Critical Acclaim

Reviews: St John Passion

Sunday 2nd April 2023, Auckland Town Hall

Rita Paczian Conductor

Alexandra Francis Soprano
Cecily Shaw Alto
Sid Chand Tenor Arias
Henry Choo Evangelist
Sam McKeever Christ
James Ioelu Bass

Rainer W Buhmann, NZ Opera

PASSIO SECUNDUM JOANNEUM,  Johann Sebastian Bach’s St John Passion, was performed last Sunday at the Auckland Town Hall by the Bach Musica NZ Orchestra and Chorus, conducted   –  at times from the harpsichord  –  by its Music Director, Rita Paczian. The work was sung in the original German language.

Ambitiously conceptualized and composed by Bach as his first major work, following his appointment to the position of Cantor at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, it was premiered on Good Friday 1724. It therefore preceded his even more ambitious St Matthew Passion by 3 years.  At the time, Bach was in his prime. He was 39 years old.

In their respective formats, both Passions, St John and St Matthew are absorbed with the humiliating demise of Jesus Christ  –  initially in the court-proceedings chaired by Pontius Pilatus, when at first he renders Jesus Christ as innocent, but then ‘succumbs’ the coercion of the people, wanting some action  –  and finally during an extended period of unimaginable suffering, whilst nailed to the cross.

In both passions the chorus personifies both the raging crowd, accusing and terrorizing Jesus, as well as the philosophical onlookers from heaven with their grieving humility and empathy.                   

Bach’s St John Passion is a significant and complex work, requiring total commitment, responsibility and above average performing skills from orchestra and choir.

Bach allows only 17 bars of an insightful and somewhat foreboding introduction, when the Bach Musica NZ chorus bursts on to the scene with  “Herr, unser Herrscher”  –   At that very moment the audience receives an immediate reassurance that all will be well !  The chorus’ overwhelming authority and quality of sound eliminate any doubts. This experience is further heightened by the Evangelist, the story’s narrator,  sung by outstanding Australian tenor, Henry Choo, who superbly mastered a part that is fiendishly difficult.

From here-on in, Bach Musica NZ’s St John Passion grows from strength to strength.  In the alto aria,  “Von den Stricken meiner Suenden”, there is beautiful and captivating ensemble-playing by Alison Dunlop and Alison Jepson, oboes, and Craig Bradfield, bassoon, this in support of the refined alto of Cecily Shaw.  –   This is followed by the happily disposed, young soprano Alexandra Francis in “Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten”, for whom the higher ranges of her ‘cascading voice’ appear to be without limit.

The compelling aria “Erwaege, wie sein blutgefaerbter Ruecken”, powerfully sung by the young, engrossing tenor Shiddharth Chand was sensitively supported by the superb ensemble-playing of concertmaster Miranda Hutton and Joella Pinto (violins),  Paul Mitchell (cello) and Rita Paczian (harpsichord).

Amongst other undisputed highlights there is finally the heart-wrenching aria “Es ist vollbracht”, most convincingly presented by the warm and sensitive alto of Cecily Shaw,  poignantly supported by the beautiful viola-da-gamba-playing of Polly Sussex and the unobtrusive and dependable chamber organ accompaniment of organist Michael Bell.

Bach Musica NZ’s  St John Passion  received further support by the line-up of first-class soloists.

Once again: Henry Choo’s captivating and strongly assured tenor in the role of the Passion’s Evangelist clearly stood out.   His strength and stamina in leading the listeners through a massive work never wavered.  The varied shading of his voice, especially required in the compelling and gritty statement of lasting consequence: “Jesu von Nazareth, der Jueden Koenig !” was spine-tingling ! His pronunciation of the at times difficult ‘old’ German word was impeccable.

Soprano Alexandra Francis arrives at the oratorio-scene with ease and with the confidence of being able to contribute greatly. Her light, splendorous voice represented a considerable counterweight to the sadness and darkness of the passion’s proceedings. She justifies considerable expectation.

Cecily Shaw’s alto came to the fore in her second major aria rendition “Es ist vollbracht” .  Here, her warm voice sensibly reflected the sad conclusion of a devastating ‘human tragedy’.

Samuel McKeever’s  ‘Christ’  was equally dependable. His bass-baritone was strong and authoritative. His voice-projection, however, could at times perhaps have been more in line with the gentle and tolerant nature of the suffering Jesus Christ.

James Ioelu, bass,  convincingly sang one of the work’s most difficult arias (“Eilt”),  as his soulful rendition was repeatedly challenged by the choir’s continued interspersion with the question “Wohin ?”.    For this he must be duly acknowledged.

Arthur Adams-Close’s portrayal of the traitorous disciple Peter was believable and note-worthy.

Bach Musica NZ’s orchestra once again rested in the capable hands of concertmaster Miranda Hutton. And once again, it excelled !  Every orchestra section deserves genuine praise for skilful, committed and sensitive playing.  –   Michael Steer, the solitary double bass player, must be mentioned, and also flutists Christine Kim and Anna Cooper, adding a distinct glow to the soulful, concluding chorus:  “Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine.”

And of course an equal measure of praise must go to the Bach Musica NZ Chorus  –  the bearer of an expressed responsibility.

There is no let-up in the chorus’ sound-quality and its phrased singing with strength and authority. From the utterly sensitive rendition of the heart-wrenching chorales to the fortissimo and ‘in-your-face’ rendition of the final chorale: “Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein ….”  –   Bach Musica NZ’s orchestra and choir are simply amazing !

A humongous measure of acknowledgement and respect must go to Bach Musica NZ’s Music Director and Conductor, Rita Paczian. The chorus’ and orchestra’s notion, to grow beyond themselves, is clearly initiated by Rita Paczian’s artistic influence, her profound understanding of the music, her motivation and hard work.  The way she leads her artists when conducting goes beyond signs and signals.  Music takes hold and instigates an entire, physical immersion.  Within this process probably resides the Conductor’s ability to inspire and to extract from the artists more than they imagined being capable of.

The passion’s final chorale left the audience in momentary, stunned silence.  There is credence to the statement of one emotionally challenged, departing audience member, who said to his partner that to him this concert represented a very special   “star-hour”  in the history of Auckland’s performing arts  –  and that he was glad to have witnessed it !

                                                                        Rainer W. Buhmann

William Dart, NZ Herald

In 2014 Bach Musica NZ opened its season with Bach’s St John Passion and tonight the same
work launched this year’s concerts — which sign off in December with the same composer’s
Christmas Oratorio.
The audience’s enthusiasm was captured from the opening chorus, in which Rita Paczian
made it clear that this would be an evening of high energy and drama.
The choristers, singing in German, dealt out a succession of immaculate chorales and brought
a real emotional sway to Bach’s final moving chorus.
They were also integral participants in the work’s drama, with their gripping choral responses
to the beautifully paced and pointed narrative between the Evangelist, Pilate and Jesus. This
sequence was also heightened by the shift from terse continuo accompaniment for recitatives
to full Baroque orchestral splendour, which Paczian’s orchestra is well able to deliver.
Some in the audience may remember tenor Henry Choo as a mighty Evangelist six years ago.
Tonight, one felt that the Australian very much lives with this role, fine-tuning every
inflection and nuance of what is, perhaps, the ultimate Storyteller.
James Ieolu, as Pilate, impressed with his subtle, almost conversational involvement in the
musical dialogue, while also acquitting himself with fluency and style in two demanding
demanding arias.
Rita Paczian. Photo / NZME
Paczian is to be commended for bringing in young singers, recent graduates from our music
schools, on the brink of international study and making their names on the competition
Bass Samuel McKeever as Jesus, used his considerable vocal resonance as an effective foil to
the more theatrical Choo.
Tenor Shiddharth Chand who just a few weeks ago was in the cast of NZOpera’s Unruly
Tourists, combined shading and showmanship in his arias, set against some of Bach’s most
imaginative instrumental backdrops.
Soprano Alexandra Francis brough a winning brightness to her “Ich folge dir gleichfalls”
whilst alto Cecily Shaw needed a little more projection for her finely phrased and considered
singing to be fully appreciated.

Reviews: Bach Musica NZ’s Best of Bach

Sunday 11 December 2022 Auckland Town Hall

Bach Magnificat
Bach Jauchzet, frolocket from Christmas Oratorio

Bach Violin Concert in E
Bach Flute Concerto

Rita Paczian Conductor
Yanghe Yu Violin
Luca Manghi Flute
Elizabeth Mandeno Soprano
Wendy Dawn Thompson Alto
Lachlan Craig Tenor
James Harrison Baritone

Rainer W. Buhmann’s review

Bach Musica NZ’s last concert ‘Best of Bach’ saw Rita Paczian back at the helm and introduced two soloists:  the Bach Musica NZ concertmaster Yanghe Yu and the orchestra’s Principal Flautist, Luca Manghi.

An early concert highlight was Yanghe Yu’s performance of J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in E-Major (BWV  1042).  He gave a truly masterful and captivating display of solo violin playing.  His soulful interpretation of the concert’s three movements was extremely sensitive and of great musical insight.

Displaying superb violin-technique, his irresistible and powerful rhythmic approach was astonishing, and his crisp semiquavers and sweeping arpeggios were captivating.  A special mention also goes to the delightful hesitancy in his sensitive approach to the final chord – thus, for a brief moment, committing the audience to a deafening silence and complete submission to his and the orchestra’s masterful music.

A fitting continuation was the first movement of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248) ‘Jauchzet, Frohlocket!’  It allowed Bach Musica NZ’s chorus to make its initial powerful mark.  And this it did – with its usual musicality, energy, joyfulness, and attention to detail.

In the second Bach concerto, the Concerto for Flute and Orchestra in e-minor (an assembly of BWV 1059 and BWV 35), Rita Paczian again conducted from the harpsichord.  Bach Musica NZ’s Principal-Flautist, Luca Manghi, was the soloist – a very gifted musician, with an assured, silvery sound.  He entranced the audience – at times literally showering it with glittering demi quavers – a musical feast!

Bach’s powerful ‘Magnificat in D’ (BWV 243) made up the second half of the concert. Bach Musica NZ’s chorus continued from where it left off earlier, now supported by four accomplished soloists. Elizabeth Mandeno’s soprano, augmented by the brief appearance of soprano and guest singer Sophia Young, was a delight.  Her voice is rich and soulful and in the higher ranges there appears to be no limit.  She displayed this especially in her solo aria ‘Quia respexit humilitatem’, accompanied superbly on Oboe d’amore by Alison Dunlop.

Mezzo soprano Wendy Dawn-Thompson demonstrated the rich timbre of her soulful voice, particularly in her aria ’Et exultavit spiritus meus’.

Lachlan Craig’s delightful and assured tenor voice and James Harrison’s authoritative bass-baritone in his aria ‘Quia fecit mihi magna’ gave this Magnificat performance a particular edge.

The chorus’ rendition of Bach’s Magnificat was an absolute gem!  As ‘Jauchzet, Frohlocket!’, the singers displayed their usual decisive attack, their expressive musicality, and a total mastery of the avalanche of semiquaver-runs, especially in the explosive ‘Fecit Potentiam’. The ensemble’s utterly liberating and fortissimo ‘Gloria Patri’ was an unequivocal concert highlight.

Bach Musica NZ’s orchestra under the leadership of Concertmaster Yanghe Yu fascinates time and time again with its high standard and professional competency. Whilst every orchestra member deserves individual focus, in this concert the crisp trumpets of Josh Rogan, Peter Reid and Hiro Kobayashi clearly stood out.

A huge vote of thanks goes to Rita Paczian for her sheer determination in overcoming all the 2022 impediments and for repeatedly bringing to her audience such phenomenal, musical delights of international standard!


William Dart’s Review

Bach Musica NZ’s Best of Bach gives reason to rejoice. It carried with it an underlying theme of rejoicing, climaxing in the composer’s mighty Magnificat.

Two concertos on Sunday night featured soloists from the orchestra, with concertmaster Yanghe Yu giving us Bach’s E major Violin Concerto while Rita Paczian conducted from the harpsichord.

This was a compact performance, nicely measured at Paczian’s usual crisp pace. Yu’s phrasing was sensitively drawn, the occasional rushed awkwardness more than compensated for by his restrained but effective ornamentation.

A particular delight came in the Adagio, in which both eye and ear could enjoy the interplay of cello and harpsichord.

Bach’s E minor Flute Concerto, patched together from earlier works, has never totally convinced me. However, on Sunday night, its irresistible momentum coupled with Luca Manghi’s effortless cascades of notes made a most convincing case for it.

Punctuating these two concertos, an exuberant opening chorus from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, primed us for what lay ahead after interval.

Bach’s Magnificat is one powerhouse of a piece, introduced with full ceremonial splendour. Its opening chorus was appropriately spectacular, with Josh Rogan’s trumpet riding atop the orchestral wave, and the sheer energy of the choristers bursting out into the hall; an energy that did not dissipate a whit in subsequent numbers.

The four soloists enjoyed Bach’s engrossing and challenging arias. Soprano Elizabeth Mandeno moved gracefully around Alison Dunlop’s oboe d’amore obbligato and, from her first aria, Wendy Dawn Thompson exerted her own authority, even if occasionally one wanted more naturalness in the musical flow.

Thompson’s duet with tenor Lachlan Craig was a highlight, harmonised against the sweet tones of Peter Watts’ chamber organ, as was Craig’s relaxed solo turn. Baritone James Harrison, in just a few minutes, provided models of both sculpted line and a confident low register.

The year 2023 looks to be a promising one for Bach Music NZ, with its December presentation of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio giving us the opportunity to hear its opening chorus in dramatic context.

Review by Rainer Buhmann: Durufle Requiem

Sunday, Sept. 18th, 2022, Auckland Town Hall

Astor Piazzolla: Adios Nonino and Escolaso
Gabor Tolnay: Symphonie 2019 (World Premiere)
Maurice Durufle: Requiem Opus 9

The highlight of Bach Musica NZ’s spring concert on September 18th
at the Auckland Town Hall, Maurice Durufle’s Requiem, was preceded
by the two somewhat contrasting concert items of Astor Piazzolla’s
Astor Nonino and Escolaso and the world premiere of Hungarian
composer Gabor Tolnay’s ‘Symphonie 2019’.
With this critic’s mind-set fully prepared for the complexities of
Durufle’s seldom performed Requiem, the preceding works were
therefore anticipated with some apprehension.
These hesitations were, however, quickly removed by Stephanie
Poole’s distinct Accordion-virtuosity. The assured mastery of her
instrument melting with the rich sound of the orchestra ensemble
was something of a revelation! The music plausibly conveyed the
‘joie de vivre’ and passion of the South American mentality – as it was
in the sensitive hands of Stephanie Poole, who – following the
completion of her concert-item – then took her place in the alto section
of the Bach Musica NZ Choir.
The world premiere of Gabor Tolnay’s Symphonie 2019 also came
initially across as a bit of an enigma. Now in the hands of the full
orchestra, its forceful musical expression, however, quickly attracted
the audience’s full attention. Its compository lines demonstrated
urge, purpose and beauty. Intelligently built around Franz Liszt’s
adaptation of Fantasy and Fugue on the theme of B-A-C-H, its rich
and rather unique ‘major’ chords sometimes even evoked Wagnerian
connotations. The composer, present at the launching of his work,
was rightfully thanked by the audience with sustained applause.
Maurice Durufle’s Requiem is often brought into connection with the
Requiem of his French countryman, Gabriel Faure, as both works are
the creation of formidable French composers and organists with
their distinct styles of composition and rhetoric. There are almost 70
years between the emergence of both works – Faure’s Requiem in
1880 and that of Durufle in 1948 – and this initially as an organ version.
Their side-by-side existence is often explained along the
lines that Durufle’s work is considered a modernised descendant of
Faure’s creation, leading the listener into the 20th century of French
choral composition.
As an icon of its relevant era, the Durufle Requiem stretches from the
‘mortalite mystique’ of its ‘requiem aeternam’-introduction via its uninhibited
outcry of ‘libera eas’ and ‘hosanna in excelsis’ to the
peaceful and all-concluding ‘in paradiso’ – an emotional ‘tour de force’

  • a work calling out for outstanding interpreters, who are up to the
    Such musicians once again were found in Bach Musica NZ’s artists on
    Sunday afternoon. The Choir embraced this difficult work with
    bravura and sensitivity, with perception, skill and distinct musicality.
    A profound understanding of the work underpinned the variances of
    the Choir’s rich sound – in fortissimo as well as in their hushed
    Similar standards apply to the excellent Bach Musica NZ orchestra,
    once again under the assured leadership of concertmaster Yanghe Yu.
    The orchestra impeccably expressed and underlined the everchanging
    emotions of this demanding work, whose calibre of
    performance could only have been augmented by the inclusion of a
    Grand Organ, for which organist Maurice Durufle would obviously
    have made provisions in the original score. Undoubtedly, this
    instrument would have added to the work’s mysticism. Economics
    may, however, have forced Bach Musica NZ to choose an orchestral
    Robert Tucker’s cultivated baritone gave ‘hostia et preces’ a very
    believable, insightful expression. Elisha Hulton’s soulful and lyric
    mezzo-soprano provided a significant and restful pause from the
    work’s dramatic pace.
    Elizabeth Lau, Bach Musica NZ’s Deputy Music Director, stood in for
    Rita Paczian. She delivered a memorable concert-performance of the
    highest calibre. In guiding orchestra and choir through three
    contrasting works, Ms Lau demonstrated her own versatility and
    flair. Her secure guidance and generous artistic license provided for
    orchestra and choir, thus enabling them to give unrestrained and
    powerful renditions.
    Briefly returning to the Durufle concert-highlight, it has been
    established, that the composer dedicated his work to the memory of
    his father. His adoption of themes from the ‘Gegorian Mass for the
    Dead’, therefore establishes a link between his Requiem and the
    inevitable, eventual end of the human life – also highlighted by soloist
    Elisha Hulton’s haunting ‘Pie Jesu Domine’.
    With their concert-programming Bach Musica NZ therefore has
    unintentionally given a fitting and decidedly reverential tribute to the
    sad passing of Queen Elizabeth II.
    Rainer W. Buhmann

Review by Rainer Buhmann: Handel Samson, July 2022

Georg Friedrich Handel
Oratorio SAMSON
Bach Musica NZ Concert Performance, Auckland Town Hall,
Sunday July 3rd, 2022
When Georg Friedrich Handel completed his immortal Oratorio “The Messiah”
after an utterly exhaustive spell of creativity in barely three weeks – and after
hardly having recovered from a stroke in 1737, the protagonist of Opera and
Oratorio at the time were convinced, that Haendel would now withdraw for a
while – or even retire completely, being almost 60 years old – and rest on his
Instead – in 1743, and only one year after his “Messiah’s” rapturous success –
he was back. Now, he surprised the world once again with seemingly
undiminished energy and creativity – and his Oratorio “Samson”.
The Oratorio’s libretto is by Irishman Newburgh Hamilton, and it is based on the
Bible’s Book of Judges, Chapter 16. It delivers a somewhat static plot, as it
revolves entirely around the ailing Israelite Judge Samson, who has deceitfully
been robbed of his super-human powers by his Philistine wife Delilah. During
Samson’s sleep she cuts of her husband’s long hair – the source of his
enormous strength. Subsequently being overwhelmed by his enemies, Samson
has also lost his sight and has been imprisoned. He now laments his atrocious
situation, the awful deprivation of his vital sense – the platform for Bach Musica
NZ to inject what ever life possible.
Their initial steps into this difficult territory appeared to be cautious and
hesitant. It is not quite clear, whether Choir and Orchestra either sympathised
with Samson’s ordeal – or attempted to finding their feet again after a Covid enforced
hiatus of almost two years. A loyal Bach Musica NZ audience would
have received their answer a the latest with the Choir’s “Awake the trumpet’s
lofty sound !” Here, they were back again with their musical prowess, precision
and energy – ably supported by an equally capable and determined Orchestra.
The scene was set for the attentive audience to be entranced by musical
Tenor Andrew Grenon in the difficult role of Samson was responsible for
opening the dialogue. He quickly lost his initial shackles of nervousness and
proceeded to dominate the scene with his steely and assured, fine voice. With his
“No sun, no moon” he demonstrated great emotional versatility and with
considerable energy and phrasing he convincingly portrayed Samson’ s ordeal.
As Samson’s father, Joel Amrosa’s , Bass, provided a very tender contrast. He
also very convincingly demonstrated his role of a loving father. His thoughtfully
presented “For thee, my dearest son” articulated a lyric side to his voice, which
was especially soulful in its lower registers.
In her Soprano-part as Dalila, Joanna Foote immediately took a convincing hold
of her demanding role. With her light and cultivated Soprano she articulated an
additional musical dimension and forcefully sailed towards her Samson identifying
aria “Let the bright Seraphim” , sensibly supported by Trumpeter
Stephen Bemelman , where she re-kindled “Kiri Te Kanawa-connotations” from
Katie Trigg as Micah took on her Alto-part on short notice, following the illness related
cancellation of Kate Spence. Also having to overcome initial nervousness,
this, however, did not deter her from eventually unfolding her substantive and
commanding Alto-voice, providing an intriguing and dramatic contrast to the
dialogue. As a persuasive tenderness in her voice is also an ingredient, this
emerged almost as an unexpected surprise in “Ye sons of Israel” !
As Samson’s jailor, the Philistine giant Harapha is by nature aggressive and evil.
Samuel McKeever , Bass-Baritone, characterises these attributes with great
authority. His powerful and dramatic voice, coupled with a distinct ability of
seemingly limitless phrasing, points at a great future for this young singer.
Rita Paczian’s ability to fill brief cameo-parts convincingly from within the choir
(Emma Roxburgh and Herman Theron) , is testament to its super-standard.
It appears, that in his Samson, Handel cannot entirely shed his distinct Opera background
from his “Italian years”. Therefore, it has been widely accepted, that
Samson represents an Oratorio, with distinct operatic elements – but at the time
written and presented in its current format, therefore successfully passing the
strict verdict of the Church of England.
Bach Musica NZ’s Orchestra under Concertmaster Miranda Hutton once again
rose to the occasion, providing Soloists and Choir with an outstanding and
dependable platform. A second double-bass for the Orchestra fell probably
victim to difficult times. The Chamber Organ’s high register producing a
recorder-like sound to restfully underpin Samson’s funeral-march, provided a
distinct highlight !
A huge vote of thanks and praise for Bach Musica NZ’s Maestra, Rita Paczian,
who in parts conducted Choir and Orchestra from the Harpsichord. Her
determination in keeping alive Choir and Orchestra during this destructive
Covid-pandemic, what in the meantime can surely be described as a Cultural Icon
here in Aotearoa New Zealand, must elicit utmost respect, acknowledgement and
gratitude !
At this memorable concert’s finale, Bach Musica NZ’s Choir and Orchestra shone
once again exuberantly with “Let their celestial concerts all unite” –
a demonstration of choral superiority and reverence to the composer.
The concert ended to a momentarily stunned audience and their standing
ovation in an almost booked-out Auckland Town Hall.
Rainer W. Buhmann

REVIEW by Clare Martin of Bach Musica NZ’s Opera Gala at St Matthew-in-the-City, March 2022

A night of opera choruses and arias performed live in the wake of the peak of Omicron was the miracle delivered by Bach Musica NZ at St Matthew-in-the-City, Tamaki Makaurau/ Auckland. A miracle because choral singing has proven to be a super-spreader of Covid and was avoided like, well, the plague. Almost exactly two years ago to the day of this concert, Aotearoa first went into level four lockdown. And for almost two years Bach Musica NZ and groups similar have had to cancel programmes and attempt to reschedule when it was safer, knowing that they need a minimum audience to break even. With all income kneecapped, performing arts groups fell into serious jeopardy.

But in order to weather these storms, Bach Musica devised some shrewd strategies. Down-sizing from the usual Auckland Town Hall to the smaller but amplifying acoustic of St Matthew-in-the-City would have cut a chunk of costs, I’m sure. Saturday night was without the usual orchestral forces and therefore those extra costs were saved too. One feels for the pockets of the missing instrumentalists, but we had the full range of colour supporting the voices from the deeply impressive pianistic and artistic skills of Lindy Tennent-Brown.

With the programme being mainly carried by the operatic soloists and Tennent-Brown on piano, we didn’t have the usual generous dose of the very excellent Bach Musica NZ choir. But this is understandable given the scarcity of rehearsal opportunities in recent months. And the choruses we had were sung with the choir’s hallmark pliable musicality. “Andiam! Andiam!” from Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci was a sparkly choice for an opener even if there wasn’t an operatic-sized sound. The choir was lively and engaged when accompanying a charming Alexandra Francis in Die Fledermaus’ “Mein Herr, Marquis”.

A shining gem of the evening was the highly technical “Glitter and be Gay” from Bernstein’s Candide. It was sung with exquisite extravagance by soprano Amelia Berry. Wonderful to hear Berry’s voice again since I last heard her in La Boheme with NZ Opera in 2018. Her tone has filled out without losing her extraordinarily brilliant top notes. And a nicely paced duet from Verdi’s La Traviata with the pleasing voice of tenor Taylor Wallbank makes me wonder when Berry will get an opportunity to prepare the role of Violetta.

This evening would not have been possible without the tenacity and talent of artistic director and conductor Rita Paczian. Bringing an event together in these times was gold-medal worthy. Together with pianist Tennent-Brown, Paczian designed a programme that didn’t fall into the sugar-trap of classical bon-bons but included pieces we often don’t get to hear performed in Aotearoa. The excerpt from Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes maybe didn’t work as well, being cauterised from its context but it gave opportunity to hear Amanda Atlas’ powerfully emotional soprano voice. Despite Tennent-Brown’s ability on the keyboard, I really missed an orchestral uplift to give wings to the Trio from R. Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. Nevertheless, it was sung with poise by Atlas, presence and line from mezzo Sarah Court and Berry once again.

All photography by Peter Jennings

A treat to hear Patrick Power’s tenor tones. Singing “E lucevan le stelle” from Puccini’s Tosca with such tenderness from a veteran was inspiring. Performing a lesser-known Puccini aria – “Questo amor, vergogna mia”, baritone James Harrison sang with a warm and secure tone.

And to finish the evening, Paczian brought the choir to its feet to perform one of the most beautiful choruses ever penned – “Regina Coeli” from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. Along with warmly received compering from Murray Shaw, this book-ended the evening beautifully. With the soloists adding operatic gusto to the choir, here we had a real taste of an opera gala with united voices rising to the heights of St Matthew-in-the-City’s stone arches. And with a touching encore of Va Pensiero dedicated to the people of Ukraine, it was almost rude to be spilled out into the night of the City with its traffic and sirens. I can’t wait to hear more from these very alive voices. You can catch Bach Musica NZ again when they perform Handel’s Samson later this year.

St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244) – REVIEW Rainer W. Buhmann, Auckland/Orewa

St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244)
Performed by ‘Bach Musica NZ’
Music, Artistic Director and Conductor: Rita Paczian
Auckland Town Hall, Sunday, April 11th, 2021

Rainer W. Buhmann, Auckland/Orewa

It was in 1723, when Johann Sebastian Bach applied for the position of Director of Music (Kantor) at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. Other applicants were Georg Phillip Telemann, Hamburg, and Christoph Graupner, Luxembourg, a renowned composer and harpsichordist at the time. The City Councillors openly conceded their preferences, and it was not Johann Sebastian Bach.

Telemann’s Hamburg-employers, however, significantly increased his salary, which could not be matched by the Leipzig City-fathers, and Christoph Graupner was not freed from his employment-obligations.

By default, the choice therefore fell on Johann Sebastian Bach, who at the time was a lowly regarded court-musician at the Principality of Coethen. The Leipzig City-fathers openly declared defeat – and that under duress they had settled for ‘mediocrity’.

Bach had to accept employment conditions such as agreeing to writing compositions, which were not too long and most certainly remained within the realms of established church-musical tradition. His compositions were also not permitted to venture into opera-inspired vanity and glamour.

How Bach interpreted such constraints in his own way, became noticeable by the performance of his official ‘trial-composition’, performed in Leipzig’s Thomaskirche on Good Friday 1723: the St John’s Passion.

It dawned then on Council-officials and parishioners, that with the demonstrated musical depth and prowess of their new Kantor they might be confronted with Church-music thus far unknown – but most certainly not containing the elements of mediocrity.

The pettiness and small-mindedness of his superiors continued in Bach’s employment. He was, however, undeterred. He demonstrated his unbelievable strength and resourcefulness by composing a new Cantata for almost every Sunday. Between 1725 and 1729 he quietly worked on larger projects, including another Passion.

The unsuspecting Leipzig City-fathers, the Thomaskirche-congregation, and his own followers he surprised with a completely new creation. On Good Friday 1729 he premiered the very Oratorio, which we were privileged to hear last Sunday (11.4.2021) at a packed Auckland Town Hall: Johann Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion.

​And what a privilege it was! With their first concert in 2021 Bach Musica NZ under their Music- and Artistic Director, Rita Paczian, and with their first bars of the rendition, immediately – and once again – expressed their musical prowess, their competency, energy and authority, leaving their audience in respectful silence.

The Bach Musica NZ choir and orchestra demonstrated a deep knowledge and understanding of the work, which clearly enabled them to give a most knowledgeable and memorable performance – and this in the original German language. A tribute to Rita Paczian for this decision, as Bach would clearly have been influenced by the German word, when he composed his music.

For the performance of his monumental work the ambitious Bach had decided on two choirs and two orchestras, possibly guided by the architecture of Leipzig’s Thomaskirche – but creating a tight situation on stage at the Auckland Town Hall.

The preparation of this 3 ½ hour concert would, under the prevailing circumstances of Covid-19, not have been without organisational challenge or drama. For a start: the soloist in the role of Christ had to be replaced on super-short notice. The saviour was bass-baritone Paul Whelan, Christchurch, and with his introit “Da Jesus diese Rede vollendet hatte… “ the audience knew that they could put their trust and confidence into this fine soloist with his sonorous opulence and authority.

In his St Matthew Passion Bach exposes in part the frailty of the human mind versus the overpowering effect of the masses’ will, as this is demonstrated by Pontius Pilate. He engages his choirs by equally being Jesus’ accusers and defenders. Bach has touched on a phenomenon that is still prevalent more than 2000 years later.

To explain the intricacy of such a phenomenon, that required an untiring narrator, an Evangelist, who would be capable of plausibly telling the story over the entire duration of the concert. He was found in Iain Tetley. On account of his vocal strength and versatility he advanced to one of the evening’s super-stars. Initially relying on the expressed lyrical side of his fine tenor-voice, he suddenly introduced urgency and ‘steal’ in “Und er kam und fand sie aber schlafend” – and thus the audience had become fully aware of Iain Tetley’s full versatility.​ To overcome the fiendishly difficult tonal and emotional mood-swings of his part, this required the sustainability of an outstanding vocal artist, capable of delivering the subtleties of his narrative under pressure and with tonal beauty and persuasion. Ian Tetley was able to demonstrate both, and conceivingly he can currently be regarded as New Zealand’s finest Evangelist.​

​Paul Whelan deserves a second mention as an outstanding and believable Christ, who with the tonal generosity and fullness of his voice significantly added to the enormous impact of this performance.

Elizabeth Mandeno was another bright star of the evening, as she delighted with her clean and assured soprano, to which the upper register appeared to be without limit. In the well-known “Ich will dir mein Herze schenken” Miss Mandeno demonstrated remarkable tonal beauty and agility. Her collaboration with Flute and Oboe in “Er hat uns allen wohlgetan” and “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben” was one of the evening’s highlights. Quite apart from being successfully involved in NZ Opera, Miss Mandeno could clearly present herself as one of New Zealand’s finest baroque specialists.

The mezzo-soprano of Catrin Johnsson provided additional delights to the evening. Her vast experience in the fields of opera and baroque were evident. Her entries into the higher regions of her mezzo-soprano were taken with greater ease, than those into the lower register. Her “Du lieber Heiland du” and “Buss und Reu knirrscht das Suendenherz entzwei “were very convincing, Her aria-interchange with the choir. “Ach, nun ist mein Jesus hin”, as well as her recitative “Erbarm’ es Gott” were believably mournful, and her duet with the soprano, “So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen” was simply captivating. Her aria in the 2nd part, “Erbarme dich” – accompanied by the exquisite solo violin of Miranda Hutton was simply spellbinding.​

Lachlan Craig left a significant mark as First Priest. With his lyrical tenor-voice he made a notable contribution, to the ensemble and to the evening. His interchange with the choir “Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen” provided clear evidence of a distinctly promising artist.​

In his baritone-contribution as Second Priest and Pontius Pilate William King made the audience pay particular attention. Another promising young artist had justifiably been given soloist-responsibility by Bach Musica NZ, and the soloist discharged this responsibility with style. His Pilate was believable and authoritative – yet slightly troubled, owing to Pilate’s arbitrary handling of his situation. Another unquestionable highlight of this evening was his assured rendition of the most demanding aria “Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder” – accompanied by the incredible solo-violin of Joella Pinto – an artistic collaboration of the highest order. A beautiful bass-baritone voice with warmth and persuasion. William King – a young artist seriously in the making.

Bach Musica NZ’s choir was augmented by a large Ripieno-Ensemble, the Auckland Girls’ Choir (Director: Gina Sanders). This young choir brought distinct brightness to the evening – but this with an element of timidness.
Already with their commanding introduction “Kommt ihr Toechter, helft mir klagen,” the concert-goer was once again left in no doubt about the choir’s
quality and competency – as well as of an obvious harmony in the communication between choristers and conductor. Superb tonal quality, emotional phrasing, rhythmic precision and agility and confident ‘attacks’ at
every choral entry were abundantly evident. The choir expressed total cohesion and became an instrument in itself – and this in the hands of their energetic and exemplary conductor. Conductor and choir were on top of the situation! It was a masterpiece!

As mentioned before – assuming both the roles of Jesus’ accusers and defenders (“Weissage uns Christe” versus “Wer hat dich so geschlagen!”) the choir mastered all emotional nuances in admirable tonal diversity and ferocious precision. Examples are: “Lasst ihn, haltet, bindet nicht!” and “Sind Blitze, sind Donner in Wolken verschwunden!” Their expression of unadulterated hatred as in “Barabbas!” was simply arresting and chilling!
The choir’s subtle, but conscious ‘ritandardos’ at the end of the Passion’s famous choruses and as directed by Rita Paczian, were particularly thoughtful and sensitive.

The artistic depth of Bach Musica NZ’s choir was further demonstrated by the fact, that no fewer than five soloists emerged from their ranks to cover minor principal roles in admirable fashion.

It is a masterpiece in itself, that Rita Paczian manages time and time again to assemble an orchestra of skilled, competent and virtuoso musicians equal to those qualities in the choir. Whilst the combined orchestras I and II under the leadership of Concertmaster Miranda Hutton rose to a remarkable performance, her beautiful solo-accompaniment of the alto’s “Erbarme dich” warrants a special mention – as does the previously mentioned violin-virtuoso accompaniment by Joella Pinto in “Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder”. Her impeccable rendition of demi-semi-quaver notes at lightning speed, but by maintaining sensitivity and artistic integrity to the content of this mournful aria throughout her rendition, were simply outstanding.

Also mentioned must be the oboes of Alison Dunlop and Alison Jepson and the players of their sections, the flutes in both sections, the unobtrusive and dependable organ-continuo of John Wells and Philip Sumner’s bassoon. The cello of Raeul Pierard and his forlorn solo quint during a ‘tacet’ of the entire orchestra and as an acknowledgement of Jesus’ death on the cross were decidedly arresting. The Bach Musica NZ orchestra’s amazing competency, its dedication and tonal beauty must clearly and gratefully be emphasized once again!

Not only was Maestra Rita Paczian the guiding heart and soul in this Oratorio-performance, she also brought to bear her own virtuosity in taking on the

​harpsichord-continuo for the Evangelist and the choir when she directed from the instrument. With her seamless, impeccable, and energetic guidance ‘from the podium’ Miss Paczian show-cased in addition, that in musical terms she is in a class of her own.

The St Matthew Passion was meant to be Bach Musica NZ’s first concert at the same time last year. The Coronavirus prevented the go-ahead at the time. We must be grateful to choir and conductor, to orchestra and soloists, that they maintained their artistic focus and energy to bring to their audience a remarkable work in an outstanding performance even one year later.

It is conceivable, that when Bach premiered his immortal work in Leipzig almost 300 years ago, that the quality of his concert would have been eclipsed last Sunday by that of Bach Musica NZ‘s rendition – and this in remote New Zealand!

May 2019, Auckland Town Hall, Bach Musica NZ: Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 2 and Perkins, The Birds (world premiere)

Rainer W. Buhmann, Review

“Conductor and Choristers, suitably adorned with colourful bird-feather-accessories, displayed a compelling commitment and enthusiasm for the work, which were equally demonstrated by the four Soloists. Jessica Wells’ assured and soulful Mezzo presented a rewarding partnership to the narrator’s lyrics. Dilys Fong’s Mezzo, Harry Grigg’s Tenor and Angus Simmons’ Baritone provided authoritative and expressive interpretations of the work’s content, apart from convincingly demonstrating their own artistry: emerging, spirited and talented young artists with obvious potential.

A word of acknowledgement and praise also to Bach Musica NZ’s Choir and Orchestra: As could be expected, they continued to showcase their class and provided an absolutely reliable foundation for the performance of the two ‘diverse works’ and for that of the contributing soloists. Predictably, Choristers and Orchestral Musicians superbly demonstrated their outstanding individual musicianship under Rita Paczian’s energetic and demanding leadership from the podium.”

April 2019, Auckland Town Hall, Bach Musica NZ: Bach’s Mass in Bm

Clare Martin, Radio 13

“Rita Paczian and Bach Musica NZ gifted us a timeless expression of grief and triumph from the stage of the Auckland Town Hall last night… Performing Bach is not for the faint-hearted musician, it is technically as tough as it gets, Bach Musica NZ rose to the occasion with a huge depth of resonance and expressiveness.”

Rainer W. Buhmann, Review

“Bach Musica’s declared disciples have become accustomed to Rita Paczian’s astonishing music-making of the highest order. It is in this frame of mind, that her loyal audience would have paused in anticipation of the performance of the b-minor Mass, a musical creation almost beyond the realistic borders of the human mind and comprehension and stretching the capabilities of the performers… What followed was a spell-binding rendition of a work, interwoven with great energy, vibrancy, tenderness and beauty – an immortal work, for ever leading to new discoveries and insights.

Rita Paczian’s alert, sensitive and understanding leadership from the podium and the harpsicord clearly supported her musicians in this sublime process – thereby lifting their horizons. The tonal intricacy, the almost incomprehensible composite structure of ‘Cum Sanctu Spiritu’ was spell-binding and a true demonstration of the Bach-Genius. It was performed by Bach Musica NZ as the great Master would have wanted it done.”

December 2018, Auckland Town Hall, Bach Musica NZ: Christmas Surprise

William Dart, New Zealand Herald

“Bach Musica NZ’s Christmas Surprise concert delivered delights above and beyond seasonal expectations… For almost 20 minutes, one was spellbound by Snell’s navigation of Wagner’s merciless melodic manoeuvres and thrilled by O’Neill, singing without score and adding a palpable theatrical dimension. After the saturated palette of Wagner, Gounod’s St Cecilia Mass was almost transparently clear, a delicate French watercolour beside Wagner’s rich Teutonic oil. It was the perfect vehicle for Paczian’s very able choir and orchestra, from the firm, clarion harmonies of the Kyrie eleison to the striding confidence of the Credo.”

Clare Martin, Radio 13

“Bach Musica delivered a veritable box of Christmas bon-bons last Sunday night at Auckland’s Town Hall. At the centre of the selection was an excerpt from Richard Wagner’s Parsifal in an evening that had something for everyone.

Paczian coaxed sweetness from the strings at a perfect tempo. Even though this orchestra was playing Bach at a modern concert pitch on modern instruments, it still had the light touch and elegance of a baroque sound.

At this point, Paczian showed her dazzling ability with orchestra…for not only did she switch into Wagner in the middle of the programme, but she had undertaken her own arrangement of this scene in order to suit the smaller band. No mean feat on either score. She drew such warmth and colour from the orchestra, proving that a small instrumental force can give due gravitas and depth to Wagner, normally performed with large orchestral numbers.

There is no need to pause for thought if you want to try a classical concert… next time Bach Musica is performing, go! Whether you’re a Wagner fan or not… or don’t know a Gounod from a body part… here is vocal and instrumental playing of New Zealand at its finest under one of the finest conductors. Try and you will not be disappointed.”

Rainer W. Buhmann, Review

“Having grown to approach any Bach Musica NZ Concert with high expectations, in Sunday’s Christmas Surprise Concert, this formidable choir, orchestra and their conductor raised the bar yet again… With international NZ star tenor, Simon O’Neill, as soloist, it clearly embraced the Christmas spirit. By this time the audience was equally drawn into this spirit and opened their hearts and minds to choir, orchestra and an almost mesmerizing conductor: Rita Paczian.

Charles Gounod’s Messe Solennelle offered a happy and transparent contrast to Wagner’s ‘broody deliberations’. Gounod’s joyous music now provided choir and orchestra with a solid platform to demonstrate their extensive musical prowess in total and credible exuberance! And so we were privileged to listen to a choir, whose tonal projection and rhythmic interpretation, whose clarity, diction and sensitive dynamics were second to none and easily on par with the great Baroque-Choirs of Europe.

Supported by exuberant orchestra-playing and choral-singing the soloists trio, comprising the glorious soprano of Alexandra Gandionco, the assured and aspiring tenor of Manase Latu and the sonorous bass of Martin Snell, invoked a spirit of happiness within the audience, and a satisfying acknowledgement, to have such superb musicians in town!”