into my ears and it doesn’t get much better than that on a Wednesday night.

Beyond Words | Regional News

Beyond Words

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Fawzi Haimor

Michael Fowler Centre, 9th Mar 2024

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

The attacks on worshippers at the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre on the 15th of March 2019 left a permanent mark on New Zealand. Over the last two years, Muslim communities around Aotearoa have provided guidance and support for this anniversary concert.

Umoja Anthem of Unity, by Valerie Coleman, set the theme – promoting peace and unity through music, deliberately intertwining Western and Eastern musical traditions. Singer Abdelilah Rharrabti, vocalist and daf (drum) musician Esmail Fathi, and saz (Turkish long-necked lute) player Liam Oliver from Ōtautahi Christchurch’s Simurgh Music School were accompanied by the orchestra, somewhat in the form of a concerto. The Eastern tonal structure was strong and the men’s voices were powerfully reminiscent of the grief and trauma suffered in 2019 and since.

Moroccan artist Oum, known for her modern take on traditional sounds, gave a strong vocal performance in Daba, that strength made greater in the way her solo voice faded at the finish.

Reza Vali’s Funèbre for solo violin and strings was a standout, emotional, gut-wrenching experience. NZSO concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppänen’s versatility and musicality brought a voice from his violin that echoed the voices heard earlier.

In Mantilatos, Kyriakos Tapakis showed us how a virtuoso plays his oud, how impressive it sounds, and how hard his fingers worked as the last bars raced along at breakneck pace.

Arvo Pärt’s Silouan’s Song was beautifully and confidently played and lifted to another level by conductor Fawzi Haimor’s skilful use of silence in the pauses.

The final piece, Ahlan wa Sahlan, commissioned from John Psathas and composed in collaboration with Oum and Tapakis, was about belonging and being safe with the people you know. The five movements traversed cultures and emotions, Oum’s vocals and Tapakis’ oud above the orchestra, reminding us of language and music still not always familiar to Western ears, and that we must continue to learn from the 15th of March.

Queens of the Stone Age: The End Is Nero Tour | Regional News

Queens of the Stone Age: The End Is Nero Tour

TSB Arena, 1st Mar 2024

Reviewed by: Graeme King

A capacity crowd including many decades-long fans paid Homme-age to Josh and the band at an extremely hot TSB Arena. Queens of the Stone Age’s world tour supports their acclaimed eighth studio album In Times New Roman, but with an extensive catalogue spanning nearly 30 years, only five new songs out of a total of 19 were played. 

The soothing background music was in stark contrast to the band’s concert opener Regular John, featuring the blistering guitars of Josh Homme, longtime bandmate Troy Van Leeuwen, and keyboardist/guitarist Dean Fertita. The rocking No One Knows followed and had the crowd pumped and trying to sing the roof off! 

The highly interactive Homme had his adoring fans in the palm of his hand with a good-humoured call-and-response of “F… You” – offending no-one in this audience. Emotion Sickness, featuring Michael Shuman’s slick bass and gorgeous falsetto harmonies with Van Leeuwen, had the crowd clapping in time to the acapella chorus. 

Despite the occasional cigarette on stage, Homme’s vocals were impressive in range and quality! Time & Place had the band joyously jumping and dancing around the stage. Homme was mesmerising, at times just focusing on his vocal performance with his arms waving in the air, at others staggering around the stage playing searing guitar solos. A frontman at the top of his game, he gave special praise to monster drummer Jon Theodore, whom he said was “puking his guts out with food poisoning yesterday!” 

Make It Wit Chu, with the crowd singing the chorus, and Homme’s effortless falsetto segueing into The Rolling Stones’ Miss You, was a highlight – but this was a concert of too many highs, and songs, to mention.

Little Sister finished the set, but the raucous crowd wasn’t finished yet. Encores Go With The Flow and the haunting Song For The Dead, featuring a thunderous drum solo, closed the show.

The triangle-shaped lighting rig encompassing the band on stage was visually stunning, and the sound balance also impressive. The End Is Nero Tour? Simply superb.

Hope | Regional News

Hope

Presented by: Soweto Gospel Choir

Michael Fowler Centre, 28th Feb 2023

Reviewed by: Tanya Piejus

Wellington was gifted a rare appearance in our part of the world of the Soweto Gospel Choir as part of the Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Arts. Formed to celebrate the unique and inspirational power of African gospel music, the choir draws on the best talent from the many churches in and around Soweto, Johannesburg. They are dedicated to sharing the joy of faith through music with people across the world and have received critical acclaim and audience adoration for their powerful renditions of African American spirituals, gospel, and folk music.

Hope is an all-new concert by the three-time GRAMMY®-winning choir celebrating songs and anthems from the Freedom movement of Nelson Mandela’s South Africa and the Civil Rights Movement of Martin Luther King’s 1950s America.

It opens with a rousing programme of South African freedom songs. As effervescent choirmaster Shimmy Jiyane says at the start, we may not understand the words being sung in 12 Indigenous languages, but we certainly understand the feeling. The 15-strong choir pours their bodies and souls into every song with energetic, high-kicking dance moves, expressive faces and voices, and pinpoint harmonies. They’re gamely supported by keys (Diniloxolo Ndlakuse) and percussion (Sipho Ngcamu), including an impressive set of drums.

The first half ends with a vibrant part-English, part-African song dedicated to Nelson Mandela and the final harmony on a drawn-out “Madiba” sends shivers down my spine. It’s a stunning segue into the second half, sung mostly in English, with beautiful renditions of the protest music of the Civil Rights Movement, including works by James Brown, Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder, and Aretha Franklin. However, it’s their creative reimagining of Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush’s duet Don’t Give Up that is the highlight for me with its African chants and rhythms overlaying the pop.

A massively deserved standing ovation accompanied the sublime final singalong of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, complete with waving phone torches. I left the venue ecstatic and just a bit teary from sheer joy of it all.

Music of John Williams | Regional News

Music of John Williams

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Gemma New

Michael Fowler Centre, 17th Nov 2023

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

Although I am in the tiny minority of my generation who have somehow never seen the film, it says much about John Williams’ music that the opening piece, Adventures on Earth from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, was immediately recognisable to me. It was played with gusto and the smiles on the faces of the orchestra immediately engaged the attentive full house.

At first glance the programme was predominantly film soundtracks, and it would have been easy to overlook the Violin Concerto No. 2 (New Zealand premiere) tucked between E.T. and the interval. However, it was utterly impossible to ignore a single note of the spectacular performance we were lucky enough to hear next.

Anne-Sophie Mutter is a renowned violinist with a long career and, aged only 60, many years ahead of her. Mutter commissioned the Violin Concerto No. 2 from Williams and, in what must be a reflection of his respect and admiration for her talent and skill, it is technically hugely demanding, with achingly beautiful passages, fearsome cadenzas, and plenty of drama and atmosphere.

Mutter showed complete ease, total confidence, and absolute commitment to the music. Famed for her technique, she augmented and varied her tone brilliantly. The balance with the orchestra was perfect. New brought in the orchestra imperceptibly and with such cohesion it was impossible to tell sometimes where violin stopped and orchestra started.

The second half was all cinema with tracks from Hook, The Adventures of Tintin, Cinderella, Harry Potter, and Star Wars. Williams can extract such extraordinary sounds from the orchestra, there were reminders music accompanied movies long before electronic sounds and effects. We were also treated to three additional film tracks Williams had arranged for violin. Mutter dedicated the theme from Schindler’s List to all those suffering in the world through war, reminding us how fortunate we are to be able to find escapism in music and film.

Wozzeck | Regional News

Wozzeck

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 11th Nov 2023

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

Discordant, atonal, brutal, distressing? Yes! Wonderful? Yes!

Wozzeck is about an ordinary but vulnerable man, a soldier, whose self unravels as he sees horrible visions and faces poverty, exploitation, and humiliation. He struggles to provide for his child and wife, Marie, and he encounters every day the disdain of his so-called superiors, his fellow soldiers, and his wife and her lover. It is Marie’s tragedy too: she loves and fears for her child and is eventually killed by Wozzeck before he drowns himself. We know the child will suffer.

Wozzeck, written during and after World War I in which its composer Alban Berg was himself a soldier, is in three acts with five scenes in each, each separated by a short orchestral interlude. The orchestra was only 39 strong and while cacophonous at times, it did not overwhelm the singers. The instruments were often used in small combinations. Their parts brilliantly underlined the emotional state of the singers.

The opera was presented semi-staged and, thankfully, with English surtitles. Perhaps inevitably, the performance seemed to me rather better musically than it was dramatically. All six main soloists, each an artist of international standing, were excellent. Madeleine Pierard has the most wonderful spun tone. Julien Van Mellaerts’ voice was smooth, secure, and expressive. American Corey Bix as the condescending Captain and Paul Whelan as the pretentious Doctor not only contributed strong vocal performances, but injected some rare humour into this tragic tale. Jason Collins as the ‘other man’ was equally strong. The Tudor Consort provided excellent chorus voices.

The work may have frightened some of the usual Orchestra Wellington patrons off. It was a bold decision to perform it. It cannot be an easy work for soloists, chorus, or orchestra. Orchestra Wellington is to be congratulated for programming Wozzeck and all performers for pulling it off so successfully.

Poem of Ecstasy | Regional News

Poem of Ecstasy

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Gemma New

Michael Fowler Centre, 28th Oct 2023

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

Kenneth Young describes his Dance as “a celebration of love and life”. It was glorious and exuberant, and it reminded me of the character dances seen in classical ballet, which took me to a memory of Sir Jon Trimmer on stage in one of the character parts he danced later in his career. Trimmer, who had died only two days earlier, was a neighbour and much-loved member of our community and it was lovely to have a memory of him sparked in that way.

From the joy of dance to Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, the mood remained high. If ecstasy comes from bringing together a huge number of musicians, a thoroughly mixed assortment of harmony, rhythm, tempo, volume, and orchestration in a way that pushed boundaries in 1908 and sounded as if it is still on the edge more than 100 years later, then this was it. Learning Scriabin was synaesthetic made sense of the music. If sound was colour for me, I imagine I would also want to celebrate that with noise and complexity.

Principal flautist Bridget Douglas, elevated behind the orchestra, under a single spotlight, played Debussy’s modern interpretation of an ancient Greek story, Syrinx. Douglas is an amazing musician and audience favourite. We were captivated. Conductor Gemma New had earlier asked us not to applaud but to allow the mood to carry into Sibelius’ Luonnotar. The strings set off at urgent pace before soprano Madeleine Pierard started to sing her narrative of the Finnish creation story. A demanding piece by all accounts but absolutely no trouble for Pierard. Her voice is stunning, and she made apparently light work of the difficult leaps and incredible range.

The evening finished as it had started, with a stage full of musicians expertly led by an expressive and expansive conductor. Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2 gave New the opportunity to have the last dance.

Pharaoh | Regional News

Pharaoh

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 7th Oct 2023

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

Marc Taddei, in his pre-concert talk, called this concert a variety show. Despite his programming being less coherent than usual and almost too full, the concert contained wonderful works and great performances.

The night belonged to John Psathas, now at the end of four years as Orchestra Wellington’s Composer-in-Residence. The performance of his Pharaoh Concerto for Solo Timpani and Orchestra was a fitting celebration. The work is fierce, pregnant with impending menace, a comment on our troubled world and “human gods who live above the law”, to quote Psathas. Soloist Tomomi Nozaki from Japan was stunningly virtuosic, wielding her mallets across five timpani constantly, a whirl of movement and rhythm that was amazing both to hear and see.

Briar Prastiti, a singer-songwriter whom Psathas mentors, arranged her song White, Red, Black for voice and orchestra. The orchestration was lush and arresting and Prastiti’s voice strong and attractive. Full appreciation of the work was hampered, alas, by the words not being able to be heard distinctly; a question of singer/orchestra balance, I think.

The orchestra opened the concert with a satisfying performance of Anton Webern’s Passacaglia. They made the most of the lush and sensual full-orchestra sections and the beautifully transparent sections where small numbers of players played quasi-chamber music. 

The Orpheus Choir and Orchestra Wellington, in another great partnership, presented Mozart’s early work Thamos, King of Egypt. Written as incidental music to a play, it is little known because of the play’s convoluted and incoherent plot. The orchestral interludes were wonderfully Mozartian in operatic mode. The choruses were delivered with a fine range of dynamics and precise singing.

And opening the concert, the annual appearance of the Arohanui Strings, young (some very young) Wellington musicians, charmed the audience. They played Manta by Gemma Peacocke, which wonderfully evoked the movement of manta rays. The cellists caught my eye: the young ones confidently matching the professionals, bow stroke by bow stroke.  

The Lives and Times of Tim Finn | Regional News

The Lives and Times of Tim Finn

Michael Fowler Centre, 21st Sep 2023

Reviewed by: Graeme King

The six-piece band started and a dapper Tim Finn sauntered onto the stage, seemingly tripping over a power cord and causing complete silence and darkness for a few seconds. “Whoops, that was My Mistake!” he said to laughter before launching into the song. Next I See Red, with the near-capacity crowd clapping already, featured a frantic piano solo by keyboardist Niall Anderson.

Stuff And Nonsense featured gorgeous vocals by Finn’s daughter Elliot, and beautiful flute by Carlo Barbaro. Poor Boy followed, and Finn seemed delighted that earlier that day, his driver told him he “played Poor Boy 24/7 back in the day”.

Finn wrote Nobody Takes Me Seriously thinking about the 22 jobs he had in his early twenties. “Split Enz was formed, really, by boring jobs and daydreaming.” For I Hope I Never, he switched to grand piano, his wavering voice on the high notes perhaps due to the emotion of this beautiful song.

Ghost Girl featured Tony Buchen’s warm bass guitar tones, while Six Months In A Leaky Boat had a piccolo solo by Buchen! The crowd rocked in their chairs to Anderson’s funky synth playing in Dirty Creature, which Finn wrote during a dark time in his life.

Fraction Too Much Friction featured the reggae-tinged drumming of Carlos Adura followed by the powerful Made My Day, with the band a tight cohesive unit. Next, Persuasion, with a tasty guitar solo by Brett Adams. Finn said he added lyrics to Richard Thompson’s beautiful guitar melody – basically writing the song together (long distance) by fax! 

Chocolate Cake featured a surprising harmonica solo by Buchen and impressive synchronised dancing from the entire band, with Adura standing up and dancing while playing the drums! A slow intro of It’s Only Natural segued into a rousing version, followed by the set’s final singalong Weather With You.

The first encore, Charlie, had a sultry sax solo from Barbaro. The crowd danced rapturously to Hard Act To Follow and gave Staring At The Embers a standing ovation. It was obvious how much everyone enjoyed seeing a national musical icon, together with a very talented band, playing classic songs in what is surely Wellington’s best music venue.

Bernstein & Copland: Til time shall end | Regional News

Bernstein & Copland: Til time shall end

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Giancarlo Guerrero

Michael Fowler Centre, 1st Sep 2023

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

Although I couldn’t properly define it, my head and heart knew we had been listening to American classical music. While their names are very familiar, my knowledge of Leonard Bernstein’s compositions extends to West Side Story and Aaron Copland’s to Fanfare for the Common Man.

Both were leading composers of mid-20th century America. Copland was particularly influenced by folk traditions and Bernstein by jazz, and they came after a more experimental style. This made the introductory piece by New Zealander Eve de Castro-Robinson, Len Dances, quite the right fit. A sonic interpretation of Len Lye’s famous kinetic sculptures, the bells and whistles and inventive instrumentation readily evoked both visual and performing artforms for the listener.

Another clever use of one artform to tell us about another, Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 The Age of Anxiety was filled with the sense of the W. H. Auden poem, The Age of Anxiety, which inspired it. Pianist Joyce Yang’s phenomenal technique, Bernstein’s skill in composition, and Guerrero’s orchestral direction came together perfectly. Written neither as a concerto for piano and orchestra nor a symphony in the more orthodox European style, The Age of Anxiety was so beautifully played by Yang, the anxiety and tension were palpable and breathtaking.

Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3 is his best known and a big piece of work in every sense. Written at the end of World War II, Copland traverses the mood of the time, gentle contemplation matched with joy and bright celebration. Magnificent contrasts of tone and volume were played with gusto by brass and percussion in particular, while piercingly high notes from violins and piccolo sliced through the gentler sections. Fragments of the theme from his Fanfare for the Common Man are glimpsed throughout until it appears as the main theme in the fourth movement and a glorious finale greatly enjoyed by orchestra and audience alike.

Bluebeard’s Castle  | Regional News

Bluebeard’s Castle

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and NZ Opera

Conducted by: Lawrence Renes

Michael Fowler Centre, 13th Aug 2023

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

In my concert experience this year, I can’t imagine that anything will eclipse this performance of Bartók’s opera, Bluebeard’s Castle.

The work calls for a large orchestra stacked with percussion, brass, woodwind, and fewer strings than one might have expected, and two singers, a dramatic soprano and a dramatic baritone. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra was on fire throughout the performance with immaculate, precise but emotional and intense playing. Lester Lynch from the United States was Bluebeard and Susan Bullock from England was his wife, Judith. Both had glorious, unforced, effortless voices. Unlike much romantic and dramatic opera, their parts were not florid or ornamented. The rhythms were speech-like and their diction was excellent. Bartók’s orchestration is extremely well matched to what is happening on the stage and to the ebb and flow of the feelings of the characters. The conductor did a superb job of uniting the performance.

While the music performed was as composed, the tale was not. The original interpretation of a fable is a ghastly tale of a woman in love with a man about whom horrible rumours abound. Nevertheless, she demands that he releases to her the secrets of his life. Her entry into his castle ends with her discovering his three dead wives, whom she joins.

This production, however, is an astonishing and powerful reinterpretation of the story, recast by the UK-based Theatre of Sound to centre on a loving couple whose lives disintegrate when Judith is affected by dementia. Surprisingly, the original libretto fits the new scenario convincingly. The audience sees and feels the memories, the love and tenderness, the frustration, loneliness, fear, and anguish the couple experiences. The acting was strong, sensitive, and subtle and the effect compelling and harrowing.

Altogether this was an outstandingly rewarding performance, musically, dramatically, and emotionally.

Prophecy | Regional News

Prophecy

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 5th Aug 2023

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

Three varied and striking 20th century works, early compositions by young Englishmen, featured in this concert. As conductor Marc Taddei pointed out, they were a riposte to the recent, wonderful all-German concert.

A prophecy forecasting his death was delivered to Belshazzar, the king of Babylon, after blaspheming against the God of Israel. The narrative of William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast was unfolded by Orchestra Wellington, a 28-strong Wellington Brass Band, the Orpheus Choir, and baritone soloist Benson Wilson. It was a dramatic, fast-moving, and very loud tale that kept the audience rapt. The stars, I thought, were the choir. Whether singing over the top of large instrumental resources, or unaccompanied, they negotiated tricky harmonies and a range of dynamics with assurance and sensitivity. The well-prepared brass band added colour and depth. Wilson’s voice is smooth and rich but a bit lacking in drama, perhaps, for the part.

The grief of a passionate pacifist in the face of WWII is the essential quality of Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto. The solo part is fiendishly difficult in speed, dynamics, and fingering and bowing techniques. This is an austerely beautiful work. Both orchestra and soloist Amalia Hall delivered technically, musically, and emotionally.

Thomas Adès’ first orchestral work …but all shall be well is a curious work exploring meandering musical lines within a somewhat fuzzy and subtle soundscape without significant climaxes. It is just as well that it opened the programme, or it might have been overwhelmed by the power of the other works.

Briar Prastiti, a young woman of mixed Kiwi and Greek heritage, was commissioned to write a work for Orchestra Wellington. Ákri is an exciting debut orchestral work that conveys the dilemmas of being on the edge (ákri) of two cultures. It is all of sweet, moody, bold, delicate, soaring, and dramatic. Congratulations to Orchestra Wellington for their initiative, and for another compelling performance.

 

Beethoven 5  | Regional News

Beethoven 5

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: André de Ridder

Michael Fowler Centre, 30th Jul 2023

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

Da-da-da-dum. Da-da-da-dum. This famous start to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is often played portentously, seen as “fate knocking at the door.” In this performance it was over in a flash, signalling that this was to be a very high-energy version of the symphony. The rhythm of the motif is continually integrated throughout the first movement. It underlies or breaks into quieter passages of lyrical music which seem to wish to console the listener, only to be taken over by another strong and urgent climax.

In more subtle form, the motif continues through the other movements. The second and third movements are more lyrical but still punctuated by dramatic sections using the full resources of the orchestra. I feel like I hold my breath through these movements. Though quieter than the first, for me they have a suspense about them which is only resolved with the exuberant sense of triumph of the last movement.

At the same time as he was writing the Fifth Symphony, Beethoven was writing the Coriolan Overture. It also is a dramatic work with typical big contrasts of pace and power. It tells of Coriolanus, the Roman general who planned to punish his own people and sack Rome. His mother beseeches him to give away his terrible plans. The music beautifully contrasts his heroic and ruthless character with her gentle maternal entreaties. The work ends with his suicide.

Commissioned for Beethoven’s 250th anniversary, subito con forza by Korean Unsuk Chin completed the programme. Its opening copies the Coriolan Overture’s and then reflects an aspect of Beethoven which Unsuk Chin particularly likes: “the enormous contrasts from volcanic eruptions to extreme sensitivity”. The words beautifully sum up the concert.

I’d think that Maestro André de Ridder is a wonderfully dynamic and demanding conductor to work under. The ever-good NZSO was in especially excellent form.

Marsalis: Blues Symphony | Regional News

Marsalis: Blues Symphony

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: André de Ridder

Michael Fowler Centre, 29th July 2023

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

While not generally a fan of jazz, I thoroughly enjoyed the jazz idioms of this concert. From the enthusiastic applause throughout, I’d say the whole audience absolutely loved it.

The concert evidenced an attempt by American composers over many years to achieve some integration of the spontaneity and soundscapes of traditional American jazz and blues music with classical forms. The concert opened with Bryce Dessner’s 2020 work Mari, followed by George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and Wynton Marsalis’ Blues Symphony (2009).

Mari (Mari being the Basque forest goddess) was notable for its textures and sonic washes punctuated by small bites of more distinct sound, the whole evoking a forest, peaceful but teeming with buzzing, budding life. Rhapsody in Blue starts with a stunning glissando on the clarinet, which is then joined by trombone, horns, strings, and saxophone before the piano makes its entry. These beginnings are magical and the magic never stops. The music is, by turns, teasing, marching, thundering, lyrical, luscious, and spunky. It is irresistible. The piano soloist was Australian Simon Tedeschi, romantic, nonchalant, and virtuosic to suit the moment.

The Blues Symphony is something else again. It is huge: seven movements, an hour long, and alive every minute. It traverses several aspects of American music – jazz, blues, rag, and Latin dance. Horns, trumpets with wah-wah mutes, bassoons, saxophones, clarinets, and a variety of percussion, including hand clapping, provided much of the colour and drama. The strings were less dominant than in most classical compositions, but the double basses were in the thick of it and looked like they were having a ball.

André de Ridder was vigorous, emphatic, and expressive in his conducting, and a joy to watch as he danced his way through the programme. He could be well pleased with the orchestra’s performance.

Become Ocean | Regional News

Become Ocean

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: André de Ridder

Michael Fowler Centre, 28th Jul 2023

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

The opening notes of Tōru Takemitsu’s Rain Tree ringing delicately through the blue light bathing the stage set the scene for a beautiful and evocative programme. The tuned bells, each allowed to resonate in response to each other, signalled the moment rain began to fall. The bells gradually gave way to marimba, xylophone, and vibraphone, sometimes solo, otherwise in combination, suggesting the different patterns and sounds of rainfall on leaves, or creating ripples in a pond, or a more intense shower hitting the ground. Under changing lighting effects, the three percussionists had the stage to themselves yet filled the auditorium with highly picturesque sound.

Continuing the visual element of the concert, conductor André de Ridder described John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean as “an art sound installation with an orchestra”. de Ridder explained the orchestra was organised, more strictly than is usual, into three distinct sonic groups. Firstly, the strings, augmented with four harps, piano and celeste, then woodwind, and lastly the brass, the density of the sound they would produce being essential for the composer’s intentions.

While the work itself is highly structured, the impression on the listener was much closer to the experience promised in the title. The layers of music surrounded us with waves growing and breaking, a strong undertow and incredibly deep water, ripples on the surface, light moving across the distant view, conflicting energy where currents run in different directions, the rise of the waves before they break, and the rolling, barely restrained energy of a deep ocean swell.

They say we all associate with one of the elements. I think those of us who are water people were truly at home in this piece. It was an immersive and all-consuming experience. The mathematical precision of the composition perhaps evidence of the theory that all things in nature, including the sea, have an order we can describe in art.

Colours  | Regional News

Colours

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 22nd Jul 2023

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

Compelling programming, three superb soloists, a committed orchestra, and a dedicated conductor made this an outstanding concert.

A quasi-piano concerto in Richard Strauss’ Burleske, a quasi-symphony in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, and a work so outrageous in 1912 that people hissed its debut, Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, made up the programme. Jian Liu was the soloist in Burleske, while Oliver Sewell and Hadleigh Adams were the tenor and baritone soloists respectively in Mahler’s song cycle.

Burleske was written by Strauss at the age of 20. It is an exuberant, one-movement work, hugely challenging for the soloist. Throughout there was a bit of a dialogue between the piano and, of all things, the timpani. Several times, the work seemed to reach an extravagant finale, only to have the timpani intervene and set the piano off again. The timpani had the last word, as it had the first. Liu’s restrained and modest presentation belied the magic of his hands and fingers. Liu presented a solo encore which was as delicate and introspective as Burleske was sparkling and virtuosic.

Schoenberg’s short pieces sparkled in a different way. It feels nervous, unsettled, and unexpected, with instrumentation choices creating varied textures and timbre, complex soundscapes, and different moods. Tuneful it is not, and the effects are most often fleeting and splintered. Orchestra Wellington got into it with gusto, and it was certainly no hissing matter.

Das Lied von der Erde is a supremely emotional work, addressing Mahler’s concerns with nature and mortality. This work also demands much of its soloists. Sewell was sometimes drowned by the fullness of the orchestra, but the quality of his voice and interpretation was never in doubt. Adams brought great emotionality to his performance, and in the final movement, Der Abschied (The Farewell), his performance was intense and very moving.

Enigma | Regional News

Enigma

Presented by: NZSO National Youth Orchestra

Conducted by: Giancarlo Guerrero

Michael Fowler Centre, 30th Jun 2023

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

Members of the NZSO National Youth Orchestra (NYO) meet each other once a year for a full week of rehearsals before they perform together. It sounds a little like cramming before a test, but the skills and musicianship demonstrated by these remarkable young people were the product of much more than a term’s worth of work.

The NYO had what must have been the absolute pleasure of working with a conductor whose sheer delight in the experience was evident to all of us in his energy and empathy. Giancarlo Guerrero’s directing style seems perfect for young musicians in particular. It is dynamic, energetic, dramatic, and empathetic all at once.

This was a demanding programme. In the convergence of oceans by Nathaniel Otley (2023 NYO composer-in-residence), the orchestra was immediately and literally in deep water. At times more an acoustic experience than conventional musical composition, the use of found percussion instruments added particular interest. This piece would have presented new challenges for some of the young musicians, but they were very comfortable with their debut.

Aaron Copland was the American composer in the show. We heard his Billy the Kid: Suite and it was every bit as evocative as the title suggests. The orchestra did an excellent job bringing to life Guerrero’s version of a young man’s action-filled life.

The finale, Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma) is a crowd pleaser, well known and difficult to make special. However, Guerrero’s interpretation and direction to the NYO produced an uplifting and exciting performance. It really felt like something new, which is no mean feat when you consider it was written by an Englishman over 100 years ago.

The 80 or so musicians who journeyed with us from the deep ocean to the open prairie and then to the English countryside proved their versatility and talent. The future of orchestral music is safe in their hands.

Myth and Ritual | Regional News

Myth and Ritual

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 3rd Jun 2023

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

In both his pre-concert talk and within the concert, conductor Marc Taddei spoke of the arts gaining strength through collaboration across artforms.

Arjuna Oakes, a young singer-songwriter and his mentor, John Psathas, collaborated in the composition and performance of Safe Way to Fall, a short song for voice, piano, and orchestra. It was a deeply personal song. Oakes’ expressive performance and lovely voice, miked as befitted the genre, was well received by the audience which, unsurprisingly, included more young people than usual.

The performance of Béla Bartók’s ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin, was a collaboration involving both the Orpheus Choir and BalletCollective Aotearoa. While Taddei could have performed a concert version, he chose to include dancers and present the complete work. The dancing told a horrific story of sexual exploitation and violence extremely well. Alas, for me, the music became mere backdrop to the visual dance. Bartók described the music as “hellish” and “pandemonium”, but even so, I could not pay it much attention.

Also performed was Psathas’ saxophone concerto, Zahara, placing another story of brutality and endurance in the desert. The soloist, Valentine Michaud, won the hearts of the audience before she played a note, with a beautiful, billowing, desert-hot red-pink-orange gown. Using tenor and soprano saxophones, Michaud produced an astonishing range of colour: throaty, drone-like, screeching, quiet, full, and rich. The work evoked a still, hot, empty desert – a desert of mirages, dust devils, and danger – and men trudging through this unmerciful environment. 

It was a night for horrific stories. The concert began with Salome: Dance of the Seven Veils by Richard Strauss. Such exotic and seductive music produced by the string section and by the harp, flute, and clarinet! And such drama and import provided by brass and percussion sections! This was a very satisfying performance of a powerful work.

10cc – The Ultimate Greatest Hits Tour 2023 | Regional News

10cc – The Ultimate Greatest Hits Tour 2023

The Opera House, 2nd June 2023

Reviewed by: Graeme King

Pre-tour, Graham Gouldman – original band member/leader, vocalist, bassist, and guitarist – said that 10cc’s “main strength is the songs. Hit after hit after hit. It’s relentless. We show no mercy”. This was proven to a full Wellington Opera House. Joining Gouldman were Rick Fenn (lead guitar, bass, vocals), Paul Burgess (drums, percussion, keyboards), Keith Hayman (keyboards, vocals, guitar, bass), and Iain Hornal (vocals, keyboards, guitar, bass, mandolin, percussion) – five very talented multi-instrumentalists and singers. 

The pre-concert intro Son Of Man got me suitably hyped-up. The Second Sitting For The Last Supper was an energetic start on a stage bathed in a swarth of gorgeous hues of red and blue lighting. Hornal had some distracting minor technical issues initially, but neither his nor the band’s performance suffered, and the sound was impressive overall.

After Good Morning Judge, Fenn said “Wellington is a very special place for me, my dad was born here” to loud applause.

The Dean And I was followed by Old Wild Men, featuring a beautiful guitar interplay/duel between Fenn and Hornal. The Wall Street Shuffle came before Floating in Heaven, written last year by Brian May (Queen) and Gouldman. Fenn’s delicate but searing slide guitar did the song justice.

The popular The Things We Do For Love preceded the recent Hornal and Gouldman composition Say The Word. Then it was the pre-recorded intros for I’m Mandy Fly Me and the crowd favourite I’m Not In Love, featuring sublime four-part harmonies. Dreadlock Holiday, with the crowd singing enthusiastically, finished the set.

The first encore was an a cappella doo-wop version of 10cc’s first hit single Donna, with the band in a circle and featuring Hornal’s stunning falsetto voice, finished with an off-key note by non-singer Burgess to everyone’s amusement! Rubber Bullets had some of the audience out of their seats and dancing up a storm to end the evening.

Support act Hello Sailor, in “stripped-back unplugged mode”, were in fine form covering all their hits. Featuring original members Harry Lyon and Rick Ball, with Paul Woolright and Jimmy Taylor, this was a well-oiled machine. 

Emperor | Regional News

Emperor

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Eduardo Strausser

Michael Fowler Centre, 11th May 2023

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

Cento by Ross Harris is a very clever exercise in musical collage. Taking quotes from other composers’ works, Harris has skillfully overlaid and overlapped familiar and unfamiliar phrases into something new and exciting to listen to. Just when ears and brain had tuned into a recognisable moment, the orchestra was already on to the next. An appetiser for the ears, Cento prepared the audience well for what came next.

What followed was truly wonderful. Paul Lewis played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major impeccably. Musicians surely feel the same adrenaline high as athletes, and from the opening virtuosic runs, we knew Lewis was fully immersed in the music, relaxed and joyous, well past flow state and at peak performance. The audience absorbed and reflected the energy. The feeling was of being part of a unique and special combination of time, place, and people. Lewis is a magical pianist, giving us a performance of something very familiar but making it entirely original.

His performance was immaculate, always enough and never too much. The overall performance was delivered with a genius lightness of touch. Strausser ensured the whole was far greater than the sum of its parts; the orchestra met the piano on exactly the right level, always enough, never too much.

Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C Major is a series of complex and varying styles. The orchestra, led by the skillful and nimble Strausser, tackled the contradictory piece with their usual high levels of skill and musicianship. The trombones relished their unusual moment to shine in the first movement’s opening fanfares. The violins also deserve a special mention for their incredible, lightning-fast fingers in the second movement. The third movement was sensitively played, a welcome relief from the agitation of the opening movements. Although Schumann said the work reminded him of a dark time, the magnificent timpani solo brought joy to the finale.

Bloch & Shostakovich: Enduring Spirit | Regional News

Bloch & Shostakovich: Enduring Spirit

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Sir Donald Runnicles

Michael Fowler Centre, 28th Apr 2023

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

The NZSO has wanted to bring Sir Donald Runnicles to New Zealand for some time. The disrupted last couple of years were worth the wait. Runnicles is vastly experienced and highly regarded, and the same can be said of cello soloist Nicolas Altstaedt. The evening also marked a celebration for principal contrabassoonist David Angus, retiring after 41 years.

It’s rather lovely for an audience to be welcomed in person by the conductor and star soloist. Runnicles put the programme in context for us, explaining some of what lies behind each work. The orchestra was bursting with energy, firepower, and passion by the time we reached the final piece, Symphony No. 10 in E minor by Dmitri Shostakovich. We got there by way of Ernest Bloch’s personal and political expression of his Jewishness, and the gentle and beautiful Musica Celestis by Aaron Jay Kernis. Written for string orchestra and inspired by the idea of angels singing in heaven, the overwhelming feeling was of being surrounded by waves of perfectly executed, languid harmony and melody.

The anguish of Solomon, resisting the world’s earthly pleasures, is expressed through the solo cello in Bloch’s Schelomo. Altstaedt’s performance was a tortured tour de force. From the opening phrases, cello over brass, to the impressive final movement, this was a supremely confident and utterly compelling performance.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 in E Minor is a perfect match with Runnicles, celebrated for his interpretation of Romantic and post-Romantic repertoire. Shostakovich traversed several narratives with his Tenth Symphony and Runnicles drew each distinctive twist in the tale from the orchestra. This music tied my insides in knots with an intense, rich sound that was both lush and taut, sometimes filled with fury and rage, sometimes lyrical and dance-like. Even with close to 100 players on stage, Runnicles gave every instrument their place, bringing a welcome clarity to Shostakovich’s story.

Fundamental Forces  | Regional News

Fundamental Forces

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 15th Apr 2023

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

Orchestra Wellington’s season started with a bang with Marc Taddei’s inventive programming drawing an integrating arc over two masterpieces from the 18th century and two from the 20th century. CPE Bach, son of the illustrious Johann Sebastian, is seen as the father of symphonic form. His Symphony in E minor demonstrates the greater emotional freedom of expression that emerged through his music. This was seen again in Haydn’s Symphony No. 39 in G minor, Tempesta di Mare.  Stravinsky, though his discordant tonalities broke from convention, harks back to the structural order and rationality of earlier times in his Violin Concerto in D, while Prokofiev puts dramatic effect before all else in his Scythian Suites with an astonishing amount of brass and percussion creating an ear-assaulting volume level. The count of 17 brass instruments and 10 percussionists tells all!

So the audience was treated to a music history lesson as well as four wonderful performances. The energy in CPE Bach came from strongly punctuated rhythms, sudden changes in volume and pace with very marked rallentandos, and changes in texture through the addition of wind instruments and horns to the predominant strings. Tempesta di Mare had even greater contrasts with beautifully produced string pianissimos, dramatic interjections, and suspenseful pauses. The performance of both works was sparkling.

The excellent soloist in the Stravinsky Violin Concerto was Natalia Lomeiko, a winner of the Michael Hill International Violin Competition and current professor of violin at the Royal College of Music. The concerto is unconventional: the soloist hardly ever stops playing, has no dashing bravura solo, and the predominant orchestral components are brass and wind rather than strings. Contrasting rhythms between different players give the work a restless quality. The sheer beauty of the second movement brought an audible murmur of appreciation from the audience. For me, the concerto was the concert’s highlight.

Young Artists Showcase | Regional News

Young Artists Showcase

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Hamish McKeich

Michael Fowler Centre, 12th Apr 2023

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

Six young concerto soloists and 16 orchestral instrumentalists had time to shine on the stage at the Michael Fowler Centre.

The opening piece, Moirai by Cameron Monteath, set a high bar. Winner of the 2022 Todd Young Composers Award, Monteath made excellent use of the orchestra. Moirai’s three distinct sections were ethereal, tumultuous, and sustained.

Alina Chen (17) set a cracking pace in the first movement of Nielsen’s Flute Concerto, and led the string section on a fine chase, dancing with the wind section before regathering the orchestra and leaving us with no question as to who was leading.

Ryan Yeh (11!) was brimming with confidence and capability in the first movement of Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in C Major, managing some extremely tricky fingering and balance.

Christine Jeon (16) brought her own tone to the fourth movement of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor, showing sensitivity and a strong finish.

Alex Xuyao Bai (12) made a good choice with the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, allowing him to display emotion and feeling beyond his years.

Shan Liu (13) took on Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor. His intensity was matched by the orchestra. This is not a simple piece; he showed impressive expression and technique.

Louis Liu (15) also chose a technically demanding piece in the third movement of Ibert’s Flute Concerto. He took on some very challenging breath control and fingering to produce a remarkable array of sound.

The 16 young instrumentalists joined the orchestra on stage for the fourth movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, a bold, noisy, and exuberant piece that tested all the players and most exposed the two young men who performed perfectly on bass drum and cymbals.

Hamish McKeich led from the podium after a stroke last year. His skill and expertise seem strengthened and concentrated in his left arm. It was an outstanding team performance.

Mahler 3 | Regional News

Mahler 3

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Gemma New

Michael Fowler Centre, 31st Mar 2023

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

Exhilarating. Spectacular. Breathtaking. Magnificent. When something is so good you can’t begin to describe it to others, all you have are words that feel inadequate. Luckily, readers curious as to why words aren’t enough can livestream the entire performance on the NZSO website.

The scene was set by the most beautiful waiata sung unaccompanied and with excellence by the Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir, and a children’s choir comprising Wellington Young Voices and the Choristers of Wellington Cathedral of St Paul. Robert Wiremu’s waiata, Tahuri koe ki te maunga teitei, was written to be performed alongside Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 in D Minor. An unlikely pairing but intimately connected in spirit and intent as well as the music. The 80 singers did an impeccable job, so much so that the ‘ear worm’ Wiremu had embedded (a single bar of Brahms, also found in the Mahler) was at home in my ear for several days.

“I see him as a composer for us and our times.” This was a family member’s response to my report of the Mahler and it captures the feeling I had. 130 years have gone by since Mahler wrote this epic symphony but it sounds entirely contemporary and directly relevant to the complex, disturbed, fascinating, and incredible state of our world in 2023.

There were too many amazing individual and sectional performances to pick out the best, but I cannot let the children’s stamina (a long night for young ones) and Sasha Cooke’s beautiful mezzo-soprano voice go unmentioned. The balance between her voice and the orchestra was just about perfect and her diction was immaculate. “O Mensch! Gib Acht!” O man! Take heed!

We did take heed. The house was full. The applause was long and rapturous and almost everyone got to their feet to congratulate and thank Gemma New, the NZSO, Sasha Cooke and all the singers, over and over, for another spectacular concert experience.

Brandenburg | Regional News

Brandenburg

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, 11th Mar 2023

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

A music-rich weekend had started with a fine Friday night classical programme, Mozart and Salieri, and was followed with a feast of the best baroque in Brandenburg on Saturday night. Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos were so named because they were found in the Brandenburg archives 99 years after Bach’s death. Like Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major in Friday’s concert, they were not performed during the composer’s lifetime but are widely considered to be some of the best orchestral works of the Baroque period.

The soloists Bridget Douglas (flute), Yuka Eguchi (director/violin), and Rachael Griffiths-Hughes (harpsichord) were accompanied by a small chamber orchestra for Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. The acoustics in the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul are quite different from the Michael Fowler Centre. The high ceiling and stone structure added a short echo, well suited to the balance and tone and the Baroque sound. The first movement includes a long and spectacular harpsichord cadenza, exceptionally well played by Griffiths-Hughes.

Brandenburg No. 5 is the first concerto written with a solo keyboard part and the next piece, Telemann’s Concerto for Viola in G Major, is the first viola concerto to be written. I have a soft spot for the little-known and often-overlooked viola. Soloist Alexander McFarlane played with skill and feeling and a really lovely tone from the first slow movement to the fourth and final fast movement.

Handel’s Concerto Grosso in G Major No. 1 was introduced by principal second violin Andrew Thomson, who also explained the difference between a Baroque and modern bow – it’s all to do with the hair! Handel explored a variety of styles and techniques in the five movements making up the concerto and the strings sounded magnificent in the church acoustics.

To conclude, Telemann’s Overture Suite in G Minor, La Changeante, was a series of eight playful postcards depicting a wide variety of styles and form from a musical holiday in France.

Mozart & Salieri | Regional News

Mozart & Salieri

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, 10th Mar 2023

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra is bringing itself up to date as carefully and subtly as a national institution can. In the last month we have enjoyed the glorious and joyful return of Te Matatini and Polyfest, both taking the stage after suffering the devastating effects of the COVID pandemic on our performing arts. In this post-pandemic renaissance, the NZSO is working to extend its reach to new audiences. Director Vesa-Matti Leppänen gave us an informative, humorous introduction to each half in which he outlined the programme and introduced us to the music we would hear. Full programme notes are now only in digital form, the audience referring to a simple run sheet for guidance on the night.

A scaled-back chamber orchestra, not sitting but standing, opened with a bright, lively start from the strings and Haydn’s short Overture to L’Infedelta delusa. This was followed by Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major for orchestra and a woodwind quartet. Lost for almost a century, the sinfonia was not played in Mozart’s lifetime but the NZSO soloists did a tremendous job on the night, well balanced and articulate.

The outstanding part of the programme was Antonio Salieri’s 26 Variations on La Folia di Spagna. 26 variations present opportunity for an impressive range of musical styles, forms, instrumental combinations, and solo performances. Leppänen had set the scene for us to be able to listen for the differences, enriching the experience for a very receptive audience. The musicians rose to the challenge as well as ever and some outstanding playing matched the complexity of the composition.

Hummel’s Eight Variations and Coda on O du Lieber Augustin is based on a familiar children’s song and the audience was encouraged to join in and hum the theme. The concert ended on a lighter, simpler note but it was Salieri’s sophisticated and extraordinary variations I will seek out for future listening.

The Big Drum Off – Rodger Fox Big Band 50th Anniversary  | Regional News

The Big Drum Off – Rodger Fox Big Band 50th Anniversary

The Opera House, 8th Mar 2023

Reviewed by: Graeme King

There was a buzz of expectation in the Opera House foyer on Wednesday night. Many local musicians also made the pilgrimage to witness three top American drumming legends performing with the Rodger Fox Big Band as part of The Big Drum Off Concert Tour, celebrating the band’s 50th anniversary.

Rodger Fox CMNZ has led his band to become an institution in New Zealand and overseas over the last 50 years, and he has played with some of the world’s biggest names in jazz and blues. He is held in such high esteem that legendary musicians of the calibre of Gregg Bissonette, Peter Erskine, and Dennis Chambers are here to play with him and his band. 

The drummers each had a 30-minute set in which to showcase their own style and taste, and this allowed the Big Band soloists to feature. 

Bissonette, a jazz and rock drummer, was up first. Starting with a breathtaking version of Fireshaker, he moved on to the old jazz standard Just in Time. Stratus was followed by Time Check. During one of Bissonette’s spectacularly complex solos I actually lost the beat – but it only took a glance at Fox’s left trouser leg, which was steadfastly keeping time, to find it!

The second set featured Erskine, who has appeared on over 700 albums and film scores. At times his more delicate, nuanced classic jazz style was simply stunning. His open-mouthed smile was infectious. He started with Miles Davis’ Full Nelson followed by Still of the Night, Groove, and Sunday Morning and finished with his composition Hawaii Bathing Suit. 

Last up was Chambers, who is known for his impeccable and funky timing and fast chops – not to mention his jazz fusion, funk, and Latin music playing. He didn’t disappoint. Cissy Strut, Soul Sacrifice, and Sister Sadie led to his final tune Some Skunk Funk, where the funk power didn’t let up. 

The encore Ruth, with all three drummers on stage together, was a jazz masterclass by world-class musicians – including the homegrown ones. It was indeed a night to remember.

Other Futures Big Band X Gallery Orchestra | Regional News

Other Futures Big Band X Gallery Orchestra

Hannah Playhouse, 1st Mar 2023

Reviewed by: Graeme King

The New Zealand Fringe Festival is an annual arts festival held in Wellington whereby “participants are encouraged to take a creative and artistic risk”. The collaboration between the Other Futures Big Band and Gallery Orchestra, a co-production between Daniel Hayles (conductor) and Leah Thomas (clarinetist) involving over 50 musicians, certainly contained an element of risk!

This was a controlled, melodic cacophony of sound – at times the big band's powerful force blending with the soothing, almost dreamlike orchestral pieces. The hour-long concert consisted of five instrumentals, and four songs each featuring two very popular local guest vocalists, Wallace Gollan and Zoe Moon, both providing very different but assured vocal styles and musical genres.

The first instrumental For Sale demonstrated the excellent sound mix, thanks to sound engineer Marc Freeman, and special mention also to lighting designer Joshua Tucker for the ambient lighting that ensured the audience could see all musicians at all times. 

Hayles described the second track as “a spiritual jazz ECM take on Debussy’s The Girl with the Flaxen Hair”. Johnny Lawrence's stunning bass solo had shades of Mingus, and Dave Wilson on sax also featured.

Wallace’s at times scat-like vocals featured on her song Every Stroke, with a beautiful sax solo by Aiden McCulloch. Zoe Moon’s I Like the Rain showcased her powerful vocal range and featured an inspired trombone solo by Kaito Walley. Moon praised Hayles' arrangement of the Nina Simone song Baltimore, which included a soaring trumpet solo by Ben Hunt.

Guitarist Callum Allardice’s original Dark Love, with a fluid George Benson-esque solo, highlighted his compositional and musical talents.

Wallace’s gorgeous vocals on Orchid Care, together with Hikurangi Schaverien-Kaa’s complex, energetic drum solo, were both highlights. Saxophonist and composer Louisa Williamson’s The White Room showcased the considerable talent on display.

The last track, Hayles’ Mark of the Axeman, featured a breathtaking sax solo by Bryn van Vliet and brought the performance to a close. The audience’s ecstatic clapping and cheering showed how successful the collaboration project had been. Full marks to co-producers Thomas and Hayles.

Messiah | Regional News

Messiah

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Umberto Clerici

Michael Fowler Centre, 10th Dec 2022

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

Musicians choose when to retire, as do most of the rest of us. NZSO musicians get to choose their own party music from the season’s programme. Michael Cuncannon (viola) and Yury Gezentsvey (principal first violin) chose the Messiah. In a relaxed but expectant and almost full house, Yury’s family had brought a banner reading “We love Yury”, which brought a smile to his face that remained for the whole show.

Umberto Clerici was conducting George Frideric Handel’s Messiah for the first time but you wouldn’t have known that from his confidence on the podium. The orchestra was reduced in number to a chamber orchestra. Clerici used this to great effect; he exposed the music and brought details to our attention. His use of tempo, volume, accent and attack, rise and fall, and a lyrical tone made the phrases shine. This is a very melodic work and, although it is a perennial Christmas feature, even new listeners would be surprised by how much sounds familiar.

The soloists and the wonderful Tudor Consort choir, supported by the orchestra, gave us many exceptional musical moments throughout the 48 verses. The soloists all started well and got better. Tenor Lila Crichton had a lovely, strong but also tender legato voice which perfectly suited the opening lyrics about seeking comfort and exalting the valleys. Last minute replacement bass-baritone Samson Setu stepped up with his own magnificent opening verse. His voice seemed much more mature than would be expected in someone so young. In his opening aria he sang of shaking the heavens and his technique made his voice shake distinctly and properly, not something you always hear in other performances.

Mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble also impressed with her lovely expressive voice and soprano Emma Pearson likewise excelled in her part. In her final aria, rejoicing as Christ is risen, I was certain she sang with the voice of a true believer.

Faust | Regional News

Faust

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre 3rd Dec 2022

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

Robert Schumann was inspired by Goethe’s tragic play Faust, and spent nine years writing Scenes from Goethe’s Faust. The work requires impressive forces: full orchestra, nine vocal soloists, and an adult and a children’s choir. It is an ambitious undertaking and has not been performed in New Zealand until now. Orchestra Wellington is to be commended for presenting it.

Schumann chose seven excerpts from Goethe’s play, leaving the audience to fill in the storyline from their familiarity with the play. Taddei provided surtitles, but they did not help much in elucidating the implied narrative. It paid just to immerse oneself in the music. 

The music was wonderful: dramatic, romantic, lyrical. Part 1 was romantic and tragic operatic fare of the highest order, concerning the consequences of an ill-starred relationship between Faust and a woman, Gretchen. Part 2 was darker and more dramatic, leading to the death of Faust. Part 3 concerns Faust’s transfiguration in heaven.

Playing Gretchen, Emma Pearson has a beautiful voice, being both pure and strong with a lovely upper register. Christian Thurston as Faust was not as convincing a character and had less cut-through against the orchestra. Wade Kernot as Mephistopheles, to whom Faust sells his soul, was impressive both in vocal quality and in characterisation. Of the several minor characters, tenor Jared Holt and soprano Barbara Paterson had strong voices and presence.  I wondered if the singers might have had more impact in conveying their characters if they were placed in front of the orchestra rather than behind it.

Schumann was more inclined to call this work an oratorio than anything else. The gorgeous choral writing, particularly in Part 3, explains why. Both Orpheus Choir and St Mark’s Schola Cantorum performed well, with Orpheus producing both power and a beautiful pianissimo as required. The piping children’s choir was perfect.

Requiem | Regional News

Requiem

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Gemma New

Michael Fowler Centre, 18th Nov 2022

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

This Requiem concert was designed to provoke thoughts about the purpose of life and the nature of death. Seikilos by John Psathas was very much the former. An energetic and energising piece of music this was definitely in the vein of the living. Percussion, brass, strings, woodwind were all led with great clarity through the chaos by Gemma New who made a welcome return the podium for this performance.

Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration took us to the opposite pole with a commentary on the experience of death and following death – the transfiguration. The strings stood out here although, as usual, it was impossible to call out any one section of the orchestra as doing a better job than another.

The performance of Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, K.626 by the NZSO, a quartet of singers and arguably the best choir in the country, Voices New Zealand, brought together both themes of the programme and left us in no doubt we had been given an opportunity to contemplate life as well as death.

It is easy to forget singers, unlike instrumentalists, have limited opportunity to warm up their voices before they have to deliver a perfect combination of style, strength, tone, and of course, pitch. The four soloists: soprano Anna Leese, alto Rhonda Browne, tenor Amitai Pati and baritone Robert Tucker, were out of balance with each other to begin with but by the Lacrimosa, their voices were entwined and more evenly matched.

However, Mozart’s Requiem is really all about the chorus. They have the greatest opportunity to shine and this performance was dazzling. Brilliantly clear diction, remarkable changes in tone, delicate, close harmonies that sent shivers up and down the spine, and New’s tightly coiled and powerful energy combined for an outstanding performance. Is it wrong to be uplifted and made to feel alive by a requiem mass? This one carried me home.

Heavenly | Regional News

Heavenly

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Miguel Harth-Bedoya

Michael Fowler Centre, 10th Nov 2022

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

The combination of a Mahler symphony portraying a 19th century child’s view of heaven and a contemporary, symphonic tone poem depicting a Californian shoreline made an interesting juxtaposition in this Heavenly programme.

After Tumblebird Contrails I reflected on the way our subconscious shapes our later encounters. Gabriella Smith’s composition quite definitely evoked the natural world she wanted to express. Her orchestration cleverly conveyed birds in the air, creatures in the sea, environmental degradation and distress. My memory of a California coastline slipped comfortably into hers and my knowledge of the damage we are doing to our environment was reflected to me in her music. I once walked the long, relatively undeveloped San Francisco shoreline from the Golden Gate Bridge to the city. Smith took me back, with fresh eyes, to the late summer light, the sandy, gritty, stony beachfront, and a familiar and foreign environment.

Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in G Major was quite a contrast, from environmental beauty and doom to the heavenly life. In four movements, the symphony follows a classical form and makes the most out of the multi-tonal possibilities of the orchestration. The lower strings were incredibly solid and supportive. I’m always up for a good cor anglais moment and in the third movement Michael Austin delighted me as expected. The performance overall didn’t feel quite as polished as usual – professional musicians are as tired as the rest of us after another unusual year and they have numerous performances scheduled around the motu in the weeks before Christmas.

In the tradition of keeping the best till last, soprano Madeleine Pierard brought her tremendous voice to the stage. Mahler wrote the song Das himmlische Leben a decade earlier than his fourth symphony and it fitted wonderfully into his final movement. Pierard’s voice was absolutely right for the picture of heaven and heavenly life he wanted us to see.

Don McGlashan And The Others | Regional News

Don McGlashan And The Others

Old St Paul’s, 28th Oct 2022

Reviewed by: Graeme King

McGlashan’s latest album Bright November Morning was recorded with The Others, so this concert was a full band experience – not just McGlashan with a backing band.

The tight rhythm section of Chris O’Connor on drums and James Duncan on bass laid a solid platform for McGlashan (guitar, piano, and euphonium), the legendary Shayne P Carter on lead guitar, and Anita Clark on violin and mandolin. McGlashan was ably supported by all The Others on backing vocals.

McGlashan said that support act Michael James Keane “had told him that he was going to whip the crowd into a frenzy, and he obviously had done just that!” Keane’s songs, dry wit, and humour did win the crowd over.

The concert was a blend of McGlashan’s new material and classics: new songs Sunscreen, Lights Come On, Go Back In, and All the Goodbyes in the World were followed by A Thing Well Made, featuring euphonium, violin, and Clark’s gorgeous harmonies – creating an ethereal effect off the surrounding timber walls.

The melancholic, haunting Song for Sue, surely an APRA Silver Scroll Award contender, was followed by Bathe in the River – the first verse in te reo, to the crowd’s delight. Nothing on the Windows was followed by the anthemic Anchor Me – the simplicity of piano, violin, and Clark’s backing vocals was uplifting. Shackleton, written from McGlashan’s week-long excursion to Antarctica in 2012, preceded the classic White Valiant.

John Bryce, an angry song about Parihaka, had the band at full volume and featured the full force of O’Connor’s drumming.

Following Start Again, the driving Don’t Fight it Marsha, it’s Bigger Than Both of Us featured Carter’s intense, thrashing guitar. Dominion Road had the crowd rocking in their pews, and by The Heater it was surprising no-one was dancing in the aisles.

The first encore When the Trumpets Sound was followed by Pulled Along by Love, featuring the crowd’s vocals on the chorus!

It was a privilege to see a New Zealand musical icon at such an iconic venue as Old St Paul’s.

Melissa Aldana Quartet | Regional News

Melissa Aldana Quartet

The Opera House, 23rd Oct 2022

Reviewed by: Finlay Langelaan

Melissa Aldana and her quartet close the Wellington Jazz Festival in style, playing their latest album 12 Stars. With GRAMMY-nominated Aldana at the helm, the remarkable group plays heartfelt, energetic music that demands attention to be appreciated. The album is inspired by the subtlety of tarot and deals with themes of self-love and acceptance in the wake of 2020.

The concert opens with the titular song. I am immediately struck by the sheer passion mustered from an instrument as Aldana breaks into a mournful saxophone intro. The piece is gentle and meandering, demonstrating incredible finesse from the musicians. By the time the first song (or maybe the second?) ends 20 minutes later, I’ve completely forgotten where I am, entranced by the music.

The Bluest Eye is a playful jam that gives everyone the chance to show off. I am particularly taken by Kush Abadey on drums, who is infectiously enthusiastic. He leaps from his seat in excitement while maintaining a perfect tempo and exchanging lines with the guitarist. Lage Lund on guitar also produced the album, and he is magnificent.

Emelia might be my favourite song. Aldana opens with a hauntingly beautiful sax solo, featuring a melody that she tells us came to her in a dream. Pablo Menares is excellent on bass and has fantastic energy throughout.

Aldana uses the song Los Ojos de Chile to draw attention to the current unrest and protests in Chile. The song is hopeful and upbeat, with an almost suspenseful guitar solo from Lund. I am in awe of Aldana's vibrato; even her highest notes are crystal clear with a consistent quaver.

The band receives a standing ovation and returns for a slightly experimental encore that feels more like a jam session. I am delighted to note that the moments of silence are crisp, especially as Abadey exploits anticipatory pauses to great effect. A splendid performance and a fitting end to this year's festival.

MonoNeon | Regional News

MonoNeon

The Opera House, 22nd Oct

Reviewed by: Tanya Piejus

A huge hit at the 2019 Wellington Jazz Festival when he performed with Ghost-Note, the GRAMMY Award-winning experimental bassist MonoNeon packed out the Opera House with an eclectic mix of fans on his solo return visit with a three-piece band.

MonoNeon is known for his unusual playing style. While right-handed, he plays left-handed upside down on a right-handed bass guitar with a Marcel Duchamp-inspired green and yellow striped sock snuggled over the tuning pegs. This mode of playing produces a deep thrubbing sound that I could feel in my chest throughout the 90-minute concert.

MonoNeon is also known for his outlandish dress and was wearing his trademark quilted hoodie and matching pants, chunky sports shoes with his name on the front, multicoloured knitted balaclava, and day-glo sunnies. Despite this in-your-face look, he has a charmingly high-pitched voice and humble Memphis-born manner that allowed his three bandmates to take much of the spotlight.

They were ostensibly playing MonoNeon’s new album, Basqiat and Skittles. Rather than falling into the tired trap of playing the album beginning to end in track order, they mixed it up big time. Playing two or three songs in sequence, they segued seamlessly from one to the next with extended improvised solos from the energetic guitarist, keyboardist, and drummer  ̶  each highly talented musicians in their own right  ̶  who creatively free-formed until MonoNeon’s subtle finger point gave them the signal to move back to the core of the song.

MonoNeon’s use of microtonality manufactures a truly unconventional effect, no more so than when he took the stage himself at the end of the concert to strum, slide, slap, and tweak his inverted bass guitar to produce unusual funky blues sounds, much to the delight of the audience.

Lighting was used to great effect throughout with seven circular, yellow-lamped lights along the back of the stage, and good employment of the Opera House’s rig to add colour and atmosphere.

MonoNeon’s music is hard to describe but it was a uniquely ear-bending experience that I would willingly repeat.

Rodger Fox Big Band Plays Hone Tuwhare | Regional News

Rodger Fox Big Band Plays Hone Tuwhare

Conducted by: Rodger Fox

The Opera House, 22nd Oct 2022

Reviewed by: Finlay Langelaan

The theatre is tense and expectant in the purple preshow glow. The Big Band gets a cheer, and Rodger Fox himself an even bigger one. After a brief introduction, we are off, and the rest of the afternoon disappears into jazz.

The concept of this Wellington Jazz Festival show is intriguing. 10 New Zealand composers have each chosen a poem from the works of Hone Tuwhare to inspire their creations. This leads to some interesting meta-interpretation, with one piece being inspired by a poem about Miles Davis, a jazz musician himself.

The opening number is in response to the poem Hotere and is a fabulous meandering piece that builds into a brilliant saxophone solo. The rest of the songs are equally brilliant and totally unique, from upbeat funk to a sort of call-and-response between piano and orchestra. The drum solos I particularly enjoyed, but really every soloist was admirable in their own right.

My personal favourite piece was composed and arranged by Godfrey De Grut in response to Haiku. It features a trombone solo by Fox, which brings the house down, and has a fantastic surf-rock feel, conjuring visuals of sun-kissed beaches. The River Is An Island also deserves mention for how well composer Anita Schwabe captured the essence of the poem.

I applaud the scenography. Eight massive round lamps backed the orchestra and were utilised expertly. The mixing is unfortunately less perfect, with static during piano ballads and a piercingly loud trumpet solo. I also wonder how the audience might have differently appreciated the songs if they were conjoined with readings of the poems themselves.

Every musician and composer deserves their own compliment, but I’m running out of words. The playing was flawless from the first song and everybody was clearly having a brilliant time. Despite some minor technical difficulties, the performance was overall spectacular and will be remembered fondly by the whole audience.

Louis Baker – Duality And The Elements | Regional News

Louis Baker – Duality And The Elements

The Opera House, 21st Oct 2021

Reviewed by: Graeme King

There’s a reason Louis Baker was one of the headline acts of the Wellington Jazz Festival – his compositions, vocal stylings and range, and guitar work are world-class.

The four songs on his new work Duality And The Elements, representing Water, Air, Earth, and Fire, acknowledged “whakapapa, love and life’s observations”. 

The stunning but subtle light show – featuring beautiful shades of red, blue, and purple – and superbly balanced sound created an intimate setting for a night of rapturous soul, R&B, and funk.

The new compositions were interspersed with some of his biggest hits. Brighter Day featured the silky backing vocals of Lisa Tomlins and Kirsten Te Rito. Black Crow had fans dancing at their seats. 

Just Want To Thank You featured Cory Champion’s slick drumming, energetic percussionist Sai August, and the sublime, funky bass of Johnny Lawrence – with Baker introducing each band member to loud applause. 

Love Levitates featured superlative piano nuances and keyboards by James Illingworth. The haunting Te Utu, Baker’s first song recorded in te reo, was followed by the instrumental Air featuring special guest Jerome Kavanagh on the first of a range of taonga pūoro – creating a gorgeous, spellbinding, and almost mystical musical journey. 

Addict cleverly segued into the Bill Withers hit Use Me. Baker’s stunning scatting and fluid guitar, reminiscent of George Benson, drew rapturous applause.

Earth, featuring delightful keyboard jazz chord scales, took the song to the beautifully lit Opera House ceiling and back. 

For Been And Gone, the second special guest Wallace joined Baker for the first live performance of their new single. The funky Fire featured the ultra-tight rhythm section and a climactic, stunning piano solo.

The only non-original song, Leon Bridges’ Bad Bad News had an infectious walking-bass to keep the crowd on their feet. Get Back, featuring a superlative piano solo, had the crowd willingly join Baker in a call-and-response.

The first encore, the enchanting Rainbow, had Baker on acoustic guitar together with soaring backing vocal harmonies. The full band, including guests, was back for the second encore The People – the perfect song to end a perfect night on.

Legacy: Lalah Hathaway sings Donny Hathaway | Regional News

Legacy: Lalah Hathaway sings Donny Hathaway

Performed by Lalah Hathaway and the NZSO

The Opera House, 19th Oct 2022

Reviewed by: Finlay Langelaan

The 2022 Wellington Jazz Festival starts in style with international R&B superstar Lalah Hathaway. Supported by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Benjamin Northey, with concertmaster Donald Armstrong at the helm, the entire evening is a delight for the discerning enthusiast. From ballads to bops, Hathaway makes her New Zealand debut with grace and panache.

From the first note of the first song, Hathaway has the audience entranced. An orchestral performance is always impressive, but combined with a grand piano and Hathaway's GRAMMY-winning vocal talents, we are elevated into a world of jazz fusion and soulful blues. Every person on stage is excellent, and each solo garners a well-deserved round of hearty applause, but I would be remiss not to mention Daniel Hayles on keys. A Song For You is the highlight of the show in no small part thanks to him.

While the performances are impeccable, I find myself distracted by static during what should have been moments of silence. The scenography is wonderful, with gentle lighting changes so in tune with the music you would think you can see the melody.

Even between numbers, I catch myself on the edge of my seat as Hathaway engages the audience with casual charm and brief anecdotes. This is the first performance of her career devoted entirely to performing her father's music, and the love in both the singer and the songs is palpable. Hathaway truly brings with her a legacy of musical talent and influence.

Hathaway has just released a version of Donny Hathaway’s This Christmas, singing a duet with her father from a rediscovered recording. She treats us to a performance of the song and closes the concert with Be There, leaving the delighted audience in a festive buzz. The show received a five-minute standing ovation and undoubtedly deserved it. If this is how the Wellington Jazz Festival starts, I can’t wait to see what else is in store.

The River | Regional News

The River

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 15th Oct 2022

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

An annual delight of the Orchestra Wellington season is the collaboration of the orchestra with Arohanui Strings:  lots of kids, very well rehearsed, some of them extraordinarily young and very cute, drawing their bows confidently and straight over their strings. Their principal item was Well Within the Madding Crowd, an attractive commissioned work by Glen Downie featuring the children on strings, and brass and percussion highlights from the orchestra. Even younger children joined in another handful of items. Wonderful.

Reflection by Julian Kirgan-Báez was another premiere in this concert. Kirgan-Báez is normally a trombonist in the orchestra but is also part of the orchestra’s composer mentorship programme under John Psathas. This was very assured composing, extraordinary considering Kirgan-Báez is largely self-taught. The work was very descriptive and evocative of the natural environment in both calm and agitated condition. It used the full resources of the orchestra and not surprisingly, some wonderful brass.

The audience was wowed by Amalia Hall’s performance of Violin Concerto No. 2 by Joseph Joachim, a work that draws on Hungarian, Jewish, and Romany traditions.  Hall’s virtuosity is remarkable and this reportedly Everest of concertos seemed barely to test her, though perhaps it felt like a musical Everest to her. While there were some lovely expressive passages, it was the pyrotechnics that impressed: trills, runs, glissando, double-stopping, speed. You name the extreme technique, Joachim included it.

The concert concluded with the lovely Symphony No. 3 Rhenish by Schumann. I wondered if beauty and shape was sacrificed to pace and urgent momentum in the first two movements, with the Rhine River charging along rather than rolling and unfolding. The fourth movement which was inspired by Schumann’s awe at the Cologne Cathedral was wonderfully expansive, with brass and woodwind creating haunting and grand moments. The exhilarating finale brought the concert to a fitting close.

Legacy | Regional News

Legacy

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Alexander Shelley

Michael Fowler Centre, 1st Oct 2002

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

In a predominantly classical programme, I hadn’t expected to find the opening to be my highlight. Mozart and Brahms were musical prodigies, high achieving young men who made names for themselves early in their lives. Dame Gillian Whitehead is a New Zealand icon and Arts Laureate and her retrieving the fragility of peace was the outstanding item of the night.

A study in contrasts, it was both delicate and intense, fragmented but coherent, solo and ensemble, gentle and fierce. The devastatingly beautiful cor anglais solo was breath taking. Perhaps it was about being new to the ear (this was the world premiere) or the clarity of the composition and the quality of the performance but the music and musicians whetted our appetites in a most moving and spectacular way.

Another local talent, Stephen De Pledge, took to the stage in place of the unfortunate Gabriela Montero, who had arrived in NZ and then tested positive for COVID. While we missed her promised interpretation of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, we were well rewarded with De Pledge’s performance. His was a confident rendition and, although his improvised cadenzas didn’t always hit the mark, there was little to criticise in what must have been a last-minute replacement. The encore, a piece of his own choosing, was a lovely rendition of Schumann’s Träumerei.

Finally, under the direction of Alexander Shelley, the orchestra let loose on Brahms’s Symphony No. 1, giving size, shape, and power to a majestic and defining piece of music. Brahms felt the pressure of Beethoven’s legacy. He started his first symphony at 21 and was 43 when he finished it. The orchestra was solid and energetic but lacked something in tone and balance, not quite living up to the promise of the work’s long gestation.

It was a powerful performance which, more than anything, augmented the complexity and quietude of retrieving the fragility of peace.

East/West: A Symphonic Celebration  | Regional News

East/West: A Symphonic Celebration

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Brent Stewart

The Opera House, 20th Sep 2022

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

Wellington’s usual concertgoers were not much in evidence at this concert: a pity since the occasion was part of an initiative to introduce Chinese performing arts to audiences around the world. Members of the Wellington Chinese community made up most of the audience.

The programme included Pōkarekare Ana and an early work, Drysdale Overture, by New Zealander Douglas Lilburn, alongside five Chinese compositions.

Orchestra Wellington, conducted by the admirable Brent Stewart, was its usual excellent self, but the warmth of the relationship with its usual audience was missing, reminding me of how important that ingredient is in live performance.

Jian Liu, of the New Zealand School of Music – Te Kōkī and with an international reputation for performance, was the soloist in the Yellow River Piano Concerto. Madame Mao herself directed the collaboration of several musicians to arrange an earlier work to create this concerto. The work’s chequered history probably contributes to it not being the most subtle piece of music ever written.  It was great to watch, however, as Liu made seemingly easy work of the runs, trills, glissandi, and thunderous chords that the work demands.

Soprano Joanna Foote sang an appealing version of Pōkarekare Ana and was joined by tenor Bo Jiang in The Song of Yangtze River by Shiguang Wang to great applause from the audience.

Wang Xilin’s The Torch Festival and Bao Yuankai’s Chinese Sights and Sounds showed how Chinese composers have absorbed western idioms and applied them to Chinese subjects, creating descriptive works that incorporate eastern elements. Gift, composed for the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra by Tian Zhou, is a more sophisticated work.  Zhou has written that he “wanted to create a reminder of the joy of music making, and along the way explore [his] own musical identity after 18 years of living abroad.” Musical identity was the stuff of this concert.

Leviathan | Regional News

Leviathan

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 17th Sep 2022

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

John Psathas’ Leviathan – Percussion Concerto is a work commissioned by the UN-backed Pastoral Project for Beethoven’s 250th anniversary year. Psathas was required to reflect Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and promote action on climate change and the environment. The first movement portrays what Psathas called “the human race’s out of control race to disaster”, with the orchestra providing a broad ominous soundscape against which the percussion solo gives a sense of frenetic activity. In contrast, the second movement, which delicately integrates themes from Beethoven’s symphony, has a sense of eyes-wide-open wonder at peaceful nature. The mood was created through the orchestra’s strings and woodwind, the soloist’s use of glockenspiel and vibraphone, and the innovation of amplifying the sounds of water in a large bowl being slapped and poured by the percussionist. The third movement evoked pollution, recycling, and sustainability by the use of a plastic water bottle used as a rattle and a drum. The fourth movement focused on a more positive future: it had a feeling of purpose and resolve absent from the other movements.

We experienced a virtuosic and athletic tour de force from outstanding German soloist Alexej Gerassimez. This was an excellent performance from the conductor, orchestra, and soloist: a memory to be treasured.

The orchestra also played Wagner’s Lohengrin: Prelude to Act 1 and Schumann’s Symphony No 2. The Prelude is an uplifting piece of romantic writing, aethereal but noble. Schumann’s symphony is considerably darker reflecting his difficulties with mental illness. Just as Psathas’ work referenced Beethoven, Schumann’s symphony referenced his hero composer Bach and the so-called father of the symphony, Haydn. It is clear that Taddei loves Schumann. He gave a music lesson to the audience by having the orchestra illustrate aspects of the composition as he talked. Taddei has a wonderful rapport with his audience. We Wellingtonians are very lucky.

Midsummer Night’s Dream | Regional News

Midsummer Night’s Dream

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 20th Aug 2022

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

Nordic cool replaced Germanic romantic passion and anguish in the performance of Dichterliebe, which opened this concert. All the time I was hearing in my head the wonderful vocal lines and inspired piano accompaniment of the original set of lieder composed by Schumann. So it was odd to hear modern Norwegian composer Henrik Hellstenius’ interpretation of the work with post-modern orchestration and a vocal style which Taddei described as lounge music jazz. Still, I did think it interesting and well done, and I thought Deborah Wai Kapohe’s mezzo voice was deliciously sensuous if sometimes a bit overwhelmed by the orchestra.

Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A Minor, performed by internationally acclaimed Inbal Megiddo from The New Zealand School of Music – Te Kōkī, presented no such listening challenge. Schumann was a master of vocal composition, and his melodic gift is particularly evident in the first two movements of the concerto where the cello’s fabulous singing qualities are given full rein. In his pre-concert talk, Taddei noted that while the work is not very virtuosic, it is technically very demanding. Megiddo was all over the fingerboard with seeming ease, producing a compelling tone at both the bottom and very top of the cello’s register.  

A sparkling performance of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream ended the concert. The work was written for orchestra, two soprano soloists, and a women’s chorus as incidental music for a performance of Shakespeare’s play. Taddei went for theatre, adding a trio of actors speaking lines from the play.  The voices of Barbara Paterson and Michaela Cadwgan blended beautifully, and the Orpheus Choir’s female members were excellent. This was Orchestra Wellington at its best; precise, lively, bold, innovative, and enjoying themselves. Full marks to the strings for the endless fluttering of fairy wings and to the double basses for the spirited rendition of the braying of Bottom the ass.

Style and Substance | Regional News

Style and Substance

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Gemma New

Michael Fowler Centre, 6th Aug 2022

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

Part two of the three-concert series featuring violinist Hilary Hahn lived up to its Style and Substance title. A combination of the substantial Violin Concerto in D major, Op.77 by Johannes Brahms and the very well-balanced and expert performances of Hahn and the NZSO made for a stylish rendition of a favourite and familiar piece. Hahn’s clarity and expression were matched by the full and satisfying sound produced by the orchestra. Hahn’s playing was exquisite and so impressed the audience, many broke into applause after only the first movement. Although a concerto for violin, Brahms wrote equally demanding passages for the orchestra and the NZSO proved more than equal to the challenge.

Tabea Squire’s Variations were a great treat. Ordinarily the theme is stated up front and followed by the composer’s variations on said theme. Squire turned the form on its head and gave us the end at the beginning. The variations were a series of wonderfully modern and complex interpretations of the 14th century pavane theme. We were cleverly led back there by some fine and very enjoyable playing of interesting orchestration. This was a very smart piece of music.

I had high hopes for John Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony. Drawn from his opera of the same name, the symphony aimed to tell the story of the development of the first atomic bomb in Los Alamos – the incredibly destructive power conceived by scientists under the leadership of Robert Oppenheimer, who was terribly conflicted by the apocalyptic potential he had created. I suspect Doctor Atomic makes a better opera than symphony. Although there were some prominent solo passages, all played excellently with the brass enjoying the best opportunities to shine, the narrative was missing something and that was most likely the opera. Without a human voice, the symphonic form seemed to lack something of the emotional impact of the real story.

Come Together – Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours | Regional News

Come Together – Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours

The Opera House, 7th Jul 2022

Reviewed by: Graeme King 

When Julia Deans wandered on stage and announced that she had the “first-gig jitters”, the almost full Opera House audience erupted with laughter, and the tone was set for a night of fun and partying Wellington-style!

Rumours is one of the best-selling albums of all time, but this concert was of two halves. The first combined the early blues-driven Peter Green-led Fleetwood Mac, as well as the biggest singles from their other albums. 

Brett Adams’ eerily bird-like slide guitar was a clever intro to the soothingly beautiful instrumental Albatross also featuring the second guitarist and MD Jol Mulholland. Black Magic Woman featured the charismatic and talented Laughton Kora on vocals and extra guitar.

Then it was the women’s turn: first up it was Mel Parsons channelling Christine McVie with Little Lies, then Dianne Swann with Landslide and Deans following with Gypsy – each dressed in Stevie Nicks’ impeccably iconic fashion style. Initially there was the odd wrong note, but these artists owned them, and with the interplay were having so much fun between themselves that it was infectious! 

The format of switching eras was a masterstroke – it meant that we got Peter Green’s Man of the World (Adams), the bluesy Stop Messin’ Round (Kora), and Need Your Love So Bad (Mulholland) interspersed with Seven Wonders (Deans), Rhiannon (Swann), Say You Love Me (Parsons), and Sara (Deans). Big Love, featuring Kora’s dynamic vocal range and Adams’ and Mulholland’s breathtaking acoustic guitars was a highlight, rousing the biggest applause of the first half. 

For the second half it was yet another costume change for the ladies, with Deans quipping that, with this being the first of three concerts in a row, the audience were “testing the outfit changes”, and that “the men just change their guitars”!

Then it was the whole album of Rumours in order, from Second Hand News through to Gold Dust Woman. Never Going Back Again had Kora joking that he “wished he could play it”, to which Mulholland wittily replied, “I got you bro!”

It was a surprise when Matthias Jordan abandoned his keyboard duties to join the performers centre stage, saying that “they’ve let me off my leash” to take lead vocals for Go Your Own Way – but not before pointing out his family members in the audience! 

Deans was next with an achingly beautiful and spellbinding version of Songbird, including an outstanding piano intro by Jordan.

The Chain featured the superlative bass of Mike Hall and the searingly gorgeous harmonies of all three women, and it was breathtaking – they were now relaxed, in total control, and well engaged with the audience.

First up for the two encores, Oh Well featured the blistering guitar and vocals of Adams, which led straight into the last song Tusk. This showcased the finesse and very solid drumming of Alistair Deverick, and by this time most of the audience was either up dancing at their seats, in the aisles, or at the front of the stage. 

Liberty Stage have to be congratulated for bringing another stellar concert in the Come Together series, featuring some of New Zealand’s top singers and musicians performing much-loved classic albums to a very appreciative audience.

 

Rhapsody | Regional News

Rhapsody

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 11th Jun 2022

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

Orchestra Wellington’s 2022 theme Circle of Friends played out in this concert with the centrepiece being Schumann’s Symphony No. 4, alongside his wife Clara Wieck’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, and their friend and supporter Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody, a work given to the Schumanns’ daughter as a wedding present.

Overall, the concert delighted the audience as usual. However, the intensity of the beautiful and anguished opener Alto Rhapsody to me was missing. Mezzo-soprano Kristin Darragh combined with the Orpheus Choir Male Chorus and the orchestra to perform this work. While Darragh has a strong and lovely voice, the performance as a whole seemed curiously tentative.

Clara Schumann’s piano concerto was written between the ages of 12 and 15, when she was already much celebrated for her piano performances. Jian Liu, the soloist for this performance, was more than up to the virtuosic demands that the composer imposed on herself as the first performer of the work, delivering clarity, brilliance, speed, and elegant shaping of lyrical lines.

Conductor Mark Taddei provided the audience with an illuminating talk about Schumann’s symphony before performing it in full. He said it should be called Clara’s symphony, partly because it reflects the happiness of their marriage at the time and partly because the recurring theme within it spells out the name Clara, forwards, backwards, inverted, smoothly, spikily, and every which way. It is a glorious symphony, full of joyous energy, tenderness, and passion, sometimes lyrical, sometimes brooding. Standout moments were the song-like line of the oboe above the cellos in the second movement, the lyrical solo violin in the same movement, the early energy of the scherzo movement and its winding down to something sweeter and more gentle, the huge dramatic chords that blasted out from time to time breaking up the music’s flow, and then the thrilling pace of the finale.

Spring Symphony | Regional News

Spring Symphony

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 21st May 2022

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

The undoubted highlight of this excellent concert was The All-Seeing Sky by John Psathas, Orchestra Wellington’s composer-in-residence. The work is scored for orchestra and two percussion instruments, marimba and vibraphone. They were played by Swiss artists, Fabian Ziegler and Luca Staffelbach, with whom Psathas worked during the composition process. Quite apart from the music, this was a visual delight with the percussionists wielding their mallets like magicians.­

Psathas described the music as grim, dealing with Dante’s underworld. But in fact, while there was furious strength and rhythmic drama, there was also great delicacy and the creation of beautiful soundscapes. This was partly thanks to the qualities of the solo instruments, and partly to the beautiful passages where they were coupled with individual instruments such as the bassoon, cello, clarinet, harp, and whispering strings.

Enough of Psathas! There were two other wonderful performances in this concert! Orchestra Wellington’s theme for the season is Circle of Friends featuring works by Robert Schumann and his wife, Clara, by Felix Mendelssohn and his sister Fanny, and by Brahms and others whose lives were intertwined.  

Fanny Mendelssohn’s Overture in C opened the concert. After a thoughtful and graceful introduction, the work breaks out into a very attractive liveliness which leads to a bold, final burst of energy. What might Fanny have produced if she were not a woman at the wrong time in history, constrained by family wealth and position as well. The orchestra gave a sparkling performance of her work.

It was only when Robert Schumann married Clara that he turned to symphonic composition producing the masterly Spring Symphony, conducted by Mendelssohn at the first performance. It is a hugely joyful work with new life flowing and bursting out relentlessly. Taddei luxuriated in both the energy and the tender passion expressed in the work.

Thank you, Orchestra Wellington.

Song of Destiny  | Regional News

Song of Destiny

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: James Judd

Michael Fowler Centre, 25th Nov 2021

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

This was a weird but wonderful concert. There was a sparse audience, with even married couples sitting two seats apart! Though applause was therefore thin, conductor James Judd encouraged the audience to clap whenever they felt like it, so they did – between movements – in plenty. Why not, after all? No programmes either; instead Judd introduced each work. No interval. The whole thing felt oddly intimate and spontaneous. Congratulations to the NZSO for repeating the concert four times over three days to enable patrons to hear live music again.

Brahms’ Schicksalslied (Song of Destiny), a choral setting of a poem by Hölderlin, is not often performed though it is a beautiful, intense, and dramatic piece. The poem’s verses contrast the blissful lives of celestial beings with the turmoil of human life. On this occasion, Voices New Zealand created both the ethereal sounds Brahms evoked for the first verse and the dramatic ferocity of the second with subtle, beautiful, and strong but unstrained singing. Brahms’ decision to have the third movement recreate the first movement for orchestra only restored a sense of tranquillity. This was a fitting choice by the NZSO and a hopeful one for troubled times.

The orchestra’s performance of Schicksalslied was full-hearted and secure. No doubt the dramatic, dynamic, and sparkling overture to Verdi’s opera Nabucco which preceded it warmed them up nicely. Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 completed the concert. The symphony includes music that is all of sweet, subdued, lilting, joyful, merry, lush, agitated, and strong. It was never tragic. If I could have chosen to be any instrumentalist for this work, I’d have been the flautist whose part, time after time, injected light, drama, and sparkle. But the trombones, trumpets and horns, the oboe, and lower strings all had their special moments. A very uplifting performance all round.

The Rite of Spring | Regional News

The Rite of Spring

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Gemma New

Michael Fowler Centre, 10th Jul 2021

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

A fascinating programme opened with Chopin, followed by a frenetic and emotionally expressive performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, the latter accompanied by an intriguing video display.

Michael Houstoun was a very popular choice to play Chopin and possibly the reason for an almost sold-out show. Houstoun charged straight into the first of eight dances, knocking out a crowd-pleasing, rapid, and somewhat heavy-handed polonaise. By and large this was a solid performance. Each dance had a distinct style and character, but it was almost as if Houstoun knew his solo piano could never compete on equal footing with Stravinsky’s most notorious but incredible contribution to 20th century music.

The Chopin dances were an extraordinary contrast to The Rite of Spring but a direct reference to Les Sylphides, Chopin’s ballet music, which preceded the premiere of Stravinsky’s ballet in 1913. The nod to events of 100 years ago was brought right up to date in the video imagery, a remarkable and sophisticated concept using the pre-recorded movement of a dancer to generate graphic patterns that were further manipulated in real time by the audio feed from the orchestra. Finding ourselves seated next to the grandparents of the video artist, we took a keen interest in the display. Delainy Kennedy’s grandparents were rightly very proud of his work.

A diminutive figure on the rostrum, New’s dynamic, precise but expansive direction kept the orchestra tight through the complex time changes and difficult rhythms. It would be interesting to see the video images her performance might generate.

As always, the musicianship and the superb playing of the NZSO were exceptional. The bassoon solo that opened the piece was impeccable, nothing at all like the ‘strangled oboe’ the audience thought they were hearing in 1913. As well as my new-found love for Stravinsky I am loving the work of the viola section who excelled on the night.

Matariki | Regional News

Matariki

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Gemma New

Michael Fowler Centre, 9th Jul 2021

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

A world premiere for the Māori new year, Gareth Farr’s Ngā Hihi o Matariki was an exhilarating experience, not just breathtaking but spine-tingling as well. Neither symphony nor concerto, and with the addition of kaikaranga and taonga pūoro, Ngā Hihi o Matariki had its own musical form. Matariki is a time for remembrance, for celebrating the present and for looking to the future and Farr and his collaborators brought all these perspectives brilliantly to life.

Lyrics were written and performed by Mere Boynton and Ariana Tikao, and Tikao also composed and played the parts for taonga pūoro. Both women moved amongst the musicians in the orchestra, creating visual interest while their positioning helped to form the sound of their singing and playing. The orchestra revelled in the intensity of the work and Boynton and Tikao were magnificent. Holding this multiplicity of musicians together magnificently, for over an hour, was conductor Gemma New. Her striking and dynamic style was a perfect match for the music.

Opening with a glittering scene built on melodic percussion and piccolo, it was apparent early on this was going to be music that easily evoked images and ideas. And it did, right through to the end. With little knowledge of the astronomy and which segment related to which star, it was still possible to feel the differences as much as hear them. Farr has always given a strong voice to percussion and the rhythms were as important throughout as the melodies. Boynton’s voice is fabulously rich, and accompanied by Tikao’s putorino, her heart-rending lament to those who have departed rose easily and soared through the auditorium.

I might have missed the Matariki fireworks over the harbour on Saturday night but the final section of Ngā Hihi o Matariki was a sonic firework display of its own. Drawing on the power of hope, the finale brought the audience to its feet for a standing ovation.

Virtuoso Violin | Regional News

Virtuoso Violin

Produced by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 12th Jun 2021

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

Virtuoso Violin was a concert bursting with vitality and joie de vivre, living up to the title of the Orchestra Wellington 2021 season – Virtuoso.

The principal work was Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 2, La Campanella. Paganini was the 19th century’s violin virtuoso par excellence. The soloist for La Campanella was Orchestra Wellington’s own virtuoso violinist, Amalia Hall. Add to this orchestral works by piano virtuosi Liszt and Chopin and you have a perfect storm of virtuosity.

The opening work, Chopin’s Polonaise Militaire, composed for piano but orchestrated by Glazunov, set the scene with an unrelenting, driving energy.

Hall did a superb job of the concerto. Paganini demands extraordinary technical ability including bow bounces, double stopping, harmonics, and, amazingly, left-handed string plucking while continuing to bow other strings. Hall balanced this virtuosity with a lovely sweetness of tone for the more lyrical parts of the work. She returned to the stage for a spirited solo encore that brought the house down.

Liszt’s Mazeppa tells the story of a young man who is carried on a long journey across Europe, bound naked to his horse by an aristocrat whom he has cuckolded. You can hear the galloping horse traversing vast terrains and then losing its strength and collapsing. The music reflects Mazeppa recovering and joining a group of Cossacks. The second part of the work evokes his subsequent military exploits. Taddei had not finished leaping onto the podium before he was already conducting. This headlong energy was the hallmark of the performance.

The concert concluded with Liszt’s Les Préludes, a significant change of mood. While it had moments of storm and conflict, it was predominantly an ode to the glorious, romantic, and joyful episodes of life. The triumphant conclusion to the work seemed to me to sum up the whole concert. Well done, Orchestra Wellington.

Virtuoso Voices  | Regional News

Virtuoso Voices

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 22nd May 2021

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

Such clever programming in Virtuoso Voices, the presentation by Orchestra Wellington and Orpheus Choir Wellington of Bartók’s Cantata Profana and Orff’s Carmina Burana! Both composed in the 1930s, and similar in form, Orff’s work has been very popular while Bartók’s striking work is not often performed. By such programming are our musical horizons extended.

Orff’s work is a mostly riotous celebration of the joys of spring, love, lust, and the tavern but with an overtone expressed in the famous opening song, O Fortuna, that life is prone to changing fortunes. The music is energetic, superbly rhythmic, melodic, and contains a variety of styles. Bartók’s musical appeal is less direct and the story is much darker. Subtitled The Nine Enchanted Stags, it tells of brothers brought up to hunt turning into hunted stags, begged by their distraught father to return home but unable to do so.

A double accolade goes to Brent Stewart, a busy timpanist supremo in both works. Stewart is also the music director of Orpheus Choir, responsible for preparing their performance. Bartók demands a lot of the choir without much support from the orchestral parts and sometimes they seemed not fully comfortable. Their performance of Carmina Burana was much more assured, confidently negotiating rhythmic challenges and delivering the contrasting styles, colours, and moods required. The choir’s energy was impressive. Wellington Young Voices and the Celesta Choir, the children’s choirs in Carmina Burana, deserve special mention for the clarity and precision of their singing.

The concert’s virtuoso voices were tenor Amitai Pati, baritone Christian Thurston, and soprano Amelia Berry. They contributed some of the highlights of the concert, particularly in Carmina Burana. Pati’s humorous rendition of a tortured swan roasting on a spit and Berry’s pure tone as she sings of being torn between love and chastity were memorable moments.

I should mention also that Orchestra Wellington was fabulous!

Fantastique | Regional News

Fantastique

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Holly Mathieson

Michael Fowler Centre, 14th May 2021

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

Holly Mathieson opened Fantastique with an enthusiastic, personal perspective on the programme and gave a helpful prompt that the theme was dreams. Having arrived too late to have read the programme notes, this was both very useful and an engaging insight into how she would be directing the performance.

Toru Takemitsu’s Dreamtime (Yume no Toki) made use of a rich variety of percussion and orchestration to create the dream experience and the orchestra gave it their all. I didn’t hear the same images Mathieson had suggested I might, and this served to accentuate the beautifully expressed and strong sense of how personal our dreams can be.

Dorothy Ker’s The Third Dream maximised the percussive possibilities of instruments. Ker’s piece was deeper and more menacing in tone than Takemitsu’s but there was no mistaking the dream context this time either. We are used to the sight of string players plucking at their instruments and sometimes using different bowing techniques, but Ker brought out the percussionist in unexpected places to great effect. The double basses particularly enjoyed their licence to slap, hit, and exploit some of the biggest sound boxes on stage.

Hector Berlioz challenged boundaries when he wrote his Symphonie Fantastique. The five movements describe a romantic narrative, episodes of the composer’s dream, a style which broke new ground in 1830. The treatment of the melodies, the orchestration, and the variety of effects Berlioz used to capture the mood and the story gave the NZSO musicians their chances to shine on the night. As ever, the playing was impeccable. Two harps, substantial brass and woodwind sections, and four timpani as well as many strings meant there were numerous examples of musical magic.

The last word is to congratulate principal bassoon, Robert Weeks. A very fine farewell speech from colleague David Angus told us Weeks is retiring but will continue to follow his dreams.

Queen: It’s A Kinda Magic | Regional News

Queen: It’s A Kinda Magic

The Opera House, 18th Apr 2021

Reviewed by: Graeme King

“Are we gonna have fun tonight Wellington?” shouts Freddie Mercury (Dominic Warren) during the concert starter A Kind Of Magic, and it’s obvious the audience is in for an interactive experience.

“This is a rock ‘n’ roll gig so we’re gonna treat it as a stadium – on your feet!” This at the start of the second track Radio Ga Ga, and we are up dancing!

This concert is a recreation of the 1986 World Tour – and a lot of attention has been paid to ensure the authenticity of the costumes, instruments and equipment, background videos, stunning lightshow, and state-of-the-art sound system.  

All their biggest hits follow: Another One Bites the Dust, featuring the solid bass guitar of John Deacon (Nigel Walker), Play The Game and Killer Queen, with Brian May (Luke Wyngaard) exquisitely playing the famous guitar riffs, Fat Bottomed Girls and Tie Your Mother Down featuring a thunderous but impeccable drum solo by Roger Taylor (Michael Dickens). Bicycle Race, Save Me, Don’t Stop Me Now – after which Freddie asks for a selfie with the band, and for the audience to stand and raise their hands, with Crazy Little Thing Called Love closing the first half.

A frenetic I Want It All starts the second set, with It’s A Hard Life segueing effortlessly into You’re My Best Friend. A superb guitar solo by Brian May is followed by I Want To Break Free, whereupon Freddie (in drag) comes down into the first few rows to sit on a few male laps – rubbing some with his feather boa!

The hits keep coming – Hammer To Fall, Under Pressure, Somebody To Love, We Are The Champions – with the last song of the set the anthemic We Will Rock You.

The encore starts with Love Of My Life featuring Brian May’s sublime acoustic guitar playing and gorgeous vocals by Freddie, finishing with a climactic Bohemian Rhapsody.

Overall a clever, well-spaced production that, with the strong vocal harmonies and musicianship of the band together with Freddie’s powerful vocals and stage presence, creates an enjoyable Queen experience.

Reach Beyond Your Horizons | Regional News

Reach Beyond Your Horizons

The t-Lounge by Dilmah, 16th Apr 2021

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

Newlands College student Josh Neilson has been learning the drums for the past year with his teacher and friend Senuka Sudusinghe, front of house host and tea mixologist at the t-Lounge by Dilmah. Josh was diagnosed with autism as a baby and has an ultimate goal of drumming in a band one day. In Reach Beyond Your Horizons, he performed to an audience to help him on the way to that dream. Patrons also enjoyed a Dilmah tea and Meyer cheese pairing, a three-course meal, and speeches aimed at celebrating neurodiversity in our community, with 20 percent of the proceeds from the event going to Autism NZ.

Playing songs like We Will Rock You by Queen and Billie Jean by Michael Jackson, Josh’s passion, enthusiasm, and joyful spirit shone through. My concert favourites were the Drum Dialog between Josh and Senuka, where their connection and friendship resonated louder than the boom from the bass drum, and the fusion drum recital East Meets West, a fitting finale that saw Josh playing along to Sri Lankan drumming. 

The food was exceptional. The entrée was a beautiful mushroom cappuccino with a lentil bite (think a shot of cream of mushroom soup with a kick). Next we had a Ceylon spiced chicken taco, boasting perfectly balanced flavours tied together with a spicy chilli mayo. A vegetarian option of jackfruit was available too. Amma’s deliciously decadent chocolate cake followed with a choice of matcha, chai, or earl grey gelato – a special tea-infused treat. Of course the tea was a standout, with the lychee, rose, and almond with lemon nitro tea the most refreshing welcoming drink I think I’ve ever had.  

I was honoured to be invited to Reach Beyond Your Horizons, where the love Josh’s friends and family felt for him filled the room like steam from a hot cuppa on a cold night. It felt special to be part of a moment so important in a young man’s life, and what an upstanding man Josh clearly is.

Firebird | Regional News

Firebird

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Hamish McKeich

Michael Fowler Centre, 8th Apr 2021

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

In a marked contrast to the clarity and purpose of Carnival, Firebird, on two weeks later, was a confused experience. Thursday night’s programme was a jarring mix of styles and orchestration.

The opening piece was hard to enjoy. Juliet Palmer’s Buzzard was intended to support the bird theme, but I could not bring to mind anything relevant to the idea. The rhythms and intonation challenged the orchestra too, who looked and sounded tense and tested.

Welcoming applause for pianist Diedre Irons showed the house included many who had come to hear her play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488. It was an odd choice to follow Buzzard and the abrupt change of style took a while to settle in my ear, but the orchestra relaxed and Irons gave us the highly capable and competent performance we know we can rely on from her. The second movement, Adagio, opened beautifully on piano and then swelled, receded, and flowed between the piano and orchestra through to a neatly played final movement, rewarded with long applause from the audience.

I have a new love for Stravinsky. After Petrushka in Carnival and this performance of Firebird I am left wondering why I haven’t felt this love before now. The answer must surely be the combination of Hamish McKeich’s direction and the individual and collective performances of the NZSO. Firebird was another dazzling combination of tone, depth, emotion, and imagery. The music shimmered and swirled, was bright and light, dark and menacing, contrasting chromatic notes with particular scales and harmonies, cleverly directed changes in volume and pace evoking dreamlike states and passages of high energy and urgency, culminating in a spectacularly energetic finale. It is near impossible to find a standout from so many excellent performances, but I loved the viola passages above all, and they are still ringing in my ears. Accolades for everyone, including Stravinsky.

Carnival | Regional News

Carnival

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestr

Conducted by: Hamish McKeich

Michael Fowler Centre, 26th Mar 2021

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

Carnival was an apt title for this programme. Opening a busy weekend of festivals – CubaDupa, the culmination of Wellington Pride, and the NZSO’s 2021 Podium Series – there was an enthusiastic almost full house for this lively and bold performance, full of energy, colour, and glorious sound. It was also a great send-off for second violin Dean Major, retiring after 46 years.

Ravel originally wrote La Valse as ballet music. From deep in the lower registers the music grows in volume, complexity, and pace. Skilful musicianship created a sense of someone wading through deep water, emerging on the shore to dance, ultimately, with abandon. Hardly a Viennese waltz but definitely in the carnival theme.

Stephen De Pledge took his seat for Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major. Written in about 1930, Ravel traverses Basque folk music and jazz (a definite echo of Gershwin’s 1924 Rhapsody in Blue) in three classically proportioned movements. De Pledge was enjoying himself at the keyboard, ably supported and very well matched by the orchestra. The third movement felt especially playful and enchanting and his encore of Couperin’s La Basque was executed perfectly.

The carnival atmosphere stepped up a notch with Anna Clyne’s Masquerade. Commissioned for the Last Night of the Proms in 2013, this deliberately exuberant piece was a perfect choice for this programme. Starting with a big bang, then strings sounding like electronica, next bringing to mind the desert scene in Lawrence of Arabia, followed by heavy bass brass, syncopated rhythms, and so much going on, it was hard to keep up before the big brass finale.

The sonic dance party continued with Stravinsky’s Petrushka. Ballet music has to tell the story for the dancers to bring to life. Under McKeich’s animated direction, the orchestra did a stunning job of bringing the distinctly modern and disjointed but essential parts together as a hugely engrossing and enjoyable whole.

Crowded House | Regional News

Crowded House

TSB Arena 15th March 2021

Reviewed by: Graeme King

Monday night at the TSB Arena really was a crowded house, where over 4000 fans were treated to something special.

From the opening song Weather with You the hits flowed: Mean to Me, World Where You Live, Whatever You Want – featuring the superlative bass of Nick Seymour, co-founder with Neil Finn.

The hits kept coming as fast as the hilarious banter between all the band. Whispers and Moans and Playing with Fire were both songs featuring the talented support artist Reb Fountain and band on backing vocals, showing great camaraderie between everyone on stage.

Pineapple Head featured gorgeous vocal harmonies, with Neil somehow managing to include a verse of the old Petula Clark hit Downtown in the middle of it!

When You Come featured the ethereal keyboards of Mitchell Froom, and a stunning lead guitar solo by Liam Finn. Private Universe started off with Elroy Finn on guitar before switching back to drums. Four Seasons in One Day had the audience singing loudly – to which Neil commented: “sweet and tender, Wellington!”

He described the sombre Silent House, co-written with the Dixie Chicks, as “saying goodbye slowly to people we love”.

To the Island, the name of the band’s nationwide tour, again featured Aucklander Reb and band – after which Neil introduced percussionist Paul Taylor, who played on several songs throughout the night.

Locked Out had a frenetic ending, culminating in Liam throwing his guitar high into the air and catching it safely – to Neil’s almost sarcastic: “Nice catch Liam!”

At the end of Don’t Dream It’s Over, the audience was asked to sing a chorus almost a cappella. Something So Strong again had the audience singing loudly, and then it was Distant Sun to finish the set.

After what seemed like several minutes of very loud clapping and yelling, the band was back on stage for the first encore Chocolate Cake, featuring Neil on piano, followed by David Bowie’s Heroes. The final song Better Be Home Soon had everyone happily singing along.

Overall a superb night, featuring an exciting new edition of an iconic band led by the extremely talented Neil, together with a beautifully balanced sound and stunning light show.

Synthony | Regional News

Synthony

TSB Arena, 12th Feb 2021

Reviewed by: Graeme King

On Friday night at the packed TSB Arena the full might of Orchestra Wellington combined with spine-tingling electronic dance music, played through a state-of-the-art sound system, and featuring a dynamic laser-light show, to create a truly immersive experience.

Synthony has been called “a celebration of the last 30 years of dance music” and the audience, singing and dancing for almost two hours, would agree.

The set by DJ Greg Churchill warmed the crowd up, and it was clear that by the time George FM DJ and host General Lee introduced conductor Brent Stewart and Orchestra Wellington, it was time to party!

Some of the most iconic electronic dance tracks were reimagined with full orchestral power to sound like nothing heard before: Fatboy Slim’s Right Here, Right Now, Avicii’s Levels, Rudimental’s Feel the Love, and the encore of Darude’s Sandstorm were standouts. Eric Prydz’s Proper Education – powerfully sung by Jason Kerrison – and Cherie Mathieson’s sultry version of Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) had the audience singing loud enough to almost raise the roof! Jason’s guitar playing on Don't Hold Back gave the song an exciting edge.

Ria Hall was in sublime form – especially with the last track You Got the Love. The other guest vocalists Hannah Rees and Nate Dousand, together with the silky-smooth saxophone of Lewis McCallum, had the audience in the palms of their outstretched hands.

It was a sensory overload – a spiritually uplifting and almost joyous occasion, and the addition to the stage of the five-piece drum group Taikoza only added to the pulsating, climactic last tracks.

However, the party wasn't over yet – there was still another set by DJ Dick Johnson to keep the capacity crowd of 4000 happy and dancing into Saturday morning.

Overall, this was a stunning production by founder Erika Amoore and arranger Ryan Youens, helped by the slick host work of General Lee. I highly recommend Synthony to anyone that likes a dance party – especially as Ibiza's probably out for a while yet.

Rachmaninoff 2: Triumph  | Regional News

Rachmaninoff 2: Triumph

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 5th Dec 2020

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

I imagine this concert was christened Triumph because of the positive critical and public reception of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in contrast to the debacle of his first symphony some years previously, which nearly destroyed his confidence as a composer.

Equally, though, the second work on the programme, View from Olympus by New Zealand composer John Psathas was a triumph in terms of audience response: the crowd went wild! The work is a double concerto for pianist and a percussionist playing a wide variety of instruments. The soloists were Michael Houstoun and percussionist Jeremy Fitzsimons. The first and third movements, drawn from Psathas’ Greek heritage, conveyed the avenging spirit of the Furies and the wine-possessed frenzy of the Maenads of Greek mythology, both fierce and powerful groups of women. The second movement, The Smiling Child, is a tribute to his two children and, by contrast, is delicate, tender, and playful. The range of sounds and timbre achieved by the soloists was simply staggering, with the piano part integral to the overall effect. While Houstoun worked overtime with his fingers, Fitzsimons added to the visual interest of the performance as he moved across the stage between instrument stations. And let’s not forget the orchestra: ubiquitous strings, powerful interjections from brass instruments, and yet more percussion. It was all stunning and magical.

One can see why Rachmaninoff’s second symphony has sometimes in the past been shortened in performance. It is a vast, tumultuous work. Wonderful, but it does go on! Marc Taddei and the orchestra delivered an energetic, driving, and colourful performance that honoured the composer’s intent to express emotions. It has it all: agitated then sweet, sombre then tender, passionate then nostalgic, exuberant and festive, melody after melody, and climax after climax. I think the orchestra had a ball, a fitting climax to their subscription concert year.

Michael Houstoun: An evening of Bach and Beethoven | Regional News

Michael Houstoun: An evening of Bach and Beethoven

Presented by: Chamber Music New Zealand

Michael Fowler Centre, 21st Nov 2020

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

Michael Houstoun’s audience rose to their feet to acclaim him at the conclusion of his concert. It was a fitting gesture for the man near the end of an outstanding career and for the performer of this programme of Bach and Beethoven, both of whom Houstoun reports to be his music touchstones.

How clever the programming was: a programme to stop your heart even before you hear the performance. Bach’s Partita No. 4 in D Major and Busoni’s arrangement of the Chaconne from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 were followed in the second half by the Adagio Sostenuto movement from Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata and the entire Waldstein Sonata. In the programme notes, Houstoun described the D Major Partita and the Waldstein as works of majesty, celebration, and joy. Between those works, the Chaconne and the Adagio Sostenuto touched tragedy and sorrow. Houstoun wrote of the Adagio Sostenuto as “an unsurpassed statement of sublime sadness.”

What is striking about Houstoun’s performance style is the directness of the delivery of the music to the audience. His very entry to the stage is understated. There are no histrionics in his playing. He conveys his deep engagement with and understanding of the music through his hands alone.

Highlights of this concert for me included the way in which the structures of the Partita movements were elucidated by the wonderful clarity of his playing. Also of note were the beautiful balance of melody and adornment in the Chaconne and his commanding control of dynamics and intensity in the Hammerklavier movement. My enjoyment of the concert grew through to the enveloping beauty of the Waldstein Sonata. The first movement was convincingly energetic but relaxed and fluid. The second created a profound and brooding stillness. In the final movement, Houstoun’s judgments of colour and intensity seemed inevitable and perfect and his amazing agility thrilled.

Spectacular | Regional News

Spectacular

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Gemma New

Michael Fowler Centre, 20th Nov 2020

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

What a treat! One of my favourite pieces of all time, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and a rarity in these COVID times, a new conductor in front of a live audience. Gemma New had her debut with the NZSO online in August but made up for any lost ground in this performance almost from the moment she stepped onto the podium. It was quickly evident she was totally immersed in the music and her relationship with the orchestra. There is a terrible workplace joke about using interpretive dance to command attention and communicate important messages to your audience. Gemma New has set a very high bar as far as I am concerned. Her physicality was joyful, engaging, expressive, energetic, definitely dancelike, and brought out the absolute best in the orchestra.

The Fantasia is based on a psalm Tallis had set to music during the Renaissance period. Church music would have been played on the organ at the time. The two physically separated string orchestras (just nine players in Orchestra Two) and a solo quartet sounded uncannily like an organ. The strings of the NZSO are excellent and played beautifully as always, and there should be special congratulations to the retiring cellist Robert Ibell and bass player Nicholas Sandle.

Stephen de Pledge, known as an advocate for contemporary music, played Anthony Ritchie’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with energy and feeling and gave a bonus performance of Edvard Grieg’s Nocturne. Symphony No. 5 by Jean Sibelius is traditional in form with strong theatrical moments, thoroughly enjoyed by conductor, orchestra, and audience alike.

One of the unique pleasures of a live performance is the combination of sound and action. While there was plenty to look at in the playing, it was an absolute delight to watch Gemma New bringing an extra dimension to the experience – her highly professional and personal interpretive dance.

Rapture   | Regional News

Rapture

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 15th Nov 2020

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

This concert was to have been presented back in May but the spiky bug got in the way. The programme was well worth waiting for. I thought that the performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1 was one of the best of the year, and to cap that off the audience had the opportunity to hear violinist Amalia Hall perform a very intriguing contemporary concerto by American Jennifer Higdon, followed by a ravishing solo encore. The third work was Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings.

Taddei took a restrained approach to the Serenade for Strings, achieving lightness and clarity but at some cost to energy and warmth at times. Perhaps he was saving the orchestra’s energy for what was to come.

Higdon’s concerto is a showpiece for the violin. Throughout the first movement, the violin dialogues with various instruments of the orchestra in turn. There is a magical, mysterious beginning with aethereal splinters of high violin notes echoed and partnered by splinters of sound from the percussion section. In the second movement, the image I got was of the violin voice threading itself through the orchestra’s full soundscapes. The third movement was utter virtuosic speed. Amalia Hall was completely up to the job throughout. She was amazing.

Rachmaninoff never heard his first symphony properly performed. The only performance in his lifetime was ruined due to the conductor’s drunkenness and poor appreciation of the work. As Taddei put it, Rachmaninoff had a “mental funk” about composing symphonies for some years and put the work away. Fortunately, after his death the symphony was reconstructed from recovered orchestral parts. It is music on a grand scale, lush and dramatic, reflective and melancholic, agitated and restful, fierce and gentle. Taddei declared that he loves this work and it showed. The large orchestra seemed to love it too: it was played with energy and conviction.

Timeless | Regional News

Timeless

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Hamish McKeich

Michael Fowler Centre, 24th Oct 2020

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

Just when you think you have had the best musical experience in ages (Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen, just a fortnight earlier) the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra turns out another one. The NZSO under Hamish McKeich is clearly bursting with pent-up, COVID-constrained energy.

In my household, we say “Classical classical” to describe a programme including works by the big names of the period that developed the symphonic form. On paper, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven. In performance, classical, classical, and absolutely brilliant and extraordinary.

Energised after touring the programme in the North Island, the orchestra dived into one of Mozart's most famous symphonies, No. 40 in G Minor, K.550.  Written near the end of his life, No. 40 seems the epitome of Mozart: complex, interlaced orchestration; distinct musical themes; marked changes in volume and timing; and fabulous use of the whole orchestra. Beautifully played as a whole, the double basses stood out for their fine example of the high-speed dexterity demanded from all strings in the fourth movement.

The subtitle, Tempora Mutantur, of Haydn's Symphony No. 64 in A Major, refers to the changes the passage of time brings. The orchestra and McKeich created lovely forward momentum without rushing. In what was becoming a performance to showcase the strings, this time it was the perfect, exposed sound of the violins in the second movement that shone through.

If you didn’t know, Grosse Fuge was Beethoven’s. You would be forgiven for some confusion. Stravinsky said it was “the most absolutely contemporary piece of music I know, and contemporary forever”. The wind section was gone, leaving only the strings. Almost defying analysis and description (there are not enough adjectives to do it justice), this is three fugues and a coda and a terribly difficult piece to play. The strings played their hearts and minds out in a bravura performance that will stay with me for a very long time.

Melancholy | Regional News

Melancholy

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 17th Oct 2020

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

The ever-ebullient Mark Taddei pointed out that a theme of this concert was youth. The works of two of the featured composers, Josef Suk and Sergei Prokofiev were composed at the astonishingly young ages of 18 and 19 respectively. As well, the concert featured the Arohanui Strings, a group of young string players from Lower Hutt and Wellington, joining Orchestra Wellington players as they do annually. They were conducted by young assistant conductor, Luka Venter, to perform Domino Effect, a tuneful, innovative, and fun work composed by Alissa Long, a young Taiwanese New Zealander. So much talent on view!

Orchestra Wellington performed Suk’s Serenade for Strings well, capturing different moods and tempi convincingly: sunny and lyrical in the first movement, lilting and merry in the second, soulful and romantic in the third, and energetic and playful in the fourth.

My favourite work of the night was Prokofiev’s virtuosic first piano concerto with Jian Liu at the piano. The piano leads with a memorable, jagged, and discordant dotted-rhythm theme which returns several times throughout the work. Slight though Jian Liu is physically, he packed a punch in the first movement and again in the last with its running octave chords and glittering cadenza. In the middle movement, he and the orchestra created a more gentle and pensive mood without any intensity being lost.

Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 completed the concert. Though in best romantic tradition it has many beautiful melodies, they are not lingered over. Rather, the lush is interspersed with the dramatic and the lyrical is interrupted by great climaxes supported by the large brass and percussion sections. It was a feast for all instruments, and to the audience wonderful visually as well as to the ear.

That there was an almost full audience despite the attraction of election night results testifies to Orchestra Wellington’s popularity.

Monumental | Regional News

Monumental

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Hamish McKeich

Michael Fowler Centre, 9th Oct 2020

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

In his programme foreword, Peter Biggs, the new chief executive of the NZSO, says, “the inspiration for the title [Monumental] was the pairing of Richard Strauss’ extraordinary Metamorphosen and his sublime Four Last Songs with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.”

Metamorphosen is indeed extraordinary. 23 string players each held their own part under immaculate, calm, and distinct direction from McKeich. When I started learning music only the cello was on offer, though I really wanted to play the trombone. While I love a good brass sound, I am a pushover for strings and I was utterly enthralled by Strauss’ lament for the damage, atrocities, and losses of the Second World War. The complexity of 23 separate parts, played superbly, made for a brilliant and exceptionally memorable experience.

Soprano Emma Pearson brought us more astonishing beauty. Her voice filled the auditorium effortlessly with Strauss’ Four Last Songs. This is no mean feat when accompanied by an orchestra. Strauss and Pauline de Ahna, also a soprano, were married for over 55 years. These were Richard’s final tribute to Pauline, after dedicating most of the 200 lieder (songs) he wrote throughout his career to her.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 is a ‘big’ symphony. From the opening phrase to the final triumphant moment, this piece has everything. The full complement of instruments on the stage gave us ample opportunity to follow just one or two of them, or to try and keep up with the whole as they produced every shade of volume, pitch, and intensity, delivered by delicate woodwind, lyrical strings, and a big brassy sound, with timpani also prominent in every movement. Musical themes pop up throughout, coming and going and reappearing. It was like trying to follow someone through a crowd, catching an occasional glimpse before heading off in a new direction with fresh energy before eventually coming to a big, exultant, Monumental close.

The Bells | Regional News

The Bells

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 3rd Oct 2020

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

I had thought that I might find the full forces of the Orpheus Choir too heavy for the beauty of Fauré’s Requiem. On the contrary, the hushed singing of the Introit et Kyrie, the beautiful unaccompanied passage for altos and tenors at the opening of the Offertoire, and the floating quality of the soprano sound for the final In Paradisum were highlights of this performance. It was ironic then that at other times, the choir seemed to force their voices to find the volume being asked of them. Perhaps it was the stage configuration; the choir was a long way back from and above the orchestra during the Requiem.

The space was filled for the second work of the concert, Rachmaninoff’s The Bells, by a much-enlarged orchestra, adding powerful percussion and brass and additional woodwind for this impressive work. The Bells is truly a choral symphony, rather than a choral work with orchestral accompaniment, and the often-huge vocal sound achieved became an integral part of the whole.

While the titles of the two opening movements, Silver Sleigh Bells and Mellow Wedding Bells, suggest fun and celebration, the work in fact has an underlying mood of foreboding. Sleigh Bells starts lightly but even this movement provides a full gamut of volume, flavour, and emotion. Wedding bells is solemn, soulful, and sacrificial rather than celebratory. The mood is then downhill into the darker, world-weary but urgent soundscapes of Alarm Bells and Mournful Iron Bells until at the very end there emerges a rising, hopeful spirit leading to a full and mellow final chord.

A word on the soloists. The voice of Margaret Medlyn (soprano) is sadly unsuited to the sweetness and clarity required in Fauré’s Pie Jesu movement. However she, Wade Kernot (baritone), and Jared Holt (tenor) made expressive and beautiful contributions to The Bells.

Symphonic Dances | Regional News

Symphonic Dances

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 26th Sep 2020

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

The highlight of this concert for me was Three Psalms by New Zealand composer John Psathas. It is a work for solo piano, strings, harp, and percussion, originally commissioned by Michael Houstoun, the soloist at this performance, for his 50th birthday. This concert marked his final concerto appearance before he retires later this year.

This was no lyrical adieu from Houstoun. In the first movement, the piano effects were as percussive and rhythmic as the wide range of instruments played by three amazing percussionists, with the piano and percussion often doubling or echoing each other in tone and rhythm. The second movement painted a haunting and desolate picture of the effects of war and disaster, the composer’s response to photos of such events by James Nachtwey. The third movement, inspired by Prokofiev’s third piano concerto, was lively, colourful, fast and furious, and dramatic by contrast. Full marks to Mark Taddei for holding this rhythmically challenging movement together. Bravo to Michael Houstoun. The piano never stops in this concerto. What a work and style to finish with!

Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances book-ended Psathas’ work. Having one work for strings only, one for strings with piano and percussion, and one for a very full orchestra of strings, 11 brass instruments, six percussionists, and 13 woodwind, made for a great audience experience.

The Serenade for Strings was delicious. It was possible to enjoy the different lyrical qualities of the double basses, cellos, violas, and violins separately. The performance was warm and sweet, sweeping and gorgeous, but precise and disciplined.

Symphonic Dances provided an exciting soundscape with the return of the brass and woodwind. There was a lovely section in the first movement that featured the woodwind particularly, while the brass provided regular dramatic interjections. It was great to hear the whole orchestra in full cry again.

Eroica | Regional News

Eroica

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Miguel Harth-Bedoya

Michael Fowler Centre, 27th Sep 2020

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

Adapting to the unusual times, this concert was rescheduled (hooray for Level 1!) to Sunday afternoon. Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya promised the best first experience new audience members would ever have. Actually, he under-promised and over-delivered. This was a stellar performance.

Anthony Ritchie’s Remember Parihaka began with almost imperceptible, perfect low notes from strings. Pulses of sound emerged through morning mist or sunrise, the essence of peaceful. One of the earliest events of non-violent opposition to oppression took place at Parihaka in 1881. Minor chords and dissonance signalled tension and resistance, flutes sounded an urgent alarm, pizzicato indicated scurrying for position, the side drum brought the troops, shots were fired and volume and intensity rose, then fell back to strings, expressing the loss and sorrow of an appalling event in our history.

Our closed borders create opportunities for our own where guest soloists had been expected. NZSO concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppänen is one such local hero. Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D Minor demands the highest level of technical and musical expertise imaginable. Leppänen played with great skill and huge confidence. This was an emotional, astonishing, and beautiful performance.

A relaxed and happy conductor and orchestra finished the programme with another stunning feat: Symphony No. 3 in E flat Major, Eroica, by Beethoven. Harth-Bedoya’s assured and expressive direction brought energy and life to every one of the four movements, every player and theme, development and variation. The rich and complex sound was sensitively played, phrases leading into each other yet retaining their distinct individuality. Expertly nimble playing in the Scherzo was a brilliant segue to the last movement where all the energies of the afternoon combined for the final, joyous Allegro.

Second violin Lucien Rizos was playing in his last concert after 47 years with NZSO. If I could retire on such a high note as this I imagine I would be happy for the rest of my life.

Amalia Hall with Stephen de Pledge | Regional News

Amalia Hall with Stephen de Pledge

Presented by: Chamber Music New Zealand

Public Trust Hall, 6th Aug 2020

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

Being able, in this COVID-riven world, to go to a new Wellington chamber music venue and hear two outstanding New Zealand musicians perform an interesting and varied programme is such a privilege.

Each item in this programme was introduced by either Amalia Hall (violin) or Stephen de Pledge (piano), creating an intimacy appropriate to the repertoire and enhanced by the proportions of the new venue.

The programme ranged from the familiar (Beethoven’s Sonata No. 5 in F major, the Spring sonata) to the new (Gao Ping’s Bitter Cold Night), and from the most classical Mozart (Sonata No. 19 in E flat major) to the very French Saint-Saёns (Sonata No. 1 in D minor). As if this were not variety enough, we also got Gershwin’s jazzy and vibrant Three Preludes as arranged by Heifetz.

As de Pledge told us, the programme was intended to be optimistic and joyful. But it was tempered with contemporary reality by the inclusion of Bitter Cold Night. Gao Ping wrote the work in response to the death of Dr Li Wenliang, the COVID-19 virus whistle-blower. It is a bleak piece, sparse and tentative, eerie at times, but with loud and angry eruptions. I felt that the audience held its breath for this wonderful and intense piece.

The partnership between the players showed to great advantage in Beethoven’s sonata, with de Pledge’s robust but intensely musical playing and Hall’s assertive but sweet violin. The third movement in particular was a delight – jaunty, cheeky, and flirtatious. While all the works were demanding, none was more so technically than the Saint-Saёns sonata. Hall said that the last movement meant that neither player had needed to go to the gym for a while. It is fiendish and hectic, with an absolute frenzy of notes requiring intense concentration. They pulled it off perfectly.

Houstoun Plays Rachmaninoff | Regional News

Houstoun Plays Rachmaninoff

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 25th Jul 2020

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

I heard it often, people saying “It’s nice to be back.” As Mark Taddei said, Orchestra Wellington may be the first orchestra in the world to resume its subscription series since COVID-19 enveloped us. Still, since the original soloist could not get here, the programme changed. The massive third Rachmaninoff piano concerto replaced the shorter fourth, so for reasons of programme length, we lost the Schumann Manfred Overture to complement the Tchaikovsky Manfred Symphony.

The bonus was having that icon of New Zealand music, Michael Houstoun, as replacement soloist. It was a disappointing night for him; using an electronic score, the technology developed a fault, requiring him to stop the performance and ask for it to be restarted. All credit to all performers; they picked up without fuss and completed the work without another glitch. To the audience it did not detract a jot from their appreciation of his forceful, lyrical, brilliant, and agile performance. He must have been on tenterhooks for the rest of the concerto but the audience was just glad that he too was back!

Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony uses a huge orchestra including 12 frequently used brass instruments and a good array of percussion with wonderful opportunities for woodwind to add colour to the scenes being painted. Add in soaring strings, two harps, a chiming bell, and an organ and there you have a recipe for over-the-top romanticism that had my companion gurgling with suppressed laughter at times. It was pretty marvellous. Holding the whole together was the evocative Manfred theme, dominating the first movement in which the despondent anti-hero wanders in the alpine environment, then reappearing in the sparkling, magical second movement where a fairy appears to Manfred, and again as he is cheered by happy bucolic scenes, and then finally in the demonic bacchanal of the fourth movement.

Welcome back, Orchestra Wellington.

Goldberg Variations | Regional News

Goldberg Variations

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, 22nd Jul 2020

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

First published in 1741, JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations was written for harpsichord and has since been arranged differently many times. The NZSO’s interpretation under director Vesa-Matti Leppänen (violin) used a variety of instruments, maximising the musical variation and contrast. The introductory Aria is followed by 30 variations and the depth and complexity of the music and the instrumental variety made the combinations seem endless.

A subtle backdrop of coloured lighting and the movement of players as they joined and left the performance created extra visual interest. As well as a lovely echo of the movement in the music, it was a physical demonstration of the ever-changing instrumental blend and how the variations developed from the theme.

On the fortepiano Stephen De Pledge did a very fine job of coaxing tone and colour from his keyboard. De Pledge spoke briefly during the interval and we learned the difference between the harpsichord and fortepiano lies in plucking versus striking the strings. Bach might not have approved of De Pledge’s relatively modern choice of instrument, but the audience would have disagreed. De Pledge’s technique and style made the best of the possibilities afforded by the softer tone and dynamic control of the new technology.

Every musician was in good form and the reduced numbers on stage (just 18) gave each one of them their moment to shine. Though limited in number, the players explored a full spectrum of rich musical sound. The standout was Carolyn Mills on the harp who had a variation to herself. It is rare to hear a harp so clearly in ensemble play and, with a touch of musical and lighting magic, my view was obscured and it looked like the harp was playing itself.

By the close it was hard to remember this was intended for harpsichord alone. Known for innovation and invention in his own time, I like to think JS Bach might have enjoyed it too.

Pastoral | Regional News

Pastoral

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Hamish McKeich

Michael Fowler Centre, 9th Jul 2020

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

Feelings of warmth, familiarity, and a generosity of spirit filled the auditorium in the Michael Fowler Centre. Lockdown was a test of collaboration through technology and it was impressive but there really is nothing to beat the live experience. The house was respectably full, the audience and orchestra seemed relaxed and happy.

Diedre Irons took the stage for Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73. The first movement is filled with long runs up and down the keyboard. In lesser hands than Irons it could have sounded like someone practising their scales. Instead, the high energy and technique of Irons was a great match for the vigorous part of the orchestra. The lyrical theme of the second movement has always been one of my favourites. The strings open gently and are joined by the piano, leading to some delicate and beautifully played passages between woodwind and piano. My only criticism may be nothing more than my ears being out of practice, but the orchestra did seem to dominate at times. However, applause was long and loud, Diedre Irons receiving heartfelt thanks for an enjoyable performance.

After last year’s popular performances of Beethoven’s works, pairing Emperor with Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68, the eponymous Pastoral of the programme, was always going to bring a grateful audience back to the concert hall. The Sixth Symphony was a smart choice for the times. The first movement was full of optimism and hope shining through a lush, big sound. In the second a deeply satisfying tone from bassoon and cello transported my immigrant soul to the river meadows where my parents live, a long way from the New Zealand winter. The third movement was crisp and delicate, interrupted by a summer thunderstorm that had us all running for home.

Thank you NZSO, it is good to have you back.

Amalia and Friends | Regional News

Amalia and Friends

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

St Andrews on the Terrace, 20th Jun 2020

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

This was the last of the three Orchestra Wellington Mozart programmes with Amalia Hall leading the performance from within the orchestra or as soloist. Quite a tall order, but one which she accomplished with poise and aplomb.

Mozart would very likely have taken the same role with the two works performed, his Violin Concerto No. 3 and Symphony No. 36, known as the Linz symphony. It is staggering to think that his five violin concerti were composed when he was merely 19, and that the lovely and complex Linz symphony was written over four or five days.

The orchestra seemed energised from the start. The concerto’s first movement opened with sprightly, precise, and full-toned playing from the strings. The solo playing was wonderfully expressive both here and in the beautiful theme of the second movement. Horns and oboes added colour and punctuation to the first movement and two flutes contributed to the soulfulness of the second. The third was fast, furious, and jaunty. Throughout, the cadenzas of the solo part were a fitting showcase for Amalia Hall’s abilities.

The orchestra also delivered a great performance of the Linz symphony. It is full of contrasts. In the first movement, the noble and pensive introduction is followed by a martial and accented Allegro that creates drama and suspense. The dark and sober Adagio had a great sense of purpose and direction. The cello section impressed when their turn came to star and the interjections from horns and timpani were emphatic. It was the turn of the oboes in the dignified Menuetto.

And then there was the Presto finale. Mozart wrote that the finale should be played “as fast as possible.” Amalia and friends pushed it along at a dashing rate but it was still delicate and delicious. I could have laughed out loud with the exhilaration of it.

Amalia and Friends | Regional News

Amalia and Friends

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

St Andrew’s on the Terrace, 13th Jun 2020

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

This concert was the second of three programmes featuring Mozart violin concertos and symphonies, designed for COVID-19 Level 2 conditions, with each concert to be performed twice to audiences of a hundred. The concerts are free. Orchestra Wellington is to be congratulated for their enterprise and generosity. Fans have responded enthusiastically. They packed St Andrew’s Church after extra tickets were made available following the shift to COVID-19 Level 1.

I understand that the decision to mount the three Amalia and Friends programmes was made only weeks ago and that the opportunities to rehearse together have been minimal. There was the potential for mishap perhaps, especially given the light direction provided to the orchestra by Amalia Hall as soloist in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 and as orchestra leader in the same composer’s Symphony No. 38 Prague.

Maybe there were a few points where the orchestra’s balance and cohesion were not perfect, and perhaps the second movement of the symphony was a bit laboured, but in the circumstances the players did themselves and Mozart credit. The audience was treated to a very engaging concert in an intimate environment similar, as the concert programme notes pointed out, to that which audiences in the late 1700s would have experienced with Mozart himself as soloist and conductor.

As soloist, Amalia Hall’s beautifully constructed phrasing, the sweetness of tone on higher strings, the colour in her double-stopping on lower strings, and the brilliance of the cadenzas contributed to a lovely performance. The orchestra provided a fine, committed performance throughout, but particularly in the rollicking, teasing, vigorous third movement.

For the Prague symphony, flutes, bassoons, timpani, and trumpets joined the strings, oboes, and horns which played in the concerto. This was a fine performance with plenty of contrast, energy, and intensity, with a wonderfully fiery and frenetic ending.

Aldous Harding, Weyes Blood, and Purple Pilgrims | Regional News

Aldous Harding, Weyes Blood, and Purple Pilgrims

The Michael Fowler Centre, Mar 13th 2020

Reviewed by: Aimee Smith

It’s impossible not to get excited knowing Aldous Harding is returning to Wellington soil for the New Zealand Festival of the Arts. Homegrown music shines in a night tied together by a rolling tide of vibrato, and the intersection of folkloric fantasies and the late-night ruminations from a house party.

The night is ushered in by New Zealand up-and-comers Purple Pilgrims. The sister act has the task of turning the corporate Michael Fowler centre into the appropriate setting for a night of psychedelic indie folk, and Clementine and Valentine Nixon delve into it with total commitment. Their lush tones and layered electronic tunes create an atmosphere reminiscent of Tolkien’s elvish realms.

Weyes Blood follows, and if Purple Pilgrims took us on a journey to fairyland, our American act plants us on more solid ground. Natalie Mering has the confidence and wry comedic stage presence of a classic crooner with the vocal power to match as she delivers her ‘sad cowboy songs’. Weyes Blood makes the perfect centrepiece for the night, and one we are lucky to be experiencing in the midst of COVID-19 related cancellations.

Rather than transport us to other realms, Aldous Harding feels more like the fae who has travelled here to deign us with a visit. While in reality she is from Lyttelton, her impressive vocal range – which deftly switches from deep resonance to light and husky – implies a creature otherworldly. Combined with an almost clown-like stage presence, the result is intense and captivating.

Nothing bonds an audience and performer quite like the raw, exposed nerve of something going wrong – and tonight, it does. Do we like to see a talented performer being put through their paces, or does empathy make us want to help out in the only way we know how – excessive applause? Either way, those unplanned, off-the-cuff moments created by technical mishaps make room for a one-off magical experience that leaves no one feeling disappointed.

Concert for Dogs | Regional News

Concert for Dogs

Presented by: Laurie Anderson

Odlins Plaza, 7th Mar 2020

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

When I explained the concept of Concert for Dogs to my friends, I was met with general incredulity, then, excitement to match my own. Featuring music specifically designed for our furry friends, this is actually a concert for dogs.

Walking up to Odlins Plaza, my cousin and her two dogs were greeted by countless pups of all shapes and sizes. They came a-bounding and a-yapping, a-sniffing and a-snuffing. It was a glorious sight to behold, a sentiment echoed by one of Laurie Anderson’s first lines from the stage.

“You can’t believe what this looks like from here”, she quipped, causing a collective cackle (and at least one bemused bark). “These dogs don’t know what they’re doing here.”

How very true. Over 30 minutes, Anderson and her band played and plucked frequencies for canine ears, with discords and staccato rhythms pooling into one sound pot of chaos. Iggy Pop’s I Wanna Be Your Dog was a setlist highlight, but the rousing symphony of barks from the dogs in attendance, conducted by Anderson, took the cake.

To find out how the audience felt about the music, I interviewed them. Most of the time, the humans interrupted to answer for their dogs.

One lab apparently calmed down when the music started, one terrier perked his ears up once, and one little Pomeranian snapped and snarled at every instance of applause. “Ah yes,” his owner sighed, “he hates it when people are happy.”

Most dogs though just busied themselves meeting the masses of new friends in their midst. It was also unbearably hot with no shade, which caused a fair bit of distress.

The concert finished with a screening of Heart of a Dog, Anderson’s documentary about her rat terrier Lolabelle. From what felt like thousands, only the dogless few remained for this; it just wasn’t feasible for the dogs to sit through an hour-and-a-half film on the concrete in such heat.

In Wellington at least, Concert for Dogs needs a serious logistical overhaul for the comfort of the audience – everyman and everydog alike.

Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi | Regional News

Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi

Michael Fowler Centre, 4th Mar 2020

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

What is evident from Giddens’ New Zealand Festival of the Arts concert is a remarkable thirst for not only authenticity, but as a musicologist, a need to find a way of preserving the past with a nod to the future. This nod is presented by Francesco Turrisi and his bewildering array of instruments from the Middle East, many of which have roots in Africa and the slave trade to which Giddens is drawn to time and time again in song.

Tonight’s concert proves to be a spectacular event over two hours. Giddens is an excellent host with plenty of in-between bon mots about the songs. Some will say there’s too much banter, and I’m inclined to agree that the ad-libbing patter seems overlong. But, as serious as Giddens is, Turrisi proves to be the perfect foil. With his absurd sense of humour, which puts me in mind of British comedic sensibilities, Turrisi extols a lot of fun into the proceedings.

Some of the subject matter is alarming. Racism, lynching, murder, and persecution all get their due. Giddens will not shy away from uncomfortable truths and nor should she. But perhaps she could do a clinic on the subject instead.

Live concerts are always worth the punt if only to see if the magic created in the studio can be replicated on stage. With frame drum, accordion, piano, double bass, violin (fiddle), and banjo, the answer is a joyous yes.

Many songs stand out. Following the North Star is exquisite. The Jewish instrumental evokes the diaspora of the pogroms. The Irish instrumental, the frame drum echoing that of the bodhrán, is perfectly placed in the set. Sampling of Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust is magic. At the Purchaser’s Option is as chilling as it gets. Under the Harlem Moon proves Giddens can sing Broadway but not jazz. And an attempt at opera, in which Giddens sings Dido’s Lament from Henry Purcell, is a low point in an evening of highs.

The highly unlikely marriage of Americana mixed with the warmth of the Mediterranean leaves few unmoved.

Chosen and Beloved | Regional News

Chosen and Beloved

Presented by: MAU Wāhine and New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Kristan Järvi

Michael Fowler Centre, 21st Feb 2020

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

Curated by Lemi Ponifasio, one of the New Zealand Festival's three guest curators, the combination of Henryk Górecki's Symphony No. 3 Symphony of Sorrowful Songs and Ponifasio's creative elements was a stunning experience.

Ponifasio's reflection on our “increasingly fragmented and technologically saturated planet” was a masterful blend of minimal movement, simple costuming, and women’s voices, accompanied by the orchestra and soprano Racha Rizk's expression of the utter sorrow of Górecki’s composition.

From the outset it was clear the role and situation of women was to the fore. Ponifasio's company, MAU Wāhine, emerged from the darkness, four kaikaranga calling across the auditorium. Once on the stage the small company set about building a stronger sense of the sorrow to come, chanting a mōteatea written by Ria Te Uira Paki, one of the company.

The orchestra filed in, settled lightly in their seats, and softly changed the soundscape from the strong voices in chorus to the quiet of the strings. The major themes of the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs are motherhood and the sorrow of separation. Polish lyrics from three different texts are each accompanied by a slow movement. The orchestration, tone and volume, and the vocal line and effects combine to build and engulf the audience in the sadness. The meaning of the lyrics is explained in the programme notes, but it is not necessary to understand the words to understand the mood. Clever changes in Rizk's position around the gallery, behind the orchestra, among the orchestra lent weight to the drama and added visual interest to the performance. Rizk's singing was beautiful. Her voice floated above the orchestra, neither dominating the other, ably guided by conductor Kristan Järvi.

An expression of the plight and predicament of women, Chosen and Beloved was a courageous choice and a powerful production for the opening night performance of the 2020 New Zealand Festival.

Queen + Adam Lambert | Regional News

Queen + Adam Lambert

Sky Stadium, 5th Feb 2020

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

“Let’s address the pink elephant in the room,” says Adam Lambert after two songs. “I’m not Freddie Mercury. There’ll only be one Freddie Mercury.” The crowd goes wild.

It’s true, but there’ll only be one Adam Lambert as well. I love that this glam superstar doesn’t try to imitate my hero but instead brings his own phenomenal voice and larger-than-life presence to the mix. And if anyone can belt those ultrasonic notes with such apparent ease, it’s Adam. He bows his head as touching tributes to Freddie cause moments of stillness to envelop the audience like a soft blanket, but every other moment of this concert is joyous and uproarious. We’re here to party with Queen + Adam Lambert, and they bring the fire.

Fans are treated to a set list bursting with all the greatest hits (bar a few notable anthems like No One But You (Only The Good Die Young) and Breakthru) as well as some lesser-known tracks. Not being able to sing along to these ones, our energy wanes a little, but we’re soon back on our feet. Freestyles, breakdowns, and creative interpretations of songs reign supreme, with a quirky baroque-esque rendition of Killer Queen a highlight.

Roger Taylor and Brian May – even at the ripe old age of 111, as Brian quips – are still the best in the world at what they do. Roger’s voice stuns with its grit and gut (especially as he duets with Adam in an unbelievable rendition of Under Pressure) and Brian plays an out-of-this world solo that takes the guitarist to new heights – literally. The giant flaming space rock that carries Brian into the sky is just one example of the colossal production values on show. Disco balls and confetti canons, glittering motorcycles and sequin suits add to the stage spectacular. But the real wow factor here is the astronomical talent of these three showmen extraordinaire.

Stomping and screaming as one, I look around and am struck by a realisation. This is not just a concert but a communal experience.

Messiah | Regional News

Messiah

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Graham Abbott

Michael Fowler Centre, 7th Dec 2019

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

Wellington is so fortunate that the NZSO has been presenting it with a Christmas performance of Messiah for several years with different conductors and different soloists and choirs. It is amazing how fresh and powerful it sounds each time. I have much enjoyed recent performances with smaller vocal resources and I rather expected to regret the larger Orpheus Choir for the 2019 concert. In fact, though, I did not. Australian conductor Graham Abbott, who has conducted Messiah over 70 times, delivered a wonderful performance, underpinned by a fine sense of the drama of the oratorio. Abbott sustained a driving energy throughout, and a great balance between the orchestra and choir and between the sections of the choir. Aside from a couple of very momentary lapses, this was an excellent Orpheus effort. They were very responsive to the conductor’s interpretation of the work, seemed never to be tempted to revert to the less sprightly pace of other possible interpretations, and produced effective gradations of dynamics. An emphatic Surely he hath borne our griefs was a wonderful example of their meeting Abbott’s demands.

Abbott’s treatment of the work as a drama was also evident in the performances of the soloists: soprano Celeste Lazarenko, mezzo-soprano Anna Pierard, tenor Andrew Goodwin, and bass Hadleigh Adams. Goodwin’s legato phrasing and tone beautifully portrayed pain and grief in Thy Rebuke Has Broken His Heart. Adams turned and faced the trumpets before he triumphantly sang The trumpet shall sound. Pierard delivered a powerful He was despised and Lazarenko’s I know my redeemer liveth was luminous with hope.

Let’s not forget the orchestra in all this vocal splendour. The NZSO resources were quite small – only 26 instruments in the first half, augmented by timpani, trumpets, and bassoon for the dramatic second-half choruses. For the strings the music is relentless. The energy, precision, and beauty of the orchestra never faltered.

Houstoun/Triumph! | Regional News

Houstoun/Triumph!

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 30th Nov 2019

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

Ko Tō Manawa, Ko Tōku: Puritia. Your heart is my heart: Take Hold, composed by Rob Thorne and orchestrated by Thomas Goss, opened this concert. It featured three traditional Māori instruments, a conch shell, a double flute, and a nose flute played by Rob Thorne, plus electric guitar played by Tristan Dingemans (aka Kahu) and full orchestra. It was a full-on orchestral piece which fortunately left space for the subtle and gentle sounds of the taonga puoro, but managed to almost completely obscure the guitar.

This concert also featured Samuel Barber’s piano concerto, the third of his concerti to be played by Orchestra Wellington in 2019. It was a great vehicle for Michael Houstoun’s virtuosity. It was percussive with great clotted chords and fierce rhythms, strings of fast runs, trills, and glissandi. A more lyrical passage late in the first movement and the more reflective and elegiac beginning of the second movement were a welcome contrast to the rather strident drama of the work as a whole. Not the greatest work with which to appreciate Houstoun’s full capacities, perhaps.

Finally, there was that astounding and wonderful work, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8. Originally interpreted as depicting the Stalingrad battle, Shostakovich later implied that the symphony was composed in reaction to the devastation wrought by Stalin on Russian life. The work depicts the emotions of horror, fear, dazed disbelief, and despair in the face of chaos, destruction, and extermination. Thumping drums, screaming piccolo, crashing cymbals, and brass and violins at their upper range evoke the shattering world. Many individual players made brilliant contributions, notably the piccolo, flute, cor anglais, and bass clarinet, but it was the orchestra as a whole and the conductor who made this a very memorable performance. There is never a meaningless note in this composition and that is how it was played.

Orchestra Wellington’s 2019 season was called “EPIC!” and this final offering was certainly that.

Resurrection | Regional News

Resurrection

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Edo de Waart

Michael Fowler Centre, 22nd Nov 2019

Reviewed by: Sam Hollis

The NZSO set about performing Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Resurrection, a panoptic musical opus. From the addition of two vocal soloists and the combined efforts of the Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir and the Orpheus Choir, to a panoramic soundscape achieved through off-stage horns and woodwinds, Resurrection was packed with surprises. Conductor Edo de Waart’s effortless control over the 220-odd musicians involved was astounding.

Mahler’s second symphony was a fantastic example of the variety and innovation that can be found in classical music of this period. Debuted in 1895, the relatively modern work encompassed that which came before it but even now feels futuristic in its approach. Menace and triumph, romance and betrayal, there was no end to the stories it had to tell.

Soprano Lauren Snouffer and mezzo-soprano Anna Larsson had one hell of a job. To rise above such a kaleidoscopic sound was no mean feat, but both voices flew with ease. Larsson’s solo was a highlight, with a mellow tone warm enough to melt butter but strong enough to convey the symphony’s darker moments.

Other highlights included a sinister introduction from the cellos (a section that stood out for their solidarity throughout the performance), strong percussion with the most powerful timpani rolls these ears have heard, and a sweet pizzicato segment in the second movement, which the strings nailed.

It all came together in the epic climax, which the orchestra pushed through with total clarity despite their numbers. If anything was lacking in this moment it was the choirs, their sound slightly drowned at the back of the Michael Fowler Centre.

In his final Wellington performance as musical director for the NZSO, de Waart proved himself as a force that will be missed. Under his cool, calm baton, I was almost fooled into believing this was just another performance, rather than an ambitious, striking, and graceful exit.

Te Māpouriki Dusk | Regional News

Te Māpouriki Dusk

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Jun Märkl

Michael Fowler Centre, 24th Oct 2019

Reviewed by: Sam Hollis

It had been a number of years since I’d enjoyed the full force of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, and Te Māpouriki Dusk was the perfect reintroduction. It was rehearsed to the measure; the concert felt effortless, a stress-free environment where musical freedom and fun prevailed.

The programme comprised five pieces that varied in every way one could imagine. At a glance I feared this would make for an incohesive show – a new work by Kiwi composer Kenneth Young, a lavish Mozart symphony, a horn feature, Schumann’s romantic first symphony – it seemed a bit much. Following the debut of Te Māpouriki – Dusk it all took shape. This was a show about journeys, through music, time, and space.

Never had I witnessed a conductor with as much vibrance as Jun Märkl. His control over dynamics and emotional output was simply astonishing, and perfectly conveyed to the orchestra.

Young’s piece opened the concert, grounding us in New Zealand before setting sail. It portrayed Captain James Cook’s trip from Europe to the Pacific, and we felt every bit of turbulence along the way. The piece exemplified Young’s marvellous understanding of the language. It had so many moving parts and transitions that caught us off-guard but never felt random, although it would have benefitted from some melodic repetition for the sake of clarity.

Principal horn Samuel Jacobs was responsible for the set’s highlight with Strauss’ Horn Concerto No. 1 in E flat major, op. 11. His solo was the most visceral moment of the night; gliding over the orchestra, I felt as if I was floating there with him. He followed this with an encore on a valve-less horn. How he established such a warm tone and a lyrical, pitch-perfect sound on this primeval instrument I’ll never know.

My friend, attending his first classical concert, left the show with fascinating questions and awesome observations. For the uninitiated, this was a great introduction to the classical world. For the familiar, it was just great.

Fanfare for the Common Man | Regional News

Fanfare for the Common Man

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 19th Oct 2019

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

Orchestra Wellington’s large following is a well-deserved result of innovative programming, quality performances and a good deal of community outreach. As part of that outreach, the orchestra was joined by Arohanui Strings, a group of young people – some very young – from Wellington and the Hutt who are receiving a music education as part of a social development programme. They were a delight. There was one small girl in particular who looked as if she was on her way to rivalling Amalia Hall.

Hall, normally the orchestra’s concertmaster, was the soloist for Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto. The first two movements of the Violin Concerto are reflective and melodious and demand expressiveness from the soloist. There are luscious moments for the oboe, clarinet, and horn as well. All the elements were there for these two movements, though I could have wished for a fuller, warmer tone from the violin or maybe a better balance between orchestra and soloist. The third movement bursts out in a storm of perpetual motion. Hall’s virtuosic performance of this movement was astonishingly well sustained throughout.

The other work on the programme was Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3. Like Barber, Copland was a mid-20th century American composer who avoided the more radical musical idioms of the day, Barber remaining essentially a romanticist and Copland focusing on conveying American ideals and spirit. If much of the Barber work was introspective, Copland’s work was quite the opposite. His intent was to reflect the feelings of optimism and positivity prevalent in the United States after the Second World War. It is a monumental work with a peaceful, almost dreamy start, progressing to passages of dashing exuberance and lyricism before arriving at the last movement that incorporates the theme of an earlier work, Fanfare for the Common Man, a clamouring, triumphant, and patriotic shot in the arm. Well done again, Orchestra Wellington.

Kris Kristofferson | Regional News

Kris Kristofferson

Michael Fowler Centre, 11th Oct 2019

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

I’m sad to say it was lethargy that drove me from the concert hall at half time. Lethargy on behalf of not only Kristofferson himself but a lacklustre band, made up of the late Merle Haggard’s sidemen: Scott Joss on violin, Doug Colosio on keyboards, and Jeff Ingraham on drums. It was a backing band that could have, should have, driven the singer to better heights.

I take no pleasure in slagging off one of my heroes, although even that needs quantifying. Years ago, a major record company executive was being interviewed at a Highwaymen (the supergroup formed by Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash) concert in which they performed to some 60,000. When asked if he would sign any of the artists individually, he retorted a firm “No!”

When asked why not, he said their time had come and gone and that the newer country-loving audience preferred the likes of the then up-and-coming Garth Brooks, Dwight Yoakam, and George Strait. In other words, the Big Hat brigade.

So being the rebel (I thought I was) I took sides with their stance against overproduced Nashville music. Strange how it’s all come full circle and bands such as Drive By Truckers and The Felice Brothers are now producing themselves.

At 83 years of age, it seems time has finally caught up with Kristofferson. Though, to be fair there was a stellar group of compositions to be aired. With a voice barely above a warbling whisper, the lack of energy just sapped the room. The nimble fingerpicking has totally deserted him to the point of making me wonder if he knew more than two chords.

Perhaps a shorter concert with no intermission may have satisfied me more. I’m just sad that I missed my favourite Kristofferson song A Moment Of Forever but I am glad that I heard Help Me Make It Through The Night, a song that echoes Bob Dylan’s Lay Lady Lay in portraying a one-night stand without overtones of anything else.

Frankenstein!! | Regional News

Frankenstein!!

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: HK Gruber and Håkan Hardenberger

Michael Fowler Centre, 10th Oct 2019

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

HK Gruber conducted the first half of this concert and composed two items within it. Born in Austria in 1943, Gruber turned away from the music of avant-garde atonal contemporaries, wishing to focus on music that would be accessible and less academic. Ironically, scores of NZSO subscribers gave this concert a miss, as they perhaps would a concert of those atonal contemporaries. They missed a lot of fun.

The concert opened with the mid-18th century Toy Symphony, whose composer is unknown. Included in the orchestra for this sprightly performance were toy instruments: a rattle, a whistle, a recorder, a triangle, and a discordant tooting horn.

Then came Stravinsky’s Circus Polka: For a Young Elephant. It was composed for a ballet for 50 ballerinas atop 50 elephants wearing pink tutus. We were without the elephants or the ballerinas, but it was not hard to imagine them.

Completing the first half was Gruber’s Aerial for orchestra and trumpet featuring Håkan Hardenberger. Apparently, Hardenberger was involved in the work’s development, demonstrating to Gruber what the trumpet could do. Hardenberger variously played the standard trumpet, a piccolo trumpet, and an archaic cow horn. Astonishingly, he also sang and blew notes simultaneously, each distinctly heard. Musically, the work contained some wonderfully unusual soundscapes, both delicate and dramatically jagged.

The classicism of Haydn’s Symphony No. 22, conducted by Hardenberger, was a welcome return to the known. The first movement is a miracle of measured beauty.

The audience loved the final work, Frankenstein!! Toy instruments featured again, including bursting paper bags and whirling hose pipes. The orchestra rose and sang at one point. It was a great piece of theatre with a mesmerising Gruber half singing, half speaking the lines of somewhat sinister children’s rhymes that referenced popular characters such as Frankenstein, Dracula, Superman, John Wayne, and Batman.

Not everyone’s cup of tea, this concert, but pretty amazing.

Transfigured Night | Regional News

Transfigured Night

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 21st Sep 2019

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

The programming for this concert seemed pretty odd. How were Schoenberg, a radical composer of the early 20th century, Bach from around 1740, and a late Beethoven work to hang together? And why were we presented with all three compositions in different forms from their originals? And no place for the woodwind, brass, and percussion sections of Orchestra Wellington? I’m not sure I know the answers, but Orchestra Wellington filled the venue and the audience went away well satisfied with their evening’s listening.

Particularly well received was Bach’s Concerto No 1 in D Minor. It is thought that Bach may have based this work on an earlier, now lost, violin concerto. If so, it survives only as a work for harpsichord and strings. Commonly, as on this occasion, the piano replaces the harpsichord. The soloist was the ever-amazing Diedre Irons who played with bright and sparkling virtuosity and driving energy in a wonderful partnership with a small string orchestra led by Amalia Hall.

On either side of this work were Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and Beethoven’s String Quartet No 14. Schoenberg re-worked his original string sextet for string orchestra. Beethoven’s quartet was orchestrated in 1937 by Dimitri Mitropoulos. At this concert both works were played by an enlarged string orchestra, including some NZSO and New Zealand String Quartet members. Great partnering!

At the pre-concert talk, the NZSQ played the Beethoven quartet in its original form. I could have done without the orchestral version. It lacks the tension and intensity of the original. Probably Mark Taddei and the orchestra enjoyed playing it, but really, why bother?

On the other hand, Verklärte Nacht was wonderful. It was amazing to see the colour that could be created by strings alone in the hands of an innovative composer. It was spooky, seductive, dramatic, and sweet in turn, and the solo parts performed by the lead violin and lead viola were strikingly lovely.

Purple Reign – The Songs of Prince | Regional News

Purple Reign – The Songs of Prince

Presented by: Whitireia Music

Te Auaha, 20th Sep 2019

Reviewed by: Sam Hollis

With a set carefully curated from Prince’s enormous back catalogue, Whitireia Music students took us to purple church on Friday night under the musical direction of Faiva Brown and Phil Hornblow. Pop anthems and funky deep cuts rang equally true, teaching us two things along the way: Prince rules, and these students sure are talented.

As we entered, we saw Prince’s symbol glowing high above the stage. Countless microphones and amps were lined up, teasing the rich arrangements we were about to hear. I already knew this would be more than just a bunch of covers. Flashes of light and sound effects led us into the performance, setting the tone for an otherworldly performance.

The show was rehearsed to perfection. The band changed with each song, seamlessly leading from one to the next with some masterful interludes and precise timing. For a production with this many moving parts, there was never a delay or an ounce of feedback.

Through tight instrumental arrangements and an intense attention to detail, the musicians expressed an extraordinary amount of respect for Prince. Vocally there was no weak link. While I would have loved more solos from the confident horn section, the solos we did hear were appropriate and gave one reviewer a severe case of stank face. Highlights included Atlanta Luke’s pitch-perfect Little Red Corvette, Tyren Wilson-Liefting’s spacious shredding over Sign o’ the Times, Rangituehu Twomey-Waitai’s funky Musicology, and the crushing Nothing Compares 2 U sung by Rosetta Lopa. Josiah Nolan brought an effortless funk sensibility throughout the night, and his performance of Dear Mr. Man was, for me, the most unexpected and appreciated song of the night.

It became apparent that Brown was responsible for tying these elements together, playing keys, drums, and bass. He closed the night with an emotional Purple Rain. It was clear this show meant something to him, which translated beautifully to those in the audience.

Joy | Regional News

Joy

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir

Conducted by: Edo de Waart

Michael Fowler Centre, 31st Aug 2019

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

As with the pairing of symphonies number four and five in the second concert of this series, the partnership of number eight and nine made for interesting comparisons between the two works.

Symphony No. 8 is little, light, and rather fast and very loud in some places. It was extremely well played and stood its ground against the often heard, great choral Symphony No. 9 that followed. In contrast between the two, No. 8, referred to by Beethoven himself as “my little Symphony in F”, takes a little less than half an hour but No. 9 is 70 minutes long.

The Ninth Symphony is big, long, serious in parts, epic in others and, thanks to the Ode to Joy, utterly familiar to many. It is said to be the most frequently performed symphony in the world, the first choral symphony ever written, and is often regarded as one of Beethoven's greatest works. Given that a quirk of programming had seen the same piece on the same stage only a year earlier, there was an almost full house, giving great truth to the popularity of the work.

As a whole it is more than twice the length of No. 8. The first three movements are orchestral and substantial in scale and scope in themselves. In the fourth and final movement the choir and four soloists join and significantly increase the magnitude and depth of the sight as well as the sound.

It is impossible to know if the standing ovations at the finale were because of the popularity, the excellent performance on the night, recognition of the marathon Edo de Waart and the orchestra had been through or, equally likely, the delight and joy the audience felt after a performance delivered from the heart by an exceptional group of musicians.

Pastoral | Regional News

Pastoral

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Edo de Waart

Michael Fowler Centre, 30th Aug 2019

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

A capacity audience nearly went wild after the third concert in the Beethoven Festival featuring the Pastoral Symphony (No. 6) and Symphony No. 7.

The Pastoral Symphony is Beethoven’s evocation of his feelings when in nature. Even though the fourth movement conjures up a tremendous storm complete with lightning, this is Beethoven at his most serene. On the other hand, Symphony No. 7 was first performed to commemorate war heroes. It bursts with frenzied energy and intense rhythmic activity.

Watching the NZSO perform is wonderful. You can see the shape and development of the music and the commitment, excitement, and satisfaction of the players. I saw a violist just about toss his instrument into the air with joy and triumph at the end of the concert.

In the Pastoral Symphony, the second violins and violas marvellously evoked the constant rippling of the stream. The flute, oboe, and clarinet provided bird calls of the nightingale, the quail, and the cuckoo to add to the bucolic picture. The rumbling of the double basses and the timpani announced the impending storm, with the trombones, horns, and trumpets summoning the thunder accompanied by the lightning notes of the piccolo. The flute proclaimed the return of peace and sweeping cellos and violas expressed heartfelt relief at the passing of the storm.

Aside from the drama of the storm, the Sixth Symphony is a kaleidoscope of gentle colours. Not so the energetic seventh. It was exhilarating both to hear and to see. The violins created great slashes of sound with repeated vigorous downbows. The cello and double bass players bowed as if their lives depended on it. The horns and trumpets hit the high notes, and the timpani rumbled and thumped. Not that there weren’t quieter moments, often exquisitely delivered by the wind section, but then dramatic swells of sound would recur. “Electrifying” would sum it up.

Destiny | Regional News

Destiny

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Edo de Waart

Michael Fowler Centre, 29th Aug 2019

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

Without the professional musical stamina of the NZSO and Maestro Edo de Waart, my fellow reviewer and I decided to be sensible and share the load of four concerts and nine symphonies in one working week. Coming into the series at concert number two and Symphony No. 4, I approached this performance with a sense of curiosity and some high expectations.

The Fifth Symphony is so well known it's always exciting to hear how a performance will sound, but the Fourth Symphony is much less familiar to me and I was interested to see how it would fare alongside its more famous sibling.

Although you wouldn't be able to tell from the slow pace and minor key of the opening minutes of the first movement, No. 4 is lighter, brighter, and sounds altogether more delicate than the heavyweight No. 5. The composer's lighter orchestration maximised the effects of the pace and movement of the third and fourth movements. Played by a smaller orchestra, the individual parts were easily distinguished and the woodwind section excelled.

At the end of the Fifth Symphony I was left with a strong sense of having heard a 'complete' performance. Although sight and sound were the only senses physically satisfied, the feeling of having been fulfilled in many other ways was intense. A conductor will raise the baton and start when they are ready. The orchestra will be watching and prepared. Sometimes the audience can take a few seconds to settle and focus but, knowing what was coming that evening, everyone was captured from the famous opening notes. Brilliant direction and superb playing brought many of the audience to their feet after the closing chords.

The intensity and power of the Fifth Symphony quite overpowered the Fourth Symphony on the night. No. 5 is always available, but No. 4 is one I will seek out again for further listening.

Heroic | Regional News

Heroic

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Edo de Waart

Michael Fowler Centre, 28th Aug 2019

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

I met a violinist as I left this massive concert. “You must be tired” I suggested; she said “No, I am exhilarated.” And there was every evidence from the tumultuous applause from what was a disappointingly small audience that everyone was exhilarated.

Maestro Edo de Waart looks like a cool customer leaning back into his conducting stool, but he had the orchestra totally responsive to his vision for these works. What marked this concert was the intensity of the playing, the passionate but precise rhythmic and dynamic drive, not lost even in the most lyrical sections of the symphonies.

This was the first of four concerts over four days covering all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies in order. This first concert covered symphonies one and two and the third, the Eroica symphony. While Symphony No. 1 largely followed the conventions of his predecessors, some contemporaries found the second symphony bizarre, and No. 3 took them well out of their comfort zone; it is twice as long as the first two and every symphony that had preceded it. Revolutionary as it was then, modern audiences simply glory in the drama of momentous insistent chords, clattering accents, syncopation, rapid changes in dynamics, musical jokes, and a variety of moods from playful, teasing, and rollicking good humour to delicate elegance, haunting sadness and grief, sombre reflectiveness, and dark foreboding.

Wonderful as the first two symphonies were, it was the Eroica that made this concert the memorable event that it was. The NZSO delivered a fantastic performance from the heroic nobility of the first movement, through the stirring funeral march of the second, the explosively brilliant third, and the imaginative outpourings of the fourth. If any players were to be singled out, it would have to be the exquisite and heartbreaking oboe and the rich and joyful horns. Bravissimo Beethoven, Maestro de Waart, and the NZSO.

Pictures at an Exhibition | Regional News

Pictures at an Exhibition

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 2nd Aug 2019

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

Marc Taddei is a master programmer who links known and lesser known works in interesting ways. Two works in this concert, Debussy’s L’Isle Joyeuse and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, were originally written for piano. Both were inspired by paintings. Relevant paintings were shown on a screen behind the orchestra. A third work, Assemblage, involved a robot on stage painting. The fourth work, Samuel Barber’s Cello Concerto, stood outside the programme theme.

To be frank, I thought the concert would have been better without the pictures and the robot, letting the music speak for itself.

Pictures at an Exhibition is a much-loved work. Mussorgsky tried to depict the essence of 10 paintings by a friend. The music evokes the amusing chirping of chickens, women squabbling at a market, a lumbering ox cart, children playing, a grotesque character, deathly catacombs, and a monumental piece of architecture. The whole is stitched together by a theme depicting Mussorgsky promenading between pictures, sometimes playfully, sometimes solemnly, sometimes thoughtfully. It is very engaging music, especially the promenade variations. It was played with confidence and energy.

L’Isle Joyeuse was quintessential Debussy, evoking mood and landscape with characteristic use of shimmering strings and woodwind. The painting it evokes depicts pairs of lovers sailing to the Island of Love. The orchestra captured a great sense of chattering, laughing fun in an idyllic setting.

Assemblage, a collaboration between artist Simon Ingram and composer Alex Taylor, involved a robot very slowly creating a geometric, pink artwork while the music included a representation of the workings of the machine among more conventional melodic elements. I would enjoy hearing the music again.

Lev Sivkov was the cellist for the Samuel Barber work. Now in Switzerland, but originally from Russia, this young musician created a beautiful, strong, warm, and intense tone throughout, even when Barber demanded extraordinary technique. This work is not well-known but was well worth presenting.

Voices of the World | Regional News

Voices of the World

Presented by: Stroma

Conducted by: Hamish McKeich

Hannah Playhouse, 1st Aug 2019

Reviewed by: Sam Hollis

With Voices of the World, Stroma has crafted a trance-inducing performance that comfortably meanders but never feels static.

Stroma’s incredibly varied group of players took the audience on a journey of non-western musical traditions on Thursday. We walked everywhere from the streets of Chicago to the Yunnan Province of Southwest China, often represented by field recordings of local vocalists accompanied by Stroma, or a specific and strange instrumental formation.

The opener, An Overture, immediately told the audience what they were in for. Beethoven interlaced with a selection of taonga pūoro (traditional Māori instruments) played by Rob Thorne made for a bewildering aural experience – in the best way possible. Moments of sheer musical excitement were cut through by tapping stones, or the bellow of a pūkāea (war trumpet).

The tone was set, and what followed was a collection of inspired, often sparse performances that allowed atmosphere to reign supreme. The performance of Anna Clyne’s A Wonderful Day was perhaps the most simplistic example of this. The vibraphone and bass clarinet perfectly moulded to the melody set by a repetitive recorded voice, which sounded raw, to authentically portray the windy streets of Chicago and transport us to them. At the other end of this simplicity was a performance of Julia Wolfe’s Reeling, an equally repetitive accompaniment of a French-Canadian singer. Much less tranquil, this piece had a profound pace and endowed the audience with the suspense of watching the flame on a fuse speed towards a stick of dynamite.

The set culminated with Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs sung by soprano Bianca Andrew; a truly grand finale. This global folk anthology featured 11 songs from Armenia, Italy, Azerbaijan, and many more. Andrew’s voice was a welcome addition, as it anchored a night of extreme variety.

Stroma explored a wide space while not pushing to make their music inaccessible to a real audience. It felt like an invitation, something we all took part in, rather than something we observed and would soon forget.

Mātauranga | Regional News

Mātauranga

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Carlos Kalmar

Michael Fowler Centre, 13th Jul 2019

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

This was a stunning performance of a highly diverse programme, with great musicality from all performers and Uruguayan guest conductor Carlos Kalmar.

Mātauranga (Rerenga) was commissioned from Michael Norris for the NZSO's Landfall series, marking the first meetings between Māori and Pākehā when the Endeavour reached Aotearoa in 1769. Later this year the Government commemoration, Tuia – Encounters 250, reaches back further, to the earliest encounters between Māori and the land itself. The music evoked the mystery and danger of those early encounters and exploration by Māori and Pākehā alike. Clever use of taonga pūoro, live electronics, and sustained strings blended the different sounds and cultures into one to great effect.

In contrast, Mozart's Piano Concerto No.12 in A major, K.414 was very pretty and beautifully played by Steven Osborne and a much-reduced orchestra. Its markedly different tone, style, and melodious character served to accentuate the variety in this programme.

A striking arrangement on stage signalled another change of direction: strings only, separated by the double basses into two equal groups, facing each other, as required by the composer to represent a traditional tango orchestra. The stage was set for the tension and drama of stringed combat followed by peace and gentle, musical flow in the two movements of Osvaldo Golijov's Last Round.

Famous for being thought of as a war symphony (written in 1916), Carl Nielsen's Symphony No.4, Op.29 The Inextinguishable was described by the composer as a celebration of the will to live. Although the sounds of conflict throughout the music ultimately settle and resolve into glorious (and very loud) melody, we first hear machine guns and the screaming whistle of bombs, before not one but two artillery battles as twin sets of timpani fight it out.

Impeccable playing (particularly the strings) under the direction of the skilful and sensitive Kalmar, and the sheer variety of the programme, made a very memorable performance.

NYO Celebrates | Regional News

NYO Celebrates

Presented by: NZSO National Youth Orchestra

Conducted by: James Judd

Michael Fowler Centre, 5th Jul 2019

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

This concert featured the finest young singers and instrumentalists from around New Zealand, marking the National Youth Orchestra’s 60th and the New Zealand Youth Choir’s 40th anniversaries.

The concert began with two New Zealand pieces, one for choir and orchestra, one for choir alone. Both the other works were seldom performed compositions, one by Sibelius for orchestra alone, the other by Elgar for choir and orchestra. The adventurous programming and the outstanding talents of the young people made for an engaging concert.

Glen Downie, the NYO’s young composer-in-residence, composed light speckled droplet for the occasion. It was a delicate piece as its title suggests, but certainly not colourless. Of particular note were the shimmering strings and the unaccompanied wordless voices of the choir. It was a lovely beginning to the concert.

The unaccompanied choir, conducted by director David Squire, performed a choral arrangement by Robert Wiremu of Waerenga-a-Hika, originally composed by Tuirina Wehi for guitar and kapa haka group to tell the story of the siege of Waerenga-a-Hika pa in 1865. In the choral version, the work utilises both kapa haka and European choral traditions. The performance was superb – dramatic, moving, and immaculate.

Sibelius’ The Oceanides for orchestra followed, depicting the expansive ocean and the nymphs that in Greek mythology were its guardians. While the strings struggled to depict the undulations of a peaceful ocean, the orchestra captured well the drama of a storm at sea.

The major work of the concert, Elgar’s The Music Makers for choir, orchestra, and solo mezzo soprano, is a heartfelt composition suggesting that each new generation of musicians and artists should be the “dreamers of dreams” to “renew our world.” Both choir and orchestra revelled in this work, easily negotiating the changes of mood, dynamics, and pace. Australian Catherine Carby contributed a rich but elegantly restrained solo voice.

Winter Daydreams | Regional News

Winter Daydreams

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Fawzi Haimor

Michael Fowler Centre, 20th Jun 2019

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans and Jennie Jones

A smaller than usual audience was perhaps because of the out of the ordinary scheduling on a Thursday evening. While it may have seemed odd to some of us in the audience, neither performers nor conductor were at all put off their stride.

A superbly played and highly evocative piece for strings opened this diverse programme. Christopher Blake's Angel at Ahipara easily brought to mind the scene in Robin Morrison's photograph of the statue at the cemetery in the Far North. Each of the seven movements, including The Angel brings joy, The Angel holds vigil at the grave, simply and beautifully brought their titles to life.

Collected strings gave way to the solo violin of Carolin Widmann in an extraordinary performance of Stravinsky's Violin Concerto in D major. A variety of techniques and musical styles give the lie to the uncertainty and trepidation that troubled Stravinsky while composing the concerto. His self doubt potentially releasing him from the constraints of the time, Stravinsky was able to stretch the bounds of what was thought possible. Widmann immersed herself in the work, and was joined in that space by the orchestra and the physically restrained conducting of American Fawzi Haimor. The musicality of Widmann's performance was so strong and so insightful, the orchestra's applause outlasted that of the audience.

The diversity of the programme – Blake's restrained Angel, succeeded by Stravinsky's strong Neoclassical Concerto, and the final piece of the evening, Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.1 in G minor, Winter Daydreams – tested the versatility of conductor and orchestra but, as we have come to expect, all the performers came through strongly. Haimor's earlier restraint was replaced with a joyous enthusiasm for Winter Daydreams and the orchestra responded with exuberance of their own. Like Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky was striving to produce something different. The smaller audience loved it.

Alicia Olatuja | Regional News

Alicia Olatuja

Michael Fowler Centre, 8th Jun 2019

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

It’s not very often you can say the backing band were invisible and mean it in a good way, but from the moment Alicia Olatuja walked on stage in a simple but elegant blue dress and gave us a smile, everybody but her disappeared. Her body language is sassy and purposeful and her voice seems fully formed.

Olatuja was oozing confidence after a few whirlwind years in which she caught the eye of musical producers. She performed as a soloist with the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir for former President Obama’s second inauguration. Since then, she has released three exceptionally well-received jazz albums, performed at all the best venues, and has constantly been on tour.

What makes her exceptional is her gift of re-interpreting songs we know (and love). I’m not going to make the mistake of calling her a jazz singer, as I can see in the distance a career on Broadway. It’s a powerful and emotive voice lacking only bass notes, but her middle and high range (she is, in fact, a mezzo-soprano) is just perfect for projecting to the back row of any auditorium. In fact, her voice borders on that of the late lamented Minnie Ripperton.

This is a well-balanced programme tonight with a repertoire from Sade, Joni Mitchell’s Cherokee Louise, a song I’m unfamiliar with, and a highlight for me: Djavan’s Portuguese language Serrado (Ao Vivo), with the perfect solo from pianist Robert Mitchell. The encore with just her guitarist, Tracy Chapman’s Everything Must Change, richly deserved the standing ovation.

I’m a huge fan of artists willing to take a chance. So early in her career, Olatuja chose to find composers who have something unusual to say rather than spout Hallmark lovey-dovey lyrics. Some of the themes border on the uncomfortable, with childhood violence, staying in broken relationships, or body image issues.

Thanks to her most recent album Intuition: Songs from the Minds of Women, Olatuja has tapped into a rich vein of material that is well worth pursuing. How wonderful that she shared many of the song’s origins with us tonight. Long may she prosper.

Ghost-Note | Regional News

Ghost-Note

Michael Fowler Centre, 7th Jun 2019

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

The Wellington Jazz Festival serves as a major conduit to discovering new acts to fall in love with. Tonight, we fell head over heels in aroha.

Ghost-Note is an example of a new act, though two of its personnel, Robert Searight and Nate Worth, both drummers, have appeared in New Zealand before as part of the Snarky Puppy group. In 2017 I wrote that Snarky Puppy felt like a band painting by numbers. If I felt that band was really a limp hot dog, then Ghost-Note is a rottweiler on steroids.

With two sax/flute players, Sylvester Onyejiaka and Jonathan Mones, percussionist Robert Searight, drummer Nate Werth, bass player Dwayne Thomas Jr (dressed in a luminous orange jumpsuit), two keyboard players Xavier Taplin and Vaughn Henry, and lead guitarist Peter Knudsen, we were treated to one of the best shows in Wellington in many a year.

With world-class musicians who have played with Prince, Toto, Herbie Hancock, Justin Timberlake, and countless others, you know you are watching music royalty.

Ghost-Note started as they meant to go on; with a rhythmic groove that makes it impossible to sit still, each number drenched in funk from a band truly in sync with each other.

With so much music to contend with, I’m loath to class them simply as a funk band. There were echoes of dub reggae (all that was missing was the waft of some ganja), Earth, Wind & Fire (my favourite part), a James Brown-inspired encore, Stanley Clarke, George Duke, Afrobeat, Herbie Mann, the timbales of Tito Puente, George Clinton, and even a reference to Average White Band’s Pick up the Pieces. Best you just call them world-music ambassadors.

Everybody would have a section they liked most. Mine was the interplay on six different keyboards. Or was it eight? But choosing that would take away the drive between bass and drum and percussion. Others would fancy the sax and flute partners or the funky guitar licks.

Now, go out and purchase their two albums and share them with friends who missed this wonderful show.

Sol3 Mio: Back to Basics | Regional News

Sol3 Mio: Back to Basics

Michael Fowler Centre, 4th Jun 2019

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

I was lucky enough to interview Sol3 Mio’s baritone Moses Mackay before seeing this concert. Those 15 minutes we spent on the phone gave me a glimpse into the cheek, charm, and charisma I’d be in for. Already a fan of their outstanding musicianship, I was still totally unprepared for just how good Back to Basics would be.

The theme of the concert is intimacy: instead of Sol3 Mio’s usual arena tours, they’ve chosen venues where they can truly go back to basics. This means no orchestra, no stage lighting, and no microphones (most of the time). Of course, Sol3 Mio is more than capable of filling the Michael Fowler Centre without mics, but amplifying those gorgeous voices is always a good thing in my books.

At times accompanied by virtuosic pianist Lorelle McNougton and at others with Moses on guitar, the group sings a wide-ranging repertoire. From Pene and Amitai Pati’s exceptional, ovation-worthy Nessun Dorma through Moses’ stunning Old Man River to the trio’s hilarious Banana Boat Song, this concert offers something for everyone. Audience interaction is an entertaining bonus, especially when the unwitting Moana is roped into singing Yellow Bird with the boys and treated to Pene’s tongue-in-cheek rendition of Somethin’ Stupid.

Back to Basics works because Sol3 Mio doesn’t need a spectacle to blow an audience away; they are spectacular all on their own. I’m not just talking about Pene’s irresistible bongo playing here. I’m talking about the infectious humour, vibrant personalities, and immeasurable talent of the trio, both as individuals and as a collective. Sol3 Mio brings joy. By the end of the night after a whopping 30-minute encore, cheeks hurt from smiling, bellies hurt from laughing, and we’re uplifted and awed by the presence of such musical mastery. If you’re ever given the opportunity to be serenaded by Sol3 Mio (and that’s exactly what it will feel like – a private concert just for you), seize it immediately.

Jupiter | Regional News

Jupiter

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 25th May 2019

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

Marc Taddei said he has long wanted to double bill Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8. They are the last symphonies of both composers, completed a century apart. Mozart’s work is a transition point between the more formal classical and romantic periods of music. Bruckner’s work is a culmination of the romantic style where emotion is given full play.

The huge differences in style were well displayed in this concert. If Mozart and Bruckner could have had a conversation, Mozart might well have said to Bruckner, “Less is more, Anton”. Bruckner might have retorted “Loosen up, man.”

The visible difference lay in the size of the orchestras. There were 39 players for Mozart, including four brass, five woodwind, and four double basses. The 83 for Bruckner included 15 brass, 12 woodwind, and six double basses.

Orchestra Wellington’s opening of the Mozart was magical: stirring chords using all resources followed by delicate string melodies. I would say that nothing in the concert was better than the orchestra’s playing of this first movement. It was played with precision, lyricism, well-judged transitions between themes and dynamics, and good drive and rhythm. The Mozart was a total delight: elegant, exuberant, and joyful.

Joy was not apparent in Bruckner. Rather the colours were dark and the mood dramatic and intense. Tempestuous climaxes arose and subsided over and over. I particularly enjoyed the dying end of the first movement, the insistent urgency of the second movement, the aching but robust sweetness of some of the third movement, and the sense that Bruckner reached some degree of resolution of momentous emotions in the finale.

Special mention is needed of the timpanist for drama, the horn players for emotion and volume, and the lower strings for strength and mellow sweetness. And of Mark Taddei for his ambitious programming and for eliciting inspired performances.

Love Eternal | Regional News

Love Eternal

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Thomas Søndergård

Michael Fowler Centre, 18th May 2019

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans and Jennie Jones

A robust little piece of Beethoven got this performance started. The Coriolan Overture, Op.62 tells a little-known story in a familiar tongue. Conventional form and interplay of themes made this an ideal warm-up for the main show.

Denis Kozhukhin, a dazzling young Russian musician, played a truly stunning rendition of Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54. It's hard for the amateur or non-playing audience to understand how such an apparently solid piece of furniture (whether upright or grand) can be persuaded, coaxed, managed, flattered, and ultimately mastered to produce such a remarkable range of tone, volume, and feeling as we heard from Kozhuhkin. Matching a high-quality player with a high-quality composition always helps, and Schumann's Piano Concerto was beautifully complemented by Kozhuhkin's expert playing. Frequent exchanges of voice between piano and orchestra, equally skilfully matched and balanced, brought a lovely sense of narrative and fluidity. Once again, the combination of the NZSO's expertise and flair delivered us a really wonderful experience.

Hearts might sink when the programme notes say something is a composer's “least performed” piece, but it would be a miracle if every ear and every individual taste was satisfied by every programme. Two of the lesser-known concertos by Sibelius, numbers six and seven, made for a demanding second half.

Both are relatively short, very dense, complex pieces of a little over 20 minutes each. The Sixth Symphony is in four movements, each of which finish rather suddenly and seem almost unresolved. The Seventh is even more unusual, being only one movement in total. Søndergård is something of a Sibelius specialist and brought his interpretation to the stage where an extremely focused and sensitive performance from the orchestra gave it life. Søndergård's conducting of the Sibelius was remarkable, but it was Kozhukhin's brilliant playing we talked about in the car on the way home.

Enigma | Regional News

Enigma

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Edo de Waart

Michael Fowler Centre, 13th Apr 2019

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

“My Concerto has had a brilliant and decisive – failure. At the conclusion three pairs of hands were brought together very slowly, whereupon a perfectly distinct hissing from all sides forbade any such demonstration”. So wrote Brahms after an early performance of his Piano Concerto No 1 in D Minor. The concerto has gone on to be an often-performed great favourite of the piano concerto repertoire. Joyce Yang as soloist and the NZSO amply demonstrated why to a capacity audience.

The first movement provides tremendous contrasts of majestic and lyrical themes, the second restrained reflectiveness, and the third urgent drive and rollicking momentum. Joyce Yang played with great commitment and intensity throughout, summoning simplicity and elegiac sweetness and thundering strength in turn, always with exquisite phrasing and within a wonderful partnership with the orchestra created by Brahms and Maestro de Waart.

The second work of the concert was a youthful one by Richard Strauss, Serenade for Winds in E flat major. It was good to see the NZSO’s excellent wind section profiled, though the work itself, while charming, was not the most riveting vehicle for doing so.

Maestro de Waart declared his love for Elgar’s music in the printed programme, and Elgar’s Enigma Variations was lovingly and gloriously delivered. Elgar composed the variations to provide musical images of himself and his wife, and 12 of his friends. The work has an engaging generosity of spirit and sunny optimism. He summons up a friend who produces cheerfully terrible piano playing, a friend’s daughter with a stutter, a beginner string player, a genteel lady, his publisher and long-term encourager whom he depicts with great warmth, and so on. This very English work is always stirring and the audience and orchestra will have gone away in very good humour, probably humming an Enigma theme.

Fantastic Symphonies | Regional News

Fantastic Symphonies

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 12th Apr 2019

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

This first performance by Orchestra Wellington in 2019 was intense, crazy, and fun. Fantastic Symphonies comprised two works by Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique and Lélio, the first a five-movement symphony, the second characterised in the programme as a monodrama or melologue, with a dramatic narrator, two vocal soloists, and choir.

In 1830, Berlioz wrote the symphony to describe his feelings of anguished, unrequited love for an Irish Shakespearean actress. It tells of a musician haunted by a woman, in an agony of longing, failing to kill himself with an opium overdose but experiencing instead a psychedelic nightmare about being executed for her murder and about a ghoulish celebration of his death. Lélio describes the musician returning to living, still struggling with his passion but seeking a different purpose, recommitting himself to music and composing a fantasia on Shakespeare’s Tempest.

In his introduction, Taddei disparagingly and amusingly spoke of Berlioz’s music being fuelled by puppy love and opium addiction. This set the scene for the performance of Lélio. I am sure Berlioz did not find humour in his situation, but Andrew Laing as narrator chose to deliver an over-the-top performance of histrionic romanticism, which appropriately picked up the 21st-century cynicism of Taddei’s earlier comments.

Both works were wonderfully performed. Of particular note were the crispness of the symphony’s first movement, the lilting waltz and harps in the second Ball movement, the duet between cor anglais and off-stage oboe in the third movement, plaintive violas, mournful clarinet, lovely sonorities produced by six double basses and four bassoons, the drama of huge brass and percussion contributions, some beautiful ethereal singing from the Orpheus Choir, and the tender and romantic singing of tenor soloist, Declan Cudd.

By the way, Berlioz eventually married the actress. He spoke no English, she no French, it is said. The marriage did not last. What a surprise!

The Planets | Regional News

The Planets

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Edo de Waart

Michael Fowler Centre, 30th Mar 2019

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans and Jennie Jones

For many of us, discovering our talent at 21 would be lucky. But there is something about the highly capable end of the creative spectrum that means you can be considered a latecomer in your twenties. (Blame Mozart?) Anna Clyne is one of those, really only taking up composition when she was 21 years old.

We heard three movements from her Abstractions, each written in response to an artwork in the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art. It would be interesting to know why we didn't hear the full five movements. What we heard was a highly engaging and unusual depiction of the emotions roused in the composer on viewing the pictures, rather than an attempt to portray the image itself in music. Such a personal account feels rare but genuine.

Berlioz’s La Mort de Cléopâtre (The Death of Cleopatra) was considered so innovative that it has only become widely known in the last 40 years. Again a tale of personal emotion, but this time the composer is telling Cleopatra’s story. Cleopatra was sung by American mezzo soprano Susan Graham and she gave a very fine performance.

Gustav Holst’s The Planets is a popular piece, a strong influence on some of the more widely recognised film music of the 20th century (think Star Wars.) Well-known works are sometimes hard to make into memorable occasions but, under maestro de Waart’s direction, the live performance was so much more exciting, delicate, enthusiastic, evocative, and engaging than a recording we might all be more familiar with.

It was not hard to see the picture Holst described in the music. Every planet had its own distinctive character conveyed through the orchestration and the performance. The absolute standout element was the women of Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir fading, exquisitely, to nothing, at the end of the known universe.

Pluto was not discovered until 1930 so we can only wonder how the smallest, most distant one-time planet would have sounded to Holst.

Rufus Wainwright | Regional News

Rufus Wainwright

The Opera House, 3rd Mar 2019

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

I’m a Rufus Wainwright virgin. There, I’ve got that off my chest. Oh, I know who he is and I’ve seen him plenty of times on Jools Holland plus several YouTube clips, but I’ve never listened to a whole album all the way through. I’m proud to admit I am more a fan of his father’s songs.

But tonight, all that changed. It wasn’t an instant conversion, but I’m now a bona fide fan. Mostly it has to do with an artist willing to put everything into an almost three-hour set, replete with one of the best backing bands I’ve heard in a long time. Not one to rave about percussionists, I found myself amazed as former Jeff Buckley drummer Matt Johnson coloured many of the songs with such deftness that I wondered why I don’t hear more of this in rock music today. The rest of the band consisted of keyboard player and vocalist Rachel Eckroth (who opened the show with a selection of drum and bass pieces), keyboard player Devon Brooning, bass player Paul Bryan, and guitarist and musical director Gerry Leonard.

But now I’m a convert, I’m surprised by just how many songs I knew. Three songs stood head and shoulders above the rest: a cover version of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now; a new composition, the philosophical Sword of Damocles; plus, the encore closure, a sing-along with the audience to The Beatles’ Across the Universe. I learnt later that the second half of the concert was the performance of his sophomore album Poses in full. This is a clever idea, as Wainwright had sprinkled the first half with his eponymous debut album Rufus Wainwright and other favourites. One Man Guy, a song written by his father Loudon, works best if you extrapolate the journey Wainwright has taken by way of self-reliance and also as a gay hero to many, seeking a long-term companion. Others from this set that resonated were California, Rebel Prince, and Cigarettes and Milk Chocolate.

A stunning show from a very powerful and unique voice.

John Prine | Regional News

John Prine

Shed 6, 2nd Mar 2019

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

I recall, not that long ago, that an opening act was given a short sharp shift. “Bring on the main act” was the call. Thanks to better behaviour these days, we’re prepared to give the newer artists some leeway. This was the case with Tyler Childers, a 27-year-old out from Kentucky. With a style similar to Sturgill Simpson (who produced Childer’s 2017 album) and Jason Isbell, there are promising signs for this newbie.

Partly a trip down memory lane and partly tracks from the new album Tree of Forgiveness, Prine proves to be the perfect host with his Southern charm, a mixture of anecdotes, and funny asides of marriage and family. It’s Prine at his most revealing, a chink in the curtain, the musing of a weary troubadour and one that simply delights. We should acknowledge what a wonderful backing band Prine brought along: bass player Dave Jacques, keyboardist Fats Kaplin, guitarist Jason Wilber, and drummer of over 40 years, Brian Owenings.

Two bouts of cancer have burnished Prine’s voice with the patina of a rusty oil can. Shaky and wistful, it never fails to invite you into his world.

I’m hoping that former Prime Minister Helen Clark was in the audience, as she is on record saying that Sam Stone is her favourite track. It’s Prine at his most sober as he recounts the tale of an injured Vietnam vet returning home hooked on morphine. The line “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where the money goes” never fails to chill. But all the songs in this two-hour set – Caravan of Fools, Crazy Arms, and Boulder to Birmingham – were given due referential treatment

The best song of the night was undoubtedly Hello in There, its bowed bass line perfect. Received with pin-dropping silence, it was followed by rapturous applause from the full house.

Part spoken, part sung, When I Get To Heaven is a crowd-stopper and the perfect, hilarious end to an evening in which all the planets aligned.

Messiah | Regional News

Messiah

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and The Tudor Consort

Conducted by: Nicholas McGegan

Michael Fowler Centre, 8th Dec 2018

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans and Jennie Jones

Back in 2015, Nicholas McGegan was also guest conductor for the seasonal performance of Handel's Messiah. At the time, many thought that performance couldn't be bettered, and indeed this year's concert was a very good, very close second.

The soloists were all first-class, although soprano Madeleine Pierard and bass Martin Snell just had the edge on the other two singers, alto Kristin Darragh and tenor James Egglestone. Both Pierard and Snell really owned their parts. Strong, full of emotion and drama, they told their share of Christ's story superbly. Egglestone and Darragh each took a little time to settle but could be easily forgiven and they quickly found their stride. After all, how many of us would have wanted to be in Egglestone's position: opening the performance to an expectant audience of several thousands, most of them very familiar with the work (judging by the murmured fragments I could hear, many had obviously sung The Messiah at some point), and introducing Isaiah's Prophecy of Salvation alone, without the support of the orchestra? A tall order.

The Tudor Consort was amazing. The choir's fervour for the second part in particular, Christ's Passion, was taut, precise, and powerfully emotional. McGegan set a cracking pace. While he danced and almost flirted with the much smaller than usual baroque chamber orchestra, they responded with great depth and a lovely, well-balanced sound. Whether orchestral or choral, all parts were distinct. While the orchestra could have easily spread out on the stage a little more, their clustered set up no doubt helped them, as it did us, to hear and respond to each other’s parts. The fact that we could see, hear, and easily identify individual musicians, and sometimes even separate singers in the chorus, was an absolute gem. This was a rich experience with which to finish the year.

New World | Regional News

New World

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei and Andrew Atkins

Michael Fowler Centre, 1st Dec 2018

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

Andrew Atkins, Orchestra Wellington’s assistant conductor, was confidently in charge at the podium for the opening work of this concert, the overture of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. The orchestra conveyed well the bravura, charm, and ultimately demonic nature of the Don and his fate with a good range of dynamics, suitable flamboyance, and restless energy.

Concluding the concert was Antonín Dvořák’s symphony, From the New World. Dvořák was living in America when he composed it in 1893 but subsequently returned to his own country for which he was homesick. The music evokes the excitement and romance of the broad open landscapes of the new world, its pioneering spirit and its African-American musical tradition, while also suggesting a longing for the beauties and culture of his homeland. In true Dvořák fashion, the music is romantic, expansive, dramatic, and full of beautiful melodies. Orchestra Wellington captured the spirit of the work with plenty of lyricism, energy, and passion though, for me, the performance felt less than fully polished in places.

In between these two works came what was, I thought, the highlight of the concert. The work was Sama, a new violin concerto by New Zealand composer Michael Norris. Sama, the programme notes revealed, is a Sufi ceremony involving an ecstatic devotional dance performed by whirling dervishes. There was a vast range of soundscapes created by the solo violin: from ethereal tendrils of high notes to shimmering sheets of sound; from guttural, harsh, and rhythmic passages to great slides of notes. Also enthralling was the contribution of brass and percussion to the work. The soloist was Amalia Hall, normally the concertmaster for the orchestra. Totally in control, she never let the virtuosity of the work be other than the servant to the vision of the composer. An exciting work and a stunning, highly accomplished performance.

Beethoven 9 | Regional News

Beethoven 9

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Edo de Waart

Michael Fowler Centre, 23rd Nov 2018

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

There was an almost full house for two very fine performances of Beethoven's Symphonies No.1 in C major, Op.21 and No.9 in D minor, Op.125.

In the first symphony the lightness of de Waart's expert touch and the reduced numbers in the orchestra produced a playful and elegant performance. Variations in timing and volume shaped the movements of this early Beethoven piece.

Over a hundred works later, his ninth symphony is long, complex, and particularly notable for his innovative use of a full choir and soloists in a symphonic work. While many of his works are known by signature phrases (think of the fifth symphony's opening bars, 'dit, dit, dit, daah – dit, dit, dit, daah’) the ninth is most recognisable for the final movement. The orchestra signals the impending theme, flitting between strings and woodwind (an excellent performance on the night from the cellos and basses) until the singers eventually take centre stage and the Ode to Joy rings out.

The voices were glorious. Although not making an impact until the finale, this was worth waiting for. The wait was time well spent. Beethoven is famous for developing the symphonic form. In return, the orchestra gave us the benefit of their skill, showing off the various orchestrations to their full. The musicality of the performance was wonderful. The soloists (Madeleine Pierard, Soprano; Kristin Darragh, Mexxo-Soprano; Simon O'Neill, Tenor; and Anthony Robin Schneider, Bass) were superb, and the Voices New Zealand choir was exceptional. Edo de Waart used the choir brilliantly to support the soloists where the music demanded, but gave them free rein where he could.

Beethoven was entirely deaf by the time he wrote his ninth symphony and producing one masterpiece after another. During the standing ovation for a wonderful concert, my companion, raising her voice to be heard, said “Can you imagine having all that in your head?”

Mahler 7 | Regional News

Mahler 7

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Edo de Waart

Michael Fowler Centre, 9th Nov 2018

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans and Jennie Jones

A particularly wet and blustery end to the working week seemed to have markedly reduced the audience for Edo de Waart’s masterful command of the NZSO’s rendition of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No.7 in E minor.

A big piece calls for a big orchestra, and this was one of those nights when it looked impossible to cram any more players onto the stage. And a big orchestra makes a big sound, with multiple opportunities for soloists and small groups to show us their skill. A couple of leading players were absent (first violin and cello) but, giving truth to the depth of talent in the orchestra, this did not affect the quality of the performance one iota.

The theme from the first few bars reappears at intervals during the work. The solid and perfectly pitched opening theme was heard again and again with different instruments, giving us distinctive reflections of mood and tone as we strode through the five movements.

The orchestra played straight through, allowing the audience the opportunity to immerse themselves in the music. Mahler’s narrative may never have been confirmed, but there is certainly a progression through the movements.

The first opens with solo euphonium giving way to a French horn duet with woodwind. It was a pleasure to watch the joyful double basses bringing melody and rhythm to the second movement with bow strikes and fierce pizzicato. A solo viola passage stood out in the third movement, and the thematically more complex violin part in the fourth was the culmination of all that had been building towards the exultant fifth movement in which it seemed everyone was playing everything and anything. The blend of a terrific timpani opening, the interplay of strings with brass and woodwind, then all brass together, delicate string quartet interludes, and then a combination of trombone and double bass resulted in a glorious finale of an unmistakeable masterpiece of the Romantic period.

The River | Regional News

The River

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 27th Oct 2018

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

Every year, Orchestra Wellington partners with a group of young string players from the Hutt Valley. Arohanui Strings is part of a world-wide programme designed to provide children from less privileged backgrounds with opportunities to learn an instrument and play in an orchestra. The audience took the young people – some very young – to their hearts as they joined Orchestra Wellington in Infinity Mirror, composed by Simon Eastwood specifically to allow beginning and highly skilled musicians to create music together. After a beautifully weird soundscape came more simple, strong lines for strings with lovely colour created by brass, wind and percussion. It was a serious bit of business, followed by some more relaxed collaboration including a spirited rendition of Poi E.

Works by Smetana, Bartόk and Dvořák followed. In Smetana’s wonderfully melodious The Moldau, the orchestra presented a rich flow of sound that was unmistakably a river forming, growing, and majestically travelling through a variety of landscapes. This was a disciplined performance with crisp rhythms and forward drive uncompromised by any temptation to over-milk the romantic melodies.

Bartόk’s Piano Concerto No 1 presents the piano as primarily a percussive instrument, rather than as the conveyor of complex melody and harmony. It is not to everyone’s taste and enormous technical and rhythmic challenges face both soloist and orchestra. The orchestra was undaunted by the difficulties and Christopher Park, the young German-Korean piano soloist was truly impressive in his mastery. By way of contrast, he played an encore that showed his ability to draw music of great delicacy and beauty from the piano.

The concert concluded with Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony. It is a work that teems with tunes – tune after tune after wonderful tune, particularly for the lucky cellists – without ever sounding as if the tunes are merely stitched together. The orchestra did the work justice.

Lars Vogt Plays Mozart | Regional News

Lars Vogt Plays Mozart

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Lars Vogt

Michael Fowler Centre, 26th Oct 2018

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

Who says men can’t multi task? Conductor pianist Lars Vogt showed us how he does it in this wonderfully lively programme.

The Beethoven Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43 opened with a bang. Years ago I played in a youth orchestra and because our conductor loved Beethoven, we played his music often. We became a little disrespectful and would ham up the last few bars to make the most of the ‘Beethoven ending’. The NZSO and conductor Lars Vogt also made the most of several of Beethoven’s musical signatures but in a much more professional manner. Crisp and balanced are the adjectives I’d use. (Not words I think our long-suffering parents would ever have thought of our efforts.)

Vogt really wowed us with his composure and musicality in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K. 467. Conducting is an art in itself but conducting while playing the solo instrument adds another layer to the experience. The music was delightful, as Mozart often is, and the fine interplay amongst sections of the orchestra and between orchestra and piano reflected the counterpoint also heard in the earlier Beethoven. Nimble conducting and extraordinary playing on Vogt’s part added the flourish Mozart would have been looking for.

Part two began with Webern’s Langsamer Satz, Orch. Gerald Schwarz. After the spirited and animated Mozart, I found this a strangely different piece. It wasn’t so much the difference in the romantic and harmonious nature of the music (good programming ought to give the audience variety) as the oddly disjointed structure of the piece. The changes in the orchestration just didn’t seem to flow very well.

A return to Mozart for the finale, Symphony No. 36 in C major, K. 425, Linz was a welcome resolution. If you Google ‘Mozart playful’ you get about 1,020,000 results and this performance added another to that compendium.

Johannes Moser Plays Shostakovich | Regional News

Johannes Moser Plays Shostakovich

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Peter Oundjian

Michael Fowler Centre, 13th Oct 2018

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans and Jennie Jones

Coming off a week of performances, the NZSO hardly needed to warm up with Borodin’s Overture to Prince Igor, but it was a great start to a big Russian programme.

Conductor Peter Oundjian, cellist Johannes Moser, and the NZSO were all in superb form and it showed from the opening notes of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No.1 in E flat major. Like Mstislav Rostropovich, for whom Shostakovich wrote the concerto, Moser played the whole work from memory. And what a memory. It looked and sounded like a fiendishly difficult piece with a conventional concerto form (four movements) with unconventional elements. Moser stormed his way through the first two movements, well supported by a French horn as ‘assistant’ soloist building up to the third movement – a cadenza. Unusually the composer wrote a fully notated, very technically demanding cadenza and put it in place of the usual third movement. It was a brilliant opportunity for Moser to shine. Regrouping for the final movement, the orchestra led us – with prominent and high-powered cello – to an all-encompassing and energetic finale. It was a stunning performance.

In the second half, we heard a longer than usual selection from the ballet Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev. Anyone with only a smattering of knowledge of the story would have been able to follow this highly cinematic piece. The narrative came through strongly and even the unfamiliar segments told their part of the story quite clearly.

Guest conductors always add an element of intrigue to the audience experience. The merits of one director’s style as opposed to another will obviously be more apparent to the players than the listeners. For this performance, even the audience could sense the orchestra and conductor were impeccably matched. Oundijan’s direction appeared sensitive, directive, explicit, and precise, and the orchestra responded beautifully. It was a long performance but one worth every note.