US on the outside, Oz in the middle

CLAIRAUDIENT

Claire Edwardes

Move Records MD 3416

Artistic director of Ensemble Offspring, Claire Edwardes is almost alone on this CD, although one of its ten tracks features the clarinet of Jason Noble in collaboration with the percussionist’s vibraphone.   Half of the content comes from Melody Eotvos, an Australian composer currently resident in the United States of America, and her contributions seem to have been written for Edwardes and/or her ensemble.  The other local content comes from Damien Ricketson, one of Edwardes’ Offspring colleagues, and the partnership of Marcus Whale and Tom Smith who present the cryptically titled Work: part 1 and Work: part 2.

To open and close the album, Edwardes goes to the North American continent.  Her first gambit is Nostalgia by Canadian composer Vincent Ho, a vibraphone solo that revisits the composer’s percussion concerto, The Shaman.  This slow movement has no modernist terrors but meanders impressionistically around an E flat Major fulcrum before flirting with near-dissonance, then reverting at the last minute to the euphonious simplicity of its opening phrases.  Edwardes is not stretched but gives an attractive, languorous account of pages that have absolutely no distinctiveness.

Closing the disc, Edwardes brings both vibraphone and xylophone into play for a version of Steve Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint of 1982.  Originally for trios of alto flutes, flutes and piccolos and one solo part, all pre-recorded, with a live solo flute part, this work is the second-longest track and – as you’d anticipate – the least interesting.  As usual, scraps are piled on top of each other in a mosaic that masquerades as rhythmically ingenious but is even less satisfying than usual as the displacement of perception towards which these patterns so earnestly aspire borders on the simple-minded.

The tragedy is that this passes for modern-day counterpoint: a going-nowhere layering of lines which divides into discrete sections that seem to start up whenever the composer gets tired of his own lack of invention.  I understand the hypnotic attraction of the minimalist style and practice but can find nothing to admire or engross in its workings.  What is intensely dispiriting is the reduction to basic inanity that a product like Vermont Counterpoint involves.  Our art reaches a contrapuntal mastery in Bach, gets even more complex in Schoenberg and Boulez – and we wind up with this triviality.

Mind you, Reich and his colleagues aren’t totally accountable for a latter-day lowering in compositional craft standards.  The last century started with an explosion of rhythmic possibilities in The Rite of Spring and a few decades later we are confronted by the clod-hopping aesthetic dead-end that is rock; our insights into the ephemeral reach a kind of mini-summit with the Missa Papae Marcelli and the same aspiration results, 400 years later, in Dropkick Me, Jesus, Through the Goal Posts of Life.  Sound artists like Debussy and Schoenberg expand horizons so that modern-day inheritors of their blazoning paths can stand still in the Hollywood film recording studios; Stockhausen and Pousseur explore the potential of electronic sound-manipulation and, some decades later, the personification of trite – the Beatles – assist in bringing any adventurousness to a shameful end by embodying popular music’s morass of sterility.

Take The Work: part 1 which sources its impetus from the Rebonds of Xenakis; that ascription might be accurate, except that the Greek composer’s work does not involve electronics, whereas this score has a chugging, unchanging motorised pulse as its fundamental with some  focused white noise weaving in and out of the texture.  On top, Edwardes plays the dominant line on drums, a stratum that offers an opposition to the underpinning electronic support.  This contrast of the regular with the disjunct works half the time except that the Whale/Smith combination want to have and eat their percussive cake, having the live percussionist offer both a cross-rhythmic Hauptstimme but one that, every so often, falls into line with the support,  In other words, the piece challenges sporadically but doesn’t convince.

With The Work: part 2, the sound material is more intriguing as it involves a piece of garden slate and rocks, although how these sources are manipulated electronically – and they are – escapes me.  Still, it makes for an arresting 5-and-a-half minutes, even if the time that it takes to pass by presents not much more than an invitation to surrender to Edwardes’ state of clairaudience: hearing sounds that you would not encounter in your daily life, music ‘not audible to the normal ear’, as the CD’s leaflet expresses it.

Ricketson’s Time Alone – also for vibraphone and electronics – is the disc’s lengthiest work.  It forms part of an arcane collection that comprises pieces that have been ‘deliberately shielded from public life’: The Secret Noise.  Well, this part of the collection is now very public and, on the face of it, we haven’t been missing much.  A long chain of single vibraphone notes are sounded; about five minutes in, a faint electronic commentary enters for sonorous complementary reasons, gradually rising in importance to challenge the pointillism of the live instrument.

The effect is a good deal more intriguing than The Work, mainly because Ricketson has a finer perception of what to do with his material to keep it fresh, balanced and continuous. Yet again, it can’t be classed as a challenge for Edwardes but she projects the composer’s odd ambition for a construct that is both assimilable and arcane, public and private, with excellent control.

The odd-man-out of Eotvos’ quintet is Leafcutter, written in 2012 for vibraphone and clarinet.  It functions as the composer’s tribute to leafcutter ants, specifically the females for their path to procreation and founding individual colonies.  Both instruments pursue busy and continuous intersecting paths that suggest industry and a benign single-mindedness that eventually fades to inactivity when, I suppose, all the necessary work has been achieved and the ants can rest.  It’s hard to find any comparisons; Eotvos’s mobile linear interplay suggests a Hindemith-like rigour but the score’s bubbling inexorability sounds like early Boulez.  For all that, this creative voice is disciplined and individualistic.

The other four Eotvos works come from a collection called Counterpoint where the composer, Edwardes and three poets  –  Luka Lesson, Jessica L. Wilkinson, Margaret West  –  came together to create, their aesthetic congress resulting in a series of poems and music that, living up to the title, interweave and balance each other.  Lesson is responsible for How does a Miller and No Man, Wilkinson for And I was Tired and Book of Flying; West goes unrepresented.

Each piece has its own timbre world.  In How does a Miller, Edwardes employs tom toms, bass drum and electronics in a fusion of primitive and sophisticated.  Long on supple patting rather than pounding, the atmosphere delineated is rather menacing.  Somewhere along the way, I think Lesson recites his own lines; they are distorted intentionally and so are incomprehensible.

And I was Tired involves cymbal, waterphone, crotales and electronics and the poet’s recitation is almost clear while Eotvos relishes introducing us to the waterphone’s suggestiveness.  This is a more rhythmically emphatic construct to start with before moving into impressionistic amblings for its second-part, with isolated distorted words the sole point of reference.

Back comes the vibraphone (and electronics)  for Book of Flying which has no spoken text, although it was one of two poems I was able to track down.  Edwardes lays on the vibraphone repeated clusters with a will and you can hear definite mimicry of the fly noted in Wilkinson’s lines.  Yet the achievement is not that impressive, possibly because it seems happy in its own haiku-like stasis.

Naturally, the vibraphone and electronics feature in Lesson’s No Man, as well as the almglocken or tuned cowbells which for my generation have an unbreakable link with Mahler.  Edwardes indulges in a sturdy brand of mild aggression – but you could say the same about much of Counterpoint – before Lesson speaks his four lines en clair.  The latter part of the piece is a series of distortions of this spoken material. improving on the original’s flat delivery but bringing to mind how much more adventurous and daring were similar experiments like Stockhausen’s Gesang der Junglinge from over 60 years ago.

Nevertheless, this experimental music+verse exercise demonstrated an aspiration towards true creativity.  The results might be uneven but Eotvos and her multi-talented interpreter give us on this CD a much-needed collection of how music might be advanced, taken outside its self-satisfied strictures and hauled into something approaching a musical landscape that builds on the past, proposing the new rather than wallowing in pointless populism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just long enough

THE MAGIC PUDDING

Victorian Opera

Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne

Thursday March 15

The opera was also performed on Friday March 16 at 6:30 pm, and on Saturday March 17 at 1 pm and 5 pm.

                                      Jeremy Kleeman, Timothy Reynolds, Brenton Spiteri

Not much to report here.  Norman Lindsay’s story for children about a pudding that keeps on giving is now 100 years old and the state company decided to resuscitate the opera that it commissioned in 2013 to observe this literary centenary.  Quite a few of the central cast members have returned: Timothy Reynolds as Bill Barnacle, Nathan Lay playing Bunyip Bluegum,  Jeremy Kleeman as Albert the Pudding, and Carlos E. Barcenas reviving his athletic Judge.

All of the secondary principals are Victorian Opera Youth Artists for 2018: Georgia Wilkinson (Narrator), Shakira Dugan (Wombat/Rooster), Shakira Tsindos (Possum), Douglas Kelly (Constable/Hedgehog) and Stephen Marsh  (Benjimen Brandysnap). Actually, this last-named plays a significant part in the action during the later ‘slices’ of Lindsay’s story.  But the major cast change is Brenton Spiteri replacing Daniel Todd as Sam Sawnoff, that improbable outback penguin.

As for off-stage changes, Fabian Russell took over direction of the pit, following Daniel Carter’s 2013 stint.   Director Cameron Menzies returned, as did the set and costumes of Chloe Greaves and the lighting design of Peter Darby.

Calvin Bowman’s score still impresses for its open-handed breeziness, the composer’s inbuilt tunefulness a constant feature of the opera’s progress – in solos certainly, but also at moments like the trio that ends Slice One where Bill and Sam invite Bunyip to join their Pudding-Owners’ Guild.  Bowman’s intention was hardly to write flamboyant, technically taxing lines – although Narrator Wilkinson enjoyed some high tessitura calisthenics – but more to reflect the amiable simplicity of Lindsay’s characters, both good and bad.

Anna Goldsworthy made no bones about using as much of the original text as she could fit into the work’s short time-span.  And why not?  The Magic Pudding has an appealing combination of vernacular and tongue-in-cheek pomposity that gives older readers a nostalgic glimpse at former times; it’s as though people of my generation are hearing our grandfathers talking.  This is not just derived from the actual words, of course, but more the quirky turns of phrase and a rhetorical fluency that reminds you of how real conversations used to be conducted.

The action is kept simple enough, the confrontations between rightful Pudding-Owners and their conniving opposition suitably slapstick, and Lindsay’s four slices run smoothly into each other.   In fact, the only point where you could be left puzzled is in the last segment at Tooraloo where the rationale behind the court scene remains fuzzy.  The case for theft is brought by the two thieves, but why do these accusers wind up in the dock?

Still, the work moves smoothly.  Reynolds does a fine line in mildly aggressive salt-of-the-earth honesty;  Spiteri gives his dialogue a forceful energy; as the Pudding, Jeremy Kleeman has a fine time, manipulating and vocalising with well-honed elasticity and a powerful suggestion of put-upon rancour.   While it was hard to penetrate Carlos E. Barcenas’ diction, his Judge ‘s physicality gingered up the courtroom scene just when it was needed; and Marsh’s Benjimen made a welcome common-sense presence when things looked darkest for our put-upon heroes.

Both Dugan and Tsindos as the thieving Wombat and Possum leaped into their roles with plenty of vim, in the process making the occasional sacrifice in clarity of diction; Douglas Kelly’s lawman hit exactly the right tone for Lindsay’s none-too-bright Constable.  But the cast member who dominated your attention was Lay; even if his first entrance left him with little to do to fill in some awkward bars, his vocal quality proved well-judged for the action’s environment, packed with bounce and gifted with a kind of bracing vigour that doesn’t have to try hard to be effective.

As far as I could tell, Russell faced very few coordination problems between singers and pit; not surprising, because the score is as transparent as that for an early Savoy opera and Bowman’s orchestration is calculated for clarity: a string quintet, flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, one percussionist, and pianist Phillipa Safey the solo revenant below-stage from the first production.

The Youth and Community Chorus that operated on both sides of the Playhouse’s stage knew what they had to do in terms of action – little enough, as it turned out – but I would have expected a bigger sound from what was a large pair of choral bodies.  I understand the production will travel to Wodonga and Bendigo, picking up a local chorus in each town; let’s hope they blast out their lines more confidently than their metropolitan peers.

At the end, my 11-year-old guest rated the experience a 9.9/10, her sole caveat the slight lag before Barcenas went on his manic rave/dance.  It was a bit of a hiatus but, at the end, the opera is cut to the right proportions, a clear success with the younger audience members and a source of pleasure to us seniors who bemused most of our charges by laughing at odd places: a testament to Lindsay’s old-fashioned humour and this opera creators’ talent at preserving it intact.

 

 

 

 

April Diary

Thursday April 5

Debussy & Brahms

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

There’s a sort of safety in programming easily imbibable matter at the start and end of a concert.   Conductor Jun Markl has recorded both the Debussy Nocturnes that open this program and the Brahms Symphony No. 4 which closes it; in  other words, he’s not being stressed.  Nor are the MSO or the Ladies of the orchestra’s chorus who get to ooh-aah in the third of the Debussy collection, Sirenes.  The occasion’s real interest comes in the middle with a premiere: Australian composer Mary Finsterer’s Double Concerto Missed Tales III – The Lost.  This work asks for viola and cello soloists; the MSO’s principal viola, Christopher Moore, is on board but apparently the orchestra’s cellos were unable or unwilling to take up the challenge as the lower-string soloist is Timo-Veikko Valve from the Australian Chamber Orchestra.  There’s a Missed Tales I – Lake Ice for orchestra but I can’t track down a middle one in the series, although Finsterer’s trend in this regard appears to involve concertos for string/s.

This program will be repeated in Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University, on Friday April 6 at 7:30 pm

 

Saturday April 7

PRELUDES (BOOK 1)

Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

The Debussy observances continue at ANAM with a solid recital headed by visiting guru Roy Howat in collaboration with some of the Academy’s bright young things.  For example, a cellist will be required for two rarities: a very early Nocturne and Scherzo which appears to have no nocturne, and an Intermezzo from the same year (1882) which should involve an orchestra behind the cello.  Before the complete Book 1 Preludes, we hear a grab-bag of stand-alone piano solos: the Ballade, La plus que lente, Masques, and D’un cahier d’esquisses.  You’d have to assume that the fare on offer will be shared around, or will Howat take on the lot?

 

Monday April 9

James Ehnes

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

This very personable Canadian violinist is next in the MRC’s Great Performers series, justifiably so.  He is focused on Bach for this solo recital and begins with the composer’s blockbuster Partita No. 2 in D minor, the one that ends with the massive Chaconne that  impressed a generation of pianists so much that they re-vamped it for their own instrument – Brahms for the left hand alone, Busoni and Siloti for the keyboard’s full range; not to mention Segovia’s guitar transcription or Stokowski’s orchestration.  Ehnes ends with the Partita No. 3 that starts with the Preludio familiar as the Sinfonia from the Wir danken dir, Gott cantata and holds the well-known Gavotte en rondeau among its pages.  Speaking of the centre, Ehnes uses the two partitas to bookend the Sonata in C, notable for its gripping and lengthy Fuga.  In essence, what he’s playing is the second half of Bach’s Six Sonatas and Partitas.  He’s also up for a masterclass the following night in the Salon at 6 pm.

 

Monday April 9

NICOLE CAR

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

This pair of Melbourne appearances from the ACO is temporally out of whack; the Monday second-night comes first and the usual Sunday first Melbourne concert appears a fortnight later.   Whatever the scheduling ins and outs, the program revolves around Australian soprano Car and Richard Tognetti has done his best to match her solos with some relevant or comfort-inducing orchestral surrounds.   For example, the night begins with Handel’s 1728 opera Alcina – the Overture and Dances; then Car emerges for Mozart’s 1778 Basta/Ah, non lasciarmi concert aria.   Satu Vanska uses her Stradivarius for Beethoven’s salonesque F Major Romance before the soprano launches into the composer’s own concert aria,  Ah! perfido – almost contemporaneous with the violin solo.  Hildegard’s response Ave Maria, O auctrix vite should also employ a lot of Vanska in its transcription for strings, but then we make a ludicrous jump forward 700 years for Car to sing Desdemona’s Ave Maria from Verdi’s opera Otello.  The evening ends with more Mozart: another concert aria – Misera/Ah! non son io – and the Symphony No. 27, although why we couldn’t have heard the aria’s almost-contemporaneous Haffner Symphony No. 35 beats me.

This program will be repeated on Sunday April 22 at 2:30 pm.

 

Friday April 13

TCHAIKOVSKY 5

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

James Ehnes features in this series from the MSO, fronting a violin concerto by a Pulitzer Prize winner.  Conductor for the three concerts will be Muhai Tang who was active with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra for some years but, as far as I can recall, did not venture south of the Murray.  He opens his account with the Brahms Tragic Overture, and sends us all home with the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony’s resounding triumphalism to keep our spirits up.  The concerto comes from Aaron Jay Kernis, a Yale-connected composer/academic whose vocabulary is described as eminently agreeable with something to please everybody.   Not the best encomium but I warmed to him when I learned that he took on a complaining Zubin Mehta who was whingeing about the lack of detail in one of Kernis’ scores, to which the young composer responded, ‘Just read what’s there.’   In other words, do your job – an instruction that should be etched into the music-stand of every musician prepared to posture at the podium.

This program will be repeated on Saturday April 14 at 7:30 pm and on Monday April 16 at 6:30 pm.

 

Saturday April 14

Avi Avital & Giocoso Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

The popular mandolin virtuoso has the good fortune to be playing at this Musica Viva recital in collaboration with the group that won the Musica Viva and Audience Prizes at the last Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition in 2015.  Sharing the load, the Giocosos start the ball rolling with Schumann’s String Quartet No. 1 in A minor.  Avital joins them at night’s end for American-born writer David Bruce’s Cymbeline from 2013, written for this particular mandolinist.  Apparently, the composer means no reference to be made to Shakespeare but to the meaning of the word itself: Lord of the Sun.  Someone is playing the Chaconne from Bach’s D minor Violin Partita; I’m assuming Avital will undertake his own transcription, rather than Sebastian Casleanu or Teofil Todica putting on an extra-ensemble solo.  Elena Kats-Chernin’s Orfeo will enjoy its first performances on this tour; it also is written for the mandolin/string quartet combination.

This program will be repeated on Tuesday April 24.

 

Tuesday April 17

LA TRAVIATA

Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne at 7:30 pm.

Elijah Moshinsky’s production is back for yet another outing with Michael Yeargan’s sets and Peter J. Hall’s costumes.  But who cares?  It’s the singing that counts and, as Violetta, the company is offering Corinne Winters, a young American soprano who sang the role last year at the Royal Opera; well, it’s a start.  Alfredo falls to Korean tenor Yosep Kang until the last two performances when another Korean, Ho-Yoon Chung, takes over; Kang has sung the role at Deutsche Oper Berlin, Chung in Verona.   OA regular Jose Carbo enjoys the ultimate in spoiling roles as Germont pere; Dominica Matthew has the thankless task of Flora and John Longmuir takes Gastone. The season is conducted by Carlo Montanaro who has directed this opera at La Scala, Warsaw, Oviedo and Cincinatti; he probably has much to bring to the work – he’ll need to.  Why this insistence on previous experience?  Hard to explain but I’m hoping for a cast that doesn’t simply go through the motions; a shame as this stilted production works against any performing liberties.  And we wait with bated breath for the Act 2, Scene 2 Spanish/Gypsy dancing!

The opera will be repeated on Saturday April 21, Monday April 23, Saturday April 28. Monday April 30, Wednesday May 2, Friday May 4, Tuesday May 8 and Friday May 11. All performances are at 7:30 pm except for Saturday April 28 which is a 1 pm matinee.

 

Thursday April 19

METROPOLIS 1

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University at 7:30 pm

Has the MSO taken these contemporary music concerts to Monash before?  Not sure and am even more unsure how individual works will sound in this hall made for large-scale music.  This year, the festival’s guest is South Korean composer Unsuk Chin, whose Su will enjoy its Australian premiere; a concerto for sheng, the soloist will be Wu Wei whose playing persuaded Chin to write for Oriental instruments.   And she does herself proud with an impressive percussion battery as well as a normal-sized orchestra, although some of the strings are positioned around the auditorium.   Chin’s ParaMetaString for string quartet and tape dates from 1995, one of the earlier works in the composer’s catalogue; it will call on the services of the Australian String Quartet which is headed by the MSO’s concertmaster, Dale Barltrop.  The ASQ will also play Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 1, Metamorphoses nocturnes, to begin this program, which also contains the world premiere of young Australian Ade Vincent’s Hood Yourself in Stars.   American/British musician Clark Rundell conducts

 

Saturday April 21

METROPOLIS 2

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Robert Blackwood Hall at 7:30 pm

Tonight, an even heavier dose of Unsuk Chin with three Australian premieres of her music.  The MSO under Clark Rundell begins with the South Korean composer’s Rocana, Sanskrit for ‘room of light’ which asks for a large orchestra and a massive percussion battery.  Then, Puzzles and Games, written last year, which is based on Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland and, as well as the percussion-heavy orchestra, asks for a soprano soloist; in this instance, Tasmanian-born Allison Bell.   Ligeti’s Atmospheres, memorable for its use in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, will also enjoy an outing, nearly 60 years after its premiere.   And Chin winds up the night – and these concerts (only two?)  –  with her Violin Concerto, American virtuoso Jennifer Koh as soloist.  I’m not sure how the festival is expected to survive this spatial division, with the two major orchestral concerts at Clayton while the smaller recitals remain at Southbank.  Or perhaps the MSO’s annual, shrinking gestures towards music of our time are becoming too expensive to run.

 

Sunday April 22

SCHUBERT OCTET

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 2:30 pm

More chamber than most MCO concerts, this afternoon boasts the rarely-performed Octet by Schubert, which calls for a string quintet and three wind.  The strings are MCO personnel: violins William Hennessy and Markiyan Melnychenko, viola Merewyn Bramble, cello Michael Dahlenburg and bass Emma Sullivan, while the three wind will be Lloyd van’t Hoff on clarinet, Matthew Kneale’s bassoon and the horn of Anton Schroeder.  The string quartet format isolates itself for Beethoven’s Serioso Op. 95 and the occasion is spiced up by a new work from pianist/composer Christopher Martin which bears the not-exactly-revolutionary title of Passepied.  Eventually, the program will be played in  Daylesford on Saturday April 21 at the Anglican Christ Church in that sleepy hamlet, but you can also hear it in the Salon – well, the Octet only, it seems – with canapes and wines on Tuesday April 24, although this is only for the seriously well-heeled MCO enthusiast as admission comes in at $199 a pop.

 

Tuesday April 24 

TOSCA

Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne at 7:30 pm

The national company is not exactly breaking the originality bank so far this season.  Here comes Puccini’s melody-rich and popular sample of opera noir with American soprano Latonia Moore as the heroine and Diego Torre as her lover Cavaradossi.  Moore sang the title role in the Lincoln Centre two years ago, while Torre has sung his part every year since 2013 with Opera Australia, or Florida Grand Opera, or at the Saarlandisches Stadtstheater in Saarbrucken, or in the Teatro Communale di Bologna.  Scarpia brings Marco Vratogna to the State Theatre, another Royal Opera House bass-baritone who has sung this role there twice and also notably in Baden-Baden under Simon Rattle.  So far, so good.  The filler roles are company regulars: Gennadi Dubinsky (Angelotti), Luke Gabbedy (Sacristan), Benjamin Rasheed (Spoletta), Michael Honeyman (Sciaronne), Tom Hamilton (Jailer).  Andrea Battistoni conducts and he has the opera in his considerable repertoire, surprising for a musician who is barely over 30.   John Bell directs the production set in Nazi-era Germany, last seen here in 2014.

The work will be repeated on Thursday April 26, Saturday April 28, Tuesday May 1, Saturday May 5, and Thursday May 10.  All performances are at 7:30 pm except for Saturday May 5 which is a 1 pm matinee.

 

Friday April 27

A BERNSTEIN CELEBRATION

Australian National Academy of Music

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

The ANAM Orchestra is making a splash with this concert, moving to the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall at the MRC and having no soloists so that attention focuses on conductor Jose Luis Gomez, music director of the Tucson Symphony.  As you’d hope, there’s some Bernstein on the program – the Divertimento for orchestra, an 8-movement flamboyant suite written for the Boston Symphony’s centenary; and the Overture and a 5-movement suite from Candide.   The night begins with my favourite Ginastera construct, the Variaciones concertantes of 1953, then dips its lid to other Americans through Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man (1942) and Barber’s Adagio for Strings (1936).  What all these have in common with Bernstein’s output escapes me; everything could be related, but I can’t see how.  Still, it’s all calculated to keep the young ANAMers on edge.

 

Sunday April 29

A FAMILY AFFAIR: WORKS BY J.S. BACH AND SONS

The Melbourne Musicians

St. John’s Lutheran Church, Southgate at 3pm

Casting an eye over the father of Western music and his sons, Frank Pam and his orchestra begin with what I assume will be the Dissonant F Major Sinfonia by Wilhelm Friedemann, F.67, notable for his eccentric trail-blazing.  Then Carl Philipp Emanuel’s Flute Concerto in A Major H. 438 will be headed by Sydney flautist Bridget Bolliger.  Bach Senior is represented by arias from the Coffee Cantata; as the only soloist advertised is soprano Sarah Lobegeiger de Rodriguez, you’d have to assume that these will be Ei! Wie schmeckt der Kaffee susse and Heute noch, lieber Vater; the first of these requires a flute to flesh out Pam’s string ensemble.   Johann Christian Bach, the family’s semi-success, appears with a Sinfonietta in C Major which I can’t trace at all in the long list of the composer’s orchestral works although there are three likely possibilities.  Finally, we hear from Johann Christoph Friedrich, a Sinfonia in D minor that must be the Wf 1:3: the manuscript of this piece was one of the few orchestral works by this composer that survived the World War II bombing of Berlin.  It all makes for an excellent chance to hear the source and his products together in one place.

 

 

 

 

Played to order

BEETHOVEN BY BALLOT

Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, Methodist Ladies College

Wednesday March 14

 

                                                                     Grace Clifford

Kathryn Selby appears to have made the change from Federation Square’s Deakin Edge to this MLC venue in Kew/Hawthorn very successfully.  I wasn’t present at the final series recital last year, the first in the Tatoulis Auditorium, but this all-Beethoven night looked close to having sold out all 360-odd seats; clearly, a large group of her patrons have followed Selby east of the city.  Let’s hope these numbers stay high.

Of course, the impresaria/pianist was catering to her followers shamefully with this first program for 2018.   Last year, she polled her audiences in each state, asking what Beethoven they would all like to hear, and the results were unremarkable.   For the piano trio format, patrons wanted the Archduke – surprise, surprise.  From the cellist, the popular pick was the A Major Sonata, as opposed to the more interesting Op. 102 double; the violinist had to take up the Spring Sonata No 5, rather tan the dazzling Kreutzer No. 9 or the gripping C minor No. 7.

Selby inserted her own curtain-opener with the Allegretto in B flat WoO.39 which gets listed in the inventory of Beethoven’s piano trios but only just, as a work without a catalogue number.  An amiable single movement with unexpected subtleties, it’s yet another one where the piano sets the pace, having first dibs at all the material while the two strings spend most of their time repeating the subjects or providing sustained chords and ephemeral passage-work.  Still, this short fragment enjoyed carefully shaped treatment from Selby and her guests, violinist Grace Clifford and cellist Clancy Newman, both of whom have appeared previously in this series back in its city-based days.

In fact, Clifford made a serious impression on Melbourne when she performed Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 under Benjamin Northey with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra two years ago.  Since then, her production has become even more refined, displayed in its best light during her reading of the Beethoven sonata on this night.  It shouldn’t be hard to credit by those who have encountered her before, but the opening Allegro last Wednesday night was remarkably pure in projection, Clifford filling each corner of this decently-sized space with an individual timbre; not overdoing the vibrato or taking any distracting dynamic or rhythmic liberties – just a calm, luminous account of very familiar pages.

Both collaborators found an even easier working relationship in the work’s Adagio, sustaining the music’s pulse through some ornate figuration, then skittering past the insubstantial Scherzo.  Yet Clifford shone at her best in the rondo-finale with a splendid sonorous arch at the start that delighted for its clarity and self-possessed ardour, qualities that remained evident throughout the movement’s piano-flattering progress.

Newman’s view of the A Major Cello Sonata is a highly theatrical one, emphatically so in both outer movements.  Each dynamic shift was given full weight, starting with the first A minor passage after the string instrument’s first ad libitum interlude at bar 23.  Then the forte launch into E major at bar 64 punched us between the ears, as it did on its recurrence at bar 201 when I thought the cellist’s pizzicati were turning into percussive Bartokian snaps.  It kept you involved, for sure, but the movement’s unfolding came about punctuated by a sequence of shocks that interrupted the score’s usually even deliberation.

Later in the Allegro vivace conclusion to the sonata, Newman relished his stretches in the tenor and treble clefs to give Selby a good deal of competition throughout a pretty rapid treatment of these toccata-suggestive pages.  For all his driving energy, this cellist is near-faultless in his pitching of notes and has that vital necessity for any player attempting this work: he can be heard all the time, whether sustaining semibreve bass notes or striving against the keyboard’s fortissimo passage-work as at bars 209-212.

The players re-grouped for the Archduke and handled its pages with an easy familiarity.  In fact, Newman seemed to have a lot of it by heart and kept both eyes on Clifford’s bowing arm for much of the opening three movements, an observance that resulted in some fine close collaboration in the work’s Andante cantabile, like the second duet-strophe for both strings that rivalled the best readings I’ve heard, and their later collaboration after the piano stops faffing about and settles into the final re-statement and coda – pages that crown the preceding variations with consoling beneficence.

As a small observation, have you heard another pianist who can handle this work’s scherzo with as much calm authority as Selby?  I don’t just mean the eruption into a D flat Major waltz at bar 160, although that is briskly treated with exactitude always, but just simple statements like the piano entry at bar 16 which in her hands comes over with a sort of pert diffidence, trippingly on the tongue.

All the more remarkable because I had my doubts about the instrument that Selby used. While investigating the facilities at MLC last year, she found an old Bosendorfer grand in the music school’s storage  space and thought how appropriate such an instrument would be for a program of this character.   Quite right, even if these pianos-with-a-pedigree make you work harder than a modern-day Steinway or Yamaha.  The venerable German giant brought a powerful bloom to all four pieces but it struck me that Selby was tiring halfway through the Archduke finale, by about the point where the keyboard gets the sextuple shakes at bar 152 and keeps them going till arriving at bar 184.  For all that, you couldn’t fault the vivacity of the Presto conclusion, even if the victory impressed as hard-won.

 

 

 

The guitar. Fits in everywhere

FAIRY TALES MONSTERS AND WILD ANIMALS

Meredith Connie

Move Records MCD 567

 

 

Connie’s latest CD is divided, unlike Gaul, into five parts, two of them having to do with children’s music.

She begins with a collection of 14 pieces for guitar and speaker that are animal pieces offering illustrative character pieces of no particular weight to poems by David Elliott that the guitarist recites with a convincing Playschool clarity and theatricality.  The verses are not too twee, even if the rhymes are predictable.  Similarly, Connie’s guitar is rarely stretched, although her illustrations are often spry and not simple-minded pap.

Her lion is a languid prowler, one of the longer-lasting members (tracks) of this menagerie; a habanera rhythm dominates the elephant-vision’s opening and closing; not surprisingly, the giraffe is depicted in a slow-moving melody pretty much confined to the instrument’s top strings; for the zebra, Connie uses a jig format, a catchy single-note pattern obtaining throughout.  The intention of the rhinoceros’ musical image is to offer – in 28 seconds – a battery of not-too-offensive sounds to represent the creature’s monstrous physical properties.  Oddly enough, the sloth – a natural do-nothing –  has the longest music attached to it: a slow pavane of sorts that quite properly doesn’t move anywhere harmonically.

The jaguar is comparable to the zebra in its rapid-fire content but suggests a scrap by Torroba.  As with the sloth, Connie/Elliott’s panda is going nowhere, with two-bar phrases repeated over and over, although not as tedious as a minimalist exercise – here is one more animal that the composer is in no hurry to abandon.  Another great cat, this tiger is packed with harmonics and muted notes as the poet offers a starlit picture with concluding Blakean inferences.  Again, the habanera rhythm provides an initial basis for the orangutan – and a conclusion as well;  and it’s another, more lop-sided jig for the kangaroo on one of the album’s shortest tracks.

I find it hard to follow what is being done with the buffalo which sadly occupies a climatic binary state – hot and cold; the tone is eventually elegiac as poet and musician mourn the creature’s passing.  There’s something much stronger about the wolf music which almost offers a narrative from howling to loping and back again.  As you’d expect, the polar bear moves slowly if regularly, eventually fading from sight.

After dealing with her wild animals, Connie moves back quite some distance to the works of Johann Kaspar Mertz, specifically pieces from Books 2 and 5 of his Bardenklange.  She begins with Fingals-Hohle, which I take to be this composer’s take on his contemporary Mendelssohn’s somewhat more famous overture.  It turns out to be a clever exercise in arpeggios of increasing speed and range, showing as much enthusiasm for regular patterns as Mendelssohn himself.  The following Abendlied could have sat quite comfortably in the pages of the Lieder ohne worte; beginning with a chorale, then moving into a more fussy pattern rich in sextuplets which Connie treats with plenty of pliancy.

Unruhe begins with a 9-bar introduction that sets the unsettled scene, then opts for an sonorously intimate, wide-ranging development of simple material, rich in unusual spacings – not of the notes as a series but as they are placed for the instrument.  It’s given supple handling which helps justify the intended restlessness, no matter how Biedermeier its underlying character.  Finally, Elfenreigen starts firmly enough with not much of a tune to speak of but an amiable rustle of triplets; then, on its second page, the matter moves into descending patterns that simply burst the initial placid magic for the sake of a technical exercise.  It’s smoothly handled but even Connie’s elegant delivery can’t disguise Mertz’s sudden lapse in inspiration.

Australian composer Phillip Houghton’s Gothica – Book of Spooks and Spectres originally had ten parts; here, we are offered six of them, starting with The Old Spanish Castle is Full of Vampires, Sleeping which has Spanish tropes but you have to supply your own spectres before a poke-your-tongue-out ending.  The Gates That Hold King Kong are represented by a series of upward-sweeping arpeggiated chords that fade to silence; I assume these stand for the massive structure that kept the great ape imprisoned in the 1933 film but, as with much of this suggestive music, they could just as easily have set the scene for a menacing night on Flinders St. Station.

Juju seems to me too complex to stand for a fetish, but perhaps I’ve missed the point.  I much preferred Spell which, for all its stop-start opening, presented a simple post-Bartok example of rhythmic disjunction.  Houghton uses a number of instrumental effects in Headhunter, in particular the suspenseful pause; you can also admire the metallic scrapes he inserts, probably to remind you of the title-character’s life vocation.  They of the Half Light are represented by a miniature that is quite a mobile construct but Houghton keeps his harmony ambiguous with a plethora of added notes so that you don’t see much en clair – it’s the most sophisticated of these six tracks.

Stepan Rak, a senior Rusyn guitarist/composer, has compiled a suite of Czech Fairy Tales which also require a narrator, here supplied by Connie, although her oral duties seem confined to information concerning what’s coming up.  The pieces begin with a fortune-teller in a market place telling tales to children, whom he leads into a forest where they play before the advent of the inevitable witch in menacing, discordant minor mode.  Unaware, you assume, the children continue playing although there is a minatory undercurrent.  To flesh out the fairy nature of the suite, enter a dragon who, rather abruptly and without any musical warning, dies quietly.

To brighten the funereal mood, Rak introduces goblins – all rough slapping chords and scrapes –  then fairies who are a susurrus – and a reassuring  photo-shoot of the children who are all over the place  –  hopping running, jumping.   Lost in the story of a fortune-teller returns to the opening theme and you’re in Pied Piper territory, I suppose: the children gone for good inside the fairy tales.   Rak sustains the central-European/Slavic folk suggestiveness with a plethora of motifs that sound authentic, despite the dressing-up in biting, crisp harmonizations and a willingness to alter everything abruptly just for the sake of a change.  You’re grateful for Connie’s commentary but, as it stands, the information is pretty lean in content and direction.

Finally, we are offered four tracks of a composition by Californian guitar guru, Jim Ferguson.  This is Four Monsters, beginning with the most famous of all in Frankenstein Meets the Jazzman, which might be suggesting the mechanical rigidity that is so unreliable in the old Boris Karloff film, and you’d guess that the eponymous jazzman emerges in the  unremarkable chords that provide the piece with so much of its forgettability.  We are almost definitely in Poe country for The Raven Vanishes, but this bird is in no hurry to leave the scene as its laid-back funereal theme-motive makes its presence felt with some weight in this amiable ternary-format piece.

Mad Love is a waltz of a quietly manic insistence, the scenario for which one commentator traces to a Peter Lorre horror film of 1935.  It’s splendidly played by Connie with a calculated uncertainty of pulse carefully adopted to suggest a kind of musical – and by extension, mental – imbalance.  Lastly, The Fly succeeds in irritating through a wealth of five-finger-exercise buzzing, but the piece is brief and leaves you longing only slightly for the insertion of a satisfying swat sound.

This recording seems to have been processed largely by Connie both here, in Coffs Harbour, and in the United States.  I was very impressed by the quality of the final Jim Ferguson tracks which were excellent in balance and fidelity with every detail clarion-clear.  The content, as you can gather from the above, is a mixture that makes little sense to me; yes, the pieces are flights of fancy in most cases but they vary vastly in quality and what I can only call aesthetic provenance.  Nevertheless, the whole compendium is a tribute to Connie’s artistry and widely spread sympathies.

 

 

 

 

 

And sometimes everything goes right

YOUTHFUL HEROES

Wilma & Friends

Ian Roach Hall, Scotch College, Melbourne

Tuesday March 6

                                                                   James Bakirtzis

Opening her series of recitals for this year, one-time concertmaster of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Wilma Smith didn’t bother with trivia.  Tuesday night’s content comprised only three works but each was a notable challenge for most of the personnel involved.  If the evening had a star, it was horn player James Bakirtzis, an Old Scotch boy although not that old, who helped bracket the evening with Mozart’s Horn Quintet K 407 and an epitome of Romantic chamber music in the broad-bellied Horn Trio of Brahms.

Another of the notable entrants in these particular lists was pianist Tian Tian Lan who is either in his final year at the College or has only just finished his time there.

                                                                       Tian Tian Lan

This musician was put to as much work as Bakirtzis by not only handling the keyboard role in Brahms’ trio but also taking on the powerful piano part in the Shostakovich G minor Piano Quintet, giving a brilliant and enthusiastic account of the score’s rhetoric and poetry with a fearlessness that demonstrated his conscientious preparation for the task and a confidence that was only slightly shaken in the more urging pages of the Allegretto finale.

As her string guest-friends for the night, Smith welcomed violinist Miki Tsunoda, violist Lisa Grosman and cellist Eliah Sakakushev von Bismarck.  All of these collaborated in the Mozart and Shostakovich, Smith playing the ideal host by seconding Grosman as the extra viola required for the former, then providing a second violin in the Russian epic, if understandably pulling rank to take on the string line for the program’s concluding trio.

I’m probably not alone in admiring French horn performers for their sheer nerve.  It strikes me as being the most unreliable and untrustworthy instrument in the Western orchestra and, while you can cavil at all-too-evident blunders in Tchaikovsky and Mahler and have your teeth set on edge by mishaps in the Eroica or Brahms C minor Symphony, there is still a tolerant side to the complaints; once you’ve tried it, you know what physical and mental demands are required to get even a half-way decent sound out of the instrument.

Bakirtzis is the real thing, a prince among his tribe and advanced enough of a player to leave you – after a few nervous moments – with confidence in his ability to perform with immaculate eloquence and discrimination.  For the Mozart work, his production was pretty close to faultless in the opening Allegro; I heard only one slight slip in the exposition’s repeat and another in the recapitulation.  Even in the horn-exposing Andante, it was hard to fault the player’s breath control and phrase-shaping and he almost got through the movement without a hitch apart from a hesitation at bar 115. Later, in the semiquaver-happy Allegro/Rondo, this musician’s product came across as buoyant, unstudied and yet ensuring that everything was given its proper weight.

Bakirtzis’ support was headed by Tsunoda, the lower-voiced players not over-stretched in their roles.  For the first pages of the work, the violinist sounded a touch off-colour, as though forcing her tone to compensate for the horn which, in this hall, was offered little dynamic opposition.  But the ensemble settled to its labours happily enough, relishing a few moments in the sun with fluent and finely etched tuttis.

Lan opened the Shostakovich with appropriate gravity and, as required, set the running at certain points along the whole work’s path.  Like Bakirtzis, he’s a forward player, certain in the task and diligent in delivery.  Still, the point where this interpretation came alive for me was at the end of the Lento/Prelude, three bars before Rehearsal Number 15 in my score where all the strings play in unison for about 8 bars while the piano answers with its Baroque slow toccata semiquavers.  This was immaculate playing and a firm apologia for the beleaguered composer; it was only equalled by the players’ account of the following Adagio/Fugue where the linear integrity remained constant throughout – phrasing  mirror-sharp, each entry definite, the contrapuntal mesh ebbing and flowing without clotting.

In the Allegretto/Scherzo, the tempo was sensible without being as staid as some ensembles have opted for, with only a short exposed viola passage sounding off-point, probably at Rehearsal Number 54.  As an added bonus, Lan clearly revelled in his work here, staying just the right side of strident at the top register of his instrument.

Even better followed in the Lento/Intermezzo with a finely contrived duet for Tsunoda and Sakakushev where what looks all too simple on paper became a moving threnody, progressing sombrely to the entire work’s high-point at the appassionato canon between both violins and viola/cello: bars where many another group dips into hysteria but negotiated with a fierce determination by these interpreters.   In the Allegretto/Finale, once again I was brought up short by the fidelity of the strings’ octave work at Rehearsal Number 101 where you could not have asked for more finely graduated dynamic balance.

This quintet is a popular work, although not heard as often as it once was.  Possibly, musicians aspiring to its mysteries are brought up short by a difficult taut expressiveness and stringent demands in delineation.  Still, unlike so many other ad hoc groups who have essayed its terrors, these players got a whole lot right.

For an admirer of the Brahms Horn Trio, the night’s final offering proved a particularly full pleasure. beginning with a flawless Andante with Bakirtzis dominating the dynamic complex.  But what else could you expect?  Suffice it to say that Smith mounted a resonant counterweight in the soaring chain of canons and duets that gives this music its substance, if not its depth.  All three musicians made an enjoyment of the no-reason-to-stop Scherzo, one of those happy-minded Brahms creations that seem to multiply in number the older one gets.   Even in rapid-fire passages, Bakirtzis maintained his aplomb and Lan brought a bubbling energy to the mix.

By the time the Adagio had finished, you could be left in no doubt why this young horn player has gained so much attention in a short time.  The tone colour is malleable if still inclined to over-dominate, although Smith and Lan kept him honest during the brief stringendo beginning at bar 32 and also during the movement’s powerful climax at bar 69. As with everything so far, it was near-impossible to cavil at anything in the bounding finale, apart from one error from Lan on the second-last page; not surprising as he’d put in a solid night and this active set of pages is a pretty big ask in the score’s context.

But, for all these small pinpricks, this night’s recital was memorable; certainly for the technical address and security of all concerned and their fidelity to what we know of the composer’s aims.  But, more importantly, the three works offered a generous musical landscape, elucidated by these interpretations which gave us plentiful insights into the composers’ aesthetic reaches.  Which is why some of us go out at night.