Diffident but persistent

GRIEG AND BEYOND

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Sunday September 10 and Monday September 11

                                                                   Henning Kraggerud

I’m not a fan of that musician who feels the need for talk and so gives his real work an oral preamble. All too often, such a speech wastes time and that particular commodity is becoming more precious to some of us as the years bound on.  Further, all too often what you hear is instantly forgettable or essentially trite or – worse –  a repeat of information found in the program notes.  For a few, this preliminary oral exordium is an ego-bolstering exhibition conducted with the silent encouragement of defenceless listeners, a meandering monologue that can even turn into an attempt to do a Seinfeld and show a try-hard humorous facet to the artistic persona.  While having its points as soul-destroying meta-theatre, the introductory talk can amount to little more than ambient buzzing, the kind of useless fodder you get from announcers presenting a concert or recital from their incubating sound-booths.

Even worse is the interview, where the conductor interrogates a soloist or composer about what’s coming up.  The stilted instance of Paul Dyer talking to horn player Bart Aerbeydt about his natural instrument during last Sunday’s Australian Brandenburg Orchestra event was a case in point where dialogue disappears and oral give-and-take goes missing; mind you, in that particular interview matters were somewhat redeemed by the instrumentalist pulling out a few party tricks and flip lines to spice up yet another demonstration of the horn’s natural harmonic series and note production methods.

For most of the time, I’m left inwardly groaning at these pseudo-Parkinson preliminary obstacles that wind up with all the non-sequitur awkwardness of a ‘One on One’ clip.  At rare intervals, a light will shine, the most notable when a conductor like Brett Kelly asks a young composer about his latest score –  as at the Cybec New Music concerts each January from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, where the chance for a moment of worthwhile information is strongest.   And you can strike the aware musician who knows just how long is enough; Markus Stenz was an excellent exponent of the rapid communication of just sufficient information to keep you . . . well, if not engrossed, then mollified.

Guest director and soloist in the latest ACO subscription series, Norwegian violinist/composer/arranger Kraggerud prefaced every one of the five works on his Grieg-Plus program with an explication, not getting off to the best of starts with the In Folk Style, one of Grieg’s Two Nordic Melodies.  This was a pseudo-folksong sent to the composer by a diplomat which Grieg subjected to some variations and restatements; nothing very original and, in places like Letters C and E, failing to impress as little more than composition by the numbers.  The conductor-leader’s introduction – soft-spoken, courteous and prepared – proved mildly interesting for the speaker’s fluency and naive charm, even if he made more of this specific triviality than it deserved.

Ross Edwards’ Entwinings is enjoying its world premiere on this tour.  In two movements, the work proposes both a juxtaposition and a link between the natural world and our civilization although the most attractive section of the score, the opening Animato, holds more interest for its Maninyas-type suggestions and the bird-like sounds that eventually dominate the texture and round out the aural imagery, the whole fore-fathered in atmosphere by Sculthorpe’s Irkanda exercises.   In the following Lento magico, Edwards employs a chorale-type statement to open and conclude a chain of sequences, the emotional language more worked-out than in the initial movement: less suggestive of the bush and wild-life, the accent less on pantheistic rhapsody and more on the civic world, the narrative sustaining your interest for its inner variety of approach as well as being a gift in multiple textures and techniques for the well-rehearsed ACO.

Kraggerud has turned all three of Grieg’s violin sonatas into concertos, to flesh out the number of Scandinavian exercises in the form – although, if you look hard enough, there are several available apart from the towering Sibelius in D minor.  This concert’s offering, No. 3 in C minor, isn’t a full orchestration – no brass, no percussion, only single woodwind to punctuate the string texture – but the results are forceful enough.  There’s not much any musician can do to spice up Grieg’s orthodox melodic divisions; still the same two-bar phrases that obtain through most of the composer’s works, very evident in the opening Allegro, but on Sunday this predictable four-squaredness was mitigated to a large extent by the orchestra’s enthusiastic address.

The guest violinist was heard here in fully exposed voice for the first time.  His sound-colour is admirably pointed and clear with an individual lyric timbre in higher-string passages of play, most obvious in the middle movement at the sideways move from E to E flat Major at bar 209.  The long restatement of Grieg’s opening theme high on the soloist’s E string made for a moving display of emotional wealth of feeling and impeccably shaped performance skill.  In the final Hall-of-the-Mountain-King allegro, where Grieg oscillates between dance-like thumping and smooth simple melody, Kraggerud splashed around his technical agility with carefully moderated abandon, the most memorable passage coming at the shift to A flat for the central trio where a low-lying melody line for the soloist was supported by cellos and bass: an outstanding realization of another heart-on-sleeve moment from this most approachable and complication-free of writers.

The Topelius Variations (from Topelius’ Time) commemorated the 19th century Finnish writer in a sequence of connected episodes that also paid a kind of homage to Grieg’s Holberg Suite.  As its composer, Kraggerud had a fair bit to communicate to us before he started on this score, which is receiving its Australian premiere on this tour, but, by the time he’d finished, I was expecting something a good deal more taxing than the reality turned out to be.  While he varies his basic material, not sticking to one theme to treat, Kraggerud veers towards the folk-tune-style of lyric with which to play around.  His variants may occasionally veer into complex territory but as a rule they make for easy absorption; even the rhythmic difficulties – a time-signature of 19/16, we were promised  –  didn’t seem to make extreme demands on the ACO – or on us.

To end, the ACO took us back to Grieg: the arrangement by Richard Tognetti of the String Quartet Op. 27.   It’s been a while since I heard the ensemble play this piece but it has been bred into the players’ bones – quite a few of them, at any rate – because they recorded it in 2012.  Kraggerud exerted minimal control for this piece.  At first, I suspected because the musicians had an intimate familiarity with its performance problems.  But really, the guest engaged in very little overt direction; nothing like Tognetti’s habit of conducting with his bow for significant cues.  Mind you, little on this program required any semaphoring, with the possible exception of the new Edwards work, but I can’t recall Kraggerud taking time out to make many directional gestures for that piece, either.  As well, the musicians had already given six accounts of this program in Sydney, Wollongong and Canberra before hitting Hamer Hall, so they were more than adequately played in.

The quartet ran its course with maximal flourish, in particular the symphonic first movement with a wealth of declamation and spirited rhetoric.  In fact, much of the work is well-suited to string orchestral guise, including the smart, syncopated Intermezzo and the saltarello finale, even if the actual material wears out its welcome many minutes before the G Major coda.

As promised, we had plenty of Grieg at this afternoon’s event, the Topelius piece probably suiting the ‘Beyond’ promise although how much further Kraggerud takes his heritage is questionable; an amiable work, yes, but not as far advanced as you might expect, considering the musical earthquakes that have taken place since the Norwegian master’s death in 1907.  A lot has happened over the last 110 years, but this new piece looks back in more ways than one.  However, Entwinings took us some steps into the 20th century and it was heartening to hear another Edwards work, just two days after the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra had aired his Tyalgum Mantras with striking elan at the Deakin Edge.