Concordis by name . . .


Concordis Chamber Choir

Ian Roach Hall, Scotch College

Sunday May 29, 2016

This group enjoys plenty of advantages: an able and inspiring director, a generally pleasing spread of colour, plenty of fire in the belly and security in their work to go with it, an enthusiastic band of supporters, and access to a fine performance space with acoustic properties that suit the character of  a medium-sized body like this mixed choir.

As far as I can make out, Concordis is a Scotch College-inspired group.  Conductor Andrew Hunter is a senior faculty member; accompanist Jason Ha is a distinguished old boy of the school; the two additional musicians appearing on this program also have recently graduated from the Glenferrie Road campus.  Still, this source of talent cannot account for the 18 sopranos and altos currently at work in the choir’s ranks, both lines solid contributors to the group’s distinctive sound.

And it is individual in character.  The output is assertive, each line clear and resonant; while there are clearly no shrinking violets, it’s rare that a singer breaks ranks and pushes his/her sound uncomfortably.  It did happen last Sunday afternoon, pretty obviously from an over-enthusiastic alto in the spiritual triptych that began the program’s second part where a few sforzando blasts punctuated the typically snappy Moses Hogan/Stacey Gibbs arrangements. But moments like that were unusual and the young singers observed a discipline that made their collegial sound a pleasure to experience.

Hunter’s program ended in a wealth of Australiana, six pieces in all, while the rich world of contemporary American vocal music was represented by the previously-mentioned spirituals as well as individual pieces by Jake Runestad, Rene Clausen, Blake Henson and the trans-national Norwegian/US writer Ola Gjeilo who is clearly a Concordis favourite, three of his works punctuating the recital’s first half.  The British tradition came in for unexpectedly light treatment through two Eric Whitacre settings, Oculi omnium and Lux nova, and Philip Stopford‘s pleasant if orthodox Ave verum corpus essay.  An adventurous aspect of these offerings was that the nine elements in the program’s first half were all written in this century.

In fact, I found that several of these more contemporary works showed a staid approach to choral composition. Runestad’s I will lift mine eyes made a sterling introduction to Concordis’s work: well-ordered, full-bodied with some tellingly resonant bass singers, the approach informed by an earnest expressiveness.  These pages made for one of the best passages of play from the choir in its wide-ranging journey around the repertoire, but you looked in vain here or elsewhere in the British or American compositions for an adventurous voice.  Gjeilo’s Ubi caritas II setting plays with the original chant and Durufle’s moving arrangement but somehow misses out on breaking new ground.

Whitacre’s Oculi omnium seemed more of a challenge, particularly through the composer’s use of massed chromatic chords that demonstrated the careful preparation that Hunter and his singers had invested in a fairly challenging construct.  After the mild acerbities in this motet, Clausen’s O nata lux, the setting of two-thirds of Herrick’s To Music, to becalm his Fever by Henson, and Gjeilo’s vision of O magnum mysterium with obbligato cello all made their points pretty quickly, the last of these beginning with an interesting exercise in syllabification that dissipated into a standard setting by the text’s third line.   No fault of the executants, of course, but several later items also began with promise – like Whitacre’s Lux nova, which made an aggressive opening, only to sink into emotional soppiness at its extended ending which played with an imperfect cadence sequence under a soprano inverted pedal-note.

Gjeilo’s meditation on St. Augustine’s Watch, O Lord brought a saxophone/piano duo into play as a kind of commentary on the choral action.  This gave the instrumentalists room to improvise, a freedom of action that was undertaken cautiously by Joshua Tram’s tenor and Jason Ha’s keyboard.   Not wishing to sound too chauvinistic, I found Albury-raised Daniel Brinsmead‘s version of Hildegard’s Spiritus Sanctus vivicans vita packed with incident and sparks; if not strikingly original, it showed a fine responsiveness to the visionary’s mobile text.   Later came Dan Walker‘s interpretation of the first four stanzas in James McAuley’s The Blue Horses which also employed a suitably urgent vocabulary to illustrate the Australian poet’s early depiction of social restlessness.  Concordis made a fine case for this unsettling work, the sopranos and tenors in particular lending a brand of benign urgency to Walker’s multi-faceted choral tapestry.

A menu of eighteen numbers is lavish, certainly, and the Concordis choir worked with no little expertise through this program.  Nevertheless, many of these scores seemed interchangeable – not surprisingly, given the provenance of the US and British works.  The choir is fortunate in its members and their consistency; only a few signs of wavering pitch outweighed by the singers’ laudable attention to Hunter’s gestures.  This young group’s professionalism might be increased if it put a stop to the inane practice by some audience members of taking photos mid-performance; I don’t know of any other choir which allows this, not even when done by the most doting of parents or relatives, let alone the unstoppable manic maenads who marred this particular presentation.

Cup half full


The Melbourne Musicians

St John’s Southgate

Sunday May 22, 2016

Things were fair enough in this latest subscription series concert from Frank Pam and his string chamber orchestra, as long as the body kept within its means, as the Federal Treasurer is currently encouraging us to do.   The afternoon opened with an arrangement of Begli occhi, merce, the most (only?) popular aria by Antonio Tenaglia.   Pretty well known in arrangement form, this F minor slow-mover gave the Musicians no troubles, but then it is the sort of thing a competent player could handle at sight, included here as a warm-up to prepare the ground for harder matter.

Molly Kadarauch

                                                                                 Molly Kadarauch

Molly Kadarauch gave a driving account of the solo in C.P.E. Bach’s first Cello Concerto in A minor, the only one of the composer’s three that seems to get much ventilation.   The Musicians began with plenty of punch, although the tempo could have been quickened with benefit, notably to relieve the impression of stolidity rather than mobility.  Kadarauch was on the same wave-length, however, and urged her line with high intensity, using the busily Romantic double-stopped and chord-packed cadenzas of Friedrich Grutzmacher to transfer us momentarily into the world of Dvorak’s cello.  Even the central Andante sounded stormy and stressed rather than a C Major haven.  Some of the orchestral detail went walkabout, particularly a tendency to read the finale’s dotted-quaver-semiquaver patterns as triplet-based.  Still, the reading held interest through its bravado and lack of affectation.

I wasn’t sure that much was gained by an encore, in this case Bloch’s Prayer, the first section of the popular From Jewish Life suite.  It gave Kadarauch a chance to orate a slow-moving melody line full of melting melismata and a line-up of the composer’s expected tropes reminiscent of the Schelomo Hebraic Rhapsody, but it sat oddly alongside the discipline of the concerto’s framework.

After interval, another guest appeared: Justin Kenealy, leading the Glazunov Saxophone Concerto of 1934.   All in one movement, the work has no trace of jazz suggestions or the seedy world of Weill and the contemporarily composed Berg’s Lulu; indeed, the composer treats his soloist like any other woodwind, although one with a dominant voice. What strikes you, in fact, is that the soloist has so few moments of rest, as though Glazunov wants the interpreter kept busily at work in such a short-framed construct, and so the saxophone makes all the running, apart from some obvious interpolations during the last movement’s progress when the soloist takes a few bars break while the strings articulate the themes’ basic elements.

This solo-domination was just as well as the ensemble laboured in the faster-moving tuttis, some of the violins not quite getting on top of their notes and the texture liable to thin out as things got tricky.  However, Kenealy made a fine exponent of this rarity – well, rare in local exposure terms although it features large in the instrument’s repertoire – with a cogent outline of the central cadenza and a pretty jaunty approach to the outer sections of this free-flowing last flower of the composer’s solidly Tory talent.

To finish, conductor Pam attempted to flesh out the Russian side of this program with the Shostakovich Sinfonia, a string orchestration of the composer’s String Quartet No. 8 Op. 110 organised by the American double-bass expert Lucas Drew, rather than the traditional version transcribed by Rudolf Barshai..  An ambitious undertaking, this score was often beyond the players’ competence.  Even during the opening Largo, the uniformity of articulation was suspect, the upper strings’ overall attack tentative.

Matters improved in the following harsh Allegro molto where the slashing accents and driving thematic insistence came close to acceptable.  But the last Largo was a mess;  I don’t know where but someone jumped the gun – hard to do in this slow-moving elegy – and, to finish the afternoon with some coherence, Pam had his players repeat it.  Rather than an emotionally wrenching experience, I think many of us were relieved to get to the Sinfonia‘s end and then look forward to the next program from this band on Sunday July 17 at MLC: those tried-and-true familiar entities the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 and Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 provide the main elements.

Some hits, a few misses


Paavali Jumppanen, ANAM Musicians

Australian National Academy of Music

Thursday May 19, 2016

Paavali Jumppanen
                                                     Paavali Jumppanen

Back at the National Academy as a guest faculty member, the Finnish pianist mentored and participated in this night of doubles where each composer was represented by two works; not in an attempt to show any progress from youth to maturity, but more to give each of them another voice, no matter how similar in accent.   While the contrast between Poulenc’s Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano of 1926 and his horn/piano Elegie from 1957 was pretty stark – the one loaded with frivolity and cheek, the Dennis Brain lament heavy with reminiscences of the Dialogues des Carmelites opera – Beethoven’s B flat Trio Op. 11 and his E flat Quintet for piano and winds, separated from each other by two years, displayed not-unexpected affinities.   The links between Debussy’s Cello Sonata and some of the Book II Preludes are more difficult to articulate yet the sonata’s Serenade and General Lavine, eccentric share a brusquerie and volatility that reveal their author’s handwriting very clearly.

Similar or dissimilar, the six works programmed made for an intermittently involving night, beginning with the Poulenc trio from oboe Stephanie Dixon, bassoon Christopher Haycroft, and piano Alexander Waite.   In the South Melbourne Town Hall’s large air-space, the keyboard sounded over-lush, a frequently applied sustaining pedal ensuring a mushy complement for the winds; a much better mix emerged in the Rondo-finale with the high-register piano writing slotting in deftly with the active woodwind lines.

Beethoven’s Gassenhauer Trio from clarinet Kenny Keppel, cello Jovan Pantelich and piano Adam McMillan made a more consistent fist of getting to grips with a consistent interpretation, giving just the right measure to the composer’s aggression; by the end of the exposition repeat in the first movement, the ensemble’s concerted attack made you feel that this was an exceptional performance-in-the-making, reinforced by an excellently well-managed variety in dynamic gradations from all three participants in the following Adagio.

For the Debussy sonata, Pantelich was accompanied by Jumppanen, who had the score by heart and was able to keep both eyes on the string player.   With the piano lid on the long-stick, the keyboard dominated the performance, pretty obviously in the Final which saw Pantelich drowned at several important points (for the cello), both artists taking a very cautious approach to the composer’s Anime direction.   Jumppanen was faced with more of a challenge in the Poulenc Elegie from Timothy Skelly‘s beefy horn  12-tone solo opening foray, efficiently anticipating that trademark striding energy when the piano enters this scene.   Listening to a French horn by itself always fills me with foreboding; the instrument is difficult and miscalculations occur with regularity.   But Skelly’s performance – apart from one slight and soft blip in the core of this score’s main argument – proved exemplary, if inclined to the more forceful end of the dynamic spectrum.

Apart from the Lavine piece, Jumppanen played Ondine and Bruyeres; the first delineated with care for detail which made the irregular arpeggio-like gruppetti of 12 notes all the more striking and crisp; the English countryside/Scottish moors/Daniel Waters film tone-picture enjoyed a plain-speaking interpretation, without the push-me pull-you rubato interpolations that other pianists use to make the negotiation of three staves easier.

The program’s concluding Beethoven Quintet Op. 16 involved all four wind players heard so far and a new pianist in Nicholas Young.   As with other pieces preceding it, this was excellent in patches, nowhere more so than the opening to its central Andante cantabile where, after the pianist had enunciated the main theme, the winds entered en bloc to repeat it with a rich warmth of sound that transmuted the ordinary into a powerfully affecting statement.

Here was a performance with relatively few flaws, apart from a difficult moment for Skelly in the first movement’s Allegro where, 40 bars from the end, Beethoven gives the horn a falling arpeggio solo that he puts into lip-splitting triplets two bars later.   Young had great success with his acutely active part, while Keppel took bravely to his task as dominant wind; in fact, I would have appreciated hearing Dixon’s line surging out of the mix more often but, in this case, the reason for the oboe’s reticence is as much due to Beethoven as to the assertiveness of the other ensemble members.

June Diary

Friday June 3

Sydney Symphony Orchestra Brass Ensemble, Australian National Academy of Music, 7 pm

Most of the northern orchestra’s corps will appear on this program which is being toured across the country – well, the lower east coast.   From the publicity material, it looks like four trumpets, four horns, three trombones and a tuba are involved, which makes a comfortable number.   Leading the group, guest conductor James Somerville is the principal horn in the Boston Symphony and naturally a bit of the Republic’s music gets an airing, climaxing in the Symphonic Dances from Bernstein’s West Side Story arranged by Eric Crees, principal trombone at the Covent Garden Opera House (Royal) and erstwhile co-principal of the London Symphony Orchestra.  The fertile Morten Lauridsen is represented by his most famous choral work, O magnum mysterium, complemented by Gabrieli’s setting of the text as well as a Magnificat from the Venetian master.   British veteran Mark-Anthony Turnage appears with a brass specific work, Out of Black Dust, and the ne plus ultra of film composers, John Williams, waves the Stars and Stripes with his 2014 Music for Brass which may present some logistical problems as it calls for 9 trumpets, 5 horns, 5 trombones, 2 bass trombones, 3 tubas, timpani and extra percussion.


Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Hamer Hall, 8 pm

Diego Matheuz, who put in a stint here over the past three years as Principal Guest Conductor of the MSO, returns to lead this all-Russian night, beginning with Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain in its original form, apparently, before Rimsky-Korsakov got his hands on it.   Joyce Tang will be soloist in the exemplar of a Romantic piano concerto  –  No. 2 in C minor by Rachmaninov   –   and Matheuz will take the MSO through excerpts from the great ballet score that ends the night.   The entertainment proceeds in neat chronological sequence – Tsarist, pre-Revolutionary, Communist – and gives a lop-sided portrait of Slavic musical genius.   Tang will doubtless enjoy much success with the concerto, although, given its melodic riches and spectacular-looking virtuosity, so would any pianist.

The program will be repeated on Saturday May 4 ( 8 pm) and Monday May 6 (6:30 pm).


Monday June 6

Alexander Gavrylyuk, Great Performers, Melbourne Recital Centre, 7:30 pm

Always a pleasure to have this USSR-born, Sydney resident pianist back here.   In this instance, Gavrylyuk forms part of the MRC’s Great Performers series and has assembled a fine miscellany, starting with Schubert in A, the three-movement gem that radiates summery good humour at every turn.   A bracket of Chopin contains the F minor Fantaisie challenge (leisurely or Lisztomanic?), the Nocturne in C minor from the Op. 38 set with the clangorous central chorale, and the mighty A flat Polonaise of 1842.  Then Gavrylyuk hones in on his birth country with Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 3, the shortest of the nine.  After this come some of Rachmaninov’s earlier set of Etudes-tableaux, and then that finger-twisting barnstormer, Balakirev’s Islamey – which is something of a Gavrylyuk specialty.


Tuesday June 7

Enso String Quartet, Musica Viva, Melbourne Recital Centre, 7 pm

Both programs that this US ensemble brings to us feature a new work by Melbourne composer Brenton Broadstock, part of the Musica Viva ongoing commitment to furthering the cause of contemporary Australian work which has led to some fine creations as well as some dross.   Another program constant is Beethoven’s Harp in E flat.  For this night, the group plays to one of its strengths with the middle Ginastera quartet, the Ensos having recorded all three to sustained acclaim.   And, keeping to the Latin ambience, the group will perform Turina’s 10-minute Serenata from 1943.

For the second program on Saturday June 18, the performers will exchange Turina and Ginastera for a Renaissance medley arranged by the quartet’s first violin, Maureen Nelson, and conclude with the familiar pages of Ravel in F.


Thursday June 9th

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Melbourne Recital Centre, 8 pm

Concertmaster Eoin Andersen  puts himself front and centre of this night by directing and playing the solo for Mendelssohn’s evergreen concerto, the one everybody knows in E minor rather than the D minor score from the composer’s youth discovered by Menuhin mid-20th century.   Less familiar but still a concert hall staple, Strauss’s tone-poem Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks appears in new chamber orchestra garb, specially prepared by Brett Dean.   More Strauss opens the night with the Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments, a teenager’s work of rich timbres and traditionalist-pleasing melodic orthodoxy.   To cap the occasion with a dash of sophistication counterbalancing Strauss’s lumpy rapscallion, Andersen leads Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite, that quirky arrangement of (alleged) Pergolesi pieces that signifies the composer’s movement into neo-classicism.

The program is repeated on Friday June 10 at 8 pm in the Robert Blackwood Hall, then back to the MRC for a final account on Saturday June 11 at 6:30 pm.


Tuesday June 14

Bach’s Circle, Latitude 37, Melbourne Recital Centre, 6 pm

Back once more in the Local Heroes league, this period music trio – violin Julia Fredersdorff, gamba Laura Vaughan, harpsichord Donald Nicholson – hits the Baroque with confident panache, this time round presenting Bach’s keyboard G Major Toccata with its jolly fugue-gigue finale, and the Violin Sonata in E minor.   As for the circle, a Telemann trio sonata definitely fills the bill, as does a sonata from Buxtehude.   The public Baroque comes with a Handel aria, Col partir la bella Clori from the canata Ah! che pur troppo e vero, presumably arranged for one of the string players, and a lesser-known light of the era will emerge in the Trio Sonata No. 4 by Philipp Heinrich Erlebach; one of the few surviving works of this Bach contemporary; his impressively full output was largely destroyed by fire 20 years after the composer’s death.   Still, we should enjoy what’s left and the Latitudes are well positioned to help us.


Wednesday June 15

Flames Within, The Consort of Melbourne, Melbourne Recital Centre, 6 pm

Addressing the pyromaniac in all of us, this fine vocal ensemble hosts guest Hannah Lane and her Baroque triple harp.   Tonight, the Consort goes for fires, both spiritual and physical, heading for the former definitely (one hopes) with a bit of Hildegard von Bingen, and possibly continuing in that elevated strain with a Marenzio madrigal alongside a Monteverdi or two, although you can’t be sure with either of those two.   Definitely, matters will take a turn for the erotic with the arrival of Gesualdo, our favourite homicidal ultra-Mannerist Prince of Venosa, and should then lighten up through the advent of that polite ardour to be found in Morley’s Fire, fire.   On the home front, the singers will work through Elliott Gyger’s 12-year-old Fire in the heavens setting of verses by Christopher Brennan.   Morton Lauridsen’s Five madrigals represent the USA, although the only relevant works I can find in the composer’s copious output are the Six Firesongs, madrigals setting Italian texts.    And that tragic figure who did not survive the Nazi era, Hugo Distler, is represented by his six-part setting of Morike’s Der Feuerreiter.


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

Kathryn Selby comes back for the third in her subscription series recitals for this year. Once again, she has cellist Timo-Veikko Valve from the Australian Chamber Orchestra as a collaborator/friend, and young Canadian Nikki Chooi is the ensemble’s violinist.   Both friends enjoy a solo spot – Valve with the Brahms Sonata No. 1 in E minor, Chooi in the Schumann Sonata No. 1 in A minor – before all three musicians work through that glory of the piano trio repertoire, Schubert in B flat: 40 minutes of sustained jubilation.   As a taster, the musicians are playing Julian Yu’s 1999 Prelude and not-a-fugue, the composer’s tribute to Bach on the 250th anniversary of the master’s death; the pseudo-fugue uses the B-A-C-H motif not so much as a subject but as a cantus firmus.   It is hard to over-recommend these events; Selby and her associates never fail to bring an intellectual mastery and interpretative brilliance to their work and this year’s events have been superb accomplishments so far.


Thursday June 16

Rachmaninov’s Paganini, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Hamer Hall, 8 pm

One of the concerts of the year, this program welcomes back Sir Andrew Davis for another tour of duty as the MSO’s chief panjandrum.   The curtain-raiser is early Haydn, the Symphony No. 6, Le matin, the first written for the Esterhazy court and one that involves more than its fair share of solo spots for the executants.   Solo pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet delighted or outraged audiences with an idiosyncratic Mozart G Major Concerto K. 453 last August under Davis; he’s back with the sparkling Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini by Rachmaninov in which the plainchant Dies irae has rarely been put to better use.   To end comes a real rarity  –  the Ives Symphony No. 4 which isn’t that long but involves a large orchestra, three or four pianos with two of them tuned a quarter-tone apart, a mixed chorus for the outer movements, a massive percussion section, organ (always a problem these days in Hamer Hall) and usually an additional conductor for (at least) the second movement’s metrical complexities – which is what this work has in spades.   For those of us who have been carrying an Ives torch for decades, this is an important occasion, especially because, for most of us true believers, this may be the first time we get to hear the work live in its revised form.

The program will be repeated on Friday June 17 at 8 pm.


Saturday June 18

Bach: Spirit & Spectacle, Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, Peninsula Community Theatre, Mornington, 7:30 pm

Yet another Bach night, you say.   Yes, it is, but there’s quite a bit on this program that would be unfamiliar to your run-of-the-mill concert-goer.   The MCO’s artistic director, William Hennessy, takes back the reins for the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and the Contrapunctus V from The Art Of Fugue, continuing the journey started by the Australian Chamber Orchestra at its last subscription concerts; in this exercise, the composer torques his subject into various situations simultaneously.   Later, Anne-Marie Johnson takes the solo line in the D minor Violin Concerto, which is a version of the well-known keyboard concerto in the same key.   Adding to the arcana, soprano Sara Macliver sings the B minor Mass’s Laudamus te, the slow-moving aria with flute obbligato Bete aber auch dabei from the cantata Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit, and another cantata aria (this one with obbligato violin), Vergnugen und Lust from Gott ist unsre Zuversicht.   Bach in chocolate-rich transmuted form appears in Stokowski’s transcription of the elegiac chorale melody Mein Jesu, was fur Seelenweh.  And, for a touch of the modern-day, the MCO and Macliver air Calvin Bowman’s Die linien des lebens, seven brief settings of verses by Holderlin.   Out of left-field, on the bill for the Mornington night, we are scheduled to start with Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata; very welcome, of course, but who’s playing this cello/viola-sonata-by-another-name remains a mystery.

In the city, this program will be performed on Sunday June 19 at 2:30 pm in the Deakin Edge, Federation Square, and at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Friday June 24 at 7:30 pm.


Sunday June 19

Frei aber einsam, Trio Anima Mundi, Holy Trinity Anglican Church, East Melbourne, 3 pm

This ensemble – violin Rochelle Ughetti, cello Noella Yan, piano Kenji Fujimura – has moved from its previous performing space in the Melbourne Recital Centre to East Melbourne where it is now presenting its usual subscription series of three recitals.   Opening the sequence, these musicians perform one work by each of the composers who collaborated in the F-A-E- Sonata, a tribute to the violinist Joachim whose life-motto gives this afternoon its title.   Schumann, the project’s originator, is represented by his 6 Studien in kanonischer Form, originally written for piano with an attached pedal board but more commonly heard on organ; here it appears in a transcription by Theodor Kirchner for piano trio.    Brahms’ last work in the form, Op. 101 in C minor, is the most familiar work on offer, while the third collaborator, Albert Dietrich, is represented by the first of his two attempts, also in C minor.


Songs Without Words, Team of Pianists, Rippon Lea, 6:30 pm

A mixed bag, this night has two guest artists: Sydney Symphony Orchestra principal second violin Marina Marsden and her SSO colleague and viola-playing sibling, Justine. Together with one of the Team’s senior members, Robert Chamberlain, they will play arrangements for their various combinations of pieces from Mendelssohn’s seemingly endless Lieder ohne Worte.    The sisters collaborate in Mozart’s K. 423 Duo, all three play Hans Koessler’s four-movement Trio-Suite.   Later, the inescapable Piazzolla appears in Oblivion, Eduard Herrmann’s arrangement of Three Russian Songs by Glinka give a refined Slavic polish to proceedings, and the Danish composer Jacob Gade’s catchy Jealousy Tango stands as a sort of programmed encore.   All over the place, this is an old-fashioned all-in bag of mixed sweets which asks you to just sit back and relish the sugar and schmaltz.


Friday June 24

Gabriel Faure, Australian National Academy of Music, 7 pm

Pianist Roy Howat is visiting ANAM and, as an expert on French piano music, particularly Debussy and Faure, what better way to use his time here than in nurturing his charges in the techniques and insights needed to give informed interpretations of the latter?   This recital will probably follow the same path as that of the recent Paavali Jumppanen appearances at ANAM: the teacher/performer will participate in some works, leaving the others for his now-up-to-speed juniors.   The program includes the Elegie for cello and piano, the Fantasie for flute and piano, the late Piano Trio in D minor, the second of the piano quartets, and some miniatures that I assume will be delineated by the visitor.   By night’s end, we should know a good deal more about the composer’s range (outside the Requiem, Pavane, and Pelleas et Melisande music) than we did at the start – and no songs! The real interest of events like this one lies more in watching the ANAM musicians finding their interpretative feet, although there is also the added benefit of hearing a master interpreter of this epoch in his element.


Saturday June 25

Gluzman Plays Brahms, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Hamer Hall, 2 pm

Sir Andrew – still here – directs the MSO in excerpts from Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet symphony; one day, someone will bite the bullet and perform the whole thing – warts, beauty spots and all.    Meanwhile, we’ll always have the Queen Mab scherzo, the Love Scene, and possibly Romeo seul.    The MSO Chorale is not involved, so the work’s last scene will not be given.   Helas.  The concert begins with the world premiere of Hollow Kings by Australian composer James Ledger.   It concerns four Shakespearean figures: Lear, Macbeth, Richard III and Henry VIII and ties in with the Berlioz: both have been mounted to amplify the 400th anniversary celebrations of the dramatist’s death.   Not connected with the Swan of Avon in any way except in its breadth, the Brahms Violin Concerto will be performed on his distinguished-heritage Stradivarius by Ukrainian-born Vadim Gluzman, here in Melbourne for his first visit, I believe.

The program will be performed at Geelong’s Costa Hall on Friday June 24 at 8 pm, and again in Hamer Hall on Monday June 27 at 6:30 pm


Monday June 27

Buonamente, Continuo Collective, Melbourne Recital Centre, 6 pm

Another Local Heroes recital, this one features the mainstays of the ensemble, Samantha Cohen on theorbo/guitar and Geoffrey Morris playing the chitarra attiorbata or theorboed guitar which has 16 strings – no, I’d never heard of it, either.   Helpers in the work are violinists Rachael Beesley and Emma Williams with Laura Vaughan on lirone/viola da gamba.   The aim is to put the spotlight on a Baroque still water, Giovanni Buonamente, many of whose compositions are lost.   What little I’ve seen has a sparkle and flair, although short-winded; expect plenty of repeats.   The Continuo will focus on works involving two violins and continuo – trio sonatas, in short.


Tuesday June 28

Midori – A Night in Vienna, Great Performers, Melbourne Recital Centre, 7:30 pm

The Japanese-born American violin star is taking her Vienna seriously; not much sentimentality or glutinous Sachertorte on this program.   In partnership with pianist Ozgur Aydin, she performs Schoenberg’s Phantasy, which will stretch the ears of the unwary.   The composer was certainly born in Vienna but wrote this last of his instrumental works in Los Angeles during 1949.   Also celebrating the Viennese spirit is the Brahms Sonata in G, first and most summery of the three.  The association with Austria’s capital is stronger in this context as the composer spent a large part of his life there.   A Mozart violin sonata (not identified at the time of writing) could not be more appropriate, although the cynics among us cannot forget the city’s treatment of this musical colossus.   Ditto Schubert, whose great Fantasie in C fills out a hefty night’s work. As an ice-breaker, I presume, Aydin will play Liszt’s nine Soirees de Vienne, Valses-caprices d’apres Schubert which take Schubert themes and transform them with skill and a surprising lack of chandelier-rattling flamboyance.


Thursday June 30

Mahler 6, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Hamer Hall, 8 pm.

Sir Andrew Davis rolls on his Mahler series, here coming to the centre of the generally accepted canon.   As a prelude, American pianist Jonathan Biss is soloist in Mozart’s Concerto No. 21 in C, forever associated with the 1967 Swedish film Elvira Madigan which over-utilised this work’s central Andante.   Biss performed Mozart three years ago, again with the MSO under Johannes Fritzsch: a top-rank reading of the rarely-performed Concerto No. 22 in E flat.   Delightful as all this reminiscence may be, the night’s purpose is the large Mahler work, which remains a problem or twenty for every interpreter.   Mahler re-ordered the movements’ sequence; various authorities put them back the way they were.   The instrumentation is malleable, with some indications asking for more than the set number of the original prescription.   And are there three or two big hammer-strokes in the finale?    All of which is interesting but has little bearing on the work’s superb vigour and developmental surprises.   Rarely performed, the Sixth is profoundly dark, despite some ardent melodic content and complete disruptions of tension, like the use of cowbells.    The conclusion is an emotional gloaming, with a dark night inevitable.















Car stands out in problematic Verdi


Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

Monday May 16, 2016

Nicole Car (Luisa)
                                                                                       Nicole Car 

It’s not really a hard sell, Luisa Miller; with a sharply-defined set of principals, some stirring, sometimes thrilling pages and a simple plot (albeit one with a few odd twists), the work could be an attractive proposition, especially welcome to finish the national company’s Melbourne autumn mini-season which otherwise walked through two repertoire staples.  For most of us simply a text-book name, one of the 15 or 16 early works by Verdi that largely remain unknown (with the exceptions of Nabucco and Macbeth), this opera represents a turning-point, the commentators say, where the composer’s fully-formed voice breaks into maturity and a buoyant originality that marks everything that follows.

This is a co-production with the Opera de Lausanne, in which house it was first staged over two years ago, and follows on from its appearance during the Sydney spring season in February this year.   From the northern capital’s staging, only the female singers have been transplanted to Melbourne  –  Nicole Car a sterling heroine, Eva Kong as the lightly-sketched confidante/villager Laura, and Sian Pendry taking the role of the other woman, Duchess Federica.    Tenor Riccardo Massi, who has sung in Sydney at least twice before, makes his Melbourne debut (I believe) as Luisa’s high-born lover, Rodolfo.  The remaining male soloists are all familiar home-grown faces: Michael Honeyman worked through the part of Luisa’s father; Steven Gallop added to his catalogue of villains with Wurm complementing his Nourabad from the company’s The Pearl Fishers; Operatunity Oz winner David Parkin (was it really a decade ago?!) gave his best to the unsympathetic role of Count Walter.

So, a reliable cast at work.  Why, then, was the effect so tedious?   Verdi took a gamble giving so much work to a baritone and two basses, especially in the work’s conniving centre.  But he gave them all some fine solos and concerted numbers.   Parkin came to life when Count Walter’s secret (he killed his cousin to get the title) becomes an issue but his self-justifications for stuffing up his son’s life failed to convince and, if you don’t believe that the Count is sincere  –  in this, at least  –  the whole tragedy crumbles.  Honeyman found a specific mode of delivery at Sacra la scelta e d’un consorte and stayed there, the shape of his line consistent but unchanging, so that his injunctions to Luisa and his wounded pride objurgations at the end of Act 1 sounded identical.  Gallop brought a menace to his characterization, his production packed with theatrical points that suggest the moustache-twirling villain, at his most impressive in the Act 2 duet with his master, L’alto retaggio non ho bramato, where both acknowledge their criminal past.

Pendry gave a cogent, dramatic account of the duchess, showing a fine balance between optimism and doubt in the opera’s central scene where Luisa is forced to lie that she feels no love for Rodolfo.   Yet you might reasonably have expected a more ample sound from the singer, particularly when her hopes increase that her wedding will take place. Possibly it was director Matthew Barclay‘s vision that Federica has something of the tightly-laced and snippy about her; I can’t find that in the music or in the actual dialogue that she conducts with Rodolfo on her first appearance.

Car sang with excellent point and clarity, giving an appropriate excitement to her opening L’o vidi e ‘l primo palpito, then making her over-wrought Tu puniscimi, O Signore the closest thing this production got to a show-stopper (it didn’t, but that’s more a comment on us than on Car and her fine clarinet support), and easing the weight of a lengthy double-death scene through an unerring command of her upper range and a clear awareness of her dramatic situation in duet with Massi for Ah piangi; il tuo dolore and in the concluding trio.   Luisa is cursed from the start, pulled from pillar to post by practically everybody with whom she interacts, a pitiable if conscious victim; Car’s gift was to draw a credible personality, one who gives in to Wurm, to the Count, to her father, to Rodolfo, but still has enough spirit to wave a rebellious flag  –  one that fails but you believe that her attempts are real, not just token efforts.

Massi’s Rodolfo proved to be the production’s most unsettling element – apart from the staging which stretched tolerance to an unnecessary degree.   His power stayed vigorous from the T’amo d’amor ch’esprimere duet where the lovers are at their short-lived happiest, through the argument with his father and consequent entreaties to Federica, continuing through the popular regretful aria Quando le sere al placido that experienced a rousing rendition, and into the final emotional chain that brings Rodolfo from disdain and anger to a revived, if fainting ardour at the work’s end.   Through this sequence, Massi sang with confidence and a resonant clangour, his tenor at full-stretch more often than not and his line full of points where he hoisted himself onto the note rather than attacking it cleanly; a powerful personification, yet in some ways not appropriate for this particular drama.

Conductor Andrea Licata gave Orchestra Victoria every encouragement, rousing a splendid ferment for moments like the conclusion to Act 1 where the drama’s personnel come into open conflict.   In later principal ensembles, the brass sounded over-energetic, although that’s an easy thing to accomplish in this space.   But the stand-out pit element for the duration of this opera’s run is the first clarinet.  Without a program, I can’t say for sure who the player is; the orchestra’s website lists Paul Champion as first desk, Andrew Mitchell as principal bass clarinet.   In any case, Verdi gave the San Carlo player plenty of exposure and his OV successor produced a sensible, present but not obtrusive account of the line.

As able as ever in this season, the Opera Australia Chorus gave good service in their few appearances, including a soft, somehow menacing reading of the Ti desta, Luisa opening serenade.  Not that the chorus is stretched at any point; Verdi kept his fireworks for the ill-fated lovers.   But the choral mix proved amiable and appropriately stentorian in support at climactic points.

The original director, Giancarlo del Monaco, moved the opera’s temporal situation from the early 17th century to relatively modern times, possibly about 1930.  The locale could still be the Tyrol; if so, it’s populated by villagers in perpetual evening dress, all set for a sombre gala.   Luisa wears white throughout;  the male principals affect tails, except for Miller who presents as a refugee from a Downton Abbey shooting party.   As the drama moves forward, the chorus remains outside the main acting space, processing slowly around it during the overture while carrying candles in what appeared to be plastic tubes. Preparing for the corpse-rich final curtain?   It’s hard to say.   Whatever the underpinning rationale, this group stays away from any involvement of a physical nature.

William Orlandi‘s set consists of two sculpture groups, one of a bourgeois domestic scene of nuclear family togetherness, the other of a gentleman bent over inspecting what could be a fountain or a civic monument.   Both are white, highly polished and suggestive of nothing so much as Lladro ceramics.   During the opera’s opening sections, these gradually roll upwards until they hang suspended over the stage – which could suggest an inversion of the natural order, if only we were sure what that was.   On the bare stage, Orlandi then employs chairs which the principals sit on (but not for long), or kick aside, or throw around in fits of rage or pique.   At the end, of course, the suspended statuary comes back down to stage level, right-side up.   It all makes for clear lines, a welter of black and white contrasts, minimal visual stimulation which focuses your attention on the music.

But, rather than offering a new locus from which to view the drama, the setting saps at its vitality in this specific staging.   Any concentration on Verdi’s score is laudable, certainly, but in bringing about this focus, the director and his team raise the bar for everyone – and only Car is equal to the challenge.   Too often, you have the impression that the male singers have little ability to shape their lines, that the differences between scenes, between individual lines, have been left unexplored, that getting the notes on pitch and on time is sufficient.  This might explain the interpretative pall that falls over the production early on and which rarely lifts.

With regard to a final puzzle that caused mild perturbation during the drive home, I’m assuming that the melodramatic climax  – where Rodolfo, with his last gasp, shoots Wurm –  misfired because the tenor’s gun, so active in the ludicrously handled duel scene, failed to work, leaving Gallop to strike a pose reminiscent of the central character in Goya’s The Third of May.    The effect of this tableau was to make a mystery of the opera’s final lines, where Rodolfo in extremis says to Wurm, A te sia pena, empio, la morte – and on this occasion did nothing.

The production has three further performances, ending on Friday May 27.

Competent but bland


Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

Saturday May 7, 2016

Emma Matthews (Leila) and Dmitry Korchak (Nadir)
                              Emma Matthews (Leila) and Dmitry Korchak (Nadir)

Many commentators – not I, though the temptation is great – find this Bizet opera a piece of dubiously-coloured tripe: its plot illogical or, if you’re feeling kind, clumsy; the music’s quality unworthy and variable, apart from the soaring glory of the Act 1 tenor/baritone duet; the vocal writing itself, for both soloists and chorus, undistinguished in comparison with the brilliance blazing out of the score for Carmen 12 years later.   Most of these complaints can be debated, if not completely justified, but what can’t be gainsaid is the popularity of The Pearl Fishers over recent decades in this city.  For a time, hardly a year went by, it seemed, when either the Victorian Opera Company or the Australian Opera did not produce this work with the same fervour as both organizations showed some time later for The Magic Flute.

An awful lot depends on the three main principal singers.  Each gets plenty of ensemble work but also a splendid, character-establishing aria.   Nadir enjoys the finely-spun arches of Je crois entendre encore, a gift for any tenor who can produce a soft upper register.  On this premiere night, Dmitry Korchak missed out on conveying the inbuilt languor and ecstasy-in-remembrance that fills these pages.

The priestess Leila opens with coloratura, singing to protect the fishers at their work, but her main extended aria, Comme autrefois, has a full-bodied lyricism and an interesting pattern of phrase-lengths.   Emma Matthews performed this with restraint, probably too much so; still, like everybody else, she was constrained by the slow tempi exerted by conductor Guillaume Tourniaire, a method of approach which meant that it was only half the time that singer and orchestra hit their cues simultaneously.   Jose Carbo sang a solid Zurga, making a dramatic meal of his late cavatina Nadir! . . . ami de mon jeune age which had the advantage of travelling securely across the footlights, as had all his singing since his early Act 1 appearance.

But the production’s most enjoyable singing came from the Opera Australia Chorus, in good shape vocally from the opening scene and consistently firm in articulation,  whether en masse or divided by gender.  In Michael Gow‘s direction, the group stood about in a block, filling up the rear of the acting area or geometrically aligned across temple steps; not much imagination shown in such dispositions but they ensured that mutual support was continuous and the concept of a body acting with one mind came across persuasively at moments like the election of Zurga to the population’s leadership or the death-threats hurled at the exposed lovers, Leila and Nadir, in the final scene of Act 2.

For those of us with a sneaking affection for this opera, certain moments are anticipated, usually with expectations that are rarely realized.  Most of these are duets, like the substantial love-duet in the third scene of Act 2 that has an irresistible sweeping power, not particularly original in its layout yet compelling and vehement\; just the thing for two lovers who have discovered each other at last.  Both Matthews and Korchak gave this section some much-needed animation, as also came across near the work’s end in the Zurga/Leila confrontation which brought out some fire in the soprano and a matching energy from Carbo, particularly at the point where he admits to his jealousy.

Michael Gow has reblocked the drama, turning both the male principals into middle-men of some kind, their dress that of the colonial administration rather than the original’s Sinhalese native-grown.  Right from the start, you’re led to question even the simplest matters, like why the fishers would elect Zurga their headman.  Nadir is always an outsider, a hermit-hunter by his own account, although in this personification he could have come fresh from the 19th century fleshpots of Western civilization in Kandy.   Why either would have at one time been hanging around Leila’s temple is a niggling question of behavioural probability.  Turning the priest Nourabad, sung at full throttle by Steven Gallop, into a sort of broker makes some sense, although why he also is dressed in a suit and at the same time can rouse the fishers to fury with menaces of divine vengeance adds to the plot’s oddities, rather than removing them.

But this production is short on subtleties, not least visually  as the sets by Robert Kemp emphasize the poverty of this community and, if anything, its lack of prosperity as the temples are overgrown with weeds.   Further inexplicabilities applied to the set mounted for Zurga’s bout of self-realization, suggestive of a white hunter’s bungalow in 19th century British Africa, complete with many hunting trophies (what has this pearl fisher-cum-entrepreneur been doing in his obviously copious free time?).

Still, as with all attempts to give a new vision to a work set in its time and place, the viewer has to exercise generosity. In this case, I’m not sure that much has been gained by taking all three male principals out of the population; the social commentary suggested appears pretty ordinary, giving a fresh socio-economic layer to a work that profits both musically and dramatically by its own simplicity.  Maybe it would be more persuasive in this regard with a central quartet that displayed more comfort in their work.

The production has seven further performances, ending in a 1 pm  matinee on Saturday, May 28.

Or what’s a heaven for?


Tinalley String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Wednesday May 4, 2016

Tinalley String Quartet

                                                                             Tinalley String Quartet

Doing the right thing by its patrons, this amiable ensemble opened  the first of its skeletal Melbourne series (two recitals?!) with an ever-welcome standard: Ravel in F.   First violin Adam Chalabi invested the deceptively open-ended first theme with just enough sweetness while second violin Lerida Delbridge mirrored his approach when the time came to share the melodic statement’s second strophe.   But violist Justin Williams‘ first point of exposure at bar 28 sounded roughly delivered in this context, a moment of discomfort in the work’s steady progress.   Not that this persisted as Williams gave a moving account of the D minor duet at a few octaves’ distance with Chalabi a bar after Letter 4: one of the most memorable passages in the quartet, both here and when it recurs in the rather reactionary recapitulation.

For the following Assez vif, cellist Michelle Wood made fine work of a solid underpinning in the oscillation between 3/4 and 6/8 that makes these pages a challenge in preserving clarity of metre.   Even better came in the harmonic shifts of the quartet’s Tres lent central movement, here handled with appreciable sensitivity, especially given the complexity of Ravel’s scoring with demi-semiquavers and semiquavers bandied about across all lines in the central pages.   More to the point, the Tinalley musicians took a firm grip on the composer’s slow ascent to a fierce climax in the passionate fortissimo at the Letter 8 shift to a Modere change of pace: a tellingly balanced passage of play.

Following the Ravel work’s half-hour length, interval signified a point of demarcation.  What followed came as an abrupt change of pace, both musically and emotionally.  With guest artist Lior Attar, the quartet worked through a compendium intended to illustrate the recital’s title, those last lines of Gertrude’s self-justifying first speech to her sardonic son.   A collaboration between Ade Vincent and Lior sets both Thomas’s Do not go gentle and American poet Hazel Hall‘s Hours as a matched pair.  For the Welsh writer’s vehement elegy, the composers have opted for a largely diatonic language, the quartet offering chords that slip and slide with some Sculthorpe-type rapid glissando swipes as colour-points.   The vocal line is a simple lyric with suggestions of Celtic folk-music, the only aggression coming in the fourth Wild men verse when the violins  make substitutes for guitars, the cello indulges in a slap-bass underpinning while the viola intones the melody line.   At the end, the singer is left unaccompanied to repeat the poem’s last line with fading strength – which bears comparison with Thomas’s own hypnotic reading of his poem.

The Hall setting begins with an instrumental hoe-down, changes for the second verse into sustained chords for the Hours eternal in their pain before reverting to the heftier movement, violins and cello rapping their instruments alongside pizzicato chords from the viola.   Again, the poem’s final line enjoys a repetition, but the matter that Lior sings again falls into the folk-song genre.   As companion pieces, the songs offer a mildly different atmosphere and, while nobody is over-stretched, both instrumentalists and singer gave the work every care.

Three of Dvorak’s Cypresses moved us into the land of the love-lorn, Chalabi bearing responsibility for pretty much all the vocal line from the original songs, Williams’ viola putting in a momentary helping hand for O nasi lasci, the last of the three extracts performed.   These sat uneasily beside the preceding songs, mainly because the Czech master’s melodies impressed as more sophisticated and expressive, evoking both desire and melancholy without self-indulgence and also having the unteachable gift (one that Dvorak did not always exercise) of being just long enough.

Lior sang his well-known My Grandfather to his own guitar accompaniment; again, the melody is Celtic-suggestive but also has an undercurrent of bush balladry.  Even after several performances, it still makes a direct emotional impact and earned its place in this program’s Seven Ages of Man musical symposium by bringing several significant strands together – feckless youth, old age sans everything, the cares of maturity.

Answering this, the Tinalleys played Barber’s Adagio in its original setting, a piece that has become a sort of American national elegy since its association with the deaths of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John Kennedy; a lesser source of grief was its performance on the day that Trump won his way through to the Republican nomination.  In their carefully-paced interpretation, the players reminded us of how voluble this set of pages can be without that corner-rounding smoothness you hear in the commonly-heard string orchestra arrangement, and how finely Barber contrives his slow progress to the work’s massive climactic chords.

Lior returned for the recital’s finale: Sim Shalom from the Compassion cycle, which he wrote for voice and orchestra with Nigel Westlake who transcribed it for this program.   Here, the vocal inflections are Judaic and Arabic, the modes employed suggesting both heritages in an affecting prayer for peace.    Again, this is not challenging music, making its points with a simple sincerity but bringing into play Lior’s extraordinary alto register, strikingly clean and penetrating   –  just the right vehicle for this final review of life’s span in a program that, throughout its latter half, made an ambitious grasp at illustrating the ineffable.

Striking singers, senseless setting


Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

Tuesday May 3, 2016

Lianna Haroutounian
                                                Lianna Haroutourian

Not a new production, this offering from director Gale Edwards, revival director Andy Morton, set designer Brian Thomson and costume designer Julie Lynch – but of a piece with the company’s Autumn season pattern in that it updates and transposes the work’s action, as the following The Pearl Fishers and Luisa Miller will also do.   For all the distractions that these peripheral changes involve, this current version of Puccini’s touching score has a significant benefit where it counts: the voices of those involved onstage.   After some underwhelming principal line-ups in previous years, it came as a pleasant shock to hear an Act 1 that succeeded in engaging the inner musician in each member of the opening night audience.  Well, perhaps that’s being over-optimistic but, for those of us who were listening for quality, a good deal was there to be enjoyed.

Gianluca Terranova is a new voice to me but a welcome one.  His work as Rodolfo proved exceptional, not so much for insights into the character himself (are there any, apart from the furious confession of Act 3?) but simply for the fierce temper of his tenor which invested the line with vigour and a continual ardour.  Like most of his tribe, Terranova is no respecter of bar-lines when in full uninterrupted flight, so that Che gelida manina enjoyed a fluidity that a conductor more prickly than Andrea Molino would have brought into line, yet the travelling power of his top notes and their almost-total security swept aside a good deal of trivial nit-picking  .  .  .  like gripes about keeping in time.

A match for the tenor, Lianna Haroutourian sang a dedicated Mimi with a splendid carrying power not held back by the character’s racking consumption.  Her Si, mi chianamo Mimi matched Terranova’s opening aria with a soaring ma quando ven lo sgelo sequence and her following collaboration in O soave fanciulla demonstrated a responsiveness that front-lined the composer’s melodic and spacious lyric arcs as well as giving weight to the lightly-sprung dialogue to which this rhapsody momentarily descends.   Haroutourian even put up with her partner’s brashness in seconding the Act-ending high C that, for once, stayed on pitch, although this magic moment’s effectiveness was squashed, as usual, by over-anxious patrons drowning out the delicacy of Puccini’s orchestration across the last bars, harp harmonics and all.

The lovers’ confrontation in Act 3 proved less persuasive dramatically but you would be hard pressed to fault the desperation of Terranova’s Marcello. Finalmente! duet with Andrew Jones.   Later, after Haroutourian set up an excellent framework with Donde lieta usci, the tenor found it hard to convey Rodolfo’s grief through the Addio dolce svegliare alla mattina! quartet, compensating for it with a determined O Mimi, tu piu non torni duet to open the last act, then wringing the death scene for as much tragedy as a jaundiced audience would find credible; that final curtain came down in silence.

Jane Ede‘s Musetta carried out her responsibilities with moderate brio, the Quando m’en vo’ showpiece carefully delineated.   But you were rarely convinced of Musetta’s humour and brightness of personality; not even in the name-calling fight with Marcello at Act 3’s end, although Ede made a concerned, condoling figure at Mimi’s deathbed.   Jones, her counterpart, made a much more interesting fist of the jealous painter, working with professional ease through the romping that starts the outer acts and contributing a strong vocal presence in his duet with Mimi  at the Barriere d’Enfer toll-gate.

Richard Anderson relished his one chance to shine, Colline’s Vecchia zimarra aria, taken at a lugubrious pace, emphasizing the philosopher’s gravity rather than the ludicrous charity that he is exercising.    Graeme Macfarlane‘s landlord Benoit and Adrian Tamburini‘s Alcindoro fulfilled their obligations without striking any notes of originality.   But the children’s chorus for the Cafe Momus scene sounded as confrontational a pack of ragamuffins as you’d want to avoid on a dark night while the adult chorus gave a vocally colourful backdrop to the principal sextet in the same act.

The setting has been moved to 1930s Berlin.  You can tell this by a few black uniforms, a customs official dressed like the Fuhrer himself, some cross-dressing attendants on Shane Lowrencev‘s Schaunard, and the Momus establishment turning into a quasi-brothel/cabaret scene with a plethora of loges, at least one pair of bare breasts for ornamentation, an outbreak of garter belts, a band of ersatz Hitlerjugend coming on for the act’s final military blaze.   The changes in time and locale make no difference to the outer acts in the artists’ garret, the opera’s core action arenas.   Further to this puzzlement, at night’s end, you are left wondering exactly what correspondances are intended to exist between this Baz Luhrmann-redolent refreshment essay and the original’s Parisian Latin Quarter of a century before.

Orchestra Victoria responded well to Molino across the night, with a particularly keen briskness through Act 2, the body’s strings unexpectedly rich in the State Theatre’s close acoustic, some small passages of woodwind/string doubling whistle-clean, while the brass corps also surprised by its quick rate of response; no chain-dragging on this night.

In fine, this Boheme is worth visiting for its main players, both excellent calibre singers – which makes it hard to understand the premiere patrons’ lukewarm curtain-call reaction to Haroutourian.   Admittedly, she was dressed in an oddly dowdy costume for much of the night but that should have provided no impediment for a worthy response to her impressive vocal powers.    Among the locals, Jones shone with a secure and confident baritone.   As always, if the production’s look strikes you every so often as ineffective, if not over-affected, you can ignore the stage work and simply revel in some of the more transporting Italian operatic lyricism this theatre has sponsored for quite a while.

There will be a further eight performances of La Boheme, the last on Saturday May 28.

A massive music


Ensemble Gombert

Xavier College Chapel

Saturday April 30, 2016

Ensemble Gombert
                                                          Ensemble Gombert

Holding back nothing at the start of their annual subscription series, John O’Donnell and the Ensemble Gombert presented an impressive night’s work on Saturday, filled with music from composers for the Flemish Chapel, that central religious music body associated with the Holy Roman Emperors.   Pierre de la Rue, Brumel and the ensemble’s namesake are familiar quantities to most lovers of Renaissance activity; Noel Bauldeweyn and Thomas Crecquillon, not so much; for this program, the latter provided two motets that shamelessly flattered (or did they?) Emperor Charles V, while Bauldeweyn contributed a motet on which Gombert wrote the mass that gave this recital its spine.

It is a mighty work, the Missa Quam pulchra es; so much so that O’Donnell served it up in discrete sections, with interpolations from those other Franco-Flemish composers mentioned above.   A fine initiative, as far as it went; the trouble here was that some of these interstitial pieces were not small passages of relief but considerable constructs, like the Brumel Laudate Dominum in caelis amalgam of Psalms 148 and 150 that proved just as substantial as parts of the Gombert mass, with the added quality of a text crying out for hyperbole, insofar as that existed among these composers.

De la Rue’s Magnificat octavi toni made an expansive initial gambit, alternating four-part polyphony with plainchant and distinguished by its unexpected musings on certain phrases in the central verses Fecit potentiam in brachio suo, and, further on, the dispersit superbos mente cordis sui observation.  But the impression at the end was of continuous variety, two-part settings with over-lapping entries set against bursts of full choral texture.  This bounding around also gave the venerable text a welcome gaiety, mirroring the Virgin’s delight in her treatment.

Bauldeweyn’s motet, its inspiration taken from the Song of Songs, made the mildest of introductions to the mass, an upward step pattern of a 4th providing a jumping-off stone for nearly all Gombert’s Ordinary settings; nothing particularly striking to be found, either, in later phrases but all clear grist to an inventive mind on the lookout for a cantus firmus or three.  In the Kyrie, apart from the rich complex of six interweaving and contrasting lines, the only oddity came in an unexpected upward inflexion at the end of the Christe eleison.

But the Gloria was a whole new matter.  Gombert massed his forces and kept up the pressure in a welter throughout the first half, up to that traditional hiatus point before the Qui tollis change of purpose from incessant apostrophes of praise to pleading for redemption.   At the start of the extolling sequence – Laudamus te. Benedicimus te. Adoramus te. Glorificamus te. – the strong suggestion was of bell-like vocal cannonades, constant and even in a seamless paean.   This was followed by a full-bodied sequence of acclamations as the choir asserted the divine attributes, from Domine Deus through to Filius Patris.  The less sympathetic could see this as pounding away at doubt or scepticism through a technique of musical bludgeoning that admits of no argument; a less sympathetic anti-Reformation response than Palestrina’s, for example.  But the effect from these singers was close to overwhelming, splendidly assured and confident.

A similar feat occurred in the Credo which spread its affirmations in one chain from the opening bold declaration to the assertion of God made man.  After the block assault thus far, the Crucifixus and its consequents provided a relief in tension through more obviously varied textural oppositions but the movement reached its uplifting climax in the Confiteor section, a ferment of linear and metrical action.  Still, it seemed to me that the finest singing came in the Sanctus/Benedictus, particularly in a mellifluous delineation of the Pleni sunt caeli segment where the Gomberts’ balance and clarity of output impressed most fully.

Both Crecquillon motets praising his emperor were given a steady, martial interpretation, Carole magnus erat enjoying a striking soprano kick-off, its directness of speech a contrast to the preceding formidable Gloria, as was its sober ending where the poet and composer collaborate to celebrate the good intentions of the emperor, truly pious rather than obsessed by his own glory.   A theme that returned in Quis te victoriam dicat? where the march-like metre celebrates the royal figure’s victory over his enemies but, more to the point, over himself – a message that was reinforced two-and-a-half times with determined grace by this hard-worked but rarely faltering body of singers.

For this occasion, the Gombert personnel numbers were slightly greater than usual with an extra alto and another tenor while regular Peter Campbell paid a peripatetic visit to the altos every once in a  while.   Still, for those of us who were there, the Ensemble demonstrated yet again why its reputation as the city’s indubitable experts in Renaissance choral music is unchallenged.