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 Doctor 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  As well, we are promised pieces by ‘others, including unpublished works’, which suggests the programming of a few products of academic research that may have lain dormant for some time and might be worth resurrecting.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 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 and 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 Lawrence 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 he 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 in 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 from 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, 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 he 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.

 

 

 

 

November Diary

As I’ve relocated to the Gold Coast, the musical events outlined below (few as they are) relate to Brisbane and its environs.  Fortunately, some of the organizations and ensembles that perform in Melbourne also appear in Queensland’s capital – Musica Viva, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Australian String Quartet.  And there may be the chance to see what’s become of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in the 20 years since I last heard it live, as well as the possibility of getting to a Camerata performance at last, and perhaps opportunities to witness Queensland Opera grappling with Tristan and Aida.

 

Friday November 1

TCHAIKOVSKY AND BEETHOVEN

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

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

Alondra de la Parra, chief conductor of the QSO,  introduces this program with a work that springs from her Mexican family’s heritage: the Sinfonia No. 2,  Las Antesalas del Sueno, by Federico Ibarra Groth.   Well, it’s arrestingly different to be invited to explore the antechambers of dream, whatever and wherever they are; all you can do is withhold judgement until the 10-minute score has reached its termination.   Matters become more predictable when Franco-Serbian violinist Nemanja Radulovic, fresh from a short recital tour (Hobart, Melbourne Sydney) with Ensemble Liaison, fronts the Tchaikovsky D Major Concerto.   De la Parra fills out the night pleasantly enough with the Beethoven Symphony No. 6 which will give the QSO woodwind ranks plenty of scope to exercise their bucolic talents.

 

Saturday November 2

MUSIC BY THE SEA

Orava Quartet

Town Hall, Sandgate at 7:30 pm

These players have enjoyed remarkable success, both in this country and in America and Europe.   I’ve heard them in the Melbourne Recital Centre, the Collins St. Baptist Church, and the South Melbourne Town Hall during their participation in the Asia Pacific Chamber Music Competition; now the occasion presents itself to watch them in their home town, although Sandgate is a tad off the beaten track.  More unnerving is that I can’t find out what will be played.  The group follows this appearance with two more in the Utzon Room and the Potter Salon later in November where they play Schubert’s Death and the Maiden String Quartet No. 14, than which they do not come more demanding, framed by two Renaissance motets: Victoria’s O magnum mysterium and Byrd’s Ave verum corpus.   Both are in four parts but don’t get your hopes up: the Oravas will probably play the lines, not sing them.   And I could be off the track altogether and the actual program will have a marine element to justify the night’s title.

 

Friday November 8

FRENCH REVELATIONS

Ensemble Trivium

Old Government House, Brisbane at 7 pm

On this occasion, the ensemble is a quintet: soprano Rachael Griffin, founder/flute Monika Koerner, viola Raquel Bastos, cello Eleanor Streatfeild, and pianist Brierley Cutting.  Koerner is a known quantity and a highly gifted artist; the other participants are new to me.  But their program features a fair cross-section of French masters: Devienne, Debussy, Roussel, Ravel, Poulenc, Durufle, and Messiaen.  The Devienne piece is a duo concertante for flute and viola; Debussy is represented by his exhilarating Cello Sonata;  Roussel’s Trio for flute, viola and cello ends the program.  But the rest of the evening moves into some unexplored byways.  The Chansons madecasses by Ravel are not left-field material but not suited to every voice; they will be a test of Griffin’s lower register.  Written for soprano and piano, Poulenc’s 1943 Metamorphoses is a very brief cycle of three poems that I’ve never heard.   Similarly, Durufle’s early Op. 3 Prelude, Recitatif et Variations for flute, viola and piano has never crossed my path.  To compensate, Messiaen’s Le merle noir is a highly popular fundamental of modern French writing for the flute-and-piano combination.

 

Saturday November 16

TIMELESS

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

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

This night’s operations roughly parallel the QSO’s program on November 1.  De la Parra works her players pretty hard with Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole as a warm-up.  Admittedly the first three movements are not over-taxing but the Feria finale asks for brilliance from each part of the orchestra.   I heard the estimable Paul Lewis perform Beethoven’s C minor Concerto in mid-September with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra – an honest, original take on a very familiar masterpiece.  Tonight, he takes to Grieg’s Piano Concerto and will probably bring an equal level of insight to its four-square lyricism.  To close proceedings, de la Parra takes on Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 where melancholy and lacerating vitality combine in a remarkable construct that falters only in the final pompous pages.

 

Sunday November 17

HANDEL ISRAEL IN EGYPT

Brisbane Chorale, Canticum Chamber Choir, Camerata

City Hall, Brisbane at 3 pm

Perhaps it depends on where you live but I’ve heard this oratorio exactly once; like Belshazzar and Mendelssohn’s St Paul.   Yet, at one time, Israel in Egypt was well-known, if nowhere near as popular to the point of universality, as Messiah, probably because of its multiplicity of choruses.   Anyway, here it comes as a welcome novelty, on a par with Saul, Alexander’s Feast and Solomon and the approximately 20 other compositions in this genre that are familiar only in excerpt form.   Graham Abbott conducts and the work features six soloists: sopranos Sarah Crane and Emily Turner, mezzo Jessica Low, tenor Nick Kirkup, and baritones Shaun Brown and Daniel Smerdon.  I don’t know anything about the City Hall’s acoustics but, going on this country’s tendency to duplicate itself in this regard – e.g., Sydney Town Hall, Melbourne Town Hall and Adelaide Town Hall, which I have experienced – you’d be expecting something booming and with a generous echo.

 

Monday November 18

BRAHMS & DVORAK

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 7 pm

Two splendid works from the great composers but the ACO would be the last to toe the party line by playing only the very familiar.  The Brahms is his Double Concerto for violin and cello, while the Dvorak is that composer’s penultimate symphony in G Major which, after a long interval, I last heard at the start of September from the MSO under James Gaffigan.   An optimistic piece, this Dvorak muffles its rustic roots to some extent and the melodic output has less immediate appeal than its successor in the composer’s oeuvre.   But it contrives an impressive union of craft and lyricism.   In similar vein, the Brahms score has suffered by comparison with the composer’s mighty solo violin concerto and the equally strong two piano concertos.   But you’d be crazy to miss the chance of hearing Richard Tognetti and Timo-Veikko Valve launch themselves across its broad canvas.  For preludial material, some ACO ring-ins play Andrew Ford’s 3 minute-long Jouissance for two trumpets and vibraphone which the organization premiered in 1993.   Then we hear American writer Andrew Norman’s Gran Turismo for 8 virtuoso violinists that finds a link between the Baroque concerto grosso, Italian Futurist art (specifically Giacomo Balla),and a race car video game; good luck with that.

 

Sunday November 24

COMPELLING THEMES

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Studio at 3 pm

This program brings to mind the Sunday morning recitals from Melbourne Symphony Orchestra personnel in the Iwaki Auditorium which are always packed out.  What strikes you as different is the variety of participants – or perhaps that’s just due to the demands of this particular program.   The afternoon begins with a Michael Haydn Divertimento for oboe (Sarah Meagher), viola (Charlotte Burbrook de Vere), and double bass (Justin Bullock) substituting for the original violone; not a particularly original piece but an amiable sequence of four movements.   Beethoven’s String Quintet in C uses a quartet – violinists Shane Chen and Helen Travers, viola Graham Simpson, cellist Andre Duthoit – and an extra viola in Nicole Greentree.   It’s the composer’s only original quintet, not a reworking or arrangement of other material.   Finally comes the chance to experience Martinu’s String Sextet, composed in one 1932 week.   Here, the executants are violins Chen and Katie Betts, violas Greentree and Bernard Hoey, cellos Matthew Kinmont and Hyung Suk Bae.

 

Thursday November 28

WHEN THE WORLD WAS WIDE

Camerata

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at 7 pm

The fifth collaboration between Camerata and director/actor/writer Tama Matheson, this exercise investigates the relationship between Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson through a melding of music, narrative and acting.   Well, the excerpts from the two poets’ writings will be very welcome in this age when their reputations grow dim.  As for the music, Camerata have outlined what they intend, beginning with May Brahe’s Bless This House song from 1927 which certainly suggests the between-wars period and a facet of its emotional atmosphere.  Two Lawson settings follow, both by John Horn and coming from his 2015 song cycle Looking for Lawson: The Shame of Going Back and Faces in the Street – one a plaint on failure in life, the second a warning of social revolution.   Peter Sculthorpe’s Port Essington recalls the attempts to found a Northern Territory settlement.   It compares and contrasts the out-of-place world of the garrison and settlers with the Aboriginal culture that eventually reclaimed the landscape.   John Tavener’s Eternal Memory for cello and strings follows: like Port Essington, an Australian Chamber Orchestra commission.   Back with the people concerned most in this evening, Camerata resurrects Miriam Hyde’s Fantasia on Waltzing Matilda in, I assume, the 1943 version. The finale comprises Brisbane film composer Cameron Patrick’s Impressions of Erin, which is drawing a long bow if it refers to the background of either poet.  But it matches the program’s opening in its musical summation of an era.

 

Friday November 29

GIANNI SCHICCHI

Opera Gold Coast

Helensvale Library Community and Cultural Centre at 7:30 pm

One third of Il Trittico – the only decent one of the set – is to be presented by a group that is new to me.   The opera’s humour is broad, the action completely improbable, the characters straight out of a commedia dell’arte copy-book.   But there are two passages of melting Puccini magnificence in Rinuccio’s Firenze e come un albero fiorito and O mio babbino caro sung by the titular character’s daughter, Lauretta.  Most of the productions I’ve seen (3? 4?) have been directed poorly so that Buoso’s grieving relatives have no personality while Schicchi usually has too much because the temptation to over-act is not resisted.   But it’s a quick piece – less than an hour – and this presentation boasts a ‘live orchestra’, although conductor and singers remain anonymous.  The temptation to see what’s happening just up the road is near irresistible; God knows, I’ve wasted my time at many higher profile operatic essays.

This opera will be repeated on Saturday November 30 at 2 pm and 7:30 pm.

 

Saturday November 30

CINEMATIC

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre at  2 pm

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, or its administration, fell in love with film scores some years ago and is presenting heftier swags of them as the years roll by.   Some of these have been enchanting experiences, especially if the film dialogue is subtitled since the orchestral fabric can drown out the words.   This concert is less ambitious in that it comprises music from great and not-so-great films, but without pictures.   Nicholas Buc conducts, a veteran in this music despite his youth (for a conductor: he can’t be 40 yet).  As you’d expect, John Williams scores well: the main theme from Star Wars, selections from the Harry Potter films, Rey’s theme from  Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  Nigel Westlake’s output is whittled down to some scraps from Babe; Jerry Goldsmith is also shrunk to the end credits for Star Trek: First Contact.   Alan Silvestri’s Back to the Future music appears – hopefully, not all of it – and his Avengers Theme.  Michael Giacchino is represented by his score to The Incredibles and a Star Trek: Into Darkness suite.  Another suite has been assembled from Howard Shore’s The Lord of the Rings scores.  A swag of singles I don’t know or don’t recall fleshes out the material: James Horner’s main title for Apollo 13,  an excerpt from the How to Train Your Dragon by John Powell, two segments from Austin Wintoury’s sound-track for the game JourneyNascence and Apotheosis, and the brief Time from Hans Zimmer’s score for Inception.   Younger ears will doubtless enjoy much of this: the more senior among us will silently lament Korngold and Steiner.

This program will be repeated on Saturday November 30 at 7:30 pm.

 

 

 

Eloquent small-scale requiem

IVES WESTLAKE DEBUSSY

Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Friday September 20

Charles Ives, graduation photo, Yale 1898

                                                                      Charles Ives

Finishing its Melbourne subscription series for the year, the ASQ balanced exploration and novelty with a repertoire staple, the equipoise yielding some outstanding results.  Despite the historical stature of Ives’ String Quartet No. 1 standing on one side, and the ground-breaking assertiveness of Debussy’s solitary essay in the form on the other,  Friday evening’s efforts focused on a new work by Nigel Westlake: his String Quartet No. 3. Sacred Sky, written in memory of his sister Kate and the outcome of an ASQ commission.

This new score is something of a fining-down of Westlake’s impressive Missa Solis, a requiem for the composer’s son Eli who was killed in a car accident in 2008.  The Mass requires large forces – among which number 13 brass, 2 harps, celesta/piano, 6 percussionists, choir and high soloist, as well as your usual complement of strings and pairs of woodwind –  and its texts come from a widely varied group of sources.  Sacred Sky‘s four movements are headed by the names of four paintings from the dead woman’s output:  Sacred Sky, Where the Spirit Dances by the Edge of the Sea, The Turning Tide, The Journey Begins.  You can read as much as you like into the relationship between movement title and musical narrative; most of us find it hard to make any connection without access to the paintings.

But the quartet is old-fashioned in one respect: it follows a time-honoured format, albeit one where the first movement is not fast, although the second is a scherzo, the third a soulful adagio, and the finale a lengthy sequence of episodes that it’s tempting to classify as a rondo except that this particular listener wasn’t adequately endowed enough to retain mentally the quick changes in mood and texture.   Like the Missa Solis, the composer’s new creation is not simply a deploration or a sustained elegy; in fact, the last pages are brimful of optimism – a celebration with a kind of pantheistic underpinning.

Westlake’s initial movement is almost entirely a first violin solo – a gift for Dale Barltrop who moved purposefully through a long melodic arch while his companions provided a sustained chord backdrop which enjoyed a wealth of colour shifts.   For no good reason, these pages brought to mind the Cantilena Pacifica from Meale’s String Quartet No. 2, only with more point or purpose and a much more eloquent melodic sequence.  The following scherzo that celebrated spirit dancing made for an intentional complete contrast – packed with pizzicati and abrupt slashes, the lyrical action shifting to Stephen King’s stolid viola.

While The Turning Tide moves into a meditative ambience, the players are kept active and Westlake spreads the content more evenly.   As a memorial, I thought that this moved into more ruminative ground than the surrounding movements, different from the first movement in not being so much a sustained lyric as comprising bursts of abrupt melody that suggested an individual character   –  and so proved to be the high point of this celebration of a life.   You could say something the same of the quartet’s finale except that the changes being rung did so at tiring length, in spite of the composer’s mastery of sound-production techniques, in particular a restrained use of harmonics.   Westlake appears to concern himself here with grief being subsumed in action – by which I mean life; certainly something more dynamic than fond memories.

The composer worked on this piece with the ASQ members, so the lines are tailor-made for the commissioners with plenty of passages that highlight each voice – Barltrop’s sweetness of delivery in his instrument’s higher tessitura, second violin Francesca Hiew’s determination amounting to vehemence, the individual ardour and weight of King’s viola, and cellist Sharon Grigoryan’s solid presence in polyphonic complexes and spiky punctuation points.

The American master’s String Quartet No. 1 has, somewhere along the line, gained the distinctive sub-title, From the Salvation Army but I’m unsure when this came about.  While the work is saturated with hymn tunes, there appears to be no exclusivity to their use by the Army.   The first recording by the Kohon Quartet came across my desk in the mid-1960s and I’ve been paying it irregular attention in the half-century since.  Unlike this and other US interpretations, like the Juilliard and Emerson versions, the ASQ took Ives at face value with few efforts at ameliorating the score’s many brusque passages; little tenderising of this meat.   To their credit, the local musicians made a refreshing meal of the Postlude finale where the going gets difficult, verging on the labyrinthine rhythmic and harmonic processes of the central movement to Three Places in New England or the Emerson pages of the colossal Concord Sonata.

One of the ensemble members – Hiew? – gave a preliminary talk about this work in which she made it sound more toxic to elderly sensibilities than it really is; my neighbour was almost groaning with fearful anticipation before the work got underway but she soon relaxed when faced with the sober deliberation of the opening Chorale fugue and was well on-side by the time we reached the rich warmth of the slow Offertory.  Nevertheless, the ensemble’s approach would have benefited from a less stentorian attack in the thicker-textured pages, and certainly more sobriety with the odd-numbered movements.

A comparable absence of sentiment emerged in the group’s interpretation of the Debussy quartet’s  framing movements, in particular the busy Tres mouvemente ending. However, this work is deficient in the wispy frailties that are invested in many of the piano works and has more than its share of assertiveness, even in the muted Andantino. You would not call this reading a polished example of these players in operation but their approach made for an involving, gripping experience, one that gave you unexpected insights into the ebullience of the composer in his youth.

 

 

October Diary

Wednesday October 9

A MULTITUDE OF VOICES

Arcadia Winds

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

Well, there’ll be four of them, which isn’t too many.   Oldest of all is J.S. Bach who yet again comes in for a transcription exercise: the Organ Sonata No. 6 in G.   You’d have to assume that this will involve only three members of the Arcadia quintet – perhaps flute, oboe and bassoon?   Around this venerable construct are much more contemporary voices, like Steve Reich whose Vermont Counterpoint for amplified flute and tape will showcase the talents of Kiran Phatak.   English-Australian composer Andrew Ford’s Scenes from Streeton melds some of the artist’s paintings with what the various landscapes look like these days as reported by people who farm them; at the same time, there will be illustrative music, you’d hope.   This will be the world premiere of a work commissioned to commemorate the Recital Centre’s 10th birthday.   As a bonus, the Arcadians perform a work chosen as the recipient of their own Composition Prize.

 

Saturday October 12

Nevermind

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

This quartet, performing under the Musica Viva aegis,  comprises flute Anna Besson, violin Louis Creac’h, viola da gamba Robin Pharo and harpsichord Jesn Rondeau. Their collaboration in Baroque performance dates from their student years at the Conservatoire Superieur National de Paris – which can’t have been too long ago as they all look young, although their chronicled activities and discographies so far are impressive.   Tonight focuses on two composers: J.S. Bach and Telemann.  From the former come selections from the Art of Fugue, an arrangement of the Organ Sonata in C, and the Trio Sonata in G BWV 1039 which usually calls for two flutes as well as the inevitable continuo.    As for Telemann, the group plays the first and last of his Paris Quartets (of which these musicians have made a particular study), as well as Fuga 14 from the 20 Small Fugues which are not that small, nor what you would commonly call fugues.

The second program on Tuesday October 15 at 7 pm is more adventurous in scope for the audience.  The group starts off with some Marais –  Suite IV from the Trios for the King’s Bedtime.   Then comes L’Espagnole from Couperin’s Les Nations suite.  The Nevermind fixation on Telemann is exercised here as well with No. 4 of the Paris Quartets.  The ensemble moves into unknown territory for most of us with quartet sonatas by Quentin and Guillemain – once (in the 18th century) well-known names, now all but forgotten.

 

Sunday October 13

A THOUSAND THOUGHTS

Kronos Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

The fabled group is here as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival’s meagre serious music line-up.   This time, the Kronoi are accompanying a documentary film by Sam Green and Joe Bini, the subject of which is  –  you guessed it   –   the players themselves.   Such larks.   I can’t think of an exercise more self-reflective than playing the score to a film about yourself, but that’s the sort of thing you can get away with when you’re numbered among the legends.   This exercise lasts for 85 minutes with no interval – which either argues for the concentration necessary for such an experience or a fear that audience numbers might plummet if the chance arose for an interval exit.   But you can’t be too unkind about a group that gave us those searing performances of George Crumb’s Black Angels dating back about 45 years.   And, as with the Ardittis, where would contemporary music be without them?

This program will be repeated on Monday October 14 at 7 pm.

 

Thursday October 17

STALIN’S PIANO

Robert Davidson

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

This odd program is another element from the Melbourne International Arts Festival collation.   It features pianist  Sonya Lifschitz playing the music of Robert Davidson, a Brisbane composer-musician whose name hasn’t come across my path, as far as I can tell.   The hour-long work has an audio-visual component and it offers pretty much everything  –  ‘a maelstrom of history, politics, art and rebellion.’    Great.   The pre-performance blurb makes reference to Maria Yudina, an uncompromising pianist of the Soviet era admired by Stalin, or so the story goes.   She was a proponent of 20th century music and was a fellow-student of Shostakovich.   Whether her repertoire features in Davidson’s work, I don’t know; whether he quotes giants that Yudina favoured like Bartok and Stravinsky is unclear.  All will be revealed on the night

 

Friday October 18

SPRING: LU SIQING IN RECITAL

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Lu is the MSO’s soloist-in-residence for 2019 and tonight gets the opportunity to show his abilities in recital, rather than in the concerto format.   He collaborates with Melbourne-based Chinese-Australian pianist Angela Li in a program that moves from solid repertoire to frolicsome encore material with a couple of Chinese bagatelles in the middle.   Debussy’s Violin Sonata of 1917 makes for a brave opening, immediately followed by Beethoven’s F Major Spring Sonata.   Lei Zhenbang’s Why Are the Flowers So Red is essentially a folk-song, presumably organised here for violin/piano duo; Lei arranged it some time ago with Julian Yu for a CD entitled Willow Spirit Song.   Cantonese composer Han Kun Sha’s Pastoral is a straight duo and, as far as I can tell, an original composition.  Then we come to the show-pieces: Kreisler’s Praeludium & Allegro, Svendsen’s Romance, and Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen to raise the performance temperature while the aesthetic level sinks to the flashy virtuosic.  Nevertheless, this violinist is a brilliant performer, not just a fleet-fingered lightweight.

 

Friday October 25

NEMANJA RADULOVIC

Ensemble Liaison

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

It’s the hair.  Every time Serbian violinist Radulovic hits Melbourne, the promotional photos feature the musician in full flight with his substantial mane streaming around his skull.   What does this crowning glory have to do with his playing?   Well, the only way to find out is to drop in and watch the man at work, alongside his friends from Ensemble Liaison – cello Svetlana Bogosavljevic, clarinet David Griffiths, piano Timothy Young.  The night begins with J.S. Bach’s Clarinet Sonata in D minor BWV 1034, better known as the Flute Sonata in E minor.    Bogosvljevic and Radulovic collaborate on Johan Halvorsen’s Passacaglia on a Handel original theme.   Khachaturian’s G minor Trio for clarinet, violin and piano will enjoy a rare outing, only to be outshone by Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances, presumably in a violin/piano format.   And another arrangement ends the night: Griffiths’ version of the monumental Brahms Piano Quartet in G minor, in which the clarinet takes the viola line, although a few of us will find it hard to repress memories of Schoenberg’s brilliant orchestration of this score.

 

Saturday October 26

BRAHMS’ REQUIEM

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

This performance will be one that uses two pianos as an orchestral substitute; all quite hunky-dory as Brahms arranged the work himself in this format.   The players are Donald Nicolson, better known to me as the harpsichordist member of Latitude 37, and Tom Griffiths who has been the MSO Chorus’s principal repetiteur/accompanist for yonks.   Soloists are soprano Lee Abrahmsen and baritone Simon Meadows while the lengthy work will be conducted by Chorus Master Warren Trevelyan-Jones.   The concert begins with two Schutz motets: a precursor of the Requiem’s conclusion in Selig sind die Toten; and Herr, nun lassest du deinen Diener – the Song of Simeon that the composer set twice.   Sorry I can’t get to it; besides the tender and massive choral complexes, there is little more wrenching and moving in Western music than the Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit movement – enough to make humanists of us all.

 

Monday October 28

INTIMATE BACH

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

A bitzer of a program here.   There will be Bach, beginning with the Violin Sonata in A minor; no, not all of it – just the third movement Andante.   This will probably feature Richard Tognetti in solo mode.   And the night ends with my favourite Brandenburg Concerto: No. 6 with two violas as the top voices.   Speaking of which, one of the night’s guests will be composer/violist Brett Dean.   The program’s second piece brings the other guest into play: Erin Helyard will give a harpsichord accompaniment to Tognetti (one expects) in the Violin Sonata No. 2.   Adding to the mix are selections from the  15 Three-Part Inventions which will be surely entrusted to Helyard.   As punctuation, patrons get to experience Kurtag’s Hommage a J.S.B. which is for a solo instrument – any one you have to hand, it appears; the Sonnerie de Sainte-Genevieve du Mont de Paris by Marais that generally involves violin, viola and continuo; and Dean’s own Approach (Prelude to a Canon), here enjoying its Australian premiere.

 

Wednesday October 30

Quatuor Ebene

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Like the Kronos, this quartet has been fortunate in retaining most of its original members.  Violinists Pierre Colombet and Gabriel Le Magadure have been there since the beginning in 1999; so has cellist Raphael Merlin.  Only the violist has changed: from Mathieu Herzog to Adrien Boisseau to Marie Chilemme who has been an Ebeniste since 2017 and the ensemble’s first female.   For its Australian debut under our Recital Centre auspices, the ensemble plays three Beethoven works: Op. 18 No. 2 in G, the Serioso Op. 95 and the Harp Op. 74.   This comes about because the players are celebrating the composer’s 250th birthday (next year, in fact) by playing all 16 quartets as they tour the globe, recording their performances and, for local colour, audience reactions.   Quite a challenge for musicians who have not really specialised in any corner of the repertoire, although a CD (recorded in Vienna?) of the first two Razumovsky quartets is to be issued at the end of September.

 

Wednesday October 30

BEETHOVEN’S BACK!

Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, MLC Kew at 7:30 pm

OK, although for many of us he never went away.   Kathryn Selby and two friends we’ve not seen so far this year – violinist Andrew Haveron from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster desk, and cellist Richard Narroway who becomes Lecturer in Cello at Melbourne University’s Faculty of Music next year – take up the Beethoven challenge with two sonatas and a piano trio.   First up is the penultimate cello sonata, Op. 102 No. 1 in C with its unusual two-movement structure operating in a time-frame of about 15 minutes.   Then comes the C minor Violin Sonata No. 7 which takes nearly twice as long; this is the work that Brahms is reputed to have transposed up a semitone at sight to accommodate Remenyi’s unwillingness to re-tune his violin.  Well, the composer became a master of chromatic shifts, so it’s sort of credible.   Finally, all three musicians work through the Op. 70 No. 2 – a welcome appearance given the popular penchant for its companion: the Ghost Trio.   These three works offer an interesting tour of significant points in Beethoven’s compositional journey; a nimble piece of programming that avoids the well-trodden path.

 

 

 

We’ll always have Dvorak

THE GAME CHANGERS

Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, Methodist Ladies’ College, Kew

Wednesday September 4

selby-and-friends-the-game-changers-5d4b89e9bb3fc90138c868b7-1600x1200

                                       (L to R) Kathryn Selby, Susie Park, Julian Smiles

In this penultimate recital of her 2019 season,  Kathryn Selby brought into play two well-known faces from previous years – violinist Susie Park and cellist Julian Smiles.   As is frequently the modus operandi, we heard two framing piano trios, embracing sonatas from each of the Friends.   This arrangement has a good deal to offer, although it can make the occasion a draining one for Selby who gets no release from engagement and – as on this night – can be more than fully exercised by her partners’ choices of repertoire.

No problem with the first of our Game Changers:  Elena Kats-Chernin’s Blue Silence in the 2012 trio version.   The composer wrote it for her son, who suffers from schizophrenia; it’s an aid to help him and other sufferers attain a meditative, serene state.   In this aim, the work is a success, its germ motif mutating slowly – placid motion, not logical development.   To my ears, the emotional content divides in half as the composer progresses from cellular work to a full-blown lyricism before following the Debussyan dictum: say what you have to stay, then stop.

There is little in the score that tests its interpreters beyond asking for care with dove-tailing lines, particularly the strings.  Park and Smiles outlined some carefully placed intersections in the first half, followed by stretches of lush consonances later on.  It’s a small-framed work of simple construction, so it was interesting to watch the interpreters reining in their dynamic level to observe Kats-Chernin’s quest for placid meditativeness.

At night’s end, Dvorak in F minor asked for a much more sustained interpretative effort; the results could hardly be faulted.   The only problem you could find in the opening Allegro was an overshadowing of Park’s line in passages where the piano has bar after bar of sweeping strophes, and later in the first moves of the development.   Smiles projected a firm line, sustaining a prominent voice in proceedings.   But when Park’s voice became the dominant one, this movement became different in character – sweeter, less hectoring.

Much better followed in the Allegretto grazioso, a movement loaded with Central European breeziness but here articulated with an impressive sense of united purpose, both in the outer dance sections and the central interlude.  This was excellent trio playing, all three executants involved in working towards a common goal.   Much the same came across in a fine Poco adagio where Smiles maintained dynamic control over his announcement of the principal matter.  But what impressed most came later when Dvorak’s working-out takes a turn for the academic and a long genuflection at the altar of his mentor Brahms; once more, the players kept their focus on the score’s progress and how they had to work as a coherent force to keep their audience involved.   Here was another example of chamber music performance at its finest, alternately sweet and strong.

In the trio’s Allegro finale, the two strings presented another lesson in noteworthy duet work, mainly through an attractive combination of timbres – Park’s output all tensile elegant deliberation, Smiles assertive, vibrato-rich, pressure-packed.  This sonata/rondo fusion, like the second movement, showed the folk-tune influence racing alongside a Brahms-influenced gravity of intent and these players powered through its considerable length with ample gusto, capping a most satisfying interpretation.

For his moment in the sun, Smiles performed Britten’s C Major Cello Sonata, the first fruit of the composer’s collaboration with Rostropovich.  The initial Dialogo came across with fluency and idiomatic precision – but the piece seemed lacking in personality.  I can only put this down to the inimitability of the composer’s own performance with the Russian master which has shaped my perceptions of this sonata’s character, a position that hasn’t changed across many live and recorded versions of the score.  It’s unfair, of course, but sadly inescapable.  While constructing this invidious comparison, I was elated to hear Smiles and Selby, near the movement’s ending, come to a passage of eloquent if quiet restraint that came off ideally.

Britten’s all-pizzicato second movement is brief, or just long enough for some.  Deftly carried off here, its chief message serves to show that Bartok did not live in vain.  The central Elegia has an inbuilt power, a drive that carries you along, if only so far.  It’s always struck me that the two instruments are very-inter-dependent in these pages; one can’t make a move without the other sitting in support, in particular rhythmically where for long stretches piano and cello work in sync, note-for-chord.  Then, the Marcia presents as an interlude; clever in its linear ambiguity but leading towards . . .what?  Further, the final Moto perpetuo shows us Britten the Brilliant in a display of harmonic sleight-of-hand and rhythmic excitement with continuously glittering exposure points for each player.  The texture remained clear but here again you were reminded of the roar-inducing virtuosity of the original interpreters who transformed something smart into remarkable craft.

Park chose Ravel No. 2 for her showpiece, making sure we appreciated the weight of the opening Allegretto in its close melodic content and in the breadth that Ravel allowed himself to explore it.   Both players displayed a firm grasp of the expressive subtleties to be found in this movement which is often treated as a set of episodes rather than a composite.  You could find few traces of humour in the Blues which brought out a clamorous punch from Selby to match an unnerving ferocity of attack from Park in the climactic pizzicato quadruple slashes between Rehearsal Numbers 10 and 12 in the Durand edition.  As for the Perpetuum mobile, it seemed to me that the final pages made sense for the first time: a massive build-up of power driven across the last 18 bars and splendidly disciplined across an exhilarating crescendo.

You wouldn’t class it among the sweetest-voiced interpretations of this work that you’ve heard but Park and Selby removed a good deal of the saccharine and trivialising that this sonata endures pretty often.   The deceptive bucolicism of the first movement’s opening sentences was quickly subsumed in a focus on the interweaving patterns and subtle expressiveness of these pages.   No sign of introduced cleverness marred a straightforward, no-nonsense account of the Blues, and the finale made a brilliantly honed rounding-off to the piece.   Not an effete image of the composer, but one showing a massive, controlled energy.   If not for the Dvorak, this sonata would have taken Wednesday night’s performance honours.

 

 

Informative, yes; dry, no

NEW CONSTELLATIONS

Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Thursday August 22

ARCO Aug 2019

      L to R:   Jakob Lehmann,   Rachael Beesley,   Miki Tsunoda,   Anna McMichael,                          Bernadette Verhagen,    Simon Oswell,    Daniel Yeadon,    Natasha Kraemer

 

An inspiration of the late Richard Gill, this orchestra  –  or, on this night, chameleonic chamber ensemble  –  is  dedicated to historically informed performances which, the older I get, takes in a lot more music than it used to do.   We’ve had a welter of such groups come visiting over the past 50 years or so and have established our own organizations in this field, some to considerable acclaim.  But, as an ARCO virgin, I was taken aback and delighted by the orchestra’s most recent appearance here.

Even though the program offered little new  –  Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings and Brahms’ D Major Serenade in its original nonet format   –   the standard of interpretation on offer managed to achieve what very few musical experiences do these days: making you re-hear and re-configure music that you thought you had securely under your belt.  Most of us would have heard a good many versions of the Mendelssohn gem; sometimes from two discrete string quartets banded together for the occasion, more often from performers extracted from an established orchestral body, and also there’s been the possibility of hearing 8 individuals collaborating with one end in view, as in student airings.

Is it fair to say that most of these prove worthy, sometimes exhilarating, often owing what success they have to the unkillable quality of the young composer’s score?  After hearing the ARCO forces, you have to take a step back; their interpretation doesn’t grab you for its drama, not even in the fugue-rich finale that most groups hammer into place with ferocity; nor is it affectingly rich in emotional swooping, as is too often the case in the work’s generous Andante.   Immediately, the listener knows that the reading is different.

You expect the first violin to seize the reins right from the start with those upward arpeggio surges while every one else supplies filler for 8 bars.   Guest director Jakob Lehmann cut back on the ardour so that his output emerged from the E flat Major buzzing  without unnecessary heroics or attention-grabbing.  In this, he set much of a pattern for the remainder of the players who supplied a kind of organic growth rather than a series of spotlit moments, as when Violin 4 and Viola 1 combine at bar 68 for the B flat theme in 6ths, or later when Violin 2 sets off the rush to recapitulation at bar 209, Rachael Beesley setting the semiquavers in motion from within the moment rather than seizing the opportunity to distract.

For the first five minutes, the ARCO output impresses for its caressing nature, a gentility that comes from every point of the stage.   You endure no scraping as the ensemble output is fine, carefully finished, but I was thankful for the Exposition repeat, just for the sake of temperature acclimatisation.  Quiet individual touches persisted into the Andante where Lehmann employed a fair amount of portamento, although he was pretty much alone in this practice.   As well, the group proved themselves comfortable at negotiating changes in tempo, bending the bar-line appreciably but without interrupting the movement’s fluency.

Mendelssohn’s breathtaking Scherzo was handled with courtesy and a lack of the sublimated freneticism that informs many other readings; light-footed, as the composer’s direction suggests, but not hopping about on hot coals.   The concluding Presto brought out the group’s most forthright playing with plenty of hefty bow-work, but even here the details told, like some scintillating duet fragments from Beesley and Tsunoda peeking out from the muted ferment, as at bars 355 to 372.   In the end, even this heavy-handed set of pages came over as brisk and bright – remarkable given the frequent determined working-out of material where the young composer can’t disguise his learning.

You won’t come across the original form of Brahms’ Serenade No. 1 very often, mainly because he destroyed the score and what we hear is a clever reconstruction based on estimates and memories.   You can see why Joachim advised Brahms to revise it for full orchestra, especially in the bookend movements.   But for this group of players, the nonet – violin, viola, cello, bass, flute, two clarinets, bassoon and horn – provided scope for individuality without effort, even if you could have wished for less assertiveness from Robert Percival’s bassoon in  some of the more lightly-scored moments.

Lehmann maintained his approach of using very little vibrato; cellist Daniel Yeadon cello employed it more often.  Not that this latter player had much opportunity to exercise this technique early on, thanks to the folksy drones he had to produce with bass Robert Nairn.   Violist Simon Oswell didn’t hold back when a potentially fruity solo came his way.   But the significant player for this section was Darryl Poulsen on horn which, for a natural instrument, sounded unexpectedly fresh and clear of errors.  Thanks to this unfussed clarity, the work opened with a pleasant mixture of rusticity and sophistication, as it should.

The first scherzo exposed the excellent clarinet duet work of Nicole van Bruggen and Emily Worthington – subtle in phrasing and restrained in dynamic.   But the whole group made excellent work of these pages’ seamless, long paragraphs.   Even better performance skill came in the solitary Adagio which gave us  an opportunity to luxuriate in rich scoring and some fine textural mixes, notably from Lehmann and Oswell whose production qualities – so different in solo work – complemented each other with felicitous results.     This movement is heard at its melting best in the return to taws in the last third, a gift for Lehmann who gave it the same flexibility without overkill that exemplified his playing across the evening.    Here again, Poulsen made a brave showing, enunciating his notes without apparent effort and even reconciling you to the odd nature of step-by-step melodies for which the mechanics of his instrument preclude evenness of output.

With the clarinet duet of Menuetto I, this serenade is best suited to the small chamber disposition.   The second part saw Lehmann unexpectedly impose brusque dynamic contrasts.   Admittedly, the second Menuetto is all violin but, in this version, I was happy to get back to the calm imperturbability of those clarinets in the repeated first Menuetto. The second Scherzo gained by its change to full orchestra status, not least by having three more horns to help carry the brunt of the action.   Still, these pages met with an enthusiastic response from the ARCO musicians.   If I wasn’t as pleased by the ensemble’s account of the finale, it might have been due to the rhythmic ambiguity that hangs over the movement where the time signature is 2/4 but most ensembles slip into 6.8 by not maintaining a sufficiently keen ear on the disposition of individual lines.   However, these performers worked hard to the last bar of this rondo  –  the least successful of the score’s six segments.

Obviously, listening to the Brahms score made for a further test of concentration.  You had to take on board pretty quickly the combination of clarity and restraint that seems to come with the ARCO territory.   On top of that, you found yourself trying to discount your knowledge of how this work sounds under ‘normal’ conditions.  As a result, the performance kept you on your toes, aurally speaking.   For many of us, such demands are unusual; for several of us, they make for the best kind of musical experience.  It’s hard to resist this group’s dedication to a particular style of playing which attracts for its integrity; the pity is that, as on this night, these gifted musicians are working to an audience of small numbers.  Not that this should give them pause: their efforts and  results are effective and powerful.

 

September Diary

Tuesday September 3

Viktoria Mullova, Matthew Barley & Stephen de Pledge

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

A piano trio that comes under the Recital Centre’s promotional heading of ‘Great Chamber Ensembles’, its violinist and cellist are familiar names – husband-and-wife team Mullova and Barley  –  but who is de Pledge, apart from being a friend of the family?  Guess we’ll find out on the night.   To open, we hear the Ravel which will test he friend/pianist, and the group winds up with the glorious Schubert in E flat – one of those feasts that always satisfies.   In between comes a new work by Salina Fisher. a young New Zealand composer/violinist    I’m assuming this is the piece for cello and piano commissioned by Chamber Music New Zealand that is being taken around the composer’s home country later this month; hard to tell from Fisher’s website where her list of works is not up-to-date and this Melbourne appearance doesn’t rate a mention in the list of performances of the composer’s works.

 

Wednesday September 4

THE GAME CHANGERS

Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, MLC, Kew at 7:30 pm

Kathryn Selby’s colleagues for this recital are familiar from previous years: violinist Susie Park and cellist Julian Smiles.   It’s fair to say that these performers are not game changers, but then you’d be pressed to find much revolutionary about the composers highlighted on this amiable night’s work.   Elena Kats-Chernin has become a major presence on this country’s music scene but not for her ability to make us re-think our perceptions.   Blue Silence in a piano trio version was arranged in 2012 for the Streeton Trio, six years after the piece’s original composition for cello and piano.   Based on a four-note motif, the score is as formally -placid and non-directional as a Satie Gnossienne. In Ravel’s Violin Sonata No 2 (the one we all know with the Blues middle movement), the composer experiments with jazz inflections but it hardly represents any blazing of new pathways; Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue appeared three years before this sonata and really altered  public attitudes – for a while.   Smiles and Selby take on Britten’s first composition for Rostropovich: the Cello Sonata of 1961 which started the British composer on his sequence of five splendid scores for the Russian master.  This program concludes with Dvorak in F minor, Op. 65 which signified a directional change from the composer – less nationalism, more abstraction.   Like the Ravel, it’s a game changer more for the writer than for the landscape of European serious music.

 

Saturday September 7

PETRUSHKA

Australian National Academy of Music

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

There’ll be no soloists in this program from the ANAM orchestra.   We hear the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin’s opera Prince Igor, recently aired by the MSO and its Chorus, although I don’t think there’ll be any singing here.   Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat follows with what are called ‘Suite selections’ – two sets to choose from but probably no singing despite the original’s two songs for mezzo.  Then comes the title work, also given recently by the MSO and a severe test still for a young orchestra.  You’d think that the outer tableaux depicting the Shrovetide Fair would be the most problematic, but the two central scenes present problems of a different character with their concentration on individual and small group filigree work.   Tonight’s conductor is Brazilian-born Eduardo Strausser, a young gun with a string of successful appearances to his credit in South America and Europe.   He made his Australian debut last year with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, goading that ensemble through the Bruckner Symphony No. 4; this ANAM program is, in comparison, almost frivolous.

 

Sunday September 8

CELEBRATING MOZART

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

Apart from a Haydn prelude  –  the Symphony No. 39 called Tempesta di mare for reasons I can’t fathom  –   this program is all-Mozart.   You’d assume the Haydn was selected to balance Tognetti’s final offering: the Mozart G minor Symphony No. 25 that enjoyed unusual exposure in Forman’s Amadeus film.   The artistic director takes a solo with the Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major, yet another spirit-lifting delight from the teenage composer.    Guest artist Dejan Lazic – a truly formidable pianist – returns to the ACO to perform the E Flat Concerto No. 14 which is a piece you won’t hear often although several commentators place it at the start of the remarkable central group of such works in the composer’s oeuvre.   I think it has a brilliant first movement but is not as enthralling in the following Andantino and Allegro.  Lazic makes a further contribution with a Rondo Concertante that he has arranged from the finale to the B flat Piano Sonata K. 333.    I thought the original would have been too bare-boned and direct for any kind of transformation but Lazic may give us a startling re-composition/adaptation.   We’ll see.

This program will be repeated on Monday September 9 at 7:30 pm.

 

Friday September 13

MOZART 40

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Not much to report about this night.   Conductor Benjamin Northey takes us on a brisk journey through Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony No. 1, which is always agreable to experience if the players are in skittish form for its 14 minutes’ worth.   Then the MSO’s own Thomas Hutchinson takes the lead for the Strauss Oboe Concerto which lasts for an atypically brief 25 minutes; this soloist currently occupies the Associate Principal position under Jeffrey Crellin, who has been in the main chair for 42 years.   Northey then gets the chance to expound the great G minor Symphony and you’d have to wish him well in attempting to bring something new to these all-too-familiar pages, shamefully bowdlerized by pop music cretins and ad men with absolutely no idea about the worth of their adopted material.   There’ll be some immediate interest in seeing (and hearing) whether Northey uses the version with clarinets.

 

Saturday September 14

Emerson String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Not that it matters, but this ensemble will play its second program first in Melbourne.  The well-settled group – one personnel change in 43 years – takes its name from Ralph Waldo, a philosopher more often used as a reference than as reading material; what I know about him derives pretty much completely from Charles Ives.  The musicians begin with Haydn Op. 71 No. 2 which will probably hold plentiful surprises for Emerson enthusiasts because this particular work does not feature in the ensmble’s The Haydn Project recordings.   Beethoven’s middle Razumovsky, they have recorded to mixed reviews.   No raised eyebrows with the centre work, either: Bartok No. 5.   In short, a program from a well-respected ‘name’ quartet, calculated to highlight the players’ abilities in core repertoire.

The Emersons will perform their Program 1 on Tuesday September 17 at 7 pm.   This comprises Mozart in D Major K. 575, first of the Prussian series which the group has recorded; Dvorak Op. 51 in E flat. oozing nationalistic flourishes, particularly in its second half; and Shostakovich Op. 92 which the Emersons have also recorded and which makes an odd match for the second program’s Bartok.

 

Sunday September 15

PIANOS AND PERCUSSION

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Iwaki Auditorium, Southbank at 11 am

When you read that heading, the first thing that comes to mind is the Bartok Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion and sure enough: that masterwork from 1937 leads the two-part agenda for this recital.   It’s not uncommon to come across it on programs, even these days when the composer is recognized by an ever-shrinking repertoire, but you rarely hear the score achieved with complete confidence.   Here’s hoping pianists Louisa Breen and Leigh Harrold with MSO percussionists John Arcaro and Robert Cossom breeze through its three movements with aplomb.   The morning-into-afternoon concludes with Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story in an arrangement originally for two pianos by American composer/pianist John Musto, transmuted even further by Cossom to include the two available percussionists.   A pretty short recital, which may not stretch past noon as the two works last for about 50 minutes combined.  But no: I’m forgetting those laborious spoken introductions and commentaries that bring this extraordinary music down to the level of banality.

 

Thursday September 19

MOZART AND ELGAR: AN EVENING OF VARIATIONS

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Hmm . . . Elgar. . . Variations.   No secrets here, then: we’re in for the Enigma, conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth who is solidly British in background and no close relation to Mark, a fine musician who could have been the MSO’s sometime chief conductor if the stars had aligned, I believe.   Anyway, good luck to Ryan and his interpretation of this hoary collection.   As guest soloist, we hear Paul Lewis in Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3 which is being substituted for Wigglesworth’s own Mozart Variations . . . a new score that might have given some expanded relevance to this concert’s title.   Never mind: Lewis is a remarkable, insightful artist heard here in concertos too rarely.   To begin, Lewis and Wigglesworth collaborate as soloists in Mozart’s Two-Piano Concerto in E flat: a secret pleasure as my favourite above most of the better-known one-piano concerto masterworks.  And my lack of discernment is exhibited yet again by a partiality for the Keith Jarrett/Chick Corea live performance from 1985.

This program will be repeated on Friday September 20 in Costa Hall, Geelong at 7:30 pm.

 

Friday September 20

IVES WESTLAKE DEBUSSY

Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

The Quartet No. 1 by Ives had no subtitle when I first heard it back in the 1960s.  Now the ASQ have labelled it From the Salvation Army; American groups have called it A Revival Service.   Whatever its sobriquet, the work is packed with hymn tunes and – up until the last movement – an orthodoxy that disturbs because you keep waiting for the biting clashes that signify the composer’s idea of a man’s music as opposed to all that French slop being produced about the same time (1898-1902).   Speaking of which, Debussy’s Op. 10 Quartet at the end of tonight’s program dates from 1893 and is a fine example of the kind of writing that Ives detested; we less Spartan minds have learnt to make allowances.   Nigel Westlake’s new piece being premiered on this tour is his String Quartet No. 3, about which no information is readily available.   It enjoys its first performance in Sydney on September 4; then in Canberra, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth before being expounded to the discerning ears of Melbourne’s chamber music aficionados.

 

Saturday September 21

LA PHILHARMONIC WIND QUINTET

Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

The American players – flute Denis Bouriakov, oboe Ramon Ortega Quero, clarinet Boris Allakhverdyan, bassoon Whitney Crocket  and horn Andrew Bain – open with a welcome burst of nationalism through Barber’s sophisticated and benign Summer Music before employing the services of an ANAM bass clarinettist for Britten’s 1930 Movement for Wind Sextet – a window into the 16-year-old composer’s practices.  Then we cross the Channel in a big way.   An ANAM pianist (Timothy Young?)  gets to join the Los Angeles musicians for Poulenc’s Sextet before we take a step back in time for Gounod’s Petite symphonie which entails the assistance of further ANAM musicians  –  an oboe, a clarinet, a bassoon and a horn.   Milhaud’s Chamber Symphony No. 5 expands the participating personnel by one, requiring a piccolo, a cor anglais to help the oboe, that bass clarinet again, an extra bassoon and another horn.   Finally, the visitors will be duplicated by a home-grown group in Francaix’s 9 Pieces caracteristiques for double wind quintet.   If nothing else, the evening bears evidence of the immense debt that wind players owe to France.

 

Tuesday September 24

Paul Lewis

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Back in the thick of the recherche, this fine British pianist is again confining himself to a circumscribed field.   He begins with Haydn in E minor Hob XVI.34 which, as far as I can detect, has not featured in his recordings of music by this composer.   It’s a pretty terse work, the three movements rushing past with an unusual conciseness of rhetoric.  Continuing his predilection for late works by the masters, Lewis then focuses on the Three Intermezzi Op. 117 by Brahms where the melancholy and resignation of old age colour every page: extraordinary creations of apparent simplicity.   For his finale, Lewis takes on Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations which has not enjoyed the exposure of Bach’s Goldberg and probably lags behind the Baroque work in any universal discography.   You can wait many years to hear the Diabelli live; I believe that I’ve heard it only once – at one of Stephen McIntyre’s  one-day piano festivals at St. Michael’s Church.   To an unprepossessing tune, Beethoven brought all his hard-won craft and you’d anticipate an engrossing interpretation of this lengthy score from this player gifted with consummate skill and a working intellect.

 

Thursday September 26

MENDELSSOHN’S VIOLIN CONCERTO

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Terribly popular, this concerto.   It seems hardly a year goes by without its appearance on an MSO program.  Not that you can whinge about its coming up yet again when the soloist is Ray Chen, a violinist of great accomplishment and insight (when he’s playing something worthwhile).   Tonight’s director/violinist is MSO Concertmaster Dale Barltrop who leads us into a light-filled program with Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri Overture and brings us home with Schubert’s Symphony No. 3 where the concluding frolic of a presto brings to mind the composer who opened the concert.   As a sort of programmed encore, Chen and Barltrop collaborate in Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins in A minor, which Bach transcribed, along with three other concertos by the Italian composer, for organ solo.   As a composite presentation for this hall, this all strikes me as effective and appropriate; nothing sombre and little that would benefit from a noticeable echo.

This program will be repeated in Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University on Friday September 27 at 7:30 pm.

 

 

 

 

No sweat

Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

Hamer Hall

Saturday July 27

King's

                                                   Chapel, King’s College, Cambridge

Here they are again, for an eighth Musica Viva tour of Australia; nice to hear the group in excellent vocal shape and an improvement on their last appearance here.  A pretty full house appeared to be satisfied with the experience last Saturday evening, even if what was on offer didn’t deviate much outside the bounds of Establishment repertoire and an almost palpable tastefulness.   Singing to their strengths, the Cambridge choristers excelled in certain parts of the one program they were presenting to Melbourne and even the so-so works  came across as thoroughly prepared and committed, although at some stages you wondered what all the fuss was about.

Conductor Daniel Hyde, replacing an indisposed Sir Stephen Cleobury who was unable to tour, gave a benign introduction to the choir’s most adventurous offerings: Ross Edwards’ new Singing the Love, Judith Weir’s O Mercy Divine and Pace by Errollyn Wallen.   The impression gained from Hyde’s address was of something daring, music that moved the singers from their usual staid fare into new arenas of emotional and technical adventure.

Not exactly.  Edwards had inserted a touch of nationalist colour with an accompaniment of some Aboriginal-type sticks, but the familiar clicks punctuated an orthodox choral texture with only a rapid downward-falling motif from the sopranos to provide an unexpected frisson of novelty.   His work is in essence a setting of Psalm 100, the one about making ‘a joyful noise unto the Lord’; these words recur so that you inevitably categorise the format as a small-scale rondo, the exuberant recurrent chorus book-ending quieter sections.  Every so often, you got a burst of Maninyas joyfulness but much of the work sat more than comfortably alongside the sober placidity of the program.

Weir’s setting of a Charles Wesley hymn also burst into no new territory.  It seemed at the start to be a lullaby in 6/8 with a canon between the lower voices and the sopranos before moving into a more concerted central body of development.  Adorning its placid choral writing, Umberto Clerici’s cello inserted a busy counter-activity – one of the night’s few points where the Sydney Symphony Orchestra principal wasn’t just reinforcing the bass line.  The piece was written for last year’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, into which context it would have slotted seamlessly.

Wallen’s piece used its title as text; by the way, it’s the Italian word for ‘peace’, not a synonym for ‘step’.  Throughout its (brief) length, the singers’ lines move in a sort of sliding impressionism from concords to quiet dissonances, the textures floating by pleasantly enough towards a single-note resolution.   Yet again, the score presented these musicians with no striking challenges, but what could you expect from a piece whose primary aim is to encourage reflection?   To that end, I think Pace might succeed to better effect in a church environment blessed with a significant echo; in this context, the experience offered little beyond the chance to admire the choir’s security of pitch.

Following this modernist bracket, the choir ended their set program with a reassuring reversion to type, just in case Wallen’s impressionist drifting had disoriented your sense of harmonic rectitude.  Vaughan Williams’ Bunyan setting, Valiant-for-Truth is a fine statement of stalwart faith ending in a blaze of fanfares as ‘all the trumpets sounded for him’  –  a welcome burst of aggressive, militant Christianity from the temperamentally mild Cambridge choir.

Saturday opened with a now-you-hear-it-now you-don’t Monteverdi motet, Cantate Domino: a warm-up number served with the reassurance of a chamber organ support – God knows why.   The scheduled Bach, Lobet den Herrn, disappeared somewhere along the track to be replaced by Komm, Jesu, komm; fine by me – I’ll take a double choir gem against a 4-part motet any day and this one concludes with that mellifluous aria/chorale, Drauf schliess’ ich mich.   Clerici and an unknown organist provided the bass-line/continuo that I can’t find in my edition but which is de rigueur in performances these days.   The sound complex sounded rather sweet and euphonious for what is possibly a piece written for a funeral but Hyde and his forces approached it with a clear eye for its close echo effects and innate reserve.

The boys left the stage so that the men could sing Cavalli’s Salve Regina for altos, two sets of tenors, basses and, in this instance, organ with a certain level of independence although it’s hard to know if that was inserted by the anonymous performer.  The composer sustains a reverential tone before the exciting outbreak of Ad te clamavi but the movement returns to placid, with a moving repetition of Ostende from the altos as the piece moves into its final phase.   At its best, this exercise demonstrated the clarity of the Cambridge tenors and the gentlemanly restraint of the body’s basses who maintained a ruminative rumble for much of the night.

The boys returned for one of their party pieces: Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, with harpist Alice Giles a scintillating support.   During this score, I became aware of an exceptional and individual voice on the right-hand side of the singers, a ripe and mature soprano with a vivid vibrato.   Distracting?   To some extent but also an enrichment to the choral output.   I think this singer had one of the earlier solos – That yonge child? – but the ensemble handled each movement with impressive professionalism, even the rapid-fire canons of This little babe which for once showed no signs of losing pace or unanimity of attack.

As you’d expect, the singers showed an unflashy authority throughout, impressing with  elegant phrasing on the Transeamus conclusion to There is no rose, an irreproachable reading blessed with a fine conclusion from the two soloists handling the Spring Carol, and a welcome animation throughout Adam lay i–bounden.  The performance was punctuated with applause from listeners unfamiliar with the process of hearing a work as a unity rather than as a series of sound-bites – the same reaction that you get at the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Myer Bowl concerts in February where each individual symphony movement is hailed with enthusiasm regardless of length or quality of performance.

Straight after interval, the choir sang three Tudor works, meat and drink to Anglican choirs over the past century and always welcome from practitioners like these; the sort of music-making many of us could have listened to all night.   Byrd’s Laudibus in sanctis emphasized yet again the excellent unforced security from the body’s tenors while the basses continued to exercise restraint, even at pivotal moments like their Laude Dei entrances.   But the energy of the two soprano parts was a source of high pleasure.  Loquebantur variis linguis by Tallis was supported by the chamber organ, although I think its role was confined to doubling the bass line.  This also showed the singers in a flattering light, particularly in the sprightly vigour of their Alleluia repetitions.

Concluding this segment was Hosanna to the Son of David by Gibbons that I first heard over 40 years ago at an Ely Cathedral Evensong; memorable because, on the admission of one of the choristers,  the choir barely scraped through this taxing masterpiece.   No worries here as Hyde directed a lightly bounding version rich in rhythmic displacements and some of the most deliciously understated false relations I’ve ever heard.   Most choirs turn this motet into a loud-voiced battleground where non-existent bar-lines take unwelcome precedence.   In contrast, the Cambridge musicians handled it with linear probity, the polyphonic web rising and receding with masterly skill.

Giles enjoyed a solo with Salzedo’s Variations sur un theme dans le style ancien, a virtuoso late-Romantic turn that stays close to its original material with some impressive treble detail work.   In this players’ hands, the piece impressed for its subtle virtuosity.   Still, it  stuck out from its surroundings  – Gibbons and Edwards – with uncomfortable distinctiveness . . . which didn’t do anything to subdue the enthusiasm with which it was greeted.

August Diary

Friday August 2

ELGAR’S CELLO CONCERTO

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

French conductor Bertrand de Billy comes to front the MSO for the first time.   He has made a reputation as an expert at opera in various houses throughout Europe, although his residences have been uncommonly brief.   His exhibition piece for this program is Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra which the MSO publicity team is anxious to link with Kubrick’s A Space Odyssey; yes, the eminent film-maker used the whole first minute of this verbose tone poem.   What will they do for an organ, now that Hamer Hall doesn’t have one?   Yet another electronic substitute for Calvin Bowman to coax into life, I suppose.   Guest soloist Johannes Moser won the Tchaikovsky Competition 17 years ago; tonight, he works through the most famous 20th century concerto which, unlike the Strauss, is a model of concise expression.   And to ease us into late Romantic mood, de Billy directs Wagner’s ever-moving Siegfried Idyll, that delectable pre-Ring palate-cleanser.

This program will be repeated on Saturday August 3 at 7:30 pm and on Monday August 5 at 6:30 pm.

 

Friday August 9

MOZART PROJECT NO. 3

The Melbourne Musicians

Tatoulis Auditorium, MLC Kew at 7:30 pm

Accompanied by Frank Pam and his ensemble, Elyane Laussade concludes a three-concert series of Mozart piano concertos with the only one among the first ten or so that concert-goers regularly hear: No. 9 in  E flat, the Jeunehomme, which breaks the rules by having the soloist enter almost straight away, then keeps the surprises coming, including a sudden Minuet in the Rondeau finale.   On either side, Pam directs two Haydn symphonies – No. 43 in E flat, the Mercury, and the better-known La Passione No. 49 in F minor.   Breaking the Viennese flavour, the night ends with a three-movement Boccherini symphony in D minor called House of the Devil which reserves its supernatural promise for a violently active final Allegro con molto.

 

Saturday August 10

JOY & HEARTBREAK

Australian National Academy of Music Orchestra

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

Well, the joy isn’t hard to find.   ANAM resident faculty member Noah Bendix-Balgley, first concertmaster with the Berlin Philharmonic, directs and leads Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony to bring the program to a vitally optimistic, if minor-key conclusion.   What comes before is less happy.   Gideon Klein’s folk-influenced, astringent Partita of 1944, the year before the composer’s death in or near the Furstengrube labour camp, was originally a trio for violin, viola and cello, later arranged for string orchestra by Vojtech Saudek.   Further in the heartbreak stakes, Bendix-Balgley takes the solo part in Hartmann’s powerful Concerto funebre, written in the first year of World War Two but drawing part of its sources from German and Russian songs memorializing victims of violence.   Quite a test in concentration for the conductor/soloist; still, you’re only young once.

 

Sunday August 11

LUMINOUS

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

This is another collaboration by the ACO with photographer Bill Henson, revisiting a previous effort in 2005.   These fusions rarely come without problems of balance in interest, although what I remember of the previous exercise was not an unusually lopsided affair, possible due to the cool, detached nature of Henson’s work.   As for the music, it’s another medley that, at time of writing, is vague in its details; some Britten, some Janacek, Peteris Vasks’ Violin Concerto entitled Distant Light, a descent into the abyss with something from R. E.M.    I’m anticipating that this last will involve the participation of the program’s main guest, the singer Lior whose work with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in music by Nigel Westlake stands as one of the few almost-successful fusions of serious intentions with popular vocalisation.   You can understand that Richard Tognetti, director and probably soloist in the 30-minute-long Vasks concerto, wants to keep open options to marry his music with Henson’s photographs; let’s hope the wash-up doesn’t consist of incongruent scraps.

This program will be repeated on Monday August 12 at 7:30 pm.

 

Wednesday August 14

GERMAN ROMANTICS

Markiyan and Oksana Melnychenko

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

This mother-and-son piano/violin duo has shown admirable versatility in previous recitals.   This time, it’s straight down the line with Schubert and Brahms.   To begin, they play the Grand Duo, Schubert’s Violin Sonata D 574; not a work that you experience often – not like the contemporary and highly appealing Sonatinas.   In fact, I can’t remember the last time I heard it in live performance.   The main Brahms offering is the magnificent G Major Regen Sonata which radiates a healthy gemutlichkeit that typifies this composer’s finest chamber music: a warmth that swells in all-embracing  breadth from one bar to the next.   Finally, the Melnychenko partners look further back in the composer’s career – some 25 years or so – to that youthful oddity, the F-A-E Sonata written in collaboration with Schumann and his pupil Albert Dietrich.   Brahms contributed a scherzo to this composite construct which hits you like a hammer with its intense power and rhythmic vigour, including a clutch of signature hemiolas.

 

Wednesday August 14

SONG CYCLES WITH SARA MACLIVER

Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

The Australian soprano is a guest artist in residence at ANAM at this time of year.   As far as I can make out, she has no singing pupils to deal with; which is to say that none are mentioned on the Academy’s 2019 list of musicians.   So you’d assume that Macliver is giving ANAM pianists a chance to accompany her, one of the country’s most versatile sopranos.   Some lucky player will escort the singer through Schumann’s Frauen-Liebe und -Leben, which sets the bar impossibly high for any other lieder composer: an intense, heart-breakingly moving depiction of female psychology in eight superb songs.  Someone else will assist Macliver in selections from Duparc’s 17 chansons: we can hope for L’invitation au voyage, Phydile and Extase.   In between, we’re to enjoy Grieg’s Haugtussa, the composer’s solitary song-cycle which follows a country girl from youthful joy in life to later disillusionment.

 

Saturday August 17

QUARTET & COUNTRY

Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 4 pm & 6 pm

Both of these programs consist of Australian works: six in the early session, five in the later one.   Two singer-composers will be guest artists at 4 pm: Stephen Pigram, from whom we’ll hear Walganyagarra Buru, then Mimi in an arrangement by Iain Grandage; and Lou Bennett whose Jaara Nyilamum is preceded by a collaboration with Grandage, dirt song.   Running parallel with this indigenous current come Kate Moore’s String Quartet No. 3, Cicadidae, which the ASQ presented here in May; and David Paterson’s Quartettsatze, all two of them.   For the second program, the players begin with a venerable (well, it’s almost 30 years old) favourite in Sculthorpe’s two-movement String Quartet No. 11, Jabiru Dreaming.   Guest William Barton joins the ensemble for a new work by Stephen King that involves, naturally, the didgeridoo.   Grandage speaks en clair with his After Silence – like the Sculthorpe, taking its inspiration from Aboriginal sources.  Barton’s own Square Circles Beneath the Red Desert Sand from 2017 is preceded by Sarah Hopkins’ Reclaiming the Spirit of 1993, presumably in its string quartet format.   Good on the ASQ for taking on the challenge of two all-Australian recitals, even if the audiences will probably fit comfortably into the Primrose Potter Salon.

 

Thursday August 22

SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

And here comes another cellist.   Johannes Moser opens the month with Elgar’s anguished masterpiece; now Jian Wang puts his talents into Saint-Saens’ Concerto No. 1, the more popular of the composer’s two works in the form.   Conductor Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider has enjoyed a sterling career as a solo violinist with an impressive CD catalogue of concerto and chamber music performances.   Tonight, he begins proceedings with excerpts from Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream; no sign of any singers or speakers, so there’ll be no melodramas or Ye spotted snakes – which rather limits these extracts to the all-too-familiar.   Szeps-Znaider gives pride of place to the brilliant Berlioz symphony, a masterpiece that nonplussed the strait-laced Mendelssohn and set out an orchestration text-book from which Saint-Saens profited handsomely.

This program will be repeated in Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University on Friday August 23 at 7:30 pm, and back in Hamer Hall on Saturday August 24 at 2 pm.

 

Thursday August 22

NEW CONSTELLATIONS

Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Only two works occupy this evening’s program: the Mendelssohn Octet for strings and the Brahms Serenade No. 1, in its second format for nonet which will be a reconstruction because the original score disappeared.   Piecing together possibilities, this Brahms may be articulated by flute, two clarinets, bassoon, horn, and one each of the string groups. A full complement of the 8 strings necessary for Mendelssohn’s light-filled gem is outlined on the ARCO web-site including violinists Rachael Beesley and Miki Tsunoda, violist Simon Oswell, and cellist Daniel Yeadon.   The whole exercise will be led by Jakob Lehmann who is continuing his liaison with this organization while leading a hectic artistic life focused on his home-town, Berlin.   On paper, the entertainment looks a tad lop-sided: Mendelssohn’s Octet lasts about 30 minutes, the Brahms close to 45.   But you’d be hard pressed to think of two such complementary optimistic and innately happy scores.

 

Thursday August 29

QUINTETS WITH FRIENDS

Ensemble Liaison

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

The ensemble’s three friends for this night’s work are top-notch musicians: Natsuko Yoshimoto from the Adelaide Symphony,  Elizabeth Sellars at Monash University, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s principal violist Christopher Moore.   But operations begin with two of the core Liaison personnel – cellist Svetlana Bogosavljevic and pianist Timothy Young – playing Three Pieces: Humoresk, Lied and Tarantell by Alexander von Zemlinsky, Schoenberg’s brother-in-law.   Brief in length, these bagatelles precede one of the promised quintets, that by Weber for clarinet and string quartet.   This puts Ensemble stalwart David Griffiths firmly at the centre of the action in one if the foundation works for his instrument.   Australian writer Natalie Williams is represented by a new trio, Treppenwitz  –  the German term for l’esprit de l’escalier, or thinking too late of the perfect reply –  which piece seems to have been tailored for the Liaison personnel.   Finally, guest violinists and viola come on to partner Bogosavljevic and Young through the sombre depths of Shostakovich’s Quintet in G minor.

 

Friday August 30

SIBELIUS’ VIOLIN CONCERTO

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

James Gaffigan, chief conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, lightens the atmosphere after interval with Dvorak’s rural-flavoured Symphony No. 8 in G Major.  Eschewing the stentorian brouhaha of the following New World, this score is a fine example of the Czech composer’s ability to appeal to the bucolic in even the most metropolitan-centred of us; a special delight comes with those waffling horns in the exciting finale.   Viktoria Mullova is an honoured name world-wide and you couldn’t ask for a more authoritative hand than hers with the night’s eponymous concerto; it’s one of a kind and engrossing from start to finish, not least for the torrent of work given to the soloist.   For a starter, Gaffigan directs Janacek’s Jealousy, the original overture for Jenufa about which the composer had second thoughts; a fraught 6 minutes of perturbing fragments and blazing brass.

This program will be repeated on Saturday August 31 at 7:30 pm, and on Monday September 2 at 6:30 pm.