The Mass as opera, but who cares?

VERDI’S REQUIEM

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

Hamer Hall

Saturday April 13

Okka

                                                             Okka von der Damerau  

My father, like many other Catholics of his generation, never warmed to Verdi’s Requiem Mass; he persisted in the unoriginal assertion that it smacked too much of the theatre and distracted from the purpose of a  true requiem.  But then, he wasn’t much taken by Gounod’s amiable St. Cecilia Mass when out local Pymble choir used to present it back in the late 1950s.   Faure was more his measure, even if that benign musical oasis fell outside the strictures of the 1903 motu proprio from Pius X, Tra le sollecitudini.  Sadly, I was never able to call the Berlioz Requiem to his attention: I didn’t know it in those years and, in any case. who wants to give scandal to musical innocents?

Sixty years on, the appraisal decrying Verdi’s secularization of the Requiem form is close to irrelevant when you consider contemporary practice in the Church’s music, let alone the outright vulgarities committed during services held by younger Christian sects.  Getting into any discussion about this topic has become increasingly futile in an era when church musicians have to cut their choral cloth to suit their congregations’ intellectual width.   As the unarguable directive goes, He that has ears to hear, let him hear.  If that means you feel constrained to take on the Verdi work as simply a historical anomaly, so be it.

Saturday’s performance from the MSO Orchestra and Chorus proved to be more than acceptable, conductor Lawrence Renes overseeing a generously ample version of the work in which nobody rushed unduly, the soloists generally kept to the prevailing metre, and the sonorously lavish moments were given full measure.   Each of the four solo voices showed positive qualities, although I was most taken by alto Okka von der Damerau, right from a formidable Kyrie entry, through an initially quavering Liber scriptus that settled into artfully spun phrases, up to a moving, transparent introduction to the Lux aeterna movement. To be sure, this singer proved well aware of her line’s potential for emotional heft, as in her decreasing dynamic intensity on the repeats of the word ‘nul’ at the end of her Sequence solo.

To her credit, soprano Leah Crocetto showed a dynamic sympathy with Damerau during the Recordare and Agnus Dei duets although she took many another opportunity to dominate the ruck when all four solo singers were involved.   At the start, her hefty vibrato surprised during slow-paced passages, although any initial dissatisfaction had worn off by the conclusion of the Recordare pages that impressed as one of the performance’s highlights, thanks to the female soloists’ empathy and avoidance of sentimentality.    Crocetto underplayed the monotonic drama of the Libera me opening recitative, a moment that a singer of Vishnevskaya’s calibre could make spine-tingling with passion and scarcely bridled fear.  But you could not fault the tension of Crocetto’s Tremens factus sum ego solo: a passage where those long-time accusations of theatricality garnered heavy support.

Tenor Issachach Savage invested the opening to the Kyrie with panache and a clarity of production that he maintained until the end, although it seemed to me that he was labouring under some physical difficulty towards the work’s conclusion.  Still, his most exposed solos, the Ingemisco and Hostias, came across with clear definition and a rousing, powerful upper register if the final ascending scale of the former sounded slightly abridged after the top B flat.   Bass soloist Nicholas Brownlee made stately rather than histrionic work of the Mors stupebit verses but impressed more when he came to the Confutatis maledictis section – a fine demonstration of musical and textural clarity.

Carrying out their work to maximum effect, the MSO Chorus kept up with Renes’ tempi and showed very creditably in nearly all the a cappella segments from a stalwart Te decet to the final movement’s Requiem aeternam support of the soprano soloist; certainly more assured than the preceding section’s Cum sanctis tuis trio from three soloists.   As well as relishing the explosive Dies irae outbursts with which Verdi gratuitously peppers the Mass process, the Chorus did their best in the Tuba mirum explosion; as usual, you could see the physical motion but the voices were drowned.  Matters might have been improved if the large body of sopranos on the side gallery had been slanted to face the audience rather than singing into the orchestral space.   But the male singers gave good value to the enterprise, the basses tending to extra prominence in the opening pages but the tenors present and secure in the choral texture.

Very little miscarried in the instrumental forces, the exercise carried along by a clear expertise from both wind and strings.   For the first time in my memory, the gallery trumpets melded in with the ground-level action, to the point where the communal fabric sounded as it should: a heightening of the texture, rather than a superimposition from discrete groups.  In fact, the brass choirs acquitted themselves with distinction: no lagging behind the pulse, a laudable balance in output, general precision in exposed chords. In the Dies irae strophes, the bass drum sounded over-hefty but the player was just responding to Verdi’s request for a delivery that is ‘dry’ and very loud.  In fact, the whole ensemble gave a confident reaction to Renes’ direction, even compensating during its less assured phases.

A satisfying and cogent reading, then, of this score that, despite what you think of its ecclesiastical suitability, is packed with melodic riches.  And that, I suppose, is the end point of all the fuss.   The message is overdrawn, the chances for musical pictorialization all too readily seized, the canvas very lavish emotionally, if not as coloured as some others.   Yet it has an emphatic certainty of utterance that carries you along each time you hear it.   You can regret, like my father, the work’s disruptive surface, one that does not really allow for contemplation, and the flights of virtuoso singing that it holds, surging glories that bring your attention to the performers’ craft.   But what else would you expect from the 19th century’s second-greatest opera composer?   Of course, there are oddities, like the choir’s fugal treatment of the Libera me text, yet the work as a whole is invested with an enthralling mixture of high tension and taut consolation, solidly delivered on this night.

 

 

 

 

Keen work from stand-ins

MOZART’S CLARINET CONCERTO

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Thursday April 4

Michael Collins

                                                                   Michael Collins

This program ran for two nights, the first of them a house-full affair.  Yes, it’s true that the chance of hearing Mozart’s last concerto from a famous performer will bring in a crowd, and it is much easier to fill the Murdoch Hall than the MSO.s much larger usual stamping ground.   Further, the cake was sweetened even more by the addition of Beethoven’s A Major Symphony, a work that can elate you with its sheer bravura of expression  no matter how many times you hear it.

Fortunately, both of these staples enjoyed remarkably clear and vivid renditions, the overall fabric remarkably present, even cutting, in this fine space where every layer of the Beethoven score could be discerned, even if the winds took on greater prominence than usual.    Conductor /soloist Michael Collins made do with fewer desks of strings than are normally involved in the symphony, but those he had at his direction sounded united in their attack and finish.   All the more remarkable, then, that quite a few of them were guests, not regulars.   For example, the player list involved seven visiting violinists, including concertmaster-for-the-night Helena Rathbone from the Australian Chamber Orchestra.   That’s an impressive swag when you consider that the two violin groups numbered about 14 in total.   Even better came in the double bass ranks where three out of the four participants were irregulars.

For all that, the symphony sounded imbalanced in the outer movements, especially when the dozen wind operated as a unit.   Passages where the violins held melodic primacy were occasionally lop-sided dynamically and some sentences loaded with scrubbing semiquavers showed us plenty of furious activity going on but, even from close up, it was a case of often filling in mentally for sounds that you knew were there but just didn’t travel with sufficient weight.

A little of this reared up in the Mozart as well, although here the wind component is only half as large as in the Beethoven score.   However,what impressed in this version was the bold elegance of this concerto’s outer Allegro movements which displayed a sinewy vigour that prefigured Beethoven’s early athleticism.   Playing on what I think was a basset clarinet,  Collins produced a compelling reading of this work’s solo line, pliable when it was to the purpose and admirably regular in his bubbling passage work.

In his handling of the well-loved Adagio, Collins demonstrated admirable dynamic control, his piano reprise at bar 60 excellently shaped and in no danger of revealing production flaws.   This security might have had something to do with the extra sounding length of the instrument; whatever the cause – even if it was partly physical – the results made for a beguiling interpretation, one where the low notes stayed where they belonged and where the clarinet could be heard carving its path through the orchestral surrounds, even in the final tutti bars of the finale.   If you were looking for faults, you might have found one at the conclusion to the Adagio, bar 94 to be specific, where the violins gave a sloppy account of their quaver-semiquaver downward slip; but this is nit-picking compared to the band’s confident realization of the work, particularly as their director was, for the most part, engaged on his own business.

It was easy to appreciate the energy that Collins invested in the Beethoven symphony.  He didn’t unveil any surprises or over-stress the dynamic vibrancy that gives three out of the four movements their essential character.   But this wasn’t your usual 7th in which vitality gives way to doggedness; the score radiated that ebullience and galumphing energy that distinguishes it among Beethoven’s major creations while it stands as a vital pillar of optimism and all-too-human light in the pages of European musical achievement.   Even in the minor-key Allegretto, Collins set a forward-looking pace, although the brace of horns pulled the tempo back at the movement’s first fortissimo tutti.

So far, so unexceptionable: a great concerto and a mighty symphony, cornerstones of a conservative decades-old MSO program pattern.   Thursday night’s real attention-grabber came in between with a new clarinet concerto from the organization’s Composer in Residence for 2019, Paul Dean, the composer appearing as soloist under Collins’ direction.   Contrived in two movements, each is further sub-divided into four sections which might become completely discernible on a second hearing; as it was, some parts bled into each other, for which you can’t blame Dean and which became more obvious once you came to the realization that individual segments varied remarkably in length.

Right from the opening, you’re confronted with atmospheric vehemence in the form of a set of slashing quickly arpeggiated chords across the orchestra, almost fully percussive in nature and  intentionally confrontational with the added unsettling colour of the upper strings (all of them?) playing sul ponticello.  Out of a tense unpredictability emerges a cantabile line for the soloist and this juxtaposition of calm and abrupt bursts seems to make up the operating arena for the first movement’s Introduction.

I haven’t been able to find out the work’s orchestration details and from my seat it was difficult to see into the interstices of the assembled ensemble.   Robert Clarke operated from what looked like a drum-kit but one that sounded heavy on drums and short on cymbals; I believe a pair of bass clarinets participated; a contrabassoon was certainly in play; an extra desk was added to each of the string bodies after the chastely populated Mozart.   But the performance’s chief focus, as you’d expect, fell on the solo clarinet which gave a vital and brilliant exhibition, with a particular emphasis on the instrument’s highest reaches, every so often recalling the piercing soprano in alt work of James Morrison.

Following the sort-of-slow Introduction, a sudden vault led to a Scherzetto in 6/8 time (possibly) which in turn transformed into a Burlesque although the dividing line escaped me.  At about this time, Dean initiated a hectic solo over a striking brass/timpani base that gave notice of a transformation into something more urgent than a little scherzo, the texture notable for large washes for brass and woodwind.  Concluding the opening half came an Adagio with slow sustained notes/chords for the strings and a Mahlerian leap to denote the opening to the solo clarinet’s extended melody.   Up to this point, you could have categorized the composer’s vocabulary as atonal but the pizzicato bass line to this Adagio at some points struck me as old-fashioned, reminiscent of a chaconne.   This section rose to its apogee through a piercing high-note from the soloist before a brief resolution.

Movement 2 began with a trademark quirky sonic squiggle, bandied between Dean and various orchestral members; in effect, the rapid action served as a pertinent sonic illustration of this segment’s sub-title, Out of the blue  –  a passage of play climaxing in yet another frantic clarinet solo which took the rest of the ensemble on a Pied Piper chase.  After some time, you became aware that the scheduled Waltz had started, folded into the preceding motion-sickness pages with deceptive deftness.  Actually, it was difficult to find the steps to this dance as the composer didn’t so much shift the rhythmic goalposts as move the emphasis so that your expectations were partly met and just as often side-stepped.   It could have been intended as a deliberate distortion, in the finest Ravel tradition, but the segment’s later pages impressed as long-winded.

Dean’s Cadenza followed the usual rule of pronouncing a set of technical display flourishes, rapid-fire runs peppered with intense high notes which made you wonder at the actual upper range of the instrument.   The following Finale served as an actual coda – no sooner had it broken in on the Cadenza than it was over.   This brought an end to a concerto that showed individuality of voice, a superlative command of the solo instrument’s resources – even if you were left wondering if another player could have brought the composer’s vehemence and hard-edged brilliance to the task – and a rigour of development and resolution that I, for one, found engrossing.

Will we hear this new score again?   It’s safe to say: not with the regularity that applies to its companion pieces on this night.   But Dean’s new work has an immediacy of impact and what can only be described as a generosity of expression that drags it out of the institutional graveyard of many another clarinet concerto of these times.   I had the general impression that its first audience was nonplussed by its processes, particularly its abrupt conclusion; still, Dean was warmly applauded if possibly more for his voluble virtuosity than for the strident power of his score’s most compelling moments.

 

 

 

 

Exegi monumentum aere perennius

SEASON OPENING GALA

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Saturday March 16

Lu Siqing

                                                                          Lu Siqing

Well, not me, exactly, but possibly the ABC when it controlled the upper echelons of serious music in this country.   I can’t have been the only member of Saturday night;’s audience who suffered from a profound sense of deja-vu.   Here was an old-fashioned Red Series program, the kind of fare that many of us grew up on and which is trotted out regularly as a reassurance that, while you might have to endure some puzzling music at odd spots during the year, at the core of things you can rely on tried-and-true practice.  Next week, Sir Andrew Davis presents a lecture-concert dealing with Mahler’s Symphony No. 10 – a near-novel exercise, tried on last year, and reminiscent of Bernstein’s efforts to educate a public even more reactionary than Australia.   But the MSO’s last submission for March is the old overture – (Egmont) – concerto (Mozart 27) – symphony (Sibelius 1) set-up . . . more lasting than bronze, indeed.

Nevertheless, the well-worn procedure can produce excellent results and Saturday night brought us a polished and committed reading of Bruch’s G minor Violin Concerto No. 1 from Lu Siqing, one where the soloist and orchestra under Davis stayed on point throughout.   Certainly, the score is a familiar one to all concerned and the MSO is familiar with this excellent violinist’s work after his tour of China with the ensemble last year. and following his accession to the role of MSO Soloist in Residence for 2019.

Siqing gave a brooding glamour to the work’s initial recitatives before settling into the Vorspiel‘s main material where he balanced the role’s requirements for rapid figuration with hefty chord-work, all the while delivering Bruch’s expressive lyricism without mawkishness.   This prelude gives the orchestra few chances to shine until just before the reclamation of its opening solo flourishes but Davis kept the MSO in near-ideal synchronicity with this soloist, who distinguished himself with an arresting series of upward moving trills that conclude the first treatment of the movement’s second subject.

Even better came in the Adagio where, apart from two 8-bar breaks, the soloist is front-and-centre all the time.  Here also, Siqing let his line sing without emotional impediments and no interpolated cleverness, ably assisted by a respectful string section background.  He is a model musician for this deeply Romantic school because of his technical security, of course, but also for the ability he has of giving the music prime position, so that his pyrotechnics during the Finale impressed more for their transfixing clarity of sound than as instances of flamboyant personality.

As an encore, we heard an unaccompanied version that seemed to lack a segment or two  of Monti’s Csardas, which met with tremendous acclaim

As well as an exemplary concerto, the MSO later put up a brave showing in Tchaikovsky’s B minor Symphony No. 6, a score which it invariably carries off with eloquence of address, balanced ensemble and persuasive conviction.  Most of the wind chording came across cleanly, the brass well-harnessed in the odd-numbered movements and the strings sounding at their best with a finely honed responsiveness, the first violins (who were pretty close to in my face) working as one, apart from a single over-enthusiastic attack moment from leader Dale Barltrop.

Each conductor shows individuality of interpretation most clearly when coping with the finale’s Adagio lamentoso.  Davis set a firm pace, one that looked forward rather than yielding to the lugubrious.  This more-mobile-than-expected approach did the score no disservice; in fact, the great climactic surges impressed more as coherent argument conclusions than as the fits of temper that many another interpreter hurls at you.   A fine interpretation concluded in the last Andante giusto bars of the work which lived up to the tempo direction and faded to a quadruple-piano silence with remarkable self-effacement from the divisi cellos and basses: a passage of grave accomplishment after the symphony’s preceding restlessness.

As an overture, Davis brought in the MSO Chorus for a romp through Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from the opera Prince Igor, a work which you can easily go your whole life without encountering.   This collection was once a staple of Red Series programs, although often without any singing involved, and for many of us represented a significant facet of the Kuchka’s operations, in particular its mixture of semi-Oriental and Russian characteristics – or what we thought those geographical-cultural terms represented.

The extracts are still a pleasure to hear, even if the associations with the Davis/Lederer/Wright/Forrest musical Kismet are inescapable to those of us coming of age in the 1950s.   Davis set an unusually slow pace for the Chorus of Slavewomen which obviously took the female MSO Chorus members by surprise as they set off on their own path at a faster tempo.   As they do, matters settled quickly into shared synchronicity and the rest of the work’s constituents followed without much cause for alarm.

Not that this is a difficult work to handle, although the faster dances find the orchestra busy, especially the woodwind and in particular the clarinets.  Yet it does need a firm control of the ferment, particularly when Khan Konchak’s name is bandied about by the singers.   Considering their numbers, the sopranos and altos could have made a stronger contribution in the later stages when in combination with the male chorus members.   But the sung part of the work remained audible – which is more than I can say for other performances I’ve experienced at opposite ends of the time spectrum from Ansermet and Gergiev, during both of which you might have wondered why the chorus bothered to show up.

So, thanks to the MSO administration for dusting off this relic, although the program notes refer to a 2014 performance under Diego Matheuz.   Perhaps we can have a real blast from the past with Borodin’s just-as-Romantic view of the East, In the Steppes of Central Asia.   Or we could go one better with Rimsky’s Russian Festival Overture.   Considering Siqing’s encore, how about Poet and PeasantLight Cavalry, anyone?

Still, there’s no merit  –   or even benefit  –   in railing against the old-fashioned.   As a welcome counterweight, the MSO’s April brings us the first of two outstandingly original Metropolis programs, Verdi’s Requiem, and a night where Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto brushes shoulders with Paul Dean’s new work in the same format.   Or you could forget all about this and watch the MSO provide a live soundtrack to Ghostbusters.

 

 

 

 

Bach with a bit of bite

BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday March 9

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                                                                   Melissa Farrow 

What I heard of this concert was pretty impressive – but wouldn’t you expect that to be the case?   Paul Dyer nailed his ensemble’s colours to a specific mast 30 years ago when he established the ABO and we’ve had a bit of proof over the decades since that his musicians have expertise with the six phenomenal concertos that Bach put together as one of history’s most remarkable job applications.

On Saturday, the Brandenburgers, interleaving with a cluster of guests experienced in period performance, worked through all of the concertos bar one – and, sad to say, that was a part of the sequence that I was anticipating with delight: No. 2 with the four soloists including a brilliant, high trumpet.  To be honest, to hear it I would have sacrificed either the D Major No. 5 or the over-exercised No. 3 in G which has become a chamber orchestra cliche and all too often turns to stodge as its inbuilt chiaroscuro goes by the board.

Still, ABO regulars turned out in force for the first of the usual brace of Melbourne series performances and liked everything on the agenda without revealing much discrimination,  applauding the first movement of the D Major concerto as a salute to Paul Dyer’s negotiation of the famous cadenza – even if his rendition was far from cleanly accomplished with many two-notes-for-the-price-of-one splices in the right-hand work.  But then, the ABO’s artistic director had given himself a demanding schedule,  providing the continuo keyboard for everything else on show.

Yet there was a lot to like.   Brandenburg No. 4 started us off with plenty of verve, Melissa Farrow and Mikaela Oberg excellently balanced and clean-speaking in the flute a bec roles, concertmaster Shaun Lee-Chen a chameleonic character with some introduced pauses in the interrupted solo that lasts from bar 81 to bar 124, but you could  not cavil at his skirling demisemiquaver virtuosity between bars 187 and 208 and his headlong attack on the heart-stopping flight in the fugal finale where the violin has centre-stage for 26 furiously active measures.  As a welcome contrast, both recorders wound an untroubled way through the placid central Andante and its piano/forte alternations.

We all have a favourite Brandenburg, and mine is No. 6, probably for its earthy texture of two dominant violas and the superb thick-withied interlocking that Bach made of their parts.   Monique O’Dea and (I think: none of the solo/exposed musicians was identified) Marianne Yeomans began the first movement with excellent rapport and projection, the hefty port-flavoured timbre sustained with few signs of the violist’s weakness – an occasional note slightly off-centre.  There is little to distract from the two top lines outside the tuttis, apart from a sporadic outburst or six from the cello; in this instance, the ABO’s hard-worked Jamie Hey, who also enjoyed a couple of bars in the sun at the end of the Adagio.

But the best, as at Cana, was left till last with a buoyant account of the syncopation-rich Allegro-finale which managed to combine weight and bounce.  Here also, Hey joined in the contrapuntal interplay at two points, deserting his continuo-homophonious  companions: the dual gambas of Laura Vaughan and Anton Baba, Rob Nairn’s bass and Dyer’s harpsichord.   But the focus remained on the spiralling violas whose attack – in canon, in echo, in unison – showed no signs of faltering.   It might not have been the most polished duet work you’d have heard (that appears almost exclusively on recordings), yet it  served as a welcome reminder of the composer’s consummate, infallible craft even when he bends the rules.

Dyer dominated the reading of No. 5, as is only to be expected.   His partners – violin Ben Dollman and Farrow – showed a well-balanced emotional range in the trio-sonata Affettuoso while displaying a well-rounded athleticism in the outer movements, notably a strong version of the last movement with its relieving segments of abrupt exposure for the three soloists.   The concerto is properly regarded as a Baroque high-watermark and, the blips aside, the ABO turned in a brisk performance that emphasized the score’s driving sinewy energy with an episodic surprise around every page-turn.

While I cut out on the concluding No. 3  –  the concert ran over-time, as we were warned it could do, but my transport waits for no man  –  the chance to hear live its program predecessor, No. 1 in F, was one of the chief attractions of the whole exercise.

It’s not that you want to hear the horns misfire in the first two Allegri or the work’s last Trio but it somehow always happens in the concert hall, particularly when the instruments are Baroque/natural and so use crooks.  On this night, Michael Dixon and Doree Dixon made few intonational errors (none, I believe, in the first movement) but these pockmarked the surface of the third movement and  flew up to rattle the listener in that infamous trio involving horns and the three oboes in unison.

Such blemishes apart, this proved a satisfying experience with reassuring input from the woodwind trio – Christopher Palameta, Kirsten Barry, Kailen Cresp – and the ever-reliable bassoon of Brock Imison from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, with ABO associate concertmaster Ben Bruce adding spice with a piccolo violin which hardly emerges from the ruck in the opening movement, is rarely silent in the succeeding Adagio, then enjoys some energetic bursts in the 6/8 Allegro – moments that Bruce took every opportunity to emphasize.

Not for the first time on this night, I found the ABO string corps in fine shape: well-prepared for the abrupt pianoforte changes, with a clean finish to their phrases, especially from the violin camps, finely attuned to Dyer’s performance style – so much so that there was little reason for his semi-conducting efforts during this work which seemed to run itself, as each of the preceding four works had managed to do with minimal gestures from anybody.

At the end, quite a bit to remember with pleasure came from this exhibition of music-making from a band that has identified itself with these masterworks.   Our two Melbourne appearances came at the end of a 7-performance run in Sydney and you’d guess that the standard by this stage is as high as possible.   In fact, Dyer and his charges could take plenty of satisfaction from their efforts which exemplified the period orchestra’s best practice: a central body on song and a collection of character-rich soloists.  Now, just as we’re waiting for Sir Andrew Davis to lead the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra through the large Symphony No. 8 to complete his Mahler cycle before leaving us bereft, so we can expect – somewhere along the line – an outing for the Brandenburg No. 2.    But not this year, it seems.

 

 

 

Symphony in need of a firm editor

JAZZ AT LINCOLN CENTER ORCHESTRA

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Thursday February 28

Marsalis

                                                                  Wynton Marsalis

When you’re used to the standard orchestral fabric on offer at 99% of MSO concerts, it takes you a while to adjust to the rare sound of an introduced ensemble that collaborates with those regular instrumentalists you know pretty well.   With the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, the adjustment process passed very quickly, thanks to sensible programming,

To open, Marsalis and his 14 colleagues eased us in with three Duke Ellington pieces which genre of the art I take to be part of the Lincoln Orchestra’s artistic rationale.   After a rousing reception from a full house, the famous trumpeter led a version of Braggin’ and Brass which involved a bright solo that might have come from Marsalis himself; confusingly, he mentioned another trumpet player during the applause and I failed to catch the name.   But there are two trumpet solos in this piece, so he might have played one and Ryan Kisor, Kenny Tampton or Marcus Printup could have taken the other.

This talking across the music has always struck me as a persistent flaw in nearly every jazz event I’ve been to.  The custom is for the listeners to applaud after each solo spot, during which outbreak the players either mark time or the next soloist immediately leads off.   Fine, but then to try to shout names through the more formidable acclaim that comes at a piece’s end taxes the clarity of utterance in most of us.   In fact, it took me some research to work out two of the three Ellington titles, let alone who was at work in the back-blocks of the group.

For the rest of the night, most of the attention focused on the five sax/clarinet/flute players who sat in a line along the front of the stage, trumpets and trombones situated directly behind this phalanx with Dan Nimmer’s piano  prominent on the left until the night’s second half.  Carlos Henriquez’s bass was also visible and audible up to interval; I looked but couldn’t see him participate in the long symphony.   Brother and drummer Jason Marsalis fleshed out the rhythm section with the usual not-afraid-to-come-forward character of a man in control of a drum-kit battery, making for a dominant line of textures across the evening.

If patrons had paid to hear Marsalis in multiple solo spots, they were disappointed.   He may have been leading his group but it was done, as by many sage generals, from the rear.   Following the group exhilaration of 1938 with Marsalis possibly giving us the main high-flying solo (from my seat, nothing of the second and third rows of musicians could be seen), the environment changed abruptly to the 1966 Far East Suite from which the JLCO played the last two tracks from the initial recording: Amad and Ad Lib on Nippon, the first notable for a fluent trombone solo – after all the initial Oriental scene-setting – from Vincent Gardner; its successor featured tenor sax player Victor Goines playing a volatile clarinet line.

While you could wonder at the creative versatility shown during the solos that peppered this opening bracket, the effect was less brisk than you encounter on Ellington’s own performances which are models of crackling ensemble and, in the suite selections, less self-conscious, especially the pentatonic suggestions of Amad in which work Ellington himself is a very prominent force.   Nimmer, Henriquez and Jason Marsalis gave a competent setting-up of the Ad Lib on Nippon material but somewhere along the way I missed out on Ellington’s original substantial second solo.

Some MSO brass, percussion and clarinet Philip Arkinstall glided onstage for the Bernstein Prelude, Fugue and Riffs concoction that shows what a brilliant, gifted musician can do with conventions and still sound individualistic.   Arkinstall had a fair while to wait before the third – and most interesting – movement but he generated a crisply etched line that held its own against a solid brass onslaught in the latter stages of the score.   If anything, the airing of this piece brought to mind the clever combination of craft and bloody-mindedness you can hear in Cool from West Side Story; Bernstein’s fugue of eight years previous is a remarkable harbinger.   Most of the players coped with the composer’s rhythmic games, although one of the sax players – probably Paul Nedzela on baritone – teetered on the brink of falling off the beat in one of the fugue’s more fraught segments.

After the break, Nicholas Buc, who had directed the Bernstein score, again took control of Marsalis’ Symphony No. 4, The Jungle.   This is a substantial score but at the same time one that flattens your interest simply from its grandiloquence.   The composer alternates his movements deftly enough, as well as pulling both orchestra and band into and out of focus with a keen eye on audience interest levels.  Yet, in spite of the multi-faceted interlacing of colour and shadings, the impact is tiring – partly, I feel, for an insistence on motifs rather than full-blown melodies in the action-packed strophes of the fast movements.

Marsalis memorialises New York in this work; it isn’t really a transferable piece that takes in a city like London or Berlin (or Melbourne) as its vocabulary is linked to what we outsiders know (and think we know) is the New York experience.   This symphony opens with a wide-ranging city-scape, loaded with gestures and the kind of expansiveness that could have been written by a Gershwin with a taste for dissonance.  A succeeding scherzo  –  The Big Show  –  is even more reminiscent of Gershwin and 1930 sophisticated jazz tropes, somehow taking in a cakewalk and a blues.   A clean-textured slow movement (with reservations) follows in Lost in Sight (Post-Pastoral),featuring lush string fabric set alongside bluesy interludes from the JLCO group.

La Esquina returns to more strident territory and a more consistently optimistic scenario representing that major Latin element in this Big City, best exemplified here in a kind of habanera-rhythm ramble.  Us continues the amiability at its start but its memorable feature on this night came in a soaring fast trumpet solo (Marsalis?) in its central pages.  To end, Marsalis produced a punchy syncopated march which boiled down into a garden-variety swing band sound before fading to black.

In fact, this last part of the whole work posed some interesting questions.  The final movement is called Struggle in the Digital Market and Marsalis seems to be as ambivalent about this stage of our development as most of us are.   The progress of civilization is unarguable but who is in control of it?   At the end, he leaves us with an extended passage of sputterings as the uncertainty grows, the forward motion falters and the machine fails of its power.   For some reason, I was reminded of Duke Ellington with whose work this night began; in particular, his music for Otto Preminger’s 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder which features, at the end, an impossibly high trumpet sending out a kind of erratic Morse code – ditto The Jungle.

But fragments that linger in the memory aren’t enough to justify the large chasms of music-making from which nothing remains.   What this work needed was a censor, some musician who could show the composer where he was either repeating material that wasn’t contributing to the symphony’s progress (or was significantly impeding it), or where a delight in constructing large sonorous edifices had become an end in itself and the individual movements’ aims had detoured into flamboyant gestures.

For all that, the Hamer Hall audience gave clear signs of having relished the whole experience, applauding each movement and greeting its conclusion with obvious endorsement.  Despite my reservations, the enterprise realised many expectations.  Anyone who regards this fusion of jazz and serious music as dated, just a throwback to a time when such a musical cross-breeding produced masterpieces, would have to re-think his or her stance, even if this modern-day product does for me what An American in Paris, Variants on a Theme of Thelonious Monk and On The Town don’t do – wears out its welcome.

 

 

 

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Ex Mongolia raro aliquid novi

A LUNAR NEW YEAR CELEBRATION

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Wednesday February 13

                                                               Tan Dun 

For this year’s Chinese New Year concert, conductor/composer Tan Dun and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra gave up dickering around with single imported soloists and brought in a complete band: Hanggai, the Mongolian-based (well, partly) rock group that has made a cultural living by adapting folk-songs from the mother-country, singing them in Mongolian or Mandarin, and for this occasion taking a back row at the (elevated) rear of the MSO under Tan, supported in their work with lushly scored accompaniments.

Despite the attributions of some Hanggai numbers to specific composers and lyrics-writers, everything we heard sounded like folk music, although you’d hope that the original tunes had been ironed out into orthodox bar-lengths and contours. It all sounded pretty Westernized and aimed at slotting into Occidental norms, which was a pity but par for the course. One of my saddest memories is of the result yielded after I’d asked a group of Russian/Polish friends to sing that song In the field stood a birch tree used by Tchaikovsky in the finale of his Symphony No. 4; they weren’t particularly excited to give it an airing but, when they did, the ending of all lines had been added to, making the melodic shapes four-square and, compared to Tchaikovsky’s slight abridgements (two beats silence at the end of each line), prosaic.  Who was right? I’m hoping it was Tchaikovsky.

On this night, I heard about nine extracts from Hanggai’s collected works, all of them coming from CDs recorded between 2007 and last year.   All but two – the group’s hit Drinking Song and (I think) the Lullaby for Borulai – involved MSO backing that in some cases proved substantial, almost drowning out the visitors – except for their indefatigable drum-kit player Zhengha Yang cocooned in his own plastic-surrounded cell.  I’m assuming that Tan Dun supplied the arrangements; not that I’m an expert but the orchestration proved continuously clever and loaded with colours that spruced up the original melodies.

I believe the same thing can be seen in British folk music where less scrupulous interpreters and arrangers have bowdlerized the originals to make the products more easy for the general public to imbibe.  But against that, you have the shining beacon of Bartok who could do the popular thing (Romanian Folk Dances, anyone?) but who paid many European countries’ music a mighty service by transcribing it with searing accuracy and infusing it into his own musical processes with no intention of sugaring the pill.

The Bartok treatment didn’t apply to these Mongolian folk tunes. As you’d expect, they have been put into an acceptable rock-band garb, complete with inexorable regular syncopations and a harmonic scheme that would have astonished Cimarosa with its obtuseness.  The singers – Yiliqi, Daorina, Batubagen – spent most of the night yelling, using a head voice and disdaining to employ their diaphragms; what need, when you’re amplified, to learn how to sing properly?  Further to this, we were assured in much promotional material that the group had its genesis when one of the foundation members got tired of your garden variety rock and decided to learn throat-singing in an effort to go back to part of his country’s national music roots.  Well, we heard precious little of that on this evening; something like it occurred during the ensemble’s last bracket, beginning with Samsara, but, if you’ve heard Tibetan monks at their devotions, this was a pallid reflection of the real thing.

Hanggai struck me as part of the international brotherhood of rough rock and roll; not personally aggressive enough to take on the punk mantle, from which school some of the members sprang, but assuming certain touches in their presentation intended to add to the ensemble’s carefully prepared ‘untamed’ character.

Throughout the night, films were screened behind the players, most to do with Mongolia and showing images of the country as they might be displayed in a travelogue: sweeping steppes, undulating vales of green grass, endless shots of horses running wild or being driven or simply being ridden.  Nothing amiss with this; Tan is a top name among film composers and a fair few of his past New Year concerts have been played with a film component.

Even for his new Contrabass Concerto: Wolf Totem, with MSO principal Steve Reeves as soloist, Tan screened three extended sequences showing scenes of lupine life: roving on the open range with the pack(s); attempts by the wolves to raid a team of horses at night; finally, men hunting (and killing) wolves.   All this while Reeves outlined the composer’s taxing solo line with a goodly amount of high work on the G string, including notes well above the end of the fingerboard.   Unfortunately, Reeves met with several pitch problems that sounded out all too clearly as Tan allowed him plenty of exposure, including a flashy cadenza.

In this work also the melodic elements turned towards folk-inflected lyricism, bedizened with atmospheric textures for both soloist and orchestra.  The composer wears his emotions openly and both this concerto’s formal characteristics and its scintillating surface combine to make an immediately attractive construct, the score packed with action and – for the most part – an excellent aural illustration of the film.

The night’s only other serious music, also by Tan, was Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds, which involved a bit of audience participation that I mentally pooh-poohed before the performance but which turned out to be close to magical.  For this, the composer had asked audience members to download an app to be played from their cellphones during the work’s progress.  As it turned out, the pre-recorded mass sound came at the start when the composer pointed to various points of the hall to activate their 52 seconds of sound – a mass of bird chirps, which slowly moved across the hall from left to right – then starting the MSO on its way through the new score which brought fresh textures and sonic surprises at every turn, including brass outbursts of biting intensity, string layering, the orchestra turning on their own bird-sound apps, all the while bringing us back to the ground bass being jockeyed round the orchestra.

I wasn’t sure about the film accompanying this work.  Abandoning the wild-life scheme, here the backdrop consisted of Chinese ideograms/letters juxtaposed with and superimposed by and on what looked like ancient Chinese symbols and letters.  Still, by this stage I was glad to be spared the endless clips of horse hordes, even some welcome still lives of sheep and cattle that illustrated Grassland My Beautiful Home; it meant that your visual incomprehension generated a fall-back in your attention to what was going on with the musicians.

Both concerto and passacaglia were received with clear approbation by a well-populated hall, which also reacted with enthusiasm to each of the Hanggai offerings including Horse of Colours with its appropriate galloping pace, The Transistor Made in Shanghai for that essential touch of contemporary humour, the afore-mentioned Grassland My Beautiful Home which bore unmistakable reference to country-and-western influences, an unscheduled airing of Uruumdush, and a Swan Geese finale with a mesmerising film of wild bird flights in convoy.

After a good many years’ exposure to attempted fusions of popular music performers with orchestras, I have to confess that the experiences haven’t generated great enthusiasm on my part.  The trouble is worsened when it comes to rock-and-roll because it is essentially a retrogressive form of music.  Given the freedom to break boundaries and forge new paths, rock settled into a behavioural groove compared to which New Orleans jazz is a maelstrom of creativity.   Electronic instruments with incredible potential have never been exploited, possibly because of the dearth of trained musicians in rock-and-roll ranks, possibly because popular determinations stamped out all attempts at real creativity (Frank Zappa, Hendrix, even Carlos Santana) so that today’s scene is packed with self-indulgent mediocrities whose points of difference are sub-atomic.

Hanggai, from a distance (as they were on this night), are unremarkable.  Their frequent appearances on the film stock being unwound before us showed a tendency to see themselves (or allow themselves to be presented) as rebels, isolated heroes, a posse that might have escaped from the set of a spaghetti western, dogged forward-striding figures that recall ageing images of Deep Purple or the Rolling Stones – anything, in fact, except musicians.   Their material is basically sweet and wistful, but they drag it screaming along a predictable furrow.   Nevertheless, I’m very thankful to Tan Dun for making the process of experiencing their work a great deal less harrowing than it could have been.

 

 

 

What price the Holy Spirit?

ARVO PART & J.S.BACH

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Sunday February 10

Estonian

                                               Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

Starting out 2019 as it probably means to continue, the ACO under Richard Tognetti mounted a first program for its subscription series that stretched across the centuries, its main structural premise to put side by side works from two composers of religious music.  If you really stretch, you can find links between Bach and Part; when I say ‘you’, I mean it because I can’t see any grounds for comparison – not in terms of the mechanics of composition nor in the self-imposed aesthetic of both men.

Nevertheless, this event – playing to a pretty full Hamer Hall  –  succeeded conclusively on technical grounds, if none other.   The guest choir proved to be an exceptionally well-balanced ensemble, apart from a sporadically dominant soprano in Choir 1, with a fine tenor sextet and an appreciable difference in sound colour between the two groups during the Bach works.   It was impossible to take notes during the performance as the hall was plunged into darkness as soon as the music started; which struck me as odd, unnecessarily theatrical when the places for which most of these compositions were composed are usually blazing with light.

Having a firm association with their famous compatriot, the Estonian singers brought out the best in the two Part vocal scores: Da pacem, Domine,  and the Berliner Messe of 1990.  Like many of the composer’s works, the Da pacem shows few signs of harmonic adventure with several finely ground dissonances slightly disturbing the usual placid polyphonic carapace, mainly through supple triadic juxtapositions.  As a requiem for the Madrid train bombing victims of 2004, the short motet-like work is informed by familiar Part tropes, including a slow-moving-to-static pulse, isolated notes for the sopranos, and an atmosphere of ritualised mourning.  The choir sang it from in front of the ACO, before moving to their expected positions behind the instruments.

On this occasion, the version used was Part’s arrangement for voices and strings, which set the timbre field for the rest of the afternoon.   When the next work burst upon us, Bach’s Komm, Jesu, komm, the ACO strings doubled the vocal lines and did so for Singet dem Herrn, the four-part Lobet den Herrn, Der Geist hilft and also performed the Berlin Mass in Part’s post-premiere arrangement for voices and strings.

As for discrete works from the two forces, Tognetti took the ACO through Part’s Summa, later recycled as the Credo for his Mass and a transparent sample of the composer’s synchronising of an arpeggio/triad with a mode: stately, not leading anywhere and reminiscent of a conversation where all the sentences stay unfinished.   Following interval, the strings played the Toccata from Part’s Collage on B-A-C-H, the only one of the three movements that is scored for strings alone.   Not so much a toccata as a moto perpetuo satire on continuo homophony, this proved to be the program’s oddity for its pulsating rhythmic drive, as well as for having no connection with the spiritual referents of the other works performed.

Galina Grigorjeva’s In Paradisum gave the EPCC a solo spot and, although the piece would have gained from a space with an abundant echo, it slotted into these proceedings without much effort.  Almost inevitably, this slow-moving setting of the Requiem Mass’s final antiphon showed a predilection for Part’s commitment to triads and the common major chord, best exemplified in the three thrilling bursts of acclaim at the words Chorus Angelorum te suscipiant, even if moments like this show both composers’ debt to Rachmaninov.   But Grigorjeva’s writing is more pungent, especially in the use of 2nd intervals; while her employment of chords-plus-fluent melodic lines in combination suggests the senior writer, her setting style has more magniloquence to it.

I suppose the inclusion of Sculthorpe’s Djilele was meant to demonstrate Aboriginal spirituality through a semi-sophisticated Western compositional filter.  But it rather undercut the surrounding pieces because the fragment gives little more than atmosphere, suggesting the outback with as much subtlety as Chauvel’s film Jedda.  Timo-Veikko Valve made a mountain out of the opening cello solo but I missed the textural contributions of six winds and percussion appearing in the original arrangement that Sculthorpe organised for the ACO back in 1996.

You couldn’t take exception to the Mass as a liturgical construct.   Part kept his language sombre and open to the performers’ own choice of inflections with an inbuilt consistency  in language that complemented a necessary variety in both weight and vocal/instrumental combinations.   Yes, there are longueurs, like the mode employed for both Gloria and Credo which gives a chord or a two-voice interval to each syllable and simply forges ahead on a steady path, regardless of the textual content.   Compensating for this are some surprises with two fluid Alleluia settings that site the work as usable for Pentecost and a setting of that feast’s Sequence, Veni Sancte Spiritus, which suggests a slow medieval dance or conductus, albeit one where the metre changes from 3 to 4 beats in the bar with welcome regularity.

While the choral body came across very confidently in this four-part composition, Tognetti’s strings were a much less assertive presence; to such an extent that you might have thought that Part had confined his orchestra to supportive duties only, until you see in the score that many passages have welcome individual touches, including harmonics that in this performance failed to carry with anything like sufficient power.   The lack of weight, especially in the upper string ranks, meant that Part’s carefully disposed chords became attenuated, not the trenchant commentary intended.

At its core, this near-30-year-old Mass, even if a revenant from pre-Vatican II times, is perfectly serviceable as an ecumenical liturgical construct and serves as well as anything else in the catalogue to allow a fair summation of Part’s voice which can be direct enough for the intended purpose and isn’t consistently aiming for transcendence.   In some ways, the Estonian is an old-fashioned writer, utilising simple structures and patterns , suggesting a spiritual remoteness and the silence of meditation rather than the resonant jubilation of proximity to the divine.

With a new year comes a new format in the ACO’s program booklets; new to me, at least.  A short description of each work is provided but the bulk of the material comprises commentary and interview articles.   Amiel Courtin-Wilson , artist and film-maker, gives an appreciation of Part’s role in his mental life: an appealing encomium which stops just short of gushing.   Arab-Australian poet Omar Sakr offers a substantial piece that includes Tognetti’s views on Part and Bach, with the emphasis on the latter.  Finally, ACO librarian Bernard Rofe suggests some ways to approach the program and, in a small space, attempts to find common ground between the pieces being presented.

Much of the central article by Sakr makes invigorating reading, although you suspect that Tognetti is reaching to activate a muted shock button in his evaluation of Bach’s interpretation of the Lutheran zeitgeist.   He is quite right to point to a historical connection between the two composers featured in his program’s title but, given the scores themselves, surely this resolves into both men’s dedication to sacred music.  Even to those among us who are charitably disposed to fluffing up music-history pillows, Part and Bach operate in completely discrete arenas of thought, let alone action; that their metaphysical aspirations are close is probably worth debating but their lives, their musical practice, their creative personalities are as far apart as Josquin and Berio.

Obviously, the new booklet format must be welcomed for putting forward a welter of thoughts that continue to bemuse  both before and after the concerts themselves.  Perhaps this afternoon was – as I think – a mish-mash and not that convincing as a practical compendium of two musics; or possibly the applause that greeted both halves of this concert sees the enterprise differently, showing a more generous, accepting attitude from ACO followers.  What must be said – and I can’t say the same as frequently as I’d like  –  these two hours spent with the ACO and EPCC were unexpectedly fruitful and challenging.

 

 

 

Can you please everyone?

NOEL! NOEL!

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday December 8

Bonnie-De-La-Hunty_20

                                                                 Bonnie de la Hunty

I get worried, irrationally so, about the use of exclamation marks in concert titles.   It almost works in something like the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra’s choice of Espana! for a program earlier this year that turned out to be disappointing; but then, you can justify the punctuation there as simple advertising colour, whereas you wouldn’t swallow it if the advertising gurus had simply proposed Spain!   It’s become the Brandenburgers’ custom to give their Christmas event this doubled-up title, so much so that most of us swallow it without thinking.   But the practice suggests seasonal hyperventilation more than anything else.   For most of us, the word is associated with The First Nowell carol which, despite (or because of) its venerability, doesn’t suggest excitement in any of its verses.

You can find something of the same kind of hyperbole in events called Christmas!  even if that mild explosion suggests something like Eureka! (or more relevantly, Thank God!).    Or is that comparison really valid?   It’s as though the French word for the feast-day is up there with Hallelujah!, although the latter is a true exclamation.   Where’s the difference between Noel! and Paques!?    I’m minded to celebrate Epiphany! next month, and my late Anglican mother would have got a charge out of observing Michaelmas!  not to forget my Greek kin’s potential for revelling in  a self-stimulating Dormition!

Still, we’re all glad to have arrived, over-punctuated or not, at a time of spiritual cosiness and behavioural benevolence  for once in 2018.   The ABO and its occasional Choir gave us a  prelude to the celebrations with yet another program full of material calculated to have something for everyone.   Forgetting the inevitable American element (confined to Irving Berlin’s White Christmas this time round), the seasonal content prevailed even if a fair number of the offerings had no relevance at all.

Setting the bar both high and low, ABO artistic director Paul Dyer opened the night with a chant by Hildegard of Bingen, O Euchari in laeta via: a song to St. Eucharius who was the first bishop of Trier.    The abbess swallowed the story that Eucharius was one of the original disciples and saw Christ, although those who insist on facts believe that he didn’t take up his crozier until the late 3rd century AD.   I thought it was an odd choice to begin, even if it gave a fine introduction to de la Hunty’s pure, untroubled soprano, but December 8 is the saint’s feast-day – which is fine for those of us in the Murdoch Hall on this particular Saturday but which may puzzle later audiences in Paddington, the Angel Place Recital Hall, Wollongong, Parramatta, Mosman and Newtown.    In Alex Palmer’s arrangement, the transparent chant loses its innocence by being strait-jacketed into a 4/4 beat, supported by inoffensive sustained string chords which give way to syncopated chugging, the ABO singers entering near the end.

The choir got down to more impressive business with the Advent plainsong Rorate coeli, given a decent going-over by the male voices, the process not too flabby in precision since Dyer left the singers to their own devices, even if some individual voices broke through; such participants not subscribing to the usual practice that asks for the sublimation of personality for the sake of the general texture.   The body’s women followed up with another Advent specialty –  Veni, veni Emmanuel –  that morphed into a march for drum and strings.

Speaking of percussion, Brian Nixon made himself the night’s linkman, chaining events together through glissades on mini-tubular bells or soft cymbal strokes.   At this point, he led the corps into Cruger’s Nu komm der Heyden heyland – well, a version of it, I suppose, based on the work’s inclusion in the composer’s Praxis pietatis melica hymnbook.  This was followed by Johannes Eccard’s setting of Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier, a chorale-like work for five lines, transformed into a rather militant march which seemed at odds with the Nativity-meditation situation proposed in the text.   Still, this was deftly arranged for the forces available, vocal and orchestral, and finished off an opening bracket of distinction, despite those carping points raised above.

Section Two opened with the traditional speech from Dyer – an address in which ‘beautiful’ and ‘wonderful’ featured heavily with a bonus feature or two – introducing the orchestra by their first names, and picking out three children in the audience for some personal attention (pretty much confined to ‘How old are you?’).  While shepherds watched, starring de la Hunty, followed the familiar Christopher Tye melody, complete with double-length notes at the start and end of each line.   Monteverdi’s Laudate dominum began carefully enough with a chaste band – harpsichord, guitar, organ and drum; then took a Jordi Savall turn into a jam for the two violins of Matt Bruce and Ben Dollman which had all the signposts of pre-scripted improvisation, and ended with a welter of vocal floridity from de la Hunty that took us into the 1610 Vespers universe.   Very nice in parts, but I can’t see what Psalm 117 has to do with Christmas.

Nor for that matter was the Gartan Mother’s Lullaby suggestive of much beyond Irish melancholy.   De la Hunty took part in this simple lyric; nothing too challenging and the main brunt of the work fell to the choir in yet another of Alex Palmer’s arrangements which found room in its later stages for the trio of sackbuts that had enriched the German pieces heard earlier.    Showing their mettle, the choir sang Guerrero’s Maria Magdalena motet, putting something of a strain on the tenors – forced to split into two groups like the sopranos, but working hard between the five of them to contribute meaningfully to the complex.   This work deals with the famous penitent and the other Marys visiting the tomb to anoint Christ’s body, which on this night seemed to be putting the Easter cart before the Christmas horse.    However, this interpolation served little real purpose except to remind you of how splendidly the Ensemble Gombert deals with music of this nature: in this instance, the piece lacked fluency, moving past with an unexpected insistence on a putative bar-line’s dominion.

It wasn’t all downhill from here on as we entered Part Three but the hiatus points grew more numerous.   Palmer’s arrangement of We three kings gave lots of exposure to the brass, nifty effects brightening up a carol that has some excellent lines married to an execrable, mournful tune.   You could always entertain yourself by imaging what Webern would have done with this material; probably something a tad more subtle than this frivolity  which suggested a sort of Klanmgfarbenmelodie for the Common Man.   Another left-field construct followed with a piece of Rameau revisionism, billed as O nuit from the opera Hippolyte et Aricie.   The actual material referred to is a sprightly trio for soloist and two chorus lines addressed to the goddess Diana, not the slow salute to Night that we heard, fabricated by Joseph Noyon over two centuries after Rameau’s short prayer was written.  This was an a cappella number for the choir supporting de la Hunty but, as it was in essence a plea to Night to calm the unhappy, its connection to Christmas could only be described as distant.   However, the effect made for an amiably soothing oasis, alongside yet another Palmer arrangement, this time a sober version of O little town of Bethlehem for brass quartet (the sackbuts, plus Leanne Sullivan’s baroque trumpet) and percussion.

Palmer’s voice appeared en clair for his own A sparkling Christmas, written for string quintet, amalgamating Ding! dong! merrily on high, Hark! the herald angels sing, God rest ye merry, gentlemen and Joy to the world!   This melange showed a cleverness in juxtapositioning, if not much actual wit in the process, and a preference for the chugging rhythmic drive that disturbed the earlier Hildegard revamp.

The program’s last section, comprising six numbers, proved the least satisfying, possibly because its elements were so disparate.   Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds’ Only in sleep sets US poet Sarah Teasdale’s reminiscence of childhood for soprano and choir.  It’s a sensitive treatment, bordering on poignancy and aimed at yanking the heart-strings with a shapely melodic line and rich harmonization that brings to mind the modern American choral school of composition for university choirs, although this composer is essentially a product of his own country (without too much of that pseudo-spirituality that has pervaded the Baltic over the last half-century) and British influences.   Only in sleep was a fine choice to display the guest soprano’s clarity of timbre, even if Teasdale’s text retained its mysteries.

Opting to have de la Hunty essay Handel’s Let the bright seraphim was not a clever move.  The singer who takes on this show-piece needs to have more energy and drive from the diaphragm; yes, all the notes were there and pretty cleanly negotiated but the production lacked power.   Sullivan’s trumpet handled the many imitations with general success but, despite all that attractive Baroque bling,  the aria comes from an oratorio about the judge of Israel, Samson, and has no inbuilt suggestions of Messianic prophecy to give it a connection to the night’s supposed theme.

Berlin’s popular hit seems to be a favourite in these ABO Christmas concerts.  I think we’ve heard this Jonathan Rathbone arrangement before; it’s for male voices, fused  in barbershop quartet-style harmonization, and here enjoyed high approval.   De la Hunty returned for another ABO regular: Adam’s O holy night, as re-imagined by Palmer and accomplished with fine use of the limited forces at hand.   Again, you would have preferred more projection and emotional conviction from the soloist but her line only suffered severe drowning-out at unavoidable climactic points,   The well-used soloist also took part in Gruber’s Stille nacht – first verse German, second verse French, third verse English – with Tommie Andersson’s guitar a welcome reminder of the carol’s first performance, the whole effect only momentarily marred by Dyer’s interpolation of an aimless harpsichord dribble between the first two verses.

O come, all ye faithful brought up the rear  –  in the David Willcocks version, I believe.  A classic of its type, it might have been more sensibly placed closer to the start of proceedings; after all, it is an invitation more than a recessional.   But it rounded off the night’s final four pieces with a sterling reinforcement of the reason why we were all gathered together.

I was at the second of the two performances on this Saturday and audience numbers were respectable but seemed to be down on previous years.   It’s probably time that the Noel! Noel! exercise enjoyed a revamp.   For example, when 7 out of 18 pieces programmed have nothing to do with Christmas, you have to wonder how close this event is veering towards the anything-goes approach of Carols by Candlelight.  A wealth of music to do with the season flies under most organizations’ collective radar year after year, while we still hear all those threadbare tunes, hackneyed matter that may give the comfort of familiarity but offers little spiritual or musical elation.

 

 

 

 

Glitzy surface; anything down below?

SEASON FINALE GALA

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Saturday December 1

          Vengerov

                                                                     Maxim Vengerov

We seem to be in gala mode at least three times a year these days, the MSO celebrating the year’s beginning (if a bit late after the real thing), its middle and its conclusion (if a tad early, what with a Christmas program, a handful of Messiahs, and four live soundtrack supports for The Empire Strikes Back screenings still to be played across the coming half- month).   This concert probably gained its exceptional status due to the appearance of violinist Maxim Vengerov as guest artist, the visiting conductor a familiar pair of shoulders in Markus Stenz who was greeted with something like acclaim by an audience that seemed far more representative of the general population than is usual.

Stenz opened the celebration soberly enough with the Prelude and Transformation Music to Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal.   In fact, the last time this scene-change music appeared on an MSO program was in 2004 under Stenz during his final months as the body’s artistic director/chief conductor.    Both works, linked seamlessly here, depend for success pretty much on balance and unanimity of chording, mainly because not much is taking place except a sequence of motifs – The Last Supper, The Grail, Faith, Cry of Anguish, Sacred Spear, Saviour’s Lament, Bell Theme – which are treated almost side by side as Wagner tiresomely confronts his uneasiness with Catholic impedimenta and a saga of pre-Dan Brown theological silliness

Most of the brass block entries came across without much distress, but then a good many are low-lying and in this music Wagner doesn’t call for any split-second, abrupt chords.  Ditto the strings who take their time about things.   Both the woodwind and woodwind-plus-brass utterances en masse were successful only half of the time and the final long sustained chords of the Prelude proper impressed as strained and not just from the top flute line.

Not much disturbed the slow processional which accompanies the scene change as Gurnemanz leads Parsifal into the hall of the Grail Temple.   It’s never that convincing, even off the stage, as the composer attempts to convey the knights’ majesty and faithful stolidity which inevitably winds up sounding pompous, self-regarding and several spiritual light-years away from the mystery that is about to be celebrated.   Stenz generated a compelling, full-bodied sound from his players, making much of the climaxes to the processional slow march.   At its best, the transformation holds a glowing richness which sounded splendid in this ambience, more gripping than you can experience in your garden-variety opera house or theatre.

Vengerov gave the premiere of Qigang Chen’s violin concerto, La joie de la souffrance, in October 2017.    It’s a co-commission by the Beijing Music Festival (where it was first played), the Orchestre national du Capitol de Toulouse, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, the Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition (where it was a compulsory work for the six finalists), and the MSO.    The score answers to a fair number of godparents and, as you’d anticipate with such a multipartite fostering, has several disparate bases to cover.

In sum, Chen’s concerto is old-fashioned.   Very often during its progress, I was reminded of 19th century repertoire warhorses by Bruch and Saint-Saens; not the vocabulary so much, although at times that also seemed close, but the shape of the piece and its requirements of the soloist.   Colourful shades and timbres it has in spades, from vivid percussion flashes to simple, sinuous melodies.   The composer takes as his jumping-off mark a Chinese melody, Yangguan Sandie, which appears to be concerned with the parting of two friends, one of them leaving from the westernmost post of civilization for the unknown lands outside the Chinese empire.

In part, this fulcrum song uses part of a poem by Wang Wei, whose verses (the same as these?) were used by Mahler in the last movement of his Das Lied von der Erde – the interesting and controlled lines before the composer inserts his own, emotionally inflated conclusion to this movement that too many commentators hail as a transcendent masterpiece while some of us find it sentimentally bloated, out of kilter with the majority of the song’s lines, and not very consonant with the preceding five movements.

Chen opens his concerto with laid-back virtuosic flourishes before announcing his theme, and then offers variations on it.   You hear other melodic matter, but not much.   The move from rapid-moving fleetness to (in this case) pentatonic suggestiveness in elongated lyrical pages is what brought to mind exemplars like the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations and Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy.   Vengerov persevered through some deliberately winsome curvetting, followed by soulful melodies pronounced in the manner of a pop singer: start out your note blandly uninflected, then develop a vibrato with a crescendo and presto! you have expressiveness  .  .  .  except you don’t: you have a gimmick which wearies by repetition.

Not that Chen tired you out.   His score was mobile, very intriguing for its scoring in faster segments, gifted with a rolling, solid tune (or two?) that he metamorphosed with skill, if not much rigour.    Do you retain much of the composition some hours after one audition?   Not really but, unlike so many products of these times, you couldn’t object to hearing the concerto again.    It’s not a waste of time; expounded by this soloist and a willing-enough orchestra, it roused unexpected approbation from a receptive audience.

Thoughtfully, Vengerov and Stenz had organised an encore: Kreisler’s Tambourin chinois. Those of us who belong to an older generation know this frivolity pretty well and it’s a piquant enough scrap of pseudo-Orientalism with some brilliant display passages for the soloist.   I can’t explain the mind-set that decided to put it alongside Chen’s work; something like following Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with an Enescu Rumanian Rhapsody  –  the gestures are vaguely comparable, but the aesthetic imbalance is ludicrous.

Stravinsky and his secretary/amanuensis Robert Craft railed against interpretations of the composer’s The Rite of Spring ballet when they served chiefly as a vehicle for the showman conductor.   As the decades have passed since the work’s 1913 premiere, orchestras have become inured to the score’s sound-production innovations and its rhythmic irregularities.   Sonorous messes like the Introduction which once required decisive, if not finicky, indications from a conductor, especially in the four bars before the reversion to Tempo 1, can now be trusted to the individuals involved.   Unless you’re a Boulez type who leaves nothing to chance by adopting a directorial style that resembles autocratic semaphore.

Stenz worked the score for maximum dramatic effect, interpolating himself as the central axis of the performance; for example, during the Les Augures pritaniers pages, he followed the predictable path of over-stressing the prevailing dynamic, but then put himself front-and-centre with whole-body spasms on each of the horn sforzando accents, followed by an attention-attracting over-lengthy general pause at rehearsal number 22 in my old Hawkes pocket score.   Less choreography was involved in supervising the Jeu du rapt, but there’s more to do here than simply let things chug along their 2/4 path.   You could have required more definition in the block chords that punctuate the final 16 bars of this section, interruptions that should come over like whip-cracks.

Years ago, I can remember being worried by Stenz’s slow pace for the opening 6 bars of the Rondes printanieres which led into a very heavy handling of the ensuing pages and a poco rit. in its final bar which was anything but poco.   The same problem recurred on this night.   On the other hand, the Jeux des cites rivales and Cortege du sage proved exciting to experience.  The Part 1 conclusion, Danse de la terre, followed suit, even if you might have been happier with a sharper etching out of fabric details like the trumpet grupetti that begin two bars before rehearsal number 77 and which bite through the whirling melange until the final six bars when they double the upper woodwind in syncopations that reflect the Augures.

In the second half of the ballet, the approach began with a near-solicitude for the slow-moving quavers that surround the thematic fragment on which Stravinsky builds these mystical pages that irreverently bring to mind some of Holst’s outer planets.   Indeed, one of the few defects in this part of the performance came in the conductor’s emphasis on sustained general pauses, as in the two that precede the Glorification de l’elue.

Here, Stenz showed great trust in  his players, content with fairly skimpy gestures, more happy to dance the work along.   The more jerky sections of the concluding Danse sacrale revealed a laudable synchronicity from the whole body despite the occasional splay coming through rather than a professional, emphatic unanimity of utterance.   The final fermata at rehearsal number 180 again impressed/disconcerted by its length.

You couldn’t call it a rough reading of this ground-breaking masterpiece; it sat streets ahead of some distressingly uneven performances heard from this orchestra in the second half of the last century.    What was missing appeared to be delicacy – which might seem strange when talking about this ultra-percussive work.   But it seemed to be tellingly unsubtle in its placid moments, not helped by some articulation difficulties that came from Jack Schiller’s bassoon right from the first bars, the problem appearing to be due to an instrument key rather than his reeds.   But you were left hanging many times, waiting for pointed solos to emerge from the susurrus; pinpricks from the piccolo trumpet, the D and E flat clarinet, Dale Barltrop’s solo violin – all were faint echoes of their proper selves.

But what do I know?   The audience erupted into an applause avalanche at the end and Stenz seemed delighted, smiling happily while panting as though he’d just completed a taxing 400 metres sprint.    If you like your Rite loud and punchy, this was a fine reading; for me, any live encounter with the work is worthwhile, but there are so many details, orchestration diamonds scattered throughout its fabric, that I was sorry not to encounter.

 

 

 

 

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Lest we forget? Not a chance

IF NOT IN THIS WORLD

Arcko Symphonic Ensemble

Church of All Nations, Carlton

Sunday November 11 at 7 pm

Menin_Gate_at_midnight_(Will_Longstaff)

                                      Menin Gate at Midnight   (Will Longstaff, 1927) 

This event marked an ominous date.  It observed the centenary of the armistice that concluded World War I, a time when the simple-minded and the wilfully ignorant among us claim that Australia ‘came of age’ – a concept as childish as that which sustained our hunting fathers into believing that blooding at a deer hunt conferred adulthood.

At this concert, you were confronted by no romance, no celebration, no tub-thumping patriotism but by the dour face of war, specifically the economically-fuelled debacle of 1914-18, with the three composers featured on this Arcko program focused on the European theatre of destruction rather than digging up their source material from a Turkish littoral that has yielded a remarkably slight musical crop.

Only one of the writers was familiar to me.   Helen Gifford’s compositions featured on several programs of the New Music series run by George Dreyfus in this city during the early 1960s, and later at International Society for Contemporary Music events in those halcyon years when that body had an active Melbourne branch.  Her two colleagues on this night – Rohan Phillips (one of Gifford’s cousins) and Andrew Harrison –  are new names, although both have been presences on Melbourne’s music scene and are close contemporaries, having been born in 1971.

Interwoven with the program’s musical content were extracts from a 1919 poem: An English Vision of Empire by Frederick Phillips, grandfather of  Arcko founder/conductor, Timothy Phillips.   This substantial work follows a familiar British pattern, probably reaching its finest flower in Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome of 1842 where encomiums to national virtue and exhortations to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield were part of the apparatus of every gentleman’s thought.   Melbourne actor Bob Ruggiero read these extracts with little of the ardour that informed the poet; in fact, all four of these selected segments proved dusty-dry, even the final panegyric to Empire-supporting virtue that concludes with a prayer to God for a continuation of his directing hand which has, of course, given us the victory.

Rohan Phillips, in his Meditations on Der Krieg for small orchestra, took inspiration from a series of prints made by German artist Otto Dix.   From the original 50, Phillips chose seven for treatment: Bei Langemarck, Sturmtruppe geht unter Gas vor, Essenholer bei Pilkem, Zerfallender Kampfgraben, Gesehen am Steilhang von Clery-sur-Somme, Abend in der Wijtschaete-Ebene, and Nachtliche Begegnung mit einem Irrsinnigen.   Helpfully, each of the prints was projected on the Church hall’s back wall.

For this work where breaks between the scenes were minimal, Phillips kept to a continuously self-referring vocabulary in which dislocated or isolated notes and sounds provided the main action.   While the initial sound scape tended to softness, it was soon punctuated with abrupt blurts that cut up the backdrop of over-arching single notes  and overlapping timbre textures.   For all that, the score reached passages of stridency that were confrontational through insistence, intended to support Dix’s pictures.

Yet, if the music was intended to provide a commentary on each of the seven paintings, I’m not sure that aim was achieved; well, not to my ear which, for example, found little difference between the ration-carrying illustration and the following view of a disintegrating trench.  Phillips’ canvas of piano single notes disturbed by curt interruptions progressed to a predilection for gradually accrued clusters and one-note crescendi.

The intention was to communicate desolation, an unrelieved and grim hopelessness which reached its high-point in the final pictures where the artist drew bodies lying across a plain and an encounter with a lunatic.  This was as close to image-painting as the work got yet the piece stayed true to its origins, juxtaposing  manic and brief activity with a grey instrumental stasis.   To Phillips’ credit, his musical construct took on a life of its own and, while it was most informative to see Dix’s work as a sort of concomitant, the score stood up to scrutiny on its own terms.

Andrew Harrison’s 2012 solo piano composition The drumfire was incessant and continued all night with unabated fury  was performed by Peter Dumsday whom I last heard playing Brendan Colbert’s Like a maelstrom about three years ago at this venue with the Arckos.   It was hard to follow the composer’s outline of his own work; for example, the proposed march-like figure at the initial Arrival at Pozieres Ridge segment flew completely above my radar, but the suggestion of menace in the triple-piano bass clusters and lurching middle register material was impressively conceived.  As opposed to Phillips Meditations, this work presented as solid, subterranean sound blocks with rapid slashes in alt to heighten tension.

As you’d expect from a representation of the lead-up to and the actuality of a massive artillery bombardment, the piano’s percussive nature was explored with high aggression, which meant many pages of hard graft for Dumsday.  The composer inserted two ‘over-the-top’ whistles into the work’s progress, the first followed by downward note-packed cascades, the second prompting movement in the opposite direction.  Despite the work’s recorded/proposed length of about 9 or 10 minutes, it seemed a good deal longer, stretching the narrative to an uncomfortable extent, as though the music could not find resolution . . . which is probably part of the composer’s intention, suggesting the unbearably elongated nature of such an engagement and the ambiguity of its outcome in these terrible fields where so much life was squandered for so little territorial gain.

Gifford’s Menin Gate piano solo has its origin in Will Longstaff’s celebrated painting (also projected on to the space’s rear wall) in which the white shades of dead soldiers pass by the memorial structure in Ypres.   Written 13 years ago, its emotional landscape presents as both solid and stolid; not as fast to move onward as the preceding works on this night but allowing sounds and textures to resonate.  In certain passages, you sense the same desolation as in the other compositions programmed, but the writing features a logic that recalls Webern’s manner of ordered pocks of sound.

Joy Lee gave a calm account of the piece which eventually moved to a grinding high point, retreating to more impressionistic washes, blurs of fabric melded into block-layers of timbre by hefty use of the sustaining pedal, until the composer calls a halt with a last, lengthy chord.  As with Phillips’ work, the visual element provided an extra environment but this music was less concerned with illustration and more involved with a gentle mourning, underlining Owen’s unforgettable observation about the pity of war.

Harrison’s If Not In This World is a kind of cantata, its text provided by extracts from a letter written by the composer’s great-great-uncle, Leslie Robins, who fought and was wounded at Pozieres and later died at Gueudecourt; letters from the Bendigo soldier’s mother, Emma Robins, to the War Office, seeking information about her son’s wounds and then asking for any keepsakes he might have left behind after he was killed; and two bureaucratic responses from that Office.

Soprano Justine Anderson sang the words of Emma Robins with fine responsiveness, adding a kind of resigned urgency, then resignation to the mother’s requests for information; a hard ask as the words were unaffected, both moving and prosaic together.   Robert Latham’s tenor was put to a harder task with Leslie Robins’ communications which were pretty well confined to details about what was happening in the field.   The post-Britten arioso adopted was moving ahead clearly enough when suddenly Harrison overwhelmed his singer with a solid battery of brass and percussion, a feature which recurred in the first three of the soldier’s accounts; without printed copies of the words, I think most of us would have been lost in trying to follow the work’s path.

Latham was not only hard put to it in terms of audibility but was also stretched in negotiating his line’s higher reaches.  Compared to the string-heavy background to Anderson’s delivery and the looping grace of her part, Latham enjoyed little respite probably inevitable when your talk is all of machine guns, attacks, bombardments, death, nocturnal alarms and wounds, although the brisk, blasting instrumental sonorities abated when the letter moved on to the topic of convalescence.

The work takes its title from Robins’ last written words – ‘Till we meet again, if not in this world, then the next.’   Harrison brings a resonant lyricism to these phrases, combining both voices in a resigned pairing, repeating the words to reinforce a simple memorial to the sombre dignity of death and grief.  To his credit, the composer avoided sentimentality, notably in these final pages where you would most expect it.  In fact, although Harrison used a wide range of effects in manipulating his chamber orchestra, what remained with you at the end was the familiar ordinariness of this small historical vignette, which was essentially repeated thousands of times across this country.

Here was an intelligent and honourable way to observe such a centenary.  None of the music drew attention to itself  for superficial reasons like virtuosity or emotional self-indulgence.   The Arcko players worked with laudable success under Timothy Phillips’ fluent direction, making few apparent errors in two scores that exposed a good many solo players.

It would be asinine to suggest that this concert was enjoyable, but its elements combined to reinforce your admiration and sorrow for the willing sons of a milder, simpler generation who marched with innocence to the slaughter, as well as taking you to something approaching despair when you recall what was going to happen across Europe a little over 20 years later.