Reflections of our struggle

THE CROWD & I

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday August 15, 2022

I would have thought that putting this exercise into operation was pretty simple. For all that, the process seems to have taken a number of years before it grew into its current form. The construct’s realization came from three prime sources: the ACO’s artistic director Richard Tognetti, film and staging director Nigel Jamieson, cinematographer and editor Jon Frank. Of course, a cast of several assisted this creative trinity, but the actual composite whole boiled down to a sequence of film sequences for the eyes and a collation of musics for the ears.

I’ve seen one of these collaborations before, when Tognetti went into partnership with photographer Bill Henson for Luminous in 2005. I think the surf/water one came my way at some time but nothing remains in the memory about that; Mountain, from about five years ago, remains a personal terra incognita, if not quite nullius. You can find little to take exception to in The Crowd & I; visually, it’s occasionally gripping and at other times tedious; with its musical stratum, the success rate is just about the same. So, much of the presentation fell outside my competence level, and the ACO’s contribution was hard to assess as the body seemed to be amplified for part of the night and the corps had mixed success with some works; not so much with the notes’ production but in how they sounded.

Along with the organization’s 16 strings (one down on the usual number, I think), we heard a flute/piccolo, a clarinet/bass clarinet, a bassoon/contrabassoon, a trumpet, a trombone/bass trombone, two percussionists and pianist Konstantin Shamray. Supplying vocal sounds came six members of Sydney’s Song Company. I think that summary includes all on-stage performers but can’t be sure: for much of the night, the musicians were working in darkness, a black-as-pitch pit situation with some strange groupings being carried out. Further to this, certain moments had you wondering whether you should just give up and watch the films rather than trying to make logical sense out of what you were hearing. For instance, during Ives’ The Unanswered Question, I could have sworn I saw an extra (anonymous) flute taking part in the woodwind ejaculations. The night began with the first movement to Schubert’s B minor Symphony in a Tognetti arrangement where the 15 original winds were cut to five, the result being that both oboe and horn textures were sadly missed by those of us who are asinine enough to revere this splendid fragment.

But some readings succeeded well enough, like the Slow Waltz section of Morton Feldman’s Three Voices that accompanied images of refugee camps and their dispiriting mixture of desolation and overcrowding. A Shostakovich polka supported shots of football crowds in all their natural repulsive mindlessness. The sickening images of the Cronulla riots in 2005 made a fine melding with Tognetti’s own rabid Mosh Maggot, which title is an apt descriptor for each one of those who initiated (from a gutless distance) or took part in this national celebration. Also, the final sequence of a Japanese fast train speeding through a seemingly endless, self-perpetuating cityscape while Chopin’s Op. 27 C sharp minor Nocturne forged along its troubled, unhappy path made for a conclusion to the evening that transcended much of the program’s main body, colourful though this was in many parts.

In the end, you’re left with an old-fashioned entertainment which, in fact, has no pretensions to grandeur or wide range of thought; more, it’s a look at the multitude and the individual in different contexts: the crowd or I. As expected, the visual component(s) stole most of the thunder and it often required a wrench to give proper focus to what Tognetti and his cohorts were about. I never thought that I’d be distracted from the Molto adagio of Beethoven’s Op. 132 but Michael Wolf’s images of individual faces among a crushed host of Japanese commuters were among the most arresting sequences in this night’s work; as were the succeeding prospects of Hong Kong housing that resembled computer strips straight out of the Matrix films.

It’s clear (to me, at least) that Tognetti, Jamieson and Frank are content to face you with their combined vision and leave open whatever you choose to make of it. (Well, there’s nothing original in that observation: most of today’s arts avoid audience direction.) Certainly, there are crowds galore, some of them obviously Australian (not just the Cronulla sub-normals), some of them close to being in extremis like the refugees coming to land on Samos or Lesbos, others a mass of individual colours that somehow cancel out individuality as in the millions that gather on the banks of the Ganges. Juxtaposed or interspersed with these come single units, like an elder walking into the landscape of the Tanami while the camera pans back until his figure is just a fleck in the spinifex; or like the football fan captured by Dragan Aleksic whose creased face reflects his team’s fortunes from minute to minute but might just as well be witnessing yet another mind-numbing spectacle in today’s Ukraine.

Look, for me, Augustus’ pet put it best: Odi profanum volgus et arceo. It’s clearly a sign of social decrepitude but these days I can’t imagine anything worse than sitting in a packed football stadium – and this from somebody who stood from 8:30 am to the final whistle at the 1970 Collingwood-Carlton grand final and who, at the same ground, watched with muted involvement as South Melbourne won their 2005 premiership cup. Despite the much-vaunted bonhomie of sports crowds, any generosity of spirit, tolerance and fellowship can disappear in a split second with an unintentional jostle, just as it can in a bar. What this night made me consider was the essential – for better or worse – isolation that pervades our society.

In the filmed imagery, you saw little sign of benevolence. No, it wasn’t all horror stories but the final message was a contradiction of the dean’s dictum: every man is an island, entire of itself. You may live in one of those Hong Kong pigeon coops, as a tour leader in that city described her home to me, but, just because you are thrust daily into a variety of social complexes, what follows isn’t membership of a philanthropic multitude. For assured social connection, you might have your family; all too often, that’s it. As a counterweight to this gloom, our aboriginal peoples are determined to speak individually of belonging to a ‘mob’; but I suppose that concept is vital if you are part of an all-too-easily dismissed minority.

But the majority of us have no such right of relationship. Friends? Sure, but, as you age, they become ships that disappear into the night. A multiplicity of associations give you a semblance of being part of the main, but all such clannish continents are built on sand; ask any politician. For my part, The Crowd & I impressed as a 15-part kaleidoscope of sombre sadness, bordering on depression; the world’s peoples are varied but rarely are you attracted to join in, even when faced with bland celebrations of the spectacularly little, like Ekka or Moomba. But I admired the probity of the ACO’s construct which persevered in its unflattering vision of humanity as, in line with the Schubert overture piece, unfinished.

You’d like to be optimistic about our future, as proposed in the night’s opening shot of the earth as a vital, beautiful object in space, before the camera zooms in on the globe’s details. As it was presented, our world is – from a distance – a breathtaking objet trouve. But then comes the rot: while you may hope for the dearest freshness deep down things, you rarely find it. Strangely enough, on this night, while recognizing several truncations and arrangements, a sort of buoyancy of spirit emerged, even out of the program’s more tenebrous music, bearing witness to Tognetti’s (assisted?) catholicity of vision.

Exuberance carries the day

MOZART & BRITTEN

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday May 23, 2022

Stefanie Farrands

Here in Brisbane for the last in a 12-performance national run, the ACO played a program of music by two of music’s greatest brats with admirable panache, taking an individual approach to two Mozart scores – the K.136 Divertimento in D and the brilliant Sinfonia Concertante of 1779 – and exerting an apparently effortless expertise on Britten’s newly-resuscitated (well, in the last decade) Elegy for Strings and his still-striking Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge.

Three of these works require strings only. Mozart’s Sinfonia here appeared in an arrangement that left out the original’s pairs of horns and oboes, in line with a ‘tradition’ that obtained in the 19th century of rescoring this writer’s works at will. Sorry, but I missed the winds’ timbres significantly, even if anyone with half a brain can see the financial logic in using readily available resources, not carrying around nation-wide a quartet of wind players who contribute only half-an-hour’s input to each performance. The texture changes and, if you love the double concerto as Mozart wrote it, your expectations are bound to be dashed at too many points when the ambience is all-strings.

So, nothing left to do but sublimate your disappointment and enjoy what you’re offered by the country’s premier chamber orchestra. Britten’s Elegy, written in the composer’s 14th year, shows a talent of striking assurance, especially when it leaves off its portentous opening for more active fields. Like a fair amount of what was to come in later years, the piece impresses for its executive skill and emotional liveliness, while very little bricks and mortar remain in the memory. You can, if you like, ferret out reflections of Mendelssohn – another high achiever when young – even in the recourse to fugato.

For all that, the ACO’s 17 members produced a powerful and committed reading, the sonorous carapace admirably firm apart from a couple of production flaws from the second violins, apparently missing their principal, Helena Rathbone. Artistic director/concertmaster/leader Richard Tognetti contributed his impeccable individuality in an exposed passage (or two?) but this brief work’s appearance impressed as a curiosity, fleshing out an unknown corner of Britten’s juvenilia for aficionados. Thanks for the experience but I won’t be buying the CD.

Speaking of recordings, the ACO recorded part of Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante in 1986 (the pre-Tognetti Age), with Carl Pini and Irina Morozowa the soloists. Some 24 years further on, Tognetti and the ACO’s then principal viola, Christopher Moore, recorded the whole work; a memorable pairing which I witnessed in Hamer Hall about that time. It seems to be a selective rite of passage for the position because here was the newly-appointed ACO principal violist, Stefanie Farrands, collaborating with Tognetti and reflecting the violinist’s chameleonic path through this score with excellent reliability.

In fact, this performance was a delight for the experience of the two solo lines which sounded faultless to my ears across the work’s length, notably in the two cadenzas where the linear mirror-work showed that the possibility for musical dialogue isn’t just a Goethean aphorism. Apart from the excellence of ensemble work, the interpretation distinguished itself for its elegance; some distance from versions in which the output strives to be unbuttoned to the point of sprawling – a temptation in the opening maestoso‘s 71-bar scene-setting tutti.

Not that we weren’t faced with some unexpected moments, like the slow approaches to fermata in bars 176 and 189. But the delectable chase between the two soloists that precedes the movement’s recapitulation was exactly that, as opposed to a machismo-laden competition. The wind absence didn’t strike me as a defect in the central Andante until the coda where the oboes were sorely missed at bar 124 and beyond. Still, the concluding Presto was handled sensibly with a remarkable neatness of phrasing and an infectious, sparkling delivery.

Another improbable youthful score, Mozart’s D Major Divertimento comes from the composer’s 16th year but in recent decades its popularity/regularity of performance is approaching that of the Eine kleine Nachtmusik serenade. Tognetti and his forces gave it a smart-as-paint run-through, doing their best to offer as much variation as possible with unexpected phrasing, striking textural differentiations and the usual ducks-and-drakes games with dynamics. While the first two movements demonstrated (if it was really needed) the ACO’s cleverly etched style, the finale was brilliant in sound and execution with the ensemble introducing all sorts of production tricks – saltando, pizzicato, spiccato, staccato – to brighten up Mozart’s plain Presto.

As for a major Britten work to balance the Mozart sinfonia, the Frank Bridge Variations filled the bill quite adequately. Written when the British composer was 24 (a tad older than Mozart when he produced his double concerto), the score brought international notice and fame at home. Britten’s many admirers regard this as a pivotal step in the path that led to the last string quartet and cello suite; while the less idolatrous among us find whole segments of admirable craft and emotional weight (Variations II and IX, and the powerful welter of the final bars), it’s hard to ignore other passages of superficial glitter and skittishness in the work’s central movements.

Another pre-Tognettitime recording comes from 1982/3 when the ACO recorded this work with Dene Olding leading the way. I doubt whether this early product from the ensemble’s first decade of operations would match Monday night’s performance in terms of precision and character. Each change in fabric substantiated the players’ reputation for informed virtuosity – from some searching non-vibrato chords near the start, through the ten violins playing in flawless unison during the Wiener Walzer, later into a breathtaking Moto perpetuo, and eventually exploring the realm of three ideally matched violas during the penultimate Chant.

This was a well-focused evening’s work where two adolescent compositions were paired with two semi-mature creations – all carried out with polish and insight. I left QPAC full of questions about the quality of genius, particularly as it obtains in the young, and heartened by the enthusiasm for music-making that came from the night’s music itself and from its interpreters. Of course, the questions remain unanswered but the gifts of Tognetti and the ACO remain as valuable and uplifting as ever.

Third Stream, fusion, whatever – it worked

SKETCHES OF SPAIN

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday April 11, 2022

Phil Slater

Winding up its current tour, the ACO gave its penultimate performance of this particular program to an enthusiastic QPAC audience; not packed to the ceiling, but respectably populated. This, the 10th time the players had presented this music, involved the usual 16-strong string body supplemented by percussionist Brian Nixon and a jazz quartet put to several uses: trumpet Phil Slater, pianist Matt McMahon, bass Brett Hirst and drums Jess Ciampa.

The intention of this enterprise was to fuse the visiting quartet with the ACO and, for much of the night, the success rate was high. I didn’t see any use of the guests during the opening fragment: Bernard Rofe’s arrangement of the opening to Par les rues et par les chemins from Debussy’s Iberia which was tooling along very nicely, strings and percussion in clear-speaking action, when suddenly artistic director/concertmaster Richard Tognetti made an abrupt leap into his own arrangement of the middle Blues movement to Ravel’s Violin Sonata, for which the soloist took up a contemporary and oddly-shaped instrument. This brought in the visiting quartet tangentially at first, gaining in contributory power as the movement passed in what can only be described as an arranger’s delight. I felt that there was a balance problem a bar after Number 7 in the old 1927 Durand edition when the violin starts its quadruple stops pizzicati and Tognetti was not as striking a contributor as you’d expect, given the assault typical in the two million performances I’ve heard prior to this one.

This was followed by a Sephardic song from Turkey, Yo era nina de casa alta, also in a Tognetti arrangement, that began with a percussive tambour rhythm, cellist Julian Thompson taking up a guitar, while Tognetti outlined the tune. No sooner begun than over; sadly, the guitar proved close to inaudible from my seat, although it made more of an impression during the following reading of Boccherini’s Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid. Mind you, in its original form, the string quintet imitates guitar, drums, bells; this interpretation came complete with its own extra-string sound sources. Nevertheless, Tognetti and Timo-Veikko Valve gave an excellent account of the Largo assai (Rosary) interludes with excellently judged dynamic balance, and this version did not attempt the crescendo/diminuendo during the concluding Ritirata which seems to have been an atmospheric flourish unknown to the composer.

To finish off the evening’s first half, we got our reminiscences of Spain through several filters in Shchedrin’s arrangement of Bizet bits in a selection from the Russian composer’s near-pastiche ballet Carmen. This piece enjoyed a vogue for some time, one that I’ve never quite understood except that the absence of wind ensures that performances are economically frugal. The arrangement is for strings and percussion (four players, originally, but Nixon and Ciampa seemed to cope; perhaps you only need two players for the selections we heard). I missed a few tubular bells notes in the Introduction and found some of the vibraphone work muffled, but the interpretation from Tognetti and his strings was very smart and arresting with patches of brilliant accomplishment from both sets of violins. We missed out on the ‘Fate’ motive that concludes the opera’s Prelude and features in the ballet, but we did score the Farandole from L’Arlesienne masquerading as a bolero and another import from The Fair Maid of Perth for a Carmen-and-Torero scene.

Some other memorable moments came in the bare-bones version of Escamillo’s Votre toast – here eloquent in its restraint – and the use of three ideally matched violas to carry the melody of the opera’s Act 3 Intermezzo. Despite the nay-sayers and the nonsense started by Furtseva about the blasphemy carried out on Bizet, this work – even in its truncated form – is a scouring agent of sorts, taking you so far into familiar pages and then cutting the ground out from under your comfort-seeking feet. Still, it’s a long way from Spain – just like Boccherini’s attractively hygienic and Debussy’s buoyantly optimistic streets, not to mention Ravel’s sophisticated foray into le jazz hot.

Matters took a sharper trans-Atlantic turn in the two main post-interval performances. The guest quartet took centre-stage for a version of the last movement, Solea, in Miles Davis/Gil Evans’ Sketches of Spain. This new arrangement was a collaboration between pianist McMahon and the ACO’s Artistic Administration Manager, Bernard Rofe, the latter’s craft previously encountered in the Debussy transcription. For my taste, the only interesting facet of the experience came through Slater who made a positive impression by following a Davis trail – meandering but always dominant; mind you, what I know of the great trumpeter comes from sixty-plus years ago and a high-school fascination with the Porgy and Bess and Kind of Blue albums, while Sketches of Spain passed me by.

As the work moved forward, the collaboration on display seemed to improve in persuasiveness, reaching a high point in a twinning of the three violas with the band minus McMahon in a stretch that came somewhere near suggesting Spain and exhilarated for itself. One of the question marks over this exercise actually came with Slater’s ‘bent’ notes which stood out, strangers in a familiar landscape and not quite gelling with the string writing which, as far as I could hear, played no games with microtones. Still, the final decrescendo proved to be, without question, the program’s most magical passage: excellently paced, restrained and confident: an ease-filled release into nothing.

For some reason, the ACO planning committee decided to interpose a Victoria motet between the Davis/Evans movement and another McMahon/Rofe arrangement of Chick Corea’s Spain. Well, it was one way of putting a real national composer in a menu that otherwise consisted entirely of outsiders looking in on the Iberian peninsula. From choppy memories, the 8-part Ave Maria sets two choirs against each other with bursts of echoes, imitations and dovetailing; here, the visitors seemed to become one quartet, the ACO strings playing the Choir 1 lines. For reasons I can’t explain, the arrangement worked well enough, although this might have come about because of its simplicity; but then, what could you possibly add to music at this level of textural clarity?

Corea’s widely-travelled work exists in several versions. What am I talking about: it can be heard in a myriad of forms, formats, combinations and permutations and I’ve heard a fair few, if some decades ago. On this occasion, McMahon set the scene with mildly coruscating solo work before he was joined by various collaborating bodies. Not that it was all piano, or all Slater, even if these players gave us the most intriguing music-making across this long piece – the program’s most substantial by far. Tognetti and Valve took the spotlight occasionally, but not for long as the focus shifted between jazz quartet (or trio) and the ACO. Despite its episodic shape, the work didn’t come over as diffuse, being anchored by a long melodic line/chorus that all played in unison or at an octave’s remove (or two of them).

In the end, Spain presented as so much of the evening’s work did: living up to the catch-all title of sketch. I couldn’t find much national flavour in the piece, let alone the vaunted references to Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez (which are more explicit in Corea’s earlier interpretations of this score). But you might say the same about the Victoria motet, or the Sephardic cantiga – or anything else at Monday night’s concert. For all that fretting about provenance, the exercise itself was full of expert, interesting performances and the merging of two separate bodies succeeded a good deal more than some previous experiences I’ve attended, like Don Banks’ Nexus of 1971, or Wynton Marsalis’ The Jungle with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in 2019. All the same, I hope that we can now move on to new pastures: the ACO’s first two presentations this year have celebrated Piazzolla/South America and the great (or infamous, if you like) Latin American colonizer.

Mellifluous stirring of memories

NORTHERN SERENADES

Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra

Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University

Saturday, March 26 2022

Johannes Brahms

I’ve not been living in Queensland long enough to be sure of certain musical matters. One that preoccupies me currently is whether or not the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra has been a regular visitor to Brisbane. You can’t tell anything much from the last two years’ activity but I suspect that this body’s forays north of the Tweed might have been few and far between since it sprang into being in 2013. Or it might have performed in out-of-town venues and not had time to build up a public here; Saturday night found the Conservatorium Theatre about a third full.

Not that this is an indication of anything much. For years, the Australian Chamber Orchestra played to small audiences in Melbourne’s Hamer Hall; the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra worked for some surprisingly small attendance numbers in its early days at the Melbourne Recital Centre; the sterling Selby & Friends series laboured to attract supporters to its recitals at Methodist Ladies’ College in Kew. And the list could be extended to take in other brilliant performers, both locals and visitors, who didn’t get the following they deserved for reasons both specific and vague.

I’ve heard the ARCO players at least twice in the past two years, both occasions through the good graces of the Melbourne (Australian) Digital Concert Hall. But there’s no substitute for the real thing, as this particular program proved time and time again. A good deal of their output was more mellow, less astringent than I’d expected, and details of their performance practice – pre-figured in a program booklet article by Hilary Metzger, as well as a prefatory address from co-artistic director/concertmaster Rachael Beesley – ensured that the ensemble’s output reflected musical mores from the situations and times in which some of the night’s composers found themselves.

We heard five works on Saturday evening, beginning with Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite of 1913 which turned out to be the most recent score performed. Another more taxing English work came with Elgar’s 1892 Serenade for Strings, followed by Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade of 1887 which the composer arranged for small orchestra (double woodwind and horns, strings) in 1892 and this was in turn edited for string orchestra by American educator Lucas Drew – which latter version we heard as a pretty thick-textured substitute for the scintillating string quartet original. After interval came Beesley’s sister Shauna‘s arrangement of that much-transcribed gem, Schumann’s Op. 73 Fantasiestucke from 1849 – the night’s odd man out. To end, the ARCO forces performed – for the first time in my experience – another Serenade for Strings by Victor Herbert, written in 1888. In other words, four of these pieces were written within 26 years of each other; one way of generating a focus, even if Holst’s buoyant stomps didn’t quite fit into the prevailing late Romantic ambience.

But, the St. Paul’s Suite makes an ideal opener for any string orchestra program with its direct action and minimal use of tricky production techniques. Beesley had her players swing with a hefty bounce into Holst’s opening Jig and generated some fetching passages like the second violins’ variant at Number 3’s key signature change in the old Goodwin and Tabb score of 1922, and an unflustered Piu mosso at Number 9. Well before this, however, you became conscious of this orchestra’s smooth output, making a welcome change to the usual steel-string clangour and bringing to the front of mind how conditioned we have become to hearing this score spun out with robotic precision and an overkill of the composer’s dynamic directions – something like aristocrats slumming it in the country, which is not the name of Holst’s particular game here.

Full marks to the second violins again for their Ostinato work with some seamless dovetailing, and a pliant 8-bar solo from Beesley that set up this brief segment’s outer melodic matter. The concertmaster was put to more hefty work in the Intermezzo: this suite’s high-water mark for me with its striking oscillation between lean melodic arches and full-bodied chords for nearly everyone 18 bars from the end. Then, The Dargason conclusion mirrored the opening Jig with its absence of try-hard urbanization, the only problem coming from the cellos and their announcement of Greensleeves a bar after Number 3 which was too faint to have much impact against the busy violas. Naturally enough, this was compensated for at Number 9 when the upper strings had their way with the tune, and the final pages were robust enough.

One of the evening’s finest stretches came with the Elgar work which somehow slotted easily into the group’s performance style. Each movement passed without unnecessary flurries, capturing the score’s eloquently graduated phrasing without pushing the short crescendo requirements into overdrive, the violins true in intonation across Elgar’s aspiring E Major melody at Letter C of the opening Allegro piacevole. Not that the intonation in both violin groups was faultless; the odd slightly-off notes could be discerned in the seconds’ second desk and an inexplicable quirk in the firsts arose often enough to be noticeable in ascending small scalar passages on the E string. But you could not have wished for a more sympathetic dying fall in this movement’s last five bars.

In terms of numbers, the ensemble ran 5-4-4-4-2. To my ear, the first violins would have gained from an additional body, especially as six names appeared in the program. But then, Rob Nairn was named as principal double bass and he was absent, leaving Marian Heckenberg and Chloe Ann Williamson to carry that line – which they did with conspicuous devotion and produced a fulsome support in high-tension passages. You missed the extra violin weight mainly at the divisi bars at Letter L of the Larghetto, which Beesley took at a proper pace; in this case, a fine cross of ruminative with ardent. Later, the players captured the Allegretto‘s calmly surging essence but kept their best for the final pages following the change to E Major, in particular the delectably spacious last chords that brought this short piece to a euphonious conclusion.

It might be based on Wolf’s own arrangement for orchestra but the Italian Serenade loses its bite when re-contexted. The ARCO musicians kept the movement fluent but the innate vigour of the original went walkabout as the tempo moved into galumphing mode and chromatic changes both inner and outer (for the first time, at bar 46 and onwards) seemed ironed out, an effect that recurred to even more unfortunate effect at the interlude between bars 130 and 160 where linear clarity is vital to prefigure the joyful explosion back to G Major at bar 161. We had a taste of the string quartet original when Drew dried out his forces for the cello recitatives starting at bar 303.

So the whole thing had its flashes, particularly during concordant passages at full pelt, and you enjoyed a muffled impression of this chamber music scrap’s ebullience, but you missed the pointillist detail and the expectation-scouring wit. Something similar came across in the Fantasy Pieces arrangement where Shauna Beesley gave us a new work. Of course, you could relish swathes of string texture as long as you forgot Schumann’s original (although even he was catholic in his stipulations admitting viola and cello to take the solo line, as well as the original clarinet). However, what you do with the piano accompaniment is crucial and Beesley’s version verged on muddiness. How could it be otherwise, given the relentless arpeggios, thick bass support and competitive doubling and canonic work that persists throughout all three pieces?

In fact, at this point you needed a corps that specialized in rhythmic precision and slashing, pointed right-hand technical prowess to unplug the lower strings’ processes. Not so much in the final Rasch und mit Feuer, but certainly the opening Zart und mit Ausdruck became blancmange thick, the solo/dominant line having trouble being discerned, despite the arranger’s efforts to give it continuous prominence. For sure, the middle Lebhaft fared better, although it seemed to me that the pace had slackened once the musicians had passed the key change to F Major’s first repeat.

I’d moved further back in the Conservatorium theatre at interval; otherwise, I might not have noticed that one of the first violins moved across to the seconds for this Schumann arrangement. Presumably, the top-middle line needed reinforcing, and it’s true that this subsidiary strand probably gains from extra weight. Still, the main themes at some points in all three pieces tended to become attenuated, not exactly disappearing in the mesh but coming close to it. Perhaps the arrangement needed a bit more daring to make it more effective; as things turned out, the exercise proved sonorous but bland.

Each movement of the Victor Herbert Serenade proved how successful a choice the work was for this ensemble. If you know the composer’s background, you’d be aware that there’s nothing complicated in his music-making. But it’s not just a chain of melting melodies; each of its five movements shows a clear format and a fine awareness of writing for strings. The ARCO players seemed to enjoy themselves right from the opening Aufzug with its Babes in Toyland-reminiscent outer march sections around a lilting, central meno mosso. As for the following Polonaise, the first violins set pretty much all of the running and managed to stay together for most of its duration, although sorely tested by a five-bar stretch at the centre of Herbert’s G Major Trio.

Commentators (the very few I’ve come across) find the influence of Wagner in this serenade’s central Liebes-Scene. Even when listening to American (and one German) recording, I couldn’t find much trace of Tristan, Lohengrin, or even Act 3 of Siegfried; Herbert’s melodic span is orderly and falls into easily assimilable phrase and sentence lengths, while his harmonic vocabulary rarely ventures far afield. Nevertheless, it’s an effective movement and gave an excellent chance for the ARCO cellos to shine four bars after Letter C as they outlined the main theme under the violins’ soft sextuplet patterns.

You could make the same observations concerning structure, melody and harmony about Herbert’s Canzonetta with its infectious first violin portamento in bar 3 – and beyond. A gently-paced interlude, this movement also was reminiscent of passages from Herbert’s musicals (judging from the few that I know, thanks to my mother’s devotion to Nelson Eddy) and not outstaying its welcome. At this stage, the ARCO ensemble came pretty close to recreating the overall sound-colour of a pre-World War Two small orchestra through its melodic lilt and supple pulse. Even the repetitious jig-finale found these performers undaunted by its relentless optimism which became more than a bit wearing by the time we reached the Con spirito at Letter H, followed by a Con fuoco, and yet another Piu mosso.

Nobody would claim this Herbert suite as a burst of bright light in the string orchestra’s repertoire. It has, nevertheless, an openness of language and a charm of address that should make it welcome as a leavening of the predictable diet of Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Suk and even Elgar that makes up an all-too-staple diet for organizations without the facility to bring in woodwind and brass supernumeraries, as the well-funded Australian Chamber Orchestra and Australian Brandenburg Orchestra can.

As for the performance flourishes outlined by concertmaster Beesley and the Metzger essay, these sounded well-absorbed into the musicians’ technical vocabulary. Vibrato, portamento and rubato were all employed without fuss and, as far as I could tell, in appropriate situations. In this respect, the ARCO directors and members set an agreable example of how to suit yourself to the music you’re playing. Which makes life easier for all of us, worlds away from being constrained by a doctrinaire insistence on musical correctness: an inflammation of the aesthetic membrane that I class with Putin’s A History of Ukraine and our own prime minister’s podcast, Fighting Bushfires Out of Country.

Noli me tango

PIAZZOLLA

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday February 14, 2022

Back in Brisbane after two years’ absence, the ACO opened its break-out live-again lease of life here with one of the organization’s more popular guests. Accordionist Crabb has enjoyed a 20-year-long association with the Sydney players, given vivid life by a 2003 Chandos CD which contains all four Piazzolla works in this concert’s concluding melange, as well as the evening’s unexpected encore: Oblivion.

While the Argentinian composer’s music framed the program, the interstices proved more intriguing for this listener. At the centre of each half came a sample of orthodoxy: first, Handel’s A Major Concerto grosso, penultimate in the Op. 6 set and a reworking of one of the composer’s own organ concertos in the same key; later, the Bachiana Brasileira No. 9 by Villa-Lobos, obviously in the string orchestra version. Frippering around these scores came one-time Piazzolla collaborator Antonio Agri‘s Desde adentro arranged by Crabb (as was the opening Libertango); Elena Kats Chernin‘s 20-year-old Torque, an automobile engine celebration, which Crabb premiered with the ACO who commissioned the score. Additions to the night’s second half were Gardel‘s Por una cabeza in an arrangement by John Williams for Itzhak Perlman, the whole transcribed by Crabb and bringing back memories of Pacino in the Scent of a Woman film from 1992; the fourth movement, Coqueteos, from Gabriela Lena Frank‘s Leyendas – An Andean Walkabout which raised no eyebrows or much interest, I’m afraid; and the Piazzolla concluding tetralogy in yet another Crabb transcription: Milonga del Angel, Vayamos al Diablo, Romance del Diablo, and La Muerte del Angel.

Crabb sat front and centre for the night, contributing to everything in the first half, including a tenor-bass support in the concerto grosso, but was silent for the Frank and Villa-Lobos. Pianist for the program, Stefan Cassomenos, relished his role in the tangos and the Kats-Chernin escapade, but seemed to be silent for the Gardel – or else he was being super-subtle and merging selflessly into the ensemble. Most of the ACO personnel remained familiar apart from violinist Lily Higson-Spence and violist Meagan Turner. Despite the program’s information, Maxime Bibeau was not at the double bass stool; his place was taken by David Campbell from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

I’ve been to few enough concerts in recent times and the trend has been to present a program as a unit, without interval. However, the ACO took us back to pre-COVID practice – which has its good points (mainly, physical relaxation) and drawbacks (principally, the facility to find room for programmatic flab). This occasion’s particular sequence of works depended for its appeal largely on the South American components which – the Handel apart – were all-pervasive, even in Kats-Chenin’s Torque.

The ensemble’s account of Libertango took its time getting to the main melody; indeed, artistic director/ concertmaster/soloist Richard Tognetti‘s articulation of this tune seemed overdue after a lengthy span of scene-setting flourishes. Crabb’s solo contributions had that welcome character of sounding improvised, framed for the performance itself. My only problem came with the tuning of both first and second violins playing unison phrases; a touch off-point in some stretches – which surprised as this was the tail-end of the ensemble’s eleven-night national tour. Tognetti also starred in Desde adentro with a substantial solo; but then, he has an ideal fluency with this genre where it’s rare to have a player sensitive to the inbuilt style of production who also has an unshakeable technique.

Not much to say about the Handel concerto. Tognetti enjoyed dominating exposure; that’s the nature of this particular Handelian beast. The whole work was treated with an abundance of dynamic flexibility, some contrasts verging on bizarre. Still, the uniformity of attack reminded us of how much we have missed the expertise of this body, its sheer precision when the musicians are operating at their best. As well, certain moments startled both for the composer’s sense of theatre and the performance immediacy, like the bass entry in bar 8 of the first Allegro, the reassuring repeated notes in the prime melody to the appealing Andante, a splendid dovetailing of soloists and ripieno in this same movement and Tognetti’s semiquaver flights after bar 127, followed by a whip-cracking finale with just the right amount of ornamentation to distract from the movement’s bouree-like heftiness.

While she began with some tango-suggestive rhythmic movement in the first third of Torque, Kats-Chernin’s piece appealed most in its central slow section, in particular a chain of 2nds between Crabb and Cassomenos that spiced up a long melodic chain. But when the composer entered into a musical description or simulation of hurtling down the highway in the score’s last segment, it struck me that the journey could have been cut by half, if not more: the motoric only takes you so far – in music, not on the road where your wallet sets the limit.

Beginning the program’s second part, Tognetti set the mind-set for Gardel’s clever curvetting and ardent swoops. This is music that invites you to dance, thanks to its infectiousness, rather than asking you to leave the floor to professionals: my response to Piazzolla’s nuevo tango which is – thanks to its adoption by too many should-know-better musicians – in great danger of becoming viejo because of over-exposure and the mistaken belief that any combination will do . . . rather like the federal government’s mix-and-match approach to vaccines.

Frank attempts to meld classical traditional format with Andean folk music, although I feel that the former wins out over the latter in this movement from her Leyendas. The composer’s language is accessible enough and her scoring for strings shows a keen awareness of textural potential, but it was difficult to find the folkloric element. Probably my fault as, like so many Australians of my generation, west coast South American music has remained unexplored territory. For all that, the ACO presented the score with apparent mastery of its none-too-troubling mysteries. After, the Villa-Lobos prelude-and-fugue construct came across with a firm unanimity from all concerned, although I believe a compromise was worked out with the composer’s double bass line which requires three performers at the Preludio‘s beginning; one of the cellos was deputed to engage in lowest-level support duties for both segments. While the 37-bar first movement has a restrained ardour in its wide-spaced layers, the fugue shows the Bach strain more obviously in play. Most attractive is the central action where the fugue subject almost disappears in a chromatic ferment, threatens to come back in full force with the violas at bar 109 but dissipates its semiquaver energy, only for a real recapitulation 20 bars later in a score that is not too clever-clever but errs on the side of Brazilian jubilation rather than exercising Bach’s deceptive formal control.

Probably nothing new came to ACO veterans with the last Piazzolla bracket; if you know the Song of the Angel CD, the only major change for this night was that Benjamin Martin wasn’t on piano. A deft alternation between fast and slow, the pieces formed an amiable suite, albeit one where the harmonic shifts made for comfortable listening. Cassomenos achieved some penetration but the main memory I have is of Crabb dominating the mix, demonstrating his instrument’s capacity for explosive bursts of vehemence and piercing single-note melodic contours. Further, Vayamos al Diablo presents listeners with an unexpected rhythmic shape: 4/8 + 3/8 – enough to test even the most musically woke tango dancers.

But I’m operating at a disadvantage because of a lack of sympathy with Piazzolla and the tango. Perhaps the problem lies in a lack of varied exposure to the composer’s music; from a catalogue of about 3,000 pieces, I’d know a maximum of 10 (well,13 if you individualize the Estaciones Portenas) and repeated hearings of those few is the only way I can distinguish nearly all of them. As for the dance as choreography, it’s difficult to find an attraction because of its self-consciousness. Even the dedicated advocacy of Clive James wasn’t persuasive, though the spectacle of that great writer performing with characteristic understatement showed how the steps need not become ridiculously stilted.

That’s the way the cards fall; not every program is going to bring complete satisfaction and, if you are fated to encounter a musical genre that leaves you cold, it’s best to face the experience in the company of a distinguished, always distinctive body such as the ACO. Yet again, we have to be grateful that these musicians are at liberty to visit, raising both standards and spirits in a time that is still beset with uncertainty.


Very welcome if brief view

BAROQUE IN BLOOM

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Brandenburg One

Saturday November 20, 2021

Paul Dyer

It’s been years – well, over two – since I last heard the Australian Brandenburgers at work. Not that you could have expected more frequency, given the off-again, off-again nature of Australian concert-giving during our pandemic. Added to which, the organization would have put Brisbane excursions on the backburner when facing the shrinking possibility of getting on-stage in its home town. In our communal gap years, we’ve been offered some online scraps from specific orchestra members and two digital screenings, of which this program is the more recent.

Plenty of familiar faces emerged across the six constituents of this program which found the ABO mining one of its finest seams in Italian Baroque violin scores. Associate concertmaster Matthew Bruce has been a Brandenburg member almost since the beginning, as has guitarist/theorboist Tommie Andersson. Cellists Anthea Cottee and Rosemary Quinn are very familiar faces, as are violists Monique O’Dea and Marianne Yeomans. Some other participants have become familiar in different contexts, like Madeleine Easton from the Bach Akademie Australia, Matthew Greco from the Australian Haydn Ensemble and the Muffat Collective, Anton Baba from the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra.

Others were complete unknowns to me, like the violinists James Armstrong, Rafael Font, James Tarbotton and bass Bonita Williams, although this last I must have come across as she performed with both Orchestra Victoria and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra before settling into the Opera Australia pit in 2016. Whatever their provenance, the composite ensemble worked with fine rapport for most of this brief (35 minutes) program which comprised Marini’s Capriccio Per Sonare il Violino con tre corde a modo di Lira with Easton leading an elegantly contrived quartet; three of the ten concerti grossi in Giovanni Lorenzo Gregori’s Op. 2 set, a different concertmaster for each; Vivaldi’s C Major Sinfonia RV 116, Dyer directing with customary brio; and Corelli’s Ciacona Trio Sonata, the last of his Op. 2, with Tarbotton and Armstrong in excellent partnership.

Mind you, this broadcast was a fair while in arriving: it was recorded on September 24 in the Sydney Recital Hall. The program’s title was given substance by surrounding the performers with floral arrangements amounting to mini-jungles from some angles. Still, the entertainment had an appealing shape, moving from the solo spotlight on Easton for the Marini, through the exposed two Corelli violins, the exercise ending with exuberant full-blooded panache in the Vivaldi romp.

One of the delights of the Baroque is that room for improvisation or manipulation is wide; most of the performances we hear fulfil expectations because the scores are complete and set in stone, e.g. the St. Matthew Passion, The Four Seasons, Judas Maccabeus. Dyer and his band are quite prepared to take liberties, particularly with music that is all bare bones. For instance, the Marini Capriccio; the score I’ve come across is 53 bars long and heavy on unadorned chords at the opening, in the middle, and at the end. Easton opened with an unaccompanied solo, setting up her main interpretative model of arpeggiated three-part chords, before the continuo – Dyer on organ, Andersson on theorbo and Baba’s gamba – entered. From which point on, the interpretation followed Marini’s chord progressions faithfully in a reading that – quite -rightly – left all the running to Easton’s crystalline upper part.

For the one-movement Corelli sonata, the same three players provided the accompaniment, Dyer moving to a harpsichord, and each of them having a statement of the chaconne in turn before Tarbotton and Armstrong entered with flawlessly articulated and balanced interweaving lines. From both violinists, the style of address proved congruent, the dynamic changes calculated to a nicety and both sequences and canonic writing clean enough to sound as though one player was operating both instruments. All right: it’s not difficult music, not even when it switches in bar 17 to Allegro, but the piece requires finesse and empathy to carry off. Here was another example of music you don’t want to stop and, for a moment, I thought it wouldn’t when the soloists repeated their opening plangent Largo.

Then the ABO cohort presented the three Gregori works in a boxed set – Nos. 1, 2 and 5 with Greco, Bruce and Font serving as respective concertmasters. Of these, No. 1 in C Major and No. 5 in B minor were enjoying their Australian premieres; fine work, resurrecting some amiable material which could stand light comparison with the composer’s contemporaries Vivaldi and Corelli. All listed personnel except Baba took part in Gregori’s scores. In the outer two, the flower arrangements disappeared but the playing didn’t suffer; indeed, Greco’s control of the C Major work was exemplary for its restraint and sympathy. The rather ordinary melodic content enjoyed some relief with a sinuous solo from the leader in the central Adagio, the whole concerto enjoying several sparkling duets in its finale from Greco and Armstrong.

Bruce directed the No. 2 Concerto in D with just as much security as had Greco. After a bar or two of the opening Grave, Dyer took over with an extended harpsichord solo of high tedium – a series of arpeggios wandering around D Major for the most part and calling to mind the Brandenburg No. 5’s cadenza for no apparent reason. Maybe Gregori wrote it; possibly it was an add-on but to me this solo sounded out-of-character with everything else we heard. Its meandering path eventually led to a dominant pause and we entered the jolly, welcome Allegro. Bruce prepared us for the Adagio with a brief cadenza and closed up the movement with another one before the vivacious rush of Gregori’s Allegro finale which featured some more duets between Bruce and Greco, the latter leading the second violins who had changed position and faced Bruce and his firsts.

No. 5 in B minor was performed in a dark purple lighting to match its tonality, although Scriabin attached this shade to C sharp, investing B with blue. For this reading, some bass players had been moved but the two sets of violins still stood on opposing sides of the space; Dyer moved between organ and harpsichord, starting out at the former for the initial Largo, moving for the tuckets of the first Allegro, then back to the organ for the Adagio and staying there for the gigue-style finale. Leader Font kept his focus on the job in hand and showed an admirable mastery of piano dynamic in rapid-fire passages as well as rounding out the excellent duo playing – a prime feature in all three Gregori compositions – by his partnership with Greco in the concluding pages.

All too soon, we came to the Vivaldi sinfonia, which was all Dyer; well, there’s no show without Punch. For this, the harpsichord took centre stage, surrounded by flowers, with all other players (including Baba) standing/sitting in a circle around this floral fulcrum. A bracing allegro, in which everybody seemed to know exactly what they were about despite Dyer’s gesturing, came across with commendable crispness. Prior to the Andante, we were gifted another Dyer solo between the work’s bars 76 and 77, a further one at the movement’s halfway point at bar 90, and finally yet another leading into the last Allegro which was a triumph for the Brandenburgers’ precision and elan. Yes: it was C Major and moved only to the dominant and back, so it’s not as though people were grappling with demands on their left-hand technique. Still, it was a welcome chaser to an enjoyable half-hour and bracing to hear these strings performing close to their best.

A delayed gala

SYDNEY INTERNATIONAL PIANO COMPETITION

Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra

Moscow Conservatory

Thursday July 1, 2021

Andrey Gugnin

So, here we go on another Sydney competition: an 18-day keyboard orgy of players who are – allegedly – the best young guns in the business. We’ll have plenty of time to find out if that’s the case. From this night’s pre-performance addresses, you’d think that putting all the players online was some sort of brilliant technical feat. Sorry, no; not after the last 15 months we’ve all shared where computers and their communicative possibilities have become stock-in-trade for every musician. In fact, the competition seems to have turned into a truncated exercise, if you read between the lines. One of the speakers adverted to the fact that there’ll be no chamber music segment, which is a screaming shame. Also, the concerto round has been eliminated, which is less of a pity but still a sign that 2021 will be the Year of Purification, a competition of simple solo recital ability – I suppose.

The first online event was a concert proper, coming from Moscow. Again, much was made of this being a night co-sponsored by the piano competition organization, but it was not a live affair: this concert was recorded on April 23. So we were offered a recorded performance featuring the 2016 Sydney competition winner, Andrey Gugnin, as soloist in Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1. The Tchaikovsky orchestra was conducted by Pavel Sorokin, a long-time artist associated with the Bolshoi Ballet. For the most part, this night was an odd collection: three works by Liszt – the concerto, the Les Preludes symphonic poem, and the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in an orchestration by Karl Muller-Berghaus – and two Wagner pot-boilers in The Mastersingers Overture and The Ride of the Valkyrie.

Before we crossed to Moscow and a platitudinous introduction from a music critic (!), we heard pre-recorded addresses, the first by the competition’s chief juror, Piers Lane, who set the pattern for hyperbole by speaking of the Conservatory’s “hallowed hall” – which is about as inane as calling the MCG’s surface “hallowed turf” – and promising “extraordinary pleasure” from “a host of other pianists [not the winner] who will excel”, etc. We’ll see. Then Virginia Braden, chairman of the competition’s board of directors, furthered the promises by noting that “we have created a new venture”, for which I read that we have adopted a necessary compromise after last year’s competition cancellation. She also seemed to be labouring under the delusion that the upcoming concert was ‘direct from Moscow’ through the good graces of “The Sydney”, which is apparently accepted shorthand for the competition by omitting all descriptors. In Lane mode, we were assured of a “wonderful time filled with outstanding music-making.” In contrast, patron Governor-General Hurley repeated the innovative mantra about the competition’s procedure and treated us to a few observations about the worth of music to humanity. Bronwyn Bishop, who heads the competition Friends, assured us of upcoming “magnificent performances” – by which time I was almost ready to commit to the faith. Finally, competition chief executive Marcus Barker put it all in more down-to-earth terms: “We’ve changed to accommodate the competitors.” But even this pragmatic approach couldn’t avoid hoisting out the promise of “outstanding” things to come.

The Conservatory hall wasn’t exactly packed for the occasion; perhaps the cognoscenti knew what was coming. Not much to tell about the poem. You couldn’t have much faith in the orchestra’s synchronicity, from the opening pizzicato to the following block entries. Matters had improved by Letter E in the Kalmus edition but nothing could disguise the vulgarity of the march that breaks out 10 bars before Letter G – not the musicians’ problem, of course, but who decided to resurrect this score? Odd moments intruded to make you think that the strings were unhappy in their work, like the exposed bars at Letter K and sloppy work from them led into the recapitulation at Letter M. Over-encouraged cymbal work dissipated concentration at the brawny Andante maestoso and the closing pages came over with as much broad power as you could want.

For the E flat Concerto, the Tchaikovsky players did not get off to the most convincingly synchronised opening. But then, we weren’t here for them. Gugnin used an aggressive instrument with a penetrating upper register, but he’s a player distinguished for the forward placement of his sound, as I remembered from his 2017 recital in Melbourne. Immediately, you realize that you’ve forgotten how much freedom the soloist is allowed in the opening pages and Gugnin seized the passing a piacere direction with both hands and wherever it seemed appropriate. The Tchaikovsky first clarinet merged in with the soloist particularly well between bars 34 and 36 for a sensitive spell, but Gugnin reverted to his crisp, well-defined output at the following a tempo, showing no signs of fluster at any of the stops and starts during the rest of this Allegro movement.

His Quasi adagio was notable for the dovetailing between soloist and orchestra, more apparent during these pages which are all coloured by the piano, even when it’s doing little more than decoration as from bar 154 to the last trills. During the subsequent Allegretto, there might have been a recording fault but something was missing from the keyboard contribution at the end of bar 195: the first flaw that struck me up to this point. Gugnin made a fine exhibition of the contrary motion 7th chords from bar 249, the long sequence unfailingly certain in delivery. Something odd crept in to the oboe line at bar 310 which sounded unhealthy and my screen went dead for a few bars around the piano’s fierce restatement of the concerto’s opening motif.

Gugnin demonstrated excellent digital control at the Alla breve of the Allegro marziale, which turned into a masterclass in how not to cheapen material that cries out for it. Sorokin kept his forces on point although it seemed to me that Gugnin was unwilling/unable to increase the speeds, happy with a sensible Presto at bar 483 and ensuring that his double-octave E flat punctuation points in the final bars carried past the orchestral emphases. I was surprised at the audience’s tepid response to this performance. Sure, it wasn’t as flamboyant as many I’ve seen, even in the good old days of the ABC’s Concerto and Vocal Competitions when the concerto would turn up with mind-numbing regularity. But there’s no accounting for communal taste, as we’re probably about to find out in the coming fortnight-plus.

No surprises with the Wagner overture, and not much involvement either if the opening march was any indication. In fact, the start of the woodwind solos came as doubly welcome after the lethargy of the initial statements. Still, the Tchaikovsky strings gave a fair account of the Preislied-in-four-beats section, the whole exercise not similarly settled when the great moment arrives as Wagner juggles his three themes simultaneously and these musicians – some of them – were slightly off the beat. That laboured effect returned six bars from the end with a dotted crotchet+two-semiquavers pattern hammered out without any spark. By contrast, the Ride sounded much more fresh and vigorous; but then, it’s better music with just as much repetition but more mobility.

Last, the Hungarian Rhapsody‘s first part gave the resident first clarinet another chance or three to shine in some cadenzas that were eloquent and well-paced. Throughout this edgy score, the first violins gave in to anticipation more obviously than had been the case earlier in the night. By contrast, you could find no fault with the even-tempered woodwind/brass choir near the conclusion to the lassan pages. Sorokin took a very quick speed for the friska/Vivace which really turned into a gallop. He also inserted some huge pauses, as at the change of key signature to F Major and at the end of bar 32 in the Piu mosso and he reverted to an earlier style of interpreting this work by playing around with the tempo using a high degree of elasticity. It hardly needs reporting that this proved to be the most popular piece on the program.

But at least we got to hear Gugnin approaching maturity, an example of what can be achieved through this competition. For all that, I’ve heard only two other laureates – Konstantin Shamray and John Chen – but both have impressed for their musicianship and insights. Here’s hoping the jury gets it right this year as well.

Cramped and cramping

CAMERATA RE-MASTERED

Camerata Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Saturday June 5, 2021

Orava Quartet

A few days before this concert took place, the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall came on board to televise it live. A very kind offer but an odd one – after all, how many Victorian (or for that matter, extra-Brisbane) music-lovers customarily leave their homes and travel to QPAC for a Camerata night? Naturally, the orchestra’s viewing population would (should) have been expanded, especially by those (like myself) who were tempted to stay home rather than go to the hassle of hour-long train trips, Queensland Government identification codes, the slowest-moving foyer crowds in the nation, and an irrationally long program given in one hit.

But there we were, the faithful followers of live performance, giving Brendan Joyce‘s young players large dollops of encouragement as they laboured through a nine-part program of works that ranged from the sublime and challenging to the trivial and instantly forgettable. Joyce and his organizing team set the bar impossibly high for themselves by starting their operations with Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge Op. 133. That’s the sort of bravura that Richard Tognetti and his Australian Chamber Orchestra can handle, and even then with no subs in the ranks.; but it was a very demanding ask for the Camerata first violins, even allowing for the confidence of Joyce and his 2IC Daniel Kowalik. Some of those top B flats in the first fugue were both thin (understandable) and not universally assured in pitch; I know that the top line’s exposure is total in the most difficult stretches of this segment but those slight deviations were hard to ignore.

Camerata’s violas made an excellent showing throughout the multiple changes in this still-taxing score and the single double bass was ever-welcome in this arrangement whenever she entered to reinforce the cello line. But the ensemble often had their hands full negotiating pitch and rhythm, especially in those pages where the counterpoint is hard-worked,, and so the final effect was of musicians surmounting a struggle rather than outlining an object of interpretation.

Every time I hear Turina’s La oracion del torero, I find myself asking what kind of prayer did the composer have in mind. Even considering the usual vision of the matador genuflecting before a small statue of the Madonna and Child, you have to question the thought processes that led the composer to this lush outpouring of local colour, several salons away from a death-in-the-afternoon scenario. But setting one’s Hispano-Catholic perceptions aside, you can simply luxuriate in the piece’s fabric, and this was an excellent reading of Turina’s small jewel. The thirds and sixths exuded lushness beyond the dreams of Aztec-sacking avarice, while the players enjoyed more comfort in these pages, a welcome refuge from Beethoven’s intransigence, the ensemble showing to better advantage in the Spanish composer’s high tessitura writing towards the end in that Mantovani-suggestive Lento.

John Rotar, a highly active young Queensland composer, enjoyed hearing two of his pieces on this program; the first a Brisbane premiere of his Beyond the Front Door, referencing the emotional and physical release that comes at the end of a pandemic lockdown – in which aim, the work enjoyed a definite success in narrative terms. Strong on 2nds and 7ths at the start, the score proved active, as if the physical activity of breaking through state-imposed domestic barriers held both pleasure and pain. Not that Rotar maintained this nervous activity throughout, pausing for an attractively swelling melodic swathe from the violas that was taken over by each section. Indeed, the composition built to a full-bodied peroration until a conclusion that melded strong bass chords under the violins returning to the opening nervous mobility. This is a distinctive creative voice, informed by a sure hand at orchestration and an attractive harmonic vocabulary, albeit a diatonic one laced with brusqueness.

Next came another vault into another country with Steve Reich’s Duet for two solo violins, four violas, three cellos and a double-bass. Joyce and his principal second violin, Jonny Ng, gave an appropriately driving account of the upper lines’ canons, playing in-phase sequences that didn’t outstay their welcome – which is not always the case with he American composer’s creations. Still, Reich was kind enough not to have his supporting lines simply play sustained notes throughout but gave them some rhythmic variety, even if fitful in nature.

Continuing with the American flavour, Joyce and his colleagues followed this happy Reich flourish with Barber’s Adagio for Strings: one of the cornerstones of American music and a reliable aesthetic resource in time of travail – President Kennedy’s assassination, the Twin Towers catastrophe, Meghan’s interview with Oprah. Here was a laudable reading, without the elongated bathos that too many ensembles inflict on these spare pages; rather, simply letting the interweaving arches make their own points as the composer intended with precise dynamic markings but no demands for rallentandi, ritenuti, or supernumerary general pauses. Not that the Camerata avoided imposing some extraneous hiatus points, but the performance proved respectably uncluttered and truthful.

Before the final work – Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for strings – Joyce & Co. presented three Australian works of differing characters, all by Queensland writers. First, Puppet Play in Java by Betty Beath dates from 2009 and is a mildly colourful soundscape based on F Major but pentatonic for all of its duration, as far as I could tell. The senior composer keeps her texture light, the atmosphere consistent, demands on its interpreters not that great, and the duration just long enough. I don’t know Indonesia at all, its music very superficially, and Beath’s vision is of a much milder disposition than expected. And that’s fair enough, even if the results tend towards blandness.

Little Corellas: Allora 1987 by Cameron Patrick suggests a phenomenon from the composer’s youth when he played at the home of the original Camerata founder, Elizabeth Morgan. A flock of corellas in flight stayed in the composer’s mind from those years, revisited in this work from recent months and, with a craftsman’s touch, he has created a mini-tone poem, beginning with whirring suggestions of aerial action and displaying a suggestive freedom in its interplay of lines. This language is also, at base, traditional with enough dissonance to remove any banality yet, after its completion, it reminded me of a finely achieved documentary film score; considering the writer’s background and career, that should come as no surprise to anyone.

Rotar’s second offering – Plains Baked Golden in the Morning Light (on Winton) – was also composed earlier this year and turned out to be the most substantial of this Brisbane trilogy. It read, to my mind, like a series of scenes, dominated in its first part by solos for Joyce and principal cellist Karol Kowalik, the latter’s melodic line punctuated by percussive string work. But this work presented as more conscious than its companions of contemporary string production techniques, through some saltando-like passages, free-wheeling arpeggio patterns, individual high glissandi, grinding dissonances et al. It brought to mind, Sculthorpe’s Sun Music, particularly No. IV, in certain textures, specifically the suggestion of birdsong. Towards the end, the cellos revisited their broad melody with lashings of vibrato and the work concluded with more suggestions of Sculthorpe at his slow-moving best and – perhaps because of the cello’s prominence – an intimation of Schelomo, and even Bruch’s Kol Nidre. Nevertheless, this construct impressed for its ambitious scale and the honesty of its emotional scenario, no matter that I kept on hearing older voices flashing out from Rotar’s multi-coloured fabric.

I’ve got little to report about the Elgar work, the evening’s most satisfying achievement for its pliant attack and security of ensemble. Of course, it makes a big difference if you take the four powerful Orava musicians out of the Camerata ensemble to fulfil the duties of the composer’s solo quartet; the orchestral segments sounded underdone in their absence. But Joyce had ensured that the magnificent characteristic segments – like the opening strophe and its repetition at Rehearsal Number 5, the nobilmente downward striding at Number 12, the resolving Come prima and its melting two-bar quartet breaks, and the dynamic energy of the work’s final 14 bars – all came across with precision and eloquence of timbre.

I made a habit over the years of avoiding encores, if possible; it wasn’t on Saturday, so I sat through the group’s reading of Mancini’s The Pink Panther title theme. Yes, it’s a bit of fun and the group snapped fingers and whistled neatly enough, but the defining small glissandi at phrases’ endings doesn’t transfer well from sax to violin. And, even to this tolerant palate, the exercise seemed self-consciously flippant. Needless to say, the Camerata faithful loved it.

Of more importance was the length of this concert which ran without interval for over 90 minutes. I can’t answer for other backsides but mine was numb to a painful level at the end, the ache rising to a peak during the Mancini. It’s great to give value for money but I could have cut this program by three numbers and their absence would not have detracted much from the players’ demonstrations of skill.

A crown of thorns between the roses

AUSTRALIAN WORLD ORCHESTRA

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

City Recital Hall, Angel Place

Thursday June 3, 2021

Alexander Briger

Any attempt to restore a sense of the normal is welcome, particularly a mammoth exercise like the Australian World Orchestra’s re-appearance. In the good old days, conductor Alexander Briger could draw on resources from all over the world, inviting back home many willing expatriate musicians to take part in a small number of concerts played only in Sydney and Melbourne over a couple of nights, picking up players from across the nation to flesh out the desks. Also, Briger and his board could attract top-notch conductors who were up to the exhausting trip from Europe or America.

The last time I can recall coming across the AWO was in 2017 when the seasoned professionals combined with some musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music to work through Messiaen’s Turangalila-symphonie under Simone Young. A large-frame score, this was representative of the organization’s ambition and, if the results on that night in Melbourne proved more satisfying for the attempt than the achievement, you could hardly say that the enterprise was simply marking time, just giving its actual and potential patrons a continuation of that diet which the state symphony orchestras provide in full, year after year.

With the pandemic frustrating any hopes of visitors, Briger put together a smaller-than-usual corps and tailored an entertainment-experience that followed a conservative path for two-thirds of the night. To open, the players worked through Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, and they closed with Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C. Where an old-style program would have inserted a concerto, the AWO gave the premiere of Paul Dean‘s Symphony, commissioned by Briger for this orchestra and which turned out to be a stern sermon on the subject of despoliation, if not destruction, with only fleeting signs of light. It could be taken as a commentary on the climate catastrophe or it might be a grim perspective on humanity’s lack of regard for oncoming disaster. Whatever the case, the work had to be tailored for the resources of the Schumann score, even though Briger feels that the work needs a broader gamut of orchestral possibilities and weight.

Without a list provided of the players and their provenance, the telecast occasionally turned into a game of Spot the Musician as you suddenly realised that some of these AWO performers were very familiar faces, while others featured as half-remembrances of things past. For example, the timpanist who made his mark quickly through the Coriolan introduction – single strokes of penetrating power in bars 3, 7, 1 ,12 and 13 – seemed to me to come from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, but a check of the organization’s home page disproved that impression. In fact, this timpani prominence began a more significant process: accustoming yourself to the Angel Place space’s acoustic properties which sounded pretty dry through the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall system, benevolently brought into place when the AWO’s scheduled Melbourne visit turned out to be impossible.

Briger led a brisk reading of the overture which held some unexpected points of interest. For instance, the conductor let the cellos and basses set the running between bars 118 and 140, so that the upper strings and woodwind, carrying the main motive burden, were cast into second place. But the orchestra had no difficulty handling this score, most of the explosive chords that punctuate its progress coming off with minimal scatter-gun effect, the texture pierced by some excellent, if brief, solo exposures, like the second bassoon’s chain of minims at bar 234. The last bars also proved effective and moving as Beethoven prefigures his hero’s doom with that dwindling cello line: the only sign of motion across this bleak conclusion to a work packed with fierce tragedy.

Briger directed an eloquent interpretation of the Schumann work which gave all three choirs multiple opportunities to demonstrate their eloquence in ensemble work. For instance, you had to be moved by the splendidly voiced chorale from the woodwind at bar 15, which lasts for an all-too-brief four bars before the rest of the orchestra returns, but which startled for its unforced vigour and timbral purity. Then, the burst into action at Schumann’s (eventual) Allegro ma non troppo showed the players’ communal verve while the benefit of having first-class musicians shone out in the seamless jockeying between both sets of violins in the movement’s central development, and again in the later stage of the recapitulation pages with that requirement for syncopated block woodwind chords, which to my ear came across with thrilling precision. In fact, the only problem I had with this first movement came with the rallentando in its last seven bars which sounded to me like the conclusion to the Sibelius E flat Symphony, except that there the pauses are inbuilt.

But, at several times during the performance, I was faced with enough detail discrepancies to generate the belief that Briger’s score was more up-to-musicological-date than my venerable Breitkopf & Hartel.

The strings distinguished themselves yet again at the onset of the Scherzo second movement because of their pliant address in a skittering set of pages. You got so comfortable with their brilliant and continuous edge that their block dialogue with the woodwind in Schumann’s first Trio impressed as a dynamic coup de theatre. While the first maintained its crispness, the second Trio provided the perfect contrast through its (eventual) lush texture when the groups coalesce at Rehearsal Letter M in my score, about 17 measures before the composer starts harking back to his principal theme. Another unexpected move came with an accelerando at the start of the Coda which, when you think about it, makes complete sense because its effect is to refresh some familiar material.

With the plangent Adagio espressivo, Briger and his forces spaced themselves across its soundscape, using plenty of rubato as well as following the brief crescendo-diminuendo directions with tact alongside none-too-disruptive sforzandi. This mobility came within a whisker of self-satire only once, but the style of attack gave considerable breadth to a movement that can sound like whining, probably not helped by the application at odd moments of a slight portamento in the violins. On the other hand, the woodwind continued along their blameless path with some brilliantly flavoured duets above the violins’ high chromatic descending trills just before Letter O.

Not everybody kept precisely on the beat in the Allegro molto vivace finale when Schumann introduces crotchet triplets across the bar, although the middle strings made a rapid recovery. But for a music that is optimistic and inherently brassy, the orchestra en masse responded with sterling energy through pages that recalled the seemingly endless exercises and patterns of the last movement to Schubert’s 9th. The whole march moved deftly to a finely judged set of soft brass calls leading into a L’istesso tempo conclusion of high excitement, carried off with a panache that made you think that this confected orchestra might actually be capable of achieving a world-class standard of performance.

Preceding the Schumann symphony, the AWO presented its youthful branch, an orchestra of young players with a few senior players scattered around the strings and prominent in the brass. Under conductor Patrick Brennan, the group played the Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 6. From the start, the body’s violins sounded hesitant, nowhere near as loud as they should be leading up to the vivo in bar 13. But then, this group had troubles with the frequent changes of pace across this piece. A reasonable performance, but an odd interpolation, no matter how high-minded its intentions.

Dean’s Symphony, in its bald title, brought to mind Webern’s Op. 21. That’s where any correspondences stop. The Australian work is substantial, passing through four movements and giving full vent and playing-time to its matter. Dean opens with some woodwind scattered around the auditorium (the film crew had access to only one – a flautist up in the gallery) playing bird calls above sustained and soft string chords: a pastoral opening, then, to bring to mind our world at its quiescent best. An Allegro opened out with chugging basses and the tone changed to an acerbic sound, strong on dissonances although the language seemed to me about as complex as that of Tippett. Any listener could discern specific patterns and an elliptical melodic framework for the violins, but the movement is mainly aggressive, strong on texture if not on development. Also, at this stage, I think I saw David Berlin from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in there with the cellos.

Dean’s second movement began for me with the discovery of Wilma Smith, one-time MSO concertmaster, in the first violin ranks. Not that she had much to do at the start here, bars that were populated by melancholy-sounding woodwind weaving a threnody by themselves. I was distracted again on detecting Justin Williams at the front desk of the violas. Continuing the air of gloom, if not despair, Dean employs muted trumpets and a trombone trio with pizzicati double bass notes to construct yet another landscape of hopelessness. At which stage I believe I found Kirsty McCahon in the bass quartet. In any case, the strings continued with the threnody (and I may be mistaken, but it might have been the MSO’s former regular Michelle Wood leading the cellos) leading to an increase in intensity and breadth of output that led to a large-scale highpoint, reminiscent of Mahler.

Despite its dour temperament, this movement held some momentary pleasures, like an intervallic interplay passage for horns and a sombre oboe solo cutting through the low-pitched textures before the other woodwind joined in a slowly weaving counterpoint. At which point I think I found the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Julian Thompson in the cellos. A faster pace (I think) turned a surging violin escalation, punctuated by dramatic timpani strokes, to yet another climactic point, as dissonant and perturbing as its predecessor. Then, a de-escalation until the piccolo returned us to a mid-way emotional point with a bird-imitating solo above a layer of sustained string chords, reminiscent of the symphony’s opening pages.

The following scherzo gave hefty work to the low strings, with motivic interplay the name of the game. This movement quickly showed itself to be of a piece with its predecessors although the harmonic bite sounded more insistent, the dissonances more pronounced and clearly etched. Snatches of melody were instantly squashed, the metre was relaxed from regularity and then came an intense return to the bitterness of the movement’s start, as though we had been following a classic ternary form pattern.

The finale opened with whispering basses and cellos under low trombone chords and rumbling timpani. The composer was not going to provide a ray of redeeming light in this atmosphere of foreboding. As we had heard several times before, patterns built to a highpoint that died out before oboe and clarinet rise out of the subterranean murmur. Another large-scale outburst emerged from strings and timpani; it wove back down to silence apart from a sustained viola note from which clarinet and piccolo emerged in a duet. The strings took back their primacy, moving to a loud shudder that cut off to leave the basses muttering. But then, the work moved to a rhetorical, almost Straussian declaration, timpani cutting across the maelstrom of brass and string chords, the work coming to the time-honoured big finish but not one that left you elated; rather, if truth be told, grimly appreciative of a score that impresses in the end for its devotion to its task and the intransigence of its statements.

As a composite, this Symphony made both a firm statement of scouring intention from the composer as well as a remarkable and testing piece for the willing participants. Mind you, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to hear it again; perhaps it’s better kept for a return visit when there’s more light glowing on our various horizons.

ANAM scores again

KONSTANTIN SHAMRAY & ANAM ORCHESTRA

Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University

Tuesday May 11, 2021

Konstantin Shamray

This program – the latest in Musica Viva‘s year of promoting local talent, seeing that the other kind is as house-bound as we are – had plenty of preparation behind it. By the time the Australian National Academy of Music and guest Shamray hit Brisbane, they had already played in Canberra, Melbourne, Perth and twice in Sydney; finishing the tour will be a visit to Adelaide and a return to Melbourne. So we Tuesday night observers enjoyed the benefits of a thorough rehearsal-plus-live-performance experience that informed the outcome of this enterprise.

To urge on the musicians, including six Queensland players in a 19-strong ensemble of strings, the Conservatorium Theatre looked pretty full, especially for a program that only veered toward the popular in its last component: Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. Preceding this came a mixed bag with little common ground, apart from a general air of grimness, if not downright gloom. Shamray took the piano part in Mahler’s one-movement A minor Piano Quartet, the original three string lines expanded to give work to all ANAM players present. This conversion came from the institution’s own Harry Ward, leading the second violins for the greater part of this night. Schnittke’s 1979 Concerto for Piano and Strings gave Shamray a broader platform on which to display his fearless talents. And Ward appeared in more exposed guise for Mihkel Kerm’s Lamento, here arranged by the composer for solo violin, which replaced the original score’s cello.

We were some way into the Mahler arrangement before the strings made much of an impact because Shamray took the dynamic initiative from the start: the piano has first dibs on the material, ergo the piano dominates. In fact, the keyboard part was liable to take over even in moments where you might have expected a modicum of self-diminution. For instance, the abrupt turn at bar 42 (Letter B) where the violins and violas burst into action, entschlossen, the piano rumbled powerfully for four bars before taking over the action, Speaking of the violas, you’d go far to come across a quartet that worked with this brand of ideal ensemble: a very welcome entity when they emerged from the maelstrom, as at bar 72, and in the slanging match with the violins some 14 bars later. But their exposure was infrequent, probably due to the arranger’s re-allocation of material.

When the counterpoint reaches its apex, you’re reminded of the lushness to come in Verklaerte Nacht, but the workings here impress as less urgent, as much formally necessary as emotionally driven. Further, the initial theme is employed to the detriment of other material, like the second subject descending scale pattern which seems just pretty alongside the aspirational 6th leap falling back to the fifth that dominates in the memory, even if Mahler gives his subsidiary theme all the running in the score’s final pages. All of which is somewhat secondary to the standard of execution which proved excellent, as you’d expect from an ANAM body controlled by Sophie Rowell. But then, the work itself is far from difficult, possibly even less so when you have a pianist determined to take on the leading role, even when his contributions are secondary.

After hearing a particularly perplexing work by Schnittke, I once confessed to John Sinclair, long-time critic for the Melbourne Herald, that I doubted the composer’s existence. Because of the score’s abrupt changes of style and progress, I thought the result might have been the work of a committee, like the 1970 Yellow River Piano Concerto, and that Schnittke was a fabrication. Mind you, that was in the days before the composer wound up in Germany and the unpleasant history of his career in the USSR was made clear. You could hardly have the same concerns about the concerto on this program. Shamray opened the one-movement construct with a long solo that suggested both a trudge towards the concentration camp and a post-Shostakovich stretch of depression.

You were faced with consonant output from the strings while Shamray cut across it with powerful outbursts of ferocious discord. In fact, this juxtaposition proved to be the main point of interest throughout the score where a kind of schizoid character persists – the rough and the smooth, the dreamy and the Prokofiev-type percussive. As for the form of the piece, Schnittke seems to follow the precept of when in doubt, give the piano a cadenza. Not that you could complain too much: Shamray’s mastery made a chastening display of pianistic machismo that beat back any opposition.

Mind you, much of this took up the main body of the movement; at the outer limits, Schnittke played the Mary Queen of Scots/T.S. Eliot game of ‘In my end is my beginning’ (or the other way around) with a welcome recall of the opening sombre strophes. Further, the dual activity levels worked persuasively; no longer could you entertain thoughts of many hands making light work since this concerto followed an individually designed scheme and its overall temperament remained consistently identifiable. Again, the ANAM group worked through its bountifully moulded elements with fine precision and impressive responsiveness, while Shamray impressed with a fierce virtuosity, sweeping you along with the music’s rough fervour.

Estonian-born musician Mihkel Kerem, assistant concertmaster with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, breaks no new ground with his meditative soliloquy. Ward enjoyed all the attention in outlining the main theme of this Lamento, while his fellow strings gave a backdrop of oscillating 2nds and drones. The work has no development but toys with scraps of the eventually all-too-familiar chief melody/motif. Its main interest lay in following the soloist’s finely arched arabesques across a sepulchral landscape, the whole ending in aspirational harmonics to relieve the deeply-felt but plangent emotional content – some light pointing a way out of what threatened to become a musical huis-clos.

As expected, the Tchaikovsky Serenade pleased mightily, coming after three works that emphasized minor scales and harmonies. Here was an opportunity to evaluate fully the quality of this ANAM body and it proved more than equal to the task of working through a repertoire chestnut. It seemed that Rowell had chosen a particularly slow pace for the first movement’s initial Andante non troppo but such steadiness worked well at the transfer into the main movement at bar 37, where the forte enjoyed proper treatment relative to its very soft precedents. It was a pleasure to sit back and revel in the security of all concerned and the attention given to dynamic shadings, thereby avoiding the bull-at-a-gate procedure of giving in to the violins at every turn.

That’s not consistently true: Tchaikovsky gives everyone fair dibs, but you could be pleased in this instance to hear certain groups clearly and playing more than small note groups, like the seconds and violas in tandem at bar 99. But the ensemble generated an excellent series of passages of play across this movement, nowhere better than at the crossover from divisi to unison starting at bar 257 before the affirmative bursting into sunlight and the tonic at bar 265. Even the straightforward Waltz produced some telling moments, like the delectable handling of a counter-figure from the violas between bars 114 and 134 – groups of two quavers each that give both tension and support to the composer’s splendidly fluid melody – and a deft Boskovsky-style hesitation before the seconds and cellos take over the principal melody – well, re-present it – at bar 166. Finally, the ensemble nearly pulled off the penultimate pizzicato chord, despite the scatter-gun challenge to both sets of violins.

At the conclusion to the Elegy, I was in no doubt that this string group is among the best I’ve heard from the National Academy since the organization took off in 1994. The timbral quality came over with laudable depth and polish, in part due to Rowell’s encouragement of full bowing at the movement’s rich cadences and a general responsiveness in ensemble work during the more hectic passages, e. g. beginning at bar 31 when violas and cellos have the floor; also, the lower strings maintained their purpose in spill-over passages like the violas’ largamente at bar 65 and the first violins’ produced an ardent, controlled account of the Piu mosso group cadenza leading into the last recapitulation with its moving excursion to disturbance before that benevolent final 11-bar stretch.

In line with the interpretation’s basis in musical reality, rather than aiming for Mantovani sweetness and mittel-European swooning, Rowell and her charges worked for purity of articulation and restrained dynamic power in the Finale which began with a moving delineation of the opening 42 bars where the composer achieves his once-upon-a-time ambience through the simplest means, without an accidental to mar this benign C Major landscape. Later, the ANAM cellos gave an expert burnish to the second main melody that comes with the key change to E flat – an excellent stretch deftly concluded with a clever transition at bar 101 where the violins regain control. Even at the more hectic moments, like the pages preceding the firm statement of bar 264, the texture remained clear to the ear while the pressure level increased without approaching the frenzy of a Russian kermesse, as Hanslick described the Violin Concerto’s finale with customary insight.

All right:, the ensemble wasn’t working at the level of Richard Tognetti’s Australian Chamber Orchestra, but the young players impressed by their obvious awareness of what it means to work as an entity and how to respond fully to direction, even a control as lightly exercised as Rowell’s. I find it hard to enter into the back-slapping proclamations that see an assured future for this country’s music in these musicians; it may be that some of them will survive into the Australian professional world, while others will probably leave and animate the musical scenes of other countries. It’s best to eschew predictions in these uncertain times, I think: take what you receive and be grateful that you can still have the chance to enjoy nights as richly textured as this one turned out to be.