November Diary

Saturday November 3

Benedetti, Elschenbroich, Grynyuk Trio

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Here is the final Musica Viva series for this year: a piano trio comprising Nicola Benedetti, cellist Leonard Elschenbroich, and pianist Alexei Grynyuk.   The Scots violinist does not seem to have made much of an impression outside her home country and England, and most of her reputation rests on concerto work.   Elschenbroich has been here previously as a member of the Sitkovetsky Trio and proved to be a fine contributor; like Benedetti, Grynyuk is an unknown quantity to me, occupying as he does that genealogical half-way position somewhere between Ukraine and England.   For this night’s program, the musicians perform two early Richard Strauss sonatas: one for cello, the other for violin.  Before they reach into the glories of the Brahms C Major Trio, the group will give an airing to another second piano trio, that by Gordon Kerry subtitled Im Winde, which was last heard here 8 1/2 years ago from the Trio Dali.

The BEG combination will present its second program on Tuesday November 20 at 7 pm.  As well as Kerry’s Im Winde, the fare changes from Strauss to Prokofiev sonatas and the affair ends with the Ravel Trio.


Saturday November 3


Victorian Opera

Merlyn Theatre, The Coopers Malthouse at 7:30 pm.

It’s hard to know what to expect here.   Three divas are involved: Ali McGregor, Dimity Shepherd and Antoinette Halloran, each taking a turn at playing Lorelei or, more properly, a version of the eternal temptress.   As for the music, this has been written by Melbourne screen-composer Julian Langdon, writer and broadcaster Casey Bennetto (Keating!), and musical comedian Gillian Cosgriff; the latter two also have supplied the librettos.  The promotional spiel claims this will be ‘an intoxicating encounter with love and death: part cabaret, part opera, all seduction.’   Be still, my beating heart.   Further, the sopranos’ ‘hypnotic music is to die for.’   No, it’s not: at best, it’s to enjoy; at worst, to endure.

The performance will be repeated at 7:30 pm on Wednesday November 7, Thursday November 8, Friday November 9 and Saturday November 10, with a matinée performance on Saturday November 10 at 1 pm.


Monday November 5


Ensemble Gombert

Melbourne Recital Centre at 6 pm

Why this pairing?   It could be a demonstration of old and new counterpoint or an exploration of the contrast between masculinity and flaccidity.   However you read it, the night will test the Gomberts’ pitching and interpretative skills in the confined Salon space of the MRC.   For the Bach, we are confronted by three of the mighty motets: Der Geist hilft, Lobet den Herrn, and Furchte dich nicht.   Taking a bit longer to work through, the American composer’s group comprises the choral madrigal in three movements, Reincarnations; a setting of Laurie Lee’s Christmas poem Twelfth Night; its companion piece, To Be Sung on the Water; and the almost inevitable Agnus Dei arrangement of the Adagio for Strings which will probably make up the longest piece on the program.   The outer Bach pieces are for double choir, and they sound magnificently mobile in a fair-sized church but I think that here the dubious Lobet in 4 lines will come off best.


Wednesday November 7


Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne at 7:30 pm

And, just for a laugh, let’s move the whole shebang to Weimar Republic Berlin.  That way, we can weave in suggestions of depravity and physical grime, potentially providing a refresher course in George Grosz, I don’t think.   Have we seen this Gale Edwards vision here before?   It could be so – in which case any memories went straight through to the keeper.   In charge of the pit is Pietro Rizzo who conducted the score almost two years ago in Sydney and is forging an onward-and-upward career in second-class European houses.  Mimi is Latvian soprano Maija Kovalevska who sang the role earlier this year on Sydney Harbour; her Rodolfo will be Yosep Kang, back after his impressive Alfredo Germont in April.   The remainder of the cast is native-born.   Jane Ede enjoys Musetta; Christopher Tonkin is her matching Marcello.   The other Bohemians are Richard Anderson (Colline) and Christopher Hillier (Schaunard), with Graeme Macfarlane, Adrian Tamburini, Clifford Plumpton, Anthony Mackey and Benjamin Rasheed handling the minor parts.   In the end, though, you’re asked to exercise that unnecessary suspension of disbelief and read in Weill’s world for Puccini’s.

The opera will be repeated at 7:30 pm on Friday November 9, Monday November 12, Wednesday November 14, Friday November 16 and Tuesday November 20 with a concluding matinee at 1 pm on Saturday November 24.


Thursday November 8


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Plenary, Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre at 7:30 pm.

From here on, the whimsy leaches out of this famous series while the sense of menace increases markedly.   This is the final film for which John Williams wrote the score and conducted the results, although the leitmotives persisted in later films.   Above all, the ambience has become monumental, illustrated by director Alfonso Cuaron’s insistence on massive clocks and their workings while Hermione and her two doofus mates negotiate the ins and outs of turning back time.   A moment that appeals to the repressed English chorister in some of us comes with the choral treatment of Double, double toil and trouble which gives the whole witchcraft/sorcery meme an unexpected layer of cultural references – or am I falling into the pit of becoming a Potter nerd?   Whatever, this will doubtless prove to be a winner for the MSO with determined patrons turning up dressed in their house robes and – with the benefit of hindsight – restraining their boos for Severus Snape.

The concert will be repeated on Friday November 9 (sold out, apparently) and at 1 pm on Saturday November 10.


Friday November 9


Australian National Academy of Music

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

A celebration on two layers as the Australian National Academy of Music has Dean come ‘home’ to lead its orchestra in music of his own as well as ventilating some other compositions that have been of  significance to the Australian composer.   Meale’s Clouds now and then, one of the Sydney writer’s haiku-inspired pieces, leads off – a real 1969 blast from the past for some of us, recalling a time when Australian music seemed to be coming of age, at last.   Georges Lentz is also a Sydney name that enjoyed a few brief exposures during Markus Stenz’s time as chief conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra; Jerusalem (after Blake) of 2016 has not been performed here.   Sydney composer and London resident Lisa Illean contributes her 2015 Land’s End, written for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and conducted a year later by Dean with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.   His own music is also pretty much up-to-date: From Melodious Lay (A Hamlet Diffraction) springs out of the composer’s well-received 2016 opera for Glyndebourne on Shakespeare’s play, with Lorina Gore semi-reprising her role as Ophelia in this year’s Adelaide Festival performances. and Brisbane-born Finnish tenor Topi Lehtipuu singing Hamlet.   This is a welcome tribute to the Academy’s former director and an opportunity to hear one of his more recent major products.


Saturday November 10


Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Lixsania Fernandez is a Cuban gamba player and the ABO’s final guest artist for this year.  Under Paul Dyer’s direction, the orchestra will partner her in Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins and Viola da gamba, a plain concerto for gamba by Graun and a contemporary work by Rene Duchiffre (Schiffer) – the Tango barocco finale from his Concerto for Two Violas da gamba.   We can be fairly sure that Fernandez will be playing one of these, but the other?   On top of this, concertmaster Shaun Lee-Chen will take the leading role in Locatelli’s D Major Violin Concerto, The Harmonic Labyrinth, and a tad more Vivaldi fleshes out the night in the 5-minute Sinfonia al Santo Sepolcro.   Apart from the contemporary Brabantian fusion, the other three composers stretch across the Baroque proper and represent a territory on which some of us prefer to hear the ABO at its labours.

This program will be repeated on Sunday November 11 at 5 pm.


Sunday November 11


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

Never happy with this appellation; after all, what makes Tognetti’s Beethoven different to Vengerov’s or Francescatti’s?   I’d even prefer the pornograpically suggestive Tognetti Does Beethoven than have this proposition of proprietorship pushed forward as a reason to attend.   Only two works are programmed: the Violin Concerto with Tognetti as soloist, and the Symphony No. 5.   These were written contemporaneously and stand at the pinnacle of the so-called ‘middle’ period.   Quite a few of us can recall the artistic director’s last solo performance of the concerto and you can be sure that the years will not have diminished the player’s skill and insight.   About the symphony, I’m not so sure; we’ve heard pretty much all the canon from these players in the recent past and, while some interpretations have proved riveting, I can’t recall much more than some remedial scouring of this C minor score’s tradition-heavy surface.

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


Sunday November 11


Team of Pianists

Glenfern, St. Kilda at 3 pm

Finishing its year – apart from a fund-raising recital for the Dili Hospital on November 24 – the Team hosts Melbourne Symphony Orchestra principal clarinet David Thomas who, with senior TOP member Darryl Coote, will play both the Brahms Op. 120 sonatas.   Now there’s an afternoon’s solid modicum of delight for you: the last chamber works by the composer, featuring an instrument that he fell in love with during his final years.  Punctuating these gems, Coote plays two Schubert impromptus: the C minor and most mournful from the Op. 90 set, followed by the theme-and-five variations B flat Major from the Op. 142 quartet.  Somehow, the whole gels to make up a most inviting and atmospherically consistent program with the added thrill that, in this house’s central room, you seem to be right on top of the performers, even when sitting in the back row or half-way out the back window.


Tuesday October 13


Opera Australia

State Theatre,  Arts Centre Melbourne at 4 pm

After the company’s Ring resuscitation, what better move by the national company than to thrill Melbourne with Wagner’s thigh-slapping yet actually unfunny comedy?   Such a long haul for everybody concerned, but conductor Pietari Inkinen, who has covered himself with acclaim for previous Wagner marathons here, is back for this long-winded nationalistic pap.  The direction has been achieved by Kasper Holten who, with the willing assistance of set designer Mia Stensgaard and costume designer Anja Vangh Kragh, has transposed the action from mid-16th century Nuremberg and put it in a London club (unclear when; could be at the time of Beau Brummell or during the period of Evelyn Waugh) which doesn’t allow women – bad luck for Eva and Magdalene as this embargo will probably hamper their efforts to take part in  the action.   Still, the anachronisms might make bearable the unpleasant overtones of Sachs’ last address to the crowd – such a pity it all had to take place in this particular city.    As this fulcrum figure comes local lad Shane Lowrencev who is fated to rabbit on almost as tediously as Wotan.   The young hero Walther also features a Ring revenant in Stefan Vinke.   The two female roles are local favourites: Natalie Aroyan as Eva and Dominica Matthews as her confidante.   Apprentice David is taken up by Kazakh tenor Medet Chotabaev and Warwick Fyfe, a revelation in previous Wagner, gets the plum role of Beckmesser; who wouldn’t want to play a critic?  Veteran Daniel Sumegi plays Pogner and the rest of the club is a list of familiars: Luke Gabbedy, Adrian Tamburini, John Longmuir, Nicholas Jones, Kanen Breen, Robert Macfarlane, Andrew Jones, Michael Honeyman, Gennadi Dubinsky and Richard Anderson.   You need a wealth of stage magic to keep audiences awake and focused through this opera which begins brilliantly and  quickly peters out as the characters set themselves forward in clear single dimensions.

The opera will be repeated at 4 pm on Monday November 19 and Thursday November 22, and in a matinée performance on Saturday November 17 at 12 pm.


Thursday November 15


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Would you believe it?  Two C minor symphony performances within four days of each other.   This concert also features a violin concerto: Shostakovich’s all-things-to-all-men-except-Zhdanov No. 1, a remarkable construct of great originality in texture and format.  Guest violinist Mayu Kishima won the Shanghai Isaac Stern Violin Competition two years ago and plays the ‘ex-Petri’ Stradivarius instrument of 1700 – all of which sounds promising; as well, she has the endorsement of Rostropovich.   American Karina Canellakis has recently been appointed the next chief conductor of the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in the Netherlands, the first woman in that post as well as the first female chief conductor anywhere in that country.   She will take the MSO through a rarely-heard Dvorak tone poem, The Noon Witch, as a procedural prelude, then finish off the night with that blazing Beethoven.

The program will be repeated in Costa Hall, Geelong on Friday November 16 at 7:30 pm, and again in Hamer Hall at 2 pm on Saturday November 17.


Sunday November 18


The Melbourne Musicians

St. John’s Lutheran Church, Southgate at 3 pm

Frank Pam and his players finish off their 2018 efforts with this special concert featuring quite a few doubles.   First come the Grigoryan brothers, Slava and Leonard, bringing their guitars to bear on some concertos for two instruments.   The first is by Handel, the sixth of the Op. 4 set of organ concertos; still, it was originally composed with a harp solo, so doubtless the solo work will be easily divided.   The other is from Vivaldi, the RV532 which is well-known as a work for two mandolins, but the composer would be the last to complain about an adaptation of this type.   Pam surrounds these with Viennese dance music, beginning with Karol Komzak’s Vindobona March and Lanner’s six Dornbacher Landler.   After the concertos come 15 of Schubert’s 16 German Dances and 2 Ecossaises Op. 33, originally for piano solo.   And the afternoon ends with a Strauss double: the senior’s Champagne Galop, followed by the junior’s Bacchus-Polka which could take on extra interest if the Musicians take up the composer’s original instructions which ask for the players to sing as well.


Thursday November 22


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Deakin Edge, Federation Square at 7:30 pm

And here is the MCO finishing off its subscription series with a well-structured set of four works.   The night begins and ends with Bach: first, the Orchestral Suite No. 4; finally, the Orchestral Suite No. 3.   Both of them ask for three trumpets, timpani and and two or three oboes, as well as the usual body of strings with a bassoon for extra colour in No. 4.  In between come two double violin concertos.   As you’d expect in this programmatic company, the first is the slashing and popular Bach D minor, while the second is freshly minted and comes from the pen of the concert’s conductor, Richard Mills.   Who are taking the solo lines?   No idea yet, but MCO director William Hennessy has a fair assembly of talent from which to choose – or he could take one of the lines himself.  Always happy to hear top-class Bach but this event’s main interest comes from the Mills concerto, about which the gossip mills have maintained a stolid silence.   Its catalogued title at the Australian Music Centre gives something away: ‘Concerto for two violins and strings (string orchestra with multiple soloists)’.

This program will be repeated in the Melbourne Recital Centre on Sunday November 25 at 2:30 pm.


Friday November 23


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

To be fair, you will hear two significant French masterpieces on these nights: Debussy’s limpid Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, and Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2 for which the MSO Chorus will contribute to the final orgy.   This night’s conductor, Paris-born Fabien Gabel, is music director of the Quebec Symphony Orchestra, so we can be reasonably sure of the requisite Gallic insights.   Debussy appears again on the program through his early six-part song-cycle to Verlaine poems,  Ariettes oubliees.  These were orchestrated in 2015 by Brett Dean for the Australian World Orchestra, later recorded by the German Symphony Orchestra Berlin, tonight sung by mezzo Fiona Campbell.   But the night’s showpiece, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, is solidly Russian, setting the benchmark for all those skittering works of similar ilk that flowed from the pencils of the composer’s less-talented compatriots.   Beatrice Rana is the soloist; Italian-born, silver medallist at the 2013 Van Cliburn, first prize at the 2011 Montreal Piano Competition and still in her mid-20s .  .  .  ideal for this concerto.

This program will be repeated at 7:30 pm on Saturday November 24 and at 6:30 pm on Monday November 26.


Thursday November 29


Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

That’s it, of course: just the last Mahler (well, the last completed).  The arrangement, by pianist/conductor Klaus Simon, is one of the fruit’s of his editing endeavours in the scores of Schoenberg and Mahler.   Somehow, he has cut down the large orchestral body to 15 players, in this outing most of them notable Australian presences: flute Virginia Taylor (ex-ANU, ANAM), oboe Nick Deutsch (ANAM artistic director), clarinet Philip Arkinstall (MSO), bassoon Lyndon Watts (Munich Philharmonic), horns Andrew Bain (LA Philharmonic) and Saul Lewis (MSO), trumpet Tristram Williams (ex-MSO), piano Timothy Young (ANAM), percussion Peter Neville (ANAM, University of Melbourne), piano accordion James Crabb (ACO favourite), violins Sophie Rowell (MSO) and Robin Wilson (ANAM, Sydney Conservatorium), viola Caroline Henbest (ACO, MSO, everyone’s favourite guest viola), cello Howard Penny (ANAM, Chamber Orchestra of Europe) and double bass Phoebe Russell (QSO).  The conductor is Matthew Coorey, an Australian based in London who has conducted the MSO although I didn’t hear him.  A one-time horn player, he should be well equipped to direct this agglomeration of timbres.  Accordion?  Really?


Thursday November 29


Wilma & Friends

Ian Roach Hall, Scotch College at 7:30 pm

In this final recital for the year, Wilma Smith and four colleagues are playing a set of little-known works by top-rank composers.   For instance, although it shames me to admit it, I’ve never come across Beethoven’s String Trio in C minor, nor the other two works that make up the composer’s Op. 9.   In similar vein, I doubt that the Brahms String Quintet in F Major has swung across my horizon; nor has its later companion, the G Major String Quintet.    And Mendelssohn’s B flat String Quintet is further unknown territory, as is the composer’s earlier A Major work in the same format.   An occasion, therefore, to remedy woeful ignorance.   Along with Smith’s violin, the other voices in this recital are to be taken by Ji Won Kim from the MSO’s first violin ranks, violas Stefanie Farrands from the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra and Caleb Wright, newly appointed principal with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, while Michael Dahlenburg from the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra plays cello.



Return to top form


Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday September 15

                                                                       Daniel Pinteno

In its original schedule, the ABO was to have played host this month to senior Italian baroque violinist Stefano Montanari, who promised a program that included Telemann, Vivaldi, Locatelli and those three household names – Gregori, Heinichen and Pisendel.  Somewhere along the way, a few wheels fell off this arrangement and artistic director Paul Dyer had to find another musician of similar ilk – which he did in Daniel Pinteno, one of Spain’s luminaries in the field of Baroque performance and, for good measure, musicology.

The only name to survive from the original program was Vivaldi, who scored two appearances on Saturday night.   While the main intention of the exercise was to present Spanish scores that most of us have never heard, the Venetian master falls under the occasion’s all-encompassing title.  And it’s pretty obvious that Vivaldi’s works would have been very familiar to the major (and minor) courts of the Iberian peninsula, just as they were across Europe.

Along with two Vivaldi concertos – La Notte for flute with the ABO’s principal Melissa Farrow doing solo honours, and No. 9, the second of the D Major ones from L’estro armonico – Pinteno headed half of a Charles Avison concerto grosso, one of those that the British composer based on Scarlatti sonatas, but the rest of his offerings were complete novelties: an overture by Vicente Basset, the Concerto a 5 from Giacmo Facco’s Pensieri Adriamonici collection, a substantial overture by Felix Maximo Lopez, and a surprising C Major sinfonia by Gaetano Brunetti.

It might have been the effect of Pinteno’s preparation, or it could have been the nature of the music, but this set of (mainly) unfamiliar compositions brought out the best from the orchestra which was back treating with a school of music that emphasizes the players’ talents and substantiates their reputation as members of a first-class band of Baroque expert interpreters.   Not that everything was perfect in detail but the strings and wind produced an unfailing radiance of address and emotional commitment that kept you engaged, even through several repeats.

An opening Basset overture set the interpretative direction with an arresting, biting attack from the whole body of strings, plus Dyer’s harpsichord and Tommie Andersson’s theorbo.   Pinteno played/directed with an involving physicality, contributing a languid middle-movement solo before a concluding presto engaged by the ensemble with spiky aggression, carefully harnessed and distinguished by excellently disciplined terraced dynamics.   Facco’s more substantial E Major violin concerto built on this foundation with a strong and voluble address in its opening Allegro, although you had to wait for the central Adagio to hear any extended solo work from Pinteno, while the finale followed the first movement’s model in giving the solo violin only short bursts of individuality.  Still, you heard enough to take in the guest director’s pliancy of line which depends less on mobility of rhythm and more on milking his part of its expressive potential, handling his exposed passages like a singer bursting from the ruck.

Farrow gave a graceful, measured approach to the Vivaldi suite-concerto, her string accompaniment cut back to a 3-3-2-2-1-plus continuo format.  Her sequence of trills in the initial Largo demonstrated impeccable control and projection, followed by a balancing Presto of high vivacity with the soloist subsumed into the general texture.  Another Largo gave Farrow an opportunity to highlight her supple, carefully controlled timbre for which she avoided unnecessary histrionics or attention-grabbing gasps, again followed by a Presto with some unexpected room for solo exposure.  The final two movements followed this slow-fast pattern, the three Il sonno pages a nice study in stasis, while the finale yielded the concerto’s most interesting activity, not least for a sparkling duet involving the flute and Pinteno’s violin from bars 166 to 177.

Concluding the first half, the Lopez Overtura con tutti instrumenti brought a clutch of wind players on-stage: pairs of oboes and horns, along with Brock Imison’s bassoon,  Pinteno increased his strings to about 20 but the composer gave his brace of oboes plenty of exposure, both Emma Black and Kirsten Barry entering the lists with impressive panache.  Indeed, the wind added a piquancy to what is a melodically ordinary construct and handled their responsibilities with very few minor glitches from the horns and only a handful of questionable intonation question-marks at cadential points from the oboes.

Pinteno enjoyed some solo work in this score as well.  Despite the interest of his well-proportioned output, he seems to have the occasional pitching problem, almost suggesting that he’s trying on a different temperament to his surrounds.  It didn’t happen often, this deviation; just enough to make you wonder if he was over-working his output.  Without doubt, he showed complete involvement in the work at hand and was no fly-in, fly-out guest, taking part in everything programmed, keeping a firm hand on his forces in this Lopez work’s final Allegro that became a rondo with two unexpected minuet inserts for metrical contrast and relief of tension.

Any questioning of Pinteno’s articulation disappeared in his post-interval account of Vivaldi’s D Major Concerto from L’estro armonico.  Here was aggressive, button-bursting work peppered with crisp solos in the outer movements, while the Larghetto revealed a master’s hand in splendidly controlled trills peppering what is almost continuous solo playing between the first four and last five bars; the overall impression here for me was a sort of curvaceous angularity, Pinteno’s delivery intensely sympathetic, enough to make this the night’s high-water mark and a clear-enough explanation of why Dyer chose this musician to take charge of his ABO.

For reasons best known to themselves, the body settled on presenting only the first half of Avison’s D Major Concerto grosso: the second of the four in D of his Op. 6 set of 12 based on Scarlatti sonatas.  The opening Largo came across with lordly assurance, a striding post-Handelian strut to its progress, while the succeeding Con furia brought into play lots of virtuoso scampering which showed no sign of letting-up though both its halves were repeated.

The winds returned for Brunetti’s Il Maniatico sinfonia for which the ABO’s principal cello Jamie Hey took on the designated role of the composer’s ‘maniac’ who has to be brought into line by the rest of the players.  As it turned out, the solo cello’s mania turned out to be an ongoing trill or a repeated figure of a 2nd which the solo line stayed with throughout most of the four movements, an idee fixe going nowhere.

This score made a sterling match with the Lopez overture that concluded the evening’s first half, both for its compositional felicity – if not originality – and its size.  The difference between this and pretty much everything else on the program was its Classic period self-aplomb, with a broader melodic ambit than its predecessors in this night;’s work.   You could tire quite easily of the manic 2nds from the cello, Brunetti having locked his protagonist into a monotonous personality; but the orchestral bracketing showed a brand of sophistication that opened up a new compositional prospect – like hearing Haydn after Geminiani.

After some recent disappointments, I found this concert served as a refreshing reminder of the ABO’s concerted talents when negotiating works from across the Baroque, and the players’ remarkable ability to enter into works that –  in some cases  –  have been left untouched for centuries until Pinteno and his collaborators came along to resurrect them,  Indeed, I doubt that the visiting violinist could have found a group more talented and committed to assisting him in his undertaking which, far from being a dry-as-dust musicological exercise, whetted the appetite for more similar unveilings.  Dyer and his organization would do well to bring this musician back to us in the not-too-distant future.


October Diary

Tuesday October 2


Australian String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Visiting as part of its national series, if a remarkably truncated one these days, the ASQ plays a standard classic to begin in the Schubert Rosamunde; not the most cheerful nor the most aggressive of the composer’s extraordinary mature forays into this field.  Balancing this comes Shostakovich in A flat, No. 10 in the series of 15 and one of the more formally adroit and emotionally satisfying of the lot.   James Ledger’s String Quartet No. 2, sub-titled The Distortion Mirror, will enjoy its world premieres as the ensemble tours the country.   Sad to say, I don’t know this writer’s work at all well; he appears to be based in Perth, which doesn’t help, but in 2011 he was Composer-in-Residence at the Australian National Academy of Music, during which time he undertook a collaboration with Paul Kelly that somehow evaded me – or was a bullet dodged?.  Adding to the mystery, on the Australian Music Centre site, this new quartet is called Transmissions.


Friday October 5


Los Angeles Master Chorale

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Here we start the small number of serious music offerings for this year’s Melbourne International Arts Festival.  Once again, the organization has done us proud with a heavy number of stage works, exhibitions galore, the essential rock events to drag in the crowds (but do they?), and a measly handful of serious music programs which, more often than not, turn out to be middling-to-poor quality.  This group is being touted as ‘one of the world’s leading choral ensembles of the last half century’; yet again, modesty and understatement are not proving to be part of the festival’s house directory.  The night’s content are the 20 sacred madrigals and concluding motet by Orlando di Lassus that offer expressions of Peter’s guilt at his betrayal of Christ.   As a summation of the composer’s career and his technical mastery, the work holds manifold musicological attractions; director Peter Sellars seems to have got the LA singers to memorize the work and do some acting to illustrate its passions.   The experience lasts 75 minutes, with no interval.

This program will be repeated on Saturday October 6.


Saturday October 6


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

For the Festival, Tan Dun is back to conduct this substantial work in its Australian premiere from the MSO and Chorus.  It’s a joint commission from the Dresdner Musikfestspiele, New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic and the MSO.  The title promises a paradox but is the composer’s contribution to world music by way of being the first passion to use the teachings of the Buddha.  This exercise is the fruit of two years spent in the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang in Gansu Province.   No half-steps here: the work lasts 2 1/2 hours with a 20 minute interval and the texts will be sung in Chinese and Sanskrit.   Which is asking for a good deal from those of us with a wafer-thin scraping of Tourist Mandarin.  While not looking for impediments to any true minds’ marriage, I can’t help wondering about the efficacy of this enterprise, the most serious question being the attempted fusion of Christ and Buddha.  Would you feel any different if faced with a title like Jesus Diamond Sutra, or does that smack too much of the flirtations of loutish rock-stars with Oriental philosophy?   Best not to overthink; after all, it’s Festival time.


Monday October 8


Van Diemen’s Band

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

This period ensemble, new to me, is under the direction of Julia Fredersdorff, doyenne of the Peninsula Summer Music Festival for the last 11 years and leading light of the trio Latitude 37.   This Festival contribution is a 90-minute one-night-stand, no interval, featuring the music of Corelli (one of the concerti grossi from Op. 6), a concerto grosso from Geminiani’s Op. 3, a sinfonia each from the two Scarlattis, and Boccherini’s Guitar Quintet No. 9 (yes , that tired old La Ritirata di Madrid).  Pride of place, however, goes to music by Nicola Fiorenza, a sparsely documented and historically shadowy Neapolitan writer of the 18th century’s first half; the Band will play three of his cello concertos, although I only know of one in F Major and another in A Major.   As for the other writers, I was unaware of Corelli’s connection to Naples;  Geminiani certainly spent three years there; both father and son Scarlatti are inextricably linked with the city; I can’t find any reference to Boccherini ever visiting the place.   But, once again: it’s holiday time – let’s not get bogged down in pedantry and facts.   As for the Band’s personnel (as set out in the organization’s web-site), most of them are unknown to me – as is the greater part of Tasmania itself.  Some familiar faces are Laura Vaughan on gamba, double bass Kirsty McCahon, violinist Lucinda Moon, and lutenist Simon Martyn-Ellis.  The other 14 members occupy yet another O’Connell terra incognita.


Thursday October 11


Victorian Opera

Palais Theatre, St. Kilda at 7:30 pm

Not the most invigorating night, even if the opera has stretches of unadulterated magic.  Fortunately, the whole is greater than its parts and I’m sorry to be missing out on seeing (and hearing, more importantly) what the state company makes of this neglected work.  As the self-deludedly cuckolded Golaud, Samuel Dundas gets to exercise his rich bass.  Pelleas, Golaud’s younger brother, will be sung by Angus Wood who strikes me as being on the robust side for this shadowy work.   Siobhan Stagg sings Melisande; Liane Keegan takes on Genevieve, the mother of Pelleas and Golaud who gets to sing one of the few sustained passages of solo work in the opera.   Sophia Wasley appears in the short-pants role of the child Yniold and David Parkin works his magic as the chronic valetudinarian, Arkel.  The company’s artistic director, Richard Mills, conducts; Elisabeth Hill directs.

The opera will be repeated on Saturday October 13.


Thursday October 11


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

The MSO’s principal violist and ex-principal with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Moore is being given a time in the sun after an impressive career (so far) of excellent performance on his instrument coloured by some eminently forgettable hairstyles.   Like Dale Barltrop and one-time co-Concertmaster Eoin Anderson, this prominent member of the orchestral cast gets to direct and star in his own program which begins with the Brahms Serenade No. 2, the one that omits violins so their larger cousins get all the exposure.   Moore takes up the soloist’s responsibilities with Associate Concertmaster Sophie Rowell for the glowing Sinfonia Concertante K. 364 of Mozart.  Sandwiched between these glories comes the world premiere of Iain Grandage’s All the World’s a Stage which you’d expect would be for chamber orchestral forces and have something to do with Jaques – or is that hoping for too much directness of reference?   At the moment, I can’t find any solid information about it.

This program will be repeated on Friday October 12 in Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University..


Monday October 15

Silkroad Ensemble

Hamer Hall at 7 pm

This ensemble has been supporting one of the Festival’s big drawcards: the Azerbaijani dance-opera, Layla and Manjun.   Silkroad was established by cellist Yo-Yo Ma but the publicity for this event makes it quite clear that the great man himself will not be appearing.   We are given the repertoire for this occasion which includes traditional music from Vietnam, China and Tibet along with material composed by modern writers: suona/shen expert Wu Tong, clarinettist Tony Scott, pianist Gabriela Lena Frank, violinist Colin Jacobsen, shakuhachi/electronics exponent Kojiro Umezaki.   Composer (from where?) Sapo Perakaskero’s most famous work, Turceasca, will provide the finale, informed by the input or presence of the Romani/Romanian ensemble Taraf de Haidouks.  Also, somewhere along the way, Chick Corea’s Spain comes in for Silkroad treatment.  The list of musicians who have participated in the ensemble’s work since its founding is large and some of those mentioned above are notated collaborators.   Now, I hate to be a leveler but it all sounds to me a lot like the sort of thing Phillip Glass did here at Melbourne Festivals some decades ago: give us a sample of musics from all over the place and expect applause for finding a communality of spirituality, despite cultural differences.  Good luck with that.


Wednesday October 17


Selby & Friends

Tatoulis Auditorium, Methodist Ladies College, Kew at 7:30 pm

Sadly, the title gives away the night’s main handicap: Piazzolla’s The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, which I’ve heard too many times by now to be tolerant.   The famed tango writer put together a suite that shows that BA is mono-seasonal; there’s no difference between any of the movements.   Still, you can always sit back and admire the standard of play from pianist Kathryn Selby and her guests for tonight – violinist Alexandre Da Costa-Graveline who is currently working at Edith Cowan University in Perth, and Sydney Symphony Orchestra principal cello Umberto Clerici.    Apart from the Piazzolla, the group joins up for Mendelssohn in D minor while the solos will be Debussy’s Cello Sonata – all 11 minutes of it – and the Falla Canciones Populares which seems to be an arrangement for violin and piano from one already organised by Falla and Paul Kochanski that sprang out of the Siete canciones populares espanolas song-cycle.   Or it could be the same authorised arrangement under another name.   If that’s the case, then it’s about the same length as the Debussy.  Not that such a matter should be a consideration in chamber music-making of this quality, particularly as this will be S&F’s last Melbourne appearance this year.


Saturday October 20

Andras Schiff

Hamer Hall at 7 pm

Once again, Musica Viva comes to the Festival’s rescue with a real star.   The organization is offering special access to the Hungarian-born pianist’s presence with a post-performance reception/celebration on the Hamer Hall stage.   Or you could attend the pianist’s masterclass at the Australian National Academy of Music on Friday October 19 at 2 pm.   Or you could have a gourmet lunch with matched wines somewhere down the Mornington Peninsula, although I can’t work out whether Schiff is also going down the freeway for this expensive fund-raising exercise.   What about the music?  He’s giving a different program in Sydney two days after this one, but we score Mendelssohn’s F sharp minor Fantasy and, speaking of F sharp, the Beethoven Sonata No. 24, A Therese.  Then, in case you hadn’t heard enough from Paul Lewis, a swag of Brahms: the Eight Piano Pieces Op. 76, followed by the Seven Fantasias Op. 116 which I don’t think I’ve heard live for many years.   Icing on the cake comes through the final Bach English Suite.  This is Schiff’s first appearance here in over 20 years and, even if he has cut a few neo-Fascist countries from his visiting schedule, you ought to take this chance to hear him live; he’s 64 and, about now, long-distance travel becomes unattractive, if not irksome.


Tuesday October 23

Tasmin Little & Piers Lane

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Even for a Brit, Little’s life, achievements and activities seem to be remarkably home-based.   So we should be more than happy that she has broached the Channel and made it out here.   Her associate is very well-known if mainly as a concerto soloist and solo recitalist.   The duo is offering one major masterwork in Franck’s Violin Sonata in A: a real duet with pitfalls all over the place and a finale to lift you out of your seat with something close to elation – on a good night.  The other interesting piece is Szymanowski’s D minor Violin Sonata, first performed by Kochanski (see above under Wednesday October 17) and Artur Rubinstein; well, it was probably a patriotic duty at the time for all concerned.  The rest comprises encore material: Kats-Chernin’s Russian Rag Revisited, the Ravel Piece en forme de Habanera, Brahms’s Scherzo contribution to that hybrid F-A-E Sonata, and – somewhat longer –  the Schubert Sonatina in D, the easiest of the composer’s three sonatas in this format.


Thursday October 25


Opera Australia

Merlyn Theatre, Coopers Malthouse at 7 pm

It’s been a long while between drinks with regard to this piece.  The last time I saw it was in 1983 at St. Martin’s Theatre in South Yarra when it was presented by the Victoria State Opera.   Now, the work is enjoying a resurrection at the hands of the national company, currently under the artistic direction of the first exponent of the hero Gregor in Brian Howard’s take on Kafka.  This time around, Gregor will be sung by Sydney baritone Simon Lobelson who, as far as I can find out, has made absolutely no mark in Melbourne.   Julie Lea Goodwin sings Greta, Gregor’s sister.   Christopher Hillier and Taryn Fiebig are Gregor’s parents, Adrian Tamburini the noisome Chief Clerk, while Benjamin Rasheed will be the Lodger, standing in for the original novella’s three gentlemen boarders.  Paul Fitzsimon conducts and Tama Matheson directs.  Full marks to the company for this revival of  Howard’s score and Steven Berkoff’s libretto; it’s a tight, percussion-rich drama which copes with the Czech author’s naturalistic nightmare world utilising memorable subtlety.

The opera will be repeated on Friday October 26 at 7 pm, and again on Saturday October 27 at 2 pm.


Thursday October 25


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

Yes, the whole ballet;  even those dull bits where nobody does much memorable except go to sleep, change the lighting, move the scenery.   Still, the big attraction here is watching Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekke Saraste at work on this lavish post-impressionist relic of the Rimsky school which stretches to about 50 minutes.   Dejan Lazic makes his debut appearance with the MSO, enjoying the central role in Bartok’s remembrance-of-things-past Piano Concerto No. 3.   Also, we are treated to a real Stravinsky curiosity in the Funeral Song: written in 1909 as a memorial after Rimsky’s death, played only once, then lost until a clean-out of the St Petersburg Conservatory Library three years ago.  Recordings have failed to rouse much excitement, although Alex Ross of The New Yorker sees it as a revelatory work in the context of what was to follow.  Maybe so; to me, the influences are all too clear, the orchestration clever-clever, the emotional content bordering on bathos.

This program will be repeated on Saturday October 27 at 2 pm


Friday October 26


Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

The night ends with these magnificent studies, immensely demanding for any artist and a labour of love to present in one hit.   But that’s apparently what ANAM’s resident keyboard guru, Timothy Young, intends to do.   Beforehand, we enjoy some petit pois.  A pair of ANAM musicians will play the not-quite-two minutes Petite piece for clarinet and piano and the more substantial and contemporaneous Premiere rhapsodie for the same coupling.  Then comes a block of piano solos in the 1890 Reveries, the 1888-91 Deux arabesques, Hommage a Haydn from 1909 and the composer’s first published piano piece  –  the utterly forgettable Danse bohemienne of 1880.   Fleshing out our experience of the composer’s chamber music will be the G minor Piano Trio which also dates from 1880 during Debussy’s time in the household of Nadezhda von Meck.   Decried as character-less juvenilia by anybody who matters, the work is inoffensive enough, if not much of an indication of future fireworks.


Sunday October 28


Team of Pianists

Glenfern, 417 Inkerman St., East St. Kilda at 3 pm

The Team’s Rippon Lea series has ended and what remain in the organization’s year are a few recitals at its home base: the National Trust demesne at Glenfern.   This afternoon, Robert Chamberlain represents the TOP, collaborating with local baroque violinist Shane Lestideau who also has an interest in Scottish folk music.   Their program begins with Telemann, a fantasie for solo violin; the theme is continued – nay elevated – with the Gigue from the Partita No. 2 by Bach – the little frivolity that precedes the colossal Chaconne in D minor.   We make a swift shift into the folk realm with some traditional violin solos from Scotland and Ireland before a lurch into O’Carolan’s Concerto and a pivot back to the baroque with A Highland Battle by James Oswald, Chamber Composer for George III, the poor lad.   Move across the North Sea for Anders Wesstrom, an Oswald contemporary, and his Variations on a Swedish polonaise for violin and piano.   The Oz bit comes with Sydney composer Alice Chance’s Saturation, a duo commissioned for the composer’s Evergreen Ensemble and premiered at the 2017 Port Fairy Music Festival.   Oh, Chamberlain will provide some as-yet unnamed solos by Bach and Ross Edwards.  Lots to hear; it could go on and on.





Not the best of Spanish nights


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Deakin Edge, Federation Square

Thursday September 4

                                                                  Michael Dahlenburg

MCO director William Hennessy pointed out in a mini-address during this concert that there isn’t much chamber orchestra music by Spanish composers.  And that’s true, if you’re talking about the big names on this program – Turina, Albeniz, Granados and Rodrigo.  But you just have to move a little outside the predictable round and there’s plenty of choice.

Much of this night’s work came in arrangement format, some of it authorised like Turina’s own string orchestra arrangement of his La oracion del torero, while other renditions sounded pretty fresh off the press, like Nicholas Buc’s setting of five pieces from the Espana suite for piano by Albeniz, and his treatment of three Danzas espanolas by Granados, also originally for piano,  The evening’s guest, Christoph Denoth, contributed to the festivities with his own arrangement for guitar and strings of Joaquin Malats’ Serenata which was originally composed as a piano solo before being hijacked by Tarrega for the delectation of guitarist the world over. What was achieved by Denoth’s revisiting?  Not much, although the string orchestra interludes proved welcome.

Even the two unaccompanied solos from Denoth were transcriptions, albeit famous ones, of two more piano originals: Leyenda (known to most of us as Asturias) and Torre bermeja, both by Albeniz.  Boil it all down and the only ‘clear’ content in this bitty entertainment arrived with Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, which concluded the program.

You could find little wrong with the Turina, lightly laced with some solos and a few brief excursions for string quartet with only a few traces of intonation problems near the last pages.  All fine, if you can mask your lack of sympathy for a blood sport aficionado; despite Turina’s mixture of religiosity and bravado, I’d always back the bull, just on the off-chance that justice prevails.

As inferred above, the Malats piece neither suffered nor gained from its transposition.  It’s a salon composition, a picture of Spain for export without any sign of individuality or colour.   More to the point, it was hard to see what Denoth gained by having a pretty bland string backdrop, particularly when you take into account his undemonstrative style of delivery which put the solo instrument pretty often in the background.  A stage hand positioned a microphone on Denoth’s playing podium but, if it was meant to help with amplification rather than recording, it failed of its promise.

Parts of the Espana were suited to re-planning, like the well-worn Tango and the Capricho catalan.  While much of Buc’s re-staging made for easy work, director Hennessy seemed to be dragging his cohorts into line during a hard-fought Preludio and coping with the awkward, non-catchy 5/8 tempo of the concluding Zortzico.    Still, at least you got a slight taste of the music’s Hispanic roots; later, in the Spanish Dances of Granados, matters weren’t so hearty.  In fact, during the first – an alleged fandango –  it struck me that the music could have come from anywhere, possibly even England at the time of the folk-song collectors like Holst and Vaughan-Williams.  It wasn’t the St. Paul’s Suite, but it impressed this listener as a close cousin.

Whether this impression of blandness in colour came from the original work or Buc’s clean-lines scoring, it’s hard to determine.  Once again, Hennessy seemed to be dragging his violins onward during the second selection (the famous Andaluza) while the final piece chosen – the No. 6 jota – was distinguished by some quartet work at its centre but little else.

Denoth’s two Albeniz solos proved questionable.  The repeated notes of Asturias gained some comrades as the player struck a few open strings that were better left alone.  Further, you missed the slashing power of the full-blooded chords that interrupt the piece’s driving moto perpetuo.  The Torre bermeja hardly fared better, as the chief impression that it left was of difficulty and awkwardness, as though the player was struggling to handle its intricacies.

The Rodrigo concerto enjoyed a few successful stretches, mainly in the central Adagio.  Michael Dahlenburg left the cello ranks to conduct, Molly Kadarauch coming on to flesh out the numbers.  From the start, Denoth presented a studied, laboured reading in which some notes simply disappeared, most noticeably in the decrescendo before the first movement’s cello solo.  The uncertainties continued with some awkward scale passages and misjudged rasgueado chords.  In the second movement, it was hard to fault the first cadenza, but just as hard to warm to the second one; in the build-up to this latter, I suspect that Denoth lost his place.

The weakest of the concerto’s movements, its concluding Allegro gentile, did little to help the guest’s strike rate.    Instead of striking a neat balance between courtly sprightliness and earthy vigour, the reading proved pedestrian, although you quickly learned to look forward to Dahlenburg’s tuttis.  The soloist was in all sorts of strife, to the point where some of the anticipated orchestral cueing-in became a matter of (informed) luck as expected flurries failed to start on time or continue; at one point, Denoth made no attempt at a particularly active scale run.   Full marks, then,  to the young conductor for shepherding his forces through what is a spectacularly transparent score.

Now we find out (Saturday morning) that the guest soloist was ill, his place being taken this afternoon at the Recital Centre by Slava Grigoryan.  I’m sorry to hear it, of course, but why wasn’t the Australian guitarist brought in before this particular night?  And if not him, then his brother or one of a plethora of local guitarists who would have nearly all these items – the Malats Serenata, perhaps not – under his/her belt?

At all events, Denoth hopes to be able to fulfil the other calls on this program’s tour – Warragul, Daylesford, Bairnsdale, Frankston – over the coming week.  Good luck to him and I hope he is heard to fine effect in those cities/towns.  But what we heard on Thursday last was sadly disappointing and – as it now seems – unnecessary.






A night at the coal-face


Mimir Chamber Music Festival

Melba Hall, University of Melbourne

August 31

                                                                  Caroline Almonte

For the second of the Mimir demonstration recitals – where young Melbourne music-students can see and hear how to penetrate the mysteries of chamber music by watching solid professionals at work – the organizers set a high concentration bar.   Not that it seemed that way on paper – a Sibelius scrap, a two-piano romp by Rachmaninov, the first of Beethoven’s last five string quartets – but, as the evening turned out, each work made for hard going.  Not that this was entirely due to the players, who worked both manfully and womanfully to reach their interpretative goals.

For example, the combination of violinist Curt Thompson, violist Joan DerHovsepian and cellist Brant Taylor performed the Sibelius G minor String Trio – what there is of it because only one of the projected three movements, a Lento,  was completed.  The bardic element is strong with a plethora of unison/octave writing and slow-moving harmonic progressions, a fine set of excursions for the cello and a mood-setting sequence of single-note crescendi for the upper strings.

I’m not sure that this set of Mimir personnel fitted the bill ideally.  Thompson projects a finely shaped line which sang out intermittently over a hefty bass from Taylor while DerHovsepian’s usually strong, forthright contribution impressed as unusually recessive – until you looked at the piece itself which is not much of a gift to the viola.  The effect was of an inner imbalance of dynamic address with the bass line taking on an unexpected prominence.

Still, hearing a string trio these days is something of a rarity and it takes some time to adapt to the absence of a second violin.  This is compounded when the passage of play is about 7 minutes long; you adjust to the three layers easily enough.  But then, with a late Romantic efflorescence like this bagatelle, the temptation arises to mentally flesh out chords and melodies-with-accompaniment; a pointless occupation and a distraction, at best.  At the end, this movement served as little more than a brief curtain-raiser, competently delivered if unexceptional in impact.  I know you can’t expect masterpieces like the Webern Op. 20 or the Schoenberg Op. 45 to pop up every time a string trio is mooted but this gambit failed to impress for several reasons, not the least being its actual content

Speaking of distractions, the following run-through of Rachmaninov;’s Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos set my teeth on edge for all the wrong reasons.  Melbourne musician Caroline Almonte teamed with visitor John Novacek for this flamboyant exercise but her page-turner was ill-prepared for the experience, doing her job too early for Almonte or failing to move quickly enough.  And this is not a work where mechanical slip-ups can be ignored, particularly in the outer movements, Alla marcia and Tarantella, let alone the rapid second-movement Waltz.

Coping with this problem meant much more to Almonte than to any of us observers, yet it made for an enervating 20 minutes or so.   I assume that the turner was faced with a score that had both parts set out and she underwent considerable confusions separating Almonte’s part from the other; matters weren’t helped for her by the performers using different editions.   Whatever the case, the work’s progress often took on the character of a slug-fest, which is partly the composer’s fault because much of the writing involves massive doubling which gives rise to an ongoing heftiness.  Sure, there are more relaxed passages where the texture cuts back as at Figure 4 in the Muzgiz 1948 edition of the first movement, and later after the fff explosion at Figure 14 where the dynamic scales back radically to an unexpectedly placid ending.

Even the headlong finale has bouts of relative quiescence; after the initial quick contrast between pp and ff,  Rachmaninov lets up at Figure 16 for some restrained skipping before bursting back to the normal operating condition of hectoring.  This interpolation of potentially air-filled relief recurs twice more before the rhythm piles hemiolas on its 6/8 pulse and the performers head for an emphatic home stretch.  It could be exhilarating but the overwhelming sensation at the suite’s end was of relief.

Nevertheless, Almonte and Novacek showed excellent synchronicity and responsiveness in the extended Romance, especially in the long stretch from Figure 2 to the key-change at Figure 5 which saw the interpretation reach a peak of consistent mutual sympathy that recurred later on with an interchanging of elaborate right hand decorative material, the whole urging towards a powerful D flat/A flat outburst at the movement’s climax.  This was a purple patch, lushly eloquent and delivered with a convincing amplitude of balanced timbres.

After interval, the program moved back into familiar Mimir mode with the Beethoven Op. 127 expounded by violinists Jun Iwasaki and Stephen Rose, DerHovsepian and Taylor.  Does anybody else find that this is the most mentally exhausting of these late works?  Yes, it follows the usual four-movement format, unlike most of the following constructs, but it raises mental sweat at every turn through its relentless tension, especially the demands on the first violinist, the onward drive that seems to stop and start – the Baroque flourish of the opening bars and their recurrence in medias res, for instance – and the juggernaut approach to texture that comes to a head in the finale.

This was a hard-fought engagement, each player stretched if none more so than Iwasaki, notably in the wrenching – and I don’t mean emotionally – Adagio where the first violin sets the running and, with precious few interludes, has no break; rather, the part is an exhaustion in the Andante central 20 bars before the key change to E Major.   And the succeeding movements’ working-out becomes an intellectual onslaught as Beethoven launches into no-compromise mode, most noticeable in the finale where even the great performer-quartets are exercised to just negotiate the notes, caught up as we all are in an inventive maelstrom that stupefies by its single-mindedness.

No one can claim that this airing was flawless, although it held together rhythmically through all stages.  The finicky among us could point to intonational flaws and an occasional tension-easing interpolated hiatus.  But the players threw themselves into the score without reserve, giving of their best in a work that looks so sensible on paper while bringing it into sound presents a world of problems.  In the best possible way, this experience showed those young players in attendance (and there were many more on this night than had been present for the first in this series two days before) that the task of interpreting a masterwork involves a dedication to hard work – and that process never stops.







A fair shot at a moving target


Melbourne Opera

Athenaeum Theatre

Saturday August 11

                                              Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss

Continuing a newly-established practice of taking on difficult tasks, Melbourne Opera balanced its Wagner aspirations with this flamboyant masterpiece that celebrates an ancien regime unconsciously teetering on  the brink of destruction.  The complete turn-about from Strauss’s days as a significant contemporary voice, Der Rosenkavalier is a repertoire staple, popular well beyond its merits and, amid its inbuilt gems, a hard farce to stage without resorting to crudity or awkwardness.

And it comes with several historical incubi, chief among them the filmed performance of 1961 with Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and State Opera Chorus with a once-in-a-lifetime cast of Schwarzkopf, Jurinac, Rothenberger, Edelmann and Erich Kunz in Paul Czinner’s faultlessly fitted production.  We’ve seen several live Melbourne performances – only a few – and nothing on the Viennese scale.  But, naturally, you adjust your expectations.

MO’s director for this enterprise, Tama Matheson, has taken it as his mission to bring Ochs back to the centre of the action.  Yes, you can see how that may need doing in times when the Marschallin and Octavian have attracted all the attention as far as advertising is concerned, as well as a concentration by enthusiasts on the Presentation and the final trio chunks.   Matheson is quite right to pull the pretentious oaf back under the limelight: Ochs sets up the whole mess and his presence in each of the three acts is a constant infusion of vitality, if not the humour that creators Hofmannsthal and Strauss wanted to obtain  .  .  .  well, it sort of does but only if you’re prepared to go along a few miles with the dramatic situation.

Daniel Sumegi has little trouble in making Ochs the production’s central focus.  His production is hard to fault for clarity, elasticity and breadth of volume, making him more than a match for David Kram’s over-encouraged pit.  As the character is meant to, Sumegi dominated every ensemble point in which he was involved and he has enough experience to know not to bray, although it was a near thing in the Act 1 duet with the Marschallin’s lawyer over the levee’s ferment.

For the most part, this Ochs stayed the right side of unbridled crudity; any deviations struck me as due to the bass’s direction rather than the singer’s own choice.  But, while you could take pleasure in the self-obsession of Ochs’ Act 1, and the vulgarity of his wooing and wounding in Act 2,  the best came in the later stages of the final act where the hurly-burly was done and the character has to be coerced into a graceless withdrawal.  This showed fine fidelity to the libretto’s intentions, without allowing for any diminution in misplaced self-assurance.

For all that, the use of Ochs as a substitute for the Marschallin’s blackamoor in the last skittering bars impressed as a step too far in promoting the character’s primacy, simply because the music runs counter to director Matheson’s staged action at this point.

Lee Abrahmsen sang a fully assured Marschallin, her opening act a fine balance of indulgence and self-awareness at the Da geht er hin soliloquy, which was all the more welcome for its avoidance of over-intensity.  This soprano, like Sumegi, cut through an ensemble with assurance and – wonder of wonders – kept herself on an even keel in the Hab mir’s gelobt trio rather than dynamically towering over the other singers.

Yet in this last act, where the Marschallin’s entry stills all that chaos, the sense of presence and domination didn’t come across, possibly because Abrahmsen appeared to view the whole scene as an affront to middle-class sensibilities, as though she was looking at people behaving badly and finding it all beneath her.   But I think that Marie Therese is much more warm-hearted and accepting than this, tolerant of others’ foibles because she knows she’s imperfect herself and, if she smiles, it’s in self-recognition as well as amusement.

As Octavian, Danielle Calder worked to achieve a creditable success rate, her anticipated youthful enthusiasm exercised to fine effect in the opening scene, although even a convincing actor finds it hard to avoid suggestions of silliness in the Marschallin’s bedroom activity.  It might have been Kram’s baton in over-active play but it struck me that the Mir ist die Ehre address could have been given with more deliberation; it’s a great moment and should be relished by all concerned.

But Calder did the Mariandel persona quite straight, without cheap laughs as she avoided the Baron’s gropes, and managing the chase-round-the-brothel games with restraint.  Mind you, enough was going on here – onstage and in the Athenaeum’s Juliet balconies – to cover any vocal awkwardness and the exchanges after the Baron’s discomfiture and exit with both of the character’s love interests enjoyed rapid treatment compared to some previous experiences I’ve endured with this uncomfortably self-regarding dialogue.

Anna Voshege sang Sophie, the ingenue who grows up quickly across the opera’s small time-span.  Admittedly, her diction persisted in being unclear  but complaining that you can’t understand the words during an opera sung in English suggests to me a lack of preparation.

You can’t come to occasions like this and expect to be able to decipher everything; you have to do your homework.  People sit through Rigoletto or Götterdämmerung and don’t have an inkling about the meaning of what they’re hearing.  No: if you’re going to the opera, you can’t expect the experience to be as facile as watching Jersey Boys or Kinky Boots.

Voshege milked Act 2 for all it was worth; and so she should because she’s on stage and an active participant for most of its length.  She managed to get through the initial In dieser feierlichen Stunde right up to Denn das ist ja so schon with plenty of vivacity, even in the more sober strophes of her self-revelation.  Later, the duet  beginning Ich kenn Ihn schon recht wohl proved to be one of the more deftly contrived stretches of the entire production, thanks to the conviction and display of personality from each singer.

Among the rest of the cast, Simon Meadows made a determined Faninal, even if he looked improbably young for the role.  Andrea Creighton took to the limelight with gusto during her excited commentary on the approach of the Rose-bearer; just the other side of over-the-top, but why not?   John Pickering and Caroline Vercoe wove themselves into each act with distinction; this Valzacchi and Annina weathered every change of direction and profited from each one with just enough intrusiveness.  Matthew Thomas gave excellent pedantry as the Marschallin’s attorney on loan to the Baron.  Henry Choo made a fair essay at the Italian Singer’s two stanzas but might have been better advised not to attempt a Pavarotti impersonation, simply because that brought to mind the pure glory of the Italian tenor’s delineation of this all-too-brief role.

Lucy Wilkins ensured that the cast were suitably dressed, even if the costuming confused with its alternation between the original time-setting of the 1740s and something resembling the early decades of the last century.   Christina Logan-Bell made sure that the sets allowed space for plenty of mobile population in the outer acts, although the nightmares that beset Ochs near the end were clumsily executed, to the point where you weren’t sure where to look or which group was representing what.

The chief talking point of the production itself was the physical presentation of Ochs as a Trump caricature.  This proved enjoyable up to a point but I think most of us at this matinee performance were more entertained by the finale when Sumegi took off the wig to reveal total baldness – not because of any implied political commentary but because the character abruptly moved to a more satisfying and attractive level, devoid of clumsy satire and more in line with what Hofmannsthal wanted –  a Bavarian bully and bore getting his comeuppance.

Much of the chorus work worked well enough in Act 3 although this was the stretch of music-making that raised questions.  The ferment is pretty fierce as Strauss piles up his action but, even before this, the brass showed signs of fatigue and the pit’s responsiveness before the opera’s sinking-back to placidity in its last pages seemed under-rehearsed, if not downright scrappy.  Still, this is a difficult work to handle, particularly in a theatre of small proportions and a good deal of the first two-thirds of the score came off quite creditably.

A final note on this point.   Perhaps the production might have been better suited to the company’s other venues, like the Palais in St. Kilda or the Regent across the road.

For sure, Melbourne Opera can be reasonably content with its work on Strauss’s sugary confection but the experience was something of an uphill battle where it seemed to me that nobody except Sumegi was completely comfortable in coping with the work’s musical demands.

There are two final performances on Wednesday August 15 and Friday November 17, both nights starting at 7:30 pm.


September Diary

Sunday September 2


The Melbourne Musicians

St. John’s Southgate at 3 pm

This is what I call putting your guests to work.   Frank Pam and his chamber orchestra play hosts to violinists Miki Tsunoda and Anne Harvey-Nagl in a wealth of concertos, and not just the famous double ones from Vivaldi and Bach, welcome though these are.   The Bach coupling is the famous D minor BWV 1043 – to my generation, coloured by the Olympian security of the 1962 recording by Oistrakh father and son.   The Vivaldi double in A minor Op 3 No. 8 will be familiar to organists as that transcribed by Bach for their instrument as BWV 593.   Also being aired is Bach’s Overture in A minor, possibly taken from an earlier version of the Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, only with solo violin rather than solo flute.   The Vivaldi fest continues with the Concerto for two violins and cello in D minor.  And there’s more: a Concerto ripieno in C (possible RV 115), a sinfonia in G (RV 146? 147? 149?) and individual concertos (presumably for violin and strings) in E minor (take your pick of 10 possibles) and A Major (18 potentials here).


Sunday September 2


Mimir Chamber Music Festival

Faculty of Music, University of Melbourne at 3 pm

The last in this fine if brief series of masterclasses and concerts begins with the Schubert Quartet in E flat; yes, I don’t know it, either.  A student work, this quartet has been referred to as ‘No. 10’, which infers a preceding job-lot that remain pretty well unplayed these days.  As for Brahms, Mimir presents the Piano Quintet in F minor, a masterpiece of the form and one of the composer’s towering chamber music achievements.   As well, Mimir fleshes out our knowledge of American music with the String Quartet No. 1 by George Walker, a composer/pianist/academic of high distinction with a sackful of ‘firsts’ to his name, including being the first African-American to receive a Pulitzer Prize and various professorships at several US universities.  This quartet’s second movement has enjoyed the same fate as Barber’s Adagio in being arranged for strings and thereby gaining considerable popularity and performances.


Thursday September 6


Melbourne Chamber Orchestra

Deakin Edge, Federation Square at 7:30 pm

Five big names in Spanish music feature in this program, which is conducted by Michael Dahlenburg.   The group begins with Turina’s La oracion del torero; originally written for four lutes, it enjoyed a transcription for string quartet before expansion to string orchestra costume.   Then the afternoon’s soloist, guitarist Christoph Denoth, will emerge to perform two standards of his repertoire: Albeniz’s Leyenda (Asturias to you and me) and Torre Bermeja.  He follows up with Joaquin Malats’ perky Serenata which Denoth has arranged for himself and string orchestra.  The MCO’s go-to man for custom-made material, Nicholas Buc, is enriching the occasion with some arrangements for the group: another Albeniz in Espana, originally for piano and here its six movements have all been treated except for the fourth, another Serenata; and then come three of Granados’ twelve Danzas espanolas – No 3 (Fandango), No 5 (Andaluza/Playera) and No. 6 (Rondalla aragonesa).  Finally, Denoth takes the central role in Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez which will give us a through-composed entity in an evening of Iberian scraps.

This program will be repeated on Sunday September 9 in the Melbourne Recital Centre at 2:30 pm.


Saturday September 8


Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

For this review of the British composer’s output, the Australian String Quartet is joined by some ANAM musicians.   On the preceding evening, the ASQ plays the first of the quartets, as well as the Phantasy Quartet for oboe (ANAM director Nick Deutsch) and string trio, as well as the rarely-aired Three Divertimenti for string quartet (10 minutes’ worth of March, Waltz, Burleske), with a filler of a Movement (Moderato con molto moto) for wind sextet – your basic four woodwind plus horn and bass clarinet.  This second night holds the two later quartets and the composer’s first international calling card: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, which shows what an extraordinary command of both utterance and technique had been developed by the 23-year-old composer.  Frankly, I’ve never been that keen on the final quartet’s Death in Venice debts, probably because the opera is obsessed with its own sounds, but its C major predecessor, in particular the Chacony finale, stands at the core of English compositional character.


Saturday September 8


Melbourne Bach Choir

Melbourne Recital Centre at 8 pm

While the Mozart torso stands as the fulcrum of this concert, the in memoriam theme comes through more clearly in two works by that name: Stravinsky’s short twelve-tone In memoriam Dylan Thomas for tenor, string quartet and four trombones, and Part’s equally brief Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten for strings and bell.  The choir will also sing Bach’s Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen cantata for three soloists (alto, tenor, bass), choir and small orchestra including three wind.  To compensate the soprano soloist for missing out on a role in the cantata, conductor/artistic director Rick Prakhoff has programmed Mozart’s early aria in B flat, Kommet her, ihr frechen Sunder, the composer’s last piece connected with the Passion but, sadly, not particularly memorable.   Oh, the actual singers taking on principal roles throughout this melange are soprano Jacqueline Porter, mezzo Sally-Anne Russell, tenor Andrew Goodwin, and baritone Andrew Jones.


Monday September 10


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Well, you can predict the transformed Strauss:  Metamorphosen for 23 strings that laments World War II, arranged from the composer’s short score for string septet by Rudolf Leopold.   The new-and-strange Mozart is the warm-hearted violin/viola Sinfonia Concertate reshaped by the composer into a string sextet: the Grande Sestetto Concertante.  Around these come some odd bedfellows: Dowland’s Lachrimae antiquae (first of the Lachrimae pavans collection) for five lines, the Ricercar a 6 from Bach’s A Musical Offering (the one that Webern arranged so astonishingly) and the Tristan Prelude arranged by Sebastian Gurtler – presumably the one for string sextet, not the ones he did for string orchestra or 23 solo strings.  As for participants, the scheduled violins are Helena Rathbone and Aiko Goto, viola Nicole Divall, cellos Timo-Veikko Valve and Melissa Barnard, with Maxime Bibeau on double bass.  This body can handle all the above scores except the Strauss, which needs another viola.  You can’t say the recital won’t live up to its title’s first word.


Wednesday September 12


Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

In the middle of a very active month for ANAM, the administration has assembled a quintet of notable wind players for this taxing night’s operations.   Director Nick Deutsch, contributes his oboe to the mix; the flautist is Wally Hase, from next month Professor of Flute at the University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna; Icelandic citizen Dimitri Ashkenazy, son of Vladimir, is on clarinet; Australian-born Lyndon Watts, principal bassoonist with the Munich Philharmonic, takes the bass line; Marie-Luise Neunecker, notable academic and soloist, is the group’s horn and an expert in contemporary music.  The night opens with Harald Genzmer’s Wind Quintet of 1957, moves to Hindemith’s three-movement Sonata for 4 horns of five years earlier, then takes an up-to-the-mark challenge with a new work by Israeli-Australian composer Yitzhak Yedid.   A more senior element emerges with Frank Bridge’s late Divertimenti for woodwind quartet – Prelude, Nocturne, Scherzetto, Bagatelle – and, finally, Strauss’s B flat Major Suite for 13 winds – pairs of woodwind, four horns, and a tuba or contrabassoon working away at the bottom of it all.   We’ve had the ANAM strings labouring away at Britten over the weekend; here come the wind.


Friday September 14


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

It’s hard to know what to make of this grab-bag.   The MSO under luckless Benjamin Northey starts with Stravinsky: the Pulcinella Suite which makes a virtue out of just avoiding grating dissonances and which probably works better in the theatre where it came from.   As well, Stravinsky also features later in his arrangement of the Bluebird pas de deux from Act III of Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty; 1941 wartime restrictions-determined that this re-scoring is for flute, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, pairs of trumpets and trombones, a horn, timpani, piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass.  That’s a lot of chair-moving for 5 minutes’ worth of music.   Guest artist, pianist Andrea Lam, fronts the Mendelssohn Concerto No. 1 in G minor which is full of notes.  And the night ends with Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, teetering on the last legs of Classicism but ebullient and intellectually invigorating from first note to last.   How it fits in with what’s gone before is anyone’s guess.


Friday September 14


Victorian Opera

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

The company is very proud of its forays into the Bellini oeuvre: Norma in 2014, I Puritani in 2015 and last year’s La Sonnambula.  All have been concert versions and tonight is no exception.   The company’s artistic director, Richard Mills, will conduct and the main roles feature familiar faces.   The trousers part of Romeo is entrusted to mezzo Caitlin Hulcup; the company is fortunate to attract a singer with her high reputation.  Giulietta will be taken by Jessica Pratt, who had considerable success with last year’s Bellini effort, I’m told.  Teddy Tahu Rhodes has the senior’s role of Lorenzo, the Capulet family doctor (stepping in for Friar Laurence) who concocts the idiotic sleeping potion plan.   Capellio, Juliet’s father, will be sung by David Parkin, most well-known for his 2006 triumph in Operatunity Oz, while Carlos E. Barcenas has the task of playing Tebaldo (substituting for Shakespeare’s Paris).


Saturday September 15


Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Baroque violinist Daniel Pinteno is the central artist on this program which has  geographical and temporal limits, most welcome after the ABO’s disappointing trans-Asian ramble of Karakorum.   Much of the music being performed is completely new to me but it comes from the Brandenburgers’ home territory, so high hopes are flapping in the breeze.   Pinteno will direct two Australian premieres and one world premiere, this last a sinfonia by Felix Maximo Lopez, born before Mozart but living well into the 19th century and best known as a court organist.   As for the other premieres, Vicente Basset’s eminently forgettable 5-minute Overture a piu stromenti gives the players a useful tune-up; Italian-born Caetano Brunetti’s Sinfonia in C minor is subtitled Il Maniatico, and the designated maniac is a solo cello that suffers from a musical monomania, an idee fixe from which the other orchestra members try to distract him/her.   There are two concertos from that well-known Spaniard, Vivaldi: La Notte for flute – in this instance, Sydney musician Melissa Farrow – and the Op. 3 No. 9 in D Major (one of the several that Bach transcribed), with Pinteno as soloist.   Another Italian-born musician who, like Brunetti, wound up in Spain, Giacomo Facco wrote his own L’estro armonico called Pensieri Adriarmonici from which Pinteno will perform the Concerto No. 3, notable for its 25-bar central Adagio.   And, for a further cosmopolitan touch, the ensemble plays two movements from Englishman Charles Avison’s Concerto grosso Op. 6 No. 6.   How much of this was played at the Spanish court?   I don’t know, but the aristocracy were very keen on their music, home-grown or not, and it was probably impossible in the 18th century to avoid Vivaldi the Prolific.

This program will be repeated on Sunday September 16 at 5 pm.


Sunday September 16


Team of Pianists

Rippon Lea at 6:30 pm

Team senior Darryl Coote is in for a long night as he accompanies soprano Rebecca Rashleigh and mezzo Victoria Lambourn in a series of 16 operatic excerpts.   Some of them are more than familiar: Rusalka’s Song to the Moon, Liu’s Tu che di gel sei cinta, the Offenbach Barcarolle, the Madama Butterfly Flower Duet, Humperdinck’s Evening Prayer, Tchaikovsky’s None but the lonely heart (not opera, but let it ride), and the Seguidilla from Carmen.   A few are on the cusp of arcane: Zeffiretti lusinghieri, Ilia’s aria from Mozart’s Idomeneo; Susannah’s Act 1 aria Ain’t it a pretty night from Carlisle Floyd’s popular work; Olga’s Akh, Tanya, Tanya from  Act 1 of Eugene Onegin, and the Uzh Veder duet for Lisa and Polina from the same composer’s The Queen of Spades.  But you will also hear some true rarities: Come ti piace, imponi – the duet at the opening of La clemenza di Tito; and four Rossini pieces including a duet from Bianca e Falliero, Cruda sorte marking the title character’s entry into L’Italiana in Algeri, and two non-operatic songs in Canzonetta spagnuola and its contemporary, Belta crudele.  It all adds up to four soprano solos, six for the mezzo and the same number of duets; lots of fun for everyone   –  except the hard-worked artists.


Friday September 21


Australian National Academy of Music

South Melbourne Town Hall at 7:30 pm

The Debussy celebrations continue at ANAM, if nowhere else.   An expert in the composer’s piano music, Roy Howat, is sharing the labours on this night with Timothy Young and some other ANAM musicians, although I don’t know how many others will need to be involved unless the Academy pianists have been invited to take part alongside their two seniors.   But more of that below.   The program begins with the Violin Sonata, and two other duets have been scheduled: Marche ecossaise sur un theme populaire in the original piano 4-hands version, and the two-piano three-movement suite, En blanc et noir.  The rest of the content is a collection of well-known solos: the eponymous suite, the catchy Danse, as well as the Valse romantique, Ballade, Mazurka, and the musical picture-postcard triptych of Estampes.   Now, speaking of extra ANAM instrumentalists, what sticks out from this sequence is the Sonata No. 3 (after Debussy) by Lyle Chan, who is engaged in writing those three sonatas that Debussy didn’t live long enough to compose, although he projected their instrumentation.   According to the authorities, ‘Sonata No. 3’ is, in fact, Debussy’s own Violin Sonata; the Australian Music Centre cites this recital as premiering Chan’s Sonata No. 4, which follows the French composer’s projected plan by being written for oboe, horn and harpsichord.


Friday September 21


Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 7:30 pm

No surprises here: a good old-fashioned overture-concerto-symphony format of works in the central Romantic tradition, all written within 50 years of each other.  The MSO’s Cybec Assistant Conductor Tianyu Lu gets to handle the overture, that to Smetana’s The Bartered Bride; when are we going to hear that mellifluously melodious opera again?  Then Xian Zhang takes over the podium: a triumphant night for female conductors.   As well as taking the orchestra through Dvorak’s sterling final symphony, she also will assist Benjamin Grosvenor work his way through the Schumann Piano Concerto.   Here’s hoping he has as much success with this work as he did here three years ago with that even more hard-worn warhorse, the Grieg which, like the Schumann, is a gift to young performers.

This program will be repeated on Saturday September 22 at 7:30 pm and on Monday September 24 at 6:30 pm.


Saturday September 22

Borodin Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7 pm

Path-setters for many works and a representing a formidable chamber music tradition, this body’s personnel have changed but the style remains.   Appearing once again for Musica Viva, this superbly honed ensemble is presenting a Shostakovich work in each of its two programs: No. 9 tonight and No. 15 – the last in the series – a week later.  Program 1 also holds Haydn in B minor Op. 33 No. 1 and Beethoven No. 13 in B flat for that essential infusion of gravitas.   The second night audience is treated to Tchaikovsky No. 1 with its melting Andante cantabile slow movement, while Wolf’s Italian Serenade serves as brilliant comic relief.   These are red-letter nights for enthusiasts of quartet playing and I’d expect a venue as small as the Murdoch Hall to be packed to the gills.

The Quartet will present its Program No. 2 on Saturday September 25 at 7 pm.


Saturday September 22


Ensemble Gombert

Our Lady of Victories Basilica, Camberwell at 8 pm

Concert No.2 out of three being given this year at the imposing Catholic church in Camberwell,  this endeavour by the Gomberts explores a rich mine of polyphony composed in the years before things got over-complicated.  The four composers programmed are Josquin, Pierre de la Rue, Verdelot and Compere – all contemporaries, imposing presences in the French and Franco-Flemish compositional worlds.   Josquin is represented by one work, the motet Absalon fili mi, which has been attributed to de la Rue – but never mind: it’s all in together for  this night’s family.   Verdelot also features with only one work: another six-voice motet, Ave sanctissima Maria which has also been attributed to that gadabout, de la Rue.   The real de la Rue compositions are the six-voice Pater de caelis Deus and the canon-crazy Missa Ave sanctissima Maria.   Compere’s Galeazescha, written for Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza of Milan, is another form of mass, but one comprising Marian motets rather than following the usual Ordinary format.   Here is the sort of music-making in which this exemplary ensemble shines: scholarly and transporting.


Thursday September 27


Paul Lewis

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

Taking his place in the Recital Centre’s series of Great Performers, British pianist Lewis is giving us yet another of his highly individual recitals which, although featuring great composers, head towards the more arcane stretches of their output.  The Bagatelles are not problematic in the same fashion as Beethoven’s late sonatas are; for one thing, they’re comparatively pithy.   But that’s part of the reason why most pianists ignore them – no long melodic spread in which to bathe your listeners and not enough amplitude of brusqueness to keep them satisfied.   As for the Brahms Four Piano Pieces Op. 119, most of us would find it hard to remember when last we heard the first three of them, all intermezzi, while the concluding Rhapsody is a tremendous challenge in distributing the weight between the fingers, let alone the hands; most interpreters are happy enough to belt the pages, making a single-minded virtue out of their risoluto direction.   In between these, Lewis plays two Haydn sonatas: Hob XVI. 49 and Hob XVI. 32, both of which he has recently recorded for Harmonia Mundi as part of a project to set down the composer’s total sonata output.  Still, this all adds up to a bit over an hour’s worth of performance time.

There’s another similar recital on October 1, of which more details later.


Friday September 28

MOZART 39, 40 & 41

Australian National Academy of Music Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre at 7:30 pm

They don’t come more focused than this.   Guest conductor Douglas Boyd led the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra through the complete Beethoven symphonic cycle at the Town Hall six years ago in a memorable series, and he has been a pretty regular visitor since that time.   Here, he takes the ANAM forces through the final three symphonies of Mozart, all from 1788 and foundation stones of the Western musical tradition.  Yes, of course the musicians can play the scores but it will be a burning question as to how far Boyd can take his (mainly) young charges in produndity of interpretation, especially considering the brief period that he has to work with them, although he won’t have to be concerned with imparting broad technical details.   A feast for the intellect, being confronted by works that set off sparks from first bar to last.   As well, the dedicated can compare this reading of No. 41 with the MSO’s version on Friday September 14.


Sunday September 30


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall at 2:30 pm

In 1998, the 16-year-old Ilya Gringolts won first prize at the Genoa Paganini Competition.  Naturally, we’ll all be more than a little interested to hear what he makes of the Italian master-violinists’s Concerto No. 1, even if it comes in an arrangement by Bernard Rofe which will probably reduce the score to fit the ACO string personnel, leaving out the original’s six woodwind and five brass.   As well, Gringolts will participate in Vivaldi’s Concerto for violin and 2 cellos in C with ACO principal Timo-Veikko Valve and his long-time second, Julian Thompson, as co-sharers of the work’s limelight.   Gringolts begins his afternoon/evening with a C.P.E. Bach String Symphony in C, presumably the third of the Wq. 182 series of six    The program ends with Bartok’s Divertimento of 1939, which was part of the first ACO concert in 1975; will be interesting to see what the guest director/soloist makes of it.

This program is repeated on Monday October 1 at 7:30 pm.








A trying journey


Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday August 4

                                                                  Mokrane Adlani

This night began with a bang: a haunting, rhapsodic troubadour song in Occitan, the vocal line soaring over a single bass-note support.  As a setting-up of this night’s structure, you could hardly ask for better.   But, from then on, the creative inspiration flagged and what we wound up experiencing failed to sustain this opening promise.

Karakorum, the capital city of Mongolia founded by Genghis Khan, was the end-point of a two-year mission undertaken in 1253 by Franciscan monk William of Rubruck who was chosen to travel to that distant metropolis with the aim of converting the ruler, Mongke Khan (Genghis’s grandson) and as many other non-believers as he could.  Through the long journey, William recorded his impressions but made remarkably few converts.

This entertainment, devised by Cambodian-born Khai-Dong Luong, is a show-piece for the French ensemble La Camera delle Lacrime which specialises in music of the 12th and 13th centuries.  But La Camera does not just perform excerpts from this neglected trove: the ensemble puts its music into historical perspective; in this instance, following William’s travel routes to and from Mongolia.

La Camera brought six musicians to the Brandenburg party: singer Bruno Bonhoure, violinist/vocalist Mokrane Adlani, kamanche expert Martin Bauer, percussionist Michele Claude, vocalist and erhu player Yan Li, flute/hurdy-gurdy/cornamuse player Christophe Tellart.  Paul Dyer kept a low profile behind his chamber organ while his fellow-Brandenburgers were all strings:  violinists Shaun Lee-Chen, Matt Bruce and Ben Dollman, with bass violin Jamie Hey.  Helping the visiting singers along their paths were five male members of the ABO Choir.

Playing William, dressed in a Franciscan habit, Australian actor David Wenham recited a narrative which took us from Constantinople and back again (well, a tentative launch onto the return road) with a few dramatic frissons along the way.   He wasn’t amplified, which didn’t matter to those of us near the front, but might have proved irritating to patrons in the balcony because of the occasional volume drop at the end of sentences.

But, despite Wenham’s function as a focus for the Karakorum story, the night’s attention focused on Bonhoure, the Camera’s music director and, for all intents and purposes, the fulcrum of this concert’s action.  His voice featured in most of the works heard and his positioning on stage, allied with his physical movement, meant that he attracted your eyes and ears almost continuously.  Some relief came with a Mongolian chant sung by Yan Li and a Sufi one from Adlani, which provided a fine complement to Bonhoure’s opening troubadour song.

Most of this night’s music has been recorded by the Camera with only two extra items inserted for this tour: a Gregorian Credo which only lasted up to Et homo factus est; and a concluding Kyrgyzstan melody, With hearts high, to bring the monk’s odyssey to a rousing conclusion.

The projected duration of this concert was 80 minutes; in fact, it lasted for 100 and I was pretty tired by the end.   Yes, the narrative interludes had their moments, although Wenham gave little suggestion of character to William who presented as yet another naif like Diver Dan or Faramir.   But then, the actor was handicapped in his personification because the whole original exercise, devised by Louis IX, was doomed from the start: William himself was unprepared  –  he made so few converts because he didn’t speak any of the languages of the lands through which he travelled.   He preached, but who understood?

As for sustaining most of the vocal brunt of Karakorum, Bonhoure does not have a particularly interesting voice and, while agreeable enough, it remains one-dimensional, displaying little ability to change timbres.  After the initial beguiling Austorg d’Aurillac song, he opened the Sufi chant Loving the beauty of Layla with a counter-tenor falsetto, articulating lots of same-note phrases in this lover’s plaint while the ABO vocal quintet gave him a monosyllabic drone support.  This sounded mildly exotic yet  bland.  Another troubadour song passed by without much effect.  By contrast, in his vocal work, Adlani projected a less well-honed product but his vocalising sounded more convincing, possibly because he was not caught up in attracting attention which Bonhoure did to the point of irritation.

For a time, the Orient won out with some dance music that I believe might have been from the Urals but which could have come from any corner of the Mediterranean from Makre to Tunis and would not be notable or out-of-context today.  As William got more involved in his task, Bonhoure sang three Gregorian chants – Miserere mei, Deus, Vexilla regis (which was juxtaposed with a fine adhan from Adlani in a musically uncomfortable counterpoint), and Salve Regina.  This last was punctuated with violin interludes that pushed some catchy Oriental melismata into the ideological fray.

By which stage you had well and truly received the message that this night’s music was essaying a kind of East and West meld; first you get a bit of Gregorian, then you have a stretch of throbbing sinuousness.   So, really, not a melding but a comparison with the director and musical director wanting to interweave the two strands of material.  The Creed extract was followed by a substantial erhu solo before Yan Li’s Heart beating in the steppes Mongolian lyric (was it sung in Chinese?); what inevitably followed was another Gregorian block where the Ave Regina caelorum antiphon and the A solis ortus cardine hymn signified that William had reached Karakorum.

In Wenham’s narration, Mongke Khan’s court reception was alarming until William realised that the whole crowd was drunk.   Cue an erhu solo called Tang Tang (a Mongolian lyric) and a drinking song, at which point Bonhoure unleashed his inner Alexis Zorba; the over-acting here verged on Playschool obviousness.  After this bout of pagan happiness, it was back to business with the Veni Sancte Spiritus sequence for Pentecost, Bonhoure working indefatigably over an instrumental Alberti bass with some vehement erhu commentary.

La Camera’s Claude enjoyed a solo spot here, her instrument sounding very like a tabla that had come tapping its way up from the south.  This led into Adlani’s Vision of the Beloved Sufi chant, a very welcome break from the prevailing regime although – not for the first time – the music itself began with an unexpectedly banal 4/4 pulse before altering to a more reassuring irregular pattern.  For all that, the actual vocal line recalled the free-ranging solid ululations of Umm Kulthum – which could be a testament to the unchanging nature of Arabic music over eight centuries.

The narrative’s climax came at a debate before Mongke Khan where each religion – Christian, Muslim, Buddhist – asked and answered questions of each other.  Various members of both La Camera and the ABO took on the lines of the disputants while, in the background, the Sanskrit chant of Om mani padme hum served as a sustained underpinning, presenting a strange theological situation for William, his Nestorian co-religionists and the Muslims.  But, as the guru from Liverpool sang, let it be.

Bonhoure signified William’s going home by leading the Veni, veni Emmanuel hymn – two verses of it – before the Kyrgyzstan tune took over and Bonhoure did his best whirling dervish imitation.   Yes: sometimes you’ve got to forget all that theological malarkey and just have a good spin.

In this semi-staged diversion, Luong and Bonhoure seemed to be constrained by a limited view of the music relevant to the enterprise.   Without the two troubadour songs, the West was all Gregorian chant.   On the other hand, the tourist sound-track to Mongolia took in music from the Black Sea, the Urals, Mongolia itself, and Kyrgyzstan as well as Sufi and Buddhist chants and hymns.  Fine; although, in several instances, this Eastern music itself sounded alarmingly ‘modern’.

Despite all these reservations, I was in a clear minority because the Murdoch Hall audience exploded into an enthusiastic reception at the performance’s conclusion.  Mind you, I have a cynical theory that explains why every Mahler symphony is greeted with a standing ovation: audiences just want to get out of their seats.  But to my mind, in the Karakorum hegira, you had to wait for isolated moments that arrested your attention;  riveting music-making was pretty rare.

For the most part, the combined band worked through their tasks with aplomb and gravity.  Dyer’s organ was close to inaudible for most of the night, as was Bauer’s kamanche.   On the other hand, the erhu enjoyed dynamic prominence and Tellart’s piquant wind contributions enriched a good many string-drone passages.

Despite Dyer’s enthusiasm for La Camera’s work which led him to invite the ensemble to participate in this mixed-bag construct, I left the Recital Centre feeling flat and believing that the whole concept might have succeeded more if originality of structure and musical content had not been so hard to find.






Collaboration more than fusion


Adam Simmons Creative Music Ensemble

fortyfive downstairs, Flinders Lane

Thursday July 26

Finally, Adam Simmons and his Creatives have come to the end off their projected five events celebrating The Usefulness of Art; well, I say ‘the end’ but Simmons proposes that there are more avenues to explore in future years.  Just as well if this utilitarian innovation has any sustaining force to run counter to any Wildean denial of aesthetic responsibility or purpose.  Still, we could hope that any new manifestations of this creative drive might take an original path.

In the latest exploration, Simmons stuck to his by-now habitual practice of alternating improvisatory passages with through-composed blocks.  On one side, he sat at the head of a quintet of saxophonist-flautists – Cara Taber, Gideon Brazil, Paul Simmons, Sam  Boon – with a counterweight of  trumpets (Gemma Horbury and Gavin Cornish), trombone (Bryn Hills) and guitar (David Brown).   In a circular framework at the rear sat/stood Carmen Chan on marimba, double bass Howard Cairns, Niko Schauble and Nat Grant on drums with Pete Lawler manipulating a space drum.

At the centre of the ensemble sat guest Wang Zheng-Ting, this country’s leading expert on the sheng, the Chinese mouth-organ that looks like a cluster of pipes, looking for all the world like a rank neatly extracted from a pipe organ.  This artist’s presence gave plenty of significance to the night’s title; both he and Simmons visited kite-maker Wei Guoqiu in Tianjin earlier this year and conceived of this collaboration as an illustration of the Simmons creed with a Chinese flavour.

The opening movement, Can you see the wind?, brought all flutes into play – concert, alto, piccolo, bass – concentrating on one note and the inevitable shifts in balance as players’ breath spans overlapped.  With the entry of the sheng, prevailing dynamics required a move to saxophones because of the Chinese instrument’s penetrating timbre but a later duet for Chan’s marimba and Ting came about as close as this near-hour-long recital could to a persuasive fusion.

Each of the later stages of this seven-part suite had its own individual initial sound-colours: marimba and bass, marimba and Schauble’s drum-kit, sheng and Simmons’s sax in exposed duet.  These set the musical work into motion before the rest of the players entered, either individually or en masse. As in previous concerts, several of the work’s segments built up to frenetic sustained sonic blasts for all players, Ting entering into the welter with aplomb.

In later movements, the musical pace slowed down.  Free as the birds had two players put down their instruments to manipulate small kites around the performing space, while a screen on an oblique angle outside the space’s windows played a film of clouds with birds.  This gave way to the finale, The art of breath, which had the musicians show exactly what that entailed; not exactly novel but undeniably useful.

For the most part, this night’s action appeared to me to be operating on two levels: one, where the focus fell on individual, often pointillist sounds or simple folk-style tunes; the other, that circumscribed free-wheeling where the musicians pick their own way through the mesh but not venturing very far outside the predictable.  This alternation can make for moderately interesting moments but I had the feeling that the ensemble was very familiar with this format and not inclined to break out of the tried and tested.

You couldn’t see this as a fusion of East and West since the sheng stuck out too prominently from the general texture at certain critical stages.  When Ting played softly and the accompaniment remained sparse, the sound was not particularly Oriental; in tutti moments, I found it difficult to pick much out beneath the combined sax/trumpet onslaught.

Simmons is a significant presence in that musical sphere that balances on the cusp between jazz and serious music, to the point that, at some stages of his performances, the distinctions fall away – and that is a very useful achievement.   But, on this particular night, it seemed to me that both he and his colleagues were repeating themselves; that this particular vein has been sufficiently worked out; and that this particular stretch of music-making didn’t succeed in welding a distinguished guest into the ensemble’s practice patterns and musical behaviour.

A bounding lightness

Joyce Yang

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday July 24

                                                                        Joyce Yang

In the first of two programs that she is presenting for Musica Viva, pianist Joyce Yang brought back a lot of memories for those of us brought up through a deliberately inculcated familiarity with 19th and early 20th century repertoire.  She opened Tuesday night’s recital with five of the Lyric Pieces by Grieg, followed by Debussy’s Estampes, then the Chopin Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brillante as a substantial chaser.

In her post-interval endeavours, Yang gave the Melbourne premiere of a piano sonata by Sydney composer Elizabeth Younans, a work commissioned for this tour by Julian Burnside for Musica Viva; fortunately, the new piece has considerable merit for two-thirds of its length.  And the formal program concluded with Schumann’s Carnaval, handled with splendid authority and sustained insight   –   so much so that, for the first time in many years, you could become fully engaged in the composer’s compressed kaleidoscope of musical imagery, rather than doomed to endure a humourless demonstration of stultifying virtuosity.

You’d think that Yang was opting for an easy opening with the Grieg, especially as only one of the five she chose was unfamiliar.  But there are problems to be found in even the simplest pages, like the Arietta that stands at the entrance to the whole 66 Lyric Pieces. It’s not Wedding-day at Troldhaugen or the March of the Dwarves which are thrilling to play and to hear; but it requires a delicacy in shaping  Grieg’s somewhat whining lyric to ensure that it is sent on its way with winsome appeal.  Here, and in the following Notturno, Yang was barely stretched, although her negotiation of the triplet-heavy accompaniment in the latter sounded rigid, at points turning the piece into a slow waltz.  Yet her right-hand trills spoke with excellent evenness

The unknown (to me) piece Once upon a Time  made a pleasant exercise in contrasts, its outer E minor slow march pages interrupted by a bucolic major key 3/4 dance; nothing complex to it and rich with the composer’s fingerprints but carefully managed here.  The Scherzo suffered from an imbalance in hand weight, as did Puck where the treble clef material did not travel as clearly as it should have over both the arpeggiated and chordal bass accompaniments.

Debussy’s Pagodes brought out Yang’s individuality,mainly through her approach to the many ritenuti/A tempo oscillations which made the first page unpredictable;  for my taste, the longueurs were entertained a tad too much.  But the work progressed clearly enough with very fine definition of layers before the first fortissimo outburst.  In fact, the central problem with this version came at the double climax points which would have gained from more shoulder strength.

It was a slow night in Grenada, the habanera one of the least rhythmically compulsive you would ever come across, but Yang’s singular lightness of approach brightened up the piece’s middle section where the key signature changes to F sharp Major.  It wasn’t just a case of performing avec plus d’abandon but more  finding and delivering a brighter sonority informed by a wry angularity that reflected Debussy’s wayward venture away from the work’s outer haziness.   The pianist had all the notes of Jardins sous la pluie under her command yet the effect was formulaic – not exactly a study but often not that far removed.   You were expecting – well, I was – a good deal more brilliance of timbre in the final pages from en animant jusqua la fin but Yang kept her powder very dry.  Understandable, given that much of these final pages is tamped-down vitality.  Yet even the final splayed chords impressed as over-deliberate.

On the other hand, it was hard to find fault with Yang’s Chopin offering.  The spianato section came over with elegance and discretion, its bel canto lyricism emerging in an effortless, unstudied chain, leading to a mellifluous passage from bar 97 to 110 where the matched pairs of sextuplets faded to a breathtaking, all too rapid chordal coda.   The ensuing polonaise proved an unalloyed delight, full of character and infused with carefully handled rubato   At certain action-packed moments, Yang’s right-hand work gave us some of this night’s most memorable brilliance; for example, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a more bravura account of bars 221-261, the forward surge unstoppable, lucid and without a sign of flashy vulgarity..  But moments like that underlined Yang’s comprehensive accomplishment here, thanks to an admirable fearlessness and what I can only describe as consistent emotional sprightliness.

Younan’s fresh sonata, in three movements, lived up to the composer’s meagre descriptor, amplified by Yang, by opening with blocks of motivic material in quick succession.  Its first movement presented to my ears as a sequence of variations, in that Younan’s initial blocks move into a sequence of events in which the initial shapes can be detected, these events discrete so that you’re aware that another treatment is beginning.  The score exploits the piano’s range and dynamic potential and persists in a vehement volubility.

In the second movement, the composer proposes a deep bass line set against top-of-the-keyboard pointillism.  To Yang, it suggests an astral journey – which is fair enough if you subscribe to a Holstian view of cosmology..  But it’s not all sub-Uranian rumblings and Mercurial scintillations: Younan has a central layer , more complex in its patterns but distinctive for a rising scalar pattern and giving these pages a welcome amplitude of colour to give flesh to their outer reaches.

I found the last quick movement the least interesting part of the sonata.  Jazzy, jerky, with the spectre of Bartok juddering forward every so often, the work seems to devolve into a show-piece for the executant.   Its character presented as less self-assured than its predecessors, being more fitful and self-conscious in its juxtapositions of active bursts.  For all that, Yang gave a devoted interpretation, sustaining your interest in the finer segments and working with diligence through less satisfying stretches.

As for this performer’s Schumann account, here was one of those rare occasions where you could put your pen down and bask in the playing, totally secure in Yang’s vision and her unflappable delivery.  From the opening call-to-arms of the Preamble to the spent exhilaration of the concluding Davidsbundler March, the pianist maintained the pressure, urging us on through each of the character sketches but giving each its requisite space.

You might have quibbled with the over-schizoid nature of Yang’s Florestan reading where the composer’s self-portrait (well, half of one) approached the manic; but there’s no doubt that you can find this duality all too easily in the music itself.   Yang took a no-nonsense approach to the 14-bars’ worth of Chopin, following up with as forceful an Estrella as I’ve encountered, its central syncopated bars more ferocious than expected.

But it was Yang’s gallery-vista approach that moved this performance onto a higher level.  She outlined her take on the composer’s chameleonic personality, complete with detours and abrupt darts off-target, and brought us into her vision with confidence.  Along with this clarity of purpose, Yang also articulated the chain of movements with a spirit-lifting agility, even in the hefty finale with its Grossvater Tanz or ’17th century theme’ lumbering in to represent the Philistines that Schumann fought so zealously.  Unlike a good many other renditions, which make you relieved that the last A flat Major chord has resonated, this one proved elating, a solid piece of work but never stolid.

Yang plays her second program this Saturday, July 28.   In place of Grieg, she will perform three Rachmaninov preludes, including the notorious C sharp minor Op. 3 No. 2.  Replacing Debussy is Janacek’s Sonata 1.X.1905 while Chopin’s double act is sacrificed for Liszt’s Rhapsodie espagnole, which has all but disappeared from view these days.  The Younan Piano Sonata again leads off the evening’s second half and the major work is another Liszt: the B minor Sonata.