Arcko challenges and cheers

MELBOURNE MADE

Arcko Symphonic

Church of All Nations, Carlton

Saturday March 19

Like a Maelstrom CD (arckosymphonicorchestra,bandcamp.com)

This concert offered a little bit of the old as well as the new – that’s if you could call anything on this program old.  Timothy Phillips and his symphonic ensemble specialize in challenging new music and yesterday had that in spades with the world premiere of Tim Dasrgaville’s Kolam, a return visit to Caerwen Martin’s X-Ray Baby (featured on the first Arcko CD), Ingressa of 2009 by Elliott Gyger, and Brendan Colbert’s . . . like a Maelstrom which is the title of the latest CD from these players, launched at this concert.

It’s been quite a few years (twenty?) since I last visited this church which has now become a community powerhouse – and it shows.  The interior last night had a few pews along the side walls while the central space was lined with individual, if not very comfortable, chairs.  The Arcko players worked from the front facade where the preacher’s gallery sits, on the same level as the audience which meant that, to see individuals at work, you had to crane; which the lady in front of me did throughout the evening, although she seemed indiscriminate in her viewing choices, contorting her body in the direction of players who were, at the time, static.

Still, she could do little to disrupt Tim Dargaville’s new work, taking its impetus from a Tamil religious practice.  The composer is making no attempt to absorb and discharge Indian musical influences: no Bollywood echoes, no resuscitated Ravi Shankar.  The recurring motif is a falling major 2nd, an upward leap of a 5th, then back to the original interval.   But for much of its length, the score is of interest for its textures; there is a melody for cello that eventually emerges, followed by another for horn, but one of the distinctive points of interest is a brisk section for winds alone prior to a fulminating climax.   As an example of management of forces, Kolam makes a positive impression but its philosophical underpinning  remains a mystery to this listener, even if the work’s format presents few problems.

Gyger’s work is based on a type of religious chant that emanates from the town of Benevento, a Campanian city near Naples.   Scored for wind and string quintets, piano, harp and two percussionists, this work is based on an entrance chant for Easter Sunday, a dialogue between Mary Magdalene and the angel at Christ’s tomb.   Using far more notes for a musical phrase than the more common Gregorian, this sample of Beneventan chant is angular, inclined to more abrupt intervallic leaps than you’d expect, and not averse to ending phrases mid-word.   You would need a score to trace the melody’s use in this piece, as the instrumental output is strikingly dense, but its climactic point, an Alleluia divided between strings, solo horn and tubular bells, is effectively jubilant, bringing to mind the more restrained outpouring in the final Taize-illustrating movement of the Laudes  octet by Nigel Butterley, on whose music Gyger is an authority.   Still, throughout this work’s progress, the percussionists have all the running, Amy Valent-Curtis and Peter Neville dominating the action with a wide-ranging battery of sound-sources.

Martin’s construct aims to suggest hospital sounds, beginning with rustlings and subdued suggestive wisps, eventually graduating to a very forceful climax.   Dedicated to the composer’s two daughters, the score has graphic elements based on her children’s scans and X-rays; like Gyger’s chant, constituents you can not easily assimilate from what you hear.   Given that the composer has clearly spent a good amount of time in medical institutions, her work succeeds in suggesting the mechanics of the hospital experience. Well,  you can pick out passages that strike you as suggestive; I heard sirens, nurse-doctor confrontations, the lapping of amniotic fluid, a loud labour, disputes in emergency.   Once the thesis is suggested, you can hear whatever you want to – or fear.  Despite Martin’s description of X-Ray Baby as abstract by nature, it takes very little effort to find musical illustrations of medical realities.

Colbert’s score owes its title to an Emily Dickinson poem of morbid imagery, even for that death-haunted poet.   It is a double concerto for trumpet and piano with emphasis on the latter which is not silent throughout the work’s half-hour length.  This was a remarkable tour de force from Peter Dumsday; getting the notes under his fingers an achievement in itself but maintaining stamina across an unforgivingly active part was a tribute to the performer and, on his part, to the composer.  By comparison, Bruno Siketa’s trumpet had things easy, not entering for some time, then kept restrained by being muted for the concerto’s outer segments.   Once again, percussion played a major role and the chamber orchestra strings, bowing away fiercely in the first five minutes, stayed close to inaudible for a good part of the action. To his credit, Colbert does not compromise, maintaining tension without much relief, the default expression marking being a determined forte, it seems.  At certain moments, the experience brought back memories of Cage’s 1958 Concert for Piano and Orchestra; not in its soundscape, because Colbert’s is through-composed, not left up to the musicians to choose their own paths, but for the massive onslaught of sound that coloured so much of its impact.

It’s an uncompromising voice, both enervating and exciting to hear in an age when contemporary composition is finding it difficult to sustain interest, let alone an audience.   In that regard, . . . like a Malestrom represents the sort of initiative for which the Arcko organization exists.  Whether or not it offers pleasure is irrelevant; what it does give you without holding anything back is a horizon-expanding experience, one where your ears are challenged to an aesthetic  confrontation.   At a new music concert, I can’t imagine anything better.

New space, new sound

EL FUEGO

La Compania

Deakin Edge, Federation Square

Saturday March 19

La Compania (www.lacompania.com.au)
La Compania 

After a fair stretch of time working out of the Recital Centre’s Salon, this expert period music ensemble has moved its performance venue across Swanston Street Bridge to the Deakin Edge.   One immediate advantage is that patrons now have unimpeded visual access to the group’s performance: they’re all exposed, head to toe.  And, thanks to the space’s natural light, you can see the labour involved in the players’ work.  Another incidental benefit is that the need for two sittings of the same program on the same day has disappeared and, by yesterday’s showing, La Compania has largely retained its audience.

A disadvantage comes in the Edge’s acoustic properties.  While they can flatter a chamber orchestra, a small set of players like La Compania’s septet can become imbalanced, given the large air space.  Worth investigating is the solution put into practice by Kathryn Selby which is a back screen of panels that bounces sound out into the audience; this reflection works very well for piano trio recitals and might do much to lift the audible profile of Victoria Watts on viola da gamba and Rosemary Hodgson’s vihuela and small guitar/chittarino, both of which tended to disappear in the sonic complex except when used percussively or when the wind components fell silent.

Opening the new season in a new room, Danny Lucin led his players and two singers in a program concentrated on Mateo Flecha the Elder, the early 16th century Aragonese composer attributed by some musicologists with the composition of that well-known Chistmas villancico, Riu riu.   But this program consisted entirely of the composer’s ensaladas – salads indeed, mixing languages and metres in a cleverly unified whole; to my mind, more like a mixed grill because of the emphatic if changing rhythms and the clear melodic definition, some stimulated taste-buds removed from lettuce leaves and cucumber.  Three of these involved singers, soprano Cristina Russo and tenor Timothy Reynolds: La negrina, La guerra and the substantial El fuego.   Interwoven came three instrumental transcriptions: La bomba and two brief extracts from another ensalada, El jubilate: O que bonita cancion and La girigonca.

Pretty much all of these, sung or played, have a religious basis: some connected to the birth of Christ, others like La guerra concerned with the inevitable triumph of the Son of David over Lucifer or the necessity to follow the strait and narrow path rather than succumbing to the tempting fires, depicted in El fuego (of course), that can seduce mankind into wrong-doing in this temporal realm.   All very laudable and, if you have to endure moral-enforcing strictures, they could hardly be more agreable than these buoyant and optimistic miscellanies, written for the Christmas-time delectation of Spanish aristocrats.

In this new operating ambience, Cristina Russo’s projection impressed more than the last time I heard her in the Salon.  From the confident opening to La negrina, her projection emerged clearly from a considerate instrumental backing, a fair match for Reynolds’ always-lucid tenor.  In fact, this ensalada offered the most obvious examples of internal variety, its parts glued together in a rapid-moving miscellany, while the later stages of La guerra held some cleverly constructed and just-long-enough onomatopoeic passages where the singers mimicked the sounds of battle.   In addition, both Russo’s and Reynolds’ articulation in these instantly perceptible right-or-wrong conditions remained finished and accurate and their diction impressed consistently, given the rapidity with which several stretches of the texts had to be pronounced.

Lucin’s cornetto is as supple as ever, never strident but sinking to a gentle piano when escorting the singers, even if some of his ornamentation work sounded over-rushed; too many notes, as Mozart’s emperor said.  When Brock Imison took up his bass dulcian, the instrument’s penetrating force gave the ensemble’s output an added weight, matching Mitchell Cross’s penetrating tenor dulcian while Glenn Bardwell’s sackbut presented a discreet line throughout the program.  In fact, the streamlined shape of the company, with Christine Baker’s percussion offering plenty of colour in her chameleonic supporting role, gave this celebratory music an attractive leanness that only came unstuck at the start of O que bonita cancion which began with a solo from Hodgson that sounded tentative, possibly because the notes fell awkwardly for the player’s left hand.   But it was a small blemish, forgotten when the other instrumentalists entered into this particularly enjoyable ensalada party.

 

 

 

An unexpected light

SIR ANDREW DAVIS CONDUCTS MAHLER 5

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Saturday March 19

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (en.wikipedia.org)
Pierre-Laurent Aimard

With the bit between their collective teeth, the MSO musicians mounted an impressive assault on the central Mahler leviathan, their chief conductor bringing a surging energy to a score that other conductors handle as though its opening funeral march determines the complete score.   From principal trumpet Geoffrey Payne’s opening call-to-obsequies, the ground was set for a reading that spoke clearly but at its own pace with an elastic approach to metre that initially led to some slight discrepancies between the brass corps and the rest.  But the energy behind this reading came bursting out in the 13th bar’s explosive full-orchestra chord and was sustained throughout the following grim pages.

But what eventually distinguished this performance was an immediacy of impact, even in pesante passages throughout each of the five movements.  Through the Sturmisch  bewegt that follows the march, the textural balance ensured that secondary voices came across with appropriate clarity and, although Mahler’s symphonic scores have plenty of mud-pools waiting for any orchestra, Davis managed to keep the MSO’s output lucid and so much more involving than when an audience is bombarded with bullying heftiness.  Not that matters are made easy since, after the second movement’s whip-crack first gestures, the development becomes something of a passage of play between orchestral blocks.  But what came across here was a clearly perceptible development, the variety of harmonic and digital shifts and juxtapositions a genuine intellectual engagement with the listener, more than a demonstration of temperament and hyped-up dynamics.

Two problem movements confront every interpreter of this work.  Both the central; Landler and the Rondo-Finale have the potential – realized all too often – of wearing out both players and patrons.   Both are lengthy, even if the middle movement has a more moderate emotional cast, and in both the seams between sections can be over-exposed, as though the paragraphs have to be sharply delineated: finished with that, on with this. Davis gave us a changeable sonic landscape, distinguished by a lightness of touch even in difficult juxtapositions of attack and ever-changing dynamics, as in the melange prior to Letter 4.   And, for the first time in many years, the last movement radiated bonhomie and a spirit-infusing warmth; usually, I’m waiting for the concluding rush with impatience, worn out by what all too often sounds like the composer’s self-indulgence in delaying tactics.   As with the Landler, this finale had a cogency and an insightfully driven suspense that made sense of  its episodes as a cumulative process.

Just as deftly accomplished, the Adagietto found itself subjected to sensible treatment; without interpolated pauses, its melodic drift given full weight but the entire movement kinetic – no oleaginous Venetian pooling but an ardent and controlled emotional exhalation with the MSO strings steady and cohesive, moments like the pianissimo shift back to F Major achieved with minimal fuss or pausing for effect.   Further, for once, the harp element from Yinuo Mu made itself a constituent part of the action, not just a presence in the opening bars and at the first high-point.

Of course, this work is no strange territory for the MSO who recorded it about a decade ago under Markus Stenz as part of that conductor’s review of the full Mahler symphonic range, and revisited it less than  three years ago with Simone Young.   Yet, this time around, its remembered longueurs dissipated in a forceful and fresh interpretation, giving much promise for the next two works in the cycle which present even greater challenges.

As a preface to the main work, Pierre-Laurent Aimard took the solo part for Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand; not a work you hear often live, partly due to the scarcity of disabled performers and also owing, one suspects, to the desire of most pianists to exercise their craft using all their gifts.  Davis and his players provided a louring background for Aimard, whose handling of the deliberately wide-ranging keyboard part was hard to fault, particularly in the necessary leaps between bass and treble and the multitude of arpeggio-like passages by which Ravel gives the executant full coverage of the instrument’s range.

Still, this concerto comes to life in its two cadenzas which are packed with wrenching difficulties, although Aimard negotiated them with authority and abstained from an over-employment of the sustaining pedal.   Particularly impressive were the pianist’s emphatic delivery at both ends of the compass, including some thunderous bass clusters, and the penetrating duet with clarinet under the orchestra’s clarion calls near the work’s thrilling conclusion.

Aimard is certainly the first guest I know of to treat an MSO audience to an encore by Boulez.   He played three of the Douze Notations with agility and a cogent communication of the composer’s febrile piano style.   As the title indicates, the works are rapidly done and came as a kind of spicy interlude in an afternoon where gravity was a significant element. More interestingly, this encore, although some worlds away from the expected Debussy or Ravel miniature, did not appear to upset the MSO’s Mahler aficionados.  But then, as I say, the Notations are over very quickly.

Today Aimard performs Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jesus in the Melbourne Recital Centre at 5 pm, after having played them in Sydney last week following three performances of Messiaen’s Des canyons aux etoiles . . .   A true devotee, the pianist studied with Messiaen’s widow, Yvonne Loriod, so you can expect an ultra-informed performance.

And the Ravel concerto and Mahler Symphony will be repeated in Hamer Hall on Monday March 21 at 6:30 pm.

 

April Diary

Sunday April 3  

Composers’ Concert, St. Stephen’s Anglican Church, Richmond, 2 pm

To my shame, not one of the five writers featured on this program is known to me; nor are most of the performers – the Briar String Quartet, Nimbus Trio, Melbourne Composers’ Orchestra (although I’m very familiar with the work of this body’s conductor, Andrew Wailes).   It’s an afternoon of many premiere performances: Carol Dixon’s String Quartet No. 1 and first Piano Trio, as well as her Ocean Oasis from the Nimbus group; Kitty Xiao, central figure in the Nimbus ensemble, is represented by trio works, including the first hearing of her Emei; pianist/composer Hana Zreikat plays her own Elan, Soldier’s Suite and interprets Sarah Elise Thompson’s Riven; Benjamin Bates’ Symphony No. 3 enjoys its first performance under Wailes; and Thompson’s First String Quartet rounds out the event’s premieres.  For $15/$10 (kids under 12 free), it’s a large dose of new music  – 11 works in all – and, with so many composers contributing, variety is pretty well guaranteed.

 

Friday April 8

Camilla Tilling, Melbourne Recital Centre, 7:30 pm

Familiar to aficionados as a versatile opera singer, this Swedish soprano in mid-career is here showing her abilities on a more demanding platform, appearing in the MRC’s Great Performers series.   At the time of writing, her program comprises Berlioz’s Nuits d’ete, Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -Leben, and Berg’s Seven Early Songs . . . which is all great music, if a touch underwhelming in terms of length; perhaps there’ll be a hefty swag of encores.  Still, all three cycles are proper recital fare, even if we generally hear the Berlioz in the orchestral form that the composer eventually gave them.  And the young Berg also put his late Romantic settings into orchestral garb 20 years after the originals were produced, not adding much in the process except to smooth out any innate chromatic edges.  As far as I can tell, this is Tilling’s only recital, after which she goes to Sydney to sing the Berg lieder with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.  Her associate on this night is Leigh Harrold, a dab pair of hands in this role as evidenced by his being singled out as most outstanding pianist in the 2014 Mietta Song Competition.

 

Sunday April 10

Australian Chamber Orchestra, Hamer Hall, 2:30 pm

This program, as usual, will be repeated the following day at 7:30 pm.   For this tour, the ACO is in partnership with another Sydney ensemble, Synergy Percussion;  it seems odd, but I can’t recollect a previous performance here from this latter group since a Myer Bowl event during the 2006 Commonwealth Games Arts Festival.   As you’d expect, the program is contemporary in flavour, from the soporific to the hard-hitting.   The senior moment is Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, 80 years old this year.  Film music gets a decent representation with Bernard Herrmann’s 1960 score for Psycho, from which a string suite has been constructed; and Thomas Newman’s percussion-heavy accompaniment to 1999’s American Beauty gives the Synergy players a right of reply.  As for more taxing listening, the forces offer two gripping, grating constructs by Xenakis – Voile (1995) for 20 strings (does the ACO have that many?). and the 1975 graphically-notated Psappha percussion solo.  To complement these almost blasts-from-yesteryear products, some of them approaching the venerable,  the program offers a new work for both sets of musicians by Timothy Constable, Synergy’s artistic director.

 

Tuesday April 12

Lucia di Lammermoor, Her Majesty’s Theatre, 7:30 pm

Victorian Opera moves back to traditional fare with Donizetti’s masterpiece, very popular in this country thanks to Dame Joan Sutherland’s association with it, including her first recording of the Mad Scene – still the finest interpretation on disc.  So Jessica Pratt has her work cut out, even if she has sung the title role in La Scala.  For the company’s five performances, ending on April 21,  artistic director, Richard Mills conducts and the cast includes Carlos E. Barcenas (Edgardo), Jose Carbo (Enrico), and Michael Petruccelli (Arturo).   Cameron Menzies directs a production which comes from West Australian Opera,  Mills’ old stamping ground.  So far, information suggests that the work is being taken at face value, rather than transplanted to a contemporary setting in Cottesloe Beach with the heroine transforming into a white pointer.  Pratt has enjoyed VO successes in the last two years and, pace her colleagues, is the focus of attention in this airing of a true bel canto classic.

 

Wednesday April 13

Songmakers Australia, Melbourne Recital Centre, 6 pm

Three famous composers; three unfamiliar works.  This adventurous organization is giving a rare airing to Mozart’s Six Notturni; well, that’s if they are by Mozart.  The composer’s wife said the first five weren’t and, despite what you see in Amadeus, she was in her husband’s confidence.   The last one of the vocal trios, Piu non si trovano, is definitely Mozart, so the scholars say.   Their accompaniment is either for three basset horns or two clarinets with a basset horn; you’d assume that Andrea Katz will replace them with her all-embracing piano.   No worries about the Beethoven; An die ferne Geliebte, a sequence of six songs, is often referred to as the original song-cycle leading to Schubert, Schumann et al.   Speaking of Schumann, he is represented here by his Spanisches Liederspiel: ten songs, half of them duets, three solos, and two for vocal quartet.  Tonight’s singers are Songmaker regulars: soprano Merlyn Quaife, mezzo Sally-Anne Russell, tenor Andrew Goodwin, bass-baritone Nicholas Dinopoulos.  These recitals stand out for the participants’ professionalism and welcome splashes of personality.

 

Selby & Friends, Deakin Edge, Federation Square, 7:30 pm

Selby’s recitals get better as the years go past; somehow, the changing personnel is yielding extraordinary performances, both in trio and duet formats.  For this program, the artists perform an impressive bank of four trios: Brahms No. 2 in C and Mendelssohn No. 2 with its glowing Lutheran finale, and the Shostakovich No. 1 – not the famous E minor but a student work in one long movement of which the last 16 bars were left by the composer for a pupil, Boris Tishchenko, to finish.   Copland’s Vitebsk, study on a Jewish theme, has been gaining enthusiasts for some years, although it’s a strident, challenging twelve minutes’ worth where the composer, for the only time, uses a tune taken from his own heritage to give images in music of life in a shtetl.   This time around, Kathryn Selby has enlisted the services of Australian New-York based violinist Susie Park, formerly of the glamorous Eroica Trio as well as many other bodies in the USA, and American cellist/composer Clancy Newman who has been a Selby & Friends collaborator in several previous seasons.

 

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Hamer Hall, 7:30 pm

Sir Andrew Davis has long been associated with the BBC Proms, a series of concerts best known for its Last Night but, at this stage of its history, swollen to a vast program of over 100 events spreading outside the regular Royal Albert Hall venue.  As far as I can tell, Davis is restricting his Melbourne venture (this year) to two concerts, including a Last Night that follows the traditional path.  This opening night is not particularly unusual – unless they take the Hamer Hall stalls out for people to stand.   A fresh Nigel Westlake work, Dream of Flying, will be heard for the first time.   Laura van der Heijden, BBC Young Musician Competition winner in 2012, takes centre-stage for the Saint-Saens Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, a former audience-pleaser that seems to have fallen out of favour.   Then the orchestra whips up that fine festal feeling with the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique, always surprising and fresh and a particular show-pony for the MSO.   In fact, the night follows a rather old-fashioned sequence –  overture, concerto, symphony.   Not that every Prom has to break new ground at every turn . . . far from it.

 

Friday April 15

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, Deakin Edge, Federation Square, 7:30 pm

This program will be repeated on Sunday April 17 in the Melbourne Recital Centre at 2:30 pm.   Guest director, Rebecca Chan,  is a familiar face from a variety of roles with orchestras, chamber groups and as a soloist, although we’ve seen less of her in this last role over recent years, more’s the pity.   The program is headed The Gypsy Palace and it takes in a wide field: Telemann’s La musette suite, two Vivaldi concertos, a C.P.E. Bach string symphony, Haydn’s G Major Violin Concerto.   From out of nowhere come Josquin’s Ave Maria in a string orchestra arrangement; ditto for Gesualdo’s O dolce mio tesoro madrigal; the finale of Carl Vine’s Smith’s Alchemy, his own string orchestra arrangement of the String Quartet No. 3; and selections from the Uhrovska Collection, compiled in 1730 and containing about 350 works – well, violin lines – from Polish, Hungarian and Slovakian sources.  The thesis put forward by some musicologists and musicians is that the Uhrovska melodies have resonances in the compositions of the time, viz. some of those on this program.   From a very limited exposure to the Collection, I can see merit in the proposed influence/connection, especially when the arrangements pile on the Gypsy tropes.   For this occasion, the MCO and Chan have gone in wholeheartedly for variety, their scope of action tonight stretching across more than five centuries.

 

Saturday April 16

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Hamer Hall, 7:30 pm

This is already sold out but I fear that, although it follows the usual pattern, it will be a pale imitation of its London original.   Sir Andrew finishes the night with the patriotic quartet – Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs, the Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 with A.C. Benson’s ludicrously jingoistic words for the trio section, Arne’s Rule, Britannia! which is even worse in its self-congratulatory back-slapping, and Parry’s Jerusalem to satisfy any soccer hoons in the hall: the unspeakable singing the incomprehensible.  As opener, we get Beethoven’s weighty Egmont Overture, followed by Liane Keegan singing Elgar’s Sea Pictures as a complement to the night’s concluding bracket.   Percy Grainger’s four-movement In a Nutshell suite with its extraordinarily adventurous Pastoral is preceded by three of the Slavonic Dances of Dvorak.   It’s inevitable that enthusiasts will dress for the occasion and plenty of flag-waving will happen at the traditional points; obviously, the enthusiasm is there but I can’t help thinking that it’s sad to be aping such a locally-specific celebration.

 

Sunday April 17

Team of Pianists, Rippon Lea, 6:30 pm

A constant presence in Melbourne’s chamber music world, the Team maintains its presence at the National Trust mansion on six Sunday nights across the year, this the first of them.   In the house’s ballroom, Aura Go will perform Mozart – the earliest of the three  B flat Major sonatas and the emphatic C minor, as well as the Fantasia K. 475.   Brahms also features: his Liebeslieder Waltzes – well, those 18 in the Op. 52 set.   In fact, one of the few performances of these lilting gems with rock-solid foundations came from the Team, so long ago only a shadowy memory remains.   Soprano Kate Amos, mezzo Karen van Spall, tenor Michael Petrucelli and baritone Daniel Carson – all young voices, just what you need for this cycle –  will be supported by the Team’s founder Max Cooke and senior partner Darryl Coote playing one piano four-hands.   While it’s true that the piano rules at these events, guest artists come from across a wide range and this quartet of career-burgeoning singers adds to an impressive list of visiting artists.

 

Tuesday April 19

Stephen Hough, Melbourne Recital Centre, 7 pm

The polymath (The Economist and Intelligent Life honour him so) British  pianist  is back for another Musica Viva tour.  He combines the well-trodden track with a byway that many of us will never visit again, I suspect.   Re-running a program he gave last October at the Barbican, Hough starts (presumably) with Schubert’s A minor Sonata, D. 784, the last one in the oeuvre that has only three movements and revealing the composer at his most gloomy, even in the middle Andante whose gentle melodic calm is continually punctuated by muted rumblings.   Then, Franck’s Prelude, Choral and Fugue tribute to Bach which amalgamates chromatic 19th century pianism with a hectic but consistently observed Baroque discipline (if you can refer to such a characteristic without peals of laughter), complete with an interpolated cadenza/toccata.   Hough winds up his 19th century tour with the first two of Liszt’s four Valses oubliees from the early 1880s.   Most of us know (or will recognize) the first of these; taking us further into the collection is giving fine service, if only to demonstrate why the remaining waltzes have been left to wither.   At the recital’s centre, the pianist turns composer, performing his Sonata No. 3 with the potentially illuminating title Trinitas, written to celebrate the 175th birthday of The Tablet, that quizzically Catholic British magazine to which Hough has been an enthusiastic contributor.   The new sonata is in three movements and, like the musician’s playing, combines athleticism with intellectual rigour.

This program will be repeated on Saturday April 30 at 7 pm.

 

Friday April 22

Australian  National Academy of Music, South Melbourne Town Hall, 7 pm

This month, the brass get their day in the sun at the National Academy.   Under the heading Interstellar Call, American trumpeter Edward Carroll directs the ANAM brass and percussion members in a feast of mainly 20th century works.  The recital begins with the title work, one of the centrepieces to Messiaen’s Des canyons aux etoiles . . . and a supremely difficult solo for horn; the composer didn’t want it played separately from the major work, which is odd as he originally wrote it as a discrete item several years previously. Hindemith’s Konzertmusik Op. 49, the one for brass, two harps and piano from 1930, shows a less strident development in the great writer’s voice, complete with a folk-song quotation.   American composer David Lang’s Are You Experienced? of 1987, a set of variants on Jimi Hendrix’s famous song, features an electric tuba in place of the original guitar.  Silvestre Revueltas’ 1938 masterpiece of Mexican colour and movement, Sensemaya, came to Melbourne’s attention at one of the Myer Free concerts from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra when Diego Matheuz first hit the Principal Guest Conductor seat; you’d expect a brass/percussion arrangement for this airing.   There’s also The Devil Inside by (not Hugo) Wolf, about which I know nothing except that, in my world, it’s a book and a film.  Of course, it could turn out to be that sample of pop-bumf by the Bring the Wolf group, but I’m hoping not.   Also along the way comes the program’s most contemporary piece (unless the lupine product turns out to take the up-to-date honours).   Canadian-Estonian composer Riho Esko Maimets will be represented by an arrangement of his motet from 2012 for six voices, Media vita, which, in its original form at a little over fifteen minutes, sounds like a progression from Gregorian chant to Middle Renaissance polyphony; euphonious, slow-moving, reminiscent of a lot of Baltic religious music of the last half-century.

 

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Melbourne Town Hall, 7:30 pm

Putting patrons in the mood for winter, the latest MSO Proms (old-fashioned Town Hall variety) offers a quietist experience, culminating in the Faure Requiem, an idiosyncratic version of the Catholic Mass for the Dead as it was observed pre-Vatican II.   The French composer’s emotional language is of a quiet grief coupled to an almost stoic melancholy, punctuated by some gloriously soaring pages in the Sanctus and In Paradisum.   Naturally, the MSO Chorus will carry the score’s main vocal burden, with soloists soprano Jacqueline Porter and bass James Clayton.   Prior to this,  Benjamin Northey will take his forces through Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, a world of tragedy and resignation in two majestic, masterful movements.   The real novelty comes at the night’s start with an exceptional and welcome rarity: Schubert’s Gesang der Gesiter uber den Wassern.  This setting of a Goethe poem asks for eight male voice lines supported by violas, cellos and double basses, and its effect is as consolatory as the major scores that follow it.  Whoever put this program together had a definite vision, even if the experience won’t send the audience home in high spirits.

 

Wednesday April 27

Ensemble Liaison, Melbourne Recital Centre, 7 pm

Hard to believe this group has been active for ten years; a well deserved happy birthday, then, to David Griffiths, Svetlana Bogosavljevic and Timothy Young.   To start the celebrations, the trio welcomes four guests: violins Sophie Rowell and Elizabeth Sellars, viola Christopher Moore, horn Roman Ponomariov.   The night opens with Bloch’s Three Nocturnes of 1924 for piano trio, which in the last segment stretches the usual definition of nocturne.  Dohnanyi’s Sextet for Piano, Clarinet, Horn and String Trio dates from 1935, has four action-packed movements and, because of its personnel requirements, is never heard outside establishments like conservatoria.  What adds further interest is that it’s the composer’s last major chamber music score, even though he lived another 25 years. Later, the Liaison again indulge their enthusiasm for Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov; his The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, inspired by the teachings of a medieval Provencal rabbi,  requires a clarinet/bass clarinet (played in the Klezmer style) and string quartet.   Its format consists of a prelude, three substantial movements, and a postlude; its language is easy to imbibe, both woodwind and string parts packed with incident and the whole a half-hour essay in melodic simplicity with an underpinning of dissonance.

 

Thursday April 28

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Hamer Hall, 8 pm

Guest conductor Paul Goodwin, an expert in Baroque performance, is visiting to lead the MSO in a pair of Haydn symphonies, encasing a brace of Bach orchestral suites.  The Rediscover Haydn movement has never quite taken off here, although those of us with fair memories can recall the preference expressed by Markus Stenz, when he was first installed in the MSO’s chief conductor role, for programming lots of the symphonies; I can recall two being played during his tenure, although a few more might have slipped  through to the archival keeper.   But these days it seems that our Haydn experience (apart from the ubiquitous Cello Concerto No. 1) comes from bodies like the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Frank Pam’s Melbourne Musicians, or the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra. Goodwin begins with the Symphony No. 49, La Passione, which has nothing to do with Easter, and winds up with No. 82, the Oxford.   Not exactly breaking new ground, is it? There must be about 80 other symphonies, most of them without nicknames, that would have expanded our live Haydn exposure.   At any rate, they bookend the Orchestral Suites Nos. 2 and 3.   The first of these is close to a flute concerto, bringing the skill of principal Prudence Davis to front-of-stage; the other is noted for the Air on the G String, which is nothing of the kind.

This program will be repeated in Geelong’s Costa Hall on Friday April 29 at 8 pm, and again in Hamer Hall on Saturday April 30 at 2 pm

 

Friday April 29

Duo Chamber Melange, Melbourne Recital Centre, 6:30 pm

A piano/violin partnership, this duo makes a solid European sound with the standard repertoire at the core of its exerpertise, although the choices made by the performers are not what you’d necessarily expect.  Pianist Tamara Smolyar and violinist Ivana Tomaskova both teach at Monash University and what I’ve heard of their interpretative approach shows both forthright enthusiasm and calm mastery.  Their chief focus on this night is Brahms – the first Violin Sonata in G, and the most vernal of the three – and Janacek’s solitary exercise in the duo sonata format from 1914, an informative illustration throughout its four movements of the Czech composer’s idiosyncratic vocabulary and melodic power.   As far as I can recall, I’ve never heard it in live performance.   As well, the artists are playing the Scherzo in C minor by Brahms, his splendid contribution to the F-A-E Sonata, a compendium in honour of the great violinist Joseph Joachim consisting of two movements by Schumann, one by his student Albert Dietrich, and this exhilarating piece.  The recital’s real novelty emerges in a piano solo by Smolyar, the world premiere of Enceladus by Romanian composer Livia Teodorescu-Ciocanea, a significant creative voice and academic in the serious music world of her own country who did post-doctoral studies at Monash in 2008 and whose music has been recorded here on the Move label.   As for her new work’s title, it may refer to one of Saturn’s moons, or to the Giant from Greek mythology who fought Athene, although how you give either a musical character will be intriguing.

 

Saturday April 30

Ensemble Gombert, Xavier College Chapel, 5:30 pm

Starting its suburban series for 2016, John O’Donnell’s fine chamber choir presents works of the Capilla Flamenca, or Flemish Chapel – a body of singers (and instrumentalists)  in the service of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Philip II of Spain.  The works come from the Franco-Flemish school (another of those wide-ranging shorthand terms that covers vast differences), those represented being Alexander Agricola, Pierre de la Rue, Antoine Brumel, Thomas Crecquillon and Nicolas Gombert himself whose Missa Quam pulchra es caps the evening’s work.   Agricola’s motet Salve, regina and Brumel’s Laudate Dominum contrast close contemporaries, the restrained with the daring.   From de la Rue, the Gomberts will perform one Magnificat from the composer’s eight for six voices.   But for me, the most interesting are two . . . well, motets of praise is not too ripe . . . by Thomas Crecquillon, both praising the Emperor Charles in the sense that one apostrophises him as being greater than his predecessor Charlemagne, the other more or less telling him off in the most laudatory terms for his great mercy in forgiving his enemies – all couched in precise and elegant polyphony as only the best Renaissance compliments were.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mozart all the way

CLASSICAL VISIONS

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

March 6

Starting its 2016 activities, the city’s leading chamber orchestra eased its patrons into a kind of  contentment, a slippers-and-whisky mode with a diet of firm favourites and comfortable listening.   The main works came from Mozart, two of the incomparable masterpieces of Western music: his Symphony No. 40 in G minor, and the Clarinet Concerto from the last months of the composer’s life.  The MCO’s artistic director, William Hennessy, controlled  the readings from his usual concertmaster position, while the soloist for the concerto was David Griffiths, familiar to concert-goers from his work in the always-fresh Ensemble Liaison.

As leavening for these repertoire pillars, harpist Melina van Leeuwen took centre stage for two French works that typify her instrument’s repertoire as most of us know it: Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro requiring also flute, clarinet and string quartet, and Debussy’s Danse sacree et danse profane which have the soloist supported by a string orchestra. Perhaps these were not the most original works to program but they made amiable enough contrasts with the afternoon’s Mozart content.   Neither presented van Leeuwen with obvious problems, her generously spaced, ornately complex arpeggios at the opening to the Ravel work a promise of the fluency that she brought to the score’s major segment.

Not that the performance was blemish-free; the opening brief wind duet in thirds (Griffiths and an unknown flautist – I had no program) came over as uneasy, a sort of feeling-your-way that is made a more exact experience by a central conductor. Further, the piece gains a good deal more weight if, as on this occasion,  a string orchestra is employed – if that added heft is what you want.   Not that the composer had any problems with other musicians’ re-shapings of this piece but restricting the forces to a string quartet gives the more active stretches of the Allegro an agreeably febrile quality that a group three times that size smooths away.

Later, the Debussy test-piece enjoyed a fine airing, its open textures cleanly carried off in the mode-infested first half string writing while van Leeuwen gave full voice to the sacred dance’s rich two-hand chords.  After the stately,  hieratic suggestions of this opening set of pages, it always seems a comic relief when the D Major waltz marks out Debussy’s entry into the secular world that the second dance intends to represent.  This section is far more colourful for the soloist with a wide range of technical requirements and a rapid alternation between various techniques of sound production.  But van Leeuwen kept the interpretative tenor on an even keel, the details of harmonics and appoggiaturas coming across without unsettling stress, and the various ritenuto/a tempo changes handled with aplomb.

For the G minor symphony, Hennessy kept to an orthodox path; no abrupt tempo shocks, the dynamic shifts in keeping with the run of the score rather than an imposition of interpretative temperament, the all-important string complex working with dedication through these well-travelled pages.  The director was also lucky with his wind back-line, the horn duo a touch over-prominent but accurate.   If we didn’t learn much new about this score, we experienced a reassurance of sorts in the experience of its outer movements’ unforgettable restless determination.   Some might have preferred to hear one of the earlier symphonies – a Haffner or a Linz, a Paris, even No. 33 in B flat that I don’t think many of us would have heard live – but there is also a school of belief that you can never get enough of this work; certainly, those patrons near me were more than pleased with the experience.

Griffiths is a veteran with this concerto; Sunday must have been the third or fourth time I was hearing his interpretation and it has always given an invigorating pleasure.  The emphasis is not on the mellow and smooth but more concerned with both expressiveness and a restrained jauntiness.  Rather than barnstorming through the first movement, this musician holds back on the wallowing chalumeau texture and aims for subtlety of dynamic, including some improbably soft cadential passages, moments where the player  takes risks in production as his output approaches inaudibility.  And while the central Adagio came over with admirably simple phrase-shaping and a welcome emotional reserve, the final Rondo impressed for its good-humoured bounce, bringing out the composer’s open-hearted humanity with great persuasiveness; even the scale-rich passage-work illustrated with the closest thing music gets to aristocratic wit.  Here was a performance to treasure.

David Griffiths (mco.org.au)
David Griffiths (mco.org.au)

This program will be repeated at 7:30 pm on Friday March 11 in the Deakin Edge, Federation Square; a space that seats less than half of the Recital Centre’s Murdoch Hall. Given this quality of playing and the program’s appeal, the place should be packed.

Under new management

OPENING CONCERT

Australian National Academy of Music Orchestra

South Melbourne Town Hall

March 5

Once again, rumours have begun to circulate about the parlous situation of the National Academy, whose administrators seem fated to plead on a regular basis with Canberra for funds to continue their activities.   Late last year, the news came that the Australian National University is willing to house the Academy when its lease arrangements with the South Melbourne Town Hall come up for renewal in 2017 –  a move that has its proponents but many more detractors, fortunately.   Peter Garrett, as Minister for the Arts, proposed closing ANAM in 2008 because he saw the institution as elitist; what he wanted in its place remained unclear.   But the thinking behind the minister’s proposal showed both a meanness (or absence) of spirit and a totally inadequate comprehension of what it takes to make a real musician.  And that lack of insight has lasted well beyond the first Rudd ministry.

under new mang
ANAM incoming director Nick Deutsch

If you want to see why ANAM is  both important and successful, all you have to do is attend a single concert or recital to understand what is being achieved.  Not everything you hear will be easy listening, but anything performed by this body’s young instrumentalists stands several aesthetic strata above the products that emanated from Garrett during his musical career-of-sorts.  Saturday night was a sterling example of where the Academy’s players are situated with a half-challenging (for the audience) night’s work of a near-contemporary concerto for percussion, a remarkable freshly-minted work from outgoing ANAM director Paul Dean to expose the virtuosity of his successor Nick Deutsch, and a rousing trip into established repertoire with the Sibelius Symphony No. 2 in D.

Soloist in Per Norgard’s Percussion Concerto For a Change, Kaylie Melville operated from (as far as I could see) three stations positioned right in front of the audience.  Norgard’s work is ostensibly in four movements, representing four states of being extracted from that fountain of fascination for post-Cage composers, the I Ching or Book of Changes.  What actually comes out is a sequence of massively charged solos for the percussionist with the orchestra very much a supporting act, occasionally offering relief and, it has to be said, context behind the free-wheeling, attention-grabbing soloist.  Norgard’s enthusiasm for Eastern sounds come over with remarkable clarity in the flavours of his writing, even if the cultural suggestions in movements like the opening Thunder Repeated, the Image of Shock sound more like Tibet than China, suggesting the long semi-braying trumpets that used to sound from the Potala  in Lhasa.

Melville gave a bravura performance, moving from drums and woodblocks to a large array of gongs, then over to  a panoply of more drums – the whole exercise carried out with assurance and an obvious familiarity with the Danish composer’s demands.  While you came across moments of tranquillity, even near-stasis, the score (here receiving its Australian premiere, although I thought that distinction had already gone to Perth’s Tim White) made its most compelling impact in a set of long cadenza-style solo passages for Melville: shifting rhythms suggesting a compressed minimalism, just-this-side-of-painful heightened dynamics, a constant barrage of contrasting timbres.  As a vehicle for this ANAM graduate, Norgard’s sustained exercise enjoyed a positive reception in a hall that, at its conclusion, was tropically sweltering.

Paul Dean’s farewell gesture to ANAM is an oboe concerto, with Deutsch its first executant;  this work did enjoy a premiere performance on Saturday night.  For reasons that escape me, the composer has kept his soloist’s output fixed in the instrument’s high register, which means that the oboe is a pretty strident line for most of the time.  In the traditional three movements, the fast-slow-fast sequence is interrupted by a cadenza, one that is  no free-for-all rubato rhapsody because an escorting snare drum emerges to set up a grounding rhythmic baseline.  Dean lays on rich washes of sound in the outer segments, wind and brass providing solid sound-walls that the soloist emerges from with penetrating sustained notes.  An easing lyricism obtains in the central adagio where the support is reduced to strings alone but, in keeping with the concerto’s unapologetic focus on the soloist, Deutsch set up the lyrical running pretty quickly and maintained it throughout what was a welcome hiatus in a typically ebullient creation.

Fortunately, the ANAM strings came into their own for the Sibelius symphony.  Indeed, one of the more gripping spectacles in what had now become uncomfortable atmospheric conditions was the sight of the corps bending into their work, both in the flows and ebbs of Sibelius’ opening Allegretto and late in the arches of the finale’s central theme.  In sum, the reading generated by conductor Antonio Mendez proved to be urgent and magniloquent, its ongoing problem one of balance.  Even from the first, you were left to question the conductor’s weighting; when the woodwind entered with the first theme in bar 9, the clarinets could be heard clearly while the lead oboe line was present but not dominant.  The third movement Vivacissimo was certainly that, its 6/8 tarantella exciting to watch but clarity of delivery was questionable, particularly after Letter C when the brass made their presence felt.

Something similar dogged the finale; not so much in the broad-beamed melodic streams but in pesante full orchestra pages the brass and wind were allowed too much dynamic latitude.  You felt that the suggestions of Scandinavian grandeur-in-nature were suffering from over-kill, that Sibelius’ spacious sonorous edifices had been turned into cliff-faces without detail.  Having noted that, however, the final peroration came over as a proper capstone to the performance, the players undiminished in drive and responsiveness.  Obviously, the Academy is raring to go for another year; here’s hoping the bureaucrats and penny-pinchers  somehow, sometime get to see these gifted talents showcasing their abilities.  It’s always an invigorating sight and the full ensemble’s impact can be striking; this Sibelius reading had more individuality, even with its over-heftiness, than a performance broadcast on ABC Radio from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra the preceding night.

Ring in the half-new

ALLEGED DANCES

Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

March 3

In its current format, this ensemble shows loads of skill.  Alongside the two survivors from its previous formation – viola Stephen King and cello Sharon Draper – the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s co-concertmaster, Dale Barltrop, has taken on first violin duties, with another MSO musician,  Francesca Hiew, playing second violin.  On first showing, the combination makes a fine collective sound, particularly in the central elements of Wednesday’s program.  The solitary problem comes with the bass line which, in the new context, can sound muffled.  Which could come from the nature of Draper’s peers – Barltrop’s sound colour is precise and fine, Hiew his timbral complement with an output of solid determination,  King maintaining his full-bodied and accurate projection, a continual pleasure from this leading light in the country’s chamber music tenor ranks.

Australian String Quartet
Australian String Quartet

Or it could arise from the nature of the instrument.  The ASQ is using a chest of Guadagnini instruments, the cello the earliest made.   Time – and usage – will tell if the instruments are well-matched in more than name or provenance.  And it has to be said that the under-demonstrative character of the bass layer was not uniform throughout the program; in fact, the more contemporary the music, the more it entered into the mix as a full partner.

The players began with Beethoven, the last of the Op. 18 set and  an amiable introduction to the group’s standard.  Barltrop  initiated a firm and clear-speaking interpretation, the opening imitation-work with Draper jaunty and clear although the group’s inter-dependence showed at its most remarkable in the Scherzo/Trio third movement where the rapid speed made the violins’ syncopations as efficiently discombobulating as the composer would have wished.  As well, you could find much to admire in the balance of levels during the final movement’s famous La Malincolia first page adagio and the group made a determined fist of the disappointing Allegretto that follows, pages where the effort always seems more gripping than the material.

Balancing this conservative-with-a-difference first gambit, the ASQ finished their night in Schumann’s  A minor, a score that is heard rarely enough, in my experience mainly at chamber music competitions whn a young ensemble tries to break away from the expected Romantic-period offering and generally does itself no good.  Luckily, the work enjoyed a fine run-through this time around, King partnering Hiew in a passionate give-and-take dialogue during the formally simple but voluble central Adagio.

The night’s guest, percussionist Claire Edwardes, contributed a vibraphone part to the Melbourne premiere of Matthew Hindson’s String Quartet No. 4.  In two movements, the work sets up a contrast between animation and quiescence, although the freneticism of its first half was of a milder order than Barltrop’s introductory remarks had indicated; for sure, it lived up to its promise of action, packed with vaulting leaps of scales and arpeggio passages, the vibraphone adding a Bergian cast to the texture, if the experience yielded not much more interest than that of watching five performers beavering away enthusiastically at patterns.  The following movement almost falls into sustained melody but interests more as an exercise in dexterity treating uncomplicated, diatonic intervallic sequences – a placid cantilena for the most part, again with no pretensions to striking out in new directions, apart from the percussion overlay.

Later, Edwardes provided her own soundscape for three movements taken from John’s Book of Alleged Dances, the off-centre amalgam by John Adams that manages to achieve that welcome rarity in American music: wry humour.  In place of the prepared-piano percussion tape loops set off by a quartet member, Edwardes utilised a set of everyday implements as a live-performer substitute; quite satisfactorily, as matters turned out. The clattering tram ride of Judah to Ocean was a triumph for the percussionist-arranger, the clanks and non-resonance of the piano’s stopped strings imitated with high success, while the following Habanera and Rag the Bone came across to the back of the hall without rousing much disappointment in their new sonic format, which actually added some spice to Adams’ tendency to labour his own atmosphere.

As a new start, this recital ticked many buttons.  It established the group’s authority in its handling of received repertoire; not simply by reviewing over-exposed quartets but by taking on a quirky, young Beethoven and the most original of Schumann’s three essays. The ASQ actually commissioned Hindson’s new work – admittedly with the help of several partners –  but the move  made clear that the players look for challenges, wish to stimulate local writers, and are quite prepared to take on unexpected partnerships in order to add to their recital experience.

On July 4, the group plays Webern’s brusque/wispy Five Pieces, one of Haydn’s Op. 20 in which  the composer dragged the string quartet into shape, Joe Chindamo’s two-year-old Tempesta, and Mendelssohn’s No. 6, his last.   On October 24, the ensemble’s third series program begins with Mozart’s final essay, K. 590, moves to Ligeti’s Metamorphoses nocturnes, and ends with Ravel.

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A familiar menu

BANQUET OF SECRETS

Victorian Opera

Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne

March 1-5

The national opera company has, for quite a while, followed the lead of other similar organizations in presenting musicals as part of the yearly round, supposedly to recoup losses on more arcane ventures; for every Of Mice and Men, the contemporary balance sheet requires a My Fair Lady.  The much-mourned Victorian Opera Company pioneered the same path in its later years and often enough the popular seasonal implant worked successfully, particularly when a competent cast took part, i.e. singers who could dance and act, and knew what was involved in projecting a personality as well as a big number.

The current state company has moved into this sphere with gusto and, despite my limited exposure to its work, the venture has shown a pathway out of fiscal darkness if the mid-July 2014 Into the Woods production was any indication – a deftly-staged production gifted with a very able cast, the company’s talents exerted on a sterling music-plus-book combination.

The last time I was in the Playhouse for a Paul Grabowsky opus was 14 years ago at an opener for the Melbourne International Arts Festival.   The distinguished jazz musician had collaborated with playwright Johanna Murray-Smith in an opera, Love in the Age of Therapy, which barely hit the sides on the way down. Two survivors from that operation, mezzo Dimity Shepherd and tenor Kanen Breen, feature in this latest enterprise, one where Grabowsky’s score partners a text by Steve Vizard.  Other cast members are soprano Antoinette Halloran and tenor David Rogers-Smith, with Michael Carman in a non-singing role.  Grabowsky led his forces from the piano, directing violin Elizabeth Sellars, cello Svetlana Bogosavljevic, clarinet David Griffiths, and Peter Neville on percussion.

Banquet of Secrets
Banquet of Secrets

The work revolves around a restaurant banquet; for the four singing characters, a yearly commitment since their final year of university twenty years before.  It’s a get-together for friends, the difference this year being that the host-figure, Breen’s Jean Pierre, sets up a scenario in which each diner tells his/her deepest secret.  At the conclusion of the meal course-interrupted confessions – an assisted death, an illegitimate child, a long-lived lesbic infatuation, another death in the wings  –  the four singers combine for a placid paean to love.  Without interval, the work stretches for about 90 minutes, staged on a bare-bones set by Matt Scott, the whole directed by Roger Hodgman.

This is the first musical commissioned by Victorian Opera and its short season forms part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, which is paid lip service by waiter Carman’s ludicrous descriptions of the food being served (with some pictures of the menu’s constituents projected on a giant mirror slanted behind the focal dining table) and a running reference to an aged, valuable bottle of Latour that is eventually opened as a sort of gustatorial denouement.  As a device, the feast’s progress works well enough and the singers give of their best to their roles, at times fighting to be heard or remain comprehensible over the accompanying instrumental quintet.

Vizard’s book, in spite of several clever spoofs of character types and digs at fashions and fads, follows a pretty well-trodden histrionic path.  When university for the group of friends finally broke up for good, Halloran’s Mia went to Rome to meet her mother, ostensibly; in fact, she had a baby and was coerced into giving it up, although exactly why never becomes clear.  OK, but so what?  It’s a trauma, certainly but not worth keeping secret, especially in the social context occupied by these characters.  Later, we find that Mia’s baby is seeking her out and that – wouldn’t you know it? – one of the other diners is the child’s father and he feels the need to tear up a passion because he hadn’t been told that he had fathered a child.  Yes, well that’s fine but such a lurch in plot brings to mind the more over-contrived episodes of Neighbours and Home and Away.

Shepherd’s Rose has had a family and a bitter divorce, gained some stature as a poet, and has been sending Mia an anonymous Valentine card every year since the quartet went into the extra-university world.  Jean Pierre brings the confessions to a climax by informing his friends that he has days, possibly hours to live.  And it’s at this stage that the pathos is piled on in a tableau suggestive of a mini-Last Supper; the dramatic flow seizes up and a kind of deploration for the living begins.  All of which would be fine if you felt sympathy for these characters – but I found it impossible to engage with the chain of confessions, probably because, once somebody set out along the admission highway, the results were inevitable enough to be trite.

Grabowsky’s score works its way through a series of dances, set numbers, ensembles for various vocal combinations, and often provides relief from dialogue that has lasted too long.   Using a wide range of percussion, having Griffiths oscillate between several clarinets, requiring some intriguing sound-production techniques from the two strings, the composer’s main drive comes from his piano which is a constant presence through each page of the score.  Expertly accomplished, as with Love in the Age of Therapy, little remains in the memory beyond a melodic scrap or two associated with the confessional solos for both female characters.  Not much draws attention from the action – some string harmonics, a bass clarinet rumble, sequences of cleverly elided keyboard chords – but the final impression is of backing colours rather than arresting lyricism.

Of the singers, Halloran gives a gripping account of her secret, finding a dramatic bite to a story that is unexceptional except in its telling.  Shepherd makes admirable work of her rambling retrospective solo, her angry and self-consciously eccentric, baffled figure one of the more arresting features of the musical.  The doctor who helped his wife out of pain, Rogers-Smith’s Drew shows self-awareness in his opening monologue but the account of his wife’s last moments is elongated beyond its potential to move the observer.  Breen dominates the show, the metteur-en-scene of the action and his tenor is a strong instrument, refreshingly clear in diction and pitch accuracy.  Yet Jean Pierre also treads an all-too-familiar path – witty, bitchy, enthusiastic, manipulative, eventually working himself into central position – the friend with no future but an irritating insistence on being remembered and mourned even before he hops the twig.

From all involved, Banquet of Secrets is a fair effort but unsatisfying for this observer in that its impact emerges through a hefty filter of populist associations; it’s unsurprising in nearly every aspect and its arioso writing with plenty of textual repetition doesn’t so much grate as tire you out.  In the end, the banquet itself is something of a poseur’s delight, the music comfortable and unadventurous, the characters credible but not sufficiently original to sustain involvement for longer than a few introductory moments.