2018 in review

January

As usual, this month was dominated by two festivals that marginally overlap: the Peninsula Summer Music and Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields.  Unlike previous years, where you are tempted to speed across the Mornington wastelands a few times during the week-plus stretch of recitals and concerts that artistic director Julie Fredersdorff assembles for the delectation of the district’s well-heeled conservatives, this year I found little tempting, apart from a single day at St. John the Evangelist Church in Flinders.  This small church has been a regular venue of the festival for many years, larger events transferred to the grass outside where, often enough, a large marquee is erected for audience-attracting programs.  This year’s three-recitals-in-one day exercise saw Fredersdorff and harpsichordist Aline Zylberajch powering through half of Bach’s violin sonatas, pianist Stefan Cassomenos mixing Scarlatti  with Australian writers Katy Abbott and Andrew Aronowicz, then violinist Lucinda Moon bringing up the rear with two of the Bach unaccompanied works for her instrument.

Ballarat’s hectic round kicked off with the Missa Criolla, that over-praised sample of contemporary religious composition, given an unexpectedly dour colouring from the Gloriana ensemble with additional percussion, the Mass partnered with Joby Talbot’s The Path of Miracles  –   well, some of it as the Glorianas sang only the final two movements,. but without the persuasive elation that the work’s commissioners, English choir Tenebrae, brought to it a few months before during the Melbourne International Arts Festival of 2017.   The Ballarat festivities ended with a mass from the other end of the historical spectrum in Biber’s massive Missa Salisburgensis, performed by the Newman College and Queen’s College choirs and a multitude of instruments that fleshed out the 53 lines required.   A fair attempt but the physical hurdles presented in getting all participants organized and inter-related sometimes proved too big an ask.

By some organizational holiday accident at The Age, I was asked to review Terence McNally’s Master Class, the play about Maria Callas teaching at the Juilliard School in 1971-2, its engrossing central role reprised yet again by Amanda Muggleton.   Like several similar dramatic essays that make it their business to position musical performance as their raison d’etre (including another Master Class by David Pownall about an imagined  Shostakovich-Prokofiev-Stalin confrontation), the personalities take over and the works heard assume a subsidiary importance.   I got mail after this review, assuring me that the dramatised content of Callas’ classes was based on actual recordings; which merely helped to reinforce my opinion that the diva over-charged the hosting organization for her services..   Of course, it’s hard to get the right balance but every dramatization I’ve seen of serious musicians grappling with their craft has veered towards the ludicrously over-drawn.  Examples are too numerous to detail, but you only have to remember Song of Norway, Song Without End, Magic Fire, Shine Immortal Beloved, and Rhapsody in Blue to see that sentiment wins out over fact time after time.   A great compensation is that most films about musicians these days are to do with rock performers or country-and-western people; here, the musical content is close to non-existent from the outset.

 

February

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra is making a big success of its live soundtrack concerts, with a fair number of them held in the huge Plenary space.   In 2018, the organization struck out in a new direction: the Star Wars enterprise, presenting the first-made film in the series,  A New Hope.   A simple tale, before the story-line became too fraught with incestuous and Oedipal detours, the musicians gave a suitably straightforward account of John Williams’ atmospherically brilliant score.   In quick order, the MSO moved to the Myer Music Bowl for its annual series of three free concerts.   Of the two I heard, the first brought co-concertmaster Sophie Rowell to even more central centre-stage than usual for the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1, which was followed by a vital Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4  directed by Dutch guest Antony Hermus; for the second, the novel programming of Berio’s Folk Songs, sung by Luciana Mancini, proved a welcome breath of fresh air on a night that began with Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso and concluded with the same composer’s stupefyingly predictable Bolero.

A burst of Brahms generated my enthusiasm in the opening Australian Chamber Orchestra program for the year, a beefing-up of the String Sextet No. 2 that brought into the string orchestra mix some players from the Australian National Academy of Music.  Following a more prescribed path numerically, the Australian String Quartet gave a welcome re-airing to Brett Dean’s First Quartet, Eclipse, which memorializes a national shame in the Tampa crisis yet does so with remarkable restraint.   jordi Savall, his Hesperion XXI players and the Tembembe Ensemble Continuo musicians from Mexico attempted an amalgam of Spanish Baroque compositions and Latin American songs and dances, which experiment didn’t really come off with unquestionable success.

As for reviews in this blog, radio Station 3MBS mounted its annual marathon at the Melbourne Recital Centre, this year featuring J. S. Bach – including music by his sons and works by other composers inspired by, or borrowing from, the master.   C. P. E. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion made an interesting novelty, well-achieved by the Bach Choir under Rick Prakhoff and graced by a fine assembly of soloists.    A trio of pianists gave good value: Tristan Lee accounted brilliantly for Liszt’s Praeludium on Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, Elyane Laussade outlined the French Suite in G with some panache; Kathryn Selby showed no fear in a muscular Italian Concerto.

Beginning with a mind-boggling miscellany, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s Thomas Tallis’ England proved to be a good deal more than its title proposed, taking in works by the Elizabethan master but adding music by Orlando Gibbons, Matthew Locke, Purcell, Handel and ending with an overblown account of Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.   Still, it gave us a chance to re-evaluate the merits of countertenor Maximilian Riebl.

 

March

Sir Andrew Davis, drawing near to the end of his reign as the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor, put in time with his players this month.   The season opening gala featured Nelson Freire in an orthodox reading of the Beethoven E flat Piano Concerto,  tenor Stuart Skelton later surging through arias from Fidelio, Die Walkure and Otello.    Sir Andrew determined that we needed to hear The Dream of Gerontius under his tutelage, using Skelton again for the exercise, although  I thought mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers the Elgar oratorio’s outstanding contributor.   Closing out – almost – his Mahler cycle, Davis produced a sonorous if woozy version of the Symphony No. 9 and we all wait with optimism for the staging of No. 8, although I can’t see it on the schedule for 2019.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra gave way to tragedy in minimal form with the Barber Adagio, went simply serious for Mozart’s C minor Adagio and Fugue, pursued a vein of  sombre lament with Hartmann’s Concerto funebre, and wound up its joyless afternoon in Death and the Maiden, as usual arranged for string orchestra, and very effectively, too, by Tognetti.

For those essential Good Friday goosebumps, the Bach Choir and Orchestra sounded at their best in Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater; not the forces’ usual stamping ground but clear-edged with only a nagging pitch problem from the upper line.   In Brahms’ A German Requiem, the choral forces under Rick Prakhoff worked diligently but Lorina Gore’s Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit shone out for its calm fluency.

Other smaller-scale events covered in this blog include the Wilma & Friends recital at Scotch College featuring James Bakirtzis’ excellent wind line in the Mozart Horn Quintet and Brahms’ Horn Trio, with another Scotch graduate, Tian Tian Lan, making a highly competent keyboard in the Shostakovich Piano Quintet.   A packed house heard Kathryn Selby and friends violinist Grace Clifford and cellist Clancy Newman presenting Beethoven: the Spring Sonata, the A Major Cello Sonata, and the Archduke Trio – all programmed by popular vote.   Victorian Opera remounted Calvin Bowman’s setting of Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding which often made unexpected sense and enjoyed handling by a fired-up young cast.

 

April

Below, you can find coverage of Avi Avital and the Giocoso String Quartet appearing for Musica Viva and collaborating in a Kats-Chernin piece and British writer David Bruce’s remarkable Cymbeline; the Arcadia Winds giving a new dress to Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin and expanding to a sextet for Janacek’s ardent Mladi;  Opera Australia’s recycling of La Traviata with a leading soprano and conductor unable to decide who’s in charge; and the Australian Octet playing Schubert, bouncing through the score with William Hennessy not concerned to apply the brakes on his youthful collaborators.

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under Jun Markl juxtaposed Debussy’s Nocturnes with the Brahms Symphony No. 4, the MSO Chorale ladies carrying out their work with distinction in the French work’s Sirenes finale, and the players giving a compelling majesty to the symphony’s Chaconne conclusion.   For the first of the organization’s Metropolis series, the Korean composer Unsuk Chin enjoyed a prominent position, her sheng concerto Su refraining from giving the soloist total dynamic control, and the Australian String Quartet performed ParaMetaString, written for the Kronos Quartet and mining a rich seam of aural novelties that the local musicians clearly enjoyed articulating.

Celebrating Bernstein’s centenary, the Australian National Academy of Music engaged the services of Jose Luis Gomez to direct their forays into the 1980 Divertimento and the Candide Overture, before attention turned to the American musician’s friends and colleagues – Ginastera, Copland, Barber.

My five-star event for the year came in James Ehnes’ solo Bach recital in which the Canadian violinist swept through the E Major and D minor Partitas and the C Major Sonata No. 3.   This came about as part of the Recital Centre’s Great Performers series and Ehnes fitted into that grouping with an extraordinary demonstration of technical craft and interpretative empathy of the first order.   Here was the kind of night that compensates for a hundred others spent on a lower level of engagement.

 

May

On its third Musica Viva tour, the Canadian early music ensemble Tafelmusik focused on Bach, both the grandiose statements of the Orchestral Suite No 1’s Overture and the refined tortuousness of the Goldberg Variations.   Nevertheless, the organization’s trademark illustrative backdrops proved uncomfortably variable in nature.   Over in South Melbourne, the National Academy musicians did without any visual support but invoked a more recherche Baroque: not in the Handel excerpts but in the rest of a leap-around night that took in some of the Terpsichore dances by Praetorius, a remarkable C. P. E. Bach symphony, and true rarities by Zelenka and Vejvanovsky.

At the venerable Town Hall where the acoustic that we all grew up with continues to exert its sonorous boom, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra worked through an evening of Johann Strauss et al Viennese classics, although the standard moved up and down, both players and soloist soprano Emma Matthews feeling their way through the Emperor Waltz, Lehar’s Vilja and occasionally striking a gold seam as in Meine Lippen, sie kussen and the showy Voices of Spring Waltz.   Further down the track, Sir Andrew Davis took his charges through some content being ventilated on their tour of China: Carl Vine’s Concerto for Orchestra which proved happily to be just that and scintillating to boot; the Liszt E flat Concerto with pianist Moye Chen displaying a confident assurance; and more E flat in Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony No. 3, an unflustered account but with every revolutionary point underlined in red.

In the relevant month on this site, you will find coverage of the Selby & Friends (cellist Timo-Veikko Valve from the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Vesa-Matti Lepannen holidaying from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster chair)  recital on May 2 that featured the Brahms Sextet No.1 in a texture-opening arrangement for piano trio format, and the Arensky Trio No. 2, which is a true rarity in live performance.   Adam Simmons and his Creative Music Ensemble were up to a subcontinental exercise on May 6 infiltrated by the Afrolankan Drumming Ensemble, both groups combining for a musical travelogue around Sri Lanka.   Mother and son duo Oksana and Markiyan Melnychenko enjoyed mainly successes in their May 7 night of Heifetz arrangements of Gershwin (Porgy and Bess, Three Preludes), Ravel’s Violin Sonata and some of Korngold’s delicious incidental music for Much Ado About Nothing.   And the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra hosted harpist Xavier de Maistre on May 12, the program culminating in the soloist’s arrangement for himself alone of Smetana’s The Moldau, which rather fell between the two stools of sticking to the original or making a new creature from the Bohemian composer’s raw materials.

 

June

Being even-handed with his oratorios, Sir Andrew Davis balanced his The Dream of Gerontius in March with L’enfance du Christ three months later.   Not that the score from a master-orchestrator presented the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra with taxing problems and Davis was fortunate in that his soloists settled quickly into their parts, Andrew Staples’ tenor a fine linking presence as the work’s Narrator.

Australian expatriate pianist Leslie Howard, a formidable authority on Liszt, played a selection of the composer’s opera arrangements/transcriptions/reminiscences/fantasies. The Recital Centre witnessed a fine exhibition of memory and technique, even if the results impressed as uneven.   Mind you, that would have had a good deal to do with the various works presented ranging from a so-so transcription of two dances from Handel’s Almira to the melting treatment of some love music from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette.

In a Mozart fest, the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra offered light, tripping versions of the Symphony No. 30, the Piano Concerto No. 6 in B flat with Anna Goldsworthy taking on the solo part,  and the String Quartet No. 7 in string orchestra garb.   Alongside this arcana, director William Hennessy set the popular Haydn Piano Concerto in D Major, a pleasant doddle for Goldsworthy.

 

July

Compensating for a June holiday in Cairns with grandchildren, I heard a fair number of concerts in this month.   What scene we have in this city was dominated by the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition, now being controlled by Musica Viva.   As usual, the heats took place at the Australian National Academy of Music in South Melbourne – awkward to get to during the day and taxing to find long-term parking that doesn’t cost an uncomfortable amount.   Several of the Round 1 ensembles roused enthusiasm, but they must have dashed their chances in the next hurdle because they disappeared from the finals lists.   Still, it was pleasing to find that the jury at the grand final agreed with me by saluting the Marvin Trio’s reading of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s  Op. 24 Trio.   Just as fortunately, the panel got it right again with the string quartets, rewarding the Goldmund group from Germany for their committed Brahms A minor performance which spoke the right language throughout.

Simone Young conducted the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6, in which the brass impressed for their fortitude and avoidance of error.   It’s a large canvas and Young gave us the full perspective, even if the strings sounded less assured than their exposed wind colleagues.   Kolja Blacher gave excellent service as soloist in Britten’s Violin Concerto which is rejoicing in some favour after years of dismissal and neglect; improbable though this seems, given the convincing stature and maturity of its concluding Passacaglia.

Later, Joshua Weilerstein led two Brahms transcriptions: the late Op. 117 Intermezzo in E flat in Paul Klengel’s orchestration, and Schoenberg’s superlative re-shaping of the F minor Piano Quartet which enjoyed driving treatment from the large forces involved.  Australian pianist Jayson Gillham accounted for the Beethoven C minor Concerto with  enunciative coherence and a dynamic restraint that proved as refreshing as the rest of this remarkably well-coordinated program.

Finally, another Bernstein homage for the composer’s birth centenary year emerged with the live soundtrack performance of the 1961 West Side Story film.  Here is some of the best Bernstein and the MSO came to the party with ferocity and a crisp delivery, best heard in the more frenetic dance sequences; the whole exercise a credit to conductor Benjamin Northey, each of the MSO’s sections, and a painstaking reproduction of the original score and parts after the originals were lost.

As for this blog, I went to four differing recitals.   Joerg Widmann’s Third String Quartet took central position in the Australian String Quartet’s Recital Centre appearance, bracketed by Beethoven:  Op. 135 and  No. 3 of the Op. 18 set.   The modern piece wore out its welcome but gave a refresher course in sound-manufacture techniques of several decades ago.   The Melbourne Festival of Lieder and Art Song at Melba Hall climaxed in an exhibition on July 13 which turned into a lecture with musical illustrations, so tedious that I left at interval.   Pianist Joyce Yang, sponsored by Musica Viva, played a hurtling version of Schumann’s Carnaval, preceded by a subtle, informed Chopin Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brillante.   And Adam Simmons and his Creative Music Ensemble moved their attentions for the last chapter of their peregrinations to China in The Kites of Tianjin with Wang Zheng-Ting once again displaying his command of the sheng.

 

August

You can read in these pages an appreciation of one of the least successful programs from the Brandenburg Chamber Orchestra in recent times.   Blame can hardly be sheeted home to the ABO itself but more to its guests, La Camera delle Lacrime, who attempted an East/West fusion that managed to be both trying and tiring.   Karakorum: A Medieval Musical Odyssey failed to satisfy on most fronts.   Melbourne Opera put aside its Wagner fixation for a while, presenting Der Rosenkavalier in the tight Athenaeum space.   At the final performance, everyone went home happy if tired – both performers and audience.

Richard Tognetti and his Australian Chamber Orchestra gave us Bach’s Goldberg Variations in orchestral guise, thanks to an arrangement by Bernard Labadie.   Although pretty much all of the performers enjoyed some solo exposure, the main brunt of the labour fell on director Richard Tognetti himself.    In a program rich in transcriptions – the recently-discovered 14 Goldberg Canons, Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet, part of Thomas Ades’ The Four Quarters – the main work enjoyed a bold, informed interpretation.

One of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s chamber-size nights in the Recital Centre enjoyed the direction and participation of concertmaster Dale Barltrop.   Despite the central numbers of the night being near-contemporary – Carl Vine’s Smith’s Alchemy and the Vox amoris of Peteris Vasks – the really convincing music-making came at the start and end: first, in a clean-speaking Brandenburg Concerto No. 3; later, a sure-footed Brandenburg No. 1 with excellent contributions from horns and oboes that allowed you to forget the dangers and just relish the majesty and  warmth of this all too rarely heard Baroque glory.

Intending to give us yet another British gem to savour, Sir Andrew took the MSO on an unsatisfying journey through Holst’s The Planets suite.   It might have been much intrusive heftiness and gratuitous ritardandi; it could have been a lack of interest in the slower movements’ woodwind solos; or it might possibly have arisen from some pitch problems that emerged without reason.  Whatever, an underlying malaise detracted from the score’s friendly splendour.   At all events, I much preferred the night’s only other constituent: Carl Vine’s new Symphony No. 8, The Enchanted Loom.   This is a reversion to top form from the orchestra’s 2018 Composer in Residence – a sterling exercise in novel sonorities with its five movements following a narrative that could be assimilated without much trouble but which seemed of secondary importance to the composer’s manipulation of solo instruments and unusual group matchings.

For Musica Viva, violinist Ray Chen and pianist Julien Quentin showed at their best in Grieg’s Sonata No. 2 which I believe I was hearing for the first time in live performance.  Even if it employed nationalistic tropes, this score gave both executants plenty of room for rich collaboration, at ease with each other’s musicianship.  An especially-commissioned violin sonata by Matthew Hindson left little impact but it didn’t try that hard to mark out new territory.   An obliging audience relished Falla’s Suite populaire espagnole, even more so the violin virtuosity of Monti’s Csardas.

I was able to hear only two of the three major Mimir Chamber Music Festival events at Melba Hall; the second, which engaged the services of local pianist Caroline Almonte, is reviewed in these pages.   Over the last few years, these recitals have been immensely enjoyable, the teaching staff from the American source-festival in Fort Worth putting together programs of well-known repertoire and unusual novelties.   Curt Thompson, the University of Melbourne’s head of strings, co-founded the enterprise and brought it here after his appointment to the Conservatorium of Music.   This year, the festival’s opening recital began with the moving Two Songs Op. 91 by Brahms, Australian mezzo Victoria Lambourn a fine interpreter of these modest, moving lyrics.   Ringing some home-country chimes, violinists Stephen Rose, Jun Iwasaki, viola Joan DerHovsepian and cello  Brant Taylor presented Amy Beach’s F sharp minor Quintet with pianist John Novacek supporting the string players’ enthusiastic proclamatory approach.   Mendelssohn’s A minor String Quartet came over with more firmness than usual, these performers happy to give full voice to the composer’s purple patches of post-Beethovenian aspiration.

 

September

Om the latter half of the year, I failed in an aim to visit one concert a week for this blog, thanks to another  retreat to Queensland.  In fact, I heard only two concerts, and they were in many ways a disjunct reflection of each other.   At Deakin Edge, the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra presented an Espana! night, with a guitar soloist who was indisposed but went on anyway, the exercise culminating in a wretched reading of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez.   In any case, the plethora of arrangements that preceded this effort sounded remarkably tame, hardly justifying the exclamation mark of the program’s title.

But the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra returned to form with a remarkable series of Baroque scores, replacement guest violinist Daniel Pinteno heading a Mediterraneo! program with impressive panache, heard at its finest in Vivaldi’s D Major Violin Concerto from L’estro armonico – a blinder among a happy chain of finely accomplished pieces, only one or two of them familiar.

Rich Prakhoff’s Melbourne Bach Choir Sang Mozart’s Requiem with unsurprising stolidity, the four soloists serving as welcome intruders for their athletic pliancy in phrasing and dynamic changes.   Tenor Andrew Goodwin added yet another sterling accomplishment to our experience of his work with a reflective, unfussed account of Stravinsky’s In memoriam Dylan Thomas; allied with mezzo Sally-Anne Russell and baritone Andrew Jones, he brought animation and light to a chorally bland version of Bach’s Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen cantata.

Back for the umpteenth time, the Borodin Quartet played Haydn Op. 33 No. 1, Shostakovich No. 9, and Beethoven Op. 130.    I didn’t know it at the time but first violin Ruben Aharonian was performing in spite of his being in poor health.   Still, the Haydn came across with an unexpected equable balance of weight and the Russian construct worked best in its two adagio movements where the viola and cello bear the most significant emotional load.   But the group excelled, I thought, in its Beethoven: a reading such as only experience, hard work and collegial insight can yield and one of my top performances of the year.

British pianist Paul Lewis worked for the cognoscenti on this visit, playing an eclectic program of Beethoven, Haydn and Brahms, most of it late period and not the sort of music you hear these days when performers generally ride safely on the confined merry-go-round where the familiar breeds assent.   Beethoven’s 11 Bagatelles Op. 119 proved confronting thanks to the pianist’s unveiling of contrapuntal complexity which most other interpreters ignore.   You couldn’t brush these pages aside as a collection of oddities written over 20 years, the later ones marking  incongruous deviations from the path to illumination of the final sonatas.   Lewis presented them as a broad sweep, sometimes complex, sometimes simple but each emotionally consistent with its surroundings.  Haydn’s late E flat Sonata and his solitary B minor Sonata stripped away any polite salon patina and revealed a rarely heard gruffness and candour.   Then the Four Pieces Op. 119 by Brahms gave us more thickly-blended harmonic progressions in the three intermezzi and an insistent triumphalism in the final Rhapsody that brought to mind the composer’s great sponsor Schumann in its driving, near-manic insistence.

Another impressive visitor was violinist Ilya Gringolts, the youngest winner 20 years ago of the Premio Paganini Prize, who took on the dual roles of director and soloist with the Australian Chamber Orchestra.   Most interest fell on the visitor’s reading of the Paganini Concerto No. 1, given here in its original E flat key.   Gringolts carried all before him with a scintillating, brilliant outline of the work in which the ornamentation was welded into the concerto’s construction.    He’s one of those performers who appears to have absolute control; yes, the work has dangerous moments but this musician works through them without demonstrative effort.   He has insights as a conductor, too,  leading his forces in a C. P. E. Bach symphony packed with dramatic incident and a dissonance-highlighting version of an ACO favourite: Bartok’s Divertimento of 1939.

 

October

Only one recital features on this blog for October.  It’s the final Selby & Friends program for the year at which the well-known Sydney pianist collaborated with WAAPA violinist Alexandre Da Costa-Graveline and Sydney Symphony Orchestra cellist Umberto Clerici.  As is her wont, Selby partnered each of her guests in a duo – the Falla Suite populaire espagnole and Debussy’s Cello Sonata – before a general team-up for Piazzolla’s useless Four Seasons of Buenos Aires and the stalwart Mendelssohn in D minor.

Otherwise, the month’s serious music-making was dominated by the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts.   Before this began, the Australian String Quartet finished its 2018 Melbourne appearances with cellist Blair Harris stepping in for maternity-leave member, Sharon Grigoryan.    The Schubert Rosamunde enjoyed a reading just the right side of sentimental and the Shostakovich No. 10 reflected this pureness of heart at night’s end, here making a welcome appearance following other ensembles’ concentration on earlier works in the genre by this composer.   In the middle, James Ledger’s new String Quartet No. 2, The Distortion Mirror, fed real-time sounds into a computer for manipulation.   Not too complicated, the score enjoyed a pleasing reception, although you’d be hard pressed to find much that was confrontational in its passages of play.

Also off the Festival grid, Jukka-Pekka Saraste directed the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in the complete Firebird ballet, which tended to show how little we miss when subjected to the several versions Stravinsky extracted for his money-spinning suites.  Saraste also aired the newly-discovered Funeral Song, Stravinsky’s in memoriam for his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov.   Several pundits claim this brief score opens a new window on the composer’s early thinking; they may be right but you’d be hard pressed to predict what was coming from the composer’s pen in the coming four years.   In between, Dejan Lasic played a well-considered solo part for Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3, the reactionary virtuosity of its finale coming across with telling artistry.

As for the Festival content that I heard, Van Diemen’s Band offered live performances of excerpts from their 2017 CD, including three cello concertos by Nicola Fiorenza treated with convincing dedication by soloist Catherine Jones.  Not restricted by their recital’s title, Cello Napoletano, the ensemble wandered around with affable ease from both Scarlattis to Boccherini with a Geminiani and a Corelli as make-weights.  The Los Angeles Master Chorale attempted a theatrical splicing-up of Orlando di Lasso’s Lagrime di San Pietro cycle, investing their performance (sung from memory) with stylized choreographic moves and staged groupings to give a visual realization of the verbal content.   When the physical movement died down and the group stood in a semi-circle and just sang, the results proved very moving indeed, especially as the over-blown dynamic contrasts were given a rest and the work’s emotional context shifted from angry self-recrimination to a wrenching despair.

Chinese conductor/composer Tan Dun has built up a firm relationship with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, largely through an annual Chinese New Year event in which he places his own music and/or that of his countrymen alongside well-known gems of Western music.   His Buddha Passion offers an individual take on the Bach Passions with the Indian spiritual leader as its operating fulcrum.   Where Western composers concentrate on the last night and day of Christ’s life, Tan Dun follows a loose path of parables and events from the Bodhi tree enlightenment to the translation to Nirvana.   It made for a remarkable confection of simplicity and explosive bursts of powerful commentary, the MSO Chorus working with indefatigable deliberation through Chinese and Sanskrit texts.

Sir Andras Schiff, playing here for the first time in many years, gave us the Festival highlight, even if his performance was part of Musica Viva’s season.   The pianist foraged through Mendelssohn’s Fantasy in F sharp before a brilliant, curt-and-warm reading of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 24 and an equally revelatory interpretation of Bach’s last English Suite.   Yet the core of this lavish recital came in two Brahms brackets: the Op. 78  Eight Pieces and the Op. 116 Seven Fantasias that I can’t remember hearing complete before.   This was an extraordinarily clean-scoured double sequence, the mutually dependent artistry of technique and consistent intellectual content a clear justification for this pianist’s significant stature among that small band of modern musicians with an open-handed generosity to his audience (some massive Bach encores) and interpretative insights of a high order .

 

November

Finishing its year in solid form, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra presented some well-worn French masterworks – Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2 – and Brett Dean’s orchestrations of the Debussy Ariettes oubliees, sung by mezzo Fiona Campbell.    Soloist Beatrice Rana fronted the only nationalistic odd man out  with Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, a piece you used to hear all over the place but which has suffered a decline in interest across recent decades.    This was a blazing, confident exhibition from a gifted young artist, well-assisted by the MSO under conductor Fabien Gabel who dropped in for the occasion from Quebec but brought not much individuality along with him.

William Hennessy finished his Melbourne Chamber Orchestra’s annual operations in a Bach-dominated program.   Refraining from burying the material under a thick string blanket, he directed his charges through the Orchestral Suites 3 and 4 without any period-style enervation.   The D minor Double Violin Concerto made a welcome if predictable appearance, matching the premiere of Richard Mills’ Double Violin Concerto which impressed for two-thirds of its length in the sympathetic hands of soloists Markiyan Melnychenko and Aidan Filshie.

One of the more commanding Mahler readings we’ve heard this year came from the Australian National Academy of Music whose staff and some distinguished guests from interstate and overseas played Klaus Simon’s arrangement for 16 players of the Symphony No. 9.    Their disclosure of inner workings and an absence of over-the-top theatricality made the experience elevating and packed with suspense – a far cry from the bombast that many conductors attempt to impose on this wrenching farewell to arms, in this instance discreetly conducted by expatriate Matthew Corey who had the pleasure of dealing with a band of fearless competence.

The only concert covered on this blog was an Armistice Day salute from the Arcko Symphony Ensemble at the Carlton Church of All Nations.  In a series of works written and performed by people, most of whom seemed to have family connections to World War I, we heard music by Rohan Phillips and Andrew Harrison, whose cantata gave this enterprise its title and made a moving impression, despite the meagre written source material on which it was constructed.   And it was an unalloyed delight to hear Helen Gifford’s piano solo Menin Gate given an airing by Joy Lee.

I also heard, thanks to a friend, Opera Australia’s production of Die Meistersinger which was worth sitting through for Daniel Sumegi’s firmly-articulated Pogner and some pleasurable passages from Michael Kupfer-Radecky as Sachs and the Beckmesser of Warwick Fyfe.  As for the situational ambience being translated to a gentlemen’s club, you could understand why it appealed as an idea – the guild is nothing if not as hidebound as any 19th century London establishment like White’s or the Athenaeum – but you also had to wonder at a dereliction of duty during the later acts where the venue became increasingly inchoate and irrelevant.

 

December

The only concert I heard in this month, thanks to renewed bouts of poor health, was the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s Noel! Noel! collation which, this year, was pretty free of inanities.   In fact, Paul Dyer and his players did excellent service in the earlier parts of the program with a Hildegard meditation, two Gregorian chants, a Cruger chorale and a quaint seasonal motet-of-sorts by Johannes Eccard, a Tye carol and a Monteverdi hymn.  The ABO Choir was hard pressed but responded with only a handful of stressful moments and soprano Bonnie de la Hunty should have been given an award for her manifold contributions to the entertainment.   Coverage of this event concludes this blog’s live music activity for the year.