Category Archives: Reviews

Review of June 2017 Concert

Celebrating Brilliance

One look at James Tennant’s festive multi-coloured waistcoat and we knew this concert was going to be a celebration.  It certainly was – a configuration of the stars would not be an exaggeration:  James Tennant, the internationally known concert soloist, conductor and teacher conducted a performance of the Schumann Cello Concerto in A minor played by Matthias Balzat.

What made the event so special is that James has been Matthias’ cello teacher since he was eleven.   The youngest child of seven – a musical prodigy in a musical family – he began learning the cello from Sally-Anne Brown at the age of three. He was accepted into the Music Performance Soloist Specialization Course at the University of Waikato at the age of 14, when most youngsters of that age are in their second year of high school. James continued to be Mathias’ cello teacher and mentor during his university years. Now 18, Matthias is a graduate at an age when most students are just enrolling for tertiary study!  As Matthias is now ready to move overseas for the next stage in his career this concert marks a major milestone in his musical life.

The programme began on a high with the lively overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers. Just for fun Rossini turned the plot of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio on its ear and now it’s the maiden who saves her lover from the pirates.

The Schumann Cello Concerto Op 129 in A minor followed.  The three movements are played as one because Schumann hated applause between movements. Finished themes and fragments from the first movement reappear throughout and range from deeply meditative to agitated.There is also a showcase passage of double-stopping. This was an excellent work to display Matthias’ glorious rich tone and his impeccable technique. It was noted that the full house included quite a number of cellists who had come to listen, cheer, whistle and stamp their feet in appreciation of this amazing young talent. As did the rest of us.

With barely a break Matthias then played the Tchaikovsky Pezzo capriccio op 62 (little piece) written originally for Tchaikovsky’s friend Anatoly Brandukov in 1887. The contrasting themes – lyrical, melancholy, and energetic – were designed to test a variety of skills, namely tone quality, technical ability and control in the high range. This piece of Tchaikovsky wizardry is rarely heard, probably because it is so difficult but Matthias certainly mastered it. After sustained applause he played an unaccompanied encore, Caprice no. 7 by Piatti.

The major work was Dvorak Symphony No 6 in D major Op 60. This was written when Dvorak was at a formative stage in his career and the first two movements are very much influenced by Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert. It is very demanding work for every section of the orchestra, particularly the brass. The third movement was a foot-tapping furiant, a swirling Bohemian folk dance with forceful cross-rhythms and the fourth movement payed homage to the Brahms’ second symphony in an exuberant finish. People seated at the front were able to notice that James was so much in command of the repertoire that he rarely looked at the score.

There were two other special SMCO events marking the occasion. Tessa Petersen, Senior Lecturer in Violin from the School of Music at the University of Otago came up from Dunedin to be Concertmaster for this performance, and long-time player Diana Gash who now lives in Dunedin was welcomed back as leader of the second violins for this concert. She’ll be back again in August.

Lois Westwood

Review of May 2017 Concert

POPULAR PROGRAM PLEASES AUDIENCE

On a lovely sunny Autumn day the St Matthew’s Chamber Orchestra managed to attract a capacity audience with a very colourful program.   David Farquhar’s ‘Ring round the Moon’ was a welcome starter. Originally commissioned by Richard Campion to accompany a New Zealand Players production, it has undertaken a number of modifications over the years since the original in 1953.  The Alex Lindsay String Orchestra recorded it in a nine dance form which was regularly played by Radio New Zealand during the 70s and 90s.  The version performed by the S.M.C. Orchestra was the six dance suite taken on a tour of Europe and China by the New Zealand Youth Orchestra in 1975.  The opening Tango is zany and quirky but instantly appealing with its extensive use of pizzicato. The Polka introduces a jaunty cheeky tune that flirts with the minor key and with a pulsing rhythm. It too has an instant appeal to listeners. A dreamy waltz follows with some smooth and soulful phrasing and beautiful string tones.  The orchestra clearly enjoyed playing this music and conductor Timothy Carpenter drew the best out of them with minimal effort. The audience gave the performance warm and appreciative applause.

Weber’s Bassoon Concerto in F is perhaps the best known and most frequently performed of the Bassoon concerti, and it is a work that demands a virtuoso performer. The wide experience of soloist Ben Hoadley was put to the test and he came through with flying colours.  The long first movement is especially demanding of the soloist, who alternates between the lowest and highest registers of the instrument, with some very florid passages that demanded the utmost dexterity.  He was given the most judicious support by the conductor who kept the orchestral volume at just the appropriate dynamic level through the whole work.  The middle section was slower and allowed the colour and tone of the instrument to shine above the muted backing of the orchestra.  The Horn Section provided a contrasting accompaniment to the soloist leading into the cadenza.  The final Rondo was most exciting with the soloist demonstrating his complete mastery of the instrument, rolling onward to a brilliant conclusion. This performance got the thunderous reception that it rightfully deserved. A truly virtuoso performance by both soloist and conductor.

Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony concluded the program. Although some of Beethoven’s other symphonies have their origins in the Austrian countryside, this was the only one that the composer chose to explicitly acknowledge as his inspiration.   His subtitle for the first movement, “The cheerful feelings excited by arriving in the country” aptly describe the beautiful music that follows.  It is easy for the listener to conjure up visions of “water rippling over stones” or “wind gently whispering through foliage” because of the descriptive nature of the music.  The second movement, written in sonata form, suggests a peaceful flowing stream, which comes to an end with the depiction of a nightingale (flute) a quail (oboe) and a cuckoo (clarinet).  The Allegro ushers in the peasants dancing and their drunken dance is soon ended by a turbulent storm.  There follows a quaintly unusual passage for the off-beat oboe, clarinet and bassoon who seems only to be able to play three notes. The symphony is brought to a close after a turbulent opening, and Hector Berlioz trembling with fear and admiration described the storm, “It is no longer merely rain and wind but an awful cataclysm!” The symphony concludes with the shepherds’ hymn of thanksgiving which is taken up by the whole orchestra.   A muted horn call brings the work to a peaceful close.  Conductor Timothy Carpenter’s direction of the orchestra in this work seemed effortless but most impressive.

Lois Westwood’s thoroughly researched program notes helped the audience to fully appreciate the program.    The next concert on Sunday 18th June will feature Conductor James Tennant and Cello soloist Matthias Balzat from the University of Waikato.

Robert O’Hara

 

Review of March 2017 Concert

A BRILLIANT SOLOIST AND CONDUCTOR TO OPEN THE SEASON

A packed house was assembled at the first SMCO concert for 2017 and this must have inspired the orchestra under the direction for the first time of young conductor Vincent Hardaker.  This young man has an impressive CV which includes an Honours degree in Conducting and has undertaken Masterclasses in conducting with a line-up of internationally distinguished conductors.   His competent control of the orchestra was evident from the very first beat of Beethoven’s Overture “Consecration of the House”.   Brass and wind instruments accompanied by pizzicato strings opened the melodic line which was then taken up by the strings.   Beethoven’s mastery of counterpoint was evident in the work and the conductor’s direction of the orchestra was elegant without being flamboyant.   One sensed that the orchestra were in complete accord with the conductor’s demands and they rose to the occasion magnificently.  With just 4 cellos and two double basses the lower string sections  had to work a little harder than usual to achieve a  balanced sound. The Beethoven overture drew warm applause.

We have heard Simone Roggen play with the St Matthew’s Chamber Orchestra on several occasions in the past, so we knew that we were in for a brilliant performance.  She impressed from the start walking on stage dressed in a beautiful long full skirt of a golden brown hue with sparkling glitter and offset by a plain black top.   Playing the well -known Bruch No 1 concerto she commanded the audience’s attention from the first note.  Listeners always look for certain dynamics and contrasting levels of sound from the soloist and orchestra in this work and we were treated to a superb performance by both soloist and conductor. Simone performed on a  300yr old  Italian made violin and the sonorous depth of tone that she was able to coax from the instrument especially in the lower register was impressive.  Her double stopping too was impeccable, and the rapport that she had with the conductor made for an incredibly memorable performance which the audience marked with sustained applause.

To conclude the programme Mozart’s 40th Symphony was a wonderful choice.  Despite its popularity the 40th Symphony is never banal or hackneyed.  It is so cleverly composed that it commands the audience’s rapt attention from start to finish, and conducted with the obvious “feel” for the music that Vincent Hardaker displayed, it swept the audience along with powerful concentration.  From the opening bar the music pulsates along with a relentless tempo and a haunting quality.  The changing harmony is tossed from section to section of the orchestra with contrasting loud and soft passages that keep listeners on their toes.  The conductor gave such clear direction to the players that the audience couldn’t help but glue their eyes on him throughout the performance, and when the symphony came to an end, there was a breathless hush for a significant interval before the well-deserved applause broke out.  We will look forward eagerly to welcome this talented young conductor back in the future.

Once again very informative and well researched programme notes were provided by Lois Westwood.

 

Review of October 2016 Concert

A VIRTUOSO PREMIERE PERFORMANCE

 A capacity audience attended the final concert of the St Matthew’s Chamber Orchestra to hear the carefully chosen program which opened with a commissioned work by composer Louise Webster, a violin concerto some 26 minutes in length. This work was inspired by a poem “The Sea” by Ruth Dallas. Dallas was born Ruth Mumford in 1919 and became blind in one eye at the age of 15. She was a prolific poet who received many awards including an honorary D. Lit. from Otago University for her poetry. Reading the poem it is easy to see how Louise Webster could be inspired by its down to earth poetic description of New Zealand’s sea and coastal forest. In three movements, the solo violinist Helene Pohl led the orchestra through some colourful passages with some occasional dissonance and ascending to the very highest notes possible on her instrument. The orchestration was finely balanced and sympathetically handled by conductor Michael Joel. The second movement was, to use the composer’s own description, “jagged, rhythmic with a very driven and acerbic quality.”  One could feel how the composer developed an affinity with the Dallas poem in her music writing especially in the final movement which was a gentle slow-moving passacaglia scored only for the soloist and strings. This built in intensity and momentum throughout only to end with the solo violin playing on its own. This premiere performance was warmly received by the audience and I look forward to hearing it again in the not too distant future.  Listening to this work it is easy to appreciate how the composer was inspired by Ruth Dallas’ words, but also by the sounds and images of the sea and the New Zealand landscape.  The solo violinist Helene Pohl gave an inspired performance of this concerto.

The second item was Beethoven’s four movement Symphony No 1. This starts slowly with sustained chords by the woodwind and a wandering melody by the strings which soon moves into a sunny Allegro.  From here on Beethoven shows his sure-footed  grasp of orchestral writing as the bright melody is played by the violins then taken up by the woodwind section who introduce a graceful second tune and then on to a plaintive duet between the woodwind and cello section.   In the second movement, we hear a stately dance with the second violins playing a lovely melody and later development with some brilliant counter-point. Listening to this music one appreciates just how skilfully the composer introduces such beautiful music and handles its progression and development with such confidence and skill. The third movement is labelled Menuetto: Allegro molto e vivace. The violins rush in on an ascending scale with pulsing rhythm suggesting tension but order and calm is restored by the woodwind section who break into a trio with pulsing chords.  The movement ends in something of a romp.  The final movement is reminiscent of Haydn but it has the unmistakable stamp of Beethoven’s authority on the music. The cellos and basses are given some wonderful music to play against the main melody carried by the violins with the woodwind and percussion playing their part too. The 54 members of the orchestra gave an inspired reading of this symphony under Michael Joel.  With this numerical strength they are in truth no longer a “Chamber Orchestra” and their ability to play major symphonies is unquestioned.

The final item presented was Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No 2 which brought soloist Helene Pohl again to the podium. This concerto starts off in positively dark mood with the soloist playing a melody that is full of foreboding and tension. The orchestra joins her in a different key which heightens the tension, and the music continues in the same dark mood with the soloist having to play some fiendishly difficult passages. The second movement introduces a graceful melody with pizzicato accompaniment, and some inventive musical development involving interweaving melodic themes.  In the third movement the soloist showed her consummate skill in some of the most difficult music she was called upon to play.  Although this movement featured the percussive effects of castanets I did not think the music was in any way Spanish in style.  It was however fast-paced and rollicking music which the composer had instructed that the end be played “Tumultuoso”. The first performance of this concerto was in 1935 in Spain. At the present performance, the audience showed their admiration for the virtuosity of the soloist and the high standard of the orchestra.

To wind up the concert a general invitation to partake of wine (supplied by sponsor, Coopers Creek) and nibbles was warmly welcomed by the audience.  The 2017 program was unveiled.  Musical Director Michael Joel spoke and explained how future programs were selected. He explained that suggestions for future programming would be welcomed.  A presentation was made to Michael McLellan who was stepping down as concertmaster after 26 years in the role.  He was given a worthy round of applause.

Robert O’Hara

Review of September 2016 Concert

MOZART PIANO CONCERTO DELIGHTS

With José Aparicio conducting and Stephen De Pledge the featured soloist, the St Matthew’s Chamber Orchestra had two terrific drawcards to attract a capacity audience for their September Sunday concert, and it was with great anticipation that I took my seat in this inner city church. Firstly José makes his return visit to St Matthew’s to conduct, and we are so lucky that such a talented musician originally from Alicante, Spain has chosen to settle in New Zealand.   He is of course married to New Zealand singer Anna Pierard, who comes from the Hawkes Bay. Stephen De Pledge is now settled here where he is a Senior Lecturer in Piano at Auckland University and also manages to fulfil a wide-ranging schedule overseas as a performing soloist, chamber musician and accompanist.  Both of these men have impressive music backgrounds and it is quite a coup that the orchestra was able to engage them for this concert.

First up we heard Wagner’s stirring Overture to “The Flying Dutchman“.  This work gives a wonderful foretaste of what is to follow in the opera itself.  In 1839  Richard Wagner was a conductor at the Court Theatre Riga and in his autobiography, Mein Leben, he claimed that he had been inspired to write “The Flying Dutchman“ after having suffered a horrendously stormy sea voyage between Riga and London.  The opera featured a Sea Captain who is doomed for his blasphemy to sail forever, and only be allowed to come ashore every seven years to find a faithful woman.  Senta is that woman who remains faithful unto death.  In the Overture (which was written last) Wagner incorporates leitmotifs firstly of the storm, then The Dutchman and finally Senta.  Conductor José gave a wonderfully dynamic performance of this overture and was able to bring out the full drama of the music in all its power.   Clearly the members of the orchestra enjoyed playing under his direction and rose to the occasion.  It is worthy of mention that the conductor chose to reposition the different string sections from their usual format, and while some would debate this aspect, I believe that it offered a better balance for the cellos and violas to be more centrally placed.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto number 20  was one of only two written in the minor key. It was a particular favourite of Beethoven and the only one that he wrote cadenzas for.    It was also the only Mozart Piano concerto that Beethoven ever performed in public.  Throughout the concerto the orchestra and soloist take it in turns to introduce a melody then respond and develop it. This is probably Mozart’s most popular piano concerto and it deserves to be because it has so much musical substance and variety of melodic material.  It contains a wonderfully satisfying cross-section of orchestral colour, sound and dynamics with the piano taking its turn to be the focus of attention.   Stephen De Pledge did not play the Beethoven cadenzas but substituted his own, and they were just seamless with the Mozart.   I understand that in rehearsal his own cadenzas were different again and embodied some nursery rhymes. Such exceptional talent was fully appreciated by the audience and they also appreciated the mutual understanding evident between conductor and soloist.  This made for a truly memorable performance of this exceptional piece of music.  No doubt in Mozart’s day he would have conducted the orchestra from the keyboard, as have many modern performers like Daniel Barenboim, Leonard Bernstein, Mitsuko Uchida and Maurizio Pollini.

Finally we heard the passion, energy and wonderful melodic content of Robert Schumann’s Symphony No 1.  In 1839 Schumann wrote, “Sometimes I would like to smash my piano; it has become too narrow for my thoughts.”   He was in fact referring to the orchestra as the medium for which he yearned to compose.  Two years later his wish came true and he confided to a friend, “How I enjoyed hearing it performed.”  He was referring to his first symphony.  Its first performance in Leipzig was conducted by Mendelssohn.  At one stage the composer considered giving each of the movements titles like “Spring’s awakening” ; “Evening”; “Merry Playmates” : and “Spring’s Farewell”   but in the end rejected the idea.  Indeed music that is as fresh and confident as this is needs no supporting text to explain it.     The work suggests the bitter cold of Winter being pushed aside with melting icicles and Spring arriving with bubbling torrents of water evocative of boisterous weather.  This is then pushed aside in the coda which ends in a beautiful hymn-like melody.   The second movement brings a tender love song played by the violins, then the cellos and finally by the woodwind section, then the trombones quietly draw the key from E flat major to G minor as the movement closes.  The Scherzo is something of a tug-of-war the first sombre theme and the more happy tunes that follow suggesting some black clouds supplanted by a bright sunset.  The brightness of the first movement returns with the final movement which is introduced by a soulful horn call followed by a trilling solo flute which seems to hint at sadness in this world.  This is however swept aside by the full orchestra which dances joyously on to a Sunny conclusion.    Conductor José’s  direction was both positive and economical.  He drew some beautiful sounds forth from the orchestra, which resulted in a performance that the audience enjoyed and appreciated.

Lois Westwood’s informative program notes were once again well researched and presented.

The next St Matthew’s Chamber Orchestra concert is on Sunday 16th October 2016  conducted by Michael Joel with Helene Pohl violin, playing the Prokofiev violin concerto No 2, and will include Beethoven’s  Symphony No 1. There will also be the premiere of a new work by Louise Webster.

Robert O’Hara.

Review of August 2016 Concert

ORCHESTRA THRILLS AUDIENCE.

It is pleasing that more and more people are becoming aware of the pleasures offered by St Matthew’s Chamber Orchestra concerts on Sundays in the central City.  Auckland residents are regularly able to access music played by the APO and also the NZSO orchestras on a regular basis but while these professional orchestras play some stimulating programs, there is in my view nothing to compare with music that is played by unpaid musicians who play purely for the pleasure of performing.   Such is the performance of the St Matthew’s Chamber orchestra that they play “from the heart” and when coupled with professional conductors and soloists their performance rises to provide unique enjoyment to their audience.

Their most recent concert featured an all French first half featuring Chausson, Debussy and Ravel.   It was great to welcome dynamic young conductor Holly Mathieson back for her third visit as guest conductor.  Despite her diminutive figure, she was a veritable giant on the podium giving authoritative direction to the orchestra at every step of the way to ensure that they played each piece as she wanted it.   The orchestra responded to a man/woman and the audience got a memorable version of each work.  First up was Debussy’s well known “L’apres-midi d’un Faune”.   This work of some 11 minutes starts with a plaintive melody played by flute in the lower register with harp glissando accompaniment.  It moves on with dream-like music that suggests the dreams of the Faun (a half man-half goat) who has become exhausted after chasing alluring nymphs through the woods.  This work was given a very sensitive performance by the orchestra and was much appreciated by the audience.

The next offering was Amedee-Ernest Chausson’s Poeme, where the orchestra was joined by Violin Soloist Andrew Beer.   It was something of a coup for the Orchestra to engage this brilliant violin soloist who is the concertmaster for the APO orchestra, and currently one of New Zealand’s most brilliant resident violinists.   This work for orchestra and violin soloist is about 18 mins in length and the commencement of the work is marked “Lento e misterioso”. It starts darkly in colour and harmony and after the orchestra introduces the opening theme, the soloist enters and the orchestra echoes the soloist, who then launches into a lengthy passionate unaccompanied cadenza, after which the orchestra joins in repeating the soloist’s theme.   The music that follows is intensely passionate and at times dreamy in colour.  In 1913, fellow composer Debussy reviewed a performance of this work and his comments are worth quoting.  He wrote “nothing could be more touching than the gentle dreaminess  of the quiet close –the music itself is the sentiment that commands our feelings — fine music this, and full of ardour.”     This was a truly apt description of Chausson’s work which was enjoyed by all.

Maurice Ravel’s “Tzigane for violin and orchestra” was the final item in the first half of the program.  This work of some 10 minutes commenced with the unaccompanied solo violin playing for three and a half minutes which featured gipsy tunes and dances that varied between bright bravura tunes and sad melodies.  Then the Harp and Orchestra joined the violin and we had some exciting unmistakably gipsy tunes with the piccolo and other woodwind featuring in the accompaniment.   The whole work features brilliant orchestration by Ravel which the orchestra revelled in, and the whole work came to a brilliant climax at the end.  The applause showed how much this performance was appreciated.  Andrew Beer plays a J.B Vuillaume violin from 1845, and uses an 1880 bow by J.J.Martin.   The instrument displayed a very rich tone especially in the lower register.   When the audience would not let him go, he generously played an encore by Bach which demanded a lot of double stopping, coupled with some pizzicato.   His bravura performance was very much acclaimed.

Following interval, the major work presented was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 2. Known as the “Little Russian”, a title given to the Symphony by critic Nicolai Kashkin, as a result of all of the Ukrainian folk tunes that have been incorporated in the work.     Some 36 minutes in length, this Symphony is one of the composer’s most cheerful works and it does include a lot of folk songs and dances from the Ukraine.   The first movement begins with a lengthy introduction, Andante sostenuto played by a horn followed by a bassoon with pizzicato accompaniment from the cellos and basses.  A folk melody “On the banks of Mother Volga” is played with variations.  The march in the second movement was actually from an opera Undine, and was originally a wedding march.  When the Opera proved to be a box office failure, Tchaikovsky destroyed most of the score and retained only a few successful pieces from the score.  The third movement, a bright Scherzo with fluctuating rhythms, hints at folk music but is actually is all original.    Tchaikovsky uses some brilliant orchestration in the course of this work, and conductor Holly Mathieson made the most of this with her direction, which was always clear.   This program was one of the best that the orchestra has presented in the past two years, and it is worthy of mention that there were more than 60 players performing in this orchestra, the most that I can recall that they have had in performance .

The next concert will be presented on Sunday 18th September 2016 featuring piano soloist Stephen De Pledge, and conductor Jose Aparicio.   The Program will feature works by Wagner, Mozart and Schumann.                       Robert O’Hara.

Review of June 2016 Concert

OPERA PROGRAM A HUGE SUCCESS

The June Program of Opera arias sung by a very talented line-up of Auckland University Vocal Students, interspersed with Opera overtures was a huge hit with the big audience.  The feed-back that I got from several sources was that it was the most enjoyable program that they had ever heard from the Orchestra.

The dramatic Mozart Overture to the Magic Flute opened the program with its three declamatory chords, which are repeated at three intervals in the course of the overture.  These are said to be symbolic of the three degrees that a Masonic candidate has to undergo in the ritual of Masonry.  Mozart was an active Mason and throughout the opera there are obvious masonic references in the plot and the part played by various characters, including Sarastro the high priest, and Tamino the novice candidate who has to undergo various trials and tribulations, before he is accepted into the order.  Written at near the end of Mozart’s life he poured all of his skill and passion into the music causing Albert Einstein to comment “that Mozart compressed into this overture all the struggles and victory of mankind.” It was a fitting item to begin the concert and warmed the audience to what was to follow.

Samson Setu opened the vocal content with the well-known Figaro aria “Non piu andrai”.   In this aria Figaro is rather gloatingly comparing the vastly different life that Cherubino will have to lead in the army, compared to his previous service as a pageboy in the service of Count Almaviva.  Setu’s bright baritone voice with ringing resonance suited this aria to perfection, and he acted out the character he was portraying beautifully.    It is incumbent on every singer who sings an aria from an opera in a concert, to deliver the same performance as if he or she were singing it in costume on stage in an actual performance of the opera.  This demands that the character be portrayed in every aspect, and sadly this doesn’t always happen.   On this concert however, every single one of the performers made significant efforts to get “inside” the character of the aria that they were singing.

Gounod’s aria, the Waltz song from “Romeo and Juliet” was the choice of Natasha Wilson and it suited her Soprano voice to perfection.  This is a vocally demanding aria to sing but she met its demands with ease, reeling off the spectacular top notes with great aplomb.   Soprano Clare Hood was next on the program with Olympia’s Doll song from Offenbach’s “Tales Of Hoffman”.   This aria is a real show-piece, and Clare’s dress, deportment and her hand movements conveyed to perfection the automaton doll’s clockwork mechanics.  Her voice was well suited to this aria, and a nice touch was added with the Conductor David Kay winding up the key in her back when she wound down and collapsed forward.  The key winding mechanism sounds were aptly provided by the percussion section in the orchestra.   This performance got spontaneous applause from the audience.

Lalo’s opera Le Roi d’Ys features one of the most beautiful arias in the tenor repertoire, “Vainement ma bien-aimee” and this was sung by Manase Latu.  It is a plea to his beloved bride-to-be to leave her handmaidens and join him in the wedding procession.   Latu’s performance of this aria was quite sublime. He was able to show off his well-trained tenor voice by singing pianissimo on a sustained high note which the audience loved.    His was a performance of an aria that was not just right in character, but it suited his voice perfectly.   He has already had considerable performance experience and scholarship success, and I feel sure will go on to greater heights in future.  We returned to Mozart for the final vocal item in the first half, with the delightful trio from “ Cosi fan tutte” sung by Ben Kubiak (Don Alfonso) , Emma Fussell (Dorabella) and Teresa Wojtowicz (Fiordiligi). In this trio Don Alfonso joins the two fiancees of their men Ferrando and Gugliemo and commiserates with the ladies that their men have been called to war.   This trio was finely performed and the voices were very well balanced.

The first half wound up with Mozart’s mini-symphony No 32. This gave the orchestra and conductor David Kay the opportunity to shine with some fine string playing and delicate phrasing from the wood-wind sections.

The second half opened with an orchestra composition “Ortus” by Jessie Leov  an Auckland based composer who is currently in her third year studying Composition at the University of Auckland.  This piece opened with instruments in the orchestra playing melodic lines that interweaved in a subtle way with pleasant harmony and developed into broader themes with a melody that soared over the harmonies and took precedence.   I have previously commended the Orchestra for programming New Zealand composers, and Jessie Leov’s composition “Ortus” deserves more exposure.

The vocal opera bracket opened with Kayla Collingwood (Mezzo) singing the well-known “Habanera” from Bizet’s   opera Carmen.   In this aria she expounds her philosophy about love in true gipsy fashion, and Kayla gave a very polished performance of this aria.  Her French diction was flawless, and she captured the capricious nature of Carmen well.    She was then joined by Natasha Wilson to perform the Flower Duet from Delibes “Lakme”, and their voices were well matched, in a moving performance.     The Orchestra then gave Johan Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” overture.  This featured some exquisite string playing and also some sweetly played oboe and it was a joy to hear this very popular overture given such an exciting performance. We then heard the Farewell trio from the same opera with Emma Fussell (Rosalinde):  Manase Latu (Eisenstein) and Teresa Wojtowicz (Adele) in which Eisenstein farewells his wife and maid on the pretext that he is going to prison for seven days when in fact he is going to have a merry romp at a Ball.

The Orchestra then played Verdi’s Overture from “The Force of Destiny”. This starts with three ominous Chords, which is then followed by  crisp runs from the strings which in turn leads into some of the most memorable melodic writing that Verdi ever did.    It traverses many of the main theme tunes that occur in the course of the opera and finishes up grand style.  To conclude the Program all eight singers took the stage to perform Verdi’s Brindisi from La Traviata.   This lively drinking chorus extols the pleasures of alcoholic drink, and life in general.     The program was given rapturous applause.

The next St Matthews Chamber Orchestra concert on the 21st August features conductor Holly Mathieson with the APO concertmaster Andrew Beer as soloist.     Robert O’Hara

 

Review of May 2016 Concert

A FULL HOUSE FOR MOSTLY MOZART

It was gratifying to see such a good attendance at the second concert of 2016 for the St Matthews Chamber Orchestra. In balmy Autumn temperatures it was a great feeling to sit in St Matthews Church to hear such an uplifting program.

The Overture to “Don Giovanni” was the first offering.  Its dark introspective chords give a foreboding feeling of the tragic drama that is to follow.  From Lois Westwood’s informative notes we learned that Mozart wrote the whole overture the night before the first performance, leaving no time for the orchestra to rehearse.  Despite this the opera was a resounding success, and continues to enthral audiences all over the world to this day.  In the view of the great opera critic, George Bernard Shaw, “Don Giovanni” was the “greatest opera ever to have been written”. Many would agree with him.  Certainly the St Matthew’s Chamber Orchestra’s performance of the overture was a superb beginning to what was to become one of the best concerts in my view that they have performed.   Michael McLellan’s direction was superb and we heard some very fine string playing.

Renowned pianist David Guerin was the featured soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 9.  The Allegro first movement was dashed off with great panache, and the second movement was played with great sensitivity, the soloist showing a very real feeling for the most delicate of Mozart’s passages for the keyboard.   He was well supported by the orchestra, and was able to command respect with the contrast he was able to achieve between forte and pianissimo passages.  One could not have wished for a better interpretation of Mozart from any solo pianist, and at the end, the audience showed their loud appreciation of his and the orchestra’s performance.

The performance of Anthony Arthur Watson’s “Prelude and Allegro for strings” was a curious choice to play alongside Mozart.  However with conductor Michael McLellan opting to offer dissected fragments of the work at the beginning, we were able to gain a greater appreciation of the compositional structure of the work.  Watson for over ten years played the viola in the National Orchestra of New Zealand and later was the first Mozart Fellow at the University of Otago.  This work was commissioned by the Alex Lindsay String Orchestra, and was first performed by the N.Z.S.O. in 2009.  Although the work was only 6 minutes in length it offered great tonal colour, with clever use of dissonance.   There were times during the work that reminded me of Ligeti with his broad tonal colour achieved by so many different notes being played at once on different instruments.   There were other moments when I was reminded of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” with its pulsing bow work on the strings.   It received a good reception and it is pleasing that the orchestra chooses to include works like this from New Zealand composers on their program, because we might otherwise be denied that opportunity.

The main symphonic work on the program was Mozart’s “Linz” Symphony No 36 in C.  This work composed at breakneck speed is unusual in that it starts with a slow introduction reminiscent of Haydn.  It teems with melodic invention and is generally a sunny and extrovert work.    The second movement in a minor key finally settles down and proceeds in orthodox fashion.   The glittering minuet that follows is martial and followed by a trio that is a rustic dance of gentle beauty that features an elegant duet for Oboe and Bassoon.  The finale is a bustling presto that trots out a dazzling variety of musical ideas and exhibits a pungent wit timed to perfection.  The composer’s direction was that it be played “as fast as possible”, and the orchestra and conductor did their best to carry this out.   This performance was a fitting end to a superb program and ensured that the audience will be back for the next concert on June 19th when David Kay will conduct the Orchestra with a group of Vocal Students from the University of Auckland presenting a program of Opera Arias and Excepts.  – Robert O’Hara

Review of March 2016 Concert

OPENING PROGRAM POPULAR

The St Matthews Chamber Orchestra drew a large audience for it first concert in 2016, and the program proved to be very popular. There was a hushed expectancy for the Wagner Idyll which was the first item on the program. This very romantic piece was intended by Richard Wagner as a birthday surprise for his wife Cosima. It was first performed on Christmas Day 1870. Wagner had gathered together a small group of musicians from the Tonhalle Orchestra, Zurich and they played the Idyll on the staircase of the Swiss villa outside Cosima’s bedroom. She was much moved by the performance and the music had deep significance for the family. It includes many of the themes that later formed part of “Siegfried”, the third opera in the Ring Cycle. Conductor Michael Joel has just returned from London where he was working as a duty conductor at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. He drew a very sympathetic reading of the Wagner work from the orchestra, and the strings were particularly expressive. The orchestration is mainly quiet and serene in character and the themes are spread around the various instruments, so that every section of the orchestra has its moment of glory. This was much enjoyed by the audience.

Catherine Bowie, professor of flute studies at Auckland University, was the featured soloist in Carl Reinecke’s Flute concerto in D Major. Composer Carl Reinecke was a noted pianist who studied under Mendelssohn, Schumann and Liszt, and also taught Liszt’s daughter Cosima. His Flute sonata “Undine” is perhaps his best known composition, although the D Major Concerto has become an important part of the concert flute soloist repertoire. Playing a Lillian Burkhart flute, Bowie’s performance of the first and second movement was exquisite, but in the demanding final movement she had the opportunity to demonstrate her virtuosity which was outstanding. The scoring for the orchestra in parts of this work is quite heavy and called for the conductor to keep volume levels under control. This was sensitively achieved by Michael, and at the triumphant conclusion, the soloist’s skill was roundly applauded.

The final work in the program was Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony number 7 in D Minor. This work was composed during a rather sad period in the composer’s life and his personal tragedy is reflected in some of the music. In 1884 Dvorak was admitted to honorary membership of the London Philharmonic Society, who commissioned him to write a new symphony. He completed this and conducted the first London performance on 22nd March 1885. As in his previous symphonies he made quite extensive use of Bohemian melodies. In the early part of the work the St Matthews Orchestral performance highlighted the contrast between the movements. At first introspective and foreboding, then the mood changed and the darkness was swept away in a glorious rush of impassioned music. The opening theme was developed and the whole work swept on to an impressive climax. Once again the thoroughly researched program notes by Lois Westwood were significant in adding to audience members’ appreciation and understanding of the program.

The next concert will feature pianist David Guerin, with Michael McLellan conducting, and this will be on Sunday 15th May 2016. Robert O’Hara.

Review of October 2015 Concert

CHALLENGING PROGRAM A TRIUMPH.

The buzz of conversation among the audience told me at the outset that they had been looking forward to this final program. The works selected were some of the most technically difficult for the orchestra that they have played this year. However the petite conductor gave such clear direction that the orchestra players were able to master all of the difficulties and deliver a superb performance.

It was a pleasure to listen to the very first public performance of “Whim”, a work commissioned by the St Matthews Chamber Orchestra from Auckland composer Leonie Holmes, who is a lecturer in Composition and Music Studies at the School of Music, University of Auckland. It was described by the composer as “a light-hearted look at the epic, versus the whimsical in an all-out stylistic battle”. Although it was easy listening for the audience, this was technically difficult music to play and the percussion section shone with Sam Girling’s playing of the xylophone especially effective. After some capricious melodic passages the piece eventually modulated from the minor to the major key for a satisfying conclusion. The audience showed its ready acceptance of this bright new work, and applauded the composer and conductor together.

The viola concerto by Sir William Walton is not particularly well -known and there are all too few concertos written for the instrument. This concerto was first performed in 1929 and later in 1960 the composer re-wrote it omitting some woodwinds and brass but adding a harp. The soloist was Gillian Ansell, violist with the New Zealand String Quartet, and sister of Simon Ansell, violinist in the orchestra. The orchestra with all strings muted allows the viola soloist to soar beautifully above in the spot-light with a lyric melody that forms the main theme of the work. A second theme is introduced in which both major and minor harmonies are used. The orchestration features the oboe and flute, and Gillian Ansell demonstrated some impeccable double stopping. A dancing Scherzo in which both soloist and orchestra play melodies that are broken up by syncopated accents finishing with a flourish. A solo bassoon leads into the final movement in which the orchestra and soloist inter-weave material that had been previously introduced and wind onwards to a peaceful conclusion. Throughout there had been obvious rapport between the conductor and soloist and the audience showed their appreciation of this work.

It was however in the final work that the conductor Holly Mathieson, such a tiny figure on the podium, was a veritable “tour de force” in her direction of the orchestra throughout Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. The work opens with a blazing and ominous fanfare from the horns and brass suggesting that fate “hangs like the sword of Damocles above our heads”. This moderates somewhat until later the same fanfare brings the movement to its conclusion. The oboe plays the melancholy theme introducing the second movement which reflects the composer’s sorrowful past pain following his disastrous marriage to a young student, Antonina Milykova. The third movement, a scherzo, features the entire string sections playing pizzicato, probably inspired by the balalaika. This was done with great delicacy by all of the strings and was most effective. In this movement’s trio the melody played by the oboe suggests drunken revelry by peasants, and this is referred to by the composer in his correspondence with his mentor, Madame Nadezhda von Meck. The finale features a Russian folk song, “A birch stood in the meadow” and while the fateful motif of the first movement is re-introduced, it does not dampen the celebratory fervour as the work progresses to a spectacular conclusion. Holly Mathieson’s conducting drew forth some magic playing from the orchestra whose obvious enthusiasm was evident in their performance of this exciting Symphony. The audience showed their enthusiastic appreciation with foot-stamping applause.

Following this concert the audience were invited to partake of wine (from sponsor Cooper’s Creek) and cheese to celebrate the release of the 2016 program. It is pleasing to record that Holly Mathieson will return next year to conduct a Tchaikovsky Symphony.

Robert O’Hara