February 2023 Diary

VIVALDI FOUR SEASONS

Eclective Strings

St. John’s Cathedral, Ann Street

Friday February 3 at 6:30 pm and 8:30 pm

Beginning the year with absolutely no style at all comes this run-through of Vivaldi’s greatest hit. Not the whole thing, mind you, but ‘selections’. I suppose the excuse will be that such an abridgement, a digest helps bring in punters who don’t usually listen to serious music, or who want to graduate from enterprises like the Tamworth mud bath. So, as a benefit to the intentionally stupid, let’s give voice to those movements from these four violin concertos that have become most recognizable through TV advertisements. Tonight is one of the more presentable efforts in a program of candlelight concerts, most of which are homages to various pop singers and groups; this program sticks out in its context like a diamond in a sewer. Still, I’m rather wary of the main performing structure; we’re not offered a soloist but a string quartet – which is not enough of a resource to carry even this lightweight music. As far as I can see, the Eclective haven’t operated much outside Victoria but they specialize in tribute concerts – ABBA, Adele, Beatles, Coldplay, AC/DC – when they’re not indulging in cut-down Baroque. On its website, the ensemble claims to be respectable by day, up-to-the-mark rockers by night; I would have been impressed if the roles/times were reversed. Anyway, they’re giving their selections twice on this evening, depending on your eating arrangements, I suppose; tickets start at $29. To be honest, I’d need a lot of persuading to sit through even a filleted version of these works, particularly when there’s so much more Vivaldi to hear.

JOY AND SORROW

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio, South Brisbane

Friday February 10 at 7:30 pm

Chief conductor Umberto Clerici takes a small set of forces through this three-component program schedule to last 75 minutes without interval. He begins with Strauss’s Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings, written in the dying days of World War II and probably intended as a threnody for German culture which was at that time being pounded into dust. Not the most interesting of the composer’s works but it has relevance to the current world situation, given the war being inflicted on us by the latest in a series of Russian megalomaniacs. It’s hard to tell how this will come across in the Studio’s close quarters; you’ll certainly know if anyone wavers. Then comes a new work by the QSO’s long-time principal percussionist, David Montgomery – a suite for brass and percussion that, at time of writing, has no name. I know of Montgomery as a performer and educator – not as a composer, which could make part of this night revelatory. Finally, we hear Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite, eight movements from the original ballet: Sinfonia (Ouverture), Serenata, Scherzino, Tarantella, Toccata, Gavotta, Vivo, and Minuetto+Finale. The instrumentation asks for pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoons and horns, with a trumpet and trombone for ballast and a string quintet alongside a string orchestra. The composer’s transformation of Pergolesi pieces, the full ballet is rarely heard (or seen) but this suite is packed with piquancies: a rare sight of Stravinsky the Funster. Tickets are $75, unless you have a concession or are very young; children get in for $30, but will they put up with the Strauss willingly?

DANCE AROUND THE WORLD

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Sunday, February 12 at 11:30 am

Another special with QSO chief conductor Umberto Clerici holding the leading strings. I’m not sure how far around the world this dancing extends; what we know of what is to be played leaves me feeling more than a little Eurocentric. The problem is that, after listing a number of highlights, the promoters promise ‘. . . and more’, which always makes me wonder if that more has been decided or will it be decided between lunchtime tomorrow and Australia Day. We know that we’re getting the Can-can from Offenbach’s comic opera Orpheus in the Underworld, an energetic terpsichorean remnant of the belle epoque and forever associated with impossibly frilled petticoats and startlingly unrevealing knickers. Further along the morning promenade, Clerici & Co. will perform Strauss’s Voices of Spring, presumably without the optional soprano; like the Offenbach, a musical portrait of a world of outward brilliance but rotten to the core. Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5 in F sharp minor/G minor puts in an appearance, doing its best to live up to proud Zigeuner pretensions in orchestral garb supplied by Schmeling, Parlow, or Ivan Fischer. The tone moves upwards with the Act 1 Waltz from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, which is a splendidly balanced product in every sense. As a Me Too genuflection, the program includes the third of American black composer Florence Price’s Dances in the Canebrakes: the cakewalk Silk Hat and Walking Cane, probably in the orchestration by William Grant Still. But there’s more, and good luck with that. Tickets range from $75 to $105 for a scheduled 80 minutes playing time without interval; good value, if there’s no irritatingly amiable chats involved.

ILYA GRINGOLTS PLAYS BRUCH

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday February 13 at 7 pm

Five years ago, ACO habitues heard this Russian violinist play Paganini brilliantly. The popular appeal item this time (and it’s the only one on the program) is the first of the three Bruch concertos in an arrangement for the string ensemble by the organization’s librarian, Bernard Rofe. What we will miss out on hearing are the pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, trumpets, the horn quartet, but the original score’s timpani part is spared any editorial cut. Will you feel the lack? Probably, if you know the work well, and I’d say most of us do. Still, it saves on employing an extra 14 musicians and transporting them round the country for a series of one-night stands. Gringolts also contributes his solo skills to Frank Martin’s Polyptyque of 1973, written to a Menuhin commission and calling for two small string orchestras underpinning the solo violin. These six images de la Passion de Christ make a substantial work, slightly longer than the Bruch concerto, and most of us will be hearing them for the first time. As well, the ACO performs Mendelssohn’s one-movement String Symphony No. 13, a new score – Slanted – from Melbourne-born Harry Sdraulig, and Bacewicz’s 1948 Concerto for String Orchestra, a major composition from the Polish composer and one which carries its neo-classicism with an impressive pnache. Prices range from $49 to $115 with concessions available for qualified patrons.

ODE TO JOY

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Friday February 17 at 7:30 pm

Always a crowd-pleaser – except for those pesky three movements before the choral finale – Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 can be a shattering experience. The trouble is that you have to take it as a job lot, instrumental predecessors and all before you get to the furious heaven-storming of the choir’s massive explosions. Umberto Clerici conducts his orchestra and the Brisbane Chamber Choir with a clutch of four soloists, three of whom I know well from their concert/recital/opera work: soprano Eleanor Lyons (I’ve not come across this artist), mezzo Deborah Humble, tenor Andrew Goodwin, bass Michael Honeyman. We’ve all got a perfect Ninth in our heads, and some of us have had poor experiences (one of mine was an appalling realization of the males’ Seid umschlungen entry from the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic under Tzipine, and a recent one was a painfully lacklustre reading from Bendigo this past December), but the omens are propitious for this reading. With monstrous over-reach, the publicists have claimed that Peter Sculthorpe is Australia’s Beethoven because he is the founding father of this country’s music. Well, he was a lovely fellow but he wasn’t the founder of anything except his own sound world. We get a well-worn sample of that in his Earth Cry of 1986 which has an optional part for didgeridoo; no options about if because tonight we enjoy the services of William Barton. Following this theme of finding a place for Aboriginal-inspired music, the concert begins with a collaboration between Barton and violinist Veronique Serret: Kalkani, which was a 2020 commission by the ABC. Here, it has been transmuted from a duet into orchestral dress and enjoys its Queensland premiere. Does the whole set of proceedings sound like a mess? That’s because it is one, no matter which way you try to dress it up. Admission ranges from $90 to $130 and the program includes an interval; the two didgeridoo-inclusive pieces last about 20 minutes while the symphony has an average length of about an hour plus five minutes.

This program will be repeated on Saturday February 18 at 1:30 pm and again on Sunday February 19 at 1:30 pm

HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE IN CONCERT

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre, South Brisbane

Saturday February 25 at 1:30 pm and 7:30 pm

Ah, this brings back happy memories of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra opening its year’s practice at the Plenary space near the Convention and Exhibition Centre with Dr. Who or Wallace and Gromit extravaganzas, as well as some films for the masses. Then, throughout the year, we would enjoy more film screenings in Hamer Hall with the MSO providing a live soundtrack – which usually meant the films had to be supplied with subtitles. Starting the academic year with a dollop of infantile necromancy, the QSO under Nicholas Buc will support David Yates’ adaptation of J. K. Rowling’s sixth novel in the Harry Potter series, which is one of the darkest of the lot – well, it’s the darkest (novel and film) so far because it (the film) begins with the suborning of Snape and climaxes in the death of Dumbledore – after which fun times at Hogwarts definitely come to an end. Nicholas Hooper’s score uses elements of the John Williams music that we have imbibed into our very souls but his instrumentation is an interesting, carefully placed element in the narrative. Has the Potter fever been sustained? Will audience members come dressed in their house colours or swathed in cloaks and besoming their ways into the auditorium? You’d have to be there to find out, I suppose. Tickets range from $59 to $120 and I couldn’t find any concessions. Bookings attract that meaningless Service Fee, which is an accounting swindle both universal and unavoidable (believe me, I’ve tried).

CITY OF LIGHTS: FROM PARIS, WITH LOVE

Southern Cross Soloists

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Sunday February 26 at 3 pm

Here we go once more, perpetuating the legend about Paris being the artistic centre of the world. Yes, it was: not anymore, The last time I visited (pre-COVID), the population was in a sour mood with strikes galore and consequently a fair few sites shut. Very little music-making and no opera. Still, the Soloists are determined to celebrate its palmy days, beginning with some selections from Gluck’s Orfeo ed EuridiceBlessed Spirits, anyone? Actually, yes: Portuguese flautist David Silva will be exposed in this bracket. The composer was German, the libretto was Italian, but Gluck did revamp his work in 1764 for Parisian audiences; something of a link, then. Mozart’s A minor Piano Sonata, K. 310, was apparently written about the time of his mother’s death – in Paris; this will be performed by the Soloists’ artist-in-residence, Konstantin Shamray. A firmer connection comes with selections from Debussy’s books of Preludes (Flaxen? Sunken? Fireworks?), which will also involve Shamray. And another Debussy appears in the art song Beau soir, which features one of the night’s guests, cellist Guillaume Wang, the programmers possibly deciding on using Julian Lloyd Webber’s arrangement. Wang also leads the way through Georgette by Rumanian violinist Georges Boulanger. This is a piece of salon music named after the composer’s daughter; despite his (adopted) name, Boulanger had no connection to Paris – perhaps his daughter did. As far as I can tell, Prokofiev wrote his Piano Concerto No. 4, the one for left-hand alone, in Paris during 1931. Commissioned by that unpleasant personality Paul Wittgenstein, the work was never performed during the composer’s lifetime. I don’t know if the Soloists will play the score as written or (more probably) an arrangement; regardless, you’ll be hearing Shamray at work again. Finally, Ravel’s Tzigane will exhibit the talents of guest violinist Courtenay Cleary. By the time he wrote this, the composer was living outside Paris but let’s not be too pedantic at this late stage of the program. The program lasts for 90 minutes (interval? maybe) and the cost is a flat $85.

Fiat lux

THREADING THE LIGHT

Felicity Wilcox

Move Records MCD 636

I don’t know how to catalogue this four-part exercise. According to the notes available on the Move Records site, the score formed the basis of Wilcox’s Ph.D. submission and was written between 2008 and 2012. The composer provides a good deal of technical detail on how she contrived the background/supporting musical stream that runs throughout the work. As you probably know if you’ve dabbled in academia, very little impresses a supervisor/examiner more than graphs, tables and photos of mechanisms; the trouble lies in interpreting the numbers which few people (except those paid to do so, viz. supervisors and examiners) can be bothered attempting. I had a few tries and got some way in – but then you listen to the CD and have to wonder at the need to explain technical details when the whole product presents more puzzles than the technical tooling around with frequencies extracted from or supplied by Sydney percussionist Michael Askill’s singing bowls.

Wilcox’s four soundscapes go by elemental titles: Light, Water, Blood, Fire. The overall emotional tenor of the work is meditative and ritualistic, with a heavy accent on Near and Far Eastern practices. Not that you wouldn’t be aware of this from the composer’s instrumental fabric, but it helps that she uses singers who beaver away at various texts that might give some reinforcement or illustration of the work’s four generic titles. Soprano Alison Morgan, contralto Jenny Duck-Chong and baritone Mark Donnelly are the nominated vocalists, the last-named moving very close to a tenor range in the score’s latter pages – a tribute to Donnelly’s versatility.

It’s a mixed ensemble that provides the bulk of Wilcox’s output, all led by Sada Muramutsu. Top of the town sits a string trio: violin Anna McMichael, viola Luke Spicer, cello Anthea Cottee, with a prominent part allocated to Alison Pratt and her multiform percussion. As a central body, we hear a string quintet: violins Ben Adler and Victor Wu, viola Tara Hashambhoy, cello Anthony Albrecht, bass Muhamed Mehmedbasic, while Ben Burton supervises the composer’s electronic instrument. Once again, according to the online booklet, the recording’s mixing and mastering (Daniel Brown at Trackdown) was carried out in March 2012 – which means this disc has been a long time coming.

One of the more intriguing compositional bases that Wilcox employs is a contrast between just intonation and equal temperament, the first sourced from the bowls and manipulation of their output while the second is the regular tuning of the string-rich ensemble. Any disjunction between the two tuning systems is not apparent at the start of Light, Track 1, but the aim is to refine the difference into obviousness by the time we reach Track 4, Fire, so that eventually a palpable disjunction obtains. God knows the difference ought to be clear as the work moves at a ceremonial pace for the most part and the progress is rarely interrupted by technical conundrums of a significant order – apart from the electronics which seem happy for much of the time to bathe us in a soothing infinity pool of familiar warmth layers..

So we begin with Light and plenty of bowl sounds, some of them sounding real-time, others pre-recorded. The atmosphere is hushed, reverent and inescapably oriental. A female voice (Duck-Chong?) begins singing a three-note Vedic mantra about sacred light illuminating us. A continuation of the subtly pulsing backdrop brings forward a male voice (Donnelly) celebrating the light of Allah (as outlined in a Quran verse) in a melodic arc that seems to be farther-ranging than the first solo but is limited to the same three notes (plus some octaves). At all events, simple percussive tinklings emerge in the struck-bowl main timbre-world and take on some prominence here as punctuation points. I believe it’s Morgan who gives us the final textual content with a Buddhist lama’s prayer of thanksgiving (for light, of course); again, her material follows the same trail as blazed by her peers. What follows is an instrumental slab where the three base notes are elaborated and twisted into all sorts of predictable shapes by McMichael with two essays in melisma, eventually followed by Spicer and Cottee rising out of a sonorous band supplied by the string ensemble with some occasional high bells and an underpinning current of bowl sounds operating as a support.

The language is deliberately limited but the dynamic level moves from meditative calm to fierce percussiveness. At its opening, Water sets a suitably limpid atmosphere with sustained bowl sound-bands, the strings entering gently in high/harmonics strata, with an occasional dollop of a Wilcox gesture where a soft string passage or crescendo ends in a chordal thump. The composer’s textures now have become less transparent, her string ensemble producing a sustained mid-range sound-band that could have escaped from Penderecki’s Threnody. Suddenly, we have moved into a new and completely unexpected segment where the bass is a five-note cantus firmus above which Cottee pours out a sad if mobile lament. It’s the sort of music that struck me as being useful for indicating a transcontinental trudge of the Burke & Wills genre, but no: such an interpretation is overturned by all three singers breaking out in an (eventually) unison setting of the opening lines to Psalm 23 (22) with a strikingly non-impressionist vision of the still waters. It’s hard to penetrate the vocalists’ Hebrew, given the strident accompaniment, but with a few hearings under the belt I’m not sure whether they reach the final phrases set out in the online booklet about being guided along straight paths for his name’s sake.

We are again grounded by two more settings which appear in reverse order to their printing in the booklet. First come a few lines about the Lord pouring out blessings, written by the composer’s brother, Rev. Dr. Gavin Wilcox who died in 2008 from cancer aged 46, and to whom Threading the Light is dedicated; this setting is a wide-ranging one with a welcome addition of vocal and instrumental glissandi that relax the three- or four-note limitations exercised so far. Duck-Chong and Donnelly outline an anonymous Buddhist prayer (well, most of it) about rains filling streams and oceans being reflected in the exercise of human goodness in healing all things. Here. we’re back in limited ground, Duck-Chong’s line at least mobile while the baritone sings a single note. Then the movement ends in similar condition to its predecessor: in a lengthy interstellar hum punctuated by a single note.

Comparatively brief in this context, Blood lasts for 6 1/2 minutes and uses one text; well, actually two, but the second comprises just two Latin words for blood. The main one is a Vedic mantra in which the aim is complete identity between the chanter and whomever/whatever he is addressing; not so much blood will out as much as blood is blood, as we say in Calabria. The movement opens with a Bloch-reminiscent cello solo couched in a more adventurous vocabulary than that used by the Jewish master. Donnelly sings through the Sanskrit quatrain with similar adventurousness before being joined by the female voices who generally finish off his lines for him. I think the mantra is repeated three times, the latter two a pulsing monotone in Donnelly’s case; underneath come sinuous strings arcing and glissading above an insistent timpani. Here, the ceremonial achieves its hypnosis through forceful insistence, rather than quiet repetition.

The movement’s second half comprises mainly an interweaving of the three voices, sticking to a limited number of notes for each and treating the two words sanguis and cruor with increasing intensity that involves aggressive string linear interplay and a vehement undercurrent iof percussion, including a prominent side-drum. Without a score, I can’t make much insightful headway into the work’s interstices but, once again, it appears that Wilcox is deliberately confining herself in her material while expending more adventurousness on drama; this piece ends with an explosion, not the suggestion of an all-embracing, eternal continuum. The final strokes have the singers returning to the Veda’s final words, ‘Light of all lights’.

Last comes Fire, about double the length of Blood. We’re back with the singing bowls straight away and on the lookout (listenout) for a change in temperament and pretty quickly there’s a scale that announces the new – the changed, rather – followed by the cello playing an imitation, possibly to illustrate the technical differentiation. The string group focuses on a single chord, alternately soft and loud, sustained and agitated before the bowl music returns and integrates itself with a single string line. So far (about a quarter of the way through), there’s little to grab on to, even if you’re prepared to find fiery flickers in the alternating timbres. Then comes another of those bowl scales which is definitely filling in your usual well-tempered cracks; the ensuing cello solo (Cottee, I assume) now seems to be doing the same thing with another odd scale/arpeggio upward motion/gesture before a substantial solo that features some welcome technical flourishes. This merges into a chord and some isolated ejaculations for all three vocalists which dissipate into a sort of tutti for strings and bowls.

The voices enter; first Donnelly, with another verse-prayer from Gavin Wilcox, speaking of the individual’s helplessness and a complete frailty that depends on the Lord’s support to survive. Meshing in with this comes yet another excerpt from Psalm 23 (22) – the bit about walking through the valley of the shadow of death but enjoying divine support from both rod and staff. As before, the Old Testament extract is sung in Hebrew and I think has been entrusted to Duck-Chong because it sounds as if it’s Morgan who immediately breaks in with yet another text: an anonymous saeta to Our Lady of Sorrows which bears a close resemblance to the Stabat Mater‘s first stanza. In all three vocal lines, we have returned to the tonal chastity of the work’s opening, Wilcox using few notes and maintaining a regular pulse of one note repeated twice underneath the singers; nothing like a constant unvaried pulse to suggest the hieratic.

This slow, lurching pace continues through the final sung fragment which is for all three voices and is an evening prayer ascribed to Muhammad, a salutation that again records the worshipper’s total dependence on God. The vocalists rise to a vehement climax that involves the interjections of slapping-sticks, the episode culminating in an instrumentally reinforced open-chord Amen – very Muslim in its decisiveness. And immediately we are changed, in the twinkling of an eye, back into the outer reaches of the universe with a final sample of sustained humming and soft high strings. I’m not sure what part fire plays in all this; I suspect that where I expect the vivid and the passionate (the ardent), Wilcox is more concerned with the (divine) spiration that ignites us all. Sad to report that, at about the halfway mark of this finale, I’d forgotten completely about listening for the disjunction between Wilcox’s two tuning systems; it’s certainly there – he that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

Congratulations to Wilcox and her collaborators for getting this CD into the light of day. It strikes me that its content deserves attention, principally because of its rarity in celebrating the numinous with individuality and doing so by using in part a novel language of sound sources. A kind of catholicity pervades the work, the textual sources highly varied in their origins, and the musical content falling into a strange land. Somehow, the orthodox sits alongside the novel – and not just alongside but the two intertwine. Indeed, it is these moments of fusion that interest me, more than the singing bowls as an isolated creation. Most listeners, I believe, will find something admirable in the course of hearing Wilcox’s substantial musical essay, not least her vaulting ambition.

January 2023 Diary

There is nothing.

I’ve looked assiduously in every potential corner, wherever information could be assimilated, assessed, obscured.

But in January, no musical activity worth the name is being presented in Brisbane or on the Gold Coast.

It makes me long for the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields that has shrunk from its previous impressive substance to a few days’ shadow of its former self. And the Mornington Peninsula Summer Festival is spreading itself even more thinly these days. But at least both these events promise something.

Not north of the Tweed.

For your cultural input, perhaps Sydney may offer something with its Festival. From what I can see, a couple of contemporary operas and a chamber concert would seem to be the main (only?) offerings.

The nation is on holiday, but nowhere more seriously inactive than in the land of the Where-The-Bloody-Hell-Are-You?

Better luck for us all next month.