Gripping sub-Arctic fervour

HAYDN WINKELMAN SIBELIUS

Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Wednesday February 27

Australian String Quartet Haydn Winkelman Sibelius - Melbourne - photo by Sam Jozeps

                     (L to R) Dale Barltrop, Francesca Hiew, Stephen King, Timo-Veikko Valve

                                                                   (Photo: Sam Jozeps)                                               

Introducing the last work on this subscription series recital from the ASQ, stand-in cellist Timo-Veikko Valve thanked his colleagues for programming a work from his own country: the Voces intimae String Quartet in D minor by Sibelius which is the Finnish composer’s outstanding contribution to chamber music.   Valve’s gesture was sincere, I’m sure, but not really necessary as this undertaking was the night’s highlight, largely due to a solid interpretative consensus from all concerned.

The regular ASQ members – violins Dale Barltrop and Francesca Hiew, viola Stephen King – contrived to weld Valve into their performing practice with pretty consistent success.    Replacing Sharon Grigoryan (absent on parental leave), the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s principal cellist made his presence all too obvious in the opening sentences of Haydn’s  Bird String Quartet Op. 33 No. 3 in C.   While Barltrop was finishing his 1st theme statement, Valve’s ascending C Major arpeggio was  pushed forward with excessive force; ditto for the D minor pattern repeat in bars 11-12.  A small thing but it drew attention to a balancing flaw that arose several times in this particular movement.

Unlike quite a few extant recorded performances, the ASQ followed Haydn’s repeat signs.  In the following Scherzando, Barltrop and Hiew produced a cogent, rustic version of the two-voice Trio; the only oddity came with Valve’s tendency to anticipate the others at some of the Allegretto‘s mid-paragraph cadences where the upper three players had pre-determined a small hesitation.   The group’s approach to the Adagio was anything but.   It sounded as though a communal decision had been taken to view these pages as a sort of minuet.   This might work for some of the score’s more obvious and simple stretches but leads to dismissiveness when the first violin encounters sextuplets and that benign flight of fancy lasting from bar 43 to bar 36.

Also dissimilar to several contemporary approaches, the ASQ eschewed the possibility of radically meddling with metre, sticking consistently to a regular pulse without extending hiatus points, this slow movement a case in point where the phrasing sounded collegial and the ensemble’s underlying impetus unshakeable, except for Barltrop’s solo interstitial breaks.   And the rondo-finale proved to be a deft gem, the lower voices of King and Valve not over-emphatic but then much of their work sits in their instruments’ middle ranges.  Haydn’s felicitous chains of parallel 3rds and 6ths look so simple on paper but translate into crisp and attractive passages of play, the actual sound more effervescent than you’d expect.   In realising this, the ASQ brought a much-appreciated verve to what is fast becoming a string quartet recital cliche:  the opening Haydn.

Swiss-born contemporary composer Helena Winkelman’s Papa Haydn’s Parrot offers an 8-movement sequence of variants on parts of the Bird Quartet.  With admirable gusto, the ASQ gave this rapidly-moving score an outing, each segment staying around just long enough to make its point although the opening A Question of Character sounded over-strident in its content and unexpectedly four-square, with little I could make out of Haydn’s clever disturbance of equilibrium.

As the movements passed, Winkelman employed most of the modern-day production techniques for strings: harmonics in the second Menuet in Slow Motion, col legno, pizzicati all over the shop, microtones (if not simple glissandi) in At Ease (Adagio), and the insertion of sticks (knitting needles) for part of Memory of a Dance.  In fact, much of these devices came into clear prominence in the penultimate Rondo in Presence of Fleas where Winkelman wrong-noted Haydn’s finale to give us a musical image of 18th century wig-wearers’ cranial irritation.  This work’s finale, Haydn on the Rocks, intended to summon up a Big Band spectre through jazz-inspired flashy musical gestures; can’t say that it was convincing in its achievement because, no matter what instructions you give in Satiesque vein, it’s nigh impossible to convey the essential brassiness of a band by means of four strings, not even if you write a superfluity of slashing, sweeping chords.

That Haydn had a parrot is a historical fact; the animal survived its owner, who bought it 20 years before his death.   So he had at least one avian interest.  Winkelman seems to identify the parrot with the popular nickname of this quartet, even though the set from which it comes predates the parrot’s purchase by nearly a decade.  Not that it matters too much in this instance, where the work’s name doesn’t matter as much as its use of Haydn’s score which is probably more clever than it sounds after one hearing..

The Sibelius quartet needs to be played with unyielding intensity, at the least in both outer movements and that’s what we got from these players.  Barltrop and Valve led their colleagues into Sibelius’ passionate argument that dominates the opening Allegro; a demonstration of stern polyphony uninterrupted by circuit breakers which finds its resolution in a striking chorale across the final 12 bars.   After this, the A Major Vivace, packed with semiquaver patterns that interweave and contrast, made for a welcome refresher, here treated with a welcome amalgam of heft and dexterity rising to a bountiful C Major climax at Rehearsal Number 3 where the upper voices duet at the octave over a weltering support of double-stopped semiquavers – a splendidly invigorating bout over all too quickly.

This work’s core, its Adagio, produced the evening’s most dramatic and moving work from the ASQ, the interweaving syncopated labyrinth of melodies realised with eloquence and a laudable self-awareness on the part of each participant, notably at the two sets of chords, in E minor and C sharp minor, that earned this quartet its sobriquet: clear in their parts and enunciated triple-piano as required.   The pace is not demanding but the counterpoint is a consistent test of flexibility and abnegation to the greater cause. With controlled fervour, these musicians took us through these pages with consistent unanimity of purpose.

Sibelius prefigures the rustling activity of Tapiola in this work’s Allegretto where, after the hefty rustic measures that provide the main material, second violin and viola move into parallel quaver triplets to background the outer lines’ brief melody lines.  It’s a scherzo-of-sorts but the 16-bar stretto comes as a relief from the unabashed angularity and unsettling awkwardness of the movement’s development.  Finally, the concluding Allegro proved irresistible thanks to the ASQ’s clear articulation and head-long confidence that persisted in the abrupt shift to a higher gear at the Piu allegro with the upper three lines in unison urging the work’s pace forward for relentless pages of ferment, even in later segments where the dynamic markings accentuate softness and subterranean heaving until an apogee is reached – in case the players feel like wavering – at the Number 9 Sempre piu energico, the fabric punctuated by abrupt unison scale passages up and down.

With this piece, all the elements are provided for a tense involvement with the listener, Sibelius exerting a grip that doesn’t falter after the first movement.  The ASQ – even in this format, or possibly because of this format – produced an ardent, involving interpretation of a work that stretched them beyond the preceding Haydn-Winkelman double-bill.  It brings about the kind of experience that makes you more conscious than ever that there is no substitute for live performance; I don’t care how fine your sound-system, you cannot equal the excitement involved in watching musicians in the flesh grappling with an emotionally rich, dangerously vital score like this one.

Not a hair out of place

Natalie Clein & Katya Apekisheva

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday February 26

Clein

               Natalie Clein

To open its 2019 season, Musica Viva presented this cello-piano duet, two young artists (yes, they’re in their forties but they all look young to me) of high achievement.  Their careers are studded with prizes, academic positions, recital and concert appearances with significant organizations and well-known conductors and colleagues, now coming into the climacteric of their lives with this Australian tour.   A respectably sized audience came along to the MRC for this program which boasted two masterpieces from the cello/piano repertoire and a fresh composition by an Australian writer.

The evening began with Kodaly’s Sonatina, a brief one-movement work that I’d not heard before.   In fact, the only piece for this string instrument that I did know was one which occupies such a large position in the cello’s limited storehouse that it can hardly be ignored: the Solo Sonata of 1915: a monumental masterwork that first introduced me to the brilliant craft of Liwei Qin.   This brief duo has reminiscences of the greater work – and of the composer’s partner in transcribing Hungarian folk music from the source: Bartok.   Both instruments share a welter of rhapsodic gestures and modal inflexions that go back to Liszt in serious mode.

The reading set something of a pattern for the program’s progress.  Apekisheva powered through the keyboard’s ardent 12-bar introduction before setting up the quintuplet waves that support the string’s long-arched D minor melody.   Not that Kodaly divides the labour in doctrinaire fashion; the cello gets its powerful declamations, if nothing as striking as the piano’s fortissimo outburst at bar 158.   In this well-integrated score, idiomatic, even flattering, for both instruments, Clein  and Apekisheva showed an agreeable balance, despite the piano being open on the long stick and this cellist not one to belt out her sound.

Natalie Williams’ freshly composed The Dreaming Land, created for these artists and this tour, is in three movements and seems to be concerned with Australia and its pre-European civilization.   After one experience of its content, however, I’m not sure.  ‘Dreaming’ tends to set off shivers of local recognition in most of us but the composer’s actual vocabulary and technical armoury is employed in such a way as to suggest any landscape.   Not that you expect intentional Jindyworobakisms to leap out, but these three movements/scenes have more universal associations than expected.

Williams speaks a tonal tongue in which the natural bent is towards resolution; at several points, leading notes yearn towards the tonic and usually fold into it.   Yes, there are passages of dissonance but you aren’t left with much ambiguity about where the composer has led you.   Movement One, Voices of the Ancients, is dominated by rising patterns from the piano, which underpins the string’s role as narrator dominating its supporting companion.   The voices are essentially lyrical in the time-honoured Western tradition and they also tend to follow an upward-leading and continuously prevalent optimism.

The Chanting Walker . . . follows without much change in procedure even if the timbre-world is more dour.   For all the eloquent melodic arches from the string player, well-written to exhibit Clein’s disciplined vibrato, the pilgrimage scenario failed to move me, chiefly because the work’s progress is too self-assured.   You’d expect the title’s trailing off to suggest doubts, even indeterminacy, but this walker has all the answers and leaves nothing to the imagination, reaching a full close – which I, for one, find atypical of this country’s native metaphysics.

Finally, Ethereal Furies is an emotionally moderate moto perpetuo with some intriguing rhythmic hockets but eventually settles into regular patterns.  These Eumenides are well-dressed and, while active, would not discombobulate any Orestes, now or then.  The atmosphere is of Mendelssohn through a well-ordered restlessness, but dressed in light 21st Century garb.  We can thank Williams for her musical journey and the prospects that it offered but the score lacked bite, even though Clein and Apekisheva outlined it with enthusiasm and apparent precision.

Beethoven’s final Cello Sonata in D, second of the Op. 192 brace, enjoyed a very welcome airing.   The performers’ account of the initial Allegro gave us a complete, consistent canvas; no small feat when you remember the composer’s penchant for abrupt changes in most compositional parameters, including the unsettling leaps that typify the sonata’s opening matter.   You looked in vain for overt declamation or jolts of power in the Rostropovich/Richter style of delivery; here the emphasis fell on finding a continuous seam and following it through.

The central Adagio also impressed for its composure and deftly conserved harmonic ambiguity in the outer sections, which embraced a splendid D Major centre with eminently fluent passage work and tic-free treatment of the demi-semiquaver Alberti bass figures in the keyboard and the fragmented commentary offered by the cello, marred only by some strained high Ds.  The gentlest of transitions moved us into the finale fugal Allegro where both artists quite sensibly put their trust in the composer.  The texture gets piano-heavy at two definite points but Apekisheva persisted with her dynamic, leaving Clein to emerge from the ferment that comes about from near bar 84 to bar 89 and reconvenes near bar 126.

To end, the duo played the Rachmaninov G minor Sonata which gave the lion’s share of labour to Apekisheva.   Clein’s generous bowing action made some form of compensation for the composer’s over-hefty keyboard writing but she is not a bullish performer, urging out her line at the expense of accuracy.   Not that the inbuilt imbalance proved too distracting except in the concluding Allegro mosso where the composer was manifestly unfair to the cellist, studding the piano part with brilliant bursts of virtuosity and scintillating textures.

It’s true that the string player doesn’t fare much better in the vital Allegro scherzando.  Clein can’t put on a gruff voice for any money and she was hard-pressed to mirror her partner’s volatile scampering downward two-note skips.  Of course, there are compensations in the central A flat Major trio but even here Rachmaninov supplies the pianist with a lush accompanying textural web towards the transition back to taws.  To her credit, Apekisheva maintained the correct role, her mastery evident in that we were aware of her content – just not overpowered by it.

An admirable interpretation, then, but not one that dripped with tension.  True to her lights, Clein gave not a hint of a scrape, her bowing address impeccable across the program.   You were able to rest secure in the hands of a highly competent musician with a fine command of phrasing.   Yet, for the two major works, those hefty sonatas, her elegance of utterance necessarily was overshadowed by her colleague who also – as far as I could hear – made precious few errors across a taxing night’s work.

No worries

 

CHROMATIC FLIGHT

Virginia Taylor and Simon Tedeschi

Move Records  MCD 582

 

Chromatic Flight

 

Here is a short disc of thoroughly amiable duets for flute and piano, unassuming music treated with consideration if not much flamboyance by a couple of distinguished Australian artists.   The contents comprise six individual pieces and two suites – one Latin, the other jazz.  The briefest track, Ripples, lasts 2:03 minutes; the longest, Contemplation, comes in at a second short of 5 minutes.

All works are products by Graham Jesse, a well-known Australian performer, composer and arranger whose life has revolved principally around jazz:  a biographical descriptor borne out by this album.   Taylor’s flute is the dominant thread throughout; Tedeschi has his moments of exposure but it remains clear in every track that the wind line is all-important.  Which doesn’t come as a surprise; most of the publicity shots I could find of Jesse have him holding a flute, concert or bass.

We’ve all been victims – willing or otherwise – of elevator music, that irritating or anaesthetising noise that fills out a vacuum in our shopping experience.  It could be a rendition of a well-known popular song or a hotted-up Christmas carol.  Its function – if it really has one – is as aural decor, acoustic tinsel, and often dismissable.  Sadly, I’ve never been in a lift where the sound system is burbling out Good King Wenceslas at which all of we transportees join in a verse or six.   Fortunately, Jesse’s music is original and rather individual, which removes it from the realm of material that just sits on the periphery of consciousness.

But I couldn’t help thinking of certain types of composition that have an assertively functional philosophy behind them.   Hindemith’s Gebrauchsmusik or music for utility is not the right fit for Jesse’s work in Chromatic Flight, even if you have to listen hard to find any moments where Taylor and Tedeschi have much to cope with as far as technical challenges go.   Yet there is a faint patina of the utilitarian about this CD’s content which is light and slight, for the most part.

As well, you might be struck by an echo of Satie’s Musique d’ameublement where the music is meant to be background, like wall-paper.  Stravinsky tells the story of the composer rushing round the room where this music was being performed, trying to get people to talk over, rather than listen attentively to, his work.

Mind you, that can work in reverse.  I remember being at a launch of something to do with chamber music at the Naval and Military Club where music was supplied by an ad hoc string quartet from the National Academy.   We were standing around on a terrace at the rear of the building, chatting amiably enough when Dame Elisabeth Murdoch  – whose money was probably funding the event – querulously demanded that we all be quiet and listen to the music, which could have been Haydn, or Paisiello, or Salieri but  was definitely in divertimento vein and not being accomplished with much concern beyond getting the notes right.  S till, the piper calls the tune, so the hard-liners among us who can distinguish between pap and prowess adjourned to the inner bar.

But, to the matter in hand, Jesse’s work tends to operate on an impressionistic level, evident in the first three titles recorded here.  Waves is really ripples with Tedeschi setting up an arpeggio ostinato – no, a splayed common chord base with some soothing meandering from both instruments.   These waves are gentle enough; even when the atmosphere gets a bit hectic in the work’s centre, there is nothing here to transport you from Elwood or Balmoral to Portsea back beach or Mona Vale on a stormy afternoon.

Flutter begins with a flute solo, punctuated by some – yes, flutter-tonguing.   Then, you settle down for a lot of repeated notes and patterns with the inevitable flutter as the main focus of action.   It’s a nicely calculated ‘effect’ piece with a neat suggestion of jazz in its elliptical central section.   Ripples is a faster Waves – at least for the flute which begins and stays in Debussyland with an arpeggiated 7th chord/almost whole-tone pattern meandering up and down with little required from the piano but dutiful chords and mirroring.

The CD’s title number is a non-confrontational  bagatelle with lots of chromatic  passage work but it’s not alarmingly atonal;  more along the lines of a modern-day Flight of the Bumble-Bee, speaking in easily digestible phrase-lengths with nothing spartan or confrontational along its journey towards a C Major final chord.  The pace in the outer thirds is fast yet the whole impresses this jaded mind as a fine AMEB study piece.  Convolution is similarly brisk, follows the same ternary pattern, also ends in C and takes a pattern of descending 4ths as its central building block.   Belying its title, the piece is clarity exemplified.

You’d want to be  more agile than most navel-gazers to find Contemplation useful.   It has no great incidents – quite properly  –  but an intriguing irregular rhythmic patter-line set up by the piano before the flute enters with a lucid melody that gives Taylor an opening to show her well-managed vibrato and security of articulation on sustained notes.  Much of Tedeschi’s part could be played by one hand, so that some consecutive chords at about the 3-minute mark come as a surprise.   Still, there’s nothing wrong with a bi-linear pattern gently wandering round a D tonality pivot to suggest something close to mental stasis – if that’s what you understand by contemplation, of course

A mild bossa nova rhythm is the only memorable factor in the first movement of the Latin Flute Suite with the prescriptive title of Bossa Flauto and there are some of those mild syncopations in the piano part to help you sway along the Brazilian dance path.  Silly Galoot, a slang term for flute, is a companion piece to the bossa nova gem and is one of the tracks that suggests to me most strikingly the landscape of Satie’s furniture music. Its more arresting moments come when both instruments play the same melody line in unison; much of the rest seems to me sprightly note-spinning with a clear lack of purpose starting about half-way through before the by-now-inevitable reprise of the piece’s opening material.   Savusavu celebrates a Fijian resort that Jesse visited and there found much the same inspiration as from bossa nova and the preceding galoot.  You can take little objection to this except where the players move into some uncomfortably situated triplets.   Nevertheless, in this piece the actual progress of the composition is very predictable.  To each his own, I suppose, but I’m puzzled as to why Jesse found a calypso rhythm gave the best reflection of his South Pacific island experience.

Jesse’s Jazz Flute Suite has three movements: Don This, Waltz and Flutist Blues.  The first is a tribute to 91-year-old jazz great Don Burrows and is a mildly swinging ramble with four places where both instruments play in unison. moments that certainly bring back memories of the Burrows Quartet and the MJQ’s influence on the art form in the middle of the last century, although this later product is low-key and short-breathed in its little paraphrases of Bach Inventions-type textures.  The Waltz is anything but: full of hemiolas at its opening before settling down for a moment, as if it prove that 3/4 is capable of more than you’d think.  It’s a placid rondo with a quiet interest, and probably not suited for dancing, but you could say the same about plenty of Chopin.   The concluding blues is an optimistic one with an attractive main melody and a clever sharing of the labour between these players; its only problem comes in an episode before the final reprise which sounds over-studied compared to the easy swagger of its surrounds.

You won’t find anything ground-breaking or unusual on this CD.  The performances are smooth, apart from a few moments of not-quite-synchronicity in the last three tracks. Bob Scott has achieved a fair balance between the players, Tedeschi’s work not being under-played and Taylor’s flute allowed a vivid amplitude without over-miking; you’re not conscious of chuffs or breathiness.  Indeed, the calm surface of the CD may go some way to explaining why I think it – or parts of it – may fit the afore-mentioned Satie performance conditions.

 

 

 

 

 

March Diary

 

Tuesday March 5

MOZART, HAYDN & MORE

ACO Collective

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

The Collective is the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Younger Set, a group of young players who roam the country seeking whom they might entertain.  Not really, but the ensemble goes to places that the parent company doesn’t visit.  Of course, the Collective also gets to play in the ACO’s usual venues, one of which (occasionally) is the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall.   For this program, Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto is running the show and it’s as eclectic as any of Richard Tognetti’s more recherche collations.  The night starts and ends with American writer Pauline Oliveros’ Tuning Meditation which works much better with voices than with instruments; perhaps that’s what the Collective will do – sing, rather than play.   This whole in-my-end-is-my-beginning exercise centres on Haydn’s Symphony No. 47, the Palindrome where minuet and trio each mirror their first halves.   The Mozart element comprises 6 Contredanses K462 (448b), evidence of the imagination that the composer lavished on trifles.   A new work by Heather Shannon is programmed, although the MRC’s advertising mentions two new works by this Australian pianist with an indie rock band.   Most startling of all is the night’s second half which is set to consist, at the end, of a reprise of the Tuning Meditation after Hindemith’s hour-long Ludus Tonalis compendium of prelude, interludes and fugues for solo piano, the performer as yet unnamed  .  .  .  or will we be treated to a transcription?   Could be so, as wind players for the Australian National Academy of Music are catalogued as participants.

 

Friday March 8

FANTASY AND THE FIREBIRD

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Back at the Melbourne Town Hall for another year of booming acoustics.   Benjamin Northey conducts a night of popular works which will clearly climax in Stravinsky’s Firebird  –  tonight, the 1919 suite, the ‘classic’ one of the composer’s three.   Solo pianist Kristian Chong has the delectable task of fronting Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini; later, the composer gets further exposure, thanks to soprano Jacqueline Porter who sings his soulful 1915 Vocalise.   Beginning the night and shifting a tad to the geographical left, Northey conducts some excerpts from Grieg’s music for Peer Gynt; with Porter in the house, we’ll probably get a true Solveig’s Song.   Our own transplanted Russian (Uzbek), Elena Kats-Chernin, is represented by her Dance of the Paper Umbrellas, a 5-minute bagatelle that Northey and the MSO last played in 2015, two years after its composition.

 

Saturday March 9

BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Paul Dyer is conducting his ensemble in all of the concertos bar No. 2, the only one that asks for a trumpet soloist – admittedly, one of exceptional talent.   Still, it’s the second-shortest of the lot and you’d think the organization would want to give full value on this occasion.  Anyway, there’s plenty in the remaining five to keep you happy, especially in my favourites: No. 1 with its peripatetic horn lines, and the earthy textures of No. 6 for strings without any violins.   Can’t find any details about the soloists, although flautist Melissa Farrow has written on the company website about the Brandenburg experience, as has principal second violin Ben Dollman.   But these are works of elevating joy where nobody can hide so we’ll doubtless get to hear most of the ABO members as soloists, no matter how briefly.   Given Melbourne’s Bach worship, it’s probably safe to say that this event will be packed to the doors.

This program will be repeated on Sunday March 10 at 5 pm.

 

Saturday March 9

BLUE PLANET II LIVE IN CONCERT

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Plenary, Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre at 8 pm

This will be a feather in the MSO’s conservationistical cap.  The original film, which took you across, through and under the world’s water expanses, escorted by Sir David Attenborough’s commentary, is enjoying the full treatment at one of Melbourne’s largest auditoriums.   Hans Zimmer, Jacob Shea and David Fleming were responsible for the original soundtrack and the MSO will air it, conducted by Vanessa Scammell.   In Sir David’s absence, the commentary will be read by English actor Joanna Lumley; patrons are in for a breathy, gushing vocal stratum to add to the MSO’s pointed illustrations.

This program will be repeated on Sunday March 10 at 3 pm.

 

Tuesday March 12

AN IMMORTAL LEGACY

The Sixteen

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

The famous British vocal ensemble is visiting under the sponsorship of the MRC itself, although clearly in partnership with other centres because the singers will present this program in Singapore, Sydney, then here before Queensland.   Founding director Harry Christophers has set up  –  without any sweat at all  –  an all-English program to celebrate The Sixteen’s 40th anniversary.   It intersperses Tudor gems with contemporary pieces; well, James MacMillan (two works: Sedebit Dominus Rex and Mitte manum tuam from the first set of his Strathclyde Motets)  is still above ground, even if Tippett (yes, the Five Negro Spirituals from A Child of Our Time) and Britten (of course: the Choral Dances from Gloriana) are long gone.   Tallis enjoys five exposures: Salvator mundi, O nata lux, O sacrum convivium, Loquebantur variis linguis, and some of the Tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter, among which we’re bound to hear Why fum’th in sight.   The group’s output tonight contains a few well-known madrigals – Morley’s April is in my mistress’ face, Gibbons’ The Silver Swan, Byrd’s This Sweet and Merry Month of May.  This last is also represented in ecclesiastical mode with Laudibus in sanctis.   Finally, the program includes John Shepherd’s third setting of In manus tuas: the only work on tonight’s menu that does not appear on the group’s CD An Immortal Legacy of 2013.  Bit late for a promotional tour?

 

Friday March 15

MOZART PROJECT 1

\The Melbourne Musicians

Tatoulis Auditorium, Methodist Ladies College, Kew at 7 pm

This enterprise featuring director Frank Pam’s beloved Mozart will see pianist Elyane Laussade performing one of the piano concertos at each of the three concerts being presented at MLC in the hall to which Kathryn Selby has moved her recitals after decamping from Federation Square.   The Musicians will present an event on Bastille Day in their long-time stamping ground of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Southgate, and another special MLC program in November.  This opening gambit will see Laussade present the G Major K. 453, one of the six buoyant works in this form the Mozart wrote in 1784.   The program is framed by Haydn – the Menuetti Ballabili, all 14 of them; and the Symphony No. 83, La Poule.  Also, we will hear a 1791 Dittersdorf symphony in D minor which I can’t trace at all; but then, he wrote over 100 symphonies of definite attribution.

 

Saturday March 16

SIR ANDREW DAVIS AND LU SIQING

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Once again, the season has well and truly opened – what with the Chinese New Year, the Myer Bowl excursions, the first of the Town Hall programs – but here comes the 2019 Opening Gala; actually, it’s the first time this year that we see chief conductor Sir Andrew Davis in control.   A somewhat unoriginal program, but that’s clearly the organizers’ perception of their regular patrons’ taste.   Violinist Lu Siqing, the MSO’s Soloist in Residence (when did that sobriquet come into being?) is repeating his success with the Bruch G minor Concerto which he performed several times with the orchestra during last year’s tour of China.   Then Sir Andrew runs us through an MSO regular: Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony No. 6.   The opener is a bit unexpected these days, although at one time the piece was an annual inevitability.   Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from the opera Prince Igor offer a fine showcase for any interpreters – colour without depth – and will involve the MSO Chorus, in the interests of exactitude and courtesy to the composer.

 

Sunday March 17

BEETHOVEN & PROKOFIEV

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

Returning after an interval of three years, Italian violinist Lorenza Borrani will serve as soloist and director for this unusual program.   First up comes Prokofiev: the F minor Violin Sonata No. 1 in an arrangement that takes in the ACO strings.  This is not the delightfully robust D Major Sonata originally for flute but a more stormy and brusque creation.   Borrani eventually leads the ensemble through an arrangement of Beethoven’s final and even-tempered string quartet, the Op. 135 in F Major – presumably to balance the Russian work.   At the afternoon’s centre stands Such Different Paths by Dobrinka Tabakova, a Bulgarian-British writer.  This was written in 2008 and is a string septet.   It may retain that shape but who knows in this program of transcriptions and new clothes?   For me – and, I suspect, for several others – this will be a new voice but one that has already gained ongoing success through several significant prizes and commissions.

The program will be repeated on Monday March 18 at 7:30 pm.

 

Tuesday March 19

SCANDINAVIAN SONGS

Melbourne Art Song Collective

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

Collective regular Eidit Golder accompanies guest tenor Brenton Spiteri in an hour’s worth of Grieg, Sibelius and Stenhammar.   Not many surprises with the first two names: the Grieg is his Op. 48 Six Songs, settings of German poetry and climaxing in the demanding Ein Traum; Sibelius also gives us Six Songs Op. 50, and these too are settings of German texts, most strikingly in No. 5, Die stille Stadt.  Wilhelm Stenhammar is unexplored territory for me.   Spiteri and Golder are working through one vocal work by the Swedish composer: Four Stockholm Poems of 1918, which are in Swedish.  Then Golder gets to unveil the Sensommarnatter or Late Summer Nights: five virtuoso pieces from a gifted pianist-composer.  I’ve not heard Spiteri for a while but he has impressed me previously as an admirably clear singer with an individual performing personality.

 

Thursday March 21

MAHLER 10: LETTERS AND READINGS

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Yes, all very lovely but Sir Andrew Davis is really straining in toils of his own self-manufactured web now.   When is he going to present the Symphony No. 8?   I know it sounds like carping, but how can you set up a Mahler cycle and not get round to The Big One?   As a makeweight, the MSO will perform this final version of the composer’s sketches by Deryck Cooke, a rendition which has come to dominate the scene in the face of competition from other completions and arrangements.   Still, a fair number of Mahler expert conductors won’t touch this re-working, so we’re lucky to hear it – I suppose.  As he’s done previously, Sir Andrew will give us a helping of supplementary material before the playing gets underway, having actor/director Tama Matheson step up to read some words by the composer to contextualise the work for us.   Sounds like vamping: the symphony lasts over 80 minutes and stands on its own merits, despite the purists’ rejection.

This program will be repeated on Friday March 22 in Costa Hall, Geelong at 7:30 pm and on Saturday March 23 in Hamer Hall at 2 pm.

 

Sunday March 24

RED, WHITE, AND BLUE

Trio Anima Mundi

St. Michael’s Uniting Church, Collins St. at 2 pm

Allons, enfants.  The tricolor flies proudly through the first work in this recital: Ravel’s Piano Trio.  This exhilarating masterpiece is fast becoming a chamber music cliche, even if it is irresistible for every ensemble with this make-up.   It’s curmudgeonly to cavil at interpretations of the slow movement  –  hard to get wrong, I would have thought – but getting the balance right in the finale can prove a disaster for many pianists and the Pantoum second movement can all too often have its spikes blunted.  After this, the TAM will play Harry  Waldo Warner’s 1921 Piano Trio which won that year’s Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Prize, 20 years before Britten also received a Coolidge Award.   Warner, an Edwardian/Georgian composer and violist, is one of the chamber music writers being resurrected in this ensemble’s Piano Trio Archaeology project.  Let’s hope the field excursion is a rewarding one for us all.

This program can also be heard at Montsalvat, Eltham on Saturday March 23 at 2 pm.

 

Tuesday March 26

NEW WORLDS

Acacia Winds

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

The personnel of this excellent ensemble is as expected for tonight’s recital: flute Kiran Phatak, oboe David Reichelt, clarinet Lloyd Van’t Hoff, horn Rachel Shaw, bassoon Matthew Kneale.  They are juxtaposing works by American and Australian composers, the native-born works so new that, at the time of writing, they don’t have titles.  The Acacians have performed Lachlan Skipworth’s Echoes and lines quintet over the past two years.   I heard Sam Smith’s work for orchestra interior cities at an MSO Cybec concert in 2016, but no chamber music so far.  As for the US scores, we’ll hear Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Higdon’s Autumn Music, a homage to Samuel Barber’s seasonal masterpiece for the same combination; and David Maslanka’s Wind Quintet No. 4 in three movements of 1985: a fine illustration of this writer’s facility at creating idiomatic, informed music for wind instruments.

 

Friday March 29

BEETHOVEN, MOZART AND SIBELIUS

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Sir Andrew conducts a straight overture-concerto-symphony program with absolutely no surprises.   Except, possibly, the soloist –  pianist Alessio Bax who, as far as I can detect, isn’t related to Sir Arnold.   However, he has won two significant prizes: Leeds in 2000 and the Hamamatsu in 1997.   Here, he plays Mozart’s last concerto, No. 27 in B flat.  Preceding this, Davis and the MSO give us Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, packed with nobility and pregnant pauses.   To end, we hear Sibelius No. 1, long overshadowed by its successor but just as fine a composition and it doesn’t lay on the dominant-founded heroic suspense as much as the D Major work.  Expect extensive perorations in the outer movements.

This program will be repeated on Saturday March 30 at 7:30 pm and on Monday April 1 at 6:30 pm.

 

Ex Mongolia raro aliquid novi

A LUNAR NEW YEAR CELEBRATION

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Wednesday February 13

                                                               Tan Dun 

For this year’s Chinese New Year concert, conductor/composer Tan Dun and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra gave up dickering around with single imported soloists and brought in a complete band: Hanggai, the Mongolian-based (well, partly) rock group that has made a cultural living by adapting folk-songs from the mother-country, singing them in Mongolian or Mandarin, and for this occasion taking a back row at the (elevated) rear of the MSO under Tan, supported in their work with lushly scored accompaniments.

Despite the attributions of some Hanggai numbers to specific composers and lyrics-writers, everything we heard sounded like folk music, although you’d hope that the original tunes had been ironed out into orthodox bar-lengths and contours. It all sounded pretty Westernized and aimed at slotting into Occidental norms, which was a pity but par for the course. One of my saddest memories is of the result yielded after I’d asked a group of Russian/Polish friends to sing that song In the field stood a birch tree used by Tchaikovsky in the finale of his Symphony No. 4; they weren’t particularly excited to give it an airing but, when they did, the ending of all lines had been added to, making the melodic shapes four-square and, compared to Tchaikovsky’s slight abridgements (two beats silence at the end of each line), prosaic.  Who was right? I’m hoping it was Tchaikovsky.

On this night, I heard about nine extracts from Hanggai’s collected works, all of them coming from CDs recorded between 2007 and last year.   All but two – the group’s hit Drinking Song and (I think) the Lullaby for Borulai – involved MSO backing that in some cases proved substantial, almost drowning out the visitors – except for their indefatigable drum-kit player Zhengha Yang cocooned in his own plastic-surrounded cell.  I’m assuming that Tan Dun supplied the arrangements; not that I’m an expert but the orchestration proved continuously clever and loaded with colours that spruced up the original melodies.

I believe the same thing can be seen in British folk music where less scrupulous interpreters and arrangers have bowdlerized the originals to make the products more easy for the general public to imbibe.  But against that, you have the shining beacon of Bartok who could do the popular thing (Romanian Folk Dances, anyone?) but who paid many European countries’ music a mighty service by transcribing it with searing accuracy and infusing it into his own musical processes with no intention of sugaring the pill.

The Bartok treatment didn’t apply to these Mongolian folk tunes. As you’d expect, they have been put into an acceptable rock-band garb, complete with inexorable regular syncopations and a harmonic scheme that would have astonished Cimarosa with its obtuseness.  The singers – Yiliqi, Daorina, Batubagen – spent most of the night yelling, using a head voice and disdaining to employ their diaphragms; what need, when you’re amplified, to learn how to sing properly?  Further to this, we were assured in much promotional material that the group had its genesis when one of the foundation members got tired of your garden variety rock and decided to learn throat-singing in an effort to go back to part of his country’s national music roots.  Well, we heard precious little of that on this evening; something like it occurred during the ensemble’s last bracket, beginning with Samsara, but, if you’ve heard Tibetan monks at their devotions, this was a pallid reflection of the real thing.

Hanggai struck me as part of the international brotherhood of rough rock and roll; not personally aggressive enough to take on the punk mantle, from which school some of the members sprang, but assuming certain touches in their presentation intended to add to the ensemble’s carefully prepared ‘untamed’ character.

Throughout the night, films were screened behind the players, most to do with Mongolia and showing images of the country as they might be displayed in a travelogue: sweeping steppes, undulating vales of green grass, endless shots of horses running wild or being driven or simply being ridden.  Nothing amiss with this; Tan is a top name among film composers and a fair few of his past New Year concerts have been played with a film component.

Even for his new Contrabass Concerto: Wolf Totem, with MSO principal Steve Reeves as soloist, Tan screened three extended sequences showing scenes of lupine life: roving on the open range with the pack(s); attempts by the wolves to raid a team of horses at night; finally, men hunting (and killing) wolves.   All this while Reeves outlined the composer’s taxing solo line with a goodly amount of high work on the G string, including notes well above the end of the fingerboard.   Unfortunately, Reeves met with several pitch problems that sounded out all too clearly as Tan allowed him plenty of exposure, including a flashy cadenza.

In this work also the melodic elements turned towards folk-inflected lyricism, bedizened with atmospheric textures for both soloist and orchestra.  The composer wears his emotions openly and both this concerto’s formal characteristics and its scintillating surface combine to make an immediately attractive construct, the score packed with action and – for the most part – an excellent aural illustration of the film.

The night’s only other serious music, also by Tan, was Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds, which involved a bit of audience participation that I mentally pooh-poohed before the performance but which turned out to be close to magical.  For this, the composer had asked audience members to download an app to be played from their cellphones during the work’s progress.  As it turned out, the pre-recorded mass sound came at the start when the composer pointed to various points of the hall to activate their 52 seconds of sound – a mass of bird chirps, which slowly moved across the hall from left to right – then starting the MSO on its way through the new score which brought fresh textures and sonic surprises at every turn, including brass outbursts of biting intensity, string layering, the orchestra turning on their own bird-sound apps, all the while bringing us back to the ground bass being jockeyed round the orchestra.

I wasn’t sure about the film accompanying this work.  Abandoning the wild-life scheme, here the backdrop consisted of Chinese ideograms/letters juxtaposed with and superimposed by and on what looked like ancient Chinese symbols and letters.  Still, by this stage I was glad to be spared the endless clips of horse hordes, even some welcome still lives of sheep and cattle that illustrated Grassland My Beautiful Home; it meant that your visual incomprehension generated a fall-back in your attention to what was going on with the musicians.

Both concerto and passacaglia were received with clear approbation by a well-populated hall, which also reacted with enthusiasm to each of the Hanggai offerings including Horse of Colours with its appropriate galloping pace, The Transistor Made in Shanghai for that essential touch of contemporary humour, the afore-mentioned Grassland My Beautiful Home which bore unmistakable reference to country-and-western influences, an unscheduled airing of Uruumdush, and a Swan Geese finale with a mesmerising film of wild bird flights in convoy.

After a good many years’ exposure to attempted fusions of popular music performers with orchestras, I have to confess that the experiences haven’t generated great enthusiasm on my part.  The trouble is worsened when it comes to rock-and-roll because it is essentially a retrogressive form of music.  Given the freedom to break boundaries and forge new paths, rock settled into a behavioural groove compared to which New Orleans jazz is a maelstrom of creativity.   Electronic instruments with incredible potential have never been exploited, possibly because of the dearth of trained musicians in rock-and-roll ranks, possibly because popular determinations stamped out all attempts at real creativity (Frank Zappa, Hendrix, even Carlos Santana) so that today’s scene is packed with self-indulgent mediocrities whose points of difference are sub-atomic.

Hanggai, from a distance (as they were on this night), are unremarkable.  Their frequent appearances on the film stock being unwound before us showed a tendency to see themselves (or allow themselves to be presented) as rebels, isolated heroes, a posse that might have escaped from the set of a spaghetti western, dogged forward-striding figures that recall ageing images of Deep Purple or the Rolling Stones – anything, in fact, except musicians.   Their material is basically sweet and wistful, but they drag it screaming along a predictable furrow.   Nevertheless, I’m very thankful to Tan Dun for making the process of experiencing their work a great deal less harrowing than it could have been.

 

 

 

What price the Holy Spirit?

ARVO PART & J.S.BACH

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Sunday February 10

Estonian

                                               Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

Starting out 2019 as it probably means to continue, the ACO under Richard Tognetti mounted a first program for its subscription series that stretched across the centuries, its main structural premise to put side by side works from two composers of religious music.  If you really stretch, you can find links between Bach and Part; when I say ‘you’, I mean it because I can’t see any grounds for comparison – not in terms of the mechanics of composition nor in the self-imposed aesthetic of both men.

Nevertheless, this event – playing to a pretty full Hamer Hall  –  succeeded conclusively on technical grounds, if none other.   The guest choir proved to be an exceptionally well-balanced ensemble, apart from a sporadically dominant soprano in Choir 1, with a fine tenor sextet and an appreciable difference in sound colour between the two groups during the Bach works.   It was impossible to take notes during the performance as the hall was plunged into darkness as soon as the music started; which struck me as odd, unnecessarily theatrical when the places for which most of these compositions were composed are usually blazing with light.

Having a firm association with their famous compatriot, the Estonian singers brought out the best in the two Part vocal scores: Da pacem, Domine,  and the Berliner Messe of 1990.  Like many of the composer’s works, the Da pacem shows few signs of harmonic adventure with several finely ground dissonances slightly disturbing the usual placid polyphonic carapace, mainly through supple triadic juxtapositions.  As a requiem for the Madrid train bombing victims of 2004, the short motet-like work is informed by familiar Part tropes, including a slow-moving-to-static pulse, isolated notes for the sopranos, and an atmosphere of ritualised mourning.  The choir sang it from in front of the ACO, before moving to their expected positions behind the instruments.

On this occasion, the version used was Part’s arrangement for voices and strings, which set the timbre field for the rest of the afternoon.   When the next work burst upon us, Bach’s Komm, Jesu, komm, the ACO strings doubled the vocal lines and did so for Singet dem Herrn, the four-part Lobet den Herrn, Der Geist hilft and also performed the Berlin Mass in Part’s post-premiere arrangement for voices and strings.

As for discrete works from the two forces, Tognetti took the ACO through Part’s Summa, later recycled as the Credo for his Mass and a transparent sample of the composer’s synchronising of an arpeggio/triad with a mode: stately, not leading anywhere and reminiscent of a conversation where all the sentences stay unfinished.   Following interval, the strings played the Toccata from Part’s Collage on B-A-C-H, the only one of the three movements that is scored for strings alone.   Not so much a toccata as a moto perpetuo satire on continuo homophony, this proved to be the program’s oddity for its pulsating rhythmic drive, as well as for having no connection with the spiritual referents of the other works performed.

Galina Grigorjeva’s In Paradisum gave the EPCC a solo spot and, although the piece would have gained from a space with an abundant echo, it slotted into these proceedings without much effort.  Almost inevitably, this slow-moving setting of the Requiem Mass’s final antiphon showed a predilection for Part’s commitment to triads and the common major chord, best exemplified in the three thrilling bursts of acclaim at the words Chorus Angelorum te suscipiant, even if moments like this show both composers’ debt to Rachmaninov.   But Grigorjeva’s writing is more pungent, especially in the use of 2nd intervals; while her employment of chords-plus-fluent melodic lines in combination suggests the senior writer, her setting style has more magniloquence to it.

I suppose the inclusion of Sculthorpe’s Djilele was meant to demonstrate Aboriginal spirituality through a semi-sophisticated Western compositional filter.  But it rather undercut the surrounding pieces because the fragment gives little more than atmosphere, suggesting the outback with as much subtlety as Chauvel’s film Jedda.  Timo-Veikko Valve made a mountain out of the opening cello solo but I missed the textural contributions of six winds and percussion appearing in the original arrangement that Sculthorpe organised for the ACO back in 1996.

You couldn’t take exception to the Mass as a liturgical construct.   Part kept his language sombre and open to the performers’ own choice of inflections with an inbuilt consistency  in language that complemented a necessary variety in both weight and vocal/instrumental combinations.   Yes, there are longueurs, like the mode employed for both Gloria and Credo which gives a chord or a two-voice interval to each syllable and simply forges ahead on a steady path, regardless of the textual content.   Compensating for this are some surprises with two fluid Alleluia settings that site the work as usable for Pentecost and a setting of that feast’s Sequence, Veni Sancte Spiritus, which suggests a slow medieval dance or conductus, albeit one where the metre changes from 3 to 4 beats in the bar with welcome regularity.

While the choral body came across very confidently in this four-part composition, Tognetti’s strings were a much less assertive presence; to such an extent that you might have thought that Part had confined his orchestra to supportive duties only, until you see in the score that many passages have welcome individual touches, including harmonics that in this performance failed to carry with anything like sufficient power.   The lack of weight, especially in the upper string ranks, meant that Part’s carefully disposed chords became attenuated, not the trenchant commentary intended.

At its core, this near-30-year-old Mass, even if a revenant from pre-Vatican II times, is perfectly serviceable as an ecumenical liturgical construct and serves as well as anything else in the catalogue to allow a fair summation of Part’s voice which can be direct enough for the intended purpose and isn’t consistently aiming for transcendence.   In some ways, the Estonian is an old-fashioned writer, utilising simple structures and patterns , suggesting a spiritual remoteness and the silence of meditation rather than the resonant jubilation of proximity to the divine.

With a new year comes a new format in the ACO’s program booklets; new to me, at least.  A short description of each work is provided but the bulk of the material comprises commentary and interview articles.   Amiel Courtin-Wilson , artist and film-maker, gives an appreciation of Part’s role in his mental life: an appealing encomium which stops just short of gushing.   Arab-Australian poet Omar Sakr offers a substantial piece that includes Tognetti’s views on Part and Bach, with the emphasis on the latter.  Finally, ACO librarian Bernard Rofe suggests some ways to approach the program and, in a small space, attempts to find common ground between the pieces being presented.

Much of the central article by Sakr makes invigorating reading, although you suspect that Tognetti is reaching to activate a muted shock button in his evaluation of Bach’s interpretation of the Lutheran zeitgeist.   He is quite right to point to a historical connection between the two composers featured in his program’s title but, given the scores themselves, surely this resolves into both men’s dedication to sacred music.  Even to those among us who are charitably disposed to fluffing up music-history pillows, Part and Bach operate in completely discrete arenas of thought, let alone action; that their metaphysical aspirations are close is probably worth debating but their lives, their musical practice, their creative personalities are as far apart as Josquin and Berio.

Obviously, the new booklet format must be welcomed for putting forward a welter of thoughts that continue to bemuse  both before and after the concerts themselves.  Perhaps this afternoon was – as I think – a mish-mash and not that convincing as a practical compendium of two musics; or possibly the applause that greeted both halves of this concert sees the enterprise differently, showing a more generous, accepting attitude from ACO followers.  What must be said – and I can’t say the same as frequently as I’d like  –  these two hours spent with the ACO and EPCC were unexpectedly fruitful and challenging.

 

 

 

A few bruises but solid core

THE FLYING DUTCHMAN

Melbourne Opera

Regent Theatre

February 3

the-flying-dutchman-melbourne-opera-steven-gallop-daland-lee-abrahmsen-senta

      Steven Gallop (Daland) and Lee Abrahmsen (Senta)

 

Continuing the wealth of Wagner performances that have festooned the citys theatres in recent years, Melbourne Opera follows its Tannhauser/Lohengrin/Tristan successes with this mostly praiseworthy production (director Suzanne Chaundy, sets Andrew Bailey, costumes Verity Hunt-Ballard, lighting Rob Sowinski) of the composer’s trail-blazing initial contribution to German Romanticism.   The principal line-up is an impressive one, particularly soprano Lee Abrahmsen adding another excellent interpretation to her repertoire with the company.

Also functioning efficiently was the MO Orchestra under Anthony Negus, here working under favourable conditions in a real pit.  You could cavil with some horn work – an occasional spliced note, some ragged group entries – but the bulk of the instrumental output came across with suitable gusto after the woodwind had settled into a communally agreed pitch following the matchless overture.   Since the opera was played as intended –  without a break – fatigue became pretty obvious in the final pages.  Yet the general fabric made a favourable impression during the greater part of the score, even if timpanist Arwen Johnston, situated at stalls level, sounded over-willing at  climactic points.

For this production, the MO went all out to assemble a large chorus, necessary if you’re going to have a successful confrontation between the two ships’ crews in the final act.  The numbers were certainly there and made a brave showing on stage, although you could have wished for better balance throughout.   For instance, the Steuermann, lass die Wacht! chorus that opens the last act came over with appreciable swagger and an aggressive heft to the strong beats but the top tenors lacked heft when set against the other three lines and their top B flats and glancing As sounded thin.

Act 2’s Summ’ und brumm’ spinning chorus opening also seemed under-powered at the top even though Wagner is very kind to the singers involved.  Only at the er denkt nach Haus chords did you feel that the parts were properly balanced in dynamic terms.  Later, when the women participated at the conclusion to Senta’s Ya ho-hoe! ballad with their moving Ach! Wo weilt sie commentary/coda, the singers’ delivery showed a fine level of preparation and ensemble.

Negus experienced a few unsettling moments as far as the chorus was concerned, most notably in the first act where the sailors were in danger of over-running the beat – a regular problem even with companies more experienced than this one.   But the searching test, when the maximum numbers are involved during the final act, revealed little of this lack of discipline, the choral complex solid for the most part.  On the other hand, it was hard to fault any member of the principal sextet in this respect and you heard very little of the bar-line ignoring that has bedevilled previous productions of later works like The Ring and Tristan in particular where rhythmic flummery all too often becomes the prevailing texture.

Right from his Die Frist ist um soliloquy,  Darren Jeffrey had the measure of the title character’s role,  revealing a forceful timbre at the Bergehne Hoffnung! outburst and a rich, carrying power in the final peroration.  Further along in the action, the singer almost contrived to make credible the Wie aus die Ferne duet where the doomed sailor thinks he might have found redemption; the effect reached not through a sudden brightness or giving in to the score’s major-key benignity but more by way of a sort of relieved resignation, to such a point that the consoling melodic fluency here and in the end-of-act trio with Daland was articulated with appropriate urgency rather than elation.

Even in the melodramatic final scene, Jeffrey brought into play a vocal determination that gave an unexpected briskness to the character’s final address, Erfahre das Geschick. Even to the untutored eye (or ear), the Dutchman is doomed from the start but the betrayal he feels in these last strophes needs to be unrelieved, so that Senta’s sacrifice stands unalloyed.   In this respect Jeffrey dominated the drama’s resolution, his last self-identification a marvellously exposed bravura passage here handled with excellent forcefulness.

Abrahmsen’s Act 2 also contributed significantly to the production’s commitment to steadily advancing tragedy.  After the unsettling fixation that Senta shows in her opening scene, undistracted by ex-nurse Mary and the spinning girls, the soprano handled her interchange with Erik comfortably enough, sustaining the  girl’s preoccupation and giving her wooer little hope despite the appealing charm of his Mein Herz voll Treue address.  Mind you, there’s not much chance to amplify Senta’s dramatic range in the duet/trio that concludes this part of the opera because the situation offers only a completion of the aspirations with which it began.

As with Jeffrey, Abrahmsen infused her work with a firmness in articulation and dynamic that was constant across the work’s span.   Wagner, despite the reputation he had of drowning out his vocalists, treated them considerately and Senta enjoys as much of this pre-Brunnhilde civility as Elisabeth or Elsa; a brace of high Bs in the Terzett strike you as flashy sparks that shine out strongly in this context but Abrahmsen has a wealth of musicianship, more than enough to weld this opportunity for bravura into a coherent ensemble.

As Daland, the wealth-loving father of Senta, Steven Gallop did his best to differentiate the character’s vocal personality from that of the Dutchman, tending to strain his line in the opening exchanges with the Steersman and sailors but making fair weather of the substantial Wie? Hort ich recht? duet that occupies the second half of Act 1; in this case, an agreable stretch with two basses that sat comfortably side-by-side.  Roxane Hislop was hardly pressed by the small role of Mary: 24 lines only and many of them conversational couplets of no great moment.

Michael Lapina’s Steuermann made one of the opera’s happier characters, most obviously so in the Mit Gewitter und Sturm solo of the first scene which combines an unaccompanied upward scale with a chordal after-strophe: one of the composer’s happier and simpler delineations of personality.  Lapina’s lavishness of delivery, informed by an infectious bonhomie in his stage presence, opened this tale of small happy love and great tragic infatuation with a telling charm.

But the vocal  surprise of the premiere came with the night’s Erik, Rosario La Spina.  I’ve not heard this tenor for some years and was taken aback by his bright sound-colour, both in a ringing Act 2 solo just before he comes to grips with Senta’s preoccupation and delaying tactics, and later the Willst jenes Tag’s last attempt to bring her back to the normal level of inter-personal intercourse that she is inflexibly determined to discard.

Neither of these exposed arias comes close to the inspiration that the score reaches at its more fraught stretches, chiefly because Erik’s vocal line is almost Italianate in its sentiment and shape.   But the music suits this uncomplicated man so aptly that you tend to ignore how out-of-step it is with the surging, harrowing scenes that are the work’s natural setting.   I’ve read somewhere that this is La Spina’s first essay at Wagner: a pity it’s taken so long.  I’ve sat through many a Siegfried and Siegmund who have worked for hours to less effect than this artist’s few minutes of exposure.

On a final carping note, the production offered surtitles above the Regent proscenium.  From my seat, half-way up the stalls, the screened English translation was illegible.  This could have been attributable to advancing years and its concomitant failing eyesight except that recent experiences in other theatres from roughly the same position have been more happy.

There are two further performances of The Flying Dutchman: Tuesday February 5 and Thursday February 7.

 

 

 

 

New take on an old tale

ORPHEUS

Forest Collective

Sacred Heart Oratory, Abbotsford Convent

Thursday January 31

 

orpheus_8770-web

                                 (L to R) Piaera Lauritz, Ashley Dougan, Luke Fryer        (Photo: Kate J. Baker)

 

This is the first time that the Midsumma Festival has offered me a review ticket in its 20 year history.   Admittedly, previous programs have given little room to serious music, the organizers being usually content to present bands and solo artists of limited ability or musicianship.   All the more remarkable, then, that this ambitious project got off the ground under the Festival’s umbrella, and that its character impressed both for its compressed clarity of content and for a happy avoidance of obtuseness.

Evan Lawson has composed a dance opera which pays an elliptically expressed duty to the myths surrounding Orpheus’ marriage to Eurydice and his relationship with fellow Argonaut, Calais who was one of the Boread twins.  To supplement a libretto of gnomic brevity, the work involves three dancers to propose a potent extra dimension to the story-line as sung by Raymond Khong (Orpheus), Kate Bright (Eurydice) and Joseph Ewart (Calais).   These roles’ respective dancers – Ashley Dougan, Piaera Lauritz, Luke Fryer  –  operated in a central area of the Oratory room, the audience positioned on three of its fringes while Lawson’s orchestral decet made a bulwark at the fourth.

The composer has found the constituents of his text in Calzabigi’s libretto for Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, Striggio’s verses used by Monteverdi in L’Orfeo, and, for a coda,  the second sestet from Shakespeare’s song Orpheus with his lute made trees from that furiously neglected drama, Henry VIII.   Lawson also claims that as a prologue, he  made use of a Greek sea hymn by Phemocles, about whom I know nothing and could find out even less.  At an informational impasse, I thought that there might have been a confusion with Phanocles, who wrote about Orpheus’ paederastic relationship with Calais; or, more improbably, the playwright Philocles might have been involved.  Was it possible that Phemocles had some relation to the Orphic or Homeric Hymns?   We are left gasping for direction right from the start where the marine salutation is meant to occur but nothing rang any bells, even in the printed libretto.

Lawson’s singers seemed to be static but in fact moved around, singing in oratorio style from the front of the instrumental ensemble, or behind the band, eventually in the central arena.   His dancers made exits and entrances with similar flexibility.  As with so many of these multi-platform operations, I found it hard to focus, especially at the work’s opening where the sound-world proved attractive, even if it consisted in the main of sustained notes and chords, both teetering between post-Monteverdian chord progressions and not-too-astringent dissonance.   To be honest, the sounds won out over the dance action much of the time because the abstract nature of Dougan’s choreography seemed to move simply from attitude to attitude.   But then, I don’t know much that would weather informed scrutiny about the language of contemporary dance.

Still, the sonorities that emerged often proved extraordinary, in particular a passage highlighting Erica Tucceri’s bass flute later in the drama which impressed for its full-bodied power in this hall’s resonant acoustic.  Harpist Samantha Ramirez spent a fair amount of time bowing her strings, which is a device that didn’t seem that different in its results from the product of an orthodoxly addressed cello.  More successful were the various briefs allocated to Alexander Clayton’s percussion, his battery employed with determination and sometimes exemplary drama.

Of the singers, Kate Bright gave a splendid reading of the hero’s unfortunate wife, vitally powerful in the Part II duet and then mounting a bravura performance at Eurydice’s death which focused for a remarkably long period on the interval of a 2nd before the character was allowed to enter a more wide-ranging arioso, much of the scene unaccompanied.  Lawson set his bare-bones text with a wide-ranging compass for all three singers, but Bright alone managed her line’s top and bottom reaches with precision and thrilling vigour.

Khong’s tenor came across with similar force and a security that was questionable only at a few points where Lawson had used a note above the artist’s comfort zone, possibly negotiable with a switch to falsetto although that’s a dangerous ask in a vocal part that comes over as otherwise well-crafted and centrally positioned for the interpreter.  A similar moment hit for baritone Ewart, who enjoyed more courteous treatment and who produced a firm level of enunciation and clarity: a promising exhibition from the youngest member of this trio.

While the instrumental component of Orpheus tends to an alternation between portentous and sibilant, the vocal work is quite unpredictable: for whole stretches, as static as Glass; then suggestive of the placid leaps of Berio.  While you wouldn’t find it difficult to follow the emotional decline in Eurydice’s gasping, brittle death shudders or trace the fearful regret of Orpheus in Hell, it seemed to me that the score came into full flowering at ensemble moments, most obviously in the Shakespeare-utilizing epilogue where Lawson found a striking compositional vein that promised a sort of catharsis; in this tragedy, you find a consolation that broadens out into a generous efflorescence before the inevitable descent to darkness.

As I say, the dance impressed me most for its physicality more than for its expressive power.   Dougan was gifted with a remarkable solo at the work’s centre which I assume was intended to underline the struggles of Orpheus with his life after the final loss of his wife and his rejection of all women, climaxing in his confrontation with the Bacchae and their destruction of his body in a Maenad frenzy.  Lauritz’s pre-death solo gave the dancer a fine opportunity to demonstrate her unflappable solidity of gesture and positioning, and I found plenty to admire in the opening terzett where all three dancers interwove with considerable athleticism and not a trace of overt sexuality, a restraint also found in the final appearance where the dancers worked in unison as three discrete entities, all passion spent.

Orpheus is to be welcomed on several fronts.   Yes, it’s a new opera  –  and welcome for that  –  with a solid musicality behind it.   The production uses the talents of a fine group of professionals from within the Forest Collective organization and outside it; pretty much half and half in the instrumental desks.  It has a relevance to Midsumma through its re-examination of the Orpheus-Calais connection, taking matters some steps further by juxtaposing and interweaving it with the poet’s tragic marriage.   As well, Lawson and his forces handle the twin myths with dignity, taking key points and working with them rather than hammering the relationship triangle into flattened obviousness.  Best of all, the enterprise gives you a freshness of vision, even new insights into an old tale which both Monteverdi and Gluck felt obliged to end with a deus ex machina plot manipulation.  In this new telling, the central tragedie a trois remains intact.  You leave feeling that you have been involved in a ritual, human in its essence and recounted with a scouring freshness.