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Concerts

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.