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.