AUSTRALIAN FESTIVAL OF CHAMBER MUSIC: JAMES COOK UNIVERSITY OPENING NIGHT CONCERT
Australian Digital Concert Hall
Townsville Civic Theatre
Friday July 29, 2022
I’ve been to the Townsville Chamber Music week, way back in the days when newspaper had money – and so did festivals. It must have been in the earlier manifestations; as it’s been going for 30 years, that would put it back in the middle 1990s, I suppose. The place struck me as rough and ready, and not just because of the off-duty military looking for a Saturday night fight in the centre of town. It was a laid-back sort of place; so much so, that I found myself walking in a land rights demonstration because I was labouring under the misapprehension that everybody walked in the middle of the road.. Was it held in July/August in those times? I just remember the weather being stinking hot so that walking around in search of venues was a major effort.
As for music, I recall a master class being given by a cranky Charmian Gadd, dissatisfied (and showing it) at the poor preparation of some participants. A major concert in the Civic Centre escapes into the dim recesses of the memory, but a reading of the Brahms Horn Trio in a church on Sunday morning was a valuable introduction to a work that I’d never heard till then.
For this year’s opening night concert, an impressive number turned up, even if (as with so many chamber music events these days) the patrons were mainly elderly. What they heard was varied in quality and very long. Pace Jack Liebeck and his administrative team, this initial program was a farrago in standard of works and standard of execution. As for us spectators-from-afar, the event proved to be slippery: even with the program notes, you didn’t know what was coming next, or – more importantly – why.
Artistic director Liebeck came on stage after the inevitable voice-over salute to First Nations peoples and gave a speech that might have been better prepared instead of the stumble that it turned out to be. He told us that the first piece, Nginda Ngarrini Bi Ngya by Deborah Cheetham, would/could not be performed because the composer/soprano was ill. OK; not the best of openings but bearable. He also told us that a visiting artist, Turkish cellist Jamal Aliyev, was also unavailable but his place would be taken by Michael Goldschlager, one-time member of the Macquarie Trio before that university took away its patronage of the ensemble. Actually, this change would have passed unnoticed by most because Goldschlager’s name led one published list of personnel for this opening night schedule.
So we started with the original second piece: Milhaud’s ballet La creation du monde, in the version for piano and string quartet minus the viola which is replaced by a saxophone – or not: this reading found Daniel de Borah on keyboard with violinists Elizabeth Layton and Natsuko Yoshimoto, cellist Trish Dean, and Paul Dean on clarinet. One recording with Previn as pianist uses a standard string quartet; some others go in for the clarinet-for-viola substitute. Whatever the reality, this version made for agreeable listening. testifying to the composer’s discovery of jazz and use of it to his fullest. No surprises besides some cuts to the original chamber orchestra score and, of course, the interest in seeing how Milhaud dealt out his gifts to this limited number of executants.
It’s of its time – 1923 – and to contemporary ears sounds rather dated, with lots of Gershwin-type flourishes and similarities, like the ghost of the Prelude No. 2 arising in the Romance. But the rhythmic blurts and syncopations present no problems for players of this calibre and the score is repetitious enough for you to feel unchallenged as it follows its comfortable, slightly swinging path through a slightly elliptical fugue to the precise vigour of the Final‘s fast episodes. For an ad hoc group, these players generated a fair interpretation.
Next came the Gran Sestetto Concertante, an anonymous arrangement for string sextet of Mozart’s magnificently assured Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola of 1779. Well, that was what the program promised but Liebeck forgot to say in his initial address, that the entertainment would feature only the middle Andante movement – so the Gran bit disappeared. For this oddity, Liebeck and Corey Cerovsek played the violin lines, Simon Oswell and Benjamin Roskams the violas, Elina Faskhi and Julian Smiles the dual cellos. This C minor gem was seen through with diligence and a tendency to hard-hitting, notably in those passages where not much is happening melodically and everyone is marking time (for example, bars 53 to 57, bar 126 up to the cadenza accompagnata).
Apart from these to chugging bursts, the only other faults to be heard came from Liebeck himself with a pair of squeaks: one in bar 27, the other at bar 112. It’s a fair arrangement, no matter who put it together: everybody gets a guernsey at some stage, particularly Faskhi whose first cello part enjoyed the initial violin solo and engaged with other gifts along the way. The absent orchestral parts – pairs of horns and oboes – provide chords and reinforcements mainly, with only a few points where either set breaks out into something else; so the loss in timbre seems minimal. Still, the colours are there in the original’s background and, if you know and love the sinfonia, you feel the lack.
A complete change of pace followed when mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts-Dean sang two numbers with pianist Kristian Chong giving her the blandest of supports: Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine, and The Inchworm from Frank Loesser’s music for the King Vidor film Hans Christian Andersen. For the first, Betts-Dean’s voice held a plummy richness which worked against the seductiveness of the song itself, as did the all-stops power of the climactic So don’t let them begin the beguine. However, it was a pleasurable change to hear a real voice giving this song an airing, after nearly 90 years of scungy, slovenly readings from every Thomasina, Dick and Harry. Similarly, in the Danny Kaye song, this singer made the leaps accurately, the song very flattering to her production technique and her expressive ability. Nice to hear, but stretching the definition of chamber music.
A festival minor specialty followed in Berio’s Opus Number Zoo, a wind quintet that asks its performers to speak the text as well as play the score. In four movements, the work carries its heavier messages lightly, here performed by flute Alison Mitchell, oboe Emmanuel Cassimatis, clarinet Dean, bassoon David Mitchell, and horn Peter Luff. As the music originally comes from Berio’s younger days, you look in vain for anything resembling the chamber music for which his name resonated as an innovator – Circles, the Sequenze, Thema (Omaggio a Joyce), Recital I. Much of it sounded uncomplicated, with the possible exception of The Fawn movement where the despair at man’s inhumanity to man is more stringently expressed.
But it’s very quick and full of action as the musicians shared the spoken lines, rather than having one player laden with textual responsibility. By and large, the necessary legerdemain (in the odd-numbered movements) was maintained, and the work held some surprises; for instance, it took me a while to realise that Mitchell was playing an alto during the last Tom Cats piece. I suppose the work appeared as a precursor to the evening’s finale, although Rhoda Levine’s libretto/poems were superior to pretty much everything spoken during the Saint-Saens.
After an extended interval (meant to be 20 minutes, according to the transmitted communication, but stretching out for at least half-an hour while the Townsvilleans re-discovered their seats/the building), we heard the night’s best music-making when the Goldner Quartet performed Peteris Vasks’ String Quartet No. 3. Right from the start, you were aware of the ensemble’s security, even in the linear balance that obtained in the short hymn-like chord chains above or below a drone that framed the score’s discussion. As the initial Moderato progressed, the Goldners’ settled personality reassured, their mutual confidence a gift to the music itself.
This reliability came into higher focus in the following Allegro energico where rough open fifths and dislocated rhythmic pulses demonstrated these musicians’ preparation and integrity of interpretation, even turning the two folksy interludes into something more impressive than bucolic dross or fiedel whining. Speaking of twos, the group generated a pair of powerful highpoints in the threnody-like Adagio. Even more telling skill came across in this movement’s polyphonic webs: tough writing where material is packed together with weight that approaches suffocation.
In his finale, Vasks brings in bird imitations – simple trills and susurrations that meld with the opening movement’s hymn chains. A burst of folk-music stamping, then back to the hymn+trills; some more Latvian hoedown before a hohepunkt, and the work fades into silence through its opening material. Vasks suggests that his work is linked to the twin concepts of Christmas and peace; his vision is a personal one in that this feast-day is pretty fraught, and his prospects for a universal armistice remain open-ended. So, while affecting in its emotional language, the quartet is unsettling, despite its luminous final bars, disrupted by a ridiculously prominent cough from a patron during the second-last bar (where do they dig these people up?)
We came, at last, to the Carnival of the Animals. The two pianists whose work is central to the score were Chong and Daniel Grimwood. Mitchell and Dean returned as woodwind soloists; the string quintet comprised violins Layton and Brigid Coleridge, viola Oswell, cello Goldschlager, and double bass Phoebe Russell. In charge of the percussion, Jacob Enoka played xylophone and possibly a glockenspiel for the original’s glass harmonica; to be honest, I was looking at the score for the entire performance. Damien Beaumont provided the prefatory verses to each movement, and I wish he hadn’t; I don’t know who wrote them but the effort was misplaced because of a lack of wit, rhyme, and self-restraint (a few of them were longer than the music they preceded).
This wasn’t the cleanest of renditions, but I suppose you’d have to expect that with necessarily insufficient rehearsal time to prepare this deceptive work. Something odd happened in the contrary-motion glissandi in bar 11 – or was it simple clumsiness? Nothing disturbed the Lion’s March or the Hens and Roosters. The Wild Asses piano duet only came apart at one obvious point; then Chong supplied a deftly graduated support of triplets for Russell in the Tortoises pages. Elephant and Kangaroos passed painlessly.
Aquarium proved delicate although someone had problems settling into the first bar’s rhythmic mesh. Personages with long ears is marked ad lib; both violinists took full advantage. In the pretty simple Cuckoo in the deep woods, the pianos were out of sync at about bar 8/9 and the last chord failed to impress as a united effort. Mitchell skittered through Aviary without dropping a note, as far as I could tell. Chong and Grimwood went for broad humour in Pianists, deliberately hitting wrong notes and getting out of time with each other; for me, the fun lies in the executants’ ability to become automata.
Fossils brought Enoka’s xylophone into the sound-world, even though that instrument’s part is repetitive and simple. Then Goldschlager played a sensitive, restrained The Swan, although some stretches to the line’s top notes were achieved with effort, like the top D just before Figure I in the Durand edition. And the Finale bounced along with no apparent flaws, apart from a disjunction six or seven bars before Figure 7. The night ended at 10:45 pm, leaving me satiated, but not in a totally satisfied way.
As I say, this program was a mash-up, not helped by a lack of determination in certain pieces, especially the final offering. It was hard to avoid the impression that this program lacked any cohesion; it was as though pieces were being given on spec, to see how they would go. Somehow, the whole exercise struck me as provincial, rudderless, pitched at an unnecessarily low level (typified by Beaumont’s twee commentary). You have to hope that later events prove more coherent in their essentials; we’re all celebrating that we’ve been allowed out of detention, but that shouldn’t mean that, as a fine entertainer once said to us, anything goes.
The above was written before I looked at upcoming programs in the festival. Now that I’ve seen what’s on offer, I’ve been too harsh: those over this weekend also have an everybody-in ambience, as though available participants dictate the events – which is as strange as Liebeck’s request for patrons to vote on their favourite piece of chamber music, with an aim of programming the most acclaimed works at the next festival. My money’s on the over-familiar like the Archduke and the Trout – anything with a nickname – the American, Dumky, Spring, Kreutzer. I’m almost prepared to lay money that Hindemith, Bartok, Schoenberg, Stravinsky will not get nominated. In fact, my gamble would probably extend to any living composer.