A few clever touches, some worthy singing: yet a general inconsistency


Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

November 17, 2018

                                                                         Hans Sachs

Wagner’s long comedy opera made a welcome step up in stature from a year’s work in Melbourne by the national company that raised few anticipatory frissons.   Yes, this co-production between Opera Australia, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts came with a controversial reputation but there’s no absolute disadvantage in that; Bayreuth itself opened the directorial floodgates in the post-World War Two years, not least with a startling reworking of The Mastersingers by Wieland Wagner which worked against the historical pageantry that coloured the composer’s original vision.

Kasper Holten‘s direction, Mia Stensgaard‘s sets and Anja Vang Kragh‘s costumes were intended to fuse coherently, offering new situational and temporal situations through which to filter a libretto that is one of the composer’s more satisfying literary products and a score that rarely falters in its warm fluency and burnished brilliance.   But the new look didn’t work as well as it might have and all attempts at following Wagner’s overpowering resolution disappeared with a dumb-show that was probably meant to offer a sharp comment on the opera’s innate sexism but impressed me as dramatically under-cooked and theatrically inept.

In the central role of Hans Sachs, the Nuremberg civic father-figure, Michael Kupfer-Radecky coped laudably, given that he came into the production at a week’s notice.   OA’s own Shane Lowrencev had to withdraw, he himself a replacement for the scheduled American bass-baritone James Johnson.   Third time more-or-less lucky although the German singer got off to a pedestrian start, taking an easy ride through the conclave in Act 1 where he alone takes up the cause of the stroppy young knight.

He showed to better effect in the second act, although Sachs has the great advantage of interacting one-on-one with several of the main players, if in short bursts with some.  Nevertheless, the Wie duftet doch der Flieder musing on his own situation made for a moving and convincing hiatus in the action and Sachs’ dialogue with Beckmesser came across without the usual heavy-handed jocularity, the two cobbling verses – Als Eva aus dem Paradies and O Eva! Hor mein Klageruf – impressing for their irony more than irritating because of the customary superficial bluster.

Luckily, Kupfer-Radecky kept his best for Act 3; not just the Wahn! soliloquy, although I have to say he moved through that with more ease and impulse than many a more famous interpreter.   But the arc from Sachs’ opening distraction to the wise resolution in the character’s words during the moving quintet made a gift of the first scene.   Further, Sachs’ none-too-subtle machinations leading towards the Preislied‘s final statement came across with a happy naturalness, Kupfer-Radecky leading the whole corps to the blazing C Major triumph of the final bars with resonant insistence, even through that unpleasant nationalist stanza beginning Verachtet mir die Meister nicht.

As Walther, Stefan Vinke played a down-at-heel aristocrat with little grace.   The disaster of his initial gambit, So rief der Lenz in den Wald, worked well enough as the singer tore the passion to tatters with a delivery that stormed along its way with a fine lack of concern for subtlety.   That’s quite comprehensible; the young man is all emotion and unalloyed vapouring at this point.   Still, the lack of dynamic interest was worrying and you felt somehow on the side of the dismissive collegium.

Vinke had little to deal with in the central act and coped with its lack of demands manfully, sustaining in his few lines the personality of a young noble sprig who shouldn’t get his own way because of an inbuilt selfishness.    With the help of Sachs, of course, he manages to cobble together a song for the climactic competition and the many verses that Walther gives us betrayed a voice getting more and more tired.   In the first scene of Act 3, Vinke attempted a soft high note with unhappy results; he was much happier belting out the later, more hectic strophes of each third to his popularly-acclaimed Preislied.

Of course, the point where the assembly hears Morgenlich leuchtend in its final form is a superb passage, the crowd’s enthusiasm growing until it erupts in an irrepressible furore.  Vinke’s high As rang out with a firm clangour and he contrived to stay on the right side of rhapsody.    Yet the song lacked an underpinning sympathy; it seemed to be subject to strain, occasionally hurled out with a lack of even delivery across the phrases.   A good effort, I suppose, but with the emphasis on the noun.

As Beckmesser, Warwick Fyfe worked with considerable insight by making this unpleasant character quite human, particularly in Act 1.   Usually, the Marker’s pedantry contrasts poorly with Walther’s gallantry and high-mindedness but you could find excuses for Beckmesser’s spite, in particular when Fyfe made it clear that the man was offended and nonplussed by the neophyte’s complete disregard for the Mastersingers’ Tabulature.  Beckmesser’s attempt to serenade Eva was carried through without resorting to the whining silliness that European houses have tolerated for far too long.

Of course, both here and in the disastrous attempt to sing the text he inveigled from Sachs, Beckmesser is handicapped by Wagner’s pointless melismata and his own uncomprehending mangle of Walther’s poem.   But Fyfe did a commendable job of singing pretty straight, not indulging in much distortion or conscious vocal slapstick, holding his own when confronting Sachs on his ‘dishonesty’ and then trying to ensure that there would be no repercussions or public revelations that would counter his run at the prize.    Almost alone among his colleagues, this Beckmesser brought an animation to every line; you were faced with a personality, if an unattractive one, that expressed the baser emotions without resorting to cheap effects.

Nicholas Jones‘ David appealed as attractively buoyant, at his best in that instructional dialogue in Act 1 where the apprentice aims to teach Walther ‘the rules’ of writing a song. This young tenor’s German came across very clearly, a model for some of his colleagues. He stayed just the right side of bearably put-upon in the solo and consequent dialogue with Sachs that opens Act 3, later holding his own in the Selig, wie die Sonne quintet.  Mind you, he had to put up with much of his character’s comedy cut or barely credible because of the updating wished upon him by director Holten, but his sharp-as-a-pin characterization lit up some pedestrian pages in the outer acts.

She gets to appear in all the acts and has some contributions to make in each one, but the heroine Eva gets very little solo exposure.    Natalie Aroyan made each line count with an admirable clarity, sticking to the conductor’s beat with more consistency than some of her colleagues.    But Eva’s output is often restricted to quick dialogue as she admits to her love for Walther in Act 1, tries to glean information from Sachs in Act 2, although she enjoys a shining moment when eulogising the old man and trusting that all will turn out for the best.   Not a performance that attracted attention but persuasive for its bursts –  often just a quatrain – of ardour.

Eva’s nurse, Magdalena, has less to do; even so, Dominica Matthews was hard to fault, particularly as her most extended passage of play came during a weighty ensemble.   Like several others in the cast, she laboured under directorial and costuming constraints, not to mention a clumsy entrance and exit in the apprentices’ Johannistag! scene.

Among the other ten Mastersingers, many familiar names showed up – Luke Gabbedy, John Longmuir, Kanen Breen, Robert Macfarlane, Michael Honeyman, Gennadi Dubinsky – but to my ears the performance’s outstanding male voice belonged to Daniel Sumegi, who gave sterling service as Pogner.

Sumegi served notice of his pre-eminence in a powerful and warm reading of Nun hort, und versicht mich recht where the character gives notice of why he is putting his daughter up as prize for the final of Nuremberg’s Got Talent.   From here on, you could take pleasure in every line from Pogner: his introduction of Walther, the later post-attempt vacillation, and the self-doubts and justifications  at the start of Act 2.   Even the singer’s few solo apostrophes in the last scene added to the opera’s humane breadth.

Pietari Inkinen brought out the best in an expanded Orchestra Victoria, especially the high strings which generally sound thin but, even faced with Wagner’s hefty brass, soared through the overture with an unexpected clarity and precise articulation that was rarely found wanting in the long hours ahead.    Being seated on the State Theatre’s left side, I enjoyed plenty of exposure to the horns, but flaws from that section proved remarkably few.    Above all, the conductor exercised firm control over his pit, even if some principals found themselves behind the beat on occasions, while the chorus showed a tendency to rush forward at animated moments.

So, a fairly satisfying vocal and instrumental outlining of the work with no signs of fatigue except from Vinke, over-energised in the last act.   But, as soon as the curtain rose, the production’s viewpoint(s) raised many questions.

You weren’t faced with St. Katherine’s Church but the interior of a gentlemen’s club – well, maybe.   No congregation sang the opening chorale but a group dressed in business suits – even the females – who belted the hymn out with little subtlety.   An onstage conductor led them and an unidentified man sitting at a desk took the choir’s plaudits after the piece had finished.  This latter could have been the chorale’s putative composer, but you were not sure.   The choir went off.  Were they club members?  An ensemble that used the place for rehearsals?   No reason presented itself and this was only a few minutes into the opera proper.

Unlike the original staging, Eva is not hanging around the church waiting for Walther to approach; she’s being fitted for her wedding dress in this catch-all venue, while Magdalena supervises – not so much a nurse as a secretary, and not confined to Eva’s concerns, it seems, but the club’s as well.   David is not top dog among the apprentices but a head of staff for the club.   Walther enters, looking like a 1960s Woodstock scruff.   The declarations of love are made while the staff busy themselves primping and prinking the club’s surrounds.  Tables are set up for the Mastersingers’ meal.    The men themselves enter, dressed as masons, complete with gauntlet cuffs, aprons and medallions of office.

So far, you’ve been asked to face nothing too ridiculous.   You can easily take on board the concept of the guild as a secret society, an idea reinforced by the insistence on rules and regulations., and later on, the rejection – with the exception of Sachs the Tolerant – of Walther’s new art.

When Act 2 gets under way properly, it has none of the staging that the original requires: no corner houses of Pogner and Sachs, only symbolic trees/shrubs, no divided door for the cobbler’s workshop, no elder tree, no windows.   We’re a long way from a street scene; indeed, it’s hard to conceive exactly where we’ve been transported.    Jesper Kongshaug‘s lighting design starts to move from Act 1’s light-filled space to darkness; so it should, as the opera’s temporal progress requires.   But the background shifts almost imperceptibly as the action heats up.

The act culminates in a riot, during which Beckmesser is attacked by David who thinks that he’s serenading Magdalena; Sachs disrupts the eloping party and sends Eva back to her own house while taking Walther into his own; the chorus whips up a state of ferment as fighting breaks out.   Not for this production.   The whole thing becomes a nightmarish orgy, complete with horse-headed men simulating sex with willing women across front of stage.    When the Nightwatchman comes on, there is a general freeze, which rather undercuts the point – and humour –  of the scene.    But then, Adrian Tamburini in this role has entered into the spirit of things by now being dressed as a barrel-chested satyr.

In the final scene, we’re back to a central staircase and tiered semi-circular rows of steps.  A pair of choruses enters, dressed in modern-day evening wear and takes up position on the risers.   But. when the procession begins, we’re back with orthodoxy.  The apprentices/staff have reverted to 16th century apparel, complete with tabards; even the girls from Furth have taken on the fashion of 1550 Germany.   When the Mastersingers enter, they have collaborated in turning back time, wearing large quadrangular hats and embroidered robes, and carrying the gleaming symbols of their crafts on poles.

So the gentlemen’s club business has disappeared; now we have what amounts to a dress-up party.

Beckmesser sings disastrously, Walther shows how it’s done and eventually accepts his status as one of the Mastersingers’ company.   But in this version, Eva is not happy; she applauds his initial rejection of Pogner’s welcome to the guild, delighted by her man’s contrariness; when Sachs changes the knight’s mind for him and the accoutrements of office land on his head, shoulders and neck, she turns away from him, mounts the stairs and disappears from the scene while Walther basks in having made the grade, becoming one of the fellows.

Whether this is a statement about the objectification of women and/or Eva’s rejection of her father and all he stands for, your guess is as good as mine.   But it fails to ring true, whatever interpretation you try, when faced with the final pages of Act 3’s first scene, from Eva’s O Sachs! Mein Freund! Du Theurer Mann! onwards, in particular Eva’s final couplet in the great quintet.   I might have missed the signs, but I saw nothing on stage which prepared me for this deviation from the expected outcome.

Does it all make you think twice?  Will this version cause a refashioning of your interpretation of a great opera?   Not this time.   You’re faced with a lack of consistency that saps at the director’s premise because the updating and the complete change of ambience are inconsistent or perhaps applied with too much subtlety to travel.   For sure, you will find whole passages in this version where you forget the setting; the less detail visually exposed, the more moving is the drama.   But then, abruptly, you experience a shock of incomprehension as to why the production looks like it does and the cross-bred staging that tries to meld our time with that of Sachs does little more than distract.

News from the front

Due to some confusion in communications, I think it’s necessary to state somewhere that I’ve resigned from writing music criticism for The Age.  A message went out to all on my email address book, but clearly that move didn’t spread the information far enough.

My first review appeared on March 20, 1978, the last on October 22 this year; quite long enough, I think.   All those luminaries on the paper who brightened my reviewing life – Kenneth Hince, Neil Jillett, Leonard Radic, Michael Shmith, Ray Gill, Gina McColl, Robin Usher – have passed on in one way or another and I can tell you emphatically that there’s no joy or triumph in being the last man of my generation still standing.

I intend to keep this blog running, not least because it allows more spatial freedom than the inexorable 250-word limit imposed by the paper, but also because – as intended from the start three years ago – it’s a means of celebrating and encouraging musicians and composers who get precious little attention elsewhere.

December Diary

Saturday December 1


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

So how will we bring this year’s operations to a smashing close?   Let’s invite Markus Stenz back.   That’s all right; he left us with goodwill on both sides, has visited at least once since his term as MSO Chief Conductor ended in 2004, and his reappearance will put a spring into the pistons and slides of the MSO brass – those precious few that have not departed the orchestra’s ranks over the last 14 years.  Tonight opens with Wagner: the Prelude and Transformation Scene (one of them) from Parsifal – a deft reminder that the Victorian Opera is presenting this turgid opera next February in the unholy ambience of St. Kilda’s Palais Theatre.   Stenz ends with that ever-challenging ballet, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring; always entertaining to see what the players make of the composer’s demands on them.  Guest violinist Maxim Vengerov will present a concerto written for him by  Qigang Chen and which he premiered a little over a year ago.   I know nothing of this composer, although he did direct music for the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony in 2008 and has enjoyed much acclaim both in his homeland and in France where he has been resident for 34 of his 67 years.   This work is subtitled La joie de la souffrance which is promisingly masochistic, and it takes its impetus from a Chinese melody.   In other words, you’ll get the best (possibly) of both (well, at least two) worlds.

This program is also being presented on Friday November 30 in Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University at 7:30 pm.


Saturday December 1


Ensemble Gombert

Our Lady of Victories, Camberwell at 8 pm

Yet again, John O’Donnell and his excellent choir take patrons on a much-anticipated exceptional tour of Renaissance sacred music that covers the Christmas story from the stable at Bethlehem to Simeon’s prophecies in the Temple.  Proceedings open with two Lassus motets: Quem viditis, pastores? for the shepherds’ take on the whole business, and In principio erat Verbum, the first 14 verses of St John’s Gospel which used to conclude the Tridentine Mass ritual and which still give a stunningly visionary theological context for Christ’s birth.   Jacob Handl’s Mirabile mysterium also offers an appraisal of the birth’s significance, while his Omnes de Saba makes a jubilant welcome for the Three Kings’ arrival on the scene.   Lassus then contributes his Videntes stellam which gives more physical detail concerning the royal visitors and their gifts.   O’Donnell & Co. move to the Tudors with a Byrd brace: Hodie beata virgo Maria which comes from the Candlemas Vespers and depicts Mary giving Jesus to Simeon for his blessing; the antiphon Senex puerum portabat deals with a series of paradoxes in lucid polyphony that lasts about two minutes.   Videte miraculum by Tallis concentrates heavily on Mary’s virginity with ethereal detachment.  The program’s main work is the 7-voice Puer natus est nobis Mass by Tallis which has no Kyrie or Credo and is based on a plainchant, with which the Gomberts will kindly preface their performance.   This chant’s text derives from Isaiah and most of it will be familiar to Handel’s Messiah lovers who, at this event, will be transported far beyond the German/British composer’s visions of worldly pomp and circumstance.


Tuesday December 4

Ksenija Sidorova

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Bringing the MRC’s Great Performers series to a reedy conclusion, the Latvian accordion player presents a solo recital that comprises mainly music that I’ve never heard by people who are strangers, although there’s a bit of Bach on offer in three parts of the solo keyboard Overture in the French Style.   Sidorova opens with Danish writer Bent Lorentzen’s Tears, an original accordion solo from 1992.   Then follow three Russian offerings: Anatoly Kusyakov’s six Autumnal Sceneries, Alexei Arkhipovsky’s melancholy Cinderella (originally for balalaika), and Sergei Voytenko’s moody Revelation.  All of these are exactly what you think of when considering accordion music: harmonically orthodox and, despite their provenance, full of 1950s Parisian atmosphere.   Sidorova moves into the world of Piazzolla with a group including SVP (S’il vous plait), Sentido Unico and Tanti Anni Prima, all arranged by the performer; while the first two are tangos, the last, originally called Ave Maria, is a quiet, plangent lyric that shows a less abrasive side to the pugilistic Argentinian composer and bandoneon virtuoso.   Finally, we delve into the catalogue of Schnittke for Revis Fairy Tale, a quartet of pieces originally composed for a staging of Gogol’s satire Dead Souls and then transcribed for accordion by Sidikova and two other experts.   James Crabb taught us not to undervalue the instrument as a by-product of Young Talent Time and, in the right hands, it can exercise considerable appeal; but a lot of this program looks (and may sound) pretty one-dimensional.


Wednesday December 5


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Finishing its Melbourne operations for 2018 in the Recital Centre, the ACO will be heard to excellent advantage, its zesty enthusiasm more immediate here than in the gloomy cavern of Hamer Hall.   Richard Tognetti has assembled a rag-bag program that takes in some welcome novelties as well as several familiars.   The ACO opens with Sculthorpe’s Sonata for Strings No. 1, a work that this ensemble commissioned back in 1983 and which is an orchestration of the composer’s own String Quartet No. 10 – well, according to the catalogue, it ‘succeeds/complements’ that particular quartet.   Mind you, it all gets a tad confusing: is this No. 1 identical with the same year’s Sonata for Strings?  Will we ever know?   Will we ever care?   After this whiff of Australiana, the group moves to some Debussy arrangements: The Girl with the Flaxen Hair and The Interrupted Serenade, two companion pieces from Book I of the Preludes.   Another Tognetti arrangement follows with Ravel’s Two Hebrew Melodies, originally for voice and piano/orchestra but I’m guessing the vocal line will here be taken by a violin, especially in the Kaddisch which the ACO has recorded.    Elgar’s E minor Serenade for Strings tests the ACO’s richness of warm timbre rather than its scintillating virtuosity.   Finally, we hear Walton’s Sonata for Strings, the composer’s arrangement (with Malcolm Arnold’s help in the finale) of his own String Quartet in A minor, written 25 years previously.


Friday December 7


Opera Australia

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

In recent times, some of these one-off recitals/concerts by famous imports have been either sad or ludicrous.   This one features an American mezzo, presented by Pinchgut Opera, not the national company, so there are grounds for optimism.   Pinchgut artistic director Erin Helyard is directing an all-Baroque program that also features ’21 of Australia’s best early music instrumentalists’  –  no details available so far.   As for the music, the night offers a sinfonia (Op. 6 No. 1 .  .  . but isn’t this Op. 6 a set of flute concertos?) and two overtures (Cleofide, Demofoonte) by Hasse as well as an aria from Cleofide (the heroine’s Son qual misera colomba); two arias (one from Semiramide, the other from Polifemo) by Haydn’s teacher Porpora; one aria only by Broschi from his IdaspeOmbra fedele anchio which featured in that prodigious waste of money, the film Farinelli; a Vivaldi sinfonia and three opera (L’OlimpiadeGriselda, Catone in Utica) arias; and there’s a Handel pair for good measure – Ho perso il caro ben from Il Parnasso in festa, and Sta nell’Ircana pietrosa tana that I vaguely remember from Opera Australia’s Alcina production.   Apart from this last, the rest represent unknown territory, except for those happy souls who revel in this arcane field.   And jolly good luck to you; here’s hoping the night proves both satisfying and rewarding.   What you can be sure of is music-making of authority from all concerned.


Saturday December 8


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 1 pm and 5 pm

This program is a few levels above Carols by Candelight, one of this city’s aesthetic abominations, but it isn’t much to boast about.   What you get is entertainment but it all comes in short squirts.    Benjamin Northey, the MSO’s go-to conductor with personality, leads the festive round.    Guest soprano Greta Bradman has the unalloyed joy of belting out Adam’s O Holy Night, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, the carol Silent Night (possibly the others on the program as well  –  Oh come, all ye faithful, Hark! the herald angels sing, We Three Kings).    As well as the Berlin hit, you will find a solid swathe of Americana on offer: indeed, the program opens and ends with Leroy Anderson – A Christmas Festival to begin, Sleigh Ride to close.   You’ve also got James Pierpont’s Jingle Bells, Johnny Marks’ Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and a suite from Alan Silvestri’s score for Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express film.   By way of cutting cross-cultural commentary, Northey and his forces will play bleeding chunks from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet Suite No. 1 (which holds most of the work’s attractive character pieces) and the Troika on loan from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije film music suite, uncomfortably situated close to Anderson’s trite musical sleigh excursion.   The odd one out in all this is Howard Blake’s Walking in the Air from the 1982 The Snowman soundtrack.   In short, the MSO is playing a set of bon-bons, nearly all of which have connections to the season.


Friday December 14


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Plenary at 7:30 pm

This second instalment in the first Star Wars trilogy – for us true believers, the only films in George Lucas’ series worth serious attention –  is being given several airings in this vast auditorium; here’s hoping the organization is able to pack out all four sessions.   John Williams reinforces motifs and tropes from the first film, A New Hope, but a large amount of extra material had to be produced for new sites like the ice planet Hoth as well as suitable aural underpinning for Luke Skywalker’s clumsy efforts both there and on the swamp planet Dagobah, not to mention the atmospherics needed for the first sighting of Cloud City and the eventual duel between Luke and Darth Vader.   Much of this is rousing stuff but the MSO will be hard put to bring freshness to a score that is all too well-known.  What takes me aback in these declining years is that the film is now 38 years old and still manages to surprise you with musical details that slipped by the first twenty times you saw it.

This screening will be repeated on Saturday December 15 at 1 pm and 7:30 pm, and on Sunday December 16 at 1 pm.


Friday December 14


Bianca Gannon, Luqmanul Chakim, Peni Candra Rini, Jumaadi, Jean Poole. Robert Jarvis

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Here is a one-off production, presented by Bianca Gannon and Mapping Melbourne, which is ‘a platform for strengthening arts networks between contemporary independent artists across the Asian region, building connections and establishing collaborative ongoing relationships, and presenting challenging work’  –  an offshoot of Multicultural Arts Victoria.    This particular recital features Indonesian instruments whose use revolves around food.    Central performer Chakim plays a bundengan (zither), a rantok (a blade, but I’m guessing), and a set of gule gending (steel pans)  –  all instruments of the people, to be contrasted with Javanese court music sung by Candra Rini.    Gannon, artistic director for this enterprise, contributes gamelan and post-minimalist piano (at last, I’ll get to find out just what that terminology means), and Jumaadi offers his own digitally enhanced take on Indonesian shadow puppetry to flesh out the occasion.    My only regret is that the food relevant to Chakim’s instruments – duck, rice, fairy floss – is not being served; you can never have too much sensory overload.


Saturday December 15


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7 pm

Something of a clash here as a good number of the MSO players will be involved with a session of The Empire Strikes Back soundtrack across at the Plenary.    An expert in early music practice, Jan Willem de Vriend, is directing and may well do so from the concertmaster’s desk.    If you’ve not heard of de Vriend, join the club, although most of his activity appears to be centred on mainland Europe.    His soloists are soprano Jeanine De Bique  from Trinidad, Australian countertenor Nicholas Tolputt, that sterling locally-grown tenor Andrew Goodwin, and Dresden-born bass-baritone Stephan Loges.   Of course, the MSO Chorus has the enviable task of handling those great choral tapestries that pepper this oratorio, although the body’s numbers may be cut down in proportion to what I assume will be a spartan chamber orchestra.    Prior to these Melbourne performances, the work will be heard in Ballarat on Saturday December 8 (Mary’s Mount Centre, Loreto College at 5 pm), and in Bendigo (Ulumbarra Theatre at 5 pm) on Sunday December 9.

This program will be repeated in Hamer Hall on Sunday December 16 at 5 pm


Sunday December 16


Australian Boys Choir

Melbourne Recital Centre at 3 pm

This is the last entry on the Recital Centre’s calendar for the year; thankfully, the Murdoch Hall will hear some decent music-making to terminate 2018, rather than tacky aural crud from easily forgotten pseudo-musicians exhibiting a woeful lack of mastery and talent.    What the Choir’s administrators mean by ‘glorious’ isn’t just hyperbole, a non-specific wish that everybody will have the best of times over the coming fortnight.  The emphasis falls on the liturgical specificity of the word and its importance for Christmas as the jubilant song of the angels, expertly reported to St. Luke by those terrifically literate shepherds keeping watch over their flocks in the hills around Bethlehem.    At the heart of this occasion is Vivaldi’s Gloria  –  RV 589. you’d assume  –  which asks for soprano or contralto soloists in four of its twelve movements.   As usual, audience participation will be expected and encouraged in some of those carols  essential to this event, even if most of them don’t qualify for the glorious label.   But the Choir, its senior Vocal Consort and the large bank of tyros are all managed carefully enough so that they rarely wear out their welcome.    Of great interest for some of us will be to observe how new artistic director Nicholas Dinopoulos copes with filling the shoes of recently departed ABC veteran, Noel Ancell.

Lest we forget? Not a chance


Arcko Symphonic Ensemble

Church of All Nations, Carlton

Sunday November 11, 2018 at 7 pm

                                                    Menin Gate at Midnight   (Will Longstaff, 1927) 

This event marked an ominous date.  It observed the centenary of the armistice that concluded World War I, a time when the simple-minded and the wilfully ignorant among us claim that Australia ‘came of age’ – a concept as childish as that which sustained our hunting fathers into believing that blooding at a deer hunt conferred adulthood.

At this concert, you were confronted by no romance, no celebration, no tub-thumping patriotism but by the dour face of war, specifically the economically-fuelled debacle of 1914-18, with the three composers featured on this Arcko program focused on the European theatre of destruction rather than digging up their source material from a Turkish littoral that has yielded a remarkably slight musical crop.

Only one of the writers was familiar to me.   Helen Gifford‘s compositions featured on several programs of the New Music series run by George Dreyfus in this city during the early 1960s, and later at International Society for Contemporary Music events in those halcyon years when that body had an active Melbourne branch.  Her two colleagues on this night – Rohan Phillips (one of Gifford’s cousins) and Andrew Harrison –  are new names, although both have been presences on Melbourne’s music scene and are close contemporaries, having been born in 1971.

Interwoven with the program’s musical content were extracts from a 1919 poem: An English Vision of Empire by Frederick Phillips, grandfather of  Arcko founder/conductor, Timothy Phillips.   This substantial work follows a familiar British pattern, probably reaching its finest flower in Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome of 1842 where encomiums to national virtue and exhortations to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield were part of the apparatus of every gentleman’s thought.   Melbourne actor Bob Ruggiero read these extracts with little of the ardour that informed the poet; in fact, all four of these selected segments proved dusty-dry, even the final panegyric to Empire-supporting virtue that concludes with a prayer to God for a continuation of his directing hand which has, of course, given us the victory.

Rohan Phillips, in his Meditations on Der Krieg for small orchestra, took inspiration from a series of prints made by German artist Otto Dix.   From the original 50, Phillips chose seven for treatment: Bei Langemarck, Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor, Essenholer bei Pilkem, Zerfallender Kampfgraben, Gesehen am Steilhang von Clery-sur-Somme, Abend in der Wijtschaete-Ebene, and Nachtliche Begegnung mit einem Irrsinnigen.   Helpfully, each of the prints was projected on the Church hall’s back wall.

For this work where breaks between the scenes were minimal, Phillips kept to a continuously self-referring vocabulary in which dislocated or isolated notes and sounds provided the main action.   While the initial sound scape tended to softness, it was soon punctuated with abrupt blurts that cut up the backdrop of over-arching single notes  and overlapping timbre textures.   For all that, the score reached passages of stridency that were confrontational through insistence, intended to support Dix’s pictures.

Yet, if the music was intended to provide a commentary on each of the seven paintings, I’m not sure that aim was achieved; well, not to my ear which, for example, found little difference between the ration-carrying illustration and the following view of a disintegrating trench.  Phillips’ canvas of piano single notes disturbed by curt interruptions progressed to a predilection for gradually accrued clusters and one-note crescendi.

The intention was to communicate desolation, an unrelieved and grim hopelessness which reached its high-point in the final pictures where the artist drew bodies lying across a plain and an encounter with a lunatic.  This was as close to image-painting as the work got yet the piece stayed true to its origins, juxtaposing  manic and brief activity with a grey instrumental stasis.   To Phillips’ credit, his musical construct took on a life of its own and, while it was most informative to see Dix’s work as a sort of concomitant, the score stood up to scrutiny on its own terms.

Andrew Harrison’s 2012 solo piano composition The drumfire was incessant and continued all night with unabated fury  was performed by Peter Dumsday whom I last heard playing Brendan Colbert’s Like a maelstrom about three years ago at this venue with the Arckos.   It was hard to follow the composer’s outline of his own work; for example, the proposed march-like figure at the initial Arrival at Pozieres Ridge segment flew completely above my radar, but the suggestion of menace in the triple-piano bass clusters and lurching middle register material was impressively conceived.  As opposed to Phillips Meditations, this work presented as solid, subterranean sound blocks with rapid slashes in alt to heighten tension.

As you’d expect from a representation of the lead-up to and the actuality of a massive artillery bombardment, the piano’s percussive nature was explored with high aggression, which meant many pages of hard graft for Dumsday.  The composer inserted two ‘over-the-top’ whistles into the work’s progress, the first followed by downward note-packed cascades, the second prompting movement in the opposite direction.  Despite the work’s recorded/proposed length of about 9 or 10 minutes, it seemed a good deal longer, stretching the narrative to an uncomfortable extent, as though the music could not find resolution . . . which is probably part of the composer’s intention, suggesting the unbearably elongated nature of such an engagement and the ambiguity of its outcome in these terrible fields where so much life was squandered for so little territorial gain.

Gifford’s Menin Gate piano solo has its origin in Will Longstaff’s celebrated painting (also projected on to the space’s rear wall) in which the white shades of dead soldiers pass by the memorial structure in Ypres.   Written 13 years ago, its emotional landscape presents as both solid and stolid; not as fast to move onward as the preceding works on this night but allowing sounds and textures to resonate.  In certain passages, you sense the same desolation as in the other compositions programmed, but the writing features a logic that recalls Webern’s manner of ordered pocks of sound.

Joy Lee gave a calm account of the piece which eventually moved to a grinding high point, retreating to more impressionistic washes, blurs of fabric melded into block-layers of timbre by hefty use of the sustaining pedal, until the composer calls a halt with a last, lengthy chord.  As with Phillips’ work, the visual element provided an extra environment but this music was less concerned with illustration and more involved with a gentle mourning, underlining Owen’s unforgettable observation about the pity of war.

Harrison’s If Not In This World is a kind of cantata, its text provided by extracts from a letter written by the composer’s great-great-uncle, Leslie Robins, who fought and was wounded at Pozieres and later died at Gueudecourt; letters from the Bendigo soldier’s mother, Emma Robins, to the War Office, seeking information about her son’s wounds and then asking for any keepsakes he might have left behind after he was killed; and two bureaucratic responses from that Office.

Soprano Justine Anderson sang the words of Emma Robins with fine responsiveness, adding a kind of resigned urgency, then resignation to the mother’s requests for information; a hard ask as the words were unaffected, both moving and prosaic together.   Robert Latham’s tenor was put to a harder task with Leslie Robins’ communications which were pretty well confined to details about what was happening in the field.   The post-Britten arioso adopted was moving ahead clearly enough when suddenly Harrison overwhelmed his singer with a solid battery of brass and percussion, a feature which recurred in the first three of the soldier’s accounts; without printed copies of the words, I think most of us would have been lost in trying to follow the work’s path.

Latham was not only hard put to it in terms of audibility but was also stretched in negotiating his line’s higher reaches.  Compared to the string-heavy background to Anderson’s delivery and the looping grace of her part, Latham enjoyed little respite probably inevitable when your talk is all of machine guns, attacks, bombardments, death, nocturnal alarms and wounds, although the brisk, blasting instrumental sonorities abated when the letter moved on to the topic of convalescence.

The work takes its title from Robins’ last written words – ‘Till we meet again, if not in this world, then the next.’   Harrison brings a resonant lyricism to these phrases, combining both voices in a resigned pairing, repeating the words to reinforce a simple memorial to the sombre dignity of death and grief.  To his credit, the composer avoided sentimentality, notably in these final pages where you would most expect it.  In fact, although Harrison used a wide range of effects in manipulating his chamber orchestra, what remained with you at the end was the familiar ordinariness of this small historical vignette, which was essentially repeated thousands of times across this country.

Here was an intelligent and honourable way to observe such a centenary.  None of the music drew attention to itself  for superficial reasons like virtuosity or emotional self-indulgence.   The Arcko players worked with laudable success under Timothy Phillips’ fluent direction, making few apparent errors in two scores that exposed a good many solo players.

It would be asinine to suggest that this concert was enjoyable, but its elements combined to reinforce your admiration and sorrow for the willing sons of a milder, simpler generation who marched with innocence to the slaughter, as well as taking you to something approaching despair when you recall what was going to happen across Europe a little over 20 years later.

The North is minor


Evergreen Ensemble

Move Records MCD 584

Another no-frills product from Move, this disc comes in at almost exactly 45 minutes.  You hear 13 tracks  in total, four of them movements from sonatas by James Oswald, that lucky Scot who was Chamber Composer for George III and whose magnum opus, Airs for the Seasons, has each of its movements named after a different flower – in this case, Winter flowers: the snapdragon and the snowdrop, both scoring two movements.  The other mainstream work is a sonata for viola da gamba by Lorenzo Bocchi who doesn’t get a mention in my Grove but who is historically notable for bringing the cello to Scotland.   This particular sonata, No. 11 in D minor from Bocchi’s Op. 1, has been recorded on Hyperion by members of the Parley of Instruments.  For other Bocchi works, you won’t find much; there’s an arrangement of his Plea Rarkeh na Rourkough or ‘ye Irish Wedding‘ which comes from a collection of Hibernian tunes and has been recorded by Les Basses Reunies.

The rest of the tracks make up a pleasant collection with Scottish folk tunes dominating the mix: the Unst Boat Song, Tullochgorum, Ca’ the Yowes, Twist Ye, Twine Ye (Sir Walter Scott’s poem, music by James Scott Skinner, I think) and the CD’s title song which is a poem by Shane Lestideau, the Evergreen Ensemble’s director and baroque violinist, and the setting itself based on that venerable ground bass, La Folia.

Some deviations from the Caledonian come first.   Claire Patti, the Evergreen singer and Celtic harpist, works through Jag Vet en Dejhlig Rosa – a 16th century Swedish poem set much later by Alice Tegner, either to her own tune or a pre-existing folk tune. Then, alongside the Unst Boat Song comes Guldklimpen, another Swedish tune.  Later, at Track 5, we hear Old Ditty, a piece commissioned from Sydney composer Alice Chance and part of a larger collection – The Australian Baroque Sonatas Project which has the laudable aim of creating new works for period instrumentalists in Australia.

Apart from Lestideau and Patti, the other Evergreens are veteran Samantha Cohen alternating between theorbo and baroque guitar. with Jenny Eriksson providing the viola da gamba line.

Matters don’t get off to a reassuring start with the Swedish rose song.   Nothing wrong with Patti’s voice.   The first verse is pleasant enough, supported by Cohen on guitar and a plucked gamba bass, Lestideau eventually entering after the second verse which is given a swing beat from the instrumentals.  In fact, Lestideau gets a solo flight based on the inoffensive melody and the effect is of a mournful Stephane Grappelli ensemble, the which is sustained throughout a third verse.  Why the need for this move to the world of the 1920s is beyond me.  The effect is unsettling, so much so that you ask the question (internally): is there to be more of this?   Fortunately, there is not.

Track 2 is that Boat song from the northernmost Shetland Isle and it makes a nice pairing with its predecessor.   Patti sings the three verses and repeats the first over a pretty static accompaniment that is little more than a drone.  Lestideau leads from a variant of the melody into a Golden Nugget instrumental where the other players quickly join in the fun.   Well, ‘fun’ is an overstatement as the mood has been minor mode up to this point, the singing pure but uninflected, the violin emphatically free of vibrato and the harmonization free of complications and ambiguity.

The minor lifts for the tune Tullochgorum although the language is modal.  As for the base material, the only melody of this name I could find was pretty orthodox; Patti’s performance of  (presumably) John Skinner’s text – a mix of Highland and Lowland Scots with some English thrown in – is clear enough, even if the words retain their mysteries.  Lestideau elaborates on the tune with some Skinner variations before making a lateral turn into the well-known reel, De’il Amang The Tailors.

As far as I could see, the most affecting music on this disc came with Patti’s crystalline reading of Ca’ the Yowes where the moving melody gets well-worked over, if not as much as it could have.  The singer wanders gently through the title refrain three times, the latter two with Lestideau in gentle vocal support.  The verses come from Burns’ second version and Patti is eccentric in her sequencing: Verse 2, Verse 1 and then Verse 4 with a space in the middle for a violin variant.  Patti’s harp generates a fine contribution to the melancholy/bucolic atmosphere.

The final folk element on offer is an instrumental solo that has as its title the Scott poem Twist Ye, Twine Ye with music (probably) by the universal Skinner.  Again it’s minor in tonality, and Lestideau has her company move straight from this into her own Blooms Like Stars text sung over the Folia bass – and they don’t come more minor in flavour than that.  The pairing is quite successful, of a piece with the ruminative nature of many of the preceding tracks.

Oswald’s The Snap Dragon two-movement sonata is simplicity personified with all the running given to the solo violin line while guitar and gamba provide an underpinning to a surprisingly Scottish-sounding melody.   This is not development music; you get the tunes and they are repeated, scarcely modified.   A gentle andante is followed by a jig in which I think I can hear some harp notes seconding the violin in a few bars.

We are back in minor language for Oswald’s The Snowdrop which starts in F sharp but spends a good deal of time in the relative A Major.  As with The Snap Dragon,  development is minimal as the composer simply takes his instruments for a walk.  There is little local about the first movement; the second movement does involve the harp imitating the violin line and is a kind of cross between a 4/4 gigue and a gavotte.

Published in 1725, Bocchi’s gamba sonata is a four-square composition with some slight asymmetries in its stately first movement; the more rapid middle one is an ordinary enough binary piece with some relieving double stops.  Another slower movement concludes this rather unremarkable throw-back to a time when elegance and knowing one’s musical place were cardinal qualities.  Despite some strenuous efforts, I couldn’t find much here that brought to mind Scotland, Ireland or folk-music.

The cuckoo in this speckled nest is Chance’s Odd Ditty.  Again, we are in minor mode with a vocal line from Patti’s gentle spindrift soprano in play across accompaniment from the Evergreen violin and guitar.  The main interest throughout is the composer’s quirk of flattening certain notes to give a piquancy to textures and processes that are otherwise pretty standard.   It takes some effort to decipher the words which, I suspect, are by Chance herself, and which return several times to the catch-phrase ‘my oddity’.

At the end, you’re left wanting more extended tracks from this CD, as well as more information about the music itself.  Mind you, there are plenty of researchable avenues for the interested listener; you can spend hours tracing translations from the Swedish and the Norn tongue, let alone trying to learn more about shadowy figures like Bocchi and even Oswald.   However, these musicians know what they’re after in terms of style and interpretation and, while you don’t come away from this CD enthralled by your experience, you do enjoy exposure to the Evergreens’ gently unassuming enterprise.