Back in the saddle again

BENDIGO CHAMBER MUSIC FESTIVAL – SUMMER NIGHTS SERIES I

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Capital Theatre

Wednesday February 3

David Griffiths

It’s quite a simplification to point to the Melbourne Digital operation as the solitary production name associated with this recital, but it was the one that sold me my ticket. Naturally, the Bendigo arts apparatus and city hall were very much part of the process: the festival operates (this is its second year) under the council’s aegis and in council venues. Somewhere along the way, the Australian National Academy of Music was mentioned; that might have been connected to cello guru Howard Penney, who has been an ANAM presence for many years now, and who performed in the night’s first offering.

In any case, this recital signalled the opening to Bendigo’s chamber music week which is packed with eminent figures. As these events take place in front of live audiences, you feel a tad uneasy about treating them as digital; if your heart was in the right place, you should have made the journey and sat in the Capital alongside other committed devotees. Only the fear of quarantine laws being suddenly hurled into place kept me home in Palaszczuk’s Paradise, yet again doomed not to visit a provincial Victorian city that I last visited in 1962. Ballarat I know well because of the Goldfields Organs days each January; Bendigo didn’t have musical interest until the creation in 2013 by David Chisholm of his International Festival of Exploratory Music Festival, but commitment circumstances and recurrent illnesses kept me from observing what looked like the most experimentally advanced music-making in the country.

Here we were on Wednesday, witnessing the start to serious musical action in 2021. MDCH founder Christopher Howlett gave one of his scatter-gun addresses that just don’t quite trip off the tongue but cover a lot of ground. Penney had notes but his speech became a mixed collation – benign burbling. Luckily, Bendigo Mayor Jennifer Alden, on stage to open the festival, had a satisfying fluency, beginning with the acknowledgement that we whites are all invaders and reprehensible scum, even if we’re not going anywhere soon. She, like Howlett and Penny, thanked everybody in sight, with a hefty emphasis on the council’s employees and local volunteers.

By the time this voluble vocal trio had finished, we were panting for some actual music. And we got it in the form of Vivaldi’s Oboe Concerto in C RV 447, with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s associate principal oboe Thomas Hutchinson as soloist. He was programmed to work in front of a small string group: violins Natsuko Yoshimoto and Anna de Silva Chen, violist Christopher Moore, and Penney. It took me no time at all to perceive that Chen was absent and her place taken by Matthew Tomkins, the MSO’s principal second; well, I thought it was Tomkins – it had been been about 16 months since I’d last seen him at work but he looked pretty much as I remembered him. Then I found a later version of the full festival where the change had been officially recorded.

In my edition of the Vivaldi, the soloist is rarely silent, doubling the top violin line throughout. Not so here, Hutchinson not sighted (or heard) until bar 18 of the first Allegro. And so it went on, the soloist reserving himself for the exposed segments. Not that you can carp at this; it isn’t every soloist who plays along with the tuttis in Mozart piano concertos, although I’ve seen that done. Thankfully, this soloist bent his line where possible, avoiding a rhythmic regularity that can kill a Vivaldi concerto. And he bounded faultlessly through those triplet patterns that dominate the oboe line, as in bars 31-36, 52-65 and 90-93, but with some relieving pattern work of varying size. Let’s not forget the quartet which addressed its work with cutting finesse; just as well, given the small numbers involved.

Hutchinson enjoyed more room to exercise his vibrato in the central Larghetto, with only the top three strings supplying regular quaver triads as backstop. In fact, these pages alternate a syncopated melody with demi-semiquaver figurations in clusters of four which the oboist treated with an impressive fluidity, a type of suit-yourself easiness, up to a final perfect cadence sublimated in the soloist’s ornamentation. As for Vivaldi’s Minuetto finale, it was probably just as well that none of the repeats were observed, as it’s unlikely that interest could have been sustained. You could find no fault with Hutchinson who soared through more pages of rapid triplets and further demi-semiquavers that tripped over themselves on the page but poured out seamlessly despite the pressure. The only complaint you could raise was a tendency to introduce a slight pause after every four bars in the Minore C minor segment starting at bar 230.

For the highly confident reading of Bartok’s Contrasts trio, David Griffiths gave us a splendidly balanced clarinet line, handsomely partnered by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster, Sophie Rowell. At the opening to this part of the night, I was again struck with indecision as the pianist didn’t resemble one of the scheduled keyboard players- Daniel de Borah. Nor did the musician share any physical properties with the other potential performer in this role. It took me almost till the end until I realized that this face-out-of-nowhere belonged to Benjamin Martin; almost a stranger because I haven’t seen the Firebird Trio live for many years.

In fact, the pianist played a subsidiary role for long stretches of the opening Verbunkos, leaving the fun to both Griffiths and Rowell although the whole trio clearly relished the vehement clashes that conclude bars 60 and 64. More importantly, the movement radiated an individual freedom, even in concerted passages, not to mention the fugato interplay that both eases and adds to the movement’s jaunty tension. In the ensuing Piheno, you were aware from the start of the care taken in preparing this movement, considering the dynamic consideration taken from bar 11 to bar 17, just before the first of the brief night music bursts. Later, these players maintained a clear amalgam of lines between bars 35 and 40 – possibly this work’s most moving sequence.

Then the gloves came off for the Sebes which exploded into action, most pronounced from Martin who devoured the cross-rhythms from bar 36 onward. This opening part impresses me as a remarkably dangerous sequence, threatening to spiral out of control if you attack it with gusto. But you could find few indications of vertigo, even after bar 71 up to the resumption of normal play at bar 99. Later, the performance successfully painted the wide-ranging canvas that stretches from the 8+5/8 Piu mosso simple clarity up to the mobile piano clusters that close out this spellbinding rhythmic ambiguity at bar 168. It’s hard to avoid suggestions of over-exertion in the final pages, Bartok gifting his violinist an unwieldy cadenza along the way, but this trio showed no slackening of tension or powerful impetus up to the last punch.

Luckily, the cast stayed the same on the early notifications as on the Festival program for this evening’s concluding Mendelssohn Piano Quartet Op. 3 in B minor: violinist Howell, violist Tobias Breider from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s principal desk, MDCH eminence and cellist Christopher Howlett, with Daniel de Borah faced facing yet another imbalanced and hyper-active piano part from a young (15-years old) composer. Before starting, Howlett told us that this particular day was Mendelssohn’s birthday – which it was: his 212th – and gave some information about the young genius’s musical activities at the time. Then, they were off with a well-defined attack, despite the opening page’s muffled nature.

It was inevitable that attention fell on de Borah, fulfilling bar after bar of rapid triplets during the Allegro molto‘s first part. Still, the rest of the ensemble didn’t take backward steps, Breider notably forward in duets with Rowell and Howlett who played with a firm deliberation, as well as I’ve ever heard him perform. Transmission was interrupted for a few seconds in the development’s guts, compensated for by an excellently negotiated dying fall after the changes of key and tonal key restatement led to an elegant recapitulation and a fierce Piu allegro coda.

De Borah took primacy at the Andante‘s outset with an impressive shapeliness to Mendelssohn’s rather pedestrian melody, relieved by Breider at bar 10 serving as the pivot of some eloquent string duets. Possibly, Rowell proved too self-effacing in some short snatches where the violin has a passing dominance; Howlett showed no similar bent, taking full advantage of some impressive tenor clef 7th leaps and a purple cello patch leading back to the initial theme.

De Borah was fully tested by the work’s Scherzo in which the pianist is tested by endless semiquavers while the strings serve as punctuation. When the highpoints came, they proved texturally thick and aggressive at the forte passages, that triumphalism reinforced by an emphatic sequence of piano arpeggios. Still, you could not find anything less than full enthusiasm informing the B Major Trio, taken with persuasive, if eventually wearing, heartiness. I’m probably alone in finding too much note-spinning in the vivace finale where the hard-faced working-out of material sits at odds with the fluency of the preceding movements. By this stage, too, de Borah’s forte had turned into a more forceful creature and a few slips on wide leaps marred Rowell’s copybook; nothing major, but distracting from the accomplishment of an unwieldy set of pages, so that the final bars were welcome for relieving a double tension.

This recital introduced a week of music-making: the first sign anywhere, a far as I could tell, of a return to what passes for normal these days after the Christmas/New Year hiatus. Of course, it’s heart-warming to see musicians at their craft, especially flaunting their charms in a provincial centre. And this program slipped us back into concert-going mode carefully – especially those of us confined to the digital experience, for the most part. We’ll have to get used to straitened circumstances, like limited audience numbers and the concomitant care for personal/public hygiene, and an emphasis on smaller scale music-making formats. Yet, as an indication of the shape of things to come, this Bendigo festival opening made for a highly welcome reassurance.