February Diary

A few Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concerts have been left off the list, mainly because they don’t raise my jaded eyebrows.  The organization is handling a good deal of material throughout the month, apart from the events itemised below.  On Thursday February 16, Indian film composer AR Rahman is appearing at the Bowl, fronting his own music although not doing very much as UK conductor Matt Dunkley seems to be directing matters.  In Hamer Hall on Friday February 24, the film Satan Jawa will be screened while the MSO performs Iain Grandage and Rahayu Supanggah’s score live.  The following night, Jose Carreras finishes up the Australian leg of his final world tour at the Margaret Court Arena, helped along his way by Antoinette Halloran while the MSO provides underpinning for the predictable selections from operas, operettas and musicals.


Saturday February 4


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7 pm

It’s Chinese New Year again, although this concert falls outside the calendar week of celebration.  Popular composer/conductor Tan Dun is back to direct the MSO in yet another program that makes little sense on paper, even if it’s harmless fun in its delivery. The bookends of this night, which comes four days after a similarly structured event in Auckland, are Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite; perhaps both have some combustible connection to the Year of the Rooster,  In the centre are three works by Chinese composers, including the conductor’s own Farewell My Concubine Concerto for Piano and Peking Opera Soprano; the volatile keyboard part is played by Dutch contemporary music expert Ralph van Raat and the singer is Xiao Di.  Also on offer are 100 Birds Flying Towards the Phoenix by Guan Xia (who has also written a Farewell My Concubine score) featuring Liu Wenwen’s suona, a double-reed instrument with a similar penetrating timbre to any self-respecting Peking Opera soprano, and Tan Weiwei’s Song Lines.   Tan could be the well-publicized Mandopop singer, but I doubt it.


Saturday February 4


Victorian Opera

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

A year-opening oddity, this is an operatic fantasia, the music provided by company artistic director Richard Mills, its libretto composed by Meow Meow, Cameron Menzies and Mills. The titular reference to John Ford’s rarely-staged tragedy seems ill-suited to the fantasia’s promised subject matter  –  ‘selling the skin and the teeth’  .  .  .  whatever that actually means.   Meow Meow will be partnered by Kanen Breen as the two-hander vaults across the centuries and treats of the Ewigweibliche in her several forms, mostly as a moral outcast or solitary: courtesan, concubine, conqueror, queen and ‘sing song girl’.  The heart of the matter comes in the blurb’s self description as a song cycle.  And the texts are wide-ranging.


Sunday February 5


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

Pekka Kuusisto is director and soloist for the ACO’s first subscription series concerts in 2017.   Also featured is Sam Amidon, American singer and banjo player, who is probably involved in the afternoon’s two brackets of American folk songs and possibly will participate in an arrangement by Kuusisto of the Shaker tune Simple Gifts.   Pushing even further into the US musical mythos,  the orchestra performs John Adams’ Shaker Loops, its four movements split around Brackett’s seminal hymn.  Which covers the redemption element, while murder is exemplified by Janacek’s Kreutzer Sonata Quartet No. 1, which took its inspiration from Tolstoy’s overwrought, repulsive novella.   The quartet will be performed in string orchestral format, of course, so that the psychological drama can be delivered with even more heightened theatrics than usual.

This program will be repeated at 7:30 pm on Monday February 6.


Wednesday February 8


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Sidney Myer Music Bowl at 7:30 pm

And the musicians will get around to Russian music, but only after a bracing overture: the Roman Carnival by Berlioz   –   one of the repertoire’s finest fire-crackers and a test in vivacity for conductor Benjamin Northey and his band.   Another educational opportunity is wasted as the night moves into predictable waters with the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2, Jayson Gillham doing the solo honours.  A suite from Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Sleeping Beauty pushes all the predictable buttons, the inter-movement applause (a specialty of this audience) an inevitability.   Oddly, Northey and Co. finish up with a score that used to be reserved for the end of this whole free concert series: Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.   In past years, these free concerts have served as a mode by which the musicians can play themselves in for a heavy year’s work through familiar repertoire; not much has changed.


Saturday February 11


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Sidney Myer Music Bowl at 7:30 pm

This program carries on from the first night in the series and is even more Russian in content.  The doomed lovers tonight emerge through Prokofiev’s ballet score: one of the last century’s orchestral marvels, so finished and evocative that it always delights, especially in a staged performance where the calisthenics can get you down.   Once again, this audience claps everything: Montagues and Capulets, The Young Juliet, the Death of Tybalt. Mind you, this isn’t one of the set suites; just an amalgam under the descriptor ‘excerpts’. For 2017, the MSO’s Composer-in-Residence is Elena Kats-Chernin and, for her first official outing, she offers a score from 2009, Golden Kitsch, written for and performed tonight by Sydney percussionist Claire Edwardes  –  with, one assumes,  the orchestra’s support.  The composer has found her inspiration in Klimt paintings, quite a few of the most popular heavy on gold – The Kiss and Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer encapsulating the kitsch that Kats-Chernin is celebrating.   To end, Benjamin Northey takes the players through one of their show-pieces: Rachmaninov’s three Symphonic Dances.


Wednesday February 15


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Sidney Myer Music Bowl at 7:30 pm

Here is a night with lots of waltzes, although the programmers found it hard to leave their Russian motif alone.   Before the light-hearted comes Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka in the 1947 version; always a pleasure to experience, especially the many folk-tunes embedded in its crowd scenes that the composer refused to acknowledge during his lifetime.  The title work is, of course, Ravel’s phantasmagoria in which the infectious whirling action becomes impressively hysteric and disjunct.   A harmless oddity emerges in Korngold’s three-movement Straussiana suite – a polka, mazurka and waltz using Johann Strauss’s music taken from unfamiliar sources and written for high school musicians.  To end, Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier Suite reveals a composer on whom Korngold drew heavily for his heftier works.   Opulent, sparkling and loaded with exquisite detail like the luminous Presentation of the Rose sequence, it serves as a reminder of the composer’s recoil to Toryism after the striking operatic marvels of Salome and Elektra.  Oh, Benjamin Northey has a night off so that Kazuki Yamada can dominate from the podium; he’s permanent conductor of the Japan Philharmonic and is a welcome and regular guest with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande.


Friday February 24


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

This ex-Proms series begins tonight with the prospect of yet another predictable menu.  Young Australian conductor Nicholas Carter opens accounts with the Prokofiev Classical Symphony, the precocious first of the seven that the composer produced and a barrel of restrained Haydnesque laughs, if some interpreters are inclined to over-egg its humour. The night’s title work is another affair altogether: a Fate-encrusted sequence of four well-known movements, wrenchingly fraught with emotion at its opening, Tatiana/Lensky-lite in the Andantino, full of balletic beans in the scherzo, and a chain of welters on the hapless Birch Tree folk-tune in a lashing finale.  Guest Anne-Marie Johnson takes centre-stage for the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor: a sure-fire crowd-pleaser and, I’d guess, bound to attract a full house.


Saturday February 25


Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Paul Dyer and his fine orchestra are stealing a march on everybody with this pre-season airing of Handel’s famous oratorio.   I’ve always thought Messiah was more relevant to Easter than Christmas; so did the composer, if his Dublin premiere date is any guide (which it probably isn’t) and if the concentration of Passion/Resurrection themes in Parts Two and Three is taken as outweighing the Nativity message of Part the First that has ensured the work’s usual allocation to Christmas.   Dyer is also bringing his Brandenburg Choir to Melbourne and that group is well worth hearing in a chorus-rich score.  The advertised soloists at time of writing are: Spanish soprano Lucia Martin-Carton, Greek alto Nicholas Spanos, American tenor Kyle Bielfield, and local David Greco singing the bass arias.  These promise to be a mixed bag, the upper voices experienced in Baroque operations, Bielfield sitting on the cusp of serious and pop arenas, while Greco recently appeared at the Peninsula Summer Music Festival in a program of Schubert lieder.  But that’s part of the ABO ethos: surprises.  And some of them are strikingly fine.

The oratorio will be presented again on Sunday February 26 at 5 pm


Sunday February 26



Hawthorn Arts Centre from 9:30 am

This all-day sucker comprises six sessions spread across twelve hours: 9:30 am, 11:30 am, 2pm, 4 pm, 6 pm, 8 pm.   You could stay for the whole thing or you can do the eastern suburbs thing and spare yourself overload by dipping in and out.   The programs have probably been settled by now but I can’t find them.  What anyone can get to without much trouble is information on some of the works to be performed: the A Major Piano Concerto K. 414, the Clarinet Concerto, the Rondo alla turca Piano Sonata in A, the Gran Partita Serenade in B flat with its incomparable Adagio, the Eine kleine Nachtmusik Serenade, the last Piano Trio K. 548, and something unidentified for piano four-hands – one of the four complete and authenticated sonatas?   As for the participants, you are assured a lot of familiar ensembles: Goldner String Quartet, Australian Piano Quartet, Arcadia Quartet,  Sutherland Trio, Melbourne Chamber Orchestra and an unknown quantity to me called the 3MBS Choir, directed by Michael Leighton Jones.   Pianists are numerous: Timothy Young, Elyane Laussade, Tristan Lee, Kristian Chong, Kathryn Selby, Stefan Cassomenos, Daniel de Borah.   You’re offered several violinists including Curt Thompson, Wilma Smith, Rebecca Chan, and Sophie Rowell; cellists Christopher Howlett and Svetlana Bogosavljevic, viola Christopher Moore, veteran oboist Jeffrey Crellin, clarinetists David Griffiths and Paul Dean, and tenor Andrew Goodwin.  There’s also an appearance by Richard Mills in his capacity as artistic director of Victorian Opera; whether he’s bringing along the company is unclear.


Monday February 27


Seraphim Trio

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

This popular ensemble, having despatched the complete Beethoven and Schubert oeuvres over recent years, now moves into the solid mainstream without any deviations – sort of. In 2017, the series heading runs The History of the Piano Trio in Ten and a Half Chapters. Tonight, the musicians perform the Haydn Piano Trio in G, called the Gypsy because of its rapid-fire finale with atmospheric early-Ziegeuner references.   With the Schubert nine-minute Notturno as a makeweight (but very popular in My Favourite Chamber Music lists), the evening’s main constituent is Mozart in B flat of 1786, one of the half-dozen works in this form from the composer.   All this is fair enough, as a solid Classical start to this four-part review.  The Romantics will feature Schubert in E flat and Mendelssohn in D minor; The Nationalists are Brahms No. 1 and Dvorak’s Dumky; The Moderns are Ravel, Shostakovich in E minor, and Sculthorpe’s From Irkanda 3   –   the only surviving movement from a 1961 trio and, although just six minutes long, evocative of the composer’s lonely emotional landscape.


Tuesday February 28

Eighth Blackbird

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

This ensemble has visited Australia a few times but not previously under the Musica Viva umbrella.   A sextet  –  flute, clarinet, violin/viola/,cello, percussion, piano  – it is a crossover group that specialises in music by living composers.  Pretty much home-grown, though; the only non-American on this night is Sydney writer Holly Harrison with a MV commission: Lobster Tales and Turtle Soup, inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.   The evening’s other four elements are relatively fresh USA products: Nico Muhly’s 2012 Doublespeak, written for Eighth Blackbird and a tribute to Philip Glass, so starting out with a close triple canon; Bryce Dessner’s Murder Ballades of 2013, also composed for this ensemble, comprising seven movements with elliptical titles lasting 20 minutes in all; Ted Hearne’s By-By Huey from 2014, memorialising the murder of Black Panthers’ co-founder Huey P. Newton – another Eighth Blackbird commission; and Timo Andres’ Checkered Shade, also from 2014, also written for these players, and inspired by drawings created by Pennsylvania artist Astrid Bowlby.  Not your typical MV presentation, but maybe there’s a segment of the patronage crying out for US avant-garde.

The program will be repeated on Saturday March 4 at 7 pm.


Tuesday February 28


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

The gala opening to the MSO’s season features the excellent Russian violinist as soloist in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.   Nothing amiss with hearing a master play a masterpiece, but no marks for originality, especially when you consider the violinist’s impressive repertoire.   Benjamin Northey conducts, but then yields place to Vengerov who will direct the only other work programmed: Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade  –  that voluptuous four-movement suite that almost plays itself.  Don’t know anything about the violinist’s conducting abilities but I doubt that he’ll be exercised by this warhorse that is nevertheless very appropriate for a festive concert where nobody wants profundities or pontifications. Still, I can’t help feeling that an opportunity has been missed to raise the bar.