Placid and unchallenging

WHAT SHOULD I SAY

Elysian Fields

Move Records MCD 580

 

Elysian

 

First off, let me confess that this is a fusion with which I have little sympathy; that could be a background thing, an impatience with blandness or an absence of events.   Elysian Fields bills itself as an electric viola da gamba band.   Its six-member personnel take their impetus from Jenny Eriksson who plays the focal instrument.  She is helped along her way by vocalist and violinist Susie Bishop, saxophonist Matt Keegan, pianist Matt McMahon, bass guitarist Siebe Pogson, and drummer Finn Ryan.  I’m assuming that these artists operate principally in Sydney: the CD was made there and the groups with which these artists have links all seem to be working in the Harbour City.

So far, so fine.  What do you get for your money?   Put simply, about 52 minutes’ worth of music, which is heading towards the light-on.   In daring style, the Elysians begin with  settings of four Thomas Wyatt poems, with an extra track that serves as a prelude to the longest setting  –  that of Whoso list to hunt.   I don’t know if ‘daring’ is right, though.  The whole business reminds me of a time when I got into an argument with a folk-song singer and band leader (surname of West, I seem to recall).   It was decades ago, in the days when my judgments had not been not tempered in the furnaces of experience.   I reviewed this particular concert/recital at Monash University’s Blackwood Hall and questioned the validity of the arrangements, which struck me as sentimental and saccharine.  The singer wrote back that his interpretations were as valid as anyone’s because we don’t know exactly how people sang folk-songs originally.   That’s sort of true; what we do know, thanks to honest ethnomusicological research, is that they didn’t involve plush harmonizations or metrical/rhythmic and linear flattening-out in similar vein to Simon and Garfunkel’s handling of Scarborough Fair.

What has this to do with the Elysians’ Wyatt settings?  It’s tangential but it raises a question about the suitability of McMahon’s music to the Tudor poet’s verses.  For instance, does the music reflect, or even attempt to mirror, the dichotomy offered in the first track,  Stand Whoso list?   I can’t hear it; the song has a jazz-inflected prelude and its vocal line is limited in both vocal and emotional compasses, the eventual effect a bit of a dirge.   The second Wyatt song, Whoso list to hunt, enjoys a discrete instrumental prelude which is one of the CDs more interesting tracks in its harmonic meanderings.  But the verse setting follows the same slow pace and non-responsiveness to the poet’s words as in the first poem’s treatment.  The following What should I say and They flee from me follow the same slow andante pace; all poems except the last are repeated with varying supports – sustained bass note, single instrument as counterweight, the ensemble following the singer all too closely with complementary chords or parallel melodic lines.

But the final effect is soporific, the songs of a piece in emotional output and ambience. composer McMahon apparently viewing the settings as a kind of uniform suite.  Well, it’s one view but you might have expected something less four-square and, when you’re broken in, formulaic.   Erriksson’s electric gamba sounds unremarkable in this group, without any bite or swoop, sometimes confusingly similar in timbre to Keegan’s ultra-cool sax.   Quite a few of the poems’ linguistic peculiarities have disappeared and, while over 90% of the vocal line is of a one-note-per-syllable approach, the final line of the last poem acquires a completely gratuitous extra syllable.  Bishop handles her work, both vocal and instrumental (not much of the latter), with a gentle grace.

Matts Norrefalk’s Southern Cross arranged by Pogson, begins as a piano solo before Keegan enters, eventually yielding primacy to Eriksson; then Pogson gets a guernsey.  But, like Ricky Gervais, by this stage I don’t care; the piece is an amiable ramble and could be interchanged with much of the instrumental work that accompanied the Wyatt poems.  It’s reminiscent of that 1959 film Jazz on a Summer’s Day: hazy, meandering, the ideal background to an unchallenging riesling.   Pogson’s Dark Dreaming raises the temperature a good deal with some momentary off-centre rhythmic japes and an extended duet for sax and gamba, but it eventually goes the way of all flesh on the disc and settles into a post-MJQ rut that could have been heard in any 1960s Melbourne jazz club.

With  Elysium, settings of poems by Philip Pogson (Eriksson’s husband), composed by Keegan, the pace picks up considerably.   Here again, the interest lies somewhere else than in finding a sustaining insight into the text which gets the same syllable-by-syllable treatment and moves into several patches where the vocal line simply wanders from one pitch to its adjacent companions.   But the various segments (three songs, one instrumental with a few vocalised vowels) have a vivacity that has been lacking so far.  It’s not that the rhythm complexes get more tangled or that the instrumental combinations hold interest (apart from a gamba/sax duet that came out of nowhere). No: you sense that the performers are being stressed, exercised; Bishop hits her top notes and, in this context, they come close to thrilling.

Finally, the CD ends with a piano/gamba duet, At Carna, by McMahon in which Eriksson is under the spotlight for the most sustained stretch on the CD.   Carna refers, I believe, to the district of that name in Connemara, County Galway and the music consists of a set of variations/re-statements of a folk-like tune holding some charm and polish.  It makes a pleasant conclusion to this series of musical excursions, a kind of jazz-classical fusion with a pretty string accent on the former.   It’s taken me months to get through the CD without  becoming exasperated, mainly at the lack of grip; very little here is technically interesting and the emotional language strikes this jaded listener as too simple to take seriously.   Definitely one for those who like their music to have a benign, holiday atmosphere, not any pretensions towards intellectual engagement.

 

 

 

February Diary

SONATA WORLD TOUR 2020

Yundi Li

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Thursday February 6 at 7:30 pm

Somewhere along the line, I must have  missed this pianist’s Melbourne appearance in 2018; surprising, because his standing as the youngest competitor ever to win the Chopin Piano Competition (in 2000) would have brought him to any interested party’s attention.  Fortunately, he’s back in Australia to electrify his devoted adherents with a solo recital that – you’d guess from its title – features sonatas; in this instance, works by Chopin (No. 3, which Li has recorded twice) Schubert (the A Major D. 664) and Rachmaninov (not much of a choice here and Li has opted for No. 2).   As a filler, the performer moves outside the format and brings in the eight Etudes-tableaux by Rachmaninov.   If you’re interested, prepare to pay: the worst seats (and they are pretty terrible) cost $89 apiece while a decent place puts you back $129.   Group discounts are available but none for individuals, as far as I can work out from the QPAC site.   Li is being presented by Harmonie International, this Brisbane recital following appearances in Melbourne and Perth before two nights in Sydney, a stop-off in Auckland, then on to the US and Canada.  A limited world tour, then.

 

POWER AND GLORY

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Saturday February 8 at 7:30 pm

One-time teenage prodigy Alexander Prior conducts this opening concert for the QSO’s 2020 operations.   Building on his Russian heritage, he directs the Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 that most of us considered to be a paean to Communist ideology until we were admitted into the arcane world of the composer’s sub-texts which turned every pre-conception on its head.   Still, it never fails to energize the spirit, whether you interpret its import as sustaining the down-trodden kulak or condemning Stalin’s police state.   Opening the night, we hear a new score from Melody Eotvos, currently teaching composition at the Melbourne Conservatorium.   The name of this freshly-written work is, as yet, unknown but it was a QSO commission and Eotvos is well-versed in such occasional tasks.   At the night’s centre comes Beethoven’s Triple Concerto – with the Brahms Double Concerto, one of my guilty pleasures.   The soloists all have strong local connections:  violinist Emily Sun comes fresh from reviving Matthew Hindson‘s Violin Concerto Australian postcards at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl; cellist Caleb Wong has been a Melbourne regular, thanks to the Australian National Academy of Music, for several years; and pianist Aura Go has made a recurrent and welcome presence in Australia’s recital programs.   How the three of them will work together in this work is anyone’s guess; my preference has always been for an established piano trio fronting a work that is all too often undervalued.

 

STAR WARS: RETURN OF THE JEDI

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre

Saturday February 15 at 2 pm

Everybody’s favourite in the first trilogy, I guess; having just endured the overblown Gothic of the last instalment of the final set, this old (1983) masterpiece shows up how poorly the scripts have developed over 36 years.   I’ve not experienced the production modes of Brisbane as far as film soundtracks go but am assuming they’re not that much different to Melbourne’s practices.   The music will be very prominent, probably to the point where projected surtitles will be necessary for those desert-dwelling Stylites who haven’t seen this film twenty times over.   There’s no avoiding the warming inevitability of the John Williams score with its memorable main title and the motifs that hurl out every time Darth Vader and the storm troopers come into view, although you get some relief with the Ewoks and the final medieval celebration music is a splendid touch.  Nicholas Buc here adds to his impressive repertoire of realized film soundtracks, getting the audience well onside before the QSO brass bursts out across the first frame.

This program will be repeated at 7:30 pm.

 

A NEW WORLD: INTIMATE MUSIC FROM FINAL FANTASY

New World Players

Brisbane Powerhouse

Saturday February 15 at 7:30 pm

These players are new to me.  Are they locals?  I can’t trace them; moreover, the ensemble plays a lot in the USA, if you can trust the internet for your information.  Further, the group’s advertised conductor/director, Eric Roth, is a famous American jack-of-all-trades: composer, orchestrator/arranger. producer and conductor with wide acclaim for this particular program.  It’s based on a video game which revolves around fantasy and science fantasy role-playing games.  Right: I’ve got some awareness of this from my grandson although the exercise seems to be far more directed towards participants than observers; mind you, they’re probably one and the same.  In any case, Roth and his ensemble – a decet, if the publicity photo is any guide – will play this video-game music, written by Nobuo Uematsu who is a big noise in the industry and composed most of the scores for the Final Fantasy franchise.  An individual musician singled out for note in this concert is German pianist Benyamin Nuss who has had composer-approving success interpreting Uematsu’s work.  With only limited exposure to Final Fantasy‘s soundtrack, I found the product charming, Romantic, salonesque; no matter what happens in the games, it’s as though 20th century music didn’t happen.

 

BEETHOVEN 1, 2 & 3

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday February 17 at 7 pm

And here we go on the Beethoven sestercentennial.  Richard Tognetti and his excellent orchestra – expanded for the occasion with 12 wind (13 for the Symphony in E flat), timpani and some extra strings provided by the Australian National Academy of Music. This is a marvellous juxtaposition of two scores that we rarely hear live and one of the cornerstones of the repertoire, all written across a five-year span and demonstrating Beethoven’s expansiveness of vision; already obvious in the first C Major work but explosive in the Eroica.   Have we heard the ACO’s reading of the composer’s first two essays in the symphony form?   I don’t think so but we are assured of a dust-free evening as Tognetti and his charges unveil a fresh battery of sparkling facets to music that all too frequently is delineated with numbing solemnity and attention-dulling heft.  The question that faces us after tonight is: will anybody better this program in a year full of celebratory observances?

 

PURELY MOZART

Ensemble Trivium

Old Government House

Friday February 21 at 7 pm

This will be one of the more concentrated chamber music experiences of the year.  Flautist Monika Koerner and three friends are taking on the four Flute Quartets by Mozart.  Not particularly difficult, these small-frame gems exemplify the composer’s melodic facility and his capacity to surprise you with unexpected quirks that are absent in his contemporaries’ more four-square creations.   Helping Koerner through the hour’s worth of music performance are violinist Anne Horton from the Australian National University’s School of Music, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s associate principal violist Yoko Okayasu, and cellist Trish O’Brien from Ensemble Q.   It will all be a leisurely stroll, these works products of Mozart’s early 20s and of a piece with his lighter string quartets or divertimenti.   Fleshing out the entertainment, the quartets will be interwoven with readings from Mozart’s letters; you assume the musicians will carry out this task as no speaker is specified.

 

BEETHOVEN AND BRAHMS

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio

Sunday February 23 at 3 pm

Opening its Beethoven celebrations in this 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth, the QSO dedicates half of this chamber recital to a rarely performed piece: the Wind Sextet Op. 71.   Its catalogue number would make you think that the score belongs to the period of the Pastoral Symphony, the Emperor Concerto, the Ghost Piano Trio, and Fidelio.  But it actually belongs to the era of the first two piano concertos, the early cello sonatas, the C minor Piano Trio, and the Quintet for piano and winds.   Its four movements show a brusqueness, if not too aggressive in its application; for many of us, this will be the first live performance we’ll have heard – and are likely to hear for some time.  The clarinets are acting associate principal Brian Catchlove and Kate Travers; principal Nicole Tait and Evan Lewis provide the bassoon lines; the horn players are associate principal Alex Miller and Lauren Manuel.   As an odd complement to this rarity, we hear the massive Piano Quintet in F minor by Brahms, thanks to concertmaster Warwick Adeney and fellow violinist Shane Chen, violist Bernard Hoey, associate principal cello Hyung Suk Bae, with guest Anna Grinberg from the University of Queensland’s School of Music taking on the

formidable keyboard element.   Both works total only about an hour in performance but there’s a fair chance you’ll be satisfied, if not sated, at the event’s conclusion.

 

THE TRUMPET UNLEASHED

Southern Cross Soloists

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Sunday February 23 at 3 pm

To be honest, I’d be delighted to hear a trumpet player let loose; most of the time, they’re inclined to behave as if constipated, tastefully controlling their dynamic level to avoid any semblance of domination.    From the Concertgebouw comes principal Miroslav Petkov who opens his innings with Maurice Andre‘s arrangement of the Vivaldi Trumpet Concerto RV 20, which in my book is the Violin Sonata No. 4 in F Major.  Did the composer write a concerto for single trumpet?   If so, I can’t find it.   For relief, Paul Dean interpolates a clarinet solo by Tasmanian-based saxophonist Jabra Latham before the ensemble launches into Frozen River Flows from 2005, originally for oboe and percussion, by Petkov’s fellow Bulgarian Dobrinka Tabakova.   Then come some arrangements for trumpet of Rachmaninov Romances – probably not all 7 in the list of the composer’s compositions.    Stravinsky’s Petrushka then appears, but surely not the whole ballet?   And Petkov ends with La Virgen de la Macarena in the version made popular by the famous Mexican trumpeter Rafael Mendez: a nice piece of kitsch to round off another mixed bag of offerings from this unpredictable ensemble.  Oh, and the recital will take place in Reverse Mode, with the audience positioned in the choir seats surrounding the stage, thereby enjoying close proximity to the performers.

 

Karlsruhe Konzert-duo

Commissariat Store Museum, 115 William Street

Tuesday February 25 at 6:30 pm

This ensemble, established in 1998, comprises cellist Reinhard Armleder and pianist Dagmar Hartmann.   For this event, the musicians are being sponsored by the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, which might go some way to explaining the recital’s venue.   In any case, we are promised works by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann,  Liszt, Ravel and de Falla.  No problems with the first two names, thanks to five formidable sonatas from Beethoven and two sonatas as well as a set of fine concert variations from Mendelssohn.   Schumann produced the 5 Stucke im Vokkston, and the cello is a possibility in the Op. 70 Adagio and Allegro, as well as the Op. 73 Fantasy Pieces.  Liszt arranged two elegies for the cello/piano combination, as well as the Romance oubliee and La lugubre gondola.  R avel wrote nothing for this instrumental duo; Falla wrote a Melody, a Piece and a Romance for cello and piano.  Or perhaps this list of possibilities is a tad purist.   The duo certainly play Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 3 in an arranged format and I suspect they may play other transcriptions as well.   Try as I might, details of actual works are impossible to find: you just have to invest the players with a certain amount of  trust.  There will be no intermission and the event lasts for 90 minutes.

 

GARRICK OHLSSON

Musica Viva

Queensland Conservatorium Theatre

Thursday February 27 at 7 pm

Always a welcome visitor, American master-pianist Ohlsson is offering two programs for this tour, Brisbane scoring the first of them.   The offerings range from Beethoven, through Prokofiev, landing finally on a substantial Chopin bracket.  Over the years, Melbourne has heard a good deal from Ohlsson, most of it in solo recital format, and he never disappoints, his interpretation standards informed without excessive erudition and his technical command unfaltering.   Beethoven to begin, then: the B flat Sonata No. 11 of 1800 which some commentators esteem as formal perfection, in this case wedded to an easy-flowing optimism across all four movements.   Ohlsson then bounds forward 140 years to the bracing Prokofiev Sonata No. 6: brilliant virtuosic writing for keyboard and asking for rapid-fire recovery rates.   As for the Chopin, the pianist – only American winner of the Chopin Piano Competition (1970) – genuflects to the well-known with the Berceuse, as well as the half-remembered in the Impromptu No. 2, gives an airing to the open-hearted C sharp minor Scherzo, and treats us to some of the Op. 25 Etudes – Nos. 5 to 10.   Unmissable.