CALL OF THE HUIA – Forgotten Art Songs of Aotearoa

Public Trust Hall, Cnr Lambton Quay & Stout Street, Wellington

07/08/2022 - 07/08/2022

Production Details

Master of Ceremonies: Michael Vinten: editor of the three-volume set of NZ Art Songs – Call of the Huia, The Golden Kowhai, Song of the Tui – from which the songs are chosen

Presented by NZ Opera

The Huia was a rare and tapu bird, confined to the Ruahine, Tararua, Remutaka and Kaimanawa mountain ranges in the south-east of the North Island. Their calls were mostly a varied array of whistles, “peculiar and strange”, but also “soft, melodious and flute-like.” The Huia bird is now extinct.

Join Michael Vinten as he takes us on an entertaining, informative and fascinating journey of discovery through the forgotten world of the Art Song of New Zealand, Aotearoa.

We will hear highlights from his recent 3 volume collection of mainly unpublished pre-1950 New Zealand Art Songs. These songs – sung by our grandparents and great-grand parents – provide a glimpse into the preoccupations and concerns of their times through peace and war.  Discover the significant contribution of women both Māori and Pākehā to music-making of this period as composers and poets from the perspective of MC Michael Vinten.

Join us for this unique insight into an important but forgotten part of the musical legacy within New Zealand, Aotearoa.

Thank you to the Public Trust Hall Wellington for supporting this event.

Public Trust Hall, Cnr Lambton Quay & Stout Street, Wellington City
Sunday 7 August 2022
See full season details below.


Akoako a Te Rangi – Maewa Kaihau
Te Whenua Kura – Alice Mackay/Jessie Mackay
Maoriland Love Song – J. Alexander/Dora Wilcox

All on a Summer’s Day – Gordon MacBeth
A Requiem – R. A. Horne/Coralie Stanley McKellar
Rondel – The Titoki Tree – H. C. Luscombe/Keith

I Hurt My Love Today – Mildred Carey-Wallace/Furnley Maurice
Love Entreaty – Vera Beauchamp/Katherine Mansfield
Your Grave Gray Eyes – Beranard Page/Alastair Crowley

To Sleep – Claude Haydon/Alfred Tennyson
White in the Moon – Alexander Aitkins/A. E. Housman
In the Fountain Court – Owen Jensen/ Arthur Symons

Frühling – Georg Tintner/Herman Hesse
In der Fremde – Richard Fuchs/Heinrich Heine
Marschlied – Paul Schramm/Ernst Toller

The Woodland Maid – Doris Prentice/C. R. Allen
My Lady Passes – Maughan Barnett/ George Gordan McCrae
You’re Nice – Moya Rea (Cooper-Smith)

It is our number one priority to ensure our audience members are safe. Please see the below information for how NZ Opera will operate under the COVID-19 Protection Framework.

Full season details:

31 July 3pm
The Piano

7 August 3pm
Public Trust Hall

14 August, 4.30pm
Concert Chamber, Auckland Town Hall

MICHAEL VINTEN (Master of Ceremonies)

Musical , Opera , Theatre ,

1 hr 15 min

An infectious and endearing example of the true art of collaboration

Review by Pepe Becker 08th Aug 2022

What a splendid afternoon it turns out to be, in the welcoming space and apt acoustic of the wooden-floored, ornated-ceilinged and chandeliered Public Trust Hall – the perfect venue for this Call of the Huia concert to bring to life our early art music. Here we are treated to six sets of songs, performed with sensitive aplomb by three of New Zealand’s leading opera singers and one of the country’s most experienced accompanists, interspersed with highly informative and engaging spoken notes and projected images.

Having just been yesterday to the very moving film Whina, about the extraordinary life and work of Whina Cooper (1895-1994) who lived through the many decades and significant events – including both WWI and WWII – that colour much of the poetry in these songs, I am wondering if similar signs of cultural suppression or discrimination might be apparent in this setting… But very quickly I am reminded of the power of music to transcend such concerns and reveal the heart-centred place where we all meet as common people. Although the music we hear is clearly “of its [colonial] time” and with a distinctly European harmonic and melodic flavour, the texts themselves, whether in English, German or Te Reo Māori, all convey universally human emotions.

Indeed, as MC Michael Vinten hopes, we do find this wonderful musical journey “entertaining, enlightening and – most of all – surprising”. As we are soon to discover, the works are by no means restricted to the domain of the Pākehā male. There are many female and several Māori poets and composers represented. Some of their life stories are extraordinary, and hearing snippets of them enhances our experience of the songs – no doubt for performers as well as audience.

After a brief welcome from NZ Opera’s Thomas de Mallet Burgess, Michael introduces the first set of songs, which centre around themes of love, wonderment and loss… Catrin Johnsson’s warm and loving tones are immediately inviting in ‘Akoako a Te Rangi’,by Maewa Kaihau, born of a French father and her mother of Ngā Puhi descent. Equally at home in the Māori and English poetry throughout the concert, Johnsson’s rich and colourful “heart of gold” voice serves to bring out the story-telling aspect of many of the songs. Her attention to detail and nuance of enuciation also draw us into the character of each piece – a delightful example being the extended ‘s’ sound in the final word of her last solo: “…these two words may suffice: ‘You’re Nice!’”

Wade Kernot’s soulful bass voice is clear and dramatic in the opening of his first song, ‘Te Whenua Kura’ by Alice Mackay, yet also reveals a melancholic vulnerability in the almost folk tune-like minor-key moments. He puts his range of colour to good use, with a dark, foreboding tone in the heavy ‘Marschlied’as “we, orphans of the earth, march mute into battle”. An earlier highlight for me is Alexander Aitkins’ ‘White in the Moon’, as Kernot melds seamlessly into warm vibrato from a beautiful straight sound, and his rendition of R. A. Horne’s ‘A Requiem’ is equally moving.

Tenor Oliver Sewell instantly puts us at ease with his beautiful, liquid tone, whilst drawing us in to the youthful passion of Gordon McBeth’s ‘All on a Summer’s Day…’ Both the intense word-painting in Bernard Page’s ‘Your Grave Gray Eyes’, and the nostalgic German text of Richard Fuchs’ ‘In der Fremde’ are deeply portrayed by Sewell. His high notes are sublime near the end of Owen Jensen’s ‘In the Fountian Court’, his combination of technical control and fluidity of expression once again melting our hearts. He pulls out all the stops with his final phrases, “and let my own, my lovely lady pass”, causing the audience to break the etiquette of waiting until the end of each bracket to applaud.

Bruce Greenfield’s vibrant piano playing is sensitive as ever, enhancing the emotion of each singer’s phrases without ever overwhelming them, and he aptly sets the scene for each song with empathetic presence. It is pointed out that this is the first venue where Greenfield has been able to play the very low G in ‘Marschlied’, as the Bösendorfer piano has the necessary extended low notes.

Although some may be quick to dismiss music from this 19th-20th Century era as too schmaltzy or ‘cheesy’ for their taste, many of these songs hold more depth than one might expect – the poetry includes words by such diverse writers as Alfred Tennyson, Herman Hesse, Katherine Mansfield and even the English mystic Aleister Crowley – and all have a certain charm about them that is infectious and endearing.

There is rich array of emotions and themes in these works too. The various aspects of love – innocent, unrequited, passionate, yearning, nurturing, loyal, doting – of loss and despair; nostalgia, melancholy; connecting the changing seasons and beauties of Nature with the patterns of human nature are all communicated in a sincere and heartfelt way by all the performers.

Each singer engages with the very personal qualities of the poetry, and each is supported consistently and sympathetically by Bruce Greenfield’s brilliant piano playing. Michael Vinten’s fascinating commentary is replete with historical gems and anecdotes. Some are unexpected; some touch on the darker aspects of discrimination in our society/politics, which many of our ancestors may have experienced if they were labelled “enemy aliens” in wartime or if they were victims of another fear-based or greed-based bias; some are humorous or eccentric, and many of these stories reflect a sense of resilience, a strength of spirit, gratitude and zest for life that we would all do well to remember even now. Especially now.

After the final solo song, we are treated to an ‘extra’ – a special trio rendition of astronomer John Grigg’s ‘My Own New Zealand Home’,arranged by Michael Vinten to include a verse for each of the three singers, with all joining in the chorus. A fitting end to an afternoon of diverse connectedness.

The concert is aptly titled, not only because the call of the extinct huia bird alludes to the idea of bringing something from the past back to life, but also because of the process of collaboration in bringing these songs of people back to life. Just as Huia ‘couples’ formed close bonds and needed to collaborate with each other in order to survive – their differently-shaped beaks were designed for unique and equally important feeding roles: the female’s longer beak for digging/probing, the male’s shorter and wider one for breaking/shredding – respect for each other’s diverse skills and backgrounds is a key factor for our human society to not only survive but also to thrive, today and henceforward.

The revival of these diverse songs of the past is a timely reminder of the importance of – and a fine example of – the true art of collaboration. Studying, learning from and dispersing the art and music of our various ancestral traditions is a wonderful way to connect with each other in the present. I must admit, having always had an interest in European early music (from many centuries ago) I now feel compelled to collaborate with a pianist myself and sing some of these New Zealand early art songs too! Thank you and congratulations to Michael Vinten and this fine team of song-bird performers, for a fine journey [in the words of Arthur Symons] “through the lingering afternoon”.

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