REVIEW: Auckland Philharmonia “Out Of This World” (16 April 2015)


A well-attended Auckland Town Hall audience was treated to another intriguing programme from the Auckland Philharmonia on Thursday evening. Bach, Dutilleux and Shostakovich are not your everyday concert fare and the theme of “Out Of This World” was a nod to the main work and the evening’s soloist, German cellist Nicholas Altstaedt.

JS Bach’s Overture from his Suite No.3 in D major started proceedings and Music Director Eckehard Stier conducting a baroque-sized ensemble kept things balanced, bright and breezy as befits this piece.

Henri Dutilleux is not likely to be the first name that comes to mind when thinking of French composers but perhaps he should be given more prominence than he currently enjoys.  A firmly independent voice despite being compared to his contemporaries such as Olivier Messiaen and Pierre Boulez, there are many intriguing descriptions about his compositional style and his music – perfectionist, anti-ideological, unsentimental and poetically flexible.

(A very useful guide to Dutilleux’s music by the excellent critic and writer Tom Service can be found here:
http://www.theguardian.com/music/tomserviceblog/2013/jan/21/henri-dutilleux-contemporary-music-guide)

The work that gave the evening its title was Tout un monde lointain (literally “A whole distant world”) and Dutilleux wrote it between 1967 and 1970 for the acclaimed Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Inspired by Baudelaire’s poetry, this five-movement work is challenging for both soloist and orchestra. The cello soloist is required to play a good portion of the work in the high register but at the same time act as a foil for the orchestra as well as projecting its unique and solo voice. The orchestra, with its expanded percussion section, might easily overwhelm the soloist and Maestro Stier was visibly at pains to ensure the balance was correct throughout.

This was, apparently, Nicholas Altstaedt’s first concert performance of this work and also the first time the Auckland Philharmonia had performed it. You couldn’t tell as both seemed completely assured in their performances. While this work might not dazzle with technical derring-do as you might expect from a concerto, that is as Dutilleux intended and this performance was notable for the clarity from Mr. Altstaedt, the complexity of the different layers of music in the piece and the restraint and balance from the orchestra. It all gelled together nicely in an intriguing way. Not having heard it live before, it is a piece I would not mind hearing again. And I think the Town Hall audience would agree.

A encore of Sibelius’ “Raindrops” performed by Mr. Altstaedt and concertmaster Andrew Beer was both charming in contrast and its simplicity.

Remarkably, we saw Mr. Altstaedt in the second half as well as he joined the Auckland Philharmonia’s cello section for Dimitri Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony. Not for nothing is it one of the more frequently performed works in the modern symphonic repetoire with its searing harmonies in the first movement, the comical sarcasm of the second, the plaintive and highly emotional third and the highly charged and mock triumphant fourth movement.

The Auckland Philharmonia’s performance can justifiably described as out of this world in every respect. Perfectly paced and weighted dynamically throughout, I cannot remember a performance from this orchestra that had so much energy and intensity and which conveyed a full range of musical colours and textures on every level. Maestro Stier asked for much from his orchestra and got it with interest. A stunning and highly memorable performance that both conductor and orchestra should be very proud of.

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Two nights at the Met (New York City, March 2015)


Recent travels took me to New York City for the first time and one particular highlight was to attend two performances at the Met over the space of two weeks. Specifically, the closing night of Tales of Hoffmann under Met Music Director James Levine and the opening night of a revival of Verdi’s Don Carlo. Getting Jimmy Levine into the pit is now a well-rehearsed process. He had a specially-designed wheelchair as well as a rotunda to allow him to get the wheelchair in and positioned where he needs to be. Everyone is by now well-used to the process but given that Hoffmann is a three-act affair, it tends to get a bit like Grand Central Terminal in the pit ! But I digress.

The Tales of Hoffmann, which is based on three short stories by ETA Hoffmann, is interesting not only for the plot but also for the fact that there is actually no definitive version of the opera. Jacques Offenbach didn’t help things when he voiced his own premonition that he would, like one of the characters (Antonia), die before the work was completed which he duly did ! The libretto can be summarised thus – Hoffmann, a moderately successful poet but unlucky in love tells how he falls in love with four women – Olympia, who turns out to be a mechanical doll, Antonia, who sings herself to death due to a medical condition, Giulietta, a rich courtesan and finally Stella, the prima donna singing in Mozart’s Don Giovanni but he is too drunk and she fall for his rival Lindorf. Aficionados of the stories and the opera will note that I have omitted to mention that the Muse of Poetry is the other ‘woman’ in Hoffmann’s life and she poses as his best friend Nicklausse in the course of the opera and as these stories are told. In the end, Hoffmann devotes his existence to poetry and the Muse is pleased but as he pledges never to love again, who knows what befalls him in the end. The cast was very much American which showed the relative depth of talent available to the Met domestically. Tenor Matthew Polenzani was both strong vocally and in his stagecraft while mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano played a strong foil as Nicklausse. Soprano Susanna Phillips also showed solid vocal technique and acting skills as Antonia and Stella and French bass-baritone Laurent Naouri shone malevolently as the four villains as you would expect him to do given that he is married to one of the most outstanding singers of the day (Natalie Dessay – whose portrayal of Olympia over the years has been the gold standard). Speaking of Olympia, soprano Audrey Luna, dressed in what can only be called a cross between cosplay and scarlet fairy, hit all of the high notes with ease and grace. In the same vein as Ms. Luna’s own costume, no expense is spared with the elaborate costumes and staging, the chorus and extras in the cast some of whom are, well, minimally dressed. We do have a circus and bordello in the entertainment package, after all ! The Met orchestra under their venerable leader sailed through the music making it an intriguing and delightful evening.

Verdi’s Don Carlo is not an opera I know well and that might also have to do with the fact the fact that there is a French version (Don Carlos as it was originally written for the Paris Opera) as well as the Italian version and that Verdi made many revisions and cuts. The storyline is not as interesting, to me, as other Verdi operas – based on Schiller’s free-form poetic setting and in five acts, it revolves about the trials and tribulations of Don Carlos, Crown Prince of Spain. Initially betrothed to the Princess Elizabeth of France (as part of a peace deal), that engagement is ruthlessly cut off by his own father who negotiates Elizabeth for himself. The rest of the opera sees Don Carlo anguished between his feelings for Elizabeth and his sense of duty to Spain as well as trying to deal with his unfeeling and rather cruel father King Philip. But the plot and the characterisations are somewhat hampered by the source material and as a result (in my opinion at least), this greatly affects the quality of the music. Plot issues aside, it was a very strong cast including Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli as Princess Elizabeth, legendary Italian bass Ferrucio Furlanetto and the legendary Siberian bass-baritone Dimitri Hvorostovsky (a late replacement for Simon Keenlyside who had withdrawn due to illness). Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee did well as Don Carlo but had to overcome a rather sub-par start. His duets with Hvorostovsky were, however, excellent and Lee had no problem finding an extra gear whenever they were on stage together. But Furlanetto’s dark, brooding and malevolent characterisation of King Philip showed what vocal projection is all about. I must say I am heavily biased but the best parts for me were when Furlanetto and Hvorostovsky were on stage whether in duet or part of the ensemble cast. Opera doesn’t get better than that. Canadian wunderkind Yannick Nezet-Seguin had a few wobbly moments with the Met orchestra but held things together well overall. A very memorable night for this opera fan.

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Review: Eddie Izzard “Force Majeure” (Auckland, 19 February 2015)


British comic, actor, writer and soon-to-be politician Eddie Izzard played the Aotea Centre last night in the first of two sold out shows. Last here four years ago with his Stripped show, his uniquely warped sense of humour struck many a chord and caused much mirth with a very appreciative Auckland audience.

Izzard has been touring his Force Majeure show over the last two years across 26 countries in three languages (English, French and German to be exact). Those multilinguistic talents are peppered throughout the evening as are several others. Did you know, for example, that the Welsh and Indian accents are within a screwdriver tightening of each other ? Many experts have said this and it’s absolutely true.

As with any Izzard show, the ride is unpredictable and full of twists and turns into the weird and absurd – who else could link through human sacrifice, the kings of England, Julius Caesar and how he was immortalised in a salad, chickens as military advisors, the comparative merits of various religions and how you only need hairspray to get rid of an errant fly on stage. And that was just the first half.

While nearly all the material is new, as it should be, he has also reworked one of his most famous routines, the Death Star canteen marvellously only this time God is lining up for the spaghetti carbonara with Lord Vader. Where’s Mr. Stevens, the head of catering when you need him ? You’ll just have to find out whether you need a tray or not.

Coming off a long Australian and New Zealand tour, you might have thought that both comedian and some of the jokes might be showing signs of fatigue. There was a touch of that to be honest with the odd pause between segments and a little struggle to maintain the pace but on the whole, it was a generally polished and indeed funny set of absurdist observations and facts that left the audience happy.

Et voila ! Absolutely true.

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Review: “Schirmer & Shostakovich” – Auckland Philharmonia – 20 November 2014


Can it really be the end of the 2014 concert season already ? As Beethoven once said, “Must it be ? It must be !”.

The Auckland Philharmonia wrapped up its year with a performance of Dimitri Shostakovich’s Twelfth Symphony at the Auckland Town Hall last Thursday. Subtitled “The Year of 1917”, this symphony is probably best described as a sort of “obligatory commission” from the Communist Party of the USSR to Shostakovich as part of the celebrations at the 22nd Party Congress. Ostensibly dedicated to Lenin and comprising four movements played as a unitary piece, some writers have dismissed the work as being akin to nothing more than glorified film music. This is understandable as Shostakovich wrote a lot of film scores and the work is most certainly programmatic, but ultimately that view is surely wrong.

Because it depicts the Russian Revolution and some of its iconic places as well as the battleship Aurora, the piece is written to capture the events and the revolutionary emotions of that time. It is, in places, very evocative and dramatic music and the Auckland Philharmonia’s Music Director Eckehard Stier and the entire orchestra made sure we all understood this.

This was a exceptional performance of searing intensity from the very start. Maestro Stier is seemingly in his element with Shostakovich and here again he coaxed and cajoled all of the orchestra into delivering one of the best performances from the orchestra this year. All sections of the orchestra performed magnificently – it was impossible to single any particular section or player out.

Earlier, German pianist Ragna Schirmer performed both Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto for piano and string orchestra and Mozart’s C major concerto No. 21 in the first half. The Schnittke was notable for starting and finishing in pitch darkness with all sorts of thematic and structural motifs as one would expect from this composer. This concerto is not often played so was interesting to hear. Ms. Schirmer’s Mozart on the other hand was notable for its clarity as well as the somewhat unusual cadenzas which must have been her own – the one for the final movement was unexpected and in fact quite jazzy and while perhaps a touch too long, was well received by the Town Hall audience.

The unexpected highlight actually came in the form of the encore of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 1 in the version for four hands with Ms. Schirmer playing the primo part and Maestro Stier performing the secondo part. We forget that Maestro Stier is a very good pianist and the two of them were very well suited to this.

But there was no question that the Shostakovich was the true stand out performance of the evening, A great way to conclude another high quality and very interesting classical music year in Auckland.

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Review: Borodin Quartet, Auckland Town Hall – 22 October 2014


The Borodin Quartet is one of the world’s great chamber music groups. Formed in 1945 by students at the Moscow Conservatoire its members have included the likes of Mstislav Rostropovich, Rostislav Dubinsky, Rudolf and Nina Barshai, Mikhail Kopelman and a handful of others. While its repetoire has always included the core of the works composed for string quartet, it became synonymous with the works of Alexander Borodin and Dmitri Shostakovich.

In some ways too, it is a time capsule of Soviet history. They were required to play at Stalin’s funeral and various members defected to the West. But with the late cellist Valentin Berlinsky in particular holding the fort from the very beginning, the quartet has, for nearly seventy years, sought to maintain and deliver nothing but the highest standards of chamber musicianship. And they did so emphatically to the Auckland Town Hall audience on Thursday evening in an intriguing and challenging programme of Myaskovsky, Shostakovich and Beethoven.

Nikolai Myaskovsky might not be a name that would come to mind when listing famous Russian composers but before World War 2, his music was admired and appreciated around the world. Like his contemporaries and friends Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Khachachurian, he was affected the political climate of the Stalin era but unlike them, his reputation since his death in 1950 steadily declined. His 13th string quartet, composed in the year before his death is a musically nostalgic work, more late Romantic and closer to someone like Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff than modernist. Conventionally structured, it is not particularly inspiring, but it did give us the opportunity to appreciate the Borodin Quartet’s exceptional ensemble playing and intonation. First violin Ruben Aharonian’s playing in particular was a highlight here.

Jump ahead some fifteen years or so and we get to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Eleventh String Quartet. This mysterious, yet elegiac work has absolutely no trace of throwback to the musical traditions of the past. Firmly embedded in the tonal language of the composer and of the time, it is an unusual and demanding seven movement work played without a break. In part, it is a tribute to Vassily Shirinsky, the second violinist of the Beethoven Quartet who premiered nearly all of Shostakovich’s string quartets.

Not taking away anything from any other part of the evening, but this is where the Borodin Quartet excelled. In a work with so many textures ranging from mechanical repetition to hints of Caucasian rhythms and with harmony contrasted against deliberate dissonance, not unlike a troubled mind asking questions all the time, there was absolute clarity throughout. So good was this performance, I was still totally absorbed by it throughout the interval.

Late Beethoven works are always intimidating to the performer and listener given their complexity. His 13th String Quartet Op. 130 is no exception. Originally containing what became the Op. 133 Grosse Fuge, Beethoven was not happy when told that the second and fourth movements had been encored. “And why didn’t [the audience want] the Fugue?”, he growled. “That alone should have been repeated! Cattle! Asses!” Somehow, he was persuaded to write a new final movement which, thankfully, is a lot more optimistic.

The Borodin Quartet again showed exceptional attention to detail throughout, particularly to harmony and balance, dynamic contrasts and phrasing, never losing their concentration for a second. The fourth (German Dance), fifth (Cavatina) and sixth movements were standout performances. Music making does not get better than that.

We did not leave without an encore – what else could it be than the Nocturne from Borodin’s Second String Quartet. Dedicated to a friend who had specially flown in for this concert, it was magically played. The perfect encore to this perfect concert.

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Review: “Concert for Horns”, Auckland Philharmonia (9 October 2014)


The French Horn is an intriguing instrument. On the one hand, it looks like something that a master plumber or heating engineer with a vague interest in music might have come up with. Way back when, there was a time when horns weren’t that complicated and they looked as if some brass pipe had been wound around a few times. But the sound generated wasn’t always reliable or indeed tuneful. So it gradually evolved into the valved instrument it is now.

Not surprisingly, it is not an easy thing to play. I’ve tried and got a sort of hissing sound. When played well, it produces a magnificent golden and rounded sound which is quite unique and therefore essential to an orchestra.

This then might have something to do with the lack of concertos for the horn. Robert Schumann sought to address that defect in part when he composed his Konzertstuck (Concert Piece) for a quartet of them.

To perform this, the Auckland Philharmonia’s entire horn section, principal Nicola Baker with her colleagues Emma Richards, Carl Wells and Simon Williams, were the star soloists of the evening. Pre-concert gossip had created a good deal of anticipation for a quality performance of this tricky, but relatively short three-movement work.

While the performance was not note perfect, that was not the point. The lively spirit of the piece was captured well and the ensemble playing in particular was solid and showed off the positive qualities of these brass instruments. The non-horn sections of the Auckland Philharmonia provided a suitably bold accompaniment which did not overwhelm the soloists. Naturally, the substantial Town Hall audience loved it.

British conductor Paul Goodwin is a man who knows what he wants from an orchestra and if you can’t understand what he is communicating, then you probably need to get your eyes checked. Dynamics and phrasing in particular were clearly emphasised with a wide range of gestures and the performance of Haydn’s Military Symphony which commenced proceedings had plenty of energy and character as a result. Its grand and loud military themes, designed to surprise and delight also, were clear for all to hear. The lady sitting next to me summed up things very well to her friend. She said it was fun. Very well put.

I wonder if anyone else noticed the subtle change made in the second half for the Poulenc Sinfonietta. The second violins were seated next to the firsts and this showed a keen awareness of how the piece was written. To my ear, it made a real difference and Maestro Goodwin’s insistence on clarity ensured a memorable performance. (Radio New Zealand Concert take note – please make this performance available on Podcast Classics at some stage !)

The Poulenc was not the end of this excellent concert. I was wondering why Principal Flute Katie Zagorski was waiting in the wings. Maestro Goodwin had in mind an encore in the form of the last movement of the Haydn but without the repeats to show how surprising and exciting it was. Once again it fizzed with a vibrant energy that was positively infectious. A great way to complete a delightful evening of musical fun.

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Review: Auckland Philharmonia, “Czechmate” – 2 October 2014


While the audience numbers might have been affected a little by traffic on a wet evening, nevertheless it was a solid turnout at the Auckland Town Hall for the Auckland Philharmonia’s final “Great Classics” mini-series concert. The evening’s theme was Czechmate – a nod to the great Czech composers Antonin Dvorak and Bedrich Smetana.

Smetana’s symphonic poem The Moldau is well known for its sweeping main melody, depicting one of the Czech Republic’s longest rivers the Vltava. In the composer’s own words, the music depicts the coming together of two currents, woods and meadows, a country wedding, castles and ruins and the river’s swirls as it heads off into the distance. All of these pictorial details were conveyed succinctly by the orchestra under British conductor Christopher Seaman.

Schumann’s Cello Concerto does not have the emotional drama that the Dvorak or the Elgar concertos do and this probably explains why it is not played that often nowadays. Schumann himself once said that he could not write concerti for virtuoso performers and would have to try “something else”. In this case that “something else” is a display of lyricism and melodic line which is carried through all three movements, played without interruption.

Soloist for the evening was Swedish cellist Torleif Thedéen who is no stranger to the Auckland Town Hall. Totally secure in his intonation and phrasing, Thedéen  performed with his trademark elegance and without overdramatising the music. While one could criticise the piece itself, you could not criticise this performance. The Auckland Philharmonia and Maestro Seaman provided a carefully weighted and dynamically sensitive accompaniment in tune with the soloist. A nod also to APO Principal Cellist Eliah Sakakushev-von Bismarck in the second movement duet which was duly acknowledged by soloist and audience alike.

An encore of Bach’s c minor Sarabande from the Cello Suite No. 5 was an atmospheric contrast to the Schumann and also well received.

My sense is that Antonin Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony is not programmed as much as it ought to be compared to the Eighth or the Ninth. Perhaps it is a bit darker emotionally, reflecting challenging times for its composer when he wrote it. While there are obvious parallels to symphonies of Schubert and Brahms in its orchestration, it still has a Bohemian voice through some elements of folk elements that populate Dvorak’s works.

Maestro Seaman’s uncomplicated conducting style was well suited to this symphony. Perhaps at times it may have lacked a true Bohemian flavour, but the second and final movements were respectively rich and triumphant. One particular highlight was the exceptional quality of the wind playing which was a notable feature throughout the evening. All of which seemed to please the audience. Isn’t that what matters at the end of the day ?

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Review: New Zealand Opera – “Don Giovanni” – 18 September 2014


New Zealand Opera’s production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni opened its Auckland season on Thursday and had already courted a little bit of controversy as to its staging. Not the stuffy, fusty 18th Century costumes and street scenes for this production directed by Sara Brodie. Rather, the setting is in a seedy, dingy Spanish nightclub, completely devoid of any sophistication whatsoever. There are poledancers and a DJ in residence and smartphones and selfies are taken. Apparently, there’s some substance abuse as well although I have to say I missed that. But you get the idea.

Not surprisingly, this has detracted from the other, arguably more important elements. How’s the music, for starters? Were there any sacrifices made to the plot or libretto to accommodate the setting? And was it any good at all ?

The good news is that the music is good and it is a pretty decent production. While some might argue that some of the traditional elements to the story are reworked to suit the setting, the sets, created by designer John Verryt, are dynamic and up to the usual high standard we have become accustomed to with a New Zealand Opera production. NZO’s Music Director Wyn Davies and the Auckland Philharmonia give their customary quality performance. And, most importantly, the cast is vocally strong.

The two standouts in the cast have to be New Zealand soprano Anna Leese as Donna Elvira, one of Giovanni’s victims, and Australian bass baritone Warwick Fyfe as Giovanni’s long-suffering manservant Leporello. Leese’s vocal power and clear diction were evident from the first notes of the Act 1 aria “ Ah, chi mi dice mai”, when she arrives looking for Don Giovanni and both were sustained throughout the evening to great effect. The mixture of anguish and being deceived by her ex-lover was captured effectively in the Act 2 aria “Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata” which was a highlight.

Fyfe, who’s last Auckland appearance was in NZO’s excellent production of Rigoletto, not only excels vocally, notably in the “Catalogue” aria but also in his interactions with Giovanni and Donna Elvira, but he also inhabits the comicly awkward, fearful and subservient characteristics of his role superbly and this is vital to the success of any production.

That’s not to take away from any of the other members of the cast. Mark Stone is the overtly self-confident Don Giovanni, with his seemingly endless appetite for women who eventually gets his comeuppance. The “Champagne” aria was only one of many chances to demonstrate his excellent vocal technique. Jaewoo Kim’s tenor voice is the role of Don Ottavio is thoroughly clear and melodious, Lisa Harper-Brown is a suitably anguished Donna Anna and Amelia Barry and Robert Tucker as Zerlina and Masetto make a great couple both vocally and stage-wise. Barry’s “Vedrai carino” in Act 2 is particularly good. Jud Arthur, who has also been performing the Commendatore role for Opera Australia this year, is in fine voice and has an acting challenge as well, although I won’t spoil that part of it.

Personally, I’m not sure whether this production visually would be a good introduction to opera for the novice. But that could be because I am used to seeing more traditional productions. That aside, this NZO production is musically effective and does work theatrically and is therefore worth seeing, not only just by fans of opera.

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Review: Auckland Phillharmonia “Glennie At Olympus” – 4 September 2014


Thursday’s Auckland Philharmonia concert was always going to be one of most sought-after concerts in 2014. If you’ve heard of Dame Evelyn Glennie or better yet seen her in action, you will know that she is a world-renowned, exceptionally brilliant percussionist. Possibly in anticipation of the near full-house, the APO generously made the concert available via live streaming so you could see as well as hear this fantastic musician in action. But there’s really no substitute to seeing her live.

The piece chosen was New Zealand composer John Psathas’ work “View from Olympus”. Composed with Dame Evelyn in mind and premiered by her, it is officially described as a double concerto for percussion, piano and orchestra. In terms of the percussion, the work requires, nay demands, a veritable swathe of instruments and the score itself spells out what is needed: vibraphone, marimba, simtak, dulcimer, bass steel drums, wind chimes (2 or 3 sets – she used three), bell tree, mark tree, triangle, finger cymbals, drum station (comprising 4 octobans, 4 tom toms, 3 paddle drums, cymbals (trash, splash, medium crash, china crash, plus a cluster of smallest-possible splash cymbals) and a hi-hat. The orchestra itself are not left out as they also require two percussionists playing a triangle, snare drum, mark tree, glockenspiel, tubular bells, marimba,cowbell, vibraphone, cymbals (splash, medium crash, china crash), bass drum, tambourine, 3 high tom toms (of different pitches) and finger cymbals. No ordinary piece of music by any definition.

Psathas makes musicians work hard. “Olympus” has three challenging movements and The Furies are venging spirits of retributive justice and their firey nature is evident from the very first notes. The co-ordination between percussion and piano, to say nothing of the interaction with the orchestra was incredible. Nothing seemed to be missed even though, as Dame Evelyn revealed later, the monitors used by her and pianist Stephen De Pledge had failed part way through the first movement. Transitions were seamless as Dame Evelyn transitioned from instrument to instrument. The textural, dynamic and harmonic contrasts created by the different instruments were clearly defined by both soloists and orchestra under the clear direction of conductor Hans Graf

To Yelasto Paithi (“The Smiling Child”) was inspired by the composer’s two children and is a dream-like, atmospheric movement making good use of the wind chimes and other bell elements in the percussion suite. Here was a chance for Dame Evelyn to perform extended solos and mesmerise the audience which she most certainly did.

The final Dance of the Maenads is volcanic in temperament depicting Dionysiac ecstasy and its potentially destructive tendencies. Again, highly textural with repetitive measures at a pace and pitch that test the performer and listener, it is a high-energy, high-intensity movement requiring exceptional concentration from all concerned. Visually as well as aurally, it is a spectacle. Needless to say that the Town Hall audience enjoyed it immensely.

An encore of the Fragment originally scored for vibraphone and piano and part of the work with both Dame Evelyn and Stephen De Pledge on the piano was a lovely way to round off this fantastic and memorable performance.

It would be slightly remiss of me to mention that there was a second half to the concert consisting of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony. A rather-too-brisk interpretation from Maestro Graf with some issues, I felt. But it was always going to be overshadowed by Dame Evelyn (with all due respect !). Fair enough, too.

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Review: Jonas Kaufmann, Sydney Opera House – 10 August 2014


To opera fans, Jonas Kaufmann needs little or no introduction. The mere mention of his name sends critics to their dictionaries to look up superlatives and then some. So when Opera Australia announced that he would be giving a recital in Sydney, that automatically became one of the hottest tickets of 2014. And it would be somewhat trite to say that it was a huge success.

If you are not impressed by his voice, then chances are that you will be impressed by his movie star looks. Little wonder therefore that he has garnered so much attention both within opera circles and outside the classical music world.

Kaufmann’s voice has been described in various ways. What is undeniable is that it has an amazing range from the high true tenor register to the baritonal depths. And he sings powerfully, not forcefully, with clarity both musically and in his diction.

The fact that there was no Wagner on the programme may have been a small surprise but on closer inspection, there was a sensible logic to it.

After the overture from I vespri siciliani to start proceedings, Puccini’s Recondita Armonia from Tosca gave the audience the first chance to hear that amazing voice. Any acoustic flaws from the venue were simply forgotten as he showed both vocal quality and power in equal measure. No prizes for guessing that the applause and cheering was sustained.

Improvviso from Andrea Chenier gave Kaufmann to show his delicate side. It brought to mind a recent interview in which he noted that one critic said that he could only sing loudly. Had that critic hear that, he would likely have had to eat his words as Kaufmann more than sufficiently exhibited dynamic and dramatic control.

Don Alvaro’s La vita e inferno from Act III of La Forza del destino was keenly anticipated, more so as the overture was performed immediately beforehand. Was there drama ? Yes. Was there power ? Of course. We were utterly captivated ? Absolutely. Many in the audience thought that this was his finest piece of the evening and it was not difficult to agree.

To end the first half, appropriately, Kaufmann’s rendition of Vesti la giubba from the end of Act I of Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci conveyed all the emotion of the betrayed clown. It’s a piece that we’ve all heard sung well and sung badly but this was exceptional in its clarity

For the second half, primarily in French and this was started very well with the vigorous Bacchanale from Saint-Saens’ Sampson et Dalila.

La fleur que tu m’avai jetee from Bizet’s Carmen was a chance to see and hear the reflective and subdued side of an artist at the height of his powers. But no less passionate in contrast to the first half.

If, like me, you had read the reviews from his performances at the Met in New York, you would have been looking forward to Pourquoi me reveiller from Massenet’s Werther. Kaufmann did not disappoint again exhibiting emotional and dynamic control.

He finished the first half with Pag and to close the printed programme, how appropriate to have some Cav, specifically Mamma, quel vino e generoso. Again, an emotionally captivating performance which was greeted rapturously by the full house.

Of course, the audience would never be satisfied without an encore (or three) which included ‘E lucevan le stelle’ from Tosca and two songs in German, each sung with as much energy as every other aria on the programme and which were each met with standing ovations and thunderous applause. How could you not ?

The Opera Australia orchestra responded very well to their star guest throughout the evening under the clear direction of Jochen Rieder. If anything, the musical interludes in between arias served to heighten the anticipation of the next piece. A truly stunning evening. How lucky was I to have been there !

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