A little touch of amber in the night


Melba Hall, University of Melbourne Conservatorium of Music

Friday September 2


Kristian Chong

                                           Kristian Chong


For the opening offering in this middle recital of the main Mimir events,  the core personnel of violins Stephen Rose and Jun Iwasaki, viola Joan DerHovsepian and cello Brant Taylor again began the night’s innings, this time with Beethoven in G Major, one of the less striking in the Opus 18 set.

A congenial enough score, it still presents irritating problems; for instance, the first violin’s handling of the first bar’s group of eight demi-semiquavers – a flourish that unsettles and is not exactly integral to the movement’s progress but returns to feature in all lines except the viola at the recapitulation.   More than in the first recital’s Mozart, Rose showed a dominant voice here; not surprising as the internal dialogue is more heavily weighted towards the top speaker.

Once again, the balance in play between Rose and Iwasaki proved immaculate in its dynamic equanimity and mirrored phrasing.   The ensemble made sense of that odd change of pace that sits in the middle of the second movement Andante cantabile, the group deftly managing the oscillation between staccato and bowed notes before the return to a florid treatment of the opening melody.   Rose set a sparkling pace for the Scherzo, pages where the first violin meets few challenges for primacy.   Adding to the sense of benign control, the sudden shift to E flat in the middle of the finale – for almost the first time in my experience – sounded as if organically spawned rather than an abrupt leap sideways.   Rose and Taylor generated highly competent outer levels throughout this happy movement-cum-frolic.

The sole contemporary work in the Mimir recitals was From Amber Frozen, a one-movement construct by US composer Mason Bates.   The piece is about 12 years old and follows a path more or less as the composer describes, ranging from detached sounds to suggest a form of gestation, to a stage where the instrumental lines take on melodic consistency, reverting (sort of) to the initial sound gestures.  The whole isn’t exactly circular, but the underlying proposition of a transformation taking place comes across quite clearly.

Bates suggests the title could be seen as referring to a prehistoric insect locked in a transparent stone, which might explain the opening pages – full of instrumental scratches, pizzicati, brief motivic cells – as the embalmed insect either settles into its perpetual stasis or fights against it.    Despite the semi-confrontational percussive nature of the opening, the composer does not venture far, content to use a limited range of notes and sound-manufacturing devices.   Melody proper emerged on Iwasaki’s first violin, transferred to Curt Thompson’s second and the pulse movds from duple/quadruple to triple before the expected return to a cascade of cells which, for some strange reason, resemble a dance, something like a hoe-down.   Eventually, motion gives way to harmonics and suddenly the work lives up to its title – or, better, comes into its title – through a sequence of suggestive overlapping, sustained notes before the scrapes and isolated noises, taps and slaps return.

It’s an interesting work to experience, moving to the theatrical towards its end as the sound production techniques become more physically overt.   The conceit behind its creation is catchy, even if the realization is questionable – it takes a long time to get to the frozen image – and Bates is not over-concerned with breaking new ground.   Listening to a recorded performance, however, is barely half the story; this is a piece that has best effect live where the textual questions can be ignored as you observe the composer’s sonic shape-shifting, launched with familiarity and expertise by these executants.

Kristian Chong joined Rose, DerHovsepian and Taylor for the big Brahms Piano Quartet in A Major, a marathon for all but particularly the pianist who has to cope with writing that is little short of concerto-standard virtuosity.   Chong delighted mightily with a restraint in attack that was consistently applied and which stopped him from crashing out his part, seen as early as bar 27 of the first Allegro where the piano re-announces its opening strophes with emphasis.   Unlike many interpreters who take the composer’s mahogany and apply lacquer with hefty fortissimo brushwork whenever it might possibly be applied, this musician observed his role as primus inter pares, so that the three strings remained audible, not subsumed under washes of keyboard pounding.

As Benjamin Martin did with the Faure quartet concluding the first of these recitals, Chong kept his instrument’s lid open on the long stick, which can be dangerous in this hall with its lively  and all-revealing acoustic.  Yet the instrumental combination remained in balance through this score’s long reaches, nowhere better than in the development pages of the first movement when the key signature changes, the dialogue becomes discursive and the best way to avoid prolixity is to tamp down the vigour; as Chong did, so that the move back to taws came across with melting sweetness.

But the night’s highpoint was this work’s Poco adagio, particularly at that marvellous revelation in bar 86 where the strings’ mutes came off and Rose and Taylor reprised the opening melody in a unison at the double-octave over Chong’s pianissimo floating chords background: chamber music-making magic where Brahms exposes his greatness of heart without self-consciousness and a privilege to be a witness at this equally generous interpretation.


Half a night’s excellence


Melba Hall, University of Melbourne

Wednesday August 31


jun iwasaki

       Jun Iwasaki

Back for its fourth Melbourne season, the Mimir week of performance and teaching has again brought to the University of Melbourne some gifted performers from the ranks of American orchestras.   The festival’s three major recitals feature four visitors and three local musicians: Curt Thompson, who is the festival’s director and the university’s head of strings, alongside pianists Kristian Chong and Benjamin Martin who are taking part in a piano quartet each.

My limited experience of the Mimir events has been positive,  all the more so when you consider how ad hoc some of the quartet personnel arrangements have to be.   For this year’s work, Thompson brought together Stephen Rose, principal second violin with the Cleveland Orchestra;  Jun Iwasaki, concertmaster of the Nashville Symphony,  Joan DerHovsepian, associate principal viola of the Houston Symphony Orchestra,  and Brant Taylor, cellist at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  Naturally enough, these artists have more in their resumes than simply a chain of orchestral positions: all are educators and have spread their talents widely, albeit for most of the time across their home country.

Wednesday’s opening gambit was Mozart K. 421 in D minor, one of the Haydn set and here given a gem of a performance with a collegial warmth that showed no signs of hasty accommodation or stress in enunciation.   Here, Rose took the first violin desk and revealed a rare sensibility in welding his line into the work’s fabric, departing from the general operating principle that the top line is always dominant even when its content is subsidiary.

Between Rose and his second, Jun Iwasaki, an exemplary interdependence obtained throughout this score but the reading reached its finest point at a fairly transparent stage: the last 8 bars of the third movement’s trio where both Rose and DerHovsepian executed a splendidly shaped doubling, almost bowing over the fingerboard – combining the brisk rhythmic snap of this segment with a bucolic absence of vibrato.   Just as impressive an interpretative point came in the final Piu allegro of the last movement variations-set with a delivery of brilliant lightness, the groups of rapid-fire semiquaver triplets mirrored with fine musicianship across all four lines.

The violinists changed positions for Respighi’s No. 3 in D Major of 1907, for which the first desk sets a more determined pace and enjoys more exposure.   Iwasaki made a more forthright-speaking leader than Rose, but that is his natural role in this full-blown late Romantic piece.   Also a challenging presence was DerHovsepian, whose viola made itself felt in exposed passages, even though her instrument faced towards Melba Hall’s back wall.   Taylor seemed the odd-one-out in this work, but it was hard to tell why.  His production occasionally proved suspect, particularly at the upper end of the compass Respighi requires, but the timbral differentiation could just as easily have been due to a lack of sympathy with the score’s idiom.   Still, the group realized to the full the work’s mercurial changes during the inner movements, draining as much drama as possible from the last Lento doloroso variation in the second movement with its unexpectedly fierce conclusion.

Benjamin Martin took on keyboard duty for Faure’s G minor Quartet, a hard ask of any group and a wearing odyssey for Iwasaki,  DerHovsepian and Taylor as well as the pianist. What emerged from this delineation was the inner complexity of the two outer movements but the quirky flightiness of the Allegro molto and the surging string arcs that eventually permeate the Adagio‘s central pages went missing.   In fact, the performance seemed to be an uneasy one as a whole, Taylor unsure of gelling with Martin’s attack at several points, although Iwasaki and DerHovsepian seemed happy enough.   But the lengthy, solidly argued finale was hard driving for all involved and, where you might have welcomed some pulling-back in dynamic and force of delivery, the effect was more of gritty determination.

On Friday at 7:30 pm, Thompson replaces Rose for US composer Mason Bates’ From Amber Frozen, but the visitors are together again in Beethoven’s G Major from the Op. 18 set, and Rose does violin duty in the Brahms A Major Piano Quartet with Kristian Chong at the keyboard.   The final recital at 3 pm on Sunday finds Thompson and Iwasaki exchanging chairs for Turina’s La Oracion del Torero and Debussy in G minor, the guests reforming for the festival’s finale, Schubert’s Death and the Maiden.