January Diary

The first weeks of January are dominated, as usual, by the Peninsula Summer Music Festival – Mornington Peninsula, that is.   A change in artistic director finds oboist Ben Opie in charge of proceedings and he has widened the programmatic net to include events that have little attraction for me – Bach from an ad hoc string quartet while bathing at the Peninsula Hot Springs, Fingal; solo violin music from Jessica Oddie as you follow her around the Hot Springs estate; another peripatetic experience led by Opie on the Festival’s last night starting at the Pelican Statues in Hastings; a scattering of jazz and children’s entertainments, alongside some indigenous recitals, as well as a rock guitarist playing solo and an electronic musician providing sounds to go along with yet another Fingal bathing experience.

Slightly running into the Peninsula festival’s time space comes the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival with a plethora of recitals and a few social events for the solid core of regulars.


Wednesday January 2


Peninsula Chamber Musicians and Guests

St. Mark’s Anglican Church, Balnarring at 2 pm

The numbers are pretty equal here: five regular Peninsularians and five guests.   Some of the latter are familiar names:  festival director Ben Opie, flautist Melissa Doecke, bassoonist Adam Mikulicz, while the original group is an unknown quantity to me.  Their offerings are decets by Andre Caplet, the formidable orchestrator of Debussy pieces, and Enescu.  Presumably, the French work is the three-movement Suite persane of 1900, and the Enescu will be its near-contemporary D Major Decet, written in 1906.  Here is real festival fare: unknown scores for an unusual combination.  And it’s in a venue that I haven’t experienced, although it might have featured in previous years and I’ve been too lazy to drive to a resort in high season.


Wednesday January 2


Janet Todd and Nicholas Pollock

Hurley Vineyard, Balnarring at 6 pm

Like the preceding recital – and a good many others – this is a 60-minutes/no-interval program.   It presents the talents of Victorian-born soprano Todd, nowadays making her home in Los Angeles,  and lutenist Pollock.  Their recital’s title refers (I hope) to the song that Purcell wrote for his semi-opera Pausanias.  In any case, we are promised music that moves from Dowland, through Purcell, and then to the French Baroque.  Pollock is listed as a ‘Peninsula favourite’, although his name is not one that I recall.


Thursday January 3


Sophie Rowell & Kristian Chong

Moorooduc Estate at 4 pm

Sort of self-explanatory.   The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster Rowell collaborates with expert pianist Chong in three sonatas, ending with Ravel’s No.2 with its central Blues in A flat movement: a sprightly construct and highly effective as long as the players don’t oversell the jazz, thinking that they have a wider scope for interpretative flamboyance than the composer intended.   Preceding this come Mozart in B flat K. 454 with its stately introduction and Beethoven No. 4 in A minor which doesn’t have a slow movement.   This duo is one of the program’s more certain pairings, involving two musicians of exceptional and established quality.

This program will be repeated at 6:30 pm.


Friday January 4


Duo Foster-Browne

Main Ridge Estate, Red Hill at 4 pm

A neat set of relationships are enshrined in this recital’s title.  The godfather is Telemann, who sponsored C. P. E. Bach at his christening.   So the players are presenting music by the godfather, his godson and the proud birth father, Johann Sebastian.  The duo itself comprises baroque flautist Georgia Browne and harpsichordist Tom Foster who are no strangers to each other, having presented an all-French program at the University of Edinburgh two months ago.   For the senior Bach, the pickings for duets number about 8, even if some of these are disputed territory with Carl Philip Emmanuel.  As for the godson, the catalogue lists 12 works for flute and continuo, as well as 5 for harpsichord and flute.   Looking at Telemann’s output, the mind boggles, grappling with its variety and manifold applications and arrangements.

The program will be repeated at 7 pm.


Saturday January 5

Australian Haydn Ensemble

St. John’s Church, Flinders at 12 pm

On its website, most of the selective encomia for this group, established in 2011, come from the Sydney Morning Herald.   Which might be a partial explanation for my lack of experience with them.   The ensemble – or part of it – played at a Melbourne International Arts Festival, possibly during the years of Josephine Ridge’s Haydn-fixated directorship.  Anyway, here they are now  .  .  .  well, a few of them: director/violinist Skye McIntosh, second violin Simone Slattery, viola James Eccles, cello James Bush, with flautist Melissa Farrow a welcome woodwind voice.   The program has only two works, both by Mozart: the first Flute Quartet in D K. 285 – all 14 minutes of it – and the String Quartet in G K. 387, which is the first of the set of six that the composer dedicated to Haydn.   Seems to be a short-change program if you’re after time value for money.


Saturday January 5


Songmakers Australia

St. John’s Church, Flinders at 3 pm

Another duo recital, again involving well-known artists.   Soprano Merlyn Quaife collaborates with Songmakers Australia director-pianist Andrea Katz.  The range offered moves from Schubert to Selleck but then also promises ‘music by acclaimed Australian composers’ – to which group one hopes that the talented Johanna has by this stage been admitted.   For all the vagueness, this should be an engrossing business, especially given Quaife’s career-long dedication to performing home-grown material.


Saturday January 5


St. John’s Church, Flinders at 7 pm

This program revolves around Boccherini’s Stabat mater, the original version of 1781 which requires a soprano soloist and a supporting string quintet.   As well as this substantial score, Macliver will work through arias by Handel from Apollo e Dafne, Theodora and Agrippina, while the Haydn people present Corelli’s Christmas Concerto and an arrangement for chamber ensemble by that formidable impresario Johann Peter Salomon of Haydn’s last symphony, the London (I assume this version is the one for string quartet and flute).   Macliver also offers a Mozart bracket in Zerlina’s two arias  –  Batti, batti and Vedrai, carino  –  as well as Pamina’s Ach, ich fuhl’s, and Laetari, locari from the early Apollo et Hyacinthus opera by the then-11-year-old composer; his first essay in the form, actually, although this seems to be the only scrap that has moved into public awareness and, even then, I’ve never heard it live.   The ensemble will probably consist of a string quintet as all the Mozart has been arranged by one ‘Lim’ – gifted local veteran composer Liza?  Probably not.


Sunday January 6


Miles Johnston

St. John’s Church, Flinders at 11:30 am

Johnston is a guitarist who won this year’s MRC competition – obviously.   He’s proposing some Bach, which is par for the course and has been ever since Segovia mined the extensive archive for material, some of which worked superbly.   Alongside this, we are to hear works by Australian Richard Charlton  –  a large catalogue to pick from  –  and Nikita Koshkin, a big guitar name in and from Russia.   It’s an excellent festival initiative, to give a venue to this competition’s winner – especially fortunate when the lucky player is entering a field that is already packed, some of it quite talented.


Sunday January 6


Australian Haydn Ensemble and David Greco

St. John’s Church, Flinders at 2 pm

The program is all arrangements, but not all-Schubert.   Greco, an assertive young baritone, is accompanied by the Haydn quintet in Die Gotter Griechenlands, Der Jungling und der Tod (the second version, I think), Gute Nacht, Frulingstraum, Der Leiermann, Der Tod und das Madchen and Der Erlkonig.  And we have an identity for that unnamed arranger ‘Lim’ from yesterday’s Sara Macliver/Haydn Ensemble event.  It’s Vi King Lim, who works as librarian for Symphony Services Australia and has done a good deal of work for the Haydn people.   Interspersed with the lieder are some extracts from Felicien David’s Les quatre saisons, a lengthy collection of pieces for string quintet concerned with memorialising the evenings of the four seasons.   For this occasion, the Haydns are playing two of the Summer and two of the Spring soirees.   From what I’ve heard of them, any relationship with Schubert will be hard to sustain.


Thursday January 10


Blair Harris

Elgee Park, Dromana at 6 pm

This well-known cellist will spend much of his hour or so playing Australian music.   All the works are solos and Harris starts and ends with Peter Sculthorpe: the short Sonata of 1959 and the twice-as-long Requiem written 20 years later.   Stuart Greenbaum’s Lunar Orbit offers a meditation on the Apollo 11 mission; Kate Moore’s brief Whoever you are come forth takes its genesis from a Whitman line.   Some deviations from the local come with Osvaldo Golijov’s Omaramor, written in memory of Argentinian tango singer Carlos Gardel who died in a 1935 plane crash; and Japanese Karen Tanaka’s  The Song of Songs which calls for electronics to support the live instrument as it attempts to summon up the erotic invitation that opens King Solomon’s love-poem.


Friday January 11


Inventi Ensemble

St. Mark’s Anglican Church, Balnarring at 2 pm

He wrote 17 works with this title, to be played between the Epistle and Gospel readings during the first part of the Mass, where the mumbled Alleluia versicle now stands.  This ensemble intends to precede their selection from the sonata set with improvisations in the style of whatever follows.   Flautist Melissa Doecke and oboist Ben Opie lead a sextet which includes violinists Peter Clark and Jessica Oddie, cellist William Hewer and Peter de Jager playing this church’s Laurie organ, originally built for Whitley College and moved to Balnarring last year.   On this instrument, de Jager will also play ‘Wagenseil’s brilliant Concerto for Organ’, according to the promotional material; what is not hinted at is which of the 12 possibles is intended.   As for the Mozart sonatas, the Inventi could play any of them, except Nos. 12, 14 and the last which all require extra woodwind/brass, including two trumpets.  An intriguing program, even if those improvisations leave you wondering.


Friday January 11


Schola Cantorum

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat at 8 pm

Gary Ekkel and his choir are taking on this Passio, an hour-long setting of the Johannine Gospel’s Chapters 18 and 19 by the Estonian composer.  The requisite forces are a baritone soloist for Jesus, a tenor for Pilate, an SATB quartet to handle the Evengelist’s lines, a larger force for the turba, and modest instrumental resources – violin, cello, oboe, bassoon, and organ.  Using Part’s tintinnabuli style – chanting till the cows come home, harmonic and rhythmic stasis, monochrome textures – the work’s intent is to invite meditation rather than express the narrative’s drama.   I’ve always found it hard to find sympathy with the Baltic modern musical mystics, which is a personal fault of major proportions, yet, even if you concentrate on this work’s constructional procedures, there’s no getting around Part’s insistent abnegation of flourish.  A dour start to this packed festival.


Saturday January 12


Anthony Halliday and Alvin Wong

Carngham Uniting Church, Snake Valley at 10 am

Not much news available about this recital, except that Wong will perform the Bach Suite No. 6 in D, the one that seems to require a five-stringed instrument unless you’re prepared to negotiate a fair amount of stretching and positional awkwardness.  What music is there for this cello/organ combination?   You’d be surprised, even if the mind automatically turns to thoughts of arrangements.   Still, there’s plenty of room for Halliday to play carefully on this church’s Fincham & Hobday instrument.   He is a true Festival favourite, taking his place in several variegated events year after year.  Wong, a Melbourne University eminence, has operated under my radar since his appointment four years ago.

The program will be repeated at mid-day.


Saturday January 12


Linda Barcan

Beleura Estate at 12:35 pm

For this event, patrons are asked to meet in the foyer of the Mornington Golf Club, from which point transport will be arranged to wherever on the estate this scheduled entertainment is to take place.   Mezzo Barcan is the initiator but details are thin – well, non-existent – as to what will be performed and by whom.  The aim is to mimic the 1870s-to-1880s Boulevard Saint-Germain salon of Pauline Viardot, the famous mezzo who knew and worked with most of the great musical names in Europe before and after her retirement from the stage in 1863.   You’d have to assume that this afternoon’s program will comprise works that would have been heard in Viardot’s salon; from the only illustration I’ve seen, the room contained an organ which, for all I know, has a counterpart somewhere on the Beleura estate.   Or things might take an unexpected turn and it could be all contemporary material, as it was in Viardot’s day.   You pays your money and you takes your chances.


Saturday January 12


Nello Catarcia

Ballarat Central Uniting Church at 3 pm

This musician comes from Orvieto where he is cathedral organist.  The program for today mentions works by Bach, Franck and Liszt; curiously, those same three featured in the recital that Catarcia gave on May 31 in his hometown’s Duomo.  However, the options available to Catarcia should ensure an enjoyable recital of the old school, and here’s hoping for something we never hear, like Liszt’s Evocation a la Chapelle Sixtine or Franck’s Grande Piece Symphonique.


Saturday January 12


Davide Monti, Josephine Vains, Jacqueline Ogeil

Mary’s Mount Centre, Loreto College Ballarat at 8 pm

Another giveaway title as violinist Monti sets us up for Tartini’s Devil’s Trill with support from well-known Accademia Arcadia personnel in cellist Vains and harpsichordist Ogeil.  But after that, we’re in no man’s land, although the projected path is towards contemporaries of Tartini, with the additional foreshadowing that this was a period when composition often amounted to little more than sketches, thereby offering a basis for improvisation from performers.   In any other hands, you’d have to be cautious but this is a well-experienced trio with a concert-giving history, so we should be happy with where they take us.


Sunday January 13


John O’Donnell

Ballarat Mechanics’ Institute at 3 pm

After introducing this superb work, John O’Donnell, from a Christofori piano, heads a quintet to perform the two ricercars, ten canons and four-movement trio sonata that constitute Bach’s answer to Frederick II’s challenge.  Violinists Davide Monti and Simone Slattery, cellist Josephine Vains and flautist Greg Dikmans share in the labours of this gripping 45-minute-long collection of contrapuntal craft amounting to genius, much of which can be entrusted to a solo keyboard; let’s hope O’Donnell is generous in sharing  the various lines, unavoidable in the sonata which requires flute and violin as well as continuo.


Sunday January 13


Schola Cantorum

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat at 8 pm

Back to the city’s Catholic cathedral for another impressive choral work, this one written by a Part disciple and well-known Scottish composer.   Gary Ekkel and his Schola re-emerge to present this extension of MacMillan’s own St. John Passion, musically animating the Burial and Resurrection, the appearance to the disciples, and the final scene on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias – all of it sourced mainly from Chapters 20 and 21 of the Gospel text.   As well, the composer uses some extra matter – a bit of St. Matthew, Tisserand’s setting of O filii et filiae,  Salva festa dies in the composer’s own setting, probably.   MacMillan requires, like Part, a small, sober orchestral group – clarinet, cello, horn, harp and theorbo, with occasional bells – and a vocal quintet which can be either a small choir or five soloists.  The bass member sings the words of Christ.  I’ve heard only scraps, which sound appropriately sombre but the composer has always had a fine ear for what travels clearly.


Monday January 14


Dorthe Zielke and Soren Johannsen

St. John’s Anglican Church, Creswick at 10 am

Zielke is the trumpeter, Johannsen the organist in this Danish duo.  The pair have been in an established musical (and personal, I believe) relationship for 20 years and have released four CDs: one of music from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, another dealing with Handel’s Messiah, an intriguing one of Carl Nielsen’s music for the two instruments (there isn’t any, to be specific, but the disc features a multitude of arrangements, its longest track the Danish master’s famous organ solo, Commotio), and a general one packed with arrangements of Wagner, Mussorgsky, Bellini, Mascagni, Mozart, Dvorak and several others.  The last of these probably indicates what’s heading to Creswick: the Liebstod and Air on the G String, for starters.  No idea about the Mahler – one of the Wayfarer songs? – and the Stravinsky could be the finale to the Firebird or just a scrap from The Soldier’s Tale.  Whatever the music, it will be accompanied by ‘electronically projected motifs’ provided by Arne Sorensen.

The program will be repeated at 12 noon.


Monday January 14


Louisa Hunter-Bradley and David Macfarlane

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat at 4 pm

Yet another one of this festival’s referential titles that doesn’t carry you very far.   Louis Vierne wrote a piece by this name: a triptych – morning, noon, evening – to apply to those times of day when the Marian prayer is said.  The title is used on a CD featuring soprano Margaret Roest and organist Ben van Oosten.  Whether Hunter-Bradley and Macfarlane follow their Dutch colleagues down a path that includes Widor’s Ave Maria, Franck’s Panis Angelicus, Chausson’s Pater noster and Poulenc’s Priez pour paix remains to be seen.   All we can be sure of is that the afternoon is dedicated to Romantic era music for this combination and it is bound to be a popular event, hearing these Festival stalwarts back in their respective saddles again.


Monday January 14


David Greco and the Australian Haydn Ensemble

Ballarat Mechanics’ Institute at 8 pm

This is pretty much a re-run of the event that appears on the Peninsula Festival program on January 6 where the young baritone sings lieder interlarded with some salonesque string quintet pieces by Berlioz’s mate, Felicien David.   The Haydn Ensemble participants seem to be the same, although double bass Jacqueline Dooser was not specified in the Mornington events.   It’s hard to know what we will hear because in Ballarat the musicians are presenting two different programs on consecutive days, each of them coming in at close to an hour’s duration.   Wait and see, I guess

Tuesday January 15


David Greco and the Australian Haydn Ensemble

Beaufort Uniting Church at 11 am.

The only difference expressly noted for this program is that Dylan Quinlan-Basquet, choirmaster and organist at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Canterbury is coming up the highway to play an organ voluntary.   Nothing specific yet but, just as I was puzzled to see how David would fit in with Schubert, I’m even more intrigued as to how a voluntary lends itself to the same lieder-heavy atmosphere – unless Greco leads off with Die junge Nonne and Quinlan-Basquet finds an appropriately menacing piece to complement it.  Hard to think of one when you consider all those optimistic English composers – Gibbons, Arne, Stanley, Purcell.   But then, the young man may play something of his own on the 1959 Fincham instrument.   Or he may treat ‘voluntary’ in its broadest sense, which then embraces anything and everything.

The program will be repeated at 3 pm.


Tuesday January 15


Daniel Thomson and Rosemary Hodgson

St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, Beaufort at 11 am

This tenor/lute program takes its title from the last words of  Samuel Daniel’s Sonnet 47, Like as the lute delights, most famously set by John Danyel, a contemporary of Dowland. You’d be pretty safe in assuming that both composers will score heavily in this recital which brings tenor Thomson back to the festival after a break of some years spent honing his craft in Canada, Switzerland and England.   Hodgson is Melbourne’s go-to lutenist, a familiar presence at early music happenings, particularly in the Melbourne Recital Centre.   There’s not an organ work in sight but the combination would be worth the 50-kilometre trip west of Ballarat.

The recital will be repeated at 3 pm.


Wednesday January 16


Massimo Scattolin, Erica Kennedy, Josephine Vains

Neil St. Uniting Church, Ballarat at 11 am

Along with Orchestra Victoria violinist Kennedy and cellist Vains, the popular guitarist will work through an all-Italian program.   Scattolin has worked before with both string players in Ballarat and Melbourne recitals and he spreads his solo talents around, appearing all over this state in post-Festival events.   The Morricone elements will probably be arrangements since I can’t find any original works that involve the instrument, apart from chamber scores that involve multiple guitars or guitar with instruments other than violin and/or cello.  Scattolin has played his own music here in previous years; I know I’ve heard it but no memories remain.   As for Paganini, there is an astounding wealth of material for guitar and violin, three duets for violin and cello, but nothing that fits this trio combination.


Wednesday January 16


Camerata Antica

St. Joseph’s Church, Blampied at 5 pm

The Camerata has as its fulcrum the cornetto of Matthew Manchester and the soprano of Anna Sandstrom.   Naturally, these two flesh out their company for specific occasions; on this evening, viola da gamba Laura Moore and Sydney organist David Drury lend their hands to some English music from the 16th and 17th centuries.   Mention is made of Byrd, Tallis, William Child (a plethora of religious works, next to nothing secular) ‘and others’.  Among these last, you’d expect to find Orlando Gibbons as one of his madrigals gives the recital its title.   Manchester and Sandstrom have appeared in the festival before; Drury has been a regular participant; Moore has appeared with several early and not-so-early ensembles.  Their combination, in the abstract, sounds delectable.


Thursday January 17


Gianfranco Bortolato and Festival Chamber Orchestra

Former Wesley Church, Clunes at 11 am

Oboist at the Rome Opera, Bortolato is partnered by violinist Claudia Lopes and Anthony Halliday on the organ.   The composers cited are Marcello, Vivaldi, Albinoni and a new name to me: Giovanni Benedetti Platti, a Paduan oboist/composer who produced a sizeable amount of music for his instrument, in particular a G minor concerto that will probably be heard this morning.   Vivaldi wrote about 20 concertos for oboe; plenty of choice, then.  Albinoni produced none, so Lopes might get exposure playing one of his five (possible) violin concertos.  Halliday will work with the building’s small instrument: one manual with seven stops and pedal pulldowns.  Here’s hoping the chamber orchestra can handle these breezy, unsheltering Baroque scores.


Thursday January 17


Gianfranco Bortolato, Claudia Lopes, Anthony Halliday

St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Clunes at 2:15 pm

Following the morning concert at the Clunes  Former Wesleyan Church, the three soloists present a recital in the town’s Anglican church which holds a rare Hamlin organ, recently restored although I can’t find out how or by whom.  The door is wide open as to what is on the program.  You could hope for the Bach Oboe and Violin Concerto or a Vivaldi sonata.  As for Handel, everything is up for grabs and any Mozart would have to be an arrangement.


Thursday January 17


Daniel Thomson and Michele Benuzzi

Loreto Chapel, Loreto College Ballarat at 8 pm

Once again, we can enjoy Thomson’s eloquent tenor, this time allied with Benuzzi’s harpsichord.   The program moves from Purcell and Handel to Johann Wilhelm Hassler, who once faced off against Mozart in an organ competition.  But the meagre promotional material refers to the participating musicians’ recordings as sources for the evening’s progress.  Well, Thomson has only one CD and the Purcells on that are I Attempt from Love’s Sickness to Fly, If Music be the Food of Love, Fairest Isle, Not All My Torments and What a Sad Fate is Mine; there’s no Handel or Hassler.   Benuzzi, on the other hand, has produced five recordings of Hassler’s keyboard music.


Friday January 18


Laura Vaughan, Laura Moore, Donald Nicholson, Nicholas Pollock

Loreto Chapel, Loreto College Ballarat at 11 am

It’s never been the same since Alain Corneau’s film Tous les matins du monde came out in 1991/2.   Subsequently, Marin Marais and the viola da gamba enjoyed a resurgence of interest, the envy of most other Baroque instrument specialists.   Both Vaughan and Moore are gamba experts, while Nicholson is a well-known harpsichord presence and Pollock a theorbo exponent who I believe was here recently with Van Diemen’s Band for the Melbourne International Arts Festival.   Part of the offerings are the Improvisation sue les Folies d’Espagne and the Chaconne in A Major from Le Labyrinthe.  Further, I’d be surprised – nay, shocked – if the Sonnerie de Sainte Genevieve did not enjoy an airing.


Friday January 18


Trio Sine Nomine

Mary’s Mount Centre, Loreto College Ballarat at 3 pm

This group — violin Claudia Lopez, oboe Gianfranco Bortolato, harpsichord Michele Benuzzi  –  toured Australia three years ago and this afternoon gather together from their various festival exercises so far to play some music by two Baroque contemporaries and friends.   You’d be scrabbling to find pieces by Bach for all three of these instruments, so I’m anticipating duos rather than trios.  Telemann produced a wealth of trio sonatas for these forces.  But it’s hard to pin down exactly what the In Nomine specialty area is. Complicating matters is the existence of another group of the same name, formed in Perugia in 2015: all-female and comprising two violins and piano.


Saturday January 19


Gianfranco Bortolato and Anthony Halliday

Wendouree Centre for the Performing Arts at 11 am

Two of the more hard-working musicians in this year’s festival will appear in this morning matinee with a program that is, as yet, completely unknown.  What do you make of the title?   It’s the sort of meaningless phrase you come across in French real estate advertising.   Translated to music, it suggests the salon.   Still, the oboe/piano combination can boast original works by C. P. E. Bach, Nielsen, Donizetti, Schumann, Franck and Saint-Saens, so there’s room for substantial music-making – as well as the inevitable encore-level dross.


Saturday January 19


Stefania Bellamio and Massimo Scattolin

Hilltop Christian Fellowship Church, Ballarat at 3 pm

Scattolin is a known quantity, soprano Bellamio not so much although she has sung here with the guitarist in 2016.  Tonight’s program comes from ‘the Spanish-speaking world.’ Which takes in a helluva lot – Central and South America, the Philippines, the Caribbean, and odd enclaves all over the place.   All right: the recital will probably centre on the home country’s products but there’s no harm in wishing for something more novel than all-too-familiar Falla and Granados.   I wouldn’t mind hearing some refreshing Renaissance canciones, or even reworkings like the Rodrigo Cuatro madrigales amatorios.


Saturday January 19

Orava Quartet

Wendouree Centre for the Performing Arts at 8 pm

Great to have you in Ballarat, Oravas.   It’s been a while since I last saw you; in  fact, it might have been at that Asia-Pacific Chamber Music Competition in 2013 where you won two of the prizes on offer.  Or your 2015 Melbourne International Arts Festival recital at the Collins St. Baptist Church.   Sadly, I missed your two Melbourne Recital Centre appearances this year.  Whatever the case, it’s hard to face the fact that you’ve been around for 11 years.  Anyway, here you are in Wendouree and there’s no indication what you’re going to play.  It could be some recycling from your Tchaikovsky/Shostakovich/Rachmaninov CD or some local material like Ross Edwards.   Or a Haydn Op. 33.   Or Debussy.   We’ll have to see what comes out in the wash.


Sunday January 20


Monica Curro, Sarah Curro, Daniel Curro

Ballarat Mechanics’ Institute at 3 pm

It’s all in the family.   The renowned founder of the Queensland Youth Orchestra turned 86 this month and three of his four children – violinists Monica and Sarah from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, cellist Daniel from the Australian Brandenbyrg Orchestra – have put together a program of music by Mozart, Schubert, Paganini, Massenet and Delibes.  You can find plenty of Mozart trios for this combination but nothing specific by the other four names listed.   You can be sure that the occasion will work on the merits of its contributors and serve its chief purpose as a tribute to this formidable, effective educator.


Sunday January 20



St Patrick’s Cathedral, Ballarat at 8 pm

Stephen Grant brings his vocal ensemble to St. Patrick’s to finish off the festival with soloists soprano Helen Thomson and tenors Daniel Thomson and Tom Buckmaster.  The concert’s title appears to come from the composer’s 1640 collection, Selve morale e spirituale.   As self-prepared anthologies go, it doesn’t have as much concert hall cachet as the 1610 Vespers.   But, as forests go, the foliage and tree-trunks are impressive and Grant has a vast space to log: moral madrigals, a complete Mass and some separate fragments like a Gloria and concluding sentences from the Creed, a mass of motets and psalm settings, a brace of Magnificats and a trio of Salve Reginae – all for varying numbers of vocal lines – from one to eight – the forces ranging from purely vocal to vocal with instruments.  There’s a nice symmetry in play between the opening and closing concerts in this year’s festival: from a modern-day writer who reduces his expressivity to spartan levels, to a Renaissance master who, even in the smallest pieces, startles you with his sense of theatre and bounding vitality.


















Can you please everyone?


Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday December 8, 2018

                                                                              Bonnie de la Hunty

I get worried, irrationally so, about the use of exclamation marks in concert titles.   It almost works in something like the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra’s choice of Espana! for a program earlier this year that turned out to be disappointing; but then, you can justify the punctuation there as simple advertising colour, whereas you wouldn’t swallow it if the advertising gurus had simply proposed Spain!   It’s become the Brandenburgers’ custom to give their Christmas event this doubled-up title, so much so that most of us swallow it without thinking.   But the practice suggests seasonal hyperventilation more than anything else.   For most of us, the word is associated with The First Nowell carol which, despite (or because of) its venerability, doesn’t suggest excitement in any of its verses.

You can find something of the same kind of hyperbole in events called Christmas! even if that mild explosion suggests something like Eureka! (or more relevantly, Thank God!).    Or is that comparison really valid?   It’s as though the French word for the feast-day is up there with Hallelujah!, although the latter is a true exclamation.   Where’s the difference between Noel! and Paques!?    I’m minded to celebrate Epiphany! next month, and my late Anglican mother would have got a charge out of observing Michaelmas! not to forget my Greek kin’s potential for revelling in a self-stimulating Dormition!

Still, we’re all glad to have arrived, over-punctuated or not, at a time of spiritual cosiness and behavioural benevolence  for once in 2018.   The ABO and its occasional Choir gave us a  prelude to the celebrations with yet another program full of material calculated to have something for everyone.   Forgetting the inevitable American element (confined to Irving Berlin‘s White Christmas this time round), the seasonal content prevailed even if a fair number of the offerings had no relevance at all.

Setting the bar both high and low, ABO artistic director Paul Dyer opened the night with a chant by Hildegard of Bingen, O Euchari in laeta via: a song to St. Eucharius who was the first bishop of Trier.    The abbess swallowed the story that Eucharius was one of the original disciples and saw Christ, although those who insist on facts believe that he didn’t take up his crozier until the late 3rd century AD.   I thought it was an odd choice to begin, even if it gave a fine introduction to Bonnie de la Hunty‘s pure, untroubled soprano, but December 8 is the saint’s feast-day – which is fine for those of us in the Murdoch Hall on this particular Saturday but which may puzzle later audiences in Paddington, the Angel Place Recital Hall, Wollongong, Parramatta, Mosman and Newtown.    In Alex Palmer‘s arrangement, the transparent chant loses its innocence by being strait-jacketed into a 4/4 beat, supported by inoffensive sustained string chords which give way to syncopated chugging, the ABO singers entering near the end.

The choir got down to more impressive business with the Advent plainsong Rorate coeli, given a decent going-over by the male voices, the process not too flabby in precision since Dyer left the singers to their own devices, even if some individual voices broke through; such participants not subscribing to the usual practice that asks for the sublimation of personality for the sake of the general texture.   The body’s women followed up with another Advent specialty –  Veni, veni Emmanuel –  that morphed into a march for drum and strings.

Speaking of percussion, Brian Nixon made himself the night’s linkman, chaining events together through glissades on mini-tubular bells or soft cymbal strokes.   At this point, he led the corps into Cruger’s Nu komm der Heyden heyland – well, a version of it, I suppose, based on the work’s inclusion in the composer’s Praxis pietatis melica hymnbook.  This was followed by Johannes Eccard’s setting of Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier, a chorale-like work for five lines, transformed into a rather militant march which seemed at odds with the Nativity-meditation situation proposed in the text.   Still, this was deftly arranged for the forces available, vocal and orchestral, and finished off an opening bracket of distinction, despite those carping points raised above.

Section Two opened with the traditional speech from Dyer – an address in which ‘beautiful’ and ‘wonderful’ featured heavily with a bonus feature or two – introducing the orchestra by their first names, and picking out three children in the audience for some personal attention (pretty much confined to ‘How old are you?’).  While shepherds watched, starring de la Hunty, followed the familiar Christopher Tye melody, complete with double-length notes at the start and end of each line.   Monteverdi’s Laudate dominum began carefully enough with a chaste band – harpsichord, guitar, organ and drum; then took a Jordi Savall turn into a jam for the two violins of Matt Bruce and Ben Dollman which had all the signposts of pre-scripted improvisation, and ended with a welter of vocal floridity from de la Hunty that took us into the 1610 Vespers universe.   Very nice in parts, but I can’t see what Psalm 117 has to do with Christmas.

Nor for that matter was the Gartan Mother’s Lullaby suggestive of much beyond Irish melancholy.   De la Hunty took part in this simple lyric; nothing too challenging and the main brunt of the work fell to the choir in yet another of  Palmer’s arrangements which found room in its later stages for the trio of sackbuts that had enriched the German pieces heard earlier.    Showing their mettle, the choir sang Guerrero’s Maria Magdalena motet, putting something of a strain on the tenors – forced to split into two groups like the sopranos, but working hard between the five of them to contribute meaningfully to the complex.   This work deals with the famous penitent and the other Marys visiting the tomb to anoint Christ’s body, which on this night seemed to be putting the Easter cart before the Christmas horse.    However, this interpolation served little real purpose except to remind you of how splendidly the Ensemble Gombert deals with music of this nature: in this instance, the piece lacked fluency, moving past with an unexpected insistence on a putative bar-line’s dominion.

It wasn’t all downhill from here on as we entered Part Three but the hiatus points grew more numerous.   Palmer’s arrangement of We three kings gave lots of exposure to the brass, nifty effects brightening up a carol that has some excellent lines married to an execrable, mournful tune.   You could always entertain yourself by imaging what Webern would have done with this material; probably something a tad more subtle than this frivolity  which suggested a sort of Klanmgfarbenmelodie for the Common Man.   Another left-field construct followed with a piece of Rameau revisionism, billed as O nuit from the opera Hippolyte et Aricie.   The actual material referred to is a sprightly trio for soloist and two chorus lines addressed to the goddess Diana, not the slow salute to Night that we heard, fabricated by Joseph Noyon over two centuries after Rameau’s short prayer was written.  This was an a cappella number for the choir supporting de la Hunty but, as it was in essence a plea to Night to calm the unhappy, its connection to Christmas could only be described as distant.   However, the effect made for an amiably soothing oasis, alongside yet another Palmer arrangement, this time a sober version of O little town of Bethlehem for brass quartet (the sackbuts, plus Leanne Sullivan‘s baroque trumpet) and percussion.

Palmer’s voice appeared en clair for his own A sparkling Christmas, written for string quintet, amalgamating Ding! dong! merrily on high, Hark! the herald angels sing, God rest ye merry, gentlemen and Joy to the world!   This melange showed a cleverness in juxtapositioning, if not much actual wit in the process, and a preference for the chugging rhythmic drive that disturbed the earlier Hildegard revamp.

The program’s last section, comprising six numbers, proved the least satisfying, possibly because its elements were so disparate.   Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds’ Only in sleep sets US poet Sarah Teasdale’s reminiscence of childhood for soprano and choir.  It’s a sensitive treatment, bordering on poignancy and aimed at yanking the heart-strings with a shapely melodic line and rich harmonization that brings to mind the modern American choral school of composition for university choirs, although this composer is essentially a product of his own country (without too much of that pseudo-spirituality that has pervaded the Baltic over the last half-century) and British influences.   Only in sleep was a fine choice to display the guest soprano’s clarity of timbre, even if Teasdale’s text retained its mysteries.

Opting to have de la Hunty essay Handel’s Let the bright seraphim was not a clever move.  The singer who takes on this show-piece needs to have more energy and drive from the diaphragm; yes, all the notes were there and pretty cleanly negotiated but the production lacked power.   Sullivan’s trumpet handled the many imitations with general success but, despite all that attractive Baroque bling,  the aria comes from an oratorio about the judge of Israel, Samson, and has no inbuilt suggestions of Messianic prophecy to give it a connection to the night’s supposed theme.

Berlin’s popular hit seems to be a favourite in these ABO Christmas concerts.  I think we’ve heard this Jonathan Rathbone arrangement before; it’s for male voices, fused  in barbershop quartet-style harmonization, and here enjoyed high approval.   De la Hunty returned for another ABO regular: Adam’s O holy night, as re-imagined by Palmer and accomplished with fine use of the limited forces at hand.   Again, you would have preferred more projection and emotional conviction from the soloist but her line only suffered severe drowning-out at unavoidable climactic points,  This well-used soprano also took part in Gruber’s Stille nacht – first verse German, second verse French, third verse English – with Tommie Andersson‘s guitar a welcome reminder of the carol’s first performance, the whole effect only momentarily marred by Dyer’s interpolation of an aimless harpsichord dribble between the first two verses.

O come, all ye faithful brought up the rear  –  in the David Willcocks version, I believe.  A classic of its type, it might have been more sensibly placed closer to the start of proceedings; after all, it is an invitation more than a recessional.  But it rounded off the night’s final four pieces with a sterling reinforcement of the reason why we were all gathered together.

I was at the second of the two performances on this Saturday and audience numbers were respectable but seemed to be down on previous years.   It’s probably time that the Noel! Noel! exercise enjoyed a revamp.   For example, when 7 out of 18 pieces programmed have nothing to do with Christmas, you have to wonder how close this event is veering towards the anything-goes approach of Carols by Candlelight.  A wealth of music to do with the season flies under most organizations’ collective radar year after year, while we still hear all those threadbare tunes, hackneyed matter that may give the comfort of familiarity but offers little spiritual or musical elation.

Glitzy surface; anything down below?


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Saturday December 1, 2018         

                                                                            Maxim Vengerov

We seem to be in gala mode at least three times a year these days, the MSO celebrating the year’s beginning (if a bit late after the real thing), its middle and its conclusion (if a tad early, what with a Christmas program, a handful of Messiahs, and four live soundtrack supports for The Empire Strikes Back screenings still to be played across the coming half- month).   This concert probably gained its exceptional status due to the appearance of violinist Maxim Vengerov as guest artist, the visiting conductor a familiar pair of shoulders in Markus Stenz who was greeted with something like acclaim by an audience that seemed far more representative of the general population than is usual.

Stenz opened the celebration soberly enough with the Prelude and Transformation Music to Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal.   In fact, the last time this scene-change music appeared on an MSO program was in 2004 under Stenz during his final months as the body’s artistic director/chief conductor.    Both works, linked seamlessly here, depend for success pretty much on balance and unanimity of chording, mainly because not much is taking place except a sequence of motifs – The Last Supper, The Grail, Faith, Cry of Anguish, Sacred Spear, Saviour’s Lament, Bell Theme – which are treated almost side by side as Wagner tiresomely confronts his uneasiness with Catholic impedimenta and a saga of pre-Dan Brown theological silliness

Most of the brass block entries came across without much distress, but then a good many are low-lying and in this music Wagner doesn’t call for any split-second, abrupt chords.  Ditto the strings who take their time about things.  Both the woodwind and woodwind-plus-brass utterances en masse were successful only half of the time and the final long sustained chords of the Prelude proper impressed as strained and not just from the top flute line.

Not much disturbed the slow processional which accompanies the scene change as Gurnemanz leads Parsifal into the hall of the Grail Temple.   It’s never that convincing, even off the stage, as the composer attempts to convey the knights’ majesty and faithful stolidity which inevitably winds up sounding pompous, self-regarding and several spiritual light-years away from the mystery that is about to be celebrated.   Stenz generated a compelling, full-bodied sound from his players, making much of the climaxes to the processional slow march.   At its best, the transformation holds a glowing richness which sounded splendid in this ambience, more gripping than you can experience in your garden-variety opera house or theatre.

Vengerov gave the premiere of Qigang Chen‘s violin concerto, La joie de la souffrance, in October 2017.    It’s a co-commission by the Beijing Music Festival (where it was first played), the Orchestre national du Capitol de Toulouse, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, the Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition (where it was a compulsory work for the six finalists), and the MSO.    The score answers to a fair number of godparents and, as you’d anticipate with such a multipartite fostering, has several disparate bases to cover.

In sum, Chen’s concerto is old-fashioned.   Very often during its progress, I was reminded of 19th century repertoire warhorses by Bruch and Saint-Saens; not the vocabulary so much, although at times that also seemed close, but the shape of the piece and its requirements of the soloist.   Colourful shades and timbres it has in spades, from vivid percussion flashes to simple, sinuous melodies.   The composer takes as his jumping-off mark a Chinese melody, Yangguan Sandie, which appears to be concerned with the parting of two friends, one of them leaving from the westernmost post of civilization for the unknown lands outside the Chinese empire.

In part, this fulcrum song uses part of a poem by Wang Wei, whose verses (the same as these?) were used by Mahler in the last movement of his Das Lied von der Erde – the interesting and controlled lines before the composer inserts his own, emotionally inflated conclusion to this movement that too many commentators hail as a transcendent masterpiece while some of us find it sentimentally bloated, out of kilter with the majority of the song’s lines, and not very consonant with the preceding five movements.

Chen opens his concerto with laid-back virtuosic flourishes before announcing his theme, and then offers variations on it.   You hear other melodic matter, but not much.   The move from rapid-moving fleetness to (in this case) pentatonic suggestiveness in elongated lyrical pages is what brought to mind exemplars like the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations and Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy.   Vengerov persevered through some deliberately winsome curvetting, followed by soulful melodies pronounced in the manner of a pop singer: start out your note blandly uninflected, then develop a vibrato with a crescendo and presto! you have expressiveness  .  .  .  except you don’t: you have a gimmick which wearies by repetition.

Not that Chen tired you out.   His score was mobile, very intriguing for its scoring in faster segments, gifted with a rolling, solid tune (or two?) that he metamorphosed with skill, if not much rigour.    Do you retain much of the composition some hours after one audition?   Not really but, unlike so many products of these times, you couldn’t object to hearing the concerto again.    It’s not a waste of time; expounded by this soloist and a willing-enough orchestra, it roused unexpected approbation from a receptive audience.

Thoughtfully, Vengerov and Stenz had organised an encore: Kreisler’s Tambourin chinois. Those of us who belong to an older generation know this frivolity pretty well and it’s a piquant enough scrap of pseudo-Orientalism with some brilliant display passages for the soloist.   I can’t explain the mind-set that decided to put it alongside Chen’s work; something like following Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with an Enescu Rumanian Rhapsody  –  the gestures are vaguely comparable, but the aesthetic imbalance is ludicrous.

Stravinsky and his secretary/amanuensis Robert Craft railed against interpretations of the composer’s The Rite of Spring ballet when they served chiefly as a vehicle for the showman conductor.   As the decades have passed since the work’s 1913 premiere, orchestras have become inured to the score’s sound-production innovations and its rhythmic irregularities.   Sonorous messes like the Introduction which once required decisive, if not finicky, indications from a conductor, especially in the four bars before the reversion to Tempo 1, can now be trusted to the individuals involved.  Unless you’re a Boulez type who leaves nothing to chance by adopting a directorial style that resembles autocratic semaphore.

Stenz worked the score for maximum dramatic effect, interpolating himself as the central axis of the performance; for example, during the Les Augures pritaniers pages, he followed the predictable path of over-stressing the prevailing dynamic, but then put himself front-and-centre with whole-body spasms on each of the horn sforzando accents, followed by an attention-attracting over-lengthy general pause at rehearsal number 22 in my old Hawkes pocket score.   Less choreography was involved in supervising the Jeu du rapt, but there’s more to do here than simply let things chug along their 2/4 path.   You could have required more definition in the block chords that punctuate the final 16 bars of this section, interruptions that should come over like whip-cracks.

Years ago, I can remember being worried by Stenz’s slow pace for the opening 6 bars of the Rondes printanieres which led into a very heavy handling of the ensuing pages and a poco rit. in its final bar which was anything but poco.   The same problem recurred on this night.   On the other hand, the Jeux des cites rivales and Cortege du sage proved exciting to experience.  The Part 1 conclusion, Danse de la terre, followed suit, even if you might have been happier with a sharper etching out of fabric details like the trumpet grupetti that begin two bars before rehearsal number 77 and which bite through the whirling melange until the final six bars when they double the upper woodwind in syncopations that reflect the Augures.

In the second half of the ballet, the approach began with a near-solicitude for the slow-moving quavers that surround the thematic fragment on which Stravinsky builds these mystical pages that irreverently bring to mind some of Holst’s outer planets.   Indeed, one of the few defects in this part of the performance came in the conductor’s emphasis on sustained general pauses, as in the two that precede the Glorification de l’elue.

Here, Stenz showed great trust in  his players, content with fairly skimpy gestures, more happy to dance the work along.   The more jerky sections of the concluding Danse sacrale revealed a laudable synchronicity from the whole body despite the occasional splay coming through rather than a professional, emphatic unanimity of utterance.   The final fermata at rehearsal number 180 again impressed/disconcerted by its length.

You couldn’t call it a rough reading of this ground-breaking masterpiece; it sat streets ahead of some distressingly uneven performances heard from this orchestra in the second half of the last century.    What was missing appeared to be delicacy – which might seem strange when talking about this ultra-percussive work.   But it seemed to be tellingly unsubtle in its placid moments, not helped by some articulation difficulties that came from Jack Schiller‘s bassoon right from the first bars, the problem appearing to be due to an instrument key rather than his reeds.   But you were left hanging many times, waiting for pointed solos to emerge from the susurrus; pinpricks from the piccolo trumpet, the D and E flat clarinet, Dale Barltrop‘s solo violin – all were faint echoes of their proper selves.

But what do I know?   The audience erupted into an applause avalanche at the end and Stenz seemed delighted, smiling happily while panting as though he’d just completed a taxing 400 metres sprint.    If you like your Rite loud and punchy, this was a fine reading; for me, any live encounter with the work is worthwhile, but there are so many details, orchestration diamonds scattered throughout its fabric, that I was sorry not to encounter.