Prize-winner’s bombardment

Andrey Gugnin

Camberwell Grammar School Performing Arts Centre

Tuesday August 29

                                   Andrey Gugnin

Coming to the end of a packed cross-country tour that would cripple most performers, the Sydney International Piano Competition winner for 2016 made his solitary Melbourne appearance at a lavishly appointed auditorium in the city’s private school eastern suburbs belt.   Camberwell Boys Grammar has enjoyed a building acceleration over the past few decades and its Performing Arts Centre auditorium holds a grandiose attractiveness, including an imposing front-of-house space, fairly comfortable conditions for its audiences, and a wide stage which, for this event, had a reflecting screen behind the performer – the sort of thing you see at Selby & Friends recitals or pretty much everything at the Australian National Academy of Music.

The hall also boasts a thick carpet that covers the foyer steps and the interior, with an emasculating loss of resonance as a consequence.  Not that you can do much else in an environment where schoolboys are the natural inhabitants, along with their innate propensities for noise-making.  Not only did Gugnin have to make allowances for a muffling acoustic, but also he was saddled with an uneven instrument –  a Fazioli grand?  –   that showed at its best in this night’s action-packed second half rather than in the staid Bach-and-Schubert opening gambits where the player’s softer passages held little textural interest.  A pity that we couldn’t have heard the school’s own Steinway, but then that company wasn’t sponsoring this tour.

Tuesday found Gugnin working through the larger of the two programs he has been taking on tour, opening with the Bach Adagio in G Major, a transcription for keyboard of the first movement from the composer’s C Major Sonata for solo violin.  This is a worthy settling-down piece, two pages’ worth of little activity that winds up on a dominant chord which took this particular audience by surprise, so that Gugnin was able to move without a ripple into the Schubert D Major Sonata.

Despite the handicap of his operating conditions, the prize-winner made a good deal out of this experience.  He followed an individual path across all four movements, finding a satisfying dynamic interplay across the score by refraining from the over-histrionic, so that the outer movements came across as restrained in temperament, more consistent in atmosphere than you usually hear from young interpreters.  For instance, the usual shift at the Un poco piu lento passages conveyed its message by relying on the modulatory jump in each case, rather than by confronting the listener with a pounding fortissimo.

For the concluding Rondo, Gugnin demonstrated a welcome insight, keeping the temperature low even when the movement reached its higher stages of ferment – the long central G Major episode – and not making a meal of the juxtaposed changes in dynamic enunciation.  Just as impressive work came at the final pages when the composer decorates his perky theme with chains of irrepressible semiquavers, right up to the simple, moving last three bars.   Gugnin showed his grasp of this movement, one that pivots on a touching combination of fluency and unaffected charm, a duality you find in the countryside Schubert, his personality not over-awed by his great contemporary.

Certain sections of the central Con moto pages were carried out with fine control, but here the instrument/hall combination made itself most prominent.  Both opening and closing passages are muted and the pianist was unable to give them room to breathe as his sound deteriorated quickly.  The action-packed middle section fared a good deal better, treated with an impressive impetus but – a trademark of this reading – not hammered home in the two-hands full chord punctuating exclamations.  If Gugnin reserved his power for the Allegro vivace, you could understand why: the scherzo itself has a remarkable buoyancy that surges out at the double-bar half-way through where the pianist blazed into action, pulling back for the simplicity of the movement’s trio, giving here an object lesson in maintaining a melody’s distinctive path over a relentlessly full chordal support.

The night’s second half was almost completely all-Russian, beginning with Shostakovich’s Sonata No. 1 of 1926, a highly impressive piece that is rarely heard because of its relentless physical demands and the unremitting percussive dissonance of its processes.  Here, Gugnin exploded into action with a fierce energy that made a brilliant apologia for a score basically unconcerned with its own portability, one of the young composer’s works that shows no signs of the orthodoxy of coming decades.

Michael Kieran Harvey featured as the odd man out in this recital’s second half, his G-Spot Tornado making a welcome appearance.  Extracted from the Australian composer/pianist’s 48 Fugues for Frank Zappa (which is, in fact, nothing of the sort), the piece is, after a portentous opening apostrophe, a moto perpetuo conceived as a dazzling and brilliantly conceived homage to Zappa’s original.  Gugnin made an excellent business of this toccata, at ease with its syncopations and the simple melody that flashes across the hectic, unstoppable accompaniment.  Although it lacked something of Harvey’s own flamboyance, this version sustained its interpretative grip and burbling effervescence.

Leonid Desyatnikov is not a name that you come across often, if at all.  Born in the Ukraine, he made his name as a film-music composer, then moved to the opera stage and theatre, providing a wealth of incidental music.  Gugnin presented his Reminiscences of the Theatre, seven characteristic pieces that could have come from any minor early 20th century French composer.  None of these bagatelles presented technical challenges similar to those of the two preceding works, but they had an agreable charm, the faster movements very much indebted to bitonality  –  that never-failing gift from Stravinsky to his countrymen.  As well as mainstream material, Gugnin has recorded some recherche Russian material – Arno Babadjanian’s Six Pictures, for instance, alongside both Shostakovich piano concertos  –  but this set of Reminiscences comes pretty close to salon music, albeit a touch more spiky than the usual run.

To end his program, the pianist played the Trois mouvements de Petrouchka, Stravinsky’s 1921 deconstruction of his own ballet for the delectation of Arthur Rubinstein.  Here, Gugnin produced a remarkable demonstration of intelligent virtuosity, the Danse russe much more telling than the customary percussive battering-ram but packed with deftly articulated detail, the player keeping a constant weather-eye out for the occasional close-to-swamped melody.  Both this set of pages and the following Chez Petrouchka came close to ideal in this pianist’s vision, the outlines lucid with some remarkable vaults across the keyboard that helped to explain why this pianist had won quite a few international competitions before he landed in Sydney.

Gugnin made a fine start on the finale, La semaine grasse, notable for a shimmering ripple imitating the string texture that features at the opening to this scene.  The trouble with the piece is that there is too much; where the orchestra offers textural change in the original ballet, this re-imagining preserves too much of the lavish material from the original scene and the piano-writing winds up sounding heavy-handed.  Further, the conclusion to this and the later concert version has a crassness of imagination when compared to the brilliantly achieved conclusion of the actual ballet – an unanswered question that bemused Diaghilev.

By the time Gugnin reached the end of his Shrovetide Fair, I’d had enough and the recital had run well overtime.  However, it completed a highly informative event that let us hear at first-hand what the Sydney jury had seen in Gugnin that singled him out.  I have to confess that the performer’s appearance had me fooled; from the publicity shots, including the one reproduced above, he looks remarkably young  –  possibly a late teenager.   He is, in fact, 30 and has a physical stature that argues for familiarity with gym work.   In the end, apart from his physical presence, Gugnin is  an impressive figure to see at work and obviously has the requisite talent to further a career that is already packed with appearances cross the globe.

 

Honest attempt at the improbable

LOHENGRIN

Melbourne Opera

Robert Blackwood Hall

Saturday August 19

                                                               Richard Wagner

The great advantage about getting to the last performance of anything is that you get the chance to garner the wisdom of your colleagues, read what they have to say about the event, retain what their findings have been while you sample the goods yourself, then have a rich backdrop of opinion on which to draw to justify your own.

Well, it could work like that except that, more often than not, the views of other writers tend to act as mental retardant; you can get distracted by too much unanimity about a singer’s worth or a generous communal appraisal of an orchestral contribution, or you can be startled into irrational action by the amount of space that fellow-writers give to ephemera – the costumes, lighting, scenery and directorial imprint.

So it has been with this Wagner work which enjoyed a three-night run in the Regent Theatre before this final performance in Monash University’s hall, rather than in its Alexander venue.

Without cavil I shared the universal approval of all six main principals, could almost go along with the approbation given to the company’s expanded orchestra, was mainly in agreement with the encomiums heaped on the chorus.  Yet it was hard to share in some of the minor enthusiasms that fleshed out several of the post-premiere notices.  Partly this was due to the change in venue.  I’ve not been inside the Regent Theatre for years; not since a younger Hugh Jackman appeared as Joe Gillis in Lloyd Webber’s one-and-a-half hit show Sunset Boulevard.  Without doubt, this Collins St. venue would have suited the opera more comfortably than did the university hall, although the latter had the asset of a long walkway from which choruses could be sung, brass ensembles could bray and even Phillip Calcagno’s Herald could carry out some proclaiming.

Here was one of the production’s unexpected surprises.  The Herald has the opera’s opening words, is the focus when Elsa’s appeal for a champion goes out, sets up the order of combat, then pronounces the changed state of affairs in Brabant before the wedding scene  –  Calcagno’s best moment,  his baritone well-pitched to the space and firm in its chain of announcements.

For the title role, Melbourne Opera brought back Marius Vlad, last year’s Tannhauser.  His tenor is a reliable quantity, only one passage in the lengthy Act 3 duet giving a short frisson of concern.  He negotiated the set pieces –  that rhapsodic self-introduction-of-sorts, Nun sei bedankt; the powerful summation of his final appeal to Elsa in Hochstes Vertrau’n; the blazoning power of In fernem Land where all becomes clear.  Accurate in intonation and, relative to some of his peers, observant of Wagner’s metre, Vlad does not power through his work; when set alongside some of the noted heldentenors who can bellow to order, his timbre is inclined to be nasal rather than gutsy.

Unlike many other observers, however, I thought that the tenor shone brightest in ensembles, notably the duets with Elsa: the first encounter beginning at Zum Kampf fur eine Magd which swept you up rapidly into their mutual, hastily organized commitment; the interchanges that constitute the last scene of Act 2 where Lohengrin turns the tables on Ortrud and Telramund; but especially the closest thing the score has to a love duet, Das susse Lied verhallt.

Of course, Vlad’s success in these segments was shared with Helena Dix’s Elsa, who established a viable character immediately from her character’s awkward entry onto the scene when you might have thought she was catatonic before launching into Einsam in truben Tagen.  By the time her desperate prayer started at Du trugest zu ihm, the soprano had contrived to move beyond the usual depiction of Elsa as more than a tad deranged, making a persuasive case for the heroine’s belief in her champion’s advent.

Later, Cox gave excellent service as the blissful beloved in Act 2 with a splendidly phrased reading of Euch Luften rising above the conspiratorial duet that interrupted its flow, and even managed to make Elsa seem less unctuous than usual during the character’s charitable adoption of Ortrud’s case.  Yet her most valuable contribution came in the later stages of the final act where her gradual progression from placid lyrical responsiveness to irrational insistence by way of self-pity brought on the inevitable tragedy.  Dix has a fine vocal armoury for roles like this with a firm projection informed by a supple command of Wagner’s semi-long phrases and a musicality that accommodates the occasional decorative inlay without over-emphasizing its presence.

Hrolfur Saemundsson initially carried all before him as Telramund, the accusations and nasty one-liners in Act 1 thrown off with exemplary energy and explosiveness.  You might have expected a continuation on the same level in the long duet that opens Act 2 but the baritone here appeared to be dramatically monochromatic, not conveying the swings between rage and depression that the action requires.  Matters improved for his confrontation at the Minster door, Den dort im Glanz, which achieved the necessary disruption of action and emotional backdrop with laudable vocal brawn.

Yet the outstanding figure in the principal quartet was  Sarah Sweeting’s Ortrud.  Not much more than an arrogant cipher at the opera’s opening with a bare six lines in ensemble work, the singer could do little but posture.  But the extended duet of recrimination and revenge that opens the second act gave this singer plenty of scope as she manipulated her husband and laid the groundwork for Elsa’s downfall.  Indeed, it is hard to recall any part of the production that succeeded as powerfully as Ortrud’s Entweihte Gotter! exhortation, launched at the audience with sense-heightening aggression.

It was complemented by Sweeting’s second bout of vituperation in this act, beginning at Zuruck, Elsa! which, like Saemundsson’s challenge a few moments later, brought a halt to the sweet self-satisfaction at work for everyone else.  Here, the impact of Ortrud’s defence of her husband and challenge to Lohengrin’s anonymity proved engrossing, the notes articulated with exemplary precision and barely leashed ferocity.

As King Henry the Fowler, bass Eddie Muliaumaseali’i followed the rest of the cast under Suzanne Chaundy’s direction and gave a direct account of the part, the only problem arising during his pre-combat solo, Mein Herr und Gott, where  the top F flat sounded underdone.  But the King’s contributions to the concluding scenes in both later acts proved stalwart and comfortably handled.

This final performance was conducted by Greg Hocking who worked through the score with level-headed competence.  The tempo for the opera’s Vorspiel seemed rather hasty for a real Langsam but the principals stayed within respectable boundaries and the choir stuck to their work without ignoring the pit.  Only a fairly lengthy wind-supported passage in Act 2 threatened to come adrift but a soldier-on ethic came into play until order was resumed.   Hocking had two offstage brass quartets operating – one above the stage, the other to the rear above the stalls.  The forces involved were somewhat under those stipulated by Wagner but, like the chorus, the executants worked efficiently: on cue and on the note.

Because the Blackwood Hall has no pit, we heard the orchestra very well but there were few passages where you would have preferred a softer dynamic from the body.  The clarinets sounded unpolished next to their fellow woodwind; the trombones and horns in the main orchestra tended to drag in slower-moving tutti passages; and you would have preferred more strings at the moments of highest ferment.  But the general combination impressed as an honourable engagement with a score that bristles with difficulties, particularly dynamic contrasts and variable textures.

It’s a possibility that the chorus assembled for this production was the best that the company has presented for many years, although I haven’t seen every work from Melbourne Opera over the past decade.  The double men’s chorus made a satisfying impression across the night, notably in those stentorian swatches of fabric that the composer splashes out at festive and bellicose moments in the drama: a credit to their preparation by Raymond Lawrence.  Yes, the male singers gained markedly from the hall’s lively acoustic reaction to their combination, but the female corps also generated a full-bodied sonority in support of Elsa during Act 1 and, singing from the hall’s upper walkway, the Treulich gefuhrt processional to the bridal chamber.

The set was a minimal one: a set of stage-long steps – and this stage is very long – with video projections for backdrop.  The two appearances of Lohengrin’s swan pleased most of my colleagues, but I thought the wing-beating flurries and the animal’s actual appearance odd in the production’s down-to-earth, naturalistic setting.

Further, the appearance of the missing young duke, Gottfried, at the end – the swan turned human – also struck a mystifying note as the character looked traumatized, not that capable of taking over his realm, let alone leading his forces into battle against the marauding Hungarians.

But this opera is an improbability from start to finish.  Some commentators make much of the proposed struggle between the old gods and Christianity, between Lohengrin and Ortrud.   Others see it as a study of women’s frailty, or of the patriarchal system at its worst.  My Wagnerian guru, George Bernard Shaw, points out the fundamental flaw in the opera itself, one that bedevilled Wagner into many revisions, and that is the improbability of demanding that Elsa be held to the promise that she makes to the hero  –  not to ask his name or provenance.  To their credit, at the end of this night, both Vlad and Dix managed to attract equal sympathy, both victims and touchingly human in different ways, even the noli me tangere prude of a knight.

But I found the whole exercise very satisfying, enough of a composite entity to ensure that you glossed over problems both in music and presentation, even if you couldn’t quite forget them.  It was a long night  –  what Wagner night isn’t?  –  but it seemed to move steadily forward without any stretches of tedium, probably because the production team, cast and musicians took the work at face value and invested it with honesty and their best abilities.  You can’t ask for anything more.

 

 

September Diary

Friday September 1

SERENADE

Mimir 2

Melba Hall, University of Melbourne at 7:30 pm

The middle recital for the Mimir Festival –  that chamber music exercise sponsored by the Conservatorium of Music/Faculty of Music/College of the Arts, etc – features the main guests from the home organisation in Fort Worth, America: performers whom we have come to know and love over the past few years since the Con’s Head of Strings, Curt Thompson, brought the enterprise that he founded to our town.  Tonight’s offerings will include Thompson taking first violin in Vaughan Williams’ C minor Piano Quintet, alongside regular visitor violist Joan DerHovsepian and cellist Brant Taylor, who I think has been here before.  Rob Nairn, newly appointed to the Faculty of Music, will take the double bass line and well-known local Benjamin Martin, Thompson’s colleague in the Firebird Trio, will perform the keyboard part.   To begin, Stephen Rose and Jun Iwasaki take the violin parts in Wolf’s Italian Serenade, and the conclusion consists of Dvorak’s G Major String Quartet Op. 106 with Rose and Iwasaki swapping chairs.

 

Sunday September 3

TOWARDS ETERNITY

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 2:30 pm

With an ambitious, New Age-leaning title, this afternoon’s music has been curated by recorder queen Genevieve Lacey and takes in a lot of repertoire.  The MCO starts with a scrap from the fabulous double of Leonin and Perotin, a pairing that for generations of music students meant polyphony had finally arrived; it’s the Viderunt omnes organum and some doubles on the chant’s second part – none of it sung but arranged for the available forces by Lacey.  Then comes Cipriano de Rore’s four-voice madrigal Ancor che col partire; well, divisions (or diminutions, as the French put it so confusingly) on it by Bassano. British one-time wunderkind Thomas Ades is represented by the penultimate movement, O Albion, of his 1994 string quartet Arcadiana.  Vivaldi’s C minor Recorder Concerto brings Lacey to the spotlight, where she will be immediately eclipsed by the following Grosse Fuge by Beethoven.  Ross Edwards’ Tyalgum Mantras was originally written for shakuhachi, didjeridu and percussion; it’s probable that it will be heard here in another instrumental format.  Dunstable’s brief three-part motet Quam pulchra es comes in for the Lacey treatment, just before another recorder concerto, Sammartini in F.  To polish off the experience, William Hennessy leads his forces in  Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis.  Big program?  You’re not kidding and much of it has ‘eternal’ pretensions, except the two concertos which don’t present any metaphysical depths, as far as I can recall.

This program will be repeated at the Deakin Edge, Federation Square on Friday September 8 at 7:30 pm.

 

Sunday September 3

BEST THINGS

Australian Boys Choir

Fitzroy Town Hall at 3 pm

All the material to be presented in this event is Australian-made, including two premieres. Both the core boys choir and the senior Vocal Consort participate in Sydney-based writer Alice Chance’s Two Best Things, which is concerned with the choices that have to be made by those unfortunate enough to have to flee from bush fires: what do you take with you? The other first hearing will be for Before Time Was, a setting of words by local poet/psychotherapist/publisher/journalist Max Dunn; the music has been written by the choir’s director, Noel Ancell.  Other works come from veteran Eric Austin Phillips. Iain Grandage, Paul Stanhope and Joseph Twist.  It’s quite an adventurous undertaking and one that you can wait a long time to hear: all home-grown sounds from a choir of young people – and serious music, not populist pap.

 

Sunday September 3

CREDO

Mimir 3

Melba Hall, University of Melbourne at 3 pm

For the final significant event in this year’s chamber music festival, the performing personnel remain the same for two of the three works programmed.  Jun Iwasaki and Curt Thompson are the violinists, Joan DerHovsepian violist and Brant Taylor the cello for Mozart’s Hoffmeister D Major Quartet K. 499, as well as the afternoon’s title work by St. Louis-born Kevin Puts.  Written in 2007 and premiered by the Miro Quartet, Credo is one of the composer’s more widely performed pieces although, as far as I can trace, this could well be its first airing in this city.   Ending the festival with burnished power will be the Brahms Piano Trio No. 1 in B Major with violinist Stephen Rose, Taylor on cello and Melbourne’s own Kristian Chong handling the gloriously satisfying piano part.  These ‘show’ or demonstration recitals are always remarkably fine examples of their type, underlining the solid foundations of musical practice in the United States and the pleasures to be uncovered by experts in all-too-familiar scores.

 

Saturday September 9

HAYDN, MOZART & FRIENDS

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

There’s certainly Mozart in this exercise – the last horn concerto and a harmoniemusik from Il Seraglio – and you don’t have to look far for Haydn in the celebrated Cello Concerto No. 1.   But the friends are represented by one character: Christian Cannabich, who was definitely an acquaintance/friend of Mozart.  Soloist in the horn concerto is Bart Aerbeydt from Belgium and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra; he’ll have his work cut out for him in this most famous concerto of its type.  For the Haydn work, the soloist is the ABO’s principal, Jamie Hey who is also up against a very familiar score which has rattled many a top-notch interpreter.  Cannabich’s Sinfonia in E Flat is an unknown quantity; he wrote 75 in this form and, while I’ve heard one in this particular key, there’s no surety that he didn’t write more.  As for the harmoniemusik, you’d have to assume that this is Mozart’s own compilation for wind octet ( or is it quartet?) of material from his own opera, written to capitalise on a popular form of arrangements before some morality-lacking fly-by-night cashed in on it.

This program will be re-presented on Sunday September 10 at 5 pm.

 

Sunday September 10

GRIEG AND BEYOND

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

Norwegian violinist/arranger/composer Henning Kraggerud is directing and taking the soloist role in this afternoon of three works by Norway’s most famous musical figure.  The concert begins with the first of the two Nordic Melodies, In Folk Style – a piece of some melancholy D minor-infused charm which shows that there’s not much you can do with a folk-song except play it over and over in different colours.  Into the mix comes Ross Edwards, whose Entwinings will enjoy its world premiere, contributing to the anticipated ‘arcadian feel’ of the ACO’s latest concert experience.  Kraggerud then fronts the Grieg Violin Concerto, which is the soloist’s own arrangement of the Violin Sonata No. 3 in C minor; he has apparently given the same treatment to Grieg’s other two sonatas. Kraggerud then presents his own Topelius-Variations (From Topelius’ Time), which presumably refers to the 19th century Finnish author.  Last of all comes Richard Tognetti’s arrangement of the Grieg String Quartet which the ACO has recorded to plenty of press acclaim.

This program will be performed again on Monday September 11 at 7:30 pm.

 

Thursday September 14

BRAHMS PIANO QUARTET

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at  6 pm

A single-work recital; not unheard-of, but increasingly rare,  Three of the MCO’s senior citizens –  violin William Hennessy, viola Stefanie Farrands, cello Michael Dahlenburg – are to collaborate with pianist Louisa Breen in the Brahms No. 2:  the most substantial and almost certainly the longest of the composer’s chamber works.  This event is billed in the MRC three-monthly handbook as lasting two hours; can’t see it myself, unless the ensemble are going to play it twice in the best Schoenberg/New Music tradition.  Or perhaps somebody is going to give a long exegesis on the composer.  Or possibly a time-consuming supper is being provided!

 

Friday September 15

BLACK RIDER: THE CASTING OF THE MAGIC BULLETS

Victorian Opera

Merlyn Theatre, The Coopers Malthouse at 7:30 pm

Based on the same legend as Der Freischutz, this work depicts another predictable Faustian pact with the Devil.  To a libretto by William S. Burroughs, everyone’s favourite senior Beat writer, and with music (and song lyrics, it would seem) by American folk-song expert Tom Waits, the story follows a familiar path, except there is no redemption at the end. The cast is headed by Kanen Breen as the hopeless marksman-clerk Wilhelm, Meow Meow as the Devil incarnate Pegleg, and Dimity Shepherd as Wilhelm’s beloved Katchen.   Paul Capsis either sings the role of Ensemble or is part of it.   Phoebe Briggs conducts, Matthew Lutton directs, and the staging comes from Zoe Atkinson.  Other cast members include Jacqui (Jacqueline?) Dark as Helen, Richard Piper as Bertram, Le Gateau/Chocolat as the Duke/Old Uncle, and Winston Hillyer as Robert.  A true voyage of discovery for those among us who have never seen the work, which is a co-production with the Malthouse Theatre.  Obviously, both companies believe there is a large audience for the piece because the season goes on for some weeks.

Later performances will take place on Saturday September 16 at 7:30 pm,  Monday September 18 at 6:30 pm, Tuesday September 19 at 6:30 pm, Thursday September 21 at 7:30 pm, Friday September 22 at 7:30 pm, Saturday September 23 at 3 pm and at 7:30 pm, Tuesday 26 September at 6:30 pm, Wednesday September 27 at 7:30 pm, Thursday September 28 at 7:30 pm, Friday September 29 at 7:30 pm, Saturday September 30 at 7:30 pm, Sunday October 1 at 5 pm, Tuesday October 3 at 6:30 pm, Wednesday October 4 at 7:30 pm, Thursday October 5 at 7:30 pm, Friday October 6 at 7:30 pm, Saturday October 7 at 3 pm and at 7:30 pm, Sunday October 8 at 5 pm.

 

Friday September 15

CATHEDRAL BRASS

Australian National Academy of Music

St. Patrick’s Cathedral at 7:30 pm

Getting outside the confines of the South Melbourne Town Hall and ANAM’s offices, some brass and percussion musicians are mounting a one-night stand in the city’s Catholic cathedral.  One of this year’s visiting authorities at the Academy, trombonist Michael Mulcahy from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, is directing this night’s music-making, which begins in splendid fashion with Giovanni Gabrieli’s  Sacrae symphoniae of 1597 and 1615; probably not the lot – 45 choral works and 16 purely instrumental ones – but those extracts chosen should resonate to fine effect in this building.  The centre-piece comes in Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3, the Sinfonia espansiva in an arrangement for organ (Calvin Bowman), brass and percussion.  Concluding in similar Nordic mode, the brass/percussion combination is re-applied to a version of Sibelius’ Finlandia call to arms.

 

Sunday September 17

SHOSTAKOVICH 13: BABI YAR

Zelman Symphony

Hamer Hall at 2 pm

A long time between performances.  I seem to recall this work being performed many years ago in the Melbourne Town Hall by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, possibly under John Hopkins.  But, like Yevtushenko’s poetry which provides the texts, the symphony/cantata has been forgotten.  This year’s observation of the 75th anniversary of the Nazi massacre near Kiev has brought about this performance which will be conducted by Mark Shiell, with Adrian Tamburini entrusted with the bass soloist’s part.  A 200-voice male choir is promised.  Also to be played is Elena Kats-Chernin’s  Night and Now for flute and orchestra with Sally Walker playing the solo part, as she has for every performance since the piece’s 2015 premiere in Darwin.  Crossway for Orchestra by young Australian Harry Sdraulig prefaces the concert’s main works and apparently refers to  the events of World War Two as seen through a younger generation’s eyes, while Kats-Chernin’s work has to do with her upbringing in Tashkent.

 

Sunday September 17

GREAT MOMENTS OF SONG

Team of Pianists

Rippon Lea at 6:30 pm

Darryl Coote represents the Team at this final recital for the year in the National Trust’s showpiece mansion.   His guests are that Everywhere Mezzo, Sally-Anne Russell, and tenor Robert Macfarlane.   In a real test of stamina, Russell will negotiate Elgar’s Sea Pictures without the soothing gift of the orchestral accompaniment; but then, the composer often performed his own piano version.  Also being well-exercised, Macfarlane has Schumann’s Dichterliebe in his care: 16 priceless Heine settings, well-suited to the expanded salon setting of Rippon Lea’s ballroom.  The singers combine later for some Schumann duets, and Coote gets the limelight to himself for Haydn’s every-popular F minor Variations.

 

Tuesday September 19

Nicolas Altstaedt & Aleksander Madzar

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

I can’t find any mention of these two musicians working together as regular partners.  Not that the lack of a steady artistic relationship should make much difference to professionals but their pairing for this tour seems something of an odd ad hoc arrangement.  In their Program I, they begin with the Debussy Cello Sonata, a cow of a work to balance correctly. Then come Nadia Boulanger’s Three Pieces for cello and piano from 1914, with Barber’s early Cello Sonata to follow.  Before embarking on Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata Op. 40 (from the composer’s 28th year), the duo plays a new work, as yet untitled, by Jakub Jankowski; the Adelaide composer referred to this piece as a ‘cello sonata’ in an interview during April this year, so I suppose that will be the fourth of its genre in this program that showcases a semi-cross-generational musical collaboration.

On Saturday September 23, Altstaedt and Madzar present their Program II which is identical to the first one except Britten’s Cello Sonata replaces that by Barber. and Brahms in F Major replaces the Shostakovich.

 

Thursday September 21

MSO PLAYS RAVEL

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

Yes, they do: the whole second half is Ravel – the Piano Concerto in  G and La valse.  For the concerto, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet will be the light-fingered soloist while the choreographic poem is to be directed by Andre de Ridder. who has been seen in Sydney and Adelaide but not here, I believe.  He is, God help us, the ‘rock world’s conductor of choice’, which could mean that he’s so far above anybody else in that field that he shines, or it could signify that he can adapt himself to the elementary with few signs of slumming.  The night opens with Mozart’s optimistic Symphony No. 34 and that will be followed by a curiosity in Unsuk Chin’s Mannequin – Tableaux vivants.  A four-part work, it is based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tale The Sandman; Chin has used four sequences from the novel, three of which are familiar as text elements from Offenbach’s most famous opera. The South Korean composer’s score asks for a large orchestra, including a massive percussion battery and the piece is here receiving its Australian premiere – which is nice as it was premiered in England two years ago and the MSO was one of its commissioners.

This program will be played again at Geelong’s Costa Hall on Friday September 22 at 7:30 pm, and it returns to Hamer Hall at 2 pm on Saturday September 23.

 

Sunday September 24

MUSIC IN THE ROUND

Abbotsford Convent at 11 am

To the satisfaction of some of us, this one-day festival has been moved from its usual siting on Father’s Day – which means we won’t have to run home for the mandatory hours of family celebrations without a ghost of a chance (despite one’s best intentions) of coming back for some end-of-day recitals.  The action involves several regular contributors, as well as some unknown quantities.  But the name of the game is choice – a real one, not the fake sort that the Prime Minister promotes; as the hours pass by, you have the option of calling in on one of three or four simultaneous recitals.   The Arcadia Winds ensemble offer Barber’s Summer Music and Nielsen’s Wind Quintet on either side of Australian composer Lachlan Skipworth’s Echoes and Lines, a new piece currently being promoted by the Arcadians.  You can hear the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 2 with the same personnel as on Thursday September 14 above.  Stefan Cassomenos plays Liszt’s arrangement of the Beethoven A Major Symphony; Anna Goldsworthy serves up a grab bag of a Bach prelude-and-fugue double, some Schubert Impromptus, Prokofiev’s Five Sarcasms, and the Rigoletto Paraphrase by Liszt.  MITR’s organiser Chris Howlett takes up his cello and, accompanied by Rhodri Clarke, plays Rachmaninov’s Sonata and the lollipop Romance. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Sophie Rowell plays a Telemann fantasia, a Biber passacaglia and Julian Yu’s update on it.  Goldner Quartet member Julian Smiles presents Hindemith’s Sonata for solo cello, the second Bach suite, and Bloch’s Suite No. 1 for solo cello,  One of the MITR Young Performers for this year, Caleb Wong from ANAM, is to play the Bach E flat Cello Suite and Kodaly’s Solo Cello Suite.  The other, Jackie Wong, will also play Bach – the Sonata in G minor BWV 1001 –  and Prokofiev’s Sonata for Solo Violin.

 

Saturday September 30

AMERICAN TRIPTYCH: STEVEN SCHICK

Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

A notable American percussionist who teaches at the University of California, San Diego, Schick is conducting masterclasses, observing the centenary of the birth of US great Lou Harrison, and generally making ANAM more aware of its inner rhythms.  This night’s menu features four US composers, so I don’t know where the night’s titular set-of-three reference applies.  Ives frames the occasion, which opens with the inspired clangour of From the Steeples and the Mountains and concludes with the almost-not-there The Unanswered Question.  Varese is also heard twice: first, in Offrandes which asks for a small orchestra as well as percussion and a soprano; then, the great Deserts, probably in the non-tape, shorter version.  At the heart of the program sits Harrison’s Concerto for violin with percussion orchestra which took some 18/19 years to complete and is rarely heard because of the eclectic variety of instruments required to accompany the athletic soloist – who is, at the time of writing, unidentified.  For good measure, Schick has thrown in Red Arc/Blue Veil by  John Luther Adams – a work for piano, mallet percussion and processed sounds. Put simply, this is one of ANAM’s most ambitious programs for the year, packed with demanding matter and a solid test of the participating musicians’ talents.

 

Saturday September 30

MSO PLAYS LA MER

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 8 pm

One of those works that flashes out new facets every time you hear it, Debussy’s three-movement marine panorama is a joy from start to finish.  Dutch conductor Otto Tausk has conducted in Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia, but not here, I think.  The 47-year-old is enjoying a remarkably active career and is currently in the process of taking over the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra from Bramwell Tovey.  By way of a leap into the ocean, Tausk conducts Stravinsky’s Scherzo fantasque, an early work that attracted the attention of Diaghilev (and we know where that led) and was influenced in part by Debussy.  Then, the concert makes one of those extraordinary changes of pace that rarely feature these days on MSO programs.  Israeli-Palestinian pianist Saleem Abboud Ashkar takes on the Brahms D minor Concerto to swing us away from ephemeral billows and spume and plunge us into the nitty-gritty of solid, hard-achieved (for the composer) certainty of purpose in a mighty musical monolith.

This program will be repeated on Monday October 2 at 6:30 pm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s all in the title

THE SINGING VIOLIN

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Tuesday August 8

 

                                              Dmitry Sinkovsky

I managed to catch the Russian violinist/countertenor at his final tour date with the ABO in Brisbane.  An agreeable experience early in the night as South Brisbane train station is almost inside the foyer of QPAC; getting back to Burleigh Heads with parts of the line closed for repairs proved not so easy – a half-hour longer than the concert itself – but Sinkovsky was worth the effort.   Also, hearing something worthwhile in the city’s premier music venue after a large number of years made me even more appreciative of the acoustic clarity found in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall.

The last time I was in QPAC, during one of the first Brisbane Festivals, the musical diet included Lorin Maazel conducting Mahler and a concert performance of Korngold’s Die tote Stadt,   I believe the hall has been remodelled since then; it certainly seems to be narrower and – an increasingly common characteristic of fashionable ambience in these times – darker.  Furthermore, performers have plenty of air space to fill and, while this venue might not be as broad in the beam as Hamer Hall, it is just as unfortunate for chamber ensembles.  While the ABO presents a champagne-crisp sound in Melbourne’s Recital Centre, the Brisbane sound is stodgy by comparison.

For its program, the orchestra played seven works, four of them involving Sinkovsky as directing soloist: concertos by Telemann, Leclair, Locatelli and Vivaldi – Baroque material well-suited to show the Brandenburgers at their best.  As punctuation marks, artistic director Paul Dyer headed a ciaconna from a four-violin concerto by Jacques Aubert, a concerto for two horns by Vivaldi, and the second-last of the six Introduttioni teatrali by Locatelli – all consistent with and complementary to the evening’s central components.

Without any prefatory spiel from Dyer, the Brandenburg strings launched into the Aubert chaconne which gave some of the ensemble’s main players a battery of solos, none more so than concertmaster Shaun Lee-Chen who handled some rapid-fire passages with confidence.  As you’d expect, the piece is top-heavy in texture and activity but made for a well-judged warm-up, the players generating animation in an atmosphere that made them sound uncharacteristically soupy.  Nevertheless, Dyer invested the plain notes with personality, particularly in his attention-grabbing final bars.

Appearing first in Telemann’s per Signor Pisendel Violin Concerto in B flat, Sinkovsky demonstrated his finely spun line during an excellent initial largo, soaring over three levels of accompaniment.  In fact, as the night moved forward, you realised that this player worked best in long lyrical solos rather than in crackling fast allegro or vivace movements. The key lay in the concert’s title: his instrumental voice impresses most when it gets the opportunity to sing, much more so than when fluttering through barrages of semiquaver patterns.  In this Telemann, details of the solo line got lost in the fierce drive of the second movement where the orchestra attracted attention for the alternating dynamic juxtapositions of their tutti outbursts.  In the end, the work itself impressed more for its interesting content, especially Telemann’s modulation shifts, than for the demands required of its soloist,

Dyer and Sinkovsky followed an initiative shown in the preceding Aubert by introducing surprises in attack and dynamic contrasts, deliberately slowing down the relentless chugging drive and attenuating the predictable composite texture before launching back into a hefty ritornello.  The reading proved very entertaining and well-prepared but I’m afraid the promised technical obstacle course seemed fairly run-of-the-mill stuff and a long way short of the electrifying experience projected by the fulsome program notes.

Daryl Poulsen and Doree Dixon played the requisite solos for that double horn Vivaldi concerto. Both players used crooked instruments, I believe – which has the fine effect of giving you the correct, authentic period sound but tests the executants pretty sorely.  The opening allegro made for hard labour, even in the movement’s unremarkable chains of F Major trills and arpeggios.  Vivaldi’s intermediate largo comprised a duet for Tommie Andersson’s theorbo and Jamie Hey’s cello in which the latter enjoyed all the attention. The finale again tested both soloists who were, I think, inconvenienced anyway by the over-rapid tempo in both faster movements.  As with a fair few essays at projecting an original-instruments sound, you wonder about the point of it all if the results are not clear and exact, even more so when the actual music is uninteresting, as this was; filler, even by Telemann’s standards.

Leclair’s D Major Violin Concerto from the composer’s Op. 7 set of six  gave Sinkovsky a more flattering landscape to work in, thanks to its fine combination of challenging content and pointed showmanship.  Yet again, the soloist appeared most impressive in the central adagio where his shapely outlining of Leclair’s melodic chain made for one of this concert’s finer moments.  I wasn’t over-enamoured with the orchestra’s approach, in particular the ducks-and-drakes games carried out on the tempos and dynamics.  This rather arch and contrived interpretation smacked of over-drawing an interpretative floridity that Sinkovsky himself entertained in the finale’s concluding solo flurries alongside an accelerando that I couldn’t see adding much to the work’s effectiveness..  It would have been better to leave the score to make its own points without infusing it with an overdose of Sydney-tinctured cosmetics.

The evening’s second half began with an address from Dyer, postponed from the night’s opening and none the more welcome for its banality and irrelevance.  With relief, we turned to Locatelli’s E flat Major Concerto Grosso with the suggestive nickname of Il pianto d’Arianna: six movements, including a multi-partite first one, all tracing the various emotional moods of the Cretan princess left behind on Naxos by her innately careless/ thoughtless lover Theseus.  The composer covers a lot of territory, the most moving section a non-vibrato grave at the work’s heart which eschews the soloist’s services.  You could find fault with several over-pregnant pauses that peppered the concluding largo but Sinkovsky brought into play some moving, soft melismatic lyricism during the earlier movements, enough to raise admiration for his powers of judgement and articulation.

The slight Locatelli Introduction proved to be a lot of fuss over very little, Dyer indulging in a welter of attention-grabbing jumping up and down from his harpsichord for furious direction of the bleedingly obvious across three movements of frippery living up to its titular description, the best part of the construct a central trio for violin, viola and cello.

To conclude, Sinkovsky led Vivaldi’s Il favorito Violin Concerto in E minor where the opening movement enjoyed a bit of retooling when the emphatic arpeggio main figure and its consequent development gave way to a sudden change in approach that slowed to unexpurgated languor so that Sinkovsky could give free exercise to the ornate solo decoration; understandable but rather jarring given the movement’s structural context. Using the upper strings only, Vivaldi constructed an elegant central andante without theatrics but a captivating sequence of effects to display the soloust’s flexibility and pitching precision – right up Sinkovsky’s artistic alley.

The Russian-born violinist is a highly talented musician, expert in this music and technically assured in his execution of it.  For all that, his performance personality is some shades less flamboyant than you’d expect.  Of course, he can handle the rapid-fire ornamentation and seamless bars of vaulting passage work that much of this night’s music contained.   Yet he’s not a performer who shows at his best in flamboyant gestures or casting aside caution.  I’d like to hear him again (which is more than I can say of most performers)  but in a different context; possibly in a smaller ensemble and playing trio sonatas rather than concertos.

Nevertheless, the Brisbane audience should have been gratified by most of this evening’s performances and the ABO’s unfailingly enthusiastic commitment to their work.