Small packages



Hawthorn Arts Centre

Sunday February 26, 2017


                                                                             Goldner String Quartet

A whole day of Mozart?  It would have delighted my one-time colleague on The Age, Kenneth Hince, who thought that the composer had a direct link to the Holy Ghost and would rarely allow any fault to be found in his (Mozart’s) work – although even he admitted that some of the minor dance music and divertimenti weren’t to be taken seriously, just as Mozart himself regarded them: note-spinning money-earners.

For the occasion, 3MBS assembled a fine array of local and interstate musicians to present six programs, each of 90 minutes’ duration and all of an internal variety that would have pleased the appetites of the radio station’s listeners more than musicologists.   For example, the day’s first offering comprised a piano solo, a piano trio, a piano quartet, the Oboe Quartet and a cello sonata movement by the younger surviving son, Franz Xaver.  Participant numbers fluctuated as the afternoon wore on, with a piano concerto in the third program, the Turkish Violin Concerto and the Clarinet Concerto in the pre-dinner event; inevitably, the Eine kleine Nachtmusik serenade finished the journey but in string quintet form involving players from the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra.

Nearly every program had a piano solo segment, usually a sonata or one of the last two fantasies.   Choral music emerged in a bracket from the 3MBS Choir under Michael Leighton Jones.  But aficionados enjoyed mainly chamber works, the few I heard coming from sensible musicians.   For instance, the opening gambit was the B flat Piano Trio K. 502 with Elyane Laussade handling the keyboard, Melbourne University’s Head of Strings Curt Thompson on violin, and 3MBS Board Chairman Chris Howlett providing the cello line.   For an ad hoc ensemble, these players produced a fairly comfortable reading if not over-endowed with polish.   Howlett had the easiest task but Laussade and Thompson worked competently in more exposed positions.

Hoang Pham kicked off the piano solos with the D minor Fantasy, a well-known quantity for every pianist and given with little deviation from the expected path; probably more stolid than it needed to be but outlined with exemplary neatness.  The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s principal Jeffrey Crellin headed the Oboe Quartet, escorted along his way by violin Markiyan Melnychenko, viola Simon Oswell and cello Josephine Vains.   Although this was another ensemble fabricated for the occasion, its members worked effectively together, Melnychenko presenting just enough of a challenge to Crellin’s dominant timbre to keep the work from tedium.  Still, it’s a slight product, benevolent and summery, and this reading met its uncomplicated requirements without fuss.

The Franz Mozart piece was an Andante espressivo from the composer’s solitary E Major Cello Sonata, the movement itself in B minor with a young performer, Charlotte Miles, coping with the notes supported by an unidentified accompanist.  It would take a more assured musician to make something memorable from these few pages but Miles and her associate gave it some gusto, although nothing of its melodic content lived in the memory a few seconds after it stopped.

Finishing the first program, the Australia Piano Quartet gave an intelligent account of the G minor K. 478 work.   Although these musicians have played at the Melbourne Recital Centre, I can’t remember encountering them there. According to what I have learned about them, the violinist of the group is Rebecca Chan, currently serving as an assistant leader in the Philharmonia Orchestra; her place for this work was taken by Sydney Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Andrew Haveron.   The remaining regular personnel are: a welcome constant on the MRC scene, pianist Daniel de Borah; the APQ’s artistic director, cellist Thomas Rann; and violist James Wannan, also a notable expert on viola d’amore.  The group gave an excellent reading of this splendid score: professional in attack, confident across all lines, the ensemble constantly malleable in phrasing and reliable in delivery.

Half an hour’s break, and Benjamin Martin opened the next recital with the Rondo in A minor.  Again, the performance proved unexceptionable, finding an appealing level of moderated melancholy in the bagatelle’s main recurring theme and plenty of fluent action in the episodes.  You might have expected more regularity in the trills, like those dominating bars 134-5 but Martin negotiated the piece’s mildly action-packed pages with tact and a refined delicacy to the sotto voce concluding six bars.  Tenor Andrew Goodwin, accompanied by de Borah, then sang two of the most well-known arias for his voice: Dies Bildnis from Act 1 of The Magic Flute, and Don Ottavio’s Dalla sua pace, originally written to replace Il mio tesoro –  nowadays, both arias are sung in Don Giovanni productions, fleshing out the nondescript character musically if not emotionally.   These were a pleasure to hear, Goodwin’s vocal colour typified by a strong and evenly applied line which shows an exemplary responsiveness to Mozart’s lyrical phrasing and the emotional points of da Ponte’s texts.   Has this singer been seen/heard in opera here?   He’s a gift to any company with enough nous to sign him on.

Laussade returned for Mozart’s A minor Sonata K. 310.   She left out the first movement exposition’s repeat, but then so did most of the other sets of performers I heard.   The work seemed to present some memory problems, a few fumbles coming at points that are not technically challenging, mostly in the concluding Presto where the texture is too spare to hide any flaws.   Finally, the Goldner Quartet which we so rarely hear live in this city treated us to the Dissonance K 465 in C Major.  These players have 22 years of uninterrupted mutual experience without any change of personnel, so their readings present as uncommonly fluent, the linear inter-twining negotiated with unflappable confidence and a remarkable, if expected, mutual dynamic awareness.

To be honest, I would have preferred to hear not just this one, but an entire program of Mozart quartets from the Goldners.  For that matter, it might have been useful to hear all the piano pieces – sonatas, fantasies and rondo – in one hit.   But then, the rest of the day’s programs involved music that is hard (impossible?) to partner with anything: the Gran Partita, the Clarinet Quintet, the Piano and Wind Quintet K 452 – works that suck the air from their surroundings. Yet, for all the programmatic leaping around, 3MBS patrons were able to enjoy juxtaposed greater and lesser products of an unparalleled musical genius.   I’m only sorry I couldn’t stay for more than these first two recitals but it seemed pretty plain that the audiences on Sunday were getting more than their money’s worth, whether they stayed for only one stanza of play or for the complete six.

Oratorio as barely-disguised opera


Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday February 25 and Sunday February 26, 2017


                                                                               Lucia Martin-Carton

That heading is saying nothing new.  The rationale behind oratorios was that they served as opera substitutes in 17th century Italy when the Church got sniffy about theatrical productions in Lent and Holy Week, apparently wanting the season’s drama to be altar-centric rather than having attention stolen by vocally florid musicians.   While the borderline between the two forms has become fuzzy, especially in an oratorio that follows a narrative, a work like Handel’s Messiah doesn’t attract theatrical treatment.  It doesn’t tell a story but jumps all over the Bible; the emotional world depicted is fitfully operatic, although gifted performers can refute that observation.   Performance tradition falls heavily on the side of Victorian decorum; after the monster 19th century versions with massive choirs and orchestras, the 20th century reaction has reverted to the original bare-bones score and the employment of slender resources with a preference for period instruments and all the concomitant problems of dynamic restraint and accuracy of articulation.

Paul Dyer and staging director Constantine Costi, in the latest ABO series concerts, are mounting the oratorio as a series of set scenes; the remarkable achievement is that they’ve carried this out with a minimal number of misfires and, at several points, the interpretation achieves an irresistible force, exciting to experience and a successful mirror of the composer’s inbuilt drama.   Dyer is fortunate, as usual, in his band which, as far as I could hear, worked through the score with determination and accuracy, only a few passages in danger of lagging because the conductor insisted on lurching between his harpsichord continuo position, a podium, and front of stage to encourage a perfectly competent Australian Brandenburg Choir.

On which point, this was a night for the singers.   While the ABO players – 25 in number at full strength – negotiated this not-over-difficult score with aplomb, responding to their conductor’s idiosyncratic dynamic vaults and linear foregrounding, the choir (and soloists, of course) operated in front of them.   The trumpet solo for Part the Third’s great bass aria enjoyed sprightly treatment from Leanne Sullivan, the few uncertain notes barely noticeable alongside singer David Greco‘s fierce approach.   Only some percussion effects raised question marks: a gratuitous suspended cymbal  making a strange commentary somewhere in this night’s Scene 3, and a timpani line in Why do the nations that I’ve never heard before.   Also, I’m still puzzled as to why concertmaster Shaun Lee-Chen had to stand in front of the orchestra to lead How beautiful are the feet.

At the start, what struck you about the singers was the prominence of the altos; all males, their pushing power in And the glory of the Lord dominated the texture, right from their initial statement on.   Mind you, that often served as a revelation: all too often, you strain to hear what that particular line is doing.   For much of the time, the singers used music, but this segment was sung from memory, as were a few other key choruses, including a jubilant Hallelujah with the participants stretched across the stage front.   What impressed even more was the absence of passengers; every one of the 28 singers knew his/her responsibilities and worked through the chord sequences and quick-fire fugato passages with full commitment.   Dyer also calculated what forces he needed, keeping certain choristers silent in some lighter-textured, faster-moving pages.   But the body’s security and inbuilt brio was the major contributor to this night’s success, its changes of position and grouping keeping the balance of sonorities a moveable feast.

All four soloists are young and were encouraged to blaze through their arias and recitatives.  Tenor Kyle Bielfield set the oratorio moving with a vigorous Ev’ry valley that had its fair share of fioriture and an octave displacement for a particular low note that didn’t suit his powers of projection.   The interpretation was far from the pallid run-through we usually encounter, Bielfield determined to dominate the prevailing sound scape and infuse his work with interest.  Later, his Thy rebuke/Behold and see sequence proved much more persuasive, even if the singer transferred some of his pop music practices by inserting breaths at phrase-breaking points.

Greco made a benign impression with his Thus saith the Lord, keeping his semiquaver chains in time and projecting with vehemence across his range.   Unlike most of his colleagues, he kept any interpolated decorations reasonable, conserving his energy in For behold darkness/The people that walked in darkness, then breaking out and treating Why do the nations as a Rage aria – powerful, blazing with temperament but you wondered how long he could sustain his force.   A lordly breadth informed The trumpet shall sound and served as a cogent lead-in to the final two glorious choruses.

It was hard not to admire countertenor Nicholas Spanos right from the start for a shapely reading of But who may abide and a little later on a careful negotiation of the bouncy O thou that tellest.  His upper reaches are penetrating, not too hoot-filled, and he has no qualms about changing register for the lower passages in Handel’s probing alto solos.   He showed uncommon taste in the tense spaciousness of He was despised with its wrenching silences and he found just the right element of calm suppleness for the first half of He shall feed his flock.

Soprano Lucia Martin-Carton made her mark here when she sang with William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants as part of Le Jardin des Voix nearly two years ago in this hall, one of 2015’s most memorable nights of music-making.  On this night, with Handel’s arias she showed again a piercing clarity and ideally-centred pitch through the Nativity sequence where, for once, the series of consecutive recitatives rushed past.   Martin-Carton’s English has its oddities of pronunciation and she alone of the soloists had to use a score  –  for I know that my Redeemer liveth.   Yet her work proved gripping to watch and hear, especially in her version of Rejoice greatly where she seemed to channel temperamentally a variety of heroines – Aida, Thais, Delilah, Salome.   In a quasi-staged Messiah, this singer stood out for her realization of its drama, her biting clarity juxtaposed with a caressing lilt.

Some tableaux succeeded very well.   Spanos brought on a red scarf for the Crucifixion pages, using it to blind Bielfield as representing this section’s Christ-as-Victim focus.   Other stage work left me cold, including the use of dry ice and an unfathomable lighting grid.   But the presentation had an admirable fluency in its entrances and exits for the singers and the final Worthy is the Lamb/Amen choruses with the soloists taking part instead of sitting immobile and impassive proved majestic – when are they not? – but also moving: an all-in-together generosity resulting in a splendid sound that almost compensated for the omission of several parts of the score.

Dyer and Costi reshaped the oratorio into four segments: Darkness to Light, which ends at the For unto us a child is born chorus; The Dream, concluding at He shall feed his flock; after interval, Shame and Mourning, culminating in How beautiful are the feet; and Ecstatic Light which started with Why do the nations.   It’s a deft thematic organization, in certain ways more satisfying than the original tripartite construct.   But I missed the jog-trot of His yoke is easy, the buoyant agility of Lift up your heads, the vehemence of Thou shalt break them, and – yet again – that neglected and solitary duet, O death, where is thy sting?

Regrets to one side, Dyer and the ABO achieved their aim in giving life and a refreshing vigour to this venerable masterwork that has degenerated in status to a seasonal inevitability.   For those of us who experience Messiah as a duty or as an annual musical labour, this night re-awakened interest without torqueing the score, making it serve as an excuse for interpretative excess.   The concert also served to remind us how much a man of theatre the composer was; bearing that in mind,  I doubt if anyone could accomplish the same results with the St. Matthew Passion.   Yet, in this world where the impossible and improbable have become commonplace, it has probably been done already.

March Diary

Wednesday March 1


Seraphim Trio

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

It’s been quite a while – well, a year –  since I heard this piano trio in action.  To their credit, the musicians persist in presenting recital series despite their involvement in full-time careers: pianist Anna Goldsworthy at the Elder Conservatorium, cellist Timothy Nankervis among the Sydney Symphony Orchestra cellos, and violist Helen Ayres doing guest duties with the London Philharmonic.   For this Salon appearance, the program is mainstream: Beethoven’s Ghost and Mendelssohn in D minor.  Fine, although the musicians are falling back on repertoire that is all-too-familiar to them and to their audience, works that the trio has been playing throughout its 23-year-long career.  This is the second of a four-part series in which each recital holds two masterpieces;  I suppose dealing with old friends saves on rehearsal time.


Thursday March 2


Adam Simmons

fortyfive downstairs at  7:30 pm

You’d think that a toy band was just that – something like the extraneous instruments in that popular symphony by Leopold Mozart/Michael Haydn/Anybody Else.  But no: the name refers to an all-embracing Creative Music Ensemble headed by Adam Simmons who attempts in this time-honoured form to fuse the worlds of jazz and serious music, as well as melding a few other juxtapositions of what could be regarded as opposites.   The composition is to last an hour but the implications are that Busoni/Alkan-style concentration is not part of the experience.  The soloist will be Michael Kieran Harvey, one of this country’s more expert apologists for challenging musical experiences.

This program is repeated on Friday March 3 and Saturday March 4 at 7:30 pm, and on Sunday March 5 at 3 pm.


Thursday March 2


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Deakin Edge, Federation Square at 7:30 pm

Starting off with a modified bang, the MCO hosts Li-Wei Qin, a fine cellist who is always a pleasure to hear in live performance.  The players are being conducted by Michael Dahlenburg, himself a graduate from the organization’s cello desks.  Li-Wei takes on the Variations on a Rococo Theme by Tchaikovsky: a killer of a piece that tests technique and interpretative skill pretty sorely, to the point that successful performances are rare.  Also programmed is C. P. E. Bach’s Concerto in A, although whether the major or minor one is unclear from my source.   For relief, the MCO plays the Idomeneo Overture and Chaconne/Pas seul by Mozart, and Haydn’s Letter V Symphony No. 88 in G.

This program will be repeated in the Melbourne Recital Centre on Sunday March 5 at 2:30 pm.


Friday March 3


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Last year, the final film/live-soundtrack MSO events made a big deal of promoting the first 2017 experience in the same mould: Spielberg’s first Jurassic Park adventure.  It’s possible that I saw this epic the whole way through; if so, I’ve forgotten the most important plot element – who gets killed.   Slightly less significant, I can’t recall anything of John Williams’score – not even the main title, which is the composer’s finest achievement in many another blockbuster.   Still, the orchestra can always rely on success with these music-fore-fronting occasions as Melbourne’s public regularly packs out each session.   A boost for the coffers and, of course, the chance to be associated with a familiar eye-catching poster.   But the best thing I find in these performances  –  so different to the theatre experience  –  is that nobody talks and the Arts Centre ushers (most of them) keep a sharp eye out for idiots with iPhones who want to take pictures of – the pictures!

This program will be repeated on Saturday March 4 at 1 pm and 7:30 pm.


Saturday March 4


Australian National Academy of Music Orchestra

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Into the second year of his stint as chief conductor of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Nicholas Carter is visiting ANAM to direct an all-English program that features two favourites and a couple of rarities.   Clearly, the night’s apex comes in Elgar’s sterling sequence of variations, the composer’s first international success.   For a bit more retrospective entertainment, Carter will take the Academy’s strings through Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis which should resonate to pleasurable effect in the Town Hall’s wooden environment.   A tad more contemporary, Britten’s 1940 Sinfonia da Requiem, a memorial to the composer’s parents, is rarely heard live, even though it is Britten’s major purely orchestral composition.  The evening begins with Thomas Ades’s Three Studies from Couperin: Les amusemens, Les tours de passe-passe, and L’ame-en-peine – all concluding pieces from the 7th, 13th and 22nd ordres of the Pieces de clavecin, and all finely honed arrangements to challenge their young interpreters.


Thursday March 9


Selby & Friends

Deakin Edge, Federation Square at 7:30 pm

Three works by relatively youthful writers begin Kathryn Selby’s recital series.  They don’t come much younger than Beethoven’s E flat Piano Trio Op. 1 No. 1, dating from when the composer was about 23 and here sustaining an untroubled aural landscape.  The F Major Piano Trio Op. 18 by Saint-Saens is attractively rustic in its inner movements and comes from the composer’s 28th year; young for a man who lived to be 86.  And the figure of an Old Reliable lurches forward in Dvorak’s Dumky, coming from the composer’s 49th year and based on dance, if not exactly youthful (he died aged 62).   Selby’s partners/friends for these three scores are violinist Grace Clifford, back for a while from the US, and American cellist Clancy Newman who has become a Selby regular.


Thursday March 9


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

Beavering enthusiastically through his cycle, Sir Andrew Davis is drawing close to an end with this one, the last of the central set of non-vocal symphonies.  With its two Nachtmusik movements and a powerful central nightmare, this score presents a musical imagist’s paradise, although the outer movements push against this with firmly argued declamation.   But the sounds of mandolin, guitar, cowbells and that oddity, the Tenorhorn, support the claims for this work being of more than usually high orchestrational, travelogue-coloured interest.  As well,  the MSO Chorus puts in an appearance for David Stanhope’s 1999 The Heavens Declare, a setting of part of Psalm 19 and probably – in its text, at least – more suitable as a prelude to the next symphony in Davis’ Mahler pilgrimage.

This program will be repeated on Friday March 10 in Costa Hall, Geelong at 7:30 pm minus Stanhope’s The Heavens Declare, and back in Hamer Hall on Saturday March 11 at 2 pm with the Stanhope score restored.


Saturday March 11


Victorian Opera

Playhouse, Melbourne Arts Centre at 7:30 pm

The production is being presented at 7:30 pm on Tuesday March 14, Wednesday March 15, Friday March 17, and at 1 pm on Saturday March 18.

This is an opera: La bella dormente nel bosco, written by Respighi and premiered in 1922. Composed for a marionette company, the work calls primarily for puppets, as well as for singers – a large slew of them – and an orchestra light on wind.   The composer revised it for a ‘normal’ production (children instead of marionettes) 12 years later, and a further revision followed Respighi’s death, that one overseen by his widow.   The VO is clearly mounting the original with puppets constructed by Joe Blanck, while the vocalists and instrumentalists are intended to be off-stage or in the pit which in the Playhouse is better suited to something like Into the Woods  .  .  .  still, the original scoring is pretty light. Phoebe Briggs, the company’s Head of Music, conducts.   As a novelty, they don’t come more refreshing than this work.  The cast includes Carlos E. Barcenas, Kirilie Blythman, Liane Keegan, Jacqueline Porter and Timothy Reynolds.


Sunday March 12


Hoang Pham Productions

Melbourne Recital Centre at 5 pm

I’m all for the enterprising artist who takes his career into his own hands and have admiration for pianist Hoang Pham who has set up his own company, as well as taking on work from other quarters.  To begin his operations for this year at the MRC, he has acquired the services of veteran violinist William Hennessy and another young entrepreneur on the Melbourne scene, cellist Christopher Howlett.   The trio is taking on three cornerstones of the repertoire, without any apparent detours into distracting byways.   Rachmaninov’s G minor, the Elegiaque in one movement, is followed by another G minor gem, Smetana’s Op. 15 written as a memorial to his daughter Bedriska who had died recently from scarlet fever.   Finally,  we enjoy that acme of trios, Beethoven’s warm-heartedly aristocratic Archduke in B flat where equable performers like these can hardly go wrong.


Tuesday March 14

Daniil Trifonov

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Starting this year’s Great Performers series sponsored by the Recital Centre itself, Trifonov is known (well, to me) for competition wins: First Prize at the Rubinstein in 2011 , Gold Medal and Grand Prix at the Tchaikovsky in the same year.   Since then, he’s been busy enough recording and touring; this night’s appearance comes nine days after his 26th birthday,and follows a pretty tight schedule of appearances in Sydney and Perth as recitalist and concerto soloist, so he isn’t wasting any time.  Tonight he plays a Schumann group – the Kinderszenen and Kreisleriana with the hefty Op. 7 Toccata in the middle.   Then comes a selection from the 24 Preludes and Fugues by Shostakovich, and the Three Movements from Petrushka, which Stravinsky organised for Arthur Rubinstein although the redoubtable pianist never actually sat down and recorded them properly.   Trifonov is setting out to show his gifts across the spectrum, from the deceptively simple Schumann scenes to the dexterous leaps and scrappy brouhaha of the great ballet.


Friday March 17


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

Speaking of Daniil Trifonov, here he is in concerto-fronting guise, the MSO under Sir Andrew Davis supporting him in Rachmaninov No. 1, a work you rarely hear live these days.   Still, Trifonov will have performed it three times with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (and played there the same solo recital program outlined above), as well as performing the Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1 in Perth, before he hits Melbourne.   Davis brackets this voluble effusion with Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel and the Tchaikovsky Pathetique Symphony No. 6, which offers you a range from brilliantly scored buffoonery to wrenching depression, all in the space of two hours.  A sad state when a not-exactly-unknown concerto offers the only glimmers of originality on this menu.

This program is to be repeated on Saturday March 18 at 8 pm and on Monday March 20 at 6:30 pm.


Friday March 24


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

The last part of this occasion doesn’t need spelling out.  Sir Andrew Davis will direct –  as he did for many years in London – the usual Proms rabble-rousing roster of Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs, Arne’s Rule Britannia (with an as yet unnamed soprano and the MSO Chorus), Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 interrupted by the non-obligatory chorus, and probably a run-through of Parry’s Jerusalem, possibly followed up with an all-in You’ll Never Walk Alone.   There’s a bit of home-grown nationalism on display in Grainger’s Irish Tune from County Derry and Country Gardens (English).   A rousing opening to the night comes through Berlioz’s Le Corsaire Overture (as misplaced here as the Roman Carnival was at the otherwise all-Russian program that started this year’s free Myer Bowl concerts).   But the interesting content arrives with the superb Song of Summer tone poem by Delius, some Facade scraps by Walton, and a completely out-of-the-box resurrection of John Ireland’s Piano Concerto of 1930 which I, along with many another spectator, will be hearing live for the first time.

This program will be repeated on Saturday March 25 at 8 pm.


Saturday March 25


Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Having a formidable Messiaen expert in residence has caused the ANAM authorities to dedicate a night to the Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jesus.  It’s not clear exactly what is going to happen because the participants will include Hill himself, but also an unknown quantity of ANAM pianists.   Fair enough: the work, in its proper form, lasts for two hours and, although we’ve seen some pianists carry out the whole task by themselves, it speaks volumes for Hill’s pedagogy that he is sharing this labour with his charges.  There’s no denying that the Vingt regards can induce transcendent illumination and mental delight, but it can irritate to breaking-point many listeners who find it impossible to enter the dense and clangorous sound-world of this remarkable composer.  No, not easy listening but well worth the effort.


Thursday March 30


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 8 pm

Since the first violin of the Australian String Quartet is Dale Barltrop, who is also one of the MSO’s concertmasters, it’s not surprising to see the chamber music ensemble appearing as guests in this program.  The problem comes in finding a work for string quartet and orchestra; there are less than you’d expect but Barltrop & Co. have revived Matthew Hindson’s 15-year-old The Rave and the Nightingale, which takes its fanciful flight from Schubert’s final G Major String Quartet and suggests what Schubert could have been writing if he were our contemporary.   Apparently, he might have chosen the path of popular music because he wrote so many songs  –  a finding that suggests an imaginative vault I find hard to negotiate.  Still, to each his own fantasy and Hindson follows the implied Granados’ avian scene-stealer with some coloristic solo violin work  .  .  .  and the piece is 15 minutes long.   Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto in E flat for five winds and ten strings would seem to be the sole program component that ventures outside the night’s dominant instrumental format and it lasts about as long as Hindson’s piece.  The evening’s major work is real Schubert, his Death and the Maiden String Quartet No. 14   –   the predecessor to the work that Hindson’s Rave/Nightingale employs.  This scorching D minor masterpiece will be offered in orchestral guise, which I assume implies strings only in the well-ploughed Australian Chamber Orchestra pattern.

The program will be repeated in Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University on Friday March 31 at 8 pm.





A classic up close


Ensemble Gombert

Melbourne Recital Centre

Monday February 13, 2017


                                                                                   John O’Donnell      

Fitting the Vespers into the smaller of the Recital Centre’s spaces made for a pretty solid challenge.   John O’Donnell used a version of the score that I’ve not heard before which does without the rich orchestral fabric of the full-scale version, reducing all Monteverdi’s support potential to a chamber organ, from which the body’s founder directed his 22-strong choir.   In the Salon, we were all well-involved with the performance and quite a few faces that present as mere blips in the distance at Xavier College Chapel – the Gomberts’ usual theatre of action – took on added interest; not simply for being distinctive but also for the physical exertion involved in their labour, here seen at close range.

As you’d expect, the advantages of proximity for Monday night’s audience were balanced by some benefits for the singers.   Primarily, the pressure involved in making the five psalms’ linear and chordal interplay resonate was alleviated by the fact that projection could be achieved with less strain than is required in a large church space.  Yes, you lost an initial surge of excitement which bursts out at the opening to the full version where the composer revisits his Orfeo prelude with a massive instrumental array (as most performances present it) contesting with the choral forces.   But every note carried and made its mark, and the choral fabric impressed for its lucidity: lines that usually get lost in the mesh could be discerned, even in pages like the 10-part Nisi Dominus.

In general, this performance succeeded most fully in the large-frame movements where all present were involved.   The early Dixit Dominus and Laudate pueri impressed for the vivid power of the dozen female voices while the tenor thread in Lauda Jerusalem came over with a quietly resonant consistency, although the concluding doxology to this movement turned out to be the performance highlight for me, particularly striking for the precision of the off-beat entries during the last Amen pages.

The last time I heard this work, at the opening to the 2014 Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival, conductor Gary Ekkel used soloists of some stature for the motet/concerto movements that interleave the psalms of these vespers. O’Donnell followed his usual practice of giving all solo lines to his Gombert members; although the choir was slightly expanded in size for this occasion, as far as I could tell everyone took part in the choral movements.

Much of the night’s weight fell on tenor Tim van Nooten who expounded the solo Nigra sum, shared the Duo Seraphim with Vaughan McAlley (and, later, with Peter Campbell) and took on the main burden of Audi coelum.  His voice is hard to characterise: clean and carrying, not aggressive in attack, holding something of a countertenor’s detachment but without any stridency.  The only noticeable problem – and that appeared mainly in his early solos – was a running-out of breath, so that the endings of certain phrases verged on the dangerously tenuous.

Carol Veldhoven, one of the Gombert veterans, worked impressively with Katherine Lieschke in the Pulchra es motet, and with commendable security in the concluding Magnificat a 6 where the same pair made a fair fist of Monteverdi’s echo effects.  The bass soloist in the Laetatus sum psalm was competent and professional, but I couldn’t recognize him, even at close quarters.

Still, the individual singers gave the impression of being under stress during their moments of exposure; nothing came easy and, although correctly dutiful for the most part, they were at their most effective when moving back to reinforce the general population.

In this version, as well as missing the initial splendour of dotted-rhythm energy, you also do without the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria which comes close to the end and is one of the full work’s least effective movements despite (because of?) its simplicity.  And the concluding Magnificat on this night was negotiated rapidly – the second of the two available, I believe.   Yet the reading made for a satisfying and involving experience, drawing you in by the sheer grittiness of music-making being carried out within arm’s reach.  You might have reservations about the soloists’ assurance but this choir in full flight has a vehemence and informed impulse that engrosses and can often enthral.

Oldest profession finds a new expression


Victorian Opera

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday February 4  to Wednesday February 8, 2017


                                                                                     Meow Meow

Following the success of last year’s The Seven Deadly Sins production, Victorian Opera has decided to mount its own brand of cabaret-with-a-message, a showcase for the multiple talents of the company’s director Richard Mills who has provided both words and music. Not that much is given away about the nature of this new creation;  the company makes a virtue of keeping its gestational cards very closely guarded.   In its simplest form, this operatic fantasia charts the history of the prostitute from ancient times onward, doing so by means of a series of vignettes.

Given the subject matter, it’s fair to assume that Mills is citing John Ford’s tragedy in his title.   Understandably, despite the shenanigans and circus-style razzmatazz played out at the start and lasting for a substantial part of the work, the production’s 70 minutes’ length ends in a sombreness that reflects the play’s tenor.   Some days after the premiere, it’s still difficult to come down firmly on a sustainable evaluation of the creator’s intentions.

‘Tis Pity opens with a petit fanfare, as bold and brassy as any extroverted page from Les Six, chanteuse Meow Meow and tenor Kanen Breen setting up a whirlwind of clownish, frantic action before settling into the chain of episodes that constitute the work’s body, each change of era signalled by a brisk mood-changing blurt.   While the opening scenes are clearly signposted on large screens positioned on the Murdoch Hall’s back wall above Orchestra Victoria, the distinction between historical periods appears to break down the closer we get to the our own times.

Meow Meow works very hard to differentiate between the types of sirens from ages past, but the message is clear that ‘fallen’ women were (and are) more sinned against than sinning.   Musically, the fantasia puts few strains on the singer’s compass; rather, her endurance is tested as the action becomes more helter-skelter and, at two climactic points, her amplification system fails to carry over the OV brass at full pelt.  Breen’s tenor enjoys equal projection as he carries out his MC/Chorus role with athletic, angular enthusiasm. Both these principals are assisted by a trio of male dancers – Alexander Bryce, Thomas Johansson, Patrick Weir –  who move the set, act as dressers, do a bit of singing and offer a non-gender specific ambience that fluctuates from old-fashioned camp to menacing military slog.

Mills sets up a sort of thesis pretty quickly, first siting his Ever-Womanly in the Greece of Solon, that Athenian law-giver who, according to certain authorities, stabilised sexual conduct in his time – and for centuries after –  by setting up statutes that governed brothels.   The Roman Empire, I faintly remember, was represented by Ovid, the poet of instruction to both sexes on how to seduce each other.   The Dark Ages (unless I have things out of sync) brought up the shade of Tertullian, a Church Father who chastised all women as representing Eve, the original sinner.   Matters calmed down with the Middle Ages and Villon’s Ballade des dames du temps jadis – the night’s highpoint for me and its lyrical core – then smartened up for a post-Renaissance scrap from Rochester and a light-hearted description of the emergence of syphilis as an international scourge.

From about this point, the vignettes blended into a real fantasia, centuries passing in a blur of words and musical pastiche before climaxing at a point where the three dancers, with heads down, stamped out a rhythm while a moving screen packed with words from European languages referring to sex and its many professional executants scrolled over the hall’s back wall, the whole scene bringing to mind sadomasochism, military campaigns of rape and the dehumanising face of eroticism when it’s reduced to an automatic procedure, a reflex rather than a revel.

The libretto has something for all, its literary borrowings and allusions a consistent pleasure in a time when wit is often employed without wisdom.  The score, in essence, is a series of numbers, many of them imitations rather than parodies of dances from the early 20th century decades.  Mills is quite happy to give his singers a broad, lyrical vocal line or six to relieve the tension of concentrating on the quick-delivery one-liners.   Intentional or not, the enterprise brings to mind the world of the Cabaret film with Breen a rather unnerving Joel Grey figure who is not simply an introducer and observer but who becomes completely wrapped up in the historical/moral review.   Meow Meow changes costume and emotional address with remarkable skill, embracing the parodic aspect of the earlier vignettes and becoming more agitated in manner and vocal effort as the outline of prostitution’s history nears our times and the commentary rises in grim power.

At the end, ‘Tis Pity leaves you ambivalent.   While the choreography and prop/costume manipulation demonstrate director Cameron Menzies‘ deftness of craft, the moments that impress most tellingly are relatively static, where the author (who also conducted) pulls back the dramatic pace and the singers can concentrate on singing their lines without stage-business interference.   Not that the activity is distracting on a large scale, but there come moments when you would prefer less bounding across the stage or up and into the tinsel-protected bowels of the central mobile staircase.

And what is the moral?  After such a wide-ranging commentary, what is the summary lesson?  The courtesan we have always with us, from Lilith and Eve onward up to the mobility of relationships in our times where all our sophistication simply underlines the no-nonsense commercialism of the profession with, as in Solon’s day, the religious establishment’s accusations of sin or wrong-doing not worth considering.   Mills gives a consistently sympathetic portrayal of women, even in his penultimate vision of the New Age Amazon who may dress up as a valkyrie but is still suffering exploitation in a different guise.

You get no definite answers, more an inbuilt suggestion that, in commercial sex particularly, kindness and emotional generosity should not be impossible elements.   A large part of Meow Meow’s sharply insightful skill lies in proposing the observance of humaneness across the sexes without any descent into preaching.