Movement at the station, going . . . ?



Australian Digital Concert Hall

Townsville Civic Theatre

Friday July 29, 2022

Peteris Vasks

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.

August 2022 Diary


Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Thursday August 11 at 8 pm

The young Taiwanese/Australian violinist has special ties with Brisbane where he carried all before him as an extraordinarily talented pre-teen. His career since leaving the Sydney Conservatorium has been remarkable, distinguished by winning the 2008 Yehudi Menuhin Competition and the 2009 Queen Elisabeth, named for one of the few worthwhile European royals of the last century. It was a tedious struggle but I eventually found out what Chen is performing, with the support of Melbourne pianist Timothy Young. The duo will work through Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 8 in G, the one that precedes the Kreutzer and which is welcome for its extended, sunny disposition. Also, patrons will hear Stravinsky’s Divertimento of 1934, wheedled out of his The Fairy’s Kiss ballet for Samuel Dushkin. Bach’s solo E Major Partita, last in the set, stands out for that non-stop Preludio that appealed so much to Robert Moog; Chen plays all six (seven) movements. He also works through two of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances in arrangements by Joachim (No. 7) and Kreisler (No. 17), before taking on Sarasate’s Gypsy Airs – a piece I heard him play some years ago with brilliant effectiveness. I fear this event may be sold out; the one stalls seat I found was going for $250. I like both players, but not at that price.


Brisbane Music Festival

Loyal Hope of the Valley Lodge, Fortitude Valley

Friday August 12 at 6:30 pm

No, Alex Raineri hasn’t managed to cobble together the large orchestra that Strauss called into being for this farewell to arms. Indeed, I’m going on the assumption that soprano Rebecca Cassidy will have pianist Raineri’s backing only, although another guest on this program – violinist Courtenay Cleary – may come in to bat for the central violin solo in Beim Schlafengehen. This is a big ask for Raineri who has to suggest a world of warmth and orchestral detail; but then, he made a pretty fair fist of the transcribed Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome which he performed last year. Showing us more of his talents, Raineri also plays Bach’s transcription for organ of Vivaldi’s RV 565, for which D minor Concerto the pedal line is mercifully not too taxing. The only other artist mentioned as contributing is Drew Gilchrist who will take front spot for Margaret Sutherland’s 1949 Sonata for clarinet and piano in two movements. Cleary’s also performing a chamber work in Arthur Benjamin’s heart-on-sleeve Sonatina for violin and piano of 1924. All respect to Cassidy for taking on those long lyrical arches but I’d be anticipating with more interest the Australian pieces which attract much fewer public performances.


Brisbane Music Festival

Loyal Hope of the Valley Lodge, Fortitude Valley

Saturday August 13 at 6:30 pm

It could be part of the Me Too movement’s attempts to find valuable avatars; this recital focuses on female composers of the Baroque. The details of exactly what is being sung or played have not been made clear but the roll-call is impressive. Naturally enough, the list is headed by Barbara Strozzi, one of the most published composers of her time who lived a life that is half open-book, half innuendo. Less sensational was Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, a Louis XIV musician who also enjoyed considerable success in her lifetime. Her countrywoman Mlle Guedon de Presles was primarily a singer but also wrote the first book of airs written and published by a woman. Lady Mary Dering’s output survives, thanks to its publication by Lawes, but it comprises only three pieces, all songs: the first music by a woman published in England. Mlle Bocquet, a lutenist, composed music for her instrument; I can’t find anything else in her output. Rosa Giacinta Badalla had a book of solo motets published in her lifetime, as well as two cantatas. Providing a bit of balance to an almost-all Italian/French program comes Countess Amalia Katharina von Waldeck-Eisenberg who published Pietist poems and songs in 1692. All very well, but I don’t know how defiant any/all of these women were; the music will tell us, undoubtedly. Performing these rarities are soprano Bethany Shepherd, guitarist Jeremy Stafford, cellist Katherine Philp, and harpsichordist (who else?) Alex Raineri.


Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Saturday August 13 at 7:30 pm

Newly-ordained associate conductor for the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, Elena Schwarz is here to direct this one-night, one-off program which features Jack Liebeck, who takes over as the new controller of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music, while maintaining a high activity level in a wide-ranging solo career. He’s here to play the middle one of the canonic Mozart violin concertos, No. 3 in G. It’s one of the quirky joyful discoveries of this craft to know that the composer wrote the whole set by the time he was 19; yes, he didn’t have time to waste but this rate of focused production still dumbfounds me. Schwarz conducts the Shostakovich E flat Symphony No. 9, written after World War II and a disappointment to some of that conflict’s winners because of its lack of heroic blather. Mind you, these are the same people who misinterpreted the Symphony No. 5 for decades. This five-movement score only lasts for about 25 minutes which (so far as I can judge) will suit the QSO patrons to a T. As a prelude to the swelling scene, Schwarz leads her players in the Australian premiere of Piece 43 for Now, written in 2020 by Brisbane-born Cathy Milliken. This chamber orchestra-sized piece takes its inspiration from three sources: the COVID-19 lockdown of March 2020; the August 2020 police shooting of Jakob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin; and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 43 – When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see. Well, that’s plenty to be going on with, especially seven orchestral explosions representing the shots that crippled Blake for life. But you have to ask yourself: in a state that has produced intellectual debris like Palmer, Hanson and Katter, do black lives matter?


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday August 15 at 7 pm

This, by my count, is the fourth of Richard Tognetti‘s documentary films with musical accompaniment, following a path set by Mountain (2017), The Reef (2013) and Luminous (2005). Only the first-born of these has come my way as a reviewer, the other two experienced partially, in fragments. You get lots of suggestive film/photography – in this instance, showing massed humanity in all its goriness – and a selection of whole pieces (sometimes) and extracts (more often) from scores that the creators find appropriate. Speaking of the onlie begetters, they are Tognetti, director Nigel Jamieson, and cinematographer Jon Frank. To be honest, I can take or leave the film component of exercises like this, being able to find only the most superficial relationships between the seen and the heard. So, for the latter, we are promised that the ACO will be airing music by Chopin, Ives, Shostakovich, Sibelius and Tognetti himself – although I think that listing may be partial only. Yes, the purpose is admirable: to give us snapshots of humanity and show us that we are part of the main. Will we learn much more than this? Let’s wait and see.


Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio, Southbank

Wednesday August 17 at 10 am

They’re scraps of classics, the pieces on this program; there is only one discrete score. A good many events from the QSO belong to this bitty genre and they lead you to think that the administration finds benefit in offering Reader’s Digest-type entertainments; possibly, there’s a tapping-in to a different audience to the one that is prepared to sit through the Mahler Symphony No. 3 later in this month. It’s sort of working on the same premise that spoon-feeds the classics to children, popular wisdom being that kids can’t concentrate for extended periods. Maybe so: for me, it all depends on the presentation as mediocre playing leads to impatience when you’re 7 or when you reach 70. Guy Noble serves the dual role of conductor and host for this concert; an ideal choice for these circumstances. Setting the bar low from the start comes The Toreadors, the concluding movement from Guiraud’s Suite No. 1 from Bizet’s Carmen. Move to a scrap from John Williams’ score for E.T., then Morricone’s well-known Gabriel’s Oboe from Roland Joffe’s film The Mission – a delight for any delusional Jesuit. Later, Noble leads his forces in music from Babe, a film which, as I recall, features strongly the fourth movement to Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3, complete with four-hands piano and organ (do they have one in the Studio?). A bow in the direction of Vienna with the Radetzky March from Strauss Vater will probably lead to mass-clapping, like it does at those predictable New Year’s concerts; what the Austrians call audience participation. But this is the complete piece mentioned above. Some masterworks are truncated: Beethoven’s C minor Symphony, first movement only; Eine kleine Nachtmusik, the opening Allegro only. And finally, two ballet score extracts: the second movement from Elena Kats-Chernin’s Wild Swans Suite, Eliza aria; and the finale to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake which should send everyone home feeling appropriately apotheosized.

The performance will be repeated on August 18 at 10 am and 11:30 am.


Brisbane Music Festival

Opera Queensland Studio, Southbank

Wednesday August 17 at 6:30 pm

British violinist Victoria Sayles makes her only Australian recital appearance here. Accompanied by Festival director Alex Raineri, she plays a pretty orthodox program that starts with Mozart: the two-movement Sonata in E Minor K. 304, written about the time of the death of Mozart’s mother, and his only work in this particular key. Sayles wraps up her demonstration with Elgar’s Violin Sonata, also in E minor and coming from the last active burst in the composer’s life. You hear it rarely in live performance but its manifold merits argue for it against criticism of Elgar’s later years’ introspection. In the evening’s middle comes Lutoslawski’s Subito, a duet written in 1992. As its title suggests, it’s abrupt, compressed (less than 5 minutes), and takes no prisoners. As a companion relief, Sayles and Raineri give an outing to Takemitsu’s Distance de fee of 1951 where the Japanese composer extends the line running from Debussy through to Messiaen, his teacher. A well-hinged program, pivoting on two substantial sonatas with a soft centre comprising two samples of 20th century fare by writers with individual voices.


Brisbane Music Festival

Opera Queensland Studio, Southbank

Thursday August 18 at 7 pm

Any festival that gives you Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire is doing right by its patrons. The epoch-shredding melodrama of 1912 remains one of the corner-stones of 20th century composition, at the apex of modernism and a thorny test for its executants. Speaking of which, the original personnel number has been expanded here; from the original sextet, this performance boasts seven participants. That dilation comes about because the violin/viola part has been divided between Courtenay Cleary and Nicole Greentree. For the rest, Jonathan Henderson has charge of the flute/piccolo lines, Drew Gilchrist is undertaking the clarinet in A/clarinet in B flat/bass clarinet trio, Trish Dean will play the cello part, and festival director Alex Raineri presides at the all-important piano. Our Sprechstimme expert is Tabatha McFadyen, no stranger to Brisbane as a director, and an authority on the vocal part of Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2. It will be a great pleasure to hear this taxing vocal/speaking part in capable hands (so to speak) for once. Not complaining, mind you, but this will be a pretty focused night: the work lasts about 40 minutes. And it will be sung/chanted in English, which I think is in line with the composer’s preference for the vernacular wherever Pierrot is performed.


Brisbane Music Festival

Opera Queensland Studio, Southbank

Friday August 19 at 7 am

And who better to embody this title than a collection of Australian female composers? Soprano Rebecca Cassidy, having negotiated the Four Last Songs of Strauss a week ago, now has the joy of singing a program of local bon-bons, accompanied by festival director Alex Raineri. No details are available of what is being presented; just a list of names from recent historical reaches, including a world premiere by Deborah Cheetham who was the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s composer in residence for 2020. There will be blasts from the recent past by Margaret Sutherland, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Dulcie Holland, Miriam Hyde, Queensland’s own Betty Beath, and American-born Mary Mageau. Also, we hear from some senior composers who are still with us – Helen Gifford, Elena Kats-Chernin and Linda Kouvaras, as well as a younger voice in yet another Queensland-born writer, Lisa Cheney. That’s a fine collection; as varied in number of contributors as a Joan Sutherland recital program, but with somewhat more focus on sources than what looks good on me.


Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Friday August 19 at 7:30 pm

How do you celebrate achieving 75 years of existence? If you’re sensible, you let the occasion pass without drawing attention to yourself; it’s an achievement of sorts, but not that extraordinary. Longevity starts at 100, I think; the lead-up is unremarkable these days. Still, the QSO is obviously happy to have come of age in the sense of graduating into an exclusive set; or it may be just happy to have lasted, given the hurdles put in place for any symphony orchestra’s continued existence. To observe this underwhelming feat, the organization is bringing in two conductors: Johannes Fritzsch, who has been associated with the QSO officially since 2008 and has recently returned as chief conductor; and Guy Noble, one of the country’s most well-known musical personalities and all-rounders. Fritzsch rounds off the occasion with Respighi’s Pines of Rome, which will showcase the QSO, in a way: all colour, no substance. He also directs percussionist Chantel Chen, the QSO’s 2022 Young Instrumentalist prize-winner, in Keiko Abe’s Prism Rhapsody for Marimba and Orchestra. Well, sort of: we won’t hear the full thing, but excerpts – in keeping with the administration’s penchant for fragmentation. Noble has charge of Sean O’Boyle’s 2001 Concerto for Didgeridoo, with soloist Chris Williams. Again, sort of: we will hear only the last of the work’s four movements – Fire. And Noble also repeats his interpretation of the Swan Lake Finale, resuscitated from the Iconic Classics program of two days previous. Not sure who has the job of re-animating Strauss’s Radetzky March – also from the collation of August 17 – and you’d have to assume that the Fanfare for the Seventy-Fifth Birthday of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra will play itself if it’s an all-brass/timpani undertaking in the best Copland manner. The composer of this last is Craig Allister Young, one of the more active (extra-QSO) members of the organization’s cello septet.


Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Saturday August 20 at 7:30 pm

Here’s Guy Noble back to head a program that is half a repeat of the Iconic Classics menu of August 17/18. Kats-Chernin’s Eliza Aria from the Wild Swans ballet suite, Morricone’s Gabriel’s Oboe from The Mission film, the final pages of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet, John Williams’ Adventures on Earth from the E.T. soundtrack, and the opening Allegro to Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik serenade all re-appear. True, there are some novelties: Rossini’s The Barber of Seville Overture, Debussy’s Clair de lune as orchestrated by Stokowski, the second movement to Beethoven’s A Major Symphony, the Nimrod dirge from Elgar’s Enigma Variations and – most impressive of all – Michael Giacchino’s Full Mayhem from the soundtrack to The Incredibles computer-animated film. Now, the promoters are pushing this event as ‘For all those people new to classical music that think, “I just want to hear the really famous pieces” – this concert is for you.’ Good luck with that. Do you think your one-time first-go patrons will come back, given the extracts to be aired? That Mozart piece has been bastardized beyond belief; God knows what a newcomer will make of Kats-Chernin’s segment; and why play the Beethoven Allegretto when you could have energized the audience with the symphony’s final Allegro con brio? Still, the powers-that-be must know what they’re doing.


Brisbane Chorale

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Saturday August 27 at 7 pm

I’ve heard a few performances live of this mammoth symphony. Markus Stenz worked through it as part of his cycle of the complete symphonies. Sir Andrew Davis also gave it to us when he was attempting to mount the same series. And I heard it again from Stenz when the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra visited Sydney in the Olympics year as part of a concomitant cultural festival. I don’t understand what it is about this composer’s large-scale constructs that proves so attractive to officials in charge of celebrations. For example, to mark the centenary of Federation, we endured No. 8 in the Exhibition Building; I’m still struggling to see how No. 3 relates to competitive sport. And as for using No. 2 as a demonstration of the improved acoustics in Sydney’s Opera House Concert Hall, the mind boggles. What were they demonstrating, exactly? How a massive orchestral fabric has improved in sound quality because the suspended reflectors have been replaced? If the hall did its job properly, you wouldn’t need them. Ditto the box fronts’ panels. A better indication of acoustic quality would have come from a Gabrieli canzone, Webern’s Symphonie, Penderecki’s Threnody, Ionisation, the Gran Partita, and the Janacek Sinfonietta for a clear big sound – not Mahler’s waffling. All that content would give you some precise ideas on how the ‘new’ acoustic works. Anyway, here comes Brisbane’s home-grown Mahler, the often teeth-on-edge No. 3 in D minor. Not all the Chorale is needed; only the women appear, having to wait around (just like the unfortunate choir in the Resurrection Symphony), in this case for the second-last movement. So does the children’s choir, in this case that of the Queensland Youth Orchestra who will be put to work by Simon Hewett, the QYO’s spanking new Music Director. Mezzo Deborah Humble, who came in as a last-minute replacement for Michelle DeYoung at Sydney’s extravaganza on July 22, will have the pleasure of giving us Mahler’s fourth movement setting of Nietzsche’s O Mensch! Gib acht! verses.


Brisbane Music Festival

St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Kangaroo Point

Sunday August 28 at 3 pm

Put to further use in the initial flurries of this festival, Courtenay Cleary is performing one of the violin repertoire’s cornerstones: Beethoven’s Sonata No. 9 in A Major, yclept Kreutzer following its re-dedication to a violinist who never played it. The more fool he, as it is one of the most exhilarating duos to work through, even for mediocre performers. At this stage, it probably doesn’t need noting, but I will anyway: the accompanist is festival director and factotum Alex Raineri. After this sonata’s exuberant finale, both artists will be joined by violinist Miriam Niessl and cellist Daniel Shearer for a work that I’ve never heard: Korngold’s Suite Op. 23. This quartet is in five movements and is constructed on a broad canvas, although the piano part is for left hand alone; the work was commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein for his own use. You’ll get your money’s worth at this event: both works last well over half-an-hour each.


Brisbane Music Festival

St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Kangaroo Point

Sunday August 28 at 6:30 pm

Here’s another special, the sort of thing you expect to hear at a festival. Soprano Alexandra Flood and baritone Alexander York are accompanied by festival guru Alex (three of them!) Raineri in the two volumes of Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch. There are a lot to get through: 22 in the first book, 24 in the second. The practice has been that two singers alternate in their performance, the whole thing taking between 75 and 80 minutes. The composer has had wonderful interpreters, both male and female, but you can go some years without coming across any Wolf lieder on a recital program; indeed, the only Wolf I’ve heard in the last decade has been the Italian Serenade, a quick-witted exhibition piece for string quartet. On this night, the musicians take a break between the books, during which interval complimentary cannoli and wine will be served. Flood, originally from Victoria, is a well-travelled artist, a good part of her time spent in German opera houses and concert halls; Wisconsin-born York is similarly internationalist, with a recent accent on France. He and Flood sang this Wolf cycle in Munich on July 7 this year, so they should arrive here pretty well-prepared.

The flute in our time


Derek Jones & Jerry Wong/Leigh Harrold

Move Records MD 3463

Another long-range view of Australian composition: that chamber music corner reserved for solo flute and flute-plus-piano works. This time, Jones keeps his oldest till last: Miriam Hyde‘s Flute Sonata of 1962. Jump forward 32 years for Johanna Selleck‘s Deja Vu, written for the composer herself as part of her master’s degree at the Victorian College of the Arts. From three years ago come Tom Henry‘s Sonata for flute and piano, written in memory of his music-loving father, which starts the disc; and a Sonatine for flute and piano by Linda Verrier, a Canadian-born writer recently settled in Australia and who has dedicated this score to Jones. Most recent in this collection, Rohan PhillipsInvention (V) was composed last year, another piece specifically for Jones (so far).

Each sonata has three movements, Henry’s being the most temporally substantial work at a little over 18 minutes, Hyde’s coming in 6 minutes shorter. All the piano parts are performed by Wong, except for the Verrier Sonatine where Harrold partners Jones. The other three works are single-movement units, both Selleck and Phillips speaking and communicating with assurance and a compression of structure and material that impress, not least for their individuality of utterance.

Hyde wrote her sonata just at the time when a group of young guns were bringing us all to a consciousness that Bartok was not the last word in modernity. Richard Meale had produced his confrontational Sonata for flute and piano in 1960; Sculthorpe, his Sonata for Viola and Percussion in the same year; Butterley’s Laudes appeared a year after Hyde’s work which was contemporaneous with George Dreyfus’ From within, looking out. Of course, a good deal of musical activity was continuing blithely along Hydean lines, but the creative situation had shifted pretty suddenly from its former, settled underpinnings.

Even Hyde’s movement titles come from a bygone era: Allegro giocoso, Andante pastorale, Allegro con spirito – all reflect an age that predates the British country/folk-song eruption of the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Still, as this work demonstrates, she had a mastery of style and vocabulary that persisted throughout her career, this work coming from the long middle years of it. Although the Sonata is sited in G minor, no matter how hard she exerts herself, in her opening Allegro Hyde can’t stay away from the relative major and the only severe traces of minor come in a march-like repeated chord pattern that occurs in the exposition and the orthodox recapitulation. Things proceed in unexceptionable style with some lightly perky work for Jones and a pulse that doesn’t vary but seems to stick to the initial 2/4 throughout.

The second movement sounds rather heavy for a pastoral, Wong delivering his repeated quaver chords with fidelity if not much variety of attack. But the piece is a fairly simple, polished lyric where you can see clearly what use Hyde makes of her building blocks, be it a minor second dip, a descending pattern of two triplets, or a semiquaver-quaver-semiquaver. Much the same transparency applies to the rondo finale which ends, apart from a final flourish, with a reference to one of the preceding episodes. Yet again, the piece is in G minor but the dark shadings are applied with a light touch and this jig with its defining held quaver across the centre of a 6/8 bar is deftly utilised in a set of pages that flash several welcome sparks in a finely controlled, coherent realization from both musicians.

Henry’s sonata opens with a keening, regularly-paced flute solo notable for some ‘bent’ notes and a few contributions from Wong operating inside the piano for some of the time before both instruments settle into a kind of threnody. The composer calls this movement The elements; nothing to do with the periodic table or ballets by Delalande or Fery, but more a setting-out of the work’s material which at first presentation sounds like an orthodox step-by-step melody, moving into some rapid trills in both instruments. The ambience becomes more frenetic as the pace increases and the flute’s range moves into more expanded and angular territory, mirrored by the keyboard. Henry uses a language that is half-traditional in harmonic terms but has its dissonant moments. The excitement fades and the initial patterns – well, a few of them – re-emerge before a quiet, unresolved ending.

If anything, the second movement sounds more orthodox at its opening before moving to slightly more challenging ground and thicker part-writing. There is a sort of catch-and-release about these pages where disjunct leaps across the flute’s register and a dense keyboard part give way to more transparent writing. Weighty repeated chords and a declamatory outburst from the piano in an Ivesian Pelion-upon-Ossa climax ends this depiction of Inner worlds.

A genial trill-laden introduction sets up anticipation for the lead into a concluding 6/8 Presto in which Henry again oscillates between several languages melded into a satisfying entity. I wouldn’t call the melodic material memorable but then I find echoes of many another flute/piano duet in these pages – everything from Prokofiev through Poulenc to Ibert and even (probably unconscious) echoes of Hyde. Nonetheless, the movement in this fast section presented as segmented, the episodes overtly linked by recalls of the opening bars to the Presto but not quite cohesive enough; in two places, I thought that the forward impetus had halted for no good reason. But the sonata as a whole is an excellent showcase for flute, Jones showing few signs of stress despite some testing passages.

Low piano notes and a rising four note pattern dominate the first pages of Verrier’s Sonatine. The flute floats above this with an angular lyric before a partnership is established and the piece is underway and the cells expand and coalesce. Mind you, appearances are deceptive and, although you feel hat you have a handle on the various motives and themes, you haven’t: Verrier is a dab hand at transformation and suddenly interpolating new patterns and intervallic twists as she attempts a depiction of bird sounds.

A pause precedes a slower section that sounds like an old-fashioned Andantino, which doesn’t last long before the flute’s energy level rises in a virtuosic semiquaver flight, succeeded by a piano solo and a return to more calm territory that, as in Henry’s sonata, occupies an all-man’s-land, although Verrier is quite happy to wear her diatonic colours more often. She leads us to a calmly optimistic conclusion, notable for a sustained richly vibrato-ed single note from the flute while the piano growls in the depths. It’s a most interesting construct with several striking sections alongside others that sound like sheer hard work for Jones and Harrold.

In Selleck’s solo, we come across a flautist writing for herself with a highly informed knowledge of the instrument’s possibilities – and it shows. This is the most pointedly characteristic music on this album as the composer goes through a battery of techniques that are not heard in the other tracks here. Not just flutter-tonguing or percussive attacks, but we hear that extraordinary effect produced by forcing a repeated note out of its comfort zone in the first bar, as well as the flute’s ability to vault across its register with glancing acciaccature preceding a broad sustained note an octave or more away. Jones gives fine voice/air to Selleck’s use of fat minims that hang like ripe plums in medias res, only to be succeeded by rapid flurries that recur in this piece that exemplifies the lived experience of half-remembrances, or memories that only partly remain intact. At its best moments, Deja vu is riveting, explosive in the best sense: an energy-filled successor to some of the superlative flute solos that have peppered contemporary compositional activity since 1936’s Density 21.5.

To my ears, the most ‘advanced’ work on this CD is that by Rohan Phillips, Invention (V), subtitled Still Life and taking its impetus from a brief poem of that name by Antigone Kefala. A study in treble sonorities, Wong’s piano part is written on one stave and only once drops below the flute’s range. Unlike Selleck’s piece, this work is pretty chaste in its technical demands, its temper benign even if the two lines slash across each other at certain points. But the composer’s language is uncompromising, rising to stridency as he gives sound to the poet’s images of light on water and trees in their own symmetry. The score is almost continually flashing with brilliance, the effect eventually that of an impossibly note-rich carillon.

A fine addition to Jones’ series of CDs devoted to Australian flute music, much of them new and a good many tracks comprising older works that ought to be preserved or revived. Jones acknowledges the support given to him in this enterprise by the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, in the new Southbank building of which he recorded this third volume.

Masterwork with Oz seasoning


Allan Clayton & Kate Golla

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Thursday July 14, 2022

Allan Clatyton

This latest Musica Viva touring program could have been more than unappealing. Well, it proved to be so for many patrons who stayed away in droves. Or did they? Hard to tell in Brisbane’s Concert Hall, which is much more capacious than the organization’s usual haunt in the Griffith University Conservatorium of Music. Did somebody in administration think that the northern capital’s music-lovers would come out in numbers to enjoy Schubert’s gloomy song-cycle? Was there a book running on the popular appeal of a young English tenor? Or did some off-site official bank on public curiosity about a wedding between German Romanticism and the paintings of Fred Williams?

As far as I can tell, Brisbane is the only city that has been upgraded in potential capacity this way; every other Winterreise is being performed in the usual spaces. Moving from a hall with a maximum capacity of 750 to one that holds 1600 is one of the more striking instances I know of great expectations. I didn’t attempt to count on Thursday evening – bad-mannered and depressing at the same time – but the place would have been about a third full. I couldn’t see any patrons in the upper reaches of the Concert Hall and in the stalls we were well spread out; even then, with not much occupation at the fringes.

Possibly it’s one thing to mount Winterreise in Melbourne where self-consciousness is unremarkable; or in Sydney, a town where awareness of self is strangely attractive in a city so inured to promotion of personality from the womb on; or in Adelaide and Perth in whose cultural reaches individual self-love is abnegated in favour of Church and State respectively. Brisbane, as they say, is different: a smaller pool for clientele, a chamber music audience that is dutiful but elderly, a set of patrons who take more pleasure in short bursts than in sustained essays (we were warned in a pre-recital voice-over that the 24 songs should not be interrupted by applause, just in case any of us went ape over Der Lindenbaum or Fruhlingstraum).

Whatever the local peculiarities are, we heard a fine performance from Clayton and his almost-faultless accompanist Golla. While the tenor prowled the stage and Golla sat and played, stately at the pianoforte, paintings by Fred Williams were projected on screens behind the performers, presumably to give an Australian wanderer’s perspective on trolling through the countryside, albeit reflecting a happier, more positive personality than that of Muller’s rejected lover, as well as a series of landscapes some centuries and 10,000 miles away from the imaginary originals. I think most of us would be receptive of Williams’ visions of this country, even without Patrick McCaughey telling us what and how to think about them. But marrying them with the cycle’s aesthetic content proved challenging, not least because Muller’s poems are often very physically suggestive, reliant on solid objects in the world as well as on mood and psychological deviation.

Lindy Hume directed the 70-minute-long spectacle; not able to do much with Golla, she put Clayton to work by using the stage’s width and sending him roaming around the backdrop screens. But she didn’t descend to nonsensical mimicry as was carried out by Simon Keenlyside when he participated in a staged Winterreise for the 2004 Melbourne International Arts Festival where one of the low points was having the baritone pose as a lime tree. Mind you, at one point Clayton came close, settling in for a sleep under the piano (possibly during Das Wirtshaus, although that’s unlikely as the poet finds no rest there; more likely it was Rast). But the emphasis was mainly on the tenor’s vocal powers of suggestion, rather than physical flourishes. Still, one in particular impressed when Clayton simulated quickly pulling a curtain across the backdrop as a placid Williams painting changed into a wild vertical expressionist panel-triptych, perhaps for Der sturmische Morgen.

Sorry for the overuse of ‘probably’, ‘possibly’, etc., but my memory is becoming unreliable as the decades creep past. In normal conditions, you can see enough in a venue to scratch out some notes for later reference; when the lights go out for a visual presentation like this one, you’ve got little-to-no hope of recording anything. Nor are you helped when the relevant program-booklet pages are black with white print – which is illegible anyway under these conditions. So you’re left to fall back on memory alone which, even at one day’s distance, is chancy. Nonetheless, video designer David Bergman kept his background projection movements quiet in general, paintings melding into each other with considerable skill; to my shame, I recognized only three of them and one was the early Balwyn landscape of 1946, although many of the other 18 (from across the following 30 years) were familiar in style, if not content.

So I’ve got few comments on individual songs. Clayton and Golla made a firm opening with a steady Gute Nacht that took a few tempo liberties, maintaining its pulse and balancing between a trudge and a march. At this early stage, you could appreciate the tenor’s clean production and the pianist’s unobtrusive determination that didn’t labour the details. Even more impressive, Die Post proved to be memorable for Clayton’s communication of self-exasperation; something I’ve not seen before as most singers head for jaunty exhilaration, even though the stanza-concluding Mein Herz?/! is best read as impatience at approaching and inevitable disappointment – as in this Clayton vision.

During the familiar Der Lindenbaum, we witnessed some instances of this singer’s unexpected moves, including an almost-not-there soft volume at Hier findest du deine Ruh’!, as well as an avoidance of bluster in the cold wind stanza’s modulation. Across the 24 lieder, Clayton showed an impressive control in the larger-framed works like the urgent Ruckblick, the subterranean menace that permeates Im Dorfe, and the hope-destructive repeated notes that eventually consume all in Der Wegweiser.

I get impatient with writers who manage to find some sort of uplift in Der Leiermann, the cycle’s concluding song. No matter which way you turn, neither poet nor composer offers redemption or a light breaking through: it’s despair contemplating itself in the bleakest of landscapes. And that’s exactly what I took from Clayton and Golla’s reading where their voice/piano alternation made a powerful conclusion to this atmospherically consistent interpretation. It obviously impressed this audience which greeted the fade-to-black with an initial tentativeness that swelled rapidly into infectious enthusiasm.

Finally, the conceptual elephant: what, if anything, do the paintings contribute? Eye candy is the kindest I can think of: they don’t challenge much, and even those that branch away from the trademark straight tree-trunks like the two Sherbrooke forest works from 1961 or dabs of scrub in the You Yangs landscape still border on the figurative, like one of the two Mount Kosciusko studies. Whatever conceptualizing lay behind super-imposing these backdrops, there was no intention of illustrating or visually complementing the lieder; rather, the intention appears to have been to present us with a familiar environment in which to site the cycle. For me, this didn’t work, music and paintings occupying utterly different strata and never the twain did meet – well, very rarely.

An additional chauvinism-reinforcing observance came in the form of 24 poems (of sorts) by Judith Nangala Crispin, Musica Viva Australia’s Artist in Residence, printed in the program booklet. These stanzas depict Williams wandering around the Kosciuszko (take your pick) landscape pursuing a white emu, presumably to paint rather than to eat. You assume that the questing, determined artist stands in for Muller’s pseudo-Werther, while the animal represents the jilting lover. Imagery and landscape details are piled on thick to give us a new Winterreise, one that has nothing in common with the original. But I assume that was the whole point: to escape the European cliche/trope and depict your typical Australian artist, ploughing through the mulga in search of a bunyip substitute. It’s all an interesting adjunct but such a juxtaposition across time and space stretches my limited imagination to breaking point.

You could, easily enough, shut your eyes and just listen to the Clayton/Golla Experience – which I did for a time, starting at Der greise Kopf. And thereby relished – undistracted – the duo’s stellar combination of restraint and vehemence. For my part, the score itself works against any ethnic transubstantiations or contemporary parallel-drawing. It’s a puzzlement: go along and see/hear for yourself.