Lost in translation

THE PRINCESS AND THE PEA

Victorian Opera

Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne

March 25

Princess

                                                                  Olivia Cranwell

After a few hours’ post-performance reflection, you’re left with the sense that there’s not much to Ernst Toch and Benno Elkan’s treatment of Hans Christian Andersen’s fable.   It barely lasts for 40 minutes, the characterisations offer no dark shadings or suggestions of internal depth, Toch has composed very few long stretches of work for his vocal septet, and the musical vocabulary itself is a puzzling amalgam of tongues, when it’s not just satirising operatic conventions.

Director Libby Hill set the story in a TV studio, starting out well enough with all the usual feverish off-camera action and the semi-histrionics of technical crew and acting/singing cast.  Candice MacAllister’s set comprises little more than a raised platform for the central action with a square frame surround to mark the screen’s limits; then, matters eventually spill off this acting area and towards the front-of-stage, although the differentiation between the story and its peripheral framework is broken pretty close to the start when studio gofer Olivia Cramwell is prevailed upon to play the Princess and two technicians (cameraman and director), Michael Lampard and Michael Petruccelli, also take on participatory roles as courtiers.

Conductor Fabian Russell controls an active pit with only a few obvious misfires to be heard from his pretty small instrumental force: string quartet with double bass, two flutes and one each of the other woodwind, no trombone but one each of the other brass, percussion and timpani.  The only recording I’ve come across of this work involves a pretty full-sounding orchestra (Berlin Chamber Symphony) but what you lose in depth (in the Playhouse?!), you gain in clarity from the singers.

Here, the production was blessed in a fine cast of extroverts.  Veteran Jerzy Kozlowski gave us a befuddled but booming King; as his consort, Kathryn Radcliffe worked particularly well as the tale’s fly-in-the-ointment figure who casts doubts on the Princess’s aristocratic background; as you’d expect in this era of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, James Egglestone pranced and preened through the Prince’s part, albeit with a fine ringing heldentenor attack; Lampard and Petruccelli backed the rest of the principals with exuberantly forward baritone/tenor duet force in the few stretches where they were required to sing – usually ensembles.

Dimity Shepherd began the piece as a TV Host, explaining the plot and what was happening with all the smiling artificiality of a Playschool adult; then, she entered the action as the courtier with a good idea to test the Princess, and here is where she took centre-stage for a long tract, explaining her scheme with enthusiastic drive and a no-holds-barred dynamic.  Cranwell also presented a forward-stepping heroine, vim-filled and energetic in both movement and vocal flexibility.

You could have no complaint about the company’s singing, then. But what they sang was another matter.  For reasons that escape me, the opera was given in German; hence the necessary plot guidance from Shepherd-as-Host and some sporadic signpost explanations projected on the front walls.  All this would have been fine, except that pretty well every adult there had a child (or children) in tow.  Some adults believe in the child’s innate ability to cope with the unfamiliar; I don’t and this occasion bore out my misgivings.

For the young audience members, the only times the show came to life were when the characters were arranging the multiple mattresses for the Princess’s bed – a whack in the face here, a crotch-splitting intrusion there – and when the Princess herself re-arranged the bed so that she could get a decent night’s sleep, turning the mattresses into a pratfall-generating slippery slide, albeit one made of fabric.  At these points, the laughs came  out spontaneously.

But the little boy behind me typified the prevailing pre-adolescent puzzlement.  ‘What’s she saying?’; ‘Why did he do that?’ ;’Where are they going?’ – a ceaseless interrogative litany which eventually descended into kicking (his own seat, fortunately) and pleas for sustenance.  Of the mother, who betrayed her ignorance every time she opened her mouth (and she adjusted her volume to match her child’s with no attempt to shut the brat up), it boots me not to speak.   Not unexpectedly, my perfectly-behaved grand-daughter found this theatre convention-disruptive counterpoint more intriguing than what was in front of her.  I understand that an English version of Elkan’s libretto exists; why it wasn’t used remains one of the mysteries.

In terms of production values, this piece was rather bare-boned.  The principals had fairy tale-suggestive costuming; the TV crew wore modern dress/studio uniforms.  But the set was as plain as for a Beckett monodrama.  Consequently, the work depended on its singers and, when you can’t understand them, it’s a big ask of pre-ten-year-olds to stay focused.  A lot more slapstick might have helped; the score is perky and jerky enough in its bemusing fusion of Weill, Prokofiev and Stravinsky to support a lot more running around.

The Princess and the Pea was presented three times on the one day only in the Arts Centre and would seem to have been made for touring.   I don’t know what the young of Yackandandah or Yarrawonga would make of this entertainment; for quite a few, it would be a long 40 minutes.

 

 

Scotch hall favours the brave

MAGIC OF FLUTE AND HARP

Wilma & Friends

Ian Roach Hall, Scotch College

Sunday March 19 at 2:30 pm

Yinuo

                                                         Yinuo Mu    

In the acoustic clarity of Scotch College’s music auditorium, violinist Wilma Smith began her annual recital series on Sunday afternoon with an interesting program that involved a group of fine musicians.   Not that the music was intriguing because it was new; the second half comprised Beethoven’s early Serenade for flute, violin and viola while the recital finished with a luxurious masterpiece that rarely gets an airing because of the difficulties in assembling the necessary instruments: Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro for harp, string quartet, flute and clarinet.

Well, perhaps claiming infrequency of performance due to unusual personnel is only half the matter.  The score is an exercise in restraint and shading balance where the harp occupies central position in the action but depends on the associated pair of woodwind  to observe the dynamic decencies.

Having brought the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s harpist Jinuo Mu on board for the event, Smith used her talents to the full;  Mu took part in four of the five program constituents, thereby being the most hard-worked of the recital’s participants.  Not that you had any impression of stress; this musician was as elegantly energetic in the Ravel as she was at the opening where I think most of us were hearing, for the first time, Eugene Goosens’ Suite for flute, violin and harp.   Written in 1914 but published mid-war in 1917, this three-movement work beguiles with its lush, non-saccharine impressionistic colour washes.  With Smith on violin and the flute of Andrew Nicholson, this novelty impressed for an unaffected elegance; if not big on development, the three movements – Impromptu, Serenade, Divertissement – progressed by ramping up their activity level, the last movement a fast-paced gem of mild athleticism, its outer sections straddling a slower interlude with an unexpectedly Elgarian tang.

Goosens made full use of the information available to him through his harpist sisters, Marie and Sidonie, so that the instrument’s contributions fitted in to the prevailing texture and dominated it in turn.  This composer made a considerable impression during his Sydney years when he was conducting the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and directing the Sydney Conservatorium – a one-man (is there any other kind?)  fiefdom, taken over after his disgrace by a relative mediocrity.   Not that the impression he made was necessarily positive all the time: his own opera Judith might have given exposure to a young Joan Sutherland but its performances in Sydney were not resoundingly successful; despite his outstanding reputation with modern scores, his interpretations of orthodox repertoire could often irritate for their accelerated tempi.  But this Suite shows an emotional command and sensitivity that was finely delineated by these expert interpreters.

Joseph Jongen’s Deux pieces en trio for flute, cello and harp brought Anna Pokorny to the stage.  Another late flower of Impressionism, these short bagatelles threw up some exquisite passages of play – a fine soaring passage at the octave for flute and cello in the Assez lent and, later, a similar moment in the temperamentally contrasted Allegro moderato.

Conte fantastique by Andre Caplet, a friend of Debussy, asks for harp and string quartet but, on this occasion, the double bass of Alexander Arai-Swale was added to the mix; I couldn’t see that he did much but reinforce Pokorny’s cello but it’s possible that I might have missed more subtle input.   Compared to its predecessors on this program, Caplet’s score verges on the adventurous, but Mu’s instrument is the main protagonist in this extended scene illustrating part of Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death short story.  The score engages in grinding harmonic clusters and angular melodic gestures as the composer follows the story of a dissipated dance/orgy, complete with ominous clock chimes, before Death appears to level the revellers.  For this extended scene, Smith took second violin while Zoe Freisberg did sterling service as first desk and Imants Larsens from the Adelaide Symphony generated a firm tenor line with his viola.   Even if you were not addicted to program music, this piece proved engrossing – for its swirling range of colours, the urgent excitement of its progress, and the confidence of all involved, especially Mu who capped the experience with a chameleonic, driving cadenza that led into the concluding six bars.

Beethoven’s Serenade brought Smith, Nicholson and Larsens together in a combination of high interest, chiefly for the equanimity of the collaboration despite the sparseness of the composer’s texture.  Nicholson’s flute remained impressive throughout the recital; his attack precise, articulation spot-on, all informed by a fluent approach to rhythm.  Smith and Larsens complemented each other, the mellow violin contrasting with a more deliberate viola.  But the ensemble impressed right from the unisons and rapid interplay of the Entrata before an amiable reading of the Tempo ordinario d’un menuetto, gifted with two splendid trios.  Despite the difficulty of keeping one’s nose clean during the transparent Andante con variazioni, you had to listen hard to detect any pitch problems in those mellifluous pages, while the final two rapid movements showed an admirable deftness, especially in the infectious repetitions of the final Allegro‘s Mozartian main theme where violin and viola engaged in some subtle and unexpectedly courteous interweaving.

As for the concluding Ravel, Mu contributed a supple texture to the mix, taking her time with the interpolated cadenzas and showing an awareness of her primacy; after all, Ravel wrote the piece as a demonstration of the Erard’s new 1905 chromatic instrument.  The composite sound of the septet in this hall’s acoustic acquired a remarkable warmth, even in soft shimmering passages for the string quartet, but the outstanding feature of this version was an absence of hysteria or whipping-up of excitement through forcing the pace.  The Allegro followed its path with a poise that the composer would have appreciated, notably Mu’s solo two bars after Number 11, the explosion at the tres anime  point at Number 17, and the gradual acceleration 18 bars from the end.  Rather than over-pointing the work’s elation, these players opened windows on to its transparency and festively rhapsodic sparkle.

 

 

 

April Diary

Sun April 2

BACH VIOLIN CONCERTOS

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

That’s mainly what Richard Tognetti and his cohorts are offering: three of the violin concertos.  As far as I can work out, the man himself is soloist in the E Major No. 2, the one that starts with three chords and was later transposed by Bach for harpsichord soloist. Then, I think Tognetti will collaborate with Helena Rathbone in the D minor Double Concerto, forever associated in my memory with Oistrakh father and son – a performance that defies improvement.   Adding Satu Vanska to the mix, the Three Violin Concerto emerges, a reconstruction of the Three Harpsichords Concerto  BWV 1064.  And Tognetti offers some arrangements – the rapid-fire Preludio from the E Major Violin Partita and the E flat Cello Suite’s Sarabande.  Putting some Classical-era flesh into the stew are two Haydn symphonies  –  The Philosopher No. 22 and the G Major No. 27, both written about a decade-and-a-bit after Bach’s death; presumably inserted here on the principle that you can have a bit too much Bach.

This program will be repeated on Monday April 3 at 7:30 pm.

 

Friday April 7

MATTHEW McDONALD: ON THE DOUBLE

Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

This musician is principal with the Berlin Philharmonic, so he’d be expert in knowing what his instrument can do beyond Bottesini show-pieces and the Mahler Symphony No. 1 slow movement.  He begins with Mozart’s marvellous flight of fancy, the Serenata Notturna with a bass forming part of the concertino.  The evening concludes with Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite, which has a prominent bass role in the 7th movement, Vivo.  In the centre comes Francaix’s Mozart new-look, a 1981 bagatelle for bass and wind instruments based on the Don Giovanni serenade, Deh vieni alla finestra.  Then McDonald centres the solid four-movement Divertimento concertante by Nino Rota.  As well, he outlines some tangos arranged by bassist Peter Grans called Memories from the City of Turku which, in the version I’ve seen, involves only a quartet of basses.

 

Sunday April 9

FIERY FINGERS AND LILTING LOVE SONGS

Team of Pianists

Rippon Lea at 6:30 pm

Beginning its yearly series at the National Trust mansion in Elsternwick, the Team hosts a vocal quartet  –  soprano Cleo Lee-McGowan, mezzo Shakira Dugan, tenor Michael Petruccelli, bass Daniel Carison – in the Brahms Neue Liebeslieder Walzer which I haven’t heard live for many years.   In fact, I can’t recall the singers from the last time but I’m pretty sure that TOP musicians were involved at that recital in the unusual surrounds of 101 Collins Street’s foyer/atrium.  The piano four-hands accompaniment on this night will be provided by senior partners Max Cooke and Darryl Coote.  One of the Team’s products, Kevin Suherman, will play some piano solos: the first two Chopin Scherzi, Rachmaninov’s arrangements of Kreisler’s Liebeslied and Liebesfreud, and Carl Vine’s Five Bagatelles of 1994, the year of Suherman’s birth.  Cooke and Coote are also playing Debussy’s Petite Suite in its original four-hands version.

 

Wednesday April 12

EMMA MATTHEWS

Elizabeth Murdoch Hall

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Appearing here in the MRC’s Great Performers series, the Australian soprano is working in collaboration with UK pianist/conductor/repetiteur Richard Hetherington.  She starts out well enough with three Schubert lieder (Gretchen am Spinnrade, Du bist die Ruh, An die Musik), followed by a bit of Richard Strauss in Morgen!   But then the operatic temptation proves too much.   She has programmed Bellini’s Ah, non giunge (La Sonnambula), the Mad Scene from that same composer’s Hamlet, Donizetti’s O luce di quest’ anima (Linda di Chamounix),  Bernstein’s Glitter and Be Gay (Candide),  Lehar’s Meine Lippen sie kussen (Giuditta). Victor Herbert’s Art is calling for me (The Enchantress), Kern’s All the Things You Are (Very Warm for May), and a stand-alone from Flanders and Swann: A word on my ear.  It’s rather like the sort of program that Sutherland used to give: a potpourri  with thrilling moments, although I never warmed to arias with piano accompaniment.  What do I know? This will probably be a house-full night.

 

Friday 14 April

ST. JOHN PASSION

Melbourne Bach Choir and Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 3 pm

Last year about this time, the Bach-centric organization presented a fine interpretation of the St. Matthew Passion.  So why not essay another main pillar of the Easter season in the composer’s liturgical chain?   Again, conductor Rick Prakhoff has acquired the services of Andrew Goodwin as his Evangelist – a standout artist in this genre.  Warwick Fyfe resumes the Christus role.  Lorina Gore returns for the soprano arias; Henry Choo takes on the tenor contributions once more; Jeremy Kleeman is turning up for his second year with bass responsibilities.   As well, Prakhoff’s choir is a formidable group, well prepared and capable of striking empathy with those intensely moving chorales that punctuate the work.  As last year, the concert is being given on Good Friday; it shouldn’t make a difference to your reception, but somehow it does.  I’m hoping for another red letter performance along the same lines as in March 2016.

 

Friday April 21

CARMINA BURANA

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

Here is the Big Daddy of 20th century choral works, Carl Orff’s percussive and modernist version of medieval Latin/German/Provencal poems, involving three soloists, three choirs and a massive orchestra.  The opening strophes are part of the lexicon of modern advertising, very familiar to audiences the world over.  The music is very attractive, packed with singable melodies and striking illustrative effects, although its modernity has always been a vexed question: it occupies a layer of popular barbarism some streets away from the worlds of more serious composers, and these Carmina are the only pieces by the composer that you hear these days.  Soprano soloist is Eva Kong, the much-tested tenor is John Longmuir, and Warwick Fyfe sings the baritone part.  All are artists with Opera Australia. Yu Long from the China Philharmonic, Shanghai Symphony and Guangzhou Symphony Orchestras conducts and the MSO Chorus is assisted by the National Boys Choir.  As a filler, the MSO will play Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2, beginning with a magical Daybreak scene and ending in one of music’s most erotically suggestive General Dances.

This program will be repeated on Saturday April 22 at 8 pm and on Monday April 24 at 6:30 pm.

 

Saturday April 29

IN HONOUR OF LIFE: 20TH CENTURY SELECTIONS

Ensemble Gombert

Xavier College Chapel at 5:30

To begin a rather shorter year than usual in its Xavier series, this exemplary vocal group is taking on some unusual near-contemporary works, leaving till last one of the greatest in Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir, last sung here in July 2016 by the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge in a perception-sharpening, elegant interpretation.  Leading up to this challenge, John O’Donnell takes his singers through American composer/conductor Steven Sametz’s in time of, an e e cummings setting in its 1997 a cappella version for that fine group Chanticleer; Sametz is the only writer on this program who is still alive.  English musician John McCabe is represented by his double-choir Motet of 1979 to verses by the Irish poet John Clarence Mangan; this musician’s compositions are rarely heard here – in fact, my main memory of him is as a pianist working through Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis in the great days of the Port Fairy Music Festival under the late lamented Michael Easton. Welsh composer Mervyn Burtch’s Three Sonnets of John Donne sets some familiar lines in Batter my heart, Oh my blacke Soule! and Death be not proud – all in a simple SATB format.  Czech composer Antonin Tucapsky’s In honorem vitae suite of five madrigals on texts by Horace is also written for 4-part choir.

 

Sunday April 30

BEYOND BAROQUE

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 2:30 pm

Principal violist with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Christopher Moore will be the soloist here with the Telemann Concerto in G Major and a reconstruction by Wilfried Fischer of Bach’s E Major Keyboard/Violin Concerto (see above the Australian Chamber Orchestra on April 2/3).  Director William Hennessy surrounds these with a C. P. E. Bach Sinfonia in E minor, arranged for strings alone and called by the strange sobriquet Fandango, which I can’t hear in it.  Another Telemann piece, the Volker-Ouverture, is bracketed with the composer’s viola concerto; the overture-suite gives mini-pictures of the French (by means of two minuets), Turks, Swiss, Muscovites, and Portuguese before throwing the game away and ending with musical portraits of non-nationalistic types in Les boiteux (hobblers) and Les coureurs (runners).   Spreading the family joy around will be eldest son W. F. Bach’s Sinfonia in F Major which adds a pair of minuets to the normal three-movement structure.

This program will be repeated on Thursday May 4 in the Deakin Edge, Federation Square at 7:30 pm

 

 

 

Respectful treatment of an old favourite

H.M.S. PINAFORE

Melbourne Opera

Athenaeum Theatre

March 14, 15 17, 18 and April 22 (Robert Blackwood Hall)

 

 Melbourne-Opera-H.M.S.-Pinafore-starring-David-Gould-and-Claire-Lyon-editorial

                            David Gould and Claire Lyon

I was aware of Gilbert and Sullivan operas from school days.  Indeed, G&S productions were my secondary school’s solitary cultural product, so I got to know intimately the chorus workings of Patience, Iolanthe, The Mikado and The Gondoliers at a young age.  Later, as a teacher/repetiteur, I  came across the Savoy Operas once more at a school where, again, the solitary musical effort was exerted on an annual production.  So, as well as the ones named above, I became familiar with the full range – several of them three or four times over – with the exception of Utopia Limited and The Grand Duke.

Without denigrating these youthful activities, I have to admit that much of the time involved with productions was spent marshalling Year 12 young women and men to get through their choruses with something resembling four-part harmony intact, as well as watching other elders instruct and negotiate endless hours of choreography practice and handle the easily-bruised egos of minor-age principals in negotiating vocal lines outside their natural abilities.   Still, an inside knowledge of Sullivan’s scores has broken through several social/personal barriers in my time.

What you miss out on when dragging half-willing adolescents into the worlds of Lady Sangazure and Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd is Gilbert’s brilliant satire.  Yes, the easy laughs we have always with us but the critiques that the librettist offered of his own civilization get left by the wayside in the pursuit of colour and movement.  So the continual commentaries on aristocracy, capital, religion, feminism, racism and psychological frailty get overlooked or are given lip service in favour of belting out the rousing choruses, the arias and ensembles that everybody loves.

Fortunately, Melbourne Opera has entered into their opening H.M.S. Pinafore production for 2017 with persuasive gusto and, alongside giving the music its proper due, the company ensures that Gilbert’s biting commentary on ‘station’, jack-in-office stupidity and sacred cows is given prominence at every point.   It’s been a while since I’ve seen a production that keeps these underpinning themes at the forefront; not even the national company’s recording with Anthony Warlow, David Hobson and Tiffany Speight hones in on the script as well as this version from director/choreographer Robert Ray.

I can’t compete with true G&S aficionados in this city like Jim Murphy and the late David Thomas with the scores and libretti (and movements!) at their fingertips, but I can tell the appropriate – not necessarily the D’Oyly Carte – thing from the ersatz, modernised presentations that stretch an opera’s possibilities.  For Melbourne Opera, Ray has kept the faith; even more than this, he has restored Captain Corcoran’s solo (or is it a duet?), Reflect, my child, as well as the original recitative setting of the work’s final dialogue.  He has also constructed stage pictures that are spot-on – sailors in the right gear, the sisters/cousins/aunts straight out of My Fair Lady‘s Ascot scene, plenty of braid on Sir Joseph and credible billowing skirts on Buttercup.

As most musicians know, Sullivan’s scores don’t require a superlative technique but they depend on variety of attack to ameliorate plenty of jog-trot rhythm and – like the stage operations – the pit needs to be synchronous with the singers; no Wagner-type half-beat elisions and delays can succeed in this crisp, open music.   Conductor Greg Hocking controlled a pretty stalwart band, notable for a competent string group whose bowing was generally uniform, and a reliable double sextet of winds. Only a few points showed hesitation, and these were traditional trouble-spots for both chorus and principals.

Another benefit emerged in this chorus, both genders singing with loads of vim and purpose.  I’d forgotten what a joy it is to hear the women’s entry of Gaily tripping into the double chorus before the First Lord’s appearance: a combination of elements that sets you up for similar delights in the later operas.  The MO women proved a fine counterweight to the hefty sailors, who were blessed with some fine tenors.  Ray had positioned them all carefully enough with few signs of cramped movement although the Athenaeum stage is not large.  Still, Gregory Carroll’s bright ship-deck design with a raised quarter-deck platform  tucked into a stage corner gave the performers some latitude.

The company enjoyed the services of some excellent soloists just itching to get into their work.  David Gould sang an unusually powerful Sir Joseph Porter; he observed all that functionary’s effeteness and pattered through a good deal of ‘business’, but his bass didn’t stay on the quarter-strength level of some interpretations I’ve seen, attacking upper-register notes with chorus-reflecting power.  He found a fine balance in David Rogers-Smith’s Captain Corcoran, the bluffest of characters with Gilbert’s wickedly interposed layer of uncertainty and self-abasement in the presence of an upper-class bully.  His low tenor was well-pitched to the theatre’s acoustic and the orchestral challenges; further, he gave a welcome energy to I am the Captain of the Pinafore and subtle strength to the Fair moon, to thee I sing aria that opens the work’s second act – although something of a miscalculation occurred with an oddly soft attack on the final note.

As Josephine, Claire Lyon  contrived to be both agile and soulful, maintaining momentum and clarity of production (apart from an over-exerted top B flat) for Sorry her lot and later that dramatic spoof The hours creep on apace, resisting the temptation to overdraw the aria’s word-pictures.  On top of this, she has that admirable talent of knowing her responsibilities in an ensemble – duet, trio, riding above a chorus – and  exerting control over her dynamic superiority.   An irrelevance, but perhaps the most amusing part of the performance came when a young boy’s voice sang out ‘Hello, Mummy’ between Lyon’s Act 2 scena and the rollicking trio; I assume the lad was intimately connected to the cast.

Ralph Rackstraw, the opera’s working-class hero with an unknown silver spoon waiting for him in the wings, is often played for laughs, the tendency being to assume the manner of Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk.  Paul Biencourt did it straight, albeit with a pronounced lower-deck accent that dropped – as it should – for the singing and his verbose proposal to Josephine.   Despite living up to his name in physique, the tenor generated a ringing and secure colour for his opening madrigal: dreamy if not soppy by nature but treated here with a sensible discipline.  Andrea Creighton played a fine Buttercup, a character who has to hit melodramatic heights at every turn.  As with the rest of this cast, she managed to err on the side of the angels when faced with her character’s plethora of asides and gave excellent value in the Things are seldom what they seem with Rogers-Smith, following the set moves of advance and retreat but projecting the catchphrases with fittingly amusing enigmatic force.

Jodie Debono made a personable Hebe, managing not to turn into an instant termagant when she eventually got Sir Joseph’s hand; Finn Gilheany matched Rogers-Smith in assertive projection and Peter Hanway worked through the light responsibilities of the Carpenter with a matching heartiness.  Rounding out the crew was the Dick Deadeye of Roger Howell, who seems to have been singing for as long as I’ve been alive and has lost nothing along the way in energy, characterization skills and accurate delivery.  He kept up a fine line in angularity and curmudgeonliness but still has a splendidly rich texture, as in his Kind Captain duet with Rogers-Smith.

Ray had also added Rule Britannia to the final scene, an interpolation by Sullivan for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897.   It probably made more of an impression at the time but these days, by the time you’ve heard A British tar and various reprises of He is an Englishman!, the nationalistic paint is reeking pretty thickly.

Nevertheless, this reading of Pinafore is thoroughly enjoyable for any spectator, indoctrinated Savoyard or someone fresh to the field.  Sullivan’s music maintains its elevating high spirits across the years (nearly 140) and Gilbert’s acerbic take on Victorian England’s pretensions and foibles cuts even more sharply with the benefit of our hindsight.   No wonder the old crone of Balmoral detested him.

 

 

 

An earthbound magic

THE SLEEPING BEAUTY

Victorian Opera

Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne

March 11, 14, 15, 17 at 7:30 pm and March 18 at 1 pm

 

Sleeping Beauty

                                                                          The King

 

Much has been made of the costumes and puppets in this new production from our state company; much effort has been liberally expended on this area, each of the central characters having a ‘front’ figure manipulated by puppeteers as well as a singer in modern-day mufti to sing Respighi’s notes.  This conceit is sustained right up to the end when the figures of Beauty and her Prince appear for the final hurdles, each pretty much en clair apart from some masks that disappear post-kiss.

Joe Blanck’s designs for these manipulated figures are a random collection, the best of them that for the King.   Some of the others are depressing to look at, reminiscent of the trolls in Peter Jackson’s first The Hobbit film; among these I’d include the Ambassador and his Trumpeter, and the Old Lady who holds the fatal spindle that brings on the story’s central disaster.   Having noted this unsettling quality to some figures, and the disturbing Japanese ghost shape allotted to the benevolent Blue Fairy, I’ll allow that others have a Saturday-arvo-pantomime appeal, like the sprightly chorus of frogs at the opera’s start, the spry Jester-in-the-form-of-a-cat, and the plot-recapping Woodcutter who takes the shape of a lumbering, stage-dominating tree.

It all makes for a mobile scene sequence;’ for the most part, the story unfolds visually quite well, apart from the lengthy action for birds on flexible poles during the first pages and the following florid duet for Nightingale and Cuckoo, as well as the unavoidable longueur as the castle goes to sleep for four centuries.

Of more importance, the company’s musical work maintains a high level throughout the work, with only a few bumps along the way.   Conductor Phoebe Briggs and director Nancy Black have elected to run the three acts into a single sitting; not that such a move is a disadvantage to anyone as the cast exposure shifts all the time and any orchestra tutti sticks out obviously in this voice-focused composition.

I think that the company has opted for the original 1922 scoring which calls for a celesta and harpsichord.   But Tom Griffiths could also be heard on piano, which instrument comes from the 1934 revision.   Whichever it is, the band – made up largely of guest musicians – played this lyrically attractive neo-Romantic music with lashings of sentiment at the right spots, the body gifted with a clean brass trio and a small group of well-attuned strings.

As for the singers, their position was quite favourable.  Uncluttered by costumes and heavy make-up, leaving all the physical work to the puppeteers, they could concentrate on vocalising and remain assured that most people were not watching them.  The Nightingale/Cuckoo duet that begins the opera in a lush field of impressionism found Zoe Drummond and Shakira Tsindos sharing the labour – and the pages are not easy; although not asking for dynamic projection, they do hold an amount of fioriture that is high and exposed.  Timothy Newton made a clear and definite Ambassador, although he couldn’t avoid being handed a pretty bland characterization to deal with.  Elizabeth Barrow’s Blue Fairy enjoyed a fair amount of exposure – responding to the Ambassador’s request, presiding over the gift-granting to the Princess, then ameliorating the curse.- keeping a calm control over another high line, albeit one that tended to legato delivery.

The first familiar voice I heard was Timothy Reynolds singing the Jester, then later appearing as the cameo American, Mister Dollar, in Act 3.   A secure technique and vocal personality made his appearances welcome, especially as both were amusingly carried off in a production that occasionally tried too hard.   As the maleficent Green Fairy, Juel Riggall did a great line in irrational rage, her part not actually musical but full-bore declamation.   Singing the King, baritone Raphael Wong managed to match his bluff vocal colour with the benign if gruff-looking puppet figure – another escapee (one of the dwarves?) from The Hobbitt.  Sally Wilson sang two roles, the Queen and the Cat, but the first proved vocally uninteresting, notably in the Act 2 crisis, while the feline impersonation sounded over-loud and overdrawn.  Another two-role singer, the experienced mezzo Liane Keegan gave fine service as the Old Lady with the spindle, and had much less to do in the (normally soprano) part of the Duchess whom the Prince discards once he gets a whiff of the sleeping Princess.

Another familiar voice emerged in Act 2 with Jacqueline Porter lighting up the stage with a sparkling salute to spring as the Princess, bounding wilfully into the spinning process, sinking into a coma with suitably failing vocal strength, then rounding out her night in a shapely love duet.  Becoming a regular in the Victorian Opera lists, Carlos E. Barcenas sang a charming, ardent Prince, holding his own against a very active puppeteer (Vincent Crowley?) whose Douglas Fairbanks athleticism was well-matched by the tenor’s vehement but controlled power.  Finally, Stephen Marsh blazed out the Woodcutter’s solo with a beefiness that suited the physical proportions of his arboreal manifestation, a broad passage of play that succeeded mainly through Marsh’s ability to make the already known assume an unexpected interest – although a good deal is owed to Gian Bistolfi’s lines at this point.

At the end, the work was greeted with general acclaim even if it was difficult to categorize what we’d experienced – if you wanted to.  It’s definitely an opera, full to the brim with splendid vocal writing and some superb moments for orchestra, notably at hiatus points in the action and least of all when Respighi satirises the dance music of his own age.   But then, it’s an opera and also a mime-show.  Blanck’s puppets are the stage’s focus and, with that in mind, the production might have gained by having the singers do their work from the pit, as I think was done in the original presentations by the Teatro del Piccoli ; in this space, not much would have been lost.  As things turned out, the schizoid depiction of most characters left you a touch bewildered at points where the verbal action ratcheted up a notch or three.

And what of the vision behind the presentation?  The set remained pretty staid, with some tapered drums and circular platforms providing the framework for activity.   Philip Lethlean’s lighting plan veered to the gloomy until Act 3.  Yet the guiding spirit was certainly to amuse; no secret messages emerged – no ironic hints at subtle meanings or underlying depths to the characters.  What you see here is all there is – a relief when you consider what Helden-direktoren inflict on us under the slimmest of pretexts.   Sung in Italian, with translations projected on side walls, the performance makes clear efforts to cater for all audience members.

Yet the work remains earthbound; the magic isn’t calculated to generate wonder and the stage-pictures show few signs of adventurousness. However, this is an enterprise well worth visiting, if only because you’ll never see this Sleeping Beauty performed live again, I should imagine, and the musical values on show in this presentation are solid.

 

 

 

 

Movement at the station

YOUTH AND THE DANCE

Selby & Friends

Deakin Edge, Federation Square

Thursday March 9 at 7:30 pm

Grace Clifford

                                    Grace Clifford

Kathryn Selby began her subscription series in Melbourne with some depressing news, the most significant part being that she will be leaving the Deakin Edge space at Federation Square for another venue yet to be determined.  Apparently, the Square authorities will not permit reservations longer than a year in advance, not even from regular clients – which flies in the face of sensible business practice but what would you expect from this white elephant?   Selby has been on this path before following her move from Melba Hall at Melbourne University (which now won’t hire to any ‘outsiders’ – don’t you just love exclusivist purity?) and her options are few and far between, especially as the new venue of necessity must stock a piano.  We can all think of spaces but those fit for the purpose are close to non-existent.   You’d automatically think of the Recital Centre and its Salon, but the audience for Selby & Friends recitals is usually larger than can be accommodated in that room.

The less important matter was that one of the series sponsors, Cleanskins Wine, was unable to provide interval drinks since an Edge/Square regulation requires the presence of security officers to police the disorderly inebriates who frequent chamber music recitals and Selby can no longer afford to pay for such functionaries.  Not that this bothers some of us; if I have an interval drink these days, I tend to nod off before the final work’s second movement.   But it’s an aspect of conviviality that many others relish and, for the life of me, I can’t recall these public guardians actually doing anything constructive during the time that the ensemble has been appearing in the venue.

This all took some time to get through before Selby invited her guests onstage.   Both violinist Grace Clifford and cellist Clancy Newman have appeared previously as Friends and so are accustomed to the venue and their host.   Thursday night began with that most agreable of young works by Beethoven, the E flat Trio Op. 1 No. 1 and, from the initial bars, Selby took control as expected.   Beethoven gives most of the interest in all four movements to the keyboard and, whether I was sitting in a hot spot or the tuner had somehow heightened the piano’s resonance, the piano part dominated proceedings with an unexpected force.  In fact, the two strings have few chances to shine and stayed recessed, even though Selby was discreet in segments where her content is figuration-work.

Still, both Clifford and Clancy came into their own during the A flat Adagio, typified by sterling collaborative support after the home-key return at about bar 90.  While the Scherzo began as evenly balanced in dynamic, both strings effaced themselves to wallpaper status in the Trio where admittedly they have little to do but drone.  And, as anticipated, the real interest of the finale emerged through the vim and bounce from Selby, exemplified in her ability to colour even brief phrases and in her talent at working animation into the wide-ranging lines that Beethoven created.

For the Saint-Saens Trio No. 1 in F, we heard a good deal more vehemence from Clifford, although she and Clancy presented their work in a guarded manner, not extroverted enough for the first movement’s inbuilt melodic surges, nor a balance for the piano’s quicksilver flights and style of delivery.  In her pre-performance address, Clifford referred to the hurdy-gurdy imitation found in the last pages of this trio’s Andante and she contrived successfully to raise the spectre of Schubert’s Leiermann at several points in pages that proved one of the recital’s high-points, made all the more bracing by all three interpreters treating these pages briskly.  Most of the third movement Scherzo worked very well, the only question-mark coming in the coda with its sur deux cordes instruction to the violin; carried out properly, I’m sure, but the results sounded uncomfortable.  I blame Berlioz.

Saint-Saens gives free play to his inventiveness in the trio’s last movement which has Beethovenian proclamations, page after page of semiquavers for the keyboard, a chorale moment or two, and a concluding molto allegro gallop.  This material involved the string players more satsfactorily; even so, you still felt some reserve, an unwillingness to hurl themselves into the fray.   In other words, a neat interpretation but not one where sheer enthusiasm left you unaware of the formal cracks.

Dvorak in E minor, the Dumky, finished this night which had been further elongated by a preliminary set of observations from Newman and a long interval; some patrons had to creep out before the final movements, I suspect for public transport reasons.   The reading proved engaging, the performers keeping an eye on each other in a score packed with abrupt bursts of action and deliberate contrasts of slow melodic arches and abrupt bursts of folk-inflected angst.   Clifford experienced a bowing error during her first exposed statement in the initial Lento but this was a small lapse in pages that gave Clancy his first sustained exposure of the evening.  The violinist’s subdued support in the following Poco adagio made a subtle backdrop for the cellist’s moody announcement of the melodic content but Clifford sparkled in the pendant Vivace, although Selby let fly in both furioso sections.

The fourth movement, the Andante with muted strings, turned out to be the interpretation’s high-point, crowned with a luminously fine Allegretto coda – understated but eloquently shaped.  During the following Andante moderato/Allegretto scherzando, the problem of balance again reared up when Selby’s ringing upper register drowned out the strings’ obvious efforts, although the concluding Moderato proved exemplary. Reassuringly, the final two movements progressed easily, the musicians functioning as an integrated ensemble with lots of regard for the nationalistic fervour with which Dvorak suffused this popular work.

So, the night lived up to its title with two pretty youngish pieces from Beethoven and Saint-Saens, complemented by a welter of dances strung out across the length of the Dvorak gem.   If the trio combination on this night might not have impressed as balanced throughout all three works, you couldn’t complain  about the level of expertise.

Next in the series on May 24 will begin a half-hour later than usual  –  8 pm  –  to allow Sydney Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Andrew Haveron sufficient time to get from Sin City to the Deakin venue.   Selby’s cellist will be the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s principal, Timo-Veikko Valve, and the program comprises a striking set of arrangements: Haydn’s Miracle Symphony No. 96, revamped for piano trio by the impresario Salomon for whom the composer wrote this work, and quite a few others; a version of Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin  from Matt van Brink – the four orchestral pieces, not the full piano solo set; and Beethoven’s Triple Concerto with the original’s solo instruments doing all the work in a transcription by Carl Reinecke.

 

 

 

Light and leisurely

RINGING THE STRINGS

Concordia

Move Records MCD 557

 

concordia

 

It’s been a while since I heard a mandolin, let alone an ensemble of them.  Not surprising as the instrument appears rarely in serious music endeavours.   Like everyone else (except mandolin aficionados), for a long time I associated the instrument with Neapolitan love-songs and popular lyrics in the pre-Pavarotti era when tenors were real musicians despite their preference for musical schmaltz  –  Santa Lucia, Torna a Surriento and a whole catalogue of sloppy Tyrrhenian flim-flam.

Yet, every so often, the instrument appeared where you least expected.  Thanks to a fellow student, I found it, in my early student days, lodged in Schoenberg’s Serenade Op. 24, playing up to the stringent aesthetic that infects the work.  Then it appeared in Mahler’s Symphonies 7 and 8, as well as Das Lied von der Erde.  Webern employed it sparingly in his Five Pieces for Orchestra Op. 10; Stravinsky also called for it in the ballet Agon.  But its most common appearance for most of us comes in Deh vieni alla finestra from Don Giovanni.  And that short catalogue of original music for the instrument takes no account of the significant Vivaldi and Paisiello concertos that, in these latter days, the master-mandolinist Avi Avital has resurrected for us during his recent tours with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.

So, for an instrument that gets typecast as a step below the guitar but a cut above the ukulele, the mandolin has endured a lot of downtime.   On this disc from the Concordia Mandolin and Guitar Ensemble, the main source of material is Michelle Nelson, the organization’s composer in residence, who provides a tarantella, a three-part suite and a five-part sequence of Midsummer Bagatelles.   These are original compositions, but Nelson also supplies arrangements of Faure’s violin/piano Op. 16 Berceuse and Erik Satie’s Valse-ballet.

The other components of this rather brief disc (47 minutes) are Sculthorpe’s Little Suite for Strings, A travers la Hongrie (Hungarian Journey) by French master-mandolinist Francois Menichetti, and East-West, the first movement of Sydney composer Steven Lalor’s World Music Suite.  In all, the CD has 16 tracks, which works out to about 3 minutes each; so the emphasis is on instant impact and congenial melody.

You get this right from the opening Kangarella where Nelson tries an Italian/Australian fusion, giving the spotlight to piano accordionist Juliette Maxwell for a catchy dance putting a neat chromatic-flavoured tune inside the 6/8 tarantella rhythm.  Faure’s miniature has gained an extra two bars of harmless introduction and then lost much of its original torso.

It’s hard to object to the arrangement of Satie’s defenceless Waltz-ballet; Maxwell’s accordion has a starring role, which only reinforces the highly suggestive La Ronde atmospherics, and the additions at start and end are undisturbingly cosmetic. The CD’s title work by Nelson is the previously mentioned and amiable tripartite suite: an Allegretto where the Concordia guitars and mandolins generally treat the straightforward plain-speaking material together; Barcarolle and Waltz, probably more latter than former, and somewhat tedious because the main rhythmic cell is repeated over-conscientiously in the movement’s first section; a Rondo conclusion showing some moments of awkward negotiation in its initial allegro pages, while the central grazioso lives up to its title with some fetching tremolo work even though some of the bridging modulations int he last section are clumsy in construction.  Nelson binds the suite together by making her final movement’s main melody a variant of that which dominates the opening Allegretto.

Sculthorpe’s 1983 suite – another Nelson arrangement –  suits the Concordia personnel remarkably well, right from the opening Sea Chant with its simple folksy tune treated with calm discretion, through the appealing and whimsical Little Serenade that makes a virtue of the mildest of syncopations, to the most well-known of these pieces, the Left Bank Waltz – slightly asymmetric in phrasing and, in its scene-setting owing so much to Satie, Auric and Monsieur Hulot.  It might have something to do with the arranger’s skill but this trio of pieces sounds idiomatic in this performing context and very deftly carried off, even in the last pages of the Waltz where inspiration flags.

Nelson’s Bagatelles open with A Foggy Morn, which is actually a placid waltz-rhythm piece that sets up the English bucolic backdrop that inspired this cycle.  Strawberry Fair  is a jig with a perfectly proportioned central theme at its start and finish with some harmless central padding.   In Bullocks may graze safely, you’d expect a Bach reference or two, but the atmosphere is one of noon-time torpor and a slow-moving melodic arch that doesn’t go very far and moves in simple steps.   A Midsummer Dance gives a fairly good imitation of a 6/8 country frolic; again, the tune is simplicity itself, as is the harmonic vocabulary. Midsummer Nocturne, the longest of the five pieces in the set,  is more of a lullaby with some gently rocking underpinning and welcome interludes from the ensemble’s guitars.

To conclude come two showpieces.  Menichetti’s Hungarian frolic begins with a nicely calculated lassu before making the inevitable turn to fast 2/4-Liszt Rhapsody motion. In later pages, the piece reproduces so many tropes of Zigeuner compositions that the listener feels quite at home with what is basically Central European kitsch, especially when the tempo moves into a fast waltz, then the necessary friska coda.   Lalor’s piece features the solo mandolin of Michelle Wright and is suggestive of much music you hear on both sides of Aegean, with a powerful suggestion of massed bouzoukia and a more diatonic-than-usual use of the oud, the band operating in a modally inflected D minor framework at the score’s centre before reverting to the opening major optimism.

Concordia’s musical director Basil Dean has a dedicated band of performers to work with and the music heard on this CD is fairly well carried out by them all, if some tracks seem more stolid than exhilarating.   Here is a good deal of easy listening, the works selected for their charm and felicitous adaptability to the mandolin/guitar forces available. While there are no Schoenbergian shocks, this CD is amiably honest in its prime intention of entertaining.

 

 

Smooth if occasionally heavy

ROCOCO CELLO

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Sunday March 5 at 2:30 pm

li-wei-quin

  Li-Wei Qin

In a program for the MCO’s true believers, Sunday afternoon’s concert didn’t have much rococo about it, strictly speaking.  Popular cellist Li-Wei Qin fronted the Tchaikovsky Variations on a Rococo Theme but it’s a stretch to call the tune itself anything but a Classical/Romantic fusion.  The rest of the afternoon featured Mozart’s Idomeneo Overture with its pendant Chaconne and Pas seul de Mr le Grand, the Haydn G Major Symphony No. 88 and C.P.E. Bach’s A Major Cello Concerto Wq 172 which came closest to the rococo classification but sits some decades outside it temporally and at least a generation past it intellectually.

Michael Dahlenburg conducted three of these works, leaving the Bach concerto’s direction in the experienced hands of leader William Hennessy, the orchestra’s presiding eminence.. With the Idomeneo bracket, the main impression was of jubilation, the score representing a celebration of the organization’s start to another year’s work.  For a pretty straightforward work, you had to hand it to Dahlenburg: he showed a confident awareness of the spacious sound he wanted and he cued impeccably – nothing unnecessary or over-pointed.  His forces responded with plenty of zeal and an invigorating bounce from the strings; the only flaw I heard was a muffed horn note in about bar 44 of the Pas seul.  But the reading proved excellent, well calculated to open an opera seria distinctive for its polish and subtle melodic content.

Li-Wei gave an object lesson while performing Emanuel Bach’s benign concerto with its agreable angularity of line and sudden harmonic jolts.  In front of only 14 strings, the soloist had no difficulty in projecting  a resonant timbre throughout, the only strident note emerging in the middle of the first movement’s development with an over-emphatic conclusion to a hectic passage featuring a plethora of semiquavers; relief to get there unscathed, I suppose.

In the program, this work’s second movement was billed as Largo maestoso.  Well, that’s half-right – it’s a largo but mesto, and con sordini.  Despite its misnaming, the performance proved admirable in shape and steady progress.  Later, the finale came over with infectious vigour, a real bite to the violins’ triple and quadruple stops with all concerned applying just enough tension to the composer’s sudden halts in the action.

For the Haydn symphony, Dahlenburg returned and led a remarkably clean operation, with few glitches from the brass quartet and a fine amplitude of colour in the opening Adagio.  I found the accents and/or sforzandi too heavy in the Menuetto, even more so in the Allegretto/Trio. And, while you could hear every note sound clearly in the final Allegro, a continuation of the sparkling opening bars would have been more exhilarating than the rhythmic variations and heftiness that took over before the movement was far advanced.

The Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations is one of the repertoire’s gems, without a doubt, but you’re lucky to strike a reading that satisfies; too often, the sense of effort is almost palpable and most executants over-strain at their work when a simple delineation of the notes would serve the composer much better.  I last head Li-Wei perform this some years ago – with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, I think – and that reading proved a trial because the soloist seemed uncomfortable in his work.  This time around, the outcome was much more convincing, in some part due to the (obvious) chamber quality of the fabric where the wind choir, especially in their recurring post-variation commentary, were very exposed.

Li-Wei offered a lucid view of the solo line, happy to reserve his warmest colour for the Variation III Andante sostenuto which he lavished with an all-embracing vibrato and a disciplined rubato both here and in the minore Andante Variation VI, still having plenty of powder dry for the preceding cadenza.  A wonky harmonic aside, this was a top-notch interpretation, full of the milk of Tchaikovsky’s kindness yet capable of brisk drive and a confident despatch of the technical fireworks. During the later stages, the clarinet duo dominated the woodwind choir on occasions, their support drowning out the more melodically important matter carried by oboes and flutes.  But, more importantly, Dahlenburg exerted a flexibility of phrase-shaping in most parts of the score that did justice to this amiable music.

 

 

 

 

All this and Harvey too

CONCERTO FOR PIANO AND TOY BAND

Adam Simmons Creative Music Ensemble

fortyfivedownstairs

Friday March 2 to Sunday March 5

adam-simmons

                                                       Adam Simmons

Not exactly an unknown entity in Melbourne, Adam Simmons and his Creative Music Ensemble have made creative jazz their playing field   The group is an octet – well, it was for this latest venture: three saxophones, two trumpets, trombone, double bass and drums. A combination that you might think would be top-heavy, but the range is pretty wide, especially when you hear the leader on sopranino sax and the high reaches gained by Gemma Herbury and Gavin Cornish with their trumpets.   For this one-work program, Simmons had also gained the collaboration of master-pianist Michael Kieran Harvey, soloist for his concerto.

Despite the coy disclaimers and reservations semi-articulated at the start of Thursday night’s performance by Simmons himself, this is a real concerto, one where the spotlight shines on the piano and the ensemble alike.   The composer has divided his score into three parts, topped, tailed and divided by a fragmented Confucian quote that had me bamboozled right from the start.   It refers to ‘the Grand Master of Lu’, whom I confused with the contemporary exponent of the True Buddha School, Lu Sheng-Yen  .  .  .  but it’s not him at all.   The quotes from the Grand Master refer to ‘the Ancients’ Music’ and its character; moreover, the cited performance descriptors have direct relevance to what the listener hears – a ‘strict unison’, an expansion of permitted ‘liberty’, then a ‘harmonious, brilliant, consistent’ tone that sustains itself to the music’s end.

All of which tends to project Simmons’ work onto a high plane of operations, moving up that major transcendental musical scale to enlightenment.  Except that this particular music is well-grounded in our worldly plane.   Right from the start, the concerto confronts the listener physically with the ensemble blasting away on a unison note in ever-mobile rhythmic patterns; an avalanche of unanimity scarred, of course, by intonative imperfections that you suspect are intentional.   After this pounding prelude, Harvey entered with a lengthy solo of compressed rigour, taking up on the variegated matter that followed the ensemble’s initial fanfare.

Simmons has constructed a real score, notated with, I suspect, some improvisatory insertions as the concerto moves forward, witnessed by the leader’s signals to stop playing after a sufficiently hectic climax has been constructed.  Further, in the best Classical/Romantic fashion, you are presented with passages that fuse Harvey’s ever-mobile piano with the ensemble.   The composer has varied his output with some delicate arabesques serving as a relief from tension, the piano generating a neo-impressionist sound world, best exemplified at the stage where the other instrumentalists inflated balloons and placed them on the strings of Harvey’s grand, then removing and popping them.

The only miscalculation came right at the end when a tremendous fabric was constructed that had the saxophone trio heading a generous sonic wall with Harvey pounding out chord clusters, then hand-smashes, finally employing both arms to belt out welters of noise across the keyboard.  Simmons halted this abruptly; there was a blackout, and the audience burst into applause – excited or relieved, take your pick.   But the end of the concerto  – the final Confucian quote – was yet to come: a recited line and some muted valedictory fragments.

You can’t blame the listeners.  Most of them have been bred to a musical experience that demands a reaction after an exciting (for which, read ‘loud’) build-up ending with any form of cadence, orthodox or simply curt.  You see it year after year at the Myer Bowl free concerts by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra where applause breaks out after every concerto or symphony first movement.  It’s a relief from tension, possibly, or a willingness to extend or participate in the energy an audience has witnessed.  In the case of this work, the clapping and yips of excitement were inevitable.

Another query came as you had to grapple mentally with the toy band nomenclature.  For a long time, the players did nothing out of the ordinary.   Eventually, toys were brought into play – rattles, toy trumpets and saxophones, tops, clappers, rubber fish/ducks/chooks, musical ratchets.  From memory, these took over at two specific points and acted as palate-cleansers before the players returned to their regular sound-sources.  You’d assume that these interludes fleshed out the philosophical underpinning that supported Simmons’ piece and, indeed, all his music.

I find it hard to comment on the concept that asks of art that it be useful.  Simmons is dedicated to this aesthetic and there’s much to commend it.  But, at present, I’m unclear as to what end the usefulness is being directed.  Towards the listener? The creator? The performers? The state? All of these?  And, most difficult of all, who determines whether or not the work has achieved its aim?  Of course: the critic.

Harvey played with that combination of refinement and vehemence we have come to anticipate on each of his appearances.  While the final full-body bout made marvellous theatre, the earlier sections where the keyboard writing’s content was digitally complex and dynamically sharp-edged yielded the more engrossing experiences, the pianist’s control and informed vitality as remarkable to watch as to hear.  Further, Harvey is one of the few pianists I know who can sit on the cusp of formal, fully-written composition and extemporisation, leaving you uncertain in which arena he is actually operating.

Simmons is fortunate in his ensemble, as well as in Harvey’s participation.  The front line sax trio with Simmons himself continuously bobbing with delight, a relatively reserved Cara Taber on alto and Gideon Brazil’s ebullient tenor made an intriguing study in contrasts of all kinds; Herbury is one of the most enthusiastic trumpeters you’ll ever see, partnered by Gavin Cornish who can be just as strident in timbre.  Bryn Hills produced a highly mobile trombone line, very adept in the concerto’s more rhythmically complicated stanzas, with Howard Cairns’ bass an amiable, bemused support.  The best compliment you can pay Hugh Harvey on drums is that he knows his place and that isn’t just drowning everyone else but rather offering a sturdy, right-on-the-beat reinforcement without attention-grabbing flourishes.

At a time when really adventurous musical events are rare, this night was a breath of fresh air, leaving you elated with its accomplishment.  Inevitably, it brought to mind other writers and other experiences, although some of the concerto’s more brutalist pages suggested nobody more than Xenakis.   Yet the innate flexibility of structure and obvious coherence took me a long way back to the jazz experimental forays of the 1950s and 1960s – not just in the United States, but also here when Barry McKimm, Robert Rooney and Sid Clayton were playing in a new style that fused freedom and discipline. Simmons’ concerto operates on a similar plane of invention but has a novel edge through the composer’s appealing delight in his own good-humoured aggression.