Review of March 2015 Concert

SUPERB PROGRAMME TO OPEN 2015 SEASON

There was a very full audience for the opening concert of the St Matthews Chamber Orchestra season. The big audience was clearly attracted by a well-chosen programme. The first item, Douglas Lilburn’s Overture “Aotearoa”, was written when he was a student at the Royal College of Music, London studying composition under Ralph Vaughan-Williams and the work had its premiere in 1940 at His Majesty’s Theatre, London. This work has an ethereal beginning with woodwind introducing strings which then weave through some spell-binding themes. The orchestra made the most of the contrasting orchestration which demonstrated some of the influence that Vaughan-Williams, Lilburn’s teacher must have had on him. This work formed part of a very cohesive programme which was really appreciated by the large audience who gave it well deserved applause. The work was 8 minutes long.

The second offering was the popular Variations on a Theme by Haydn, composed by Brahms. This piece of some 18 minutes is known universally as the St. Anthony Chorale. After introducing the simple melody, Brahms then elaborates on the theme with eight contrasting variations, each featuring the various sections of the orchestra, with extra special attention to the woodwind sections, including contra bassoon. This well-known work was given a fine rendition by all sections of the orchestra. During the work, I could not help playing the main theme over in my head as I listened to each variation and it was this that made me appreciate what a finely orchestrated work Brahms had done with such a simple theme. It was as if a master had taken the work of another master and worked miracles with it. Brahms originally wrote two versions of these variations, one for two pianos and the other for full orchestra. Each had eight variations and a finale. It appears that there is some doubt about the original St Anthony being composed by Haydn and it is often described as being “attributed to Haydn”. I see no problem with this as like most of the audience, I am prepared to accept and enjoy the music for what it is, a truly brilliant orchestrated arrangement of variations by Brahms for orchestra.

After the interval, we heard an enthralling performance of one of the world’s most celebrated violin concertos. The soloist Simone Roggen was beautifully dressed in a simple short-sleeved black wool top and a long full gold satin skirt. Her elegant appearance was matched by conductor Michael McLellan who was also impeccable in a white tux and black tie. Playing an 1838 vintage Italian violin, Simone conquered the audience with her warm tone and stylish technique. Originally from Auckland, Simone did spend some of her early years in Switzerland, where she played with Hans Fitzti in an Appenzeller Band from the age of 8. She returned to Auckland to study with Mary O’Brien at Auckland University. Now based back in Switzerland, she is well established on the world stage and we are privileged to have her perform here for the St. Matthews Orchestra. The Brahms violin concerto is among the leading six violin concertos of the world. Its popularity is world-wide and of course when you opt to play this concerto you have to give a flawless performance otherwise you will not be accepted. Simone’s performance was truly brilliant and the audience recognised it with sustained applause. Her performance of the Joachim cadenza was especially well performed and her double stopping technique was breath-taking. Performances like this are few and far between and deserves to be enjoyed by the widest possible audience.

Robert O’Hara

Review of October 2014 Concert

A capacity audience gathered at St. Matthews for the final concert in the 2014 scheduled programme, on a lovely spring day that made the heart glad to be alive.  The first work featured a composition from one of the members of the orchestra, Violist, Alison Talmage, who works as a music therapist at the Raukatauri Music Therapy Centre, and the Auckland University Centre for Brain Research.   Although the programme did not say so, I believe this was the premiere performance of the work.   The music was somewhat introspective and apparently drew inspiration from a World War 1 poet Wilfred Owen.   Although the music was modern in the sense that it explored new tonal harmonies, it did not seem to settle into a specific key which left me feeling somewhat frustrated at the end. I feel sure that on second hearing I would gain more from the piece than I did at first. The St Matthews Orchestra is to be commended that it programmes new works like this, and gives exposure to the music of contemporary composers.   We can all learn from hearing these works and I would like the opportunity to hear this work again.

The remainder of the programme was devoted to French composers, and first up was Ravel’s well known Pavane pour une infant defunte.   A Pavane is a stately dance and Ravel’s first theme features the horn in a somewhat melancholy mood with the same theme repeated by a plaintive oboe and carried on by singing strings and harp.   The orchestration grew in volume and intensity and finished up playing in fortissimo at the conclusion.   Ravel dedicated the work to his patron, Princess Edmond de Polignac and suggested that listeners imagine that the work would have been a dance that the little princess (as painted by Diego Valezquez) might have danced.   This was delightful music and much appreciated by the audience.

The next item was Faure’s Suite from Masques et Bergamasques in four movements, Overture, Menuet; Gavotte and Pastorale. Originally commissioned by the Prince of Monaco as incidental music for a one act presentation, Faure later assembled the four Pieces to form this orchestral suite.   This featured some cheerful melodies and lovely writing for the strings in the menuet, and later some stately music in the gavotte. The strings excelled themselves and conductor Michael McLellan enjoyed bringing forth some crisp playing from the orchestra. The harp featured in some soulful playing and the orchestra members clearly enjoyed themselves performing this elegant music.

Following the interval, the Auckland Youth Choir assembled behind the orchestra to perform the Faure Requiem.   Audience members were provided with the Latin words of the work together with an English translation, and were able to follow the choir and soloists as they sang their way through the work.   The introduction and Kyrie were beautifully sung by the choir, with great contrasts in volume which gave added point to the text. Baritone Benson Wilson featured in the Offertorium and his ringing voice gave authority to the words. He was especially effective later in the Libera me and he was able to stress the gravitas of the prayer seeking liberation. Soprano Hannah Bryant was also most eloquent in her solo performance of the Pie Jesu hich is preceded by the Horn Section in declamatory fashion In the Sanctus.   As far as I am aware this is the first occasion in some years that the Orchestra have featured a choir in their programme in St. Matthews Church, and it was a welcome departure from the usual. The Auckland Youth Choir are a superbly disciplined group who sing as one voice and it was a joy for audience members to hear them in such a wonderful work as the Faure Requiem.   Clearly we have a group of young singers who perform music to a very high standard, and who are well trained by their Musical Director, Lachlan Craig.   Also deserving of mention was the discrete organ continuo provided by Timothy Carpenter, and the unique contribution of the two harpists, Melody Lin and Emilia Guo.   On the podium Michael McLellan again showed sensitive control of the orchestra, and also gave positive direction to the choristers throughout the requiem.

Following the programme audience members were invited to share wine and cheese and the 2015 concert programme was unveiled.   It is a great pleasure to see former solo performers like Simone Roggen (violin), Camille Wells (oboe), James Tennant (conductor & cellist) Gillian Ansell (viola) and Holly Mathieson (conductor) who have previously featured in S.M.C.O. concerts returning to delight audiences in 2015.   The Orchestra and its following go from strength to strength.       Robert O’Hara

Review of September 2014 Concert

ENIGMA VARIATIONS PLEASE AUDIENCE

The September program featured all English composers and first up was a tuneful concert march by contemporary Englishman Vince Harris which was the final movement of his Rodney Suite.  A bassoonist who had a career with the Royal Marines as Bandmaster and then as a Chief Instructor at the Royal Marines School of Music, Vince’s explanation of this march was to mirror the activity and fun of the Kowhai Festival, and the lyrical theme to represent the beauty of the Region.   The March was bright and breezy music that reminded me of Eric Coates, and was very well received.   Vince joined the bassoon section for this concert and took a bow to acknowledge the applause.

The next number, George Butterworth’s Shropshire Lad Rhapsody was by contrast much more sombre.  Violas introduced a sad melody that was somewhat reflective of the horrors of World War 1.   The rhapsody moved quietly forward to build to a climax in which the brass section echo the poignant melody and with the timpani drum beats dominating  the finale.  Scored for full orchestra, this work gave some eloquent music to the bass clarinet and the cor anglais, and featured some interesting writing for the string sections as well.    Sadly the composer died in the battle of the Somme aged just 31yrs.

Gerald Finzi’s clarinet concerto featured soloist James Fry who has had a distinguished career as a Principle clarinettist with several orchestras in Australia and New Zealand.  Finzi lost three older brothers during World War 1 and this is said to have reflected in the darker mood of some of his music in comparison with his contemporaries.  In this concerto scored for clarinet and strings the soloist is given some music that demands virtuoso performance, especially in the final movement.   The Adagio movement featured some dreamy music of restful quality with the soloist soaring above some delightful string playing in legato passages.   In the final rondo movement, the soloist really demonstrated his consummate virtuosity, and the concerto finished on an optimistic note.   The soloist was given a rousing reception by an enthusiastic audience.

The best known work, Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” was saved till last.   For some people who know Elgar only as the composer of “Land of Hope and Glory” and the Pomp and Circumstance marches, it might seem that he is doomed to be known as the creator of music of “jingoistic pomposity”.     As Master of the King’s Music he was obliged to compose works for various State events, and he duly did so, serving up music that was appropriate to these solemn and often grand occasions.   However he was also the composer of some lyrical music of touching beauty, for example, “Salute D’amour” which he composed for his wife Alice as an engagement present.    He too was affected by the tragedies of World War 1 and his moving cello concerto is a lasting testament to his feelings about the horrors of war.    His “Enigma Variations” after years of hard work, turned out to be an overnight success in 1899, and he finally achieved the accolades that he deserved from an adoring public.   Clearly conductor Michael Joel has an affinity with this work, as he directed it with great care and precision, bringing out the features of each of the variations with great clarity.   The orchestra too played the work with attention to detail, especially  Helen Taber, whose fine viola solo featured in variation 10 and Michael Weiss, whose eloquent cello solo featured in variation 12.  The audience showed how much they appreciated the orchestra’s performance of this wonderful work.

The final concert of the St. Matthews Chamber Orchestra on Sunday 19th October will feature the Auckland Youth Choir conducted by Michael McLellan in a program featuring French composers, Ravel and Faure.          Robert O’Hara.

 

Review of August 2014 Concert

INSPIRATIONAL “EMPEROR” CONCERTO FROM GUERIN

The August concert of the St Matthews Chamber Orchestra was originally an “All Beethoven” programme, and although the celebrated Triple Concerto was planned, this had to be abandoned when the Ben Morrison trio was no longer available. I am reliably informed that Ben Morrison, (one of New Zealand’s most talented young violinists) has accepted a position playing with an orchestra in Vienna.    Its replacement with the “Emperor” concerto featuring piano soloist David Guerin was a serendipitous choice.

The opening offering, “Distant Voices” was a short piece composed especially for the S.M.C.O. by Louise Webster who is the orchestra’s principle second violin.  She has previously written for the orchestra and her explanation of the title made it easy for the audience to hear it with greater insight.     “Distant voices “is intended to reflect the way in which our forebears speak to us through the stories, writings and objects that they leave behind.   The composer was motivated by “the centenary of World War One as the horror and pointless suffering emerges from old letters, journals and eyewitness accounts.”      The opening used the poignant sound of the clarinet playing a sombre melody with muted strings accompanying.  The mood of the piece throughout was sad and melancholy and obviously intended to convey the composer’s sadness at the futility of war.   This was a most appropriate piece to perform to mark 100 years since World War One broke out.    I suspect that in her other profession (She is a paediatrician at Starship Children’s hospital) she is daily confronted with suffering and sad situations from which she could take musical inspiration.    I look forward to hearing more of her compositions in future.

Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture was written in 1807 intended for Heinrich Joseph vin Collin’s tragic play “Coriolan” which was about the ancient Roman leader Gaius Marcius Coriolanus.   The structure of the overture follows the course of the play in a general way, commencing with some emphatic declamatory chords followed by a rhythmic melody that is developed further.   The first part in a minor key reflects Coriolan’s war-like attitude (he is intending to invade Rome) while later a more gentle theme in a major key tends to suggest a softening in his attitude, and when he finally recognises his mother’s pleading not to invade the City, he gives in to her pleas .    He has however led his army to Rome’s gates and cannot turn back, so he resorts to killing himself.     This overture was a chance for conductor Michael Joel to demonstrate his control of the orchestra and its dynamics and he did so to perfection.

The “Emperor” concerto with David Guerin as piano soloist was a wonderfully satisfying work.  In three movements, it does not follow convention in that after the initial chord, the soloist launches straight into a lengthy and quite brilliant cadenza, a solo showpiece which normally is presented later in the usual piano concerto format.   David Guerin stamped his authority on the work from his first chord, and continued throughout to charm the audience with his crisply clear playing of runs and his affinity with the orchestra.  His judicious use of the pedal throughout the work helped to heighten the drama of the piano part, and demonstrate his keyboard skills.    At times the work featured the cellos and basses playing pizzicato against the legato bowing of the violins and violas with the piano soloist towering over all.   This movement showcased Beethoven’s ability to introduce a theme and then develop and adorn it with so many subtle variations.  Suddenly the Bassoon heralded a key change and led to an impressive sweep into the final movement which kicked off without a break.   The final Rondo movement produced some wonderful pianistic effects from the soloist, who dashed it all off with nonchalant ease. Guerin got a clamorous ovation from the audience and seemed to be modest in his acceptance.   The Orchestra too got their share of the applause and deservedly so.

The final work was Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.   It premiered in 1813 which marked a high point in Beethoven’s popularity.  On that same occasion the appreciation of the symphony was somewhat dulled by the “Battle Symphony” (or Wellington’s Victory) a showy work that Beethoven did in collaboration with Johann N. Maelzel (the inventor of the Metronome, who also made Beethoven’s ear trumpets).  In the Seventh Symphony, Beethoven reverted to a slow introduction in the first movement which is a long and dignified passage which morphs into a bouncy 6/8 rhythm which carries on to the end of that movement.  The allegretto movement is a slow and somewhat sombre march led by the cellos and double basses which is later joined by a plangent obbligato.   It moves inexorably on to finish rather wearily on an unresolved minor chord.     In the following Scherzo an exuberant melody Is introduced with some clever changes of key and the scherzo and trio is repeated leading to the final movement.    Two huge chords introduce the final movement which launches into a dance-like rhythm in which the timpani play an important role.    This symphony has on occasion been dubbed “The Symphony of Dance” and one can see why especially in this final movement.   The orchestra for this concert boasted four double basses and eight cellos which enabled these sections to command audience attention especially in the final work.

The venue was well filled for this concert and clearly audience appreciation is leading to more supportive attendance, which the players really deserve.   The next concert on Sunday 14th September will feature Clarinet soloist James Fry in the Finzi Clarinet concerto, and also Elgar’s widely popular Enigma Variations.   Robert O’Hara

Review of June 2014 Concert

GIFTED STUDENTS EXCEL IN BAROQUE CONCERT

The June concert programme spanned four centuries, with the opening short piece for orchestra “Waitemata”, by 22yr old composer, Nelson Lam. A recent graduate of the Auckland University School of Music , Lam has won several Awards and Prizes for his compositions. This atmospheric piece was intended to convey his impression of Auckland Harbour shrouded in fog with shapes appearing and disappearing, finally opening out to reveal the sparkling beauty of the harbour in sunlight, with the indistinct horizons of the gulf in the distance. For this piece there were two oboes on either side of the orchestra with two horns in the middle. It opened with muted
strings playing softly with the woodwind and horns adding colour and with the volume building gradually to a climax with wind chimes adding further colour to the sound picture. This was well received by the audience who appreciated the composer’s explanation of the music that had been influenced by his observation of the Waitemata Harbour.

In total contrast we then heard the Brandenburg Concerto No 5 in D Major by J.S.Bach, which featured three talented young soloists from the Auckland University Music School. With Music School Professor John Elmsly conducting, the three soloists, Hanny Lee (violin); Abigail Sperling (flute) and Eddie Giffney (harpsichord) delivered an exemplary performance of this well-known work. With a smaller orchestra of 35 players well suited to the baroque programme, the clarity and precision of the music was fully realised by the conductor and soloists. At times the three soloists were accompanied by a string quartet, consisting of the leaders of each string section playing, and then with the full orchestra entering to add emphasis and complete the ensemble. In the Allegro movement the harpsichord underpinned the other two soloists and towards the end launched into a lengthy solo cadenza in which Giffney was able to take some liberties with the tempi, which until then conductor Elmsly had kept very strict. The second movement was a showpiece for the trio of soloists, and Bach’s sparkling contrapuntal writing came to the fore in the final movement with soloists melodies intertwining with a magical clarity.

Haydn’s Symphony number 44 known as the “Trauer” was next. The first movement was played crisply and with conductor clearly had a real feeling for the music. He was rewarded by some of the best string playing that the orchestra has produced, and the audience was able to appreciate the dynamic contrasts that Haydn had intended, with the slow movement especially expressive. The final Presto movement highlighted the agitation and urgency that the composer intended to convey, and here too the string section excelled themselves and the symphony was brought to a satisfying conclusion. Haydn was a master of symphonic composition and this is typical of his ability to write brilliant counterpoint contrasting melodies in such a way as to give real audience satisfaction.

The final item was Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E Flat which was in effect a concerto for violin and viola. Soloists; Joella Pinto (violin) and Alexander McFarlane (viola) presented stylishly; she in a pale mauve dress, and he in a black dinner suit and they shared the podium with aplomb. When this piece was composed it was very fashionable to feature two soloists and in this work Mozart gives equal prominence to both, at times giving the leading melodic line to one soloist, while the other follows, repeating the phrase an octave apart, and with soloists alternating in introducing the melodic theme. Soloists and conductor clearly displayed an affinity with each other and we were treated to a performance of exceptional precision. This is music in its purest form and I am sure that the audience appreciated the opportunity to hear performances from such a talented line up of young students. The St Matthews Chamber Orchestra deserve credit for offering the opportunity to these talented students to gain experience in performance at this level with a full orchestra, something that is not easy to come by.
The next concert on 17th August, is a Beethoven programme featuring pianist David Guerin with Michael Joel conducting. With the Coriolan Overture, the Emperor Concerto and the Seventh Symphony this is a concert not to be missed. Robert O’Hara

Review of May 2014 Concert

PROLONGED OVATION FOR MOZART PERFORMANCE.

There was a good audience for the St. Matthews Chamber Orchestra’s second concert in the 2014 season. The programme offered something for everyone, with Prokofiev, Mozart, Sibelius and the first performance of a short work by the young Auckland composer, Ryan Youens.

The ten minute “Overture on Hebrew Themes” by Serge Prokofiev opened the programme. Originally composed for Piano, Clarinet and string quartet, when it was first performed in 1920, in New York, the composer later orchestrated it in 1934 and it was this version that we heard played by 59 members of the orchestra. The music is unmistakably Jewish in style being mainly in the minor key with the solo Clarinet playing in the lower register in lugubrious manner accompanied by rhythmic strings. The Piano also added an extra dimension to the orchestration, and the flow of the work alternated between being mournfully sad, and joyous and happy. Conductor Peter Thomas quickly demonstrated his command of the score and his clear direction of the orchestra.

The second item brought featured soloist Matteo Napoli to the Piano to give a sensitive performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21. This is a demanding work with the ornate piano score matching the orchestral support in brilliant fashion. The gentle beginning of the concerto featured the woodwind section of flute, oboe and bassoon, who ushered in the solo piano in stylish fashion, and the movement continued in majestic style. Mozart’s music is always neat and tidy in its form and the soloist’s attention to the intricate detail of the piano part was impressive. The Andante section of the work features a tune that has become known as the “Elvira Madigan” theme, after it was used extensively in the 1967 film of that name. Singer Neil Diamond also made use of the Mozart melody in his “Song Sung Blue.“ This movement gave the soloist the chance to shine and he took it in eloquent fashion soaring over the orchestra with ease. The final movement Allegro vivace assai was performed with great flair as the music deserved, and moved to an exciting and exuberant end. The performance was rewarded with an enthusiastic ovation, and the pianist was called back three times to acknowledge the audience appreciation.

Following the interval, we were privileged to hear the first performance of a brand new work for orchestra composed by the young Auckland –based composer Ryan Youens. Titled “Unwrapped”, the programme notes indicated that the work was intended to explore the range of emotions that are experienced when unwrapping a gift. It did not require a vivid imagination to appreciate how much the orchestration conveyed the various feelings that might be felt in the course of opening a parcel containing a gift. This composition was tuneful and the orchestration skilfully managed and well balanced, so that every section of the orchestra had its moment of glory. We look forward to hearing more of this talented composer’s work in the future. He uses the Sibelius Composition System and has his own web site on (www.ryanyouens.com)

Symphony No 2 of Jean Sibelius was the major offering. Again it seems that the composer’s words eloquently described the symphonic composition, when he wrote, “It is as if the Almighty had thrown down the pieces of a mosaic for heaven’s floor and asked me to put them together.” The music of Silbelius seems always to have a nationalistic dimension and the opening movement of this Symphony introduces fragments of melodies which he later forms into a powerful whole. The music is evocative of the rugged Finnish countryside and he paints a wonderful picture with all the orchestral colour at his disposal. Conductor Thomas had no easy task in plumbing the depths of this powerful work, but he was very clear in his direction and the various sections of the orchestra acquitted themselves in worthy endeavour. The percussion section featured prominently throughout the Symphony and deserve special mention, and at the conclusion, the conductor insisted on each section of the orchestral soloists taking their individual bows.

I was sorry due to my absence in the Chatham Islands, to have missed the opening concert of the series featuring Cello soloist Eliah Sakakushev-von-Bismark playing the Rococo Variations with Napier based conductor Jose Aparicio, and Symphonies of Haydn and Schubert. I understand that this was a very fine performance.

We can look forward to the next concert on 22nd June, which will feature a number of talented senior students from The Auckland University Music faculty.
Robert O’Hara

MARIMBIST GIVES IMPRESSIVE PERFORMANCE – August concert review

An enthusiastic audience gathered at St Matthews in the City on Sunday 18th August for what proved to be a unique experience for many. The opening item was Douglas Lilburn’s Drysdale Overture written in 1937 when he was a student at the Royal College of Music, London. The overture was composed in response to a challenge from his professor, Ralph Vaughan-Williams. The work was dedicated to the composer’s father Robert Lilburn and celebrates the family farm and estate north of Hunterville. The music is evocative of New Zealand rural landscape and in fact I felt that the musical style had “Vaughan-Williams” stamped all over it. Clearly his teacher had a definite influence on his early compositional style.

This is music that is easy to listen to despite the occasional dissonance and I could identify with Lilburn’s observation that composing the overture left him with the “image of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn drifting dreamily down the Mississippi and wondering if the Stars above them had been made or only just happened”. Lilburn’s overture has been performed a number of times by the APO and the NZSO and a recording of it is available conducted by James Judd. It mostly features a pulsing melody that drives onwards building up to a very satisfying climax. The orchestral colour often suggests elysian fields and a pastoral setting. Throbbing strings provide a backdrop for solos from both the brass and the woodwind sections. The cello section features in an eloquent solo with lush sweeping melody that moves on to a fitting climax.

Next up was the very talented Japanese marimbist Yoshiko Tsuruta, who along with the conductor Justus Rozemond was making her debut with the St Matthews Chamber orchestra. The marimba is a very large solo instrument (longer than a concert grand piano) with a 5.5 octave range. It has rosewood keys of varying length and thickness with the sound of each key having natural amplification through individual hollow tubes of varying lengths and diameter. The player uses mallets of varying degrees of hardness or density to strike the keys and produce the music notes.

The soloist holding two mallets in each hand gave us a wonderful demonstration of her virtuosic skills, in the performance of Emmanuel Sejourne’s Concerto for Marimba and strings. Sejourne a French composer and percussionist was born in 1961 and is now the Head of the Percussion Department of Strasbourg Conservatory of Music, and composed this concerto in 2005. For a modern work it is very tuneful and easy listening for the first hearing. The String orchestra opens the work with a gentle and rather plaintive introduction and then leaves the soloist to open up with a fiery cadenza that features a brilliant display of keyboard skills which range from the bottom notes to the very top, and also demonstrate the wide variation in volume that is possible for the player. The cellos introduce the main theme and the soloist breaks into dance mode weaving a playful dance theme, with string accompaniment.

For the first movement the soloist used softer mallets which produced a sweeter tone. She alternated with the strings at times playing the melody, and at other times the accompaniment. This worked well throughout the work and at all times we were given a wonderful demonstration of what this unique instrument is able to accomplish in the hands of a brilliant exponent. The conductor in this work gave meticulous attention to the co-ordination of the orchestral score with the soloist, not made easy by the fact that she was directly behind him and not alongside (as is usually the case with a marimba concerto) Using harder mallets for the second movement, Yoshiko was able to produce louder and even more percussive notes from the instrument and, at all times, totally dominate the tonal harmony produced from the string ensemble. There was a return to the theme introduced in the first movement which ended in a spectacular flourish. She got a well deserved round of applause from an appreciative audience.

Following the interval, we were treated to a fine reading of Brahms Symphony No 2 in D Major. Initially this work was given the nickname of “Pastorale” though this is now rarely used. It might be more fitting to label it “Viennese” because it was so well received by the citizens of that musical city and in the first movement Brahms gives something of a tribute to Johann Strauss and the Viennese waltz. History tells us that Brahms proclaimed this work to be “a sorrowful and melancholy” work that merited the publisher Simrock printing a black mourning band around the score. However the symphony in performance is so buoyant and full of melodic incursions and mellifluous harmony that it could never be considered mournful or melancholic.

Justus Rozemond’s conducting of this symphony was energetic and he used his whole body to impart his wishes on the orchestra. With precise direction he was able to eloquently shape orchestral phrases to perfection and one sensed that members of the orchestra were very much at home with the tempi he adopted. The second movement written in sonata form introduces two themes, one played by the bassoons and the other by the cello section. Both themes remain in contact but developed and varied in different ways ending in a fugato. In the scherzo the landler theme is played by the oboe in an elegant melody accompanied by cello pizzicato, almost Schubertian in style. In this Symphony Brahms added a tuba to the trombones, and in the final movement marked allegro con spirito the brass features prominently in a robust movement that moves quickly to its dramatic conclusion. In acknowledging the applause, the Conductor paid tribute in turn to each section of the orchestra who were asked to stand to accept their rightful accolades. This was a fitting end to a polished performance. Reviewed by Bob O’Hara

Audience wowed by Schumann concert

The May concert presented by St. Matthews Chamber Orchestra was dedicated to Huko Kobe, a double bass player who has been a stalwart member of the Orchestra since its inception forty years ago. He died five weeks ago and will be sadly missed.

The opening offering was “Remember Parihaka” by New Zealand composer Anthony Ritchie. While Composer-in-Residence at Dunedin, Ritchie became aware of the colonial aggression against peaceful Maoris who were occupying their ancestral lands at Parihaka in Taranaki. Many Maori taken prisoner in the late 1870s and 1880s were shipped to Dunedin where they were held in caves secured by iron doors at Andersons Bay . (These caves are there to this day). Ritchie was much moved by this disgraceful episode in New Zealand ’s history, and this orchestral composition was his way of expressing his feelings about the matter. It opens slowly and quietly like a gentle sunrise with no percussion, and evolves into an impassioned statement with the woodwind section introducing a chant-like theme based on a Maori song. The intensity grows with several melodic ideas presented by the string section over a growing relentless bass and percussion building to a frightening climax. The work then returns to a peaceful conclusion tinged with sadness perhaps reflecting the passive resistance adopted by the Maori leaders Te Whiti and Tohu. It is commendable that the Orchestra elects to introduce the work of talented New Zealand composers in this way. This work was first performed by the Dunedin Sinfonia in 1991.

Clearly the highlight of this concert for the audience was the spirited Robert Schumann Concert piece for a horn quartet. The work demands some virtuoso horn playing from the soloists, particularly Nicola Baker who played a descant horn and together with the other three, Emma Richards, Carl Wells and Simon Williams gave a brilliant reading of this exciting work. This particular performance was the first time it has been performed in the North Island, and it has only been previously heard once in New Zealand with a performance several years ago in Christchurch . The three movements of the work are contrasting. The opening has great impact. Two declamatorychords from the orchestra bring in the horn quartet fortissimo in a brisk lively movement that shows the contrast in tone between the horns playing in the high register with the more mellow tone of the instruments taking the lower register.

The slow lyrical Romanze of the second movement contrasted cleverly with the liveliness of the introductory movement and we were treated to some of Schumann’s inventive melodic beauty. Schumann is best know for the many songs he wrote during his life and was a master of melody and the lied. The final movement returned to a very lively pace with arpeggios featuring and some brilliant inter-action between the four solo horns and the orchestra with conductor David Sharp in fine form. His direction of the orchestra in the accompaniment of the horn quartet provided judicious support at all times and when the work came to it’s brilliant finish, the audience erupted in eager appreciation of the virtuosity that they had just experienced. The four horn soloists were recalled three times to acknowledge the prolonged applause. Incidentally there is an excellent example of this work on You Tube by a Spanish orchestra conducted by James Judd.

The large work to conclude the programme was the Beethoven “Eroica” 3rd Symphony. This work was originally dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, but when he crowned himself Emperor, a disgusted Beethoven struck out the dedication on the score with such vehemence that his pen tore through the parchment paper. This symphony is popularly regarded as being the transition between the Classical and Romantic music periods. In size and emotional depth this symphony is truly “heroic”. The first movement kicks off with two massive chords followed by the eight strong cello section introducing the first subject in legato style. This is developed and built upon with massive syncopated chords at the end of the exposition which is broken by a dissonant horn solo that introduces the recapitulation. A solemn funeral march follows with the double basses performing a simulation of drum rolls. This is followed by an excited Scherzo. The word scherzo actually means “Joke” and Beethoven’s treatment of this is light-hearted but by no means frivolous. It features the horn section playing a triumphant fanfare, and the strings and horns unite to conclude the movement with a determined fortissimo. The final movement seems to capture the all of the moods of the former three, and features pizzicato strings played in joyful and almost playful variations. Suddenly it changes to a solemn chorale with some of the most moving passages ever written by Beethoven. David Sharp guest conductor from Adelaide was able to coax some very fine ensemble playing from the whole orchestra, and they seemed to rise to the occasion under his precise and sensitive direction. The end result was an excellent performance of this iconic symphony.

It is fair to say that a number of organisations provide sponsorship for this worthy orchestra, and I acknowledge their generosity in this review – Kirk Burnand (KBB) Music; Pub Charity; ASB Community Trust; Coopers Creek Wines; Sky City Auckland Community Trust; Presentations Design & Print; The Auckland Printing Company and the Chisholm Whitney Family Trust. Performances of this standard reflect intense rehearsals which with a visiting conductor have to be squeezed into a few days. Auckland can be truly proud of St Matthews Chamber Orchestra which seems to go from strength to strength.

Madeleine Peirard stars in opening concert, Sunday 10th March 2013

The first offering at the opening concert of St Matthews Chamber Orchestra was New Zealand composer Douglas Lilburn’s Diversions for string orchestra. In five short movements, each of which contrasted strongly with the one that preceded it, it demonstrated what can be achieved with the various sections of the strings being plucked or bowed with great attack. This was one of Lilburn’s earlier works and showed the strong influence that his former teacher Ralph Vaughan-Williams had had on his compositional style. It was first performed in New Zealand in 1947 by the visiting Boyd Neel String Orchestra of 15 players. It was light hearted and entertaining and surely deserves to be performed much more often than it seems to be, although I note that the Auckland Grammar School string orchestra performed it with great success in the Secondary Schools Chamber Music competition. In Sunday’s performance the eight-strong cello section showed how sonorous the cello section can be, and in fact each of the string sections gave a fine rendition of this lively music with some crisp playing whether with bow or pizzicato.

Mozart’s Overture to La Clemenza de Tito was next up and this was a real delight. It suggested some of the harmonies that can be heard in both the Magic Flute and the Mozart Requiem which is not surprising since they were all composed at the same period.

It was a real coup for the Orchestra to secure Madeleine Pierard as their featured soloist. Since winning the Lexus Song Conquest in 2005 she has gone from strength to strength in her vocal prowess, and while following her singing studies at the London Opera School has won numerous singing awards. She would now be among New Zealand’s leading opera singers and can look forward to a brilliant future in the Grand Opera arena. Mastering Mozart arias is great training for young up and coming singers and Wagnerian singers, Simon O’Neill and Bryn Terfel will attest to what a great grounding they received in their studies of Mozart roles. The three contrasting Mozart arias that Miss Peirard chose for her programme;. “Ach ich fuhls“ from The Magic Flute; “Dove Sono” from the Marriage of Figaro; and finally “Come Scoglio” from Cosi fan tutti, portrayed variously, rejection, resignation, and finally in the Fiordiligi aria, pride, bitterness and determination. Madeleine is a statuesque woman who radiates glamour and poise. She really nailed each of her arias, and especially the last one, which has a fiendishly wide tessatura which she handled with confident ease.

It must be said that conductor Michael Joel gave her very sympathetic support from the orchestra and ensured that they provided just the right balance at all times. She received a great ovation from an appreciative audience and thoroughly deserved it. It is all too rare that we have the opportunity to hear in person, performance of Mozart arias of this standard.

The final item was Beethoven’s Symphony No 2 in D Major. The opening movement requires the violins to be on their mettle with some very deft fingering called for, which the orchestra players accomplished splendidly. Several themes mostly on a descending scale, are introduced and developed later. The second movement is a beautiful larghetto in which the strings really sing out.

Beethoven treats the listener to some brilliant orchestral colour and wonderfully interwoven melodies. It is truly sunny happy music which is truly remarkable in view of the fact that at the time of writing this work, Beethoven was in deep depression and considering suicide as a result of his incipient deafness. This particular Symphony is not heard or performed nearly as often as Beethoven’s odd numbered Symphonies, and I often wonder why, since this is truly a Masterpiece of Symphonic composition. Michael Joel’s direction of the orchestra in this work was excellent and the tempi he employed seemed utterly appropriate at all times. On a bright sunny warm Auckland day it was a great experience to sit in the sanctuary of St Matthews and listen to such sublime music.

Reviewed by Bob O’Hara.

SMCO 40th Anniversary Concert review

Paul Dukas is best known for his Sorcerers Apprentice, and although his fanfare for La Peri was not originally included in the St Matthew’s Chamber Orchestra Subscription Series programme, its inclusion was serendipity. Just over 2 minutes in length, it provided a dynamic introduction and in the very live acoustics of St Matthews Church it kicked this programme off with great impact, as well as featuring the particular talents of the Wind and Brass section of the Orchestra . The fanfare has a crisp brilliance and incorporates some dissonant harmonies which somehow seem to be oddly appropriate in this context. It has become popular as a TV programme theme tune in North America.

Next up was Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks Display. This music was commissioned by King George II and a large crowd gathered to hear it being rehearsed in London’s Vauxhall Gardens several days before it was due to be performed on 27th April 1749. Since then it has had a number of arrangements, particularly by Leopold Stokowski and Sir Hamilton Harty, who was for a long time chief conductor of the Halle Orchestra. The opening movement is marked Maestoso (to be played in stately fashion). This had an uncharacteristically ragged beginning from the orchestra, and one wonders if the hackneyed popularity of the piece led the orchestra to skimp on rehearsal time. However they got things together and the second, third and fourth movements were tighter and lighter. It finished in appropriately grand ceremonial style.

The Brahms concerto for violin and cello proved to be the highlight of the concert. In the opening section of this work the plaintive cor anglais featured and then the cello soloist introduced the musical themes with the violin responding. Both soloists played some spectacular double stopping, which at times sounded like four solo instruments playing as a quartet. This concerto was composed when Brahms had attained maturity in his compositional life and the romantic beauty of his musical ideas contributed to the lasting popularity of this work. His passionate love of Hungarian gypsy music was evident in some of the fragmentary themes that were incorporated in the final movement. Cello soloist Rachel Atkinson and Violinist Isin Cakmakcioglu are husband and wife and their affinity with this work and their combined virtuosity was a real joy to experience. They received well deserved acclaim from a record audience. Indeed it is to the orchestra’s credit that they are able to attract such talented soloists to feature in their concert series.

The final item in this programme was the Cesar Franck Symphony in D Minor. In the opening lento movement, the bass instruments introduce the melody with the bass clarinet contributing to a rather sombre mood, this is developed and moves on to some more boisterous music, which builds up to a stately climax. During the symphony it ebbs and flows with a rather plaintive three note theme that is passed from one section of the orchestra to another in cyclical fashion. Franck uses this almost like a leitmotif giving it different instrumentation and harmonies but maintaining the tautness of the mood that he creates throughout the work. The cor anglais is used to feature the main theme and pizzicato strings are used very effectively.

This symphony projects a great depth of feeling throughout and it deserves to be heard more often.

To celebrate its 40th Anniversary the orchestra invited its supporters to join it at the conclusion of the programme to enjoy wine and cheese. Patrons were able to enjoy CoopersCreek wines a variety of cheese and mingle with the players. This is a significant milestone of which the Orchestra can be justly proud. I look forward to more imaginative programmes in 2013

Reviewed by Bob O’Hara