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Review of July 2020 Concert

Superb Mid-Winter Concert – Diedre Irons and Beethoven

Sunday 26 July saw St Matthew’s Chamber Orchestra relaunch its 2020 concert season following the COVID 19 hiatus.  There was a real air of anticipation.  Finally there was live orchestral music at St Matthew’s –with a capacity crowd, an exciting soloist, a promising new conductor and a wonderful programme.

Vincent Hardaker, newly appointed as Assistant Conductor to work with all the NZ regional orchestras, impressed from the opening of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito overture, with his decisive beat.  Led by Simon Ansell, the strings were a perfectly rounded ensemble with great intonation and phrasing.  The woodwinds enjoyed tossing snippets of melody among themselves.

Diedre Irons, the doyenne of New Zealand’s women pianists, was soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4, Op. 58 in G.  Hailed by many as Beethoven’s greatest piano concerto, the No. 4 is a challenge with rapid scale-like runs which dominate a lot of the piano part.  Irons was in total control.  The concerto opens with the pianist delicately announcing the first subject.  She maintained a bell-like clarity of touch in all three movements.  Followed by strings, the theme developed in intensity.  In the second movement there was both serenity and a sense of pending doom, alternating between piano and orchestra.  Movements two and three are joined seamlessly and immediately there is a cheerful lightening of mood with a questions and answer sequence between piano and orchestra.  The principal theme from the first movement reappeared and the concerto ends with a final scamper.  It was a moving and emotionally charged performance from Irons and received with great acclaim from both audience and orchestra.

Dvorak’s Symphony No 9, Op, 95 in E minor, American, filled the entire second half.  The symphony opens with a serene theme in the lower strings then moves to the woodwinds, building in exuberance as an extremely effective brass section joined.  The movement ended with a triumphant flourish.

The cor anglais solo, played very beautifully by Amy Cooper, was the highlight of the second movement.  The muted strings accompanied with sensitivity.  The orchestra was very responsive to Hardaker throughout.  The dance rhythms of the Scherzo and impeccable intonation in the strings’ exposed upper register made for a very polished and cheerful movement.

The Finale opened with the brass in dominance and the movement veered between grandiose brass and wistful woodwinds.  In the climax of the movement the brass relished the opportunity for unleashed bravura before dying away, leaving the movement to end with hints of the theme from the first movement.

Congratulations St Matthew’s Chamber Orchestra.  An inspiring programme played with precision and panache.

Review by Rogan Falla

Review of March 2020 Concert

St Matthews Chamber Orchestra launches its 2020 concert season

What a splendid start to the 2020 Subscription Series of the St Matthews Chamber Orchestra, last Sunday.  If the sizeable audience needed anything to take away thoughts of pandemics and the like, the orchestra provided it in spades.  Peter Thomas was the conductor and his rapport with the orchestra was clearly evident in the orchestra’s disciplined responses to his every gesture. Simon Ansell and Rachel Moxham shared the Concert-Master role with great style.

All three works in the first half have direct or indirect links with England.  Lilburn’s Aotearoa overture was written in England during a period while Lilburn studied there –( including composition lessons with Ralph Vaughan Williams).  The lyrical woodwind opening, followed immediately by the lower strings was played in a reflective style. The strings’ scrupulous handling of the repeated dotted motifs was masterly.  The woodwind themes were reminiscent of New Zealand’s bird life and the rich brass section invoked the beauty and grandeur of the Southern Alps.  A performance as good as you could get anywhere.

The Serenade for Strings by Elgar epitomized the dreaminess of the English countryside so loved by Elgar.  The wistfulness associated with his later cello concerto was very present.  The sweet tone of the violins and the rich cello line made for a splendid late-romantic landscape.  The Larghetto lent itself to lovely rubati, while the Allegretto saw a lifting of atmosphere and well controlled changes in tempi.  It was an electric performance.

Tessa Petersen was soloist in Vaughan Williams’ Violin Concerto.  The work is for solo violin and strings and the soloist was superbly supported throughout.  The soloist begins from the opening bar and Petersen’s confident and heartfelt playing was ideally suited to the brisk and vibrant themes.  A very empathetic cello solo opened the Adagio; here we had rather dreamy softer harmonies.  Written ten years after ‘The Lark Ascending’ there were similarities, with the open harmonies so typical of Vaughan Williams.  Folk-like melodies were to the fore in the final movement and Petersen and the strings maintained infectious energy throughout.  It was a performance where soloist and orchestra were totally attuned.

Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony, as full of influences of his native Bohemia as in so many of his compositions, was a tour de force.  Played with authority, the lower strings and brass led the rich opening theme.  The development saw an increase in tempo with woodwinds hinting at bird song.  The recapitulation was emotionally charged with strong playing from the horns and brass.   The reverberation in the church at the end of the movement was marvellous.  Throughout the symphony all sections seemed to revel in the wonderful melodies – both exciting and lyrical – broad string themes interspersed with woodwind melodies.  The exciting trumpet fanfare at the opening of the fourth movement was matched in vigour by a thrilling cello line played with rich vibrato.  Peter Thomas was almost dancing during the folk-tune-like coda.  The orchestra’s enthusiasm was matched by the reception of the audience.  Conductor and audience acknowledged the solo contributions of the concert master and various section leaders.  Let’s hope that nothing prevents the orchestra building on this brilliant momentum in the rest of the series.

 Review by Rogan Falla

Review of October 2019 Concert

ROGGEN DELIGHTS IN BRUCH

The twelve minute long composition of Anthony Ritchie The Hanging Bulb was commissioned by the Dunedin Sinfonia while he was Mozart Fellow at Otago University.  It is melancholic in mood with a slow beginning, followed by a jerky fast movement. This is punctuated by percussion effects with the xylophone and bass drum symbolising cruelty.  The sound level seldom gets above piano but it plumbs the depths of despair and is in that way very moving.  The composer took a bow at the end of the performance, together with conductor Brent Stewart who conducted with great delicacy. It was thoughtful programming to include this New Zealand composition which audiences would otherwise never have the opportunity to experience.

What a joy it was to hear Simone Roggen return once again to share her virtuoso gifts in the Bruch Scottish Fantasy.  This work is based on Scottish folk tunes, and at thirty minutes in length is in every respect a violin concerto in all but name.  It was first performed in September 1880 by the Spanish violinist Pablo Sarasate for whom it was written. The work introduces several well-known Scottish folk tunes and develops them cleverly to form a very satisfying whole.  Roggen’s playing of this work was sensitive and plumbed the depths of Bruch’s composition to perfection.  Stewart conducted with infectious enthusiasm. Both were given a rousing reception by the audience at the conclusion.

Following the Interval, Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony was presented with some very colourful orchestration.   The first movement begins slowly with woodwind introducing the themes. The mood is introspective and at times enigmatic, and the orchestration is a brilliantly coloured musical picture which Tchaikovsky is unsurpassed at. The second movement features the French Horns in a five note phrased theme which is developed cleverly.   The third movement in waltz time features the bassoons and clarinets, flowing through the orchestral maze serenely.   One is conscious of the underlying depression of the composer, but he is able to cloak this in some wonderfully tuneful music while seemingly coming to terms with “Fate”. Brent Stewart conducted this work with great insight and extracted the maximum colour and mood of the music. The audience showed its appreciation enthusiastically.  

At the conclusion of the concert we were invited to partake of Coopers Creek wine with nibbles, to launch the 2020 Subscription Series brochure. 

Review of September 2019 Concert

Virtuosic Violin Brilliance

Superlatives abounded as the audience left the 15 September SMCO subscription concert which featured Martin Riseley as soloist.  As one audience member commented ‘There wasn’t one work that I wish wasn’t included.’  David Kay was conductor with Simon Ansell as the Concert Master.

Haydn’s Symphony No 101 ‘The Clock’ was a great opening work.  Beginning with a solemn rather dramatic introduction the first movement quickly became a romp with the brass quite jubilant.  The fugal development section was well articulated, and the woodwind followed by the full orchestra played their interleaving phrases with great style.

The bassoons (who played with very creditable finesse here and in the Prokofiev concerto) and the strings established the clock’s ticking in the second movement.  David Kay’s precise beat maintained the steady rhythm throughout.  The good-humoured Menuetto with the melody being tossed between flute, bassoon, clarinet and strings epitomized the grace and elegance of the eighteenth century.  It led to the Finale which began with a quietly majestic theme followed by brass and woodwind in full voice.  The strings played the intricate double fugue with precision.  A sunny and cheerful symphony.

Martin Riseley, the Head of Strings (violin) at the New Zealand School of Music in Wellington,  has an illustrious ‘pedigree’, with a Doctor Musical Arts degree from the Julliard School of Music, New York, and fifteen years as the concertmaster of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in Canada.  All this experience was on full display in the Introduction and Capriccioso Op 28 by Saint-Saens.  The quiet meditative introduction quickly moved into Spanish ‘fireworks’.  Riseley’s virtuosic technique was spectacular with brilliant bowing and finger work and his richness of tone never wavered even in the highest register.

Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No 1 Op 19 opened with both solo violin and orchestra in a lyrical melody.  Rhythmically and harmonically challenging, the orchestra matched the soloist in skill.  The second movement was very fast, often in the upper register with energetic spiccato playing from Riseley.  There was great beauty in the interplay between soloist and orchestral soloists – most notably the bassoon.  The warm reception for Riseley was also an acknowledgement of the orchestra’s supportive performance.

Written when Prokofiev was in his mid-twenties about the time of the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Classical Symphony is a most engaging and approachable work based on the eighteenth-century classical style.   Conductor David Kay set a brisk pace for the outer movements.  The scurrying string lines in the first movement were played with panache and the high-register theme in the first violins opened the second movement with crisp lower strings before the entry of woodwinds and pizzicato strings.  The third movement was a rich gavotte.  The woodwind tune was effectively accompanied by pizzicato in the lower strings.  There was plenty of skilled playing from all sections – it was a nice gesture on Martin Riseley’s part to join in the ranks of the first violins in the symphony.

A very polished concert and warmly received. Rogan Falla.

Review of August 2019 Concert

Stimulating Mix of New and Old

At its concert on Sunday 18 August, St Matthew’s Chamber Orchestra again demonstrated its ability to perform to a very high level and to present a stimulating mix of works.

To have one of Auckland’s most talented composers as a member of the orchestra Is a huge bonus.  Louise Webster’s “Falling brittle on the wing” was written for SMCO and dedicated to Dinny Lennon,  a friend and colleague of the composer, who died in 2018.  It is a piece which offered beautiful themes for all sections of the orchestra.  A quiet woodwind theme of dreamy atmosphere led into pizzicato strings as a rippling foundation.  There were periods of silence which threw the discordant woodwind and the solo violin, played expressively by the concertmaster, John Thomson, into sharp profile – as did the xylophone and oboe lines. It was played with sensitivity and sincere feeling.

St Matthew’s Chamber Orchestra has already reaped significant benefits from the new piano at St Matthew’s.  To have two soloists of the calibre of Michael Houstoun and Diedre Irons in one year has made the 2019 subscription series one to remember.  Diedre Irons, one of NZ’s foremost pianists was soloist in Schumann’s only piano concerto.  Woodwinds, horns and strings responded with equal brilliance – never dominating the piano line.  There was a wonderful soaring line from clarinet and oboe in the first movement. 

The string tone was well blended, and intonation was immaculate.  Iron’s energy and clarity of finger work made this an emotionally charged experience.  Both soloist and orchestra well deserved the very warm applause.  Michael Joel, who conducted the performance is the orchestra’s Musical Director and the very real rapport he has with the players brought a special degree of accord.

Beethoven’s Symphony No 4 began with a measured slow introduction before moving into an energetic Allegro.  Themes were tossed between brass, woodwind and strings.  The orchestra played in top form following Michael Joel’s clear beat and variations of tempi.

The Menuetto was more Scherzo – jubilant trumpets and woodwind with excellent cello playing.  The horns were excellent throughout and the finale allowed the bassoons to demonstrate their clever fingering in the jocular theme in the Finale.  The tempi throughout were a little slower than often played but this allowed for clarity, with all sections able to present their themes with no feeling of stress.  This symphony can be seen as a tribute to the memory of Haydn, who will be featured in the next SMCO concert on 15 September.

Rogan Falla

Review of Gala Concert July 2019

Sparkle Aplenty in Gala Concert

The Gala Concert from SMCO on Sunday 28 July was truly a stunning event, played to a near capacity audience.  It incorporated sparkling overtures to begin each half of the concert and brilliant arias for solo and ensemble singers of the Music Faculty of the University of Auckland to complete the programme.

The orchestra was led by Simon Ansell and conducted with panache and great rapport with singers and players by Michael Joel.

The first half of the concert was an almost all-Mozart one and opened with the Overture to Cosi fan Tutte. The slow introduction played sensitively by the woodwinds led into a Presto played with great verve and precision by the strings seeming to revel in the energetic runs and the woodwinds in the tossing of tunes between themselves and the strings.  Joel’s brisk beat kept the whole thing moving with sparkle.

Students they may be, but the eighteen young university singers performing extracts from Giulio Cesare of Handel and The Marriage of Figaro were nothing but professional in style – their breath control, phrasing, ability to sing pianissimo as well as with full voice, enunciation, acting ability, and musicality were there in abundance.

Carla Camilleri as Cleopatra both looked and sounded regal.  Cleopatra’s grief and passion after being ordered to prison by her brother were most sensitively portrayed.

In arias from The Marriage of Figaro, Emily Young as Susanna, Sam Downes as the Count, Te Ohorere Williams as the Countess and Libby Montgomery as Cherubino displayed maturity, emotional empathy with their roles and impressive vocal talent. Matiu Kereama, Arthur Adams-Close, Maeve Herd and Sid Chand joined the original four in a rousing Finale to Act 2.

Played with pizzazz and enthusiasm, Franz von Suppe’s Light Cavalry Overture introduced the second part.  Here the brass were able to ‘go to town’ while blending their tone very well with the woodwinds.

The vocal items in this half began with selections from Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals.  Here as in the Mozart arias the singers fully embraced their roles, and Chris McRae, Carla Camilleri, Alex Matangi, Alexandra Francis, Sid Chand and Hannah Ashford-Beck sang songs from South Pacific, Oklahoma, Carousel and the Sound of Music with polished grace which made them sound fresh and alive. 

Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus must be one of the most engaging operettas, and the soloists brought out all the effervescence of the music.  With forged letters, practical jokes and a maid dressed in her mistress’s clothes and the mistress dressed as a Hungarian countess there is plenty of opportunity for mayhem and madness.  Emily Briggs, Sophia Yang, Carla Camilleri and Larissa Kent entered into the comic plot with gusto and great dash.  Their acting ability matched their vocal brilliance and brought an enthusiastic reception from the audience.  The Champagne Chorus where the whole group joined the soloists saw quaffing of bubbly and singers dancing in the aisles as they sang.  A spectacular ending to a thoroughly enjoyable concert.

Review by Rogan Falla

Review of November 2018 Concert

SMCO END THE YEAR IN FINE FORM

The first item in St Matthew’s Chamber Orchestra’s final concert for 2018 was Douglas Lilburn’s Drysdale overture. This was written in 1937 when Lilburn was studying at the Royal College of Music, London under Ralph Vaughan Williams. It is dedicated to his father and is evocative of the family farm and estate where Lilburn was born. The music is tuneful and it is easy to imagine the rolling hills and sweeping rural countryside that is depicted in the music. Lilburn himself likened his feelings when composing the work to Mark Twain’s image of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer drifting down the Mississippi river looking up at the stars and wondering “whether they just happened”.

The Oboe concerto of Vaughan Williams was commissioned by the BBC in 1944 to raise the spirits of war-weary Britons. The composer worked with the brilliant oboist Leon Goosens on the work and it was premiered on 30th September by the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. The work presents considerable challenges for the soloist and Bede Hanley surmounted these with consummate ease. His dexterity and phrasing were impeccable and the warmth of his tone sang throughout the whole performance. This was very well applauded by a capacity audience.

During his life Brahms was not only a composer but a brilliant concert pianist and his third symphony was written during the height of his fame. As a young man he met and became friends with Robert and Clara Schumann, who encouraged him in his career. When Robert Schumann died, Brahms courted Clara, the love of his life, but she remained faithful to her late husband. Brahms’ 3rd Symphony was written in 1883 and was premiered by the Meiningen Court Orchestra under Hans von Bulow who was a great admirer of Brahms. The work has very strong contrasts, changes of mood and plays on the emotions of listeners throughout. The first movement is ushered in by the Wind section, and the second movement features the clarinet. The third movement is lyrical and quite wistful in mood, while the final movement is contrastingly bright and uplifting in style. The three chord signature motto introduced earlier reappears as the final movement progresses to its conclusion. The conductor Tianyi Lu was such a diminutive figure on the podium but her conducting gestures directing the orchestra were at all times positive and strong, and her performance together with the orchestra was roundly applauded.

To introduce the 2019 Orchestra Subcription Series the audience were invited to partake of Coopers Creek wine, cheese and crackers at the conclusion of the concert. This was much appreciated by all.

The informative notes prepared as usual by Lois Westwood helped audience members to appreciate the program.

Robert O’Hara

Waikato Times Review of St John Passion, Hamilton

What:   St John Passion
Who:   Hamilton Civic Choir with St Matthew’s Chamber Orchestra
When:   Saturday, September 15, 2018
Where:   St Peter’s Cathedral
Conductor:   Timothy Carpenter
Composer:   JS Bach

 The afternoon was warm. The conversation was of netball and children and the spring weather. The orchestra was tuned and the choir in situ, without rostra, in the sound shell sanctuary of St Peter’s Cathedral. Conductor Carpenter raised his baton. Slow silence, expectant, but not overdoing it. The baton was still. So were we. The baton moved and so did the orchestra, and an exquisitely balanced, sensitively tuned dynamically perfect sound emerged, lasted a few bars with a wee crescendo, the choir came in, and the world lit up.

Not just with spring sunlight, but a choral chord which was, like the orchestra’s introduction, perfectly pitched and balanced. The dynamic blast, however, from that first choral chord introducing the narrative of the last days of Christ, heralded nearly two unbroken hours of some of the best choral singing with the most enriching orchestral interpretation to have been heard in this most appropriate venue.

It was written nearly 300 years go and somehow, miraculously, Carpenter and his crews recreated that original sensibility and made it accessible to this 21st-century audience.  In part it was through the immaculately cast soloists, from Lachlan Craig’s Evangelist to Ian Campbell’s Pilate and Joel Amosa’s superabundant bass as Christ. Partly it was the orchestral virtuosity and responsiveness to the moment, even enhancing Jayne Tankersley’s incomparable soprano.

There is a particular nod to James Bush’s sublime cello, including his lead into Sarah Court’s exquisite Es ist vollbracht , and Philip Smith’s consummate continuo marathon. Partly it was a matchless Civic Choir, at last paying attention to coach and so producing the pre-eminent performance.

The sopranos were tonally immaculate, and the blend with the altos would have turned 18th-century heads. From the opening chords to the majestic final chorale, Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein, this was uniquely beautiful Bach. The audience thanks you.

Sam Edwards, Waikato Times

Review of September 2018 Concert

BACH AT ITS BEST

The September concert of the St Matthew’s Chamber Orchestra presented a non-stop performance of Bach’s St John Passion sung in the original German.  The Hamilton Civic Choir were joined by an impressive line-up of soloists – soprano Jayne Tankersley, mezzo Sarah Court, tenor Lachlan Craig, baritone Ian Campbell and bass-baritone Joel Amosa.  Cellist James Bush gave some wonderful supporting obligati for several solos.  The management thoughtfully provided the English text so that audience members were able to follow the sung German virtually “word for word”.

Many classical music lovers regard J.S. Bach as the “Father of music” and he commands universal respect.  He has total respect for melody, harmony and counterpoint, and you will never hear a “bum-note” in any of his works.  The St John Passion was composed for a Good Friday Service in his Lutheran Church in Leipzig in 1724.   It follows the events in Chapters 18 and 19 of John’s gospel, with the Evangelist mainly narrating the story, and Jesus and Pilate responding.

The forty strong Hamilton Civic Choir formed a half circle completely enclosing the orchestra, with the females on the left and the males on the right.  This positioning enabled all choristers to have a clear view of conductor Timothy Carpenter who gave very polished direction from the podium.   The Passion is a well-balanced work with recitatives interspersed with choruses and chorales while delivering a coherent narrative.  Mezzo Sarah Court sang the first solo aria with a delicate obligato provided by two oboes and a bassoon alone.   This was quickly followed by soprano Jayne Tankersley whose aria was very well supported by cello obligato played by James Bush.  He did the same for a later mezzo aria sung by Sarah Court.   The Evangelist delivered all of his recitatives from the pulpit high above all else and we heard every word.  It was a joy to hear Joel Amosa, winner of the recent Lexus Song Quest.  His bass baritone voice had the resonant cutting edge to carry over the orchestra, even when singing pianissimo.

The whole work was presented without any interval, and rightly so.  It would have been impossible to make a break in this work without losing the thread and drama, and general impact.   In the second half of the program, the tension built and maintained right to the final chorale.   All in all, we heard some superb singing by all of the soloists, and indeed the Choir itself and very fine playing by the orchestra.  The capacity audience showed their appreciation with prolonged applause.

The final concert in the 2018 series will be on Sunday 18th November, and will feature conductor, Tianyi Lu, and oboe soloist Bede Hanley.   The program will include Douglas Lilburn’s Drysdale Overture, Vaughan Williams’ Oboe Concerto, and Brahms’ 3rd Symphony.

Robert O’Hara

Review of August 2018 Concert

WINING COMBINATION OF BARTOK AND BEETHOVEN

The opening work of St Matthews Chamber Orchestra concert on Sunday 9th August was, “On hearing the shining cuckoo”, by Auckland composer, Anthony Young, a contemporary work in six movements. We are all familiar with the shining cuckoo’s calls heralding Spring :– coo-ee, coo-ee followed by tsss-eew, tsss-eew.  This distinctive call was mimicked from this bird that lays its eggs in a grey warbler’s nest and leaves the grey warbler to hatch and raise the cuckoo chicks.  Young’s work  was inspired by Frederick Delius’ work “On hearing the first cuckoo in Spring.” And he uses a similar musical structure to paint his melodic structure.  The orchestra is to be commended for commissioning and performing new works like this for the audience first hearing.

Bartok’s 3rd Piano Concerto gave the solo pianist the opportunity to perform on the brand new Shuguru-Kawai  grand piano that has just been purchased by  St Matthews Church.   It was a brilliant performance by David Guerin, of a very showy piano work.  Bartok composed this concerto  especially for his concert pianist wife, Ditta.  It has many demands, and Guerin’s performance highlighted the contrasts and sheer brilliance of the music, which was well supported by the colourful orchestration.   In three contrasting movements, the final Allegro Vivace was very demanding of both the soloist and orchestra, but was performed with great panache and rewarded with a rousing reception from an appreciative audience.

Beethoven’s 8th Symphony is not as well known or as widely performed as some of his other Symphonies.  The first movement , Allegro Vivace con brio is bright tuneful and full of hope and Michael Joel drew forth a spirited performance of this movement.  The second and third movements are light-hearted and give plenty of scope for the woodwind section to shine. The work of principal clarinet, Janine Stenbo is worthy of special mention, her playing being exceptionally clear and standing out as the composer intended.  The final movement was spirited and featured contrasting dynamics that the conductor drew forth to perfection.   This work was very well received and enthusiastically applauded.

Lois Westwood’s well-researched program notes added to the enjoyment of the concert.

The next concert is on Sunday 16th September will feature the Hamilton Civic Choir under conductor, Tim Carpenter, performing  Bach’s St John Passion.

Robert  O’Hara