January Diary

As usual, you won’t find much happening in January apart from the two festivals: (Mornington) Peninsula Summer Music and Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields. Unfortunately, advertising for both is firm on performers, venues and times but often vacant on the music being played, so there’s a great deal of speculation in the following calendar

 

Tuesday January 2

Arcadia Winds

St Mark’s Anglican Church, Balnarring at 2 pm

I heard this ensemble at the recent Abbotsford Convent Music in the Round, with a substitute for regular clarinet Lloyd Van’t Hoff.  This recital features the replaced one and two others from the group: oboe David Reichelt and bassoon Matthew Kneale.  What are they playing?  Well, the information I’ve gleaned is vague .  .  . Bach and Mozart are mentioned, then a big jump to Jean Francaix.  If you don’t know any music by the earlier composers for this combination, you’re not alone;  Francaix, on the other hand, produced the Divertissment of 1947 and, in a cornucopia of other music for wind combinations, nothing else for this particular personnel formation.   Great stuff if you’re nearby but for some of us – still – Balnarring is a long way off.

 

Tuesday January 2

ETERNAL FLAME

Bethany Hill, Andrew Byrne, PSMF Academy 2017 alumni

Hurley Vineyard, Balnarring at 5 pm

Soprano and lute expert present music by Caccini, Strozzi, Carissimi, Merula and the Australian writer Jodie O’Regan, in company with those young musicians lucky enough to be involved with the Peninsula Summer Music Festival Academy where elders share their tutelary riches with the next generation.   Not clear on specifics but the exercise should be well worth it, especially if you’ve already committed to the preceding recital from the Arcadia trio.   O’Regan’s work is unknown to me, but her main interests seem to be as an educator with an emphasis on singing (community and otherwise).

 

Wednesday January 3

Massimo Scattolin and Hannah Dahlenberg

Port Phillip Estate, Red Hill South at 6 pm

Scattolin is a familiar name from Sergio di Pieri’s Ballarat festival where he is a regular guest.   Here he partners soprano Dahlenberg whose name I’ve heard and not in the context of local cellist Michael.   Their offerings remain big on composer identities, not on specifics.   We’re to get arias by Handel, Rossini, Verdi and Puccini; chamber music by Schubert, Mendelssohn, Falla, Lorca, Piazzolla and Morricone – which I presume means duets for the two recitalists.   Interspersed come guitar solos.  The only mystery here is the mention of Lorca who, while a fine pianist and collaborator with Falla, as far as I know did not compose anything.   Almost worth going along to find out what’s what.

 

Saturday January 6

MAIDEN VOYAGE: WORKS FOR VIOLIN AND PIANO

Kyla Matsuura-Miller and Adam McMillan

Church of St. John the Evangelist, Flinders at 12 pm

This duo – Matsuura-Miller violin and McMillan piano – won the 2017 Melbourne Recital Centre’s Great Romantics Competition, although I can’t find any mention of their triumph online.   To their credit, these musicians have committed early and have a set program.  They start with Bach, the Violin/Keyboard Sonata in E Major BWV 1016; they finish with the young Richard Strauss’ Sonata in E flat Op 18, and fill out the centre with a new work by Australian writer Christopher Healey, who has made quite a name for himself in Brisbane, both as a writer and an organizer of new music concerts.

 

Saturday January 6

Kiazma Piano Duo

Church of St. John the Evangelist, Flinders at 3 pm

Nothing like the four-hand piano duet to bring out the Victoria-and-Albert in all of us.  Aura Go collaborates with Tomoe Kawabata in some heights of the repertoire, including  Schubert’s late Fantasie in F minor, a Mozart or two from the five definites in the catalogue, and Poulenc’s Sonata.   Which last has me puzzled.   All the performances I’ve come across have involved two pianos, but the original of 1918 seems to have been composed for two players operating at one keyboard.   Poulenc did revise the piece in 1939, so I’m assuming that’s when he decided on separate instruments.  Might be a squash in this small church.   For that essential touch of modernity, we’ll be treated to the 1985 Cahier sonore by Akira Miyoshi.

 

Saturday January 6

BAROQUE OPERA GALA

Lotte Betts-Dean and Genesis Baroque

St. John the Evangelist, Flinders at 7 pm

The orchestra for this event is chaste – 9 strings and Simon Rickard’s bassoon, the whole co-ordinated from a harpsichord by Martin Gester.  Details are slim but patrons are promised Telaira’s aria Tristes apprets from Rameau’s Castor et Pollux, and concertmaster Lucinda Moon will take solo spot for Leclair’s Violin Concerto in C Major – Op. 7 No. 3 or Op. 9 No. 8 will doubtless be revealed on the night.  The orchestra, Genesis Baroque, is newly-formed but most of its members are familiar faces from period music circles and concerts.   Mezzo-soprano Betts-Dean, by all accounts, is on a pretty rapid career trajectory and was last seen and heard here in excellent form at the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s luminous Christmas Oratorio on December 3 and 4.

 

Sunday January 7

Lucinda Moon

Church of St. John the Evangelist at 11 am

They don’t come any simpler or more concentrated than this.  Moon makes her solo – i.e., unaccompanied – debut for the Festival here with Bach.   She takes on the Violin Sonata in A minor and the Partita No. 2 in D minor which climaxes in the towering Chaconne.  What makes this hour more than a little interesting is Moon’s reputation as an emphatic purist for period music observances, so you can’t expect to be confronted with any vibrato-heavy waffling in either of these peerless masterpieces.

 

Sunday January 7

Stefan Cassomenos

Church of St. John the Evangelist at 2 pm

This Melbourne pianist, blazing with talent, returns to the Festival for a solo recital which promises the old and the new in equal balance; such a juxtaposition may turn out to be a bit strong for the easy-going Peninsula patrons.  Cassomenos plays pieces by Scarlatti, Chopin, Schumann and Rachmaninov – four foundation composers for the keyboard – and tops these up with recently-contrived Australian music by Andrew Aronowicz, Linda Kouvaras, Katy Abbott Kvasnica and Kate Moore.  And it’s great to see the genders almost coming into balance this afternoon.

 

Sunday January 7

BACH SONATAS

Julie Fredersdorff and Aline Zylberajch

Church of St. John the Evangelist, Flinders at 4 pm

Winding up the Festival’s serious music content, artistic director Fredersdorff and harpsichordist Zylberajch play Bach.  Again, details are not yet there to be collated but you’d anticipate that the duo could handle three of the six in the repertoire.  Fredersdorff is a well-known presence and sound from this week’s activities over the years and through her appearances with that expandable period music trio,  Latitude 37.  However, the harpsichordist is a stranger to me although she has an impressive discography and has worked before with the Genesis Baroque conductor, Martin Gester.

 

Friday January 12

MISSA CRIOLLA AND THE PATH OF MIRACLES

Gloriana

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat at 8 pm

Andrew Raiskums is bringing his choir to Ballarat for the annual Festival’s opening concert.  This time, the Baroque is left behind in a ferment of post-Vatican II colour in the Missa Criolla by Ariel Ramirez which marries the Mass text (the Nicene Creed shortened to the Apostles’) in Spanish with Latin-American musical colour.  As well as soloists and choir, this work uses a set of unusual percussion instruments in its instrumental accompaniment.  It’s quite a short construct, so the program has been expanded with Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles, recently sung here by the Tenebrae choir during the Melbourne Festival.  The work traces the pilgrim’s route from France to the Shrine of St. James of Compostella through four movements.  It’s an interesting experience mainly for the movements’ contrasts but I’m not convinced that its spruikers have much justification in claiming the term ‘modern masterpiece’ for it.

 

Saturday January 13

MUSIC FROM FOUR CENTURIES

Tomomi Brennan, Anthony Halliday

Violinist Brennan is allied with organist Halliday for a program that is completely unknown at this stage.  Four centuries is a big time-span but, even so, I’m sceptical about the amount of music written for this duo, so it looks as if we’ll be enjoying a wealth of transcriptions and arrangements.  Don’t know the violinist as a soloist but she is a senior member of Orchestra Victoria; Halliday I’ve been hearing for many, many years – since his schooldays, in fact –  and am ever-admiring of his insightful security.

 

Saturday January 12

BEETHOVEN AND BRAHMS

Monica Curro and Stefan Cassomenos

Wendouree Centre for Performing Arts at 4 pm

Fresh from his labours at the Peninsula Summer Music Festival, Cassomenos comes to Ballarat’s cultural temple to perform with the Assistant Principal Second Violin of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.   You’d probably be safe to assume that the pair will be playing one (or two) of the ten Beethoven violin sonatas, and one (or two) of the three Brahms sonatas.  For all I know, Curro and Cassomenos are old hands (well, not so old in his case) at performing sonatas together – or possibly their appearance is ad hoc.  Either way, both are skilled in chamber music.

 

Saturday January 13

ECHOES OF THE CELTS

La Compania, Lotte Betts-Dean

Mary’s Mount Centre, Loreto College at 8 pm

Danny Lucin and his period music ensemble of cornetto, sackbuts, dulcians, the occasional viol and percussion present a night of the ‘Celtic baroque’.  Now there’s a phrase that summons up absolutely nothing at all.   In what way were the Celts involved with the Baroque?  Come along and find out, I suppose.  Betts-Dean is, like Cassomenos, plying her craft fresh from an appearance at Flinders in the Peninsula festival.  The whole underpinning of the recital is a mystery: was there a Celtic school of music during the Baroque, or did the composers of that era experience some influence from the Celts?   The latter sounds more likely but is it just something like Beethoven’s Scottish folk-song arrangements?  Not much of an influence, then, and not really an echo.  Still, the band is a lively formation and always refreshing to experience.

 

Sunday January 14

GRAND CHOEUR

Martin Setchell

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat at 3 pm

Based in New Zealand’s Canterbury, Setchell plays the cathedral’s 1930 Fincham organ, which I’ve generally found to be one of the least distinctive instruments in the city.  There is no indication as to what will be performed; the event’s title simply indicates ‘full organ’.

 

Sunday January 14

HEROES, HEROINES AND VILLAINS

Maty’s Mount Centre, Loreto College at 8 pm

The subtitle for this entertainment runs ‘Recognizable loved and loathed operatic characters.’   Taking part are soprano Olivia Cranwell, tenor Carlos E. Barcenas and baritone Stephen Marsh – all soloists from Victorian Opera.  Accompaniment will be provided by pianist Phoebe Briggs, who is the company’s head of music. Barcenas will appear in the coming VO productions of Rossini’s William Tell and Bellini’s The Capulets and the Montagues; Marsh will be the Shepherd in Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande and is taking on a triple role in Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel;  Cranwell last appeared in March for the VO production of The Princess and the Pea and seems to be enjoying plenty of exposure through the national company.  Anyway, you can take your pick of what you’d expect to hear: the parameters are very broad.

 

Monday January 15

THE FINCHAM AND HOBDAY ORGAN OF 1889

Christopher Trikilis

St. John’s Anglican Church, Creswick at 10 am

Last year, this young Melbourne organist played at the Carngham Uniting Church for the festival, on another Fincham and Hobday instrument; this time, he’s working at a larger F & H organ in one of the solo recitals to feature this festival’s eponymous source of inspiration.  Trikilis proposes J.S.Bach, Vivaldi and contemporaries which is a gargantuan field to contemplate but the event is intriguing as the player is young and the organ itself is unknown to me although I believe it has featured in many preceding festival programs. In my defence, it’s arduous enough getting up to Ballarat itself without adding on the extra 18 kilometres required to reach Creswick; so says the ageing curmudgeon.

The program will be repeated at 12 noon.

 

Monday January 15

IN LOVE AND WAR

Luke Severn and Elyane Laussade

Wendouree Centre for Performing Arts at 4 pm

Severn is a busy young Melbourne cellist and he has presented this program with pianist Laussade already, last September at St. Peter’s Eastern Hill – so they’re well played-in, you’d expect.  The artists have prepared works by Rachmaninov, Barber and Shostakovich.   The American work I’d expect to be the Cello Sonata in C minor, Op. 6 – mainly because there’s nothing else by Barber for this combination.  Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata is also a young man’s work, although better-known than Barber’s piece.  The Shostakovich Sonata of 1934 comes from the time of the Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk denunciation by the authorities and the composer’s separation from his pregnant wife.  Of course, all this speculation can be right off the mark if Laussade is playing a solo; if not, the three sonatas make for a powerful afternoon’s music-making.

 

Monday January 15

MOZART FOR QUINTET

Trio Leonardo, Nicci Dellar, Miriam Skinner

Mary’s Mount Centre, Loreto College at 8 pm

Some hard-worked guests from Venice begin their various stints tonight.  The Trio Leonardo comprises harpist Elisabetta Ghebbioni, flautist Andrea Dainese and violist Giancarlo di Vacri.   Two other musicians make up the numbers for the promised quintet: violinist Nicci Dellar and cellist Miriam Skinner.   The only work of which you can be certain is Mozart’s sprightly Flute and Harp Concerto K. 299 which here undergoes a change into the guise of a quintet.  The other content will also feature more arrangements because the participants are hard to configure into known Mozart works, although there are possibilities like the flute quartets and the string trios and duos that could turn up.  But Mozart’s employment of the harp appears to be rare: is there anything apart from this concerto?

 

Tuesday January 16

MOZARTIANA FOR ORGAN

Douglas Mews

Christ Church, Castlemaine at 11 am

City of Wellington organist and organ teacher at the University of Wellington, Mews is most likely playing some arrangements because, like last night’s affair, there’s not much in the catalogue with which to engage.  The F minor Adagio and Allegro, Fantasia in F minor and Andante in F are the most commonly heard Mozart organ pieces; also, the composer wrote some fugues, an ouverture and a small gigue.  Put it all together and you can eke out an hour’s worth, if you play slowly and deliberately.  But the ‘-iana’ part of Mews’ title could take in a lot of territory – even a Tchaikovsky transcription.

This program will be repeated at 12:30 pm.

 

Tuesday January 16

THE UNIMAGINABLE COMBINATION WITH UNEXPECTED RESULTS

Tomomi Brennan, Anthony Halliday, Joel Brennan

Castlemaine Town Hall at 3 pm

Tomomi and Brennan will have already performed together in last Saturday morning’s recital.   Here, they are joined by another Brennan who plays flugelhorn.  The title sums it up: I can’t imagine how the combination sounds but have no doubt about the unpredictable nature of the outcome.  No details are currently available.

 

Wednesday January 17

TOUCHES OF SWEET HARMONY

Martin Setchell, Eisabetta Ghebbioni

Loreto College Chapel at 11 am

I’m thinking solos here because the scores written for the combination of organ (Setchells) and harp (Ghebbioni) are as rare as an Australian federal politician with ethics.  The entertainment is subtitled ‘a morning musical serenade’ which is giving nothing away, except to this tortured mind: an elliptical reference to Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music which uses texts from Act V of The Merchant of Venice that contains the line-and-a-half ‘soft stillness and the night Become the touches of sweet harmony’.  Then, when you think about it, whatever the music, the organ/harp combination sounds excellent in the abstract.

 

Wednesday January 17

Arcadia Winds

Neil St. Uniting Church at 4 pm

With the encouragement that either they or their offerings are ‘inspired by the folk rhythms of Europe’, the members of this fine ensemble (still only three of the five?) could be repeating their program of January 2 which formed part of the Peninsula Summer series.  Musical recycling: it’s as old as Aeschylus.

 

Wednesday January 17

EINE ABENDMUSIK

St Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat at 8 pm

This is a recreation of what is called the ‘traditional Advent Cantata Concert’, a celebration that comes from the early 18th century.  So it differs from the cantata that you hear interpolated into the Lutheran Mass/Service in that here we have a fairly definite extra-liturgical context.   Whatever goes on, John Weretka will be in charge of a group featuring sopranos Helen Thomson and Amelia Jones, countertenor Hamish Gould, tenor/countertenor Christopher Roache, and Weretka himself making up the set with his bass, supported instrumentally by oboe, theorbo, bassoon, violin and the Consort Eclectus which, last time I looked, comprised viols and recorders.  All of this adds up to a wealth of period music expertise.

 

Thursday January 18

HAYDN AND VIVALDI CONCERTI

Trio Leonardo, Anthony Halliday, Festival Chamber Orchestra

Former Wesley Church, Clunes at 11 am

The first of two concerts at the sleepy hollow of Clunes features the individual members of the Leonardo group, I suspect, playing a concerto each by one of the specified masters. There’s a spurious one for flute by Haydn and a few that could work for Halliday on the church’s organ, but nothing for Giancarlo di Vacri’s viola or Elisabetta Ghebbioni’s harp. Vivaldi, on the other hand,  wrote flute concertos and a swag for viola d’amore, but nothing for harp, although Halliday will be able to find something suitable in the catalogue.  Yet again, I sense that the day of the transcription will come upon us.

 

Thursday January 18

HANDEL FOR ORGAN AND FLUTE

Douglas Mews and Andrea Dainese

St Paul’s Anglican Church, Clunes at 2:15 pm

This reassuringly bucolic church’s organ is an 1862 Hamlin mechanical action instrument on which Mews will produce some Handel, in company with the Trio Leonardo’s flautist, appearing for the second time today.  Again, no ideas what will be performed but, with this composer, anything goes; he was a fabulous recycling merchant and would doubtless approve of a two-instrument reduction of The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba or Where’er you walk.  We are assured of the organ’s ‘lovely woodwind’, but I can’t find much to talk about apart from two stops on the instrument’s Great.

 

Friday January 19

GONG, GARDENS AND GRIEG

Douglas Mews and Giancarlo di Vacri

St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Bakery Hill at 10 am

This morning, Mews, in his third Festival appearance, collaborates with another member of the Trio Leonardo.  The program is Victorian/Edwardian, one of the promised items being Elgar’s Chanson de matin, originally for violin and piano, but probably transferable without much stress to the viola/organ duet playing here.  The emphasis is on light classics, so gird up your loins for Come into the garden, Maud and the Kashmiri Song.  Where Grieg fits in, I can’t hazard a guess; he wrote nothing for viola or organ but he was a dab hand at Victorian/Edwardian melodies.

 

Friday January 19

MOZART AND SCHUMANN

Seraphim Trio

Wendouree Centre for Performing Arts at 3 pm

Violinist Helen Ayres, cellist Timothy Nankervis and pianist Anna Goldsworthy make up this excellent ensemble which appears regularly at the Melbourne Recital Centre.  I can’t work out what they will play out of the Mozart six scores for this combination, although you might punt on the glorious K. 502 in B flat Major, which they performed last February.  With Schumann, the choices are thinner, the composer having written only three in the format, but you might pin your hopes on the first in D minor which soars above the other two in power and inspiration.

 

Saturday January 20

A GUSTO ITALIANO

Martin Setchell

Uniting Church, Daylesford at 11 am

Setchell performs here for the third and last time in the festival.  His offerings embrace Italian music from the 16th to the 20th century, played on this church’s William Anderson organ.

 

Saturday January 20

SELECTIONS FROM THE FITZWILLIAM VIRGINAL BOOK

Douglas Mews

Christ Church, Daylesford at 2 pm

Mews also presents his final performance for the festival.  The Christ Church organ is an unusual one in having two manuals of Choir and Swell, and is that rare thing: a Fincham construction that has survived intact.   The player is spoilt for choice, as the Book holds 297 pieces and, although the title specifies the virginal, in those lax late Elizabethan/early Jacobean times, any keyboard instrument would do.  Needless to say, no specifics are available but the content won’t be very substantial if Mews is going to play it all again 45 minutes after the first sitting.

This program will be repeated at 2:45 pm

 

Saturday January 20

TRIO LEONARDO PLAY DEBUSSY

Trio Leonardo

Daylesford Town Hall at 5:30 pm

Well, at last this ensemble gets to perform the one work that we all associate with its configuration: Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp of 1915 – one of that last bold sequence of three sonatas that the composer managed to finish while aiming for a total of six.  There is an extraordinary number of works written for this trio combination, the greater amount coming from the last century following Debussy’s lead, and some of these works may feature on this evening’s program.

 

Sunday January 21

Australian Chinese Ensemble

Ballarat Mechanics Institute at 3 pm

I’ve heard this ensemble a few times but not for some years now.  The musicians last played at this festival in 2003, so it’s been a fair while between drinks.   The four members I recall are: Wang Zheng-Ting playing the sheng, an upright reed instrument that always reminds me of a versatile harmonica; Dong Qiuming on the dizi (transverse flute); Tao Wennliang manipulating the erhu, that sonically permeating, small string instrument played like a mini-cello that has become familiar from a busker or two along Swanston Street and St. Kilda Road.; and Gu Chuen underpinning all with his yangqin or hammered dulcimer.  When it comes to Western music, the festival publicity is vague enough; with this Oriental encounter, you can whistle Dixie for any information.

 

Sunday January 21

MISSA SALISBURGENSIS

Choirs of Queen’s and Newman Colleges

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat at 8 pm

Bringing up the rear is the Australian premiere of a Baroque colossus: the Salzburg Mass of Heinrich Biber which asks for 53 parts – two 8-part human choirs, 16 soloists, separate groups of strings, woodwind and brass, as well as two discrete sets of trumpets and timpani, plus the inevitable organ and bass continuo.  Don’t know how director Gary Ekkel from Newman College will manage all this in the pretty confined conditions of Ballarat’s Catholic cathedral but the impact from recordings is of battering sheets of C Major sound.  Not the most ambitious ending to the festival but it could be among the more stupendous (or stupefying) exercises in massed sonorities we’ll have heard in this space.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A double ending

CHRISTMAS TO CANDLEMAS: AROUND 1600

Ensemble Gombert

Xavier College Chapel

Saturday December 9

                                                                     La Compania

For the last Xavier Chapel program – well, it looks that way, and the Ensemble’s three eastern suburb appearances are moving to Our Lady of Victories Basilica in Camberwell next year –  director John O’Donnell brought in the services of Danny Lucin’s early music musicians, La Compania to flesh out a final night for 2017 of lush, almost corpulent Renaissance Christmas music: both Gabrielis, of course, along with Praetorius, de Lassus, and a single Epiphany motet by Victoria.

The program was rich in choral works for multiple vocal lines, interspersed with three Andrea Gabrieli intonationes and a relatively more substantial ricercar from O’Donnell on chamber organ.  Other instrumental pieces included two canzone by Giovanni Gabrieli for eight voices.  Lucin’s cornetto led the quartet from La Compania – sackbuts Julian Bain, Trea Hindley, Glen Bardwell – and the second instrumental choir was represented by O’Donnell; a mixture that worked well enough, even better after ears had adjusted to the organ’s tuning in mean-tone temperament.

The Gombert numbers had expanded slightly with an additional soprano and tenor in the force and the body’s reliability had also been resumed with the return of some absentees from the previous recital.   In all, the ensemble sang eight works, most of them in company with the four wind and organ.  But in the night’s latter stages, we heard two plain works for the standard four lines: the afore-mentioned Victoria piece, Senex puerum portabat, and the less ornate of the two Lassus representatives, Adorna thalamum: both making for a moment of meditative ease as they celebrated the Presentation in the Temple – the Candlemas of this concert’s title.  Like most of the works performed here, these motets moved swiftly through their texts, over too soon for some of us but handled with confidence and dedication.

But the body of the program comprised music of extraordinary stateliness, polished grandeur which summoned up the spirit of what Renaissance church rituals might have been like – mobile and inspirational but completely controlled in movement and expression.  The combined forces opened with two settings of Resonet in laudibus: the first by Praetorius in seven parts, loaded with full-bodied common chords processing past with solid majesty, then the Lassus version for five voices with more polyphonic interest but just as buoyant in its realization of the Christmas Day-celebrating words.

Andrea Gabrieli’s lavishly coloured Hodie Christus natus est, also instrumentally reinforced/doubled, summoned up the phantom of Venice in 1600 through the organized glory of sound blocks combining, alternating and eventually reaching blazing swathes of rich sonic fabric, particularly the focused relish on the word laetantur and the piling on of concords for the final Alleluia exclamations.  This piece enjoyed an exhilarating performance by both Gomberts and Compania musicians, proposing a form of that controlled ecstasy you hear in the B minor Mass’s Sanctus opening, the emotion kept in harness as the composer looks for intimations of the divine in a music of aspiring solidity.

Nephew Giovanni’s O magnum mysterium for double choir of disparate personnel – the first with two sopranos, alto and tenor, while the second holds an alto, tenor and two bass lines – countering each other and combining for stately interweaving strophes, the whole again typified by dramatic restraint without any vocal adventures and reaching its high point not in the final Alleluia but placing a moving focus on the iacentem in praesepio phrase: the core of the text, picturing the Child lying in a manger.  The first statement is chordal, the second more irregular, yet the effect was intensely moving due to the singers’ incisive delivery.

On either side of the smaller-framed four-voice Victoria and Lassus motets came two powerful works.  The first celebrated the Epiphany, that moment in Matthew’s gospel where the Magi enter the Bethlehem stable, even if Lassus constructs a more expansive picture with not just royalty but Omnes de Saba bringing gifts, the nominated kings coming from Saba (Sheba) with the rest of the population, but from Arabia and Tharsis (Spain or Sardinia? ) as well.  This motet, for double choir, has been sung by the ensemble in previous years, although I can’t remember it coming across with such lustrous majesty; the cornetto and sackbuts might have made a difference in this regard. But the score’s fabric in this performance gleamed with high polish, the smooth and opulent movement underlining the significance of those remarkably outlandish offerings  –  gold and frankincense.

Another Venetian blockbuster made for a memorable farewell to the Xavier Chapel, a building which has been fortunate to witness and host the Ensemble Gombert’s performances for many years.  Giovanni Gabriel’s Nunc dimittis is Simeon’s prayer of gratitude for being allowed to live long enough to see Christ, but it also served as a mutual thank-you between these singers and their loyal audience.  For 14 voices divided into three choirs, this construct proved intensely satisfying for its fusion of massively resonant and fluid motion with a non-indulgent handling of the text.  Mind you, the concluding doxology is just as lengthy as the words of the righteous and devout man from Luke’s gospel that were set by the composer.  But O’Donnell and his forces gave us a most satisfying, driving reading of this High Renaissance gem, a potent reminder of the choir’s outright distinction in this country’s choral ranks.

 

 

 

Useful = accessible

TRAVELLING TALES

Adam Simmons and the Arcko Symphonic Ensemble

45 downstairs, Flinders Lane

Thursday December 7

                                                                     Adam Simmons

Another stage along the path of Adam Simmons’ odyssey towards working out for himself – and us – the problems of art’s utility, this program comprised nine segments, all connected with the travel theme, some of them in rather personal ways; personal to Simmons, I mean.  To support and amplify this enterprise, Timothy Phillips and his Arcko musicians – 20 strings from the Ensemble – slotted into the mix without obvious bumps, although it has to be admitted that, compared to other concerts presented by this group, you were scraping to find much that would have tested their powers of ensemble and articulation.

Indeed, Simmons map was pretty laid-back. His beginnings opened with a gentle underpinning over which the soprano saxophone meandered quietly, before the pace changed to marching ponderousness for a single step, a segment that moved forward to a rather extended climax; nothing too harmonically adventurous and the scoring for string orchestra made its points without resorting to conspicuous efforts or tricks.

Simmons third movement, milosc, was a solo to illustrate the maxim (presumably from Milosc) that travelling while simultaneously playing music was about the life-experience you gained by doing so; unarguable, one would hope but most interesting in this context for Near-Eastern colours coaxed from his tenor sax by Simmons.  In a nod to the old world, the composer/performer gives some recognition to previous times and cultures but in a manner that left not much impact on this listener.

More immediately gripping matter came in the city that never slept which was based on a rising five-note step-like motif in the strings, gradually accruing members as the movement passed by but not following a predictable path of building up volume through numbers; rather, sharing the material around between groups.  On top of this, Simmons generated a wild, near-frenetic line where the night’s work came closest to contemporary practice with plenty of over-blowing and percussive slaps at the instrument’s tube and keys.  No, these techniques are not unheard of and were common practice among avant-garde jazz musicians many decades ago, but in this (till now) calm dynamic context, the effect was remarkable, especially at summoning up a kind of aural equivalent to a Big Cityscape.

in threnody, the emotional atmosphere was conditioned by open 4ths and 5ths, making a deliberate contrast with the preceding movement, both sax and string orchestra weaving together in a calm consolation rather than a mournful dirge.  Perhaps the most interesting part of the night followed in living by numbers which was something of an organized free-for-all for the bulk of the orchestra over the grounding of a string quartet formed by the section principals. The impression appeared to be something close to a minimalist gesture in that the material used stayed simple if rhythmically taut.  But counterbalancing this was Simmons’ contribution which took the form of another gripping series of phrases/outbursts that at times followed the orchestra, but more often presented as improvisations over the sustaining string ferment; all exhilarating to experience and the whole hurtling forward stopped on a dime.

Pulling back from this energetic outburst, a song for sharing began with another solo for saxophone.  For me, the communal mood spoke clearly of 1960s cool jazz, boppy and tuneful, the strings joining in after a time with canon-style imitations employed to impose an underpinning order.  Finally, Simmons took up his soprano for warm croissants – referring to a consolation coming at breakfast after a night of deep and meaningful talk – and roamed over and into a sequence of slow string chords to suggest the settling back into Ithacan domesticity or a return to the land of the lotus-eaters.

What the composer presents here is, obviously, a sequence of vignettes amounting to a self-portrait.  For the Arcko musicians, the stages were fully organized and scored and, if novelties or technical troubles were hard to find, they were able to concentrate on synchronicity and the generation of clear-speaking group timbres.  Simmons served as both a wandering voice, merging and diverging at will so that he seemed to be improvising, particularly at moments of highest tension.

And the concert fulfilled the aim of Simmons’ intent: to illustrate the usefulness of his art – both to himself and to us.  I think that the basis of what he is attempting is to found his music in comprehensibility – no, instant understanding.  Music that is accessible, intellectually and emotionally, is useful; composers who choose to obfuscate, inadvertently or intentionally, are heading in the other direction and writing music of no help to anyone.  Which again brings to mind that story of Stravinsky whispering to his secretary Robert Craft, while both were listening to the latest string quartet by a US academic,  ‘Who needs it?’

On the other hand, we might not need Simmons’ physical and spiritual travelogue but it is available and accessible, presumably unlike the afore-mentioned string quartet.  More down-to-earth, the composer has succeeded in linking his own swooping performance creativity and the pervasive power of his playing with a formal framework of such character that should reassure even the most conservative listener.

Finally, as a pre-empting of apologies that may be necessary, these observations are based on a set of notes written in darkness, or its near equivalent.  Recollection in tranquillity is a wonderful exercise but I hope that my scribbles superimposed on the night’s program in what I hope was sequential order still manage to bear a general reference to what actually took place.

 

 

Genial and appealing

BACH CELLO

Zoe Knighton

Move Records MD 3422

Many cellists play the Bach unaccompanied suites and sometimes gain great acclaim from the process.  They all owe a singular debt to Pablo Casals who unveiled the scores after centuries of neglect.  Indeed, sometimes you’d be forgiven for thinking that the instrument’s repertoire would be partly denuded if the six suites were removed from public view.  Alongside a wealth of superb concertos, what remains for cello recital programs?  Beethoven’s five sonatas and two each from Mendelssohn and Brahms, for sure. Then there are the single units by Debussy and, less popular, Grieg and Chopin.  After that, the chief source of nourishment is the 20th century with its momentary successes and more frequent conundrums and wastes of time.   For such a fundamentally important musical voice, the cello has accrued a wealth of pap and arrangements but it’s a rare player who takes the exclusively contemporary (anything after 1900) path.

Melbourne musician Zoe Knighton is best-known for her endeavours in the chamber music field, especially as a founding constant in the Flinders Quartet and for organizing festival days of chamber music at the University of Melbourne that featured most of this city’s outstanding ensembles.  For Move Records, she has made several recordings, mainly with Amir Farid, that include estimable readings of Beethoven and Mendelssohn’s complete oeuvres for cello and piano.  Now she has moved to the fundamental, putting her hat into the ring with Casals, Tortelier, Fournier, Rostropovich and Isserlis.  Why not?  She has an obvious sympathy with these scores and achieves the valuable goal of letting sunlight into musical rooms that all too often tend to be stacked with well-lacquered mahogany.

For space allocation reasons, I suppose, this album’s two CDs split the suites into non-sequential groups of three.  Disc 1 has Suite 1 in G Major, Suite 4 in E flat Major, and Suite 5 in C minor; the second disc holds the D minor Suite 2, Suite 3 in C Major and the last in D Major.  As the informed are aware, the works’ organization follows a regular pattern: each has a prelude, allemande, courante, sarabande, and concluding gigue.  In penultimate position come two minuets (Suites 1 and 2), or two bourees (Suites 3 and 4) or 2 gavottes (Suites 5 and 6).  For all that symmetry and simplicity of format, Bach invests each movement with individual personality and Knighton has a gift for reaching into these pages and revealing their character.

As far as familiar Bach cello music goes, you won’t find much that beats the prelude to the Suite No. 1 which sounds out in recital spaces with tedious regularity.  Knighton sets up the pattern for her overall reading through these familiar pages which, for some inexplicable reason, brought to mind a totally dissimilar musician: Ton Koopman, whose versions of canonic Bach organ works once struck me as hectically  iconoclastic.  Not that this cellist walks an unexpectedly original path, but her treatment of the variables that are intrinsic to these editorially bare pages is quite original so that not much is predictable, least of all in her choice of resting-points and the length of time she stays on them.  She avoids the overkill temptation in this prelude’s climax but takes the opportunity to address powerfully the movement’s last four bars to fine effect.

Like many among her predecessors, Knighton saves her ornamentation for the repeats, as seen first in this suite’s allemande, more effectively in the consequent courante which reveals another aspect of the musician’s vision in that it remains a dance, one with pronounced rhythmic underlay.  The imbalance between the piece’s two segments is somehow smoothed out by a clear intent to maintain this vital pulse rather than twisting the courante‘s format into fantasia-like excess.  You come to a restrained landscape with the sarabande; no imposed heft but an outline that borders on the affectionately lingering.

Knighton omits the triple stops that occur in my edition at bars 18 and 20 of Minuet 1‘s second part and allows herself a relaxation in metre for the G minor Minuet II.  The gigue brings the suite home in sensible style, distinguished by a delicate emphasis on each bar’s first beat.

Opening Suite 4, the interpretation of the prelude offers a forceful emphasis on the low note at each bar’s start, but the attack quietens to a soft low C sharp at the movement’s shift in character for a recitative passage.  This is one of the more unpredictable parts in the entire set of suites but the cellist shows intelligent musicianship in negotiating the relentless wide-ranging arpeggio element in the movement’s central segments.  Following this temperamental ride, the allemande attests to  the natural affable charm of Knighton’s approach, illustrated best by the gentle bounce colouring the 7th leaps during bars 9 to 11, these pages coming to a fetching, insouciant finish.

For the following courante, I found the most attractive passage to be the final 23 bars.  Bach’s superficially carefree but clever vaulting metrical patterns, especially the use of triplets in the third-last bar, present a kind of jeu d’esprit that Knighton negotiates deftly without drawing attention to its brisk craft.  The sarabande is given all of a piece, without dynamic jumps in dynamic, its final diminuendo in the concluding two bars accomplished with tact.  The bouree brace raised some production question marks at a few of the top E flats and Fs.   You’d be satisfied with the gigue‘s first half but Knighton gives a very rousing vitality to the lengthy, bounding second part – and its repeat – with no signs of fatigue.

The scordatura Suite 5 begins with a mighty prelude, more a French overture in form and an invitation to indulge in grandiose gestures.  Here it receives its fair amount of dramatic tension but the 3/8 long second section leaves you in no doubt that, yet again, everything here tends towards dance.  An impressive detail emerged in the player’s skill at sustaining both upper and lower pedal notes in a busy fabric.  An exercise in musing rather than an allemande, the next movement finds Knighton treating the second half’s rhythmic abrupt grupetti with calm fluidity.  She also takes relish in articulating the sudden change in emphasis of the courante‘s two cadential bars.  For the famous sarabande, all artifice is stripped away and the slow line of single notes comes across as a kind of sophisticated keening.

The pair of gavottes offer a notable contrast: the first is gritty, its double,  triple and quadruple stops ground out with confidence; the second could be taken for a gigue, albeit a very rapid, sotto voce one.  The finale itself brings this exceptional work to the finest of lopsided endings, especially when real irregularity sets in after the second half’s two-bar trill where Bach kicks against the predictable and Knighton is happy to leave his adventure to speak clearly for itself.

Opening Disc 2, the D minor Suite No. 2 offers the experience of an excellently handled increase in ardour to the prelude’s rhetorical climax beginning at bar 40, the energy sustained in the composer’s simple but moving pattern work to the fermata at bar 48.  Knighton boldly splays the allemande‘s opening chord but thereafter maintains a mobile pace.  More rousing is the courante, strikingly vivid in its bursts of action and hiatus points.  You start to fear that the speed chosen here is too rapid, particularly after a few glancing, almost-not-there notes in the first part.  But the executant’s results justify this hurtling attack and firm-hand treatment.

Echoes of the D minor Violin Partita inevitably rise up during the sarabande, largely because of a similar severe clarity of utterance.  Without dismissing Knighton’s obvious care, I have to admit to being distracted by Bach’s marvellous craft in giving emphasis to the second beat of each bar, even in those stretches of superficially undifferentiated quavers.  Later, you hear another clear-speaking instance of the player’s affection for this music in the wide leaps of Minuet II – gently administered so that the bow glances off the strings without unnecessary force.  By contrast, she swaggers through the gigue, gaining plenty of approbation for the controlled aggression of those double-stopped pedal passages that wind up each half.

Suite 3 opens with panache, surging through its opening strophes to a slow-burn dynamic build-up at the broken arpeggio writing that starts at bar 36 and builds to a powerful construct on the dominant G from bars 45 to 61; Knighton enters spiritedly into the thrilling flamboyance of this prelude’s last ten bars.  Both allemande and courante avoid machine-like regularity, thanks to a plethora of well-pointed loitering.

Not facing any emotional depths, Knighton produces a generous, sensitively-shaped sarabande before moving into popular encore fare with the pair of C Major/minor bourees.  If she finds little original to be articulated here, she still gives both pieces a clean texture and handles their fluent angularity with aplomb.  Interesting in itself, the gigue never ceases to delight for its invention, notably when the second half strikes out on its own before toeing the line.  Here it gains from a clever type of inner bounce that still delivers the piece as a unit, despite the interpolation of gabbling semiquaver passages and some transitions into musette territory.

Finally, Knighton reaches the taxing Suite VI, originally asking for a 5-string instrument. Suddenly, the timbre changes upwards with a wealth of writing in the tenor clef, the first time in the collection.  Bach celebrates the work’s singularity with another solid prelude, the second-longest in the set.  Not that this version is rushed, but I would have preferred it at a slower pace; yes, the opening 77 bars have nothing but quavers to propel the action but a lot is going on that stands up to measured consideration.

With its 20 mammoth-length bars, the allemande is a welter of ornamentation, straining at its own bonds as it reveals itself as a cross between a fantasia and a meditation.  This is powerful and brooding music, despite its flashes of action and Knighton gives it ample space – the longest track on both discs – and an excellent dynamic diminution at about the half-way point.  Normal running resumes with the courante, sprightly and definite in pulse; the performer is enjoying the experience here, carrying on a kind of internalised dance with the most quiet and subtle of emphases brought into play.

She makes a noble processional out of the sarabande, for once in keeping with the dance name, quietly progressing despite the composer’s clutches of chords and those double-stopped passages that dominate the second half.  More encore material comes with the gavottes although, like pretty much every other cellist, Knighton struggles with the requirement of negotiating massive and frequent chords while giving prominence to a melody line.  Which is nothing to the gigue with its impossibly demanding first half loaded with demanding problems of fingering and bowing, giving way to a relieving second part that leaves you with the sense of having experienced a moderately pleasant exercise after an ocean of trials.

Like many of us, I’ve found Knighton’s chamber music a reliable source of enjoyment.  She radiates confidence in her work and participates with  personality and no little finesse.  These discs are a rewarding demonstration of her talents as a solitary voice, one well worth hearing for the pleasure given in so many of the 18 tracks through this player’s familiar warmth and honesty of musical character.