Collaboration more than fusion


Adam Simmons Creative Music Ensemble

fortyfive downstairs, Flinders Lane

Thursday July 26, 2018

                                                              Adam Simmons and Wang Zheng-Ting

Finally, Adam Simmons and his Creatives have come to the end off their projected five events celebrating The Usefulness of Art; well, I say ‘the end’ but Simmons proposes that there are more avenues to explore in future years.  Just as well if this utilitarian innovation has any sustaining force to run counter to any Wildean denial of aesthetic responsibility or purpose.  Still, we could hope that any new manifestations of this creative drive might take an original path.

In the latest exploration, Simmons stuck to his by-now habitual practice of alternating improvisatory passages with through-composed blocks.  On one side, he sat at the head of a quintet of saxophonist-flautists – Cara Taber, Gideon Brazil, Paul Simmons, Sam  Boon – with a counterweight of  trumpets (Gemma Horbury and Gavin Cornish), trombone (Bryn Hills) and guitar (David Brown).   In a circular framework at the rear sat/stood Carmen Chan on marimba, double bass Howard Cairns, Niko Schauble and Nat Grant on drums with Pete Lawler manipulating a space drum.

At the centre of the ensemble sat guest Wang Zheng-Ting, this country’s leading expert on the sheng, the Chinese mouth-organ that looks like a cluster of pipes, looking for all the world like a rank neatly extracted from a pipe organ.  This artist’s presence gave plenty of significance to the night’s title; both he and Simmons visited kite-maker Wei Guoqiu in Tianjin earlier this year and conceived of this collaboration as an illustration of the Simmons creed with a Chinese flavour.

The opening movement, Can you see the wind?, brought all flutes into play – concert, alto, piccolo, bass – concentrating on one note and the inevitable shifts in balance as players’ breath spans overlapped.  With the entry of the sheng, prevailing dynamics required a move to saxophones because of the Chinese instrument’s penetrating timbre but a later duet for Chan’s marimba and Ting came about as close as this near-hour-long recital could to a persuasive fusion.

Each of the later stages of this seven-part suite had its own individual initial sound-colours: marimba and bass, marimba and Schauble’s drum-kit, sheng and Simmons’s sax in exposed duet.  These set the musical work into motion before the rest of the players entered, either individually or en masse. As in previous concerts, several of the work’s segments built up to frenetic sustained sonic blasts for all players, Ting entering into the welter with aplomb.

In later movements, the musical pace slowed down.  Free as the birds had two players put down their instruments to manipulate small kites around the performing space, while a screen on an oblique angle outside the space’s windows played a film of clouds with birds.  This gave way to the finale, The art of breath, which had the musicians show exactly what that entailed; not exactly novel but undeniably useful.

For the most part, this night’s action appeared to me to be operating on two levels: one, where the focus fell on individual, often pointillist sounds or simple folk-style tunes; the other, that circumscribed free-wheeling where the musicians pick their own way through the mesh but not venturing very far outside the predictable.  This alternation can make for moderately interesting moments but I had the feeling that the ensemble was very familiar with this format and not inclined to break out of the tried and tested.

You couldn’t see this as a fusion of East and West since the sheng stuck out too prominently from the general texture at certain critical stages.  When Ting played softly and the accompaniment remained sparse, the sound was not particularly Oriental; in tutti moments, I found it difficult to pick much out beneath the combined sax/trumpet onslaught.

Simmons is a significant presence in that musical sphere that balances on the cusp between jazz and serious music, to the point that, at some stages of his performances, the distinctions fall away – and that is a very useful achievement.   But, on this particular night, it seemed to me that both he and his colleagues were repeating themselves; that this particular vein has been sufficiently worked out; and that this particular stretch of music-making didn’t succeed in welding a distinguished guest into the ensemble’s practice patterns and musical behaviour.

A bounding lightness

Joyce Yang

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday July 24, 2018

                                                                                 Joyce Yang

In the first of two programs that she is presenting for Musica Viva, pianist Joyce Yang brought back a lot of memories for those of us brought up through a deliberately inculcated familiarity with 19th and early 20th century repertoire.  She opened Tuesday night’s recital with five of the Lyric Pieces by Grieg, followed by Debussy’s Estampes, then the Chopin Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brillante as a substantial chaser.

In her post-interval endeavours, Yang gave the Melbourne premiere of a piano sonata by Sydney composer Elizabeth Younan, a work commissioned for this tour by Julian Burnside for Musica Viva; fortunately, the new piece has considerable merit for two-thirds of its length.  And the formal program concluded with Schumann’s Carnaval, handled with splendid authority and sustained insight   –   so much so that, for the first time in many years, you could become fully engaged in the composer’s compressed kaleidoscope of musical imagery, rather than doomed to endure a humourless demonstration of stultifying virtuosity.

You’d think that Yang was opting for an easy opening with the Grieg, especially as only one of the five she chose was unfamiliar.  But there are problems to be found in even the simplest pages, like the Arietta that stands at the entrance to the whole 66 Lyric Pieces. It’s not Wedding-day at Troldhaugen or the March of the Dwarves which are thrilling to play and to hear; but it requires a delicacy in shaping  Grieg’s somewhat whining lyric to ensure that it is sent on its way with winsome appeal.  Here, and in the following Notturno, Yang was barely stretched, although her negotiation of the triplet-heavy accompaniment in the latter sounded rigid, at points turning the piece into a slow waltz.  Yet her right-hand trills spoke with excellent evenness

The unknown (to me) piece Once upon a Time  made a pleasant exercise in contrasts, its outer E minor slow march pages interrupted by a bucolic major key 3/4 dance; nothing complex to it and rich with the composer’s fingerprints but carefully managed here.  The Scherzo suffered from an imbalance in hand weight, as did Puck where the treble clef material did not travel as clearly as it should have over both the arpeggiated and chordal bass accompaniments.

Debussy’s Pagodes brought out Yang’s individuality, mainly through her approach to the many ritenuti/A tempo oscillations which made the first page unpredictable;  for my taste, the longueurs were entertained a tad too much.  But the work progressed clearly enough with very fine definition of layers before the first fortissimo outburst.  In fact, the central problem with this version came at the double climax points which would have gained from more shoulder strength.

It was a slow night in Grenada, the habanera one of the least rhythmically compulsive you would ever come across, but Yang’s singular lightness of approach brightened up the piece’s middle section where the key signature changes to F sharp Major.  It wasn’t just a case of performing avec plus d’abandon but more  finding and delivering a brighter sonority informed by a wry angularity that reflected Debussy’s wayward venture away from the work’s outer haziness.   The pianist had all the notes of Jardins sous la pluie under her command yet the effect was formulaic – not exactly a study but often not that far removed.   You were expecting – well, I was – a good deal more brilliance of timbre in the final pages from en animant jusqu’a la fin but Yang kept her powder very dry.  Understandable, given that much of these final pages is tamped-down vitality.  Yet even the final splayed chords impressed as over-deliberate.

On the other hand, it was hard to find fault with Yang’s Chopin offering.  The spianato section came over with elegance and discretion, its bel canto lyricism emerging in an effortless, unstudied chain, leading to a mellifluous passage from bar 97 to 110 where the matched pairs of sextuplets faded to a breathtaking, all too rapid chordal coda.   The ensuing polonaise proved an unalloyed delight, full of character and infused with carefully handled rubato   At certain action-packed moments, Yang’s right-hand work gave us some of this night’s most memorable brilliance; for example, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a more bravura account of bars 221-261, the forward surge unstoppable, lucid and without a sign of flashy vulgarity..  But moments like that underlined Yang’s comprehensive accomplishment here, thanks to an admirable fearlessness and what I can only describe as consistent emotional sprightliness.

Younan’s fresh sonata, in three movements, lived up to the composer’s meagre descriptor, amplified by Yang, by opening with blocks of motivic material in quick succession.  Its first movement presented to my ears as a sequence of variations, in that Younan’s initial blocks move into a sequence of events in which the initial shapes can be detected, these events discrete so that you’re aware that another treatment is beginning.  The score exploits the piano’s range and dynamic potential and persists in a vehement volubility.

In the second movement, the composer proposes a deep bass line set against top-of-the-keyboard pointillism.  To Yang, it suggests an astral journey – which is fair enough if you subscribe to a Holstian view of cosmology..  But it’s not all sub-Uranian rumblings and Mercurial scintillations: Younan has a central layer , more complex in its patterns but distinctive for a rising scalar pattern and giving these pages a welcome amplitude of colour to give flesh to their outer reaches.

I found the last quick movement the least interesting part of the sonata.  Jazzy, jerky, with the spectre of Bartok juddering forward every so often, the work seems to devolve into a show-piece for the executant.   Its character presented as less self-assured than its predecessors, being more fitful and self-conscious in its juxtapositions of active bursts.  For all that, Yang gave a devoted interpretation, sustaining your interest in the finer segments and working with diligence through less satisfying stretches.

As for this performer’s Schumann account, here was one of those rare occasions where you could put your pen down and bask in the playing, totally secure in Yang’s vision and her unflappable delivery.  From the opening call-to-arms of the Preamble to the spent exhilaration of the concluding Davidsbundler March, the pianist maintained the pressure, urging us on through each of the character sketches but giving each its requisite space.

You might have quibbled with the over-schizoid nature of Yang’s Florestan reading where the composer’s self-portrait (well, half of one) approached the manic; but there’s no doubt that you can find this duality all too easily in the music itself.   Yang took a no-nonsense approach to the 14-bars’ worth of Chopin, following up with as forceful an Estrella as I’ve encountered, its central syncopated bars more ferocious than expected.

But it was Yang’s gallery-vista approach that moved this performance onto a higher level.  She outlined her take on the composer’s chameleonic personality, complete with detours and abrupt darts off-target, and brought us into her vision with confidence.  Along with this clarity of purpose, Yang also articulated the chain of movements with a spirit-lifting agility, even in the hefty finale with its Grossvater Tanz or ’17th century theme’ lumbering in to represent the Philistines that Schumann fought so zealously.  Unlike a good many other renditions, which make you relieved that the last A flat Major chord has resonated, this one proved elating, a solid piece of work but never stolid.

Yang plays her second program this Saturday, July 28.   In place of Grieg, she will perform three Rachmaninov preludes, including the notorious C sharp minor Op. 3 No. 2.  Replacing Debussy is Janacek’s Sonata 1.X.1905 while Chopin’s double act is sacrificed for Liszt’s Rhapsodie espagnole, which has all but disappeared from view these days.  The Younan Piano Sonata again leads off the evening’s second half and the major work is another Liszt: the B minor Sonata.

Talent with tedium


Melbourne International Festival of Lieder and Art Song

Melba Hall, University of Melbourne,

Friday July 13, 2018

                                                                              Franz Schubert

This didn’t turn out to be what I expected.

MIFLAS has recently been transplanted from Perth where Patricia Price founded and sustained it for the last four years; now it has found a new home at Melbourne University where, it is hoped, that the festival will continue as an annual event.  Not that the organizers are full of optimism; from the speeches I heard, the future is uncertain unless sponsorships continue (and preferably increase) and the academic ambience remains welcoming.  Oh, and it would probably be just as well if the committed who came to this night’s work would keep the faith.

The enterprise involved a week of masterclasses run twice daily from Sunday July 8 until Wednesday July 11, with an extra one thrown in on the morning of Thursday July 12.  The eventual outcome of all this endeavour was to be revealed in this final gala and, to some extent, it was.  But the result in reality turned out to be an illustrated lecture, and not a particularly good one at that.

Pride of place went, as you’d expect, to Schubert whose music occupied Friday evening’s first half.   We were offered seven solo lieder, one part-song and a melodrama excerpt.  After interval, the territory moved to a couple of Mendelssohn duets, including the mellifluous Ich wolt’ meine Lieb’ ergosse sich,  solitary Schumann and Brahms songs, then a Mahler quartet – half the Songs of a Wayfarer, the last of the Kindertotenlieder and the middle one of the Ruckert-Lieder.  But I saw little point in staying for the night’s second half as the opening gambits had proved so irritating.

Presenting this concert was Dr. Graham Johnson who, with Dr. Stephen Varcoe, was responsible for the nine masterclasses and an introductory conversation to launch the week.  Now, while director Price had every justification for addressing us and sounding alarms about the parlous state of lieder and art song in the modern age, it was hard to understand why Johnson felt obliged to follow up with his own oration, roughly twice as long and with a scatter-gun approach to content.

Each of the Schubert extracts was preceded by a spoken introduction from Johnson, some of them ponderously informative, others smacking of the self-indulgent, if not re-hashing historical material that would be familiar to anyone with half an interest in this field, like the academic staff I saw scattered around the Melba Hall stalls.  As things turned out, the young singers and three accompanists who had been instructed in their specific contributions during the week’s classes – except in two instances, according to the festival booklet’s table of events –  had to wait at their posts until their particular offerings had been introduced.

This preamble process took up time, of course, so that the night’s Schubert segment dragged.  What went some way to redeeming the exercise was the promise shown by some of the singers although, as the songs slipped past, I kicked myself mentally that I hadn’t attended any of the classes because, in some instances, faults that should have been assuaged over the week survived untouched and you had to wonder just how much technical instruction had been given along with interpretative injunctions and music appreciation background.

German-born baritone Markus Matheis opened the music with Die Sommernacht which was treated with a double dose of solemnity, rather than the wondering warmth that this recitative deserves.   A difficult set of pages but Matheis has a solid production if inclined to hollowness in this work where he should have been bold enough to take the initiative – which he enjoys in this piece whenever he opens his mouth.

Soprano Teresa Ingrilli from Perth came next with Der Jungling und der Tod which tested her light timbre.  The reading proved unsettling as the singer sounded nervous at the opening, to the extent that you wondered if the problem lay with her vibrato, although later sections like the O komme Tod address came across with more determination.  Ingrilli was accompanied by Timothy Mallis who produced an excellent postlude and refrained from drawing attention to himself at the bar 25 self-quotation.

Given two pieces to handle, Launceston tenor Benjamin Martin gave an ultra-sensitive account of Geheimes although it was hard to understand whether his constant volume manipulation was the result of instruction or his own determination.   On investigation, it appeared that this song had not been scheduled for examination during any pf the master classes.   Whatever the cause, this dynamic swerving gave this superb song’s surface a mottled complexion, as though Goethe’s lover is transferring the behavioural screen of the song’s environment to the performance; an interesting device but effete in practice.  Nacht und Traume fared slightly better but several vocal phrases dwindled away to nothing and while you can get away with softness on falling intervals, you have to calculate how strongly you have to sound out against your accompaniment  –  in this case, an assertive Johnson who carried out this service for most of these Schubert singers.

Alessia Pintabona is in her third year at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts and struggled with Die Manner sind mechant, a war-of-the-sexes fribble that needs a more fulsome, knowing vocal quality to give it some charm.  This was the least impressive Schubert product (bar one) of the night and even accompanist Isaac Mouskovias found it hard to deliver any fluency at punctuation points.  For a song that is intended to be amusing, the laughs were brittle, certainly not full-bellied, but you could lay much of the blame for that with the composer.

More serious matter came with Im Abendrot,  Melbourne soprano Jordina Howell gave it a fairly uninflected interpretation, the pace not as slow as it could have been even if her projection was well calculated.  But she hadn’t been allowed to introduce much helpful rubato and breaks for breath came often enough to disrupt the pages’ continuity.

Matheis returned with Fischerweise, handling its fluent regularity with much more impressive results than expected; this was another lied that was not scheduled in any master class.  He conveyed much of the text’s stalwart focus on the task in hand and managed to keep the last quatrain from sounding slightly disdainful.   Further, the young tenor sustained a calm and even output over an accompaniment that drew too much attention to itself.

A quartet comprising soprano Jenna Roubos, mezzo Alexandra Mathew, tenor Thomas Harvey and bass-baritone James Emerson were supported by accompanist Julia Hastings in a fair version of Die Geseligkeit.  I can’t remember how many of the poem’s four verses were sung; enough to give time to admire the equable soprano/mezzo combination and to fret over the tenor’s pitching.  Nevertheless, the group achieved a respectable realization of the piece’s bonhomie although we could have reasonably expected more jauntiness in the first three lines of each verse.

The Abschied von der Erde melodrama recitation from Varcoe and Johnson wound up this Schubert bracket.   While mildly interesting in itself, it struck me as irrelevant to the thrust of the evening’s work.  Varcoe recited the words with clarity if an occasional superfluous drawl and Johnson powered through the piano part; Fischer-Dieskau and Moore, it definitely was not and I would happily have exchanged it for Am Bach im Fruhling, Auf der Donau or any other of the handful of Schubert lieder that these two artists have recorded.

So, this was not my idea of a gala concert but an eventually tedious exercise that smacked of the lecture hall.   It reminded me slightly of my limited exposure to Keith Humble’s mode of leading discussions – the guru speaking from an imaginary rostrum without much chance of inter-action from the groundlings, leaving you to fossick assiduously for the small gems that glittered among the dross.   What is needed at future summary recitals like this is more music, less talk.

August Diary

Friday August 3


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

It’s never been the same since Nigel Westlake appropriated it as a sonorous backdrop to the 1995 Babe film.  Whenever this symphony’s fourth movement’s rippling main theme flows out, people automatically recall James Cromwell and Magda Szubanski putting their bucolic best feet forward for farce.   Anyway, as this concert is sold out, there’s not much point in singing the praises of anything or anyone connected with it.   But, for the sake of completeness, here goes.  To begin, Benjamin Northey conducts Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta, a collection that enjoyed much airing in the 1950/60s.  Piers Lane holds centre-stage as soloist in the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1, which will be interesting as this populist sort of thing is not Lane’s bag at all.   The evening winds up with the big symphony, Calvin Bowman doing the honours yet again on our Town Hall’s colossal instrument; here’s hoping he blasts a satiated full house out onto Swanston St at night’s end.


Saturday August 4


Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

You can never be sure with these cross-fertilizations.  Jordi Savall can carry them off, although half the time I think it’s reputation that does a lot of the work for our acceptance of these hybrids from him.  This program is based on the travels and findings of William of Rubruck, who was ordered to travel to the court of Mongke Khan, which he did in 1253-4 and subsequently wrote a celebrated account of his experiences in Mongolia and his attempt at converting the kingdom to Christianity.  The medieval world-music group La Camera delle Lacrime – a sextet, as far as I can tell –  combines with the Brandenburg Choir and Orchestra, actor David Wenham serving as narrator for this musical journey, one that takes in ‘Mongolian melodies, Buddhist hymns, Sufi chants and more.’   It’s a 90-minute feast that runs without an interval.

This program will be repeated on Sunday August 5 at 5 pm.


Saturday August 4


Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Carmel is oboist with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and is here to take some of the ANAM musicians through an unusual program that starts and finishes with Mozart.  He kicks off with the Quintet in C minor K 406a, a score that began life as a wind serenade which Mozart rearranged for strings.  Somewhere along the line, oboists have taken to playing the top violin line; God knows why.   Jolivet’s Serenade for wind quintet was originally an oboe/piano composition that the French composer reconstituted for an ensemble while still maintaining the oboe’s primacy.  Carmel then leads a reading of Berio’s Chemins IV, a re-examination of the composer’s Sequenza VII for solo oboe with the supporting power of 11 strings.   Finally, we hear the Nannerl Divertimento in D, K. 251 for oboe, two horns and string quartet/orchestra (no cello/s).


Sunday August 5


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

Bach’s monument in the keyboard repertoire is being re-created with increasing free-handedness in this piping time of pusillanimity.  Latest in a long line of revisionists, the ACO’s Richard Tognetti commences his re-conception with Canons on a Goldberg Ground, ascribed to Bach so you can only assume that the canons referred to are the nine that occur regularly throughout the original work.  Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet follow, presumably in an un-orchestrated form; their presence is a welcome deviation from the afternoon’s Baroque framework.  British composer Thomas Ades is represented by Nightfalls, the first and major movement of The Four Quarters, a work that was heard in its original form twice during the recent Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition; here, it has been arranged for string orchestra but by whom is not apparent. Finally, we reach the Variations, in a string orchestra version by Canadian-born Baroque expert Bernard Labadie.   But you have to ask yourself: the whole thing?  With repeats?

This program will be repeated on Monday August 6 at 7:30 pm


Thursday August 9


Ensemble Gombert

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

Continuing its MRC series, the Gomberts are again coping with the non-existent echo of the Salon through music that is better suited to a high-ceilinged un-carpeted church.  The Bach comprises three motets.  Two of these are authenticated: Komm, Jesu, komm and Singet dem Herrn; the middle one, Ich lasse dich nicht, is now thought to be an early work.  All three are for double choir which, in terms of the Gomberts’ personnel distribution, means about 2 singers per line.  The Brahms works are the three Fest- und Gedenkspruche and the brief Three Motets.  These also require a double choir, the latter set being the composer’s final essays in the form and somewhat difficult for singers to pitch; not that you’d expect this singular body of musicians to have too much trouble.


Thursday August 9


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Concertmaster Barltrop (where is his one-time co-principal Eoin Anderson these days?  Haven’t sighted him all year and Sophie Rowell is now credited in the MSO programs as the alternate concertmaster) is directing and leading a mainly-strings program.  The night begins with Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, always welcome as long as the approach avoids the hefty.  Carl Vine’s Smith’s Alchemy follows: the Australian composer’s String Quartet No. 3, written for London’s Smith Quartet and re-configured for Richard Tognetti’s Australian Chamber Orchestra.   Latvian writer Peteris Vask’s Vox amoris, the composer’s second violin concerto, continues the all-strings format with Barltrop the soloist.  The concluding Brandenburg No. 1 breaks new ground as it asks for a concertino group comprising two hunting/natural horns, three oboes, a bassoon and a piccolo violin; you’d assume that Barltrop would take the string solo but the other six supernumeraries will have had a lot of waiting around before they get to show their wares.

This program will be repeated in Robert Blackwood Hall on Friday August 10, and in the Mary Mount Centre, Loreto College, Ballarat on Saturday August 11.


Saturday August 11


Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Visiting virtuoso Richard Osborne, the pride of Scotland, is visiting our ANAM corridors for a brief tutelary stint and finishes this recital with the afore-mentioned volume, its three constituents not as well-known as the Book 1 gems.  Indeed, it’s hard to recall a live performance of Cloches a travers les feuilles, let alone one of Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut;  but Poissons d’or has tempted quite a few executants.  Filling out the night with more Debussy, Osborne has an as-yet-unknown associate for the piano 4-hands 6 Epigraphes antiques, entrusts the G minor String Quartet to some ANAM musicians, then returns for the two-piano Lindaraja, a five-minute bagatelle whose title comes from a room in the Alhambra rather than having any Far Oriental reference.  Back to the cosy piano 4-hands format for Printemps, a product of Debussy’s Prix de Rome experience, and then the four-movement Petite suite which reaches its peak in the opening En bateau – one of those lyrics that never ceases to give delight.


Sunday August 12


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 2:30 pm

Something you automatically associate with the Venetian master is a violin; all those lucky girls in the Ospedale della Pieta would have played the composer’s extraordinary chain of concertos for strings, one hopes, with delight at the changes that their Mr. Music would have rung for them.   Sophie Rowell, the MSO’s co-concertmaster, is heading four Vivaldi works: the four-violin solos special in E minor, the B flat Major RV 368 (one of the 26 or so in this key), the double violin concerto RV 514 in D minor (the only one in that key), and an old friend in the Grosso Mogul RV 208.  That’s a lot of Vivaldi, but wait: there’s more.  William Hennessy and his players open with a Geminiani scrap: the final 3-minute Allegro from the Concerto Grosso Op. 3 No. 3,  pops in Respighi’s simple-looking but taxing Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. 3, and prefaces the Grosso Mogul with Verdi’s Andantissimo, co-opted for string orchestra from the composer’s solitary string quartet and somehow re-christened up to a superlative from Andantino along the way.

This program will be repeated on Thursday August 16 in the Deakin Edge, Federation Square at 7:30 pm.


Tuesday August 14

Ray Chen with Julien Quentin

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

29-year-old Chen is an Australian favourite and we have the nerve to lay a kind of claim to him, in the same way that some of us profess that Russell Crowe and John Clarke are our own.   He was schooled in Brisbane before taking off at about the age of 17 for an achievement-packed career in America and Europe.  He is appearing for Musica Viva, along with regular collaborator, pianist Julien Quentin who is about 15 years his senior.  In the first of two programs, the pair work through the rarely-heard Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 1, followed by Grieg’s Sonata No. 2, the middle one in G Major.  Before resorting to the flamboyant with Monti’s Czardas and Falla’s Popular Spanish Suite in Paul Kochanski’s famous (and approved) arrangement from the original Seven Popular Spanish Songs, Chen and Quentin will perform a new Matthew Hindson work commissioned for Musica Viva: Violin Sonata No. 1, Dark Matter.

On Saturday August 15, Chen and Quentin will perform a second program:  Vitali’s Chaconne in G minor, the exhilarating Franck A Major Sonata, Ysaye’s Sonata No. 3 for solo violin (Georges Enescu), Ravel’s Tzigane showpiece, and the new Matthew Hindson new score from Program 1.


Wednesday August 15


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Bramwell Tovey has form as a Bernstein authority.   In 1986, he filled in at short notice to direct a London Symphony Orchestra Bernstein Festival opening night, with Bernstein present.   Back in Melbourne to help celebrate the American master musician’s birth centenary, Tovey is at the MSO helm for a night better called Bernstein and His Influences.  We start with Copland’s 1957 Orchestral Variations, a re-working of the composer’s Piano Variations which Bernstein admired immensely.  Another favourite composer was Mahler, so we’re hearing the five Ruckert Lieder with contralto soloist Liane Keegan.  As for original works, one is the three-movement Symphony No. 1, Jeremiah, which the composer recorded three times but was untouched by anybody else until he died; Keegan is also the soloist for this 1942 score.  To finish, Tovey conducts the Chichester Psalms with Tasmanian Nicholas Tolputt the countertenor soloist – and that’s a voice you don’t want to miss.  Bernstein calls for four other vocal soloists for this work but I can’t find any details about them.  The MSO Chorus will be hard-pressed in this psalm sequence but the work’s timbre-scale is extraordinary: 6 brass, 6 percussion, 2 harps and strings.   And the vocal forces are required to sing in Hebrew.


Saturday August 18


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Another one-night stand in honour of Lenny, this will be also be directed by Bramwell Tovey, a pianist/conductor with an affinity for music more commonly known as ‘light’.  He will probably be conducting the MSO as well as offering some piano accompaniments.  Just like a performance of Messiah, there will be four soloists: British soprano Sarah Fox making what I think is her first appearance here, mezzo Liane Keegan, tenor Brenton Spiteri and Canadian-born baritone Brett Polegato.  As far as I can learn, none of these has made any name for himself/herself in Bernstein’s output, but we are promised excerpts from Wonderful Town, On the Town, Candide, Peter Pan, Fancy Free and West Side Story.  In other words, a collection of material we don’t know at all, and other lyrics that we know all too well.


Sunday August 19


The Melbourne Musicians

St John’s Southgate at 3 pm

Director Frank Pam’s beloved Mozart features at this concert through soprano Elena Xanthoudakis who will sing three of the composer’s most well-known operatic arias: the Countess’s Dove sono from Act 3 of The Marriage of Figaro, Susanna’s Deh vieni from the opera’s last garden act of the same work, and Pamina’s Ach, ich fuhl’s from Act 2 of The Magic Flute.  The singer also takes on some Donizetti with one of Adina’s arias from L’elisir d’amoreDella crudele Isotta or Prendi, per me sei libero although the first requires a chorus and the second doesn’t really end convincingly.   As a built-in encore, Xanthoudakis will also contribute a reading of Schubert’s Ave Maria to the afternoon’s progress.  The other Donizetti comprises the Concertino for cor anglais, an Allegro in C and the Introduction for strings.  Celebrating a senior Australian composer who died in February this year, the Musicians are also performing Colin Brumby’s 1988 Scena for cor anglais and strings; as with the Donizetti Concertino, Anne Gilby is the soloist.  Despite all this string-heavy content, suitable for the Musicians’ personnel make-up, the Mozart and Donizetti arias call for extra instruments – flute, oboe(s), bassoon, horns; added expense but in a good cause.


Sunday August 19


Australian National Academy of Music

Melbourne Recital Centre at 5 pm

Following her success with the MSO in realizing Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6 last month, Young makes what has become an annual visit to the National Academy to take that body’s young players into the bowels of the European repertoire.  Tonight, it’s the turn of Brahms’ Symphony No. 3, the most free-ranging and dynamically turbulent of the four, although it has a marvellously consolatory final page or two.  This is paired with Strauss’s Metamorphosen for 23 strings which, for this usually ebullient composer, constitutes barely relieved depression at the state of the composer’s country in 1944/6.  To open, Young presents Wolfgang Rihm’s flute-less, trumpet-less, violin-less Ernster Gesang of 1996 with some obvious throwback to Brahms except that Rihm employs no singer.


Sunday August 19


Team of Pianists

Rippon Lea Ballroom at 6:30 pm

In its penultimate recital at the National Trust home, the Team is represented by Robert Chamberlain, who partners local cellist Robert Ekselman.  The French strain comes from two historical spectrum ends: Couperin’s Five (Cinq?) Pieces en ConcertPrelude, Sicilienne, La Tromba, Plainte, Air de Diable – and Debussy’s Cello Sonata which tests every duo’s dynamic balance.  The Russian flavour comes through Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata which is just as much a piano sonata and was the composer’s last chamber work.  And from Spain will come Falla’s Suite populaire espagnole, presumably in Maurice Marechal’s arrangement; nice to hear this again, so soon after Ray Chen and Julien Quentin’s reading five days previous.   There’s a nice symmetry to this program with little scraps set alongside major works, although the Debussy flies past all too rapidly.


Wednesday August 22


Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, MLC at 7:30 pm

Kathy Selby enlists the company of violinist Natalie Chee and cellist Julian Smiles for the piano trio parts of this night’s work, both musicians she has brought into this series several times in previous years.  They begin with Beethoven’s  G Major Trio, the one subtitled Kakadu Variations because that’s all there is to it, all twelve of them on a theme that obviously tickled the composer’s adaptation bone.  You’ll find more of the promised torment in Schumann’s last Piano Trio, that in G minor, although the passion is negligible in a happy finale.  Lloyd Van’t Hoff brings his clarinet to the mix for Messiaen’s Quartet for the end of time which assaults the listener with an overwhelming mix of stasis and plunging energy.  This is music that is totally individual, brilliantly organized and emotionally draining;  in the right hands, it can be a transformative experience, in particular the aspiring last violin/piano duet.


Saturday August 25


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

I recall that Markus Stenz programmed this Ring lump in 2012, but did he partner it with something else?  Yes: it was Beethoven’s Pastoral and I still don’t understand why.  In any case, here we go again, thanks to the insatiable desire of Sir Andrew Davis to give us opera without theatrical constraints.  He builds up to one of opera’s great storms and most ardent love-through-nature duets with that tender trifle, the Siegfried Idyll .  .  .  after which 20 minutes, we go out for interval, returning for the opera excerpt’s 65 minutes.  Eva-Maria Westbroek takes on Sieglinde, a role she has sung in Bayreuth, London’s Royal Opera House, and the Metropolitan Opera.   Her husband, Frank van Aken, partners her as Siegmund which he has presented in Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, La Scala, the Metropolitan Opera and Teatro del Liceu.   The killjoy husband, Hunding, will be Australian bass Daniel Sumegi, who sang the part in 2012 and was seen here last year in Davis’s concert performance of Massenet’s Thais.   Doubtless, the MSO will enjoy the opportunity to play a good stretch of Wagner; my major reservation is that we have to eschew the delights of Acts 2 and 3.


Wednesday August 29


Mimir Chamber Music Festival

Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne at 7:30 pm

Returning once again to show us how it’s done  –  and they really do  –  eminences from the Fort Worth original festival conduct classes in and hold recitals of chamber music while collaborating with Conservatorium of Music Faculty in three central exercises.  Participants include some familiar US friends in violinists Stephen Rose and Jun Iwasaki, violist Joan DerHovsepian and cellist Brant Taylor.  Locals include mezzo Victoria Lambourn, the Conservatorium’s Head of Strings, Curt Thompson, and pianist Caroline Almonte.   Along the way, patrons will hear two imported pianists: Italian Alessio Bax and American John Novacek.   This first recital offers the Brahms Two Songs for Alto, Viola and Piano – one of the composer’s shorter glories – then Amy Beach’s F sharp minor Piano Quintet of 1908, followed by Mendelssohn’s early and Beethoven-struck  A Minor String Quartet.  This is a repeat, with two personnel changes, of  Concert No. 2 at this year’s Texas Mimir Festival, given on July 5.


Thursday August 30


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Sir Andrew brings us yet another great British masterpiece in Holst’s seven-movement suite, presumably in its original form without the addition of Colin Matthews’ Pluto the Renewer or the Rattle-commissioned Asteroids quartet.  No: Neptune will take us into the void – well, actually, the ladies of the MSO Chorus will have that pleasure.  Preceding this orchestral show-piece,  Davis conducts the premiere of Carl Vine’s new Symphony No. 8; this is the major product so far of the composer’s residency with the orchestra.  Its title The Enchanted Loom, refers to a metaphor coined by British neuroscientist Sir Charles Sherrington to describe the brain awakening from sleep.  Vine’s five movements are: the loom awakens, the social fabric, sheer invention, euphoria, and imagining infinity; the score has a duration of about 25 minutes.

This program will be repeated at 7:30 pm in Costa Hall, Geelong on Friday August 31, and again in Hamer Hall at 2 pm on Saturday September 1.


Friday August 31


Mimir Chamber Music Festival

Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne at 7:30 pm

For the second of these masterly exercises, the night begins with the slight G minor String Trio by Sibelius, followed by Rachmaninov’s Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos – one of those products of the composer’s recovery and return to composition after three years’ silence and hypnotherapeutic and psychotherapeutic treatments – while the evening takes on an appreciable if lightly-administered gravitas after interval with Beethoven’s String Quartet in E flat Major Op. 127 – the first of the great chain of five that engrossed the composer in his final, intensely unhappy years.  The Sibelius and Beethoven are repeats of the content for Fort Worth’s Mimir July 7 Concert No. 3 where, instead of the Rachmaninov, patrons heard a four-hand piano version of Stravinsky’s Petrushka – presumably the unpublished arrangement that the composer used during rehearsals prior to the ballet’s first staging in 1911.






Retrospective thorn amid two roses


Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday July 3, 2018

                                                                                 Jorg Widmann

Coping with a temporary personnel change, the ASQ played host to cellist Michael Dahlenburg, principal with the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra who has also been occupied in recent years with a parallel career as a budding conductor.   The ensemble’s regular bass line, Sharon Grigoryan, is on maternity leave.   Still, this somewhat under-sized program fared pretty well in her absence and the house was respectable, if probably not as well-patronised in a week when the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition has engaged the undivided attention of a sizeable if not fanatical core of enthusiasts.

In a chronological twist, the players inverted the historical clock by starting with Beethoven’s last quartet, the F Major Op. 135, then finished with the first-written of the Op. 18 set, No. 3 in D.   For comic relief to these benign book-ends, Widmann‘s Quartet No. 3, Hunting, took up approximately ten minutes of our time – to my mind, half as long as it needed to be – but the score and its dramatic execution left no scars.  But, in this context, despite its minor debt to a Beethoven rhythmic pattern (the main subject of the A Major Symphony’s first movement, after the Poco sostenuto), the 15-year-old score didn’t make many intellectual waves, dependent as it is on gesture to sustain interest.

While the competition lasts and music-lovers are saturated in performances that are often prepared to the nth degree, your receptivity levels are heightened to an uncharitable pitch.   For example, the Mosa Trio opened MICMC with a blinder: three works from a broad repertory spectrum that took the still-not-operating interpretative standard to a remarkably demanding level.   These young musicians gave a burnish to Haydn in E Major Hob XV 28 No. 44 that even Musica Viva guest artists would envy, then invested contemporary Dutch writer Sam Wamper‘s Portrait of Light with an emotional variety that was barely excelled by the following riveting interpretation of Shostakovich’s E minor Trio No. 2.

What was most exciting about this Mosa Round 1 appearance was the group’s discipline in not leaving anything to chance.  You were aware that their music had been pored over, every phrase shaped into the instrumental mesh, the dynamics agreed on but with such finesse that each participant produced just the right output to complement his/her peers.

More than anything else I heard in the Competition’s first days, this impressed mightily – and probably soured any perceptions of the ASQ’s Beethoven.  For sure, the Op. 135 enjoyed a stalwart rendition, its first movement presented with an admirable fluency.  Yet the overall interpretation failed to capture attention because the work’s progress lacked subtlety.   You could admire the homogeneity of attack and texture in a unison hiatus between bars 109-113, but a more aggressive example at bars 176-7 came across as less disciplined.   The recessiveness of Dahlenburg’s staccato bass at the Scherzo‘s opening meant that you had to wait for a fair while to make any rhythmic sense out of the upper lines’ suspensions and syncopations – right up to bar 33, to be exact.

The work’s last movement – now that the Muss es sein? Es muss sein! sub-text has proved more banal than life-affirming – gave these musicians no problems because, for most of its length, the counterpoint is clearly structured and the opportunities for dynamic ducks-and-drakes deviations are not that many.   But the preceding Lento appeared to miss out on innate opportunities, like toning down the crescendo/pp juxtapositions in the C sharp minor interlude, or sharing the labours more democratically from bar 43 onward rather than leaving Dale Barltrop‘s first violin to carry all before it.

Much more pleasure could be found in the Op. 18 G Major score where the ASQ captured the first movement’s eloquent optimism, with details like the circumscribed C Major subject at bar 68 came across with reassuring balance.  As in the Op. 135, the fortissimo outbursts sounded unharnessed, so that bars 154-5, just before the recapitulation, seemed unharnessed, too emphatic for their context.   But, as compensation, the statement-response segment between Barltrop and viola Stephen King at bars 80 and 85 came across with satisfying clarity.

I’m always surprised at the stately pace that string quartets usually adopt for this work’s scherzo – whether they’re guided by their editions, or chastened by the number of fermata points, specific or implied.  This version proved unexceptionable if consequently unremarkable, even in the minor key Trio.  All the finale’s focus falls on the first violin and Barltrop skittered across its length with skill.  But the lack of a consistent game-plan meant that this Allegro wore out its welcome so that, by the time both violins collaborated in the final main theme part-restatement at bar 348, the movement had moved dangerously close to tedium.

Widmann’s piece brought about a small bit of theatre to the Recital Centre.   Adelaide director Andy Packer gave the players a white-sheet backdrop and used  the Hall’s lighting grid to cast the musicians’ shadows onto it.  Did this add to the work’s impact?  Not much, but it didn’t distract overmuch.  Using the Beethoven rhythm as on ostinato and the hunting-horn opening to the last of Schumann’s Papillons as melodic material, Widmann opens with gestures – the players swishing their bows and giving the first of several shouts – before starting the music proper.  His developmental process is rapid and the source material soon becomes indecipherable in pages of thick working-out; further, the composer’s intention of using the four participants as a constantly changing series of alliances is sometimes clear, at other times apparently forgotten.

At all events, the sound-production techniques are a credit to the composer’s schooling in contemporary instrumental practice of the 1950s/60s, the cellist-guest Dahlenberg  eventually having the other players use their bows to symbolically stab him, whereupon he screamed/groaned and played a glissando, falling on his instrument.  Tableau.

Thanks to the ASQ for airing this piece.  It’s unavoidable that I’ll sound like an old Tory in letting this work pass with faint praise for its content.   But it’s not that the Hunting was really intellectually repellent or emotionally disturbing.   If only.   To the regret of many of us with an awareness of musical history and development,  Widmann has not ventured into new, let alone disturbing,  territory.   We have experienced this kind of happening plenty of times across my life-span and, almost universally, the effect has been to amuse rather than impress or astonish.   As a contemporary bagatelle paying homage to the inventors of 60-plus years ago, this Hunting Quartet is perfectly satisfactory.  But, once it’s played, that’s it; there is no more, with nothing of substance to intrigue, let alone engross.