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Friday, March 11, 2022

REVIEW: Aotearoa NZ Festival Of The Arts: Adam Chamber Music Series - Concert 1: Voice of the Whale (Online until April 3 2022)

Adam Chamber Music Series – Artistic Directors, Helene Pohl (MNZM) and Gillian Ansell (MNZM) Concert 1: Voice of the Whale

Performers: Helene Pohl (Violin), Rolf Gjelsten (Cello), Nicola Melville (Piano), Bridget Douglas - Flute

The Chamber Music Series is a set of five separate concerts that artfully balance the familiar and the out of the ordinary.  The brief was to bring together works that were rarely heard works with the more familiar, such as the beloved Bach Chaconne, and to juxtapose them with other masterworks to enhance the emotional impact of each programme.

The series covers quintets for string quartet, taonga pūoro with a Romantic piano quintet, a performance of Mozart’s epic Gran Partita and the Enescu Octet in Chamber

Music spectacular, world music celebrating nature and emotion (‘Voice of the Whale’) and solace in a troubled world with Bach by Candlelight.  Sadly, in these Covid times we cannot attend in person. But if we did, then we’d all be crowded into the Michael Fowler Centre, wine in hand and buzzing with anticipation.  Alas, only the musicians were ably to step inside.  As a compromise, though 

‘Tonight’s’ concert was a digitally streamed event featuring the groundbreaking 'Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale' by Pulitzer Prize and Grammy award winner George Crumb, Brazilian composer Heitor 'Villa-Lobos’ Assobio a Játo (Jet Whistle)' , Bacewicz’s Violin Sonata No. 4 and Rachmaninoff’s 'Trio elegiaque  No.1 in G minor'. 

George Crumb: ‘Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale)’

George Henry Crumb Jr. was an American composer of contemporary classical music, who early in his life chose to reject the modernist usage of serialism, popular at the time, instead developing a highly personal musical language which ranged from peaceful to downright nightmarish.  

What Crumb has written gives a distinct musical voice to the cause, whilst providing a richly vivid seascape and endearing empathy with these magnificent creatures.  At the heart of the piece is the contemporary relationship between humans and whale.  It’s something of a chronological journey touching on science, especially studies in underwater audio, and nods to whaling history and asks moral and ethical questions. 

For ‘Vox Balaenae’, Crumb was deeply influenced by the environmentalism movement of the 1970 particularly “save the whales” campaigns.  While inspired by recordings of humpback whale song, he avoids using tapes and asks the three musicians with their instruments.  

And it’s intriguing to watch as much as it was to listen to.  Flautist Bridget Douglas not only plays but also sings into the mouthpiece of her instrument while pianist Nicola Melville 'engineers' sounds from hers by manipulating and plucking the strings the strings like a harp or striking them gently with a tuning mallet.

Cellist Rolf Gjelsten emulates the high-pitched squeaks and squalls of whales calling to each other. 

Even more challenging, the performers must whistle, play bells and timpani, against a swelling tide of string, piano and flute that recalls the graceful movements through the waters and a juxtaposition to the anarchic squeaks of the whales' voices.

As the flagship piece, this experimental work was delightfully executes, with the performers clearly relishing the chance to push their instruments, and themselves, to the limits.

All players wear black half-masks and (in Crumb’s own words) efface “a sense of human projection, [the masks] will symbolize the powerful, impersonal faces of nature”.  

This particular performance includes hints of the oft-used blue lighting, which unfortunately isn’t very obvious on the small screen, to provide a visual immersion into the sea.  

I really enjoyed the way the piece begins with these individual whale conversations moving into a cacophony of chatter space, with the nose of the commercial sea threatening the harmony of the solitary.   

Grażyna Bacewicz – ‘Violin Sonata No. 4’

The following a Violin Sonata by Grażyna Bacewicz, an icon of Polish composition in the early 20th century, and a virtuoso violinist in her own right.  It is believed she wrote this for herself to play, as an evocative challenge of wilding swinging moods that range from highly gestural witty and even flirtatious.

Bacewicz was admired by Witold Lutosławski as ‘a distinguished Polish composer of the 20th century and one of the foremost women composers of all time’.  As a former pupil of Kazimierz Sikorski and then Nadia Boulanger, she then studied in pre-war Paris.  She referred to her music as falling into three periods: Period 1 - youthful, very experimental; Period II - atonal’; and ‘Period III ‘absolutely avant-garde in nature’.  This piece falls into that third category but remains accessible, even to new ears.  

In the first two movements, ‘Moderato’ and ‘Andante ma non troppo’, you can hear hints of gypsy dance and throughout ‘Scherzo: Molto vivo’ there’s a contrast between marching and Nationalist bands and mischievous tip-toeing, as a child would be sneaking through the backstreets during a parade.  The ‘Finale’ is a tension of nervous energy, like a secret about to explode out of the mouth. 

I don't really know the background of this work or the composer but now I'm very keen to find out more about her.

I found Helene Pohl's violin playing simply mesmerising.  Not only technically brilliant but just so commanding in the way she inhabited the very soul of the person I now know is ‘Bacewicz’.  I feel like I’ve just had a fleeting conversation, an introduction I need to return to.

Heitor Villa-Lobos - Assobio a Játo or Jet Whistle

Created for flute and cello by celebrated Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos ‘Assobio a Játo’ beautifully juxtaposes the flute and cello.  Described as "the single most significant creative figure in 20th-century Brazilian art music", Villa-Lobos was a prolific composer, writing numerous orchestral, chamber, instrumental and vocal works - over 2000 works by his death in 1959.  

True to his style of combining Brazilian melodic and rhythmic elements with Western classical music.  This is a voyage of discovery, expertly led by the flute of Bridget Douglas who literally flies across the notes, starting with a Hovering, as if in a slow rumba then building with a passionate defiance, as a tango and a samba combined. 

Sergei Rachmaninov – ‘Trio élégiaque’

The concert finished with Rachmaninov's ‘Trio élégiaque’, composed while he was still a student.  At the time it caused a sensation, due to the departure from the styles of the day.  The music was lost for many years, only to be rediscovered until well after his passing.  Even in his early days he was exploring the romantic, and this features sweeping melodies and depth of feeling for which the he will become well known for in his later years. 

Played as a Trio of violin, cello and piano, this has the old world cut crystal elegance we know and love. It's unashamedly romantic. Sweeping gestures, envelope you in satin cloaks of sounds, separated by voices on contemplation, angst, melancholy and jubilance. 

It's easy to see why it was eye opening at the time.  Today it would work well in the cinema as much as in the parlor, perhaps set against a vermillion sky.  This may be a remnant of Imperial Russia, hints at folk dancing, skating on ice at Gorky Park, perhaps, fur hats and mittens.  Dreamy scenes.  Lives long departed.  This is what came to mind. 

If the advantage of a festival is to educate and enlighten then this certainly achieved that. 

I am in awe, not only of the skill but of the amazing repertoire of this group and their knowledge and understanding.  It is difficult to shine a light on lesser known works, let along bring an audience into the auditorium. And to remain so compelling and engaging under pandemic/digital conditions is truly incredible. 

Hats off to this ensemble and to the production crew that have captured them so well. 

Full Programme 

George Crumb - Voice of the Whale (1971) for flute, cello and piano

Grażyna Bacewicz - Violin Sonata No. 4 (1949)

• Moderato

• Andante ma non troppo

• Scherzo: Molto vivo

• Finale: Con passione

Heitor Villa-Lobos - Assobio a Játo (The Jet Whistle) (1950) for flute and cello

• Allegro non troppo

• Adagio

• Vivo

Sergei Rachmaninoff - Trio élégiaque No. 1 in G minor: Lento lugubre (1892)

Available to digitally stream from Monday 7 March – Sunday 3 April 2022 

Saturday, March 05, 2022

REVIEW: Fringe Festival - Disenchanted: A Cabaret of Twisted Fairy Tales – Eliane Morel - Online

'Disenchanted' is a collection of songs that take the side of fairytale characters who feel they’ve been misrepresented and whose real stories have been overlooked by history and folklore.  This is their chance to put the record straight. 

For this show we visit the 17th Century of salon of Madame d’Aulony, known as the ‘Godmother of Fairy Tales’, for a subversive reinterpretation of some of old favorites (Madame d’Aulony was the one who originally coined the phrase ‘fairy tales’ or contes de fees). 

As a one woman show, Morel carries the plot and the music by herself, switching costumes and scenes with the help of her partially slightly unreliable ‘magic mirror’ (effectively a Renaissance version of Zoom, complete with glitches and Wi-Fi outages).   Normally, this show would all be on the stage  (as it was in Fringe Festivals in Adelaide and Sydney) but because of you know what, it’s all online.  She must instead, perform to a screen that gives back nothing, which must be hard for an actor used to a live response.  She delivers a plenty of witty one-liners and throwaways that, on stage would bring the house down.  Alas, on video they do fall a little flat, with no interjecting laughter or audience response, it does feel a little flat.  Morel has to engage her audience with an exaggerated effort, a bit like the way presenters work on children’s TV like ‘Play School’, leaving space for silent laughter.  We saw this recently on tv programmes like the Late Show with Steven Colbert, who was forced to perform from his apartment instead of the studio during Lockdown.  Without people, it fails somewhat.  Comedy like this really needs warm bodies to shine. 

Still the music helps, and once you get over the initial format cringe you can really settle I and enjoy.

Morel’s mission is to bring these well known fables into the 21st century – and we are reminded of the sad realities with must that we must all now live with.  She very cleverly dispels the myths of these fairytales with her often debauched modern twists.  It should be pointed out that these are not for children.  There are some R16 moments. 

She plays all the characters with more than feminist touch.

“In my stories, girls are trying to escape Aristocratic beast, not chase after them!’  Madame d’Aulony tells her own story of how she escaped an arranged marriage by getting her intended sent to the Bastille for treachery and tax evasion.  She has skin in this game.

It’s funny how some of the real-life fairy tales like the Weddings of Charles and Diana or Andrew and Sarah Ferguson and Prince Andrew have now been dissolved over time, as we learn the truth behind them.  It seems the facade hides what really happened when Cinderella married her Prince Charming.  On that, Cinder’s story is told from the perspective of Olga, a disgruntled stepsister, who bears more than a passing resemblance Samantha Markle and her madcap ramblings about Megan on cable TV. Olga and her sister, it seems are pipped by the activities of their stepsister, who after the wedding, instead of welcoming them to the palace has employed them as the Royal’s laundry mistresses.  We see a disgruntled Olga explaining this in song (sung to the tune of ‘Those Were Days, My Friend’), whilst sitting in a trashy backstreet laundromat, commenting about the golden couple’s recent abdication to escape the paparazzi and wondering if Prince Andrew is still available to date.    

Jack and the Beanstalk also gets a bit of a twist, with puns intended.  As the liberated goose that lays the golden eggs, Morel assumes the personality of the ‘egg-cited’ bird and sings (in egg-ceptional voice) about how Jack climbed the beanstalk to rescue her and her loudmouthed mate, the Magical Harp.  In the process she fills us in on what really happed during Jack’s escape and how the giant really dies.  As this ‘eggs-pose’ unfolds we learn how the recently liberated goose ditches Jack once the big guy s out of the way to set up her own golden egg laying business.  She figures she’s sitting on a goldmine, why not exploit it! 

What could be next.  Of course, it’s Mr Wolf (oddly from Transylvania – no explanation why) and that pesky girl – Red Riding Hood.  This time, she’s re-appropriated the song ‘Perhaps, Perhaps’ to argue why this wild canine is misunderstood. Wolf wasn’t eating Granny at all.  Well, not literally.  More carnally, if you get my drift.  There’s a scandalous cover-up that hides the truth behind the Wolf’s murder.  It turns out the wood-cutter is innocent after all! 

It’s all deliciously playful and subversive.  But watching this with the backdrop of the Ukrainian invasion feels particularly uncomfortable right now.  The Russian/Middle European accents hammer home the point - Is the Wolf Putin or Trump?  Or Us? Did we let him in win, despite his charm and big ears? 

Then there’s the ‘date rape’ #metoo version of the “Sleeping Beauty” fable seen through the eyes of a comatose princess molested by her future prince.  Prince Charming turns out to be a creep who takes advantage of girls sedated under the influence of charms and spells.  Is this Prince Andrew, Harvey Weinstein, or any male in a position of power turning a vulnerable situation to their advantage? 

The art, backgrounds and animations bring this performance to life, and there’s a real hint at the theatre that Morel was aiming at when she performed the show live.  They’d done their best with the high-quality production, and that softens the blow.  She uses all the familiar tropes of pantomime and story telling to deliver.  While the online version doesn’t really show Morel at the height of her powers Disenchanted is still a brilliant show and a nice distraction from reality for an hour – and a talking point for the next virtual water conversation.

CoffeeBar Kid



Tuesday, March 01, 2022

Fringe Festival - Chansons - Piaf, Brel and Me - Stefanie Rummel

The award-winning singer and actress, German born Stefanie Rummel presents “Chansons” her ‘musical theatre cabaret show’ about France.

‘Soul touching’ stories about life and songs from ‘Ne me quitte pas’ (Brel) to ‘Milord’ (Piaf) are performed in ‘Brilliant showmanship’ by Stefanie Rummel and her pianists.

Become part of the French way of living for one night without traveling and having jetlag. It does not matter if you speak French or not. This ‘Heart connecting performance’ can inspire our own lives by looking at other cultures. Online and offline shows are performed in theaters and cabarets in Germany, Iceland, New Zealand, Finland, France, Norway, Edinburgh, Lathi, US...

It felt a bit odd attending my first Fringe show in my pajamas.  Usually, I’m all dressed up, glass in hand, chatting away to my newly met neighbor as the lights go down.  Not tonight. 

Instead, what I got was a ‘live’ zoom recording of her show, done as an interactive ‘workshop’.  It reminded me of those ‘garage’ performances bands tried to do during lockdown in 2020.  It sort of worked.  But nobody’s fooling anyone – this is not actually theatre.  It’s all online.  So, get used to it.  This is how we roll with covid.  It’s like that online gambling advert on the telly, you call the shots.  Watch when and where, how you like and with who you like.  You can even get crumbs in the duvet, no one will know.  Now on with the show.   

Rummel opens with ‘Ne me quitte pas’ written by Jaques Brel.  A soft, melancholic love song begging the listen to remain – “Let me be your shadow/ Don’t leave me…”  Perhaps a request for her online audience to settle in.  Accompanied only by piano, it’s a simple start but a taste of her usual performance.  It’s something we see a lot of in Wellington Fringe shows, but usually in person. 

There are interactions with her online audience and she tells stories of French culture.  Like a visit to clients that starts off as a 10-minute visit and morphs into a multi hour 7 course meal.  “After seven hours we left this place, and we are friends ever since!  That’s what makes life so special.”

Another tale is about a Gendarme holding up traffic for a snail crossing the road – ‘l'escargot est roi’

‘Milord’ from the ‘Little Sparrow’ aka Edith Piaf comes from a recording done in a jazz bar in Reykjavík and you can hear the murmur of the audience, their whooping and clapping.  I guess this adds a bit of live flavour. 

She asks her online audience about their aspirations and plans for the future.  They share.  Two of the have plays and musicals that need to be staged once they get out of lockdown.  Rummel notes that these are big things.  Her next song is the opposite, ‘Je veux’ is about the little things.  It’s hilarious, with a kazoo accompaniment, she sings ‘I need your love, joy, humour/ I prefer a hand on the heart…”  This is a song I didn’t know but I really enjoined bon vivant of the performance. 

She also shares a short video she’s made about ‘The Bridge of Avignon’;teaches her audience a song from the 18th Century, which we know as ‘Frère Jacques’.  They join in, very badly, partially due to lagging. Partially due to bad singing.  We then get another video, this time with puppets, which was a bit naff.  Like an international Muppet delegation.  Still, it made me giggle.

She tells stories about shopping and the French love of art, fashion and design.  We get another video with the Muppets, this time about art.  This is follows by another Piaf song about a woman who falls in love with a musician (‘L’Accordeoniste’). 

She also does a the original of ‘My Way’.  Apparently, David Bowie was the first person to write English lyrics to the original tune of what eventually became the global hit.  But it was French man Claude Francois, a big name in his native France, who wrote and performed the original song called ‘Comme d'habitude’ ('As Usual).

Rummel is clearly fluent in French and sings like a native.  She’s studied the nuances and subtleties of each chanson and this clearly comes through.  A master class is French cabaret.  

“What we can’t say.  And what we can’t be quiet.  The music is expressing.’ – Victor Hugo

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