February Diary

SONATA WORLD TOUR 2020

Yundi Li

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Thursday February 6 at 7:30 pm

Somewhere along the line, I must have  missed this pianist’s Melbourne appearance in 2018; surprising, because his standing as the youngest competitor ever to win the Chopin Piano Competition (in 2000) would have brought him to any interested party’s attention.  Fortunately, he’s back in Australia to electrify his devoted adherents with a solo recital that – you’d guess from its title – features sonatas; in this instance, works by Chopin (No. 3, which Li has recorded twice) Schubert (the A Major D. 664) and Rachmaninov (not much of a choice here and Li has opted for No. 2).   As a filler, the performer moves outside the format and brings in the eight Etudes-tableaux by Rachmaninov.   If you’re interested, prepare to pay: the worst seats (and they are pretty terrible) cost $89 apiece while a decent place puts you back $129.   Group discounts are available but none for individuals, as far as I can work out from the QPAC site.   Li is being presented by Harmonie International, this Brisbane recital following appearances in Melbourne and Perth before two nights in Sydney, a stop-off in Auckland, then on to the US and Canada.  A limited world tour, then.

 

POWER AND GLORY

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Saturday February 8 at 7:30 pm

One-time teenage prodigy Alexander Prior conducts this opening concert for the QSO’s 2020 operations.   Building on his Russian heritage, he directs the Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 that most of us considered to be a paean to Communist ideology until we were admitted into the arcane world of the composer’s sub-texts which turned every pre-conception on its head.   Still, it never fails to energize the spirit, whether you interpret its import as sustaining the down-trodden kulak or condemning Stalin’s police state.   Opening the night, we hear a new score from Melody Eotvos, currently teaching composition at the Melbourne Conservatorium.   The name of this freshly-written work is, as yet, unknown but it was a QSO commission and Eotvos is well-versed in such occasional tasks.   At the night’s centre comes Beethoven’s Triple Concerto – with the Brahms Double Concerto, one of my guilty pleasures.   The soloists all have strong local connections:  violinist Emily Sun comes fresh from reviving Matthew Hindson‘s Violin Concerto Australian postcards at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl; cellist Caleb Wong has been a Melbourne regular, thanks to the Australian National Academy of Music, for several years; and pianist Aura Go has made a recurrent and welcome presence in Australia’s recital programs.   How the three of them will work together in this work is anyone’s guess; my preference has always been for an established piano trio fronting a work that is all too often undervalued.

 

STAR WARS: RETURN OF THE JEDI

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre

Saturday February 15 at 2 pm

Everybody’s favourite in the first trilogy, I guess; having just endured the overblown Gothic of the last instalment of the final set, this old (1983) masterpiece shows up how poorly the scripts have developed over 36 years.   I’ve not experienced the production modes of Brisbane as far as film soundtracks go but am assuming they’re not that much different to Melbourne’s practices.   The music will be very prominent, probably to the point where projected surtitles will be necessary for those desert-dwelling Stylites who haven’t seen this film twenty times over.   There’s no avoiding the warming inevitability of the John Williams score with its memorable main title and the motifs that hurl out every time Darth Vader and the storm troopers come into view, although you get some relief with the Ewoks and the final medieval celebration music is a splendid touch.  Nicholas Buc here adds to his impressive repertoire of realized film soundtracks, getting the audience well onside before the QSO brass bursts out across the first frame.

This program will be repeated at 7:30 pm.

 

A NEW WORLD: INTIMATE MUSIC FROM FINAL FANTASY

New World Players

Brisbane Powerhouse

Saturday February 15 at 7:30 pm

These players are new to me.  Are they locals?  I can’t trace them; moreover, the ensemble plays a lot in the USA, if you can trust the internet for your information.  Further, the group’s advertised conductor/director, Eric Roth, is a famous American jack-of-all-trades: composer, orchestrator/arranger. producer and conductor with wide acclaim for this particular program.  It’s based on a video game which revolves around fantasy and science fantasy role-playing games.  Right: I’ve got some awareness of this from my grandson although the exercise seems to be far more directed towards participants than observers; mind you, they’re probably one and the same.  In any case, Roth and his ensemble – a decet, if the publicity photo is any guide – will play this video-game music, written by Nobuo Uematsu who is a big noise in the industry and composed most of the scores for the Final Fantasy franchise.  An individual musician singled out for note in this concert is German pianist Benyamin Nuss who has had composer-approving success interpreting Uematsu’s work.  With only limited exposure to Final Fantasy‘s soundtrack, I found the product charming, Romantic, salonesque; no matter what happens in the games, it’s as though 20th century music didn’t happen.

 

BEETHOVEN 1, 2 & 3

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday February 17 at 7 pm

And here we go on the Beethoven sestercentennial.  Richard Tognetti and his excellent orchestra – expanded for the occasion with 12 wind (13 for the Symphony in E flat), timpani and some extra strings provided by the Australian National Academy of Music. This is a marvellous juxtaposition of two scores that we rarely hear live and one of the cornerstones of the repertoire, all written across a five-year span and demonstrating Beethoven’s expansiveness of vision; already obvious in the first C Major work but explosive in the Eroica.   Have we heard the ACO’s reading of the composer’s first two essays in the symphony form?   I don’t think so but we are assured of a dust-free evening as Tognetti and his charges unveil a fresh battery of sparkling facets to music that all too frequently is delineated with numbing solemnity and attention-dulling heft.  The question that faces us after tonight is: will anybody better this program in a year full of celebratory observances?

 

PURELY MOZART

Ensemble Trivium

Old Government House

Friday February 21 at 7 pm

This will be one of the more concentrated chamber music experiences of the year.  Flautist Monika Koerner and three friends are taking on the four Flute Quartets by Mozart.  Not particularly difficult, these small-frame gems exemplify the composer’s melodic facility and his capacity to surprise you with unexpected quirks that are absent in his contemporaries’ more four-square creations.   Helping Koerner through the hour’s worth of music performance are violinist Anne Horton from the Australian National University’s School of Music, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s associate principal violist Yoko Okayasu, and cellist Trish O’Brien from Ensemble Q.   It will all be a leisurely stroll, these works products of Mozart’s early 20s and of a piece with his lighter string quartets or divertimenti.   Fleshing out the entertainment, the quartets will be interwoven with readings from Mozart’s letters; you assume the musicians will carry out this task as no speaker is specified.

 

BEETHOVEN AND BRAHMS

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio

Sunday February 23 at 3 pm

Opening its Beethoven celebrations in this 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth, the QSO dedicates half of this chamber recital to a rarely performed piece: the Wind Sextet Op. 71.   Its catalogue number would make you think that the score belongs to the period of the Pastoral Symphony, the Emperor Concerto, the Ghost Piano Trio, and Fidelio.  But it actually belongs to the era of the first two piano concertos, the early cello sonatas, the C minor Piano Trio, and the Quintet for piano and winds.   Its four movements show a brusqueness, if not too aggressive in its application; for many of us, this will be the first live performance we’ll have heard – and are likely to hear for some time.  The clarinets are acting associate principal Brian Catchlove and Kate Travers; principal Nicole Tait and Evan Lewis provide the bassoon lines; the horn players are associate principal Alex Miller and Lauren Manuel.   As an odd complement to this rarity, we hear the massive Piano Quintet in F minor by Brahms, thanks to concertmaster Warwick Adeney and fellow violinist Shane Chen, violist Bernard Hoey, associate principal cello Hyung Suk Bae, with guest Anna Grinberg from the University of Queensland’s School of Music taking on the

formidable keyboard element.   Both works total only about an hour in performance but there’s a fair chance you’ll be satisfied, if not sated, at the event’s conclusion.

 

THE TRUMPET UNLEASHED

Southern Cross Soloists

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Sunday February 23 at 3 pm

To be honest, I’d be delighted to hear a trumpet player let loose; most of the time, they’re inclined to behave as if constipated, tastefully controlling their dynamic level to avoid any semblance of domination.    From the Concertgebouw comes principal Miroslav Petkov who opens his innings with Maurice Andre‘s arrangement of the Vivaldi Trumpet Concerto RV 20, which in my book is the Violin Sonata No. 4 in F Major.  Did the composer write a concerto for single trumpet?   If so, I can’t find it.   For relief, Paul Dean interpolates a clarinet solo by Tasmanian-based saxophonist Jabra Latham before the ensemble launches into Frozen River Flows from 2005, originally for oboe and percussion, by Petkov’s fellow Bulgarian Dobrinka Tabakova.   Then come some arrangements for trumpet of Rachmaninov Romances – probably not all 7 in the list of the composer’s compositions.    Stravinsky’s Petrushka then appears, but surely not the whole ballet?   And Petkov ends with La Virgen de la Macarena in the version made popular by the famous Mexican trumpeter Rafael Mendez: a nice piece of kitsch to round off another mixed bag of offerings from this unpredictable ensemble.  Oh, and the recital will take place in Reverse Mode, with the audience positioned in the choir seats surrounding the stage, thereby enjoying close proximity to the performers.

 

Karlsruhe Konzert-duo

Commissariat Store Museum, 115 William Street

Tuesday February 25 at 6:30 pm

This ensemble, established in 1998, comprises cellist Reinhard Armleder and pianist Dagmar Hartmann.   For this event, the musicians are being sponsored by the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, which might go some way to explaining the recital’s venue.   In any case, we are promised works by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann,  Liszt, Ravel and de Falla.  No problems with the first two names, thanks to five formidable sonatas from Beethoven and two sonatas as well as a set of fine concert variations from Mendelssohn.   Schumann produced the 5 Stucke im Vokkston, and the cello is a possibility in the Op. 70 Adagio and Allegro, as well as the Op. 73 Fantasy Pieces.  Liszt arranged two elegies for the cello/piano combination, as well as the Romance oubliee and La lugubre gondola.  R avel wrote nothing for this instrumental duo; Falla wrote a Melody, a Piece and a Romance for cello and piano.  Or perhaps this list of possibilities is a tad purist.   The duo certainly play Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 3 in an arranged format and I suspect they may play other transcriptions as well.   Try as I might, details of actual works are impossible to find: you just have to invest the players with a certain amount of  trust.  There will be no intermission and the event lasts for 90 minutes.

 

GARRICK OHLSSON

Musica Viva

Queensland Conservatorium Theatre

Thursday February 27 at 7 pm

Always a welcome visitor, American master-pianist Ohlsson is offering two programs for this tour, Brisbane scoring the first of them.   The offerings range from Beethoven, through Prokofiev, landing finally on a substantial Chopin bracket.  Over the years, Melbourne has heard a good deal from Ohlsson, most of it in solo recital format, and he never disappoints, his interpretation standards informed without excessive erudition and his technical command unfaltering.   Beethoven to begin, then: the B flat Sonata No. 11 of 1800 which some commentators esteem as formal perfection, in this case wedded to an easy-flowing optimism across all four movements.   Ohlsson then bounds forward 140 years to the bracing Prokofiev Sonata No. 6: brilliant virtuosic writing for keyboard and asking for rapid-fire recovery rates.   As for the Chopin, the pianist – only American winner of the Chopin Piano Competition (1970) – genuflects to the well-known with the Berceuse, as well as the half-remembered in the Impromptu No. 2, gives an airing to the open-hearted C sharp minor Scherzo, and treats us to some of the Op. 25 Etudes – Nos. 5 to 10.   Unmissable.

 

January Diary

This note is by way of saying what I hoped was unprintable.

There’s nothing on.

Not that there’s much difference in Melbourne.   Over many decades, the only serious music offering during January involved a rural retreat in the form of the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival.   Over recent years, this was complemented by the Peninsula Summer Music Festival which offered a compendium to suit the season and required a retreat of a more intellectual character.

Both were out-of-town, of course, and involved road-trips hat could veer alarmingly in time spans.

But, as far as I can see, there’s nothing comparable in Brisbane.  My favourite niece is taking her family to the Woodford Folk Festival, which is my idea of physical and mental hell, in this case possibly serving as punishment for domestic misdeeds

But that seems to be the only music available and that concourse entertainment falls mainly across the dying days of December 2019.

Talent, with bursts of brilliance

PASSING BELLS

Brisbane Music Festival

Old Museum Brisbane, Bowen Hills

Wednesday December 18

ALEX_RAINERI_SLIDER_2560x1100_HERO

                                                                     Alex Raineri

Taking on the full weight of his undertaking, Brisbane Music Festival director Alex Raineri finished the 10-event series with a solo recital, given to a respectably sized audience in the ‘second’ room at the front of the Bowen Hills museum building, which does not have ceiling-to-floor drapes along three of the four walls. as I thought: the material only covers part of them, albeit that section of the space in which the performer(s) operate(s).   Since the last offering in this festival that I attended (Friday December 13), it sounded as if the piano had not been tuned, which made some difference to the pre-interval music, if not much to the more adventurous works that fleshed out a longer-than-expected program.

Raineri began with Chopin’s 24 Preludes, Op. 28 – a sequence that is speckled with a few pieces that have become very familiar like No. 4 in E minor, the 8-bar No. 7 in A Major, the D flat Major No. 15.   But most of the remainder are known only to Chopin aficionados and to pianists for whom they are a constant source of delight and dread.  This reading had some impressive passages with a few surprises, as well as the occasional imperfection – which you’d expect when dealing with a composer whose music continues to present the finest pianists with executive difficulties, both digital and expressive.

You could find little to carp about with No. 1 in C; smoothly carried off with a welcome urgency, even if I didn’t understand the rallentando across the last bars; a fading dynamic, yes, but not a concomitant decrease in speed.   The following A minor-delayed prelude began very slowly, even for a Lento, but it appeared to move into a more active pace when the melody line had to be coped with.   The scintillating G  Major piece could not be faulted, Raineri’s left-hand semiquaver chains flawless, as far as I could discern.   Equally impressive, the following E minor demonstrated this pianist’s sensitivity to inbuilt phrasing rises and falls, even across a short number of bars; the effect one of spartan melancholy but not over-sensitive.

Prelude No. 5 stayed pretty clear in texture throughout its brief length, but the climactic top F sharp in the third-last bar misfired.   There’s not much new that can be done with the B minor prelude; just maintain the left hand’s dominance of the action and avoid an overdone echo effect at the end – both of which requirements Raineri achieved without effort.   The 16 bars of the well-known A Major work were treated with respect; I don’t know how he achieved it, but the pianist managed the crucial submediant 7th chord without splaying the right hand notes.   The F sharp minor successor enjoyed a compelling reading, the middle register thumb melody carrying successfully with only a few right-hand fioriture clusters in the second half sounding questionable.

The formidable and noble E Major prelude displayed once more the executant’s keen sense of inbuilt shape, with a pronounced caesura right where it belongs at the piece’s 2/3rd point.   Tenth in the series, the C sharp minor prelude flashed past, its nifty descending right hand triplet-plus-duple semiquaver patterns articulated with graceful seamlessness.    As for the B Major bagatelle, Raineri gave this due consideration, not bolting through it but ensuring that slight incidental ornaments could be distinguished. For the pounding G sharp minor exercise, we might have appreciated more vehemence at the opening to prepare for emerging energy in the chromatic top line.   The nocturne-like F sharp Major delight came across with a consistently clear soprano in the first segment and a memorably elegiac final six bars with their occasional isolated, slightly delayed top-note additions.

It was hard to make sense of the E flat minor prelude’s delivery, chiefly because Raineri over-worked the crescendodiminuendo pattern that some editors have imposed across each bar.    We eventually reached the D flat Major Raindrop gem: another nocturne, carried off with placid clarity and gifted with a suitably solid central C sharp minor interlude, the whole following a clear narrative path.  To this point, only the B flat minor prelude found the pianist falter and repeat a half-bar, but his recovery was rapid enough to meld into the general welter of this, the most taxing entity in the entire set.   Possibly, the right hand three-quaver pattern could have been treated with a more percussive attack to add some spikiness to a set of pages that can become a sonorous blur.

No. 17 in A flat  came over with a finely judged character, the top line floating clear of the accompanying repeated chords; the concluding pianissimo reprise over a sustained bass tonic note made an unexpectedly moving oasis.   A slight problem occurred during the F minor work – a simple mis-fingering during one of those downward hurtles of 22 or 17 irregular semiquavers, but the excitement of the sixth-last bar’s vaulting chords more then compensated.   One of the more difficult of these exercises to carry off, it seems to me, is the E flat where the only solution is to practice its leaps over and over until you become either absolutely secure or absolutely fearful.   It’s an ebullient (for Chopin) scherzo and Raineri handled it well with only a few errors in the right hand vaultings.

In the last section of the portentous C minor prelude, the executant opted for a fortissimo dynamic, which I’ve not experienced before but which reinforced the adamantine power of the opening strophe.   The following B flat Major work succeeded flawlessly, an admirable outlining of its simple initial melody finding a splendid reflection in the chromatic dying fall that starts 19 bars from the luminous conclusion.    Just as convincing was the following G minor piece which Raineri infused with impetus and urgency.   Apart from a robust delivery of the penultimate bar’s E flat, the benign F Major prelude maintained the pianist’s success with those happier components of the collection.   And the final D minor prelude was invested with just enough fire, only a few mishaps ruffling the surface, like the missing top F to the first upward-rushing 3-octave scale and a too-careful approach to the climactic two bars of descending chromatic thirds in the right hand.

As a whole, nevertheless, the performance of these challenging preludes, great-  and small-scale sitting cheek by jowl, made for a welcome display of Raineri’s abilities in orthodox repertoire where historic performances are easy to find and compare.   As with each of the few times I’ve heard the Preludes live, some parts capture the attention and imagination more wholly than others.   Yet this young musician has his own specific insights and interpretative mannerisms, more than enough to have made this experience well worthwhile.

Australian composer Christopher Dench composed his passing bells, day for Raineri’s festival,   It’s a furthering (improvement on? elaboration to?) of an earlier work from 2004 called passing bells: night: planctus for piano solo.   The bells being referred to are those that denote the monastic prayer times first established in the Middle Ages and now (post-Vatican II) settled into a series of major and minor observances: Matins, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline.  The original work lasted for about 12 minutes under the hands of its first performer and commissioner/dedicatee, Marilyn Nonken.  This later reincarnation is much longer.

Its operating procedure drenches the listener in washes across the piano’s sound spectrum, so the score probably operates on the same principle as the first work where the pianist has to deal with three or even four staves to help both composer and interpreter keep the various tintinnabulation spectra discrete.   As you’d anticipate, bell sounds dominate the proffered sound-world with forays into plainchant – well, melodic material that hovered around a limited range of notes.

The initial impression of chord clusters and repeated single notes persisted for some time; all very suggestive and peaceful, until the inevitable eruption into vehemence.   Dench is not only concerned with the ecclesiastical hours and bells but also with the modern age, viewing both the Middle Ages and our times as ‘catastrophic’.   So this music is both pictorial and intellectual; you can take the bells as invitations to prayer or as funeral knells, the explosions standing in for former times’ trebuchets and modern heat-seeking missiles – the composer leaves you to make what order of it you will.   But he overtaxes minds as feeble as mine with several promises of resolution that abruptly explode into further action, a faux leave-things-hanging device that is unnerving and irritating by turns.   You’re left feeling, as with so much of Dench’s products, that you’ve lost the plot along the way   –  or that you never had much of a handle on it in the first place.  For all that, Raineri’s performance sounded convincing, this performer quite at home with the music’s precise demands in dynamic and articulation.

The night finished in Ginastera’s Piano Sonata No. 1, which gave us much less arcane matter to deal with.   The Argentinian master’s opening Allegro marcato engaged the listener with its pounding, massive full chords in quick succession and a construct of irregular metre to keep you counting, but the effect was of a studied brutality – like a tyro having his way with Bartok’s Allegro barbaro.    The neo-scherzo, a Berg-reminiscent (only in its title) Presto misterioso, gave welcome relief, even if the flirtations with twelve-tone composition methods appeared superficial, and Raineri kept up the initial muffled ambience for some time without much variety.

As far as I can see, an interpreter is left to his/her own pedalling resources in the central pages of the Adagio and this performer took advantage of that liberty with some substantial clashing resonances to brighten up an uninspired movement that whips itself into a frenzy of appassionato excitement before going back to single-note taws.   The Variaciones concertantes-reminiscent finale with its 9/8–alternating-6/16 time signatures pleased for the pianist’s attempts to preserve an initial bass-heavy onrush, but he had to insert a few caesurae, presumably to gather strength for upcoming challenges.   Still, the driving marcatissimo final pages brought this whole enterprise  –  sonata, recital, festival  –  to a rousing conclusion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s not be gentlemen all the time

DIALOGUES

Brisbane Music Festival

Old Museum Building, Bowen Hills

Friday December 13

 

Henderson

                                                       Jonathan Henderson

All of the conversations in this recital involved Alex Raineri, the young pianist who is artistic director and factotum of this welcome festival – a series of events being mounted across Brisbane in these musically fallow months of the year.  On this sweaty night – not the best for seeking out an unfamiliar destination by public transport –  Raineri presented and supported two guests: flautist Jonathan Henderson and cellist Oliver Scott.  He also found room for a familiar monologue but the night’s three duos gave us more satisfying material in the abstract:  two of them were unexplored ground  .  .  .  well, they were for me.

The Old Museum Building, as far as I could investigate its interstices, has at least two spaces more or less suitable for music-making.  Raineri set up operations in the smaller of the building’s two front-of-house rooms; its proportions are a tad too spacious for two-person chamber music works and there are wall drapes completely covering three of the walls which  deprive performers of a fair amount of resonance.  On the other side of the ledger, the building has uncovered wooden floor which serves as a slight form of compensation.   But the Primrose Potter Salon it is not.

Scott and Raineri began Friday’s program with Prokofiev’s Ballade in C minor, written about the time of the first two piano concertos when the composer was 21.  It’s a patchy piece to hear, if structurally coherent and self-referential throughout, with flamboyance sitting alongside gnomic lyricism, and its unsettling expressive moves found a reflection in this performance where the cello was given to self-effacement, North putting much emphasis on shaping his notes with care rather than pushing his line to compete with a bordering-on-over-written piano part.  Raineri held back in this sequence of dialogues with courteous restraint, matching his dynamic to that of his partner.

But the further the musicians got into this neglected score, the more you felt the need for a more full-bodied string sound.  A pizzicato-rich piu animato interlude that succeeds the opening declamatory pages came over with more shadows and delicacy than it needed, lacking the bite that cuts through, as in those sforzando punches at the end of each two-bar phrase in the cello part, and deficient in a dramatic power that infuses this segment, rising to a climax in a high G flat that needed to roar out to be worth the journey.   Still, both players found a convincing brooding quality during the descent into silence across the final Allegro tranquillo pages where the instrumental output came into welcome balance.

Raineri then performed Debussy’s Suite bergamasque with a tendency to lots of washes, thanks to a heavy use of the sustaining pedal.   Mind you, to his credit – or possibly Prokofiev’s – I didn’t realise until the opening flourish of Debussy’s Prelude that one of the Yamaha piano’s lower notes was out of tune; not too much of a surprise, given the sub-tropical atmospheric conditions.  The executant’s search for textural richness got in the way again during the following Menuet, notably in the chord work that starts at bar 18 which needed a more detached attack, as did its reminiscence at the change back to A minor near the movement’s end.

Clair de lune passed along well enough, although its popularity and familiarity meant that the three errors that popped up in the bass, including one in the arpeggios near the end, acquired undue prominence.  Making up for this, Raineri’s account of the concluding Passepied proved to be the best part of this reading with a deft balance between the initial sprightliness and the lush melancholy that obtains across the piece’s length.   As a whole, this suite’s interpretation veered towards hefty Romanticism which is understandable and not uncommon, even if some of us might have preferred a less blowsy sound palette.

With Henderson, Raineri brought Pierre Sancan‘s Flute Sonatine to our attention and we owe both musicians many thanks for their efforts.   This was a fine dialogue demonstration, not least for Henderson’s remarkable stamina, particularly in some long sentences during the first movement Moderato.   A distraction from the high standard of execution came in a piano cadenza during the following Andante espressivo when some top register piano notes came across as slightly off-pitch, but the players worked very well as a combination in terms of reflecting each other’s mode of attack and dynamic interchanges.   For all their steadiness of delivery, you still got a sense that the interpretation was hard won, as if the players themselves saw it as a series of hurdles.  I’d like to hear them take on this work again after a few more public performances of it under their respective belts.

After a lengthy interval, Scott and Raineri regrouped for an essay on Rachmaninov’s solitary duo sonata, the assured G minor that is a gift for both performers.   Here was a competent reading of the composer’s final chamber work, during which the pianist displayed occasional outbursts of vitality and bite while Scott seemed unable to find any sustained vein of turmoil in what is a pretty volatile if melody-rich score.  Assuredly, much of the first movement asks for subterranean murmurings from both players but Rachmaninov also requires some balancing powerful explosions; for example, when emerging into the second subject’s recapitulation.   Yet the general approach from Scott was unrelieved sotto voce; while nobody can expect the equivalent of Rostropovich’s or Tortellier’s powerful right arm from every cellist, you’d at least like an energetic crunch or two along the way, particularly when chains of octaves are involved.

During the Allegro scherzando, both players made a fine showing in the Meno mosso trio sections but the rollicking nature of the main theme’s downward scale movement escaped them  –   to my mind, because of a realization of Rachmaninov’s pianissimo markings as more muted than they needed to be.  You play them softly, for sure, but there’s also an obligation to give them a hugger-mugger martellato kick.

Both players showed signs of real engagement, a true dialogue, in the ravishing E flat Andante which is just not long enough to relish fully because the composer pulls up stakes after a mere four pages.   Here was the most persuasive collaboration heard on this night from the pair, their integration across the long middle section where triplets overtake both parts proving an unexpected delight for its mastery of neatly interweaving focal material.   Unfortunately, the Allegro mosso finale disappointed because of the underplayed rhythmic sweep that carries this movement forward, as well as an absence of enunciative sparks.  Instead, the work was presented as a homogeneous narrative; even that touching D Major second subject which should throb with eloquence suffered from a bland delineation.

In fact, this set of pages summed up the cello/piano collaborative effort across the program with Raineri holding back, tamping down his explosions unless they happened to be abrupt solos like the three massive allargandi bars that crop up during the movement’s urgent progress.   In the end, you could appreciate the interpretation’s promise: there’s a satisfying reading somewhere in there.  But Scott needs to escape the continual restraint in sonorous output under which he operates; it just won’t work in emotionally gripping music like this.   Raineri would then make a greater impact, unconstrained and free to surge through this sonata without blinkers.

 

 

Cut-down comedy

GIANNI SCHICCHI

Opera Gold Coast

Helensvale Cultural Centre

Saturday November 30

Daniel Smerdon

                                                                   Daniel Smerdon

Any company takes quite a risk when attempting Puccini’s last completed opera and his only comedy; not because Gianni Schicchi is hard to handle vocally, but more because of the requirement to keep the humour intact and consistent.  Fortunately,  Doug Gehrke‘s direction of the work with this Gold Coast ensemble found the laughs and kept them coming, mercifully restrained at the climax where the hero outwits the rest of the cast.  I’ve seen (and heard) better casts in terms of vocal endowment and enjoyed more flashy productions as far as sets and costumes go, yet this presentation left you more than satisfied that you’d come close to the core of this dressed-up true story.

Schicchi is the ultimate con-man: hired by disdainful clients, doing the job, then coming out on top through an admirable volte-face that shows up pretty well everyone else on stage.   Many of us have become used to a very broad level of humour (that can amount to slapstick) applied to this opera – gesture-dependent with characterizations exaggerated to the near-ludicrous and with vocalization torques to match, along with busy orchestras unable to patch their dynamic into the stage’s output.   Several of these problems raised their heads at this Saturday matinee but were not significantly abrasive in effect to ruffle the work’s progress.

Fortunately for the company,  baritone Daniel Smerdon fitted the lead role with excellent panache and a welcome forthrightness of application that every so often found him working almost too hard.   Forget the silly carry-on that typifies pretty well every Schicchi you come across with the disguised Schicchi’s repeated Addio, Firenze warnings and the accompanying missing hand mime; a really fine interpreter can keep your attention in difficult territory, like the longish monologue where the central deceit is being set up.  From his perusal of the discovered will, the quizzing of the relatives, that jubilant exclamation of Ah! Vittoria! vittoria!, then right through the pages from Si corre dal notaio to da afidar l’eternita!, Smerdon sustained our interest, playing out his vocal line’s expressive possibilities and its springing text with the sort of fluency you’d expect to find from a member of a good quality opera house.

Along with the expected changes of mood after his first entrance, Smerdon later came into his own with the final address to the audience, Dittemi voi, signore; here, sensibly given in English as a deft gesture of audience connection, untrammelled by the surtitle screen which had given a fair, if not complete, translation of Forzano’s libretto.

(As an aside, you have to compliment the cast on their textual fidelity; on very few occasions did you feel that the words were being parroted or that a Strine filter was getting in the way.   But then, these days you’re justified in expecting most Australians to be familiar with more than their native tongue; even the Prime Minister can talk in English and in tongues.)

Among the Donati clan, one of the most comfortable in her role was Gaynor Morgan as Zita who showed no fear in the work’s first half where her character dominates the family’s reactions.   Also carrying their characters’ emotional and vocal responsibilities with success were two basses: Vikram Goonawardena playing the senior of the family, ex-Mayor Simone, with an appealingly low-level self-importance; and Kristian Scott as Betto di Signa who carved out a clarion-clear exposition of the mourners’ problem from an apologetic Lo dicono a Signa to a firm declaration of the same rumour that sets his family members into a fury of angry dispossession.

Some presentations underplay this work’s more static passages but it was very pleasing  to see the director give adequate space for that seductive trio E bello/Fa’ presto/Spogliati from Morgan’s Zita, Tania Vadeikis as La Ciesca and Sara Donnelly as Nella, all cosseting their universally acclaimed saviour in a sudden oasis of calm.  It is actually quite a silly passage even if it cleverly sets up Schicchi’s warning of the dangers involved in faking a will.  But these three mixed voices melded together in an appealing combination – a moment of sweetness before all three turn into harpies when they explode after the notary’s exit.

John Nicholson sang a good Rinuccio although he does not yet have a sufficiently strong production for maintaining  his high notes once he has reached them.   The aria Firenze e come un albero fiorito showed signs of stress as the singer attempted to cope with the exuberance of the young man’s declamatory phrase saldie torri snelle that concludes the first verse; and Nicholson was unable to hold on to the final B flat for its minim-plus-a-quaver length.   Still, those self-indulgent duets with Melanie Smart’s Lauretta where the young lovers sing melting farewells to future happiness proved more effective, if not that supple in phrasing.

Smart’s soprano has a thoroughly appropriate lightness of vocal colour for roles like this naive and eminently biddable girl.   But it does come as a shock to be reminded that Lauretta is so young, a 21-year-old who should have no trouble spontaneously falling to her knees to plead with her father.   We’ve become accustomed to hearing O mio babbino caro out of context and taken on by big voices like Fleming and Te Kanawa who impose their own tempi and expression markings; it makes a huge difference to hear it sung as written – without swoops, sudden dynamic lunges and gratuitous portamenti – so that the simplicity of the aria’s appeal  –  to us and to Schicchi  –  is manifest.  Yes, Smart still has a fair amount of development to undergo by way of honing a solid timbre, but the possibilities are evident.

The few remaining cast members carried out their responsibilities without problems – Geof Webb as Gherardo, Aric Kruger as a pretty unobtrusive Marco, Ben Underwood milking the reedy role of Maestro Spinellaccio, Tom Lawson playing a circumspect Ser Amantio notary, and Zander Engel-Bowe as Gherardino, getting abused with little respite by various adults.   What you had to find impressive was the accurate response rate in the opera’s many recitative chains (I heard only one premature entry) and the laudably full-bodied and well-centred choral ensemble work.

Before the original opera got under way, a chorus of about nine female singers gave us a gratuitous Ave Maria which I suspect came from the opening to Suor Angelica, the opera in Puccini’s Il trittico that precedes Gianni Schicchi.   Why was it sung, wherever it came from?   The hymn didn’t add anything to the matinee’s focal work and certainly nonplussed more than a few audience members who came into the Helensvale Centre’s theatre/studio prepared for a comedy.

The production was advertised as having an orchestra in support.   As things turned out, the orchestra was a sextet  –  violin, cello, flute/oboe, clarinet, bassoon and piano  –  all anonymous and under the direction of Nicholas Routley: the only person in this whole enterprise whom I’d encountered previously.   This instrumental group presented a fairly solid chamber version of a score that, for half of its length, eschews the full Romantic sweep of Puccini at his most grandiose.   Even with these limited instrumental resources, you gleaned some idea of the original’s whimsicality and bitonal spikiness.

As for the scenery/costumes/lighting factors, nothing obtruded as outlandish or even, in the characters’ dress, related to the work’s intended setting: Florence in 1299; indeed, the cast wore garb that wouldn’t have attracted much attention outside the theatre.   Adam Smart and Craig Vadeikas’ set allowed plenty of space for the Donati personalities to group and disband according to the plot’s movement. without over-playing the opera’s fundamental Tuscan locale which was limited to a central backdrop picture of the Duomo.   So the penultimate scene, where Schicchi’s new house is stripped by indignant failed legatees, came off unexpectedly well with just enough materiel available for pillaging without the stage picture degenerating to the ridiculous.

Of course, you had to make allowances for this presentation which in some respects operated on a bare-bones framework, viz. orchestral/pit support and amateurs occupying some of the minor roles.   But, thanks to a clarity of direction from both Gehrke and Routley, the piece maintained its theatrical and musical integrity, racing past with plenty of vim and making its points about the human condition  –  our venality, hypocrisy, capacity for love, delight in comeuppances  –  and doing so by employing few other mechanisms than Puccini’s vital score and Forzano’s splendidly pointed dialogue.

 

 

 

 

 

The vision splendid – sometimes

WHEN THE WORLD WAS WIDE

Camerata

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Thursday November 28

Brett Brown

                                                                      Brett Brown

It’s hard to avoid comparisons, especially when you’re finding your feet in a new place.  This was my first experience of Camerata, Brisbane’s leading chamber orchestra and a formidable part of the city’s/state’s musical life.  Naturally enough, similarities sprang up uninvited  between William Hennessy’s Melbourne Chamber Orchestra and Brendan Joyce‘s 18-strong string ensemble.   It wasn’t stretching too far to think also of Richard Tognetti’s Australian Chamber Orchestra even if the Sydney group outclasses everything else in the country for its inbuilt energy, flair and large number of patrons that have secured economic stability for the organization.

However, this wasn’t the most suitable of demonstrations on which to make any informed judgements about the Cameratas’ ability level.   Just like the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra when collaborating with Circa, these musicians were integral but secondary components in this program’s development.   Front place was taken by two actors, Tama Matheson and Brett Brown, who played Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson respectively, charting the poets’ lives and literary careers with excellent skill, cherry-picking key stages

in the men’s lives to address, using their actual words where possible, as well as digestible slabs of their verses.   But, apart from the dialogue taking place almost continuously front-of-stage, the actual music that Camerata had to deal with was not calculated to draw attention to the group’s operating skills, although the various excerpts performed gave no cause for concern and some solos were excellently carried off.

As an entertainment form, When the World Was Wide would probably fall into a performance category along the lines of ‘dialogue with musical accompaniment’.  At some points, the actors simply spoke over the music reminiscent of a Lelio-style melologue.   Every so often, the voices would fall silent and the musicians had a short passage of undiluted exposure.   Brown sang two Lawson settings – Faces in the Street and The Shame of Going Back – by John Thom, the first showing that Andrew Lloyd Webber has not lived in vain, the second oddly set to a habanera rhythm; still,  the composer  revealed a healthy degree of empathy with the poet’s hectoring stanzas.   Somewhere in the mix, Brown was also prevailed upon to dance – one of the less successful passages in the night’s action.

As realizations of the poets’ characters, you would be captious to find errors or omissions.   Matheson had the unenviable task of playing Lawson’s rapid fall into life-long alcoholism and poverty; my paternal grandfather told the family of seeing the writer falling over in the streets of North Sydney –  public witness to a terrible waste of talent, here shown to be mainly self-inflicted.   Brown had it somewhat easier as the gentlemanly Paterson who, by comparison with his Bulletin colleague, led a charmed life.  The interplay between both impressed most for its accuracy in the depiction of the Bulletin Debate where both men gave their conflicting views of outback life, but the action took a rather mawkish turn at the night’s end when the poets moved into a sentimental tableau in which they united in extolling ‘the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.’

Matheson and Brown came on stage well before the audience arrived and settled; the Camerata players then drifted on individually to perform what I think was John RodgersCarolling: a semi-aleatoric sequence in which short scraps and scrapes mimicked the sounds of bush birds; Messiaen, this was not.   But the soundscape set an aural scene for the country life that both Lawson and Paterson endured or enjoyed in their young years.

The next music heard was Richard Meale‘s Cantilena Pacifica, originally the final movement of the Sydney composer’s String Quartet No. 2 and an early example of Meale’s famous turn-about of 1979/80 when he threw off the constraints of modernism and assumed the mantle of a conservative.   In the progress of this theatrical exercise, Meale’s piece emerged at various stages, fittingly as an accompaniment to the final scene of transcendent fusion: an effective nocturne for a sentimental fade-to-black.   In fact, the first use of the piece was most welcome for the chance it gave to hear Joyce playing a splendid solo line, effective for its restraint and infusing this benign if predictable score with a healthy dose of sublimated lyricism.

During the central part of the night, I tried to notate what further items the Camerata musicians gave us by way of punctuation.   We heard a scrap from Grieg’s Holberg Suite  –  the energetic Praeludium that stopped just as it was getting under way properly; pages from Sculthorpe’s Third Sonata for Strings and his hybrid Port Essington, both of them appearing to emerge at various stages like the Cantilena; the opening four bars to May Brahe’s Bless This House, repeated more softly each time to underline the scene where Lawson lost his hearing; and the Hoedown from Copland’s Rodeo ballet to illustrate a moment of exuberance from Paterson, although how this famous sample of Americana connected with the Australian poet I cannot fathom.

Listed in the program as part of the evening’s musical material, Cameron Patrick‘s Impressions of Erin escaped me, unless it was the background to a scene where Paterson called a horse race.    As for the rest, a stand-out moment came in a luminous solo from Thomas Chawner, violist with the Orava Quartet whose members are Camerata’s Artists-in-Residence.  But the main impressions from a night that comprised shreds and patches was the coherence of Camerata’s essays with a unanimity of attack from all quarters, plenty of body from the violas and the provision of a solid, unassuming bass line.

At the end of its 70 minutes or so, this enterprise made a positive impression as a convincing fusion, albeit a lop-sided one.   If attention necessarily focused on the Matheson/Brown partnership, Camerata fitted into the action without fuss.  While you could cavil at some of the musical choices – why that Hoedown instead of a Grainger romp –  the ensemble’s responsiveness showed consistency of timbre and care for detail; impressive from a body that had played this program only once before, in Toowoomba two days previously.   A better chance to hear the orchestra at its work in unadulterated circumstances comes on April 2 next year in a program that begins with the Grosse Fuge and ends with the 2013 song-cycle Compassion, a collaboration between Lior and Nigel Westlake.

 

 

Addio del passato

COMPELLING THEMES

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

QSO Studio, South Bank

Sunday November 24

shane-chen-waist-up-2-jpg-1

                                                                      Shane Chen

There’s something reassuring about moving to a new part of the country and finding that some of the practices you’ve come to appreciate in your old home are continuing in the new milieu.  So it is with these Sunday afternoon chamber music recitals from members of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra which inevitably bring to mind similar recitals on Sunday mornings from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players – a nomenclature that suggests a discrete group but in fact – at one time or another – involves most of the organization’s members, some more willing than others.

So yesterday’s event had many familiar characteristics although the Brisbane list of players impressed as more numerous and varied.  The only doubling up came from Shane Chen, the QSO’s Principal First Violin, and Nicole Greentree from the viola ranks.  Also, little attempt was made to match pieces to a set list of participants: we heard a string sextet and a string quintet, but also on offer was a Michael Haydn Divertimento in C (well, most of it) from an oboe/viola/double bass combination.  On superficial appearances, then, the northerners are more prodigal with their forces, or possibly more musicians want to participate in these exercises.

This was my first experience of the QSO Studio which has a different ambience to the Iwaki Auditorium in Melbourne.  Actually, it’s not just a changed ambience that impresses but also room shape and material – a lot more wood on the walls, for instance.  And I was impressed by the layout in Russell Street where pretty much all the audience is placed in tiered seating; not as comfortable as the Iwaki chairs upstairs, but the effect is to make the players more immediately present.  And some clever designer has made the most of the Studio’s lighting which is of a piece with the wood-encrusted walls – not as useless for score-reading as the back rows of the Iwaki.  Further, the Brisbane space has a lavish foyer compared to the cramped area that fronts the Southbank Boulevard auditorium.

To begin, Chen, Greentree and colleagues – violin Katie Betts, viola Bernard Hoey, cellists Matthew Kinmont and Hyung Suk Bae – accounted for Martinu’s String Sextet of 1932.  Nothing amiss with the initial Lento but the ensuing Allegro was less appealing mainly for some rough handling from violas and cellos in moments of exposure as at bars 72 to 76, and isolated unsettling moments like a barely-won B flat climactic point at bar 101 from the first cello.   Still, the group observed a deft clarity in the composer’s more complex polyphonic moments and approached the discord-relieving chordal slashes across the score’s last four pages with excellent definition of output.

At the opening to the sextet’s central Andantino, I started to worry about the dynamic level of the violin pair.  Were they intentionally recessive, or was the imbalance due to my choice of seat on the left side of the Studio?  Whatever the reason, the balance had adjusted (or I had) by the time of the recapitulation to this movement’s first third.  More impressive work came in a central Allegretto which fulfilled its scherzo function with no little panache, the whole canvas subtly tinged with the folk-music colouring that Martinu employed at this stage of his creative life.  The concluding movement sounded heavy-handed in comparison to recorded readings where the attack is generally light and full of sparks.   This interpretation sounded Brahmsian-stolid, the melody-shaping work coming across as four-square, in particular the broad tune in octaves for violins that runs between bars 17 and 24.

In sum, this sextet made a convincing enough argument for itself, if distinguished in  patchy fashion; its outlining not lacking in expertise but deficient in bounding vivacity where it was most needed – across the outer segments.

For the Michael Haydn piece, it was determined that the scheduled fifth movement Theme and variations would be omitted for reasons of time.  The recital’s playing lasted for a little over an hour and I can’t see that much was saved by the loss of this pleasant if unremarkable theme with 4 variants and its untesting series of 8-bar-length sentences.  All the running for the piece is set by the oboe line, here handled by Associate Principal Sarah Meagher who gave us a well-shaped account of all five surviving movements and kept any errors to a minimum – a bottom-of-the-compass note that failed to materialise, a note not sustained long enough in the first paragraph of the Aria.   With viola Jann Keir-Haantera and double bass Justin Bullock, Meagher observed the anticipated dynamic juxtapositions, although you might have expected  more polish to the phrasing from her supporters in this uncomplicated work’s slow movement, especially at hiatus points like those in bars 7 and 11.

Somewhere along the way, I missed the Trio to the second Menuet; perhaps Homer nodded (don ‘t flatter yourself), but the concluding Presto was a delight with Bullock’s bass enjoying some brief arpeggio-laden bursts of spotlight.  Meagher coped with her none-too-taxing part, only suffering from a few over-soft notes that failed to travel when the ensemble went in for that familiar soft-loud alternation.

Finally, a group comprising Chen, Greentree, Helen Travers from the orchestra’s second violins, violist Graham Simpson and cellist Andre Duthoit worked through Beethoven’s solitary String Quintet in C which I was hearing live for the first time in many years.  Of all three works performed, this one would have gained from more rehearsal time.  In Melbourne, quite a few pieces that I heard over the years showed clear signs of rushed preparation; mind you, the problem is not one peculiar to one place – or even one group of musicians.   But in this instance, anomalies came early with the change to triplets in bar 17 of the opening Allegro moderato; this pretty ordinary leap in mid-action sounded clumsy with the two violins working at it, and not much better when the top viola joined them.  Mind you, this hesitancy came into play nearly every time the triplets recurred in the three upper parts; when the whole group was involved, the sailing proved much more smooth.

Other instances of rough address emerged sporadically throughout this movement and you would have been justified in asking for more awareness of internal dynamic balance from players as experienced as these.  Even Chen produced the occasional intonational inaccuracy and he was, for my money, the outstanding performer in this afternoon’s work.   As a welcome contrast, the ensuing Adagio, which brought Duthoit’s firm timbre into higher textural prominence, was an instance of building on a successful opening gambit which saw Beethoven’s musical fluency eloquently realised, to the point where you were left quite content with the careful resolution of the final pinpoint-packed eight bars.

The third movement’s Trio proved hard to decipher, probably due to a lack of definition in attack; only on the first half’s repetition did the melodic burden reveal itself.  But the Scherzo had not begun well as Chen’s output level proved too laid-back to rise comfortably above his accompaniment.    He was put to much harder labour in the Presto conclusion where the first violin dominates the action, even in the two Andante interludes which gave the player some relief from those rapid-fire flurries that dominate the movement proper’s hurtling action.  Yet the accomplishment level, while able and essentially satisfactory, might have been raised by some notches if the musicians had enjoyed more time to  refine this amiable work’s details.

 

 

 

 

 

Tepid response to insightful brilliance

BRAHMS & DVORAK

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday November 18

Tognetti

                                                                  Richard Tognetti

I used to think it was a Melbourne thing; some splendid interpretation that made your spirit soar would often be greeted by half-grudging applause – not just in the concert hall but also in the State Theatre.   You could take small consolation by noting that Sydney Opera House audiences lavish their plaudits with a complete lack of discrimination so that even the so-so gets a standing ovation.   But Monday’s reaction from patrons in Brisbane’s Concert Hall to a striking interpretation of the Brahms Double Concerto from Richard Tognetti, Timo-Veikko Valve and a lively expanded Australian Chamber Orchestra impressed me as noticeably pallid and lukewarm.   Not that I expected the place to explode with the brand of enthusiasm that greets even average Mahler symphony performances in this country, but a lethargic response to their brilliant efforts short-changed the artists concerned.

Matters got off to an unfortunate start.   Instead of the scheduled Jouissance by Andrew Ford – a 1993 scrap for two trumpets and vibraphone – we heard Fanfare for Neverland, a freshly-written piece for solo trumpet aired from the Concert Hall’s organ console by Visa Haarala, visiting from the Tapiola Sinfonietta.  The announcement of this substitution was  a near-sotto voce affair, the off-stage announcer working against audience hubbub and operating at a low dynamic level.  The Fanfare, one hopes, is referring to J.M. Barrie’s domain for Peter Pan, Tinker Bell and their contemporaries rather than the ranch established by Michael Jackson.  Regardless of the reference, this piece contained two prime elements: a staccato motif of repeated notes and large melodic arcs.   As far as I could tell, errors were minimal and the performer invested his line with a graceful bravura.

Ford’s Fanfare was followed immediately by eight of the ACO violins launching into Andrew Norman‘s Gran Turismo, a moto perpetuo with occasional oases.   Its effects proved unsurprising and efficiently suggestive of automotive regularity, which made it all the more surprising that Satu Vanska and Ilya Isakovich were engaged in beating time when the piece seemed to rattle past without much rhythmic subtlety.  Norman refers to the well-known video game and Italian Futurism (as well as Vivaldi somewhere in the mix) as launching-pads for his work.   That’s all fine; you can grant him the cars and probably the Venetian composer’s bright upper-string texture, but you’d be pushed to find traces of Marinetti or Balla; you might just as well have cited Kandinsky or Ken Done, except that Norman is determined on following an Italian spin.

It was racy, well articulated and the players sustained a balanced attack, the inner groupings coming over with effective clarity in this high-ceilinged hall.

Some years ago, Tognetti and Valve collaborated in the Brahms A minor Concerto for Violin and Cello – too long ago to remain in this concert-goer’s memory, I’m afraid.  They make an intriguing partnership, Valve observing a steady and fairly conventional path while the violinist’s track is, as expected, full of individuality.  You don’t get any Isaac Stern heftiness or Ferras sweetness in this upper-string solo reading; indeed, much of the detail comes over as inferential,  Tognetti rejecting the temptation to power through his own figuration while summoning up a powerful series of tuttis from his expanded and remarkably enthusiastic band.

For all that, the initial cadenzas that usher in the action made solid statements, especially when Tognetti and Valve combined from bar 50 for an urgent drive towards those massive quadruple stops that precipitate the opening movement’s proper start.   Later, Tognetti gave notice that this was not going to turn into your usual knock-’em-down burly display when the triplets really come into their own at bar 132 where his dynamic stayed consistent with the light woodwind/string support.   Both soloists made a steady but light-filled path through the movement’s development; when you look at the music again, so they should as moments of dynamic intensity are both abrupt and rare.  But time after time, the violinist startled you by doing little more than reading the score correctly, as in the luminous purity of a top high C in bar 341, the ascent to which showed this musician’s insight and self-control.

With the Andante, the most immediate impact came with the rolling fluency of the soloists’ attack on the first theme; here was a pretty brisk walking stride.  Tognetti slowed the pace for the change to F Major and both he and Valve observed my edition’s dolce direction with consistent fidelity.   Another striking passage came with the violinist’s double-stops five bars from the end – delivered without bathos but measured, both temporally and emotionally.

During the final Vivace‘s opening statements, both players reined in the customary tendency to punch out the rondo theme, investing it with a rare delicacy as a carefully calculated preface to the orchestral explosion.  And this set a sort of model for the movement, with Tognetti in volatile form but pulling back to outline the work’s contours with fine tracery in passages like the antiphonal interplay with Valve between bars 181 and 196.   Right through the work – not just this movement – you were aware of a consistency of both interpretative and executive intent so that this neglected score – in live, if not recorded, performance – became a consistent entity, intriguing in its progress for those of us who cherish it and also for others who come to it unaware of its stature as the high-water mark of Brahms’ essays in the concerto form.

By the time this expanded ACO came to Brisbane, it had performed the Dvorak Symphony No. 8 seven times in public, consequently, the prevailing accomplishment level proved to be exceptionally high.   If this night’s reading demonstrated one thing in particular, it came in the benefit of having a fully efficient and willing string corps at work.   As far as I could discern, Tognetti – conducting, not leading from the concertmaster’s desk – directed 16 violins in total, 6 violas, 6 cellos and 3 basses; roughly half the numbers used in the larger state orchestra concerts that feature Romantic scores.   But what distinguished this group was the collegiality of their output.  You might have wished for a smarter rate of response from the brass at certain stages but the woodwind choir – as individuals, duos or a composite body – pleased mightily for their polish and a responsiveness that you rarely experience when listening to better paid ensembles.

As with so many ACO performances, you could cherry-pick plenty of memorable moments from this Dvorak reading, like the vivid divisi viola passage in thirds during the first Allegro‘s development – a model of clear definition and phrasing shapeliness with a fine communal finish at the end of lines.   In this whole body, you found no passengers, only willing collaborators giving their best.  Yes, Tognetti encouraged the bouncy bucolic, while ensuring that his players eschewed any wallowing in lavish tutti passages; for instance, restraining the sustained brass chords and punctuation marks from drowning out the real action – strings and wind – in the first movement’s final pages.

At the Adagio, you were faced with a challenging approach in which the tempo proved to be very pliable.   Rather than setting a speed, getting a tad faster at the central piu animato, then pulling back to Tempo I for the movement’s final pages, Tognetti implemented a chain of accelerations and decelerations  to mirror the various changes in material and treatment that Dvorak employs in these heartfelt pages.  It all resulted in a mobile and mutable lyricism that stymied any hint of sentimentality.  The more fanciful among us might have traced some prefiguring of Janacek in the haunting violin and trumpet falling 4ths across the last bars – an out-of-the-blue wrenching bareness of utterance.

The Allegretto featured a splendidly balanced unison duo from flautist Sally Walker and oboist Roni Gal-Ed at the opening to the G Major Trio, and the (eventually) rollicking finale proved a delight with its rollicking woodwind and first horn trills first heard in bar 6 of the real action.   Just before the final sprint, Bjorn Nyman‘s clarinet gave us one of the night’s most exquisitely articulate solos at Rehearsal Letter P in the Dover 1984 edition, even more touching in its muted repeat.

Such details contributed to a near-ideal interpretation which achieved an deservedly positive audience response.   Tognetti has few podium tricks; he knows what he wants to achieve and reads a work’s musical flow with sense, so that what you hear is prepared to a fine degree of precision.  Added to his perceptions, he is dealing with hand-picked players, many of this concert’s imported players coming from recherche places – Orchestre Revolutionaire et Romantique, Opera Australia, Israel Philharmonic, Australian National University and the University of Sydney, the Norwegian Radio Orchestra alongside a few familiar faces from the Sydney and Melbourne Symphony Orchestras.  To the artistic director/conductor’s credit, this ad hoc composite gave us an exceptional musical experience across both of the program’s major constituents.

 

 

 

 

 

 

December Diary

Sunday December 1

BRISBANE SINGS MESSIAH

The Queensland Choir

Brisbane City Hall at 2:45 pm

The choir is one of the country’s oldest, on a par with the Hurlstone Choral Society of blessed memory and the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic.  Despite its venerable status, the northern body seems to be pretty focused on this one exercise: a seasonal observance that probably obtains in every Australian state.  The choral forces number about 100 and their Handel appears to be a popular event in which certain members of the Brisbane public are invited on board.  Which makes it a cross between your regular orthodox performance without surprises and those odd occasions where the soloists are professionals but the choir comprises anyone who turns up with a score.   Conductor this afternoon is QC’s long-time director Kevin Power; his soloists are soprano Eleanor Greenwood, mezzo Sarah Winn, tenor Phillip Costovski and bass Sam Hartley.  Supplying the instrumental component will be the Sinfonia of St. Andrew’s, which is associated with the city’s central Uniting Church.

 

Tuesday December 3

AUSTRALIAN WORKS FOR PIANO TRIO: #1 HERITAGE

Maree Kilpatrick

Ian Hanger Recital Hall, Queensland Conservatorium at 6:30 pm

Kilpatrick is fulfilling part of the requirements for her Doctorate of Musical Arts from the Queensland Conservatorium (I assume) with a series of recitals.  This evening, the pianist is accompanied by violinist Jason Tong and cellist Kirsten Tong in Australian ‘heritage’ works by Percy Grainger (that field is wide open: I don’t know anything for piano trio by our GOM  but God knows the possibilities are myriad) and Miriam Hyde who wrote a Fantasy Piano Trio.  As well, we are promised pieces by ‘others, including unpublished works’, which suggests the programming of a few products of academic research that may have lain dormant for some time and might be worth resurrecting.   Still, any attempt to bring part of our fast-fading historical record to light is well worth encouraging.   Further, the 90-minute recital is free.

 

Saturday December 7

SYMPHONIC SANTA

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio at 9:30 am

I reviewed a few concerts of this genre from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra before the administration had the good sense to stop inviting me.  The musical fare on offer is essentially populist – tunes everyone knows or pap that won’t stress the brain-cells at all.  And nothing too long, either.  This methodology continues with the QSO’s family-oriented series of matinee concerts which features music by conductor (and QSO cellist) Craig Allister Young and five collaborations with his song-writing partner, Donna Dyson.  Young contributes the exercise’s Overture, conducts the whole event and plays Santa Claus;  Dyson has paired up with him to produce Sneezy the Reindeer, I Won’t Believe It’s Christmas, Santa’s Christmas Cake, Santa Boogie Woogie and Lucy and the Orchestra – that’s half of the music-making today.  As well, families get to experience Santa Claus Is Coming to TownRudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Silent Night, all in Young arrangements.  The odd man out is Stephen Lawrence‘s The Incredible Shrinking Clarinet.  Helping the versatile Young in his endeavours will be QSO horn  player Vivienne Collier-Vickers as Mrs.Claus. Zac Parkes playing Sneezy, and Ashleigh Denning as Izzy the Elf.

This program will be repeated at 11 am a/nd 1 pm.

 

Saturday December 7

MESSIAH

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 7:30 pm

A more polished version than that from December 1 above, I’m guessing.   Is this venerable oratorio out of vogue here in the north?  The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra manages to attract two pretty full houses to its Messiah renditions in Hamer Hall (and an extra one this year at Costa Hall in Geelong); the QSO seems content with one.   Tonight’s conductor is Stephen Layton, a well-known visitor down south, and his soloists are soprano Sara Macliver. mezzo Helen Charlston, tenor Gwilym Bowen and bass Laurence Williams, with the brunt of the work’s argument falling to the Brisbane Chamber Choir.  It’s useless to rail any more about the suitability of this choral monument to Christmas when its central matter and conclusion centre on Easter, but it might be time for more consideration to be given to Bach’s massive Christmas Oratorio as a more suitable seasonal celebration.   Mind you, such a change would mean doing without your annual overdose of hearty musical plum pudding.

 

Sunday December 8

JOURNEYMAN

Brisbane Chamber Project

Old Government House at 5 pm

It’s not clear to whom the title of this recital refers.   It might be to the Chamber Project’s guest artist, baritone Jason Barry-Smith, although this musician has progressed well beyond the post-apprenticeship stage of his life.   More probably, ‘journeyman’ refers to one of the works that feature on Barry-Smith’s bill of fare: Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer, whose narrator has made a profession out of Weltschmerz.   A wind quintet and a speaker (Barry-Smith?) are required for Berio’s 1950-1970 Opus Number Zoo; its gestation length seems inordinately long when you consider that it only lasts for a fraction over 7 minutes.  As for the rest of the night, details are scant although the Project organizers seem to be particularly gratified in announcing the inclusion of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah which has, for inexplicable reasons, attracted continued popular acclaim since its 1985 debut.  I saw Cohen once in the State Theatre during a Melbourne International Arts Festival many years ago; ‘underwhelmed’ comes close but I didn’t know how impressed I was meant to be until much later.  Tonight, this journeyman work comes under the generic heading of ‘festive music’, which might have surprised the composer.

 

Sunday December 8

METAMORPHOSIS

Brisbane Music Festival

St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Kangaroo Point at 7:30 pm

This is a remarkable series of recitals that brightens up a usually barren time of year across the country.   Living up to its title, tonight’s program is a thoroughly Austro-German affair featuring masterpieces from both Viennese schools (the more extraordinary metamorphoses coming from the Second) but the chief burden of the players’ output comprises work by Brahms.  To open, Alex Miller from the horn corps of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra partners with pianist Alex Raineri in Beethoven’s Horn Sonata; no, I don’t know it, either.   Raineri then has the joy of providing the keyboard part for two glorious Brahms scores: the F minor Clarinet Sonata with Luke Carbon, followed by the A Major Violin Sonata with Anne Horton.  Carbon returns after interval for Berg’s Four Pieces Op. 5 and Raineri enjoys a solo with Webern’s transparent Variations for Piano.  Finally, Miller, Horton and Raineri have the enviable task of outlining the Brahms Horn Trio in E flat – packed with melancholy in balance with vibrant good humour and the outstanding example of this format (not that Brahms has much competition).

 

Wednesday December 11

SLOW FLIGHT

Brisbane Music Festival

356 Bowen Terrace, New Farm at 7 pm

In this admirable series, artistic director/pianist Alex Raineri serves as a fulcrum for several programs.  Tonight, he works with double bass Marian Heckenberg in Suspended Preludes by Andrew Schultz, a seven-movement work from 1993 by the fertile Adelaide-born composer.   Swiss writer Beat Furrer has not crossed my path previously; his Phasma of 2002 is one of only four works for solo piano in Furrer’s voluminous catalogue.  The Sonatine for flute and piano by Boulez still gives me nightmares.  I had to play the keyboard part for a Master’s concert by an ambitious flautist friend back in the 1960s and our necessarily  sporadic preparation took months of labour; even the recorded version by David Tudor and Severino Gazzelloni from 1957 was little help as the players’ congruity proved to be a moveable feast.  On this occasion, the flautist will be Jonathan Henderson.  To end, we hear Liam Flenady‘s Oikeios Topos (Inbuilt/Interior Theme?) which will here enjoy its world premiere and, as a consequence, the composer is withholding its elements or trace constituents from public gaze.

 

Friday December 13

DIALOGUES

Brisbane Music Festival

Old Museum Building, Bowen Hills at 7:30 pm

This festival’s artistic director, Alex Raineri, sees the four components of this program as two-way streets: it’s instrument talking to instrument in a set of duos, or composer addressing listener in a set of four vignettes.   The latter comes to life in Debussy’s early Suite bergamasque for solo piano which proposes four discrete scenes, the most famous being Clair de lune.  A fledgling musician’s staple, this opulently arpeggiated gem shines out in some odd surroundings, although the concluding Passepied has an attractive falling note to its whimsy.   Cellist Oliver Scott works with Raineri through Prokofiev’s Ballade Op. 15, a lavish sectional rhapsody with plenty of spiky dissonances to smarten up a surprisingly conservative harmonic backdrop.   Jonathan Henderson‘s flute returns to the series for another Sonatine for flute and piano, this one by Pierre Sancan and the most famous work by this composer who remains pretty much an unknown quantity outside France.   In case Scott didn’t feel as though the 12-minute Ballade had given him ample exposure, he works with Raineri through Rachmaninov’s weighty G minor Sonata of 1901, a product of the months after the famous hypno-/psychotherapy treatment of the composer’s depression by Nikolai Dahl.

 

Sunday December 15

THE TROUT

Brisbane Music Festival

Old Museum Building, Bowen Hills at 3 pm

You see this fish and your thoughts automatically turn to Schubert, unless you’re gastronomically monomaniacal.   In this penultimate recital of the festival, Alex Raineri provides the pivotal piano part for Schubert’s evergreen quintet, in partnership with violinist Anne Horton, violist Yoko Okayasu from the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, cellist Oliver Scott, and double bass Marian Hackenberg.   This composition, even for Schubert, is remarkably splayed out with a good deal of potential tedium inbuilt because of the bank of repeats that are involved in a ‘true’ performance.   But the fourth movement variations are always a delight, especially in confident hands.   By way of prelude to this score, flautist Jonathan Henderson appears in his third recital across four days to perform the Bach A minor Partita: one of the cornerstones of this instrument’s repertoire and as impermeable in its surfaces as the composer’s output for solo violin.

 

Sunday December 15

CAROLS ON THE CLIFFS

Canticum Chamber Choir

St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Kangaroo Point at 5:30 pm

A regular seasonal contribution from the well-regarded Brisbane choir, this seems to a newcomer to be a good old-fashioned service of Lessons and Carols, if probably a bit more free in format than those re-creations that cling with fidelity to the King’s College tradition.   Founder Emily Fox is not slated to direct but then neither is anybody else.  Some community singing is advertised as part of the proceedings; fine, as long as those members of the public who choose to participate can actually stay on pitch.   As a warm-up, Cox’s husband, Christopher Wrench, is playing a short recital starting at 5.10 pm; don’t know how much he can get through in 20 minutes on the state’s oldest organ but it would be a pleasure to hear this musician after a long hiatus (I’ve not heard him play since he won the Melbourne International Festival of Organ and Harpsichord Bach Competition in 1985) and, as a bonus, working at the instrument of a church where he was organist for 18 years.

 

Wednesday December 18

PASSING BELLS

Brisbane Music Festival

Old Museum Building, Bowen Hills at 7:30 pm

You’d think that the title of this final Festival event would owe something to Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth.  But maybe not: it doesn’t do to second-guess composer Christopher Dench, one of this country’s more intellectually agile composers.   His new composition – here enjoying its first exposure under the hands of Festival artistic director/pianist Alex Raineri – builds on an earlier work from 2004 called passing bells: night which presents a resonance-rich range of tintinnabulations to the listener and a challenge in rhythmic capsules for its interpreter.  Raineri surrounds this premiere with Ginastera’s Piano Sonata No. 1 which shows that you don’t have to give up your nationalistic vitality when you employ 12-tone writing; and he ends the night with Chopin’s 24 Preludes Op. 28 which offer a round trip through all major and minor keys as well as displaying an astounding emotional variety.

 

 

 

Mad, not that bad, little danger

ORPHEUS AND EURYDICE

Opera Queensland

Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Thursday October 24

Orpheus

Gluck lovers in this country of a certain vintage will remember with pleasure the Opera Australia version from the early 1990s of this ground-breaking opera that featured David Hobson in the demanding haute-contre hero’s role.   As with most assaults on the composer’s chaste, dramatically spartan works,  the production impressed for its stark setting and focus on the hero, who bears the brunt of the labour in Orpheus and Eurydice.  This recent OQ presentation also exercised both the vocal and physical talents of its counter-tenor, Owen Willetts, who worked through the opera with admirable tenacity and the kind of assurance across the part’s range that typifies a top-drawer Baroque expert.

Not that you can nominate Gluck as representing the Baroque: the whole thrust of his theatrical labour was aimed at repudiating excess in operatic matters.  Rather, the composer’s works from this one forward offer a solid path towards stripped-down classicism.  Which makes the premise behind the company’s collaboration with the Circa ensemble more than a little hard to swallow.   It’s all very well pointing to the brilliant craft that went into the staging of Handel, the exuberance of effects created to stir public interest in 17th century French theatres, the willingness of high-flying European musicians to parade their wares with maximum virtuosity.   But Gluck and his librettist Calzabigi pursued a different, individual aim in which ostentation and distraction were outlawed.

All this is known – or should be known –  by every opera-lover, although, in this country, not so much; thanks to the partialities of the national company, for instance,  you’re more likely to be swamped in the glutinous pleasures of Alcina or Giulio Cesare rather than be purged by the chastening directness of Iphigenia in Tauris or Alceste.   Even though Willetts was constrained to execute some distracting physical exercises, his vocal work compensated for a good deal, right from the character’s initial wrenching plaints of Eurydice! to the opera’s celebratory Trionfi Amore finale.

One of the most pleasing elements of Willetts’ work was an absence of histrionics.  Instead of trying to point up words in the substantial recitatives that stimulate the opera’s progress, the singer kept on an even keel, letting Gluck’s vocal line do the underlining for him.   In his first aria, Chiamo il mio ben cosi, the singer seemed to open the later two verses with a subtle change in dynamic married to a fine clarity of production that hit each note right in the centre.   Later, in the Deh placatevi con me face-off with the Furies and Spectres, you had to be impressed by this counter-tenor’s ability to cut across those vivid choral outbursts and to hold his own through plain emotional constraint – again, with  stalwart determination despite the self-pitying suggestions in the libretto.

After this point, the hero is blessed with two superlative arias in Che puro ciel, here treated with care by both counter-tenor and Dane Lam’s pit which featured musicians from the Queensland Symphony Orchestra; and the work’s most popular excerpt, Che faro senza Euridice?, given without those Mozartian excursions at the end of the final stanza and all the more effective without them,  thanks to the piece’s inbuilt dying fall.  Here also, Willetts impressed for the restraint of his interpretation, one that erred on the side of faintness, which is justified by the text which shows Orpheus giving up the struggle.

For some reason, the company decided to give the opera’s other two principal roles of Amor and Eurydice to one soprano, Natalie Christie Peluso.   I suppose this economy came about because neither role has much work, apart from recitative.  Amor has the happily rustic Gli sguardi trattieni aria that comes near the end of Act 1 and she contributes to the opera’s final trio with chorus.  Eurydice gets more meat to work with in the duet Vieni, appaga il tuo consorte, followed by the pseudo-rage aria Che fiero momento where more than a few of us potential Orpheuses would have left the lady to her own devices rather than trying to bring her back to life.   Peluso gave excellent service in both roles with a clear, carrying soprano at ease with the benign major key Amor contributions and following Willetts in negotiating the late-appearing heroine’s alarm and anger without recourse to dynamic explosions or gimmickry.

Lam led his forces through a score that looks simple enough but is full of surprises; not so much in what physical demands are made on the instrumentalists but more in the need to polish the edges of paired phrases that are asymmetrical, and in giving fresh voice to the many repetitions – mainly of dances – that are an integral part of the Orpheus experience.  No over-prominent woodwind, a pleasantly reliable brass choir and an unflagging string ensemble all supplied a well-rounded reading of the opera.   As did the 16-strong choir which showed few signs of that perennial problem that besets Opera Australia choruses in Melbourne: getting out of sync with the pit.

I’ve enjoyed the work of Circa on their visits to Melbourne, mainly working with Paul Dyer’s Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, although once I took a grand-daughter going through her gymnastic phase to see the company in unadulterated shape at the Victorian Arts Centre’s Playhouse.   With Dyer and his orchestra, Circa simply takes over; the music becomes secondary to the acrobatic/gymnastic display.

Director Yaron Lifschitz put his athletes into the action right from the overture during which a Eurydice clone writhed in a mesh of suspended ropes.  Every dance movement was entrusted to the Circa octet, their movement not necessarily allied to the music accompanying their efforts.

By their nature, the Circa contributions were attention-grabbing, although Lifschitz and his team made a fair effort at integrating both corps, to the extent of having Willetts climb up a set of grouped male backs in mid-aria.   Matters became more than a little confusing when the Circa women wore the same red dress costume as Eurydice/Amor; at one stage, I seem to recall the male acrobats donning dresses, too.   Mind you, comprehension was tight enough towards the night’s end where, in the final bout of recitative, both Amor and Eurydice make individual contributions pretty close together.

Did it work, this attempted fusion?  Well, it did Gluck no harm and it gave this audience plenty to look at and admire in a 90-minute work without much action; perhaps just a bit more than you enjoy in your average Greek tragedy.   At the end, the opening night audience exploded into a standing ovation frenzy; the two middle-aged women sitting next to us whooped and hollered like twelve-year-olds at a Justin Bieber gig.   Certainly, there was a good deal to admire and praise; but I came away unmoved: no catharsis for this soul.

Lifschitz sets the opera in an asylum.  It’s all white walls and stark bed frames.   Orpheus is under restraint at the work’s start; during the final chorus he daubs a message – ‘The Triumph of Love’ – across the back wall using what I think was meant to represent blood.   But, if you make a madman out of Orpheus, it’s difficult to make sense of the work as a dramatic construct.   Not only that: such a conceit gnaws away at the superb lyrical control of the music, even at its most frenetic on the descent into Hades.

Did it make you reconsider the work as a potential commentary on the human condition, specifically insanity?  No: any such enlightenment was lost in the energetic on-stage flurries.  Was it entertaining?   For sure.  But it’s hard to think of any opera that could stand up to such continuous interpolations from an unrelated form of entertainment.  And, no matter what apologetics you try on, forcing a comparison between physical and vocal routines, this production left you/me unsatisfied, faced with the old quandary of many another contemporary take on a classic:  are you eating fish, fowl, or good red herring?

Orpheus and Eurydice will be performed on Tuesday October 29 at 6:30 pm, Thursday October 31 at 6:30 pm, Saturday November 2 at 7:30 pm, Tuesday November 5 at 6:30 pm, Thursday November 7 at 6:30 pm, and on Saturday November 9 at 1:30 pm.