A fair shot at a moving target

DER ROSENKAVALIER

Melbourne Opera

Athenaeum Theatre

Saturday August 11

                                              Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss

Continuing a newly-established practice of taking on difficult tasks, Melbourne Opera balanced its Wagner aspirations with this flamboyant masterpiece that celebrates an ancien regime unconsciously teetering on  the brink of destruction.  The complete turn-about from Strauss’s days as a significant contemporary voice, Der Rosenkavalier is a repertoire staple, popular well beyond its merits and, amid its inbuilt gems, a hard farce to stage without resorting to crudity or awkwardness.

And it comes with several historical incubi, chief among them the filmed performance of 1961 with Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and State Opera Chorus with a once-in-a-lifetime cast of Schwarzkopf, Jurinac, Rothenberger, Edelmann and Erich Kunz in Paul Czinner’s faultlessly fitted production.  We’ve seen several live Melbourne performances – only a few – and nothing on the Viennese scale.  But, naturally, you adjust your expectations.

MO’s director for this enterprise, Tama Matheson, has taken it as his mission to bring Ochs back to the centre of the action.  Yes, you can see how that may need doing in times when the Marschallin and Octavian have attracted all the attention as far as advertising is concerned, as well as a concentration by enthusiasts on the Presentation and the final trio chunks.   Matheson is quite right to pull the pretentious oaf back under the limelight: Ochs sets up the whole mess and his presence in each of the three acts is a constant infusion of vitality, if not the humour that creators Hofmannsthal and Strauss wanted to obtain  .  .  .  well, it sort of does but only if you’re prepared to go along a few miles with the dramatic situation.

Daniel Sumegi has little trouble in making Ochs the production’s central focus.  His production is hard to fault for clarity, elasticity and breadth of volume, making him more than a match for David Kram’s over-encouraged pit.  As the character is meant to, Sumegi dominated every ensemble point in which he was involved and he has enough experience to know not to bray, although it was a near thing in the Act 1 duet with the Marschallin’s lawyer over the levee’s ferment.

For the most part, this Ochs stayed the right side of unbridled crudity; any deviations struck me as due to the bass’s direction rather than the singer’s own choice.  But, while you could take pleasure in the self-obsession of Ochs’ Act 1, and the vulgarity of his wooing and wounding in Act 2,  the best came in the later stages of the final act where the hurly-burly was done and the character has to be coerced into a graceless withdrawal.  This showed fine fidelity to the libretto’s intentions, without allowing for any diminution in misplaced self-assurance.

For all that, the use of Ochs as a substitute for the Marschallin’s blackamoor in the last skittering bars impressed as a step too far in promoting the character’s primacy, simply because the music runs counter to director Matheson’s staged action at this point.

Lee Abrahmsen sang a fully assured Marschallin, her opening act a fine balance of indulgence and self-awareness at the Da geht er hin soliloquy, which was all the more welcome for its avoidance of over-intensity.  This soprano, like Sumegi, cut through an ensemble with assurance and – wonder of wonders – kept herself on an even keel in the Hab mir’s gelobt trio rather than dynamically towering over the other singers.

Yet in this last act, where the Marschallin’s entry stills all that chaos, the sense of presence and domination didn’t come across, possibly because Abrahmsen appeared to view the whole scene as an affront to middle-class sensibilities, as though she was looking at people behaving badly and finding it all beneath her.   But I think that Marie Therese is much more warm-hearted and accepting than this, tolerant of others’ foibles because she knows she’s imperfect herself and, if she smiles, it’s in self-recognition as well as amusement.

As Octavian, Danielle Calder worked to achieve a creditable success rate, her anticipated youthful enthusiasm exercised to fine effect in the opening scene, although even a convincing actor finds it hard to avoid suggestions of silliness in the Marschallin’s bedroom activity.  It might have been Kram’s baton in over-active play but it struck me that the Mir ist die Ehre address could have been given with more deliberation; it’s a great moment and should be relished by all concerned.

But Calder did the Mariandel persona quite straight, without cheap laughs as she avoided the Baron’s gropes, and managing the chase-round-the-brothel games with restraint.  Mind you, enough was going on here – onstage and in the Athenaeum’s Juliet balconies – to cover any vocal awkwardness and the exchanges after the Baron’s discomfiture and exit with both of the character’s love interests enjoyed rapid treatment compared to some previous experiences I’ve endured with this uncomfortably self-regarding dialogue.

Anna Voshege sang Sophie, the ingenue who grows up quickly across the opera’s small time-span.  Admittedly, her diction persisted in being unclear  but complaining that you can’t understand the words during an opera sung in English suggests to me a lack of preparation.

You can’t come to occasions like this and expect to be able to decipher everything; you have to do your homework.  People sit through Rigoletto or Götterdämmerung and don’t have an inkling about the meaning of what they’re hearing.  No: if you’re going to the opera, you can’t expect the experience to be as facile as watching Jersey Boys or Kinky Boots.

Voshege milked Act 2 for all it was worth; and so she should because she’s on stage and an active participant for most of its length.  She managed to get through the initial In dieser feierlichen Stunde right up to Denn das ist ja so schon with plenty of vivacity, even in the more sober strophes of her self-revelation.  Later, the duet  beginning Ich kenn Ihn schon recht wohl proved to be one of the more deftly contrived stretches of the entire production, thanks to the conviction and display of personality from each singer.

Among the rest of the cast, Simon Meadows made a determined Faninal, even if he looked improbably young for the role.  Andrea Creighton took to the limelight with gusto during her excited commentary on the approach of the Rose-bearer; just the other side of over-the-top, but why not?   John Pickering and Caroline Vercoe wove themselves into each act with distinction; this Valzacchi and Annina weathered every change of direction and profited from each one with just enough intrusiveness.  Matthew Thomas gave excellent pedantry as the Marschallin’s attorney on loan to the Baron.  Henry Choo made a fair essay at the Italian Singer’s two stanzas but might have been better advised not to attempt a Pavarotti impersonation, simply because that brought to mind the pure glory of the Italian tenor’s delineation of this all-too-brief role.

Lucy Wilkins ensured that the cast were suitably dressed, even if the costuming confused with its alternation between the original time-setting of the 1740s and something resembling the early decades of the last century.   Christina Logan-Bell made sure that the sets allowed space for plenty of mobile population in the outer acts, although the nightmares that beset Ochs near the end were clumsily executed, to the point where you weren’t sure where to look or which group was representing what.

The chief talking point of the production itself was the physical presentation of Ochs as a Trump caricature.  This proved enjoyable up to a point but I think most of us at this matinee performance were more entertained by the finale when Sumegi took off the wig to reveal total baldness – not because of any implied political commentary but because the character abruptly moved to a more satisfying and attractive level, devoid of clumsy satire and more in line with what Hofmannsthal wanted –  a Bavarian bully and bore getting his comeuppance.

Much of the chorus work worked well enough in Act 3 although this was the stretch of music-making that raised questions.  The ferment is pretty fierce as Strauss piles up his action but, even before this, the brass showed signs of fatigue and the pit’s responsiveness before the opera’s sinking-back to placidity in its last pages seemed under-rehearsed, if not downright scrappy.  Still, this is a difficult work to handle, particularly in a theatre of small proportions and a good deal of the first two-thirds of the score came off quite creditably.

A final note on this point.   Perhaps the production might have been better suited to the company’s other venues, like the Palais in St. Kilda or the Regent across the road.

For sure, Melbourne Opera can be reasonably content with its work on Strauss’s sugary confection but the experience was something of an uphill battle where it seemed to me that nobody except Sumegi was completely comfortable in coping with the work’s musical demands.

There are two final performances on Wednesday August 15 and Friday November 17, both nights starting at 7:30 pm.

 

September Diary

Sunday September 2

TWO BY TWO: BACH AND VIVALDI DOUBLE CONCERTOS

The Melbourne Musicians

St. John’s Southgate at 3 pm

This is what I call putting your guests to work.   Frank Pam and his chamber orchestra play hosts to violinists Miki Tsunoda and Anne Harvey-Nagl in a wealth of concertos, and not just the famous double ones from Vivaldi and Bach, welcome though these are.   The Bach coupling is the famous D minor BWV 1043 – to my generation, coloured by the Olympian security of the 1962 recording by Oistrakh father and son.   The Vivaldi double in A minor Op 3 No. 8 will be familiar to organists as that transcribed by Bach for their instrument as BWV 593.   Also being aired is Bach’s Overture in A minor, possibly taken from an earlier version of the Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, only with solo violin rather than solo flute.   The Vivaldi fest continues with the Concerto for two violins and cello in D minor.  And there’s more: a Concerto ripieno in C (possible RV 115), a sinfonia in G (RV 146? 147? 149?) and individual concertos (presumably for violin and strings) in E minor (take your pick of 10 possibles) and A Major (18 potentials here).

 

Sunday September 2

SCHUBERT, WALKER AND BRAHMS

Mimir Chamber Music Festival

Faculty of Music, University of Melbourne at 3 pm

The last in this fine if brief series of masterclasses and concerts begins with the Schubert Quartet in E flat; yes, I don’t know it, either.  A student work, this quartet has been referred to as ‘No. 10’, which infers a preceding job-lot that remain pretty well unplayed these days.  As for Brahms, Mimir presents the Piano Quintet in F minor, a masterpiece of the form and one of the composer’s towering chamber music achievements.   As well, Mimir fleshes out our knowledge of American music with the String Quartet No. 1 by George Walker, a composer/pianist/academic of high distinction with a sackful of ‘firsts’ to his name, including being the first African-American to receive a Pulitzer Prize and various professorships at several US universities.  This quartet’s second movement has enjoyed the same fate as Barber’s Adagio in being arranged for strings and thereby gaining considerable popularity and performances.

 

Thursday September 6

ESPANA

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Deakin Edge, Federation Square at 7:30 pm

Five big names in Spanish music feature in this program, which is conducted by Michael Dahlenburg.   The group begins with Turina’s La oracion del torero; originally written for four lutes, it enjoyed a transcription for string quartet before expansion to string orchestra costume.   Then the afternoon’s soloist, guitarist Christoph Denoth, will emerge to perform two standards of his repertoire: Albeniz’s Leyenda (Asturias to you and me) and Torre Bermeja.  He follows up with Joaquin Malats’ perky Serenata which Denoth has arranged for himself and string orchestra.  The MCO’s go-to man for custom-made material, Nicholas Buc, is enriching the occasion with some arrangements for the group: another Albeniz in Espana, originally for piano and here its six movements have all been treated except for the fourth, another Serenata; and then come three of Granados’ twelve Danzas espanolas – No 3 (Fandango), No 5 (Andaluza/Playera) and No. 6 (Rondalla aragonesa).  Finally, Denoth takes the central role in Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez which will give us a through-composed entity in an evening of Iberian scraps.

This program will be repeated on Sunday September 9 in the Melbourne Recital Centre at 2:30 pm.

 

Saturday September 8

BENJAMIN BRITTEN & THE STRING QUARTET 2

Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

For this review of the British composer’s output, the Australian String Quartet is joined by some ANAM musicians.   On the preceding evening, the ASQ plays the first of the quartets, as well as the Phantasy Quartet for oboe (ANAM director Nick Deutsch) and string trio, as well as the rarely-aired Three Divertimenti for string quartet (10 minutes’ worth of March, Waltz, Burleske), with a filler of a Movement (Moderato con molto moto) for wind sextet – your basic four woodwind plus horn and bass clarinet.  This second night holds the two later quartets and the composer’s first international calling card: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, which shows what an extraordinary command of both utterance and technique had been developed by the 23-year-old composer.  Frankly, I’ve never been that keen on the final quartet’s Death in Venice debts, probably because the opera is obsessed with its own sounds, but its C major predecessor, in particular the Chacony finale, stands at the core of English compositional character.

 

Saturday September 8

IN MEMORIAM: MOZART REQUIEM

Melbourne Bach Choir

Melbourne Recital Centre at 8 pm

While the Mozart torso stands as the fulcrum of this concert, the in memoriam theme comes through more clearly in two works by that name: Stravinsky’s short twelve-tone In memoriam Dylan Thomas for tenor, string quartet and four trombones, and Part’s equally brief Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten for strings and bell.  The choir will also sing Bach’s Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen cantata for three soloists (alto, tenor, bass), choir and small orchestra including three wind.  To compensate the soprano soloist for missing out on a role in the cantata, conductor/artistic director Rick Prakhoff has programmed Mozart’s early aria in B flat, Kommet her, ihr frechen Sunder, the composer’s last piece connected with the Passion but, sadly, not particularly memorable.   Oh, the actual singers taking on principal roles throughout this melange are soprano Jacqueline Porter, mezzo Sally-Anne Russell, tenor Andrew Goodwin, and baritone Andrew Jones.

 

Monday September 10

TRANSFORMING STRAUSS AND MOZART

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Well, you can predict the transformed Strauss:  Metamorphosen for 23 strings that laments World War II, arranged from the composer’s short score for string septet by Rudolf Leopold.   The new-and-strange Mozart is the warm-hearted violin/viola Sinfonia Concertate reshaped by the composer into a string sextet: the Grande Sestetto Concertante.  Around these come some odd bedfellows: Dowland’s Lachrimae antiquae (first of the Lachrimae pavans collection) for five lines, the Ricercar a 6 from Bach’s A Musical Offering (the one that Webern arranged so astonishingly) and the Tristan Prelude arranged by Sebastian Gurtler – presumably the one for string sextet, not the ones he did for string orchestra or 23 solo strings.  As for participants, the scheduled violins are Helena Rathbone and Aiko Goto, viola Nicole Divall, cellos Timo-Veikko Valve and Melissa Barnard, with Maxime Bibeau on double bass.  This body can handle all the above scores except the Strauss, which needs another viola.  You can’t say the recital won’t live up to its title’s first word.

 

Wednesday September 12

INTERNATIONAL WOODWIND ALL-STARS

Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

In the middle of a very active month for ANAM, the administration has assembled a quintet of notable wind players for this taxing night’s operations.   Director Nick Deutsch, contributes his oboe to the mix; the flautist is Wally Hase, from next month Professor of Flute at the University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna; Icelandic citizen Dimitri Ashkenazy, son of Vladimir, is on clarinet; Australian-born Lyndon Watts, principal bassoonist with the Munich Philharmonic, takes the bass line; Marie-Luise Neunecker, notable academic and soloist, is the group’s horn and an expert in contemporary music.  The night opens with Harald Genzmer’s Wind Quintet of 1957, moves to Hindemith’s three-movement Sonata for 4 horns of five years earlier, then takes an up-to-the-mark challenge with a new work by Israeli-Australian composer Yitzhak Yedid.   A more senior element emerges with Frank Bridge’s late Divertimenti for woodwind quartet – Prelude, Nocturne, Scherzetto, Bagatelle – and, finally, Strauss’s B flat Major Suite for 13 winds – pairs of woodwind, four horns, and a tuba or contrabassoon working away at the bottom of it all.   We’ve had the ANAM strings labouring away at Britten over the weekend; here come the wind.

 

Friday September 14

MOZART’S JUPITER & MORE

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

It’s hard to know what to make of this grab-bag.   The MSO under luckless Benjamin Northey starts with Stravinsky: the Pulcinella Suite which makes a virtue out of just avoiding grating dissonances and which probably works better in the theatre where it came from.   As well, Stravinsky also features later in his arrangement of the Bluebird pas de deux from Act III of Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty; 1941 wartime restrictions-determined that this re-scoring is for flute, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, pairs of trumpets and trombones, a horn, timpani, piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass.  That’s a lot of chair-moving for 5 minutes’ worth of music.   Guest artist, pianist Andrea Lam, fronts the Mendelssohn Concerto No. 1 in G minor which is full of notes.  And the night ends with Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, teetering on the last legs of Classicism but ebullient and intellectually invigorating from first note to last.   How it fits in with what’s gone before is anyone’s guess.

 

Friday September 14

THE CAPULETS AND THE MONTAGUES

Victorian Opera

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

The company is very proud of its forays into the Bellini oeuvre: Norma in 2014, I Puritani in 2015 and last year’s La Sonnambula.  All have been concert versions and tonight is no exception.   The company’s artistic director, Richard Mills, will conduct and the main roles feature familiar faces.   The trousers part of Romeo is entrusted to mezzo Caitlin Hulcup; the company is fortunate to attract a singer with her high reputation.  Giulietta will be taken by Jessica Pratt, who had considerable success with last year’s Bellini effort, I’m told.  Teddy Tahu Rhodes has the senior’s role of Lorenzo, the Capulet family doctor (stepping in for Friar Laurence) who concocts the idiotic sleeping potion plan.   Capellio, Juliet’s father, will be sung by David Parkin, most well-known for his 2006 triumph in Operatunity Oz, while Carlos E. Barcenas has the task of playing Tebaldo (substituting for Shakespeare’s Paris).

 

Saturday September 15

MEDITERRANEO: MUSIC FROM THE COURTS OF SPAIN

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Baroque violinist Daniel Pinteno is the central artist on this program which has  geographical and temporal limits, most welcome after the ABO’s disappointing trans-Asian ramble of Karakorum.   Much of the music being performed is completely new to me but it comes from the Brandenburgers’ home territory, so high hopes are flapping in the breeze.   Pinteno will direct two Australian premieres and one world premiere, this last a sinfonia by Felix Maximo Lopez, born before Mozart but living well into the 19th century and best known as a court organist.   As for the other premieres, Vicente Basset’s eminently forgettable 5-minute Overture a piu stromenti gives the players a useful tune-up; Italian-born Caetano Brunetti’s Sinfonia in C minor is subtitled Il Maniatico, and the designated maniac is a solo cello that suffers from a musical monomania, an idee fixe from which the other orchestra members try to distract him/her.   There are two concertos from that well-known Spaniard, Vivaldi: La Notte for flute – in this instance, Sydney musician Melissa Farrow – and the Op. 3 No. 9 in D Major (one of the several that Bach transcribed), with Pinteno as soloist.   Another Italian-born musician who, like Brunetti, wound up in Spain, Giacomo Facco wrote his own L’estro armonico called Pensieri Adriarmonici from which Pinteno will perform the Concerto No. 3, notable for its 25-bar central Adagio.   And, for a further cosmopolitan touch, the ensemble plays two movements from Englishman Charles Avison’s Concerto grosso Op. 6 No. 6.   How much of this was played at the Spanish court?   I don’t know, but the aristocracy were very keen on their music, home-grown or not, and it was probably impossible in the 18th century to avoid Vivaldi the Prolific.

This program will be repeated on Sunday September 16 at 5 pm.

 

Sunday September 16

MORE THAN OPERA HITS RIPPON LEA – SOPRANO ARIAS AND DUETS

Team of Pianists

Rippon Lea at 6:30 pm

Team senior Darryl Coote is in for a long night as he accompanies soprano Rebecca Rashleigh and mezzo Victoria Lambourn in a series of 16 operatic excerpts.   Some of them are more than familiar: Rusalka’s Song to the Moon, Liu’s Tu che di gel sei cinta, the Offenbach Barcarolle, the Madama Butterfly Flower Duet, Humperdinck’s Evening Prayer, Tchaikovsky’s None but the lonely heart (not opera, but let it ride), and the Seguidilla from Carmen.   A few are on the cusp of arcane: Zeffiretti lusinghieri, Ilia’s aria from Mozart’s Idomeneo; Susannah’s Act 1 aria Ain’t it a pretty night from Carlisle Floyd’s popular work; Olga’s Akh, Tanya, Tanya from  Act 1 of Eugene Onegin, and the Uzh Veder duet for Lisa and Polina from the same composer’s The Queen of Spades.  But you will also hear some true rarities: Come ti piace, imponi – the duet at the opening of La clemenza di Tito; and four Rossini pieces including a duet from Bianca e Falliero, Cruda sorte marking the title character’s entry into L’Italiana in Algeri, and two non-operatic songs in Canzonetta spagnuola and its contemporary, Belta crudele.  It all adds up to four soprano solos, six for the mezzo and the same number of duets; lots of fun for everyone   –  except the hard-worked artists.

 

Friday September 21

SUITE BERGAMASQUE

Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

The Debussy celebrations continue at ANAM, if nowhere else.   An expert in the composer’s piano music, Roy Howat, is sharing the labours on this night with Timothy Young and some other ANAM musicians, although I don’t know how many others will need to be involved unless the Academy pianists have been invited to take part alongside their two seniors.   But more of that below.   The program begins with the Violin Sonata, and two other duets have been scheduled: Marche ecossaise sur un theme populaire in the original piano 4-hands version, and the two-piano three-movement suite, En blanc et noir.  The rest of the content is a collection of well-known solos: the eponymous suite, the catchy Danse, as well as the Valse romantique, Ballade, Mazurka, and the musical picture-postcard triptych of Estampes.   Now, speaking of extra ANAM instrumentalists, what sticks out from this sequence is the Sonata No. 3 (after Debussy) by Lyle Chan, who is engaged in writing those three sonatas that Debussy didn’t live long enough to compose, although he projected their instrumentation.   According to the authorities, ‘Sonata No. 3’ is, in fact, Debussy’s own Violin Sonata; the Australian Music Centre cites this recital as premiering Chan’s Sonata No. 4, which follows the French composer’s projected plan by being written for oboe, horn and harpsichord.

 

Friday September 21

NEW WORLD SYMPHONY

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

No surprises here: a good old-fashioned overture-concerto-symphony format of works in the central Romantic tradition, all written within 50 years of each other.  The MSO’s Cybec Assistant Conductor Tianyu Lu gets to handle the overture, that to Smetana’s The Bartered Bride; when are we going to hear that mellifluously melodious opera again?  Then Xian Zhang takes over the podium: a triumphant night for female conductors.   As well as taking the orchestra through Dvorak’s sterling final symphony, she also will assist Benjamin Grosvenor work his way through the Schumann Piano Concerto.   Here’s hoping he has as much success with this work as he did here three years ago with that even more hard-worn warhorse, the Grieg which, like the Schumann, is a gift to young performers.

This program will be repeated on Saturday September 22 at 7:30 pm and on Monday September 24 at 6:30 pm.

 

Saturday September 22

Borodin Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Path-setters for many works and a representing a formidable chamber music tradition, this body’s personnel have changed but the style remains.   Appearing once again for Musica Viva, this superbly honed ensemble is presenting a Shostakovich work in each of its two programs: No. 9 tonight and No. 15 – the last in the series – a week later.  Program 1 also holds Haydn in B minor Op. 33 No. 1 and Beethoven No. 13 in B flat for that essential infusion of gravitas.   The second night audience is treated to Tchaikovsky No. 1 with its melting Andante cantabile slow movement, while Wolf’s Italian Serenade serves as brilliant comic relief.   These are red-letter nights for enthusiasts of quartet playing and I’d expect a venue as small as the Murdoch Hall to be packed to the gills.

The Quartet will present its Program No. 2 on Saturday September 25 at 7 pm.

 

Saturday September 22

A HIGH RENAISSANCE CELEBRATION

Ensemble Gombert

Our Lady of Victories Basilica, Camberwell at 8 pm

Concert No.2 out of three being given this year at the imposing Catholic church in Camberwell,  this endeavour by the Gomberts explores a rich mine of polyphony composed in the years before things got over-complicated.  The four composers programmed are Josquin, Pierre de la Rue, Verdelot and Compere – all contemporaries, imposing presences in the French and Franco-Flemish compositional worlds.   Josquin is represented by one work, the motet Absalon fili mi, which has been attributed to de la Rue – but never mind: it’s all in together for  this night’s family.   Verdelot also features with only one work: another six-voice motet, Ave sanctissima Maria which has also been attributed to that gadabout, de la Rue.   The real de la Rue compositions are the six-voice Pater de caelis Deus and the canon-crazy Missa Ave sanctissima Maria.   Compere’s Galeazescha, written for Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza of Milan, is another form of mass, but one comprising Marian motets rather than following the usual Ordinary format.   Here is the sort of music-making in which this exemplary ensemble shines: scholarly and transporting.

 

Thursday September 27

BEETHOVEN, 11 BAGATELLES

Paul Lewis

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Taking his place in the Recital Centre’s series of Great Performers, British pianist Lewis is giving us yet another of his highly individual recitals which, although featuring great composers, head towards the more arcane stretches of their output.  The Bagatelles are not problematic in the same fashion as Beethoven’s late sonatas are; for one thing, they’re comparatively pithy.   But that’s part of the reason why most pianists ignore them – no long melodic spread in which to bathe your listeners and not enough amplitude of brusqueness to keep them satisfied.   As for the Brahms Four Piano Pieces Op. 119, most of us would find it hard to remember when last we heard the first three of them, all intermezzi, while the concluding Rhapsody is a tremendous challenge in distributing the weight between the fingers, let alone the hands; most interpreters are happy enough to belt the pages, making a single-minded virtue out of their risoluto direction.   In between these, Lewis plays two Haydn sonatas: Hob XVI. 49 and Hob XVI. 32, both of which he has recently recorded for Harmonia Mundi as part of a project to set down the composer’s total sonata output.  Still, this all adds up to a bit over an hour’s worth of performance time.

There’s another similar recital on October 1, of which more details later.

 

Friday September 28

MOZART 39, 40 & 41

Australian National Academy of Music Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

They don’t come more focused than this.   Guest conductor Douglas Boyd led the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra through the complete Beethoven symphonic cycle at the Town Hall six years ago in a memorable series, and he has been a pretty regular visitor since that time.   Here, he takes the ANAM forces through the final three symphonies of Mozart, all from 1788 and foundation stones of the Western musical tradition.  Yes, of course the musicians can play the scores but it will be a burning question as to how far Boyd can take his (mainly) young charges in produndity of interpretation, especially considering the brief period that he has to work with them, although he won’t have to be concerned with imparting broad technical details.   A feast for the intellect, being confronted by works that set off sparks from first bar to last.   As well, the dedicated can compare this reading of No. 41 with the MSO’s version on Friday September 14.

 

Sunday September 30

GRINGOLTS PLAYS PAGANINI

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

In 1998, the 16-year-old Ilya Gringolts won first prize at the Genoa Paganini Competition.  Naturally, we’ll all be more than a little interested to hear what he makes of the Italian master-violinists’s Concerto No. 1, even if it comes in an arrangement by Bernard Rofe which will probably reduce the score to fit the ACO string personnel, leaving out the original’s six woodwind and five brass.   As well, Gringolts will participate in Vivaldi’s Concerto for violin and 2 cellos in C with ACO principal Timo-Veikko Valve and his long-time second, Julian Thompson, as co-sharers of the work’s limelight.   Gringolts begins his afternoon/evening with a C.P.E. Bach String Symphony in C, presumably the third of the Wq. 182 series of six    The program ends with Bartok’s Divertimento of 1939, which was part of the first ACO concert in 1975; will be interesting to see what the guest director/soloist makes of it.

This program is repeated on Monday October 1 at 7:30 pm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A trying journey

KARAKORUM: A MEDIEVAL MUSICAL JOURNEY

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday August 4

                                                                  Mokrane Adlani

This night began with a bang: a haunting, rhapsodic troubadour song in Occitan, the vocal line soaring over a single bass-note support.  As a setting-up of this night’s structure, you could hardly ask for better.   But, from then on, the creative inspiration flagged and what we wound up experiencing failed to sustain this opening promise.

Karakorum, the capital city of Mongolia founded by Genghis Khan, was the end-point of a two-year mission undertaken in 1253 by Franciscan monk William of Rubruck who was chosen to travel to that distant metropolis with the aim of converting the ruler, Mongke Khan (Genghis’s grandson) and as many other non-believers as he could.  Through the long journey, William recorded his impressions but made remarkably few converts.

This entertainment, devised by Cambodian-born Khai-Dong Luong, is a show-piece for the French ensemble La Camera delle Lacrime which specialises in music of the 12th and 13th centuries.  But La Camera does not just perform excerpts from this neglected trove: the ensemble puts its music into historical perspective; in this instance, following William’s travel routes to and from Mongolia.

La Camera brought six musicians to the Brandenburg party: singer Bruno Bonhoure, violinist/vocalist Mokrane Adlani, kamanche expert Martin Bauer, percussionist Michele Claude, vocalist and erhu player Yan Li, flute/hurdy-gurdy/cornamuse player Christophe Tellart.  Paul Dyer kept a low profile behind his chamber organ while his fellow-Brandenburgers were all strings:  violinists Shaun Lee-Chen, Matt Bruce and Ben Dollman, with bass violin Jamie Hey.  Helping the visiting singers along their paths were five male members of the ABO Choir.

Playing William, dressed in a Franciscan habit, Australian actor David Wenham recited a narrative which took us from Constantinople and back again (well, a tentative launch onto the return road) with a few dramatic frissons along the way.   He wasn’t amplified, which didn’t matter to those of us near the front, but might have proved irritating to patrons in the balcony because of the occasional volume drop at the end of sentences.

But, despite Wenham’s function as a focus for the Karakorum story, the night’s attention focused on Bonhoure, the Camera’s music director and, for all intents and purposes, the fulcrum of this concert’s action.  His voice featured in most of the works heard and his positioning on stage, allied with his physical movement, meant that he attracted your eyes and ears almost continuously.  Some relief came with a Mongolian chant sung by Yan Li and a Sufi one from Adlani, which provided a fine complement to Bonhoure’s opening troubadour song.

Most of this night’s music has been recorded by the Camera with only two extra items inserted for this tour: a Gregorian Credo which only lasted up to Et homo factus est; and a concluding Kyrgyzstan melody, With hearts high, to bring the monk’s odyssey to a rousing conclusion.

The projected duration of this concert was 80 minutes; in fact, it lasted for 100 and I was pretty tired by the end.   Yes, the narrative interludes had their moments, although Wenham gave little suggestion of character to William who presented as yet another naif like Diver Dan or Faramir.   But then, the actor was handicapped in his personification because the whole original exercise, devised by Louis IX, was doomed from the start: William himself was unprepared  –  he made so few converts because he didn’t speak any of the languages of the lands through which he travelled.   He preached, but who understood?

As for sustaining most of the vocal brunt of Karakorum, Bonhoure does not have a particularly interesting voice and, while agreeable enough, it remains one-dimensional, displaying little ability to change timbres.  After the initial beguiling Austorg d’Aurillac song, he opened the Sufi chant Loving the beauty of Layla with a counter-tenor falsetto, articulating lots of same-note phrases in this lover’s plaint while the ABO vocal quintet gave him a monosyllabic drone support.  This sounded mildly exotic yet  bland.  Another troubadour song passed by without much effect.  By contrast, in his vocal work, Adlani projected a less well-honed product but his vocalising sounded more convincing, possibly because he was not caught up in attracting attention which Bonhoure did to the point of irritation.

For a time, the Orient won out with some dance music that I believe might have been from the Urals but which could have come from any corner of the Mediterranean from Makre to Tunis and would not be notable or out-of-context today.  As William got more involved in his task, Bonhoure sang three Gregorian chants – Miserere mei, Deus, Vexilla regis (which was juxtaposed with a fine adhan from Adlani in a musically uncomfortable counterpoint), and Salve Regina.  This last was punctuated with violin interludes that pushed some catchy Oriental melismata into the ideological fray.

By which stage you had well and truly received the message that this night’s music was essaying a kind of East and West meld; first you get a bit of Gregorian, then you have a stretch of throbbing sinuousness.   So, really, not a melding but a comparison with the director and musical director wanting to interweave the two strands of material.  The Creed extract was followed by a substantial erhu solo before Yan Li’s Heart beating in the steppes Mongolian lyric (was it sung in Chinese?); what inevitably followed was another Gregorian block where the Ave Regina caelorum antiphon and the A solis ortus cardine hymn signified that William had reached Karakorum.

In Wenham’s narration, Mongke Khan’s court reception was alarming until William realised that the whole crowd was drunk.   Cue an erhu solo called Tang Tang (a Mongolian lyric) and a drinking song, at which point Bonhoure unleashed his inner Alexis Zorba; the over-acting here verged on Playschool obviousness.  After this bout of pagan happiness, it was back to business with the Veni Sancte Spiritus sequence for Pentecost, Bonhoure working indefatigably over an instrumental Alberti bass with some vehement erhu commentary.

La Camera’s Claude enjoyed a solo spot here, her instrument sounding very like a tabla that had come tapping its way up from the south.  This led into Adlani’s Vision of the Beloved Sufi chant, a very welcome break from the prevailing regime although – not for the first time – the music itself began with an unexpectedly banal 4/4 pulse before altering to a more reassuring irregular pattern.  For all that, the actual vocal line recalled the free-ranging solid ululations of Umm Kulthum – which could be a testament to the unchanging nature of Arabic music over eight centuries.

The narrative’s climax came at a debate before Mongke Khan where each religion – Christian, Muslim, Buddhist – asked and answered questions of each other.  Various members of both La Camera and the ABO took on the lines of the disputants while, in the background, the Sanskrit chant of Om mani padme hum served as a sustained underpinning, presenting a strange theological situation for William, his Nestorian co-religionists and the Muslims.  But, as the guru from Liverpool sang, let it be.

Bonhoure signified William’s going home by leading the Veni, veni Emmanuel hymn – two verses of it – before the Kyrgyzstan tune took over and Bonhoure did his best whirling dervish imitation.   Yes: sometimes you’ve got to forget all that theological malarkey and just have a good spin.

In this semi-staged diversion, Luong and Bonhoure seemed to be constrained by a limited view of the music relevant to the enterprise.   Without the two troubadour songs, the West was all Gregorian chant.   On the other hand, the tourist sound-track to Mongolia took in music from the Black Sea, the Urals, Mongolia itself, and Kyrgyzstan as well as Sufi and Buddhist chants and hymns.  Fine; although, in several instances, this Eastern music itself sounded alarmingly ‘modern’.

Despite all these reservations, I was in a clear minority because the Murdoch Hall audience exploded into an enthusiastic reception at the performance’s conclusion.  Mind you, I have a cynical theory that explains why every Mahler symphony is greeted with a standing ovation: audiences just want to get out of their seats.  But to my mind, in the Karakorum hegira, you had to wait for isolated moments that arrested your attention;  riveting music-making was pretty rare.

For the most part, the combined band worked through their tasks with aplomb and gravity.  Dyer’s organ was close to inaudible for most of the night, as was Bauer’s kamanche.   On the other hand, the erhu enjoyed dynamic prominence and Tellart’s piquant wind contributions enriched a good many string-drone passages.

Despite Dyer’s enthusiasm for La Camera’s work which led him to invite the ensemble to participate in this mixed-bag construct, I left the Recital Centre feeling flat and believing that the whole concept might have succeeded more if originality of structure and musical content had not been so hard to find.