Nobody hangs around too long

RHYTHMS OF GREEN & GOLD

John Martin

Move Records MCD 622

I’ve been ambivalent about jazz and all its offshoots for many years. After the initial rush to the head during young adulthood when Monk, Mingus, Davis and Coleman set impossibly high levels of accomplishment and virtuosity, an inevitable reaction set in, similar to the disillusionment that comes to us all through an excess of Wagner or Mahler – when you realize the importance of emotional brakes, if nothing else. Just as with low culture’s implementation of serious music – who can forget the drum-kit added to Mozart’s No. 40, or the smoothing out of dissonance in Copland’s Fanfare? – just so do you have to acknowledge the bowdlerization of jazz’s limitless potential in melody, harmony, rhythm and timbre. Many of my contemporaries would remember still the adoption of jazz in the 1950s and early 1960s as entertainment for the pretentious young habitues of Melbourne’s clubs, the brief flash that marked the advent of Brubeck and the MJQ (mainly in recordings, although I heard the former play at Rushcutter’s Bay sometime in 1960), not to mention a few out-of-left-field experiences like the 1965 appearance of Thelonious Monk in the Melbourne Town Hall, playing to an audience of about a hundred of us. But today? The well-worn furrows have been ploughed to base rock and you look fruitlessly for anything original outside the realms of fusion – which is to say, compromise.

This disc offers 19 tracks of solo piano, compositions old and new by Australian composers (hence the CD’s title reference to our national colours – which aren’t any such thing, of course, as this country is still marching in a vexillatory two-step with its colonial master) some of whom offer refined takes on jazz rhythms, if not much else. About half of the writers are well-known, like Elena Kats-Chernin, Ann Carr-Boyd, Stuart Greenbaum, Ross Edwards and the performer himself. A few names rouse tremors in a waning memory bank, viz. Rod Heard and Matthew Dennett, while others have escaped my attention – Amanda Handel, Tom Anderson and May Howlett. The most senior writer represented is Howlett while Dennett is the youngest of them. As for temporal substantiality, Kats-Chernin takes the prize with her Nonchalance that almost lasts 7 minutes; at the other end of the scale sits Greenbaum’s Taurus, coming in at 1’30”. Quite a few of the remaining 17 tracks are brief, seven coming in at under 3 minutes.

Sydney composer Handel is represented by three compositions: Dreamboat Blues, Bootleg Blues and Blue Laze, the last-named being the most substantial. Martin’s reading of Dreamboat is laid-back, to the point where its underlying pulse is relaxed at two obvious spots; the structure is simple, 7th chords abound and no ripples are raised. A jaunty syncopated bass line prefaces the Bootleg drama which features a more adventurous harmonic palette, even if the format is little more sophisticated than its predecessor; again, Martin allows himself a rhythmic flexibility – although that might be written in. Blue Laze is a pleasant post-Gershwin laze which too often sounds like an exercise in peregrinatory chords, its deliberately lolloping bass a genial support for upper meanderings that are amiable if aimless. All these pieces are of an unobtrusive genre of jazz with nothing depressing or ‘dirty’ about them; another way of saying that they’re lacking any decided personality.

Tom Anderson has published a collection of rags – won prizes for them, no less. His A Walk Down Ragtime Lane is a fair representative of the genre with various clear-cut segments jammed alongside each other in the best Joplin tradition. Again, Martin puts in the odd hesitation, almost as though he’s finding a bit of trouble handling what sounds like a pretty easy-fitting modulation. As with a good deal of her work, Elena Kats-Chernin’s Nonchalance exists in several forms but the piano version here is something like a slow toccata or a piano study; there are a few jazz traces, mainly in some syncopated spots like bars 13 to 19 but the piece is probably included because of its original genesis as referring to suave characters in old black-and-white movies (George Raft? Or George Sanders?) but its continual middle ground of Alberti-bass type quavers in sets of four is more reminiscent of Hanon than Hampton. It was probably more effective in its original shape for cello and piano. At about a third the length of its companion, Kats-Chernin’s Reflections derives from an earlier suite written for a piece of theatre. Again, there is a binding sequence of Alberti quavers but the piece is appealing for its melodic sentiment: the sort of thing a very competent tea-lounge pianist would present with the merest suggestion of harmonic liberation.

Canberra-based musician Matthew Dennett proposes a nicely meandering melodic upper line in Round Midday but his piece is cursed with a repetitive bass line comprising steady block chords that seem to work against the free-and-easy meanderings in Martin’s agile right hand. I take it as a tribute/offshoot of Monk’s Around Midnight classic and there are plenty of homage points; like the American’s original, it might have worked better (probably does, in fact) with a mixed ensemble dealing with its bare bones.

Three Australian waltzes by Ross Edwards come from 1988 and you won’t find in them any sign of Maninyas-type ecstasy; rather, you can detect Chopin and Brahms, even a touch of Satie in the third. The Sassafras Gully Waltz is dedicated to musician/educator Nicholas Routley; Sandy Stone’s Waltz inevitably goes to Barry Humphries; and the Annandale Waltz was written for the composer’s wife Helen. All three are undeniably in 3/4 time and any twist of jazz goes a-begging. Yet the mood, tempo and enunciative changes across the trilogy exemplify the personalities of the dedicatees: determined and bouncy, old-fashioned and sentimental; quirky and ruminative. As you’d expect, Martin has little difficulty in delineating these short, medium-range-difficulty works with a care that invests them with merit, maintaining a fine balance of charm and caricature.

Another New South Wales writer, Rod Heard is represented by four works, the largest grouping on the CD. First comes Take 7, a tribute to Paul Desmond (of course) but not as seductive as the Brubeck classic; we can keep track of five (see Tchaikovsky) but any larger odd number (until 9, to state the bleeding obvious) is beyond most of us (despite Bartok). Heard keeps pretty close to his home key and avoids rhythmic games by maintaining his original allocation of accents; taken as a whole, this optimistic gambol reminds me of Grainger who also showed a penchant for the tonic in a good deal of his piano music. Summer Arrives presents as a sort of two-part invention at either of its ends with more substantial episodes intervening; the odd thing is that its rhythmic element seems to be the least interesting part of its structure.

A more obviously jazz-inflected piece arrives with Barbera Blues, which refers to a variety of Italian grape; mind you, it might just as well have been called Montepulciano and achieved the same result. It’s a 12-bar blues in essence with a middle section in the major that leads to a nicely contrived high-point, but the framing pages display a quiet sinuousness that shows a familiarity with and ease at handling chord progressions endemic in jazz practice. Finally, Rags to Riches boasts a clever title and is a straight rag in the Joplin vein with plenty of discrete sections and some repetitions to give us the reassurance of familiarity. It seems to me that Martin takes this too quickly and employs too many pauses to mark transitions between segments; as well, some of the writing is awkward across its essays in momentary counterpoint and the interpreter’s uneasy execution of them.

Probably the most Romantic music on the CD comes from Martin himself in his The Everglades at Dawn, which has nothing to do with Florida but refers to a National Trust property in Leura through which the pianist/composer takes us on a walk. You can appreciate Martin’s piece as a placid amble at first, although it leads to something more intense later on but the initial impression – at least for the first third of the score – is of an English pastoral, something like Cyril Scott but with less purposeful modulations. As far as green-and-gold rhythm is concerned, the composer is more concerned with a kind of fluent rumbling than any metrical nips and tucks, the interest mainly lying in a slightly elliptical melody line.

A slight syncopation distinguishes the placid elegy Taurus by Stuart Greenbaum, written as a remembrance of Australian composer James Wade who died suddenly in 2017 at the age of 38. The piece is both emotionally charged and restrained, a ternary-shaped deploration that makes its statement without elaborations, and then stops. Martin treats it with calm consideration, realising just the right amount of Greenbaum’s simplicity of utterance. A sort of companion piece comes in Looking to the Future which Greenbaum originally wrote for a play dealing with the Newcastle Workers Club disaster of 1989. It is slightly more optimistic than Taurus with an aggressive counterweight that follows the opening quiet cellular statement; however, a similar melancholy pervades both short pieces, each coming in well under 2 minutes long.

Western Australian-born May Howlett has contributed The Baroqua Rag: a combination term that covers J. S. Bach and Berocca. The first is easy to detect as Howlett uses the opening subject of the C minor Fugue in Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier, stated en clair towards the end. How she gets the effervescent tablet into the mix remains a mystery; I can’t remember the jingle that mentioned how you get back your b-b-bounce but I sense it might be in there, somewhere along the way during this rather awkward piece with an over-repetitious bass; well, over-anchored might be a better way of putting it. Last of all comes Ann Carr-Boyd – not quite as much a veteran as Howlett but of the same generation. Her The Solitary rag comes from 2020 and is a kind of comment on the arrival and isolation of COVID with minor key (A?) bookends around a melancholy major-key middle, which presumably recalls the good times when we could socialize without penalties, personal or state-imposed.

But it’s an odd piece with which to end. Martin seems to be doodling around with it, taking his time over the end of sentences and blurring the piece’s outlines – but then that may be the way Carr-Boyd wants it outlined, so as to emphasize its nostalgia, a longing for the way we were. Such an epilogue does remind us of the current state of public safety (here comes the revolution), the uneasy condition of our world, and so is a worthy musical image of the green and gold national cosmos (!) that we have to negotiate. An interesting CD, then, if not a particularly challenging collection of Australian produce.

December 2022 Diary

To say that the Brisbane music scene dies across the Christmas season is probably a trifle exaggerated. But, if you’re after some solid holiday fare, you might look in vain; I can’t recall ever living in (or near) a capital city so bereft of activity in the later summer period. It’s as though all the local musicians have decided en masse to take a two-month break from all action. Of course, a good reason for this famine is obvious: people would rather enjoy the Queensland sunshine than sit indoors. Further, ticket sales for serious music have obviously fallen off in direct proportion to the desperation shown by online publicity communiques. The times have changed – in a negative way – for most organizations in these allegedly post-COVID months; why risk putting on events for which any financial return is doubtful?

If not for Alex Raineri‘s music festival, the list below would be ludicrously small.

CHAUSSON’S CONCERTO

Natsuko Yoshimoto, Alex Raineri, Ensemble Q Quartet, Courtenay Cleary

St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Kangaroo Point

Monday December 5 at 7:30 pm

In the catalogue, Chausson’s large-scale work to be played tonight is not a concerto but a concert for piano, violin and string quartet; in simpler and less confusing terms, it’s a sextet. Can we writhe around linguistically for some time wondering why the composer styled his score a concert? Well, probably, but the best explanation I’ve found is that the work does not subscribe to the Classical/Romantic definition of a concerto but harks back to the Baroque, setting Yoshimoto’s violin and Raineri’s piano as soloists against the Ensemble Q group’s accompaniment/ripieno. I can’t definitively identify the quartet personnel, by the way; Yoshimoto has played first violin with the Ensemble for some time, and Trish Dean seems to be the resident cellist. As for the rest, anybody could show up. The only other work on offer here is Elizabeth Maconchy’s brief String Quartet No. 3 from 1938; an early contribution to the composer’s output of 13 works in the form, it gives an opportunity for us to encounter a voice that British historians and critics regard as a significant one. Yes, we’ve heard that one many times before but nationalistic special pleading may be justified this time. It’s possible that the other named artist – violinist Cleary – will be taking part in the short quartet; as with many of these Brisbane Music Festival recitals, the final reveal can be an intriguing part of the experience.

AN EVENING WITH AMY

Amy Lehpamer, Luke Carbon, Alex Raineri

St. John’s Cathedral, Ann St., Brisbane

Friday December 9 at 6:30 pm

You look across the relevant websites fruitlessly for much by way of nitty-gritty biographical information about musical theatre performer Lehpamer. All her appearances on stage are documented; not so much detail about her career as a violinist. But she’s an attractive and photogenic artiste; as well, the press have been complimentary/kind. For this Brisbane Music Festival night, she’s supported by the inevitable Alex Raineri, our pianist for all seasons, and Luke Carbon who is billed to play ‘woodwinds’ – and that’s exactly what he can provide: all four of the standard orchestral instruments, as well as the saxophone of many colours. How does this evening go? It seems to comprise excerpts from the top-drawer of music theatre writers as well as some oddities: Sondheim, Porter, Gershwin, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Bacharach (a bit dodgy as far as musicals go, but many brilliant individual songs), Lizzo (the hip-hop artist? Good luck with that), Cohen (Leonard? Or George M.?) and King (even worse – Carole? B.B.? Paul? Marcus? Tony? And other possibilities that stretch out into the middle distance). More surprising than finding out which composer is which in these last-named, consider the venue inside which these musicians will do their best; Eliot has nothing on this.

BETWEEN US

Thea Rossen, Courtenay Cleary, Jeremy Stafford, Alex Raineri, Luke Carbon, Miriam Niessl, Daniel Shearer

St. John’s Cathedral, Ann St., Brisbane

Friday December 9 at 8:30 pm

Possibly part of the Brisbane Music Festival’s Up Late Series, this recital involves seven musicians including two violinists in Cleary and Niessl, Carbon restricting himself to clarinet, Raineri the essential pianist, percussionist Rossen, guitarist Stafford and a cellist in Daniel Shearer. As a focal point, the program gives us the world premiere of Corrina Bonshek’s The Space Between Us, about which I can find no information – not even its instrumentation or its length. Two things I can report: you are encouraged to walk around the cathedral while listening, and its forces are ‘spatialized’ – by which I believe that they will be spread out, not operating at one focal point. As well as this piece by the Brisbane composer, we are offered a potpourri of Bach, Saariaho, Messiaen, Taylor/Rose (is that Taylor Rose, the Ugandan gospel singer? Or a composite of James and Axl?), and Greenfell (presumably the Hobart-based musician Maria). Whatever the sonic logistics, this performance is scheduled to last for 90 minutes – which is fine when you have permission to wander; think how many vast late Romantic symphonies would benefit from being played to ambulant audiences, especially if the doors are left open.

SYMPHONIC SANTA 2022

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio

Saturday December 10 at 9:30 pm

Not to carry on too much, but is this the best that the QSO can do at Christmas? One concert in the whole month and that an entertainment for children? It wouldn’t afflict me so much were it not for the sell-out involved to the ghastly reductiveness of a commercial festive season. No, I’m not hankering for the Ensemble Gombert’s arcane resuscitation of Renaissance motets; not even the Melbourne Symphony’s dry combination of popular and less popular Yuletide classics; not even the Australian Brandenburgers’ principle of playing anything remotely Xmas-related that isn’t nailed down. But for this Santa celebration, only one musician is listed by name: James Shaw playing Sneezy the Reindeer, which is something of a crazy character transmigration since Sneezy is surely one of Disney’s Seven Dwarves. Izzy the Elf and the Claus couple also appear in this inter-active entertainment that mixes the familiar with the deservedly unknown. As the aim is to introduce the young to orchestral players and their instruments, great trust is being placed in the persuasive talents of the orchestra’s players. Good luck to everyone; the running time is 50 minutes and the appropriate age stretch is babies (you’ve got to be joking) to 10 years.

This event will be repeated at 11: 30 am and on Sunday December 11 at 9: 30 am and at 11:30 am.

CROSSING

Jane Sheldon, Jeremy Stafford, Thea Rossen

City Workshop, 139 Charlotte St. Brisbane

Thursday December 15 at 8:30 pm

Soprano Sheldon is collaborating with guitarist Stafford and percussionist Rossen in an hour of contemporary music. Pride of place goes to a world premiere of Jodie Rottle’s it has no end; this is a work written for Rossen and features her alone, as far as I can tell. The only misgiving comes inevitably from the title; with the composer’s penchant for events and a kind of musical pantheism, this recital’s 60 minutes could be stretched. Then there’s Phillip Houghton’s Ophelia (A Haunted Sonata), a work for solo guitar which has been espoused by Karin Schaupp; its five movements add up to about 10 minutes’ worth of playing from Stafford. Finally, Sheldon appears in her own collaboration with Julian Curwin: a sequence of eleven songs that gives this Brisbane Music Festival event its title. Essentially, this is an album recorded four years ago and enjoying a live-performance revival. In the original, Curwin played guitar, harmonium and melodica; Sheldon sang and also performed on a zither in the last song, L’Amour triste; and a viola contributed to three of the tracks, including Crossing. There’ll be a certain freshness as Sheldon works with two new musicians at this exercise, although it strikes me as rather lazy programming, particularly as it makes up the major component of the night’s music-making: the recording comes in at a tad less than 37 minutes. Still, perhaps it’s worth it, even if the publicised descriptor of ‘Medieval minstrel band meets Radiohead’ makes my gut uneasy.

BOAT ON THE OCEAN

Alex Raineri & Thea Rossen

City Workshop, 139 Charlotte St., Brisbane

Thursday December 15 at 6:30 pm

As far as I can see, Brisbane Music Festival director Raineri bears most of this recital’s heavy work, particularly as the night ends with Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit: a mighty challenge for many pianists, a lot of them skidding out of contention in the first Ondine round. Of course, it’s not hard to build up atmospheric presence in all three parts, thanks to the composer’s genius in acoustic painting. But, if Le Gibet is a lay down misere for any moderately gifted interpreter, the outer poemes are more taxing: in the first, a temptation to blur too much, especially across the near-conclusion scintillations; in Scarbo, the chance to let loose with a Bartokian percussive exercise. I don’t think I’ve heard a satisfactory Ondine for years; probably since Carl Vine played it at the North Melbourne Town Hall as part of a catch-all program in which nothing else came close to this display of interpretative brilliance. But I digress. Raineri also has charge of the premiere of John Rotar’s Piano Sonata No. 1, which the publicity calls ‘Ravelian’; phew, you can be lucky. This work is listed in the composer’s catalogue with the subtitle Gongs and Bells from the Black Bamboo Cathedral (Thailand or Trinidad?). And both Raineri and percussionist Rossen collaborate to spark things off with arrangements by Rotar of two parts from Ravel’s five-part Miroirs: the middle piece, Une barque sur l’ocean and the concluding La vallee des cloches which I can easily see suited to Rossen’s resources. About the marine soundscape, I’d be interested to see how the arrangement copes with page after page of arpeggios; give them all to the pianist, or share them out? Which rather makes you wonder: why pick this highly pianistic piece for re-fashioning? Because it’s there?

PHOENIX TRIO

Lina Andonovska, Alexina Hawkins, Harold Gretton

City Workshop, 139 Charlotte St., Brisbane

Friday December 16 at 6:30 pm

The Brisbane Music Festival here presents a rum trio. Andonovska is a flautist, Hawkins a violist, Gretton a guitarist. I haven’t come across any music written for this instrumental format but I believe that, after this night, that ephemeral knowledge gap will be filled to fine effect. Fortunately, this ensemble is an established one, not just created for the occasion, or yesterday. They will play Melbourne-based Samuel Smith’s Sun Opener, which remains a mystery but will probably include guitar as that is Smith’s instrument; the ensemble performed this work some years ago. Then comes Leo Brouwer’s Pasajes, Retratos y Mujeres (Landscapes, Portraits and Women), a 1997 three-movement suite that was actually written for flute, viola and guitar. As was Francesco Molino’s Op. 45 Grand Trio Concertant: an allegroromanzerondo construct in a happy D Major (the top line can also be played by violin, and some authorities think it’s best performed that way); or are we to hear the composer’s earlier Op. 30 which comprises a larghetto, theme and variations, minuet and rondo? Anyway, then comes veteran flautist/mathematician and Wagga resident Fran Griffin’s Snow Gum which is a trio involving guitar but presents something of a conundrum as it requires two flutes; the first plays alto and C, the second supplies bass and C – a test of Hawkins more than anyone else, although the piece is not over-taxing. Last of all is an Australian premiere: one half of the Assad brothers, Sergio’s Mangabeira which is another true flute/viola/guitar trio, if rather short and salonesque.

ORPHEUS

Eljo Agenbach, Alex Raineri, Ben Hughes

City Workshop, 139 Charlotte St., Brisbane

Friday December 16 at 8:30 pm

Not Monteverdi, not Gluck, probably not Offenbach, this event is presenting as an Up Late Series piano recital by Brisbane Music Festival director Raineri. Agenbach is credited as the night’s visual artist, Hughes its lighting designer. So you’d assume that the performer (if not his audience) is getting a sensurround envelope in which to unveil his wares. The only overt intimation concerning content is a quote from Rilke: the last tercet of the first of the poet’s Sonnets to Orpheus. The composers concerned are Natalie Nicholas, Samantha Wolf and Jane Sheldon. The last-named we know mainly as a soprano, but her compositional credits are observable at the Festival’s Crossing recital on the day before this. In her current catalogue, I can’t find anything directly Orphic but her latest album I am a tree, I am a mouth uses texts by Rilke, although these come from the poet’s earlier Book of Hours. Nicholas is based in Sydney and has enjoyed an active career in terms of commissions; on her confusing website, I can’t find anything documented as aimed towards this night, so I’m assuming her contribution will come from her existing catalogue. In piano works, this comprises five very short pieces and a Rhapsodie L’Insanite which might have some connection to Orpheus before his final encounter with the Thracian maenads. Wolf’s work is called Life on Earth and Raineri will be giving its first performance tonight. Does it have a connection to the bard’s post-Underworld existence? Maybe; it’s probably best to tamp down such suggestions; just because the recital has a suggestive title doesn’t mean that everything has to connect with it. Although . . .

SATURDAY SONATAS

Lina Andonovska, Luke Carbon, Alexina Hawkins, Alex Raineri

City Workshop, 139 Charlotte St., Brisbane

Saturday December 17 at 10:30 am

Last of the Brisbane Music Festival’s Morning series, this 90-minute program features three works. First up, Hawkins and Raineri perform Rebecca Clarke’s Sonata for Viola and Piano from 1919, one of the American/British composer’s most well-known works; which is not saying that much as Clarke’s music is notoriously hard to come by. Then Carbon and Raineri come together for Bernstein’s Clarinet Sonata, a two-movement construct from 1941/2 and the American master’s first published work. These musicians have recorded the sonata on a Move Records disc released at the end of 2021. After interval, flautist Andonovska presents her arrangement for her own instrument of Richard Strauss’s Violin Sonata in E flat Major Op. 18. All glory, laud and honour, of course, but I can’t see why you’d bother. The first movement has the violin occupied pretty high; it’s quite a while until the part moves outside the flute’s range to an A sharp and an A below Middle C and pretty soon after that we encounter a quadruple stop chord and a couple of triple-stop punctuations. At four points in the Andante cantabile, the violin line moves below the flute’s reach and there are some multiple-stop chords and a few bars of double-stopping to negotiate. Later, these two problem areas are exacerbated in the Andante/Allegro movement where a key theme is required to launch itself time after time into an upward-rushing scale-type vault that starts on an impractical low note. Further, you have to wonder how a flute will carry off the biting vitality of these pages.

VORTEX

Lina Andonovska, Luke Carbon, Natsuko Yoshimoto, Alexina Hawkins, Katherine Philp, Alex Raineri

City Workshop, 139 Charlotte St., Brisbane

Saturday December 17 at 6:30 pm

And so we say farewell to this year’s Brisbane Music Festival with a mixed sextet playing two works written for their particular combination, one of them by a young Australian writer specifically for this occasion. Taking up the lion’s share (two-thirds) of this hour-long event is Gerard Grisey’s Vortex temporum, one of the French composer’s last works and – to his probable irritation – a sterling example of the Spectralist movement. Which sounds ghostly but has nothing to do with the supernatural – rather, it is concerned with musical spectra – the which phrase, as far as I can determine, refers to frequency and timbre. I know precious little about this artistic movement or school because the spread of its music is non-existent, as far as Australian performances go, but it strikes me that the above mini-descriptor is akin to your good old-fashioned Klangfarbenmelodie. Or is that over-simplifying, trying to find an anchor in the past for a near-contemporary branch of activity? The Spectralist composers – even those unwillingly included in that grouping, like Grisey – have roused a low level of controversy, juiced up by those who want their music to be beautiful and enjoyable; yes, I too thought we’d moved beyond that sort of thinking but the lazy you will always have with you. No details are available about Bragg’s piece, except that the program and the composer himself call it new work and it fits into the Grisey operating instrumentation of flute (Andonovska), clarinet (Carbon), violin (Yoshimoto), viola (Hawkins), cello (Philp) and piano (Raineri). You’ll be exercised by this music, sent off a week before the big day of grace and gorging with a wealth of aesthetic knots to consider – or leave untouched.

BRISBANE SINGS MESSIAH

The Queensland Choir

Brisbane City Hall

Sunday December 18 at 2:45 pm

Reassuring to see that colonial habits have not all fallen totally by the wayside. Handel’s great oratorio – a chain of popular recitatives, arias and choruses – spells Christmas for very little reason except tradition. This performance doesn’t look like one of those original versions where the strings are all gut and non-vibrato, the organ a chamber one, the singers number about 16 (including the soloists), the oboes operate off-key in best historical practice, and the conductor leads from a harpsichord. No, I get the impression that this afternoon will be a solid 19th century reading, especially since members of the public have been encouraged to rehearse with The Queensland Choir and participate in the performance. All four soloists are new to me: soprano Leanne Kenneally-Warnock, mezzo Hayley Sugars, tenor Sebastian Maclaine, and baritone Leon Warnock. The orchestra is the Sinfonia of St. Andrew’s, whose home is the Ann St. Uniting Church and which regularly works with this choir. As for the conductor, none is specified but you’d have to think that long-time Choir eminence Kevin Power will do the honours in this final celebration of the Choir’s 150 years of operation, December 18 being the date of the organization’s first concert in 1872. This performance is scheduled to end at 5 pm – which it may, if nobody troubles with breaks and/or a certain amount of Part the Third (as usual) excised.

Clap yo’ hands

MOZART MENDELSSOHN BEETHOVEN

Tinalley String Quartet

Concourse Concert Hall, Chatswood

Thursday November 3, 2022

(L to R) Adam Chalabi, Lerida Delbridge, Justin Williams, Patrick Murphy

I’ll never understand audiences, even after a lifetime of sitting among them through all kinds of musical events. My current prime instance of incomprehension was to do with this recital from the Tinalleys, given for the Sydney Mozart Society which runs a worthwhile series each year. Put simply, these experienced musicians presented a program to satisfy conservative tastes and carried out their task to a fine standard: three perceptive interpretations with remarkably few quibbling points. Yet the responses from this pack of patrons proved to be half-hearted. Are they used to better? I’d suggest not, given what I’ve heard from Sydney’s chamber music scene. But there you go; I just hope that the group wasn’t too let down by the lack of enthusiasm that met their dealings with Mozart K. 421 in D minor, Mendelssohn’s Op.80 written as the composer neared his end, and Beethoven’s Harp Op. 74.

I’ve been reviewing the Tinalley players since their beginning – or close to it. Second violin Lerida Delbridge and viola Justin Williams are surviving founders from the ensemble’s establishment in 2003; cello Michelle Wood, also a founder, only left in 2017 which, to me, is yesterday. I barely remember former first violins Kristian Winther and Ayano Ninomiya but neither was in the position for very long; a year or two each, possibly. And foundation member Emma Skillington’s occupation of the second violin chair till 2006 while Delridge was on first has completely receded into the ever-encroaching mists. Current cello Patrick Murphy I’ve encountered in his previous life as a member of the Tankstream Quartet, while the most intense exposure I’ve had with Adam Chalabi has come through his pit work leading Orchestra Victoria. To put the current state of play into some contemporary perspective, Chalabi, Delbridge and Williams have been Tinalley collaborators for well over a decade, with Murphy the Johnny-come-lately in 2018.

More surprising is the group’s association with Queensland at which state’s university it has been Quartet in Residence since 2018. Chalabi is Associate Professor of Violin at UQ; Murphy is Cello Performance Fellow at the same institution. Further south, Williams holds the post of assistant principal with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra where Delbridge is assistant concertmaster. Since moving here, I’ve heard very few samples of music-making from the University of Queensland; its competition, Griffith University’s Conservatorium, is much better placed in terms of access – well, for those of us who travel a fair way for our music. So, nothing from the Tinalley for some time before I left Melbourne at the end of 2019 – just before everyone pulled in their aesthetic horns. A true pleasure, then, to find the group undiminished despite personnel vagaries (slight) and performance opportunities (also light-on).

In this full-bodied program, the players aimed high. Their Mozart came across with a welcome brisk coherence, evident in a clipped reading of bars 15 to 16 where togetherness is all. But then the entire exposition to this initial Allegro moderato maintained involvement on both sides, in no small measure due to the Australian Digital Concert Hall‘s exemplary miking of the players in this half-empty, resonant space. Each player emerged from the mixture with character, like Williams during the development in an urgent, edgy line. Indeed, this section passed all too rapidly (Mozart’s fault) before the last pages, Chalabi in excellent form across his triplets beginning at bar 98. Sadly, the group eschewed the temptation to repeat the ‘second half’, as they might have done, if my Barenreiter edition speaks truly.

Similarly, the group didn’t observe the Andante‘s repeat possibilities but, by the time we arrived at bar 66, the prevailing synchronization level was high (where better? The movement is here at its final reprise) and the only flaw I found was in missing the low G of Delbridge’s bar 83. You could appreciate the Concourse Theatre’s echo in the following Allegretto, alongside Chalabi’s care with the Trio, that section’s resonant second-half duet with Williams delighting even more the second time around, as did the dynamic relief at the chromatic slips from bar 23 during the Menuetto‘s reprise. Just when you got used to the abstention from repetitions in the finale variations, the players offered one in the second half of Variation 4! Yet again, the approach proved attractively crisp with respect shown for the score’s inbuilt balance, so that Chalabi didn’t feel the need to saw out his semiquavers in Variation 1 and his duet-of-sorts with Delbridge across Variation 2 where their cross-hatched fortepiano accents proved an illustration of cohesion in action. Across these pages, the only defect I heard came somewhere in Williams’ chromatic ascent in bar 91, almost forgotten by the enunciative consonance between both violins in their octave work during Variation 4.

A deftly ambiguous Piu allegro brought this work home, that brilliant fade to grey over the last 9 bars carried out with restraint underlining the composer’s remarkable lack of flamboyance – or rather, his maintaining of the melody’s quiet desperation up to its final flickers. I found this to be splendid music-making but the Society greeted the end of play with tepid applause.

Then, the Tinalleys made the jump of 64 years to Mendelssohn’s last string quartet in which the dark canvas has been alleged to represent the composer’s grief on the death of his sister Fanny. As an elegy, the work isn’t right because you don’t find many traces of resignation or emotional distance (except insofar as Mendelssohn was unable to move into deep tragedy with conviction), but it does convey agitation and a well-mannered despair. To be honest, I don’t understand Felix’s devotion to Fanny – or any such intense devoted-sibling relationship – especially as both brother and sister had families of their own and his emotional collapse on learning of her passing belongs to a sensibility that strikes me as over-ripe. Nevertheless, this Op. 80 is his last major work and a considerable creation, regardless of its gestational sources.

Right from the opening flurries, this interpretation showed determination, the musicians disciplined in their scrubbing semiquavers and vaulting triplets. Chalabi’s high B flats at the Allegro vivace assai‘s climax proved true and gripping while Murphy’s minim-rich line under his colleague’s subsiding antics before the key change to F Major came across with persuasive richness. As well, the Presto final pages showed a boldness and mutual confidence that did fine service to a passage in which the composer comes close to non-straitened anger. Not much wrong with the Allegro assai although the sforzando markings that, in my edition, are peppered across this scherzo were not remarkably different from their surroundings which stayed at a forte level most of the time. More high-quality duet work came from Williams and Murphy in octave duet for the Trio but, yet again, the group impressed most with their quietly lugubrious recall of that Trio in this movement’s concluding 38 bars.

Every so often, Williams’ viola tended to overpower Delbridge in dialogue passages across the Adagio to this work but my main problem with this section was a reticence in Chalabi’s line at the mid-movement change of key, particularly at the top line’s exposed moments. Against that, set the tenderness brought into play during the final passage following Murphy’s descending scale solo: a moment where the emotional wrench is reined in but intensely moving. To finish, Mendelssohn uses brief motives for an Allegro molto, here given as much fluency as practical, these musicians wresting full power from the rhythmically conjunct duets and trios that occupy much of the action. Indeed, the movement maintained its excitement, the circumscribed energy close to emotionally moving for its straining against Mendelssohn’s innate self-control. Yet again, the Society enjoyed a worthy rendition that brought out the score’s best features with fine skill; and, once more, the response proved lukewarm.

And so to the big-boned Beethoven work which came into being about half-way between the composition of this program’s other two elements. No second-half falling-away here: the Tinalleys preserved their discipline, well exemplified by the rhythmic precision of the Poco adagio‘s 7-bar sentence leading into the first movement’s main body. The complex sounded a tad unsettled in the violins’ first alternating pizzicati dialogue but the ensemble work proved remarkably lucid; for example, in the duet of extremes between first violin and cello that starts at bar 96 and continues almost until the recapitulation. But all credit to Chalabi for his handling of the Bach-reminiscent semiquaver spinning that occupies central position in the movement’s buoyant coda: as accurate as I’ve heard and avoiding all suggestion of patterns for their own sake.

Sweetness without over-sugaring typified the Adagio which was finely paced and exact, down to the soft chords that conclude the first episode of this rondo. Delbridge distinguished herself with a careful density of texture at her bar 94 entry, taking over an accompanying figure from Williams who sounded over-demonstrative by comparison. Despite that, the group treated this lyric with consideration and achieving over its length a placid eloquence. By contrast, the following Presto impressed as urgent, scouring the ear with its brusqueries. Even more insistent were the two Trio outbursts which gave you the sense that they would tip into an uncontrollable sprawl at any second – just what you want when handling a quasi prestissimo.

Chalabi announced the Allegretto‘s theme very carefully; too much so for me as some notes disappeared because the first note of each phrase was over-pronounced. But the six variations were deftly treated as Beethoven shared the limelight in this movement: every player gets a guernsey. Only one bar left an uneasy impression: the first violin’s concluding flourish to the first half of Variation V. But, one brief transmission disruption aside, this quartet concluded with convincing freshness, notable in the last allegro unison rush of semiquaver exuberance.

And you realized at night’s end why the group had been judicious in its choices of what to repeat and what to leave with one run-through. This was a solid night’s work, just fitting into the usual two-hour program length that used to be normal practice but is rare in our current era of the short-change. It doesn’t need to be hammered again, but I will: this eloquent reading was met with slightly more applause than had greeted its programmatic predecessors, but not nearly enough to show sufficient acknowledgement of the Tinalley players’ level of professionalism and insight. I’ve got uncomfortable memories of Bernard Heinze scolding a Sydney Town Hall audience for its inertia after he’d conducted the first Australian performance (I think) of Walton’s Symphony No. 2. But that was in part the result of a mediocre run-through of a tiring score, while this Beethoven interpretation was undeniably excellent. If for nothing else, we need to reinforce our musicians’ self-esteem, particularly when they are functioning at a high standard in their craft.