2017 in review

It seems most unlikely now that the paper for which I am an (increasingly) occasional contributor will be asking for a piece of reportage on what happened throughout last year on Melbourne’s serious music scene.

Rather than leave some extraordinary efforts unremarked, I offer these random observations as a well-intentioned diary of events, supplementing the accounts in this blog of 37 concerts/recitals and 11 operas across 2017.

January

Because of an administrative snafu and an insistence that January was packed with action (rock festivals and reprints of articles from the UK and USA), I got to hear little at the start to 2017;  nothing from the Peninsula Summer Music Festival, for example, and only one concert from the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival.

It can be a dry month for Melbourne’s musicians, in particular those who specialize in period performances.  But Ballarat’s annual January festival, under the joint aegis of Sergio di Pieri and Judy Houston, offers some relief from drought, no more so than this concluding program at St. Patrick’s Cathedral called The Agony of Hell and the Peace of Soul which celebrated the genius of Schutz, with two diversions into Monteverdi and Schein. Wherever you looked, you could see authorities at work, both in the choral forces and in the Unholy Rackett and Ensemble 642 instrumental combination, all under Stephen Grant’s direction.   It cohered into a joyful song unto the Lord, one of those experiences that you seek in vain elsewhere.  This year’s finale promises to further this pursuit of the monumental in Biber’s 53-line Missa Salisburgensis.

February

The Australian Chamber Orchestra began its national series with Pekka Kuusisto taking the reins for a program based around Janacek’s Kreutzer Sonata String Quartet in string orchestra arrangement.   In another of the ACO’s experimental melding exercises, folk-singer Sam Amidon provided interpolations with some Appalachian melodies that were melodically attractive if textually incomprehensible.  But the afternoon wasn’t wasted, thanks to a sterling performance of John Adams’ Shaker Loops which cut through the obfuscating commentary to the score’s innate clarity of utterance.

As expected, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra gave its three Myer Music Bowl concerts to large crowds, some of whom actually listened.  It was a Russian week with Stravinsky’s Petrushka, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and, to begin, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2  –  the stuff of a thousand Hollywood and Ealing Studios  wartime dramas – while conductor Benjamin Northey finished off the night with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture – the barnstormer that keeps on giving.

                                                                  Benjamin Northey

Also in this month, the MSO kicked off what used to be called its Town Hall Proms which can’t be named that anymore, particularly as chief conductor Sir Andrew Davis has brought actual Proms concerts to Hamer Hall.  Sponsoring young Australian conductors (well, some of them) to the hilt, the organization presented Nicholas Carter directing Tchaikovsky’s F minor Symphony with plenty of stop-start energy, balanced by a sober Prokofiev Classical Symphony.

                                                                Nicholas Carter

On the month’s last night, the MSO offered a season opening gala – which meant that everything up till now had been just a tease.   Maxim Vengerov played the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with unflappable assurance, plain sailing all the way with Benjamin Northey directing, then Vengerov conducted Rimsky’s Scheherazade as though  accompanying a troupe of elderly dancers.

March

Continuing its almost-unfailingly popular series of soundtrack concerts, the MSO took on the original Jurassic Park with laudable enthusiasm, even if stretches of critical dialogue were swamped under the considerable weight produced by the players under Benjamin Northey.  A week or so later, the disciplining hand of Sir Andrew Davis, took over the reins for a continuation of his Mahler Cycle, this time with No. 7 which is a movement too far as far as I’m concerned, burdened with the most coitus interruptus-suggestive finale in the composer’s symphonic canon.

Young prodigy Daniel Trifonov gave his solitary recital here on March 14 and it turned out to be one of the year’s high points.  His review of Schumann’s Kinderszenen, Toccata and Kreisleriana was remarkable for its continuous rigour, especially the last-named, and he kept his technical brilliance for a sharply-etched selection from Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, and an overpowering version of Stravinsky’s arrangement for Arthur Rubinstein of Petrushka.

Trifonov also graced an MSO concert a week later with the neglected Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 1: again, he played with impeccable fluency, bringing passion and polish to a work that most pianists neglect – either from choice or from management constraints.  Davis continued his residency with an effective Tchaikovsky Pathetique, for once treated as a whole rather than four marvellous units, and fleshed out the month with a Last Night of the Proms that went even more all-British than usual with Piers Lane resuscitating John Ireland’s Piano Concerto for us – the only time most of us will ever hear this one-time acclaimed construct.

                                                                    Daniel Trifonov

At the MSO’s Recital Centre concerts, program control often seems be handed over to either of the body’s concertmasters, Eoin Andersen or Dale Barltrop.  For this end-of-month sojourn, Barltrop directed and also brought on-board the Australian String Quartet (of which he is first violin) for Australian writer Matthew Hindson’s The Rave and the Nightingale.  Taking its inspiration from Schubert’s last quartet, the work was sadly placed alongside a string orchestra transcription of the Death and the Maiden Quartet in D minor which showed the MSO strings to excellent effect.  Try as I might. I still find it hard to warm to much music coming out of Sydney, my home town.  But this piece, attempting a fusion/development of well-known pages, served little other purpose than to show what a brilliant mind this country owns in Brett Dean.

April

Almost 30 years since its last visit, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields came to Melbourne with new director Joshua Bell. who repeated his Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto interpretation last heard here with the Australian Youth Orchestra in 2013.  Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but hardly venturesome programming, the orchestra’s ensemble not satisfactory in the Recital Centre where its strings (too few) were swamped by their wind and timpani colleagues.

The MSO ended its April with Orff’s Carmina Burana, to which the most successful contributor was Warwick Fyfe whose bass-baritone reflected the verses he was singing with excellent interpretative skill; a very welcome factor as the MSO Chorus underwhelmed in the more explosive strophes of the outer movements.

                                                                       Warwick Fyfe

May

Nicholas Carter enjoyed his day in the sun at the February Town Hall concert.  This month, it was Benjamin Northey’s turn, capitalising on his educational background in conducting with the Sibelius Symphony No. 2 and generating a blazoning power throughout, well-complemented by Stefan Cassomenos’ driving encounter with Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto.

British pianist/conductor/raconteur Bramwell Tovey paid a fleeting visit to the MSO to premiere a new piece by composer-in-residence Elena Kats-Chernin and to escort Alexander Gavrylyuk through the Tchaikovsky B flat Piano Concerto, a reading packed with brilliance but nowhere more so than the final double-octave cadenza.

Many of us are happy to turn out for a recital from Nikolai Demidenko who has, in the past, enriched our knowledge of both piano concertos and solo piano works, no matter how well-known.  Appearing in the Recital Centre’s Great Performers series, the master played an all-Scarlatti first half which proved to be a few sonatas too long, even given the player’s individual approach.  Schubert’s C minor Sonata D 958 moved the goalposts and we were treated to a fulfilling and clearly articulated reading of a neglected monument in the literature.

June

Back in Melbourne for his second annual stint as the MSO’s chief conductor, Sir Andrew Davis headed Haydn’s The Creation.  An up-and-down affair for the MSO Chorus, soprano Siobhan Stagg gave the roles of Gabriel and Eve a welcome burnish, lending elegance to this oratorio with a cosmic theme and an often mundane level of utterance.  Later in the month,  Davis conducted Beethoven’s Pastoral with more oomph than Disney pastel, while cellist Daniel Muller-Schott soared through the Don Quixote variations of Richard Strauss.

                                                                      Siobahn Stagg

The Australian Chamber Orchestra mounted one of its intimate recitals with some overworked Schumann surrounding Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 13 with Kristian Bezuidenhout escorted by a bare-bones string quartet.

A few of us latter-day Nathanaels are prone to asking, Can any good come out of Trumpian America?  To our delight, a resounding ‘Yes’ followed the Musica Viva tour by the Pacifica Quartet who gave a sympathetic airing to Westlake’s 2005 String Quartet No. 2, found a solid foundation for the last of Beethoven’s awkward essays in the form, and offered a captivating account of Shostakovich No. 3.

Next in the Recital Centre’s series of Great Performers, Behzod Abduraimov built on the excellent impression he made five years previously.  A controlled reading of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor as arranged by Busoni, some Schubert Moments musicaux and a spacious Beethoven Appassionata were capped by Abduraimov’s memorable insights into Prokofiev’s massive Sonata No. 6.

July

Sir Andrew Davis took a detour from his Mahler symphonies cycle to take in Das Lied von der Erde, working productively with tenor Stuart Skelton and mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers.  You can’t help but be moved by the composer’s compelling embrace and abnegation of existence but the MSO’s efforts might have been more carefully harnessed in vehemently scored passages where the soloists were swamped.

For no apparent reason, the MSO mounted a mini-Mozart Festival of three concerts, some recitals, and Milos Forman’s Amadeus film.   What I heard of the symphonic events under Richard Egarr proved generally delightful, ranging from the first catalogued keyboard music played by Egarr himself up to the tensile muscularity of the Symphony No. 40, with Jacqueline Porter’s soprano a lucid delight in the Exsultate, jubilate motet and the MSO strings generating a near-faultless account of the Paris Symphony No. 31.

                                                                     Jacqueline Porter

The live soundtrack underpinning to Amadeus had the orchestra and chorus in laudable synchronicity with the screen, conductor Benjamin Northey pleating the media together with scarcely a seam showing.   But the final orchestral concert woke you up –  if you needed to be  –  to the peerless genius who produced the Clarinet Concerto and the D minor Requiem – well, a good deal of it – in his last, crowded months.  Here was a concert where the spirits looked kindly on Egarr and his forces so that their realizations made for an engrossing, moving experience.

I felt unbridled enthusiasm for the Sitkovetsky Trio after their 2014 tour for Musica Viva.  This time, their cellist, Leonard Elsenbroich, was replaced by Bartholomew LaFollette at short notice.   Nevertheless, the ensemble made exemplary work of Rachmaninov’s Trio elegiaque No. 1, the Shostakovich in E minor and swept us away with that hoary repertoire cornerstone, Mendelssohn in D minor.

A benevolent amalgam, the Australian World Orchestra stretched out to the young musicians of the Australian National Academy of Music for a collaboration in a July 29 one-night, one-work program under Simone Young.  Messiaen’s Turangalila-symphonie asks for a good deal from its executants, none more than its pianist and Ondes Martenot player; on this night, Timothy Young and Jacob Abela gave the symphony’s sprawling canvas both brilliance and emotional heft.

August

Each Takacs Quartet night offers an object lesson in chamber music performance.  This year’s Musica Viva tour opened with the last Haydn in F Major, MV artistic director Carl Vine’s No. 6, Child’s Play, and a penetrating reading of Beethoven’s Op. 127 with an adagio that you didn’t want to end, despite its complexities of construction.

                                                                     Takacs Quartet

Li-Wei Qin offered yet again his interpretation of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, with the MSO under Johannes Fritzsch backing his efforts with balancing zest.  It’s a work you find has an immediate appeal, no matter how often it’s performed, and this soloist impresses for the forceful drive of his sound and his soaring richness of line in the concerto’s many lyrical flights.

Sir Andrew Davis clearly has a soft spot for Massenet’s opera Thais.  He made this work his mid-season gala and it largely succeeded for the quality of his soloists: soprano Erin Wall (Thais), baritone Quin Kelsey (Athanael), bass Daniel Sumegi (Palemon), tenor Diego Silva (Nicias), and mezzo Liane Keegan (Abbess Albine).  Having heard it once, I’d like to thank all concerned but can’t see any need for staging it, despite the opportunities for a set designer/choreographer’s pseudo-Oriental excess.

On the month’s last night, Davis made another side-trip from the Mahler path into Bruckner territory with the Symphony No. 7, preceding the performance with an illustrated lecture.  The MSO’s account found the strings and woodwind in excellent temper, the brass not so much, but the conductor embraced the outer movements’ long paragraphs with gusto.

September

Paul Dyer and his Australian Brandenbuurg Orchestra focused on friends Mozart and Haydn, with Cannabich a handy filler/acquaintance during this visit to composing contemporaries.  A wind octet played parts of the Harmoniemusik from Il Seraglio that Mozart probably arranged himself; the ABO’s principal, Jamie Hey, faced projection difficulties in the Haydn C Major Cello Concerto, but not as many problems as Bart Aerbeydt confronted with his natural instrument in Mozart’s last horn concerto.

Commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Babi Yar atrocity, the Zelman Symphony essayed the Shostakovich Symphony No. 13 which uses Yevtushenko’s poems as a fulcrum. Mark Shiell conducted his orchestra, a bass choir and bass soloist; the singing element sustained the composer’s gravity of expression and the instrumental corps, often deliberate and aware, could have been improved by more assertiveness from the strings.

Ravel’s G Major Piano Concerto with soloist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet made a fine pairing with the Mozart Symphony No. 34 at this month’s concluding MSO concerts, both light and buoyant even in their slow movements.  Conductor Andre de Ridder moved to the dark side with Ravel’s La Valse and Unsuk Chin’s kaleidoscopic Mannequin – one of the year’s more adventurous program choices.

More French material emerged at the month’s end when Otto Tausk conducted the MSO in Debussy’s La mer, the body’s brass section in powerful, accurate voice, before a complete shift in temper when pianist Saleem Ashkar fronted the Brahms D minor Concerto, giving this rumbling rort of a  score its full complement of roaming sensitivity and pounding majesty.

                                                                  Saleem Ashkar

For once not clashing with Fathers’ Day, the Music in the Round Festival at the Abbotsford Convent site was held on September 24 and brought some stirring music-making into play.  I was lucky enough to hear the Arcadia Winds quintet in Barber’s Summer Music and the eloquent Nielsen Wind Quintet; later, violinist William Hennessy, violist Stefanie Farrands, and cellist Michael Dahlenburg – Melbourne Chamber Orchestra core personnel – laboured with pianist Louisa Breen  across the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 2 with excellent results; and pianist Stefan Cassomenos thundered through Liszt’s arrangement of the Beethoven A Major Symphony.

October

Suffering from a publicist’s hyperbole by appearing under the title of ‘the world’s greatest living flautist’, Emmanuel Pahud was guest for this month’s Australian Chamber Orchestra program, a compendium of great variety in which the guest performed most effectively in unaccompanied solos: Bach’s A minor Sonata and Debussy’s Syrinx.  An arrangement for the ACO strings and Pahud of Franck’s Violin Sonata removed most of the original’s chromatic bite and the finale’s sweep from placidity to generous clamour.

Later, Richard Tognetti  brought the full ACO ensemble to the Recital Centre for a singular achievement climaxing in Tchaikovsky’s sextet Souvenir de Florence as you would like to hear it all the time: light textures oscillating with driving blasts, each movement a finely-honed, concentrated vein of gleaming ore.

This year’s Melbourne Festival brought some enriching music to the public ear, starting with A Requiem for Cambodia: Bangsokol which fused Western and Eastern genres into a moving lament for those millions murdered during the Khmer Rouge’s ascendancy.  Local pianist Peter de Jager staggered me with his all-Xenakis program which contained most of the Greek/French composer’s keyboard music for both piano and harpsichord: a stimulating grapple with very difficult material, some of it unplayable.  The British choir Tenebrae brought Jody Talbot’s Path of Miracles to town, a four-part musical tracing of the pilgrim’s trail from Roncesvalles to the shrine of St. James of Compostella.

                                                                          Tenebrae

A Festival finish of high distinction came with the two recitals by Emanuele Archiuli which focused on American modern works, in particular highlighting Thelonius Monk’s ‘Round Midnight.  Despite the pianist covering too much territory and revealing a tolerance for some pretty lightweight matter, he enriched our awareness of near-contemporary pianistic craft with George Crumb’s far-foraging variations on the Monk tune, then performed part of his own vast enterprise which involved 20 composers writing individual takes on ‘Round Midnight.

British conductor Andrew Manze took the MSO through Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C, the first time I can remember hearing this masterpiece live since Gelmetti conducted it at Robert Blackwood Hall many years ago, my review of that occasion eliciting a letter from one of the first violins that indicated how I’d undervalued the stamina required from the strings to get through this score.  Manze pointed to the inescapable influence of Beethoven on Schubert, but also the impact of Rossini’s jauntiness, and that information gave extra colour to what can be a trying experience, especially in the verbose tarantella finale.

November

The MSO has given plenty of exposure to its associate conductor, Benjamin Northey, this year, coming to a head with his being given charge of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.  The young conductor gave his exuberant best to the experience, met with full-throated responsiveness from both orchestra and the MSO Choir and well-served by his all-Australian principal line-up: Jacqueline Porter, Liane Keegan, Henry Choo, Shane Lowrencev.

A tad down-river, the MSO under Nicholas Buc did their live soundtrack thing with the first two Harry Potter films, playing to packed audiences at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre’s Plenary.  The music itself is warmingly familiar, yet another sparkling amethyst in composer John William’s chain of memorable film scores, but both nights were exemplary public occasions: for The Philosopher’s Stone, by the audience’s participation in greeting and groaning at various characters – all encouraged by Buc – to the final explosion of delight when Dumbledore changed the house points at film’s end; for The Chamber of Secrets, you had to be impressed by the audience’s applause at each discrete passage of play, patrons quite happy to drown out the film’s action with approbation of the MSO’s efforts.

                                                                        Nicholas Buc 

Back at Hamer Hall, Stanislav Kochanovsky directed a sonorous but unsatisfying reading of the Rachmaninov Symphony No. 2, one of the MSO’s more memorable successes under Hiroyuki Iwaki.  Possibly the conductor and his band were too focused on exerting a powerful drive throughout; even more probable, the interpretation proved self-conscious, the weight of both outer movements approached with an excessive consideration for inner bulk.

December

My concert of the year for 2013 was the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s revelation of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.  Quite a bit of its success came from the orchestra’s talent at walking a line between opulent modern warmth and period instrument piquancy.  Even more was due to the brilliant Choir of London, a body of about 18 singers, all soloists in their own right who combined for the most lustrous and full choruses and chorales you may ever encounter.  Much the same occurred this time around with many of the same participants back at work, headed by that paragon of Evangelist tenors, Nicholas Mulroy.

                                                                    Nicholas Mulroy

Finishing the Recital Centre’s Great Performers series, British pianist Paul Lewis confronted us with another of his demanding programs, this one comprising late-in-life works by Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms, the last represented by the Six Piano Pieces Op. 118 in which Lewis found a subtle continuity of emotional language to produce one of the year’s most significant and revelatory interpretations.

The MSO’s annual Messiah proved disappointing, in part due to the lack of ginger from conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini.  About two touches of originality aside, this struck me as a pretty pedestrian effort, the MSO Chorus imbalanced by a shy tenor group, the orchestra reduced to an emotionally faceless stratum, and only two of the soloists leavening the drabness, soprano Sara Macliver and tenor Ed Lyon casting light across a dour landscape.

                                                                        Sara Macliver

                                                                            Ed Lyon

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra – some of them – and Choir began their Noel! Noel! concerts in the Recital Centre, moving ever closer to a Carols by Candelight format with young musicals singer Joel Parnis making a hash of Adam’s O Holy Night, set too low for his voice, but coming into his own with Bring Him Home from Les Miserables.  But Paul Dyer followed his customary path of having something for everyone, moving from Palestrina motets to Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, supplementing his string quintet with a trio of sackbuts.

The Australian Boys Choir finished my year with their A Mighty Wonder program.  Director Noel Ancell took as his program’s basis the O sacrum convivium antiphon, beginning with the familiar Gregorian chant, then moving into  settings by Gallus, Poulenc, Ivo Antognini and Ola Gjeilo.  And, aware of the enthusiasm of his choirs’ parents, Ancell also inserted plenty of audience-participation with carols unfamiliar – Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen, albeit in an English translation – and others that are part of our DNA – O come, all ye faithful and Hark! The herald angels sing.